Wednesday, April 23, 2014
Faiza Virani in Dawn:
Ayesha Khan, a young, single female reporter in Karachi, despises the elite in Pakistan. That much is clear from the onset of Saba Imtiaz’s debut novel, Karachi, You’re Killing Me!, as the protagonist mocks her boss / editor being gifted the newspaper she is employed at by his industrialist father on his 26th birthday “following a giant tantrum.” References to Agha’s and Okra follow suit, as the narrative is grounded into an us versus them tone while readers are introduced to the novel’s characters and plot. Imtiaz presents a gritty yet humourous narrative that takes the reader through the inner workings of a national newspaper, political rallies, literature festivals and socialites at fashion week. We experience all this through a reporter’s lens as Ayesha jets from pressers to rallies in rickshaws and taxis all the while working through her plentiful personal issues, topmost among which is finding a suitable man to date in the wasteland that is Karachi.
In describing life as usual, Imtiaz takes on the many serious issues facing journalists in the field today — safety (or lack thereof), the deficient infrastructure and support, and the alarming rate at which journalists are being recruited by political parties to report as required. The story is told uniquely, from an advantage point of Imtiaz’s years spent being a reporter in Karachi for one of the country’s leading newspapers. Imtiaz aptly packs Karachi’s myriad idiosyncrasies and nuances neatly into a narrative that spans everything that is relative to and reflective of Karachi’s inherent fabric — from the bomb blasts to terrorism reports, the CNG crisis, politicians’ tiresome and endless security detail and much more, highlighting what is necessary to grasp quickly all that is wrong with Karachi today.
Tony Scully in Nature:
For a condition as prevalent and dangerous as obesity (see page S50), we know surprisingly little about its causes and cures. We have much to learn about how fat tissue stores and burns lipids; there may even be new types of human fat cell yet to be discovered (S52). And although it is clear that the types of microbe living in the gut correlate with body weight, we do not know whether changes in these populations are a cause of weight gain, or a consequence (S61).
The best way to lose weight is to eat less and exercise more. But as a strategy to combat obesity at the population level, this common-sense prescription is proving ineffective over the long term. Tailored treatment programmes that factor in the stresses and temptations of the real world, using insights from behavioural research, are showing some success. Drugs may also form part of the solution (S54). Or perhaps the pharmaceutical option should be a last resort, and society should instead use the power of government regulation to encourage healthier lifestyle options (S57). Of course, obesity does not result from the environment alone — it is one of our most strongly genetically influenced traits. Scores of genes have been implicated, but the evidence suggests that something other than genes accounts for whether someone is likely to become obese (S58). Controlling appetite is not just a matter of will power; much of our dietary behaviour is hardwired. Neuroscientists are using new techniques to map the neural circuits that control when and how much we eat (S64). But these appetite systems, which evolved to ensure we have enough of the right nutrients, are now being subverted by modern food processing (S66).
Sunday, April 20, 2014
Peter Brown, Henry Roediger III and Mark McDaniel in Salon:
Here’s a study that may surprise you. A group of eight-year-olds practiced tossing beanbags into buckets in gym class. Half of the kids tossed into a bucket three feet away. The other half mixed it up by tossing into buckets two feet and four feet away. After twelve weeks of this they were all tested on tossing into a three-foot bucket. The kids who did the best by far were those who’d practiced on two- and four-foot buckets but never on three-foot buckets. Why is this? We will come back to the beanbags, but first a little insight into a widely held myth about how we learn.
Most of us believe that learning is better when you go at something with single-minded purpose: the practice-practice-practice that’s supposed to burn a skill into memory. Faith in focused, repetitive practice of one thing at a time until we’ve got it nailed is pervasive among classroom teachers, athletes, corporate trainers, and students. Researchers call this kind of practice “massed,” and our faith rests in large part on the simple fact that when we do it, we can see it making a difference. Nevertheless, despite what our eyes tell us, this faith is misplaced. If learning can be defined as picking up new knowledge or skills and being able to apply them later, then how quickly you pick something up is only part of the story. Is it still there when you need to use it out in the everyday world? While practicing is vital to learning and memory, studies have shown that practice is far more effective when it’s broken into separate periods of training that are spaced out. The rapid gains produced by massed practice are often evident, but the rapid forgetting that follows is not. Practice that’s spaced out, interleaved with other learning, and varied produces better mastery, longer retention, and more versatility.
Jon Stock in The Telegraph:
I’ll always remember the early hours of April 30, 1999. I was living in Delhi, working as a foreign correspondent for this newspaper, when the news broke that a beautiful model called Jessica Lal had been shot dead in a bar. The Tamarind Court in Mehrauli, where Jessica was serving drinks, was just up the road from our house and her violent death felt too close to home. It also shocked the nation, seeming to confirm that Delhi’s lawless elite was running amok. The bar had just shut when Manu Sharma, the son of a wealthy Indian MP, walked up to Jessica and asked for a drink. He offered her 1,000 rupees but she refused, telling him that he couldn’t even have one sip of alcohol. “I could have a sip of you for a thousand rupees,” Sharma replied. He then pulled out a gun, fired one shot into the ceiling and another into the model’s head.
Rana Dasgupta recalls her murder in his compelling, often terrifying, new book, Capital: a Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi. The author, whose debut novel, Solo (2010), won the Commonwealth Writers Prize, moved from Britain to Delhi in 2000, the year I left the city, and has lived there ever since. In Capital he sets out to show how Delhi has changed since the country’s decision in 1991 to embrace the principles of free enterprise and open markets. Mixing polemical chapters on the city’s history – the arrival of the Mughals, the decision by the British to move their capital from Calcutta to Delhi – with intimate interviews with billionaire businessmen, drug dealers, gurus and slum dwellers, Dasgupta argues that globalisation has had catastrophic consequences for a once great city.
Karuna Mantena reviews Ramin Jahanbegloo’s "The Gandhian Moment" in the LA Review of Books:
Jahanbegloo’s wager is that Gandhian politics offer a path to overcoming authoritarian rule while avoiding the pitfalls of revolution. Whether Gandhian politics did stabilize India’s postcolonial transition is itself a controversial question; one need only think of the brutal partition that accompanied Indian independence. Nevertheless, Jahanbegloo is right to reconsider Gandhi from this angle — he was extremely sensitive to the dilemmas of transition. Indeed, one could argue that this was at the center of his continual meditations on the nature of swaraj (true independence or self-rule).
Directing Gandhi’s thinking toward contemporary concerns in this manner is a fruitful line of inquiry, and Jahanbegloo’s considerations are insightful. The strength of his insights, however, is sometimes diluted when they are applied too broadly. In what is essentially a pamphlet-length work, Jahanbegloo moves too quickly from recovering concepts such as shared sovereignty and citizen agency to extolling Gandhian goals of spiritualizing politics, promoting dialogic and intercultural criticism, reconciling individualism and mutuality, and promoting the more general Gandhian values of responsibility, tolerance, civility, and humility. True, many of these notions may be attributed to Gandhi himself, but it is hard to see their interconnection. In the end, their importance can only be declared rather than persuasively demonstrated.
Jahanbegloo’s attempt to recover the “ethical” thrust of Gandhian politics, however, merits careful consideration. As he observes, Gandhian politics has become a genuinely global phenomenon — a diffusion at once unexpected and inevitable. From the struggles against apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s to the velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, to the Arab Spring more recently, nonviolence has grown in popularity as an effective tool in antiauthoritarian campaigns. Moreover, in the literature on nonviolence, this revival has spawned theoretical analyses that view nonviolent collective action as essentially democratic. (See especially Jonathan Schell’s seminal work, The Unconquerable World.) Jahanbegloo’s worry is that nonviolence’s global reach, though significant, may be only partial, or fragile because partial — hence the need to integrate the politics of dissent within something more holistic.
Gandhi himself may have come up with this line of thought when, on the eve of independence, he complained that the Indian National Congress seemed only to have embraced nonviolence in a tactical way. Countless Gandhians have since lamented the adoption of nonviolence as a strategy separated from a deeper, more philosophical commitment to nonviolence.
When I leave this little town
Harmonicas will play all night long..
But I won’t be here..
I know that as I sleep
The words I use and the way I walk are pantomimed..
In the square a horse drags a wooden cart full of bread: clack, clack..
A cold bench
Makes me take a good hard look
Forces my eyes open..
And I feel that something’s afoot
That something has just happened, maybe yesterday..
All that remains is a deep, far-off rumbling..
But before your heart rouses
To the sound,
You must fall asleep
Give into a deep fatigue..
The horse with the wooden cart
Stubbornly fights time:
Clack, clack — today's fresh bread, warm..
Once I, too, struggled with time..
But it would only grab me in its whirlwind
And spin me high up above the rooftops..
Now I know it’s small, contained
Unseen, like the bread in the cart’s wooden heart.
by Oleh Lysheha
from The Big Bridge
publisher: Molodist', Kyiv, 1989
Translation: by author
from A Hundred Years of Youth:
A Bilingual Anthology of 20th Century Ukrainian Poetry
Publisher: Litopys, Lviv, 2000
Joel Whitney at Al Jazeera:
Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1967 novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude” is hailed as a masterpiece and harbinger of the literary genre, magical realism, a style of writing that influenced everyone from Isabel Allende to Salman Rushdie to Toni Morrison. With more than 30 million copies sold, the book is second only to Cervantes’s “Don Quixote” among Spanish-language novels. And Cervantes had, as one writer noted, a “four-century head start.”
But hours after the Nobel laureate died Thursday, the Cold War debate over his friendship with Cuba’s iconic revolutionary and former President Fidel Castro was rehashed as the singular stain on his otherwise glorious literary legacy.
While Castro’s revolution in its early days inspired admiration from the global left, his movement quickly became characterized by acts of repression and censorship. For the past four decades, Garcia Marquez had been criticized for maintaining his support even after Castro blessed the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, with obituaries this week calling that support “scandalous” and a defense of “the indefensible.”
But the nuance of Garcia Marquez’s position was such that while he refused to break definitively with Castro, he never stopped criticizing Castro’s revolution, and even softened some of Castro’s roughest edges at a time when the Cuban leader was constantly under attack from the north.
Saturday, April 19, 2014
Perry Anderson on Alexander Cockburn, in New Left Review (image from Wikimedia Commons):
No other person I have ever known was so deeply and productively marked by family background. The relationship of sons to fathers is rarely without conflict; and where there is none, the effect is more typically disabling than empowering, or neutral. For a father to be object at once of adoration, emulation and emancipation would seem a contradiction in terms. Yet so it was in the case of Alexander. Throughout his life Claud was a model for him—he once said he thought of him every day—and his career would follow an arc often uncannily like that of Claud’s. Yet far from being a psychological shackle, reducing him to imitation, it was as if the intensity of the bond was the condition of an individuality out of the ordinary. The paradox, of course, says much about the parent who made it possible.
Claud Cockburn recounted his own life—up to the age of fifty-seven—in an artful and entertaining trilogy that records a remarkable career. Born in Peking in 1904, where his father was secretary to the British Legation during the Boxer Uprising, as a youth he spent much of his time, during breaks from education in England, in Budapest, while his father sorted out Allied war claims on Hungary. After Oxford, Claud first worked free-lance for the Times in Berlin, before becoming a correspondent for the paper in New York. Arriving in the US on the eve of the crash of 1929, he resigned his post in early 1932, returning first to Central Europe again, and then to England. There he created The Week, a confidential newsletter, exposing intrigues and scandals in high places, read and feared not only in the clubs and country houses of the British oligarchy, but their counterparts across the Continent. In 1934 he started writing for the Daily Worker, while contributing concurrently to Time and Fortune. After 1936 he reported on Spain for the Worker, and England for Pravda. During the War, he was diplomatic correspondent for the Worker, but in 1947 quit for a life in Ireland with his wife Patricia. There he wrote his three volumes of memoirs; five novels, one of which was made into a film by John Huston; contributed to Punch; and became an inspiration and collaborator of Private Eye. He died in 1981.
For the richness of this trajectory and the personality behind it, there is no substitute for Claud’s own reminiscences. But retrospectively, certain strands of particular moment for Alexander can be indicated.
Alyssa Battistoni in Jacobin (Illustration by Edward Carvalho-Monaghan):
[I]nternational disparities have, of course, long presented a challenge to those concerned with both domestic and global justice: how to acknowledge that America’s poor are wealthier than most of the world without simply concluding that they’re part of the problem? But while discussions of consumption tends to focus on a universal “we,” as epitomized by the famous Pogo Earth Day cartoon — “we have met the enemy, and he is us” — it’s important to look more closely within the rich world rather than simply heaping scorn on national averages.
Depictions of American consumerism tend to focus on the likes of Walmart and McDonald’s, suggesting that blame lies with the ravenous, grasping masses. Meanwhile it’s trendy for the wealthy to appear virtuous as they drive Priuses, live in homes that tout “green design,” and eat organic kale. But whether you “care about the environment,” believe in climate change, or agonize over your coffee’s origins doesn’t matter as much as your tax bracket and the consumption habits that go with it.
Consumption doesn’t correspond perfectly to income — in large part because of public programs like SNAP that supplement low-income households — but the two are closely linked. The US Congressional Budget Office estimates that the carbon footprint of the top quintile is over three times that of the bottom. Even in relatively egalitarian Canada, the top income decile has a mobility footprint nine times that of the lowest, a consumer goods footprint four times greater, and an overall ecological footprint two-and-a-half times larger. Air travel is frequently pegged as one of the most rapidly growing sources of carbon emissions, but it’s not simply because budget airlines have “democratized the skies” — rather, flying has truly exploded among the hyper-mobile affluent. Thus in Western Europe, the transportation footprint of the top income earners is 250 percent of that of the poor. And global carbon emissions are particularly uneven: the top five hundred million people by income, comprising about 8 percent of global population, are responsible for 50 percent of all emissions. It’s a truly global elite, with high emitters present in all countries of the world.
But that doesn’t mean America is off the hook altogether. The global wealthy may consume far more than the rest, but global consumption can’t be leveled out by bringing everyone up to even Western median levels; consumption in rich nations, even at relatively low levels of income, has to decline if we’re to achieve some measure of global equality.
For those in rich countries, this sounds suspiciously close to an argument for austerity: we’ve been profligate, and now the bill is coming due.
Timothy Shenk in The Nation (Photo: Emmanuelle Marchadour)):
Chest-pounding about methodology and decrees on capitalism would be of little interest if they were not joined to substantive intellectual discoveries. Piketty’s contributions on this front come in three interlocking clusters: historical, theoretical and political. Relying chiefly on data from Britain, the United States and France, he casts his gaze over what the French historian Fernand Braudel, cited by Piketty as one of his inspirations, termed the longue durée. Much of Capital in the Twenty-First Century is, essentially, a history of the modern world viewed through the relationship between two factors: economic growth, with all its promises, and the return on capital, a reward that goes to the small fraction of the population that has mastered what Tina Fey’s character in 30 Rockreferred to as “that thing that rich people do where they turn money into more money.”
The rich perfected that art a long time ago. According to Piketty, the average return on capital, after adjusting for inflation, has hovered around 5 percent throughout history, with a slight decline after World War II. Whatever problems capitalists will face in the future, he suggests, a crisis generated by falling profits is not likely to be among them. Economic growth, by contrast, has a far more abbreviated chronology. According to the most reliable estimates—sketchy, but better than nothing—for most of human history, economic growth was on the order of 0.1 percent a year, provided there were no famines, plagues or natural disasters. This gloomy record began to change for part of the world during the Industrial Revolution. Judged by later standards, “revolution” might seem too generous a phrase for growth rates in per capita output that ran to under 1.5 percent in both Western Europe and the United States; but compared with the entire earlier history of human existence, those rates were astonishing.
More impressive developments were in store. The twentieth century, Piketty writes, was the moment when “economic growth became a tangible, unmistakable reality for everyone.” In the United States, which had benefited earlier from high growth rates, per capita output ticked up to just under 2 percent between 1950 and 1970. In the same period, growth in Europe doubled that; Asian countries averaged just a step behind Europe; and many African nations reached numbers closer to—but ahead of—the United States.
Piketty is less concerned with this global story, however, than with a concurrent development in Europe. In the nineteenth century, growth had done nothing to reduce income inequality. This was the world Marx diagnosed in Capital, and in crucial respects, Piketty thinks he got it right. Not that the entire apparatus of Marxist political economy holds, if it ever did. On the key issue of the tendency for wealth to accumulate in fewer hands, though, Piketty believes Marx arrived at a profound insight.
In his blisteringly candid but skewed 1988 autobiography, “Elia Kazan: A Life,” he claimed that he had been miserable during the years of his greatest success, “straining to be a nice guy so people would like me.” He implied that the “mask” he wore “to hide a truer feeling” kept him from working honestly with his collaborators and destroyed his pleasure in that work. It’s impossible to believe this entirely as we read his detailed letters to Tennessee Williams, firmly laying out the structural problems he sees in “Camino Real” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Kazan comes across as a strong, self-confident artist, unafraid to voice opinions he knows may upset his friend.
His commitment and integrity are even more evident in correspondence with studio executives over censorship troubles with the film versions of “Streetcar,” “East of Eden” and “Baby Doll.” A leading player in the battle to make American movies more adult, Kazan urged Jack Warner in 1955, “as a matter of self preservation, to put on the screen . . . only what they cannot and will not ever see on their TV . . . we must be bold.”
Lisa Guenther in Aeon:
Why does prolonged isolation typically corrode a prisoner’s ability to perceive the world and to sustain a meaningful connection with his own existence? The short answer to this question is that we are social beings who rely on our interactions with other people to make sense of things. But what does it mean to exist socially, and what is the precise connection between our relations with others, our perception of the world, and the affirmation of our own existence?
My response to this question is shaped by the philosophical practice of phenomenology. Phenomenology begins with a description of lived experience and reflects on the structures that make this experience possible and meaningful. The main insight of phenomenology is that consciousness is relational. As the German philosopher Edmund Husserl put it at the turn of the 20th century, consciousness is consciousness of something; the mind is not a thing but a relation. Meaning is not ‘located’ in the brain like a message in a mailbox; rather, it emerges through an ever-changing relation between the act of thinking and the objects of thought.
Husserl’s student, Martin Heidegger, expanded this notion of relationality into an account of existence as Being-in-the-world. For Heidegger, it is not enough to reflect on the structures of consciousness in a theoretical way. We need to grasp how the meaning of our lived experience arises through a practical engagement with the world, in projects such as hammering a nail or baking a loaf of bread. For Heidegger, as for Husserl, we do not exist as isolated individuals whose basic properties and capacities remain the same in every situation. We are not in the world ‘as the water is “in” the glass or as the garment is “in” the cupboard’, he wrote in Being and Time(1927). Rather, we exist as Being-in-the-world, in a complex interrelation with the situation into which we have been thrown. The work of phenomenology is to make this web of relations visible, so that we can appreciate the complexity of even the most simple, everyday experiences.
Solitary confinement presents a challenge to my practice of phenomenology, both because I have not had this experience myself, and also because the testimony of survivors suggests that the experience of prolonged isolation is also an unravelling of experience: a deterioration of the senses, a becoming-invisible, an annihilation.
Here, in no particular order, are some of the memorable data from Updike’s universe that I learned from this delightfully rich book: He enjoyed poker and golf. At Harvard, he was classmates with Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, “son of the hereditary imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims,” and he made use of the prince’s “fabulously exotic background” in the story “God Speaks.” In 1962, he taught creative writing courses at Harvard Summer School and was not happy about it. When he was writing for The New Yorker’s Talk of the Town section, he also composed a 600-page novel called “Home,” set in Pennsylvania, but never published it. He didn’t board an airplane until he was 24, but after he became famous he traveled the world and projected his experiences onto his character Bech. After moving to Ipswich, Mass., which he wrote about in “Couples” (1968), “he threw himself with reckless enthusiasm into the tangle” of suburban infidelities. He wrote so much about sex, as this admiring biography tells us without too much irony, because “he was writing about what he knew.” But there were “only two extramarital affairs of real significance” in his life. He married twice and had four children. At the age of 70, he had “few close friends, none of them intimate.” For a long time, he was in regular correspondence with his mother and with Joyce Carol Oates. He never felt completely at ease with computers; the Internet made him nervous, and he never owned a cellphone. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Updike and his second wife, Martha, were staying in Brooklyn Heights in a 10th-floor apartment from which they witnessed the fall of the twin towers, and he wrote about the experience in The New Yorker. The last book Updike reviewed was an 800-page biography of John Cheever.
This week marks the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth. Yet the way we remember history’s most renowned playwright might have been very different had it not been for a formidable foe.
In November 1596 a woman named Elizabeth Russell declared war on Shakespeare and his theatrical troupe, in the process nearly destroying the dramatist’s career. Russell rarely features in accounts of Shakespeare’s life, yet her actions determined how we think of him today: as the Shakespeare of the Globe Theatre.
In the National Archives in Kew there is a bundle of curious papers, identified by the prosaic reference number SP 12/260. The documents include two petitions to Queen Elizabeth I’s Privy Council. The first is headed by Lady Russell and records her endeavour to block the opening of a spectacular new theatre which Shakespeare was about to occupy less than a two-minute walk south of her home in Blackfriars, London. This unassuming manuscript discloses a scarcely believable act of betrayal, for among its 31 signatories are Shakespeare’s publisher, Richard Field, and his patron, George Carey, the Lord Hunsdon.
Boyd Tonkin in The Independent:
From the era of “La Violencia” in the late 1940s, Colombia has weathered more than its fair share of hideous bloodshed, factional strife and chronic instability. But there, on the other side of the balance, stood Gabo: perhaps the best-loved novelist of the entire postwar period. Gabriel Jose Garcia Marquez, born on 6 March 1927 during a rainstorm in the backwater of Aracataca near the Caribbean coast, not only described but in a sense created today’s Colombia. The author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera and other masterworks from The Autumn of the Patriarch to The General in his Labyrinth, he put his stamp on his country and on a worldwide republic of letters.
And the former journalist did so with a charismatic allure unmatched since the heyday of Hugo and Tolstoy in the late 19th-century. This supreme storyteller managed, via the magic of his art, to alter the shape of his country’s and his continent’s reality.If Latin America can now hope to boom in freedom, that is in no small part because its writers – and above all Garcia Marquez – came out of the middle of nowhere and by sheer force of talent, will and imagination transformed that nowhere into the centre of the world.
Carl Zimmer in The New York Times:
In the summer of 1981, a Swedish graduate student named Svante Paabo filled a laboratory at the University of Uppsala with the stench of rotting liver. Paabo was supposed to be studying viruses, but he had become secretly obsessed with a more exotic line of research: extracting DNA from Egyptian mummies. No one at the time had any idea if the desiccated flesh of pharaohs still contained any genetic material, so Paabo decided to run an experiment. He bought a piece of calf’s liver and put it in a lab oven at about 120 degrees for a few days to approximate mummification. In the dried, blackened lump of meat, he succeeded in finding scattered fragments of DNA. It was the start of what has turned out to be an extraordinary scientific career. Paabo went on to find DNA in a 2,400-year-old mummy and then from much older animals, like extinct cave bears and ground sloths. In 2010, he became world-famous when he and his colleagues unveiled the Neanderthal genome.
Neanderthals have puzzled scientists ever since their fossils first emerged in a German quarry in 1856. They were clearly ancient (their fossils span a range from about 200,000 to 30,000 years ago) and had distinctive anatomical differences from living humans, such as a thick brow ridge. But Neanderthals had brains as big as ours; they could make sophisticated tools and hunt large mammals. Precisely how they were related to modern humans became the source of a debate that rolled on for decades. In “Neanderthal Man” Paabo offers a fascinating account of the three decades of research that led from a secret hobby to a scientific milestone. The book follows the style of two previous memoirs by pioneering geneticists — James D. Watson’s “The Double Helix” (1968) and J. Craig Venter’s “A Life Decoded” (2007). In “The Double Helix,” Watson described discovering the structure of DNA. In “A Life Decoded,” Venter told how he led a team that developed new ways to read DNA and eventually assembled a rough draft of the entire human genome. Paabo now recounts his success in recovering a human genome that has been sitting in fossils for tens of thousands of years.
We Join Together Spokes in a Wheel
We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it’s the vacant hub
that makes it possible
for the cart to move.
We shape a pot to make a void
to hold whatever we want.
We stand up walls to make a house,
but the hollow within
is where living takes place.
Non-being is at the heart of being.
from the Tao The Ching of Lao Tzu, V. 11
Friday, April 18, 2014
Peter Carey in The Guardian:
Sometime in the very early 1970s two Australian friends returned from Colombia and asked me to ghostwrite the story of their adventures, which included a conversation with an unknown writer named Gabriel García Márquez. In an effort to overcome my reluctance they lent me an English edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude. None of us understood that they had thereby changed my life. I tried, and failed, to help them memorialise their adventure. Worse, I "forgot" to return the book. Worse still, I arrogantly decided that this novel by this unknown writer would be of far more use to me than it could ever be to them. I was, at the time I became a thief, stumbling to find a way to escape what Patrick White had called "the dun-coloured realism" of my own country's literature, to make the windswept paddocks on the Geelong Road, say, become luminous and new. The stories worked well enough, but I still wasn't up to the bigger challenge. The absence of placenames in the stories is a good indication of what I was avoiding, a sign that I was still too young (and damaged) to see that Myrniong was a beautiful strange name and that Wonthaggi was a poem unto itself. It would take 10 years (some 20 stories and a novel) to free myself of this colonial bind, but the first step, without a doubt, was when I opened One Hundred Years of Solitude and read: "At that time Macondo was a village of 20 adobe houses built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point."
Thus Márquez threw open the door I had been so feebly scratching on.
Erika Check Hayden in Nature:
Scientists have identified a long-sought fertility protein that allows sperm to dock to the surface of an egg. The finding, an important step in understanding the process that enables conception, could eventually spawn new forms of birth control and treatments for infertility. “It’s very important, because we now know two of the proteins that are responsible for the binding of sperm to the egg,” says Paul Wassarman, a biochemist and developmental biologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. The work, published today in Nature1, was led by Gavin Wright, a biochemist at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Hinxton, UK. He and his team were looking for a counterpart to a protein called Izumo1, discovered in 2005 on the surface of sperm cells2.
Scientists knew that Izumo1 allowed sperm to join to an egg to begin the process of fertilization. But nobody knew what protein on the surface of the egg attached to Izumo1. Identifying the proteins involved in the joining step has been difficult because the molecules tend to bind quite weakly to each other. So Wright and his team devised a way to cluster Izumo1 proteins, then searching for the egg-cell proteins that would bind to the clusters in cell culture. Wright compares the technique to constructing a Velcro fastener out of many individual fabric loops: “Each small hook adheres weakly, but when [they are] clustered in an array, even the most fleeting interactions are stabilized and can therefore be detected,” he says. Using this method, the team hooked a protein called folate receptor 4 that is found on the surface of the mouse egg cell. Wright’s team propose renaming the egg protein Juno, after the Roman goddess of fertility and marriage. Izumo1 is also named after a cultural symbol of reproduction — a Japanese marriage shrine.
Elizabeth Alsop in the LA Review of Books:
IT’S A GOOD TIME to be a canceled show. Last May, Netflix sent the viewing public into paroxysms when it released the fourth season ofArrested Development, which last aired on Fox in 2006. A month earlier, Rob Thomas made Kickstarter history when fans of his UPN series Veronica Mars massively overfunded — by three million dollars! — the show’s “return” as a feature-length film, now playing in theaters. Since then, former AMC series The Killing has been granted new life by Netflix, defunct soaps like All My Children and One Life to Live have been revived as streaming web series, and NBC’s Heroes, it was just announced, will return in rebooted and “reborn” form this summer.
There are, it seems, second acts in American television. Or, as Lacey Roseput it in The Hollywood Reporter, “canceled doesn’t necessarily mean canceled anymore.” Instead, shows like 24, Futurama, Unforgettable, and Cougartownhave become the beneficiaries of a new televisual world order, whereby any series threatened with cancelation can be, in Rose’s words, “revived thanks to creative deal-making,” or — in the case of NBC’s Community — rescued by socially-mediated displays of viewer displeasure.
All of this, of course, hardly comes as news. Back in 2012, New Yorkmagazine’s Matt Zoller Seitz was already bemoaning the rise of “zombified” media; the byproduct, in part, of new and more potent forms of fan empowerment. Since then, critics have been eager to read the cultural tea leaves. There’s been no shortage of speculation about what this wave of revivals could cumulatively portend for television makers and viewers in the 21st century.
Yet despite the critical attention to this phenomenon, there’s been comparatively little curiosity about the psychology behind it.
Peter Gordon in The New Republic:
Walter Benjamin passed some of the happiest moments of his life wandering shirtless in the sun on the Spanish island of Ibiza. In a letter in 1932, he wrote that the little Mediterranean island lacked modern conveniences, such as “electric light and butter, liquor and running water, flirting and newspaper reading.” The nearest village boasted a mere seven hundred inhabitants, who got by without modern farm equipment: the economy ran mostly on goats. During his two stays there, in 1932 and 1933, Benjamin strolled the beaches and explored the island’s interior in the company of his friend Jean Selz, who would recall that “Benjamin’s physical stoutness and the rather Germanic heaviness he presented were in strong contrast to the agility of his mind, which so often made his eyes sparkle behind his glasses.” Together they took long walks through the countryside, but the walks were “made even longer by our conversations, which constantly forced him to stop. He admitted that walking kept him from thinking. Whenever something interested him he would say, ‘Tiens, tiens!’ This was the signal that he was about to think, and therefore stop.” Among the German guests on the island this idiosyncrasy was well-known and they gave the strange apparition a nickname: “Tiens-tiens.” The village locals called him el miserable. It is true that Benjamin was poor and prone to depression. But out of each day he crafted a scholar’s idyll: he rose early and bathed in the ocean, then ascended the hills to his favorite spot, where he retrieved a hidden lounge chair from the bushes. He sat there among the fig trees for the full length of the morning, writing, or reading Lucretius.
We do not imagine Benjamin on the beach. He was a poet of the city, one of the most probing critics of the bourgeois experience. In manifold essays and books, some of them fragmentary and left unpublished until much later, he sought to portray modern life in all its richness and variety—its literature, its dreams, its cultural detritus. Like a ragpicker in the marketplace (this was his own comparison), nothing seemed to him without significance.
Compared to most lives, John Updike’s was golden from the get-go. The adored only son of a highly educated mother (who herself wrote fiction, some of it eventually published in the New Yorker), the star student of Shillington, Pa.’s high school, recipient of a scholarship to Harvard, an invaluable contributor to the Harvard Lampoon (“seven cover illustrations, more than a hundred cartoons and drawings, sixty poems, and twenty-five prose pieces”), winner of a year’s fellowship to Oxford University’s Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, a staff writer for the New Yorker in his early 20s, and then a successful and wealthy novelist for the next 50 years, as well as an underrated poet and a superb reviewer of books and art exhibitions, Updike could apparently do no wrong.
Except, of course, in his private life. Just before his senior year at Harvard, Updike married an intelligent and quietly attractive Radcliffe student named Mary Pennington.
To read George Eliot attentively is to become aware how little one knows about her. It is also to become aware of the credulity, not very creditable to one’s insight, with which, half consciously and partly maliciously, one had accepted the late Victorian version of a deluded woman who held phantom sway over subjects even more deluded than herself. At what moment and by what means her spell was broken it is difficult to ascertain. Some people attribute it to the publication of herLife. Perhaps George Meredith, with his phrase about the “mercurial little showman” and the “errant woman” on the daïs, gave point and poison to the arrows of thousands incapable of aiming them so accurately, but delighted to let fly. She became one of the butts for youth to laugh at, the convenient symbol of a group of serious people who were all guilty of the same idolatry and could be dismissed with the same scorn. Lord Acton had said that she was greater than Dante; Herbert Spencer exempted her novels, as if they were not novels, when he banned all fiction from the London Library. She was the pride and paragon of her sex. Moreover, her private record was not more alluring than her public. Asked to describe an afternoon at the Priory, the story-teller always intimated that the memory of those serious Sunday afternoons had come to tickle his sense of humour. He had been so much alarmed by the grave lady in her low chair; he had been so anxious to say the intelligent thing. Certainly, the talk had been very serious, as a note in the fine clear hand of the great novelist bore witness.
A paradox pervades the Sicilian citrus groves and gardens. The scent is intoxicating but too often the fruit lies rotten on the ground, unwanted and worthless. In this maddening, singular island, where they say the sun drives you crazy and the moon makes you sad, the irony is your breakfast orange juice will most likely be diluted, long-life concentrate from oranges grown in Brazil.
Helena Attlee acknowledges the complexities of international trade in The Land Where Lemons Grow: The story of Italy and its citrus fruit, her fascinating grand tour of the citrus-growing regions of Italy. Her focus is less on global agro-economics than on the history of the fruit in its adopted home, and the migration of waves of citrons, sour oranges, lemons, sweet oranges and mandarins to the welcoming soil of Mediterranean Europe.
A distinguished garden writer, Attlee fell under the spell of citrus over ten years ago and the book, like the eleventh labour of Hercules to steal the golden fruit of the Hesperides, is the result. She writes with great lucidity, charm and gentle humour, and wears her considerable learning lightly.