Italy, on the Eve of Elections

Chris Bertram over at Crooked Timber directs us to this article on the state of affairs in Italy, on the eve of elections, in Sign and Sight.

Currently there are only three weak points: the economy, the judiciary and the electorate. The economy, of all things, is the Achilles’ heel of the prime businessman. His own companies’ profits have tripled during this parliament, but the country is going to the dogs. Italy has wilted year after year and now has the worst statistics in Europe. Growth 0.0 percent.

Second comes the judiciary, Frattini’s department. For five years the judicial system has faced the sharpest attacks and most blatant “reforms”. These days the minister of justice – currently a road engineer from the Lega Nord, or Northern League – can accuse judges of “gross misjudgement” and subject them to disciplinary punishments. He has the power to move cases to courts where he believes the judges to be more obliging. International legal assistance has been decisively restricted to impede investigations against Berlusconi’s business empire. Prosecutors investigating the Mafia lose their bodyguards, as a cost-cutting measure of course. And the prime minister himself can slander and defame judges and state prosecutors week in week out. But all that is nothing compared to the so-called judicial reform of 2005, which amounted to a “victory of the thieves” (Süddeutsche Zeitung) – silently tolerated by Frattini and the European institutions.

In the Italian legal system cases drag on endlessly and most never come to a conclusion. A World Bank report of 2004 on the efficiency of the legal system put Italy in 135th place – second last, just ahead of Guatemala. The main reason is that the limitation period for crimes continues to run after a trial has opened, and even after a verdict has been passed, right up until the final day of the final instance. Consequently lawyers try to prolong legal proceedings as long as possible. In 2004 alone 210,000 cases fell under the statute of limitations. The perfect scenario for well-off defendants to get away scot-free. Berlusconi himself has profited this way several times.



A “HOWL” photograph, taken at the Virginia Military Institute in 1991 by Gordon Ball: a row of uniformed cadets, their heads shaved, each with an identical blank notebook, each holding a copy of the City Lights Books Pocket Poets Series edition of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl and Other Poems,” published in San Francisco in 1956, subject to an obscenity trial soon after, cleared by Judge Clayton Horn in a ringing affirmation of individual liberty and creative expression — and a flag of revolt, a blow against conformity, a hallowed relic, ever since.

The picture is all irony. What are these presumed soldiers of Moloch — the demon of money and power summoned in the second part of “Howl” to devour the soul rebels of the epic first section, unless, somehow, they can escape to fight another day — supposed to make of Ginsberg’s celebration of a tiny band of comrades determined to free America from itself? Of his paeans to men who “screamed with joy” as they were penetrated by other men, to heroin and marijuana, to suicide and madness? Who knows what the cadets made of “Howl” — in the picture, they look bored. Another assignment to get through.

more from Griel Marcus at the NY Times Book Review here.



There is no such thing as conversation,” Dame Rebecca West imperiously announced in The Harsh Voice (1935). “It is an illusion. There are intersecting monologues, that is all.”

West’s decree hasn’t stopped an exaltation of scholars from reifying the activity in recent years, even beatifying it as a saintly artifact of human culture.

Last year the Jewish Museum in New York mounted a stellar exhibition entitled “Jewish Women and Their Salons: The Power of Conversation” (with a catalog of the same name by Emily D. Bilski and Emily Braun, published by Yale University Press). It explained how Jewish women from the 19th century on, like their 18th-century French predecessors once mocked by Molière as les précieuses, used fiercely engaged salon conversation as a liberation from intellectual and social constraints elsewhere.

more from The Chronicle Review here.

Vegetable Compounds Combat Cancer

From Scientific American:

Cancer In the ongoing war on cancer, researchers have enlisted a new series of soldiers: roots and vegetables. New findings presented at the American Association for Cancer Research show that a grocery list of vegetables including ginger, hot peppers and cauliflower show promise as cancer-combating agents.

Pharmacologist Shivendra Singh of the University of Pittsburgh and his colleagues showed that a chemical released when cruciferous vegetables–such as cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage–are chewed helps control human prostate tumors grafted into mice. Phenethyl-isothiocyanate, or PEITC, prompted the prostate cancer cells to kill themselves in a process called apoptosis. By the end of a 31-day treatment cycle, treated mice had tumors nearly two times smaller than their counterparts.

Finally, at the same meeting, obstetrician J. Rebecca Liu of the University of Michigan and her colleagues reported that ginger powder, roughly the same as that sold in supermarkets, killed ovarian cancer cells in vitro both by triggering apoptosis and inducing them to cannibalize themselves, a phenomenon known as autophagy.

More here.  Also see my Rx column on Spicing Cancer Treatment.

A “His” or “Hers” Brain Structure?

From Science:Brain_16

Even oft-repeated gender stereotypes harbor some truth: Angry men are more likely to yell or punch a wall, whereas angry women sit silently stewing. Now, a new study is tracing these distinctions in how men and women process emotion to an almond-shaped structure deep in the brain. Not only does the structure, the amygdala, function differently by gender, but its activity in men is also coupled with very different brain regions than it is in women.

The amygdala straddles both sides of the brain and helps control how emotions such as fear are processed and remembered. Several studies have found gender differences when the amygdala is stimulated–by having volunteers recall scary movies, for example. In men, the right side of the amygdala, known simply as the right amygdala, appears more likely to become active, whereas in women it’s the left.

More here.

Friday, April 7, 2006


John Horgan at

Horgan200_2A year ago, I faced an ethical dilemma. The John Templeton Foundation was inviting me to be one of the first batch of Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellows in Science and Religion. The 10 fellows were to spend several weeks at the University of Cambridge, listening to scientists and philosophers pontificate on topics related to science and religion. The fellowship not only sounded like fun, it also paid all expenses and threw in an extra $15,000 — a tempting sum for a freelancer, which I was at the time. On the other hand, as an agnostic increasingly disturbed by religion’s influence on human affairs, I had misgivings about the foundation’s agenda of reconciling religion and science.

So what did I do? I went to Cambridge, of course. I rationalized that taking the foundation’s money did not mean that it had bought me, as long as I remained true to my views. Yes, I used the same justification as a congressman accepting a golf junket from the lobbyist Jack Abramoff. But I’d already written freelance pieces for two Templeton publications, so declining this more-lucrative gig seemed silly. In for a dime, in for a dollar.

Then in January, a journalist considering applying for a Templeton journalism fellowship called and asked me about my experience. I found myself trying a bit too hard to justify my acceptance of the fellowship, even as I told the journalist how much I’d enjoyed it. I decided to write this essay to exorcise my lingering guilt, and perhaps to help others wondering whether to join the large and fast-growing list of Templeton donees, which includes many of the world’s leading scientists and institutions.

More here.

Yo Yo Ma assails visa rules

Lisa Friedman in the LA Daily News:

Post-9-11 security rules aimed at stopping terrorists from entering America are keeping artists, musicians and others out as well, renowned cellist Yo Yo Ma told a congressional committee Tuesday.

With a growing number of foreign artists canceling their U.S. performances – last week Britain’s Halle Orchestra called off its American tour citing prohibitive visa fees and requirements – Ma said America is in danger of losing meaningful cultural exchanges.

“Bringing foreign musicians to this country and sending our performers to visit them is crucial,” Ma, a U.S. citizen born in France to Chinese parents, told the House Government Reform Committee.

“(But) the high cost and lengthy timeline make these programs difficult to execute,” he said.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, visitors from Mexico City can expect to wait more than four months to get a consulate interview for a temporary business visa. Visitors from throughout India face waits as long as 100 to 160 days. The delays in large part are the result of requirements Congress imposed upon the State Department after the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

More here.

The teenager who shaped the Beatles

Todd Leopold at CNN:

Storylifelyrics_1John Lennon had a new song. It was a droning, trippy affair with lyrics adapted from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and he knew exactly what he wanted.

“I want my voice to sound like the Dalai Lama chanting from a mountaintop,” he told Beatles producer George Martin as Martin’s new engineer, a 19-year-old handling his first Beatles session, listened in. It would be the engineer’s job to make Lennon’s wish come true.

Welcome to the world of the Beatles, Geoff Emerick.

Emerick managed to fulfill Lennon’s request (he ran the Beatle’s voice through a Leslie, an amp with two spinning speakers) on what became “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Over the next few years, he was Martin’s right-hand man for the majority of Beatles recordings, including “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Abbey Road.”

More here.

Muzak in the realm of retail theatre

David Owen in The New Yorker:

If you blindfolded Dana McKelvey and led her into a retail store, a restaurant, a doctor’s office, or a bank, she could tell fairly quickly whether the music playing in the background was Muzak. You may think that you would be able to tell, too, but unless your job is creating Muzak programs, as McKelvey’s is, you probably wouldn’t. The syrupy orchestral “elevator music” that most people associate with the company scarcely exists anymore. Muzak sells about a hundred prepackaged programs and several hundred customized ones, and only one—“Environmental”—truly fits the stereotype. It consists of “contemporary instrumental versions of popular songs,” and it is no longer terribly popular anywhere, except in Japan. (“The Japanese think they love it, but they actually don’t,” a former Muzak executive told me. “They’ll get over it soon.”) All of Muzak’s other programs are drawn from the company’s huge digital inventory, called the Well, which contains more than 1.5 million commercially recorded songs, representing dozens of genres and subgenres—acid jazz, heavy metal, shag, neo-soul, contemporary Italian—and is growing at the rate of twenty thousand songs a month.

More here.

the dance in france


Some sort of negotiations will take place. What can the negotiations do? The UMP and the MEDEF want to restrict the discussion to this one law. Don’t stop there, many signs read: get rid of the CNE, too. The Socialist Party has regained some momentum by picking up that popular slogan. But the insecurity for job seekers and established workers won’t go away if these new kinds of contracts disappear. Something must be done to reduce the unemployment rate. ‘Flexibility’ is not the answer; France has had 30 years of it. Casual labor is also a fact of life for Americans. Most have fewer protections than the CPE offered. After all, the CPE paid at least the minimum wage (eight euros an hour, which translates into $9.20) with some severance pay and access to national health insurance. Many workers in the United States might, in fact, find such a contract attractive. For France, though, the alternative policy– increasing deficits to drive growth up–is out of the question. The European Union simply won’t allow it. There must be a massive program to rebuild the aging public housing and provide more unskilled jobs, but France can’t increase its budget deficit without violating the guidelines for the euro. Some talk of a compromise, Scandinavian style: more ‘flexibility’ in firings, more guidance for those looking for work, and better unemployment benefits. Accept that radical uncertainty is built into capitalist economies and manage it better. If the negotiations got that far, they’d be remarkable–and they still might leave the demonstrators feeling betrayed.

more from Dissent here.

good goethe


Shortly after Goethe’s death, one of his contemporaries complained that he found “nothing more repugnant, and at the same time more ludicrous, than the relentlessness with which everyone has a go at Goethe, demanding that he should have been someone different from the person he was – that he should not have been Goethe”. Such negativity (which forms the reverse of the other historical strategy, to co-opt Goethe for chauvinistic, nationalist purposes) persists in what one might call Goethe’s “image problem”. The attitude to him of Germany’s cultural institutions can sometimes seem less than enthusiastic. Nor is it just his countrymen who display this lack of sympathy: in the English-speaking world, neither Shakespeare nor Cervantes, neither Racine nor Dante, it seems, can arouse such hostile passions as does the figure of Goethe. Why should this be the case? In Love, Life, Goethe: How to be happy in an imperfect world, John Armstrong suggests that the source of this image problem does not lie in Goethe – on the contrary, it lies in us.

more from the TLS here.

The GenX “So” Makes it to the NYT’s Editorial Page

A recent New York Times editorial used the GenX “so“, as in “that was sonot relevant”. Over at Language Log, Arnold Zwicky considers the implications.

New York Times editorial, “The Amnesty Trap”, 4/5/06, p. A22:

All it [the Martinez-Hagel compromise bill on immigration] would do is give a face-saving assurance to hard-liners that immigrants would suffer adequately for their green cards and allow Republicans to reassure suspicious constituents: this is so not amnesty.

Ah, GenX so! How in style is that?

GenX so — so-called because it seems to have first appeared in the speech of Generation Xers (in the 80s, with the movie Heathers as a major boost for its spread) — is recognizable in speech by its characteristic high-rising-falling intonation (which distinguishes it from ordinary intensifying so, even when the intensifier is accented), but can be detected in writing only through its syntactic context: clear cases of GenX so occur in contexts that otherwise are not available for intensifiers — with dates and similar time expressions (“That is, like, so 1980s”, “It was so two years ago”), proper nouns and pronouns (“This is so Iceland”, “It’s so you”), absolute adjectives (“You are so dead!”), negatives (“It’s so not entertaining”, “A pizza delivery man who can’t find a campus address is so not my problem”), and VPs (“We so don’t have a song”, “Parker so wanted to be included”, “I am so hitting you with the September issue of Vogue!”). There are cases — like the title of this posting — that aren’t so easy to classify, but the Times editorial’s so is a solid example of a GenX use, with a negative.

On Dieting

In case you missed it, Lindsay Beyerstein has an interesting post on diets.

If diets don’t work, why do people keep using them? We often hear that people want “quick fixes” instead of lifestyle transformations. That doesn’t really explain the popularity of diets. Most diets make the dieter feel miserable. In fact, I’ve been driven to writing this post because of the incessant chatter of my dieting cube mates. They can scarcely talk about anything else. They can’t think straight. They are irritable. They are spending huge amounts of money on books and prepackaged meals. Most of them aren’t even losing weight.

My coworkers don’t really “need” to lose that much weight, even by their own standards. In theory, if they could just end every day 70 calories in the red, they’d all be at their goal weights by bikini/Speedo season. So, why aren’t these people more attracted to slower, more gradual weight-loss regimens?

I submit the answer is epistemological rather than physiological. People go on diets because don’t have reliable, detailed information about their own energy balance on a day-to-day basis. We’ve all read that an extra apple per day could translate into a 10-pound weight gain in a year. By the same token, switching from sugar to sweetener in your coffee would be expected to produce a 10-lb weight loss in the same period.

Lost Gospel Revealed; Says Jesus Asked Judas to Betray Him

From National Geographic:Jesus

He is one of the most reviled men in history. But was Judas only obeying his master’s wishes when he betrayed Jesus with a kiss? That’s what a newly revealed ancient Christian text says. After being lost for nearly 1,700 years, the Gospel of Judas was recently restored, authenticated, and translated.

The Bible’s New Testament Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—depict Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus, as a traitor. In biblical accounts Judas gives up Jesus Christ to his opponents, who later crucify the founder of Christianity. The Gospel of Judas, however, portrays him as acting at Jesus’ request.

More here.

Threat of Punishment Is Key to Cooperation

From Scientific American:Threat

Humans cooperate on all sorts of issues and tasks, but every so often a member of the group fails to pull his weight. If such free riding is allowed to proliferate, cooperation itself can break down. A new study suggests that the threat of penalty is the key to successful cooperation.

Bettina Rockenbach of the University of Erfurt in Germany and her colleagues set up an economic test of 84 students self-selected into two groups–one in which punishment was permitted and one in which it was not. In each of 30 rounds participants chose which group to join; how much of their own money to contribute to a collective pool to be increased by a set amount and shared; and then, if they were in the punishing group, whether to punish or reward their members for their contributions. At the end of each round, all the participants saw the anonymous “winnings” of their peers in both groups.

At first, two thirds of the participants chose membership in the nonpunishing group and contributed little of their money to the collective pool.

But it also led to a nearly complete defection of all the participants to the punishing group. Although it cost money to penalize free riders, the threat of punishment enforced higher overall contributions and therefore higher overall payments to individual players.

More here.

Thursday, April 6, 2006


David Owen in The New Yorker:

Emirates2When you sign up online for Skywards, which is the frequent-flier program of Emirates, the international airline of the United Arab Emirates, you enter your name, address, passport number, and other information, and you select an honorific for yourself from a drop-down list. A few of the choices, in addition to the standard Mr, Mrs, Ms, Miss, and Dr, are: Admiral, Air Comm, Air Marshal, Al-Haj (denoting a Muslim who has made a pilgrimage to Mecca), Archbishop, Archdeacon, Baron, Baroness, Colonel, Commander, Corporal, Count, Countess, Dame, Deacon, Deaconess, Deshamanya (a title conferred on eminent Sri Lankans), Dowager (for a British widow whose social status derives from that of her late husband, properly used in combination with a second honorific, such as Duchess), Duchess, Duke, Earl, Father, Frau, General, Governor, HRH, Hon, Hon Lady, Hon Professor, JP (justice of the peace?), Judge, Khun (the Thai all-purpose honorific, used for both men and women), L Cpl, Lt, Lt Cmdr, Lt Col, Lt Gen, Midshipman, Mlle, Monsieur, Monsignor, Mother, Pastor, Petty Officer, Professor, Senor, Senora, Senorita, Sgt, Sgt Mjr, Shaikha (for a female shaikh, or sheikh), Sheikh, Shriman (an Indian honorific, for one blessed by Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, wisdom, luck, and other good things), Sister, Sqdn Ldr, Sqn Ldr, Sub Lt, Sultan, Swami, The Countess, The Dowager, The Duchess, The Marquis, The Matron, The Rev Canon, the Reverend, The Rt Hon, The Ven, The Very Revd, Ven, Ven Dr, Very Revd, Vice Admiral, Viscount, and Viscountess.

Anyone who chooses King obviously goes in first class, Private in economy, Wing Cmdr in an exit row. But what about Cardinal?

More here.  [Thanks to Laura J. Buckley.]

Reexamining the Rosenberg Espionage Case

Nth Position turns 4 years old this month–Happy Birthday! In it, Harry Reynolds reviews Sam Robert’s The Brother: The Untold Story of Atomic Spy David Greenglass and How He Sent His Sister, Ethel Rosenberg, to the Electric Chair.


Fifty years ago, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, after a trial by jury, were convicted of espionage and sentenced to death. The verdict was based essentially upon the evidence of Ethel’s younger brother, David Greenglass, and his wife Ruth.

In June, 1953, Julius and Ethel were slain – it’s the only honest word for it – by Joseph Francel, an upstate journeyman electrician who pocketed $150 for each death. Each had refused to disclose information to officials who were standing ready to stop the killings if the Rosenbergs would speak. Two days later, their hearses passed thousands of spectators many of whom had compassion for them as innocent victims of the Cold War, for McCarthyism was then our temporary aberration that led many on the left to discount, in favour of the Soviet Union, any accusation of treason. Many others, however, despised the Rosenbergs as traitors. Years of protest and vilification of the government for slaying the innocent Rosenbergs followed. Among the onlookers as the Rosenberg hearses drove by was six-year old Sam Roberts, now a New York Times editor and host of New York Close-Up, the Times’s nightly public affairs program on NY 1, and formerly city editor of the New York DailyNews.

When Black Holes Collide

The Chandra X-Ray observatory has detected a proto supermassive binary black hole. And the two black holes will apparently one day collide.


[T]he two black holes are moving through the intracluster medium at the supersonic speed of about 1200 km/s. The wind from such a motion would cause the radio plasma emitted from these two black holes to bend backwards. Although this bending had been observed previously, the cause of it was still being debated. Since the bending of the jets due to this motion is in the same direction, it suggests that the two black holes are travelling along the same path within the cluster and are therefore gravitationally bound.

These two black holes became gravitationally bound when their host galaxies collided. In several million years, the two black holes will probably coalesce causing a burst of gravitational waves, as predicted by Einstein’s theory of relativity. This event will produce one of the brightest sources of gravitational radiation in the Universe. Although we will not be around to see this particular one, the observations provide additional evidence that such bound systems exist and are currently merging. The gravitational waves produced by these mergers are believed to be the biggest source of gravitational waves to be detected by the future Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA).