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.

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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 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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Me, Inc.

Pamela S. Karlan in the Boston Review:

Karlan_36_4_corporation When the Supreme Court heard Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Co. in 1886, few would have pegged the case as a turning point in constitutional law. The matter at hand seemed highly technical: could California increase the property tax owed by a railroad if the railroad built fences on its property? As it turned out, the Court ruled unanimously in the railroad’s favor. And in so doing, the Court casually affirmed the railroad’s argument that corporations are “persons” within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment, which provides that no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” So certain were the justices of the Fourteenth Amendment’s applicability that their opinion did not engage the issue, but the Court reporter recorded the justices’ perspective on the topic:

Before argument Mr. Chief Justice Waite said: ‘The Court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution which forbids a state to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws applies to these corporations. We are all of opinion that it does.’

That statement marks the origin of the view that corporations are persons as a matter of constitutional law. This played a central role in the 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which struck down portions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act that restricted corporate spending on electioneering communications in the run-up to a federal election. The Court declared that Congress could not discriminate between electioneering communications according to the identity of the speaker: since individual human beings clearly have a First Amendment right to speak about candidates during the election process, so too must corporations.

More here.

Atop TV Sets, a Power Drain That Runs Nonstop

Elizabeth Rosenthal in the New York Times:

26CABLE-graphic-popup Those little boxes that usher cable signals and digital recording capacity into televisions have become the single largest electricity drain in many American homes, with some typical home entertainment configurations eating more power than a new refrigerator and even some central air-conditioning systems.

There are 160 million so-called set-top boxes in the United States, one for every two people, and that number is rising. Many homes now have one or more basic cable boxes as well as add-on DVRs, or digital video recorders, which use 40 percent more power than the set-top box.

One high-definition DVR and one high-definition cable box use an average of 446 kilowatt hours a year, about 10 percent more than a 21-cubic-foot energy-efficient refrigerator, a recent study found.

These set-top boxes are energy hogs mostly because their drives, tuners and other components are generally running full tilt, or nearly so, 24 hours a day, even when not in active use. The recent study, by the Natural Resources Defense Council, concluded that the boxes consumed $3 billion in electricity per year in the United States — and that 66 percent of that power is wasted when no one is watching and shows are not being recorded. That is more power than the state of Maryland uses over 12 months.

More here.

The untold stories of rape during the Holocaust

Jessica Ravitz at CNN:

ScreenHunter_01 Jun. 26 17.22 Scholars are revisiting old testimonies and documents — and seeking new ones. Authors have published works to inspire conversation. Psychologists want to help survivors heal from their secrets. Activists, including feminist writer and organizer Gloria Steinem, hope these victims of the distant past can help shape a better future.

But the topic of sexual violence during the Holocaust is fraught with controversy. Some observers believe it's a subject not sufficiently widespread or proven to warrant broad attention. Others fear it's driven by a microscopic view that deflects focus from what needs to be remembered. And still others feel that by pushing the issue, it may harm survivors who've suffered enough.

What everyone can agree on is this: When it comes to learning from those who lived through the Holocaust, time is running out.

A spotlight on this dark subject was switched on with the late 2010 publication of a landmark book bearing a straightforward but telling title, “Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust.”

The interdisciplinary anthology touches on everything from rape, forced prostitution and sterilizations to psychological trauma, gender identity issues and depictions of violence in the arts. Co-edited by Sonja Hedgepeth and Rochelle Saidel, it is believed to be the first book in English to focus exclusively on this subject.

More here.

Pakistan Unhitches Hitchens

Anjum Altaf in The South Asian Idea:

ScreenHunter_01 Jun. 26 11.04 None of this is to argue that Pakistan is not plagued by very severe problems, some of which Hitchens has enumerated. The appropriate response to Hitchens is not a defense of Pakistan’s civil and military elite, of the kind Christine Fair has penned for The Huffington Post, with its accounting of Pakistan’s cooperation in the war against terror. Nor is it the dismissive posture adopted by many Pakistanis, pointing out their country’s various positives. These are weak defenses, the staples of many a domestic fight: This is all I’ve done for you, think of the good times, we were happy once, and ultimately those defenses are as far from the point as a Hitchens-style diatribe.

The response calls for the kind of unglamorous analysis that won’t make it into Vanity Fair or The Huffington Post. At any given time, a society is characterized by many currents and counter-currents, positives coexist with negatives, and struggles for human rights wax and wane. So has been the case in Pakistan. Hitchens’ statement that “Pakistan takes its twisted, cowardly revenge by harboring the likes of the late Osama bin Laden” is so unnuanced as to call into question the author’s credibility as an analyst; the greatest damage he has done here is to his own reputation.

There is no one Pakistan: There are many Pakistans, and the question to ask is why the forces of repression have been gaining the upper hand in the country.

More here.

Why parents can’t cut the apron strings

From Spiked:

More-kids-cover If Amy Chua is cast as the wild-eyed Tiger Warrior of twenty-first-century parenting, Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University and author of a new book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, is its amiable Buddha figure. He even looks the part. His publicity photos invariably picture him hugging his kids and grinning from ear to ear. It’s a far cry from Amy Chua’s formal, somewhat stiff family portraits. Pitting the two against one another has proved irresistible. Media pundits have dubbed them ‘gurus’ and taken to sorting parents into one category or another. Of course the irony is that the ‘debate’ between the two is not, as Jennie Bristow has pointed out on spiked, a real debate in any meaningful sense. It’s really more of a half-hearted rehearsal of the old nature-vs-nurture argument. It does not change anyone’s mind; it offers no answers and is unlikely to have any effect on what parents actually do. And this is a pity because Caplan’s book at least represents an attempt to address some of the excesses of today’s parenting culture.

Selfish Reasons begins with the observation that the American family is shrinking, and the main reason for this, according to Caplan, is that parents are stressed out about taking care of kids. More kids mean more stress and less happiness. This in itself might give some readers pause. It seems a bit glib and appears to ignore the long-term demographic trends and yet, just as a snapshot of American life today, it feels true.

More here.

Sunday Poem

For an Anniversary

The wing of the osprey lifted
over the nest on Tomales Bay
into fog and difficult gust
raking treetops from Inverness Ridge on over
The left wing shouldered into protective
gesture the left wing we thought broken

and the young beneath in the windy nest
creaking there in their hunger
and the tides beseeching, besieging
the bay in its ruined langour

by Adrienne Rich

The Double Game: The unintended consequences of American funding in Pakistan.

From The New Yorker:

Newyorker It’s the end of the Second World War, and the United States is deciding what to do about two immense, poor, densely populated countries in Asia. America chooses one of the countries, becoming its benefactor. Over the decades, it pours billions of dollars into that country’s economy, training and equipping its military and its intelligence services. The stated goal is to create a reliable ally with strong institutions and a modern, vigorous democracy. The other country, meanwhile, is spurned because it forges alliances with America’s enemies.

The country not chosen was India, which “tilted” toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Pakistan became America’s protégé, firmly supporting its fight to contain Communism. The benefits that Pakistan accrued from this relationship were quickly apparent: in the nineteen-sixties, its economy was an exemplar. India, by contrast, was a byword for basket case. Fifty years then went by. What was the result of this social experiment? India has become the state that we tried to create in Pakistan. It is a rising economic star, militarily powerful and democratic, and it shares American interests. Pakistan, however, is one of the most anti-American countries in the world, and a covert sponsor of terrorism. Politically and economically, it verges on being a failed state. And, despite Pakistani avowals to the contrary, America’s worst enemy, Osama bin Laden, had been hiding there for years—in strikingly comfortable circumstances—before U.S. commandos finally tracked him down and killed him, on May 2nd.

More here.

Michele Bachmann’s Holy War

Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone:

Main Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and, as you consider the career and future presidential prospects of an incredible American phenomenon named Michele Bachmann, do one more thing. Don't laugh.

It may be the hardest thing you ever do, for Michele Bachmann is almost certainly the funniest thing that has ever happened to American presidential politics. Fans of obscure 1970s television may remember a short-lived children's show called Far Out Space Nuts, in which a pair of dimwitted NASA repairmen, one of whom is played by Bob (Gilligan) Denver, accidentally send themselves into space by pressing “launch” instead of “lunch” inside a capsule they were fixing at Cape Canaveral. This plot device roughly approximates the political and cultural mechanism that is sending Michele Bachmann hurtling in the direction of the Oval Office.

Bachmann is a religious zealot whose brain is a raging electrical storm of divine visions and paranoid delusions. She believes that the Chinese are plotting to replace the dollar bill, that light bulbs are killing our dogs and cats, and that God personally chose her to become both an IRS attorney who would spend years hounding taxpayers and a raging anti-tax Tea Party crusader against big government. She kicked off her unofficial presidential campaign in New Hampshire, by mistakenly declaring it the birthplace of the American Revolution. “It's your state that fired the shot that was heard around the world!” she gushed. “You are the state of Lexington and Concord, you started the battle for liberty right here in your backyard.”

More here.