Felix Stalder in Eurozine:
WikiLeaks is one of the defining stories of the Internet, which means by now, one of the defining stories of the present, period. At least four large-scale trends which permeate our societies as a whole are fused here into an explosive mixture whose fall-out is far from clear. First is a change in the materiality of communication. Communication becomes more extensive, more recorded, and the records become more mobile. Second is a crisis of institutions, particularly in western democracies, where moralistic rhetoric and the ugliness of daily practice are diverging ever more at the very moment when institutional personnel are being encouraged to think more for themselves. Third is the rise of new actors, “super-empowered” individuals, capable of intervening into historical developments at a systemic level. Finally, fourth is a structural transformation of the public sphere (through media consolidation at one pole, and the explosion of non-institutional publishers at the other), to an extent that rivals the one described by Habermas with the rise of mass media at the turn of the twentieth century.
Imagine dumping nearly 400 000 paper documents into a dead drop located discreetly on the hard shoulder of a road. Impossible. Now imagine the same thing with digital records on a USB stick, or as an upload from any networked computer. No problem at all. Yet, the material differences between paper and digital records go much further than mere bulk. Digital records are the impulses travelling through the nervous systems of dynamic, distributed organisations of all sizes. They are intended, from the beginning, to circulate with ease. Otherwise such organisations would fall apart and dynamism would grind to a halt. The more flexible and distributed organisations become, the more records they need to produce and the faster these need to circulate. Due to their distributed aspect and the pressure for cross-organisational cooperation, it is increasingly difficult to keep records within particular organisations whose boundaries are blurring anyway. Surveillance researchers such as David Lyon have long been writing about the leakiness of “containers”, meaning the tendency for sensitive digital records to cross the boundaries of the institutions which produce them. This leakiness is often driven by commercial considerations (private data being sold), but it happens also out of incompetence (systems being secured insufficiently), or because insiders deliberately violate organisational policies for their own purposes. Either they are whistle-blowers motivated by conscience, as in the case of WikiLeaks, or individuals selling information for private gain, as in the case of the numerous employees of Swiss banks who recently copied the details of private accounts and sold them to tax authorities across Europe. Within certain organisation such as banks and the military, virtually everything is classified and large number of people have access to this data, not least mid-level staff who handle the streams of raw data such as individuals' records produced as part of daily procedure.
David Mattin in The National:
The new book – called, simply, Adonis: Selected Poems – spans his entire career, from the early works produced in his native Syria in the 1950s and amid a post-colonial atmosphere of new Arab national consciousness, through the long, fragmented epics of the 1970s – including the work best-known to English readers Funeral for New York – and on to his most recent, crystalline, short works, tinged with erotic longing. But how important is this book to Adonis; is he much concerned that he is read in English?
“I'm interested in all readers,” he says. “The reader is such that what he does is a part of me, and English readers are no different from Arab readers in that regard.
“The reader is the 'other', the person I am trying to reach. And that 'otherness' is also a part of me. I'm interested in the perception of non-Arab readers because they may allow me a clearer perception of myself.”
Indeed, it seems that Adonis feels acutely the difficulty of reaching a western readership:
“Unfortunately, western readers continue to see Arab culture as marginal. Arab politics has little weight; this is accepted; but we musn't conflate politics and culture, which unfortunately is what western readers tend to do.”
It would be hard to argue with any of that. It's unavoidable, though, that only readers of Arabic can have first-hand knowledge of ways in which Adonis transfigured the Arab poetic tradition in the 20th century. English readers, then, are left with the reports of critics, who tell us that he broke radically from traditional rhyme and meter and evolved an Arabic free verse; that he enlivened a classical poetic vocabulary by using the language of everyday, conversational Arabic; and that he eschewed traditional subject matter and turned, instead, to poems that captured the great changes in thought and self-identity sweeping the Arab world, and fuelling the rise of Pan-Arabism.
Indeed, trouble over his involvement in nationalist politics saw Adonis leave his native Syria for Beirut in 1957, where he founded the influential magazine Shi'r (Poetry), host to much of this experimental work.
In short, Adonis is credited – above any of his contemporaries – with making Arab poetry modern.
Atiya Hussain in Open the Magazine:
In New York, where rare is the denizen who cooks, street food vending is fast becoming a career choice. With the outlays a fraction of what’s required to run a restaurant, people have been known to give up stable jobs to start a food truck. Among the most famous is Bangladeshi immigrant Meru Sikder—Vendy finalist in 2008 and 2009—who chose his midtown Biriyani Cart over his previous job as banquet chef at the Hilton.
Having prevailed at the 2007 Vendy, the Dosa Man can afford to chat affably and joke with customers in the long line behind his cart. His signature dish, the one he won his award for, is the Pondicherry Dosa, whose stuffing of spiced potatoes and salad greens may be an odd combination for the Indian palate, but remains the cart’s best seller. “We have a lot of weird stuff, like uttapam with mixed veggies…we have vegan drumsticks,” he enthuses.
I used to go to the Dosa cart before things got weird. Back in 2002, Kandasamy still had a huge Subcontinental moustache, and he kept some of his lovely fluffy vadas aside for me. That was early on in the story of the Dosa cart, a time Kandasamy remembers as ‘difficult’ because of all the explaining he had to do in turning the curious into customers: “A dosa is a sort of crepe.”
Flash forward to October 2010, as I hurry past New York University students towards Washington Square Park, which is undergoing major landscaping work and looks devastated. To my dismay, the Dosa Truck is not visible. Two carts inside the park, manned by South Asians, offer ice-cream, pretzels and hot dogs. And then, just as I am about to give up, I see a cute blonde open up her styrofoam package—and there I spy the unmistakable golden crust of the dosa I was looking for. Before she can manage a bite, I apologise and explain that I am looking for the truck. The reason for my interruption elicits a smile. “Right down the street,” she says, pointing. “You’ll see a huge line and a camera crew!”
“On the Water” seeks to remind us how deeply our daily lives are still informed by maritime activity, of the grand international web of ocean commerce that brings cars and televisions and fuel and food to our doorsteps. But as far as most Americans are concerned, these products could have dropped from the sky or grown magically on store shelves. As we turned from sailors to consumers, we desired the means by which we get our goods to be as simple and innocuous as possible, and thus, as divorced as possible from the water. Even those scant five percent of Americans who have been on a cruise ship — vast sideways hotels cruising noiselessly and still — could hardly tell you about the roar of the waves or the smell of the surf, and food poisoning from buffet tables is more likely than sea sickness. Mostly, “On the Water” reminds us that the contemporary American relationship to water is an abstraction. That the waterways we hardly notice these days, that gave America its very soul, are a memory. We no longer see our reflection in the rivers and oceans as did Americans in Melville’s day. We are landlubbers and occasional passengers, and more and more, it seems that the sea finds its reflection in us.
more from Stefany Anne Golberg at The Smart Set here.
Americans are preoccupied with the Founders, and that is not at all a bad thing, yet much of the contemporary discussion of the revolutionary generation and the early years of the republic is appallingly shallow. In my view, too little attention has been paid to James Madison’s political philosophy—which is surprising, since Madison is the principal author of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The Founders did not speak in one voice, and careful attention to the substance of their debates (which were in many ways far more acrimonious than our own cable TV spectacles) can help clarify contemporary controversies, especially when so many of our present political combatants are merely reenacting old debates in seeming ignorance of the principles that were originally at issue. Madison provides a particularly apt perspective on our current predicament because as a politician he devoted much of his energy to fighting precisely the sort of corruption that has swamped our political system. Madison was the intellectual and political force behind the republican opposition to the Federalists, who very much like the present-day Republican Party saw themselves as the natural rulers of the United States. The Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, sought to protect a narrow financial oligarchy from the interests of the great majority of American citizens. Hamilton’s ambition was to bind his “moneyed men” to the state through an innovative financial program that would at the same time lay the foundations for an international commercial empire.
more from our pal Roger Hodge about his new book, The Mendacity of Hope, at Harper’s here.
Worry about information overload has become one of the drumbeats of our time. The world’s books are being digitized, online magazines and newspapers and academic papers are steadily augmented by an endless stream of blog posts and Twitter feeds; and the gadgets to keep us participating in the digital deluge are more numerous and sophisticated. The total amount of information created on the world’s electronic devices is expected to surpass the zettabyte mark this year (a barely conceivable 1 with 21 zeroes after it). Many feel the situation has reached crisis proportions. In the academic world, critics have begun to argue that universities are producing and distributing more knowledge than we can actually use. In the recent best-selling book “The Shallows,” Nicholas Carr worries that the flood of digital information is changing not only our habits, but even our mental capacities: Forced to scan and skim to keep up, we are losing our abilities to pay sustained attention, reflect deeply, or remember what we’ve learned. Beneath all this concern lies the sense that humanity is experiencing an unprecedented change — that modern technology is creating a problem that our culture and even our brains are ill equipped to handle. We stand on the brink of a future that no one can ever have experienced before. But is it really so novel?
more from Ann Blair at the Boston Globe here.
In his book Danger On Peaks poet Gary Snyder describes a trip to the area around Mt. St. Helens (called Loowit –meaning smoky in the Sahaptin native American language) in Washington State, USA. The mountain exploded on May 18, 1980 in an eruption with the power of 500 Hiroshima bombs, Snyder says.
Snyder recalls his first trip to the mountain when he was thirteen and subsequent trips prior to the 1980 eruption then brings his readers up to date with a return there after Mt. St. Helens blew. Danger On Peaks lays this out in alternating prose and poetry in a remarkably illuminating way.
Approaching Loowit Snyder reaches a spot it can be seen in its transformed state. He writes:
Finally pull up to the high ridge, now named Johnston after the young geologist who died there, and walk to the edge. The end of the road. Suddenly there's all of Loowit and a bit of the lake basin! In a new shape, with smoking scattered vents in this violet-gray light.
The white dome peak wacked lower down,
open-sided crater on the northside, fumarole wisps
a long gray fan of all that slid and fell
angles down clear to the beach
dark old-growth forest gone no shadows
the lake afloat with white bone blowndown logs
scoured ridges around the rim, bare outcrop rocks
squint in the bright
ridgetop plaza packed with puzzled visitor gaze
no more White Goddess
but, under the fiery sign of Pele,
and Fudo—Lord of Heat
who sits on glowing lava with his noose
lassoing hardcore types
from hell against their will,
is her name
publisher: Shoemaker Hoard, 2004
Gina Kolata in The New York Times:
The very high levels of vitamin D that are often recommended by doctors and testing laboratories — and can be achieved only by taking supplements — are unnecessary and could be harmful, an expert committee says. It also concludes that calcium supplements are not needed.
The group said most people have adequate amounts of vitamin D in their blood supplied by their diets and natural sources like sunshine, the committee says in a report that is to be released on Tuesday. “For most people, taking extra calcium and vitamin D supplements is not indicated,” said Dr. Clifford J. Rosen, a member of the panel and an osteoporosis expert at the Maine Medical Center Research Institute. Dr. J. Christopher Gallagher, director of the bone metabolism unit at the Creighton University School of Medicine in Omaha, Neb., agreed, adding, “The onus is on the people who propose extra calcium and vitamin D to show it is safe before they push it on people.” Over the past few years, the idea that nearly everyone needs extra calcium and vitamin D — especially vitamin D — has swept the nation. With calcium, adolescent girls may be the only group that is getting too little, the panel found. Older women, on the other hand, may take too much, putting themselves at risk for kidney stones. And there is evidence that excess calcium can increase the risk of heart disease, the group wrote.
Mice engineered to lack the enzyme, called telomerase, become prematurely decrepit. But they bounced back to health when the enzyme was replaced. The finding, published online today in Nature1, hints that some disorders characterized by early ageing could be treated by boosting telomerase activity. It also offers the possibility that normal human ageing could be slowed by reawakening the enzyme in cells where it has stopped working, says Ronald DePinho, a cancer geneticist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, who led the new study. “This has implications for thinking about telomerase as a serious anti-ageing intervention.”
UPDATE 12/21/10: The winners have been announced.
UPDATE 12/14/10: List of finalists.
UPDATE 12/14/10: List of semifinalists.
UPDATE 12/07/10: Voting round is now open.
Dear Readers, Writers, Bloggers,
We are very honored and pleased to announce that Lewis Lapham has agreed to be the final judge for our 2nd annual prize for the best blog writing in politics. (Details of last year's prize, judged by Tariq Ali, can be found here.) Mr. Lapham needs no introduction for our American readers, but for those who do not already know him, this is from his Wikipedia entry:
Lewis Lapham served as editor of Harper's Magazine from 1976 to 2006 (with a hiatus from 1981 to 1983). He was managing editor from 1971 to 1975, after having worked for the San Francisco Examiner and New York Herald Tribune. He is largely responsible for the modern look and prominence of the magazine, having introduced many of its signature features including its famed Harper's Index. He announced that he would become editor emeritus in Spring 2006, continuing to write his Notebook column for the magazine as well as editing a new journal about history, Lapham's Quarterly. Lapham has also worked with the PEN American Center, sitting on the board of judges for the PEN/Newman's Own Award. This February, he will be inducted into the American Society of Magazine Editors' Hall of Fame. [Photo from the Boston Globe.]
As usual, this is the way it will work: the nominating period is now open, and will end at 11:59 pm EDT on December 2, 2010. There will then be a round of voting by our readers which will narrow down the entries to the top twenty semi-finalists. After this, we will take these top twenty voted-for nominees, and the four main editors of 3 Quarks Daily (Abbas Raza, Robin Varghese, Morgan Meis, and Azra Raza) will select six finalists from these, plus they may also add up to three wildcard entries of their own choosing. The three winners will be chosen from these by Mr. Lapham.
The first place award, called the “Top Quark,” will include a cash prize of one thousand dollars; the second place prize, the “Strange Quark,” will include a cash prize of three hundred dollars; and the third place winner will get the honor of winning the “Charm Quark,” along with a two hundred dollar prize.
(Welcome to those coming here for the first time. Learn more about who we are and what we do here, and do check out the full site here. Bookmark us and come back regularly, or sign up for the RSS feed.)
November 22, 2010:
- The nominations are opened. Please nominate your favorite politics blog entry by placing the URL for the blog post (the permalink) in the comments section of this post. You may also add a brief comment describing the entry and saying why you think it should win. (Do NOT nominate a whole blog, just one individual blog post.)
- Blog posts longer than 4,000 words are not eligible.
- Each person can only nominate one blog post.
- Entries must be in English.
- The editors of 3QD reserve the right to reject entries that we feel are not appropriate.
- The blog entry may not be more than a year old. In other words, it must have been written after November 21, 2009.
- You may also nominate your own entry from your own or a group blog (and we encourage you to).
- Guest columnists at 3 Quarks Daily are also eligible to be nominated, and may also nominate themselves if they wish.
- Nominations are limited to the first 200 entries.
- Prize money must be claimed within a month of the announcement of winners.
December 2, 2010
- The nominating process will end at 11:59 PM (NYC time) of this date.
- The public voting will be opened soon afterwards.
December 8, 2010
- Public voting ends at 11:59 PM (NYC time).
December 21, 2010
- The winners are announced.
One Final and Important Request
If you have a blog or website, please help us spread the word about our prizes by linking to this post. Otherwise, post a link on your Facebook profile, Tweet it, or just email your friends and tell them about it! I really look forward to reading some very good material, and think this should be a lot of fun for all of us.
Best of luck and thanks for your attention!
Justin E. H. Smith
Some readers will recall the exposé I wrote a few months ago on the life and work of the American poet Jason Boone. What might not have been obvious in that piece, as I would urgently like to clear up now, is that it was all entirely made up: every last word of it, from the meetings I had with Boone at Nirvana concerts in Sacramento in the late 1980s, to the documentary about Boone's life supposedly made by an MA student in the Media Arts Program a the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. There is no Media Arts Program in Fairbanks! In fact, the interviewees in the segment of the film I included in the exposé, one supposedly named 'Michel Pupici' and the other 'Dylan Cooney', are both plainly the same person filmed from different angles. What is more, anyone who has ever met me will be able to confirm that it is I myself, the author, Justin Smith, in both of those roles. I am looking unusually fat, true, and I do not appear entirely sober, but personal identity persisting as it does through such superficial changes, I feel I must come clean and acknowledge my role in the ruse. It was me. All of it. The entire operation behind the Jason Boone story was a one-man job, and that man was not Jason Boone.
You can thus imagine my surprise when, not long ago, on the morning of this year's Canadian Thanksgiving, I received a telephone call from a certain Augusta Aardappel. Readers will recall that Aardappel was supposedly the South African academic who had written a dissertation, in a Deleuzean vein, on the poetry of Jason Boone ('The Boone Rhizome'), and who apparently had dated Boone for a while in the early 1990s. But again, I made her up along with Pupici, Cooney, Coombs, and the rest. Anyone who has the faintest familiarity with the sonorities of Dutch should have been able to detect that she was a fabrication: 'Aardappel' literally means, 'earth-apple', and, on the model of the French 'pomme de terre', serves in Dutch as the word for 'potato' (in Afrikaans it is 'aartappel'). Have you ever met anyone named 'Mr. Potato'? Of course not. It is a name for fictional characters, not for real people.
Yet here was this woman on the telephone, on the morning of Canadian Thanksgiving, with a fully convincing Afrikaner accent, claiming to be none other than Augusta Aardappel. Of course at first I did not believe her, but I was also very intrigued, since my fiction had not previously inspired a great number of copycat hoaxes (I write in a non-existent genre –hyperlinked, multimedia, serial metafiction– and my readership, if I may be honest, is fairly limited). Curious to figure out why anyone would bother to perpetrate such a pointless fraud, I determined to keep this 'Augusta' on the phone for as long as I could.
I asked her how the weather was in Pretoria, what was her opinion of vuvuzelas, Julius Malema, and Die Antwoord. She complimented me on my familiarity with today's South Africa, and I told her it was really nothing, I just get it from my friends' Facebook status updates. I could conjure an equal semblance of knowledge, I told her, about Vietnam, Tonga, or Sakhalin Island (with the last of these I could even add some Chekhovian flourishes).
When I felt I had gained her confidence I put to Ms. Aardappel the inevitable question. Why, I asked, would she claim to be someone I had made up?
“There's something important I need to tell you,” she replied evasively. “Jason didn't die.”
“Of course he didn't die,” I answered. “He never existed in the first place. I made him up too. Now tell me where you're calling from and what it is you want.”
“I'm calling from across possible worlds,” was Augusta Aardappel's answer. “I'm calling because I need your help.”
I knew immediately she was telling the truth.
I’ve never been in this position, but the person demanding a newspaper or magazine correction—the insider claiming he was quoted out of context; the scientist whose nuanced position didn’t come across, quite; the dead person who’s not really dead—must get a certain satisfaction from seeing the correction printed. It might be the grim satisfaction of a wrong set to rights too late, but satisfaction nonetheless. Then again, in a digital publication, a correction can work to the source’s advantage in some sense. If s/he finds the mistake early enough, an editor can amend it instantly and make sure that (most) everyone reads the correct sentence the first time. Some publications even mark the factual boner with an asterisk, which not only emphasizes the correct version of things, but provides some instant sympathy for the wronged party.
But as a disinterested reader, I’d never gotten actual delight from a correction until a few weeks ago, when the New York Times ran one for an article about study skills and retention (“Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits”). I’d read the uncorrected article online at first, then went back to reread it, for reasons soon ejected from my mind. I’d gotten through half the story, and was going to click through to the second page. And I was grimacing in anticipation of a paragraph I knew was coming up. The author had needed a metaphor conveying something about unintended consequences, and apparently wanted the imprimatur of science. So he fell back on that canned summary of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle—you know, the idea that measuring a property of a particle alters the property itself.
Except that’s not what the Uncertainty Principle says. All the Principle actually says, in its entirety, is:
∆x∆p ≥ h/4π
Now if you insist on translating quantum mechanics into English (always risky), the Principle says the uncertainty in a particle’s position (∆x) multiplied by the uncertainty in its speed and direction (taken into account through its momentum, ∆p) always exceeds the number “h divided by four times π.” (The h stands for Planck’s constant, a very tiny number; the π is the familiar constant from circles, 3.14159…) In simpler terms, if you know a particle’s position very well, you cannot know its momentum well at all, and vice versa.
“The coming months will see a new world, where global history is redefined.”
– WikiLeaks’ Twitter Feed, November 22nd
Julian Assange may be some new kind of journalist, but he is without a doubt some new kind of historian, too. He and his organization often frame their mission in terms of redefining history, as above, or in terms of offering history to the public. When asked what the consequences of the Iraq War Diaries would or should be, Assange answered, “the truth doesn’t need a policy objective.” Assange was also asked if the diaries were “a gift to historians.” He said no, the gift was not for historians, rather that the Iraqi people “need the history of the last 6 years” to better understand and operate in the present. Last night’s “Cablegate” release only amplifies this sense of breaking not just news, but history. As the New York Times notes in its coverage, the leak represents an unprecedented leap in access to primary sources: until last night only diplomatic cables up to 1972 were publically available.
They say that journalists write the first draft of history. A Latin American term for a first draft is a “borrador” or “eraser.” But the line between journalism (or indeed history) and fiction is easily smudged. Statements like those above from WikiLeaks and Assange assume primary sources, like the ones WikiLeaks provide give us the whole truth, or at least possess a unique “truthiness.” But documents like those released in the war diaries and Cablegate do not represent “the truth,” but rather are simply another vantage point from which to try and glimpse it. How much of a first draft do you ever end up keeping?
If we believe “truth” in history is just a sheaf of diplomatic cables, or Pentagon memos – that if we just read them all, then we’ll know – we deny the shifting, impossible project that history is.
That instability is something we are taught to deny. Just as journalists – and fifth graders – are taught the 5 W’s: Who, What, When, Why, and hoW, so too do historians write – and students of history are taught to write, if they are to be considered “serious” – with a sense of inevitability as their guide. This is true at least at the mainstream and lower branches of the academy (I include my own BA here), where it is not so au fait to imagine that, for example, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand or the accession of Gorbachev were anything more than matches falling into existing stacks of kindling. Teleology is seductive.
After a long day of walking around Tokyo I often catch myself thinking, “Well, I guess today wasn't to be the day that I bump into her.” Is it really so ridiculous to think that I might? Sure, it may be a city of nearly twelve million, but the odds of meeting my ex-girlfriend on the train or passing her on the street can't really be that low, can they? By my calculations, it’s an even fifty-fifty: either I see her or I don't. At least that's how it feels.
To Pass By
Once while browsing at the library, I came across a book that began with a dentist and a patient chatting during a minor medical procedure. The patient, if memory serves, was a professor of Chinese history. So where ya from, asks the doctor? China. What Province? Szechuan. Ya know, the doctor chuckles, I only know one Chinese guy, a dentist from Szechuan. His name is X. D’ya happen to know him? Actually, says the astonished patient, that's my uncle!
The author’s point was not that it’s a small world after all, but rather, that docs and profs really only move within the smallest slices of a rather large world. Nor is this phenomenon limited to cosmopolitan elites. When I used to drift around New York City, I would often see folks in MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) uniforms, far from any train station or bus stop, greeting each other by first name: Hi Derrick. How’s it going there, Carroll? It’s true that for the MTA, city-streets behave as the office hallway, food trucks as the cafeteria, stations as cubicles; but still, shouldn’t these folks feel just the littlest surprise when running into each other inside this impossibly large office building? It would seem that city-space just operates differently for the transit authority than it does for those of us who merely pass through the city’s streets in transit. How it all works I can't presume to know.
Passing By in Tokyo
If chance encounters happen at all in Tokyo, they happen in the small slices; at the bike-shop, the record-store, a favorite watering hole. But for most of us, most of the time, Tokyo is a city of almost-encounters and near-misses, a city of shared space – shared not simultaneously, but by turns. It is a city defined by 'passing by.’
by Hasan Altaf
In a city like DC, the think tank circuit does a roaring trade in “developing countries,” their problems, and an endless list of ways to solve those problems and take those countries, to use the easy dichotomy of think tanks, from developing to developed. The hottest commodity on the market, lately, the dream subject of international development, is Pakistan. It has become the perfect laboratory for think tank experiments, a veritable Petri dish of everything that could go wrong and every possible way to imagine a solution; rarely does a week go by without a presentation or, at least, a visiting expert.
Recently, I went to one such presentation at a respected think tank in DC. It was raining, and people straggled in one by one, shucking off their overcoats and placing their umbrellas carefully under their chairs. The room filled up with suits and briefcases as the interns ran sound checks. The atmosphere, as the audience milled around waiting for the presentation to start, was so far removed from what we were there to hear about that it felt almost theatrical. It’s hard to tell, in such circumstances, whether you are part of the show or simply there to applaud – or, perhaps, both.
My usual instinct, out of not so much cynicism as sadness, is to avoid these events, and I had forgotten that their real purpose is never the one stated. The presentation is an afterthought, a sweetener. The real point is the social gathering, the first ten minutes and the last ten minutes. It was fascinating to watch the not-so-idle chitchat as people ran into old friends and found new ones, to overhear the experts trading war stories from their time “in the field.” People discovered friends or colleagues in common, experiences they had shared, times they had just barely missed each other. In a way, it was heartwarming. This world, of international development and the research that surrounds it, is a small one, and people stick together.
Somehow, though, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off. It felt as though the last century had disappeared and that all of a sudden we were back in the olden days. Coffee and bagels have replaced the gin and tonic, we have lunch meetings instead of chhota pegs and rounds of polo, and we wear business casual instead of whatever they wore back then, but the spirit of the thing is the same. These are safe spaces, as far as possible from the noise and the mess, for the agents of civilization – and, now, the native elites – to discuss and fix problems that are oceans away, to alter the courses of lives that are not their own.
Years ago, London neurobiologists discovered a way to visualize the structural dynamics of memory formation using just a laser, a microscope, and a window. To start, they vivisected the craniums of dozens of laboratory mice and surgically embedded tiny glass panels into the outer fleshy folds of the living, exposed brains.
The researchers specifically targeted an area of the brain known as the visual cortex; their goal was to define the relationship between vision and memory. These implanted bits of glass were to serve as physical windows to the branching, ductile neurons of the brain; when scanned by a laser, they would allow for capture of microscopic images of fluorescing neurons and provide a glimpse into the creation of memories.
In 2009, their laborious efforts paid off. Mark Hubener’s lab at University College reported in January’s issue of Nature magazine that they had found a link between distinct neural growths and memories of past experiences. Through miniscule peepholes, Hubener’s team saw bud-like spines emerging from the branches of the brain’s neurons. These spines seemed to sprout most in response to new experiences, implicating them as the brain’s physical storage areas for memory.
Because Hubener’s work is fairly visual in nature, it’s easiest to begin with a mental picture of the brain. Let’s start by imagining its most basic component, the neuron, as a tree in winter, leafless with many branches, or dendrites. If the neuron is a tree, then the brain, quite simply, would be the forest where it resides. Now, if you can imagine that forest with one hundred billion trees densely packed into a space the size of a grapefruit, then you’ve got a basic idea of what the human brain looks like.
Not impressed? Each tree in your brain forest physically contacts the branches of thousands of other trees; in children, these contacts, or synapses, number a quadrillion, in adults, this number decreases then stabilizes to a mere few hundred trillion. If synapses were dollars, we’d have enough money to pay for the Bush administration’s tax cuts… for two thousand years*.
So, what’s the purpose of all of these branching contacts? Synapses serve as conduits of communication between neurons- they allow information to race from dendritic branch to dendritic branch, relaying messages of sense, perception, reaction, and thought. But what about memory? Where are our recollections of past experiences stored among this vast network of neurons?
In the wake of Republican defeat in the 2008 election, conservatives started casting about for a new standard-bearer. One name which then resurfaced was that of Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives. A conservative firebrand during his Congressional days, Gingrich had reinvented himself as a pragmatic innovator, pushing high-tech solutions for our continuing dependence on fossil fuels. However, as we’ve seen from his subsequent output, he's still the same old culture warrior in other ways. Here he is in a 2006 interview, discussing his then-recent book The Creator’s Gifts: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness: “[I]n the minds of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and the people who wrote that document, they literally meant that your rights come from God, that you then loan them to the government, which is why the Declaration of Independence begins ‘We the people…’. And therefore if we drive God out of the public square we drive out the source of our own rights and our own source of power.”
Of course, it's the Constitution, not the Declaration, which begins “We the people…”; but anyone, even a history Ph. D., can misspeak in an interview. The important point is this conception of the “creator's gifts” and their significance. Alan Keyes, whom Barack Obama defeated in their 2004 Senate contest, strongly endorsed the same idea during his own presidential run. What should we make of the idea that our rights “come from God”?
This idea of rights given by God is the conceptual flip side of duties imposed by God: any right possessed by A is ipso facto a duty imposed on B not to violate that right. This latter idea has traditionally provoked the question of whether morality should, or even can, be identified with divine command. The paradox of this account of morality, first discussed 2500 years ago in Plato's Euthyphro, is brought out by this question: Is something the right thing to do because God orders it, or does God order it because it's the right thing to do? The second answer simply abandons the divine command theory, but the first answer isn't any better. It requires us to say why something we know to be wrong – say, torturing the innocent – would not thereby be made right if God happened to demand it. One natural answer is that God, being ideally good, wouldn't actually do that; but now we are explaining morality in terms of God's ideally good nature, and not in terms of divine command after all.