True Love: How to Find It

From Scientific American:

Love-the-one-youre-with_1 Nicholas and his wife, Erika, like to joke that they had an arranged marriage, South Asia–style. Although they lived within four blocks of each other for two years and were both students at Harvard, their paths never crossed. Erika had to go all the way to Bangladesh so that Nicholas could find her. In the summer of 1987 he went to Washington, D.C., where he had grown up and gone to high school, to care for his ailing mother. He was a medical student, single and, he foolishly thought, not ready for a serious relationship. His old high school friend, Nasi, was also home for the summer. Nasi’s girlfriend, Bemy, who had come to know Nicholas well enough that her gentle teasing was a source of amusement for all of them, was also there. She had, as it turned out, just returned from a year in rural Bangladesh, doing community development work.

In the wood and tin hut where Bemy had spent her year abroad was a beautiful young American woman with whom she shared both a burning desire to end poverty and a metal bucket to wash her hair. You probably know where this story is going. One afternoon, in the middle of the monsoon, while writing a postcard to Nasi, Bemy suddenly turned to her friend Erika and blurted out: “I just thought of the man you’re going to marry.” That man was Nicholas. Erika was incredulous. But months later she agreed to meet him in D.C., and the four of them had dinner at Nasi’s house. Nicholas was, of course, immediately smitten. Erika was “not unimpressed,” as she later put it. That night, after getting home, she woke up her sister to announce that she had indeed met the man she was going to marry. Three dates later Nicholas told Erika he was in love. And that is how he came to marry a woman who was three degrees removed from him all along—she was connected to him through two intermediate social ties, a friend of a friend of a friend—someone who had lived practically next door, whom he had never previously met, but who was just perfect for him.

More here.

Question your tea spoons


When a person is sick, Jews pray for him by reciting the verses of Psalms that begin with the letters of his name; Psalm 119 is often used for this purpose, as it is made of 22 sets of eight verses that begin with the same Hebrew letter, and the sets are arranged alphabetically—or, perhaps, aleph-betically. Accordingly, my Hebrew name, Yosef, is symbolized by Psalm 138:8, which in Hebrew begins with a yod, the first letter of Yosef, and ends with a fey, the last letter of Yosef; the entirety of the sentence that should save my life reads, in English: “The Lord will perfect that which concerneth me: thy mercy, O Lord, endureth for ever: forsake not the works of thine own hands.” Indeed, it seems like the majority of Jewish liturgy not taken directly from the Torah is made of devotions arranged by permutations of letters, and interpolations of sums: for centuries, rabbis have composed acrostic prayers that spell their own names; and any visit to any synagogue on any day of the week at any of the three daily services will tell you that the number of times a text is repeated is just as important as what that repeated text actually means. The occasion for these thoughts is no religious epiphany, but rather a rereading of French writer Georges Perec, whose 1978 masterpiece Life: A User’s Manual was just republished in a definitive translation by David Bellos.

more from Joshua Cohen at Tablet here.

the surprise


When was the last time you enjoyed a painting that was sexy, odd and hilarious all at once? Just visit the all-round wonderful show “Watteau, Music, and Theater” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sept. 21-Nov. 29, 2009, and look for The Surprise by the Rococo artist, Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). The elegant and witty game of love turns suddenly serious in this small oil painting on wood from ca. 1718. A guitarist dressed as the commedia dell’arte character Mezzetin, splendidly attired in satin with a lace ruff, looks up from tuning his instrument to watch a couple whom he has been, or was about to begin, serenading. The swain has suddenly, violently embraced his lady, swiveling her body across his as he steals a passionate kiss. He grasps her left arm, which he attempts to place around his neck, while her other arm dangles passively, suggesting that at least for the moment she does not reciprocate his ardor.

more from N.F. Karlins at artnet here.



Has any major postwar American author taken as much critical abuse as Ayn Rand? Her best-known novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, have sold more than 12 million copies in the United States alone and were ranked first and second in a 1998 Modern Library reader survey of the “greatest books” of the 20th century. Yet over the years, Rand’s writing has been routinely dismissed as juvenile and subliterate when it has been considered at all. During the height of the Cold War, she managed to alienate leftists by insisting that capitalism was not simply more productive but more moral than socialism or a mixed economy because it allowed the individual to express himself most fully. And she angered the anticommunist Right with her thoroughgoing materialism, lack of respect for tradition, and atheism. (She once told William F. Buckley he was “too intelligent” to believe in God.) The publication of Anne C. Heller’s Ayn Rand and the World She Made and Jennifer Burns’s Goddess of the Market indicates that a belated but timely reconsideration of Rand’s place in American cases for Rand’s importance to the past 80 years of American intellectual and cultural life all the more convincing. That Rand’s life story is in many ways more melodramatic, unbelievable, and conflicted than one of her own plots certainly helps to keep the reader’s attention. As Burns puts it, “The clash between her romantic and rational sides makes [her life] not a tale of triumph, but a tragedy of sorts.”

more from Nick Gillespie at Reason here.

Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better

David Runciman reviews The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, in the London Review of Books:

ScreenHunter_08 Oct. 29 13.04 The argument of this fascinating and deeply provoking book is easy to summarise: among rich countries, the more unequal ones do worse according to almost every quality of life indicator you can imagine. They do worse even if they are richer overall, so that per capita GDP turns out to be much less significant for general wellbeing than the size of the gap between the richest and poorest 20 per cent of the population (the basic measure of inequality the authors use). The evidence that Wilkinson and Pickett supply to make their case is overwhelming. Whether the test is life expectancy, infant mortality, obesity levels, crime rates, literacy scores, even the amount of rubbish that gets recycled, the more equal the society the better the performance invariably is. In graph after graph measuring various welfare functions, the authors show that the best predictor of how countries will rank is not the differences in wealth between them (which would result in the US coming top, with the Scandinavian countries and the UK not too far behind, and poorer European nations like Greece and Portugal bringing up the rear) but the differences in wealth within them (so the US, as the most unequal society, comes last on many measures, followed by Portugal and the UK, both places where the gap between rich and poor is relatively large, with Spain and Greece somewhere in the middle, and the Scandinavian countries invariably out in front, along with Japan). Just as significantly, this pattern holds inside the US as well, where states with high levels of income inequality also tend to have the greatest social problems.

More here.

Us and Them: The Science of Identity

Jodi Forschmiedt in Metapsychology:

ScreenHunter_07 Oct. 29 12.44 In Us & Them, author David Berreby takes the reader on an exhaustive and thoroughly documented journey through the differences between groups of people, both real and imagined.

Turns out, they are all imagined.

Drawing on history, biology, psychology, and recent events, Berreby demonstrates again and again that we invent categories with which to classify and group one another. When the circumstances change, we just as easily regroup. A classic example: the Cagots were a despised caste in fifteenth century France. The lived apart from others, had separate entrances to churches, married only amongst themselves, had no social or political rights, and were confined to certain occupations. This discriminatory treatment continued until the French Revolution changed the rules. Now, though their descendants may still live in France, no trace of the Cagots remains. The change in French law and culture simply eliminated the category.

In a fascinating chapter titled “Inventing Tradition in Oklahoma, or What I Did on My Summer Vacation,” Berreby details a study conducted by Muzafer Sherif in 1954. Two groups of boys, carefully matched in age, race, and background, were sent to separate areas of a summer camp and given time to form tight bonds with their own groups before encountering the others. In a short period of time, each group developed a strong identity, complete with values, traditions, and mores unique to them. The boys also developed an instant antipathy to the other group, even though they were indistinguishably similar.

More here.

Thursday Poem

Fern Hill

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs

About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,

The night above the dingle starry,

Time let me hail and climb

Golden in the heydays of his eyes,

And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns

And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves

Trail with daisies and barley

Down the rivers of the windfall light.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns

About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,

In the sun that is young once only,

Time let me play and be

Golden in the mercy of his means,

And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves

Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,

And the sabbath rang slowly

In the pebbles of the holy streams.


Read more »

Memo to grammar cops: Back off!

From The Telegraph:

Md_horiz “Passions run hot when the discussion turns to language,” writes Rutgers English professor Jack Lynch in his sprightly new history of the notion of “proper” English, “The Lexicographer's Dilemma.” “Friends who can discuss politics, religion and sex with perfect civility are often reduced to red-faced rage when the topic of conversation is the serial comma or an expression like more unique.” Ain't it the truth? My favorite call-in radio program regularly invites “word maven” Patricia T. O'Conner to come on and talk about new and old figures of speech. O'Conner clearly prefers to marvel over the language's diversity, but the half-hour is inevitably eaten up by people kvetching about their pet peeves, more often than not some barely detectable error or non-infraction that makes the caller apoplectic — such as the phrase “gone missing,” which is “perfectly standard,” according to Lynch. But who am I to mock? I, who have gnashed my teeth countless times over the dangling participles that abound on NPR

Lynch would like us all to calm down, please, and recognize that “proper” English is a recent and changeable institution. “The Lexicographer's Dilemma” recapitulates the long argument between two schools of thought: the prescriptive — which holds that the job of language experts is to lay down the law by telling us how to speak and write — and the descriptive, which holds that compilers of dictionaries and other guides are in the business of describing, not dictating, how the language is used. The latter group includes most professional linguists and lexicographers, but the former — self-appointed pundits like the late William Safire and Lynne Truss, author of the bestselling rant about punctuation errors, “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” — know that the real money lies in validating the ire of purists.

More here.


John R. McNeill in American Scientist:

ScreenHunter_06 Oct. 29 10.47 Like many before him, Marten Scheffer is impressed with parallels between social systems and natural systems. Moreover, he is convinced that problems confronting the human race require something more integrated than the fragmentary knowledge of the various academic disciplines. In short, he seeks to span the famous “two cultures” and to take a long stride toward consilience. Coming from a background in limnology and aquatic ecology, Scheffer is inevitably more at home in some arenas of knowledge than others, and his new book, Critical Transitions in Nature and Society, is mainly about the critical transitions in nature that are of interest to society. An example with which he begins the book is typical: the transformation of the Western Sahara into desert about 5,500 years ago as a result of initially small climate change that built on itself because the drier climate reduced vegetation, thereby heightening albedo.

Part of Scheffer’s aim is to contribute to the study of how well the theory of system dynamics corresponds to real life, in the behavior both of nature and of society. “If we are able to pin down the mechanisms at work,” he says, “this may eventually open up the possibility of predicting, preventing, or catalyzing big shifts in nature and society.” To be able to do so is a long-standing human ambition, which has been given fullest rein in political regimes that have seen utopia just over the horizon and have aimed to get there as soon as possible. In the abstract, such ambition seems laudable. In practice, it has led to many regrettable “big shifts” in nature and society, such as those undertaken in the headiest days of the Soviet Union or Mao Zedong’s rule in China. To date, those most keen on provoking “big shifts” have known far too little, and perhaps cared too little as well, about the possible outcomes of their actions. When results did not conform closely enough to their hopes, they used their powers to try to force society and nature into preferred channels, which led to gulags and environmental disasters. When trying to catalyze big shifts in nature and society, one must really know what one is doing—and that is very, very hard to do.

More here.

Grandma Plays Favorites

From Science:

Ma Most women have their last child before age 40. Why would Darwinian evolution favor such a cutoff, especially when most other mammals reproduce until they die? A new study finds support for the “grandmother hypothesis,” the idea that older women spread their genes most effectively by helping their daughters take care of their children. In 1998, behavioral ecologist Kristen Hawkes of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and her colleagues proposed that grandmothers lend their skill and experience to the rearing of their grandchildren. Hawkes and others cited the Hadza, a modern foraging society in Tanzania, in which grandmothers search for tubers while their daughters are breastfeeding their babies. Given that tubers are thought to have become an important staple during the early days of human evolution, a selective advantage for “grandmothering” rather than “mothering” by older women might have arisen in our species.

Over the past decade, a number of researchers have tried to test the hypothesis by looking at the relationship between grandmothers and their grandchildren. Some studies found that when grandmothers live near their grandchildren and/or live longer, their grandchildren have higher survival rates. But other studies did not see this correlation.

More here.

Sita Sings the Blues

51l7NY5cnqL._SL500_AA240_ Amitava Kumar in India Uncut:

I loved Nina Paley’s brilliant animated film Sita Sings the Blues. If you’re reading this, stop right now—and watch the film here.

Paley has set the story of the Ramayana to the 1920s jazz vocals of Annette Hanshaw. The epic tale is interwoven with Paley’s account of her husband’s move to India from where he dumps her by e-mail. The Ramayana is presented with the tagline: “The Greatest Break-Up Story Ever Told.”

All of this should make us curious. But there are other reasons for admiring this film:

The film returns us to the message that is made clear by every village-performance of the Ramlila: the epics are for everyone. Also, there is no authoritative narration of an epic.

the persian avant-garde


One afternoon a few years ago, Ata Ebtekar was poking through a Tehran CD shop. He’d returned to Iran, his home country, in hopes of introducing audiences there to experimental electronic music shot through with Persian elements. He had also been trying – unsuccessfully – to find other musicians doing similar work. So he was shocked to hear sounds much like his own playing through the store’s speakers. He froze in his tracks for a minute, then asked the clerk what he was listening to. Fashions rise and fall, trends evaporate, but snobby record shop employees are a worldwide constant. They transcend barriers of language, culture and geography to make potential buyers feel clueless. (I, for one, have been outright ignored or publicly humiliated by such employees on four continents.) The Tehrani salesman told Ebtekar that, as a matter of fact, he was playing a CDR of unpublished material from the classical composer Alizera Mashayekhi. Ebtekar was thrilled – and still remembers the exact phrasing the clerk used to put him down. “I told him: ‘I’m an electronic musician too, this is very close, aesthetic-wise, to what I’m doing.’ He was very cold, and he used the metaphor ‘well, I have a very nice bicycle at home, would you like to ride?’ And that’s his reply.”

more from Jace Clayton in The National here.

the importance of dead whales


I am standing in the back of a large lorry, my feet submerged in a pool of blood, water and oil. The truck’s container is open to a grey Welsh sky, but with high-sided walls to keep the blood and us hidden from view. I shout instructions to Nick, my PhD student, over the wind and rain: “Just climb on to its back and start cutting!” He looks doubtful. Our task lies stinking before us – a nine-metre whale corpse freshly pulled from the Bristol Channel. Before the concept of “health and safety” was invented, a whale stranding was an important public event. Edward II decreed that whales were the “fishes royal” and that stranded carcasses belonged to the Crown – legislation that still exists today. The carcasses were valuable, and often a popular tourist attraction. The whale might be brought into town squares for the public to see, poke, smell and eat. Whales inspired awe, fascination and greed. They still do, but the fascination is held at bay by poorly informed council workers tasked with the disposal job of their life; and the greed is in the prices quoted by the contractors asked to get rid of the body. A recent sperm whale disposal in Humberside cost the taxpayer over £20,000.

more from Adrian Glover at The New Statesman here.



In 2008, half the people who watched the Fox News Channel were over sixty-three, which is the oldest demographic in the cable-news business, and, according to a poll, the majority of the ones who watched the most strident programs, such as Sean Hannity’s and Bill O’Reilly’s shows, were men. All that chesty fulminating apparently functions as political Cialis. Fox News shows should probably carry a warning: Contact your doctor if you have rage lasting more than four hours. By effectively cornering the market on anti-Administration animus, Fox News has had a robust 2009 so far, and the recent decision by the White House to declare war on the channel is not likely to put a dent in the ratings. That decision has dispirited some of the President’s well-wishers. It has also puzzled them. In American politics, it should be considered a good thing when, after you have won a Presidential election by more than nine million votes, your chief critics accuse you of filling your Administration with Nazis, Maoists, anarchists, and Marxist revolutionaries. That is the voice of the fringe, and the fringe is exactly where you want the opposition to set up permanent shop.

more from Louis Menand at The New Yorker here.

Wednesday Poem

The Centaur

The summer that I was ten —
Can it be there was only one
summer that I was ten?

It must have been a long one then —
each day I'd go out to choose
a fresh horse from my stable

which was a willow grove
down by the old canal.
I'd go on my two bare feet.

But when, with my brother's jack-knife,
I had cut me a long limber horse
with a good thick knob for a head,

and peeled him slick and clean
except a few leaves for the tail,
and cinched my brother's belt

around his head for a rein,
I'd straddle and canter him fast
up the grass bank to the path,

Read more »

The Saudi-isation of Pakistan

A stern, unyielding version of Islam is replacing the kinder, gentler Islam of the Sufis in Pakistan.

Pervez Hoodbhoy in Newsline:

Pervez_hoodbhoy Political leaders like Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan have no words of solace for those who have suffered at the hands of Islamic extremists. Their tears are reserved exclusively for the victims of Predator drones, even if they are those who committed grave crimes against their own people. Terrorism, by definition, is an act only the Americans can commit.

What explains Pakistan’s collective masochism? To understand this, one needs to study the drastic social and cultural transformations that have rendered this country so completely different from what it was in earlier times.

For three decades, deep tectonic forces have been silently tearing Pakistan away from the Indian subcontinent and driving it towards the Arabian peninsula. This continental drift is not physical but cultural, driven by a belief that Pakistan must exchange its South Asian identity for an Arab-Muslim one. Grain by grain, the desert sands of Saudi Arabia are replacing the rich soil that had nurtured a magnificent Muslim culture in India for a thousand years. This culture produced Mughul architecture, the Taj Mahal, the poetry of Asadullah Khan Ghalib, and much more. Now a stern, unyielding version of Islam (Wahhabism) is replacing the kinder, gentler Islam of the Sufis and saints who had walked on this land for hundreds of years.

More here. [Thanks to Mehreen Jabbar.]

Jerry Hall interview

From The Telegraph:

Jerry_1510273f There’s something indecent about Jerry Hall – and it’s not the legs, platinum mane or sexually charged Tennessee Williams drawl. It’s the fact that at 53, the Texas-born model oozes contentment. Sacrilege, really, when you consider the current diktat that any woman nearing middle age should be preparing to live out her years mired in self-loathing. “A lot happens at 50,” Hall explains, “the best thing being that you just don’t care any more.” She tilts her head to one side and lowers heavily made-up lashes. “At 40, you still care. At 30, you care way too much – and your twenties are quite frankly a nightmare. Bring on 60, I say: just imagine the joy of having grandchildren.”

Released from her troubled nine-year marriage to serial philanderer Mick Jagger a decade ago, Hall, a mother of four – Elizabeth, 25, James, 24, Georgia May, 17, and Gabriel, 12 – has been busy living out plans that have been a lifetime in the making. She has completed an Open University course in Humanities and the Enlightenment and built up a theatre repertoire on Broadway and in London’s West End, where she has, for the past four months, been playing Miss September in Calendar Girls, a stage version of the hit 2003 film about the British Women’s Institute calendar. Bearing all this in mind, it’s just possible that the shelving of a £1 million “explosive” autobiography earlier this year might be down to time constraints, and not, as has been suggested, because Hall refused to dish the dirt on her ex-husband.

More here.

Defending Science Isn’t Always Pretty

Sean Carroll in Cosmic Variance:

ScreenHunter_04 Oct. 28 10.39 This month’s issue of WIRED features a great story by Amy Wallace: “An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All.” It’s an overview of the anti-vaccination movement in the United States, a topic that should be very familiar to anyone who reads Discover’s baddest astronomer. At ScienceBlogs, Orac and Abel Pharmboy gives big thumbs-up to the article.

The anti-vaccination movement is a little weird — they claim that vaccines, which are universally credited with wiping out smallpox and polio and other bad things, are responsible for causing autism and diabetes and other also-bad things, all just to make a buck for pharmaceutical companies. The underlying motivation seems to be a combination of the conviction that things must happen for a reason — if a child develops autism, there must be an enemy to blame — and a general distrust of science and technology. Certainly the pro-science point of view is fairly unequivocal; like any medicine, vaccines should be used properly, but they have done great good for the world and there are very real dangers of increased risk for epidemics if enough children stop receiving them. Good for WIRED for taking on the issue and publishing an uncompromisingly pro-science piece on it.

But the anti-vax movement is more than just committed; they’re pretty darn virulent. And since the article came out, author Amy Wallace has been subject to all sorts of attacks. She’s been documenting them on her Twitter feed, which I encourage you to check out.

More here.

Polarized Peepers

From Scientific American:

Mantis-shrimp-polarization_1 A fierce crustacean known as the peacock mantis shrimp has eyes so refined they can perceive polarized light, including information that is invisible to nearly every other member of the animal kingdom. Not only can the ocean dweller extract polarization information from light, it can do so when the light is circularly polarized—an ability unknown outside a few species of the order of stomatopods to which the peacock mantis belongs.

Unlike linearly polarized light, in which the electric field oscillates along a plane, circularly polarized light's field twists like a spiral spring as the ray propagates. Such light is not commonly reflected from animal bodies and so was long dismissed as a virtual nonfactor in physiology, but research last year showed that some stomatopods have the ability to discriminate circular polarization. A paper published online October 25 in Nature Photonics unpacks the mechanism behind the mantis shrimp's ability and concludes that its eyes handle circularly polarized light more effectively than man-made optical devices do. (Scientific American is part of the Nature Publishing Group.)

More here.