Where belief is born

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.

More here.

Ripest Matisse

Jed Perl in The New Republic:

StilllifeMatisse’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.

More here.

Energy: China’s burning ambition

“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.

More here.

Newborn dolphins go a month without sleep

Andy Coghlan in New Scientist:

Img223541004Newborn 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.

More here.


Ali_1 Since appearing on the cover of the July/August 2004 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, debut fiction writer Samina Ali (“First Fiction” by Carolyn T. Hughes), was a speaker at the tenth annual International American Women Writers of Color Conference.

“With her debut novel, Madras on Rainy Days, Samina Ali makes a bold entrance on the scene of American immigrant literature. Ali is a compelling storyteller. In language that is at once lyrical and unsentimental, she explores both the upside and the downside of being a first generation Muslim Indo-American woman, trapped between the demands of competing cultural heritages. This is a must read for anyone interested in understanding the multicultural fabric of contemporary America” –Bharati Mukherjee, author of Desirable Daughters: A Novel. (Booklist)

You Call That an Apology?

Aaron Lazare writes in The Washington Post:

Lazare 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).

Do mention the ‘C’ word

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.

More here.

Hidden da Vinci sketch uncovered


Leonardo LONDON – National Gallery experts using infrared techniques have discovered a Leonardo da Vinci sketch hidden underneath a painting by the Italian master, conservationists said Friday. The sketch — the first unknown Leonardo image to be found in decades — is beneath the delicate brushstrokes of the artist’s “Virgin on the Rocks,” a powerful scene of Christ’s mother in a dusky cavern, which hangs in the London museum. The concealed image shows a woman with one hand clutched to her breast, the other outstretched, kneeling before what experts said was planned to be an infant Jesus. Leonardo apparently was planning a picture of the adoration of the Christ child, a scene popular with Renaissance artists, but changed his mind.

More here.


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.

More here.

rate of technological innovation reached a peak a century ago

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.

More here.

A life less ordinary

“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:

ZurbaranaaaaaThe 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.

More here.

‘The Disappointment Artist’: It Takes a Village

From The New York Times: Stapp184_1

The historically Italian neighborhood that lies just across the harbor from lower Manhattan is a novel waiting to be captured in print. Catholics there still worship at the church where Al Capone was married and receive their funerals in mortuaries with frankly Italian surnames. The Brooklyn neighborhood got a taste of fame when Nicolas Cage played Ronny Cammareri, the operatically depressed baker who falls in love with a character played by Cher in the movie ”Moonstruck.” But the Cammareri Brothers Bakery is no more. The bakers and many of their patrons were swept away in a wave of gentrification that leaves the area less and less Italian by the day.

Dylan Ebdus, the bullied white boy in ”The Fortress of Solitude,” is an only child abandoned by a runaway mother. The template of isolation is so firmly nailed down, in fact, that it comes as a shock when we learn in ”The Disappointment Artist” that Jonathan Lethem actually has siblings. They go by in cameo, though, and disappear — poof! — like smoke from a passing train. But the fact that we meet them at all suggests Lethem is making his way back from solitary confinement into the flesh-and-blood world he once worked so hard to avoid. Perhaps he intends to use the vibrant Brooklyn village where he came of age in the next phase of his work. If so, he could hardly have chosen a richer or more promising backdrop.

More here.

The modern world exists because of science: He’ll Pay for That

From Scientific American:Kavli

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.” 

More here.

India’s Promise?

Devesh Kapur in Harvard Magazine:

IndiaThings 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.

More here.

BIOCOMPUTATION: A Conversation with J. Craig Venter, Ray Kurzweil, Rodney Brooks

From Edge.org:

Brooks200Kurz200_1Venter200One aspect of our culture that is no longer  open to question is that the most significant developments in the sciences today (i.e. those that affect the lives of everybody on the planet) are about, informed by, or implemented through advances in software and computation. In no other field is this as evident as in the biology and, in this regard, each of the panelists in this Edge conversation exemplifies this new trend.

For examples, just as this edition of Edge goes to “press”, today’s The Wall Street Journal ran a front page story on Craig Venter’s goal of creating life itself. Venter is one of leading scientists of the 21st century for his visionary contributions in genomic research. He is advancing the science of genomics and in applying genomic advances to some of the world’s most vexing public health and environmental challenges. Major research foci include human genomic medicine, environmental and evolutionary genomics (which includes the Venter Institute Global Sampling Mission), biological energy production, synthetic biology, and the intersection between genomics and environmental and energy policy.

More here.

Prophet of Decline: An Interview with Oriana Fallaci

Tunku Varadarajan in the Wall Street Journal:

040806_orianafallaci_hmed_11aOriana 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.

More here.

Vote for David Hume

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.”

A Philosopher’s Humanity

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.

More here.

Clinton on the way to becoming runaway bestseller in Iran

From the AFP:

Captsgehzz96300605140708photo00photoIranians may shout Death to America and burn the Stars and Stripes in demonstrations, but the memoir of former US President Bill Clinton is on the way to becoming a runaway bestseller in the country.

According to publisher Farhang Fattemi, who has just released the book, “many Iranians like the United States and want to hear history straight from the horse’s mouth.”

First published in the United States last summer, “My Life” has hit the shelves in Iran in a prestigious two-volume hardback costing a hefty 150,000 rials (16.5 dollars). It is already said to be selling very well.

More here.