March 31, 2008
Dispatches: Anthony Minghella's Talent
The writer and director Anthony Minghella died last week at the age of fifty-four. I felt I knew him well, although I knew no biographical information about him until I began reading his obituaries. He was the type of director who imparted quite personal feelings and predilections to giant-scale movies based on prestigious novels--a rare thing to achieve. He did this so successfully that one felt one understood his consciousness, his interests, and especially his empathy, simply by watching his work: his films delineate themselves but also delineate a kind of negative-space portrait of the man himself. His life details and circumstances, once you learn them, surprise one not at all. Minghella was one of five children of Italian parents, immigrants to the Isle of Wight who ran an ice cream factory. He was a trained classical pianist, a playwright, a director of opera, and a producer and mentor to other filmmakers (with Sydney Pollack). All this makes sense.
Minghella, like David Lean before him, was capable of producing what you could call a "poetic" or "epic" cinematic tone. The words are insufficiently specific: but there is a sense of scale and romance to his sequences, a briskly moving grandeur. The most obvious example of this is of course The English Patient, where he brilliantly captured the size of the novel. (The fact that it's hard to pin down how he achieved this adds to the accomplishment.) Shots of Juliette Binoche riding in a military jeep are the ones I remember from the movie--it had a quick pace in moving you towards its sentimental conclusion. Cold Mountain, also, has that quality of epic speed, of what is essentially a melodramatic romance scaled up and quickened. (Lean was interested in unrequited love; Minghella preferred the requited version.)
Minghella seemed to do his best work when adapting other people's novels. His debut and original screenplay, Truly, Madly, Deeply, while a heart-warming production, tends to fulfill its own wishes too fully, admitting sorrow into its contents but offering too much consolation. This also seemed the trouble with his most recent film, also with an original screenplay, Breaking and Entering. The movie is about love as a way of overcoming the class barriers that separate London's middle-class architects from its downtrodden refugees. It is as tendentious as that summary makes it sound. A sociologist Minghella was not--he was far too big-hearted to want to make critique his primary mode. (There is also a bit of that English attitude, musn't grumble, to his general embrace of possibility over complaint.)
Yet, this very ability to enter into the spirit of things is the key to his finest film, The Talented Mr. Ripley--an underappreciated classic if ever there was one. The novel, by Patricia Highsmith, has an icy, nihilistic pessimism that forms an astringent, bracing complement to Minghella's natural warmth. The combination of these two elements means Ripley is both sentimentally alluring and cruelly fatalistic. The movie is a true modern tragedy, and I could go on for pages on its many bravura cuts, small symmetries, and chilling implications.
The movie is also particularly unified, from its editing to its sound design to its beautiful motif of fractured glass. It is, simply, inspired filmmaking, in which the talents of, for instance, a Walter Murch find material of enough depth to motivate his aesthetic choices. And yet, it's the story of a social climbing sociopath--strange, at first, to think that Minghella, for whom love is the answer, so fully animated this character. But it's Minghella's (and Matt Damon's) ability to find the core of suffering, anxiety, and desire inside Ripley--Minghella's empathetic generosity towards even such an unsympathetic madman--that make the film special and powerful. Here, Minghella treats the dangers, instead of the rewards, of love: obsession, mimicry, compulsion.
It's through music that Minghella finds his way into Tom Ripley, who is a prissy kid from a background he's ashamed of trying to break in to a circle of louche American rich kids in Italy. Minghella takes Ripley's love of classical music from Highsmith and makes it into the preference of a precocious geek--while the wealthy youth he admires and impersonates only listen to jazz, Ripley is a classicist who subscribes to the taste preferences of their parents. He has picked up his odd, isolated fixations without the benefit of constant social feedback from group of friends, and so his later attempts to insinuate himself into Dickie Greenleaf's circle involve acquiring knowledge of a music he has trouble connecting to--it's quite a perfect metaphor for the strange insider-outsider dialectic in which Ripley is caught.
By opposing jazz and classical music, Minghella suggests unhealthy cravings lying underneath the unrippled surface of the "cool" of neo-aristocratic children of the American business elite--a class whose lack of obvious anxiety telegraphs a certainty that the world was made for them. (In struggling to crack their smooth surface, Ripley cracks himself.) But Minghella does not withhold his sympathies from the other characters either: Jude Law, particularly, has never been better in a role. Law, you'll agree, is best as an object of the camera gaze, rather than a subject for the viewer to project onto--he is a screen beauty rather than a screen protagonist--and this is maybe the only film that properly exploits this quality of his. (If you meet someone who says the movie got boring after Law's character exits, you know: they are essentially narcissistic, just as those who think Ripley is Minghella's one misfire are essentially sentimentalists.)
Even better is Minghella's portrait, entirely without precedent in Highsmith's novel, of the anxieties and fears of the women of this same class--while Law's Dickie and Philip Seymour Hoffman's unctuous Freddy Miles are all id, Gwyneth Paltrow and Cate Blanchett play women beset by insecurity. This comes not from weakness but, for instance in the case of Paltrow's character, from correctly surmising what is going on, only to be ignored and treated as a hysteric by the patriarchs of the film. It's a bleak but accurate portrait of the ways purportedly "rationalist" men of the postwar era discount "hysterical" women's experience.
Minghella's gift was the sensitivity to see and represent such things. Most often, he put it to use in the service of epic but conventional melodramas of love--but when he mixed his special talent for empathy with as bleak a vision as Highsmith's, the result was unique and forceful: an illuminating glimpse into a darkness, that is both revealing and cathartic. Few films have ever looked at American class consciousness as unsparingly but feelingly. It's just a hugely important movie.
Minghella was able to marshal all the elements of filmmaking--composition, montage, sound, music--in a way that is becoming rare, now that the era in which movies were are greatest cultural monuments recedes. Though his films are constructed beautifully, they do not luxuriate in their construction, which is the mark of the mature artist, in whose work craft submits to a larger design. Like a writer with a particularly pleasing style, Minghella wrote great prose, in film terms. For that, and for the achievement of Ripley, I followed him avidly and closely. I'm very sorry he's gone.
Cat Dance Music
with phlox in Pat's garden.
They sway in quiet concord,
rooted in motion.
Dancing's a vital sign of endless youth;
even my grandmothers danced:
one danced to accordianed polkas;
corseted cantileverd bosom bouncing.
The other jigged across her chicken yard
with handfuls of eggs --having just left her hens
without yield-- acting goofy for a camera.
I once danced with abandon
to big-holed 45s
spun by a DJ named Jocko
who sent four-part doowop through my radio:
the Prisonaires, the Cadillacs, the Moonglows...
When was the last time I danced with abandon?
How did I do that beautiful thing?
It's best to dance with others, real gurus say.
It's lonely dancing with a mirror,
leading and following in one motion,
thinking breaking it would be bad luck.
Our cats dance to deep cat vibrations always.
Alert as ...cats to music far beyond our ears:
cat dance music.
Zorba knew. Have you seen
Quinn, the Greek, dance?
Felt life spring in rhythms?
Watched it prance on toes to a bouzouki
even in the embrace of despair?
Never. Never forget how to dance.
All innocents dance.
Only the troubled are still.
Sandlines: Mea culpa – Can It Liberate?
Edward B. Rackley
And your silence is all to no avail; today the blinding sun of torture is at its zenith; it lights up the whole country. Under that merciless glare, there is not a laugh that does not ring false, not a face that is not painted to hide fear or anger, not a single action that does not betray our disgust, and our complicity.
-- Sartre, Preface to Fanon's The Wretched Of The Earth
As the election year approaches, I find myself fantasizing about a very different political consciousness in this country. A state of mind where the majority of voters are appalled, outraged and shamed by our military practices and outcomes in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo. Ashamed and outraged enough to mobilize in direct opposition to a geopolitical strategy that is digging our national grave by the day. To mobilize not just by voting for change next year, but acting now with concrete gestures of rejection and refusal powerful enough to bring the calculus driving this mad debacle to a shuddering, definitive halt.
I once enjoyed grim satisfaction at the prospect of a German war crimes indictment against Donald Rumsfeld, but—heavy sigh—it was not to be. Ozymandias, King of Kings… As public outlets to vent our outrage are dumbed-down and limited to bumper stickers and talk-show call-ins, Americans had insufficient occasion to behold the glory of a possible Rumsfeld indictment by an allied country. But is this due to fewer public for a to express outrage, or is our capacity to do so diminished, in retreat? I fear the latter. Why else do we not recoil in disgust at an administration gone too far?
In my recurring fantasy, Americans awake in toxic shock at an administration so far beyond the pale that each of us, asphyxiated and sputtering with rage, simultaneously grasps our complicity, our guilt by association. If nothing else appalls and shames us into action, passivity as complicity just might. In that Rorschach moment where silence and complicity meet, responsibility for national wrongs becomes ours, just as the parents of bullying, violent children know they too are to blame. Once the floodgates of popular rage are open, our leaders will remember to whom they are accountable.
Could this be more than a fantasy? Can a public narrative of outrage and shame born of complicity alter the course of a felonious state? We have done it before. Anti-slavery campaigns once used the slogan ‘Am I not a man and a brother’ to cast the victim as stranger, kin and racial equal, on the grounds of a shared humanity. Mass opposition to a more recent state-sanctioned abomination—segregation—saw it successfully overturned, but only after much public anguish, accusation and murder. The civil rights movement was ultimately successful for its unflinching solidarity and courage to confront injustice. For sympathetic whites, a sense of collective guilt also played a role.
101 Uses of Metaphysical Guilt
Following the Holocaust, the concept of solidarity emerged as an important theme in German social philosophy. Prior to Hannah Arendt’s 1963 analysis of evil in Eichmann in Jerusalem, Karl Jaspers addressed the relation of silence, inaction and complicity in Die Schuldfrage in 1946 (trans. The Question of German Guilt). Identifying passivity before human tragedy as complicity, Jaspers coined the phrase ‘metaphysical guilt’: as fellow humans, we are obligated to intervene on behalf of others whatever the risk. Not doing so makes me an accomplice; further, it is a betrayal human solidarity.
But is solidarity alone a sufficient course of action to avert human tragedy on the scale of slavery, of the Shoah? True to academic form, Jaspers offer no specific instruction, arguing only that we must in such instances “affirm our solidarity with the human being as such.”
Arendt accepted Jaspers’ concept of metaphysical guilt but dismissed solidarity—“comprehending a multitude”—as her thinking on the origins of totalitarianism began to crystallize. “But this solidarity, though it may be aroused by suffering, is not guided by it,” she wrote. “It comprehends the strong and the rich no less than the weak and the poor.” Solidarity with an incorporeal whole like ‘humanity’ or the ‘international proletariat’ was dehumanizing; a mode of ‘massification’ Arendt likened to the totalitarian vision.
In France, Jean-Paul Sartre applied metaphysical guilt as a social justice strategy. The subjugations of colonial occupation were a perversion of Europe’s humanist tradition parading as la mission civilatrice, or ‘white man’s burden’. Sartre likened European complicity with colonialism to Eichmann’s role in the Holocaust, and he berated his readers with guilt by association. Sartre expanded Jasper’s metaphysical guilt to include the legal sense of responsibility for crimes committed, and the emotional sense of remorse and burden of psychological anguish. Properly leveraged, Sartre believed this would catalyze international action to overthrow colonialism and rectify Europe’s ‘racist humanism’. Combined with guilt, public outrage could be infectious and possibly catalytic.
Part of a wider leftist bloc known as ‘Third Worldism’, Sartre hoped that colonized peoples would emerge as partners in overthrowing colonialism, debunking European humanism and forging a more inclusive, less Euroecentric version in the process. “It is enough that they show us what we have made of them,” he wrote, “for us to realize what we have made of ourselves.”
Overcoming a ‘racist humanism’
In order to sensitize Europeans to the hypocrisies and moral failures of its ‘civilizing mission’ in the colonies, Sartre hurled guilt and shame at his readers. In his Preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, he browbeat his compatriots: “You who are so liberal and so humane, who have such an exaggerated adoration of culture that it verges on affectation, you forget that you own colonies and that in them men are massacred in your name.” Popular ignorance of the sins of colonialism was tantamount to direct collaboration and culpability. The era of misinformation about the realities of colonial rule was over, Sartre proclaimed; he gave no quarter to moral bystanders: “Even to allow your mind to be diverted, however slightly, is as good as being an accomplice in the crime of colonialism.”
In Sartre’s dialectical reading of history, anti-colonial violence in the colonies presented European morality with the perfect adversary if Europe were to transcend the bankrupt humanism of its Enlightenment tradition. Predictably, for Sartre, Europe was “at death’s door.” Still, Sartre persisted, even measuring colonial subjects with a Eurocentric yardstick: “We were men at his expense, he makes himself man at ours: a different man; of higher quality.” But dialectical materialism is a western philosophical fiction; there are no ‘dialectical’ laws of nature, only interpretations.
In Sartre’s Third Worldism, the sense of co-responsibility for the injustices of colonialism digressed into a need to redeem northern sins, to exorcise collective guilt. Such an all-inclusive mea culpa, perhaps bold in its humanist ambitions, eclipsed the self-determination of colonized peoples by presuming that because Europeans were responsible colonialism, they necessarily controlled the means of its undoing … and their own redemption.
The Self-Love of Self-Loathing
The anti-colonial movement in Europe, led by Sartre, used metaphysical guilt to claim a collective interest for colonized peoples: liberation from racial oppression and northern economic exploitation. Still, for all its latent Eurocentrism, Sartre and the Third Worldist movement were a major agitating factor against French colonial policies at home and in Africa.
Sartre never reckoned that a thundering chorus of northern self-indictment would only drown out non-European voices in the causal arena of colonial politics. That a guilt-fueled, victim-centered humanism would not undo the consequences of colonialism, but was merely a warmed-over Eurocentrism du jour, did not occur to him.
The narcissism of Third Worldist solidarity with colonized peoples echoes a contemporary criticism of international charity, another mode of solidarity driven by metaphysical guilt and the appeal to ‘common humanity’: “Non-poor people who give aid to poor people have a marked tendency to see their aid as central to the poor people’s lives” (Alex de Waal, Famine that Kills).
So what does this mean for the prospect of guilt, outrage and change in the context of American foreign policy today? Solidarity and humanity may be comforting and cosmopolitan ideals, but they are anemic and anachronistic today. Although unfashionable among liberals, I find Carl Schmitt’s sardonic rebuttal of ‘humanity’ prescient and refreshing: “‘Humanity’ as such cannot fight a war because it has no enemies, at least none on this planet.” Schmitt means that any theatre of political action is defined by victims and perpetrators; nothing more, nothing less. ‘Terrorist’ is an ideological epithet, ‘defenders of freedom’ equally manipulative.
‘Humanity’ remains a comforting thought, particularly in my business--overseas disaster relief—where the needs of strangers matter to our program descriptions and fundraising drives. But I find the concept useless; it distracts from matters of individual culpability, which must be addressed if a country is to recover from conflict.
Rumsfeld, Rove, Cheney and crew (Bush is exempt—too few neurons firing to qualify as sentient or conscious)… these names alone suffice to provoke paroxysms of rage and, one assumes, action. Yet these men continue to skip, sing and frolic in our midst. Warlords gallivanting in a failed state like Somalia, I can understand. But wearing suits, appearing on television and exercising their expense accounts in our own airspace—it’s criminal. So where's the outrage?
perceptions: neon spring
Tracey Emin. Our Angels. 2007.
Quaeries, part II
Justin E. H. Smith
To all those men of science who have occasion to attend a beheading: we have heard that the head remains conscious and agitated for up to thirty seconds after separation from the body. Won't you kindly make an arrangement with the prisoner (and, as needed, the executioner), so as to measure its inevitable loss of vitality? You might agree with the head's owner upon a system of signaling by blinks, at intervals of, say, five seconds, until such a time as the head can blink no more. We would not recommend that you get rough with the head and slap it about. This was tried by an earnest physician during the Reign of Terror, who only wanted to sustain the quickness and apperception of a woman's severed caput for as long as he could by means of a few harsh blows to the cheeks. She was affronted, and gave him a bitter scowl, and would no doubt have lashed him harshly with her tongue, had she still lungs to bellow. Yet what, we would like to know, is so offensive about a few bracing and inquisitive strikes when one has, after all, just had one's head sliced off?
We have heard talk of "free radicals" in the foodstuffs eaten by the great mass of common people, as in their maize chips, their fried poultry "nuggets," and their "Bologna." We would like to know how these radicals gained their freedom in the first place, and what precisely they aim to bring about in the people's preferred snacks. How strong are the antioxidant forces? With which side does the palate sympathize? With which side the stomach? &c.
One of our Scientific Society's members suffers from mighty head-aches, and has got stuck in his aching head the idea of travelling to Paris in order to undergo a trepan at the hands of the renowned barber-surgeon, Pierre Grossejambe, who is said to have drilled holes in the skulls of more than 200 patients. It is said that trepans were already performed by the ancient Egyptians and Chaldaeans, and that they are useful not just for relieving the pressure of the blood upon the head, but also for the having of mystical visions, most often just of lowly beetle- and ibis-headed divinities, but also, on occasion, of the true Lord and Creator of this our Universe. We would like to know why, if the benefits of trepanning are so great, this procedure remains forbidden in our land, and can only be performed openly in that country where, so it is said, tout est permis.
We have heard also of a "plague of corpulence" menacing the American people, of "all you can eat" restaurants they call variously "buffets," "king's tables," "smorgas boards," "smorgies," and "sties," where men and women the size of Nile river-horses will eat without pause from break-fast to dinner, and from dinner until supper-time. Is this plague a miasma of some sort, that has descended upon the New World and made its inhabitants sick with appetite? Or is this "plague" in fact only the deadly sin of gluttony?
It is reported that with the aid of convex lenses a sharp-eyed Hollander has discovered countless little animals in the male seed, which do propel themselves about, like so many tadpoles, by means of a long, whip-like tail. We would like to know whether these spermatic worms might play a role in the generation of animals and men, or whether they are not rather the product of putrefaction, like the worms that we see spontaneously generated in rotten meat, and in the interstices betwixt our teeth. We would also like to know how this Hollander obtained his seed sample, whether his wife was not implicated in its procuring, and whether in his view the abomination of Onan is not in some way cancelled out by the great contribution this "waste" of seed has made to the advancement of medical knowledge.
We would sincerely like to know, in view of the tremendous recent advances in the science of embalming, why anyone would commission a statue to be raised of himself. Today, thanks to the ingenuity of our morticians, each man may become his own statue!
Should men eat eggs, or should they not? Will this matter never be settled?
We ourselves have, by use of tubes, and in front of a full auditorium, made the blood of a dog flow out of its body, and into that of another dog, and back again. This amazing spectacle went on for some time, until one of the dogs began to cry most pitiably, and a rather effeminate man in the audience, a certain "Mr. Frilly" who is no member of our Society and who generally prefers to pass his time writing in a journal at great length about his favorite condiments, himself cried out: for the love of God, have you no mercy, &c. We halted the experiment, but in any case what interests us most is the possibility of performing the same feat with two animals of different kinds, or with a man and an animal. This latter experiment might prove to have tremendous therapeutic benefits, as the blood of a docile and pacific lamb, for example, could be made to flow through the veins of a mad hospital patient unable to have his sanguinity subdued by the usual method of applying leeches.
We have received news of the "science wars" raging in the universities of lands less advanced than ours. It appears one of the belligerent camps asserts that science is only a "narrative," and is in no way superior to other folk practices, like musical theatre, or gin-rummy. Are these people mad? Could they perhaps use a drop of lamb's blood in their veins too? And what could they know of science? Do they belong to Scientific Societies, such as ours? Or do they teach English literature, like The Red Badge of Courage, Oliver Twist, and Old Yeller? Please tell us: what do these people know of science?
Berlin, March 25, 2008
For an extensive archive of Justin Smith's writing, please visit www.jehsmith.com.
March 30, 2008
Blogging in The Arab World
Courtney C. Radsch at ResetDOC:
Until recently, journalism in the Arab world suffered under the heavy hand of authoritarian rulers who sought to control the symbolic power of the media, the major arbiter of public opinion. With the increasing importance of citizen journalism on the Internet, which has burgeoned since blogging started to gain popularity in 2003, the new media are not only impacting mainstream journalism but the political process itself. With the force of the blogosphere coming on the heals of the explosion of Arabic satellite news media over the past decade, the public has more diverse, credible, and culturally relevant information source to choose from than ever before. Online citizen journalism in the form of web logs (blogs) video blogs (vlogs) is emerging as a powerful force in the Arab world, where it is challenging the ability of the state to control the information environment and forcing mainstream journalists to compete with online citizen journalists.
Blogging in Egypt is taking off, although it is still relatively unknown and certainly not popular among the general public. However, among journalists and the professional, globalized class, it is an emergent phenomeneon. The Egyptian blog ring claims more than 1500 blogs, with slightly less than half of those published in English (http://www.egybloggers.com). The Egyptian Blog Review’s motto “from citizens to watchdogs” proclaims the potential for new forms of citizen media to bypass state control and self-censorship, evidence of the impact changes in global communications systems are having. These changes favor narrowcasting and transnational, sub-state media that provide a more realistic view of the world than the traditional state-run media.
The Pride and The Prejudice of V.S. Naipaul
In the Guardian, Robert McCrum profiles Naipaul:
Everyone agrees that VS Naipaul is fully alive to his own importance. A mirror to his work, his life is emblematic of an extraordinary half century, the postwar years. Let it not be said that he does not know this. 'My story is a kind of cultural history,' he remarks, in part of an overture to a long conversation. Nevertheless, he will not be reading Patrick French's forthcoming authorised biography, The World Is What it Is. 'I asked Patrick to do it, but I haven't read a word,' he emphasises, brushing past rumours of discord over the manuscript. 'I don't intend to read the book.'
This volatile mixture of pride and insecurity illuminates everything about him. 'I am the kind of writer,' he once said, 'that people think other people are reading.' That's a characteristic Naipaul formulation, ironically self-deprecating (my audience is small, but select) while at the same time breathtakingly self-confident (I am a great writer whose work deserves to be generally admired).
The light cast by this strange combustion of arrogance and modesty has often exposed the world in new and unexpected ways. At its best, Naipaul's prose is as sharp and lucid as splinters of glass. But there's a paradox here. The man himself is anything but straightforward - an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, inside a mystery: possibly, he is a bit of a puzzle even to himself.
Where Do Viruses Come From?
Ed Rybicki over at Scientific American:
Tracing the origins of viruses is difficult because they don't leave fossils and because of the tricks they use to make copies of themselves within the cells they've invaded. Some viruses even have the ability to stitch their own genes into those of the cells they infect, which means studying their ancestry requires untangling it from the history of their hosts and other organisms. What makes the process even more complicated is that viruses don't just infect humans; they can infect basically any organism—from bacteria to horses; seaweed to people.
Still, scientists have been able to piece together some viral histories, based on the fact that the genes of many viruses—such as those that cause herpes and mono—seem to share some properties with cells' own genes. This could suggest that they started as big bits of cellular DNA and then became independent—or that these viruses came along very early in evolution, and some of their DNA stuck around in cells' genomes. The fact that some viruses that infect humans share structural features with viruses that infect bacteria could mean that all of these viruses have a common origin, dating back several billion years. This highlights another problem with tracing virus origins: most modern viruses seem to be a patchwork of bits that come from different sources—a sort of "mix and match" approach to building an organism.
EO Wilson Says Soccer Moms Are Natural History’s Enemy
Over at the Discover magazine blog Better Planet:
In a candid conversation with an audience here at the Aspen Environment Forum, eminent biologist/naturalist EO Wilson said soccer moms are killing off bio-education because they don’t let their children experience nature.
In what he calls the ”soccer mom syndrome” Wilson said the worst thing a parent can do for a child is to take him or her to a botanical garden where all the trees are marked and labeled. Instead, “Go to the seashore and give them a pale and bucket. Let them experience nature…and then come back and ask questions,” Wilson said, admittedly paraphrasing Rachel Carson’s advice. Carson famously wrote the book “Silent Spring.”
Wilson, who is compiling an encyclopedia of life (www.eol.org), which will describe every species known to man, didn’t back down when a woman from the audience said that she would “forgive him” for the soccer mom comment.
“Don’t,” he responded. “Think on it."
Pamela Paul reviews Mary Roach's Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.
Intended as much for amusement as for enlightenment, “Bonk” is Roach’s foray into the world of sex research, mostly from Alfred Kinsey onward, but occasionally harking back to the ancient Greeks and medievals (equally unenlightened). Roach belongs to a particular strain of science writer; she’s interested less in scientific subjects than in the ways scientists study their subjects — less, in this case, in sex per se than in the laboratory dissection of sex. She delights in medical euphemism and scholarly jargon; you can hear her titter as she rolls out terms like “vaginal photoplethysmograph probe,” “nocturnal penile tumescence monitoring” and “vaginocavernosus reflex.” Writing about a 1950s-era study of vaginal response in which female subjects copulated with a penis camera, Roach wants to know how exactly the “dildo-camera” operated, who volunteered to make use of it in a laboratory setting and, above all, where the device is now. This is “as good as science gets,” she writes, “a mildly outrageous, terrifically courageous, seemingly efficacious display of creative problem-solving, fueled by a bullheaded dedication to amassing facts and dispelling myths in a long-neglected area of human physiology.”
Oe Wins Court Battle in Japan
Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe has won a major court battle over a book he wrote more than 30 years ago detailing how Japanese soldiers persuaded and sometimes forced Okinawan civilians to commit suicide rather than give themselves up in the closing days of the second world war.
The topic is a hugely sensitive issue on the southern Japan islands, where battles raged from late March through to June 1945, leaving more than 200,000 civilians and soldiers dead, and speeding the collapse of Japan's defences. The US occupied Okinawa until 1972.
The ruling was also a high-profile setback for a vocal lobby among Japanese conservatives who have long sought to discredit or censure material documenting Japanese excesses during the war, including government-supported prostitution, the rape of the Chinese city of Nanking and other incidents.
In his book, Okinawa Notes, Oe chronicled accounts of group suicides on Okinawa, and alleged that Japanese soldiers persuaded, and at times coerced, civilians to kill themselves rather than face what they were told would be horrible atrocities if they gave themselves up to the invading US troops. Historians generally agree that hundreds of Okinawan civilians killed themselves under such circumstances, and there is a wealth of testimony from survivors and their relatives to back that up.
In search of the visible woman
From The Guardian:
Women are in a bad way. We are still made scapegoats and traduced and our true natures denied. Two female polemicists have published books explaining why, although they have come to very different, arguably opposing, conclusions. One is also very much better than the other. Susan Pinker is a Canadian developmental psychologist and newspaper columnist perplexed that, after decades of feminism, there's still a pay gap and so few women run major corporations. Girls do better at school and, at least in North America, which is where The Sexual Paradox is really concerned with, enter university in greater numbers. The conclusion she reaches, never mind Simone de Beauvoir's liberating message all those years ago, is that biology is destiny. 'People are programmed,' she writes at one point. Women are 'built for comfort, not speed'. Testosterone makes the male of the species more vulnerable, but also more risk-taking. Oxytocin makes women more empathetic. The trouble with this evolutionary Pinker first sets up what is probably a false opposition (public success and empathy are not in fact mutually exclusive) and then wholly fails to account for high-profile women such as Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton or all the women who are running companies and law firms.
Neither, I suspect, could she explain the pioneer-era women profiled in Susan Faludi's The Terror Dream, who bravely and often viciously fought Native Americans after their menfolk had failed them, usually by running away. These women, Faludi argues, have been airbrushed out of the founding-of-America myth, just as a similar airbrushing is now distorting our accounts of 9/11. The attacks on the Twin Towers left America feeling exposed, Faludi says; by the time it was clear exactly what was happening, there was absolutely nothing that could be done. psychobabble is that while it may get us a little way along the road to understanding, it strands us miles from any useful destination. How far was neatly summed up by Louis Menand in a review of a book by Pinker's more famous brother Steven, a leader in the evolutionary psychology field, when he observed that Wagner may well have been trying to impress future mates - we all are - but it's a long way from there to Parsifal.
Karachi’s Winter Days
Sehba Sarwar in The New York Times:
I’ve been living in Houston for some time, but I often return to Pakistan to visit my parents. In December, when I arrived in Karachi with my 3-year-old daughter, Minal, the city was spinning with more than the usual winter weddings, parties and reunions. President Musharraf had issued emergency rule to hold back a possible Supreme Court ruling against him, and Benazir Bhutto had returned to Pakistan at her own risk. There had been suicide bombings, the lawyers were battling for restoration of an independent judiciary and parliamentary elections were a few weeks away. My husband, René, wanted me to postpone our trip, but my father wasn’t well, and it was important to go. I assured René I’d do my best to stay away from the political action.
But after I got to Karachi, it didn’t take long for me to change my mind. I simply felt that too much was at stake. I joined my journalist sister, Beena, who is based there temporarily, and other friends at several marches in support of a free press and the lawyers’ movement.
THE ALPINE WONDERLAND OF TYROL
Benjamin Anastas in the New York Times:
Every traveler has a landscape that, for him, contains the wonder and mystery behind all travel. It could be the beach, or a cathedral square, or the rain forest, or a volcanic island — for me, it is the mountain pass. The mountain pass, roughly defined, is that point on the map where the winding road up is transformed into the winding road down. It marks the border where valleys meet, and often is where provinces divide, where one nation becomes another, with a corresponding change in language and road signs. To get to the mountain pass, you begin on a fertile plain, often crossed by a river, and drive through terraced fields and sleepy villages until the road gets steeper, the switchbacks get scarier and signs of human settlement fall away behind you.
If you are in Tyrol — the proud region straddling northern Italy and western Austria — and you ascend through the Val Passiria to the mountain pass known in German as the Timmelsjoch, small vineyards and neatly tended orchards give way to a desolate moonscape fringed with ice, and the tractors from the lower altitudes, carrying bins of apples, are replaced by swarms of motorcycles. (You will later see the same bikers that passed you like movie villains in black leather warming up over plates of sausages and fries at the restaurant just beyond the pass, crowded into booths and chatting amiably with one another.)
More here. [St. Lorenzen, the village in this photo, is a few miles from where I live.]
March 29, 2008
Gloomy About Globalization
Robert Skidelsky in the New York Review of Books:
Making Globalization Work is the third of Joseph Stiglitz's popular, and populist, books. Like Jeffrey Sachs, Stiglitz is an economist turned preacher, one of a new breed of secular evangelists produced by the fall of communism. Stiglitz wants to stop rich countries from exploiting poor countries without damaging the springs of wealth-creation. In that sense he is a classic social democrat. His missionary fervor, though, is very American. "Saving the Planet," one of this new book's chapter headings, could have been its title.
Stiglitz is in favor of globalization—which he defines as "the closer economic integration of the countries of the world." He criticizes the ways it has been done. The "rules of the game," he writes, have been largely set by US corporate interests. Trade agreements have made the poorest worse off and condemned thousands to death through AIDS. Multinational corporations have stripped poor countries of their natural resources and left environmental devastation. Western banks have burdened poor countries with unsustainable debt.
More here. [Photo shows Stiglitz.]
The Limits of Bioterrorism
Carl Zimmer in Slate:
An outbreak of E. coli isn't usually the stuff of feel-good stories. Feel-bad is more like it—or even feel-organ-failure. But recent E. coli outbreaks can offer us a bit of solace. We live in the anxious age of synthetic biology, when scientists can reconstruct entire genomes from raw chemicals, and when we all fret that someone is going to use this new technology to create a monster bug and unleash a man-made plague. According to one government report, "The effects of some of these engineered biological agents could be worse than any disease known to man." But a close look at recent outbreaks of E. coli—and a closer look at the bacteria themselves—may help us to put aside our fears for the moment. Engineering plagues is harder than it looks.
Building Stonehenge - This Man can Move Anything
Howard Jacobson in Prospect:
Two conflicting but equally sentimental narratives of the lives of prostitutes—and by implication the men who pay for their services—confront each other at the moment. The first describes the prostitute as abused victim, incidentally of global capitalism and the free market, but essentially of the violence of men. In this narrative, the idea that the prostitute might choose of her own free will to sell her body for profit or for pleasure, or for both, is derided. A battery of statistics proves her miserable condition: her low self-esteem and life expectancy, the dangers to which she is exposed, the rape, contumely and criminality which form the consistent scenery of her abbreviated existence. Therefore—no ifs or buts—we must criminalise the man who uses her. (I italicise the word to show that I mean to be more careful with it than are the criminalisers.)
The second narrative tells of snazzy, Sex in the City hookerdom, fucking and shopping exactly in the spirit and prose of women's blockbusters of 20 years ago, only now the fucking pays for the shopping. Tracy Quan's Manhattan whore is into Prada and Bulgari talk even before the fucking starts. Belle de Jour will tell you what she's been buying at the chemist's—"tampons, vaginal pessary (for irritation), condoms, sugarless breath mints, lubricant, individual post-waxing wipes, self-tanning liquid, razor blades, potassium citrate granules (for cystitis)." Too much information, as they say.
Was there really a man
who bent his silk-stocking knee
before Isabella, a plumed hat in hand,
and did she say yes, sail out across the unknown
and claim it for me, being, as she was,
accustomed to empire?
And, on his three ships, were there
men high in the rigging with fears
of a flat end to the world,
and when they came near land,
were the people who lived there
really unable to see the shape of ships,
unable to conjure anything
so huge, coming white-sailed,
on their turquoise and rippled sea?
And did all this begin a dance of greed,
did death and indenture grow up
beside the fine idea of liberty
on land so rich and full of grace
that a great darkness could be hidden?
And would the cries of Africans, trapped
under the decks of other ships,
be heard centuries later
when the land was paved with neon
and desire had been sown from sea to sea?
And was addiction after addiction spawned,
until map lines were too small
for the growth of so much wanting?
Now the foppish knee that bent down
before Isabella bends again.
This time the answer comes back from
the faceless monarchs of commerce,
yes, take the whole round truth of it.
I am in the rigging of this ship-bent-on-empire.
I am also in the garden of my green island.
Ahead, the earth goes over
the cliff of itself, yet still I hear birds,
singing of something in the salt air
which appears, but is not yet recognizable,
on the blue sheen of our horizon.
Physicists Make Artificial Black Hole
Saswato R. Das in IEEE Spectrum:
To make their event horizon, Leonhardt and colleagues used a titanium sapphire laser and a microstructured optical fiber—one containing a hexagonal arrangement of air-filled holes that ran its length. They first transmitted an ultrashort, intense laser pulse down the optical fiber. The optical fiber is susceptible to nonlinear effects, such that when an intense pulse of light hits the fiber, it changes the physical properties of the fiber. In this case, the first pulse created a distortion that amounted to a change in the fiber’s index of refraction, which moves along with the pulse. The pulse itself was slowed by the distortion. Leonhardt and colleagues then sent a “faster” stream of infrared laser light in pursuit of the first pulse. When the faster-moving second pulse encountered the distortion, it got trapped at its edge and couldn’t break past it. This edge became the fiber’s “event horizon.”
“Light propagating in a moving medium is similar to the light propagating in curved space” such as you would find near a black hole, explains Volovik. So “it is possible to create artificial horizons.”
Following Einstein’s theory of relativity, as light approaches the event horizon, it would slow down immensely and be stretched out; time would also proceed very slowly. Scientists have worked out what this deceleration would look like, and Leonhardt and colleagues say they observed the predicted effects in their optical-fiber event horizon.
Leonhardt and his colleagues hope their artificial event horizon will let experimentalists see whether anything can escape from a black hole. This highly counterintuitive idea was proposed by Stephen Hawking in the 1970s. Hawking applied tenets of quantum mechanics to existing black-hole theory and surmised that black holes are not black at all. Instead, they emit light—which has since come to be known as Hawking radiation.
The real uses of enchantment
From The Guardian:
Salman Rushdie's sumptuous mixture of history and fable in The Enchantress of Florence is magnificent, says Ursula K Le Guin.
From the sea of stories our master fisherman has brought up two gleaming, intertwining prizes - a tale about three boys from Florence in the age of Lorenzo de' Medici, and a story of Akbar, greatest of the Mughal emperors, who established both the wondrous and shortlived city Fatehpur Sikri and a wondrous and shortlived policy of religious tolerance. Both stories are about story itself, the power of history and fable, and why it is that we can seldom be sure which is which.
This brilliant, fascinating, generous novel swarms with gorgeous young women both historical and imagined, beautiful queens and irresistible enchantresses, along with some whores and a few quarrelsome old wives - all stock figures, females perceived solely in relation to the male. Women are never treated unkindly by the author, but they have no autonomous being. The Enchantress herself, who turns everyone into puppets of her will, has no personality at all, and exists - literally - by pleasing men. Akbar calls her a "woman who had forged her own life, beyond convention, by the force of her will alone, a woman like a king". But in fact she does nothing but sell herself to the highest bidder, and her power is an illusion permitted by him.
Uri Avnery in CounterPunch:
My friend Afif Safieh, now the chief PLO representative in the US, argues that there are two Americas: the America which exterminated the Native Americans and enslaved the blacks, the America of Hiroshima and McCarthy, and the other America, the America of the Declaration of Independence, of Lincoln, Wilson and Roosevelt.
In these terms, George Bush belongs to the first. Obama, his opposite in almost every respect, represents the second.
The name of another America is Obama. Full name: Barack Hussein Obama.
The very fact that this person can be a serious contender for the presidency at all restores my faith in the possibilities inherent in America. After the excesses of Senator Joe McCarthy there was President John Kennedy. After Bush there can be Obama. Only in America.
The great message of Obama is Obama himself. A person who has roots in three continents (and another half: Hawaii). A person whose education spans the wide world. A person who can see reality from the viewpoints of America, Africa and Asia. A person who is both black and white. A new kind of American, an American of the 21st Century.
I am not as naïve as I sound. I realize that in his speeches there is more enthusiasm than content. We can't know what he will do once elected president. President Obama may disappoint us. But I prefer to take a risk with a man like this than to know in advance what the two routine politicians, his competitors, will do.
It’s Not You, It’s Your Books
From The New York Times:
Some years ago, I was awakened early one morning by a phone call from a friend. She had just broken up with a boyfriend she still loved and was desperate to justify her decision. “Can you believe it!” she shouted into the phone. “He hadn’t even heard of Pushkin!”
We’ve all been there. Or some of us have. Anyone who cares about books has at some point confronted the Pushkin problem: when a missed — or misguided — literary reference makes it chillingly clear that a romance is going nowhere fast. At least since Dante’s Paolo and Francesca fell in love over tales of Lancelot, literary taste has been a good shorthand for gauging compatibility. These days, thanks to social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, listing your favorite books and authors is a crucial, if risky, part of self-branding. When it comes to online dating, even casual references can turn into deal breakers. Sussing out a date’s taste in books is “actually a pretty good way — as a sort of first pass — of getting a sense of someone,” said Anna Fels, a Manhattan psychiatrist and the author of “Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives.” “It’s a bit of a Rorschach test.” To Fels (who happens to be married to the literary publisher and writer James Atlas), reading habits can be a rough indicator of other qualities. “It tells something about ... their level of intellectual curiosity, what their style is,” Fels said. “It speaks to class, educational level.”
Pity the would-be Romeo who earnestly confesses middlebrow tastes: sometimes, it’s the Howard Roark problem as much as the Pushkin one. “I did have to break up with one guy because he was very keen on Ayn Rand,” said Laura Miller, a book critic for Salon. “He was sweet and incredibly decent despite all the grandiosely heartless ‘philosophy’ he espoused, but it wasn’t even the ideology that did it. I just thought Rand was a hilariously bad writer, and past a certain point I couldn’t hide my amusement.”
Judy Heiblum, a literary agent at Sterling Lord Literistic, shudders at the memory of some attempted date-talk about Robert Pirsig’s 1974 cult classic “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” beloved of searching young men. “When a guy tells me it changed his life, I wish he’d saved us both the embarrassment,” Heiblum said, adding that “life-changing experiences” are a “tedious conversational topic at best.”
More here. (Note: Just for the record, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance did change my life when I read it at 18, and last year, I was completely ravished by Eugene Onegin).
Michael Erard in the New York Times Book Review:
The book opens with Bickerton wading ashore on a remote Pacific island. If we discount bar stools, little of the subsequent action takes place in chairs. In fact, Bickerton always seems to be leaping out of them. After finishing his doctorate, he writes, he’d gotten all the nonsense out of the way and “could now get on with the serious business of life. Which is, of course, finding out stuff.” With this same irresistibly headlong tone, he describes jetting off to Guyana, Hawaii, Mauritius, Suriname and elsewhere to explore his ideas about languages without pedigrees.
Pidgins are contact languages invented by people who don’t share a language to use. Pidgin speakers, Bickerton explains, will “use words from your language if they know them; if not, they’ll use words from their own, and hope you know them, and failing that, words from any other language that might happen to be around.” Some pidgins, like Chinese Pidgin English (once spoken along China’s coast) or the Chinook jargon of the American Northwest, originated in voluntary trade contexts. Others arose from the slave trade and plantation economies.
March 28, 2008
God in American Politics
Craig Calhoun offers some insights on religion in American politics over at his SSRC blog Societas (audio cast):
In conversation with Paul Price, Craig Calhoun continues his analysis of the separation of church and state, this time with reference to a new book on secularism by religion scholar Mark Lilla, The Stillborn God. Calhoun goes on to discuss the Christian worldview that underpins American politics. He concludes by considering whether broad and energetic support for Obama constitutes a social movement.
Also for those who are interested, Craig Calhoun, Charles Taylor and Michael Warner discuss A Secular Age and secularism on Wednesday, April 2, 6:30–8:30 p.m., at Jurow Lecture Hall at NYU (Silver Center, 100 Washington Square East).
Wealth Impacts on Test Scores
In Science Daily:
Prior research has documented the association between children's cognitive achievement and the socioeconomic status of their parents as measured by education level, occupation, and income. Many of these studies focused on the effect of poverty--defined by family income--on children's achievement, but household wealth (i.e., net worth) has received little attention.
This new study used new methods, including data from a new national study (the Panel Study of Income Dynamics and its Child Development Supplement). It explored many functional forms and sources of wealth, looking at different mediating pathways of wealth from distinct sources, and analyzing how wealth affects children's cognitive achievement at different stages of childhood.
The researchers found a marked disparity in family wealth between Black and White families with young children, with White families owning more than 10 times as many assets as Black families. The study found that family wealth had a stronger association with cognitive achievement of school-aged children than that of preschoolers, and a stronger association with school-aged children's math than with their reading scores.
Family wealth accumulated from different sources also was found to have a distinct influence on children at different developmental stages.
Cockburn, Hitchens and their Reaction to Obama
Speaking of Obama, does anyone else find something weirdly symmetrical in Alexander Cockburn's response to Obama's speech and Christopher Hitchens'? Somewhere in the shared biography of the two is some deep insight into the New Left and its aftermath. Cockburn:
Barack Obama's speech in Philadelphia about race stuck pretty carefully to the unwritten rules of a national conversation, in marked contrast to the sermons of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose stimulating rhetoric has caused such an extraordinary affront--if you will--to the conversing classes.
The junior senator from Illinois is a master at drowning the floundering swimmer he purports to rescue while earning credit for extending a manly hand in solidarity. I noticed this the first time I wrote about Obama, back in the spring of 2006, when Ned Lamont was trying to make the disgusting political conduct of Senator Joseph Lieberman part of the national conversation, at least among Democrats. Obama hastened to a big political dinner in Connecticut to cut the conversation off and denounce any deviations from support of his mentor Lieberman.
It's been more than a month since I began warning Sen. Barack Obama that he would become answerable for his revolting choice of a family priest. But never mind that; the astonishing thing is that it's at least 11 months since he himself has known precisely the same thing. "If Barack gets past the primary," said the Rev. Jeremiah Wright to the New York Times in April of last year, "he might have to publicly distance himself from me. I said it to Barack personally, and he said yeah, that might have to happen." Pause just for a moment, if only to admire the sheer calculating self-confidence of this. Sen. Obama has long known perfectly well, in other words, that he'd one day have to put some daylight between himself and a bigmouth Farrakhan fan. But he felt he needed his South Side Chicago "base" in the meantime. So he coldly decided to double-cross that bridge when he came to it. And now we are all supposed to marvel at the silky success of the maneuver.
McCain as Second Best for Clinton Supporters and Obama Supporters
For those who haven't seen this... depressing to say the least:
A sizable proportion of Democrats would vote for John McCain next November if he is matched against the candidate they do not support for the Democratic nomination. This is particularly true for Hillary Clinton supporters, more than a quarter of whom currently say they would vote for McCain if Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee.
These conclusions are based on an analysis of Democratic voters' responses to separate voting questions in March 7-22 Gallup Poll Daily election tracking. In each day's survey, respondents are asked for their general election preferences in McCain-Clinton and McCain-Obama pairings. Democratic voters are then asked whom they support for their party's nomination.
There are certain single volumes of American poetry, some of them first books or early books, which carry with them a special and spiritual power; they seem to arise from a mysterious impulse and to have been written from an enormous private or artistic need. The poems are full of a primal sense of voice, and the aura of the voice in the rhythms of the poem suggests a relentless desire not to make easy peace with the reader. If some of these poems have the tone of prayers, they are not prayers of comfort or of supplication as much as urgent laments or cries from the depths where the language has been held much against its will or has broken free, and now demands to be heard.
more from The NYRB here.
In the 2008 biennial, Spike Lee's exemplary and moving documentary about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, When the Levees Broke, installed among the art, is about as pointed and angry as this exhibition gets. Much here prefers a quieter, if not always subtle approach. One essayist identifies this as "radical diffidence", or "the shy downturned face of revolution in our time". I don't believe it.
Until June, the 2008 biennial fills three floors of the Whitney Museum. And, until last Sunday, several of the artists also occupied and performed in the decaying salons, corridors and enormous Drill Hall of the Seventh Regiment Armory Building on Park Avenue, a few blocks from the museum. Opened in 1881, the Armory is one of the most impressive and fascinating buildings I have visited, its decaying, Aesthetic Movement period rooms a bizarre mix of the mock-baronial, Moorish, gothic, Japanese and other hybrid styles, created by leading artists and designers of the day. In one such room there was a dance marathon; in another, one-on-one therapy sessions about modern art took place inside a minimal white cubicle. Yards and yards of braided artificial hair festooned another salon, and in another was a bar, organised by artist Eduardo Sarabia. Except for the stuffed moose head on the wall, the bar was deserted. "When the bar is closed, visitors can view it as a sculpture," the exhibition pamphlet explained. Like, yeah.
more from The Guardian here.
wave after wave
Everyone would remember the weather. On the afternoon of Saturday, September 7, 1940, “one of the fairest days of the century, a day of clear warm air and high blue skies,” as the novelist William Sansom recalled, 348 German bombers and more than 600 Messerschmitt fighters set off from northern France for England. Goering, who had arrived the day before to take direct command of the mission, watched from the cliffs of Cap Gris Nez as the planes formed up over the Channel. At 4:14, the first aircraft were over the English coast, and British spotters assumed that this unusually large bomber stream would soon disperse to attack the usual targets—airfields, sector stations, oil installations. But as it flew westward over Kent and Sussex the fleet remained intact, forming a block 20 miles wide. Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, at tea in the garden of their country house in Kent, saw the planes—the most concentrated force arrayed against Britain since the Spanish Armada—“coming over in wave after wave.” Farther west, in the countryside just outside London, the American newspaperman Ben Robertson watched the bombers as they “flew at a very great height, glistening like beautiful steel birds in the afternoon sunshine.” Minutes later, London—a city that, as he wrote, “had taken thirty generations of men a thousand years to build”—was burning. The first raid ended at 6:10, but two hours later more than 300 additional bombers came for a second attack, which lasted until 4:30 the next morning.
more from The Atlantic Monthly here.
The Economist Has No Clothes
From Scientific American:
The 19th-century creators of neoclassical economics—the theory that now serves as the basis for coordinating activities in the global market system—are credited with transforming their field into a scientific discipline. But what is not widely known is that these now legendary economists—William Stanley Jevons, Léon Walras, Maria Edgeworth and Vilfredo Pareto—developed their theories by adapting equations from 19th-century physics that eventually became obsolete. Unfortunately, it is clear that neoclassical economics has also become outdated. The theory is based on unscientific assumptions that are hindering the implementation of viable economic solutions for global warming and other menacing environmental problems.
The physical theory that the creators of neoclassical economics used as a template was conceived in response to the inability of Newtonian physics to account for the phenomena of heat, light and electricity. In 1847 German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz formulated the conservation of energy principle and postulated the existence of a field of conserved energy that fills all space and unifies these phenomena. Later in the century James Maxwell, Ludwig Boltzmann and other physicists devised better explanations for electromagnetism and thermodynamics, but in the meantime, the economists had borrowed and altered Helmholtz’s equations.
The strategy the economists used was as simple as it was absurd—they substituted economic variables for physical ones.
Shocking the nose into action
Find it hard to identify the smell? A teaching session backed by electric shocks might teach you to learn the difference. Wen Li, at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and her colleagues, have shown that the brain can be shocked into sniffing out the differences between molecules that they would not usually be able to distinguish by smell. The result confirms that 'fear conditioning' can be used to awaken the highest capacity of human abilities, and shows that people can spot smell differences once thought perceivable only to other animals.
Li works in the neurology lab of Jay Gottfried, which has a history of investigating the sense of smell and how this affects perception. In this experiment, they looked at people's ability to smell the difference between enantiomers — non-superimposable mirror images of molecules. Although rats can usually tell these molecules apart, humans can't always do so. The molecule carvone, for example, smells to people like caraway when in one form, and like spearmint when in its mirror image. But most enantiomers smell identical to people.
No one knows why humans' sense of smell differs so much from rats'. Some suggest that modern humans have lost a fine-tuned sense of smell as this sense is not generally needed for day-to-day survival. So the team set out to see whether humans really are missing something, or whether they simply aren't trying hard enough.
...I Want Your Hand
........................................................................I want your hand to be placed on my heart, and come,
I want the palm of your hand on my heart, for it to be placed on me.
Before you come I shall light a fire and I shall await
Your coming patiently. I want the big fire
To be alight all night, and voices in the silence of this fire
To be heard only as we once heard the sound of the sea,
For your shoulder, hand, arm to be put on my heart,
And for the fire to be alight.
Let it snow outside, let’s not remember anyone outside.
Let the town fall into a heavy sleep, let the town sleep,
Let fathers, brothers sleep sweetly and bitterly.
Let every place, space and area be covered in white snow.
Let factories, stations, the airport sleep in peace,
Let the sky too rest in sleep, let there be no flying,
Let the yard dogs, the tramp, the bird on the wire
Be overcome by slumber, let everything surrender to slow
Sleep and peace. But let me hold your weak
And white hand the whole night and have it on my heart.
Let for a moment an unknown god stop by our windows,
And let us too go to sleep, but let the fire stay alight.
The Voice of the Dolphins and Other Stories
Carol Strum in Department of the Planet Earth:
After fleeing Nazi persecution in 1933, Hungarian-born physicist Leo Szilard invented - and patented - the process for neutron chain reaction that would release the power of the atom. He subsequently assigned the patent to the British Admiralty in order to keep it from the Nazis. Later, goaded by fears that Germany would develop its own atomic weapons, Szilard moved to the U.S. and worked feverishly on the secret Manhattan Project, proving that a chain reaction could be initiated and developing the first atomic bombs.
Szilard was more than a physicist, however. With astonishing prescience, he foresaw the deadly political implications of atomic weaponry, the near-certainty of a nuclear arms race, and the threat such weapons posed to humanity and all life. Before the American bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he argued passionately against their use on inhabited targets. Appalled at the results of those bombs, he spent the rest of his life desperately trying to cork the terrible genie his invention had unleashed.
Undeterred by official refusals to take his warnings seriously, the irrepressible Szilard turned to fiction to deliver his message. The Voice of the Dolphins collects stories published between 1949 and 1961 in The University of Chicago Magazine, University of Chicago Law Review, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and other journals. The satire, humor, and serious issues in these stories are as relevant today as they were forty-some years ago - a sorry reflection on our failure to heed the words of the wise.
March 27, 2008
Tools of the Brain Trade
Over at Cocktail Party Physics, Jennifer Ouellette on some of the tools of mapping brains.
Last week was the start of a new program on the anatomy, development and evolution of the brain, which means the halls of KITP [Kavil Institute for Theoretical Physics] are now filled not just with particle physicists and cosmologists, but also scientists engaged in various aspects of neuroscience research. Ergo, I call them Brainiacs. That's one of the great things about the KITP: it's so very interdisciplinary in its scope, one never knows what sort of scientist one is likely to encounter on any given day, or what topics will be featured in the various scheduled talks. Today, for example, I can learn about gene networks in animal development, or mass determinations in decay chains with missing energy -- or both, if I'm feeling especially curious. Good times!
Neuroscience isn't a subject I cover much, beyond the occasional physics-based imaging technique (functional magnetic resonance imaging, anyone?). So why not have an unofficial "Brainiac Week" here at the cocktail party? We'll start with a post about the foundations of modern neuroscience. Last week I heard a talk by Winfried Denk of the Max-Planck Institute in Heidelberg, Germany, which was technically about brain circuit reconstruction using sectioning electron microscopy. My magpie mind (ooh! shiny!) got sidetracked early on, however, by the fact that most of major breakthroughs in early neuroscience came about because of the development of two critical technologies: histological staining techniques, and photomicroscopy.
Encore (Paradise Omeros: Redux)
From left overs from Isaac Julien's tribute to Derek Walcott's Omeros, and a discussion of the stand alone piece:
what art looks like these days
The 2008 Whitney Biennial is a deeply transitional, studiously pious, blandly brainy, somewhat compromised exhibition. Call it the Art School Biennial. Not because the art in it is immature or because the artists all went to art school -- although I bet they did -- but because it centers on a very narrow slice of highly educated artistic activity and features a lot of very thought-out, extremely self-conscious, carefully pieced-together installations, sculpture and earnestly political art. These works often resemble Home Depot displays, architectural fragments, customized found objects, ersatz modernist monuments, graphic design or magazine layouts. The resultant quasi-formalist assemblage-college esthetic, while compelling in the hands of some, is completely beholden to ideas taught in hip academies and featured in hot art magazines. Not only is it the style du jour, it promises to become really annoying in the not too distant future.
more from artnet here.
Nature's Awful Beauty
J. Scott Turner in American Scientist:
Consider the swallow, which industriously builds its nest by gathering straw and mud and then molding the mixture. Who can watch this process and not wonder, as Aristotle did, whether there is a purposeful intelligence at work? I could offer hundreds of other examples of such behavior. For millennia, structures built by animals have fascinated us in our incarnation as Homo teleologicus—seekers of purpose, design and meaning.
To the Nobel prize-winning ethologist Karl von Frisch, animal-built structures were a source of "awe in the face of the workings of nature." In his view, biologists "convinced that they, or future generations of scientists, will ultimately find the key of life in all its manifestations" were obvious dullards "to be pitied." His target when he wrote these words in 1972 was an overconfident reductionism that was promising to provide an ultimate answer to life—but at a Mephistophelian price: abandonment of the quest for purpose and beauty. To von Frisch, to make such a promise was hubris. The living world is rampant with beauty and purpose—a fact that he believed demands an explanation.
There is irony in von Frisch's challenge, though, for he was speaking as a member of another tribe—Homo darwiniensis, if you will—which claimed to have discovered its own key of life. And so the problem could be put with equal force to Darwinians: How do they account for the living world's seeming beauty and purposefulness?
ashbery the great
The great inventor of a style fluid enough to reflect our uncertain times, a helpless symbol of those times, an incomprehensible hoax, a clear-as-glass poet of loneliness and dejection, the greatest living Surrealist, the last Romantic, a frequent influence on poets much younger than he: since 1975, when his Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror won almost all the awards a book of American poems could win, readers and reviewers have bestowed on John Ashbery all these labels. Meanwhile Ashbery – born in 1927 – has gone on writing his poems, and writing them faster than most of us can read them. A Worldly Country is his eleventh book of new verse in twenty years; Notes from the Air selects from the previous ten, from April Galleons (1987) to Where Shall I Wander (2005), beginning where his last Selected Poems stopped. Together, the new books portray a sad decline – but not, by any means, a decline in Ashbery’s imaginative powers. Rather, their wealth of poems portrays the decline to which all of us are subject, the fact – realized over and over in any life – that we will lose all the people and things we love, that they must, as we must, grow old and die.
more from the TLS here.
That Curious Idea of Resurrection
Larry Hurtado in Slate:
The idea of a real, personal resurrection—meaning a new bodily existence of individuals after death, in one way or another—did not originate with Christianity or with claims about Jesus. Instead, it seems to be first clearly reflected in Jewish texts dated to sometime in the second century B.C., such as the biblical book of Daniel 12:2. At the time, it was a genuinely innovative idea. (Alan Segal's book Life After Death gives an expansive discussion of the origins of the idea of resurrection.) Many peoples of the ancient world hoped for one or another sort of eternal life, but it was usually thought of as a kind of bodiless existence of soul or spirit set in realms of the dead that might or might not be happy, pleasant places. In still other expectations, death might bring a merging of individuals with some ocean of being, like a drop of water falling into the sea.
The ancient Jewish and early Christian idea of personal resurrection represented a new emphasis on individuals and the importance of embodied existence beyond the mere survival or enhancement of the soul, although there was debate about the precise nature of the post-resurrection body. Some seem to have supposed it would be a new body of flesh and bones, closely linked to the corpse in the grave but not liable to decay or death. Others imagined a body more like that of an angel. But whatever its precise nature, the hope of resurrection reflected a strongly holistic view of the person as requiring some sort of body to be complete.
Clinton and Obama in Anthropological Perspective
Our own Justin E. H. Smith in CounterPunch:
Will there be no end to this tiresome "national conversation" as to whether a black man trumps a white woman, or vice versa, on our nation's list of the wronged? One possible end might arrive, of course, when another white man is elected in November and American politics returns to business as usual. In the meantime, I would like to join the conversation, if only in order to bring to light the inanity of the relevant comparison, based as it is on a presumption of analogy between two social groups that are distinguished, conceptually and in reality, from the dominant group for entirely different reasons: in the one case, the distinction is based on a relatively short, 500-year history of economic subordination; in the other, it is a consequence of an evidently universal structural feature of human societies.
A few disclaimers. First, disciples of the Robin Morgan-school of feminism will probably fail to appreciate that the disanalogy between race and gender may be acknowledged without abandoning one's feminist principles, even if these principles inform a feminism of a very different stripe: one that does not seek to justify masculine domination on normative grounds, but that nonetheless is genuinely concerned to take it seriously as a deep-rooted, rather than recent and superficial, phenomenon. Second, I confess I will be doing what, at least since Simone de Beauvoir, we have been told we must never do: conflating sex and gender. Of course, "male" and "female" are not just biological categories. They are also social categories, and they have vastly different connotations from culture to culture. They do not always correspond to the biological categories they are presumed to denote.
Dan Drinker endorses Barack Obama
Will Drinker at Dan Drinker's blog:
Dan has been following the presidential campaign with great passion. He has been talking my ear off recently about Senator Obama and I decided, after his speech in our native Philadelphia, that it was time to ask Dan to share his thoughts. I have always thought my brother to be an excellent judge of character and I feel his opinion is as valuable as the most famous or respected political authority because he speaks the truth and adds nothing more.
[Thanks to Will Drinker.]
The Death of the Hired Man
Mary sat musing on the lamp-flame at the table
Waiting for Warren. When she heard his step,
She ran on tip-toe down the darkened passage
To meet him in the doorway with the news
And put him on his guard. "Silas is back."
She pushed him outward with her through the door
And shut it after her. "Be kind," she said.
She took the market things from Warren's arms
And set them on the porch, then drew him down
To sit beside her on the wooden steps.
"When was I ever anything but kind to him?
But I'll not have the fellow back," he said.
"I told him so last haying, didn't I?
'If he left then,' I said, 'that ended it.'
What good is he? Who else will harbour him
At his age for the little he can do?
What help he is there's no depending on.
Off he goes always when I need him most.
'He thinks he ought to earn a little pay,
Enough at least to buy tobacco with,
So he won't have to beg and be beholden.'
'All right,' I say, 'I can't afford to pay
Any fixed wages, though I wish I could.'
'Someone else can.' 'Then someone else will have to.'
I shouldn't mind his bettering himself
If that was what it was. You can be certain,
When he begins like that, there's someone at him
Trying to coax him off with pocket-money,--
In haying time, when any help is scarce.
In winter he comes back to us. I'm done."
"Sh! not so loud: he'll hear you," Mary said.
"I want him to: he'll have to soon or late."
"He's worn out. He's asleep beside the stove.
When I came up from Rowe's I found him here,
Huddled against the barn-door fast asleep,
A miserable sight, and frightening, too--
You needn't smile--I didn't recognise him--
I wasn't looking for him--and he's changed.
Wait till you see."
"Where did you say he'd been?"
"He didn't say. I dragged him to the house,
And gave him tea and tried to make him smoke.
I tried to make him talk about his travels.
Nothing would do: he just kept nodding off."
"What did he say? Did he say anything?"
"Anything? Mary, confess
He said he'd come to ditch the meadow for me."
"But did he? I just want to know."
"Of course he did. What would you have him say?
Surely you wouldn't grudge the poor old man
Some humble way to save his self-respect.
He added, if you really care to know,
He meant to clear the upper pasture, too.
That sounds like something you have heard before?
Warren, I wish you could have heard the way
He jumbled everything. I stopped to look
Two or three times--he made me feel so queer--
To see if he was talking in his sleep.
He ran on Harold Wilson--you remember--
The boy you had in haying four years since.
He's finished school, and teaching in his college.
Silas declares you'll have to get him back.
He says they two will make a team for work:
Between them they will lay this farm as smooth!
The way he mixed that in with other things.
He thinks young Wilson a likely lad, though daft
On education--you know how they fought
All through July under the blazing sun,
Silas up on the cart to build the load,
Harold along beside to pitch it on."
"Yes, I took care to keep well out of earshot."
"Well, those days trouble Silas like a dream.
You wouldn't think they would. How some things linger!
Harold's young college boy's assurance piqued him.
After so many years he still keeps finding
Good arguments he sees he might have used.
I sympathise. I know just how it feels
To think of the right thing to say too late.
Harold's associated in his mind with Latin.
He asked me what I thought of Harold's saying
He studied Latin like the violin
Because he liked it--that an argument!
He said he couldn't make the boy believe
He could find water with a hazel prong--
Which showed how much good school had ever done him.
He wanted to go over that. But most of all
He thinks if he could have another chance
To teach him how to build a load of hay----"
"I know, that's Silas' one accomplishment.
He bundles every forkful in its place,
And tags and numbers it for future reference,
So he can find and easily dislodge it
In the unloading. Silas does that well.
He takes it out in bunches like big birds' nests.
You never see him standing on the hay
He's trying to lift, straining to lift himself."
"He thinks if he could teach him that, he'd be
Some good perhaps to someone in the world.
He hates to see a boy the fool of books.
Poor Silas, so concerned for other folk,
And nothing to look backward to with pride,
And nothing to look forward to with hope,
So now and never any different."
Part of a moon was falling down the west,
Dragging the whole sky with it to the hills.
Its light poured softly in her lap. She saw
And spread her apron to it. She put out her hand
Among the harp-like morning-glory strings,
Taut with the dew from garden bed to eaves,
As if she played unheard the tenderness
That wrought on him beside her in the night.
"Warren," she said, "he has come home to die:
You needn't be afraid he'll leave you this time."
"Home," he mocked gently.
"Yes, what else but home?
It all depends on what you mean by home.
Of course he's nothing to us, any more
Than was the hound that came a stranger to us
Out of the woods, worn out upon the trail."
"Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in."
"I should have called it
Something you somehow haven't to deserve."
Warren leaned out and took a step or two,
Picked up a little stick, and brought it back
And broke it in his hand and tossed it by.
"Silas has better claim on us you think
Than on his brother? Thirteen little miles
As the road winds would bring him to his door.
Silas has walked that far no doubt to-day.
Why didn't he go there? His brother's rich,
A somebody--director in the bank."
"He never told us that."
"We know it though."
"I think his brother ought to help, of course.
I'll see to that if there is need. He ought of right
To take him in, and might be willing to--
He may be better than appearances.
But have some pity on Silas. Do you think
If he'd had any pride in claiming kin
Or anything he looked for from his brother,
He'd keep so still about him all this time?"
"I wonder what's between them."
"I can tell you.
Silas is what he is--we wouldn't mind him--
But just the kind that kinsfolk can't abide.
He never did a thing so very bad.
He don't know why he isn't quite as good
As anyone. He won't be made ashamed
To please his brother, worthless though he is."
"I can't think Si ever hurt anyone."
"No, but he hurt my heart the way he lay
And rolled his old head on that sharp-edged chair-back.
He wouldn't let me put him on the lounge.
You must go in and see what you can do.
I made the bed up for him there to-night.
You'll be surprised at him--how much he's broken.
His working days are done; I'm sure of it."
"I'd not be in a hurry to say that."
"I haven't been. Go, look, see for yourself.
But, Warren, please remember how it is:
He's come to help you ditch the meadow.
He has a plan. You mustn't laugh at him.
He may not speak of it, and then he may.
I'll sit and see if that small sailing cloud
Will hit or miss the moon."
It hit the moon.
Then there were three there, making a dim row,
The moon, the little silver cloud, and she.
Warren returned--too soon, it seemed to her,
Slipped to her side, caught up her hand and waited.
"Warren," she questioned.
"Dead," was all he answered.
The appeal of sugar goes beyond taste
Crave sweets? Well, stop blaming your sweet tooth. Researchers have found that mice prefer sugary water even if they lack a gene needed to taste it. Although the mice could not taste sweets, reward centres in the brain reacted when the mice drank water spiked with sucrose, but not when they drank water mixed with a low-calorie artificial sweetener. The results, published this week in Neuron 1, suggest that mice can detect calories without relying on their taste buds — a finding that could change our understanding of the sugar cravings that can plague dieters and contribute to obesity.
The presence of a calorie-sensing pathway makes evolutionary sense, says study author Ivan de Araujo, now at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. “The taste system evolved to allow animals to quickly detect what is worth eating versus what is not,” says de Araujo. “But the real reward that they need is not the taste itself but the calories.”
Meditate on This: You Can Learn to Be More Compassionate
From Scientific American:
Like athletes or musicians, people who practice meditation can enhance their ability to concentrate—or even lower their blood pressure. They can also cultivate compassion, according to a new study. Specifically, concentrating on the loving kindness one feels toward one's family (and expanding that to include strangers) physically affects brain regions that play a role in empathy. "There is such a thing as expertise when it comes to complex emotions or emotional skills, such as the one of cultivating benevolence," says Antoine Lutz, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who led the study. "That raises the possibility that you can train someone to cultivate this positive emotion."
Lutz and his colleagues, including Neuroscientist Richard Davidson, director of the university's Waisman Center for Brain Imaging where the study was conducted, took fMRI scans of the brains of 16 veteran meditators as well as 16 others who had started with no meditation experience but received cursory training before they carried out a series of tests. During these tests, the researchers measured the flow of blood in the brains of both the veterans (some of them Tibetan monks) and the American novices as the subjects did or did not meditate on compassionate feelings while being subjected to various sounds with positive and negative connotations.
March 26, 2008
A Revolutionary Simpleton
Christopher Hitchens in The Atlantic Monthly:
Pound's early life story is in some respects not unlike that of T. S. Eliot, the man who in his dedication to The Waste Land called Pound "il miglior fabbro" (which can mean either "the better writer" or "the better craftsman"). They shared the same desire to escape from provincial gentility in America to Europe and perhaps especially to England, the same struggle to convince parents and family that the effort was one worth endorsing and financing, the same quixotic belief that poetry could be made to yield a living and that poets were a special class, and the same register of annihilating shock when in the summer of 1914 the roof of the over-admired European civilization simply fell in.
It is always impressive to read of the sheer dedication and conviction with which Pound approached poetry, and of the immense hopes he entertained for its regenerative powers. In a single season between 1912 and 1913 in London, we find him taking up the Bengali master Rabindranath Tagore and advising the Irish genius Yeats. Moody writes:
The measures, melodies and modulations of the songs in their original Bengali, which he had Tagore sing and explain to him, interested him as a seeker after 'fundamental laws in word music' and seemed to correspond to the sort of metric he was working for in English. He went on to wax enthusiastic about the prospect of Bengali culture providing 'the balance and corrective' to a Western humanism which had lost touch with 'the whole and the flowing'. 'We have found our new Greece', he declared. 'In the midst of our clangor of mechanisms'.
The Nation and the Covenant
Over at The Immanent Frame, Philip Gorski on Obama's speech and civil religion:
In the context of Western, democratic, nation-states, there have been three main solutions to the “church-state problem”: liberal secularism, civil religion and religious nationalism. By liberal secularism, I mean a juridico-legal system that disestablishes churches and privatizes religion. (For purposes of the present analysis, I am treating republican secularism, such as one finds in France or Turkey, as an extreme variant of liberal secularism, of the sort that exists within the Atlantic world.) By civil religion, I mean a sacralization of the democratic polity and a celebration of the sovereign people that borrows heavily from theistic language and ritual. By religious nationalism, finally, I mean a sacralization of the national state and the election of the common people that glorifies blood sacrifice and rejects the restraints of the covenant...
The history of the democratic experiment in the United States can be narrated as an oscillation between these three “solutions” or, more precisely, as an ongoing competition between them waged by an ever-changing cast of politicians, parties and movements. These three solutions are, in fact, one way of defining left and right in American politics. The Democratic Party has typically embraced liberal secularism (Jefferson) or civil religion (Kennedy). The Republican Party has typically embraced civil religion (Lincoln) or religious nationalism, Bush the Lesser). Civil religion, then, is the “vital center” of the American tradition.
Insofar as the present political conjuncture involves a choice between civil religion and religious nationalism - I would like to dwell on them further and say a few words about the particular form that they have taken in the American context.
Evolving the Wow! Factor
Over at the NYT, Oliva Judson's third piece on mutations:
There are several reasons for this neglect of the benign [mutations]. One — dare I say it — is fashion. In the late 1960s, the geneticist Motoo Kimura proposed the neutral theory of molecular evolution. According to this idea, most mutations are either harmful (and will quickly disappear from the population because those bearing them die) or irrelevant. If this is the case, most genetic variation has no impact on fitness — the technical term for how good an organism is at surviving and reproducing. Kimura’s development of the neutral theory was enormously influential, and prompted a flurry of work investigating whether most genetic variation is irrelevant.
Then it was the turn of deleterious mutations, which became trendy in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Deleterious mutations have been hypothesized to play a central role in a variety of evolutionary phenomena, including (and most prominently) sex. The argument is that organisms with a deleterious mutation rate above a certain threshold must reproduce sexually.
The reason is that sex purges deleterious mutations from the population: sex generates new gene combinations, and thus in each generation it creates some individuals with relatively few deleterious mutations and some with lots.
So it is with the Hotel Hiroshima. We checked in to a metaphoric Hotel Hiroshima—"we" as a culture—on Aug. 6, 1945, when the 16-kiloton atomic weapon detonated about 800 meters over a hospital here. (The hospital wasn't the ostensible target; a nearby bridge was, but needless to say, the hospital and all those in it were vaporized.) Nearly 100,000 people died instantly or within hours from the original blast and the firestorms that followed (by the end of 1945, 140,000 were dead). Estimates of those who died over a longer period from radiation sicknesses, from radiation-induced cancers, and other disease sequela range far upward.
We checked in to the First Nuclear Age that day in 1945, and yes, sometimes we check out, in the sense of repressed memory, willed or unconscious denial, cultural amnesia. It's happened for prolonged periods after the end of the Cold War. That all-too-brief "holiday from history" some called it.
more from Slate here.