October 31, 2005
From the Tail: Big Fat Regret
With the recent indictment and resignation of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby over the Valerie Plame affair there have been repeated calls from the obvious quarters for the President to apologize over the CIA leak. Whether Mr. Bush feels any regret over the incident or not, it seems unlikely that he will express any, at least until he absolutely has to.
Regret (the feeling of disappointment or distress about something that one wishes could be different) is a strange beast. It is, of course quite possible to feel regret without guilt, or even without any acknowledgement of personal responsibility. Also, regret is sometimes the inevitable biproduct of actually making a choice (I'll take the granola bar over the chocolate cake). Regret is not a rare commodity. During any given day there are dozens of moments when one expresses some inconsequential level of regret to oneself. So what exactly do people mean when they say (often with a flourish) that they "have no regrets"? Perhaps what they mean to say is that they don't really regret anything enough, i.e. it all comes down to the degree of regret experienced. The question about regret that I find interesting is: How is the degree of regret distributed? Is it a Bell Curve? That would be nice. A Bell Curve is conveniently symmetric around its mean (average), that is to say, its median value is the same same as its average. Let's do the following thought experiment to find out!
- Try to remember the things that you have regretted over the past day and count those which rise to the level worthy of reflection in bed tonight. Chances are you will only be able to come up with a couple.
- Go back a week and do the same thing. What regretful things have stuck in your craw? Strangely, there are likely to still be a similar number, maybe two or three. How did that happen? Surely, it should be more like seven times your daily regret count. Your threshold for craw stickiness has gone up.
- Now do the retrospective on your life and try to catalog your regrets. Again, the number is about the same.
To be more quantitative, if your could go back in time and correctly catalog the list of your regretful incidents over a day, week and month, and graph the degree of regret versus the sequence of incidents, you would probably come up with something like this for the daily , weekly and monthly lists. (The "Real Regret" Zone is is the threshold of regret degree above which you would count it while doing the three step experiment I outlined above.)
The week graph is a blown up version of the month one, and the day graph is a blown up version of the week one, but they all have the same structure. Each graph has many tiny incidents with a few much bigger ones, and only those incidents above the threshold register as being truly regretful. A strange "self similarity" or scale invariance is observed.
Now if your regret were distributed like a bell curve it would not look like this. The big events would not be so big, and the scale invariance would not be present. So what is this kind of distribution?
This kind of distribution is Fat Tailed. The reason is that the infrequent events are huge. Most of us are trained to think in terms of Bell Curves, but this is a very different animal. A Bell Curve has the same median and mean. In the Fat Tailed distributions the median is extremely small relative to the mean since the rare events are so huge. This skew in the distribution leads to various odd properties, for example, that the variance is infinite!
It turns out that a very large number of things are fat tailed:
- The frequency of words in a book. This is what captured the imagination of a Harvard Lingusitics lecturer by the name of George Zipf who discovered that if the most frequently mentioned word in a book was used N times, the Kth most frequent word in that book would be used about N/K times. This relationship holds (with some minor fudge factors) for most books written in the English Language and is known as the Zipfian distribution.
- The distribution of population in a city: Remarkably this turns out to be Zipfian as well. Take any developed or developing country and rank the cities. A terrific source of data for a bunch of different countries is here. You will find that the distribution is very close to being Zipfian. The number of people who have scratched their heads about why this happens reads like a who's who of economics: Herb Simon, Paul Krugman, Benoit Mandelbrot (who isn't regarded by economists as an economist but actually is), and most recently Xavier Gabaix among lots of others. Even those who don't think the distribution is Zipfian agree that it is fat tailed.
- The number of web links pointing to a web page. Various popular books have been written on this and since it has been covered extensively elsewhere I'll resist the temptation to expound.
- The number of subscribers to a blog feed. Most blogs are barely read, but a few blogs get a huge amount of subscribers. An interesting set of graphs relating to this has been provided from the folks at Ask Jeeves.
- The distribution of income. Ever since Pareto, it has been observed that the rich are few and much richer than the rest. The scale invariance of the distribution results in very rich people actually feeling quite poor! If you think that you'd feel rich with $10 million in the bank, think again!
Fat tailed distributions are more frequently called Long Tailed. (The term "The Long Tail" yields 1.57 million google results as opposed to a paltry 12,700 for the "The Fat Tail".) In statistics, the rare events of a distribution are said to be in the tail. When these rare events are large, we say that the tail is FAT. Even a bell curve, can have a very long tail, so why the terminology Long Tail? Well, if you arrange the values in descending order and graph them, i.e. the big ones on the left, and the smallest values to the extreme right, the picture looks like a long tailed beast. Of course, the head of this beast is the tail of the distribution! Also, it seems more natural to say, for example, that the distribution of blog readership has a big fat head and a long tail, but that isn't really accurate from a statistical point of view. So take your pick of terminology.
Now the question of WHY things are fat/long tailed is still somewhat unclear, but of course, a multitude of theories abound. Zipf believed it all stems from the tendency of human beings to follow the path of least resistance, so that the inertia in the system tends to make the big bigger. There are various "winner takes all" theories which are commonly spouted in business circles. Economists espouse phenomena of "increasing returns" and "switching costs", which are appealing in certain contexts. It is all very fascinating and intellectually rich.
But what explains the degree of regret --- why is IT fat tailed? I wish I had an explanation, but all I have is more speculation: perhaps circumstances are responsible, i.e. things happen in a "fat tailed" manner so that we react to them that way. Or perhaps it is our reactions which are more responsible, i.e. after an accumulation of little things reaches some limit (a camel-back breaking limit, so to speak) we react in an extreme fashion.
Finally, it would seem that other emotions, e.g. happiness work the same way. Repeat the experiment and see for yourself.
The mystery of it all! If only I knew more. And yes, regret has struck again!
Monday Musing: Posthumously Arrested for Assaulting Myself
Those of you who have never taken 20-24 hour flights can probably scarcely imagine the vertigo-inducing fatigue involved. I have taken one of these flights fairly regularly for decades now, from Karachi to New York, and find it hard to understand how my elderly parents ever survived them. In addition to the sheer length of time for which one is confined to one's (in my case, very small economy-class) seat, these flights almost always originate in the early hours of the morning, giving one just enough time to reach the deeper parts of sleep after having spent the evening packing, buying last-minute things, and saying goodbye to friends, before one must heave oneself up from bed at something like 3 in the morning, say one's emotional goodbyes to relatives, and head for Qaid-e-Azam International along the deserted Sharia Faisal. So one almost always even starts the trip in a groggy, enervated state. Then, as if almost a full day in the stale, dessicated air and cramped and noisy quarters of a Pakistan International plane (they must have the highest ratio of children to adults of any airline) weren't enough, there is the time-difference induced jet lag to contend with upon arrival at JFK, and for some reason I am always unable to eat any of the last meal they serve on the plane.
All this is to give you a sense of how I am usually feeling physically and mentally as I stand in the long immigration lines at JFK waiting for my passport to be stamped. And there I was standing one morning about three years ago. When my turn finally came up at the counter, the INS agent asked me more questions than usual, and then closed his counter and asked me to follow him to a large room at the side of the immigration hall. Once there, along with a bunch of other people who had also been pulled aside for extra questioning, I waited for my file's turn to be examined by the officer at the counter there. (The original INS agent had deposited me and then returned to his duties elsewhere.) Finally my name was called, and after some very aggressive questioning about who I am, what I do, where I live, and on and on (and they frequently keep asking the same questions over and over, making one feel like they are hoping to trip you up in case you are lying), I was informed that I was being detained. Two agents handcuffed me and led me to another smaller room. When I asked what I had done, they said things like, "Oh, you know what you've done. You are in trouble, my friend." Then I asked to call a lawyer, and I was informed that I hadn't yet been admitted to the United States, and so had no legal standing. No lawyer would be called, nor would I be allowed to call anyone else. They took my cuffs off, fingerprinted me (very difficult because of my sweaty palms), recuffed me and then left me there.
It was at this point that my knees went a little trembly. I had heard many stories of Pakistanis being held under the Patriot Act without charges for months, and now I had visions of Guantanamo in my head, and I became almost dizzy with the adrenaline rush of fear. I thought that I must have been mistaken for someone else, God knows who, and there would be no chance to clear my name. At this point, I was so tired and hungry that I could barely stand up. After a few hours, a woman came to the room to get some papers she needed and I took this opportunity to beg her to let me call my girlfriend. I guess she took pity on me. She took out a cell phone and asked for the number. I told her and she dialed it and then held the phone to my ear (my hands were cuffed behind me). Margit (now my wife) answered the phone and immediately started asking what had happened, why I wasn't home yet, she was so worried, etc. I told her to stop talking as I didn't have much time. I told her I had been detained by the INS, and that she should contact a lawyer and my brother immediately, and get someone to JFK. I would try to call her again if I could, but wasn't sure if I would be able to. To her credit, she was calm, and I felt much better that at least someone knew what was happening to me.
I then sat in that room for another few sweat-drenched hours before a couple of INS officers came in along with two police officers from the NYPD. The NYPD officers told me that they had a warrant for my arrest. This immediately came as a relief to me, because whatever it was they wanted with me, I would rather be held by the NYPD in New York, than in some INS facility. I felt like whatever it was, I would be able to clear it up. That's when things started to get weird: the NYPD officers addressed me as Mr. Edward Sampson, as in, "Let's go, Sampson." When I protested that I wasn't Edward Sampson, whoever that might be, they told me that fingerprints don't lie, and I had a full ten-finger match as one wanted Edward Sampson. They told me to stop lying and just admit that I really was Edward Sampson. The name sounded vaguely familiar but I couldn't quite place it in my exhausted state. The INS guys removed my cuffs and the NYPD officers produced a kind of wide leather belt which looked vaguely like some S&M contraption, put it on me, then cuffed my hands to it. I was then led out for the perp walk in front of all the other passengers, coming out by the regular path where people wait for their friends and relatives to come out. Most people whispered to each other rather excitedly when they saw me being led out, held by each arm by one of the officers, wearing this restraint, and a nice suit I had had tailored while in Pakistan.
It was then that I remembered who Edward Sampson was, and it came to me suddenly: about a decade earlier, my nephew Asad and I had been having a drink with my friend Karim at the West End Restaurant and Bar (where Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg used to hang out) near Columbia University (I had just started the Ph.D. program in philosophy there), when four rough looking characters wandered in. They looked like skinheads, and they sat at the table behind where we were standing at the bar. Asad had draped his jacket over one of the chairs on which one of these guys was now sitting, and so he tapped the guy on the shoulder so he could retrieve his jacket. I saw the guy stand up and get in Asad's face, but couldn't hear what was going on. The man then raised his voice and I heard the N-word being yelled at Asad along with a string of curses, after which the man grabbed my nephew's hair with his left hand and drew back his right fist, getting ready to throw a punch. I hit him first. I had lunged from the side, and my momentum threw both of us to the floor. I didn't know it then, but I was rolling around on the floor of the West End with one Edward Sampson.
We were separated by the bouncers of the West End and all six of us were thrown out. Once outside, these guys ganged up on me and managed to throw me to the ground where I hit my head on the sidewalk. I was momentarily stunned, and had no chance after that. Mr. Sampson pummeled me pretty good. Then the police arrived, and Sampson and crowd quickly walked off. I explained to the police that my nephew had been assaulted, and while trying to protect him, I, too had been beaten up and the guys were trying to get away. The police told me that if I insisted on having them arrested, they would have to arrest Asad and me as well, since they hadn't been there to see who started it. When I produced witnesses, they dismissed them as my friends, so I said fine, go ahead and arrest all of us, but I am not going to let these punks get away with this. I figured we would sort it out later in court. And so the four of them were also picked up and all six of us were driven to a precinct where we had our portraits taken, were fingerprinted, etc., before being released on our own recognizance. And at that precinct is where I first heard the name of my attacker: Edward Sampson.
The next day, after a trip to the Manhattan Eye and Ear Infirmary, I showed up at the philosophy department at Columbia with black eyes, swollen mouth, etc. Sidney Morgenbesser was the first to offer his help, and Akeel Bilgrami made a call to a lawyer friend of his. They knew what they were doing, because the next morning I received a phone call from Robert Morgenthau's office (he was, and might still be, the District Attorney of New York) telling me to go down to the courthouse on Center Street, where a couple of assistant DAs were waiting for me. They listened to my story, called a few of the witnesses, and then told me that charges against Asad and me were being dropped, and that Sampson and his friends would be prosecuted under the hate crimes statute of New York. I was pleased by this, and felt vindicated that I had insisted that the police arrest everyone, rather than just letting these guys walk. Except that those people didn't show up at their hearing, and were never heard from again.
By the time the NYPD guys had put me into the back of their van outside JFK, I had figured out what must have happened: somehow, that night ten years before, someone at the precinct had made a clerical error, and had somehow put Edward Sampson's name and other information on my fingerprint card. Then, when they didn't show up for their hearing, a warrant was issued for Sampson's arrest (and for all I knew, he might have committed other crimes since), and now I had been arrested as Edward Sampson. This was the only explanation I could think of, and it sounded plausible to me. I excitedly told the NYPD guys this theory, but they were pretty unimpressed. One of them said that people often come up with crazy stories when they get caught, but this was one of the best he had heard. I told him to look at me. Did I even look like I might be named Edward Sampson? I just kept repeating my theory to them until finally, one of them, Detective John Regan of the Queens Warrant Squad, started to believe me, at least a little. He told his partner, "Look, it sounds crazy, but it might be true. While you guys see the judge (I was being taken to a courthouse in Manhattan where I would be presented to a judge, and we needed to get there before midnight, which was getting close, otherwise I would have to wait in lockup overnight) I'll go try to find the records from that arrest ten years ago."
At this point, I begged to be given some food, and again, Regan made the other guy stop at a Chinese restaurant and got me a fried rice (which he paid for) and even put hot sauce on it per my request. He then uncuffed me so I could eat. His partner was not happy at this lenient method of treating a just-captured fugitive, but Regan was by now convinced that I just wasn't the right type of guy to be a criminal. I shall always be grateful for that meal and Detective Regan's kindness. At the courthouse, Regan disappeared to look for the old arrest record while I was taken into a courtroom where I was appointed a public defender. Now this guy was a complete idiot. He kept telling me to stop lying and just plead guilty to a reduced charge for which I would just get some community service and no jail time. No matter what I said to him, he would not believe that I was not Edward Sampson. Meanwhile, Regan showed up with a file containing the decade-old arrest records, and luckily it had a picture of Edward Sampson in it. But even then, my supposed lawyer kept saying things like, "That could have been you ten years ago." Finally the judge herself yelled at him and said, "It is unlikely that your client has changed race since that arrest. And why would he have been arrested for beating himself up?" She told me I was free to go. I was then driven by Detective Regan and his partner back to JFK, where I was released. Asad was waiting for me there.
Detective Regan then offered to help me clear up the problem with the fingerprints, and after some detective work, called me with a strange bit of news: Edward Sampson had committed suicide in 1996 by jumping out of his 5th floor window. So I had essentially been arrested as a dead man for beating myself up. However, the fingerprints were now in many different databases, including the FBI, the state police, INS, and God only knows who else. He suggested I find a lawyer to help me clear this up. So I did. I was assured that the problem had been taken care of, and everything was fine, and indeed, I flew in and out of the country several times without incident. Then, three days ago, I got on a train headed to Montreal for Justin's wedding. At the border, Canadian customs and immigration officials boarded the train for their inspection of the passengers' documents. I was asked to step outside where the aggressively hostile questioning began. Finally when they asked why I had two social security numbers, I realized that Edward Sampson's ghost was back to haunt me. I told them the whole story, and luckily, after much heated discussion and some phone calls, they believed me (because all the details I gave them matched what they had, including the name Edward Sampson, which they had not told me, but which they knew). But they warned me that I may be arrested by American immigration officials on my way back, so I was pretty nervous last night. It didn't happen. Now I don't know what to do. If any of you have any ideas, let me know.
Have a good week!
My other recent Monday Musings:
Be the New Kinsey
General Relativity, Very Plainly
Three Dreams, Three Athletes
Francis Crick's Beautiful Mistake
The Man With Qualities
Special Relativity Turns 100
Vladimir Nabokov, Lepidopterist
Stevinus, Galileo, and Thought Experiments
Cake Theory and Sri Lanka's President
Selected Minor Works: The Question of Marriage
Justin E. H. Smith
I shall have to write this Selected Minor Works piece in haste, for it is less than 24 hours ago that I was married, for the first and only time, and my bride will not have me throwing away the blissful infancy of our life together crouched at my laptop.
But in order not to be completely neglectful it seems fitting that I hang out here, as it were, a bloodied sheet for the digital age, by offering both a précis of the event, as well as some reflections on marriage, what it could mean and why it is a genuine good, both in general and in this particular case.
It was a glittering and star-studded event, featuring leading figures of the Quebec literary demimonde, a well-known flyer distributor for the now mythical 1980s Sacramento new-wave all-ages dance-club scene, and, not least, the editor of 3 Quarks Daily himself. We danced late into the night at a rented hall of the Musée des beaux-arts, all dressed up, as if we were rich, and there was much talk of how heavenly the salmon canapés were, and how lovely the bride. I was of course much more interested in the latter sort of talk. She is stunning, whereas I am experiencing, looks-wise, some bizarre, swift, and evidently genetically predetermined descent from comparison with Gustav Mahler to nearly being mistaken for Karl Rove. I can only assume grace is involved in her decision, or in God's plan, or whatever brought this miracle about.
But on to important matters. It goes without saying that, in this particular case, there is love involved (are you reading this, O Immigration Canada?), but this is not what I wish to dwell on. What I want to consider is this: given love, why marriage?
Philosophically, I am not in good company. For Nietzsche, Socrates served as the perfect cautionary tale to any philosopher thinking about the path of marriage. After his shameful example, it is certainly true that, statistically, philosophy and marriage do not tend to occur together. Leibniz, for example, seems to have enquired with a young woman's father about the possibility of taking her hand, never heard back, and only recalled that this business was outstanding 20 years later, just before his death. His contemporaries, by and large, appear content to have ground lenses, and proved things, and in general to have acted as though there were no women in the world. By the 19th century, marriage comes into its own as a distinctly philosophical issue, with figures such as Kierkegaard taking the problem of marriage as the primary stimulus for productivity. Kierkegaard decided firmly against.
In the 20th century, though, the problem would seem to die out altogether, and marriage to become no more or less problematic for philosophers than for any other segment of the population. Arguably though, this is not because the problem is solved, but only because philosophy is professionalized to the extent that no radical commitments or serious lifestyle measures of any sort are thought to be required. Nobody would dare claim that 'Two Dogmas of Empiricism' could have been any richer if not for the sinister influence, from the shadows, of Madame Quine.
But didn't marriage suffer a crisis in all segments of the population, the first anticipation of which was earlier suffered by the likes of Kierkegaard? Society has been transformed, and marriage displaced as the primary glue that holds it all together. Here in Quebec, we could, after all, certainly get away with not getting married. There is no social pressure to do so at all, and if anything the pressure is in the other direction. Cohabitation impresses immigration officials, anyway, much more than a sudden plunge into official coupledom.
So why the plunge? The simplest reason is this: when I met this woman, I knew that 'partner' just wasn't going to cut it. What I wished to do with her bore no resemblance to what accountants do when they open an office together. I wanted to draw on antiquated social forms, to go back before the discovery that the personal is political, that families are tyrranies, and declare that this woman was mine, my wife, ma femme, as though the Enlightenment had never occurred.
Philosophy thought it was liberating its practitioners from nagging Xanthippes, and eventually it made it possible for some to think about liberating everyone from what, seen under the aspect of eternal reason, is indeed an arbitrary bond, and one that can't but limit one's freedom. But the lack of good reasons, reasons of the sort accountants come up with every day, is what makes marriage better than accountancy, and what makes the modern blurring of the arrangements of the business world and those of the intimate life such a tragedy. Keep your sound and level-headed arrangements, your rational and limited partnerships. I, as the saying goes, shall take my wife.
PERCEPTIONS: Pakistan - land of plenty .... of beliefs
Abbas: A "malang" (a Sufi dervish) plays a drum and dances at the shrine of Baba Mekka Shah in Hyderabad. Pakistan, 1988.
|Book||Allah O Akbar - A Journey Through Militant Islam|
Poison in the Ink: Gaia Theory
In the 1960’s, a chemist named James Lovelock was invited by NASA to help develop instruments that could detect signs of life on Mars. Lovelock came up with the idea of screening the gases in Mar’s atmosphere for signs that their concentrations were being affected in ways consistent with life.
On Earth, for example, the atmosphere is composed of about 77 percent nitrogen, 21 percent oxygen, and trace amounts of other gases, most notably carbon dioxide and methane. These gases are used and absorbed by plants and animals and then remade and recirculated back into the atmosphere. Mars, on the other hand, has an atmosphere that is almost 95 percent carbon dioxide.
The stark contrasts between the two planets suggested to Lovelock that Mars couldn’t possibly harbor any type of life or that if it did, it was in the very distant past. Chemically, Mars was a dead planet, and to Lovelock, this meant that it had to be biologically dead as well.
If there was life on Mars, it would leave a chemical signature that could be detected from Earth, Lovelock reasoned. The cumulative actions of countless organisms would over time change the composition of gases in the atmosphere and these changes would be visible from space. This kind of thinking lead Lovelock to a sudden realization. Recalling it years later, Lovelock wrote:
"I was in a small room on the top floor of a building at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California…An awesome thought came to me. The Earth's atmosphere was an extraordinary and unstable mixture of gases, yet I knew that it was constant in composition over quite long periods of time. Could it be that life on Earth not only made the atmosphere, but also regulated it - keeping it at a constant composition, and at a level favorable for organisms?"
Lovelock discussed his idea with his neighbor, the novelist William Golding, and it was Golding who suggested Lovelock’s new theory be named “Gaia,” after the Greek goddess of the Earth.
When it was first proposed, Gaia theory appealed to environmentalist but was largely dismissed by the scientific community. Critics said the theory was unscientific and that it was teleological, that it was proposing that there be some kind of planet-wide consciousness at work.
Other critics, like Richard Dawkins and Ford Doolittle, argued that Gaia theory was at odds with Darwinian evolution. Instead of having organisms simply adapt to their environment, Gaia theory was saying that organisms could actually change it or even control it. In 1982, Dawkins claimed that “there was no way for evolution by natural selection to lead to altruism on a Global scale.”
Gaia theory was also at odds with one of Dawkins’ own theories. In 1976, Dawkins published a book entitled “The Selfish Gene” in which he argued that evolution acts not on individual organisms, but on their genes. Organisms were mere vehicles that genes used to replicate themselves. Those genes that helped an organism survive and reproduce also improved their own chances of being passed on and so most of the time successful genes also benefited the organism. For Dawkins, life was a constant war: individuals within a species were competing with one another as well as with the members of other species. What they definitely were not doing, in Dawkins’ view, was working together for the common good of the planet.
In response to his critics, Lovelock teamed up with Andrew Watson and developed a computer model called “Daisyworld.”
Daisyworld was a simulation of an Earth-like planet orbiting a young, Sun-like star. The only form of life on the planet were daisies, of which there were two varieties: black and white. White daisies had white flowers that reflected light and black daisies had black flowers that absorbed light. Thus, a planet covered in white daisies was cooler than one covered in black daisies.
In the beginning, when the young star is just starting to warm up, the planet is covered mostly in black daisies. As the planet continues to warm, however, more white flowers begin to bloom. In this way, the planet’s temperature is kept constant despite fluctuations in the stars temperature.
When it was first introduced in 1983, Daisyworld was roundly criticized by many scientists as being too simplistic. The model did, however, address two important criticisms of Gaia theory. First, it showed that a biologically regulated planet didn’t have to be teleological, that a self-regulating planet could arise without any need for a guiding conscious. Secondly, it showed that Gaia theory and Darwinian evolution were compatible, that indeed, it was natural selection that made Gaia theory work.
Nowadays, there are many different forms of Gaia theory, from “weak” to “strong.” Weak Gaia maintains only that life is important in shaping the Earth. This form of Gaia theory is generally accepted by many scientists today. In contrast, strong Gaia—the form that Lovelock endorses— says that life doesn’t just merely influence the physical processes of the planet, but actually controls them.
Lovelock, now 86-years old, is still working to develop Gaia theory. He believes that if Gaia theory were to become widely accepted, it would fundamentally change how humans view themselves and their environment:
“If we are ‘all creatures great and small,’ from bacteria to whales, part of Gaia then we are all of us potentially important to her well being…No longer can we merely regret the passing of one of the great whales, or the blue butterfly, nor even the smallpox virus. When we eliminate one of these from Earth, we may have destroyed a part of ourselves, for we also are a part of Gaia.
“There are many possibilities for comfort as there are for dismay in contemplating the consequences of our membership in this great commonwealth of living things. It may be that one role we play is as the senses and nervous system for Gaia. Through our eyes she has for the first time seen her very fair face and in our minds become aware of herself. We do indeed belong here. The earth is more than just a home, it's a living system and we are part of it.”
October 30, 2005
Rekindling one’s faith: The holy month of Ramazan
There can be no compromise on the sanctity of the month of Ramazan, and the public space between sun up and sun down is a no food zone through a voluntary acceptance of the code by the public. There are those amongst us who take upon ourselves the policing function of the public’s morality, and sometimes there are unpleasant tales of people taking the law into their own hands and dealing harshly with people found violating the code. At the end of the day the pursuit of spirituality is a personal affair, and the hijab/veil must reside in the eye of the beholder.
Therein lies the crux of the matter. Ramazan is not just about abstaining from food and drink, for that would be tantamount to starving oneself. Ramazan is about keeping one’s ego in check and becoming holistic people with a healthy self-image, having the capacity of turning their weaknesses into strengths, and always thinking positively and proffering the benefit of the doubt. It’s about inculcating the need to live a balanced life, communicate effectively, and resolve interpersonal conflicts.
Guarding the bulldog
From The London Times:
Winston Churchill's bodyguard had his share of dangerous moments. But his job gave him a unique insight into the great man's strengths and flaws — as recently unearthed memoirs reveal. They were together, too, when the war was won. "Ah, the bloody beast is dead," Churchill said, "elated and with much emphasis", when he heard of Mussolini's fate. But when told Hitler was gone, he went to a window and looked out, remaining silent for some time. Thompson asked if he thought Hitler had committed suicide. "That is the way I should have expected him to have died," he said. "That is what I would have done under the same circumstances." On VE Day he sent Thompson back to get his cigars before greeting the crowds. "They expect it of me," he said, the showman to the fore. (Picture)
Maureen Dowd asks: What's a Modern Girl to Do?
My mom gave me three essential books on the subject of men. The first, when I was 13, was "On Becoming a Woman." The second, when I was 21, was "365 Ways to Cook Hamburger." The third, when I was 25, was "How to Catch and Hold a Man," by Yvonne Antelle. ("Keep thinking of yourself as a soft, mysterious cat.. . .Men are fascinated by bright, shiny objects, by lots of curls, lots of hair on the head . . . by bows, ribbons, ruffles and bright colors.. . .Sarcasm is dangerous. Avoid it altogether.")
On my 31st birthday, she sent me a bankbook with a modest nest egg she had saved for me. "I always felt that the girls in a family should get a little more than the boys even though all are equally loved," she wrote in a letter. "They need a little cushion to fall back on. Women can stand on the Empire State Building and scream to the heavens that they are equal to men and liberated, but until they have the same anatomy, it's a lie. It's more of a man's world today than ever. Men can eat their cake in unlimited bakeries."
I thought she was just being Old World, like my favorite jade, Dorothy Parker, when she wrote:
By the time you swear you're his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Infinite, undying -
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying.
October 29, 2005
Italian laboratory clones 14 pigs
From BBC News:
The animals were born several weeks ago at the Laboratory of Reproductive Technology in Cremona. Research leader Prof Cesare Galli said the pigs would help in understanding animal to human organ transplants. Scientists have now cloned sheep, mice, cattle, goats, rabbits, cats, pigs, mules and dogs. The first horse clone - a Halflinger mare named Prometea - was born at the research laboratory in the summer of 2003. Cow clones have also been produced there. The latest experiment was carried out as part of a European Union project to study stem cells in cloned animals. Stem cells are the body's master cells, and have the ability to become many different adult tissues.
The Reporter's Arab Library
Robert Worth in The New York Times:
I FIRST saw the book more than two years ago while wandering down Mutanabi Street in Baghdad, where the booksellers gather on Friday mornings. It was a frayed paperback set among stacks of aging 1980's magazines and periodicals, the refuse of Iraq's long intellectual isolation. On the cover was a dim gold sun over sand dunes, and the title: "Arabian Sands" (1959), by Wilfred Thesiger.
"Their hands had been cut off simply because they had been circumcised in a manner which the king had forbidden. I could not forget the twitching face and pain-filled eyes of one gentle, delicate-looking youth. I had been told that when the Amir's slave hesitated to execute this savage punishment he held out his hand, saying, 'Cut. I am not afraid.' "
But it was not the exoticism of Thesiger's books that lured me. It was almost the opposite: he helped me understand the human roots of the Arab world's political violence. He had seen that world before it was changed forever by the discovery of oil, and he conveyed the pitilessness of the Arab tribesmen he traveled with, their fierce familial pride, their wild generosity. Above all, Thesiger made me see more in Iraq than a blasted slaughterhouse. If not for him, I might never have returned.
One of the strangest and most wonderful things about Iraq, to Western eyes, is that the ancient past is so interwoven with the present. It's not just the Babylonian ruins poking up among the housing projects. I have spoken to weeping pilgrims who seemed to make no distinction between the killing of the Shiite martyr Hussein in A.D. 680 and of friends and relatives who died last week. Politicians routinely impugn their rivals as Iranian stooges by calling them Safawees, as if the Safavid empire of Persia (1502-1736) still existed. Insurgents toting AK-47's openly say they want to bring the country back to the early seventh century.
October 28, 2005
Margaret Atwood makes her acting debut
From The Guardian:
Novelist Margaret Atwood and Phyllida Lloyd first met in 2002, at the premiere of the opera of Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale, directed by Lloyd. Now they have collaborated on a staged reading of Atwood's latest book, The Penelopiad, a reinterpretation of the Odyssey told by Odysseus's wife Penelope and her 12 maids (who were hanged by Odysseus on his return) from the underworld where they have languished for centuries. Atwood is to play the part of Penelope.
Margaret Atwood Phyllida and I first talked about staging The Penelopiad last fall, when she was in Toronto directing The Handmaid's Tale, the opera. I had just finished writing The Penelopiad and Phyllida said she'd like to read it. We agreed it had a theatrical dimension, and when I was next in England we got together to talk it over. Various schemes were suggested, and finally we decided to do this staged reading. It's not a fully fledged performance and it's been done on a shoestring. And I'm playing the part of Penelope because I'm cheap - in fact, I'm free.
The Man Who Would Murder Death: A rogue researcher challenges scientists to reverse human aging
From The Chronicle of Higher Education:
If you wish to be a prophet, first you must dress the part. No more silk ties or tasseled loafers. Instead, throw on a wrinkled T-shirt, frayed jeans, and dirty sneakers. You should appear somewhat unkempt, as if combs and showers were only for the unenlightened. When you encounter critics, as all prophets do, dismiss them as idiots. Make sure to pepper your conversation with grandiose predictions and remind others of your genius often, lest they forget. Oh, and if possible, grow a very long beard. By these measures, Aubrey de Grey is indeed a prophet. The 42-year-old English biogerontologist has made his name by claiming that some people alive right now could live for 1,000 years or longer. Maybe much longer.
George Dyson visited Google last week at the invitation of some Google engineers. The occasion was the 60th anniversary of John von Neumann's proposal for a digital computer. After the visit, Dyson recalled H.G. Wells' prophecy, written in 1938:
"The whole human memory can be, and probably in a short time will be, made accessible to every individual," wrote H. G. Wells in his 1938 prophecy World Brain. "This new all-human cerebrum need not be concentrated in any one single place. It can be reproduced exactly and fully, in Peru, China, Iceland, Central Africa, or wherever else seems to afford an insurance against danger and interruption. It can have at once, the concentration of a craniate animal and the diffused vitality of an amoeba." Wells foresaw not only the distributed intelligence of the World Wide Web, but the inevitability that this intelligence would coalesce, and that power, as well as knowledge, would fall under its domain. "In a universal organization and clarification of knowledge and ideas... in the evocation, that is, of what I have here called a World Brain... in that and in that alone, it is maintained, is there any clear hope of a really Competent Receiver for world affairs... We do not want dictators, we do not want oligarchic parties or class rule, we want a widespread world intelligence conscious of itself."
GEORGE DYSON, a historian among futurists, is the author of Darwin Among the Machines; and Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship.
Pak Americans announce Jeevey initiative
Several US and Middle East-based Pakistani professionals have joined hands to launch an initiative for conceptualizing cost-effective, indigenous and community-friendly quake-resistant community centers in northern areas of Pakistan. The Jeevey Initiative was launched on Wednesday at a press conference here by Irshad Salim, president of Mamosa Solutions, a New Jersey-based firm. “The initiative will not be a fund raising drive. It is a mental drive. If funds are needed to hire expertise and resources to implement the finalized concept, it will be addressed later,” said Mr Salim.
“The idea is to bring the Pakistani expatriates and their Western colleagues who are interested in this initiative on one platform,” he said. The initiative would allow geographically separated and remote platforms to dock electronically, through the website or correspondences, to develop and create the concept and design and identify ways to fund the cost-effective, quake-proof or quake-resistant community centers, he said.
NSA Patents Blocked by the Pentagon
From New Scientist:
The hyper-secretive US National Security Agency – the government’s eavesdropping arm - appears to be having its patent applications increasingly blocked by the Pentagon. And the grounds for this are for reasons of national security, reveals information obtained under a freedom of information request.
Most Western governments can prevent the granting (and therefore publishing) of patents on inventions deemed to contain sensitive information of use to an enemy or terrorists. They do so by issuing a secrecy order barring publication and even discussion of certain inventions.
Experts at the US Patent and Trademark Office perform an initial security screening of all patent applications and then army, air force and navy staff at the Pentagon’s Defense Technology Security Administration (DTSA) makes the final decision on what is classified and what is not.
Now figures obtained from the USPTO under a freedom of information request by the Federation of American Scientists show that the NSA had nine of its patent applications blocked in the financial year to March 2005 against five in 2004, and none in each of the three years up to 2003.
‘Cellborg’ merges microbe and machine
Fully merging microbe and machine for the first time, scientists have created gold-plated bacteria that can sense humidity. The breakthrough is the first "cellborg," heralding what might become an array of devices that could sense dangerous gases or other hazardous substances. The bioelectronic device swells and contracts in response to how much water vapor is in the air.
October 27, 2005
Indian and Chinese growth in perspective
Via Brad De Long, Parnab Bardhan throws some cold water on the idea that China and India are soon to become superpowers.
Both China and India are still desperately poor countries. Of the total of 2.3 billion people in these two countries, nearly 1.5 billion earn less than US$2 a day, according to World Bank calculations. Of course, the lifting of hundreds of millions of people above poverty in China has been historic. Thanks to repeated assertions in the international financial press, conventional wisdom now suggests that globalization is responsible for this feat. Yet a substantial part of China's decline in poverty since 1980 already happened by mid-1980s (largely as a result of agricultural growth), before the big strides in foreign trade and investment in the 1990s. Assertions about Indian poverty reduction primarily through trade liberalization are even shakier. In the nineties, the decade of major trade liberalization, the rate of decline in poverty by some aggregative estimates has, if anything, slowed down. In any case, India is as yet a minor player in world trade, contributing less than one percent of world exports. . .
What about the hordes of Indian software engineers, call-center operators, and back-room programmers supposedly hollowing out white-collar jobs in rich countries? The total number of workers in all possible forms of IT-related jobs in India comes to less than a million workers – one-quarter of one percent of the Indian labor force. For all its Nobel Prizes and brilliant scholars and professionals, India is the largest single-country contributor to the pool of illiterate people in the world. Lifting them out of poverty and dead-end menial jobs will remain a Herculean task for decades to come.
Poor cell memory is key to cancer
From BBC News:
Every time a cell divides, it has to remember which of its genes are switched on or off at the time. If that memory is impaired, this can disrupt the proper development of cells and trigger cancer. Scientists at Cancer Research UK and Cambridge's Babraham Institute have shown certain enzymes can alter this genetic memory. Evidence of this interference was present in a large proportion of tumours - strongly implicating the enzymes in the development of cancer. Retaining the memory of which genes are switched on and which are switched off when a cell divides is called epigenetics. Often genes are switched off by a change to the structure of its component DNA - a process known as methylation. The researchers discovered that AID, an enzyme involved in the formation of the immune system, can also alter methylation in DNA. This could leave cells with inaccurate memories - and lead to cancer.
Did Life Come from Another World?
Most scientists have long assumed that life on Earth is a homegrown phenomenon. According to the conventional hypothesis, the earliest living cells emerged as a result of chemical evolution on our planet billions of years ago in a process called abiogenesis. The alternative possibility--that living cells or their precursors arrived from space--strikes many people as science fiction. Developments over the past decade, however, have given new credibility to the idea that Earth's biosphere could have arisen from an extraterrestrial seed.
New research indicates that microorganisms could have survived a journey from Mars to Earth
The architecture of Santiago Calatrava
Paul Goldberger in The New Yorker:
Eero Saarinen’s swooping concrete T.W.A. terminal, at Kennedy Airport, has often been compared to a bird with outstretched wings. When Saarinen, who died in 1961, was asked if that was what he meant his building to look like, he responded that people could say whatever they wanted, but he had far more serious things on his mind than birds. The Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, who has been greatly influenced by Saarinen’s forms, takes the opposite tack—he embraces analogies between his buildings and living creatures. If Calatrava had designed the T.W.A. terminal, he would have named it the Soaring Eagle.
And so Calatrava’s first high-rise apartment tower, in Malmö, Sweden, has been christened the Turning Torso. The title is a reference to a white marble sculpture, by Calatrava, of a human form in motion; in 1999, the five-foot-high work so captivated the building’s developer that he hired Calatrava to stretch the piece into a skyscraper—even though the architect had not yet designed one. The fifty-four-story structure, which has views of Copenhagen from across the Øresund Strait, opens in November. There are a hundred and forty-seven apartments—each of which has slanting windows, curving walls, and oddly shaped rooms—and all of them have been rented.
Calatrava is the most crowd-pleasing architect since Frank Gehry.
How Darwin and Einstein replied to letters
Kurt Kleiner in New Scientist:
Both Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein relied on pen, paper, and the postal service to communicate with correspondents around the world. But researchers have now found the pattern of their replies is the same as that of computer users answering email today, with both following the same mathematical formula.
The pattern could reflect some basic biological encoding that shows up in everything from humans at work to birds foraging for food, according to Albert-László Barabási, a physicist at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, US.
In previous work, Barabási looked at how long it took people to answer their email, and found a "bursty" pattern – most emails are answered fairly quickly, but a few sit around for a long time, and some sit around for a very long time.
To describe the pattern, Barabási created a mathematical model in which people prioritise their emails, then respond to the high priority emails quickly and the low-priority emails more slowly. When he crunched the numbers, his model fit the observed results perfectly.
Einstein on Science and Religion
Albert Einstein in Science & Spirit:
It would not be difficult to come to an agreement as to what we understand by science. Science is the century-old endeavor to bring together by means of systematic thought the perceptible phenomena of this world into as thoroughgoing an association as possible. To put it boldly, it is the attempt at the posterior reconstruction of existence by the process of conceptualization. But when asking myself what religion is I cannot think of the answer so easily. And even after finding an answer which may satisfy me at this particular moment I still remain convinced that I can never under any circumstances bring together, even to a slight extent, all those who have given this question serious consideration.
A neural thunderstorm, titanic and glorious
Michael Chorost in Wired:
With one listen, I was hooked. I was a 15-year-old suburban New Jersey nerd, racked with teenage lust but too timid to ask for a date. When I came across Boléro among the LPs in my parents' record collection, I put it on the turntable. It hit me like a neural thunderstorm, titanic and glorious, each cycle building to a climax and waiting but a beat before launching into the next.
I had no idea back then of Boléro's reputation as one of the most famous orchestral recordings in the world. When it was first performed at the Paris Opera in 1928, the 15-minute composition stunned the audience. Of the French composer, Maurice Ravel, a woman in attendance reportedly cried out, "He's mad … he's mad!" One critic wrote that Boléro "departs from a thousand years of tradition."
I sat in my living room alone, listening.
Scientists Complete Map of Genetic Variations
Scientists have mapped patterns of tiny DNA differences that distinguish one person from another, an achievement that will help researchers find genes that promote common illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes.
The map represents "a real sea change in how we study the genetics of disease," said Dr. David Altshuler, a leader of the project that included more than 200 researchers from six nations.
Scientists want to find disease-related genes as a means for diagnosis, prediction and developing treatments. Such genes give clues to the biological underpinnings of disease, and so suggest strategies for developing therapies.
October 26, 2005
A Report from Earthquake devastated regions in Pakistan
Pervez Hoodbhoy reports on relief efforts in earthquake devastated regions in Pakistan, in Z Magazine.
For me personally, there was a sense of dejavu. Nearly 31 years ago, on 25th December 1974, a powerful earthquake had flattened towns along the Karakorum Highway killing nearly 10,000 people. I had traveled with a university team into the same mountains for similar relief work. Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had made a passionate appeal for funds around the world, taken a token helicopter trip to the destroyed town of Besham, and made fantastic promises for rehabilitation. But then hundreds of millions of dollars in relief funds received from abroad mysteriously disappeared. Some well-informed people believe that those funds were used to kick off Pakistan’s secret nuclear program.
Shall the present government do better? This will only be if citizens, and international donors, demand transparency and accounts are available for public audit.
The clock is ticking. In barely two months from now, the mountains will get their first snowfall and temperatures will plummet below zero. There are simply not enough tents, blankets, and warm clothes to go around. Hundreds of tent clusters have come up, but thousands of families remain out under the skies, facing rain and hail, and with dread in their hearts.
contemporary art, not so bad really
Art changes along with the world, for better or worse. Some artists' work is so caught up in a particular moment, so bounded by gossip, by articles and rumours and reputation, that it becomes almost impossible to look at it freshly. Opinion drifts into consensus and the orthodox official line, the lines of explanatory text on the museum wall. The artist gets caught up in all this too, and might spend all their energy trying to escape. This has happened with Damien Hirst.
Perhaps one of the best artists at dealing with this impasse has been Bruce Nauman. Working between sculpture, performance, film and sound, neon works and drawings, he has made both one of the most varied and consistent bodies of work since the 1960s, while remaining somewhat aloof from the tides of fashion. Everyone else is left trying to catch up, as many students, leafing through the Nauman back catalogue, soon discover. But how many artists are conscious of their own range, the richness of what they do? Mostly, Nauman reacts to the difficulty of not knowing what to do next, and working through the condition of creative emptiness. Looking at his new work can make you think of things he did more than 20 or 30 years ago, and throw them in a new light. Lesser artists, meanwhile, just repeat themselves. Nauman's kind of digging-in is more than persistence or doggedness.
more from The Guardian here.
My favorite image of Rosa Parks, who died Monday at the age of 92, is of the confrontation between her and a policeman on that auspicious afternoon of Dec. 1, 1955, when she refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala. After the officer had instructed her to "make it light on yourself" and give up her seat to a standing white man, she later said, she asked him, "Why do you push us around?" And he had given an honest answer: "I don't know." But then he explained that he had to arrest her anyway (even though she was not in technical violation of the city's segregation laws, but that's a whole other tangent of this rich saga). And so did history turn. In support of Parks' defiance, the black citizens of Montgomery boycotted the city buses until segregated seating was abolished, one whole year later. And so was born what is still known as the modern civil rights movement.more from Slate here.
The Detached Cool of Andy Warhol
May 6, 1965
Andy Warhol makes movies with the same unruffled objectivity that he looks at life. His usual procedure is to set up the action—often a group of people interacting—point the camera at them, turn it on, and step back. The camera makes the movie: whatever happens, planned or not, is the film. Sometimes in the studio (which he refers to as "the factory") there will be interruptions: telephone calls, people going up or down in the elevator, somebody dropping something or walking inadvertently in front of the camera. All is recorded. No trace of surprise or annoyance registers on Warhol's face. He is totally cool or very uptight, depending on your point of view. The latter school says: "Andy's been trained in Madison Avenue. He's like a high-powered executive who doesn't show his feelings, but he's seething inside." Personally, I think it the height of coolness to regard everything with a detached eye and rely on intuition to make instant decisions. Warhol's intuition is usually correct.
Cinema Veritas: Harvard's unique film program shines anew
The history, theory, and analysis of films as cultural and aesthetic “texts” became a legitimate academic field in the late 1960s, leading to a 1970s boom in cinema-studies programs across America — but not at Harvard. Although the College ventured into film studies through a General Education course and subsequent courses at the Carpenter Center, there was no degree program. In the film-studies program, students learn how to “read” films as complex historical and aesthetic artifacts. D.W. Griffith’s Civil War epic, The Birth of a Nation (1915), might be analyzed as a cinematic masterpiece of framing, continuity editing, mise en scène, and narrative structure, as well as a palimpsest of U.S. racial history: its positive depiction of the KKK was highly controversial but didn’t extinguish its popularity. Students examine national cinemas, film theory, and special topics such as film and philosophy, or the human body, or architecture.
October 25, 2005
God save the heretic
Christopher Hart in the Times of London:
Jonathan Swift observed that the problem with religion was that there wasn’t enough of it around: “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.” Three centuries on there is even less of it around and we still hate each other.
The difficulty, at least for the scientifically educated but spiritually malnourished, is not the idea of religion itself, meaning some system of ritualised worship that helps us to make sense, if only symbolically, of the human, natural and supernatural worlds. The difficulty is rather that all the religions on offer are so patently preposterous, if not downright unpleasant.
origins of color photography
Over the past few years, the art world has rediscovered color photographers--such as William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, and Joel Sternfeld--who, in the 1970s and early '80s, helped push the medium from the confines of commercial magazines into the realm of high art. At first glance, the vivid depictions of American life in "Bound for Glory," on view at the Library of Congress through November 26, might be mistaken for works by one of their contemporaries. Familiar scenes from the American vernacular abound--gas stations, bars, store fronts, churches, home interiors--all rendered in the characteristically rich hues of then-popular Kodachrome slide film. The images, however, are more than 60 years old, created between 1939 and 1943 by photographers working for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Despite the establishment's past condescension toward color photography, these pioneering works are anything but facile.
more from TNR here.
thoughts from rome II
Here’s a thesis to try out on friends: The anti-war movement, in its current form, is an unwitting complement to US government policy, not an opposition to it. It will enable a cowardly premature withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, an event that will be a horrendous betrayal of the Iraqis we promised to “liberate” and a complete failure of political imagination, and which both the Bush administration and the anti-war movement will claim as a victory. . . .
My doubts began the week before, at the meeting to plan out the banners called by Stormin’ Norman the Doorman. “Norm,” as he’s known around here, is a former Marine who did two tours of duty in Vietnam. This gives him a certain grave authority, though he keeps his war experiences at a distance which leaves whatever horrors he saw or did buried under gruff bad jokes: “I was shot at and missed and shat at and hit.” But Norm’s past is less worthy than his present. He’s the man who lets you into the building every time you reach the gate, who sells you laundry tokens and tells you where the buses go, who governs his post with the perfect sense of a good tyrant, knowing just when to enforce the rules and when to let them go (and there are rules aplenty here). He tells us that the sign is supposed to read “All troops out of Iraq” in English and Italian. “What about ‘All troops out of Iraq, all terrorists out of Iraq’?” I ask, wanting both to be even-handed and to voice my feeling that whoever caused the death of thousands of Shiites on a bridge, whoever killed Steven Vincent, whoever has been kidnapping girls who won’t wear veils—these people shouldn’t be part of the new Iraq either. Later, our resident poet will propose a sign: “Everyone out of Iraq.”
more from Marco Roth's second dispatch from Rome at n+1 here.
Writers Side With Google In Scrap
From Wired News:
Google's plan to scan library book collections and make them searchable may be drawing ire from publishers and authors' advocates, but some obscure and first-time writers are lining up on the search engine's side of the dispute -- arguing that the benefits of inclusion in the online database outweigh the drawbacks.
"A cover does sell a book to a certain extent, but once you're intrigued by a cover you want to dig deeper," said Meghann Marco, whose first book, Field Guide to the Apocalypse, was published in May.
Marco said she wanted to include excerpts of her book in the search tool, but her publisher, Simon & Schuster, refused to allow it. Adam Rothberg, a spokesman for Simon & Schuster, said many of its authors do participate in Google Print's opt-in program for publishers, and didn't know why Marco's book wasn't included.
Simon & Schuster is one of five publishing houses that jointly filed a lawsuit against Google last week. The suit charges the search company with willful infringement of copyrights for its Google Print Library Project, which involves four university libraries and the New York Public Library. Google wants to scan all or portions of their collections and add the text to Google Print's searchable database.
The Science of Hurt
Those who suffer the devastating effects of chronic pain may fantasize about a life that is completely pain-free. In fact, such a life is far from idyllic. People who are born with congenital insensitivity to pain, a rare genetic disorder, chew their tongues and lips to pieces, burn their flesh, and fracture their bones without realizing the harm they are doing to their bodies. Lacking a warning system to protect themselves from dangers in the environment, they tend to die young, often in their twenties. Nociceptive or somaticpain — a normal response to noxious stimuli — is essential for life. It tells you to pull your hand away from a flame or withdraw your mouth from a cup of hot coffee. If you break an ankle, the pain keeps you from walking around on it, so the bone can heal. Nociceptors are sensory receptors, or nerve endings, that react to mechanical, thermal, and chemical stimuli that may damage tissues. They relay nerve impulses — electrical messages from the site of injury in peripheral tissues such as skin, muscles, and joints — to the dorsal horn, an area in the spinal cord that acts as a switchboard. There, different chemicals determine whether these electrical messages reach your brain, where you actually perceive pain.
Brain Images Reveal Menstrual Cycle Patterns
From Scientific American:
For the first time, scientists have pinpointed an area of the brain involved in a woman's menstrual cycle. The research, reported online this week by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows contrasts in activity over the course of a month and provides a baseline for understanding the emotional and behavioral changes that 75 percent of all women report experiencing before, during and after their period. For any woman who has found herself becoming inexplicably angry or sad during her menstrual cycle, the possibility that her "time of the month" may be responsible is not news. But although a great deal of research has looked at the influence of hormones on nerves, very little work has delved into the role a woman's menstrual cycle can play in the emotions.
When Hemingway and Dos Passos went to war
George Packer in The New Yorker:
There was a moment, in April of 1937, when the Lost Generation of nineteen-twenties Paris reunited in Madrid. The occasion was the Spanish Civil War, already in its ninth month, but the regular shelling of the Hotel Florida and other privations of the Fascist siege didn’t prevent Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Josephine Herbst, and Hemingway’s latest distraction from the thought of suicide, Martha Gellhorn, from living well. Though the Hotel Florida wasn’t the Café des Amateurs, Hemingway managed to procure, thanks in part to impeccable connections with the Spanish government and the Russian general staff, the best food and brandy in the city. Every morning, the other guests woke up to the smell of eggs, bacon, and coffee being prepared by a Hemingway flunky in Room 108, courtesy of the Communist International. The moveable feast had crashed the Red decade.
Stronger Than Steel, Harder Than Diamonds
Working with a material 10 times lighter than steel - but 250 times stronger - would be a dream come true for any engineer. If this material also had amazing properties that made it highly conductive of heat and electricity, it would start to sound like something out of a science fiction novel.
Buckypaper is made from carbon nanotubes -- amazingly strong fibers about 1/50,000th the diameter of a human hair that were first developed in the early 1990s. Buckypaper owes its name to Buckminsterfullerene, or Carbon 60 -- a type of carbon molecule whose powerful atomic bonds make it twice as hard as a diamond.
A market for ideas
"Intellectual-property protection can be good for the technology industry as well as for its customers, says Kenneth Cukier (interviewed here). But it requires careful handling."
From The Economist:
In information technology and telecoms in particular, the role of intellectual property has changed radically. What used to be the preserve of corporate lawyers and engineers in R&D labs has been speedily embraced by the boardroom. “Intellectual-asset management” now figures as a strategic business issue. In America alone, technology licensing revenue accounts for an estimated $45 billion annually; worldwide, the figure is around $100 billion and growing fast.
Technology firms are seeking more patents, expanding their scope, licensing more, litigating more and overhauling their business models around intellectual property. Yet paradoxically, as some companies batten down the hatches, other firms have found ways of making money by opening up their treasure-chest of innovation and sharing it with others. The rise of open-source software is just one example. And a new breed of companies has appeared on the periphery of today's tech firms, acting as intellectual-property intermediaries and creating a market for ideas.
2,000 years of bizarre sex advice
From the London Times:
The tradition of bestselling love guides goes back to the Ancient Chinese. Our earliest known manuals were first written in 300BC and buried in a family tomb at Mawangdui, in Hunan province. Recent translation reveals the timeless nature of the subjects they tackled.
Written as Cosmo coverlines, they would look like this: Four Seasons of Sex — and Why Autumn is Hot, Hot, Hot; Wild New Positions; Tiger Roving, Gibbon Grabbing and Fish Gobbling; Aphrodisiacs to Keep You Up All Night!Plus Exclusive! Your Love Route to Immortality.
As ever, it was all nonsense: home-made Viagra recipes involved ingredients such as beetle larvae, wasps and dried snails. The books also promised that any man who had sex with a different virgin every night for 100 nights without ejaculating would live for ever (albeit rather uncomfortably).
October 24, 2005
Poetry and Culture
TO SEEK AND FIND
Poetry and limitations of the ironic mode in the new millennium, Part 2
[The first part of this essay can be found here.]
The composer subsequently explained that he saw the work of Lucifer at work in New York, an entity without love, as the negative force in the struggle to create artwork—but the whole tendency to aestheticise experience, and then theorise that experience, shows how stillborn the expected revolution had turned out to be. With claims that language had been liberated from the old paternal, sexist past, yet another regime battened down the hatches and enforced its own perverse brand of ideological correctness. It was clear that there was a disconnect between what the language theorists said could be done and what had actually been achieved. Rather than wringing the neck of rhetoric, which the modernists were over-fond of quoting as a devoutly-wished consummation, they had invented a Byzantine rhetorical mode all their own, with its arcane, intangible poetry-speak that simply baffled those who didn’t fall for its nostrums and blithe indifference to the actual act of communication. Having missed out on real revolutionary fervour, soixante-huit and all that, they seemed to think artistic change could come about through substitute barricading of printing presses and metaphorical shouting from digital rooftops. Thus their naive nostalgia for Left Bank subfusc Marxism or Greenwich Village groove as they imagined themselves following on in the tradition of Bakunin, Tel Quel, the Situationists, or whoever.
What developed in Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century as a suspicion of feeling, never mind the antithetical examples near to hand of Tennyson and Keats, was ironised beyond recognition in the States where the experimental became a due process, then a status quo, institutionalised by academe and magazine. Of course, there were exceptions—Crane, Frost. Philosophy provided a convenient resource for those who were growing wary of their own emotions. When Wittgenstein said that words should be distrusted as agents of truth, poets should have rebelled with every fibre of poetic being, since that is where poets find their truth, such as it is. Swathes of poetry read as if they had been cauterised. Burnt verse offerings were mute testimony to the divided self that wanted at all costs to be seen as Modern, echoing on the shores of publication the surf of their rebarbative white noise.
September 11 was a signifier like no other. We had been alerted before by the bloodbaths in Vietnam, Rwanda, Cambodia, East Timor, the Balkans, the Palestinian struggle, world without end. But it took the destruction of the prime symbol of Western capitalism to give the ultimate wake up call to the West. Was our civilisation worth fighting for? Of course it was, but some couldn’t see the writing on the Western wall. The land of the free and home of the brave resided in everyone who honoured parliamentary democracy. Democracy bestowed on us the virtue of citizenship, the citizenship that gave us not just rights, but obligations too. Just what those obligations should be for the artist, the poet, was a piece of hard thinking not done by those undergoing their compulsory fifteen minutes of fame in the moronic inferno (Bellow’s phrase). The sound and fury could turn out to be an insubstantial pageant faded. The long haul across a lifetime of creative endeavour had to be centred in truthfulness, beauty and fidelity to the Muse, Nietzschean scorn notwithstanding, if it was going to thrive once the iron lung of praise was switched off. Time had a special way of sending down to darkness strident pronunciamentos already fading to uncertainty.
Kant said that Hume aroused him from dogmatic slumber. A large swathe of the poetry world is yet to awake from its own dogmatic slumber, so pleased is it with its own enervating, inward-directed gaze. The rest of the world may very well be passing it by: to those manning the approved poetry portals the view looks good—calm seas and prosperous voyage ahead! Semiotics, deconstruction, bricolage, the age of mechanical reproduction, Lacan, Derrida, the uncertainty principle—these were the constituent elements of the postmodern sensibility which had pirated the good ship Romanticism. The ship sailed on through uncertain, nihilistic seas, but almost everyone was happy to be on board. ‘Now voyager sail thou forth to seek and find’ Whitman had intoned. But that was no good anymore. Was it now just ‘Sail forth’ because there was nothing left to find, motion for the sake of motion, language for the sake of L=A=N=G etc. However, being a pluralist did not mean accepting the validity of all that was offered, since a great deal of what was offered was mediocre. The receding tides of imperial might still drew in minorities clinging to the coattails of the deceased as a mountain of books and ezines were launched into bulimic oblivion.
A new humanism is certainly needed, but it cannot be the kind that uses the terminology of race winning—art says more than science; science reaches further, and explains more, than art. A poet has a tremendous amount to learn from the scientific and technological revolution. But a poet is not a scientist, a few professionals aside, and it is our job to use language to describe the world, and our feelings, not try to make language the metaphoric adept of quantum mechanics, string theory or fractals, as much as language might reflect aspects of those subjects in its verse technique.
If we were wise, we would envy the relationship of a Nietzsche and a Wagner. Not wearing the mendacious rose-coloured glasses of Heidegger/Arendt, Sartre/de Beauvoir, here was a relationship based on aesthetic venturesomeness and passionate intellectual confrontation that took no hostages to fortune. There was the inevitable falling-out, as is often the way with heroic minds, and mistaken enterprise on both sides, but what gold was deposited in the artistic and philosophical bank vault along the way! How unsatisfactory seem our poetry schools with their frigid theoretical totemism. Groucho Marx: I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member. Australians were a bit too proud of their ability to make a joke of everything and everyone; a savage irony and sarcasm was waiting for anyone who got above themselves. The trouble was, art required getting above yourself since art reached beyond what could not be grasped. Here was a conundrum for the Australian artist. Would they play up to the ideology inherent in convict history and just laugh at the world, or would they willingly choose the ostracism waiting down the pathway of seriousness—laconic Australian speech with its concern for the pragmatic quotidian being somewhat at odds with the demands of memorability and expression of complex feeling. Well, the punishments were duly handed out: Margaret Sutherland lived a life of virtual exile in her homeland; Francis Webb’s Brucknerian confrontation with land and spirit was all but ignored, Joy Hester’s tormented vision waited for the six-feet-under years before people started to look at what she had given*. Here were some of the artists who took the hard choices. They were ironic about themselves, but not about their art. Feeling, contradictory and complex, and intelligence, disturbing and antithetical, was evident when artists chose to challenge themselves, not with the technological tools at hand, but with artistic solitude, the rigours of the Muse, the uncordial and unlovely, unfunded and often unacknowledged hard slog sparked by the visionary gleam. An ironic homunculus is always at work in art, and is always a part of any useful artistic enterprise, but when that ironic component has come to dominate the sensibility of an art form, then the capacity of that art form to respond to the complexity of the world is vitiated. What can follow in the wake of terminal irony but sterility and irrelevance.
I remember the first time I saw Lucian Freud’s work, and I didn’t like it at all. Only experience and a greater knowledge of figurative painting brought me to the realisation that here was an admirable artistic seriousness and consummate technical skill. Freud made absolutely no accommodation to the -isms and -ologies of the twentieth century, and paid a price, in the interim, for doing so. To look at Freud seriously is a forbidding experience, a truthful, liberating experience. When I look at his paintings and etchings, I also intuit the presence, and influence, of Rembrandt, Constable and Ingres, and know that I have a great deal to learn from being confronted in this way, lessons I once was not ready to receive. It seems that some artists now believe that they have no need of an inheritance. And some poets think they can make language over again. Their knowledge of history is so slim that they haven’t come to the realisation that it is given to very few writers to remake language in that transformational way. It would be a supreme irony if the future decided that these attempts to revolutionise language had reduced the status of poetry to that of a kind of esoteric language game. Irony as stimulus, in Kierkegaard’s terminology, certainly. There could be no greater exemplar of this kind of irony than Shostakovich who enclosed within a satirical and tragic doubleness an entire emotional and intellectual cosmography, an irony capable of quoting both Rossini and Wagner in its last symphonic confrontation. Sachs tells Walther at the end of Die Meistersinger to honour the masters, the mastersingers—Walther has said he has no need of them. Wagner says it is essential to have a knowledge of the art that has brought us to the present moment. This has nothing to do with burying one’s head in the sand—being a classic Stuckist—and everything to do with knowing the good that is not interred with bones, the art that stands as a challenge to everything we achieve and which it is our duty to honour—or what will be left that that will be worthwhile? Here should be the joy, not the anxiety, of influence. We cannot invent the world again; this is the same world that brought forth Aeschylus and Euripides, Newton and Einstein, no matter how enticing the technological marvels, with their intimations of transformational experience, now laid out before us. If a poet believes with John Cage that the goal should be to show there is no goal, that is an irony that will be of little interest to future readers. But that is a choice we make, with the language we use, with our poetics and aesthetics.
Poetry embodies the gold nerve of our condition, the impulse that circumnavigates our world, sewing up in vowels and syllables the extraordinarily vulnerable yet tenacious human condition. We may well feel an overwhelming irony confronting the task of producing art in an era that seems, in some respects, to trivialise art and the ideal of art—that has always been the lot of the artist. But in poetry, and I should say the rest of art too, that irony will never be enough, unless one has given up on civilisation. We must move on from the ironic mode, and from the nihilism and scepticism inherent in the ironic mode of discourse, to a more exploratory and expressive aesthetic. The feeling that comes after irony—this is what we must grapple with, as we work our way towards the source that has led us from amphora to cyberspace. To be worthy of that impulse is the duty of the poet.
*Margaret Sutherland, Francis Webb, Joy Hester: respectively, Australian composer, poet and artist.
In an air-conditioned room;
With gristle of tongue,
Beginnings and endings
By the fold
Of computer digits
Beautiful, true, free,
Written 1990 Published 1997 A Dwelling Place 82
Dispatches: Local Catch
In yesterday's New York Times Magazine, Paul Greenberg has written this excellent article on the engandered Patagonian toothfish, or Chilean sea bass, to use the current moarketing moniker. He also touches on the very serious situation of all the ocean predators that humans have become so fond of eating: tuna, cod, etc. As a huge, geeky believer in the idea of being connected to your food by knowing where it comes from and the people who produce it, I thought I'd provide a couple of my recipes for local fish.
But first, where to find local fish? For a few years, I have been cooking fish on Wednesdays procured from my local fisherman, Alex at Blue Moon fisheries, who (or rather, whose retinue of exceptionally cool female employees) sells his catch on that day at the Union Square Greenmarket (on Union Square West at 16th Street). What is challenging and interesting about doing it is the lack of any of the familiar farmed fish: no salmon or bluefin tuna, and very rarely cod or swordfish. Instead you have a seasonally changing selection of fish that are swimming in the waters of Long Island: striped bass, bluefish, albacore, dogfish, weakfish, blackfish, monkfish, sea robin, porgies, etc. As well, there is a selection of Bluepoint oysters, littleneck and quahog clams, and mussels from Shinnecock Bay. Buying oysters and bringing them home to shuck yourself and slurp down with a little Sancerre, beer, or Champagne is something I highly recommend to endear yourself to your loved ones.
Getting fish from Alex and company and learning what to do with it has taught me a ton about what actually swims in the waters surrounding New York, at what times of year, and at what depths. It's also brought me into contact with lots of interesting ideas and local colorations. Dan Barber sears white fish in lard; it's super. When you start doing something regularly, ideas start to flow. Fried oysters are quick and delicious. Albacore tuna crusted in sesame and seared on one side, then doused in soy and mirin is amazing. I make my own canned tuna by packing chunks of the albacore into mason jars with chili, garlic, parsley, and lemon rind, filling it with olive oil, and following the typical canning procedure. A salade nicoise with the oil from those jars in its mustard vinegarette is pretty special. Dogfish (a small shark) sandwiches with tomatoes, mayonnaisse, and Tabasco are a hard lunch to beat. Fish Biriyani with dogfish. Grilled bluefish. And on and on. Find a local fish supplier, read some Alan Davidson, and away you go. Anyway, herewith, a couple favorites.
Jasper White (the godfather of chowder) might dislike this recipe, since it doesn’t contain salt pork, one of the orthodox elements in the litany of New England chowder ingredients. Well, I developed this recipe while living with a pescetarian, so I didn’t use salt pork. If you want to use it (and it is great), leave out the garlic and chili mixture and start by rendering the fat from about two tablespoons of finely diced salt pork and then removing them once they have given up their fat and golden-browned. Drain these on a paper towel and sprinkle the crispy cracklings on the finished dish. You’ll have an more traditional chowder that relies on the base note of pork fat (always a pretty good idea), though my version substitutes for that flavor pretty well, I believe.
Three other points: you want potatoes that are starchy, not waxy, because the starch helps thicken the broth. Second, sourdough bread and seafood broth is a godlike combination, so make sure you find a good sourdough loaf. Finally, my other innovation on the classic method is to remove the clams after cooking and replace them at the end, thus avoiding rubbery-clam syndrome. If you only have very large clams, you can chop them up roughly prior to putting them back in the soup, though you then lose the sensual quality of perfectly tender, whole clams in your soup.
1/2 tsp minced garlic and red chilies in olive oil (if you don’t have it, make do with crushed chili flakes and minced garlic)
1/2 tsp peppercorns, lightly crushed in mortar
1 knob butter
2 tbl olive oil
1 large yellow onion, cut into large dice
two dozen littleneck clams, scrubbed and rinsed
three large starchy potatoes (such as Idaho), peeled and cut into largish slices
1 lb flounder fillets (or other delicate white fish: fluke, halibut, sea bass, hake, cod, etc)
half a bunch of flat-leaf parsley, chopped
half a loaf sourdough bread, sliced and toasted
cream (as much or as little as you like)
Warm the garlic/chili and the peppercorns with the butter and oil in a heavy soup-pot over medium-low heat. Add the onions and sweat until translucent and flimsy but not browned.
Add the clams and a bit of water (or wine), turn the heat to high and cover.
Open after five minutes and check that all the clams have opened (littlenecks can be a bit reticent, sometimes you have to turn them right side up). With a slotted spoon, remove the open clams to a bowl.
Now add the potatoes to the pot and enough water to cover them. Salt generously to avoid stirring too much later. (Meanwhile take the clams out and discard the shells.) Boil until potatoes are well cooked. Crush one or two of the cubes into the broth to thicken it a bit.
Add the flounder fillets and cook them in the broth just until they flake apart (2-3 minutes). Turn the heat off, throw in the clams and any residual broth from their bowl, the parsley, and enough cream to thicken the broth. Ladle into bowls, and top with sourdough croutons.
This recipe is a good example of how small changes in execution can result in completely different flavors. Here this is achieved by browning the garlic and onion further, which makes for a more potent, deeper broth. This is then balanced by the addition of crushed red chili flakes and saffron, and smoked fish.
To make it, follow the recipe for Clam Chowder, but substitute two cloves of minced garlic and half a teaspoon of red chili flakes. Let the garlic brown to a nutty gold (but not actually burnt) before adding the onion, which you should also let become just golden. Put in less salt. In place of half the flounder, add half a pound of smoked fish (haddock would be ideal, but bluefish works too). Lastly, soak some saffron in cream while making the soup, and finish with the saffron-inflected cream.
This is my version of Bouillabaisse, with some help from the fish stew of Liguria. Following the French system of bestowing appellations, I do not call my stew bouillabaisse, because the particular fishes required to make a proper one are unavailable to me in New York (particularly the legendarily bony rascasse, without which no authentic bouillabaisse can be made - one of the best pieces of food writing I have ever read is the great A.J. Liebling's article on the rascasse). Instead I have developed a retinue of seafood found here that together produce a stock of similar complexity. What's important is to have a bony bottom feeding fish similar to the rascasse - in my case use the cool and ugly sea robin, a "trash" fish I buy from Alex for $1.50 a pound. I fillet the fishes myself, but you can also have the fishmonger do it and ask to keep the carcasses. The leftover meat from the carcasses, once cooked, can be saved for fishcakes.
This is a good dish for a special occasion, when you have friends helping and drinking Bandol or Julienas with you in the kitchen. I think a seafood stew and its delicious broth are celebratory in a way unlike another big roast of meat - certainly much more more exciting. For me, a bouillabaisse or other fish stew is an epic poem of the region in which it's made, a Virgilian georgic of people, fish and work.
2 yellow onions, coarsely chopped
a large bulb fennel, chopped, eight leafy fronds reserved
6-8 ribs celery, chopped
six cloves garlic, minced
3 bay leaves
one snapper, filleted, carcass conserved
one sea robin (from the gunard family – or the boniest seafish you can find), whole
one bass, filleted, carcass conserved
1 1/2 pound mussels
1 1/2 pound very small clams (vongole) or cockles
half a bottle Italian white wine (nothing fancy, Pinot Grigio or Orvieto will do)
8 langoustines, or 1 pound of the biggest, coolest shrimp you can afford
3 pounds medium-waxy potatoes, peeled and cubed, or new potatoes
2-3 pounds fillets of very fresh wild striped bass, wild halibut, wild cod or other large-flaked white fish
3 tbl olive oil
red chili flakes
2 cans whole tomatoes, preferably Italian such as San Marzano
1 tsp saffron, preferably the large Iranian available from Truffette
1 loaf best sourdough or country bread (pugliese, batard, etc)
2 cloves garlic, halved
In a large stockpot, add a third of the chopped onion, chopped celery, chopped fennel, and chopped garlic, and all the peppercorns, bay leaves, and fish carcasses. No salt. Cover with cold water. Bring to the boil, break up the carcasses with a wooden spoon. Simmer slowly for thirty minutes.
During this thirty minutes, in another soup-pot, add the mussels and 1 cup wine, cover and cook over high heat until steam escapes from the top. Check that all the mussels are open. With a slotted spoon, move the mussels to a bowl. Remove half the mussels from their shells, discarding shells, and put the mussels on a large platter. Strain the liquid in the pot into the stockpot. Repeat the exact same process with the cockles or clams, adding to the platter.
Also during this thirty minutes, put the shrimp or langoustines into the stock pot in a sieve, so they don’t float away, and cook under just done or underdone, less than a minute. Reserve. Also boil the potatoes in salted water until just done, drain, and add to the platter. Finely chop the parsley and add to the platter.
Back to the stock. After thirty minutes elapses, strain the stock into another pot through a sieve. Remove all solids from the stock pot (after the fish carcasses cool, pick through them for meat, and use it for fish cakes, a mayonnaise-based fish salad, or just a sandwich with tabasco). Now strain the stock back into the stockpot, put back over low heat and let it simmer, concentrating its flavor. It should smell pretty great.
Now the actual stew begins. In a heavy soup-pot, heat the olive oil over medium and add the rest of the onion and fennel, cooking until translucent. Add the garlic and a hefty amount of red chili flakes, and fry until garlic is just off-white and the harshness of its aroma has been attenuated. Throw in the saffron and stir. Now add the tomatoes (but not their juices), breaking them up with a spoon. Cook this down over high heat until you have a medium a little looser than tomato sauce, about 30 minutes. Now add enough of the concentrated fish stock to make the right volume for your numbers, and salt and pepper exactly right. Poach the snapper and bass fillets in the stew and break them up a bit.
Thickly slice and properly toast the bread, then quickly rub one side with halved garlic.
Finally, slice the striped bass fillet into portions, one for each eater. Now poach the cod pieces in the simmering stew broth. As soon as they’re close to done, remove each to a warmed soup plate. Now add the entire contents of the platter (mussels, cockles, potatoes, parsley) to the stew and heat as fast as you can. When back to the boil, add langoustines or shrimp, count to fifteen, and ladle the stew over the cod, placing a langoustine on top, and add half a ladle of the stock to moisten if necessary. Prettily place a fennel frond on top of each bowl (lying down, not jutting out!) and wedge a slice of garlic-rubbed toast halfway into the soup on the side of each plate.
HOME-CANNED ALBACORE TUNA IN OLIVE OIL
This is a great use for albacore tuna, which is good raw but too lean to be very good cooked, and which appears in great quantities in the late summer and fall. You can use it for the Salade Nicoise or for my tuna salad recipe below. It’s way better than regular canned tuna and way cheaper than imported oil-packed Italian bluefin tuna. Anyway, bluefin is wasted on anything other than sashimi.
Makes one Canning Jar
1/2-3/4 pound albacore tuna, no bones or skin, cut into 4-5 chunks
1 clove garlic, smashed and chopped
two or three red birds-eye chilies, split lengthwise
some sprigs of parsley
a small pinch of thyme
1tsp Maldon salt, or regular salt
good olive oil
Sit the tuna chunks in a canning jar (with the hinged top and red rubber seal) on top of the parsley fronds. Add the rest of the ingredients around and on top of the tuna. Now pour olive oil on top until it comes above the level of the tuna. There should be a little room at the sides and top of the jar; you don’t want it packed too tightly.
Now place the jar (or jars) in a large pot and fill with water until the water comes just below the level of the jar’s mouth. Take the jar out and bring the water to the boil; add the jar again (with tongs), lower heat to the barest simmer, cover and let simmer for 1 hour. You’re done. Let cool and refrigerate (just to be safe); it keeps indefinitely, though once you open the jar you should finish it within a few days. And you will.
Obviously a classic.
1/2 pound oil-packed tuna, flaked
2 pounds new potatoes
1 pound asparagus
2 very ripe beefsteak or plum tomatoes
Mixed lettuces, cos, romaine, etc
1 tbl mustard (I use Maille)
Boil a pot of well-salted water, add the potatoes, cook until done. Set aside. Boil the eggs until softish, set aside, cool, peel and halve. Blanch the asparagus, set aside.
Cut the tomatoes into quarters lengthwise and sprinkle with Maldon salt.
Make a vinegrette by beating into the mustard some olive oil and some oil from the tuna can and the juice of half a lemon until you have a loose dressing. Pepper it.
Mix all ingredients gently with dressing to coat. Either in a large bowl for the table or in individual dishes, arrange all ingredients and squeeze some lemon, grind some pepper and crunch some Maldon salt over them. Bob’s your uncle.
This is the best tuna salad you can get, perfect for open-faced sandwiches on thick, toasted slices of good bread. If you don’t have your own canned tuna, use water-packed white meat tuna and add a little more mayo. I lunch on it and a bowl of dal when writing.
Serves 1 man, or 2 women (inside joke)
1/2 pound home-canned tuna
2-4 bird-eye chilies, finely sliced
thumb of ginger, finely diced
1 tbl parsley or cilantro, finely chopped
1 tbl mayonnaise
a squeeze lemon juice
a lot of black pepper
Combine everything in a bowl. Break up the tuna some, but not too much.
SERVES 6-8 (depending on Allah’s mood - at times it has served 12)
6 curry leaves
2 onions, halved and thinly sliced
4-6 cloves garlic, minced
1 thumb-sized piece ginger, finely diced
3-5 green birds-eye chilies, thinly sliced
1/2 tsp turmeric, 1 tsp ground coriander, 1 tsp red pepper, 1 tsp ginger, 1/2 tsp garam masala OR
4 tsp Shan fish biriyani spice mix OR
4 tsp hot madras curry powder
oil (canola or other vegetable)
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
10 black peppercorns
handful fresh coriander, chopped
some saffron and a bit of milk
16 oz. plain yogurt
2 lbs of firm, white-fleshed fish fillets (I like tilapia or the shark known as dogfish)
2 teacups full of Basmati rice from Pakistan, or India
Soak the saffron threads in milk in a cup. Fry 1/4 of the onion in oil until dark golden brown (not burnt), then spread on a paper-towel covered plate to dry and become crispy and sweet. Bring a pot of salted water to the boil, add the rice, simmer for 5 minutes until half cooked through, then drain in a sieve and leave.
Heat 5tbls oil in a large pan and add the curry leaves, cumin seeds and peppercorns when hot, then in 30 seconds the other 3/4 of onion. Fry till onion is getting dark at edges and light golden. Add the garlic, ginger, and chilies and fry more for a couple minutes. Add the ground spice mix, 1 1/2 tsp salt and the coriander and fry for a minute. Start adding the yogurt starting a little at a time, stirring, and then larger amounts until incorporated and all is bubbling away. Then reduce heat, add the fish fillets, cook a couple of minutes and turn over. turn off heat. You now have a half cooked fish curry, and separately some half-cooked rice.
In a sturdy pot or casserole, add some of the sauce from the curry to the bottom, then 1/3 the rice, then half the fish curry, then 1/3 the rice, then half the fish curry, then top with the last 1/3 rice. On top, sprinkle most of the crispy onions and a bit of fresh minced ginger, then pour the saffron-milk on top in an X pattern. Put the lid on and leave to cook at the lowest heat for 30-45 minutes, turning off 10 minutes before eating. Serve with raita, a hot green chutney, and extra crispy onions on each serving.
Lives of the Cannibals: Isolation
The word derives from the Latin insulatus--made into an island--and it has a nasty sense to it, or so goes conventional thinking. Among its associations: disease, betrayal, failure, separation. It is the fate of the disgraced ruler (Napoleon's sentence, true to the word's root), the madman (isolated even from his own limbs by the fastening of straps) and the infected (the soon-to-be-dead, obscured by thick sheets of plastic and extensive breathing apparatus). It is what mothers fear for their children (who must be socially integrated, who must play well with others in order to get along and ahead in the world) and what children fear for their doddering parents (who must be reminded that they still belong to this world). It is a word without much positive association, at least in the minds of most people. We are taught to value plurality, consensus and feedback, and to regard the defiantly singular as suspect.
Such a shame, these negative connotations, especially considering that the word itself is quite properly defined and sourced. But we do understand its associations well--disgrace, insanity, imminent death--and we New Yorkers embrace them. We are (colorfully, proudly) isolation's wealthy priests, a brotherhood of rejected, contagious madmen--and don't you shake your head, Cowboy, in your disingenuous shame....I know pride when I see it!--clambering together on several rocks at the edge of the Atlantic. Of course, difference has always been a source of pride, a desirable feature in moderation, something to distinguish (but not to separate). You don't need a Metro Card to appreciate what's unique. But it helps. And in fact New York was built for isolation--exquisite machine, and complex, designed to exacerbate difference by density.
Isolation is subjective. There is no observable measurement that guides our estimation of it (its trite signals--social ineptitude, substance abuse, pallor--are too broad, suggesting a host of primary mental and physical disorders to which isolation has been unjustly attached as symptom or result), and yet it is experienced always and only in relation to others. Perhaps that's why New York is its perfect vehicle. You cannot be isolated from others if there are no others to be isolated from, and fortunately, in this city, there are many, many others (all of them occupying, it seems on some nights, the apartment directly above yours). This is New York's genius: to pack and load until all around are the bodies and voices of other people, most of whom you will never meet, whose thoughts may or may not coincide with your own, and whose gestures and posture and vocal tone may remind you in some insignificant way of someone you once knew, enough at least to confuse for a moment, to part your lips with the beginning of recognition. The multitude is New York's special power. Here you will walk the streets and see the face of your best friend, how it was contorted with laughter, and the hands of the man who taught you piano, whose knuckles were enormous; you'll hear your uncle's voice, the way it thins its vowels down to string. These recognitions keep you dizzy in the beginning. Then they make you wary and wise. This is how you earn your eyes in New York, the ones that look right past beggars and roll in the wide-open faces of tourists. Things are not as they appear.
Concrete, too, plays a role. The hard surface, a broad palette, does not lend itself to the formation of meaningful human connections. With appropriate irony, we live and work on top of this manmade carapace, choosing to expose rather than protect ourselves, favoring the benefit of an impenetrable surface on which to construct our ambition. It's better that way--reliable, safe, efficient--and if we imitate its principal characteristic, if we are a touch impervious, then such is the sacrifice we make. We are not here to join hands in fellow feeling.
And there is the anonymity of sophistication, because who would champion fraternité in the thick of such wit and fancy poise? New York City, weary from its better knowledge, is no place to clasp hands and sing songs. Isolation is inherently sophisticated, an exclusive state, and highly transmissible, so it flourishes here, without the annoyance of a lot of mutual identity. When New Yorkers run into each other outside the city, there is acknowledgement, yes, and respect, and even some sense of pleasure at the recognition, but we do not then go out to dinner together. We don't become friends, no more than we would were we to bump into each other on Seventh Avenue. Such things are for people from Wisconsin. No, sophistication demands restraint, and the city trains us well in that discipline.
It is almost ridiculous to add that the city's architectural realities reinforce our sense of isolation, so obvious does it seem. The five boroughs offer a wide selection of slots in which we may exist calmly, in compact stacks of residential habitats. We transform warehouses and churches and single-family brownstones into hives of homes, with drywall and wainscoting and original details, and we sit in our rooms and listen to our neighbors, who themselves are listening to their neighbors, who just returned from Elizabeth, New Jersey, with new throw rugs for the kids' room and a drop-leaf dining table. We covet these small comforts, the better to insulate our tiny segment of space, the better to fashion attractive surroundings, to distract from the stranger who sleeps just inches away, just through that wall, whose obstructed breathing you can hear in the middle of the night. The fabulous terror of isolation is felt best when pressed up against the bodies of millions.
Whatever its ingredients and the means of its formation, New York's modus operandi and principal issue fuels ambition--professional, creative, romantic. In every moment of individual desperation lies the seed of an artistic triumph, an industrial revolution, an unholy feat of seduction. It is New York's most appealing paradox--that the greatest of cities maintains its power not by bringing its people together, but by inspiring their isolation.
Monday Musing: More Paranoiac rantings about the web and blogs
The other day I came across an article in a new journal, In Character, which has issues titled “Thrift”, “Purpose”, “Creativity”. The latest issue is entitled “Loyalty”. In it, I found a article by Bret Stephens on “Keeping Faith with the Jews, Keeping Faith with Israel”. The article was a rejoinder to Tony Judt’s 2003 piece in The New York Review of Books. Judt had written an article which endorsed a binational state as a solution the decades old conflict between the Palestinians and the Jewish state.
The idea of a binational state is a old one, but initially it came from the Zionist movement’s left wing—Judah Magnes, Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt at the moment of Israel’s birth. In more recent times, it was taken up by Palestinian secular nationalists and some in the Left wing, Palestinian and non-Palestinian.
The essay itself was odd. Its opening lines: “This is an essay about loyalty—the loyalty that Jews owe the State of Israel. To understand what such loyalty entails, let me begin by describing an act of betrayal.”
(The article itself was relatively uninteresting, for me at least, if only because Stephens kept suggesting that a Jew may not identify with Jewish religion, history and culture, but to be part of the Jewish community still he or she must minimally identify with what is "filial[ly] and political[ly]” Jewish, by which Stephens implicitly meant loyalty to the Israeli polity. The Satmar came to mind.)
But that wasn’t what caught my eye. Stephens mentioned a web site called “Palestine: Information with a Provenance”. The website catalogs information about people who write and speak on issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its categorizations are, well, to say the least interesting. The site’s categories include “Hardline Zionist American Jew” and “anti-Zionist Mizrahi American”.
Stephens reaction was the following.
[T]he radically pro-Palestinian politics of the site were nowhere near as disturbing as the uses to which they had put their views. Among its other features, it places individuals in “author categories”: Jewish, Zionist, Israeli, American, Palestinian, Arab. I “found myself,” so to speak, as “Bret Stephens: Zionist American Israeli Jew.” With a meticulousness that would have delighted Adolf Eichmann, they had made lists, and I was on four of them, the very four they held in greatest contempt.
It struck me, to some extent, as a reverse Campus Watch. And therein was the odd, disturbing bit—which in all honesty I don’t quite know what to make of.
Campus Watch’s response to charge of McCarthyism was and has always been simple.
• Campus Watch is not a government activity or associated with any government organization.
• Campus Watch has no legislative or judiciary authority. It cannot dictate to any educational institution hiring or firing decisions.
•Campus Watch lacks any coercive powers.
And “Palestine: Information with a Provenance”:
A great many untruths and half-truths have been written on the conflict over Palestine. Therefore, it is important to understand the provenance of all material about the situation. For each article, map or book: who produced it? what agenda do the author(s) have? where was it published? what agenda does the journal have? Similarly, it is important to understand the provenance of each film or audio/video clip: who is speaking in it? what agenda do the speakers(s) have? where was the film or clip produced or broadcast? what agenda does the producer/broadcaster have? An attempt is made here to provide this information.
Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault’s case study of modern prisons, or properly, his extension of his sociological claim that one of the hallmarks of the modern era is surveillance, laid out an image of world in which people, cognizant of constantly being watched, alter their behavior and thereby alter themselves. Anthony Giddens and Timur Kuran have made similar claims, though Kuran does not associate it with modernity per se.
The monitoring is not necessarily done by states or other organized forms such as hospitals, asylums, factories and prisons, though states and other formal organizations are in a better position to do it. Or at least were. With the advent of the net, we can all be implicated in this mutual monitoring.
Daniel Pipes and Campus Watch are of course right in that, unlike McCarthy, they are not associated with any government organization, have no legislative authority, and cannot dictate hiring or firing in educational institutions. They are wrong in that they do have a coercive power. The power they have is the specter and, perhaps, reality of the lynch mob. It is certainly the fear that many on Campus Watch’s list feel, and what Bret Stephens felt. If “Palestine: Information with a Provenance” had the same scope and prominence, others on the “blacker” of its list may feel the same.
And it is this in the net and the blogosphere that generates this patrician worry of mine.
PERCEPTIONS: grievance of flightless birds
Ernesto Caivano: Philapores Navigate the Log and Code, 2003
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October 23, 2005
Contestants, Taxes, Paradoxes and Sure Things
John Allen Paulos in his Who's Counting column at ABC News:
What's important is the "utility" to you of the dollars you receive, and their utility drops off, often logarithmically, as you receive more of them. Gaining or losing $1 million means much more to most people than it does to Warren Buffett or Bill Gates. People consider not the dollar amount at stake in any investment or game, but the utility of the dollar amount for them.
Note that the declining average utility of money provides part of the rationale for progressive taxation and higher tax rates on greater wealth.
A less weighty illustration than progressive taxation is provided by a recent British study of the show "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire." It confirms that contestants behave as considerations of utility would suggest. Once they've reached a high rung on the winnings ladder, they more often quit while ahead rather than risk falling to a much lower level.
THE adage “what you see is what you get” could be thought to ring true for a group of people who dedicate their lives to collecting tiny flickers of light from very distant objects. But astronomers and cosmologists, who do exactly that, have long held that the universe is pervaded by far more than that which can be seen. Since the 1930s, they have postulated the existence of “dark matter”, an ethereal and, as yet, undetected form of matter.
Physicists claim to need dark matter to explain why the stars in the outermost reaches of rotating galaxies are moving at such great speeds. If these galaxies consisted only of the stars that can been seen, their gravity would be insufficient to hold on to the outermost stars. The individual stars would simply fly out of the galaxy, like a doll thrown from a rapidly spinning merry-go-round. Thus, the galaxy must contain some mysterious matter that makes it massive enough to keep hold of these stars. . .
Now, in a controversial paper that has recently appeared on arXiv, an online collection of physics papers, Fred Cooperstock and Steven Tieu of the University of Victoria in Canada claim that one of the key pieces of evidence for the existence of dark matter is not really there.
more from The Economist here.
"I love George Bush," said one thoughtful and well-educated young woman, as we sat in the Tehran Kentucky Chicken restaurant, "but I would hate him if he bombed my country." She would oppose even a significant tightening of economic sanctions on those grounds. A perceptive local analyst reinforced the point. Who or what, he asked, could give this regime renewed popular support, especially among the young? "Only the United States!"
If, however, Europe and the United States can avoid that trap; if whatever we do to slow down the nucleariza-tion of Iran does not end up merely slowing down the democratization of Iran; and if, at the same time, we can find policies that help the gradual social emancipation and eventual self-liberation of Young Persia, then the long-term prospects are good. The Islamic revolution, like the French and Russian revolutions before it, has been busy devouring its own children. One day, its grandchildren will devour the revolution.
more in the New York Review of Books here.
van gogh drawings
Fame hasn’t always been kind to the reputation of Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), whose drawings are now featured in an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s owing to his fame, after all, that van Gogh is still so often described as a deranged genius—the man who cut off his ear in a fit of paranoid rage. Yet the artist’s drawings often tell a different story. For while it’s true that in these drawings every dot, squiggle and stroke of van Gogh’s emphatic pen is charged with an uncommon emotional weight, it’s also true that his draftsmanship is just as often governed by a sustained feat of pictorial precision and control. Complex spatial perspectives are strictly observed even in drawings that are overcrowded with visual detail, and every image—including the artist’s self-portraits—is rendered with a faithful depiction of its observed subject.
more from Hilton Kramer at The New York Observer here.
Is Osama Dead or Alive?
Is he dead or alive? Now newspaper Ausaf published from Multan has reported that Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden died four months ago in a village near Kandahar of severe illness. He was campaigning at Bamiyan, fell very ill, returned to Kandahar where he died and was buried in the “Shada graveyard in the shadow of a mountain.” Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf was not far from the truth when he told reporters from CBS News last month, “he has become a cult, I think.”