Nature After Nurture?

Smart-babyPhoto Credit: Angie Hill

by Meghan Rosen

Last year, while doing our taxes, my husband and I were surprised to discover that we weren’t as poor as we thought we were. As lowly graduate students making a combined income of about $50,000 per year, I had assumed we were on the penny-pinching side of the national pay scale. But when I compared our income to the median income in the country, I found that we were sitting comfortably in the center. We had made it; we were officially smack-dab in the middle class. I thought it would feel different.

In the United States, nearly 25% of the population makes less than $25,000 per year. At this bottom level, a few households squeak by the poverty threshold, but just barely: in 2010 it’s estimated at just $22,314 for a family of four.

This year, 16 million children will be born into poverty (1 out of every 5 children born in the US). The lives of these children often follow a common stagnant storyline: poor nutrition, delayed mental and emotional development, academic deterioration, criminal activity, and frequently, early parenthood. As young parents, they are more likely to be unwed, more likely to drop out of high school, and more likely to stay impoverished. The cycle is vicious, and unrelenting. But is it possible to escape? How early is the influence of our environment engraved into the patterns of our development?

In 2003, a study from the University of Virginia showed that 7 year-old fraternal twins raised in families with low socioeconomic status had almost no variability in IQ. Why is this surprising? Twin-tigers Fraternal twins are as genetically dissimilar as any other pair of non-twin siblings—their IQs should have been different.

Unlike identical twins, which come from the same blend of a single sperm and a single egg’s DNA, and have matching sets of genes, fraternal twins are completely unique. Two eggs and two sperm form two separate embryos: two genetically distinct individuals that share only their time and space together in the womb. The height, build, athletic ability, and IQ of one fraternal twin can be as different from the second as any of their other brothers or sisters. In fact, differences between fraternal twins are not only common; they are expected.

Why then, were these differences not reflected in the mental abilities of the 7-year olds? Is it possible that variation in IQ doesn’t occur until later in childhood? Or did their low socioeconomic environments somehow mask their inherent genetic potential?

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In Praise of Yamato Spirit(s) : Passing By in Tokyo Part II

Screen shot 2011-01-23 at 11.55.23 PM A fair amount of teasing from friends has nearly weaned me of the impulse to rush to the aid of every Japanese salary-man I see passed out on Tokyo’s late-night streets. These men, always men, of all ages, used to cause me a great deal of concern. I try to fold my concern inward now, in a way that doesn’t slow my step or disturb the flow of my thoughts as I pass by. Or I give myself over to observation: of the jacket loosely enveloping a thin middle-aged man balled up like a black seed against the bathroom wall – a little kernel destined no doubt to sprout into domestic trouble the next morning. Or of the tailored suit holding itself up against that building, the man inside it swallowing air loudly to prevent vomit from rising up from his stomach. The vomit rises despite his efforts, and soon – very soon – I think to myself, he’ll be horizontal on the street, passed out on those stairs over there where I had seen a man passed out the previous week.

There was a late-night television show where a microphone had been set up in front of a bustling subway station. A sign posted in front of the unsupervised amplifier read something like “The Drunk’s Sermon: Please Step Up.” The speeches were all variations on the monstrous condition of salary-man life and the restorative properties of alcohol: “Life is hell…drink to forget.” “Drink is the only escape from this hell.” “Drink makes life worth living.” “Kids,” intones one older man whose eyes reveal that he has a few children himself, “You may think I am repulsive but soon you will be just like me.” So unoriginal, so badly executed, so hackneyed and broken were these rants, that they couldn’t help but touch on some larger if also colorless truth about Japanese men and their relationship to alcohol.

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Football, Finance, and Surprises

As the New Orleans Saints lined up to kick off the second half of Super Bowl XLIV, CBS Sports color commentator and former Super Bowl MVP Phil Simms was explaining why the Saints should have deferred getting the ball after winning the pregame coin toss. Simms suggested that the Saints, 4½-point underdogs to the Indianapolis Colts, would be in a better position were they not giving the ball to future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, who already enjoyed a four-point lead and had had 30 minutes to study the Saints’ defensive strategy. Simms had barely finished this thought when Saints’ place kicker Thomas Morstead surprised everyone – the 153.4 million television viewers, the 74,059 fans in attendance, and most importantly the Indianapolis Colts – with an onside kick. The ball went 15 yards, bounced off the facemask of an unprepared Colt, and was recovered by the Saints, who took possession of the ball and marched 58 yards down the field to score a touchdown and gain their first lead of the game, 13-10. The Saints would go on to win the championship in an upset, 31-17.

Although Saints quarterback Drew Brees played an outstanding game and the defense was able to hold a dangerous Indianapolis team to only 17 points, Head Coach Sean Payton received the bulk of the credit for the win, in large part because of his daring call to open the second half. Onside kicks are considered risky plays and usually appear only when a team is desperate, near the end of a game. In fact the Saints’ play, code named “Ambush,” was the first onside kick attempted before the fourth quarter in Super Bowl history. And this is precisely why it worked. The Colts were completely surprised by Payton’s aggressive play call. Football is awash in historical statistics, and these probabilities guide coaches’ risk assessments and game planning. On that basis, didn’t Indianapolis Head Coach Jim Caldwell have zero reason to prepare his team for an onside kick, since the probability of the Saints’ ambush was zero (0 onside kicks ÷ 43 Super Bowl second halves)? But if the ambush’s probability was zero, then how did it happen? The answer is that our common notion of probability – as a ratio of the frequency of a given event to the total number of events – is poorly suited to the psychology of decision making in advance of a one-time-only situation. And this problem is not confined to football. Indeed, the same misunderstanding of probability plagues mainstream economics, which is stuck in a mathematical rut best suited to modeling dice rolls.

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Monday Poem

Fire in the Brain

God is a fire in the brain Nijinsky said
which is as close to the truth as
anything a dancer might dance
with a bonfire burning in his head

God may put you in a trance
with the fluttering of cardinal wings
or with the way the moon looks
mounting the mountain’s back
on the other side of the river
—a bright hole in the dark
a splinter of hope
a sliver

Sometimes beyond the blazing bars
of your incarceration
you hallucinate stars

You surmise the sun’s a substantiating eye
but fear that every distance is not near
(not close enough to make the untellable clear)

You dream days
You dream nights

Sometimes you lie without a clue
in the hour of the wolf
waiting for the wolf to bite

or you wait for the blue to light
When it does you see crocuses

You taste a sweet cloud of honeysuckle
that drifts across the yard
where at a certain spot
between the garden and the shed
you swear paradise was there
—precisely there where a skunk
had shred the grass the night before
grubbing while you were in bed
; grubbing with a skunky conflagration
in her head

God may burn a brain and brand it
God may shrink it or expand it

This is the bed in which
our ignorance reposes which,
by every blister on our brain,
is both a bed of coals
and roses

by Jim Culleny, 1/22/11

Watching Star Plus in Lahore

by Hasan Altaf

Saath Nibhaana Saathiya Several years ago now, in one of those brown-meets-white movies whose titles are as impossible to keep straight as their plots are predictable, the brown girl attempted to explain Bollywood movies to her white boyfriend. He asked, “So they’re like soap operas?” and she replied, “Basically… just with bigger bubbles.” I’ve forgotten all the other details of that particular movie, but the line stuck with me as an apt description of the genre. No one watches Bollywood movies for “reality” – we watch for an escape: More than anything else, the movies, offering a little something for everyone, are fantasy.

I readily admit to a deep and abiding fondness for Bollywood; my experience with soap operas, on the other hand, began this past summer, when I spent two weeks in Lahore visiting my grandmother, who had been bedridden for a few months and spent her time watching Indian soaps. The TV in her room was always on, and it was soaps, soaps around the clock, Star Plus and Colors, sometimes the same episode repeated innumerable times in a day. Only when the power went out was there a brief hour of silence.

The soap operas were, to put it mildly, an education – and a shock; for some reason I had expected them to be more or less like the movies, and I was surprised at how different they were. In many ways, the first issue I had is still the one that bothers me the most: Why do the women all sleep in full makeup, wearing pounds of jewelry, wrapped in fabulous saris? This happened on every single show, without fail, and it seemed neither practical nor comfortable. I might have been willing to let this one thing go, but the more I watched, the more questions I had. Why do the women never seem to work? Why are men essentially absent? Why are all the characters, always, without fail, Hindus – and Hindus, at that, of the same caste, culture, and language? How many small towns exist in the world in such a state of homogeneity?

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No Time for Wisdom

BedOfProcrustes It’s been roughly 20 years since I’ve purchased a book with the intention of gaining insight into life lived wisely. Like nearly everyone else, nearly all of the time, I have read for other reasons: as an engaging diversion, to reinforce things I already believed, to further my knowledge relevant to my career, to get some concrete piece of practical information, etc.

And so it was when I bought Nassim Nicolas Taleb’s latest book, Bed of Procrustes. Since it is a book of aphorisms from the iconoclastic ex-financier, I expected to grab some zingers on the misuse of statistics and economic theory. What I found, to my embarrassment, was a man focused on the problem of wisdom. Not “wisdom” with respect to predicting the future in financial contexts, but wisdom in something close to the classic sense of a well-lived life–a contemporary version of the Aristotelian megalopsychos. And to be clear: I was embarrassed for myself, not for Taleb.

The aphorism as an art form has been malnourished, humbled and neglected long enough that today it lives a life on the margins. In public media, the aphorism is replaced by the soundbite or the slogan: one meant for evanescent consumption and the other meant to preclude thought rather than stimulate it. Where the transmission of aphorisms survives, it is often reduced to the conveyance of a clever or uplifting saying. For millions of managers and executives, their most frequent contact is probably their daily industry newsletter from SmartBrief, where at the bottom of the list of stories every day is an out-of-context bon mot from a philosopher, statesman, famous wit, or business “thought leader.” (Example: “The difference between getting somewhere and nowhere is the courage to make an early start. The fellow who sits still and does just what he is told will never be told to do big things.”–Charles Schwab, entrepreneur)

Given this background, Taleb’s book, with all its crabby scorn, is a welcome effort. It is more than an attempt to rehabilitate the aphorism in the service of a well-lived life. It is also part of Taleb’s self-conscious rejection of common presumptions about knowledge (self-knowledge, business knowledge, academic knowledge) and value (the value of work, qualities of greatness).

The left holds that because markets are stupid models should be smart; the right believes that because models are stupid markets should be smart. Alas, it never hit both sides that both markets and models are very stupid.

The weak shows his strength and hides his weaknesses; the magnificent exhibits his weaknesses like ornaments.

As with Nietzsche, embracing the encapsulated form of the aphorism expresses an attitude towards knowledge of the human condition: as much a rejection of helpless formal systems in philosophy as of false precision in social science. At the same time, an aphorism is itself a bed of Procrustes. It cuts the observable complexity down to a kernel that can be more easily digested and retransmitted. Many of the best aphorisms also contain metaphors; they falsify when taken literally and break down if pushed too hard.

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Spacemusic new and old

Aglaia is a site for radio DJs with no place to go. I like it because the idea is to be legal and upfront about the whole business, paying royalties to artists just like real radio. Sets stream at a reasonably high bitrate, and there are some very talented mixers who post there. I post there too, occasionally, and I have just put up two sets of space music in the style of Star's End, a spacemusic radio show broadcast in Philadelphia on WXPN-FM since 1976. I used to do the show in the 1980s, until 1993 in fact. It's still running, and can be heard on the 'net in real time every Saturday night/Sunday morning, thanks to the capable custodianship of longtime host Chuck van Zyl (an accomplished space musician himself, I might add). Here are some notes on these two rather different sets, which I mixed on Garageband (!) and which work pretty well if I do say so myself.

Star's End Annex set 49 can be found here.

Artist – Track Album (Label)
David Tagg – Pt. 1 Fundamentals of Orchid Biology (Second Sun)
Lähtö – Drift Leaving behind the sun (self release)
Tuu – Gangiri The Frozen Lands (Amplexus)
Thomas Köner – 43° 42' N 7° 16' E (Hour Two) La Barca (Fario)
Uton – Ay Um Au Lam 6 Whispers From the Woods (Last Visible Dog)
Akira Rabelais – 1382 Wyclif Gen. ii. 7 And spiride in to the face of hym an entre of breth of lijf. Spellewauerynsherde (Samadhi Sound)
Steve Roach – Deep Sky Time New Life Dreaming (Timeroom Editions)
Yui Onodera – Untitled (track 3) Entropy (Trumn)
Xiphiidae – Untitled (side B) Stardive (Cloud Valley)
Aglaia – Untitled (track 1) Three Organic Experiences (Hic Sunt Leones)

Guitar droners are a dime a dozen nowadays, but David Tagg is one of the very best. This is from a recent disc, available here for only $8. While you're there pick up Waist Deep Seas Of Milk, which is very nice and not at all as gross as the title makes it sound. For more guitar drone than you could possibly listen to and live, check out Alan Lockett's monumental six-part series of Great Axescapes: an Archaeology of Drone-gaze Tone-haze Guitar-wrangling.

Leavingbehindthesun-full Our next track is pretty drony too. Lähtö is Tyke Chandler, who is not a Finn at all, that band name notwithstanding, but hails from Louisville, Kentucky. On his myspace page he lists his influences as “tim hecker, andrew chalk, bohren & der club of gore, port-royal, eluvium, the conet project, double leopards, grouper, max richter, jesu, ulver, [and] mogwai.” An eclectic chap! As I mention at the Mixcloud page, this record is freely downloadable from his website, so check it out.

Tuu were a fairly typical but very well-regarded ethno-ambient group, led by drummer Martin Franklin. They came out of the ambient techno scene, but they soon left the techno elements behind (less drum, more gong and clay pot), eventually releasing discs on such worthy ambient labels as Hic Sunt Leones and Fathom. According to Wikipedia, The Frozen Lands (1999) was their final release. Too bad, they were pretty good. See also Franklin's disc Maps Without Edges (1996), released under the name Stillpoint.

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Old Man in Winter

ID_IC_MEIS_WINTE_AP_001 Morgan over at The Smart Set:

It is a time of dreariness and decay. I'm speaking of winter, of course. I always think, when thinking of winter, of the opening lines of Richard III. Richard, the king-to-be, is musing upon the ascension to the throne of his brother, Edward IV. He says, in lines that are burned into the deep pathways of our neural networks, “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York.”

These opening lines of the play are actually quite hopeful. The first word, “now,” looks forward to the “made” in the next line. Shakespeare, in that clever way of his, makes the language fresh by making you pay attention. The “now” is a placeholder for the thought to come. It sets the scenario, grabs us with its immediacy, and lingers there for a moment while we wait for the thought to develop. The thought develops into the idea that “now” is being “made glorious summer” by this son of York. The winter of our discontent is in the past. “Now” is, in fact, a time of glorious summer, a renewal brought about by the reign of Edward IV, son of York.

But the phrase “now is the winter of our discontent” is so powerful that it often gets picked out of context and made to stand alone. When you do that, it seems as if “now” is the winter of our discontent. The winter of our discontent isn't going anywhere. It is simply the way it is right now.

Sometimes when I hear that line I even hear it as a statement not about “now” but about winter. If you think of it as a winter statement, you can almost replace the word “now” with the word “winter,” i.e., “winter is the winter of our discontent.” I don't take this as a simple tautology, “winter is winter,” but the equation of winter the season with winter the mood. Winter, the season, is a time of general discontent. Winter, in its dreariness and decay, is the season of wanting things to be otherwise.

And yet, some part of us wants winter, some part of us glories in the winteriness of winter.

Mondo Weiss

1295450984goldberg_011811_380pxB Over at Tablet, Michelle Goldberg profiles Philip Weiss:

When Philip Weiss, the Jewish anti-Zionist writer and blogger, compares himself to Theodor Herzl, he’s not being ironic. “I actually am like him in certain ways,” he says. “Herzl said, ‘Anti-Semites made me Jewish again.’ I would say that neo-conservatives made me Jewish again.”

To the legion of Jews that Weiss has enraged, this will sound perverse. It’s certainly self-aggrandizing. But it also gets at the way that Weiss has abandoned a deeply assimilated life for a profound—if idiosyncratic and tortured—engagement with Jewish questions. As the founder of Mondoweiss, a blog that has become a nucleus of anti-Zionist writing, and a co-editor of a new book about Richard Goldstone’s report on Israel’s 2008 invasion of Gaza, Weiss says that he now thinks about Jewishness all the time. In his fierce critique of tribal identity, he’s found his tribe—one he believes is growing.

“I think I was alienated from a lot of Jewish communal life in my 20s, 30s, 40s,” Weiss says. “One symptom of that is the fact that I’d never been to Israel until 2006. I was 50 before I got to Israel.” Now that he is 55, Israel has become the center of his life. He goes to rabbinical conventions and corresponds with left-wing Israelis. “I love what I’ve undergone in the last few years,” he says. “And I love my engagement with Jewish communal life now.”

Of course, much of that engagement comes in the form of relentless criticism. Weiss’ blog is fulsomely, intensely anti-Israel—it’s a universe in which even Noam Chomsky, hero of anti-imperialists worldwide, is criticized for his residual attachment to the Jewish state. His obsessive focus on Israel has come at the expense of a successful career as a magazine journalist. Harvard-educated, he got his start writing for the New Republic and later contributed features to New York, and the New York Times Magazine and wrote a column for the New York Observer. Initially he launched Mondoweiss as a general-interest blog on the New York Observer website. When he started to focus on Israel, his editor warned him that he was becoming a crank.

He didn’t listen, and in 2007 he left the Observer, taking the blog with him. Today it operates under the umbrella of the nonprofit Nation Institute, which allows Weiss to solicit tax-deductable contributions. But its budget comes entirely from donations, and Weiss has to rely on his wife, the writer and editor Cynthia Kling, to help support him.

It’s a little hard to figure out why Weiss threw so much away for a cause that was so new to him. Naturally, he sees a linear moral logic to his journey. He looks at contemporary Israel and is appalled.

Is 50 really the new 34, or is it a licence to wear elasticated waistbands?

From The Guardian:

Grayson-Perry-50-007 “We are welcoming an era in which 50 is the new 34,” argues Emma Soames, Saga magazine's editor-at-large. The increasingly glamorous image of 50-year-olds has even spawned a new term, the “Quintastics” – thanks, in part, to the visibility of a number of high-profile celebrities who met the event with undiminished glamour in the past year, including Bono, Nigella Lawson, Hugh Grant, Jonathan Ross, Colin Firth, Tilda Swinton and Kristin Scott Thomas. But it's not all good news. “By the time we are 50, we are definitely in the suburbs of mortality,” says Alain de Botton. “After 21, birthdays are really wakes and occasions for mourning – unfairly ascribed a degree of jollity which they absolutely don't require. Yes, older people now look a bit better for a while longer, but essentially, it's pretty much a vale of tears.”

Nevertheless there's something newly cool about turning 50. Just ask George Clooney – whose birthday falls in May and who has almost single-handedly ignited a revival of the Cary Grant/Spencer Tracy brand of suave older man – or Barack Obama (50 in August), still the closest thing we've got to a real-life superhero. As Michelle Pfeiffer said when she reached the landmark: “You just take stock and count your blessings.”

More here.

The Grounds of Courage

From The New Republic:

Bonhoeffer Early in January 1939, the precocious German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, age thirty-two, learned that all males in his age cohort had been ordered to register with the military. A dedicated opponent of the Nazi regime, he might have responded by declaring himself a conscientious objector, but there were two problems with such a course of action. The first was that Bonhoeffer, although pacifist by inclination, was not opposed to violence under all conditions; and he would later play an active role in the conspiracy led by German generals to assassinate Hitler. The second was that his fame in the Confessing Church (more on this below) might encourage other religious leaders critical of the regime to do the same, thereby bringing them under greater suspicion and undermining their efforts to prove that Nazi policies, and especially their rapidly intensifying Jew-hatred, were contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ.

The solution was provided by America’s most illustrious theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. Nine years earlier, Bonhoeffer had spent a year in the United States as a free-floating exchange student at Union Theological Seminary, arriving not long after Niebuhr had moved there from Detroit. He had made such a positive impression on Union’s faculty that Niebuhr jumped at the opportunity to bring him back. If we fail to offer him a job, he told Union’s president, Henry Sloane Coffin, Bonhoeffer will wind up in a concentration camp. This was not the stuff of run-of-the-mill letters of recommendation. Union extended the offer. Grateful to have a way out of his dilemma, Bonhoeffer booked passage, and in June 1939 found himself safe in America.

Safe, but unhappy.

More here.

Sunday Poem

The Story We Know

The way to begin is always the same. Hello,
Hello. Your hand, your name. So glad, just fine,
and Good bye at the end. That’s every story we know,

and why pretend? But lunch tomorrow? No?
Yes? An omelette, salad, chilled white wine?
The way to begin is simple, sane, Hello,

and then it’s Sunday, coffee, the Times, a slow
day by the fire, dinner at eight or nine
and Good bye. In the end, this is a story we know

so well we don’t turn the page, or look below
the picture, or follow the words to the next line:
The way to begin is always the same Hello.

But one night, through the latticed window, snow
begins to whiten the air, and the tall white pine.
Good bye is the end of every story we know

that night, and when we close the curtains, oh,
we hold each other against that cold white sign
of the way we all begin and end. Hello,
Good bye is the only story. We know, we know.

by Martha Collins
A Catastrophe of Rainbows
Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 1985

H M Naqvi wins first $50,000 DSC Literature Prize for South Asia at the Jaipur Literature Festival

From the Hindustan Times:

ScreenHunter_05 Jan. 23 12.19 DSC Director Manhad Narula, the brain behind the award, said that he hoped it would have an impact of the scene of literature in South Asia as this was the first such prize honouring work on this subject.

“Some literature prizes tend to give more importance to the author rather than to his or her work. But I hope through this award we are able to ensure what matters is what the author is writing about,” he said.

He said that one of the measures that would go a long away in ensuring credibility to the award is the fact that it honours work on the subject of South Asia, be it by any author of any nationality.

“Its about time South Asians have our own damn award,” said an elated Naqvi.

Asked if he had to say something to his critics, the 36-year-old author said, “Mercifully in the US, in India as well as in Pakistan, my critics have been few. But all criticisms of Home Boy are valued. It is a debut novel and it has all the strengths and weaknesses of a debut novel.”

The winner was decided judged by a jury chaired by Nilanjana S Roy, along with Lord Mathew Evans, Ian Jack, Amitava Kumar and Moni Mohsin.

Awarded for the best work of fiction pertaining to the South Asian region, the prize is given to works published in English, and includes translations in English with a share of the award money also going to the translator.

More here. [Congratulations to Husain from all of us at 3QD, where he was once a columnist.]

The Original Sherlock Holmes: How a French Doctor Helped Create Forensic Science

A 19th-century French medical examiner and criminologist was even more skilled than the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. A new book recounts his biggest case, which heralded the age of forensic science.

Frank Thadeusz in Der Speigel:

ScreenHunter_04 Jan. 23 11.28 On a good day, Joseph Vacher could win over a woman with his disarmingly innocent demeanor. In these states of mind, he wrote letters in an ornate, rounded feminine handwriting and amused children by making faces at them.

But then Vacher would go into uncontrolled rages. Once, he beat his small dog to death with a club because it wasn't eating its food.

His crimes against human beings were much worse. In remote forests and barns, Vacher, the son of a farmer, raped and murdered a total of 11 people, most of them children.

In late 19th-century France, this diminutive serial killer epitomized ordinary citizens' fears of the evil that lurks in the darkness. At the time, the guillotine was still used to execute dangerous criminals in France. In the Vacher case, however, the judges were hesitant to impose the death penalty. Was the mass murderer “a cannibal” who had to be beheaded, or was he a “certifiably insane person” who was to be locked up in an asylum?

Douglas Starr, a professor of journalism at Boston University, has now reconstructed the series of murders Vacher committed.

In his book, “The Killer of Little Shepherds,” Starr does not, however, assign the leading role to Vacher, the child murderer, but to the man who was to solve the Vacher mystery: Alexandre Lacassagne, the head of forensic medicine in the southern city of Lyon.

Lacassagne solved murder cases that seemed unsolvable at the time. To this day, students in police academies are taught the methods of the master criminologist from Lyon.

More here.

Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s defiant prisoner of intolerance, vows to stay put

Declan Walsh in The Observer:

ScreenHunter_03 Jan. 23 10.46 All Sherry Rehman wants is to go out – for a coffee, a stroll, lunch, anything. But that's not possible. Death threats flood her email inbox and mobile phone; armed police are squatted at the gate of her Karachi mansion; government ministers advise her to flee.

“I get two types of advice about leaving,” says the steely politician. “One from concerned friends, the other from those who want me out so I'll stop making trouble. But I'm going nowhere.” She pauses, then adds quietly: “At least for now.”

It's been almost three weeks since Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer was gunned down outside an Islamabad cafe. As the country plunged into crisis, Rehman became a prisoner in her own home. Having championed the same issue that caused Taseer's death – reform of Pakistan's draconian blasphemy laws – she is, by popular consensus, next on the extremists' list.

Giant rallies against blasphemy reform have swelled the streets of Karachi, where clerics use her name. There are allegations that a cleric in a local mosque, barely five minutes' drive away, has branded her an “infidel” deserving of death. In the Punjabi city of Multan last week opponents tried to file blasphemy charges against her – raising the absurd possibility of Rehman, a national politician, facing a possible death sentence.

More here.

Islamophobia is the moral blind spot of modern Britain

Giles Fraser in The Guardian:

225px-Baronness_Sayeeda_Warsi_crop No one actually comes out and directly says “I hate Muslims” – at least, not on the liberal dinner party circuit that was the target of Lady Warsi's speech. Conversations generally begin with the sort of anxieties that many of us might reasonably share: it cannot be right for women to be denied access to education in some Islamic regimes; the use of the death penalty for apostasy is totally unacceptable; what about the treatment of homosexuals? The conversation then moves on to sharia law or jihad or the burqa, not all of it entirely well informed. Someone places their hands across their face and peers out between their fingers. Another guest giggles slightly. Someone inevitably mentions 9/11. Later, guests travel home on the tube and look nervously at the man in the beard sitting opposite.

The problem Warsi identifies is the problem of slippage. What can begin as a perfectly legitimate conversation about, say, religious belief and human rights, can drift into a licence for observations that in any other circumstance would be regarded as tantamount to racism. Like the 19th-century link between anti-Catholicism and racism towards the Irish, one can easily bleed into the other.

“I treat the Islamic religion with the same respect as the bubble-gum I scrape off my shoe,” suggested one contributor to the website of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, in response to Warsi's speech. Another offered the following charming observation: “I don't care what the good or bad Baroness has to say about anything at all. I give her no credence nor voice. She is a person of faith so in my book a skinwaste.”

More here. [Photo shows Baroness Saeeda Hussain Warsi.]

Royal Society – Brain Waves: Neuroscience, Society and Policy

Daniel Lende in Neuroanthropology:

Royal-Society-Brain-Waves The Royal Society has just put out the first module of its Brain Waves project, which provides a primer on the state of art in neuroscience and how neuroscience intersects with society. The ten essays cover a range of relevant topics for neuroanthropology, with an introduction written by Prof. Colin Blakemore.

The first section covers the scope and limits of neuroimaging, neuropsychopharmacology, neural interfaces, consciousness, and reward.

The second section focuses on neuroscience and society, with takes on benefits, risks, neuroethics, and governance.

All the essays, which generally range from 8 to 12 pages and are written in clear prose and have citations for further exploration, have been written almost entirely by prominent British experts. They are freely available as pdfs.

I’ve just started to explore, and based on the quality, I am sure to look at them all. Wolfram Schultz’s essay on Reward, Decision Making, and Neuroeconomics is obviously one that immediately caught my eye. Steven Rose’s Risks raises some of the critical questions relevant to many anthropologists.

More here.