What Olympic Ideal?

“Everything about the ancient Olympics was darker, rougher, more brutal than its modern counterpart — no matter how much more competitive the modern Games have become since their inception, in 1896, as a tribute to the spirit of gentlemanly amateurism. Ancient Games had their origins as somber celebrations of death.” Daniel Mendelsohn writes here in the NY Times Magazine.

And here Bernard Knox reviews The Ancient Olympics by Nigel Spivey, and Ancient Greek Athletics by Stephen G. Miller, in the NY Times Book Review.

Richard Francis rightly panned

“This book is a testimonial to the fact that sociobiology continues to go against the grain of many behavioral scientists, long after the ideological debates of the previous century have subsided, and at a time when a more measured approach to the contribution of this strain of biological and social theory is plainly available.” Herbert Gintis reviews Why Men Won’t Ask for Directions: The Seductions of Sociobiology by Richard C. Francis here.

India bans religious riot movie

“Award-winning documentary Final Solution, which looks at religious rioting between Hindus and Muslims, has been banned in India. The film follows 2002 clashes in the western state of Gujarat, which left more than 1,000 people dead. A censor board said the documentary was ‘highly provocative and may trigger off unrest and communal violence’. The movie was honoured at the Berlin Film Festival. Director Rakesh Sharma plans to challenge the ruling in court.” From the BBC.

Saturday, August 7, 2004

What Dreams Are Made Of

“In the middle of the night, we are all Fellini—the creator of a parade of fleeting images intended for an audience of one. At times, it’s an action flick, with a chase scene that seems endless … until it dissolves and we’re falling, falling, falling into … is it a field of flowers? And who is the gardener waving at us over there? Could it be our old high-school English teacher? No, it’s Jon Stewart. He wants us to sit on the couch right next to him. Are those TV cameras? And what happened to our clothes? In the morning, when the alarm rudely arouses us, we might remember none of this—or maybe only a fraction, perhaps the feeling of lying naked in a bed of daisies or an inexplicable urge to watch The Daily Show.” Article here from Newsweek.

Popperian Falsification Key to Chess Success

“For all you budding Kasparovs out there, a team of cognitive scientists has worked out how to think like a chess grand master. As those attending this week’s Cognitive Science Society meeting in Chicago, Illinois, were told, the secret is to try to knock down your pet theory rather than finding ways to support it – exactly as scientists are supposed to do.” Short article here in Nature.

Original 1963 paper by Sir Karl Popper on “Science as Falsification” is here.

Deception Detection

“Although people have been communicating with one another for tens of thousands of years, more than 3 decades of psychological research have found that most individuals are abysmally poor lie detectors. In the only worldwide study of its kind, scientists asked more than 2,000 people from nearly 60 countries, ‘How can you tell when people are lying?’ From Botswana to Belgium, the number-one answer was the same: Liars avert their gaze… And yet gaze aversion, like other commonly held stereotypes about liars, isn’t correlated with lying at all, studies have shown. Liars don’t shift around or touch their noses or clear their throats any more than truth tellers do.” Article here from Science News Online.

The Outlaw Sea

William Langewische, who wrote a wonderfully fact-filled and gripping account of the cleanup at Ground Zero as a three-part series in the Atlantic Monthly (later expanded and published as a book), has now written a book on the modern perils of plying the oceans.

“Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean—roll!” wrote Byron in a comradely salute to the last great romantic wilderness on the planet. “…Man marks the earth with ruin—his control/ Stops with the shore….” In 1818, he could hardly have foreseen that it would not be very long before man would mark the ocean, too, with ruin, poisoning whole seas with his industrial effluent, or fishing them out with vast synthetic nets deployed by immensely powerful hydraulic winches. Yet the sea is still wild: as global warming takes hold, shipwrecking storms are beginning to blow more fiercely, and with greater frequency, than they did in Byron’s time, and the reach of the law of the land over the anarchy of the sea is, if anything, even more tenuous now than it was then. Mankind has always had much to fear from the ungovernable sea, and never more so than in this period of international terrorism, when who knows what abominations may soon arrive on our shores from the lawless terrain of the world’s oceans.

Jonathan Raban reviews The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime by William Langewiesche, here in the NY Review of Books.

Friday, August 6, 2004

Essay on Christopher Hitchens

Those of you unfamiliar with the editors of 3 quarks daily will, if you keep coming here, soon discover that we suffer from a collective neurosis: obsession with Christopher Hitchens. I was infected as a young man almost two decades ago through his writings in Harper’s magazine, and a couple of years of therapy as well as Hitchens’s much-commented-upon turn to the Right after 9/11 have failed to cure me. I still look at all his new writing, and despite disagreeing with much of his current politics, find him consistently compelling, vigorous, and pleasurable to read. There is a thoughtful essay on Hitchens’s post 9/11 incarnation by Steven M. Levine and, our very own, Morgan Meis at The Old Town Review. Click on “more Politics” on the lower right of the page and then scroll down to “Young Contrarians Respond”.

Besides this essay, there is a lode of refreshingly good original writing on politics and culture to be found at The Old Town Review, so look around while you are there.

Oh, and here, for the record, is Hitchens’s own website.

Louis Menand on Fahrenheit 911

“[Documentaries] show you what was not intended for you to see. The essential documentary impulse is the impulse to catch life off camera, to film what was not planned to happen, or what would have happened whether someone was there to film it or not. That’s why people make documentaries, and why people go to see them. It’s a genre founded on a paradox.” Essay here in the New Yorker.

And while we’re on the subject, here is Geoffery O’Brian’s take on Michael Moore and his film, from the NY Review of Books.

Salonen, Viola and Tristan

In collaboration with L’Opéra National de Paris, Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic will join director Peter Sellars and video artist Bill Viola, to recreate Tristan and Isolde for the 21st century. The concert staging will be presented one act per night in December 2004. This is slow art supreme. Viola has apparently developed a technique which slows down video 80-fold to create the set design.

Mind Map

“The final frontier lies not in outer space but inside your skull. Understanding the matter of the mind preoccupies today’s most brilliant brains, some of whom have concluded that the secret of its subtle complexity may forever elude our own grey cells. Ironically, self-understanding may be impossible for the smartest animal on the planet. Perhaps wisely then, Steven Johnson steers clear of the ultimate questions about consciousness. Instead he focuses on the practical advances being made by neuroscientists in mapping the ‘brain’s inner geography’ and tries to discover what neuroscience can tell him about his own mental landscape.” PD Smith reviews Mind Wide Open: One Man’s Journey into the Workings of His Brain by Steven Johnson here in The Guardian.

And here is an interview with Steven Johnson on NPR.

Danger to Human Dignity: the Revival of Disgust and Shame in the Law

“The law, most of us would agree, should be society’s protection against prejudice. That does not imply that emotions play no legitimate role in legal affairs, for often emotions help people to see a situation clearly, doing justice to the concerns that ought to be addressed. The compassion of judge and jurors during the penalty phase of a criminal trial, for example, has been held to be an essential part of criminal justice, a way of connecting to the life story of a defendant whose experience seems remote to those who sit in judgment. Emotions are not intrinsically opposed to reason, for they involve pictures of the world and evaluations. But there are some emotions whose role in the law has always been more controversial. Disgust and shame are two of those. And disgust and shame are enjoying a remarkable revival in our society, after years during which their role in the law was widely criticized.” Article by Martha C. Nussbaum here in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

New York Gastronomically

My own New York imaginary contains a signification portion given over to eating. A good Marxist, I generally work towards eliminating the middle class of restaurants from my itinerary, preferring the low and the high. Examples: once a week I visit Zaragoza Grocery, a Mexican deli, really, where a rotating selection of tacos prepared by the proprietor’s wife puts all four hundred other East Village taco spots to shame. Shame! All of Zaragoza’s tacos are exellent, but if they have the tongue, the goat, or the lamb, thank the lord. As with much that is sublime, there are few components: just a braised meat, some onion, cilantro, salsa and a lime wedge on two tortillas. The service evinces a strong desire to see you enjoy your eating. That infectious stance, combined with stupendous food, is all I want from a place. On the higher side, I nominate the “Cuban” sandwich at Schiller’s Liquor Bar, which is quite inauthentic but still fantastic, containing local cheese, ham, and Gus’s pickles, and served with french fries that prove Keith’s effortless superiority in the competition between the brothers McNally. The careful thought and algorithmic craft put into making sure a kitchen unfailingly delivers perfectly peanut-oil fried, sea-salt seasoned frites demonstrates that you’re in a place where someone cares, cares to realize a place that ranks the importance of profit motives beneath (albeit slightly) the love of a world of good things to eat.

Thursday, August 5, 2004

New York Imaginary

New York has always inspired the imaginary. This has made itself felt in urban utopian projects of every variety. A nice article in last Sunday’s New York Times captures some of the exhuberance. This site has some further info about past projects and abandoned dreams. And for today’s utopian dreamer, the arcologists aren’t exactly thinking small.
Finally, for you hopeless pessimists on the far Left, there is always Mike Davis as your companion in doom.

Wednesday, August 4, 2004

Sam Tanenhaus, new editor of the NY Times Book Review

sam“Authors tend to think of The New York Times Book Review with a mixture of awe, fear, and reverence. One writer recently compared the Review to the Soviet-era Kremlin: a tremendously powerful institution with often inscrutable methods and protocols.

Thus it was big news earlier this year when editor Chip McGrath announced he was planning to leave the section. Soon thereafter, two top Times editors—including then-recently arrived executive editor Bill Keller—revealed in an interview that book coverage in both the Sunday section and the daily paper would likely move to ’emphasize nonfiction books, demote literary fiction, promote (judiciously) commercial novels.’ Across the country, writerly jaws dropped.

Enter Sam Tanenhaus, who took the helm of the Book Review in April after working for many years as a writer, reporter, and editor. He was most recently a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, and he was also a Pulitzer finalist in 1998 for his biography of Whittaker Chambers.”

Interview with Tanenhaus by David S. Hirschman here.

More on Sidney

getimage“Friends and colleagues gathered yesterday at 201 East Broadway for the funeral of Columbia University philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser, who died over the weekend at age 82. The John Dewey Professor emeritus of philosophy, who began teaching at Columbia in 1954, was known for his wit, erudition, and blunt conversational style. A writer once likened him to a cross between Spinoza and Groucho Marx.” More here from the NY Sun.

Why We Lie

“David Livingston Smith’s Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind follows in the tradition of Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works, Matt Ridley’s The Origins of Virtue and Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal. Like those books, Why We Lie is well-written and likely to be embraced by fans of evolutionary psychology (as the blurbs on the back of the hardcover suggest).” Here is a book review by Alex Sager.