Cannabis extract shrinks brain tumours (New Scientist)
Day: August 20, 2004
New hope for allergy sufferers?
Pollen-blocking cream cuts hayfever (New Scientist)
Could astronauts sleep their way to the stars?
Why shouldn’t aliens look like us?
…Since the Copernican revolution in the 16th century, indicating that the Earth is not the centre of the universe, we have been conditioned to reject the anthropocentric viewpoint. In interpreting observations, scientists try to exclude human values. But we shouldn’t be afraid of imagining the simplest solution: that ET might be just like us.” (Guardian.UK)
Here’s how to get on my longlist
Novelist Tibor Fischer reflects on what he learned in reading 126 novels as a Booker Prize judge:
Those that were a discredit to the industry numbered no more than half a dozen. More remarkable was the number of novels that were pointless. Not bad, not reproachable in any way except one: they were utterly nondescript (mind you, there’s always been a clique in literary London who feel that real literature should be dry, colourless, a bit of a penance — if you’re enjoying it, it can’t be literature). I’d estimate nearly a third of the submissions fell into this category.” (telegraph.uk )
A fear of the faithful who mean exactly what they believe
Review of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris:
If Harris mistrusts Christians, he’s openly mocking of Muslims, whose beliefs, he suggests, ‘belong on the same shelf with Batman.’ In fact, he doesn’t like any religion much at all. As he points out in ‘The End of Faith,’ believers of every denomination constantly engage in civil wars. They are also responsible for such historical lows as the Inquisition, witch hunts and the sustained anti-Semitism that eased the way for the Nazis.
What most annoys Harris, however, is that the faithful are averse to development and change. Fixated on ancient scriptures, they ignore the accumulating insights that have transformed the world. Every other field redefines its positions in the light of fresh data. Only religion takes increasing pride in being backward…” (San Francisco Chronicle )
The Terrorism to Come
In 1932, when Einstein attempted to induce Freud to support pacifism, Freud replied that there was no likelihood of suppressing humanitys aggressive tendencies. If there was any reason for hope, it was that people would turn away on rational grounds that war had become too destructive, that there was no scope anymore in war for acts of heroism according to the old ideals.
Freud was partly correct: War (at least between great powers) has become far less likely for rational reasons. But his argument does not apply to terrorism motivated mainly not by political or economic interests, based not just on aggression but also on fanaticism with an admixture of madness.
Terrorism, therefore, will continue not perhaps with the same intensity at all times, and some parts of the globe may be spared altogether. But there can be no victory, only an uphill struggle, at times successful, at others not. ” (Policy Review)
In Defense of Memorization
Should we care? Aren’t exercises in memorizing and reciting poetry and passages of prose an archaic curiosity, without educative value?
That too-common view is sadly wrong. Kids need both the poetry and the memorization. As educators have known for centuries, these exercises deliver unique cognitive benefits, benefits that are of special importance for kids who come from homes where books are scarce and the level of literacy low. In addition, such exercises etch the ideals of their civilization on children’s minds and hearts.” (City Journal)
Better Living Through Lobotomy:
What can the history of psychosurgery tell us about medicine today? An interview with Elliot Valenstein, author of Great and Desperate Cures: The Rise and Decline of Psychosurgery and Other Radical Treatments for Mental Illness (Basic Books, 1986).
“STAY FREE!: What brought on the backlash? How did that come about?
VALENSTEIN: Well, there were some scientists who argued that, since we now know a lot more about the brain, psychosurgery should be revisited. This was at a time when there was a lot of public concern about violence in the streets. Two doctors, Frank Ervin and Vernon Mark, had published a book called Violence and the Brain, which argued that brain abnormalities can cause violence. Word got out that the Department of Justice, which maintains federal prisons and special prisons for violent inmates, had some exchanges with the authors. There was a lot of suspicion that the Department of Justice was going to perform massive psychosurgical procedures on violent prisoners as a means of social control. So it became a big issue in some circles. I was at some neuroscience meetings that discussed the biology of aggression, and people came in and broke up the meeting and demanded time on the program.
STAY FREE!: Was there any truth to the rumors that lobotomy was being performed in prisons? “
The Ultimate Anti-Drug
Where Have All the Big Ideas Gone?
What do we call the enemy?
This devastating piece by The Nation‘s Tom Englehardt dissects the failures of current Iraq reporting, now that we are familiar with the NY Times‘ and Washington Post‘s mea culpas for their pre-war coverage. Englehardt catalogues the aspects of the war discussions of which are missing in action in the major media:
- Al-Sadr’s fighters are called ‘cowardly’ for taking refuge in a holy shrine, but the real cowardice lies in the increasing resort of the US military to devastating air power
- “…If you don’t grasp that, from the beginning, the Pentagon was planning a major string of “enduring camps” in Iraq, then you really can’t grasp why the Bush administration had no exit strategy from that country — because, of course, it had no plans to depart”.
- When Baghdad fell without a struggle, those who had worried that US forces would be bogged down in street-to-street urban guerrilla warfare were dismissed and the subject forgotten. Now, in a range of Iraqi cities from the north to the south, the US and British forces’ worst nightmare is largely coming to pass, only nobody takes note of the fact that we told you so.
- After the handover of power to the Allawi government at the end of June, the US plan to get the American strategists of the occupation behind the lines in the Green Zone to become invisible has largely worked. The combination of coverage of Iraqi government statements and the US military policy of emphasizing that they are doing Allawi’s bidding whenever questioned (e.g. on the run-up to the Najaf offensive) go unquestioned, but it is “obvious to any sane observer that the Americans are still in charge and that American strategic decisions are largely being implemented by Americans, not Iraqis”
- While the Imam Ali Shrine is routinely referred to as “holy” in all coverage of the current fighting in Najaf, American ignorance about Islam and Shi’ism has not been countered with sufficient background about how centrally holy it is to that faith and why the American threat to the mosque is so unnerving and enraging to Muslim and other observers around the world. “It matters that we, who simply read about this, can’t even begin to put ourselves in the shoes of Iraqis experiencing it — although this should at least give us insight into why American policy makers and military men, no less ignorant than the rest of us, can make such staggering tactical blunders.”
- The administration’s characterization of the elements of the Iraqi uprising against the occupation as outlaws, terrorists, ex-Ba’athists and foreign elements (and, I might add, the rhetorical tactic of contrasting them with ‘Iraqis’ and ‘the Iraqi people’) goes largely unquestioned. In fact, it is the US that is more in the role of the Saddam-era ‘Ba’athist’ counter-revolutionary crushing of popular resistance to its rule. In a similar vein, al-Sadr is perennially labelled a ‘rogue cleric’ and his forces always referred to as a ‘renegade militia’, Allawi’s puppet regime in Baghdad inevitably gets described as a ‘fledgling government’.
Note the emphasis on language. The cruelest confirmation of the Whorfian hypothesis is in political reporting — what you call something imposes subtle but firm constraints on how you think about it. (Serendipitously related: this New Scientist article). Englehardt concludes (in the should-go-without-saying category), “How the naming of embattled reality is brokered in our newsrooms and how it changes is a fascinating subject, though one you’re unlikely ever to find discussed in the press itself.”
The first part of Englehardt’s piece, from last week, is also quite worth reading if you missed it: