October 31, 2007
Colours light up brain structure
It's not often that research results look this good. An elegant new way to visualize individual brain cells not only provides a major boost to scientists trying to understand how the brain works, but has also won one of its developers a major prize in science photography. The method — described by neuroscientists at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in today’s Nature — allows researchers to see more clearly how individual neurons connect with each other by colouring each one from a palette of about 90 shades. In this way they will be able to build up a detailed diagram of the brain's wiring, which will help to study how it computes.
More than a century ago, neuroscientists developed the first method of staining individual neurons — with silver chromate. Work with this technique was the basis of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1906. But this could only stain neurons with one colour. Only in the last decade have scientists improved on this technique, using genetic engineering to transfer genes for fluorescent proteins into mice such that they are expressed in neurons. But until now they could transfer no more than two florescent-protein genes at a time, lighting up the brain with two colours. “It was clear that two colours were not enough to map connections efficiently in the brain’s complex tangle of neurons,” says Joshua Sanes, one of the paper’s senior scientists.
A Review of the Play Sunlight at Midnight
Natasha Tsangarides in Electronic Intifada:
Despite the promise of the international community, the camp [Shatila] was later desecrated. Using oral histories, Naji and the audience are taken into the world of Shatila refugee camp, where it is estimated that between 2,000 and 3,500 people were murdered in 1982. Here, we learn of the testimonies of a population displaced not once, but several times, who endure hardship within a hostile environment.
The play [Sunlight at Midnight] is thought-provoking, bringing into question many themes such as identity formation, exile and the power of memory, while simultaneously highlighting the failures of the international community and the need to commemorate this tragedy.
As we are introduced to different characters throughout the play, we gain an insight into selective memory and historical narrative. The process of exile has affected each person differently, with the sense of belonging to a Palestinian heritage stronger within the camp. History adopts two meanings in the two worlds we enter: one is associated with power, knowledge and purity, and the other with something threatening or irrelevant.
Fodor on Adaptation and Natural Selection
This picture – that our minds were formed by processes of evolutionary adaptation, and that the environment they are adapted to isn’t the one that we now inhabit – has had, of late, an extraordinarily favourable press. Darwinism has always been good copy because it has seemed closer to our core than most other branches of science: botany, say, or astronomy or hydrodynamics. But if this new line of thought is anywhere near right, it is closer than we had realised. What used to rile Darwin’s critics most was his account of the phylogeny of our species. They didn’t like our being just one branch among many in the evolutionary tree; and they liked still less having baboons among their family relations. The story of the consequent fracas is legendary, but that argument is over now. Except, perhaps, in remote backwaters of the American Midwest, the Darwinian account of our species’ history is common ground in all civilised discussions, and so it should be. The evidence really is overwhelming.
But Darwin’s theory of evolution has two parts. One is its familiar historical account of our phylogeny; the other is the theory of natural selection, which purports to characterise the mechanism not just of the formation of species, but of all evolutionary changes in the innate properties of organisms. According to selection theory, a creature’s ‘phenotype’ – the inventory of its heritable traits, including, notably, its heritable mental traits – is an adaptation to the demands of its ecological situation. Adaptation is a name for the process by which environmental variables select among the creatures in a population the ones whose heritable properties are most fit for survival and reproduction. So environmental selection for fitness is (perhaps plus or minus a bit) the process par excellence that prunes the evolutionary tree.
More often than not, both halves of the Darwinian synthesis are uttered in the same breath; but it’s important to see that the phylogeny could be true even if the adaptationism isn’t.
But, please. No more apologies.
Fifty years ago, New American Library published the Mentor Philosophers series, each with a title beginning The Age of . . . Belief, Ideology, Reason, and so on; the 20th-century selections bore the title The Age of Analysis. Had the series continued to the end of that century and into this, the volume should no doubt be The Age of Apology. Our postmodern ethos seems to hold that if anything can be proved to have happened, then surely someone needs to apologize for it.
We live amid a veritable tsunami of apology. The Catholic Church, which, of course, has much to apologize for, has, of late, offered mea culpas to Galileo, the Jews, the gypsies, Jan Hus, whom it burned at the stake in 1415, even to Constantinople (now Istanbul) for its sacking 800 years ago by the knights of the Fourth Crusade, an event for which the late John Paul II expressed “deep regret.” No wonder that a group in England, claiming descent from the medieval Knights Templars, is asking the Vatican to apologize for the violent suppression of the order and for torturing to death its Grand Master Jacques de Molay in 1314, an apology timed to commemorate the 700th anniversary of that fell deed.
more from The American Scholar here.
Thousands of Cubans and foreigners have been flocking to a mausoleum in central Cuba to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Che Guevara's death. For 10 years, the Cuban government has been telling the world that the body inside the mausoleum is that of the famous guerrilla.
It's a lie designed to bamboozle the population into worshiping the Argentine-born revolutionary as if he were a saint--and the Cuban Revolution as if it were a religion. A brilliant investigation by French journalist Bertrand de la Grange, recently published in Spain's El Pais newspaper, demolishes the official version.
In 1995, Bolivian Gen. Mario Vargas, who had fought Che's guerrillas in the 1960s, revealed that the revolutionary's body was buried a few meters from the airport runway in Vallegrande, a town close to La Higuera, the village in eastern Bolivia where Guevara was killed on Oct. 9, 1967. (Guevara had been executed after the Bolivian president ordered the soldiers who ambushed and captured him to get rid of him.) Cuba sent a forensic, diplomatic and legal team to Vallegrande. On June 28, 1997, they claimed to have found the body, which was brought to Cuba a few weeks before the 30th anniversary of the guerrilla's death.
Numerous facts belie the Cuban claim.
more from TNR here.
The meaning of Kahlo’s art comes across in reproductions, but not its full dynamic, which involves brooding subtleties of surface and color. The reproduced images are shiny and bright. The paintings are matte and grayish, drinking and withholding light. (Their display calls for intense illumination—that of the Mexican sun, say. They should not be hung on white walls, as they are at the Walker, where the contrast makes them look like holes in a snowbank.) The lovely, highly varied, blushing colors (even Kahlo’s browns and greens blush) don’t radiate. Fused with represented flesh, foliage, fabrics, and, yes, ribbons and jewelry, they turn their backs to us. The payoff of this reticence is an absorption in the artist’s touch. It’s easy to fantasize that Kahlo’s brushes were fingertips, able to mold her own more than familiar features in the dark. The tactility of certain self-portraits is, among other things, staggeringly sexy. In “Me and My Parrots” (1941), it combines with sharp tonal contrasts of warm color to convey invisible moistness, as of a summertime, full-body, delicate sweat. Elsewhere, the felt oneness of sight and touch stirs harrowing empathy, as in “The Broken Column” (1944). Kahlo’s nude body is split open to reveal a crumbling pillar, nails penetrating her flesh everywhere. Tears flow from her eyes, but her face is dispassionate, as always. Her pain is not her. It just won’t let her mind stray to anything else, for the moment. The work belongs to a category of images with which Kahlo confronted and endured episodes of agony, including heartbreak and rage. (Most piercing are laments of her disastrous pregnancies; she longed for children but physically could not bring a baby to term.) They aren’t great art, but they are moving testaments of a great artist.
more from The New Yorker here.
There was no Herodotus before Herodotus
"There was no Herodotus before Herodotus." This little pearl, courtesy of the historical polymath Arnaldo Momigliano (1908–1987), belongs to the class of truly illuminating tautologies. When Herodotus, in the middle of the 5th century B.C.E., composed his "history" of the Persian wars, there was simply no one around to tell him how it was done. The result, as anyone who has lost the thread amid one of Herodotus's labyrinthine geographic detours knows, is anything but a "history" in the familiar sense of the term — that is, scrupulous, meticulous, and humorless. The project is better understood as an "inquiry" — a more accurate translation of the Greek word anyhow — into the shape of the known world, almost as if such an inquiry were necessary to understand, as Herodotus put it in his preface to the work, "the reason why the Greeks and barbarians fought one another."
more from the NY Sun here.
Robert Macfarlane on mountains, Romanticism, the sublime, etc.
The cultural understanding of mountains seems so bound up with the aesthetics of the sublime and the advent of Romanticism that it is hard to understand exactly what mountains meant before the eighteenth century. Were they simply seen as blanks, deserts, wild places?
It would be wrong to propose that there’s no refined mountain perception prior to Romanticism. You only need to look at someone like Leonardo da Vinci. He’s making extraordinary sketches of mountain phenomena in the Italian Alps: they’re beautiful, and attentive both to meteorology and geology. In so many ways—as he always does—da Vinci anticipates what’s to come by several centuries. There’s also a biblical tradition of revelation at height: Moses, obviously, on Sinai, or on Mount Pisgah, looking down into the promised land. So there are visionary traditions that precede the late eighteenth century. Petrarch claims to have climbed Mount Ventoux in April 1336; doubts have been voiced about whether he actually made the ascent, but the falsifiability of the account doesn’t really matter, because he gives us one of the first expedition journals (the book of Exodus would be another of these), and one of the first mountain descriptions in which mountain and text, or mountain and representation, become blurred almost to the point of interchangeability. So, in one sense, you can construct a tradition of the visionary and the beautiful for mountains which precedes Romanticism, going as far back as you want to go. But on the other hand, it’s quite possible to argue that mountains existed as little more than wallpaper, by and large, through the Medieval and Early Modern periods.
more from Cabinet here.
The future of air travel
Kroo believes the way we fly planes may change. Currently all commercial airliners cruise at speeds of around Mach 0.85 (85 percent of the speed of sound). Kroo believes in the future planes may slow down, say from Mach 0.85 to Mach 0.75.
He also believes planes could fly at lower altitudes because of concerns that contrails affect the atmosphere. Other environmental impacts would also be reduced. Nitrogen oxide emissions, unburned hydrocarbons and water vapor all have an impact strongly related to how long they stay in the atmosphere: lower altitudes help reduce this.
"It's uncertain, but people are actively planning flight paths at lower speeds and altitudes. The sky in the future may not be filled with white lines," Kroo said.
This would mean very efficient airplanes flying at slightly slower speeds -- a small change in convenience but a profound reduction in environmental impact. A reduction in fuel burn of 50 percent is not out of the question, according to Kroo.
J. Craig Venter on the Colbert Report
Bush honours Mockingbird legend
From The Guardian:
Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by George Bush. Whether or not one of the world's most publicity-shy literary stars will relish being given America's highest - and very public - award remains to be seen. According to the citation the reclusive author has been honoured for "an outstanding contribution to America's literary tradition. At a critical moment in our history, her beautiful book, To Kill a Mockingbird, helped focus the nation on the turbulent struggle for equality."
Lee was born in Monroeville in 1926, in the deep South, at a time of strict racial segregation. She was a voracious reader who moved to New York determined to become a writer, and succeeded with To Kill A Mockingbird. The book was an instant bestseller and won a Pulitzer prize. It was also made into a hit film starring Gregory Peck, which quickly gained similar "classic" status to the book's.
October 30, 2007
John Milton's On Time
It continues at Harper's.
Fly envious Time, till thou run out thy race,
Call on the lazy leaden-stepping hours,
Whose speed is but the heavy Plummets pace;
And glut thy self with what thy womb devours,
Which is no more then what is false and vain,
And meerly mortal dross;
So little is our loss,
So little is thy gain.
Nicole Martinelli in Wired:
Professor Stefano Mancuso knows it isn't easy being green: He runs the world's only laboratory dedicated to plant intelligence.
At the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology (LINV), about seven miles outside Florence, Italy, Mancuso and his team of nine work to debunk the myth that plants are low-life. Research at the modern building combines physiology, ecology and molecular biology.
"If you define intelligence as the capacity to solve problems, plants have a lot to teach us," says Mancuso, dressed in harmonizing shades of his favorite color: green. "Not only are they 'smart' in how they grow, adapt and thrive, they do it without neuroses. Intelligence isn't only about having a brain."
Plants have never been given their due in the order of things; they've usually been dismissed as mere vegetables. But there's a growing body of research showing that plants have a lot to contribute in fields as disparate as robotics and telecommunications. For instance, current projects at the LINV include a plant-inspired robot in development for the European Space Agency. The "plantoid" might be used to explore the Martian soil by dropping mechanical "pods" capable of communicating with a central "stem," which would send data back to Earth.
From the Annals of Altruism, Wikipedia Again
A closer look at the Good Samaritans at Wikipedia (via EurekAlert):
Dartmouth researchers looked at the online encyclopedia Wikipedia to determine if the anonymous, infrequent contributors, the Good Samaritans, are as reliable as the people who update constantly and have a reputation to maintain.
The answer is, surprisingly, yes. The researchers discovered that Good Samaritans contribute high-quality content, as do the active, registered users. They examined Wikipedia authors and the quality of Wikipedia content as measured by how long and how much of it persisted before being changed or corrected.
"This finding was both novel and unexpected," says Denise Anthony, associate professor of sociology. "In traditional laboratory studies of collective goods, we don't include Good Samaritans, those people who just happen to pass by and contribute, because those carefully designed studies don't allow for outside actors. It took a real-life situation for us to recognize and appreciate the contributions of Good Samaritans to web content."
Debating Race and the American Electoral Scene
Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong discuss the southern strategy, the undoing of the New Deal coalition, and the future of America's electoral terrain over at TPM Cafe. Krugman:
To give you a sense of just how little there is to be explained once you take this shift into account, here’s a statistic from Larry Bartels, my Princeton colleague. Everyone knows that white men have left the Democratic Party. But what everyone knows isn’t true, if you exclude the South. In 1952, 40 percent of non-Southern white males voted Democratic; in 2004, that was down to, um, 39 percent. (And no, the choice of years doesn’t matter – a fitted trend line tells the same story.)
Now, you could argue that the distinctiveness of the Southern vote isn’t about race. But during the rise of movement conservatism, conservative politicians clearly campaigned on race – that is, they behaved as if they thought that was what it was all about. Ronald Reagan – the real RR, not the latter-day saint – was best known in the 70s for his tales of welfare queens driving Cadillacs. He began his 1980 campaign with the infamous states’ rights speech at Philadelphia, Mississippi, where civil rights workers were murdered.
Back in the 1920s, you see, there were a lot of northern liberals who voted Republican because Lincoln had freed the slaves (they were called "Progressives") and a lot of southern conservatives who voted Democratic because Lincoln had freed the slaves ("Dixiecrats"). The Great Crash and the Great Depression broke the allegiance of northern Republican liberals, so from 1933 on northern liberals vote Democratic. Southern conservatives, however, by and large continue to vote Democratic until the 1980s or so.
This means that from 1933 to 1994 the partisan balance of seats in the congress (and, to a much lesser extent, the presidency) is substantially to the left of where America is. From 1933 to 1960 or so the fact that southern conservative Democrats are long-serving and hold the committee chairs moderates the effects of the partisan balance. But by the 1980s the committee chairships are mostly held by northern liberals--pushing the balance of power in congress substantially to the left of the country. And in the 1990s the balance shifted back as southern conservatives stopped voting Democratic.
Russell Roberts over at Cafe Hayek and Robin Hanson over at Overcoming Bias argue about the value of statistical techniques. Roberts:
The nature of the analysis is such that neither side can convince the other that "their" analysis is reliable. That's not always true. As I suggest in the podcast, Milton Friedman was able to convince the skeptics that inflation is everywhere and always a monetary phenomenon. Friedman won the debate. But how many other studies can you think of where someone staked out a controversial position and convinced the skeptics based on empirical analysis? I think it can be done, but it's rare. And in today's world, most of the interesting empirical claims are being made in cases where the data are too incomplete and the issue is so complex that we can't move to a consensus. The empirical work doesn't improve our understanding of what's going on. It masks what's going on. It gives a patina of science when in effect the numbers aren't really informing the debate.
If Russ relies little on data to draw his conclusions, then on what does he rely? Perhaps he relies on theoretical arguments. But can't we say the same thing about theory, that we mainly just search for theory arguments to support preconceived conclusions? If so, what is left, if we rely on neither data nor theory?
Try saying this out loud: "Neither the data nor theory I've come across much explain why I believe this conclusion, relative to my random whim, inherited personality, and early culture and indoctrination, and I have no good reasons to think these are much correlated with truth." That does not seem a conclusion worth retaining.
[H/t: Saifedean Ammous]
My basic point was that when it comes to high-powered sophisticated statistical techniques, our biases as researchers and as consumers of that research often triumph over truth. The truth is elusive in complex systems with many things changing at once. It’s hard to isolate the independent effect of one particular variable. When scholars can run hundreds of multivariate regressions at very low cost, it easy to convince yourself that the results that confirm your prior beliefs are the “right “ results. The ones that failed must be the “bad ones.”
An Open Letter from Akbar Ganji to Ban Ki-Moon
In the Boston Review:
The people of Iran and Iranian advocates for freedom and democracy are experiencing difficult days. They need the moral support of the proponents of freedom throughout the world and effective intervention by the United Nations. We categorically reject a military attack on Iran. At the same time, we ask you and all of the world's intellectuals and proponents of liberty and democracy to condemn the human rights violations of the Iranian state. We expect from Your Excellency, in your capacity as the Secretary-General of the United Nations, to reprimand the Iranian government – in keeping with your legal duties – for its extensive violation of the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights covenants and treaties.
Above all, we hope that with Your Excellency's immediate intervention, all of Iran's political prisoners, who are facing more deplorable conditions with every passing day, will soon be released. The people of Iran are asking themselves whether the UN Security Council is only decisive and effective when it comes to the suspension of the enrichment of uranium, and whether the lives of the Iranian people are unimportant as far as the Security Council is concerned.
Make Your Own South Park Character
South Park Robin... courtesy of SP-Studio:
The Manhattan in The Manhattan Project
In “The Manhattan Project” (Black Dog & Leventhal), published last month, Dr. Norris writes about the Manhattan Project’s Manhattan locations. He says the borough had at least 10 sites, all but one still standing. They include warehouses that held uranium, laboratories that split the atom, and the project’s first headquarters — a skyscraper hidden in plain sight right across from City Hall.
“It was supersecret,” Dr. Norris said in an interview. “At least 5,000 people were coming and going to work, knowing only enough to get the job done.”
Manhattan was central, according to Dr. Norris, because it had everything: lots of military units, piers for the import of precious ores, top physicists who had fled Europe and ranks of workers eager to aid the war effort. It even had spies who managed to steal some of the project’s top secrets.
“The story is so rich,” Dr. Norris enthused. “There’s layer upon layer of good stuff, interesting characters.”
Still, more than six decades after the project’s start, the Manhattan side of the atom bomb story seems to be a well-preserved secret.
Two Women, Two Histories: A feminist, an antifeminist, and their exercise of power
From Harvard Magazine:
As the second world war drew to a close, two women thought about applying to Harvard Law School.
The first was an African-American native of North Carolina, the granddaughter of a slave and the great-granddaughter of a slave-owner, who had moved North for college, survived the lean years of the Depression, befriended Eleanor Roosevelt, and sought unsuccessfully to do graduate work in sociology at the all-white University of North Carolina. When instead she finished Howard Law School at the top of her class, she sought the fellowship traditionally awarded to Howard’s best student: a year at Harvard to complete a master’s of law degree. But, wrote the admissions committee, “Your picture and the salutation on your college transcript indicate that you are not of the sex entitled to be admitted to Harvard Law School.”
The second woman who thought about applying to law school was a Midwesterner of Scottish descent, educated in Catholic schools paid for by her mother’s hard-earned wages. After politely defying her teachers by declining a full scholarship to a local Catholic college, this woman spent the war acing a full course load in political science at her state’s best university by day, and working eight-hour shifts testing firearms in a munitions factory by night. Upon her graduation, Columbia, Radcliffe, and Wellesley all offered her financial aid for graduate study; she chose correctly, and so impressed her Radcliffe professors that one offered to sponsor her application to law school. The steep cost of a legal education led her to decline, and she was off to Washington to seek a job in the federal government.
The first woman was Pauli Murray, whose remarkable contributions to American legal and women’s history are beginning to be recognized, thanks in large part to the voluminous personal papers she left to the Radcliffe Institute’s Schlesinger Library. The second woman is, quite decidedly and proudly, not a feminist icon. She is Phyllis Schlafly, A.M. ’45, who some say is more responsible than anyone for the rise of grassroots religious conservatism and the transformation of the Republican Party, and who all agree can take the lion’s share of credit or blame for the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment and the rise of antifeminism as a force in American politics.
Low Buzz May Give Mice Better Bones and Less Fat
From The New York Times:
All he does is put mice on a platform that buzzes at such a low frequency that some people cannot even feel it. The mice stand there for 15 minutes a day, five days a week. Afterward, they have 27 percent less fat than mice that did not stand on the platform — and correspondingly more bone. While some scientists are enthusiastic, others are skeptical. The mice may be less fat after standing on the platform, these researchers say, but they are not convinced of the explanation — that fat precursor cells are turning into bone.
“Bone is notorious for ‘use it or lose it,’” Dr. Rubin said. “Astronauts lose 2 percent of their bone a month. People lose 2 percent a decade after age 35. Then you look at the other side of the equation. Professional tennis players have 35 percent more bone in their playing arm. What is it about mechanical signals that makes Roger Federer’s arm so big?”
At first, he assumed that the exercise effect came from a forceful impact — the pounding on the leg bones as a runner’s feet hit the ground or the blow to the bones in a tennis player’s arm with every strike of the ball. But Dr. Rubin was trained as a biomechanical engineer, and that led him to consider other possibilities. Large signals can actually be counterproductive, he said, adding: “If I scream at you over the phone, you don’t hear me better. If I shine a bright light in your eyes, you don’t see better.”
Over the years, he and his colleagues discovered that high-magnitude signals, like the ones created by the impact as foot hits pavement, were not the predominant signals affecting bone. Instead, bone responded to signals that were high in frequency but low in magnitude, more like a buzzing than a pounding.
October 29, 2007
Below the Fold: A World without the Rich
Can you imagine a world without the rich?
You might say that the rich we have had as long as we have had the poor. As the incredulous swell in an old wine commercial said to the ingénue: “How do you think I got so rich?”
Most Americans today accept the rich as they do death and taxes as another one of life’s annoying basic facts. It is unusual for Americans to realize that we as a society are responsible for their existence. We believe what they tell us. Once again, an old commercial suffices: As John Houseman, bow-tied, and quintessentially the patrician Harvard law professor he once played put it about his client: “At Smith Barney, we make money the old fashioned way – we earn it!”
(Parenthetically, who among the moneychangers would dare run this ad now?)
We need not countenance their existence forever. One need not bring back Stalin to reduce or eliminate the rich. Scandinavian countries do quite well in minimizing their presence. And there is little mystery in how to reduce or eliminate the economic power of the rich. Steeply progressive income taxes, elimination of inherited wealth through estate taxes, and income redistribution along with a robust welfare state can do it.
If Americans examined the deeper damage that the rich do to society, perhaps they might be willing to try cutting the rich down to size.
Let’s look at how the rich damage American society.
First, they burn up resources. Andrew Hacker in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books paid tribute to John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society for its scathing critique of the lifestyles of the rich and its condemnation of how they squandered national resources on personal consumption. These resources, Galbraith argued, could be better put to solving the country’s social problems. As noted above, there are remedies that Americans thus far refuse to apply, and they are as obvious as they are ignored.
Second, the rich corrupt the major institutions of American society. It bears repeating that the rich don’t get rich or stay rich simply by making better widgets and saving the profits from their corporate endeavors. They make legislatures dysfunctional, regulatory authorities their watchdogs, and professions their poodles. They corrupt presidents. They even corrupt each other, as corporate heads are bribed with board positions and in turn protect the interests of the company that bribed them.
Consider their corruption of several essential marketplaces for goods and services. What is the recuperative value of a luxury hotel inside a major hospital, complete with chef and concierge services? That depends, I suppose, on what is being recuperated. In the hospital’s case, they recover money, they claim, and lots of it, when compared to serving those Medicaid-assisted poor and the Medicare-dependent elderly and disabled. Instead of lamenting low Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements, they are pandering to the rich. Often it is for more than just money for services rendered. There are new hospital wings and prestigious care centers and institutes to think about, and who better to hit on but the rich who have just spent a week at the local Plaza Hotel hospital?
If pampering patients makes them get well, then how can it be denied to others? But that isn’t the point of the white glove treatment, is it?
Even as doctors desert careers in internal medicine owing to perceived lower pay and longer hours, other internists open boutiques, shrink their practices to a quarter of their former sizes, and charge $3000 per person annual membership fees (See my column “Is There a Doctor in the House?”). Every time internists create boutiques, they diminish the number of doctors, already declining, that provide medical care for everyone else.
The rich even corrupt careers like hospital administration. A recent Boston Globe story disclosed that the presidents of Boston’s major teaching hospitals make near or over a million dollars each a year (NB: without bonuses added). The last time I checked, hospitals of this sort were non-profit institutions. One would think that the boards of these non-profit hospitals would blanch at paying them a million, if only for fear of bad publicity. Yet, as the boards are composed mostly of very rich people, they by practically class instinct would acknowledge that someone whom they employ with so much responsibility deserves a comparable reward. This, after all, is their divine right to ungodly compensation too, so the divine right must be defended everywhere, or it will eventually obtain nowhere.
The rich corrupt universities. Elite schools become elite schools because they service the elite. If that seems tautological, that’s because it’s causal, not casual. The rich made elite schools with their money, and the payback for their accumulated billions, according to Daniel Golden, Wall Street Journal reporter in his new book The Price of Admission, is legacy admissions for their heirs. The subtitle of his book could be “how George Bush got to Yale,” and perhaps how he managed to actually get “C” grades. (You have heard of the gentleman’s “C” haven’t you?) Golden shows how elite schools take in hefty percentages of legacy undergraduates. He also shows in the case of Duke how the university effectively solicited bribes by admitting rich students with the expectation that endowment money would follow from them and their families.
And we thought we lived in a meritocracy. Horatio Alger was right: the best way to succeed in business is to marry the boss’ doctor – or, it seems, play lacrosse at Dartmouth with his son.
But there is a third and perhaps the most insidious way whereby the rich corrupt American society. They corrupt the nature of society itself by turning their corrupting powers and dubious satisfactions into cultural standards for the rest of America. The great if largely forgotten social critic Thorstein Veblen in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) made this point precisely and with disarming if utterly cynical simplicity. Wealth, Veblen argued, was a source of honor, and thus having it created an invidious distinction. Others emulated the rich to achieve wealth and status. Seeing this, the rich manifest their dominance through conspicuous consumption, which also has the happy effect of controlling and corrupting American institutions, as I have suggested above in the cases of elite higher education and medical care.
Thus, for instance, philanthropy, though universally considered generous and altruistic, has a predatory component. It is, as the French sociologist Marcel Mauss would have noted, a gift that demands reciprocation – in this case power – in return. When Mike Bloomberg gives upwards of a billion dollars to the Johns Hopkins medical colossus, he receives respect in return, and probably influence in the future direction of the institution. Bill Gates, to take another case, is now one of a handful of the world’s most influential people directing global world health initiatives. Warren Buffett has decided that his friend Bill, Gates that is, should use his wealth in Gates-sponsored initiatives too. All of this is done without a whimper about the loss of democratic control of our priorities, and without a whisper of the impropriety of handing over state and in Gates’ case global sovereignty to the rich.
The rich also receive sanction for their wealth and the means by which they made it. Gates’ Microsoft may have been found by the European Community to have used monopoly power to kill off its competition, but this fact is buried on the financial pages. His philanthropy is strictly page one. And the rich actually claim their legitimacy from beyond the grave, a power for which every legacy student at Harvard rejoices. Everyone remembers that the great Andrew Carnegie, either out of soulful suffering or by virtue of his attachment to the strictures of Scottish Protestantism, gave away his total fortune. Those beautiful rural town libraries and several foundations are the result. Few remember how his steel company was responsible for the bloodiest and most lethal counterattack on a union strike in American history. With money, the rich not only predate the rest of society, but also produce a sanctifying grace that absolves their sins.
Go thou and do likewise, the rich can be heard to say. Instead of stripping the rich of their predatory and envy-making wealth, several hundred million Americans put their hopes and dreams into a chase after wealth and an orgy of conspicuous consumption. No more just social order emerges. No, instead the rich and their divine right are affirmed. After all, how can you be against wealth and predatory power if you chase it? Millions of American lives are wrecked in emulating the rich and pursuing their path. Millions more may not emulate the rich, but the rich and their wannabees economically and socially run them over anyway in the great chase for wealth and power. The poor, the working classes, hell, everyone in the bottom four fifths of American society are exploited by the rich at the same time they are upbraided for falling behind. You’d have to be a swell not to notice that the rich create a standard of living that only the rich can afford.
Ponder this and this observation of Thorstein Veblen’s:
“The fact that the usages, actions, and views of the well-to-do leisure class acquire the character of a prescriptive canon of conduct for the rest of society, gives added weight and reach to the conservative influence of that class. It makes it incumbent upon all reputable people to follow their lead. So that, by virtue of its high position as the avatar of good form, the wealthier class comes to exert a retarding influence upon social development far in excess of that which the simple numerical strength of the class would assign it. Its prescriptive example acts to greatly stiffen the resistance of all other classes against any innovation….” (Penguin Books, 1994, 200)
'Gut gemacht, Rex!'
Do they give acting awards to dogs? Perhaps they should in the case of the television program Inspector Rex—Kommissar Rex—an amazing German Shepherd (or series of Shepherds) who helps the Criminal Bureau solve murder mayhem in Vienna. See Rex get jealous when a woman comes onto the home ground of his detective owner. Watch in amazement as Rex uncovers evidence in the grounds of Schönbrunn. Laugh when Rex steals yet another ham roll from one of the detectives who is slow on the uptake that this is one extremely clever canine. Invariably, Rex is told he is wonderful somewhere towards the end of each episode. Which he is.
Yes, the plots are are often absurd, and no dog can be that clever. However, this is a show that doesn’t pretend to be anything other than an entertainment. It is warm bath television that is enjoyable without getting into Derrick territory, my favourite police series, which seemed to cram an amazing amount of metaphysical speculation into its hourly format.
Some people start foaming at the mouth the moment you indicate that you are not going to spend your entire life getting saddle sore with Sontag or become spellbound before the latest speculations of the Four Strawmen of the Atheistoclypse. Will & Grace. Cue a thousand put-downs. The Sound of Music. Could anything be more banal.
Popular culture can provoke the worst kind of snobbery in some. We know that nuns didn’t stop the advance of the Nazis by mucking around with engine parts, just as we are perfectly well aware that people don’t suddenly burst into song with orchestral accompaniment in the Austrian alps. However, we accept the aesthetic boundaries within which various genres operate, and enjoy them for what they have to give. I might regard Wagner as one of the most interesting representatives of Western civilisation, but I certainly don’t want to go around listening to Wagner all day. I couldn’t think of anything worse. ‘Edelweiss’, and its kind, it must be, more than occasionally.
Oliver Hirschbiegel, who directed some episodes of Inspector Rex, went on to direct Der Untergang, the compelling film about Hitler’s last days with a magnificent ensemble cast led by Bruno Ganz. And I have heard more than a few people admit to the cataclysmic effect their first encounter with The Sound of Music had on them. In other words, there is no gap between the varieties of irreligious experience. The Hegel reader can fall for the nonsensical intellectual blather that’s about these days; the ABBA aficionado may be reading Moby-Dick. So far, so obvious.
The digital spread of culture has been a good thing, despite those who want to bury their heads in the sand and pretend that all cultural product prior to circa 1995 was marvellous. Yes, there’s a lot of indulgence about now, the price to be paid for the new freedoms, but there are still some who try to ignore the fact that culture has become democratised for the first time in history. They don’t like it, but that’s too bad because it’s going to happen at any rate. Serious culture has to earn its stripes, and if people get off on a sitcom rather than listening to some music of the Darmstadt School, that is a choice made freely by free citizens. The fact that I don’t like a great deal of contemporary culture, think that it sells the human condition short, or is simply product manufactured to make money, is really neither here nor there, just as some names in the present cultural diaspora do nothing for me—they can take care of themselves. However, the worst thing is to go around in a state of high seriousness all the time insisting that one must get through on a diet of severities that would mortify a saint.
‘A crazy planet full of crazy people, / Is somersaulting all around the sky. / And everytime it turns another somersault, / Another day goes by. / And there’s no way to stop it, / No, there’s no way to stop it, No, you can’t stop it even if you tried. / So, I’m not going to worry, / No, I’m not going to worry, / Everytime I see another day go by.’
‘No Way To Stop It.’ One of the best songs in The Sound of Music, cut from the film version, but containing the kind of common sense you won’t find in the Solemn Times Weekly or Preaching To The Unconverted Standard.
In the contemporary imagination Salzburg may turn out to be be the place where Julie Andrews sang Maria rather than the city that sent Mozart packing. But you can still visit the place where Mozart lived in Vienna and dwell upon the mystery of greatness. It’s not exactly secret knowledge, yet.
? . . . !
Bring in my German Shepherd now. . . .
Nice dog. How do you solve a problem like Maria? With some Nietzsche, perhaps?
Stop licking me. But, oh well, why not.
Amazingly enough, Rex had transformed himself—Tardis assisted— and was now beside me, sitting just in front of the large Anselm Kiefer painting that had taken over my loungeroom wall. You can imagine how taken aback I was.
But then, even more amazingly, Rex began to speak and, what’s more, in perfect English, which is a bit odd for an Austrian German Shepherd, you’ll agree. A poem.
Happy is he who has loved,
She who has known the hour
Of earth’s inexplicable marvels
And is content not to want more.
Incredible. (But . . . aren’t marvels explicable these days?)
Oh, that is good Rex. You wonderful dog. I was so stunned I could say nothing more.
But I thought, ‘Gut gemacht, Rex!’
Rex recites his poem hereabouts. 0' 54''
A Fan's Notes On The 2007 World Series
MVP Mike Lowell and the Boston Red Sox poured down hurt on the Colorado Rockies in the wretched World Series that ended in last night’s mercy killing Game 4 Sweep. Outside of Red Sox Nation, it was surely one of the dullest of Series in recent memory, the sum total of high drama amounting to the pitchers’ duel in Game 2, about two innings in Game 3, and, to be charitable, the final few innings of Game 4. Boston fans, during the 13-1 battering in Game 1, probably took a sort of Imperial Roman delight in feeding God's Baseball Team to the lions. (The Rockies look for players with “character” and once hosted an event called "Christian Family Day" at Coors Field). The Rockies might be God’s Team, but remember what the Big Guy did to his own Son, after all. As for the Sox, they’re a pretty secular religion: Fenway's ballpark organ played “Halleluiah” after Carlton Fisk’s 12th-inning Game 6 Homer in 1975.
The diehard Red Sox fan believes in his or her heart of hearts that if the score is 13-1 in the ninth that they will still lose, or that if the Sox are up 3-0 in the Series the other team will come back even though it is impossible. Tragedy, after all, is older than Christianity, and Fenway Park, as everyone knows, was built before the birth of Jesus. Fans of small market teams should enjoy or even pity rather than fear and loathe Red Sox Nation in their new ill-fitting dominance. Red Sox fans are now a little bit like lottery winners whose minds might teeter into self-destruction amidst so much inexplicable success. They’ll need counseling for post-post traumatic stress. The Sox are in their revolutionary Bolshevik stage: Their red banners have overthrown the joyless autocrats of Yankee Stadium, the power has shifted their way, and they are still honeymooning, no longer underdogs and not yet developed into fully-fledged bullies.
But, then again, see it the Sox Way. Manny Ramirez, asked about the improbability of the Sox getting to this Series at all after being down 3-1 to Cleveland, said, “Who cares? It’s not like the end of the world.” Manny is a Zen Master. Manny Being Manny reminds me of that old commercial for beauty products which said: “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.” Sox closer Papelbon Riverdances in his underwear on the field and sits in the dugout between innings he is pitching in a trance of semi-permanent psychosis. The bullpen clangs spoons and bottles in rhythm on walls and each other. Knuckleballs, dreadlocks, an undone hex, a manual scoreboard and a cranky old ballpark at home. What’s not to love, seriously?
Sure, the contemporary game is a model of conglomerate capitalism, in which not a monopoly but a consortium of big-time corporations squeeze out the competition, buy up anyone who threatens to beat them, and use sheer weight to crush smaller enterprises. Moneyball, the raiding of small market clubs, the bulldozing success of the big payroll teams. The small markets essentially becoming farm-teams, a minor league within the Bigs in which promising youngsters audition in Oakland and Florida for jobs in other cities. In some ways, the Red Sox fan is like the irrational Republican voter described by Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter with Kansas. He or she maintains a fervid belief in the underdog status of a dominant corporation, and is made to feel like helping “the little guy” by shoveling cash into the pockets of multimillionaires. Boston and New York: Not Red and Blue exactly, but a lot like the two-party electoral system.
2007’s World Series MVP Lowell and Boston pitching star Josh Beckett, of course, were on the 2003 Florida Marlins, who beat the New York Yankees at home in the Championship: Somebody up in Boston took note of that series. It’s intriguing to trace out the fortunes of the members of that Marlins team, and realize how many of those players have given propulsion to the playoff bids of other teams since then. I think of those Marlins in part because they were the team that benefitted from the Bartman Play that kept my Cubs out of the 2003 World Series. (Governor Jeb Bush offered asylum in Florida to Bartman, a Cubs fan who accidently spoiled a key out trying to catch a foul ball in the stands.) Your 2003 World Champion Florida Marlins! Catcher Ivan Rodriguez, who made his major league debut and threw out two base runners on the same day he was married, went to the World Series with the Detroit Tigers after leaving the Marlins. Juan Encarnacion won another world series with St. Louis. Derrek Lee helped my Cubs win the NL Central this year. Juan Pierre, who holds the record for lowest strikeout percentage among active baseball players, and Brad Penny, a 2007 All-Star, both went to the Dodgers and even so the team can do nothing in the sluggish smog. Carl Pavano had one of those terrible Yankee pitching experiences that don’t work out. Ramon Castro became a Met, along with, eventually, Luis Castillo, a lifetime .294 hitter who was at bat during the Bartman Fiasco. Dontrelle Willis stayed in Florida, and this year he didn’t seem very happy there (surely the Red Sox should acquire his services as soon as practicable). The fact that all these players – Beckett, Lowell, Rodriguez, Encarnacion, Lee, Pierre, Penny, Pavano, Castro, Castillo, and Willis – were on the same small market team at the same time is wholly remarkable, the fact that the team was in Florida is even more remarkable, and the fact that this particular roster scattered with such velocity and haste after winning the Championship is more than remarkable, it’s sad. Connie Mack did the same thing to his Philadelphia Athletics when he needed money, back in the day.
I digress, but researching whatever happened to the 2003 Florida Marlins was how I managed some of the dullest, open-laptop innings in postseason baseball for the last ten years. Something about baseball seems to invite all sorts of unsatisfying analogies, templates imposed upon a game that in truth cannot mean anything. Manny is right on the literal level – Who Cares? If He is There, we must hope God does not, he has bigger Fish to fry than answering Rockies prayers, although a sports-distracted Fan-God could be a powerful mechanism for explaining the current state of world affairs. But Manny’s “Who Cares?” is not a fan’s statement, it’s too cosmic and impartial, it’s too calm and wonderful, too blissed out, too correct, too perfect. Who Cares? Then why did we throw so many hours away watching this season? What exactly were we watching or waiting for? Gerald Early wrote in his essay “House of Ruth, House of Robinson,” in The Culture of Bruising, that baseball is a game “inextricably bound to story.” Franklin Foer wrote a witty book about How Soccer Explains the World. How Baseball Explains America has already been done very well by Ken Burns and Co., and, on a more literary level, by Don DeLillo in Underworld, amongst myriad examples. We care, so we make the game mean something it probably doesn’t, except that it does, because it means something to us, right?
PERCEPTIONS: flight photos
Sughra Raza. Landing at Logan. 2006.
THE BIBLIODYSSEY BOOK: AN INTERVIEW WITH PAUL K
All photos courtesy of BibliOdyssey. Click on single images to be taken to the page on which the image appears. Paired and triple images are numbered, with links appearing at the end of the article.
It’s going on 3 a.m., and -- quickly! -- you need to look at something unfamiliar, striking and truly well presented. Wouldn’t hurt if it were beautiful too. Oh, just for a minute. You know you shouldn’t get into a whole new Internet thing at this hour. But you must be optically seduced – you must be! And then you will sleep. First, however, some 12th century Egyptian maps that utterly disresemble any known terrain, some delicate German drawings from the 1830’s of Radiolaria and other single-celled organisms, a bit of Chinese garden architecture, various illustrated cosmologies, an engraving of a giant tuba dominating a Flemish townscape… No doubt about it -- you can only be headed for BibliOdyssey, one of the world’s best-loved art blogs. Earlier this month, the BibliOdyssey book came into being, published in London by FUEL, with a foreword by Dinos Chapman. It’s a big, beautiful book -- not just a triumph of the blog-to-book genre, but a triumph, period. And it’s so exciting to so many that this may well not be the first you’ve heard of it.
BibliOdyssey is the brainchild of Paul K, who lives in Sydney, Australia, and prefers to remain in the background: he is the curator, BibliOdyssey is the show. In lieu of an author photo, Paul sent me the print on the right. Some know him better by his screen name, peacay, or his initials, PK, but nobody knows much. I first made his acquaintance in my pioneering days of image capture; I didn’t know how to pull an image off the Internet, and Paul told me how the thing was done. Of this art, Paul is the master, and his meticulous care in matters of attribution is one of the BibliOdyssey hallmarks. If you like an item of the “visual Materia Obscura,” as Paul calls it, that you see on BibliOdyssey, then you will always be able to find out where it came from, and many other precise things about it too. Paul is not an art historian specializing in prints who’s showing you what he knows, but the searcher and discoverer of the images he puts up. Even though a post may take 10 days to a month to prepare, he writes about his finds with a distinctly un-gushy sense of having made a fresh haul. It’s an engaging, conversational style of writing that carries over into the book. And, I might add, a style an art history instructor could employ to keep visual culture newbies from feeling bogged down in class.
Apropos the publication of the book, Paul and I emailed about the evolution of the blog from its early days in 2005 to its present form, about the passionate nature of the search for images and the surprises involved, about shifting gears to write the book, and about his sense of mission in creating so much beauty and interest, post after long luminous post, four or five times a week.
ELATIA HARRIS: I’ll start with the obvious question -- How did you get the idea for BibliOdyssey? Were you looking for specific kinds of images from the get-go?
PAUL K: One way or another, all roads do lead to the Metafilter (Mefi) community. I had some time on my hands, first in Vietnam, then back here in Sydney, and I was busily looking around for weird and wonderful material to post to Mefi. There were a couple of posts I did -- on the outsider artist Charles Dellschau and the polymath Athanasius Kircher -- that really sparked my interest in the eclectic visual material to be found online. There was also a curiosity about blogging in general -- why was it such a popular thing? I didn't want to outstay my welcome at Mefi by continually posting about esoteric engravings and the suchlike, so corralling them at my own site proved to be the logical alternative.
EH: There used to be a line in your About section -- "If it looks like I know anything, the mirrors are working." It looks like you know a lot. Could you comment on special knowledge needed for putting up BibliOdyssey?
PK: I arrived with enthusiasm and maybe that was enough to hide my ignorance, at least initially. I have a deep respect for many sites out there that scan, aggregate and/or upload obscure artistic material and I've learned a lot by observing their various approaches. One art site I followed closely early on, Giornale Nuovo -- which, incidentally, has discontinued operation as of this week -- I considered to have an exemplary overall style and that probably had a positive affect on the way BibliOdyssey has developed over time. But I read widely across the web and am always watching and assessing a lot of people who have excellent technical, artistic or writing talents, so my education -- on many levels -- never ceases.
That line about the mirrors was meant as a humorous defense of course. I didn't want people to make the mistake of thinking they had found some kind of authority. I eventually removed the line from the site, not because I particularly felt that I had made any great progress, but because the joke wears a little thin after a while.
EH: So, if there was no very focused preparation, were there influences?
PK: Probably two major influences that bear on the way I approach things. One is a science degree and the other is Joyce's Ulysses. Science teaches a person to be a critical thinker and to search for essential features and the truth without regard to prejudices. It's a background that lets me scan 40 websites, for instance, and quickly identify the salient points and the most reliable sources. Ulysses teaches me that there is abundance in the commonplace and to have a sense of humor in the process of discovery.
So, more explicitly, I rely upon a continuous curiosity and attention to detail to overcome my lack of knowledge and background in all things of an artistic and historical nature.
EH: There was a sort of admiring criticism leveled at Monet –“Only an eye, but what an eye,” I think it went. Do you relate to that?
PK: Isn't the quote from Cézanne actually? -- "His was only an eye, but what an eye!" And I thought it was not a criticism at all, but an incredible compliment, implying that with his regular human vision he was able to see in a visionary way.
In any event, I relate to why Cézanne would be so deeply affected by Monet, yes. Do I think it relates at all to me or to BibliOdyssey. No. Absolutely not. I seriously do not believe that I have any great eye for identifying beautiful or wonderful or amazing images, or at least, no more than the next person. If I post a series of images from a certain artist, I am quite confident that most other people would make the same or similar choices. The only thing I'll concede -- and this really runs the gamut in terms of unearthing any depth of psychology to the background and practicalities of BibliOdyssey -- is that I devote the time and have built up a familiarity with the institutions and to a lesser degree, art history. My eye has been honed by experience.
EH: What does it feel like to conduct these long, fruitful searches and haul in all these fantastic images? I want to know a bit about the sorting process, also about the emotional quality of what you're doing.
PK: I'm not sure I'd call them long and fruitful. The fruit is sporadic at best. I have to scan a lot of rhubarb to find the strawberries!
There are varying levels to the sifting process. First it's about finding images in numbers that are rare, odd, unusual or have visual qualities that catch my eye or set them apart. At this stage I'm just happy that the net is full. I'm not really looking deeper at the detail or the artistic beauty, save for its initial impact from a quick scan.
Next it's about extracting, cleaning up (if needed), cropping, assembling and picking out a selection to post. Looking into the background, reading around, writing and compiling everything for an entry on the site takes from hours to days to sometimes weeks.
Nowhere in this chain of tasks do I have time to be particularly moved, or just contemplate the images in wonder. That part really comes for me in the same way it does for everybody else, when I return to the site and wander around without time constraints or the self-imposed pressure of constructing a post.
EH: You're used to surprising everybody with what you put up. Reading the comments, I see that people are often amazed by your finds. But are you knocked for a loop by what you find pretty often, too?
PK: Absolutely. Not every day perhaps, but regularly and significantly - it's like the serendipity one experiences wandering around an antiques store. I'm unencumbered by a background in the trade so each new trinket holds a special worth both because of its inherent beauty or novelty and also because I wasn't aware of its existence.
I suppose 10% of all the images posted continually take my breath away when I see them - they astonish me for their imaginative and artistic magnificence and I hope they always will. That's not to suggest that I don't like the other 90% of course, but there's a certain number for which the allure never abates.
EH: Would I be asking for a trade secret if I wanted to know why the images on BibliOdyssey are always so clear and sharp and radiant? I've never seen anyone do it better so it must take all night...
PK: Just staying with the antiques thought, I always try to remember the restorer's maxim - 'Do as little as is necessary.' So I don't use Photoshop and I only use a small paint program sometimes to downplay age- related damage and stains, particularly near faces. In truth, the image quality is very varied. Other than that, I would suggest that you are being fooled by the beauty of the underlying picture. Success!
EH: How did the idea for the book come about? Did it feel like a natural segue or did you have to be sold on it?
PK: FUEL Design came up with the idea and made a tentative contact. I said I was not averse to the concept but I didn't think it was necessarily feasible. They allayed my initial concerns by gently encouraging us to take some small steps to see what would happen. So it was probably not a natural progression for me at the very beginning. But my familiarity with the institutions the images came from, and their keepers, meant that the terrain we had to traverse was immediately in my area of experience.
EH: I like it that these images have come full circle – didn’t most of them start out in books?
PK: You’re suggesting that the site concentrates on book art and in fact that's not quite the case. The spectrum covered is actually print art. That ranges from book illustrations to posters to art books to watercolor sketch albums and all in between -- yes, the boundaries are a little fuzzy. It just so happens, quite naturally, that book art -- old engravings and whatnot -- is the predominant material. Funnily enough I didn't know they were the boundaries of the site from day one. I had a notion it would be in that general region, but when the site was posted to Mefi it was described as being a 'compendium of the printed image' and I took that as a cue.
EH: You mention a science degree in your background – yet you’ve set yourself an art historical/curatorial task, haven’t you? Do you sweep the archives in a pretty democratic fashion?
PK: It's the scientific mind at work in the field of art really. I'm not in the habit of attaching labels such as 'high art' or otherwise, so the democracy you see on the blog is really a product of combing through all the relevant material and saving what I find attractive. I have an acreage - print art - and I try to be assiduous in plowing all its constituent parts. You may well describe it as attempting to assess the visual scope of culture but that's not essentially where I come from. I'm looking for the outlandish, the intriguing, the bizarre, the beautiful, the breathtaking -- if, from a sociological viewpoint, that accumulation represents a certain aspect of human artistic history, that is not a characterization with which I would vehemently disagree.
But I would point out that the Web archives are themselves undemocratic. I can count on one hand the number of posts I've made about African art for example. So at best we have a curator's skewed tastes applied to an inherently disproportional online representation of human artistic cultures. I have expended a lot of energy attempting to overcome or at least reduce that sort of bias. Alas, I am not a magician.
EH: I and many others who follow BibliOdyssey think you’ve done something stupendous. It’s hard to imagine it coming totally out of the blue -- is there any way one might say the child was the father of the blogger? Or of the writer of the book?
PK: I had a tremendous ability to become passionately absorbed in whatever I was doing back then – sports, stamp-collecting, reading. I’m an all or nothing kind of guy, always have been.
One of the things that stands out about both the blog and book is that they involve, for the most part, subjects that are outside of my areas of experience. That has been a big part of the attraction: I knew little coding, knew little about blogs in a practical sense, knew little about art, hadn't formally studied history, and my science background concentrated on the theoretical and experimental of course, so there wasn't so much emphasis on studying the illustrations as artistic pieces. This whole thing from blog birthing to book making has essentially been about some guy educating himself, but in a very public way.
EH: I’ve heard writers say they write not to be writing, but to be read – I’d have to agree with that. And you can’t be happy blogging into the uncaring air, can you? Are you pleased with the sense of audience you get?
PK: I like -- no, that's wrong -- I need to know that people visit and think that what's occurring on the site is being curated well and that the content is interesting or enjoyable or wonderful -- take your pick of descriptions. Comments are only one facet of the feedback. Site statistics, citations on other sites and correspondence are the backbone of assessing how the site is perceived. As long as people visit, getting few or no comments would be of secondary concern. But if there were no comments and few visitors, then it would mean that it had become too narrowly self-indulgent. I don't feel that is likely: the cusp of science, history and art -- the domain of the print world, really -- is too rich a vein and my capricious whims too significant an influence for lack of variety to become an issue methinks.
EH: And you never worry about running out of material – or do you?
PK: Were all the world's museums, libraries and galleries to stop digitizing books today, I'm not so sure I could systematically extract the already existing worthwhile morsels of visual materia obscura in my lifetime. That's one of the satisfyingly frustrating enjoyments -- the scope of activity in sifting and collecting in the digitized print world is as large as I want, so that the concepts of perfection or completion are irrelevantly abstract.
EH: Having created and maintained the blog for just over 2 years, how do you see the meaning of the book? It’s a beautiful object, and that’s plenty -- but I guess I’m talking about the larger meaning.
PK: You'll allow that in many ways, meaning comes after the process. There never really was a master guiding principle while we toiled away getting the book project off the ground, or if there was, it was this notion of being respectful to the digital and hard copy elements contributing to the project - truthfulness, proper attribution, accuracy as to facts and fair representation.
There is – for me - no great thesis to be plumbed here, but I suspect that this book is a challenge to the notion that the digital and print mediums are separable entities. You may wish to attach a greater meaning to the "blog about books turned into a book" trope, but I think that's just a simple chain of irony.
If I must I suppose I would grant that the book is most meaningful as an invitation to discovery. It offers a broad range of accessible material from a large number of repositories and I hope people become motivated to pick up a book or turn on a computer to learn more.
EH: Could you guess which might be the more lasting – blog or book?
PK: We think of these fragile relics being given a new lease of life and protection on the Internet, which is true to an extent, but the ultimate irony in this circular book-to-web-to-book escapade is that the BibliOdyssey book may well outlast the digital files from which it was derived.
EH: It’s taken me years to think of a digital file as having the reality of hard copy… What could happen now?
PK: Well, preservation of digital documents is turning out to be a more complex and costly exercise than the best practices applied to the comparatively robust originals, which have somehow managed to survive wars, weather and the passage of time. The Internet is in its infancy yet its stored resources are already at risk. Websites disappear every day, technologies and file formats change and impose upgrade requirements to maintain compatibility, data integrity and retrieval assurance.
The BibliOdyssey book becomes -- inadvertently, in these circumstances -- a snapshot overview or sampling of the online cultural resources available at this moment in history. An artifact of our illustrated digital times.
For myself, during the practical development of the book, I was generally less concerned with the big picture and more preoccupied with developing respectful relationships with these wonderful digital repositories and carefully researching the backgrounds. It was a project, a labor of convoluted love and a hard copy back up of my little obsession.
EH: I saw that FUEL asked Dinos Chapman, an enfant terrible of the British art world in the 90’s, to write the foreword. What did you make of that?
PK: I don't want to talk about Dinos Chapman's foreword. I would rather people who get hold of the book discover his writing without my tainting it with a comment or description. If you know Dinos Chapman and the work he and his brother have produced, you will know to expect the...unexpected.
EH: I had quite a fabulous time selecting illustrations for this article from almost 800 long pages of BibliOdyssey posts, most with 12 to 15 or more radiant images of stuff I didn’t know existed – there was nothing I didn’t want to use. But if you were asked to tell someone who’d never seen it about BibliOdyssey – the blog or the book – how would you describe it so that they’d know if they wanted to be involved?
PK: Hm. Take one part circus, one part diorama and one part tutorial. Add comfy chair and blend. Readers can expect a visual parade of science and alchemy, manuscript illumination, absurdist woodcut, ethnographic history and imaginary beings. It's at once a kaleidoscope of contrasting imagery and a survey of the illustrative output of humanity across half a millennium. If you aren't intrigued or amazed by a wide spectrum of eclectic images then you don't want this book, you want an imagination.
EH: Absolutely!!! Thanks!
LINKS TO BIBLIODYSSEY PAGES with info about illustrations for this article (you will have to scroll to find the precise image.)
SEE ALSO “Phantom of the Optical", an article about Paul K by Damien S.B. English in Edutopia.
October 28, 2007
An Interview with Bill Viola at the Venice Biennial 2007
Zajal, think hip-hop, rap and toasting
Ed Emery in Le Monde Diplomatique:
Lebanon’s Ghada Shbeir won the BBC Radio 3 World Music Awards this June and, with them, the West discovered Muwashshah, an Arab versified musical form that was previously known just to a handful of scholars. The Palestinian singer Reem Kilani has also helped Britain discover this music, which exists alongside a related form known as Zajal. Like Muwashshah, it is a strophic poetic form much loved and prized by Arabs the world over.
Although it is sung and has music, Zajal is not often performed in the West, for simple reasons: it is an art of poetic duelling in which two poets challenge each other with improvised verses, and each has to respond in kind. It is performance art, emulative poeteering between men. It is not a free-for-all, but takes place within established conventions. Think hip-hop, rap, Jamaican dancehall and toasting.
Since its performance depends on text, it needs an audience who can understand its meanings, cross-references, puns and interplays. And feedback from the audience – appreciative noises, rhythmic clapping and repeating of sung refrains – is necessary for its poets to perform their art, so Zajal could not easily transfer to the alienated spaces of the World Music stage.
Comments on Gregory Clarks' A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World
Samuel Bowles offers some interesting remarks (in the October 19th issue of Science):
Clark's thesis is that the industrial revolution occurred when and where it did (England, late 18th century) because from 1250 on wealthy Englishmen passed their distinctive values of diligence, patience, and prudence on to their children who were more numerous and became wealthier than the children of other families (who lacked these values), the result being a gradual spread of these values in the population, eventually accounting for England's take off. The following data and reasoning amplify points made in the review and suggest some empirical shortcomings of the thesis...
5. If parent-child personality similarity is due entirely to parent child transmission – whether genetic or cultural – it will dissipate rapidly, accounting for a very modest correlation of traits over 4 or more generations. Clark's argument concerns fathers and sons. We assume that mating assortment can be ignored, given the evidence Clark offers for “great social mobility and fluidity... in medieval England” (p. 161). Let the intergenerational correlation of a trait be r. Then if genes are not involved and the only direct influence of vertical cultural transmission on sons is by fathers (not grandfathers, etc.), the correlation across n generations is r^(n -1).
Krugman on the Chances for Universal Health Care
Ezra Klein interviews Krugman in The American Prospect:
EK: And why do you think there's slight better than even odds that we can get it? Why will this time succeed when so many others failed?
PK: First, there's a progressive movement where there wasn't one before. Clinton came in when the Democratic Party was basically an uncoordinated coalition of people with their own special interests. There is a real progressive movement now. They've learned something from the debate. And health care itself, a lot of the sense of crisis over health care in '92 was because the economy was in recession, and things got better on the health care front and the economy recovered even as Clinton was trying to get plan through. This time around private health insurance has been declining even in the midst of economic recovery, so the crisis is that much deeper. And because of the progressive movement, the Democrats have more or less coalesced on a plan. LBJ passed Medicare in July of '65 because he hit the ground running and knew what he wanted. Clinton didn't give his first speech on health care until September '93. This time around, we hope, if it's a Democrat in the White House, that he or she will be much closer to the position that Johnson was in when he passed Medicare.
A Review of Oliver Sacks' Musicophila: Tales of Music and the Brain
Anthony Gottlieb in the NYT Book Review:
[Sacks'] new collection starts quite literally with a bolt from the blue, when a 42-year-old surgeon, Tony Cicoria, was struck by lightning in 1994. Cicoria’s heart apparently stopped, but he was resuscitated, and a few weeks later he was back at work. Everything seemed normal until this fan of rock music was suddenly seized by a craving for classical piano music. He bought recordings, acquired a piano and began to teach himself to play. Then his head began to be flooded with music that seemed to come, unstoppably, from nowhere. Within three months of his electrocution, Cicoria had little time for anything other than playing and composing.
A dozen years later, Cicoria is still an extreme musicophiliac but has no desire to investigate his own condition with the finer-tuned forms of brain scanning that are now available. He has come to see his condition as a “lucky strike.” The music in his head is, he says, “a blessing ... not to be questioned.” (He was certainly lucky not to be killed. Standing in thunderstorms cannot yet be recommended as a new answer to the old question of how to get to Carnegie Hall.)
Thanks to the willingness of others to be scanned, though, we now know that musicians’ brains are different.
Ramachandran on the Mind
Over at TED, "Vilayanur Ramachandran explores how brain damage can reveal the connection between the internal structures of the brain and the corresponding functions of the mind."
Facebook Electoral Segmentation and Target Political Marketing
Republican Internet consultant Patrick Ruffini points to this fascinating resource for figuring out the raw numbers of liberal, moderate and conservative Facebook users interested in a specific issue. Don’t try to create a flyer or whatever – just go to the “targetting” section, type the topic that you are interested in into the keywords section, and see how the numbers change whether you click Liberal, Moderate and Conservative (there’s further microtargeting of cities etc available too). For example, about 2,520 self-declared liberal Facebook users declare blogging as one of their interests, as opposed to 1,320 moderates and 1,100 conservatives. 5,180 liberals show the good taste to declare My Bloody Valentine as one of their favourite bands, as opposed to 1,120 moderates, and only 340 conservatives. Less obviously, the number of liberals (7,300) and conservatives (7,580) who like bluegrass music is about the same1. Obviously, treat these numbers with extreme caution; there is no way that Facebook users are a random sample of the population 2, but still, this promises much idle entertainment.
If the World Could Write . . .
From The Washington Post:
Though Stendhal's Charterhouse of Parma helped teach Tolstoy how to describe battle, most of War and Peace might be likened to a compact version of Balzac's multi-volume Com¿die humaine. In these pages an old man's heirs connive over his fortune. Parents strive to marry off their worthless children for money and status. Couples form and break up, young girls attend balls, their admirers quarrel and duel, fortunes are lost at cards, babies are born, families face social or financial ruin, and the most cherished dreams are dashed. The book never flinches from showing us deliberate cruelty, repeated heartbreak and survivor guilt.
While his villains never change, only worsen, Tolstoy's heroes evolve, deepen, see more clearly into the nature of things. Society, the novelist believes, corrupts us because it is built on falsity and pretense, on role-playing and the acceptance of the unreal. It's all opera. Only the very young and the very holy can ignore the pervasive artificiality. "As with all people, the moment she looked in the mirror, her face assumed a strained, unnatural, bad expression." However, those chastened by suffering or allowed ecstatic moments of insight may sometimes escape the world's meretricious allure.
As its title suggests, the novel examines two opposing realms, alternative paths through life. Tolstoy repeatedly contrasts war and peace, the artificial and the natural, erotic torment and family happiness, the city and the country, Moscow and St. Petersburg, Germanic military tactics and Slavic submission to the force of history, intellectual complexities and Christian simplicities, this world and the next.
Who hasn't agonized over a major decision in life, whether to accept a job offer, move house, or perhaps switch research fields? We are confronted with a multitude of decisions on a daily basis. Many decisions are trivial and can be dealt with in seconds. However, others may have wider ramifications and can be excruciatingly complicated. In the past few years, our understanding of the underlying processes of decision-making has progressed markedly. This neuroscience special issue highlights some of the most exciting developments in this area.
Koechlin and Hyafil review recent experimental studies that provide new insights into the function and connectivity of the anterior prefrontal cortex, which forms the apex of the executive system underlying decision-making. The authors propose an original model of the anterior prefrontal function and provide a theoretical framework for addressing major unresolved issues and guiding future research on decision-making and higher cognition.
October 27, 2007
an enormous, astonishing figure
For Hughes, poetry was a matter of archetypes and of dreams transcribed — the account here, years later, of the dream which inspired ‘The Thought-Fox’ is mesmerising. A powerful spirit, he confidently engaged with the ouija-board which has destroyed less committed minds, and took professional advice from his spirit guide, called Pan. (Apparently, Pan gave him the numbers for the pools draw, one number out from top to bottom). He thought, as these letters and Birthday Letters clearly imply, that poetry, once written, creates as much as inspires a situation, and he may have been right. Crow, that terrifying statement of nihilistic madness, was not, as we all thought, driven by the terrible suicide of his lover Assia Wevill and her murder of their daughter, Shura; it was finished on the day before Assia’s final act.
more from The Spectator here.
Lessing, in the course of more than 50 books, has become an "epicist of the female experience," the Nobel committee said, who "with skepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny."
Her books have plumbed the deep divide across which men and women talk at each other, the painful racial fractures and stultifying suburbia of colonial Africa, the earnestness and silliness of Communism, the ways in which passion still skulks in an aging woman's heart. She has been alternately adored by feminists for her acute chronicles of what it means to be intelligent and frustrated and female, and reviled by them for renouncing, not a little imperiously, much of what they hold dear.
more from the LA Times here.
music and the brain
Urban legend has it that when a patron fell ill in Carnegie Hall and the call went out for a doctor in the house, half the audience stood up to help. Perhaps the concert was a medical benefit; more likely, it never happened. But there does seem to be no shortage of doctors who are musical, at least in New York, and one of them is Oliver Sacks, a neurologist and author, who has now combined two of his passions in one book.
In his earlier collections of clinical tales — most famously in “Awakenings” (1973) and “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” (1985) — Sacks presented with compassion, sensitivity and learning what, in coarser hands, might have been freak shows of the mind. The genre could have been an exploitative sideshow: a parade of misfits whose brains have been weirdly affected by disease, trauma, congenital defect or medical treatment. But Sacks is adept at turning neurological narratives into humanly affecting stories, by showing how precariously our worlds are poised on a little biochemistry. The result is a sort of reverse-engineering of the soul.
more from the NY Times Book Review here.
Pervez Hoodbhoy on the Civil War in Pakistan
An overwhelming majority of Pakistan's citizens do not want harsh strictures imposed on their personal liberties. They do not want enslavement of their women, their forced confinement in the burqa, or for them to be denied the right to education. Instead, they want a decent life for themselves and their children. They disapprove of Islam being used as a cover for tribal primitivism. But there is little protest.
We must understand this. Why is there no mass movement to confront the extremist Taliban of Miramhah and Waziristan, or the violence-preaching extremist mullah in Mingora, Lahore or Islamabad? This is because ordinary people lack the means and institutions to understand, organise, and express their values and aspirations. We do not yet have the democratic institutions that can give politics meaning for ordinary people. Depoliticising the country over the decades has led to paying this heavy price.
To fight and win the war against the Taliban, Pakistan will need to mobilise both its people and the state. The notion of a power-sharing agreement is a non-starter; the spectacular failures of earlier agreements should be a lesson. Instead, the government should help create public consensus through open forum discussions, proceed faster on infrastructure development in the tribal areas, and make judicious use of military force. This is every Pakistani's war, not just the army's, and it will have to be fought even if America packs up and goes away.
It may yet be possible to roll back the Islamist laws and institutions that have corroded our society for over 30 years and to defeat our self-proclaimed holy warriors.
So what is Guardian America, what makes a British newspaper think that Americans will want to imbibe its view of America and the world, and why, having decided to undertake such an improbable project, would the paper place it in my hands? Fine questions. Let's explore.
The journalistic shorthand version is that Guardian America is the US-based website of the Guardian newspaper of London and Manchester, which will combine content produced in the UK and around the world with content that we originate here to create a Guardian especially tailored to American readers. I am sometimes asked what, or who, this means we will try to be "like"; the questioner wants an American reference point the better to slot this project into a known category. The only answer is that we will try to be like ... the Guardian.
Which means what?
The Reunion of Hip-Hop and E-Music
Dennis Romero in City Beat:
(Via Andrew Sullivan)
Sasha Frere-Jones’s recent New Yorker essay, “A Paler Shade of White,” argues that “rock and roll, the most miscegenated popular music ever to have existed, underwent a racial re-sorting in the nineteen-nineties” and became, essentially, free from black influence. Rock, as I argue in “Pop’s Living Dead” [CityBeat, October 9, 2003], stopped evolving around 1979, a victim of self-segregation (rock fans burned disco records in Comiskey Park that year) at a time when African-Americans moved on to create rap, disco, and soon, house and techno – new genres far from rock. But with that came a hyperawareness of blackness and masculinity in hip-hop – an almost anti-rock sentiment. As the genre stepped further away from its multicultural roots, it turned its back on its brother, the often-effeminate dance music genre. In the late ’90s, a defiant saying in hip-hop clubs – where men would line the dance floor, arms crossed, and bob their heads as women gyrated – was “n------ don’t dance.”
Today, hip-hop is recapturing the groove.
Nassim Taleb on How A Wing of Economics Hurts Markets
[H/t: Saifedean Ammous]
Academic economists are no more self-serving than other professions. You should blame those in the real world who give them the means to be taken seriously: those awarding that “Nobel” prize.
In 1990 William Sharpe and Harry Markowitz won the prize three years after the stock market crash of 1987, an event that, if anything, completely demolished the laureates’ ideas on portfolio construction. Further, the crash of 1987 was no exception: the great mathematical scientist Benoît Mandelbrot showed in the 1960s that these wild variations play a cumulative role in markets – they are “unexpected” only by the fools of economic theories.
Then, in 1997, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the prize to Robert Merton and Myron Scholes for their option pricing formula. I (and many traders) find the prize offensive: many, such as the mathematician and trader Ed Thorp, used a more realistic approach to the formula years before. What Mr Merton and Mr Scholes did was to make it compatible with financial economic theory, by “re-deriving” it assuming “dynamic hedging”, a method of continuous adjustment of portfolios by buying and selling securities in response to price variations.
Dynamic hedging assumes no jumps – it fails miserably in all markets and did so catastrophically in 1987 (failures textbooks do not like to mention).
Later, Robert Engle received the prize for “Arch”, a complicated method of prediction of volatility that does not predict better than simple rules – it was “successful” academically, even though it underperformed simple volatility forecasts that my colleagues and I used to make a living.
Genes and the Nature of Race
Ziba Kashef in Color Lines:
Instead of focusing on the 99.9 percent overlap in all human genes, the Pharmacogenetics Research Network, a government funded follow-up to the Genome Project, honed in on the 0.01 percent difference as a source of the new discoveries and therapies. And several scientists and researchers sought further funding for investigations into possible genetic causes for racial disparities in disease and drug responses.
Their faulty reasoning, however, is illustrated by the controversial race drug BiDil. Developed to address the greater mortality from heart failure among African Americans, the drug has been met with both celebration and skepticism. While it is true that Blacks ages 45 to 64 are more than twice as likely to die from heart failure than whites, Duster points out that the disparity narrows after age 65. The disparity may have less to do with biology and race than other documented factors in heart disease, such as diet, stress and lifestyle. Evidence outside of the U.S. also undermines the rationale for a race-based approach to the condition. Citing the data of epidemiologist Richard S. Cooper, who compared hypertension rates worldwide, Duster explains, “Germany has the highest rate of hypertension, and Nigeria has the lowest rate. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in epidemiology to figure out what might be the issue there. It can’t be race and genetics.”
Scientists do, of course, acknowledge the influence of environment and lifestyle on disease and disparities. The laser-like focus on, and blind faith in, genes as the source of understanding and treating disease has been tempered by technical challenges and other trends in medicine. But the damage to our society’s understanding of race may be done.
The Undiscovered Planet: Microbial science illuminates a world of astounding diversity
From Harvard Magazine:
“Our planet has been shaped by an invisible world,” says Roberto Kolter, a professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at Harvard Medical School (HMS). “Microbes mediate all the important element cycles on Earth, and have played a defining role in the development of the planet,” says Kolter. They form clouds, break down rocks, deposit minerals, fertilize plants, condition soils, and clean up toxic waste. Among their ranks, explains Cavanaugh, are the photosynthetic “primary producers” that use sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide to form the broad base of the food chain, and together with plants make up the earth’s largest source of biomass. The earliest life on our planet was entirely microbial, and if life exists on other planets, it is surely microbial there as well.
In the realm of human health, microbes help us digest food and produce vitamins, protect us against infection, and are the main source of antibiotic medicines. The human cells in your body number 10 trillion, but that pales by comparison to the estimated 100 trillion microbial cells that live in and on you. “Without them, you would be in trouble,” Kolter says: animals experience abnormal growth and become sick if deprived of their microflora during development. Although a few microbes are known to cause disease, the precise role played by the vast majority is essentially unknown.
The same could be said for microbes around the planet. There are a billion of them in a gram of soil, and a billion per liter of seawater, but we know neither what they are nor what they do.
Nothing You Can Know That Isn’t Known
From The New York Times:
So what on earth does Jonathan Gould think he’s doing by adding to the flood with “Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America” — aside from guaranteeing himself a floor audience of completists and getting to write off bootlegs on his tax returns? Is there anything left to say, any detritus left unpicked through? Well, I for one didn’t know that Linda McCartney’s sobriquet in her high school yearbook was “Yen for Men.” Intrigued yet? Here is his take on “Something,” George Harrison’s second-finest moment as a Beatle (I’m an “If I Needed Someone” fan):
“Though it gives the impression of being highly melodic, the tune in the verse is actually very narrow, moving in a range of five notes, which allows George to sing it with great relaxation and force. What gives the song its melodic flavor is the pining electric guitar riff that introduces the verse and the bridge. ... This memorable hook not only adds ‘top’ to the tune; it also provides a tangible expression of the ‘something’ that the lyric wisely leaves unsaid (much as McCartney’s extraordinarily active and expressive bass line suggests an undercurrent of powerful emotion beneath the self-possessed surface of the song).”
(Contrast that with the totality of Pattie Boyd’s assessment in “Wonderful Tonight”: “I thought it was beautiful.” And George wrote the song for her!)
October 26, 2007
Editing Raymond Carver
Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:
Because life is so utterly elusive all the way down to the end, you have two basic choices if you want to say anything about it. You can say a lot, too much even, and be satisfied that at least you’ve dumped as much clutter on the matter as you could. Or you can withhold, take little tiny pecks at the thing, and be satisfied that the gaping silences are doing the job.
Raymond Carver came out with Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? in 1976 and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love in 1981. The stories are a revelation in pecks and silences. Stripped down, punchy sentences did just that: They punched your guts out. The human landscape of his stories was so rich for being so bare. It seems impossible that literature can be this honest, this true. But there it is. If your hands don’t tremble a little when you read Raymond Carver then you’re lacking something essential in your make-up: You’re flat, you’re a goner, you won’t do.
The trouble (if such things trouble you) is that the stories in both those volumes are what they are not just because of Carver, but also because of the rough hands of a certain Gordon Lish, Editor. Mr. Lish, working at Knopf, took the stories that Carver sent him and he hacked away at them, mercilessly. He liked the stories as they were, no doubt, but he saw something else in them as well, something harder and more pure. He saw the power in Carver’s natural restraint and he wanted to push it to the very limit. He saw a compact emotional explosion in each story, and he pared away at the language until each one was a mean package of terrible beauty. It worked. The stories are brilliant, devastating. There is nothing like them.
But Carver never felt very good about what had happened.
On the Importance of Being Coltrane
Travis Jackson reviews Ben Ratliff's Coltrane: The Story of a Sound in The Nation:
here are few areas of music where repetition in its myriad forms assumes a greater significance--and holds greater promises of joy--than jazz. Despite the changes presented and challenges posed by many jazz recordings released in and after 1959 (Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, Dave Brubeck's Time Out, Charles Mingus's Mingus Ah Um, Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come and John Coltrane's Giant Steps were all released that year), the essential core of jazz coalesces around group interplay over successive sonic cycles from twelve or thirty-two bars in length. The repetition and moment-to-moment alteration of harmonic progressions and melodic fragments, even when they recur in tunes with different names, provide a ground for further exploration. When alto saxophonist Julian "Cannonball" Adderley begins his fourth solo chorus on "Straight, No Chaser" (from the Davis album Milestones) with a blustery one-bar figure that Charlie Parker frequently used on blues-based tunes, we hear both possible results of repetition at work. Adderley doesn't merely reproduce Bird's tones and phrasing: he worries the line, twisting and transforming it almost as though he has caught himself falling back into old habits and is trying to break their hold.
The other saxophonist featured on that track, John Coltrane, had his own struggles with repetition. Indeed, one way of understanding Coltrane's music and life is to see them as meditations on how to embrace and escape repetition. The tenor player's lengthy practice routines, for example, are the stuff of legend. His previous biographers--including Bill Cole, Cuthbert Simpkins and J.C. Thomas--have detailed how Coltrane worked methodically through étude books like Sigurd Rascher's Top-Tones for the Saxophone (1941) and Nicolas Slonimsky's Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns (1947). Noting that musicians, too, are fascinated by these stories, Lewis Porter writes in Coltrane: His Life and Music (1998) that they "are told with apparent love, respect, and admiration. But there is often a suggestion that Coltrane's practice was obsessive, that it was not a simple matter of working to improve, that there was an emotional desperation and drive in it that was somehow beyond the norm." When Coltrane kept returning to the woodshed, he seems to have been reaching for something harder to achieve than instrumental mastery. It's little wonder, then, that, like Porter, Coltrane's other biographers and fans describe him as an ascetic treading difficult musical pathways in search of some greater truth.
Another Step Towards a Neuroeconomics: Combining Neuroscience and Game Theory
Alan G. Sanfey in Science:
Our lives consist of a constant stream of decisions and choices, from the everyday (will I respond to this e-mail?) to the highly consequential (will I have a child?). Essentially, the study of decision-making attempts to understand our fundamental ability to process multiple alternatives and to choose an optimal course of action, an ability that has been studied by various disciplines with different theoretical assumptions and measurement techniques, although with relatively little integration of findings.
The emergence of an interdisciplinary field, popularly known as neuroeconomics (1, 2), has begun to redress this lack of integration and offers a promising avenue to examine decision-making at different levels of analysis. Its proponents seek to better understand decision-making by taking into account cognitive and neural constraints, as investigated by psychology and neuroscience, while using the mathematical decision models and tasks that have emerged from economics.
Most experimental studies of decision-making to date have examined choices with clearly defined probabilities and outcomes, such as choosing between monetary gambles. Given that we live in highly complex social environments, however, many of our most important decisions are made in the context of social interactions, which are additionally dependent on the concomitant choices of others—for example, when we are deciding whether to ask someone on a date or entering a business negotiation. Although relatively understudied, these social situations offer a useful window into more complex forms of decisions, which may better approximate many of our real-life choices.
As part of the neuroeconomic approach, researchers have begun to investigate the psychological and neural correlates of social decisions using tasks derived from a branch of experimental economics known as Game Theory.
The Art of Kashmir
Holland Cotter in the NYT:
Beginning in the late 1980s hellish sectarian violence between the Indian army and Kashmiri separatists, Hindus and Muslims, swept through the valley, scorching its beauties and sealing it off from the rest of the world. Few travelers came; some who did lost their lives. This story was not new. These storms regathered many times over the centuries.
“The Arts of Kashmir” at Asia Society adds to these two perspectives a third: a land in creative tumult. Set amid Afghanistan, China and India, the region underwent constant cultural fermentation, taking influences in, sending them out. Sacred to Hinduism, home to early Buddhism and a favored retreat of Muslim rulers, it was forever either struggling to sustain social balance or heading into conflict. And this perpetual play of opposites produced, through molding or friction, some of the most beautiful art in the world.
Despite that beauty, art from Kashmir remains relatively unfamiliar here, and the Asia Society show, assembled by the art historian Pratapaditya Pal, is the first full-scale New York survey. Why the wait? Mistaken identity has been one reason. Kashmiri metal sculptures and paintings often arrived in the West with salvaged monastic holdings from Tibet, and were assumed to be Tibetan.
Leiter on Joseph Massad on Homosexuality in the Middle East
Leiter over at Brian Leiter's Law School Reports:
In the case of his latest attack on Professor Massad of Columbia University, Professor Bernstein claims that, like the Iranian President, Massad denies that there are homosexuals...
My suspicion, upon reading this, was that Massad's thesis was inspired by Foucault's thesis in The History of Sexuality that homosexuality does not mark out a "kind" of human being, and thus had nothing at all to do with the bizarre delusions of the Iranian President. Since the article in question is accessible from my university computer, this was easy enough to confirm. Foucault's History of Sexuality is cited in notes 45 and 73 in Massad's article, and the accompanying text makes clear that Massad is endorsing Foucault's thesis. (Indeed, the longest section of the article has its own subtitle, "Incitement to Discourse," a phrase taken directly from Foucault, as Massad acknowledges.) Foucault's (and Massad's) thesis does not deny that there exists same-sex contact by numerous individuals in the Arab world (as Bernstein manages to note, though seems not to understand its import); rather, it denies that engaging in same-sex contact marks out a kind of person about whom there are meaningful, lawful (or law-like) generalizations to be made (e.g., that homosexuals are mentally ill; or that homosexual men had bad relations with their father; or that homosexuals only have sex with people of the same sex, and so on). The "kind" of person we call the "homosexual," and with whom certain traits are said to be correlated, is really a social and cultural construct, not a set of interlinked facts about sexual identity that hold invariant across societies and cultures.