Wednesday, March 05, 2014
Deborah Amos in NPR:
Iran is starting to see a re-launch of activist groups following the election last year of President Hassan Rouhani. Social movements were scarce after the government crushed public protests known as the Green Movement following the 2009 elections. After the decisive vote for Rouhani, a surge of hope in Iran has attracted activists back to the political arena. Iranian women, in particular, are seizing the opportunity. On a recent afternoon in north Tehran two professional women huddle with an adviser to the Ministry of Mines and Trade. They are building a strategy for promoting jobs for women in government and the private sector.
This would have been impossible under the previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, explains Sohaila Jelodorzadeh, a former member of parliament, now a professor of textile engineering. "We were ignored," she says, adding, "No, it was more than ignored. We faced social and political problems." Now, she is politically active again, working with Soraya Maknoon, a former university chancellor, to champion women's employment. Women make up more than 60 percent of the college population in Iran but are less than 20 percent of the working population. "We want to make better use of their knowledge. This is important, not just to have degrees," says Maknoon. It is just one example of a trend in Iran, says Kevan Harris, an Iran specialist from Princeton University. "Urban issues, pollution issues, environmental issues, women's issues," Iranians are forming groups to tackle the major problems facing the country, he says. "The universities now are back, full of student politics, so we are going through a wave of mobilization from below in Iran." The gender gap in employment may be one of the toughest challenges despite a huge social shift on college campuses. After the 1979 revolution, Iran's Islamic government convinced even the most traditional families that it was safe to send their daughters away to college.
On a Day With a Gentle Breeze
You arrived on a day with a gentle breeze
crying suddenly as if you came rolling out of the heavens
All of a sudden, at that moment, inside me
rose up the roar of a lioness,
“I will endure anything for you!”
A baby recalls its heavenly friends
though its eyes do not see well yet
It smiles gently in the morning light
the way an empty swing
sways slightly in the breeze
It looks like the start of a hot day.
Golden dewdrops have formed on the bamboo leaves outside my window.
I am recovering day by day.
Looking forward to happy days when I can work
I rest for now, a clear pool of time
You come to me and suckle
like a little fish
picking at a lotus leaf
You cast a green shade
over my solitary life
like a readily swaying maple branch
arching outside my window –
just a shapeless flickering light
yet you bring me thoughts of infinity
With a few beautiful words
and a soft loving gaze
you glue my solitary life
to this world
by Nao Inoue
from Ooinaru Jyumoku
publisher: Sakurai Shoten, Tokyo, 1947
translation: Takako lento, 2009
Odors have a way of connecting us with moments buried deep in our past. But researchers have long wondered how the process works in reverse: how do our memories shape the way sensory information is collected? In work published in Nature Neuroscience,scientists from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) demonstrate for the first time a way to observe this process in awake animals. The team, led by Assistant Professor Stephen Shea, was able to measure the activity of a group of inhibitory neurons that links the odor-sensing area of the brain with brain areas responsible for thought and cognition. This connection provides feedback so that memories and experiences can alter the way smells are interpreted. The inhibitory neurons that forge the link are known as granule cells. They are found in the core of the olfactory bulb, the area of the mouse brain responsible for receiving odor information from the nose. Granule cells in the olfactory bulb receive inputs from areas deep within the brain involved in memory formation and cognition. Granule cells relay the information they receive from neurons involved in memory and cognition back to the olfactory bulb. There, the granule cells inhibit the neurons that receive sensory inputs. In this way, “the granule cells provide a way for the brain to ‘talk’ to the sensory information as it comes in,” explains Shea. “You can think of these cells as conduits which allow experiences to shape incoming data.”
Why might an animal want to inhibit or block out specific parts of a stimulus, like an odor? Every scent is made up of hundreds of different chemicals, and “granule cells might help animals to emphasize the important components of complex mixtures,” says Shea. For example, an animal might have learned through experience to associate a particular scent, such as a predator’s urine, with danger. But each encounter with the smell is likely to be different. Maybe it is mixed with the smell of pine on one occasion and seawater on another. Granule cells provide the brain with an opportunity to filter away the less important odors and to focus sensory neurons only on the salient part of the stimulus.
Amanda Marcotte in Slate:
While some false beliefs, such as astrology, are fairly harmless, parents who believe falsely that vaccination is dangerous or unnecessary for children present a real public health hazard. That's why researchers, publishing in Pediatrics, decided to test four different pro-vaccination messages on a group of parents with children under 18 and with a variety of attitudes about vaccination to see which one was most persuasive in persuading them to vaccinate. As Chris Mooney reports for Mother Jones, the results are utterly demoralizing: Nothing made anti-vaccination parents more amendable to vaccinating their kids. At best, the messages didn't move the needle one way or another, but it seems the harder you try to persuade a vaccination denialist to see the light, the more stubborn they get about not vaccinating their kids.
Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College and his colleagues tested four different messages on parents. Mooney describes them:
The first message, dubbed "Autism correction," was a factual, science-heavy correction of false claims that the MMR vaccine causes autism, assuring parents that the vaccine is "safe and effective" and citing multiple studies that disprove claims of an autism link. The second message, dubbed "Disease risks," simply listed the many risks of contracting the measles, the mumps, or rubella, describing the nasty complications that can come with these diseases. The third message, dubbed "Disease narrative," told a "true story" about a 10-month-old whose temperature shot up to a terrifying 106 degrees after he contracted measles from another child in a pediatrician's waiting room.
The fourth message was to show parents pictures of children afflicted with the diseases they could get without vaccination. Both the pictures and the horrible story about measles increased parental fears about vaccinations.
Tuesday, March 04, 2014
Ken Roth at Human Rights Watch:
President Obama has disappointed many by failing to make human rights a priority. True, at times he has stood up for people’s rights where there are few strategic interests at play—in such places as Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, Venezuela and Zimbabwe. But his readiness to compromise in places like Afghanistan, Egypt, Mexico, Uzbekistan and Yemen leaves the impression that he is not committed to the human rights ideal.
In Fred Kaplan’s view, that makes Obama a realist. But he arrives at that conclusion only by contrasting Obama’s policies with a caricature of idealism. If idealism means the string of Bush-era policies that Kaplan lists—“triumphalism,” “missionary zeal,” “regime-changing wars,” never “negotiating with dreadful rulers”—I would abandon it too. But this is not the 19th century, and foreign policy no longer concerns only relations among sovereigns. After all, idealism was hardly needed when you could buy off an adversary by cutting a deal (or marrying your daughter to its monarch). The world has changed. Or more to the point, our understanding of it has. It can no longer credibly be called “realistic” to pretend that people have no agency beyond the machinations of their rulers, or that we can afford to be indifferent to whether those rulers are autocrats or democrats.
People do matter. As we’ve learned from Ukraine over the past week or the Arab Spring over the past three years or even Russia and China as they meet public demands with a combination of repression and responsiveness, even autocratic governments need to maintain a degree of popular consent to their rule.
Douglas Preston in Slate:
In the mid ’80s, I was living in Santa Fe, N.M., making a shabby living writing magazine articles, when a peculiar assignment came my way. I had become friendly with a group of Tibetan exiles who lived in a compound on Canyon Road, where they ran a business selling Tibetan rugs, jewelry, and religious items. The Tibetans had settled in Santa Fe because its mountains, adobe buildings, and high-altitude environment reminded them of home.
The founder of the Tibetan community was a man named Paljor Thondup. Thondup had escaped the Chinese invasion of Tibet as a kid, crossing the Himalayas with his family in an epic, multiyear journey by yak and horseback. Thondup made it to Nepal and from there to India, where he enrolled in a school in the southeastern city of Pondicherry with other Tibetan refugees. One day, the Dalai Lama visited his class. Many years later, in Dharamsala, India, Thondup talked his way into a private audience with the Dalai Lama, who told Thondup that he had never forgotten the bright teenager in the back of the Pondicherry classroom, waving his hand and answering every question, while the other students sat dumbstruck with awe. They established a connection. And Thondup eventually made his way to Santa Fe.
The Dalai Lama received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. Thondup, who had heard that he was planning a tour of the United States, invited him to visit Santa Fe. The Dalai Lama accepted and said he would be happy to come for a week. At the time, he wasn’t the international celebrity he is today. He traveled with only a half-dozen monks, most of whom spoke no English. He had no handlers, advance men, interpreters, press people, or travel coordinators. Nor did he have any money.
I mailed a copy of my book Among Murderers, about the struggles three men faced when they returned to the world after several decades behind bars, to Richard Robles, a pen pal serving an indeterminate life sentence in New York’s Attica Prison. Prison reading and mailing policies are designed to reinforce the feeling of punishment. Family and friends cannot simply send books; they have to come directly from the publisher or an online bookstore. Most prisons only allow paperbacks—Attica, a rare exception, permits hardcovers. I couldn’t find detailed mailing instructions on Attica’s website, so I called the prison. “Send it through the publisher—and don’t hide no weapon in it,” the employee blurted. Richard wrote me that he almost had to return the book.
[My] name wasn’t on the “buyer’s side” of the invoice. The guard said something about a new rule that prisoners have to buy the book. But as you can see I did get it, after another guard said something to him. Miracles, right?
I did consider it a small miracle when, a few weeks later, I began to receive letters from men who had borrowed the book from Richard. Prison is a dark world far away from ours, and communications travel slowly. We may have forgotten “them,” but they never forget us.
Over at the Guardian's film blog:
The French director Alain Resnais, who had presented his most recent film The Life of Riley only last month at the Berlin film festival, was part of that remarkable New Wave generation and their associates which set the movie world on fire after the war: not merely film-makers but experimentalists, dazzling theoreticians, maîtres à penser, artists whose work proffered a critique ahead of any of the reviewers and writers who crowded excitably into the cinema to see their latest movies.
His films Night and Fog (1955), Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and the sensational Last Year in Marienbad (1961) made him one of the key figures in European cinema. Like many of this group, Resnais made an explosive start and carried on working into extreme old age, though perhaps his later work could not match the scintillation of that golden period of the late 50s and 60s.
He was fascinated not merely in the possibilities of cinema but in theatre and theatricality — and the theatrical dimension of reality. In fact, he was notable as a French cultural star who took an interest in something British: he frequently adapted the plays of Alan Ayckbourn, in whom he savoured a surreality of bourgeois form; he brought out the delicious Magrittean absurdity.
Phillip Longman in Washington Monthly:
[H]ow much Texas’s growth in jobs just reflects its growth in population. For many decades, Texas has grown much faster in population than the U.S. as a whole, indeed about twice as fast since the 1990s. On its face, there is nothing particularly impressive about a rate of job formation that is just keeping pace with increases in population.
But in the conservative narrative, this population growth is largely driven by individual Americans and businesses fleeing the high taxes and excessive regulation of less-free states. In other words, Texas’s rate of job creation is supposedly more a cause than a consequence of its population growth. If that were true, the Texas boosters would be right to brag. But among the many problems with this story is the reality that, even with an oil boom on, nearly as many native-born Americans are moving out of Texas as are moving in.
For example, according to Census Bureau data, 441,682 native-born Americans moved to Texas from other states between 2010 and 2011. Sounds like a lot. But moving (fleeing?) in the opposite direction were 358,048 other native-born Americans leaving Texas behind. That means that the net domestic migration of native-born Americans to Texas came to just 83,634, which in a nation of 315 million isn’t even background noise. It’s the demographic equivalent of, say, the town of Lawrence, Kansas, or Germantown, Maryland, “voting with its feet” and moving to Texas while the rest of America stays put.
And despite all the gloating by Texas boosters about how the state attracts huge numbers of Americans fleeing California socialism, the numbers don’t bear out this narrative either. In 2012, 62,702 people moved from California to Texas, but 43,005 moved from Texas to California, for a net migration of just 19,697. That’s a population flow amounting to the movement of one village in a continental nation. Far from proving the merits of the so-called Texas model, it shows just how few Californians have seen fit to set out for the Lone Star State, despite California’s high cost of housing and other very real problems.
Versions of the Flood from around the world record memories of different disasters, not one single universal deluge – this is accepted now even by Biblical scholars. But the different accounts share several dramatic elements: the figure of the one man who is chosen to survive, the extraordinary hope placed in the building of a boat, its measurements and vast size, and the processes of caulking and stocking it. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the ark is a six-decker vessel; in the Bible, the specs seem so exact they inspired many believers to attempt to make models. Atrahasis is the name of the hero who is spared and wins eternal life in the poem that Ipiq-Aya, Junior Scribe, pressed into the wet clay with his reed pen. In Gilgamesh, the survivor is called Uta-napishti, and Gilgamesh meets him when he is travelling to the underworld in order to bring back from the dead Enkidu,the wild man whom he loves. But the half-divine hero fails, and although he is told how to pick a magic coral-like plant from the seabed, which will guarantee his immortality, he loses it when he is bathing in a pool: a snake comes by and takes it.
The Babylonian Noah tells Gilgamesh how he survived the rains; in Atrahasis he sees in a dream that he must build an ark; in the later Gilgamesh, the counsellor god Enlil whispers the warning in secret:
Load the seed of every living thing into your ark,
The boat that you will build.
(John Gardner’s version, 1984.) The animals do enter two by two in some versions, but here the ark is a sperm bank, a granary.
Was Whistler just as belligerent toward his art as he was with the wider world into which he sent it? You might think so, judging from reports of how he went about making it: “His movements were those of a duellist fencing actively and cautiously with the small sword,” according to one witness. But no, the results show very little evidence of Whistler’s aggressiveness. Henry Adams can’t have been the only observer to have noticed the contrast between Whistler’s “witty, declamatory, extravagant, bitter, amusing, and noisy” public manner and his art of “nuance and tone,” though perhaps he was one of the few to speculate that it showed how the painter might have been “brutalized…by the brutalities of his world.” That might be putting it a bit too strongly, but still, something must account for Whistler’s conviction that “the Master stands in no relation to the moment at which he occurs—a monument of isolation—hinting at sadness—having no part in the progress of his fellow men.” Whatever the cause of this inner core of loneliness and sorrow, none of Whistler’s biographers, including Sutherland, has ever come close to touching on it. Perhaps that’s just as well, because the beauty of the art transcends its motivating ache—by communicating it in a homeopathic dosage.
But there is something that his art is trying badly to assuage. “Great anomalies are never so great at first as after we have reflected upon them,” Henry James wrote in his 1892 story “The Private Life,” and the anomaly of Whistler is one that keeps growing. Imagine if Giorgio Morandi had written the pugnacious manifestos of F.T. Marinetti.
Today's selection -- from The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James. In 1933, American teenagers -- at least those lucky enough to have escaped the maws of the Depression and embark on a path to college -- smoked cigarettes and pipes for their health, watched King Kong, wore cardigan sweaters and tried top stave of worries of their own fragile futures: "It was the fourth year of the Great Depression. One in four working Americans -- ten million people -- had no job and no prospects of finding one, and only a quarter of them were receiving any kind of relief. Industrial production had fallen by half in those four years. At least one million, and perhaps as many as two million, were homeless, living on the streets or in shantytowns. ... In many American towns, it was impossible to find a bank whose doors weren't permanently shuttered; behind those doors the savings of countless American families had disappeared forever. ...
"In March an oddly appropriate movie had come out and quickly become a smash hit: King Kong. Long lines formed in front of movie theaters around the country, people of all ages shelling out precious quarters and dimes to see the story of a huge, irrational beast that had invaded the civilized world, taken its inhabitants into its clutches, and left them dangling over the abyss. ..."[In 1933], dozens of ... American newspapers had run a single-frame, half-page cartoon. Dark, drawn in charcoal, chiaroscuro in style, it depicted a man in a derby sitting dejectedly on a sidewalk by his candy stand with his wife, behind him, dressed in rags and his son, beside him, holding some newspapers. The caption read 'Ah don't give up, Pop. Maybe ya didn't make a sale all week, but it ain't as if I didn't have my paper route.' But it was the expression on the man's face that was most arresting. Haunted, haggard, somewhere beyond hopeless, it suggested starkly that he no longer believed in himself. For many of the millions of Americans who read the American Weekly every Sunday, it was an all too familiar expression -- one they saw every morning when they glanced in the mirror.
Andrew Pollack in The New York Times:
In the late 1980s, scientists at Osaka University in Japan noticed unusual repeated DNA sequences next to a gene they were studying in a common bacterium. They mentioned them in the final paragraph of a paper: “The biological significance of these sequences is not known.” Now their significance is known, and it has set off a scientific frenzy. The sequences, it turns out, are part of a sophisticated immune system that bacteria use to fight viruses. And that system, whose very existence was unknown until about seven years ago, may provide scientists with unprecedented power to rewrite the code of life. In the past year or so, researchers have discovered that the bacterial system can be harnessed to make precise changes to the DNA of humans, as well as other animals and plants. This means a genome can be edited, much as a writer might change words or fix spelling errors. It allows “customizing the genome of any cell or any species at will,” said Charles Gersbach, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Duke University. Already the molecular system, known as Crispr, is being used to make genetically engineered laboratory animals more easily than could be done before, with changes in multiple genes. Scientists in China recently made monkeys with changes in two genes.
Scientists hope Crispr might also be used for genomic surgery, as it were, to correct errant genes that cause disease. Working in a laboratory — not, as yet, in actual humans — researchers at the Hubrecht Institute in the Netherlands showed they could fix a mutation that causes cystic fibrosis. But even as it is stirring excitement, Crispr is raising profound questions. Like other technologies that once wowed scientists — like gene therapy, stem cells and RNA interference — it will undoubtedly encounter setbacks before it can be used to help patients. It is already known, for instance, that Crispr can sometimes change genes other than the intended ones. That could lead to unwanted side effects. The technique is also raising ethical issues. The ease of creating genetically altered monkeys and rodents could lead to more animal experimentation. And the technique of altering genes in their embryos could conceivably work with human embryos as well, raising the specter of so-called designer babies.
Let me have a sheet of drawing paper
Please use the white pastel
to draw a vast snowy field
Please draw me in there
Don’t hesitate, use the white pastel
There I will play
closed in by a vast white expanse
I will be free for the first time
closed in by the vast white expanse
With no distinction between me and the surroundings
I will be invisible for the first time
I will dance
No need to go all the way to the moon
the snowy field on this drawing paper is my place
I simply sleep, eat, and play
Rabbit, Rabbit, what do you see when you jump?
I see the full moon when I jump
from Zero ni naru karada
publisher: Tokuma Shoten, Tokyo, 2002
Translation: 2009, Takako Lento
Translator's Note: The last two lines are from a Japanese children’s folk song.
In Japan, the shadows on the face of the moon are said to represent rabbits
making rice cake.
Monday, March 03, 2014
by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
Consider the nihilist who provides us with an argument with the conclusion that nothing exists, or that there are no norms for reason. Take the relativist who contends that all facts are relative to some perspective. Note the skeptic who consistently criticizes not only our claims to knowledge, but our very standards. Call such views Transcendental Pessimism. An appealing and longstanding reply to Transcendental Pessimism is that it is self-defeating in some way. The nihilist nevertheless avows a fact and relies on norms of rationality to run the argument for his own conclusion. The relativist isn't just saying that it's all relative to her perspective, but that it's all relative full stop. The skeptic's conclusion that we have no knowledge or have no reliable means to assess knowledge purports to be a knowledge-like commitment held on purportedly good epistemic grounds. The critical line is this: Transcendental Pessimist views cannot be consistently thought. Such views, to make sense at all, must presuppose precisely what they deny.
So far, this self-defeat maneuver against nihilists, relativists, and skeptics is but an inarticulate hunch. Transcendental arguments are attempts at making that hunch explicit, not only about how the negative views are self-defeating, but also regarding the positive views worth preserving. That is, we deploy transcendental argumentation not only as a critical line against Transcendental Pessimism, but we also (and perhaps thereby) establish some positive conclusion. Call this objective Transcendental Optimism.
Immanuel Kant is widely acknowledged to be the first to overtly use the argument type. The primary example of Kantian transcendental argument comes in the Second Analogy of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. The rough form of argument runs as follows: One can judge a series of representations is evidence of a series of events only if one holds that the series is asymmetric (it must happen in that order, not in a reverse or other order). One can believe that the representations are asymmetric only if one holds that the events represented are similarly asymmetric. If a series of states is asymmetric, the earlier states are causes of the later states. Therefore: One can take a series of representations as evidence only if one takes them as evidence of a causal order. Experience can be a source of information only if there is a causal order.
by Jonathan Kujawa
A few years ago I decided I should learn a few card tricks. Like tying a necktie, eating with chopsticks, or building a fire, it seemed like the sort of thing everyone should have in their skill-set. As a person with mediocre dexterity I need tricks which don't depend on slight-of-hand. Fortunately for me the combinations, symmetries, and probabilities of playing cards means there is a rich tradition of card tricks which depend on math more than skill. That's the sort of trick even I can do.
My current favorite is Colm Mulcahy's Ice Cream Flavor Trick. Mulcahy is a mathematician and magician at Spellman College. He has written numerous articles and books on math and card tricks. You can find links to many of them on his homepage.
While idly shuffling cards I stopped and wondered: what is the chance that a deck of cards has ever occurred before in exactly the same order as the ones in my hand? 
On the one hand, I knew that there are many, many, many possible orderings of a 52 card deck. On the other hand, there are millions of decks of cards being shuffled all the time. Just imagine all the shuffling in Vegas alone!
The answer is truly startling! I was surprised and delighted by the how incredibly likely my deck of cards had never occurred before. Let's do the numbers together.
First, how many orderings are there for 52 card deck?
by Jalees Rehman
On the evening of March 3 in 1514, Steven is sitting next to Friar Clay in a Nottingham pub, covering his face with his hands.
"I am losing the will to live", Steven sobs, "Death may be sweeter than life in this world of poverty, injustice and war."
"Do not despair, my friend", Clay says, "for the printing press will change everything."
Let us now fast-forward 500 years and re-enact this hypothetical scene with some tiny modifications.
On the evening of March 3 in 2014, Steven is sitting next to TED-Talker Clay in a Nottingham pub, covering his face with his hands.
"I am losing the will to live", Steven sobs, "Death may be sweeter than life in this world of poverty, injustice and war."
"Do not despair, my friend", Clay says, "for the internet will change everything."
Clay's advice in the first scene sounds ludicrous to us because we know that the printing press did not usher in an era of wealth, justice and peace. Being retrospectators, we realize that the printing press revolutionized how we disseminate information, but even the most efficient dissemination tool is just a means and not the ends.
It is more difficult for us to dismiss Clay's advice in the second scene because it echoes the familiar Silicon Valley slogans which inundate us with such persistence that some of us have begun to believe them. Clay's response is an example of what Evgeny Morozov refers to as "Internet-centrism", the unwavering belief that the Internet is not just an information dissemination tool but that it constitutes the path to salvation for humankind. In his book "To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism", Morozov suggests that "Internet-centrism" is taking on religion-like qualities:
"If the public debate is any indication, the finality of "the Internet"— the belief that it's the ultimate technology and the ultimate network— has been widely accepted. It's Silicon Valley's own version of the end of history: just as capitalism-driven liberal democracy in Francis Fukuyama's controversial account remains the only game in town, so does the capitalism-driven "Internet." It, the logic goes, is a precious gift from the gods that humanity should never abandon or tinker with. Thus, while "the Internet" might disrupt everything, it itself should never be disrupted. It's here to stay— and we'd better work around it, discover its real nature, accept its features as given, learn its lessons, and refurbish our world accordingly. If it sounds like a religion, it's because it is."
Morozov does not equate mere internet usage with "Internet-centrism". People routinely use the internet for work or leisure without ascribing mythical powers to it, but it is when the latter occurs that internet usage transforms into "Internet-centrism".
Zach Nader. Optional Features Shown, 2012, video still.
Thanks to Ryan Moritz via Jaffer Kolb.
by Dwight Furrow
A few weeks ago in the pages of 3 Quarks Daily we were treated to the proclamation of a new doctrine called "Anti-Gopnikism". The reference in the title is to Adam Gopnik, essayist for the New Yorker, who writes frequently in praise of French culture, especially French food. Philosopher Justin Smith, who is responsible for the proclamation of this doctrine, defines Gopnikism as follows:
The first rule of this genre is that one must assume at the outset that France --like America, in its own way-- is an absolutely exceptional place, with a timeless and unchanging and thoroughly authentic spirit. This authenticity is reflected par excellence in the French relation to food, which, as the subtitle of Adam Gopnik's now canonical book reminds us, stands synecdochically for family, and therefore implicitly also for nation.
Thus, Anti-Gopnikism, we are to infer, must consist of a denial that France is an exceptional place, or that it has a timeless, unchanging, authentic spirit, or that its relationship to its food is unique, or all of the above. We are not provided with any evidence to support any of these denials.
Whether American writers are correct to extoll the exceptional virtues of France depends on what you're looking for. The French are lousy at the Olympics but their wine is awesome. Their music can be simple ear-candy and overly romantic but then there is Boulez and Messiaen. Their language is lovely but peculiar; their conversation at times formal but extraordinarily civilized. Like any nation, they have virtues and vices. If you are interested in food and wine they are an essential nation, and have for centuries, defined what fine food is. To claim their relationship to food is not exceptional is to be blind to their extraordinary influence. Other cultures may lay claim to being more influential today but that does not erase the glorious history of French food. As to the timeless, unchanging, authentic spirit—well we are all part of history and no culture is timeless or unchanging. As far as I can tell, Gopnik doesn't claim or imply a timeless, unchanging essence. In fact, in his recent book The Table Comes First: France, Family, and the Meaning of Food, he claims French food has fundamentally changed in recent decades, is in crisis, and he upbraids them for narcissism and navel gazing.
So what is this diatribe against "Gopnikism" really about? It turns out Gopnikism is a lot more sinister than a French food fetish. Smith writes:
France, in other words, is a country that invites ignorant Americans, under cover of apolitical vacationing, of living 'the good life and of cultivating their faculty of taste, to unwittingly indulge their fantasies of blood-and-soil ideology. You'll say I'm exaggerating, but I mean exactly what I say. From M.F.K. Fisher's Francocentric judgment that jalapeños are for undisciplined peoples stuck in the childhood of humanity, to Gopnik's celebration of Gallic commensality as the tie that binds family and country, French soil has long been portrayed by Americans as uniquely suited for the production of people with the right kind of values. This is dangerous stuff.
Oh my! This is truly a puzzling argument. No doubt the French view their cuisine as an expression of their national character just as do the Italians, Japanese, or Chinese among others. Gopnik's claim is that the French have discovered, perhaps more so than other nations, that the pleasure of food brings intimations of the sacred into our lives. Independently of whether such a claim is true or not, what on earth does this have to do with Nazi "blood and soil" ideology. Something has gone deeply wrong here.
by Kathleen Goodwin
Men worldwide may have been startled to hear a ticking as their biological clocks sputtered into existence this week. A study of Swedish children born over a nearly 30 year period revealed there are negative health outcomes for those born to older fathers. In a paper published in JAMA Psychiatry this past Wednesday researchers found that in a sample size of over 2.6 million, advanced paternal age has a detrimental effect on the mental health of offspring, with a greater risk for autism and attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder, as well as likelihood of suicide attempts and low educational attainment, even when controlling for multiple other factors. These findings have the potential to drive a cultural shift in the attitudes currently directed at mothers who postpone pregnancy until later in life.
For years research has shown that women put their unborn children and themselves at increased risk for a host of issues when they delay the onset of pregnancy— the most well-known example being that children born to mothers over 35 are significantly more likely to have down syndrome than children born to younger mothers. Despite these complications, and the reality that fertility peaks in the mid to late 20s, women in developed countries are delaying having children in ever higher numbers and at increasingly later ages. This demographic shift is attributed to women prioritizing education and career advancement before marriage and children— thus while women are making up a larger percentage of law, medical and MBA classes and achieving the kind of power in business and government that second-wave feminists dreamed of, they are also still committed to fulfilling roles as mothers, and consequently putting themselves and their children at risk.
In an powerful piece on her New Yorker blog page, Amy Davidson responded with provocative insight to the controversy created by the Tim Armstrong, the CEO of AOL, earlier in February of this year. Armstrong explained his decision to make cuts to employee retirement benefits by offering the excuse, "two AOL-ers that had distressed babies that were born that we paid a million dollars each to make sure those babies were OK in general. And those are the things that add up into our benefits cost." The ensuing firestorm of criticism directed at Armstrong was deserved and revealed a pattern of repugnant behavior when it comes to protecting quality of life for his employees and their families throughout his career. However, Davidson aptly connects this one example to a larger problem in American culture, where young adults are expected to delay the responsibilities of family in order to study and/or work round the clock. Davidson writes:
"We have an economy, culture, and workplace that push women and families in a certain direction, and then treat the higher risks they take on as theirs alone. Contempt replaces community. If Armstrong illustrates anything, it is the quickness with which a modern company can abandon those who reshaped their lives on its behalf, and made it rich."
by Alexander Bastidas Fry
Imagine the closest star beyond the Sun has a planet orbiting it about the size of Earth. Visualize what your sunset would look like on this distant planet. Perhaps there would be two stars at the center of this solar system. Your sunset would be breathtaking. You could even visualize what the Sun would look like from this planet – just another unassuming star in the sky. You don't have to merely imagine that such a planet might exist. A planet like this really does exist – of course you'd still have to imagine the part where you are on the surface of this world. The Alpha Centauri star system, which is essentially a triple star system of Alpha Centauri A, Alpha Centauri B, and Proxima Centauri has just such a planet. There is a planet in the sky waiting for us at a distance that is just two hundred and seventy thousand times further than the Earth is from the Sun. This planet is near 1500 degrees on the surface, so we wouldn't want to be there, but nonetheless the fact is that astronomers are finding similar planets commonly. There may be a planet just the size of Earth at a nice temperature quite near us galactic speaking. We are searching.
Most planets don't seem to be much like Earth. In fact so far we haven't found a single planet that has a temperature and size similar to Earth, but part of the problem with finding planets is that finding big giant planets – like Jupiter is easy – while small rocky planets like Earth are elusive. But we are on the edge of discovery. All in all Earth-like planets likely abound. In fact with 95% confidence there is an Earth size planet in the habitable zone of a small star within 23 light years of us. The habitable zone is the place where a planet would not be too hot or too cold. A place where a planet wouldn't see its oceans boiled off or frozen into desolate ice tundra. Habitable planets are common in our galaxy and by galactic standards not very far apart. On average Earth-like planets are only 13 light-years apart.
by Brooks Riley
by Madhu Kaza
There's a story I can't get out of my head. Except it's not a story, only the barest, stray thread. One winter morning a little over a year ago I turned on the radio to hear: "At least ten girls were killed yesterday as they were collecting firewood in eastern Afghanistan. The girls, said to range in age from nine to eleven died in an apparent bomb blast . . . . In a separate incident in Kabul . . . " And just like that the news ticked on. On that particular day the news cycle was consumed with the tragedy of the mass murder of twenty children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Reports patched together detailed timelines of what had happened at the school. As the names were released, stories of each of the victims began to take shape. And commentators launched into debates about gun control and school safety. I searched online for more information about the Afghan girls but the news became less and less clear. There were nine dead, not ten, and two girls were injured. There might have been one boy in the group. The youngest was possibly six, the oldest perhaps thirteen. The explosion was due to a land mine planted by the Taliban. Or it might have been a mine from the Soviet era.
It's a story I can't forget though there's so little to remember. Ten girls. Ages nine to eleven. Collecting firewood. Eastern Afghanistan. Died. When I think how strange it is that this particular incident, so meager in its narrative, should haunt me as it does, I am reminded of Alice Oswald's extraordinary book length poem Memorial.
Memorial is Oswald's version or "excavation" of Homer's Iliad. Only in a very loose sense can it be considered a translation. Oswald writes in her introduction that she has brushed away the narrative of The Iliad, and what remains is a "bipolar" poem that includes only the biographies of the dead soldiers and the similes of the original. The book according to Oswald is an "oral cemetery."
One fish says, "So, how's the water?"
The other fish replies, "What water?"
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Richard Stallman, shuffling onto the stage at Cooper Union's Great Hall. Accompanying Stallman is the veritable Platonic Ideal of a potbelly; left behind are his shoes, which are almost immediately discarded and left by the podium. Padding around the same stage where, in 1860, Abraham Lincoln gave the speech that ignited his political career, Stallman proceeded to subject his New York audience to a rambling disquisition on freedom and computer code, consisting of oftentimes astonishingly petty invective, and peppered with various requests that veered from the absurd to the hopelessly idealistic, but which ultimately served to drive away a good portion of the audience, including myself, well before its conclusion, nearly three hours later.
Why is this recent encounter with a nerd's nerd at all worth recounting? (While entertaining, I will forego the petty bits, although you can view the whole talk here). Simply because, in computing circles, Stallman is an archetype: the avenging angel of free software. Over 30 years ago, he founded the Free Software Foundation (FSF), which has since that time been developing the GNU system, a free operating system that was completed by the addition of Linus Torvald's Linux kernel. It is no understatement to say that the smooth functioning and scalability of much of the Internet is thanks to the overall availability and robustness of the GNU/Linux operating system and its various derivative projects. These, in turn, are the result of probably millions of hours of volunteer labor.
So when Stallman says ‘free,' he really means it, and this is where the trouble begins. According to the FSF, free software allows anyone
(0) to run the program,
(1) to study and change the program in source code form,
(2) to redistribute exact copies, and
(3) to distribute modified versions.
This is a simple and powerful set of axioms. It also requires certain conditions to be met, the most challenging of which is access to the code in its source form. Any time the chain of modification and distribution is broken – say, if the person modifying the code chooses to make the source code unavailable, or chooses to charge a fee for the modification – the code is no longer considered free. Of course, ‘unfree' code can also be made free (this is in fact what Torvalds did with Linux).
by Shadab Zeest Hashmi
Jinn: a spirit capable of appearing in human and animal forms and influencing humankind for either good or evil.
A startling laugh, low as if muffled by a dupatta, an old net dupatta I imagine, makes me turn but there is no one there. The walls are the color of vanilla ice cream and the décor is simple and modern apart from a few objects like doilies with Baluchi embroidery, an heirloom paandaan, a tray from the copper bazaar. There are the usual consumer electronics and curtains in a thick, embossed fabric— good for darkening the room against the defeating heat. A whiff of chambeli oil hangs in the punishing late June air for a moment. I recall how the jinn are attracted to fragrances too sweet on the human olfactory scale. Like animals, the jinn have a different wavelength for sensory perception. That low laugh might have actually been much lower or higher for non-human ears, the scent not as sickly sweet. Both probably came from the realm of the jinn, though my rational mind would not allow that thought.
Rumor has it that the maid, a middle aged stocky woman, is either a jinn in human form or a medium for the jinn. She speaks only when spoken to but she speaks in two distinct timbres: one, an ordinary female voice, the other heavy like gravel, a wolf-like growl. It’s hard to predict how the next utterance will sound, whether it will come from the woman or the jinn she houses in her body. Her name is Ishrat, which means luxury. In Urdu Ishrat is a male name too. She is barely noticeable in my peripheral vision in her hand-me-down lawn suit in candy colors as she goes about her usual cooking and cleaning but then her eyes meet mine in the mirror she is dusting. I feel a chill when I glimpse her classic jinn face—eyebrows arching high over the most ancient eyes—eyes brimming with the intense heat of summer afternoons, quicksand eyes that one will descend into uncontrollably; nose—an alignment of broken things, forehead vertiginously high like the ceiling of old train stations.
I don’t want the jinn to detect my loss of composure. I reach for the tea tray she has placed next to my stack of books. The sound of china is comforting and when I go back to my reading, I tell myself never to look into those eyes again. Extracting myself won’t be easy the next time. I’m pulled by the weight of the long afternoon, its lull, and Urdu’s sonorous script, each looping “laam” and “noon” cradling me, but I cannot let myself fall asleep in Ishrat’s presence. The minute I close my eyes, I’m reminded of other jinns I’ve known in stories. There was one that possessed my aunt when she was six or seven— a docile and petit girl, she acquired superhuman strength for no apparent reason and became capable of knocking down several grown men at a time until she was exorcized. This was the India of my imagination and my grandmother’s memories where women who were careless about covering their hair when they were near aged trees were certain to attract the attention of the jinn. I recall long hair, coconut oil, the slow combing and the washing with scented amla, the advice to keep away from the sprawling Oak and Tamarind.