Archive for July, 2010
The “Late Style” of Henry James is famously complex; the serpentine sentences in his narration approximate the stream of consciousness, a psychological concept coined by his brother, the philosopher William James. Critical reaction to James’s later masterpieces is generally adulatory, but his high Modernist style has also served as the occasion for some good-natured literary ribbing. In an anecdote from her autobiography, A Backward Glance, Edith Wharton fondly highlights the element of the ridiculous that sometimes arises from James’s tangled, over-intricate way of thinking:
We must have been driven by a strange chauffeur—perhaps Cook was on holiday; at any rate, having fallen into the lazy habit of trusting him to know the way, I found myself at a loss to direct his substitute to the King’s Road. While I was hesitating, and peering out into the darkness, James spied an ancient doddering man who had stopped in the rain to gaze at us. “Wait a moment, my dear—I’ll ask him where we are”; and leaning out he signalled to the spectator.
“My good man, if you’ll be good enough to come here, please; a little nearer—so,” and as the old man came up: “My friend, to put it to you in two words, this lady and I have just arrived here from Slough; that is to say, to be more strictly accurate, we have recently passed through Slough on our way here, having actually motored to Windsor from Rye, which was our point of departure; and the darkness having overtaken us, we should be much obliged if you would tell us where we now are in relation, say, to the High Street, which, as you of course know, leads to the Castle, after leaving on the left hand the turn down to the railway station.”
I was not surprised to have this extraordinary appeal met by silence, and a dazed expression on the old wrinkled face at the window; nor to have James go on: “In short” (his invariable prelude to a fresh series of explanatory ramifications), “in short, my good man, what I want to put to you in a word is this: supposing we have already (as I have reason to think we have) driven past the turn down to the railway station (which in that case, by the way, would probably not have been on our left hand, but on our right) where are we now in relation to…”
“Oh, please,” I interrupted, feeling myself utterly unable to sit through another parenthesis, “do ask him where the King’s Road is.”
“Ah—? The King’s Road? Just so! Quite right! Can you, as a matter of fact, my good man, tell us where, in relation to our present position, the King’s Road exactly is?”
“Ye’re in it,” said the aged face at the window.
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Tilefish, which has a particularly high average mercury content
“Pregnant women who eat a lot of seafood have smarter babies than moms who don’t.” That short sentence contradicts a good deal of received wisdom. For decades, concerns about mercury levels in fish have convinced millions of women to avoid seafood while they’re pregnant. But a study published in the “Lancet” (a British medical journal) in 2007 suggests otherwise.
The results of the study were shocking: of 14,541 babies born near Bristol, England, those whose mothers ate “more than 340 grams of seafood a week” had kids with significantly higher I.Q.’s. (The test was performed on women who were pregnant in the early nineties, and the childrens’ I.Q.’s were tested over a decade later.) This contradicted the results of an earlier test: in the early 1980′s, a Danish scientist suggested that mercury levels might affect their babies’ attention spans.
What other food warnings would you like to see reconsidered? Does MSG really cause headaches? Do people who are lactose intolerant really need to avoid cheese?? Are “carbs” really worse for your figure than fats??? We eagerly await the next round of studies!
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The 2005 California state quarter, depicting John Muir
In 1999, the United States Mint launched a program that, in the words of the U.S. Mint website, “honored each of the nation’s states in the order that they ratified the Constitution or were admitted into the Union.” The first “state quarter” honored the first of the 50 United States: Delaware. The last quarter commemorated the state of Hawaii, which joined the Union in 1959.
The California state quarter honors the subject of today’s entry in the American History edition: John Muir, founder of the modern conservation movement. It was the 31st quarter in the series. (California became the 31st state on September 9, 1850.) It depicts Muir taking in the marvelous vista presented by the granite “Half Dome” in Yosemite Valley, while a California Condor flies overhead.
At the bottom of this post is a recent photograph of the “Half Dome.” Notice any difference? Neither do I, and we have Muir to thank for this fact. On June 30, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill that designated Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias as areas “for public use, resort and recreation … inalienable for all time,” thus paving the way for the first national parks. Muir petitioned the government to expand the protections in these and other areas, and the National Park Bill was passed in 1899 to assure that the spirit of Lincoln’s law wasn’t violated by logging and other uses of the preserves. Our views of the “Half Dome” — and the Grand Canyonn and Old Faithful and Monument Valley and the Sandstone Arches of Utah and the Colorado Rockies — are therefore nearly identical to the views a century ago. Muir certainly earned his spot on the California quarter.
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The Swedish botanist and zoologist Carl Linnaeus remains one of the most important figures in the history of science. The system of Latin names still used today — for everything from “Paramecium aurelia” to “Homo sapiens” — is indebted to his original system, as laid out in his 1735 book “Systema Naturae.” But can individual organisms really be divided so neatly into “species”?
The Austrian-English philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein would have argued “no.” In 1953, he published his magnum opus, the “Philosophical Investigations.” It’s a favorite work of Devoted Intellectuals, but Wittgenstein’s subtle ideas still haven’t made their way into the mainstream, the way that Linnaeus’ have. The idea with the greatest bearing on the “system of nature” is what Wittgenstein called “family resemblance.” Here’s his description, in the context of classifying and defining “games”:
“Consider for example the proceedings that we call “games”. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? — Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’ “-but look and see whether there is anything common to all. — For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look!
“Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships.
“Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear.
“When we pass next to ball-games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost.– Are they all ‘amusing’? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis.
“Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared! sometimes similarities of detail.
“And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear.
“And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and cries-crossing: sometimes overall similarities.” (I.66)
So if all “games” don’t have one or a few specific things in common, how do we know to call these various activities by the same name? In the next section, Wittgenstein proposes a brilliant solution:
“I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and cries-cross in the same way.-And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family.” (I.67)
This is one of Wittgenstein’s most influential ideas, but it has never been rigorously applied to the field of biology. Should we stop thinking of “species” in terms of rigid hierarchies — and Linnaeus’ systems — and start building networks of “family resemblance”?
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“At the Oval Office, 1974. From left are Rose Goldsmith, mother of Alan Greenspan; President Ford; Greenspan; Rand; and her husband, Frank O’Connor.” (From the New York Times)
Ayn Rand might have been little more than a literary and political curiosity, except for one very important accident of history. In 1974, Alan Greenspan, one of her most devoted followers, was sworn in as the Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, with Rand standing by his side. Thirteen years later, in 1987, Greenspan would ascend to the most important economic position in the United States: Chairman of the Federal Reserve.
Greenspan was a member of Rand’s inner circle from the 1950′s. In fact, he was an “official” member: as part of the “Ayn Rand Collective,” he read chapters of “Atlas Shrugged” as Rand composed the book. He would later contribute an introduction to it, as well as essays (including one in support of the gold standard) to Rand’s 1966 collection, “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.”
Luckily (we’re not fans of Rand’s theories over at The Devoted Intellect) Greenspan wasn’t able to apply all of his “Objectivist” ideals while heading up The Fed. (That’s right: the economic crisis could have been that much worse.) As he told the Fox News Network in 2007, he had to make compromises as an official in a democratic society (including, presumably, the compromise that prevented him from reintroducing the gold standard). A year later, he would famously concede that his ideologies about market economics (his views were far too irrational and fixed to simply be called “ideas”) were “flawed.” For a detailed description of those flawed theories, you can’t do better than to make your way through the 1,368 pages of “Atlas Shrugged.” Though we wouldn’t suggest that you actually do it…
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David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion were published in 1779, three years after the Scottish philosopher’s death. The “dialogue” mentioned in the title takes place between three fictional characters: Demea, who believes that God’s existence can be proven through reason; and Cleanthes, who thinks that God’s existence is proven by the existence of the universe; and Philo, who’s more nuanced views are, most likely, Hume’s own.
The work was published after Hume’s death because of the great deal of controversial material it contained. Many of these ideas continue to be debated today, but a particularly fascinating passage is hidden among the more abstruse theology.
It begins when Cleanthes makes a standard argument for the divine Creation of the universe: “Look round the world: contemplate the whole and every part of it: You will find it to be nothing but one great machine, subdivided into an infinite number of lesser machines … we are led to infer, by all the rules of analogy … that the Author of Nature is somewhat similar to the mind of man, though possessed of much larger faculties, proportioned to the grandeur of the work which he has executed.”
Philo, the skeptical stand-in for Hume, is having none of it. He begins by restating Cleanthes’ argument — “Throw several pieces of steel together, without shape or form; they will never arrange themselves so as to compose a watch.” — and then knocks it down. He does so by suggesting how it would, in fact, be possible to throw things together into a watch:
“And what surprise must we feel, when we find him [i.e., God] a stupid mechanic, who imitated others, and copied an art, which, through a long succession of ages, after multiplied trials, mistakes, corrections, deliberations, and controversies, had been gradually improving? Many worlds might have been botched and bungled, throughout an eternity, ere this system was struck out; much labour lost, many fruitless trials made; and a slow, but continued improvement carried on during infinite ages in the art of world-making.”
A world of items, stupidly thrown together, and “gradually improving … throughout an eternity.” Hume needed only to go a few steps farther to anticipate Darwin by nearly a century. Alas, Philo (and, therefore, Hume) backed down, so the world had to wait.
You can find the full story in Daniel Dennett’s wonderful book, “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.”
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Like most famous painters, Francisco Goya was extremely successful in his lifetime. He was a renowned painter by his late thirties, and an official court painter by his early forties, in 1789. The painting above, of pilgrims making their way to the San Isidro Hermitage in Madrid, gives a sense of his early style: vibrant, joyous, colorful. Remarkably, the painting below, which Goya made about four decades later, depicts the same scene.
By the time Goya painted the “black” version of the TK, his life had changed drastically. He lost his hearing around 1792, and his wife in 1812. In the years in between, Spain was ravaged by the disasters of the Napoleonic Wars (which Goya depicted brilliantly). Eventually, he withdrew from social life altogether: in 1819, Goya moved to “Quinta del Sordo” — “The House of the Deaf Man” — in the rural countryside of Spain. Within a few years, the walls of that house were covered with Goya’s “black paintings,” some of the most terrifying ever made. The full layout of the house, showing the paintings in their original positions, is available at Wikipedia. Here are a few of our favorites:
“Saturn Devouring His Sons”
“A Fight with Cudgels”
“Dog” (our vote for the masterpiece of the lot)
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