From Science:Chimp

The big breakthrough, of course, was the one Charles Darwin made a century and a half ago. By recognizing how natural selection shapes the diversity of life, he transformed how biologists view the world. But like all pivotal discoveries, Darwin’s was a beginning. Concrete genome data allowed researchers to start pinning down the molecular modifications that drive evolutionary change in organisms from viruses to primates. Painstaking field observations shed new light on how populations diverge to form new species–the mystery of mysteries that baffled Darwin himself. Ironically, also this year some segments of American society fought to dilute the teaching of even the basic facts of evolution. With all this in mind, Science has decided to put Darwin in the spotlight by saluting several dramatic discoveries, each of which reveals the laws of evolution in action.

All in the family
The genome data confirm our close kinship with chimps: We differ by only about 1% in the nucleotide bases that can be aligned between our two species, and the average protein differs by less than two amino acids. But a surprisingly large chunk of noncoding material is either inserted or deleted in the chimp as compared to the human, bringing the total difference in DNA between our two species to about 4%.

More here.

Rashid Khalidi on the Middle East: A Conversation

From Logos Journal:

Q: Perhaps you can give us a sketch of your background and intellectual development?

Khalidi2Rashid Khalidi [RK]: Well, the easiest way to do that is to talk about my academic career. I started out as an undergraduate here in the States. I did my doctoral work in England at Oxford, went off to Beirut where I was doing much of my dissertation research, which was on British policy in the Middle East before World War I. My mother had already moved back to Beirut after my father died, so it was my home starting in the 1960s even when I was still in school here.  I lived in Beirut pretty much without interruption from then until 1983. I taught at the University of Beirut.  I then went to the Institute for Palestine Studies at the University of Chicago.  When we left in 1983, I thought I was just coming here for a year to write a book. And I did write the book in a year, but we never went back as a family — so all of my kids were born in Beirut, but we left with a few suitcases. And most of that stuff we never saw again.  Because we couldn’t go back, the war was worse.  It had been pretty bad before, but it got worse and worse. So I finally ended up with a job at Columbia for a couple years, and from there, to Chicago for sixteen years.  And then, I was offered Chair in Arab Studies here at Columbia and I came back.

More here.

The Biggest Little Poems

David Kirby looks at poems by Kay Ryan, in the New York Times:

Ryan184 A Kay Ryan poem is maybe an inch wide, rarely wanders onto a second page, and works in one or two muted colors at most. Rather than raise a righteous old hullabaloo, a Ryan poem sticks the reader with a little jab of smarts and then pulls back as fast as a doctor’s hypodermic. Here is “On the Difficulty of Drawing Oneself Up” in its entirety:

One does not stack.
It would be like
a mouse on the back
of a mouse
on a mouse’s back.
Courses of mice,
layers of shivers
and whiskers,
a wobbling tower
with nothing more
than a mouse inside.

Now here is a poem that would prompt perhaps the arching of a single eyebrow in approval on the part of modern American poetry’s mom, Emily Dickinson, hands-down champ at writing poems that are as compressed as Whitman’s are sprawling.

More here.

Humans Do Not Understand Mirror Reflections


2wallmirrorbig“If you were to look at these paintings, you would assume that Venus is admiring her own face, because you see her face in the mirror. Your viewpoint, however, is rather different from hers; if you can see her in the mirror then she would see you in the mirror.”

Participants were also asked to estimate the image size of their head as it appears on the surface of the mirror. They estimated that it would be a similar size to their physical head. However, participants based their answer on the image they saw inside the mirror rather than on the image on the surface of it. They failed to recognise that the image on the surface of the mirror is half the size of the observer because a mirror is always halfway between the observer and the image that appears inside the mirror.

More here.

The War for Muslim Minds

Bruce Hoffman reviews three books in the Washington Post:

IslamThe United States encountered many frustrations during the Vietnam conflict, but a lack of understanding of our adversary was not among them. Indeed, as early as 1965, concerted, voluminously detailed Pentagon analyses of Vietcong morale and motivation illuminated the need to win what was then often termed the “other war” — the ideological struggle for the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people. Even if the fundamental changes required in U.S. military strategy to overcome the Vietcong’s appeal went ignored, tremendous effort and resources were devoted to understanding the enemy.

Today, Washington has no such program in the war on terrorism. America’s counterterrorism strategy appears predominantly weighted toward a “kill or capture” approach targeting individual bad guys. This line of attack assumes that America’s targets — be they al Qaeda or the insurgency in Iraq — have a traditional center of gravity; it also assumes that the target simply needs to be destroyed so that global terrorism or the Iraqi insurgency will end. Accordingly, the attention of the U.S. military and intelligence community is directed almost uniformly toward hunting down militant leaders or protecting U.S. forces — not toward understanding the enemy we now face.

More here.



Henri Rousseau said that Cézanne couldn’t draw, which seems a bit unfair when, by the standards of the academy, he couldn’t draw either. But there is certainly a sense in which Rousseau’s inability to draw is different from Cézanne’s. In the first place, it became clear that the wonky faces and rag-doll nudes that critics found inept in Cézanne’s work didn’t constitute the sort of wrong drawing that cut him off from the central tradition of French painting. His radicalism could, itself, be construed as part of that tradition. He even taught people to look afresh at pictures within the tradition. He was in effect an insider.

more at the London Review of Books here.

Famous Five tops poll

From The Guardian:

Blyto Enid Blyton, who was called “the 20th century Mother Goose”, still reigns supreme this century. Yesterday adults voted her Famous Five series as their favourite books for children. The series – which started 63 years ago – beat friendly lions, hobbits, wizards and big friendly giants. It narrowly pipped Chronicles of Narnia to win first place despite the boost given to CS Lewis’s stories by the current film.

The Famous Five are a group of clean-living, well brought-up middle class children who take pride in being “jolly good sports”. Their adventures, fuelled by their inexhaustible addiction to ginger beer, lemonade and sandwiches (“Oh goody, cucumber,” said George), were dismissed as hopelessly outdated and irrelevant by librarians and others in the 1970s.

It introduced the siblings Julian, Dick and Anne and their dog, Timmy. The fifth adventurer is their cousin Georgina, a tomboy who is called George in the stories. Blyton was once accused of racism, sexism and even homo-eroticism. Her 700 books came 15th among library borrowers in recent public lending right figures and still sell 8m copies worldwide. She also wrote 7,000 shorter stories.

More here.

What makes dancers more desirable?

From MSNBC:Dancedummy_hmed_12p

Many people are attracted to hot dancers, and a new study suggests part of the reason is because their bodies are more symmetrical than those of the less coordinated. The researchers found that men judged to be better dancers tended to have a higher degree of body symmetry, a factor that has been linked to overall attractiveness and health in other research.

The new study involved 183 Jamaican teenagers, ranging between 14 and 19 years old, who danced while their movements were recorded using motion-capture cameras similar to those used in video games and movies to give computer-generated characters fluid movements. Women watching the recordings preferred the dances of men who were more symmetrical, while men were more impressed by the dances of more symmetric females. Interestingly, the male preference for symmetric females was not as strong as that of the female preference for symmetric males. This seems to confirm the theory that women are pickier when selecting a mate, since they bear most of the burden of raising a child, the researchers say.

The study, led by William Brown of Rutgers, was detailed in Thursday’s issue of the journal Nature.

More here.

Islam and the Challenge of Democracy

Khaled Abou El Fadl in the Boston Review:

Elfadl_largeFor Islam, democracy poses a formidable challenge. Muslim jurists argued that law made by a sovereign monarch is illegitimate because it substitutes human authority for God’s sovereignty. But law made by sovereign citizens faces the same problem of legitimacy. In Islam, God is the only sovereign and ultimate source of legitimate law. How, then, can a democratic conception of the people’s authority be reconciled with an Islamic understanding of God’s authority?

Answering this question is extraordinarily important but also extraordinarily difficult, for both political and conceptual reasons. On the political side, it must be said at the outset that democracy faces a number of practical hurdles in Islamic countries—authoritarian political traditions, a history of colonial and imperial rule, and state domination of economy and society. But philosophical and doctrinal questions are important, and I propose to focus on them here as the beginning of a discussion of the possibilities for democracy in the Islamic world.

More here.

Is Nabokov’s masterpiece still shocking?

Stephen Metcalf in Slate:

For all its arduous recourse to the c-word, Lady Chatterley’s Lover places its faith in the sexually fulfilled marriage, a ho-hum piety in the age of divorce. For all its scatological frankness, Ulysses tells the touching story of a surrogate father finding his surrogate son. Lolita, meanwhile, tells the story of a stepfather serially defiling his adolescent stepdaughter.* Public taste was meant to catch up to Lady Chatterley screwing her gamekeeper, to Leopold Bloom sitting on his jakes. Public taste was never meant to catch up to Humbert Humbert.

Vladimir20nabokov“I want my learned readers to participate in the scene I am about to replay,” Humbert asks us early on, by way of setting up his description of his first taste of sexual bliss with Lolita, the pre-pubescent daughter of his landlady. (Humbert will eventually marry the landlady; the landlady will eventually die; Humbert will eventually abscond with Lolita. For now, though, he is only their boarder, a debonair European with certain hidden proclivities.) “So let us get started. I have a difficult job before me.” This is Nabokov winking out at us. By difficult job, Humbert means: I want to conjure this scene up, with all its strange anatomical circumnavigations, as carefully as possible, to demonstrate to the reader that I am not wholly a monster. (He also means: I had to ejaculate, without letting Lolita know.) By difficult job, Nabokov means: I will indulge Humbert in all his strange circumlocutions, to demonstrate to the reader what a total monster he is. In this respect, Nabokov and Humbert have opposing aims; but in the telling, they become as one. All the comically baroque pleonasms help Humbert shield from himself how repulsively he has acted. They allow Nabokov, meanwhile, to describe a rapine act of frottage without becoming explicitly pornographic.

More here.

The Big Fact-Check: Thoughts On the Day After Dover

Carl Zimmer, in his blog, The Loom:

Carl_3Again and again, reporters felt an obligation to give “equal time” to intelligent design advocates, without feeling an equal obligation to fact-check the claims that the advocates were throwing out. I assumed Judge Jones would follow suit.

Once I started reading the decision, I realized I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Judge Jones did not take the claims of intelligent design advocates at face value. They declared that intelligent design was not creationism. But he followed the long paper trail that linked creation scientists to the emergence of intelligent design in the 1980s. The Dover school board had its students to read the book “Of Pandas and People” to learn about intelligent design. Judge Jones observed that in the original draft of the book, the authors had used “creationism” and similar terms 150 times. In the final version, they had turned into “intelligent design.”

More here.

Happiness Leads to Success, Not Other Way Around

Lee Dye at ABC News:

Pd_business_smiling_tThat finding may seem a tad obvious, but the fact is a lot of research has pointed in another direction, contending that happiness is the result of a lot of things — success at work, a good marriage, a fit body, a fat bank account.

But according to psychologists at three universities, that’s backward. People aren’t happy because they are successful, they conclude. They’re successful because they are happy.

The researchers combed through 225 studies involving 275,000 people and found that most researchers put the proverbial cart before the horse. Most investigators, they concluded, “assume that success makes people happy.”

More here.

Civilisation has left its mark on our genes

Bob Holmes in New Scientist:

Lettuce_irrigationDarwin’s fingerprints can be found all over the human genome. A detailed look at human DNA has shown that a significant percentage of our genes have been shaped by natural selection in the past 50,000 years, probably in response to aspects of modern human culture such as the emergence of agriculture and the shift towards living in densely populated settlements.

One way to look for genes that have recently been changed by natural selection is to study mutations called single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) – single-letter differences in the genetic code. The trick is to look for pairs of SNPs that occur together more often than would be expected from the chance genetic reshuffling that inevitably happens down the generations.

Such correlations are known as linkage disequilibrium, and can occur when natural selection favours a particular variant of a gene, causing the SNPs nearby to be selected as well.

More here.

Immigration Officials Snub Literary Sensation Yiyun Li

Bob Thompson in the Washington Post:

Ph2005122001750She’s had stories published in prestige magazines such as the New Yorker and the Paris Review. She’s won the Pushcart Prize and the Plimpton Prize for New Writers. Random House has signed her to a $200,000, two-book contract, which Executive Editor Kate Medina calls — in what qualifies as a serious understatement — “most unusual” for a literary writer at this stage of her career. Her first book, a story collection called “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers,” was published this fall to wide praise.

Now she has another problem: How do you explain to the federal immigration bureaucracy what the word “extraordinary” means?

More here.

Revisiting Pasternak

A glimpse into the life and work of Boris Pasternak, including selected poems, in Expartiate Literary Circle.

Pasternak was one of the rare poets to be popular during his lifetime. If he for got a Pasternak_01_1 line in one of his poems during a reading, the crowd would assist him. During the war, letters he received from the front line reminded him of the reach that his voice had. He did not want to lose this contact with the masses so Pasternak began a large novel that glorified freedom, independence, and a return to Christian religion that would become Dr. Zhivago. Basing the story on his own experience of wartime and revolution, Pasternak employed Yuri Zhivago as mouthpiece for his own philosophical and artistic beliefs. He presented Zhivago’s inability to influence his own fate not as a fault, but as a sign that he was destined to become an artistic witness to the tragedy of his age. The author closely identified Zhivago’s predicament with that of the suffering Christ.

The government’s postwar ideological clampdown forced Pasternak to labor on the manuscript in secret. Rejected in Russia, Doctor Zhivago was smuggled west in 1957 and published first in Italian and then in English in 1958. The epic novel about the life and loves of physician and poet Yuri Zhivago during the political upheavals of 20th-century Russia was acclaimed as a successful combination of lyrical, descriptive, and epic dramatic styles. The book, which concludes with a cycle of Zhivago’s poetry, was translated into 18 languages. In October 1958, Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, “for his important achievement both in contemporary lyrical poetry and in the field of the great Russian epic tradition.

France’s Urban Unrest and its aftermath

In Le Monde Diplomatique (English edition), a look at the recent riots in the banlieue and the response to them:

“You can drive out nature,” said Voltaire, “but it will return at the gallop.” This axiom was demonstrated by the decision to impose a curfew based upon emergency legislation from 1955 that contributed to the massacres of several dozen Algerians in the Paris area in October 1961, and of 19 Kanak activists in a cave in Ouvéa, in New Caledonia, in May 1988.

Sarkozy’s call for sink estates to be power-cleansed of their “rabble” was followed by two events in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, where two teenage boys died in an electricity sub-station and a teargas grenade exploded outside a mosque. Certainly Sarkozy – who could have stopped things right there if he had gone to the area to apologise – bears a huge responsibility for ensuing events. But the attempt by Socialist leaders to pin sole blame on him reeks of hypocrisy, since a year earlier the Cour des Comptes, the state auditing body, had already pointed out that “the current crisis was not caused by immigration. It is the result of the way in which immigration has been handled . . . The situation that now confronts the authorities has developed over a number of decades”. The concentration within the banlieues of all the evils that afflict the working classes epitomises the failure over 30 years of a succession of governments from both the right and – with a few exceptions – the left.

reading crisis


The reading crisis, like the social security crisis, has become a con-game based on facts. The NEA announces there are fewer literary readers than two decades ago. Books continue to have more competition from non-book technologies. Will people still read in 2060? As with Social Security, there are variables one just doesn’t know how to project forward: fewer people read books but more want to write them, and more and more books are published.

A real debate could be had about all these things. Instead we get the “reading crisis.” Under conditions of the reading crisis, everything a writer does, no matter how self-serving and reprehensible, becomes a blow in the service of literature. An arbiter of a “revolution” in reading features games, accordionists, and contests at his public events. A best-selling author sends out emails asking acquaintances to buy his new book before it slips off the Times top-seller list—because without these sales-markers, classic works can disappear. A blogger-author roams bookstores putting advertisements in books reminiscent of her own: “If you liked this, you’ll love The Tattle-Tale.” And these figures are held up as models of the hopeful signs for a renaissance in reading.

more from n+1 here.

critical, post-critical

This month is my seven-year anniversary at the Voice, so I thought I’d use Frieze magazine’s recent queries to me about the “de-skilling of art criticism” and “our post-critical era” as a way to write about what I think I’m trying to do here. First, I fretted I was the kind of “de-skilled” critic Frieze was referring to. I have no degrees. I started out as an artist, stopped painting, and became a long-distance truck driver. My CB handle was “the Jewish Cowboy”: Shalom, partner. I didn’t begin writing criticism until I was almost 40. All I knew was I loved art and had to be in the art world. The truth is, I wasn’t sure what Frieze meant by “de-skilled.” It sounded vaguely bad. But to me de-skilled means unlearning other people’s ideas of skill. All great contemporary artists, schooled or not, are essentially self-taught and are de-skilling like crazy. I don’t look for skill in art; I look for originality, surprise, obsession, energy, experimentation, something visionary, and a willingness to embarrass oneself in public. Skill has nothing to do with technical proficiency; it has to do with being flexible and creative. I’m interested in people who rethink skill, who redefine or reimagine it: an engineer, say, who builds rockets from rocks.

Jerry Salz on the criticism issue in art today. More here.