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  1. Qualia, Neuroscience and Art
  2. Yogaguy
  3. Sandra Goldbacher and Her Pet, if Unconscious, Theme
  4. Find and Replace Justice
  5. Moviegoing: "The Italian Job"
  6. Fathers, Sons and the Hulk
  7. DVD Journal: "Frida"
  8. Policy Break: Legal Mysteries
  9. The Book-Besotted
  10. Hidden Capacities

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Saturday, June 28, 2003

Qualia, Neuroscience and Art
Michael: Thanks for putting me on to another paper written by Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and William Hirstein, “The Three Laws of Qualia: What Neurology Tells Us about the Biological Functions of Consciousness, Qualia and the Self” (which you can read here.) Our readers may recall Dr. Ramachandran, as he is rapidly turning out to be 2blowhards’ go-to guy for neurology and cognitive science. (He put in appearances in two of our recent posts, here and here.) First, a small disclaimer: Dr. Ramachandran is the Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and professor with the Psychology Department and the Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego, and Adjunct Professor of Biology at the Salk Institute. I, on the other hand, am (in my more lucid moments) a middle-aged businessman. Obviously, I’m in no position to either vouch for or challenge the neurological facts the good doctor and Mr. Hirstein present in their paper. So, making the assumption that he knows what he’s talking about, I thought I’d summarize those portions of his paper I think I understand, and make a few mild speculations about them. You may not recognize the term, qualia, but you’ve known about a long-standing philosophical argument that involves qualia since you were in grade school. To wit, one of your playground companions undoubtedly turned to you one day and said, “Did it ever occur to you that even though we all call the color of the sky blue, what I see as blue could be what you see as red, or green?” In short, qualia are the subjective aspects of sense perception, the parts that concern what perceptions “feel like” inside the brain of the perceiver. When I look up at the sky, I see light of a particular wavelength, but subjectively to me this light feels blue. Likewise, when I look at the grass, I see light of another particular wavelength, but in my head I see green. A robot with black and white vision might intellectually understand that I have a different neurological response to light depending on its wavelength, but it wouldn’t “get” what my subjective response “feels like” to me. Equally, (to put myself in the place of the poor robot) I might intellectually understand that some fish can directly sense electric currents, and even study just how sensitive this reaction is, but I won’t “get” what sensing an electric current “feels like” to the fish. Philosophers got about this far in thinking about qualia and more or less concluded that the damn things were inescapably subjective and impossible to communicate from one brain to another. (We’ll never know if our companion on the playground really sees my blue as his green, or my green as his red, etc.) Philosophers have also have been more or less stumped by what purpose, if any, qualia serve in the mind. This topic is, of course, closely related to what purpose, if any, consciousness itself serves in our mental economy. Well, Dr.... posted by Friedrich at June 28, 2003 | perma-link | (12) comments

Friday, June 27, 2003

Friedrich -- As part of the Hindu phase I'm treating myself to during my California vacation, The Wife and I recently attended two different yoga classes. I'm an ultra-beginner with a come-and-go sense of balance, tendons made of glass and joints of concrete and granite, so picture me in the back row doing my ineffectual best not to tip over. The first class was very pleasant. A winner, really. The teacher, bless her, was kind and patient, and determined above all things that we not hurt ourselves -- very important to us non-stretchy types. The class itself made a nice contrast to NYC yoga classes, which have recently gotten very crowded with students who, in true NYC, gotta-be-the-alpha-person fashion, have become very competitive. (Competitive yoga -- what's the point?) In any case: Terrif, first-rate, glad I did it, I might even do some more back in the big city. The class we took yesterday was something else entirely. Bikram yoga -- have you heard of it? Also known as hot yoga, because you take the class in a room that's been heated to circa 105 degrees. You're there for 90 minutes, being led through a very slow and controlled routine. 105 degrees -- that's almost a sauna. Sweat drips off you copiously within a minute or two of entering the studio. Towel-off and water-guzzling breaks are numerous. And then back once more to the stretches and the postures. What a fab experience. Although there were a few moments when I was almost overwhelmed by dizziness and thought, This can't go on, I walked out of the class (completely soaked, by the way) a convert, and was thrilled when the Wife expressed her enthusiasm too. We clambered wetly into the car, drove to the Pacific and threw ourselves in the cool surf. Whew, and whee -- I don't know when I've felt so physically good. Loose in the joints, elastic everywhere, tingling yet relaxed -- I felt like a hot, wet dishrag that's been thoroughly wrung out, over and over again. And part of what was so great was the mental sensation; the class had a mind-altering-drug quality. I felt like I'd been on an extensive and amazing voyage and had returned from it with a whole different view of things. I was inside my body and hovering above it, but I was also inside-yet-hovering-above life generally too. My mind felt as rendered into taffy as my body did; life itself seemed a much more expansive thing than it usually does. Amazingly, the feeling stayed with me -- with us, really -- for the whole day. Part of the fun of the classes, I confess, is sociological and aesthetic. Yoga styles, yoga personalities, yoga bodies ,,, Yoga men, I've gotta say, I find an embarrassment. The rube in me finds yogaguys as unseemly as male actors. The same handful of types seems to show up no matter where you take a class -- the pothead with dreadlocks; doe-eyed Mr. Sensitive; the... posted by Michael at June 27, 2003 | perma-link | (13) comments

Sandra Goldbacher and Her Pet, if Unconscious, Theme
Friedrich -- You know those oddball art experiences, the ones where you find yourself reading an artwork completely differently than how it's asking you to take it? Bizarre, aren't they? Yet sometimes they're OK. "The Wild Bunch," for example, famously asks you to take it as an anti-violence movie, yet what's most memorable about the film is how beautiful the violence it shows is. Finally the best way to take the movie may be as an ambivalent, poetic hymn to violence. Other times, though, it ain't a good thing. I've just run into such a peculiar case. Peculiar because 1) It isn't just a single case, it's two films by the same director, and 2) Because the warring themes (how the movie sells itself/how I took it) involve dicey and embarrassing ethnic elements. So, a plea here to everyone to forgive me in advance, or at least to postpone castigating me until you've looked at the movies for yourself. Then, lambaste away. The movies are two serioso chickflicks by the English director Sandra Goldbacher. A warning to everyone: plot spoilers galore ahead. I can't figure out a way of discussing these films' themes without discussing their stories. The first is "The Governess," a costume drama Goldbacher made five-ish years ago. Here's the setup: a homely-sexy Jewish girl's family loses their money, and she winds up working (pretending not to be Jewish) as a governess for a chilly family of miserable Scottish aristocrats. (I may be scrambling a few of the details -- I'm away from my reference books and stuck with a lousy AOL connection, so I'm neglecting my usual self-fact-checking.) What follows? Well, if you accept the movie at its word, you take what follows this way: governess (played by the adorable Minnie Driver), endowed with vitality, spunkiness, and brains, brings the almost-dead back to life. Once again the household is alive with warmth. The laird, a dashing but depressed fellow who's also an inventor and is toying with some early photographic processes, can't help but succumb to the charms of the governess. She's the gal he always needed -- encouraging, and also more than a match for him. But then all hell breaks loose, the governess's Jewishness becomes public, and (a victim of anti-Semitism) she's cast out -- only to bounce back and set herself up, in a proto-feminist triumph, as a successful big-city photographer. Goldbacher is asking the viewer to take this as a rousing tale of self-realization, in other words. (With a sprinkling of message-movie anti-anti-Semitism.) Me, though, I sat there in disbelief, thinking, Gee, if you're of a less reverent cast of mind, you could interpret the film's story much less flatteringly. How so? Well, how about this: hustling, vain Jewish girl fucks her Gentile boss, destroys his family life, and steals his invention. Viewed this way, it's a somewhat less appealing tale of self-realization, and a somewhat less appealing self that's being realized. OK, maybe Goldbacher lost control of what she wanted to say.... posted by Michael at June 27, 2003 | perma-link | (15) comments

Find and Replace Justice
Michael: I was reading the New York Times article on the Supreme Court’s rather libertarian decision on gay rights (which you can read here) and suddenly thought, what if the same logic was applied to another minority rights topic—to wit, the progressive income tax. So I made the following, I think reasonable, changes via my find-and-replace function: Gays -> wealthy people Sexual -> economic Homosexual -> rich Texas sodomy law -> national progressive income tax Having sex -> making money and not paying extortionate taxes on it Same-sex marriage -> flat tax this relationship -> economic activity homes -> businesses gay -> rich lesbian -> rich oral or anal sex -> making money and not paying extortionate taxes on it same-sex couples -> rich people heterosexuals -> middle-income people Here goes: WASHINGTON, June 26 — The Supreme Court issued a sweeping declaration of constitutional liberty for rich people today, overruling the nation’s progressive income tax in the broadest possible terms and effectively apologizing for a contrary 1986 decision that the majority said "demeans the lives of rich persons." The vote was 6 to 3. Wealthy people are "entitled to respect for their private lives," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said for the court. "The state cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private economic conduct a crime." Justice Kennedy said further that "adults may choose to enter upon economic activity in the confines of their businesses and their own private lives and still retain their dignity as free persons." [Excerpts, Pages A16-17.] While the result had been widely anticipated since the court agreed in December to hear an appeal brought by two Houston men who were prosecuted for making money and not paying extortionate taxes on it in their home, few people on either side of the case expected a decision of such scope from a court that only 17 years ago, in Bowers v. Hardwick, had dismissed the same constitutional argument as "facetious." The court overturned that precedent today. In a scathing dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia accused the court of having "taken sides in the culture war" and having "largely signed on to the so-called rich agenda." He said that the decision "effectively decrees the end of all morals legislation" and made the flat tax, which the majority opinion did not discuss, a logical if not inevitable next step. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas signed Justice Scalia's dissent. …[T]here was no doubt that the decision had profound legal and political implications. A conservative Supreme Court has now identified the rich-rights cause as a basic civil rights issue. …"It removes the reflexive assumption of rich people's inferiority," Professor Goldberg said. "Bowers took away the humanity of rich people, and this decision gives it back." The vote to overturn Bowers v. Hardwick was 5 to 4, with Justice Kennedy joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer. "Bowers was not correct when it was decided, and... posted by Friedrich at June 27, 2003 | perma-link | (11) comments

Thursday, June 26, 2003

Moviegoing: "The Italian Job"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Friedrich -- A critic I know refers to dumbass movies with no imagination or sensitivity as Meatball Movies. (Rennie Harlin is the acknowledged maestro of the Meatball Movie.) I guess I'd say that, since the new action caper flick "The Italian Job" does have one good idea (putting Morris Minis in chase scenes), the film doesn't quite qualify for a Meatball Award. But it sure comes close. A guyflick to the max: heists, payback, engines, gizmos, chases, choppers, punches. Fewer wisecracks than usual, for some reason. Zero style. Mark Wahlberg, who's got less idea about acting than I do, as the gang's supposedly suave ringleader. And, sigh, no sex. The director was someone named F. Gary Gray, whose filmmaking technique boils down to "when in doubt, cut to an aerial shot and pump up the techno." The movie has one huge plus, as least as far as I'm concerned: one of its stars is Charlize Theron, who I love watching. She seems to have a taste for appearing in the occasional guyflick, and when she does she's often a wonderful combo of b-movie moll-ishness, sleek yuppie competence, and messy emotionality. (If you've got a taste for this kind of thing, don't miss Charlize's performance in "Reindeer Games," a film that has a number of other genuine B-movie virtues too.) Here, she does a nice variation on her usual wised-up-but-still-sweet number, has two or three scenes where she gets to show off her proficiency at appearing congested with feelings, combines steely determination with looking ultra-kissable, and wears her Banana Republic, pony-tailed-but-all-business persona with panache. You go, Charlize -- and where you go, I consider it a pleasure and a privilege to follow. To be fair, the audience (even the gals) seemed to enjoy the movie. Maybe the fantasy of getting even while getting away with millions was enough to win them over; or maybe many people simply crave the occasional really dumb and obvious but not overbearing bit of borderline-competent pop idiocy. In any case, as the levelheaded Wife correctly pointed out, "The Italian Job" was a lot easier to take than "Xmen 2" or "The Matrix Reloaded." But please don't mistake this for a recommendation. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 26, 2003 | perma-link | (9) comments

Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Fathers, Sons and the Hulk
Michael: I went with my teenaged daughter to see “The Hulk” last night, and I’m kind of glad I did. I mean, the movie is a mess, but, oddly for a comic-book movie, its messiness is actually interesting. I don’t know if anyone else goes to popcorn movies out of a sense of duty, but for me going to see "The Hulk" was an obligation. I connected with certain aspects of pop culture as a child, and I feel occasionally required to show my childhood tastes a certain degree of “respect.” It doesn’t matter what I think of this stuff as an adult; I just have to take my inner child to see it. (It’s a motive somewhat similar to the one that impels me to go to the weddings of a distant relatives or the funeral of someone I knew only slightly.) No matter how bad the reviews for the Hulk were (and I’ve never read a good one, although they may exist), sooner or later I was going to have to plunk down money and sit through this film, like it or not. The positive aspect of seeing a movie under these circumstances, of course, is that I had no expectations, or at least no positive expectations, about the quality of this film walking into the theater. The reviews led me to expect Claymation-quality special effects (Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal had a great line about expecting to see Wallace and Grommit manning the attack helicopters), an unconvincing computer-animated hero/monster, a murky story, etc., etc. What I found, stuggling to emerge from its superhero genre trappings, was an intriguing, if perhaps insufficiently dramatized, film about the struggle between fathers and sons. Warning: I am about to wantonly give away some of the plot. In the film, David Banner, our hero's father, mumbling some nonsense about improving on humanity, deliberately alters his own DNA. These latent genetic alterations are passed to his son. When his forbidden experiments are discovered, David Banner (after terribly traumatizing his son) gets dragged off by the military-industrial complex. (Hey, it was a busy, busy day at that dusty Southwestern army base.) Thirty years later Mad Scientist Dad reappears and starts meddling in his son’s life again. And not meddling in the usual ways, disapproving of little things like the son's occupation, spouse or earing. No, this is big time stuff: Dad starts manipulating the young man to get him to express his modified genetic inheritance. After that inheritance has been augmented rather over-deterministically by both nanotechnology and a burst of gamma rays, it allows the younger Banner to transform into an 18-foot tall extreme bodybuilder with a really, really short temper and superhuman strength. Oh yeah, he's also green. You Won't Like Me When I'm Mad Nick Nolte’s sly performance as David Banner is about the “genetic” ruthlessness (some? all?) fathers can exhibit towards their sons. Sharing half his genes and his sexual identity with Bruce, the old man sees his son... posted by Friedrich at June 25, 2003 | perma-link | (7) comments

DVD Journal: "Frida"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Friedrich -- We caught up with Frida, the Julie Taymor-directed biopic about the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, with Selma Hayek as Frida, Alfred Molina as her hubby, Diego Rivera, and tons and tons of high-profile guest stars in small roles as historical characters. (Antonio Banderas as Siquieros, for instance, and Geoffrey Rush as Trotsky. Did Frida really sleep with Trotsky, by the way?) A dud, though semi-interesting to think and gab about. On the plus side, and to Taymor's credit: lots of enjoyably glam glimpses of Mexican radical bohemia; great decor, color and light; and a taste for presenting women as the sexually powerful creatures they are. On the minus side: lots of this-might-work-onstage-but-not-in-a-movie ideas (puppet interludes, collage-y passages, is-it-a-tableau-vivant-or-not recreations of Frida's paintings); and a complete inability to get you to focus on the characters and the situations. In fact, in many ways, the movie is a real lesson in how not to do it. Instead of the characters and the story, Taymor (a well-known stage director) has you watching the decor, the lighting -- the stagecraft. She seems far less interested in Frida and Rivera than in putting on a Julie Taymor show, something she evidently knows how to make work onstage. (I haven't seen her stage work.) The movies, though, seem to flummox her. I couldn't sit through her first movie, "Titus." Did you catch it? Shakespeare, supposedly, but really an inept Fellini-esque phantasmagoria. "Frida," which is more conventional, is much easier to take. Even so, it's an odd combo of talent and cluelessness, and is almost never very engaging; Taymor's talents don't seem to include using a motion picture camera or editing a movie. (Rumor has it that Harvey Weinstein made her cut about a half-hour from the film.) For Taymor, cameras exist to capture her set-ups, and a movie idea is a stage idea that has managed to get itself filmed. Frida and Rivera? We saw the movie just a few nights ago and already I've forgotten almost everything about them. But the colors, the light, the decor ... Too bad about those puppets, though. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 25, 2003 | perma-link | (11) comments

Policy Break: Legal Mysteries
Michael: As you remember, I spent a fair amount of time and effort looking into affirmative action and wrote up two postings on the subject (which you can see here and here.) So when I read the headlines today about the Supreme Court’s affirmative action decisions, I thought, what the heck, I’d be interested to actually read the opinions. I’m kind of sorry I did. I’m left with the distinct impression that I spent a lot more time and energy thinking about the subject in order to write a couple of blog postings than Justice Sandra Day O’Connor did in writing the majority opinion in the University of Michigan Law School case. To say that the opinion, which you can read here, is a little short on constitutional reasoning (or any kind of rigorous logic) hardly does its lack of intellectual muscle-tone justice. I did a quick read of the constitution to see what are the obvious parts that one would parse in making such a ruling; I’m no constitutional scholar but it certainly looks to me like the 14th Amendment and the 15th Amendments are relevant. Those are the parts about “equal protection of the laws” and “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Well, guess what? Justice O’Connor mentions, (but in no way parses, analyzes, or even discusses) the 14th Amendment, albeit only in the very last line of her opinion as she "affirms" the incredibly murky logic of Justice Powell in the Bakke case (i.e., racial quotas bad, racial plus-factors good). The 15th Amendment never even makes it onto the playing field. Her opinion, on the other hand, is quite replete with discussions of such issues as the need of the military to use racial preferences in order to get an officer corps that looks like the enlisted ranks and the importance of deferring to the wisdom of universities in creating diverse student bodies. Oddly, I couldn’t find any reference to those matters in my perusal of the constitution, but perhaps I read it too quickly. In short, the opinion looks to me like a memo that might be prepared by a congressional staffer discussing the pros and cons of a piece of legislation. It does not resemble what I always thought Supreme Court opinions were supposed to be: to wit, “theorems” deriving from constitutional “axioms.” If we take the opinion to be such a legislative memo, I’m willing to grant that Justice O’Connor may have produced a wise analysis of the merits of affirmative action as a piece of public policy. I mean, I don’t agree with it, but what do I know? Race-based affirmative action certainly seems to make university presidents and military generals happy. But the nature of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s brief assumes that the real function of the Supreme Court is to function as an... posted by Friedrich at June 25, 2003 | perma-link | (27) comments

The Book-Besotted
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Friedrich -- Have you had a chance to eyeball the comments on the "Writing a Book" posting? A fascinating collection. Many were sweet, some were thoughtful, some even appreciative. Best, I thought, were the personal stories many people told. For a glimpse of what the book-writing life is really like, I can't imagine doing better than checking out the comments, which will tell you lots more than the lit mags ever will. I got just as fascinated, though, by the commenters who quarreled with me, or tried to pick fights. Some went after my motives. Perhaps I wrote the posting because I'm depressed? (Never been happier.) Perhaps because I'm bitter? (Nope, sorry.) Others tried to take me to task for doing things I wasn't doing. Most of these commenters seemed to be under the impression that I was trying to discourage or even prevent people from writing books -- as though the only alternative to you-can-do-it-ism is you-shouldn't-do-it-ism. A few commenters questioned my handful of publishing-life facts, yet offered no evidence that contradicted any of what I offered up. (I covered the field closely for more than a decade, and lunched and partied with hundreds of publishing people and authors. I feel on pretty secure ground when I talk about publishing.) So I find myself wondering: What were the carpers really up to? Any ideas here? Me, I'm guessing that they were feeling offended. But by what? I'm guessing here too, and perhaps I'm wrong, but: by my attitude towards books. Why? Because they believe in books and I don't. Well, perhaps they believe not in books, but in "the book" per se. I can't tell you how often I've run into this particular form of semi-religious regard. I tend to forget how many people have this attitude. I'm very fond of certain literary forms -- erotic novellas, for instance, and psychological suspense. But "the book" per se means nothing to me, despite having been just as big a reader as most art-and-lit geeks are as kids. (Book-y kids sometimes grow up to be book-worshipping adults.) As far as I'm concerned, a book is just a bound-together container for a certain sum of paper and ink. It's a delivery system -- one that I've got a lot of respect for, and one that has many virtues. But, per se, "the book" is nothing more to me than a very cool delivery system. Such is how I think and feel, in any case. (Covering the publishing biz for years will tend to knock the sentimentality about books out of you. But even so, I was never all that reverent.) But, to my eternal surprise, many, many people seem to care about books per se. They worship 'em -- or perhaps what it is they worship is the idea of "the book." Starry-eyed believers, they clearly aren't thinking of the actual bestselling thrillers, the cat books, or the politicians' memoirs that clutter up our lives. No, they're thinking... posted by Michael at June 25, 2003 | perma-link | (34) comments

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Hidden Capacities
Michael: There’s a fascinating piece in the New York Times of June 22, “Savant for a Day” (which you can read here) on how transcranial magnetic stimulation (“TMS”) may make it possible for people to tap unusual mental powers…by suppressing certain brain activity. The argument of Alan Snyder, a cognitive scientist at the University of Sydney, is that (1) the unusual mental abilities of savants (autistics who are capable of amazing mental feats) are actually present in all human beings, (2) that these abilities—such as the ability to do complex mental arithmetic rapidly, to remember with photographic detail and accuracy, to instantly spot proofreading errors, etc.—are actually just basic, lower-level brain processes that occur below the level of ordinary human consciousness, (3) that somehow our ordinary conscious processes mask these abilities or prevent us from accessing them, and (4) that these savant-like skills can be brought out by using TMS to turn down the volume on the "masking" processes. Professor Snyder claims that the TMS machine, which was originally utilized as an aid in brain surgery, may be the key to unlocking attributes ordinarily considered the property of geniuses or savants in ordinary people: You could call this a creativity-amplifying machine. It's a way of altering our states of mind without taking drugs like mescaline. You can make people see the raw data of the world as it is. As it is actually represented in the unconscious mind of all of us. And this line of thinking (and experimenting) is not confined to Professor Snyder: …researchers at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke found that TMS applied to the prefrontal cortex enabled subjects to solve geometric puzzles much more rapidly. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, associate professor of neurology at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston (who, through his work at the Laboratory for Magnetic Brain Stimulation, has been one of the American visionaries of TMS), has even suggested that TMS could be used to ''prep'' students' minds before lessons. I'm sympathetic with this line of thinking because of three of my own life experiences. One occurred while I was an undergraduate at our Lousy Ivy University: for no particular reason (that I can remember) I made a hobby of doing mental arithmetic. I was astonished, after just a few months of this, at my ability to do things like multiply two- and three-digit numbers just by looking at them and pressing a sort of mental multiplication button—none of your usual “carry the five” stuff, just “boom here’s the answer.” After a while, I got bored with this game and stopped practicing it, and thus gradually lost the ability. A few years later I noticed that if I concentrated while in a car, I could tell how fast the car was going (accurate to within a few miles per hour). To reassure all of you, I did this while driving around as a passenger in other people’s cars. When I got interested in art twenty years ao, I spent... posted by Friedrich at June 24, 2003 | perma-link | (12) comments

Monday, June 23, 2003

Surfin' Ignominy
Friedrich -- After my four-hour group surfing lesson yesterday, I can guarantee that no Blowhard will ever again be welcome on a surfing beach. I'll pass quickly over my complete lack of talent for the sport and cut directly to the excuses. The main reason I won't be going back again is that there's a lot more physical daredeviltry involved in surfing than I expected. And even though it's a point of pride with me that I'm not the world's least-athletic arts geek, I've got nothing -- zero -- of the physical daredevil in me. Surfing reminded me of rockclimbing, another sport I gave my all to for a total of a couple of hours. "I'm supposed to find being in actual physical danger thrilling? You've got to be kidding" -- such was my overwhelming response to both these sports. There were seven of us tyros (I was, ahem, the oldest), there was an instructor, there were slightly-bigger-than-ideal waves; there was some instruction on the beach and then an enthusiastic plunge into the ocean. You wrestle yourself and your board through the 50-feet-or-so stretch where the waves are actually breaking, then paddle out even farther, sit up on your board, and inspect the horizon for likely wave candidates. So far, so good. Like everyone else, I wound up in the drink a few times when I first tried to pivot the board around so it faced the beach, but I soon mastered the move. The ocean seemed a surging but friendly beast, full of promises for fun. And then ... "In surfing, you just gotta accept that you're going to take your knocks," shouted the instructor, and never were truer words etc. OK! It's a good one coming at us! Now now now now! Paddle paddle paddle paddle! Dig dig dig dig! And ... kaboom! Flipflipflip; tumbletumbletumble; sea water up the nose; sand and pebbles everywhere. Whee! What fun! Let's do it again! Trouble was that three factors immediately started to ruin my fun. One was my meager arm and shoulder resources, which started to run out after 15 minutes. Surfing demands tons of pushup/pullup-style strength, and evidently the 10-pushups-in-the-morning routine I adhere to is far from sufficient preparation. In no time, my arms had become mere jointed weights dangling from shoulder sockets. Without your arms to pull you along, you're completely (as opposed to semi-completely) at the mercy of the ocean. Now and then, little surges of energy did return to my upper body, but only enough to get me back into trouble. Factor #2? A little something to do with my inability to actually see the waves. You're meant to sit out there on your board (hips loose, like you're riding a horse) looking around for something to ride; when you spot a good one, you do your best to take off and surf that baby. Now, crank that ideal sequence back a step or two. I had a hard time with the basic skill of looking over... posted by Michael at June 23, 2003 | perma-link | (10) comments

The Evo-Bio of Impressionism, Part I
Michael: In many posts since we started this blog we’ve predicted that evo-bio would begin to impact how we view our own culture. In a series of posts I’d like to offer a small demonstration of how that might work by discussing the way in which changing relations between the sexes in the 19th century affected Impressionist art. The French Revolution, in addition to ushering in nearly a century of political turmoil in France, also ushered in a quieter—but perhaps more humanly significant—shift. Starting in the 1790s, French women were the first in the world to deliberately and significantly limit their national birthrate via contraception—and not as a passing response to war, famine, pestilence, etc., but as a permanent part of a new reproductive order. From 1790 to 1850 the average number of children born to French women fell from approximately 5 to 3.5. The fact this shift occurred is unquestionable; the reasons for it are still debated vigorously. It wasn’t, for example, because of dramatic reductions in infant mortality: those only came as a result of Pasteur’s “microbe revolution” of the 1870s. Other public health changes may have played a role in reducing the perceived need for spare children, such as the gradual lengthening of the average French lifespan during the 18th century—from a truly horrific 25 years in 1700 (life in Louis XIV’s France was nasty, brutish and short) to 35 years in 1800 (still several years less of the average British or American lifespan.) Political conditions undoubtedly played a role. After the Terror and during the Napoleonic Empire, French society's treatment of sex underwent a “libertarian” interlude; both divorce and prostitution were legalized, while the influence of the Church was greatly reduced. The net result may have been to provide loose enough social conditions to permit the knowledge of contraception to spread and for women to begin to rebel against traditional value systems that relegated them to roles as baby factories. J. L. David, Cupid and Psyche, 1817 Economic factors also seem to have played a role. France grew economically at only half the rate of Great Britain at the start of the 19th century, and even slower relative to Germany or the U.S. at the century’s end. Without limitations on fertility, living standards for the French middle and upper classes might well have fallen in absolute terms. This may explain why the trend towards restricted fertility seems to have originated within the bourgeoisie. Economic incentives certainly encouraged the spread of contraception among the peasantry. France was a largely agrarian country with no tradition of primogeniture, and there was a need to reduce number of children born in the countryside so as to prevent farms from being splintered by inheritance, thus causing whole families to slide out of the landowning class. Economic factors also explain why the haute bourgeoisie and wealthy aristocrats were “holdouts” from the trend to restricted fertility; apparently plentiful children became a form of conspicuous consumption for the rich. It also explains the continued... posted by Friedrich at June 23, 2003 | perma-link | (4) comments

Sunday, June 22, 2003

Writing a Book Redux
Friedrich -- Our posting from a few weeks back entitled "Tacit Knowledge -- Writing a Book" was linked to by the great Arts and Letters Daily. Yippee: An honor and a pleasure. Also an occasion for more visitors than usual to drop by, and to leave comments. Readers interested in the topic of writing and publishing might enjoy revisiting the posting in order to read the new comments, which follow the posting here. It'd be hard to find a more raw and truthful set of snapshots of the book-writing and book-publishing life. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 22, 2003 | perma-link | (3) comments