Shaun of the Dead on Dawn of the Dead

I wish I had a cooler story about the first time I saw George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. I’d like to say I snuck in to see it at a midnight show in Times Square back in 1978. I’d like to say I saw it in the gloriously appropriate surroundings of one of those cavernous shopping malls where the film was set. This simply isn’t the case, however. I was born in the West of England in 1974, so to be honest, even saying that I’d caught it at the infamous Scala Cinema in Kings Cross, London, would be a falsehood. My first viewing of Dawn of the Dead was on a bog standard VHS version put out by 4-Front video in the early ’90s. I watched it on a sunny afternoon in my bedroom after having rented it illegally from my local video shop. This was no random rental though. I was already sold.


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Desperately Seeking Susan Sontag

Terry Castle in the London Review of Books:

No doubt hundreds (thousands?) of people knew Susan Sontag better than I did. For ten years ours was an on-again, off-again, semi-friendship, constricted by role-playing and shot through in the end with mutual irritation. Over the years I laboured to hide my growing disillusion, especially during my last ill-fated visit to New York, when she regaled me – for the umpteenth time – about the siege of Sarajevo, the falling bombs, and how the pitiful Joan Baez had been too terrified to come out of her hotel room. Sontag flapped her arms and shook her big mannish hair – inevitably described in the press as a ‘mane’ – contemptuously. That woman is a fake! She tried to fly back to California the next day! I was there for months. Through all of the bombardment, of course, Terry. Then she ruminated. Had I ever met Baez? Was she a secret lesbian? I confessed that I’d once waited in line behind the folk singer at my cash machine (Baez lives near Stanford) and had taken the opportunity to inspect the hairs on the back of her neck. Sontag, who sensed a rival, considered this non-event for a moment, but after further inquiries, was reassured that I, her forty-something slave girl from San Francisco, still preferred her to Ms Diamonds and Rust.

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The Chemical Biologists

Patricia Thomas in Harvard Magazine:

Having an office that physically spans these two worlds is metaphorically perfect for Schreiber, Loeb professor of chemical biology and one of several Harvard scientists who have been chipping at the wall between chemistry and biology to make way for an interdisciplinary enterprise called chemical biology. One of Schreiber’s many contributions has been in helping to develop technology now used by nearly all chemical biologists: robotic equipment that rapidly screens thousands of “small molecules” to see if they perturb a specific biological activity. Small molecules are chemical compounds with a molecular weight of 500 Daltons or less — about one-fiftieth to one-hundredth the size of most proteins. Yet when a small molecule latches onto a receptive protein, the protein’s shape is changed in a way that can make it more — or less — able to carry out its mission in the cell.

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Did Black Death boost HIV immunity in Europe?

Michael Hopkin in Nature:

Devastating epidemics that swept Europe during the Middle Ages seem to have had an unexpected benefit – leaving 10% of today’s Europeans resistant to HIV infection.

But epidemics of which disease? Researchers claimed this week that plague helped boost our immunity to HIV, but rival teams are arguing that the credit should go to smallpox.

What is clear is that something has boosted the prevalence of a mutation that helps protect against the virus. The mutation, which affects a protein called CCR5 on the surface of white blood cells, prevents HIV from entering these cells and damaging the immune system.

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Stalin’s secret Hitler book to be published

Wire story from Reuters:

A secret biography of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler commissioned by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin is to be published later this month, the book’s British publisher said on Friday.

Stalin’s “Hitler Book” was presented to the Soviet dictator in December 1949, in a limited edition of one, and was put in his personal archive before being discovered by German historian Matthias Uhl in 2004.

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John Brockman at

In the early ’90s, I was visiting Cambridge and went out to dinner with the late Stephen Jay Gould. During a long evening of conversation we talked about his ideas concerning race, racial racial differences, racial equality, including his well-known writings on the use and misuse of IQ tests and other such measures. I came away from the conversation with the distinct sense that he believed there were some things better left unsaid, some areas of investigation that were out of bounds if he wanted to have a just society. Nothing strange here. His views were, and still are, consistent with the daily fare of the editorial pages of many of our important newspapers and magazines.

Armand Leroi, a biologist at Imperial College, feels differently. He loves what he calls “the problem of normal human variety”…

“Of course, there will be people who object. There will be people who will say that this is a revival of racial science”. Leroi argues that “there will always be people who wish to construct socially unjust theories about racial differences. And though it is true that science can be bent to evil ends, it is more often the case that injustice creeps in through the cracks of our ignorance than anything else. It is to finally close off those cracks that we should be studying the genetic basis of human variety.”

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Tiny Bubbles Implode With the Heat of a Star

Kenneth Chang in the New York Times:

StarWhen the force of sound waves implode tiny bubbles within a liquid at room temperature, the surface of the bubble can reach temperatures at least 25,000 degrees Fahrenheit, more than twice as hot as the surface of the sun, scientists reported this month.

The center of such a bubble may be even more astonishingly hot…

Their finding supports the intriguing notion that it may be possible to compress these bubbles so violently that vapor molecules in them are heated to multimillion-degree temperatures.

The phenomenon of imploding bubbles, called sonoluminescence because it emits a flash of light as the bubble collapses, has been increasingly studied since it was discovered 15 years ago.

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A scholar of the country music of the atom bomb

Cornelia Dean in the New York Times:

Some scholars study the atomic age by researching the bomb makers. Others delve into the physics of the nucleus, or the relations between East and West in the cold war.

Dr. Charles K. Wolfe listens to country music. In fact, he is a leading scholar of the country music of the atom bomb, a genre that flowered almost immediately after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II and faded away by the early 50’s.

For Dr. Wolfe, the bomb songs are a “bizarre” expression of a major theme in American folk music, the relationship of people and technology.

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March 14, 2005

MIA and LTTE terrorism

Since our last post on her, Maya Arulpragasm’s only gotten more exposure.  Her very limited tour in North America (LA, New York and Toronto) was well received.  At the same time, her LTTE sympathies are getting more exposure.  Does it help to make the Tigers more acceptable or is it, as one review of her new album Arular implies (registration required), serving to moderate the politics behind it?

“[A]s good as it is, Arular lacks something vital, though perhaps amorphous: danger. Sure, ‘Sunflowers’ is a sympathetic portrait of suicide bombing, but its poppy singsong chorus and overwhelming charm leads one to envision Harry himself getting down to it with Wills and the other inbred aristocrats at some London hotspot. As the similarly subcontinent-rooted Gayatri Spivak might say, M.I.A. is perilously close to becoming a native informant, spilling the secrets of her culture (and all ‘culture’ for mass consumption (and conception).”

Even if the song is great, and I do think it’s great, it’s hard not to read the lyrics to Sunshowers as an apology for indiscriminate suicide bombing and Tiger terrorism. (On reconsideration: maybe not so clearly an apology.)

“its a bomb yo
so run yo
put away your stupid gun yo
‘cos we see through like a protocol call
thats why we blow it up ‘fore we go

the sunshowers that fall on my troubles
are you over my baby
and some showers I’ll be aiming at you
‘cos i’m watching you my baby

semi-9 and snipered him
on that wall they posted him
they cornered him
And Then Just Murdered Him

he told them he didn’t know them
he wasn’t there they didn’t know him
they showed him a picture then
ain’t that you with the muslims?”

This Sunshowers video plays up the LTTE theme.

Camille Paglia: critics can no longer read, poets can no longer write

From The Daily Telegraph:

Camille_pagliaWhat fascinated me about English was what I later recognised as its hybrid etymology: blunt Anglo-Saxon concreteness, sleek Norman French urbanity, and polysyllabic Greco-Roman abstraction. The clash of these elements, as competitive as Italian dialects, is invigorating, richly entertaining and often funny, as it is to Shakespeare, who gets tremendous effects out of their interplay. The dazzling multiplicity of sounds and word choices in English makes it brilliantly suited to be a language of poetry. It’s why the pragmatic Anglo-American tradition (unlike effete French rationalism) doesn’t need poststructuralism: in English, usage depends upon context; the words jostle and provoke one another and mischievously shift their meanings over time.

English has evolved over the past century because of mass media and advertising, but the shadowy literary establishment in America, in and outside academe, has failed to adjust.

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An essentially uncurated, unselected, themeless, meaningless show at MoMA

Jed Perl writes about two art exhibits in The New Republic:

If the Brooke Alexander show is pure modern magic, the UBS show [at MoMA] is no-magic, an exercise in corporate art-think that sends out very depressing messages about where the Museum of Modern Art is headed. Going through The UBS Art Collection, which features some 40 works that are a promised gift to the museum, I felt as if I were visiting the preview for a high-end auction of recent art. It’s nothing but a gathering of the usual suspects: Guston, de Kooning, Ruscha, Judd, Close, Kiefer, Stella, Rothenberg, Sherman, and Struth. I admired certain things. But there was no curatorial mind at work; there was no process of selection, no sensibility involved. So why is the Modern, only months after reopening, mounting this essentially uncurated, unselected, themeless, meaningless show?

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Hitchens reconsiders the Ohio 2004 Presidential Vote

Hitchens revists the Ohio vote and re-opens questions from the day after the election.

“Machines are fallible and so are humans, and shit happens, to be sure, and no doubt many Ohio voters were able to record their choices promptly and without grotesque anomalies. But what strikes my eye is this: in practically every case where lines were too long or machines too few the foul-up was in a Democratic county or precinct, and in practically every case where machines produced impossible or improbable outcomes it was the challenger who suffered and the actual or potential Democratic voters who were shortchanged, discouraged, or held up to ridicule as chronic undervoters or as sudden converts to fringe-party losers.

This might argue in itself against any conspiracy or organized rigging, since surely anyone clever enough to pre-fix a vote would make sure, just for the look of the thing, that the discrepancies and obstructions were more evenly distributed. I called all my smartest conservative friends to ask them about this. Back came their answer: Look at what happened in Warren County. On Election Night, citing unspecified concerns about terrorism and homeland security, officials ‘locked down’ the Warren County administration building and prevented any reporters from monitoring the vote count. It was announced, using who knows what ‘scale,’ that on a scale of 1 to 10 the terrorist threat was a 10. It was also claimed that the information came from an F.B.I. agent, even though the F.B.I. denies that.

Warren County is certainly a part of Republican territory in Ohio: it went only 28 percent for Gore last time and 28 percent for Kerry this time. On the face of it, therefore, not a county where the G.O.P would have felt the need to engage in any voter ‘suppression.’ A point for the anti- conspiracy side, then. Yet even those exact-same voting totals have their odd aspect. In 2000, Gore stopped running television commercials in Ohio some weeks before the election. He also faced a Nader challenge. Kerry put huge resources into Ohio, did not face any Nader competition, and yet got exactly the same proportion of the Warren County votes.

Whichever way you shake it, or hold it to the light, there is something about the Ohio election that refuses to add up.”

On the Anniversary of the Madrid Bombings, the Islamic Commission of Spain issues a fatwa against bin Laden

CNN reports:

“Muslim clerics in Spain issued what they called the world’s first fatwa, or Islamic edict, against Osama bin Laden on Thursday, the first anniversary of the Madrid train bombings, calling him an apostate and urging others of their faith to denounce the al Qaeda leader.

The ruling was issued by the Islamic Commission of Spain, the main body representing the country’s 1 million-member Muslim community. The commission represents 200 or so mostly Sunni mosques, or about 70 percent of all mosques in Spain.

. . .

Asked if the edict meant Muslims had to help police try to arrest the world’s most wanted man — who is believed to be hiding along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan — Escudero said: ‘We don’t get involved in police affairs but we do feel that all Muslims are obliged to … keep anyone from doing unjustified damage to other people.'”

Salvador Dalí: Artist or kitsch-meister?

Lee Siegel in Slate:

01_breadbasketSalvador Dalí was a truly original artist. From the beginning, he painted real objects and people with a dreamlike precision; later, he would portray the strange shapes of his dreams with a vivid, mundane particularity. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, he painted like a visionary of the unconscious. But today he is dismissed by most critics and scholars as a venal schlock-monger because by 1936, when he appeared on the cover of Time, he had become an indefatigable and playfully self-conscious entrepreneur and self-promoter. Dalí created display windows for Bonwit-Teller; came up with an advertisement in Vogue for Bryans Hosiery; wrote a sensationalist autobiography; fashioned greeting cards for Hallmark; devised a computerized picture of Raquel Welch; made a hologram of Alice Cooper. This shrewd, practical man had once wanted, he irresistibly wrote in 1930, “to systematize confusion and contribute to the total discrediting of the world of reality.” Given this, Dalí’s whirlwind commercial activities seemed appallingly to consecrate the idea of inauthenticity and self-betrayal. Or did they?

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Can Terrorists Build the Bomb?

Michael Crowley in Popular Science:

…but of more than a dozen nuclear-arms experts I interviewed, almost all agreed that assembling a crude nuclear bomb, though extremely difficult, is by no means impossible.

Just ask Graham Allison. In his recent book Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, he concludes that a terrorist nuke attack is “inevitable” unless the U.S. works much harder and faster to safeguard nuclear material. A former assistant secretary of defense who served under President Bill Clinton and now teaches government at Harvard University, Allison is actually taking small bets from colleagues that terrorists will detonate a crude nuclear bomb in a U.S. city within a decade. “If this happened tomorrow,” he says, “I could almost explain it more easily than I could explain why it hasn’t happened.”

Not everyone is as alarmist as Allison. Most experts with whom I spoke said that a nuclear terror attack is plausible but not inevitable, and that there’s no way to precisely gauge the odds. “I don’t think the public ought to lose a lot of sleep over the issue,” says nuclear physicist Tom Cochran of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

There is a consensus, though, about how such a nightmare would unfold. What follows is an examination of each step a terrorist organization would need to take to pull off a nuclear attack, and what is being done to raise the hurdles.

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The “econophysics” of wealth distribution

Jenny Hogan in New Scientist:

99997107f1_1The rich are getting richer while the poor remain poor. If you doubt it, ponder these numbers from the US, a country widely considered meritocratic, where talent and hard work are thought to be enough to propel anyone through the ranks of the rich. In 1979, the top 1% of the US population earned, on average, 33.1 times as much as the lowest 20%. In 2000, this multiplier had grown to 88.5. If inequality is growing in the US, what does this mean for other countries?

Almost certainly more of the same, if you believe physicists who are using new models based on simple physical laws to understand the distribution of wealth. Their studies indicate that inequality in market economies may be very hard to get rid of.

Economists will join physicists to discuss these issues next week in Kolkata, India, at the first ever conference on the “econophysics” of wealth distribution. “We are interested in understanding whether there is some kind of social injustice behind this skewed distribution,” says Sudhakar Yarlagadda of the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics (SINP) in Kolkata.

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Shock the Casbah

Jody Rosen in the New York Times:

13rosen_1The Algerian singer-songwriter Rachid Taha, 46, likes to tell the story about the night he met the Clash. In 1981, when he was the leader of Carte de Séjour (“Residence Permit”), a pioneering band from Lyon, France, that combined Algerian rai with funk and punk rock, the Clash played a concert at the Théâtre Mogador in Paris. Mr. Taha, a huge fan, bumped into the band on the street outside the theater and handed them a copy of his group’s demo. He never heard back, but a year later the Clash released “Rock the Casbah,” a raucous sendup of Middle Eastern politics with a suspiciously Carte de Séjour-like sound: slashing electric guitar, a dance beat and a lead vocal by Joe Strummer filled with undulating Orientalisms. To this day, Mr. Taha says he believes that his recordings inspired the song. “How else could they have come up with it?” he asks with a grin.

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Kathryn Hughes in The Guardian:

Holbein_janesmall1 Ever since its earliest days, limning (to give miniature painting its original name) has been the subject of a certain status anxiety. Practitioners and commentators have worried that it is not art at all, but itsy-bitsy hackwork. Or, conversely, that it is not an artisanal craft suitable for men, but merely a hobby for ladies. Or that it is an instrument of the court, full of pomp but not much else. Or, that it is small and domestic, a toy art.

Yet alongside this anxious babble is the work itself, an unarguable four centuries’ worth of small marvels…

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March 13, 2005

The power of broccoli

Broccili_1Reported in Health News:

A University of Illinois researcher is learning about the anti-cancer power of one of the most famous vegetables: University of Illinois researcher Elizabeth Jeffery has learned how to maximize the cancer-fighting power of broccoli. It involves heating broccoli just enough to eliminate a sulfur-grabbing protein, but not enough to stop the plant from releasing an important cancer-fighting compound called sulforaphane.

The discovery of this sulfur-grabbing protein in the Jeffery lab makes it possible to maximize the amount of the anticarcinogen sulforaphane in broccoli.

“As scientists, we learned that sulforaphane is maximized when broccoli has been heated 10 minutes at 140 degrees Fahrenheit,” said Jeffery. “For the consumer, who cannot readily hold the temperature as low as 140 degrees, that means the best way to prepare broccoli is to steam it lightly about 3 or 4 minutes–until the broccoli is tough-tender.”

Read more here.