The Template for Public Grief

The incomparable Iain Sinclair has a new LRB essay on the aftermath in London:

They waited patiently, with plastic water and floral tributes, for their turn in the small garden of remembrance that had established itself around a tree in a fenced-off corner of the station frontage, between Euston Road and York Way. Despite the sombre aspect of the witnesses, this multi-faith shrine felt Mexican: a mass of conflicting colours, adapted football shirts, written-over flags, pink bears, white dogs. Sunlight dazzled on cellophane. The trunk of the sturdy whitebeam disappeared into a mound of banked flowers. A woman in a Red Cross uniform stood beside the tree with a Kleenex box held discreetly behind her back. At the point of entry, further boxes of two-ply tissues were stacked, ready to cope with an outpouring of confused emotion. An unnoticed accident of railway architecture, a suitable nowhere, was the sanctioned memory site, a cloister of mummified flowers.

Read the whole essay here.

I’m reminded of the fact that the first time we went down to the World Trade Center site to witness the collapsed buildings and smoking wreckage piled up stories high, there were National Guardsmen posted at Broadway and Maiden who were also equipped with boxes of tissues. We needed them, too.

Source of Poison Frogs’ Deadly Defenses: Careful Food Consumption

From Scientific American:

Frog The poison frogs of Central and South America are as deadly as they are beautiful, thanks to chemicals called alkaloids that they secrete through their skin. Indeed, the venom from a single golden poison frog, for example, can kill 10 humans. Now researchers have unlocked the secrets of their counterparts in Madagascar and found that they employ the same method of acquiring thier toxins: through careful food consumption. Studies of frogs in the Neotropics indicated that a diet rich in ants provided the alkaloids.

More here.

Wild Things: The Most Extreme Creatures

Mono_lake_03From Live Science:

Toxitolerant organisms can withstand high levels of damaging agents. They can be found swimming around in benzene saturated water or in the core of a nuclear reactor. One species of bacteria, Deinococcus radiodurans, can withstand a 15,000 gray dose of radiation – 10 grays would kill a human and it takes over 1,000 grays to kill a cockroach. Extraterrestrial life forms would most likely need to possess similar tolerances to radiation, as the atmosphere on other planets, or lack thereof, filters out much less radiation than Earth’s. “If it works this way on Earth, it’s likely to happen elsewhere,” says Spear, the University of Colorado scientist. “When you look up at the stars, there is a lot of hydrogen in the universe.”

More here.

gratuitous george w. jokes

The full title of this piece from Matt Alexander at McSweeney’s is: ALTHOUGH
Here are a few samples.

Q: How many telemarketers does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A: Wouldn’t a more relevant question be “How many pounds of cocaine has Bush snorted?”

A doctor, a lawyer, and an accountant all die and go to heaven on the same day. When they get to the Pearly Gates, they are greeted by St. Peter. St. Peter says, “Scott McClellan is a lying sack of shit and I’d tell him so myself if he weren’t going straight to hell when he dies.”

Did you hear that Bill Clinton hired a new intern? It turns out that his old intern had to go home and spend time with her family after her brother was killed in Iraq.

documenting upheaval

From The Art

Documenting the Islamic revolution in Iran as an eye witness and active participant, Akbar Nazemi took thousands of photographs out on the streets of Tehran, from the mass protests and rallies during the fall of 1978 to the overthrow of the government the following year. He would record the turbulent events of the day and then develop his film and distribute protest flyers at night. Smuggled out of Iran in the late 80s, when Nazemi emigrated to Canada with his family, these negatives reveal the minute details of one of the greatest political upheavals of modern times, from moments of joy and cooperation among the protesters to instances of rioting and extreme violence. More than 100 of these photographs are on view at the Art Gallery of Windsor, Canada, in Akbar Nazemi: unsent dispatches from the Iranian Revolution (6 August-16 November).

Telling Stories: Winslow Homer at the National Gallery

Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker:

050808mast_9_r14344_p198Winslow Homer’s first oil painting, which he made in 1863, when he was a twenty-six-year-old freelancer illustrating Civil War scenes for Harper’s Weekly, shows a Union sharpshooter in a tree, balancing a rifle for an imminent shot. The man’s perch is precarious. His concentration is total. Nature—soft tufts of dusky foliage, scraps of yellowish sky—attends indifferently. Decades later, Homer recalled having peered at a man through the telescopic sight of a sharpshooter’s weapon. The impression, he wrote in a letter, “struck me as being as near murder as anything I could think of in connection with the army & I always had a horror of that branch of the service.” This compunction, which I encountered in a text accompanying an engraving of the same subject in a current show at the National Gallery, in Washington, D.C., of about fifty Homers from the museum’s collection, surprises me not for its content but because I don’t think of the extraordinarily stolid Homer as having opinions.

More here.


Diana Abu-Jaber review Modern Arabic Fiction: An Anthology, edited by Salma Khadra Jayyusi, in The Washington Post:

Ph2005080401603I gave a reading, years ago, after which one of the audience members commented that I “write like an Arab.” At the time, I was too startled to say much more than “Thank you.” Such a statement, however, is troubling to anyone who resists the notion that race carries with it some sort of innate sensibility. Indeed, for a fair-skinned, American-raised, Irish-Arab like myself, the notion of race itself is entirely questionable.

Cultural representation is always a tricky business. Authors who attempt to bridge cultures are accused of all sorts of insufficiencies and betrayals. And while Edward Said’s ground-breaking work Orientalism (1978) attacked the artificial divisions between the so-called “East” and “West,” the ideological divide between America and the Arabic-speaking countries sometimes seems as impassable as ever. One of the challenges for readers living in a time of fear is the deep silence that such anxiety and repression engender. But for some of us, a repressive state of affairs just makes us all the more curious.

So it is fortunate indeed that a timely, ambitious anthology has appeared to help break the silence.

More here.

Entrenched Epidemic: Wife-Beatings in Africa

Sharon LaFraniere in the New York Times:

Women184_1Women suffer from violence in every society. In few places, however, is the abuse more entrenched, and accepted, than in sub-Saharan Africa. One in three Nigerian women reported having been physically abused by a male partner, according to the latest study, conducted in 1993. The wife of the deputy governor of a northern Nigerian province told reporters last year that her husband beat her incessantly, in part because she watched television movies. One of President Olusegun Obasanjo’s appointees to a national anticorruption commission was allegedly killed by her husband in 2000, two days after she asked the state police commissioner to protect her.

“It is like it is a normal thing for women to be treated by their husbands as punching bags,” Obong Rita Akpan, until last month Nigeria’s minister for women’s affairs, said in an interview here. “The Nigerian man thinks that a woman is his inferior. Right from childhood, right from infancy, the boy is preferred to the girl. Even when they marry out of love, they still think the woman is below them and they do whatever they want.”

In Zambia, nearly half of women surveyed said a male partner had beaten them, according to a 2004 study financed by the United States – the highest percentage of nine developing nations surveyed on three continents.

More here.

A handy guide to chuggers in pelmets

Helen Carter in The Guardian:

On your way into work today you may have been stopped by a chugger. It is possible you made several calls on your handy and passed many greige buildings and people wearing pelmets.

Confused? These are some of the new words and phrases to appear in the revised second edition of the Oxford Dictionary of English, the press’s biggest single-volume dictionary of current English. A chugger is a charity mugger – a person who approaches passersby in the street asking for donations or subscriptions to a charity. A handy is a mobile phone and greige is the colour between grey and beige. Pelmet is slang for a very short skirt.

The dictionary contains many more insulting words than compliments. It has 350 ways of insulting someone, but only 40 compliments such as lush [meaning very good].

Insults include old-fashioned favourites such as clot or chump and the more modern muppet or fribble and gink.

There are 50 ways to describe attractive women, including eye candy and cutie, but only 20 ways of describing good-looking men; Greek god being an extremely handsome man.

The list also reflects the increasing influence of our multicultural society. There is desi (or deshi), a person of Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi birth or descent who lives abroad. Also Hinglish – a blend of Hindi and English characterised by frequent use of Hindi vocabulary or constructions.

More here.

Chernobyl ecosystems ‘remarkably healthy’

Michael Hopkin in Nature:

NuclearChernobyl’s ecosystems seem to be bouncing back, 19 years after the region was blasted with radiation from the ill-fated reactor. Researchers who have surveyed the land around the old nuclear power plant in present-day Ukraine say that biodiversity is actually higher than before the disaster.

Some 100 species on the IUCN Red List of threatened species are now found in the evacuated zone, which covers more than 4,000 square kilometres in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, says Viktor Dolin, who studies the environmental effects of radioactivity at the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences in Kiev. Around 40 of these, including some species of bear and wolf, were not seen there before the accident.

If animals at the top of the food chain are present, then the plants and animals they eat must also be thriving…

More here.

The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics

Review by Peter Rickman in Philosophy Now:

This is a substantial volume of more than 800 pages and weighing nearly four pounds. Reading it in bed or on the bus is not recommended. Its ugly cover showing part of a plain face challenges our aesthetic judgement. The forty-eight chapters – in fact independent essays by thirty-eight predominately American authors – represent a comprehensive account of philosophical aesthetics practiced within the Anglo-American world. The approach is predominantly indebted to analytic philosophy and focused on contemporary debates on Aesthetics, i.e. developments of the last fifty years. However, this limitation is not a straightjacket. There are inevitably frequent references to Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Hegel and more recent writers on the subject such as Tolstoy, Dewey, Croce, Collingwood and Heidegger.

There are traditional, familiar and pervasive questions about aesthetic experiences and judgements that have received conflicting answers and surface again and again in these essays. There is, for instance, the question whether there is a distinct area for aesthetics defined in terms of specific formal characteristics or whether it is a pervasive feature of life that cannot be separated from living. In other words, can we always distinguish clearly between finding a woman or the portrait of a woman beautiful and finding her sexually attractive? Can we find an article aesthetically pleasing while repelled by its immoral implications?

Another problem is how we can be moved by fictional events and sympathise with characters we know do not exist such as Anna Karenina or the heroine of a soap opera. Moreover, how is it possible for audiences and readers to enjoy being distressed by imaginary tragic events?

More generally; do the same aesthetic criteria apply to natural phenomena and to art? What criteria are there for judging aesthetic value? Are there objective facts we can recognize as relevant, or is it all a matter of subjective feeling – and if the latter, can we account for the widespread belief that there are standards of valuation?

Finally, in my list that does not claim to be exhaustive, there is the question of whether art provides us with some kinds of knowledge, say insight into human nature or moral value?

More here.

Turning ‘Unknown’ Into ‘Unknowable’

Bob McHenry in Tech Central Station:

Free_2One of the defects of democracy is that we usually have quite ordinary persons as our leaders. Sometimes this doesn’t matter; their particular defects don’t bear upon public affairs, or the times are sufficiently placid that it just doesn’t matter that they drink, or play too much poker, or cultivate friends of doubtful character, or whatever.

These are not such times. The President’s ignorance of science might have remained a private matter, but he chose to speak on the subject of evolution and “intelligent design.” This is a great pity.

Science — from the loftiest of theorizing (like that of Einstein or, oh, Darwin) through the conducting of painstakingly difficult experiments to the application of new knowledge to the improvement of human life — science, I say, is the chief engine of our society. The great bulk of business entrepreneurs so celebrated in certain circles as the movers and shakers have made their marks by exploiting the knowledge gained by scientists.

Even its opponents grant the prestige and accomplishments of science by pretending to do science themselves, whether in the form of “e-meters” that turn galvanic skin responses into signs of mystic energy flows in the body or in that of ID, which artfully turns “unknown” into “unknowable” in a flourish of bad math and illogic.

More here.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Literary heavyweights dominate Booker longlist

Sarah Crown in The Guardian:

Somewhere out there, 17 authors are having an extremely good day. This year’s Booker judges eschewed the tendency of panels of recent years to run to 20 or even 30 authors, and instead kept numbers tight on a longlist that is stuffed to bursting with literary heavyweights.

On a list lacking any great surprises, shoo-ins such as Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro, both previous winners, whose novels Saturday and Never Let Me Go were hotly tipped as Booker contenders from the moment of their publication – were joined by two-time Booker-winner and 2003 Nobel laureate JM Coetzee. Salman Rushdie, who has also picked up the £50,000 cheque once before, in 1981 for Midnight’s Children, made the list for his as-yet-unpublished Shalimar the Clown. Zadie Smith also features with an unpublished novel; her third book, On Beauty, is due out in early September.

Other big names include Julian Barnes, Hilary Mantel and Ali Smith, while of the three first novels on the list, the most high profile is Marina Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, which was shortlisted for this year’s Orange Prize for Fiction. The longlist was chosen from 109 entries.

More here.

‘Hangover gene’ is key to alcohol tolerance

Gaia Vince in New Scientist:

A gene that helps fruit flies develop alcohol tolerance has been found – and named “hangover”. The gene also controls the flies’ response to stress, and the researchers say that a similar pathway linking alcohol tolerance and stress probably functions in humans.

The findings may explain why people who have been in a stressful situation often have a blunted response to alcohol and may drink more to feel inebriated, experts say, putting them at greater risk of becoming addicted.

Ulrike Heberlein at the University of California at San Francisco, US, and Henrike Scholz from the University of Würzburg in Germany, exposed fruit flies to ethanol vapour. Intoxicated fruit flies show similar behaviour to tipsy humans: they lack coordination and postural control and then fall asleep. It took the flies an average of 20 minutes to recover following their exposure.

More here.

Remote-Controlled Humans

Leah Hoffmann in Forbes:

Smiling nervously, the young woman walks forward in a straight line. Suddenly, she veers to the right. She stumbles and stops, attempting to regain her balance, and continues to walk forward. And then she veers off to the left.

No, she’s not intoxicated. The young lady’s vestibular system, which controls her sense of movement and balance, has been thrown off-kilter by two weak electrical currents delivered just behind her ears. (Click here to see video of a remotely controlled woman.)

This sort of electrical stimulation is known as galvanic vestibular stimulation, or GVS. When a weak DC current is delivered to the mastoid behind your ear, your body responds by shifting your balance toward the anode. The stronger the current, the more powerful its pull. If it is strong enough, it not only throws you off balance but alters the course of your movement.

GVS has been known about for at least a century, but it attracted relatively little interest until the last 20 years.

More here.

A Philosophy of Boredom

Maria Antonietta Perna in Metapsychology:

It might sound odd, but to a philosopher boredom is not boring at all.  Indeed, to the reflective reader the subject of boredom reveals itself as being surprisingly fascinating.  Perhaps one might advance the hypothesis that embarking on the adventure of gaining understanding constitutes the most effective antidote the victim of boredom has at her disposal.  The effect of such a remedy is further enhanced, one might suggest, when it is in some significant aspect of human existence that new insight is acquired, even when the aspect in question is none other than boredom.  In any event, reading Lars Svendsen’s A Philosophy of Boredom, one becomes captivated by the phenomenon itself and enriched with historico-cultural knowledge of both past and contemporary views of it.

More here.

What’s My Name, Fool?

Dave Zirin in The Nation:

In The Godfather, Part II, dying mob boss Hyman Roth wheezes the obscene truth to young Don Michael Corleone. “Michael,” he whispers, “We’re bigger than US Steel.” This scene updated for 2004 could have Yankees kingpin George Steinbrenner booming at pubescent Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, “Screw US Steel. We’re bigger than the damn mafia.” Just like Hyman Roth, “Big Stein” would be telling no lies. Professional sports are now the tenth largest industry in the United States, generating $220 billion in revenue every year. And just like Roth’s rackets, it’s a business that stinks to high heaven.

If, in 1900, a forward thinking person had predicted that sports would some day stand as one of the great pillars of American industry, that person would have been proclaimed mad and then subjected to some combination of leeching and lobotomy. The Victorian idea that sports undermined character and promoted a slothful work ethic dominated most people’s perceptions of organized play.

More here.

Tragic Realism

From The Village Voice:Rushdie_4

It breaks a village: In Rushdie’s latest book, a cuckold turns to terrorism. If Salman Rushdie were a character in one of his own ornate epics, his rise to international notoriety as the target of a fatwa would be portrayed as his destiny. The events of Rushdie’s life are allegory for the unavoidable world-historical collision between rootless cosmopolitanism and theocratic absolutism, between civilization (with its values of secularism, skepticism, and relativism) and the gathering forces of a new medievalism. His greatest novels—Midnight’s Children, Shame, The Satanic Verses, and The Moor’s Last Sigh—percolate around just this kind of conflict, as India, or some subset of the subcontinent, tears itself apart. Rushdie repeatedly returns to the primal scene of a paradise squandered.

In his latest novel, Shalimar the Clown, the lost Eden is Kashmir, that landlocked sliver of loveliness caught in a bloody geopolitical tug-of-war between Pakistan and India in the aftermath of independence from Britain in 1947. Intertwined with an overripe love story is another tale altogether: the history of a country corroded and soured by sectarian struggle, deteriorating from a lively playground of legends and folk art into a breeding ground for terrorism.

More here.

Explaining Those Vivid Memories of Martian Kidnappers

From The New York Times:

Dreams “Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens,” by Susan Clancy.” People who have memories of being abducted by aliens become hardened skeptics, of a kind. They dismiss the procession of scientists who explain away the memories as illusions or fantasy. They scoff at talk about hypnosis or the unconscious processing of Hollywood scripts. And they hold their ground amid snickers from a public that thinks that they are daft or psychotic.

They are neither, it turns out, and their experiences should be taken as seriously as any strongly held exotic beliefs, according to Susan Clancy, a Harvard psychologist who interviewed dozens of self-described abductees as part of a series of memory studies over the last several years. In her book “Abducted,” due in October, Dr. Clancy, a psychologist at Harvard, manages to refute and defend these believers, and along the way provide a discussion of current research into memory, emotion and culture that renders abduction stories understandable, if not believable.

More here.

onward to mars


The quest to explore a rust-colored world that has captured humanity’s imagination enters a new phase with Wednesday’s scheduled launch of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. From NASA’s first successful Mars flyby 30 years ago to the twin rovers scuttling across Martian craters today, scientists have only scratched the surface in describing how the planet is put together, how it evolved, and most provocatively, whether it had – or still has – conditions that could cradle simple life forms. Now, scientists aim to get under Mars’ skin.

more from The Christian Science Monitor here.