Talk Talk

From The Atlantic Monthly:

Boyle The battle between the sexes continues unabated in T. C. Boyle’s latest novel. Decked out as a thriller — complete with a heroine thirsting for justice, a wily villain scrambling to stay one step ahead, cross-country chases, and close escapes — it is also another T. C. Boyle story of relationships gone awry, of strong women and the slightly awestruck men who orbit them. (The eternal mystery of Woman has always fascinated Boyle; most of his novels exalt females as somehow more-than-human presences who dwell among lesser, mortal males.)

The strong woman in question this time around is a deaf English teacher with a brittle personality, a chip on her shoulder, and a formidable will. Unlike most Boyle heroines, she’s not very likable, but she does elicit a certain grudging respect. (Her sidekick/boyfriend, an affable nonentity, serves mainly as a foil.) The real star is her nemesis, a slick crook building a career as an identity thief. By turns conciliatory and vengeful, doting and irresponsible, debonair and crude, he steals her identity and your sympathy; when their paths finally cross, you’re rooting for them both.

More here.

Chemotherapy Prompts Lingering Intellectual Deficit

From Scientific American:

Chemo More people survive cancer than ever before. With early detection, for example, women stricken with breast cancer are often successfully treated and go on to live long lives. But concomitant with this cheering rise in cancer survival is a worrying increase in complaints about cognitive impairment as life goes on. Some cancer survivors have trouble with concentration or fatigue. New research shows this is not just in their minds but, in fact, in their brains.

Daniel H. Silverman of the University of California, Los Angeles and a cross-disciplinary group of doctors, including UCLA oncologist Patricia Ganz, used scans to try to identify the brain basis for this intellectual deficit. Using positron emission tomography (PET) the researchers tracked both blood flow in the brain as well as the presence of a glucose analogue to examine brain metabolism. The researchers examined 40 regions of the brain as the women performed a word-pairing memory task six times to see how the woman–and their brains–differed. The chemotherapy patients showed a significant jump in blood flow to the frontal cortex and cerebellum compared with the controls. “They had to work harder to carry out the same cognitive tasks”.

More here.

Wednesday, October 4, 2006



It is a shame that Tod Papageorge’s black-and-white photographs are not better known. While many lesser figures have enjoyed sold-out shows during the ongoing boom, Papageorge has been absent from New York galleries for more than 20 years (though his work can be found in numerous surveys and histories of contemporary American photography). A pivotal figure in making a street-savvy, elegant, hyperkinetic, 35 mm style the dominant aesthetic among a generation of American artists during the ’70s, Papageorge at the same time established himself as an articulate and occasionally biting critic of others’ work. Later, as professor at the Yale School of Art, where he has directed the graduate program in photography since 1979, he became a force in the lives of countless students, many of whom have gone on to become eminent artists and teachers themselves, among them Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Abelardo Morell, Gregory Crewdson, An-My L�, Anna Gaskell, and Katy Grannan.

more from Bomb here.

panter’s playhouse


The last time the art of Gary Panter was featured in Los Angeles was less than a year ago, when his virtuosic and groundbreaking Jimbo — the postapocalyptic Tintin-on-nitrous-and-steroids slacker whose adventures were originally a staple of the L.A. punk-era zine Slash — was included in MOCA’s half of the “Masters of American Comics” exhibit, a show that garnered considerable positive press and inched forward the general acceptance of comics as a legitimate artistic medium (whatever that means). Panter’s inclusion, while absolutely unimpeachable on aesthetic or historical grounds, was never a foregone conclusion — the show’s brief roster had numerous glaring omissions, and Panter’s work still provokes flurries of disapproval from anal geeks for his deliberately scraggy line and his complex and fragmented literary voice.

more from the LA Weekly here.

Secrets of the Cave Paintings

William H. McNeill in the New York Review of Books:

250pxlascauxIn 1879 a Spanish landowner named Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola was searching for prehistoric artifacts on the floor of a cave on his family property in northern Spain when his young daughter interrupted, calling out “Look, Papa, oxen” as she looked up at the cave’s ceiling and “saw vivid yet delicate paintings of bison, almost fully life-sized, that appear to be tumbling across the sky.” Her discovery swiftly brought ancient cave paintings to widespread public attention, and set off a complex history of dispute about their origin and meaning. Since then, thousands of similar paintings have been discovered in more than two hundred caves scattered through southwestern France and northeastern Spain on either side of the Pyrenees. Argument still rages about them and the contrasting viewpoints of the two books under review carry the controversy forward.

A century of study widened the initial focus on the Altamira cave, where Sautuola’s daughter made her discovery, but all the additional images and reliable radiocarbon dating of bits of charcoal used to make black paint for many of the drawings have not diminished disagreement about the nature and purpose of the sometimes masterful, sometimes enigmatic, yet often hasty, or even clumsy, cave art of Europe.

More here.

Muslim clerics spreading myth that polio vaccine is a conspiracy to sterilize Muslims

Aravind Adiga in Time:

India_polio0929Poliomyelitis, a contagious viral disease that once crippled and killed thousands of children annually, has been eliminated in most of the Western world thanks to a vaccine invented by Jonas Salk in the 1950s, but it still survives in some of the world’s poorest countries. India seemed to be on the verge of eliminating polio last year, when it reported just 66 cases of the disease, down from 1600 in 2002. This year, however, things have gone horribly wrong with India’s polio elimination campaign; 325 cases have been reported already, and at least 23 of them have been fatal. What’s caught people’s attention is that 70% of those infected with polio this year are Muslim, even though Muslims account for only 13% of India’s population. What’s even stranger, and frightening, is the reason: some Muslims believe that the polio drops are part of a conspiracy to sterilize their children, and are refusing to let them be vaccinated.

More here.

The challenges of writing Palestinian history

Rashid Khalidi in the Boston Globe:

Idcard_1As I write, with rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah unable to agree on the fundamental basis for a new coalition government, and with the devastating effects of the Israeli and international boycott provoked by Hamas’s victory in last January’s elections, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza Strip appears to be tottering. Whether it survives or not, the prospect of the independent state that the Palestinians have never had, and that many expected to emerge from this Authority, seems as distant as ever.

The United Nations resolution of 1947 that led to the establishment of Israel called for such a state. In the years before that, Palestinians similarly failed to win independence from the British, who held a League of Nations mandate over Palestine, in part because of internal rivalries, but also because of the constellation of forces arrayed against them.

Why did the Palestinians fail to establish an independent state before 1948, and what was the impact of that failure in the years that followed, down to the present? These questions are important, first, because Palestinian history must be properly understood if we are to comprehend the present, and because this history has significance in its own right.

More here.


From CNN:

A Japanese mental health counselor recited pi to 100,000 decimal places from memory on Wednesday, setting what he claims to be a new world record.

Akira Haraguchi, 60, needed more than 16 hours to recite the number to 100,000 decimal places, breaking his personal best of 83,431 digits set in 1995, his office said Wednesday. He made the attempt at a public hall in Kisarazu, just east of Tokyo.

Pi is a physical constant defined as the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.

More here.

Debating What to Do About Darfur

In openDemocracy, a back and forth between Gérard Prunier and Alex de Waal, who is also advising the negotiations in Abuja, on peace and intervention in Darfur.

[de Waal] The criterion of “quick success” immediately rules out the pundits’ favourite proposals for intervention in Darfur. The central question for an intervention force is what to do about the janjaweed militia. The various militia groups that have been labeled janjaweed have over the last few years been responsible for horrendous atrocities. They have also been engaged in some fierce fighting against the combat-hardened guerrillas of the Darfur rebel movements. A Nato force able to protect civilians and disarm the janjaweed is the option favoured by many activists.

Then Prunier:

[Prunier] It is relevant that Alex de Waal was a principal advisor to the negotiating teams in Abuja, and had vigorously defended the provisions of the DPA as a “historic opportunity” which should not be missed – since not signing this text would open the door to renewed violence in the province.

Ten weeks on, the ruins of the agreement are everywhere apparent. A host of reports and testimonies confirm that the violence has got worse as the offensive military operations of the Sudanese government have escalated. The scale of atrocities is comparable with those perpetrated during the massacres of late 2003 and early 2004. It cannot be believed that this is due only to the fact that the DPA’s implementation “is stalling”.

And again:

[de Waal] The people of Darfur face some grim options. UN troops, even if they can be agreed as a replacement for African Union forces after the latter’s now extended mandate until the end of 2006, would be a stopgap measure at best. A mediated political settlement will not be easy. It is harder now than it was in May, as positions have polarised and distrust has deepened over the last few months. Without it, any elections in 2009 will be meaningless, and the achievements of the North-South Comprehensive Peace Agreement will unravel.

Or, as Prunier seems to propose, the international community could take sides, perhaps as the French did in Chad or Rwanda. Or, as he also seems to suggest, we could wait until “political-military control and positioning on the ground have been redefined by the combatants themselves” – a recipe that sounds rather like allowing the war to continue unchecked. How that could lead to a “true negotiation” in which the dominant Khartoum elites yield power to a new federation is a puzzle to me.

Software to Monitor Political Opinions

And how hard would it be to turn this inward. In the New York Times:

A consortium of major universities, using Homeland Security Department money, is developing software that would let the government monitor negative opinions of the United States or its leaders in newspapers and other publications overseas.

Such a “sentiment analysis” is intended to identify potential threats to the nation, security officials said…

American officials have long relied on newspapers and other news sources to track events and opinions here and abroad, a goal that has included the routine translation of articles from many foreign publications and news services.

The new software would allow much more rapid and comprehensive monitoring of the global news media, as the Homeland Security Department and, perhaps, intelligence agencies look “to identify common patterns from numerous sources of information which might be indicative of potential threats to the nation,” a statement by the department said…

Even the basic research has raised concern among journalism advocates and privacy groups, as well as representatives of the foreign news media.

“It is just creepy and Orwellian,” said Lucy Dalglish, a lawyer and former editor who is executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

What are Mark Foley’s Follies?

In Counterpunch, Gary Leupp has a different take on the Mark Foley affair.

Foley–if he were to openly acknowledge his sexuality–might declare that he just happens to like (just barely legal if legal-aged) boys, and has engaged them in mutually enjoyable private conversations over the net which are simply nobody else’s business. (No one has yet charged to my knowledge that he has had illegal physical intercourse with underage youths. That may come, but I haven’t read that yet.) But most seem convinced already that he’s guilty of the attempted seduction or at least efforts to corrupt “children.” The Republican leadership in Congress, dismayed at how the Democrats are using this, and frightened by the media spin on the story (“may well threaten Republican control over Congress”) has decided to throw the book at its formerly esteemed colleague. Hastert, Majority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, and Majority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri now accuse Foley of “an obscene breach of trust,” and declare “[Foley’s] immediate resignation must now be followed by the full weight of the criminal justice system.” Obviously they want to seem, like the hypocritical French policeman in the film Casablanca, “Shocked shocked!” by the news.

But what, specifically, shocks here? Congressional pages must by current rules be at least 16 years old, the minimum age having been raised from 14 during the last big Congressional page-related sex scandal (in 1983, in which Hastert’s Illinois Republican colleague Rep. Daniel B. Crane was involved). In many states, 16 is the age of consent for males, and in some of these, homosexual relations are not illegal. These include Alaska, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia. In Hawai’i, consent age is 14. In Washington DC, it is also 16 and there is no law on homosexuality. (In Louisiana, the age is 17 and gay sex is technically still illegal.)

Roger D. Kornberg Wins Chemistry Nobel

In the New York Times:

American Roger D. Kornberg, whose father won a Nobel Prize a half-century ago, was awarded the prize in chemistry Wednesday for his studies of how cells take information from genes to produce proteins.

The work is important for medicine, because disturbances in that process are involved in illnesses like cancer, heart disease and various kinds of inflammation. And learning more about the process is key to using stem cells to treat disease.

Kornberg, 59, a professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine, said medical benefits from his research have taken root.

”There are … already many therapies, many drugs that are in development in trials or already available and there will be many more,” he said. ”Significant benefits to human health are already forthcoming. I think there will be many many more.”

Apocalypse Now

From The Washington Post:City

In Cormac McCarthy’s new novel, The Road, the bloodbath is finally complete. The violence that animated his great Western novels has been superseded by a flash of nuclear annihilation, which also blasts away some of what we expect from the reclusive author’s work. With this apocalyptic tale, McCarthy has moved into the allegorical realm of Samuel Beckett and José Saramago — and, weirdly, George Romero.

The novel opens on a world that seems to have been demolished by the psychopaths of McCarthy’s earlier fiction, as though the Judge from Blood Meridian had graduated from shotguns to atomic bombs and vented his spleen upon the entire planet. It’s a shift that transforms not only the physical landscape, reduced now to barren plains of ash, but the moral landscape as well. The fear of dying, so prevalent in McCarthy’s previous novels, is balanced here by the fear of surviving: “Creedless shells of men tottering down the causeways like migrants in a feverland. The frailty of everything revealed at last. Old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night.”

More here.

The sick and famous

From Nature:

Book_13 Stars who become famous for an illness can have a huge impact on medical research. Helen Pearson talks to physician and historian of medicine Barron Lerner about the good and the bad of celebrity patients:

It’s a series of case studies of either famous people who became sick or people who became famous because of their illnesses, and it examines what lessons their cases taught the public about medicine and medical ethics. The early famous patients were drawn into going public with their stories. Lou Gehrig, the New York Yankees first baseman who got ALS [Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis] in the 1930s, became a magnet for others with neurological disease and a reluctant spokesperson.

But over time, celebrities have become more like activists, championing the diseases in question and raising money. Lance Armstrong is a great example. He got testicular cancer and sought out the best care. But then he started a foundation and produced the yellow Livestrong bracelets to raise money. He’s a sophisticated version of a modern ill celebrity — part patient, part fundraiser, part cheerleader.

More here.

Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Nobel in Physics Is Awarded to 2 Americans

Dennis Overbye in the New York Times:

Two American astronomers who uncovered evidence about the origin of the universe and how it grew into galaxies were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics today.

The researchers, John Mather of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and George Smoot of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, will split the prize of 10 million Swedish kroners, about $1.37 million.

Dr. Mather and Dr. Smoot led a team of more than 1,000 scientists, engineers and technicians that built and launched the Cosmic Background Explorer, or Cobe, satellite in 1989 to study a haze of microwave radiation that is believed to be a remnant of the explosion that, according to the Big Bang theory, started the universe.

Cobe’s measurements of the temperature and distribution of the microwaves, including the detection of tantalizingly faint irregularities from which things like galaxies could have grown, were a resounding confirmation of the theory of a universe that was born in a terrific explosion of space and time 14 billion years ago and in which the ordinary matter that makes up stars and people is overwhelmed by some mysterious “dark matter.”

More here.

More on RNA Interference

Last year, at her investiture ceremony as the Gladys Smith Martin Professor of Medicine at the University of Massachusettes Medical Center, my sister (and fellow 3QD editor) Azra introduced me to her friend and colleague Craig C. Mello. I spoke with him about his RNAi work then, so it was with great excitement and pleasure that I read the news yesterday that for this work, along with Andrew Z. Fire, he has won this year’s Nobel prize in Medicine. All of us at 3QD send Drs. Mello and Fire our warmest congratulations. UMass Worcester rocks!

Nicholas Wade in the New York Times:

Nobel_2This year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to two American researchers, Andrew Z. Fire and Craig C. Mello, for a far-reaching discovery about how genes are controlled within living cells.

The discovery was made in 1998, only eight years ago. It has been recognized with unusual speed by the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm, which sometimes lets decades elapse before awarding its accolade. The foundation’s caution, born of the fear of giving immediate recognition to research that may prove unfounded, may have been dispelled this year by the evident promise of the new field, several scientists said.

The finding by Drs. Fire and Mello made sense of a series of puzzling results obtained mostly by plant biologists, including some who were trying to change the color of petunias. By clarifying what was happening, they discovered an unexpected system of gene regulation in living cells and began an explosive phase of research in a field known variously as RNA interference or gene silencing.

This natural method of switching genes off has turned out to be a superb research tool, allowing scientists to understand the role of new genes by suppressing them. The method may also lead to a new class of drugs that switch off unwanted processes in disease. Two gene-silencing drugs designed to treat macular degeneration are already in clinical trials.

More here.  And you can read more and watch a 15 minute Nova program about RNAi here.

Sean Carroll on Lee Smolin’s The Trouble With Physics

Over at Cosmic Variance, Sean Carroll has a longer version of his review of Lee Smolin’s The Trouble With Physics in New Scientist.

There is plenty to worry or complain about when it comes to string theory, but Smolin’s concerns are not always particularly compelling. For example, there are crucially important results in string theory (such as the fundamental fact that quantum-gravitational scattering is finite, or the gauge/gravity duality mentioned above) for which rigorous proofs have not been found. But there are proofs, and there are proofs. In fact, there are almost no results in realistic quantum field theories that have been rigorously proven; physicists often take the attitude that reasonably strong arguments are enough to allow us to accept a claim, even in the absence of the kind of proof that would make a mathematician happy. Both the finiteness of stringy scattering and the equivalence of gauge theory and gravity under Maldacena’s duality are supported by extremely compelling evidence, to the point where it has become extremely hard to see how they could fail to be true.

Smolin’s favorite alternative to string theory is Loop Quantum Gravity (LQG), which has grown out of attempts to quantize general relativity directly (without exotica such as supersymmetry or extra dimensions). To most field theorists, this seems like a quixotic quest; general relativity is not well-behaved at short distances and high energies, where such new degrees of freedom are likely to play a crucial role. But Smolin makes much of one purported advantage of LQG, that the theory is background-independent. In other words, rather than picking some background spacetime and studying the propagation of strings (or whatever), LQG is formulated without reference to any specific background.

It’s unclear whether this is really such a big deal. Most approaches to string theory are indeed background-dependent (although in some cases one can quibble about definitions), but that’s presumably because we don’t understand the theory very well. This is an argument about style; in particular, how we should set about inventing new theories. Smolin wants to think big, and start with a background-independent formulation from the start. String theorists would argue that it’s okay to start with a background, since we are led to exciting new results like finite scattering and gauge/gravity duality, and a background-independent formulation will perhaps be invented some day. It’s not an argument that anyone can hope to definitively win, until the right theory is settled and we can look back on how it was invented.

Reconsidering the Madrid Rule on the Weight of Fashion Models

Over at Majikthise, Lindsay Beyerstein reconsiders the Madrid rule on the weight of models at this years Cibeles fashion show.

The Madrid Regional Government’s rationale for the new law is very troubling. Their main argument is that fashion shows should be regulated because they present an unhealthy ideal of beauty to the public and therefore constitute a public health risk. I have no doubt this is true, but I don’t want the government to suppress ideas just because the larger society considers those ideas to be destructive. I certainly wouldn’t want the US government taking any greater liberties on the censorship front.

However, Amanda raises a compelling counterargument at Pandagon. As she notes, the industry standard in modeling is an occupational health risk. A designer’s right to design clothes for emaciated models doesn’t necessarily guarantee her right to hire actual people to wear these clothes under dangerous conditions.

The average fashion model has a BMI of 16, which well below what most medical experts consider a normal weight for a well-nourished adult. Only a fraction of post-pubescent women have a BMI below 18 for any reason (CDC).

Banning Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

Calum Cashley spots this irony.

Alton Verm’s request to ban “Fahrenheit 451” [because it contains profanity] came during the 25th annual Banned Books Week. He and Hines said the request to ban “Fahrenheit 451,” a book about book burning, during Banned Books Weeks is a coincidence. “Banned Books Week: Celebrating the Freedom to Read” is observed during the last week of September each year, according to the American Library Association Web site, The week celebrates the freedom to choose or express one’s opinion, even if it might be considered unorthodox or unpopular and stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of those unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints to all who wish to read them, according to the Web site. Jerilynn Williams, Montgomery County Memorial Library System director, said Banned Books Week keeps the public aware that it is imperative to have access to information in a democratic society. Banning books causes libraries to limit access to information by withholding a person’s right to explore a wide variety of opinions to form their own opinions, Williams said.

house of meetings: more bilious colors


For all its incidental comic felicities, a reader could finish reading Martin Amis’s Yellow Dog (2003) feeling that too much had been sacrificed to the jokes; it is not that Amis’s distinctive gifts have ever been self-effacing ones, but there were moments in that book when the world was being just too deliberately shrunk to fit the satire’s demands. Darius the “seven-foot Seventh Day Adventist” couldn’t be six-foot-eleven, or indeed five-foot-six, just as Clint Smoker had to live in the geographically impractical location of Foulness – not in the interests of plot or character, but in order to feed the punchline. To move from such Technicolor knock-about to the sombre grey-scale in which House of Meetings lives is to encounter an almost completely different author, to negotiate a shift between moral worlds as well as palettes.

more from the TLS here.