Sunday, July 20, 2014
Henry Farrell in The Monkey Cage:
Fred Block (research professor of sociology at University of California at Davis) and Margaret Somers (professor of sociology and history at the University of Michigan) have a new book, “The Power of Market Fundamentalism: Karl Polanyi’s Critique” (Harvard University Press, 2014). The book argues that the ideas of Karl Polanyi, the author of “The Great Transformation,” a classic of 20th century political economy, are crucial if you want to understand the recession and its aftermath. I asked the authors a series of questions.
HF - Your book argues for the continued relevance of Karl Polanyi’s work, especially “The Great Transformation.” What are the ideas at the core of Polanyi’s thought?
FB & MS – Polanyi’s core thesis is that there is no such thing as a free market; there never has been, nor can there ever be. Indeed he calls the very idea of an economy independent of government and political institutions a “stark utopia”—utopian because it is unrealizable, and the effort to bring it into being is doomed to fail and will inevitably produce dystopian consequences. While markets are necessary for any functioning economy, Polanyi argues that the attempt to create a market society is fundamentally threatening to human society and the common good. In the first instance the market is simply one of many different social institutions; the second represents the effort to subject not just real commodities (computers and widgets) to market principles but virtually all of what makes social life possible, including clean air and water, education, health care, personal, legal, and social security, and the right to earn a livelihood. When these public goods and social necessities (what Polanyi calls “fictitious commodities”) are treated as if they are commodities produced for sale on the market, rather than protected rights, our social world is endangered and major crises will ensue.
Free market doctrine aims to liberate the economy from government “interference”, but Polanyi challenges the very idea that markets and governments are separate and autonomous entities. Government action is not some kind of “interference” in the autonomous sphere of economic activity; there simply is no economy without government rules and institutions. It is not just that society depends on roads, schools, a justice system, and other public goods that only government can provide. It is thatall of the key inputs into the economy—land, labor, and money—are only created and sustained through continuous government action. The employment system, the arrangements for buying and selling real estate, and the supplies of money and credit are organized and maintained through the exercise of government’s rules, regulations, and powers.
Carl Zimmer in Quanta:
The book is ostensibly about the Cambrian explosion, a flurry of evolutionary innovation that took place more than 500 million years ago. The oldest known fossils of many of today’s major animal groups date to that time. Our own lineage, the vertebrates, first made an appearance in the Cambrian explosion, for example.
But Gould had a deeper question in mind as he wrote his book. If you knew everything about life on Earth half a billion years ago, could you predict that humans would eventually evolve?
Gould thought not. He even doubted that scientists could safely predict that any vertebrates would still be on the planet today. How could they, he argued, when life is constantly buffeted by random evolutionary gusts? Natural selection depends on unpredictable mutations, and once a species emerges, its fate can be influenced by all sorts of forces, from viral outbreaks to continental drift, volcanic eruptions and asteroid impacts. Our continued existence, Gould wrote, is the result of a thousand happy accidents.
To illustrate his argument, Gould had his readers imagine an experiment he called “replaying life’s tape.” “You press the rewind button and, making sure you thoroughly erase everything that actually happened, go back to any time and place in the past,” he wrote. “Then let the tape run again and see if the repetition looks at all like the original.” Gould wagered that it wouldn’t.
Although Gould only offered it as a thought experiment, the notion of replaying the tape of life has endured. That’s because nature sometimes runs experiments that capture the spirit of his proposal.
For an experiment to be predictable, it has to be repeatable. If the initial conditions are the same, the final conditions should also be the same. For example, a marble placed at the edge of a bowl and released will end up at the bottom of the bowl no matter how many times the action is repeated.'
Biologists have found cases in which evolution has, in effect, run the same experiment several times over. And in some cases the results of those natural experiments have turned out very similar each time. In other words, evolution has been predictable.
Annalee Newitz in io9:
The poplar tree's genome has been sequenced and it has 42 thousand genes — roughly twice the number as a human. It turns out that this is typical for a perennial plant like the poplar. Though we animals think of ourselves as far more sophisticated than plants, Tuskan explained that trees have to be a lot tougher and more resilient than the typical animal. He explained:
Humans or mice or elephants can move. If it's cold they can go underground or build shelter. Perennial plants have to stand there and take it for thousands of years in some cases — they have to be equipped biochemically for a drought, ready for heat or cold, ready for an insect attack. I think that's part of why plants have larger arrays of genes — that's their way of surviving.
Out of all these genes, only a handful may turn out to be useful for industry. "Half of the genes have no known function," Tuskan said, "and with lignin it's probably somewhere between a dozen and three or four dozen genes that will turn out to be important."
A lot of what Tuskan's lab does with poplars is an effort to link the behavior of specific genes to physical traits in the tree. This kind of analysis is called a genome-wide association study or GWAS, which everybody in the field pronounces "gee wass," like J-Lo for genome geeks. "Basically it's figuring out the genome's relationship to the phenotype," said Tuskan.
He and his colleagues have already had some success isolating genes that control various aspects of the tree's metabolism. In one case, they were able to start and stop the growth of a symbiotic fungus in poplar tree roots. Ultimately, Tuskan would like to have genetic switches that control many aspects of the poplar's development. Farmers could do things like grow a tree that's designed to have more lignin or less, depending on what the market demands.
John Henning Schumann in NPR:
A woman in her late 20s came to see me recently because her back hurt. She works at a child care center in town where she picks up babies and small children all day long. She felt a twinge in her lower back when hoisting a fussy kid. The pain was bad enough that she went home from work early and was laid out on the couch until she came to see me the next day. In my office she told me she had "done some damage" to her back. She was worried. She didn't want to end up like her father, who'd left his factory job in his mid-50s on disability after suffering what she called permanent damage to his back. Back pain is common. I see someone with back pain almost every day. Nearly all of us have at least one episode in our lives, and two-thirds of us will have it repeatedly. If you've somehow lived into your 40s and never suffered low back pain, congratulations! You're what doctors like me call an outlier. In my patient's case, I was confident that her back pain wasn't serious. A minor injury was the clear cause. And nearly all back pain like hers from a simple mechanical strain gets better on its own. I wanted to reassure her. I told her to go about her daily life. Keep exercising, but try to take it just a little bit easy until she felt better. At a minimum, I said, she should be walking 30 minutes a day. Also, try some ibuprofen, which helps with inflammation and doesn't require a prescription. But she wasn't buying it. "Don't I need an MRI, or at least an X-ray?" she asked. "My father had three herniated discs and wound up with two back operations. He still never has a day without at least some pain." I upped the ante. I told her I could refer her to physical therapy, one of the few things shown to be truly helpful for low back pain. No dice. She insisted on an MRI just to be sure. A test like that wasn't warranted, in my opinion, because it would neither change her treatment nor the course of this first-ever bout of back pain. She would just get better.
To convince her of this, I had to resort to my secret weapon: I showed her an 11-minute educational video created by Dr. Mike Evans of Toronto. You may be familiar with Evans' work, even if you've never heard of him. He's the man behind the famous "23 1/2 Hours" whiteboard video that says the single-best move for health is being active for a half-hour or so a day. The video became a viral Internet sensation, racking up millions of page views, and even a shoutout on the hit TV show Orange Is the New Black. Evans is passionate about making complex medical ideas simple. He and his team have made more than a dozen whiteboard videos on health topics including how to deal with stress, acne, quitting smoking and even flatulence.
Julian Baggini and Antonia Macaro in FT Magazine:
When people are asked what they’d like in life they typically respond that they want to be happy. Wisdom, which we might think of as a remote and highfalutin concept, is not such a popular answer. But, in practice, happiness is flimsy, relatively unpredictable and best thought of as something that may visit us if we create the right environment for it. A practical, everyday sort of wisdom – the ability to make good choices and judgments in life – is the stuff we need to negotiate life’s sharp bends. There are many lists that attempt to reduce wisdom to its core ingredients. Perhaps it’s unwise to try and come up with the definitive recipe but some skills and attitudes seem especially crucial. Being wise is about knowing what’s important; having sufficient insight into how we and others tick; having a handle on negative moods and emotions instead of being controlled by them; having an attitude of curiosity and a love of learning; understanding we’re all in the same boat and therefore being compassionate towards ourselves and others.
One of the most important skills is captured in the serenity prayer, which says that wisdom is knowing the difference between what can and can’t be changed. This requires performing a balancing act between striving to maximise our potential and accepting our limitations. So we enjoy life while appreciating its fragility; we make decisions in an inescapable state of uncertainty, knowing we’ll often get it wrong; and we accept we’re the product of our circumstances and have limited but crucial opportunity for self-improvement. Wisdom is not something that automatically comes with the passing years. While older people may be better able to put things in perspective than their younger counterparts, many never put their life experience to good use. Luckily, some of the skills that make us wise can be cultivated, so it’s up to us to make what effort we can to ensure that our experience bears fruit.
Saturday, July 19, 2014
In the era before cheap air travel, those in the English-speaking world who wanted to taste authentic French village life read Gabriel Chevallier’s gently satirical novels, published between the mid-1930s and the early 1960s. “Clochemerle” and “Clochemerle-Babylon” were deft, wise and celebratory in what people thought of as the French style. On the town of Clochemerle, in the Beaujolais region, the issues of French politics, class difference and coming or past collaboration with fascism lay more lightly than did eccentricity, pride in local wine, cooking and love.
So “Fear,” never previously published in the United States, is at first acquaintance a shock. Here national rhetoric is not directed for or against the building of a municipal restroom, as in “Clochemerle.” Instead it shreds the bodies of young men. This unadorned yet memorable novel is one of a number of savagely frank novel-memoirs of the war that appeared throughout Western Europe within a year of one another. Frederic Manning’s “The Middle Parts of Fortune” shook English readers in 1929. In the same year, Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” seemed treasonous to the fascists of Germany.
THE NATURAL might be considered an anomaly within Bernard Malamud’s oeuvre if it didn’t so closely resemble nearly everything else within Bernard Malamud’s oeuvre.
Actually, it’s considered an anomaly, anyway.
Earlier this year, the Library of America published two volumes containing all of Malamud’s work up through the 1960s. (A third volume, with the rest, is said to be on its way.) His novels and stories have subsequently received a fair amount of press. Conspicuously, The Natural, his first novel, hasn’t — in some cases, it’s been mentioned only so it can be dismissed. “The reviewer has not read and is not likely ever to read The Natural, a baseball novel said to incorporate a mythical theme,” Cynthia Ozick wrote in TheNew York Times in March. “Myth may be myth, but baseball is baseball, so nevermind.” In his survey of Malamud’s work for Harper’s, Joshua Cohen dedicated to The Natural fewer than 10 words — it “concerns baseball, a.k.a. frustration” — before moving on to discuss the author’s more discussed narratives. Likewise James Campbell, in The Wall Street Journal, cast it aside; he called The Natural “[Malamud’s] anomalous debut novel,” and quickly noted: “The two books that followed are probably his best.”
It's tempting to frame Anya Ulinich's "Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel" in terms of its antecedents: Bernard Malamud and Anton Chekhov, on the one hand, both of whom are referenced in the narrative, and on the other, graphic novelists such as Marjane Satrapi and Harvey Pekar, whose work is rich, allusive and (perhaps most important) alive with words.
What's more accurate, however, is that "Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel" has no antecedents, that it transcends its influences so thoroughly it creates a form, a language, all its own. Ulinich wrote a previous (nongraphic) novel, 2007's "Petropolis," which tells the story of a Russian mail-order bride named Sasha Goldberg, who ends up in Brooklyn by way of Arizona. Something of a similar set of migrations is at play here, but don't let that mislead you: This new book is a departure in nearly every way.
Most obvious, of course, is its status as a graphic novel, the interplay of words and images through which so much of the narrative unfolds. Ulinich has an MFA in painting from the University of California and has done her share of portrait work and illustration, but this is a different order of magnitude.
Rachel Toor in The Chronicle of Higher Education:
When people ask me what running and writing have in common, I tend to look at the ground and say it might have something to do with discipline: You do both of those things when you don’t feel like it, and make them part of your regular routine. You know some days will be harder than others, and on some you won’t hit your mark and will want to quit. But you don’t. You force yourself into a practice, the practice becomes habit and then simply part of your identity. A surprising amount of success, as Woody Allen once said, comes from just showing up.Or perhaps I’ll mutter something about sought-after outcomes: You want to nail it; you want, if nothing else, to beat yourself, to beat your best self. You want something to show for the effort. You want the applause that comes when you’ve finished, and finished well. You want the markers of achievement—you’d like to think you are just doing it for you, but most of us are not that self-realized. The material rewards mean something.
When I think harder about it, what I believe running and writing have most in common, at least for me, is the state of vulnerability they leave you in. Both require bravery, audacity, a belief in one’s own abilities, and a willingness to live the clichés: to put it on the line, to dig deep, to go for it. You have to believe in the "it," and have to believe, too, that you are worthy. That is hard because the results always seem impossible. At the beginning of every track practice, when the coach gives us a workout, I think: I can’t do that. No one could ever do that. When I line up at the start of a marathon, I imagine driving from Hopkinton to Boston or from Staten Island to Central Park and I tell myself that’s too far to run. At longer races, when I know the unimaginable elevation of the peaks I’ll have to climb and descend in 30 or 50 miles of tough trail, I wonder what’s wrong with me to believe I could do something so challenging. It’s too hard, I think. I can’t do that.
Which is exactly how I feel when I’m starting on a book project.
Maureen Dowd in The New York Times:
Clare Boothe Luce has a lot to answer for. As the grande dame of the Republican Party, she introduced Richard Nixon to Henry Kissinger at her 1967 Christmas cocktail party. As la belle dame sans merci of Manhattan’s smart set, she took whatever she wanted from life without regard to moral consequences, even after showily converting to Catholicism. As a glamorous World War II correspondent, she wrote a book so self-regarding that Dorothy Parker titled her review “All Clare on the Western Front.” Her colleague at Vanity Fair in the 1930s, Helen Lawrenson, wrote about the author of the venomous 1936 play “The Women”: “I can think of no one who aroused so much venom in members of her own sex.” “Throughout her life she had aimed for the best of everything and usually gotten it,” Sylvia Jukes Morris writes in the second volume of her exhaustive biography of the relentless enchantress who had more hyphens in her résumé than Barbra Streisand. Clare Boothe Luce was an actress-editrix-playwright-screenwriter-congresswoman-ambassador-presidential adviser. And as the wife of Henry Luce, father of the Time empire, she was the clever half of the predominant power couple of the mid-20th century, even giving Luce many ideas for Life magazine, though she was barred from its masthead. She was “an accomplished seductress” who married once, if not twice, for money and position, Morris writes. Yet Luce always asserted that “in every marriage there are two marriages. His and hers. His is better. . . . What man now calls woman’s natural feminine mentality is the unnatural slave mentality he forced on her.”
In Morris’s first volume, “Rage for Fame,” Luce — the illegitimate daughter of a violet-eyed, conniving Upper West Side beauty who urged her daughter to use her blue eyes, blond hair and luminous skin to ensnare wealthy men — is on the ascent, driven by “her perpetual hunger for power in yet more spheres.” She had few real friends, as Lawrenson wrote, because “she seemed to trust no one, love no one.” Yet, Lawrenson said, Luce “could enter a room where there were other women, more beautiful, better dressed with better figures, and they faded into the background, foils for her radiance.” Luce flourished as a coquette and courtesan in bows and ruffles, but she once told male diplomats at a well-lubricated dinner: “Women are not interested in sex. All they want is babies and security from men. Men are just too stupid to know it.” Her sometime escort, the French artist Raymond Bret-Koch, appraised her this way: “It’s a beautiful, well-constructed facade but without central heating.”
Friday, July 18, 2014
What makes a documentary photograph also a work of art? When does its news remain fresh, even after the daily paper or monthly magazine that printed it has faded? Bruce Davidson is a documentary photographer with a sixty-year track record, the most distinguished survivor of a time before photography was sold profitably in art galleries or studied widely in universities. It was only in the 1970s that the idea of “art photography” was recognized as being not a contradiction in terms; before then, someone wanting to earn a living with a camera relied on advertising agencies or periodicals. Many pictures that later entered museums began their lives in fashion and news-feature magazines.
Walker Evans once said that his photographs were not documentary pictures but “documentary style.” He explained: “An example of a literal document would be a police photograph of a murder scene. You see, a document has use, whereas art is really useless. Therefore art is never a document, although it certainly can adopt that style.” As one looks through the wealth of Davidson’s body of work, this distinction is helpful to keep in mind.
“Spring and Fall,” written by Gerard Manley Hopkins in September, 1880, and collected in his Poems and Prose, is the saddest poem ever written. I have been moved by other poems, including “Rock Me Mercy” by Yusef Komunyakaa, “Saying Goodbye to Very Young Children” by John Updike, and “Aubade Ending with the Death of a Mosquito” by Tarfia Faizullah. There are countless more poems, published and unpublished, seen and unseen, that could scar my heart. Yet in 15 lines and 94 words, Hopkins builds a melancholic, elegiac sentiment that still affects me now, hundreds of reads later.
The poem is invoked to a “young child,” Margaret, who is the silent recipient of the adult narrator’s lament. Hopkins composed the poem while serving as a parish priest in Lydiate, England, and occasionally celebrated Mass at Rose Hill, a private home. He was not a successful preacher, and, devoid of a “working strength,” soon left pastoral work. He taught intermediate Latin and Greek for three years, and then became Chair of Classics at University College, Dublin. He found little joy in any of these professional endeavors, and died of typhoid fever on June 8, 1889. His poems were not published until 1918, by his friend, British poet laureate Robert Bridges.
The story most media accounts tell of the recent burst of violence in Iraq seems clear-cut and straightforward. In reality, what is happening is anything but. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), so the narrative goes, a barbaric, jihadi militia, honed in combat in Syria, has swept aside vastly larger but feckless Iraqi army forces in a seemingly unstoppable tide of conquest across northern and western Iraq, almost to the outskirts of Baghdad. The country, riven by ineluctable sectarian conflict, stands on the brink of civil war. The United States, which left Iraq too soon, now has to act fast, choosing among an array of ugly options, among them renewed military involvement and making common cause with Iran. Alternatives include watching Iraq splinter and the creation of an Islamist caliphate spanning eastern Syria and western Iraq.
Much of this is, at best, misleading; some is outright wrong. ISIS, to begin, is only one of an almost uncountable mélange of Sunni militant groups. Besides ISIS, the Sunni insurgency that has risen up against the government of Nouri al-Maliki includes another jihadi group, Ansar al-Islam (Supporters of Islam), as well as the Military Council of the Tribes of Iraq, comprising as many as eighty tribes, and the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order, a group that claims to have Shiite and Kurdish members and certainly includes many Sunni Baathists once loyal to Saddam Hussein.
Laxmi Murthy in HimalSouthAsian:
On the morning of a hot day at the end of May, the thick branches of a mango tree in dusty Katra Sadatganj village in Badaun district of Uttar Pradesh bore not luscious mangoes, but a macabre burden: the distended bodies of two adolescent girls. Pictures floating on the internet show the bodies of two teenagers strung up on the tree, a crowd standing witness, unable to tear their eyes away from the horrific sight. Children gawk, women mourn, men bristle with anger. The two young cousins, aged 14 and 16, had been abducted in the evening when they had gone into a field to relieve themselves. Their families went to lodge a complaint soon after they realised the girls had not returned, but the police refused to search for the missing girls, even though an eyewitness had seen them being dragged away, screaming. The next morning, the village woke up to the gruesome sight. It did not take long to conclude that the girls had been gang-raped and murdered. The culprits were also no secret. The villagers refused to take down the bodies in protest. Several hours later, only after one of the five accused had been arrested, did the families take the bodies down and allow themselves to mourn. The videos of the two girls are no longer easily accessible on the Internet. “Child sexual abuse imagery is illegal,” Google reminds us. Yet other videos, of a seemingly ‘copycat’ killing in Uttar Pradesh a few weeks later, show flashbacks of the young girls, their faces clearly visible, as is the embroidery on their colourful kurtas. Some video archives on news websites also show the gruesome images, albeit with the faces blurred and bodies indistinguishable. The pixelation serves to sanitise the killing – if you can’t see the faces, it can’t be so bad. One website shows passport size photos of the two girls held carefully in the work-worn hand of one of the girls’ father. They have names, they had aspirations. The mother of one of the girls tells the media that her daughter wanted to study, was keen to get a job.
The manner in which the bodies were strung up is reminiscent of the lynching of African-Americans in the late 19th century. What does this spectacle of violence serve to do? Lynching, or mob-inflicted punishment, was most infamously used before the American Civil War to discipline rebellious blacks and show them their place.
From Medical Xpress:
An organism is healthy thanks to a good maintenance system: the normal functioning of organs and environmental exposure cause damage to tissues, which need to be continuously repaired. This process is not yet well understood, but it is known that stem cells in the organs play a key role, and that when repair fails, the organism ages more quickly. Researchers from the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO) have "discovered one of the key genes that make up the maintenance mechanism for tissues" says Miguel Foronda, the first author of the manuscript. The target of this research, the Sox4 gene, is expressed during embryonic development —it contributes, for example, to the development of the pancreas, the bones and the heart, and to the differentiation of lymphocytes. It is also active in the adult organism, but in a very limited way, being mainly restricted to some stem cell compartments. Furthermore, when Sox4 malfunctions it becomes an oncogene. Practically all human cancers have too much Sox4, which translates into more cellular proliferation and less apoptosis—programmed cell death; a mechanism that protects against cancer. It is also known that Sox4 plays a role in metastasis.
Both of these facts—that Sox4 is expressed only in some cells in the adult organism, and that it favours cancer development when there is too much of it—indicate that Sox4 is a powerful gene, with important consequences if it is not properly regulated.The CNIO group, therefore, wanted to study more in depth the role of Sox4 in the adult organism. It was not an easy task, because mice in which Sox4 had been eliminated die before birth. The authors' working strategy consisted of generating a line of mice that do express Sox4, but at lower quantities than normal. These animals survive and are fertile, but they have several peculiarities: they are smaller than normal, age earlier and do not have cancer. Conversely, they do develop other age-related illnesses. As stated by the researchers, the mice with less Sox4: "show signs of premature loss of tissue homeostasis (maintenance), shorter telomeres, and, as a consequence, accelerated ageing and the appearance of pathologies associated with ageing, as well as cancer resistance."
Thursday, July 17, 2014
We want, sometimes, to hold on to the physical body of an artist because art is so elusive. The jumping spluttering paintings of Jackson Pollock, for instance, are hard to pin down. But the paintings, like prayers, eventually point the viewer away from the canvas and toward the unseen energy that created them.
Maryanne Amacher’s art was especially elusive. Amacher sculpted with sound, that most invisible medium. What is sound anyway? Paint makes a painting — even words can be looked at, and the words produce objects in our minds. Sculpting with sound is like sculpting with time. Is a sound artist like a clock? Maryanne Amacher’s temporal art was site-specific, composed for and in and of rooms, houses, monasteries. Architecture — the place where her sounds were physically located — was essential to the work of Maryanne Amacher. Most of her compositions had to be heard in the places they were made for, creating, as she wrote, “intense and dramatic sound experiences that [could not] be realized in home listening environments.” Her compositions were sonic worlds. When you walked into a Maryanne Amacher composition you entered her story of sound. Walls and floors shaped the tones but so did your body. Your body became architecture. When the listeners left and Amacher went home, the art disappeared. You wonder if it ever existed.
Informal urban settlements, otherwise known as slums or shanties, appeared at various moments during the twentieth century as the spatial manifestation of urban poverty. Their histories differ from one socio-geographic region to the other: the gecekondu districts in Turkey developed under different circumstances to the favelas in Brazil, and so on. However, what unites these settlements is that they make visible uneven capitalist development on an urban scale. Urban researchers have studied these districts extensively, focusing on a variety of issues. Urban planners, for example, made an effort to develop ideas about how to normalize irregular urban settlements, while sociologists have studied the structural and economic causes for the emergence of such districts. Anthropologists have focused both on questions of gender in shanties as well as on their potential for resistance in everyday life. Until twenty years ago, informal settlements were studied mainly as an urban sociological phenomenon under rubrics such as "urban poverty" or "rapid urbanization". Recently, however, they have begun to appear in very different contexts, for example in architectural/urban planning projects and debates, contemporary art and popular culture.
Introduced in print by John W. De Forest in January 1868, the phrase “Great American Novel” had already been used by P. T. Barnum to mock publishers for puffing their latest books, Buell writes, confirming that the GAN is at least as much a marketing device as a reliable measure of literary merit. The first novel to be named “the Greatest Book of the Age” was Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe, which supposedly provoked the “great war” that ended slavery in the Southern states. For this reason, Buell deems it the preeminent American example of activist art: it “changed the world” and so its status endures despite criticism of its depiction of black people. It also shows that it is possible for a GAN to be written by a woman, although critical consensus suggests that hardly any have been. The heyday of serious debate over the Great American Novel ran from the 1860s to the 1920s, when the promise of the American Dream was equally prominent. After The Great Gatsby(1925) killed the Dream, along with its hero, interest in pinpointing GANs waxed and waned in popularity, perhaps because an increasingly heterogeneous nation found it hard to believe that a single novel – even a very long one – could represent America in all its variety.
Since the function of the GAN is to represent Americanness, Buell proposes that its aims are best fulfilled by a body of work rather than a single novel.
From More Intelligent Life:
Rita Levi-Montalcini was a scientist in Italy at a time when few women were scientists. She was born into a rich Jewish family in Turin and studied medicine against her father’s wishes, building a lab in her bedroom where she grew nerve fibres using chicken embryos. Then war broke out, and being a woman scientist and Jewish—both of which were banned by the Fascists—she was under threat of persecution. But instead of halting her research, she moved her lab into the cellar and continued her work. This determination to carry on against all the odds impressed me very strongly. She put research above everything else, and pursued it with a passion that was never diluted by age. Even well into her 90s, she would go into the lab every day, always immaculately dressed in old-fashioned clothes with lots of ribbons.
After the war she moved to Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. And it was there, working with Stanley Cohen, that she proved the existence of nerve-growth factor, a substance produced in the limb buds that stimulates nerve growth. I was just starting my PhD in 1986 when she won her Nobel. Suddenly—boom!—she was known to everyone in Italy. I started to be interested in her life; that she was a woman and Italian was a huge inspiration. She represented what I wanted to do: research, the pursuit of knowledge, exploring new territories and going beyond what is known. Later on, as I got older and more mature, her life provided an example of how a scientist should behave—with humility and modesty. Newton said: "What we know is a droplet; what we don’t know is an ocean." It is still true today—we know so little about our universe.
Virginia Hughes in Nature:
Every week, about 20 people visit the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in Pennsylvania to be evaluated for weight-loss surgery. They tell a nurse their medical history and have a routine physical examination. Then they sit down with a surgeon to discuss their options. Anita Courcoulas, head of minimally invasive bariatric and general surgery at the centre, has had thousands of these conversations in the past 25 years. During that time, the information she shares with her patients has changed dramatically. Thanks to clinical trials, she can now tell them with some confidence that surgery not only spurs remarkable weight loss in most people, but also significantly lowers the risk of heart attack, stroke, cancer and death. And with the most popular procedure — Roux-en-Y gastric bypass, which shrinks the stomach to the size of an egg — up to 60% of patients with diabetes go into remission for at least several years after the operation1. There are drawbacks for her to discuss, too: the cost (around US$25,000); the small risk of surgical complications (on a par with that of gall-bladder removal); and the chance of developing nutritional deficiencies or an intolerance to certain foods. But perhaps the toughest issue for patients is the uncertainty. Surgery does not work for everybody, and weight loss can be transient.
Doctors are not sure why gastric bypass and similar procedures curb diabetes and other diseases. The conventional view has been that the benefits stem mostly from the weight that patients shed — typically one-quarter of their body mass1. But in the 1980s, some patients were found to show rapid changes in their metabolism after surgery, suggesting that other factors are at play. Now, a slew of high-profile animal studies is identifying potential mechanisms in how the gut adapts to its strange new configuration: with sweeping changes in bacterial populations, bile acids, hormone secretions and tissue growth. The hope is that more research on what happens after bariatric surgery will enable physicians to identify who will respond best — and even lead to ways of altering metabolism without resorting to the knife.
Rachel Aviv at the New Yorker on a middle-school cheating scandal that defines the era of No Child Left Behind:
One afternoon in the spring of 2006, Damany Lewis, a math teacher at Parks Middle School, in Atlanta, unlocked the room where standardized tests were kept. It was the week before his students took the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, which determined whether schools in Georgia had met federal standards of achievement. The tests were wrapped in cellophane and stacked in cardboard boxes. Lewis, a slim twenty-nine-year-old with dreadlocks, contemplated opening the test with scissors, but he thought his cut marks would be too obvious. Instead, he left the school, walked to the corner store, and bought a razor blade. When he returned, he slit open the cellophane and gently pulled a test book from its wrapping. Then he used a lighter to warm the razor, which he wedged under the adhesive sealing the booklet, and peeled back the tab.
He photocopied the math, reading, and language-arts sections—the subjects that would determine, under the No Child Left Behind guidelines, whether Parks would be classified as a “school in need of improvement” for the sixth year in a row. Unless fifty-eight per cent of students passed the math portion of the test and sixty-seven per cent passed in language arts, the state could shut down the school. Lewis put on gloves, to prevent oil from his hands from leaving a residue on the plastic, and then used his lighter to melt the edges of the cellophane together, so that it appeared as if the package had never been opened. He gave the reading and language-arts sections to two teachers he trusted and took the math section home...
Parks Middle School is three miles south of downtown Atlanta, in Pittsburgh, a neighborhood bordered by a run-down trucking lot and railway tracks fallen into disuse. Founded after the Civil War, Pittsburgh was a black working-class area until the nineteen-sixties and seventies, when residents began leaving for the suburbs. Half the homes in the neighborhood are now vacant. Lewis’s students called the area Little Vietnam and Jack City, because of all the armed robberies. Once, when Lewis stopped at a convenience store to tell his students to go home and do their homework, a prostitute approached him. “I’m, like, ‘Whoa, whoa, I’m a teacher!’ ” he said. “And she’s, like, ‘I don’t care. Teachers get down.’ ”...
His students, who came to school with bad breath and parkas that smelled of urine, seemed to lack the conviction that they would ever leave the neighborhood. Parks was run by an older woman who was not inclined to innovate. Homework was a joke. There was litter in the hallways, and students urinated in trash cans. A veteran teacher told Lewis that only twenty per cent of his students would grasp what he was teaching, so he should go over each lesson five times. “Please—I’m a better teacher than that,” he remembered thinking. “She was just making excuses for why she spiralled in circles.”
Read the rest here.