The Lobotomist

Raj Persaud reviews The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and his Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness by Jack El-Hai, in the British Medical Journal:

Aside from the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, the US neurosurgeon Walter Freeman ranks as the most scorned physician of the 20th century. The operation Freeman refined and promoted, the lobotomy, still maintains a uniquely infamous position in the public mind nearly 70 years after its introduction and a quarter of a century after its disappearance…

But back in 1936, when Freeman performed his first leucotomy, the only alternative treatment for severe mental illness was prolonged institutionalisation, and the procedure did seem to liberate many patients from this fate. How else to explain why, in the United States alone, more than 40 000 such procedures would be carried out over the next few decades, and why it remained in use well into the 1970s?

More here.

The one about The Sheikh and the Model

Deyan Sudjic on the architectural predilictions of the powerful, and the architects willingness to service them:

I started to collect images of the rich and powerful leaning over architectural models in a more systematic way after I suddenly found myself in the middle of one. The elder statesman of Japanese architecture, Arata Isozaki, had hired an art gallery in Milan owned by Miuccia Prada, for a presentation to an important client. Outside, two black Mercedes cars full of bodyguards were parked on either side of the entrance, alongside a vanload of carabinieri. Inside was another of those room-size models. Isozaki described it as a villa. In fact it was a palace for a Qatari sheikh, who was his country’s minister for culture. And the palace had to do rather more than accommodate the sheikh, his family, his collection of rare breed animals and his Ferraris, his Bridget Rileys and his Hockney swimming pool, as well as his Richard Serra landscape installation.

Each piece of the building had been allocated to an individual architect or designer. Ron Arad was doing one room, Tom Dixon another, John Pawson a third. Isozaki’s assistants were marshalling them for an audience with the sheikh. The architects waited, and they waited, drinking coffee and eating pastries dispensed by waiters in black tie until the sheikh finally arrived, almost two hours late.

Here was the relationship between power and architecture in its most naked form, a relationship of subservience to the mighty as clear as if the architect were a hairdresser or a tailor. In fact the villa never got built, and the last report I heard of the sheikh was that he was under house arrest while police investigated details of his purchases of millions of dollars-worth of art on behalf of the government.

More on “The Edifice Complex” at this week’s Observer Review

We remember the Medici with dazzlement

Edmund Fawcett reviews Medici Money: Banking, Metaphysics and Art in Fifteenth-Century Florence by Tim Parks, in The Guardian:

Despite the trail of financial and political failure they left, we remember the Medici with dazzlement largely for two reasons. One is that they were very good at landing on their feet. The other is they were brilliant at spin.

Their bank, which opened in Florence in 1397, lasted less than 100 years. Its glory days were over even before Cosimo, its most capable head, died in 1464. As money ran out, Cosimo’s successors, Piero the Gouty and Lorenzo the Magnificent, relied ever more on manipulating Florence’s superficially republican constitution to hold on to princely influence and power. When enemies united to banish the Medici in 1494, their bank was already dead in the water, victim of mismanagement and a wider banking downturn.

The Medici soon slipped back into Florence as puppets of the Habsburg dynasty. They employed artists, notably Vasari, to present the Medici as Florence’s natural rulers and its art as Italy’s best. The Medici now put their wealth into land, which they did little to improve, and married their daughters into the sovereign houses of Europe. They ruled without glory and often oppressively until the line died out in 1737…

More here.

How technology has transformed the sound of music

Alex Ross in The New Yorker:

Ninety-nine years ago, John Philip Sousa predicted that recordings would lead to the demise of music. The phonograph, he warned, would erode the finer instincts of the ear, end amateur playing and singing, and put professional musicians out of work. “The time is coming when no one will be ready to submit himself to the ennobling discipline of learning music,” he wrote. “Everyone will have their ready made or ready pirated music in their cupboards.” Something is irretrievably lost when we are no longer in the presence of bodies making music, Sousa said. “The nightingale’s song is delightful because the nightingale herself gives it forth.”

Before you dismiss Sousa as a nutty old codger, you might ponder how much has changed in the past hundred years. Music has achieved onrushing omnipresence in our world: millions of hours of its history are available on disk; rivers of digital melody flow on the Internet; MP3 players with ten thousand songs can be tucked in a back pocket or a purse. Yet, for most of us, music is no longer something we do ourselves, or even watch other people doing in front of us. It has become a radically virtual medium, an art without a face. In the future, Sousa’s ghost might say, reproduction will replace production entirely. Zombified listeners will shuffle through the archives of the past, and new music will consist of rearrangements of the old.

More here.

Babies help prevent cancers

Janelle Miles in The Weekend Australian:

The more babies a woman has, the less likely it is that she will get breast, colorectal, ovarian and uterine cancers, Australian research suggests.

Scientists at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR) found increasing numbers of pregnancies were associated with a significantly reduced risk of certain cancers.

“The more children you have, the more protective it gets,” said medical health statistician Steven Darlington.

“It seems that an increase in the hormones produced during pregnancy are protecting against cancer, but we’re not quite sure exactly how or why that happens.”

He studied more than 1.2 million Swedish women, including about 25,000 who had delivered twins, to determine the effect of reproductive history on a number of different cancers.

More here.

Negotiations: 1: What puts the ‘aargh’ in art?

At 9pm on May 7th, 2005, in an art space in Queens, New York City, three novelists were enclosed within three individual habitats designed and constructed by three teams of architects/artists. For the past twenty-one days, this has been their reality. They are not allowed to leave the building and they are granted ninety minutes of free time each day, for which they must punch a time clock to gain. In seven days time, they are to emerge from their habitats having completed a novel. The name of this conceptual art project, created and hosted by Flux Factory, is Novel: A Living Installation.

This work emanates from the Flux Factory collective. In case you haven’t heard, Flux has taken some heat in the press for their work, most notably from the editorial page of the New York Times. The Times’ criticism amounted to a claim that this project trivializes the act of writing, because it takes writing out of the hands of the writers and spatiates it, mechanizes it, and tethers it to time: “part of the meaning of making a novel is commanding the time to do so and owning the workings of imagination, however they pace themselves.” So says the Times. The criticism is unfair, in my opinion but not because it is inaccurate.

The Flux oeuvre (and—full confession— I say this as a frequent collaborator on their projects) rests to some degree on exploiting the trivial, the absurd, and the happenstance. Flux makes you look at exactly what is in front of your face. (The Dadaists did the same thing.) As a result, their projects often run the risk of becoming gimmicky acts of self-promotion; but when they succeed they succeed either because they manage to transform the trivial and the everyday into something meaningful or because they manage to mine the trivial and the banal for the potential profundities they occlude. Many of their projects function as almost artistic analogues for Socratic irony. They are like gadflies on the ass of the art world.

In this regard, the criticism is unfair because it misses the point. Novel’s aim was never to re-enthrone writing as the queen of the arts and to produce three masterpieces of contemporary American fiction. The point was to remove the crown that writing wears and peer into its brain, to resituate writing as an obsessively mechanical process alongside the other obsessively mechanical processes that comprise the manufacturing of art objects.

Embedded in the criticism, then, is a notion that we may or may not agree with: that writing is most emphatically not an art form. The intention of the curators at Flux was to interrogate that very notion. There are three forces at play in this installation, three intentionalities. This first one is a conceptual force.

The second force at play in this installation, the second intentionality at work, is that of the architects who designed the writers’ habitats. Where space is empty, it is not space—it is nothingness. What I have always found fascinating about architecture is that it seems to have a unique ability to sculpt somethingness out of the nothingness of empty space. In that regard, the work of the architects has been the most under-discussed element of this project. For them, the installation was an exploration of space with the aim of creating new space; and the spaces they have carved (really, out of thin air) are not merely holding pens or empty frames for the work of the writers within them. They were made to give rise to new spaces of the imagination; they are the material politics that make possible the very work that transcends them.

The third force at play is the actual writing that the novelists are doing. They have asserted that their writing is paramount and has superseded the restrictions under which they are laboring. (An interesting discussion remains to be had about the point—or points—at which the formal restraints they have to deal with, restraints of space and time, have actually become opportunities for the liberation of the imagination…) As one of the three groups of artists involved in this project, the novelists (fed and housed for a month, with nothing to do other than write) have had perhaps the easiest task—if one thinks that being oneself is an easy task. But if what one is, is a writer, theirs has also been the most difficult task because, unlike much of what passes for art, you cannot fake writing. As a writer you can’t hide under bells and whistles and wisecracks; you can’t call it in; and you are obliged to work with the knowledge that you have been assigned a Sisyphean fate: Sisyphean not because it is futile, but because it will always remain, to some extent, unfinished and unfinish-able.

So what we are dealing with, in toto, are three forces at play, three intentionalities: the intentionality of the curators (conceptual), the intentionality of the architects (spatial), and the intentionality of the novelists (literary).

What puts the “aaargh” in “art”? My pet theory, which I am testing out when I look at Novel, is that art is the stuff that’s left over. It’s the thing that occurs when intentionalities collide, like flint and steel, when the intent of the artist meets the (often hidden) intent of the material with which she is to work. Art is not the material object that artists produce, it is not the concept or the space or the words we create as artists. It is the stuff that remains; the stuff we are left with after we have said or made or thought or written what we have to say or make or think or write. It is—to borrow a phrase from Slavoj Zizek—the “indivisible remainder” of the interaction between our intentions and our materials. If Novel succeeds as an artwork, then, it does so not because it creates a closed universe of meaning, but because it creates aporias in art, because it throws something up that escapes the intentions of any of the artists working within it.

Monday Musing: Vladimir Nabokov, Lepidopterist

[Abbas Raza is filling in for J.M. Tyree, who is on vacation this week.]

Lolitacover_1As in the case of many sciency types, my mostly informal education in the humanities has been somewhat arbitrary and certainly very spotty. I can reliably amuse and horrify more erudite friends by reciting lists of authors and books I’ve never read. Fortunately, Nabokov is not on those lists. I say fortunately, and I mean it literally: in 1986 I was in Buffalo, New York, spending a few nights in the hospital with my mother who was having a back operation, and I needed something to read. Wandering into a nearby bookstore, I was looking for something by Naipaul in the alphabetically arranged fiction section when, purely by luck, I came upon Lolita. The name triggered only a vague memory of something salaciously exciting, and I picked it up. Thus began an obsession with Nabokov that reached its acme when (at the invitation of my dear friend and mentor Laura Claridge) I taught Lolita to the midshipmen (and women) at the United States Naval Academy a couple of years later. (This picture shows the paperback copy of the book I had bought that day, and not wanting to sully my lapel with adhesive, had affixed the hospital visitors’ sticker to its cover instead.)

Nabokovvladimir_1Nabokov’s (the name is stressed on the second syllable, so that it rhymes with “to talk of”) reputation in the world of letters is so gargantuan that it is easy to forget that he was an accomplished scientist. Nabokov was a serious entomologist; more specifically, a lepidopterist specializing in the identification and classification of a major group of butterflies, the Latin American Polyommatinae, of the family Lycaenidae, more popularly known as the “blues”. For six years in the 1940s, Nabokov held an appointment at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, as a Research Fellow. During this time he was responsible for organizing and supervising additions to their extensive butterfly collection. His enthusiasm for the difficultly precise minutiae of taxonomy can be gauged by the exuberant tone of the following passage in a letter to his sister Elena Sikorski in 1945:

My museum — famous throughout America (and throughout what used to be Europe) — is the Museum of Comparative Zoology, a part of Harvard University, which is my employer. My laboratory occupies half of the fourth floor. Most of it is taken up by rows of cabinets, containing sliding cases of butterflies. I am custodian of these absolutely fabulous collections. We have butterflies from all over the world; many are type specimens (i.e. the very same specimens used for the original descriptions, from the 1840’s until today). Along the windows extend tables holding my microscopes, test tubes, acids, papers, pins, etc. I have an assistant, whose main task is spreading specimens sent by collectors. I work on my personal research, and for more than two years now have been publishing piecemeal a study of the classification of American “blues” based on the structure of their genitalia (minuscule sculpturesque hooks, teeth, spurs, etc., visible only under a microscope), which I sketch in with the aid of various marvelous devices, variants of the magic lantern….

To know that no one before you has seen an organ you are examining, to trace relationships that have occurred to no one before, to immerse yourself in the wondrous crystalline world of the microscope, where silence reigns, circumscribed by its own horizon, a blindingly white arena–all this is so enticing that I cannot describe it.

(I cannot resist an aside on Nabokov’s false modesty: this I-cannot-describe-it Nabokov–after having just described looking through a microscope like no one else could–is the same one who is able effortlessly to evoke entire worlds of sensation out of the simplest possible raw material. Just look at this:

Without any wind blowing, the sheer weight of a raindrop, shining in parasitic luxury on a cordate leaf, caused its tip to dip, and what looked like a globule of quicksilver performed a sudden glissando down the center vein, and then, having shed its bright load, the relieved leaf unbent. Tip, leaf, dip, relief–the instant it all took to happen seemed to me not so much a fraction of time as a fissure in it, a missed heartbeat, which was refunded at once by a patter of rhymes…

Nabokov wrote this to describe the birth of his first poem, which he wrote at age 14. I cannot describe it, indeed. And while we are still on the subject of Nabokov’s coy modesty, let me also quickly adduce this, from the afterword to Lolita–which, unlike Nabokov’s early work, was written in English:

My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses — the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions — which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.

So much for Nabokov’s descriptive incapacity and his second-rate English.)

NabokovBack to Nabokov’s lepidoptery: even among many of those who know of Nabokov’s butterfly work, there is a lingering suspicion that he was essentially a dilettante in the field. This relegation of amateur status is not fair. At the time, the distinction between amateur and professional lepidopterist was not made as starkly as it might be today. Much serious work in the classification of animal and plant species was done by gentlemen-scholars, and in any case, as I have mentioned, Nabokov held a coveted academic appointment and was paid as an entomologist for six years by Harvard. As Brian Boyd shows in the second volume of his biography, Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, though Nabokov had no formal education in entomology, his early fascination with and dedication to the study of butterflies eventually made him a world-class lepidopterist. Throughout his life whenever he had a chance, Nabokov visited museums of natural history to examine their butterfly collections. While he collected many and varied species, his scientific work was limited to the Polyommatinae on which he published more than a dozen technical papers, including “The Nearctic Forms of Lycaeides Hübner “; “Notes on the Morphology of the Genus Lycaeides“; “The Nearctic Members of the Genus Lycaeides Hübner,” and “Notes on Neotropical Plebejinae .” Nabokov’s contemporary scientific colleagues consistently acknowledged his expertise, and his classifications and other technical work have stood the test of time.

As Stephen Jay Gould pointed out in an essay on Nabokov’s lepidoptery (not available online, but printed in his I Have Landed), another common objection to Nabokov’s lepidopterological work is that although it may have been competent, it does not compare with his prodigious literary achievements. This is true to the extent that Nabokov was not a theorist in science, and he is not responsible for significant scientific innovations. Having said that, one should not belittle the careful, precise, and painstaking work, requiring extensive training and practice, that it takes to accumulate scientific knowledge one small bit at a time. What data would theorists have to work with if not for the Nabokov’s of the world?

Butt49Nabokov discovered and named more than twenty genera, species, and subspecies of butterflies. These include Carterocéphalus canopunctátus NABOKOV 1941, and Cyllópsis pertepída avícula NABOKOV 1942 (pictured here on the right). In addition, many butterflies have been name for Nabokov by others, such as Cyllópsis pyrácmon nabokóvi MILLER 1974, and Nabokóvia HEMMING 1960, while yet others have been given Nabokov-related names like Madeleinea lolita BÁLINT 1993: “a polyommatine butterfly known from just one locality in Peru’s Amazonas department (Huambo). Only its males have been examined. They are blackish brown with iridescent metallic blue basal and medial diffusion.”

Nabokov himself, even after attaining monumental literary success with the American publication of Lolita in 1958, regularly expressed his lifelong ardor for lepidoptery. He says in Strong Opinions:

Frankly, I never thought of letters as a career. Writing has always been for me a blend of dejection and high spirits, a torture and a pastime — but I never expected it to be a source of income. On the other hand, I have often dreamt of a long and exciting career as an obscure curator of lepidoptera in a great museum.

He once said, “I cannot separate the aesthetic pleasure of seeing a butterfly and the scientific pleasure of knowing what it is.” His literature and his scientific work share the same qualities of obsessive attention to minute detail, an unabashed respect for facts, and an almost painfully sharp appreciation of the aesthetic pleasures of small things, which would produce in him what he famously once described as “intolerable bliss.” I will give VN the last word:

“A Discovery”

Dark pictures, thrones, the stones that pilgrims kiss
Poems that take a thousand years to die
But ape the immortality of this
Red label on a little butterfly.

Have a good week!

My other recent Monday Musings:
Stevinus, Galileo, and Thought Experiments
Cake Theory and Sri Lanka’s President

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Brain Region Linked to Metaphor Comprehension

From Scientific American:Metaphor

Metaphors make for colorful sayings, but can be confusing when taken literally. A study of people who are unable to make sense of figures of speech has helped scientists identify a brain region they believe plays a key role in grasping metaphors.

Vilayanur S. Ramachandran of the University of California at San Diego and his colleagues tested four patients who had experienced damage to the left angular gyrus region of their brains. All of the volunteers were fluent in English and otherwise intelligent, mentally lucid and able to engage in normal conversations. But when the researchers presented them with common proverbs and metaphors such as “the grass is always greener on the other side” and “reaching for the stars,” the subjects interpreted the sayings literally almost all of the time. After being pressed by the interviewers to provide deeper meaning, “the patients often came up with elaborate, even ingenious interpretations, that were completely off the mark,” Ramachandran remarks.

More here.

An imaginary “scandal”

Theodore Darlymple in The New Criterion:

A literary agent contacted Rahila Khan by post and asked to represent her. Until then, Miss Khan had refused to meet in person anyone with whom she dealt, or even to send a photograph of herself: but she agreed to meet the agent who wanted to represent her. The agent was surprised to discover that Miss Khan was actually the Reverend Toby Forward, a Church of England vicar. The vicar’s understanding of the tragic world of Muslim girls living in British slums, caught between two cultures and belonging fully to neither, possessing little power to determine their own fates, seems to be accurate. Indeed, he explores this world with considerable subtlety as well as sympathy.

The girls are vastly superior, morally and intellectually, to their white counterparts. Their problem is precisely the opposite of that of the white youths: far from nihilism, it is the belief in a code of ethics and conduct so rigid that it makes no allowances for the fact that the girls have grown up and must live in a country with a very different culture from that of the country in which their parents grew up.

I am certain that he is right that we can enter into the experience of other people. I confirm this each time I ask a Muslim patient who is resisting a forced marriage whether her mother has yet thrown herself to the ground and claimed to be dying of a heart attack brought on by disobedience. However miserable my patient may be, she laughs: for this is precisely what her mother has done, and it comes as a great relief to her that someone understands.

More here.

Jasper Johns: Catenary

Peter Schjedahl in The New Yorker:

“Jasper Johns: Catenary,” a large show of paintings, drawings, and prints at the Matthew Marks Gallery, is advertised as a return to form. In the opening sentence of the catalogue’s introduction, the art historian Scott Rothkopf writes, “Johns’s paintings had grown too full”—conceding, in a remarkable gambit of damage control, a widely felt distaste for the artist’s works of the nineteen-eighties and nineties, which were “jam-packed with signs of Johns’s life and art.” (Those signs included allusions to Leonardo, Grünewald, Duchamp, and Picasso; dolorous references to an unhappy childhood and encroaching death; recyclings of the artist’s signature motifs; and coy hints of private meaning.) Rothkopf hastens to his good news: “Johns wiped the slate clean.” Would that it were so. Johns has only reduced the number of elements in works that still bespeak self-imitative pastiche, and tied them together, almost literally, with real and drawn catenaries. (A catenary is the curve assumed by a cord hanging freely from two points.) Sagging strings cross most of the paintings, at times attached to thin wooden slats that may be hinged or cantilevered at the edges of a canvas. The new works do reëmphasize the cynosures of his painterly genius: tone and touch. Subtly varied, tenderly stroked grays in mixtures of oil paint and wax predominate. But those plangent qualities, once so moving, feel forced here.

More here.

The War Within Islam

Max Rodenbeck in the New York Times Book Review:

Aslan184These are rough times for Islam. It is not simply that frictions have intensified lately between Muslims and followers of other faiths. There is trouble, and perhaps even greater trouble, brewing inside the Abode of Peace itself, the notional Islamic ummah or nation that comprises a fifth of humanity.

News reports reveal glimpses of such trouble — for instance, in the form of flaring strife between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in places like Iraq and Pakistan. Yet the greater tensions, while similarly rooted in the distant past, are less visible to the wider world. The rapid expansion of literacy among Muslims in the past half-century, and of access to new means of communication in the last decade, have created a tremendous momentum for change. Furious debates rage on the Internet, for example, about issues like the true meaning of jihad, or how to interpret and apply Islamic law, or how Muslim minorities should engage with the societies they live in.

What is unfolding, Reza Aslan argues in his wise and passionate book, ”No god but God,” is nothing less than a struggle over who will ultimately define the sweeping ”Islamic Reformation” that he believes is already well under way across much of the Muslim world.

More here.

Victor S. Navasky and The Fate of The Nation

Thomas Powers in the New York Times Book Review:

…no, something even more troubling nagged at Navasky during his decades as editor and now publisher of The Nation — ”that avatar of capitalism,” William F. Buckley Jr., who ran his own small journal of opinion, National Review, which Navasky credits with the relentless march of conservatism under Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Navasky admires many of the writers associated for a time with Buckley’s magazine (Joan Didion, Garry Wills, John Leonard) and he fully shares Buckley’s faith that the point of a journal of opinion is what it stands for, not whether it makes money. ”A profit?” Buckley once expostulated, when asked if he thought National Review would ever make one. ”You don’t expect the church to make a profit, do you?” But agreement ends there; on just about every other issue Buckley and Navasky, the avatar of the left, are on opposite sides in the battle of ideas.

More here.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Better living through neurochemistry: Reason magazine on the prospect of the “Brain Spa”

Ronald Bailey in Reason magazine refers to University of Pennsylvania’s Anjan Chatterjee’s presentation at a Dana foundation conference on neuroethics:

In Chatterjee’s scenario, the executive’s new position has involved him with negotiating a contract with a company in Saudi Arabia. A lot of his competitors are vying for the contract, so the executive figures that if he knew some Arabic it might improve his chances of making the deal. Wondering if there is some way to enhance his ability to learn Arabic, he turns again to his neurologist for help. The neurologist knows that recent research shows that downing 10 milligrams of dextra-amphetamine half an hour before his Arabic lessons will improve his attention and retention. Fueled by dextra-amphetamine, the executive learns a good bit of polite Arabic.

Six weeks later, the executive flies off to Saudi Arabia. He wants to arrive fresh and alert, so the neurologist has prescribed Ambien for him to take on the flight over so he can get some sleep. When the executive arrives in Riyadh, he swallows modafinil to keep himself awake and alert without jitteriness through the grueling negotiations. In the end, the Saudis, flattered by his efforts to speak Arabic, award him the contract. He goes home in triumph.

More here

[Thanks to Foe Romeo for this]

Multi-functional Maglev: Treehuggers meet the Jetsons

From Treehugger.com, an intriguing proposal for post-petroleum multifunctional infrastructure – that would deliver gas, water and people via magnetic-levitation trains riding the pipelines:

“Mention “Maglev train” at your run of the mill urban planner’s dinner party, and you’d probably get laughed out of the room. High speed train projects in the US have flopped, foundered, and fizzled since the 60’s. But now, with oil shortages peaking over the horizon, and a growing interest in a hydrogen economy, The Interstate Travel Company(ITC) thinks that the time is right for a fresh attempt.”

Reminds me a little of the doomed “Supertrain” concept that Campbell Scott’s urban-planner character tirelessly promotes throughout Cameron Crowe’s “Singles”…

Love and Crime in India

From The New York Times:

Buntyaurbabli11_8x6 In Bollywood extravaganzas, which abide by very different cinematic rules than Hollywood’s, spectacle is the rule of thumb: characters can break into song and dance at any moment, garish sentimentality is ubiquitous, and an under-three-hour running time is practically unheard of. With “Bunty aur Babli,” the latest Bollywood musical import, the director Shaad Ali Sahgal tries to take all excesses to the extreme and, for the most part, succeeds. A considerable improvement over his trivial 2002 debut, “Saathiya,” this vibrant, rollicking and often absurd film is first-rate mindless entertainment. 

As Parath Singh, the gruff, chain-smoking police inspector on the outlaws’ trail, Amitabh Bachchan, the veteran megastar of more than 150 films, has a blast in a role that begins as a glorified cameo but develops into something more significant: the controller of Bunty and Babli’s fate. At 62, Mr. Bachchan is still agile: the dance sequence with his real-life son Abhishek (in their first onscreen appearance together) is pure pleasure. 

More here.

Soldiers of Christ

From Harper’s:

Passionjesus_350x571_1 They are drawn as if by magnetic forces; they speak of Colorado Springs, home to the greatest concentration of fundamentalist Christian activist groups in American history, both as a last stand and as a kind of utopia in the making.  It is a city of people who have fled the cities, people who have fought a spiritual war for the ground they are on, for an interior frontier on which they have built new temples to the Lord. From these temples they will retake their forsaken promised lands, remake them in the likeness of a dream. They call the dream “Christian,” but in its particulars it is “American.” Not literally but as in a story, one populated by cowboys and Indians, monsters and prayer warriors to slay them, and ladies to reward the warriors with chaste kisses. Colorado Springs is a city of moral fabulousness. It is a city of fables.

Pastor Ted, who talks to President George W. Bush or his advisers every Monday, is a handsome forty-eight-year-old Indianan, most comfortable in denim. He likes to say that his only disagreement with the President is automotive; Bush drives a Ford pickup, whereas Pastor Ted loves his Chevy. 

More here.

Dancing bees speak in code

From MSNBC:

Honeybee_vmed_12p Scientists have long marveled over the dance of the bee. A little jitterbug seems to reveal to coworkers the location of a distant meal. But how and whether the dance really works has remained controversial.  new study confirms the dancing is a form of communication. The central element of the choreography is a shimmy, or waggle, along a straight line. For emphasis, the bee repeats this move several times by circling around in a figure-8 pattern. The angle that the shimmy makes in relation to an imaginary vertical line is the direction to the food source with respect to the sun. For example, a waggle dance pointing towards 3 o’clock is bee talk for: “Hey, there’s food 90 degrees to the right of the sun.”

A solar compass
This solar compass in honeybees was originally observed in the 1960s by the Nobel Prize winner Karl von Frisch. Later, it was noticed that the number of waggles in one figure-8 corresponds to the distance to the meal.

More here.

No God but God: Visions of an Islamic reformer

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown reviews No God but God by Reza Aslan, in The Independent:

For many troubled Muslims, this book will feel like a revelation, an opening up of knowledge too long buried, denied and corrupted by generations of men (all men, like in all religions) who have succeeded in turning a religion of hope, liberation, imagination, spirituality and mercy into a heartless rule-book of control freakery.

Muslim keepers of the latter will rage against Reza Aslan as his careful scholarship and precise language dismantles their false claims and commands. Orthodoxies bite back when the daring interrogate them. For non-Muslim readers, the author is a fascinating guide who takes them through 1400 years of a complicated and exhilarating journey, starting with the birth of Islam, with animated debates about what it means to be a Muslim, and the tensions between eternal divine laws and human evolution.

More here.

Harold Cruse: The Cultural Revolutionary

Essay by Rachel Donadio in the New York Times:

Donad184When it came out in 1967, ”The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual,” by Harold Cruse, crystallized a moment. The moment passed, but Cruse, a black cultural nationalist, was not just a footnote to history.

”The Crisis” was at once an anti-integrationist manifesto and a critical history of 20th-century African-American culture and politics, and it arrived like a thunderclap just as the civil rights era was shifting into the black power era. ”Throughout the late 60’s and the early 70’s one could see the signal bright red cover almost everywhere that young people were gathered,” Stanley Crouch writes in the introduction to a new edition of the book, to be released on June 10 by New York Review Books.

In ”The Crisis,” Cruse urged black intellectuals and artists to establish their own institutions and reclaim black American culture from those who sought to appropriate it.

More here.

Soot from Indian cooking

Sara Pratt in Geotimes:

CookHigh concentrations of soot, or black carbon, fill the skies over South Asia. In the past, scientists have thought that most of the soot comes from burning fossil fuels for transportation and industrial use. A new study, however, says that residential cooking — with stoves that burn wood, crop waste and dried animal manure — is actually the largest source of soot emissions in India. Understanding this pollution source could have an important role in bettering both air quality and climate models…

…Chandra Venkataraman of the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, along with colleagues from the University of California, Los Angeles, report in the March 4 Science that “biofuel combustion is the largest source of black carbon emissions in India” and that it should be “addressed as a distinct source.” They found that biofuels account for 42 percent of black carbon emissions over India each year, while the burning of fossil fuels produces 25 percent and forest fires produce 33 percent…

More here.