Something like this happened to the most famous case of amnesia in 20th-century science, a man known only as ‘H.M.’ until his death in 2008. When he was 27, a disastrous brain operation destroyed his ability to form new memories, and he lived for the next 55 years in a rolling thirty-second loop of awareness, a ‘permanent present tense’. During this time he was subjected to thousands of hours of tests, of which naturally he had no recall; he provided data for hundreds of scientific papers, and became the subject of a book (Memory’s Ghost by Philip Hilts) and a staple of popular science journalism; by the 1990s digital images of his uniquely disfigured hippocampus featured in almost every standard work on the neuroscience of memory. Since his death his brain has been shaved into 2401 slices, each 70 microns thick, compared in one account to the slivers of ginger served with sushi. Suzanne Corkin, an MIT neuroscientist, first met him in 1962 and after 1980 became his lead investigator and ‘sole keeper’. Permanent Present Tense is her account of Henry Gustave Molaison – his full identity can finally be revealed – and the historic contribution he made to science.
Corkin had a reputation for strict policing of access to Henry, a charge she happily concedes: ‘I did not want him to become a sideshow attraction – the man without a memory.’ After the death of his mother, his last thirty years were spent at a Connecticut nursing home in strict anonymity, with staff sworn to secrecy and filming prohibited. More than a hundred carefully screened researchers were admitted over the years to perform brain scans and cognitive tests, but were never told his name. Corkin’s lucid, well-organised telling of Henry’s story merges intimate case history with an account of the current scientific understanding and how it was reached.
May 22, 2013
A Mother, a Son and a Wife
From The Wall Street Journal:
Jim Brown knew he was in trouble before his mother finished asking the question. "Am I a better cook than your wife?" she asked, calmly stirring a pot on the stove in her kitchen. With his wife, Joy, standing next to him, Mr. Brown stammered and stuttered. He prayed—"for a trap door to appear," he says. Finally, he did the only thing he could think to do: Tell the truth. "I said that my wife is a better cook," the 50-year-old owner of a Duncanville, Texas, auto-repair shop says. The fallout? "Biblical," he says. "There was wailing. Gnashing of teeth." Even his wife got mad—telling him that he had been insensitive to his mother. Sadly, the scene wasn't new to the Browns, who had been married seven years. The strain between his wife and his mother—and his position, stuck in the middle—was taking a toll on all three relationships. His mom criticized his wife for her parenting style and for not getting a job. His wife cried and complained to him. He retreated from both women. "I am a guy and not that intuitive, and I didn't really understand either one," he says. "My inclination was to go mow the grass." Over the next couple years, the Browns kept trying to make the triangle work—until the conflict reached a crisis point and then took an unexpected turn.
Few family relationships are more fraught than the ones between a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law, and the man caught between them. It has been fodder for comedy in movies and on TV forever, yet each generation seems to have to learn for itself how to make this triangle work.
The big fat truth
Late in the morning on 20 February, more than 200 people packed an auditorium at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts. The purpose of the event, according to its organizers, was to explain why a new study about weight and death was absolutely wrong. The report, a meta-analysis of 97 studies including 2.88 million people, had been released on 2 January in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)1. A team led by Katherine Flegal, an epidemiologist at the National Center for Health Statistics in Hyattsville, Maryland, reported that people deemed 'overweight' by international standards were 6% less likely to die than were those of 'normal' weight over the same time period. The result seemed to counter decades of advice to avoid even modest weight gain, provoking coverage in most major news outlets — and a hostile backlash from some public-health experts. “This study is really a pile of rubbish, and no one should waste their time reading it,” said Walter Willett, a leading nutrition and epidemiology researcher at the Harvard school, in a radio interview. Willett later organized the Harvard symposium — where speakers lined up to critique Flegal's study — to counteract that coverage and highlight what he and his colleagues saw as problems with the paper. “The Flegal paper was so flawed, so misleading and so confusing to so many people, we thought it really would be important to dig down more deeply,” Willett says.
But many researchers accept Flegal's results and see them as just the latest report illustrating what is known as the obesity paradox. Being overweight increases a person's risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer and many other chronic illnesses. But these studies suggest that for some people — particularly those who are middle-aged or older, or already sick — a bit of extra weight is not particularly harmful, and may even be helpful. (Being so overweight as to be classed obese, however, is almost always associated with poor health outcomes.)
Why Rational People Buy Into Conspiracy Theories
Maggie Koerth-Baker in the New York Times:
In the days following the bombings at the Boston Marathon, speculation online regarding the identity and motive of the unknown perpetrator or perpetrators was rampant. And once the Tsarnaev brothers were identified and the manhunt came to a close, the speculation didn’t cease. It took a new form. A sampling: Maybe the brothers Tsarnaev were just patsies, fall guys set up to take the heat for a mysterious Saudi with high-level connections; or maybe they were innocent, but instead of the Saudis, the actual bomber had acted on behalf of a rogue branch of our own government; or what if the Tsarnaevs were behind the attacks, but were secretly working for a larger organization?
Crazy as these theories are, those propagating them are not — they’re quite normal, in fact. But recent scientific research tells us this much: if you think one of the theories above is plausible, you probably feel the same way about the others, even though they contradict one another. And it’s very likely that this isn’t the only news story that makes you feel as if shadowy forces are behind major world events.
“The best predictor of belief in a conspiracy theory is belief in other conspiracy theories,” says Viren Swami, a psychology professor who studies conspiracy belief at the University of Westminster in England. Psychologists say that’s because a conspiracy theory isn’t so much a response to a single event as it is an expression of an overarching worldview.
The Moral Status of Rocks
Justin E. H. Smith in his blog:
A student in rural Iceland, of sheep-farming stock, had her guard down, or didn't yet have a guard. She didn't know how to talk to foreigners, or perhaps felt there was something she had to get across to foreigners, or to this foreigner, who showed an interest in her country. She said, in the hope of conveying to me the whole ethical-spiritual outlook of her country in a single concrete example: In Iceland we are taught not to smash rocks.
In recent years something called 'environmental ethics' is moving into the mainstream, finding space alongside the Kantian, the utilitarian, and so on, which for their part suppose that an ethical relation can only be had toward an ethical subject, and that such subjects are found only among human or at most animal beings. Even environmental ethics tends to imagine the environment with a thick arboreal canopy, with lush grass, and lillypads covering seething green ponds. But in the Arctic and sub-Arctic the 'environment' is mostly a geological rather than a biological phenomenon, and it is not altogether surprising that in such a setting rocks come forward as phenomenally salient, as creatures, as others, more readily than in the Amazon. And still less do the rocks come forward as our petrous co-beings in the big cities of the world, where they only appear ground down and formed into angular artifacts of human ingenuity, which in turn you are not supposed to smash, since in the process of their transformation they have become 'property'.
The need for critical science journalism
Jalees Rehman in The Guardian:
The bulk of contemporary science journalism falls under the category of "infotainment". This expression describes science writing that informs a non-specialist target audience about new scientific discoveries in an entertaining fashion. The "informing" typically consists of giving the reader some historical background surrounding the scientific study, summarises key findings and then describes the significance and implications of the research. Analogies are used to convey complex scientific concepts so that a reader without a professional scientific background can grasp the ideas driving the research.
Direct quotes from the researchers also help illustrate the motivations, relevance, and emotional impact of the findings. The entertainment component varies widely, ranging from an enticing or witty style of writing to the choice of the subject matter. Freaky copulation techniques in the animal kingdom, discoveries that change our views about the beginnings of the universe or of life, heart-warming stories about ailing children that might be cured through new scientific breakthroughs, sci-fi robots, quirky anecdotes or heroic struggles of the scientists involved in the research – these are examples of topics that will capture the imagination of the intended audience.
However, infotainment science journalism rarely challenges the validity of the scientific research study or criticises its conclusions. Perfunctory comments, either by the journalist or in the form of quotes – such as "It is not clear whether these findings will also apply to humans" or "This is just a first step and more research is needed" are usually found at the end of such pieces – but it is rare to find an independent or detailed critical analysis.
The stories of two Palestinian villages: From Al-Araqib to Susiya
Why race as a biological construct matters
Razib Khan in Gene Expression:
My own inclination has been to not get bogged down in the latest race and IQ controversy because I don’t have that much time, and the core readership here is probably not going to get any new information from me, since this is not an area of hot novel research. But that doesn’t mean the rest of the world isn’t talking, and I think perhaps it might be useful for people if I stepped a bit into this discussion between Andrew Sullivan and Ta-Nehisi Coates specifically. My primary concern is that here we have two literary intellectuals arguing about a complex topic which spans the humanities andthe sciences. Ta-Nehisi, as one who studies history, feels confident that he can dismiss the utility of racial population structure categorization because as he says, “no coherent, fixed definition of race actually exists.” I am actually more of a history guy than a math guy, not because I love history more than math, but because I am not very good at math. And I’ve even read books such as The Rise and Fall of the Caucasian Race and The History of White People (as well as biographies of older racial theorists, such as Madison Grant). So I am not entirely ignorant of Ta-Nehisi’s bailiwick, but, I think it would be prudent for the hoarders of old texts to become a touch more familiar with the crisp formalities of the natural sciences.
In his posts on this topic Ta-Nehisi repeatedly points to the real diversity in physical type and ancestry among African Americans, despite acknowledging implicitly the shared preponderant history. But today with genomic methods we have a rather better idea of the distribution of ancestry among African Americans. The above plot is from Characterizing the admixed African ancestry of African Americans, a 2009 paper with 94 Africans of diverse geographic origins, 136 African Americans, and 38 European Americans. They looked at 450,000 genetic variants (SNPs) per person (there are somewhat more than 10 million SNPs in the human genome). Obviously individuals and populations exhibit genetic relationships to each other contingent upon the patterns of the variation of base pairs (A, C, G, and T) across the genomes of individuals, but there’s no reasonable way to comprehend this “by eye” when you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of markers. The authors used two simple methods to infer clustering within the data set.
a pretty funny book
I would dearly love to be able to start this piece by saying that The Poor Mouth is the funniest book ever written. It’d be a real lapel-grabber, for one thing, an opening gambit the casual Millions reader would find it hard to walk away from. And for all I know, it might well be true to say such a thing. Because here’s how funny it is: It’s funnier than A Confederacy of Dunces. It’s funnier than Money or Lucky Jim. It’s funnier than any of the product that any of your modern literary LOL-traffickers (your Lipsytes, your Shteyngarts) have put on the street. It beats Shalom Auslander to a bloody, chuckling pulp with his own funny-bone. And it is, let me tell you, immeasurably funnier than however funny you insist on finding Fifty Shades of Grey. The reason I can’t confidently say that it’s the funniest book ever written is that I haven’t read every book ever written. What I can confidently say is that The Poor Mouth is the funniest book by Flann O’Brien (or Myles na gCopaleen, or any other joker in the shuffling deck of pseudonyms Brian O’Nolan wrote under). And if this makes it, by default, the funniest book ever written, then all well and good; but it is certainly the funniest book I’ve ever read.more from Mark O'Connell at The Millions here.
As such, a number of temptations continue to arise when discussing Malick. Foremost among these is the tendency to perpetuate the go-to myths: that the famously media-shy filmmaker is also a recluse, or that he once disappeared from Hollywood for two decades for reasons unknown. Starting with the most basic of biographical details — or lack thereof — it’s easy to see why there are so many misconceptions: there isn’t even a consensus on where the man was born. The Guardian, Los Angeles Times, and The Telegraph all list Malick’s birthplace as Ottawa, Illinois; The New York Times and USA Today cite Waco, Texas as the true site. (That none of these outlets place their own opinion in opposition to anyone else’s is either evidence of their confidence or a suggestion that they aren’t even aware there’s room for debate.) Malick has politely declined every single one of the countless interview requests he’s received since 1975 (by which point he had granted only a few), but mum has rarely, if ever, been the word on him. Critics, academics, and fans alike have made a habit of endlessly speculating about Malick’s habits and whereabouts for the entirety of his now four-decade career; he’s amassed something of a cult following for exhibiting what many would consider perfectly normal behavior and attempting to work in private.more from Michael Nordine at the LA Review of Books here.
Kertész and auschwitz
Nobel laureate Imre Kertész is certainly no stranger to controversy. His radical reconceptualization of the term “Holocaust” — in whose “unscrupulous employment” he locates “a cowardly and unimaginative glibness” — to extend beyond the scope of the concentration camps and those who perished therein, rhetorically privileges the survivors over the dead: “the word [Holocaust] actually only relates to those who were incarcerated: the dead, but not the survivors… The survivor is an exception.” And his fictional portrayals of Auschwitz and its repercussions in autobiographical novels like Fatelessness, Kaddish for an Unborn Child and Fiasco have been misread as “betray[ing] the Holocaust” — in spite of Kertész having himself been held at Auschwitz, and later Buchenwald, from the age of fourteen — just as they critique the totalitarian dictatorships that ensued in his native Hungary after the end of the Second World War, regimes that Kertész believes were related to the Holocaust at the level of power: “after Auschwitz the virtuality of Auschwitz inheres in every dictatorship.”more from K. Thomas Kahn at berfrois here.
May 21, 2013
South Asians and the Shaping of Britain
Sarfraz Manzoor in The Telegraph:
Mahinder Singh Pujji, a 22-year-old Indian man, was queuing to see a film at his local cinema. The man in front of him saw his turban and uniform – Pujji was a member of the RAF – and said: “Sir, you don’t have to stand in the queue.” He ushered him to the front of the line. No one grumbled and the woman working in the ticket office, again seeing his turban and wings, refused to accept money for the ticket. This incident would be surprising and heart-warming if it occurred today; in fact, the film that Pujji was queuing to see was Gone with the Wind, and the year was 1940. What makes this story so powerful is that it challenges established narratives about south Asian migration to Britain: it shows us that years before Commonwealth immigration there had been migrants from the subcontinent; it questions the assumption that migrants were always treated poorly, and it reminds us of the contribution many made.
South Asians and the Shaping of Britain excavates the archives for letters, diaries, books and articles relating to this subject. Taking the year 1870 – the zenith of empire – as the starting point and traversing 80 years to 1950 – a period that witnessed two world wars, the decline of empire, the fight for Indian independence and Partition – the book demonstrates that Britain has a more complex multicultural heritage than is usually acknowledged.
I knew about the role Indians played during the two world wars, for example, but I had no idea that in the period covered here, 80 different south Asian authors published 180-plus books in Britain. This one builds on Rozina Visram’s landmark histories Ayahs, Lascars and Princes and Asians in Britain. But what makes reading it a more visceral experience is the first-hand accounts and documents: a book review by Oscar Wilde from 1890 of the Indian poet Manmohan Ghose, an extraordinary photograph of Sophia Duleep Singh – the mixed-race daughter of the deposed Maharajah of the Punjab – standing outside Hampton Court Palace in 1913 in a long dark coat and hat selling a copy of The Suffragette. Two years later Ludder Singh, an Indian soldier fighting in the trenches during the First World War, writes to his brother back home: “Bodies were lying on bodies like stones in heaps”; “When a man dies in the world I and you think it is a great event, but here in this war corpses are piled one upon another so that they cannot be counted.”
An Unheralded Breakthrough: The Rosetta Stone of Mathematics
From Scientific American:
There is no Nobel Prize in mathematics, but in 2001 the Norwegian government established a million-dollar Abel Prize, which is widely considered as an equivalent of the Nobel for mathematicians. This year’s prize was awarded to Pierre Deligne, professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. Today, he is honored at a ceremony held in Oslo. Deligne’s most spectacular results are on the interface of two areas of mathematics: number theory and geometry. At first glance, the two subjects appear to be light-years apart. As the name suggests, number theory is the study of numbers, such as the familiar natural numbers (1, 2, 3, and so on) and fractions, or more exotic ones, such as the square root of two. Geometry, on the other hand, studies shapes, such as the sphere or the surface of a donut. But French mathematician André Weil had a penetrating insight that the two subjects are in fact closely related. In 1940, while Weil was imprisoned for refusing to serve in the army during World War II, he sent a letter to his sister Simone Weil, a noted philosopher, in which he articulated his vision of a mathematical Rosetta stone. Weil suggested that sentences written in the language of number theory could be translated into the language of geometry, and vice versa. “Nothing is more fertile than these illicit liaisons,” he wrote to his sister about the unexpected links he uncovered between the two subjects; “nothing gives more pleasure to the connoisseur.” And the key to his groundbreaking idea was something we encounter everyday when we look at the clock.
If we start working at 10:00 in the morning and work for eight hours, when do we finish? Well, 10 + 8 = 18, so a natural thing to say would be: “We finish at 18 o’clock.” This would be perfectly fine to say in France, where hours are recorded as numbers from zero to 24 (actually, not so fine, because a workday in France is usually limited to seven hours). But in the U.S. we say: “We finish at 6:00 pm.” How do we get six out of 18? We subtract 12: 18 – 12 = 6. Mathematicians call this “addition modulo 12.” Likewise, we can do addition modulo any whole number N. Just imagine a clock in which there are N hours instead of 12. For each N, we then obtain an esoteric-looking numerical system, in which we can do addition and multiplication, just like with ordinary numbers. For many years these systems looked, even to math practitioners, like something that would never have any real-world applications. In fact, English mathematician G.H. Hardy wrote, with defiance and pride, of the “uselessness” of number theory. But the joke was on him: these numerical systems are now ubiquitous in the encryption algorithms used in online banking. Every time we make a purchase online, arithmetic modulo N springs into action!
Why is Europe so Messed Up? An Illuminating History
John Cassidy in The New Yorker:
When the Great Recession struck, U.S. policymakers did what mainstream textbooks recommend: they introduced monetary and fiscal-stimulus programs, which helped offset the retrenchments and job losses in the private sector. In Europe, austerity has been the order of the day, and it still is. Nearly five years after the financial crisis, governments are still trimming spending and cutting benefits in a vain attempt to bring down their budget deficits.
The big mystery isn’t why austerity has failed to work as advertised: anybody familiar with the concept of “aggregate demand” could explain that one. It is why an area with a population of more than three hundred million has stuck with a policy prescription that was discredited in the nineteen-twenties and thirties. The stock answer, which is that austerity is necessary to preserve the euro, doesn’t hold up. At this stage, austerity is the biggest threat to the euro. If the recession lasts for very much longer, political unrest is sure to mount, and the currency zone could well break up.
So why is this woebegone approach proving so sticky? Some of the answers can be found in a timely and suitably irreverent new book by Mark Blyth, a professor of political economy at Brown: “Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea.” Adopting a tone that is by turns bemused and outraged, Blyth traces the intellectual and political roots of austerity back to the Enlightenment, and the works of John Locke, David Hume, and Adam Smith. But he also provides a sharp analysis of Europe’s current predicament, explaining how an unholy alliance of financiers, central bankers, and German politicians foisted a draconian and unworkable policy on an unsuspecting populace.
Unknown Mathematician Proves Elusive Property of Prime Numbers
Erica Klarreich in Wired:
On April 17, a paper arrived in the inbox of Annals of Mathematics, one of the discipline’s preeminent journals. Written by a mathematician virtually unknown to the experts in his field — a 50-something lecturer at the University of New Hampshire named Yitang Zhang — the paper claimed to have taken a huge step forward in understanding one of mathematics’ oldest problems, the twin primes conjecture.
Editors of prominent mathematics journals are used to fielding grandiose claims from obscure authors, but this paper was different. Written with crystalline clarity and a total command of the topic’s current state of the art, it was evidently a serious piece of work, and the Annals editors decided to put it on the fast track.
Just three weeks later — a blink of an eye compared to the usual pace of mathematics journals — Zhang received the referee report on his paper.
“The main results are of the first rank,” one of the referees wrote. The author had proved “a landmark theorem in the distribution of prime numbers.”
Rumors swept through the mathematics community that a great advance had been made by a researcher no one seemed to know — someone whose talents had been so overlooked after he earned his doctorate in 1992 that he had found it difficult to get an academic job, working for several years as an accountant and even in a Subway sandwich shop.
Is the Brain No Different From a Light Switch? The Uncomfortable Ideas of the Philosopher Daniel Dennett
Jonathan Weiner in The Daily Beast:
For Daniel Dennett, philosophers are like blacksmiths: they make their own tools as they go along. Unlike carpenters, who have to buy their drills and saws at Sears, blacksmiths can use their own hammers, tongs, and anvils to pound out more hammers, tongs, and anvils. Dennett, whose famous white beard gives him the look of both a blacksmith and a philosopher, has been particularly industrious at the anvil. He has been working as a philosopher for 50 years, and in his new book, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, he shares a few tricks to make the hard work easier. He is a master at inventing tools for thought—metaphysical jokes, fables, parables, puzzles, and zany Monty-Python-like sketches that can help thinkers feel their way forward. Dennett calls them hand tools and power tools for the mind, and he’s built dozens and dozens of them over the years.
“Thinking is hard,” he writes. “Thinking about some problems is so hard that it can make your head ache just thinking about thinking about them.” Thinking tools help philosophers work on the really deep, hard questions about life, the universe, and everything. They facilitate what another philosopher has called Jootsing, which stands for Jumping Out Of the System—the goal is to pop out of the goldfish bowl of commonplace ideas without drowning in thin air. Think of Plato’s Cave, for instance. That little story has helped philosophers puzzle about the nature of reality for more than 23 centuries and counting.
Dennett’s own inventions include “Swampman Meets a Cow-Shark,” “Zombies and Zimboes,” and many other thought experiments that illuminate great questions in philosophy. He focuses on problems of free will, evolution, and consciousness. His ideas about consciousness are rather shocking; he can make you feel that the human brain itself is just a collection of tongs, hammers, and intuition pumps. (More about that in a moment.) Dennett has written more than a dozen books about those deep topics.
No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka
Mohsin Hamid: 'Islam is not a monolith'
Mohsin Hamid in The Guardian:
In 2007, six years after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, I was travelling through Europe and North America. I had just published a novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and as I travelled I was struck by the large number of interviewers and of audience members at Q&As who spoke of Islam as a monolithic thing, as if Islam referred to a self-contained and clearly defined world, a sort of Microsoft Windows, obviously different from, and considerably incompatible with, the Apple OS X-like operating system of "the west".
I recall one reading in Germany in particular. Again and again, people posed queries relating to how "we Europeans" see things, in contrast to how "you Muslims" do. Eventually I was so exasperated that I pulled my British passport out of my jacket and started waving it around my head. "While it's true the UK hasn't yet joined the eurozone," I said, " I hope we can all agree the country is in fact in Europe."
Six years on, a film inspired by the novel is in the process of appearing on screens around the world, and I am pleased to report that those sorts of questions are a little rarer now than they were in 2007. This represents progress. But it is modest progress, for the sense of Islam as a monolith lingers, in places both expected and unexpected.
Justin Sonnenburg, a microbiologist at Stanford, suggests that we would do well to begin regarding the human body as “an elaborate vessel optimized for the growth and spread of our microbial inhabitants.” This humbling new way of thinking about the self has large implications for human and microbial health, which turn out to be inextricably linked. Disorders in our internal ecosystem — a loss of diversity, say, or a proliferation of the “wrong” kind of microbes — may predispose us to obesity and a whole range of chronic diseases, as well as some infections. “Fecal transplants,” which involve installing a healthy person’s microbiota into a sick person’s gut, have been shown to effectively treat an antibiotic-resistant intestinal pathogen named C. difficile, which kills 14,000 Americans each year. (Researchers use the word “microbiota” to refer to all the microbes in a community and “microbiome” to refer to their collective genes.) We’ve known for a few years that obese mice transplanted with the intestinal community of lean mice lose weight and vice versa. (We don’t know why.) A similar experiment was performed recently on humans by researchers in the Netherlands: when the contents of a lean donor’s microbiota were transferred to the guts of male patients with metabolic syndrome, the researchers found striking improvements in the recipients’ sensitivity to insulin, an important marker for metabolic health. Somehow, the gut microbes were influencing the patients’ metabolisms.more from Michael Pollan at the NY Times Magazine here.
the culture animal
According to genetics, there is not much that makes us human; depending on how you count, we share 98.5 per cent of our genes with chimpanzees. Perhaps this is not such a significant matter, given that we also share about 60 per cent of our genes with tomatoes. As this shows, human beings are fully part of nature, and the elements that make us make not just the rest of the animal and vegetable kingdoms, but the rocks beneath our feet and the stars in the sky above us. So what does make us human? It is not that we live in social groups: ants, antelopes and sparrows do the same. It is not that we have nuanced emotional lives: so do dogs and baboons. It is not even that we have language, for other things – including trees, as it happens – have communication systems, too, and it might be that some of those systems are quite complex, as appears to be the case with dolphins, for example. But in the human case the system of communication – language – is particularly complex and flexible, with great expressive power, and this makes possible the phenomenon of culture. If I were to pick one thing that separates humanity from the rest of the living world, culture is it.more from AC Grayling at The New Statesman here.
I am dust and ashes and full of sin
In the summer of 1494, soon after his engagement, Albrecht Dürer made a startlingly intimate drawing of his fiancée Agnes Frey. One might have expected a twenty-three-year-old to depict his betrothed as a source of love, or comfort or well-being, all the more since her substantial dowry would soon launch his independent career. Instead, Albrecht showed Agnes twisted up in a knot of anxious introversion. She looks withdrawn and preoccupied, and the circles under her heavy-lidded eyes may even make one think she has been crying. In its frank portrayal of an informal moment of unguarded emotion, there had never been a drawing quite like this before. Typically portraiture was honorific and meant to represent the exemplary virtues of the person shown; Dürer instead often sought to capture the idiosyncratic and psychological characteristics of the people he portrayed. He was fascinated with the close scrutiny of dark and brooding emotion. This is especially evident in his self-portraits, many of which show him in states of melancholy, doubt, or disease.more from Andrew Butterfield at the NYRB here.
May 20, 2013
Aftermath: Pakistan Elections 2013
by Omar Ali
The May 11th elections in Pakistan represented the first time that a civilian regime completed its term in office and held elections in which power will be transferred democratically to a new civilian regime. In a country where the security establishment has a long history of throwing out elected regimes and manipulating results, this in itself was an important landmark. For this (and for very little else, unfortunately) we can thank President Zardari and his coalition building skills and stubborn determination.completely outside the national mainstream.
With daily bombings by the Taliban keeping a check on the ANP, PPP and (to some extent) the MQM, and with an insurgency and its frequently vicious suppression going on in Balochistan, traditional campaigning was mostly confined to Punjab. There, an almost millenarian excitement took hold of the middle class in the course of the PTI campaign; This phenomenon was most visible on social media and in the better neighborhoods of urban centers. Meeting each other at coffee spots and snack bars and pushing “like” buttons on each other’s facebook pages, the newly energized middle class supporters of Imran Khan managed to convince themselves that a complete root and branch renovation of Pakistan under brand new leadership was on the cards.
Digging Up Bones or, The Labyrinths beneath Our Feet
by Tom Jacobs
There is a story that I want to tell you. It's about a man who lives alone at the edge of town. In a small house without much to recommend it. He finds that there is little for him to do other than to look out the window. Which is something that he does. A lot. Most every day and for most of each of those days. He looks out this window, examining the microscopy of the world outside his window, paying close attention. This is what he does. It provides a certain amount of pleasure to him.
Some begin to worry that he's losing his mind. He begins to think that he is approaching some kind of revelation. Who is to say which is which? Maybe it can be both.
He begins a project. He begins to examine the surfaces of his home, convinced that there is something beneath or behind. The floors, the walls, the ceilings. Eventually he finds himself in the basement, palpating a crack that runs through the middle of his foundation. He becomes convinced that there is something shouldering itself into the floor of his basement from below. So he begins to excavate. As he digs he finds what he believes to be a labyrinth. He excavates this labyrinth like an archaeologist over the course of many years. As he unearths the whole intricate thing he becomes convinced that there is some great secret there, some infinite thing of happiness and hope. He continues to excavate and explore the labyrinth but can never find his way through. Knowing in his heart that that he's uncovered something important, he goes out into the street to tell someone about it. This is the first time he's left his house for as long as he can remember.
The first person he finds is a man who lives down the block and happens to be passing by. He tells him about what he's found. The man is skeptical but intrigued.
Together they go back to his house so that he might show him his labyrinth. They explore the labyrinth. The man on the street had read somewhere that if you keep your hand on the wall, you will eventually find your way in (or out). Eventually they find the center of the labyrinth. At the center there is a door in the floor. They open the door and, holding hands, they walk together, through. And then they disappear and are never heard from again.
New Air In A Fast City
by Mara Jebsen
Should poetry be whispered in the dark? Should it be a communion with the dead, transacted silently through the media of paper and lamplight? Ought it to roll out of the whale-mouths of men on stages (maybe grumpy orators in black fedoras?) Should it arrive from the mouths of girls in sequins and combat boots—or from the mouths of boys in sequins and combat boots—whose whiskey-voices crackle in the backs of bars? Should teachers with elbow patches pass it out in stacks? Does it die in the air if badly read?
The questions are both important and silly. Asking them is like comparing ways of worship. I can’t say that it is better to shout and clap your devotion than it is to believe one must preserve a holy silence. The question is always: how do you honor a text?
On a bright May Wednesday evening in New York, I left the writing class I teach in a dark movie-viewing room in the basement of the NYU’s Tisch building. I stopped in the hall to nervously apply red lipstick, and then I boarded the subway on a secret mission.
I met my co-conspirators beside a fountain in Bryant Park. It was one of those first Spring days in the city—when the late light is white-wine colored and everything feels about to explode. Two journalists with camera and microphone arrived to record our experiment, and their presence was both unnerving and comforting. The camera seemed to legitimize our odd project. But part of the project’s ethos is that it doesn’t need legitimizing.
This was my first time. Members of PUP (Poets in Unexpected Places) have been performing poems on ferries, in laundromats and in subways around NYC for a while. I’ve known a number of its members for as long as ten years and asked to join the group months ago. But at the last minute I’d always chicken out.
Hanging made of aluminium bottle caps from a distillery in Nsukka, Nigeria.
NORTH KOREA’S NERVE WARby James McGirk
The Moranbong Band is best imagined as a North Korean version of Celtic Woman: an all-female ensemble band swaddled in fetching formalwear, blasting highly produced, energetic nationalist kitsch. Of course, no matter how much vigorous fiddling Chloe, Lisa, Susan and Mairead can manage, Celtic Woman is unlikely to attract as much scrutiny from intelligence agencies as the Moranbong Band’s cover of Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now”, which is perhaps better known as the theme from Rocky, and was performed – complete with a video backdrop featuring cuts of Sylvester Stallone working out – for none other than Kim Jong-un, the number one of the sinister and secretive Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Peculiar things have been crossing North Korea watchers’ desks lately. Witness The Sun’s revelation that Kim Jong-un’s father liked to nosh on hippo meat, spider and snake sushi. Or how in March, Kim Jong-un took time away from playing nuclear chicken to host flamboyant former NBA player Dennis Rodman. (Rodman says he’s been invited back for another visit in August.)
Decadent as this behavior might seem for the rulers of one of the world’s poorest countries, Kim Jong-un’s oddball behavior suggests a media-savvy spin on a classic diplomatic game. George Freidman, leading analyst and CEO of the geopolitical analysis firm STRATFOR, describes North Korea’s decades-old strategy of prying subsidies from its neighbors as “fearsome, weak and crazy.”
Fearsome is easy to understand. The South Korean capital, Seoul, is within howitzer-range of the DPRK’s enormous Cold War-vintage army. A sneak attack could kill hundreds of thousands of people and rip apart one of the world’s most important manufacturing centers. And that’s assuming the DPRK confines itself to conventional munitions: North Korea tested an atomic weapon in 2009 and probably has cheap, nasty weapons of mass destruction (germs and gas) stockpiled and ready to go. North Korea’s population is even scarier. They’re kept on the brink of starvation and forbidden from any contact with the outside world. Children are raised ready for war and taught to adore their leaders and obey without question. This is a frightful enemy, but it’s also a weak one.
POETRY IN TRANSLATION: CORDOBA
(Written in 1932 on Spanish soil,
mainly in the Mosque of Cordoba)
BY MOHAMMED IQBAL
Chain of day and night
Fashioner of events
Basis of life and death
Two tone silken thread
Fiber of attributes
Pitch of prospects
Chain of day and night
Sitting in judgment
Setting a value on us
When we're lacking
Death is your destiny
Death is my destiny
What else is reality
The flow of one age
Neither day nor night
All crafts vanish
Black and white fade
Annihilation the end
But in this form
Hues of eternal life
Splendor of man's love
Love is life's base
Death has no claim on love
Love itself the tide
Stemming the torrent
Love is unnamed eras
Love is Gabriel's breath
Love is the Prophet of God
Love is the Word of God
Love is the radiant rose
Love is raw wine
Love the goblet of kings
Love draws life's music
Love is passion for life
Love is fire of life
The Bystander Effect in Medical Care. Why Do I Have So Many Doctors Not Taking Care of Me?
by Carol A Westbrook
In a recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine1, Drs. Stavert and Lott used the tem, "The Bystander Effect," to describe a new health care phenomenon, in which multiple physicians participate in the care of a patient, while none acknowledges primary responsibility for managing it. In their example, a patient was hospitalized with an undiagnosed, complicated illness, and over 40 physicians were involved in his care, yet none stepped forward to take charge.
The term "Bystander Effect" was coined after the 1964 stabbing murder of Kitty Genovese in New York City, which was witnessed by 38 people, none of whom intervened or called for help. The term refers to the tendency of people to be less likely to offer help in emergency situations when other people are present. In other words, it's not my problem, someone else can take charge.
Stavert and Lott argued that the Bystander Effect is becoming prevalent because of the way our system of hospital care has evolved. But I have noticed it is beginning to appear in the outpatient setting as well, where it is eroding the quality of medical care while increasing its expense.
Consider Mr. Miller, a fictional patient referred to me for anemia. I ordered blood tests, referred him for a colonoscopy, and scheduled a return visit in 2 weeks. During those two weeks, he also saw his cardiologist (heart), his orthopedist (joints), his urologist (prostate), his internist (blood pressure), his primary care physician (cholesterol). Mr. Miller is elderly and retired. When I asked him what he does with his leisure time, and he replied, "What free time? My wife and I spend most of our day in the doctor's office." From my perspective, Mr. Miller received the expert attention of 7 highly trained medical specialists, and the best possible medical care in the world. From his perspective, he has to deal with two more doctors, more prescription medications to use up his limited income, and no assurance that any of this will make him feel better or live longer.
It is disheartening to see an elderly couple who measure out their days by the number of doctors' visits in a week. It is frustrating for their caregivers, who try their best to attend these multiple clinic visits. And it is dangerous, as multiple physicians may give contradictory recommendations, prescribe medications that interact, and overlook test results ordered by another doctor.
Mr. Miller is definitely getting more medical care than he would have received, say, 10 years ago. But is he getting better care? For that matter, is he even getting care?
May 19, 2013
Clinical trial supports use of Kava to treat anxiety
From Kurzweil AI:
A world-first completed clinical study by an Australian team has found Kava, a medicinal South Pacific plant, significantly reduced the symptoms of people suffering anxiety. The study, led by the University of Melbourne, revealed Kava could be an alternative to pharmaceutical products for the hundreds of thousands of Australians who suffer from generalized anxiety disorders (GAD) “In this study we’ve been able to show that Kava offers a potential natural alternative for the treatment of chronic clinical anxiety; unlike some other options, it has less risk of dependency and less potential for side effects,” said lead researcher, Dr Jerome Sarris from Department of Psychiatry at the University of Melbourne. The study also found that people’s genetic differences (polymorphisms) of certain neurobiological mechanisms called GABA transporters may modify their response to Kava. “If this finding is replicated, it may pave the way for simple genetic tests to determine which people may be likely to have a beneficial anxiety-reducing effect from taking Kava,” Sarris said.
An additional novel finding of the study, recently published in Phytotherapy Research, was that Kava increased women’s sex drive compared to those in the placebo group, believed to be due to the reduction of anxiety, rather than any aphrodisiac effect. Future studies confirming the genetic relationship to therapeutic response, and any libido-improving effects from Kava is now required. Dr Sarris said these significant findings are of importance to sufferers of anxiety and to the South Pacific region, which relies on Kava as a major export.
SNL's Ben Affleck Episode: 5 Best Scenes
From The Atlantic:
The season finale marked the last regular SNL appearance of Seth Meyers (slated to succeed Jimmy Fallon as host of NBC's Late Night), Fred Armisen, and Bill Hader. (Jason Sudeikis's return remains uncertain.) The show sent them off with a mostly strong episode and some fitting farewell moments. Host Ben Affleck was joined by his wife, Jennifer Garner, during the monologue. Amy Poehler joined Seth Meyers for Weekend Update. Musical guest Kanye West performed "Black Skinhead" and "New Slaves."
Picture: Seth Meyers beats out Anderson Cooper for Stefon's hand in marriage.
Habermas, Adorno, Politics
Richard Marshall interviews Gordon Finlayson in 3:AM Magazine:
3:AM: A key discussion in contemporary liberal theory of ethics and politics is the relationship and differences between Habermas and Rawls. Can you say something about what you take the main points of dispute are and where you stand on this?
GF: Sure. In my view, despite the amount of ink that has been spilt on Habermas and Rawls in their respective fields, relatively little attention has been paid to the dispute between them. This is largely because influential commentators and critics were quick to judge their exchange in the Journal of Philosophy a damp squib.
This was in part because expectations ran high, at the time, because two of the greatest social and political theorists of the 20th century, although working in different traditions, roughly analytic political philosophy and German Social theory had engaged each other in debate. It was also because in truth neither thinker was sufficiently well apprised of the detail of the others theory – unsurprisingly really, since they worked in very different traditions and each had just spent the last few years writing their own major work of political theory. Finally, everyone at the time, including the disputants themselves, were seduced by the assumption that the salient point of comparison between their respective theories was Habermas’s principle (U) and his conception of the moral standpoint, and Rawls’s argument that the principles of justice are those that would be chosen by a rational and reasonable persons in the Original Position. Almost everyone who has written on Habermas and Rawls makes that particular mistake.
My take on that is straightforward. The debate between them concerns their respective political theories. It is basically a dispute between Rawls’s theory of Political Liberalism, and Habermas’s Discourse Theory of Law. It is not primarily a dispute between Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, and Habermas Discourse Ethics. Principle (U) is the central idea in Habermas’s Discourse Ethics, which is a moral theory, not a theory of law or of democratic legitimacy, while the argument from the Original Position takes a back seat in Rawls’s Political Liberalism. People who interpret the Habermas Rawls dispute in the light of the contrast between Habermas’s principle (U) and Rawls’s Original Position, are looking at the wrong thing and so miss the real points of dispute.
What people should have been asking is this. What are the central organizing ideas of their respective political theories, and on what significant points do these ideas conflict?
Argument with Myself
Mike Jay reviews Suzanne Corkin's Permanent Present Tense: The Man with No Memory, and What He Taught the World in the LRB:
Memory creates our identity, but it also exposes the illusion of a coherent self: a memory is not a thing but an act that alters and rearranges even as it retrieves. Although some of its operations can be trained to an astonishing pitch, most take place autonomously, beyond the reach of the conscious mind. As we age, it distorts and foreshortens: present experience becomes harder to impress on the mind, and the long-forgotten past seems to draw closer; University Challenge gets easier, remembering what you came downstairs for gets harder. Yet if we were somehow to freeze our memory at the youthful peak of its powers, around our late twenties, we would not create a polished version of ourselves analogous to a youthful body, but an early, scrappy draft composed of childhood memories and school-learning, barely recognisable to our older selves.
Rite of Spring
Christopher Benfey in the NYRB's blog:
Spring should be a time of portents and premonitions, winged harbingers (“I dreaded that first Robin, so,” as Emily Dickinson put it with characteristic ambivalence) and new beginnings.
This thought struck me as I read Megan Marshall’s sympathetic new biography of Margaret Fuller, which opens with a familiar phrase from Virgil’s Aeneid, one that inspired an essay Fuller wrote during her precocious childhood. Possunt, quia posse videntur means, roughly, “They can because they think they can,” and describes a team of rowers who, according to Marshall, “will themselves to win a race.” The phrase, which Fuller thought demonstrated “confidence in the future,” gives Marshall an overarching theme for Fuller’s fiercely driven life.
But Fuller also made use of the Aeneid when she was less confident of the future. She was known to perform the ancient form of divination in which a passage of Virgil selected at random is assumed to reveal what lies ahead. Sir Philip Sidney described the practice, with a dash of skepticism, in his Defence of Poesy:And so far were they carried into the admiration thereof, that they thought in the chanceable hitting upon any such verses great fore-tokens of their following fortunes were placed; whereupon grew the word of Sortes Virgilianae, when by sudden opening Virgil’s book they lighted upon some verse of his making.
Fauré plays Fauré
shatters the evenness of skies—
she peers, stunned, from cell 22
that such dumb minuteness
can shake the earth
from Summer was a fast train without terminals
publisher: Spinifex, North Melbourne, 1998
May 18, 2013
The Beautiful German Language
Enda O'Doherty in Eurozine:
Germans have featured prominently among those who have sometimes had difficulty in believing that their native tongue is quite up to the mark, or, as we say in our barbarous contemporary jargon, fit for purpose. The German invention of printing in the mid-fifteenth century was certainly to give a boost to the prestige of vernacular languages (at the expense of the universal language, Latin). It was also to be important in spreading the new religion, Protestantism. Martin Luther enthused:
Printing is God's most recent gift and his greatest. Through it, in effect, God wishes to make known the true religion to the whole world, right to the extremities of the Earth.And so it came to pass. But the Whiggish Protestantism (still alive in the popular cultural histories of Lord Bragg, formerly Melvyn) which celebrates the unstoppable spread of the Word, to be read and chewed over by the individual in private – an improving substitute for the "nonsense" mumbled by the priest in an incomprehensible language – tends to forget that in the short term virtually no one could read, whereas all could see and grasp the meaning of the wall paintings, statues and altarpieces in the church, which the Protestants for the most part were so keen to efface or destroy. The short term in this context, we should remember, was rather long. Mass literacy came to England only in the nineteenth century.Luther however, after his initial enthusiasm, seems to have had second thoughts about the wisdom of translating the Bible into German and making it available to everyone, or everyone who could read (he was to find, disturbingly, that they disagreed with him about what it meant).
The World’s Bloodiest Civil War
John B. Thompson reviews Stephen R. Platt's Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom : China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War and Tobie Meyer-Fong's What Remains : Coming to Terms with Civil War in 19th Century China in the LA Review of Books:
The Taiping Civil War (1850–1864) started with a dream. Hong Xiuquan, a young scholar from Guangdong, a province in southern China, aspired to the government position and the unassailable status guaranteed by success in imperial civil service examinations. However, in 1837, Hong flunked the provincial-level examination in Canton, the province’s major city, for the third time and returned home broken. He collapsed into episodic trances in which he traveled to a heavenly realm and met an old man in a black dragon robe. The man, whom Hong understood to be his “father,” stood grieving at the edge of heaven, dismayed by the people of his creation who had been led astray by demons. He dispatched Hong to earth, along with a middle-aged man identified as Hong’s “elder brother,” to slay these devils.
Until 1843, Hong had no vocabulary to explain his visions. That year, he rediscovered a collection of Bible passages he had obtained in Canton years before, and the meaning of his visions became clear: his heavenly father was God. His elder brother was Jesus. The demons were China’s false idols and Hong was China’s savior. Hong immediately began to preach his vision along with the New Testament in the mountains of southern China and quickly amassed a growing following among the farmers and villagers.
Over time, Hong resolved to establish on earth the kingdom he had seen in heaven. He redefined the demons from the idols of China’s cultural inheritance to the alien Manchu rulers of the Qing Dynasty. “God had divided the kingdoms of the world […] just as a father divides his estates among his sons,” Hong said. “Why should these Manchus forcibly enter China and rob their brothers of their estate?” In 1850, Hong and his Society of God Worshippers openly rebelled against Qing authorities. In 1851, Hong formally declared the existence of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom with himself as Heavenly King. By 1853, his resourceful, ever-growing army had captured the old Ming Dynasty capital of Nanjing. From that point until the end of the civil war, there were effectively two states within China.
Claude S. Fischer in Boston Review:
Some observers respond to questions raised by the Flynn Effect by dismissing intelligence testing as an exercise in cultural domination. This ostrich-like response ignores the fact that IQ scores, whatever they measure, consistently correlate with important outcomes such as how well people perform their jobs and how long they live. Such dismissal also ignores the growing evidence that there is a physical, neurological basis to cognition and cognitive skills.
A more serious critique of the research attacks the definition of intelligence. Researchers in the intelligence field define it as a general capability to reason, understand complex ideas, think abstractly, and solve problems. You can measure it, they argue, using IQ tests. Critics consider these tests to be superficial and argue that they ignore other kinds of intelligence such as emotional intelligence or deeper traits such as wisdom. While researchers cannot track historical trends in wisdom, they are trying to wise up about the apparent historical increase in IQ.
One might suspect that the tests have gotten easier. They haven’t. In fact, the tests have gotten harder in order to keep the average IQ at one hundred. By reversing that process, Flynn showed the long-term rise in real performance.
Other challengers argue that we are not really smarter than our great-grandparents; it’s just that people today learn the answers to test questions in school or have become familiar with testing. However, scores on the parts of tests that are most easily taught and are the most culture-laden—say, recognizing vocabulary or knowing geography—have not changed much. Scores on those parts of tests that measure the most abstract, presumably culture-free thinking—say, drawing logical inferences from patterns in designs—have risen the most. The sorts of thinking that are supposedly most detached from classroom and cultural learning are the ones that have really improved.
So if a real increase in some kind of cognitive ability is under way, the question is why.
Think About Nature
A conversation with Lee Smolin in Edge:
The main question I'm asking myself, the question that puts everything together, is how to do cosmology; how to make a theory of the universe as a whole system. This is said to be the golden age of cosmology and it is from an observational point of view, but from a theoretical point of view it's almost a disaster. It's crazy the kind of ideas that we find ourselves thinking about. And I find myself wanting to go back to basics—to basic ideas and basic principles—and understand how we describe the world in a physical theory.
What's the role of mathematics? Why does mathematics come into physics? What's the nature of time? These two things are very related since mathematical description is supposed to be outside of time. And I've come to a long evolution since the late 80's to a position, which is quite different from the ones that I had originally, and quite surprising even to me. But let me get to it bit by bit. Let me build up the questions and the problems that arise.
One way to start is what I call "physics in a box" or, theories of small isolated systems. The way we've learned to do this is to make an accounting or an itinerary—a listing of the possible states of a system. How can a possible system be? What are the possible configurations? What were the possible states? If it's a glass of Coca Cola, what are the possible positions and states of all the atoms in the glass? Once we know that, we ask, how do the states change? And the metaphor here—which comes from atomism that comes from Democritus and Lucretius—is that physics is nothing but atoms moving in a void and the atoms never change.
Lift up your voices: The century-long battle for women's freedomFrom New Statesman:
Given its successes, feminism today looks very different from the feminism of 1913. There is, wonderfully and rightly, something much less embattled, much more inclusive and much more relaxed about feminists now. Rather than chasing the chimera of the “perfect mother” and the “perfect citizen”, we can accept one another in our flawed variety. The humourlessness that sometimes characterised women’s politics in the early 20th century has disappeared and many leading voices in contemporary feminism, from Caitlin Moran to the Vagenda magazine, use humour as their main weapon. The new tone of feminism suggests that instead of being furious and earnest all the time, we can begin to enjoy how far we have come. This humour is hugely attractive to younger women and effective in divesting the enemy of much of his power simply by giggling at him. It rests very much on the progress that has already been made and the ability of the funny feminists to build their audiences through social media and the internet, rather than having to rely exclusively on editors who may not be in on the jokes. Yet I hope that, however much we love the funny feminists, we do not forget to love some of the other aspects of feminism – aspects that may be harder to find on one’s iPhone and harder to laugh about.
The unifying force of the movement for suffrage is not going to be seen again in our generation. But I can still see the power of activism and it is heartening to see women still coming together to demonstrate this power through action in everyday life, not just over the internet or through the published word. Over the past 12 months, I have taken part in a lobby of parliament organised by UK Feminista; in One Billion Rising, an international day of activism against violence against women organised by V-Day; and in a number of conferences and public gatherings at which women are learning from one another face to face. Such activity can sometimes feel time-consuming and frustratingly slow but it also leaves me with a renewed understanding of the process of creating change. And that is vital, because even though feminism has achieved so much, there is still so much to be done. While this government is making decisions on benefits, education and housing that are forcing more women and children into poverty, we have to protest. While women are still experiencing rape and sexual assault in their everyday lives and finding that the perpetrators walk free, we need to stand up for change. While women are still too often absent from public life, we need to make sure our voices are heard loudly, even angrily. The other crucial aspect of feminism that should not be forgotten is the importance of listening to stories about what goes on beyond the comfort of our lives. There is always time to make jokes about thongs and pubic waxing or about women’s magazines and bad sex but funny feminism is not always great at bringing in other issues. After all, there is not much to laugh about in women having to queue at food banks, or being trafficked into forced prostitution or being killed in the name of honour.
What the Woodpecker Told Me
Rennie Sparks in The New York Times:
I have a lot of notebooks full of scribbles. They often don’t lead to anything, but sometimes, on lucky days, the scribbles begin to connect into a mystery that I can not look away from until it is laid bare. What was once a jumble of words and ideas begins to feel magnetized and full of import. Oh, those are lucky days! Mostly I just sit on the couch and follow the sparks here and there until they disperse. That morning that began with a tap-tap-tapping led to an afternoon in which I learned a lot about woodpeckers. I found out that woodpeckers have very long tongues with barbs on the end. I found out that woodpeckers have specially designed skulls that protect them from impact, like a built-in crash helmet. I also found out that woodpecker hearing is amazingly acute. These birds can actually hear larvae slithering inside a tree trunk as they are flying past overhead. Yes! That fact resonated with me. I felt my head tingling with excitement.
I sat awhile and tried to imagine what it might be like to have hearing so acute that I could hear bugs wriggling through trees. At first it seemed a wonderful thing — to hear great orchestras within rocks and mountainsides, the secret songs of air and earth. And then I realized how distracting it would be. With such sensitive hearing wouldn’t we all end up lying for days with our ears pressed to dirt piles and knot holes, forgetting to eat, forgetting to sleep, utterly transfixed by the tiniest sounds? Why then, I wondered, aren’t woodpeckers driven to insane distraction by their acute hearing? How can these birds stand to hammer away at a tree trunk when their ears are sensitive enough to hear bugs crawling inside wood? Is the woodpecker brain, then, fine-tuned to hear some sounds acutely, but to ignore other sounds completely? What parts of reality do our own brains actively filter out as we try and perceive the world?
Suddenly, and seemingly without context, I thought of Mary Sweeney. Mary Sweeney was a woman briefly mentioned in Michael Lesy’s book, “Wisconsin Death Trip.”
Fetish and brutish
The big, desert city of El Paso, on the US border with Mexico, for years felt like a lesson from the work of Giorgio Agamben. In his book Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Agamben analyzes a law from the Roman Empire specifying that if a man committed certain crimes, all of his citizenship rights would be revoked. This punishment, oddly enough, rendered the criminal a homo sacer, a sacred man, whom it was forbidden to ritually sacrifice to the gods. Yet in the everyday world the sacred man could be killed by anyone, with no penalty at all invoked on the killer. He inspired the highest veneration and the basest contempt. He constituted yet another category from Agamben’s work: bare life, or human existence stripped of its social nature and reduced to the purely biological. Bare life defines brutes. Homo sacer, brutes fetishized.more from Debbie Nathan at n+1 here.
the calvino letters
When Italo Calvino was becoming a big name in the English-speaking world in the 1970s and 1980s, he was seen as a somewhat rarefied figure: an Italian master of French-style abstraction who seemed to observe life from a serene ironic distance. And because of the timing of his death – at 61, after a cerebral haemorrhage, in 1985 – the prevailing image of him outside Italy has more or less stayed that way. His witty meta-novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (1979) has for years been used to teach the rudiments of postmodernism, while Invisible Cities (1972) – “a totally decadent book”, he wrote casually in a letter – has acquired the status of a fetish among architects, urban theorists and purveyors of art-speak. Yet the role of chic metropolitan guru wasn’t one that Calvino sought or felt comfortable in. An agronomist’s son from the Ligurian Riviera, he started out as a writer under the auspices of the Italian Communist party, having joined while fighting as a partisan during the second world war. Hemingway and Chekhov were his first literary models and, early on, he was stymied by his unsuccessful efforts to write a novel documenting social conditions in industrial Turin.more from Christopher Tayler at the FT here.
The Letters of William Gaddis
“America has odd ways of making one feel one’s self a failure. And looking over the fragments of our correspondence assembled, I am just terribly struck at the consistency, from my end, of howls about money, and from yours of reassurances, hopes, encouragement: of course this isn’t really news (and probably hardly unique in your file of writers), but seeing it so all at once did overwhelm me with a clearer sense of what I’ve put you through year after year, and I wish to Christ it had finally come up on the note of triumph you have hoped and worked so hard for.” Like most sensible serious writers, Gaddis never actually planned for his “triumph” to be posthumous; nor was he trying to write books that would be considered unreadable (usually by people who hadn’t read them). “What pained me most about the reviewers,” he writes in 1960, referring to the notoriously inadequate reception for “The Recognitions,” “was their refusal — their fear — to relax somewhat with the book and be entertained.” To be fair, one can understand why your average reviewer might not have been able to “relax” when faced by a thousand-page novel packed with theological allusions, inventive (but consistent) punctuation, dense, tiny typography and huge, tree-trunk-wide paragraphs. It’s a daunting task just lifting one of Gaddis’s best novels — let alone reading it.more from Scott Bradfield at the NY Times here.
Saturday PoemThrough the Speckled Land
She won’t speak to me anymore, this place
my tongue is received with poor grace.
My roots penetrated only so far
and they wither for lack of water.
Salt was spread on the upper scraw
and ploughed through to the lower layer.
She can no longer nourish her brood,
In my own land as a stranger viewed.
On the road between two cities
each of which has two names,
I read the words on the signs.
I am travelling through the speckled land
and every town here has two names.
Claonadh – Clane
Cill Dara – Kildare
Baile Dháith – Littleton
Cúil an tSúdaire – Portarlington
the native name
in italic script
a biased telling of the lore of place
the native name
in the lesser script
a muted telling, in slow fade . . .
As I travel through the speckled land
I move from white to black
my journey is taken aslant
the way I follow is zig-zagged.
I am the knight going the long way round
to attack from behind, to try to confound
but there are castles I can’t assault
and clerics before me, proud and preening,
I can’t protect my own queen even
my road is blocked by lowly pawns.
Between two hues
between two names
between two views
between two words
between two tongues
between two worlds
I live my life
between two lives.
by Colm Breathnach
from An Fearann Breac
publisher: Coiscéim, Dublin, 1982
May 17, 2013
Mortify Our Wolves
Though I have in my life experienced gout, bladder stones, a botched bone marrow biopsy, and various other screamable insults, until recently I had no idea what pain was. It islands you. You sit there in your little skeletal constriction of self—of disappearing self—watching everyone you love, however steadfastly they may remain by your side, drift farther and farther away. There is too much cancer packed into my bone marrow, which is inflamed and expanding, creating pressure outward on the bones. “Bones don’t like to stretch,” a doctor tells me. Indeed. It is in my legs mostly, but also up in one shoulder and in my face. It is a dull devouring pain, as if the earth were already—but slowly—eating me. And then, with a wrong move or simply a shift in breath, it is a lightning strike of absolute feeling and absolute oblivion fused in one flash. Mornings I make my way out of bed very early and, after taking all of the pain medicine I can take without dying, sit on the couch and try to make myself small by bending over and holding my ankles. And I pray. Not to God, who also seems to have abandoned this island, but to the pain. That it ease up ever so little, that it let me breathe. That it not—though I know it will—get worse.more from Christian Wiman at The American Scholar here.
the hudson review
The Hudson Review may lack the name recognition of the Paris Review (founded in 1953) or the New York Review of Books (1963). Its circulation is just 2,500, and its annual budget is almost enough to buy a studio apartment on the Upper West Side. What it has, though, is an extreme clarity of mission: publishing worthy authors who keep alive the love of literature. It's all considerably less bewildering once a reader is introduced to the magazine's editor, Paula Deitz, who combines a quick eye for talent with a nearly career-long devotion to the project. Ms. Deitz, who is 74, became editor in 1998, just as the Internet began to dissolve the established media order. By that time, the Hudson Review had earned its reputation for independence, publishing authors from Wallace Stevens and Sylvia Plath to Octavio Paz and Joyce Carol Oates. The magazine was founded by Frederick Morgan and Joseph Bennett, two young men from Princeton University's class of 1943 who were encouraged by their teacher, poet Allen Tate, to establish a magazine. After returning from World War II, the pair set up shop inside the Sapolio soap factory, owned by Morgan's father. Located at the corner of West and Bank streets, it overlooked the Hudson River, hence the name of the journal.more from Pia Catton at the WSJ here.
wagner in new york?
In his last years, Richard Wagner often spoke of immigrating to America. The composer had enthusiastically greeted the founding of the German Empire in 1871, but in the following decade, as Bismarck and the Kaiser failed to provide funds for his nascent festival at Bayreuth, his chauvinism waned, and he entertained the idea of escaping to the New World. Cosima Wagner, his second wife, wrote in her diary in 1880: “Again and again he keeps coming back to America, says it is the only place on the whole map which he can gaze upon with any pleasure: ‘What the Greeks were among the peoples of this earth, this continent is among its countries.’” In consultation with Newell Jenkins, an American dentist who had become a family friend, Wagner drew up a plan whereby American supporters would raise a million dollars to resettle the composer and his family in a “favorable climate”; in return, America would receive proceeds from “Parsifal,” his opera-in-progress, and all other future work. “Thus would America have bought me from Europe for all time,” Wagner wrote. The pleasant climate he had in mind was, surprisingly, Minnesota. What might have happened if, against all odds, Wagner had realized his American scheme?more from Alex Ross at The New Yorker here.