the libyan experience


Those were dangerous times. It was the early 1980s. The Libyan dictatorship was targeting dissidents abroad. We had recently read in the newspaper about the death of a renowned Libyan economist. He was stepping off a train at Rome’s Stazione Termini when a stranger pressed a pistol to his chest and pulled the trigger. A photograph of his dark figure, partly covered in a white sheet, was printed beside the article. His shoes were polished. That detail troubled me. Another time there was a report of a Libyan student shot in a café in Athens. I don’t recall seeing a photograph, but I tried to imagine how it might have happened. I pictured the student sitting on the terrace of the café, a scooter clumsily coming to a stop by the pavement and the man sitting behind the driver pointing a gun at the student and firing. Then a Libyan BBC World Service radio newsreader was killed in London. And, in April 1984, there was the now infamous demonstration in front of the Libyan embassy in St James’s Square. One of the embassy staff pushed open a sash window on the first floor, held out a Kalashnikov and sprayed the crowd. Yvonne Fletcher, a policewoman, died and 11 Libyan demonstrators, mostly students, were wounded. These events were in the background, but I didn’t consciously link them then to my brother’s abrupt return from school, his changed face, his silence and altered manner. All I cared about was that he was back. His friends, those boys who I thought were the coolest people in the world, started visiting. He gradually regained his spirits.

more from Hisham Matar at the FT here.

The Education of Jennifer Miller: An Update from the Frontline in the Fight against the Anti-Evolution Agenda

From Scientific American:

Evo As the 2005 school year got underway, a new requirement in a Pennsylvania public school district mandated that all 9th-grade biology students listen to a statement questioning the validity of evolutionary theory and promoting intelligent design. Eleven parents of students in the Dover Area School District sued the local school board in protest. Four months later a Republican judge in a Pennsylvania federal court ruled in favor of the parents, issuing an eloquent defense of evolutionary theory—and a scathing rebuke to those who support intelligent design (ID) as a scientific alternative. Judge John E. Jones III wrote in the 139-page decision for Tammy Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, named for one of the parents who brought the suit, that ID was not only unscientific but was also a front used by those on the school board with a religiously motivated, pro-creationist agenda. “ID's backers have sought to avoid the scientific scrutiny, which we have now determined that it cannot withstand by advocating that the controversy, but not ID itself, should be taught in science class,” Jones wrote. “This tactic is at best disingenuous, and at worst a canard. The goal of the ID movement is not to encourage critical thought, but to foment a revolution which would supplant evolutionary theory with ID.”

Jennifer Miller was one of the Dover biology teachers who refused to read the contentious ID statement in her class and testified in support of the parents during the 2005 hearings. Miller still works in the area's school district, teaching honors biology to ninth graders and anatomy and physiology to 10th through 12th graders at Dover Area Senior High School. For the past four years she has also chaired the school's science department. Scientific American spoke with Miller about the changes she has seen since the Kitzmiller v. Dover decision was handed down five years ago.

How has teaching evolution in your classroom changed in the five years since Kitzmiller v. Dover?
Since Kitzmiller v. Dover I've definitely changed how I teach. The biggest thing is probably that evolution used to be the last thing we got to in the semester. Sometimes we maybe had one week or two weeks to cover it. Now I put evolution first, and I refer back to it to show how important it is to all topics of biology. The other thing that I really think has changed is how I cover evolution. I'm no longer afraid to cover it in depth and to have in-depth conversations about evolution. I make sure I hit [the concept of] what is science and what is not, and how a scientific theory is very different from a “theory” that we use in everyday conversation.

More here.

Natalie Portman: From Lab to Red Carpet

Natalie Angier in The New York Times:

Natalie_Portman The Intel Science Talent Search is considered the nation’s most elite and demanding high school research competition, attracting the crème de la milk-fats-encased-in-a-phospholipid-and-protein-membrane of aspiring young scientists. Victors and near-victors in the 69-year-old contest have gone on to win seven Nobel Prizes in physics or chemistry, two Fields Medals in mathematics, a half-dozen National Medals in science and technology, a long string of MacArthur Foundation “genius” grants — and now, an Academy Award for best actress in a leading role. On Sunday night, the gorgeously pregnant Natalie Portman, 29, won an Oscar for her performance as Nina, a mentally precarious ballerina in the shock fantasy “Black Swan.” Among the lesser-known but nonetheless depressingly impressive details in Ms. Portman’s altogether too precociously storied career is that as a student at Syosset High School on Long Island back in the late 1990s, Ms. Portman made it all the way to the semifinal rounds of the Intel competition. For those who know how grueling it can be to put together a prize-worthy project and devote hundreds of hours of “free” time at night, on weekends, during spring break and summer vacation, doing real, original scientific research while one’s friends are busy adolescing, the achievement is testimony enough to Ms. Portman’s self-discipline and drive.

Yet there’s more. While carrying out her investigation into a new, “environmentally friendly” method of converting waste into useful forms of energy, and maintaining the straight-A average she’d managed since grade school, Ms. Portman already was a rising movie star. She’d been in films directed by Woody Allen, Tim Burton and Luc Besson, appeared opposite Julia Roberts, Jack Nicholson, Matt Dillon, Uma Thurman, Drew Barrymore and I’m getting tired of typing celebrity names here. She took on the major role of Queen Amidala in the Star Wars prequel trilogy that rocketed her to international fame. And then she went on to Harvard University to study neuroscience and the evolution of the mind. “I’ve taught at Harvard, Dartmouth and Vassar, and I’ve had the privilege of teaching a lot of very bright kids,” said Abigail A. Baird, who was one of Ms. Portman’s mentors at Harvard. “There are very few who are as inherently bright as Natalie is, who have as much intellectual horsepower, who work as hard as she did. She didn’t take a single thing for granted.”

Ms. Portman is one of a handful of high-profile actors who happen to have serious scientific credentials — awards, degrees, patents and theorems in their name.

More here.

Humans, Version 3.0

Mark Changizi in Seed Magazine:

Changizi-harnessed_HL If there is something next, some imminently arriving transformative development for human capabilities, then the key will not be improved genes or cortical plug-ins. But what other way forward could humans possibly have? With genetic and cyborg enhancement off the table for many years, it would seem we are presently stuck as-is, sans upgrades.

There is, however, another avenue for human evolution, one mostly unappreciated in both science and fiction. It is this unheralded mechanism that will usher in the next stage of human, giving future people exquisite powers we do not currently possess, powers worthy of natural selection itself. And, importantly, it doesn’t require us to transform into cyborgs or bio-engineered lab rats. It merely relies on our natural bodies and brains functioning as they have for millions of years.

This mystery mechanism of human transformation is neuronal recycling, coined by neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene, wherein the brain’s innate capabilities are harnessed for altogether novel functions.

This view of the future of humankind is grounded in an appreciation of the biologically innate powers bestowed upon us by hundreds of millions of years of evolution. This deep respect for our powers is sometimes lacking in the sciences, where many are taught to believe that our brains and bodies are taped-together, far-from-optimal kluges. In this view, natural selection is so riddled by accidents and saddled with developmental constraints that the resultant biological hardware and software should be described as a “just good enough” solution rather than as a “fine-tuned machine.”

More here.

Three Uses for Charlie Sheen (a Wittgensteinian appreciation)

Walter Kirn in his new blog Walter Kirn's Permanent Morning:

1. As Cautionary Tale.

Charlie-sheen-rehab Acutely problematic. Since Sheen's biography bears little relationship to the experiences of most civilians, it's hard to know where exactly he went wrong or how, under the circumstances (father a hyper-observant Roman Catholic political activist thinking-person's movie star; brother a frozen-in-pop-culture-time non-thinking person's teen-dream idol; face a peculiar demonic composite of both of them that's somehow been robbed of its individuality; ex-wife a robotic sex kitten projection deemed real only for legal and gossip purposes; TV show a fiendishly exploitative mechanism which invites the viewer to superimpose what he knows to be Sheen's degraded consciousness on a generic asshole background of a character) he might have avoided going wrong.

Yes, in theory, cocaine abuse is something human beings should avoid and probably ought to condemn when it's observed, but Charlie Sheen does not exist in theory. Indeed, no theory can account for Charlie Sheen. Indeed, the possibility of his existence proves that theory has no useful part in any account of lived human reality.

More here.

My first date with Kurt Vonnegut

Charles J. Shields, whose biography of Kurt Vonnegut is due out from Henry Holt & Co. in 2011, in his blog Writing Kurt Vonnegut:

These are the notes that I typed back in my hotel room a few hours after I met Kurt for the first time on December 13, 2006.

Kurt-at-typewriter1-e1276260510218 Vonnegut lives in an off-white brick home on E. 48th Street; a long flight of stairs in front. He greeted me at the door in light grey denim trousers, walking shoes, and a Xavier College sweatshirt. His face was drawn, his skin was gray, and his large hazel eyes had a rheumy stare. His hair— brushed and blown until it stood out— was the color of nicotine and cigarette paper.

I presented him with a bouquet of flowers for his wife, the photojournalist Jill Krementz. Kurt instructed their housekeeper, Maria to “put them in water and say who they’re from.” He was eager to show me where he worked, which was on the third floor, at the top of two staircases that curled up the right-hand wall. I had the feeling we were like two boys who had just met and he was making friends in the time-honored way of showing me his room.

His study, L-shaped, about 12’ x 15’ looks like where a man could spend a good deal of time alone. There’s a double bed in there; and his framed lithographs appear on the walls. A stack of them, about 50, leaned against the wall beside the fireplace. The sinuous figures were done in heavy black line and primary colors.

“Who’s your influence?” I asked. They reminded me of abstracts from the 1950s.

“Paul Klee,” he said, pleased that I wanted to know.

More here.