Neurobiologist Eric Kandel searches for memory, cell by cell

Samir S. Patel in Columbia Magazine:

Kandel1I 1955, Eric Kandel, a New York University medical student training as a psychiatrist, told Columbia University neurophysiologist Harry Grundfest, with whom he was taking a course, that he wanted to find where the id, ego, and superego live in the gelatinous folds of the brain. In Kandel’s recent book, In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind (W.W. Norton, 2006), he recounts Grundfest’s patient response. “He explained that my hope of understanding the biological basis of Freud’s structural theory was far beyond the grasp of contemporary brain science,” Kandel writes. “Rather, he told me, to understand the mind we needed to look at the brain one cell at a time.”

More here.

The Beauty in Politics

In the Economist:

NAMED last week as his party’s candidate for the French presidential election, Nicolas Sarkozy faces an opponent, Ségolène Royal, who has the press drooling. “Dazzling” and “radiant”, she has been likened to a work of art (“Mona Lisa”) and a mythological figure (a “siren”).

Perhaps Mr Sarkozy should pay a visit to Chattanooga, Tennessee. The city’s former mayor, Bob Corker, faced a similar problem in his Senate race last November. He prevailed against a congressman, Harold Ford junior, who was once counted among the 50 “most beautiful” people on Washington’s Capitol Hill. In response, Mr Corker hurled one of the strangest insults in campaign history. He accused Mr Ford of being “an attractive young man”.

“This is not a beauty pageant,” Ms Royal’s detractors are fond of saying. But what makes them so sure? The days are gone when a person would “vote for a pig if his party put one up,” as one British voter put it in the 1950s. Today, politicians must be well-groomed animals, selling their personalities not their parties. Looks can have an especially powerful influence on the minority of floating voters who determine election results, says Linda Bilmes, a professor of government at America’s Harvard University.

squalid despair amid the horrors of unlimited war

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“From this place, and from this day forth begins a new era in the history of the world, and you can all say that you were present at its birth,” Goethe claimed to have told a group of Prussian soldiers after they were routed by France’s revolutionary forces at Valmy on September 20, 1792, and his pronouncement duly features in David Bell’s The First Total War. But Bell does not swoon, as plenty have, at the poet’s clairvoyance. Instead he notes calmly that Goethe wrote his account of Valmy decades later and with some borrowing from the testimonials of others. Nevertheless, there was insight in Goethe’s histrionics; in 1792 the London Times had reported, “The army marching from Paris exhibits a very motley group. There are almost as many women as men, many without arms, and very little provision.” Here was “a people’s war,” with the new French Republic rising to defend itself any which way it could. Bell’s book is an impressively steady, poetically unembellished, evocation of the nativity that awed Goethe.

more from The Nation here.

unlucky (or just awfully honest) in love

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In 1912, when he was 72, Thomas Hardy began to write a series of love poems about his wife, Emma. The poems were unlikely for several reasons. First, for years he and Emma had been estranged, and she had retreated to sleep alone in the attic, where she wrote letters to friends about his unkindness. By this point, Hardy was a literary celebrity, and had maintained flirtations with more than one woman. His reputation was based largely on his fiction; his controversial later novels, among them Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, had cemented his stature as a portraitist of country life and thwarted small-town aspirations. Second, Hardy was famous for his indictment of marriage—a bishop publicly burned his copy of Jude, and a Victorian newspaper, shocked by it, labeled it “Jude the Obscene.” What no one, including Hardy himself, would have guessed was that Emma would prove to be, as Claire Tomalin claims in her brisk new biography of the author, “his best inspiration.” That fall, Emma suddenly fell ill, and she died before Hardy got a chance to say goodbye to her. In the months after her death, numerous poems in her memory poured out of him—love lyrics of acute regret in which one of his recurrent themes was distilled in its most distinctive form. That theme could be said to be our failure to perceive the shadowy outlines of our own experience; life, in Hardy’s view, was nothing but a strangely prismed window onto the peculiar workings of time.

more from Slate here.

they denied fancy nothing

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If you want to know what God thinks of money,” said Dorothy Parker, “just look at the people he gave it to.” Well, God’s still on the job. The wealthy of our period are a great disappointment. Narcissism, greed, pride, self-indulgence, vulgarity, hypocrisy, and arrogance are not the problem; those come with the bank account. The problem is that today’s rich are doing too little with their narcissism, greed, pride, self-indulgence, vulgarity, hypocrisy, and arrogance. A great fortune provides its holder with that rarest of luxuries, a chance to bring outlandish dreams to life. To astonish.

The failure of the contemporary rich to bedazzle—to open, for a moment, a window on paradise—came home with special force at the Louis Comfort Tiffany and Josef Hoffmann shows now at, respectively, the Met and the Neue Galerie.

more from New York Magazine here.

The bard of Dollis Hill

From The Guardian:

Daljit1 Nagra is that rare thing: an unknown poet whose debut collection is being published by Faber, Britain’s leading poetry house. The bright cover of his debut collection, Look We Have Coming to Dover!, matches the ebullience of his word play, which stirs English, Punjabi and Punjabi-accented English into a series of funny and poignant poems that defy easy categorisation. Racism, belonging, alienation and assimilation are ever present themes but Nagra is too witty to file under worthy. And while he cites the influence of Milton, Browning and Blake, there is also a slice of Ray Davies or Jam-era Paul Weller in some of his clever character sketches.

“You either do it quietly and describe the Indian community in half a dozen poems or you think sod it, and go all out. The most Indian way I could think of was to do monologues and voices,” says Nagra in his flat overlooking the park at Dollis Hill. So there is the new husband of Darling & Me! whose “Darling is so pirouettey with us”; the mum of In a White Town, who “No one ever looked without looking again/ at the pink kameez and balloon’d bottoms”; and the effervescence of the careless shopkeeper in Singh Song! above whom “high heel tap di ground/ as my vife on di web is playing wid di mouse”.

Much of it begs to be read aloud and, while slight and sotto voce in person, Nagra is already making a name for himself with accented performances of his work.

More here.

The Universe’s Invisible Hand

From Scientific American:

Hands What took us so long? Only in 1998 did astronomers discover we had been missing nearly three quarters of the contents of the universe, the so-called dark energy–an unknown form of energy that surrounds each of us, tugging at us ever so slightly, holding the fate of the cosmos in its grip, but to which we are almost totally blind. Some researchers, to be sure, had anticipated that such energy existed, but even they will tell you that its detection ranks among the most revolutionary discoveries in 20th-century cosmology. Not only does dark energy appear to make up the bulk of the universe, but its existence, if it stands the test of time, will probably require the development of new theories of physics.

Scientists are just starting the long process of figuring out what dark energy is and what its implications are. One realization has already sunk in: although dark energy betrayed its existence through its effect on the universe as a whole, it may also shape the evolution of the universe’s inhabitants–stars, galaxies, galaxy clusters. Astronomers may have been staring at its handiwork for decades without realizing it.

More here.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Sundance Film Festival: Pushing the boundaries

Liam Lacey in the Globe and Mail:

A sworn enemy of Hollywood formulas, the Sundance Film Festival, in its 13th year, seems to have worked out its own recipe for getting attention: If you want to get people worked up, you can’t beat the combination of incendiary politics and twisted sex.

First, the politics. Chicago 10, a movie about one of the more inflammatory trials in American history, the 1968 conspiracy trial of the Chicago Seven, will open the 13th Sundance Film Festival tonight. Created by Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture), the film uses music, animation, contemporary actors and archival footage to look back at the anti-war protesters accused of conspiring to incite a riot at the Democratic Party convention.

The film marks just the second time the festival has opened with a documentary. Festival director Geoff Gilmore describes Chicago 10 as a film that “pushes the boundaries of many of the traditional aspects of documentary filmmaking” in recalling a significant moment in the American counterculture.

The festival will also be pushing boundaries in another way, with sexually transgressive films that seem bound to raise protests…

More here.

Steven Weinberg on Richard Dawkins

Physics Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg in the Times Literary Supplement:

WeinbergMuch of the weakening of religious certitude in the Christian West can be laid at the door of science; even people whose religion might incline them to hostility to the pretensions of science generally understand that they have to rely on science rather than religion to get things done. But this has not happened to anything like the same extent in the world of Islam. One finds in Islamic countries not only religious opposition to specific scientific theories, as occasionally in the West, but a widespread religious hostility to science itself. My late friend, the distinguished Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam, tried to convince the rulers of the oil-rich states of the Persian Gulf to invest in scientific education and research, but he found that though they were enthusiastic about technology, they felt that pure science presented too great a challenge to faith. In 1981, the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt called for an end to scientific education. In the areas of science I know best, though there are talented scientists of Muslim origin working productively in the West, for forty years I have not seen a single paper by a physicist or astronomer working in a Muslim country that was worth reading. This is despite the fact that in the ninth century, when science barely existed in Europe, the greatest centre of scientific research in the world was the House of Wisdom in Baghdad.

Alas, Islam turned against science in the twelfth century. The most influential figure was the philosopher Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali, who argued in The Incoherence of the Philosophers against the very idea of laws of nature, on the ground that any such laws would put God’s hands in chains. According to al-Ghazzali, a piece of cotton placed in a flame does not darken and smoulder because of the heat, but because God wants it to darken and smoulder. After al-Ghazzali, there was no more science worth mentioning in Islamic countries.

More here.

narod bezmolvstvuet

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Once installed in the presidency, Putin has cultivated two attributes that have given him an aura capable of outlasting it. The first is the image of firm, where necessary ruthless authority. Historically, the brutal imposition of order has been more often admired than feared in Russia. Rather than his portrait suffering from the shadow of the KGB, Putin has converted it into a halo of austere discipline. In what remains in many ways a macho society, toughness – prowess in judo and drops into criminal slang are part of Putin’s kit – continues to be valued, and not only by men: polls report that Putin’s most enthusiastic fans are often women. But there is another, less obvious side to his charisma. Part of his chilly magnetism is cultural. He is widely admired for his command of the language. Here, too, contrast is everything. Lenin was the last ruler of the country who could speak an educated Russian. Stalin’s Georgian accent was so thick he rarely risked speaking in public. Khrushchev’s vocabulary was crude and his grammar barbaric. Brezhnev could scarcely put two sentences together. Gorbachev spoke with a provincial southern accent. The less said of Yeltsin’s slurred diction the better. To hear a leader of the country capable once again of expressing himself with clarity, accuracy and fluency, in a more or less correct idiom, comes as music to many Russians.

more from Perry Anderson at the LRB here.

Spielbergization and Its Discontents

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Certain directors—the practiced self-promoters Oliver Stone and Spike Lee come to mind—see themselves as political commentators. Recently, they have been joined by a few producers, on both the secular left, eBay founder Jeff Skoll, and the Christian right, Bush fundraiser Philip Anschutz. But the embodiment of responsible, socially aware moviemaking is that repository of the industry’s institutional memory known as Steven Spielberg.

No one since Reagan has so demonstrated a belief in the redemptive nature of Hollywood entertainment. Such faith is not without a material basis. Spielberg’s status as a moneymaker peaked a dozen years ago, when his two greatest hits, E.T. and Jurassic Park, were first and third on the list of all-time Hollywood box-office attractions, with Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark still inhabiting the top ten. But even today, Spielberg is credited with nine of Hollywood’s hundred highest-grossing movies—more than those directed by his nearest rivals, George Lucas and Peter Jackson, combined.

more from VQR here.

The Numbers Game: Brains That Prefer Numbers to Words

From Scientific American:Numbers

Since the mid-1990s scientists have floated the idea that representations of numeric quantities, whether expressed as digits or as written words, are codified by the parietal cortex, a higher-processing region in the brain located just above the forehead. The notion is supported by calculation deficits observed in patients with damage to that brain region and in low birth weight children who exhibit reduced gray matter in adulthood.

Still, it is unknown whether the parietal cortex—specifically its left hemisphere—processes numeric value independent of notation. New research indicates that the brain region may prefer symbolic notation to other numeric representations—a finding that could open the door to helping kids plagued by dyscalculia, a learning disability characterized by severely impaired mathematical ability.

More here.

NINE FLOWERS

From Edge:Whiteonwh1

This flower is one of a series of ravishing images made by Katinka Matson; the images in both her series, Forty Flowers (January, 2002) , and the current Twelve Flowers, can be seen here in low resolution versions. Katinka Matson’s digital images are both pioneering and representative. She is in the venerable mode of following the technology.

Painting, the technology, changed how we use our eyes. Photography, another technology, changed how we painted. According to painter David Hockney’s controversial theory, early experiments with optics and drawing “put a hand in the camera.” Painters like Vermeer traced images from convex mirrors and simple lenses — thus the hand in the camera. Now the newest technology, digital gear, is overhauling photography, in part by putting the hand back into the camera. That’s what we call Photoshop. Whatever distinction there may have been between painting and photography, Photoshop has completely vanished it. We can put our fingers into photographs, or mechanicize hand-crafted paintings. However this vanishing act required not only Photoshop, but two other technologies: a digital retina, and ink jet printing.

More here.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Iñárritu’

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This month brings the UK release of Babel, the third and most ambitious part of the trilogy. Where Amores Perros took Mexico City as its subject, Babel takes the world: it was shot in four countries and five languages. It stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as a couple hit by disaster while travelling across Morocco. Interlinking stories focus on two young Moroccan brothers from a Muslim family, a deaf-mute Japanese teenager and a Mexican nanny – all of whom, in their own ways, confront misery and death. Although Iñárritu himself contends that it is “a film about hope” (he said that about 21 Grams, too), by the end you feel you have been privy to a long scream of pain. Humanity is so vulnerable, so misguided, and the world so horribly unfair. It is also possibly the best film you will see all year: searing, ambitious and provocative cinema.

more from the New Statesman here.

how could anybody like opera?

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There are, in principle, two quite different kinds of opera books: the ones that are about opera and the ones that are about operas. There aren’t (to my knowledge) many of the second kind that are very good; and there are practically none of the first kind. It would be lovely if someone were to write a good book about opera, since the medium is a conundrum both for its devotees and for aestheticians. The litany of complaints is familiar: most libretti cannot be taken seriously; but for the music, they couldn’t hope to hold the stage. The performers often don’t look right for the parts they sing and generally can’t act. Even if you understand the language that they sing in, what they sing is likely not to be intelligible (operas in English are routinely performed with surtitles for anglophone audiences). And so on. How, then, can anything that is in so many ways preposterous be, when it works, so enormously moving? Granted that one might like some of the tunes; but how could anybody like opera? Bernard Williams doesn’t say and he doesn’t try to. His book is mostly a collection of (previously published) papers that discuss one or other of the major works in the operatic canon. (There is also a very sympathetic introduction by Michael Tanner.) If you are prepared to settle for critical responses to operas in the standard repertory, responses that are informed, insightful, literate and civilized, you will have to look both far and wide for anything better than this.

more from the TLS here.

Evolved for Cancer?

Carl Zimmer in Scientific American:

Breast20cancer20cellNatural selection is not natural perfection. Living creatures have evolved some remarkably complex adaptations, but we are still very vulnerable to disease. Among the most tragic of those ills—and perhaps most enigmatic—is cancer. A cancerous tumor is exquisitely well adapted for survival in its own grotesque way. Its cells continue to divide long after ordinary cells would stop. They destroy surrounding tissues to make room for themselves, and they trick the body into supplying them with energy to grow even larger. But the tumors that afflict us are not foreign parasites that have acquired sophisticated strategies for attacking our bodies. They are made of our own cells, turned against us. Nor is cancer some bizarre rarity: a woman in the U.S. has a 39 percent chance of being diagnosed with some type of cancer in her lifetime. A man has a 45 percent chance.

These facts make cancer a grim yet fascinating puzzle for evolutionary biologists. If natural selection is powerful enough to produce complex adaptations, from the eye to the immune system, why has it been unable to wipe out cancer? The answer, these investigators argue, lies in the evolutionary process itself. Natural selection has favored certain defenses against cancer but cannot eliminate it altogether. Ironically, natural selection may even inadvertently provide some of the tools that cancer cells can use to grow.

More here.

Freud did not discover the Unconscious. What he did do was to endow it with a language, a ritual, and a church.

Allen Esterson in Butterflies and Wheels:

Freud_3How is it that someone of [Howard] Gardner’s intellectual eminence, a psychologist to boot, can read Freud so credulously, and even come up with the manifest absurdity that Freud presented us with “transcripts” that enable us to judge for ourselves the validity of his alleged clinical findings? The same, of course, may be asked, in more general terms, of innumerable academics and intellectuals in the twentieth century – and the answer is just as elusive. My best guess is that Freud’s extraordinary gifts as a story-teller and rhetorician cast a kind of spell over many readers, so much so that they find it almost inconceivable that what he reports are not authentic accounts of his historical and clinical experiences. There was some excuse (just) for this before around 1980. Thereafter the knowledge that Freud’s accounts of the early history of psychoanalysis were questionable was easily accessible in the literature, and doubts about the accuracy of his clinical accounts were being voiced. Today, credulity exemplified by Howard Gardner’s statement quoted above can surely only be explained by a longstanding attachment to Freud’s writings as a consequence of early acquaintanceship with them (usually in the course of a University education at a time when Freud was almost universally revered in the United States), plus what I’m inclined to describe as a kind of wilful ignorance of the critical writings on Freud of the last three decades. (See, e.g., the bibliography below.)

I would add that self-deception in regard to his achievements, enabling him to maintain an utter conviction as to the rightness of his “cause”, played a considerable role in enhancing the persuasive force of Freud’s writings. As Gellner [1985, p. 216] observed, “the idea that he might be deceiving himself does not seem to have entered his consciousness”. And again Gellner, writing of Freud’s assertion that there was no need for empirical confirmation of his contentions because the clinical evidence was so overwhelming: “This would suggest a person capable of some persisting indulgence in self-delusion.”

I’ll leave Gellner to have the last word. Summing up Freud’s achievements he concluded: “Freud did not discover the Unconscious. What he did do was to endow it with a language, a ritual, and a church.”

More here.

Anthems of Resistance

Vijay Prashad in Himal (via Amitava Kumar):

Screenhunter_05_jan_17_2008With Anthems of Resistance, Ali Husain Mir and Raza Mir, two brothers hailing from Hyderabad, in the Deccan, come bearing a substantial gift. Archaeologists of a lost sensibility, they tear the wild foliage of communal hatred aside and take us to a promised land: this is not freedom itself, but the articulation of revolution by a generation of poets. The story begins in 1934, at a Chinese restaurant in London, where some of the greatest artists of the day met to found the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA). Their unabashedly modernist manifesto called upon artists to “rescue literature and other arts from the priestly, academic and decadent classes in whose hands they have degenerated so long; to bring the arts into the closest touch with the people; and to make them the vital organs which will register the actualities of life, as well as lead us to the future.”

The Urdu writers in the group inaugurated a tradition known as taraqqi-pasandi (progressivism), and poets such as Firaq Gorakhpuri and Josh Malihabadi wrote revolutionary anthems to shake off the cobwebs of custom for the creation of an enlightened future.

More here.

Simon Blackburn on Truth and Truthiness

From the Oxford University Press blog:

Simon Blackburn is a Professor at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of Truth: A Guide, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, Think, and Being Good, among many other books. Today he weighs in on truth and truthiness, a subject he knows much about since writing his own book on “Truth.” Truth: A Guide offers a penetrating look at the definition of truth using the guidance of history’s most brilliant minds.

Blackburn_200There never seems to be the right time to write a book. No sooner had my book on Truth: A Guide gone to press than new outbreaks of the diseases for which it hoped to be a cure broke out all over the world. The new Pope, on the eve of his election, started fulminating about relativism and the world going to the dogs through not acknowledging the sovereignty of the Roman Catholic Church. And then the White House started sneering at the “reality based community” as the washed-up historical relics of a vanished age. And we have their apparent alternative, ‘truthiness’ introduced by comedian Stephen Colbert. According to Wikipedia this is ‘the quality by which a person claims to know something intuitively, instinctively, or “from the gut” without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or actual facts’.

This is certainly bad and certainly a phenomenon of our times. I think Colbert had bigger game in his sights however: truthiness is also something more akin to what a philosopher might call constructivism, or the sense that we are somehow in control of what the facts are, that they can be not only spun but actually constructed in accordance with our own agendas.

More here.  [Thanks to Rebecca Ford.]

Amisérable

In New York magazine, Sam Anderson on Martin Amis:

Martin Amis is the undisputed Grand Wizard of Schadenfreude—he dramatizes it in his novels, dispenses it in his essays, and seems to inspire it personally in everyone within a 3,000-mile radius. As he once told an interviewer, “People doing each other down, competing, their savagery—that’s my patch.” It’s no surprise, then, that over the past 35 years insulting Amis has become a competitive sport among book reviewers. He’s been maligned by his father (“I can’t get to the end of a paragraph”), his hero (Updike called one of his plots “unmentionable”), his friend (Christopher Hitchens accused him of “mushy secondhand observations”), and his fellow novelists (A. S. Byatt: “male turkey cocking”; Anita Brookner: “an assault on the reader’s good faith”). He seems to have generated a feedback loop of intercontinental bitterness. At the height of his fame in the mid-nineties, the media feasted on him for weeks after he left his wife, fired his agent, and spent a chunk of an exorbitant book advance repairing his exorbitant teeth; things got so bad that Salman Rushdie, who had his own problems at the time, accused the media of attempting to “murder” Amis. (Amis’s own response to the scandal seemed calculated only to metastasize the nastiness: “Envy never comes to the ball dressed as envy, it comes dressed as high moral standards or distaste for materialism.”) Recently, improbably, things have only got worse. As Amis nears 60, he has started to hemorrhage his old powers—a great loss to literature, but an incalculable gain for the art of sniping—and the critics have attacked with special verve, like matadors whipping out their fanciest moves at the end of a bullfight. Michiko Kakutani wrote that his last novel, Yellow Dog, was “like a sendup of a Martin Amis novel written by someone intent on sabotaging his reputation,” and the novelist Tibor Fischer famously dismissed it as “not-knowing-where-to-look bad … like your favourite uncle being caught in a school playground, masturbating.”

The immediate question raised by Amis’s newest novel, House of Meetings, then—the mystery that will keep everyone riveted until its final page—is: How terrible is it? Can we unleash the hatchet sentences we’ve all been mentally sharpening for three years? (I’m eager to use mine: “Martin Amis’s new novel is so kidney-rupturingly nauseating that the human race should annihilate itself via nuclear warfare purely out of the shame of sharing a genetic code with him.”) Despite some improbably glowing early reviews—many of which have the flavor of apology for the Yellow Dog business (cf. Kakutani)—the book is, unfortunately, disappointing on a couple of levels. It’s not nearly as good as we want it to be, but it’s also—heartbreakingly—not nearly as bad.