Archive for the ‘rare sincerity’ category

Happy Newtonmas

December 25, 2015

Let us raise a toast to a fatherless child, born on this day (sort of — given that Julian-Gregorian kerfluffle) who would one day bring a new revelation into the world.

Isaac Newton Kneller portrait 1689

Happy birthday, my man Izzy!

Top of the day to everyone here, in every mode of celebration.

Image: Sir Godfrey Kneller, Isaac Newton, 1689. (This one is likely a copy)

A 21st Century Mother-and-Child

December 24, 2015

Thought I’d try one post this year without politics or snark, and this is it.

A couple of weeks ago I put this up at The Boston Globe‘s site — and it is, I believe, behind a pay wall.  The Globe is kind enough to release the material back to me to post after a bit, as long as I credit and link back to the original posting (see what I did there) — so here it is.  If the image has any resonance this time of year for you….good.  And if what its maker has to say about the multiplication of possibilities it embodies adds a little joy to the picture?  So much the better.

_________________________

A mother cradling her infant child.

If the better angels of human nature were to prevail, this picture could become one of those pictures — a single frame that captures an essential piece of the 21st century.

Two human beings, stripped way past bare: two brains, connected in a universal human pose, a mother cradling her infant child.

SaxeTakahashi_MRI_April2015

Rebecca Saxe, a neuroscientist (and my colleague) at MIT, is a maestro of the camera that can make such images, the functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, or fMRI. To create an fMRI portrait, a subject must lie still inside a narrow cylinder, the inside of a giant electromagnet. The artful manipulation of electromagnetic fields catches the brain in the act — not quite the act of thinking, but of working, nerve cells grabbing oxygen to power the action that ultimately adds up to an idea, a gesture, a feeling.

Making a functional magnetic resonance image demands a lot of its subjects. In a return to the earliest days of photography, you have to lie still for minutes to allow the fMRI machine to complete its tour of your skull. “Moving just a millimeter leaves a blur on the screen,” as Saxe writes at Smithsonian.com. “The mother and baby must hold their pose, as if for a daguerreotype.”

Saxe’s work centers on a fundamental question: How people grapple with the realization that other people have thoughts inside their heads — an area of research called “theory of mind.”

Becoming aware of the fact that people around you are thinking and learning to analyze what those thoughts might be, is a capacity that human beings develop over time — which has led Saxe to attempt to make fMRI images of ever younger children. That allows her to track how growing brains, growing people, form the ability to imagine the reality of other’s minds.

There’s no science in Saxe’s picture of herself with her son — or rather, there’s no data to be used in any formal extension of her theory of mind research. Instead, one reading of the image is simply as a marker, a measure of the current state of a scientific project. Saxe writes that the juxtaposition of her mature brain with the just-getting-started one of her son is the “depiction of one of the hardest problems in neuroscience: How will changes in that specific little organ accomplish the unfolding of a whole human mind?”

That is: This picture captures a key step in the process of discovery — the moment when a human invention extends the reach of human senses into realms that were until then not just unexplored but unreachable. New instruments don’t just reveal more of something, more detail, better precision, or what have you. Often, as here, they open windows onto whole new vistas. We’re a very long way yet from answering Saxe’s question, but in the sight of her and her son’s brains we can recognize that an answer is possible.

That’s reason enough to borrow an afternoon of scanner time — but that’s not the whole story behind this picture. Saxe says she and her colleagues made this particular fMRI image “because we wanted to see it.” She reads in it a specific story, an argument. Mother and Child is an old, old trope, in art and in human experience, and as Saxe writes, there is a reflex to elevate “the maternal values, and the women who embody them” to the exclusion of the possibility (or propriety) of those same women exercising their smarts in any out-of-the-home role.

Mary_Cassat_-_Mothers_Kiss_-_NGC_29879

Saxe with her son, depicted and depicting — as she writes, neuroscientist and mother — collude in the same single frame. That was the goal, to create “an old image made new.” And there it is, in the traditional gesture of a mother kissing her child, and the utterly new view of that caress from the inside out.

To me, for all that Saxe’s gloss is so clearly readable in her picture, there’s a yet broader idea expressed. There’s a lot of loose talk around the so-called two cultures of the humanities and sciences, often presented as two sharply distinct ways of making sense of the world. Saxe’s picture gives the lie to that simplistic framing. Art does many things, but certainly one of them is to give us images that confront us with shards of the strange experience of being human. Science, an artful craft, can do the same — as it does here.

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Back to regularly scheduled rage, weariness, snark, schadenfreude, celebrations of the discomfiture of our adversaries and random brain bubbles after this.  Happy Saturnalia, all.

Image:  Mary Cassatt, Mother’s Kissbetween 1890 and 1891.

Some Happy News

December 6, 2015

This:

Former President Jimmy Carter announced Sunday that his brain cancer is gone, NBC News reported.

Carter, 91, said an MRI earlier this week revealed the good news, which he broke to a Sunday school class he teaches in his home state of Georgia, according to NBC News.

Masolino_Brancacci_Chapel_01

Not even remotely a cancer doc, me, but I do know that while a clear scan does not mean one is cancer free forever — it sure as hell is better news than the alternative.

Jimmy Carter is a great human being, the best ex-President in history (and much maligned, and under-valued in his presidency as well, IMHO).  It has to count as very good news to know we’ll have him on the planet with us longer than might have been expected after the news of the summer.

Image: Masolino, The Healing of Tabitha, c. 1420s.

If The Phone Don’t Ring…

November 18, 2015

Hey everyone!

I’ve got a message for you:

Pick up the damn phone.

The backstory:  I heard last night from a valued reader with connections to the Hill reminded me that there is more this crowd can do than point, sigh, and mock the GOP pants-wetters (abetted by an increasing number of feckless Dems) who so fear the widows and orphans from the latest spasm of our long decade of war in the Middle East.*

Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_052

What to do about the attempt to make fear the ground state of American policy?  What to do about the spreading political meme that the proper exercise of US state power is to bar the door to Syrian refugees? How should we stand with President Obama when he says of the fear mongers “that’s not who we are”?

Pick up the damn telephone.

Call your Congressional representatives in the House and the Senate.

You know the drill:  Speak your mind, politely, respectfully, but firmly to whoever you get on the phone.

My reader emphasized, and my own distant memory of an internship on the Hill concurs, that these calls really matter.  House and Senate staffs keep notes and logs.  There are regular reports of how many calls came in, on what side, and with what passion or urgency.  \

Paradoxically, because of the ubiquity of social media, an actual human voice that has taken the trouble to pick up a phone carries a great deal of weight.  So call.

The numbers:

The Senate.

The House.

If you’re feeling extra virtuous — your governor and state legislature representatives would also be worth a call.

We can water the tree of liberty not with blood, but words.

Pick up the damn phone.

PS:  Obama gets it exactly right in this devastating take down of the chicken hawks in the other party.

*Yes, I do know that the conflict there — and “Great” Power strategerizing through its misery — extends well before 2003.  But the Syrian Civil War of the last few years is (at least to me) both a conflict with deep roots and a proximate consequence of Bush the Lesser’s attempt to remake the Middle East into an model US client region.

Image: attr. to Rembrandt van Rijn, The Flight Into Egypt 1627

Grace In Extremis, And Its Reward

September 29, 2015

I’m not going to get in the way. This story speaks for itself:

I’ll only add that I found Francine Christoph’s story to be both a reminder of the evil of which human individuals and societies are capable, and a glorious rebuke to those then and now who would urge us to heed our yetzer hara.

Pick Up The Damn Phone — The Phonening

August 25, 2015

Yup — that time again, the time when I get to nag  y’all about calling your representatives about the Iran deal.

Champinjoner._Julius_Kronberg_1908._Olja_på_duk_-_Hallwylska_museet_-_47489

Here’s the menu:  if they’ve already said they support the deal, thank them.  I’m just about to do that for Senator Markey.

If they’ve already declared against the deal, tell them, politely, that you disagree, and that you’ll remember this at the next relevant November.  Even if your senators and/or congressperson are utterly safe seat types, they and their staffs hate hearing from a constituent directly that they’re doing a bad job.  Think of it as a long game:  they’re on the wrong side of this one.  But it doesn’t take many calls — shockingly few — to make them just a touch gunshy, which softens them up next time.  That matters, articularly on matters that you may care deeply about, but that haven’t risen to the level of automatic partisan division.

Most important:  if they are still undeclared, tell ’em what you think and emphasize how much this means to you.  I told my peeps that everyone has a make or break issue, and this one is mine.  YMMV — but make sure your representatives know you care. Joe Kennedy is about to hear — again — from me.

Speaking of which — it’s OK to call a second time if your folks are still in play.  That shows you mean it — and that’s what your representatives need to hear.

It really does make a difference.  They keep records of these calls.  The anti-deal folks are funded, out in numbers, and very, very dangerous. This is your chance to punch back.

House of Representatives numbers.

Senate numbers.

You know what to do.

Image: Julius Kronberg, Mushrooms1908

A Couple Of Things To Talk About When You Pick Up The Damn Phone

August 12, 2015

I promise I won’t post on this every day — but I’m going to come back to this pretty often until we get through the votes on the Iran deal.

Anyway — yesterday I asked everyone to call their Congressional representatives — Senators and Congresspeople alike — to thank them if they’ve already declared for the deal, to urge them to do so if they’re still (publicly) thinking about it, and, respectfully but very firmly, to give them grief if they’ve come down on the wrong side.

I’m asking again.  Here are the House and Senate directories.

Today I’ve got a couple of new developments you can talk about when you do call.

First up, meet Gary Samore:

“I think President Obama’s strategy succeeded,” said Mr. Samore, who left his post on Monday. “He has created economic leverage and traded it away for Iranian nuclear concessions.”

Samore quit his job as head of United Against Nuclear Iran — a pressure group that worked to deepen sanctions against Iraq and that now, under its new head, old friend Joe Lieberman (D then I, but really R-Likud) opposes the Iran deal.

Giuseppe_Arcimboldo_-_Winter_-_WGA00819

The key here is that Samore is not someone who just fell of the turnip truck, nor is he a squish about the sweetness and light that may follow an agreement:

Though he backs the accord as the most that can be achieved diplomatically, Mr. Samore is skeptical that the agreement will open a new chapter in American-Iranian relations.

“The best you can achieve with diplomacy is delay in the hope that at some point a new Iranian government emerges that is not committed to developing nuclear weapons,” he said.

And if that leadership does not materialize, Mr. Samore acknowledges that Iran might vastly expand its nuclear enrichment program after core elements of the agreement expire in 15 years.

He is also not convinced that Iran will continue to adhere to the accord once economic sanctions are lifted. Even so, he argues, the accord will put the United States in a stronger position to respond than a congressional rejection would.

“We will have bought a couple of years, and if Iran cheats or reneges we will be in an even better position to double down on sanctions or, if necessary, use military force,” Mr. Samore said. “If I knew for certain that in five years they would cheat or renege, I’d still take the deal.”

This is what “best available option” means:  not that Lieberman and his herd of neo-con ilk can fart pixie dust and will away Iran’s political establishment, its institutional memory, and the broadly available knowledge of nuclear weapons design, but that we put ourselves in the most advantageous position we can to shape events as they unfold.

And in other news, it turns out that Iran is not, in fact, a monolithic Borg committed to the destruction of the United States and Israel.  Who says so? None other than a reporter from that famously pro-Iran media organ, The Forward.*

Mr. Cohler-Esses’s reporting, coming as Congress prepares to vote on the nuclear agreement next month, presents a more nuanced view of Iran compared with the dark descriptions advanced by a number of Jewish-American advocacy groups that consider Iran a rogue enemy state…

“Ordinary Iranians with whom I spoke have no interest at all in attacking Israel,” Mr. Cohler-Esses wrote. “Their concern is with their own sense of isolation and economic struggle.”

Among some of Iran’s senior ayatollahs and prominent officials, he wrote, there is also dissent from the official line against Israel.

“No one had anything warm to say about the Jewish state,” he wrote. “But pressed as to whether it was Israel’s policies or its very existence to which they objected, several were adamant: It’s Israel’s policies.”

While he wrote that there was no freedom of the press in Iran, “freedom of the tongue has been set loose.”

“I was repeatedly struck by the willingness of Iranians to offer sharp, even withering criticisms of their government on the record, sometimes even to be videotaped doing so,” Mr. Cohler-Esses wrote.

There you have it, folks: the deal on the table — even if the Iranians break it — still works to the advantage of the US, according to one of the most expert and skeptical figures in this long-running debate.  And the Iranians have a polity that is not in fact a unified autocracy bent on rogue violence, but is instead a much more complicated web of interests, beliefs and aspirations — exactly the kind of situation that offers opportunity for those deft enough to seek it out.

Oh — one more thing.  Last night I got an email from someone I’ve never met, who thanked me for yesterday’s effort to get some calls into the Hill.  He identified himself as someone who works on the senate side, and this is what he wrote:

We all hear the report every week on the top issues being called/written about and the breakdown. That message isn’t lost.

Your five minutes makes a difference.  Go to it.  Call your representatives.  Let them know you’re paying attention.

Once more:  the House and Senate directories.

*Snark, friends, if you’re not familiar with this pillar of New York Jewish newspapering.

Image:  Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Wintersecond half of the sixteenth century.

 


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