Biology, Culture, and Persistent Literary Dystopias

Tuesday, November 30th, 2004

Biology, Culture, and Persistent Literary Dystopias looks at a number of literary dystopias — Brave New World, 1984, We, A Handmaid’s Tale — and finds one central similarity:

Literary dystopias have this in common: They are imagined societies in which the deepest demands of human nature are either subverted, perverted, or simply made unattainable.

Cognitive Disconnect

Tuesday, November 30th, 2004

Cognitive Disconnect shares some of Dr. Ancel “K-ration” Keys’ diet and starvation study findings:

In the 1940s when he realized that starvation ‘was going to be a huge problem’ in war-torn countries, Keys led the first scientific studies of calorie restrictions, at the University of Minnesota. Their study was known as the Minnesota Starvation Study and the results were published in the legendary two-volume, Biology of Human Starvation. Decades later, it is still the definitive work on the subject. “I doubt another of its kind will ever be done,” he said. Today, there are rights for human research subjects and it would be seen as too cruel and life-threatening.

Young male volunteers, all carefully selected for being especially psychologically and socially well-adjusted, good-humored, motivated, active and healthy, were put on diets meant to mimic what starving Europeans were enduring, of about 1,600 calorie/day — but which included lots of fresh vegetables, complex carbohydrates and lean meats. The calories were more than many weight loss diets prescribe and precisely what’s considered “conservative” treatment for obesity today. What they were actually studying, of course, was dieting — our bodies can’t tell the difference if they’re being starved voluntarily or involuntarily! Dr. Keys and colleagues then painstakingly chronicled how the men did during the 6 months of dieting and for up to a year afterwards, scientifically defining “the starvation syndrome.”

As the men lost weight, their physical endurance dropped by half, their strength about 10%, and their reflexes became sluggish — with the men initially the most fit showing the greatest deterioration, according to Keys. The men’s resting metabolic rates declined by 40%, their heart volume shrank about 20%, their pulses slowed and their body temperatures dropped. They complained of feeling cold, tired and hungry; having trouble concentrating; of impaired judgment and comprehension; dizzy spells; visual disturbances; ringing in their ears; tingling and numbing of their extremities; stomach aches, body aches and headaches; trouble sleeping; hair thinning; and their skin growing dry and thin. Their sexual function and testes size were reduced and they lost all interest in sex. They had every physical indication of accelerated aging.

But the psychological changes that were brought on by dieting, even among these robust men with only moderate calorie restrictions, were profound. So much so that Keys called it “semistarvation neurosis.” The men became nervous, anxious, apathetic, withdrawn, impatient, self-critical with distorted body images and even feeling overweight, moody, emotional and depressed. A few even mutilated themselves, one chopping off three fingers in stress. ?They lost their ambition and feelings of adequacy, and their cultural and academic interests narrowed. They neglected their appearance, became loners and their social and family relationships suffered. They lost their senses of humor, love and compassion. Instead, they became obsessed with food, thinking, talking and reading about it constantly; developed weird eating rituals; began hoarding things; consumed vast amounts of coffee and tea; and chewed gum incessantly (as many as 40 packages a day). Binge eating episodes also became a problem as some of the men were unable to continue to restrict their eating.

Many of these traits are familiar with those who’ve spent their lives dieting. In fact, many of the symptoms once thought to be primary features of anorexia nervosa are actually symptoms of starvation and restrictive eating, said David M. Garner, PhD., director of River Centre Clinic in Sylvania, Ohio.
[...]
The extreme physical and mental effects Keys observed led to his famous quote: “Starved people cannot be taught democracy. To talk about the will of the people when you aren’t feeding them is perfect hogwash.”

Remembering a Head-Turning, Neck-Snapping Year for Cars

Tuesday, November 30th, 2004

In Remembering a Head-Turning, Neck-Snapping Year for Cars, Ralph Kinney Bennett looks back at 1955:

Detroit would produce almost 8 million cars in the ’55 model year, a whopping 44 percent increase over 1954. Luxury extras like automatic transmissions became more commonplace, ordered in 7 out of 10 new cars. Sale of air conditioned cars (an almost unimaginable luxury to most people at the time) would more than triple, although the 184,027 thus equipped were still a small fraction of total sales.

What I most remember is how old previous model cars began to look once the ’55s came out. Take a look at a 1999 car now, or even a ’95. They don’t seem that outdated in comparison to today’s models. But take a look at a 1955 Chevy and a 1949 model. You’ll see what I mean.

Pictures By Telegraph

Tuesday, November 30th, 2004

Pictures By Telegraph, from Pearson’s Magazine, April 1900, describes the then-cutting-edge telediagraph, an early fax machine:

The equipment consists of two machines, almost identical in construction, the first being called the “transmitter,” the second the “receiver.” Each is provided with an eight-inch cylinder, which may be made to revolve by a delicate system of clockwork so finely regulated that both instruments work together to a nicety.

Above each cylinder rests a fine platinum needle, or stylus, not unlike the point in a telegraph key. A sheet of tin-foil, six inches by eight inches, ready to wrap round the transmitter’s cylinder, and a sheet of ordinary carbon manifold-copying paper of the same dimensions, which, when placed between two sheets of blank paper, is to be wrapped round the receiver’s cylinder — these complete the chief requirements.
[...]
With a photograph of the subject before him, the artist draws its duplicate on the sheet of tin-foil, leaving a margin of about a half-inch on all sides. For this work, either pen or brush may be used; but, of first importance, the liquid must have more consistency than ink, and must be a non-conductor of electricity. An alcoholic solution of shellac is found most suitable for the purpose.

(Hat tip to Boing Boing.)

Dads in the ‘Hood

Monday, November 29th, 2004

Dad’s in the ‘Hood reports the good news that more inner-city fathers are sticking around to raise their children. It also reports some bad news:

In 2001, BET.com encouraged visitors to post Father’s Day greetings. Organizers assumed that they would see a Hallmark fest of “I love you” or “I miss you.” Instead they got a “venting session”: “I hate you,” “To all my deadbeat dads out there, I just want to say, thanks for nothing,” and “That bastard forgot that I even existed,” contributors railed.

The Classics in the Slums

Monday, November 29th, 2004

According to The Classics in the Slums, by Jonathan Rose, academics like Barbara Herrnstein Smith, president of the Modern Language Association, are wrong. It is not an undeniable “fact that Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare do not figure significantly in the personal economies of these [underprivileged] people, do not perform individual or social functions that gratify their interests, do not have value for them.” In fact, “Until fairly recently, Britain had an amazingly vital autodidact culture, where a large minority of the working classes passionately pursued classic literature, philosophy, and music.” For example:

Will Crooks (b. 1852), a cooper living in extreme poverty in East London, once spent tuppence on a secondhand Iliad, and was dazzled: “What a revelation it was to me! Pictures of romance and beauty I had never dreamed of suddenly opened up before my eyes. I was transported from the East End to an enchanted land. It was a rare luxury for a working lad like me just home from work to find myself suddenly among the heroes and nymphs of ancient Greece.” Nancy Sharman (b. 1925) recalled that her mother, a Southampton charwoman, had no time to read until her last illness, at age 54. Then she devoured the complete works of Shakespeare, and “mentioned pointedly to me that if anything should happen to her, she wished to donate the cornea of her eyes to enable some other unfortunate to read.” Margaret Perry (b. 1922) wrote of her mother, a Nottingham dressmaker: “The public library was her salvation. She read four or five books a week all her life but had no one to discuss them with. She had read all the classics several times over in her youth and again in later years, and the library had a job to keep her supplied with current publications. Married to a different man, she could have been an intelligent and interesting woman.”

In the nineteenth century, Shakespeare could still attract enthusiastic, rowdy working-class audiences, who commented loudly about the quality of the performances. Caravans of barnstorming actors brought the plays to isolated mining villages. In response to popular demand, Birmingham’s Theatre Royal devoted 30 percent of its repertoire to the Bard and other classic dramatists. In 1862, a theater manager provoked a near-riot when he attempted to substitute a modern comedy for an announced production of Othello.

Shakespeare provided a political script for labor leaders like J. R. Clynes (b. 1869), who rose from the textile mills of Oldham to become deputy leader of the House of Commons. In his youth he drew inspiration from the “strange truth” he discovered in Twelfth Night: “Be not afraid of greatness.” “What a creed!” he marveled. “How it would upset the world if men lived up to it.” Later, reading Julius Caesar, “the realisation came suddenly to me that it was a mighty political drama” about the class struggle, “not just an entertainment.” Once he overawed a stubborn employer by reciting an entire scene from the play: Clynes, as a friend put it, was “the only man who ever settled a trade dispute by citing Shakespeare.” Elected to Parliament in 1906, he read A Midsummer Night’s Dream while awaiting the returns.

An argument for reducing the duration of copyrights:

Working-class autodidacts read the classics in part because contemporary literature was too expensive. A 1940 survey found that while 55 percent of working-class adults read books, they rarely bought new books. An autodidact could build up an impressive library by haunting used-book stalls, scavenging castoffs, or buying cheap out-of-copyright reprints such as Everyman’s Library, but these offered only yesterday’s authors. Thus Welsh collier Joseph Keating (b. 1871) was able to immerse himself in Swift, Pope, Fielding, Richardson, Smollett, Goldsmith, Sheridan, Keats, Byron, Shelley, Dickens, Thackeray, and Greek philosophy. There was one common denominator among these authors: all were dead. “Volumes by living authors were too high-priced for me,” Keating explained, but that did not bother him terribly. “Our school-books never mentioned living writers; and the impression in my mind was that an author, to be a living author, must be dead; and that his work was all the better if he died of neglect and starvation.”

Nature, Nurture and Income

Monday, November 29th, 2004

In Nature, Nurture and Income, Alex Tabarrok examines “a fascinating new paper” by Bruce Sacerdote, What Happens When We Randomly Assign Children to Families?

Holt’s International Children’s Services places children, primarily Koreans, with families in the United States. Holt has an interesting proviso to their adoption contract, conditional on being accepted into the program, children are randomly assigned. Sacerdote has collected data from children who were adopted between 1970-1980, and thus who today are in their mid 20′s or 30′s, and their adoptive parents.
[...]
The income of biological children increases strongly with parental income but the income of adoptive children is flat in parent income. What does this mean?
[...]
What do parents transmit to their biological children but not to their adopted children? Genes. When we observe, as we do, that low-income parents tend to have low-income children and high-income parents tend to have high-income children we should not bemoan the inequities of nurture but rather the inequities of nature.

First Measured Century

Monday, November 29th, 2004

James Q. Wilson is interviewed on crime in the 1960s in the First Measured Century:

Between 1963 and the early 1970s, the rate of violent crime more or less tripled in the United States. By “violent crime” I mean murder, manslaughter, and robbery and assault. So we had a tripling of the crime rate at a time when the country was by and large prosperous; [and,] except for Vietnam, more or less peaceful; in which the unemployment rates, even among African American adolescents, was really quite low.

And this change occurred in part because the population was getting younger, though nobody had predicted this in advance. In retrospect it turned out that the youth of the population does contribute to the crime rate. But that wasn’t the whole story. Our population getting younger probably explains no more than 15 or 20 or 25 percent of the increase.

The rest of it was explained by two other factors: one that is easy to describe — namely, we had stopped sending people to prison. The prison population in the 1960s declined. It was lower at the end [of the decade] than it was at the beginning, even though the crime rate was going up.

The other is harder to describe and impossible to measure. And that is the ethos, the culture of the country, had changed. The notion of “do your own thing,” “strike out on your own,” “turn on, tune out, drop out.” These slogans, this attitude of radical self-indulgence, had affected a significant fraction of the population, and this weakened the ordinary social constraints that were operating on people.

(Hat tip to 2blowhards.)

Great composers scored on language

Monday, November 29th, 2004

Fascinating. From Great composers scored on language:

They found that English had more of a swing than French, a rhythm produced by a tendency in English to cut some vowels short while stressing others. The melodies of the two languages also differed, with pitch varying far more in spoken English than French.

The team then did the same kind of analysis on music, comparing the rhythm and melody of English classical music from composers such as Elgar, Holst and Vaughan Williams, with that of French composers including Debussy, Fauré and Roussel. “The music differs in just the same way as the languages,” said Dr Patel. “It is as if the music carries an imprint of the composer’s language.”

Greeks Statues Weren’t White

Monday, November 29th, 2004

Michael Blowhard points to some images of replica Greek statues:

OK, so ancient Greek statues weren’t white. We know that. They were painted, or gold-leafed, or something. Very interesting. But what did they actually look like? Here’s the answer, or one possible answer anyway. And talk about gaudy! What I’m most reminded of is the decor in NYC pizza parlors.

A Philistine Screed on Philistinism

Wednesday, November 24th, 2004

A Philistine Screed on Philistinism opens with “a wry line, aimed at the funny bone of the elite”:

“No passion in the world,” H.G. Wells declared, “is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.”

Another witty bit of intellectual condescension:

I remember one snobby professor who described the standards of his university to new faculty members with a practiced line.

“The admissions requirements of ____ University,” he liked to intone in comradely fashion, “can be found on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.”

Ostensibly, Carlin Romano is reviewing Frank Furedi’s Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?: Confronting 21st Century Philistinism, but he has more to say on the topic of Philistines than on the lackluster text. I’d never heard of Hubbard’s The Philistine:

Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915), editor of The Philistine monthly magazine from 1895 to 1915. (At one point it boasted a circulation of more than 100,000 and published such writers as Rudyard Kipling and Stephen Crane.) A soap salesman and state-side admirer of William Morris who started the fabulously successful and semi-communal Roycrofters printing operation in Aurora, N.Y., Hubbard grew wealthy writing and publishing more than seven million, well, philistine words.

His aphorisms exuded middle-class, can-do common sense, apotheosized hard work and efficiency, and bristled at preachy promulgation or nit-picking by cultural mandarins. “The world is moving so fast these days,” Hubbard wrote, “that the man who says it can’t be done is generally interrupted by someone doing it.”

“A committee,” he observed, “is a thing which takes a week to do what one good man can do in an hour.” Some credit him with the immortal, “Life is just one damn thing after another.” Hubbard’s business credo proclaimed, “I believe that when I make a sale I make a friend.” Perhaps more tellingly, for the history of philistinism from Arnold to shop-to-drop America today, he asserted, “I believe in sunshine, fresh air, spinach, applesauce, laughter, buttermilk, babies, bombazine, and chiffon, always remembering that the greatest word in the English language is ‘Sufficiency.’”

A Thanksgiving Lesson

Wednesday, November 24th, 2004

A Thanksgiving Lesson from Alex Tabarrok (of Marginal Revolution) and Governor William Bradford (of the early Pilgrim settlement):

It’s one of the ironies of American history that when the Pilgrims first arrived at Plymouth rock they promptly set about creating a communist society. Of course, they were soon starving to death.

Fortunately, ‘after much debate of things,’ Governor William Bradford ended corn collectivism, decreeing that each family should keep the corn that it produced. In one of the most insightful statements of political economy ever penned, Bradford described the results of the new and old systems.

[Ending corn collectivism] had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.

The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato’s and other ancients applauded by some of later times; that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For the young men, that were most able and fit for labour and service, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense. The strong, or man of parts, had no more in division of victuals and clothes than he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalized in labours and victuals, clothes, etc., with the meaner and younger sort, thought it some indignity and disrespect unto them. And for men’s wives to be commanded to do service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc., they deemed it a kind of slavery, neither could many husbands well brook it. Upon the point all being to have alike, and all to do alike, they thought themselves in the like condition, and one as good as another; and so, if it did not cut off those relations that God hath set amongst men, yet it did at least much diminish and take off the mutual respects that should be preserved amongst them. And would have been worse if they had been men of another condition. Let none object this is men’s corruption, and nothing to the course itself. I answer, seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in His wisdom saw another course fitter for them.

Among Bradford’s many insights it’s amazing that he saw so clearly how collectivism failed not only as an economic system but that even among godly men “it did at least much diminish and take off the mutual respects that should be preserved amongst them.” And it shocks me to my core when he writes that to make the collectivist system work would have required “great tyranny and oppression.” Can you imagine how much pain the twentieth century could have avoided if Bradford’s insights been more widely recognized?

Math Whiz Breaks Calculation Record

Wednesday, November 24th, 2004

Whoa. From Math Whiz Breaks Calculation Record:

A 38-year-old with degrees in psychology, education and computer science needed only 11.8 seconds to calculate the 13th root of a 100-digit number in his head, setting a new record, organizers said.
[...]
“I first think of an elegant problem-solving algorithm and the result comes immediately,” said Mittring, who beat the previous record of 13.55 seconds, set by the Frenchman Alexis Lemaire in 2002, according to organizers of the Tuesday night event.

Scientist Who Created K Ration Diet Dies

Wednesday, November 24th, 2004

What a fascinating guy! From Scientist Who Created K Ration Diet Dies:

Ancel Keys, the University of Minnesota scientist who invented the K ration diet used by soldiers in World War II and who linked high cholesterol and fatty diets to heart disease, has died at the age of 100.
[...]
Keys was born in Colorado Springs, Colo., and was an adventurous child. He worked in a lumber camp, shoveled bat droppings in an Arizona cave and mined for gold in Colorado, all before finishing high school. He enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1922, but took time off to sail to China as a crewman aboard the liner President Wilson.

He returned to college, earning a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science and a master’s degree in zoology at the University of California. By 1930 he had a Ph.D. in oceanography and biology from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif.

But his career didn’t take shape until he went to Copenhagen to work with Nobel Prize winner August Krogh, a physiologist ? someone who studies bodily processes and function. Inspired, Keys earned a second Ph.D. in physiology from Cambridge University in England and became an instructor at Harvard University.

In 1935 he launched his first exotic study, on the effects of high altitude on the human body. The next year he was lured to the University of Minnesota, where he began studying the physical differences between athletes and nonathletes.

Eventually he built his lab beneath the university’s Memorial Stadium.

In 1941, Keys was asked to help develop an Army ration that soldiers could carry in combat. He purchased supplies, such as hard biscuits, dry sausage and chocolate bars, at a Minneapolis market. When the Army mass-produced the packages, he was surprised to see them marked with the letter K, for Keys. The K ration was born.

During World War II he also served as a special assistant to the secretary of war.

Afterward, Keys conducted one of his most famous studies, the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. He fed 36 volunteers a “semistarvation” diet, mirroring the conditions found in occupied Europe. The men lost an average of 25 percent of their weight, and Keys found that their hearts shrank, endurance fell and personalities changed. The study, he concluded, held a powerful lesson for those in charge of rebuilding postwar Europe: “Starved people cannot be taught democracy.”

Keys also noted that deaths from heart disease dropped dramatically in countries where food supplies had run short during the war. And he started looking for the connection.

He found his answer through a study of 286 middle-aged businessmen from Minneapolis and St. Paul that began in 1946. He concluded that those who suffered heart attacks had high levels of cholesterol in their bloodstreams. And he pinned that on their high-fat diets.

Crossing the Fossa Regia

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2004

I wouldn’t have sought out a Tunisian travelog, but I enjoyed Michael J. Totten’s Crossing the Fossa Regia nonetheless:

Tunisia isn’t an island, but it might as well be. If you visit you will arrive the same way you would an isolated coastal town in Alaska — by boat or by plane. No Western traveler arrives from the border states. You won’t take the bus from anarchic Algeria, nor will you pull up at a remote border post in a rental car from Libya. Tunisians have all but walled themselves off from the fundamentalism and fanaticism that surround them. They look instead to their more like-minded neighbors across the Mediterranean to the north. You will think of Europe, too, if you go.

Tunis, the capital, is a cosmopolitan mix:

After checking into our hotel, my wife Shelly and I headed straight for the old city — the ancient Tunis medina. We walked the maze of twisting streets, carpet stalls, cafes, shuttered windows, arched passageways, minarets, and secret paths. Turkish lamps lit the darkened covered corners of the souk. Potted flowers in hanging baskets added delicate touches of color and life. The aromas of orange oil and curling smoke from burning incense were amplified by the warm heavy air. The muezzin’s haunting call to prayer from the Great Mosque in the center was the perfect grace note. This was the East in its glory, the most intoxicating place in the capital.

We left the medina through the arch to the east and found ourselves in the French imperialist quarter known today as the Cit? Nouvelle. In the space of less than 100 feet we walked from the Middle East to France, and we did it without leaving Africa.

And it’s fairly liberal:

Some conservative women did wear the hijab over their hair, but they were distinctly in the minority. Men wore collared button-up shirts and young women competed to see who could resemble hot young French models the most.

Despite Shelly’s blue eyes and red hair, she didn’t get stared at much. If you want to turn heads in Tunis, dress like a Saudi. While sitting at the Caf? de Paris on the Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the Cit? Nouvelle’s own Champs Elysee, three women walked past wearing black head-to-toe chadors that covered up all but their eyes. I leaned to the right to get a view of everyone else on the street. Almost every man and most of the women turned their heads to gawk at the three wraiths in black.

Then they crossed the Fossa Regia into the Sahara:

Matmata sat atop an eerie upland moonscape. The Berbers went underground more than a thousand years ago to escape the infernal heat of the Sahara. You would, too, if you didn’t have central air. You would tunnel into the walls with your hands if you had to.

The underground “troglodyte” houses were a cool 75 degrees at midday. George Lucas thought them the perfect setting for Star Wars. Both Luke Skywalker and Ben Kenobi lived on the desert planet Tatooine (which is the name of a real town a few miles away) in caves tunneled out from the center of open-air pits. Not everyone in Matmata lived underground, though. Most of the buildings were top-side and — whenever possible — were cooled down the usual way.

In Tunis the mosques were architectural masterpieces, with soaring minarets, marble floors, Roman columns, and intricately tiled blue and white walls. The mosque in Matmata was made of the same white- and lime-washed adobe as the walls inside the Berber houses. It was primitive and misshapen as though it were a gigantic version of a clay mosque made by a child in art class.

Chickens, donkeys, and even camels ran loose in the streets. It was hard to believe there was another street in the same country that made me think of a less-fancy Champs Elysee. Some people lived in one-room caves even in the middle of town — the Berber version of tin shacks. The gender apartheid was total. The number of women we saw while in town: zero. We did, however, see a bloody fly-blown goat’s head on the sidewalk.

The backwardness and extreme conservatism was as exhausting as the heat. The streets full of men had an edge to them, even though every last one was kind, generous, and embarrassingly friendly.

Then they visited the Middle East’s version of Miami:

The Zone Touristique was a bit like Las Vegas and a lot like Cancun. Vaguely Middle Eastern-themed hotels, some shaped like castles and Berber ksars, fronted the horseshoe-shaped bay. They catered to hip young Eurotourists who mostly came to Tunisia for the beach. I saw handbills advertising nightclubs and meet-markets. A large wooden sign just a block from our hotel informed me that Sousse’s sister city back in the States was Miami.

The amount of wealth in a given place in Tunisia seemed to me directly proportional to its amount of contact with people from somewhere else, even if that contact was in the past. Souse benefited from being inside Rome’s Fossa Regia, more recently from restoration by the French who fell in love with the city, and currently by an enormous injection of cash in the form of tourist Euros every single day of the year.