around alone


There is an old sailors’ proverb claiming that below latitude 40 degrees south there is no law, and below 50 degrees, no God. Cape Horn sits at 56 degrees south, about 550 miles lower than the southernmost point of mainland New Zealand, and forces sailors much farther south than they would otherwise go. It is a landform that resonates with centuries’ worth of collective fear; thousands of people have died there. The cape itself is a promontory on a small island off the tip of South America that was first rounded in 1616 by a Dutch expedition—previous ships had gone through the Strait of Magellan—and was named after its captain’s hometown, Hoorn. There, mariners endure increasingly extreme weather as currents that otherwise circulate freely around Antarctica are forced through the narrow Drake Passage. South America’s steep continental shelf amplifies waves to heights that can surpass a hundred feet, and violent, gusty winds called williwaws shoot down through the Andes. The Horn, a symbol of the dangers of the sea, looms large in a sailor’s mind until it has been safely passed. In December 1968, the first of the men of the Golden Globe made his approach. Robin Knox-Johnston, a twenty-nine-year-old captain in the British Merchant Navy, was leading the field in the southern Pacific. One of the first to enter the race, he was still stewing about a French victory in the 1964 Observer Singlehanded Transatlantic Race, which had inspired headlines offensive to Knox-Johnston’s national pride (“Frenchman Supreme on the Anglo-Saxon Ocean,” ran one such offender in Paris Match).

more from Maggie Shipstead at Lapham’s Quarterly here.

Tymoshenko’s two bodies


The political phenomenon of Yulia Tymoshenko, her meteoric business career, her triumphant ascent to power and the consequent drama of her criminal prosecution and imprisonment are unique, even for turbulent, post-communist eastern Europe. Having started with a video rental shop at the end of the 1980s, she built a business empire using her husband’s family connections. Ten years later, in a move typical of Ukrainian tycoons seeking to protect their business interests, she entered politics. However, upon her election to the Ukrainian parliament, she joined the opposition to president Kuchma. Dismissed from her post of deputy prime minister in charge of energy policy in 2001, she faced a criminal case and spent 42 days in prison – a fact she later made use of in presenting herself as a victim of the Kuchma regime. In the 2004 presidential elections, Tymoshenko supported Viktor Yushchenko and became the female icon of the Orange Revolution. Her visual appearance from that period evoked a broad variety of cultural connotations: from Marianna of the Ukrainian revolution and a woman-warrior fighting the dark forces of evil to the traditional Mother of the Nation, the embodiment of chastity, tenderness and love. Tymoshenko’s golden plait, reminiscent of a nimbus or a crown, has become the most successful brand in Ukrainian politics since she appeared on the covers of glossy magazines and on TV screens. Styled as a political celebrity, she did not so much persuade as seduce both the Ukrainian and the international public.

more from Tatiana Zhurzhenko at Eurozine here.

feminism now


A t a time when gay marriage is eliciting widely divergent views about the nature and importance of the institution of marriage in general, it is as well to be reminded, as we are by Alison Wolf at the beginning of The XX Factor, that for most women in the developed world, whether or not they marry is less important now for their personal fulfilment than it has ever been in recorded history. For Jane Austen, refusing a proposal of marriage was an utterly life-changing event, something that could not have been said of any of the men in her society. In some parts of the world today, refusing a proposal is still impossible, however calamitous a young woman fears its consequences will be. But in Europe and North America in the twenty-first century, choosing a marriage partner has for many women become a lifestyle choice with fewer long-term consequences than choosing a school or a job. Alison Wolf’s twist on this turn of events, though, is to argue that it means very different things to the most educated 20 per cent of women than to the 80 per cent of their less educated sisters. These women, she writes, “have become a class apart . . . they are more like the men of the family than ever before in history. It is from other women that they have drawn away”.

more from Paul Seabright at the TLS here.

Karl Marx: a Nineteenth-Century Life

From The Guardian:

Germany---Karl-Marx-125th-010“Great passions, which, due to the closeness of their object, take the form of small habits, grow and once more reach their natural size through the magic effect of distance,” wrote Karl Marx to his wife Jenny in 1856, as she journeyed from London to Trier. “My love of you, as soon as you are distant, appears as a giant … the love, not of Feuerbach's human being, not of Moleschott's metabolism, not of the proletariat, but the love of the beloved, namely of you, makes the man once again into a man.”

Typical Marx: Romantic, charismatic, cosmopolitan, and at once able to combine the workers' revolution with protestations of uxoriousness. But also disingenuous, since it wabiographys during one of these absences that Marx managed to impregnate the family maid, Helene Demuth. Such are the personal and intellectual complexities that Jonathan Sperber pursues through 600 pages of tightly argued text in this profoundly important biography of “The Moor”. In contrast to Francis Wheen's raucous account of Marx's life as hack, brigand and rapscallion, Sperber places the history of ideas at the heart of his study. And it is a refreshingly anti-populist take. According to Sperber, not only is Marx's critique of capitalism of very limited applicability to the modern world, it was barely relevant when first published. Even in the 1860s his was the old world of Robespierre, Hegel, Adam Smith and the Spinning Jenny. Indeed, “Marx is more usefully understood as a backward-looking figure, who took the circumstances of the first half of the 19th century and projected them into the future, than as a sure footed and foresighted interpreter of historical trends.”

More here.

Researchers Reformulate the Model of Mitochondrial Function

From ScienceDaily:

MitoThe energy released from the rupture of chemical bonds in food molecules is stored temporarily in the form of high energy electrons in two types of molecule, N and F, whose proportions vary depending on the nutrient source. By themselves, these molecules cannot provide a freely utilizable source of rapidly mobilized energy for the cell's needs; access to this stored energy requires the mitochondria, which uses five molecular machines, called complexes I, II, III, IV and V, to convert the energy stored in N and F molecules into the universal energy source ATP. Until very recently these complexes were thought to float freely and independently in the internal membrane of mitochondria, without interacting. Work by Dr. Enriquez's group has now shown this view to be incorrect. “The five complexes do not always move independently in the membrane,” explains Dr. Enríquez. “On the contrary, they associate in distinct combinations called respiratory supercomplexes. Our work explains the functional consequences of these interactions.” The study shows that these associations are dynamic and are modified to optimize the extraction of energy from N and F molecules depending on their relative abundance, which in turn reflects the composition of foods consumed in the diet. The Science study describes these supercomplexes and their functions. The significance of this, in the words of Dr. Enriquez, is that “the system for optimizing the extraction of energy from food molecules is much more versatile than was believed and can be modulated in unexpected ways in order to adjust to the dietary composition of nutrients or to the specialized function of particular cell types.”

During the study the team also made the unexpected discovery that the most widely used mouse strain for laboratory genetic analysis is unable to correctly assemble the respiratory supercomplexes. This raises serious questions about the validity of extrapolating results obtained with these mice to humans.

More here. (Note: The last paragraph is why I vehemently oppose the use of mouse models to study human cancers)

Quants Ask: What Crisis in the Humanities?


Jennifer Schuessler in the NYT (image from Nate Silver's post on the topic):

Two recent reports on the beleaguered state of the humanities have had pundits of all stripes scrambling to explain what many see as a dismal statistic: the proportion of college students graduating with degrees in subjects like English or history has fallen to a mere 7 percent in 2010, down from 14 percent in 1966.

Is the state of the economy to blame? The obsession with the so-called STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math)? The anti-humanities rhetoricof right-wing politicians? The ideological excesses of left-wing professors?

Now one number-crunching historian has pointed the finger in an unexpected direction: women.

At the blog Sapping Attention, Ben Schmidt, a doctoral candidate in history at Princeton University, notes that between 1950 and 2002, the percentage of male college students who major in the humanities nationally remained steady at roughly 7 percent. The percentage of female college students majoring in the humanities, however, fell dramatically, to 9 percent from 15 percent.

To Mr. Schmidt, this gives the lie to the idea, advanced in a recent Op-Edcolumn by David Brooks of the New York Times, that the humanities “committed suicide” by focusing on “class, race and gender” at the expense of eternal questions. Instead, he suggests (tongue in cheek), they may have been murdered by egalitarians who made other fields more welcoming to women.

Some women may have shifted to the sciences. But the biggest change, according to charts Mr. Schmidt made a few years ago as part of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Humanities Indicators Project, may be business majors.

Egypt: Lynching of Shia Follows Months of Hate Speech

From Human Rights Watch:

2013_Egypt_ShiakillingsThe lynching of four Shia by a mob apparently led by Salafi sheikhs in the village of Abu Musallim in Greater Cairo on June 23, 2013, came after months of anti-Shia hate speech at times involving the ruling Muslim Brotherhood and its political party, Human Rights Watch said today. The episode shows that the government needs to recognize that Shia in Egypt are at risk and to take protective measure to ensure their protection and equal rights.

The investigation ordered by President Mohamed Morsy needs to look into the police failure over a period of three hours to intervene to halt the mob attack on a house where a group of Shia had gathered for a religious feast. The investigation also should address the role played by Salafi sheikhs against Shia families in Abu Musallim, Human Rights Watch said. Morsy should state unequivocally that Shia in Egypt have the right to practice their religious beliefs without fear and intimidation, something he has failed to do, Human Rights Watch said.

More here.

The Myth of the Komodo Dragon’s Dirty Mouth

Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science:

Komodo-dragonsIn 1969, an American biologist named Walter Auffenberg moved to the Indonesia island of Komodo to study its most famous resident—the Komodo dragon. This huge lizard—the largest in the world—grows to lengths of 3 metres, and can take down large prey like deer and water buffalo. Auffenberg watched the dragons for a year and eventually published a book on their behaviour in 1981. It won him an award. It also enshrined a myth that took almost three decades to refute, and is still prevalent today.

Auffenberg noticed that when large animals like water buffalo were injured by the dragons, they would soon develop fatal infections. Based on this observation, and no actual evidence, he suggested that the dragons use bacteria as a form of venom. When they bite prey, they flood the wounds with the microbes in their mouths, which debilitate and kill the victim.

This explanation is found in textbooks, wildlife documentaries, zoo placards, and more. It’s also wrong. “It’s an enchanting fairy tale, which has been taken as gospel,” says Bryan Fry from the University of Queensland.

In 2009, Fry discovered the true culprit behind the dragon’s lethal bite, by putting one of them in a medical scanner. The dragon has venom glands, which are loaded with toxins that lower blood pressure, cause massive bleeding, prevent clotting and induce shock. Rather than using bacteria as venom, the dragons use, well, venom as venom.

More here.

Bono the philanthropist is nothing but a crony of bankers and neocons, argues Terry Eagleton

Terry Eagleton in The Guardian:

Irish-musician-Bono-arriv-010It is no surprise that Bono and Bob Geldof, the two leading celebrity philanthropists of our time, are both Irish. The Ireland into which they were born in the 1960s was caught between third and first worlds, and so was more likely to sympathise with the wretched of the earth than were the natives of Hampstead. As a devoutly Christian nation, it also had a long missionary tradition. Black babies were a familiar object of charity in Ireland long before Hollywood movie stars began snapping them up. Bono himself was a member of a prayer group in the 1970s, before he stumbled on leather trousers and wrap-around shades. Scattered across the globe by hunger and turmoil at home, the Irish have long been a cosmopolitan people, far less parochial than their former proprietors. Small nations cannot afford the insularity of the great.

Besides, if you were born into this remote margin of Europe and yearned for the limelight, it helped to have an eye-catching cause and a mania for self-promotion. Rather as the Irish in general were forced by internal circumstance to become an international people, so men like Bono and Geldof could use their nationality to leap on to the world stage.

Bono belongs to the new, cool, post-political Ireland; but by turning back to the old, hungry, strife-torn nation, now rebaptised as Africa, he could bridge the gap between the two. Even so, he has not been greatly honoured in his own notoriously begrudging country, or elsewhere. Harry Browne recounts the (perhaps apocryphal) tale of the singer standing on stage clapping while declaring: “Every time I clap my hands, a child dies.” “Then stop fucking doing it!” yelled a voice from the crowd.

More here.

the ’89 essay


There’s a less elaborate argument for gay marriage: it’s good for gays. It provides role models for young gay people who, after the exhilaration of coming out, can easily lapse into short-term relationships and insecurity with no tangible goal in sight. My own guess is that most gays would embrace such a goal with as much (if not more) commitment as straights. Even in our society as it is, many lesbian relationships are virtual textbook cases of monogamous commitment. Legal gay marriage could also help bridge the gulf often found between gays and their parents. It could bring the essence of gay life–a gay couple–into the heart of the traditional straight family in a way the family can most understand and the gay offspring can most easily acknowledge. It could do as much to heal the gay-straight rift as any amount of gay rights legislation. If these arguments sound socially conservative, that’s no accident. It’s one of the richest ironies of our society’s blind spot toward gays that essentially conservative social goals should have the appearance of being so radical. But gay marriage is not a radical step. It avoids the mess of domestic partnership; it is humane; it is conservative in the best sense of the word. It’s also about relationships. Given that gay relationships will always exist, what possible social goal is advanced by framing the law to encourage those relationships to be unfaithful, undeveloped, and insecure?

more from Andrew Sullivan at Slate here.

Same-Sex Marriage


There is something appealing—even romantic—about the Justice’s legal vision, demarcating as it does intimate worlds and dignified individuals threatened by a distant bureaucracy. But—at least since the Civil War—Americans are citizens of the nation first, and creatures of a national legal culture. For better and worse, in times of war and peace, this culture shapes their bodies and minds, their moral views and life choices. The problem with DOMA is not that it is a powerful regulation of sexuality, but that it is an unfair one. In questioning Solicitor General Donald Verrilli about the federal government’s authority to pass DOMA, Chief Justice Roberts recognized the complex relationship between sex and public power: “you agree that Congress could go the other way, right? Congress could pass a new law today that says, We will give Federal benefits. When we say ‘marriage’ in Federal law, we mean committed same-sex couples as well, and that could apply across the board.” Verrilli replied in the affirmative, and someday soon, the nation—whether through Congress or the Court—will hopefully “go the other way.”

more from Jeremy K. Kessler at n+1 here.

When the Devil Danced in Hungary


In interviews, Krasznahorkai presents himself as a yogi of aesthetic severity. “The reader must content themselves with these lone concrete, but vague, indications, quite simply because what I describe…can happen anywhere.” For after all: “Time and space aren’t very important. Only the situation counts.”3 This aesthetic of restriction has its modernist history—in the novels of Franz Kafka or Samuel Beckett—but I think that Krasznahorkai’s fiction is in fact more mischievous than his statements might imply. It isn’t simply that he leaves information out; he also presents the information he does offer in a systematically oblique way. Satantango is structured in two parts, two halves of six chapters each, which form a quilt of both time frames and perspectives, moving from character to character, all arranged around this particular evening at the local bar and the following couple of days. The second chapter of Satantango, for instance, begins a little further back in time than the first. This isn’t, however, made clear until toward the chapter’s end. It is also written from the perspective of new characters: two men who sit waiting in the corridor of what appears to be a government office. After four pages, the reader discovers that one of them is Petrina; after another five, that the other is Irimiás—the two men whose arrival at the collective farm so excites Futaki and Mr. and Mrs. Schmidt.

more from Adam Thirlwell at the NYRB here.

The Rise and Fall of Charm in American Men

From The Atlantic:

Mag-article-largeOnly the self-aware can have charm: It’s bound up with a sensibility that at best approaches wisdom, or at least worldliness, and at worst goes well beyond cynicism. It can’t exist in the undeveloped personality. It’s an attribute foreign to many men because most are, for better and for worse, childlike. These days, it’s far more common among men over 70—probably owing to the era in which they reached maturity rather than to the mere fact of their advanced years. What used to be called good breeding is necessary (but not sufficient) for charm: no one can be charming who doesn’t draw out the overlooked, who doesn’t shift the spotlight onto others—who doesn’t, that is, possess those long-forgotten qualities of politesse and civilité. A great hostess perforce has charm (while legendary hostesses are legion—Elizabeth Montagu, Madame Geoffrin, Viscountess Melbourne, Countess Greffulhe—I can’t think of a single legendary host), but today this social virtue goes increasingly unrecognized. Still, charm is hardly selfless. All of these acts can be performed only by one at ease with himself yet also intensely conscious of himself and of his effect on others. And although it’s bound up with considerateness, it really has nothing to do with, and is in fact in some essential ways opposed to, goodness. Another word for the lightness of touch that charm requires in humor, conversation, and all other aspects of social relations is subtlety, which carries both admirable and dangerous connotations. Charm’s requisite sense of irony is also the requisite for social cruelty.

…More important, charm, for all its appeal, isn’t a moral virtue—it’s an amoral one. Americans, especially American men, have always been, for some very good reasons, ambivalent about charm. It’s an attribute alien to many men because they are ingenuous, a quality that can itself be either admirable or unlovely. Many American military men deserve our esteem; the many I have known indeed do, but I have never met one with an ounce of charm. Indeed, what American hero has possessed it? The quintessential modern American hero, the eternally jejune and earnest Charles Lindbergh, who became a god when not yet a man, was in every way the antithesis of charm. America’s entire political history has been in some basic way a struggle between Jefferson—self-righteous, humorless, prickly, at once intellectually ardent and woolly—and Hamilton, a man foreign-born, witty, stylish, coolly brilliant, generous, possessed of a rare rapport with and an understanding of women. And just as Hamilton’s political vision triumphed, so did Jefferson’s political style.

More here.

How long can you go without food and water?

From HowStuffWorks:

Food-and-water-2The question of how long you can go without food depends on a lot of factors. Will and determination definitely play a part. Political prisoners on hunger strikes and fasting religious leaders have been known to go for weeks at a time without any food. Gandhi fasted for 21 days while in his 70s. People lost in the wild have also survived for long periods of time without eating. Medically speaking, most doctors agree that healthy humans can go up to eight weeks without food as long as they have water. People have gone longer and been fine, and people have starved to death in less time. Being strong and in good physical shape can help you survive longer, but so does having extra body fat. The body stores energy needed to live in the form of fat, carbohydrates and proteins. The carbs are the first thing to be used up without more food coming in. The fat goes next, which explains why people with more of it can survive longer. Then the proteins go. If you get to the point that your body is using up proteins, basically the body itself, then you're in bad shape.

…Now back to the question at hand. How long can you go without water? Assuming you're in reasonable shape and in ideal conditions — that is, not in the heat or cold and not exerting, a human can probably live for about 3 to 5 days without any water. Healthier humans can live another day or so longer.

More here.

Thursday poem

Be a Valley

Be a valley to which, by nature,
water flows

Be an example to which, by nature,
the lives of others flow

Keep in view the child’s mind which,
like water, flows

To be whole see whole
Consider opposites
See finite and infinite

Be newborn

Being man
understand being’s portal, woman,
through which new life flows

See dark and light
In honor be humble
In strength be weak

To have integrity means to know outer and inner
because to each the roots of selfhood reach

In the newborn, as in an uncarved block,
are imminent possibilities waiting to be formed

Wisdom keeps its wholeness
being many

from the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu, V. 28
adaptation by R.Bob

A Note To Beginning Science Writers

Carl Zimmer in The Loom:

ScreenHunter_225 Jun. 27 00.39From time to time, I get letters from people thinking seriously about becoming science writers. Some have no idea how to start; some have started but want to know how to get better. I usually respond with a hasty email, so that I can get back to figuring out for myself how to be a science writer. I thought it would be better for everyone—the people contacting me and myself—to sit down and write out a thorough response. (I’m also going to publish a final version of this on my web site, here.)

First a caveat: I am probably the wrong person to ask for this advice. I stumbled into this line of work without any proper planning in the early 1990s, when journalism was a very different industry. The answer to “How do I become a science writer?” is not equivalent to “How did you become a science writer?”

I was the sort of kid who wrote stories, cartoons, and failed imitations ofWatership Down. By college, I was working on both fiction and nonfiction, majoring in English to learn from great writers while trying to avoid getting sucked into the self-annihilating maze of literary theory. After college, I spent a couple years at various jobs while writing short stories on my own, but I gradually realized I didn’t have enough in my brain yet to put on the page.

More here.

You Can’t Eat Sharia

Mohamed El Baradei in Foreign Policy:

Elbaradei165346375Two years after the revolution that toppled a dictator, Egypt is already a failed state. According to the Failed States Index, in the year before the uprising we ranked No. 45. After Hosni Mubarak fell, we worsened to 31st. I haven't checked recently — I don't want to get more depressed. But the evidence is all around us.

Today you see an erosion of state authority in Egypt. The state is supposed to provide security and justice; that's the most basic form of statehood. But law and order is disintegrating. In 2012, murders were up 130 percent, robberies 350 percent, and kidnappings 145 percent, according to the Interior Ministry. You see people being lynched in public, while others take pictures of the scene. Mind you, this is the 21st century — not the French Revolution!

The feeling right now is that there is no state authority to enforce law and order, and therefore everybody thinks that everything is permissible. And that, of course, creates a lot of fear and anxiety.

You can't expect Egypt to have a normal economic life under such circumstances.

More here.