Tuesday, November 30, 2004
Red States and Blue States, Unite!
"The past few months have seen a lot of talk about red and blue America, mostly by people on one side of the partisan divide who find the other side a mystery.
It isn't a mystery to me, because I live on both sides. For the past twenty years, I've belonged to evangelical Protestant churches, the kind where George W. Bush rolled up huge majorities. And for the past eighteen years, I've worked in secular universities where one can hardly believe that Bush voters exist. Evangelical churches are red America at its reddest. And universities, especially the ones in New England (where I work now), are as blue as the bluest sky.
Not surprisingly, each of these institutions is enemy territory to the other. But the enmity is needless. It may be a sign that I'm terminally weird, but I love them both, passionately. And I think that if my church friends and my university friends got to know each other, they'd find a lot to like and admire. More to the point, the representatives of each side would learn something important and useful from the other side. These institutions may be red and blue now. But their natural color is purple."
Back Pain, Brain Drain
"Chronic pain may permanently shrink the brain, US researchers believe. The Northwestern University team had previously shown patients with back pain had decreased activity in the same brain region called the thalamus. This area is known to be important in decision-making and social behaviour. The team's current study in the Journal of Neuroscience suggests some of the changes may be irreversible and render pain treatment ineffective."
The Verve: This Is Music
The Verve never made much sense in the context of Britpop. From 1993-97 British music was dominated by the Gallagher brother's laddish buffoonery, Damon Albarn's pretty mug and wit, Jarvis Cocker's working class escapist anthems, and Thom Yorke's barbed melancholy. During this period The Verve were creating moody rock'n'roll full of soul, darkness and light. Their final and seminal album, Urban Hymns, was released just a few months after OK Computer and on the same day (August 26, 1997, the day Britpop died) as Oasis' third record. The Verve lasted long enough to tour in support of Urban Hymns, but would officially break up soon after.
This Is Music: The Singles 92-98 is their first official release in five years and features two new tracks. The compilation culls together songs from their three full-lengths, as well as their first single, "All In The Mind". The songs are as good today as they were years ago, although this album only tells half the story. The Verve made complete records, they weren't a "singles" band. For a full appreciation start with Urban Hymns and work backwards through A Northern Soul and A Storm In Heaven. If only to gain a cursory understanding of one of the great and too-often-overlooked bands of the '90's, this will do.
The New MoMA
MoMA's back in Manhattan at its refurbished and redesigned and much-expanded home, after 3 years of exile in Queens. I haven't had a chance to go look for myself yet (and at $20 a pop, I may have to save up for it!), but the press has been quite uniform in its encomia. Fairly representative of the laudatory responses is this essay by Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker:
Reopened now in a lustrous building by the architect Yoshio Taniguchi, MOMA is an effect: historical, conservative, magisterial. It works. The devout, incredibly expensive perfectionism of the building’s lapidary joinery and excruciating lighting may cloy—the God in these details is a neat-freak—but it optimizes looking. That’s all that really matters for the expanded display of a collection whose quantity magnifies its quality.
For a more critical appraisal, you might want to look at this piece entitled "Modern Immaturity" by Jed Perl in The New Republic:
The good news at MoMA--the building and the relatively straightforward installations of selections from the museum's collections--is so encouraging that when the bad news hits you may find yourself reeling. Far from accepting the hard fact that the time has come to embrace a solid maturity, a maturity grounded in an assessment of its glorious past that is at once forthright and modest, the Modern has insisted on remaining the aging hipster who long ago had one too many of those martinis and fled midtown Manhattan in search of the next snort of art-world cocaine.
Monday, November 29, 2004
Probably the battle in Falluja is a harbinger of things to come and not the end of anything at all. If the whole episode about the shooting of the injured fighter passed you by there is an interesting discussion of it here, as well as an open letter by Kevin Sites, the journalist who took the footage here.
On the same note, a new generation of reporters are making names for themselves covering this increasingly intense war. Dexter Filkins will be a name that people remember along the lines of Kerr, Halberstam, Sheehan, et alia from that other quagmire.
'Magic Seeds': A Passage to India
James Atlas in the New York Times Book Review:
Approaching the half-century mark of a distinguished literary career, V. S. Naipaul has entered his ''late phase'' -- as scholars and biographers euphemistically refer to the productions of old age. Now 72, he has written (or published; who knows what went into the circular file?) 14 works of fiction and 14 works of nonfiction: a tidy congruence. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001, he is, after a lifetime of heroic labor, home free. What more can we ask of him? T. S. Eliot, after he won the Nobel, glumly described it as ''a ticket to one's own funeral.''
Naipaul would seem to concur. Last month he made the public announcement at a speech in New Delhi that his new novel, ''Magic Seeds,'' may be his last. ''I am really quite old now,'' he said, turning his biblical span into premature senescence. ''Books require an immense amount of energy. It is not just pages. It is ideas, observations, many narrative lines.'' And because V. S. Naipaul will no longer write novels, the genre must die. ''I have no faith in the survival of the novel. It is almost over. The world has changed and people do not have the time to give that a book requires.'' It is almost over for him.
Sharon and the Future of Palestine
"For Sharon, withdrawal from Gaza is the price Israel must pay if it is to complete the cantonization of the West Bank under Israel's control. Just as important, Gaza is to be turned into a living example of why Palestinians are undeserving of an independent state. Under the conditions attached by Sharon to the disengagement, Gaza will exist essentially as a large prison isolated from the world, including its immediate neighbors Egypt, Jordan, and the West Bank. Its population will be denied the freedom of movement essential to any possibility of economic recovery and outside investment. Sharon's insistence that withdrawal from Gaza will be entirely an Israeli initiative and will not be negotiated with any Palestinian leaders seems designed to produce a state of anarchy in Gaza, one that will enable him to say, 'Look at the violent, corrupt, and primitive people we must contend with; they can't run anything on their own.'"
More here by Henry Siegman in the New York Review of Books.
Ode to the Code
"The genetic code was cracked 40 years ago, and yet we still don't fully understand it. We know enough to read individual messages, translating from the language of nucleotide bases in DNA or RNA into the language of amino acids in a protein molecule. The RNA language is written in an alphabet of four letters (A, C, G, U), grouped into words three letters long, called triplets or codons. Each of the 64 codons specifies one of 20 amino acids or else serves as a punctuation mark signaling the end of a message. That's all there is to the code. But a nagging question has never been put to rest: Why this particular code, rather than some other? Given 64 codons and 20 amino acids plus a punctuation mark, there are 1083 possible genetic codes. What's so special about the one code that—with a few minor variations—rules all life on Planet Earth?
The canonical nonanswer to this question came from Francis Crick, who argued that the code need not be special at all; it could be nothing more than a 'frozen accident.' The assignment of codons to amino acids might have been subject to reshuffling and refinement in the earliest era of evolution, but further change became impossible because the code was embedded so deeply in the core machinery of life. A mutation that altered the codon table would also alter the structure of every protein molecule, and thus would almost surely be lethal. In other words, the genetic code is the qwerty keyboard of biology—not necessarily the best solution, but too deeply ingrained to be replaced or improved.
There has always been resistance to the frozen-accident theory."
More here by Brian Hayes in American Scientist Online.
Electronic Art: A Hornet's Nest of Potential Litigation
"...the bigger issue involves the so-called 'secondary market' for these pieces, i.e., everything after the original sale from the gallery. As Napster and KaZaA have taught us, once creative works have been digitized, controlling their distribution becomes problematic. In video art, for instance, there is a trading site with everything from Matthew Barney to Nam June Paik available for bartering. Once files start floating around in cyberspace, the certificate of authenticity becomes paramount. And what if that certificate gets lost? That's precisely what happened with a Dan Flavin neon-light piece recently offered at Christie's London. Estimated at roughly $83,000 to $117,000, it had to be withdrawn from the sale because the owner mislaid the certificate and Flavin's estate would not issue another.
Worse yet, after a few decades of electronic-edition works shuttling through the art market's notoriously opaque channels, faked certificates of authenticity will surely start circulate (just as they do today for Modiglianis and Maleviches). At which point, no expert will be able to distinguish market-legal pieces from their digital doppelgängers. Electronic editions have an allure, removing production hassles for artists, allowing collectors to customize works for their environment, and offering dealers a chance to reap massive financial rewards for simply uploading data files. But perhaps it's not coincidental that one of the model's architects, Javier Peres, was a lawyer before becoming an art dealer. Anyone who switches too glibly into this new art-market mode will discover a hornet's nest of potential litigation and provenance battles."
More here by Marc Speigler in Slate.
The Interpreters of Maladies: Maxime Rodinson and Jacques Derrida
From an essay by Adam Shatz in The Nation:
When Marx wrote, "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it," he was not only taking a swipe at philosophers. He was slighting interpretation itself, as if thinking were an idle affair compared to action, where real men make their mark on the world. In fact, the act of interpretation is always an act, sometimes a veritable event, and, in rare instances, a harbinger of far-reaching changes. Maxime Rodinson, the distinguished scholar of the Arab and Muslim world who died at age 89 in Marseille on May 23, and Jacques Derrida, the philosopher of deconstruction who died at age 74 in Paris on October 8, were two of the most inspired interpreters of our time.
Saturday, November 27, 2004
A Talk with Robert Trivers, Introduction by Steven Pinker
I'm very pleased to hear that Edge is having an event highlighting the work of Robert Trivers on deceit and self-deception. I consider Trivers one of the great thinkers in the history of Western thought. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that he has provided a scientific explanation for the human condition: the intricately complicated and endlessly fascinating relationships that bind us to one another.
In an astonishing burst of creative brilliance, Trivers wrote a series of papers in the early 1970s that explained each of the five major kinds of human relationships: male with female, parent with child, sibling with sibling, acquaintance with acquaintance, and a person with himself or herself. In the first three cases Trivers pointed out that the partial overlap of genetic interests between individuals should, according to evolutionary biology, put them in a conflict of psychological interest as well. The love of parents, siblings, and spouses should be deep and powerful but not unmeasured, and there should be circumstances in which their interests diverge and the result is psychological conflict. In the fourth case Trivers pointed out that cooperation between nonrelatives can arise only if they are outfitted with certain cognitive abilities (an ability to recognize individuals and remember what they have done) and certain emotions (guilt, shame, gratitude, sympathy, trust)—the core of the moral sense. In the fifth case Trivers pointed out that all of us have a motive to portray ourselves as more honorable than we really are, and that since the best liar is the one who believes his own lies, the mind should be "designed" by natural selection to deceive itself.
More here by Pinker, and Trivers's talk "A Full-force Storm With Gale Winds Blowing".
Friday, November 26, 2004
Novelist Edwidge Danticat's Uncle Dies in US Dept of Homeland Security Custody
"Haitian-Americans watched in awe this week as a group of 44 Cuban entertainers applied for political asylum in Las Vegas, unmolested by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The treatment of the Cubans could not have contrasted more sharply with the experience of Joseph Dantica, an 81-year-old Haitian Baptist minister who recently applied for asylum in Miami.
U.S. immigration officials took the Rev. Dantica to jail, where he died before he had the chance to make his case for asylum. His family held a wake for him Thursday at a Miami funeral home.
'He died alone in a hospital bed,' said his niece Edwidge Danticat, 35, who is a U.S. citizen. 'It's not that the others (Cubans) don't deserve it. But there should be some fairness.'"
THE ASTONISHING FRANCIS CRICK
At a recent memorial service and celebration of Francis Crick at the Salk Institute, V.S. Ramachandran, was among the speakers (others included Sydney Brenner and Jim Watson). The title of Rama's talk, "The Astonishing Francis Crick", is from the recent "Francis Crick Memorial Lecture" he gave at the center for the philosophical foundations of science in New Delhi, India, at the invitation of Professor Ranjit Nair.
V.S. RAMACHANDRAN is Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and professor with the Psychology Department and the Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego, and Adjunct Professor of Biology at the Salk Institute. He is the coauthor (with Sandra Blakeslee) of Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind.
As I was leaving he said "Rama, I think the secret of consciousness lies in the claustrum—don't you? Why else would this one tiny structure be connected to so many areas in the brain?"—and he gave me a sly, conspiratorial wink. It was the last time I saw him.
Read Rama's lecture here.
Katinka Matson's Scanner Art
"Katinka Matson is an American artist who has been using technology to intricately study our relationship with nature and the world, and to adapt our perception to the ever-changing reality around us."
"Thanks to the use of the CCD flatbed scanner invented in 1975 by Ray Kurzweil, Matson's works feature not only petals, stalks, and pistils, but also the rhythm and depth that these natural elements can express if set in certain positions, revealing a surprising reality. The main difference between Katinka's technique and standard photography lies in the way the subjects are illuminated and in the shadow cast around them, as both light and shadow contribute to drawing details and colors in a vivid way."
"Through her technique, Katinka succeeds in giving us the vivid sensation of being immersed in a lush, fascinating garden."
Check out more of her exquisite work here.
Bernard Lewis Revisited
"America's misreading of the Arab world—and our current misadventure in Iraq—may have really begun in 1950. That was the year a young University of London historian named Bernard Lewis visited Turkey for the first time. Lewis, who is today an imposing, white-haired sage known as the “doyen of Middle Eastern studies” in America (as a New York Times reviewer once called him), was then on a sabbatical. Granted access to the Imperial Ottoman archives—the first Westerner allowed in—Lewis recalled that he felt “rather like a child turned loose in a toy shop, or like an intruder in Ali Baba's cave.” But what Lewis saw happening outside his study window was just as exciting, he later wrote. There in Istanbul, in the heart of what once was a Muslim empire, a Western-style democracy was being born."
Article by Michael Hirsh here in Washington Monthly.
PONTORMO, BRONZINO AND THE MEDICI
"Nut job. That was the word on Jacopo Pontormo, the finest religious painter in 16th-century Florence and guru of Mannerism, a late Renaissance style that crossed Michelangelo's pumped-up classicism with Raphael's skin-so-soft version.
Pontormo wasn't winsome nuts; he was spooky nuts. He lived alone in a room reached by a ladder that he could pull up after him. He was phobic about death. Mention the word and he fell apart. Excruciatingly self-obsessed, in the four years before he died, in 1556 or 1557, he kept a diary, often hour by hour, of every thought he had, every twinge of pain he felt, every morsel of food he ate. He was, in short, an exposed nerve for whom art provided the only protective covering."
Holland Cotter reviews "Pontormo, Bronzino and the Medici: The Transformation of the Renaissance Portrait in Florence," an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, here in the New York Times.
Benoit (of fractal fame) Mandelbrot turns 80
"Few people would recognise Benoit Mandelbrot in the street, but the intricate pattern of blobs, swirls and spikes that bears his name - the Mandelbrot set - is an icon of science. It has come to symbolise the geometry of fractals, patterns whose shape stays the same whatever scale you view them on. His life has followed a path as jagged as any fractal. Next week he turns 80. He tells Valerie Jamieson that he still has plenty of work to do."
More here from New Scientist.
Thursday, November 25, 2004
"...outdated regulations and attitudes thwart legitimate research with marijuana. Indeed, American biomedical researchers can more easily acquire and investigate cocaine. Marijuana is classified as a so-called Schedule 1 drug, alongside LSD and heroin. As such, it is defined as being potentially addictive and having no medical use, which under the circumstances becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Any researcher attempting to study marijuana must obtain it through the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). The U.S. research crop, grown at a single facility, is regarded as less potent--and therefore less medicinally interesting--than the marijuana often easily available on the street. Thus, the legal supply is a poor vehicle for studying the approximately 60 cannabinoids that might have medical applications."
So say the editors of Scientific American in this editorial.
Alexis Rockman talks to Neil deGrasse Tyson
Alexis Rockman examines how nature is portrayed. His art is in the collections of the Whitney Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, and London’s Saatchi Collection. He recently completed the mural “Manifest Destiny” for the Brooklyn Museum of Art, which depicts the future effects of global warming on Brooklyn. Additionally, he has co-authored several books, including Future Evolution with Peter Ward, and a monograph with essays by Stephen Jay Gould, Jonathon Crary, and David Quammen.
Neil deGrasse Tyson is the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. His latest book, ORIGINS: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution, co-authored with Donald Goldsmith, will be published by W.W. Norton and serve as the companion book to a 4-part miniseries premiering on PBS on September 28, 2004.
Here is their conversation as part of The Seed Salon.
"Michael Koubi worked for Shin Bet, Israel's security service, for 21 years and was its chief interrogator from 1987 to 1993. He interrogated hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including renowned militants such as Sheikh Yassin, the former leader of the Palestinian group Hamas, who was killed in an Israeli attack this year. He claims that intelligence gained in interrogation has been crucial to protecting Israel from terrorism. He tells Michael Bond that, given enough time, he could make almost anyone talk."
More here from New Scientist.
Amartya Sen on the history of Sino-Indian links
"The intellectual links between China and India, stretching over two thousand years, have had far-reaching effects on the history of both countries, yet they are hardly remembered today. What little notice they get tends to come from writers interested in religious history, particularly the history of Buddhism, which began its spread from India to China in the first century. In China Buddhism became a powerful force until it was largely displaced by Confucianism and Taoism approximately a thousand years later. But religion is only one part of the much bigger story of Sino-Indian connections during the first millennium. A broader understanding of these relations is greatly needed, not only for us to appreciate more fully the history of a third of the world's population, but also because the connections between the two countries are important for political and social issues today."
More here in the New York Review of Books.
"Warren Buffett is famous for two things. First, for amassing the second-biggest fortune in the U.S. as one of the most talented investors the world has ever known. Second, for an aversion to spending a dime of that $41 billion on anything but the strictly necessary. That includes declining to provide his kids with fortunes of their own, collecting yachts or racehorses, or giving large chunks of his wealth to worthy causes. Thus it may strike some as the supreme paradox that the man who is one of America's greatest misers in life will probably become one of its greatest philanthropists in death...
The year's other billion-dollar-club members include No. 1 givers Bill and Melinda Gates, the world's largest international donors, who made history this year by giving their estimated $3 billion Microsoft Corp. dividend to their foundation. It's one of the largest donations in history by a living donor. To put it into perspective, that one gift is three times bigger than the amount that America's richest family, the descendants of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. founder Sam Walton, has given during their entire lifetimes, according to our ranking."
Special Report on philanthropy here in BusinessWeek.
Wednesday, November 24, 2004
Romare Bearden exhibitions in New York
This weekend I managed to make it to the Whitney to see a few exhibits, including the Romare Bearden show. There's a concurrent one at the Met, which is next on my aesthetic agenda. I recommend the one at the Whitney highly. Its only flaw may be that it's so sweeping that it streches the limits of focus and concentration on the individual pieces. But it does present a remarkable image of artistic evolution against the backdrop of the Civil Rights' struggles and how one member of the Harlem Renaissance engaged it through his work.
Arthur Danto has this to say in a review of the Whitney show:
"Bearden abruptly became Bearden around 1964--a miraculous year for him as an artist, when he broke through into a mode of representation distinctively his own and entered the calm waters of a marvelously personal style that was never again challenged, from without or within. It enabled him, over the remaining twenty-four years of his life, to evoke, in his words, 'a world through art in which the validity of my Negro experience could live and make its own logic.' By 'validity,' Bearden meant, I think, that his experience as an African-American was not ruled out as a 'subject of the artist,' to use an expression that was current in Abstract Expressionist discourse. And by 'its own logic,' he meant that the experience would determine the form through which it was expressed. The breakthrough, however, has to be understood through the collusion of two moments, one art-historical and the other political."
You can see it in the exhibition. (Also check out Adam Shatz's interview with Branford Marsalis on the influence of Bearden on jazz.)
On the simplest, visceral level, wow, what one can do with collages!
An Important Question
I would like to direct your attention to a post on my friend, and fellow 3quarker Josh Tyree's, column at Old Town Review, American Notes for General Circulation. I think it is an important piece of writing. It attempts to stake out a position that I would, personally, be honored to associate myself with. Probably I am not intellectually careful or honest enough to do the position justice but Mr. Tyree is.
Tyree is trying to find a way to be anti-war without repeating the failures of the New Left during Vietnam.
It has become clear to me and becomes clearer with every passing moment that serious thinking about Vietnam is the most important thing in the world right now. The trick is that such thinking is more complicated than one might assume. The Hard Left had the moral clarity to be against the Vietnam War. But they got almost everything else about Vietnam wrong. I'm currently reading Mary McCarthy's book Hanoi and Susan Sontag's A Trip to Hanoi, which she has since renounced [correction: this is too strong, she stands behind the book but has since decided that third world communism failed in most of its promise. 12/2/04]. Parts of a very interesting exchange between Diana Trilling and McCarthy from the New York Review of Books in 1968 are published in McCarthy's Hanoi. It is clear from these works that we've been through all this before. And it is clear that it is very difficult to tread the path that Tyree is talking about.
But I think he is absolutely right that we have to try.
Centenary of Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
This year marks the centenary of Max Weber's landmark The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, one of the most influential books ever written in the social sciences. The book was written as a substantive and methodological response to Karl Marx, as well as an attempt to follow in Marx's line. The shift from the acquisition of what is needed to maintain a historically determined standard of living to the ever more accumulation of wealth in the form of the medium of exchange, money, was, as Marx observed, world-historical. This shift perhaps more than any other has made the modern world, and how this core element of capitalism came into being and why in England is among the most explored in economic history. Weber's answer was that Protestant ethic had a mutually reinforcing "elective affinity" with capitalism.
"The religious valuation of restless, continuous, systematic work in a worldly calling, as the highest means of asceticism, and at the same time the surest and most evident proof of rebirth and genuine faith, must have been the most powerful conceivable lever for the expansion of . . . the spirit of capitalism."
Needless to say, the claim has been disputed for a century as well.
Weber's life was no less interesting than his thought, and in the latter are echoes of the former, or so suggests Elizabeth Kolbert in this weeks New Yorker.
"Everyone who is part of the modern capitalist economy—whether he’s employed flipping burgers, writing code, or putting out a weekly magazine—has at one point or another considered that his efforts had an ascetic cast. We all accept the notion that our jobs ought to be more than just a way to sustain ourselves and acknowledge working to be our duty. But we don’t quite understand why this is the case. Post-nervous breakdown, Weber appears to have felt with peculiar intensity both the compulsion to labor and its fundamental motivelessness. And, if he didn’t actually come up with a resolution to the problem (either a good reason to work or a way to stop doing so), he did invent in 'The Protestant Ethic' a myth to explain his, and our, befuddlement."