A visit to the American Museum of Natural History’s frozen-specimen collection

HarpersWeb-Postcard-FrozenWorld-600M. R. O'Connor at Harper's Magazine:

Noah built a boat to preserve the world’s biodiversity; today, scientists build freezers. In the underbelly of Manhattan’s American Museum of Natural History, I meet Julie Feinstein, the director of the Ambrose Monell Cryo Collection. I think we are somewhere beneath the Hall of Minerals or of Meteorites but, after the bewildering number of twists and turns we’ve taken—through the museum’s exhibits and down into storage facilities and then across the shipping room—it’s hard to tell for sure.

Feinstein’s laboratory is one of the museum’s hidden marvels. Among the world’s largest cryogenically frozen-tissue-sample collections, it exists in a tiny basement on the building’s western edge, near the corner of West Seventy-Seventh Street and Columbus Avenue. Not far from where we are standing is a 3,000-gallon liquid-nitrogen tank surrounded by eight-foot fences with six-inch metal spikes on top. The tank feeds liquid nitrogen into stainless steel vats inside the laboratory, and in these vats rest 100,000 organic samples—little pieces of whales and birds and monkeys and other nonhuman species taken from around the planet and now kept frozen at minus 160 degrees Celsius.

Around 10,000 samples have been added to the Ambrose Monell Cryo Collection each year since it was built in 2001, and it has the capacity to hold one million. The samples are the foundation of the museum’s efforts to map the evolutionary relationships among organisms through their genetic makeup, and many of the specimens are exceedingly rare: highly endangered Channel Island foxes; a nautilus from Vanuatu, in the South Pacific; leopard frogs from the Huachuca Mountains.

more here.

HG Wells’ “Mr Britling”, 100 years old

H.G._Wells__c1890Francine Stock at Prospect Magazine:

The bathtub of HG Wells is not large. It sits even today in a private house in Essex, a sympathetic 18th-century residence where Wells and family spent much of the First World War. The tub is significant because it was a place for contemplation, off a room where Wells regularly worked at night. At his desk, wearing what biographer Michael Sherborne describes as a “Wellesian onesie,” he pondered how to address the great questions of the conflicted day.

Wells’s fictional counterpart Mr Britling, the central character of his acclaimed novel about the war Mr Britling Sees It Through—100 years old this year—is regularly found at his night desk, warmly wrapped in pyjamas of llama wool “working ever and again at an essay, an essay of preposterous ambitions, for the title of it was ‘The Better Government of the World.’”

Mr Britling pours forth opinions—columns, pamphlets, letters, arguments—with apparent facility from the Dower House in the fictional Essex village of Matching’s Easy. An American visitor even remarks on the repurposing of the outbuildings from agriculture to pleasure or the intellectual husbandry of a man of ideas. It’s a charming and comfortable place (as its inspiration is still) in which to sit out a global conflict.

The author’s sense of guilt infects the portrait of Mr Britling, not just for his persistent infidelities but for his armchair war. He harvests profitable verbiage from the misery of others, just as Wells would progress from the establishment of Charles Masterman’s War Propaganda Bureau in 1914 to the commercial success of Mr Britling via such attempts at post-conflict soothsaying as What Is Coming?

more here.

Ten Poems for the End of the World

EndNick Ripatrazone at The Millions:

We don’t know when it will happen — whether some April or July or December will be the cruelest month — but we know poets are fascinated with the end of the world. Novelists and essayists ponder the apocalypse, but poems are particularly suited toward capturing the anxiety of the end.

Consider Robert Penn Warren’sEvening Hawk,” which narrows from the grand expansive — a hawk’s wing that “scythes down another day” along the “crashless fall of stalks of Time” — to the airless and anxious: “If there were no wind we might, we think, hear / The earth grind on its axis, or history / Drip in darkness like a leaking pipe in the cellar.” The relative brevity of Warren’s poem enables its power. We don’t need volumes upon volumes to proclaim the end: we need one final, focused gasp.

In a letter dated May 16, 1945, Wallace Stevens posed a question as a statement: “At the moment, the war is shifting from Europe to Asia, and why one should be writing about poetry at all is hard to understand.” Faced with destruction and death, the action of criticism feels cold and academic. Poetry, on the other hand, becomes necessary as the world crumbles. After 9/11, poetry seemed natural; many of us in New York City and its shadow carried folded copies of W.B. Yeats’sThe Second Coming” and “September 1, 1939” by W.H. Auden.

If we accept Stevens’s definition of the poetic act as “the desire to contain the world wholly within one’s own perception of it,” then poems about the end are simultaneously selfish and heroic attempts at survival. Here are 10 poems to prepare us for the end of the world.

more here.

Race, Art, and Essentialism

George Packer in The New Yorker:

Packer-Race-Art-and-Essentialism-1189“You know what?” the novelist Rick Moody began hisSunday Times review of the novelist James McBride’s new book about James Brown, “Kill ’Em and Leave.” What thought compelled Moody to snag his reader’s attention with the print equivalent of a blind-side shove? This: “It’s an undeniable truth that when African-American writers write about African-American musicians, there are penetrating insights and varieties of context that are otherwise lost to the nonblack music aficionados of the world, no matter how broad the appeal of the musician under scrutiny.” By virtue of being black, Moody goes on, Stanley Crouch could plumb the depths of jazz and Nelson George could limn the contours of funk and soul more completely and knowledgeably than the most sensitive, music-literate, passionately enthusiastic white critic. Not only is this “undeniable,” it’s also, as Moody sees it, a really good thing: “This contemporary tendency in which black writers lay claim to the discourse of black music—this increasing tendency—is a much needed development for anyone who cares about modern music.” I read the rest of the review, because I’m interested in James McBride and his work, but I never got over that lede. Moody’s point—there’s no other way to read it—is that race endows writers and critics with an extra dose of perceptual acumen. We hear James Brown with our ears, our heart, our imagination, our muscles, but also with the color of our skin, and there are essential qualities in James Brown’s music (Moody never says what they are) that a listener who is not black like Brown simply can’t pick up.

In Moody’s defense, one might say—this is the best one can say—that we respond to music, as to all art, out of our own experience, and that, in America, racial identity is experience.

More here.

This Week in Ferrante

Sarah and Sarah in Avidly:

Ferrante-covers-1160x653Elena Ferrante, as perhaps you know, is the pseudonym of a writer who has written some very wonderful novels. No one knows who Ferrante actually is, and since she (or he) refuses to tell us anything about the wonderful novels that so many love, readers are left grasping at straws — reaching for an interpretive cue about how we might best situate these novels. These novels feature a voice without a body to anchor it, allowing us all to indulge in endless (pleasurable!) conversation over what form “Ferrante” would or should take. Our opinions on this matter usually align with our values.

As Sarahs, we would like to weigh in on the Ferrante covers. First, the general consensus (which is wrong): the covers of these novels are bad, either unthinkingly or purposefully.

The covers, one after another, are no joke; they require no inside knowledge about artistic intention. They are straightforward, compelling, and absolutely devastating. What can we learn from them if we stop trying to pose ourselves as somehow more aesthetically sophisticated than they are? Because basically the problem is that we’ve been trying to reconcile these covers with our taste, and we cannot do that currently, because these covers love women, whereas, as we all know, taste is just another word for internalized misogyny. And so, a preliminary list, (because we do so love a list). What do we learn from the Ferrante covers? Well, we learn:

1. Marriage is a place you never fully get to.
2. A man’s shadow casts itself in two directions.
3. The scale of things is off kilter inside a marriage
4. There are vistas, and they remain forever in the distance.
5. Fitting together with another person is a comfort and a weight, like heavy knit or corduroy.
6. Youth starts to feel old inside a marriage.
7. Girlish fantasies fuel us forever.
8. A woman’s body disappears into a child as much as the other way around.
9. The presence of a child is always already a loss.
10. People rarely face us in full, but we walk with them anyway.

So please, reconsider.

More here.

The Pretensions of Pop

Dan Fox in Guernica:

Popstar-final-minTry describing a few of the most wildly successful pop albums of the twentieth century without mentioning the artist and title. A concept rock album about a fictional Edwardian military band, featuring musical styles borrowed from Indian classical music, vaudeville, and musique concrète, its sleeve design including images of Karl Marx, Oscar Wilde, Marilyn Monroe, Carl Gustav Jung, Sir Robert Peel, Marlene Dietrich, and Aleister Crowley? That’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Bandby The Beatles, one of the biggest selling records of all time. How about a record exploring the perception of time, mental illness, and alterity? Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, which has to date sold around 45 million copies worldwide. Ask any of those 45 million who bought a copy of The Dark Side of the Moon if they thought themselves pretentious for listening to an album described by one of the band members as “an expression of political, philosophical, humanitarian empathy,” and the answer would almost certainly be no. Queuing for the bag check at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, I once overheard a young man complain bitterly to his girlfriend, “I hate modern art. I hate all that Picasso two eyes on the same side of a blue face shit.” “What do you like then?” asked the girlfriend. “I like putting on my headphones, turning out the lights, and listening to Pink Floyd.” Popularity ratifies cultural authenticity; if it’s popular, it surely can’t be pretentious.

Pop music has never asked anyone for permission to be pretentious. It has joyfully complicated the terms of pretension, which is built into pop’s DNA, even when it shouts loudest about its authenticity. Flashback to Brian Eno, who in his 1996 diary, published as A Year with Swollen Appendices, describes how he “decided to turn the word ‘pretentious’ into a compliment.

More here.

Horse Poop Helps Unravel the Mystery of Hannibal’s Route Through the Alps

Jason Daley in Smithsonian Magazine:

ScreenHunter_1836 Apr. 07 19.20In 218 B.C. the Carthaginian general Hannibal led an army of 30,000 soldiers, 15,000 horses and mules and 37 war elephants across the Alps into Italy, a bold move that led to one of the greatest victories of the Second Punic War with Rome. It placed Hannibal in the pantheon of legendary ancient generals like Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar.

The crossing is still studied by military tacticians today, but the details are a bit hazy. Historians have speculated for centuries about exactly what route the Carthaginian army took through the mountains, but there has been no solid proof. Now, microbial evidence from horse manure may point to Hannibal’s hair-raising route.

A study published in the journal Archaeometry shows that a “mass animal deposition” took place in the Col de Traversette, a 9,800-foot pass on the modern border between France and Italy around 200 B.C. Microbiologists from Queen’s University in Belfast sampled soil from a peaty area near the top of the pass, the type of place that an army might stop to water its horses. What they found was a disturbed layer of peat about 40 cm down that was not churned up by natural occurrences like a flock of sheep or frost, according to a press release.

More here.

Thomas Piketty, The Man Who Foretold the Panama Papers

Crawford Kilian in The Tyee:

ScreenHunter_1835 Apr. 07 19.14At first glance, this book by the famous author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century looked like a disappointment. Instead of the vast sweep of that epic work, it's a cut-and-paste job — monthly articles first published in the French newspaper Libération between 2008 and 2015.

I've written such books myself, cobbling newspaper columns together just by dragging files around my computer screen. If you had a keen interest in British Columbian school politics in the 1980s and '90s, my books might still interest you. Otherwise, forget them.

Similarly, in this compilation Piketty is fussing about the crash of 2008 from a European perspective, and most of us have tried our best to forget that unfortunate era. It's mildly titillating to learn that the octogenarian heiress to the L'Oréal fortune is the richest woman in France, with a fortune of 15 billion euros while declaring only one billion.

And here and there you can catch themes that Piketty will turn into majestic symphonies in his magnum opus, like the inevitability of “patrimonial capitalism” — that is, wealth will accumulate in the families of the already rich, not in the families of the toiling masses, and it will continue to do so until the very rich are taxed according to their means. He also mentions “tax dumping,” whereby countries like Ireland attract a few jobs by charging almost no tax on giant corporations doing business elsewhere.

But why bother to buy a scrapbook of ancient columns when you can read Capital in the Twenty-First Century? For one very good reason.

Because Thomas Piketty follows the money. He goes into the tax archives of the last two centuries, and he has become the greatest economic detective the world has ever known.

More here.

How To Legally Own Another Person

Chain_ball

Nassim N. Taleb in Evonomics:

Complete freedom is the last thing you would want if you have an organized religion to run. Total freedom is also a very, very bad thing for you if you have a firm to run, so this chapter is about the question of employees and the nature of the firm and other institutions.

Benedict’s instruction manual aims explicitly at removing any hint of freedom in the monks under the principles of: stabilitate sua et conversatione morum suorum et oboedientia — “stability, conversion of manners, and obedience”. And of course monks are put through a probation period of one year to see if they are effectively obedient.

In short, every organization wants a certain number of people associated with it to be deprived of a certain share of their freedom. How do you own these people? First, by conditioning and psychological manipulation; second by tweaking them to have some skin in the game, forcing them to have something significant to lose if they were to disobey authority –something hard to do with gyrovague beggars who flaunted scorn of material possessions. In the orders of the mafia, things are simple: made men (that is, ordained) can be wacked if the capo suspects lack of allegiance, with a transitory stay in the trunk of a car –and a guaranteed presence of the boss at their funerals. For others professions, skin in the game come in more subtle form.

Ironically, you could do better having an employee than a slave –and this held even in ancient times when slavery was present.

More here.

The Scottish war poets

P21_Boyd_1219085hWilliam Boyd at The Times Literary Supplement:

One night in 1917, August 11, to be precise, during the Third Battle of Ypres, or Passchendaele, as it’s better known, my grandfather, William Boyd (1890–1952), was out in no-man’s land near Lunéville Farm repairing damaged stretches of barbed wire. He was a corporal in the Royal Engineers. A shell went off nearby and he was hit in the back by a piece of shrapnel and badly wounded. The family still has the razor-edged metal fragment, brown steel, about the size of a beer mat. After six weeks, sufficiently recovered from his injury in a base hospital at Etaples, my grandfather was allowed to convalesce back at home in Scotland, in Cupar, Fife. He was married and had a young daughter and, once fully fit again, he reported for his medical. Not surprisingly, after his injury and having miraculously managed to survive almost two years on the Western Front, he was reluctant to return. He had a particular trick: if he held his nose tightly and built up the pressure in his head, he could make his ears bleed slightly. He duly did so and the examining doctor swiftly declared him unfit for combat. He never went back to the trenches. He never wrote a poem about his experiences, either.

I cite the anecdote as a form of thought experiment, trying to imagine what kind of poem might have emerged had my grandfather been so inclined or inspired (or had the ability). Something dark and satirical in the Sassoon vein, perhaps: “The Lead-swinger”; or maybe a Kiplingesque ballad: “He peered into my bleedin’ ear”. My question about any such putative poem – good, bad or indifferent – written by a Scottish soldier in the First World War is this: would it seem particularly Scottish in any way? The answer has to be qualified: “yes, possibly”, if it were written in Lallans or Gaelic; but “surely not” if it were written in standard English.

more here.

Inside America’s Auschwitz

Elsa_hahne_whitneyplantationbighouse.jpg__800x600_q85_cropJared Keller at The Smithsonian:

At first glance, the “Wall of Honor” at Louisiana’s Whitney Plantation slavery museum — a series of granite stones engraved with the names of hundreds of slaves who lived, worked and died there — evokes any number of Holocaust memorials. But as the future mayor of New Orleans noted at the museum’s 2008 opening, this site is different; this is America’s Auschwitz.

“Go on in,” Mitch Landrieu told the crowd, according to the New York Times. “You have to go inside. When you walk in that space, you can’t deny what happened to these people. You can feel it, touch it, smell it.”

The former indigo, sugar and cotton operation, which finally opened to the public after years of careful restoration in December 2014 as the country’s first slave museum, is a modern avatar of injustice. Nestled off the historic River Road that runs alongside the slow, lazy crook of the Mississippi, the estate was built in the late 1700s by entrepreneur Jean Jacques Haydel upon land purchased by his German-immigrant father, Ambroise. It was the younger Haydel who expanded the estate and established the plantation as a key player in Louisiana’s sugar trade, transitioning the main crop away from the less-profitable indigo markets. A couple of years after the Civil War, a Northerner by the name of Bradish Johnson bought the property and named it after his grandson Harry Whitney.

more here.

Marianne Moore’s infectious devotion to everything small

Moore_Longenbach_loc_full_imgJames Logenbach at The Nation:

Many people think of Moore as the author of intricately descriptive accounts of animal life, but the impression is largely due to the order that her friend T.S. Eliot (acting in his capacity as an editor at Faber and Faber) devised for Moore’s 1935 Selected Poems, an order to which she adhered in every subsequent selection. Consequently, most readers’ experience of Moore begins with a group of long, descriptive poems written in the early 1930s (“The Steeple-Jack,” “The Jerboa,” “The Plumet Basilisk,” “The Frigate Pelican”), followed by “The Fish,” an arresting but finally atypical poem from Observations.

A fresh reading of Observations suggests that, while Moore’s descriptive powers are formidable, she is primarily a poet of argument, which is to say that she is most primarily a poet of syntax—the convolutions of her long, charismatic sentences seduce us into agreement long before we’ve had time to consider the substance of the argument at stake. Consider the final sentence, typed out as if it were prose, of “My Apish Cousins”; the sentence is a tirade against critics who make works of art seem intimidatingly obtuse:

They have imposed on us with their pale half fledged protestations, trembling about in inarticulate frenzy, saying it is not for us to understand art; finding it all so difficult, examining the thing as if it were inconceivably arcanic, as symmetrically frigid as if it had been carved out of chrysoprase or marble—strict with tension, malignant in its power over us and deeper than the sea when it proffers flattery in exchange for hemp, rye, flax, horses, platinum, timber, and fur.

more here.

A stem-cell repair system that can regenerate any kind of human tissue

From KurzweilAI:

A stem cell therapy system capable of regenerating any human tissue damaged by injury, disease, or aging could be available within a few years, say University of New South Wales (UNSW Australia) researchers. Their new repair system*, similar to the method used by salamanders to regenerate limbs, could be used to repair everything from spinal discs to bone fractures, and could transform current treatment approaches to regenerative medicine. The UNSW-led research was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.

…* The technique involves extracting adult human fat cells and treating them with the compound 5-Azacytidine (AZA), along with platelet-derived growth factor-AB (PDGF-AB) for about two days. The cells are then treated with the growth factor alone for a further two-three weeks. AZA is known to induce cell plasticity, which is crucial for reprogramming cells. The AZA compound relaxes the hard-wiring of the cell, which is expanded by the growth factor, transforming the bone and fat cells into iMS cells. When the stem cells are inserted into the damaged tissue site, they multiply, promoting growth and healing. The new technique is similar to salamander limb regeneration, which is also dependent on the plasticity of differentiated cells, which can repair multiple tissue types, depending on which body part needs replacing.

More here.