Alok Jha in The Guardian:
Belief can make people do the strangest things. At one level, it provides a moral framework, sets preferences and steers relationships. On another, it can be devastating. Belief can manifest itself as prejudice or persuade someone to blow up themselves and others in the name of a political cause.
“Belief has been a most powerful component of human nature that has somewhat been neglected,” says Peter Halligan, a psychologist at Cardiff University. “But it has been capitalised on by marketing agents, politics and religion for the best part of two millennia.”
That is changing. Once the preserve of philosophers alone, belief is quickly becoming the subject of choice for many psychologists and neuroscientists. Their goal is to create a neurological model of how beliefs are formed, how they affect people and what can manipulate them.
And the latest steps in the research might just help to understand a little more about why the world is so fraught with political and social tension.
Jed Perl in The New Republic:
Matisse’s vision is at its ripest and most extravagant in the exhibition that has just opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the small-sized yet big-scaled canvases that are at the core of this show, Matisse works his own variations on the heavy patterning and clashing rhythms and super-charged colors that Delacroix had brought into French art a hundred years earlier, with his Women of Algiers. These studies of women in richly–wildly, crazily–appointed interiors, which mostly date from the 1920s, are not necessarily the Matisses that have been favored by the high priests of modernism–nothing of this kind was included in the selection on view when the Museum of Modern Art reopened last fall–but they’re surely among the greatest high-wire acts of twentieth-century art. Matisse dresses (or at least partially clothes) his models in gorgeously over-the-top outfits. Then he surrounds these women with a strident array of rugs and wall hangings and flowers as well as pieces of playfully shaped pottery and metalwork and furniture. No artist has ever flirted with kitsch so insistently–and transcended it so completely.
“The economic miracle that is transforming the world’s most populous nation is threatened by energy shortages and rising pollution. It also risks plunging the planet’s climate into chaos.”
Peter Aldhous in Nature:
China is booming, and its hunger for energy is insatiable. For its people, the dismal air quality across much of the country is a constant reminder of its reliance on coal and other dirty fuels. When Nature visited Beijing to meet the technocrats responsible for China’s energy policy, the city was blanketed in acrid smog. After just a few days of stagnant weather, visibility in some districts had dropped to tens of metres. Flights were delayed and the Beijing Environmental Protection Agency advised people to stay indoors. You could almost taste the sulphur in the air…
The most immediate problem for China is that its economic growth is already outstripping its energy supplies. In boomtowns from Shenzhen to Chengdu, electricity is now an unstable commodity. Last year, 24 of China’s 31 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions admitted that they lacked sufficient power. In the summer, when drought curtails hydropower and air conditioners surge into life, blackouts have become commonplace.
Andy Coghlan in New Scientist:
Newborn dolphins and killer whales do not sleep for a whole month after birth, new research has revealed, and neither do their mothers, who stay awake to keep a close eye on their offspring.
The feat of wakefulness is remarkable given that rats die if forcibly denied sleep. And in humans, as any new parent will tell you, sleep deprivation is an exquisite form of torture.
The surprising sleeping patterns of captive killer whales – Orcinus orca – and bottlenose dolphins – Tursiops truncates – in the early months of life were observed by a team led by Jerome Siegel of the University of California at Los Angeles, US.
Unlike all animals previously studied, which maximise rest and sleep after birth to optimise healthy growth and development, the cetaceans actively avoided shut-eye. “The idea that sleep is essential for development of the brain and body is certainly challenged,” says Siegel.
James Traub in the New York Times Magazine:
As world leaders meet this week and discuss increasing aid to Africa, they face a sobering reality: sending all the money in the world won’t accomplish much without peace, security and a functioning state. And the nation at the continent’s core has none of the above.
Aaron Lazare writes in The Washington Post:
We’ve had the Newsweek apology and the Larry Summers apology (over and over again). Republicans would like an apology from Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean for negative things he said about their party. Opponents of the war in Iraq would like an apology from President Bush for ever starting it and almost everything having to do with it. Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate offered a somber apology for not havingpassed an anti-lynching law in the last century.
All this apologizing isn’t a new phenomenon — I’ve been tracking an increase in public apologies for more than a decade — but the rush of demands for political mea culpas needs to be recognized for what it is: a manipulative tool used for partisan advantage that threatens to turn what should be a powerful act of reconciliation into a meaningless travesty. Instead of healing breaches, these sorry exercises widen the gulfs between people.
More here. (I recommend Dr. Lazare’s brilliant book “On Apology” as a must read).
Deborah Hutton in The Observer:
I count myself the luckiest and unluckiest woman in London. The luckiest because I have a great husband, a fabulous family with kids on track and growing up, a beautiful house, more friends than I deserve and as much interesting work as I want. This time a year ago, I’d put the dog on the lead and walk over to the local shops in the sunshine, marvelling at my own good fortune, thinking I wouldn’t swap places with anyone in the world. Then, at a stroke, this lovely run of luck ran out. On 26 November 2004, at the age of ‘just’ 49-and-a-half, which my kids think is ancient but seems pretty young to me, I discovered that the irritating, niggly cough I had had for the past two months was no trivial chest infection but an aggressive adenocarcinoma that had already spread well beyond the organ of origin – my lungs – to my bones, lymph nodes and possibly my liver as well. The irony of my situation was apparent to everyone who knew me. I was never ill, never down, a runner of half-marathons, and a yoga freak and nutrition nut to boot.
I knew how to look after myself big time. After all, it was my job. I had been writing about women’s health for more than a quarter of a century, first as health editor of Vogue and then for a range of magazines and newspapers. I was the published author of not one but four books about preventive health. Since giving up smoking 23 years ago, I had joined the ranks of those fanatically intolerant antismoking ex-smokers. And yet here I now was, struck down by lung cancer, with its serves-you-right stigma.
T.A. Frank in The New Republic:
The last few weeks have not been without challenges, but, on the whole, news from the outposts of tyranny is positive. From a successful “clean-up operation” across Zimbabwe to a book fair in Libya, progress has been continual. Despite hostility from without and subversion from within, the outposts of tyranny remain upbeat, with happy, if silent, majorities.
Syria. We begin with Syria, whose news agency, SANA, fronts a report that “Syria, Jordan and Lebanon celebrate Wednesday launching a joint regional project of integral administration of rubbish resulted from olives’ pressing.” It clarifies: “Minister of Environment and Local Administration Hilal al-Atrash underlined that this project aims at offering an integral administration of industrial deflation resulted from olives’ mills in all participating countries, pointing out at the economic significance of producing olives’ oil in Syria.” Experts agree that the report, while incomprehensible, is the first to openly discuss the issue of olives’ role in industrial deflation.
SANA also spotlights the plight of youth in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The article carries a grim headline: “Syrian Children of Golan are Depraved from Their Simplest Rights.” Whether the depravity is acquired or congenital is not discussed.
Robert Adler in New Scientist:
Surfing the web and making free internet phone calls on your Wi-Fi laptop, listening to your iPod on the way home, it often seems that, technologically speaking, we are enjoying a golden age. Human inventiveness is so finely honed, and the globalised technology industries so productive, that there appears to be an invention to cater for every modern whim.
But according to a new analysis, this view couldn’t be more wrong: far from being in technological nirvana, we are fast approaching a new dark age. That, at least, is the conclusion of Jonathan Huebner, a physicist working at the Pentagon’s Naval Air Warfare Center in China Lake, California. He says the rate of technological innovation reached a peak a century ago and has been declining ever since. And like the lookout on the Titanic who spotted the fateful iceberg, Huebner sees the end of innovation looming dead ahead. His study will be published in Technological Forecasting and Social Change.
“What’s in a pink rose? Or a plate of fish? AS Byatt traces the metaphors and illusions that make still lifes so much more than paintings of everday things.”
From The Guardian:
The Old Testament prohibits the making of images of God. Early Christianity saw the whole world of the senses as a snare and a delusion, distracting the soul from the higher world of the Spirit. Plato saw art as an imitation of particular things that were themselves already imitations of some divine and unchanging order of archetypes, the idea of a tree, the idea of a table.
The Stuff of Life, opening at the National Gallery, is an exhibition about the representation of objects, full of surprises both visual and intellectual. It asks the basic question: why make careful representations of things, especially “ordinary” things? And it considers various answers – from things as religious metaphors or symbols, to things as metaphors of human identity, to things as art objects to be studied and things as metaphors of material transience.
From Scientific American:
Fred Kavli collects Norwegian oil paintings and ornate Asian vases, installing them lovingly around his sprawling, 12,000-square-foot mansion overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Santa Barbara, Calif. But his most heartfelt passion has nothing to do with art or antiques. As he gazes toward an orange sunset, Kavli begins to speak of life’s fundamental questions. He wonders about exploring the processes of the universe, generating nonpolluting forms of power and developing lightweight but strong nanoscale materials. Instead of spending his fortune on treasures of the past, he has dedicated it to these, the possibilities of the future.
Over the past five years, the 77-year-old Norwegian-born businessman has funded 10 basic science research institutes, created an operating foundation to explore pet research questions and laid out a plan to offer three $1-million awards biannually that would compete with the Nobel Prizes. “Because I believe in it,” this unusual philanthropist explains simply, as if the reasons were obvious. “Life as we know it today would not be possible without science.”
Devesh Kapur in Harvard Magazine:
Things have never been as good for India as they appear to be today. Its economy has grown by nearly 6 percent annually for the past quarter-century—virtually unprecedented for any sizable democratic polity. In contrast to the near-famine conditions of the mid 1960s, the country sits on a mountain of grain surpluses and poverty levels have almost halved since that time. Fertility rates, too, have nearly halved during the past few decades, while literacy and health indicators have steadily climbed from their erstwhile dismal levels. This sharply improved economic performance is rooted in a burgeoning middle class, estimated to be almost one-quarter-billion people.
During the 1990s, India’s democracy faced severe challenges from the forces of Hindu nationalism, but that threat, too, has ebbed in recent years. Following its loss in the 2004 general elections, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP—Indian People’s Party) is in disarray. While the events of the 1990s engendered trepidation in India’s religious minorities about the country’s commitment to secularism, current political conditions appear to allay those fears. Today, for the first time, this country in which four-fifths of the population is Hindu has a Sikh prime minister, a Sikh head of the army, a Muslim president, and, as its most powerful political personality, a Catholic-born Italian Indian.
Tunku Varadarajan in the Wall Street Journal:
Oriana Fallaci faces jail. In her mid-70s, stricken with a cancer that, for the moment, permits only the consumption of liquids–so yes, we drank champagne in the course of a three-hour interview–one of the most renowned journalists of the modern era has been indicted by a judge in her native Italy under provisions of the Italian Penal Code which proscribe the “vilipendio,” or “vilification,” of “any religion admitted by the state.”
In her case, the religion deemed vilified is Islam, and the vilification was perpetrated, apparently, in a book she wrote last year–and which has sold many more than a million copies all over Europe–called “The Force of Reason.” Its astringent thesis is that the Old Continent is on the verge of becoming a dominion of Islam, and that the people of the West have surrendered themselves fecklessly to the “sons of Allah.” So in a nutshell, Oriana Fallaci faces up to two years’ imprisonment for her beliefs–which is one reason why she has chosen to stay put in New York. Let us give thanks for the First Amendment.
BBC Radio 4’s silly but fun Greatest Philosopher Vote will soon draw to a close. Julian Baggini offers some reasons why the winner should be David Hume (via Political Theory Daily).
“Jean-Paul Sartre reaps the benefits of his cool image. Whether historically accurate or not, there is a definite romance to the Left Bank cafés, the Gauloise cigarettes, the black polonecks and all that intense talk of despair and freedom. Hume, on the other hand, played billiards in drawing rooms and loved his mum.
The mystique of Kierkegaard and Camus is heightened by their young and tragic deaths. Hume passed away aged 65 of intestinal cancer, cheerful and in good humour. That’s really no way to start a posthumous personality cult.
Indeed, the average person in the street knows little more about the man – except, perhaps, that ‘David Hume could out-consume Schopenhauer and Hegel’, as the Monty Python song insisted.
And yet Hume has endured, hailed by many as the greatest British philosopher. Can we go further and say he is the greatest philosopher, full stop? I think we can, not least because Hume’s whole approach to philosophy is needed even more now than it was in his time.”
Carlin Romano in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
The desire to portray great thinkers as disembodied argument machines remains a powerful force in analytic philosophy. Think of it as a slice of amour-propre, part of the arrogant wish to be seen as timelessly, noncontingently right about everything. It can move acolytes to depict thinker-heroes as dynamos of pure intellect rather than peers: mere featherless bipeds whose thoughts bear clear markings from their beliefs, fears, and weaknesses.
This distinctive distaste for a philosopher’s humanity applies in analytic philosophy with extra force to homosexuality. In the standard canon, the editing began with the predilections of ancient Greek philosophers and continues right up to modern times.
Decades ago, for instance, W.W. Bartley published his maverick biography of Wittgenstein, arguing that the great Austrian philosopher also led an actively gay life that appeared to include cruising for rough trade. Analytic Wittgenstein scholars, who specialized in presenting their man as a kind of shoebox of epistemological propositions they thought he hadn’t put in the right order, screamed bloody murder.