When de Kooning Was King

Dekooning184 ‘When we get the chance to look at the whole life and work of Willem de Kooning, the upheaval in American art in the middle of the 20th century comes into clearer focus. That alone makes ”De Kooning: An American Master,” by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, an important book. Several biographies in recent years — of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Arshile Gorky, among them — brought parts of that history to life. But in this book an enormous picture develops.

Stevens, a critic, and Swan, a journalist, both with many years of experience in the art world, have done deep research, but they don’t push it in our faces. We hear arguments among painters and critics and the street buzz about the development of Abstract Expressionism. But de Kooning’s persistence as an outsider to almost any theory or definition — he called theory ”baloney” — sharpens our understanding of the era.’

Book review here in the New York Times.


Did Nabokov Suffer From Cryptomnesia?

Vn ‘An intriguing development on the Nabokov front, a crypto-scandal widely reported in Europe, but not much here: Lolita is causing trouble again. At least, that’s been the way it’s been portrayed in the European press, which has overheatedly raised the specter of “plagiarism”: Did Vladimir Nabokov lift the controversial plot, indeed the very name of Lolita, from a 1916 German short story called “Lolita”?

But more interestingly, there are fascinating implications for understanding Pale Fire, which followed Lolita seven years later. And then there’s “cryptomnesia.”‘

More here from the New York Observer.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Shakespeare the anti-semite

Al“The debate is so old it should have its own place in the Shakespearean canon. Is Shylock, the Jewish moneylender who demands a ‘pound of flesh’ from a debtor, a villain or a victim? Every time The Merchant of Venice is staged, the debate is restaged along with it. Does Shakespeare’s play merely depict anti-semitism, or does it reek of it? Is the Bard describing, even condemning, the prevalent anti-Jewish attitudes of his time – or gleefully giving them an outlet? The papers of a million A-level students are marked forever with such questions.

Yet now they have a new force. Because the Merchant is playing in a new medium, making its debut as a full-length, big-budget feature film – complete with a top-drawer Hollywood star, Al Pacino, in the de facto lead.”

More here by Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian.

A sinister advantage

A possible reason why left-handedness is rare but not extinct:

“It is hard to box against a southpaw, as Apollo Creed found out when he fought Rocky Balboa in the first of an interminable series of movies. While “Rocky” is fiction, the strategic advantage of being left-handed in a fight is very real, simply because most right-handed people have little experience of fighting left-handers, but not vice versa. And the same competitive advantage is enjoyed by left-handers in other sports, such as tennis and cricket.

The orthodox view of human handedness is that it is connected to the bilateral specialisation of the brain that has concentrated language-processing functions on the left side of that organ. Because, long ago in the evolutionary past, an ancestor of humans (and all other vertebrate animals) underwent a contortion that twisted its head around 180° relative to its body, the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body, and vice versa. In humans, the left brain (and thus the right body) is usually dominant. And on average, left-handers are smaller and lighter than right-handers. That should put them at an evolutionary disadvantage. Sporting advantage notwithstanding, therefore, the existence of left-handedness poses a problem for biologists. But Charlotte Faurie and Michel Raymond, of the University of Montpellier II, in France, think they know the answer. As they report in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, there is a clue in the advantage seen in boxing.”

More here from The Economist.

The End of the Affair

Greene_graham19700312‘Norman Sherry’s Life of Graham Greene has occupied him continuously and exclusively for twenty-eight years, which may be a record of some kind. Greene died in 1991, having correctly predicted that he would not live to read the second volume (published in 1994). He also prophesied that Sherry would not survive to read the third and last volume, a remark in which one might detect some resentment at the ever-increasing scale and scope of the biography, and regret for having authorized its often embarrassing revelations. The prophecy was happily unfulfilled, but at times it was a close-run thing. Sherry promised to visit every country that Greene had used as a setting for a novel, a vow that took him to some twenty countries, entailing danger, hardship, and at least one life-threatening illness. He admits on the penultimate page of the biography that “reaching the end had often seemed beyond my strength and spirit” and superstitiously left the very last sentence of his narrative unfinished.’

David Lodge reviews The Life of Graham Greene,Volume Three: 1955–1991 by Norman Sherry, in the New York Review of Books, here.

Friday, December 10, 2004

How do paleontologists determine the sex of a fossilized creature?

William J. Sanders, assistant research scientist and supervising preparator at the Vertebrate Fossil Preparation Laboratory of the University of Michigan’s Museum of Paleontology, explains:

Living animals have primary sexual characteristics, such as genitalia, that differ between males and females. These are soft-tissue organs that generally do not leave marks on the skeleton and are therefore not preserved in the fossil record. There may be features associated with reproduction that do leave bony traces, however. For instance, in the female human pelvis, the angle of the bony arch beneath the pubis is much wider than it is in males and the sacrum is usually is flatter as well. Both of these features relate to the need for a larger pelvic outlet for birthing infants and are thus reliable sexual markers for forensic scientists and hominid paleontologists.

More here in Scientific American.

Tour of Beauty

‘In “Inventing Beauty: A History of the Innovations That Have Made Us Beautiful,” New York Times patent writer Teresa Riordan gives readers a delightful, quirky account of American cosmetic innovations, from lipstick to silicon implants, from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th. She avoids swerving into pro-feminist or anti-feminist polemics, and instead simply accepts that the desire to be fairest-of-them-all is an impulse as mythic and enduring as a fairytale. With a little Cinderella magic of her own, Riordan transforms patent history into an almost titillating subject, while reminding readers that tanning creams, breast implants, and nail polishes are “not merely articles of fashion but legitimate inventions” – and serious business.’

More here from AlterNet.org

The world’s first multinational

Nick Robins, whose Imperial Corporation: reckoning with the East India Company will be published next year, writes:

Cover In The Discovery of India, the final and perhaps most profound part of his “prison trilogy”, written in 1944 from Ahmednagar Fort, Jawaharlal Nehru described the effect of the East India Company on the country he would shortly rule. “The corruption, venality, nepotism, violence and greed of money of these early generations of British rule in India,” he wrote, “is something which passes comprehension.” It was, he added, “significant that one of the Hindustani words which has become part of the English language is ‘loot'”.

For most of the succeeding 60 years, the East India Company sank from view. No plaque marked the site where its headquarters had stood in the City of London for more than two centuries. It was regarded as something that could be consigned to the history books, its deeds to be squabbled over by academics and imperial romantics. But the onset of globalisation has revived interest in a company that could be seen as a pioneering force for world trade. Exhibitions at the British Library and the V&A, plus a string of popular histories, have sought to revive the reputation of the “Honourable East India Company”. Its founders are now hailed as swashbuckling adventurers, its operations praised for pioneering the birth of modern consumerism and its glamorous executives profiled as multicultural “white moguls”.

More here from the New Statesman (via Arts & Letters Daily).

‘The Persian Puzzle’: Misjudging Iran

Pollack184 ‘The Americans who engineered the 1953 coup understood neither Mossadegh nor the shah. Mossadegh believed that the United States thought Iran vitally important and that he could win concessions from Washington by appearing willing to bargain with the Soviet Union — making him look, to American eyes, like Moscow’s cat’s-paw. The shah saw himself as totally dependent on the United States yet so necessary to it that he could squeeze Washington like a protection racketeer — and he did, most clearly in 1973, when he prodded OPEC into its most extravagant price gouging. (”The shah turned around and screwed us,” Robert Hormats, then at the National Security Council, has been quoted as saying.) The shah’s sense of dependency was most nakedly visible in his last days, when he considered trying bloody all-out suppression of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamist revolution but told the American ambassador that he could not take such action except on orders from Washington — orders that President Jimmy Carter refused to give. Pollack is unsparing in his criticism of Carter administration policy making; hard-liners and soft-liners, he says, were both ”operating under completely false assumptions.”’

More here from the New York Times Book Review.

The 10 Best Books of 2004 (NY Times)

“The books we’ve chosen as the year’s 10 best — five novels, a short-story collection, a memoir, two biographies and a historical study — present a broad range of voices and subjects. What do they have in common? Each is a triumph of storytelling, and each explores the past, whether through research, recollection, invention or some combination of the three.”

More here at the New York Times.

Bissell on Vietnam

‘War Wounds,’ Tom Bissell’s great new Harper’s essay on returning to Vietnam with his father, a Marine and veteran of the conflict, is not available online. But his thumbnail sketch of Ho Chi Minh, ‘Was Uncle a Stalinist?‘, has recently appeared on The Old Town Review, a small online journal of culture and politics I help run. I must say that ‘War Wounds’ is one of the best essays Harper’s has published in recent months: full of humor and emotion, often heartbreakingly funny and sad at the same time. Here’s a taster from ‘Was Uncle a Stalinist?’, an excerpt from Bissell’s new project, a travel book about his experiences with his father in Vietnam:

‘Long after lying about it would have served any purpose, many of Ho’s comrades spoke of his lasting disappointment at falling out of U.S. favor, and until the United States dispatched its advisers to South Vietnam, anti-American sentiment was virtually unknown among North Vietnam’s Communists, much unlike their fellows in China and the USSR. Meanwhile, freedom-lovers in the U.S. government delayed the publication of [an OSS officer’s] memoir until the 1980s for the high crime of containing a positive portrait of Ho Chi Minh, and for decades hid from the American public the eleven letters and telegrams Ho Chi Minh had written President Truman, one of which offered to make Vietnam a protectorate of the United States “for an undetermined period” and another of which offered up Vietnam as “a fertile field for American capital and enterprise” in exchange for aid against the French.’

The Baldwin Effect

‘The Baldwin effect was proposed by J. Mark Baldwin and independently by both Henry Fairfield Osborne & C. Lloyd Morgan just about 100 years ago. In a general way, “the Baldwin effect” refers to the notion that learning can change the environment for a species in such a way as to influence the selective environment for the learned behavior or some closely related character. In the example proposed by Terry Deacon, something like the Baldwin effect accounts for the relatively rapid evolution of language and mind. His suggestion is that once a few members of a population developed the ability to communicate symbolically, the great advantage of such an ability would in itself create intense selection pressure promoting its further evolution. This notion and Daniel Dennett’s related proposal for a role of a Baldwin-like effect in cognitive evolution are together the subject of four of the chapters in this book (two by Deacon, one by Dennett, and a third recording a discussion among Godfrey-Smith, Deacon, and Dennett debating subtle differences between the Dennett and Deacon proposals).’

Sara J. Shettleworth reviews Evolution and Learning: The Baldwin Effect Reconsidered, edited by Bruce H. Weber and David J. Depew, here.

Thursday, December 9, 2004

Bryan Appleyard on Richard Dawkins

“He is a highly strung, frequently petulant man. I’ve seen him storm out of an amiable dinner because he didn’t like the music and I’ve heard of him muttering to his companion, when a lady cleric entered the room, that dog collars are always a sign of low IQ. But when relaxed, he is charming, deferring politely to opinions with which he disagrees and displaying a conscientious desire to understand.

On these occasions, he has the air of an eager-to-please country vicar, an air enhanced by the discreet serving of tea by his wife Lalla Ward and further emphasised by the large, rectory-like house they now occupy just outside Oxford city centre.

Dapper as ever in jacket, chinos and boat shoes, and looking 20 years younger than he actually is (63), this time he greets me with warm familiarity. Things are looking up. The rectoryness of the house vanishes inside. It is beyond the reach of any vicar I know — beautifully and expensively decorated and furnished with a vast flat-screen television in the living room.”

More here from the London Times.

how to ensure that prescription drugs are affordable, effective and safe

Yesterday, I paid $80 for a tiny (2 cc’s at most) tube of prescription antibiotic eye-ointment (Tobromycin) because I happen to have a sty in my eye which wasn’t going away. I do not have a prescription plan, so had to pay for it out-of-pocket. I have to admit that the price struck me as ridiculously unfair.

Jerry Jerry Avorn’s new book, Powerful Medicines: The Benefits, Risks, and Costs of Prescription Drugs, provides insight into one of the central medical debates of our time: how to ensure that prescription drugs are affordable, effective and safe. Avorn, a physician and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, uses case studies, research and his own experiences to mount a critique of the pharmaceutical industry. With the costs of prescription drugs soaring and concerns about the safety of drugs growing almost daily, Avorn seeks in this book to find a cure for the nation’s pharmaceutical ills.

Amos Esty of American Scientist Online asked Avorn to talk about his findings, his proposed solutions and the experience of writing Powerful Medicines. The interview is here.

Help available for micro-penises

‘A new surgical procedure has allowed men with abnormally short penises to enjoy a full sex life and urinate standing up, some for the first time. Tiny “micro-penises” have been enlarged to normal size without losing any erogenous sensation, say UK doctors.

“Micro-penis” refers to any penis shorter than 7 centimetres when fully erect – approximately half of the average length (12.5 cm). Approximately one in every 200 men have a micro-penis, either because of a birth defect or because they have undergone cancer treatments.

“It’s not so much penile enlargement as penile construction,” says David Ralph at the University College of London, UK, who will describe the technique on Wednesday at a sexual medicine conference in London.’

More here from New Scientist.

Death of a Sherlock Holmes Scholar

A scholar of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes fiction is found dead of strangulation in London. The scholar, hot on the trail of a missing Conan Doyle archive, had claimed somebody was out to get him shortly before his death. The victim is found with a bootlace around his neck. Also found at the scene of the crime: a spoon; soft toys; and gin. When friends call the apartment, an unfamiliar American voice plays on the answering machine. A writer picks up the trail and finds himself face to face with a shadowy high-ranking Pentagon official and amateur Sherlock Holmes buff. This is all part of an unbelievably good New Yorker article coming out this week by David Grann, one of those New Yorker articles that only comes along once or twice a year. The article isn’t available online, but this interview with the writer is.

Wednesday, December 8, 2004

Eating Rough

‘A big steaming bowl of pig parts and starch might seem an unlikely choice for a swelteringly hot morning in the tropics. But after you take a mouthful, it all makes sense. Screamingly cold beers — straight out of the freezer — keep appearing in front of you. You kick off your flip-flops. Bare toes brush against worn wood. The hour grows later, and suddenly going to the beach does not seem that important anymore.’

Good news: Tony Bourdain has brought his signature gastronomic gusto to the Times’ food section. And while you’re at it, enjoy this account of the legendary Marcella Hazan visiting one of my favorite Chinatown establishments, the Dumpling House.

Tuesday, December 7, 2004

Holding on together i try to set the night on fire

Stepping briefly onto Dan’s turf, I wanted to mention a band whose first U.S. tour I caught at the Bowery Ballroom last week. Phoenix is an uberhip French outfit (video directed by Roman Coppola) following in the footsteps of Air as interpreters and synthesists of Anglo-American pop from a skewed but gorgeous Gallic angle. But Phoenix use vocals (the lead singer is a perfect dream of a French pop star, slender with lanky hair and a worried look on his face) in English to produce an uninhibited sense of irony-free but knowing sentimentality. (Sample koan-lyrics include the title of this post.) Musically, their Frenchness seems to enable a disarming disregard for generic boundaries, as in the ten-minute ‘Funky Squaredance.’ Anything is possible again: pop can invent a space of freedom. Their first album is ‘United,’ reviewed here at Pitchfork. The new one is ‘Alphabetical’. It’s pretty damn addictive.

Ancient Mexicans

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In a current exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum In New York City you can find a small but wonderful collection of sculptures from ancient Mexico.

With so many ancient civilizations to learn about the discerning dilletante is put to quite a challenge. Still, one shouldn’t forget about the ancient civilations of Mexico and Central America.

Recent discoveries of Mayan Palaces in Guatemala promise a glut of new information in the years to come.

Tis the season for loads of crap Christmas records

We are inundated at the same time every year with tired retreads of otherwise joyous music from mildly talented popstars and/or would be adult-contemporary crooners. If you, like me, are finding yourself just-not-satisfied with, say, Jessica Simpson’s latest contribution to this merry pile of garbage, here’s a few suggestions…

1. John Denver & The Muppets: A Christmas Together: If you have kids, treat yourself and them to this record. They will remember you for it as they put you in a rest home.

2. Harry Connick Jr.: When My Heart Finds Christmas: An adult-contemporary crooner worth his weight in scotch & soda, Harry brings his showmanship and candor to these carols. And not without it’s softer side, the album features a lovely rendition of Ave Maria.

3. Vince Guaraldi Trio: A Charlie Brown Christmas: Rightfully a holiday (and jazz) classic that never goes away. One second your tapping your foot to “Linus and Lucy”, the next your caught up in the reverent melancholy of “Christmas Time Is Here”.

4. Handel’s Messiah: Christmas time, Old Testament-style. Full of drama, fire and brimstone, the Messiah is epic in or out of the context of the bible.

Happy holidays from 3 Quarks. Fa la la la…