Tom Wolfe’s greatest asset was his emotional distance

Graeme Wood at The American Scholar:

Wolfe’s preposterous clothing was a constant reminder of a core journalistic truth: to be an observer requires distance, and a writer’s alienation from his subject is not to be annihilated but managed and, most often, treasured. His was a much better pose. There are few worthwhile memoirs of the space program or the High (in at least two senses) Counterculture. But The Right Stuff and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test are as close to imperishable as journalism ever gets. In both cases, Wolfe examined a scene with a subjectivity and style exclusive to himself. He saw things as Tom Wolfe, with his own gift of studied by playful detachment.

He was the Great Detached. If that phrase sounds like an esoteric Hebrew name for God, then you are not far off: much of what felt new about Wolfe’s style was the way it coopted the omniscient voice. Readers had been trained to think of omniscience as the exsanguinated black-and-white prose to be found on the front of any daily newspaper.

more here.

‘The Tale’ Review: One of the Bravest Movies You’ll Ever See

Matt Goldberg in Collider:

The Tale is one of the bravest and smartest movies I’ve ever seen. Writer-director Jennifer Fox dives into the sexual abuse she suffered as a teenager, and proceeds to interrogate her own memories with unflinching clarity. Furthermore, rather than simply stick to her background as a documentary filmmaker and try to tell her story in that medium, she wisely decides to make a narrative feature that gives her the tools to more effectively dive into both the abuse she suffered and the investigation to find the truth behind her own memories. With an outstanding cast, led by the incomparable Laura Dern, at her disposal, Fox weaves a captivating and gut-wrenching story about the lies told to us, and the lies we tell ourselves. Documentarian and professor Jennifer (Dern) comes home from working on a project to get a frantic series of voicemails from her mother Nettie (Ellen Burstyn). While cleaning out some boxes, Nettie discovered a story Jennifer wrote when she was thirteen recounting a romantic relationship she had with her running coach Bill (Jason Ritter) and riding instructor Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki). Although Jennifer acknowledges she had a relationship with an older man, it isn’t until she starts reading her own story closer that she starts to discover her own flawed assumptions, thinking she was more mature when pictures show a small, plain 13-year-old Jenny (Isabelle Nélisse). Rattled by how her memories may have betrayed her, Jennifer starts an investigation to uncover the truth behind her original story.

In the age of #MeToo, The Tale shows how every story of sexual abuse is unique even if the predators always prey on more than one victim. Fox is fearless in showing the details of her story, and I imagine that some scenes could trigger viewers with a history of abuse, whether it’s the way that Mrs. G and Bill work to lower Jenny’s defenses or the deeply disturbing sexual intercourse between Bill and Jenny. Fox presents these moments because the whole point of The Tale is about a character discovering the truth as best she can remember, and to shy away from upsetting moments would be a disservice to herself and to other victims of sexual abuse.

More here.

How gut microbes are joining the fight against cancer

Giorgia Guglielmi in Nature:

Bertrand Routy earned a lamentable reputation with Parisian oncologists in 2015. A doctoral student at the nearby Gustave Roussy cancer centre, Routy had to go from hospital to hospital collecting stool samples from people who had undergone cancer treatments. The doctors were merciless. “They made fun of me,” Routy says. “My nickname was Mr Caca.” But the taunting stopped after Routy and his colleagues published evidence that certain gut bacteria seem to boost people’s response to treatment1. Now, those physicians are eager to analyse faecal samples from their patients in the hope of predicting who is likely to respond to anticancer drugs. “It was an eye-opener for a lot of people who couldn’t see the clinical relevance of gut microbes,” says Routy, who is now at the University of Montreal Health Centre in Canada.

Cancer has been a late bloomer in the microbiome revolution that has surged through biomedicine. Over the past few decades, scientists have linked the gut’s composition of microbes to dozens of seemingly unrelated conditions — from depression to obesity. Cancer has some provocative connections as well: inflammation is a contributing factor to some tumours and a few types of cancer have infectious origins. But with the explosive growth of a new class of drug — cancer immunotherapies — scientists have been taking a closer look at how the gut microbiome might interact with treatment and how these interactions might be harnessed. After preliminary findings in mice and humans revealed that gut bacteria can sway responses to such drugs, scientists started trying to decipher the mechanisms involved. And researchers are launching a handful of clinical trials that will test whether the gut microbiome can be manipulated to improve outcomes.

Some proponents say that strategies to mould the microbiome could be game-changing in cancer treatment. “It’s a smart place to be,” says Jennifer Wargo, a surgeon–scientist at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. But others are worried that the move to the clinic is premature. William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts, calls the idea “phenomenally interesting”, but adds: “I have some anxiety about the notion that only beneficial effects are possible.”

More here.

Wednesday Poem

Before Dark

From the porch at dusk I watched
a kingfisher wild in flight
he could only have made for joy.

He came down the river, splashing
against the water’s dimming face
like a skipped rock, passing

on down out of sight. And still
I could hear the splashes
farther and farther away

as it grew darker. He came back
the same way, dusky as his shadow,
sudden beyond the willows.

The splashes went on out of hearing.
It was dark then. Somewhere
the night had accommodated him

—at the place he was headed for
or where, led by his delight,
he came.

by Wendell Berry
from Collected Poems.
North Point Press, 1985

The stories of being Muslim in today’s India are beginning to emerge in fiction

Annie Zaidi in

There is nothing solid or pragmatic about happiness, grief, love. A successful business, however, has to be run along sensible lines, and a businessman must be able to count on his employees just as he can count on the food on his plate actually being there. It is at this junction of reason, driven by the evidence of one’s physical senses, and the other, intangible, unbelievable world that Tabish Khair places his new novel.

A slender, brisk narrative, it takes its title, Night Of Happiness, from “Shab-e-baraat”, a festival when some Muslim sects visit graveyards, light incense and consecrate halva in memory of ancestors and other departed family members. Naturally, a reference to the dead suggests a paranormal setting. This is, however, not so much a paranormal tale as it is a story about the struggle to retain one’s sense of reality, to remain centred, and about trust.

The narrator is an “import-export” businessman, Anil Mehrotra, who boasts a company several employees and an international clientele. His right hand man is Ahmed, a man who is both dignified and dependable, reticent and hard-working almost to an extreme. An unhurried, deeply self-respecting man, and therefore also commanding respect. He has unusual linguistic abilities, and is at ease with cultural differences. But he will no more bow to a mullah’s dictates than he will give up on his own faith.

More here.

Feynman at 100

Peter Woit in Not Even Wrong:

The past month has seen quite a few events and articles celebrating the 100th anniversary of Richard Feynman’s birth (see for example hereherehere and here). Feynman was one of the great figures of twentieth century physics, with a big intellectual influence on me and on many generations of particle theorists. In particular, his development of the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics and the Feynman diagram method for calculating and understanding what quantum field theories are telling us are at the center of how we have learned to think about fundamental physics and apply it to the real world.

When I first started studying physics, in the seventies, Feynman was a major figure to physicists, but not that well-known outside the subject. After the 1985 appearance of the book of anecdotes “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” and his 1986 role in the report on the Challenger disaster (followed by more anecdotes in the 1988 “What Do You Care What Other People Think?”) Feynman became a huge public figure. The Physics section of any book store that carried science books would often have nearly a whole shelf of books by and about him, with the only competition the shelf of books about Einstein (the Hawking shelf didn’t get going until a bit later).

I avidly read the Feynman anecdote books when they came out and was suitably entertained, but I also found them a bit disturbing.

More here.

US liberal Islamophobia is rising – and more insidious than rightwing bigotry

Khaled A Beydoun in The Guardian:

When will Muslims step up and reform Islam?” asked the self-identified “progressive and intersectional” college student, following a presentation of my book, American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear, at New York University.

The student wore a Black Lives Matter T-shirt and a colorful assortment of pins and patches on his camouflage backpack calling for “equality now” and claiming that “The future is female”. The young man, by way of verbal admission and the myriad of political statements he proudly wore, was a political progressive. And indeed, a representative of a swelling population of leftists who embrace progressive principles yet see Islam as inimical to liberal values and in conflict with American identity.

The left is saturated with pundits and self-styled public intellectuals who disseminate discourses that Islam is monolithic; that Muslims must choose between liberal principles and their faith, and, echoing the college student I encountered at in March, a religion that is in need of “reform”.

A diverse and eclectic litany of prominent Islamophobes occupies the left. These liberal Islamophobes, like Bill Maher and Sam Harris, weaponize atheism as an ideology that not only discredits the spiritual dimensions of Islam but also demonizes it in line with longstanding orientalist, political terms.

More here.

The truth about midlife infidelity

Karin Jones in The Times:

It’s not possible to justify my liaisons with married men; I won’t even try. I’m not proud that, for a few years while living near London, I entered into casual relationships with married men. But I don’t regret it. What I learnt from these men warrants discussion, even though I’ve recently been publicly condemned for doing so in The New York Times.

I want to know the wife’s perspective. But what I have is the story told by their husbands. It’s an issue we might all want to talk about, say, annually, the way we get the yearly MOT to keep the family car from breaking down.

I was adrift when I separated from my husband of 23 years. We had only been living in the UK for just over a year, so I wasn’t close enough to the kind of people you commiserate with after you’ve torn down the walls that once sheltered you both physically and mentally. When I set up accounts on Tinder and OkCupid, I was too raw to want to date anyone looking for a relationship. Instead I looked for no-strings-attached company. A fair number of men who responded to my profile were married; sometimes headless or faceless or insouciantly grinning in their photos. But all of them came to me first. I simply responded. Sure, that makes me complicit, but I felt drawn to married men, perhaps because I instinctively needed what they were also seeking: affection and sex with someone uninterested in attachment. Just a few hours of levity.

I know this is dicey because you can’t always control your emotions when body chemicals mix, but I reasoned that because they had wives, children and mortgages, they wouldn’t go overboard with their affections. We were safe bets for each other.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

When One Has Lived A Long Time Alone

When one has lived a long time alone
one refrains from swatting the fly
and lets him go, and one hesitates to strike
the mosquito, though more than willing go slap
the flesh under her, and one lifts the toad
from the pit too deep for him to hop out of
and carries him to the grass, without minding
the toxic urine he slicks his body with,
and one envelops, in a towel, the swift
who fell down the chimney and knocks herself
against the window glass and releases her outside
and watches her fly free, a life line flung at reality,
when one has lived a long time alone.


When one has lived a long time alone,
one grabs the snake behind the head
and holds him until he stops trying to stick
the orange tongue, which splits at the end
into two black filaments and jumps out
like a fire-eater’s belches and has little
in common with the pimpled pink lump that shapes
sounds and sleeps inside the human mouth,
into one’s flesh, and clamps it between his jaws,
letting the gaudy tips show, as children do
when concentrating, and as very likely
one down oneself, without knowing it,
when one has lived a long time alone.
Read more »

This Man Memorized a 60,000-Word Poem Using Deep Encoding

Lois Parshley in Nautilus:

“Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit of that forbidden tree,” John Basinger said aloud to himself, as he walked on a treadmill. “Of man’s first disobedience…” In 1992, at the age of 58, Basinger decided to memorize Paradise Lost, John Milton’s epic poem, as a form of mental activity while he was working out at the gym. An actor, he’d memorized shorter poems before, and he wanted to see how much of the epic he could remember. “As I finished each book,” he wrote, “I began to perform it and keep it alive in repertory while committing the next to memory.” The 12 books of Paradise Lost contain over 60,000 words; it took Basinger about 3,000 hours to learn them by rote. He did so by reciting the piece, line-by-line out loud, for about an hour a day for nine years. When he memorized all 12 books, in 2001, Basinger performed the masterpiece in a live recital that lasted three days. Since then, he’s performed smaller sections for various audiences, eventually attracting the attention of John Seamon, a psychologist at Wesleyan University, in Connecticut. In 2008, “He recited for an hour in the Wesleyan library,” says Seamon. “He’d given out copies of Milton’s book so we could follow along. At the end of the talk I introduced myself and said ‘I’d love to study your memory.’” Basinger agreed, and so Seamon devised a test.

Then 74, Basinger came into the lab to perform a series of cued recall tests. Scientists read two successive lines from each of the poem’s 12 books and then asked Basinger to recall the next 10 lines. The results, published in Memory in 2010, were surprising: Despite the amount of elapsed time since his memorization process, Basinger’s recall was, overall, word-perfect 88 percent of the time. When he was prompted with lines that opened one of the 12 books, his accuracy increased to 98 percent.

Seamon wondered how he might explain this performance, and realized deliberate practice theory could be useful. Although it was “formulated to account for elite performance in chess, music, and sports, it provides a reasonable basis for interpreting JB’s procedure for memorising Paradise Lost,” says Seamon. “He too, in daily short sessions, devoted thousands of hours of study over a period of years to achieve his mastery of Milton.” But Basinger didn’t just remember the words; it would be a mistake, says Seamon, to interpret Basinger’s performance as “simply a remarkable demonstration of brute force, rote memorisation.” In order to memorize the epic poem, he spent a lot of time repeatedly analyzing its meaning and structure. Acting researchers emphasize this strategy, Seamon notes: “Deep encoding requires actors to attend to the exact wording of lines, and it is the focus on exact wording to gain an understanding of the characters that yields verbatim memory, instead of merely the retention of gist.”

More here.

The Thing Inside Your Cells That Might Determine How Long You Live

JoAnna Klein in The New York Times:

Once there was a mutant worm in an experiment. It lived for 46 days. This was much longer than the oldest normal worm, which lived just 22. Researchers identified the mutated gene that had lengthened the worm’s life, which led to a breakthrough in the study of aging — it seemed to be controlled by metabolic processes. Later, as researchers studied these processes, all signs seemed to point to the nucleolus. Under a microscope, it’s hard to miss. Take just about any cell, find the nucleus, then look inside it for a dark, little blob. That’s the nucleolus. If the cell were an eyeball, you’d be looking at its pupil. You’ve got one in every nucleus of every cell in your body, too. All animals do. So do plants, and yeast — and anything with a cell with a nucleus. And they’ve become much more important in our understanding of how cells work. “We think the nucleolus plays an important role in regulating the life span of animals,” said Adam Antebi, a cellular biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Biology of Ageing in Germany. He’s an author of a new review published last week in Trends in Cell Biology that examines all the new ways that researchers have fallen in love with the nucleolus — especially its role in aging.

You may have forgotten this from biology class, but the nucleolus is the cell’s ribosome factory. Ribosomes are like micro-machines that make proteins that cells then use for purposes like building walls, forming hairs, making memories, communicating and starting, stopping and slowing down reactions that help a cell stay functioning. It uses about 80 percent of a cell’s energy for this work. But there’s more to the nucleolus than just making ribosomes. If building a cell were like building a building, and the DNA contained the blueprint, the nucleolus would be the construction manager or engineer. If building a cell were like building a building, and the DNA contained the blueprint, the nucleolus would be the construction manager or engineer. “It knows the supply chain, coordinates all the jobs of building, does quality control checks and makes sure things continue to work well,” said Dr. Antebi. How well it balances these tasks influences a cell’s health and life span. And in certain cells, its size has something to do with it.

More here.

Sam Harris’s error and how not to argue about cultural relativism

by Dave Maier

Photo credit: Damon Winter/The New York Times

So Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, and a number of other brash rebels daring to challenge the stifling intellectual status quo, in which one is not allowed to criticize anyone from other cultures, because multiculturalism or Marxism or something, are part of, I am not making this up, the Intellectual Dark Web. Fine, whatever. It’s not that there’s no such thing as lefty orthodoxy, obviously, especially on campus, but these best-selling authors look pretty petty presenting themselves as somehow being silenced.

Anyway, that’s not what I want to talk about. In the New York Times piece telling us about all this, I ran across the following exchange:

After [Harris’s] talk, in which he disparaged the Taliban, a biologist who would go on to serve on President Barack Obama’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues approached him. “I remember she said: ‘That’s just your opinion. How can you say that forcing women to wear burqas is wrong?’ But to me it’s just obvious that forcing women to live their lives inside bags is wrong. I gave her another example: What if we found a culture that was ritually blinding every third child? And she actually said, ‘It would depend on why they were doing it.’” His jaw, he said, “actually fell open.”

It’s not unprecedented, or even unusual, that Harris should commit a philosophy fail. But in detaching ourselves from error, we have to be careful about where we end up. It’s not even clear, for example, that his point in the context is threatened by his futile sally. So I’ll be defending him as much as diagnosing his (all too common) error. Maybe I should be on the IDW too. Help, I’m being silenced!

Okay, enough japery for now. What did Harris do wrong here, and why may his main point survive the stumble? Read more »

The Graduate Schools His Father

by Michael Liss

Celebrate with me. 

May is graduation month, and my children are among the graduates.  My son marched two weeks ago for his Masters, and, if you are reading this on Memorial Day, it might be at the very same time I watch my daughter receive her Bachelor of Music. Go get ‘em, kids.  

Perhaps your joy need not be vicarious—you have your own family skittering across the podium. One of the special pleasures of this time of year is that so many of your friends and relations are also submerged in a sea of caps and gowns, blurry pictures, hugs, and the dreaded Elgar Pomp and Circumstance Earworm. They announce themselves with each vibration from your iPhone, a kaleidoscope of happy, and occasionally goofy, images. Can we all stipulate that the whole outfit looks a bit silly?

Graduation also reminds you that time passes (way too fast). Your kids’ time, and your time. You’ve changed, just as has the five-year old who came bouncing out of her room, a huge grin on her face, ready for the first day of Kindergarten. You are a little older (just a little) and a little more “robust,” and your times in the Road Runners races are “moving” in the wrong direction.  

It doesn’t matter.  There are your children, not looking little at all, promising you a peculiar type of immortality. They are going to go do things, great things, going to change the world. They are the discoverers, the communicators, the creators. They will wash away any imperfections you’ve left and build things bigger and better. They really are the future.

You’ve celebrated with me. Now, indulge me. Read more »

New Memorial Day: Remembering Children Killed in School

by Akim Reinhardt

Hiram Maxim and his machine -gun

It’s an exhaustive list. Far longer and deeper than you might suspect. The Tribune tracks U.S. school shootings of the past 50 years. A well documented list by Wikipedia goes back to 1840, when a student named Joseph Semmes shot University of Virginia law professor John Anthony Gardner Davis.

Three more school shootings occurred in the 1850s, when guns were substantially different weapons than they are now. The revolver had been invented in the 1830s, and rifles were beginning to replace muskets, but Hiram Maxim’s machine gun was still decades away. And even when they did arrive, automatic weapons were initially quite expensive and difficult to obtain. In response to the gangland violence of the Prohibition Era (1920-33), the federal government effectively regluated automatic weapons with the 1934 National Firearms Act.

Consequently, even as public school education expanded greatly in the United States after the Civil War (1861-65), documented school shootings were sparse and resulted in relatively few deaths for the remainder of the century.

Decade — (No. of School Shootings) — Deaths/injuries
1860s ——————–(6) ———————————8/1
1870s ——————–(7) ———————————4/4
1880s ——————–(11)———————————2/6
1890s ——————–(8)———————————13/19+

Many school shootings from the 1860s-1950s did not unfold they way we now picture them, with a single gunman mowing down masses of people. Indeed, guns were not even always the preferred weapon. More often, American school violence involved knives and fists. As for school shootings, many resulted from spontaneous fights.

In 1893, a fight erupted at a high school dance in Plain Dealing, Louisiana. Two students died on the scene, two more were fatally wounded, and a teacher was also injured.

That same year, six people were killed and at least one injured at a high school in Charleston, West Virginia when one group of students interrupted another’s performance. A teacher intervened, the antagonizing group turned on him, and then other people joined the fray, resulting in a violent melee. The teacher and five others were shot and killed, and one student died from having his skull crushed. Read more »