Donne undone

From The Guardian:Donnethereformedsoul

The picture of John Donne “in the pose of a melancholy lover”, which was recently bought by the National Portrait Gallery, has once again fixed a particular image of the poet in the public mind. He is soulful and amorous (the folded arms and sensual mouth), theatrical (the wide-brimmed black hat), dressy (the lacy collar and furred cuff), and enigmatic (the deep background shadows). And if that doesn’t sound intriguing enough, there’s more. An inscription bowed into a semi-circle round the top of the portrait reworks a phrase from a Latin psalm which can be translated as “O Lady lighten our darkness”. Does this mean the picture was originally intended for a lover, or is it a kind of prayer to the Virgin Mary, and therefore also a reference to Donne’s Catholic background? We can’t be sure. Like so much else about Donne, the inscription is ambiguous – as much a fusion of “contraries” as the man himself.

Donne was born in 1572, the son of Catholic parents who understood that if they wanted to get on in the world they would have to play down or actually disguise their faith.

More here.

Finding Magic Somewhere Under the Pool in ‘Lady in the Water’

From The New York Times:

Shyamalan IT was just around the time when the giant eagle swooped out of the greater Philadelphia night to rescue a creature called a narf, shivering and nearly naked next to a swimming pool shaped like a collapsed heart, that I realized M. Night Shyamalan had lost his creative marbles. Since Mr. Shyamalan’s marbles are bigger than those of most people, or so it would seem from the evidence of a new book titled “The Man Who Heard Voices” (and how!), this loss might have been a calamity, save for the fact that “Lady in the Water” is one of the more watchable films of the summer. A folly, true, but watchable. As before, this film involves characters who, when faced with the inexplicable, behave less like real people than idealized movie audiences: they believe.

Mr. Shyamalan is big on faith. He wants us to believe. In him. In film. In his films. To be swept away by that transporting swell of feeling that comes with love, sex, gods, the great outdoors and sometimes, though not often enough, the movies. Mr. Shyamalan wants to carry us away.

More here.

Fear of Snakes Drove Pre-Human Evolution

Ker Than in

SnakeAn evolutionary arms race between early snakes and mammals triggered the development of improved vision and large brains in primates, a radical new theory suggests.

The idea, proposed by Lynne Isbell, an anthropologist at the University of California, Davis, suggests that snakes and primates share a long and intimate history, one that forced both groups to evolve new strategies as each attempted to gain the upper hand.

To avoid becoming snake food, early mammals had to develop ways to detect and avoid the reptiles before they could strike. Some animals evolved better snake sniffers, while others developed immunities to serpent venom when it evolved. Early primates developed a better eye for color, detail and movement and the ability to see in three dimensions—traits that are important for detecting threats at close range.

Humans are descended from those same primates.

More here.

The Neuroscience of Genius

Nigel Leary reviews The Creating Brain by Nancy C. Andreasen, in Metapsychology:

193259407801Nancy C. Andreasens book, The Creating Brain, is an interesting and insightful hypothesis about the nature of creativity.  Her style is fluid and engaging, and she presents both her hypothesis and her research in equally effective and accessible ways.  Andreasen is, to be sure, an interesting character: she started her career as a professor of Renaissance literature before going on to study as a neuroscientist, and she is now the Andrew H. Woods Chair of Psychiatry and Director of Mental Health Clinical Research Centre at the University of Iowa.  This rare mixing of disciplines has left Andreasen in the somewhat extraordinary position to approach the notion of creativity from both a scientific perceptive (as a neuroscientist) and from an inherently creative background (as a literary professor).  This meld not only gives Andreasens book an engaging and readable style, but motivates her project, and provides her with a strong insight into both a) the creative process and b) the creative psyche.

More here.

Lobster Caught “Half Cooked” in Maine

From The National Geographic:

Batman fans will remember Two-Face, the villain with a mug that’s half handsome and half gruesome. Recently a Maine lobstermLobster_2 an caught a different kind of two-faced prey—a lobster that looks half raw and half cooked. Alan Robinson of Steuben, Maine, hauled up this two-toned lobster last week while bringing in his catch near the town of Bar Harbor.

Half of the animal is mottled brown, while the other is bright orange—the color lobsters turn after they’ve been boiled.

More here.

Gibbon, It’s Time for Your Close-Up

From Science:

Gibbons The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) in Bethesda, Maryland, is getting its primate house in order. First, the institute played a major role in sequencing the human genome. Then the chimp’s DNA got the all-star treatment. And when comparing the two genomes proved incredibly useful for understanding our own DNA, NHGRI set its sights on the rhesus macaque, marmoset, orangutan, and gorilla. Now the gibbon is getting in line.

From the moment the first complex organism–a nematode–was sequenced in 1998, researchers have struggled to make sense of a veritable alphabet soup of A’s, T’s, G’s, and C’s. Sequencing other genomes has helped: Comparing the DNA of related organisms has been key to identifying regulatory regions of DNA and other essential genome components. To continue its quest to understand how genomes work, NHGRI has regularly solicited proposals from researchers asking them to recommend the next candidates for sequencing.

The gibbon won out because it’s a second cousin to humans and, as such, will eventually help biomedical researchers pinpoint the genetic bases of disease, says NHGRI Director Francis Collins. The institute expects to have the genome sequenced within 3 years.

More here.

Easier to blame Pakistan

Editorial in The Nation:

000200607120301_1In 2001 India banned the Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), “for stirring religious unrest over the United States’ ‘war on terror’ ” and for its alleged Al Qaeda sympathies. Dozens of its supporters have been detained since the attacks.

Several Indian analysts believe SIMI’s emergence has been caused by Indian army actions in Kashmir and sectarian slaughters like the 2002 Gujarat riots, when 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed. They think Mumbai may have been the revenge, though no government official would dare to make the link. It is easier to blame Pakistan, writes Indian analyst Swapan Dasgupta in the Asia Wall Street Journal:

“India has been in a state of denial over evidence that the emerging threat is not from those acting at the behest of controllers in Islamabad, but from home-grown militants. The suggestion that Islamist terrorism has developed strong roots in India is one that the government in New Delhi does not relish.”

More here.

Send for Shaw, not Shakespeare

Michael Holroyd in the Times Literary Supplement:

When I was invited to write the authorized biography of Bernard Shaw in the early 1970s, he was still accepted as a great force in the world, an influence on the young, a bearded prophet from a past age warning us provocatively, uncomfortably, of the dangers in our contemporary world. He did of course acclaim some social changes that had taken place, such as the National Health Service. But his role was mainly to challenge rather than to celebrate. His plays were quite regularly performed at the National Theatre and politicians such as Tony Benn and Robin Cook made no secret of having read him attentively and of having been influenced by his writings – nor did that legendary insurgent on his prison island, Nelson Mandela. American and Canadian academics in particular were devoting their careers to studying his work – his letters, his diaries, his music and drama criticism as well as his prefaces, political essays and plays. He was so prolific, so voluminous, so various, that there seemed plenty to keep them busy well into this century.

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Transgendered perspective on women in the sciences

Shankar Vedantam in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Neurobiologist Ben Barres has a unique perspective on former Harvard president Lawrence Summers’ assertion that innate differences between the sexes might explain why many fewer women than men reach the highest echelons of science.

That’s because Barres used to be a woman himself.

In a highly unusual critique published Wednesday in the journal Nature, the Stanford University biologist – who used to be Barbara – said his experience as both a male and a female had given him an intensely personal insight into the biases that make it harder for women to succeed in science.

More here.

The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete

Susan Straight reviews Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete by William C. Rhoden, in the Los Angeles Times:

So it was with great curiosity that I picked up William C. Rhoden’s “Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete.” But the African American sportswriter’s new book is an enlightening, thoughtful and sometimes sentimental look at black males in sports from the early 1700s to the present. His thesis is that black athletes for hundreds of years have used superior physical ability as well as “soul and style” not only to thrill and entertain their fellow Americans but also to make money for white owners, yet they have been unable to control their own destinies.

The title may be off-putting — an allusion to the 40 acres and a mule promised to freed slaves after the Civil War — and the analogy of big-time sports as a plantation may seem to be a stretch, but Rhoden, a sportswriter for the New York Times since 1983, has done his homework. Indeed, those who follow sports have seen countless black athletes lay bodies on the line for teams, universities and professional organizations that reap large financial rewards, while the players too often get little, sometimes not even a college degree or a long career. The huge signing bonuses and contracts celebrated in the media go to only a tiny percentage of black athletes; many more make do at subsistence level, especially in college.

More here.

The Persian game

“Masters of ambiguity, Iran’s leaders don’t want war with Israel and the U.S. — and are more alarmed by the Lebanese crisis than the West realizes.”

Afshin Molavi in Salon:

Story_3On the sidelines of a recent security conference in Oman, a former high-ranking Iranian official turned to a Saudi colleague and said: “You are overestimating our influence in Iraq. We are not as powerful as you think.” A few moments later, the Iranian smiled and added, “But don’t underestimate our influence, either.”

Such calculated ambiguity has become a familiar feature of Iranian foreign policy, particularly regarding its role in Iraq, its nuclear stance and, of course, its support for Hamas and Hezbollah. Sometimes the ambiguity approaches something resembling sophisticated statecraft; at other times it looks amateurish, like “bazaar diplomacy.”

Amid the ongoing Hezbollah-Israel war, the ambiguity has been on full display: Iran, on the one hand, denies accusations that it is playing a role in the conflict, while secretly pledging financial and military support for Hezbollah and publicly declaring the Jewish state unsafe from Hezbollah rockets.

More here.  [Thanks to Zara Houshmand.]

Shred’s not dead!

Virginia Heffernan in her blog Screens at the New York Times:

19guitar_1Playing insanely hard, speedy neoclassical rock music is not the ticket to stardom anymore. The great guitar shredders — Buckethead, Steve Vai, that Viking guy and all those Italian-Americans — are rarely spotted on Fuse or the MTVs. And if you’re only watching TV, the shredder’s art seems to be as obsolete as the Baroque music it cribs from.

But shred’s not dead! Think about it. Who would be good at highly technical, highly demanding, classically-inspired music that relies heavily on Strads and other kinds of audiophile equipment? And who, of those people, might lack the parents or the social skills that would let them “play out,” especially when that means commanding a stage like Eddie Van Halen? That’s right: those bashful frontmen are our online video friends, especially JerryC and FunTwo.

More here.

Pynchon on Amazon

In Slate:

Things did not delay in turning curious when the first beats of the drumroll began for Thomas Pynchon’s forthcoming book. Last month, lit-bloggers and news-writers reported that Penguin Press would issue the author’s sixth novel in December. This whetted the palates of those hard-core fans who have spent the years since 1997’s Mason & Dixon speculating that Pynchon was at work on a doozy about lady mathematicians of the old school and also, uhm, Mothra. Last week, put up a page that listed Untitled Thomas Pynchon at a svelte 992 pages and bore a description purportedly written by the master himself. In fact, it purported quite well indeed and also rather charmingly, promising an archetypal Pynchonian buffet of settings, characters, and old tricks (“Characters stop what they’re doing to sing what are for the most part stupid songs. Strange sexual practices take place. Obscure languages are spoken, not always idiomatically.”) Then the description just vanished from the page.

Was this a hoax? A jump-the-gun glitch? A hype?

The Iliad of Homer

From The Atlantic Monthly:Homer

Notes on the History of Fiction A Review by E. L. Doctorow. Historically, there was something like a Trojan war, maybe even several Trojan wars in fact, but the one Homer wrote about in the eighth century B.C. is the one that fascinates us, because it is fiction. Archaeologists doubt that any Trojan war began because someone named Paris kidnapped someone named Helen from under the nose of her Greek husband, or that it was a big wooden horse filled with soldiers that finally won the day. And those particularized gods running the war for their own purposes, deflecting arrows, inciting human rages, turning hearts, and controlling history, might have kept the Greeks and Trojans at it for years and years, but they have no authority in our monotheistic world, and you can find no trace of them in the diggings in northwest Turkey where the archaeologists turn up the shards and bones and sling bullets of what might have been the real Troy.

But Homer (or the stable of poets incorporated under the name Homer) was either given to polytheistic fantasy or was the genius adapter of a system of cosmological metaphors that no one — not Dante, not Shakespeare, not Cervantes — has ever matched for sheer imaginative insanity. Read Homer’s hexameters and you find gods made in the image of man — jealous, mendacious, erotically charged, vengefully disposed, gender-specific know-it-alls, with empowering aptitudes that they wield as weapons in heaven as they do on earth.

More here.

Bush ‘out of touch’ on stem cells

From BBC News:Bush_7

Scientists have reacted with anger to US President George W Bush’s decision to veto a bill allowing federal funding for new embryonic stem cell research. They argue it will damage a promising field of medical research. Leading researchers labelled Mr Bush “hypocritical”, “out of touch” and “selfish” over his decision not to sign into law a bill approved by Congress. Mr Bush argued that the law “crossed a moral boundary that our decent society needs to respect”.

Polls suggest most Americans back the research, which scientists hope will lead to cures for serious illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and diabetes. The vetoed bill, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, would have scrapped limits on federal funding imposed by Mr Bush in 2001. It was the first time in his presidency that Mr Bush refused to sign into law a bill approved by Congress. The bill failed to reach the two-thirds majority in its Senate vote which would have overturned the presidential veto.

More here.

Portrait Competition

From the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery:

ZiamanybrendaPortraits are records of public figures, mementos of loved ones, documents of life’s milestones, and metaphors for the human condition. Today, portraits are created in all mediums, from painting to images created from sequenced DNA. There are just as many ways to create an exhibition, featuring the choices of one curator, a team, or through a competition. For this exhibition, with the support of Virginia Outwin Boochever, the National Portrait Gallery chose to hold an open competition, asking artists throughout the United States to submit painted and sculpted likenesses of people close to them. The jury saw only one portrait from each artist. From more than 4,000 entries from every state, the jury chose 51 works of art. They are as diverse as America, and represent numerous stylistic approaches. These are today’s faces, compelling our curiosity, and documenting the dynamic relationship between artist and subject.

See the rest here.

What do an algebra teacher, Toyota and a classical musician have in common?

Jonah Lehrer in Seed Magazine:

HowweknowBob Moses’ insight was that the math curricula these schools follow misunderstand the mind. The same abstraction that many educators celebrated—algebra is often touted as an introduction to symbolic logic—stifled learning for many students. By taking his students outside the classroom, Moses made math a part of everyday life: He realized that the brain wasn’t designed to deal with abstractions it doesn’t know how to use, or to solve variables while sitting at a desk. Our knowledge, Moses intuited, is a by-product of activity. What we end up knowing is what we can learn how to use. We learn by doing.

Modern neuroscience can explain the wisdom of Moses’ pedagogy. From the perspective of our brain, learning and doing are just two different verbs that refer to the same mental process. The reach of this discovery extends way beyond eighth-grade math class. In fact, the same technique that improved test scores in Boston and San Francisco and Mississippi is also partly responsible for the runaway success of Toyota and the supernatural-seeming skills of a violin soloist.

More here.

Who Lives? Who Dies? Who Decides?

Larry Hultgren reviews Bioethics Beyond the Headlines by Albert R. Jonsen, in Metapsychology:

074254524501If you plan to read only one book this summer on bioethics, Bioethics Beyond the Headlines by Albert R. Jonsen is your book.    The author is one of the pioneers in the field of bioethics, and his newest book is both engaging and readable.  As suggested by its subtitle, it covers the important topics: Who Lives?  Who Dies?  Who Decides?  It is up-to-date, and it moves easily from classic issues such as forgoing life support in the case of Karen Ann Quinlan to contemporary concerns about tube feeding and lessons learned from the recent Florida case of  Terri Schiavo.

This stimulating book covers all the major topics in bioethics.  Following a brief introductory essay in Part I on the meaning and history of bioethics, Jonsen examines the disputes and ethical issues involved in seven news stories that deal with the practice of clinical medicine (Part II Clinical Ethics).  He looks at the definitions of death; forgoing life support and quality of life issues; medical paternalism, patient autonomy and informed consent; organ transplantation;  euthanasia and questions involving aid-in dying or physician-assisted suicide;  ART (assisted reproductive technologies), including recent concerns emerging from preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD);  and abortion.  Each chosen headline or case is relevant and appropriate.  For example, instead of rehashing the issue of abortion as it appears in standard bioethics, Jonsen focuses on the hotly debated procedure, called, medically, intact dilation and extraction, and, politically, partial birth abortion.

More here.

Tom Stoppard on Prague’s rock revolution

John Lahr in The New Yorker:

Stoppard_photograph_largeStoppard, who was born Tomáš Straüssler, in Zlín, Czechoslovakia, arrived in England, via Singapore and India, in 1946, a nine-year-old refugee from the Nazis. “I put on Englishness like a coat,” he told the Independent recently. “It fitted me and it suited me.” Now a knight of the realm, and revered as one of his generation’s most important playwrights, Stoppard has been amply rewarded by the culture he adopted. Although he has written more than twenty plays and numerous scripts for film and television, “Rock ’n’ Roll” is only his second attempt to imagine himself back in the Czech landscape. The first was “Professional Foul,” an excellent 1977 TV play, which dealt with a soccer-loving professor of ethics whose moral horizons are widened by the false arrest of a former student.

More here.