In Praise of Mediocrity

200px-Viktor_Hartman-150x150James Matthew Wilson at Front Porch Republic:

Mediocrity makes visible something about tradition that greatness can often obscure. It is one thing to say, for instance, that the West possesses a valuable tradition because, within it, we find a sampling of awesome geniuses, from Homer and Plato, to Dante, Shakespeare, and Nietzsche. But this hardly explains the value of tradition. Traditions are self-authenticating. They are good in themselves. To live within and participate in a tradition is, again, to keep something alive and to draw things and persons together, across time, in a community of knowledge and love. The second-rate imitator of Keats in Kentucky, the belated composer of an oratorio in Ohio, may seem derivative, as if merely preserving the shadow of greatness in amber. But, to the contrary, they take their place in a way of being and keep that way open for others to tread.

Authors’ names not withstanding, art, technology, and science, the whole world of work and culture, are starkly impersonal enterprises. The anonymous mediocrity, no less than the legendarymaestro, gives his life in the service of keeping a tradition alive; in being himself forgotten he helps something else to be remembered. What a blessed thing to do.

more here.

The extraordinary life of William S. Burroughs

140203_r24576_p233Peter Schjeldahl at The New Yorker:

“Virtually all of Burroughs’s writing was done when he was high on something,” Miles writes. The drugs help account for the hollowness of his voices, which jabber, joke, and rant like ghosts in a cave. He had no voice of his own, but a fantastic ear and verbal recall. His prose is a palimpsest of echoes, ranging from Eliot’s “Preludes” and “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” (lines like “Midnight shakes the memory / As a madman shakes a dead geranium” are Burroughsian before the fact) to Raymond Chandler’s marmoreal wisecracks and Herbert Huncke’s jive. I suspect that few readers have made it all the way through the cut-up novels, but anyone dipping into them may come away humming phrases. His palpable influence on J. G. Ballard, William Gibson, and Kathy Acker is only the most obvious effect of the kind of inspiration that makes a young writer drop a book and grab a pen, wishing to emulate so sensational a sound. It’s a cold thrill. While always comic, Burroughs is rarely funny, unless you’re as tickled as he was by such recurrent delights as boys in orgasm as they are executed by hanging.

Some critics, including Miles, have tried to gussy up Burroughs’s antinomian morality as Swiftian satire. Burroughs, however, wages literary war not on perceptible real-world targets but against suggestions that anyone is responsible for anything. Though never cruel in his personal conduct, he was, in principle, exasperated with values of constraint. A little of “Nothing is true, everything is permitted” goes a long way for many readers, including me. But there’s no gainsaying a splendor as berserk as that of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. When you have read Burroughs, at whatever length suffices for you, one flank of your imagination of human possibility will be covered for good and all.

more here.

LIKE NOTHING ON EARTH: Landscapes of the Mind

Robert Macfarlane in More Intelligent Life:

LoM%20-%20MarsThough I am nearing 40, it remains an ambition of mine to climb a previously unclimbed mountain. I have in mind possible peaks in Bhutan, Sichuan and north-western Tibet—all of them elegant in their architecture and severe in their remoteness. But my first choice would be the shield volcano Olympus Mons. Its main slopes present little difficulty to the mountaineer, rising as they do at an average angle of five degrees. Its summit is a caldera, or collapsed crater, whose jagged upper rim requires no ropework to reach. Seen on a plan-view map, indeed, it appears to offer little obstacle to an easy ascent. Except that Olympus Mons is on Mars.

I first heard of the mountain in a Pixies song: “Sun shines in the rusty morning/Skyline of the Olympus Mons/I think about it sometimes”, yowled Black Francis, setting my teenage self dreaming. Research revealed its astonishing statistics: the second-highest peak in the solar system, three times the altitude of Everest, one hundred times the mass of Mauna Loa (the largest volcano on Earth), the size of Arizona in area, encircled by an escarpment up to eight kilometres high, and its peripheries engulfed by dust storms that can last for decades. The ludicrous notion of climbing Olympus Mons only occurred to me when I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s remarkable work of areology, “Red Mars” (1992). The first of a trilogy of novels, it begins in the year 2027, when a hundred-strong team of humans make landfall on Mars. Their task is to terraform the red planet from a frozen and irradiated wasteland into a habitable environment, ready to receive future waves of colonists from Earth.

More here.

A 3D window into living cells

From KurzweilAI:

Cell University of Illinois researchers have developed a new imaging technique that needs no dyes or other chemicals, yet renders high-resolution, three-dimensional, quantitative imagery of cells and their internal structures using conventional microscopes and white light.

Called white-light diffraction tomography (WDT), the imaging technique opens a window into the life of a cell without disturbing it and could allow cellular biologists unprecedented insight into cellular processes, drug effects and stem cell differentiation. The team, led by electrical and computer engineering and bioengineering professor Gabriel Popescu, published their results in the journal Nature Photonics. “One main focus of imaging cells is trying to understand how they function, or how they respond to treatments, for example, during cancer therapies,” Popescu said. “If you need to add dyes or contrast agents to study them, this preparation affects the cells’ function itself. It interferes with your study. With our technique, we can see processes as they happen and we don’t obstruct their normal behavior.”

More here.

Wondering more about the Coen Brothers’ latest film? Don’t ask them; they’re not talking

Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:

ID_IC_MEIS_COEN_AP_001The Coen Brothers are no help and never will be. Go ahead and ask them. Fresh Air’s Terry Gross recently tried. She asked them how they write their films. “It’s mostly napping,” Ethan Coen answered. The Coen Brothers have been evading answers for about 30 years now, since Blood Simple came out in 1984. Asked about The Big Lebowski a few years ago, Joel Coen said, “That movie has more of an enduring fascination for other people than it does for us.” This is a game, and the Coen Brothers play it well. Other artists have played the same game at even higher stakes. Thomas Pynchon has been in hiding for 40 years. J. D. Salinger hid for about 50, until his death a couple of years ago. The Coen Brothers simply hide in plain sight. They answer by not answering.

This is a good state of affairs. It is good because the Coen Brothers make many enjoyable films. And they are aware that people who make enjoyable films, like the aforementioned The Big Lebowski, should avoid discussing the serious and philosophical themes of their enjoyable films. That’s to say, the art of many Coen Brothers films is in the artlessness. For artless artists, there is nothing worse than too much talk, too much analysis. Artless artists have felt this way for a long time. The Roman poet Catullus had a special word for his artful artlessness. He called it “lepidus.” Lepidus is a hard word to translate. It means something like charming, witty, easy, sophisticated. More than anything, a poem that is lepidus should appear effortless, especially if it is not. Catullus worked very hard on his poetry. But he wanted his poems to read as if they’d been hardly worked upon. He wanted them to seem dashed off, cast out with a flick of the wrist on a summer’s day.

More here.

Understanding the boycott of Israel’s universities

Vijay Prasad in the Washington Post:

ScreenHunter_475 Jan. 29 18.45The growing movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israeli universities has struck a chord in Israel. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said recently that the boycott campaign, which drew new attention when it was joined last month by the American Studies Association (ASA) , “ is moving and advancing uniformly and exponentially .” If Israel does not respond, Livni said, it will turn itself into “ a lone settlement in the world .”

Livni meant that criticism of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands should be taken seriously. Finance Minister Yair Lapid concurred, writing, “The world seems to be losing patience with us. . . . If we don’t make progress with the Palestinians, we will lose the support of the world and our legitimacy.”

The boycott movement is a caution to Israel that it must be less obdurate in its relations with the Palestinians — a position far removed from the toxic response to the ASA within the United States, where many groups long have opposed any discussion of the reality of Israel’s occupation. In 2010, the collegiate group Hillel informed its members that its branches were not permitted to invite speakers who “support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel.”

More here.

Dogs Are Not People

Colin Dayan in the Boston Review:

Dayan-dogMRI-webBooks abound on dog love, loving dogs, what it means to have or be with a dog. With all the writing about dogs, it might seem that we are too much infatuated with their unique qualities. But that is not it at all.

Even while we are ostensibly doing everything in our power to ascertain the nature and desires of dogs, the questions we ask obscure or betray what is most salient about them and necessary to their lives. And through it all—the testing and the loving, the ownership and the training, the argument for dog rights and the facts of their disposal—we never question the status of the human as a problem not a privilege.

To say, as Gregory Berns does in his new book How Dogs Love Us and his recent New York Times op-ed “Dogs are People, Too,” that dogs have the reasoning capacity of a young child is to continue to ignore what it is that dogs possess that we do not. Dogs are not people. Dogs are not humans. But we are desperate to appropriate whatever it means to be dog and to make that over in our image.

The urge to characterize dogs as like ourselves speaks to our ignorance and to the failure of imagination. As humans who control the arena of judgment, we cannot brook the humility demanded in confronting what we cannot understand, what we do not know.

More here.

david cronenberg thinks he’s a bug

Kafka-metamorphosisDavid Cronenberg at Paris Review:

I woke up one morning recently to discover that I was a seventy-year-old man. Is this different from what happens to Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis? He wakes up to find that he’s become a near-human-sized beetle (probably of the scarab family, if his household’s charwoman is to be believed), and not a particularly robust specimen at that. Our reactions, mine and Gregor’s, are very similar. We are confused and bemused, and think that it’s a momentary delusion that will soon dissipate, leaving our lives to continue as they were. What could the source of these twin transformations possibly be? Certainly, you can see a birthday coming from many miles away, and it should not be a shock or a surprise when it happens. And as any well-meaning friend will tell you, seventy is just a number. What impact can that number really have on an actual, unique physical human life?

In the case of Gregor, a young traveling salesman spending a night at home in his family’s apartment in Prague, awakening into a strange, human/insect hybrid existence is, to say the obvious, a surprise he did not see coming, and the reaction of his household—mother, father, sister, maid, cook—is to recoil in benumbed horror, as one would expect, and not one member of his family feels compelled to console the creature by, for example, pointing out that a beetle is also a living thing, and turning into one might, for a mediocre human living a humdrum life, be an exhilarating and elevating experience, and so what’s the problem?

more here.

John Ashbery’s tribute to Jane Freilicher

Freilicher-2John Ashbery at Poetry Magazine:

I met Jane Freilicher the day I arrived in New York in the summer of 1949, just after I graduated from college and decided to move here on the advice of my friendKenneth Koch. He was away at the time but said I could stay in his apartment until he got back. I could pick up the key from Jane, who lived on the floor above his. Thus I found myself ringing the bell of a not very prepossessing-looking small loft building on Third Avenue near 16th Street. Jane came down to let me in and invited me up for coffee. I think that was the first time 
I saw her paintings, though it might have been slightly later. In any case, 
I wasn’t terribly interested in contemporary painting then, and 
I have only a vague memory of some partly geometric, partly loose semi-abstract landscapes. I certainly wasn’t aware that the year 1949 was going to be a momentous one, not just for me, but for American art, which had been slowly coming to a boil for several years thanks to the efforts of de Kooning, Kline, Pollock, Motherwell, and a handful of other revolutionary geniuses. It was in 1949 that LIFE magazine, unwillingly no doubt, tipped the balance in their favor with a splashy article about Pollock, topped with a half-sarcastic, half-serious headline: “Is he America’s greatest living painter?”

more here.

In Jaipur in winter, master wordsmiths regale readers

Satish Padmanabhan in Outlook India:

Jhumpa_lahiri_20140203_jpgIt’s the coldest day of the year in Jaipur. Schools have been closed for five days but there are many children standing in a queue that cuts across the entire Front Lawns of Diggi Palace, breathing out little puffs of white vapour, clutching copies of Interpreter of Maladies or The Lowland to get them signed by Jhumpa Lahiri. She can’t keep pace with the number of hands thrusting books at her, so her minders collect them and Jhumpa signs them in assembly-line mode. She has just had a session on The Global Novel with the Ethiopian writer Maaza Mengiste, Jonanthan Franzen, Jim Crace and Chinese-British writer Xioaola Guo. Franzen starts to talk about how, for someone like him, born in 1959 in Midwest America, there was only the American Novel, and how in his lifetime so much American culture has been exported. He suddenly stops mid-sentence, pau­ses to look down at his foot, looks up again at moderator Chandrahas Chaudhury and resumes speaking: “There’s no real point to that statement but you cornered me with a question. Maybe you can come back later for some deep thoughts on the history of the novel and how television relates to all of this.”

Franzen is a big man with a slow, gentle demeanour and a deep, American Midwest drawl, who rarely makes eye contact and speaks mostly looking down at his knees with his hands hunched together. He reminds you of Stephen King with more kempt hair. He lingers thoughtfully on what he is trying to say, as well as what you’ve asked him. He talks about short stories and how it’s a most difficult art form. “Reading a short story is like confronting death. You know it’s going to end soon and my eyes start to moisten.” His standout moment of last year was when Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for literature and he wonders why her stories are not made into films. He says books are far tougher to make into films; he can count the number of great book-based films on the fingers of one hand. The conversation then veers towards social media. Suddenly, Fran­zen’s solid frame crumbles. He gets very animated. “I can’t understand editors who are telling reporters to tweet, tweet, tweet, get likes, likes, likes, send your pictures, upload your videos,” he imitates these editors in a high-strung squeaky voice, shaking all over. Soon, he calms down. “The notion that Twitter is some egalitarian force is flawed. Yes, it’s very popular, but even there a few people have a lot of followers, just like the real world.” Franzen is a birder and what he is really looking forward to is to go to Bharatpur, Sariska and later Kaziranga in Assam to watch birds after his sessions are over. I tell him about a bit of news I recently read about how three Amur Falcons with satellite tags had flown over the Arabian Sea non-stop for three-and-a-half days on their way from Nagaland to South Africa. Franzen finally makes eye contact.

More here.

The forgotten story of the Flushing Remonstrance

Flushing-Remonstrance-ComicWei Zhu at Immanent Frame:

Known today for their pacifist and quietist ways, Quakers had an altogether different reputation in the seventeenth century: belligerent and boisterous rabble-rousers. Fueled by evangelical zeal, and asserting radical ideas for the time, the Quakers were aggressive proselytizers. As a result, they faced violent persecution in England and, to a lesser extent, in the Netherlands, where many migrated. News of their beliefs (e.g. equality for women, refusal to swear oaths, etc.) and their tactics (e.g. preaching loudly and publicly, disrupting worship services, etc.) reached the colonies before the Quakers did. Connecticut, in fact, banned Quakers in October 1656—prior to any Quakers having ever reached the colony. Other English colonies followed suit (Massachusetts would be particularly harsh on the Quakers), with the sole exception of Rhode Island—though Roger Williams, its founder, spent much of his later life debating Quakers and being frustrated with their refusal to adhere to the “sober rules of civility and humanity.” Quaker missionaries arrived in New Netherland in 1657. Following the sentencing of one of their number, Robert Hodgson, for public preaching, Peter Stuyvesant passed a law that penalized anyone who housed a Quaker, and at the same time incentivized locals to become informants of Quaker activities. The law had gone into effect by December 1657, when local men John Tilton and Henry Townsend were convicted under it.

more here.

How Do Hitmen Operate?

Ryan Jacobs in Pacific Standard:

HitmenA group of researchers at the Center for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University in the U.K. has recently analyzed newspaper articles, court records, and a series of “off-the-record” interviews with informants “who have, or who had, direct knowledge of contract killings” in order to construct what they term a “typology” of British hitmen. For the record, these social scientists “define a hitman as a person who accepts an order to kill another human being from someone who is not publicly acknowledged as a legitimate authority regarding ‘just killing’.” The results of their detailed search of British cases that matched this description in the period between 1974 and 2013 only turned up 27 contracted hits or attempted hits “committed by a total of 36 hitmen” (there was only a single “hitwoman”), but the researchers used the sample to tease out the details and profiles of typical killers-for-hire.

The main thrust of the paper, which will be published in the Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, is that hitmen do not operate with the drama, professionalism, or glamour that mob films and spy novels afford them. In actuality, the majority of killers select jejune settings for their crimes, have occasionally bumbling performances, and are often hired by contractors with lame motivations.

Read the rest here. (h/t Digg)

Wednesday Poem

Snow Angel Haiku

Wrapped in layers
Of gortex and angora,
Carving snow angels.

First snowflakes fallen,
Her tongue searches crystalline
Darkness for their kiss.

Coltrane softly wails
Desperate to tell his tale,
Long winters release,

Fire in the black
Hearth smolders pink orange flame
Wet boots slowly dry.

We read books entwined
Faux fur throw lulls us to sleep
Snow angels whisper

Songs delicate like
Lace, dynastic porcelain
Painted with flower blossoms.

Mindful transgression
Liquid time measured in flakes
Unique as thumbprints.

We float over wind-
Swept beaches littered with shells,
Sand Pipers skim waves.

Morning arises,
Fresh snow lights the sky with dew.
Hope eternally.

by Eric J. Weiner

Acid bath offers easy path to stem cells

David Cyranoski in Nature:

CellIn 2006, Japanese researchers reported1 a technique for creating cells that have the embryonic ability to turn into almost any cell type in the mammalian body — the now-famous induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. In papers published this week in Nature2, 3, another Japanese team says that it has come up with a surprisingly simple method — exposure to stress, including a low pH — that can make cells that are even more malleable than iPS cells, and do it faster and more efficiently. “It’s amazing. I would have never thought external stress could have this effect,” says Yoshiki Sasai, a stem-cell researcher at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan, and a co-author of the latest studies. It took Haruko Obokata, a young stem-cell biologist at the same centre, five years to develop the method and persuade Sasai and others that it works. “Everyone said it was an artefact — there were some really hard days,” says Obokata.

Obokata says that the idea that stressing cells might make them pluripotent came to her when she was culturing cells and noticed that some, after being squeezed through a capillary tube, would shrink to a size similar to that of stem cells. She decided to try applying different kinds of stress, including heat, starvation and a high-calcium environment. Three stressors — a bacterial toxin that perforates the cell membrane, exposure to low pH and physical squeezing — were each able to coax the cells to show markers of pluripotency. But to earn the name pluripotent, the cells had to show that they could turn into all cell types — demonstrated by injecting fluorescently tagged cells into a mouse embryo. If the introduced cells are pluripotent, the glowing cells show up in every tissue of the resultant mouse. This test proved tricky and required a change in strategy. Hundreds of mice made with help from mouse-cloning pioneer Teruhiko Wakayama at the University of Yamanashi, Japan, were only faintly fluorescent. Wakayama, who had initially thought that the project would probably be a “huge effort in vain”, suggested stressing fully differentiated cells from newborn mice instead of those from adult mice. This worked to produce a fully green mouse embryo.

More here.

Mr Big Bucks and the Mamelodi Sundowns

Sean Jacobs at Roads & Kingdoms

MamelodiMost black South Africans, however, were not scandalized by Mandela’s one-time celebration of violent struggle or his communist leanings, or by Winnie’s complicated, but flawed, legacy, which was formed in a more compromising, violent outside. As Stephen Smith rightly concluded in the London Review of Books recently: “If any one person can stand in for the country, it’s surely Winnie, half ‘mother of the nation’ and half township gangsta, deeply ambiguous, scarred and disfigured by the struggle.” Most South Africans get this full, complicated understanding of their recent history.

Zola Mahobe is another such complicated figure, part gangster, part hero. Mahobe, a legendary soccer club owner in South Africa during the 1980s, died nine days after Mandela. While his death quite rightly did not receive the same attention that Mandela’s did, his life was shaped by many of the same forces. For some, Mahobe was a symptom of what was wrong with South African professional soccer. Others viewed him (and still do) as a brilliant entrepreneur, a sort of Apartheid-era Robin Hood, and a visionary that would help reshape the dimensions of South African soccer.

Read the rest here.