From Harvard Magazine:

RN-G More than 2,000 years ago, a Roman named Titus Lucretius Carus set down his thoughts on topics ranging from creation to religion to death. The format for his observations, many of them highly technical and uncannily modern, was a single elegant poem: readers would stomach such material more easily if it was presented artfully, he suggested, just as a child would drink bitter medicine more readily out of a cup with a honeyed rim.

He was right. In later centuries, when that poem, De rerum natura (“On the Nature of Things”), came under siege for its subversive potential, the work’s captivating beauty would be key to its survival. Still, it barely weathered the incursions of time and hostile authorities, which conspired to put it out of view for nearly a millennium. The improbable story of how it re-emerged, and how the mindset it advocated informs our present, is the subject of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.

More here.

How movies mirror our mimicry

From The New York Times:

Pulp Quentin Tarantino's 1994 film Pulp Fiction is packed with memorable dialogue — 'Le Big Mac', say, or Samuel L. Jackson's biblical quotations. But remember this exchange between the two hitmen, played by Jackson and John Travolta? Vincent (Travolta): “Antwan probably didn't expect Marsellus to react like he did, but he had to expect a reaction”. Jules: “It was a foot massage, a foot massage is nothing, I give my mother a foot massage.”

Computer scientists Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil and Lillian Lee of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, see the way Jules repeats the word 'a' used by Vincent as a key example of 'convergence' in language. “Jules could have just as naturally not used an article,” says Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil. “For instance, he could have said: 'He just massaged her feet, massaging someone's feet is nothing, I massage my mother's feet.'” The duo show in a new study that such convergence, which is thought to arise from an unconscious urge to gain social approval and to negotiate status, is common in movie dialogue. It “has become so deeply embedded into our ideas of what conversations 'sound like' that the phenomenon occurs even when the person generating the dialogue [the scriptwriter] is not the recipient of the social benefits”, they say.

More here.

Wednesday Poem

From The Owls:

“Author’s Note: Since 2007 I have been corresponding with the war reporter Paul Watson, as he traveled around the world, from southeast Asia to Afghanistan and Iraq. Paul is most well known for winning the Pulitzer Prize for Spot Photography in 1994 for his photograph of a fallen American soldier in the streets of Mogadishu. He claims that when he took this picture he heard a voice, a voice that he believes belonged to the dead soldier, telling him, “If you do this, I will own you forever.” The play we are writing, The Body of an American, is concerned with Paul’s life and career, and specifically the story of this haunting. In February of 2010 we finally met in person in Ulukhaktok, in the High Arctic of the Northwest Territories in Canada, where Paul was enjoying a brief stint as the reporter for the 'Arctic and Aboriginal Beat' for the Toronto Star. He is currently back in Afghanistan now.”

Paul Watson Watches TV

I like John Mayer. You like John Mayer?
I like Ryan Adams also. And Queen
Latifah. Her sound’s hot. I like to watch
TV with the sound off and just listen
to my iPod. That okay with you? This
sucks. This sucks. There’s nothing good on TV!
I usually watch just sports, like hockey
or football? sometimes entertainment news
because it’s stupid and I love it when
celebrities do stupid things. It helps
me to relax. Also I like curling
as an Olympic sport. I love hearing
the women’s curling team screaming, Harder!
Faster! All of these women with their brooms
that look more like Swiffer WetJets rubbing
some kind of path in the ice for the weight
or pot or stone or whatever it is
screaming, Harder! Faster! As if that does
anything, really! What about this show,
The Bachelor? Have you seen The Bachelor? Look,
she’s pretending to cry. She’s pretending
to cry! What are all these people, actors?
Strippers? She’s trying so damn hard to cry
real tears! Harder! Faster! How’s it look
out there? You can’t tell if the snow’s falling
down from the sky or blowing off the ice
in the wind. Must be gusting up to what
65 miles an hour? Why don’t you make
a TV show out of this place? You could
pitch it back home in Hollywood: Newhart
meets Nanook of the North. All the crazies
you run into at a so-called hotel
that’s really more of a youth hostel or
low-budget rehab somewhere far away
above the tree line. Want another glass
of Bordeaux? Is that your mug? You look bored,
I can tell. You think I’m wasting your time
here, watching TV. When I’m on the phone
with my brothers and sisters, they’re talking
about, you know, problems at work. I say,
How long have we been talking? Ten minutes.
I tell them: Now you’re ten minutes closer
to dying. Which annoys them. It bugs me
to the core though, that people just don’t see
how quickly we die. Whether you’re driving
home from work, or suntanning on a beach
in Phuket and this wave comes out of nowhere
and that’s it, the end. Unmute this. I love
this movie. Look at those legs! Meryl Streep
is on the run, or she’s on the river
actually, ha ha, in a rafting boat
trying to get away from this psycho
killer Kevin Bacon. Is this movie
good? Or shit? No it’s shit. But God, Meryl
Streep is so gorgeous.

by Dan O'Brien

A Brief History of the Corporation: 1600 to 2100

Venkatesh Rao in Ribbon Farm:

VenkatPic3 On 8 June, a Scottish banker named Alexander Fordyce shorted the collapsing Company’s shares in the London markets. But a momentary bounce-back in the stock ruined his plans, and he skipped town leaving £550,000 in debt. Much of this was owed to the Ayr Bank, which imploded. In less than three weeks, another 30 banks collapsed across Europe, bringing trade to a standstill. On July 15, the directors of the Company applied to the Bank of England for a £400,000 loan. Two weeks later, they wanted another £300,000. By August, the directors wanted a £1 million bailout. The news began leaking out and seemingly contrite executives, running from angry shareholders, faced furious Parliament members. By January, the terms of a comprehensive bailout were worked out, and the British government inserted its czars into the Company’s management to ensure compliance with its terms.

If this sounds eerily familiar, it shouldn’t. The year was 1772, exactly 239 years ago today, the apogee of power for the corporation as a business construct. The company was the British East India company (EIC). The bubble that burst was the East India Bubble. Between the founding of the EIC in 1600 and the post-subprime world of 2011, the idea of the corporation was born, matured, over-extended, reined-in, refined, patched, updated, over-extended again, propped-up and finally widely declared to be obsolete. Between 2011 and 2100, it will decline — hopefully gracefully — into a well-behaved retiree on the economic scene.

More here.

Discovering my microbiome: “You, my friend, are a wonderland”

Carl Zimmer in his excellent blog, The Loom:

Ileana-navel-in-Saree Some people get a thrill from getting their genome sequenced and poring through the details of their genes. I’m a bit off-kilter, I guess, because I’m more curious about the genomes of the things living in my belly button. And let me tell you: it’s a jungle in there.

I first became curious about my navel in January. I was in Durham, North Carolina, to attend a meeting, and as I walked out of a conference room I noticed a cluster of people in the lobby handing out swabs. They were asking volunteers to stick the swabs in their belly button for the sake of science. Our bodies are covered with microbes, and scientists are discovering weirdly complex patterns to their biodiversity. From fingers to elbows to chin to forehead, different regions of our skin are dominated by different combinations of species. But the bellybutton remained terra incognita.

I happily donated my microbiome to the study, which is being conducted by Jiri Hulcr and Andrea Lucky, two post-doctoral researchers in the laboratory of Rob Dunn at North Carolina State University. After a few weeks, Hulcr sent me a photo of a Petri dish in which some of the bacteria from my bellybutton were thriving. Then Hulcr and Lucky got down to the serious work of identifying the species in the navels of their volunteers (90 and counting).

Yesterday, Dunn sent me a spreadsheet detailing my own results. “You, my friend, are a wonderland,” he wrote.

More here.

The Busts Keep Getting Bigger: Why?

Paul Krugman and Robin Wells in the New York Review of Books:

Krugman_1-071411_jpg_435x500_crop_q85 Suppose we describe the following situation: major US financial institutions have badly overreached. They created and sold new financial instruments without understanding the risk. They poured money into dubious loans in pursuit of short-term profits, dismissing clear warnings that the borrowers might not be able to repay those loans. When things went bad, they turned to the government for help, relying on emergency aid and federal guarantees—thereby putting large amounts of taxpayer money at risk—in order to get by. And then, once the crisis was past, they went right back to denouncing big government, and resumed the very practices that created the crisis.

What year are we talking about?

We could, of course, be talking about 2008–2009, when Citigroup, Bank of America, and other institutions teetered on the brink of collapse, and were saved only by huge infusions of taxpayer cash. The bankers have repaid that support by declaring piously that it’s time to stop “banker-bashing,” and complaining that President Obama’s (very) occasional mentions of Wall Street’s role in the crisis are hurting their feelings.

But we could also be talking about 1991, when the consequences of vast, loan-financed overbuilding of commercial real estate in the 1980s came home to roost, helping to cause the collapse of the junk-bond market and putting many banks—Citibank, in particular—at risk. Only the fact that bank deposits were federally insured averted a major crisis. Or we could be talking about 1982–1983, when reckless lending to Latin America ended in a severe debt crisis that put major banks such as, well, Citibank at risk, and only huge official lending to Mexico, Brazil, and other debtors held an even deeper crisis at bay. Or we could be talking about the near crisis caused by the bankruptcy of Penn Central in 1970, which put its lead banker, First National City—later renamed Citibank—on the edge; only emergency lending from the Federal Reserve averted disaster.

More here.

One Math Museum, Many Variables

From The New York Times:

Math For everyone who finds mathematics incomprehensible, boring, pointless, or all of the above, Glen Whitney wants to prove you wrong. He believes that tens of thousands of visitors will flock to his Museum of Mathematics, to open in Manhattan next year, and leave invigorated about geometry, numbers and many more mathematical notions.

“We want to expose the breadth and the beauty of mathematics,” said Mr. Whitney, a former math professor who parlayed his quantitative skills into a job at a Long Island hedge fund. He quit in late 2008 with connections to deep pockets and a quest to make math fun and cool. Two years ago, he and his team built a carnival-like traveling exhibit called the Math Midway, a proof-of-concept for the coming museum. It includes a tricycle with square wheels of different sizes that visitors can ride smoothly around a circular path ridged like a flower’s petals. An accompanying sign explains why: The undulating circular surface rises and falls exactly to offset the odd shape of the wheels, so that the tricycle’s axles — and the rider — remain at the same height as they move. Mr. Whitney hopes that colorful, interactive props will help his cause. “If we just pluck people in the street — ‘What adjectives would you use to describe math?’ — very few of them would say, ‘beautiful,’ ” Mr. Whitney said.

More here.

The Aesthetics of Change

by Aditya Dev Sood

Gandhicropped I’ve been reading Gandhi’s writings off and on for several months now, but just last week I turned to Joseph Lelyveld’s recent book on him. I’d been thinking about the kind of attitude towards the present that Gandhi must have had, in order to undertake social change at such a spectacular scale. How did Gandhi balance his quest for change with the full possibilities of the present, the taste of the world as he found it? Does Gandhi’s life and thought have a particular aesthetic, and if so, how can we better describe it? Great Soul has many virtues, foremost among them, perhaps, being nuance, and both curiosity and sensitivity to the progressive way in which Gandhi came to acquire his moral compass, his powers of communication and persuasion, and the bouquet of social technologies through which he was able to effect change. Being neither acolyte nor nationalist historiographer, Lelyveld is able to read Gandhi beyond his canonization, first in India, and more recently in post-apartheid South Africa.

Read more »

Men of Straw

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Straw men 2Properly run argument requires that we give reasons that provide support for the truth of our conclusions, that we do our best to be clear, and that we stay focused on the issue at hand. But it is possible to succeed in these ways and yet fail to argue properly. We must also respond to each other’s reasons, and this requires that we accurately represent our opponents’ views. When we fail in this latter respect, we commit the Straw Man fallacy.

Although it is common to speak of the Straw Man fallacy, there are actually several Straw Men. What they have in common is that they manifest a certain failure of dialogue. This makes Straw Men different from many other fallacy forms. Inductive fallacies—such as Hasty Generalization—and relevance fallacies—like Scare Tactics—are internal to the individual’s reasoning: Just because some X’s are Y’s, it doesn’t mean that all X’s are Y’s; just because doing A is risky, it doesn’t follow that it’s wrong to do. One can commit these errors on one’s own. But straw-manning involves the misrepresentation of an interlocutor’s view; consequently, Straw Man fallacies involve more than one person. When we commit a straw man fallacy, we fail to live up to the responsibilities of the exchange of reasons. Consider:

Military Spending

Adam: We really need to beef up our military budget—the world’s a dangerous place.

Betty: No way! We don’t need to devote our whole economy to being the world’s bully.

Betty’s right about not needing to pour a country’s entire budget into being a bully, but that’s not what Adam proposed. Betty misrepresents Adam’s view; therefore, she’s not in proper dialogue with Adam. This simple case exemplifies the standard form of the Straw Man. We’ve called it elsewhere the representational form of the Straw Man fallacy; the distortion happens when a specific interlocutor’s views are not accurately represented.

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Unwieldy Property

by Misha Lepetic

“Whoever lays his hand on me to govern me is a usurper and tyrant, and I declare him my enemy.”
– Proudhon

100813_22_20100723_fp_chongqing_online_selects005 Back in undergraduate days, when, if it is to be believed, my prose was even more incomprehensible than it is now, I wrote a paper on the economic history of the concept of private property ownership. After 37 pages, and having only reached JS Mill, I bowed out as gracefully as I could, and spent the next week wondering how anyone could be said to own anything at all. And yet, society’s legal and social construction of property ownership continues to be of the utmost importance in setting the course for economic development in general, and urbanization in particular.

In this sense, past commentators have looked at housing as an especially crucial area, since the larger issue of urban migration had already reached a boiling point in Europe by the mid-19th century. The work of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon is worth singling out in this regard. Originally an unapologetic Anarchist best known for the pithy aphorism “property is theft”, by the end of his life Proudhon had moderated his views considerably. Writing in the posthumously published Théorie de la Propriété,

“…property is the greatest revolutionary force which exists, with an unequaled capacity for setting itself against authority … [The] principal function of private property within the political system will be to act as a counterweight to the power of the State, and by so doing to insure the liberty of the individual.” Proudhon, quoted in Gray, p135

For the later Proudhon, the validity of property is resurrected only “if it is purged and infused with justice” (Gray, p243). Specifically, this right to property would encourage workers to defend themselves against the depredations of the State and its capitalist abettors. In contrast, the propagation of rent-based housing only exacerbated the uncertainty of their situation. It would also go a ways towards preventing slum clearance, which was as ineffective then as it is now. In fact, two decades after Proudhon’s death in 1865, Great Britain’s Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes published a report where the acknowledged that

Rookeries are destroyed, greatly to the sanitary and social benefit of the neighborhood, but no kind of habitation for the poor has been substituted… The consequence of such a proceeding is that the unhoused population crowd into the neighboring streets and courts…and when the new dwellings are complete…the tenants are not the…persons displaced [so that] those whose need is greatest suffer most acutely. (p19-20)

Thus Proudhon’s hope was that, in aggregate, the landowning proletarian class would throw up a legal-materialistic barricade against those who would otherwise bulldoze their neighborhoods and subsequently engage in the kind of property speculations that only further exacerbate income inequality and displacement of urban populations.

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Life, for the fastidious

by Rishidev Chaudhuri

Actin_kinesin_walking For the first week after I began taking a cell biology class I dreamed of deserts, vast sterile expanses of open heat with no living things, interrupted only by dreams of inter-galactic space and the structured infinity of mathematical forms. There is something profoundly disturbing and eerie about life at the molecular level. It is too purposive and awake to see it as inert matter – it is impossible not to anthropomorphize it or, more accurately, to attempt to make sense of its motives in the same way we do for people. And yet it is too alien to anthropomorphize in any useful way. Somehow, brute matter has figured out how to replicate itself and has exploded into a cacophony of form. Here proteins rush around cells carrying other proteins on their heads; other proteins slice and dice and reassemble yet other proteins[1]. It is so easily seen as a parody of human ends. Looking into a microscope we are alienated from ourselves by our cells. We stare into a world of automata, a world made uncanny by the juxtaposition of its echo of and utter distance from our world.

To their credit, there is nothing explicitly malevolent about microscopic life or its components, even things as sinister as prions. The suspicion of matter that they induce is not the Gnostic horror of waking up and finding oneself trapped in a coffin that is actively conspiring to stay shut. And it lacks the single-mindedness of a thriving Schopenhauerian will to life. And neither is it the anguish of finding oneself alive in a universe indifferent to life; matter seems all too eager to become animate. If anything, we seem to find ourselves viewing matter in company with the early Buddhists, as life-creating but amoral. They, finding themselves doomed by nature to live (and suffer as an incidental effect), and for whom suicide was subverted by rebirth, sought to live so as to break the chain of causation and extinguish themselves.

Of course we don’t understand the strange frontier towns where inanimate matter begins to wriggle and repeat, though we have lots of interesting speculation about what might happen at those boundaries. In the molecular world of modern life, DNA stores information; this information is transcribed into RNA; and then some RNA is then translated into proteins, which carry out most of the functions of life. Among other things, proteins catalyze a host of reactions needed for life. In one possible origin-of-life scenario, RNA performs the functions of both DNA and proteins: it both stores information and catalyzes its own production and replication. Chains of RNA get longer and more complex, eventually beginning to co-operate with each other and to catalyze the assembly of amino acids into proteins. Eventually, the proteins take over much of the structural and catalytic work, and DNA, being more stable, takes over the information storage.

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Life on a pillar: environmental thought and the odor of sanctity

by Liam Heneghan

The saint on the pillar stands,/The pillar is alone,/He has stood so long/That he himself is stone. Louis MacNeice, Stylite, 1940 [i]

In Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, Melville’s anachronistically recognized ecological masterpiece, a calculation is presented that on a three or four year voyage a seaman manning one of the mast-heads of a whaleship would spend several entire months aloft his pillar above the ship. A whaleship like the Pequod, Ishmael informs, was not provided with a crow’s-nest as was the case with the Greenland ships – the mast-man on the southern whaler was exposed to the elements and to the mesmerizing crawl of the oceans far below him. Our narrator cautions the ship-owners of Nantucket to be especially wary of taking on philosophical lads given to “unseasonable meditativeness”. Whaling could be an asylum for romantic souls, youngsters that are “disgusted with the carking cares of earth”. The cost could be high. Such a youth can lose his identity in his ocean reverie and “[take] the 520px-Simeon_Stylite_Louvre mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that, deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading man and nature…” In such a meditation one misplaced step and “your identity comes back in horror” and perhaps “with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever.” Ishmael concludes the observation thus: “Heed it well, ye Pantheists.” By which I take it that he is talking to dreamy youth and latterly to us environmentalists.

In chronological sequence Melville mirthfully compares the solitary, watchful, deprived life on the mast to that of other motionless dwellers, starting with Egyptians who climbed the pyramids to gaze at the stars and concluding with stone or metal men atop columns, figures unresponsive to the beseeching yells of those below them, that is, statues of Washington, Napoleon and Nelson. Included in this evolutionary sequence – for the land-locked lofty paved the way according to Melville to maritime mast-men – is Saint Stylites of whom he says “in him we have a remarkable instance of a dauntless stander-of-mast-heads…[he] literally died at his post.”

A helpful footnote in my copy of Moby-Dick declares Melville’s entertaining claim about pyramids as astronomical pillars implausible, and of course, statues, though they may remain impressively motionless for quite some time, have the benefit of being lifeless[ii]. In Melville’s roster, Saint Stylites stands out, so to speak, having spent almost forty years on his pillar.

About him I have a few things I’d like to say.

Read more »

Don’t Look Now, but They’re Back: Bad Mortgage Debts May Surface Once More

by Michael Blim

225px-Ben_Bernanke_official_portrait Ben Bernanke met the press this past week with no good news to report. Rather he admitted that “we don’t have a precise read on why this slower pace of growth is persisting. Some of the headwinds that have been concerning us, like the weakness in the financial sector, problems in the housing sector, balance sheet and deleveraging issues, may be stronger and more persistent than we thought.”

And how. The US economic recovery now almost two years old is the weakest of economic bounce backs over the past one hundred years, according to Richard Milne in the June 25 Financial Times, and economic policy elites like Bernanke are mightily perplexed. Output growth continues to falter, and unemployment will remain as high as seven to seven and a half percent through 2013. Instead of figuring out what to do next, Bernanke et.al. find themselves spending most of their time defending what they have already done as saving America and the world from something much worse.

As the economy slows once more, and the housing market worsens, the chances of really bad knock-on effects increase. You may recall that the collapse of the value of mortgage-backed securities (MBSs) triggered the panic that sent the world economy reeling. Well, those bad securities, some half a trillion dollars worth, are still sloshing around in Wall Street basements, still able to help take us under should the economy start to tank once more.

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The Humanists: Hsiao-hsien Hou’s Café Lumière


by Colin Marshall

How often do we get two great cinematic tastes that, as they say, go great together? The Taiwanese director Hsiao-hsien Hou and the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu both, I would argue, display great taste, especially of the visual and rhythmic varietes. (Some insist Ozu had a tin ear, at least for music. Me, I could never strip his movies of those wobbly domestic strings.) But, separated by more than a generation, they never had a chance to collaborate. The next best opportunity came along in 2003, the 100th anniversary of Ozu's birth (and the 40th anniversary of his death). To mark the occasion, Hou made Café Lumière, his homage to the master of the small-scale, the unspoken, and the pillow shot.

Film scholars don't need to waste their time building arguments about whether Ozu's influence really drives the film; “For the centenary of Ozu's birth,” a title card nakedly announces right up front. The Ozu diehard, naturally, will only need to have seen the Shochiku logo. Crafting this project under the auspices of the studio for which Ozu worked all his life signals a certain seriousness, especially for a foreign filmmaker in a land famously protective of its inner life. And when this picture reveals how it sees Tokyo — well, case closed.

As unappealingly obsessive as it might sound, Café Lumière never strays far from the mechanics of public transit. Its story opens with a shot of a passing urban train, and many more of them appear throughout. These trains appear not as a fixture of a wealthy megalopolis but as part of a living, breathing, startingly calm organism grown also out of laundry lines, endless layers of icons and text, and web upon web of power and telephone lines. I hadn't glimpsed this sort of Tokyo since Ozu last captured it in the early sixties, this unassuming Tokyo seen, if not always at ground level, at least never from a much higher viewpoint than the average commuter enjoys.

Legend has it that Ozu shot his “home dramas” (including but most certainly not limited to Late Spring, Tokyo Story, and, previously written up in this column, Equinox Flower) with the camera mounted at the height of someone seated on a tatami mat. It always seemed a little higher than that to me, but the humility of the aesthetic choice still came across. It suited the humility of the circumstances; the homes in which his dramas played out always housed the stripe of family that, while appearing outwardly “middle class” to modern audiences, clearly sufferent from the kind of poverty — perhaps “lack” gets closer — that touched everyone in a Japan still so fresh from the Second World War.

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Monday Poem

“There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.”
—Herman Melville; Moby Dick
“All politicians are loco.”
—Roshi Bob (with a tip o' the hat to Tip O'Neill)

Whatever Floats Your Pequod

Call me Ishmael
—no, on second thought don’t

Call me Lazarus because
I now have a second skin
—the old one was flayed
by a single-minded madman
ambulating on a stump

Below decks
you’d hear him articulating
his loathing of life
to the cadence of the thud
of his wooden leg upon
quarter-deck boards
a rumble overhead
like the thunder
of a gathering storm

Call me Lone Survivor
alive by dint of flotsam and luck
—if you call it luck to have been
under the spell and thumb
of a lunatic chasing a
malevolent memory

Call me Happy To Be Alive
—and do I have a story for you!
Now when I breath the air
of summer blossoms
and taste its berries
I know what they mean

Call me The Old Man And The Sea;
someone eventually will
—big fish are hard to let be
and we all know the allure
of horizons; but

no, really

call me Queequeg's Confidant,
buddy of a harpooneer, an island
prince in a tattoo shirt
in a small boat chasing
mammoth mammals
psyched for murder
aiming to slay them
with a tiny, tooled spear
its tip all meanness
and barbarity

Call me Henchman in pursuit
of lamplight, of oil and cash reaped
from the flesh of leviathan

Call me Ishmael or call me Man
whatever floats your Pequod
It’s all the same to me

by Jim Culleny, 6/23/11

Ritual and the Ringing Grooves of History

by Tom Jacobs

Why should we not enjoy an original relation to the universe?
~ Emerson, “Nature”

One of the most important and enjoyable responsibilities given to a young altar boy is to ring a set of bells at the moment the priest holds the communion host above his head and proclaims somethinEucharistg along the lines of:

The lord took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

The reason we rang these bells, my parish priest told me years ago when he first trained me to become an altar boy, is to draw the parishoners’ attention so that they are reminded of what is going on up on stage, as it were. And what is going on up there is meant to be breathtaking and awesome. The little, tasteless piece of circular, unleavened “bread” becomes, at that precise moment in the ceremony of the Eucharist, the actual body of Christ, which we are all then invited to eat. When I was first told this, I was surprised and astounded. What we were doing every Sunday was eating the flesh of a deity (and just after, having a little tug of his blood).

Of course, I had my doubts about the genuineness of this transformation, but still I found the whole concept rather amazing. This is not the sort of thing one sees everyday (unless you go to daily mass, I suppose). To think that these little unremarkable wafers that I had taken out of their little chinese-take out-looking boxes and placed in the tabernacle not one hour earlier, had now become the literal body of a god was an extraordinary idea, and a nice piece of theater, too, it must be said.[i]

And it was my job to ring the bells to get everyone to pay attention, if only for a moment, at what was going on before them. No less astonishing was the parishoners’ typical response: boredom, wristwatch-looking, ongoing attempts to stop one’s children from squirming and playing with their siblings in the pews. Nobody seemed to really grasp what was occurring before them, and even those who did, didn’t seem much to care.

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the pao of love (part one)

by Vivek Menezes

Pao1 It’s 1am, pouring heavily on an overcast monsoon night, and I’ve been waiting to talk to Sebastiao Frias for almost two hours.

But he’s still elbow-deep in his work, dusted from brow to toes in wheat flour, and moving with the distinctive balletic grace that master craftsmen acquire after decades of practice.

A seemingly unending series of trays are lined up next to his hip, become filled at full speed with little nubs of steadily ‘proving’ dough (each snipped off by feel alone, yet almost exactly identical to the next), then set aside to await a pre-dawn turn in the massive, ancient oven which dominates the largest room in this old house in Panjim, the pocket-sized capital city of India’s smallest state.

Frias began his evening’s labours as always, preparing thousands of ‘unde’ for baking. These palm-sized, egg-shaped loaves of crusty bread are the addictive favourite of Ponnjekars, the residents of this pleasant riverside city, where ‘pao bhaji’ has to be accompanied by an ‘undo’ or it is not considered the genuine article, and most dailyroutines begin with the ritual purchase of the morning’s supply from a deliveryman who brings the bread right to the front door of every household in the city (the evening’s supply comes separately, in another round of deliveries).

The clock keeps ticking, and I find myself mesmerized by Frias’s swift, efficient movements, the dough rolled out in table-top sized slabs, then kneaded into cables and ropes and knots, then back again across the counter.

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The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World

by Sue Hubbard

Tate Britain until 4th September

Blast It was the modern art movement that brought London, if not quite kicking and screaming, then rather reluctantly out of its Edwardian gentility into the 20thcentury. Most people had never seen a Cézanne or a Van Gogh. The continental ‘isms’ of Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism were more likely thought of, if they were thought of at all, in the manner of foreign food. Something best kept ‘over there’, safely on the other side of the Channel. Vorticism with its continental influences was to change all that.

During the Edwardian period (1901-10) mainstream British culture was vehemently isolationist and the modern art scene tiny. There was a small avant-garde that revolved, on the one hand, around the Bloomsbury Group – Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Roger Fry and the artists of the Omega Workshops with their French inspired aestheticism and there was the gritty, more socially conscious Camden Town Group that collected around Walter Richard Sickert. But mostly the art establishment, dominated by the Royal Academy, was inward looking and mildly xenophobic.

[Photo: Blast No. 1: Review of the Great English Vortex, June 20, 1914 (Edited by Wyndham Lewis), The Poetry Collection, State University of New York at Buffalo, © Wyndham Lewis and the estate of Mrs G A Wyndham Lewis by kind permission of the Wyndham Lewis Memorial Trust (a registered charity).]

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