Happy Onam

Three days ago marked the beginning of Onam, the harvest festival of the the Malayalee people of the South Indian state of Kerala, to whom I belong. It will last for six more days. In its origins, it is a Hindu holiday, but, I can attest, it is celebrated and held in deep reverance by the Christians and Muslims of the state as well, a testament to the wonderful syncreticism of the religions and cultures of the region. At NDTV.com:Onamcelebrations1

Onam is the biggest festival of Kerala, celebrating the visit of King Mahabali to Kerala. His visit is a boon from Lord Vishnu.

The festival is celebrated as a tribute to the sacrifice of King Mahabali. Every year people make elaborate preparations to welcome their King whom they affectionately call Onathappan.

They wish to please the spirit of their King by depicting that his people are happy and wish him well. It was said Mahabali was very generous and charitable.

Whenever anybody approached him for help or requested for anything he always granted. To test the King, Lord Vishnu disguised himself as a dwarf and a poor Brahmin called Vamana.

He came to the Kingdom of Mahabali, just after the King performed his morning prayers and was preparing to grant boons to Brahmins.

As Vamana, Lord Vishnu said he was a poor Brahmin and asked for a piece of land.

The generous King said he could have as much land as he wanted. The Brahmin said that he just wanted as much land as could be covered by his three steps. The King was surprised to hear but agreed.

A learned adviser of the King, Shukracharya sensed that Vamana was not an ordinary person and warned the King against making the promise.

But, the generous King replied that it would be a sin for a King to go back on his words and asked the Brahmin to take the land. The King could not imagine that the dwarf Brahmin was Lord Vishnu himself.

Just as King Mahabali agreed to grant the land, Vamana began to expand and eventually increased himself to the size of cosmic proportions.

With his first step the Brahmin boy covered the whole of earth and with the other step he covered the whole of the skies.

He then asked King Mahabali where is the space for him to keep his third foot. The King realised that he was no ordinary Brahmin and his third step will destroy the earth.

Mahabali with folded hands bowed before Vamana and asked him to place his last step on his head so that he could keep the promise.

Good for Sperm, Bad for Children

From Science:

Child Cutthroat competition in the testes might explain the unexpected prevalence of a mutation that halts skull growth and fuses fingers and toes. The genetic glitch seems to give some sperm precursors an advantage by speeding their division, a new study suggests.

Apert syndrome afflicts one in every 70,000 children who are born with fused bones in their heads, hands, and feet. That incidence, although low, is 100 to 1000 times higher than the average mutation rate. The fault occurs at one spot on a single gene on chromosome 10 and is linked to the father’s age. Researchers first theorized that the site might be susceptible to genetic errors, a mutation “hotspot.” More recent studies posited that the mutation might instead confer some advantage to germline cells–sperm progenitors–in natural selection.

Computational biologist Peter Calabrese of the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles developed mathematical simulations of how the mutations might arise and develop in each scenario.

More here.

Master of the Enlightenment

Neil Chambers’ edition of The Scientific Correspondence of Sir Joseph Banks leaves Andrea Wulf awed by the naturalists networking prowess.

From The Guardian:

Screenhunter_06_aug_29_1651In 1761, the 18-year-old Joseph Banks inherited several estates in Lincolnshire, providing him with a substantial income for the rest of his life. After he finished his studies at Oxford, he moved to London where he became a member of the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries. He spent much of his time in the damp reading room of the new British Museum, where he studied the herbaria of Britain’s greatest plant collectors, utterly obsessed with botany and the workings of the natural world.

It was this preoccupation that distinguished Banks from other men of his class, prompting him to exchange his comfortable life for the hardship and danger of the most daring voyage that the British had ever undertaken. Unlike his peers who toured the ancient treasures of Europe, Banks reputedly said “every blockhead does that. My Grand Tour shall be one around the world”. And so, in August 1768, Banks boarded Captain Cook’s Endeavour. For the following three years, he lived in a windowless cabin that was no bigger than a modern king-size bed, with a diet of pickled cabbage, insect-infested biscuits and the occasional dog stew. During that time, he collected 3,600 species of plants in Tahiti, Australia and South America – 1,400 of which were new to English botanists.

When Banks returned to Britain, he had become the most famous man in the country – rich, dashingly handsome with an alluring aura of adventure. Within a few years he was the nominal director of the royal botanic garden at Kew and the president of the Royal Society (a position he held for more than 40 years – longer than anybody before or since). During his life he shaped colonial politics, was an intimate of King George III and served as an adviser to the government.

More here.

Bhutto: Musharraf to Quit As Army Chief

From CNN:

Screenhunter_05_aug_29_1523Pakistan’s President, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has agreed to step down as the country’s military chief during negotiations on a power-sharing deal with Pakistan’s former prime minister and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, she told CNN Wednesday.

“This is no longer an issue in the negotiations, because General Musharraf recognizes that it is very difficult to move to a transition towards democracy when there’s a chief of army staff ruling the country,” Bhutto told CNN.

“I think he wants to make the right decision, so I expect he’s going to take the uniform off.”

Pakistani cabinet minister Sheikh Rashid confirmed that Musharraf has agreed to step down as army chief.

But it is up to Musharraf to announce his decision, Bhutto said, adding that the issue of his role as army chief is “no longer a hurdle in the negotiations that the opposition and I have been having with him.”

“Earlier we had left it to the courts to decide this issue,” she said, referring to Musharraf’s army chief position. “But now we have bilaterally decided that this issue will be resolved.”

Bhutto has previously said she is considering returning as Pakistan’s prime minister under Musharraf’s government if he steps down as head of Pakistan’s military.

She said negotiations between her opposition party and Musharraf involve appointing a caretaker government, holding fair elections and returning to parliament powers that were removed after the 1999 coup in which Musharraf seized power.

A power-sharing deal between Bhutto and Musharraf would require Pakistan’s Supreme Court to change the country’s constitution to allow Musharraf to seek a third term.

More here.

Early Responses the John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy

First in The Forward:

These folks have a case. Major Jewish organizations, including centrist as well as hard-line groups, regularly use their clout to narrow the scope of acceptable public debate on Israel. They cast their net wide, indiscriminately targeting independent-minded allies of Israel along with its sworn enemies. Many pro-Israel dissenters have walked away feeling deeply bruised and disillusioned.

Lately, however, some of Israel’s critics have started learning a few tricks themselves — and rather than enriching the conversation, they are choosing to further muddy it. There are substantial numbers of true moderates in this country who believe deeply in the need for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. They struggle to make their voices heard in a hostile political and communal environment, and they naturally look for spokesmen who can capture the public’s attention and help unite and mobilize the peace camp — including, most recently, scholars Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer. We are sympathetic to this quest for leadership, but after firsthand experience of these scholars’ definition of “opening the debate,” we feel compelled to speak up: They’re the wrong guys.

Second, David Remnick in The New Yorker:

Mearsheimer and Walt are “realists.” In their view, diplomatic decisions should be made on the basis of national interest. They argue that in the post-Cold War era, in the absence of a superpower struggle in the Middle East, the United States no longer has any need for an indulgent patronage of the state of Israel. Three billion dollars in annual foreign aid, the easy sale of advanced weaponry, thirty-four vetoes of U.N. Security Council resolutions critical of Israel since 1982—such support, Mearsheimer and Walt maintain, is not in the national interest. “There is a strong moral case for supporting Israel’s existence,” they write, but they deny that Israel is of critical strategic value to the United States. The disappearance of Israel, in their view, would jeopardize neither America’s geopolitical interests nor its core values. Such is their “realism.”

There will be more, to be sure.

Sorting Out the Genome

To put your genes in order, flip them like pancakes.

Brian Hayes in American Scientist:

Fullimage_200782114412_846All through the 1930s, members of the famous Drosophila group at Caltech roamed the American West collecting fruit flies for genetic analysis. One discovery to come from these expeditions was an abundance of genetic inversions: blocks of genes that had flipped end-over-end. Flies from one geographic region might have a certain set of genes in the order a b c d e f g, but a population elsewhere could harbor the sequence d c b a e f g, with the first four genes inverted. A further reversal, affecting a different block of genes, could produce an ordering such as d c f e a b g. Theodosius Dobzhansky and Alfred H. Sturtevant, two of the leading Drosophilists,pointed out that such genetic rearrangements could help in reconstructing the family tree of the flies. More reversals would indicate greater evolutionary distance.

The variations discovered by Dobzhansky and Sturtevant could be explained by reversing just one or two blocks of genes. Later, when gene order was studied in a broader range of organisms, more complex patterns emerged. In the 1980s Jeffrey D. Palmer and Laura A. Herbon of the University of Michigan were measuring the pace of evolutionary change in plants of the cabbage family. Looking at the DNA in mitochondria (the energy-producing organelles), they found that the genes had been jumbled by multiple random reversals. Transforming cabbage into turnip took at least three reversals. More distant relatives such as cabbage and mustard appeared to be separated by a dozen or more reversal events—they could only estimate how many.

If these genetic flip-flops are to serve as an evolutionary clock, we need a reliable way to count them. Given two arrangements of a set of genes—say a b c d e f g and f e b a g c d—how do you determine what sequence of reversals produced the transformation? This example has a three-step solution, which you can probably find in a few minutes with pencil and paper. For larger genomes and longer chains of reversals, however, trial-and-error methods soon falter. Is there an efficient algorithm for identifying a sequence of reversals that converts one permutation into another?

The genetic reversal problem lies at the intersection of biology, mathematics and computer science. For some time, the prospects for finding a simple and efficient solution seemed dim, even with the most powerful tools of all three disciplines. But the story has a happy ending. A little more than a decade ago, computing gene reversals was still a subtle research problem; now it can be done with such ease that it’s a matter of routine technology. If you need to know the “reversal distance” between two genomes, you can go to a Web site and get the answer in seconds.

More here.

Becoming Shakespeare: The Unlikely Afterlife That Turned a Provincial Playwright Into the Bard

Art Winslow on the book by Jack Lynch, in the Chicago Tribune:

ShakespeareIn one of the more amusing sections of “Becoming Shakespeare,” Jack Lynch’s examination of the afterlife of William Shakespeare — that is, how what we recognize as “Shakespearean” has acquired, over the centuries, its specific qualities and shape — he juxtaposes versions of what should be the same line from “Hamlet.”

“O that this too too solid flesh would melt,” the Danish prince soliloquizes in “The Oxford Shakespeare”; “O, that this too too sallied flesh would melt,” is how the “Norton Critical Edition” has it; “O that this too too sullied flesh would melt,” is Hamlet’s utterance in “The Pelican Shakespeare.”

As Lynch points out, “This is one of Hamlet’s most important speeches”; the answer to the question of which version is correct “presumably matters,” and yet “there are hundreds of problems like this in every single play.” It is as if the ambiguities of Shakespeare’s wordplay carried on of their own accord, even after (and long before postmodernism) the death of the author.

More here.

Towards an age of abundance

Ignore the critics of economic growth who claim that prosperity makes us unhappy. We need to win the war against scarcity once and for all, so that everyone can enjoy the benefits of longer, healthier and wealthier lives.

Daniel Ben-Ami in Spiked Review of Books:

Cavemen_2Imagine an egalitarian world in which all food is organic and local, the air is free of industrial pollution, and vigorous physical exertion is guaranteed. Sound idyllic?

But hold on… Life expectancy is 30 at most; many children die at or soon after birth; life is constantly lived on the edge of starvation; there are no doctors or dentists or modern toilets. If it is egalitarian it is because everyone is dirt poor, and there is no industrial pollution because there are no factories. Food is organic because there are no pesticides or high technology farming methods. As a result, producing food means long hours of back-breaking physical work which may end up yielding little.

There is – or at least was – such a place. It is called the past. And few of us, it seems, recognise the enormous benefits to humanity of escaping from it. On the contrary, there is a pervasive culture of complaint about the perils of affluence and a common tendency to romanticise the simple life.

More here.

Study: US preparing ‘massive’ military attack against Iran

Larisa Alexandrovna and Muriel Kane in The Raw Story:

Plesch and Butcher examine “what the military option might involve if it were picked up off the table and put into action” and conclude that based on open source analysis and their own assessments, the US has prepared its military for a “massive” attack against Iran, requiring little contingency planning and without a ground invasion.

The study concludes that the US has made military preparations to destroy Iran’s WMD, nuclear energy, regime, armed forces, state apparatus and economic infrastructure within days if not hours of President George W. Bush giving the order. The US is not publicising the scale of these preparations to deter Iran, tending to make confrontation more likely. The US retains the option of avoiding war, but using its forces as part of an overall strategy of shaping Iran’s actions.

  • Any attack is likely to be on a massive multi-front scale but avoiding a ground invasion. Attacks focused on WMD facilities would leave Iran too many retaliatory options, leave President Bush open to the charge of using too little force and leave the regime intact.
  • US bombers and long range missiles are ready today to destroy 10,000 targets in Iran in a few hours.
  • US ground, air and marine forces already in the Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan can devastate Iranian forces, the regime and the state at short notice.

More here.

The Dangers of Wind Power

Wind turbines continue to multiply the world over. But as they grow bigger and bigger, the number of dangerous accidents is climbing. How safe is wind energy?

Simone Kaiser and Michael Fröhlingsdorf in Spiegel Online:

0102094952200After the industry’s recent boom years, wind power providers and experts are now concerned. The facilities may not be as reliable and durable as producers claim. Indeed, with thousands of mishaps, breakdowns and accidents having been reported in recent years, the difficulties seem to be mounting. Gearboxes hiding inside the casings perched on top of the towering masts have short shelf lives, often crapping out before even five years is up. In some cases, fractures form along the rotors, or even in the foundation, after only limited operation. Short circuits or overheated propellers have been known to cause fires. All this despite manufacturers’ promises that the turbines would last at least 20 years.

Gearboxes have already had to be replaced “in large numbers,” the German Insurance Association is now complaining. “In addition to generators and gearboxes, rotor blades also often display defects,” a report on the technical shortcomings of wind turbines claims. The insurance companies are complaining of problems ranging from those caused by improper storage to dangerous cracks and fractures.

The frail turbines coming off the assembly lines at some manufacturers threaten to damage an industry that for years has been hailed as a wild success.

More here.

The Man Who Built the Castle

David Lindley in The Wilson Quarterly:

Smith Gracing the National Mall in Washington, D.C., with several splendid buildings, the Smithsonian Institution is a huge tourist attraction, a repository of art and culture, and a pioneering center of scientific research. As is well known, this singular American institution, encompassing 19 museums and nine research centers, came about because of a quirk in the will of an Englishman who gallivanted around Europe all his life but never crossed the Atlantic. Luckily for us, the man born Jacques Louis Macie changed his name in midlife to James Smithson, hoping to gain an ounce more respect in the salons of London and Paris. It would have been hard to turn “Macie” into a mellifluous name to etch into stone.

Architectural historian Heather Ewing cannot be faulted for failing to summon a full portrait of the man. A disastrous 1865 fire at the Smithsonian destroyed Smithson’s letters and notes along with his scientific collections. Scouring libraries and private collections throughout Europe, Ewing has made a remarkable effort to gather up what documentary evidence remains of his existence.

Macie was born in Paris in 1764 or 1765 to Elizabeth Macie, mistress to Hugh Smithson, the first Duke of Northumberland. When, at about age 35, he changed his name to Smithson, he was only making official a parentage that was already widely known. He never met his father.

More here.

How Sergio Vieira de Mello Wound Up in Iraq

A who-said-what exchange about an alleged meeting between Sergio Vieira de Mello and Bush in the pages of the last few issues of London Review of Books begins with this letter from Perry Anderson, followed by a response from Scott Malcomson.

At this point Tariq Ali weighed in:

I was told about this meeting a few months after Vieira de Mello’s death by Shashi Tharoor, a novelist and UN hierarch. The occasion was a public discussion in Berlin in September 2003. Tharoor and I had vigorously debated the UN’s role and he had put up a robust defence of the institution. At the lunch that followed I asked him why Sergio, an intelligent man, had agreed to conduct the clean-up operation in Baghdad. Tharoor was blunt: ‘I’m afraid it was a combination of arm-twisting and flattery. Bush called him into the White House and appealed to his vanity. The poor man agreed to go.’ [James] Traub is not the only source for the second meeting after all.

Now, Shashi Tharoor denies ever making such a statement:

Tariq Ali places words in my mouth that I never spoke (Letters, 2 August). Not only am I unaware of a so-called ‘second meeting’ between Sergio Vieira de Mello and George W. Bush, but I simply would not have spoken of my friend in that way, and that too just a few weeks (not months, as Ali says) after his death. Sergio had told me of a request from Kofi Annan, his boss and mentor, that he felt he could not refuse; Annan had wanted him to go to Baghdad for six months, he had reluctantly offered two, and the pair had compromised on four. That the US, and notably Condoleezza Rice, wanted Sergio to be the UN representative was widely rumoured, but I have no reason to believe that he was directly pressed by Washington (even less by President Bush personally). Certainly Annan bitterly blamed himself for sending Sergio to his death. Knowing Sergio as I did for a quarter-century, I believe he was impelled by the sense of duty that had always characterised his willingness to take on hazardous and far-flung assignments, often at a moment’s notice. I would be grateful if those who wish to sully his memory would not ascribe words and opinions to me that I have never uttered.

In California During the Gulf War

A poem by Denise Levertov in Poets.org:

Screenhunter_03_aug_28_1854Among the blight-killed eucalypts, among
trees and bushes rusted by Christmas frosts,
the yards and hillsides exhausted by five years of drought,

certain airy white blossoms punctually
reappeared, and dense clusters of pale pink, dark pink—
a delicate abundance. They seemed

like guests arriving joyfully on the accustomed
festival day, unaware of the year’s events, not perceiving
the sackcloth others were wearing.

To some of us, the dejected landscape consorted well
with our shame and bitterness. Skies ever-blue,
daily sunshine, disgusted us like smile-buttons.

Yet the blossoms, clinging to thin branches
more lightly than birds alert for flight,
lifted the sunken heart

even against its will.
                             But not
as symbols of hope: they were flimsy
as our resistance to the crimes committed

—again, again—in our name; and yes, they return,
year after year, and yes, they briefly shone with serene joy
over against the dark glare

of evil days.

Read the rest here.

Cold War II

Noam Chomsky in Znet:

NoamchomskyThese are exciting days in Washington, as the government directs its energies to the demanding task of “containing Iran” in what Washington Post correspondent Robin Wright, joining others, calls “Cold War II.”

During Cold War I, the task was to contain two awesome forces.  The lesser and more moderate force was “an implacable enemy whose avowed objective is world domination by whatever means and at whatever cost.” Hence “if the United States is to survive,” it will have to adopt a “repugnant philosophy” and reject “acceptable norms of human conduct” and the “long-standing American concepts of `fair play’” that had been exhibited with such searing clarity in the conquest of the national territory, the Philippines, Haiti and other beneficiaries of “the idealistic new world bent on ending inhumanity,” as the newspaper of record describes our noble mission. The judgments about the nature of the super-Hitler and the necessary response are those of General Jimmy Doolittle, in a critical assessment of the CIA commissioned by President Eisenhower in 1954. They are quite consistent with those of the Truman administration liberals, the “wise men” who were “present at the creation,” notoriously in NSC 68 but in fact quite consistently.

In the face of the Kremlin’s unbridled aggression in every corner of the world, it is perhaps understandable that the US resisted in defense of human values with a savage display of torture, terror, subversion and violence while doing “everything in its power to alter or abolish any regime not openly allied with America,” as Tim Weiner summarizes the doctrine of the Eisenhower administration in his recent history of the CIA. And just as the Truman liberals easily matched their successors in fevered rhetoric about the implacable enemy and its campaign to rule the world, so did John F. Kennedy, who bitterly condemned the “monolithic and ruthless conspiracy,” and dismissed the proposal of its leader (Khrushchev) for sharp mutual cuts in offensive weaponry, then reacted to his unilateral implementation of these proposals with a huge military build-up. The Kennedy brothers also quickly surpassed Eisenhower in violence and terror, as they “unleashed covert action with an unprecedented intensity” (Wiener), doubling Eisenhower’s annual record of major CIA covert operations, with horrendous consequences worldwide, even a close brush with terminal nuclear war.

More here.

Elective Affinity: A Tale of Two Cultures?

PD Smith at Kafka’s Mouse:

PdsmithRichard Dawkins argues in Unweaving the Rainbow (1998) that the nineteenth century began on a note of hostility as far as relations between literature and science were concerned. In his poem ‘Lamia’ (1820) Keats typified science as ‘cold philosophy’ which stripped the world of her wondrous veil of mystery. The effect of science was to ‘unweave a rainbow’. For Dawkins, a passionate advocate of the scientific world-view, the wonder of a world described by science is self-evident. But literature has been tardy in according science its due: ‘poets could better use the inspiration provided by science’. He concludes his argument with the memorable remark: ‘A Keats and a Newton, listening to each other, might hear the galaxies sing’.

And yet, the story has not simply been one of antagonism; literature has been profoundly inspired by science, particularly in the twentieth century. In contrast to the now rather tired view proclaimed by C P Snow in his 1959 lecture, that the literary reception of science was blighted by a ‘two cultures’ mentality, I believe literature and science have for the most part existed in a close if at times stormy relationship. In fact ‘elective affinity’ might be a more accurate description of the bond between literature and science, an affinity rooted in the knowledge that both writer and scientist are committed to a process of continual exploration of the experiential world. For both endeavours are passionately concerned with deepening humankind’s understanding of itself and its place in the material universe.

More here.



If you haven’t yet read the Divine Comedy—you know who you are—now is the time, because Robert and Jean Hollander have just completed a beautiful translation of the astonishing fourteenth-century poem. The Hollanders’ Inferno was published in 2000, their Purgatorio in 2003. Now their Paradiso (Doubleday; $40) is out. It is more idiomatic than any other English version I know. At the same time, it is lofty, the more so for being plain. Jean Hollander, a poet, was in charge of the verse; Robert Hollander, her husband, oversaw its accuracy. The notes are by Robert, who is a Dante scholar and a professor emeritus at Princeton, where he taught the Divine Comedy for forty-two years.

more from The New Yorker here.

james wood to New Yorker


Wood is controversial partly for his unusually clear (his detractors say crabbed) ideas about what a great novel is — or, rather, isn’t. He is especially set against “hysterical realism,” his coinage for books that attempt to convey the raucousness of contemporary life through outlandish proliferating plots, allegory, bizarre coincidence, and high irony. In other words: Pynchon, Salman Rushdie, much of David Foster Wallace, the first two Zadie Smith books, and half of “The Corrections,” by Jonathan Franzen.

He is not indirect in his criticisms. The Nobel Laureate Morrison’s novel “Paradise,” Wood pronounced a few years back, “is a novel babyishly cradled in magic. It is sentimental, evasive, and cloudy.” DeLillo’s “Underworld,” he has written, “proves, once and for all, or so I must hope, the incompatibility of the political paranoid vision with great fiction.”

more from Boston Globe Ideas here.

OBESITY AND ADDICTION : This is Your Brain on Food

From Scientific American:

Nora The system in the brain that both drugs and food activate is basically the circuitry that evolved to reward behaviors that are essential for our survival. One of the reasons why humans are attracted to food is because of its rewarding, pleasurable properties. When we experience pleasure, our brains learn to associate the pleasurable experience with the cues and conditions that predict it. In other words, the brain remembers not just what the food tasted like but also the sensation of pleasure itself, and the cues or behaviors that preceded it. That memory becomes stronger and stronger as the cycle of predicting, seeking and obtaining pleasure becomes more reliable. When you remember that food, you also automatically expect the pleasure that comes from it. So when you like something very much, the mere fact of being re-exposed to it, even if it is out of reach, will trigger the desire to get it. In scientific terms, we call this process conditioning.   

More here.