john ashbery

If one were to approach a consensus that philosophical problems are, at root (though they may have no root), language problems, the poem emerges as a model of such anti-modelers. Yet Ashbery again slips these reigns. One feels that he has in mind the cynical legions sent out from Europe’s academies by Jakobson, Genette, Lacan, Bakhtin, Todorov, Shklovsky, and their post-structuralist seconds, when he casts out this barb:

There is no other way, and those assholes
Who would confuse everything with their mirror games
Which seem to multiply stakes and possibilities, or
At least confuse issue by means of an investing
Aura that would corrode the architecture
Of the whole in a haze of suppressed mockery,
Are beside the point. They are out of the game,
Which doesn’t exist until they are out of it.

more from Contemporary Poetry Review here

peter altenberg

With his walrus moustache, the disheveled, baggy clothes he designed himself, sandals on bare feet in all weather, and exquisite walking sticks, Peter Altenberg was a fixture in the cultural life of fin de siècle Vienna. He was a master of the vignette, a diviner of the telling detail, a prose poet of the demimonde. Altenberg was a Baudelaire with only a touch of spleen. Elegant, arch, and concise, his snapshots of life on the margins were not without bite. In cheerful disillusion, he deflated the hypocrisy and social niceties that were so important to the refined Gemütlichkeit of the middle and upper classes, but he did so with enough wit to amuse rather than insult his audience.

more from Bookforum here.

purim vs. st. patrick

This week, Christians and Jews alike are enjoying the benefits of approved inebriation. Purim began at sunset on Monday and—if you haven’t noticed all the shamrock decorations in store windows—St. Patrick’s Day is today.

Having been raised in neither the Catholic nor the Jewish tradition, I’m a tourist at both holiday celebrations, thus rendering me a completely objective judge about which holiday is better. That’s right. I’m here to pick a winner since they can’t both be equally awesome. If they were, we wouldn’t have all this hoopla in the Middle East.

Also, I hope you understand that just cause I’m writing this in a pub doesn’t mean I’m leaning in any particular direction.

more from The Morning News here.

The Sixty-Million-Year Virus

Carl Zimmer in his excellent blog, The Loom:

RetroviruslargHow do we know that we are kin to chimpanzees and howler monkeys and the other primates? For one thing, it’s by far the best explanation for the fossil record. For another, our DNA shows signs of kinship to other primates, much like the genetic markers that are shared by people from a particular ethnic group. There’s a third line of evidence that I find particularly fascinating: the viruses carried by humans and other apes.

Every day, viruses traffic in and out of human bodies. They invade people’s cells, make new copies of themselves, and then, if they’re lucky, infect a new host. Some viruses do this by stapling themselves into our DNA, so that their own genes are read by our cells much as they read their own genes. In many cases, infected cells die as they manufacture hundreds of new viruses that burst out of them. But in some cases the viruses get stuck. They sit in the cell’s genome, and the cell goes on living. When the cell duplicates, it duplicates the virus DNA as well. Just because the virus spares the cell is not necessarily a good thing. The virus may still be able to pop out of dormancy and wreak havoc. It may also trigger its host cell to duplicate like mad–giving rise to cancer. One in five cancers is associated with these viruses.

Now imagine what might happen if one of these viruses happened to infect an egg. The egg might well die. Or not. And if it started to divide (as a fertilized embryo), the virus would be passed down to all the daughter cells. In other words, a baby would be born with the virus throughout its body.

More here.

Building Better Bones With Ice

Gretchen Cuda in Wired News:

Betterbones1_fWhen it comes to manufacturing materials that are both strong and ultra-lightweight, Mother Nature is in a league all her own. But scientists are catching up.

A team of researchers in the Materials Science Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has managed to imitate the complex structures found in ice and mollusk shells, and the ultra-strong material could lead to everything from stronger artificial bone to airplane parts.

The scientists used the physics of ice formation to develop ceramic composites four times stronger than current technology. “Because we can control the freezing of ice we could get very sophisticated structures,” says Eduardo Saiz, a physicist at Lawrence Berkeley and one of the authors on a paper published in January in Science.

One important application of stronger ceramic materials is artificial bone.

More here.  [Photo shows nacre, the primary component of mollusk shells.]

The Israel Lobby

John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in the London Review of Books:

For the past several decades, and especially since the Six-Day War in 1967, the centrepiece of US Middle Eastern policy has been its relationship with Israel. The combination of unwavering support for Israel and the related effort to spread ‘democracy’ throughout the region has inflamed Arab and Islamic opinion and jeopardised not only US security but that of much of the rest of the world. This situation has no equal in American political history. Why has the US been willing to set aside its own security and that of many of its allies in order to advance the interests of another state? One might assume that the bond between the two countries was based on shared strategic interests or compelling moral imperatives, but neither explanation can account for the remarkable level of material and diplomatic support that the US provides.

Instead, the thrust of US policy in the region derives almost entirely from domestic politics, and especially the activities of the ‘Israel Lobby’. Other special-interest groups have managed to skew foreign policy, but no lobby has managed to divert it as far from what the national interest would suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that US interests and those of the other country – in this case, Israel – are essentially identical.

More here.

ALCOHOL IN PAKISTAN: The Politics of Boozing

“The front line of the struggle against fundamentalism in Pakistan isn’t in the mountainous border regions. It’s in the country’s permit rooms. Alcohol is sold there — and customers dream of the West.”

Uwe Buse in Spiegel (via Amitava Kumar):

4a_1Temptation awaits at the end of a ramp, in the murkiness in the back corner of an underground garage. There are two holes in the wall, each covered with bars. Both though, the small one and the larger one, have enough space for an arm to reach through. A man sits behind each window, waiting for business. It’s as simple as that, and yet these two nondescript little holes in a parking garage wall represent a place of beginnings, a place of hope.

Devout Muslims call it “a disgrace for the city,” Ilyaz Rassar calls it “an opportunity” and Pakistan’s government bureaucrats call it a “permit room.” This permit room, one of about 60 scattered throughout the country, is in downtown Multan, a city of shrines and mosques in eastern Pakistan — a city otherwise known as the City of Saints.

The men behind the bars are selling alcohol to non-Muslims, a practice that’s entirely legal and sanctioned by the government. Under a system that could be dubbed Prohibition Light, this permit room sells four brands of beer, vodka, Silver Top gin, Doctor’s brandy and malt whiskey. There is a purchase minimum for beer — five cans — at 200 rupees, or about €3 apiece. A bottle of the cheapest whiskey goes for about €30.

More here.

My Name is Rachel Corrie, Not in New York

In The Nation, Philip Weiss examines why the play My Name Is Rachel Corrie won’t be coming to New York.

By the time I visited the Workshop, a week into the controversy, it was a wounded institution. Linda Chapman, the associate artistic director, who had signed Grote’s petition, said she couldn’t talk to me, because of the “quicksand” that any statement had become. The Workshop had posted and then removed from its website a clumsy statement aimed at explaining itself. Playgoer was demanding that the opponents of the play come forward and drumming for a declaration from Tony Kushner, who has staged plays at the Workshop, posting his photo as if he were some war criminal.

In an interview with The Nation, Kushner said that he was quiet because of his exhaustion over similar arguments surrounding the film Munich, on which he was a screenwriter, and because he kept hoping the decision would be made right. He said Nicola is a great figure in American theater: “His is one of the one or two most important theaters in this area–politically engaged, unapologetic, unafraid and formally experimental.” Never having gotten a clear answer about why Nicola put off the play, Kushner ascribes it to panic: Nicola didn’t know what he was getting into, and only later became aware of how much opposition there was to Corrie, how much confusion the right has created around the facts. Nicola felt he was taking on “a really big, scary brawl and not a play.” Still, Kushner said, the theater’s decision created a “ghastly” situation. “Censoring a play because it addresses Palestinian-Israeli issues is not in any way right,” he said.

Artificial muscles get a makeover

From MSNBC:Arm

Robots with oxygen-breathing muscles, aircraft that change the shape of their wings while in the air and other technical advances may be on the way, thanks to a new generation of artificial muscles. Scientists have designed the muscles to run on fuels rather than batteries or electricity from power cords. The new study appears in Friday’s issue of the journal Science, published by AAAS, the nonprofit science society. While the artificial muscles don’t look like bulging biceps or well-defined quads, they are, nonetheless, like natural muscles in important ways: they run on a combination of oxygen and energy-rich fuels and are capable of doing work — such as lifting a metal weight up and down.

More here.

Seed Scooper, Pooper

From Science:Seed

Massive grasshoppers called wetas once hopped throughout New Zealand. Now threatened or endangered in most of that country, their scarcity could spell trouble for some of their food sources. Researchers have found that these omnivorous insects sometimes munch on fruits, passing seeds through their guts unharmed. This behavior is essential to the well-being of plants, as the journey through the gut seems to be a rite of passage necessary for some seeds to germinate, says Kevin Burns, an ecologist at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

Insects are not known for eating fruits and dispersing undigested seeds. But because New Zealand originally lacked rats, which can spread seeds, Burns and his Victoria University colleagues Catherine Duthie, a graduate student, and George Gibbs wondered if the mouse-sized wetas had taken over the seed-dispersal job often held by these furry species. That role would make sense, as wetas are known as “invertebrate mice” because of their size and nocturnal habitats, Burns points out.

More here.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Big Mouth Strikes Again

Following his ludicrous hack job on Daniel Dennett’s brilliant and sincerely argued new book, Leon Wieseltier has turned his sights on another well-respected and innovative thinker far beyond his apparently meager comprehension: Stanley Fish. Once again, he believes that rudely sneering at someone is a suitable substitute for discussion and argument. So why do I bother to give him space here? Because his vicious attacks may possibly influence some of those not intimately familiar with the subtle topics that Fish has brought up. And because I want to strongly urge those at 3QD who study English professionally (Asad? Jonathan? Anyone?) and are therefore more qualified to speak of Fish, to explain what is really at issue here, as no doubt they will do it better than I.

Here’s what Wieseltier writes in The New Republic:

Forgive my tardiness, but last month The New York Times published an article that compared liberals unfavorably to fundamentalist mobs. The piece appeared on the paper’s fun op-ed page, on the occasion of the “cartoon riots” that were provoked by the publication in a conservative Danish newspaper of scornful images of the Prophet–no, that’s not accurate. The riots were provoked by Muslim politicians and diplomats for whom the Western blasphemy was an Allah-sent opportunity to divert the attention of various Muslim societies from what ails them. What would modern Arab satrapies do without medieval Muslim masses? A bloodletting, then, followed by brandy and cigars; and the robed zealots in the streets are glad to do the work of the suited cynics in the private planes. Scores of people died in the cartoon riots. It was not the cartoons that killed them; it was their conviction that violence is a variety of cultural criticism. The intensity of their feeling about their faith was all that they (and in their view, anybody else) needed to know in the world. 

And there in the Times was Stanley Fish, extolling them precisely for this. How contrarian. Fish is the author of a book called The Trouble With Principle–now there’s a danger!–and has made a handsome career as a cheap button-pusher; he is one of those intellectuals who prefers any kind of radicalism to any kind of liberalism.

More here.

Noam Chomsky, Lawrence Krauss and Sean M. Carroll

Matt Donnelly in Science and Theology News, via Cosmic Variance:

Science & Theology News asked three leading scientists – Noam Chomsky, Lawrence Krauss and Sean M. Carroll [close friend of 3QD from the beginning!] — to comment on topics in science-and-religion as well as in popular culture. What follows are their answers…

ON STEVEN JAY GOULD AND “NON-OVERLAPPING MAGISTERIA”

060301_chomskyCHOMSKY: Steve Gould [was] a friend. But I don’t quite agree with him [that science-and-religion are “Non-Overlapping Magisteria”]. Science and religion are just incommensurable. I mean, religion tells you, ‘Here’s what you ought to believe.’ Judaism’s a little different, because it’s not really a religion of belief, it’s a religion of practice. If I’d asked my grandfather, who was an ultra-orthodox Jew from Eastern Europe. ‘Do you believe in God?’ he would have looked at me with a blank stare, wouldn’t know what I’m talking about. And what you do is you carry out the practices. Of course, you say ‘I believe in this and that,’ but that’s not the core of the religion. The core of the religion is just the practices you carry out. And yes, there is a system of belief behind it somewhere, but it’s not intended to be a picture of the world. It’s just a framework in which you carry out practices that are supposed to be appropriate.

Laurence_kraussKRAUSS: Science and religion are incommensurate, and religion is largely about practice rather than explanation.  But religion is different than theology, and as the Catholic Church has learned over the years, any sensible theology must be in accord with the results of science.

CarrollCARROLL: Non-overlapping magisteria might be the worst idea Stephen Jay Gould ever had.  It’s certainly a surprising claim at first glance: religion has many different aspects to it, but one of them is indisputably a set of statements about how the universe works at a deep level, typically featuring the existence of a powerful supernatural Creator.  “How the universe works” is something squarely in the domain of science.  There is, therefore, quite a bit of overlap:  science is quite capable of making judgments about whether our world follows a rigid set of laws or is occasionally influenced by supernatural forces.  Gould’s idea only makes sense because what he really means by “religion” is “moral philosophy.”  While that’s an important aspect of religion, it’s not the only one; I would argue that the warrant for religion’s ethical claims are based on its view of the universe, without which we wouldn’t recognize it as religion.

More here.

Robert Trivers: What do we know?

From IT Conversations:

The capacity of humans to deceive each other is well documented by history and personal experience. Less well known, however, is the capacity of most living things to deceive each other – species deceiving other species, members of their own species and themselves. We are, it seems, not that different from parasites, insects and bacteria in this regard.

787Dr. Robert Trivers talks about the evolutionary basis of deception in this address from Pop!Tech 2005. The first half of this talk focusses on the biological examples of deception in the natural world, with explanations for the evolutionary advantages of deception and self-deception.

Later in the talk, Dr. Trivers supplies easily recognizable examples of common human self-deception. He then delves into an overtly political criticism of human deception and self-deception, with an emphasis on current events.

This talk was from the What Do We Know session at Pop!Tech. The other speaker in this session was Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The question and answer period for these talks is included in this program.

More here.  [Thanks to Maniza Naqvi.]

Oriana Fallaci strains the good will of even the most sympathetic reader

Ira Stoll in the New York Sun:

Fallaci3180x230Never mind the eccentric way this volume has been published by Rizzoli, which seems not to have English language typesetting software in house. (In the first few pages of the book, both the words “have” – “have”- and “whore” – “who-re” – are hyphenated, as if they were being pronounced in a bad Italian accent.)

The more serious problem is the sweeping nature of her condemnation of Islam and Muslims. She faults them for the fact that “they breed like rats”; for requiring their meat to be slaughtered in a “barbaric” manner she says is similar to kosher butchery; for having their own schools, hospitals, and cemeteries; for immigrating; and for wanting accommodation of their religious holidays and Sabbath in schools and workplaces.

Much of her complaint about Islam, in other words, might as well be directed at Orthodox Jews, and a good deal of it at American Catholics. Ms. Fallaci’s cry of alarm – “Wake up, West, wake up! They have declared war on us, we are at war! And in war we must fight” – rings less alarmingly when it turns out that what she’s alarmed about is religions having their own cemeteries. Anyone familiar with the graveyard behind the Congregational church in any traditional New England town – or, for that matter, the Trinity Church graveyard in Lower Manhattan – realizes that, in itself, isn’t much of a threat at all.

Ms. Fallaci makes clear that her aversion is not to Islamist terrorism alone or to Islamic extremism but to Islam and Muslims in general. “Moderate Islam does not exist,” she writes, calling it “an illusion,” an invention of naive Westerners.

More here.

Darwin’s defender

Tim Adams in The Observer:

Daniel Dennett has something of the look of those seventeenth-century puritan preachers who would talk for hours about the sins of the flesh. The gospel he has spent most of his life spreading, however, has nothing to do with supernatural vengeance; quite the opposite. His full white beard is worn more in homage to Charles Darwin than the Almighty.

When I went to see him at the little office in the corner of a quadrangle at Tufts University he has occupied for 30 years, he was examining on his computer screen the cover of his new book, Breaking the Spell. His book seeks to demonstrate that religion, chiefly Christianity, is itself a biologically evolved concept, and one that has outlived its usefulness. In America, these days, that is the most virulent form of fighting talk.

More here.

Want a German passport?

Luke Harding in The Guardian:

Germany20flagThey are questions that would test the mettle of even the most ardent German patriot. Name three German philosophers, a poem by Goethe, a German Nobel prize winner and the doctor who discovered the cholera virus.

Stuck? Then you would struggle to qualify for German citizenship under new plans by authorities to test would-be citizens on their German cultural knowledge.

The state of Hesse wants to introduce the values and knowledge test for all those applying for a German passport. Other sample questions are to list three German composers, including the creator of the “Ode to Joy”; name a work by Friedrich Schiller; list three mountains in middle Germany and describe the famous “motif” painted by the 19th-century German artist Caspar David Friedrich. There are also questions on the constitution.

More here.  [Thanks to Michael Blim.]

spiritualism and nihilism

Chapter 2, Part 2 Spiritualism and Nihilism: The Second Decade

Just as Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon of 1907 made Matisse’s Portrait of Mme Matisse of 1905 seem passé, so Kandinsky’s First Abstract Watercolor of 1910 made Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon seem outmoded.

What was innovative and unique just a few years earlier — the trend-setting last word in advanced art — instantly became an old idea of art, indeed, that fatally ironic thing, a cliché of radicalism. Kandinsky’s First Abstract Watercolor was much more daring and imaginative than Matisse’s bold use of a green gesture to define the line of his wife’s nose — it made her face radiantly fresh — and Picasso’s schematized abstract figures and African masks, with their own peculiar kind of freshness and “greenness.” Both were strident, triumphant invasions of barbarism into high art — the brutal take-over of civilized culture by uncivilized expression. But Kandinsky’s First Abstract Watercolor was not simply another avant-garde shock administered to a reluctant public, another deliberate production of avant-garde difference, another mischievous manipulation of the known: It was an artistic leap into the unknown, inviting the public to a new kind of experience. (Whether made in 1910 or 1913, as some scholars think, it carries Kandinsky’s ideas about art to a consummate extreme.)

more from Donald Kuspit at artnet Magazine here.

updike on kidd

Though the cultural climate of southeastern Pennsylvania has surely changed in the two-and-thirty years between my boyhood and Kidd’s, the soil must still be fertile for the young homebody and media maven, “for all of us”, as Kidd wrote in his epic album Peanuts: The Art of Charles M Schultz (Pantheon, 2001), “who ate our school lunches alone and didn’t have any hope of sitting anywhere near the little red-haired girl and never got any valentines and struck out every time we were shoved to the plate for Little League”.

In a field, book-jacket design, where edge, zip and instant impact are sine qua non, Kidd is second to none. Can he draw? Presumably, yet the mark of his pen or pencil rarely figures into his work. His tool is the digital computer, with its ever more ingenious graphics programs. In the ever-expanding electronic archives of scannable photographic imagery, he is a hunter-gatherer.

more from The Guardian Unlimited here.

fellini

Federico Fellini was great with people, terrible with money. He adored his wife and was flagrantly unfaithful. He loved whiling away the hours in cafés, but was a workaholic. He was a scamp, a victim, a victimizer. And he was a great director. “He believed in chance meetings, in love affairs, and in friendships,” writes his biographer Tullio Kezich, a film critic and a friend of Fellini for more than 40 years, “all of which came to him with incredible speed, and were like constant revelations that tended to endure. He lived inside of things with indomitable curiosity and unflappable openness. He abandoned himself to what Dostoevsky called ‘the river of life.’”

more from the NY Observer here.

Harper’s Index for February 2006

From Harper’s:

Percentage of Americans who say that fighting terrorism should be one of the nation’s top two priorities: 6[Harris Interactive (Rochester, N.Y.)]

Number of people whom Coalition forces have imprisoned in Iraq at some point since March 2003: 48,526[Detainee Operations, Multi-National Force—Iraq (Baghdad)]

Percentage of these who have been convicted of a crime: 1.5[Detainee Operations, Multi-National Force—Iraq (Baghdad)]

Margin by which total votes for Democrats in the last three Senate elections exceeded those for Republicans: 2,900,000[Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives]

Number of seats won by Democrats and Republicans, respectively: 46, 56[Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives]

More here.