The Lower Ninth Battles Back

Two years ago this week, we lost much of New Orleans, as the Gulf was battered by Katrina. As Karen Ballentine pointed out:

[T]he key difference between 911 and Katrina: both Manhattan and D.C. recovered from the terrorist attacks on 911. But the nation did not.

With Katrina, on the other hand, the nation got over it, but the victims, the dead, their loved ones, their comunities, especially the poor African Americans of the lower ninth, as well as the working people all along the gulf…they did not.

Since Katrina, I’ve spent plenty of time in Houston, where I am from and where many of the dispalced have been relocated, to get the sense that they are the new Oakies for many Americans. But the city fights to recover. In The Nation:

The word “will” comes up constantly in the Lower Ninth Ward now; We Will Rebuild is spray-painted onto empty houses; “it will happen,” one organizer told me. Will itself may achieve the ambitious objective of bringing this destroyed neighborhood back to life, and for many New Orleanians a ferocious determination seems the only alternative to being overwhelmed and becalmed. But the fate of the neighborhood is still up in the air, from the question of whether enough people can and will make it back to the nagging questions of how viable a city and an ecology they will be part of. The majority of houses in this isolated neighborhood are still empty, though about a tenth of the residents are back, some already living in rehabilitated houses, some camped in stark white FEMA trailers outside, some living elsewhere while getting their houses ready. If you measured the Lower Ninth Ward by will, solidarity and dedication, from both residents and far-flung volunteers and nonprofits, it would be among the best neighborhoods in the United States. If you measured it by infrastructure and probabilities, it looks pretty grim. There are more devastated neighborhoods in New Orleans and neighboring St. Bernard Parish, let alone Mississippi and the Delta, but the Lower Ninth got hit hard by Katrina. Its uncertain fate has come to be an indicator for the future of New Orleans and the fate of its African-American majority.

Mosley—a transmitter of coded messages


Nicholas Mosley is thought of as an important but almost incomprehensible novelist. For 60 years, he has tapped away like some mad cryptographer, transmitting messages in an unknown code. Occasional successes—Accident was made into a film, Hopeful Monsters won the 1990 Whitbread prize—have heartened but not distracted him. I recently met Mosley—whose books are being published in new editions by Dalkey Archive Press—in his basement flat in north London. Aged 84, he seldom goes out. His voice sounds tired; sometimes it trails off into silence. Yet the occasional flash of the eye and whooping laugh betray inextinguishable high spirits.

more from Prospect here.

balthus exists


He styled himself as the “King of Cats,” which is also the title of his only self-portrait. It shows a spoilt, imperious creature of the oldest, irresistible aristocracy, a “King of those regions that will remain forever unknown to my gloomy contemporaries,” as the young painter once said of himself.

The cat has, of course, always been the heraldic animal of this prince, ever since Rilke added a preface to the little picture book Balthus made as a boy. It is the tale of the mysterious, seductive cat “Mitsou”, which appears out of nowhere and disappears into nowhere. It is a creature one remembers as one might an apparition that appeared in a voluptuous Sunday afternoon dream. Hence the poet’s reassuring words at the end of his short preface: not the cat, but Balthus exists.

more from Sign and Sight here.

defending strauss


On a sunny Wednesday last November, 16 students sat around a University of Chicago seminar table with two unpublished typescripts in front of them. The students were taking a course on the philosopher Leo Strauss, and “politics and policy” was the day’s topic. “In some ways it was easy to select the readings for this subject,” announced Nathan Tarcov, a professor of political science, “because Strauss wrote almost nothing about practical politics. I had to scrounge to find much of anything.”

The typescripts—two speeches Strauss delivered in the 1940s—left plenty of questions unanswered. They didn’t lay out in perfect clarity Strauss’s opinions on practical politics; they hinted at them. But Tarcov hoped they would correct what he saw as one of academia’s most sensational urban myths: the notion that Leo Strauss—though he’d died in 1973—was responsible for the rise of America’s neoconservatives and even for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

more from The Chicago Reader here.

Bacteria Get Promiscuous

From Science:

Microorganisms such as bacteria enjoy swapping genes, and the trades have made a big difference in how they’ve evolved. Now new research suggests that bacteria are also easygoing about passing genes on to more complex organisms. The findings have researchers rethinking the prevalence of interspecies gene transfer and its role in evolution; they may also change the way geneticists filter out bacterial “contamination” when they sequence a new genome.

So-called lateral gene transfer is ubiquitous among bacteria–they can acquire antibiotic resistance by swapping genes with species that have evolved it–but transfers between bacteria and multicellular organisms were thought to be rare. Some of the few known cases involve genes from parasitic bacteria called Wolbachia, which infect 20% to 75% of insects, as well as other invertebrates. The parasitic bacteria live within their hosts’ cells, including the germ cells that give rise to eggs, and in past studies scientists found its genes in the genomes of two worm and insect hosts.

However, according to microbiologist Julie Dunning Hotopp of the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, common wisdom holds that these transfers are uncommon, and so genetic sequences from bacteria like Wolbachia are considered to be contamination when they’re found in insect genomes. Suspecting that their treatment as contaminants was masking transfers’ true frequency, Dunning Hotopp and her colleagues screened animal genetic databases for Wolbachia sequences. Reporting online 30 August in Science, the team found them in three wasp and four worm species. In the wasps, the DNA was a 96% match to each wasp’s resident Wolbachia strain.

More here.

Sprawling spider web blankets Texas trail


Spider WILLS POINT, Texas – Entomologists are debating the origin and rarity of a sprawling spider web that blankets several trees, shrubs and the ground along a 200-yard stretch of trail in a North Texas park.

Officials at Lake Tawakoni State Park say the massive mosquito trap is a big attraction for some visitors, while others won’t go anywhere near it. “At first, it was so white it looked like fairyland,” said Donna Garde, superintendent of the park about 45 miles east of Dallas. “Now it’s filled with so many mosquitoes that it’s turned a little brown. There are times you can literally hear the screech of millions of mosquitoes caught in those webs.”

More here.

Fragments From Budapest

Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:

Screenhunter_11_aug_31_0150It is nearly impossible to get screws in Budapest. I’m speaking of the metal fasteners. They don’t seem to have them at any of the hardware stores or, if they do, they are so expensive as to be unattainable. Screws are a dream here, an unfulfilled fantasy. I have never wanted to buy screws so badly before. No one has.

Finally we found the screw man. You have to come into his office and you have to have a sit-down about screws. You have to talk to him about the kinds of screws you want and why you want them. Suddenly, this seemed right to me.

And always the streets are strangely empty. On the weekends, especially, you can hear the lone steps of infrequent passersby ricocheting up through the buildings of stone and brick and in through your open window. Late at night a couple stumbles out of a cellar bar somewhere and scampers giggling down the street. They are whispering to one another, but the whispers are carried in the night air and amplified so that their private nothings become public performance. “You little devil you, you little devil. I’ll eat you up alive.” On Sundays everyone goes to a long family brunch that they hate.

More here.  And for more on Morgan’s recent art project in Budapest, go here.

India’s Middle Class Failure

India’s 200m-strong middle class is the most economically dynamic group on the planet, but is largely uninterested in politics or social reform. Until it begins to engage politically, India will suffer from a lop-sided modernisation.

Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad in Prospect:

021As the actual Mother India celebrates the 60th anniversary of her independence, there is….both surging optimism and crushing despair about her future. As the saying goes, everything and its opposite is true in India. The seven Indian Institutes of Technology rank near the top of global surveys, and job offers to graduates from the Indian Institutes of Management rival those to graduates of the famous US business schools; yet a third of the country is still illiterate. Three hundred million Indians live on less than $1 a day—a quarter of the world’s utterly poor—yet since 1985, more than 400m (out of a total population of 1bn) have risen out of relative poverty—to $5 a day—and another 300m will follow over the next two decades if the economy continues to grow at over 7 per cent a year. Population growth, even at a slower pace, will mean that there will still be millions below the poverty line, but the fall in number will be steady. At the other end of the scale, India has the largest number of dollar billionaires outside the US and Russia.

More here.

Friday Poem


Screenhunter_10_aug_31_0112_3Ode to Tomatoes
    Pablo Neruda

The street
filled with tomatoes,
light is
its juice
through the streets.
In December,
the tomato
the kitchen,
it enters at lunchtime,
its ease
on countertops,
among glasses,
butter dishes,
blue saltcellars.
It sheds
its own light,
benign majesty.
Unfortunately, we must
murder it:
the knife
into living flesh,
a cool
populates the salads
of Chile,
happily, it is wed
to the clear onion,
and to celebrate the union
child of the olive,
onto its halved hemispheres,
its fragrance,
salt, its magnetism;
it is the wedding
of the day,
its flag,
bubble vigorously,
the aroma
of the roast
at the door,
it’s time!
come on!
and, on
the table, at the midpoint
of summer,
the tomato,
star of earth, recurrent
and fertile
its convolutions,
its canals,
its remarkable amplitude
and abundance,
no pit,
no husk,
no leaves or thorns,
the tomato offers
its gift
of fiery color
and cool completeness.

The Importance of Overcoming the Digital Divide

In this Onam week, this piece over at the Watson Institute:

Fishermen, traders, and consumers have all benefited from the fishing industry’s adoption of mobile phones in Kerala, India, according to research published by Watson Visiting Professor Robert Jensen in this month’s Quarterly Journal of Economics. In one of the first rigorous, empirical studies of the benefits of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in poor countries, Jensen goes beyond the largely anecdotal body of evidence currently dominating the discussion of the so-called “digital divide” between the rich and poor.

“Economists have long emphasized that information is critical for the efficient functioning of markets,” Jensen writes in “The Digital Provide: Information (Technology), Market Performance and Welfare in the South Indian Fisheries Sector.” And yet “questions such as how much market performance can be enhanced by improving access to information, how much society gains from such improvements, and how those gains are shared between producers and consumers remain largely unanswered.”

[H/t: Linta Varghese]

Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

Sean Carroll, over at Cosmic Variance:

The best talk I heard at the International Congress of Logic Methodology and Philosophy of Science in Beijing was, somewhat to my surprise, the Presidential Address by Adolf Grünbaum. I wasn’t expecting much, as the genre of Presidential Addresses by Octogenarian Philosophers is not one noted for its moments of soaring rhetoric. I recognized Grünbaum’s name as a philosopher of science, but didn’t really know anything about his work. Had I known that he has recently been specializing in critiques of theism from a scientific viewpoint (with titles like “The Poverty of Theistic Cosmology“), I might have been more optimistic.

Grünbaum addressed a famous and simple question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” He called it the Primordial Existential Question, or PEQ for short. (Philosophers are up there with NASA officials when it comes to a weakness for acronyms.) Stated in that form, the question can be traced at least back to Leibniz in his 1697 essay “On the Ultimate Origin of Things,” although it’s been recently championed by Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne.

The correct answer to this question is stated right off the bat in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Well, why not?” But we have to dress it up to make it a bit more philosophical.

Scientists Search for Perfect Pitch

Joe Palca at NPR:

Piano200Most people can identify a note on a piano, but there will be some people who hear a note, and without even thinking about it, they will know that it was A above middle C — at least if the piano is properly tuned.

Dennis Drayna is a geneticist at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. He says people with absolute pitch can identify notes on a piano the same way most of us can identify colors.

“And we can always identify red and it’s obvious what’s pink, and we usually don’t confuse the two,” Drayna says. “People with absolute pitch have an analogous ability for their ear.”

To find people with this talent, geneticist Jane Gitschier turned to the Internet. She and her colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco created a Web page where people could test their pitch abilities.

More here.

Take Nutrition Claims with a Grain of Salt

From Scientific American:

Although we are what we eat, we are by no means only what we eat. Some people, for instance, can consume all the fatty foods they want—meat, cheese, butter, ice cream—but somehow manage to stay rail-thin and enjoy low blood triglyceride levels, whereas others living on the same rich fare would soon develop potbellies and clogged arteries. The significant genetic and metabolic variation among individuals makes it almost impossible for experts to prescribe detailed nutritional recommendations that work optimally for everybody. As nutritionist Marion Nestle recommends in her article “Eating Made Simple,” beginning on page 60, the best we can do today is to adhere to the time-honored advice to eat less; exercise more; eat mostly fruits, vegetables and grains; and avoid junk foods.

But this basic regimen leaves many concerned Americans with unresolved issues about dietary choices, especially those regarding specific foods promoted by food companies and their lobbyists: Is milk bad for adults? Should I eat more fish? Are organic foods better? More specific guidance regarding food selection would help.

More here.

Smoking stays in your genes after you quit

From Nature:

Smoke Gene expression changes brought on by heavy smoking may persist long after the smoker has kicked the habit, researchers have found. The results could provide a molecular explanation for the continued increased risk of lung cancer and other pulmonary ailments among former smokers.

When smokers quit, their bodies gradually begin to undo the damage cigarettes have wrought. But contrary to popular belief, not all of the body’s systems make a full recovery. Although the risk of heart disease, for example, eventually returns to that of a nonsmoker, the risk of getting lung cancer and emphysema — a progressive lung condition that leaves sufferers struggling for breath — remains elevated even if the patient hasn’t smoked a cigarette in decades.

“You are reducing the risk of disease by quitting,” says Raj Chari, a cancer biologist at the British Columbia Cancer Research Centre in Vancouver, Canada, “but it isn’t going back to zero.”

More here.

Teresa, Bright and Dark

The nun’s leading critic argues that  her crisis of faith—revealed in newly published letters—was brought on by the crushing unreasonableness of the Roman Catholic Church.

Christopher Hitchens in Newsweek:

Screenhunter_09_aug_30_1313The publication of Mother Teresa’s letters, concerning her personal crisis of faith, can be seen either as an act of considerable honesty or of extraordinary cynicism (or perhaps both of the above). These scrawled, desperate documents came to light as part of the investigation into her suitability for sainthood; an investigation conducted by Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, the Canadian priest who is the editor of this volume. And they were actually first published in the fall of 2002, by the Zenit news agency—a Vatican-based outlet associated with a militant Catholic right-wing group known as the Legion of Christ. So, which is the more striking: that the faithful should bravely confront the fact that one of their heroines all but lost her own faith, or that the Church should have gone on deploying, as an icon of favorable publicity, a confused old lady who it knew had for all practical purposes ceased to believe?

More here.

The Mystery of the Wandering Daddy Longlegs

Carl Zimmer in his blog, The Loom:

Screenhunter_07_aug_30_1307Here is a lovely little creature from Sri Lanka, Pettalus cf. cimiciformis, a member of the same lineage that includes the daddy longlegs we’re all familiar with. You could call it a daddy longlegs too, but its legs aren’t particularly long (plus it’s tiny–the size of a sesame seed.)

It may not seem like much, but it poses a fascinating riddle. It belongs to a family of daddy longlegs called Petallidae. Below is a map of where other species of Petallidae can be found. They seem to be scattered randomly across the world. But petallids are terrible at dispersing. Their ranges are small (usually less than fifty miles). And they live only on ancient continent crust. Petallids live on Sri Lanka and on Madagascar. But they live on none of the young volcanic islands in between–or anywhere else in the world, for that matter. So they couldn’t have swum or flown to their farflung locations. Yet DNA evidence clearly shows that the petallids all descend from a common ancestor. So, how did they get there? The answer…

More here.

against the avant-garde


I am arguing, along with theorists who view creativity in terms of evolution, that there is no significant creativity without a foundation in tradition, which symbolizes all that is memorable, mature, and of demonstrable value in a society, implying that tradition can never lose meaning and will always reward reflection; and iconoclasm that questions the finality and values of tradition and challenges traditional modes of understanding, but that remains valueless unless it achieves its own finality by becoming part of and holding its own in tradition, thus gaining lasting meaning and proving its continuing value to society.

I happen to think that avant-garde art has not unequivocally done so, however representative it is of modern society, with its cult of youth, indeed, its fetishization of youth, and can never convincingly do so, because to be avant-garde means to be incorrigibly adolescent in attitude and thus unable to relate to and respect tradition, which does not mean to blindly conform to it. Adolescence can express itself but not reflect on itself, which is why avant-garde art cannot become seriously traditional, that is, a civilizing force.

more from Artnet here.

letters from macedonia

One of the negative consequences of the so-called “period of transition” in Macedonia which started, as in most Eastern European countries, at the beginning of the 1990s, and which is still going on in the Balkans, was the closing of a large number of bookstores. The privatization of the publishing industry during the transition period as well as the desire of the new owners to get rid of large unprofitable spaces—a result of the significant drop in book demand which in turn was the result of the dramatically decreased purchasing power of the population— were the reasons why a large number of bookstores had to close down. Today, a decade and a half later, things are moving in a different direction: new bookshops are being opened and most of them function as cafés/bookshops. A few of them, like the bookshop at the “Tochka” (Dot) Cultural Center, are only one part of a much wider concept of exhibition spaces which host debates and symposiums dedicated to the work of artists from Macedonia and around the world. Dubravka Ugresic and Guyatri Chakravorty Spivak, the world-famous writer and theoretician, have been among the participants at these symposiums. These are sure signs that the previously frozen Macedonian cultural life is experiencing a thaw of revival.

more from Context here.

no glass of water


We used to believe”, laments J. M. Coetzee’s fictional writer Elizabeth Costello, “that when the text said, ‘On the table stood a glass of water’, there was indeed a table, and a glass of water on it, and we had only to look in the word-mirror of the text to see them. But all that has ended.” Quite. Coetzee has always avoided the flat mirror of realism in favour of the many-layered mise en abyme of metafiction, and his Elizabeth Costello (2003) is a case in point: not so much a novel as a series of infinitely regressed reflections on the nature of writing itself and the writer’s contract with the reader. Costello first appeared in 1997, in a journal article by Coetzee called “What Is Realism?”, later took centre stage in The Lives of Animals (1999) – quite literally, being Coetzee’s preferred voice for the Princeton Tanner Lectures on which that book was based – and has since featured as a deus ex machina author figure in his novel, Slow Man (2005), popping up to debate the interrelationship between the real and the literary with the book’s main character, Paul Rayment. The TLS printed a cartoon of Coetzee in drag (September 5, 2003), and even the most astute of his critics fell into the trap of accepting the outspoken Costello as a surrogate for the notoriously guarded Coetzee himself.

more from the TLS here.