A Double Life in Black and White

Patricia Storace looks at a “graphic memoir” by Marjane Satrapi, in the New York Review of Books:

The two volumes of Persepolis, the implacably witty and fearless “graphic memoir” of the Iranian illustrator Marjane Satrapi, relate through an inseparable fusion of cartoon images and verbal narrative the story of a privileged young girl’s childhood experience of Iran’s revolution of 1979, its eight-year war with Iraq, her exile to Austria during her high school years, and her subsequent experience as a university student, young artist, and wife in Tehran after her return to Iran from Europe in 1998. That Persepolis 1, a book in which it is almost impossible to find an image distinguished enough to consider an independent piece of visual art, and equally difficult to find a sentence which in itself surpasses the serviceable, emerges as a work so fresh, absorbing, and memorable is an extraordinary achievement.

In the cartoon world she creates, pictures function less as illustration than as records of action, a kind of visual journalism.

More here.

Nearby Evidence for Dark Energy

Sara Goudarzi at Space.com:

New research suggests evidence of dark energy in our cosmic backyard, but theorists are still divided on explanations for the ever-increasing speed with which the universe is expanding.

Until now, evidence for dark energy, a mysterious antigravity force apparently pushing galaxies outward at an accelerating pace, has only been found in the farthest reaches of the universe. But an international team of researchers has used computer models supported by observations from the Hubble Space Telescope to find hints of dark energy closer by.

More here.

Law and order among insects

Susan Milius in Science News:

A5977_163In a colony of tree wasps, workers on nursemaid duty crawl this way and that along the bottom of their nest, tending the youngsters in the comb. Most of the workers dutifully look after the queen’s offspring, stopping only to spit a runny meal into the mouth of a pale, lumpy larva snug in its cell. But one of these workers is up to no good. This selfish worker stays still for a minute or two in a suspiciously crouched position. She’s laying her own egg in an empty cell.

Such rogue egg laying is a crime against insect society. The wheels of justice, however, don’t require a special caste of investigators and prosecutors. Punishment among insects is meted out by ordinary workers—and sometimes the queen herself—says biologist Tom Wenseleers, who has watched dozens of hours of black-and-white videos from infrared security cameras that he’s trained on nests of tree wasps.

In the most dramatic episodes, the egg sneak finds herself surrounded by a posse of vigilante workers.

More here.

Startling Scientists, Plant Fixes Its Flawed Gene

Nicholas Wade in the New York Times:

Plant184In a startling discovery, geneticists at Purdue University say they have found plants that possess a corrected version of a defective gene inherited from both their parents, as if some handy backup copy with the right version had been made in the grandparents’ generation or earlier.

The finding implies that some organisms may contain a cryptic backup copy of their genome that bypasses the usual mechanisms of heredity. If confirmed, it would represent an unprecedented exception to the laws of inheritance discovered by Gregor Mendel in the 19th century. Equally surprising, the cryptic genome appears not to be made of DNA, the standard hereditary material.

More here.

Missed World Water Day?

Yesterday was World Water Day. ‘So what?’ you’re asking. Well, consider that, according to UNESCO, ‘1 billion people lack access to improved water supply,’ and ‘2.4 billion people lack access to improved sanitation.’ Furthermore:

   – Every day, diarrhoeal diseases cause some 6,000 deaths, mostly among children under five.
   – In 2001, 1.96 million people died from infectious diarrhoeas; 1.3 million were children under five.
   – Between 1,085,000 and 2,187,000 deaths due to diarrhoeal diseases can be attributed to the ‘water, sanitation and hygiene’ risk factor, 90 percent of them among children under five.

1 million die from malaria each year, and 200 million are infected with schistosomiasis, a disease caused by a worm that is often found in irrigation ditches and still river water.

Okay, then comes the doom and gloom of the possible Water Wars, such as the water conflict between Israelis, Palestinians, and Syrians, or between the Egyptians and the Ethiopians.

For a slightly more cheering view, here’s a look at what the UN is doing to try to ameliorate the problem, with some specific case studies.

Pakistan Is Booming Since 9/11

Somini Sengupta in the New York Times:

The country’s economy grew 6.4 percent during the last fiscal year, and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, a former Citibank executive, projects 8 percent annual growth in two years’ time.

“Pakistan is a country today that has gone through a very intensive five-year reform,” Mr. Aziz said in an interview in the capital, Islamabad. “We are seeing the results.”

There are many factors behind the boom…

As an important ally of the United States, Pakistan has been able to slash its external debts. In the last five years, export earnings have doubled to more than $13 billion, mostly from textiles, according to the State Bank of Pakistan. “There’s a lot of confidence in Pakistan’s economy,” said Ishrat Husain, the state bank chief.

More here.

Lost in a labyrinth of theory

Jonathan Jones in The Guardian:

There is no doubting the importance of Art Since 1900, a massive new volume. For a start, it states its own significance in block capitals on the cover: “A LANDMARK STUDY IN THE HISTORY OF MODERN ART”. Not only have the authors written a landmark study – they’ve reviewed it too! In the roundtable discussion that concludes the book, they congratulate themselves on a history that “might have some liberatory effect”. Some liberatory effect? Who speaks like that?

Art historians, that’s who. The four authors – professors Rosalind Krauss, Hal Foster, Yves-Alain Bois and Benjamin HD Buchloh – will mean nothing to many readers, but in the world of art theory they constitute the ultimate team of academic superheroes, mighty wielders of the poststructuralist lexicon…

Well, I have a debating point – this book is the final ludicrous monument to an intellectual corruption that has filled contemporary museums and the culture they sustain with a hollow and boring, impersonal chatter. Art has been lost in a labyrinth of theory. If this sounds anti-intellectual, let me clarify. There is no good work of art that cannot be described in intelligible English, however long it might take, however much patience is required. And yet this book begins with four theoretical essays explaining the post-structuralist concepts the authors believe we need before we can meaningfully discuss a single work of art. It is the supreme expression of an art culture that sneers at “empiricism” as a dirty word.

More here.

Corey Robin and Fear

Corey Robin’s newish book Fear: The History of a Political Idea has generated a great deal of interest and debate, deservedly so, because despite having been conceived before September 11 it finds a deep resonance in our real and imagined terrors. In his New Statesman review, Frank Furedi said:

‘While Robin blames Montesquieu, Tocqueville and Arendt for providing theories that make it possible to separate fear from politics, it is possible to argue that the Hobbesian theory of fear exercises a more significant influence over contemporary debate. Our risk-averse society has turned being fearful into a form of responsible behaviour. And perversely, once fear becomes a custom, it also becomes depoliticised. For fear to be used as a tool of state power, it has to become a common-sense response to reality.’

Actually, Robin has a more complex view of Arendt, arguing that she changed her mind fundamentally about the basics of totalitarianism. Here’s two other short reviews, from Foreign Affairs and The Canadian Journal of Sociology. If there’s one thing Robin gets wrong, it’s probably the extent to which our leaders themselves are in thrall to the fears they propagate – Robin tends to view them more as cynical manipulators, bringing up an old problem in politics and a sense of good ole fashioned false consciousness in the terrified and gullible populace. On the other hand, just look at the news and you see a world of fear unfolding by the minute. Meanwhile, Social Research has come out in its current number with an entire issue dedicated to fear, with introductory remarks on the politics of fear from Albert Gore, Jr.

More on Crime in America

In a somewhat angry and impulsive mood, I posted something here yesterday about crime in American cities, and the shameful lack of outrage about it. This elicited some thoughtful comments, including one by Timo Hartmann who asks:

Abbas, do you really think that in a city where thousands of illegal immigrants live on a daily basis who sleep in overcrowded houses, working on a daily basis so they can send some money home to their families, the crime problem can be solved by locking away more people? Don’t you think as soon as you lock somebody violent away there will be two or three more people who will commit crimes? Don’t you think that the presence of even more undereducated police officers would not also affect your personal freedom in a negative way?

My respective answers to your three questions, Timo, are yes, no, and no–more police will not affect my freedom in a negative way. We could argue theoretically about this until we are both blue in the face, but fortunately someone has bothered to look carefully at the data concerning the huge nationwide drop in crime in the 1990s, and tried to figure out which factors are truly effective in reducing crime rates. In a fascinating and rigorously argued forthcoming book (I happen to have an advance copy), the brilliant and non-partisan economist Steven D. Levitt of the University of Chicago writes:

StevenlevittThe evidence linking increased punishment with lower crime rates is very strong. Harsh prison terms have been shown to act as both deterrent (for the would-be criminal on the street) and prophylactic (for the would-be criminal who is already locked up). Logical as this may sound, some criminologists have fought the logic…

…if the goal here is to explain the drop in crime in the 1990s, imprisonment is certainly one of the key answers. It accounts for roughly one-third of the drop in crime.

In fact, after carefully controlled statistical analysis of the data, Levitt shows that of the following eight most commonly cited media explanations (in order) for the crime drop, only three can be shown to have had any effect at all (can you guess which?):

  1. Innovative policing strategies
  2. Increased reliance on prisons
  3. Changes in crack and other drug markets
  4. Aging of the population
  5. Tougher gun control laws
  6. Strong economy
  7. Increased number of police
  8. All other explanations (increased use of capital punishment, concealed-weapons laws, gun buybacks, and others)

The correct answers are #s 2, 3, and 7. Wide-scale nationwide hiring of police in the 90s accounted for roughly 10 percent of the crime drop.

Timo also adds,

I personally believe that the reason for the high crime rate in the US compared with for example Europe is due to the huge (and growing) social gap in this country.

to which I can only say: the onus is on you to show, controlling for other factors, that this is statistically true. At this time, I simply have no reason to either confirm or deny it.

You can see a list of Levitt’s academic papers on this and other topics here. See especially, “Understanding Why Crime Fell in the 1990s: Four Factors That Explain the Decline and Six That Do Not,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 18, no. 1, (2004), pp. 163-90. I will be posting more here on Levitt’s book when it is publshed. Meanwhile, read this profile of Levitt by Stephen J. Dubner from the New York Times.

Louis Menand on Kazuo Ishiguro

From The New Yorker:

It is always a puzzle to know where Ishiguro’s true subject lies. The emotional situation in his novels is spelled out in meticulous, sometimes comically tedious detail, and the focus is entirely on the narrator’s struggles to achieve clarity and contentment in an uncoöperative world. Ishiguro is expert at getting readers choked up over these struggles—even over the ludicrous self-deceptions of the butler in “The Remains of the Day,” the hopeless Stevens. But he is also expert at arranging his figurines against shadowy and suggestive backdrops: post-fascist Japan, in “A Pale View of Hills” (1982) and “An Artist of the Floating World” (1986); an unidentified Central European town undergoing an indeterminate cultural crisis, in “The Unconsoled” (1995); Shanghai at the time of the Sino-Japanese War, in “When We Were Orphans” (2000). It seems important to an understanding of “The Remains of the Day” that the man for whom Stevens once worked, Lord Darlington, was a Fascist sympathizer.

More here.

On the Making of a Durable World, Part Two

Rochelle Gurstein in The New Republic:

Leafing through Henry James’s Italian Hours, in search of his impressions of the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, I stumbled upon a startlingly beautiful passage inspired by the author’s rides on horseback in the “campagna” just outside of Rome, where he meditates on what he called the “reflective” life. For him, it was another name for the “aesthetic and ‘esoteric’ life.”

Although I have never strolled or driven, let alone ridden on horseback, through the countryside around Rome, James’s vivid portrayal of his delightful rides transported me there in imagination. Reading James today here in New York, after more than 130 years have passed between us, I could still hear “the disembodied voice of the lark,” feel the “languor” of “the Roman air,” see the flowers that “multiply and the deep blues and purples of the hills, turning to azure and violet,” all of which incited in me a deep longing to view Mount Soracte, which “rises from its blue horizon like an island from the sea and with an elegance of contour which no mood of the year can deepen or diminish.”

More here.

Math Puzzle due to Ramanujan finally Solved

Maggie McKee in New Scientist:

RamanujanA number puzzle originating in the work of self-taught maths genius Srinivasa Ramanujan nearly a century ago has been solved. The solution may one day lead to advances in particle physics and computer security.

Karl Mahlburg, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, US, has spent a year putting together the final pieces to the puzzle, which involves understanding patterns of numbers.

“I have filled notebook upon notebook with calculations and equations,” says Mahlburg, who has submitted a 10-page paper of his results to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The patterns were first discovered by Ramanujan, who was born in India in 1887 and flunked out of college after just a year because he neglected his studies in subjects outside of mathematics…

Ramanujan noticed that whole numbers can be broken into sums of smaller numbers, called partitions. The number 4, for example, contains five partitions: 4, 3+1, 2+2, 1+1+2, and 1+1+1+1…

More here.

Jules Verne, France’s sci-fi ambassador, feted 100 years after death

From the AFP:

Julesverne“He was fascinated by progress and he depicted it in his works,” says Didier Fremond, the curator of an exhibition celebrating Verne’s life at the Maritime Museum in Paris, one of a series of events marking the centenary of his death.

From Paris to the western city of Nantes, where Verne was born on February 8, 1828, to the northern town of Amiens, where he died on March 24, 1905, fans will be treated to exhibits, concerts, films and shows in his honor.

Verne ranks among the world’s ten most translated authors, along with William Shakespeare and Vladimir Lenin, according to UNESCO (newsweb sites), the UN’s cultural body, and is revered by fans who have launched clubs around the world.

Many of Verne’s works, like his famed “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea”, revolve around water and voyages to far-off islands. The boat enthusiast, who owned three yachts in his lifetime, once said, “The need to sail consumed me.”

More here.

In Pakistan: A gang rape, a fateful choice and still more battles ahead

Ron Moreau and Zahid Hussain in Newsweek:

050319_pakistanrape_huSoon after Mukhtar Mai was savagely gang-raped on the orders of a village council three years ago, she considered her options. She had never been accused of any crime. (The rape was carried out as supposed retribution for an alleged and implausible affair between Mai’s teenage brother and a 30-year-old woman.) But according to rural Pakistan’s strict Islamic code, she was forever “dishonored.” The local Mastoi clan, which dominates the village council, expected her to keep her mouth shut or simply disappear. Her own Gujar clan refused to support her. “My choice was either to commit suicide or to fight back,” Mai recalled last week. “I decided to fight back.”

She’s still fighting.

More here.

The Strange Case of Michael Ross

David Dudley and Brad Herzog in Cornell Magazine:

Feature2_photo_004During the eighteen years that Michael Ross has lived on death row, he has spent many hours punching out letters and articles on a typewriter. For years he put together a monthly newsletter that was mailed to a list of correspondents and, later, published on the Web. He wrote about his prison routine– up early listening to National Public Radio, a brisk one-hour morning walk to keep his weight down, afternoons naps, and some TV after dinner on the small color set his father bought him. He wrote about the Catholic faith he found in prison, his hours of daily prayer, the peace he felt reflecting on the Stations of the Cross. He wrote, bemusedly at times, about the twists and turns of his case, a twodecade odyssey through the state and federal courts that featured several appeals, an overturned capital sentence, two penalty phase hearings separated by thirteen years, another sentence of death, and–in the weeks leading up to his scheduled execution this January–a bewildering flurry of last-minute motions filed on his behalf by religious groups, public defenders, death penalty foes, and his own father.Most of all, he wrote about himself, and what he did.

Between May 1981, when he graduated from Cornell, and June 1984, when a Connecticut police investigator knocked on his door, Ross killed eight young women, raping seven of them. before strangling them.

More here.

America’s shameful lack of Freedom

A few hours ago a friend of mine was robbed here in New York City. She was hit in the face by a bunch of juvenile thugs as she walked home from a friend’s house, and her bag was stolen. This, after a day of defending indigent criminal suspects in court. She is a graduate of Harvard University, a lawyer who chooses to help the poor of this city, and yes, I can barely contain my outrage at this violent crime, or any other.

Just last week there were 7 murders, 36 rapes, and 334 robberies in New York City. This is considered a cause for great celebration by the police, since the numbers are much lower than a decade ago, and New York is now the safest large city in the United States. (Check the stats here.) Tell that to my friend. For that matter, tell that to my wife, who has to take a cab home from work a few blocks away because it is not safe to walk home late at night (no, we don’t live in a particularly unsafe area). I, who am a 190 pound man, feel nervous riding the subway at night. What chance do lone women have? This is ludicrous. Why isn’t there a greater uproar about the fact that, despite all the continually-vaunted freedoms in this country, no decent citizen of this city (or any other) is free to even take a walk in a park after dark, without taking their lives in their hands? Why do we have to be constantly nervous about being physically attacked and grievously injured? Why aren’t there demonstrations every single day protesting the fact that we cannot sit at the edge of the Hudson River in Riverside Park at night and look at the stars? Why can’t I? Why can’t the government protect me? Crime is the single-greatest restriction on my right to move around and enjoy my life as I see fit. So why isn’t anyone upset about it?

People have gotten used to it. No one even notices anymore. Oh, you should have seen what things were like in the 80s, they say. If someone is mugged in a “bad” area at night, people routinely blame the victim: “What was she thinking walking around alone over there?” This is like the old “she was asking for it” attitude toward rape. She was walking alone, because IT IS PERFECTLY LEGAL FOR HER TO DO SO and IT IS HER RIGHT TO BE ABLE TO WALK WHEREVER SHE DAMN WELL PLEASES. THAT’S WHY! Shouldn’t the question be, why the hell was she mugged? Why are people routinely slapped on the wrist, even when they are caught, for violently attacking others? I believe there should be much more severe punishment for anyone convicted of physically assaulting people. It should just be seen as unacceptable, and rewarded with long prison sentences.

Who knows what psychological scars this assault will leave on my friend, not to mention the more than 5,000 other victims of armed robbery and assault last year, in this city alone. What kind of freedom is this?

Possible Michelangelo Self-Portrait Found

Rossella Lorenzi in Discover:

Michelangelo_gotoA unique bas-relief, which might be the first known self-portrait of Michelangelo, has emerged from a private collection, art historians announced in Florence this week.

The sculpture, a white marble round work attached to a flat piece of marble, with a diameter of 14 inches depicting a bearded man, was lent by a noble Tuscan family to the Museo Ideale in the Tuscan town of Vinci for a study on the relationship between Michelangelo and Leonardo…

The bas-relief would have been sculpted around 1545, when 70-year-old Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) had already completed masterpieces such as the David, the Pietà in the Basilica of St. Peter, the Medici chapels in Florence and the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel.

More here.

Thom Mayne Wins Pritzker Prize

Gillian Flaccus of the AP, at ABC News:

ThomThom Mayne, whose bold architectural style has been embraced from New York to California and Taiwan to Spain, has won architecture’s most prestigious prize.

Mayne, 61, who claimed the Pritzker Prize on Sunday, is the first American to win in 14 years and only the eighth U.S. architect to win in the 27-year history of the contest.

The Pritzker is vindication for the years Mayne spent struggling to maintain the purity of his unorthodox ideas. His stand earned him a reputation as an angry young man and alienated many clients.

More here.

Body integrity identity disorder

Robin Marantz Henig in the New York Times:

When the legless man drove up on his own to meet Dr. Michael First for brunch in Brooklyn, it wasn’t just to show Dr. First how independent he could be despite his disability.

It was to show Dr. First that he had finally done it – had finally managed to get both his legs amputated, even though they had been perfectly healthy.

Dr. First, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, had gotten to know this man through his investigations of a bizarre and extremely rare psychiatric condition that he is calling body integrity identity disorder, or B.I.I.D.

More here.

The U.S. memory championship

Joshua Foer in Slate:

To attain the rank of grand master of memory, you must be able to perform three seemingly superhuman feats. You have to memorize 1,000 digits in under an hour, the precise order of 10 shuffled decks of playing cards in the same amount of time, and one shuffled deck in less than two minutes. There are 36 grand masters of memory in the world. Only one lives in the United States. His name is Scott Hagwood, and he’s won every U.S. Memory Championship since he began competing in 2001. This past Saturday he was at home in Fayettville, N.C., putting the finishing touches on his first book about memory enhancement. That meant he was not in the auditorium on the 19th floor of the Con-Edison headquarters in Manhattan, and that meant that for the first time in five years, the gold medal of the eighth annual U.S. Memory Championship was anyone’s for the taking.

More here.