December 25, 2005
Happy Newton's Day!
Despite the fact that December 25th happens to be the birthday of a number of important historical figures (for example, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, which is where I am from), last year we at 3 Quarks Daily thought we would celebrate Newton's birthday on this date. Unbeknownst to us, Richard Dawkins had just published an article suggesting the same thing. We were flattered. So here we are again, on Newton's Day!
To commemorate this auspicious occasion, I thought I would try to deal with the apple today. You know what I am talking about: the apple that supposedly fell on Sir Isaac's head while he was resting under a tree, and which jarred him into formulating the theory of gravity. The story is almost certainly apocryphal (no getting away from the Bible, is there?), but what could it mean? There are many ways to try and understand this story, but I just want to point out something simple but very cool: look at my drawing of me lobbing a ball over to a friend of mine below.
The ball follows a parabolic path from my hand to those of my friend. But what if my friend wasn't there, and nor was the surface of the Earth? What if the ball could just pass through the Earth as if all its (the Earth's) mass were concentrated at its center? What would happen then? Look at my next drawing below.
The ball would go in an elliptical path, with one of its foci being the center of the Earth! The parabola above the surface of the Earth is just one end of the bigger ellipse! Where had Newton heard of ellipses before? Yep, from Kepler, who had shown that planets travel in elliptical orbits around the Sun. How's that for a connection between small objects falling on Earth, and the heavenly spheres? Of course, we'll never know Newton's real line of reasoning, but here's a possible one:
- apple falls on Sir Isaac's head
- he starts to think how freely falling objects behave
- he generalizes to objects following parabolic paths
- he imagines what happens if the surface of the Earth doesn't stop the object
- he realizes the object falls into elliptical path
- he realizes planets are just "falling" around Sun
Okay, it probably wasn't that way, but I still think it's a nice thought. And in case you're wondering just how big Newton's intellectual reputation is, check this out from the London Times:
Newton trounces Einstein in vote on their relative merits
His most famous equation, E=mc², is 100 years old, and 2005 has been named Einstein Year in his honour, but Albert Einstein has been trounced in a scientific beauty contest held to celebrate his own greatest achievements.
The most famous head of hair in science was soundly beaten by Sir Isaac Newton yesterday in a poll on the relative merits of their breakthroughs, with both scientists and the public favouring the Englishman by a surprisingly wide margin.
Asked by the Royal Society to decide which of the two made the more important contributions to science, 61.8 per cent of the public favoured the claims of the 17th-century scientist who developed calculus and the theory of gravity.
More here. And, oh, what the...
[This post dedicated to LWP.]
December 24, 2005
The Coming Meltdown
Bill McKibben in the New York Review of Books:
The year 2005 has been the hottest year on record for the planet, hotter than 1998, 2002, 2004, and 2003. More importantly, perhaps, this has been the autumn when the planet has shown more clearly than before just what that extra heat means. Consider just a few of the findings published in the major scientific journals during the last three months:
—Arctic sea ice is melting fast. There was 20 percent less of it than normal this summer, and as Dr. Mark Serreze, one of the researchers from Colorado's National Snow and Ice Data Center, told reporters, "the feeling is we are reaching a tipping point or threshold beyond which sea ice will not recover." That is particularly bad news because it creates a potent feedback effect: instead of blinding white ice that bounces sunlight back into space, there is now open blue water that soaks up the sun's heat, amplifying the melting process.
—In the tundra of Siberia, other researchers report that permafrost has begun to melt rapidly, and, as it does, formerly frozen methane—which, like the more prevalent carbon dioxide, acts as a heat-trapping "greenhouse gas"—is escaping into the atmosphere. In some places last winter, the methane bubbled up so steadily that puddles of standing water couldn't freeze even in the depths of the Russian winter.
Osama Bin Laden's niece appears in racy photos
"Everyone relates me to that man, and I have nothing to do with him," Wafah Dufour, the daughter of bin Laden's half brother, Yeslam Binladin, says in the January edition of the magazine, referring to the al Qaeda leader.
"I want to be accepted here, but I feel that everybody's judging me and rejecting me," said the California-born Dufour, a law graduate who lives in New York. "Come on, where's the American spirit? Accept me. I want to be embraced, because my values are like yours. And I'm here. I'm not hiding."
'Still Looking: Essays on American Art,' by John Updike
SO, does this feel like a sideline, like a great novelist moonlighting? Is it possible to shut your eyes to the fact that John Updike is the lauded author of God knows how many works of fiction, to look at this book as if he'd staked his reputation on it? Actually, we don't have to be too reductive: "Still Looking" is a companion volume - a sequel of sorts - to "Just Looking," a collection of Updike's writings on art published in 1989. "Still Looking" is more substantial (most of the essays weigh in at a hefty 3,000 words) and, because Updike's gaze is geographically restricted, more unified. It amounts, in fact, to a highly selective chronological survey of American art. Updike knows a lot about art - Updike knows a lot about a lot - but what comes through strongly is his undimmed eagerness to keep learning.
The down-home approach is, naturally, quite compatible with insights of the highest order, insights that (as the Rabbit series reminds us) are not a million miles away from insights of the lowest order. But Updike is right to observe, in John Singleton Copley's portrait of 1796, that John Quincy Adams looks "as though he might have the beginnings of a cold." To me this had always seemed just another boring old portrait; Updike brings it to life.
BREAKTHROUGHS OF THE YEAR
As posted earlier, advances in Evolution topped the list of Breakthroughs this year according to Science. Here are the runners-up:
3 Blooming Marvelous: Several key molecular cues behind spring's burst of color came to light in 2005. In August, for example, three groups of plant molecular biologists finally pinned down the identity of florigen, a signal that initiates the seasonal development of flowers. The signal is the messenger RNA of a gene called FT. When days get long enough, this RNA moves from leaves to the growth tip, where the FT protein interacts with a growth tip-specific transcription factor, FD. The molecular double whammy ensures that blossoms appear in the right place on the plant at the right time of year.
5 Miswiring the Brain: Although dozens of genes have been linked to brain disorders in recent years, connecting the dots between genetics and abnormal behavior has been anything but child's play. This year, however, researchers gained clues about the mechanisms of diverse disorders including schizophrenia, Tourette syndrome, and dyslexia. A common theme seems to be emerging: Many of the genes involved appear to play a role in brain development.
3QD's Best Books of 2005
Here's the 2nd annual Christmas eve booklist from some of the editors and writers of 3 Quarks Daily (last year's list can be seen here):
1. The End of Poverty, by Jeffrey D. Sachs
In this immensely readable and surprisingly fascinating economic account of the "poverty trap" that many third world countries find it impossible to escape, Sachs (director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University) provides a detailed analysis of the origins and reasons for extreme poverty and gives a prescription for ending it in our time, while also anticipating and answering objections along the way. As Bono says in his foreword: "The plan Jeff lays out is not only his idea of a critical path to ccomplish the 2015 Millenium Development Goal of cutting poverty by half--a goal signed up to by all the world's governments. It's a handbook on how we could finish out the job." --Abbas Raza
2. A Day, A Night, Another Day, Summer, by Christine Schutt
In 2004, Schutt's novel Florida was nominated for the National Book Award, but The Times never even bothered to review it. When she published this collection of short stories earlier in the year, The Times ran a depressingly ignorant notice whose great opening insight was that "this isn't a beach book." No, it's not. It's a searingly brilliant collection of absolutely harrowing short stories about people in grim situations. They read as if they were written with a skinning knife. Sentence for sentence, Schutt is one of the best American prose stylists I know about. It's a sign of the desperately anti-intellectual mediocrity of our national conversation that a writer you can get high on isn't better known. A taster: "My fantasy was to be crippled enough to be allowed to read in bed all day." --J. M. Tyree
3. 1776, by David McCullough
With the proficiency of a master historian and the skill of a supreme story teller, McCullough paints the evolution of General Washington during a momentous year when the American Revolution was perilously close to perishing. Should be a must-read for high school students as well as immigrants since the book graphically describes the spirit which drove the common people to pull a remarkable feat against an all powerful monarchy and give us the America we have today. Inspirational! --Azra Raza
4. Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground, by Robert D. Kaplan
In 1962, President Kennedy, foreseeing a future of low-intensity conflicts, rather than massive conventional wars, created the US Navy SEALs and the US Special Forces, or Green Berets. These Special Operations units are the elite, known for their economy of force and specialized area and language training. Robert D. Kaplan has traveled around the war to discover what exactly these Special Operations units are like on the ground today, from Colombia to Yemen to Mongolia. He paints a clear portrait of how US strategic doctrine is working behind the scenes to ensure stability and create a push for democracy around the world. Kaplan shows in concise prose how a little bit of tough love can go a long way in dealing with narco-terrorists and fundamentalists alike, and that the future security of the world rests in the hands of the few selfless servants known as the US Special Operations Forces. --Josh Smith
5. Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness, by Daniel C. Dennett
This book collects Dennett's Jean Nicod Lectures. Dennett renews and extends the views he had put forth in Consciousness Explained, taking into account empirical advances in neuroscience and neurophilosophy since that time, 1991. No one writes more clearly than Dennett about consciousness and the philosophical issues surrounding it, and no one comes up with better examples to "pump" the reader's intuition about the theories he is discussing. --Abbas Raza
6. My Holy War: Dispatches from the Home Front, by Jonathan Raban
We're so busy debating how badly we should torture foreigners in our secret detention centers that don't exist that we've forgotten what we've been doing to ourselves these last few years as a culture here at home, by breathing in the giddy and poisonous atmosphere of fear in the era of black sites and white phosphorous. Raban, an Englishman living in Seattle, a National Book Critic's Circle Award winner, and a frequent contributor of brilliant essays to The New York Review of Books and The Guardian, tells us in no uncertain terms that we've pretty much lost it. Because of its title, this is a great book to carry with you on the plane or the subway, and one wonders if the original working title wasn't My Jihad. A taster: "America, in its public and official face, has become more foreign to me by the day - which wouldn't be worth reporting, except that the sentiment is largely shared by so many Americans." --J. M. Tyree
7. Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
A creepy story about a dystopian society where human clones are bred specifically to be organ donors. What makes it more eerie is that it's not set in a futuristic sci-fi world, but one very much like our own. The book follows the lives of three cloned children as they attend a boarding school where they do all the things that normal children do--paint, write poems, play games, fall in love--while being subtely brainwashed to accept their fates as medical sacrifices. --Ker Than
8. Two Lives, by Vikram Seth
While Salman Rushdie inexplicably continues to produce forgettable novels like Fury and this year's Shalimar the Clown, Vikram Seth has probably become the best subcontinental writer of English prose alive. If you haven't read his brilliant novel in verse, The Golden Gate, read it, and also read A Suitable Boy. In this memoir of his great-uncle and great-aunt, he is in top form, and tells their story with WWII as a backdrop. His writing is unsentimental but moving. "In a world with so much suffering, isolation and indifference," Seth writes, "it is cause for gratitude if something is sufficiently good." This book is. --Abbas Raza
9. Catalogue of the Lucian Freud Exhibition at the Venice Biennial
My book of the year is the catalogue of the Lucian Freud exhibition published by Electa to accompany the Venice Biennale retrospective of Freud's work. Water running into a dirty sink, the Queen ('Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.'), foreheads like the maps of worlds, dogs in repose, the grand flesh operas of Sue Tilley and Leigh Bowery, vertiginous flooring leaping up at the viewer: these are marvels of painting and etching. There is real greatness amongst us, not the usual stuff passed off as such. If one couldn't be in Venice, then this catalogue, though a poor substitute, is the next-best thing. --Peter Nicholson
10. American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin
This is just a great biography of one of the most intriguing figures of the 20th century. Through this telling of Oppenheimer's life, Bird and Sherwin also explore and illuminate the relationship between science and politics in America. --Abbas Raza
December 23, 2005
Hubble finds new moons, rings around Uranus
The new moons, which were named Mab and Cupid, bring the total number of satellites orbiting Uranus to 27.
Astronomer Mark Showalter of the SETI Institute and his colleagues were not looking for new moons or rings when they submitted a proposal to take deep exposures of the planet with Hubble's most advanced optical camera. Rather, they planned to study the 11 previously known rings and several moons embedded within them.
Once they saw the new moons, they re-examined images that the Voyager 2 spacecraft took when it flew by Uranus in 1986. The two moons are clearly there, but no one recognized them at the time.
Foreign Policy and the Rise of Non-State Actors
In World Policy Journal, Michael A. Cohen and Maria Figueroa Küpçü look at how the framework for how foreign policy is practiced has changed.
After a pause, [Zoran] Djindjic asked, “What about Kostunica?” referring to Vojislav Kostunica, the leader of a minor opposition party and a former law professor. [Doug] Schoen’s [an American pollster who advises candidates worldwide] responsible polls showed that of all Serbia’s opposition politicians, Kostunica was the best candidate—combining strong nationalist credibility with low “unfavorability” ratings. With Schoen’s urging, the Serbian opposition united behind Kostunica’s candidacy, and within months a key element of U.S. foreign policy in the Balkans had been realized— Slobodan Milosevic was out of power and headed to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague.
Was a political pollster single-handedly for toppling Slobodan Milosevic? Not exactly, but after eight years of sanctions, smart bombs, and fervent, often fruitless, diplomacy, a new and unexpected weapon for defeating him had been found—namely a non-state actor, working in concert with U.S officials but motivated as well by market-driven impulses and personal altruism.
This wasn’t the first time that non-state actors (or NSAs) had played a leading role in the Balkan conflict. In 1995, private military contractors—with the active support of the Clinton administration—trained the Croatian army for its military offensive against Serbian rebel-held positions in Croatia and Bosnia, which helped push the region’s warring parties toward peace talks.
This is one small example of what may be the most important yet misunderstood political and social developments of the post–Cold War era: the growing prominence and influence of NSAs in global affairs.
Rorty on the Lessons of McEwan's Saturday
Richard Rorty reviews Ian McEwan's Saturday in Dissent.
The tragedy of the modern West is that it exhausted its strength before being able to achieve its ideals. The spiritual life of secularist Westerners centered on hope for the realization of those ideals. As that hope diminishes, their life becomes smaller and meaner. Hope is restricted to little, private things—and is increasingly being replaced by fear.
This change is the topic of Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday, One of the characters—Theo, the eighteen-year-old son of Henry Perowne, the middle-aged neurosurgeon who is the novel’s protagonist—says to his father,
When we go on about the big things, the political situation, global warming, world poverty, it all looks really terrible, with nothing getting better, nothing to look forward to. But when I think small, closer in—you know, a girl I’ve just met, or this song we are doing with Chas, or snowboarding next month, then it looks great. So this is going to be my motto—think small.
John Banville, who, in the New York Review of Books, finds the novel a distressing failure, says that this “might also be the motto of McEwan’s book.” But thinking small is not the novel’s motto; it is its subject. McEwan is not urging us to think small. He is reminding us that we are increasingly tempted to do so. Banville is off the mark yet again when he says that “the politics of the book is banal.” The book does not have a politics. It is about our inability to have one—to sketch a credible agenda for large-scale change.
She is on the other side of 70. She stares lovingly at the picture of a young girl. Her daughter, perhaps. Her generously wrinkled face stretches, into a sad smile. She looks on. The creak of a door. The sound of a glass of water being knocked off by the wind. She is shaken from her reverie. She looks at the broken shards of glass on the ground, and sighs. Dusky, young and drowned in misery. Her tears have washed away the Kohl in her eyes. Her face glows from the chulha, on which she roasts her roti. The roti blackens on its sides. And eventually, completely burns up. Charred and destroyed. She watches, indifferently. A tear gently trickles down her eye.
"Parallel", "Middle-of-the-road", "Art" are among the names given to this genre of cinema in India. Painted with the minimalist strokes of a rather exclusive ilk of directors, the subtlety and symbolism of such movies seemed to restrict the viewership, at least back in the 1950's when such movies were often funded by the Indian government. While Satyajit Ray is credited as being the pioneer of Parallel Cinema, Shyam Benegal, Ritwick Ghatak are noteworthy names of directors who followed closely on Ray’s heels.
Shabana Azmi (shown in the picture), Smita Patil, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Kulbhushan Kharbanda became the followers and subsequent stars of the quiet but evolving revolution of Parallel Cinema.
BREAKTHROUGH OF THE YEAR: Evolution in Action
The big breakthrough, of course, was the one Charles Darwin made a century and a half ago. By recognizing how natural selection shapes the diversity of life, he transformed how biologists view the world. But like all pivotal discoveries, Darwin's was a beginning. Concrete genome data allowed researchers to start pinning down the molecular modifications that drive evolutionary change in organisms from viruses to primates. Painstaking field observations shed new light on how populations diverge to form new species--the mystery of mysteries that baffled Darwin himself. Ironically, also this year some segments of American society fought to dilute the teaching of even the basic facts of evolution. With all this in mind, Science has decided to put Darwin in the spotlight by saluting several dramatic discoveries, each of which reveals the laws of evolution in action.
All in the family
The genome data confirm our close kinship with chimps: We differ by only about 1% in the nucleotide bases that can be aligned between our two species, and the average protein differs by less than two amino acids. But a surprisingly large chunk of noncoding material is either inserted or deleted in the chimp as compared to the human, bringing the total difference in DNA between our two species to about 4%.
Rashid Khalidi on the Middle East: A Conversation
From Logos Journal:
Q: Perhaps you can give us a sketch of your background and intellectual development?
Rashid Khalidi [RK]: Well, the easiest way to do that is to talk about my academic career. I started out as an undergraduate here in the States. I did my doctoral work in England at Oxford, went off to Beirut where I was doing much of my dissertation research, which was on British policy in the Middle East before World War I. My mother had already moved back to Beirut after my father died, so it was my home starting in the 1960s even when I was still in school here. I lived in Beirut pretty much without interruption from then until 1983. I taught at the University of Beirut. I then went to the Institute for Palestine Studies at the University of Chicago. When we left in 1983, I thought I was just coming here for a year to write a book. And I did write the book in a year, but we never went back as a family — so all of my kids were born in Beirut, but we left with a few suitcases. And most of that stuff we never saw again. Because we couldn’t go back, the war was worse. It had been pretty bad before, but it got worse and worse. So I finally ended up with a job at Columbia for a couple years, and from there, to Chicago for sixteen years. And then, I was offered Chair in Arab Studies here at Columbia and I came back.
The Biggest Little Poems
David Kirby looks at poems by Kay Ryan, in the New York Times:
A Kay Ryan poem is maybe an inch wide, rarely wanders onto a second page, and works in one or two muted colors at most. Rather than raise a righteous old hullabaloo, a Ryan poem sticks the reader with a little jab of smarts and then pulls back as fast as a doctor's hypodermic. Here is "On the Difficulty of Drawing Oneself Up" in its entirety:
One does not stack.
It would be like
a mouse on the back
of a mouse
on a mouse's back.
Courses of mice,
layers of shivers
a wobbling tower
with nothing more
than a mouse inside.
Now here is a poem that would prompt perhaps the arching of a single eyebrow in approval on the part of modern American poetry's mom, Emily Dickinson, hands-down champ at writing poems that are as compressed as Whitman's are sprawling.
Humans Do Not Understand Mirror Reflections
“If you were to look at these paintings, you would assume that Venus is admiring her own face, because you see her face in the mirror. Your viewpoint, however, is rather different from hers; if you can see her in the mirror then she would see you in the mirror.”
Participants were also asked to estimate the image size of their head as it appears on the surface of the mirror. They estimated that it would be a similar size to their physical head. However, participants based their answer on the image they saw inside the mirror rather than on the image on the surface of it. They failed to recognise that the image on the surface of the mirror is half the size of the observer because a mirror is always halfway between the observer and the image that appears inside the mirror.
The War for Muslim Minds
Bruce Hoffman reviews three books in the Washington Post:
The United States encountered many frustrations during the Vietnam conflict, but a lack of understanding of our adversary was not among them. Indeed, as early as 1965, concerted, voluminously detailed Pentagon analyses of Vietcong morale and motivation illuminated the need to win what was then often termed the "other war" -- the ideological struggle for the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people. Even if the fundamental changes required in U.S. military strategy to overcome the Vietcong's appeal went ignored, tremendous effort and resources were devoted to understanding the enemy.
Today, Washington has no such program in the war on terrorism. America's counterterrorism strategy appears predominantly weighted toward a "kill or capture" approach targeting individual bad guys. This line of attack assumes that America's targets -- be they al Qaeda or the insurgency in Iraq -- have a traditional center of gravity; it also assumes that the target simply needs to be destroyed so that global terrorism or the Iraqi insurgency will end. Accordingly, the attention of the U.S. military and intelligence community is directed almost uniformly toward hunting down militant leaders or protecting U.S. forces -- not toward understanding the enemy we now face.
December 22, 2005
Henri Rousseau said that Cézanne couldn’t draw, which seems a bit unfair when, by the standards of the academy, he couldn’t draw either. But there is certainly a sense in which Rousseau’s inability to draw is different from Cézanne’s. In the first place, it became clear that the wonky faces and rag-doll nudes that critics found inept in Cézanne’s work didn’t constitute the sort of wrong drawing that cut him off from the central tradition of French painting. His radicalism could, itself, be construed as part of that tradition. He even taught people to look afresh at pictures within the tradition. He was in effect an insider.
more at the London Review of Books here.
Famous Five tops poll
From The Guardian:
Enid Blyton, who was called "the 20th century Mother Goose", still reigns supreme this century. Yesterday adults voted her Famous Five series as their favourite books for children. The series - which started 63 years ago - beat friendly lions, hobbits, wizards and big friendly giants. It narrowly pipped Chronicles of Narnia to win first place despite the boost given to CS Lewis's stories by the current film.
The Famous Five are a group of clean-living, well brought-up middle class children who take pride in being "jolly good sports". Their adventures, fuelled by their inexhaustible addiction to ginger beer, lemonade and sandwiches ("Oh goody, cucumber," said George), were dismissed as hopelessly outdated and irrelevant by librarians and others in the 1970s.
It introduced the siblings Julian, Dick and Anne and their dog, Timmy. The fifth adventurer is their cousin Georgina, a tomboy who is called George in the stories. Blyton was once accused of racism, sexism and even homo-eroticism. Her 700 books came 15th among library borrowers in recent public lending right figures and still sell 8m copies worldwide. She also wrote 7,000 shorter stories.
What makes dancers more desirable?
Many people are attracted to hot dancers, and a new study suggests part of the reason is because their bodies are more symmetrical than those of the less coordinated. The researchers found that men judged to be better dancers tended to have a higher degree of body symmetry, a factor that has been linked to overall attractiveness and health in other research.
The new study involved 183 Jamaican teenagers, ranging between 14 and 19 years old, who danced while their movements were recorded using motion-capture cameras similar to those used in video games and movies to give computer-generated characters fluid movements. Women watching the recordings preferred the dances of men who were more symmetrical, while men were more impressed by the dances of more symmetric females. Interestingly, the male preference for symmetric females was not as strong as that of the female preference for symmetric males. This seems to confirm the theory that women are pickier when selecting a mate, since they bear most of the burden of raising a child, the researchers say.
The study, led by William Brown of Rutgers, was detailed in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.
Islam and the Challenge of Democracy
Khaled Abou El Fadl in the Boston Review:
For Islam, democracy poses a formidable challenge. Muslim jurists argued that law made by a sovereign monarch is illegitimate because it substitutes human authority for God’s sovereignty. But law made by sovereign citizens faces the same problem of legitimacy. In Islam, God is the only sovereign and ultimate source of legitimate law. How, then, can a democratic conception of the people’s authority be reconciled with an Islamic understanding of God’s authority?
Answering this question is extraordinarily important but also extraordinarily difficult, for both political and conceptual reasons. On the political side, it must be said at the outset that democracy faces a number of practical hurdles in Islamic countries—authoritarian political traditions, a history of colonial and imperial rule, and state domination of economy and society. But philosophical and doctrinal questions are important, and I propose to focus on them here as the beginning of a discussion of the possibilities for democracy in the Islamic world.
Is Nabokov's masterpiece still shocking?
Stephen Metcalf in Slate:
For all its arduous recourse to the c-word, Lady Chatterley's Lover places its faith in the sexually fulfilled marriage, a ho-hum piety in the age of divorce. For all its scatological frankness, Ulysses tells the touching story of a surrogate father finding his surrogate son. Lolita, meanwhile, tells the story of a stepfather serially defiling his adolescent stepdaughter.* Public taste was meant to catch up to Lady Chatterley screwing her gamekeeper, to Leopold Bloom sitting on his jakes. Public taste was never meant to catch up to Humbert Humbert.
"I want my learned readers to participate in the scene I am about to replay," Humbert asks us early on, by way of setting up his description of his first taste of sexual bliss with Lolita, the pre-pubescent daughter of his landlady. (Humbert will eventually marry the landlady; the landlady will eventually die; Humbert will eventually abscond with Lolita. For now, though, he is only their boarder, a debonair European with certain hidden proclivities.) "So let us get started. I have a difficult job before me." This is Nabokov winking out at us. By difficult job, Humbert means: I want to conjure this scene up, with all its strange anatomical circumnavigations, as carefully as possible, to demonstrate to the reader that I am not wholly a monster. (He also means: I had to ejaculate, without letting Lolita know.) By difficult job, Nabokov means: I will indulge Humbert in all his strange circumlocutions, to demonstrate to the reader what a total monster he is. In this respect, Nabokov and Humbert have opposing aims; but in the telling, they become as one. All the comically baroque pleonasms help Humbert shield from himself how repulsively he has acted. They allow Nabokov, meanwhile, to describe a rapine act of frottage without becoming explicitly pornographic.
From the Swedish Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, via Sean Carrol at Cosmic Variance:
Click here to "Unveil the fraud". [It takes a few seconds to load.]
The Big Fact-Check: Thoughts On the Day After Dover
Carl Zimmer, in his blog, The Loom:
Again and again, reporters felt an obligation to give "equal time" to intelligent design advocates, without feeling an equal obligation to fact-check the claims that the advocates were throwing out. I assumed Judge Jones would follow suit.
Once I started reading the decision, I realized I couldn't have been more wrong.
Judge Jones did not take the claims of intelligent design advocates at face value. They declared that intelligent design was not creationism. But he followed the long paper trail that linked creation scientists to the emergence of intelligent design in the 1980s. The Dover school board had its students to read the book "Of Pandas and People" to learn about intelligent design. Judge Jones observed that in the original draft of the book, the authors had used "creationism" and similar terms 150 times. In the final version, they had turned into "intelligent design."
Happiness Leads to Success, Not Other Way Around
Lee Dye at ABC News:
That finding may seem a tad obvious, but the fact is a lot of research has pointed in another direction, contending that happiness is the result of a lot of things — success at work, a good marriage, a fit body, a fat bank account.
But according to psychologists at three universities, that's backward. People aren't happy because they are successful, they conclude. They're successful because they are happy.
The researchers combed through 225 studies involving 275,000 people and found that most researchers put the proverbial cart before the horse. Most investigators, they concluded, "assume that success makes people happy."
Civilisation has left its mark on our genes
Bob Holmes in New Scientist:
Darwin’s fingerprints can be found all over the human genome. A detailed look at human DNA has shown that a significant percentage of our genes have been shaped by natural selection in the past 50,000 years, probably in response to aspects of modern human culture such as the emergence of agriculture and the shift towards living in densely populated settlements.
One way to look for genes that have recently been changed by natural selection is to study mutations called single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) – single-letter differences in the genetic code. The trick is to look for pairs of SNPs that occur together more often than would be expected from the chance genetic reshuffling that inevitably happens down the generations.
Such correlations are known as linkage disequilibrium, and can occur when natural selection favours a particular variant of a gene, causing the SNPs nearby to be selected as well.
Immigration Officials Snub Literary Sensation Yiyun Li
Bob Thompson in the Washington Post:
She's had stories published in prestige magazines such as the New Yorker and the Paris Review. She's won the Pushcart Prize and the Plimpton Prize for New Writers. Random House has signed her to a $200,000, two-book contract, which Executive Editor Kate Medina calls -- in what qualifies as a serious understatement -- "most unusual" for a literary writer at this stage of her career. Her first book, a story collection called "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers," was published this fall to wide praise.
Now she has another problem: How do you explain to the federal immigration bureaucracy what the word "extraordinary" means?
December 21, 2005
Pasternak was one of the rare poets to be popular during his lifetime. If he for got a line in one of his poems during a reading, the crowd would assist him. During the war, letters he received from the front line reminded him of the reach that his voice had. He did not want to lose this contact with the masses so Pasternak began a large novel that glorified freedom, independence, and a return to Christian religion that would become Dr. Zhivago. Basing the story on his own experience of wartime and revolution, Pasternak employed Yuri Zhivago as mouthpiece for his own philosophical and artistic beliefs. He presented Zhivago's inability to influence his own fate not as a fault, but as a sign that he was destined to become an artistic witness to the tragedy of his age. The author closely identified Zhivago's predicament with that of the suffering Christ.
The government's postwar ideological clampdown forced Pasternak to labor on the manuscript in secret. Rejected in Russia, Doctor Zhivago was smuggled west in 1957 and published first in Italian and then in English in 1958. The epic novel about the life and loves of physician and poet Yuri Zhivago during the political upheavals of 20th-century Russia was acclaimed as a successful combination of lyrical, descriptive, and epic dramatic styles. The book, which concludes with a cycle of Zhivago's poetry, was translated into 18 languages. In October 1958, Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, "for his important achievement both in contemporary lyrical poetry and in the field of the great Russian epic tradition.
France's Urban Unrest and its aftermath
In Le Monde Diplomatique (English edition), a look at the recent riots in the banlieue and the response to them:
“You can drive out nature,” said Voltaire, “but it will return at the gallop.” This axiom was demonstrated by the decision to impose a curfew based upon emergency legislation from 1955 that contributed to the massacres of several dozen Algerians in the Paris area in October 1961, and of 19 Kanak activists in a cave in Ouvéa, in New Caledonia, in May 1988.
Sarkozy’s call for sink estates to be power-cleansed of their “rabble” was followed by two events in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, where two teenage boys died in an electricity sub-station and a teargas grenade exploded outside a mosque. Certainly Sarkozy - who could have stopped things right there if he had gone to the area to apologise - bears a huge responsibility for ensuing events. But the attempt by Socialist leaders to pin sole blame on him reeks of hypocrisy, since a year earlier the Cour des Comptes, the state auditing body, had already pointed out that “the current crisis was not caused by immigration. It is the result of the way in which immigration has been handled . . . The situation that now confronts the authorities has developed over a number of decades”. The concentration within the banlieues of all the evils that afflict the working classes epitomises the failure over 30 years of a succession of governments from both the right and - with a few exceptions - the left.
Surprising Factors Cause Airplane Noise
Jennifer Viegas at the Discovery Channel:
Noisy airplanes flying over homes and neighborhoods emit a roaring, whirring din that sounds as if it might come from the engine, but researchers have determined the primary cause of the noise is airflow over the plane's wings, flaps and landing gear.
The reading crisis, like the social security crisis, has become a con-game based on facts. The NEA announces there are fewer literary readers than two decades ago. Books continue to have more competition from non-book technologies. Will people still read in 2060? As with Social Security, there are variables one just doesn’t know how to project forward: fewer people read books but more want to write them, and more and more books are published.
A real debate could be had about all these things. Instead we get the “reading crisis.” Under conditions of the reading crisis, everything a writer does, no matter how self-serving and reprehensible, becomes a blow in the service of literature. An arbiter of a “revolution” in reading features games, accordionists, and contests at his public events. A best-selling author sends out emails asking acquaintances to buy his new book before it slips off the Times top-seller list—because without these sales-markers, classic works can disappear. A blogger-author roams bookstores putting advertisements in books reminiscent of her own: “If you liked this, you’ll love The Tattle-Tale.” And these figures are held up as models of the hopeful signs for a renaissance in reading.
more from n+1 here.
This month is my seven-year anniversary at the Voice, so I thought I'd use Frieze magazine's recent queries to me about the "de-skilling of art criticism" and "our post-critical era" as a way to write about what I think I'm trying to do here. First, I fretted I was the kind of "de-skilled" critic Frieze was referring to. I have no degrees. I started out as an artist, stopped painting, and became a long-distance truck driver. My CB handle was "the Jewish Cowboy": Shalom, partner. I didn't begin writing criticism until I was almost 40. All I knew was I loved art and had to be in the art world. The truth is, I wasn't sure what Frieze meant by "de-skilled." It sounded vaguely bad. But to me de-skilled means unlearning other people's ideas of skill. All great contemporary artists, schooled or not, are essentially self-taught and are de-skilling like crazy. I don't look for skill in art; I look for originality, surprise, obsession, energy, experimentation, something visionary, and a willingness to embarrass oneself in public. Skill has nothing to do with technical proficiency; it has to do with being flexible and creative. I'm interested in people who rethink skill, who redefine or reimagine it: an engineer, say, who builds rockets from rocks.
Jerry Salz on the criticism issue in art today. More here.
A Great American Painter History Forgot: Mystic Cryptic Revelations:
From The Village Voice:
Young painters should look at the work of Charles Burchfield (1893–1967), the mystic, cryptic painter of transcendental landscapes, trees with telekinetic halos, and haunted houses emanating ectoplasmic auras. Burchfield, who like Hopper painted as if cubism never happened, is van Gogh by way of Caspar David Friedrich, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, calendar art, and Sunday painting. Consciously or not, recent painters like Peter Doig, Verne Dawson, Gregory Amenoff, Kurt Lightner, and Ellen Altfest are channeling bits of Burchfield's visionary vibe.
One reason more young artists aren't familiar with this great American may have to do with Burchfield being yet another painter who is left out of the Museum of Modern Art's narrow-minded, mad march through modernism. Although he had three retrospectives at the Whitney, one at MOMA (way back in 1930), and one at the Met, Burchfield continues to be an odd man out of modern-art history.
Scoping Out Signs of Human Evolution
Who says humans aren't the result of Darwinian evolution? This week, researchers report identifying some 1800 genes that appear to have been the target of natural selection. Some of the genes may be important in understanding the genetics behind disease as well as the evolution of the human brain.
Now a team of scientists at the University of California, Irvine, has used a new computational approach--the "linkage disequilibrium decay" test--to search for signs of selection over the entire human genome. As a rule, the greater the linkage disequilibrium associated with a gene, the more likely that the gene has been under recent selection. Harnessing data from two existing databases of human diversity, the team found some 1800 genes that appeared to have been under selection during the last 10,000 to 50,000 years. According to team leader and genome researcher Robert Moyzis, this is between 10 and 100 times greater than the number found in previous studies. The genes belong to several biologically important categories, including genes important in defense against disease, controlling the cell cycle, protein metabolism, and nervous system functioning, the researchers report online this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Omar Khayyam's Bible for drunkards
Robert Irwin on The Wine of Wisdom: The life, poetry and philosophy of Omar Khayyam by Mehdi Aminrazavi, in the Times Literary Supplement:
Since the Rubáiyat was a kind of Bible for freethinkers, materialists and sensualists, FitzGerald’s translation attracted much criticism from Christian quarters. Edward Byles Cowell, the illustrious Sanskritologist and Persianist, who had first got FitzGerald interested in Persian and provided him with a key manuscript of quatrains attributed to Khayyam, strongly disapproved of the creed of the Rubáiyat: “I admire Omar as I admire Lucretius, but I cannot take him as a guide. In these grave matters I prefer to go to Nazareth, not to Naishapur”. Matthew Arnold, who thought that poetry should conduce to virtuous living, was shocked by the poem’s hedonism. Robert Browning also disapproved and wrote “Rabbi Ben Ezra” as a versified retort. Chesterton judged the Rubáiyat to be brilliant, but evil and “a thing unfit for a white man, a thing like opium”. He thought that the poem was a sad thing and he went on to argue that one should only drink when happy. However, American temperance groups campaigned against the Rubáiyat as “a Bible for drunkards”.
Mehdi Aminrazavi’s The Wine of Wisdom, though it is centrally concerned with the Persian quatrains known as the Rubáiyat, also covers Omar’s career as a mathematician, astronomer and philosopher as well as his poetry in Arabic.
Steven Pinker Discusses "Jews, Genes, & Intelligence"
Maggie Wittlin in Seed:
Steven Pinker climbed onto the stage and immediately laid out his most convincing credential: a fully-stocked reservoir of Jewish linguistic humor. He defined such words as "jewbilation"—pride in finding out that one's favorite celebrity is Jewish and "meinstein"— slang for, "my son, the genius."
The crowd was hooked; the man could do no wrong. And so the substance of the lecture began.
Apparently, Ashkenazi Jews—the Eastern European ones—really do have an average IQ that's eight to 15 points higher than the northern European average. The Cochran/Hardy/Harpending paper says about four out of every thousand northern Europeans have an IQ of 140 or above. So, if Ashkenazi Jews have an average IQ of 110, that means 23 out of every thousand Askenazi Jews have above a 140 IQ. Sephardic Jews, those descended from Jews expelled from Spain in the 15th century, have the same IQ distribution as the rest of Europe.
More here. [Pinker shown with Seed Chief-Editor Adam Bly in picture.]
The Trouble With Patents
James Surowicki in The New Yorker:
Over the past two decades, the U.S. has taken the view that the stronger patents are, the better. But patents, by their nature, are imperfect. They may encourage innovation, but, by allowing the patent holder complete control of an invention, they also limit it. Patents reward some inventors at the expense of others: more than one person can have an idea, but only one can patent it. That may be why, in a study of a hundred and fifty years of patent protection, Josh Lerner, of the Harvard Business School, found that countries that introduced stronger protections for patents saw no increase in innovation by their citizens. Similarly, in a study of nineteenth-century innovation based on data from two World’s Fairs, Petra Moser, an economist then at Berkeley, found that countries with patent laws (like Britain) did not innovate more than those without them (like the Netherlands and Denmark).
Protecting patent holders’ rights is important, of course, but the system needs to be rigorous in the way it hands out patents—careful not to grant patents for ideas that are obvious, already well established, or too broad.
Don’t pick your nose: Hugh Pennington on MRSA
From the London Review of Books:
Penicillin revolutionised the treatment of staphylococcal infections. But its power over them began to wane soon after its general introduction. The first naturally occurring penicillin-resistant staphylococci were noted by Fleming in 1942. Between April and November 1946, 12.5 per cent of Staphylococcus aureus strains isolated at the Hammersmith Hospital in London were penicillin-resistant. By early 1947 the percentage had tripled. The bacteriologist Mary Barber showed that this rise was not due to the development of resistance while patients were being treated, but to the spread of a penicillin-resistant strain in the hospital. Some staphylococci had the ability to make penicillinase, a penicillin-destroying enzyme. The introduction of penicillin gave them an evolutionary advantage over strains killed by the antibiotic.
Methicillin was developed in response. It was resistant to penicillinase.
A Natural History of Peace
'Summary: Humans like to think that they are unique, but the study of other primates has called into question the exceptionalism of our species. So what does primatology have to say about war and peace? Contrary to what was believed just a few decades ago, humans are not "killer apes" destined for violent conflict, but can make their own history.'
Robert Sapolsky in Foreign Affairs:
Like the occasional human hermit, there are a few primates that are typically asocial (such as the orangutan). Apart from those, however, it turns out that one cannot understand a primate in isolation from its social group. Across the 150 or so species of primates, the larger the average social group, the larger the cortex relative to the rest of the brain. The fanciest part of the primate brain, in other words, seems to have been sculpted by evolution to enable us to gossip and groom, cooperate and cheat, and obsess about who is mating with whom. Humans, in short, are yet another primate with an intense and rich social life -- a fact that raises the question of whether primatology can teach us something about a rather important part of human sociality, war and peace.
December 20, 2005
The case for abolishing the CIA
John B. Judis in The New Republic:
In his memoir, Present at the Creation, former Secretary of State Dean Acheson expressed his misgivings about the creation of the CIA in 1947. "I had the gravest forebodings about this organization and warned the President that as set up neither he, the National Security Council, nor anyone else would be in a position to know what it was doing or to control it." In 1991 and again in 1995, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan introduced bills to abolish the CIA and assign its functions to the State Department, which is what Acheson and his predecessor, George Marshall, had advocated. But Moynihan's proposal was treated as evidence of his eccentricity rather than of his wisdom and never came to a vote.
It's time to reconsider Moynihan's proposal, or least the reasoning behind it. Al Libi's case, combining gross incompetence with the violation of international law, shows that the problems Moynihan and others cited have, if anything, gotten worse under George W. Bush. The intelligence reform act passed last year didn't address them; and the current director Porter Goss appears oblivious to them. These problems have for years plagued the two main functions of the agency: intelligence gathering and covert action.
What Happens to Bad Scientists?
Daniel Engber in Slate:
Superstar stem-cell researcher Hwang Woo Suk was accused of major scientific fraud on Thursday. A collaborator now claims Hwang faked much of the data for the groundbreaking research he published in May; earlier in the week, a co-author from the University of Pittsburgh withdrew his name from the work. Investigations are now underway in Pittsburgh and Seoul. How do you investigate scientific misconduct?
First, interview everyone who might be involved. In the United States, research institutions conduct their own inquiries into scientific wrongdoing. If the allegation seems credible, a small committee will spend up to a month quietly looking into the matter. They'll talk to witnesses—most likely members of the lab, collaborators, and the person who made the charge—before confronting the accused researcher with the charges against him. If the committee decides there's reasonable evidence for misconduct, the issue passes to a larger committee for a formal investigation.
More here. Also this from Scientific American:
With considerable disappointment, the editors of Scientific American are immediately removing Dr. Woo Suk Hwang from his honored position as Research Leader of the Year on the 2005 Scientific American 50 list.
Dr. Hwang famously announced in Science last June that he and his team at Seoul National University in Korea had cloned human embryonic stem cells from 11 patients. Published accounts appearing this morning, however, report that one of his co-authors, Dr. Sung Il Roh, now says that Dr. Hwang admits that much of the evidence in his Science paper was faked. He further alleges that Dr. Hwang has asked Science to withdraw that paper. Dr. Hwang was not available for comment.
Polar bears drown as ice shelf melts
Will Iredale in the London Times:
The researchers were startled to find bears having to swim up to 60 miles across open sea to find food. They are being forced into the long voyages because the ice floes from which they feed are melting, becoming smaller and drifting farther apart.
Although polar bears are strong swimmers, they are adapted for swimming close to the shore. Their sea journeys leave them them vulnerable to exhaustion, hypothermia or being swamped by waves.
According to the new research, four bear carcases were found floating in one month in a single patch of sea off the north coast of Alaska, where average summer temperatures have increased by 2-3C degrees since 1950s.
The scientists believe such drownings are becoming widespread across the Arctic, an inevitable consequence of the doubling in the past 20 years of the proportion of polar bears having to swim in open seas.
Music lovers, critics and writers worry too much about acoustics
Bernard Holland in the New York Times:
Music lovers, critics and writers worry too much about acoustics. Truly bad acoustics - whether you hear too little or too much - cannot be ignored, but the imperfect world that lingers between the two extremes just has to be dealt with. The hall is too bright (Walt Disney in Los Angeles); the hall is dead (Royal Festival Hall in London). There are devils everywhere intent on spoiling your listening pleasure. Go to concerts, and hear people cough and cellphones ring. Stay at home, and your CD player skips or an ambulance goes by the door.
Relax. Rise above it. The ear and the mind connected to it have marvelous powers to adjust to less-than-perfect environments. Herbert von Karajan once told me that his early years of conducting truly awful orchestras in backwater opera houses did wonders for his powers of imagination. As the Tallis Scholars began to sing in the Church of St. Paul the Apostle near Lincoln Center recently, the loud hum of what sounded like a ventilation system made the heart sink. But oddly, after 10 minutes it was forgotten, as if the brain had isolated an intruder and removed it to a place out of earshot.
Shopping in the Renaissance
Kathryn Hughes reviews Evelyn Welch's book, in The Guardian:
Dashing out to the shops in early modern Venice or Florence you would have seen some strikingly familiar sights. There were groups of giggling teenage girls touching and trying everything. Harassed housewives scooted round, grabbing basics as if in an obstacle race. Solitary men lingered and pondered and lingered some more over status-boosting luxury purchases. Cheapskates hunted for a bargain, while others spent up to their credit limit, returning home sick and giddy with the realisation of what they had just done.
Evelyn Welch's Shopping in the Renaissance, however, is concerned with a lot more than proving that nothing much changes over the centuries when you're in desperate need of a pint of milk or some new curtains. Her interest in shopping arises from its status as an invisible activity, so embedded in the rhythms and disciplines of the everyday that it barely breaks the surface of our consciousness. We do it, just as the Italians of the Renaissance did it, almost without noticing. But by making shopping explicit, argues Welch, by seeing it for what it is - a whole series of social, cultural as well as financial transactions all bound up in the exchange of a few warm coins or a handshake - it should be possible to get deep into the mindset of early modern Europe.
stinging rebuke to advocates of intelligent design
Laurie Goodstein in the New York Times:
A federal judge ruled today that a Pennsylvania school board's policy of teaching intelligent design in high school biology class is unconstitutional because intelligent design is clearly a religious idea that advances "a particular version of Christianity."
In the nation's first case to test the legal merits of intelligent design, Judge John E. Jones III dealt a stinging rebuke to advocates of teaching intelligent design as a scientific alternative to evolution in public schools.
The judge found that intelligent design is not science, and that the only way its proponents can claim it is, is by changing the very definition of science to include supernatural explanations.
Eleven parents in Dover, Pa., sued their school board a year ago when the board voted that ninth grade biology students should be read a brief statement saying there are "gaps in the theory" of evolution and that intelligent design is another explanation they should examine. The case is Kitzmiller et. al. v. Dover.
The six-week trial in federal district court in Harrisburg gave intelligent design the most thorough academic and legal airing it has had since the movement's inception about 15 years ago. The judge heard evidence from scientists in the forefront of the design movement, as well as scientists and other experts who are critics.
"A piecemeal atlas of the world I think in" was William T. Vollmann's phrase for a book he wrote almost ten years ago. That world is certainly worth mapping. It is full of contemporary history, politics, guns, prostitution, drugs, crowds, and violence. But it is also the shifting residence of a lonely, obsessive reader and writer determined to make sense of things. The work in question is in fact called The Atlas (1996), and contains fifty-five items of varying length, written alternatively in the first and third person, from the point of view of a male traveler, set in an impressive list of locations around the globe, from Afghanistan to Zagreb, and from Grand Central Station to the Yukon.
more in the New York Review of Books here.
rushdie on clemente
Salaman Rushdie's thoughts on the Indian Italian paintings of Francesco Clemente.
There is a story by Italo Calvino about a time when the moon was closer to the earth than it is today, when lovers could leap off the earth to walk upon its satellite and look up at their home planet hanging upside-down above their heads. Separation, inversion, the fascination of the leap: these are the characteristics of Clemente's paintings. His is a traveller's art. "In each place where I was," he says, "the continuity of memories, the tradition of the place, has been broken, somewhere, sometime; I don't know why. Really, you can't look at any place in the world from the place itself. You have to look from somewhere else to see what is there." These ideas, of the fragmentation of cultures and of the creative benefits of displacement, are close, also, to my heart. "The only ones who see the whole picture," one of my half-remembered characters says somewhere, in some half-forgotten book, "are the ones who step out of the frame." Fragments are what we have left and the artist must assemble them into meaningful form, so that they can reveal some, at least, of their broken mysteries, the way the shards of Heraclitus's lost book still, after 2,000 years, retain the power of significant speech. The Self-Portrait with Smoke reassembles a fragmentary self in just this way, uniting the artist's dissociated and replicated physical elements with the most transient and evanescent of bonds.
more from The Guardian here.
A Mystery, Locked in Timeless Embrace
When Egyptologists entered the tomb for the first time more than four decades ago, they expected to be surprised. Explorers of newly exposed tombs always expect that, and this time they were not disappointed - they were confounded. There, carved in stone, were the images of two men embracing. Their names were inscribed above: Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep. Though not of the nobility, they were highly esteemed in the palace as the chief manicurists of the king, sometime from 2380 to 2320 B.C., in the time known as the fifth dynasty of the Old Kingdom. Grooming the king was an honored occupation.
Archaeologists were taken aback. It was extremely rare in ancient Egypt for an elite tomb to be shared by two men of apparently equal standing. The usual practice was for such mortuary temples to be the resting place of one prominent man, his wife and children. And it was most unusual for a couple of the same sex to be depicted locked in an embrace. In other scenes, they are also shown holding hands and nose-kissing, the favored form of kissing in ancient Egypt. What were scholars to make of their intimate relationship?
New Pain Reliever Proves More Potent, Less Addictive
Morphine and other opioids work wonders for pain. Unfortunately, their effectiveness declines over time while their addictiveness grows, meaning patients need the drug even as it affords them less and less relief. But new research into the cellular workings of opioids offers a promising new pathway to improved pain relief--without the addiction--by triggering one receptor and blocking another.
Medicinal chemist Philip Portoghese of the University of Minnesota and his colleagues began by studying two of the four major opioid receptors in the cells of the central nervous system. Each bears the name of a Greek letter and the chemists focused on the Mu and Delta receptors. Previous research had shown that drugs that linked up with Mu receptors lasted longer with less addiction when combined with drugs that blocked Delta receptors. But it was not known whether the two channels worked separately or in concert to improve the overall effect. So Portoghese and his colleagues built a drug that triggered the Mu receptor while blocking the Delta receptor--dubbed MDAN, for Mu Delta agonist antagonist. They administered various versions of the drug to mice and then tested their sensitivity to pain by focusing a hot light on their tails and recording the time it took the animals to move them. The MDAN drug proved roughly 50 times more effective than morphine in blocking pain, the researchers report in this week's online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
December 19, 2005
3 Quarks Daily readers send art student to college
Thanks a million to everyone who contributed to our collection to send an art student, whose scholarship was cut off, to school in the spring. In one week we have collected the full amount of $1,533.85 thanks to your generosity. When I went to give my friend the check, she showed me some anatomical figurative studies she was working on (done in BIC Medium Blue ballpoint pen on paper!). I asked if I could photograph them and exhibit them at 3QD and she agreed. So here they are (click to enlarge any image):
She also wrote this message down for the readers of 3QD:
Unfortunately there is no way for me to truly express my gratitude, because it is so immense, it is even unfathomable to myself. It is a chain reaction when something so kind is done, even if it may be subconscious. The happiness felt within bleeds onto others and they too feel the pleasure that the other has received. I don’t really have a family, but I have been so lucky to meet the people I have in my life. For my friends are my family. Because of this I have strong family values and care greatly for anyone I affiliate myself with. Especially Margit and Abbas. They are two of the most brilliant people I know, and ever will know. I love them unconditionally as I would a mother, a father, a sister, or a brother. It means the world to me that someone has so much faith in me, and it gives me the drive to pursue my dreams. I believe in my success and myself. Through this kind act, I have learned a lot. And this will never be forgotten. I have always thought of myself as a selfless person, but the generosity displayed by your trust will be redistributed as I continue my life. I wish I could thank each and every one of you for helping, but I suppose I will leave that up to Abbas. This is the nicest thing that anyone has ever done for me, and I don’t think it has quite settled in yet. Still, I am so grateful, and wish you all the best in life. Unfortunately there are no words to truly express my gratitude, so I will simply leave this with a thank you.
Thank you, my friend.
Dispatches: The Thing Itself, or the Sociology of Coffee
In the movie "My Dinner With Andre," a touchstone for the antic film buff, Wally Shawn muses about the things that make life bearable despite the heavy weight of human suffering and existential dread that torment his friend Andre Gregory. "I just don't know how anybody could enjoy anything," he says, "more than I enjoy... you know, getting up in the morning and having the cup of cold coffee that's been waiting for me all night, that's still there for me to drink in the morning, and no cockroach or fly has died in it overnight - I'm just so thrilled when I get up, and I see that coffee there, just the way I want it, I just can't imagine enjoying something else any more than that."
This little reverie has always struck me as a note-perfect piece of writing (or speaking) by Shawn, who here depends on a long-running association of coffee with a form of escape from the prosaic, even as it fuels that most prosaic form of labor, writing. The social meaning of coffee combines its conception as the fuel upon which workers of all kinds rely with the notion of the coffee break, the oasis in the day in which workers are temporarily freed from adherence to their routinized schedules and can indulge in idleness. The twin sites of coffee drinking, the coffee shop and the cafe, represent the two class locations in which these escapes can occur: the coffee shop for laborers and the cafe for the intellectual, who turns her own idle philosophizing into her special form of production.
The association of coffee with both labor and the emancipation from labor is a long one. In the standard narrative of the Enlightenment, coffee shops in London in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries play a large role as sites that hosted the workingmen's collectives and other forms of nascent intelligentsia. Jurgen Habermas, for example, famously identified the London coffee houses as the birthplace of the modern critique of aristocratic power in the name of liberty in his influential The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Habermas' claim that the public sphere expanded and developed into an inclusive site in which middle-class interests could be voiced also gestures at the interesting social connotations of coffee drinking: a practice that bridges the public world of letters with the private world of internal reflection, which duality that remains in effect to the present time. Coffee is the special beverage of intellectual labor and mental stimulation, and along with other products of the tropical colonial world, such as tea, sugar, and spices, perhaps accrued its social meaning precisely because of its novelty and the absence of pre-existing traditional associations with its consumption (as would be the case in Europe with beer, for example).
Until 1690 or so, nearly all the coffee imported to Europe came from Yemen, after which time the West Indies began to dominate, due to large plantations established by European colonialists, until roughly 1830. London at this time was the major trading center for the world's coffee supply, supplanted by Rotterdam and coffee from Java later in the nineteenth century, and in the twentieth by Brazil's production and New York's factorage, or management of trade. What is interesting about this extremely truncated potted history is how little known it is, beyond the vaguest associations with these locations and coffee drinking: Java, for instance, or Colombia more recently, being places generally associated with the commodity. The fact that coffee as a crop is extremely amenable to the large-scale plantation system had much to do with its spread around the world, and also with the inculcation of the desire to drink it. Coffee as a commodity has also been extremely important to the development of the global economy, perhaps second only to oil. In between the world wars, coffee surpluses in Brazil grew so large that enough beans to supply the world for two and a half years were destroyed, prompting the development of international agreements to govern the flow of trade and prevent the destructive influence on prices of huge surpluses.
As you will have guessed, what I'm interested in here is the caesura between the social meanings of coffee and its consumption, on the one hand, and the economic and historical conditions in which it is produced, on the other. Note that our airy and metaphysical associations of coffee with scribal labor, and our notion of cart coffee as the fuel for wage workers, show no trace of the globally instituted plantation system of production and distribution that allows for its availability. Now, a sociologist friend of mine, upon hearing my thoughts on this subject, remarked dryly: "Well, yes, standard Marxism, the commodity always conceals the conditions of its production." Which is true, yes, my friend, but I think there's a bit more to it than that, when we come to our present age of late capitalism (to adopt the favored descriptor). For we specialize in nothing so much as the inflection of meanings in order to create and reinforce markets for products: the process called branding. Coffee has presented an interesting problem for marketers because it suffered from the problem of inelastic demand.
What this bit of jargon means is simply that coffee drinking was typically habitual and not generally considered to be divisible into gradations of luxury. In other words, people do not make fine distinctions when it comes to coffee - and indeed, the world's coffee market is dominated by one varietal, arabica (though robusta is often used in cheaper brands as a blending ingredient - in fact, the whole question of why arabica is considered superior to robusta is of interest, though not sufficient relevance here). Or at least, coffee was considered to be this type of commodity through the nineteen-eighties. At that point, a revolution occurred with the application of European connoisseurship to coffee-drinking. I am referring, of course, to the vogue for Italian coffee that swept the world at this time. Finally, with the nomenclature of espresso, macchiato, cappuccino, etcetera, marketers had an opportunity to make gradations, to identify a style of coffee drinking with sophistication and taxonomies of taste in such a way as to basically invent a whole lifestyle involving coffee preferences, and thereby to supplant the inelasticity of demand that was preventing consumers from changing their buying patterns.
Ironically, of course, most of these gradations have little to do with the coffee itself; rather, they involve the milk, whether to steam it or froth it, add it or not, or whether to adulterate the espresso with hot water (americano), and so on. The effect is the same: making coffee drinking into a form of connoisseurship. My sociologist friend and I recently walked by a Starbucks, the apotheosis, of course, of the current technocratic style of coffee drinking. Outside was a chalkboard, the faux-handwritten message on which inspired these reflections: "The best, richest things in life cannot be seen or bought... but felt in the heart. Let the smooth and rich taste of eggnog latte fulfill your expectations." Depressingly contradictory, the message also advertises a beverage which may or may not include coffee itself, though the misuse of the Italian word for milk, in the world of Starbucks, usually signifies its presence. Yet there's also something honest about it, in that it baldly announces the contradictions that the drinking of coffee embodies. Seen to be the escape from the prosaic, the fuel for the laborer, the joiner of public and private, the psychoactive stimulant that incites philosophy, coffee, so far from a purely metaphysical vapor, contains all the strange compressed complexity of the world of real objects and the webs of relations that bring them to our lips.
Divisions of Labor II
Divisions of Labor I
Where I'm Coming From
Optimism of the Will
Vince Vaughan...Eve Sedgwick
The Other Sweet Science
Rain in November
On Ethnic Food and People of Color
Aesthetics of Impermanence
Federico Fellini: Circus Maximus
The Circus Maximus was the arena for mass entertainment instituted by the Etruscan kings and then enhanced by subsequent emperors for tens of thousands of spectators. Trajan, Julius Caesar and Augustus, among others, added to, and enhanced, this structure. Its chariot races were a particular feature of its activities in later times.
In the theatre of his mind, the great Italian auteur, Federico Fellini, casts forth his films as entertainment, serious entertainment which is worthy of the greatest art that the twentieth century produced. However, it is no good coming to Fellini looking for Thomas Mann or Persona. Fellini is just not that kind of artist. He puts his trust in his feelings, and he believes that feeling is the way to discover the reality of the world. He doesn’t believe in intellectualising about life or art, or in theorising about art either. But to say Fellini is not intelligent in his films would be wrong. Fellini is supremely intelligent as film director. He shapes his films as carefully as any novelist or poet does in the silence of their rooms. Circus Maximus translates from the Latin as largest circle, and it is this largest circle which Fellini draws around the world, enclosing in its phantasmagoric visions the poetry and pain of a loving heart. He invites his audience to participate in his films as would the audience at the Circus Maximus for some games spectacular. You may sit around the edge of the circle and enjoy the surreal passing parade, smell the sawdust, see the most startling use of colour, and of black and white. If he allowed himself to be styled emperor in his domain, Cinecittà, he always did so with a light touch, and he could be scathing about his own persona—he virtually accuses himself of fraudulence in Otto e mezzo. Of course Fellini was no fraudster but a subtle artist of the most unusual kind. The caricaturist from Rimini went on to become a true maestro.
Fellini’s films are musical, and the word maestro is not inappropriate to use in association with his work. His orchestra is his production team—and what a singular group of artists he gathered together for his purposes. It is doubtful that films like Fellini’s could ever be made without this kind of team to work with. Underwriting the whole endeavour is the music of Nino Rota who provides such an insouciant soundtrack to Fellini’s visual panoramas, by turns tender, melancholic, wistful, or vital and exuberant, music for eating, laughter, dancing and loving. But Fellini knows when to keep the soundtrack silent too. Usually, somewhere in a Fellini film, there is that sudden silence followed by the sound of wind, premonition of an ending Fellini doesn’t try to understand. He simply accepts death as part of the spectacle we must all participate in.
It is to be regretted that the main way people now come to Fellini is through re-release on DVD, or on television. If ever a director needed the big screen it is Fellini who designed his films as a medium in which there is a participatory audience. I remember two experiences in my early years of picture going. The first time I saw Otto e mezzo it was a revelation to me, and I also found it profoundly moving. And I almost hurt myself laughing, along with the rest of the audience, when I saw the family argument around the table in Amarcord. I doubt I would have had these reactions if my first viewing of these films had been via the television set. Fellini embraces you through the screen. If you can’t participate in the manner of an Italian feast, you won’t get the best out of his films. These are not works of art for people who want to sit at a distance in judgement. They are meant for enjoyment, involvement. His camera is lascivious, and it gets very close to its subject matter, which some people find disturbing. And people who think Pulp Fiction instituted some new kind of film narrative need to have another look at Fellini’s work, especially from Otto e mezzo onwards, just as cliched ideas about Fellini’s sexism ignore a lifelong preoccupation with the facade of Italian machismo.
For some, Fellini’s films can be a stretch, they ‘don’t wear well’, his sensibility, with its strangely compatible dual carriageway of sensuality and moral prodding, being at odds with present conformities. Satyricon especially is difficult to get hold of. On one hand it is a spectacle which Fellini fills with characteristic striking visuals. On the other, it comes across as cold, as if one was visiting a moonscape. Fellini called it science fiction of the past. Perhaps it was his comment on what he saw going on about him in supposedly liberated times. True, you don’t want to sit down to a tranche of his films in one go. His work is intense, baroque. There is maximum sensory overload. He is like Emily Dickinson and Bruckner in that way; you can’t take on too much of their intensity at one time. It would be a mistake to try to because then the appetite sickens. These are artists who are for a lifetime. You can always come back to them and their depth and seriousness will always be there for you when you have need of it. The fact that Fellini insists on joy being part of his sensibility makes him the major artist he is—he refuses to degrade himself in the manner of so many European intellectuals and artists who mortify themselves with doubt, self-hate and cynicism. It is not as if Fellini avoids tragedy. Who could forget Zampano’s despair on the beach at the end of La Strada or Marcello’s horror at Steiner’s suicide and the murder of his children in La Dolce Vita. Fellini is the realist who accepts suffering but who nevertheless insists on the pleasure principle too. One of the things Fellini takes most pleasure in is the human face. For him, it is endlessly fascinating. Fellini does not, contrary to a lot of Fellini criticism, put freaks in his films, but the variousness and beauty of the human face and form. In that sense he is a portrait painter, filling the screen with characters that give witness to the strangeness and majesty of the human: the alluring image of Anita Ekberg standing in the silent Trevi Fountain, the fantastical ecclesiastical fashion parade in Roma, the out-of-touch aesthetes on board the Gloria N. in E la nave va.
Was ever a director luckier than to have Giulietta Masina as a life companion? How one marvels at this actor’s performances in Fellini’s films. I am especially fond of her work in Giulietta degli spiriti. Here was companionship that led to beauty and greatness. But all Fellini’s actors seem to belong to a troupe. The circus master may crack the whip, but what performances he gets from his casts. How vital his characters seem with their dreams and delusions, their grandeur and pettiness, their gross appetites, their inwardness and hopefulness.
Opera, theatre, cabaret, vaudeville, circus. Luminous and celebratory, fantastical but all too real. Cinema. Art. Fellini is all of these things. For me, his films are inimitable, poetic, unforgettable.
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The following poem was written in late October 1993 when the press reported Fellini’s stroke.
Federico Fellini 1920–1993
Maestro, lover, dreaming poet,
Must we say farewell just now?
Here on this uncertain street
Of a tawdry century
You encompassed multitudes,
From the fountain’s quietude
To a seaside ecstasy.
Trumpets at the darkened gates?
But how are we, who trust you still,
Beyond the failings that we share,
To live without your gaiety,
Except that in film flickering
And in Giulietta’s eyes
We know your passion will be strong.
Soon to sawdust you must drop
And circus clowns will hang their heads,
But while you live the world seems good,
For a pure heart brings such grace
And mischief that shows kindliness.
Stay to see our wretchedness
You maker of the marvellous!
But stillness is approaching now,
Tender, as this last spool spins
To silence in unending night.
Ciao, dear artist. May you slip
Quickly to that other side
Behind the screen, and leave us with a smile
Whose joy is deep, whose laughter was so wise.
Intervista: Fellini's penultimate film
Giulietta's eyes: Giulietta Masina, Fellin's wife