Standing in David Altmejd’s gothic-surreal show is like being in a forest of freakish giants from the dawn of time. Nine twelve-foot-tall colossi tower above you like oversize werewolves, rotting Wookiees, or sculptures of pharaohs from some sci-fi porn planet. It’s an Oedipal grove of powerful deteriorating fathers and beautiful but monstrous sons. These creatures have mirrored derrières, plump penises decorated as if by a jeweler, gashes in colorful torsos, dozens of hands holding giant testicles or crystalline daggers. One figure has a peacock encircling each thigh; two have twisting energy fields or stigmata sprouting from hands and heads.
Altmejd’s exhibition is a combination sideshow, intergalactic cyborg showroom, and kitsch emporium. It’s simultaneously hideous and beautiful—and transitional. He’s gone from integrating hairy decapitated wolfmanish figures into room-filling architectural-sculptural installations, complete with sprawling bases that were themselves surreal landscapes, to the figures alone.
Žižek’s mounting eccentricities and difficulties go beyond Bloomsbury. Over the last twelve months, between an Argentinean dance club being launched with his name, and the International Journal of Žižek Studies selling doggie T-shirts embossed with its logo, Žižek has championed the Hollywood action film 300 (a comic-book adaptation of the Battle of Thermopylae) as a suitable model for left politics, advanced the almost LaRouchian view that “liberal communists” (Silicon Valley CEOs, plus George Soros and court philosophers like Thomas Friedman) “are the enemy of every true progressive struggle today” and appeared in the advert breaks of the British television station Channel 4 as a sort of human screen wipe, delivering pearls of gnomic wisdom in fifteen-second bursts. As a result of these incidents, many of Žižek’s former allies in his natural constituency of the para-academic blogosphere have begun to desert him. “The gruesome spectre of another Hitchens looms,” noted one former admirer in the wake of the 300 rave, while another, blogging under the pithy title “Žižek the Embarrassment,” suggested that “the dialectical ‘double movement’ that used to serve Žižek’s uncompromising intellect has become a contemptible tool for his egotism.”
But do not, when attempting any course of reading aimed at appreciating Waugh’s wit, give undue attention to Brideshead Revisited, a misfit of a book, much loved, and often loved in the wrong way, as the vomitous stupidity of Miramax’s new film adaptation attests. There’s a comic novel in there, but it is not, as the common expression goes, struggling to get out. It’s lodged there quite contentedly; the book’s acid portraits of dull dons and rich oafs are enmeshed with its affectingly tender peeks at lost youth and also with its eagerly overwrought splendor and its sincerely bogus religiosity. This was the seventh novel Waugh published—the eighth he attempted—a grasp at grandeur written in a mere four months, during a leave from the British army in early 1944. “Waugh wrote Brideshead with great speed, unfamiliar excitement, and a deep conviction of its excellence,” Martin Amis once remarked. “Lasting schlock, the really good bad book, cannot be written otherwise.”
Cognitive science and moral philosophy might seem like strange bedfellows, but in the past decade they have become partners. In a recent issue of Cognition, the Harvard University psychologist Joshua Greene and colleagues extend this trend. Their experiment utilizes conventional behavioral methods, but it was designed to test a hypothesis stemming from previous fMRI investigations into the neural bases of moral judgments (see here and here).
In their study Greene et al. give subjects difficult moral dilemmas in which one alternative leads to better consequences (such as more lives saved) but also violates an intuitive moral restriction (it requires a person to directly or intentionally cause harm to someone else). For example, in the “crying baby” dilemma subjects must judge whether it is wrong to smother their own baby in order to save a large group of people that includes the baby. In this scenario, which was also used by the television show M.A.S.H., enemy soldiers will hear the baby cry unless it is smothered. Sixty percent of people choose to smother the baby in order to save more lives. A judgment that it is appropriate to save the most lives, even if it requires you to suffocate a child, is labeled “utilitarian” by Greene et al., whereas a judgment that it is not appropriate is called “deontological.” These names pay homage to traditional moral philosophies.
Based on previous fMRI studies, Greene proposes a dual-process model of moral judgments. This model makes two central claims. First, when subjects form deontological judgments, emotional processes are said to override controlled cognitive processes. In other words, the subjects who are unwilling to smother the baby are being swayed by their emotions, and they can’t bear the idea of hurting a helpless child. This claim has been supported by a flurry of recent behavioral studies and neural studies. Greene’s dual-process model also claims that controlled cognitive processes cause utilitarian moral judgments. The new Cognition study puts that second claim to the test.
In Eurozine, an interview with the philosopher Will Kymlicka:
Filimon Peonidis: You were the first person who showed to us the significance of minority protection, cultural membership, and multiculturalism for mainstream Anglo-Saxon political philosophy. In the past all these were regarded as political, sociological or legal issues. A long period separates the publication of your first book on this topic, Liberalism, Community and Culture (1989), and your latest one, Multicultural Odysseys (2007). Have your views on liberal multiculturalism undergone any significant change during all these years?
Will Kymlicka: I’m still very interested in the general question of how the claims of ethno-cultural minorities relate to the basic principles of liberal-democratic theory, but my motivation for addressing this question has evolved over the years. Originally, I chose this topic as a test case for exploring the “liberal-communitarian debate” that dominated Anglo-American political philosophy in the 1980s. In the 1970s, liberals like John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin had developed new theories of liberal egalitarian justice that I personally found very attractive. In the 1980s, however, communitarians like Charles Taylor criticized these theories for being too individualistic and “atomistic”, and his main proof for this critique was the example of ethnic minorities. According to Taylor, a Rawlsian or Dworkinian theory of liberal justice could not defend the sorts of group-specific rights that minorities need to protect themselves from assimilation. And he concluded that this made liberalism particularly inappropriate for my own country – Canada – where a range of minority rights for the indigenous Aboriginal peoples, for the Quebecois, and for immigrant groups are well-established, widely-accepted, and indeed are vital to the survival of the country.
This argument really worried me, because I wasn’t willing to abandon support for Canada’s minority rights, but nor was I willing to shift from liberalism to communitarianism to defend them, since I think that communitarianism has a dangerous tendency to limit the freedom of individuals to question and revise traditional ways of life.
Paul Polak has been helping people escape poverty in Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and elsewhere for 27 years. In Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail, the 74-year-old former psychiatrist and founder of International Development Enterprises—a nonprofit that develops low-cost equipment for farmers—argues that simple tools such as a $25 water pump can do more than large cash donations to aid many of the world’s “dollar-a-day” people, of which there are an estimated 1.2 billion.
Why did you switch from psychiatry to poverty? In working with mentally ill people in Denver, I learned that their poverty was a bigger contributor to their state of mind than psychiatric illness. We found them housing and access to employment. Those things helped so much. But I was curious about people who lived on $30 a month or less, so I went to Bangladesh.
Growing food indoors is not a new concept, and Columbia University Professor Dickson Despommier says global climate change will require that we re-examine it. This is from an interview at Big Think, a site that I recommend you take a look at:
Under the new scheme, the rule of law is replaced by a cosy inter-industry deal. Whereas before, anyone who wanted your ISP to spy on your internet connection would have had to show evidence to a judge and get a court order, now any joker who claims to be an aggrieved copyright holder can do so.
And whereas actual criminals are punished by judges who make rulings that are proportional to the offence, and which are calculated to minimise external harm, the new scheme allows ISPs and their pals in the record industry to randomly shake up your connection like a snow-globe, dropping some or all of your services – whether you’re using your VoIP phone to speak to your dying granny in Australia or downloading the latest hit single from the guy who did the “Crazy Frog Song”.
Richard Lea reviews Natalie Angier’s new book in the Times Literary Supplement:
The genre of popular-science writing has something of the paradoxical about it, owing its very existence to science’s lack of popularity at school and its peripheral role in our cultural life. In a world where an American President can claim that the “verdict is still out” on evolution, where half of the population of the European Union has no idea that an electron is smaller than an atom, and where only 7 per cent of English teenagers between the ages of thirteen and seventeen think science is “cool”, science’s unpopularity is matched only by its importance in shaping our lives.
It is a situation of which Natalie Angier, the author of this popular-science primer, The Canon, is keenly aware. After a quarter of a century working as a science writer, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for a series of features in the New York Times, when people call science “bo-o-oring” she takes it personally. But how to interest a society as indifferent to scientific ideas as it is hungry for their technological results? Dispensing rapidly with the usual arguments for greater public understanding of science, Angier makes a direct appeal to intellectual enjoyment, which sets the tone for the whole of her whirligig tour.
“Of course you should know about science, for the same reason that Dr Seuss counsels his readers to sing with a Ying or play Ring the Gack: These things are fun, and fun is good.” With fun as her watchword, armed with interviews of “hundreds” of scientists, Angier sets off in pursuit of everything “nonspecialist nonchildren” should know about science, what she calls the “beautiful basics”.
All day I think about it, then at night I say it. Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing? I have no idea. My soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that, And I intend to end up there.
This drunkenness began in some other tavern. When I get back around to that place, I’ll be completely sober. Meanwhile, I’m like a bird from another continent, sitting in this aviary. The day is coming when I fly off, But who is it now in my ear who hears my voice? Who says words with my mouth?
Who looks out with my eyes? What is the soul? I cannot stop asking. If I could taste one sip of an answer, I could break out of this prison for drunks. I didn’t come here of my own accord, and I can’t leave that way. Whoever brought me here will have to take me home.
This poetry. I never know what I’m going to say. I don’t plan it. When I’m outside the saying of it, I get very quiet and rarely speak at all.
We have a huge barrel of wine, but no cups. That’s fine with us. Every morning We glow and in the evening we glow again.
They say there’s no future for us. They’re right. Which is fine with us.
Prof Richard Dawkins the atheist and sceptic, has condemned religion as a “virus of the mind” but it seems that people became religious for good reason – actually to avoid infection by viruses and other diseases – according to a study published today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, Biological Sciences. Dr Corey Fincher and Prof Randy Thornhill of the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, come to this conclusion after studying why religions are far more numerous in the tropics compared with the temperate areas. “Why does Cote d’Ivoire have 76 religions while Norway has 13, and why does Brazil have 159 religions while Canada has 15 even though in both comparisons the countries are similar in size?” they ask.
The reason is that religion helps to divide people and reduce the spread of diseases, which are more common the hotter the country, the research suggests. Any society that increased its coherence by adopting a religion, and dealt less with local groups with other beliefs as a result of cultural isolation, gained an advantage in being less likely to pick up diseases from its neighbours, and in the longer term to have a slightly different genetic makeup that may offer protective effects, for instance by making them less susceptible to a virus. Equally, societies where infectious diseases are more common are less likely to migrate and disperse, not because of the effects of disease itself but as a behaviour that has evolved over time.
50 years ago today, US president Dwight Eisenhower signed into law the National Aeronautics and Space Act, sparking the birth of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – better known to us as NASA. The first of nine objectives for NASA in that space act was “The expansion of human knowledge of the Earth and of phenomena in the atmosphere and space”. Here, Nature News looks back at triumphs and tragedies from the agency’s history.
Hubble’s highs and lows
The Hubble Space Telescope was launched in 1990, and has had a career filled with many scientific highs, and some technical lows. In 1994, the telescope managed to watch Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 smash into Jupiter. It has also seen the birth and death of many stars, including the Cat’s Eye Nebula – a glowing gas plume produced in a star’s death throes – pictured here by Hubble. Space Shuttle Atlantis will fly to Hubble to carry out essential maintenance in October, possibly the last repair job before the aged telescope is pensioned off.
Fernando Q. Gouvêa at the Mathematical Association of America website:
This is an essential book for anyone interested in the early history of mathematics. Go thou and buy thyself a copy.
It is also an impressive editorial achievement. Victor Katz has put together five experts: Annette Imhausen on Egypt, Eleanor Robson on Mesopotamia, Joe Dauben on China, Kim Plofker on India, and Len Berggren on Islam. These are all well-known historians, and several of them are writing or have written books on the mathematics of these cultures. They have done a wonderful job of selecting, annotating, and contextualizing sources.
Apart from the Greek mathematical tradition, these five are the best-documented and most impressive pre-modern mathematical cultures. (Well, one could argue that one is missing: the Medieval European tradition, which has also been too little studied, as Menso Folkerts points out.) At least a few translations of primary sources for the Greek tradition are available, including several sourcebooks. That is not the case for Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China, and Islam: a few items have been published here and there, but this is the first systematic collection of such translations; in fact, several of the sources presented here have been newly translated. The editors include detailed introductions emphasizing the current state of knowledge about each area and period.
There are two ways to introduce readers to a new mathematical tradition: the expert can act as a tour guide, pointing out the sights at every point, or can give us an overall idea of the layout of the terrain, and then allow us to go out an explore on your own. It is the second approach that characterizes a “sourcebook”: after some general orientation, we are left to study the sources on our own.
The Man Who Would Be King is the improbable life story of American Josiah Harlan, a young Quaker from Chester County, Pennsylvania. In 1822, Harlan, an earnest young man of twenty two, robust in health and florid in his imagination, set out to seek a new life with nothing more at his disposal than a love of adventure, history (especially the exploits of Alexander the Great of Macedonia) and botany. His journey began in Philadelphia and landed him in Calcutta, India, by way of China in 1824. In India he enlisted as an assistant surgeon in the army of the East India Company (the precursor to the British Raj) although the only medical knowledge Harlan possessed came from a medical manual he read during his ocean crossing. After being injured during battle in Burma, Harlan obtained his discharge from the Company’s army and traveled to northwest India and Afghanistan, seeking to realize his fondest dream – to follow in the footsteps of Alexander the Great.
For several years, Harlan crossed and re-crossed the border between India (now Pakistan) and Afghanistan. In a political climate, where every man was spinning in a private orbit of political ambition, alliances were made and broken with dizzying pace. Harlan played the field on several different sides with the keen eye of a mercenary. He accumulated considerable wealth, acted as a doctor and a governor to a powerful Indian king, sided with and opposed the British and conspired for and against several Afghan aspirants to the throne.
In April of 1862, Emily Dickinson wrote to a stranger, initiating a fervent twenty-four-year correspondence, in the course of which they managed to meet only twice. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, thirty-eight, was a man of letters, a clergyman, a fitness enthusiast, a celebrated abolitionist, and a champion of women’s rights, whose essays on slavery and suffrage, but also on snow, flowers, and calisthenics, appeared in The Atlantic Monthly. “Letter to a Young Contributor,” the article that inspired Dickinson to approach him, was a column addressed to literary débutantes and—despite his deep engagement with the Civil War—a paean to the bookish life: “There may be years of crowded passion in a word, and half a life in a sentence,” he wrote, evoking Dickinson’s poetry without yet having seen it. “Mr. Higginson,” she began, with no endearment. “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?”
Nawal Slelmiah – the only female stallholder in the market in the Old City of Hebron, or El Khalil, as it’s called in Arabic – attaches great significance to the black and white portrait on display among the hand-woven clothes and fabrics in her shop. Before the British artist, Caspar Hall, arrived in Hebron for a three-month residency sponsored by Art School Palestine, no one had ever painted her portrait before. More importantly, she believes the portrait sends an important signal to the Israeli settlers and soldiers who often pass her shop near the entrance to the souk. “They often stop and look at it, and it tells them that it’s my shop – I’m the owner, and I’m not leaving,” she says.