John Rentoul in The Independent:
It is a while since I published 'The Banned List', my book about verbiage to be avoided, yet new horrors are invented or brought to my attention every week by public-spirited people who are here to help you. Here are 10 of the worst recent examples…
5. Talking in the present tense about past events As in, “Richard the Third then moves his army to the north…”
6. Wrap-around To describe anything other than packaging. From Dan Fox.
7. Innocent children As opposed to complicit children, about whom we are indifferent.
8. Sneak preview It's invariably just a preview. Thanks to Mike Higgins. Worse is “sneak peek”. And worst of all is “sneak peak”.
Jack Flam at the Times Literary Supplement:
No artist has reinvented the visible world in a more radical way than Picasso. In his stringent early Cubist paintings, composed with fragmentary geometric planes rendered in earth colours, the differences between figure and ground are hardly distinguishable, testing the limits of representation. After the First World War, he developed a very different kind of painting, paradoxically both flat and suggestive of intangible depth, hard-edged and often brightly coloured. The flexible space in these paintings permitted new kinds of interaction between emptiness and objects, and a broader range of subject matter, much of it erotic or violent, or both.
T. J. Clark focuses on those paintings of the 1920s and 30s in his ambitious but sometimes exasperating new book, Picasso and Truth, which is based on the six A. W. Mellon lectures he gave at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, in 2009. Picasso’s works from this period have now become so familiar that their complexity and radical strangeness are often taken for granted, even overlooked. Clark’s book sets out to explore just how radical and how strange these paintings are, and the new kind of moral universe that they embody.
Lawrence Weschler at the Virginia Quarterly Review:
Now, I’m not in any way suggesting that Hockney fancies himself Moses-like, the founding prophet of some new-age religion. But the thing that stands out in that Sagan passage, looking back on it now, is the precision of its characterization of the challenge—the need to break free from impinging orthodoxies, to reach for bigger and grander ways of being in the world; the way in which, as Hockney himself soon started insisting with ever greater urgency, wider vantages are called for now.
As it happens, Sagan died just a few years after penning those lines, and what might have initially read, in Hockney’s rendition, as a rousing monolithic assertion came, with the passage of time, to seem more like a tolling memorial headstone. Likewise, I’ve recently come to feel, with the whole sweep of Hockney’s production across the latter half of his career, starting in the early eighties with those Polaroid collages. Elsewhere I’ve attempted to evoke the dead end before which David had seemed to arrive toward the end of the seventies: how two Golden Boy decades in which he had seemed incapable of doing any wrong had culminated in that series of extraordinarily successful double portraits—from Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott in 1969, and Celia Birtwell and Ossie Clark with their cat in 1971, and Peter Schlesinger gazing down on that swimmer poolside in that 1972 hillscape, on through the remarkable portrait of his parents from 1977 (his mother to one side, peering intently out at him, his father hunched off to the other, seemingly lost in the perusal of an art book spread across his lap).
Laura Jacobs at the London Review of Books:
There is only one piece of film that shows Isadora Duncan dancing.＊ It is four seconds long, the very end of a performance, and it is followed by eight seconds in which Duncan accepts applause. This small celluloid footprint – light-struck in the manner of Eugène Atget – contains quite a bit of information. It is an afternoon recital, early in the 20th century, and it takes place en plein air, trees in the background, like so much of the painting of the day. Duncan enters the frame turning, her arms positioned in an upward reach not unlike ballet’s codified fourth position, but more naturally placed. She wears a loose gown draped crosswise with a white veil, a floating X over her heart. Coming out of the turn and moving in the direction of the camera, her arms melt open as her head falls back. The white column of her neck, the spade-like underside of her jaw, the lifted breastbone crossed in white gauze: had any female dancer before Duncan projected such ecstatic presence and concrete power? Because of her thrown back upper body it seems as if she is running, but she is actually slow and steady, offering herself to something so large she doesn’t need to move fast. The dance over, she stands simply and acknowledges her audience with a Christ-like proffering of her palms. In fact, her classical garb is as much that of the sandalled shepherd of men as it is a barefoot goddess of Greek mythology. ‘I have come,’ she once said, ‘to bring about a great renaissance of religion through the dance, to bring the knowledge of the beauty and holiness of the human body through its expression of movements.’ Thus spake Isadora.
Amanda Mascarelli in Nature:
Duplication of a single gene — and too much of the corresponding protein in brain cells — causes mice to have seizures and display manic-like behaviour, a study has found. But a widely used drug reversed the symptoms, suggesting that it could also help some people with hyperactivity who do not respond to common treatments. Smooth functioning at the synapses, the junctions between brain cells, is crucial to functions that control everything from social etiquette to everyday decision-making. It is increasingly thought that some neuropsychiatric disorders are caused by function of the synapses going awry1, and indeed researchers have found that neuropsychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia and autism can sometimes be traced to missing, mutated or duplicated copies of SHANK32, a gene that encodes one of the 'architectural' proteins that help to ensure that messages are relayed properly between cells. Some people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Asperger's syndrome or schizophrenia have an extra copy of a wider region of DNA that contains SHANK33.
To explore the role of SHANK3, Huda Zoghbi, a neurogeneticist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, and her colleagues created mice with duplicate copies of the gene. “The mouse was remarkably hyperactive, running around like mad,” says Zoghbi. But the animals did not respond to stimulant medications typically used to treat ADHD. Instead, their hyperactivity grew much worse. “That’s when we knew this was not typical ADHD,” says Zoghbi. The study is published today in Nature4. The paper is a “really good example of the importance of gene dosage”, says Thomas Insel, director of the US National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland. “It matters a lot whether you have no copies, one copy, two copies” or more of a given gene, he says.
‘Palms of Victory / Deliverance is here!’
—1980 Jamaica Labour Party campaign song
Impossible Flying -excerpt
On Kingston’s flat worn earth,
everything is hard as glass.
The sun smashes into the city – no breath,
no wind, just the engulfing, asthmatic noonday.
We move with the slow preservation
of people saving their strength
for a harsher time. 1980:
this land has bled – so many betrayals –
and the indiscriminate blooding of hope
has left us quivering, pale,
void, the collapsed possibilities
causing us to limp. We are a country
on the edge of the manic euphoria
of a new decade: Reagan’s nodding
grin ripples across the basin’s
surface. We dare to dream
that in the spin and tongues of Kapo
perhaps we too will fly this time,
will lift ourselves from the slough
of that dream-maker’s decade –
the ’70s when we learned things only
before suspected: our capacity for blood,
our ability to walk through a shattered
city, picking our routine way to work
each morning. We are so used now to the ruins,
perhaps more than that, perhaps to wearing
our sackcloth and ash as signs of our
hope, the vanity of survival.
Bjørn Lomborg in Slate:
For centuries, optimists and pessimists have argued over the state of the world. Pessimists see a world where more people means less food, where rising demand for resources means depletion and war, and, in recent decades, where boosting production capacity means more pollution and global warming. One of the current generation of pessimists’ sacred texts, The Limits to Growth, influences the environmental movement to this day.
The optimists, by contrast, cheerfully claim that everything—human health, living standards, environmental quality, and so on—is getting better. Their opponents think of them as “cornucopian” economists, placing their faith in the market to fix any and all problems.
But, rather than picking facts and stories to fit some grand narrative of decline or progress, we should try to compare across all areas of human existence to see if the world really is doing better or worse. Together with 21 of the world’s top economists, I have tried to do just that, developing a scorecard spanning 150 years. Across 10 areas—including health, education, war, gender, air pollution, climate change, and biodiversity—the economists all answered the same question: What was the relative cost of this problem in every year since 1900, all the way to 2013, with predictions to 2050.
Carl Zimmer in his excellent blog, The Loom:
A simple question deserves a simple answer. How many cells are in your body?
Unfortunately, your cells can’t fill out census forms, so they can’t tell you themselves. And while it’s easy enough to look through a microscope and count off certain types of cells, this method isn’t practical either. Some types of cells are easy to spot, while others–such as tangled neurons–weave themselves up into obscurity. Even if you could count ten cells each second, it would take you tens of thousands of years to finish counting. Plus, there would be certain logistical problems you’d encounter along the way to counting all the cells in your body–for example, chopping your own body up into tiny patches for microscopic viewing.
For now, the best we can hope for is a study published recenty in Annals of Human Biology, entitled, with admirable clarity, “An Estimation of the Number of Cells in the Human Body.”
The authors–a team of scientists from Italy, Greece, and Spain–admit that they’re hardly the first people to tackle this question. They looked back over scientific journals and books from the past couple centuries and found many estimates. But those estimates sprawled over a huge range, from 5 billion to 200 million trillion cells. And practically none of scientists who offered those numbers provided an explanation for how they came up with them. Clearly, this is a subject ripe for research.
Tunku Varadarajan in The Daily Beast:
Not since Fay Wray found herself in the meaty, black clutches of King Kong has a blonde in the custody of dark beings ignited the global imagination as has Maria, a tow-headed tot who was discovered in Greece three days ago, living in the midst of a Roma (or gypsy) family. As Greek police searched the family’s squalid home in pursuit of an unrelated criminal matter, they found Maria, flaxen-haired as the refulgent sun, underweight, unwashed, and so unconvincing as a gypsy child (for let it be noted, again: she was very blonde) that they switched their investigation instantly to one of the child and her origins. Who was she? How could she, so blonde, be living with these swarthy people? Something had to be very wrong: and very dark.
And so the child, Maria, was taken into custody, and an almighty international alert issued. Has anyone lost a child who looks like this little blonde creature? Six days later, the story is still vividly alive on network news and elsewhere. “Mystery Blonde Girl Found in Greece Prompts Search for Parents,” was how CNN put it. The best-selling Greek newspaper, Ta Nea, carried the story on its front page: “Mystery: A Blonde Angel Without an Identity.” The child’s blondeness became her talisman, the marker of her plight, her grace, and her salvation
Think back to those amusing diversions, those little puzzles, one used to find in old-fashioned children’s magazines. Let’s call this one “What’s wrong with this picture?” The answer came almost instantly to the Greek police: Everything! It was, of course, a Manichaean reaction: The possession of a blonde child by dark-skinned adults was wrong, ipso facto (as lawyers might put it). The fact spoke for itself. There was no scope for debate. The child had to have been abducted.
Ahmed Rashid in the Financial Times:
When Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif meets President Barack Obama at the White House on Wednesday, their meeting will be critical for the future course of US-Pakistan relations. One issue at the top of the agenda – alongside the future of Afghanistan, Pakistan’s own much-weakened state and attacks by terrorist groups – will be the country’s nuclear weapons programme. Pakistan’s rapid development of battlefield nuclear weapons raises many questions in the region and abroad.
Western analysts estimate Pakistan has between 100 and 120 nuclear weapons, far more than its rival India, which is believed to have 90-100. Pakistan has multiple delivery capability, such as long and short-range rockets and aircraft. It will soon add naval capability with sea-launched missiles.
Less well-known is that Pakistan has one of the fastest growing battlefield or tactical nuclear weapons programmes in the world today, according to senior western officials I have spoken with. The Americans developed the capacity to put miniaturised nuclear bombs on short-range rockets, artillery and tank shells in the 1950s – something Pakistan is apparently doing now and very successfully.
Jennifer Ouellette over at her Scientific American blog Cocktail Party Physics:
I have been largely silent publicly about the events of the past weekthat ended with the resignation of our blogs editor, Bora Zivkovic, mostly because (a) I was waiting for all the facts to come in and trying to process those facts in the throes of considerable cognitive dissonance, and (b) others have addressed so clearly and eloquently the many knotty issues I would have raised. Honestly, I’m suffering from metaphorical PTSD: Bora is a longstanding friend and colleague. I have spent the last week, like many others, grieving for what our small community has lost, and what the three young women who came forward have suffered. Each subsequent revelation was like a hard punch to the gut. Monica, Hannah, Kathleen — I’m so sorry. I truly had no idea.
And yes, I grieve for Bora himself, and his wife, Catherine, although I cannot condone his behavior, or deny the damage this has wrought. I cannot place concern for his well-being above that of the young women he has harmed through his actions. But human beings are complex, a mass of contradictions, and we are all, at various times, laid flat by our own frailty. His fall was just more precipitous than most, and because of his substantial influence, the fallout and collateral damage were more severe. As Ashutosh Jogalekar phrased it,
We can applaud the substance of Bora’s foundational contributions to the rise of science blogging even as we continue to denounce his actions. This episode is a reminder that human beings are flawed and that the same person can reach both the heights of achievement and the depths of failure.
Ashutosh is a thoughtful man, and he chose his words carefully, with plenty of caveats. But there was one phrase elsewhere in his post that bothered me, because it is one that I’ve heard echoed in comments all over the Web: that “in none of the three cases did Bora’s behavior descend into overt sexual or physical harassment.” It’s the same point Hannah Waters made in her post when she talked about “not-quite-harassment,” and when Monica Byrne confessed that at first, she wasn’t entirely sure what happened to her constituted “real” harassment.
I wish I didn’t feel compelled to talk about this. I just want to explore through my writing all the cool science and culture stuff out there and share my enthusiasm with others, augmented with the occasional funny video. But clearly we need to talk about what sexual harassment looks like, because it’s not always black-and-white, and no two cases are exactly alike.
Dan Hopkins over at the Monkey Cage:
The Washington Post poll out this morning makes it clear that public perceptions of the GOP took a significant hit during the budget shutdown. Polling even before the shutdown suggested that the GOP was more likely to be blamed than the Democrats, so the question becomes, why would a party pursue a course of action likely to damage its standing with voters?
One answer is that the GOP is a group of people, and so faces collective action problems. As we have seen so publicly in the past few weeks, politicians’ incentives as individuals don’t always align with their incentives as party members. But there’s another explanation I want to focus on here: politicians’ tendency to exaggerate their capacity to reshape public opinion through messaging.
Consider the mid-shutdown conversation between Kentucky’s two senators, when Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul were caught on a live microphone discussing strategy. Here’s Paul: “I think if we keep saying ‘We wanted to defund it. We fought for that but now we’re willing to compromise on this,’ I think they can’t … well, I know we don’t want to be here, but we’re gonna win this, I think.”
The quotation captures a widely held belief among elected officials that messaging matters — and that the messages parties choose play an important role in the public’s response. It’s not just GOP leaders who think that.
From The Daily Galaxy:
“What is life?” asks Craig Venter, author of Life at the Speed of Light and one of the first to sequence the human genome and create the first cell with a synthetic genome: “Only three simple words, and yet out of them spins a universe of questions that are no less challenging. What precisely is it that separates the animate from the inanimate? What are the basic ingredients of life? Where did life first stir? How did the first organisms evolve? Is there life everywhere? To what extent is life scattered across the cosmos? If other kinds of creatures do exist on exoplanets, are they as intelligent as we are, or even more so? Today these questions about the nature and origins of life remain the biggest and most hotly debated in all of biology.”
The code-script known as DNA has been sending out its signals since the dawn of all life, some four billion years ago. Half a century ago, writes Venter, “the great evolutionary geneticist Motoo Kimura estimated that the amount of genetic information has increased by one hundred million bits over the past five hundred million years. 6 The DNA code-script has come to dominate biological science, so much so that biology in the twenty-first century has become an information science. Taxonomists now use DNA bar codes to help distinguish one species from another. Others have started to use DNA in computation, or as a means to store information. I have led efforts not only to read the digital code of life but also to write it, to simulate it within a computer, and even to rewrite it to form new living cells. “Life ultimately consists of DNA-driven biological machines. All living cells run on DNA software, which directs hundreds to thousands of protein robots. We have been digitizing life for decades, observes Venter, “since we first figured out how to read the software of life by sequencing DNA. Now we can go in the other direction by starting with computerized digital code, designing a new form of life, chemically synthesizing its DNA, and then booting it up to produce the actual organism. And because the information is now digital we can send it anywhere via biological teleporter, to re-create proteins, viruses, and living cells at a remote location at the speed of light and re-create the DNA and life at the other end, perhaps changing forever how we view life.”
Zoe Corbyn in The Guardian:
Craig Venter reclines in his chair, puts his feet up on his desk and – gently stroking his milk chocolate-coloured miniature poodle, Darwin, asleep in his arms – shares his vision of the household appliance of the future. It is a box attached to a computer that would receive DNA sequences over the internet to synthesise proteins, viruses and even living cells. It could, for example, fill a prescription for insulin, provide flu vaccine during a pandemic or even produce phage viruses targeted to fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It could help future Martian colonists by giving them access to the vaccines, antibiotics or personalised drugs they needed on the red planet. And should DNA-based life ever be found there, a digital version could be transmitted back to Earth, where scientists could recreate the extraterrestrial organism using their own life-printing box. “We call it a Digital Biological Converter. And we have the prototype,” says Venter. I am visiting the office and labs of Venter's company Synthetic Genomics Incorporated (SGI) in La Jolla, a wealthy seaside enclave north of San Diego, California, where he also lives, because the pioneering American scientist dubbed biology's “bad boy” wants to talk about his new book, released this week.
…The book, Venter's second after his 2007 autobiography, is called Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life. It looks at the future Venter is aiming to create through his scientific endeavours in synthetic biology, a kind of turbo-charged version of genetic engineering where scientists design new biological systems – even synthetic life – rather than just tweaking existing organisms by inserting a gene here or there.
The wind in the outfield is cold on my cheeks and
I am a centerfielder, all alone
I am far away from infield commotions, and
I pay attention only to
the one that comes flying high into the center
by Heiichi Sugiyama
from Koe wo Kagiri ni
Publisher: Shichosha, Tokyo, 1967
Translation: 2011, Takako Lento
Laura Jacobs reviews Isadora Duncan's My Life: The Restored Edition, in the LRB:
There is only one piece of film that shows Isadora Duncan dancing. It is four seconds long, the very end of a performance, and it is followed by eight seconds in which Duncan accepts applause. This small celluloid footprint – light-struck in the manner of Eugène Atget – contains quite a bit of information. It is an afternoon recital, early in the 20th century, and it takes place en plein air, trees in the background, like so much of the painting of the day. Duncan enters the frame turning, her arms positioned in an upward reach not unlike ballet’s codified fourth position, but more naturally placed. She wears a loose gown draped crosswise with a white veil, a floating X over her heart. Coming out of the turn and moving in the direction of the camera, her arms melt open as her head falls back. The white column of her neck, the spade-like underside of her jaw, the lifted breastbone crossed in white gauze: had any female dancer before Duncan projected such ecstatic presence and concrete power? Because of her thrown back upper body it seems as if she is running, but she is actually slow and steady, offering herself to something so large she doesn’t need to move fast. The dance over, she stands simply and acknowledges her audience with a Christ-like proffering of her palms. In fact, her classical garb is as much that of the sandalled shepherd of men as it is a barefoot goddess of Greek mythology. ‘I have come,’ she once said, ‘to bring about a great renaissance of religion through the dance, to bring the knowledge of the beauty and holiness of the human body through its expression of movements.’ Thus spake Isadora.
We have no more than four seconds of Duncan dancing because she did not like the medium of film as it existed in the years of her solo career, which began in the 1890s, peaked between 1910 and 1920, and continued intermittently until her death in 1927, at the age of 50. In those days film was in its infancy and still silent (The Jazz Singer was released the year Duncan died). Because music – Chopin, Schubert, Brahms, Beethoven, Wagner – was the spiritual inspiration for so much of what she did, Duncan couldn’t imagine dancing on film without it.
Mark Bergen on Raghuram Rajan, in his new role as head of India's central bank, in Caravan:
With the currency commanding unprecedented attention and talk of another 1991 growing louder, Delhi took action. According to several people working with the finance ministry, RBI officials were summoned to North Block with unusual frequency—and on 15 July, the central bank intervened.
The RBI initiated a series of dramatic measures to drain liquidity from the market and defend the battered rupee. The moves were abrupt, haphazard, and ineffectual: as the central bank fumbled from strategy to strategy over the following month, the rupee kept tumbling.
Close observers of the Indian economy have many disagreements—over why growth stalled, who is to blame, and what must be done—but here they reached a consensus. A chorus of former officials, economists and investors told me that the RBI had been strong-armed by a politically anxious finance ministry. The liquidity moves came as an utter surprise to the Technical Advisory Committee (TAC), a seven-member body that counsels the central bank, two of its members said. The bank’s public statements were sporadic and clumsy, uncharacteristic of the then RBI governor, Duvvuri Subbarao—solid evidence, one person with close knowledge of the RBI told me, that its hand had been forced by the government.
In Indian financial circles, where the RBI was seen as the sole government institution whose credibility had remained intact, the feckless moves that began in July signaled that its credibility was unravelling.
If those exaggerated anxieties have since been reversed, the turnaround began on 6 August, when the flailing government surprised its fiercest critics by naming Raghuram Govind Rajan as the next head of the central bank. Rajan, a distinguished professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, had been hailed as “the oracle of the financial crisis” for his prescient warnings three years before the 2008 collapse. He had spent the past year as the government’s chief economic advisor, a post that many presumed was a brief stopover on his way to Mint Road.
Nathan S. Lewis and William J. Royea in Project Syndicate:
In the United States and other industrialized countries, many applications that rely on fossil fuels (such as air transport or aluminum production) cannot be reconfigured to use electrical power. Moreover, fossil fuels are required to produce electricity as well, both to meet demand and to compensate for the intermittency of renewable energy systems such as wind or solar power. Is there really a scalable, low-carbon alternative?
One promising approach is artificial photosynthesis, which uses non-biological materials to produce fuels directly from sunlight. The sun is a nearly inexhaustible energy source, while energy stored in the form of chemical bonds – like those found in fossil fuels – is accessible, efficient, and convenient. Artificial photosynthesis combines these features in a viable technology that promises energy security, environmental sustainability, and economic stability.
While natural photosynthesis provides a complex, elegant blueprint for the production of chemical fuels from sunlight, it has significant performance limitations. Only about one-tenth of the sun’s peak energy is used; annualized net energy-conversion efficiencies are less than 1%; significant amounts of energy are expended internally to regenerate and maintain the exquisite molecular machinery of photosynthesis; and the energy is stored in chemical fuels that are incompatible with existing energy systems.