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.
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.
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:
Seventeen 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.
Robert Darnton in the New York Review of Books:
Information 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.
John Allen Paulos at ABC News:
Since 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.)
Maguerite Fields in the New York Times:
Just 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
By MARGUERITE FIELDS
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.]
Dave Itzkoff in the New York Times:
About 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.”
Ahmed Rashid in the New York Review of Books:
When 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.
Keith Stewart Thompson in American Scientist:
In 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.
From Scientific American:
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.