monday musing: las vegas

You forget how much the sky can be different until you come out West again. There is a simple explanation. It has to do with flatness, it has to do with vistas. Maybe the idea of the West as simple and honest comes partly from that. You can see where the clouds are and where they’ve been and where they are going.

One of the myths that gets worked up into a reality in America is the one about the past and history and identity. It is a rejection of the ancient idea that character is fate. It is the idea that one can be anything one wants. This is largely a lie of course, but so what. There is no going back. Las Vegas is a place where it is pretty clear that no one is going back to anything. But at the same time, it is trying to have its cake and eat it too. There’s no past in Vegas but even so the place crazily attempts to fit the entirety of human history onto a few miles of the Strip, from the ancient pyramids to New York City. Pretty amazing.

What I’m trying to say is that Las Vegas makes no sense but it explodes into a phantasm every night anyway and then dies into the sunlight. It doesn’t even really exist during the daytime. There is something a little sad about a place that is such a spectacle at night and so invisible during the day. It is an American sadness somehow, a Jay Gatsby sadness. And it is a strong sadness, or there’s a strength in it. There’s a depth there all of a sudden just when everything seemed pure surface.

Las Vegas evaporates into the sand, into bits of road that give up so suddenly it can make you laugh. All at once you’re at the end of the world and there are just the dusty mountains beyond that make some final limit to how far the housing developments can creep. The desert said, “you can have this bowl in which to fester and glow.” At the center of it all stands the Strip, generating the outward push.

The great casinos of the last fifteen years have developed according to one overriding impulse. That impulse has been to capture the imaginative spaces of the world for commerce. Of course, the real world spaces, Paris, Venice, New York, etc., are centers of commerce in themselves already. But what is immediately striking about Paris or Venice, Las Vegas is how each place has been contained, distilled, and represented as a manageable version of the original purged of everything but its symbolism and imagery reconstituted into gaming areas and shopping corridors. The thirst for civilizational spaces seems to be the primary driving force in the most recent incarnations of the Strip. The indeterminate fantasy zones, the Palms, Sands, Sahara, Flamingo, and even the more recent Treasure Island have receded into the background or disappeared altogether. The fun of those older fantasylands was the fun of pure play. They were escapes beyond the boundaries of any possible world. The newer spaces are interesting in that they are playing with the real world. Vegas has the audacity to recreate and thus lay some claim to the actual world, to other locations with which it shares space and time. And yet it is still under the guise of a giant wink and nudge, a knowing smile. But the sense of funny is muted. It’s muted because of the sadness, the sadness that is, one must suppose, at the center of gambling and its infinite monotonous temporality. What a stunning audacity to claim the entirety of world culture for your own and then admit that you don’t care, that it is as boring and empty as the mechanism of a slot machine – a machine that, in the end, merely produces randomness. And it might be an honest admission too. Las Vegas never seems to be having the fun that it claims to be having, is always more aware of itself than it would like to be. It’s more exhausted than exhilarating. At least, this is how one can start to like it. There is something honest about it even as it is playing all these games and pretending to be so many things at once.

At New York, New York, Las Vegas they have built a rollercoaster that weaves in and out of the compacted skyline of New York City. It is fast and scary. You get a glimpse of the back side of the Statue of Liberty before you tumble down again in another loop or corkscrew. I love it. They should put one in the real New York. You could see people screaming in a loop around the Citicorp building or spiraling down the side of the Empire State. The theorists of simulacrum would send up a cry: one more defeat for the really real! But they would be wrong. There is no lack of reality on the Las Vegas Strip. It is just one more version of things. From the top of one the big drops at the New York rollercoaster you can see the mountains outside of Vegas for a moment before you plunge. If it is twilight you will see a very special desert light. It is soft and clear at the same time, gentle and brittle simultaneously. And then you speed down into Brooklyn while the whole car train screams and laughs in delight and the mountains are gone in the distance again. Las Vegas.

Koufax Awards Time, for the best of the blogosphere

Nominations and voting for Wampum’s 2005 Koufax Awards–for best of the blogosphere–are now open.  The awards honor the best blogs and bloggers on the left side of the blogosphere.  Nominations and voting are simply a matter of leaving a comment.  (The initial thread has become too long, so Wampum has opened a new one, here.)  The results are probably the result of how much traffic a blog can direct to Wampum.

We at 3quarksdaily have been nominated for best group blog and most deserving of wider recognition.

But I’d like to offer my own choices, which will probably be of no surpise to anyone who even cursorily follows me.

Best Blog: Majikthise
Best Pro Blog: Talking Points Memo
Best Blog Community: TPMCafe, Crooked Timber, or Pandagon, it’s a toss up for me.
Best Writing: Lindsay Beyerstein at Majikthise
Best Group Blog: Cosmic Variance
Most Humorous Blog: fafblog
Most Deserving of Wider Recognition: Three-Toed Sloth, Majikthise
Best Expert Blog: Brad DeLong’s Semi-Daily Journal, and Cosmic Variance
Best New Blog: Duck of Minerva

NYU Grad Students Keep Up Fight

From The Los Angeles Times:Asad_3

NEW YORK — In a sign that striking graduate students at New York University may be settling in for a long siege, they’ve sent their rat out for repairs. Labor groups use the giant inflatable rodent to shame employers they consider guilty of unfair labor practices. NYU earned such treatment, the strikers say, by refusing to negotiate a new contract with the United Auto Workers local that represents the students and by threatening them with the loss of their paid teaching jobs if they continue the strike they launched Nov. 9. (Photo shows 3 Quarks Daily columnist and NYU strike leader Asad Raza).

More here.

A religious plot

From The Age:

Narnia_article_wideweb__470x3100If anyone still requires proof of the gulf of difference between the US and everywhere else, look no further than the current storm-in-a-cappuccino about The Chronicles of Narnia.

For weeks, it seems, there have been spats in the papers about C.S. Lewis’ classic children’s fantasy series, the first instalment of which has just been adapted as a lush blockbuster by Andrew Adamson, who directed the Shrek films, for Disney. The storm is over religion. C.S. Lewis had it; the Americans have a lot of it; the rest of us don’t, supposedly, or at least we don’t like to put a hat on it and give it a ticker-tape parade.

In America, Disney has been pushing Lewis’ story to Christian fundamentalists, offering churches free screenings and shops a choice of soundtracks, one with pop music and one with “Christian songs”, whatever they might be.

More here.

New York Slowly Losing the Creative Set

Jennifer Steinhauer in the New York Times:

18creativeThey may not have the money of the hedge fund managers who line up at bonus time at the open houses for $5 million homes, and their numbers do not equal that of health care workers. But New York City’s creative sector – which includes architects, potters, filmmakers and clothing designers – has long helped fuel the city’s economy because of its size and its role in drawing the wealthy to town.

But relentless inflation in real estate and health care costs are endangering New York’s long dominance in the creative sector, according to a new report, as artists and companies migrate to less expensive cities eager to lure them.

For example, 20 years ago, New York was the headquarters for half of the world’s advertising agencies, but is now home to fewer than a third, according to the report, written by the Center for an Urban Future, a left-leaning New York research group that analyzes urban policy issues.

More here.  [Thanks to Alta Price.]

Touched by Fire

From The Washington Post:Beethoven_1

BEETHOVEN: The Universal Composer by Edmund Morris

Like most composers, Beethoven was writing music before he formally knew how. He was born on or about Dec. 16, 1770, in Bonn, Germany, into what would now be considered a frightfully dysfunctional family. Father Johann was autocratic and abusive, and it is likely that his son’s lifelong hostility toward authority of any kind dates from this initial filial rebellion. Unlike such predecessors as Bach, Handel, Haydn and Mozart, all of whom managed to make some temperamental accommodation with their enormous gifts, Beethoven found his genius difficult to bear. As Morris puts it, “Ludwig’s eruptive talent could be a curse as well as a blessing. Music was like magma inside him.” He grew up to be prideful, ill-mannered and intemperate, and he not only burned but incinerated bridges with many who would gladly have helped him.

By the time he turned 30, it was obvious to Beethoven that he was losing his hearing. (“How could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than in others, a sense which I once possessed in the highest perfection?” he wrote, miserably.) He was all but completely deaf by 1817. Yet he continued to insist upon conducting his own music, and his players were forced to rely upon the movements of the first violinist for guidance while the composer flailed away in his own world. He died on March 26, 1827: The legend — endorsed by Morris — has it that his last act was to sit up in his deathbed and curse the thunderstorm that raged outside.

More here.

Defining Darwin

From The Harvard Gazette:Wilson

Edward O. Wilson, Pellegrino University Professor Emeritus of biology at Harvard, is celebrated worldwide for his contributions to evolutionary biology, spurred by a lifelong passion for ants. He is also the distinguished recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes for nonfiction writing. But on Nov. 29, Wilson assumed the role of amateur historian to commemorate another famed scientist and writer. The Geological Lecture Hall was filled to capacity when Wilson delivered a lecture on “Darwin in the Twenty-First Century.”

Wilson’s lecture was framed as a biographical timeline of Darwin’s life peppered with colorful anecdotes. He began by taking a jab at his own career, relating the story of a servant in the Darwin household who found her employer watching ants near the home of his neighbor, famed writer William Thackeray. “What a pity it is that Mr. Darwin doesn’t have a way to pass his time like Mr. Thackeray,” she remarked.

More here.

Fundraiser finished!

We are done. I will be posting about after midnight Monday.

Okay, you’ve probably seen this letter before. Ignore it if you have. Especially ignore it if you have already given some money (in which case, much thanks). The rest of you (our readers), please consider helping us finish this thing. We are so close, let’s not run out of steam now. I have already given what I could, and also will cover the shortage due to the percentage that Paypal takes (it isn’t that much). We will appreciate any and all donations. I have so far made it a point to write to each person who has donated any amount, personally. I assume all of you got my emails.

Dear 3QD Reader,

Abbas_on_sidewalkLet me just give it to you straight: today I am going to ask you to give money. Not to 3 Quarks, or to me, but to someone who is in a jam because of the silly way the financial aid system works at American schools. Here’s the story:

There is a very vivacious and intelligent young woman (she is 22) that my wife and I are friends with. She moved to New York City from a small town in the south to pursue her ambition to be a painter and illustrator. She had exhibited prodigious artistic talent from an early age, and after finding a job as a waitress and an apartment in the city, had no trouble gaining admission to an art program in a New York City college by showing her portfolio. She has been going to school full-time, and also working as a waitress full-time, and she has done tremendously well in school. She get’s straight A’s (she once proudly showed me her transcript, so I know that it is not an exaggeration) and is even involved in various extra-curricular activities at school, being the president of one club and the secretary of another.

The last time my wife and I saw her, she was in tears because she had just received a letter from her college saying that her financial aid is being cut off because she made $1,000 too much in income to qualify. Now, it turns out that it would have been better for her all around if she had sat on her ass and collected welfare the whole year, since she would then be eligible for aid. As it is, she reported her income absolutely honestly, and now she cannot afford to attend school in the spring. She is from a modest family and they cannot help her.

I asked her how much her tuition is, and she cutely told me a rather exact amount: $1,533.85 (I have a good memory for numbers). I decided I would try to help her, but cannot do this by myself. My wife Margit and I have made a contribution of $200 to a fund to help her continue with college in spring. I ask you to give what you can to make up the difference.

If 3 Quarks can help this young lady continue her education in the spring, I feel that it will have been worth it to have spent all this time finding and blogging the links we do, this whole year. I will report how much has been collected every day, and I will stop collecting as soon as the remaining amount is reached. I thank you for your attention and consideration.

Yours,

Abbas

Target Amount: $1,533.85
Amount collected as of 12/11/05: $200
Amount collected as of 12/12/05: $540
Amount collected as of 12/13/05: $1,115
Amount collected as of 12/14/05: $1,245
Amount collected as of 12/15/05: $1,325.85
Amount collected as of 12/16/05: $1,407.85
Amount collected as of 12/17/05: $1,407.85 (site was down for one day)
Amount collected as of 12/18/05: $1,412.85
Amount collected as of 12/19/05: Full Amount –No need for more contributions. Thank you.

I urge you to please give a small amount like 5 or 10 dollars, but not to assume that someone else will take care of it, because we have thousands of readers and will definitely reach our target, even with small donations, if a large number take the time to donate.

You will have an opportunity to leave a comment (identifying yourself, if you like) at the PayPal site if and when you click the button below to make a secure donation (all credit cards, checks accepted):

Artists Have More Sexual Partners, U.K. Survey Hints

Brian Handwerk in National Geographic:

Picasso_350Researchers at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and the Open University asked participants about their artistic skills and their history of sexual encounters since the age of 18.

Professional artists and poets reported sleeping with twice as many partners as other adults sampled.

Daniel Nettle, a psychology professor at the University of Newcastle’s School of Biology, said two factors may explain the findings.

“Creative people are often considered to be very attractive and get lots of attention as a result,” he said. “They tend to be charismatic and produce art and poetry that grabs people’s interest.”

Alternatively “it could also be that very creative types lead a bohemian lifestyle and tend to act on more sexual impulses and opportunities, often purely for experience’s sake, than the average person would,” he said.

More here.

Metaphor as Illness

Sophie Harrison reviews Get a Life by Nadine Gordimer, in the New York Times Book Review:

Gord450Nadine Gordimer has often written about sickness, but it has been the sickness of a society, South Africa, under and after apartheid. In this, her 14th novel, she focuses instead on a single unwell individual. Paul Bannerman, a 35-year-old white ecologist in an unnamed city in South Africa, has just started treatment for cancer of the thyroid gland. The therapy sounds exotic to Paul’s ears: following surgery, he must take radioactive iodine, which will accumulate in the remnants of his thyroid and, if he’s lucky, destroy any residual tumor. During the treatment he will himself become radioactive for “about 16 days,” as will anything he touches, apparently. His parents have offered to let Paul live with them during this time, to reduce his young family’s exposure to hazard. So Paul has left his wife, Berenice, an advertising copywriter, and the couple’s 3-year-old son, and returned to his childhood home in the comfortable suburbs for a period of self-imposed quarantine. In response to his arrival the household has adopted a new regime that reads like an ironic gloss on the country’s inequitable past. Paul’s belongings are segregated, his laundry and cutlery kept apart, his meals served on paper plates, and his visitors rationed and forbidden to touch him – his small son must stand on the other side of an iron-barred garden gate in order to talk to his father.

More here.

JetBlue’s JFK Terminal: Airport Architecture Hits Low

James S. Russell at Bloomberg News:

A parade of politicians and company officials last week unveiled the final design of a 26-gate terminal for JetBlue Airways Corp. in New York.

In extolling the plans for the new terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport, which is scheduled to open in 2009, they also cited the glories of the bird-wing arching vaults of the old TWA Terminal. The 1962 masterpiece by Eero Saarinen, where the ceremony took place, is one of very few modern buildings designated a National Historic Landmark. It will remain in place as JetBlue, which signed the 30-year lease for the terminal on Nov. 22, builds behind it.

Though it has not served passengers for years, Saarinen’s terminal recalls a more genteel era when airport architecture could stylishly and unapologetically welcome people to the city.

JetBlue’s new terminal, unfortunately, shows just how low air travel can go. At $875 million, it’s $125 million cheaper than the bare-bones JFK barracks that American Airlines opened last summer — and looks it.

More here.  [Also see Asad Raza’s short essay about JFK which mentions the Saarinen terminal here.]

Matisse the Master

Steven C. Munson reviews Hilary Spurling’s new book, in Commentary:

DerainpaintmatisseIn this second volume of her biography of arguably the greatest of 20th-century painters, Hilary Spurling recounts the life of Henri Matisse from 1909, when he was in the midst of consolidating the gains of his breakthrough Fauve period, through the two world wars, to his death in his studio at Cimiez in 1954. As with her earlier volume, The Unknown Matisse,* this new book gives us a down-to-earth portrait of the artist and his family while faithfully rendering a bygone era in which both art and those who made it, theorized about it, and bought it were taken seriously.

In Matisse’s case, most of those who took him seriously were foreigners; French critics and art lovers tended to be dismissive, if not downright hostile. One of the striking aspects of Spurling’s story is the recurring role of foreign supporters, and of foreign influences, in the painter’s career and artistic development. Among his key American collectors, for example, were Albert Barnes, who commissioned a huge mural—Dance (1933)—for his foundation outside Philadelphia, and the Cone sisters, Eta and Claribel, whose collection of Matisses is now in the Baltimore Museum of Art.

More here.

Harold Bloom, despairing of contemporary America

From The Guardian:

Bloom2_2 I am a teacher by profession, about to begin my 51st year at Yale, where frequently my subject is American writers. Without any particular competence in politics, I assert no special insight in regard to the American malaise. But I am a student of what I have learned to call the American Religion, which has little in common with European Christianity. There is now a parody of the American Jesus, a kind of Republican CEO who disapproves of taxes, and who has widened the needle’s eye so that camels and the wealthy pass readily into the Kingdom of Heaven. We have also an American holy spirit, the comforter of our burgeoning poor, who don’t bother to vote. The American trinity pragmatically is completed by an imperial warrior God, trampling with shock and awe. (Picture).

More here.

Researchers Identify Human Skin Color Gene

From Science:Fish

Little is known about the specific genes that contribute to the variations in human skin color. An exciting clue has now emerged from an unlikely source, a tiny aquarium fish. Working with a mutant line of zebrafish called golden, whose stripes are paler than those in wild-type fish, Lamason et al. found that the altered pigmentation was caused by a mutation in the slc24A5 gene, which encodes a protein potentially involved in cation exchange. The gene is highly conserved in vertebrates, and expression of the human gene in the golden zebrafish restored wild-type pigmentation. European populations carry a slightly different version of the slc24A5 gene than do African and East Asian populations. A genetic polymorphism that changes one amino acid in the coding region of the gene correlates with skin pigmentation levels, which suggests that slc24A5 may contribute to skin color in humans.

More here.

Patriot Act renewal fails in Senate

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Eric Lichtblau in the New York Times:

Bushabig031703The Senate on Friday blocked reauthorization of the broad antiterrorism bill known as the USA Patriot Act, pushing Congress into a game of brinksmanship with President Bush, who has said the nation will be left vulnerable to attack if the measure is not quickly renewed.

With many Democrats and some Republicans saying the bill does not go far enough in protecting civil liberties, the Republican leadership fell short of the 60 votes required to break a filibuster. Now the future of the law, which greatly expanded the government’s surveillance and investigative powers in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, is in doubt.

The debate, a passionate fight about the balance between national security and personal privacy, became a touchstone for repercussions after the disclosure on Thursday night that Mr. Bush had secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for terrorist activity.

On Friday afternoon, after the report in The New York Times and the fallout it engendered, Vice President Dick Cheney made a hurried trip to the Capitol to defend the domestic spying program against charges that it might be illegal, while Mr. Bush said he “would do everything in my power to protect the country, within the law,” from another terrorist attack.

More here.

Taboo-breaking novel stirs passion, debate in Saudi Arabia

Donna Abu-Nasr of the AP, in The Boston Globe:

It’s hardly ”Sex and the City,” but by Saudi standards ”The Girls of Riyadh” is a bombshell.

The fictional tale of the loves, dreams, and disappointments of four young women in the capital has, not surprisingly, drawn criticism in a country where women are not supposed to date or have a love life until married. More striking, however, is the degree of support being voiced for 24-year-old author Rajaa al-Sanie and her first novel.

In the novel, Sadeem’s husband divorces her because she’s too sexually bold for his liking. Qamra discovers soon after her wedding that her husband is in love with a Japanese woman. Mashael’s boyfriend cannot marry her because her mother is American. Only Lamis finds true and lasting love.

”The Girls of Riyadh” was published in September in Lebanon, the most liberal of Arab countries, and is going into its third printing. In Saudi Arabia, where the sexes are strictly segregated, authorities haven’t decided whether to approve its sale, but pirated editions are circulating in photocopy form.

More here.

The mathematics of Sudoku

Brian Hayes in American Scientist:

A few years ago, if you had noticed someone filling in a crossword puzzle with numbers instead of letters, you might well have looked askance. Today you would know that the puzzle is not a crossword but a Sudoku. The craze has circled the globe. It’s in the newspaper, the bookstore, the supermarket checkout line; Web sites offer puzzles on demand; you can even play it on your cell phone.

Just in case this column might fall into the hands of the last person in North America who hasn’t seen a Sudoku, an example is given on the opposite page. The standard puzzle grid has 81 cells, organized into nine rows and nine columns and also marked off into nine three-by-three blocks. Some of the cells are already filled in with numbers called givens. The aim is to complete the grid in such a way that every row, every column and every block has exactly one instance of each number from 1 to 9. A well-formed puzzle has one and only one solution.

The instructions that accompany Sudoku often reassure the number-shy solver that “No mathematics is required.” What this really means is that no arithmetic is required. You don’t have to add up columns of figures; you don’t even have to count. As a matter of fact, the symbols in the grid need not be numbers at all; letters or colors or fruits would do as well. In this sense it’s true that solving the puzzle is not a test of skill in arithmetic. On the other hand, if we look into Sudoku a little more deeply, we may well find some mathematical ideas lurking in the background.

Fullimage_2005122141946_307

Caption: Sudoku puzzles have to be filled in so that each number appears exactly once in each column, each row and each of the blocks delineated by heavier lines. The order-1 puzzle is a trivial 1×1 grid; the order-2 Sudoku is a 4×4 grid to be filled with integers from 1 to 4; the order-3 puzzle is a 9×9 grid where the allowed numbers are 1 through 9. Some useful terminology: The individual compartments are cells; the nxn groups of cells are blocks; the cells are arranged in horizontal rows and vertical columns; the blocks likewise are organized in horizontal bands and vertical stacks; the union of a cell’s row, column and block is called its neighborhood; the numbers supplied in the initial state are givens. The order-3 Sudoku shown here is a variation on the very first puzzle published, in 1979 in Dell Pencil Puzzles & Word Games; by present-day standards it is quite easy. Cells marked in blue are fully determined by the givens alone.

More here.

Proletarian Science

Jonathan Weiner reviews A People’s History of Science: Miners, Midwives, and “Low Mechanicks,” by Clifford D. Conner, in the New York Times:

Wein450Laborers are “generally held in bad repute,” Xenophon wrote about 700 years later, “and with justice.” Manual jobs keep men too busy to be decent companions or good citizens, “so that men engaged in them must ever appear to be both bad friends and poor defenders of their country.”

Clifford D. Conner thinks this kind of snobbery has distorted the writing of history from ancient times to the present, because historians are scribes themselves and it is a clean, soft hand that holds the pen. In writing about science, for instance, historians celebrate a few great names – Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein – and neglect the contributions of common, ordinary people who were not afraid to get their hands dirty. With “A People’s History of Science,” Conner tries to help right the balance. The triumphs of science rest on a “massive foundation created by humble laborers,” he writes. “If science is understood in the fundamental sense of knowledge of nature, it should not be surprising to find that it originated with the people closest to nature: hunter-gatherers, peasant farmers, sailors, miners, blacksmiths, folk healers and others.”

It’s a good subject for a book of popular science, which is what Conner sets out to give us: “a history not only of the people but for the people as well.”

More here.

You can tell a book by its cover

The jacket of a new novel has just seconds to seduce us into a purchase.”

Helen Rumbelow in the Times of London:

As we walk into any bookshop for an impulse purchase, we base our choice on the same superficial attractions as a Casanova walking into a singles bar. And all the new places where books are now sold — the internet, the bookshop’s three-for-two tables, the supermarket — are making us even more likely to judge a book by its cover.

Take Georgette Heyer, the slightly frumpy historical novelist. When her publishers changed all her cover art last year, the classy new Jane Austen-ish look doubled her sales. Haruki Murakami has just been given a complete makeover, and next month Lesley Pearse, Penguin’s much-loved women’s author, is to get the same treatment.

“All the research shows that consumers are very, very influenced by the covers, not necessarily to buy a book, but to pick it up,” Joanna Prior, publicity and marketing director at Penguin, says.

Studies show that a book on a three-for-two table has about one and a half seconds to catch a reader’s eye. If it is picked up, it is on average glanced at for only three to four seconds.

More here.