A brain training exercise that really does work

From PhysOrg:

Brain Forget about working crossword puzzles and listening to Mozart. If you want to improve your ability to reason and solve new problems, just take a few minutes every day to do a maddening little exercise called n-back training.

…According to Jonides, the n-back task taps into a crucial brain function known as working memory—the ability to maintain information in an active, easily retrieved state, especially under conditions of distraction or interference. Working memory goes beyond mere storage to include processing information. The n-back task involves presenting a series of visual and/or auditory cues to a subject and asking the subject to respond if that cue has occurred, to start with, one time back. If the subject scores well, the number of times back is increased each round. The task can be done with dual auditory and visual cues, or with just one or the other. A few years ago, Jonides and his colleagues Martin Buschkuehl, Susanne Jaeggi, and Walter Perrig demonstrated that dual n-back training increased performance on tests of fluid intelligence. But the current work extends that finding in several ways. “These new studies demonstrate that the more training people have on the dual n-back task, the greater the improvement in fluid intelligence,” Jonides said. “It's actually a dose-response effect. And we also demonstrate that the much simpler single n-back training using spatial cues has the same positive effect.”

More here.

VS Naipaul finds no woman writer his literary match – not even Jane Austen

From Guardian:

VS-Naipaul-007 VS Naipaul, no stranger to literary spats and rows, has done it again. This time, the winner of the Nobel prize for literature has lashed out at female authors, saying there is no woman writer whom he considers his equal – and singling out Jane Austen for particular criticism. In an interview at the Royal Geographic Society on Tuesday about his career, Naipaul, who has been described as the “greatest living writer of English prose”, was asked if he considered any woman writer his literary match. He replied: “I don't think so.” Of Austen he said he “couldn't possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world”.

He felt that women writers were “quite different”. He said: “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.” The author, who was born in Trinidad, said this was because of women's “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world”. “And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too,” he said. He added: “My publisher, who was so good as a taster and editor, when she became a writer, lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh. I don't mean this in any unkind way.”

More here.

Mobile phones officially under suspicion

From Nature:

News341-i1_0 Mobile-phone use has joined the World Health Organization's purgatorial category of “possibly carcinogenic for humans”. A committee of experts brought together by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a World Health Organization (WHO) scientific centre in Lyon, France, announced yesterday that it cannot rule out the possibility that heavy mobile-phone use may increase the risk of brain cancer.

The IARC's formal opinions on such matters — always based on published data — are influential, and likely to raise the temperature of an already overheated debate on mobile-phone use and health. The WHO's 'possible carcinogen' category covers 266 other radiation sources and chemicals, including certain pesticides and gasoline — and also items such as coffee, which joined the list in 1991 as a possible cause of bladder cancer. The IARC regularly puts together expert groups to evaluate evidence for the carcinogenic potential of chemicals and radiation sources that have raised concern. Its categories include 'carcinogenic', 'probably carcinogenic', 'possibly carcinogenic' and 'not classifiable'. The IARC expert group of 31 scientists from 14 countries was headed by epidemiologist Jonathan Samet of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. The group held a closed conference between 24 and 31 May to assess potential carcinogenic hazards associated with exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields, including radio and television transmitters, as well as mobile phones.

More here.

Friday Poem

High-speed Bird

At full tilt, air gleamed –
and a window-struck kingfisher,
snatched up, lay on my palm
still beating faintly.

Slowly, a tincture
of whatever consciousness is
infused its tremor, and
ram beak wide as scissors

all hurt loganberry inside,
it crept over my knuckle
and took my outstretched finger
in its wire foot-rings.

Cobalt wings, shutting on beige
body. Gold under-eye whiskers,
beak closing in recovery
it faced outward from me.

For maybe twenty minutes
we sat together, one on one,
as if staring back or
forward into prehistory.

by Les Murray
from Taller When Prone
Publisher: Black Inc., Melbourne
© 2010

3 Quarks Daily 2011 Science Prize: Vote Here

ScreenHunter_08 Mar. 04 17.11 Dear Reader,

Thanks very much for participating in our contest. For details of the prize you can look at the announcement here, and to read the nominated posts you can go here for a complete list with links.

If you are new to 3 Quarks Daily, we welcome you and invite you to look around the site after you vote. Learn more about who we are and what we do here, and do check out the full site here. Bookmark us and come back regularly, or sign up for the RSS feed. If you have a blog or website, and like what you see here, we would very much appreciate being added to your blogroll. Please don’t forget!

Results of the voting round (the top twenty most voted for posts) will be posted on the main page on June 11, 2011. Winners of the contest, as decided by Lisa Randall, will be announced on or aorund June 21, 2011.

Now go ahead and submit your vote below!



P.S. If you notice any problems, such as a nominee is missing from the list below, please leave a comment on this page. Thanks.

BEWARE: We have various independent ways of keeping track of attempts at voting multiple times, which I am deliberately not revealing publicly. Any attempts at fraud will be thoroughly investigated, and anyone caught trying to vote multiple times will be instantly disqualified. I don’t think I really need to say this, but there are always a couple of bad eggs who will try!

Hooked on Meat

Bittman2 Mark Bittman in the NYT:

Once, we had to combine hunting skills and luck to eat meat, which could supply then-rare nutrients in large quantities. This progressed — or at least moved on — to a stage where a family could raise an annual pig and maybe keep a cow and some chickens. Quite suddenly (this development is no more than 50 years old, even in America), we can drive to our nearest burger shop and scarf down a patty — or two! — at will.

Because evolution is a slow process, this revolutionary change has had zero impact on the primal urge that screams, “Listen, dummy, if you can find meat you’d better eat it, because who knows when you’ll eat it again!” At some point our bodies may adapt to consuming unlimited quantities of meat or — a better alternative — our minds will crave less. Right now, primal urge and modern availability form a deadly combo.

We’re crack addicts with a steady supply. Beyond instinct and availability, there’s a third factor: marketing. When you add “It’s what’s for dinner” to the equation, you have a powerful combination: biology, economics and propaganda all pushing us in the same direction.

Those who were born in mid-to-late 20th century America take this for granted; I grew up eating meat seven days a week, usually for lunch and dinner, sometimes for breakfast, too. But the phenomenon is global: there’s more than twice as much meat available per person than there was in 1950. Citizens of most developed nations have gone down the same path, and as the poor become less so, they buy more meat, too.


Kirsch_052711_380px Adam Kirsch in Tablet:

As every contributor to Philosemitism in History acknowledges, Jews have never been entirely happy about the idea of philo-Semitism. The volume’s introduction, by editors Adam Sutcliffe and Jonathan Karp, begins with a Jewish joke: “Q: Which is preferable—the antisemite or the philosemite? A: The antisemite—at least he isn’t lying.” This may be too cynical; closer to the bone is the saying that “a philo-Semite is an anti-Semite who loves Jews.” That formulation helps to capture the sense that philo- and anti- share an unhealthy interest in Jews and an unreal notion of who and what Jews are. Both deal not with Jewishness but with “Semitism,” as if being a Jew were the same as embracing a political ideology such as communism or conservatism—rather than what it really is, a religious and historical identity that cuts across political and economic lines.

This Jewish mistrust of philo-Semitism finds ample support in the history of the word offered by Lars Fischer in his contribution to the book. Fischer’s essay focuses rather narrowly on debates within the socialist movement in Germany in the late 19th century. But since this was exactly the time and place that the words “anti-Semitism” and “philo-Semitism” were coined, Fischer’s discussion of the political valences of the terms is highly revealing. From the beginning, when the word was coined by Wilhelm Marr in 1879, “anti-Semitic” was a label proudly claimed by enemies of the Jews. In Austria and Germany, there were political parties, trade unions, and newspapers that called themselves “anti-Semitic,” even when their political programs went beyond hostility to Jews.

Philo-Semitism sounds like it would have been the rallying-cry of the opponents of anti-Semitism, a movement with its own political program. But Fischer explains that this was not the case. In fact, “philo-Semitism” was invented as a term of abuse, applied by anti-Semites to those who opposed them. Though Fischer does not draw the parallel, he makes clear that “philo-Semite” was the equivalent of a word like “nigger-lover” in the United States, meant to suggest that anyone who took the part of a despised minority was odious and perverse.

land art for the landless


Unlike men, all conceptualisms are not created equal. Some idea art—another dated term circa 1970—is so cliquishly abstruse as to celebrate, say, a man masturbating inside a gallery as a creative act (Vito Acconci’s 1971 Seedbed), or, more recently, a figure slithering around buffed cement in white pajamas (Terence Koh’s 2011 nothingtoodoo). Other examples, though, push open art’s closed doors: Consider Joseph Beuys’s 1980 founding of the German Green Party (he tagged it “social sculpture”) and the protest work that recently got Ai Weiwei arrested. Besides the obvious differences in generosity, crucial distinctions also appear when these artists address the mother of all art world MacGuffins—the “dematerialization of the art object.” A formula fetishized by legions of American artists, this “iron rule” has served Third World creators largely as a means to an end. And what end would that be? It varies, of course. In the case of the Belgian-born artist Francis Alÿs—whose work has explored the demanding intersection between politics and poetics in Mexico for two decades—that artistic mission amounts to a set of pointed but open-ended reflections on the volatile nature of entropic societies. Not one to churn out additional in-house chatter about the global art market, Alÿs’s goal has been instead to produce work that questions, provokes, and engages, while in the process also expanding the reach of art and its audience.

more from Christian Viveros-Fauné at The Village Voice here.

Strauss-Kahn ends an era


At the heart of the matter is the question of what it means to be a man in the two cultures. Dominique Strauss-Kahn was a strong and effective leader of the IMF, a post that has always been occupied by a European male of a similar stripe. This means: successful and sexually commanding. Sexual aggression in France is a kind of accessory to success. Like a pair of supple Armani shoes, it completes the outfit. “I’m even proud of [his sexual escapades],” his wife is quoted to have said once. “It’s important to seduce for a politician.” The droit du seigneur (or right of the lord of an estate to have his way with any peasant on it) is a French phrase, not by accident. The difference is also enshrined in the literary canon. In the English tradition — and the Brits, as their refusal of the Euro tells us, are not really European but proto-American — the concentration is on courtship and marriage. In the French tradition, it is on adultery. As was explained to me when I lived in France some years back, a man with a mistress is normal—which is why no one in France batted an eyelash when, on the death of President and alleged Resistance hero Francois Mitterrand, a second wife and child showed up at the funeral. During the Clinton-Lewinski scandal, the French were bemused by American outrage. What was all the fuss about? Clinton’s indulging himself with an available young woman? C’est normal. That Lewinski happened to be the age of his daughter, something we Americans noted with disgust, didn’t seem to bother the French. The ethos of Father’s Day, one might conclude, was not as embedded in the cultural consciousness.

more from Paula Marantz Cohen at The Smart Set here.

Live and Learn: Why we have college.

From The New Yorker:

College Society needs a mechanism for sorting out its more intelligent members from its less intelligent ones, just as a track team needs a mechanism (such as a stopwatch) for sorting out the faster athletes from the slower ones. Society wants to identify intelligent people early on so that it can funnel them into careers that maximize their talents. It wants to get the most out of its human resources. College is a process that is sufficiently multifaceted and fine-grained to do this.

College is, essentially, a four-year intelligence test. Students have to demonstrate intellectual ability over time and across a range of subjects. If they’re sloppy or inflexible or obnoxious—no matter how smart they might be in the I.Q. sense—those negatives will get picked up in their grades. As an added service, college also sorts people according to aptitude. It separates the math types from the poetry types. At the end of the process, graduates get a score, the G.P.A., that professional schools and employers can trust as a measure of intellectual capacity and productive potential. It’s important, therefore, that everyone is taking more or less the same test.

More here.

Shame and honor increase cooperation

From PhysOrg:

Honor-and-shame The research team shows that the threat of and promise of honour each increased by as much as 50 per cent, providing insights into potential future strategies for tackling global issues such as and . “Shame and honour might evoke images of The Scarlet Letter or The Three Musketeers, but as tactics to drive social cooperation, they are increasingly important in the digital age of YouTube, and , where acts of shame and honour are being shared and propagated with unprecedented speed,” says lead author Jennifer Jacquet, a postdoctoral fellow in UBC's Fisheries Centre and the Dept. of Mathematics.

Jacquet says shame and honour are increasingly used to affect policy and cultural change. For example, to deter tax evasion, many U.S. states recently implementing policies to post names of tax delinquents online. Large-scale conservation programs use honour to encourage corporate and public involvement, such as labels that signal to consumers that products are sustainable, including Vancouver's Ocean Wise seafood program. The new study is part of a series to establish a scientific foundation that informs future strategies to encourage cooperation on global issues. “The study confirms that a shame tactic can be effective, but rather surprisingly, we've also found that apparently honour has an equally strong effect on encouraging people to cooperate for the common good,” says co-author Christoph Hauert, an assistant professor in UBC's Dept. of Mathematics and an expert on .

More here.

Thursday Poem

White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field

Coming down out of the freezing sky
with its depths of light,
like an angel, or a Buddha with wings,
it was beautiful, and accurate,
striking the snow and whatever was there
with a force that left the imprint
of the tips of its wings — five feet apart —
and the grabbing thrust of its feet,
and the indentation of what had been running
through the white valleys of the snow —
and then it rose, gracefully,
and flew back to the frozen marshes
to lurk there, like a little lighthouse,
in the blue shadows —
so I thought:
maybe death isn't darkness, after all,
but so much light wrapping itself around us —

as soft as feathers —
that we are instantly weary of looking, and looking,
and shut our eyes, not without amazement,
and let ourselves be carried,
as through the translucence of mica,
to the river that is without the least dapple or shadow,
that is nothing but light — scalding, aortal light —
in which we are washed and washed
out of our bones.

by Mary Oliver
from House of Light

Self Suck

Discovery_36.3_nikolopoulosby Angelo Nikolopoulos in Boston Review:

Maybe more’s not merrier but messier,
since you can be your own

object and taste of desire, both surrender
and control in one wet exchange,

intimacy’s frontbend: the torso strong-
armed against wall or swivel-chair

until the sex dips into the same body’s
mouth. It’s like watering

and being watered at the same time.
Fall seven times,

and you’ll stand up full. Slippery logic:
the snake who ate its tail.

Maybe it’s the true preservationism,
cutting out the middleman—

him or her—making it local and organic,
pleasure’s Trader Joe’s.

But sustainability’s never sexy,
canvas clad in its carbon-cock-blocking.

If you can’t save the penguins please yourself,
Objectivism’s golden rule.

To be volition and validation, lover and lovee,
a recipient handing himself money.

But a party of one’s no fun—
even auto-eroticism’s depressing.

Like a return to the wellspring of childhood,
where we confronted it face-first,

our awful club scout truth:
that we enter the valley unchartered and alone,

and we must leave it this way too.

The Nominees for the 2011 3QD Prize in Science Are:

Alphabetical list of blog names followed by the blog post title:

(Please report any problems with links in the comments section below.)

For prize details, click here.

And after looking around, click here to vote.

  1. (((1/f))): A Sunday Afternoon Watching Symmetry Break
  2. A Primate of Modern Aspect: Penis Spines, Pearly Papules, and Pope Benedict’s Balls
  3. Aetiology: Pigs with Ebola Zaire: a whole new can o’ worms
  4. Anthropology in Practice: Power, Confidence, and High-Heels
  5. Babble: D-MER and the Breastfeeding Blues
  6. Bad Astronomy: Most distant object ever seen… maybe
  7. Bering in Mind: One Reason Why Humans Are Special and Unique: We Masturbate. A Lot
  8. Biodiversity in Focus: The Fly Tree of Life – Big Science, Big Results?
  9. Bishnu Marasini: Cholera in Haiti and Association to South Asia and Scientific Study to Reduce Recurrence
  10. Body Horrors: Blood Money: Hookworm Economics in the Postbellum South
  11. BoingBoing: Nuclear Energy 101: Inside the “Black Box” of Power Plants
  12. Byte Size Biology: But did you correct your results using a dead salmon?
  13. Centauri Dreams: ‘Blue Stragglers’ in the Galactic Bulge
  14. Communicate Science: Is Féidir Linn: Obama was right
  15. Convergence: Ocean Acidifi-WHAT?!
  16. Cosmic Variance: Physics and the Immortality of the Soul
  17. Cosmic Variance: The Fine Structure Constant is Probably Constant
  18. Cosmology Science Blog: International Astronomical Union has no definition for Big Bang
  19. Critical Twenties: How a college student can derive the RNA world hypothesis from scratch
  20. Culturing Science: Can seabirds overfish a resource? The case of cormorants in Estonia
  21. Culturing Science: Reflections on 2010: humans as biological machine and “love” (whatever!)
  22. Culturing Science: When Adaptation Doesn’t Happen
  23. Deep Sea News: Quantifying Outreach to the Cult of Science
  24. Deep Sea News: This is clearly an important species we’re dealing with
  25. Dinner Party Science: Is the World Real?
  26. Dinner Party Science: Tycho’s drunken moose and other stories
  27. Doctor Stu’s Blog: The Future of Nuclear Power after Fukushima: Thorium Reactors?
  28. Dot.Physics: Where Does the Carbon Come From?
  29. Dr. Carin Bondar: Sacrifice on the Serengeti
  30. Edible Geography: Fueling Mexico City: A Grain Revolution
  31. Empirical Zeal: Blind Fish in Dark Caves Shed Light on the Evolution of Sleep
  32. Empirical Zeal: When Nice Guys Finish First: A Lesson From Tiny Robots
  33. Empirical Zeal: Why Moths Lost Their Spots, and Cats Don’t Like Milk
  34. ERV: Barnyard Week: White Chickens Are ERV Mutants
  35. Furahan Biology and Allied Matters: Size matters, but so does gravity II
  36. Georneys: Word of the Week: O is for Ophiolite
  37. Highly Allochthonous: Levees and the Illusion of Flood Control
  38. Hudson Valley Geologist: SuperMoon
  39. In the Dark: No Cox please, we’re British
  40. Is This Your Homework: A Plethora of Planets
  41. Laelaps: The Pelican’s Beak – Success and Evolutionary Stasis
  42. Lindau Nobel Community: Seeking Inspiration
  43. Lounge of the Lab Lemming: Dear Hypothesis
  44. Matt Soniak: Shell Games: The Social and Behavioral Aspects of Hermit Crab Real Estate
  45. Matthew Herper: The First Child Saved By DNA Sequencing
  46. Neuron Culture: Free Science, One Paper at a Time
  47. Neuron Culture: The Tight Collar: The New Science of Choking Under Pressure
  48. Neutrino Blog: Four Neutrinos? But You Said There Were Just Three!
  49. Observations of a Nerd: How Do You ID a Dead Osama Anyway?
  50. Observations of a Nerd: Reflections on the Gulf Oil Spill: Conversations With My Grandpa
  51. Observations of a Nerd: Why do women cry? Obviously it’s so they don’t get laid
  52. Oh, For the Love of Science: Bufotoxin Tolerance in Keelback Snakes: Recent Adaptation to a New Threat, or Preadaptation From An Ancient Foe?
  53. Oh, For the Love of Science: Prehistoric Clues Provide Insight into Climate’s Future Impact on Oceans
  54. Opinionator: Morals Withoud God?
  55. Oscillatory Thoughts: Why we don’t need a brain
  56. Past Horizons: The Bones of Martyrs?
  57. Puff the Mutant Dragon: Bubonic Plague in America, Part I: LA Outbreak
  58. Quantum Tantra: Fun With an Argon Atom
  59. Ravindra Jadhav’s Blog: Graphene Wonder
  60. Resonaances: Theorists vs. the CDF bump
  61. Risk Science Blog: Finding My Tears For Japan: When 1 Is Worse Than 10,000
  62. Scientific American Guest Blog: Seratonin and Sexual Preference: Is It Really That Simple?
  63. Scientific American Observations: Circadian clock without DNA–History and the power of metaphor
  64. Screeds and Quibbles: The performativity of epidemiology: how smoking bans could increase death rates
  65. Smells Like Science: Field Notes From A Maya Ruin
  66. Smells Like Science: The Psychology of Killing and the Origins of War
  67. Southern Fried Science: Back from the Brink: Victories in Conservation
  68. Starts With A Bang: Where Is Everybody?
  69. Surprising Science: Rare Earth Elements Not Rare, Just Playing Hard to Get
  70. Tetrapod Zoology: Heinrich’s digital Kentrosaurus: the SJG Stegosaur special, Part II
  71. The Art in Science: Who the heck is The Vitruvian Man?
  72. The Artful Amoeba: Bombardier Beetles, Bee Purple, and the Sirens of the Night
  73. The Artful Amoeba: The Fungus and Virus that Rot Bee Brains
  74. The Astronomist: The Universe and Life is Asymmetric: Chirality
  75. The International NanoScience Community: At the Bleeding Edge: Benchmarking Next-Gen NanoTox Protocols
  76. The Loom: The Human Lake
  77. The Mother Geek: How “Boner” Is Misleading: The Science Behind an Erect Penis
  78. The Mouse Trap: Dicotomies; or Psychology in a nutshell
  79. The Physics arXiv Blog: First Observation of the Dynamical Casimir Effect
  80. The Soft Anonymous: Book Review: Logicomix
  81. The Thoughtful Animal: Defending Your Territory: Is Peeing on the Wall Just for the Dogs?
  82. The Thoughtful Animal: Is Pedagogy Specific to Humans? Teaching in the Animal World
  83. The Thoughtful Animal: Need A Date? Take a Cue From the Birds
  84. The Thoughtful Animal: Perseverating on Perseverative Error: What does the “A-not-B” Error Really Tell Us About Infant Cognition?
  85. Uncertain Principles: Measuring Gravity: Ain’t Nothin’ but a G Thing
  86. Urban Astronomer: Are the universal constants changing?
  87. ViXra Log: New luminosity record for LHC + Injector Chain

young benjamin


Benjamin was not just young when he wrote the pieces in this book; as an activist in the German Youth Movement, he was, one might say, professionally young. The youth movement was a loosely organized phenomenon with many tendencies—its adherents were interested in curriculum reform, sexual liberation, and nationalist renewal, among other causes, and there is a definite flavor of the 1960s in its vague, tumultuous commitment to change. Benjamin was exposed to it starting at 13, when he began to attend the Free School Community—an experimental, progressive school founded by the prominent reformer Gustav Wyneken, who became his mentor. Until the outbreak of the First World War, Benjamin was active in youth organizations—he was president of the Berlin University chapter of the Independent Students’ Association, and several of the essays in the book first appeared in movement journals. In these pieces, we sometimes find Benjamin writing as a muckraker, holding the German education system up to ridicule for its pedantry and mindless authoritarianism. In “Teaching and Valuation,” he complains of the “pious reiteration or regurgitation of unrelated or superficially related facts” and offers a “blacklist” of teacherly philistinism: “Apropos of Horace: ‘We have to read Horace in this class. It doesn’t matter whether we like it or not; it’s on the syllabus.’ ” When Benjamin quotes a teacher at a classical Gymnasium telling a student, “Please don’t think that anyone believes this enthusiasm of yours for the ancient world,” it’s hard to avoid suspecting that he himself was the student.

more from Adam Kirsch at Tablet here.

I do not possess any understanding of this world


I have said this before: I do not possess a superior understanding of the world. In fact, I do not possess any understanding of this world, let alone a superior one. I do not understand the world. I do not understand. That is why I write, because I do not understand. As for the price, it was not worth anything. A person’s suffering, life itself, is the most precious thing there is. Nothing justifies the degradation of another, nothing justifies someone wanting to look at a zoo, to stand in front of a cage and think “I am more sensitive and have an extraordinary mind and I watch the common people to see how they behave.” I haven’t a clue. I belong among those in the cage, I am not standing outside the bars watching. I don’t even understand what I have done. When I was in Romania, if I started every night to think about what had happened during the day, I couldn’t get my head round it. I couldn’t even afford to think within a wider time span. The exact, tiny things which kept accumulating were enough for me. I couldn’t think, I had to cope, and this absorbed everything I could come up with in my head. I think literature too is a way of searching. What is this existence of ours? We are all a mystery, even in our own body: we do not know how long we will live, which body organs will fail us, when our mind will go. So this is enough. That is why it was so tragic, because alongside all these existential problems, which automatically concern us all, the dictatorship introduced the political surveillance that you had to fight against. I didn’t understand a thing. That’s why I keep trying to ask myself: what happened back then? All I have understood is that freedom is important.

more from an interview between Herta Müller and Gabriel Liiceanu at Eurozine here.

playing the human game


‘I belong to no tribe,’ says Alfred Brendel, taking tea at his home in Hampstead, surrounded by some of the books that constitute his vast library. ‘I follow no creed, subscribe to no ideology, and I despise nationalism. I have lived in many places but wherever I go I am a paying guest.’ If you wanted a single statement to do justice to this extraordinary man, that would do pretty well. It is the expression of a well-travelled, well-read, well-versed man in language that is by turns serious and playful. With his immense learning, worn lightly, and a highly developed sense of irony and absurdity, Brendel is every inch a central European. He may have lived in London for four of his eight decades, and be a honorary knight of the realm, but nobody has ever taken him for an Englishman. In the most important sense, though, Brendel does belong to a tribe: the kingdom of artists. Like Goethe, of whom it was said that he represented a culture in himself, Brendel takes nourishment from all aspects of European civilisation. One of the supreme pianists of the past century, who retired from the concert platform three years ago, he was a painter in his youth, ‘and I’m still looking at paintings, most gratefully’. He has written brilliantly around the subject of music in several collections of essays, and is an acclaimed poet. Harold Pinter read six poems at Brendel’s 70th birthday celebrations ten years ago, and last year saw the publication of his collected work, Playing the Human Game.

more from Michael Henderson at The Spectator here.

A Raging Appetite

BloodBonesButter Joanna Scutts reviews Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef in Open Letters Monthly:

In B. R. Myers’ recent Atlantic article ‘The Moral Crusade Against Foodies,’ Gabrielle Hamilton – and her tough, vivid memoir – come in for a beating for belonging to the Anthony Bourdain school of macho food writing: ‘it’s quite something to go bare-handed up an animal’s ass… Its viscera came out with an easy tug; a small palmful of livery, bloody jewels that I tossed out into the yard.’ Driven by a passionate defense of animal rights, flavored with Catholic guilt and vegetarian revulsion, Myers eviscerates the foodie, that particular modern version of the gourmand of years past. He argues that for all the Michael Pollan sanctimony about looking an animal you’re going to eat right in the eye as a kind of atonement, this is just glorified gluttony – a deadly sin, if we hadn’t all forgotten? Furthermore, despite the hype about locavore sustainability as a social good, foodie-ism remains a marker of elite social status: “It has always been crucial to the gourmet’s pleasure that he eat in ways the mainstream cannot afford.” Foodies have the money and leisure to turn a bodily need into a sensual desire, and then, often, to write about it, for a community of like-minded, like-walleted readers.

At the other end of the moralizing spectrum, however, Eric Schlosser, author of the 2000 exposé Fast Food Nation, recently argued in the Washington Post that the elitist tag is a bait and switch. Dismissing those who pay a premium for organic-this and local-that as effete, arugula-munching liberals obscures the fact that the real elites are, as always, the billionaires: in this case, the owners of the massive agribusiness conglomerates that dominate America’s food production. The sinful elites are those currently pushing through a bill in Iowa to ban photographs of industrial farming operations, not Michelle Obama and her vegetable garden, or the diners at Brooklyn farm-to-table restaurants. The latter might be easier to satirize, but our moral outrage should be directed at those who keep fresh, healthy food out of the hands of the poor and poison the landscape while they’re at it.

In this fraught argument over the proper way to understand, appreciate, and write about food, the foodie memoir has a peculiar status. On the one hand, it participates in larger debates over food by advocating a particular way of eating – usually slowly, thoughtfully, with family and friends, using local ingredients, and if possible while watching the sunset over a Tuscan hillside. There are variations on this theme, and the occasional admission of a guilty pleasure in something mass-produced, but nobody has yet gotten rich writing My Life in Twinkies. On the other hand, the foodie memoir is necessarily personal – what is more intimate than a rumbling stomach, or tastebuds dancing in response to a perfect mouthful? The British food columnist Nigel Slater’s excellent Toast, for instance, is subtitled The Story of a Boy’s Hunger. How is that hunger, and its sating, to be shared? Foodie memoirs have long taken their cue from the lyrical Francophile M.F.K. Fisher, and tend to combine elements of the elegiac and the therapeutic. Often the writer is trying to recapture and recreate an idyllic, delicious childhood kitchen (Ruth Reichl), and sometimes to escape an upbringing of frozen dinners (Nigel Slater.) Healing journeys abound (Julie Powell) and more often than not there is some revelatory time spent absorbing the food and life lessons of different cultures, most often France or Italy, where the foodie memoir merges with the travelogue (Eat, Pray, Love.)

Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter combines plenty of these tropes on its journey from mythical childhood kitchen to thriving restaurant (she owns and runs Prune, in Manhattan’s East Village.)

Gil Scott-Heron, R.I.P.

GilScot-Heron_Press.3 Greg Tate in the Village Voice:

You know why Gil never had much love for that ill-conceived Godfather of Rap tag. If you're already your own genre, you don't need the weak currency offered by another. If you're a one-off, why would you want to bask in the reflected glory of knock-offs? If you're already Odin, being proclaimed the decrepit sire of Thor and Loki just ain't gonna rock your world.

Gil knew he wasn't bigger than hip-hop—he knew he was just better. Like Jimi was better than heavy metal, Coltrane better than bebop, Malcolm better than the Nation of Islam, Marley better than the King James Bible. Better as in deeper—emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, politically, ancestrally, hell, probably even genetically. Mama was a Harlem opera singer; papa was a Jamaican footballer (rendering rolling stone redundant); grandmama played the blues records in Kentucky. So grit shit and mother wit Gil had in abundance, and like any Aries Man worth his saltiness he capped it off with flavor, finesse and a funky gypsy attitude.

He was also better in the sense that any major brujo who can stand alone always impresses more than those who need an army in front of them to look bad, jump bad, and mostly have other people to do the killing. George Clinton once said Sly Stone's interviews were better than most cats' albums; Gil clearing his throat coughed up more gravitas than many gruff MCs' tuffest 16 bars. Being a bona fide griot and Orisha-ascendant will do that; being a truth-teller, soothsayer, word-magician, and acerbic musical op-ed columnist will do that. Gil is who and what Rakim was really talking about when he rhymed, “This is a lifetime mission: vision a prison.” Shouldering the task of carrying Langston Hughes, Billie Holiday, Paul Robeson and The Black Arts Movement's legacies into the 1970s world of African-American popular song will do that too. The Revolution came and went so fast on April 4, 1968, that even most Black people missed it.

Does reading great books make you a better person?

From Salon:

Jane It began when a professor forced him to read “Emma.” Balky at first, Deresiewicz was soon thunderstruck by the revelation that Austen had “not been writing about everyday things because she couldn't think of anything else to talk about. She had been writing about them because she wanted to show how important they really are.” Each chapter in this fusion of memoir and literary criticism reflects on how one Austen novel helped Deresiewicz reach a fuller understanding of some important aspect of life: common courtesy, learning, the importance of character over charm, social status, friendship and love. He makes a good case; Austen is a profoundly moral novelist and surely meant her readers to glean some insights on how best to live from reading her books. I do not doubt that Deresiewicz improved a lot while reading them. It's the causal relationship between the two phenomena that I doubt.

Does reading great literature make you a better person? I've not seen much evidence for this common belief. Some of the best-read people I know are thoroughgoing jerks, and some of the kindest and noblest verge on the illiterate — which is admittedly an anecdotal argument, but then, when it comes to this topic, what isn't? There's a theory, vaguely associated with evolutionary psychology, maintaining that fiction builds empathy, and therefore morality, by inviting us into the minds, hearts and experiences of others. This is what the British children's book author Michael Morpurgo implied recently in the Observer newspaper, when he claimed that “developing in young children a love of poems and stories” might someday render the human-rights organization Amnesty International obsolete.

More here.