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June 05, 2004
Where is Spencer Wells?
OK, probably my single post from Bangladesh. I'll be real happy to get back to the US. Sorry to the few people I said I'd contact in Dhaka, family obligations are taking center stage. Props to everyone for keeping up the posts while I'm away. In any case, I got this email:
Does anyone know what Spencer Wells' email address might be? I tried emailing him as well, and got the same bounce back. If you know the answer, please submit it in the comments box in addition to emailing Matt.
P.S. I changed the front page to display the past 7 days of posts again.
Tevren points me too this article in the New Scientist of a new cancer therapy being developed using adenovirus (for those interested here and here are the abstracts from the lab doing the work).
This article finds that the Jewish community of Chicago are increasingly becoming more African American. I wonder how this will affect the image of Jews among American Blacks.
Update: For some reason I'm reminded of the "Family Guy" episode where Peter tries to get his son converted to Judaism to improve his economic opportunities.
The Times (London) 27 May reports some recent research suggesting that the health benefits of giving up smoking (for the current population of smokers) have been over-estimated.
Valerie Lechene (Oxford) and Jerome Adda (University College London) have analysed a large Swedish database and concluded that, even after matching for education and income, smokers are less healthy (independently of smoking) than non-smokers. They are a self-selected group, possibly because they have a greater inclination to risk long-term health for short-term pleasure. It is not stated whether the underlying factors are environmental, genetic, or both.
The research has been presented to a conference, but not yet published.
Similar claims have been made before (e.g. by R. A. Fisher) but often discredited because the researchers were funded by the tobacco industry. This is said not to be the case with Lechene and Adda.
Before lighting up a Gauloise, note that the authors are not claiming there is no health effect, just that it is less than usually claimed, and that it is selective. Someone who has never been strongly tempted to smoke (or who has given up smoking without much difficulty) would shorten their life more by taking up smoking than a tobacco addict would gain by giving it up.
June 03, 2004
Scito te Ipsum: Macrobius to Freud
In the early fifth century, the neo-Platonist Macrobius wrote a commentary on Cicero's Dream of Scipio. Oddly enough, this commentary wound up taking on a life of its own, and, whereas the Somnium Scipionis survives only in a single palimpsest, the commentary survives in thirty five manuscripts. The commentary is something of a philosophical miscellany, writing about numerology, the solar system, the state of the soul, and of course dreams and their interpretation. In writing of dream interpretation, he wrote that certain dreams had powers of divination, either predicting events that would happen, showing something to the dreamer through a god or dead statesman, or concealing "with strange shapes and veils with ambiguity the true meaning of the information being offered, and requires an interpretation for its understanding" (III.10).
This third divinatory dream, the enigmatic dream, contained a truth, but it was a truth covered in an integumentum, a veiling that needed to be interpreted in order for the true meaning to be discovered. Macrobius's writings on dream interpretation fit in with the larger tenor of his commentary, which is strongly based on the neo-Platonic nostrum "Scito te ipsum," "Know yourself." In the neo-Platonic framework, to know onesself meant for one to realize that he was a celestial being, a god imprisoned in the flesh whose true home was the heavens. Knowing yourself in the end yielded a positive result.
Fifteen hundred years later, Sigmund Freud wrote The Interpretation of Dreams. Reading Freud, we might be stricken to notice that he shares a good deal of similarity with Macrobius. For Freud too tells us that dreams contain a truth that is nonetheless covered in an integumentum that needs to be interpreted, and the interpretation too comes from the principle of "Know thyself."
There, though, the similarity ends. For while Macrobius held that dreams may have divinatory powers, he believed that they came because man was a spiritual creature and during sleep the soul was at its most seperate from the physical body. Freud, of course, was materialist in his outlook and thus told of dreams that told of the dreamer whose integumentum came not from a god, but from the repressive forces of the ego.
The most significant difference, though, is that when the Macrobian dreamer worked to know himself, he did so in order to understand that he was a creature of the heavens who belonged in a starry abode. The Freudian dreamer, though, when knowing himself, usually discovered repression, guilt, fantasies of murder and adultery, and various other unsavory desires. What brought this change?
I have until now neglected to note that Macrobius wrote in what was essentially the last generation in which the intelligentsia of Europe was not wholly Christian. Freud wrote in one of the first generations in fifteen hundred years in which the intelligentsia was no longer Christian. The two, then, can be seen as bookends as it were, bracketing the Christian experience of Western Civilization. St. Paul had written that he looked within himself and found only sin, and this sentiment, this introspection in the search not for neo-Platonic divinity but for the perceived filth of sin characterized a large part of what we know about the way people examined their own consciousnesses.
The attempt to ruthlessly shine a light on the dark and seamy underside of the human consciousness whose contents we may not even fully know is the product of fifteen centuries of Christianity. Much as Siggy himself may have disliked to be told so, the intellectual foundations of the need to look within, to know onesself, and discover the subconscious were laid by people like St. Paul, St. Augustine of Hippo, and Guibert of Nogent.
Addendum: This most is mostly the mental detritus from some papers that I was working on last semester dealing with medieval subjectivity. If you are interested in reading further on this fascinating subject, I would highly recommend the following two books: The Discovery of the Individual, 1050-1200 by Colin Morris and The Invention of Literary Subjectivity by Michel Zink. The former was re-printed in 1987 and the latter has recently been translated.
June 01, 2004
Asian Height Gaps
Recently the New Yorker had an article about how American whites are the runts of the Euro-Caucasian world (the article's claims resulted in much skepticism from Abiola, Burbridge, Sailer [ctrl+F - 'height'], among others). NPR reports that Vietnam is in a similar situation for its 'world region'. The average male 18 year old is 5'-3" and the average female is 4'-10" (The Japanese numbers given for comparison are 5'-6" and 5'-1"). The country is apparently very self-conscious about this disparity, more than anywhere else in its Western business relations, and the government is initiating a $40 million program to increase height. Meanwhile North Koreans are stunted to the point of deformity.
They used to be called Eccentrics
Here's an article exploring the idea that Michelangelo may have had Asperger's Syndrome. Now, it may be interesting in a trivial way, but what is the big deal. According the the online Asperger's website, Asperger sufferers have;
By definition, those with AS have a normal IQ and many individuals (although not all), exhibit exceptional skill or talent in a specific area. Because of their high degree of functionality and their naiveté, those with AS are often viewed as eccentric or odd and can easily become victims of teasing and bullying. While language development seems, on the surface, normal, individuals with AS often have deficits in pragmatics and prosody. Vocabularies may be extraordinarily rich and some children sound like "little professors." However, persons with AS can be extremely literal and have difficulty using language in a social context.
To me, Asperger's does not sound like a debilitating mental illness, and may actually be an advantage in some circumstances. So why is the mental health profession wasting time with a mild mental state? I don't have much experience in psychiatry, so could any reader with a stronger background please explain it to me?