The Remarkable Life of William Beebe

From a review by Cornelia Dean of The Remarkable Life of William Beebe, Explorer and Naturalist, by Carol Grant Gould, in the New York Times:

At a time when it was necessary to do something celebrated to be a celebrity, William Beebe was as famous as Lindbergh.

By the 1920’s, his zoological exploits in Indonesia, China and Latin America had brought him international acclaim. His books, two dozen of them, were big best sellers. Millions gathered at their radios in 1932 to hear his live broadcast from a bathysphere on the ocean bottom off Bermuda. He even made an offstage appearance in the play “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” (He sends its irascible protagonist an octopus.)

Today, though, hardly anyone has heard of him, and that is reason enough to be glad to see this new biography by Ms. Gould. But Beebe is also important because of his place in the history of science. Perhaps more than anyone else, he bridged the gap between the gentlemanly naturalists of the Victorian Age and the reductionist biology we know today.

More here.

A fight over the work and legacy of Bruno Schulz

From the new issue of The Boston Review, the discovery of long lost frescoes by the late author and artist Bruno Schulz and their subsequent relocation to Yad Vashem has ignited much soul searching and debate on Polishness and Poland’s relationship to Jewry.

“Since the partition of Bruno Schulz’s murals, public opinion in both Poland and Ukraine has raged against what is generally perceived as the theft of national treasures. But for Poles in particular, Yad Vashem’s actions carry a weighty significance. They suggest that dying because one is a Jew negates the relevance of having lived largely as a Pole—and, harsher still, that Jewishness and Polishness have been deemed fundamentally irreconcilable. In response to mounting international outrage, Yad Vashem posted a public statement on its Web site—one of very few official comments on the incident—asserting a ‘moral right’ to Schulz’s work. The confrontational final sentence addresses Poland directly: ‘Yad Vashem is of the opinion that if Poland feels that they have an interest in assets that they see as their own, a discussion can be initiated regarding assets—cultural and other—which are part of the Jewish legacy in general and the Holocaust-era in particular, and are spread throughout Poland.’

This closing resonates less with ‘moral right’ than with an unsettling attitude of you-took-ours, we-take-yours, and no one in Poland really knows what to make of it. Among the Polish intelligentsia, there is clear skepticism of Ukraine’s announcement that Schulz’s murals are a gift-after-the-fact, and there is open resentment of the implication—not very well masked by Yad Vashem’s position on Schulz—that Poles were complicit in the deaths of their Jewish neighbors and have forfeited their right to the Jewish aspect of their national heritage.

In Poland, they love Bruno Schulz. They want him back.”

(Here’s the statement from Yad Vashem on the dispute, and here a letter from a number of prominent scholars on the matter.)

The Indian debate on secularism

The role of religion in society and the question of securalism has been fiercely debated for well over a decade in many societies.  The recent election in the US and the rise of Islamism have drawn most of the attention.  It seems to me that one of the most sustained debates on the question is found in India. More than a decade after the saffron tide led by BJP emerged as a national, anti-secular force to be reckoned with in India, the country still grapples with the issue.  Here’s an old but thoughtful piece from The Hindu on the crisis of secularism in India.

“WE NEED to ask some hard questions to understand why the current form of secularism has apparently failed. There have been two forms of Congress secularism — the Gandhian version, which believed Hinduism was tolerant, and the Nehruvian version which added that whatever the characteristics of the various religions may have been, it did not matter because economic development and scientific culture would provide a sufficient basis for secular tolerance. The Gandhian faith in Hinduism’s tolerance is shared by almost all intellectuals today; the Nehruvian faith is still held by the Left. Both are wrong.”

Frankfurt on Love

“[Harry] Frankfurt generates concern for the topic of love by asking, how should we live our lives?  Frankfurt does not mean this to be a moral question.  Morality provides, he writes, ‘at most only a severely limited and insufficient answer to the question of how a person should live’.  Moral ideals are not overriding.  Rather we should live our lives by understanding ‘what it is that we . . .  really care about,’ and ideally by being decisive and confident about what we really care about .  Love, in particular, is an especially important form of caring.  Love, Frankfurt claims, ‘is the creator both of inherent or terminal value and of importance’.”

From a review of Harry Frankfurt’s The Reasons of Love.  (via

The Soul of Secularism and Religion in Public Life

After recently getting into an argument about the pros and cons of Ali Shariati, the Iranian Muslim modernizer who died in 1977 at the hands of the SAVAK, I came across this paper by Austin Dacey at the Center for Inquiry, which “promote[s] and defend[s] reason, science, and freedom of inquiry in all areas of human endeavor,” on how secularists should engage the matter of religion in public life.

“American secularism has reached an impasse. In a post-theocratic but religious society, the project of ‘privatizing’ conscience can lead nowhere but into strategic blunders and intellectual incoherence. With its ambiguity between the personal, the sectarian, the subjective, and the non-governmental, the concept of privacy is too crude a tool to properly frame secularist arguments. By relegating conscience to the world of subjectivity, the philosophy of privacy insulates it from due public scrutiny. If they want to resist the social agenda of theological conservatism, liberals will have to do better than asking the devout to please refrain from speaking their minds. Better to look to the philosophy of our church-state fathers, and the democratic hopefuls of Islam. They remind us that for secularism to hold sway in a religious society, it has no choice but to engage with the substance of conscience.”

Flavorpill: Quentin Tarantino at MoMA

Via Flavorpill (the weekly mailer of cultural events listings for which 3quarks’ Andrew Maerkle writes – better subscribe) comes this potentially memorable event:

“A Conversation w/ the Weinsteins and Quentin Tarantino w/ Reservoir Dogs
when: Thur 12.16 (7:30pm)
where: Roy and Niuta Titus Theaters, MoMA (11 W 53rd St, 212.708.9400)
price: $10
Blowhards though they three may be, it would be foolhardy to dismiss entirely the tremendous impact Miramax founders Harvey and Bob Weinstein and director Quentin Tarantino have had on independent film. To herald the studio’s silver anniversary, the brothers and their golden boy gather to discuss the swath they cut, and to screen clips from Miramax’s finest fare, including the whole of Reservoir Dogs Tarantino’s first, and arguably his best. Ostensibly about a bank robbery gone awry, the film single-handedly wrenched indie movies off the analyst’s couch, launching a postmodernist genre marked by nonsequential editing and blatant references to other films. Expect plenty of bluster but also the goods to back it up.”

Tris McCall Pop Music Abstract 2004

Musician, critic and polymath Tris McCall’s annual review of pop singles is now available. Two samples:

Franz Ferdinand — “This Fire”
Just a big, dumb rock song. Franz Ferdinand wins points from brainy types because they’re fey and vaguely identifiable as college students, but when you take the album and shake it, the only idea that falls out is that the frontman would like to have sex with his male acquaintances. Yeah, yeah, I hear that from everybody these days. The band you are looking for is Interpol.

Nas — “Bridging The Gap”
It is tough to stay hardcore when all you rhyme about is your mommy and daddy. But there are many who have followed this story from its first days at the BBQ in Queensbridge, and for us, the Jones family saga is our Michener novel in street verse. “Dance”, from God’s Son, might have been a little extreme for those harboring excessive Oedipal fear. Instead of killing his pops, though, Nasir Jones has giftwrapped a ridiculously hot track for him to sing and blow on — an act of generosity exceptional even for rap’s biggest-hearted star. There are probably cynics out there who can remain unmoved when Nas breaks rhythm to holler “I love you, pops!” over his father’s life story. But that’s not me.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Evolution is a theory, not a fact…

“Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.” This is the text on stickers that the board of education has ordered placed on high school biology textbooks in Atlanta. Gregg Easterbrook responds in The New Rebublic:

Speaking as someone who is on record as thinking it’s good for students to debate these topics–here is a 2000 Wall Street Journal article by yours truly saying that students should be taught a range of views regarding the origin of life, then encouraged to argue them through–the Cobb County sticker nevertheless makes me wince, and not just because I don’t like the modern fad for disclaimers. What makes me wince is that Darwin’s theory has nothing to do with “the origin of living things.” The wording of the ridiculous disclaimer shows that the Cobb County Board of Education has no idea what it is talking about.

It is not even clear to me what is meant by “fact” on the sticker. Is it a fact that the Earth is round, or a (very successful) theory? The text of the sticker is so confused that (as Wolfgang Pauli would have said) it is not even wrong.

There’s more here.

Plastic eye mimics octopus vision

A lens resembling an octopus eye has been created by US researchers. The sphere consists of hundreds of thousands of layers of plastic and could revolutionize cameras, telescopes and spectacles.

Traditional glass lenses use a curved surface to focus incoming light towards a central point. The stronger the lens, the more curved its surface must be and therefore the thicker and heavier it is. In nature, eyes avoid this problem by using materials whose density varies in a certain way.

More here in Nature.

Plath, Hughes, and Ariel (Again)

“There’s a good case to be made that Hughes’ version of Ariel is actually superior to Plath’s—and that Plath herself might have agreed,” writes Meghan O’Rourke of Slate in “Ariel Redux.” The new Ariel: The Restored Edition, is, in fact, a facsimile of Plath’s manuscript with a printed version of the text reinstating her original selection and arrangement of the poems. (Hughes added 12 new poems written later and subtracted 12 from Plath’s own arrangement.) This reads more like a supplement and/or alternate to, rather than a supplanting of, the old Ariel. Either way, it’s always good to have more information, although the “new” poems, it should be noted, are also available in the Collected Poems.

Hughes did a good job of editing Plath, but that does not explain why he thought he was entitled to do so. This new round in the Plath-Hughes debate seems to leave out some essential questions: whether any good editor would have fought to bring out the best in Plath, and whether it is ever acceptable to make fundamental changes to the posthumous work of a major writer, since they’re not around to OK the final results. Then there is another question on top of that one that has to do with the importance of art over life or vice versa. The main reason why a husband ought not to edit a book of poems by his wife is that a husband’s job is not to make his wife better but happier. Granted that in Plath’s case it was far too late for the latter, Hughes fundamentally confused the two things, and the conceptions of improving and overruling Plath cannot be separated in this case, anymore than Hughes’ fastidious editing can be separated from his often condescending introductions to her work.

Review of The Review Review

My friend and fellow 3Quarkser Morgan Meis keeps an open notebook of his aesthetic ideas at his personal web log, Idle Chatter. Over a series of posts he has been developing an intriguing idea he calls “neosincerity.” If I had to sum it up in one sentence, I would say that neosincerity involves the portrayal of heartfelt emotion in works of art, film, literature, etc., which does not avoid irony but rather works through it and goes beyond it. It is unafraid of feelings but presents them in a complicated way. Off the top of my head, I can think of no better example of neosincerity than the films of Wes Anderson, where you might get choked up and laugh at something ridiculous all at the same time. If one accepts the novelty and beauty of Anderson’s films – which I certainly do – then it’s a worthy goal of criticism to figure out why they work and what is new about them.

Neosincerity is not unselfconscious, but it is also not intimidated by snarkiness and does not ultimately resort to mere irony to cover its tracks. The notion fits in with Morgan’s academic work on Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, which sought out a philosophy to account for popular culture.

His most recent post involves the film Sideways and offers a critique of David Denby:

“I have become more and more enthused with the idea of writing a new kind of review. It is called, the Review of the Review, Review. There is something about reviewing the review that brings you back around to the work of art you wanted to talk about in the first place, but through a lens that has already reflected once. It is like achieving immediacy through the over-application of too many layers of mediation.”

Read the whole post here.

Salman Rushdie in India

From the Calcutta Telegraph:

SalmanThe shadow has lifted over Salman Rushdie. He doesn’t want police protection. He hates the pilot car’s blaring siren. He is at ease in public, chatting with readers and signing autographs. He strides through north Calcutta’s narrowest bylanes, climbs up the most precarious of staircases to visit one of the city’s oldest bookstores.

Rushdie has lived through a fatwa, 10 years in exile with a heavy price hanging over his head. At 57, he seems comfortable in his own skin…

With Shalimar the Clown hitting the shelves later this year, fans disappointed by the deprivation have something to look forward to. And the man who pens at least 600 words everyday (“even on bad days, and believe me, there are so many”) isn’t likely to slow down soon. To him, “man is a storytelling animal”, and the novel is far from dead.

More here.


Dave Eggers writes about Eric Idle bringing Monty Python’s Flying Circus to Broadway, in the New Yorker:

Though there are undoubtedly more insomniacs, intellectuals, and burglars in the world now than when the show first aired, Python will always leave some people bewildered. Here in the Jerry Zaks rehearsal room—two floors below the studio where Billy Crystal was rehearsing “700 Sundays,” wherein he does impressions and tells sentimental stories about growing up—there were a bunch of adults practicing a musical-comedy version of a thousand-year-old quest for a golden goblet. This production will make absolutely no sense to a certain segment of the population, but to those who see the point—the absurdities of history, the absurdities of royalty and religion and warfare and songs and stages and lines and outfits and audiences and living—it will mean everything in the world.

More here.

Stephen Mitchell’s Gilgamesh

Among other things, Stephen Mitchell is known for his acclaimed translations of Rainer Maria Rilke. He has now translated the ancient epic Gilgamesh:

Gilgamesh is the oldest recorded story in the world. Tracing its origins back to the times of an ancient Mesopotamian king who ruled in the city of Uruk in the 3rd millennium BC, it predates the Bible and The Iliad by at least 1,000 years. It has been described as the first great book of the human heart.

This new Gilgamesh plants itself on a solid centre ground between the dry and frankly almost unreadable Standard Version offered by an ancient scribe and the exuberantly contemporary but individual takes of such poets as Derek Hines. The scholar may still turn to Andrew George’s translation, but for the reader who wishes to breathe in the spirit of this epic, to relate to it as a work of literature rather than to interpret it as a series of fragments recording some distant legend, Mitchell produces what should become recognised as the standard text. Read it and sense all the wisdom and complexity of the original before film-makers now planning a screen version get their hands on it. Let it settle down into your imaginative depths.

Thanks to Robin Varghese for telling me about this. Read more of the book review by Rachel Campbell-Johnston here in the London Times. And here is another review by Steve Nash in The Globe and Mail.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

The Plot Against Sex in America

Frank Rich writes about Bill Condon’s film, Kinsey, about the pioneer of human sexuality studies, Alfred Kinsey:

When I first saw the movie last spring prior to its release, it struck me as an intelligent account of a half-forgotten and somewhat quaint chapter in American social history. It was in the distant year of 1948 that Alfred Kinsey, a Harvard-trained zoologist, published “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male,” a dense, clinical 804-page accounting of the findings of his obsessive mission to record the sexual histories of as many Americans as time and willing volunteers (speaking in confidentiality) would allow. The book stormed the culture with such force that Kinsey was featured in almost every major national magazine; a Time cover story likened his book’s success to “Gone With the Wind.” Even pop music paid homage, with the rubber-faced comic Martha Raye selling a half-million copies of “Ooh, Dr. Kinsey!” and Cole Porter immortalizing the Kinsey report’s sizzling impact in a classic stanza in “Too Darn Hot.”

Though a Gallup poll at the time found that three-quarters of the public approved of Kinsey’s work, not everyone welcomed the idea that candor might supplant ignorance and shame in the national conversation about sex…

Such history, which seemed ancient only months ago, has gained in urgency since Election Day.

More here in the New York Times.

Being Brenda

This is from a few months ago:

They were meant to show that gender was determined by nurture, not nature – one identical twin raised as a boy and the other brought up as a girl after a botched circumcision. But two years ago Brian Reimer killed himself, and last week David – formerly Brenda – took his life too. Oliver Burkeman and Gary Younge unravel the tragic story of Dr Money’s sex experiment.

John_money_1I was taught about human sexuality by Prof. John Money as part of a physiology course I took as a freshman at Johns Hopkins University. He was quite the showman and eccentric character, and obviously enjoyed shocking the giggly young students with outrageous statements (he also came equipped with very explicit slides and even a movie, if memory serves) about sex. It is sad to learn how wrong he was and how so many people paid for his wrongness.

There’s more here in The Guardian.

Myla Goldberg in Prague

Our friend Myla Goldberg, who’s first novel Bee Season was something of a phenomenon, has just published an elegant little book about returning to Prague after having spent some ex-pat time there in the early 1990s.

Pamela Paul, in last weeks NY Times Sunday Book Review writes:

One of the more well-established literary travel series is Crown Journeys, which has steered authors like Christopher Buckley and Michael Cunningham on walks in cities both foreign and domestic. Myla Goldberg’s TIME’S MAGPIE: A Walk in Prague (Crown Journeys, $16) is this season’s best offering, though it cries out for even more than its 140 pages. It’s nice to travel with a novelist: Goldberg’s language is lush and evocative without sinking into dense or mannered descriptions. Better still, Goldberg was one of those post-collegiate Prague expatriates so prevalent in the early 1990’s, so she retains a rusty grasp of the language and remembers the city’s more obscure attractions. In Prague, she points out, ”for every designated spectacle there are at least three that have gone unmarked and unsung.” Her forays into the Czech National Library and Vysehrad Cemetery, Prague’s Pere Lachaise, make even those who have spent time in the city pine for a return ticket.

Orange Revolution

The story of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine is the most interesting, inspiring, and strange one of the year. It has just been confirmed that Yuschenko was the victim of some kind of dioxin poisoning.

Just to look at before and after pictures of Yuschenko’s face is to see the drama of the whole affair written on skin.

At the same time, the anti-American and European Left seems to have it’s head in the sand, continuing a rather pitiful tradition that goes back to ignoring Eastern European dissidents during the Cold War.

Ms Appelbaum writes,

“Just in case anyone actually thought that all of those people waving flags on the streets of Kiev represent authentic Ukrainian sentiments, the London Guardian informed its readers otherwise last week. In an article titled “US campaign behind the turmoil in Kiev,” the newspaper described the events of the past 10 days as “an American creation, a sophisticated and brilliantly conceived exercise in western branding and mass marketing.” In a separate article, the same paper described the whole episode as a “postmodern coup d’etat” and a “CIA-sponsored third world uprising of cold war days, adapted to post-Soviet conditions.”

Finally, in an interesting tribute to the Orange Revolution in Las Vegas, Ukranian heavyweight boxer Vitali Klitschko beat Brit Danny Williams at Mandalay Bay last night. Vitali and his brother are actually quite involved in politics and seem like pretty lovely fellows, when they are not bashing your face in.

A hard, simple problem

Has an inventor found the hardest possible simple sliding-block puzzle?

PuzzleSliding-block puzzles look easy, but they can be tricky to solve. The best known is the “15 Puzzle”, which became hugely popular in the late 1870s. This involves square tiles labelled with the numbers 1 to 15, which must be arranged in the correct order inside a four-by-four frame. Another popular one, called “Dad’s Puzzle”, involves moving a large square tile from one corner to another, by rearranging other, smaller tiles around it—akin to moving a piano across a cluttered room.

The best such puzzles are easy to explain, yet difficult to solve. Historically, they have been devised by trial and error. But earlier this year, Jim Lewis, an inventor based in Midland Park, New Jersey, set out to find the hardest possible “simple” puzzle, using a computer-based search.

More here in The Economist.