Before we too into the Dust descend

“Edward W. Said, for years a cherished friend and for a lifetime a towering comrade, died in New York at 6:45 am on Thursday 25 September 2003. After a funeral service at Riverside Church on Monday 29 September 2003, he was cremated and his ashes taken to Lebanon by his widow, Mariam Said, and buried at the Quaker Friends cemetery in Brumana village in the Metn region of Mount Lebanon. Edward Said was born in Jerusalem on Friday 1 November 1935 before the colonial occupation of his homeland.”

That is from a remembrance of Edward W. Said by his colleague at Columbia University, Hamid Dabashi, in Al Ahram.

More on Edward W. Said tomorrow.

Maths holy grail could bring disaster for internet

“Mathematicians could be on the verge of solving two separate million dollar problems. If they are right – still a big if – and somebody really has cracked the so-called Riemann hypothesis, financial disaster might follow. Suddenly all cryptic codes could be breakable. No internet transaction would be safe. On the other hand, if somebody has already sorted out the so-called Poincaré conjecture, then scientists will understand something profound about the nature of spacetime, experts told the British Association science festival in Exeter yesterday.

Both problems have stood for a century or more. Each is almost dizzyingly arcane: the problems themselves are beyond simple explanation, and the candidate answers published on the internet are so intractable that they could baffle the biggest brains in the business for many months.”

More here from The Guardian (via Preoccupations).

See also my earlier post about the seven million-dollar problems in math, here.

Fear of Pharming

“Farming, one of the world’s oldest practices has suddenly found itself entangled with modern medicine. Imagine this: at your child’s appointment for a routine vaccination, the doctor proffers a banana genetically engineered to contain the vaccine and says, “Have her eat this and call me in the morning.” Though still farfetched, the scenario is getting closer to reality, with the first batch of plant-made medicines–created by genetically modifying crops such as corn, soy, canola and even fruits such as tomatoes and bananas to produce disease-fighting drugs and vaccines–now in early clinical testing.”

More here in Scientic American.

Exhibition of Chinese Restaurant Menus

“There is a 1960’s menu from the House of Lee in Oakland, Calif., featuring ‘fried ravioli,’ better known as wontons; a dog-eared menu from Mon Lay Won, a turn-of-the-century New York City restaurant that called itself ‘the Chinese Delmonico’s’; and one from Madame Wu’s Garden in Los Angeles, a favorite of Cary Grant and Mae West.

The bills of fare, gathered over the years by Harley Spiller, who has amassed a number of curious collections in his Upper East Side apartment, may be the ultimate road map to the Chinese restaurant’s extraordinary trek across the American landscape.

Excerpts from Mr. Spiller’s collection are the centerpiece of a new exhibition at the Museum of Chinese in the Americas in Chinatown about a rarely examined phenomenon: the Chinese restaurant in America.

There are now close to 36,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States, according to Chinese Restaurant News, a trade publication, more than the number of McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King franchises combined. What began in this country as exotic has become thoroughly American. A study by the Center for Culinary Development, a food product development company, found that 39 percent of children between the ages of 10 and 13 who were surveyed said Chinese was their favorite type of food, compared to only 9 percent who chose American.”

More here from the New York Times.

Study finds dogs can smell cancer

“We have always suspected that man’s best friend has a special ability to sense when something is wrong with us, but the first experiment to verify that scientifically has demonstrated that dogs are able to smell cancer.

Experts say it is unlikely that pooches will become practical partners in cancer detection any time soon, but that the results of the study by English scientists are promising.

They showed that when urine from bladder cancer patients was set out among samples from healthy people or those with other diseases, the dogs — ordinary pets — were able to identify the cancer urine almost three times more often than would be expected by chance alone…

The idea that they may be able to smell cancer was first put forward in 1989 by two London dermatologists, who described the case of a woman asking for a mole to be cut out of her leg because her dog would constantly sniff at it, even through her trousers, but ignore all her other moles.

One day, the dog had tried to bite the mole off when the woman was wearing shorts.

It turned out she had malignant melanoma — a deadly form of skin cancer. But it was caught early enough to save her life.”

More here from CNN.

The wit of Marshall Sahlins

Also now available on-line, Waiting for Foucault, Still is a collection of thoughts and aphorisms from one the country’s leading anthropologists, Marshall Sahlins.

Some of the observations are funny.

Quite wondrous, then, is the variety of things anthropologists can now explain by power and resistance, hegemony and counter-hegemony. I say ‘explain’ because the argument consists entirely of categorizing the cultural form at issue in terms of domination, as if that accounts for it. Here are some examples from the past few years of American Ethnologist and Cultured (Cultural) Anthropology:

1. Nicknames in Naples: ‘a discourse practice used to construct a particular representation of the social world, [nicknaming] may become a mechanism for reinforcing the hegemony of nationally dominant groups over local groups that threaten the reproduction of social power’ [Boo; you never know what’s in a nickname!].

2. Bedouin lyric poetry: this is counter-hegemonic [Yeah!].

3. Women’s fashions in La Paz: counter-hegemonic [Yeah!].

4. The social categorization of freed Dominican slaves as ‘peasants’: hegemonic [Boo].”

Some of them are insightful, like this one.

“In the social sciences, the pressure to shift from one theoretical regime to another, say from economic benefits to power effects, does not appear to follow from the piling up of anomalies in the waning paradigm, as it does in natural science. In the social sciences, paradigms are not outmoded because they explain less and less, but rather because they explain more and more—until, all too soon, they are explaining just about everything. There is an inflation effect in social science paradigms, which quickly cheapens them. The way that ‘power’ explains everything from Vietnamese second person plural pronouns to Brazilian workers’ architectural bricolage, African Christianity or Japanese sumo wrestling. But then, if the paradigm begins to seem less and less attractive, it is not really for the standard logical or methodological reasons. It is not because in thus explaining everything, power explains nothing, or because differences are being attributed to similarities, or because contents are dissolved in their (presumed) effects. It’s because everything turns out to be the same: power. Paradigms change in the social sciences because, their persuasiveness really being more political than empirical, they become commonplace universals. People get tired of them. They get bored.”

It’s worth looking over.

A conversation with Richard Rorty

This set of interviews with Richard Rorty (done by Derek Nystrom and our old friend Kent Puckett), entitled Against Bosses, Against Oligarchies: A Conversation with Richard Rorty, is now available on the web, in pdf.

R[ichard] R[orty]: Roosevelt said early in his first administration that, ‘If I were working for an hourly wage, I would join a labor union.’ This was a very important moment in the history of the labor movement. Was he speaking from the side of the less powerful? No. I could say to the janitors at the University of Virginia, for God’s sake join a union. Would that be speaking from their side? No. But it’s good advice anyway, even if it can be viewed as condescending.

Q: And this is reflected in both Achieving Our Country and articles like ‘Two Cheers for Elitists,’ your review of Christopher Lasch’s last book. In these places, you make an unabashed defense of top-down initiatives. But what about the idea that all knowledges are partial, imminent knowledges, and that the things you think should be done are in part a product of where you’re speaking from?

RR: The masses always knew that. The intellectuals always knew that. Everybody’s always taken this for granted. The first thing you say when you hear a political speech is something like ‘well, that’s what it looks like to him.’ But I can’t see that Foucault or anybody else has given us new insight into the tediously familiar fact that your views are usually a product of your circumstances.

Q: How can one acknowledge this point in one’s writing and still say something useful, though?

RR: Why bother? Why not let my audience acknowledge it for me? Everybody knows that I’m an overpaid, privileged humanities professor. They knew it before they read my stuff. Why should I bother with self-flagellation?”

Promoting bad science, step-by-step

Is there a pattern for how bad science becomes ascendant?

“How did the Intelligent Design movement publish in a peer reviewed biology journal? A similar–and notorious–story from climate science sheds light on the question.

This is how it begins: Proponents of a fringe or non-mainstream scientific viewpoint seek added credibility. They’re sick of being taunted for having few (if any) peer reviewed publications in their favor. Fed up, they decide to do something about it.

These ‘skeptics’ find what they consider to be a weak point in the mainstream theory and critique it. Not by conducting original research; they simply review previous work. Then they find a little-known, not particularly influential journal where an editor sympathetic to their viewpoint hangs his hat.

They get their paper through the peer review process and into print. They publicize the hell out of it. Activists get excited by the study, which has considerable political implications.

Before long, mainstream scientists catch on to what’s happening. They shake their heads. Some slam the article and the journal that published it, questioning the review process and the editor’s ideological leanings. In published critiques, they tear the paper to scientific shreds.

Embarrassed, the journal’s publisher backs away from the work. But it’s too late for that.” (Read on.)

A Road from Che Guevara to God?

There has been a lot of reflection on the life and legacy of Ernesto “Che” Guevara. The release of the movie of The Motorcycle Diaries, I suspect, will help add to it.

Certainly, as icon, Che is ubiquitous, rivaling Mickey Mouse and Madonna. (Personally, the vestiges of the old Lefty in me sees Che as an “adventurist”, as does my psyche’s liberal, Burkean, and every other shard of the political spectrum.) But the man is fascinating. Why he so fascinates us is another question.

Hitchens had this to say recently.

‘His death meant a lot to me, and countless like me, at the time. He was a role model, albeit an impossible one for us bourgeois romantics insofar as he went and did what revolutionaries were meant to do – fought and died for his beliefs.’


‘He belongs more to the romantic tradition than the revolutionary one. To endure as a romantic icon, one must not just die young, but die hopelessly. Che fulfils both criteria. When one thinks of Che as a hero, it is more in terms of Byron than Marx.’

True, but then there has never been this kind of a cult around Rosa Luxemburg, who died in a similar fashion.

Where would Che have wound up, had he not died? The evolution of Regis Debray, who was with Che in Bolivia, wrote Revolution dans la revolution, and is now grappling with faith, may offer an answer. Debray has a new book on God, entitled God: An Itinerary (put out by Verso press). In it, he suggests,

“The resurgence of mysticism—and there is no way of foreseeing its end—would thus appear to be ineluctable. The progress of science and technology will no doubt impede neither the vital impulsion to believer nor the concomitant violence.”

And I suppose we are left to conclude that there is something ecstatic, religously ecstatic, about the Guevaran revolutionary zeal that suggested “[i]f we can tremble with indignation every time an injustice is committee in the world, we are comrades.” The operative word being “tremble”.

Steven Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein, A Conversation

The Seed Salon: “Steven Pinker is a psychologist. Rebecca Goldstein is a novelist. Both are obsessed with realism and the pursuit of objective knowledge. They met to talk about consciousness, game theory, and gossip.”

“Rebecca Goldstein has a PhD in philosophy from Princeton, and has taught at Barnard, Rutgers, and Columbia. Currently she is Professor of Philosophy at Trinity College. She is the author of five novels (The Mind-Body Problem, The Late-Summer Passion of a Woman of Mind, The Dark Sister, Mazel, and Properties of Light) and a collection of stories (Strange Attractors). Among her honors are two Whiting Foundation Awards (one in philosophy, one in writing), two National Jewish Book Awards, the Edward Lewis Wallant Award, and the Prairie Schooner Best Short Story Award. In 1996 she was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow.”

“Steven Pinker has a PhD in experimental psychology from Harvard, and has taught at Stanford, MIT, and Harvard, where he is currently the Johnstone Professor of Psychology. Pinker’s research on language and cognition has won prizes from the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Institution of Great Britain, and the American Psychological Association. His books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, Words and Rules, and The Blank Slate, have earned the William James Book Prize (three times), the Los Angeles Times Science Book Prize, and two shortlistings for the Pulitzer Prize.”

Read this very interesting exchange here, at Seed Magazine.

The Womb as Photo Studio

“It’s a rite of passage for many expectant parents: baby’s first ultrasound. The fuzzy images of the fetus, produced during an examination in an obstetrician’s office, are prized by couples, passed around proudly among friends and relatives.

Now, trying to capitalize on this phenomenon, a number of companies are selling elective ultrasounds that have little to do with neonatal health. The services, often in small offices or shopping malls, amount to fetal photo studios and use newer 3-D ultrasound technology to produce more realistic images than conventional machines.

Parents-to-be typically pay from about $80 for a short ultrasound session primarily to determine the fetus’s sex to $300 for a half-hour session that is recorded on a videocassette or DVD and includes color photos.

While medical professionals warn of potential health risks from unnecessary ultrasounds, those who offer the elective examinations say they are safe and fulfill a need.”

More here from the New York Times.

Vagina Dialogues

The New York Times is aghast that Jenna Jameson’s memoir/self-help opus is successful and gloriously displayed in mainstream bookstores. (Never mind that Jameson shares authorship with former Times music writer Neil Strauss.) Janet Maslin sneers: ‘When it comes to displaying herself, Ms. Jameson had previously tried everything except her current maneuver: being planted right in the middle of the bookstore. Amazingly, a memoir that once would have won itself a plain brown wrapper can now be found beside books about Henry James.’ And ‘Book Babe’ Ellen L. Heltzel writes on Poynter Online: ‘Jameson, it turns out, is the queen of porn, a woman who has become rich and famous by doing on screen what most people reserve for the privacy of their bedrooms.’ It turns out she is the queen of porn?! That’s like saying, ‘I hear Susan Lucci is on a soap opera.’ While the mainstream and highbrow press may pretend that Jameson is an obscure cultural figure, the pornography industry racks up nearly $10 billion per year, equal to the annual domestic box-office receipts of all of Hollywood’s major film releases. Which means that Jameson, porn’s reigning celebrity, is a movie star on par with Gwyneth Paltrow. As Charles Taylor wrote in Salon, ‘This is the part of the review where I pretend to have to tell you, the reader, who Jenna Jameson is.'”

More here by Sacha Zimmerman in The New Republic. (I had posted the NYT review some days ago here.)

The brothel creeper

“As the debate rages about the pros and cons of legalising prostitution, Sebastian Horsley – a man who’s slept with more than 1,000 prostitutes – gives a controversial and candid account of his experience of paying for sex.”

Hookers and drunks instinctively understand that common sense is the enemy of romance. Will the bureaucrats and politicians please leave us some unreality. I know what you are thinking. That it’s all very well for people like me to idealise whores and thieves; to think that the street is somehow noble and picturesque; I have never had to live there. But so what? One day I will. Until such time, I have to pay for it. How else would someone young, rich and handsome get sex in this city? Yes, yes, I know. Prostitution is obscene, debasing and disgraceful. The point is, so am I.

More here from The Observer (via Arts and Letters Daily).

Also, Asad Raza has dug up more on this interesting character. See his comment on this post.

Gulag Art

“Nikolai Getman, who produced a unique record of life in Stalin’s forced-labor camps, died last month at his home in Orel, Russia.

Born in 1917, he was by profession a painter, though his studies at the Kharkov Art College were cut short when he was drafted into the Red Army. After serving in World War II, he was arrested in 1946 and spent nearly eight years in the Gulag, much of it in one of the worst zones–Kolyma. Following his release in 1953, he was eventually reintegrated into Soviet artistic circles, becoming a member of the Artists’ Union. But alongside his official duties he secretly painted–and much later succeeded in sending to the West–a number of paintings, mainly oil on canvas, based on his deep-set, unforgettable camp memories. His collection is now housed by the Jamestown Foundation in Washington.”

More here from the Wall Street Journal.

The Truth About Drug Companies

“Dr. Marcia Angell argues that problems with the industry run even deeper. In her new book, The Truth About Drug Companies: How They Deceive Us and What to Do About It (reviewed in the current issue of Mother Jones), the former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine contends that the industry has become a marketing machine that produces few innovative drugs and is dependent on monopoly rights and public-sponsored research.”

Interview of Dr. Angell here in Mother Jones, and review of her book here.

How are past temperatures determined from an ice core?

Robert Mulvaney, a glaciologist with the British Antarctic Survey, explains:

“The cornerstone of the success achieved by ice core scientists reconstructing climate change over many thousands of years is the ability to measure past changes in both atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations and temperature. The measurement of the gas composition is direct: trapped in deep ice cores are tiny bubbles of ancient air, which we can extract and analyze using mass spectrometers. Temperature, in contrast, is not measured directly, but is instead inferred from the isotopic composition of the water molecules released by melting the ice cores.”

More here from Scientific American.

Representing the Nazis

3103 “The first German film to feature an actor playing the Führer opened [last] week. But by depicting him as a complex character, does it diminish the evil that he did? Or is Germany finally coming to terms with its past? The acclaimed Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw offers his verdict.”

For full text, click here.

And in a related article:

“A spectacular exhibition of contemporary art opened in Berlin yesterday, amid a picket by Jewish protesters, with its billionaire owner accused of exploiting art to redeem his family’s Nazi past.

Christian Friedrich Flick, who inherited part of his grandfather’s fortune, originally built on wartime slave labour in explosives factories, told journalists yesterday: “I neither want to whitewash the family name, nor can art or the collecting of art compensate for my grandfather’s war crimes – but please at least view these works of art separate from politics or my family’s history.” Full text here and here.

For more images from the Flick collection, click here. [Once inside the museum web site, click on ‘Ausstellungen’ to navigate in English.] Kipp23x200

Lewis Lapham Phones It In

“Harper’s Editor Lewis H. Lapham aims to raise a ruckus with ‘Tentacles of Rage,’ his 7,700-word contribution to the magazine’s September issue. Pouring purple into every paragraph, Lapham writes in a controlled panic about the right-wing ‘self-mythologizing millionaires’ who have turned this once-liberal country to the reactionary right over the past three decades. Donating $3 billion to various Republican ‘propaganda mills’—think tanks, foundations, research groups, magazines, authors, and academic programs—the millionaires have drowned the former liberal consensus with their ‘prolonged siege of words.’

Lapham got his ruckus, all right, but not the one he expected, as when Reason‘s Hit and Run blog (Aug. 23) caught him describing events from this year’s Republican National Convention before it convened (Aug. 30).”

More on “Figuring out what’s wrong with Harper’s magazine” here at Slate (including links to Lapham’s article and the Hit and Run blog).

Booker Prize shortlist announced

“Gerard Woodward’s life had improved even before yesterday. In his efforts to eke out a living as a praised but struggling poet and novelist, he had graduated from filling chocolate machines at one university, Manchester, to lecturing at another, Bath Spa.

But last night, in a turn of fortune which astonished the bookmakers as much as it did him, he heard that he was on the shortlist for the £50,000 Man Booker fiction prize for his second novel, I’ll Go to Bed at Noon.

‘I’m not, am I? That’s unbelievable’, said Woodward, 43, who was on a bus when he heard.”

More here from The Guardian.

Earth’s mantle can generate methane

“Methane could be forming in Earth’s mantle, US scientists have shown. The result suggests that untapped and unexpected reserves of natural gas and oil may exist deep beneath the planet’s surface. Fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas are organic materials made up of carbon and hydrogen. The consensus view is that all commercially viable petroleum and natural gas is made by biological processes – although methane can also be made in small amounts within volcanoes. In fact, the recent detection of methane in Mars’s atmosphere has been interpreted as evidence either of ongoing volcanic activity or of life.”

More here in Nature.