I’m an immigrant and a Muslim. And I’m here to cure cancer

My sister and fellow 3QD editor Azra Raza in Stat:

ScreenHunter_2126 Jul. 28 18.05It’s a long way from where I grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, to the dining room in Vice President Joe Biden’s home at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. Yet that’s where I found myself one day last December, along with a handful of other cancer specialists. We had been invited to offer our perspectives on the current cancer landscape, which contributed to shaping the “cancer moonshot.” I’m convinced that my perspective on medicine as an immigrant is what ultimately got me to the table.

Early in my career as an oncologist at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y., I treated a woman who was terminally ill with acute myeloid leukemia (AML). As her disease progressed, I watched her struggle to write letters for her 2-year-old twin daughters. She wanted them to read a letter from her on each of their birthdays until they turned 21. She died before she got to the ones for their 13th birthday.

That experience nearly broke my heart. It also suddenly clarified the purpose of my career. I realized that we needed a more comprehensive understanding of her disease. I needed to learn how pre-leukemia develops into leukemia, how it continues to evolve, and how it can be treated.

Had I received my scientific training in the United States, my immediate instinct probably would have been to develop a sophisticated mouse model to work on each of those steps. But because I was educated in Pakistan, I thought about taking a simpler approach — examining the cells of patients with myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS), an early-stage version of leukemia.

More here.

Marilynne Robinson and american christianity

141006_r25546-960Paul Gleason at The Point:

Marilynne Robinson is a Christian in a country that increasingly isn’t. She belongs to the American “mainline,” a collection of Protestant denominations with deep roots in European history, reliably liberal politics and, if current demographic and attendance trends continue, just a few decades to live. Why should the mainline be disappearing? And why would anybody care if it did? In her most recent books, a collection of essays,The Givenness of Things, and a novel, Lila, Robinson poses these questions but only partially answers them. Her reply to the first question is never fully satisfying, perhaps because she has much in common with the movement that is largely responsible for the mainline’s decline. The second question is even more difficult, but Robinson the novelist gives a better answer.

Liberal mainline denominations—like the Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and certain strains of Lutheranism—never represented the whole of American Christianity, but as recently as the middle of the last century their adherents numbered in the scores of millions and included almost all of America’s political and cultural elites. Since then their fall has been rapid and steep. Between 2000 and 2010 the United Church of Christ (Robinson’s denomination) lost nearly seven hundred congregations and over three hundred thousand members, bringing its total membership to less than half what it was in 1957.

more here.

the legend of Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia_O'KeeffeMichael Prodger at The New Statesman:

The legend of O’Keeffe is so monumental that her art sometimes seems secondary. With some artists – Picasso, for instance – the work lives up to the man; with others, such as Frida Kahlo (coincidentally a friend of O’Keeffe’s), not so much. There is, remarkably, not a single painting by O’Keeffe in a British public collection, which makes the retrospective of her work at Tate Modern, the largest ever held outside America, a unique opportunity to see just how much she deserves her hallowed reputation.

If O’Keeffe’s personality was all about control so, too, was her art. Born on a farm in Wisconsin, she was initially drawn to music but when she turned to painting she gave herself a thorough theoretical grounding before she ever touched a canvas. She studied in both Chicago and New York and learned about modernism from the painter and educator Arthur Wesley Dow. Believing she wouldn’t make it as an artist, she took a job as a commercial designer in Chicago. What changed things for her was when she sent some drawings to a friend who, without her knowledge, showed them to Stieglitz, who then, again without O’Keeffe’s knowledge, exhibited them at his 291 gallery in New York (where he had been the first person to show Cézanne’s work in America). “Finally,” he wrote, “a woman on paper.” A correspondence between the pair followed, then a meeting, then a solo show, and finally marriage.

more here.

letters from zelda to scott

Zelda-scott-fitzgeraldZelda Fitzgerald at The Paris Review:

Our fairy tale is almost ended, and we’re going to marry and live happily ever after just like the princess in her tower who worried you so much—and made me so very cross by her constant recurrence. I’m so sorry for all the times I’ve been mean and hateful—for all the miserable moments I’ve caused you when we could have been so happy. You deserve so much—so very much— … And I do want to marry you—even if you do think I “dread” it. I wish you hadn’t said that—I’m not afraid of anything. To be afraid a person has either to be a coward or very great and big. I am neither. Besides, I know you can take much better care of me than I can, and I’ll always be very, very happy with you—except sometimes when we engage in our weekly debates—and even then I rather enjoy myself. I like being very calm and masterful, while you become emotional and sulky. I don’t care whether you think so or not—I do.


Darling, I nearly sat it off in the Strand today and all because T.E. Lawrence of the Movies is your physical counter-part. So I was informed by half a dozen girls before I could slam on a hat and see for myself. He made me so homesick. I thought at first waiting would grow easier later—but every day I need you more. All these soft, warm nights going to waste when I ought to be lying in your arms under the moon—the dearest arms in all the world—darling arms that I love so to feel around me. How much longer—before they’ll be there to stay? ***

more here.

Thursday Poem

The Onion

The onion, now that’s something else.
Its innards don’t exist.
Nothing but pure onionhood
fills this devout onionist.
Oniony on the inside,
onionesque it appears.
It follows its own daimonion
without our human tears.

Our skin is just a coverup
for the land where none dare go,
an internal inferno,
the anathema of anatomy.
In an onion there’s only onion
from its top to its toe,
onionymous monomania,
unanimous omninudity.

At peace, of a piece,
internally at rest.
Inside it, there’s a smaller one
of undiminished worth.
The second holds a third one,
the third contains a fourth.
A centripetal fugue.
Polyphony compressed.

Nature’s rotundest tummy,
its greatest success story,
the onion drapes itself in its
own aureoles of glory.
We hold veins, nerves, and fat,
secretions’ secret sections.
Not for us such idiotic
onionoid perfections.

by Wisława Szymborska
from Poems New and Collected, 1957-1997
Harcourt Brace,1998


The next giant leap in human evolution

Mark Changizi in Seed:

Changizi-harnessed_HLWhere are we humans going, as a species? If science fiction is any guide, we will genetically evolve like in X-Men, become genetically engineered as in Gattaca, or become cybernetically enhanced like General Grievous in Star Wars. All of these may well be part of the story of our future, but I’m not holding my breath. The first of these—natural selection—is impracticably slow, and there’s a plausible case to be made that natural selection has all but stopped acting on us. Genetic engineering could engender marked changes in us, but it requires a scientific bridge between genotypes—an organism’s genetic blueprints—and phenotypes, which are the organisms themselves and their suite of abilities. A sufficiently sophisticated bridge between these extremes is nowhere in sight. And machine-enhancement is part of our world even today, manifesting in the smartphones and desktop computers most of us rely on each day. Such devices will continue to further empower us in the future, but serious hardware additions to our brains will not be forthcoming until we figure out how to build human-level artificial intelligences (and meld them to our neurons), something that will require cracking the mind’s deepest mysteries. I have argued that we’re centuries or more away from that.

Simply put, none of these scenarios are plausible for the immediate future. If there is something next, some imminently arriving transformative development for human capabilities, then the key will not be improved genes or cortical plug-ins. But what other way forward could humans possibly have? With genetic and cyborg enhancement off the table for many years, it would seem we are presently stuck as-is, sans upgrades. There is, however, another avenue for human evolution, one mostly unappreciated in both science and fiction. It is this unheralded mechanism that will usher in the next stage of human, giving future people exquisite powers we do not currently possess, powers worthy of natural selection itself. And, importantly, it doesn’t require us to transform into cyborgs or bio-engineered lab rats. It merely relies on our natural bodies and brains functioning as they have for millions of years. This mystery mechanism of human transformation is neuronal recycling, coined by neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene, wherein the brain’s innate capabilities are harnessed for altogether novel functions. This view of the future of humankind is grounded in an appreciation of the biologically innate powers bestowed upon us by hundreds of millions of years of evolution. This deep respect for our powers is sometimes lacking in the sciences, where many are taught to believe that our brains and bodies are taped-together, far-from-optimal kluges. In this view, natural selection is so riddled by accidents and saddled with developmental constraints that the resultant biological hardware and software should be described as a “just good enough” solution rather than as a “fine-tuned machine.”

More here.

Waiting for the facts does hurt

Simon T. Meiners in the Courier-Journal:

B9317517125Z.1_20150529121838_000_G6EATVJGT.1-0“Waiting for the facts has never hurt anybody.”

A lot of moderate pundits trot out this plea for patience every time the media spotlights another black life stolen by the police. In this case, it's National Review editor Charles C.W. Cooke offering “A Few Thoughts on the Killing of Philando Castile” the morning after Castile was gunned down by Officer Jeronimo Yanez during a routine traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. His death has become another rallying cry and another proxy for discussing state-on-black violence.

Using one tragedy as a stand-in for systemic racism is common, but it gives a lot of moderates, especially white ones, anxiety. Here's how they see it play out: police kill a black man under sketchy circumstances, and before the dust can clear, racial demagogues swoop in and shoehorn the story into some reductive narrative pitting evil racist cops against noble black victims — facts be damned; that's why fair-minded people of all races need to step up, they say, and defend the officer's right to due process.

As a recovering white moderate, I get it: you should never scapegoat one cop for the collective sins of the criminal justice system. It's illiberal. But here's the problem with that mindset: you can't referee injustices one by one, either. You'll miss the big picture. That is why the shortsighted white moderates who try to be cool-headed neutrals ought to spend a little more time meditating on big picture facts.

More here.

At the Bell House with Sean Carroll

Jerry Alper in Existential Cosmology:

EmLyWwmtOn May 8, in Manhattan, I had met with Sean Carroll for a prearranged interview on his forthcoming The Big Picture. The three hour conversation that ensued had been an exhilarating, if somewhat overwhelming experience. Before I could write about it, however, I needed to process it. Sean Carroll, for his part, wanted to do “some writing” in preparation for his scheduled May 10th talk at the Bell House in Brooklyn. This was the event that would kick off the grand book tour of his much-anticipated, new book, the wildly-ambitious, magisterial synthesis called simply The Big Picture. The pub. Date (May 10th) was two days away but already the reviews from some of the brightest names in science were starting to arrive. Here, for example, is what the brilliant quantum experimental physicist, Sabine Hossenfelder, says about the Big Picture.

“The Big Picture is, above everything else, a courageous book — and an overdue one. So, I am super happy about the book. The Big Picture should make clear that physicists aren’t just arrogant when they say their work reveals insights that reach far beyond the boundaries of their disciplines. Physics indeed has an exceptional status among the sciences.”

Be that as it may, I was of two minds about actually travelling to the Bell House which I had never heard of and to which I had never been (but to which I’ve now been invited to). On the one hand — the event being scheduled between 8 p.m. — 11 p.m. — I would be lucky if I could arrive home before midnight. On the other hand, this was a rare opportunity, perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity, to see Sean Carroll lecture in person and I did not want to miss out on it.

More here.

The DNC Hack Is Watergate, but Worse

Franklin Foer in Slate:

ScreenHunter_2124 Jul. 27 23.05A foreign government has hacked a political party’s computers—and possibly an election. It has stolen documents and timed their release to explode with maximum damage. It is a strike against our civic infrastructure. And though nobody died—and there was no economic toll exacted—the Russians were aiming for a tender spot, a central node of our democracy.

It was hard to see the perniciousness of this attack at first, especially given how news media initially covered the story. The Russians, after all, didn’t knock out a power grid. And when the stolen information arrived, it was dressed in the ideology of WikiLeaks, which presents its exploits as possessing a kind of journalistic bravery the traditional media lacks.

But this document dump wasn’t a high-minded act of transparency. To state the obvious, only one political party has been exposed. (Selectively exposed: Many emails were culled from the abridged dump.) And it’s not really even the inner workings of the Democrats that have been revealed; the documents don’t suggest new layers of corruption or detail any new conspiracies. They’re something closer to the embarrassing emails that fly across every office in America—griping, the testing of stupid ideas, the banal musings that take place in private correspondence.

More here.

The Last Days of Foamhenge

Hanover-2810-24-1024x663Eileen Townsend at The Paris Review:

If you’ve ever taken I-81 north through Virginia, you’ve passed the town of Natural Bridge, in Rockbridge County—home to a ninety-foot limestone arch that extends over a gorge, a geological anomaly probably formed by an ancient underground river. Natural Bridge is an anachronism from the Route 66 era of highway travel, a place where you can pay twenty dollars to look at a rock, eat a rock-themed lunch, and then buy a shot glass illustrated with a picture of that same rock. As any respectable tourist trap must, the town hosts a constellation of other attractions: a petting zoo, a dinosaur/Civil War theme park, and the Natural Bridge Wax Museum (now closed, and former home to a ghoulish Obama tribute). Best of all is the featherlight, faux prehistoric monument known as Foamhenge.

As its name suggests, Foamhenge is a one-to-one scale replica of Stonehenge, made of foam. It is identical to the original, save the flecked gray paint, the accompanying statue of a deadhead-ish Merlin, and the fact that it was erected several millennia later. For the past twelve years, the henge has been the most public of Natural Bridge’s draws, garnering a steady stream of visitors and enough press to be mentioned in the same breath as the area’s actual ancient rocks. Its creator, an artist named Mark Cline, calls it his “foam-nomenon”: the unlikely culmination of his career as a sculptor of roadside attractions.

more here.

On Nihilism and the Writing Life

0300215363.01.LZZZZZZZRobert Fay at The Millions:

When Samuel Beckett was a young man, his parents wanted to him to work in the family’s accountancy business and assume his place in Dublin’s Protestant merchant class. As Tim Parkswrites in his new book, Life and Work: Writers, Readers, and the Conversations between Them, “a battle of wills ensued between mother and son…As the impasse intensified, [Beckett] developed a number of physical symptoms — boils, anal cysts, pelvic pains, tachycardia, panic attacks…” The panic attacks would plague Beckett for years, and his biographer Anthony Cronin tells us, inSamuel Beckett: The Last Modernist, that he didn’t reflect on his maladies in a conventional manner. In 1935 he attended a lecture by Swiss psychiatrist and former Freud protégé C.J. Jung. Beckett was 29 years old, in analysis, and believed he suffered from a neurotic disorder that “had its origins in infancy, in a time he could not remember,” Cronin writes.

In the lecture, Jung described the case of a young girl whose difficulties baffled him until he fell upon a simple, though rather esoteric diagnosis: “The girl had never really been born.” The idea immediately fired Beckett’s imagination. Cronin claims it triggered something crucial in Beckett and would become central to his self-understanding, and a recurring motif in his works. Beckett, he writes, “thought the diagnosis was a profoundly suggestive illumination of his own case, his sense of alienation from the world and of not being ready or fitted to cope with it, to join in its activities as others did, or even to understand the reasons for them.”

more here.


160801_r28460-1200x799-1469126726Alice Gregory at The New Yorker:

Last September, in Guadalajara, an American conceptual artist named Jill Magid and a pair of gravediggers convened at the Rotonda de los Jaliscienses Ilustres, a monument where the most celebrated citizens of the state of Jalisco are entombed. With them were two notaries and a handful of bureaucrats. It was just after eight in the morning, and the area was nearly silent. The quiet was disturbed by the sound of chisels striking stone. The gravediggers removed a metal plaque, then a cement wall, and, finally, a brick façade. More than an hour later, they hit what they were looking for: an oxidized copper urn, filled with the ashes of Luis Barragán, one of Mexico’s greatest architects, who died in 1988. They removed the urn from the cavity, brushing off dust and ants. Then they opened the vessel and presented it to Magid, who scooped out half a kilo of what looked like dirt and transferred it to a plastic bag, which she then put into a box. The next day, with the box in her carry-on, she flew home to New York.

In April, a diamond—2.02 carats, rough-cut, with one polished facet—arrived in Manhattan. It was sent overnight from Switzerland, and Magid had been tracking its shipping status hourly online. The package was delivered to her husband’s office, and after work he took it to Brooklyn, where they live with their two young sons. Magid did not open the small black box containing the jewel for hours, and, when she finally did, she cried. “It was way more emotional than I expected,” she told me.

more here.

Wednesday Poem

Everyone was in Love
One day, when they were little, Maud and Fergus
appeared in the doorway naked and mirthful,
with a dozen long garter snakes draped over
each of them like brand-new clothes.
Snake trails dangled down their backs,
and snake foreparts in various lengths
fell over their fronts. With heads raised and swaying,
alert as cobras, the snakes writhed their dry skins
upon each other, as snakes like doing
in lovemaking, with the added novelty
of caressing soft, smooth, most human skin.
Maud and Fergus were deliciously pleased with themselves.
The snakes seemed to be tickled, too.
We were enchanted. Everyone was in love.
Then Maud drew down off Fergus’s shoulder,
as off a tie rack, a peculiarly
lumpy snake and told me to look inside.
Inside the double-hinged jaw, a frog’s green
webbed hind feet were being drawn,
like a diver’s, very slowly as if into deepest waters.
Perhaps thinking I might be considering rescue,
Maud said, “Don’t. Frog is already elsewhere.”

by Galway Kinnell
from Strong Is Your Hold
Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006

Don’t Go, Michelle!

Sarah Larson in The New Yorker:

MontgomeryDNCD1-016-800Michelle Obama, who provided us with our purest moment of levity last week, provided us with our purest moment of sanity last night. She also delivered the night’s most inspiring message. The Obamas have been a bittersweet presence in this campaign season—a poignant reminder, for the many of us who love and admire them, that while we duke it out to choose their successors, the family currently occupying the White House cannot be surpassed. Michelle Obama has been the ultimate FLOTUS—funny, wise, wholehearted, down to earth, even in the moments when we’ve suspected that she wouldn’t mind some privacy or freedom. During the misery and surreality of the Republican Convention, FLOTUS was a presence in two significant ways. The first was during the Melania plagiarism flap. For a few hours after Melania’s speech, before the story broke, some of us thought, Ah, not bad! One of the few vaguely sane speeches we will hear this week. To realize later what had inspired it was heartbreaking. When videos of Melania and Michelle’s similar lines were edited to play side by side, Obama showed warmth, heart, conviction. To see those words melted down into a speech promoting Donald Trump only enhanced the sense that we are living in a dystopian novel.

…Obama’s speech was both subtle and direct. She appealed to our maturity, talking about hardworking, idealistic Americans of all backgrounds. I wish the night could have ended after this speech, which invoked everything from police shootings to Orlando to segregation and sexism, foregrounded the greatness of our national ideals, and inspired us to continue fighting for change.

More here.