Poem by Billy Collins

From Noutopia:

Billycollins2Child Developement

As sure as prehistoric fish grew legs
and sauntered off the beaches into forests
working up some irregular verbs for their
first conversation, so three-year-old children
enter the phase of name-calling.

Every day a new one arrives and is added
to the repertoire. You Dumb Goopyhead,
You Big Sewerface, You Poop-on-the-Floor
(a kind of Navaho ring to that one)
they yell from knee level, their little mugs
flushed with challenge.
Nothing Samuel Johnson would bother tossing out
in a pub, but then the toddlers are not trying
to devastate some fatuous Enlightenment hack.

They are just tormenting their fellow squirts
or going after the attention of the giants
way up there with their cocktails and bad breath
talking baritone nonsense to other giants,
waiting to call them names after thanking
them for the lovely party and hearing the door close.

The mature save their hothead invective
for things: an errant hammer, tire chains,
or receding trains missed by seconds,
though they know in their adult hearts,
even as they threaten to banish Timmy to bed
for his appalling behavior,
that their bosses are Big Fatty Stupids,
their wives are Dopey Dopeheads
and that they themselves are Mr. Sillypants.

South of the Border, West of the Sun

From Powell Books:

Book_3 “My birthday’s the fourth of January, 1951. The first week of the first month of the first year of the second half of the twentieth century. Something to commemorate, I guess, which is why my parents named me Hajime — ‘beginning,’ in Japanese.” This is the first line of the book, and it’s our introduction to Hajime, an only child living with his mother and father in a prosperous suburb of Tokyo. Hajime detests the stereotype that only children are obnoxious spoiled brats, and does what he can to avoid appearing in that light. Soon he meets Shimamoto, an only child herself who, though she drags her leg when she walks, seems to lack no confidence. The two are inseparable, walking home from school together, listening to records, and having intense and imaginative conversations ranging from cats, to music to having children. It’s the simplest and happiest time of their lives, but being young they take it for granted and before long her family moves away and it’s over.

Fast forward many years, Hajime is older, he’s married, has two children, and owns a couple of nice jazz clubs. He has a happy, benign existence, but has never again felt anything near the kind of bond he had with Shimamoto. He thinks he catches sight of her once, but he’s not sure, and again she vanishes. Many more years go by before she actually does come back into his life. Having become strikingly beautiful, Shimamoto is still not so different from the girl he knew growing up, but from the moment of her return Hajime’s life begins to unravel. He can’t concentrate, loses interest in his wife and family, and spends his time just waiting for a chance to be with her. His obsession begins to break him down, yet he continues to follow the path set before him, unaware of where it will ultimately lead.

A dark assemblage of the wonderfully flawed characters we’ve come to expect from Japan’s reigning master of the surreal, South of the Border is completely absorbing despite its somewhat bare premise. Hooked instantly by Murakami’s offbeat dialogue and the bizarre yet sweet relationship between Hajime and Shimamoto, I had a hard time putting this book down even for a minute.

More here.

You Don’t Know Jack

From The New York Times:

Kerouac_2 Why Kerouac Matters: The lessons of “On the Road” (They are not what you think) by John Leland.

What matters about “On the Road” is the book’s raw energy yoked to its sense of promise in “all that raw land,” the shove it offers to get out of one’s own chair and see what lies over the horizon. As Dean says on reaching San Francisco: “Wow! Made it! Just enough gas! Give me water! No more land! We can’t go any further ’cause there ain’t no more land!” And on heading back east: “Let’s go, let’s not stop — go now! Yes!” The book is a hymn to purposelessness, an antidote to what John Fowles once decried as our modern “addiction to finding a reason, a function, a quantifiable yield” in everything we do.

Above all, “On the Road” matters for its music: its plaintive, restless hum. In it, Kerouac perfected a melancholy optimism and a yearning for solace a thousand times richer and subtler than the mournful sap that drips down from so many contemporary American films and novels. It’s the lovely ache in the writing of Sherwood Anderson and Arthur Miller, in the cracked voices of Jeff Tweedy and Paul Westerberg. This is the great, lasting appeal of “On the Road,” the reason it will continue to matter to readers for another half-century and more. It’s the reason I’m glad I’ve got another copy, its pages already creased and its spine broken — and it’s the reason I won’t be giving this one away.

More here.

Imagining my homicidal liver

Carl Zimmer in his excellent blog, The Loom:

CopidosomaScientists have learned a lot more about parasitoid wasps since Darwin wrote about them in 1860, and their elegant viciousness is now even more staggering to behold. Not only do they devour their hosts alive from the inside out, but they also manipulate the behavior of their hosts to serve their own needs (see my post on zombie cockroaches for one particularly startling example).

To be fair, though, parasitoid wasps are not just vicious to their hosts. They can be just as nasty to other parasitoid wasps. Some wasp larvae can only mature inside other parasitoids, turning their host into a grotesque Russian doll. And, as I write in tomorrow’s New York Times, some wasps turn their caterpillar host into a battlefield, waging all-out war with other wasps. They kill other species of wasps, and will even kill their own siblings by the thousands. (Be sure to see the diagram of the sci-fi life cycle of the wasp Copidosoma floridanum. By the end of it, the caterpillar is a mummified mass of pupae.)

These creatures are certainly bizarre, but bizarre in an scientifically interesting way. Scientists have found that the evolutionary forces that shape other animals can also explain these wasps. As I explain in the article, the warfare among the wasps probably arises thanks to the peculiar way they develop. A single egg (like the one being laid inside a host egg in the picture) gives rise to thousands of genetically identical siblings. Up to a quarter of them become vicious soldiers, while the rest become passive feeders. The soldiers are sterile, lacking any sex cells. In a way, they’re not even really individuals. In a genetic sense, they’re like disembodied organs. Imagine you could send your liver off to kill your enemies.

More here.

Hemingway’s Cuba, Cuba’s Hemingway

His last personal secretary returns to Havana and discovers that the novelist’s mythic presence looms larger than ever.

Valerie Hemingway in Smithsonian Magazine:

HemingwaybarNine miles outside the city I arrived at what I had come to see: Finca Vigía, or Lookout Farm, where Ernest Hemingway had made his home from 1939 to 1960, and where he had written seven books, including The Old Man and the Sea, A Moveable Feast and Islands in the Stream.

The Finca Vigía had been my home too. I lived there for six months in 1960 as Hemingway’s secretary, having met him on a sojourn to Spain the previous year, and I returned to the finca for five weeks in 1961 as a companion to his widow, Mary. (Later, I married Ernest’s youngest son, Gregory; we had three children before we divorced in 1987; he died in 2001.) I well remember the night in 1960 when Philip Bonsall, the U.S. ambassador to Cuba and a frequent visitor, dropped by to say that Washington was planning to cut off relations with Fidel Castro’s fledgling government, and that American officials thought it would be best if Hemingway demonstrated his patriotism by giving up his beloved tropical home. He resisted the suggestion, fiercely.

More here.

Volvic or Evian? Neither.

Tom Standage in the Christian Science Monitor:

Aquafinabottle_2In many cases, bottled water is actually derived from tap water and filtered – which is why PepsiCo has just agreed to add the words “public water source” to the label of its Aquafina water. But water from glacial springs is not inherently superior. Worse, shipping it around causes unnecessary environmental damage. Refrigeration wastes even more energy. Then there are the millions of plastic bottles, many of which end up in landfills.

Surely bottled water is purer and safer? Actually, no. The regulations governing the quality of public water supplies are far stricter than those governing bottled-water plants. True, there are sometimes contamination problems with tap water, but the same is true of bottled water.

The industry responds that it is not selling water; it is selling “portable hydration.” But filling a bottle from the tap works just as well. The industry also likes to point out that bottled water is a healthy, calorie-free alternative to sugary soda drinks. The same goes for tap water.

More here.


Alun Anderson at Edge.org:

Screenhunter_06_aug_18_1518Knowing that Arctic climate models are imperfect, it would be reassuring for me, if not for the scientists, to be able to write that scientists keep making grim predictions that just that don’t come true. If that were so, we could follow Dyson’s line that the models aren’t so good and “the fuss is exaggerated”. Scarily, the truth is the other way around. The ice is melting faster than the grimmest of the scientist’s predictions, and the predictions keep getting grimmer. Now we are talking about an Arctic free of ice in summer by 2040. That’s a lot of melting given that, in the long, dark winter the ice covers an area greater than that of the entire United States.

More here.

A Brush with the Past

Margaret Moorman in Columbia Magazine:

Screenhunter_04_aug_18_1510While Collins is an unabashed advocate for rigorous classical training, he seems too relaxed and sophisticated to proselytize, and he eschews negativity. “I don’t really want to advertise myself as disaffected,” he says. “It’s not that I didn’t like modernism, but I loved extraordinary draftsmanship. I looked at Hans Holbein and Raphael and Michelangelo, and that’s what I wanted to do so much. If it doesn’t have that classical, underlying, structured draftsmanship, it’s just not what I’m interested in.” He respects some 20th-century painters, especially the abstract expressionists, whose sense of the transformative power of art is close to his own, but “that doesn’t mean that I care about them very much. What happened after that — the irony of postmodernism — is just ridiculous. I don’t care about it at all.

More here.

The art of being vague

Martin Haake in the Los Angeles Times:

36_28_2The subway cars in New York are plastered with ads featuring cartoonish character faces with absolutely no hint about the advertisement’s purpose except for a come-on with the word Windorphins.

So what are Windorphins? A video game? A kiddie show? A sugary snack? A new drug to make you feel like your endorphins are kicking in?

None of the above. Windorphins is a new marketing gimmick for EBay, with ads so inscrutable as to be ridiculous. If the ads aroused enough curiosity for people to check out windorphins.com, some might have been disappointed to find that the mysterious windorphins (whatever those are) were simply a big tease.

But curiosity — in the form of a riddle, a mystery, a puzzle, even a clever bit of deception — is a powerful thing. Advertising has learned that teasing the public without giving too much away can be an effective marketing tool that can create a tremendous amount of excitement. Why? Because of our tremendous need to know.

More here.

let the children play

Patricia Cohen in the NY Times:

Playspan_2 PROVIDENCE, R.I. — For children, play is easy. You can do it anytime, anywhere, with anyone, and it’s fun. For adults, play is hard. They want to know if it’s safe for their kids, if it’s educational, if it promotes motor coordination, if it’s environmentally friendly, if it will look good on a preschool application.

The tension between how children spend their free time and how adults want them to spend it runs through Howard P. Chudacoff’s new book, “Children at Play: An American History” (New York University Press), like a yellow line smack down the middle of a highway.

“Kids should have their own world, and parents are nuisances,” said Mr. Chudacoff, a professor of history at Brown University.

His critique is increasingly echoed today by parents, educators and children’s advocates who warn that organized activities, overscheduling and excessive amounts of homework are crowding out free time and constricting children’s imaginations and social skills.

“It seems like a really timely book,” said Cindy Dell Clark, a historian at Penn State Delaware County and a consultant to the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia. “We’ve taken a lot of privacy and autonomy out of a child’s day.”

The topic may seem an odd choice for Mr. Chudacoff, 64, given that he has no children of his own, but then again, Mr. Chudacoff is also the author of a book about bachelors (“The Age of the Bachelor,” Princeton University Press, 1999) even though he has been married for nearly 40 years.

More here.

Magnum: 60 years of fashion photography

Chris Cheesman in Amateur Photographer:

MagnumFamed photo agency Magnum will celebrate 60 years of fashion photography with an exhibition split between two London venues from 14 September.

One show, at the Atlas Gallery, will feature vintage images from legends such as Robert Capa and Eve Arnold.

A separate show at The Magnum Print Room will focus on images from Fashion Magazine, featuring work from photographers such as Martin Parr, Bruce Gilden and Alec Soth.

The exhibition is entitled Documenting Style: 60 Years of Fashion Photography from Magnum Photos.

More here.

God Bless Me, It’s a Best-Seller!

The author’s book tour—for God Is Not Great—takes a few miraculous turns, including the P.R. boost from Jerry Falwell’s demise, a chance encounter with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and surprising support for an attack on religion.

Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair:

You hear all the time that America is an intensely religious nation, but what you don’t hear is that there are almost as many religions as there are believers. Moreover, many ostensible believers are quite unsure of what they actually believe. And, to put it mildly, the different faiths don’t think that highly of one another. The emerging picture is not at all monolithic.

People seem to be lying to the opinion polls, as well. They claim to go to church in much larger numbers than they actually do (there aren’t enough churches in the country to hold the hordes who boast of attending), and they sometimes seem to believe more in Satan and in the Virgin Birth than in the theory of evolution. But every single time that the teaching of “intelligent design” has actually been proposed in conservative districts, it has been defeated overwhelmingly by both courts and school boards. A fascinating new book, 40 Days and 40 Nights, describes this happening in detail in the small town of Dover, Pennsylvania.

More here.

Modern Cosmology: Science or Folktale?

Michael J. Disney in American Scientist:

Fullimage_200782103219_846It is true that the modern study of cosmology has taken a turn for the better, if only because astronomers can now build relevant instruments rather than waiting for serendipitous evidence to turn up. On the other hand, to explain some surprising observations, theoreticians have had to create heroic and yet insubstantial notions such as “dark matter” and “dark energy,” which supposedly overwhelm, by a hundred to one, the stuff of the universe we can directly detect. Outsiders are bound to ask whether they should be more impressed by the new observations or more dismayed by the theoretical jinnis that have been conjured up to account for them.

My limited aim here is to discuss this dilemma by looking at the development of cosmology over the past century and to compare the growing number of independent relevant observations with the number of (also growing) separate hypotheses or “free parameters” that have had to be introduced to explain them. Without having to understand the complex astrophysics, one can still ask, at an epistemological level, whether the number of relevant independent measurements has overtaken and comfortably surpassed the number of free parameters needed to fit them—as one would expect of a maturing science. This approach should be appealing to nonspecialists, who otherwise would have little option but to believe experts who may be far too committed to supply objective advice. What one finds, in my view, is that modern cosmology has at best very flimsy observational support.

More here.

On the road again

Luc Sante in NY Times:

Jack_2In 1951, Jack Kerouac feverishly pounded out the first draft of “On the Road” in three weeks on a single huge roll of paper. This believe-it-or-not item earns a place on the heroic roster of spontaneous literary combustions — Stendhal writing “The Charterhouse of Parma” in 52 days, for example. It also stands alongside the image of Jackson Pollock — in the series of photographs taken of him by Hans Namuth just a few months before Kerouac’s siege of the typewriter — dripping and flinging and flecking paint on a horizontal canvas, fighting and dancing his work into being. Writing is not usually thought of as excessively physical, which is why some writers feel the need to compensate by racing bulls or whatever, but feeding that 120-foot roll through the typewriter seems like a feat of strength. Most writers merely produce effete works on paper, you might say, but Kerouac went and wrestled with the tree itself.

Contrary to legend, the scroll was not a roll of teletype paper but a series of large sheets of tracing paper that Kerouac cut to fit and taped together, and it is not unpunctuated — merely unparagraphed, which makes a certain physical demand on the reader, who is deprived of the usual rest stops. Also contrary to received ideas, Kerouac by his own admission fueled his work with nothing stronger than coffee. The scroll is slightly longer than the novel as it was finally published, after three subsequent conventionally formatted drafts, in 1957. The biggest immediate difference between the first draft and the finished product, though, is that while we know “On the Road” as a novel — the great novel of the Beat Generation — the scroll is essentially nonfiction, a memoir that uses real names and is far less self-consciously literary. It is a dazzling piece of writing for all of its rough edges, and, stripped of affectations that in the novel can sometimes verge on bathos, as well as of gratuitous punctuation supplied by editors more devoted to rules than to music, it seems much more immediate and even contemporary.

More here.

Poem by Jim Culleny

From Noutopia.com:


She’s dead, he said.
So’s he, said she.

Kicked the bucket, he said.
Bought the farm, said she.

Under the clover, he said.
Crossed over, said she.

Iced with a heater, he said.
Sleeps with the fishes, said she.

Taken for a little ride, he said.
Gone to the other side, said she.

Flat-lined, he said.
Out of mind, said she.

To a better place, he said.
By heaven’s grace, said she.

Under the sod, he said.
To be with God, said she.

To Paradise? he said.
Would be nice, said she.

Could it be? he said.
Could it not? said she.

Immigrant Blues

From The Washington Post:

Book_2 AWAY by Amy Bloom.

Amy Bloom knows the urgency of love. As a practicing psychotherapist, she must have heard that urgency in her patients’ stories, and in 1993 when she broke onto the literary scene with Come To Me, we heard it in hers. She has never strayed from that theme. Four years later, she published Love Invents Us and followed that with another collection in 2000, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You. A finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, Bloom writes with extraordinary care about people caught in emotional and physical crosswinds: desires they can’t satisfy, illnesses they can’t survive, and — always — love that exceeds the boundaries of this world.

It’s the kind of humid, overwrought territory where you’d expect to find pathos and melodrama growing like mold, but none of that can survive the blazing light of her wisdom and humor. Now, with her aptly named second novel, Away, Bloom has stepped confidently into America’s past to work in that old and ever-expanding genre of immigrant lit. It seems, at first, a familiar tune, but she plays it with lots of brio and erotic charge.

More here.

One Step Closer to True AI, New Robot Gets Jokes

In Ars technica, (for Maya Nair):

Knock knock
Who’s there?
Orange who?
Orange you glad I didn’t say banana?

This is the kind of humor we’re used to hearing from kids, colleagues who think they are funnier than they really are, and the likes of Steve Wozniak. Well, Woz may have a newly-interested audience for his hilarious joke-telling appearances, because researchers at the University of Cincinnati have developed a robot that is capable of recognizing simple humor made up of wordplay and bad puns.

“The ability to appreciate humor is an enormous increment in subtlety,” said researcher Tom Mantei from the University of Cincinnati’s College of Engineering in a statement. “You need to know a lot to ‘get’ humor—a computer does not find it easy.”

That’s what UC doctoral student Julia Taylor and professor Larry Mazlack have discovered in their project on data mining. They reported on their progress with the project at the American Association for Artificial Intelligence conference in Vancouver this week, and while they feel they have made great progress so far, they also feel that they have a long way to go.

“The ‘robot’ is just a software program that still needs a lot of work,” says Taylor. “The idea is to be able to recognize jokes that are based on phonological similarity of words.”

The software recognizes humor by processing the words used in the joke and comparing it with a vocabulary database, which must be created by a world-wise human being.

[H/t: Anandaroop Roy.]

Is the Fed Biased Against Full Employment?!?!?!

James Galbriath, Olivier Giovannoni and Ann J. Russo suggest that the Fed has a bias against full employment, not inflation per se.

Using a VAR model of the American economy from 1984 to 2003 we find that, contrary to official claims, the Federal Reserve does not target inflation or react to “inflation signals.” Rather, the Fed reacts to the very “real” signal sent by unemployment; in a way that suggests that a baseless fear of full employment is a principal force behind monetary policy. Tests of variations in the workings of a Taylor Rule, using dummy variable regressions, on data going back to 1969 suggest that after 1983 the Federal Reserve largely ceased reacting to inflation or high unemployment, but continued to react when unemployment fell “too low.” We further find that monetary policy (measured by the yield curve) has significant causal impact on pay inequality–a domain where the Federal Reserve refuses responsibility. Finally, we test whether Federal Reserve policy has exhibited a pattern of partisan bias in presidential election years, with results that suggest the presence of such bias, after controlling for the effects of inflation and unemployment.

Testing Ayurvedic Medicine

In the Economist:

Most Indian herbal remedies are based on the Ayurvedic system of medicine, although Tamil-based Siddha and Unani, which has Persian roots, are also used extensively. Proving their worth is a daunting task. There are 80,000 Ayurvedic treatments alone, involving the products of some 3,000 plants. More than 7,000 firms make herbal compounds for medical use. Establishing the active ingredients and exactly how they work would thus take some time.

The Golden Triangle Partnership is not, however, looking for new molecules to turn into chemically pure drugs. Instead, it proposes to make herbal medicine itself more scientific by conducting clinical trials of traditional treatments for more than 20 medical conditions. These include arthritis, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, malaria and psoriasis.

To do that means getting the country’s drug companies to take part in what is, for them, the non-traditional activity of traditional medicine.