Remember the Titans

From The Washington Post:

Franklin_1 REVOLUTIONARY CHARACTERS What Made the Founders Different By Gordon S. Wood:

Benjamin Franklin — the subject of one of the essays in this stimulating new collection — once said that “Historians relate, not so much what is done, as what they would have believed.” Most historians would agree with that gently cynical proposition, though they would wish to add a proviso that interpretations of the past should always rest on evidence — on what was “done,” as Franklin said. Among historians in universities these days, essays often tilt toward sheer interpretation, leaving the substance of the past scanted. Gordon S. Wood’s book bucks that trend, offering a good deal of empirical evidence — what was “done” — in these absorbing essays from one of our leading scholars of the American Revolution.

Eight of the 10 chapters of Revolutionary Characters are biographical, featuring Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, John Adams, Thomas Paine and Aaron Burr. The founders are often considered as a group, as indeed they are here, and widely admired as being “different” (the key word in Wood’s subtitle) from our current leaders in their commitment to enlightened principles. Looking at the founders together, it is hard not to conclude that though they deserve our admiration, they may not have constituted the group we have imagined. Certainly, they acted at times as if they had nothing in common.

More here.

Stomach bug makes food yield more calories

From Nature:Fat_3

Scientists have identified a key microbe in our guts that helps us glean more calories from food. The discovery backs the idea that the type of microbes in our gut help to determine how much weight we gain, and that seeding the intestine with particular bugs could help fight obesity.

Samuel Buck of Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, and his colleagues focused on one microbe called Methanobrevibacter smithii, which is effectively a waste-removal bug. It eats up the hydrogen and waste products released by other microbes, and converts them into the methane that escapes from our rear ends everyday. “It’s a minor component of the gut flora with a major impact,” Buck says tactfully.

M. smithii may have a dirty job, but Buck and his colleagues have now shown that it is a vital one. The researchers found that mice with a hefty dose of M. smithii in their guts are fatter than those that don’t have the bacteria.

The discovery suggests that calorie counts on food labels could be misleading, because different people may glean a different number of calories from an identical banana or cheeseburger, based on the individual mix of microbes in their gut.

More here.

Anthony Bourdain’s “Nasty Bits”

Bruce Handy in the New York Times:

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It’s often easy to forget, when absorbing some great work of art, the extent to which the creative process is kept afloat not just by genius but also by dumb luck, desperation and sweat. This is true of great food as well. Sitting down to an expensive dinner at Per Se or Babbo, we might like to imagine that our entree was pulled fully formed from Thomas Keller’s or Mario Batali’s toque as if by magic — immaculate confection. But the reality of restaurant cooking is much uglier, at least if Anthony Bourdain is to be believed. He is the executive chef at Les Halles, the French steakhouse on Park Avenue South, and also the author of seven previous books, including the best-selling memoir “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.” Published in 2000, this was a “You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again” for the restaurant trade, famous for the chapter “From Our Kitchen to Your Table,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker. It explained why you should never order fish on Monday (your snapper special has most likely been sitting around since Thursday, owing to the quirks of fishmongers’ schedules) and why your basket of bread has probably been recycled from another table (an easy shortcut for overworked busboys). More alarming still is the reason Bourdain gave for why the pros never order swordfish: “those three-foot-long parasitic worms that riddle the fish’s flesh.” In other words, you’ll never eat lunch in any town again.

“The Nasty Bits,” mainly a catchall of Bourdain’s magazine and newspaper writing, offers more in this vein: “Fast well-done steak? I’ve watched French grads of three-star kitchens squeeze the blood out of filet mignons with their full body weight, turning a medium to well in seconds. I’ve watched in horror as chefs have hurled beautiful chateaubriands into the deep-fat fryer, microwaved veal chops, thinned sauce with the brackish greasy water in the steam table. And when it gets busy? Everything that falls on the floor, amazingly, falls ‘right on the napkin.’ Let me tell you — that’s one mighty big napkin.”

As they say, you don’t want to see how the sausage is made.

More here.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Mysteries still surround Egyptian chamber

Is it a royal Egyptian tomb, a glorified supply room for ancient embalmers, or something in between? A year after the discovery of a chamber that had lain hidden in the Valley of the Kings for millennia, archaeologists are still asking themselves exactly what they’ve found. “Until we examine each coffin to some extent, we can’t draw a conclusion,” University of Memphis archaeologist Otto Schaden told MSNBC.com. “We can draw one, but it might be wrong.”

Schaden spoke via telephone from the Valley of the Kings, where he and his colleagues are continuing to remove artifacts from the chamber, including jars of mummification materials and the coffins labeled A through G. Experts wondered whether the chamber might have contained royal mummies that were brought in from less secure sites to protect them from ancient grave robbers.

More here.

What Mind–Body Problem?

“Understanding consciousness may be easier than we thought.”

Alex Byrne in the Boston Review:

Here is a remarkable fact. When atoms and molecules are organized in a suitably complicated way, the result is something that perceives, knows, believes, desires, fears, feels pain, and so on—in other words, an organism with a psychology. Besides ourselves, who else is in the club? Descartes notoriously claimed that other animals were merely unthinking bits of clockwork, but that is an extreme position. Probably cockroaches don’t have much of a mental life, if they have one at all, but few would harbor doubts about monkeys, apes, cats, and dogs. Indeed, there is a flourishing discipline at the intersection of biology and psychology—cognitive ethology—devoted to the study of the mental and social lives of nonhuman animals. Somehow, minds emerge from matter. And so, of course, does the weather, digestion, photosynthesis, and glaciation. But although some everyday nonmental phenomena remain poorly understood—apparently the jury is still out on the explanation of why ice is slippery—the connection between minds and matter is supposed to be especially mystifying. Why so?

In the famous 1974 article “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” the philosopher Thomas Nagel fingered consciousness as the culprit. “Without consciousness,” he wrote, “the mind–body problem would be much less interesting. With consciousness it seems hopeless.” And consciousness has had philosophers hot and bothered ever since. Daniel Dennett published a book called, rather optimistically, Consciousness Explained in 1990, and his fellow philosophers could hardly get into print fast enough to proclaim that Dennett had not explained consciousness at all. But before we get to the conundrum of consciousness, let’s start with an apparently easier part of the mind–body problem.

More here.

Eyewitness’ blind spot

“A 1994 rape conviction not only altered N.J. court rules on eyewitness testimony, it raised questions of identifying people of another race.”

Tom Avril in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

CompositeThe young woman was on edge for months, keeping a lookout for the stranger who had robbed her, raped her, and threatened to cut her throat.

She had gotten a good look at him before and after the attack in her basement apartment, not far from Rutgers University campus. At one point, their faces were just two feet apart. She’d never forget that face.

Then one April day on a New Brunswick street corner, more than seven months after the rape, she froze.

There he was. Strolling along with a boom box, walking with the same side-to-side swagger she remembered when the rapist left her apartment.

She ran to call the police. A few minutes later, they arrested the suspect, a black man named McKinley Cromedy.

The ensuing trial helped trigger an overhaul of the way New Jersey treats the oldest and most dramatic sort of courtroom evidence: an eyewitness pointing out the person who did it.

Cromedy’s defense attorney took an unusual tack. He questioned her ability to tell black men apart, noting that she was white, that she grew up in an overwhelmingly white northern New Jersey suburb, that there were no black students in her high school class.

The victim was undeterred.

“It’s just something you don’t forget after what happens and everything,” she told a jury of 11 whites and one black person. “It was him.”

More than 61/2 years later, science would prove her wrong.

More here.

If you need to pay for someone’s help, why is it called “self-help”?

Michael Shermer in Scientific American:

In 1980 I attended a bicycle industry trade convention whose keynote speaker was Mark Victor Hansen, now well known as the coauthor of the wildly popular Chicken Soup for the Soul book series that includes the Teenage Soul, Prisoner’s Soul and Christian Soul (but no Skeptic’s Soul). I was surprised that Hansen didn’t require a speaker’s fee, until I saw what happened after his talk: people were lined up out the door to purchase his motivational tapes. I was one of them. I listened to those tapes over and over during training rides in preparation for bicycle races.

The “over and over” part is the key to understanding the “why” of what investigative journalist Steve Salerno calls the Self-Help and Actualization Movement (SHAM). In his recent book Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless (Crown Publishing Group, 2005), he explains how the talks and tapes offer a momentary boost of inspiration that fades after a few weeks, turning buyers into repeat customers. While Salerno was a self-help book editor for Rodale Press (whose motto at the time was “to show people how they can use the power of their bodies and minds to make their lives better”), extensive market surveys revealed that “the most likely customer for a book on any given topic was someone who had bought a similar book within the preceding eighteen months.” The irony of “the eighteen-month rule” for this genre, Salerno says, is this: “If what we sold worked, one would expect lives to improve. One would not expect people to need further help from us–at least not in that same problem area, and certainly not time and time again.”

More here.

THE STRANGE GENIUS OF OPRAH

Lee Siegel in The New Republic:

OprahNow celebrating her twentieth year as the host of the world’s most influential talk show, Oprah Winfrey is to television what Bach is to music, Giotto to painting, Joyce to literature. Time magazine hit the nail on the head when it recently voted her one of the world’s handful of “leaders and revolutionaries.” (Condoleezza Rice wrote Oprah’s citation: “She has struggled with many of the challenges that we all face, and she has transformed her life. Her message is empowering: I did it, and so can you.”) Like all seminal creative figures, her essential gift lies in her synthesizing power. She has taken the most consequential strands in modern life and woven them together into an hourlong show that is a work of art. 

The boilerplate criticisms of Oprah–she exploits a culture of victimization that she did so much to create; she glamorizes misery; she amplifies already widespread narcissism and solipsism; she fills people’s heads with hackneyed nostrums about life–are correct, up to a point. But that’s not the whole story. Oprah’s critics write as if her goal of extending to her audience empathy, consolation, and hope were intrinsically cheap and cynical. On the contrary: The question is whether that is really what she is offering.

More here.  And see the essay “As I Lay Reading” on Oprah by 3QD’s own J.M. Tyree here, in The Nation.

AN EXCHANGE BETWEEN TWO GREAT POETS

John Felstiner in The New Republic:

PaulPerhaps I am one of the last who must live out to the end the destiny of the Jewish spirit in Europe.” Why “must”? Writing from Paris in August 1948 to relatives in the new state of Israel, Paul Celan, having survived the “Final Solution,” explains that a poet cannot stop writing, “even when he is a Jew and the language of his poems is German.” This fateful pledge, from a brutally orphaned son whose stunning poem of 1945, “Deathfugue,” intones, “Death is a master from Deutschland” and threads an ashen-haired Shulamith into the Hebrew Bible’s Song of Songs, throws a raking light over a recently discovered exchange of letters between Celan and the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai.   

Born to German-speaking parents in Czernowitz, Bukovina, an eastern outpost of the Austrian Empire, Celan survived nineteen months of forced labor, eventually taking exile in Paris. There by hard degrees he became Europe’s most challenging postwar poet.

More here.  [Celan shown in photo.]

women and octopuses in compromising positions

“Lurid new covers for The Iliad, Little Women, and other classics…”

From Slate (click the link at left for slide-show):

4alice_v4_2    Women_5

Pulp fiction is perhaps the only genre as beloved for its cover art as for its prose. And rightly so: Classic pulp covers are glorious and garish, rich with saturated color and sexual innuendo. Rare is the cover girl who hasn’t undone at least a few of her buttons. And so the images have endured, both in the popular imagination and in the countless online galleries that collect some of the greats. (There’s even a site dedicated to the covers of “poulpe pulps,” which feature women and octopuses in compromising positions.)

In the 1950s, some publishing houses opted to release literary fiction with pulp covers. A striking edition of The Sheltering Sky, for example, promised “a strange tale in the exotic desert”—a tagline that is, when you think about it, both pulpy and apt. Taking such efforts as our inspiration, we asked a handful of designers to create lurid new book jackets for classics from The Iliad to Animal Farm. Click here to see the results.

As India Considers Further Liberalization, A Debate on Capital Account Convertibility

Economic and Political Weekly (India) debates what is perhaps the most crucial step in unfettering the power of capital, capital account convertibilityMost of the pieces oppose convertability or at least counsel delaying the move towards it; some are pro. L. Randall Wray offers the argument that capital controls are necessary for sovereignty, with reference to Argentina’s disasterous experience with its currency board.

A nation like the US (as well as countries like Japan and Turkey, and Argentina after it abandoned the currency board) creates a currency for domestic use (and ensures its use primarily by demanding payment of taxes in that currency, although some go further by adopting legal tender laws). The government, itself (including the treasury and the central bank – the Fed in the case of the US), issues and spends high powered money (HPM – cash and reserves at the central bank) as its liability. The US government does not promise to convert its HPM to any other currency, nor to gold or any other commodity, at any fixed exchange rate.The flexible exchange rate is key to maintaining fiscal and currency independence – what I call sovereignty, although governmental sovereignty certainly has other dimensions as well. But there is more to it than a flexible exchange rate. The sovereign government spends (buys goods, services, or assets, or makes transfer payments) by issuing a treasury cheque, or, increasingly, by simply crediting a private bank deposit. In either case, however, credit balances (HPM) are created when the central bank credits the reserve account of the receiving bank. Analogously, when the government receives tax payments, it reduces the reserve balance of a bank. Simultaneously, the taxpayer’s bank deposit is debited. While we commonly think of a government needing to first receive tax revenue, and then spending that revenue, this sequence is not necessary for any sovereign government. If a government spends by crediting a bank account (issuing its own IOU – HPM) and taxes by debiting a bank account (and eliminating its IOU – HPM), then it is not as a matter of logic, “spending” tax revenue. In other words, with a floating exchange rate and a domestic currency, the sovereign government’s ability to make payments is neither revenue-constrained nor reserveconstrained… This fundamentally simple point is difficult for some to grasp because we are used to thinking about government as if it were not sovereign.

Experience and Authenticity

In The Nation, a review of Martin Jay’s Songs of Experience: Modern American and European Variations on a Universal Theme.

[The] philosophical cult of experience arises from a sense that full engagement with existence has somehow been rendered problematic, whether by social, spiritual or economic arrangements or by the sheer perversity of the individual psyche. Authentic experience, from this view, seems always maddeningly just out of reach.

How could this assumption acquire such enduring force? How is it that “experience”–like its kin “reality” and “life”–could be split off from the self, rather than remaining the ground of being in which the self is embedded? How did something universal and inescapable become external to consciousness–an object of feverish speculation and hot pursuit among men and (far less often) women of ideas? Part of the answer must lie in the historical experience of the thinkers themselves–their awareness of the world outside their study windows. Martin Jay rarely glances at that world, though he can deftly dissect the shifting emphases in Kantian aesthetics or Deweyan ethics.

What we have in Jay’s Songs of Experience is a shining example of the history of ideas, an underrated genre of the historian’s art. An exceptionally learned, humane and prolific practitioner of his craft, Jay is among our most reliable guides through the key sites of twentieth-century social thought, from the labyrinths of Western Marxism to the thickets of French post-structuralism. Songs of Experience is a worthy addition to this oeuvre, though its history-of-ideas form sometimes seems ironically at odds with its content.

Euston, We Have a Problem (or at least they do over at Counterpunch)

Here, at 3QD, we’re divided over what to make of and where we stand on the Euston Manifesto (not that personal opinions in and of themselves matter, unlike sound reasons).  But many of us are interested in the manifesto, at least in so much as it fights over what the “Left” is about.  Hence our mild fixation on it.  Here is one anti-manifesto view, expectedly, in Counterpunch, in what can be called, er, the Counterpunch tone.

Conclusion, quoted in its entirety: “It is vitally important for the future of progressive politics that people of liberal, egalitarian and internationalist outlook should now speak clearly. We must define ourselves against those for whom the entire progressive-democratic agenda has been subordinated to a blanket and simplistic ‘anti-imperialism’ and/or hostility to the current US administration. The values and goals which properly make up that agenda–the values of democracy, human rights, the continuing battle against unjustified privilege and power, solidarity with peoples fighting against tyranny and oppression–are what most enduringly define the shape of any Left worth belonging to.”

They have not noticed that some of their principles are contradicted by their political positions.

Vanessa Redgrave and Joan Didion, Working on a Merger

From The New York Times:Didion1190

SOON after the announcement was made last December that Joan Didion would be writing a one-woman play based on her autobiographical book, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” Ms. Didion had a meeting with Scott Rudin, the Broadway producer who first proposed the idea, and David Hare, the British playwright who will be directing the production. One of the topics was casting. It was not a long conversation.

Vanessa Redgrave, said Mr. Rudin, “was the only person we ever talked about. There was no one else ever discussed.” And so after a phone call to Ms. Redgrave, the two women, among the greatest practitioners of their crafts, started the process of becoming, in a sense, one. “I said, ‘My God,’ and I couldn’t speak for a long time,” Ms. Redgrave, 69, recalled in an interview Wednesday afternoon in Ms. Didion’s sunlight-filled apartment. “I’d read the book and given it to all my family.”

“The Year of Magical Thinking” will be the first play for Ms. Didion, 71. It will not be a strict adaptation of the book, she said, because it will cover events that happened after it was published. The book, an account of the fear, despair and exasperation of bereavement, begins on Dec. 30, 2003, with the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, after a heart attack at the dinner table.

More here.

Friday, May 26, 2006

iconic monumentalism

P1749_hadid

Towards the end of the last century major cultural institutions established themselves as generators of urban activity rather than just repositories for artefacts and information. Architecture is central to this role. As the new century progresses, the architecture of high culture is evolving still further, and a new museum now carries with it the weight of cultural expectation, anticipated by both critics and town planners as a potent symbol of place, be it a district, city or even a whole country.

Iconic monumentalism was a reaction against the anodyne Modernism that had become the de facto house style of museology. Sober, self-effacing, functional museum architecture stems from the Bauhaus-era fascination with purity and simplicity. The gradual reduction of the decorated façade into a muted, abstract composition took place in parallel with the most significant American art movement of the postwar era, Abstract Expressionism, an integration epitomized by Philip Johnson’s Rothko Chapel in Houston (1971), a self-consciously pared-down structure built to house a Mark Rothko triptych. Art overflowed the constraints of the canvas; architecture followed meekly.

more from Frieze here.

combines forever

06_27_27art3

In 1943, a young sailor named Milton on furlough from his duties in the psych ward at Camp Pendleton wandered into the Huntington Library in San Marino and stood stock-still, transfixed by the aesthetic epiphany of seeing Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy and Lawrence’s Pinkie in the flesh. He remembered having seen them reproduced on packs of playing cards back home in Port Arthur, Texas. “It sounds corny,” Milton later recalled, “but my moment of realization that there was such a thing as being an artist happened right there.”

Ten years later, Milton Rauschenberg had changed his name to Bob and the seed planted by that unholy marriage of male and female über-kitsch archetypes, having passed through an art history wormhole called Erased de Kooning, spawned an outpouring of virtuosic and revolutionary visual artifacts unsurpassed in the history of 20th-century visual culture.

more from the LA Weekly here.

romanians

SOON AFTER leaving Romania in the late 1940s, Paul Celan wrote to a friend of the “too short season which was ours…” It is a good epitaph for the all too brief explosion of artistic and literary talent in Romania in the first half of the 20th century, set against a darkening background of rising anti-Semitism, invasion and dictatorship.

There were two generations. The first were born in the years before the First World War and included Tristan Tzara (né Sami Rosenstein), the father of Dadaism, the Yiddish poet, Itzik Manger, the screenwriter, Emeric Pressburger (born in Hungary but briefly a Romanian citizen in the 1920s), Mircea Eliade, Ionesco, E.M. Cioran and Saul Steinberg. None of them remained in Romania by the end of the Second World War.

The second generation were born between the wars and included Celan, Elie Wiesel, Aharon Appelfeld and Norman Manea. They were formed by three experiences: the rise of Romanian anti-Semitism in the 1930s, the Holocaust and exile.

more from a review of Norman Manea’s memoirs in Salmagundi here.

MID-POINT IN THE MIDDLE EAST?

Tariq Ali in the New Left Review:

AlibwLooking down on the world from the imperial grandeur of the Oval Office in the fall of 2001, the Cheney–Bush team was confident of its ability to utilize the September events to remodel the world. The Pentagon’s Vice Admiral Cebrowski summed up the linkage of capitalism to war: ‘the dangers against which us forces must be arrayed derive precisely from countries and regions that are “disconnected” from the prevailing trends of globalization’. Five years later, what is the balance sheet?

On the credit side, Russia, China and India remain subdued, along with Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia. Here, despite the attempts of Western political science departments to cover the instrumentalist twists of us policy with fig-leaf conceptualizations—‘limited democracies’, ‘tutelary democracies’, ‘illiberal democracies’, ‘inclusionary autocracies’, ‘illiberal autocracies’—the reality is that acceptance of Washington Consensus norms is the principal criterion for gaining imperial approval. In Western Europe, after a few flutters on Iraq, the eu is firmly back on side. Chirac now sounds more belligerent than Bush on the Middle East, and the German elite is desperate to appease Washington. On the debit side, the Caracas effect is spreading. Cuba’s long isolation has been broken, the Bolivian oligarchy defeated in La Paz and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela has assumed a central role in mobilizing popular anti-neoliberal movements in virtually every Latin American country. [1]

More alarmingly for Washington, American control of the Middle East is slipping.

More here.

Here’s how to make an invisibility cloak

From MSNBC:Invisible_hmed8p

Researchers say they are rapidly closing in on new types of materials that can throw a cloak of invisibility around objects, fulfilling a fantasy that is as old as ancient myths and as young as “Star Trek” and the Harry Potter novels. Unlike those tales of fictional invisibility, the real-life technologies usually have a catch. Nevertheless, limited forms of invisibility might be available to the military sooner than you think.

“We’re very confident that at radar frequencies, these materials can be implemented on a time scale of 18 months or so,” John Pendry of Imperial College London told MSNBC.com. The most exotic technologies involve “metamaterials,” blends of polymers and tiny coils or wires that twist the paths of electromagnetic radiation.

“There are recipes for controlling metamaterials,” explained

More here.

What Became of the Megafauna?

Robert S. Feranec in American Scientist:

Fullimage_20063309748_866Between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago, during the final millennia of the Pleistocene Epoch, roughly 100 genera of megafauna (animals weighing more than 100 pounds) became extinct worldwide. Among them are such well-known creatures as mammoths and saber-toothed tigers and the more obscure, though no less significant, Diprotodon (an Australian marsupial the size of a hippopotamus) and Coelodonta (a woolly rhinoceros found in Europe). Whether their disappearance was caused by changes in climate or by “overkill” (being hunted to extinction by humans) has been hotly debated for the past 40 years. In Twilight of the Mammoths: Ice Age Extinctions and the Rewilding of America, Paul S. Martin reviews the end-Pleistocene extinction, arguing that overkill is the more likely explanation.

More here.