Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ”John Inglefield’s Thanksgiving.”

Download (1)Me at The Smart Set:

It takes Satan to bring out the true spirit of Thanksgiving. That’s because it can be hard to give thanks unless you know why you are doing it. Plenitude is lovely. Abundance is a delight. I think of the famous painting by Norman Rockwell. A large American family sits around a comfortable table as the venerable mother carries a moose-sized turkey as the centerpiece. The painting was originally titled “Freedom from Want” and was part of Rockwell’s Four Freedoms series, meant to promote the buying of war bonds during World War II. If there is an unsettling message hidden in the Rockwellian sentimentality, though, it’s that these people, this nice American family, knows nothing of want. They are giving thanks for an abundance that is taken for granted.

When the devil is on your doorstep, however, thanks takes on a different timbre. The American most consistently preoccupied with thoughts of Satan was probably Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne never trusted in the good times. He saw the devil lurking in every moment of pleasure, waiting for the chance to pounce on the unsuspecting reveler when his guard was down. Hawthorne’s story, “John Inglefield’s Thanksgiving,” is appropriately evil-obsessed. Utterly bleak, it is a difficult fit in the traditional American story of goods asked for, goods delivered, thanks given.

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The Insanity Virus

Schizophrenia has long been blamed on bad genes or even bad parents. Wrong, says a growing group of psychiatrists. The real culprit, they claim, is a virus that lives entwined in every person's DNA.

Douglas Fox in Discover:

Virus-300x225 Schizophrenia is usually diagnosed between the ages of 15 and 25, but the person who becomes schizophrenic is sometimes recalled to have been different as a child or a toddler—more forgetful or shy or clumsy. Studies of family videos confirm this. Even more puzzling is the so-called birth-month effect: People born in winter or early spring are more likely than others to become schizophrenic later in life. It is a small increase, just 5 to 8 percent, but it is remarkably consistent, showing up in 250 studies. That same pattern is seen in people with bipolar disorder or multiple sclerosis.

“The birth-month effect is one of the most clearly established facts about schizophrenia,” says Fuller Torrey, director of the Stanley Medical Research Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland. “It’s difficult to explain by genes, and it’s certainly difficult to explain by bad mothers.”

The facts of schizophrenia are so peculiar, in fact, that they have led Torrey and a growing number of other scientists to abandon the traditional explanations of the disease and embrace a startling alternative. Schizophrenia, they say, does not begin as a psychological disease. Schizophrenia begins with an infection.

The idea has sparked skepticism, but after decades of hunting, Torrey and his colleagues think they have finally found the infectious agent. You might call it an insanity virus.

More here.

What Good Is Wall Street?

John Cassidy in The New Yorker:

101129_r20264_p233 Since the promulgation of Hammurabi’s Code, in ancient Babylon, no advanced society has survived without banks and bankers. Banks enable people to borrow money, and, today, by operating electronic-transfer systems, they allow commerce to take place without notes and coins changing hands. They also play a critical role in channelling savings into productive investments. When a depositor places money in a savings account or a C.D., the bank lends it out to corporations, small businesses, and families. These days, Bank of America, Citi, JPMorgan Chase, and others also help corporations and municipalities raise money by issuing stocks, bonds, and other securities on their behalf. The business of issuing securities used to be the exclusive preserve of Wall Street firms, such as Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, but during the past twenty years many of the dividing lines between ordinary banks and investment banks have vanished.

When the banking system behaves the way it is supposed to—as Pandit says Citi is now behaving—it is akin to a power utility, distributing money (power) to where it is needed and keeping an account of how it is used. Just like power utilities, the big banks have a commanding position in the market, which they can use for the benefit of their customers and the economy at large. But when banks seek to exploit their position and make a quick killing, they can cause enormous damage. It’s not clear now whether the bankers have really given up their reckless practices, as Pandit claims they have, or whether they are merely lying low. In the past few years, all the surviving big banks have raised more capital and become profitable again. However, the U.S. government was indirectly responsible for much of this turnaround. And in the country at large, where many businesses rely on the banks to fund their day-to-day operations, the power still isn’t flowing properly. Over-all bank lending to firms and households remains below the level it reached in 2008.

More here.

VS Naipaul withdraws from Turkish event after row over Islam comments

From The Guardian:

VS-Naipaul-001 The Nobel laureate VS Naipaul has pulled out of a literary event opening in Istanbul tomorrow, after Turkish writers threatened a boycott because of deeply critical comments he has made on Islam. The row erupted after Naipaul was invited to give the opening speech at the European Writers' Parliament (EWP), the brainchild of novelists Orhan Pamuk and José Saramago, which aims to bring together authors from across Europe to debate key issues of the contemporary literary scene and opens today. But several Turkish writers expressed outrage at the invitation, citing hostile comments Naipaul made about Islam nearly a decade ago. Naipaul, who was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 2001, caused controversy that same year by his remarks about Islam at a London reading from his book, Half a Life. The writer compared the religion to colonialism, saying Islam “has had a calamitous effect on converted peoples. To be converted you have to destroy your past, destroy your history. You have to stamp on it, you have to say 'my ancestral culture does not exist, it doesn't matter'.”

More here.

Looking for a brainy gift?


Brain The guiding principle behind the Science Geek Gift Guide is to seek out the most educational and enlightening gifts, the items that best capture the scientific zeitgeist, or gewgaws that are just plain gooey with geekiness. For example, let us consider brains. Braaaaains. If zombies were hot this Halloween, and “The Walking Dead” is the “most satisfying new series” of the current TV season, surely brains are just the thing for Christmas. You could decorate your desktop with the 4-inch-high Learning Resources' Brain Anatomy Model ($13 to $18), which gives you a cerebral cortex about the size of a Granny Smith apple (according to one not-completely-satisfied buyer). Or you could go with the pricier but life-sized Budget Brain With Arteries ($44). Or take your pick of brains at the Brain Mart.

This is also going to be the last holiday season for NASA's space shuttle fleet, so if there's a space geek on your holiday list, you'll want to beat the rush. Take a look through the shuttle memorabilia in the Kennedy Space Center's online space shop and on The Space Store website. And if you're looking for something that's handcrafted rather than mass-produced, check out the selection of NASA-themed craft items on the Etsy website.

More here.

Nassim Taleb predicts what will break, and what won’t by 2036

From The Economist:

ScreenHunter_07 Nov. 25 10.51 The great top-down nation-state will be only cosmetically alive, weakened by deficits, politicians’ misalignment of interests and the magnification of errors by centralised systems. The pre-modernist robust model of city-states and statelings will prevail, with obsessive fiscal prudence. Currencies might still exist, but, after the disastrous experience of America’s Federal Reserve, they will peg to some currency without a government, such as gold.

Companies that are currently large, debt-laden, listed on an exchange (hence “efficient”) and paying bonuses will be gone. Those that will survive will be the more black swan-resistant—smaller, family-owned, unlisted on exchanges and free of debt. There will be large companies then, but these will be new—and short-lived.

Most of the technologies that are now 25 years old or more will be around; almost all of the younger ones “providing efficiencies” will be gone, either supplanted by competing ones or progressively replaced by the more robust archaic ones. So the car, the plane, the bicycle, the voice-only telephone, the espresso machine and, luckily, the wall-to-wall bookshelf will still be with us.

The world will face severe biological and electronic pandemics, another gift from globalisation.

More here.

Lebanon, my Lebanon: A stirring new photography book sparks Robert Fisk’s memories

From The Independent:

Leb During a war, you never believe it will end. And when it does end – as Lebanon's civil conflict concluded just over 20 years ago – you cannot recreate the war you have lived through. I recall once, in 1995, driving up into the Chouf mountains, south-east of Beirut, for lunch, and breathing in the scent of wood and forest and remembering that the very first day of my reporting assignment – in 1976, near the start of the war – I had driven this same road and smelled the same trees and, despite the gunmen at the checkpoints and the bullet-spattered villages, had been overwhelmed by the beauty of this tiny-vast country. The colours, the high sierras, the dark snows of Mount Sannine glimmering to the north – for it is the spine of mountains down the centre of Lebanon that give this country its grandeur and immensity – have witnessed so much violence that the wars of antiquity must be recalled to put into perspective the hatreds of more recent killings. And it was on that morning of peace, 15 years ago, that I suddenly ' realised I had not thought of the war – the civil war that took 150,000 lives – for many days. I was cured.

Or was I? Max Milligan's imperishable photographs of Lebanon – and I have to say that he has sought out things that I have either never seen or have forgotten in the 34 years I have lived here – do not avoid the war. A school crushed by Israel's 1982 invasion, a building peppered with Syrian bullet holes, a Beirut apartment block so smashed it still looks like Irish lace, Beaufort Castle – ruined by both Palestinian and Israeli attackers – are caught with an almost cynical lens, as though the pictures have captured the humour of the Lebanese. There is a wonderful moment at the start, when Milligan recalls a moment at a friend's home when a television presenter was warning of the dangers of microbes on paper cash: “Always wash your hands after handling it,” she advised. “Thank God we haven't got any money!” shouted my friend's father.

More here.

We Ten Million

StehaufmannAlix Christie in More Intelligent Life:

Somewhere in the world right now, ten million souls are hunched over their keyboards writing novels. Ten million hopeful scribblers in their holes. Good Lord, I’m one of them.

The figure is an invention, but backed up by rough math. A quarter of a million new novels are published annually across the globe, 100,000 of them in English. This represents, in turn, a quarter, maybe, of the manuscripts that agents try to hawk. Agents, as all writers know, take only a small proportion of the work they’re sent, perhaps a tenth. Ten million scribes in search of a reader may not be so tall a tale.

This is enough to give the struggling writer pause. Meanwhile, the publishing industry itself is undergoing some discouraging changes. New numbers show that even successful authors earn far less money from books than they used to. In an industry driven by hunger for the next blockbuster, the chances of making a living as a writer are slimmer now than ever. My timing has always been off, I told my husband, fellow journalist and leading fan, whose job maintains the roof above our heads. Just as I’d decided to tackle another draft of my new novel—in search of that great, elusive shape that might translate into sales—the market had moved on.

In the face of such odds, merely writing a novel must seem perverse. Self-indulgent, at the very least, if not financial suicide. The question is less whether the novel as a form is dying, or if the internet can offer a lifeline to certain writers. What cries out for explanation is the strange, persistent fact that millions of us spend years attempting something for which we are certain to see little, if any, reward.

Beauty Queens and Battling Knights

Via Marginal Revolution, Anna Dreber, Christer Gerdes, and Patrik Gränsmark:

We explore the relationship between attractiveness and risk taking in chess. We use a large international panel dataset on chess competitions which includes a control for the players’ skill in chess. This data is combined with results from a survey on an online labor market where participants were asked to rate the photos of 626 expert chess players according to attractiveness. Our results suggest that male chess players choose significantly riskier strategies when playing against an attractive female opponent, even though this does not improve their performance. Women’s strategies are not affected by the attractiveness of the opponent.

Have We Found the Universe that Existed Before the Big Bang?

Prebigbangci Lisa Zyga in

In general, asking what happened before the Big Bang is not really considered a science question. According to Big Bang theory, time did not even exist before this point roughly 13.7 billion years ago. But now, Oxford University physicist Roger Penrose and Vahe Gurzadyan from the Yerevan Physics Institute in Armenia have found an effect in the cosmic microwave background (CMB) that allows them to “see through” the Big Bang into what came before.

The CMB is the radiation that exists everywhere in the universe, thought to be left over from when the universe was only 300,000 years old. In the early 1990s, scientists discovered that the CMB temperature has anisotropies, meaning that the temperature fluctuates at the level of about 1 part in 100,000. These fluctuations provide one of the strongest pieces of observational evidence for the Big Bang theory, since the tiny fluctuations are thought to have grown into the large-scale structures we see today. Importantly, these fluctuations are considered to be random due to the period of inflation that is thought to have occurred in the fraction of a second after the Big Bang, which made the radiation nearly uniform.

However, Penrose and Gurzadyan have now discovered concentric circles within the CMB in which the temperature variation is much lower than expected, implying that CMB anisotropies are not completely random. The scientists think that these circles stem from the results of collisions between supermassive black holes that released huge, mostly isotropic bursts of energy. The bursts have much more energy than the normal local variations in temperature. The strange part is that the scientists calculated that some of the larger of these nearly isotropic circles must have occurred before the time of the Big Bang.

The discovery doesn't suggest that there wasn't a Big Bang – rather, it supports the idea that there could have been many of them.

Marxism: Radical Alternative or Totalitarian Relic?

Criticaldivide_1_84x84 Jirí Pehe and Benedict Seymour in Eurozine:

MS: Was communism a Romantic idea, a Romantic approach to history and to human destiny? Or is it a rational, thought-through and working system?

BS: I would say that Marxism does come from Romanticism: historically Marx emerges from the Romantic critique of the Enlightenment. But he doesn't remain within Romanticism – although arguably capitalism does. For me, Marxism manages to pose a critique of post-Enlightenment, industrial, capitalist market society. Marxist writings contain a critique that could only emerge through Romanticism. More concretely, it seems to me that Marx sees in capitalist society a kind of metaphysical, mad, inverted world. He therefore complicates the picture of capitalism as rational. The whole point is that capitalism is profoundly irrational, but in a way that is scrupulously and narrowly rational. Marx is interesting because he manages to think this strange combination of rationality and irrationality.

What I am trying to get at is the idea that communism has not yet existed; that what was called communism in the twentieth century was not worthy of the name. But the possibility of the communist society is still something that capitalism secretes. Capitalism, to paraphrase Amadeo Bordiga, is an inverted phenomenology of communism. It is very basic to Marx that communism would not be just the antitheses, the black to the white of capitalism, but the realization of something that is already there, latent in capitalism.

Capitalism's normal function is romantic, it is dependent on the mobilization of the national myths, of personal and social mythologies and fantasies. As we enter a crisis, we are likely to see capitalism become more romantic. As we have seen in the past, in the 1930s for example, there is a great romanticism to a society that has passed its sell-by-date, as it keeps rehearsing these melodramas of final collapse – which are dangerous because we are the ones cast in these dramas.

Michael Oakeshott’s Skepticism

J9367 Chapter 1 of Aryeh Botwinick's new book, over at Princeton University Press:

What the theoretical trajectory of Oakeshott’s career dramatizes for us are the inextricable theoretical fortunes of religious belief and skepticism. There is a very pronounced religious impulse animating skepticism. A world comprehended from start to finish from the perspective of a lack of finality of judgment is a world that negatively recaptures the prospect of wholeness: none of our intellectual schemata have an unreserved claim to truth. The truth (if it exists) is beyond us and elsewhere. The skeptic restores to God the conceptually empty universe that He bequeathed to us at the moment of Creation—indirectly reaffirming by his critical renunciations the space that God occupies.

This book is devoted to making the case that on grounds of reasoned argument skepticism issues forth in mysticism. The skeptic is driven to question everything—except his own deployment of skepticism. To be consistent, he needs to turn the critical engine of skepticism inward in relation to the tenets of skepticism themselves. However, to preserve protocols of consistency, he cannot merely dilute skepticism to the level of a generalized agnosticism—so that what results is a tepid, irresolute maintenance of both skepticism and its critical targets. To be consistently applied, the skeptical questioning of skepticism must encompass a thick, full-blooded rehabilitation of all of the objects of skeptical attack. The theoretical mandate of skepticism extends to making the “yes” of skepticism as resoundingly rich as its “no.” Whatever objects are devastated by skepticism need, according to the internal logic of skepticism itself, to be thoroughly rehabilitated by it.

Why are we getting fatter?

From PhysOrg:

Obesity_surgery1 Allison, a professor of biostatistics in the UAB School of Public Health, is senior author on a paper to be published Nov. 24, 2010, in the British journal . That paper, provocatively titled “Canaries in the coal mine: A cross-species analysis of the plurality of obesity epidemics,” suggests that the root cause of obesity may be much more complicated than the conventional wisdom — too much food availability, too little opportunity to exercise.

Allison's current sleuthing began when he was looking over data on small primates called marmosets from the Wisconsin Non-Human Primate Center. He noted that the population as a whole showed pronounced weight gain over time. Checking with the center, he could find no compelling reason. The nature of the diet had changed, but controlling for the exact date of the change, easily doable with animals living in a controlled laboratory environment, only strengthened the mysterious phenomenon.

More here.

Do I dare to eat a peach?


In his general essays—“Tradition and Individual Talent,” “The Function of Criticism,” “Religion and Literature,” and others—Eliot wrote with a range and an amplitude of interest not seen in literary criticism since Matthew Arnold in the previous century or Samuel Johnson nearly two centuries earlier. This breadth, in which he spoke not for literature alone but also for the larger social context in which literature was created, made Eliot seem, somehow, grander, more significant than such estimable American critics as Wilson and Trilling. Through the power of his prose style, Eliot was able to convey, even when writing about the most narrowly literary subjects, that something greater than mere literature was at stake. Wallace Stevens’s poetry is more beautiful, and Robert Frost’s often more powerful, than Eliot’s, but the latter’s, once read, refuses to leave the mind. How much does memorability matter in literature? A vast deal, I suspect, and in poetry above all. And here, in the realm of the memorable, Eliot has left a greater literary residue than any other poet of the 20th century.

more from Joseph Epstein at Commentary here.

hornby follows eggers


In 2002, Dave Eggers, author of the memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, decided that he wanted to help, in some practical way, those of his friends who were struggling with their teaching jobs in overcrowded and underfunded US state schools. They always made the same complaint: there wasn’t enough time to give the children the attention they needed. Eggers hit on the idea of a writing school for inner-city children, a place that would offer one-to-one tuition for anyone who wanted it. He had recently founded the quarterly (in a good year) magazine McSweeney’s and knew young editors, writers and illustrators who were able to help. The best premises he could find for the school happened to be in a shop. The landlord was happy to rent it to him but told him that local zoning laws meant he had to sell things – hence the Pirate Store. 826 Valencia operates as a drop-in centre after school hours; during the school day, teachers bring in classes. The work produced is frequently and beautifully published. But what is really extraordinary is that, very quickly, 826 went national: there are 826s in New York City and Los Angeles, Denver and Washington, DC, Chicago and Seattle, Ann Arbor and Boston. And every centre has a shop. In Brooklyn you can buy everything you need to turn yourself into a superhero, including suckers that really do enable you to climb walls (I eventually had to hide them away in our house); 826 LA provides for all your time-travel needs. What is it that people find so inspirational about the project? Why, all over America, are busy professionals saying to themselves that what they really want to do is to found a non-profit organisation that will require funds, volunteers, grant applications and board meetings for ever and ever?

more from Nick Hornby at The FT here.

the real killing fields


In mid-April 1945 American GIs entered Buchenwald while their British compatriots marched, horrified, into Bergen-Belsen. There they found scenes of unimaginable suffering, men of bones and skin standing, somehow, on spindly legs, amid piles of emaciated corpses. In those dark days at Buchenwald, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower postponed the burial of the dead so that journalists could be brought to the scene to tell the world what the fight had been about. Even as thousands of typhus-stricken survivors died, witnesses to a liberation that came too late for them, Edward R. Murrow filed reports and Margaret Bourke-White made chilling photographs that documented what must have seemed the nether pole of human depravity, the worst an inhuman regime could achieve. A picture of evil was set; yet that picture, it has long been clear, was distorted and mistaken. A little over a year ago, as he put the finishing touches on his important new work of history, Bloodlands, Timothy Snyder published a much remarked-upon piece in The New York Review of Books titled—somewhat portentously—”The Holocaust: The Ignored Reality.” As in the finished volume, Snyder offered a powerful reminder that the true killing fields of the Holocaust were in German-occupied territories in the east, where first with mass shootings and then at killing centers like the hellish Treblinka the Jews were put to death as Jews—most of them immediately, without staying the night. “The fate of the concentration camp inmates, horrible though it was, is distinct from that of those many millions who were gassed, shot, or starved,” Snyder writes in his book. “American and British forces,” he continues, “saw none of the major killing sites.”

more from Samuel Moyn at The Nation here.

A primatologist discovers the social factors responsible for maternal infanticide

Eric Michael Johnson in Scientific American:

Emj1_Medea A mother’s affection for her child is thought to be absolute, a fact of evolution in which women have been “endowed with a nurturing maternal instinct.”

Yet, throughout history, from the fictional Medea to the tragic reports of modern times, women have taken the lives of their children under a variety of contexts, whether it is to punish the father, escape from the burden of motherhood, or even to protect a child from what they perceive as a fate worse than death. In this regard humans share yet another feature, albeit a tragic one, with nonhuman animals since females in a variety of species have been observed to abandon, abuse or even kill their own offspring. To stress the importance of motherhood in human societies today, how can we best understand this behavior so that we can better predict, and prevent, its recurrence?

One hundred years after Mary Stastch took her child’s life another Chicago immigrant may have some answers. Dario Maestripieri has spent most of his career studying maternal behavior in primates. In particular, he’s focused on the factors that influence a mother’s motivation towards her young. As a professor of Comparative Human Development, Evolutionary Biology, Neurobiology, and Psychiatry at the University of Chicago he has enjoyed the kind of cross-disciplinary success that most scientists only dream of. His 153 academic papers and six books have been cited more than a thousand times by scholars (including this one) in many of the world’s top scientific journals. His latest paper is scheduled to be published in early 2011 by the American Journal of Primatology. In it Maestripieri lays out the argument he’s built over the last two decades showing how one of the most serious impacts on maternal behavior, one with potentially lethal results, is so common in modern life as to be nearly invisible: stress.

More here.