invisible food


It might sound odd to say this about something people deal with at least three times a day, but food in America has been more or less invisible, politically speaking, until very recently. At least until the early 1970s, when a bout of food price inflation and the appearance of books critical of industrial agriculture (by Wendell Berry, Francis Moore Lappé, and Barry Commoner, among others) threatened to propel the subject to the top of the national agenda, Americans have not had to think very hard about where their food comes from, or what it is doing to the planet, their bodies, and their society. Most people count this a blessing. Americans spend a smaller percentage of their income on food than any people in history—slightly less than 10 percent—and a smaller amount of their time preparing it: a mere thirty-one minutes a day on average, including clean-up. The supermarkets brim with produce summoned from every corner of the globe, a steady stream of novel food products (17,000 new ones each year) crowds the middle aisles, and in the freezer case you can find “home meal replacements” in every conceivable ethnic stripe, demanding nothing more of the eater than opening the package and waiting for the microwave to chirp. Considered in the long sweep of human history, in which getting food dominated not just daily life but economic and political life as well, having to worry about food as little as we do, or did, seems almost a kind of dream.

more from Michael Pollan at the NYRB here.

Gödel in Hong Kong


Appeal to intuition has long been one of the core tools, if it can be called that, of the philosophical method. It is intuition, understood as that immediate operation of the mind by which knowledge is obtained without either observation of the world or inference from premises, that both distinguishes the work of the philosopher from that of the scientist, and motivates the familiar accusation that philosophy is a mere “armchair” discipline. Even those philosophers thick-skinned enough to ignore this accusation tend to recognize one deep problem with excessive reliance on the evidence of intuitions: any given intuition, considered in isolation, is only as reliable as the person who has it. But how can we determine that? One obvious way would be to check the intuition against several other intuitions. But then, inevitably, philosophy finds itself drifting into the territory of the social sciences, something the majority of philosophers steadfastly refuse to let happen. This still very comfortable majority has, in the past few years, come under attack by a small cadre of professional philosophers who have dared to engage openly in the heretical practice of empirical inquiry. Their movement, which has come to be called “x-phi” by some of its adherents, proposes to create an experimental branch of the discipline that will challenge the armchair intuitions with which most philosophers have been content to work, by presenting empirical data showing the extent to which laypeople disagree with these intuitions.

more from our own Justin E.H. Smith at n+1 here.

walser’s little tiny little writing


For Walser the past is a ruin, something that can never be recovered. As Bernofsky once told me, the fundamental idea driving the microscript “A Kind of Cleopatra” is that real experience can only occur in the past: as in so much of late Walser, a fully felt life is something that can no longer be had. This does not, however, imply the notion that the best of days are long gone, for in such an equation the past remains a ruin, a fragment, a ghostly demarcation of something that was there but is no longer available. Its very lack of tangibility, in other words, is a failure of sorts, an idea that falls sort of an ideal. This feeling of being thrust into the future, therefore, is not progress, but a maelstrom, a terrible storm. The future provides no escape from the overwhelming presence of the present. So Walser is placed, as his readers often are, in a position of waiting, of uncertainty. Our backs face the ruins of the past, the ruins of what we have just read, but there is never any certainty that the future will provide relief. In this sense, Walser is a remarkably modern writer: he sublimates one of the primary concerns of the modern mind, that the future will be just as faulty and ruined as the past.

more from George Fragopoulos at The Quarterly Conversation here.

Ways With Words 2010

From The Telegraph:

Mcewan_1640441c 'Something is missing in our culture,” Ian McEwan proclaims. “We can’t quite celebrate the scientific literary tradition.” And then a little later: “We overvalue the arts in relation to the sciences.” McEwan is taking questions at the end of a lecture he has given to the Royal Society of Literature on Darwin and Einstein and the ways in which notions of “originality” might relate to the sciences compared with the arts. “I want to try and usefully blur the distinctions between the two realms,” McEwan tells me the next morning. “On the one hand there is a scientific tradition. Scientists do stand on the shoulders of giants, just as do writers. Conversely, in the arts we do make discoveries. We do refine our tools. So I am arguing with, or at least playing with, the idea that art never improves.”

McEwan is rare among his peers in taking an active interest in the sciences — and in welcoming scientific ideas into his fiction. “I’m not interested in a form of modern intellectual who has no interest in science,” he says. Since he wrote Black Dogs (1992), which used a failing marriage to dramatise the argument between rationalism and faith, rationalist ideas have won out, and have often been the driving force of his novels.

More here.


From Edge:

Agofwonderpics On May 20th, J. Craig Venter and his team at J.C Venter Institute announced the creation of a cell controlled by a synthetic genome in a paper published in SCIENCE. As science historian George Dyson points out, “from the point of view of technology, a code generated within a digital computer is now self-replicating as the genome of a line of living cells. From the point of view of biology, a code generated by a living organism has been translated into a digital representation for replication, editing, and transmission to other cells.”

This new development is all about operating on a large scale. “Reading the genetic code of a wide range of species,” the paper says, “has increased exponentially from these early studies. Our ability to rapidly digitize genomic information has increased by more than eight orders of magnitude over the past 25 years.” This is a big scaling up in our technological abilities. Physicist Freeman Dyson, commenting on the paper, notes that “the sequencing and synthesizing of DNA give us all the tools we need to create new forms of life.” But it remains to be seen how it will serve in practice.

One question is whether or not a DNA sequence alone is enough to generate a living creature. One way of reading the paper suggests this doesn't seem to be the case because of the use of old microplasma cells into which the DNA was inserted — that this is not about “creating” life” since the new life requires an existing living recipient cell. If this is the case, what is the chance of producing something de novo? The paper might appear to be about a somewhat banal technological feat. The new techniques build on existing capabilities. What else is being added, what is qualitatively new?

While it is correct to say that the individual cell was not created, a new line of cells (dare one say species?) was generated. This is new life that is self-propagating, i.e. “the cells with only the synthetic genome are self replicating and capable of logarithmic growth.”

The paper concludes with the following:

If the methods described here can be generalized, design, synthesis, assembly, and transplantation of synthetic chromosomes will no longer be a barrier to the progress of synthetic biology. We expect that the cost of DNA synthesis will follow what has happened with DNA sequencing and continue to exponentially decrease. Lower synthesis costs combined with automation will enable broad applications for synthetic genomics.

Will the new techniques described in the paper allow us to bring extinct species back to life? Here are three examples of three possible stages after the production of a bacterial cell: 1. generating a human, i.e. a Neanderthal; 2. generating a woolly mammoth; 3. generating a tasmanian wolf.

Editor-At-Large, Wired; Author, Out of Control

The major effect of this paper will be to force a redefinition of life, since we declare that nothing we manufacture can be life.

More here.

Friday Poem


Though you can see for miles
across the lake to the mountain,
and though you can imagine
all that lies beyond, ridge
after ridge and the rivers
joining to make their slow,
swollen progress to the sea;
though you think you can say
how far the sunlight travels
to wash the ears of ivy
and make the hawkweed blaze,
to warm the stone's cold shoulder
and warm the wary heart;
though you think as you swim
how you used to swim with her,
how you'd lie on your backs
and press your feet together
and race each other back to shore;
though you've reached, you think,
some idea of distances involved,
how things are so far apart
yet one and the same—
it will be, you will find,
as nothing to the distance
opened by the loon's cry
that first night; and in the wake
of that cry, the silence.

by Mark Roper
from Landing Places: Immigrant Poets in Ireland,
Dedalus Press, Dublin, 2010

The French Anti-Burqa Jihad

Shikha Dalmia in Forbes:

Burqa1 Over the centuries, Hindus have articulated a whole litany of gripes against Muslims but most involve–at least on the face of it–some material impact on Hindu interests. For example, special Haj lanes near airports to accommodate Muslims headed for Mecca are a source of endless irritation for Hindus stuck in traffic snarls. But what Hindus don't generally get worked up over–at least not strongly enough to create a credible political movement–are personal Muslim habits that don't in some direct way affect them. Indeed, last year a state college triggered a big brouhaha–especially among Indian feminists–when it refused to let a burqa-clad woman attend classes. Pramila Nesargi, a Hindu politician who champions women's causes, declared: “Not allowing a woman to come to college just because she is wearing a burqa is against her personal rights, fundamental rights and human rights.”

The contrast with the French spirit could not be starker. As a precursor to final legislation, French lawmakers recently voted for a non-binding resolution condemning the burqa because they see in it not an expression of personal piety–but a message of religious fundamentalism meant to insult French secularism. President Nicolas Sarkozy went so far as to say that the burqa is “not welcome” in France, calling it a symbol of female “subservience and debasement.” Likewise, Christopher Hitchens, the most prominent cheerleader of the burqa ban in America, is convinced that Muslim women don the veil not because they choose to–but because they risk acid in their face if they don't. Hence, in his view, France will actually do Muslim women a favor by banning it.

More here. [Thanks to Cyrus Hall.]

The First Yardstick for Measuring Smells

Carl Zimmer in Discover:

ScreenHunter_02 May. 21 10.32 Your nose is a paradox. In some ways the human sense of smell is astonishingly precise. For example, natural gas companies add a smelly molecule called n-butyl mercaptan to natural gas, which is odorless by itself, so that people can sniff gas leaks. All it takes is one n-butyl mercaptan molecule for every 10 billion molecules of methane to do the trick. To put this precision in perspective, imagine you are standing in front of two Olympic-size swimming pools. One of them contains a grand total of three drops of n-butyl mercaptan, and the other has none. Your nose could tell the difference.

But don’t get too smug, because in other ways your sense of smell is practically useless. To judge for yourself, find someone to help you run a simple experiment. Close your eyes while your partner raids your refrigerator and then holds different foods under your nose. Try to name each scent. If you’re like most people, you’ll bomb. In a number of studies, scientists have found that people tested on items in their own kitchens and garages give the wrong answer at least half the time. And as bad as we normally are at identifying smells, we can easily be fooled into doing worse. If orange food coloring is added to cherry-flavored soda, for example, people are more likely to say that it smells like oranges.

Noam Sobel of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and his colleagues have been puzzling over this paradox for the past several years. What has been missing in the science of smell, they argue, is a meaningful way to measure it—an olfactory yardstick. Now they have built one.

More here.

Homeopathy is witchcraft, say doctors

Laura Donnelly in The Telegraph:

ScreenHunter_01 May. 21 10.13 Hundreds of members of the BMA have passed a motion denouncing the use of the alternative medicine, saying taxpayers should not foot the bill for remedies with no scientific basis to support them.

The BMA has previously expressed scepticism about homoeopathy, arguing that the rationing body, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence should examine the evidence base and make a definitive ruling about the use of the remedies in the NHS.

Now, the annual conference of junior doctors has gone further, with a vote overwhelmingly supporting a blanket ban, and an end to all placements for trainee doctors which teach them homeopathic principles.

Dr Tom Dolphin, deputy chairman of the BMA's junior doctors committee in England told the conference: “Homeopathy is witchcraft. It is a disgrace that nestling between the National Hospital for Neurology and Great Ormond Street [in London] there is a National Hospital for Homeopathy which is paid for by the NHS”.

More here.

The Banquo’s Ghost of Israeli Foreign Policy

Max Blumenthal in The Nation:

Judge-richard-goldstone A May 6 “expose” from the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot gave Israeli government officials and their hardline American proxies the ammunition they had been seeking against Judge Richard Goldstone. After Goldstone, a Jewish former South African judge who describes himself as a proud Zionist, charged Israel with crimes against humanity for its assault on the Gaza Strip in late 2008 and 2009, the Israeli government sought to destroy him. Now, thanks to Yediot's report, which documented Goldstone's career as a judge in South Africa's apartheid system and ignored his heroic role in guiding the country's democratic transition, Israel and its allies have renewed their assault.

According to an editorial by Alan Dershowitz, Goldstone “helped legitimate one of the most racist regimes in the world… he had climbed the judicial ladder on whipped backs and hanged bodies.” Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic Magazine followed up, calling Goldstone, “a man without a moral compass.” The attack spread throughout the neocon blogosphere, including to Tablet, where Marc Tracy accused Goldstone of publishing his report about the assault on Gaza to alleviate his “severe case of guilt.” Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon piled on, characterizing the judge's explanation for working inside the apartheid system as “the same explanation we heard in Nazi Germany after World War II.”

However, by assailing Goldstone's reputation to protect Israel from the meticulously documented facts and modest recommendations contained in his report about the assault on Gaza, Israel's right-wing government and its American allies unwittingly summoned the Banquo's Ghost of Israeli foreign policy: the country's longtime military alliance with South Africa's apartheid regime.

More here.

Life in the Third Realm

19judson2-articleInlineOlivia Judson over at the NYT:

Archaea are single-celled microbes with a reputation for living in tough environments like salt lakes, deep sea vents or boiling acid. One strain can grow at temperatures as high as 121 degrees Celsius (249.8 degrees Fahrenheit), a heat that kills most organisms; others thrive at the seriously acidic pH of zero.

They are not restricted to life at the fringes, however. As we have learned how to detect them, archaea have turned up all over the place. One survey estimated that they account for as much as 20 percent of all microbial cells in the ocean, and they’ve been discovered living in soil, swamps, streams and lakes, sediments at the bottom of the ocean, and so on. They are also routinely found in the bowels of the Earth — and the bowels of animals, including humans, cows and termites, where they produce methane. Indeed, the archaeon known as Methanobrevibacter smithii may account for as much as 10 percent of all the microbial cells living in your gut.

But here’s the thing. The tree of life falls into three big lineages, or realms of life. (Confession: the technical term is “domains,” not “realms,” but I’m taking poetic license.) The most familiar realm comprises the eukaryotes — which is the blanket term for most of the organisms we are familiar with, be they mushrooms, water lilies, tsetse flies, humans or the single-celled beasties that cause malaria. Eukaryotes have many distinguishing features, including the fact that they keep their genes in a special compartment known as the cell nucleus.

The second member of the trinity is made up of bacteria. We tend to associate bacteria with disease — for they can cause a range of nasty infections, including pneumonia, syphilis, leprosy, tuberculosis and the like. But in fact, most bacteria lead blameless lives (some of which I have written about in previous columns). There are many differences between eukaryotes and bacteria; but one of the most obvious is that bacteria do not sequester their DNA in a cell nucleus.

The third great lineage of living beings is the archaea.

‘Artificial Life’ Breakthrough Announced

_47890096_gibson2hrVictoria Gill in the BBC:

The researchers constructed a bacterium's “genetic software” and transplanted it into a host cell.

The resulting microbe then looked and behaved like the species “dictated” by the synthetic DNA.

The advance, published in Science, has been hailed as a scientific landmark, but critics say there are dangers posed by synthetic organisms.

The researchers hope eventually to design bacterial cells that will produce medicines and fuels and even absorb greenhouse gases.

The team was led by Dr Craig Venter of the J Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) in Maryland and California.

He and his colleagues had previously made a synthetic bacterial genome, and transplanted the genome of one bacterium into another.

Now, the scientists have put both methods together, to create what they call a “synthetic cell”, although only its genome is truly synthetic.

Dr Venter likened the advance to making new software for the cell.

The researchers copied an existing bacterial genome. They sequenced its genetic code and then used “synthesis machines” to chemically construct a copy.

Over at Edge, Freeman Dyson, Kevin Kelly, and George Dyson react to the news. George Dyson:

There are two ways of looking at this experiment. From the point of view of technology, a code generated within a digital computer is now self-replicating as the genome of a line of living cells. From the point of view of biology, a code generated by a living organism has been translated into a digital representation for replication, editing, and transmission to other cells.

In 1953, when the structure of DNA was determined, there were 53 kilobytes of high-speed electronic storage on planet earth. Two entirely separate forms of code were set on a collision course. Primitive as it may be, we now have one of the long-awaited results.

My mother is retired, toothless, diabetic and bedevilled by headaches and a blinding cataract


India is like a lot of Québecs. There are more than 1,600 languages spoken in India, and almost all are regional, with speakers centered in particular locales. After independence from the British Crown in 1947, one of India’s regional languages, Hindi, was named the country’s official language. Then, as now, what linguists call “native speakers” of Hindi comprised only about 40 percent of India’s population. There was much resistance to the language’s elevation. To this day, large numbers of Indians, particularly in the southern states (from Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh to Tamil Nadu and Kerala), are bitter over this perceived “symbol and arbiter of North Indian cultural hegemony,” as the anthropologist Rashmi Sadana describes it. The majority of the “languages”—as the regional languages are known—have their own competing media, and speakers of Malayalam, Tamil, Kannada, and Telugu together number hundreds of millions. That the rancor persists is hardly surprising. Less expected, however, is what the conflict has meant for English: the language of India’s erstwhile colonial rulers, a language that first entered the country by armed force and bureaucratic “necessity,” has become, increasingly, “neutral.”

more from Michael Scharf at the Boston Review here.

two bad paradigms in arizona


The loud debate over the recently passed Arizona House Bill 2281, which bans from the public schools ethnic studies courses that promote race consciousness, is a clash between two bad paradigms. The first paradigm is embedded in and configures the bill’s targeted program, the Mexican American Studies Department of the Tucson Unified School District, which, its Web site tells us, adheres to the Social Justice Education Project model. That model includes “a counter-hegemonic curriculum” and “a pedagogy based on the theories of Paulo Freire.” Freire, a Brazilian educator, is the author of the widely influential book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” Freire argues that the structures of domination and oppression in a society are at their successful worst when the assumptions and ways of thinking that underwrite their tyranny have been internalized by their victims: “The very structure of their thought has been conditioned by the contradictions of the concrete, existential situation by which they were shaped.” If the ideas and values of the oppressor are all you ever hear, they will be yours — that is what hegemony means — and it will take a special and radical effort to liberate yourself from them.

more from Stanley Fish at The Opinionater here.

can-do energy and unflappability


Today we associate Rudyard Kipling overwhelmingly with India, but this is a mistake. Never was a writer so much on the go. During a working career spanning half a century he lived on four continents and visited over twenty countries, including not only France, Spain, Italy and Belgium but also the United States and Canada, Brazil, Sweden, Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, Algeria, Egypt and Palestine, Japan, China, Burma, Malaya, Singapore, Jamaica and Bermuda. A journalist by training and by nature a voracious observer, writing at a time when developments in mass transportation were making the globe ever smaller, Kipling was ideally placed, both historically and temperamentally, to chronicle the otherness of Britain’s colonies and beyond for his metropolitan readers at home. His appetite for travel was compulsive, his sense of the strangeness of abroad deeply ingrained. Born in Bombay in 1865 in the heyday of the British Raj, he spent his childhood shuttling between England and India, which appeared to have left him with an abiding sense of dislocation. For Kipling, almost everywhere was “other”: he remained, at heart, an outsider in every country he lived in or visited.

more from Elizabeth Lowry at the TLS here.

The Selfish Society

From The Telegraph:

Selfishrealstory_1637385f What is it that drives people to be brave and good? Psychologists set out to explore this intriguing question by studying a group of Holocaust “rescuers” who, at great risk to themselves, had saved the lives of Jews. This group was compared with the “bystanders” living in the same area or even the same street who didn’t help or refused to help when asked. The “immigrants” formed a control group: they were Europeans originating from the same or similar neighbourhoods as the rescuers and the bystanders but who had emigrated in the years leading up to the Second World War.

When the personality traits of the groups were compared, the bystanders and the immigrants were similar on every measure bar risk-taking (the immigrants scored slightly higher). The rescuers, however, scored higher than the other groups for every trait: altruism, moral reasoning, risk-taking, autonomy, tolerance, self-direction and, most strikingly, empathy and a sense of social responsibility. In The Selfish Society, psychotherapist Sue Gerhardt cites this 2005 study, published in the Journal of Personality, as an example of how individuals with a high degree of emotional development – as exemplified by the rescuers – are a force for good in a society corrupted by a didactic ideology.

More here.

Peering Inside the Social Brain

From Science:

PET_BrainImage_160 What makes it possible for people to love, hate, help, or betray one another? How do we decode facial expressions? How do we understand and regulate our own emotional experiences? How do we separate the self from the other, make moral judgments, or decide how much money to save for retirement? What causes some people to turn to religious extremism, heroin, or politics? How does the brain fail those with social deficits such as autism? Questions like these sit at the junction of our social, emotional, and biological realities, and they drive the young but rapidly growing field of social neuroscience.

Until a few years ago, the idea that science could elucidate the neural foundations of social phenomena as complex as love, friendship, and trust “just basically seemed ludicrous,” says Janine Simmons, chief of the National Institute of Mental Health’s (NIMH's) program for affect, social behavior, and social cognition. Such “big questions” motivate many scientists to study neuroscience or psychology, she says — but soon they realize that the ability to address such questions is limited by technology. “It’s just recently that people have not been laughed at for taking on these more complex questions,” she says. Scientists seeking to understand the neural mechanisms underlying social cognition and emotion have drawn on a variety of methods, including studies of patients with neurological damage and single-cell recording of brain activity in nonhuman animals. These research tools have proven valuable, but it was the ready availability, starting about a decade ago, of functional neuroimaging technology that fueled an explosion in social neuroscience.

More here.