The Heart and the Beard: a surgical story told mainly in aphorisms (of 140 characters or less)

By Liam Heneghan

To Vassia, best friend and partner in matters of the heart!

Context: The young doctors who had been prodding me a day or so after an appendectomy ran alarmed from my hospital bedside to call in a senior consultant. As a consequence of the high temperature I was running, a heart murmur, presumably there since birth, sounded especially pronounced. Each beat was followed by the acoustic swish of blood plashing back into the chambers of my heart. A follow up with a cardiologist in Dublin confirmed that the aortic valve was defective (stenotic and regurgitative) and that, at some point in my life, it would need to be replaced. I doubted this. The year was 1978; I was fifteen years of age. This, coincidentally, was also the year I grew my first beard. A fine display of very fine chin-hair; I have sported aggressive facial hair since that time.

Though I doubted that my heart would ever need attention (I felt immortal in those days), nevertheless, I had my various doctors through the years examine it. In the mid 1990s a doctor in Georgia, one whose name reminded me of non heart-healthy products, told me that without immediate surgery I would die. The news was a jolt and so consternated my beloved that she got her one and only parking ticket as we ruminated upon this news in Jittery Joe’s in Athens. Follow up examination revealed that the EKG leads used in that heart test had been switched round and the doctor had been seeing my heart inverted – the ventricles seemed atrophied and my atria appeared to be perched on that malformed muscle like outsized berets . Surgery0001

At the end of last year while traveling in India with students I experienced some difficulties that retrospectively appeared to have been signs of congestive heart failure. Subsequent visits with my physician, my cardiologist and my cardio-thoracic surgeon resulted in my going in for an aortic valve replacement on May 10th 2011. Typically, I wait for years before writing about personal events; however, I had been tweeting on the topic in the weeks running up to this surgery, and had provided some commentary on the subsequent and ongoing recovery. During the week of the surgery, a relatively miserable one, I had been digitally silent; however, I jotted down some observations which I now reproduce as part of this twitobiography (“The Missing Tweets”). In reviewing this output I noticed that my beard and my heart, twinned since my teen years, had co-starring roles in this little drama.

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Under the Volcano

Elsalvadorimg-575 Dara Kerr in Guernica:

On a muggy November afternoon in 1974, Dolores Alfaro and her husband descended El Salvador’s Chichontepec volcano. They’d been picking coffee beans in one of the plantations dotting the steep slopes, and were returning home with full wicker baskets. Walking through the forest, Alfaro saw a half-dozen olive green trucks, packed with soldiers, cresting a hill and slowly rolling into town. There had been tensions between laborers and the military but seeing troops standing on the flatbed trucks, rifles aimed, fingers on triggers, made her realize something had changed.

On that day, a faction of the national military raided a village of unarmed civilians. The soldiers moved from house to house. By dusk, they murdered six people, imprisoned twenty-eight, and wounded dozens. This practically unknown event, named La Cayetana after this village at the foot of the volcano, marked a change in the nature of persecution in El Salvador—going from sporadic repression of select individuals to deliberate attacks on entire communities. It set the pattern for scores of government massacres to come.

Six years later, in 1980, the country’s archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated—shot in the heart while celebrating Mass—his death catalyzing El Salvador’s twelve-year civil war, which was marked by roving paramilitary death squads and the murder of tens of thousands. For more than a decade, the U.S. government supplied the Salvadoran military with an average of $1 million per day and trained its troops in counterinsurgency tactics. Much of what happened was shrouded after the war ended in 1992, and the nation’s congress passed amnesty laws—absolving war criminals—and official amnesia set in.

The Naturalness of (Many) Social Institutions: Evolved Cognition as Their Foundation

PBoyerPascal Boyer and Michael Petersen in Journal of Institutional Economics (forthcoming):

General accounts of social institutions should provide plausible and testable answers to questions of institutional design, such as, why do social institutions have the specific features that we observe in human societies? Why do we observe common institutional features in otherwise very different cultural environments? Or, why do some institutions seem natural and compelling to participants, while others are considered alien or coercive? Here we develop the view that present institutional theories do not properly address such design questions, and that this can be remedied only by taking into account what we call the ‘naturalness’ of institutions, their connection to human expectations and preferences that result from evolution by natural selection. This perspective may help us understand commonalities across cultures, but alsowhy some institutions are more successful and compelling than others and why they change in particular directions.

To some extent, this suggestion echoes a defining feature of the neoinstitutional approach. From the beginning, neo-institutionalism has been oriented towards developing realistic models of the actors, countering the Homo oeconomicus model inherent in older institutional accounts and emphasizing the cognitive limits of human decision makers (Brousseau and Glachant, 2008). From this perspective, important lines of inquiry have been developed with regards to, first, how institutions carry a range of unintended consequences given the cognitive limits of their designers, and, second, how a function of institutions is to counter such limits (North, 1990). At the same time, however, this perspective of bounded rationality provides only a partial description of human cognition. While one line of research within the cognitive sciences has been preoccupied with the biased and fallible nature of human cognition, a complementary line of research has developed the view that human cognition is in fact ‘better than rational’ (Cosmides and Tooby, 1994). Evolutionary psychologists have argued that human cognition includes a multitude of domain-specific cognitive programs, each optimally geared (within evolutionary constraints) to solve particular problems in the course of human evolutionary history (Barkow et al., 1992). The inferential power of these specialized programs comes from their content-rich nature. That is, they are loaded with inbuilt assumptions about their domain. Environments that fit these inbuilt assumptions appear intuitive and readily understandable.

Our aim is to outline the argument that institutions are effective not despite human cognition but, in part, because of human cognition. Essentially, we argue that the content-rich nature of evolved intuitions provides a foundation which can be and is often used in the design of many social institutions. Institutions that fit these intuitions, we propose, develop more easily, require less effort to conform to and are more culturally stable.

How a Sex Rebel was Born

Md_horizTracy Clark-Flory interviews Susie Bright in Salon:

There are lots of things about your early sex life that could be quite controversial — you're underage and sleeping with much older adults. But you write about the experience like it was very positive overall.

Oh, I feel that way. When I talk nonchalantly publicly about becoming sexually active at 16, people are like, “Oh my god you were underage!” And I'm like, “Are you kidding me?!” You think I was wearing diapers? You want to see a picture of me at 16? I'm working, I'm going to school, I'm having sex, I have a huge social life, I'm politically involved in meetings from morning to night, I take care of a household with my dad. I'm a beginning grown-up. I had the foolishness and naiveté and clumsiness of a teenager, but when you're ready you're ready. When you think about this on more of a global or species level, it's kind of ridiculous how we infantalize teenagers.

From there you were introduced to this world of casual sex where the idea was that, as you say, “sex would be friendly and kind and fun. You'd get to see what everyone was like in bed.” How did that idea pan out in practice?

Well, first of all, I detest the term “casual sex” — since when is it actually casual, this so-called casual sex? Every time I was with someone it was intimate. It was intense. I got to know them and they got to know me on levels we certainly wouldn't have known if we hadn't gotten together — and I don't just mean what their bottom looked like, I mean their personality, their feelings. You're vulnerable with someone. I mean, some people say, “No, I'm made of steel. I just go in there and fuck.” Have I ever experienced that, at all? I just don't find sex to be this jaded, cynical, stoic exercise. How do you manage to do that and have an orgasm? I don't.

When You’re Strange

When_Youre_Strange_jpg_470x408_q85 Paul Theroux in the NYRB:

Until I went to live in Africa, I had not known that most people in the world believe that they are the People, and their language is the Word, and strangers are not fully human—at least not human in the way the People are—nor is a stranger’s language anything but the gabbling of incoherent and inspissated felicities. In most languages, the name of a people means “the Original People,” or simply “the People.” “Inuit” means “the People,” and most Native American names of so-called tribes mean “the People”: For example, the Ojibwe, or Chippewa, call themselves Anishinaabe, “the Original People,” and the Cherokee (the name is not theirs but a Creek word) call themselves Ani Yun Wiya, meaning “Real People,” and Hawaiians refer to themselves as Kanaka Maoli, “Original People.”

As recently as the 1930s, Australian gold prospectors and New Guinea Highlanders encountered each other for the first time. The grasping, world-weary Aussies took the Highlanders to be savages, while the Highlanders, assuming that the Aussies were the ghosts of their own dead ancestors on a visit, felt a kinship and gave them food, thinking (as they reported later), “They are like people you see in a dream.” But the Australians were looking for gold and killed the Highlanders, who were uncooperative. The Lakota, Indians of the North American plains, who called white men washichus, Nathaniel Philbrick writes in The Last Stand, “believed that the first white men had come from the sea, which they called mniwoncha, meaning ‘water all over.’” In an echo of this accurate characterization, and at about the same time, the historian Fernand Braudel tells us, “To West Africans, the white men were murdele, men from the sea.”

Otherness can be like an illness; being a stranger can be analogous to experiencing a form of madness—those same intimations of the unreal and the irrational, when everything that has been familiar is stripped away.

The Argumentative Theory

From Edge:

Argument Last July, opening the Edge Seminar, “The New Science of Morality”, Jonathan Haidt digressed to talk about two recently-published papers in Behavioral and Brain Sciences which he believed were “so important that the abstracts from them should be posted in psychology departments all over the country.” One of the papers “Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory,” published by Behavioral and Brain Sciences, was by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber. “The article,” Haidt said, “is a review of a puzzle that has bedeviled researchers in cognitive psychology and social cognition for a long time. The puzzle is, why are humans so amazingly bad at reasoning in some contexts, and so amazingly good in others?”

“Reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments. That's why they call it The Argumentative Theory of Reasoning. So, as they put it, “The evidence reviewed here shows not only that reasoning falls quite short of reliably delivering rational beliefs and rational decisions. It may even be, in a variety of cases, detrimental to rationality. Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes, not because humans are bad at it, but because they systematically strive for arguments that justify their beliefs or their actions. This explains the confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and reason-based choice, among other things.”

More here.

Lila Azam Zanganeh: ‘I’ve always wanted to push myself to do things I don’t know how to do’

From The Guardian:

Lila-azam-zanganeh-007 Zanganeh, who is 34, has just published her first book, a deeply unconventional, even eccentric, study (although “study” is hardly the right word) of the Russian émigré writer. The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness is a book that's almost impossible to describe, being so unlike anything else I've ever come across. Although it contains elements of memoir, biography and criticism, it might more accurately be described as a playful, semi-fictionalised sequence of elaborations – or variations – on the experience of being a passionate Nabokov reader. There's no linear narrative, no sustained argument. Its approach is episodic, fragmentary.

Each chapter addresses the central theme – Nabokov's concept of happiness – from a fresh angle. So one chapter, inspired by a Q&A passage in James Joyce's Ulysses, consists of the complete transcript of an imaginary interview between Zanganeh and Nabokov that took place, she tells us, on the shores of Lake Como “about 10 months after he completed Ada” (that is, nearly a decade before she was born). Another is a compendium of dazzling Nabokovian words, replete with definitions: “cochlea”, “hymenopteroid”, “lambency”, “uvula”. Other chapters are slightly more conventional: biographical snapshots, summaries of Nabokov's great works. There are commentaries on celebrated passages and accounts of encounters with Nabokov's son, Dmitri, whom Zanganeh befriended while writing the book. There are drawings, photographs, typographical oddities.

More here.

Sunday Poem

i sing of Olaf

i sing of Olaf glad and big
whose warmest heart recoiled at war:
a conscientious object-or

his wellbelovéd colonel (trig
westpointer most succinctly bred)
took erring Olaf soon in hand;
but–though an host of overjoyed
noncoms (first knocking on the head
him) do through icy waters roll
that helplessness which others stroke
with brushes recently employed
anent this muddy toiletbowl,
while kindred intellects evoke
allegiance per blunt instruments–
Olaf (being to all intents
a corpse and wanting any rag
upon what God unto him gave)
responds,without getting annoyed
“I will not kiss your fucking flag”

straightway the silver bird looked grave
(departing hurriedly to shave)

but–though all kinds of officers
(a yearning nation's blueeyed pride)
their passive prey did kick and curse
until for wear their clarion
voices and boots were much the worse,
and egged the firstclassprivates on
his rectum wickedly to tease
by means of skilfully applied
bayonets roasted hot with heat–
Olaf (upon what were once knees)
does almost ceaselessly repeat
“there is some shit I will not eat”

our president, being of which
assertions duly notified
threw the yellowsonofabitch
into a dungeon, where he died

Christ (of His mercy infinite)
i pray to see;and Olaf,too

preponderatingly because
unless statistics lie he was
more brave than me:more blond than you.

by e.e.cummings
from The Complete Poems: 1904-1962
Liveright Publishing Corporation.

R.I.P. Gilbert “Gil” Scott-Heron (April 1, 1949 – May 27, 2011)

The obituary from the NYT, by Ben Sisario:

Gil Scott-Heron, the poet and recording artist whose syncopated spoken style and mordant critiques of politics, racism and mass media in pieces like “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” made him a notable voice of black protest culture in the 1970s and an important early influence on hip-hop, died on Friday at a hospital in Manhattan. He was 62 and had been a longtime resident of Harlem.

His death was announced in a Twitter message on Friday night by his British publisher, Jamie Byng, and confirmed early Saturday by an American representative of his record label, XL. The cause was not immediately known, although The Associated Press reported that he had become ill after returning from a trip to Europe.

Mr. Scott-Heron often bristled at the suggestion that his work had prefigured rap. “I don’t know if I can take the blame for it,” he said in an interview last year with the music Web site The Daily Swarm. He preferred to call himself a “bluesologist,” drawing on the traditions of blues, jazz and Harlem renaissance poetics.

Yet, along with the work of the Last Poets, a group of black nationalist performance poets who emerged alongside him in the late 1960s and early ’70s, Mr. Scott-Heron established much of the attitude and the stylistic vocabulary that would characterize the socially conscious work of early rap groups like Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions. And he has remained part of the DNA of hip-hop by being sampled by stars like Kanye West.

“You can go into Ginsberg and the Beat poets and Dylan, but Gil Scott-Heron is the manifestation of the modern word,” Chuck D, the leader of Public Enemy, told The New Yorker in 2010. “He and the Last Poets set the stage for everyone else.”

The Flight of Curiosity

Stone_curiosity-tmagArticle-v3 Justin E. H. Smith in The NYT's Opinionator:

Must one be endowed with curiosity in order to become a philosopher?

Today, in the academic realm, at least, the answer is surely and regrettably “no.” When a newly minted philosopher goes on the job market, her primary task is to show her prospective colleagues how perfectly focused she has been in graduate school, and to conceal her knowledge of any topic (Shakespeare’s sonnets, classical Chinese astronomy, the history of pigeon breeding) that does not fall within the current boundaries of the discipline.

But how were these boundaries formed in the first place? Did they spring from the very essence of philosophy, a set of core attributes present at inception, forever fixed and eternal? The answer to that latter question, is also “no.” What appears to us today to be a core is only what is left over after a centuries-long process by which the virtue of curiosity — once nearly synonymous with philosophy — migrated into other disciplines, both scientific and humanistic. As this migration was occurring, many curiosity-driven activities — such as insect-collecting and star-gazing, long considered at least tributaries of philosophy — were downgraded to the status of mere hobbies. This loss of curiosity has played an important but little noticed role in the widespread perception that professional philosophy has become out of touch with the interests of the broader society.

The Dumbest Story Ever Told: On David Brooks

150px-DavidBrooks Gary Greenberg in The Nation (photo from Wikipedia):

It is easy to wish, upon reading The Social Animal, that Brooks had stayed in his basement with his collection of books and scientific journals, occasionally sprinkling anecdotes about the latest amazing neuroscientific finding into his columns and lectures and Beltway chitchat. Not for our sake—after all, the book is no less genial, and no more infuriating, than his day-job commentary—but for his. The Social Animal is a deep and public embarrassment, a lumpy hybrid of fiction and science that fails at both, and so miserably that at least for a moment you feel bad for the guy. Because it is clear that he means every word, that this loose baggy monster, the bastard offspring of Malcolm Gladwell and Kilgore Trout, is a true love child. And when a man, especially one who confesses that he is “naturally bad” at expressing his emotions, and whose previous books have been gentle and geeky self-effacing satire, opens his heart to you; when he writes effusively and earnestly and often of “soulcraft” and “soul mates” and “the neverending interpenetration of souls,” of love and God and the meaning of life; when he lays himself bare like this and it just doesn’t work out—well, you want to avert your eyes and spare him the shame of being seen at less than his best. You want, despite yourself, to throw a warm coat around him and whisper reassurance in his ear.

This response, it turns out, isn’t despite myself at all. It’s exactly how my brain wants me to react—so badly, in fact, that it took a mere 200 to 250 milliseconds to fashion the response. At least that’s what, according to Brooks, the researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics have discovered. Before I could even think about it, I just felt bad for the guy—a reaction for which I evidently have something called mirror neurons to thank. The brains of primates, Brooks reports, are wired for empathy because they reflexively re-create the goings-on in the brains around us. Pop a peanut in your mouth in front of a macaque monkey, and the monkey’s brain will do the same thing it does when the monkey eats a peanut. Put people into an MRI scanner and feed them some porn, and not only will they get hard or soft, depending on their gender and orientation, but their brains will react as if they themselves are having sex. Show them a chase scene and…well, you get the idea.

The Logic of Accusation Has No End

Michnikplesubw_234w Adam Michnik and Andrei Plesu in Eurozine:

[Adam Michnik:] The communist regime wanted to teach us something new about culture, about history. Those who wrote books about Kant, Shakespeare or Dante defended the fundamental values of European culture. They didn't quote Stalin or Ceausescu, they simply wrote an honest book. This often required courage. Whatever resistance there was in Russian, Romanian or Polish cultures, it was due not so much to those people who went to the barricades, but those who simply did a job well. I was taught at university by lecturers who, during the war, had been active in the resistance movement. In 1945, when the Soviets came to power, they had to make a choice: either join an anti-communist movement, emigrate, or take up a post at a university and teach things that were true. I'm in their debt, I thank them for not joining an anti-communist movement or emigrating, for staying in Poland to teach instead.

That would be my first observation. The second one is this. If I understand it correctly, Herta Müller reproached Romanian intellectuals for not being heroes. However, you are allowed to expect heroism only from yourself, not from someone else. There will always be people who will say “you were not a hero till the end”. This is a Bolshevik attitude. In Russia there is a whole legion of people who use this kind of argument. Why was Solzhenitsyn arrested? Was it for his anti-communism? No, it was because he was a Trotskyite. And how is communism different from Trotskyism? It isn't. So why should we respect Solzhenitsyn? He wrote books, he went to America and made a lot of money. Why should we respect him? Sakharov? He invented the nuclear bomb! Viktor Nekrasov? He received the Soviet “Nobel Prize”. Rostropovich? And so on.

what’s the use of travel books?


There are those who believe that technology has hijacked the whole of the visitable earth, snatched it away, miniaturised and simplified it, making travel so accessible on a flickering computer screen that there is no need to go anywhere except to your room. In a related way, the travel book is believed to have been not just diminished but made irrelevant by the same technology. Since we know everything – the information is easily dialled up – and the world has been so thoroughly winnowed by travellers, what is the use of a travel book? Where on earth would you go to remark each anxious toil, each eager strife, or watch the busy scenes of crowded life? Surely it has all been written. This isn’t a new conjecture. In 1972, in a blasé magazine piece of postmodernism, entitled “Project for a Trip to China”, the American writer Susan Sontag sat in her New York apartment ruminating on China. Sontag was that singular pedant, a theorist of travel rather than a traveller. She concluded her piece: “Perhaps I will write the book about my trip to China before I go.” To such complacent and lazy minds, here is a suggestion. Try Mecca. After prudently having himself circumcised, learning to speak fluent Arabic, dressing as an Afghan dervish and calling himself Mirza Abdullah, the British explorer Sir Richard Burton travelled to the holy city of Mecca, a deeply curious unbeliever among devout pilgrims. This was in 1853.

more from Paul Theroux at the FT here.