April 30, 2008
Charles Tilly, 1929-2008
The great sociologist Charles Tilly died today. I did not have the good fortune of being one of his advisees, but he was certainly a presence in my old department. Kieran Healy over at Crooked Timber:
Tilly was a comparative and historical sociologist, an analyst of social movements, a social theorist, a political sociologist, a methodological innovator—none of these labels quite capture the scope of his work. I think of him as someone who was interested in the general problem of understanding social change, and he attacked it with tremendous, unflagging energy.
And Dan Nexon, who was one of his students, from the acknowledgments of his forthcoming book:
What can I possibly say about Chuck Tilly that an endless number of his students and peers have not already written in their prefaces? I hope the others I thank will take no offense if I describe him as the most powerful intellect I have ever encountered in the social sciences. I expect that people will still be reading and debating his enormous and varied corpus of work for decades to come. Yet Chuck treats all of his students as members of an intellectual community of equals. He seeks out their opinions; he discusses his own views with humility and an open mind.
President of the Social Sciences Research Council Craig Calhoun called Tilly “one of the most distinguished of all contemporary social scientists,“ adding: “He is the most influential analyst of social movements and contentious politics, a path-breaker in the historical sociology of the state, a pivotal theorist of social inequality.”
“His intellectual range and level of productivity are virtually unrivaled in the social sciences,” said Columbia sociology Professor and Chair Thomas DiPrete. Adam Ashforth, professor of anthropology and political science at Northwestern University, described Tilly as “the founding father of twenty-first century sociology.”
Behavioral Genetics and the End of Freudianism
In the TLS, Carol Travis reviews Daniel Nettle's Personality:
What a difference a century makes. One hundred years ago, Sigmund Freud’s answer to Daniel Nettle’s question – “What makes you the way you are?” – would have begun with your unconscious mind: the unique pattern of fantasies, defences, and instinctual conflicts that create your neurotic insecurities and self-defeating habits. These unconscious mechanisms would, in turn, have been profoundly influenced by your parents, who overpunished you or underappreciated you, who told you too much about sex or not enough. You can’t do much about your personality, though you can tweak it a bit with years of psychoanalysis.
Today, personality researchers almost uniformly agree that the things that make you the way you are consist of a combination of your genes, your peers and the idiosyncratic, chance experiences that befall you in childhood and adulthood. Your parents influence your relationship with them – loving or contentious, conflicted or close – but not your “personality”, that package of traits we label extroverted or shy, bitter or friendly, hostile or warm, gloomy or optimistic. Your genes, not your parents, are the reason you think that parachuting out of planes is fun, or, conversely, that you feel sick to the stomach at the mere idea of doing such a crazy thing voluntarily. You can’t do much about your personality, though you can tweak it a bit with cognitive therapy.
The Return of Liberation Theology
Nikolas Kozloff in the wake of the Fernando Lugo electoral victory, in Brazzil.com:
During the 1980s and 1990s Benedict, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, acted as John Paul II's doctrinal czar. At the time, John Paul was in the midst of a fierce battle to silence prominent Church liberals. "This conception of Christ as a political figure, a revolutionary, as the subversive of Nazareth," the Pontiff once said, "does not tally with the church's catechism."
In 1983 the Pope wagged his finger at Sandinista government minister and Nicaraguan priest, Ernesto Cardenal on a trip to Managua, warning the latter to "straighten out the situation in your church." Cardenal was one of the most prominent Liberation Theologians of the Sandinista era.
Originally a liberal reformer, Ratzinger changed his tune once he became an integrant in the Vatican hierarchy. As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog agency, Cardinal Ratzinger warned against the temptation to view Christianity in an exclusively political light. Liberation Theology, he once said, was dangerous as it fused "the Bible's view of history with Marxist dialectics."
Calling Liberation Theology a "singular heresy," Ratzinger went on the offensive. He blasted the new movement as a "fundamental threat" to the church and prohibited some of its leading proponents from speaking publicly. In an effort to clean house, Ratzinger even summoned outspoken priests to Rome and censured them on grounds that they were abandoning the church's spiritual role for inappropriate socioeconomic activism.
Lawrence Krauss & Natalie Jeremijenko on the Politics of Knowledge
Azra Raza invites you to attend...Update
Dear 3quarksdaily Readers,
Thank you for the overwhelming response to The Sixth Harvey Preisler Memorial Symposium invitation, I am deeply moved. Unfortunately, because of limited space, we can only accommodate the first 25 responders along with their guests. Please check in the comments section to make sure whether you belong to this group or not. A guest list has been submitted to the New York Academy of Sciences and if your name is not on the list, security will not allow you to enter. I am deeply sorry if I am causing any disappointment to you. Hopefully, next year we will be able to arrange a bigger venue. Please accept my apologies once again and my gratitude for your kind responses.
sofia, fluid city
There is no memory and all signs of the immediate past are carefully erased – democrats dynamited Dimitrov's mausoleum as the authorities did with the last of the mosques after the liberation in 1877; tourist guides replace the communist past with references to Roman ruins. Why should memory block the freedom of the present to move, reinvent itself? Foreign friends often tell us that the charm of the city is in its disorder, its dirt, its chaos, in the liberty it allows to paint one's house or not to paint it, to plant roses in the yard or tomatoes. The ethos of modernization is probably the reason why we locals resist such a vision and refuse to accept that what surrounds us could be real.
Sofia is growing – who knows whether it won't soon reach the three-million mark? It flows elusively in a southeasterly direction and up the mountain, producing pleasant towered mansions and postmodern office blocks, leaving behind the ugly northern part of the city, with the one-storey houses, the misery, abandoning even its cemeteries. The city is flowing, fleeing itself. If its inhabitants have become fluid, working part time in Spain or Greece and part time at home, if they are half-way between village and city, between capitalism and state socialism, then what else could one expect than a fluid city?
more from Eurozine here.
frida: homemade surrealism
What one takes away from Kahlo's art, however, is a less wide-ranging or exalted experience. She found a way to show a certain emotion, at once accusatory, nervy, furious, a little adolescent, and, as Fuentes says, funny. She is giving the world the finger, whether in The Suicide of Dorothy Hale, where she does it with a masterful complexity, in some of her folk art– like self-portraits of the 1930s, where she can be raw or charming about it, or even in her less spirited self-portraits of the following decade, when illness was getting the better of her. It was an emotion, in any event, that she never quite lost, as it is there in the last words of her diary when she wrote, "I hope the exit is joyful—and I hope never to come back."
more from the NYRB here.
germaine greer on the miley cyrus dust up
When Miley Cyrus was asked about the picture of herself clutching a satin sheet to her chest that Annie Leibovitz has taken for the current issue of Vanity Fair, she said it looked "pretty and natural" and that she thought it was "really artsy". If by this she meant artistic, rather than artsy-fartsy, she was right on the money. In western art most of the women portrayed semi-clad or totally nude are children. Their nipples are pallid and undeveloped, their breasts hard and veinless, their pubes unfurred. When Lucian Freud paints girl children, nobody cares; when Leibovitz photographs them, everyone goes ballistic. When Botticelli paints the yet-to-be-enjoyed goddess of love emerging from the sea, people come from all over the world to gape at her. The Greeks and Romans liked their goddesses meaty; our preferred Venuses are children. Hardy perennials such as Diane de Poitiers held their sway as long as they did because their bodies never matured.
more from The Guardian here.
Poet Gary Snyder is the winner of the 2008 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. Established in 1986 and presented annually by the Poetry Foundation, the award is one of the most prestigious given to American poets, and at $100,000 it is one of the nation's largest literary awards. Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry magazine and chair of the selection committee, made the announcement today. The prize will be presented at an evening ceremony at the Arts Club of Chicago on Thursday, May 29.
In announcing the award, Wiman said: "Gary Snyder is in essence a contemporary devotional poet, though he is not devoted to any one god or way of being so much as to Being itself. His poetry is a testament to the sacredness of the natural world and our relation to it, and a prophecy of what we stand to lose if we forget that relation."
A grizzled black-eyed rabbit showed me
...irrigation ditches, open paved highway,
...to the hill. bell
...chill blue jewel sky
Banner clouds flying,
The mountains all gathered,
..juniper trees on the flanks
.....the snug bark scale
.......in thin powder snow
.....over rock scrabble, pricklers, boulders,
..pines and junipers,
The trees all singing.
The mountains are singing
To gather the sky and the mist
..to bring it down snow-breath
..and gather it water
Sent from the singing peaks
....flanks and folds
Down arroyos and ditches by highways the water
The people to use it, the
....mountains and juniper
Do it for men,
Said the rabbit.
Crimes of the Heart
From The Washington Post:
"History works itself out in the living," says a character in Louise Erdrich's new novel, and, indeed, the history in The Plague of Doves is something of a workout. She's challenged us before with complex, interconnected stories about the Ojibwe people of North Dakota, but here she goes for broke, whirling out a vast, fractured narrative, teeming with characters -- ancestors, cousins, friends and enemies, all separated and rejoined again and again in uncanny ways over the years. Worried about losing track, I started drawing a genealogical chart after a few chapters, but it was futile: a tangle of names and squiggling lines. That bafflement is clearly an intentional effect of this wondrous novel; the sprawling cast whose history Erdrich works through becomes a living demonstration of the unfathomable repercussions of cruelty.
In the creepy, one-paragraph chapter that opens The Plague of Doves, a man murders five members of a white family in Pluto, N.D., near the Ojibwe reservation in 1911. The chronology of the stories that follow is radically jumbled, but the massacre in Pluto precipitates another one: When four hapless Indians come upon the dead family, they discover that a baby has been left alive in the house. Determined to save the child from abandonment but worried they'll be held responsible for the murders, they leave an anonymous note for the sheriff. Their plan backfires, though, and a gang of white men lynches the Indians in a heartbreaking scene that is among the most moving and mysterious in the novel.
Study Shows Brain Power Can Be Bolstered--Maybe
From Scientific American:
In the market for more brain power? In what's being touted as "a landmark" result, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor (U.M.) researchers report that a specific memory exercise may improve so-called fluid intelligence—the capacity to succeed at new cognitive tasks and in new situations. The finding flies in the face of conventional wisdom in psychology that training for one brain task cannot be transferred to improvement in other mental abilities. If proved, the finding could lead to new therapies and prevention of learning disorders and age related memory loss.
The study contradicts decades of research showing that attempts at crossover training effects, known as far transfer, do not work well. Previous research has shown that improving on one kind of cognitive task does not improve performance on other kinds—for example, memorizing long strings of numbers does not help people learn strings of letters.
Researchers gave 35 volunteers a standardized intelligence test and gave them another such test after training them on a complex memory task for a variable number of days (eight, 12, 17 or 19). Thirty-five other study participants simply took the tests. Both improved on the second one, but those who did the exercise showed far more improvement—and the more they trained, the better they got.
April 29, 2008
Azra Raza invites you to attend...
This year, the lecture will be delivered by Richard Dawkins. The lecture is entitled "The Purpose of Purpose," and Professor Dawkins will make himself available for a question/answer period afterward. If you are in the New York City area (or can be on Saturday), I urge you to attend. I myself will be flying in from Italy for the lecture and hope to see you there.
RSVP in the comments section to me to be put on a complimentary list, courtesy of my sister.
The Man Who Ended Slavery
Christopher Hitchens in The Atlantic Monthly:
When Abraham Lincoln gave an audience to Harriet Beecher Stowe, he is supposed to have greeted her by saying that she was the little woman who had started this great war. That fondly related anecdote illustrates the persistent tendency to Parson Weemsishness in our culture. It was not at all the tear-jerking sentiment of Uncle Tom's Cabin that catalyzed the War Between the States. It was, rather, the blood-spilling intransigence of John Brown, field-tested on the pitiless Kansas prairies and later deployed at Harpers Ferry. And John Brown was a man whom Lincoln assiduously disowned, until the time came when he himself was compelled to adopt the policy of "war to the knife, and the knife to the hilt," as partisans of the slaveocracy had hitherto been too proud of saying.
David Reynolds sets himself to counter several misapprehensions about the pious old buzzard (Brown, I mean, not Lincoln). Among these are the impressions that he was a madman, that he was a homicidal type, and that his assault on a federal arsenal was foredoomed and quixotic. The critical thing here is context. And the author succeeds admirably in showing that Brown, far from being a crazed fanatic, was a serious legatee of the English and American revolutions who anticipated the Emancipation Proclamation and all that has ensued from it.
Noble Eagles, Nasty Pigeons, Biased Humans
Natalie Angier in The New York Times:
The other day I glanced out my window and felt a twinge of revulsion delicately seasoned with indignation. Pecking at my bird feeder were two brown-headed cowbirds, one male and one female, and I knew what that meant. Pretty soon the fattened, fertilized female would be slipping her eggs into some other birds’ nest, with the expectation that the naïve hosts would brood, feed and rear her squawking, ravenous young at the neglect and even death of their own.
Hey, you parasites, get your beaks off my seed, I thought angrily. That feeder is for the good birds, the birds that I like — the cardinals, the nuthatches, the black-capped chickadees, the tufted titmice, the woodpeckers, the goldfinches. It’s for the hard-working birds with enough moral fiber to rear their own families and look photogenic besides. It’s not meant for sneaky freeloaders like you. I rapped on the window sharply but the birds didn’t budge, and as I stood there wondering whether I should run out and scare them away, their beaks seemed to thicken, their eyes blacken, and I could swear they were cackling, “Tippi Hedren must go.”
The Possibility of Disappointment as Hope
In the Left Business Observer, Henwood on Obama:
Super Tuesday II, as Fox dubbed it, took some steam out of the Obama bandwagon, but he’s still the likely Democratic nominee, and therefore the likely president-to-be. Which is remarkable, really—a nonparticipant can only stand slackjawed in awe of Obamamania. Previously rational people whom LBO admires, like Barbara Ehrenreich and Christopher Hayes, have fallen in love with the Senator’s brand of change we can believe in, a slogan that has to be one of the emptiest since Sandburg’s “The people, yes!,” that the New Party used in New York in the early 1990s. Obama has become the Tokio Hotel of politics.
On what is this mania based? Obama is inspiring the young, lifting the alienated off their couches, and catalyzing a new movement for…change, presumably one we can believe in. The content of this change is hard to specify. Some serious leftists we know and love point to Obama’s roots as a community organizer in Chicago, though many people in a position to know say he didn’t rock many boats in those days. He was embraced by foundation liberals, however, who greased his way into the Harvard Law School via a lakefront condo.
All of which doesn’t make Obama uniquely bad: he’s just another mainstream Democrat with a sleazy real estate guy in his past. Though he’s being touted as an early opponent of the Iraq war, he told the Chicago Tribune in 2004: “There’s not that much difference between my position and George Bush’s position….” He voted to renew the PATRIOT Act, campaigned for happy warrior Joe Lieberman against Ned Lamont in 2006, and wants to increase the size of the U.S. military. He supports Israel’s continuing torture of the Palestinians penned into the Gaza Strip. A Congressional Quarterly study found his Senate voting record was virtually indistinguishable from Hillary Clinton’s; the only major difference in their votes is a surprising one: a move to limit class actions suits against corporations, which Clinton voted against, and Obama for. Obama’s vote was against the preferences of a Dem financial base, trial lawyers, but pleasing to the Fortune 500 and Wall Street.
In this binary world, when you criticize Obama, people immediately include you’re a Hillary Clinton fan. Uh, no. Her politics are bellicose and neoliberal. Her “experience” consists largely of having watched her husband be president for eight years, though it’s likely they were sleeping in separate bedrooms for much of the time. A plague on all their houses.
Smoking and non-smoking
David Sedaris in The New Yorker:
When my sister Lisa started smoking, I forbade her to enter my bedroom with a lit cigarette. She could talk to me, but only from the other side of the threshold, and she had to avert her head when she exhaled. I did the same when my sister Gretchen started.
It wasn’t the smoke but the smell of it that bothered me. In later years, I didn’t care so much, but at the time I found it depressing: the scent of neglect. It wasn’t so noticeable in the rest of the house, but then again the rest of the house was neglected. My room was clean and orderly, and if I’d had my way it would have smelled like an album jacket the moment you remove the plastic. That is to say, it would have smelled like anticipation.
When I started smoking myself, I realized that a lit cigarette acted as a kind of beacon, drawing in any freeloader who happened to see or smell it. It was like standing on a street corner and jiggling a palmful of quarters. “Spare change?” someone might ask. And what could you say?
Microcosm, by Carl Zimmer: The Book and the Book Tour
3QD-friend, Carl Zimmer:
A mistake to fete repentant members of Islamist cults
Ziauddin Sardar in The Guardian:
I am troubled by the fact that former extremists are seen as the only people who know how to deal with extremism. Just because you have been an inmate of a mental hospital does not mean you are an expert in clinical psychology. But former extremists are being lionised because they confirm the basic tabloid prejudice that violence is a natural part of being a Muslim. So whose ignorance is being vindicated? Certainly the potential of an open, unapologetic belief in Islam as a valuable part of British society is not on the agenda.
At every stage of dealing with extremism, the government has made the wrong choice. First, only British-trained imams were to be promoted, though how and what they were trained in was not examined. Then there were to be roadshows at which religious scholars selected for their moderation and tractability, rather than an understanding of the problems of young British Muslims, would explain the error of extremist ways. Then Sufism was touted as the solution, and the Sufi Muslim Council was created as the voice of moderation. Now the way forward is with sinners who were once mouthpieces for jihadi propaganda and advocated the violent rejection of all things western.
The thing nobody has suggested is engaging the silenced and diverse majority of Muslim communities. If the debate of the mainstream is ignored, there is nowhere for those rescued from extremism to go. The silent majority is supposed to be groomed to embrace quietism - which explains why Sufi mysticism is in vogue - and, most important, to be put off politics for life.
More here. [Thanks to Manas Shaikh.]
Environmental Cost of Shipping Groceries Around the World
Elizabeth Rosenthal in the New York Times:
Increasingly efficient global transport networks make it practical to bring food before it spoils from distant places where labor costs are lower. And the penetration of mega-markets in nations from China to Mexico with supply and distribution chains that gird the globe — like Wal-Mart, Carrefour and Tesco — has accelerated the trend.
But the movable feast comes at a cost: pollution — especially carbon dioxide, the main global warming gas — from transporting the food.
Under longstanding trade agreements, fuel for international freight carried by sea and air is not taxed. Now, many economists, environmental advocates and politicians say it is time to make shippers and shoppers pay for the pollution, through taxes or other measures.
Reviews of books by the three presidential candidates
Our own Morgan Meis on books by Obama, McCain, and Clinton, in The Smart Set:
...in Hillary's book there are no theoretical disputes. There are no methodological claims. There aren't any ideas (in the fancier sense of the term) at all. There are simply facts, facts as she saw them. That's how things are presented and that's the only way they are presented. I guess we could say that she is a kind of extreme empiricist. Living History is exactly that for Hillary Clinton: history as a series of events that a person lives through. She makes decisions and she has positions but, in the end, the political decisions are no different in kind and status than the decisions about anything else during a day's work. Indeed, one of the odd experiences in reading Living History is the utter lack of transitions. Here's an example:
In Nepal, a plastic sheet for a woman in labor to lie on, soap for the midwife to clean her hands and utensils, string to tie off the umbilical cord and a clean razor blade to cut it can make the difference between life and death to a mother and her newborn.
On a stopover in the Royal Chitwan National Park in southern Nepal, Chelsea and I rode an elephant.
Now it's true, of course, that this is partly the result of careless writing. But I think it is a sign of something else, a kind of facts-speaking-for-themselves extremism that is at the core both of what is admirable and disappointing about the woman. There is nothing to object to, per se, in Living History , and many of the actions and attitudes described therein are to be lauded. But one never escapes, either, the disconcerting sense that every experience is just like every other experience for Hillary. The funny thing is that this is the opposite of the conspiratorial mindset. For the conspirator, small things matter too much. In rejecting Alinsky, Hillary Clinton started down a path in which she stopped making distinctions between big and small things altogether. It's kind of like the dedication to Living History , which starts out thanking her parents and her husband and her daughter, and ends up throwing in "all the good souls around the world whose inspiration, prayers, support, and love blessed my heart and sustained me in the years of living history." You're welcome.
Does going to Mecca make Muslims more moderate?
Ray Fisman in Slate:
Last December, more than 2 million Muslims from around the world converged on Saudi Arabia to participate in the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to the holy site of Mecca. The Hajjis spent a month performing religious rituals, mingling with Muslims from all walks of life, and, in some cases, taking part in communal chants of "Death to America" led by Islamic extremists. This was understandably unnerving to the 10,000 or so Americans who made the pilgrimage, not to mention those who didn't. Such behavior raised concerns that the Hajj is a breeding ground for anti-Western sentiment—or worse.
Then again, the spirit of friendship and community that typically prevails during the Hajj has also been known to promote tolerance and understanding across peoples. Malcolm X famously softened his views on black-white relations during his pilgrimage to Mecca, where he witnessed a "spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white."
So does the Hajj open minds, or does it expose Muslims to radical views that unite them against the non-Islamic world? To find out, researchers David Clingingsmith, Asim Khwaja, and Michael Kremer surveyed more than 1,600 Pakistanis, about half of whom went on the Hajj in 2006. In a recent, as yet unpublished study, they report that those who went to Mecca came back with more moderate views on a range of issues, both religious and nonreligious, suggesting that the Hajj may be helpful in curbing the spread of extremism in the Islamic world.
You send me your poems,
I'll send you mine.
Things tend to awaken
even through random communication
Let us suddenly
proclaim spring. And jeer
at the others,
all the others.
I will send a picture too
if you will send me one of you.
April 28, 2008
BIL snores. Is he Pickwickian?
My brother in law (BIL) has joined the jobless - the vortex of sub-prime debacle has sunk the hedge fund he managed. But please don’t pity him: he is without a job but not without money. Unlike a side-street plebeian, this Wall Street prince stays rich even when unemployed.
BIL - though ailing from derivatives deprivation - is now blessed with free time to reflect on the genesis of the hedge fund collapse. He thinks he suffers from sleep apnea; he snores at night and feels exhausted when awake. He blames this daytime undue somnolence for his blunders in trading.
Sleep apnea made its debut in medical literature in 1956. Dr C S Burwell and his colleagues told the story of an ever-sleepy 51 years old obese businessman who measured 5 ft 5 inches and weighed 260 Lbs. During a game of poker - with three aces and two kings in his hand - the businessman missed the prime chance to make a killing. The reason: he had fallen asleep! Dr Burwell titled the article, ‘Extreme Obesity Associated with Alveolar Hypoventilation: A Pickwickian Syndrome’.
‘Pickwickian’ refers to ‘The Pickwick Papers’ where in 1837, Charles Dickens introduced a gluttonous, “wonderfully fat boy” Joe, who had a hard time staying awake. He stood at the door after repetitive knocking “ upright his eyes closed as if in sleep” with looks of “calmness and repose.” Questioned thrice, he did not answer, but “nodded once and seemed ----- to snore.” Then he “suddenly opened his eyes, winked several times, sneezed once, and raised his hand as if to repeat the knocking.”
Dr Burwell - with retrospective analysis – diagnosed ‘fat Joe’ and the somnolent obese businessman suffering from obesity-hypoventilation, which is now called sleep apnea. Joe still continues to live in the medical literature as the original embodiment of the Pickwickian Syndrome.
BIL thinks, he is the clone-reincarnation of fat boy Joe. Like him, BIL is also portly, short and overweight; his round head sits atop his stout neck; a cigarette often dangles from his wet lips and he finds the poker game goof akin to his hedge fund fiasco.
He wonders, “Do I have Pickwickian Syndrome?”
So, BIL goes for a check up - a sleep apnea study. BIL spends one night in the sleep lab, wired to gadgets, which monitor his blood oxygen, respiratory pattern, blood pressure, pulse and brain electrical activity.
During sleep, the muscles inside his throat relax and collapse into the air passage, which is already narrow due to his stout neck. The air cannot flow through the obstructed airway and his breathing stops for a moment (apnea), which plummets his blood oxygen. The oxygen-deprived brain startles and awakens him for a moment; the muscles at the back of his throat tense up, which opens the breathing passage allowing air to rush through. He breathes again. The gushing air vibrates the floppy throat muscles, broadcasting a sonorous snore. He falls asleep only to stop breathing again. He repeats this cycle of stops-and-starts, about 27 times every hour during the night.
BIL does not remember the sleeping-awakening cycles, but the video monitors, focused on him, capture his snoring, tossing and turning. A sleep-deprived night leaves him exhausted the next day.
The sleep lab verdict follows quickly: BIL does have sleep apnea. He is not alone. One in fifteen or 6.6 percent Americans have sleep apnea. Most are overweight mid age males, though skinny ones and women are not exempt. One in fifty snore through life undiagnosed – at work, while driving or in public places.
Now, the bear news: many years of sleep apnea are likely to give BIL high blood pressure and heart failure. He also has higher chances of suffering from a paralytic stroke.
And the bull news: sleep apnea is treatable and simple interventions yield satisfactory results. BIL can, once more, enjoy a restful sleep at night and profitable derivatives during day.
What should BIL do?
He should stop smoking and avoid alcohol. (Alcohol relaxes the throat muscles, enhancing the obstruction.) He should loose weight. His Body Mass Index or BMI is 33, which classifies him as obese; if it were over 40, he would be morbidly obese. (BMI is weight in kilograms divided by the square of height in meters. A Belgian statistician, Adolph Quetelet, who was friend of Charles Dickens, first described this concept in 1869 and called it Quetelet index.)
He should sleep on his side and may use a mouth appliance to keep his throat open. BIL may have to use a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine, which forces air under pressure into his obstructed airway. If these methods don’t help, he may have to undergo surgery, where the surgeon will remove the triangular floppy muscle hanging form the roof of his throat (uvula and soft palate) and also some of the surrounding tissue, to widen his airway.
BIL, in his insuppressible bullish manner, is determined to get his trading prowess back. No more daytime slumber! The night in the sleep lab convinced BIL of his infirmity. “See, I told you I am Pickwickian.”
BIL: the answer is yes and no. You do have sleep apnea but you may not have the Pickwickian Syndrome; the two may not be the same disease.
You remember, Dickens describing the nonstop knock at the door at the Pickwick mansion, which prompted the opening of the door leading to discovery of a “wonderfully fat boy” standing “upright” and “in sleep”. Some experts tell us that people suffering from sleep apnea do not fall asleep during vigorous action like incessant knocking. If Joe did fall asleep, he would not be standing but would have dropped to the floor with flaccid muscles. His snore would be loud and not ‘feeble”. Joe probably exhibited a different sleep disorder: narcolepsy.
BIL still insists in washing off his guilt. “ But, you do agree that sleep deprivation was the cause my poor judgment and hedge fund collapse?”
Dear BIL, the cause of your bungled trading was not apnea-when-asleep but avarice-when- awake. You are less like Joe from Dickens and more like Malcolm from Macbeth:
“With this there grows
In my most ill-composed affection such
A stanchless avarice that, were I king,
I should cut off the nobles for their lands,
Desire his jewels and this other's house:
And my more-having would be as a sauce
To make me hunger more; that I should forge
Quarrels unjust against the good and loyal,
Destroying them for wealth.”
The Mad Race for London Mayor
by Ahila Sornarajah
Stuck in a traffic jam in hot, dusty and dynamic Chennai (formerly Madras) recently, I started thinking about the far away elections for the Mayor of London and what this will mean for Londoners. While America is obsessed with the groundbreaking race for the democratic nomination between Clinton and Obama, we’re proud to be having our very own tightly fought contest in London this year.
Labour’s Ken Livingstone and the Tories’ Boris Johnson are neck and neck with the finishing line in sight at the end of this week. Compared to national politics – the general disappointment of Gordon Brown’s first months in power and the seemingly inexorable rise of the baby faced David Cameron – the Mayoral race is truly nail-biting stuff. Livingstone and Johnson are the only men in the country with sufficient personality to be instantly recognizable by their first names. In the left corner, is “Red Ken” the maverick leftwing politician with working class roots whose love of London politics is only matched by his love of newts. And in the right, posh toff “Boris” or to be exact, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, one of Cameron’s buddies from Eton who is often labeled a gaffe-prone buffoon but has an 18th century satirist’s wit when it comes to words and has been as much of a regular on the current affairs comedy circuit, as he has been in the shadow cabinet.
Mayoral elections in Chennai just can’t be as exciting. In Chennai, while the Chennai Municipal Corporation headed by the Chennai Mayor is ostensibly responsible for public transport, the Mayor’s tenure only lasts a year, and being vested with very little real power, the role is largely that of a figurehead. Perhaps the fact that there is no one to champion Chennai shows in its roads. Chennai roads are catastrophic and everyone drives as if they are wielding a wheeled weapon in the greatest game of bumper cars there ever was. Traffic signals are few and far between, and the number of lanes dependant on the different permutations of traffic in front of you: a bus, and an old Morris Oxford make a two lane road, the auto rickshaw, three scooters, and a bicycle in front of them will conspire to add a few more lanes to the fun. What’s more, having to contend with people driving against the traffic is commonplace. I read in the Hindu a few days ago that more than 1600 people died on Chennai Roads last year. 60% of these were pedestrians. This might not be surprising given that pavements in the city sprout from the ground, transform into rubble and then disappear fairly frequently. The total also compares rather unfavourably with the 316 people who died in road accidents London last year – a city five times the size of Chennai.
Clearly to compare London with Chennai is rather simplistic given the comparative lack of financial resource in the latter and historical developments in infrastructure in the former. However, it is difficult to see the new shining IT companies off Chennai’s main roads, the new shopping plazas, and food courts, without contrasting these with the rubble and chaos that lie on their doorsteps. People in Chennai, always on the go, always off somewhere to do something, must find the impediment of their choked and chaotic roads infuriating. Could a strong city government make a difference?
While road traffic in London has never compared, London in the nineties was a very different place from now. There was very little care taken about the look of London under the depressed aegis of John Major. London’s neglect was clear from the pollution, grime and graffiti evident on the streets. I still remember the long awaited, but still half built Canary Wharf tower along the London skyline in utter defeat after it was almost bombed by the IRA in 1992.
Until 2000, all London’s policies were fragmented across several local boroughs controlled by either Labour or Tory politicians. The results of this are evident today. You can travel a few stops along a London tube line and life expectancy rates will decrease from north to south, from west to east. Every trip across London is accompanied by the constant hum of the postcode lottery.
The creation of the post of Mayor with its larger strategic role in cross cutting issues such as transport, policing and the environment enshrined in the Greater London Authority Act 1999 has, most agree, truly made a difference. It has meant that someone really cares about London, overseeing the way its riverside skyline looks, the cleaning up of the city as well as, most importantly, the control of road congestion at its centre and the reduction of vehicle emissions. It also means that someone is directly accountable to the city’s voting public, rather than the central government of the day. Given the recent successes of the mayoral post, the London Authority Act 2007 will extend the mayoral role to include powers to direct housing policy in the capital as well as extend its environmental remit. It is hoped that some control over the capital’s health policies will follow.
Red Ken has, in the round, been a good Mayor. His greatest achievement is likely to have been the introduction of the congestion charge; the city now charges vehicles for entering the city centre at particular times of day, thus booting more people out of cars and onto buses, tubes and trains. He has also introduced a more efficient ticketing system for public transport, free transport for pensioners, and secured cash from central government for a new cross-city rail service. He has helped London win the Olympics for 2012 on the basis that it will help regenerate the more impoverished areas of East London. Importantly, Red Ken who, in his former incarnation as member of the General London Council in the eighties despised the capitalist pigs of the city of London, has realized that they are not such bad chaps after all, and cleverly used his power of veto on planning permissions for major London construction projects to get private business to contribute to building adjunct affordable housing for the poor. Even where Ken has proved slightly megalomaniacal, self-importantly concluding a deal with his friend, Hugo Chavez, to supply London transport with cheap Venezuelan oil, people were rather willing to forgive him. They like that he, like London, is a little more than eccentric.
Boris Johnson despite his playing the lovable buffoon in years past has actually floated a number of good ideas in his campaign, some of which Ken unashamedly announced he would be happy to implement if he were elected given that there is no intellectual property in public policy. He has some good ideas about getting kids off the streets in the wake of gang related stabbings that killed 27 kids last year, and has suggested new cost cutting measures to get more policemen on the beat. His housing policy is almost lyrical; in a veiled reference to the ugly public housing blocks that stud London’s landscape with dark stairwells and identikit flats, Boris says that “we must build houses that will still be loved and respected in a hundred years, dwellings of distinction and grace that satisfy the instinct for differentiation that is deep in the human soul”.
Despite the promise of the role, and even the candidates (I have ignored the candidacies of a number of others including that of the man currently polling third in the race, the impressive Liberal Democrat candidate, Nick Paddick) the mayoral race has now descended into the usual mudslinging. Ken has been accused of cronyism as one of his top mayoral aides has been accused of using city funds inappropriately. Boris, perhaps more worryingly, is constantly reminded of politically incorrect articles he wrote in the Spectator while editor of that publication. He once accused the Queen of only loving the Commonwealth because it supplied her “with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving picanninies”. While this could well be an accurate representation of how the Queen views her third word subjects, it wasn’t exactly choice language. On Africa he once wrote “the problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge anymore… the best fate for Africa would be if the old colonial powers or their citizens scrambled once again in her direction; on the understanding that this time they will not be asked to feel guilty”. The unearthing of these quotes does not bode well for Boris in a liberal London stacked to the rafters with ex-colonials. His defence has been equally quaint. He has suggested that he couldn’t possibly be considered racist because his great grandmother was a Circassian slave (a genealogical defence that sounds as if it has been cribbed straight out of a Captain Flashman novel).
Notwithstanding its entertainment value, from the perspective of a Chennai traffic jam, the way in which the London mayoral race has descended into sheer spectacle seems like a colossal waste. Unlike in Chennai the role of Mayor in London has tangible power. While Chennai may lack a strong personality to champion it, it seems a real shame that Boris and Ken are letting allowing their personalities to get in the way of a truly effective public office.
Even Tierra del Fuegans Do It
The Uncashed Metaphor of Natural Selection
Justin E. H. Smith
In their classic 1979 article, "The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm," Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin fault the adaptationist program for its failure to distinguish current utility from reasons for origin; its unwillingness to consider alternatives to adaptive stories; its reliance upon plausibility alone as a criterion for accepting speculative tales, and, as they put it, for "its failure to consider adequately such competing themes as random fixation of alleles, production of non-adaptive structures by developmental correlation with selected features… the separability of adaptation and selection, multiple adaptive peaks, and current utility as an epiphenomenon of nonadaptive structures." They announce that in the critique they are offering, they are proceeding in the spirit of "Darwin's own pluralistic approach to identifying the agents of evolutionary change."
Spandrels, or the tapering triangular spaces formed by the intersection of two rounded arches at right angles, are, as they explain, "necessary architectural byproducts of mounting a dome on rounded arches." In other words, you can't have an arch without a spandrel, and you need an arch in order to support a roof. If you ask the architect why he put the spandrel there, he will tell you you don't understand architecture.
Gould and Lewontin believe that this architectural example has much to tell us about biological evolution. In particular, they believe that many of our efforts to account for some given trait of an organism as having been selected-for is a futile project: it is often the case that traits were never selected at all by environmental pressures, but only came into being, like the spandrels, as 'free-riders' on the traits that these pressures in fact selected. The beautiful paintings that cover the spandrels are in turn the architectural analogue of exaptations, that is, features that were never selected-for, but once having come into existence as free-riders on different selected-for traits, turn out to have some fortuitous utility.
How do we know which traits of an animal are like the arches, and which like the spandrels? This might be harder to determine than Gould and Lewontin's predecessors had thought, but the difficulty only means that greater attention should be played to the role that the Bauplan of the integrated whole plays in evolution, not that natural selection as such should be rejected.
Jerry Fodor in contrast --in several books, including The Mind Doesn't Work That Way (his response to Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works), as well as in a fiery polemic with Simon Blackburn, Philip Kitcher, Dan Dennett and others in several recent issues of the London Review of Books-- wants to say that since any trait is always coextensive with another, it is impossible to say which of the two (or more) was the one that was selected-for. This is not in his view an epistemological problem, but an ontological one: the problem is not that we cannot know which trait was selected, but that it is meaningless to talk about the one or the other being the trait that was selected. It's all spandrels, and it's all arches, and there's no architect we might ask to help us tell the difference. Fodor writes:
"Getting minds in general, and God's mind in particular, out of biological explanations is a main goal of the adaptationist programme. I am, myself, all in favour of that; since I'm pretty sure that neither exists, I see nothing much to choose between God and Mother Nature. Maybe one can, after all, make sense of mindless environmental variables selecting for phenotypic traits. That is, maybe one can get away with claiming that phenotypes are like arches in that both are designed objects. The crucial test is whether one's pet theory can distinguish between selection for trait A and selection for trait B when A and B are coextensive: were polar bears selected for being white or for matching their environment? Search me; and search any kind of adaptationism I've heard of. Nor am I holding my breath till one comes along."
The consensus among Fodor's critics is that he has systematically misunderstood the point of Gould and Lewontin's argument. My own impression is that his argument is either irresponsible and stupid or so subtle that none of his adversaries, defending a status quo interpretation of the theory of natural selection, have been able to get it yet. The principle of charity pushes in favor of the latter view.
What Fodor wants to know is whether the polar bear's coat was selected-for because it's white or because it matches its environment. According to Blackburn et al., the familiar adaptationist account, which they do not see as in need of revising, would have it that "[i]n some ancestral population there was a variant type that differed from the rest in ways that enhanced reproductive success. (White polar bears, for example, more camouflaged than their brown confrères, were better at sneaking up on seals, were better fed and left more offspring.) If the variant has a genetic basis, its frequency increases in the next generation." For Fodor however, this is a "potted polar bear history," since "for any trait X that was locally coextensive with being white in the polar bear’s evolutionary ecology[, s]election theory is indifferent between ‘the bears were selected for being white’ and ‘the bears were selected for being X.’" A good theory, Fodor thinks, should be able to generalize over possible but non-actual circumstances, that is, it should be able to support relevant counterfactuals, and this is something that natural selection doesn't do.
If you are not satisfied with the polar bear story, Fodor also offers a well-known example from the real world: in a certain variety of foxes, whenever they are bred (by humans) for tameness, the offspring come out not only tame, but also floppy-- floppy ears, floppy tails, etc. These are ancillary effects that are observed in many species of domesticated animal, and they are much harder to account for, Fodor thinks, than the fit between arches and spandrels, since the connection between tameness and floppiness is, he thinks, perfectly arbitrary. (Actually, I can think of a perfectly plausible potted story as to why floppiness and tameness go together: it is advantageous to a domestic animal to be cute; roundness and softness are more likely to get a domestic animal to reproductive age than jaggedness, prickliness, and other visible vestiges of its feral past.)
Fodor seems to have failed to note that in each of the three cases in question --the spandrels, the whiteness, and the floppiness--, at least three different kinds of coextensiveness seem to be in play. In the first, we are dealing with two traits that are non-identical but logically coextensive; in the second, with two traits that are in-this-world identical even if they support different counterfactuals; and in the third, with two non-identical and contingently linked traits. It could have been the case that the gene for floppy ears be located somewhere such that breeding for tameness would have yielded tame, pointy-eared foxes, but there is no possible scenario in which brown bears could have matched their snowy environment, even if counterfactually they could have had a non-snowy environment, and all this for reasons having nothing to do with genetics.
In the case of the polar bear, the traits are not entirely identical, since again, as Fodor puts it, being white and blending with the environment support different counterfactuals. The environment could have been orange. So it is not that coextensive properties are indistinguishable in principle, but only that there is something wrong with natural selection to the extent that it fails to distinguish between them. Yet, one might reply to Fodor, environmental pressures do not operate on counterfactual states of affairs, only on the actual one, and in the actual one no decision had to be made as between whiteness and blending. In the sort of counterfactual, experimental situation Fodor imagines --such as painting all the snow orange--, the decider would be whoever set up the experiment, and not nature. So we seem either to have an identity of coextensive traits, or we have human agency, in which case there is a fact of the matter as to which of the two coextensive traits was selected. We will return to this point shortly.
Fodor has certainly been right to draw inspiration from Gould and Lewontin's argument in his crusade against the rampant plague of just-so stories that one hears from evolutionary psychologists. This crowd often assumes that what homo sapiens is in its essence is a hunting-and-gathering species, and that therefore whatever it is that we do must have some adaptive explanation as being somehow beneficial for hunter-gatherers. The result is often a caricaturing of human behavior of the most transparently Flintstones variety.
Gould and Lewontin however did not want to reject adaptation tout court, but only the view that every trait must be accounted for in terms of selection-for. How though do we distinguish the traits that may be accounted for in this way? Blackburn et al. appear to want to say that it is just obvious, while Fodor responds that it never is. A moderate balance of these two approaches would be to hold that adaptationism seeks to offer plausible accounts, based on counterfactuals, of what selection pressures would have to have enabled to come into existence so that the currently existing species might persist in existence. Certainly, a different standard will be brought to bear here than in laboratory science --plausibility rather than falsifiability-- but what other choice do we have? Fodor's ahistorical approach to the philosophy of mind seems to lead him to the rather extreme view that the past must remain off limits to science because it demands a different methodology than the most secure and unproblematic disciplines, such as aerodynamics, that he habitually holds up as models for his own domain of inquiry.
It is, again, interesting to note that the one really useful example of coextensiveness of traits in the biological world comes from an example in which human beings --fox breeding scientists, in the event-- are making the decisions, just like the cathedral's architects. There is a way to distinguish, not just in principle but in fact, which of the two vulpine traits in question was selected, since it was humans who were doing the selecting. Indeed, one of Fodor's arguments for the incoherence of the adaptationist program, an argument in my view more compelling than the argument from the lack of support of relevant counterfactuals, points out that not just in the case of the foxes and the polar bears, but with respect to all observed traits we can only arrive at a secure understanding of what was selected-for when we are able to interrogate the selecter. This is of course something we are never able to do in non-experimental cases, and so, for Fodor, any talk of natural selection is strictly metaphorical, and a great problem with Darwinism is that it never gave us any instruction as to how to translate this metaphor into a proper scientific account of things.
Fodor claims that history is not relevant to the philosophy of mind, but in the end relies on historical considerations much more than he himself notices, admittedly not concerning the evolution of species, but concerning the history of Victorian natural history, and Darwin's place in it. He writes:
"[T]he present worry is that the explication of natural selection by appeal to selective breeding is seriously misleading, and that it thoroughly misled Darwin. Because breeders have minds, there's a fact of the matter about what traits they breed for; if you want to know, just ask them. Natural selection, by contrast, is mindless; it acts without malice aforethought. That strains the analogy between natural selection and breeding, perhaps to the breaking point. What, then, is the intended interpretation when one speaks of natural selection? The question is wide open as of this writing."
Given that nature lacks a mind, it, or its environmental pressures, can't really 'select' anything, any more than the ball in a roulette machine can select a color to land on. Metaphors are fine things, Fodor acknowledges, and "science probably couldn't be done without them." But they are supposed to be the sort of things, he thinks, "that can, in a pinch, be cashed. Lacking a serious and literal construal of 'selection for', adaptationism founders on this methodological truism."
Fodor is absolutely right, and not just about the current Darwinist orthodoxy, but about the historical Darwin himself, who explicitly borrowed the notion of selection from the domain of animal husbandry, and left it to his followers to cash the metaphor. Few before Fodor have noticed just how problematic is the legacy that Darwin has bequeathed: on the one hand, a thorough-going naturalism about how animals come to have the traits they have, and on the other hand a fairly blatant personification of nature as breeder.
Surprisingly, Fodor's critique of natural selection on this point echoes in important ways certain pre-Darwinian arguments against natural theology, that is, against the view that God's wisdom can be discerned in the order of nature. Most early modern natural theology took it for granted that the relation that God bore to his orderly creation was something very like that of a machinist to his machine. In the Dialogues on Natural Religion, Hume has the natural theologian Cleanthes declare:
"Look around the world: Contemplate the whole and every part of it: You will find it to be nothing but one great machine, subdivided into an infinite number of lesser machines… All these various machines, and even their most minute parts, are adjusted to each other with an accuracy, which ravishes into admiration all men, who have ever contemplated them. The curious adapting of means to ends, exceeds the productions of human contrivance; of human design, thought, wisdom, and intelligence. Since, therefore the effects resemble each other, we are led to infer, by all the rules of analogy, that the causes also resemble; and that the Author of nature is somewhat similar to the mind of man; though possessed of much larger faculties, proportioned to the grandeur of the work, which he has executed."
Hume, in the guise of Philo, proffers several arguments in reply to Cleanthes, but certainly the one most relevant for our purposes is the argument from the incomplete analogy at the heart of natural theology: because of our experience with artefacts and their artisans, we can tell the difference between artefacts and natural objects, and give an account of how the former sort of thing came into being. But in order to properly pick out a designed universe, we would need to have an experience of that universe's maker, which we obviously don't have. If you find a watch in the forest, then you are entitled to infer to the existence of a watchmaker, but only because you already know quite a bit about not just watches but also about watchmakers themselves: you can go, and may already have gone, to check out their workshops and examine their tools. But in the case of the world, we only know the 'watch', and come to think of it, Philo muses, there is nothing particularly watch-like about this particular world. In fact, notwithstanding the fashion for the watch-world analogy that had found such eloquent defenders in Boyle, Newton, et al., Hume prefers to return to a much more ancient and deeply rooted vision of the cosmos as, in Aristotelian terms, a natural being rather than as an artefact:
"Now, if we survey the universe, so far as it falls under our knowledge, it bears a great resemblance to an animal or organized body, and seems actuated with a like principle of life and motion. A continual circulation of matter in it produces no disorder: a continual waste in every part is incessantly repaired: the closest sympathy is perceived throughout the entire system: and each part or member, in performing its proper offices, operates both to its own preservation and to that of the whole. The world, therefore, I infer, is an animal; and the Deity is the SOUL of the world, actuating it, and actuated by it."
One of the important implications of such a cosmological model, Philo soon realizes, is that it compels us to think of the order in the world not so much as made, but rather as generated:
"[I]n examining the ancient system of the soul of the world, there strikes me, all on a sudden, a new idea, which, if just, must go near to subvert all your reasoning, and destroy even your first inferences, on which you repose such confidence. If the universe bears a greater likeness to animal bodies and to vegetables, than to the works of human art, it is more probable that its cause resembles the cause of the former than that of the latter, and its origin ought rather to be ascribed to generation or vegetation, than to reason or design."
The design of the world, in short, is more like a physiological process than a mechanical one. It is not that it does not have order or design, but only that this does not come from a machinist. It comes from a progenitor.
Hume's rejection of the argument from design is connected, one might argue, as much with the decline of the 17th-century mechanical model of nature as it is with the skeptical concern about the incompleteness of the watchmaker analogy. A world-machine would need a maker, but a world-animal could in principle be immortal, as it had been for Plato and later for the Stoics. What we need to consider, then, in order to understand the continuities and discontinuities between natural theology and natural selection, is precisely the ontological difference between artefacts and natural beings, which at once dictates the degree of control the 'designer', whether mortal or divine, may have in each of the two cases. Most significantly, natural machines can at most be sculpted by environmental forces or by intervention; they cannot be brought into being in the first place.
In this connection, on the reading of Darwin I shall proceed to sketch out, natural selection isn't so much a shift from theological thinking about design in nature, as it is a demotion of the designer from the role of creator to the role of modifier, and from the relatively prestigious role, one might add, of inventor, to the relatively humble job of animal breeder.
In the opening pages of his 1859 masterwork On the Origin of Species, Darwin praises the expert knowledge and artisan's skill of domestic pigeon breeders. Their expertise, Darwin thinks, lies in their ability to discern barely visible traits and to amplify them over the course of generations by selecting appropriate mates for the pigeons who display them. "The key is man's power of accumulative selection," Darwin writes, "nature gives successive variations; man adds them up in certain directions useful to him. In this sense he may be said to make for himself useful breeds." Darwin goes on to praise the great skill of England's finest breeders, who, while admittedly working with pregiven Baupläne, are able to achieve results comparable to those of a divine creator:
"Breeders habitually speak of an animal's organisation as something quite plastic, which they can model almost as they please. If I had space I could quote numerous passages to this effect from highly competent authorities. Youatt, who was probably better acquainted with the works of agriculturalists than almost any other individual, and who was himself a very good judge of an animal, speaks of the principle of selection as 'that which enables the agriculturist, not only to modify the character of his flock, but to change it altogether. It is the magician's wand, by means of which he may summon into life whatever form and mould he pleases.' Lord Somerville, speaking of what breeders have done for sheep, says: 'It would seem as if they had chalked out upon a wall a form perfect in itself, and then had given it existence.'" [Italics added].
While Darwin is impressed by the way in which some skilled breeders of pigeons and other domestic species choose to summon into life new forms, he is just as interested in the way in which domestication has led to the emergence of new and unforeseen traits in animals and plants. This is the result, Darwin thinks, of a sort of 'unconscious' selection on the part of the human masters of domesticated animals:
"At the present time, eminent breeders try by methodical selection, with a distinct object in view, to make a new strain or sub-breed, superior to anything existing in the country. But, for our purpose, a kind of Selection, which may be called Unconscious, and which results from every one trying to possess and breed from the best individual animals, is more important."
Darwin repeatedly mentions that 'even savages' grasp the basic principles of selection. "If there exist savages so barbarous as never to think of the inherited character of the offspring of their domestic animals," Darwin observes,
"yet any one animal particularly useful to them, for any special purpose, would be carefully preserved during famines and other accidents, to which savages are so liable, and such choice animals would thus generally leave more offspring than the inferior ones; so that in this case there would be a kind of unconscious selection going on. We see the value set on animals even by the barbarians of Tierra del Fuego, by their killing and devouring their old women, in times of dearth, as of less value than their dogs."
Why does this supposed practice of the Yaghan matter to him? Darwin seems to think that "savages" provide the sort of low-level, unconscious guidance of the breeding of animals for preferred traits that even more closely approximates the guidance provided by nature than, say, the highly developed science of animal breeding described by Youatt, Somerville, et al. Nature is in short the ultimate savage: though herself uncultivated, she can't help but cultivate. Her selections are not like the conscious moulding of new races by England's finest breeders. But neither are they totally unlike this either. They are rather a low-level, mind-like force guiding the emergence of orderly forms.
Even in the case of England's expert breeders, the creative capacity involved is rather less than that of the artificer. "Man can hardly select," Darwin notes, "any deviation of structure excepting such as is externally visible; and indeed he rarely cares for what is internal. He can never act by selection, excepting on variations which are first given to him in some slight degree by nature." Selection, then, involves in all cases less of the creative power of transferring an envisioned form into matter than had earlier been imagined in the model of nature as machine and God as machinist. The selections a savage makes, moreover, involve less conscious imposition of an envisioned form than the selections of a master breeder, and nature's selections even less still. Selecting, unlike making, has to proceed with some pregiven thing, within the limitations dictated by its preexisting Bauplan.
Darwin's 'Mother Nature' then, as Fodor understands it, even if a theological hold-out or a metaphor still in need of cashing, is given a role in the designing of creatures rather less fundamental than that of the creator in natural theology. But it is just a metaphor, for all that, and Fodor is absolutely right to call it by its name. Fodor is right, I add, in just the same way that Hume was right to inveigh against the argument from design as resting upon an incomplete analogy.
Since, as Fodor might say, we can be morally certain that Hume never read Darwin, it might seem that what is at stake here is not so much the viability of Darwinism, but rather only of a certain philosophical position that has often been associated with Darwinism but that can exist without the fundamental insights of the theory of evolution and that indeed precedes that theory. Darwinism would then only be in serious trouble if it necessarily relies upon this philosophical position in order to explain the particular features of the world its defenders hope to make it explain. Kitcher and Coyne believe that "selecting-for" is largely a philosopher's invention, and would probably maintain that even if Darwin allowed nature to remain a bit too motherly in failing to cash the metaphor with which he begins the Origin, this in no way compromises the basic insight at the heart of the book, namely, that traits emerge gradually as individual members of a population that prove to be more fit for survival in given environmental circumstances manage to reproduce in greater numbers. They apparently do not expect Darwin the humble naturalist to offer a satisfying metaphysics of evolution, but only to tell us how evolution works. Fodor disagrees, on the grounds that unless a certain metaphysics is defended --that is, the one on which nature continues to have at least some minimal motherly capacity to guide the emergence of traits-- then we cannot coherently speak of one trait's being selected rather than another coextensive one. Therefore, Fodor thinks, natural selection does not support relevant counterfactuals, and is bad science.
I will not come down on one side or the other, but instead will wrap things up by a brief consideration of what I take to be the alternative path Fodor would like to see the philosophy of mind, and perhaps all disciplines concerned with humanity and its place in nature, go down. Fodor mentions evolutionary developmental biology, or evo-devo, as a promising new path of scientific research, seemingly taking it to be a radical break with the Darwinian orthodoxy of the past 150 years, rather than taking it, as leading scholars in the field such as Sean Caroll do, as a supplementation of the adaptationist program. For Fodor, evo-devo appears to point to a way of accounting for adaptive phenomena largely by appeal to endogenous constraints on phenotypes, though he also admits that this is at best a plausible guess.
In the end, Fodor doesn't really believe that he or anyone else needs to come up with a convincing alternative to adaptationism in order for him to keep on doing what he does best, since in his ideal version of the science of explaining both behavioral and physiological traits, the function of a trait could come to be understood in the absence of any understanding of its evolutionary history.
But can this really be done? Fodor rightly notes that evolutionary explanation is always diachronic: it tells you what an organ's function is now by giving an account of what it "was selected for way back then." He goes on to ask:
"Imagine, just as a thought experiment, that Darwin was comprehensively wrong about the origin of species (we all make mistakes). Would it then follow that the function of the heart is not to pump the blood? Indeed, that the heart, like the appendix, has no function, and that neither does anything else in the natural order? If you're inclined to doubt that follows, then the notion of function you have in mind probably isn't diachronic; a fortiori, it probably isn't Darwinian."
Fodor considers the example of William Harvey's discovery of the circulation of the blood, announcing that "Harvey didn't have to look outside physiology to explain what the heart is for." But is that really the case? Did Harvey understand the function of the heart? He discovered the circulation of the blood, but he also thought that the blood was returning to the heart because in some deep sense comprehensible only within the framework of Aristotelian natural philosophy, it longed to return home. In other words, Harvey looked way outside of physiology in order to explain what the heart is for.
While we're at it, we may as well also ask whether a modern-day creationist can understand the function of the heart. It depends what you mean by 'understand'. Fodor and a pentecostal preacher in Alabama would both agree that the heart is for pumping the blood, but would surely disagree as to why the blood is being pumped at all. My hunch is that Harvey's complete account probably has more in common with that of the preacher than it does with Fodor's own. Yet it seems that Fodor is not interested in complete accounts, or at least not in accounts complete enough for the differences between his, Harvey's, and the modern-day creationist's respective opinions as to why the blood is circulating to come into focus.
Fodor disagrees with Dennett's assertion that "Darwin didn't show us that we don't have to ask ['why questions']. He showed us how to answer them." The disagreement seems to stem from a deep conviction on his part that in order to understand a thing one need not consider that thing's history, that an adequate explanation of a thing's nature does not require an inquiry into that thing's origins. It is a deep, deep question whether this is true or not. It seems that as a programmatic point, the rejection of historical considerations might be perfectly acceptable for the purposes of psychology and the philosophy of mind. But Fodor wants to move from the partis pris he had earlier taken up in his groundbreaking work in these areas in order to denounce diachronic accounts not just of human minds but of biological entities in general. Indeed, as a result of his aversion to just-so stories, Fodor seems positively hostile to the scientific effort to --as Elliott Sober describes the task of evolutionary theory-- reconstruct the past.
But if diachronic considerations are excluded outright from the scientific answer to the 'why' questions concerning the nature of animals and humans among them, non-scientists will be more than happy to offer their own diachronic considerations, in the form of biblical citation and crypto-creationist ID-theory, in their own very different answers to the very same 'why' questions. It is the minimalist answer to the 'why' questions --it is, in other words, the naturalistic account of functions-- that the adaptationist program makes possible, and that is all too easy to give up once it is assumed --and not just as a thought experiment-- that Darwin was comprehensively wrong about the origin of species. This is not to say that natural selection should be retained as the myth the naturalists offer up in answer to that of the supernaturalists. It should be retained as the most plausible hypothesis, towards which the consilience of all sorts of inductions invariably points, even if Fodor's concern --like that of Gould and Lewontin-- about runaway adaptationism is a legitimate one, and even if we must acknowledge with Fodor that there are some scientific, and naturalistic philosophical, endeavors, in which evolutionary considerations have no place.
Berlin, April 22, 2008
For an extensive archive of Justin Smith's writing, please visit www.jehsmith.com.
Assault on Dystopia—a Travelogue
Edward B. Rackley
I'm spending this month visiting a clutch of countries in East Africa defined, in part, by their history of armed conflict and failed governance. This is a causal relation, not just collective misfortune: conflicts ignite and humanitarian crises ensue because of poor governance. Felonious states, murderous regimes and the eternal recurrence of la politique du ventre.
Lower on the rungs of power, paramilitary thugs and drooling militiamen get their reward too: a poorly run disarmament and demobilization program and the chance to return to village life without trial or sanction for all the bloodshed and rape in their wake. La politique du ventre started these wars; in turn it offers an incentive to end them. I recall Goethe saying that however complex man's psyche may seem, the 'circle of his states is soon run through'. Or in this case: 'me want you got', as they say in Sierra Leone.
So besides an Empedoclean dance of love and strife, what drives this dynamic of power and suffering, of 'grievance and greed', I see a perfectly balanced Pavlovian equation stuck on infinite repeat: Oppression, rebellion, reward. Oppression rebellion, reward. Hunger for power starts wars as easily as it ends them. Keep justice and culpability out of any peace negotiation and the powerful can remain atop the dung heap for generations to come. Laundry detergent dreams for evermore! Even Pavlov's dogs could have smelled the rot of this seamlessly conditioned feedback loop--a mile high stench totally lost on the big brains at the UN Security Council.
But what about the African Union--are they not capable of some form of leverage, an anchor of reason in this ocean of impunity? Alas, the AU still worships the 'brotherhood of African leaders'. In practice this means Mugabe gets a winking tisk-tisk from Mbeki; Obasanjo offers exile to Charles Taylor. The AU says nothing, which is consent. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of ZANU-PF supporters continue believing the absurdity that to vote for Mugabe is their only hope against 'imminent British invasion'. A successful politics of the belly thus appears to confer mass hypnotic powers to the demagogue over the hoi polloi. If the AU ever awakes from its hypnotic state of genuflection, maybe it will stop facilitating the dingdongs at Africa's helm and roundly condemn them.
Taking Tiger Mountain
So who's taking Tiger Mountain by storm? Here comes a warm jest. Given the colossal scale of human suffering this madness entails, this post-conflict neighborhood is swarming with massive UN operations, hundreds of NGOs doing relief and development, philanthropists, human rights activists and do-gooders of every stripe. It's easy to dismiss the humanitarian circus as futile or naively quixotic; it is a most imperfect enterprise, full of disappointment and disillusion. Nor can it fix any of the political dysfunction and self-serving governance at the heart of Africa's problems. Still, I find hope in the humanitarian movement because it is the only full-fledged assault on dystopia going in this part of the world. Everyone else is either getting crushed under a boot, or donning boots to do some crushing.
I'm in Rwanda right now, and haven’t been here since 1994 just after the genocide. It offers a significant exception to my rant above. An amazing transformation of the country has occurred; it stands in complete opposition to its immediate neighbors, particularly DRC and Burundi. Under President Kagame’s rule, it is not exactly a democratic place, and there is no independent media or much civil society to speak of. But security and the foundations for economic development are clearly here, and Rwanda has prospered as a result.
One thing I agree with Kagame on is his ambition to wean the country off of international charity as quickly as possible. I too want a world where there are only workers, no expatriate labor force or foreign donors at the top of the food chain in developing countries. International financial assistance to private and public sectors will be needed, but the vast machine of intermediary entities--international NGOs, UN agencies, the World Bank country offices--should disappear, the sooner the better. Direct support to indigenous efforts, providing human capital and capacity are sufficient, will get everyone off the ground and into the air. Hence my visit: our little initiative (called 'PRISM Partnerships') aims to connect local civil society and NGOs with financial backers elsewhere.
I'm surprised how many positive reactions I've gotten from people across the board: locals, internationals, cynics and dreamers. From the bottom of the well at night, one can only dream--not of utopia but of resistance strategies, of the infinite possibilities for effective assault on dystopia.
14 ans depuis...
This week is the national commemoration of the 1994 genocide here in Rwanda. Two Rwandan friends took me to the Kigali Memorial Center today, amongst thick crowds. A grenade had been tossed into the place the day before--perpetrators and survivors do not cohabit well, and anti-Tutsi 'genocide ideology' is still very much alive and well in the region.
The experience was heavy and I choked up, but emerged strangely grateful that I had been in the country for the immediate aftermath of the primary wave of killing. The visit also brought back a lot of memories from that period of my life that had faded or simply been repressed. I've always contextualized my time in Rwanda in 1994 as just another relief mission to a war-torn country, but I now realize that it was something else entirely.
It's easy to say, but genocide is the most extreme human transgression. That thought needs a visceral connection; otherwise it remains purely intellectual, subjective and forgettable. Today I grasped in my bones that there is nothing else at the bottom of the human psyche after all other trap doors have given way. Beyond madness, beyond reason, beyond fantasy, beyond brute physicality, genocide is the final cul-de-sac at the bottom of human consciousness.
There are several genocide memorials around the country; this one is both a museum and an unmarked cemetery with enormous mass graves in submerged cement containers. Name plates are fixed to an adjacent wall, somewhat like the Vietnam Memorial in Washington.
Survivor stories are playing on video screens positioned throughout the tour, which occurs largely underground. That of Valentine runs: "I lay down again among the dead bodies. It was three days after the killings, so the bodies stank. The Interahamwe would pass by without entering the room, and dogs would come to eat the bodies. I lived there for 43 days . . ." [read rest here]
Rwanda is recovering slowly; there is security and infrastructure, the two main ingredients for human prosperity in a post-conflict country. Latent tensions between Hutu and Tutsi are spreading, however, and many I've talked to are not optimistic about the prospect of peaceful cohabitation.
A book through my fingers
Once in a while you stumble on a book that's been out for a while and ask, 'How could I have missed this?' Chris and Katy, my PRISM partners, have an excellent Africa library in their Nairobi home. I picked up a historical musing by Sven Lindqvist called 'Exterminate All the Brutes'--the reference being Conrad's Kurtz character in Heart of Darkness.
Out in Swedish since 1992 and in English since 1996, how did it slip by me? Old and lazy, I surmise. To make up for my failings, I've been trudging around with it for the last couple weeks, letting its thesis seep into my veins, like a slow-drip IV.
Lindqvist writes with a delectable dryness, like Kapuscinski (Guardian obit here), one of the few western writers on Africa I respect. Lindqvist also travels 'embedded', and his content is driven by his encounters and their always unpredictable unfoldings. A man infatuated with Fortuna is a kindred soul.
Unlike Kapuscinski, always meek before taxing geopolitical questions, Lindqvist is a gleeful slaughterer of sacred cows, an iconoclast and anti-ideologue par excellence. The thesis of this book is that the Nazi quest for Aryan supremacy and Lebensraum was at its core an application of the expansionist and racist principles of imperialism and colonialism that Europeans had long been applying to the Third World.
In this light, there is little exceptional about the Holocaust itself, given that its precursors were myriad. No one notices this historical continuity because the victims of European expansionism and subjugation were not Europeans, until Nazism--itself a culmination of certain trends in European thought and action over centuries. Is this so shocking a thesis? I think not.
Among the African countries I know well where large scale human massacres have occurred, I'm finding that debate in Rwanda over justice, reconciliation and root causes is relatively free of the usual blame game and denial of responsibility that goes on elsewhere. All are aware that colonialism did much to poison Hutu-Tutsi relations here, and post-independence relations with France have been dubious to say the least. France was forced to pull its diplomatic presence here in 2006.
But Rwandans are not blind to the fact that a homegrown logic was unleashed here: it was not imported or forced down anyone's throat by outsiders. What I've found so uncanny is that many here read the metamorphosis of mind that led to Hutu Power and the 'Intent to Destroy' (the name of Lindqvist's new book on the methods of genocide) that were unleashed in April 1994 in almost identical terms as Arendt's elucidation of the origins of totalitarianism.
A group I met today, Never Again Rwanda, made this case quite clearly, despite no one knowing Arendt or her work. Their efforts revolve around creating a 'culture of reason' in a country where a 'culture of silence' predominates, and automatic obedience before authority is expected and assumed. Critical thinking is rare, and not rewarded. NAR are trying to inculcate these values in schools and among local authorities.
Genocidal ideology is resurging, and eyewitnesses to the genocide who survived and can now testify are being targeted and killed. 'Survivor' and 'perpetrator' are the new categories for Tutsi and Hutu. Although everyone knows that ethnic hatred is an organizing principle to the violence and not its root cause (which is unequal wealth and power sharing), many remain susceptible to ethnic rhetoric. NAR is doing good work; we hope to find them more funding to expand their efforts on a national scale.
Ugali in Kigali
I feel like the Cookie Monster when I’m in this part of Africa – can’t get enough ugali. Doesn’t help that I’m a vacuum cleaner by nature, generally eating anything within reach of my arms or legs. My gaping orifice welcomes anything remotely edible, except manioc ugali (foufou); I like the maize version.
The most recent leg of my journey took me from Bukavu to Kigali, where I would fly back to Nairobi. It took a while to figure it out, but my cramped minivan was filled with Banyamulenge (Tutsis of Rwandan extraction born or raised in Congo). Politics was the primary discussion point during our six hours together, and lots of laughter about life in general. In today’s ethnically charged climate, Banyamulenge are no longer welcome in Congo. Many felt forced to immigrate to Rwanda, a country they don’t consider home, and that does not accept them. Many never learned to speak Kinyarwandan, as pressure to assimilate in Congo meant speaking Swahili and French. Unwelcome in Congo, in Rwanda they must assimilate again, this time to a society controlled by Tutsis from Uganda—English and Kinyarwandan speakers.
JG, a friend here, was born and raised in Bukavu to a Tutsi refugee father and a Congolese (Shi) mother. In his final years of study towards priesthood at Bukavu’s prestigious seminary, his mentors and colleagues turned on him. Because he was half-Tutsi, he had to leave. With no English or Kinyarwandan, he came to Kigali and found the professional ranks occupied entirely by Tutsis who’d followed the RPF from Uganda. Along with the Hutu majority here, JG is essentially excluded from participating in the bright and prosperous Kigali of today.
Over ugali and beer yesterday, JG and I recalled the French expulsion from Rwanda in late 2006. For a government that brooks no dissent, no opposition politics and barely a peep from civil society, it was logical that they eject a threatening foreign presence: recall the Kagame indictments issued by a French court (and more recently by a Spanish court). However consistent the logic of this regime—brook no dissent—it is a recipe for open hostility, sooner or later.
JG wants a country where ‘all Rwandans are one’; his NGO works with former prisoners (ex-genocidaires Hutu) to reintegrate into society. Very brave, and essential if the time bomb is to be diffused. But JG's work is a drop in the ocean, unfortunately. And as long as the government treats everyone except the Ugandan Tutsi community as potential traitors, the supposed center will not hold.
Overnight shelling in downtown Bujumbura last week by the FNL, a Hutu extremist group in Burundi; attacks on the Rwandan genocide memorial and commemorative activities in Kigali during my visit the week before. Is there a link? Re-read the Hutu Ten Commandments, in case they’ve slipped your mind.
Hutu Power is once again raising its fist across the region. For the uninitiated, Pouvoir Hutu is the local species of genocidal ideology that unleashed the 1994 Rwandan genocide. It is also largely responsible for both Eastern Congo’s ongoing mess and Burundi’s failure to consolidate peace, some two years after a formal peace agreement and national presidential elections. Besides ongoing battles between the FDLR/Interhamwe, Laurent Nkunda’s troops and the Congolese national army, the last major assault on Tutsi civilians was the Gatumba massacre in August 2005.
The ideology covers the region; its supply lines and popular support base criss-cross Rwanda, Burundi, Congo and Tanzania. Eastern Congo’s unruly wilderness provides excellent camouflage for extremist Hutu groups of Rwandan or Burundian extraction. Their rear bases are reportedly concentrated in the deep south of South Kivu. If Kagame and Kabila are able to find common cause on confronting this problem, it will likely see renewed conflict in South Kivu. Kagame has already stated that if Kabila gets no results, the Rwandan army will invade to deal with the problem. If that happens, we can expect the resurgence of a regional war.
If I could change one thing about international assistance to Africa, it would be to drop the democracy and elections obsession. Security and infrastructure are the most basic conditions for progress. Democracy bakes no bread, stops no bullets and prevents no rape in this part of the world.
Your voice on the telephone
is sugar to my ears.
Your electric breath nudging magnets,
eating miles as it comes --
meeting relays, swelling,
Your voice runs with light.
It enters at absurd gates
convoluted to catch frequencies
of love and death; appendages
that on my young freshcut head
once stood out like pink wings.
Now on this motel phone
buried in blankets they catch you,
or what of you electricity brings.
Squeezed to bits by chips
you come juice sweet, and ease
through the earpiece of this
Nina Katchadourian. Mended Spiderweb #!9. 1998.
"The morning after the first patch job, I discovered a pile of red threads lying on the ground below the web. At first I assumed the wind had blown them out; on closer inspection it became clear that the spider had repaired the web to perfect condition using its own methods, throwing the threads out in the process. My repairs were always rejected by the spider and discarded, usually during the course of the night, even in webs which looked abandoned."
little spring musing
The snows are fled away, leaves on the shaws
And grasses in the mead renew their birth,
The river to the river-bed withdraws,
And altered is the fashion of the earth.
The Nymphs and Graces three put off their fear
And unapparelled in the woodland play.
The swift hour and the brief prime of the year
Say to the soul, Thou wast not born for aye.
Thaw follows frost; hard on the heel of spring
Treads summer sure to die, for hard on hers
Comes autumn with his apples scattering;
Then back to wintertide, when nothing stirs.
But oh, whate'er the sky-led seasons mar,
Moon upon moon rebuilds it with her beams;
Come we where Tullus and where Ancus are
And good Aeneas, we are dust and dreams.
Torquatus, if the gods in heaven shall add
The morrow to the day, what tongue has told?
Feast then thy heart, for what thy heart has had
The fingers of no heir will ever hold.
When thou descendest once the shades among,
The stern assize and equal judgment o'er,
Not thy long lineage nor thy golden tongue,
No, nor thy righteousness, shall friend thee more.
Night holds Hippolytus the pure of stain,
Diana steads him nothing, he must stay;
And Theseus leaves Pirithous in the chain
The love of comrades cannot take away.
Horace, Ode 4.7. The great English poet and classical scholar A.E. Housman thought this poem the greatest in all of ancient literature. This is his excellent translation. It's an amazing poem in how quickly Horace takes it from a meditation on the rebirth inherent in Spring to the inevitability of death. But that was Horace. He had an eye for decay. He looked at nature and he saw the mask of death.
Sometimes the early days of Spring are the most death-like. In New York City, just as the newest buds are sprouting a period of grayness sets in. Always. Days of gray and a cold wind coming from who-knows-where. It’s a reminder of that transience whereby Spring already slips into Summer and Summer into Autumn. Horace's Latin bumps along here, driving the words forward with the time. A brief reflection on the advent of Spring is already a glimpse at winter, "when nothing stirs."
Horace can barely think on this one moment of Spring without time tumbling out in front of him, running away with the world. And so it does. About this, Horace was always unforgiving. You cannot escape the brute reality of nature, which is death. To be human, is to be an animal, is to die. Horace will have no other reality, above or below us. He flattens the cosmos into one terrestrial reality, that of the infinite pointless cycle of living. No Gods, no demons, will disrupt it.
Upon this bleak plain Horace builds his modest ethics. Housman translates it as a simple four-word phrase, "Feast then thy heart" (the Latin does not specifically refer to feasts but the gist is there). Under the eyes of death, living is a temporary feasting. But more than that. The feasting is what it is because it is under the eyes of death. That is to say, what makes our feast, what gives it its specific tension, is recognizing that it is acted out in the face of oblivion, in spite of and because of that oblivion. We are meant to know that we will die and in that knowing, to have added some urgency to our feasting.
A melancholy feast, perhaps. But Horace refuses to extricate melancholy from joy. That's the essential genius of his poetry. Joy is a worldly thing for him, an earthly thing, a thing of dirt and food and bodies. The early days of Spring are thus particularly Horacian. The hovering zone between life and death that holds the two together. Fragile green sprouts on otherwise dead branches. A cold wind cuts an otherwise sunny day in half.
April 27, 2008
Junot Diaz's Exploding Planet
Evelyn Ch'ien interviews Junot Diaz, in Granta:
On a windy Thursday night in late February I stood in a faintly lit street in Harlem, in front of a modern building where Junot Díaz and his fiancée, Elizabeth de Leon, are staying. Their apartment has been furnished with an eye to clean but colourful design, with the exception of the wild, celebratory paintings of the Dominican artist Tony Capellán. Díaz’s warmth and energy haven’t waned over the years I have known him, but he has become more open and confident since the publication of his first book, the short story collection Drown.
In early March, Díaz’s novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, was awarded a National Book Critics Award, and in April, the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The night I saw him, however, he was simply happy to have finished the book.
Oscar Wao is a striking departure from the tight, economically written Drown. Díaz’s prose retains its vigour and verve, but there’s a new-found ebullience as his narrative sprawls and embraces the epic form. There is more extended use of Spanish than in Drown, and a lot more meta-writing and philosophical insight. The greatest innovation of the novel, however, is its conscious manipulation of genre.
When Galaxies Collide
Arp 148 is the staggering aftermath of an encounter between two galaxies, resulting in a ring-shaped galaxy and a long-tailed companion. The collision between the two parent galaxies produced a shockwave effect that first drew matter into the centre and then caused it to propagate outwards in a ring. The elongated companion perpendicular to the ring suggests that Arp 148 is a unique snapshot of an ongoing collision. Infrared observations reveal a strong obscuration region that appears as a dark dust lane across the nucleus in optical light.
Judt's La Trahison des Clercs
John Gray reviews Tony Judt's Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century, in The Guardian:
The period stretching from the collapse of communism up to the attack on Iraq was a time when western leaders prided themselves on their ignorance of history. They embraced the defining delusion of the post-cold war era: the conflicts of the 20th century are safely behind us, and we have nothing to learn from the past. Backed by America's seemingly invincible military might and the superior productivity of western economies, the world had entered a new epoch of peace and democracy.
Tony Judt has always been a dissenter from this consensus. In Reappraisals the British-born historian, now a university professor in New York, collects 23 essays, written between 1994 and 2006, in which he undertakes a ruthless dissection of the ruling illusions of the post-cold war years - "the years the locusts ate", as he calls them. A book of essays originally published over a period of 12 years may seem an unlikely place to find a systematic analysis of the follies of an era, and it is true that the pieces gathered here cover a remarkable range of writers and themes. There are illuminating assessments of Primo Levi and Hannah Arendt, a superb deconstruction of Blair's Britain, a penetrating discussion of the fall of France in 1940, explorations of Belgium's fractured statehood and the ambiguous position of Romania in Europe, analyses of the Cuba crisis and Kissinger's diplomacy, and much else besides.This breadth of reference may seem to militate against continuous argument, but in fact these articles and reviews pursue a single overarching theme. Reappraisals is a devastating critique of intellectual life over the past two decades, and it is mostly icons of the left that are smashed.
An Interview with Brian Greene on the World Science Festival
What drove you to start the festival in the first place?
I'd say the biggest motivation is the recognition that the world is so increasingly reliant on science, and yet a large portion of the general public is intimidated by science. They somehow think it's something that you try to get through in school but once you got through it, it's something you leave behind. And I have so many experiences that have shown me that when people are presented science in a way that is accessible and compelling and inspirational, they not only love it, but they also find it opens up a whole new universe of thought, a whole connection to the world around them that they find enormously enriching. So the goal of the festival is to basically increase the number of people that have that experience.
I've gotten letters from soldiers in Iraq that life is so difficult there—in the dusty and lonely environment around Baghdad, where you can lose your life at any moment—and yet when they can retreat into popular science books, mine and others, and learn about cosmology and the particles and quantum physics, and learn that there's this deep reality that transcends their day-to-day existence, it just gives them a very new perspective and helps to keep them emotionally intact. That's science speaking to a life, not to just interesting thoughts in the head. And when you see that, the life-altering capability of embracing science, the motivation to have as many people experience that as possible is really strong.
This is a Photograph of Me
It was taken some time ago.
At first it seems to be
print: blurred lines and grey flecks
blended with the paper;
then, as you scan
it, you see in the left-hand corner
a thing that is like a branch: part of a tree
(balsam or spruce) emerging
and, to the right, halfway up
what ought to be a gentle
slope, a small frame house.
In the background there is a lake,
and beyond that some low hills.
(The photograph was taken
the day after I drowned.
I am in the lake, in the center
of the picture, just under the surface.
It is difficult to say where
precisely, or to say
how large or small I am:
the effect of the water
on light is a distortion
but if you look long enough,
you will be able to see me.)
How Daphne du Maurier wrote Rebecca
From The Telegraph:
In 1937, Daphne du Maurier signed a three-book deal with Victor Gollancz. She was 30 years old, the author of four previous novels, including, most recently, Jamaica Inn. She knew already the title of the first of the books she would write for Gollancz: Rebecca. Beyond that point, she had scarcely thought. On and off for the past five years she had been toying with an idea. Its theme was jealousy.
It came to Daphne the year she married Frederick "Boy" Browning, whom she called Tommy. Tommy had been engaged before - to glamorous, dark-haired Jan Ricardo. The suspicion that Tommy remained attracted to Ricardo haunted Daphne. She accepted from Gollancz an advance of £1,000 - the equivalent of 18 months of Tommy's pay as a Lieutenant Colonel of the Grenadier Guards - and prepared to set to work. Nothing came. The paper in her typewriter remained blank. Sluggishly, she wrote 50 pages, all consigned to the waste-paper basket. To Gollancz she wrote a desperate apology: "The first 15,000 words I tore up in disgust and this literary miscarriage has cast me down rather..."
Daphne and Tommy Browning, like Rebecca and Maximilian de Winter, were not faithful to one another. Jan Ricardo, tragically, died during the Second World War. She threw herself under a train.
Self-Experimenters: Filmmaker Gained Weight to Prove a Point about Portion Size
From Scientific American:
Morgan Spurlock's "really great bad idea," as it would later be called, came to him after a gluttonous Thanksgiving meal. Jeans unbuttoned, stomach engorged with turkey—and eyeing a second helping—the 32-year-old playwright noticed on the television news that two teenage girls from New York City were suing McDonald's for allegedly making them fat.
"It was the dumbest thing I'd ever heard of," Spurlock recalls thinking. Until, that is, a McDonald's spokeswoman appeared on screen to deny any link between the chain's food and the girls' obesity, claiming that Big Macs, Chicken McNuggets and the rest of the gang were nutritious. "That was even crazier than the lawsuit," says Spurlock, now 37. "If it's so nutritious, I should be able to eat it every day."
Against the better judgment of three doctors and the pleading of Alexandra Jamieson, his vegan chef girlfriend (now his wife), he enlisted himself as experimental subject, eating only McDonald's fare, three meals a day, for 30 days. Super Size Me, the chronicle of his February 2003 "McOrgy," became the eighth-highest grossing documentary in movie history, and is widely regarded as encouraging the end of the fast food "super size" era.
April 26, 2008
Concrete Examples Don't Help Students Learn Math
A new study challenges the common practice in many classrooms of teaching mathematical concepts by using "real-world," concrete examples. Researchers led by Jennifer Kaminski, researcher scientist at Ohio State University's Center for Cognitive Science, found that college students who learned a mathematical concept with concrete examples couldn't apply that knowledge to new situations.
But when students first learned the concept with abstract symbols, they were much more likely to transfer that knowledge, according to the study published in the April 25 issue of the journal Science.
"These findings cast doubt on a long-standing belief in education," said Vladimir Sloutsky, co-author of the study and professor of psychology and human development and the director of the Center for Cognitive Science at Ohio State.
"The belief in using concrete examples is very deeply ingrained, and hasn't been questioned or tested."
kunkel on vonnegut
In a happier world, Cat's Cradle might remain a period piece, an anthology of 1960s nightmares and fantasies out of place in a new world order of international law, shared prosperity, and spreading peace. How nice it would be to return to this novel (one I first read, as an adolescent, just before the Berlin wall came down), and discover that the old fears had melted away, without any new terrors to take their place. No such luck. Reading it, you want to reject Vonnegut's pessimism as too easy and comprehensive, like the sour negativity of adolescents - always Vonnegut's best and most devoted readers - but it's not evident that the 21st century will grant us very strong grounds on which to do so. Eight years in, even the silly coinages of Bokonon seem to have taken on, for Americans at least, a certain utility and precision:
Duffle, in the Bokononist sense,
is the destiny of thousands upon
thousands of persons when
placed in the hands of a stuppa.
A stuppa is a fogbound child.
more from The Guardian here.
martin amis: No pasarán
In “The Second Plane,” his collection of noisy, knowing writings about theocracy and terror, Martin Amis goes out on a limb. He denounces both. Really, he does. He hates Islamism and he hates Islamist murder. And so he should: if certain forms of evil are not hated, then they have not been fully understood. Amis enjoys the moral element in contempt, and he is splendidly unperturbed by the prospect of giving offense. But he appears to believe that an insult is an analysis. He wants us to remember, about the Islamists in Britain, “their six-liter plastic tubs of hairdressing bleach and nail-polish remover, their crystalline triacetone triperoxide and chapatti flour.” He knows for a fact that Islamists “habitually” jump red lights, so as “to show contempt for the law of the land (and contempt for reason).” Iranians, he teaches, are “mystical, volatile and masochistic.” Amis seems to regard his little curses as almost military contributions to the struggle. He has a hot, heroic view of himself. He writes as if he, with his wrinkled copies of Bernard Lewis and Philip Larkin, is what stands between us and the restoration of the caliphate. He is not only outraged by Sept. 11, he is also excited by it. “If Sept. 11 had to happen, then I am not at all sorry that it happened in my lifetime.” Don’t you see? It no longer matters that we missed the Spanish Civil War. ¡No pasarán!
more from the NY Times Book Review here.
Flying East for my Grandson’s Birth
And I’m sailing in high silver over Pendleton and Bozeman
as you journey the last hard inches toward the sill of the pubis.
At 33,000 feet, the outside temperature, according to the screen
and these frost flowers blooming here on the window by my seat,
is minus 59 degrees Fahrenheit.
Council Bluffs and the rectangular plains marking buffalo bones
in late snow. Now the thick Mississippi twists like an umbilical,
and the cord, coiled through generations, tightens my groin.
Push, they told me, and what else could I do, my back cracking
over the rim of the world?
At the darkening edge of the continent,
she is breathing and sweating. Let somebody’s cool hand
sweep damp hair from her forehead.
As I pass over Cincinnati, she is opening in waves and scarlet
birth blood is flowing through us all. East now of Pittsburgh
she is riding her moment of I can’t do this any more, the body
almost inverting itself, and clouds rushing under my wings,
until the lift and gasp in the moving air.
Sometimes we call this
Child, I will tell you every glorious thing I know:
We are made out of dirt and water. Someday your hands
will have freckles and lines. Many cherished people
have lived and died before you.
Oh, and, child, one thing more:
this earth invents us and consorts with us willingly
only because we tell stories.
Is Open Access Science the Future?
From Scientific American:
Web 2.0 technologies open up a much richer dialogue, says Bill Hooker, a postdoctoral cancer researcher at the Shriners Hospital for Children in Portland, Ore., and author of a three-part survey on open-science efforts that appeared at 3 Quarks Daily (www.3quarksdaily.com), where a group of bloggers write about science and culture. “To me, opening up my lab notebook means giving people a window into what I’m doing every day,” Hooker says. “That’s an immense leap forward in clarity. In a paper, I can see what you’ve done. But I don’t know how many things you tried that didn’t work. It’s those little details that become clear with an open [online] notebook but are obscured by every other communication mechanism we have. It makes science more efficient.” That jump in efficiency, in turn, could greatly benefit society, in everything from faster drug development to greater national competitiveness.
Of course, many scientists remain wary of such openness—especially in the hypercompetitive biomedical fields, where patents, promotion and tenure can hinge on being the first to publish a new discovery. For these practitioners, Science 2.0 seems dangerous: putting your serious work out on blogs and social networks feels like an open invitation to have your lab notebooks vandalized—or, worse, your best ideas stolen and published by a rival.
Viruses found in lung tumours
Researchers have found evidence that two common viruses may be lurking behind some cases of lung cancer: human papilloma virus (HPV), already recognized as a cause of cervical cancer, and the measles virus. The results, which will be presented today at the European Lung Cancer Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, are preliminary: while viruses have been found associated with lung tumours, there is no direct evidence that the viruses are actually causing the cancer. But the notion that a virus could contribute to some cases of the disease is a plausible one, says Denise Galloway, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington, who was not affiliated with the new studies.
As much as 20% of the world’s cancers have been linked to infections. In addition to the connection between HPVs and cervical cancer, chronic infections by hepatitis-B and -C viruses contribute to liver cancer, and the bacterium Helicobacter pylori has been associated with stomach cancer. In February, researchers reported viral genome sequences found in an aggressive form of skin cancer called Merkel cell carcinoma, although it remains to be seen precisely how the virus contributes to skin cancer, if at all. And some have proposed that a virus similar to the ‘mouse mammary tumor virus’ — which causes breast cancer in mice — could also be associated with breast cancer in humans.
Dianne Reeves jams with a violist in the Berlin Philharmonic
Standard Operating Procedure
Dana Stevens in Slate:
Standard Operating Procedure, Errol Morris' brainy, meandering inquiry into the origin of the Abu Ghraib torture photographs that shocked the country when they were first published in 2004, is indisputably an impressive piece of documentary filmmaking. Whether that makes it a great document about what actually happened at Abu Ghraib is a separate question, and one that goes to the heart of Morris' project as a filmmaker.
Ever since The Thin Blue Line (1988), a real-life whodunit that made such a powerful case for the innocence of its subject that he was eventually cleared of murder charges and released from prison, Morris has been making films that seek not to expose the truth but to show how elusive it can be. The very title of his previous film, the Vietnam documentary The Fog of War (2004), emphasized obscurity over clarity. Morris is obsessed with the impossibility of truthful storytelling, the way individual testimony is always strained through the filters of memory, perspective, and the speaker's need to present him- or herself in the best light possible. As abstract and intellectually distancing as this approach may sound, it's strangely well-suited to documenting the abuses at Abu Ghraib, which took place in a moral gray zone tacitly sanctioned by the administration's ongoing refusal to define exactly what torture or stress position or enemy combatant means.
Europeans were not the first painters to use oils
John Cartwright in Physics World:
Europeans are often a little too eager to take credit for innovation. Copernicus may have formalized the heliocentric model of the solar system in the early 1500s, for example, but the Pole only did so with the help of vast tables of astronomical measurements taken 200 years earlier in Iran. Even the scientific method itself, often thought to have emerged from Galileo’s experiments in Italy around the same time, has its roots with Arab scientists of the 11th century.
Similar lapses of history occur in the art world. Many still think of oil painting as a European invention of the early Renaissance, perfected by the 15th century Flemish painter Jan van Eyck, who supposedly stumbled across the medium while experimenting with glazes. But they too are mistaken.
“A whole mythology sprang up around van Eyck’s so-called invention of oil painting,” explains Jenny Graham, an art historian from the University of Plymouth, UK, and author of the recent book Inventing Van Eyck. “But it has long been recognised that oil painting was documented in the 12th century or even earlier and may have originated outside Europe.”
Art historians have always lacked real examples to bear out this documentary evidence. Now, however, scientists performing experiments at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) on samples of murals taken from Afghanistan say they have uncovered what could be the earliest known examples of oil paintings.
More here. [Thanks to Manas Shaikh.]
Ruchira Paul at Accidental Blogger:
The very title of Hedina Tahirovic Sijercic’s Dukh/Pain draws me as an Indian to this book of poems. The bi-lingual title does not merely suggest a linguistic proximity to Indian languages but much more. Philosophically, the word “dukh” echoes the cultural import of the Buddhist/ Pali word “dukkha.” The word “pain” gets loaded with greater meaning and intensity, linked side by side with “dukh”.
The simplicity of Hedina’s poems is indeed deceptive. These poems reflect the dukh of a long history of discrimination, persecution and prejudice against the “wandering” Roma. But even while they have been on the move, they have carried within themselves their beliefs, myths, way of life and even superstitions. While Hedina’s poems celebrate harmony with the non-Roma people in a dream, they also play with the metaphor of “fleeing” from the nightmare of being bitten by “Big-headed, winged, red insects” (“I Flee”). The continuous persecution of the Roma is recorded in the history of their expulsions, through the “Caravan Law” of Hamburg, their exclusion from social life, denial of social welfare and a whole series of humiliations suffered in Europe and elsewhere.
April 25, 2008
Does magnetism challenge the standard model?
For one thing, as far as I can tell, nobody knows how a magnet can move a piece of metal without touching it. And for another—more astonishing still, perhaps—nobody seems to care.
This information was not easy to come by. My copy of Electronics for Dummies now shares a shelf with Mathematics of Classical and Quantum Physics by Frederick Byron Jr. and Robert Fuller. Should a doctor at any point take a cross section of my brain, she will find patches of scarring and dead tissue, souvenirs of the time I pursued the mystery of magnetism across the 11-dimensional badlands of string theory. Students of human pathos may one day cherish the 16-minute recording of me, with my 100 percent positive-feedback rating as an eBay purchaser, failing to make renowned physicist Steven Weinberg, who won a Nobel for unifying electromagnetism with the so-called weak force, admit that he can’t explain how a magnet holds a dry-cleaning ticket to the door of a refrigerator.
But as far as I can tell—and isn’t the point of science that all its bigger propositions come accompanied by this noble caveat?—he really can’t.
Why Harold and Kumar Have Become Heroes for Asian-Americans
Over at Studio 360, a radio discussion of Harold and Kumar that includes my sister Linta Varghese.
They say “tragedy plus time equals comedy,” and another film opening this weekend takes unjustly imprisoned terror suspects as its focus. This one is a comedy about two bong-loving stoners: “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay.” Arun Rath explains why Harold and Kumar have become underground heroes for respectable Asian-Americans.
The 'Myth' of Trafficking
Nathalie Rothschild in Sp!ked:
Laura María Agustín’s provocative new book, Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry, really does what it says on the back cover: ‘[It] explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims, and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest.’
Agustín warns that ‘what we say about any given subject is always constructed, and there are only partial truths’. But you can disregard the book’s many postmodern caveats: this is an honest, complex and certainly convincing read. Agustín knows what she’s talking about – she has researched and worked with people who sell sex for over 10 years, including in Latin America and the Caribbean.
It is precisely the fact that Agustín has complicated the ‘discourse’ around trafficking, migration and sex work that seems to get the backs up of those who volunteer and are employed in what she terms the ‘rescue industry’.
‘I’m considered the devil by people in the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women’ (an international NGO), she tells me. ‘They have actually called me a pimp and have said that I associate with traffickers and that I’m in the pay of the sex industry, and any number of vile things.’