Wednesday, October 31, 2007


And while we're treating the neighborhood kids to junk food, we can also feed some kids who really need food and test our vocabularies at the same time. Go to FreeRice and see how you score while getting various companies to donate rice through the United Nations. I scored a 46 myself.

Hat tip Books and Coffee via Dewey.

Nevermore! (Poe's The Raven for Halloween)

This Halloween I thought we could do with a little classic - the original American horror writer, Edgar Allen Poe. You can read The Raven below or listen to Garrison Keillor read it, in fact, listen to his whole Halloween show, or watch the Vincent Price video at the bottom of the Wikipedia link, or the Simpson's episode. Any way you get your dose, it's great fun. This is the original version with the original spelling.

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
"'Tis some visiter," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door --
Only this, and nothing more."
Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; -- vainly I had tried to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow -- sorrow for the lost Lenore --
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore --
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me -- filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
"'Tis some visiter entreating entrance at my chamber door --
Some late visiter entreating entrance at my chamber door; --
This it is, and nothing more."
Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
"Sir," said I, "or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you " -- here I opened wide the door; ----
Darkness there and nothing more.
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the darkness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, "Lenore!"
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, "Lenore!" --
Merely this, and nothing more.

Then into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon I heard again a tapping somewhat louder than before.
"Surely," said I, "surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore --
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;--
'Tis the wind and nothing more!"
Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not an instant stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door --
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door --
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
"Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou," I said, "art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the Nightly shore --
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!"
Quoth the raven "Nevermore."
Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning -- little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no sublunary being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door --
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as "Nevermore."

But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered -- not a feather then he fluttered --
Till I scarcely more than muttered "Other friends have flown before --
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before."
Quoth the raven "Nevermore."
Wondering at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
"Doubtless," said I, "what it utters is its only stock and store
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster so when Hope he would adjure --
Stern Despair returned, instead of the sweet Hope he dared adjure --
That sad answer, "Never -- nevermore."
But the raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore --
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking "Nevermore."
This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion's velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o'er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o'er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Angels whose faint foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
"Wretch," I cried, "thy God hath lent thee -- by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite -- respite and nepenthe, from thy memories of Lenore;
Let me quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!"
Quoth the raven "Nevermore."
"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil! -- prophet still, if bird or devil! --
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted --
On this home by Horror haunted -- tell me truly, I implore --
Is there -- is there balm in Gilead? -- tell me -- tell me, I implore!"
Quoth the raven "Nevermore."
"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil -- prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us -- by that God we both adore --
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore --
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore."
Quoth the raven "Nevermore."
"Be that word our sign in parting, bird or fiend!" I shrieked, upstarting --
"Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken! -- quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!"
Quoth the raven "Nevermore."
And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted -- nevermore!

Happy Halloween.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Humor through punctuation (!)

There is a blog entirely devoted to bad punctuation - The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks. I think it is delightful and if you think so too you will probably also enjoy The Deluxe Transitive Vampire - The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed.

Hat tip: Sheila (natch).

Vibrate those pounds away!

Remember those late night television ads for weight loss machines - melt you fat away! Today's Science Times includes an absurd front page article about a study to decrease body fat and build bone density in mice by having them stand on a vibrating platform for 15 minutes each day. Front page, I suppose, because it's about weight loss. Evidently there are stem cells in bone marrow that have the potential to become fat or bone and without receiving a certain kind of signal, as could be happening in osteoporosis, they tend to produce less bone and more fat.
Dr. Rubin had an idea. "We thought, Wait a second, " he said. "If we are mechanically stimulating cells to form bone, what isn't happening? We thought maybe these bone progenitor cells are driving down a decision path. Maybe they are not becoming fat cells."

He paid a visit to Jeffrey E. Pessin, a diabetes expert at Stony Brook, and presented his hypothesis. Dr. Pessin laughed uproariously. He "almost kicked me out of his office," as Dr. Rubin put it.

But when Dr. Rubin decided to go ahead anyway, Dr. Pessin joined in . Their hope was to see a small effect on body fat after the mice stood on the platforms 15 minutes a day, 5 days a week, for 15 weeks. Dr. Rubin was stunned by the 27 percent reduction.

"Talk about your jaw dropping...."

Yeah. Mine did. Especially when they spoke of a clinical trial with 200 elderly adults in assisted living who will be herded onto this platform each day. I hope they take their teeth out. The article does quote an obesity researcher at Columbia as saying that the platform could feel like an earthquake to mice:
"they could be scared to death, which could affect the study data."
Maybe they should just show the elderly study subjects horror movies so they don't have to leave their chairs.

Our science dollars hard at work. How about exercise?

Monday, October 29, 2007

The beauty of numbers (The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt)

I have very particular ideas about proof. I believe that proofs should be beautiful and, to the extend that this is possible, concise. A beautiful proof should be as slender as one of Shelly's odes, and , like an ode, it should imply vastness. I tried to impress this upon Ramanujan. "A good proof," I told him, "must combines unexpectedness with inevitability and economy." There is no better example than Euclid's proof that there are infinite prime numbers - a proof I am going to walk you through now, just as I walked him through it so many years ago, not because you don't know it (I should hardly wish to insult you by implying such ignorance) but because I want to call attention to aspects of the proof of which your professors, in teaching it, may not have taken note.

In David Leavitt's The Indian Clerk the narrator's voice is that of a mathematics professor delivering an address at Harvard in 1936. The mathematician is G. H. Hardy, an actual historical figure, who Leavitt imagines remembering the story of bringing the self-taught Indian mathematical genius Ramanujan to Cambridge in 1914. This casts the reader in the role of a mathematics student, an interested insider. Hardy is a man who pretty much lives in the realm of abstract thought, and Leavitt is good at integrating his ideas with the events of the story. When he touches on the math, he makes us feel like we're hearing about math while really being very kind to the inumerate.

One thing I am enjoying in this story is that, though Hardy receives plenty of criticism for sheltering himself in abstract thought in lieu of involving himself in social life, in a life of bodily desire, in the world which goes to war in the course of this book one bright side of his obliviousness is how unprejudiced he seems to be. In a sea of white skin when Britain was still the Empire and dark skinned peoples a source of fascination at best and prejudice more usually, this mathematician loved this man for his mind, sought to develop his talents, ate dinner with him (at least as the story is told in this book). His does display some ignorance about his religious beliefs, his diet, and dress - but his interest in him relates to his ability. I think he would have taken the same liberty with a bright young coal miner in trying to take him from his life and develop his talents if he had discovered in him the same potential to solve the unsolved proofs of the day.

One aspect of the story that does not work for me, however, is Leavitt's having Hardy see and speak to the Ghost of his lover. It provides us a window on Hardy's less rational private self and Leavitt makes much of the rational, atheist Hardy seeing a ghost - he does develop the idea and I wouldn't be surprised if there ends up being more to it - but right now Gaye seems to pop up at times convenient for confessional narrative in a way that does not have me convinced.

Monkey Mondays

Today starts a regular series of simians on Mondays. They are such a window on us. What better way to start the week than with a cute primate. Please feel free to send me an email with a favorite monkey picture or video or a link to one for future "Monkey Mondays." Oh... and credit where credit is due for the name - thank you, Sheila!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Big 10,000! And recommendation request

At some point yesterday afternoon I received my 10,000th visit. I embarked on my blogging adventure to write more and broaden my community. I've certainly found community in abundance!

Thank you everyone who stops by and reads - faithfully or occasionally.

So readers, I'm in the mood for fun YA fantasy, does anyone have an opinion on Garth Nix's Sabriel or the Artemis Fowl series? Or want to suggest anything else? I've read the Bartemaeus and His Dark Materials trilogies. Thanks.

In pursuit of genius (Books - The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt)

I continuing to enjoy David Leavitt's The Indian Clerk.

So Hardy paces the carefully tended pathways of Trinity College, while Littlewood, in London, goes to the tea shop in South Kensington (he did not mention this to Hardy) where, on those occasions when both of them happen to be in London, he and Mrs. Chase make it their habit to meet. Anne travels up to London only when she absolutely must. She is a creature of the seashore, not the town. As she sits across a teapot and a plate of scones from Littlewood, brushing back her dark brown hair, grains of sand fall onto the table. She is in London only at the behest of her husband. She has left the children behind, in the care of a nanny. Chase tolerates his wife's relationships with Littlewood so long as she agrees to make herself available when his career, his stature as an eminent Harley Street practitioner, requires him to go out in public with a wife on his arm. Tonight it's some sort of charity ball. "I hardly know what to wear," she tells Littlewood, as the sand grains fall from her sleeve, her hem. He can see twinklings of mica in the folds of her ears. He loves this about her, the grit of her that sometimes, on his way back from Treen to Cambridge, he feels on his tongue, in his teeth.

I appreciate how Leavitt builds character from tangible details seamlessly interwoven with context. The grains of sand - lovely, not only as a detail of her but of him - his loving them. Although he is a mathematician like Hardy, Littlewood's character contrasts with Hardy's more distant nature completely:

When a mathematician works - when, as I think of it, he "goes into" work - he enters a world that, for all its abstraction, seems far more real to him than the world in which he eats and talks and sleeps. He needs no body there. The body, with its blandishments, is an impediment.... This was the world in which Ramanujan and I were happiest - a world as remote from religion, war, literature, sex, even philosophy, as it was from that cold room in which, for so many mornings, I drilled for the tripos under Webb. Since then, I have heard of mathematicians imprisoned because they were dissenters or pacifists, and then relishing the rare solitude that a gaol gave them. For them, a gaol was a respite from the vagaries of having to feed themselves and dress themselves and earn money and spend it; a respite, even, from life, which, for any true mathematician, is not the thing, but the ting that interferes.

A slate and some chalk. That's all you need. Not pianos or thimbles or nails or saucepans. Not sledgehammers. Certainly not Bibles. A slate and some chalk, and that world -the real world - is yours.
It the section I'm reading now. The Nevilles - a colleague of the two mathematicians and his wife, who aspires to be an "adventuress," go to India to convince Ramanujan to come to Cambridge. She writes letters to Hardy's sister about their travels in an effort to make herself like the adventuresses whose diaries she has read (many of these were published and the stories of these self-sufficient women served as sources of inspiration for women who were struggling to emancipate themselves. Leavitt seems to enjoy assuming these two contrasting voices - that of the corseted mathematician and budding adventuress-diarist. I am enjoying them as well.

Friday, October 26, 2007

An Inflorescence (A flowering of poetry every Friday - Dan Chiasson - lyrical odes for our day

In-flo-res-cence - from the Latin inflorescere - to begin to blossom. 1. the producing of blossoms; flowering; 2. the arrangement of flowers on a stem or axis; 3. a flower cluster on a common axis; 4. flowers collectively; 5. a solitary flower, regarded as a reduced cluster.

I feel a little unprepared for the inflorescence as this week has been all about my physiology midterm and the GRE I have to take today. Ugh. But I did fall over a fun volume of fairly recent poems by Dan Chiasson called The Afterlife of Objects, so I think I'll give you some of those. He is a New Englander and teaches at Wellsley College. Here's a terrific interview with him from Guernica. He seems at times almost apologetic about writing poetry:

Every poet wants to have that great, transcendent renunciatory power of Whitman, the access to other sites and other persons, that amplitude, that confidence and authority as a voice. Even the most narrowly private or confessional poets want that. 99% of them didn’t get it, and that’s roughly the percentage of poets in any given mode that don’t succeed, so I don’t think confessionalism offers any worse odds than any other mode
In his poem Your Stone the narrator prays to be made inanimate - is that confessional? When asked for what advice he would give a young poet:

Develop an effective camouflage. I think camouflage is important in establishing a talent and a sensibility that will be individual and different from the group. I’ve always avoided the tribal markers of being a poet.

The risk with camouflage is that when you’re not writing, the camouflage becomes the real thing, and then you think I’m just a phony, I’m just this person who gets to be a little sullen at Thanksgiving dinner or opt out of taking my kids to the playground. That’s what being a poet amounts to: being perceived as a poet, when in fact you are just this suburban voluptuary. This mere “guy.”

How to describe these poems... their tone is often dark, haunted, their subject matter is familiar and mundane - a salt dish, an aging relative, a peach tree, the objects in a storage locker - he mixes up-to-the-minute concerns with classical ones. Their rhythms are formal I can really feel them, but the life of the objects or ideas as imagined by Chiasson are freed up in a dream-like fashion - things don't have to behave the way they're supposed to but as I read them, I accept that they are that way.

I really admire Ward, - the feeling of isolation is redolent through the poems lean composition - the way it lies on the page - a narrow column - classical rhythms - in an iron hive/no drop/of water fell/more quietly than I/fell through/the elevator shaft -but the ways the lines are broken make me extra-conscious of them. Like the feeling of being made to listen to my own footsteps as I walk down the corridor of that hospital. The elevator shaft - like having been dropped into another world, Alice down the rabbit hole. And the disgust is palpable - people whose humanity has been replaced by something else. There is so much happening in this poem: utter reality and fantasy, present and past, memory and death and it reaches me with directness and simplicity. Sometimes he references other writers, Self Storage is slyly quoting Emma Lazarus, I think - "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses." With lady liberty as a widow now. Sometimes he imagines America as the storage bin, sometimes himself. What we inherit, what we keep. Are we richer for keeping these "treasures" or poorer?

Your Stone

Here's your stone he said what for I said for your girl he said
and left me alone in the bedroom strewn with punctured cans.

They bring the fire so close to their face I thought every time
the living room flashed and wild cries climbed to ecstatic silence.

Ecstatic silence: just yesterday alone in my study I heard
the neighbor's child practicing scales on a rented clarinet

just last night when you crying ended and you fell asleep
I prayed to be made inanimate, a hand-me-down mattress.

But tonight the little crystal called forgetfulness, the postures
of delight and appetite, and the beautiful girl said what's your name?


I came quietly where
my grandmother
was an insect

in an iron hive.
No drop
of water fell

more quietly than I
fell through
the elevator shaft.

Then, on the ward,
I walked along
a hallway of formaldehyde

and glass.
A woman bent
herself in half

to scratch her coal-
black swollen foot.
Christ, one man's

forehead shone
white and dewy, like
a dolphin's belly.

Maiden never was who heard
the cribs fall
silent where he daughters were,

whose husband, frozen
still, berated her
one long year from

a piss-soaked chair.
What is awareness
here, so late, so close to night?


Bring me your amateurish try
at taxidermy, fleur-de-lys

upholstered chair, flea-bitten oven mitt, replica Mars lander, old suit bad

choice, wrong turn.
Bring me your freak, your odd, your ugly

rug, dull knife, dull life. Threatening noise heard
over and over in your skull, a bell

how many thousand decibels
loud, how much distraction, sadness, everything

is safe with me and out of sight


America the widow
sorting through his drawer

of fisted socks. The ice shedding
itself inside the water glass.

The diagnosis. The dozen
childlike men begging for medication.

The monkey screaming behind
iron bars. Tender objects:

the dried corsage. America
a certain model

motorcycle, rare Beatles
butchered baby cover

safe, all safe,
all out of sight.


Are you the phone call
or the military

base, North Carolina
or Vermont, the rapist or my
aunt sent

far away for basic training,
or sergeant, mother's tears

or father's stern
order to shut up? The den

or the phone, the voice
or the street noise, or television's

usual banal exuberance? America
they wanted

her to marry him.


Of all things seen
beside the highway I

am most like you. The stories
of lunatics and pack rats

storing old newspapers
broken bottles

scribbles animal remains
are true. Also

the corpses. Also
the stolen stereo.

A priest stores
jeweled chalices in me, no questions asked.


O pension everyone
agreed upon.

O slave, sieve, place
to put the precious useless things.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

R. B. Kitaj - maverick colorist dies

I just found out at wood s lot (natch) that one of my very favorite painters has died - R. B. Kitaj. Here are the Guardian and Times and NY Times obituaries. When everyone was painting abstractions, he was painting figures and urban landscapes - magnificent clamors of color - he was an architect of dreams.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Who are our secret heroes now? (Books - 7000 Romain, Los Angeles 28 by Joan Didion)

The stories are endless, infinitely familiar, traded by the faithful like baseball cards, fondled until they fray around the edges and blur into the apocraphyl. There is the one about the barber, Eddie Alexander, who was paid handsomely to remain on "day and night standby" in case Hughes wanted a haircut. "Just checking, Eddie," Hughes once said when he called Alexander at two in the morning...

Why do we like these stories so? Why do we tell them over and over? Why have we made a folk hero of a man who is the antithesis of all our official heroes, a haunted millionaire out of the West, trailing a legend of desperation and power and white sneakers? But then we have always done that. Our favorite people and our favorite stories become so not by any inherent virtue, but because they illustrate something deep in the grain, something unadmitted. Shoeless Joe Jackson, Warren Gamaliel Harding, the Titanic: how the mighty are fallen. Charles Lindbergh, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Marilyn Monroe: the beautiful and damned. And Howard Hughes. That we have made a hero of Howard Hughes tells us something interesting about ourselves, something only dimly remembered, tell us that the secret point of money and power in America is neither the things that money can buy nor power for power's sake (Americans are uneasy with their possessions, guilty about power, all of which is difficult for Europeans to perceive because they are themselves so truly materialistic, so versed the the uses of power), but absolute personal freedom, mobility, privacy. It is the instinct which drove America to the Pacific, all through the nineteenth century, the desire to be able to find a restaurant open in case you want a sandwich, to be a free agent, live by one's own rules.

Of course we do not admit that. The instinct is socially suicidal, and because we recognize that this is so we have developed workable ways of saying one thing and believing quite another...There has always been that divergence between our official and our unofficial heroes. It is impossible to think of Howard Hughes without seeing the apparently bottomless gulf between what we say we want and what we do want, between what we officially admire and secretly desire, between, in the largest sense, the people we marry and the people we love. In a nation which increasingly appears to prize social virtues, Howard Hughes remains not merely antisocial but grandly, brilliantly, surpassingly, asocial. He is the last private man, the dream we no longer admit.
These paragraphs are from Joan Didion's insightful essay 7000 Romaine, Los Angeles 38, a 1967 riff on the American dream, private and public from Slouching Towards Bethlehem. As I read it tonight I wondered if we could say the same now. I think not. It seems to me that Americans today are openly materialistic in their aspirations, unashamed about power. I don't mean politically, I mean socially - we think in the language of power - in the office, in the 'hood, on the playground. Our sitcoms are about manipulating it successfully for sex or money, preferably both. Today we brag about our possessions, we rent stretch limos for high school proms. Today we openly admire the man who lives by his own rules - look at The Bourne Identity. We try to be that man every day. We each insulate ourselves in our own music. To make sure we have enough, we take 24,000 songs - just in case the other 23,999 don't please us at a given moment. Today we expect to be a free agent - to be served what we want when we want it, and to have it delivered.

What are we uneasy about today? Race. Expressing unpopular opinions, we are uneasy about not being thought nice by others. Not having what others have. Today we make no secret of admiring the billionaire in the bubble - we want to be him. If we could go wherever we want when we wanted, order the food we want and have it instantly, have the answers we want now, play the songs we want now, pay the prime rates we want now and never come out, we would never leave our cocoons. It hasn't always been like that.

So who are our heroes now? Folks love Jen Lo and Brangelina openly and the valiant firemen and brave Joes who jump onto the subways tracks are our sanctioned heroes, but who are our guilty secret heroes? Are we being served up so much instant gratification that we've stopped wanting any? Are we content going purchase to purchase? Our toys give us little mini-dreams to live off - people don't have to dream of going to the island - they do it on reality TV. If we're some jealous lunatic we can rant and rave on Jerry Springer and be icons of hysterical misery. We don't have to dream of being a star, we go on American Idol and we are one. Maybe our secret heroes are ordinary now?

Didion quotes Lionel Trilling writing of a "fatal separation between the ideas of our educated liberal class and the deep places of the imagination." Fatal to whom? If we are to have public and private realms then we are to have public and private dreams. The places of our deep imagination are one of the few sacred and quiet places we can still inhabit in the communication obsessed web we have woven. Occasionally great artists express something of value from these deep recesses and then we can admire their story or their dance and really learn something about ourselves. But I have no ambition to share all of my dreams. I may have a secret hero, but I'm not telling.

Current indulgence

Quangzhou is an oolong tea - once oxidized or fermented instead of twice like black teas. It ends up a yellow color in your cup and is known as "milky" oolong because it actually smells and tastes like milk, it even seems to have a creamy consistency even though it is made the same way any other tea is made, by soaking the leaves of the camellia sinensis plant in hot water. It's the current favorite around our place.

Story of the day

Sheila posts some of her own writing today...well she's always posting her own writing, but this is her WRITING... a story called Enter Sandman. It is a relentless tumble down the page (screen), head on over and read it.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A poet protests (erratum)

The wonderful Irish poet, Ciaran O'Driscoll, whose work I admire enough to post in an inflorescence (my weekly Friday poetry posting), was not lucky enough to have my admiration match my typing skills. I left out a line. So I've corrected it and now post the complete poem here.

The Uncompleted Park

Someone who dumped a mattress over the wall
provided me with a soft landing
in what a gate crested with flourishes
of iron penmanship, its middle dangling
a heavy chain and lock
like well-hung genitals, defined as park
and my eye defined as uncompleted.

Saplings were trained to posts
by wire in shoes of a rubber hose,
but paving stones were told apart by moss.
There was no seat, sculpture or fountain yet,
only a wild grass tame enough to let
the wild carrot's occasional crown and stalk
stand out and indicate the depth of space.

Between the entrance and the bank
of the old railway, I collected leaves
to take home and identify in a book,
and now I know it was the wind
switching a popular from green to silver
brought to my notice the uncompleted park
on the city's penny-pinched long finger.

Perchance to dream

Today's Science Times is entirely devoted to sleep. I wish I could say the same. Benedict Carey's article discusses the hypothesized role of sleep in the consolidation and organization of memories. The hippocampus - a structure that helps to form new memories - is thought to contain a map-like representation of physical space. And the pattern of activity when rats first learn to move through a maze is repeated the following night when, this scientist presumes, they were consolidating the memory of that movement:
Computers record the cells' firing in real time and can broadcast it over speakers. "I would listen to this background music of the brain sometimes when the animals were asleep, and I started hearing this section that sounded very much like the pattern when the animals were in the maze..."

The article does point out that other scientists contest this interpretation of events, as nothing about the research demonstrates that the brain is not performing this process when awake.

Imagine that

Varsity Aesthete emailed me about a place called Philoctetes here in NYC. I had never heard of it but apparently they explore imagination and creativity via a multidisciplinary approach. Thanks, VA. They are having an event this Thursday evening (check the above link for details) about hyper and hypographia - the first is when you can't stop writing and the second is when you can't start (familiarly known as writer's block). Guests including among others a neurologist, an architect and the novelist Jonathan Lethem. So if you're in the neighborhood check them out; I will be studying for an exam on Friday so you won't find me there, but if you go let me know what they're like.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The secrets of Cambridge intellectuals (Books - The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt)

Although I'm less than 100 pages in, I'm really enjoying David Leavitt's The Indian Clerk. Set in Cambridge, in the 1910s, one of its central characters, the mathematician G. H. Hardy, is a member of the Apostles - a secret society (which really existed, I believe Virginia Woolf's brother Thoby Stephen was a member) other members included Lytton Strachey, G. E. Moore, Rupert Brooke, John Maynard Keynes, and Bertrand Russell. Leavitt has a good time combining history and imagination in creating a meeting of the Apostles.

Here's an excerpt from earlier in the book when Hardy remembers first confronting one of the ultimate philosophical questions:
The Cranleigh vicar had taken him for a walk - at his mother's request, because he seemed not to be paying attention at church. It was foggy out; now he can imagine the gears shifting in the vicar's brain as he landed upon the idea of using the fog to explain faith. The fog, and something the boy would like. A kite.

"If you fly a kite in the fog, you cannot see the kite flying. Still, you feel the tug of the string."

"But in the fog," Harold said, "there is not wind. So how could you fly a kite?"

The vicar moved slightly ahead. In the humid stillness, his torso blurred and wavered like a ghost's. It was true, there was not a touch of wind.

"I use an analogy," he said. "You are, I trust, familiar with the concept."

Harold did not answer. He hoped the vicare would mistake his silence for pious contemplation, when in fact the young man had just eradicated any last shred of faith that the boy held. For the facts of nature could not be denied. In fog there was no wind. No kite could fly.

They returned to his house. His sister, Gertrude, was sitting in the drawing room, practicing reading. She had only had the glass eye a month.

Mrs. Hardy made tea for the vicar, who was perhaps twenty-five, with black hair and thin fingers. "As I have been trying to explain to your son," the vicar said, "belief must be cultivated as tenaciously as any science. We must not allow ourselves to be reasoned out of it. Nature is part of God's miracle, and when we explore her domain, it must be with the intention of better comprehending His glory."

"Harold is very good at mathematics," his mother said. "At three he could already write figures into the millions."

"To calculate the magnitude of God's glory, or the intensity of hell's agonies, one must write out figures far larger than that."

"How large?" Harold asked.

"Larger than you could work out in a million lifetimes."

"That's not very large, mathematically speaking," Harold said. "Nothing's very large, when you consider infinity."

The vicar helped himself to some cake. Despite his emaciated figure, he ate with relish, making Mrs. Hardy wonder if he had a tapeworm.

"Your child is gifted," he said, once he had swallowed. "He is also impudent." Then he turned to Harold and said, "God is infinity."

Marvelous- characters are clearly drawn through well chosen details, we are shown, not told, and there is a pall of humor cast over the scene coming from the retrospective point-of-view from which it was written. Maybe it's just the time period and setting, but the book is evoking E. M. Forster for me.

Other worlds

Check out the fascinating creations of Michiko Hoshino here and here ( I especially loved Libarary, the Babel-Lost ed at the second link) and a wonderful blog I had never encountered before Feuilleton.

Hat tip: wood s lot

Sunday, October 21, 2007

A little splurge

After about 10 hours of studying yesterday and 7 today I rewarded myself with a biography of Thomas Jefferson American Sphinx recommended by Sheila, Ghost Map - Steven Johnson's recent book about the London Cholera outbreak, and a collection of short stories The Dead Fish Museum by Charles D'Ambrosio both of which I read about at The Elegant Variation.

and a little:

Rowling outs Dumbledore

Dumbledore was gay! And remember, you read it here first. Get the details here. What I actually enjoyed about this little article is learning something about Rowling's process for creating Harry Potter other than the fact that she was on welfare and is now wealthy beyond belief. She's not just a plotter, she develops her characters by imagining them outside the events of her novel - a natural process for many a writer, actor, or anyone who creates characters, but not everyone does it. And it might explain his love for accessories.

A series of photographs by Nicholas Hughes called Darkness Visible can be seen over at Lens Culture. Perfect for an evening in late October.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Odds and Ends - helices and mysteries

Dewey is hosting a 24-hour read-a-thon today. I'm sorry I can't join them but I'll be studying all day so that'll be a read-a-thon of sorts. Go team go.

wood s lot has an image of a spiral staircase today which is straight out of a dream - gorgeous. That is not it above - that's a sculpture of the DNA molecule at the Centre for Life in Newcastle, which brings me to my next tidbit... The ragazzo had to go to a conference early this morning, so I was up with the birds and listened to some of On the Media, a program I like on NPR which is on rather early. They had a segment on a book that won't be out until next year but sounds fascinating - science and technology writer David Ewing is coming out with a book called Experimental Man, which is about a burgeoning industry - genetic tests marketed directly to the "health consumer," as they are now called. And his own experience gathering this information about himself. In it he ponders the consequences of this development, the wisdom of sidestepping a doctor - what can one do with this information? How poorly prepared many doctors are to deal with their patients having the information. Is its availability dangerous? Will future presidential candidates have to hire interns to pick up all the possible DNA they've left behind at rallies or interviews so some genetic vigilante won't send off for an analysis and report the condition of their genes on NPR? Here is a link to his website.

Finally, I've begun reading David Leavitt's The Indian Clerk. Set at Cambridge in the early 20th Century, it is a fictionalized version of the friendship between G. H. Hardy, the British mathematician and Ramanujan - the Indian clerk of the title - who it turns out is a self-taught mathematical genius. David Leavitt has so far fashioned a convincing narrative voice for Hardy and creates the atmosphere of combined erudition and provincialism that characterizes many university towns - especially Cambridge and Oxford, it seems, as it is so often the subject of novels and films. I've always thought the Inspector Morse mysteries produced for BBC around 15 or 20 years ago and set in Oxford really got at that. I love those mysteries. Great for a stay-at-home Saturday dinner with a bottle of wine.

And now, I had better study for my midterm.

Friday, October 19, 2007

An Inflorescence (A flowering of poetry every Friday - Wislawa Szymborska - how to survive the astonishment of the world and keep on smiling)

In-flo-res-cence - from the Latin inflorescere - to begin to blossom. 1. the producing of blossoms; flowering; 2. the arrangement of flowers on a stem or axis; 3. a flower cluster on a common axis; 4. flowers collectively; 5. a solitary flower, regarded as a reduced cluster.

Wislawa Szymborska was born in 1923 in Bnin, Poland and has lived in Krakow since 1931. She worked on the railroad during the Nazi occupation. Her first book, slated for publication in 1949, did not meet the standards of the socialist government so she was not published until the late 1950s. She has written about 250 poems, a small body of work some say, but she says she "revises and revises and revises." Her poems are characterized by playful wittiness and open, unambiguous diction, many of them convey a moral or at least an opinion. She won the Nobel Prize in 1996. And in her address said:
Poets, if they're genuine, must also keep repeating, "I don't know." Each poem marks an effort to answer this statement, but as soon as the final period hits the page, the poet begins to hesitate, starts to realize that this particular answer was pure makeshift, absolutely inadequate. So poets keep on trying and sooner or later the consecutive results of their self-dissatisfaction are clipped together with a giant paperclip by literary historians and called their "oeuvres."


The world - whatever we might think when we're terrified by its vastness and our own impotence or when we're embittered by its indifference to individual suffering, or people, animals and perhaps even plants (for why are we so sure that plants feel no pain?); whatever we might think of its expanses pierced by the rays of stars surrounded by planets we've just begun to discover, planets already dead, still dead, we just don't know; whatever we might think of this measureless theater to which we've got reserved tickets, but tickets whose life span is laughably short, bounded as it is by two arbitrary dates; whatever else we might think of this world - it is astonishing.


Granted, in daily speech, where we don't stop to consider every word, we all use phrases such as "the ordinary world," "ordinary life," "the ordinary course of events." But in the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not any one's existence in this world.

I just love that theater image.

I've selected the poems below from Wislawa Szymborska Poems New and Collected, translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh. Her full Nobel address is in it as well.

If some of the lines are covered over by my side bar, you can read this entry uninterrupted on my feed by clicking the orange logo at the bottom of my side bar that says "subscribe in a reader."

I Am Too Close...

I am too close for him to dream of me.
I don't flutter over him, don't flee him
beneath the roots of trees. I am too close.
The caught fish doesn't sing with my voice.
The ring doesn't roll from my finger.
I am too close. The great house is on fire
without me calling for help. Too close
for one of my hairs to turn into the rope
of the alarm bell. Too close to enter
as the guest before whom walls retreat.
I'll never die again so lightly,
so far beyond my body, so unknowingly
as I did once in his dream. I am too close,
too close, I hear the word hiss
and see its glistening scales as I lie motionless
in his embrace. He's sleeping,
more accessible at this moment to an usherette
he saw once in a traveling circus with one lion,
than to me, who lies at his side.
A valley now grows within him for her,
rusty-leaved, with a snowcapped mountain at one end
rising in the azure air. I am too close
to fall from that sky like a gift from heaven.
My cry could only waken him. And what
a poor gift: I, confined to my own form,
when I used to be a birch, a lizard
shedding times and satin skins
in many shimmering hues. And I possessed
the gift of vanishing before astonished eyes,
which is the riches of all. I am too close,
too close for him to dream of me.
I slip my arm from underneath his sleeping head -
it's numb, swarming with imaginary pins.
A host of fallen angels perches on each tip,
waiting to be counted.

Theatre Impressions
For me the tragedy's most important act is the sixth:
the raising of the dead from the stage's battlegrounds,
the straightening of wigs and fancy gowns,
removing knives from stricken breasts,
taking nooses from lifeless necks,
lining up among the living
to face the audience.

The bows, both solo and ensemble -
the pale hand on the wounded heart,
the curtsies of the hapless suicide,
the bobbing of the chopped-off head.

The bows in pairs -
rage extends its arm to meekness,
the victim's eyes smile at the torturer,
the rebel indulgently walks beside the tyrant.

Eternity trampled by the golden slipper's toe.
Redeeming values swept aside with the swish of a
wide brimmed hat.
The unrepentant urge to start all over tomorrow.

Now enter, single file, the hosts who died early on,
in Acts 3 and 4, or between scenes.
The miraculous return of all those lost without a trace.

The thought that they've been waiting patiently offstage
without taking off their makeup
or their costumes
moves me more than all the tragedy's tirades.

But the curtain's fall is the most uplifting part,
the things you see before it hits the floor:
here one hand quickly reaches for a flower,
there another hand picks up a fallen sword.
Only then, one last, unseen hand
does its duty
and grabs me by the throat.

In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself
The buzzard never says it is to blame.
The panther wouldn't know what scruples mean.
When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame.
If snakes had hands, they'd claim their hands were clean.

A jackal doesn't understand remorse.
Lions and lice don't waver in their course.
Why should they, when they know they're right?

Though hearts of killer whales may weigh a ton,
in every other way they're light.

On this third planet of the sun
among the signs of bestiality
a clear conscience is Number One.

See how efficient it still is,
how it keeps itself in shape -
our century's hatred.
How easily it vaults the tallest obstacles.
How rapidly it pounces, tracks us down.

It's not like other feelings.
At once both older and younger.
It gives birth itself to the reasons
that give it life.
When it sleeps, it's never eternal rest.
And sleeplessness won't sap its strength; it feeds it.

One religion or another -
whatever gets it ready, in position.
One fatherland or another -
whatever helps it get a running start.
Justice also works well at the outset
until hate gets its own momentum going.
Hatred. Hatred.
Its face twisted in a grimace
of erotic ecstasy.

Oh these other feelings,
listless weaklings.
Since when does brotherhood
draw crowds?
Has compassion
ever finished first?
Does doubt ever really rouse the rabble?
Only hatred has just what it takes.

Gifted, diligent, hardworking.
Need we mention all the songs it has composed?
All the pages it has added to our history books?
All the human carpets it has spread
over countless city squares and football fields?

Let's face it:
it knows how to make beauty.
The splendid fire-glow in midnight skies.
Magnificent bursting bombs in rosy dawns.
You can't deny the inspiring pathos of ruins
and a certain bawdy humor to be found
in the sturdy column jutting from their midst.

Hatred is a master of contrast -
between explosions and dead quiet,
red blood and white snow.
Above all, it never tires
of its leitmotif - the impeccable executioner
towering over its soiled victim.

It's always ready for new challenges.
If it has to wait awhile, it will.
They say it's blind. Blind?
It has a sniper's keen sight
and gazes unflinchingly at the future
as only it can.

If there are angels,
I doubt they read
our novels
concerning thwarted hopes.

I'm afraid, alas,
they never touch the poems
that bear our grudges against the world.

The rantings and railings
of our plays
must drive them, I suspect,
to distraction.

Off duty, between angelic -
i.e. inhuman - occupations,
they watch instead
our slapstick
from the age of silent film.

To our dirge wailers,
garment renders,
and teeth gnashers,
they prefer, I suppose,
that poor devil
who grabs the drowning man by his toupee
or, starving, devours his own shoelaces
with gusto.

From the waist up, starch and aspirations;
below, a startled mouse
runs down his trousers.
I'm sure
that's what they call real entertainment.

A crazy chase in circles
ends up pursuing the pursuer.
The light at the end of the tunnel
turns out to be a tiger's eye.
A hundred disasters
mean a hundred comic somersaults
turned over a hundred abysses.

If there are angels,
they must, I hope,
find this convincing,
this merriment dangling from terror,
not even crying Save me Save me
since all of this takes place in silence.

I can even imagine
that they clap their wings
and tears run from their eyes
from laughter, if nothing else.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Beautiful connections (Books - Proust was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer)

This day was sheer hell, remind me - why did I want to go to graduate school? - so it was nice to end it up with the final chapters of Jonah Lehrer's Proust was a Neuroscientist. The penultimate was a lucid analysis of Virginia's Woolf's artistic goal of rendering the experience of our consciousness flesh, and the final a passionate appeal for if not a reconciliation of science and art an acknowledgment that they each have something to contribute to our understanding of the world and our experience of it.

I last wrote on the Escoffier and Proust chapters. The will be my final post on this compact but meaningful volume, so this entry along with this, this, this, and this constitute my "review," if you like.

The chapter on Cezanne explores how we see, but more than that, I felt Lehrer got at something about how the way we see is inextricably coupled with the way we perceive truth. Vision is far from a direct rendering of what is around us in the world. Our attention already limits the amount of information that gets into the system and there are multiple steps from retina, the various levels of the visual system, association areas of the brain, and finally the way that that information is organized as a perception or as Jonah Lehrer puts it:
The shocking fact is that sight is like art. What we see is not real. It has been bent to fit our canvas, which is the brain. When we open our eyes, we enter an illusory world, a scene broken apart by the retina and re-created by the cortex. Just as a painter interprets a picture, we interpret our sensations.

But despite this fact, vision feels like the truth. And there were two moments in this chapter - where Lehrer cited the reaction of the press to Cezanne's work as being:
"of no interest except for the student of pathology and the speicalist in abnormality." Cezanne, the critics declared, was literally insane.
And a second discussing Baudelaire's 1859 invective against the photograph:
It's accuracy, he said, is deceptive, nothing more than phony simulacra of what was really out there. The photographer was even - and Baudelaire only used this insult in matters of grave import - a materialist.... Baudelaire wanted the modern artist to describe everything that the photograph ignored: "the transient, the fleeting, the contingent."

The passion of their reactions reveals the investment they have placed in the evidence given them by their eyes, yet while critics of paintings claim to see for all they really see only for themselves:
No matter how precise our neronal maps become, they will never solve the question of what we actually see, for sight is a private phenomenon.

This chapter is an excellent and fresh discussion on perception - it's hard to tell where the art ends and the science begins.

The chapter on Stravinsky was my least favorite. I'm probably limited by the fact that I worked in music and that I've had an obsession on the birth of modernism for years and have read so many renditions of that first night of The Rite of Spring, that the sensation of it is now lost on me. I also think that, despite his wealth of talents - Lehrer writes about food so that you can taste it, his literary observations are eloquent and display erudition, and he generally puts scientific concepts on the page in lucid and even exciting prose - his writing on music is less original. Music is an abstract medium and it remained abstract in this chapter. But this didn't limit my enjoyment of the book as a whole and he does make a beautiful connection between the self-modifying abilities of our auditory system and Bach's music that I will allow you to enjoy for yourself.

In contrast, the next chapter on Gertrude Stein gave me new insight into this complex writer's work. I don't think I ever understood what her more difficult works were doing until I read this chapter. Lehrer elegantly relates her experimental literature to the hidden rules of language that we ingest as infants so that we become able to generate our own meaning through infinite combinations of the words we acquire, and further how Noam Chomsky illuminated the mechanisms behind this acquisition. It's a beautiful chapter with some wonderful writing about the James brothers - Henry the novelist and William the psychologist.

Finally, he explores the concept of self metaphysically as well as neuroscientifically through the work of Virginia Woolf. I really enjoyed his connection between the concept of attention as it is studied in neuroscience and Virginia Woolf's conjuring of it through her narrative stream, which meant to evoke the experience of consciousness. She is one of my favorite writers and I think she would be pleased to read how well her literary mission has stood up to the maturing of our scientific knowledge!

The coda is an encomium for Ian McEwan's Saturday by way of a plea for the meeting of scientific and artistic minds. One could dip into these chapters with pleasure and try to get away with experiencing the book as an intellectual frivolity. A scientist could put it down before the final chapter and satisfy her curiosity about a writer she's not thought about since college, even smile about the connection that's made to something familiar. An artist could do some intellectual slumming and pick up a thing or two about the visual cortex. Any reader will indeed go away saying - what a clever boy is Jonah Lehrer. But there seems to be a mission behind the writing down of these connections and Lehrer ends his book by laying it out passionately and directly. It sends the chapters home and, since I share his passion for the way the sciences and the arts connect, it made me happy.

Happy Birthday Monty

There is a Montgomery Clift blog-a-thon today over at Film Experience blog to commemorate his birthday. I don't have time to write a real post today but if you've never seen him at Judgement at Nuremberg or A Place in the Sun - or if you are interested in soul opening performances - he was a walking wound. Check out Sheila's contribution to the thon here.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

You oughta be in pictures...

Hmm. I've just noticed that I posted a picture of a primate last Tuesday too . I think I feel a series coming on...."Cute Primate Tuesdays," "Monkey see..," ....any ideas for a clever name?

Cost benefits analysis of gossip versus hard cold facts

John Tierney wrote a cute piece for today's Science Times about research on the power of gossip. In a lab-engineered gambling game, either facts or gossip were given to players and it was found that gossip encouraged reciprocity between players - they helped each other out. However when both facts (the record of how the other player had actually played previously) and gossip (negative in one round and positive in the other) were given:
On average, cooperation increased by about 20 percent if the gossip was good, and fell by 20 percent if the gossip was negative.

Now, you might think the gossip mattered just in borderline cases - when the partner had a mixed record...but even when a player saw his partner had a record of consistent meanness, he could be swayed by positive gossip to reward the partner anyway. Or withhold help from a perfectly nice partner just on the basis of malicious buzz.

The experimenters at the Max Planck Institute conclude that "we are just more adapted to listen to other information than to observe people, because most of the time we're not able to observe how other people are behaving. Thus we might believe we have missed something."

I wonder, might it be that it is easier to listen to gossip than it is to interpret behavior? I would like to see if the forms in which this information was given were balanced for the kind of effort we must expend to use them. That is, if I were given the choice of interpreting a page of statistics stating the actual record of the other player versus just hanging out and listening to what others have to say about him. It's hard to convince smart people not to follow stock tips rather than read financial reports and "do their homework," and that's when there is a lot of money on the line. So what are people going to do in a game when a lab has given them 10 Euros to play with?

It's hard work to figure out what motivates others and even after doing it, we could be wrong. It would not be the first time in social psychology that we resort to heuristics (cognitive short cuts). So our choices are - 1) we could not listen, be a social outcast be right, and win some money (everyone who has ever gone to grade school knows how bad it can be to be right), 2) we could not listen, be a social pariah, be wrong, and loose money (unpopular and a loser - the worst choice), 3) we could listen, be a member of the group, be wrong, and loose some money (but we still have our friends and they can cheer us up), or 4) we could listen, be a member of the group, and win (the drinks are on me - the result: love and money). You choose - why do they experimenters think that listening to "gossip" is irrational?

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Answers - at last!

Edge invited leading psychologists, physicists, biologists, economists (and other ists) and even a couple of business people, writers and other riff-raff to submit their their formulae for the 21st century. They vary from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Samuel Barondes, Neurobiologist and Psychiatrist: Life = Stories

Ernst Poepple, neuroscientist: A=A, visit the link for clarification

Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic has computed the number of civilizations in our galaxy as 3.35, he gives no error rate nor does he offer any description of what .35 of a civilization might look like.

Neil Shubin, paleontologist: (Optimism x Perseverance) -Failure = Scientific Progress

Here are two more- visit the link for all the rest, it's a lot of fun.

How to get your child to eat vegeteables

For a continuation of today's culinary theme (see below) head over to New York Daily Photo today for purple cauliflower and other evidence of the lushness of the Union Square greenmarket. A great alternative to Times Square for your next visit to New York. If your child won't eat anything green you could always put veggies that look like they've been dipped in finger paints on the menu and see if that will sway them.

Eat, think, man, woman, and neuroscience (Books - Proust was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer)

I don't know about you, but when I was in elementary school science class and learned about the senses, I learned that we could distinguish four tastes - sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. But when teaching Psych 101 students last year my text book spoke of the fifth taste, something I had since learned because of my love for Japanese cuisine - it's the taste of meat broth, of mushrooms, of cheese - it's umami and is the Japanese word for delicious. It is due to our tongue's response to L-glutamate, one of the amino acids necessary to build the proteins we are are made from . Jonah Lehrer tells us in his chapter on Auguste Escoffier and taste:
These two separate discoveries of umami receptors on the tongue demonstrated once and for all that umami is not a figment of a hedonist's imagination. We actually have a sense that responds only to veal stock, steak, and dashi. Furthermore, as Ikeda insisted, the tongue uses the taste of umami as its definition of deliciousness. Unlike the tastes of sweet, sour, bitter, and salty, which are sensed realtive to one another (this is why a touch of salt is always added to chocolate, and why melon is gussied up with ham), umami is sensed all by itself. It is that important.

This, of course, is perfectly logical. Why wouldn't we have a specific taste for protein? We love the flavor of denatured protein because, being protein and water ourselves, we need it. Our human body produces more than forty grams of glutamate a day, so we constantly crave an amino acid refill. (Species that are naturally vegetarian find the taste of umami repellent. Unfortunately for vegans, humans are omnivores.) In fact, we are trained from birth to savor umami: breat milk has ten times more glutamate than cow milk. The tongue loves what the body needs.
In twenty pages Lehrer manages to weave together a discussion of the binding problem (how we keep together information from our separate senses to construct one percept, i.e. if in the middle of a conversation, a red car drives down the street, how do we know to put the sound of the tires against the pavement together with the car and not the speaker?), - the influence of belief on the experiences of the senses, and the "ghost in the machine" phenomenon. This is amidst drool-worthy descriptions of preparing food.
Escoffier lectured cooks on the importance of extracting flavor from bones: "Indeed, sotck is everything in cooking. Without it, nothing can be done. If one's stock is good, what remains of the work is easy; if, on the other hand, it is bad or merely mediocre, it is quite hopeless to expect anything approaching a satisfactory meal." What every other chef was throwing away - the scraps of tendon and oxtail, the tops of celery, the ends of onion, and the irregular corners of carrot - Escoffier was simmering into sublimity...

...Deglazing was the secret of Escoffier's success. The process itself is extremely simple: a piece of meat is cooked at a very high temperature - to produce a nice seared Maillard crust, a cross-linking and caramelizing of amino acids - and then a liquid, such as a rich veal stock, is added. As the liquid evaporates, it loosens the fronde, the burned bits of protein stuck to the bottom of the pan (deglazing also makes life easier for the dishwasher). The dissolved fronde is what gives Escoffier's sauces their divine depth; it's what makes boef bourguignon, bourguignon. A little butter is added for varnish, and, voila, the sauce is complet.

Lehrer writes passionately, eloquently when he writes about food. He mixes his discussions of biochemistry and cognitive science so that they blend together seamlessly with the other ingredients. What you taste is one delicious sauce, not a hodgepodge of ingredients. It makes this chapter a particular pleasure to read. If he can cook as well as he can write about food, I wouldn't mind eating dinner at his house.

This chapter together with the following one, pairing Proust and the famous madeleine unlocking his childhood memories made me think how apt a metaphor cooking is for neuroscience. Why would a bunch a browned and boiled bones and vegetable scraps form a good soup? Why would flour stuck together with fat and sweetened with sugar coalesce into something that is not just delicious but comforting, and in Proust's case revelatory? Nothing about the flour in its paper sack or the greasy butter would hint at the pleasure that's to come out of the oven. Studying ourselves as creatures is similar - whether you delve into our molecular structure, how we perceive the warmth of water, or how we affect physical and chemical changes around the microscopic spaces between our nerve cells to form impressions of the past that, as Lehrer discusses in this chapter, are both enduring and ephemeral - how does a thinking, moving, self emanate from this collection of ingredients to read, eat soup, vote red or blue, or to be loved?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

We have evolved to never stop evolving - (Books - Proust was a Neuroscientist - Jonah Lehrer)

In the next chapter of Proust was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer marries George Eliot and the notion of free will. Eliot lived in a time when many reveled in science's empiricism - its ability to hand down laws that determined our nature. Lehrer cites Pierre-Simon Laplace whose aim it was to create a "social physics," in which:
...everything was merely matter, and matter obeyed a short list of cosmic laws (like gravity and inertia), knowing the laws meant knowing everything about everything. All you had to dop was cranki the equiations and decipher the results. Man would finally see himself for "the automaton that he is." Free will, like God, would become an illusion, and we would see that our lives are really as predictable as the planetary orbits. As Laplace wrote, "We must...imagine the present state of the universe as the effect of it sprior state and as the cause of the state that will follow it. Freedom has no place here."

But Eliot rebelled against the notion that behavior was determined. She felt her experience belied it and she set out to create a body of fiction that:
give[s] us a vision of ourselves "more sure than shifting theory." While scientists were searching for our biological constrainst - they assumed we were prisoners of our hereditary enheritances - Eliot's art argues that the mind was "not cut in marble." She believed that the most essential element of human nature was its malleability, the way each of us can "will ourselves to change." No matter how many mechanisms science uncovered, our freedom would remain.

Eliot read the works of Darwin who saw purpose in our disorder and she wrote in her diary:
"So the world gets on step by step towards brave clearness and honest! But to me the Development theory [Darwin's theory of evolution] and all other explanations of processes by which things came to be produce a feeble impression compared with the mystery that lies under the process." Because evolution has no purpose or plan - it is merely the sum of its accumulated mistakes - our biology remains impenetrable.

Lehrer uses this chapter to write about the ability of the brain to form new nerve cells, which may not sound that interesting until realizing that it had been thought until very recently that we are born with our full complement of neurons at birth. He also writes about the human genetic code and critiques the Human Geonome Project as a repeat of a futile attempt to create mechanistic laws that will explain the totality of the human state:
Every chromosome, gene, and base pair would be sequenced and understood. Our textual underpinnings would be stripped of their mystery, and our lack of freedom would finally be exposed. For the paltry sum of $2.7 billion, everything from cancer to schizophrenia would be eradicated.

That was the optimistic hypothesis. Nature, however, writes astonishingly complicated prose. If our DNA has a literary equivalent, it's Finnegan's Wake...
Isn't that marvelous? I do have a few quibbles with this chapter's omission of the selection part of Darwin's theory. It would have been less convenient to a discussion of random error as the scientific equivalent of free will, but it bugged me. However, I suppose Lehrer's ability to make choices is why his prose is so much more economical than, say, mine. He also discusses introns - the vast amount of genetic code that no use can yet be attributed to. Is junk really the only explanation anyone has for them? Has no one posited their function as extra yarn for nature to knit with? I.e. the code may be repeated more times than seems necessary now, but that leaves was more possibility for error and hence there are more opportunities for mutation and more chance for a developments useful in a world whose context we cannot yet imagine. Sorry for that little diversion, if I'm curious I guess I should look it up. Lehrer's science writing is mostly transparent and focused but I occasionally wonder if a general reader is going to get lost in something like: "their auditory cortex now resembled the typical ferret visual cortex, complete with spatial maps and neurons tuned to detect slants of light." A couple of words of context on what a spatial map and the visual cortex are could be useful there, unless my perspective is off on how well general science jargon is understood.

Aside from little quibbles like those, I am finding this book informative, clever and amusing. How Lehrer finally ties together Middlemarch and freedom is the pleasure of reading his prose rather than mine. Don't worry, I'm not going to write as much on every chapter as I've done on the first two, but I wanted to give a detailed view of what I'm enjoying about this book.

In the next chapter he concocts a rich dish of the French chef Escoffier and the processes of sensation and perception without making hash of it. More on that later.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

An Inflorescence - A Flowering of Poetry Every Friday (Emily Dickinson - Famous Recluse)

In-flo-res-cence - from the Latin inflorescere - to begin to blossom. 1. the producing of blossoms; flowering; 2. the arrangement of flowers on a stem or axis; 3. a flower cluster on a common axis; 4. flowers collectively; 5. a solitary flower, regarded as a reduced cluster.

How to do her justice in one post? It's not possible. But here are a few of the 1,700 + poems of Emily Dickinson. Her work is compact and apparently simple - almost nursery like. But no ditty writer she. Her poems can be full of conscious play and at other times they intone with majestic oratory, pondering issues of mortality, identity, purpose and love. She was ironically famous for being a recluse, as well as renowned for her New Englandness and her ill health. There are as many theories about who she was and who she loved as there are poems written by her. One of the most remarkable things to consider when reading her poems is that she considered it likely they would never be read. She said of the effect of reading:
If I read a book and it makes my body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry.

The poems are here on the web. Many of them are read aloud here. And here are my selections for today's Inflorescence. The final one breaks my heart every time I read it.

Musicians wrestle everywhere -
All day - among the crowded air
I hear the silver strife -
And - waking - long before the morn -
Such transport breaks upon the town
I think it that "New Life"!

It is not Bird - it has no nest -
Nor "Band" - in brass and scarlet - drest -
Nor Tamborin - nor Man -
I tis not Hymn from pulpit read -
The "Morning Stars" the Treble led
On Time's first Afternoon!

Some - say - it is "the Spheres" - at play!
Some say that bright Majority
Of vanished Dames - and Men!
Some - think it service in the place
Where we - with late - celestial face -
Please God - shall Ascertain!

I've dropped my Brain - My Soul is numb -
The Veins that used to run
Stop palsied - 'tis Paralysis
Done perfecter on stone

Vitality is Carved and cool
My nerve in Marble lies -
A Breathing Woman
Yesterday - Endowed with Paradise.

Not dumb - I had a sort that moved -
A sense that smote and stirred -
Instinct for Dance - a caper part -
An aptitude for Bird -

Who wrought Carrara in me
And chiselled all my tune
Were it a Witchcraft - were it Death -
I've still a chance to strain

To Being, somewhere - Motion - Breath -
Though Centuries beyond,
And every limit a Decade -
I'll shiver, satisfied.

Camille Paglia calls this Dickinson's manifesto of artistic vocation and independence.

The Soul selects her own Society -
Then - shuts the Door -
To her divine Majority -
Present no more -

Unmoved - she notes Chariots - pausing -
At her low Gate -
Unmoved - an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat -

I've known her - from an ample nation -
Choose One -
Then - close the Valves of her attention -
Like Stone -

I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you - Nobody - Too?
Then there's a pair of us!
Don't tell! they'd advertise - you know!

How dreary - to be - Somebody!
How public - like a Frog -
To tell one's name - the livelong June -
To an admiring Bog!

(If you read this one like a cute rhyme try reading now as though written by a self-possessed woman who hated the idea of fame and made a conscious choice to avoid it, mocked, in fact, those who needed it). She did after all write:

Publication - is the Auction
Of the Mind of Man -
Poverty - be justifying
For so foul a thing

Possibly - but We - would rather
From Our Garret go
White - unto the White Creator -
Than invest - Our Snow -

I tried to think a lonelier Thing
Than any I had seen -
Some Polar Expiation - An Omen in the Bone
Of Death's tremendous nearness -

I probed Retrieveless things
My Duplicate - to borrow -
A Haggard comfort springs

From the belief that Somewhere -
Within the Clutch of Thought -
There dwells one other Creature
Of Heavenly Love - forgot -

I plucked at our Partition -
As One should pry the Walls -
Between Himself - and Horror's Twin -
Within Opposing Cells -

I almost strove to clasp his Hand,
Such Luxury - it grew -
That as Myself - could pity Him -
Perhaps he - pitied me -

Ample make this Bed -
Make this Bed with Ave -
In it wait till Judgment break
Excellent and Fair.

Be its Mattress straight -
Be its Pillow round - Let no Sunrise' yellow noise
Interrupt this Ground -