The Wisdom of Parasites: Wasp vs. Cockroach

Carl Zimmer in his excellent blog, The Loom:

Ampulex20stingingI collect tales of parasites the way some people collect Star Trek plates. And having filled an entire book with them, I thought I had pretty much collected the whole set. But until now I had somehow missed the gruesome glory that is a wasp named Ampulex compressa.

As an adult, Ampulex compressa seems like your normal wasp, buzzing about and mating. But things get weird when it’s time for a female to lay an egg. She finds a cockroach to make her egg’s host, and proceeds to deliver two precise stings. The first she delivers to the roach’s mid-section, causing its front legs buckle. The brief paralysis caused by the first sting gives the wasp the luxury of time to deliver a more precise sting to the head.

Ampulex20emergingThe wasp slips her stinger through the roach’s exoskeleton and directly into its brain. She apparently use ssensors along the sides of the stinger to guide it through the brain, a bit like a surgeon snaking his way to an appendix with a laparoscope. She continues to probe the roach’s brain until she reaches one particular spot that appears to control the escape reflex. She injects a second venom that influences these neurons in such a way that the escape reflex disappears.

From the outside, the effect is surreal. The wasp does not paralyze the cockroach. In fact, the roach is able to lift up its front legs again and walk. But now it cannot move of its own accord. The wasp takes hold of one of the roach’s antennae and leads it–in the words of Israeli scientists who study Ampulex–like a dog on a leash.

More here.

A Look at Anthony Burgess

Also in the LRB, a review of a new biogrpahy of Anthony Burgess.

There is an awkward period in the lives of clothes, furniture and writers, when they become something more than dated but something less than a piece of history. We call things that have reached this state ‘unfashionable’, and usually throw such stuff away without thinking any more about it. Everyone sees a 1960s sideboard or a 1980s haircut as dated, and, beyond an embarrassed smile at our folly for ever having admired such cheesy horrors, these things rarely give rise to any thought. But unfashionable things are much more complicated and intriguing phenomena than they might appear. They open a gap in our ways of perceiving because they fall between our aesthetic and our historical sense. When we look at unfashionable objects our senses tell us that an age has passed, but we don’t yet have a means of giving those things the benefit of a historical perspective. The unfashionable embarrasses us – how can I have worn that? – but when the first blush is over it should challenge us to think about how our tastes are made and why they change.

Anthony Burgess is a 1960s sideboard of a writer. His range was improbable. He published 32 novels, composed symphonies, wrote two books on Joyce, a biography of Shakespeare and a study of the English language, as well as a large number of film scripts, most of which never entered production. He died in 1993, and is at the moment passing through the droop in reputation which most dead writers endure before they can become history. Four years ago he was the victim of what was generally regarded as a loathsome biography by Roger Lewis, who presented him as a pompous, psychologically damaged second-rater. Lewis’s biography was no fun to read, but it was interesting for what it revealed about responses to the unfashionable. It was written by a lapsed admirer, and showed exactly what happens when a reader realises that he no longer likes what he thought he liked, but hasn’t yet worked out how to detach himself from his former feeling. The result is rage and loathing, which is chiefly a warped form of embarrassment about one’s former admiration.

Democracy and Genocide

In the London Review of Book, Malcolm Bull looks at two new studies of genocide, one by Michael Mann and the other by Mark Levene.

Reasoned defences of most genocides can be constructed on the basis of a conjunction of the just war and social exclusion arguments, for if there is an identifiable social group engaged in total war against you, then it has to be neutralised. The Armenian genocide in 1915 was justified on these grounds, for the Armenians were expected to fight with the Russians in the event of an invasion of Anatolia. Stalin’s classicide was an attempt to deal with counter-revolutionary elements who might have sided with the Whites in the event of a renewed civil war or foreign invasion. A defence of the Holocaust might be constructed along the same lines: the attack on Bolshevism was a just war against an outlaw state ‘driven by slavery and the threat of human sacrifice’; it became a total war in which Jews would probably have taken the Soviet side; their pre-emptive internment was therefore a natural precaution, and their execution an unfortunate necessity at a time of ‘supreme emergency’ when the Red Army threatened the Fatherland. If you accept the just war and social exclusion arguments, then these genocides can only be criticised on the basis that they relied on shaky political analysis. They were, in effect, misjudgments, failures of statesmanship, perhaps.

These are not hypothetical arguments. Orhan Pamuk was until recently awaiting trial for affirming the existence of an Armenian genocide, while the president of Iran has cast doubt on the Holocaust, and floated the idea of relocating the state of Israel in Central Europe. Mann and Levene both see genocide as a modern practice coextensive with the rise of the West, and imply that the Middle East has been relatively insulated from this historical pattern. But as war and democracy march hand in hand into the region, that may change. On Mann’s analysis, the chances of some sort of genocide must be quite high. According to him, murderous ethnic cleansing takes place where the demos is equated with the ethnos. Young democracies are particularly at risk, especially those where ethnicity trumps class as the primary means of social classification. The danger zone is reached when two groups claim the same territory, and they reach the brink either when the weaker group fights rather than submits (perhaps believing it has outside support) or when the stronger thinks it can act with impunity. Genocides do not occur in stable, peaceful environments, but at moments of crisis when the state is in danger. So societies only go over the brink when the perpetrators of the genocide are radicalised by war.

interview with Joseph Parisi


Your most recent book is titled 100 Essential Modern Poems. Why are the hundred poems in this anthology essential?

Well, first of all, I should say that they are not THE one hundred essential modern poems. These poems had something to say, rather than just being experiments in style and technique. They address certain perennial issues such as life, death, love, heartbreak, war, and peace, but from a distinctly modern point of view.

I do not necessarily define these poems as modern in the Modernist sense, which is to say that period of High Modernism in the 1920’s which included people like Stevens, Marianne Moore, etc. The modern innovation shook up the stagnant period of poetry preceding their own, which can be termed genteel poetry. The modern world brought fundamental changes in how people lived. The biggest event that defined the modern era was, of course, World War I. This served to sweep into the ashcan pieties about what made the world go around. This new notion of personal isolation brought about from this cataclysmic event inspired a poetry centered around being on one’s own. Also, there was a focus on concrete reality, what things really are, becoming the prevailing interest carried to the fore by these poets. The central idea was not for poetry to take one to a higher realm, but rather to bring poetry back down to earth.

more from here.

david smith, 100


SISSIES were second-class citizens in mid-20th-century American culture. And art was a he-man’s game: booze, broads, Sasquatch manners, the whole nine yards. Sure, a little sensitivity was O.K., as long as you didn’t get carried away. It’s as if there was a sign at the Cedar Bar door: Girlie-men need not apply.

Except this picture isn’t quite right. Look at the art. De Kooning painted the way Tamara Toumanova danced, with a diva’s plush bravura. Pollock interwove strands of pigment as if he were making lace. The sculptor David Smith, the biggest palooka of the Abstract Expressionist crowd, floated lines of welded steel in space the way Eleanor Steber sang Mozart’s notes, with an unbaroque fineness, an American-style delicacy.

more from Holland Cotter at the NY TImes here.

Scientists force evolution in the lab



Scientists have forced a little evolution in the laboratory, controlling whether a caterpillar becomes green or black. The color of the critter was made to vary with temperature during their development. The experiment reveals the basic hormonal mechanism underlying the evolution of such dual traits, the researchers report in Monday’s issue of the journal Science. The study was done on Manduca sexta, a caterpillar commonly called the tobacco hornworm. Its larvae are normally green. A related species, Manduca quinquemaculata, becomes black or green depending on temperature. The idea was to use similar temperature shocks to evolve a similar change in M. sexta.

Similar differences show up in genetically identical ants, which can develop into queens, soldiers or workers, based on the hormones they’re exposed to early in development. Similar hormonal differences can affect the specific color of a butterfly or bird.

More here.

Thursday, February 2, 2006

many voices of africa


The language of peace-making is everywhere, though. Sometimes it is curiously belligerent. ANGELIC PEACE LOCOMOTIVE CRUSHES LIFE OUT OF WAR DEVIL MONGERS was the headline in one Khartoum newspaper reporting the agreement. The less peace there is, the more people want to hear the magic word. A South Sudanese hip-hop artist, Emmanuel Jal, and a veteran northern Sudanese musician, Abdel Gadir Salim, recently recorded an album called Ceasefire. The two singers have never met: their album was made by sending recorded tracks back and forth between London, Khartoum and Nairobi, in Kenya, where Jal has been living. The result of this collaboration-at-a-distance is a wondrous fusion of the 6/8 merdoum rhythm of western Sudan with rap techniques honed in the dance halls of Nairobi. The songs are in a mix of English, Arabic, Nuer (Jal’s native language) and Sheng, a street language that is Kenya’s equivalent of the Spanglish spoken by Latinos in North America. In July, Jal performed in Cornwall at one of Bob Geldof’s Live 8 concerts. In August, he sang at the memorial event in London for John Garang, leader of the SPLM, who was killed in a helicopter accident shortly after the formation of the new government in Khartoum.

more at Granta here.

landlines: langdon quin


Landlines (2005), the first thing you see upon entering the exhibition of paintings by Langdon Quin on display at Kraushaar Galleries Inc., is so strange and good—so aloof yet oddly gripping—that it’s too bad the gallery felt it necessary to display other examples of the artist’s recent work. Not that there’s anything terribly wrong with the rest of Mr. Quin’s pictures. There are additional landscapes depicting Umbria, the subject of Landlines, as well as a handful of still-life and figurative pictures. A traditionalist through and through, Mr. Quin brings a sober sense of measure to everything he touches. There’s not a spot on the canvases that hasn’t been given his full and steady attention.

more from The NY Observer here.

Supernatural selection

From The Boston Globe:

Dennett_3 WHEN THE philosopher Daniel Dennett was a teenager, he played the backwoods holy man Elijah in his prep school’s production of ”Inherit the Wind.” ”Bearded, wild-haired, dressed in a tattered burlap smock,” Elijah comes down from the hills, on the eve of Bert Cates’s trial for teaching evolution, to sell Bibles out of an old vegetable crate. ”Are you an evolutionist? An infidel? A sinner?” Elijah asks an out-of-town newspaperman.

Until he went to graduate school, Dennett claims, the play, famously based on the 1925 Scopes ”monkey trial,” was the source of most of what he knew about evolution and natural selection. Today Dennett has a prophet’s beard, one corner of which he will sometimes fold into his mouth for a ruminative chew, and he is one of Darwinian theory’s foremost promoters. He sees it not just as an explanation for the origin of species, but for the fundamental whys and hows of human habits, beliefs, thinking, and desires. The logic of evolution, Dennett wrote in his 1995 book ”Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,” is a ”universal acid,” it ”eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized worldview.”

Religion, Dennett says, is human behavior, and there are branches of science to study human behavior. ”Whether or not [Gould] was right,” Dennett told me in his office at Tufts University, where he is director of the Center for Cognitive Studies, ”and I don’t think he was, I’m not making a claim that he would disagree with. I’m not saying that science should do what religion does. I’m saying science should study what religion does.”

More here.

Meditation Finding Converts Among Western Doctors

From The National Geographic:Meditation

The research is one in a string of studies that suggest some time spent getting in tune with the flow of one’s breathing can complement a regimen of pills, diet, and exercise. Meditation is being prescribed for stress, anxiety, infertility, skin diseases, and other ailments. Many medical professionals in the West remain skeptical or are against the use of meditation for therapy. But some are beginning to endorse its benefits, said neuroscientist Sara Lazar, who leads the research at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. “Our hope is that by providing concrete evidence of [meditation’s] benefits, more people will at least try it and see if it is beneficial for them,” she said in an email interview. Lazar presented a paper on the research during a visit of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, to the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience last November in Washington, D.C.

The Dalai Lama was at the neuroscience meeting to give a talk on the potential for mingling neuroscience with the Buddhist tradition of meditation (map: “Buddhism’s Path to Going Global”).

More here.

Curing Fanaticism: Amos Oz on Hamas

Jon Wiener in The Nation:

Oz20portraitAmos Oz is Israel’s leading novelist, a founder and the best-known voice of Peace Now. He is a bellwether for Israeli doves, for opponents of the occupation who favor Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and a negotiated two-state solution. In a recent conversation, he assessed the political and diplomatic implications of the Hamas electoral victory.

A week after your book How to Cure a Fanatic was published, Hamas won a historic victory in elections for the Palestinian parliament. Do you regard Hamas as an organization of fanatics?

Fanatics are those people of any faith, color, persuasion or political belief who maintain that the end, whatever end, justifies all the means, including the bloody means. By this criterion I am afraid Hamas is a fanatic organization par excellence.

And if Hamas doesn’t change?

If they don’t change, I think it would be wise for Israel to take the conflict upstairs, to neighboring Arab nations, perhaps to the Arab League, and talk about a solution that will then be presented to the Palestinian people in a referendum.

More here.

The fastest-growing company in the history of the world

John Lanchester reviews The Google Story by David Vise, in the London Review of Books:

Google is the only multi-billion-dollar company in the world that is also a spelling mistake. Back in the palaeolithic era (that’s the palaeolithic era in the internet sense, i.e. autumn 1997) its co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, were graduate computer science students at Stanford. They were working on an insanely cool new search engine, wanted to incorporate it as a company, and needed to find a name. David Vise, in his breezy book The Google Story, tells how they came up with one. A fellow graduate student suggested to Page and Brin that they use the name given to what is sometimes, erroneously or metaphorically, called the largest number, 10100: google. They looked up the name on the internet, found that it wasn’t taken, and registered their brand-new brand, The next morning they found that the reason the name hadn’t been taken was because it should be spelled googol – and that had, of course, already been bagged. (It belonged, and still belongs, to a Silicon Valley software engineer and home-brewed beer enthusiast called Tim Beauchamp: ‘The links on this page are a mishmash of eclectic destinations that may be of interest to you. Actually, they may only be of interest to Tim but what the heck. It is his site!’) Lesser men might have considered that a bad omen, but Larry and Sergey are not bad-omen kind of guys. Just over eight years later, Google is the fastest-growing company in the history of the world – with, at the time of writing, a market capitalisation of $138 billion. Larry and Sergey, the Wallace and Gromit of the information age, are worth more than $10 billion each.

More here.

Dads-to-be pile on the pounds too

Gaia Vince in New Scientist:

Dn86611_250Dads-to-be pile on the pounds during their partners’ pregnancy too – at least in some monkey species, new research suggests. The findings may illuminate the biological changes that occur in men to encourage effective fatherhood, since the primates studied are exceptionally good parents.

Pregnancy is something that not all expectant fathers miss out on – male “sympathetic pregnancies” have been reported in humans but never systematically studied. They are often regarded as psychosomatic events.

Now a US team has studied the parental weight patterns of common marmosets and cotton top tamarins – two squirrel-sized, monogamous primate species – from conception to birth. Each month the 25 prospective dads and 33 pregnant mums were weighed. The creatures’ food supply was maintained but not increased during the gestation periods for the marmosets (five months) and tamarins (six months).

“We found that the males gained on average an extra 10% of their body weight during the pregnancy,” says Toni Zeigler who led the research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison National Primate Research Center.

More here.

Robert Falcon Scott, Antarctic Explorer

Paul Watkins reviews four books about RFS in the Times Literary Supplement:

Scott2David Crane’s exhaustively researched Scott of the Antarctic is a welcome addition to the wealth of reading material about one of Britain’s most famous explorers. It is all here. From “Con’s” early days as a fourteen-year-old naval cadet among the white-gloved eccentrics of the pre-First World War Royal Navy, Crane leads us through the death of Scott’s father and brother and the financial burden placed on him to support his mother and sisters. He traces Scott’s first journey to the Antarctic as captain of HMS Discovery, whose crew, despite many set-backs, returned home having come closer to the Pole than anyone had ever been at that time. Crane describes Scott on his arrival in London, blackened by soot and snow glare, plunged unwillingly into the limelight of royal galas and the lecture circuit. Two years after his marriage to Kathleen Bruce, Scott returns for his second and final voyage to the Antarctic, intent on planting the Union Jack at the South Pole and thus claiming it for Britain. As exhaustion and frostbite take their toll, we read again the immortal words of Oates (“I am just going outside and may be some time”) and the eerily prophetic last line of Scott’s journal, “For God’s sake, look after our people”, almost as if he could foresee the looming carnage of the First World War.

More here.

‘Presticogitation’: Professor’s bid to get word in OED

Nathan Bierma in the Chicago Tribune:

In the mid-1980s, Vanden Bosch — my English professor and now my colleague at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. — coined the word “presticogitation.” It’s a spin-off of the word “prestidigitation,” which means “sleight of hand” and is used to describe magicians (derived from the French “preste,” meaning “nimble, quick,” and the Latin “digitus” for “finger.”)

“Presticogitation” is the cerebral equivalent — “rapid mental processing that commands compliance because of its speed and beauty,” as Vanden Bosch defines it.

“Since the mid-1980s, I’ve been asking students to try to find room for it in their writing,” he says. But Vanden Bosch says his campaign is more than a personal indulgence; it has a teaching purpose.

More here.

Wednesday, February 1, 2006



On June 8, 1954, Alan Turing, a forty-one-year-old research scientist at Manchester University, was found dead by his housekeeper. Before getting into bed the night before, he had taken a few bites out of an apple that was, apparently, laced with cyanide. At an inquest, a few days later, his death was ruled a suicide. Turing was, by necessity rather than by inclination, a man of secrets. One of his secrets had been exposed two years before his death, when he was convicted of “gross indecency” for having a homosexual affair. Another, however, had not yet come to light. It was Turing who was chiefly responsible for breaking the German Enigma code during the Second World War, an achievement that helped save Britain from defeat in the dark days of 1941. Had this been publicly known, he would have been acclaimed a national hero. But the existence of the British code-breaking effort remained closely guarded even after the end of the war; the relevant documents weren’t declassified until the nineteen-seventies. And it wasn’t until the eighties that Turing got the credit he deserved for a second, and equally formidable, achievement: creating the blueprint for the modern computer.

more from The New Yorker here.

Olivo Barbieri’s Aerial Photos


It’s often hard to convince people that Olivo Barbieri’s aerial photographs are real. Slide1_2They look uncannily like hyperdetailed models, absent the imperfections of reality. Streets are strangely clean, trees look plastic, and odd distortions of scale create the opposite effect of what we expect from aerial photography–a complete overview, like military surveillance. “I was a little bit tired of the idea of photography allowing you to see everything,” Barbieri says. “After 9/11 the world had become a little bit blurred because things that seemed impossible happened. My desire was to look at the city again.”

He began the Site Specific project in Rome, before moving on to Amman, Jordan; Las Vegas; Los Angeles; and Shanghai, China. He achieves the distinctive look by photographing from a helicopter using a tilt-shift lens–a method, he says, that “allows me to choose what I really like in focus: like in a written page, we don’t read [it as an] image but one line at a time.” Along with the still photographs, which are exhibited as enormous prints, Barbieri has been making short 35mm films. New York–not surprisingly–is next on his list of cities to tackle.

Hat tip Linta Varghese and Roop Roy.

James Langston Hughes, Poet

Today is the birthday of Langston Hughes (February 1, 1902 – May 22, 1967), and the first day of Black History Month:

HughesBorn in Joplin, Missouri, James Langston Hughes was a member of an abolitionist family. He was the great-great-grandson of Charles Henry Langston, brother of John Mercer Langston, who was the first Black American to be elected to public office, in 1855. Hughes attended Central High School in Cleveland, Ohio, but began writing poetry in the eighth grade, and was selected as Class Poet. His father didn’t think he would be able to make a living at writing, and encouraged him to pursue a more practical career. He paid his son’s tuition to Columbia University on the grounds he study engineering. After a short time, Langston dropped out of the program with a B+ average; all the while he continued writing poetry. His first published poem was also one of his most famous, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, and it appeared in Brownie’s Book. Later, his poems, short plays, essays and short stories appeared in the NAACP publication Crisis Magazine and in Opportunity Magazine and other publications.

More here.  And this is his poem, “I, Too”:

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed–

I, too, am America.

What pit bulls can teach us about profiling

Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker:

Pic2In epidemiological studies of dog bites, the pit bull is overrepresented among dogs known to have seriously injured or killed human beings, and, as a result, pit bulls have been banned or restricted in several Western European countries, China, and numerous cities and municipalities across North America. Pit bulls are dangerous.

Of course, not all pit bulls are dangerous. Most don’t bite anyone. Meanwhile, Dobermans and Great Danes and German shepherds and Rottweilers are frequent biters as well, and the dog that recently mauled a Frenchwoman so badly that she was given the world’s first face transplant was, of all things, a Labrador retriever. When we say that pit bulls are dangerous, we are making a generalization, just as insurance companies use generalizations when they charge young men more for car insurance than the rest of us…

More here.

Nancy Cartwright on God and Natural Laws

On her homepage, Nancy Cartwright has an interesting working paper, entitled “No God, No Laws”.

My thesis is summarized in my title, ‘No God, No Laws’: the concept of a law of Nature cannot be made sense of without God. It is not as dramatic a thesis as it might look, however. I do not mean to argue that the enterprise of modern science cannot be made sense of without God. Rather, if you want to make sense of it you had better not think of science as discovering laws of Nature, for there cannot be any of these without God. That depends of course on what we mean by ‘laws of Nature’. Whatever else we mean, I take it that this much is essential: Laws of Nature are prescriptive, not merely descriptive, and – even stronger – they are supposed to be responsible for what occurs in Nature. Since at least the Scientific Revolution they are also supposed to be visible in the Book of Nature, not writ only on stone tablets nor in the thought of God…

My claim here is that neither of these features can be made sense of without God; this despite the fact that they are generally thought to provide some autonomy of the world order from God.

But she does offer a way out.