The Lifespan of a Fact


I think of George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” (1936) as an almost perfect example of the essayist’s art, despite the fact that there is some question as to whether the events it describes took place as Orwell recalls — or even if they took place at all. Does it matter? On the most prosaic level, perhaps. But there is a deeper level, the level at which art moves us, the level at which experience blurs into story, and the boundaries of truth expand. Three-quarters of a century later, this is the level that’s important, the level that lingers, with its sense of what D’Agata calls “curious investigation, rather than the fulfillment of some arbitrary sense of veracity.” Eventually, Fingal too comes around to this, realizing that the most basic facts — the coroner’s report on Presley’s death, for instance — can’t help but seem contradictory if we look closely enough. “Which … sources,” he asks, “can we trust as ‘the’ authority if they all have demonstrated in one way or another the potential of inaccurately representing what actually happened that night?” That’s another essential question, highlighting the idea that everything is a matter of interpretation, even (yes) “The Lifespan of a Fact.” Echoing the essay at its center, the book is “an enactment of the experience of trying to find meaning” — a vivid and reflective meditation on the nature of nonfiction as literary art.

more from David Ulin at the LA Times here.

tireless thoughts


It started with the jacket copy for the British hardback of Richard Holmes’s wonderful “Age of Wonder.” We learn there of the astronomer William Herschel’s “tireless dedication to the stars” (the actual stars, that is, the ones out there in space, before they were superseded — and possibly even outnumbered — by those in the realm of film, pop and sport). This connection between an adjective and the stars made me curious about the extent to which a word can continue to shine after the life has gone out of it. Thereafter I started to notice that “tireless” and “tirelessly” were cropping up all over the place, often in works of considerable literary merit. In Jonathan Coe’s biography of the experimental novelist, for example, I read that B. S. Johnson “worked tirelessly for the trade union movement.” There was nothing particularly wrong with this particular instance, but the cumulative effect of encountering tirelesslys made me — taking my cue from Holmes again — wonder. Like a tired person trying to get to sleep who is kept awake by sounds from the street that he or she has for years scarcely noticed, I found that the word had become suddenly unignorable.

more from Geoff Dyer at the NY Times here.

Social Justice: Is It in Our Nature (and Our Future)?

John T. Jost in American Scientist:

Have-you-seen-whats-happening-at-zucotti-parkAfter decades of exclusion from meaningful social and political discourse, themes of social justice are making a serious comeback. One can point to several recent examples from the disciplines of political science, economics and philosophy, including, respectively, Larry M. Bartels’s Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (Princeton University Press, 2008), Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice (Harvard University Press, 2009) and Derek Parfit’s massive two-volume tome On What Matters (Oxford University Press, 2011). These books have arrived to coincide with the apparent awakening of the sense of injustice in popular movements from Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street.

Peter Corning, who was trained as a biologist and is now the director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems, joins the conversation at just the right time. His most recent book, The Fair Society, was published in early 2011, and—like Joseph Stiglitz’s Vanity Fair article “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%”—it has turned out to be remarkably prescient. Several chapters read like an annotated list of complaints made by the most well-informed campers in Zuccotti Park last fall. Corning notes, for example, that in the United States, “since the 1980s, some 94 percent of the total increase in personal income has gone to the top 1 percent of the population”; at least 25 million Americans (17.2 percent of the workforce) are presently struggling with unemployment or drastic underemployment; “close to 50 million Americans experienced ‘food deprivation’ (hunger) at various times in 2009”; and as many as 75 million Americans (25 percent of the population) live in poverty. Adding insult to injury, the top 10 percent of income earners in the United States live 4.5 years longer on average than the bottom 10 percent.

In a nutshell, Corning’s thesis is that human nature has evolved in such a way as to create a natural revulsion to states of affairs like these.

More here.

Asian Men Can Jump

Gish Jen in the New York Times:

Gish_Jen photo by Michael Lionstar_medium_imageMost people watching Jeremy Lin these past two weeks saw Jeremy Lin, New York Knicks star; but I, watching him, saw someone else. That was my older brother, Bob, who, contrary to stereotype, is athleticism personified. He could never sit still when he was in second grade; he had to get up every now and then and run around the room. And sure enough, he grew up to be a starting player for an N.C.A.A. championship lacrosse team. He was a Nike-endorsed marathoner, too, and reached the summit of Mt. Everest, unguided, in his 50s.

And yet my family never watched his lacrosse games. We did watch some of his marathons, but that wasn’t until he was in his 20s. When Bob was in his glory days, our Shanghainese-born parents were completely consumed with getting him into medical school. There was a loving aspect to it: I can remember my father working through math books with him, lesson by lesson, at the big blackboard in the attic. Bob never did become a doctor, though; and neither did I. It wasn’t until my younger sister came along that someone in the family finally wore a white coat.

More here.

holding time


For over a hundred years, the villagers of Falealupo in Samoa were the last people on Earth to watch the sun sink from the sky each day. What must it have been like, to feel the hours race toward you like a set of collapsing dominoes as time zone after time zone left the previous day behind? Did these Samoans have a secret hold on time? Did they know what it was to make a day last just a little longer? Alas, no. The Samoans only made an alteration in the keeping of time, and the move was superficial. Even as we make little jumps and leaps over and through counted time, embedded in the Samoan time change is the reminder that we do not control time in the absolute sense. Samoans jumped a day ahead in the counting of time, they saw the new year sooner, and they will move economically closer to Asia as a result. But they will grow old and die just the same. Now, the Earth’s final sunset can be seen in the village of Poloa, in neighboring American Samoa, which did not make the time zone change. Though the decision wasn’t theirs, the people of Poloa were not only pleased by the designation; they felt privileged. It is “uplifting and a great honor for the village,” Poloa resident Tavai Fa’alogo told the Samoa News. “This historical moment makes me proud and happy to be a native of Poloa.”

more from Stefany Anne Golberg at The Smart Set here.

Death in Florence


Andrea del Castagno was one of the greatest Florentine painters of the Quattrocento – masterful in technique, spare and hard-edged in style, idiosyncratic to the point of strangeness. He was a hill farmer’s son from the Mugello, born in about 1419 in the hamlet of Castagno on the western flank of the Apennines. The first record of him is as a six-year-old bocca – a ‘mouth’, or dependant – in his father’s tax return. He is listed as Andreino, a diminutive which persisted throughout his life, possibly suggesting he was a small man. By 1440 he was in Florence, his talent already recognised by the civic authorities, who commissioned him to paint a huge propagandist mural on the façade of the Palazzo del Podestà (or Bargello) depicting a group of traitors hanging upside down. This debut earned him the rather striking nickname Andreino degl’ Impiccati (‘Little Andrew of the Hanged Men’). In 1442 he was in Venice, painting saints and prophets on the vaulted ceiling of San Zaccaria: his earliest extant work and the only one he signed (‘Andreas de Florentia’). The unusually youthful features of St Luke have been canvassed as an early self-portrait. For the next 15 years, until his early death in 1457, he worked like a fury, mostly in Florence and mostly in fresco, producing a series of dramatic masterpieces of which only a fraction survive, among them the grave and melancholy Last Supper in Sant’Apollonia; the moody St Julian in the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata (shown below); the equestrian portrait of Niccolò da Tolentino in the Duomo; and the windswept David, painted on a leather shield now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. In a lost Assumption of the Virgin, it is said, he portrayed himself as Judas.

more from Charles Nicholl at the LRB here.



In the summer of 1619, two writers evaluated Ben Jonson’s character and career in contrasting terms. Anthony à Wood, in his biographical dictionary of distinguished Oxford alumni, summarized the reasons why Richard Corbett of Christ Church “and other poets of this University did in reverence for his parts” propose him for an MA Degree: “His own proper industry and addiction to books, especially to ancient poets and classical authors, made him a person of curious learning and judgement, and of singular excellence in the art of poetry.” At much the same time, William Drummond, Laird of Hawthornden, near Edinburgh, having had Jonson staying with him after his epic walk from London to Scotland, noted this about his guest: “He is a great lover and praiser of himself, a contemner and scorner of others, given rather to lose a friend than a jest, jealous of every word and action of those about him (especially after drink, which is one of the elements in which he liveth) . . . . He is passionately kind and angry, careless either to gain or keep, vindicative, but if be well answered, at himself.”

more from Brian Vickers at the TLS here.

Friday Poem

Ka 'Ba

A closed window looks down
on a dirty courtyard, and black people
call across or scream or walk across
defying physics in the stream of their will

Our world is full of sound
Our world is more lovely than anyone's
tho we suffer, and kill each other
and sometimes fail to walk the air

We are beautiful people
with african imaginations
full of masks and dances and swelling chants

with african eyes, and noses, and arms,
though we sprawl in grey chains in a place
full of winters, when what we want is sun.

We have been captured,
brothers. And we labor
to make our getaway, into
the ancient image, into a new

correspondence with ourselves
and our black family. We read magic
now we need the spells, to rise up
return, destroy, and create. What will be

the sacred words?

by Imamu Amiri Baraka

Standing Up For Freedom

From Academy of Achievement:

Par0-025Most historians date the beginning of the modern civil rights movement in the United States to December 1, 1955. That was the day when an unknown seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. This brave woman, Rosa Parks, was arrested and fined for violating a city ordinance, but her lonely act of defiance began a movement that ended legal segregation in America, and made her an inspiration to freedom-loving people everywhere.

…The bus incident led to the formation of the Montgomery Improvement Association, led by the young pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The association called for a boycott of the city-owned bus company. The boycott lasted 382 days and brought Mrs. Parks, Dr. King, and their cause to the attention of the world. A Supreme Court Decision struck down the Montgomery ordinance under which Mrs. Parks had been fined, and outlawed racial segregation on public transportation.

More here. (Note: In honor of African American History Month, we will be linking to at least one related post throughout February. The 2012 theme is Black Women in American Culture and History).

How mitochondrial DNA defects cause inherited deafness

From PhysOrg:

HowmitochondMitochondria are that function as “cellular ” because they generate most of the cell's supply of energy. They contain DNA inherited from one’s mother. Mitochondria determine whether a cell lives or dies via the process of programmed , or apoptosis. The Yale scientists focused on a specific mitochondrial DNA mutation that causes maternally inherited deafness. The mutation occurs in a gene that codes for RNA in mitochondrial ribosomes, which generate proteins required for cellular respiration. The team found that cell lines containing this mutation are prone to cell death not directly due to the mutation, but rather because it enhanced a normal chemical modification of the RNA called methylation, which regulates ribosome assembly.

“Our lab had previously discovered that overexpression of the enzyme responsible for this methylation could cause cell death, even in cells without the deafness mutation,” said corresponding author Gerald S. Shadel, professor of pathology and genetics at Yale School of Medicine. “But when the researchers overexpressed the enzyme in mice to mimic the effects of the mutation,” he said, “we were astonished to discover that the animals progressively lost their hearing, reflecting how such disease would develop due to a known pathogenic human mitochondrial DNA mutation. This new mouse model will be instrumental in understanding genetic and environmental factors known to impact mitochondrial disease pathology.” The researchers found that reactive oxygen molecules produced by diseased mitochondria are what trigger events leading to a cell death-inducing gene expression program. By genetically depleting the protein ultimately responsible for activating this programmed cell death response, they were able to restore normal hearing to the mice.

More here.

The Pathology of Stabilisation in Complex Adaptive Systems

Complex_systems_organizational_mapAshwin Parameswaran over at Macroeconomic Resilience:

The core insight of the resilience-stability tradeoff is that stability leads to loss of resilience. Therefore stabilisation too leads to increased systemic fragility. But there is a lot more to it. In comparing economic crises to forest fires and river floods, I have highlighted the common patterns to the process of system fragilisation which eventually leaves the system “manager” in a situation where there are no good options left.

Drawing upon the work of Mancur Olson, I have explored how the buildup of special interests means that stability is self-reinforcing. Once rent-seeking has achieved sufficient scale, “distributional coalitions have the incentive and..the power to prevent changes that would deprive them of their enlarged share of the social output”. But what if we “solve” the Olsonian problem? Would that mitigate the problem of increased stabilisation and fragility? In this post, I will argue that the cycle of fragility and collapse has much deeper roots than any particular form of democracy.

In this analysis, I am going to move away from ecological analogies and instead turn to an example from modern medicine. In particular, I am going to compare the experience and history of psychiatric medication in the second half of the twentieth century to some of the issues we have already looked at in macroeconomic and ecological stabilisation. I hope to convince you that the uncanny similarities in the patterns observed in stabilised systems across such diverse domains are not a coincidence. In fact, the human body provides us with a much closer parallel to economic systems than even ecological systems with respect to the final stages of stabilisation. Most ecological systems collapse sooner simply because the limits to which resources will be spent in an escalating fashion to preserve stability are much smaller. For example, there are limits to the resources that will be deployed to prevent a forest fire, no matter how catastrophic. On the other hand, the resources that will be deployed to prevent collapse of any system that is integral to human beings are much larger.

Private Portraits: A Pakistan Diary

PakistanwomenRafia Zakaria has four posts in Dissent. From the latest one, “Agents of Change“:

You had to go through three metal detectors to get into the Karachi Literature Festival. They were necessary. Inside there was to be a dance performance featuring female dancers and talks by artists, writers, and officials from the American Embassy (which was sponsoring the event). One mid-morning panel was entitled “Women Writing Women,” featuring a selection of Pakistani and Pakistani-American authors. The moderator was Dr. Marilyn Wyatt, the wife of Cameron Munter, the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan. After the authors had read their work—poignant selections of prose on life and love and relationships in Pakistan—she posed to them the question on the minds of many Americans: “Do you see room for optimism in the future facing Pakistani women?”

The question was well intentioned but misplaced. The women seated on the raised dais of the oceanfront hotel in Karachi, rising and established writers worthy of respect, were almost all from a tiny sliver of Pakistan’s elite, one that by virtue of class remains relatively untouched by the constrictions of culture. As most Pakistanis would be able to tell you, their presence on the stage that day is not a new chapter in the gender dynamics in Pakistan but an aged paradigm that has recently been endangered by the rapid encroachments of religious fundamentalism.

Raised in a middle-class Karachi family, self-conscious about respectability and reputation, I would as a young girl never have been allowed to attend the Karachi Literature Festival. There would have been too many questions about the nature of the event and the mixed-gender venue. With the logistics (the faraway hotel on the ocean) added to the mix, my attendance would have been impossible. As I sat there listening to the speakers in the marble-tiled meeting room of the hotel, I wondered if they had thought about the present day versions of myself, the girls who loved to read and to write and who had not been allowed to attend.

At the same time I realize that questions about women’s empowerment, about change and optimism, are tricky ones for any Pakistani or Muslim woman to tackle. As the speakers pointed out, a torrent of stereotypes immediately goes to work the moment the words are uttered: the Pakistani woman as an oppressed, veiled apparition languishing in a backward culture, mistreated by an inegalitarian religion, her hapless condition an excuse for military interventions and all the rest. In the face of all this, some defensiveness is inevitable and forgivable.

Human Evolution: Cultural roots

NaNJeff Tollefson in Nature News:

Metal scrapes on hard sand as archaeologist Chris Henshilwood shaves away the top layer of sediment in Blombos Cave. After just a few moments, the tip of his trowel unearths the humerus of a pint-sized tortoise that walked the Southern Cape of South Africa many millennia ago. Next come shells from local mussels and snails amid blackened soil and bits of charred wood, all remnants of an ancient feast. It was one of many enjoyed by a distinct group of early humans who visited Blombos Cave over the course of thousands of years.

The Still Bay culture was one of the most advanced Middle Stone Age groups in Africa when it emerged some 78,000 years ago in a startlingly early flourishing of the human mind. Henshilwood's excavations at Blombos Cave have revealed distinctive tools, including carefully worked stone points that probably served as knives and spear tips, and bits of rock inscribed with apparently symbolic designs. But evidence of the technology disappears abruptly in sediment about 71,000 years old, along with all proof of human habitation in southern Africa. It would be 7,000 years before a new culture appeared, with a markedly different toolkit, including crescent-shaped blades probably used as arrowheads.

What drove the coming and going of these early cultures?

The Arcades Project: Martin Amis’ Guide to Classic Video Games

570_SKMBT_C35312021512390_00031Mark O'Connell in The Millions:

The British journalist Sam Leith recently opened a review of Richard Bradford’s Martin Amis: The Biography with the following question: “Where’s Invasion of the Space Invaders? That’s what I want to know.” The 418-page biography, which has been undergoing a sustained critical beatdown since its publication last year, contains no mention of a book Amis published in 1982, and which he has been avoiding talking about ever since. “Anything a writer disowns is of interest,” wrote Leith, “particularly if it’s a frivolous thing and particularly if, like Amis, you take seriousness seriously.” He’s got a point; any book so callously orphaned by its own creator has to be worth looking into. This is especially true if the book in question happens to be a guide to early 1980s arcade games.

Like most Amis fanciers, I had heard of the existence of this video game book –- the full title of which is Invasion of the Space Invaders: An Addict’s Guide to Battle Tactics, Big Scores and the Best Machines –- but knew very little about it. What I did know was that he dashed it off at some point during the time he was writing Money, one of the great British novels of the 1980s, and that it has long been out of print (a copy in good nick will cost you about $150 from Amazon). And I knew, most of all, that Amis was reluctant to talk about it or even acknowledge it. Nicholas Lezard of The Guardian once suggested to him (facetiously, surely) that it was among the best things he’d ever written, and that it was a mistake to have allowed it to go out of print. “The expression on his face,” wrote Lezard, “with perhaps more pity in it than contempt, remains with me uncomfortably.”

Invasion of the Space Invaders, then, is the madwoman in the attic of Amis’ house of nonfiction; many have heard rumors of its shameful presence, but few have seen it with their own eyes.

Golden Eye: On the James Webb Space Telescope

Ross Andersen in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

ScreenHunter_38 Feb. 16 17.26The launch of the James Webb will require technological cunning unequaled in the post-Apollo era. The base of the telescope, a six-layer sunshade, is roughly as long and wide as a tennis court. It will sit well beyond the moon, in a special pocket of gravity one million miles from Earth. Rather than orbit the Earth and whirl daily into the hot face of the sun, the Webb will use the combined gravity of the two to hide in a fixed position within the Earth’s shadow. Its 18 hexagonal mirrors, made of beryllium and coated in 24-carat gold, will operate at temperatures near absolute zero — the point at which all motion ceases — in order to remain sensitive to the faint infrared emanations of deep space. In this way movement in the heavens may be likened to sound, of which Emerson wrote, “Let us be silent, that we may hear the whispers of the gods.” Upon arriving in space, the Webb will attempt an unprecedented feat of reverse origami: It will emerge bundled from the tip of an Ariane rocket and slowly unfurl its shade, mirrors, and instruments, becoming in the process the world’s largest space observatory, its seeing power 100 times that of the Hubble. The stakes for this metamorphosis are high, for even with tomorrow’s technology, repair at such a remove from Earth will be impossible. If for any reason the Webb should fail after launch, it will be left to idle in space, out of reach, a stillborn in the void.

More here.

An American take on the Quran

Michael Morain in the Des Moines Register:

ScreenHunter_37 Feb. 16 16.59Los Angeles artist Sandow Birk has spent a good chunk of the last six years hand-writing an English translation of the Quran and illustrating it with scenes of modern American life.

He is not Muslim. He is not even very religious.

He’s a surfer.

His search for good waves took him to the coasts of Morocco, India, Indonesia and the southern Philippines — all places with sizable Muslim populations — and he wanted to learn more, especially when Islam became such a hot topic in the early 2000s. So he started reading its sacred text.

“Given the global situation right now, the Quran may be the most important book on earth, but few Americans know anything about it,” he told the New York Times in 2009. “I’m attempting to create visual metaphors that go along with the text and hopefully make it more accessible to Americans, more relevant to American life.”

More than half of his results — 61 chapters of the Quran’s 114, neatly painted on paper — are on display through March 18 at the Faulconer Gallery at Grinnell College.

More here.

Mammals Made By Viruses

Carl Zimmer in his excellent blog, The Loom:

ScreenHunter_36 Feb. 16 16.53If not for a virus, none of us would ever be born.

In 2000, a team of Boston scientists discovered a peculiar gene in the human genome. It encoded a protein made only by cells in the placenta. They called it syncytin.

The cells that made syncytin were located only where the placenta made contact with the uterus. They fuse together to create a single cellular layer, called the syncytiotrophoblast, which is essential to a fetus for drawing nutrients from its mother. The scientists discovered that in order to fuse together, the cells must first make syncytin.

What made syncytin peculiar was that it was not a human gene. It bore all the hallmarks of a gene from a virus.

Viruses have insinuated themselves into the genome of our ancestors for hundreds of millions of years. They typically have gotten there by infecting eggs or sperm, inserting their own DNA into ours. There are 100,000 known fragments of viruses in the human genome, making up over 8% of our DNA. Most of this virus DNA has been hit by so many mutations that it’s nothing but baggage our species carries along from one generation to the next. Yet there are some viral genes that still make proteins in our bodies. Syncytin appeared to be a hugely important one to our own biology. Originally, syncytin allowed viruses to fuse host cells together so they could spread from one cell to another. Now the protein allowed babies to fuse to their mothers.

More here.