Trenchant Lemmings
"Arrive in a clown car, bursting with anger."
Robert Weaver
Sydney, Australia
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The weblog description is a misquotation from Steve Aylett's Indicted to a Party: What to Do, Who to Blame.
The weblog title links to the "No Country Redirect" version, for whatever that might be worth.
February 27, 2012

Building 20 became a strange, chaotic domain, full of groups who had been thrown together by chance and who knew little about one another’s work. And yet, by the time it was finally demolished, in 1998, Building 20 had become a legend of innovation, widely regarded as one of the most creative spaces in the world. In the postwar decades, scientists working there pioneered a stunning list of breakthroughs, from advances in high-speed photography to the development of the physics behind microwaves... Stewart Brand, in his study "How Buildings Learn," cites Building 20 as an example of a "Low Road" structure, a type of space that is unusually creative because it is so unwanted and underdesigned... As a result, scientists in Building 20 felt free to remake their rooms, customizing the structure to fit their needs. Walls were torn down without permission; equipment was stored in the courtyards and bolted to the roof...

The space also forced solitary scientists to mix and mingle. Although the rushed wartime architects weren’t thinking about ... the importance of physical proximity when they designed the structure, they conjured up a space that maximized ... these features, allowing researchers to take advantage of Building 20’s intellectual diversity.
Jonah Lehrer in The New Yorker.

February 15, 2012
Kitty, kitty

Yes, your cat can drive you crazy. But probably not this crazy. Probably.

February 12, 2012

[Michael] Weisend, who is working on a US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency programme to accelerate learning, has been using ... transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to cut the time it takes to train snipers...

The mild electrical shock [to the brain] is meant to depolarise the neuronal membranes in the region, making the cells more excitable and responsive to inputs. Like many other neuroscientists working with tDCS, Weisend thinks this accelerates formation of new neural pathways during the time that someone practises a skill. ...

Zapping your brain with a small current seems to improve everything from mathematical skills to marksmanship, but for now your best chance of experiencing this boost is to sign up for a lab experiment. Machines that provide transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) cost £5000 a pop, and their makers often sell them only to researchers.

That hasn't stopped a vibrant community of DIY tDCS enthusiasts from springing up. Their online forums are full of accounts of their home-made experiments, including hair-curling descriptions of blunders that, in one case, left someone temporarily blind.
The New Scientist on research into "flow".

February 10, 2012

I think Iran needs the equivalent of an Elvis impersonator.

Build Only Half

As is clear from Pruitt-Igoe's genesis, wagering on what a built environment is meant to accomplish is a fairly permanent proposition. Even a design optimized for a particular moment in time may become obsolete as old needs recede and are supplanted by new ones. The unpredictability of the city is such that one can never anticipate what those needs might be... So, how might we introduce this kind of thinking into design and architecture? That is, how do you build something in a way that allows you to change your mind later on?
The Elemental project’s solution was this: the project would plan for the “medium” size houses, but build only half the house. They would plan (and build) in such a way that more units could fit in, and that the families could easily expand into the “missing” half when they were able to do so. Elemental built a system of row houses in which half of every unit is missing. But because they have built the part that requires the most expertise and investment – the load bearing structure, the roof and so on – the inhabitants could expand into the missing voids at a later stage – in any way they liked. This also dealt with the pervading problem of social housing – the uniformity and lack of individuality.
Thus, Aravena’s group understood and worked with the limitations – budgetary and otherwise – that were being imposed on their design. In fact, they turned these limitations into points of strength: few architects have the courage or insight to allow their tenants to become co-designers ... the consultations with the future residents of the Iquique settlement revealed much the same misgivings about living in a highrise as Pruitt-Igoe’s architect expressed almost 40 years earlier. If nothing else, this is illustrative of both the constancy of the human condition, as well as the persistence of design problems. However, the real progress in this case is that neither the architect nor the residents were passive players before more dominant institutional forces, such as the role played by St Louis Housing Authority in the 1950s.

Even the larger urban environment could stand to benefit from such agile thinking. During the design competition to rebuild the World Trade Center, a group of designers led by Rafael Viñoly came together to propose a daring design: a lattice-work evocation of the twin towers that would be mostly hollow. Part of the purpose behind the latticework was to create ample space for future designers and stakeholders to create new constructions that would be appropriate for the needs arising at that time. I honestly don't believe the proposal had a chance of being chosen, but it is a striking riposte to the idea that skyscrapers, which might be considered the leading indicators of our built civilization, are not necessarily required to be subject to the same kinds of centralized planning that constituted one of Pruitt-Igoe's most serious weaknesses. That this design was proposed on the ruins of Yamasaki’s greatest buildings is an irony that should not be lost on us.
Misha Lepetic at 3QD

Those Nazi Kunst

I've wanted to own the accompanying book to the 1991 exhibition of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art / Art Institute of Chicago on the Nazis' "Entartete Kunst" collection for some time, but was held at bay by the hefty price tag of even second hand copies. For some reason, I had failed until now to discover this extraordinary resource: the whole thing online, complete with essays, reproductions of the various works, artist biographies and a translated facsimile of the vile catalogue to the original exhibition. Gear!

February 05, 2012

The next week was spent in trains and cars. The car would often stop in the middle of nowhere. We would get out and I would be shown a site where ‘GBL Comrade Kim Il-sung gave on-the-spot guidance to peasants on the wheat harvest.’ At one point, in the middle of nowhere, I asked them to stop. My bladder was full. As I got out of the car I said: ‘I’m just going to give on-the-spot guidance to that tree.’ The interpreter and minder convulsed with laughter. It was the most reassuring sight of my trip. Nothing was said when I returned to the car, but we never stopped again.
From Tariq Ali's LRB Diary on visiting North Korea in the 60s. "GBL" stands for "great and beloved leader" in case you were wondering and haven't read the whole thing. And, yes, this is a slightly matured cite.

February 03, 2012
Dorothea Tanning 1910-2012


Stephen Holmes in the LRB:

The Putin system has nothing to do with the ‘authoritarian DNA’ invoked by Sovietologists to explain the recurrent suppression of liberal developments. The singularity of Putin’s Russia is a consequence of the bureaucratic fragmentation that followed the break-up of the Party in 1991, the siphoning into foreign bank accounts of money from the state treasury and state-controlled firms by rival bureaucratic and business factions, the continuing absence of socially legitimate owners of what were once state properties, the corruption of officialdom at all levels, the gap between rich and poor, the anaemic sense of national identity among the country’s political and economic elite.

The most common misapprehension about post-Communist Russia, accepted by both the regime’s supporters and its critics, is that Putin has created a military-style structure of command. In fact, he has had neither the capacity nor the ambition to rebuild a Soviet-style hierarchy. Harding writes of the transition ‘from the chaos but relative freedoms of the Yeltsin years to the "managed democracy" of the vertical Putin epoch’ and cites Valter Litvinenko, Aleksandr Litvinenko’s father: ‘Russia is a vertical system. It’s like the Soviet Union. Only Putin can decide these questions, just like Stalin. Without Putin’s approval it’ - his son’s poisoning - ‘could not have happened.’ But although it’s undeniable that ‘state irritants are murdered as a direct result of their professional activities,’ it’s far from clear that the killing of journalists and lawyers with a social conscience requires Putin’s initiative.

That the much publicised vertical power structure is a ‘fiction’, as it was called by Aleksei Navalny, one of the instigators of the massive anti-regime demonstrations that took place on 8 December, is evident from the corruption which, according to Harding, ‘has increased sixfold under Putin’s rule’. Escaping the draft, registering a company, buying an apartment, getting into school, passing an exam, being acquitted of criminal charges, trumped up or valid, receiving medical treatment may all require the bribery of public officials. The kickback plague is endemic, inflating by as much as 50 per cent the cost to the state of everything from weapons to highway construction. That the principal players in ‘the greatest corruption story in human history’, as the economist Anders Aslund puts it, include the fabled siloviki - the ‘heavies’: the army, the intelligence agencies etc - is the strongest sign of the absence of a hierarchy. In a hierarchy, local officials would answer to their Moscow superiors: but they don’t.

If there is a vertical in Putin’s Russia, it is a vertical of impunity. If you are an officer in the FSB moonlighting as a hired hitman you can kill someone and nothing will happen. The routine failure to solve homicide cases and prosecute murderers, far from signalling overwhelming state power, reveals quite the opposite. ‘Putin’s system of loyalty is highly dependent on the ability of his army of bureaucrats to embezzle and take bribes,’ says the editor of the Moscow Times, quoted by Harding. Putin can’t compel public sector employees to stop embezzling and extorting, any more than he can force government officials to put their departmental responsibilities before their personal cupidity and commit themselves to their community’s well-being.

Snapshot 2

And now they've done a nice photo of Madagascar.

February 02, 2012
Loathe Me Some

Speaking of culture-bound mental illness: finally!

Culture-bound Symptom Repertoire

Latif Nasser in the Boston Globe, on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders:

If you turn to page 898 of the current edition  —  past the glossary and the alphabetical index of diagnoses  —  you’ll find a list of 25 little-known illnesses. These are the “culture-bound syndromes”: mental illnesses that psychiatrists officially acknowledge occur only within a particular society. Take, for instance, susto  —  a distinctly Latin American fear that one’s soul has panicked and left one’s body. Or pibloktoq, also known as “arctic hysteria,” in which Greenlandic Inuit strip off all their clothes and run out into the subzero Arctic tundra.

Depending on whom you ask, the notion that some cultures have their own ways of going crazy is either the ultimate in cultural sensitivity or the ultimate in Western condescension. And although these syndromes haven’t attracted nearly as much attention as Asperger’s or binge eating disorder, they are starting to come under fire from critics who don’t think that the appendix belongs in the book at all. Since the last edition of the DSM, in lectures and research journal articles around the world, a cluster of psychiatrists, anthropologists, and historians has attacked the validity of specific disorders on the list. To these critics, the very notion of a “culture-bound illness” is an outdated relic from the days of European empires.


What is not on the table yet  —  and considering that the DSM is ultimately published by American psychiatrists, may never be  —  is a deeper acknowledgment that far more mental illnesses might be cultural than we currently think. After all, commonly cited Western syndromes like chronic fatigue syndrome or multiple personality disorder are unknown in many countries, and yet the 1994 manual includes no British or American syndromes in its “culture-bound” category.

To put them there now, Lewis-Fernández says, would be “politically unfeasible.”
See also, from a while ago:
“We might think of the culture as possessing a ‘symptom repertoire’ — a range of physical symptoms available to the unconscious mind for the physical expression of psychological conflict,” Edward Shorter, a medical historian at the University of Toronto, wrote in his book “Paralysis: The Rise and Fall of a ‘Hysterical’ Symptom.” “In some epochs, convulsions, the sudden inability to speak or terrible leg pain may loom prominently in the repertoire. In other epochs patients may draw chiefly upon such symptoms as abdominal pain, false estimates of body weight and enervating weakness as metaphors for conveying psychic stress.”

In any given era, those who minister to the mentally ill — doctors or shamans or priests — inadvertently help to select which symptoms will be recognized as legitimate. Because the troubled mind has been influenced by healers of diverse religious and scientific persuasions, the forms of madness from one place and time often look remarkably different from the forms of madness in another.

That is until recently.

For more than a generation now, we in the West have aggressively spread our modern knowledge of mental illness around the world. We have done this in the name of science, believing that our approaches reveal the biological basis of psychic suffering and dispel prescientific myths and harmful stigma. There is now good evidence to suggest that in the process of teaching the rest of the world to think like us, we’ve been exporting our Western “symptom repertoire” as well. That is, we’ve been changing not only the treatments but also the expression of mental illness in other cultures. Indeed, a handful of mental-health disorders — depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anorexia among them — now appear to be spreading across cultures with the speed of contagious diseases. These symptom clusters are becoming the lingua franca of human suffering, replacing indigenous forms of mental illness.


I finally handed the last draft to Ron Shusett and I said, “here, I think we have it, this is it.” And he said, “well, you know what you’ve done?” And I said, ”what?” And he said, “you’ve done the Philip K. Dick version.” And I said, “well isn’t that what we wanted?” And he said, “no, we wanted Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars.”

February 01, 2012

E. J. Graff in The American Prospect:

Here's the thing: all these identities are historically invented, culturally defined and temporary. One hundred years ago, nobody was homosexual or heterosexual. At the end of the 19th century, historian George Chauncey tells us, the identity dividing line was which sex you appeared to be, rather than which sex was the object of your desire. Girly boys were queer; butch boys were not, even if they took some sailor down to the docks. All these things get categorized differently based on your culture and era. Recently, the traditional hijra in India, Nepal, and Pakistan (born male, identify as female, attracted to men) have won legal fights to have their own third-sex box to check on identity forms (M, F, H). Would they call themselves gay or straight? No.

Human sexuality—and human identity in general—is highly complicated, far more so than any taxonomy can take into account. Language is such a limited medium for lived experience. We all choose our identities out of our culture's current list of options, but that doesn't make the identity real.
More problematic than the "it's not a choice" position is the idea that sexual orientations are genetic in origin (as exemplified by the sweet but wrong-headed website "Born This Way" which falsely equates stereotypical cross-gendering behaviour in kids with technically defined sexual preference in adults). Even believing one's preference is not a choice doesn't necessitate the spurious scientism of genetic determinism (what's your favourite food? what's your least favourite? do you think those preferences are genetic? no? so if it was made illegal tomorrow to prefer your favourite food to your least favourite you'd just be able to stop preferring that way, right? hah). The motivation for seeking such an explanation (what Graham Chapman called "medicine's weird quest for a cause for homosexuality") is also baffling. What's to be gained? Why do you need a compelling scientific explanation for your orientation? Is it to persuade those people, the ones who hate you because they were told to by their giant invisible friend?

Insisting sexual orientation isn't a choice is tantamount to acknowledging the preference is wrong but you can't be judged for it because you just can't help it, whereas the better response to bigots, whether inspired by self-serving interpretations of incoherent ancient fairy tales or simple stupidity, would be "Fuck yeah, it's a choice. I chose, and I'm entitled to choose, because it's my choice to make and no-one else's and there's nothing wrong with the choice I made."

Of course, that's easy for a dyed-in-the-wool heterosexual like me to say. Not that I expect a gold star from God for avoiding behaviour that doesn't remotely appeal to me anyway, as prayhards seem to. Hell, if it's that easy to be holy, just wait a sec while I found a religion where it's a sin to eat brussels sprouts.

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