Keep an Eye on the Bees, and Other News


On the Shelf

Mind this bee, and all the others.


  • I hope you’ve been paying attention to the bees. They’re certainly paying attention to you. Oh, yes, yes they are, they know all about you. And they care. When you’re lonely, think of the bees. Feeling exhausted? The bees. In a new interview, the neuroscientist Christof Koch offers a concise summary of the bees’ intellectual gifts, which amount, in his eyes, to a kind of consciousness: “They do very complicated things. We know that individual bees can fly mazes. They can remember scents. They can return to a distant flower. In fact, they can communicate with each other, through a dance, about the location and quality of a distant food source. They have facial recognition and can recognize their beekeeper. Under normal conditions, they would never sting their beekeeper; it’s probably a combination of visual and olfactory cues … The complexity of the bee’s brain is staggering, even though it’s smaller than a piece of quinoa. It’s roughly ten times higher in terms of density than our cortex. They have all the complicated components that we have in our brains, but in a smaller package. So yes, I do believe it feels like something to be a honeybee. It probably feels very good to be dancing in the sunlight and to drink nectar and carry it back to their hive. I try not to kill bees or wasps or other insects anymore.”
  • Akhil Sharma discusses his new short story in The New Yorker, about a boy who watches his mother become an alcoholic: “Don’t ideas of basic morality shift when one lives in a Western democratic society? If you look at how many women in America have been physically abused by their boyfriends and husbands (approximately a third), there seems no necessary reason why immigrant men who do such things (and only a very small percentage do) would treat their wives differently, just because they are living in America. Also, you have to remember that many people are narcissists. If someone is a problem for them and that person just goes away, they will not spend a lot of energy thinking about why the disappearance occurred. This conscious obliviousness also plays a role in such behavior … I asked an acquaintance who is a member of Alcoholics Anonymous in Jaipur whether there were many female alcoholics in the group. He, sounding startled, said, ‘Oh, no! We kill them.’ The idea came from this.”

  • Sophie Calle has invited people to share her bed; she’s tracked and surveilled some guy she met in Venice once; she’s pretended to be a stripper and a chambermaid; and now she’s giving birth to her cat. Isn’t it time, Mary Kaye Schilling asks, that Americans come to celebrate her? “Absence is her reigning theme: boyfriends leaving, parents dying, things going missing. Ghosts and secrets, cemeteries and tombstones. More is made of these preoccupations—often dismissed as matters of morbid curiosity—than of her playfulness … To detractors, her voyeurism and life-as-art approach are the definition of TMI—exploitative, invasive, silly if not simply crazy. (One male critic likened her aesthetic to that of a ‘mental disorder.’) For others, Calle’s freewheeling imagination, coupled with an ability to turn emotional chaos into compelling narratives, is thrilling. So too is her disregard of gender limitations; her fearless lack of vanity and indifference to what is considered appropriate.”
  • John Gray has had it with the transhumanists, these Silicon Valley Pollyanna narcissists who believe their consciousnesses will survive for eternity once they’re uploaded to the cloud: “I bumped into some ardent advocates of cryonic suspension in California in the 1980s. How long would it take to develop the technologies that were needed to resurrect frozen cadavers as living organisms, I wondered. Not much more than a century, I was told. I asked these techno-futurists to consider the events of the past hundred years or so—a devastating civil war and two world wars, a ruinous stock-market crash and the Great Depression, for example. Given this history, how could they be confident that their refrigerated cadavers would remain intact for another century? The companies that stored them would surely go bust, wars and civil disturbances would lead to power failures, and the legal system that protected the cadavers could disappear. The United States might no longer exist in a recognizable form. The cryonicists looked at me blankly. These were scenarios that they had not considered and could not process. Such upheavals might have happened in the past, but the future was going to be quite different. For these believers in technological resurrection, American society was already immortal.”
  • While we’re on technology and immortality, here’s Linda Besner on the enchanted grammar of computers: “Technology’s magical properties are evident in the language we use to name it. ‘Daemons’ are computer programs that run in the background of a user’s activity; they perform invisibly, quietly enabling operations of which the user is not necessarily even aware … A ‘wizard’ is a friendly go-between that smoothes out any misunderstanding between a user and an operation they are trying to complete—when a user initiates the process of installing new software, a set-up wizard may appear as a sequence of dialogue boxes guiding the uninitiated through the necessary steps … When our devices malfunction, we are ready with our talk of possession, but when they work well, we are still shaded with unease. The seemingly transparent communication we enjoy is highly mediated, and is mined for information that we aren’t aware we’re giving over. Our metaphors of mysterious powers at work aren’t entirely metaphorical.”