sunday | 24 march 2013

war and peace


Michael Haft and Harrison Suarez | Best Defense | Foreign Policy

Leaving Camp Lejeune for the last time a few months ago, we drove by a series of newly-constructed LED billboards. On the screens, a digital version of the American Flag waved in an imaginary wind. It felt obscene, and as we passed each caricature, we couldn’t help reflecting on all the times our junior Marines had been forced to scrounge for necessary supplies or to pay for better gear out of their own pockets.

science / philosophy


Michael Moyer | Observations | Scientific American

Krauss presented these anthropic arguments as “cosmic natural selection,” and a solution to the problem of where the universe comes from. But Jim Holt, author of “Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story,” pointed out that this line of thinking has a long and not-so illustrious history. What physicists today call the multiverse is known by philosophers as the “principle of plentitude” or “principle of fecundity”: every possible universe exists, and of all these possible worlds, the one we happen to live in is the known world.

This is something of a magic trick, said Gott—an explanation without explanatory power. It appears to answer the question of why there is something rather than nothing, but instead it shifts the blame down the line. It answers the question why are we here? with a tautology: because we are.

science / genomics


Ed Yong | Phenomena | National Geographic

It started with a slight twitch. Steve and Gay Grossman both noticed it in their daughter Lilly in 1998, when she was just one-and-a-half years old. By the time she was four, the twitches had grown into full-blown muscle tremors. They wracked her whole body at night and were painful enough to wake her up.

The family stopped sleeping properly. Lilly would wake up, shaking and crying, as often as 20 or 30 times a night.

. . . Then, in the summer of 2012, the tremors stopped. For 18 days, Lilly slept soundly through the night. So did Steve and Gay. “We had dreams again,” he says. “We had forgotten what that was like.”

This U-turn in Lilly’s fortunes was the result of a study called IDIOM, led by the father-and-daughter team of Eric and Sarah Topol at the Scripps Translational Science Institute in La Jolla, California. IDIOM stands for Idiopathic Diseases of Man—that is, “serious, rare and perplexing health conditions that defy a diagnosis or are unresponsive to standard treatments”. In other words, whatever Lilly had.

The Scripps team sequenced Lilly, Steve and Gay’s complete genomes. Amidst the morass of As, Gs, Cs and Ts, they identified the likely causes of Lilly’s mystery condition—three mutations in two different genes. One of these pointed the way to a potential treatment—a drug called Diamox that had helped another family with a fault in one of the same genes. When Lilly tried it, she gained a few weeks of sound tremor-free sleep.

psychology / philosophy


Rachel Aviv | n+1
Marcel Kuijsten. Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes’s Bicameral Mind Theory Revisited. Julian Jaynes Society, January 2007.

Julian Jaynes, a psychologist at Princeton, had little patience for his colleagues, who spent hours in the lab doing “petty, petty humdrum things.” He dismissed their “objective aridity,” “cunning lingo,” and “valiant nonsense.” The field of psychology, he wrote, was little more than “bad poetry disguised as science.”

Jaynes published only one book, in 1976, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, which tells the story of how mankind learned to think. Critics described it as a bizarre and reckless masterpiece—the American Journal of Psychiatry called Jaynes “as startling as Freud in the Interpretation of Dreams.” Drawing on evidence from neurology, archaeology, art history, theology, and Greek poetry, Jaynes captured the experience of modern consciousness—“a whole kingdom where each of us reigns reclusively alone, questioning what we will, commanding what we can”—as sensitively and tragically as any great novelist.



Glenn Greenwald | On Liberty and Security | The Guardian

A subtler version of this technique is to attack the so-called “style” of the critic as a means of impugning, really avoiding, the substance of the critique. Although Paul Krugman is comfortably within mainstream political thought as a loyal Democrat and a New York Times columnist, his relentless attack against the austerity mindset is threatening to many. As a result, he is barraged with endless, substance-free complaints about his “tone”: he is too abrasive, he does not treat opponents with respect, he demonizes those who disagree with him, etc. The complaints are usually devoid of specifics to prevent meaningful refutation; one typical example: “[Krugman] often cloaks his claims in professional authority, overstates them, omits arguments that undermine his case, and is a bit of a bully.” All of that enables the substance of the critique to be avoided in lieu of alleged personality flaws.

Nobody has been subjected to these vapid discrediting techniques more than Noam Chomsky. The book on which I’m currently working explores how establishment media systems restrict the range of acceptable debate in US political discourse, and I’m using Chomsky’s treatment by (and ultimate exclusion from) establishment US media outlets as a window for understanding how that works. As a result, I’ve read a huge quantity of media discussions about Chomsky over the past year. And what is so striking is that virtually every mainstream discussion of him at some point inevitably recites the same set of personality and stylistic attacks designed to malign his advocacy without having to do the work of engaging the substance of his claims. Notably, these attacks come most frequently and viciously from establishment liberal venues, such as when the American Prospect’s 2005 foreign policy issue compared him to Dick Cheney on its cover (a cover he had framed and now proudly hangs on his office wall).

literature / memoir


Joseph Epstein | The New York Review of Books

Only after the exam did I learn that many of the details I described from the movie were not in the book. Evidently, the director Julien Duvivier had had ideas of his own. Consequently, when Nabokov asked “seat 121” to report to his office after class, I fully expected to be failed, or even thrown out of Dirty Lit.

What I had not taken into account was Nabokov’s theory that great novelists create pictures in the minds of their readers that go far beyond what they describe in the words in their books. In any case, since I was presumably the only one taking the exam to confirm his theory by describing what was not in the book, and since he apparently had no idea of Duvivier’s film, he not only gave me the numerical equivalent of an A, but offered me a one-day-a-week job as an “auxiliary course assistant.” I was to be paid $10 a week. Oddly enough, it also involved movies. Every Wednesday, the movies changed at the four theaters in downtown Ithaca, called by Nabokov “the near near,” “the near far,” “the far near,” and “the far far.” My task, which used up most of my weekly payment, was to see all four new movies on Wednesday and Thursday, and then brief him on them on Friday morning. He said that since he had time to see only one movie, this briefing would help him decide which one of them, if any, to see. It was a perfect job for me: I got paid for seeing movies.

memoir / travel / children


Ta-Nehisi Coates | The Atlantic

I woke up this morning, wrote, took a long shower and then dressed. I walked to a pâtisserie, ordered a pain au chocolat and a coffee (it’s becoming a ritual) and thought mostly of my wife. I was watching the people come and go. I was watching the children here, lost in their strange freedom unlike anything I’ve ever known. They range the city–embracing, grazing, laughing.

When I was a kid in West Baltimore the cops called this loitering. Childhood was a suspect class always bordering on the edge of the criminal. You play football on the traffic island and the cops chase you off. Never mind that it’s the only long patch of green in your neighborhood. You fly your kites from the second level of Mondawmin Mall and the les gendarmes are in effect. Go back to watching the Wonder Years and dreaming. You nail a crate to a telephone pole, because all the courts near you have been stripped. The city doesn’t send people to repair the courts, but to tear down your crate.

Perhaps somewhere in Paris it is the same. But what I have seen is a place with a different sense of the Public, with children loosed in such a way that I have not seen even in wealthy areas. In America you structure the lives of your children, or they will be structured by the hands of all you fear. A child’s mind is naturally devilish, and needs correction even more than safety.



John Foster | The Design Observer

Chakaia Booker (American, b. 1953) strikes a dramatic a figure when you see her. Her elaborate and oversized headdresses of patterned African cloth might be imposing to the uninitiated, but people who have met her say she is a quiet and reflective woman. In many ways, Booker’s clothing is like her art — transformational — and connects her to centuries of traditional African costuming. Each morning, before starting her day, she goes through a time-intensive procedure of wrapping and clothing of her body. It is a ritual that serves to remind her of her daily mission — that living creatively and making art is a process in which she has dedicated her life.

Indeed, Booker has channeled her creativity to reinvent and transform one of the most common man-made objects of the 20th century — the rubber automobile tire. Make no mistake — the process of cutting an old tire is very difficult. Booker must use heavy industrial tools to slice and rip the tires into the strips and calculated pieces she needs to do her work. Once reassembled and cleaned, these assemblages of black rubber absorb light and reveal a stunning array of black densities — which Booker says calls attention her African identity.



Rachel Arons | Culture Desk | The New Yorker

Last month, an article by Jen Graves in Seattle’s weekly paper The Stranger exposed the artist Charles Krafft as a white nationalist and Holocaust denier, and former admirers of his work are now stripping it from their walls. Krafft, who is sixty-five, has been a respected figure in the Seattle art world for decades; his work has been shown in galleries around the world and featured in Harper’s, Artforum, and The New Yorker. Since the nineties, he has been known for combining decorative ceramics with loaded political imagery—delftware plates and other objects commemorating Nazi atrocities, porcelain AK-47s and hand grenades, perfume bottles with swastika stoppers, and a teapot and other pieces in the shape of Hitler’s head. In the past, many art collectors and curators had interpreted this work as a critique of bigoted and totalitarian ideologies. Now, the revelations about Krafft’s repugnant personal opinions have cast his work in a new light, and brought up knotty questions about how an artist’s intent should influence our evaluation of his work.


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