The Art Hitler Hated

Michael Kimmelman in the New York Review of Books:

Kimmelman_1-061814_jpg_250x1304_q85As he had lived, Cornelius Gurlitt died at eighty-one early in May, in thrall to a trove of inherited art he kept hidden for decades mostly at a modest apartment in Munich. The announcement last year of the collection’s discovery by German authorities yanked the reclusive Gurlitt from the shadows. Stories about him busied the front pages of newspapers for weeks.

He seemed a figure out of Sebald or Kafka. He had never held a job, kept no bank accounts, was not listed in the Munich phone book. Aside from sporadic visits to a sister, who lived in Würzburg and died two years ago, he had had little contact with anyone for half a century. Der Spiegel reported that he had not watched television since 1963 or seen a movie since 1967, and that he had never been in love, except with his collection.

The art, nearly 1,300 works, some of which belatedly turned up in a second home in Salzburg, was mostly nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century European pictures, a good deal of it what the Nazis called Entartete Kunst, or degenerate art, who knows how much of it seized from museums and Jews. Cornelius’s father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, accumulated the collection.

More here.

From Womb to Womb

Carl Zimmer in his excellent blog, The Loom:

ScreenHunter_665 Jun. 01 12.33Worldwide, women suffer an estimated 2.65 million stillbirths each year. Despite those huge numbers, we only understand some of the factors that are responsible. In low- and middle-income countries (where most of the world’s stillbirths occur), diseases like malaria can put pregnant women at risk of stillbirths. In wealthier countries, the biggest risks include smoking and obesity. But these factors only go partway to explaining why some women have stillbirths, leaving many cases unaccounted for. The benefits that would come from that knowledge could be enormous.

One way to learn about reproductive health is to observe how our primate cousins have babies. And a new study on marmosets offers some hints about the causes of stillbirth. It suggests that a mother’s health during pregnant may not be the whole story. In fact, some of the risk factors may arise before mothers are even born.

The first thing that one notices about the white-tufted ear marmoset (Callithrix jacchus) is its wildly adorable face–a tiny visage framed by shocks of white fur. Marmosets are interesting to scientists not because they’re cute, but because of theirintriguing way of having kids. While most primate females have a single offspring at a time, marmoset typically have twins. Some marmoset mothers even have triplets.

This is a tricky strategy for passing on marmoset genes. Marmoset babies can weigh between a fifth and a quarter of their mother’s weight. Imagine a 135-pound woman giving birth to two 16 pound babies–and then nursing them.

More here.


Anthony Bourdain in Medium:

ScreenHunter_664 Jun. 01 12.28A frequent comment on food websites is that I should avoid discussion of politics or social conditions and concentrate on the food. My host, serving me a humble but tasty Lao style laarb could be missing three out of four of his limbs but God forbid I ask the question: “Hey there, fella…what happened to your arm and legs?” The answer might intrude on someone’s vicarious eating experience.

In the Congo, the bucket of water used to boil my pounded cassava might well have been transported the 2 miles from the nearest river on top of a small child’s head. Some very unpleasant militias have been known to interrupt such journeys. This, it would seem, is also worth mentioning.

There is, of course, nothing more political than food. Food itself. Who’s got it, who doesn’t. “What’s” cooking is usually the end of a long, often violent story. That can be a bummer for some—who’d rather be fondling themselves while perusing recipes for bundt cake than thinking about what Burroughs called the “frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.”

More here.

Mirages of the Mind

Sepoy in Chapati Mystery:

BookThe early books of famed Urdu satirist Mustaq Ahmed Yousufi (b. 1922), Chiragh Talay (1961) and Khakam-e Badhan (1969), functioned in the college space for us in Lahore as cigarettes function in a prison camp – a currency, a momentary respite, a surge, and a day dream. We used to crack jokes from his oeuvre claiming them as they were uttered. He was not very well liked by my elders, however. They found him a poor replacement for the other satirists at play, Pitras Bukhari or Mustanssar Hussain Tarad or often Ibn-e Insha. Yet he was beloved by us near-adults as a rock star. Now a new translation from Urdu of Yousufi’s Aab-e Gum is coming out (by end May). Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad, the co-translators, have excerpted their translation earlier in Caravan India and Asymptote. They were both recipients of the 2012 PEN Translation grant for this project. At the occasion of this publication, I asked a few questions from Reeck & Ahmad. Enjoy:

Q. Who was Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi?

Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi is a humor and satire writer and a resident of Karachi, where he has lived since immigrating to Pakistan soon after Partition. How he will be remembered is still up for debate: while he was the top official at many major Pakistani banks, he is also one of the greatest living Pakistani writers. With more publicity for his works, he may last in the collective memory of literary audiences in South Asia and abroad for this latter skill—that of a writer.

Q. Why is it important to translate him into English?

His work is good. It deserves to be read by more people. That’s the simple answer. The more complicated answer involves how world literature operates, and how its restrictive canon needs to admit more writers from unrepresented areas and literatures, like Pakistan and Urdu, respectively. For inclusion in world literature canons, texts must be available in English, or another major European language, for these are the languages of arbitration in these canon formation processes.

More here.

The migrant has no face, status or story

Hanif Kureishi in The Guardian:

A-supporter-of-a-National-011The immigrant has become a contemporary passion in Europe, the vacant point around which ideals clash. Easily available as a token, existing everywhere and nowhere, he is talked about constantly. But in the current public conversation, this figure has not only migrated from one country to another, he has migrated from reality to the collective imagination where he has been transformed into a terrible fiction. Whether he or she – and I will call the immigrant he, while being aware that he is stripped of colour, gender and character – the immigrant has been made into something resembling an alien. He is an example of the undead, who will invade, colonise and contaminate, a figure we can never quite digest or vomit. If the 20th century was replete with uncanny, semi-fictional figures who invaded the lives of the decent, upright and hard-working – the pure – this character is rehaunting us in the guise of the immigrant. He is both a familiar, insidious figure, and a new edition of an old idea expressed with refreshed and forceful rhetoric.

Unlike other monsters, the foreign body of the immigrant is unslayable. Resembling a zombie in a video game, he is impossible to kill or finally eliminate not only because he is already silent and dead, but also because there are waves of other similar immigrants just over the border coming right at you. Forgetting that it is unworkable notions of the “normal” – the fascist normal – which make the usual seem weird, we like to believe that there was a better time when the world didn't shift so much and everything appeared more permanent. We were all alike and comprehensible to one another, and these spectres didn't forever seethe at the windows.

More here.

The Insolence of Architecture

Martin Filler in the New York Review of Books:

ScreenHunter_664 May. 31 14.21Rarely do architecture writers convey a sense of place with the observational acuity, physical immediacy, and (on occasion) moral outrage of the British journalist Rowan Moore. Since the turn of the millennium, Moore—a Cambridge University—trained architect and younger brother of Charles Moore, the newspaper and Spectator editor and Margaret Thatcher’s authorized biographer—has been the architecture correspondent for The Evening Standard, then the director of the London-based Architecture Foundation, and is now the architecture critic of The Observer. Michael Sorkin burned up the pages of New York’s Village Voice in the 1980s with his tirades against Philip Johnson, Paul Goldberger, and other voices of the architecture establishment. Since then no other newspaper architecture critic has been as sharp an assessor of the built environment as Moore and as rueful an evaluator of the ever-increasing commercialism and pointless exhibitionism that dominate contemporary construction.

Moore begins his lively, wide-ranging, and thought-provoking new book, Why We Build: Power and Desire in Architecture, with a devastatingly funny if deeply disturbing set piece that finds him in a helicopter hovering over the architectural theme park that is Dubai, the oil-poor Arab emirate determined to use flamboyant urban development to “brand” itself as a desirable destination for investors and tourists, and thereby to become a global economic powerhouse on the order of Singapore. Although Moore invokes Francis Ford Coppola’s famous “Ride of the Valkyries” sequence fromApocalypse Now, his eye for the grotesque detail reminds me more of the opening of Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, in which a statue of Christ suspended from a chopper hovers over the Vatican, with arms outstretched in seeming benediction.

More here.

A man with amnesia taught us how memories become personal

Sam Kean in Slate:

SCI_KC.jpg.CROP.original-originalKent Cochrane, the amnesiac known throughout the world of neuroscience and psychology as K.C., died last week at age 62 in his nursing home in Toronto, probably of a stroke or heart attack. Although not as celebrated as the late American amnesiac H.M., for my money K.C. taught us more important and poignant things about how memory works. He showed how we make memories personal and personally meaningful. He also had a heck of a life story.

During a wild and extended adolescence, K.C. jammed in rock bands, partied at Mardi Gras, played cards till all hours, and got into fights in bars; he was also knocked unconscious twice, once in a dune-buggy accident, once when a bale of hay conked him on the head. In October 1981, at age 30, he skidded off an exit ramp on his motorcycle. He spent a month in intensive care and lost, among other brain structures, both his hippocampuses.

As H.M.’s case demonstrated in the early 1950s, the hippocampus—you have one in each hemisphere of your brain—helps form and store new memories and retrieve old ones. Without a functioning hippocampus, names, dates, and other information falls straight through the mind like a sieve. At least that’s what supposed to happen. K.C. proved that that’s not quite true—memories can sometimes bypass the hippocampus.

More here.

A Life Beyond ‘Do What You Love’

Gordon Marino in the New York Times:

Love-what-you-do.-Screenprints-diptych-8.3-x-11-1Student advisees often come to my office, rubbing their hands together, furrowing their brows and asking me to walk along with them as they ponder life after graduation. Just the other day, a sophomore made an appointment because he was worrying about whether he should become a doctor or a philosophy professor. A few minutes later, he nervously confessed that he had also thought of giving stand-up comedy a whirl.

As an occupational counselor, my kneejerk reaction has always been, “What are you most passionate about?” Sometimes I‘d even go into a sermonette about how it is important to distinguish between what we think we are supposed to love and what we really love.

But is “do what you love” wisdom or malarkey?

In a much discussed article in Jacobin magazine early this year, the writer Miya Tokumitsu argued that the “do what you love” ethos so ubiquitous in our culture is in fact elitist because it degrades work that is not done from love. It also ignores the idea that work itself possesses an inherent value, and most importantly, severs the traditional connection between work, talent and duty.

More here.

Saturday Poem

This Neruda Earth

Sitting against a treetrunk in Delores Park
amid the Chilean solidarity gathering,
my eyes beheld three tiny daisies
in the grass, their little pollen hearts
attacked by flies. Nearby, yellowjackets
were flying over a jungle of blades
of grass and brilliantly green-backed
horseflies were making merry on
a flute of dogshit. I had lowered
my eyes from the speeches, and even
the People's Tribune was stacked at
my side. So much movement
in nature. A butterfly alighted on
the front page and walked along
the headline as if reading it. The
flies went on eating the hearts out.
The horseflies were absolutely drunken
on the excrement. The yellowjackets
were strafing and landing and
taking off again. It was the guerilla
war, it was mir, it was peace. So much
movement, so much space in an inch. This
Neruda Earth.

by Jack Hirschman
from Poetry Like Bread
Curbstone press, 1994

Piketty’s Fair-Weather Friends


Seth Ackerman in Jacobin:

If you’ve read far enough into the reviews of Piketty’s book, you’ve probably already come across references to a mysterious academic debate of the 1950s and 1960s called the Cambridge Capital Controversies, which pitted MIT neoclassicals like Paul Samuelson and Robert Solow against a group of Cambridge University economists, including Joan Robinson and Piero Sraffa, who sought to revive and perfect aspects of the earlier classical approach of David Ricardo and Marx.

Popular attempts to recount that debate tend to get needlessly bogged down in the abstract. They typically focus on the brain-teaser question of whether it’s possible to quantify the “amount” of capital in the economy, given that this capital stock is made up of a vast number of heterogeneous goods, from jackhammers to hard drives. And that was, in fact, the issue that first got the debate started.

But what the argument was fundamentally about was whether the marginal productivity theory of income distribution — marginalism — is a logically coherent theory. Although carried out in technical terms, the debate had strong political overtones. (Note that Solow served in the Kennedy White House, whereas Sraffa had smuggled in the paper for Gramsci to write thePrison Notebooks).

At its heart, the controversy opposed two visions of the capitalist economy. In the neoclassical vision, the most fundamental forces shaping the division of society’s produce are the supply and demand for labor and capital, and behind them, the technical facts of technology, scarcity, and consumer tastes. In this vision, the income distribution can be explained by the old platitudes “when the price goes up, less is bought,” and “when more is supplied, the price goes down.”

In the Cambridge vision, social, historical, and political forces — class struggle — are the essential factors in setting the income distribution. Once that distribution is fixed, the rest of the economy adjusts around it.

More here.

The Ghosts of Tiananmen Square


Ian Johnson in the NY Review of Books (image Ken Jarecke/Contact Press Images):

Eight-nine-six-four: June 4, 1989.

This is a date that the Communist Party has tried hard to expunge from public memory. On the night of June 3–4, China’s paramount ruler, Deng Xiaoping, and a group of senior leaders unleashed the People’s Liberation Army on Beijing. Ostensibly meant to clear Tiananmen Square of student protesters, it was actually a bloody show of force, a warning that the government would not tolerate outright opposition to its rule. By then, protests had spread to more than eighty cities across China, with many thousands of demonstrators calling for some sort of more open, democratic political system that would end the corruption, privilege, and brutality of Communist rule.1 The massacre in Beijing and government-led violence in many other cities were also a reminder that the Communist Party’s power grew out of the barrel of a gun. Over the coming decades the Chinese economy grew at a remarkable rate, bringing real prosperity and better lives to hundreds of millions. But behind it was this stick, the message that the government was prepared to massacre parts of the population if they got out of line.

When I returned to China as a journalist in the early 1990s, the Tiananmen events had become a theater played out every spring. As the date approached, dissidents across China would be rounded up, security in Beijing doubled, and censorship tightened. It was one of the many sensitive dates on the Communist calendar, quasi-taboo days that reflected a primal fear by the bureaucracy running the country. It was as if June 4, or liu si (six-four) in Chinese, had become a new Qingming, but one the government was embarrassed to admit existed. Now the crackdowns in May and June have lessened in intensity but are still part of daily life for hundreds of people throughout China, such as Xu Jue, the mother of a Tiananmen victim.

What remains? The author Christa Wolf used this phrase as the title of a novella set in late-1970s East Berlin. A woman notices that she is under surveillance and tries to imprint one day of her life in her memory so she can recall it sometime in the future when things can be discussed more freely. It is a story of intimidation and suppressed longing. Is this the right way to think of Tiananmen, as an act frozen in time, awaiting its true recognition and denouement in some vague future?

More here.

Multiverses and Sleeping Beauty


Richard Marshall interviews Alastair Wilson in 3:AM Magazine:

3:AM: One of the things you’ve dedicated yourself to contemplating is the Everettian multiverse. Before we go further into your thoughts can you sketch out what this is , how it solves Schrodinger’s cat puzzle and other issues? Is it science? And why do you thinkscientists like it more than philosophers?

AW: The Everettian multiverse is one of the most beautiful ideas in the history of science. If its wrong, at least it’s gloriously, elegantly, ambitiously wrong. My approach to Everettian quantum mechanics (EQM) builds directly upon that of the ‘Oxford Everettians’ – David Deutsch, Simon Saunders, David Wallace, and Hilary Greaves. Wallace’s presentation of the view has become canonical, and any seriously interested readers should start by ignoring me and reading his lovely book The Emergent Multiverse.

EQM involves a straightforward scientific realist attitude to the quantum-mechanical formalism. The best explanation of the empirical success of quantum mechanics is that it’s tracking some real structure in the world; and if the theory seems to describe superpositions of macroscopic states, we should at least explore the possibility that there are superpositions of macroscopic states. Everett’s remarkable idea was to reconcile macroscopic superpositions with the ‘manifest image’ by interpreting superpositions not as indeterminacy but as multiplicity. Instead of a single cat in an indeterminate state – half-alive-half-dead – we have two cats each in a determinate state – one alive and one dead.

Is it science? I don’t see why not, at least if our theories about quarks and gluons and about gravitational waves and about galaxies beyond the visible universe count as science. Such things are all posited on the basis that they allow for theories with superempirical theoretical virtues; they’re testable indirectly through the empirical generalizations that they help to elegantly explain.

There are lots of reasons to worry about EQM, some of them worth taking seriously. Amongst the interesting objections are the various aspects of the probability problem (on which more below) and concerns about emergent ontology and lack of determinate identity conditions for worlds. Technical difficulties (the ‘preferred basis problem’) which loomed large in older discussions have largely been resolved by decoherence theory, though this remains pretty controversial. To my mind the less interesting objections include ontological extravagance and departure from common sense. If we can solve the probability and ontology problems in satisfactory ways, then objections based on intuition or aesthetics aren’t going to carry much weight.

More here.

On the biology of race

Massimo Pigliucci Scientia Salon:

L9781594204463The biology of human races is back in the news, big time. This is because of a new book by former New York Times journalist Nicholas Wade, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History [1].

The basic thesis of the book is that human races are real, and that their genetic differences — which according to Wade evolved rapidly after the invention of agriculture — account for much of the behavioral differences among human groups, as well as for the success of some and the failure of others.

Here is a sample of quotes from Wade himself, to give you an idea of what he is up to [2]:

[Trying to explain why Western societies have been capable of developing advanced democracies while others haven't] “Conventionally, these social differences are attributed solely to culture. But if that’s so, why is it apparently so hard for tribal societies like Iraq or Afghanistan to change their culture and operate like modern states? The explanation could be that tribal behavior has a genetic basis.” (Indeed, but what explains the difference between the cultures of North and South Korea, which — as Allen Orr notes in his review of the book (see below) — are certainly genetically very close to each other?)

More here.

Akeel Bilgrami on the results of the Indian elections

Akeel Bilgrami in The Hindu:

ScreenHunter_663 May. 30 18.32One pundit in the aftermath of the Indian elections has described the Prime Minister-elect as seeking to “reshape the entire political universe of India” (Ashutosh Varshney in The Guardian ). It is in the nature of public life in the modern period that even just the rhetoric and pretence of “change” can bestow upon a politician an ersatz glamour. In the drumbeat of electioneering over several recent months that rhetoric and pretence on the lips of Mr. Narendra Modi was flamboyantly yet carefully cultivated and, above all, purchased at obscene expense. The media, funded and controlled by the same corporate sources that paid for this public relations achievement, acquiesced with conviction in the pretence and repeated the rhetoric each day both in print and on screen.

The strategy has paid off; the man now has the added glamour of the nation’s most exalted office which, suppressing his natural swagger, he has approached with an affectation of humility and express concern for the poor and working people of the country, the very people that the policies and politics he stands for will sink into ever-increasing poverty and insecurity.

These unstintingly negative remarks I have made are intended to recoil from the charitable and hopeful responses that even some of those made anxious by Mr. Modi’s election have resigned themselves to. A belief in democracy requires two things: an acceptance of the upshot of an election and a refusal to blame the electorate if the upshot fills one with dread. Beyond this no graciousness is required, least of all a slackening of the critical powers one brings to assessing the upshot.

More here.

The Erasure of Maya Angelou’s Sex Work History

Peechington Marie in Tits and Sass:

ScreenHunter_662 May. 30 12.58Dr. Maya Angelou, American Poet Laureate, most famous for authoring I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, passed away at age 86 on May 28th, 2014. Her literary agent Helen Brann confirmed the news to press, and thus began a worldwide outpouring of grief. The top trending tag on Twitter was “RIP Maya Angelou” and, at the time of this writing, it is one of four Maya Angelou-related trending hashtags. She is hailed as a national best selling author, a genius, a spiritual God-, Grand-, and mother. She is lauded as everything Black women should aspire to emulate in life. So why is it very few of us know she was a sex worker? Why is it, even in her death, as in her life, it’s such a guarded secret? Why was this secret kept by seemingly everyone except Dr. Angelou herself?

We can, once again, boil it down to respectability politics and stigma. I am angry about it. I find myself ruminating, considering, wondering: If her work had been talked about as much as her dancing with James Baldwin or even her considerable, commanding and lovely height of six feet, what would the sex work community look like today? If we had talked about her wonderful compassion for sex workers, how she never looked down on them, and her refusal to be intimidated by invasive and obnoxious questioning about her sex working past, what would sex workers around the world be saying today in memory of her life?

More here.

Rite of Passage: A father and son explore a changing landscape

Mike Tidwell in Orion Magazine:

JourneysHeader2He’s fifteen years old. Not quite a man, but almost. We’ll be visiting colleges this time next year. He’s not a boy, either, although he looks consummately boyish in the innocence of slumber. I see the Little Leaguer in his face, and the kindergartener. In sleep we catch the last youthful poses of our children.

And at this moment, I wonder yet again why I brought Sasha to this wilderness place. Part of the answer is simple. I’ve traveled the world—the Amazon, the Serengeti, the Alps—and for me this is the most haunting and beautiful landscape on earth. We are in absolute backcountry: the Chihuahuan Desert canyons of “Big Bend Country,” literally that giant bend of the Rio Grande that separates west Texas from northern Mexico. The same sun washing over Sasha’s closed eyes is rousing the cliff swallows into song two hundred feet away. Around us, a million desert flowers go all electric in late-March bloom—red ocotillo, purple verbena, the magenta blossoms of cholla cacti. In the riverbank shallows, a longnose gar sloshes though the willow grass, hunting frogs.

More here.

The Next Wave of Cancer Cures Could Come From Nasty Viruses

Matt Safford in Smithsonian:

VirusThe notion of using viruses to attack cancer has been around nearly as long as we’ve known about viruses themselves. But several roadblocks– viruses attacking patients’ immune systems, or, not effectively targeting tumors–have led to slow growth in this area of research. Until now.
Earlier this month, a team led by Dr. Stephen Russell at Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic announced that a patient with previously unresponsive, blood-borne cancer (multiple myeloma) had gone into complete remission after being treated with a massive dose of a modified measles virus. A second patient given a similar dose (10 million times the amount in the common measles vaccine) didn’t respond as dramatically to the treatment, but the patient’s tumors did shrink, indicating the virus was at least attacking the targeted areas.

In a separate study that hasn’t yet made it to human trials, a team led by Dr. Khalid Shah at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI) at Massachusetts General Hospital has made progress in attacking brain tumor cells in mice using the herpes virus. Shah’s team packed the virus inside a type of human stem cell which, unlike some previous vehicles, is amenable to carrying modified viruses and doesn’t trigger a significant immune response. The team’s second trick: They wrapped the herpes-loaded stem cells inside a biocompatible gel to help keep the virus in place and attacking tumor cells for a longer period of time. According to the team, mice treated in this way had significantly improved survival.

More here.

Friday Poem


I have a feeling that my boat
has struck, down there in the depths,
against a great thing.
And nothing
happens! Nothing . . . Silence . . . Waves . . .

—Nothing happens? Or has everything happened,
and we are standing now, quietly, in the new life?

by Juan Ramón Jiménez
from News of the Universe
Sierra Club Books, 1995
translated by Robert Bly