John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006)

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John Kenneth Galbraith, the iconoclastic economist, teacher and diplomat and an unapologetically liberal member of the political and academic establishment that he needled in prolific writings for more than half a century, died yesterday at a hospital in Cambridge, Mass. He was 97.

Mr. Galbraith lived in Cambridge and at an “unfarmed farm” near Newfane, Vt. His death was confirmed by his son J. Alan Galbraith.

Mr. Galbraith was one of the most widely read authors in the history of economics; among his 33 books was “The Affluent Society” (1958), one of those rare works that forces a nation to re-examine its values. He wrote fluidly, even on complex topics, and many of his compelling phrases — among them “the affluent society,” “conventional wisdom” and “countervailing power” — became part of the language.

more from the NY Times here.

Rochelle Gurstein: Mourning in America

The always brilliant Rochelle Gurstein is back at TNR with a superb, lovely essay:

It has long been a sociological truism that we live in a world with few meaningful public forms, social customs, or religious ceremonies. Yet it is only when we face such devastating events as the death of a loved one that we learn what such truisms mean in lived experience: at the time of our most desperate need, we find ourselves abandoned to our own devices. It is not only that the bereaved must find their way as if no one before them had ever lost a husband or a wife; those who would comfort them are equally at a loss as to what to say or do. Priests still perform last rites, religious services continue to be conducted at funerals, and even non-observant Jews are loath to give up the custom of “sitting shivah”; but what remains of the old rituals and words of consolation has come to feel increasingly hollow. 

Yet it would be wrong to imagine that those who lived in societies with well-established rituals of mourning somehow had an easier time reconciling themselves to their shattered lives. Personal letters from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries occasionally include the shocking news that a grieving husband or wife could not properly recover and has died. Nor does it appear that religious faith necessarily makes that reconciliation any less torturous. Consider the case of C.S. Lewis, one of Christianity’s greatest modern defenders, who kept a journal of his spiritual collapse after his wife, Helen Joy Gresham, died following a long and excruciating ordeal with bone cancer.

More here.

Is being right-handed all for the greater good?

Sandra Upson in Scientific American:

Ask why most people are right-handed, and the answer might fall along the same lines as why fish school. Two neuroscientists suggest that social pressures drive individuals to coordinate their behaviors so that everyone in the group gets an evolutionary edge.

Approximately 85 percent of people prefer their right hand, which is controlled by the left hemisphere of the brain. One theorized benefit of locating a particular function in one hemisphere is that it frees the other to deal with different tasks. But that idea does not explain why population-wide trends for handedness exist in the first place. Moreover, evidence gleaned in recent years has overturned the long-held belief that human handedness is a unique by-product of brain specialization attributable to language. A suite of studies has revealed brain lateralization in species from fish to primates. Last August, for instance, scientists discovered that in the wild, chimpanzees show hand preferences.

The presence of lateralization throughout the animal kingdom suggests some benefit from it, contend neuroscientists Giorgio Vallortigara of the University of Trieste and Lesley Rogers of the University of New England in Australia. Also, last August, in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, the two presented evidence to support their idea that social constraints force individuals toward asymmetry in the same direction. They noted, for example, that baby chickens attack more readily when a threat appears on their left. And Rogers has found that chicks with more asymmetrical brains form more stable social groups: perhaps by approaching each other on the right, she hypothesizes, the chicks fight one another less and are more likely to notice predators.

More here.

Secret rivers found in Antarctic

Helen Briggs at the BBC:

_41579458_rutfort_ice_203_2Antarctica’s buried lakes are connected by a network of rivers moving water far beneath the surface, say UK scientists.

It was thought the sub-glacial lakes had been completely sealed for millions of years, enabling unique species to evolve in them.

Writing in the journal Nature, experts say international plans to drill into the lakes may now have to be reviewed.

Any attempts to drill into one body of water risks contaminating others.

More here.

Assessing Admissions: Why gaining access to elite universities is such sharply contested ground

Christopher Avery in Harvard Magazine:

In his new book, The Chosen, Jerome Karabel ’72, Ph.D. ’77, offers a provocative account of undergraduate admissions at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale from the late 1800s to the present—a period when the “Big Three” were transformed by the addition of representative numbers of women, minorities, and others who could never have enrolled before. Such a dramatic shift warrants explanation, and two decades of original research uniquely qualify Karabel, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, to provide it.

At heart, The Chosen is a great story. Karabel brings life to a century’s worth of faculty meetings and administrative maneuvering, providing an account that is both entertaining and authoritative. He also reveals many dirty secrets of the admissions process: primarily that the definition of “merit” was slanted in the past to ensure a sufficient number of “paying guests” for the universities to thrive financially. This will disquiet readers—particularly graduates of the Big Three—because of its clear implication that the admissions process is suspect, rather than sacrosanct.

More here.

Deadly Maps

The complete collection of maps from Carnegie’s, Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Threats

Click on each map to view a larger image. Windows users should hold the cursor over the image and click on the icon appearing in the lower right-hand corner to expand the map to its full size.

The first five maps reflect the worldwide proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and their missile delivery systems. The country maps show the major nuclear installations, both civilian and military, in each country.

More here.  [Thanks to Laura Claridge.]

Saturday, April 29, 2006

beckett’s greatest work

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PARIS—Just weeks after the centennial of the birth of pioneering minimalist playwright Samuel Beckett, archivists analyzing papers from his Paris estate uncovered a small stack of blank paper that scholars are calling “the latest example of the late Irish-born writer’s genius.”

The 23 blank pages, which literary experts presume is a two-act play composed sometime between 1973 and 1975, are already being heralded as one of the most ambitious works by the Nobel Prize-winning author of Waiting For Godot, and a natural progression from his earlier works, including 1969’s Breath, a 30-second play with no characters, and 1972’s Not I, in which the only illuminated part of the stage is a floating mouth.

“In what was surely a conscious decision by Mr. Beckett, the white, uniform, non-ruled pages, which symbolize the starkness and emptiness of life, were left unbound, unmarked, and untouched,” said Trinity College professor of Irish literature Fintan O’Donoghue. “And, as if to further exemplify the anonymity and facelessness of 20th-century man, they were found, of all places, between other sheets of paper.”

more from The Onion here.

sunn o)))

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Sunn 0)))’s music recalls a tradition more typically associated with the cerebellum: Minimalism. In fact, Steve Reich’s 1968 essay “Music as a Gradual Process,” a seminal articulation of this objective principle applied to sound, could be cited with surprising aptness here. In it, Reich argues that the systematic reduction of the musical work will tend to render our experience of sound more material. Just as Robert Rauschenberg’s 1951 “White Paintings,” which are animated only by the play of exterior light and shadow, must be experienced as inhabiting space with the viewer, so too is sound displaced into the real world—that is, the world of the listener—in Minimalist composition. For Reich, narrowing the differential between compositional parts is key to accomplishing this transposition of the work from world unto itself to thing in the world: “Listening to extremely gradual musical process opens my ears to it.” Paradoxically, the closer the music comes to being all of a piece—be it one-note or non-note, very loud like La Monte Young’s early drone pieces or silent like John Cage’s 4’33″—the more differentiated it becomes experientially.

more from Artforum here.

marx in china

Twenty years ago, Deng Xiaoping erected huge billboards throughout China that proclaimed, “Development is the Irrefutable Argument.” The way Deng’s slogan is translated today, China’s spectacular growth rates not only win the argument, they end the argument. The government speaks in a triumphalist discourse that is actually a remarkable echo of the language of nineteenth-century England, in the heyday of what historians later learned to call ‘the Industrial Revolution.’ England was enjoying tremendous industrial growth and taking over more and more of the world each year. Its mass media were united in an orgy of self-celebration. And yet its level of human suffering was alarmingly high. So much of its prosperity depended on the energy of its industrial working class, yet so much of this class lived in poverty and squalor. Victorian England was the world leader in productive power, but also in human misery. Plenty of people were aware of this mass misery. But most of them, when they thought critically, denounced the whole of modern life: they wished “to get rid of modern arts, in order to get rid of modern conflicts.” Marx was more complex: he wanted to affirm and to celebrate human progress, but also to confront its outrageous human costs. His thinking could be called a discourse of contradiction.

In our day everything seems pregnant with its contrary. Machinery, gifted with the power of shortening and fructifying human labor, we behold starving and overworking it. The new-fangled sources of wealth, by some weird spell, are turned into sources of want. The victories of art seem bought by loss of character.

There are good reasons to say that ‘everything is pregnant with its contrary’ in China today and to look for a language that can grasp and penetrate its inner contradictions. It is ironic that, for decades, a travesty of Marxism was imposed on a backward, peasant China that couldn’t possibly digest it. It is only now, as China goes through dramatic and explosive development, that Marx’s discourse of contradiction can be a powerful critical vision of its real life.

more from Marshall Berman at Dissent here.

talese

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It’s hard to overstate Gay Talese’s gold-standard reputation. A few years ago, David Halberstam called him “the most important nonfiction writer of his generation, the person whose work most influenced at least two generations of other reporters.”

The bedrock of that reputation consists of several exceptional magazine profiles from the 1960’s, in particular “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” published in Esquire in 1966. Helped along by one of the great modern magazine headlines, the piece became a canonical archetype of the so-called New Journalism — nonfiction conceived and written in the manner of fiction, with fully rendered scenes, extended conversations and plainly subjective depictions of mood. In 1969, Talese published “The Kingdom and the Power,” an institutional portrait of The New York Times, where he had been a reporter for nine years. That book became a best seller, certifying him as a literary pop star as well as a reporter’s reporter. Just two years after the Times book, he published another first-rate best seller, his story of a Mafia family called “Honor Thy Father.”

more from the NY Times Book Review here.

mary midgley

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Mary Midgley’s emphasis on her early life in The Owl of Minerva is consistent with one of her most fundamental beliefs: that philosophical positions are not arrived at quite as impersonally as many philosophers would like to believe. The tendency, particularly marked among some analytical philosophers, to narrow philosophy to a technical exercise, dealing piecemeal with ever smaller issues, and its modelling itself on science and avoiding metaphysics, or even any sense of the wider context of the questions being addressed, is one she has vigorously opposed. For Midgley, reason is a tool that should serve reasonableness which itself has more disparate sources and deeper roots than many philosophers acknowledge. Even the most aseptic philosophical inquiry has a frame of reference defined at least in part by unargued intuitions and passions. It is entirely appropriate, then, that her early years figure so large in this memoir: the child is the mother of the philosopher. And what an interesting childhood she had; or at least how interesting she makes it. By the time I had reached the end of her early years, I really did want to know about her ancestors. That they occupy the second, not the first, chapter in her book is not mere eccentricity.

more from the TLS here.

The First Few Microseconds

From Scientific American:

Bang For the past five years, hundreds of scientists have been using a powerful new atom smasher at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island to mimic conditions that existed at the birth of the universe. Called the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC, pronounced “rick”), it clashes two opposing beams of gold nuclei traveling at nearly the speed of light. The resulting collisions between pairs of these atomic nuclei generate exceedingly hot, dense bursts of matter and energy to simulate what happened during the first few microseconds of the big bang. These brief “mini bangs” give physicists a ringside seat on some of the earliest moments of creation.

During those early moments, matter was an ultrahot, superdense brew of particles called quarks and gluons rushing hither and thither and crashing willy-nilly into one another. A sprinkling of electrons, photons and other light elementary particles seasoned the soup. This mixture had a temperature in the trillions of degrees, more than 100,000 times hotter than the sun’s core.

More here.

‘Absurdistan’

From The New York Times:

Shteyn190promo ‘Absurdistan,’ by Gary Shteyngart. Why praise it first? Just quote from it — at random. Just unbutton its shirt and let it bare its chest. Like a victorious wrestler, this novel is so immodestly vigorous, so burstingly sure of its barbaric excellence, that simply by breathing, sweating and standing upright it exalts itself. “I stood there listening to my father’s killers. Oleg and Zhora were of Papa’s generation. All three had been made fatherless by the Great Patriotic War. All three had been raised by the men who had managed to avoid battle, the violent, dour, second-tier men their mothers had brought home with them out of brutal loneliness. Standing before the menfolk of my father’s generation, I could do nothing. Before their rough hands and stale cigarette-vodka smells, I could only shudder and feel, along with fright and disgust, appeasement and complicity. These miscreants were our country’s rulers. To survive in their world, one has to wear many hats — perpetrator, victim, silent bystander. I could do a little of each.”

The young writer supplying the lines is Gary Shteyngart, who moved to the United States from Russia when he was 7, while the young bereaved oligarch he’s speaking through is Misha Vainberg, who attended college here but ended up marooned back in St. Petersburg. Misha is extraordinarily fat, ambivalently Jewish, unapologetically rich and — as his homeland’s best comic heroes often are — infinitely thwarted. During his collegiate heyday, he gorged at the American buffet, slurping up rap music, psychotherapy and the sky’s-the-limit complacent optimism that we take for granted as a birthright but that Misha sees for what it is: a glorious geo-historical accident.

More here.

Friday, April 28, 2006

marfa

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Donald Judd slept a lot. After spending a weekend at Chinati, the art museum that he established in Marfa, Texas, I can understand why. To view the sundry installations by Dan Flavin, John Chamberlain or, most important, Judd himself, requires a two-mile walk around the complex of buildings once known as Fort D.A. Russell. The 340 acres of land extends to a barely visible horizon of low-slung mountains, an unbroken vista but for Judd’s massive concrete containers, standing sentinel. So much space is enervating. It defies the very concept of an agenda. When asked the date, a local Marfian answers, “Does it really matter?” In Marfa, it doesn’t seem to matter — which is a congenial condition for a nap and explains the beds that Judd kept in his studios.

Equally, ambition is tiring and Judd was nothing if not ambitious, accomplishing an enormous amount before dying of cancer in 1994 at age 64. Beyond the sheer, staggering beauty of his 100 milled aluminum boxes located in two restored artillery sheds, surfaces glimmering in the magical Marfa light, it is the magnitude of his ambition that is obvious. In our age of knickknack esthetics and historical amnesia, Judd’s commitment to creating an enduring art, removing a portion of it from the hubbub of commerce and securing the circumstances of its presentation for the foreseeable future is, well, impressive.

more from artnet here.

living together

The cities where everyone is a minority: expert voices from around the world

Introduction

The Commission for Racial Equality, in association with the Smith Institute, held a round table discussion on the rise of “plural cities” – those where no single ethnic group holds the demographic majority. This event took place on the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, 21st March 2006, in Leicester, which is becoming one of Britain’s first plural cities. It brought together many leading experts from around the world to discuss the experiences of their cities – including Marseille, São Paulo, Los Angeles, Cape Town and Oldham, and the implications for how cities generate policy, and what it means for integration and social cohesion

more from a roundatble at The New Statesman here.

an option in darfur?

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THREE YEARS OF FIGHTING in the Darfur region of Sudan have left an estimated 180,000 dead and nearly 2 million refugees. In recent weeks, both the UN and the US have turned up the volume of their demands to end the violence (which the Bush administration has publicly called genocide), but they’ve been hard pressed to turn their exhortations into action. The government in Khartoum has scuttled the UN’s plans to take control of the troubled peacekeeping operations currently being led by the African Union, and NATO recently stated publicly that a force of its own in Darfur is ”out of the question.” Meanwhile, refugee camps and humanitarian aid workers continue to be attacked, and the 7,000 African Union troops remain overstretched and ineffective.

But according to J. Cofer Black, vice chairman of the private security firm Blackwater, there is another option that ought to be on the table: an organization that could commit significant resources and expertise to bolster the African Union peacekeepers and provide emergency support to their flagging mission.

more from Boston Globe Ideas here.

Olive branch solves a Bronze Age mystery

From MSNBC:Cover_4

Compared to the well-studied world of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the civilizations that flourished in the eastern Mediterranean just before Homer’s time are still cloaked in mystery. Even the basic chronology of the region during this time has been heatedly debated. Now, a resolution has finally emerged — initiated, quite literally, by an olive branch. Scientists have discovered the remains of a single olive tree, buried alive during a massive volcanic eruption during the Late Bronze Age. A study that dates this tree, plus another study that dates a series of objects from before, during and after the eruption, now offer a new timeline for one of the earliest chapters of European civilization.

More here.

See Like a Bee

From Science:Eye

Apply a little ultraviolet light and heat, and a gumdrop of polymer transforms itself into an artificial bug eye, biophysicists report. The advance could lead to small, inexpensive wide-angle cameras for surveillance, biomedical imaging, and other applications.

Optically speaking, it’s hard to take a broad view of things. To produce lenses with fields of view wider than 90°, lens makers must combine several individual lenses in an elaborate “fish eye” structure that is expensive and hard to miniaturize. Alternatively, they might try to capture a panoramic view by assembling many smaller “microlenses” pointing in different directions, like the elements in an insect’s compound eye. Researchers have developed microlens arrays on light-sensitive microchips. But those devices have been flat, which limits their field of view. And researchers must align the optics with the light-detecting pixels on the chip.

More here.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

tull

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Tull’s lost decade seems to constitute nothing less than the missing link between Mike Kelley’s and Jim Shaw’s curdled Pop and that of the emerging Los Angeles neo-psychedelic school. Combining a lifetime’s accumulation of formal chops and unquenchable creativity with an unholy hybrid of introspective archival obsessiveness and smart-ass pop-cultural glossolalia, Tull has produced an orgy of interpenetrating bodies of work that are as superficially entertaining as they are emotionally and structurally challenging. Let’s hope it won’t be another 10 years until his next show, but you should check out “Odd Ark” just in case — if there’s one thing Tull hasn’t learned in his wanderings in the cultural desert, it’s how to dumb it down and repeat himself for the marketplace. Dude must be thick or something.?

more from the LA Weekly here.

philosophy’s task

This sense that philosophers should occupy a special and uniquely privileged position in our national conversation is absent from Britain today. The last philosopher who lived as successfully in the public as well as the academic sphere was Isaiah Berlin. While Britain has tipped into philosophical decline, so America has risen triumphantly. John Rawls, Thomas Nagel, Charles Taylor, Richard Rorty, Hilary Putnam, Paul Boghossian, Martha Nussbaum. Their reach extends significantly beyond the academy.

These Americans now embody Kant’s hope for independent-minded thinking about society in its various states. It seems there is little prospect that such ambition will prosper in modern British faculties of philosophy. Boghossian prefaces his recent study of how we think and whether “we have fundamentally misconceived the principles by which society ought to be organised” (Fear of Knowledge, 2006), by noting that his book is intended not only for philosophers but also for “anyone who values serious argument”.

But in our contemporary escape from serious ideas – from the very notion of seriousness itself – our flight into the arms of irony and satire, while wonderfully bracing, leaves us all the poorer. Short-term and ephemeral gratification, perhaps. But longer-term moral stagnation and depravity.

more from The Guardian here.