Middle Earth

Blue-marble-and-sun

Kurt Hollander on how we might see our place in the heavens if we put the Equator at the centre, in Aeon:

Though he never actually crossed it, the Greek mathematician Pythagoras is sometimes credited with having first conceived of the Equator, calculating its location on the Earth’s sphere more than four centuries before the birth of Christ. Aristotle, who never stepped over it either and knew nothing about the landscape surrounding it, pictured the equatorial region as a land so hot that no one could survive there: the ‘Torrid Zone’. For the Greeks, the inhabited world to the north — what they called the oikumene — existed opposite an uncharted region called the antipodes. The two areas were cut off from one another by the Equator, an imaginary line often depicted as a ring of fire populated by mythical creatures.

First created in the 7th century, the Christian orbis terrarum (circle of the Earth) maps, known for visual reasons as ‘T-and-O’ maps, included only the northern hemisphere. The T represented the Mediterranean ocean, which divided the Earth’s three continents — Asia, Africa, and Europe — each of which was populated by the descendants of one of Noah’s three sons. Jerusalem usually appeared at the centre, on the Earth’s navel (ombilicum mundi), while Paradise (the Garden of Eden) was drawn to the east in Asia and situated at the top portion of the map. The O was the Ocean surrounding the three continents; beyond that was another ring of fire.

For the Catholic Church, the Equator marked the border of civilisation, beyond which no humans (at least, no followers of Christ) could exist. In The Divine Institutes (written between 303 and 311CE), the theologian Lactantius ridiculed the notion that there could be inhabitants in the antipodes ‘whose footsteps are higher than their heads’. Other authors scoffed at the idea of a place where the rain must fall up. In 748, Pope Zachary declared the idea that people could exist in the antipodes, on the ‘other side’ of the Christian world, heretical.

Was Antebellum America Secular?

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Michael Warner in Immanent Frame:

The question “Was Antebellum America Secular?” obviously depends on what one means by secular. Because the term is dialectical by nature and immanent to the struggles of the age, we cannot expect it to be a neutral analytic framework; like secularismor religion, it requires constant qualification to be of any analytic use. As Gauri Viswanathan has noted, in many polemical contexts “words like ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ have lost their descriptive value and function instead as signposts to given attitudes.” It is almost impossible to see the question of my title without anticipating that a question of validity will be at stake.

And indeed in American media the question is taken at face value and given opposite answers, with strong normative implications. In the “Yes” camp are people like Susan Jacoby, whose bookFreethinkers: A History of American Secularism (2004) argued that America, contrary to the claims of the then-ascendant religious right, had been founded in rationalist skepticism about religion. (Despite its subtitle, which might promise some inquiry into historical conditions, the book is a narrative of heroic secularists and a digest of their “heritage.”) In the “No” camp are evangelical historians such as David Barton, who believes that America was founded as a Christian republic, with no presumption of equal participation by Jews, or atheists, let alone Muslims; even Jefferson’s “wall of separation,” he argues, was meant as a “one-directional” wall (if one can imagine such a thing), blocking government out of religion but not the other way around.

The disagreement between Jacoby and Barton has become a classic example of an echo chamber effect. Both have websites and enthusiastic followings (especially Barton, who essentially self-publishes), and both are likely to remain indifferent to anything that might be said here. (Jacoby’s is a simple author sitebut Barton’s is much more extensive; it also attracts rebuttals on many counter-websites.) Both positions, though stated in their extreme and polemical form in the nonacademic press, have more or less respectable versions that hold considerable power, especially in law.

The First Images of Molecules Breaking and Reforming Chemical Bonds

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George Dvorsky over at io9:

Microscopy is advancing in leaps and bounds these days. It was just last week that scientists produced the first image of a hydrogen atom’s orbital structure. Not to be outdone, Berkeley chemists have now captured a series of images showing molecules as they break and reform their chemical bonds. It looks almost… textbook.

Holy crap, is it incredible when scientists present actual, tangible visual evidence to reaffirm theoretical models. As any chemistry student knows, molecular bonds, or covalent bond structures, are typically represented in science class with a stick-like nomenclature. But as the work of Felix Fischer, Dimas de Oteyza and their Berkeley Lab colleagues beautifully demonstrates, these models are startlingly accurate.

And like so many good scientific discoveries, it all happened somewhat by accident.

The Berkeley scientists were actually working on a way to precisely assemble nanostructures made from graphene using a new cutting-edge approach to chemical reactions. They were trying to build a single-layer material in which carbon atoms are arranged in repeating, hexagonal patterns — but they needed to take a closer look to see what was happening at the single-atom level. So, they pulled out a powerful atomic force microscope — and what they saw was “amazing,” to quote Fischer.

the museum of babel

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Marino Auriti kept Il Enciclopedico Palazzo del Mondo in the garage. It was stored in the back, past scores of Auriti’s paintings that hung salon-style (as his granddaughter remembers) nearly floor-to-ceiling over the garage walls, and past the array of car parts that lay on the cement. His paintings were mostly reproductions of photographs clipped from National Geographic and paintings of the Renaissance masters. Marino Auriti loved Raphael and Michelangelo and Leonardo. Auriti was a car mechanic by trade but architecture was his passion. The Italian-American immigrant began working on Il Enciclopedico in the 1950s, after he had retired. The sculpture Auriti kept in his garage-turned-studio had a footprint of 7 feet by 7 feet. In the center was a tiered tower about 11 feet high. The tower was surrounded by a tiny piazza, enclosed by columns. In each corner was a domed building. To make Il Enciclopedico Auriti used bits of wood, brass, plastic, and model-making kit parts. For the windows he used celluloid; for the balustrades, the teeth of hair combs. At the top of the tower was a television antenna.

more from Stefany Anne Golberg at The Smart Set here.

how not to write about africa

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As in Dark Star Safari, Theroux has come to Africa because he wants to get away from emails, mobile phones, braying dinner-party guests, trivialities, and so on. Things start out fine: he acclimatises in luxury hotels in Cape Town, visits some townships, then gets a bus all the way to Namibia. Along the way, he registers various Southern African accents in italics – rather annoying but fair enough. “Good journey, sir” becomes “Jinny”; we hear of “dimisteek servants”, “thitty kilometres”, the “jaw-twisting Afrikaner yeauh for ‘here’ ”. All this, you sense, is just preparation. He wants to re-enter the zona verde, the green, brooding landscapes and immemorial rurality of “l’Afrique profonde”, where a narrator-hero descended from Herodotus, Haggard, Thesiger, Hemingway, Blixen, van der Post et al can commune with his subconscious and have big thoughts in an Africa uncomplicated by 21st-century African people. As Theroux-watchers will know, his sub- Saharan travelogues read as if he had taken Binyavanga Wainaina’s sarcastic instructions on “How to Write About Africa” literally. He is, as the sharp-eyed blog Africa Is a Country remarks, “so reliable that way”. He mints generalisations and insults at such a clip that they soon begin to outstrip even the most gifted parodist. Africa “can be fierce”, we are told, but “in general . . . turns no one away”.

more from Hedley Twidle at The New Statesman here.

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The intensity of Cunningham’s style facilitates a slow-burn conversion experience: it takes time to appreciate, but once it hooks you, his work intoxicates. His dancers move against the background of Cage’s musical din with athletic concentration, dashing in swift, tiny steps, sailing in massive leaps across the stage, and executing one serene balance after another. They do not always look graceful, but the commitment to exactitude is riveting. Arms and legs cut geometric patterns in the air, torsos wildly arch and bend. When the dissonant movement aligns for a moment amid Cage’s roars of static, it is like something tender happening at a construction site. Cunningham took painstaking notes on paper before beginning a rehearsal, but left his notes behind when rehearsals began. In his studio, he simply used words to map movements onto his dancers, and those words were notoriously devoid of qualitative detail. He issued simple instructions: “Leg back!”—“Arm up!”—“Be bigger!” His dancers strayed as little as possible from literal executions of his commands, but each inevitably brought his or her own interpretation to the mechanics.

more from Lizzie Feidelson at n+1 here.

Dust to Dust

There are women left who have no rage in their wrists
As they slice greens or skin tomatoes towards mealtime.
Their husbands are at the beer-gardens with
Family money – what would amount to a bag of beans
Or soap bars.

There are women who keep both lips quietly touching,
Even as they gesture a fly from their brow, and
Swallow the mucus of a chilled afternoon.
They remember vaguely when love began
And the commonplace was not where they were going.

A woman is born knowing how it happens,
Her heart turning to dust as fine as cinnamon.
It has to do with disease, redder lips,
City restaurants, the cost of deodorant.

Indeed, it so happens that their men are condemned
To spend the rest of their lives staggering home
To fuck a corpse who smells of kitchen duty
And an unwillingness to preen for a wanderer.
These women wear long, brown dresses.
They rarely hurry across busy intersections,
They move as if, inside them, they carry a heavy mound.
.

by Tsitsi Jaji
from Bitter Oleander, Vol. 9, No. 1, 2003

parenting goes global

From Spiked:

ParentingLogoBringing up children is no longer something that mothers and fathers just do, as the editors write; it has become ‘parenting’, a culturally and historically specific activity ‘that is increasingly taken to require a specific skill-set; a certain level of expertise about children and their care’, and which is cast as ’an explanation for and solution to social problems’.

…What is very clear from this research, and other research in this volume, is the anxiety and sense of failure experienced by mothers when the expert advice that they might want to put into practice becomes difficult to implement in their own family circumstances. One way to try and avoid some of the conflict and anxiety is to decide that having a partner who might disagree with your parenting choices is more trouble than it is worth, and hence the category of parent ‘single mothers by choice’ is born. There is a fascinating account of one such mother in this volume, which speaks to the extent to which ‘good’ parenting practice has become individualised. The logic of intensive parenting culture is that it is easier to ‘parent’ according to the rules if there is no other adult getting in the way: in a bizarre twist, parenting becomes conceived of as incompatible with family life.

More here.

Sister Dearest

Katie Roiphe in Slate:

VirgThere is a darker side to sibling love—especially for those very close in age—that even those with happy relationships with their siblings intuit. “Of course you love your sister,” we tell our children, reassuringly. Though sometimes they don’t, or sometimes the rage or competition or desperation burns so brightly that they can’t precisely access that love. We like to tame the harrowing struggles between siblings with phrases like “sibling rivalry” which reduce them to a harmless childhood phase one passes through, even though we know from casual observation this is not true. (There are, in fact, a spate of new books out recently, or coming out, that, each in their own way, explore the darker side of sibling love: Lucinda Rosenfeld’s The Pretty One, Curtis Sittenfeld’s Sisterland, and Lauren Sandler’s forthcoming celebration of only children, One and Only.)

…Rather than delve too deeply into my own depressing relationship with my sister, which went radically downhill in terms of sisterly love and support in the two years after the baby was born, I’ll trot out as Exhibit A Virginia Woolf and her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell. They were astonishingly, sort of beautifully close, and adored each other. In fact, when Vanessa got engaged Virginia wrote this in a whimsical letter: “We the undersigned three Apes and a Wombat wish to make known to you our great grief and joy at the news that you intend to marry.We have wooed you and sung many songs of winter and summer and autumn in the hope that thus enchanted you would condescend one day to marry us. But as we no longer expect this honor we entreat that you keep us still for your lovers …” Later, when Vanessa had a baby, both Virginia and Vanessa’s husband, Clive felt like they weren’t getting enough of Vanessa’s attention. In the difficult period that followed Virginia began a sort of affair, with Clive that was incredibly painful for Vanessa. The two sisters salvaged their relationship, and were closely attached to the end, though the episode remained, huge and looming, beneath the surface. (One way they managed, which is arguably a good way to manage siblings, was that they were English, so they just didn’t talk much about it.)

Picture: Sisters Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell playing cricket (in shoes that look strangely like modern day Converse).

More here.

Punk is boredom, desperation, and death. So is fashion

Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:

SS_ID_MEIS_PUNK_AP_001Punk was about fashion from the beginning. The story goes like this. A British man named Malcolm McLaren was interested in music, fashion, and art. He met a girl named Vivienne Westwood at art school. They opened up a clothing shop in London. One day, members of a band called The New York Dolls walked into the store. McLaren was fascinated by the look and style of the band. The Dolls played angry and aggressive songs, but they did so in tights and high heels. McLaren followed The Dolls to New York. In New York City, McLaren bumped into a man named Richard Hell: poet, singer, scumbag. McLaren loved something about Hell. “Here was a guy,” McLaren said, “all deconstructed, torn down, looking like he'd just crawled out of a drain hole, covered in slime, looking like he hadn't slept or washed in years, and looking like he didn't really give a fuck about you!” McLaren went back to England. He wanted to build his own Richard Hell, further deconstructed, torn down completely, covered in even more slime. McLaren found a broken man with decaying teeth named Johnny Lydon, renamed him Johnny Rotten (the teeth), and surrounded him with a couple of other miscreants who could barely play their instruments. The Sex Pistols was born.

McLaren and Westwood renamed their clothing shop SEX and began to sell ripped clothing, dirty t-shirts and repurposed S&M outfits. You could walk into SEX and buy all the gear that would make you look just like a member of The Sex Pistols. The “look” that McLaren saw in The New York Dolls, in Richard Hell and in Johnny Rotten was central to what became known as “punk.” Punk was a fashion before it became a subculture, a politics, a style of music.

More here.

Mountain Populations Offer Clues to Human Evolution

Carl Zimmer in the New York Times:

561333_10150700239664425_486982851_nIn the hearts of evolutionary biologists, mountains occupy a special place. It’s not just their physical majesty: mountains also have an unmatched power to drive human evolution. Starting tens of thousands of years ago, people moved to high altitudes, and there they experienced natural selection that has reworked their biology.

“This is the most extreme example in humans that you can find,” said Rasmus Nielsen, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California at Berkeley.

Humans have adapted to mountainous environments just as Charles Darwin predicted. To discover how this occurred, scientists are now examining the DNA of people who scaled mountains in different parts of the world.

“There’s this beautiful experiment in natural selection going on,” says Anna Di Rienzo, a professor of human genetics at the University of Chicago. “You can really ask questions central to evolutionary biology.”

When people from low elevations climb to higher ones, they start struggling for oxygen. At 12,000 feet, each breath delivers only 60 percent of the oxygen that the same breath would at sea level. Even a slow walk can be exhausting, because the body can get so little fuel.

In the face of this stress, people respond in several ways.

More here.

World’s richest 8 percent earns half the planet’s income

Eric Zuesse in Salon:

ScreenHunter_215 May. 31 11.44The lead research economist at the World Bank, Branko Milanovic, will be reporting soon, in the journal Global Policy, the first calculation of global income-inequality, and he has found that the top 8% of global earners are drawing 50% of all of this planet’s income. He notes: “Global inequality is much greater than inequality within any individual country,” because the stark inequality between countries adds to the inequality within any one of them, and because most people live in extremely poor countries, largely the nations within three thousand miles of the Equator, where it’s already too hot, even without the global warming that scientists say will heat the world much more from now on.

For example, the World Bank’s list of “GDP per capita (current US$)” shows that in 2011 this annual-income figure ranged from $231 in Democratic Republic of Congo at the Equator, to $171,465 in Monaco within Europe. The second-poorest and second-richest countries respectively were $271 in Burundi at the Equator, and $114,232 in Luxembourg within Europe. For comparisons, the U.S. was $48,112, and China was $5,445. Those few examples indicate how widely per-capita income ranges between nations, and how more heat means more poverty.

Wealth-inequality is always far higher than income-inequality, and therefore a reasonable estimate of personal wealth throughout the world would probably be somewhere on the order of the wealthiest 1% of people owning roughly half of all personal assets. These individuals might be considered the current aristocracy, insofar as their economic clout is about equal to that of all of the remaining 99% of the world’s population.

More here.

‘Daily Rituals’ Of The Brilliantly Creative

John Wilwol at NPR:

9780307273604_custom-b0393414440fa19a6b8301f3a6a4855bf6caf661-s2The Onion published an essay recently called “Find The Thing You're Most Passionate About, Then Do It On Nights And Weekends For The Rest Of Your Life.” The piece was satire, but it's how many of us respond to the question Mason Currey raises in his entertaining new book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. “How do you do meaningful creative work,” he wonders, “while also earning a living?”

A product of the author's now-defunct blog, Daily Routines, Daily Ritualsassembles the regimens of 161 assorted creative geniuses into a lean, engaging volume. Its brief entries humanize legends like Hemingway and Picasso, and shed light on the working lives of less popular contemporary geniuses, like painter Gerhard Richter, choreographer Twyla Tharp and illustrator Maira Kalman.

The book makes one thing abundantly clear: There's no such thing as the way to create good work, but all greats have their way. And some of those ways are spectacularly weird.

Nikola Tesla typically worked from noon until midnight, breaking at 8:00 p.m. for dinner every night at the Waldorf-Astoria. Among the many peculiarities of this ritualized repast was his practice of not starting the meal until he had computed his dinner's cubic volume, “a compulsion he had developed in his childhood.”

More here.

What’s Individuality, and Where Does It Come From?

Ben Thomas in Scientific American:

“Let’s say you have an axe. Just a cheap one, from Home Depot,” opens the horror-comedy novel John Dies at the End. “On one bitter winter day, you use said axe to behead a man.” This blow splinters the axe’s handle – so the story goes – so you get the hardware store stick a new handle on the blade.

The repaired axe sits in your garage until one day the next spring, when you damage the blade while fending off “a foot-long slug with a bulging egg sac on its tail,” which requires another trip to the store to replace the axe-head. Unfortunately, when you arrive home, you’re greeted by the enraged reanimated corpse of the man you beheaded last year. He takes a long look at the weapon you’re holding, and he screams, “That’s the same axe that beheaded me!”

The question is, Is he right?

It’s a riddle with a long and distinguished pedigree, dating at least as far back as ancient Greece, where the historian Plutarch posed essentially the same question by telling a story involving an aging ship, an adventurous crew, and a notable absence of vengeful zombies. Philosophers through the ages have regarded the riddle as a sort of dead end, because any given person’s answer hinges not on any actual attribute of the axe or ship in question, but on how the answerer chooses to define the word “same.” In one sense, if we swap the ancient Greek ship for a zombie-slaying axe, we’re not even posing the “same” riddle.

More here.

A right to believe?

Mark Rowlands in Aeon:

ScreenHunter_214 May. 31 11.24Here is a true story. A young philosophy lecturer — let us call him Shane — is charged with the task of introducing young minds to the wonders of philosophy. His course, a standard Introduction to Philosophy, contains a section on the philosophy of religion: the usual arguments-for-and-against-the-existence-of-God stuff. One of Shane’s students complains to Shane’s Dean that his cherished religious beliefs are being attacked. ‘I have a right to my beliefs,’ the student claims. Shane’s repeated interrogations of those beliefs amounts to an attack on this right to believe. Shane’s institution is not a particularly enlightened one. The Dean concurs with the student, and instructs Shane to desist in teaching philosophy of religion.

But what exactly does it mean to claim ‘a right to my beliefs’? It often comes up in a religious context, but can arise in others too. Shane could just as easily be teaching Marxist theory to a laissez-faire capitalist student, or imparting evidence for global warming to a global warming sceptic. Whatever the context, the claim of a right to one’s beliefs is a curious one. We might distinguish two different interpretations of this claim. First, there is the evidential one. You have an evidential right to your belief if you can provide appropriate evidence in support of it. I have, in this sense, no right to believe that the moon is made of green cheese because my belief is lacking in any supporting evidence.

More here.

Edith Wharton

From Literature Network:

Wharton-190Edith Newbold Jones was born into the wealthy family of George Frederic Jones and Lucretia Rhinelander on 24 January 1862 in New York City. She had two brothers, Frederic and Henry “Harry” Edward. To escape the bustling city, the family spent summers at ‘Pencraig’ on the shores of Newport Harbour in Newport, Rhode Island. When Edith was four years old they moved to Europe, spending the next five years traveling throughout Italy, Spain, Germany and France. Back in New York young Edith continued her education under private tutors. She learned French and German and a voracious reader, she studied literature, philosophy, science, and art which would also become a favourite subject of hers. She also started to write short stories and poetry. Fast and Loose was published in 1877 and Verses a collection of poems privately published in 1878. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the editor of Atlantic Monthly William Dean Howells are said to have read and been impressed by these early works.

After Edith made her debut into society in 1879, the Jones family again traveled to Europe—George Jones was ill and was to take a rest cure in Cannes on the French Riviera. It was to no avail however and he died there on 15 March 1882. While in Bar Harbor, Maine the next year Edith met Walter Berry who would become a lifetime friend. On 29 April 1885 Edith married banker Edward “Teddy” Robbins Wharton in Trinity Chapel, New York. They honeymooned in Europe and for the next few years traveled extensively together although the union would prove to be unhappy. Living in New York on Park Avenue near Central Park, Wharton had her first poems published in Scribner’s Magazine. In 1891 they also printed the first of many of her short stories “Mrs. Manstey’s View”. For the next forty years or so they, along with other publications including Atlantic Monthly, Century Magazine, Harper’s, Lippincott’s and the Saturday Evening Post would publish her stories.

More here. (Note: Just read her lovely novel Summer and recommend it strongly)