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Thursday, January 29, 2004

Why Your Congressman Can't Hardly Talk Good What in God's name has happened to the great art of American political oratory? Where exactly, in the gaping chasm of history between William Jennings Bryan and George W. Bush, did our elected representatives lose the ability to inspire us with impassioned speeches choked with dangerous metaphor? Some blame the '60s (just out of habit, most likely,) and some blame the triumph of the individual over collective experience. But whatever the reason, "in both oral and written English, talking is triumphing over speaking, spontaneity over craft." The Economist 01/29/04

Is Pomo Finally Irrelevant? The idea of viewing literature through the lens of one "-ism" or another has been a pervasive part of academia for decades. But increasingly, scholars are beginning to question the value of pigeonholing individual works of fiction, and trying to bend them to fit within the confines of a previously defined set of values. No one is arguing against the value of context, but "some academics say that postmodern theory is on the way out altogether and that the heady ideas that once changed the way literature is taught and read will soon be as extinct as the dodo and the buggy whip." The Christian Science Monitor (Boston) 01/27/04

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Why Johnny Can't Choose People want more choices in life, or so they say. But a new study suggests that people presented with more than a few choices have a much harder time making decisions, and may choose to make no decision at all, rather than cope with the stress of multiple options. So perhaps it follows that, when it comes to matters of public policy, our government needs to stop giving us so many options, and make a few well-reasoned decisions on our behalf. So said a psychology professor in a New York Times op-ed last week. But Ronald Bailey isn't buying that argument: "One suspects that his unspoken converse is that sound public policy consists of the government restricting options and forcing Americans to do what people like Professor Schwartz think is good for them." Reason 01/28/04

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Listen! Do You Smell Something? Nearly everyone has heard stories of how humans with one damaged sense (e.g. hearing or sight) often experience heightened sensitivity in other areas. Now, a new study suggests that the theory of sensory trade-offs may hold true for the evolution of species as well. For instance, primates (including humans) have a highly developed visual sense, but the ability to see all the colors of the rainbow may have come at the expense of, say, a superior sense of smell. DiscoveryNews.com 01/24/04

Monday, January 26, 2004

The Voynich Code: Gibberish For Profit "A British academic believes he has uncovered the secret of the Voynich manuscript, an Elizabethan volume of more than 200 pages that is filled with weird figures, symbols and writing that has defied the efforts of the twentieth century's best codebreakers and most distinguished medieval scholars." As it turns out, the entire thing is a bunch of meaningless gibberish, designed to mystify scholars and make a substantial profit for its author based solely on the mystique of the unknown. Worked like a charm, apparently. The Observer (UK) 01/25/04

Sunday, January 25, 2004

Seeking The Synaptic Structure Of Art Scientists know that art has a profound impact on the activity of the human brain. Exactly what that activity signifies, and what it says about art or about humans, is an open question, however, and an entire field of study has developed to seek such answers. "Neuroaestheticians... imagine that, over time, these kinds of studies will become more and more precise: They hope to get ever-finer detail about what happens in the brain in an ever-growing range of aesthetic situations." Washington Post 01/25/04

Is Culture Doomed, Or Are We Just Snobs? "That deafening seismic discord at the end of 2003 - a low moan followed by a ripping noise and then a heavy crash - was the sound of Western civilization falling apart, its alabaster pillars splitting like Popsicle sticks, its flagstone terraces shredding like saltines in water. Then again, maybe not. If you believe that culture - music, literature, film, the visual and performing arts - is a rarefied realm to which only the work of an exalted few should be admitted, then doom is imminent. If, however, you believe that culture is a wide-open arena that can accommodate a variety of approaches and levels of complexity, then you're probably wondering what all the fuss is about." Chicago Tribune 01/25/04

Cities And The Not-So-Public Interest The controversy surrounding the WTC memorial in New York is indicative of a larger disconnect, writes Edward Rothstein. There was a time when American cities were viewed as great models of social engineering, vast islands of humanity where hard work and a general devotion to the public interest could overcome all sorts of human failings. No more: "The [modern] city's greatest achievement, it often seems, is the protection of the private realm and competing private interests; about the public realm there is no clear understanding... New forms of urban life have to develop. But in the meantime, the public seems to exist only in the midst of cataclysm." The New York Times 01/24/04

Thursday, January 22, 2004

The Gaming Age It's official. Video games have become an ingrained part of our national consciousness, and their grip on our minds has begun to affect the way we view the world around us. Like any other cultural bellwether, gaming inspires devotion in the younger generation which has embraced it, and anger and fear in the older generation which sees the movement as a threat to its values. A new San Francisco art exhibit is examining the "moral, cultural and technical implications of the games industry," from the effects of violence in gaming to the cultural impact of a generation which chooses to live, at least part-time, in a virtual world. San Francisco Chronicle 01/22/04

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Losing American Creativity America is losing its creative and economic edge. "Cities from Sydney to Brussels to Dublin to Vancouver are fast becoming creative-class centers to rival Boston, Seattle, and Austin. They're doing it through a variety of means - from government-subsidized labs to partnerships between top local universities and industry. Most of all, they're luring foreign creative talent, including our own. The result is that the sort of high-end, high-margin creative industries that used to be the United States' province and a crucial source of our prosperity have begun to move overseas." Washington Monthly 01/04

Is College Becoming Devalued? Will more college education for more people make Britain more meritocratic and shrivel the class system? Nope. "Employers are becoming less interested in educational qualifications. That's happening for two reasons. Part of the job of higher education is to send a signal to employers—that someone has learnt to think, to persevere, to absorb information and to present ideas. As the supply of graduates grows, and the quality of teaching in Britain's shabby, crowded universities declines, this signal is fading. At the same time, services have been growing at the expense of manufacturing, and, increasingly, the qualities that employers in the service sector want are those the middle classes acquire at home: articulacy, confidence and smartness." The Economist 01/15/04

Time To Tone Up That Mental Muscle "You say the brain isn't really a muscle? Irrelevant. Recent studies indicate that it can bulk up: The hippocampus, a brain region responsible for thought and memory, produces new cells throughout a person's life, and some neuroscientists believe other parts of the brain also regenerate. The trick to keeping those new neurons? Use 'em or lose 'em..." Popular Science 01/04

Monday, January 19, 2004

Modern Media Sending Us To Hell?...Well... "The modern media, at least according to the modern media, is our cultural Gin Alley — a virtual world that caters to our basest instincts, fuels a mass addiction to sex and violence, and blinds us to the big political and social picture. Before we conclude that we're all going to hell in a cleverly marketed handbasket, though, it's worth putting this cultural lament in historical perspective." The Age (Melbourne) 01/19/04

Sunday, January 18, 2004

Doing Art Since The Beginning Of Time "For years, scholars regarded the appearance of figurative art as the initiation of an evolutionary process, that art became progressively more sophisticated as humans experimented with styles and techniques and passed this knowledge to the next generation. But a growing body of evidence suggests that modern humans, virtually from the moment they appeared in Ice Age Europe, were able to produce startlingly sophisticated art. Artistic ability thus did not ''evolve,'' many scholars said, but has instead existed in modern humans (the talented ones, anyway) throughout their existence." Miami Herald (WP) 01/18/04

Big Brother's Watching... Does Anybody Care? It used to be that surveillance was thought to be a bad thing. But a new book argues that reality TV makes being watched cool. "Reality shows glamorize surveillance, he writes, presenting it as one of the hip attributes of the contemporary world, an entree into the world of wealth and celebrity and even a moral good." The New York Times 01/17/04

Does American Culture Have Legs For The Long Run? American culture dominates the world like no other in human history. But will it have the staying power of Plato? "Some experts believe US domination of communication channels makes it inevitable that its messages will become far more entrenched than those of previous empires. The main difference now in favor of American culture is the importance of technology - telephone, Internet, films, all that did not exist in ancient Greece or the Mongol empire." Christian Science Monitor 01/15/04

Are Laws Killing Digital Creativity? "Who knows what creativity could be unleashed by the growth of digital distribution and the widespread availability of programs to create, sample and manipulate content. But if we treat copyright as an absolute property right, and allow the limitations on re-use forced on us by digital rights management technologies, we will never find out." BBC 01/16/04

Friday, January 16, 2004

How Music Affects Our Brains "Music plays tunes in the brain that scientists are just beginning to hear. Recent discoveries include how people's emotional reaction to music can alleviate pain, why certain musical intervals sound more pleasing than others, and how musical training alters the growing brains of children." Miami Herald (DMN) 01/15/04

Thursday, January 15, 2004

So Secure We're In Danger All this increased security and impingements on personal privacy... does it make us safer? A growing number of experts say no - in fact trying to photograph, fingerprint, search and profile more and more people makes us less safe, not more. Jeffrey Rosen is the latest to weigh in, with a new book. spiked 01/14/04

Of Intellectual Property And Agribusiness Subsidies...hmnnn Lawrence Lessig writes that intellectual property laws and agribusiness subsidies ought to be tied together. "Both the subsidy of agribusiness and the subsidy of local culture and science violate the principles of free trade by ignoring American intellectual property laws. Both violations are bad. But the two bads should be resolved together. Indeed, if anything, American subsidies should be ended first. The actual loss to US firms from piracy worldwide is not terribly high - if 'actual loss' means the amount Americans would get if the piracy ended." Wired 01/04

Monday, January 12, 2004

Why Humanities-Speak Is So Incomprehensible A computer engineer goes to a humanities conferene to give a presentation and comes away baffled by the other speeches. "I think it's human nature for members of any group to use the ideas they have in common as metaphors for everything else in life, so I'm willing to forgive him. The really telling factor that neither side of the debate seems to cotton to, however, is this: technical people like me work in a commercial environment. Every day I have to explain what I do to people who are different from me - marketing people, technical writers, my boss, my investors, my customers - none of whom belong to my profession or share my technical background or knowledge. As a consequence, I'm constantly forced to describe what I know in terms that other people can at least begin to understand. Contrast this situation with that of academia..." Chip Morningstar 01/04

Sunday, January 11, 2004

Natural Law Party Each year, John Broackman posts a big-idea question to important thinkers. This year he wonders what law of nature is waiting to be declared. "There is some bit of wisdom, some rule of nature, some lawlike pattern, either grand or small, that you've noticed in the universe that might as well be named after you." What, he asks, is your law, one that's ready to take a place near Kepler's and Faraday's and Murphy's. More than 150 responses totaling more than 20,000 words have been posted so far... The New York Times 01/10/04

Professor: Literary Theory Needs Reform Literary theory, argues one scholar, has got it all wrong. "Literary study, he argues, has been a random, unsystematic affair. For any given period, scholars focus on a select group of a mere few hundred texts: the canon. As a result, they have allowed a narrow, distorting slice of literary history to pass for the total picture. A canon of 200 novels, for instance, sounds very large for 19th-century Britain (and is much larger than the current one), but is still less than 1 per cent of the novels that were actually published: 20,000, 30, more, no one really knows — and close reading won't help here, a novel a day every day of the year would take a century or so." So what should replace it? The New York Times 01/10/04

Saturday, January 10, 2004

World's Languages Are Becoming Extinct "While estimates suggest that in the next 100 years perhaps five per cent of species will be wiped out, Mark Abley's 'Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages' argues that it is languages that are really under threat. The consensus seems to be that on current trends, between 50 and 90 per cent of the world's 6,000 or so languages will cease to exist over the next century. Should we care?" The Telegraph (UK) 01/10/04

Is There Linguistic Free Will? Does the language you speak affect the way you think? It's not the conventional thinking - indeed, the accepted idea is that we're born with some set of language templates already in place. But at least one linguist is playing with the idea that the structure of language helps structure how we think. The Economist 01/09/04

Thursday, January 8, 2004

Over-50s - Now There's A Market For You (Really!) For advertisers, "neglect of the 40 per cent of adult population over 50 - sometimes known as the grey market - is nothing new." But why? "Eighty per cent of the country's wealth is controlled by the over-50s but 95 per cent of adspend targets people under-50; 86 per cent of over-50s say they don't relate to most current advertising yet, for example, 66 per cent of new cars are bought by people over-45. The over-50s in employment outspend their under-50 counterparts by 20 per cent. And over the next 20 years the over-50s market in the UK will grow by 30 per cent, while the under-50s market will shrink by 5 per cent." Financial Times 01/06/04

Yes, But Is It The RIGHT Edition? Charles Rosen, responding to a reader of one of his earlier articles, writes that the internet is not the panacea of free-flowing information that many suggest it is. "I believe that the literary and musical tradition of a culture ought to be easily available in the best form as a matter of course, like street lighting or public transport. This is not such a radical notion: making it available is often given tax-exempt status as if it were a public service, but in the present economy this is no longer good enough. Record stores, above all the big chains, no longer offer the full range of classical records but have cut back; in most bookstores only the cheapest editions of works of the past are to be found on the shelves; and publishers and record companies no longer believe that keeping their products available for any stretch of time is economically justifiable." New York Review of Books 01/15/04

Is Art Sneaking Back Into The Mainstream? "Emerging from the domain of museums, galleries and textbooks, art seems to be a hot topic these days, appearing all around us in everyday culture. Walk into a bookstore, hit a movie, go to a play - and you may find yourself thinking about art." From movies with titles like Mona Lisa Smile to bestsellers like The DaVinci Code to a new wave of novels whose plots evolve from the experience of looking at a single painting, fine art is sneaking its way back into middlebrow American culture. Newsday 01/06/04

Monday, January 5, 2004

Iraq: Freedom Of Expression - The Bad With The Good The demise of Saddam Hussein's authority has opened the floodgates of artistic expression, outspoken media and religious liberty. Painters, writers, academics and spiritual leaders are all finding new voice. But many Iraqis fear that the new freedom of expression is leading some to go overboard. They are concerned that pornography and other vices typically associated with Western societies are beginning to seep into their culture." Los Angeles Times 01/05/04

Sunday, January 4, 2004

The End Of Theory "The golden age of cultural theory is long past,' Terry Eagleton writes in his new book, 'After Theory' (Basic Books), to be published in the United States in January. In this age of terrorism, he says, cultural theory has become increasingly irrelevant, because theorists have failed to address the big questions of morality, metaphysics, love, religion, revolution, death and suffering." The New York Times 01/04/04

Outta Time (I Think) We all understand the concept of not wasting time. "But what is time? To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, we know it when we see it — but certainly, a few years into the 21st century, our understanding of time must be deeper than that. By now, you'd think, science must have figured out why time seems to flow, why it always goes in one direction and why we are uniformly drawn from one second to the next. The fact is, though, the explanations for these basic features of time remain controversial. And the more physicists have searched for definitive answers, the more our everyday conception of time appears illusory." The New York Times 01/01/04

Uniquely Yours - 10 Pieces Of Unique Music There are some works of art that are unique - they can't be repeated or recreated by others, writes Tim Page, who offers a list of "unique" music. "If there is any tie that binds, it is their un-repeatability. It is impossible to imagine a sequel to any of them; they create new forms, live out their lives and then break their own molds. (The same cannot be said of some of the most hallowed masterpieces - Shakespeare's plays, Bach's choral music, Mozart's symphonies, Chaplin's comedies - all of which fit gloriously into one continuum or another.) Indeed, it has been argued that the very uniqueness of some of the works on this list is a sign of sterility, that the avenues of expression they seemed to open have usually proven to be cul-de-sacs. Still, if you want these particular goods, there's only one place to get them." Washington Post 01/02/04

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