Among the Disbelievers

Daniel Lazare in The Nation:

AtheistImagine it’s Paris in the spring of 1789 and you have just announced that you are an inveterate foe of tyrants and kings. Obviously, your message is not going to fall on deaf ears. But now that you’ve made it clear what you’re against, what are you for? Do you favor an aristocratic constitution in which power devolves to the provincial nobility? Would you prefer a British-style constitutional monarchy? Or do you believe in all power to the sans-culottes? How you answer will shape both your analysis of the situation and the political tactics you employ in changing it. It may also determine whether you wind up on the chopping block in the next half-decade or so.

This is the problem, more or less, confronting today’s reinvigorated atheist movement. For a long time, religion had been doing quite nicely as a kind of minor entertainment. Christmas and Easter were quite unthinkable without it, not to mention Hanukkah and Passover. But then certain enthusiasts took things too far by crashing airliners into office towers in the name of Allah, launching a global crusade to rid the world of evil and declaring the jury still out on Darwinian evolution. As a consequence, religion now looks nearly as bad as royalism did in the late eighteenth century. But while united in their resolve to throw the bum out–God, that is–the antireligious forces appear to have given little thought to what to replace Him with should He go. They may not face the guillotine as a consequence. But they could end up making even bigger fools of themselves than the theologians they criticize.

More here.

The Simpsons Hit 400

Simon Maxwell Apter in The Nation:

Lisa_saxTerribly animated (at least by Pixar or Dreamworks standards), unabashedly crude and, at times, prone to deus ex machina endings (including one featuring a robed, sandaled and bearded God who actually booms, “Deus ex machina!” as he sets things right), The Simpsons will present its 400th episode on Fox on May 20. It’s important to note the “on Fox” part, as there would be no Fox, let alone a Fox News, without The Simpsons. Indeed, the importance of The Simpsons to Fox was perhaps best illustrated in an episode of Family Guy, another Fox cartoon (and cheap Simpsons knock-off to some, delightful refurbishment of the genre to others), in which its protagonist rattles off some twenty-nine failed Fox programs that network execs had used to try and bolster the paltry Simpsons-Cops-America’s Most Wanted triad they were currently (and quite lopsidedly) using to entice primetime viewers.

More here.

The Greatest Long Tracking Shots in Cinema

Alan Bacchus at Daily Film Dose:

In a director’s cinematic bag of tricks the long tracking shot is the boldest way of making a statement. It’s the flashiest and most attention-grabbing egotistical way of flexing one’s muscle. In most cases it’s a narcissistic maneuver, “look-at-me” filming technique, but rare ones, the best ones, serve to reflect and further the story in a way that can’t be reflected with traditional editing…


Goodfellas (1990) – The Copacabana – dir. Martin Scorsese

The other granddaddy of the long tracking shot is Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco’s walk through the Copacabana in “Goodfellas”. This shot’s serves to put the audience in the point of view of Karen, who is about to be swept off her feet by the temptation of the gangster lifestyle. This introduction to Henry’s world will counterpoint their eventual downfall later in the film. The movement of the camera through the tight spaces and long corridors while maintaining constant dialogue makes this shot an impressive maneuver and a benchmark in cinema:

More here.

The subjection of Islamic women and the fecklessness of American feminism

Christina Hoff Summers in the Weekly Standard:

HijabsmThe subjection of women in Muslim societies–especially in Arab nations and in Iran–is today very much in the public eye. Accounts of lashings, stonings, and honor killings are regularly in the news, and searing memoirs by Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Azar Nafisi have become major best-sellers. One might expect that by now American feminist groups would be organizing protests against such glaring injustices, joining forces with the valiant Muslim women who are working to change their societies. This is not happening.

If you go to the websites of major women’s groups, such as the National Organization for Women, the Ms. Foundation for Women, and the National Council for Research on Women, or to women’s centers at our major colleges and universities, you’ll find them caught up with entirely other issues, seldom mentioning women in Islam. During the 1980s, there were massive demonstrations on American campuses against racial apartheid in South Africa. There is no remotely comparable movement on today’s campuses against the gender apartheid prevalent in large parts of the world.

It is not that American feminists are indifferent to the predicament of Muslim women. Nor do they completely ignore it. For a brief period before September 11, 2001, many women’s groups protested the brutalities of the Taliban. But they have never organized a full-scale mobilization against gender oppression in the Muslim world. The condition of Muslim women may be the most pressing women’s issue of our age, but for many contemporary American feminists it is not a high priority. Why not?

More here.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Wretched of the Earth

Nicholas D. Kristof writes about two recent books on poverty, in the New York Review of Books:

Poverty_mainPoverty both in the US and around the world remains a central fact of twenty-first-century life; a majority of the world lives on less than $2 a day, one common measure of who is poor. Yet we manage, pretty successfully, to ignore it and insulate ourselves even from poverty in our own country. When it pops out from behind the screen after an episode like the Watts riots of 1965 or the New Orleans hurricane of 2005, then we express horror and indignation and vow change, and finally shrug and move on. Meanwhile, the world’s five hundred wealthiest people have the same income as the world’s poorest 416 million.

These days, however, something interesting is stirring in the world of poverty. People like Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett have made it almost as prestigious for philanthropists to underwrite vaccinations as to underwrite the ballet. Bono and Angelina Jolie have made Africa almost sexy. And several Democratic presidential candidates have real expertise and interest in the issue, particularly domestically: Barack Obama worked as a grassroots antipoverty organizer in Chicago; Hillary Rodham Clinton has long labored on child poverty; and John Edwards has spent the last few years assiduously studying poverty and speaking out about it. On the Republican side, Sam Brownback is also very serious about poverty and related issues, including prison conditions and recidivism.

More here.

Bad Science

No one is saying that researchers cheat, but how they design a study of sex education can practically preordain the results.

Sharon Begley in Newsweek:

070428_so01_vl_widecFor us civilians, it’s hard to grasp how much of science is subjective, and especially how much leeway there is in choosing how to conduct a study. No one is alleging that scientists stack the deck on purpose. Let’s just say that depending on how you design a study you can practically preordain the outcome. “There is an amazing array of things people do to botch a study,” says Rebecca Maynard of the University of Pennsylvania.

For instance, 153 out of 167 government-funded studies of bisphenol-A, a chemical used to make plastic, find toxic effects in animals, such as low sperm counts. No industry-funded studies find any problem. It’s not that the taxpayer-funded scientists are hallucinating, or that the industry scientists are blind. But here’s a clue: many industry studies tested this estrogenlike chemical on a strain of rat that is insensitive to estrogen. That’s like trying to measure how stress affects lactation … using males.

More here.

Atheists with Attitude

Anthony Gottlieb writes about God is Not Great, by Christopher Hitchens, in The New Yorker:

GodThe terrorist attacks were carried out in the name of Islam, and they have been taken, by a string of best-selling books, to illustrate the fatal dangers of all religious faith.

The first of these books was “The End of Faith,” by Sam Harris, which was published in 2004 and was on the Times paperback best-seller list for thirty-three weeks. Then came “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon,” by Daniel Dennett, a philosopher at Tufts University, who has written popular books on the science of consciousness and on Darwin. Next was “The God Delusion,” by Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and Britain’s preëminent science writer. Harris joined battle again last year with “Letter to a Christian Nation,” which renewed his attack on Christianity in particular. And now there is “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” (Twelve; $24.99), by Christopher Hitchens, which is both the most articulate and the angriest of the lot. Hitchens is a British-born writer who lives in Washington, D.C., and is a columnist for Vanity Fair and Slate. He thrives at the lectern, where his powers of rhetoric and recall enable him to entertain an audience, go too far, and almost get away with it. These gifts are amply reflected in “God Is Not Great.”

Hitchens is nothing if not provocative. Creationists are “yokels,” Pascal’s theology is “not far short of sordid,” the reasoning of the Christian writer C. S. Lewis is “so pathetic as to defy description,” Calvin was a “sadist and torturer and killer,” Buddhist sayings are “almost too easy to parody,” most Eastern spiritual discourse is “not even wrong,” Islam is “a rather obvious and ill-arranged set of plagiarisms,” Hanukkah is a “vapid and annoying holiday,” and the psalmist King David was an “unscrupulous bandit.”

More here.

Is that painting real? Ask a mathematician.

Engineers use a mathematical process dubbed ‘stylometry’ to set apart real Van Gogh paintings from forgeries.

Elizabeth Svoboda in the Christian Science Monitor:

Screenhunter_01_may_15_1818After Japanese insurance kingpin Yasuo Goto won a high-stakes bidding war by offering $39.9 million for a painting at a 1987 auction, an unforeseen controversy erupted: Was the painting, Vincent van Gogh’s “Still Life: Vase With Fifteen Sunflowers,” truly the work of the Dutch master, or a clever fake?

Some art dealers and historians thought the character of the brushstrokes differed from other Van Goghs; others disagreed. The stalemate was never resolved. But after 20 years, help is finally arriving from an unlikely quarter. Computer scientist Richard Johnson of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., is embarking on an international project to define Van Gogh’s unique style in mathematical terms, with the intent of shining a focused beam of objectivity on the traditionally muddled question of attribution.

On May 14, teams of engineers that Mr. Johnson recruited will meet with art students and curators at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam to announce what they think sets real Van Gogh paintings apart from forgeries. By analyzing a database of 101 paintings by the artist and his known imitators, the scientists have arrived at what they say are key elements of Van Gogh’s “visual signature,” which can be distilled into numbers. This, they say, will give art experts an important new tool to assess works like “Vase With Fifteen Sunflowers.” They can compare how closely a disputed painting’s visual signature matches the baseline “signature” derived from the database.

More here.

The ‘Usefully Dangerous’ Economist

Mark Levinson in Dissent:

JkgThis is the story of two economists—John Kenneth Galbraith, who died last year at age ninety-seven, and Paul Krugman, who at fifty-four is in his prime as an economist and a columnist for the New York Times. Like Galbraith, Krugman is a forthright liberal, the most well-known economist of his generation, skilled at writing about economics for a general public.

Krugman_265x308_4Yet relations between the two were not what one might think. Throughout much of the 1990s, Krugman declared war on popular writers of economics, and sneeringly said of Galbraith that “he has never been taken seriously by his academic colleagues, who regard him as more of a ‘media personality.’” The “fault line,” he wrote, “between serious economic thinking and economic patent medicine, between the professors and the policy entrepreneurs, is at least as important as the divide between left and right.”

But the world changed when George W. Bush was elected in 2000, and what is arguably the worst administration in the history of the United States took office. It seemed to shake Krugman to the core. He now says of his polemics in the 1990s, “I was wrong obviously. If I’d understood where politics would be now, it would have been quite different.”

More here.

Free Chandramohan

From Chapati Mystery:

Chandramohan Srilamantula is a final year post-graduate student in Graphics at Fine Arts department at Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda, Gujarat. In 2006 he received the Lalit Kala National Akademi Award for his work. As part of his final examination, along with other students, he put up his graphic print installations in the Faculty building. His submissions were “Durga Slaying Krustacean” and “The Beautiful Vexation” — figuring ten-headed deities, resembling Ganesh, Vishnu and another featuring a Cross was “untitled”. These installations, closed to the public, brought a mob led by BJP goon Niraj Jain and police authorities who promptly arrested Chandramohan and roughed up the faculty and staff of the department. This video – on the left side – shows the installation being attacked by the goons.

Chandramohan is being charged under sections 153A, 114, and 295 of the Penal Code for “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race etc, commiting acts prejudicial to the harmony of the public.”

He was denied bail and transferred to Central Jail. Emboldened by this, BJP is demanding that all faculty and students in the department be suspended or expelled. The University has suspended Dean Shivji Panikker who publicly backed Chandramohan.

Please spread this news…

More here.  [Thanks to Aditya Dev Sood.]

A Poem by Billy Collins

From PoemHunter:

Introduction To Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

More by Collins here.  [Thanks to Jim Culleny.]

Alexander the Not-So-Great

From Science:Tyre

Alexander was the first commander to attempt to conquer the known world, and his army had just captured the Phoenician cities of Byblos and Sidon. In nearby Tyre, he saw a strategic outpost that would give him a supply and reinforcement port to control the Eastern Mediterranean. But Tyre proved a tough nut to crack. Besides being protected by 50-meter-high walls, the ancient city occupied an island a kilometer off the coast of present-day Lebanon, surrounded by seas as deep as 10 meters. History records that, after seven months of battle, Alexander’s army breached the island’s defenses by constructing a bridge of timber, stone, and rubble and then used battering rams to puncture an entryway into the cities’ walls–a feat that effectively led to the end of the Phoenician Empire.

But just how impressive was this achievement? Geoscientist Nick Marriner and colleagues at the European Center for Research and Teaching on the Geosciences of the Environment (CEREGE) in Aix-en-Provence, France, studied sediment records off the coast of Lebanon and microfossil evidence from core sites on the Tyrian peninsula. The team concludes that at no point did Alexander’s engineers contend with anything close to 10 meters of water. Instead, an outpouring of sediment over 5500 years from the nearby Litani delta formed an underwater platform between the mainland and Tyre. As the rise in sea level slowed and agriculture developed, sedimentation rates increased. In addition, Tyre acted as an immense shield to quash waves, allowing material to accumulate on its Lebanon-facing side. By 332 B.C.E., the bridge was within one to two meters of mean sea level.

Considered by some historians as his greatest military achievement, the story of Tyre–and the legend of Alexander the Great–might have read quite differently without an assist from Mother Nature.

More here.

In Hive or Castle, Duty Without Power

Natalie Angier in The New York Times:Ang_2

As I watched Queen Elizabeth II float serenely last week through her swooning colonial multitudes, here chatting with Goddard engineers on the wonders of the space age, there catching the president on blunders about the queen’s age, I couldn’t help but doff a small mental tiara to the great lady.

Such sober poise and unpompous stances! She’s majestic, all right, her regalness clearly born, made and thrust upon her every day of her life. In so many ways, Elizabeth reminded me of another monarch I admire: the honeybee queen, that stoical, beloved mother to the worker masses in a beehive. Sure, Her Highness may go in for pastel solids and Her Hymenoptera for fuzzy stripes, but both are tiny, attractive celebrities prone to being swarmed. “The queen bee, like the queen of England, is not the ruler, and she doesn’t tell anybody what to do,” said Gene E. Robinson, a professor of integrative biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “But she makes things work, and she makes everything better by being around.”

Dr. Robinson and other researchers are trying to understand the deep nature of the honeybee: why it behaves as it does, how a young bee knows it’s time to grow up and get out of the house, how an older bee finds its way back to the house after a hard day’s work, and what distinguishes a queen bee from the tens of thousands of worker bees that surround her.

More here.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Dispatches: On The Bowery Whole Foods

First, a few words on the neighborhood.  Inside the door, above a landscape of crushed-ice, a long wooden board has been affixed to the wall, the purpose of which quickly becomes clear.  Fish, having been selected from the tank in front, sail wriggling through the air, hit the board, bounce, skitter along it, hit the far inside wall, and fall to the ice below to be grabbed, alive, and filleted by the staff in back.  Below the plank that ensures the fishmongers’ accuracy, the heads of large salmon, recently detached, continue to yawn and gawp reflexively.   In front sit wooden baskets of soft-shell crabs, porgies, shrimp of all sizes, razor clams with their phallic, protruding siphons, and numerous flatfish, all whole and waiting for inspection by customers who wouldn’t think of buying a fish without checking its gills for redness and pressing its scaly sides for taut resilience.  Squeezed between the wall and the crab and lobster tanks sits a large black bucket, nearly the size of a garbage can, from which the topmost of many layers of frogs stare up.

Such is a typical fish stall on Mott Street, in downtown Manhattan.  But many other food shops south of Houston Street and east of Lafayette Street, of all cuisines and nationalities, share the stall’s intensity, if not always the sheer directness of the relationship between people and the animals they eat that obtains there.  In the window of Despana, a newish food boutique on Broome that specializes in Spanish delicacies such as paprikas, olives, cheeses, and oils, hangs a salt-cured pig’s hind leg, hoof and all, unmistakably a severed mammalian limb, waiting to be sliced into transparencies of Serrano ham.  Inside Dom’s, a nearby Italian grocer, chickens complete with head and feet (the better to be added to to your stockpot) lie in cases beneath gamy homemade sausages that age hanging from the ceiling.  The Essex Market’s Dominican butchers sell goat meat and oxtails, while pig stomachs and tripe are available nearby.  Not only the Sullivan Street bakery but the Balthazar bakery, Ceci-Cela, the Falai bakery and several others turn out impeccable breads.

Bangkok Grocery, the city’s best purveyor of galangal, shrimp pastes, lime leaves, fish sauces, and other Thai ingredients, is a few blocks below Canal on the San Francisco-esque, tilted Mosco Street.  Back up on Mott sits DiPalo’s, the legendary supplier of the best Parmigiano-Reggiano and other Italian artisanal products in this country.  Catty corner from it one can buy the city’s best Banh Mi, or Vietnamese sandwich, at Banh Mi Saigon Bakery.  (This opinion professionally corroborated by the always scintillating J. Slab at The Porkchop Express.)  Vegetable sellers and more fishmongers from China’s Fujian Province line Grand Street all the way to Hester, where a right turn brings you to Il Labatorio del Gelato, New York’s most lauded ice cream makers, and a little beyond that a wide-ranging chocolate shop where you can find most of the finest single-bean productions of Michel Cluizel, Valrhona, and other chocolate titans.  Next door is Alejandro Alcocer’s excellent food shop, Orange, and restaurant, Brown.  Over another block on Grand is Doughnut Plant, where Mark Singer makes his grandfather’s recipes using organic ingredients.  And back up to Houston sits Katz’s, the pastrami champion of New York City.

Back west a few blocks on Houston is the new Bowery Whole Foods.  Is it just me who finds still finds appending the word “Bowery” to such amenities as pricey supermarkets oxymoronic?  Or has the word Bowery already shed its downmarket connotations, or rather, already accrued the upmarket status into which downmarket connotations are now magically transformed?  Whichever confusing permutation it is, the branch itself comically interrupts perhaps the densest, most diverse, and best collection of individual food shops in the United States.  Whole Foods, the American food economy’s answer to Crate and Barrel, is no doubt a useful intervention in most suburban contexts in which there are thirty enormous chain pharmacies for every good butcher or fish shop.  If you live on the exurban outskirts of Columbus, Ohio, presumably Whole Foods appreciably increases the diversity of available food. 

But on Bowery and Houston, Whole Foods represents a much poorer form of food diversity than what is already there.  And, food shops are not just food shops: they are a solidified form of the social relationships that obtain between people in an particular place.  The unofficial little vegetable market that pops up on weekends on Forsyth Street under the Manhattan Bridge represents a food culture of inspecting produce and comparing adjacent vendors for the best price: the entire cacophony of traditional market culture.  It is the product and instantiation of the middle and working-class residents of Chinatown.  But don’t think I am making an argument about authenticity here.  Whole Foods is in no way a less natural emanation of a different class stratum: the professional and managerial upper-middle people who flow into downtown in increasing numbers.  These people, and their needs for organic baby food, large amounts of wildly expensive prepared lunchtime panini and salads, exist in symbiosis with Whole Foods.  As downtown New York tilts towards this population, and its fauxhemian pretensions, there is a natural influx of corporate franchises with bland, do-gooder brand identities that serve the casual American elite from Seattle to Cambridge.

But the Bowery Whole Foods tells us something remarkable about its shoppers: how ignorant they are of where they are and how alienated they are from food.  Perusing it, the thing that impresses you most is the pervasive labeling, the enormous amounts of information appended to everything.  Everywhere are little identificatory notes, signs overhead, brochures on what to do with their sausages (eat them?), glossy photos of the smiling man who supposedly dredged up your mussels or baited the hook upon which your (always already headless and filleted) wild salmon met its end.  This is food shopping for people who have come to trust only that which is mediated by text, addenda, explanations, certifications.  It is a website come to life, or a piece of life for those who prefer websites: each piece of signage functions as the hyperlink that clicks through to a capsule review. 

I once served some sliced raw albacore tuna doused in soy to a friend.  I had bought the fish not far from Whole Foods from Alex, the fisherman who had caught it and brought it the next day to the Greenmarket.  I’m lucky to live in a city where this is a humdrum and everyday transaction.  My friend, a film producer, remarked, “This is great!  But how did it get sterile?” 

“Sterile?” I asked.

“Yeah.  How does it get safe to eat?”

Food?  Sterile?  This is the alienation on which Whole Foods depends.  In the age of hysterical warning about the dangers of food, it comes as a surprise to find that fish can be pulled out of the water and eaten, raw.  No anti-bacterial soap or release form required. 

There is something else alienating about Whole Foods: it posits a universe in which we are all only consumers.  The holism its name gestures towards is not the holism of a community in which buyers and sellers know each other.  Instead, it’s purely about the foods themselves: one’s interest in food is projected as only another form of self-interest.  Industrial organic food production has many of the same faults as the conventional food industry; it doesn’t matter.  That organic food is roughly a third the price at socialist institutions like the Fourth Street Food Coop, or the superb Park Slope Food Coop, is also unimportant.  These neoliberal shoppers prefer the impersonal embrace of a corporate parent, disguised as some vague moral goodness.  Yet a principle like seasonality is sacrificed to the lure of exotic, irradiated produce available year-round.  Such are the characteristics of the so-called “foodies.”  Even the term suggests a cute and infantile hobby.  And it does seem infantile to shop at Whole Foods while all around you sits the very food cultures about which Whole Foods’ publicity materials fantasize.

Near Orchard Street, four blocks from Bowery and Houston Street, sits Russ and Daughters, a small shop crammed with smoked salmon, cured salmon, salmon roe, herring, chubs, sturgeon eggs, bagels, fruits and candies, mustards, cream cheeses, etc.  It is a legacy of a time when the Lower East Side was the world’s single densest agglomeration of people, and Jewish and Eastern European foodstuffs were for sale from pushcarts up and down Orchard Street.  The store started on such a pushcart, but this is no neighborhood of Jewish immigrants anymore.  Instead, Russ and Daughters has survived by becoming the best source for smoked fish and caviar in New York City, no mean achievement.  In a way, it and shops like it have produced the very market they now serve: the teeming Lower East Side’s taste for bagels and lox ended up colonizing the nation. 

In a world in which we’ve been socialized to distrust the claims of brands, we paradoxically require ever greater documentations of authenticity, ever wordier mediations between ourselves and things.  We don’t trust ourselves to be able to divine with our own eyes what an edible object is, whether it’s genetically modified, whether it contains omega-3, whether it’s safe for our children.  But the Lower East Side of New York has lasted against this tendency, thanks to the richness of its cultural inheritance.  It’s also due, frankly, to intrepidness of the people who have lived here, their lack of a need for handholding, and their willingness to seek out the new and the strange.  There is something beautiful about the fact that the greatest smoked salmon purveyor in the country operates on the very corner from which the taste for the foodstuff emanated.  It is a rare and appropriate historical congruence, and to me it represents what is fascinating and powerful about the food culture of this quadrant of New York City.  Whole Foods is not.

The rest of Dispatches.

Lunar Refractions: Breaking the Record, Breaking the Bank

Cnoblewebster1996forever350450k_2 First-class stamps cost two cents more today, but don’t worry, the USPS “forever stamp” is also making its debut. Few of us still use stamps, but as a fan of snail mail I’m grateful for this concession, even if it’s been creUspsforeverstampated for no other reason than to appease disgruntled postal workers who’re tired of explaining the price hikes to increasingly aggressive customers. The fact that I can buy one for forty-one cents today and use it, say, forty-one years from now (if the US pseudo-empire and its postal service still exist) sounds like a great deal to me, ne’er you mind that the image is of the cracked Liberty Bell and the line “USA FIRST-CLASS FOREVER” creates a somewhat pathetic kind of poem. That little rectangle of paper, ink, and adhesive will effectively appreciate over time, and I won’t even have to monitor the investment. This brings me to some other goods hitting the market this week that will soon cost a few gazillion cents more.

Srichter2001herrheyde4060k Tomorrow, 15 May is the Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Sale, followed by Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale the day after. Both of these hot evening sales are accompanied by morning and afternoon sessions, which include works of implicitly less desirable/more attainable status. I’d not given the whole art auction universe much thought for a few years—ever since an insistent idealism about art hinted that my job assisting a private art dealer was perhaps better filled by an aesthetically disinterested economics grad—but having an outside glimpse of it again this past weekend was most enjoyable. Overlooking the apparently confused titles of these regal events (Jackson Pollock is a contemporary artist?) and focusing on some of the work, I left thrilled that these two premier auction houses deign to even open their doors to riffraff like me.

In the company of a painter I adore who’d suggested the trip, we first went to Christie’s, at Rockefeller Center. Strolling through two of the three preview floors, I was reminded how much Cbaldessari6768qualmat152milRuscha’s letters make me smile, and how Martin’s still verticals and horizontals can be too quiet for all but the most studied space. I’d expected to feel intimidated, but was glad to see that I wasn’t so out of place, remembering an observation Miranda July once made after discussing one of her short stories, something along the lines of “poor people who win the lottery don’t become different people, they just become poor people with tons of money.” So there we were, amid well-heeled and sandal-wearing families alike, lovers, art lovers, art investors, indifferent investors, and all sorts of folk keen to have a look at some incredible works before they’re sent to the auction block and disappear. Some will be whisked away into private homes forever, some will vanish into the buyer’s closet for a few months until they appreciate enough to be sent right back to the block, and a very few just might happily end up in a museum or collection where the public will still have access to them. After leaving that gallery I had worked at and moving on with life, the whole experience came vividly back to me last year as I unsuspectingly strolled through the National Gallery of Art and came across a piece the dealer I’d worked with had been offering when I left. It was like bumping into an acquaintance who’s moved away and you never expected to see again, and I was glad she’d (unintentionally) placed it where people could enjoy it.

Cweischer2001familieomittag250350_2 Here I must take a moment to digress; for me, the real discovery at Christie’s was Matthias Weischer, one of the Leipzig School painters I’d heard a lot about but whose work I’d never seen in person. I considered getting the auction catalogue for this one piece, filled with echoes of De Chirico and other strange spaces I’d been thinking about lately, but wanted to travel lightly and knew there’d be other occasions to see him. Checking the Christie’s website I found some lofty, laughable text about it:
“In Familie O-Mittag…. all spatial bearings lost, viewers are left with the fascinating task of making sense of the layers of Weischer’s painting and grappling with the meaning of the inexplicable dark and foreboding coiled mass at the center of the work–a process which intelligently mirrors the manner in which many struggle to wade through the multiple strata of their everyday lives and wrestle with the often enigmatic recurring doubts of human existence.” I know nothing about dark and foreboding masses, but I love green boa-constrictor constructions, hovering floors, and dissolving bricks. And yeah, if it can mirror my struggle to wade through the strata of my everyday existence better than a little Lacanian analysis, maybe it is worth more than the $250–$350,000 estimate they’ve put forth… if only a fraction of that went to the work’s creator.

Srichterstella Leaving Christie’s and walking northeast to Sotheby’s singular palace (now quite contested real estate), a very different atmosphere greeted us. Joining what appeared to be a gregarious father-son duo asking if there were anything to see on the ninth floor during the elevator ride to the relatively new, rather sterile tenth floor, the space felt more like the new MoMA, as opposed to Christie’s more intimate spaces, until I turned a corner to see jewel-cases of diamonds tucked along a wall beside some of the paintings. As a big Marilyn fan I’ve nothing against diamonds, but their placement here seemed curious, even disruptive, next to the supposed works of art. The shopping mall atmosphere grew stronger as we descended to the lower floors, tucked into shadow behind the tall front atrium and connected by somehow incongruously loud escalators, where the paintings up for the morning and afternoon sales were cramped in around pre-Columbian artifacts, another branch of the diamond division, and some “Important Turner Watercolours from the Guy and Myriam Ullens Collection,” (as if Sotheby’s would sell anything that weren’t important).

Srichter1967akte912milThe second preview, feeling more like an odd museum, had a more varied and vociferous public, and there was more mobile phone speculation to be overheard. Seeing an early Stella maze was a good welcome, and its blacks, greys, and whites good preparation for Richter’s charming Spanish nudies in the next room. As I looked at a Warhol flower piece set into one of Stella’s rainbow wSbidlo1983canotpollock4060korks thanks to the magical refraction of a prismlike Robert Irwin column, a young boy ran up, ducked between me and the column, and took my same stance to look through. He then called his parents, who’d just dismissed Not Pollock on the side wall, to do the same. The following room had Tom Friedman’s teeny self-portrait carved from Aspirin, and more Aspirin encapsulated in the transparent acrylic of a Tomaselli piece. Seeing on our way out that another, less fortunate Richter was relegated to a spot next to the escalator, then noting that it was a lithograph of a photograph of a painting of his, numbered 5 in an edition of 8, the relatively low $40–60,000 estimate on it made more sense. It was a fun afternoon.

Sstella01 Sstellawarholirwin

The following evening I ran into my upstairs neighbors, two truly fine artists who’d ridden the ascending art market wave of the ’80s and weathered the consequential crash, and traded some not-so-fun reflections on precisely what is going on, where these works are coming from, going to, and why. These will be an exciting couple of days, and I’m glad to have had an inspiring peek at some beauties just briefly passing through.

Pevious Lunar Refractions here.

[Images courtesy of my camera, the USPS website, and Christie’s and Sotheby’s online catalogues.]

On Loyalty

Of all the qualities a person may possess, be they inherently positive or negative, a useful place may be made for all them except loyalty. Loyalty is a willful act made at the behest of a superior, an act whose only guaranty is continued subservience. Loyalty imposes the impression of honor on outwardly unyielding faith in a poor idea or person.

A banker in his 30s gets a job with a maverick investor. Many quiet meetings and transactions surround the maverick’s method for picking investments. The banker is privy to many of these secrets and is well rewarded for his energetic and discreet compliance. He buys a stately house just out of the city. People say taxi and he thinks of a helicopter. A journalist discovers the method is grossly illegal. The banker stays on through the investigations; given his rewards he feels this is the just choice. His job has given him his possessions and blessed his resume; the maverick’s reputation must be preserved within a larger narrative. 

Every weekend a mother and father visit their daughter at a juvenile detention center. The bus takes three hours. The wait at the detention center is twice as long. They spin great webs of contexts that make sense of her crime, but they do not ultimately stand by or try to justify the crime itself. Sometimes they are not let into the center. Sometimes they are let in and she is moody and unmanageable. They go to see their daughter every weekend. They love her.

Peter Gotti, older brother of John Gotti, was the last head from a long generation of the Gambino crime family. He did not rule long, indicted with several other made men, all elderly, hunched over and harassed by their bodies. At trial there were as many turncoats as there were defendants, old men as well, trading their testimony and the mafia’s lifetime oath of loyalty, for however many less years in the cells for one cooperators are kept in for their own safety. Peter Gotti was found guilty, his appeal has been filed.

Zimbabwe. Burma. Any government from the 60s through the 80s whose leader had big dark glasses welded to his temples. All governments founded on loyalty, all corrupt and doomed. See the current American administration the comparison of which is no great stretch. One is to the others as stable, very rich America is to decidedly unstable, much poorer countries. Permanent war, the propagation of one party and the obfuscation of the press (worse states castrate the press, America’s was emasculated into impotence, left making excuses, “I swear this never happened before.”) are wholly unintelligent from the point of view of good government, and all are acts typical of governments crammed with loyalists. 

Minority groups are often what would be called loyal amongst each other. But this is the affection that comes from shared experience, spread out concentrically, because the minority experience is generally an unstable and/or subservient one. They care for each other because others don’t.

Two brother’s sit in a bar, one drunk. They love each other very much, talk to each other every day. The drunk brother gets in a verbal altercation and a fight is inevitable. The sober brother steps in, punching the man his brother faces, hurting him. A regrettable act of love.

An old man dies. One granddaughter loved the man so much she charges money she will not be able to pay back anytime soon, flying from another country to attend the funeral. Another granddaughter, who loved him equally and lives in the same town as the funeral, cannot leave her house she is so devastated. Neither qualifies as loyal or not, both are acts born from love.

A soldier lies wounded in an Army hospital, alive in a manner of speaking, burned his body over and sort of breathing. In 2003 his brigade marched from the Kuwaiti border to Baghdad where for a week they drove up and down a highway celebrating, shooting wildly. The soldier went home and was brought back by the Army for another year, then another year and a last year the beginning of which a bomb exploded under him. Many explosions could have done the same, but he always missed their acquaintance through luck and the help of other soldiers. His troop contains many personalities, some of whom he likes, others less so. No reward, except the company of these personalities, exists equivalent to what the soldier has seen and had to do. He regrets that he is not with his troop now. His is the saddest, sorriest love of all.

Poking a Pet Peeve

I'm not even going to bother sourcing the quote that initially spurred this column; we've all seen a hundred similar claims in press releases, news articles, blogs and so on:

It is an established fact that 98 percent of the DNA, or the code of life, is exactly the same between humans and chimpanzees. So the key to what it means to be human resides in that other 2 percent.

Argh. This meme, or trope, or whatever you want to call it, drives me crazy. Here's why:

Individual human genomes vary by about 0.08% at the single-nucleotide level, whereas human and chimpanzee genomes differ by about1-1.5% at the same level. This is misleading, though, because single-nucleotide comparison means aligning comparable sequences base-by-base and counting the differences. In order to line up the two sequences in the first place, you have to introduce gaps into each sequence to allow for insertions and deletions. Like this:


In this made-up example, three bases out of fifty are different (6%) but the gaps account for a further 7 bases' worth of difference (14%). Do this with enough regions of each genome to get a representative sample and you can estimate the degree of sequence identity between the two genomes. Of the optimally-aligned sections of our genomes, we share about 98.5-99% with chimps, but taking the gaps into account produces a rather lower figure of about 95%, something Roy Britten showed in 2002.

What both figures overlook, and tend to obscure, is differences in the organization of large sections of the genetic information: duplications, inversions, recombinations between and within chromosomes, insertions of retroviral sequences, species-specific genes and so on. There are a number of methods that allow us to measure such differences, but at the submicroscopic level1 one of the newest and perhaps most powerful is representational oligonucleotide microarray analysis (ROMA). What ROMA does (there's a good explanatory paper here) is to compare reduced-complexity representations of two genomes. The average resolution is one probe every 35 kb. The authors say that 10-15 kb is feasible, but the more granular comparison may be more interesting, at least initially, because it shows the “big picture” — like zooming out on a map. (There is some tradeoff, of course; earlier lower-resolution studies found far fewer polymorphisms.)

When researchers at Cold Spring Harbor Labs used ROMA to investigate the differences between tumor and normal cells, they included a normal-normal control to establish lower limits of variability (the Science paper is here). What they found was that the genomes of normal individuals vary not just at the level of the individual nucleotide or even gene, but also on a much larger (though still submicroscopic) scale, with deletions and duplications from 100,000 b to 1 Mb (b = base, or more accurately base pair, a single “rung” on the familiar twisted rope ladder image of DNA).

(As an aside: how big is 100 kb – 1 Mb? The entire human genome is about 3000 Mb, and contains somewhere between 18,000 and 30,000 genes (estimates vary, but the newer the estimate the lower the number seems to be). For simplicity, say the “average gene” is about 100 kb (but note that this is a bit misleading, since a typical gene contains only a few hundred to several thousand bases of coding sequence, which may be spread out across hundreds of kb but is more usually contained within, say, a few tens of kb). So, 100-1000 kb is easily big enough to encompass a whole gene, or even quite a few entire genes. Indeed, the CSHL researchers found variation in some 70 genes, including the gene which causes Cohen syndrome and genes known to be involved in neurodevelopment, leukaemia, drug resistance in breast cancer and body weight regulation.)

The team compared twenty individual genomes and found 76 unique CNVs (copy number variants). The average CNV was 465 kb (median 222 kb) and individuals differed from each other by an average of 11 CNPs, but the authors provide multiple reasons to expect the observed CNPs to represent only a subset of the total, which they estimate to be 226 CNPs covering 44 Mb. In fact, more recent studies have discovered a total of 1237 CNVs covering more than 140 Mb. The authors of the linked review caution that most of these have not been validated by alternative methods or discovery in multiple unrelated individuals, so the final number will be considerably lower, and a slightly earlier review describes 563 “apparently unique” human CNVs.

So what happens if you make a similar2 comparison between chimpanzees and humans? Perry et al. used array CGH (a technique closely related to ROMA) to compare the genomes of 20 unrelated chimpanzees, and found 355 CNVs; the same array (which covers about 12% of the human reference genome) was used in an earlier study of 55 unrelated human genomes, and found 255 CNVs. Of these, 74 CNVs were found in the same regions of the two genomes, and many of these CNVs were frequent in both species, indicating that certain regions may be particularly susceptible to this kind of variation. In their paper describing the draft chimpanzee genome, Mikkelson et al. provide a number of points of comparison with the human genome. In addition to providing the best available figure for single-nucleotide differences (1.23%), they estimate that insertions and deletions result in a difference of about 90 Mb, or 3%, between the two genomes. Earlier, Newman et al. used a bioinformatics approach to compare sequence data from the (at the time, unfinished) chimp genome with the human genome reference sequence. They found insertions/deletions amounting to about a 5% difference between human and chimp genomes, but they also found 174 submicroscopic sequence inversions spanning more than 450 Mb. It turns out that such inversions, sections of DNA whose orientation along the chromosome is reversed between the genomes being compared, are surprisingly frequent in humans and chimpanzees. Feuk et al. compared the current chimp draft with the human reference genome sequence and found 1,576 putative regions of inverted orientation, covering more than 154 Mb. Of the 23 of these inversions that were experimentally validated, three were polymorphic in humans. Similarly, Szamalek et al. made gene order comparisons between a set of 11,518 human and chimp genes and found 71 inversions; of the 5 validated inversions (spanning about 11.5 Mb and containing a total of 103 genes), three were polymorphic in the chimpanzee and one in humans. These studies strongly suggest that submicroscopic differences are an important source of genomic variation in, and between, humans and chimpanzees. Moreover, a large number of genes have been shown to be affected by submicroscopic changes, and CNVs and small-scale inversions have been associated with a wide variety of biological functions (see here and here for reviews). For instance, CNVs are estimated to affect over 3,000 human- or chimpanzee-specific genes, and known human CNVs include genes involved in drug detoxification (glutathione-S-transferase,cytochrome P450s),immune response and inflammation (leukocyte immunoglobulin-likereceptor, defensins), surface antigens (melanoma antigen gene,rhesus blood group gene families) and variation in drug responses and disease resistance/susceptibility.

I hope all this makes it clear that human and chimpanzee genomes are not “98% identical”, except at the relatively uninformative level of single-nucleotide comparisons. Indeed, the most meaningful differences between the two genomes are likely structural in nature, and cannot be neatly summed up as a percentage difference of any kind. I'm not even going to start on “what it means to be human” — that's a lifetime's worth of philosophy and molecular evolution. All I want to do here is to make the case that, whatever it is that differentiates us from chimpanzees, it is not to be found in that infamous 2%.

1 There are also much larger-scale differences, visible under a microscope, between the two genomes. These have been well characterized, and include the fusion of two ancestral chromosomes (analogous to chr. 12 and 13 in chimpanzees) to form human chromosome 2, extensive sequence duplications in chimpanzees relative to humans, and nine large pericentric inversions.

2 I have not found a ROMA-based comparison between humans and chimpanzees, but all of the studies described focused on differences at roughly the same scale on which ROMA operates.


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What next after Karachi’s carnage?

by Pervez Hoodbhoy

General Pervez Musharraf is now a desperate man. Dozens were left dead in the horrific carnage on May 12, initiated by his violent political allies in Karachi, the MQM, in an attempt to stem the popular protests against Musharraf’s dismissal of the chief justice of Pakistan. But this may still not buy him enough strength. Protests will continue. His “million man rally” in Islamabad, held on the same day, blatantly used the state’s full organizational machinery and was widely ridiculed. It was seen as a sign of his weakness rather than strength.

So what is Musharraf likely to do next?

Military generals and fanatical clerics have been symbiotically linked in Pakistan’s politics for decades. They have often needed and helped the other attain their respective goals. And they may soon need each other again – this time to set Islamabad ablaze. An engineered bloodbath that leads to the army’s intervention, and the declaration of a national emergency, could serve as excellent reason for postponing the October 2007 elections. Although Musharraf denies that he wants a postponement, a lengthy martial law may now be his only chance for a continuation of his dictatorial rule into its eighth year – and perhaps beyond.

This perverse strategy sounds almost unbelievable. A man who President George W. Bush describes as his “buddy” in the war against terror, and the celebrated author of an “enlightened moderate” version of Islam, Musharraf wears the two close assassination attempts on his life by religious extremists as a badge of honour. But his secret reliance upon the Taliban card – one that he has been accused of playing for years – increases as his authority and judgment weaken.

The signs of government engineered chaos are manifest. For many months now, here in the heart of Pakistan’s capital, vigilante groups from a government funded mosque, the Lal Masjid, have roamed the streets and bazaars as they impose Islamic morality and terrorize citizens in full view of the police. Openly sympathetic to the Taliban and tribal militants fighting the Pakistan army, the two cleric brothers who head Lal Masjid, Maulana Abdul Aziz and Maulana Abdur Rashid Ghazi, have attracted a core of banned militant organizations around them. These include the Jaish-e-Muhammad, considered to be the pioneer of suicide bombings in the region.

The clerics openly defy the state. Since Jan 21, 2007, baton wielding burqa-clad students of the Jamia Hafsa, the women’s Islamic university located next to Lal Masjid, have forcibly occupied a government building, the Children’s Library. In one of their many forays outside the seminary, this burqa brigade swooped upon a house, which they claimed was a brothel, and kidnapped 3 women and a baby.


Students of Jamia Hafsa (Women’s University) in Islamabad demonstrate for Shariah law


Victory for the Burqa Brigade

The male students of Islamabad’s many madrassas are even more active. They terrorize video shop owners, who they accuse of spreading pornography and vice. Newspapers have carried pictures of grand bonfires made with seized cassettes and CDs. Most video stores in Islamabad have now closed down. Their owners duly repented after a fresh campaign by militants on May 4 bombed a dozen music and video stores, barber shops and a girls school in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).


Enjoying video burnings in Islamabad

The Pakistani state has shown astonishing patience. It showed its displeasure in Karachi with bullets, while other challengers have been hit with air and artillery power. But the Lal Masjid clerics operate with impunity. No attempt has been made to cut off their electricity, gas, phone, or website – or even to shut down their illegal FM radio station. The chief negotiator appointed by Musharraf, Chaudhry Shujaat Husain, described the burqa brigade kidnappers as “our daughters”, with whom negotiations would continue and against whom “no operation could be contemplated”.

Soon after they went on the warpath, the clerics realized that the government wanted to play ball. Their initial demand – the rebuilding of 8 illegally constructed mosques that had been knocked down by Islamabad’s civic administration – transformed into a demand for enforcing the Shariah in Pakistan. At a meeting held in the mosque on April 6, over 100 guest religious leaders from across the country pledged to die for the cause of Islam and Shariah. On April 12, (also reported in The News, Islamabad, April 24) in an FM broadcast from the Lal Masjid’s illegal FM station, the clerics issued a threat: “There will be suicide blasts in the nook and cranny of the country. We have weapons, grenades and we are expert in manufacturing bombs. We are not afraid of death”.


Confronting the state — with the state’s connivance

The Lal Masjid head cleric, a former student of my university in Islamabad, added the following chilling message for our women students in the same broadcast:

The government should abolish co-education. Quaid-e-Azam University has become a brothel. Its female professors and students roam in objectionable dresses. I think I will have to send my daughters of Jamia Hafsa to these immoral women. They will have to hide themselves in hijab otherwise they will be punished according to Islam. Our female students have not issued the threat of throwing acid on the uncovered faces of women. However, such a threat could be used for creating the fear of Islam among sinful women. There is no harm in it. There are far more horrible punishments in the hereafter for such women.

If the truth be told, QAU resembles a city of walking double-holed tents rather than the brothel of a sick mullah’s imagination. The last few bare-faced women are finding it more difficult by the day to resist. But then, that is precisely the aim of the Islamists. On May 7, a female teacher in the QAU history department was physically assaulted in her office by a bearded, Taliban-looking man who screamed that he had instructions from Allah. President Musharraf – who is the chancellor of QAU and often chooses to be involved in rather petty university administrative affairs – has made no comment on the recent developments.

What next? As Islamabad heads the way of Pakistan’s tribal towns, the next targets will be girls schools, internet cafes, bookshops and western clothing stores, followed by shops selling toilet paper, tampons, underwear, mannequins, and other un-Islamic goods.

Screenhunter_13_may_14_0106In a sense, the inevitable is coming to pass. Until a few years ago, Islamabad was a quiet, orderly, modern city different from all others in Pakistan. Still earlier it was largely the abode of Pakistan’s hyper-elite and foreign diplomats. But the rapid transformation of its demography brought with it hundreds of mosques with multi-barrelled audio-cannons mounted on minarets, as well as scores of madrassas illegally constructed in what used to be public parks and green areas. Now, tens of thousands of their students with little prayer caps dutifully chant the Quran all day. In the evenings they roam in packs through the city’s streets and bazaars, gaping at store windows and lustfully ogling bare-faced women.

The stage for transforming Islamabad into a Taliban stronghold is being set. If at all it is to be prevented, resolute opposition from its citizens will be needed to prevent more Lal Masjids from creating their own shariah squads.

The responsibility for the current bout of religious terrorism in Islamabad falls squarely on General Musharraf’s government, which has clearly chosen to secretly sanction it. It is a desperate stratagem but it will not work. Musharraf is already a lame duck. His three principal intelligence agencies are split among themselves on many issues, as is his political party. The Americans have finally wearied of his cleverness in fighting for their dollars while secretly supporting the Taliban. When he exits – which may be sooner rather than later – Musharraf will have left a legacy that will last for generations. All this for a little more taste of power.

The author teaches physics at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad. Pictures courtesy of Ishaque Choudhry.