Goodbye Darkness: The new science of exuberance

“What does the good life feel like? I mean the life worth living, the life we should and do admire. For most of the last century, that question was answered in terms derived from the study of depression, schizophrenia, and the anxiety disorders. A person in touch with the times would suffer existential angst and social anomie. To be wise was to experience ambivalence about important matters and to feel alienated from the culture.

If I am reading the tea leaves right, our fascination with emotional paralysis may be nearing an end.”

More here by Peter D. Kramer (author of Listening to Prozac) in Slate.

Lasker Prizes to Honor 5 for Research in Medicine

“A founding father of molecular biology, a surgeon who developed the standard operation for removing cataracts and three researchers who unmasked an elaborate genetic control system within the cell are the winners of this year’s Lasker awards for medical research.

The awards, many of whose recipients have gone on to win Nobel Prizes, are being announced today by the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation.”

More from the New York Times here.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Edward W. Said, 1935 – 2003

“Edward Said combined politics with scholarship, and showed how the two are intertwined. Deeply affected by the Arab-Israeli war, he became an inspiring guide to both history and culture, and his prose remains a joy to read. On the anniversary of his death, Tom Paulin celebrates a brilliant mind.”

More from The Guardian here.

In a typical and shameful display of philistinism (and possibly anti-Arab prejudice), the American press has largely ignored the terribly sad first anniversary of the death of one of the greatest American public intellectuals of our time. Five of the editors of 3 Quarks Daily knew Edward personally, and we were all present at his funeral service in Riverside Church last year. I think I can speak for all of us when I say that he was not only brilliant, but loyal and generous to a fault. He was also dashing, charming, and devastatingly witty. Edward loved to talk, and whenever he did, one was boggled by his prodigious erudition. He could also be very funny and loved telling jokes.

Ezra Pound once said that it is one’s duty to meet the great men of our time. If indeed this is our duty, then I feel that I fulfilled a great part of it by having met Edward. Our lives are improved for having known him, as are the minds of millions for having read him. We extend our condolences and sympathies to Mariam, Wadie, and Najla Said once again. Today is a sad day.

See also my earlier posts related to Edward Said here, here, here, here, and one by Sughra Raza here.

Here are three articles by Edward Said which have been published posthumously:

The Business of Terror in Le Monde diplomatique.
The Language of the People or of the Scholars? in Le Monde diplomatique.
Thoughts on Late Style in the London Review of Books.

Here are selected articles about, and tributes to, Edward Said published since his death:

The Rootless Cosmopolitan by Tony Judt in The Nation.
Edward Said: The Last Interview by Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian.
Harmony across the great divide by Michael Jansen in The Irish Times.
The Political Legacy of Edward Said by Irene Genzier in The Palestine Chronicle.
Chomsky Criticizes Iraqi War, Praises Said by Matt Carhart in The Columbia Spectator.
Intellectual guns fire salute to Edward Said by Waqar Gillani in The Daily Times (Pakistan).
Panel Reflects on Said’s Legacy, Orientalism by Saritha Komatireddy in The Harvard Crimson.
On Edward Said by Michael Wood in the London Review of Books.
He spoke the truth to power by John Higgins in The Times Higher Education Supplement.
The Piano Man Made It Home: An Ode to Edward Said by Ahmed Amr in Amin.
A Testimonial to My Teacher by Moustafa Bayoumi in The Village Voice.
Edward Said: An Appreciation by Daniel Barenboim in Time.
Said’s Legacy in Mother Jones.
A Corporeal Dream Not Yet Realized by Omar Barghouti in Counterpunch.
Edward Said Is Remembered for Influential Scholarship and Political Activism by Scott Mclemee in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Edward Said by Christopher Hitchens in Slate.
Remembering Edward Said by Tariq Ali in New Left Review.

The Edward Said archive is here, and contains links to many of his writings which are available online.

Friday, September 24, 2004

Is it all in the style?

“For Alex Katz, “style is my content.” The veteran realist, who turned 77 this summer, opens a new show today at PaceWildenstein in Chelsea of 12 paintings, ten of which are portraits of “power women” in the season’s newest outfits.

His stylish sitters are always supremely comfortable in their clothes, which form a second skin. But the tailor-made fit of Mr. Katz and couture goes beyond a mere interest in clothes as subject matter, rich as they are for a realist astute to social and character detail alike. For this artist, sartorial presentation is as much a metaphor for painting as a motif. Like his own technique, his sitters’ wardrobe is at once classy and casual, composed and nonchalent, high energy and cool. And most cool of all, his assertive style never seems precious or affected.”

This and more from A Chat with the Painter, by DAVID COHEN.

Colby College in Waterville, Maine has an beautiful art museum, which includes a large, permanent collection of paintings donated by the artist. A wonderful selection of these are up at the museum right now, including many of his well known portarits, landscapes and other whimsical paintings.
Also at the museum currently is the show Mr.Katz curated for them.

Check out the Pace-Wildenstein (Chelsea) gallery exhibition here.
See more here.

On the left is yet another example of Alex Katz’s work.

Taming Jeanne, Frances, Lisa, or Ivan

BOSTON (2004-09-24) In an article in the October issue of Scientific American, atmospheric scientist Ross Hoffman argues that at some point in the not too distant future, scientists may be able to weaken tropical storms, or at least steer them away from land.

Dr. Hoffman is a vice president of Atmospheric and Environmental Research, Inc. in Lexington, Massachusetts. He spoke with Bob Oakes (of WBUR, the public radio station in Boston) about the scientific future of influencing the weather.

For links to multiple other references, and WBUR, check here.

Before we too into the Dust descend

“Edward W. Said, for years a cherished friend and for a lifetime a towering comrade, died in New York at 6:45 am on Thursday 25 September 2003. After a funeral service at Riverside Church on Monday 29 September 2003, he was cremated and his ashes taken to Lebanon by his widow, Mariam Said, and buried at the Quaker Friends cemetery in Brumana village in the Metn region of Mount Lebanon. Edward Said was born in Jerusalem on Friday 1 November 1935 before the colonial occupation of his homeland.”

That is from a remembrance of Edward W. Said by his colleague at Columbia University, Hamid Dabashi, in Al Ahram.

More on Edward W. Said tomorrow.

Maths holy grail could bring disaster for internet

“Mathematicians could be on the verge of solving two separate million dollar problems. If they are right – still a big if – and somebody really has cracked the so-called Riemann hypothesis, financial disaster might follow. Suddenly all cryptic codes could be breakable. No internet transaction would be safe. On the other hand, if somebody has already sorted out the so-called Poincaré conjecture, then scientists will understand something profound about the nature of spacetime, experts told the British Association science festival in Exeter yesterday.

Both problems have stood for a century or more. Each is almost dizzyingly arcane: the problems themselves are beyond simple explanation, and the candidate answers published on the internet are so intractable that they could baffle the biggest brains in the business for many months.”

More here from The Guardian (via Preoccupations).

See also my earlier post about the seven million-dollar problems in math, here.

Fear of Pharming

“Farming, one of the world’s oldest practices has suddenly found itself entangled with modern medicine. Imagine this: at your child’s appointment for a routine vaccination, the doctor proffers a banana genetically engineered to contain the vaccine and says, “Have her eat this and call me in the morning.” Though still farfetched, the scenario is getting closer to reality, with the first batch of plant-made medicines–created by genetically modifying crops such as corn, soy, canola and even fruits such as tomatoes and bananas to produce disease-fighting drugs and vaccines–now in early clinical testing.”

More here in Scientic American.

Exhibition of Chinese Restaurant Menus

“There is a 1960’s menu from the House of Lee in Oakland, Calif., featuring ‘fried ravioli,’ better known as wontons; a dog-eared menu from Mon Lay Won, a turn-of-the-century New York City restaurant that called itself ‘the Chinese Delmonico’s’; and one from Madame Wu’s Garden in Los Angeles, a favorite of Cary Grant and Mae West.

The bills of fare, gathered over the years by Harley Spiller, who has amassed a number of curious collections in his Upper East Side apartment, may be the ultimate road map to the Chinese restaurant’s extraordinary trek across the American landscape.

Excerpts from Mr. Spiller’s collection are the centerpiece of a new exhibition at the Museum of Chinese in the Americas in Chinatown about a rarely examined phenomenon: the Chinese restaurant in America.

There are now close to 36,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States, according to Chinese Restaurant News, a trade publication, more than the number of McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King franchises combined. What began in this country as exotic has become thoroughly American. A study by the Center for Culinary Development, a food product development company, found that 39 percent of children between the ages of 10 and 13 who were surveyed said Chinese was their favorite type of food, compared to only 9 percent who chose American.”

More here from the New York Times.

Study finds dogs can smell cancer

“We have always suspected that man’s best friend has a special ability to sense when something is wrong with us, but the first experiment to verify that scientifically has demonstrated that dogs are able to smell cancer.

Experts say it is unlikely that pooches will become practical partners in cancer detection any time soon, but that the results of the study by English scientists are promising.

They showed that when urine from bladder cancer patients was set out among samples from healthy people or those with other diseases, the dogs — ordinary pets — were able to identify the cancer urine almost three times more often than would be expected by chance alone…

The idea that they may be able to smell cancer was first put forward in 1989 by two London dermatologists, who described the case of a woman asking for a mole to be cut out of her leg because her dog would constantly sniff at it, even through her trousers, but ignore all her other moles.

One day, the dog had tried to bite the mole off when the woman was wearing shorts.

It turned out she had malignant melanoma — a deadly form of skin cancer. But it was caught early enough to save her life.”

More here from CNN.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

The wit of Marshall Sahlins

Also now available on-line, Waiting for Foucault, Still is a collection of thoughts and aphorisms from one the country’s leading anthropologists, Marshall Sahlins.

Some of the observations are funny.

Quite wondrous, then, is the variety of things anthropologists can now explain by power and resistance, hegemony and counter-hegemony. I say ‘explain’ because the argument consists entirely of categorizing the cultural form at issue in terms of domination, as if that accounts for it. Here are some examples from the past few years of American Ethnologist and Cultured (Cultural) Anthropology:

1. Nicknames in Naples: ‘a discourse practice used to construct a particular representation of the social world, [nicknaming] may become a mechanism for reinforcing the hegemony of nationally dominant groups over local groups that threaten the reproduction of social power’ [Boo; you never know what’s in a nickname!].

2. Bedouin lyric poetry: this is counter-hegemonic [Yeah!].

3. Women’s fashions in La Paz: counter-hegemonic [Yeah!].

4. The social categorization of freed Dominican slaves as ‘peasants’: hegemonic [Boo].”

Some of them are insightful, like this one.

“In the social sciences, the pressure to shift from one theoretical regime to another, say from economic benefits to power effects, does not appear to follow from the piling up of anomalies in the waning paradigm, as it does in natural science. In the social sciences, paradigms are not outmoded because they explain less and less, but rather because they explain more and more—until, all too soon, they are explaining just about everything. There is an inflation effect in social science paradigms, which quickly cheapens them. The way that ‘power’ explains everything from Vietnamese second person plural pronouns to Brazilian workers’ architectural bricolage, African Christianity or Japanese sumo wrestling. But then, if the paradigm begins to seem less and less attractive, it is not really for the standard logical or methodological reasons. It is not because in thus explaining everything, power explains nothing, or because differences are being attributed to similarities, or because contents are dissolved in their (presumed) effects. It’s because everything turns out to be the same: power. Paradigms change in the social sciences because, their persuasiveness really being more political than empirical, they become commonplace universals. People get tired of them. They get bored.”

It’s worth looking over.

A conversation with Richard Rorty

This set of interviews with Richard Rorty (done by Derek Nystrom and our old friend Kent Puckett), entitled Against Bosses, Against Oligarchies: A Conversation with Richard Rorty, is now available on the web, in pdf.

R[ichard] R[orty]: Roosevelt said early in his first administration that, ‘If I were working for an hourly wage, I would join a labor union.’ This was a very important moment in the history of the labor movement. Was he speaking from the side of the less powerful? No. I could say to the janitors at the University of Virginia, for God’s sake join a union. Would that be speaking from their side? No. But it’s good advice anyway, even if it can be viewed as condescending.

Q: And this is reflected in both Achieving Our Country and articles like ‘Two Cheers for Elitists,’ your review of Christopher Lasch’s last book. In these places, you make an unabashed defense of top-down initiatives. But what about the idea that all knowledges are partial, imminent knowledges, and that the things you think should be done are in part a product of where you’re speaking from?

RR: The masses always knew that. The intellectuals always knew that. Everybody’s always taken this for granted. The first thing you say when you hear a political speech is something like ‘well, that’s what it looks like to him.’ But I can’t see that Foucault or anybody else has given us new insight into the tediously familiar fact that your views are usually a product of your circumstances.

Q: How can one acknowledge this point in one’s writing and still say something useful, though?

RR: Why bother? Why not let my audience acknowledge it for me? Everybody knows that I’m an overpaid, privileged humanities professor. They knew it before they read my stuff. Why should I bother with self-flagellation?”

Promoting bad science, step-by-step

Is there a pattern for how bad science becomes ascendant?

“How did the Intelligent Design movement publish in a peer reviewed biology journal? A similar–and notorious–story from climate science sheds light on the question.

This is how it begins: Proponents of a fringe or non-mainstream scientific viewpoint seek added credibility. They’re sick of being taunted for having few (if any) peer reviewed publications in their favor. Fed up, they decide to do something about it.

These ‘skeptics’ find what they consider to be a weak point in the mainstream theory and critique it. Not by conducting original research; they simply review previous work. Then they find a little-known, not particularly influential journal where an editor sympathetic to their viewpoint hangs his hat.

They get their paper through the peer review process and into print. They publicize the hell out of it. Activists get excited by the study, which has considerable political implications.

Before long, mainstream scientists catch on to what’s happening. They shake their heads. Some slam the article and the journal that published it, questioning the review process and the editor’s ideological leanings. In published critiques, they tear the paper to scientific shreds.

Embarrassed, the journal’s publisher backs away from the work. But it’s too late for that.” (Read on.)

A Road from Che Guevara to God?

There has been a lot of reflection on the life and legacy of Ernesto “Che” Guevara. The release of the movie of The Motorcycle Diaries, I suspect, will help add to it.

Certainly, as icon, Che is ubiquitous, rivaling Mickey Mouse and Madonna. (Personally, the vestiges of the old Lefty in me sees Che as an “adventurist”, as does my psyche’s liberal, Burkean, and every other shard of the political spectrum.) But the man is fascinating. Why he so fascinates us is another question.

Hitchens had this to say recently.

‘His death meant a lot to me, and countless like me, at the time. He was a role model, albeit an impossible one for us bourgeois romantics insofar as he went and did what revolutionaries were meant to do – fought and died for his beliefs.’


‘He belongs more to the romantic tradition than the revolutionary one. To endure as a romantic icon, one must not just die young, but die hopelessly. Che fulfils both criteria. When one thinks of Che as a hero, it is more in terms of Byron than Marx.’

True, but then there has never been this kind of a cult around Rosa Luxemburg, who died in a similar fashion.

Where would Che have wound up, had he not died? The evolution of Regis Debray, who was with Che in Bolivia, wrote Revolution dans la revolution, and is now grappling with faith, may offer an answer. Debray has a new book on God, entitled God: An Itinerary (put out by Verso press). In it, he suggests,

“The resurgence of mysticism—and there is no way of foreseeing its end—would thus appear to be ineluctable. The progress of science and technology will no doubt impede neither the vital impulsion to believer nor the concomitant violence.”

And I suppose we are left to conclude that there is something ecstatic, religously ecstatic, about the Guevaran revolutionary zeal that suggested “[i]f we can tremble with indignation every time an injustice is committee in the world, we are comrades.” The operative word being “tremble”.

Steven Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein, A Conversation

The Seed Salon: “Steven Pinker is a psychologist. Rebecca Goldstein is a novelist. Both are obsessed with realism and the pursuit of objective knowledge. They met to talk about consciousness, game theory, and gossip.”

“Rebecca Goldstein has a PhD in philosophy from Princeton, and has taught at Barnard, Rutgers, and Columbia. Currently she is Professor of Philosophy at Trinity College. She is the author of five novels (The Mind-Body Problem, The Late-Summer Passion of a Woman of Mind, The Dark Sister, Mazel, and Properties of Light) and a collection of stories (Strange Attractors). Among her honors are two Whiting Foundation Awards (one in philosophy, one in writing), two National Jewish Book Awards, the Edward Lewis Wallant Award, and the Prairie Schooner Best Short Story Award. In 1996 she was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow.”

“Steven Pinker has a PhD in experimental psychology from Harvard, and has taught at Stanford, MIT, and Harvard, where he is currently the Johnstone Professor of Psychology. Pinker’s research on language and cognition has won prizes from the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Institution of Great Britain, and the American Psychological Association. His books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, Words and Rules, and The Blank Slate, have earned the William James Book Prize (three times), the Los Angeles Times Science Book Prize, and two shortlistings for the Pulitzer Prize.”

Read this very interesting exchange here, at Seed Magazine.

The Womb as Photo Studio

“It’s a rite of passage for many expectant parents: baby’s first ultrasound. The fuzzy images of the fetus, produced during an examination in an obstetrician’s office, are prized by couples, passed around proudly among friends and relatives.

Now, trying to capitalize on this phenomenon, a number of companies are selling elective ultrasounds that have little to do with neonatal health. The services, often in small offices or shopping malls, amount to fetal photo studios and use newer 3-D ultrasound technology to produce more realistic images than conventional machines.

Parents-to-be typically pay from about $80 for a short ultrasound session primarily to determine the fetus’s sex to $300 for a half-hour session that is recorded on a videocassette or DVD and includes color photos.

While medical professionals warn of potential health risks from unnecessary ultrasounds, those who offer the elective examinations say they are safe and fulfill a need.”

More here from the New York Times.