Sunday, January 31, 2016
Scientists open the ‘black box’ of schizophrenia with dramatic genetic discovery
Amy Ellis Nutt in the Washington Post:
For the first time, scientists have pinned down a molecular process in the brain that helps to trigger schizophrenia. The researchers involved in the landmark study, which was published Wednesday in the journal Nature, say the discovery of this new genetic pathway probably reveals what goes wrong neurologically in a young person diagnosed with the devastating disorder.
The study marks a watershed moment, with the potential for early detection and new treatments that were unthinkable just a year ago, according to Steven Hyman, director of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute at MIT. Hyman, a former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, calls it "the most significant mechanistic study about schizophrenia ever."
"I’m a crusty, old, curmudgeonly skeptic," he said. "But I’m almost giddy about these findings."
The researchers, chiefly from the Broad Institute, Harvard Medical School and Boston Children's Hospital, found that a person's risk of schizophrenia is dramatically increased if they inherit variants of a gene important to "synaptic pruning" -- the healthy reduction during adolescence of brain cell connections that are no longer needed.
In patients with schizophrenia, a variation in a single position in the DNA sequence marks too many synapses for removal and that pruning goes out of control. The result is an abnormal loss of gray matter.
Bernie Sanders's political revolution, explained
Andrew Prokop in Vox:
"Today," Sanders said as he announced his campaign last May, "we begin a political revolution to transform our country economically, politically, socially and environmentally."
And what, exactly, does he mean by that?
On its surface, the concept is simple: Sanders wants to organize and mobilize the people against the powerful — specifically, corporations and the wealthy. He argues that by building a movement among average Americans, he'll be able to win elections, defeat special interests, push liberal reforms into law, and build an economy that works for everyone.
But when you drill down into the details, Sanders's hoped-for political revolution is more complicated than that — and more interesting.
For one, it's a contested theory about the best way to advance progressive policies. For another, it's an electoral argument about how the Democratic Party can expand its appeal among white voters and change the existing partisan math. It's a case that the system is so broken and corrupt that extreme measures are needed to shake it up. And it's a usually implicit, sometimes explicit critique of President Obama and his party.
World's Fastest Rubik's Cube Solving Robot
Films By or About Women That Are Making a Splash at Sundance
Katherine Marrone in Bitchmedia:
Sundance has a reputation for being more female-friendly than the Hollywood establishment: Each year, at least 25 percent of the films at Sundance are directed by women. And more female-directed and female-centered films win awards at the independent film festival than at the Oscars. But even when they’re a hit on the festival circuit, films directed by or about women often get overlooked for distribution by old-school production studios. This year though, the big-name studios like Sony may matter less at Sundance as streaming companies like Netflix and Amazon have been snapping up most of the films. “We’re interested in distinctive films by artists who have something new and interesting to say,” Roy Price, head of Amazon Studios, told the New York Times. Still, streaming companies and traditional studios alike have bought some exciting films by and about women this year at Sundance. Here are 10 films that are either directed by a woman or starring a female protagonist (or both) that are making a splash at Sundance. Keep an eye out for them.
Tallulah: Netflix purchased streaming rights to Sian Heder’s writing/directing debut for $5 million. The film stars Ellen Page as Lu, a free-spirited young woman who, distraught after being left by her boyfriend, wanders an upscale hotel looking for leftovers. When she’s mistaken for a maid by one of the hotel’s patrons, she decides to “rescue” the patron’s child from its mother. Lu takes the child to the house of her boyfriend’s mother, Margo (played by Allison Janney). What follows is a deep story of two women from different worlds trying to understand one another.
Under the Shadow: Netflix also bought the rights to this tense and haunting horror film set in Tehran during the 1980s. Directed by Babak Anvari, the Farsi film centers on an aspiring doctor named Shideh (Narges Rashidi) who wants to continue her medical studies but faces pushback because she’s done political activism. As the story develops, supernatural forces seem to mix with the real-world horrors of war.
Edith Wharton: a magnificent and subtle writer
From The Telegraph:
Edith Wharton (January 24, 1862- August 11, 1937) won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence. She was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature three times. In this article, originally published in 2007, Caroline Moore reviews Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee.
"No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money"; a woman who does so is doubly open to ridicule. As Hermione Lee shows in this excellent biography, the reputation of the novelist Edith Wharton – a magnificently subtle, passionate and constantly surprising writer – has suffered unfairly, merely because she was born near the top of what she called the 'small, slippery pyramid' of society. She was born in 1862: her father, George, was a Jones. This may not sound distinguished; but, as Edith caustically remarked, in New York the Jones family had "for generations, in a most distinguished way… done nothing whatever remarkable". Her relations gave rise to the phrase 'keeping up with the Joneses'; but that did nothing to help the aspirations of an un-pretty, unfashionably red-headed little girl who was born to be remarkable. Almost symbolically, Edith's red hair remained defiantly unfaded until her dying day. Her mother, Lucretia, was cold, disapproving and, according to her daughter, distrusted writers with"the sort of diffidence which, thank heaven, no psychoanalyst had yet arisen to call a complex".
Edith, in accordance with the customs of her class, was forbidden to read any novels, until 'the day of my marriage'. Yet, as a child, she was a natural, even compulsive writer, 'making up' incessantly – a solitary, ritualistic, obsessive activity. Her first literary efforts were quelled. Aged 11, she showed her mother a story which began, ' "Oh, how do you, Mrs Brown?" said Mrs Tompkins. "If only I had known you were going to call I should have tidied up the drawing room".' 'Never shall I forget', Edith wrote bitterly, 'the sudden drop of my creative frenzy when she returned it with the icy comment: "Drawing rooms are always tidy." '
Fire From My Mother
Out, lips pursed,
Hearing echoes of you
I am never alone
You are here when
I’m breathing fire,
From this world,
Never alone, breathing
Fire from my belly
Infused with embers
Of your eyes, hearth of
Your heart, umbilical cord
Connecting us once like deep
Sea diver to oxygen tank,
Sunlight to life, vitamin D
I breathe in fire breath
You feed me, like the eagle
Feeding her weak fledgling—
“Every crow thinks her crows
Are blackest,” you said…
I breathe in fire, like a bellows
In sweaty blacksmith palms
Breathes in air, I breathe in
Fire, healers breathe, shamans
Breathe, warriors, witch doctors
Dancing ‘round leaping
Red fingers of flame, breathe
I breathe in breaths of fire
From flames you ignited…
by Raymond Nat Turner
Saturday, January 30, 2016
Are Economists in Denial About What's Driving the Inequality Trainwreck?
Lynn Parramore interviews Lance Taylor over at the INET blog:
A new paper by economist Lance Taylor for the Institute For New Economic Thinking’s Working Group on the Political Economy of Distribution takes on the way economists have looked at wealth and income inequality. Taylor’s research challenges some conclusions about what’s driving inequality made by Thomas Piketty and Joseph Stiglitz. What’s really causing the growing gap between haves and have-nots? Is it mechanical market forces? Outsourcing? Real estate? As Taylor sees it, economists have gotten the answer wrong. Worker exploitation and outsized business profits are factors, but even more key are the unjustified payments to the wealthy generated by our outsized financial sector. This hasn’t just “happened.” Flawed economic theory and politicians beholden to the rich lead to policies that make it happen. We can fix the problem, but it will take bold steps.
Lynn Parramore: You recently dived into the debate on what causes wealth and income inequality — and whether or not we can fix it within the existing social order. Heated discussions among economists got touched off by Thomas Piketty’s bestselling book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, but you say that a key part of the story actually is a debate that happened in the late 60s and early 70s, the “Cambridge capital controversy.” Why is this old debate so vital now?
Lance Taylor: Because it tells us that mainstream economists have been wrong in how they think about inequality for a long time. Which means that they haven’t been particularly helpful in solving the problem. This is one of the key challenges of our time. We can do better.
LP: Ok, so tell us a little about this debate and why the ordinary person should care about it.
LT: The Cambridge capital controversy between economists at MIT in the U.S. and at Cambridge University in the U.K. took place at two levels. Especially for the Brits, the first level was about whether distributions of income and wealth are partly shaped by social and political relationships – class conflict if you will – or mostly by “market forces.”
There were technical skirmishes at the second level – one in particular about the nature of capital and the role of the rate of profit made by producers. Nobody denied that we need capital goods – machines, computers, buildings, railroad tracks – to produce stuff. The question was whether it makes sense to talk about an economy-wide all- encompassing capital stock. The MIT crowd wanted to say that if you have more capital stock, then 3 things will happen: 1) the profit rate will fall due to decreasing returns, 2) output and the real wage will go up and 3) as far as distribution is concerned the world will be a better place. These ideas are built into the standard mainstream model of economic growth, mostly because of MIT’s Bob Solow and Trever Swan from Australia, influential economists who invented it. Thomas Piketty relies on this model in his book.
Any time you produce something, you’re going to use some combination of capital goods. Trains haul iron ore, which makes steel, which makes railroad tracks. The theory of capital has always centered on the implications of how much it costs to use these goods. The Cambridge controversy focused on the question of what were the cheapest costs for using workers together with different combinations of capital goods as the rate of profit changes.
Complications arise because the production cost of each good depends on the profit rate along with the prices of the other goods.
A New Theory of Life
Over at Meaning of Life TV, Robert Wright talks to Jeremy England:
A Book as Big as Life
Laura Tanenbaum Garth Risk Hallberg's City on Fire,in Dissent:
City on Fire, Garth Risk Hallberg’s novel about New York in the 1970s, is a big and elaborately constructed book with 944 pages, dozens of characters, seven sections, six interludes, a prologue, and a postscript. Each section opens with images and quotations, drawn from works ranging from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass to Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project. Hallberg seems inspired by the democratic scope of these projects, and by the belief that everyone’s story, everyone’s point of view, should matter.
The novel’s plot centers around the murder of Samantha, a young NYU student hanging around the city’s punk scene. Around this story, Hallberg weaves together a vast range of characters who come into contact with Samantha, and another set who come into contact with them. He moves around in time, filling in social and psychological background on even seemingly peripheral characters. As in the great social novels of the nineteenth century, which are clearly on Hallberg’s mind, we move through the social and class strata of the city. The Hamilton-Sweeneys, one of the city’s richest families, serve as a node for these connections. There’s the family patriarch, William, who is under threat of indictment, and his nefarious stepbrother, Amory Gould, pulling the strings. The son, also William, breaks ties with the family, enters the art world, struggles with addiction, and joins a band in Samantha’s circle. Regan struggles to be the good daughter who stays with the business and with motherhood and domesticity; her husband Keith eventually takes up with Samantha. There’s Charlie, the suburban kid who falls hard for Samantha; Nicky Chaos, the punk guru; and the cop and journalist who investigate her murder. At first, we don’t know who killed Samantha, but we know we are moving towards the events of July 17, 1977, when the city was famously plunged into darkness. Everyone has a story and everyone’s story gets told with sympathy, with the exception of Amory, whose villainy serves as a foil for the novel’s humane liberalism.
“But how was it possible for a book to be as big as life?” asks Mercer Goodman, the teacher, would-be novelist, and sometime-lover of William. “Such a book would have to allocate 30-odd pages for each hour spent living (because this was how much Mercer could read in an hour, before the marijuana)—which was like 800 pages a day. Times 365 equaled roughly 280,000 pages each year: call it 3 million per decade, or 24 million in an average human lifespan.” Hallberg does not give us a book as big as, at least, this life. But it is nonetheless big.
Samuel Beckett Play Brought to Life in an Eerie Short Film Starring Alan Rickman & Kristin Scott Thomas
Colin Marshall in Open Culture:
Here at Open Culture, when we think of authors who write work made for the movies, we do, of course, think of names like Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling, and Robert Ludlum — but even more so of names like Samuel Beckett, whose pushing of aesthetic and intellectual boundaries on the stage we welcome now more than ever on the screen. And in a way, his works have undergone more complete film adaptation than have the books of many bestselling mainstream writers, thanks to the 2002 omnibus project Beckett on Film, which rounded up nineteen auteurs to direct films, ranging in length from seven minutes to two hours, of each and every one of his nineteen plays.
Beckett on Film‘s roster of directors includes Michael Lindsay-Hogg doing Waiting for Godot, Atom Egoyan doing Krapp’s Last Tape, Neil Jordan doing Not I, the artist Damien Hirst doing Breath, and Anthony Minghella, he of The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley, doing Play, which you can watch above. The sixteen-minute production adapts Beckett’s 1963 one-act, a distinctively purgatorial sort of romantic drama which presents a man (“M”), his wife (“W1”), and his mistress (“W2”), each trapped in an urn, each forced to speak about the details of their triangular relationship when, on stage, the spotlight turns to them. On film, Minghella chooses to swap out the spotlight for the camera itself, which cuts, swings, and shifts focus swiftly between the three, commanding the history of the affair from all three perspectives, each delivered with flat, rapid-fire insistence yet with surprising clarity and feeling as well.
It’s not presidents but pressure groups who lead US politics
Erik Loomis in Aeon:
As the United States enters into another presidential season, the media is once again covering the election as a horse race. CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News constantly discuss the latest polling debate, generate controversies in order to boost ratings, and wonder how particular candidates will lead when events such as the Paris bombings happen again. This personality-driven coverage credits presidents when things go right for the nation and blames them when they don’t. In other words, it ignores the structural limitations of US politics. Yes, the president is the most important single individual in US political life, but the holder of that office cannot overturn a Supreme Court decision, break a Senate filibuster, or force the House to pass a budget. Power in the US is unusually decentralised for a strong nation. The fact that there are so many levers to that power should undermine narratives of presidential leadership. Alas, such complexity would not help television ratings.
We can see how damaging this focus on presidential leadership is on the activism of the citizenry if we look at the aftermath of the 2008 election of Barack Obama. This was a remarkable election not only because Obama became the first African American elected to the nation’s highest office. Obama won in 2008 partly because so many people believed his ‘hope and change’ narrative. They thought that, if they elected Obama, progressive change would transform the US. What they found out was that a) presidents don’t lead social movements, and b) conservatives could undermine the president’s agenda by protests and expressions of anger in a variety of media.
By the 2010 midterm elections, the shine was off the Obama administration. There was a lot of bitterness on the left that Obama had not created a single-payer healthcare system, that he had not closed Guantánamo Bay, that he had not prosecuted the banks for causing the financial crisis, and that we still had troops in the Middle East. But the fact is, Obama could not have changed any of these things. Too many other people had the power of veto.
In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri – a Pulitzer prize winner gives up writing and speaking in English
Tessa Hadley in The Guardian:
There really are problems with winning the Pulitzer prize for your first book: as Jhumpa Lahiri, pictured, did, for Interpreter of Maladies. You are a shy, self-doubting young woman, daughter of Bengali immigrants to America. Your father is a university librarian on the east coast. You have always been anxious that you can’t deliver a satisfactory account of yourself, either in your Bengali-speaking home or in anglophone America outside it. In your childhood, making up stories seemed innocent and free, an escape; but as you grew up you learned that fiction was fraught with the same old doubt. Whose stories; and for what audience? Writing seems to you from the beginning “a private form of consolation”; yet in 2000 you are precipitated into the public eye, winning the prize for a book of short stories whose primary characteristic is their tentativeness, their withholding of judgment, their subdued emotional weather. Nonetheless, everything you write from now on will come under a new, intensive, invasive level of scrutiny. And because, inevitably, your material is drawn from the immigrant experience of your family, you will find an Indian audience too – naturally suspicious of those diaspora-Indian writers praised to the skies in the west. You become answerable to so many different and competing interested parties, on a scale disproportionate to any truth claims you have actually made inside your work. And yet, because your sensibility is fine-tuned, you appreciate conscientiously that all writing does make some kind of truth claim, and is always answerable.
Ideally, a delicate writing talent such as Lahiri’s should have been grown more slowly, putting up its shoots in a quiet half-light of reasonable encouragement. But there we are, there are probably worse things than winning the Pulitzer prize – and her talent has, in the event, developed robustly, even in the glare of an excess of attention (and, who knows, perhaps because of it). Her last novel, The Lowland, a mournful Turgenevian take on the politics of her parents’ generation in Bengal, was beautiful and subtly intelligent, and with a new bold reach. I suspect, however, that the particular difficulty Lahiri had finding her path as a writer has taken its toll, and that her new book is partly a consequence of that.
The Rise and Fall of American Growth
Paul Krugman in The New York Times:
Back in the 1960s there was a briefly popular wave of "futurism," of books and articles attempting to predict the changes ahead. One of the best-known, and certainly the most detailed, of these works was Herman Kahn and Anthony J. Wiener's "The Year 2000" (1967), which offered, among other things, a systematic list of technological innovations Kahn and Wiener considered "very likely in the last third of the 20th century." Unfortunately, the two authors were mostly wrong. They didn't miss much, foreseeing developments that recognizably correspond to all the main elements of the information technology revolution, including smartphones and the Internet. But a majority of their predicted innovations ("individual flying platforms") hadn't arrived by 2000 — and still haven't arrived, a decade and a half later. The truth is that if you step back from the headlines about the latest gadget, it becomes obvious that we've made much less progress since 1970 — and experienced much less alteration in the fundamentals of life — than almost anyone expected. Why?
Robert J. Gordon, a distinguished macroeconomist and economic historian at Northwestern, has been arguing for a long time against the techno-optimism that saturates our culture, with its constant assertion that we're in the midst of revolutionary change. Starting at the height of the dot-com frenzy, he has repeatedly called for perspective: Developments in information and communication technology, he has insisted, just don't measure up to past achievements. Specifically, he has argued that the I.T. revolution is less important than any one of the five Great Inventions that powered economic growth from 1870 to 1970: electricity, urban sanitation, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, the internal combustion engine and modern communication. In "The Rise and Fall of American Growth," Gordon doubles down on that theme, declaring that the kind of rapid economic growth we still consider our due, and expect to continue forever, was in fact a one-time-only event.
Losing a Voice in Summer
How many parts rumble it was
how much gravel
I don’t remember
and it won’t echo for me
from the shower stall
though sometimes off the porch
calling my own sons for supper
I can almost
almost hear it
as if you had let it go
out of the corner
of your mouth
like a ventriloquist
without a dummy.
I have no recording
otherwise I would play you
in the shower, repeat you
off the porch
from the cat-walk
of the glass factory have you sing
Go Down Moses
over and over and
with the reluctant sentence
deep in my head at the hoarsest hour,
dumb and laryngitic and alone
I first understood
how completely I have lost your voice,
father, along with my own.
by John Stone
from In All This Rain
Louisiana State University Press, 1980
Friday, January 29, 2016
Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak: Istanbul, city of dreams and nightmares
As his Museum of Innocence comes to Britain, the Nobel prizewinner takes his fellow author Elif Shafak on a tour of his cabinet of curiosities. They talk about what Istanbul means to them – and the collective amnesia of a country where writers can be jailed for a tweet.
Elif Shafak in The Guardian:
Istanbul is the name of a city and the name of an illusion. In reality, there is no such thing as Istanbul. There are only Istanbuls – competing, clashing and somehow coexisting within the same congested space. That is one of the themes I want to talk about with Orhan Pamuk, the winner of the Nobel prize for literature. The loss of plurality and nuance. The increasing dominance of an ideology of sameness throughout our motherland.
Turkey is a country of easy forgettings. Everything is written in water, except the works of the great architects, such as Sinan, which are written in stone; and the lines of the great poets, such as Nazim Hikmet, which are learnt by heart. Istanbul is a city of collective amnesia. As you walk the streets of London, you come across countless plaques commemorating the people – composers, novelists, politicians – who lived in those buildings. Memory is kept alive, through statues, signs and books, too.
Not so in Istanbul. And where there is such lamentably poor memory, it is easier for the state’s selective memory to survive unquestioned. A subjective way of reading the past, introduced from above, means the majority view triumphs over individuality and diversity. Hence all the jingoistic rhetoric in Turkey about “our noble Ottoman ancestors”. These imperial dreams have encouraged a disastrous neo-Ottoman foreign policy in the Middle East, a dangerous fusion of nationalism and Islamism.
We meet at Somerset House in London, where Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence is making an appearance.
The Forest In Your Mouth
Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science:
In 1683, Antony van Leeuwenhoek, the first human ever to see bacteria, became the first human ever to see his own bacteria. Untrained as a scholar but insatiably curious, he removed some of the thick plaque at the bottom of his teeth and examined it with his own hand-crafted microscopes. He saw multitudes of living things, “very prettily a-moving”, from spheres that spun like a top to rods that darted through water like fish. Enthralled, he soon started collecting plaque from the local citizenry and finding similar microbes within.
Mouth microbes were largely ignored for the next two centuries, until an American dentist named Joseph Appleton took an interest in them. Compared to microbes in the gut or skin, those in the mouth were easier to collect and less vulnerable to oxgyen. Between the 1920s and 1950s, Appleton and others catalogued these bacteria, and noted that how they were influenced by saliva, food, age, seasons, and diseases. Science historian Funke Sangodeyi notes that these efforts helped to turn dentistry—itself a marginalised part of medicine—into a true science rather than just a technical profession.
How the Politics of Fear and the Crushing of Civil Society Imperil Global Rights
Kenneth Roth's World Report for 2016 at Human Rights Watch:
Fear stood behind many of the big human rights developments of the past year. Fear of being killed or tortured in Syria and other zones of conflict and repression drove millions from their homes. Fear of what an influx of asylum seekers could mean for their societies led many governments in Europe and elsewhere to close the gates. Fear of mounting terrorist attacks moved some political leaders to curtail rights and scapegoat refugees or Muslims. And fear of their people holding them to account led various autocrats to pursue an unprecedented global crackdown on the ability of those people to band together and make their voices heard.
In Europe and the United States, a polarizing us-versus-them rhetoric has moved from the political fringe to the mainstream. Blatant Islamophobia and shameless demonizing of refugees have become the currency of an increasingly assertive politics of intolerance.
These trends threatened human rights in two ways, one well known, the other less visible. The high-profile threat is a rollback of rights by many governments in the face of the refugee flow and the parallel decision by the self-declared Islamic State, or ISIS, to spread its attacks beyond the Middle East. The less visible threat is the effort by a growing number of authoritarian governments to restrict civil society, particularly the civic groups that monitor and speak out about those governments’ conduct.
Aubrey de Grey: Defeating Aging
the art of Zhang Hongtu
It is ironic yet unsurprising that politicians in both China and the U.S. have censored Zhang Hongtu’s paintings. Ironic because there are not many artists more dedicated to merging the cultural traditions of the East and the West, and unsurprising because Zhang’s work often wryly undermines authority.
Zhang, who has lived in New York since the early 1980s, is primarily a painter, though he also makes sculptures and installations, and has even dabbled in fashion, creating Mao-inflected designs for Vivienne Tam. This retrospective, guest-curated by Luchia Meihua Lee, is the first major survey of Zhang’s work in the U.S. It spans more than five decades, stretching back to the watercolor paintings and charcoal studies he made in the ’60s as a student at the Central Academy of Arts and Crafts in Beijing and extends to work made in 2015. The almost 100 pieces on view are grouped thematically, highlighting the conceptual issues in the artist’s oeuvre rather than its chronological development.
Several large works, all jesting critiques of China’s historically patriarchal culture, occupy the museum’s atrium. In a monumental 2015 photomural, the artist has added arched gateways along the Great Wall of China, transforming a classic symbol of exclusion into one of openness. Nearby, The Big Red Door (2015, after two previous versions, 1992 and 2002) re-creates a portal to the Forbidden City. Zhang has replaced the real door’s rows of huge hand-hewn nails with metal phalluses, most of them hanging limp. These pieces are a suitable entry point to Zhang’s oeuvre, which can be jocose even when dealing with severe subject matter.
the view from the Czech republic
A glance into western media makes far from pleasant reading for people in our region. At times it seems as though we never belonged to the free world – according to our friends to the West – and that the last 25 years were nothing more than an anomaly, a strange pause while we gave freedom a try.
Now we yearn to return to what the essayist and dissident Milan Simecka, just before the fall of communism, termed "that comfortable unfreedom where those in power know how to stop time and maintain stasis".
Are we really condemned never to learn how to live freely, as some in the West believe? Have the Hungarians and now the Poles too gone down the road to totalitarianism?
And why are these westerners so upset, when the French came close to electing Marine Le Pen and when various flavours of extremists are on the rise in many countries? Are we being held to a double standard?
The fact remains that Hungary has become an authoritarian state where the leading political party does not throw its opponents into prison, yet has set up the rules and the state apparatus such that the entire country is controlled by one political force.
henning mankell's last book
When the University of St Andrews gave Henning Mankell an honorary doctorate in 2008, it announced that the degree was awarded not only for his contribution to literature but also for the “practical exercise of conscience”. That is a formal way of saying “for being a good man”, which is what Mankell was. Now, in Quicksand, published in English less than four months after his death, the Swedish novelist gives us an insight into how he reacted to his diagnosis of cancer and reflected on his mortality. The result is an extraordinarily moving book that tells us a great deal about Mankell’s life and, incidentally, a lot about our lives, too.
Mankell is best known for his crime novels. The Wallander series stands high in the pantheon of “Nordic noir”, that flowering of fiction that has dominated the recent detective novel. But his writing was not the only focus of his public life. Mankell was also a political activist whose position on issues such as the Palestinian question was widely reported (in 2010, he was in the “Gaza Freedom Flotilla” and was deported back to Sweden when the Israel Defence Forces boarded the boats).
He did not mince his words and attracted enthusiastic support, as well as a measure of criticism. In sub-Saharan Africa, with which he had a long and profound association, he put his money to good use. Not only did he endow an orphanage but he gave considerable sums to support drama and literature in countries where funding of the arts is not a high priority. He established and managed an important theatre in Mozambique. He helped people in numerous ways. He was the opposite of the preachy, distant critic. He got his hands dirty.
The Man Who Would Tame Cancer
John Steele in Nautilus:
Patrick Soon-Shiong wants to turn cancer treatment upside down. On January 12, Soon-Shiong and a consortium of industry, government, and academia announced the launch of the Cancer MoonShot 2020, an ambitious program aiming to replace a long history of blunt trial-and-error treatment with what amounts to a training regiment for the body’s own immune system. That system, Soon-Shiong argues, is perfectly adept at finding and eliminating cancer with exquisite precision—if it can recognize the mutated cells in the first place. Helping it to do so could represent a powerful new treatment for the disease, akin to a flu vaccine. Soon-Shiong has hit home runs before. This past July, one of his firms underwent the highest-value biotech IPO in history. A cancer drug he developed, called Abraxane, is approved to fight breast, lung, and pancreatic cancers in more than 40 countries. Soon-Shiong’s path from medical school in South Africa through residency in Canada, to UCLA professor, NASA researcher and corporate CEO has given him the bird’s-eye view necessary to take on a project this ambitious, as well as the resources to marshal the world-class computing and genome-sequencing facilities that it requires.
When I sat down with him after the MoonShot announcement, I found him enthralled by the power and aesthetics of newly emerging cancer science, and deeply optimistic about near-term outcomes. This, it seems, is an exciting time to tackle cancer anew. Yes, I think that’s why we’ve been losing the war. As physicians we’re trained to be reductionist. We rigidly follow protocol. But life is not that way. Cancer is not linear—it is completely non-linear. It lives in the science of chaos. There’s no single point of control. You need to attack it in a non-linear fashion across time and space, monitoring it and truly dancing with it. I know this sounds philosophical and silly and esoteric but it’s not. If you biopsy a patient with breast cancer twice in the same day, once in the breast and once in the lymph node, you can get cancer cells with different sequences. Even if you biopsy two different points in the breast, the sequence can be different. This heterogeneity has really only come to light recently. Which breaks all these reductionist assumptions, because which target are you hitting and what made you choose it? Is it just because you biopsied here instead of there? You’re whacking a mole, but you have no idea which one you’re whacking. You whack this one, this other one wakens. The only chance we have, in my opinion, is to do what I call micro killing and macro killing at the same time. Micro killing meaning you go after these little targets, maybe even using a little chemotherapy. And macro killing meaning either surgery, radiation, or immunotherapy.
A Supermarket in California
What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under
the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.
In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket,
dreaming of your enumerations!
What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of
husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!--and you, García Lorca, what were
you doing down by the watermelons?
I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the
refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are
you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and followed in my
imagination by the store detective.
We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing
every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.
by Allen Ginsberg
from Collected Poems 1947-1980
Harper & Row
Thursday, January 28, 2016
The Policies Behind the Prison Boom
Jennifer Roche over at the University of Chicago's Becker Friedman Institute:
Studies of incarceration trends and their economic impact are challenging because data collected about prisoners and the flows in and out of the penal system are “very messy,” Neal said. This is because almost 80 percent of all U.S. prisoners are held in state facilities, and the states vary widely in the reliability of the statistics they report.
In a key contribution to the field, Neal and Rick cleaned National Corrections Reporting Program data and ran several consistency checks to identify the states with most complete reporting. From this they focused on seven states with reliable data. They then matched this data with cleaned state-level arrest data to track trends in arrests and prison admissions.
Sound data on arrests, admissions, and releases based on specific crimes allowed them to see changes in prison populations and time served across states and model different outcomes. They held sentencing lengths steady from a baseline of 1985 and asked what the prison population would have been based on just the arrest data. They confirmed that the population would have been much smaller than the current one.
Neal hopes his work will clarify misconceptions about the relative size of the role federal and state policies played in prison population growth. According to Neal and Rick’s estimates, the federal war on drugs—with dramatically harsher penalties for those convicted for possession of crack cocaine, who tended to be black, than for drugs more commonly used by whites—sent approximately 20,000 black men to prison who might not otherwise have gone. But the picture in state prisons is worse.
Their calculations for the seven states in their cleaned data suggest that the black male population of 142,000 is 42.7 percent higher than it would have been under 1985 sentencing policies. Extrapolating that nationwide, their rough calculation adds up to 345,000 “additional” black men held in state prisons under the newer, more punitive sentencing laws.
Economics in the Age of Abundance
J. Bradford DeLong in Project Syndicate:
More than 20 years ago, Alan Greenspan, then-Chair of the US Federal Reserve, started pointing out that GDP growth in the US was becoming less driven by consumers trying to acquire more stuff. Those in the prosperous middle class were becoming much more interested in communicating, seeking out information, and trying to acquire the right stuff to allow them to live their lives as they wished.
Of course, the rest of the world still faces problems of scarcity; roughly one-third of the world’s population struggles to get enough food. And there is no guarantee that those problems will solve themselves. It is worth recalling that a little over 150 years ago, both Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill believed that India and Britain would converge economically in no more than three generations.
There is no shortage of problems to worry about: the destructive power of our nuclear weapons, the pig-headed nature of our politics, the potentially enormous social disruptions that will be caused by climate change. But the number one priority for economists – indeed, for humankind – is finding ways to spur equitable economic growth.
But job number two– developing economic theories to guide societies in an age of abundance – is no less complicated. Some of the problems that are likely to emerge are already becoming obvious. Today, many people derive their self-esteem from their jobs. As labor becomes a less important part of the economy, and working-age men, in particular, become a smaller proportion of the workforce, problems related to social inclusion are bound to become both more chronic and more acute.