11 steps to a better brain

From New Scientist:

It doesn’t matter how brainy you are or how much education you’ve had – you can still improve and expand your mind. Boosting your mental faculties doesn’t have to mean studying hard or becoming a reclusive book worm. There are lots of tricks, techniques and habits, as well as changes to your lifestyle, diet and behaviour that can help you flex your grey matter and get the best out of your brain cells. And here are 11 of them.

More here.

WELL MATCHED

From Ms Magazine:

Rivals In women’s professional tennis today, the spiciest and most thrilling rivalry is between two women who don’t even want to compete against each other — sisters Serena and Venus Williams.

In the 1970s and ’80s, though, the two greatest female competitors weren’t stymied by blood relation. They went at it, unconstrained, over the course of 16 years and an unfathomable 80 matches, with first one then the other proving unbeatable, yet neither backing down. Along the way, they formed their own surprising bond, which transcended a lack of almost any similarity beyond their unswerving drive to win.

Chris Evert: cool, metronomic, girlish; a baseline player from a devout Catholic family in suburban Florida . Martina Navratilova: overemotional, unpredictable, jockish; a serve-and-volleyer from Communist-run Czechoslovakia . Chris, the girl next door; Martina, the defector from a seemingly alien world. Chris, straight; Martina, gay.

Yet they hit it off from their first meeting at a tennis tournament as teenagers. When they weren’t running each other ragged on the court, they could joke and laugh and put The Game aside. Only when Navratilova came under the sway of early-1980s girlfriend Nancy Lieberman — who felt rivals should barely be civil to each other — did the friendship waver, but they reconnected once Lieberman left the scene.

More here.

More on war, peace, and post-tsunami reconstruction in Sri Lanka

Also in the recent Boston Review, Alan Keenan looks at post-tsunami reconstruction, war and peace in Sri Lanka.

“[T]he problems bedeviling the distribution of tsunami relief are only the latest example of the limitations inherent in the Norwegian and international approach to peace-building, which focuses on only the two main actors. By systematically downplaying the importance of human rights and pluralism as central components in any process of trust-building and de-escalation, the bipolar approach has weakened the middle—those Sinhalese and Tamils and Muslims interested in compromise. The fact that representatives of Muslim political and civil society have been almost entirely ignored in the negotiations to devise the joint mechanism, even though Muslim communities in the eastern province suffered devastating and disproportionately severe effects from the tsunami, only further undermines the potential benefits of the proposal. The concerns of Muslims must be placed at the center of post-tsunami reconstruction and conflict-resolution efforts.

The central goal for the international community, then, should not be to devise an impossibly neutral intervention, but rather to help increase the space for Sri Lankans of all ethnicities to engage in their own independent democratic politics. The two most pressing political questions in this regard are interrelated: can foreign governments and international agencies devise effective ways to put pressure on the Tigers to curtail their worst policies—without simply letting the Sri Lankan state and Sinhalese majority off the hook? And can foreign donors learn how to support the development of forms of independent local civil-society activism capable of defending human rights more effectively?”

Chomsky on Language and Rights

In the recent issue of The Boston Review, Noam Chomsky discusses what he’s usually reluctant to discuss, on the unversailty of language and rights, and (a little) on the possible connections. 

“With each step toward principled explanation in these [genetic, experiental, and computational] terms, we gain a clearer grasp of the universals of language. It should be kept in mind, however, that any such progress still leaves unresolved problems that have been raised for hundreds of years. Among these are the mysterious problems of the creative and coherent ordinary use of language, a core problem of Cartesian science.

* * *

We are now moving to domains of will and choice and judgment, and the thin strands that may connect what seems within the range of scientific inquiry to essential problems of human life, in particular vexed questions about universal human rights. One possible way to draw connections is by proceeding along the lines of Hume’s remarks that I mentioned earlier: his observation that the unbounded range of moral judgments—like the unbounded range of linguistic knowledge—must be founded on general principles that are part of our nature though they lie beyond our ‘original instincts,’ which elsewhere he took to include the ‘species of natural instincts’ on which knowledge and belief are grounded.”

Mapping the divide

From The Guardian:

Soueifmccabe128_1A few weeks ago, as she often does these days, Ahdaf Soueif ascended a stage, and addressed a large crowd. This time it was the premiere of the Palestine Film Festival, in London, and though she was somewhat hesitant, and shuffled her papers nervously, her voice was clear, her message clearer: when she was six years old, she told the assembly, her father took her to a film in which a little boy entered a forbidden room and encountered a monstrous robot. It advanced and advanced and advanced, and entered her nightmares for years to come. “Sometimes it seems that that’s what’s happening in Palestine.” The documentary she was introducing, Arna’s Children, about Jewish pro-Palestinian activist Arna Mer Kemis, is moving, but also troubling: in her zeal to teach them to express themselves, to channel their anger, Arna seems to be encouraging the children in her theatre group to participate in the intifada; by the time they reach their 20s many are dead.

Soueif has just returned from speaking engagements in Qatar, Santa Fe and Vienna when we meet, and is looking forward to a few clear months working on fiction at home in Wimbledon before the annual summer trip to Egypt, where she was born. She perches on the edge of a blue divan in the bay window of her living room. Traffic sweeps past outside. The low table in front of her is piled high with books – Letters from Lexington: Reflections on Propaganda by Noam Chomsky; Human Cargo by Caroline Moorehead; Derailing Democracy: The America the Media Don’t Want You to See, by David McGowan; an exhibition catalogue, Cleopatra of Egypt: From History to Myth; various volumes in Arabic. Soueif is like a weathervane, open to gusts of passi on, of emotion, just controlled; she smokes furiously, talking through the deep breaths, pushing heavy black hair away from her face. But intensity also switches quickly to laughter; she is warm, and empathetic, and generous, and when her son Ricki, 16 this month, gets back from school, loving and sharply solicitous about his GCSE art coursework.

More here.

Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior

Julia Reed reviews Judith Martin’s book in the New York Times Book Review:

The use of tacky note cards is hardly the only subject about which Miss Manners expresses such strong feelings. Wedding reception cash bars, for example, are ”disgusting.” The only excuse for declining an invitation to be a pallbearer is ”a plan to have one’s own funeral in the near future.” One ”never, ever drinks to oneself,” though ”babies being toasted at their christenings are among the few people to know this.” Even the young are not spared. When a 6-year-old reader asks what is important enough to tell his mother when she is talking to company, Miss Manners provides a very short list of examples that includes ”Mommy, the kitchen is full of smoke.”

Though I myself am a transgressor, I find such passionate certitude not only refreshing — and often hilarious — but also extremely comforting. There should be more areas in life where there is so little room for doubt.

More here.

DEEP THROAT AND A FILM TRILOGY OF PARANOIA

Elbert Ventura in The New Republic:

Lest we forget, it wasn’t until the movie version of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s All the President’s Men was released in 1976 that the popular image of Deep Throat–an indistinct whisperer given to spy-game skullduggery and cryptic hints–really took hold in the collective memory. Felt’s revelation brings the parabola of the myth back to its origins in the realm of facts. The reemergence of the troika of Woodward, Bernstein, and Ben Bradlee in the public eye 31 years later seems nothing so much as a stab at reclamation, a reminder of the real men behind the myth. But if the events of the past week have loosed an onrush of nostalgia for that heady period of journalism, it should also spark an appreciation for another golden age: that of the movies.

More here.

Cats

From Brent Rasmussen’s Unscrewing the Inscrutable:

Wild_catsThey serve as Icons for sports teams and multinational corporations, they live in lands of snow and ice, on mountain tops, and deep in lush, steamy, jungles. They can see in the dark, their ears are sensitive to a range of frequency fully three times broader than ours and sounds ten times as faint. They can run at 70 miles per hour across uneven ground and turn on a dime. They possess the strength, balance, and raw power any human athlete/gymnast would kill for. And, if they happen to lock in on you while you’re unarmed, helplessly alone in the twilight wilderness, their preternatural eyes gleaming, their toothy maws yawning in ghoulish anticipation of easy prey, you might as well cut your throat; before they do it for you.

More recently one version has ensconced themselves firmly into our domiciles, ensuring their evolutionary success for the next eon or two, whilst retaining more than any other domestic creature their feral, independent nature, enlisting humans not as owners, but as staff.

How did this diverse group of profoundly graceful predators arise and what makes them so successful?

More here.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

‘This I Believe’: Man of Letters

From The New York Times:

Fuentes Carlos Fuentes is Mexico’s most celebrated novelist, though that description does no justice to his career as many other things. Perhaps the Victorian phrase ”man of letters” is more accurate: Fuentes is also a critic, a dramatist, a historian, a sometime professor at Cambridge and Harvard and occasional lecturer at other universities. But even ”man of letters” does not quite grasp him. He trained and worked in law and its international application, and for a couple of years in the 1970’s he was Mexico’s ambassador in Paris. (Mexico once looked favorably on writers as diplomats: a decade earlier, the poet Octavio Paz was appointed to look after his country’s interests in India.) So we need another term for Fuentes. Perhaps that term is ”public intellectual,” a clever and learned person prepared to put his head above the parapets of literary fiction and academe and set out his views on what’s right and wrong with humanity, engaging with what E. M. Forster called ”this outer life of anger and telegrams.” Most countries have them, but in the United States and Britain they are very rarely writers of fiction. There is Mailer and until recently Miller, of course, and Pinter, and once there were Shaw and Wells, but the writer in English is rare whose civic potency derives from anything beyond the appreciation of his craft and the values it contains. The work does the speaking. Literary writers as philosophic politicians have come recently from other languages and societies: Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia, Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez and Fuentes in the Spanish of Latin America. To a writer in English their eminence may be seductive — oh, to live in a country where a novelist is taken so seriously! — but, as this book sometimes demonstrates, a novelist tends to be at his best when actually writing novels.

More here.

Faith healing

From The Guardian:Minaret

During the past half dozen years, a new genre of contemporary English fiction seems to have emerged in the form of a series of novels by Muslim writers that explore the fault lines between various Islamic cultures and the way of life flourishing in the US and western Europe. Leila Aboulela’s second novel, Minaret, marks her out as one of the most distinguished of this new wave. The narrative is tranquil and lyrical, developing the thoughts and emotions of her heroine so calmly that it was almost a shock to realise that I had begun, on the first page, to see my familiar world through her eyes. “London is at its most beautiful in the autumn. In summer it is seedy and swollen, in winter it is overwhelmed by Christmas lights and in spring, the season of birth, there is always disappointment. Now it is at its best, now it is poised like a mature woman whose beauty is no longer fresh but still surprisingly potent.” We meet her heroine, Najwa, as she enters the flat where she is to start work as a maid: “I’ve come down in the world. I’ve slid to a place where the ceiling is low and there isn’t much room to move. Most of the time I’m used to it … I accept my sentence and do not brood or look back.”

More here.

Darwin, me and the Big C

Harry Thompson in The London Times:

Harry_1 This Thing of Darkness — three years in the writing — came out last week and is a true story concerning the voyage of the Beagle and the friendship between Charles Darwin and Captain Robert FitzRoy, whose journey together round the world, whose discoveries and whose increasingly acrimonious debates laid the groundwork for Darwin’s theory of natural selection. In those days people routinely took the most enormous risks with their lives. FitzRoy and Darwin quite happily clambered aboard a Royal Navy “coffin brig” for many years (a little barrel-shaped production-line surveying packet so nicknamed because a quarter of their number never came back). Their arguments took place in a tiny storm-tossed cabin no more than 5ft square, the single oil lamp creaking in its gimbal, their shadows by turns retreating and advancing as they boxed each other across the walls.

FitzRoy, a brilliant sailor and one of the great unsung heroes of British history (he also invented weather forecasting along the way), was a rising star, a devout Christian who had come to believe that God’s ordered universe is just that: a sort of huge machine where everything is done to a purpose, where all natural phenomena might theoretically be predicted, in which all men have the right to live side by side in absolute equality, regardless of colour.

Darwin, his “gentleman companion”, was by contrast a relative nobody, a parson-in-waiting who had tagged along to help FitzRoy find geological evidence for the Old Testament. Increasingly his discoveries drew him towards a vision of an alternative universe, a merciless world of random cruelty in which the strongest won out by right (the strongest, of course, being middle-class white men from middle England).

More here.

‘Steinberg at The New Yorker’: Comic Philosopher Illustrated

From The New York Times:Stein162

Steinberg’s first cartoons appeared in The New Yorker in 1941. Altogether he created 89 covers, 650 cartoons and drawings, and an additional 500 drawings inside articles by others. This is a staggering amount of work for an artist who also brought out seven books of drawings, and who exhibited his work regularly in some of the world’s leading galleries and museums. Every great painter in any period gives us an imaginative version of reality, a point of view with a specific visual language and grammar. ”When I admire a scene in the country,” Steinberg said, ”I look for a signature in the lower right hand.” He liked mixing styles, making it look as if Picasso or Rembrandt had drawn someone’s head and a comic strip artist the legs and feet. America, where all the people are under the impression that they can reinvent themselves endlessly, suited him well. 

More here.

Mites are Destroying Bees

‘A tiny pest is decimating honeybee colonies across the country, worrying beekeepers and farmers who depend on the insects to pollinate their crops. Pollinating almond orchards is the immediate worry in California’s agriculture industry, but the mites’ devastation of the honeybee supply is causing concern across the country. Honeybees pollinate about one-third of the human diet and dozens of agricultural crops. California produces 80 percent of the world’s almond supply. A $1 billion-a-year crop, the nuts have become the state’s top agricultural export, ahead of wine and cotton.’

This is a bit newsy, but it’s a wire story with apparently huge agricultural consequences – read more at LiveScience.com (brought to my attention at the carte du jour of the great site Chez Nadezhda). The State of North Carolina, according to AP reporter Steve Hartsoe, may be heading for “crisis” because of the bee shortage.

Classic Time Author Covers

No disrespect to the venerable Time Magazine, but readers discouraged from subscribing during the era of the Great Dumbing Down, when the idea of an Author Cover is Ann Coulter, can take refuge in Time.com’s great selection of past covers stretching all the way back to 1923. The archive is searchable by name and by keword, so that if you type in “literature” you can get the beautiful covers of Joyce, Faulkner, Woolf, Conrad, Frost, Baldwin, Nabokov, and Orwell. They’re simply great illustrations, all in an emailable format. I don’t pretend to have an encyclopedic knowledge of Time covers, but I think it’s telling and sad that these search terms yield only one cover after 1983, Toni Morrison, whereas a search of “books” covers brings up only 10 hits since 1988 – and two of those are Harry Potter covers. As Milton’s Satan once said, how changed, how fallen.

DNA of Voles May Hint at Why Some Fathers Shirk Duties

From The New York Times:Voles

Some male prairie voles are devoted fathers and faithful partners, while others are less satisfactory on both counts. The spectrum of behavior is shaped by a genetic mechanism that allows for quick evolutionary changes, two researchers from Emory University report in today’s issue of Science.

The mechanism depends on a highly variable section of DNA involved in controlling a gene. The Emory researchers who found it, Elizabeth A. D. Hammock and Larry J. Young, say they have detected the same mechanism embedded in the sequence of human DNA but do not yet know how it may influence people’s behavior. The control section of their DNA expands and contracts in the course of evolution so that members of a wild population of voles, the Emory researchers have found, will carry sections of many different lengths. Male voles with a long version of the control section are monogamous and devoted to their pups, whereas those with shorter versions are less so. People have the same variability in their DNA, with a control section that comes in at least 17 lengths detected so far, Dr. Young said.

So should women seek men with the longest possible DNA control region in the hope that, like the researchers’ voles, they will display “increased probability of preferences for a familiar-partner female over a novel-stranger female”? 

More here.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Physics, complexity and causality

From Nature:Tea

The atomic theory of matter and the periodic table of elements allow us to understand the physical nature of material objects, including living beings. Quantum theory illuminates the physical basis of the periodic table and the nature of chemical bonding. Molecular biology shows how complex molecules underlie the development and functioning of living organisms. And neurophysics reveals the functioning of the brain.

In the hierarchy of complexity, each level links to the one above: chemistry links to biochemistry, to cell biology, physiology, psychology, to sociology, economics, and politics. Particle physics is the foundational subject underlying — and so in some sense explaining — all the others. In a reductionist world view, physics is all there is. The cartesian picture of man as a machine seems to be vindicated.

More here.

Music Without Magic

From The Wilson Quarterly:

Schub Music is both a balm for loneliness and a powerful, renewable source of meaning—meaning in time and meaning for time. The first thing music does is banish silence. Silence is at once a metaphor for loneliness and the thing itself: It’s a loneliness of the senses. Music overcomes silence, replaces it. It provides us with a companion by occupying our senses—and, through our senses, our minds, our thoughts. It has, quite literally, a presence. We know that sound and touch are the only sensual stimuli that literally move us, that make parts of us move: Sound waves make the tiny hairs in our inner ears vibrate, and, if sound waves are strong enough, they can make our whole bodies vibrate. We might even say, therefore, that sound is a form of touch, and that in its own way music is able to reach out and put an arm around us.

One way we are comforted when we’re lonely is to feel that at least someone understands us, knows what we’re going through. When we feel the sympathy of others, and especially when we feel empathy, we experience companionship—we no longer feel entirely alone. And strangely enough, music can provide empathy. The structure of music, its essential nature—with many simultaneous, complex, overlapping, and interweaving elements, events, components, associations, references to the past, intimations of the future—is an exact mirror of the psyche, of the complex and interwoven structure of our emotions. This makes it a perfect template onto which we can project our personal complexes of emotions. And when we make that projection, we hear in music our own emotions—or images and memories of our emotions—reflected back. And because the reflection is so accurate, we feel understood. We recognize, and we feel recognized. We’re linked with the composer of the music by our common humanity. And if a composer has found a compelling way to express his or her own emotions, then to a certain extent that composer can’t really avoid expressing, and touching, ours as well.

More here.

Cheap Chow Now!

Robert Sietsema writes in The Village Voice:

Indian_food You’ve probably never heard of most of these places, sprinkled throughout the five boroughs and Jersey, and distributed among three dozen different cuisines. That’s because they haven’t hired publicists—those seminal restaurant world figures who make sure that 1 percent of the restaurants receive 99 percent of the coverage. And, by the way: They’d love to see you spend $50 every night for dinner.

For our fifth annual 100 Best, we return to the format of the very first year: absurdly cheap eateries where you can down a humongous meal, often for $5 or less. Think of this as restaurant affirmative action. Ethnicities that have been redlined by other publications are here included and afforded their proper respect. You’ll find Haitian restaurants and African spots, Fujianese steam table joints and Egyptian hookah parlors, halal places and kosher dives, ancient coffee shops that still concoct stunning egg creams, and self-effacing specializers in dumplings and bureks and hand-forged noodles, made fresh daily. There are fusty old nuggets like Flushing’s Everbest [#45], and shiny new places like Bay Ridge’s Damascus Gate [#21]. Some I’ve mentioned before; many are appearing for the first time, the result of three solid months of bushwhacking the boroughs, sometimes inspecting a dozen places in a wild ride of an afternoon, steering with one hand while fumbling like Harry Potter in my book of clues with the other. Thank you, tipsters, bloggers, and bulletin boardists! And bless you, obscure publications picked up in ethnic groceries!

More here.

“An Actor’s Own Words” by John Lithgow

From Harvard Magazine (picture from The Boston Globe):

Lithgow Mr. President, faculty, graduates, families, and friends, good afternoon and thank you for the honor of addressing you all today. This speech is a major event in my own personal history but an interesting little footnote in Harvard’s history as well: I am the first professional actor to speak at a Harvard Commencement. Notice that I have specified “professional” actor, since I am sure that, as in all walks of life, there has been plenty of play-acting at this dais over the years.

But wisdom from an actor? Are you kidding? If I were a wise man I never would have gone into the acting profession. Rather than presuming to pass down wisdom, I have decided to think of my address as a friendly and anecdotal conversation with the Harvard College Class of 2005. Thirty-eight years ago, I was one of you, sitting with my classmates and listening to a speech. I am going to touch on a few episodes in my picaresque journey from down there to up here, and I leave it to you to root out any wisdom therein. I’ll get to the adventures in a moment, but I will lead with the lessons. Basically they boil down to four succinct phrases:

Be creative.

Be useful.

Be practical.

Be generous.

Simple as that.

And now for the adventures.

I actually had two Harvard Educations. The first one concluded on the day I that graduated. Shortly thereafter, I launched myself into the acting game where, for the next 20 years, I virtually kept my Harvard degree a secret. Somehow it never seemed to come in all that handy when I was auditioning for a soap opera or a potato-chip commercial. My second Harvard education began when I was invited back into the fold, in 1989. In another example of Harvard recklessness, I was asked to run for the Board of Overseers, presumably to redress the fact that no one from the world of the Arts had served on the Board since the poet Robert Frost [’01, Litt.D. ’37] in the 1930s.

More here.

Complexity of the Living Cell

Felice Frankel in American Scientist:

Cell I vividly recall first seeing David Goodsell’s work about 12 years ago during my first visit to the Scripps Research Institute, where he is a research scientist. There it was, screaming at me through the art and illustrations surrounding me in his office—an “aha!” moment, a revelation that, in fact, we’d been doing it all wrong! Could our depictions of the cell have been (albeit unintentionally) deceptive and dishonest? Textbooks, magazines and journal articles had been failing to tell the whole truth in their depictions of cellular structure; more important, they were sending out wrong visual messages in the form of edited-down diagrams that failed to communicate the cell’s complexity. Perhaps if we were shown David’s drawings as children, we would now have an easier time thinking about complex systems.

More here.