Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Can Evolution Run in Reverse? A Study Says It’s a One-Way StreetCarl Zimmer in the NYT:
Evolutionary biologists have long wondered if history can run backward. Is it possible for the proteins in our bodies to return to the old shapes and jobs they had millions of years ago?
Examining the evolution of one protein, a team of scientists declares the answer is no, saying new mutations make it practically impossible for evolution to reverse direction. “They burn the bridge that evolution just crossed,” said Joseph W. Thornton, a biology professor at the University of Oregon and co-author of a paper on the team’s findings in the current issue of Nature.
The Belgian biologist Louis Dollo was the first scientist to ponder reverse evolution. “An organism never returns to its former state,” he declared in 1905, a statement later dubbed Dollo’s law.
To see if he was right, biologists have reconstructed evolutionary history. In 2003, for example, a team of scientists studied wings on stick insects. They found that the insects’ common ancestor had wings, but some of its descendants lost them. Later, some of those flightless insects evolved wings again.
Yet this study did not necessarily refute Dollo’s law. The stick insects may indeed have evolved a new set of wings, but it is not clear whether this change appeared as reverse evolution at the molecular level. Did the insects go back to the exact original biochemistry for building wings, or find a new route, essentially evolving new proteins?
The fiction of Richard Powers sometimes resembles a dying satyr—above the waist is a mind full of serious thought, philosophical reflection, deep exploration of music and science; below, a pair of spindly legs strain to support the great weight of the ambitious brain. Powers thinks, and thinks well, and his almost nostalgic devotion to the European modernist tradition of “The Magic Mountain” and “The Man Without Qualities” makes him rare in American fiction. In his best books, “The Gold Bug Variations” (1991) and “Galatea 2.2” (1995), he displays an impressive command of the languages of music, genetics, computer science, and neurology, but more exciting is his willingness to engage in abstract thought, to argue and persevere, to carry arguments through the rooms of logic. (“The Gold Bug Variations,” in particular, contains several profound essays on Bach.) Contemporary American novelists, compared with Powers, can seem like intellectual visitors, fiddling in the foyers of the mind.more from James Wood at The New Yorker here.
Once upon a time the young John Baldessari was so desperate for images that he prowled back alleys hunting for discarded photographs. He’d climb into garbage bins (diving head first was never the recommended technique) and rummage around, finding curious rejected pictures of odd male bowlers (something about what their hands revealed in the follow-through) or stiff ceremonial group portraits of beaming Caucasians with faces revealing their true jack-o-lantern selves, or a stack of dead bodies, or – simply and remarkably – a photograph of a standing man in a black suit which would eventually be cropped and tilted on its side and positioned at the bottom of a horizontal stack of other men – soldiers, cowboys, etc. – all of whom appear to have been shot dead in the street. The solitary living man in the black suit is on the bottom tier, facing up.more from Benjamin Weissman at Frieze here.
Shrink the army and expand the police in Pakistan
S. Abbas Raza in Dawn:
Some of these groups are determined to attack and intimidate, if not eliminate, religious minorities. Then, we have the heavily armed militias affiliated with political parties. Finally, there are the criminal gangs involved in drug trafficking, kidnapping, carjacking, extortion, armed robbery and murder.
The idea that the army can somehow defend the country against this lawlessness is ludicrous. How can the armoured corps help fight sectarian car-bombings in Karachi? How will yet another squadron of F-16 aircraft defeat the drug smugglers in Lahore? How does the infantry do the detective work necessary to bring kidnappers and carjackers to justice? How can the army deal with the creators of mayhem that are thoroughly dispersed within our population, in every town and every city? It cannot. Yet the armed forces consume a hugely disproportionate share of Pakistan’s federal budget.
Up from the creek
where a shut-in
a mink and otter
can still be seen
and native brook trout
cross breed with the stocked
come black bears
first one and then a second
pass by my window
silent as ghosts
not a leaf disturbed
not even rousing the dogs
moving with secret purpose
through the yards.
Who knows what else appears
while others are off to work
or the gym
and gardens are left
to browsing deer
also emerging lightly
with the resurrected
from the soft Indian
to my window
with the ghost bears
on black fur.
By Harry Walsh
Lashkar-e-Tayyaba Still Robust After Mumbai Siege
Lydia Polgreen and Souad Mekhennet in the New York Times:
A new attack could reverberate widely through the region and revive nagging questions about Pakistan’s commitment to stamp out the militant groups that use its territory.
It could also dangerously complicate the Obama administration’s efforts in Afghanistan. Success there depends in part on avoiding open conflict between India and Pakistan, so that Pakistan’s military can focus on battling the Taliban insurgents who base themselves in Pakistan.
Even so, American diplomatic efforts to improve India-Pakistan relations have been stillborn. So delicate is the Kashmir issue that Indian officials bridle at any hint of American mediation.
A history of the English marriage
From The Telegraph:
Adultery, nevertheless, was rife in a society where arranged marriages between couples who had barely met were the norm among the propertied class and divorce was impossible, except for the tiny elite who could afford a parliamentary divorce. Today, adultery often leads to divorce and remarriage, but in the past there was no such option. Marriage was for life, but then how long was life? Most marriages were cut short by death with the average marriage lasting eleven years, roughly the same figure as today when it is more likely to be terminated by divorce than death.
For the Faithful, Eusociality
When Writers Speak
Arthur Krystal in the New York Times:
Vladimir Nabokov on my computer screen, looking both dapper and disheveled. He’s wearing a suit and a multibuttoned vest that scrunches the top of his tie, making it poke out of his shirt like an old-fashioned cravat. Large, lumpish, delicate and black-spectacled, he’s perched on a couch alongside the sleeker, sad-faced Lionel Trilling. Both men are fielding questions from a suave interlocutor with a B-movie mustache. The interview was taped sometime in the late 1950s in what appears to be a faculty club or perhaps a television studio decked out to resemble one. The men are discussing “Lolita.” “I do not . . . I don’t wish to touch hearts,” Nabokov says in his unidentifiable accent. “I don’t even want to affect minds very much. What I really want to produce is that little sob in the spine of the artist-reader.”
Not bad, I think, as I sit staring at the dark granular box on my YouTube screen. In fact, a damned good line to come up with off the cuff. But wait! What’s that Nabokov’s doing with his hands? He’s turning over index cards. He’s glancing at notes. He’s reading. Fluent in three languages, he relies on prefabricated responses to talk about his work.
Ministry of Silly Walks
Why I Slept with 1300 Women
Sebastian Horseley in Open:
I was 16 then and I’m 47 now. I have spent 25 years throwing my money and heart at tarts. I have slept with every nationality in every position in every country. From high-class call girls at £1,000 a pop to the meat-rack girls of Soho at £15, I have probably slept with more than 1,300 prostitutes, at a cost of £115,000.
I am a connoisseur of prostitution: I can take its bouquet, taste it, roll it around my mouth, give you the vintage. I have used brothels, saunas, private homes from the Internet and ordered girls to my flat prompt as pizza. While we are on the subject, I have also run a brothel. And I have been a male escort. I wish I was more ashamed. But I’m not. I love prostitutes and everything about them. And I care about them so much I don’t want them to be made legal.
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
There’s something special about naming a celestial body, putting your thumbprint in the heavens up there with Jupiter and Mars and the Horsehead Nebula. The idea speaks to our desire for immortality--attaching a name to something that, if not quite eternal, will last far longer than anyone will be around to remember. The world of commerce has figured this out, of course. Various services have arisen that claim to put your name on a star for a fee. Unfortunately, as nice as it sounds, these names don’t count: You pay your money and get a certificate, but it isn’t recognized by the only organization that actually matters, the International Astronomical Union. So what if you really do want to name a piece of the sky? Is there a way to name a newly discovered star, or planet, or comet--maybe not after yourself, but maybe after someone you admire?more from Samuel Arbesman at The Boston Globe here.
I am an American womanKatja Nicodemus interviews Lars von Trier, originally in Die Zeit, over at Signandsight:
You seem to be fascinated by power relationships. With the Dogma rules, you formulated an aesthetic manifesto and your last two films "Dogville" and "Manderlay" are based on strict formal principles. What so interests you about guidelines and rules?
I come from a family of communist nudists. I was allowed to do or not do what I liked. My parents were not interested in whether I went to school or got drunk on white wine. After a childhood like that, you search for restrictions in your own life.
But communists actually have very strict rules.
That's true, but that's where things start to get very complicated. All my life I've been interested in the discrepancy between philosophy and reality, between conviction and its implementation. The general assumption is that all people are able to differentiate more or less equally between good and evil. But if this is the case, why does the world look like it does? Why have all the good intentions of my parents come to nothing. And why do my own good intentions lead to nothing?
The Return of John Maynard KeynesPaul Krugman reviews Robert Skidelsky's Keynes: The Return of the Master in the Guardian:
In Part I of his 1936 masterwork, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, Keynes asserted that the core of his theory was the rejection of Say's Law, the doctrine that said that income is automatically spent. If it were true, Say's Law would imply that all the things we usually talk about when trying to assess the economy's direction, like the state of consumer or investor confidence, are irrelevant; one way or another, people will spend all the income coming in. Keynes showed, however, that Say's Law isn't true, because in a monetary economy people can try to accumulate cash rather than real goods. And when everyone is trying to accumulate cash at the same time, which is what happened worldwide after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the result is an end to demand, which produces a severe recession.
Some of those who consider themselves Keynesians, myself included, agree with what Keynes said in The General Theory, and consider the rejection of Say's Law the core issue. On this view, Keynesian economics is primarily a theory designed to explain how market economies can remain persistently depressed.
But there's an alternative interpretation of what Keynes was all about, one offered by Keynes himself in an article published in 1937, a year after The General Theory. Here, Keynes suggested that the core of his insight lay in the acknowledgement that there is uncertainty in the world – uncertainty that cannot be reduced to statistical probabilities, what the former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld called "unknown unknowns". This irreducible uncertainty, he argued, lies behind panics and bouts of exuberance and primarily accounts for the instability of market economies.
Where Will Synthetic Biology Lead Us?Michael Specter in The New Yorker:
"What if we could liberate ourselves from the tyranny of evolution by being able to design our own offspring?” Drew Endy asked, the first time we met in his office at M.I.T., where, until the summer of 2008, he was assistant professor of biological engineering. (That September, he moved to Stanford.) Endy is among the most compelling evangelists of synthetic biology. He is also perhaps its most disturbing, because, although he displays a childlike eagerness to start engineering new creatures, he insists on discussing both the prospects and the dangers of his emerging discipline in nearly any forum he can find. “I am talking about building the stuff that runs most of the living world,” he said. “If this is not a national strategic priority, what possibly could be?”
Endy, who was trained as a civil engineer, spent his youth fabricating worlds out of Lincoln Logs and Legos. Now he would like to build living organisms. Perhaps it was the three well-worn congas sitting in the corner of Endy’s office, or the choppy haircut that looked like something he might have got in a tree house, or the bicycle dangling from his wall—but, when he speaks about putting together new forms of life, it’s hard not to think of that boy and his Legos.
Endy made his first mark on the world of biology by nearly failing the course in high school. “I got a D,” he said. “And I was lucky to get it.” While pursuing an engineering degree at Lehigh University, Endy took a course in molecular genetics. He spent his years in graduate school modelling bacterial viruses, but they are complex, and Endy craved simplicity. That’s when he began to think about putting cellular components together.
What Have We Done to Democracy?
Arundhati Roy in The Nation:
Is it possible to reverse this process? Can something that has mutated go back to being what it used to be? What we need today, for the sake of the survival of this planet, is long-term vision. Can governments whose very survival depends on immediate, extractive, short-term gain provide this? Could it be that democracy, the sacred answer to our short-term hopes and prayers, the protector of our individual freedoms and nurturer of our avaricious dreams, will turn out to be the endgame for the human race? Could it be that democracy is such a hit with modern humans precisely because it mirrors our greatest folly--our nearsightedness?
Whitewashing Roman Polanski
Bill Wyman in Salon:
Espinoza was stating the obvious: Fugitives don't get to dictate the terms of their case. Polanski, who had pleaded guilty to having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl, was welcome to return to America, surrender, and then petition the court as he wished. Indeed, the judge even gave Polanski more than he deserved, saying that he might actually have a case. "There was substantial, it seems to me, misconduct during the pendency of this case," he said, according to the Los Angeles Times. "Other than that, he just needs to submit to the jurisdiction of the court."
Polanski deserves to have any potential legal folderol investigated, of course. But the fact that Espinoza had to state the obvious is testimony to the ways in which the documentary, and much of the media coverage the director has received in recent months, are bizarrely skewed. The film, which has inexplicably gotten all sorts of praise, whitewashes what Polanski did in blatant and subtle fashion -- and recent coverage of the case, in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and elsewhere, has in turn accepted the film's contentions at face value.
More here. [Thanks to Cyrus Hall.]
Also see: Reminder: Roman Polanski raped a child --excellent article by Kate Harding
And: Child Rape Apologists Love Roman Polanski --by Gautham Nagesh
THE MAKING OF A PHYSICIST: A Talk With Murray Gell-Mann
I was still discouraged, though, about having to go to MIT, which seemed so grubby compared with the Ivy League. I thought of killing myself (at the age of 18) but soon decided that I could always try MIT and then kill myself later if it was that bad but that I couldn't commit suicide and then try MIT afterwards. The two operations, suicide and going to MIT, didn't commute, as we say in math and physics jargon.
Quest for a Long Life Gains Scientific Respect
Nicholas Wade in The New York Times:
Sirtris Pharmaceuticals. The company is developing drugs that mimic resveratrol, a chemical found in some red wines. Resveratrol has been found to activate proteins called sirtuins, from which the company derives its name. Activation of sirtuins is thought to help the body ride out famines.
Mice and rats put on a diet with 30 percent fewer calories can live up to 40 percent longer. They seem to do so by avoiding the usual degenerative diseases of aging and so gain not just longer life but more time in good health. Sirtris’s researchers think that drugs that activate sirtuins mimic this process, strengthening the body’s resistance to the diseases of aging. The company has developed thousands of small chemical compounds that are far more potent than resveratrol and so can be given in smaller doses.
Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking: A Glorious Dawn
[Thanks to Anandaroop Roy.]
Remembering the Language Maven
Ben Zimmer at the Visual Thesaurus:
passed away over the weekend at the age of 79, and his loss is felt particularly strongly by those who loyally followed his "On Language" column in the New York Times Magazine for the past three decades. Safire retired from his Pulitzer Prize-winning political column for the Times in 2005, but he continued to relish his role as "language maven" to the very end. He was not simply a pundit on matters political and linguistic, however: he was also an extremely generous man, both publicly in his philanthropic work with the Dana Foundation and privately with friends and colleagues.
On hearing of his passing, fellow maven Paul Dickson remarked to me that Safire "opened a door which a lot of people got to walk through and play with words as a vocation." That was certainly true in my case. As a word nerd in training, I read "On Language" religiously every Sunday. When I was perhaps nine or ten, I recall taking issue with something Safire had said in one of his columns and writing a letter to him (in pencil!). Unfortunately, I was too intimidated to follow through and never mailed the letter.
Flash-forward to 2003, when I was bit braver in corresponding with him. He often published requests for assistance from those he dubbed "Lexicographic Irregulars" (word sleuths after the manner of Sherlock Holmes' Baker Street Irregulars). On this occasion he sent out a request about the history of the expression "stay the course."
Monday, September 28, 2009
Jim Carroll's Death Poem ... and Mine
using Carroll's death as an opportunity for reflection - on Jim, himself, and his life in comparison to Jim's (they were both working-class Catholic boys who stormed the hipster-poetry barricades).
Michael spoke honestly of his sense of competition with Jim, and I defended him in the "comments" section of his post, writing: "... for those who prefer to be true to a fallen writer's memory at the moment of his death, I would answer: What could be truer than that?" I then went on to tell my own story in relation to Jim's (who I didn't know):
"I, too, felt a lot of envy toward Jim Carroll. I had a manager and was trying to get a rock n roll record deal in NYC when he switched from spoken word to music and was signed in a heartbeat. He had the looks, the magnetism, the hipness ... and then, all of a sudden, he had the deal with Rolling Stones Records. (I think it was Stones ...) The truth is, my feelings had no more to do with Jim Carroll than perhaps yours did. He was a placeholder for some things inside of me that needed to get out. That's not his fault - but it's my story, which is ultimately the only one I'm qualified to write."
I was young, immature, and ambitious - a toxic combination. Things seemed to come too easily for Jim Carroll, and the truth is he did have an extraordinary gift with language - and with physical presence. It was only later in life that I learned that all brilliant writers work enormously hard, and that the post-Beat "spontaneous writing" pose was more often than not a well-crafted deceit. (Recent explorations of Jack Kerouac's On The Road rewrites demonstrate that.) And it was only after his death that I learned how painfully shy Jim was, how difficult it was sometimes for him to speak and to perform, and how directly he faced his own issues through the process of recovering from drug addiction (he had 30 years clean and sober through Narcotics Anonymous). Some of this information can be found in Alex Williams' touching New York Times piece about his final days, which includes this email to a friend:
“My self-sabotaging tendencies in all aspects of my life, along with the validation needs you referenced, go without saying. There are deep seeded reasons for both, but the latter is also an outcome of the way you are spoiled and coddled by managers, women and media et al when you are on top, and the quickness with which everyone scatters when you recede a moment.”
Jim Carroll, who wrote so well and looked so perfect for the role, had the same self-sabotaging tendencies I struggled with for so many years? And "the quickness with which everyone scatters" was something I knew too well. For a brief period in the late 1970s I was being courted by the top rock managers, taken for limousine rides, plied with fine champagne brunches and other things, and enjoying a tiny (and I mean tiny) fraction of what Jim Carroll experienced. When the demos didn't turn out well - damaged, perhaps, by my own desire to please - it all disappeared overnight. I knew how much it had hurt me, but never would have imagined that this kind of pain could be experienced by Jim Carroll - the fortunate one, the blessed one, the winner of the game.
I never connected as strongly to the Jim Carroll Band as I did to Jim Carroll the writer, though. I felt the musicians backing him were too good at rock and roll. They had all the moves down pat, without any of the minor self-mutilations needed to adequately convey his words. They got the tone right sometimes, as in the song Three Sisters, and it all came together in People Who Died. But overall I thought he would have been better served by a more electronic and experimental band (i.e. pre-hip hip, Public Image or Big Audio Dynamite), or a rawer band fronted by one of the Jones Boys (Steve of the Sex Pistols or Mick of the Clash). Or Jack Nitszche as producer, recreating the Wall of Sound.
A good example of this is the song Day and Night (seen here on YouTube). It's a really good song, and my future friend Amy Kanter tears it up on backing vocals, but it falls short of greatness. It doesn't live up musically to his devotion to craft, a devotion he saw in Kurt Cobain and described as "a young artist's remorseless passion/which starts out as a kiss/and follows like a curse."
I picked up a book of Japanese death poems on a recent trip to Hawaii and was musing about them not long before Jim Carroll's death. Most of the death poems are too self-consciously Zen for me, but several are beautiful. 'This then," one reads, "is the day the melting snowman/becomes a real man." It' not all that different from the closing page of Jim Carroll's final work, a loosely autobiographical novel. I winced slightly when I read that the lead character has a raven for a companion, but - as with all balancing acts - he seems to pull it off in the end when the protagonist dies:
Finally, a last sigh of consciousness rocked him gently on the deck of an old schooner ship. Billy’s body, dark blue like the storm clouds preceding the storm, shuttered and his eyes closed dull and loosely. Sensing young Wolfram had given up the ghost, the raven glided back down aside the dead artist, whispering a last demand.“It’s time your eyes remain shut, Billy Wolfram. Now is the time, so get on with it. Take that single step and fly.”
Was this designed to be Jim Carroll's death poem? It doesn't really matter. He had the nerve to write a paragraph in the 21st Century that includes a totem animal. Does the idea work? Does the paragraph? The answer is: He tried. He kept on storming the barricades. That's some kind of death poetry, isn't it?
Another one of those Japanese poems goes like this: "I wake and find / the colored iris / I saw in my dreams." Me, I've never intended to write a death poem. And I don't know anything about what happens after we die. But it's an image to consider: a snowman holding an iris.
Will the Manhattan Project Always Exist?
Will historians and archaeologists a few thousand years from now believe that scientists in the mid-twentieth century split the atom? That they even created a nuclear bomb? There’s a good chance the answer will be “no.” If nothing else, there’s reason to think this could be a contentious point among men and women of learning, debatable on both sides.
A span of thousands of years is both extremely short and impenetrably long. It’s short because human nature will not change much in that time. Which means our human tendency to discount the past and pooh-pooh the achievements of antique cultures will not have diminished. Dismissing technical achievements in the remote past is especially tempting. We’re willing to believe that people philandered and murdered and philosophized uselessly like we do today, but we conveniently reserve the notion of technical progress for ourselves. It’s really a poverty of imagination: They didn’t have the tools or libraries or scientific understanding we do today, so how could they have accomplished much? We tend to conflate science and technology, as if one cannot exist without the other. But without much science the Greeks did calculate the circumference of the earth; the Chinese did invent paper, gunpowder, and the printing press eons before Europeans; the Polynesians did navigate thousands of miles of open ocean on tiny barks; and the Egyptians (among many others) did log as much about the movement and appearance of stars and planets as astronomers know today. Nor are those special examples, or even unique—many technologies arose more than once.
It’s a commonplace that history written by “winners” in wars is unreliable. It’s even more unsettling to realize that normal, everyday history is just as flimsy. The theory that people before Christopher Columbus thought the earth was flat—possibly the biggest, stupidest swindle in the history of history—more or less sprung from one book, a fictionalized biography of Columbus written by Washington “Rip van Winkle” Irving in the late 1820s. Irving needed a little drama to make Columbus more than a lucky thug, so he invented the flat-earthers. Within a decade, and apparently independently, a Frenchman with a beef against Christianity invented a flat-earth conspiracy of his own—that Church fathers in the olden days had been so beholden to a few favorite Bible passages they couldn’t see the evidence for sphericity in front of their own noses. Never mind that this view was considered almost heretical by the Church itself: The idea of priests and other trembling idiots afraid of falling off the edge of the world meshed so well with what people in 1800s wanted to believe about the remote past that they swallowed the tale whole, and virtually every school book since has included some version of the story.
If the past is any guide to the future, people will do to us what we have done unto others, and they’ll have a hard time believing that so primitive a people as us could have harnessed nuclear power. After all, we lacked computers, uranium refineries, missiles, lasers, and dozens of other fundamental pieces of equipment in the 1940s. No one even knew about nuclear fission until 1939. And we’re supposed to believe a few labcoats in the desert built a bomb from scratch?
The big difference, obviously, between ancient cultures and cultures today is our hyperography: We document anything. Newspapers especially have recorded every day since about 1800 onward, and by now there’s an almost hour-by-hour record online. But that’s where four or so thousand years starts to look very, very long—time for plenty of accidents to occur. Who in the BCs ever dreamed that the Library at Alexandria would be wiped off the face of the Earth? Languages, too, will have evolved in unrecognizable ways. English will be a dodo, and we might not employ the same numerals or mathematical notations, either. Most printed media, including books—all made of cheap, convenient, mass-market paper—will have long since succumbed to pests or pollutants, crumbling into flakes. Digital media are even less stable over the long term; there’s a significant chance that almost nothing we’re “archiving” nowadays will survive to the year 3000, much less later. Paradoxically, our abundance of documents means we set little store on preserving any one item. And regardless, our long-term track record for preservation is laughable. Few works were better known in ancient times than the plays of Sophocles and Aeschylus, yet barely any exist now. Even Plato barely survived history’s guillotine—throughout medieval times, Plato was unknown in the West, living on only in Muslim countries and in footnotes to other Greek authors. Had the Muslims been worse stewards, or been conquered by marauding Christians who needed kindling or toilet paper, Socrates would have died in vain.
But let’s say that stray references to the Manhattan Project survive, and that a few pedants can even read our hieroglyphics. If the dismissive tendencies outlined above don’t throw doubts on the Manhattan Project, there are other reasons to be skeptical. Americans generally are very spiritual, and there’s no more cinching argument for dismissing the knowledge of the past than to point out how immersed people were in some all-consuming religion. (Obviously most of the scientists themselves were not believers; they simply lived in a religious society. But it’s exactly that sort of fine point that has a way of getting lost over long stretches of time.) Indeed, what will be easier to believe in retrospect—that people doing calculations by hand built nuclear weapons advanced enough to wipe out the planet? Or that a religious society took some mundane event, a science conference in New Mexico, and mythologized the whole thing? It has all the necessary elements: A small group of elite demigods, a war in the background between ultimate good and evil, heavenly objects like planes, a Jesus-like exile in the Los Alamos desert, a potent symbol in the mushroom cloud rising on the horizon ...
Besides (you can almost hear a future Foucault arguing) if these people were so clever, why didn’t they do anything with their hard-won technical knowledge? We can read in tree rings and the tiny flakes of ice around the poles that they were turning the atmosphere into a giant kiln of carbon dioxide. Why didn’t these geniuses convert to relatively clean nuclear power? Would they really have been so blind as to keep pushing forward, deciding that when fossil fuels got scarce that the best thing to do was double their dependency on them? Rubbish.
(This last objection could apply to more than just nuclear energy—but that just reinforces my general point. Will it really seem plausible to future generations that we spent so much effort to get to the moon ... and then shrugged, giving up space exploration to drive cars on Earth? Hell, there already is an angry cabal of people who don’t think we ever got to the moon. Lord help us if one of their tracts is one of the few books that survives until 6000. To future generations, such a work might seem like a deductive proof our idiocy—that for all our achievements in building roads and damns and skyscrapers, our very greatest talent was for deluding ourselves, fantasizing about bombs and flying to other planets.)
Probably the hardest evidence about nuclear bombs to account for would be the physical evidence, the forensics. Not bomb silos—those might have been anything. Churches, even. I mean lingering atoms and radioactive isotopes. But even those can be explained away. There has been at least one natural nuclear reaction in the Earth’s past (albeit the very remote past), at a place called Oklo, in Africa. (I’m not kidding.) So there’s at least some precedent for nuclear activity without humans. Most radioactive isotopes will have decayed in a few millennia anyway, returning to background levels. The ratios of non-radioactive elements that are left over won’t be normal, but we could create clever explanations for that, too. Barring any future catastrophes, virtually all the nuclear bombs in Earth’s history will have gone off between about 1945 and 1975—a period that will look suspiciously narrow in the future, practically instantaneous. In that case, an abundance of radioactive stuff could have resulted from the after-effects of a cosmic ray burst or gamma ray burst in space, or could have been the interstellar jetsam and flotsam of a supernova explosion. Terrestrial nuclear fallout would seem about the least likely explanation.
If nothing else, we can always count on good old human myopia to erase any hints that people way back when did something brilliant. Nuclear technology will never disappear, but much of the nuclear waste generated today will have long since been buried and forgotten about. The rest of the nuclear stuff, the still-fissile material, will likely be recycled into newer nuclear plants or advanced weapons. And after untold generations of ushering uranium or plutonium or whatever from plant 2.0 to plant 2.1 or missile 3.0 to missile 3.1, the ultimate origin of that material will be lost. They’re atoms, after all, and don’t have labels. We cannot uncreate nuclear material, but people can (and will) forget its source. Like so many other technologies and discoveries, humans will pinpoint its emergence at more recent date, and even if a few dissident historians insist otherwise, facts won’t trouble the majority of people, who find it more comfortable to believe that we today were flat-earthers of a different sort.
Any of the arguments above would apply a fortiori if civilization breaks down worldwide in the next few millennia, whether through disease, overpopulation, an asteroid impact, or a prolonged war. If any of those things happen, we’ll seem especially archaic, and any of our achievements will seem as remote and unlikely to earthlings in 6000 AD as the tales of Homer do today. There’s about only one thing that could unequivocally prove to people that we did possess nuclear weapons at such an early stage in human evolution: a nuclear holocaust. Probably better to be forgotten, even snickered at.
Polański's latest thriller
When Roman Polański was arrested this weekend, I immediately thought of this.
This is the genius of Dave Chappelle—that sentence could have been spoken in Polish, English or French, and “Nóż w wodzie”, “Chinatown” or “the Pianist” could fit in rather nicely in place of “Thriller” depending (of course) on one’s age and cultural demographic.
Now, I write about this not because I hold a particular grudge against Polański. In fact, considering the tragic turns that his life has taken, I find it rather difficult to pass judgment on the man, even if I remain genuinely revolted by his deeds.
Considering his complicated biography, which includes a number of obviously traumatic events, it is difficult to say with any certainty which way the cosmic scale would tip for someone like him. Like his biography, that uncertainty neither absolves him of his guilt nor does it automatically condemn him, although it must be pointed out that according to our earthly laws and customs, the morality and legality of what happened in 1977 should be reasonably clear.
But that is not why I write about him today—Polański’s worth as a human being is not for me to decide. I simply find the hypocrisy surrounding his case impossible to swallow.
Polański’s arrest in Switzerland brought out the usual sentiments from the defenders of this particular Man Of Genius Who May Have Erred In A Minor Way (But Anyway, He’s So Talented And It Was A Long Time Ago). That it is the Americans who are ultimately pursuing Polański makes it all the more ridiculous.
I am not certain that anyone in the Western world (save for members of Canada’s Conservative Party) admires or respects the reality (as opposed to the theory) of America’s justice system, but hearing the reaction to Polański’s arrest in Switzerland, one would think he had disappeared from the streets of Zurich in broad daylight (maybe to a secret Polish prison?) and that John Yoo himself tortured him for David Addington’s amusement.
French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand (speaking about Polański, not Yoo):
"I think this is awful and totally unjust.”
“Just as there is an America which is generous and which we like, so there is an America which is frightening, and that is the America which has just revealed its face."*
* If the America that executes its judicial warrants through the proper channels is what frightens Mr Mitterrand, then he has not been reading his world news lately.
“This is a high-profile action designed to send out some sort of message to someone somewhere."
"No one condones what happened in the 70s, but I think this is pretty appalling.”*
* For someone who has written a fictional account of Tony Blair’s and George Bush’s foray into the Middle East, the word “appalling” seems to come rather easily.
Director Andrzej Wajda heads a long list of Polish cultural luminaries who wrote to Poland’s president asking for diplomatic support.
“We feel that Roman Polański deserves a negative moral assessment for the events from 30 years ago. But we would also like to point out the fact by fleeing from the United States, Roman Polański escaped a judicial lynching.”
* So long as it’s a talented filmmaker, a negative moral assessment will obviously suffice. Unlike, say for others, who may face mandatory chemical castration, presently pushed by Poland's parliament...
Responding to the pressure, Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski has indicated to Polish reporters that he and his French counterpart, Bernard Kouchner, may seek a presidential pardon from Barack Obama.*
* While he’s at it, maybe he can tell a couple more jokes...
In any case, why all the fuss about Polański?
This has nothing to do with guilt or innocence—once more, without getting into the particulars of the case, the focus and the indignation of the world’s cultural (and political) elite is woefully misplaced, and a number of people who really should know better look to make a martyr out of a man who, despite his immense talent, is hardly in a position to play the part.
But then again, the Americans are pretty scary.
And he made “Thriller.”
Lunar Refractions: Hasten Slowly
Excited as I was for autumn to arrive, it’s gotten off to an awful start. After spending three days bedridden with the first all-congesting cold to hit me this season, my head is still in a fog as thick as the one that shrouded the whole city this morning. But this season’s less-than-auspicious opener did afford me one thing I almost never grant myself: many hours of calm, quiet time to rest. This is something that comes hard to me, as I tend to fill what little down time I find doing anything but relaxing. Because I felt wretched enough that none of my usual pursuits—drawing, reading, strolling—were possible, I was left only one option: to just lie there and think.
Bagatti Valsecchi Museum.
Via Gesù 5. I’d been additionally delayed in the museum’s two courtyards—ringed with intriguing inscriptions—so only made my way up the grand main stair with forty-odd minutes left before closing. It happened to be Friday, 31 July; the museum would be closed the entire month of August, and I was there for a whirlwind four-day work trip, so knew it was now or never.
Although my eyes were welcomed by an unimaginable wealth of beautiful flooring, sumptuous wall coverings, paintings, and finely worked furniture, I quickly realized what I’d need to focus on—the inscriptions. While the family bought and renovated the building in the late nineteenth century, they looked to the high Renaissance for inspiration, hence each room had an even more antique feel. The several mottos and phrases carved round the courtyards’ friezes were mere appetizers for the feast of lettering to be found inside—on the lintels above most doorways, on everyday objects, on library bookshelves, on the hearth, and even above the bathtub. One ceiling inscription read PRINCIPIUM EST PLUSQUAM DIMIDIUM SED NOSCE TE IPSUM ET CONSULE ANTE FACTUM, “A good beginning is half of the work, but know yourself, and think, before acting.” That phrase drew me into the so-called Room of the Labyrinth, where several other sayings were strung one after the other, all painted in gold atop a dark blue background, winding round the passages of a classical labyrinth:
DILIGENTIA AUGET OPUS, “Diligence increases the value of the undertaking.”
QUOD DIFFICILIUS HOC PRAECLARIUS, “That which is more difficult is more worthy of honor.”
LABOR IMPROBUS OMNIA VINCIT, “Hard work conquers all.”
VIRTUS IN ACTIONE CONSISTIT GLORIAMQUE PARIT, “Virtue lies in action, and leads to glory.”
RARA QUIDEM EST VIRTUS QUAM NON FORTUNA GUBERNET ET EST VIRTUTIS OPUS NON AD IACTANTIAM SED AD PATRIAE DECUS FAMAM EXTENDERE FACTIS, “Rare is the virtue not sustained by Fortune, and it is the task of virtue to increase, through action, it’s own name—not for the sake of vainglory, but for the reputation of the homeland.”
SIC ITUR PER ANGUSTA AD AUGUSTA, “Thus one goes from difficulty to august achievement.”
I particularly appreciated that last bit, as it seemed to be the labyrinth itself speaking to those who negotiated its twists and turns. It’s also curious to note that this well-lettered room is officially known as the passaggio del labirinto in Italian, the “Passageway of the Labyrinth,” which is more fitting both because it hasn’t the right size nor clear function to be considered a real room, and also because the idea of passage is so key to the concept of a labyrinth.
I’m tempted to think this particular image—the decorated ceiling of the Passageway of the Labyrinth—came to mind partially because I’d been staring up at the relatively unadorned, plain white ceiling of my bedroom. I’ve no good image of the ceiling inscription the above mottos were taken from because, unfortunately yet understandably, photography isn’t allowed. You’ll just have to visit for yourself—and if you do, it’s worth knowing that the Bagatti Valsecchi Museum is one of four house-museums in the Historic House Museums of Milan network; each is quite different, and all are worthy of a visit. But it’s also curious that while most rooms and passages in this luxuriant residence were richly decorated and inscribed, this was the sole area to include a ceiling inscription. As I lay supine thinking
Keep Your Eyes on the End
, “Keep your eyes on the end [goal].” This pairs well with one of the first inscriptions in the grand salon, FESTINA LENTE, “Hasten slowly.” These phrases are rich enough to warrant fuller treatment in a following post, so with that, I’ll sign off, inviting you to explore the countless other inscriptions found throughout the Bagatti Valsecchi residence either in person or on their site.
For those of you who might want one more, I offer this last thought, writ large on the wall of the library: NEC SCIRE FAS EST OMNIA, “It isn’t possible to know everything”—just in case you aspired to!
Thanks for reading; previous Lunar Refractions can be found here.