Sunday, September 30, 2007
The New Cigarette: The Secret History of the War on Cancer
Devra Davis wants chemical waste to become the new cigarette, an object that generates reflexive loathing from most Americans. And the pieces of the puzzle seem to be there: exposure-related cancers, decades of incriminating research, and cover-ups by the chemical industry. In her new book, The Secret History of the War on Cancer, Davis diligently and persuasively argues that we are ignoring dozens of cancer-causing chemicals. She also sounds a familiar call for toxic-producing industries to clean up their waste and figure out how to get rid of it without creating future hazards.
For almost as long as there has been a "war on cancer," there has been what might be called a "war on the war on cancer": a series of efforts to move beyond a sole focus on the detection and treatment of cancer (the standard war on cancer) to actual prevention of the disease. Although Davis promises to share "stories I'd never heard before and documents I could never find in libraries or government documents," her book by and large tells well-known horror stories about supposedly cancer-inducing products long vilified by environmental activists, such as asbestos, benzene, vinyl chloride, and dioxin.
Best Science Images of 2007 Honored
From The National Geographic:
A still image from a 3-D animation shows how nicotine stimulates nerve impulses to the pleasure center of the brain.
Saturday, September 29, 2007
Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder
Richard Dawkins delivers his brilliant 1996 Richard Dimbleby Lecture:
How To Live Forever
Jason Wilson in The Smart Set:
I’d been sent into the wild interior of Sardinia on assignment by AARP Magazine. Researchers had recently documented an abnormal cluster of modern-day Methuselahs residing here. At least one man in this region lived to 112 and, until his death, was the oldest man in the world. And there were many other centenarians living in isolated Ogliastra villages.
Basically, my AARP assignment called for me to barge in on very old Sardinians and ask: How can our readers, too, live such a long life? The editors wanted tips, nuts and bolts, practical “how to” nuggets. Of course, I wanted to know these things, too. Like most other human beings, my desire to live forever — or at least as long as I possibly can —knows no bounds. And I, like many, have been fooled before in this quest for longevity. I remember, for instance, a widely reported tale of men in the Caucasus Mountains who lived to the ripe of old age of 120 by subsisting solely on a diet of yogurt. After gorging myself on yogurt, it was soon reported that whole story was a hoax. The men’s birth records were wrong. Faulty data. Sorry.
But in Sardinia, the story is different. This time, after rigorous study, all the Sardinian centenarians’ birth records checked out. The demographers on the case confirm that the age data are perfect. No hoaxes, no inaccuracies.
The "blog" of "unnecessary" quotation marks
Bethany Keeley on the FAQ page at her blog:
Answer: Actually, I don’t consider quotation marks a peeve. I just think it’s funny to misinterpret them, almost always. This is not the case with most other grammatical errors, although the occasional dangling modifier is pretty amusing. Somebody else can blog about your thing if they want; I really think the genius here is the specificity. Check out my sidebar though; some of those people might already blog about your thing. Especially you legion of apostrophe pedants.
Why are quotation marks such a big deal to you anyway?
Answer: They really aren't. I'm actually not a grammar fanatic at all, although clear writing is important to me. I have an actual job and PhD education which are higher priorities for me than anything quotation-mark related. I started this blog for fun never expecting anybody to notice it except my family and friends.
Is there any purpose in translating poetry?
Carol Rumens in The Guardian:
This question was posed last weekend in the Guardian Review by James Buchan, reviewing a new Paul Celan selection, Snowpart/Schneepart, with English translations by Ian Fairley. He adds that, after all, "a poem does not contain information of importance, like a signpost or a warning notice".
That's true enough. Modern lyric poetry, with its symbols and metaphors, its arcane allusions and teasing line breaks, is fairly bad at giving us the facts. We no longer live in an age in which the skills of beekeeping, say, are explained by the greatest verse-maker in the language, as Virgil does in The Georgics. Even those jolly mnemonics about the weather or the Greek alphabet are fading from consciousness. It's a pity, as I often think I might get the gist of assembling a new piece of flatpack furniture quicker if the instructions were wittily rhymed.
So why translate? My first answer is that poetry in translation simply adds to the sum total of human pleasure obtainable through a single language. It opens up new language worlds within our own tongues, as every good poem does. It revitalises our daily, cliche-haunted vocabulary. It disturbs our assumptions, jolts us with rhythms flatter or stronger than we're used to. It extends us in the way real travelling does, giving us new sounds, sights and smells. Every unique poetry village sharpens us to life.
a world worth visiting
To call “The Darjeeling Limited” precious is less a critical judgment than a simple statement of fact, equivalent to saying that the movie is in color, that it’s set in India or that it’s 91 minutes long. It’s synonymous with saying the movie was directed by Wes Anderson. By now — “The Darjeeling Limited” is his fifth feature film — Mr. Anderson’s methods and preoccupations are as familiar as the arguments for and against them. (See an essay in the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly for the prosecution and a profile in this week’s New York magazine for the defense.) His frames are, once again, stuffed with carefully placed curiosities, both human and inanimate; his story wanders from whimsy to melancholy; his taste in music, clothes, cars and accessories remains eccentric and impeccable.
And like his other recent films, “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou,” this new one celebrates a sensibility at once cliquish and inclusive. It reflects the aesthetic obsessions of a tiny coterie that anyone with the price of a ticket is free to join. (Charter members include Owen Wilson, one of the film’s three leading men, and his co-star Jason Schwartzman, who wrote the script with Mr. Anderson and Roman Coppola.)
more from the NY Times here.
All of us are now 'no-longers'
Ah, longevity. Without it, we would have to think differently about Philip Roth. Despite the success and notoriety (and, yes, outright brilliance) of "Goodbye, Columbus" and "Portnoy's Complaint," his early career is, frankly, spotty, marked by minor efforts ("Our Gang," "The Breast") and books such as "When She Was Good" and "My Life as a Man" that never seem to find their way. Indeed, it was only with the 1979 publication of "The Ghost Writer," the first of his novels to feature Nathan Zuckerman, that Roth uncovered what has become the center of his work.
It's not that he wasn't ambitious; he didn't call his 1973 baseball fantasia "The Great American Novel" for nothing, after all. Yet to look back at Roth's writing of the 1960s and 1970s is to see a writer in chrysalis, testing out themes and ideas -- the relationship of Jewishness and Americanness, the interplay between art and identity, the ongoing struggle of the self to define itself -- that he would get at with far greater acuity in his later work.
more from the LA Times here.
two centuries of pitiless persecution of black men by sordid whites
Poor Africa, the happy hunting ground of the mythomaniac, the rock star buffing up his or her image, the missionary with a faith to sell, the child buyer, the retailer of dirty drugs or toxic cigarettes, the editor in search of a scoop, the empire builder, the aid worker, the tycoon wishing to rid himself of his millions, the school builder with a bucket of patronage, the experimenting economist, the diamond merchant, the oil executive, the explorer, the slave trader, the eco-tourist, the adventure traveler, the bird watcher, the travel writer, the escapee, the colonial and his crapulosities, the banker, the busybody, the Mandela-sniffer, the political fantasist, the buccaneer and your cousin the Peace Corps Volunteer. Oh, and the atoner, of whom Thoreau observed in a skeptical essay: “Now, if anything ail a man so that he does not perform his functions ... if he has committed some heinous sin and partially repents, what does he do? He sets about reforming the world.” Thoreau, who had Africa specifically in mind, added, “Do you hear it, ye Wolofs?”
more from the NY Times Book Review here.
ballads, opera, fairy tales
Tom Shippey at TLS:
In 1848, the year of revolutions, a “National Assembly” was convened at Frankfurt, to discuss unification of the German lands, civil rights and a constitution for a future Reich. The strangest thing about the assembly was its seating plan. Delegates were placed in a semi-circle facing the Speaker, but there was one seat in the centre of the semi-circle, directly opposite the Speaker, set apart from all the others. It was reserved for Jacob Grimm. Can one imagine a British durbar to decide the future of the Empire, deliberately and symbolically centred on a professor of linguistics, also known as a collector of fairy tales? But Grimm was not a mere linguist, he was a Philolog, and by 1848, as Joep Leerssen points out in his exceptionally wide-ranging study, philology was a combination of linguistics, literary history and cultural anthropology with the prestige of a hard science and the popular appeal of The Lord of the Rings. Grimm was there to speak, not for the nation, for there was no German nation, but for an imaginary Deutschland which he had very largely created in an unmatched though repeatedly imitated feat of “cultural consciousness-raising”.
Two Environmentalists Anger Their Brethren
From Wired Magazine:
For angry heretics on the run, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger sure know how to enjoy themselves. Sitting in a cozy Berkeley restaurant just a few blocks from San Francisco Bay, exchanging tasting notes on the vermentino ("cold white wine is so good with fatty, fried food," Shellenberger says), they recount with perverse pleasure, in tones almost as dry as the wine, how they've been branded as infidels by fellow environmentalists. It started in 2004, when they published their first Tom Paine-style essay accusing the movement's leaders of failing to deal effectively with the global warming crisis.
And now, with the October publication of their first book, Break Through: From "The Death of Environmentalism" to the Politics of Possibility, they are going to face the full fury of enraged environmentalists. Break Through is a fascinating hybrid: part call to arms, part policy paper, part philosophical treatise. (Name another book that gives equal time to Nietzsche, cognitive therapy, and fuel-economy legislation.) It takes aim at some of the environmental movement's biggest lions, including Kennedy and Al Gore. It belittles the Kyoto Protocol; it rips into best- selling social critics like Thomas Frank and Jared Diamond. But it also dismisses free marketeers who believe that unfettered markets alone can solve our carbon-emission woes. "If this book doesn't piss off a whole lot of conservatives and a whole lot of liberals, we've failed," Nordhaus says.
A View of the Bosporus
From The New York Times:
ORHAN PAMUK takes the pundit’s dry talk of a “clash of civilizations” and gives it a human face, turns it on its head and sends it spinning wildly. In his early novel “The White Castle,” a Venetian slave and his Ottoman master swap clothes, exchange ideas and squabble like siblings until you can no longer tell who is who — or who’s on top. “I enjoy sitting at my desk,” Pamuk told The Paris Review, in an interview included in his new book, “like a child playing with his toys.” This gift for taking the urgent issues of the day and presenting them as detective stories that race past like footfalls down an alleyway has made Pamuk the best-selling writer in the history of his native Turkey and the deserving winner of last year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, at the unvenerable age of 54. Serving up 16th-century murder stories that investigate shifts in the history of Islamic art and offering us seriously entertaining wild goose tales that ask the deepest questions about identity, Pamuk is that rarest of creatures, a fabulist of ideas.
Friday, September 28, 2007
News from the savannah
From The Economist:
Which is more dangerous, an elephant or a minivan? For most readers of this newspaper, the answer is going to be a minivan. From childhood, people in motorised civilisations are warned about the dangers of running into the road, taught the appropriate highway code and—when old enough—permitted to get behind the wheel only after having undergone a rigorous programme of training that ends with a formal examination.
You might think, therefore, that such people would be more aware of the movements of vehicles than of animals. But if you did think that, you would be wrong. An experiment just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Joshua New of Yale University shows that people pay more attention to the activities of animals than to those of vehicles. That applies even among urban Westerners who rarely see an animal from one year's end to the next.
Dr New was testing a theory of mind originally developed by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby of the University of California, Santa Barbara, with whom he collaborated on the experiment. Dr Cosmides and Dr Tooby were among the first to break from the idea that the brain has evolved as a general-purpose problem-solving machine. They suggested that some tasks are so important and so universal that you would expect to find specially evolved “modules” to handle them, just as the senses are handled by specialised areas of the brain's cortex.
Something nice this way comes. It begins with the awful — whether it’s as enormous as the Holocaust or the World Trade Center or as intimate as family dysfunction or the death of a loved one — and then finds comfort. None of this Anna on the tracks, Emma in the dumps, or depressing Father Zosima’s corpse smells stuff; that’s sooo 19th century. As for Molly Bloom’s devil may care so let’s screw our brains out attitude, or Humbert Humbert’s twisted sexuality, or Dr. Spielvogel’s “Now vee may perhaps to begin” ironies, they’re clearly the product of 20th-century neuroses. Instead, let’s just book passage on a gentle, healing voyage. Sound trite? It is, but it’s apparently the literature of our time as exemplified by Jonathan Safran Foer, Myla Goldberg, Nicole Krauss, and Dave Eggers, along with everything McSweeney’s, the magazine founded by Eggers. What this otherwise disparate group of fiction and nonfiction writers share are a special calming effect on the souls of their many readers and, most significantly, a locus in which their work has come to fruition: Brooklyn.
more from The American Scholar here.
all eyes on burma
When New Statesman readers voted Aung San Suu Kyi the greatest hero of our time in May last year, there was no doubting the strength of feeling over the plight of the Burmese people. The pro-democracy leader, who has spent much of the past 17 years under house arrest, received three times as many nominations as Nelson Mandela.
In August 2006, we devoted a special issue to Burma. "Is there hope in the land of the generals?" we asked, as we focused on the tragedy of a country that has suffered under the rule of a military dictatorship since 1962, when General Ne Win seized the power he held on to until 1988.
That year is significant, for it was the time of the last major challenge to the ruling junta. Ne Win did step down, and in 1990 elections were held. But the generals did not relax their control of the country; Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, won 82 per cent of the vote but was never allowed to form a government. And the protests that had led to a shifting of power within the regime had been put down with a barbarism and cruelty for which Burma's leaders are too well-known. Troops fired on peaceful demonstrators in Rangoon and other cities, killing several thousand and arresting many who have never been seen again.
more from The New Statesman here.
The Man in the Irony Mask
Seth Mnookin in Vanity Fair:
Like Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat, Stephen Colbert so completely inhabits his creation—the arch-conservative blowhard host of The Colbert Report, his Daily Show spin-off hit—that he rarely breaks character. As Colbert's new book, I Am America (And So Can You!), is published, Vanity Fair gets a revealing interview with the real thing: a master comedian, forever altered by family tragedy.
I used to make up stuff in my bio all the time, that I used to be a professional ice-skater and stuff like that. I found it so inspirational. Why not make myself cooler than I am? I [told an interviewer that] I'd been arrested for assaulting someone with a flashlight. And I said that I drove a Shelby Cobra, like the Road Warrior, like Mel Gibson. I said, "I'd like you to know I drive a Shelby Cobra." They totally swallowed it, and I felt bad. Then I thought, It doesn't matter. It'll make a better story. —Stephen Colbert in an interview in his office, June 19, 2007.
What Ails the Short Story
Stephen King in the New York Times:
Do you like the sound of that? Me too. I only wish it were actually true. The art form is still alive — that I can testify to. As editor of “The Best American Short Stories 2007,” I read hundreds of them, and a great many were good stories. Some were very good. And some seemed to touch greatness. But “well”? That’s a different story.
I came by my hundreds — which now overflow several cardboard boxes known collectively as The Stash — in a number of different ways. A few were recommended by writers and personal friends. A few more I downloaded from the Internet. Large batches were sent to me on a regular basis by Heidi Pitlor, the series editor. But I’ve never been content to stay on the reservation, and so I also read a great many stories in magazines I bought myself, at bookstores and newsstands in Florida and Maine, the two places where I spend most of the year. I want to begin by telling you about a typical short-story-hunting expedition at my favorite Sarasota mega-bookstore. Bear with me; there’s a point to this.
Why organic food can't feed the world
Craig Meisner in Cosmos:
Can organic food feed the world? A recent study, published in the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems provides new data that suggests it can. However, I have some grave reservations about this prospect that are based on my experience as a scientist and my time living and working with real farmers in developing nations.
The authors of this study assume the major stumbling blocks to organic farming feeding the world are low crop yields and insufficient quantities of approved organic fertilisers. However, I have lived and worked in Bangladesh – as a professor of Cornell University, covering agricultural research and development – for the last 25 years, and I believe that even if these problems could be surmounted, using organic farming to feed the developing world remains a pipe dream.
Philip Roth on the State of the Union
A Dandelion for My Mother
How I loved those spiky suns,
rooted stubborn as childhood
in the grass, tough as the farmer's
big-headed children--the mats
of yellow hair, the bowl-cut fringe.
How sturdy they were and how
slowly they turned themselves
into galaxies, domes of ghost stars
barely visible by day, pale
cerebrums clinging to life
on tough green stems. Like you.
Like you, in the end. If you were here,
I'd pluck this trembling globe to show
how beautiful a thing can be
a breath will tear away.
Harvard researchers find longevity, restricted diet link
From The Harvard Gazette:
Researchers believe they’ve found the cellular link between extremely restricted diets and dramatically lengthened lifespan and hope to use the knowledge to develop new treatments for age-related diseases. The research, conducted by scientists at Harvard Medical School, Cornell University Medical School, and the National Institutes of Health, illuminates for the first time the cellular processes triggered by extremely low-calorie diets. Scientists have known for about 70 years that extremely restricted diets — where caloric intake is 30 percent to 40 percent below normal — can extend lifespan by as much as a third. In addition, those years are healthier and relatively free of common age-related debilities such as cancer, heart problems, and type 2 diabetes. The longer, healthier lives have been seen in a host of animals maintained on a very low-calorie diet, including mice, rats, and monkeys. What scientists haven’t been able to figure out, until now, is why eating a lot less makes one live a lot longer.
The answer, it turns out, lies in tiny bodies inside each cell that act as cellular battery packs. As one ages, cells lose these battery packs — called mitochondria — and slow down. Extremely restricted diets, it turns out, revs them back up again. The research, published in the Sept. 21 issue of the journal Cell, shows that calorie restriction sparks a chain reaction within cells that creates two enzymes called SIRT3 and SIRT4. The enzymes cross into mitochondria, making them grow stronger and increase energy output.
Once More Into the Fray
Whereas most animals run away from the dangers of the African savannas, meerkats, brave little souls that they are, race toward them. Large groups run headlong at venomous snakes and other potential predators, harassing them with jeering noises and pokes from their tiny claws. Scientists have long thought the meerkats were somehow protecting their colony, but new research suggests that the odd behavior may also be a way for younger meerkats to learn more about their enemies. If so, then it may lead biologists to take a second look at other social species, such as prairie dogs and vervet monkeys, which behave similarly.
Biologists Beke Graw and Marta Manser of the University of Zurich in Switzerland studied meerkats in the wild. When they released cobras and other predators near the colony, the meerkats mobbed the snakes and became aggressive. They also mobbed innocuous critters, such as moles and squirrels--even empty cages--but eventually lost interest and drifted away. Meerkats responded differently according to their age. Adults between 1 and 2 years of age mobbed intruders longer and growled, barked, and poked more intensely than did younger and older animals, the team reports in this month's issue of Animal Behaviour.
Thursday, September 27, 2007
To Form a More Perfect Hitchens
There's an entire micro-economy based on the pursuit of betterment. The author—58, full-figured, and ferocious in his consumption of cigarettes and scotch—agreed to test its limits, starting with the Executive De-Stress Treatment at a high-end spa.
The Hitch in Vanity Fair:
I'd noticed a touch of decline here and there, but one puts these things down to Anno Domini and the acquirement of seniority. A bit of a stomach gives a chap a position in society. A glass of refreshment, in my view, never hurt anybody. This walking business is overrated: I mastered the art of doing it when I was quite small, and in any case, what are taxis for? Smoking is a vice, I will admit, but one has to have a hobby. Nonetheless, when my friends at this magazine formed up and said they would pay good money to stop having to look at me in my current shape, I agreed to a course of rehabilitation. There now exists a whole micro-economy dedicated to the proposition that a makeover is feasible, or in other words to disprove Scott Fitzgerald's dictum that there are no second acts in American lives. Objectives: to drop down from the current 185 pounds, to improve the "tone" of the skin and muscles, to wheeze less, to enhance the hunched and round-shouldered posture, to give some thought to the hair and fur questions (more emphasis perhaps in the right places and less in the wrong ones), to sharpen up the tailoring, to lessen the booze intake, and to make the smile, which currently looks like a handful of mixed nuts, a little less scary to children.
Dung from mammoths sends warming signal
Dmitri Solovyov at MSNBC:
For millennia, layers of animal waste and other organic matter left behind by the creatures that used to roam the Arctic tundra have been sealed inside the frozen permafrost. Now climate change is thawing the permafrost and lifting this prehistoric ooze from suspended animation.
But Zimov, a scientist who for almost 30 years has studied climate change in Russia’s Arctic, believes that as this organic matter becomes exposed to the air it will accelerate global warming faster than even some of the most pessimistic forecasts.
“This will lead to a type of global warming which will be impossible to stop,” he said.
When the organic matter left behind by mammoths and other wildlife is exposed to the air by the thawing permafrost, his theory runs, microbes that have been dormant for thousands of years spring back into action.
As a by-product they emit carbon dioxide and — even more damaging in terms of its impact on the climate — methane gas.
Rembrandt Is Eyes
Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:
One of the virtues of the current exhibit "The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is that you can see Rembrandt among his contemporaries. You can see the milieu he was working within and what was different and unique about him. One thing that is confirmed in this comparison is that, like no one else, Rembrandt is eyes. (This is a different point than that made by Simon Schama in his Rembrandt's Eyes, but not necessarily an incompatible one). By eyes I mean the whole “eye area” — the brow, the lids, the entire fleshy region immediately surrounding and containing the eyes. Contrary to the popular saying, it is not just the eye that is the window to the soul. It is the aforementioned “eye area” that really does it. The wrinkles and furrows, the black bags, and the heavy lids — these are essential aspects of the eye. They tell of a person and who that person has been so far.
Rembrandt was a true master — of that there is no doubt and so nobody bothers to. Everyone who looks at a Rembrandt, especially the portraits, is soon struck by the humanism of it all, by the uncanny closeness you feel toward the human faces that emerge out of the characteristic Rembrandtian gloom. And no matter the person — man or woman, powerful merchant, or outright commoner — Rembrandt portrays them as suddenly vulnerable. Plain and simple, these people can be wounded, they have been wounded. That is the humanism of Rembrandt, his ability to see everyone as a potential wound, as barely prepared for the next blow, whatever it may be. And it is always in the eyes.