…And It’s Good For You Too: Some Research on Blogging

Jessica Wapner in Scientific American:

Self-medication may be the reason the blogosphere has taken off. Scientists (and writers) have long known about the therapeutic benefits of writing about personal experiences, thoughts and feelings. But besides serving as a stress-coping mechanism, expressive writing produces many physiological benefits. Research shows that it improves memory and sleep, boosts immune cell activity and reduces viral load in AIDS patients, and even speeds healing after surgery. A study in the February issue of the Oncologist reports that cancer patients who engaged in expressive writing just before treatment felt markedly better, mentally and physically, as compared with patients who did not.

Scientists now hope to explore the neurological underpinnings at play, especially considering the explosion of blogs. According to Alice Flaherty, a neuroscientist at Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital, the placebo theory of suffering is one window through which to view blogging. As social creatures, humans have a range of pain-related behaviors, such as complaining, which acts as a “placebo for getting satisfied,” Flaherty says. Blogging about stressful experiences might work similarly.

Flaherty, who studies conditions such as hypergraphia (an uncontrollable urge to write) and writer’s block, also looks to disease models to explain the drive behind this mode of communication. For example, people with mania often talk too much. “We believe something in the brain’s limbic system is boosting their desire to communicate,” Flaherty explains. Located mainly in the midbrain, the limbic system controls our drives, whether they are related to food, sex, appetite, or problem solving. “You know that drives are involved [in blogging] because a lot of people do it compulsively,” Flaherty notes. Also, blogging might trigger dopamine release, similar to stimulants like music, running and looking at art.

An Excerpt from Unaccustomed Earth

Unaccustomedearth In the Guardian, an excerpt from Jhumpa Lahiri’s new book, Unaccustomed Earth:

Occasionally a postcard would arrive in Seattle, where Ruma and Adam and their son Akash lived. The postcards showed the facades of churches, stone fountains, crowded piazzas, terracotta rooftops mellowed by late afternoon sun. Nearly fifteen years had passed since Ruma’s only European adventure, a month-long EuroRail holiday she’d taken with two girlfriends after college, with money saved up from her salary as a paralegal. She’d slept in shabby pensions, practicing a frugality that was foreign to her at this stage of her life, buying nothing but variations of the same postcards her father sent now. Her father wrote succinct, impersonal accounts of the things he had seen and done: “Yesterday the Uffizi Gallery. Today a walk to the other side of the Arno. A trip to Siena scheduled tomorrow.” Occasionally there was a sentence about the weather. But there was never a sense of her father’s presence in those places. Ruma was reminded of the telegrams her parents used to send to their relatives long ago, after visiting Calcutta and safely arriving back in Pennsylvania.The postcards were the first pieces of mail Ruma had received from her father. In her thirty-eight years he’d never had any reason to write to her. It was a one-sided correspondence; his trips were brief enough so that there was no time for Ruma to write back, and besides, he was not in a position to receive mail on his end. Her father’s penmanship was small, precise, slightly feminine; her mother’s had been a jumble of capital and lowercase, as though she’d learned to make only one version of each letter. The cards were addressed to Ruma; her father never included Adam’s name, or mentioned Akash. It was only in his closing that he acknowledged any personal connection between them.

Destination Moon

From Geotimes:

As I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come … I’d like to just [say] what I believe history will record — that America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.

Moon On Dec. 17, 1972, Eugene A. Cernan, the commander of Apollo 17, said these words as he took a last look around at the stark moonscape of the Taurus-Littrow Valley on the southeastern rim of the moon’s Mare Serenitatis crater. Then, he and Harrison Schmitt, the lunar module’s pilot and the only geologist-astronaut to walk on the moon, stepped back into the lunar module one last time to return to Earth. Due to NASA’s shrinking budget and to make room for the space shuttle program, Apollo 17 was the last of NASA’s pioneering manned missions to the moon. But even then, no one imagined that it would be more than three decades before humans returned.

Later this year, however, NASA plans to launch its first new missions to the moon in more than 35 years. The goal: To scope out likely spots to land and create a habitat where astronauts can stay for longer than the Apollo program ever dreamed.

More here.

Partial Recall

From The New York Times:

Dunn190 Behind all the good-natured joking about “senior moments” lies real frustration and fear. How empowering, then, that we can do something to ward off normal, age-related memory loss: exercise. No, it’s not as easy as popping a pill. But as Sue Halpern reports in “Can’t Remember What I Forgot,” even a few brisk walks per week can have a measurable effect. Exercise promotes the birth of new neurons in the very part of the hippocampus (a brain structure crucial to forming new memories) that begins to malfunction with age. Exercise also counters age-related shrinking of the prefrontal cortex, an area involved in concentration and working memory (as in remembering a phone number long enough to dial).

Of course, if you’re unwilling to exercise for your health, or even to look good in a bathing suit, perhaps you’re still hoping for an easier solution. The problem, Halpern explains, is that solid, peer-reviewed science has not yet proved that anything else works: not herbal supplements, fish oil, vitamin E, almonds, $400 interactive computer software or even crossword puzzles. (After reading her section on blueberries, however, you’ll want to buy them by the bucketful.)

More here.

Sunday Poem

Just a little time with you upon the gleaming sea,
just a little time will do and the time will make us free.
–from a song

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
William Shakespeare

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf Heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least:
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee,–and then my state
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings’.


Gore Vidal: Literary feuds, his ‘vicious’ mother and rumours of a secret love child

He slept with Kerouac, hung out with Jackie O and feuded with Mailer. He’s the last surviving giant of American literature’s golden age. So why is Gore Vidal still so sensitive about his reputation?

Interview by Robert Chalmers in The Independent:

Frontpage250508_29267sSeventeen years have passed, I remind Gore Vidal, since he told a reporter: “This is the last interview I shall ever give. I am in the departure lounge of life.” “So where are you now? Tray table in the upright position, footrest stowed, taxiing towards the runway?”

The writer gives me a mutinous look. “How do you know that I didn’t leave? Actually, I’m more fearful of airplanes than I am of my own mechanism, because I know how to run it.

I’ve had diabetes for 20 years. I have a titanium knee. Which is quite strong. But don’t ask for it in the middle of the night.”

With Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller and Norman Mailer gone, Gore Vidal, 82, is the last truly legendary figure from a golden age of American literature. “Serene” is his favourite word, though this is an adjective he employs rather than evokes: headlines he has inspired include “Into The Lion’s Den” and “Cross Him If You Dare”. That said, he looks tranquil enough this afternoon, an elderly ginger cat dozing on his knee, and a half-finished tumbler of whisky by his side. The expression he wears in photographs from his prime – a curious mixture of disdain and sensuality – has not altogether faded.

More here.

The Library in the New Age

Robert Darnton in the New York Review of Books:

BooksInformation is exploding so furiously around us and information technology is changing at such bewildering speed that we face a fundamental problem: How to orient ourselves in the new landscape? What, for example, will become of research libraries in the face of technological marvels such as Google?

How to make sense of it all? I have no answer to that problem, but I can suggest an approach to it: look at the history of the ways information has been communicated. Simplifying things radically, you could say that there have been four fundamental changes in information technology since humans learned to speak.

Somewhere, around 4000 BC, humans learned to write. Egyptian hieroglyphs go back to about 3200 BC, alphabetical writing to 1000 BC. Accord-ing to scholars like Jack Goody, the invention of writing was the most important technological breakthrough in the history of humanity. It transformed mankind’s relation to the past and opened a way for the emergence of the book as a force in history.

More here.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Orderly Universe: Evidence of God?

John Allen Paulos at ABC News:

Screenhunter_03_may_25_1113Since writing my book “Irreligion” and some of my recent Who’s Counting columns, I’ve received a large number of e-mails from subscribers to creation science (who have recently christened themselves intelligent design theorists). Some of the notes have been polite, some vituperative, but almost all question “how order and complexity can arise out of nothing.”

…Because the seemingly inexplicable arising of order seems to be so critical to so many, however, I’ve decided to list here a few other sources for naturally occurring order in physics, math, and biology. Of course, order, complexity, entropy, randomness and related notions are clearly and utterly impossible to describe and disentangle in a column like this, but the examples below from “Irreligion” hint at some of the abstract ideas relevant to the arising of what has been called “order for free.”

Necessarily Some Order

Let me begin by noting that even about the seemingly completely disordered, we can always say something. No universe could be completely random at all levels of analysis.

In physics, this idea is illustrated by the kinetic theory of gases. There an assumption of disorder on one formal level of analysis, the random movement of gas molecules, leads to a kind of order on a higher level, the relations among variables such as temperature, pressure and volume known as the gas laws. The law-like relations follow from the lower-level randomness and a few other minimal assumptions. (This bit of physics does not mean that life has evolved simply by chance, a common mischaracterization of evolution.)

More here.

Want to Be My Boyfriend? Please Define

Maguerite Fields in the New York Times:

Screenhunter_02_may_25_1051_2Just before Valentine’s Day this year, Sunday Styles did something very unromantic: we asked college students nationwide to tell the plain truth about what love is like for them. We weren’t sure what to expect, but we thought we wouldn’t receive many essays about red roses and white tablecloths…

…Five of these essays will appear as the Modern Love column, starting today with Marguerite Fields’s winning entry, “Want to Be My Boyfriend? Please Define,” an eloquent, clear-eyed account of her generation’s often noncommittal dating scene. On the Sundays between Mother’s Day (May 11) and Father’s Day (June 15), we will publish the four runner-up essays.

Want to Be My Boyfriend? Please Define


RECENTLY my mother asked me to clarify what I meant when I said I was dating someone, versus when I was hooking up with someone, versus when I was seeing someone. And I had trouble answering her because the many options overlap and blur in my mind. But at one point, four years ago, I had a boyfriend. And I know he was my boyfriend because he said, “I want you to be my girlfriend,” and I said, “O.K.”

More here.  [Thanks to Margit Oberrauch.]

Israelis and Arabs Walk Into a Film …

Dave Itzkoff in the New York Times:

Screenhunter_01_may_25_1039About eight years ago Mr. Sandler conceived of the Zohan character, an Israeli assassin who has been trained to hate and kill Arabs; exhausted by the ceaseless bloodshed, he fakes his own death and flees to New York to become a hairdresser. There he finds Jews and Arabs living together in grudging if not quite harmonious tolerance.

At the time, Mr. Sandler (who rarely if ever gives interviews to the print news media) delegated the script to Mr. Smigel, who had frequently written for him on “Saturday Night Live,” and Judd Apatow, a former roommate of Mr. Sandler’s, who was not yet the one-man comedy juggernaut of “Knocked Up” and “40-Year-Old Virgin” fame.

Both writers found “Zohan” a subversive, somewhat improbable assignment. “There was always this question of, can you make this movie?” Mr. Apatow said in a phone interview. “Because it is making fun of the fact that people are so mad at each other.”

After the 2001 terrorist attacks, Mr. Sandler and his screenwriters shelved the first draft of the script, which so mercilessly sent up stereotypes of its characters that, Mr. Apatow said, “it’s like a Don Rickles routine: no one doesn’t get hurt.”

More here.

Measure for Measure

From The Boston Globe:

Microscope IT’S NOT SUCH a good time to be a literary scholar.

For generations, the study of literature has been a pillar of liberal education, a prime forum for cultural self-examination, and a favorite major for students seeking deeper understanding of the human experience. But over the last decade or so, more and more literary scholars have agreed that the field has become moribund, aimless, and increasingly irrelevant to the concerns not only of the “outside world,” but also to the world inside the ivory tower. Class enrollments and funding are down, morale is sagging, huge numbers of PhDs can’t find jobs, and books languish unpublished or unpurchased because almost no one, not even other literary scholars, wants to read them. The latest author to take the flagging pulse of the field is Yale’s William Deresiewicz. Writing recently in The Nation, he described a discipline suffering “an epochal loss of confidence” and “losing its will to live.” Deresiewicz’s alarming conclusion: “The real story of academic literary criticism today is that the profession is, however slowly, dying.”

Though the causes of the crisis are multiple and complex, I believe the dominant factor is easily identified: We literary scholars have mostly failed to generate surer and firmer knowledge about the things we study. While most other fields gradually accumulate new and durable understanding about the world, the great minds of literary studies have, over the past few decades, chiefly produced theories and speculation with little relevance to anyone but the scholars themselves. So instead of steadily building a body of solid knowledge about literature, culture, and the human condition, the field wanders in continuous circles, bending with fashions and the pronouncements of its charismatic leaders. I think there is a clear solution to this problem. Literary studies should become more like the sciences. Literature professors should apply science’s research methods, its theories, its statistical tools, and its insistence on hypothesis and proof. Instead of philosophical despair about the possibility of knowledge, they should embrace science’s spirit of intellectual optimism. If they do, literary studies can be transformed into a discipline in which real understanding of literature and the human experience builds up along with all of the words.

More here.

Jihadi Suicide Bombers: The New Wave

Ahmed Rashid in the New York Review of Books:

Rashid200When Osama bin Laden decided to launch a jihad against the US and the West from his new base in Afghanistan in 1996, few took him seriously. Several developments at that time got little attention from Western governments as Afghanistan became the incubator of a new, Arab-led “global jihad” against the West. The fifteen-year-long insurrection against the Indian government of Kashmir introduced the skills of suicide bombing to South Asia. The endless civil war in Somalia eliminated any clear center of power there and freewheeling jihadist groups emerged in the chaos. The Israeli–Palestinian conflict was seen as becoming increasingly insoluble. President Clinton’s failed attempt to foster peace at the end of his administration came just as many Palestinians were beginning to embrace more extremist Islamic ideas.

Two of the books under review are so illuminating about this twilight period in the 1990s that I even wonder if September 11 could have been averted if they had been published a decade earlier. One is Omar Nasiri’s Inside the Jihad, a first-person account by a Moroccan-born spy who infiltrated Islamist groups on behalf of European intelligence organizations in the 1990s; the other is Brynjar Lia’s Architect of Global Jihad, a Norwegian scholar’s account of a top al-Qaeda strategist named Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, who was arrested in Pakistan in 2005 and handed over to the US. He is now one of the “rendered” or disappeared prisoners. Both books are about men who were trained in terrorist camps in Afghanistan in the early 1990s—when bin Laden was not even there—and who then traveled across Europe to mobilize Muslims for the emerging global jihad. The Afghan camps were providing military and technical training, ideological education, and new global networks well before al-Qaeda arrived on the scene.

Yet the young men who trained in these camps were not educated in the Islamic schools called madrasas and they were inspired less by extremist Islamic ideology than by their desires to see the world, handle weapons, and have a youthful adventure. It was a boy’s world of reality games. “I realized that I had dreamed of this moment for years,” writes Nasiri—a nom de plume.

More here.

Jefferson, Buffon and the Moose

Keith Stewart Thompson in American Scientist:

Screenhunter_05_may_24_1844In 1781, in the midst of the American Revolutionary War, the British army rousted Thomas Jefferson from his home in Monticello. Politically unpopular, he retired from the governorship of Virginia and threw himself into writing. The result was his only book, Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), in which, among other topics, he famously defended his country against those Europeans who said that the Americas (North, South and Central) were unhealthy places populated by lesser animals and plants, compared with those of the Old World, and inhabited by peoples who were similarly weak and degenerate.

The immediate source of these libels was Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, written in 44 quarto volumes between 1749 and 1809 by Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, and his associates. A product of the age of French encyclopedists, Histoire naturelle pulled together a vast array of facts about natural history around the world. It was also the vehicle for Buffon’s many ideas about the history of the Earth and the organisms that inhabit it. Buffon had never been to the New World, but that did not prevent him from damning it. His critique carried an importance far greater than its questionable scientific value. Anything that lessened the public opinion of America—awash in foreign debt, at war with a global superpower, supplicant to the thrones of France and Spain—had political significance. Buffon had to be answered.

More here.

Does Time Run Backward in Other Universes?

From Scientific American:

Universe The universe does not look right. That may seem like a strange thing to say, given that cosmologists have very little standard for comparison. How do we know what the universe is supposed to look like? Nevertheless, over the years we have developed a strong intuition for what counts as “natural”—and the universe we see does not qualify.

Make no mistake: cosmologists have put together an incredibly successful picture of what the universe is made of and how it has evolved. Some 14 billion years ago the cosmos was hotter and denser than the interior of a star, and since then it has been cooling off and thinning out as the fabric of space expands. This picture accounts for just about every observation we have made, but a number of unusual features, especially in the early universe, suggest that there is more to the story than we understand.

Among the unnatural aspects of the universe, one stands out: time asymmetry. The microscopic laws of physics that underlie the behavior of the universe do not distinguish between past and future, yet the early universe—hot, dense, homogeneous—is completely different from today’s—cool, dilute, lumpy. The universe started off orderly and has been getting increasingly disorderly ever since.

More here.