Ian Penman in the LRB:
In 1975 David Bowie was in Los Angeles pretending to star in a film that wasn’t being made, adapted from a memoir he would never complete, to be called ‘The Return of the Thin White Duke’. This dubious pseudonymous character was first aired in an interview with Rolling Stone’s bumptious but canny young reporter Cameron Crowe; it soon became notorious. Crowe’s scene-setting picture of Bowie at home featured black candles and doodled ballpoint stars meant to ward off evil influences. Bowie revealed an enthusiasm for Aleister Crowley’s system of ceremonial magick that seemed to go beyond the standard, kitschy rock star flirtation with the ‘dark side’ into a genuine research project. He talked about drugs: ‘short flirtations with smack and things’, but given the choice he preferred a Grand Prix of the fastest, whitest drugs available. He brushed aside compatriots/competitors like Elton John and called Mick Jagger the ‘sort of harmless bourgeois kind of evil one can accept with a shrug’. If pushed, this apprentice warlock could also recite Derek and Clive’s ‘The Worst Job I Ever Had’ by heart and generally came on like a twisted forcefield of ego, will and fantastic put-on.
It’s impossible to imagine someone like Bowie giving the media anything like this kind of insane access today – but then, of course, there is no one like Bowie today. In 2016 it might take five months of negotiation to get an interview with the superstar of your choice and then you’d probably have to present your questions in advance and be babysat by three or four PR flaks and a spooky zombie-faced entourage for the whole blessed 15 minutes. In 1975, Bowie just turned up grinning, already babbling, at Crowe’s door. When Crowe got him to sit still long enough he couldn’t stop talking, which may or may not have had something to do with the industrial amounts of pharmaceutical cocaine he was daily ingesting. He had become almost an abstraction in the dry California air: surrounded by stubbly country-rock cowboys and wailing witchy women he was a sheet of virgin foolscap. Where did he fall from, this Englishman with his barking seal laugh and outrageous quotes about Himmler and semen storage and articulate ghosts?
Carl Freedman in the LA Review of Books:
WHAT IS THE RELATIONSHIP between radical aesthetic practices and actual political radicalism? There are many — and various — answers to this question. One of the most interesting is suggested by a famous exchange between Lenin and the Romanian-Jewish writer Valeriu Marcu. During his exile in Zurich, Lenin took many of his meals at a restaurant frequented by radically avant-garde painters, poets, and other such bohemian types, Marcu among them. In conversation one day, Lenin said to Marcu, “I don’t know how radical you are, or how radical I am. I am certainly not radical enough. One can never be radical enough; that is, one must always try to be as radical as reality itself.” Marcu was so sufficiently impressed by the great Russian revolutionary that he went on to write his first biography.
To try to be as radical as reality itself is a good motto for anyone wishing to accomplish anything of value in art or in politics. Brecht, who was unswervingly radical in both spheres, however, maintained that the artistic comprehension of reality in all its “radicality” is not necessarily best achieved through traditional literary realism. China Miéville would certainly agree. All of his numerous works are animated by revolutionary Marxism, and all diverge in one way or another — or in many ways — from classical realism. His recent volume, The Last Days of New Paris(2016), is set in France, mainly in Paris, during Nazi occupation; but this occupation is quite different from the one you can read about in the history books. The text can be classified as an alternative-history novel (or novella, as Miéville labels it). Yet a knowledge of the canonical achievements of this genre — like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962), or Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004), or any of a number of works by Kim Stanley Robinson — will suggest only a very partial idea of what is to be found here.
Laurel Hamers in Science:
It’s one of the big mysteries of cell biology. Why do mitochondria—the oval-shaped structures that power our cells—have their own DNA, and why have they kept it when the cell itself has plenty of its own genetic material? A new study may have found an answer. Scientists think that mitochondria were once independent single-celled organisms until, more than a billion years ago, they were swallowed by larger cells. Instead of being digested, they settled down and developed a mutually beneficial relationship developed with their hosts that eventually enabled the rise of more complex life, like today’s plants and animals.
Over the years, the mitochondrial genome has shrunk. The nucleus now harbors the vast majority of the cell’s genetic material—even genes that help the mitochondria function. In humans, for instance, the mitochondrial genome contains just 37 genes, versus the nucleus’s 20,000-plus. Over time, most mitochondrial genes have jumped into the nucleus. But if those genes are mobile, why have mitochondria retained any genes at all, especially considering that mutations in some of those genes can cause rare but crippling diseases that gradually destroy patients’ brains, livers, hearts, and other key organs.
It looked like a clump of small dusty nettles
Growing wild at the gable of the house
Beyond where we dropped our refuse and old bottles
Unverdant ever, almost beneath notice.
But, to be fair, it also spelled promise
And newness in the back yard of our life
As if something callow yet tenacious
Sauntered in green alleys and grew rife.
The snip of scissor blades, the light of Sunday
Mornings when the mint was cut and loved:
My last things will be first things slipping from me.
Yet let all things go free that have survived.
Let the smells of mint go heady and defenceless
Like inmates liberated in that yard.
Like the disregarded ones we turned against
Because we’d failed them by our disregard.
by Seamus Heaney
from The Spirit Level
Faber and Faber 1996
Inge Oosterhoff in The Correspondent:
The Dutch are pretty proud of founding New York. In 2009, the Netherlands and New York celebrated their 400-year history with myriad events, festivals, and parties.
Wherever possible, organizers emphasized shared values like freedom, tolerance, and equal opportunity – values the Netherlands is often given credit for coming up with.
But the story has a dark side that’s often overlooked. In the colony called New Amsterdam, the Dutch kept slaves from day one.
It’s a fact that merits remembering. Each July 1, the Netherlands celebrates Keti Koti, a day honoring the abolition of slavery in the former Caribbean colonies. But what about slavery here, in New York City? Join me on a tour of modern-day New York as I look for traces of the city’s buried past.
Carl Zimmer in the New York Times:
“Oftentimes, the very first question I get at the end of a presentation is, ‘O.K., that’s all very nice, but when is the brain finished? When is it done developing?’” Dr. Somerville said. “And I give a very nonsatisfying answer.”
Dr. Somerville laid out the conundrum in detail in a commentary published on Wednesday in the journal Neuron.
The human brain reaches its adult volume by age 10, but the neurons that make it up continue to change for years after that. The connections between neighboring neurons get pruned back, as new links emerge between more widely separated areas of the brain.
Eventually this reshaping slows, a sign that the brain is maturing. But it happens at different rates in different parts of the brain.
The pruning in the occipital lobe, at the back of the brain, tapers off by age 20. In the frontal lobe, in the front of the brain, new links are still forming at age 30, if not beyond.
A. M. Glittlitz in The New Inquiry:
Silicon Valley’s elites are a revolutionary vanguard party developing the not-too-distant future of cybernetic capitalist reconstruction. Despite cultish personas and massive social influence, however, they tend to keep their politics on the low. That changed this year when Peter Thiel, PayPal founder and Facebook board member, who also has investments in SpaceX and data analysis firm Palantir, revealed himself as mastermind of the litigious assassination of Gawker, a fellow-traveler of right-libertarian White Nationalists, and a prominent supporter of President-elect Donald J. Trump.
Thiel’s “Don’t Be Evil” competitors now look like saints in comparison. Some colleagues distanced themselves, while others wrote off the endorsement as part of his “disruptive instinct” to break down regulations preventing his Founders Fund investments from expanding. Then, in August, it was rumored that Thiel bragged to friends that Trump promised to nominate him to the Supreme Court, which would make him one of the most powerful men in America for a lifetime term. And Peter Thiel plans to live for a long time. He has a personal and financial stake in life extension technologies, including “parabiosis”–the (theoretically) rejuvenating transfer of young blood to an older person.
For those outside the valley, Thiel’s vampiric ambitions appeared to vindicate populist imagery dating back to Voltaire, who wrote in his Philosophical Dictionary that the real vampires were “stock-jobbers, brokers, and men of business, who sucked the blood of the people in broad daylight.”
Cynthia Haven in The Book Haven:
Avant-garde theater director Carl Weber began his theatrical career in a POW camp. He became Bertolt Brecht‘s protégé and brought Germany’s experimental theater to America. The Stanford drama professor, emeritus, died in Los Altos on Christmas night. He was 91.
I wrote about him several years ago (as well as on the Book Haven). He recalled his first “role” as an unwilling German soldier:
“At the first opportunity” – he recalled, and then put up both hands in the universally accepted sign of surrender – “I was a prisoner of England in Belgium.” He was sent to Colchester, Essex, as a POW.
Within weeks of his capture, he was performing Friedrich Schiller‘s The Robbers as one of a handful of performers at the Christmastime play in a mess tent, with tables for a stage. The group had a captive audience – literally.
But the event was a turning point: After Weber returned to a Germany that was “cold and miserable and in ruins” in February 1946, he finished his studies in chemistry at the University of Heidelberg and went to Berlin in September 1949 to pursue a career as an actor, director and dramaturg.
Many of the “alumni” of Camp 186 in Colchester went on to have remarkable careers: German stage and TV actor Günther Stoll; Werner Düttmann, city architect for Berlin in the 1960s; and actor Klaus Kinski, collaborator with writer-film director Werner Herzog.
David Edelstein in Vulture:
Carrie Fisher had the flukiest life, but ye gods, she made it her own. Relatively early, she realized that her fame and money had little to do with her. She had, she wrote in her final memoir, The Princess Diarist, “associative fame. By-product fame.” First, she had “celebrity daughter” fame, having been born to “America’s Sweethearts,” Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, a year-and-a-half before Fisher became “America’s cad” by running away with Reynolds’s recently widowed pal, Elizabeth Taylor. Later, she’d have “celebrity wife” fame as the spouse of Paul Simon. In between, she had “happened-to-have-played-an-iconic-character fame.” The character was, of course, Prince Leia Organa of Alderaan, the leader of the rebellion against the Empire and an improbable figure even for a galaxy far, far away. There would be no way for Fisher to reconcile herself to a life of so many disparate parts, even with booze and pills and powders. It took courage and imagination and a big dose of exhibitionism to reinvent herself as a comic autobiographer and brassy Hollywood eccentric.
She began, of course, by telling us all about the ways in which she wasn’t Princess Leia. Before she arrived in London in 1976 to shoot Star Wars (now called, tiresomely, Episode IV: A New Hope), she’d spent a month at a fat farm in Texas to lose some of the baby-fat in her cheeks. Then came the application of the “hairy earphones” that she also dubbed, “the buns of Navarone.” As the only girl in a boys’ fantasy universe, she had to declaim terrible lines while trying to maintain her poise. As her recently published diaries (with bonus poems) make clear, her days were largely spent trying to figure out why the inhumanly gorgeous but married Harrison Ford — with whom she was having an affair — wasn’t falling in love with her the way she was with him. She walked away with a lot of confusion, a semi-broken heart, and (in lieu of a salary) a quarter of a percentage of what would turn out to be one of the most profitable movies ever made.
Jason Daley in Smithsonian:
Plenty of animals communicate with one another, at least in a general way—wolves howl to each other, birds sing and dance to attract mates and big cats mark their territory with urine. But researchers at Tel Aviv University recently discovered that when at least one species communicates, it gets very specific. Egyptian fruit bats, it turns out, aren’t just making high pitched squeals when they gather together in their roosts. They’re communicating specific problems, reports Bob Yirka at Phys.org. According to Ramin Skibba at Nature, neuroecologist Yossi Yovel and his colleagues recorded a group of 22 Egyptian fruit bats, Rousettus aegyptiacus, for 75 days. Using a modified machine learning algorithm originally designed for recognizing human voices, they fed 15,000 calls into the software. They then analyzed the corresponding video to see if they could match the calls to certain activities.
They found that the bat noises are not just random, as previously thought, reports Skibba. They were able to classify 60 percent of the calls into four categories. One of the call types indicates the bats are arguing about food. Another indicates a dispute about their positions within the sleeping cluster. A third call is reserved for males making unwanted mating advances and the fourth happens when a bat argues with another bat sitting too close. In fact, the bats make slightly different versions of the calls when speaking to different individuals within the group, similar to a human using a different tone of voice when talking to different people. Skibba points out that besides humans, only dolphins and a handful of other species are known to address individuals rather than making broad communication sounds.
Everybody Made Soups
After it all, the events of the holidays,
the dinner tables passing like great ships,
everybody made soups for a while.
Cooked and cooked until the broth kept
the story of the onion, the weeping meat.
It was over, the year was spent, the new one
had yet to make its demands on us,
each day lay in the dark like a folded letter.
Then out of it all we made one final thing
out of the bounty that had not always filled us,
out of the ruined cathedral carcass of the turkey,
the limp celery chopped back into plenty,
the fish head, the spine. Out of the rejected,
the passed over, never the object of love.
It was as if all the pageantry had been for this:
the quiet after, the simmered light,
the soothing shapes our mouths made as we tasted.
by Lisa Coffman
from Less Obvious Gods
Iris Press, 2013
Harrison Smith in the Chicago Tribune:
Richard Adams, a British writer whose novel about rabbits, “Watership Down,” sold 50 million copies and mesmerized generations of readers by creating an ornately detailed fantasy world and subverting the Flopsy-Mopsy stereotype of warm and cuddly bunnies, has died at 96.
A daughter confirmed his death to the British newspaper the Independent, but other details were not immediately available.
Adams was an Oxford-educated public servant when “Watership Down,” his first novel, was published in 1972. The book follows a band of rabbits who search for a new home after Fiver, the runt of his litter, has a vision of their grassy home covered with blood – a result of the land's being developed by people for “high class modern residences.”
Led by Fiver's older brother Hazel, the rabbits journey across woods and stream to arrive at Watership Down, where they battle a totalitarian bunny named General Woundwort before establishing a new, utopian warren.
Expecting a tale of friendly anthropomorphic animals in the spirit of Kenneth Grahame's “The Wind in the Willows” or Beatrix Potter's “Peter Rabbit” series, publishers and literary agents rejected “Watership Down” seven times, telling Adams that it was too childish for adults and too adult for children.
Brian Resnick in Vox:
Last week, New Statesman published a feature about a community of Reddit users who are fans of a movie from the 1990s starring the comedian Sinbad. The movie is called Shazaam, and Sinbad plays a bumbling genie who adventures with two small kids.
The piece, however, is not about millennials’ unending enthusiasm for ’90s nostalgia. It’s much, much weirder: It turns out that the movie Shazaam never existed, and yet many of the people New Statesmen writer Amelia Tait spoke to could not be convinced otherwise.
Even Sinbad himself denies the movie exists.
The New Statesmen piece explores a fascinating question: How could so many people share the same false memory of the same fake movie?
First off: It’s not that these people are confusing Shazaam for Kazaam, the very real movie starring Shaquille O’Neal as a genie. They think the two movies were released around the same time (like the asteroid apocalypse movies Armageddon and Deep Impact, which both premiered in 1998).
Jenny Anderson in Quartz:
Schools face relentless pressure to up their offerings in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math. Few are making the case for philosophy.
Maybe they should.
Nine- and 10-year-old children in England who participated in a philosophy class once a week over the course of a year significantly boosted their math and literacy skills, with disadvantaged students showing the most significant gains, according to a large and well-designed study (pdf).
More than 3,000 kids in 48 schools across England participated in weekly discussions about concepts such as truth, justice, friendship, and knowledge, with time carved out for silent reflection, question making, question airing, and building on one another’s thoughts and ideas.
Kids who took the course increased math and reading scores by the equivalent of two extra months of teaching, even though the course was not designed to improve literacy or numeracy.
H. M. Naqvi in Dawn:
Translation is not a craft but an art, a vital one, one that allows us to participate in each other’s experiences, in each other’s stories. Imagine if we had remained cloistered like our fur-swathed forefathers — far-flung tribes wrapped up in ourselves. Imagine the world without the Mahabharata, Iliad, A Thousand and One Nights, Rumi’s musings, Cervantes’s epic. Without Flaubert, Proust, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky. Imagine learning Sanskrit, Greek, Arabic, Persian, Spanish, French, and Russian. And what of Chinese?
In a wonderfully thought-provoking piece titled ‘The Wonderfully Elusive Chinese Novel’2 Perry Link, Professor Emeritus of East Asian Studies at Princeton University, describes his experience teaching Chinese to American students: “The most anguishing question I get is ‘Professor Link, what is the Chinese word for ___?’ I am tempted to say that the question makes no sense … [for in] languages as far apart as English and Chinese, in which even grammatical categories are conceived differently, strict equivalence is not possible.” Elucidating, he offers the example of a word as corporeal, as tangible as ‘book’. Apparently, the closest approximation of book is the word shu. But shu might mean writing or letter or calligraphy or, intriguingly, book-ness. If you were to ask for a book at a Chinese bookstore, you would ask for “a volume of book-ness”.
It started as simple teenage rebellion but ended up tearing Syria apart, setting in motion events that continue to rock the Middle East — and the world. The boys behind the graffiti would become unlikely revolutionaries and reluctant refugees. Not all of them would survive the upheaval they helped unleash. This is their story.
Mark MacKinnon in the Globe and Mail:
At the start of it all, before the uprising and the civil war – and the refugee exodus and the terror and the hatred that have sprung from it – a 14-year-old boy stood giggling with a can of black spray paint, pointing it at the wall of his school in southern Syria.
Naief Abazid had no inkling that he was about to launch a revolution, or anything else that has followed. He was just doing what the bigger kids told him to. Trying to make them laugh. “It’s your turn, Doctor Bashar al-Assad, ” he painted, just under the window of the principal’s office of the all-boys al-Banin school in his hometown of Daraa. The date was Feb. 16, 2011.
It was an incendiary political idea – suggesting that Syria’s Baathist dictatorship would be the next to fall after the Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, written by an apolitical teenage prankster. Painted on a cool and dry winter evening, it would improbably set in motion a chain reaction of events that continue to rock the Middle East – and the world.
“It was something silly,” Naief told me as we sat in a McDonald’s at the train station in Vienna, more than 3,000 kilometres away from where it all began. It was his first retelling (other than his interview with Austrian immigration authorities) of what happened that day in Daraa, and his life in the five harrowing years since. “I was a kid. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Philip Ball in Nature:
Animals and plants prepare their cells for sex in very different ways — but no one knows why. A team of UK researchers now thinks that it has worked out the puzzle. Humans and animals set themselves up for sex well before the act will ever take place. At the earliest stages of life, in the embryo, our germ cells begin to develop. These are the cells that will go on to form the sperm and the egg, with half the usual number of chromosomes. In females, eggs are set aside and kept in arrested development until they are needed. After puberty, males produce sperm continuously throughout life, but a specialized germ line is created early on from which sperm are made. But corals, sponges and plants make no such cellular plans. They initially develop only body (somatic) cells, each with a full complement of chromosomes. When the time comes to mate, they produce their sex cells, or gametes, as needed by forming them out of stem cells from adult tissue.
Why the difference? According to biochemist Nick Lane of University College London, more complex animals create a devoted germline to preserve the quality of their mitochondria — specialized energy-producing structures in cells that sit outside the nucleus and have their own genes. In a mathematical model published on 20 December, Lane and his coworkers lay out their argument. According to the team, the problem for humans and other complex animals is that if cells were allowed to divide repeatedly and form adult tissues before some of them were turned into gametes, then their mitochondria would rapidly accumulate genetic mutations and errors. Some of the gametes might acquire a high load of these mutated mitochondria, leading to poor-quality tissues in the offspring. Producing all the eggs needed early on avoids this problem. The idea of ‘protecting’ mitochondrial DNA in quiescent eggs has been suggested previously1. But there’s a problem with that picture: some mutation is good for our mitochondria. Mutation is the engine of evolution, enabling advantageous mitochondrial genotypes to arise. Gametes made out of repeatedly replicated adult cells could therefore have useful variation. Evolution could preserve ‘good’ mutations and eliminate ‘bad’ ones, ultimately improving mitochondrial quality. There’s a delicate balance between the benefits and drawbacks of having a germline. How do you get enough variation between gametes for selection to act, without building up mutations that will impair an organism made from those gametes?