May 31, 2008
Comedy of Terrors
Ben Lewis on humor in communist societies, in the FT:
On the stand at the Writers’ Congress of 1934 [the pro-regime satirist Mkhail] Kol’tsov repeated the contorted counter-arguments that had been presented in the past decade. Even if one day, when the system was perfect, he conceded, there would be no need for laughter, there was still a place for it now. Even if the satire took the same forms as old-fashioned Tsarist humour, that was no reason to see it as reactionary. Since the working class were, according to Marxist-Leninist theory, the last class before the arrival of a classless society, their laughter was acceptable because, Kol’tsov said ingeniously, “In the history of the class struggle, the working class will have the last laugh.”
Humour offered the early communists the same philosophical conundrums that every other area of culture offered: what belonged to yesterday and what to tomorrow? Many argued that humour could be used to ridicule the old bourgeois habits that persisted ... But, said others, given that the Soviets were creating a perfect world, there would soon be nothing left to laugh at in Russian politics or society ... No, said others with equal gravity: the liberation of the working classes meant that finally the masses could take control of the language of humour that used to be the preserve of the elite ... No, not quite, a third group of straight-faced critics theorised comically, there would still be laughter under communism, but the new society would invent an entirely new sense of humour.
The Sexist Trashing of Michelle Obama
Kathy G. on (Michelle) Obama bashing:
[T]he feminist blogosphere has largely ignored the extremely nasty racism, sexism, and character assassination that has been targeted at Michelle Obama. Worse, some "feminists" have themselves gleefully joined in the Michelle-bashing. Tami quotes one Hillary supporter who wrote a vitriolic post about Michelle with the charming title, "God Damn Michelle Obama"; among other things, the writer takes a cheap shot at Michelle's physical appearance. Tami also cites a post by another Hillary supporter who attacks Barack for somehow being less than a man; it's the typically vicious, catty, and extremely sexist Maureen Dowd dealio.
This kind of crap from people who, like Michelle, are Democrats and feminists saddens me. That the right would pull this kind of shit was a no-brainer, but it's more painful when it comes from people you think are your allies. I guess it shouldn't surprise me, though. When I wrote an earlier post about the attacks on Michelle, I got a couple of troll-riffic commenters who more or less said that bashing Michelle was a-okay with them, and as best I could tell, those commenters were Democrats.
Computer Simulations of the Evolution of Religion Point to the Role of Non-Believers
Ewen Callaway in New Scientist:
God may work in mysterious ways, but a simple computer program may explain how religion evolved
By distilling religious belief into a genetic predisposition to pass along unverifiable information, the program predicts that religion will flourish. However, religion only takes hold if non-believers help believers out – perhaps because they are impressed by their devotion.
"If a person is willing to sacrifice for an abstract god then people feel like they are willing to sacrifice for the community," says James Dow, an evolutionary anthropologist at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, US, who wrote the program – called Evogod (download the code here).
Dow is by no means the first scientist to take a stab at explaining how religion emerged. Theories on the evolution of religion tend toward two camps. One argues that religion is a mental artefact, co-opted from brain functions that evolved for other tasks.
Another contends that religion benefited our ancestors. Rather than being a by-product of other brain functions, it is an adaptation in its own right. In this explanation, natural selection slowly purged human populations of the non-religious.
"Sometime between 100,000 years ago to the point where writing was invented, maybe about 7000 BC, we begin to have records of people's supernatural beliefs," Dow says.
To determine if it was possible for religion to emerge as an adaptation, Dow wrote a simple computer program that focuses on the evolutionary benefits people receive from their interactions with one another.
"What people are adapting to is other people," he says.
Repetition as Politics
Amanda Marcotte in TPM Cafe, in a book club discussion of Nixonland:
People have become more self-referential, in part because of pop bands like Devo that made arty-farty post-modernism the lingua franca of our era. (Devo is particularly useful---it might have puzzled Norman Lear to have people love his show for both sending up and celebrating the Archie Bunkers of the world, but Devo, which cartoonishly loves and loathes the Silent Majority culture, would have been thrilled for such mixed reactions.) Conservatives who go on "The Colbert Report" know they're being lampooned; they just hope that it manages to sell a few books anyway.
Self-referentiality may make us smarter, but it has an ugly downside, which Devo predicted by making "We must repeat" the 5th plank in their platform. The thing that's made me alternately panic and laugh darkly during the whole Iraq war debacle is how the memory of the 60s dominated people's behavior. We romanticize the 60s, and thus people snapped right into the roles written for us in the past: The liberal hawks hiding behind reasonableness, bloodthirsty conservatives who get teary-eyed at patriotic displays, leftist wanks who think protest is a chance at self-expression and can't stay focused on the topic at hand (bringing "Free Mumia" signs to war protests), and then of course the larger, dare I say silent, majority of war opponents who do stay on message but can't seem to catch a break to be heard.
When the Old West Was New
Donna Rifkind reviews The German Bride by Joanna Hershon, in the Washington Post:
Joanna Hershon's sinuous new novel roams away from the milieu of her two previous books, which were modern family dramas, into the territories of historical fiction and immigration literature. Hershon spins the tale of a German Jewish woman named Eva Frank who, after a hasty marriage in 1865, leaves her wealthy father's mansion in Berlin to pursue a new life among the "low mud-cake hovels" of the American West. Accompanied by her husband, Eva journeys across the ocean and then across the United States to set up housekeeping in Santa Fe, a makeshift, dirty, danger-ridden settlement that was just beginning to organize itself into a town.
While Eva's transformation from pampered European cosmopolite to Wild West frontierswoman might sound outlandish, her story is, as a matter of historical fact, not all that unusual. Hershon makes clear in the novel's "Note on Sources" that she has done research showing that a significant number of European Jews participated in the American westward migration and pioneer life of the 19th century. The most famous of these immigrants -- including Levi Strauss (from Bavaria) and Mike Goldwater (from Poland) -- made enormous fortunes as boomtown entrepreneurs in California and Arizona. Others settled with their families and flourished in Western frontier towns just as enthusiastically, if not quite as spectacular...
...To the many expressions of this threshold experience in American immigration literature, by authors from Anzia Yezerskia to Jhumpa Lahiri, Hershon adds an eloquent voice.
Grandma lives in this town;
in fact all over this town.
Uncle Heery's brain-dead,
and them aunts! Well!
It's grandma you have to contend with.
She's here - she's there!
She works in the fast food hangout.
She's doing school lunches.
She's the crossing guard at the school corner.
She's the librarian's assistant.
She's part-time in the real estate office.
She's stuffing envelopes.
She gets up at three A.M.
to go to the screw factory;
and at night she's at the business school
taking a course in computer science.
Now you take this next town.
Grandpa's laid out in the cemetery
and grandma's gone wild and bought a bus ticket
Uncle Bimbo's been laid up for ten years
and them aunts
are all cashiers in ladies' clothing
and grandma couldn't stand the sight of them
washing their hands and their hair
and their panty hose.
"It's Marine World for me" grandma says.
Published in Prairie Schooner 71:1 (Spring 1997)
Susan Bein in lensculture:
Most people photograph nouns. Or pretty.
I photograph things others hurry by on their way to photograph— things they step over or drive by. I take my camera when there's nothing to photograph, nothing going on, no one interesting, lousy light.
I photograph verbs, light, questions.
What camera? I'm the camera — not that costly glob of technology I hold up to my face to edit the world. My eyes and brain and the excitement of seeing are what take photos, noticing things, imagining things and sometimes getting gifts that happen like sprinklings of fairy dust.
I'm not in style. I'm not working off an intellectual construct or a big concept. That neck-up stuff seems like so much sawdust to me. No heart in it. No risk. No viscera.
I hope my photos speak to you. I hope they sing songs to you. Songs you've never heard before.
The Future of American Power
Fareed Zakaria in Foreign Affairs:
Summary: Despite some eerie parallels between the position of the United States today and that of the British Empire a century ago, there are key differences. Britain's decline was driven by bad economics. The United States, in contrast, has the strength and dynamism to continue shaping the world -- but only if it can overcome its political dysfunction and reorient U.S. policy for a world defined by the rise of other powers.
On June 22, 1897, about 400 million people around the world -- one-fourth of humanity -- got the day off. It was the 60th anniversary of Queen Victoria's ascension to the British throne. The Diamond Jubilee stretched over five days on land and sea, but its high point was the parade and thanksgiving service on June 22. The 11 premiers of Britain's self-governing colonies were in attendance, along with princes, dukes, ambassadors, and envoys from the rest of the world. A military procession of 50,000 soldiers included hussars from Canada, cavalrymen from New South Wales, carabineers from Naples, camel troops from Bikaner, and Gurkhas from Nepal. It was, as one historian wrote, "a Roman moment."
In London, eight-year-old Arnold Toynbee was perched on his uncle's shoulders, eagerly watching the parade. Toynbee, who grew up to become the most famous historian of his age, recalled that, watching the grandeur of the day, it felt as if the sun were "standing still in the midst of Heaven." "I remember the atmosphere," he wrote. "It was: 'Well, here we are on top of the world, and we have arrived at this peak to stay there forever. There is, of course, a thing called history, but history is something unpleasant that happens to other people. We are comfortably outside all of that I am sure.'"
But of course, history did happen to Britain.
More here. (Note: Thanks to Jaffer Bilgrami and S.T.Raza).
A 'conservative studies' professor is exactly what calcified universities need
Crispin Sartwell in the Los Angeles Times:
That the University of Colorado is raising $9 million to endow a professorship of conservative studies is rather delicious in its ironies. It smacks of affirmative action and casts conservatism in the syntax of departments decried by conservatives for decades: women's studies, gay studies, African American studies, Chicano studies and so on.
Furthermore, the idea of affirmative action for conservatives seems gratuitous. These other groups may be oppressed, but conservatives run whole wars, black site prisons, sprawling multinational corporations. In fact, if these other groups are oppressed, it's conservatives who are the oppressors, which may render faculty meetings a bit tense.
But as an academic who is neither a liberal nor a conservative (anarchism has its privileges), let me tell you why I think a "professor of conservative thought and policy" in Colorado, or anywhere else, is not such a bad idea. Within the academy, conservatives really are an oppressed minority. At the University of Colorado, for instance, one professor found that, of 800 or so on the faculty, only 32 are registered Republicans. This strikes me as high, and I assume they all teach business or phys ed.
More here. [Thanks to Bilal Siddiqi.]
May 30, 2008
The Revolution in Cognitive Science and the Decline of Monotheism
Kelly Bulkeley over at The Immanent Frame:
To appreciate the cultural impact of the “cognitive revolution” discussed by David Brooks in his New York Times op-ed column “The Neural Buddhists” (May 13, 2008), we need to be clear about what has and has not been revolutionized by neuroscience. Brooks gets the research essentially right, but he overlooks some key issues raised by “neural Buddhism” that make me question his view of its future effects on religion and culture.
To begin with, neuroscientist Andrew Newberg’s brain-imaging studies of meditation, highlighted by Brooks, can easily be used to confirm rather than disprove a materialist worldview. Newberg’s finding that people who are meditating have measurable decreases in parietal lobe activity fits perfectly with the idea advanced by Richard Dawkins and others that religious experience is a product of altered or abnormal brain functioning. Contrary to the popular view that Newberg’s research supports religion, it can readily be taken as supporting the “militant atheism” Brooks wants to reject. The mind may, as Brooks says, have “the ability to transcend itself,” but we didn’t need Newberg’s SPECT scanners to tell us that.
poussin: historian and fabulist
"Read the story and the painting," Nicolas Poussin wrote in 1639 to his friend and patron Chantelou, "in order to see how each thing is proper to its subject." How to think about that—I've been puzzling to myself these last three years, looking every week at Poussin, on my trips to the Met and sometimes the Louvre. "Lisez," Poussin commanded. What would that be, to read a painting? How would it feel in the mind?
Poussin was forty-five when he wrote the letter, living in Rome with a wife, Anne-Marie née Dughet, childless, and with the moderate but definitive success dear to his Norman heart: perpetual commissions from a small but devoted group of patrons, who hung the works in special rooms in their private homes and went to look at them every day. The early struggles in Paris; the failed attempt to get to Italy (turned back at the border for his debts); the first stay in Venice, enamoured of Titian; the eventual arrival in Rome, which was to be his city until his death; the months drawing from the statues of the antique with his friend, the Belgian sculptor Duquesnoy; the syphilitic, raunchy nights and the impoverished, jobbing days: all this had passed. Now, burgher of the erudite brush, he painted.
more from the Threepenny Review here.
people doing bad things
Good people do not, generally speaking, make good subjects for operas. Like the Greek tragedies that the sixteenth-century Venetian inventors of opera sought to recreate, Western musical drama has tended to be preoccupied with the darker extremes of human emotions: excessive passion and wild jealousy, smoldering resentment and implacable rage. These, after all, are the emotions that spark the kinds of actions—adultery, betrayal, revenge, murder—that make for gripping drama. Unpleasant as they may be in real life, such actions are essential to the Western idea of theater itself, in which the very notion of plot is deeply connected to difficulties, problems, disasters. Aristotle, in his Poetics, refers to plot as a knot tied by the author (he calls it a dêsis, a "binding up") out of the manifold strands representing competing wills or desires or ideologies; an ugly and worrisome knot that will, in due course, ultimately come undone in a climactic moment of loosening or release of tension (the lysis, or "undoing")—a concept that survives in our term "dénouement."
There can, that is to say, be no theater unless bad things happen, unless there are terrible problems, insoluble knots; without them, there would be nothing for the characters to do. That "doing" gives us the very word by which we refer to what happens on stage: "drama" comes from the Greek drân, "to do" or "to act." When we go to the theater, we want to see characters doing things. Bad things, preferably.
more from the NYRB here.
power and sergio
The child of a United Nations official, getting her first look at the UN’s Turtle Bay headquarters in New York, asks her mother how many people work there. “About one in four” is the dyspeptic reply. That old UN chestnut still makes the rounds because it sums up a paper-pushing, jobs-for-the-boys institutional culture that successive “management reforms” have stirred but never really shaken. But among those one in four, the UN every so often attracts, and more surprisingly retains, the loyalty of individuals who would stand out in a crowd of thousands.
Sergio Vieira de Mello, the brilliant and charismatic Brazilian troubleshooter whose life is charted in exhaustive, indeed excessive, detail in Chasing the Flame by the almost equally brilliant and charismatic American political academic Samantha Power, was the most flamboyantly unforgettable of that select breed. A soixante-huitard who got his first taste of violence as a student revolutionary manning the Paris barricades, he came to the UN pretty much by chance in 1969 when his immersion in Marxist philosophy – a lifelong fascination which later resulted in an impenetrable doctorat d’État on “the significance of supranationality” – was interrupted by the sordidly bourgeois necessity of earning his keep. His diplomat father had been sacked by the Brazilian junta, for reasons which possibly included a fondness, soon acquired by his son, for Johnny Walker whisky.
more from the TLS here.
Aretha. Deep buter dipt, burnt pot liquor, twisted sugar cane,
Vaselined knock knees clacking extraordinary gospel.
hustling toward the promised land in 4/4 time, Aretha.
Greased and glowing awash in limelight, satisfied moan
'neath the spotlight, turning ample ass toward midnight,
she the it's-all-good goddess of warm cornbread
and bumped buttermilk, know jesus by his first name.
carried his gospel low and democratic in rollicking brownships,
sang His drooping corpse down from that ragged wooden T,
dressed Him up in something shiny, conked that Holy head of hair,
then Aretha rustled up bus fare and took the deity downtown.
They coaxed the DJ and slid electric untill the lights slammed on,
she taught Him dirty nicknames for His father's handiwork.
She was young then, thin and aching, her heartbox shut tight.
So Jesus blessed her, He opened her throat and taught her
to wail that way she do, she do wail that way don't she
do that wail the way she do wail that way, don't she?
Now every time 'retha unreel that screech, sang Delta
cut through hurting to glimpse been-done-wrong bone,
a born-again brother called the Holy Ghost creeps through that.
and that, for all you still lookin', is religion.
Dare you question her several shoulders, the soft stairsteps
of flesh leading to her shaking chins, the steel bones
of a corseted frock eating into bubbling sides,
zipper track etched into skin,
all those faint scars,
those lovesore battle wounds?
Ain't your mama never told you
how black women collect the world,
build other bodies onto their own?
No earthly man knows the solution to our hips,
asses urgent as sirens,
titties familiar as everybody's mama
crisscrossed with pulled roads of blood.
Ask us why we pray with our dancin' shoes on, why we
grow fat away from everyone and toward each other.
Why we should love logarithms
I'd never have guessed, in the days when I used to paw through my grubby book of logarithms in maths classes, that I'd come to look back with fondness on these tables of cryptic decimals. In those days the most basic of electronic calculators was the size of a laptop and about as expensive in real terms, so books of logarithms were the quickest way to multiply large numbers. Of course, logarithms remain central to any advanced study of mathematics. But as they are no longer a practical arithmetic tool, one can’t now assume general familiarity with them. And so, countless popular science books contain potted guides to using exponential notation and interpreting logarithmic axes on graphs. Why do they need to do this? Because logarithmic scaling is the natural system for magnitudes of quantities in the sciences.
That's why a new claim that logarithmic mapping of numbers is the natural, intuitive scheme for humans rings true. Stanislas Dehaene of the Federative Institute of Research in Gif-sur-Yvette, France, and his co-workers report in Science 1 that both adults and children of an Amazonian tribe called the Mundurucu, who have had almost no exposure to the linear counting scale of the industrialized world, judge magnitudes on a logarithmic basis.
Kevin James Magic
[Thanks to S. Javed Raza.]
David Byrne’s New Band, With Architectural Solos
From The New York Times:
THE symphony of Manhattan Island, composed and performed fortissimo daily by garbage trucks, car speakers, I-beam bolters, bus brakes, warped manhole covers, knocking radiators, people yelling from high windows and the blaring television that now greets you in the back of a taxi, is the kind of music people would pay good money to be able to silence, if only there were a switch.
The other day, in a paint-peeling hangar of a room at the foot of the island, David Byrne, the artist and musician, placed his finger on a switch that did exactly the opposite: it made such music on purpose. The switch was a white key on the bass end of a beat-up Weaver pump organ that was practically the only thing sitting inside the old Great Hall of the Battery Maritime Building, a 99-year-old former ferry terminal at the end of Whitehall Street that has sat mostly dormant for more than a half-century.
The organ’s innards had been replaced with relays and wires and light blue air hoses. And when the key was pressed, a 110-volt motor strapped to a girder high up in the room’s ceiling began to vibrate, essentially playing the girder and producing a deafening low hum — like one of the tuba tones played by the mother ship in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Or, if you were less charitably inclined, like a truck on Canal Street with a loose muffler. Mr. Byrne ran his fingers up the keyboard, causing more hums and whines, moans and plunks and clinks until he came to a key that seemed to do nothing.
Meera Subramanian in Science & Spirit:
When Nargis Baria died at the age of eighty-five in Mumbai, India, her only child, a daughter named Dhun, initiated the death rituals of their Zoroastrian faith. Her mother's body was dressed in white, prayers whispered in her ear, and after three days a summoned dog's dismissal indicated that the spirit had moved on. It was time for the nassesalars, or pallbearers, to carry the body to the Towers of Silence, circular structures of stone located on fifty-seven, park-like acres in the heart of Mumbai, surrounded by the upscale high rises of Malabar Hill. They removed her clothing and placed her body in the middle of three concentric circles, one each for women, men and children. At the center was a well where the bones, the last of the last remains of a human body, would be swept in a few days time.
All the proper components of dokhmenashini, the Zoroastrian method of handling their dead, were in place, but the vultures that once completed the cycle by scavenging an exposed corpse in less than five minutes were missing. The custom, so ancient it was described by Herodotus 2,500 years ago, has come to an abrupt end in the past decade, as the vulture population of South Asia has plummeted. In addition to playing a crucial role in processing the human cadavers of this small religious group, vultures filled a vital ecological niche as scavengers of the dead and decaying matter that litters India's countryside. Now everything has changed, and religious scholars and scientists alike are trying to make sense of the shift.
Unplanned Freefall? Some Survival Tips
David Carkeet at GreenHarbor.com:
Admit it: You want to be the sole survivor of an airline disaster. You aren't looking for a disaster to happen, but if it does, you see yourself coming through it. I'm here to tell you that you're not out of touch with reality—you can do it. Sure, you'll take a few hits, and I'm not saying there won't be some sweaty flashbacks later on, but you'll make it. You'll sit up in your hospital bed and meet the press. Refreshingly, you will keep God out of your public comments, knowing that it's unfair to sing His praises when all of your dead fellow-passengers have no platform from which to offer an alternative view.
Let's say your jet blows apart at 35,000 feet. You exit the aircraft, and you begin to descend independently. Now what?
First of all, you're starting off a full mile higher than Everest, so after a few gulps of disappointing air you're going to black out. This is not a bad thing. If you have ever tried to keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, you know what I mean. This brief respite from the ambient fear and chaos will come to an end when you wake up at about 15,000 feet. Here begins the final phase of your descent, which will last about a minute. It is a time of planning and preparation. Look around you. What equipment is available? None? Are you sure? Look carefully.
May 29, 2008
Questioning the Sources of and Response to Global Warming
Many of the skeptics are passionate environmentalists. They are horrified to see the obsession with global warming distracting public attention from what they see as more serious and more immediate dangers to the planet, including problems of nuclear weaponry, environmental degradation, and social injustice. Whether they turn out to be right or wrong, their arguments on these issues deserve to be heard.
That's Freeman Dyson in the NYRB, where he reviews some new books on the topic and offers a different view:
[William Nordhaus] writes that "no such technology presently exists, and we can only speculate on it." The "low-cost backstop" policy is displayed in his tables as an abstract possibility without any details. It is nowhere emphasized as a practical solution to the problem of climate change.
At this point I return to the Keeling graph, which demonstrates the strong coupling between atmosphere and plants. The wiggles in the graph show us that every carbon dioxide molecule in the atmosphere is incorporated in a plant within a time of the order of twelve years. Therefore, if we can control what the plants do with the carbon, the fate of the carbon in the atmosphere is in our hands. That is what Nordhaus meant when he mentioned "genetically engineered carbon-eating trees" as a low-cost backstop to global warming. The science and technology of genetic engineering are not yet ripe for large-scale use. We do not understand the language of the genome well enough to read and write it fluently. But the science is advancing rapidly, and the technology of reading and writing genomes is advancing even more rapidly. I consider it likely that we shall have "genetically engineered carbon-eating trees" within twenty years, and almost certainly within fifty years.
The Forgetting of The Great War and Its Consequences
Edward G. Lengel in The Washington Post:
As we observe Memorial Day, a hard truth remains: Americans haven't forgotten about the doughboys [of WWi or 'The Great War']. We just didn't want to hear about them in the first place. The war's last and greatest battle involving U.S. soldiers, fought in the Meuse-Argonne region of eastern France during the autumn of 1918, sucked in more than 1 million U.S. troops and hundreds of airplanes and tanks. Artillery batteries commanded by men such as the young Harry S. Truman fired more than 4 million shells -- more than the Union Army fired during the entire Civil War. More than 26,000 doughboys were killed and almost 100,000 wounded, making the clash probably the bloodiest single battle in U.S. history. But as far as the American public was concerned, it might as well never have taken place. "Veterans said to me in their speeches and in private that the American people did not know anything about the Meuse-Argonne battle," Brig. Gen. Dennis Nolan wrote years later. "I have never understood why."
Back then, civilians justified their indifference by claiming that the veterans refused to share their stories. In reality, the ignorance was self-imposed.
Over at Crooked Timber, John Quiggin offers some thoughts (see also interesting discussion following the post).
[I]n the long run, the absence of this most bloodily futile of wars from historical memory has been a huge boon to the war party. With a historical memory of war dominated by the “Good War” against Hitler and the Axis, it’s unsurprising that Americans have been much more willing than the citizens of other democratic societies to accept war as part of the natural order of things.
In Europe by contrast, the Great War and its consequences are still ever-present, and the Second World War is correctly seen as the inevitable product of the First.
After Many Years, A New but Nastier Round of V. S. Naipaul vs. Derek Walcott
Daniel Trilling reports on Derek Walcott's salvos against V. S. Naipaul, in The New Statesman:
The setting of the Calabash International Literary Festival in Jamaica was idyllic, the content less so. On the second day, the Nobel Prize-winning Caribbean poet Derek Walcott premiered a stinging attack in verse on his contemporary (and fellow Nobel laureate), the Trinidadian-born novelist V S Naipaul.
"I'm going to be nasty," announced Walcott at the end of an enthusiastically received reading session, and proceeded to read "The Mongoose", a long, vituperative poem which opened with the couplet: "I have been bitten. I must avoid infection/Or else I'll be as dead as Naipaul's fiction."
The poem launches a savagely humorous demolition of Naipaul's later novels Half a Life and Magic Seeds: "The plots are forced, the prose sedate and silly/The anti-hero is a prick named Willie." Further on, Walcott expresses disbelief that this latter-day Naipaul can be the same author as the one who wrote the masterpiece A House for Mr Biswas.
The motivation for this attack seems to be a mix of the personal and the political. Walcott criticises newspaper editors for indulging Naipaul's controversial public persona.
Here is an extract from Walcott's poem, "The Mongoose":
So the old mongoose, still making good money
Is a burnt out comic, predictable, unfunny
The joy of supplements, his minstrel act
Delighting editors endorsing facts
Over fiction, tearing colleagues and betters
To pieces in the name of English letters
The feathers fly, the snow comes drifting down
The mongoose keeps its class act as a clown
It can do cartwheels of exaggeration
Mostly it snivels, proud of being Asian
Of being attached to nothing, race or nation
It would be just as if a corpse took pride in its decay
Monkeys Think, Moving Artificial Arm as Own
From The New York Times:
Two monkeys with tiny sensors in their brains have learned to control a mechanical arm with just their thoughts, using it to reach for and grab food and even to adjust for the size and stickiness of morsels when necessary, scientists reported on Wednesday. The report, released online by the journal Nature, is the most striking demonstration to date of brain-machine interface technology. Scientists expect that technology will eventually allow people with spinal cord injuries and other paralyzing conditions to gain more control over their lives. The findings suggest that brain-controlled prosthetics, while not practical, are at least technically within reach.
In previous studies, researchers showed that humans who had been paralyzed for years could learn to control a cursor on a computer screen with their brain waves and that nonhuman primates could use their thoughts to move a mechanical arm, a robotic hand or a robot on a treadmill. The new experiment goes a step further. In it, the monkeys’ brains seem to have adopted the mechanical appendage as their own, refining its movement as it interacted with real objects in real time. The monkeys had their own arms gently restrained while they learned to use the added one.
Geniuses and the Men Hidden Inside Them
Eric Ormsby reviews Einstein & Oppenheimer: The Meaning of Genius by Silvan Schweber, in The New York Sun:
In four photographs of Albert Einstein, taken over a 30-year span between 1911 and 1942 and reproduced in Silvan Schweber's "Einstein & Oppenheimer: The Meaning of Genius" (Harvard, 432 pages, $29.95), he positions himself, whether in a group or alone, so that his left hand is caught by the camera. He holds that hand in a distinctive gesture, with his thumb and forefinger joined to form a little ellipse. Though he tends to face away from the camera, as though indifferent to appearances, he is clearly at pains to keep that left hand visible. The gesture is as much a signal as a symbol.
In "Einstein & Oppenheimer," his unusual exercise in comparative biography, Mr. Schweber, an emeritus professor of physics and the history of ideas at Brandeis, explains that Einstein adopted the gesture from Hindu and Buddhist practices. Both the Hindu god Vishnu and the Buddha himself are often portrayed with their left hands in this posture; known in Sanskrit as the vitarka gesture, it represents "compassionate teaching" as well as, for Buddhists, the union of wisdom and method. In Einstein's case, it serves as a sign not of the public figure he had become but of the man hidden within.
Joshua Klein: The amazing intelligence of crows
A monosyllabic European called Sax
Invents a horn, walla whirledy wah, a kind of twisted
Brazen clarinet, but with its column of vibrating
Air shaped not in a cylinder but in a cone
Widening ever outward and bawaah spouting
Infinitely upward through an upturned
Swollen golden bell rimmed
Like a gloxinia flowering
In Sax's Belgian imagination
And in the unfathomable matrix
Of mothers and fathers as a genius graven
Humming into the cells of the body
Or cupped in the resonating grail
Of memory changed and exchanged
As in the trading of brasses,
Pearls and ivory, calicos and slaves,
Laborers and girls, two
Cousins in a royal family
Of Niger known as the Birds or Hawks.
In Christendom one cousin's child
Becomes a "favorite negro" ennobled
By decree of the Czar and founds
A great family, a line of generals,
Dandies and courtiers including the poet
Pushkin, killed in a duel concerning
His wife's honor, while the other cousin sails
In the belly of a slaveship to the port
Of Baltimore where she is raped
And dies in childbirth, but the infant
Will marry a Seminole and in the next
Chorus of time their child fathers
A great Hawk or Bird, with many followers
Among them this great-grandchild of the Jewish
Manager of a Pushkin estate, blowing
His American breath out into the wiggly
Tune uncurling its triplets and sixteenths--the Ginza
Samba of breath and brass, the reed
Vibrating as a valve, the aether, the unimaginable
Wires and circuits of an ingenious box
Here in my room in this house built
A hundred years ago while I was elsewhere:
It is like falling in love, the atavistic
Imperative of some one
Voice or face--the skill, the copper filament,
The golden bellful of notes twirling through
Their invisible element from
Rio to Tokyo and back again gathering
Speed in the variations as they tunnel
The twin haunted labyrinths of stirrup
And anvil echoing here in the hearkening
Instrument of my skull.
Genome Institute Chief to Step Down
Francis Collins, the physician-scientist perhaps best known for piloting the human genome project, is stepping down as director of the U.S. National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) in Bethesda, Maryland. Collins said today that he will leave on 1 August to write a book and explore other opportunities, which might include getting involved in the presidential campaign or taking a nonprofit position.
Collins, 58, took the helm of the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) NHGRI in 1993 as it was gearing up to sequence the human genome, then a controversial $3 billion proposal. The quest heated up when a private company, Celera, jumped in, spurring fierce competition. Both public and private efforts published a rough draft in 2001 and the full sequence was completed in 2003. Under Collins, the institute also advanced the sequencing of the genomes of many model organisms, from yeast to the platypus, that have spurred the study of evolution at a molecular level. Collins championed the public sharing of genome data and pushed for legislation to protect people against discrimination based on their genes. A law codifying that protection was signed by President George W. Bush last week. Collins told reporters today that his time at NIH has been "marvelous," despite the recent slump in the NIH budget, which he says has made it "much tougher." However, his reasons for leaving have nothing to do with NIH leadership or budget; he says that it is simply the fact that "the time seems right" to explore job possibilities with more freedom than if he were still in a federal position.
Rauschenberg's fascination with the objects of the world
Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:
The simplest way to explain what Rauschenberg did is to say that he made the canvas three-dimensional and worldly. Or to put it another way, he thought of the canvas as something you could walk inside and inhabit. There’s a famous quote that has come to define Rauschenberg’s practice. It goes, “I operate in the gap between art and life.”
There’s a piece by Robert Rauschenberg that now lives at the MoMA. It’s called “Bed” (1955). It isn’t exactly a painting and it isn’t exactly a bed. There are bed elements — an actual sheet, a pillow, a quilt. Rumor has it that these bed elements were once the very things that Rauschenberg slept on. But there are painting elements as well. First of all, it is framed and up on the wall. Secondly, there’s the paint, smeared and splattered mostly around the top half of the work.
Arthur Danto, the art critic for The Nation, makes an insightful point about these early works (Rauschenberg called them Combines). He notes that Rauschenberg felt a need to arrange a bunch of objects and then to throw paint over them. It is as if he is still under the thrall of paint, convinced that it is the paint itself that is making the difference between art and not-art. But he’s also trying to cure himself, and by extension the art world dominated by painterly Modernism, of this addiction. Slowly he realized that he didn’t need the paint at all. He became indifferent to its authority. Even when he came back to paint and painting throughout his career, he did so as a free man.
'My daughter deserved to die for falling in love'
Reading this made me nauseous. Afif Sarhan and Caroline Davies in The Observer:
For Abdel-Qader Ali there is only one regret: that he did not kill his daughter at birth. 'If I had realised then what she would become, I would have killed her the instant her mother delivered her,' he said with no trace of remorse.
Two weeks after The Observer revealed the shocking story of Rand Abdel-Qader, 17, murdered because of her infatuation with a British soldier in Basra, southern Iraq, her father is defiant. Sitting in the front garden of his well-kept home in the city's Al-Fursi district, he remains a free man, despite having stamped on, suffocated and then stabbed his student daughter to death.
Abdel-Qader, 46, a government employee, was initially arrested but released after two hours. Astonishingly, he said, police congratulated him on what he had done. 'They are men and know what honour is,' he said.
Rand, who was studying English at Basra University, was deemed to have brought shame on her family after becoming infatuated with a British soldier, 22, known only as Paul.
She died a virgin, according to her closest friend Zeinab. Indeed, her 'relationship' with Paul, which began when she worked as a volunteer helping displaced families and he was distributing water, appears to have consisted of snatched conversations over less than four months.
More here. [Thanks to Akbi Khan.]
May 28, 2008
Tricking the Tongue
“You pop it in your mouth and scrape the pulp off the seed, swirl it around and hold it in your mouth for about a minute,” he said. “Then you’re ready to go.” He ushered his guests to a table piled with citrus wedges, cheeses, Brussels sprouts, mustard, vinegars, pickles, dark beers, strawberries and cheap tequila, which Mr. Aliquo promised would now taste like top-shelf Patrón.
The miracle fruit, Synsepalum dulcificum, is native to West Africa and has been known to Westerners since the 18th century. The cause of the reaction is a protein called miraculin, which binds with the taste buds and acts as a sweetness inducer when it comes in contact with acids, according to a scientist who has studied the fruit, Linda Bartoshuk at the University of Florida’s Center for Smell and Taste. Dr. Bartoshuk said she did not know of any dangers associated with eating miracle fruit.
During the 1970s, a ruling by the Food and Drug Administration dashed hopes that an extract of miraculin could be sold as a sugar substitute. In the absence of any plausible commercial application, the miracle fruit has acquired a bit of a cult following.
Scratching the Surface: Five claycourt myths
Our own Asad Raza in Tennis magazine:
The claycourt season has reached its championship round: the French Open. As most in the world of tennis begin their capaigns at Roland Garros, it's a good time to investigate some of the myths surrounding la terre battue.
No. 1: Claycourt tennis is for claycourt "specialists," who disappear once the game switches to the grass of Wimbledon and the hardcourts of the U.S. Open Series.
This, more than any other long-held belief about the red stuff, is now a myth. Rafael Nadal, the dominant clay player of this--and perhaps any--era, has singlehandedly destroyed this perception by appearing in the last two Wimbledon finals. The world's second-best clay player, Roger Federer, also happens to have won the last five Wimbledons and four U.S. Opens.
Beyond them, the next three highest-ranked men's players in the world--Novak Djokovic, Nikolay Davydenko, and David Ferrer--are excellent clay-court players as well. And in women's tennis, the surface specialization that once beset men's tennis doesn't exist: the best player of the last year, recently retired Justine Henin, won four of the last five French Opens.
For today's top players, prowess on clay is the norm, not the exception.
No. 2: Playing on clay means attacking players must change their tactics.
Djokovic, Davydenko, Andy Roddick, and others in Rome were asked how they adapted their games from hardcourts to red clay. Not a single one said making they made tactical changes, other than the occasional dropshot: instead, all mentioned increased patience and wiser shot selection.
At a 2007 Guggenheim panel, Richard Prince declared, “It was my job to, kind of, shoot the sheriff,” presumably implying that he was the slayer of photography, unmasking the grammar of images. But these aesthetic elements were caught in a crossfire in the seventies; what happened wasn’t the work of a lone gunman, and one of the sharpest shooters of all was Louise Lawler.
A saboteur in the house of art and a comedienne in the house of art theory, Lawler has spent three decades documenting the secret life of art. Functioning as a kind of one-woman CSI unit, she has photographed pictures and objects in collectors’ homes, in galleries, on the walls of auction houses, and off the walls, in museum storage. All the while, she’s revealed how the installation of artworks is never neutral. Lawler photographed Jasper Johns’s White Flag hanging over a collector’s bed, Jeff Koons’s $80 million Rabbit near someone’s refrigerator, a woman casually gesturing with a Picasso sculpture in hand, a Gerhard Richter nude resting on its side on a museum floor, and Warhols galore in auction houses, art fairs, apartments, and galleries.
more from New York Magazine here.
adorno: latter-day Melanchthon
Throughout his productive life, Adorno sought to mobilize the powers of aesthetic negation against the hypocrisies of bourgeois rectitude. In this respect, his studies during the early ’20s with the Vienna School’s Alban Berg proved to be of lasting value. Like his teacher Schoenberg, Berg was an exponent of atonality. In Adorno’s view, dissonance alone, and not pleasing harmony, gave the lie to modern society’s illusions of fulfillment and wholeness. It is no small irony, then, to observe that on his return to Germany, Adorno became a vigorous advocate of Enlightenment. These were the values that, during their twelve-year reign of terror, the Nazis had destroyed. (Goebbels once observed that with Hitler’s accession to power, the year 1789 had been effaced from history.) In pathbreaking essays such as “Education Toward Maturity and Responsibility” and “Education After Auschwitz,” Adorno repeatedly advocated the Kantian precept of moral autonomy. He realized that only by nurturing the values of autonomous citizenship could one effectively guard against the dangers of a totalitarian relapse: “The single genuine power standing against the principle of Auschwitz is autonomy, if I might use the Kantian expression: the power of reflection, of self-determination, of not cooperating.” In his conduct and activities as a critical intellectual, Adorno, to his credit, realized that Nazism’s success in Germany was the result of failed, rather than excessive, Enlightenment. Only by reversing the standpoint of Dialectic of Enlightenment—i.e., the radical Nietzschean critique of Enlightenment that the book embraced—did Adorno succeed during the ’50s and ’60s in becoming a latter-day Melancthon: a Praeceptor Germaniae.
more from Bookforum here.
a new kind of history
UNTIL RECENTLY, IF you were a historian and you wanted to write a fresh account of, say, the Battle of Leyte Gulf in World War II, research was a pretty straightforward business. You would pack your bags and head to the National Archives, and spend months looking for something new in the official combat reports.
Today, however, you might first do something very different: Get online and pull up any of the unofficial websites of the ships that participated in the battle - the USS Pennsylvania, for example, or the USS Washington. Lovingly maintained by former crew members and their descendants, these sites are sprawling, loosely organized repositories of photographs, personal recollections, transcribed log books, and miniature biographies of virtually every person who served on board the ship. Some of these sites even include contact information for surviving crew members and their relatives - perfect for tracking down new diaries, photographs, and letters.
Online gathering spots like these represent a potentially radical change to historical research, a craft that has changed little for decades, if not centuries.
more from Boston Globe Ideas here.
A Blind Woman
She had turned her face up into
a rain of light, and came on smiling.
The light trickled down her forehead
and into her eyes. It ran down
into the neck of her sweatshirt
and wet the white tops of her breasts.
Her brown shoes splashed on
into the light. The moment was like
a circus wagon rolling before her
through puddles of light, a cage on wheels,
and she walked fast behind it,
exuberant, curious, pushing her cane
through the bars, poking and prodding,
while the world cowered back in a corner
The Red Pill: 10 Films Guaranteed To Blow Your Mind
Ian MacKenzie in Brave New Traveler:
My English teacher once told me that good short stories were the ones that spoke to universal truths.
These were the stories that go beyond mere characters and their antics through an imaginary universe. They offer an insight into the human condition: what is life? what is truth? what is reality?
The same could be said for memorable films. Only films convey their meaning in a more sensory way - using both audio and visual elements to enter the mind of the viewer.
And perhaps even shift your perspective.
The following 10 films are chosen because they shed light on the forces at work within our lives, this very moment. They use satire and metaphor to approach the truths that would otherwise be too difficult to understand, or too terrifying to comprehend.
Most of all, these films challenge you to wake up.
The Rebellion Within
From The New Yorker:
Last May, a fax arrived at the London office of the Arabic newspaper Asharq Al Awsat from a shadowy figure in the radical Islamist movement who went by many names. Born Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, he was the former leader of the Egyptian terrorist group Al Jihad, and known to those in the underground mainly as Dr. Fadl. Members of Al Jihad became part of the original core of Al Qaeda; among them was Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s chief lieutenant. Fadl was one of the first members of Al Qaeda’s top council. Twenty years ago, he wrote two of the most important books in modern Islamist discourse; Al Qaeda used them to indoctrinate recruits and justify killing. Now Fadl was announcing a new book, rejecting Al Qaeda’s violence. “We are prohibited from committing aggression, even if the enemies of Islam do that,” Fadl wrote in his fax, which was sent from Tora Prison, in Egypt.
Fadl’s fax confirmed rumors that imprisoned leaders of Al Jihad were part of a trend in which former terrorists renounced violence. His defection posed a terrible threat to the radical Islamists, because he directly challenged their authority. “There is a form of obedience that is greater than the obedience accorded to any leader, namely, obedience to God and His Messenger,” Fadl wrote, claiming that hundreds of Egyptian jihadists from various factions had endorsed his position.
Phoenix Descends Onto a Strange Land
The countdown was excruciating: 7 minutes to landing--or annihilation. "Altitude 2000 meters." Falling at more than 200 kilometers per hour with its parachute open, the $420 million Phoenix lander plummeted toward the martian surface. "One thousand meters. Lander separation detected." One hurdle cleared, but Phoenix's ill-fated predecessor, Mars Polar Lander (MPL), had passed that one too. "Five hundred meters, 400, 250, ... 80, ... 40." Thrusters now blazing, Phoenix was slowing, but MPL had messed up at just this point, prematurely cutting off its thrusters while still 40 meters up, obliterating itself on red terrain. "Thirty meters, 27, 20, 16, ... touchdown signal detected." Cheers and applause erupted at mission control. "The Phoenix has landed! The Phoenix has landed!"
"Our 7 minutes of terror is going to be followed by 3 months of joy," Phoenix project manager Barry Goldstein of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said at a press briefing yesterday, the day after the landing.
Although the landing was gratifying, it wasn't quite a perfect 10. Phoenix nearly overshot its targeted landing ellipse, coming down on the edge of the 60-kilometer-long target zone near its far end. That was because, for reasons yet to be determined, its parachute detached 7 seconds later than planned. But the craft still found exactly what scientists had spent years looking for: a parcel of land that is as flat as a tabletop, a rock-littered vista with only a handful of mission-ending boulders in sight, and a crinkling of the surface at the landing site that speaks of the much-sought-after ice just beneath the surface.
The one real surprise in the early hours of the mission came from the icy crinkling, says Phoenix team member Raymond Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. From orbit, the surface of the northern polar landing area appears to have a crazy-quilt patterning. Seasonal temperature cycling creates this "polygonal" design through the expansion and contraction of unseen ice just below the soil surface. Given the average polygon size of 5 meters seen from orbit, researchers had inferred a depth to the ice of about 5 centimeters. But from the landed Phoenix, smaller polygons are evident as well, perhaps 2 to 3 meters in size. That means that the area could be colder--or the ice dirtier or shallower--than expected, says Arvidson.
Mark Bittman: What's wrong with what we eat
Gimme that Old-Time Irreligion
Norman Levitt in Skeptic:
The very first thing I did in drafting this review was to Google Chester Alan Arthur. I trust my readers will recall the name, if only after a bit of head-scratching, as that of one of the most obscure and unmemorable of American presidents, a run-of-the-mill New York politician who attained to the highest office in the land by virtue of the assassination of his almost equally obscure predecessor, James A. Garfield, who picked the party wheel-horse Arthur as his running mate for reasons now totally forgotten.
What has this to do with John A. Paulos’s recent book Irreligion? It is well known, of course, that some our most eminent presidents—Jefferson, Lincoln, Madison—spurned orthodoxy in religious matters, even to the point of—to use Paulos’s convenient title—irreligion. This, of course, is sufficiently embarrassing to our fundamentalist ayatollahs that they have been furiously rewriting history, chiseling away at the facts with all the fury of the restored priests of Amun hacking off Nefertiti’s heretical nose. What interested me more, however, was the question of whether disdain for religion was purely the province of politicians who where gifted intellectuals as well, or whether it was at one point so widespread and socially acceptable that even routine mediocrities, hacks, and tub-thumpers could espouse such views without being banished from public life and high office.
Ten years later
Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy in Dawn:
It's May 1998 and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif congratulates wildly cheering citizens as the Chagai mountain trembles and goes white from multiple nuclear explosions. He declares that Pakistan is now safe and sound forever.
Bomb makers become national heroes. Schoolchildren are handed free badges with mushroom clouds. Bomb and missile replicas are planted in cities up and down the land. Welcome to nuclear Pakistan.
Fast-forward the video 10 years. Pakistan turns into a different country, deeply insecure and afraid for its future. Grim-faced citizens see machine-gun bunkers, soldiers crouched behind sandbags, barbed wire and barricaded streets. In Balochistan and Fata, helicopter gunships and fighter jets swarm the skies.
Today, we are at war on multiple fronts. But the bomb provides no defence. Rather, it has helped bring us to this grievously troubled situation and offers no way out. On this awful anniversary, it is important that we relate the present to the past.
More here. [Scroll down.]
May 27, 2008
This is cool:
A couple of weeks ago -- May 14, to be exact -- a Swiss man named Yves Rossy (a.k.a., "Fusion Man") made headlines (and secured a little piece of history) when he strapped on an 8-foot jet-powered wing and leaped from an airplane, soaring over the Alps. Rossy spent years developing his device, and successfully flew the first jet-powered wing in November 2006. There's been a smattering of R&D on jet packs to propel human beings dating as far back as World War II; Rossy's invention is the first to combine a jet pack with actual wings.
It's been a big month for would-be aviators. In April, another Swiss man -- what is it with the Swiss these days? -- jumped from a hovering helicopter and floated to earth using a pyramid-shaped parachute he built himself, based on a design by Leonardo da Vinci. Olivier Vietti-Teppa found the specifications in a da Vinci text dating back to 1485: four equilateral triangles, seven meters on each side, that Vietti-Teppi made from modern parachute fabric, using a square of mosquito netting at the base of the pyramid. Furthermore, later this year, Red Bull will hold three "flugtag" competitions in the US -- Tampa Bay, FL, in July, Portland, OR, in August, and Chicago in September -- whereby aspiring aviators build their own flying machines and then push them off a 30-foot platform (deliberately built over water) to see how far -- or if -- they can fly. Most drop like a stone into the water, but generally, a good time is had by all. And some of the whimsical designs can be a lot of fun; there have been machines shaped like Homer Simpson, a pimped-out Cadillac, a giant Oompah-Loompah, and even a big red lobster named Larry. (For those not inclined to build their own machines, there's now an online game.)
Almost as long as mankind has been sentient, I'd wager we've been trying to find some means to fly, with more than a few casualties along the way.
Does Art Redeem Religion?
I've never understood why if you respect, love, or admire X, you have to respect, love, or admire the conditions of its origin, or more narrowly, what inspired its creation. My appreciation of Kipling does not commit me to an appreciation of British colonialism, for example. Tracy Quan makes this strange argument with respect to religion over at Comment is Free:
If you champion the splendors and benefits of Western culture, while claiming to oppose religion entirely, you are, metaphorically speaking, tone deaf.
Whether your preference is Bach, Britten, Palestrina, Kanye West or Earth, Wind and Fire, you'll find some aspect of Christianity in the details. But reggae - such as The Melodians doing Rivers of Babylon, based on a psalm of the exiled Jews - can't easily be separated from religion, either. Run from religion, if you must, but you can't hide from song, sculpture, poetry, architecture, painting, tourism or food.
Given that the influence of religion over the centuries has made them what they are, I can't help seeing something crude in the impulse for some to bash it. As a "cafeteria" atheist and secular Catholic, I don't share that impulse. Religion has given us some rather fabulous architecture, a lot of excellent paintings, a variety of head coverings - from yarmulkes through wimples, veils and turbans - which I , for one, find fascinating.
10 optical illusions in 2 minutes
Iron Man and American Imperialism
Spencer Ackerman in the American Prospect:
[T]he lessons of Vietnam sunk in on the comics juggernaut. Perhaps the idea that all the United States had to do was build bigger gadgets of disaster to use on a complicated world was hopelessly flawed. Perhaps Iron Man was symptomatic of the rot. Perhaps, by holding up a mirror to U.S. policies, Iron Man could become a vehicle for cleansing the country of its Cold War hang-ups. Marvel set to work reworking the character and its themes.
A problem confronted the company, though. Iron Man is a superhero. Cold-War product or not, Marvel couldn't very well turn him into a villain. Writers in the 1970s and 1980s solved the problem in two creative ways. First, the comic adopted the New Left's structural critique of Vietnam -- the war was the inevitable product of a systemic belief in unrestricted capitalism, American exceptionalism, and racism -- by making Stark Industries an enemy of poor Tony Stark, who had unleashed malevolent forces he couldn't control. Thus Iron Man's nemesis became a black-mirror version of himself: the ruthless metal juggernaut (another metal-suit weapon) subtly named Iron Monger, controlled by rival defense-industry bloodsucker Obadiah Stane. More cleverly, Stark's best friend Jim Rhodes became a second Iron Man -- but one sent into a paranoid frenzy of destruction by the armor's inability to interface properly with his brain. Rhodes's secret identity? War Machine.
The second way Marvel subtly readjusted Iron Man for America's post-Vietnam sensibilities was to reveal that the reason Stark could control neither his company nor his relationships was that he couldn't control himself.
Columbia University Press White Sale
From the CUP website:
Sale ends May 31st.
Doughnut-shaped Universe bites back
The idea that the universe is finite and relatively small, rather than infinitely large, first became popular in 2003, when cosmologists noticed unexpected patterns in the cosmic microwave background (CMB) – the relic radiation left behind by the Big Bang. The CMB is made up of hot and cold spots that represent ripples in the density of the infant Universe, like waves in the sea. An infinite Universe should contain waves of all sizes, but cosmologists were surprised to find that longer wavelengths were missing from measurements of the CMB made by NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe.
One explanation for the missing waves was that the universe is finite. “You can think of the Universe as a musical instrument - it cannot sustain vibrations that have a wavelength that is bigger than the length of the instrument itself,” explains Frank Steiner, a physicist at Ulm University in Germany. Cosmologists have suggested various 'wrap-around' shapes for the Universe: it might be shaped like a football or even a weird 'doughnut'. In each case, the Universe would appear to be infinite, because you would never physically reach its edge - if you travelled far enough in any direction you would end up back where you started, just as if you were circumnavigating the globe.
The Painter from Shanghai
Sarah Towers in the New York Times Book Review:
In this age of memoir and thinly veiled autobiographical fiction, writers who take high dives into deeply imagined waters have become increasingly rare — and valuable. What a pleasure, then, to discover that Jennifer Cody Epstein, whose luminous first novel, “The Painter From Shanghai,” is based on the actual life of Pan Yuliang, a former child prostitute turned celebrated painter, also happens to be one such writer.
It doesn’t hurt that Yuliang’s life — buffeted by the seismic cultural and political shifts in China during the first half of the 20th century — makes for an irresistible story: born in 1895 and orphaned as a child, Yuliang was sold into sexual slavery at 14 by her opium-addicted uncle. After seven years in the brothel, she was bought out by Pan Zanhua, a progressive official who made her his concubine, then his second wife, and encouraged her painting. One of a handful of women accepted into the Shanghai Art School, she went on to win fellowships for study in Paris and Rome. After several years abroad, she returned to China, where success and scandal — thanks to her Western-influenced nude self-portraits — followed. In 1937, with Shanghai and Nanking under bloody assault by the Japanese, Yuliang fled China for good, settling alone in Paris, where she died, impoverished, in 1977.
More here. You can read an interview with Jennifer Cody Epstein here. Her official website, with a lot more information, is here. And you can look at some paintings by Yuliang here. We are happy that Jennifer will right a guest column at 3QD soon.
Curriculum Designed to Unite Art and Science
Natalie Angier in The New York Times:
It’s been some 50 years since the physicist-turned-novelist C.P. Snow delivered his famous “Two Cultures” lecture at the University of Cambridge, in which he decried the “gulf of mutual incomprehension,” the “hostility and dislike” that divided the world’s “natural scientists,” its chemists, engineers, physicists and biologists, from its “literary intellectuals,” a group that, by Snow’s reckoning, included pretty much everyone who wasn’t a scientist. His critique set off a frenzy of hand-wringing that continues to this day, particularly in the United States, as educators, policymakers and other observers bemoan the Balkanization of knowledge, the scientific illiteracy of the general public and the chronic academic turf wars that are all too easily lampooned.
Yet a few scholars of thick dermis and pep-rally vigor believe that the cultural chasm can be bridged and the sciences and the humanities united into a powerful new discipline that would apply the strengths of both mindsets, the quantitative and qualitative, to a wide array of problems. Among the most ambitious of these exercises in fusion thinking is a program under development at Binghamton University in New York called the New Humanities Initiative.
Jointly conceived by David Sloan Wilson, a professor of biology, and Leslie Heywood, a professor of English, the program is intended to build on some of the themes explored in Dr. Wilson’s evolutionary studies program, which has proved enormously popular with science and nonscience majors alike, and which he describes in the recently published “Evolution for Everybody.” In Dr. Wilson’s view, evolutionary biology is a discipline that, to be done right, demands a crossover approach, the capacity to think in narrative and abstract terms simultaneously, so why not use it as a template for emulsifying the two cultures generally?
US academic deported and banned for criticising Israel
Toni O'Loughlin in The Guardian:
Finkelstein, the son of a Holocaust survivor who has accused Israel of using the genocidal Nazi campaign against Jews to justify its actions against the Palestinians, was detained by the Israeli security service, Shin Bet, when he landed at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport on Friday.
Shin Bet interrogated him for around 24 hours about his contact with the Lebanese Islamic militia, Hizbullah, when he travelled to Lebanon earlier this year and expressed solidarity with the group which waged war against Israel in 2006. He was also accused of having contact with al-Qaida. But Finkelstein rejected the accusations, saying he had travelled to Israel to visit an old friend.
"I did my best to provide absolutely candid and comprehensive answers to all the questions put to me," he told an Israeli newspaper in an email exchange.