‘Do you know the French film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie? When I first heard the title, I thought, finally someone’s going to tell the truth about the bourgeoisie. What a disappointment! It would be hard to imagine a less fair or accurate portrait.’ Metropolitan (1990)

The re-release by the Criterion Collection of Whit Stillman’s out-of-print début film, Metropolitan, appears to be the first step in restoring the witty and deeply unfashionable work of the director to the filmic canon. Alongside Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days of Disco (1998) Stillman’s small, perfectly crafted body of work forms a trilogy, if not in content then certainly in its unique sensibility.

more from Frieze here.

the new U

Are you U or non-U? By which I mean, are you a universalist or a relativist? Forget left and right; the defining political divide of the global era is between those who believe that some moral rights and freedoms ought to be universal and those who argue that each culture to its own. This new frontline of contemporary debate runs across issues as diverse as race, faith, multiculturalism, feminism, gay rights, freedom of speech and foreign policy. In each instance, the argument eventually comes down to whether you have a universalist or relativist view of the world. Universalists argue that certain rights and protections – freedom of speech, democracy, the rule of law – are common or, at least, should be available to all people. Relativists maintain that different cultures have different values and that it’s impossible to say that one system or idea is better than another and, moreover, it’s racist to try.

If all of that sounds a little abstract and theoretical, then a quick glance at government policy is enough to show that these contradictory principles underpin many of the most significant developments of recent years. For example, the interventions in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and, most controversially, Iraq were predicated, give or take a few WMD, on the notion that the inhabitants of those countries should be extended the democratic rights that most people in the West take for granted.

more from the Observer here.

Diamond in the running for Aventis hat-trick

From The Guardian:Jdiamond

In an Aventis prize shortlist of books whose authors cover the gamut of scientific concerns, from the meaning of life to why we get spots, one author is attracting unprecendented attention.

Jared Diamond, the only author in the prize’s history to have won the award twice, is in the running to win the prize for a third time with his account of the collapse of previous civilisations, How Societies Choose to Fail to Succeed. Diamond previously won the prize in 1998 with Guns, Germs and Steel and in 1992 with The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee. In his latest book, he examines societies ranging from Easter Islanders to the Mayans and analyses what it was that caused them to self-destruct.

More here.

Amphibian ‘worms’ feed young their own flesh

From Nature:Worms_1

How far would you go to feed your kids? Mothers of some worm-like amphibians called caecilians literally give a piece of themselves, by allowing their young to eat their flesh. The mothers of Boulengerula taitanus create a nutrient-rich fatty outer layer of skin after laying their eggs. When their offspring hatch, the babies scrape this layer off with specialized teeth. “It’s quite an amazing thing to observe,” says biologist Mark Wilkinson of the Natural History Museum in London, lead author of an article describing the phenomenon in Nature this week.

Wilkinson’s group noticed the skin-eating behaviour in Kenya, after seeing that amphibian mothers are often a paler and milkier shade of blue than other females. They had also noticed that young amphibians are born with their own set of teeth.

More here.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Religion Explained?

Stuart Watkins in the excellent ReadySteadyBook.com reviews Dennett’s Breaking the Spell.

Daniel Dennett missed out on a career as a whodunit writer. But I, for one, am glad, because what he has to tell us is more important than what you’ll find in the average crime novel. He boldly storms onto the philosophical crime scene, takes every puzzle ever to have exercised the human mind, gives it a good rinse in what he calls Darwin’s universal acid, and leaves us with the solution to the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. You may not like the answers he comes up with, but you can’t help but admire the way he approaches his task. He outlines for us what the mystery is – just trifling ones like the origin of life, the physical basis of consciousness, stuff like that – and slowly and enticingly takes us through each step of his argument. Like watching an episode of Columbo, knowing whodunit at the start and that Columbo will find the answer doesn’t at all spoil the fun. Read his Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and Consciousness Explained, and you’ll see a true master at work. He may not have quite the same facility with language and colourful metaphor as his comrade in arms, Richard Dawkins, but his is a skill of a different yet equally impressive kind. In Dennett’s latest book on religion, you can still find some of the magic. The book as a whole, however, has to rank as a failure. Unlike his earlier work, it staggers from one poorly thought-through idea to another like – as Winston Churchill once put it – the men who stumble over the truth, but hastily pick themselves up and hurry on as if nothing has happened.

If you are at all familiar with Dennett’s work, you would probably buy this book expecting a thoroughly materialist, Darwinian and scientific account of the evolutionary emergence – and continuing appeal of – religion. Surprisingly, he refuses to provide it.

ramachandran on the brain and art


In this lecture – which is the most speculative one in the series of five – I’d like to take up one of the most ancient questions in philosophy, psychology and anthropology, namely what is art? When Picasso said: “Art is the lie that reveals the truth” what exactly did he mean?

As we saw in my previous lectures neuroscientists have made some headway in understanding the neural basis of psychological phenomena like body image, how you construct your body image, or visual perception. But can the same be said of art – given that art obviously originates in the brain?

In particular what I’d like to do is raise the question: “Are there such things as artistic universals?”

more from the BBC radio series “The Emerging Mind” here.

The Value of Being Bored

In the Guardian, a defence of boredom.

It was Friedrich Nietzsche who wrote “Against boredom the gods themselves fight in vain”. Although the musings of the German philosopher will certainly be lost on the millions of schoolchildren over the Easter holiday, their parents can find comfort in his words as they struggle to keep their kids entertained for a fortnight.

An academic has set out to prove that boredom – far from being a bad thing – is a naturally occurring emotion that should not be suppressed. Dr Richard Ralley, a psychology lecturer at Edge Hill College in Ormskirk, Lancashire, has embarked on a study of boredom.

He said: “Boredom can be a good thing. In psychology we think of emotions as being functional. Fear, anger and jealousy all serve a purpose but they’re painted in a bad light even though they exist for a reason. It’s the same with boredom, which also has a bad name.

“We get bored because we get fed up when we have nothing to do and feel the need to be productive. We feel bad when we’re not productive and that’s what boredom is associated with.”

snarly glitters


The title poem in the 1978 collection that Ash so rightly praised, “The Thing about Joe Sullivan”, written in 1975, is terrifically bracing and approachable, in its defiant way, and could be read as Fisher’s ars poetica. Fisher has worked as a professional jazz pianist throughout his life. He was a musician before he was a poet, and music has probably meant more to him than poetry. Fisher likes no jazz pianist more than Joe Sullivan, the rumbustious white Chicago artist who came up in the 1920s with Eddie Condon’s band. Like Fisher, Sullivan was an unabashed disciple of the Earl Hines style of playing, with that busily inventive left hand and the right hand playing octaves:

The pianist Joe Sullivan,
jamming sound against idea

hard as it can go
florid and dangerous

slams at the beat, or hovers,
drumming, along its spikes

more from the LRB here.

Raymond Geuss’ Outside Ethics

Alasdair MacIntyre reviews Raymond Geuss’ Outside Ethics, a book, which by the way, I highly recommend. (You can read the Introduction to the book, here.)

No one among contemporary moral and political philosophers writes better essays than Raymond Geuss. His prose is crisp, elegant, and lucid. His arguments are to the point. And, by inviting us to reconsider what we have hitherto taken for granted, he puts in question not just this or that particular philosophical thesis, but some of the larger projects in which we are engaged. Often enough Geuss does this with remarkable economy, provoking us into first making his questions our own and then discovering how difficult it is to answer them.

In so doing he continues and extends some of the enquiries of the Frankfurt School, more especially of Adorno. Three aspects of those enquiries should be kept in mind. They were and are an attempt to free us from the limitations and distortions of the bourgeois cultural and social order inherited from the Enlightenment, so that we may understand the inadequacies of concepts and presuppositions that are taken for granted by and so imprison most of our contemporaries. They posed and pose the painful question of how, if and when we have arrived at such an understanding, we are to live out our everyday lives within a discredited social and cultural order. And their focus was and is on the concrete and the particular, so that generalizations and abstractions, unavoidable as they are, should not obscure the realities that they are designed to disclose.

solid goldin


Perhaps the most pitiable image in all of Dante’s Inferno is the wood of suicides. Here, in hell’s Seventh Circle, between a river of boiling blood and a desert of burning sand, is a dense, pathless forest where the souls of the suicides are encased within gnarled trees and fruitless bushes. Odious Harpies–monstrous birds with claws and female faces–race through the wood tearing the trees limb from limb, causing them to bleed. Cries and wails echo in the sunless, starless air.

Throughout her career, but especially in her latest and most wrenching work–Sisters, Saints, & Sibyls, the 39-minute three-screen lamentation that is a duel memoir of her sister’s suicide at the age of 19 and her own mortifications of the flesh and battles with addiction–the photographer Nan Goldin has been one of the great living suicides of recent art history.

more from Salz at the Village Voice here.

Computer Simulations Show Collusion in the Eurovision Vote

From the recent Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, evidence from computer simulations suggests that there is collusion in the Eurovision vote.

It is necessary to be quite clear on one point. No allegation of governmental or other national authority interference in voting is made in this paper, nor indeed has been made in any of the other papers on the subject by various authors. During the era of jury voting, when each country’s votes were decided by a group of a dozen or so of its citizens, it might have been, in principle, possible for some pressure to have been exerted on individuals. However, in the modern era, telephone voting has increased “jury” sizes to the hundreds of thousands in some countries (Haan et al. 2005). The telephone vote is verified by an EBU adjudicator, thus making any central attempt to influence the result highly unlikely. One might therefore expect collusion to have been greater in the jury era, and to have disappeared as large numbers of individual members of the public were permitted to vote by telephone. However, precisely the opposite is the case. Collusion during the jury era was limited to a few transient partnerships, of which only the Greece-Cyprus and Croatia-Malta partnerships lasted longer than one five-year window of analysis. It is therefore clear that collusion is a mass psychological phenomenon.

A Possible Victory Against Malaria

The scepticalchymist is a science blog, devoted largely to chemistry and chemical biology, by the editors of Nature and the Research journals. Joshua Finkelstein, associate editor of Nature, has a post on yesterday’s news in the BBC, which reported that scientists have found a technique which may lead to a cheap production of the anti-malarial drug artemisinin, which as part of a drug regimen is nearly 100% effective.

This work was funded by a $42.6 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which was was awarded to the California Institute of Quantitative Biomedical Research at University of California, Berkeley, Amyris Biotechnologies, and the Institute for OneWorld Health (a non-profit pharmaceutical company). It’s an interesting collaboration:

To ensure affordability, UC Berkeley has issued a royalty-free license to both OneWorld Health and Amyris to develop the technology to treat malaria. Amyris will transform the Keasling lab’s research into a robust fermentation process and perform the chemistry and scale-up necessary to bring the drug to market. OneWorld Health will conduct pre-clinical studies and implement a global access strategy for the drug.

The Euston Manifesto

A few weeks ago Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Irshad Manji, Taslima Nasreen, Salman Rushdie, and others signed the “Manifesto Against a New Totalitarianism”. Now there is the Euston Manifesto, whose signatories include Norman Geras, Paul Berman, Marshal Berman, Quintin Hoare, Marc Cooper and many more. Norman Geras and Nick Cohen discuss how and why they initiated the Euston Manifesto, in The New Statesman.

On a Saturday last May, right after the general election, 20 or so similarly minded people met in a pub in London. We had no specific agenda, merely a desire to talk about where things were politically. Those present were all of the left: some bloggers or running other websites, their readers, a few with labour movement connections, one or two students. Many of us were supporters of the military intervention in Iraq, and those who weren’t – who had indeed opposed it – none the less found themselves increasingly out of tune with the dominant anti-war discourse. They were at odds, too, with how it related to other prominent issues – terrorism and the fight against it, US foreign policy, the record of the Blair government, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, more generally, attitudes to democratic values.

At that first meeting our discussion focused on our common sense of discord with much current left-liberal thinking. We talked of how the prevailing consensus had ample representation in the liberal press, on the BBC and Channel 4, whereas the viewpoint of our own segment of the left was significantly under- represented in the mainstream media. We had, however, found a place on the internet and in the blogosphere, which had helped to connect people who might otherwise have felt isolated and had given expression to the voices and debates of a left other than the one heard loudly everywhere: from TV screens and newspapers, in universities and other workplaces, in theatres, at dinner tables and at every kind of social gathering. Its ideas were so much perceived as conventional wisdom that many found it difficult to allow that there could be an alternative left-liberal view.

Fossils fill gap in human lineage

From BBC News:Fossil

Fossil hunters have found remains of a probable direct ancestor of humans that lived more than four million years ago. The specimens of this ancient creature are helping bridge a long gap during a crucial phase of human evolution. Professor Tim White of the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues unearthed the cache of fossils in the Middle Awash region of Ethiopia. They describe the finds, which belong to the species Australopithecus anamensis, in the journal Nature.

Our own genus, Homo, is widely thought to have evolved from this group. So the relationship of Australopithecus to even earlier bipedal hominids is crucial to understanding where we all ultimately come from. When placed together with other fossils from the same general area of Ethiopia, the 4.1-million-year-old anamensis specimens appear to establish an evolutionary succession between earlier and later species. “The fact anamensis is sandwiched between earlier and later hominids is what is really significant about this Ethiopian sequence,” Tim White told the BBC News website.

More here.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Inheritance, More than DNA

In Science, changing ideas of inheritance.

As Darwin would have loved to have known, genes made of DNA are the basic unit of inheritance. But in recent years, researchers have shown that differences not related to DNA sequence can also be passed down, a phenomenon called epigenetic inheritance. Some studies have implicated chemical groups that bind to genes. A new study in mice, however, suggests other possibilities–some of which could dramatically alter our notions of inheritance.

Epigenetic inheritance has long been known in plants and yeast. In the mustard plant Arabidopsis, for example, epigenetic alterations in leaf and flower shape can be passed on to offspring. But the phenomenon was first demonstrated in mammals only in 1999, by molecular geneticist Emma Whitelaw and her coworkers. They created a strain of genetically identical mice, all of which had a coat color gene called agouti viable yellow (Avy). Despite having exactly the same DNA, the mice had wildly varying coat colors, ranging from yellow to mottled and nearly everything in between.

Meanest Reviews

(Via Crooked Timber) Kieran Setiya had a contest for the meanest review over at his blog.

The criteria of judgement were as follows:

The review must have a worthy target. Thus, I was forced to ignore, among other things, A. O. Scott’s review of Gigli.
The review may be grossly unfair, but…

It has to give good arguments, or memorable ones that contain a grain of truth.

Finally, preference was given to reviews that made good use of sarcasm.

The nominees are all reviews of philosophical works, perhaps with the exception of Garrison Keillor’s review of Bernard-Henri Lévy’s American Vertigo. Many of the reviews are scathing but insightful.

Resisting Gastarbeiters in America

Mathew Yglesias in the American Prospect Online:

Immigration is that rarest thing in politics — a controversial issue that’s not just “controversial” but actually difficult. People who think immigrants are “stealing their jobs” are mistaken, but politicians who say immigrants do jobs “Americans won’t do” are lying. There’s no job Americans won’t do – it’s just a question of how much Americans want to be paid to do the job. Research indicates that large flows of low-skilled immigrants from Mexico have a small, but quite real, downward pull on the wages of poorly educated people including, of course, many people who’ve already immigrated from Mexico and most of their descendants. On the other hand, immigration has a mildly positive effect on the rest of us, and a hugely positive effect on the immigrants themselves, who tend to be much poorer than even the poorest Americans.

Legitimate progressive priorities thus come into conflict and, at the end of the day, leave me entirely uncertain as to what the right number of immigrants to allow ought to be.

One aspect of the current debate, however, is easy — we don’t need any sort of “guest-worker” program.

The details of these proposals vary quite a bit and, as ever, the details are important. But all varieties of the concept share some factors in common.

things french


At one corner of the Place Bastille, every Thursday and Sunday, one of the largest open air markets in all of Paris convenes. From there it stretches half a mile along both sides of the boulevard Richard Lenoir, a thriving, crowded bazaar piled high under countless canopies with all the splendid variety of European (and North African) agriculture. Hidden within this exhibition of the wealth of French food, among the disarray of meats and fish and bread and cheese and fruits and vegetables and wine, are booths hawking less picturesque necessities like socks and children’s underwear – all of it cheap and much of it presumably made in China. Even in this bastion of Gallic pride, one can hear, above the vaunting of the marchands, the overseas cry of globalization.

more from n+1 here.

simon doonan ruins (saves) art


1997: I wander into the now-notorious Sensation show at the Royal Academy in London and am taken aback by what art has become: The sight gags, found-object installations and assemblages before me scream “WINDOW DISPLAY.” Artists would appear to have put down their brushes and picked up staple guns and glue guns. The Basquiats, Schnabels and Scharfs of the 1980’s have been replaced by the Damien Hirsts and Chapman Brothers of the 90’s. (The latter duo actually use window mannequins in their work.) Art is obviously having a love affair with display. Will the affair end in tears? Keep reading. An art-world friend informs me that detractors have dubbed this strange new development “the post-skill” movement. I find this very amusing and strangely accurate. Virtually every artist in the Sensation show is working in a medium that I have blithely and unthinkingly used at some point or another.

more from the NY Observer here.

Perry Anderson Reads Fukuyama

Also in The Nation, Perry Anderson reviews Francis Fukuyama’s America at the Crossroads.

In the tripartite structure of America at the Crossroads–capsule history of neoconservatism; critique of the way it went awry in Iraq; proposals for a rectified version–the crux of the argument lies in the middle section. Fukuyama’s account of the milieu to which he belonged, and its role in the run-up to the war, is level-headed and informative. But it is a view from within that contains a revealing optical illusion. Everything happens as if neoconservatives were the basic driving force behind the march to Baghdad, and it is their ideas that must be cured if America is to get back on track.

In reality, the front of opinion that pressed for an assault on Iraq was far broader than a particular Republican faction. It included many a liberal and Democrat. Not merely was the most detailed case for attacking Saddam Hussein made by Kenneth Pollack, a functionary of the Clinton Administration…The operations of what Fukuyama at one point allows himself, in a rare lapsus, to call the “American overseas empire” have historically been bipartisan, and continue to be so.

In the Republican camp, moreover, neoconservative intellectuals were only one, and not the most significant, element in the constellation that propelled the Bush Administration into Iraq. Of the six “Vulcans” in James Mann’s authoritative study on who paved the road to war, Paul Wolfowitz alone–originally a Democrat–belongs to Fukuyama’s retrospect. None of the three leading figures in the design and justification of the attack, Rumsfeld, Cheney and Rice, had any particular neoconservative attachments. Fukuyama is aware of this, but he offers no explanation, merely remarking that “we do not at this point know the origins of their views.” What, then, of his own location within the galaxy he describes?