A house divided

Christopher Hitchens write in the Introduction of The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende:

For people of a certain generation (my own, to be exact: those of us sometimes vulgarly described as the baby-boomers), the imagery and cosmology of Chile is a part of ourselves. A country shaped like a long, thin, jagged blade, forming the littoral of almost an entire continent, and poised to crumble into the ocean leaving only the Andes behind. A place of earthquakes and wine and poets, like some Antarctic Aegean. And a place of arms: the scene of the grand 20th-century confrontation between Allende and Pinochet. The nation’s territory includes the Atacama desert, an expanse of rainforest, a huge deposit of copper, a great valley full of vines, and the mysteriously statued Polynesian outpost of Easter Island, known to the indigenous as Rapanui, or “the navel of the world”.

The voices and portents in La Casa de los Espiritus are also somewhat cryptic at times, as befits the school of “magical realism”. This style, or manner, was actually pioneered somewhat earlier than most people think, by Jorge Luis Borges in neighbouring Argentina. In 1926 he published an essay, “Tales of Turkestan”, in which he hymned the sort of story where “the marvellous and the everyday are entwined … there are angels as there are trees”. In 1931, in The Postulation of Magic, he announced that fiction was “an autonomous sphere of corroborations, omens and monuments”, as bodied forth in the “predestined” Ulysses of James Joyce.

From the very beginning of Isabel Allende’s narration, disbelief is suspensible in the most natural way, and (if you pay attention) the premonitions begin to register. Rather cleverly – and subversively – the action begins in a church. Bored by the blackmailing liturgy, and by the devotional decorations which make an everyday trade out of the officially supernatural, the Trueba family is preoccupied with the truly extraordinary developments within its own ranks. Effortlessly, we find ourselves conscripted into the truth of this tale; from green hair to the gift of prophecy and divination and the taken-for-granted ability to fly. Just off the centre of the stage, in carefully placed hints and allusions to the Prussian goose-step, to the future burning of the books and to the Marxist gentleman referred to as “the candidate”, we can also pick up the faint drum-taps of the far-off tragic denouement.

Children and animals are often the conveyors of the magical: innocence and experience being in their cases less immediately distinguishable. Clara and the dog Barrabás would make an almost cartoonish filmic double-act for anyone with the necessary entrepreneurial imagination: a sort of Scooby-Doo with the facts of life thrown in.

Here it is Isabel Allende’s brilliantly dead-pan and dry humour, concerning such things as the beast Barrabás’s murderous penis, that draw us into the story and make us surrender. In counterpoint to this highly bearable lightness, her notes of seriousness are correspondingly weighty. (Why does nobody ever believe Clara’s prophecies? Because nobody ever believed Cassandra.) By the time we reach chapter five (“The Lovers”) we are suddenly aware that we are watching a parody of Animal Farm in reverse, with a song about the chickens organising to defeat the fox, heard by a wealthy landowner who wants to put a stop to such romantic nonsense.

The romance between the rich man’s daughter and the penniless son of the peasant is such a folkloric cliché that one has to become wary for an instant, even with an author who has already won one’s trust. However, The House Of The Spirits depends for its ingenuity on the blending of the microcosmic with the macrocosmic: the little society of the family and the wider society of Chile.

Read the Introduction in its entirety here.

Nuclear Labs and the Fate of the Planet

Noam Chomsky in Counterpunch:

Choms05cThe world has come extremely close to total destruction just in recent years from nuclear war. New Mexico plays an important role in this. There’s case after case where a nuclear war was prevented almost by a miracle. And the threat is increasing as a consequence of policies that the administration is very consciously pursuing.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld understands perfectly well that these policies are increasing the threat of destruction. As you know, it’s not a high probability event, but if a low probability event keeps happening over and over, there’s a high probability that sooner or later it will take place.

If you want to rank issues in terms of significance, there are some issues that are literally issues of survival of the species, and they’re imminent. Nuclear war is an issue of species survival, and the threats have been severe for a long time.

More here.

The coupling of ideology and theology

Bill Moyers writes in the New York Review of Books:

MoyersThere are times when what we journalists see and intend to write about dispassionately sends a shiver down the spine, shaking us from our neutrality. This has been happening to me frequently of late as one story after another drives home the fact that the delusional is no longer marginal but has come in from the fringe to influence the seats of power. We are witnessing today a coupling of ideology and theology that threatens our ability to meet the growing ecological crisis. Theology asserts propositions that need not be proven true, while ideologues hold stoutly to a world view despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality. The combination can make it impossible for a democracy to fashion real-world solutions to otherwise intractable challenges.

More here.

Is Google’s new AutoLink a force for evil?

Paul Boutin writes in Slate:

Has Google turned evil? Web pundit Dave Winer calls the search behemoth’s new AutoLink feature “the first step down a treacherous slope that could spell the end of the Web.” ZDNet’s Steve Gillmor says it’s “a pure land grab.” Slashdot chimes in with the ultimate insult: “Is Google AutoLink Patent-Pending By Microsoft?”

What’s all the hubbub about? A couple of little blue links. AutoLink is part of the new beta version of the Google toolbar. It’s possible to disable AutoLink with a single mouse click, but if you do keep it turned on the toolbar will crawl each page you surf for mailing addresses, book ISBN numbers, auto VIN numbers, and package tracking numbers. If a restaurant publishes its address, Google links that to a map. If an author’s Web site lists her books by ISBN number, each one becomes a link to Amazon’s page for the book. Why only this oddball collection of items? Because they can be reliably identified and have only one correct match.

More here.

The Rebellion of E.E. Cummings

Adam Kirsch in Harvard Magazine:

The most notorious and beloved child in modern American poetry is E.E. Cummings. Even readers who seldom read poetry recognize the distinctive shape that a Cummings poem makes on the page: the blizzard of punctuation, the words running together or suddenly breaking part, the type spilling like a liquid from one line to the next:

one

t
Cummings_1hi
s

snowflake

(a
  li
    ght
  in
g)

is upon a gra

v
es
t

one

Cummings was not the first poet to use a typewriter, but as this poem shows, he was the first to take advantage of its power to control the exact spacing and shape of every line, and thus to make a poem’s visual appearance as important as its musical rhythms. What looks like a thin trickle of letters becomes, to a reader who has learned Cummings’s tricks, a picture in print: the snowflake “alighting” in a twirl, the severe vertical of the “gravestone.” This playful tinkering with language is the most obvious and appealing sign of Cummings’s originality; as he once wrote, it is “such minutiae as commas and small i’s,in which…my Firstness thrives.”

More here.

John Ashbery: Mapping the Unconscious

Charles McGrath reviews a book of prose and a book of poetry by John Ashbery in the New York Times:

Once thought to be willfully ”difficult” and impenetrably obscure, Ashbery now, at 77, seems almost avuncular, the grand old man of American poetry, both wise and ironic — the party guest he describes in one of his new poems, who is ”bent on mischief and good works with equal zest.” We may not know much Ashbery by heart, but we recognize his voice the instant we hear it, because nobody else writes this way:

Attention, shoppers. From within the
    inverted
commas of a strambotto, seditious
    whispering
watermarks this time of day. Time to get
   out
and, as they say, about.

Ashbery has written more than 20 books — most of them of consistently high quality, with the exception of the tedious ”Flow Chart” — and he has been around so long, reinventing himself over and over again, that the experience of reading him now is a little like re-enacting the central drama of most Ashbery poems: the experience of suddenly coming upon something that is both deeply familiar and more than a little strange.

More here.

Friday, March 4, 2005

Mechanical Sculpture at the Whitney

A recent stop-off at the Whitney re-introduced me to the uncannily organic mechanical contraptions of sculptor Tim Hawkinson. 072

From the Whitney website:

Hawkinson has created numerous sculptures that function as machines, many of which have characteristics of robots or automatons. Other pieces serve to record time or create sounds. He has produced an astonishing variety of time-telling sculptures, often using unconventional materials, such as strands of hair caught in a hairbrush for the hands of one “clock.” Spin Sink (1 Rev./100 Years) (1995) is a 24-foot-long row of interlocking gears, the smallest of which is driven by a whirring toy motor that in turn drives each consecutively larger and more slowly turning gear up to the largest of all, which rotates approximately once every one hundred years. Several of his mechanical works function as eccentric musical instruments, whistling, honking, and clacking to the artist’s own scores or popular songs. From Feather (1997), a tiny feather fashioned from the artist’s own hair, to a football field-sized pipe organ, Überorgan (2000), Hawkinson’s work combines humor and diligence to make the familiar territories of the body, machinery, and time surprising and new.

6570The offsite installation of Tim Hawkinson’s signature construction, Überorgan opens February 11, 2005.  The deeply sonorous piece, too large to be shown at the Whitney itself, is on view in the Sculpture Garden at 590 Madison Avenue (between 56th and 57th Streets), where it remains up through May 29, concurrent with the run of the Whitney exhibition of Hawkinson’s work.  The Sculpture Garden at 590 Madison Avenue is open to the public from 8 am to 10 pm daily.

Überorgan, created from multiple bus-size biomorphic balloons, each with its horns tuned to a different note in an octave, is a gargantuan self-playing organ.  Its musical score consists of a 200-foot-long scroll of dots and dashes encoding old hymns, pop classics, and improvisational ditties.  Tim Hawkinson explains: “The score is deciphered by the organ’s brain—a bank of light-sensitive switches—and then reinterpreted by a series of switches and relays that translate the original patterns into nonrepeating variations of the score.”

Mice optic nerves ‘regenerated’

BBC News reports:

_40878153_another_eye203_2Scientists say they have completely regenerated damaged optic nerves from the eye to the brain in mice.

Experts say the work offers new hope for people with glaucoma, a condition in which raised pressure destroys the optic nerve. It may also eventually help people with spinal cord and other injuries of the central nervous system, they say. The research, by Boston’s Schepens Eye Research Institute, is published in the Journal of Cell Science. Lead researcher Dr Dong Feng Chen said: “This is the closest science has come to regenerating so many nerve fibres over a long distance to reach their targets, and to repair a nerve previously considered irreparably damaged.”

Many tissues in the body continually renew themselves if injured. But the optic nerve, along with other tissues of the central nervous system, does not have this ability, so damage is permanent. The Schepens team had already discovered that the optic nerve’s inability to regenerate was linked to the fact that a key gene called BCL-2 is switched off. They also believed the regeneration process was blocked by the creation, shortly after birth, of a scar on the brain by specialised glial cells. These cells have many functions in the brain, one of which is to create this kind of scar tissue. Potentially the scar puts up a physical as well as molecular barrier to regeneration.

Read more here.

A defeat for decency, in my city

Via Delong, via Eric Alterman, the demonstration effect also goes in the wrong direction.  Seventy nine Muslims and five (Jewish) Israelis were tortured in Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center by corrections officers.

“Defense attorneys call it Brooklyn’s Abu Ghraib. On the ninth floor of the federal Metropolitan Detention Center in Sunset Park, terrorism suspects swept off the streets after the Sept. 11 attacks were repeatedly stripped naked and frequently were physically abused, the Justice Department’s inspector general has found.

The detainees – none of whom were ultimately charged with anything related to terrorism – alleged in sworn affidavits and in interviews with Justice Department officials that correction officers:

  • Humiliated them by making fun of – and sometimes painfully squeezing – their genitals.

  • Deprived them of regular sleep for weeks or months.

  • Shackled their hands and feet before smashing them repeatedly face-first into concrete walls – within sight of the Statue of Liberty.

  • Forced them in winter to stand outdoors at dawn while dressed in light cotton prison garb and no shoes, sometimes for hours.”
  • The Incandescence of an Intellectual Nuclear Reactor

    Oliver Sacks remembers Francis Crick in the New York Review of Books:

    CrickI read the famous “double helix” letter by James Watson and Francis Crick in Nature when it was published in 1953 —I was an undergraduate at Oxford then, reading physiology and biochemistry. I would like to say that I immediately saw its tremendous significance, but this was not the case for me or, indeed, for most people at the time.

    It was only in 1962, when Francis Crick came to talk at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco, where I was interning, that I started to realize the vast implications of the double helix. Crick’s talk at Mount Zion was not on the configuration of DNA but on the work he had been doing with the molecular biologist Sidney Brenner to determine how the sequence of DNA bases could specify the amino acid sequence in proteins. They had just shown, after four years of intense work, that the translation involved a three-nucleotide code. This was itself a discovery no less momentous than the discovery of the double helix…

    It was not until May of 1986 that I met Francis Crick, at a conference in San Diego. There was a big crowd, full of neuroscientists, but when it was time to sit down for dinner, Crick singled me out, seized me by the shoulders, sat me down next to him, and said, “Tell me stories!” I have no memory of what we ate, or anything else about the dinner, only that I told him stories about many of my patients, and that each one set off bursts of hypotheses, theories, suggestions for investigation in his mind. Writing to Crick a few days later, I said that the experience was “a little like sitting next to an intellectual nuclear reactor…. I never had a feeling of such incandescence.”

    More here.

    A Small Victory for Decency

    “A popular Ivory Coast teacher has been allowed to remain in the United States for at least another 17 months after a sustained campaign by his students. Obain Attouoman was due to be deported on Friday but US senators, including former presidential candidate John Kerry, ordered an official inquiry. Mr Attouoman claimed political asylum in 1992, saying his life was in danger for his union and political activities. His Boston students staged street protests after his request was refused.”

    Tearjerker from the BBC.

    Vijay Seshadri Poem

    From The New Yorker:

    MEMOIR

    Orwell says somewhere that no one ever writes the real story of their life.
    The real story of a life is the story of its humiliations.
    If I wrote that story now–
    radioactive to the end of time–
    people, I swear, your eyes would fall out, you couldn’t peel
    the gloves fast enough
    from your hands scorched by the firestorms of that shame.
    Your poor hands. Your poor eyes
    to see me weeping in my room
    or boring the tall blonde to death.
    Once I accused the innocent.
    Once I bowed and prayed to the guilty.
    I still wince at what I once said to the devastated widow.
    And one October afternoon, under a locust tree
    whose blackened pods were falling and making
    illuminating patterns on the pathway,
    I was seized by joy,
    and someone saw me there,
    and that was the worst of all,
    lacerating and unforgettable.

    Alice Quinn, poetry editor of The New Yorker, interviewed Seshadri. Read it here.

    Fever-induced hallucinations

    MichaelMichael Slatky is a young New York City-based artist whose work is reminiscent of the great H.R. Geiger. In other words, it’s slightly frightening and disturbing but retains a layered depth. He says of its origins:

    Fever-induced hallucinations during a prolonged childhood hospital stay revealed an inner universe which I continue to explore through my artwork. My images spring from a visceral reaction to this microcosm. My work begins where rational thought is disrupted – the limitations of time, space, and order collapsing into the subconscious, illusion, and chaotic emotions.

    Check it out here.

    The Black Death

    Michiko Kakutani reviews The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time by John Kelly, in the New York Times:

    The images could have come from one of Hieronymus Bosch’s nightmarish paintings of hell: dusty roads filled with frightened refugees, many of them already ill, covered in boils and coughing up blood; dogs and rats running wild on deserted streets; fields littered with the dead bodies of cows and sheep; plague pits filled with the corpses of men, women and children; survivors pointing accusatory fingers at Jews and Muslims and outsiders; others flagellating themselves in an effort to appease the heavens.

    This was Europe in the 1340’s, the decade of the advent of the Black Death, and in his harrowing new book, “The Great Mortality,” John Kelly gives the reader a ferocious, pictorial account of the horrific ravages of that plague. He notes that on the Foster scale, a kind of Richter scale of human disaster, “the medieval plague is the second greatest catastrophe in the human record,” with only World War II producing “more death, physical destruction, and emotional suffering.” He also points out that a cold war-era study by the United States Atomic Energy Commission found that the Black Death comes closest to mimicking all out nuclear war “in its geographical extent, abruptness of onset and scale of casualties.”

    More here.

    English Grammar and the C.I.A.

    Noah Shachtman in the New York Times:

    One of the dullest grammar exercises is being used to help find potential terrorists, and save companies a bundle.

    Diagramming sentences – picking out subject, verb, object, adjective and other parts of speech – has been a staple of middle and high school grammar lessons for decades. Now, with financing from the Central Intelligence Agency, a California firm is using the technique to comb through e-mail messages and chat room talks, which can be a rich lode of corporate and government information, and a tough one to mine.

    More here.

    The Taste of Music

    Ruth Francis in Nature:

    A recorder player has fascinated neuroscientists with her ability to taste differences in the intervals between notes.

    The condition in which the brain links two or more of the senses is known as synaesthesia, and some sense combinations are relatively common. But this is the first time that the ability has been found to help in performing a mental task, such as identifying a major third.

    Elizabeth Sulston was at school when she first noticed that she saw colours while hearing music. She realized that the same was not true of her peers, although linkage of tone and colour is a known synaesthetic combination.

    More here.

    Thursday, March 3, 2005

    Virtual reality maps real-life ‘Hobbit’ brain

    From the Associated Press:

    Hobbitbrain_1Some scientists say brain size points to different hominid species; others question that conclusion: Scientists working with powerful imaging computers say the spectacular “Hobbit” fossil recently discovered in Indonesia had distinctive brain features that could justify its classification as a separate — and tiny — human ancestor. The new report, published Thursday in the online version of the journal Science, seems to support the idea of a human dwarf species marooned for eons while modern humans spread across the planet. Detractors of the theory, however, said the computer models were unconvincing. The new research produced a computer-generated model that compared surface impressions on the inside of the fossil skull with brain casts of modern and ancient humans, as well as chimps and other primates. The scientists said the model shows that the 3-foot (1-meter) specimen, nicknamed Hobbit, had a brain unlike anything they had seen before in recent human lineage. The brain is chimplike in size, between 380 and 420 cubic centimeters.

    Despite being up to two-thirds smaller than a modern human brain, the Hobbit fossil’s brain shared wrinkled surface features with the brains of both modern humans and Homo erectus, tool-making human ancestors that lived more than 1 million years ago, the researchers said. Some of those features are consistent with higher cognitive traits, they report. At the same time, they said the Hobbit brain was different from the brain of a modern human pygmy or a human with abnormal brain growth. “This is something new,” said Florida State University anthropologist Dean Falk, who led the study. “This discovery has flummoxed the field of anthropology.”

    In October, scientists from Indonesia and Australia caused an international sensation with their report of a trove of fossils found in a cave on the equatorial island of Flores. As many as seven tiny individuals were represented by the bones in layers that were dated from 95,000 to 12,000 years ago. The Hobbit skeleton was the most complete specimen to be described.

    Read more here.

    Odd life forms found in undersea ‘Lost City’

    From the Associated Press:

    Lostcity_1Towering white mineral chimneys mark the field, named the Lost City, a sharp contrast to the better-known black smoker vents that have been studied in recent years. The discovery shows “how little we know about the ocean,” lead researcher Deborah S. Kelley of the University of Washington said. “I have been working on black smokers for about 20 years, and you sort of think you have a good idea what going on,” she said in a telephone interview. “But the ocean is a big place and there are still important opportunities for discovery.”

    The Lost City was discovered by accident in 2000 as Kelley and others studied undersea areas near the midocean ridge. They returned to the area in 2003 to analyze what they had found and were startled to learn how different the new vent environment and its residents were from the ones studied before.

    Black smokers are chimney-like structures that form when very hot water — reaching 700 degrees Fahrenheit — breaks through the ocean floor and comes into contact with frigid ocean water. The minerals that crystallize during the process give the chimneys their black color. At Lost City, on the other hand, the temperature of the escaping fluids is 150 degrees to 170 degrees. The environment is extremely alkaline, compared to the high acid levels at black smokers. A variety of unusual creatures have been discovered around black smoker vents, including tubeworms that can grow as long as eight feet.

    Their findings are reported in Friday’s issue of the journal Science.

    Civiblogging

    I found out about Civiblog through my friend (and erstwhile blogging partner at The Aula Point of View) Jyri Engestrom. Jennifer Leonard of Civiblog described it to me as, “A newly designed site out of The Citizen Lab at the Munk Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto, with the view to build community and add ‘global civil society’ bloggers (politically-inclined individuals and all those working or volunteering for non-profit sector, i.e. NGOs) from around the world.” It seems like a great idea. From their site:

    Civiblog is about community and the co-creation of content. We’re starting small but we’re aiming huge. From a few key blogs in Kandahar, Uganda and Guatemala to daily commentary and updates from all corners of the globe. From English-only to multilingual. Static posts to pod casting. No commentary at all to dynamic visual pattern analysis of all blog activity. We’re open to your feedback and we’ll get there with your help. As a global citizen, your input is invaluable as we develop Civiblog together.

    Check them out. Get a free blog there. Help make the world better!

    Perry Anderson on Rawls, Habermas, and Bobbio, and, while he’s at it, Kant, Hegel, Empire

    In the recent New Left Review, Perry Anderson offers a harsh assessment of John Rawls, Jurgen Habermas, and Noberto Bobbio’s takes on international relations and war.

    “In these touchingly incoherent sentences, Rawls’s philosophy breaks down. Our society may be corrupt, but the world itself is not. What world? Not ours, which we can only wish might have been different, but another that is still invisible, generations and perhaps continents away. The wistful note is a far cry from Hegel. What the theme of reconciliation in Rawls expresses is something else: not the revelation that the real is rational, but the need for a bridge across the yawning gulf between the two, the ideal of a just society and the reality of a—not marginally, but radically—unjust one. That Rawls himself could not always bear the distance between them can be sensed from a single sentence. In accomplishing its task of reconciliation, ‘political philosophy may try to calm our frustration and rage against our society and its history’. Rage: who would have guessed Rawls capable of it—against his society or its history? But why should it be calmed?”

    Chris Bertram over at Crooked Timber turns the tables on Anderson’s review.

    “The article has all the classic Anderson hallmarks — the arrogant pronouncement of judgement from on high, the frequent lapses into Latin, a will to the most unsympathetic reading possible. Typically, Anderson is incapable of reading his targets in any other way that as providing pragmatic cover for the American hegemon. On the one hand he seems to adopt the stance of high principle against the unwitting tools of US power whose every argument is accounted for in terms of their personal history and psychology, but on the other it seems hard to know where the critical principles can be coming from since it is hard to see how, on Anderson’s world-view, principles can ever be anything other than the residue of power politics as false consciousness.”