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Not been much of a traveller for years. It’s impractical with the children but even before then.

I have been to America. One of the perks of my first job was attendance at a Cold Spring Harbour summer course on fly genetics. It was pretty intensive - they let us out of the lab once to visit New York and do the whole Stevie Wonder “Living for the City” thing, that was cool. The only other touristy diversions were watching horseshoe crabs, seeing robins the size of thrushes and occasional sightings of Nobel prize winners. Barbara McClintock and James Watson were both around.

Watson would have been in his early sixties then but sun and nicotine had already done their work and his face was old as Ayesha’s returned to the flame. Surrounded by acolytes, in a white linen suit and panama hat, I remember describing him as resembling a plantation owner walking the rounds. Given recent events maybe that comparison was quite apt.

For those who haven’t been following the story Watson gave an interview two weeks ago in the Sunday Times as part of the pre-publicity for his new book and associated sell-out tour that included the following paragraph:

He says that he is “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really”, and I know that this “hot potato” is going to be difficult to address. His hope is that everyone is equal, but he counters that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true”. He says that you should not discriminate on the basis of colour, because “there are many people of colour who are very talented, but don’t promote them when they haven’t succeeded at the lower level”. He writes that “there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so”.

Long a self-styled maverick used to riding the publicity attendant on not being ‘boring' this ended as a gamble lost. The tour was cancelled, Cold Spring Harbour suspended his Chancellorship and on Friday he announced his retirement.

With all the recent LJ discussions about anti-semitism and the Holocaust/Shoah its worth remembering that of the many factors that fed into the rise of Nazism and its Final Solution the then new science of genetics played its part. How misinterpretations of evolution as progress and of natural selection as a moral imperative were used to justify the sterilization and eventually elimination of the ‘unfit’ arbitrarily defined as groups the majority either feared or despised. In the brave new era of genomics the same conflation of social prejudice and actual science is a constant temptation.
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Last week I watched an old Fritz Lang movie Human Desire loosely based on Zola’s La Bete Humaine. The atmosphere was certainly Zolaesque, miserable, ground down people trapped in their miserable, animalistic lives with the industrial background an ever present metaphor. The industry in question being a railroad the metaphor was almost comically Freudian but the film positively dour, a reminder that America didn’t all miraculously turn Technicolor after the war. There was one white picket fence on show but blink and you’d miss it, looming larger on the landscape were the dead end bar where prematurely aged railway men numbed their inadequacies and the cramped hallways of domestic discontent. The cheap artificiality of the women’s lacquered hair and girdled waists managed to dim even Gloria Grahame’s sultry looks, she played the femme fatale part but came across more as a battered wife, drowning as much as luring.

In other news Heroes and the first of the Christopher Ecclestone episodes. Read more... )


Jul. 18th, 2007 03:00 pm
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An article in Tuesday’s Guardian talking about how the possibility of gene therapy for various forms of congenital blindness raises issues about ‘disability’ and identity.

Do I want my sight back?

From physical to political blindness a whole series of recent posts on colour blindness and racial stereotyping in the UK and other places outside the US springing off from debates over Martha’s storyline in the most recent season of Dr. Who.

helpful hint for the colorblind: BE LESS BLIND

Racism on an international scale

In which our heroine explains to Doctor Who fans about "Mammy" in Britain

I feel rather humbled by the net effect of reading all the discussions. I understand the arguments against colour blindness not being the ultimate ideal to strive for in a world where race does matter. Intellectually I agree with them but completely missed the racial implications of spoilers for DW S3/29 )

Meanwhile less contentious politically and having little to do with vision at any frequency [livejournal.com profile] peasant_’s Buffy metathon continues to generate some thought-provoking essays. Personal favourites include:

Through a glass darkly by [livejournal.com profile] 2maggie2 on Faith and Buffy mirroring each other.

You need to learn by [livejournal.com profile] peasant_ herself on Giles in season 7.

Vampires Amidst the Community by [livejournal.com profile] dlgood on the role of the state in dealing with the supernatural.

Are you ready to be strong? by [livejournal.com profile] icemink comparing Joyce and Darla as mother figures.


Jun. 6th, 2006 07:50 pm
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Book reviews that make you want to read books are doing something right. One in last week’s Nature on Seeing Red: A Study in Consciousness by Nicholas Humphrey.

It begins most temptingly by explaining the author’s role in the discovery of ‘blindsight.’ I’d never heard of this syndrome but in some people with severe damage to the visual cortex the ability to perceive visual stimuli and describe them accurately remains even though they insist they cannot see. As if the information now goes direct from eye to brain without creating the sensation of sight.

So do all those other things you know but don’t know how you know indicate the existence of yet more sensory systems for which no cortex exists. The one for direction or the answers to anagrams? Is the world really written over with the answers to crossword clues in ink only the mind's eye can see? The way that mediaeval monks believed the word of God was to be found everywhere in nature.

On sensation:

Sensation itself is a self-contained evaluative activity – in Humphrey’s terms, someone seeing red engages in the activity of redding.

and on a possible reason for the evolution of consciousness:

The apparent mystery of consciousness prompts us to see ourselves as more than mere biological machines, and so strive all the more to preserve our existence.

Fascinating stuff
hazelk: (Default)
In S4 of Angel there was an episode (Awakening) that began quite rationally but gradually grew more and more fantastical. Never quite crossed the line into out and out nonsense but began to feel weirdly off from the third act in and ended with the hotel basement echoing to the maniacal laughter of Angel’s alter-ego Angelus – the entire episode had been a dream designed to lure the eponymous hero into a state of perfect happiness and thus to lose his soul.

A day or two after watching the final disc of the BSG S1 DVD collection I’m still waiting for the laughter to start. But I have no idea which of the characters has lost their soul.
Read more... )
hazelk: (Default)
For reasons best known to my non-existent therapist I’ve been playing a game of seeing how long it’s possible to go without renewing my identity card at work. 5 years and rising but today got rumbled by the new electronic security system at the main science library. So if it’s only possible to access the journals electronically does that mean my computer is a recognized university employee but I’m not?

Still, while scanning for a half remembered article came across this description of a fun piece of work on neural processing.

“It takes moments for the human brain to recognize a person or an object even if seen under very different conditions. This raises the question: can a single neuron respond selectively to a given face regardless of view, age, pose or context? That question — it has been called the search for the 'grandmother neuron' — is difficult to test. But now, in patients with intractable epilepsy who were implanted with depth electrodes for a clinical process, an answer has been obtained. Patients were asked to respond to images on computer screens, and the results showed that neurons are pretty single-minded in what they respond to. For instance, one neuron will respond selectively to different pictures of the actress Jennifer Aniston, one to basketball player Michael Jordan, and another to different views of the Tower of Pisa.”

It seems to be related to the way memories are organised, the JA neuron will also respond to pictures of Lisa Kudrow but not Jen when she’s with Brad. Have to wonder how they got consent for the work. “ Oh and while we’ve got these electrodes stuck inside your brain instead of actually doing anything to help with your epilepsy we want to use you to find the neuron that can tell Michael Jordan from the Leaning Tower of Pisa?”
hazelk: (forgive)
Feeling virtuous. Abstracts written, essays marked, meetings organized. Read a nice little piece in the Saturday Guardian about Jonathan Coe’s obsession with The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes with a (possibly) happy ending.

Spoilers for ‘Dalek’ )

Nature has an article on the rise of ‘intelligent-design’ on US college campuses:

The arguments are familiar: some biological systems are too complex, periodic explosions in the fossil record too large and differences between species too great to be explained by natural selection alone.

After reading it I’m still not at all clear how this is a subject that can be taught separately. If we’re not teaching students to think critically about scientific results and their current explanations as a matter of course, we really are failing them. And the implication that intelligent-design means accepting that some phenomena cannot be explained and that therefore we should stop asking questions about them is anti-science at a far more fundamental level than any creationist claims that the Earth is only a few thousand years old.

I get the feeling I’m missing something. Evolution does seem to be important to scientists beyond those active in field – in an Guardian article a few weeks back the usual suspects were interviewed about what scientific ideas they thought it was most important to get across in schools. Natural selection was the single most popular choice. Darwinism is philosophically disorientating. I still remember the moment of understanding it for the first time and simultaneously losing my religion. Almost on aesthetic grounds. I’m going to hell for the pretty.

More on ‘Dalek’ and ‘Serenity’ speculation )
hazelk: (Default)
Nature has a supplement this week with a ‘Science from the Artist’s perspective’ reciprocal theme. In it AS Byatt writes about how she’s included scientists and scientific ideas in her books and mentions Lewis Wolpert’s contention that its not possible to understand science, or how scientists work, from general principles alone – to have any real feel for what it’s all about, you need to get down and dirty with the details (this is me paraphrasing from vague and distant memories, I may be completely misstating his argument).

Read more... )
hazelk: (Default)
Reading some articles about brain disorders, as you do, I had some thoughts on River and the basis for her madness in Firefly.

Spoilers for Earshot (BtVS) and Ariel (Firefly) )

ETA since writing this I came across the following quote from Niko Tinbergen

“Some people try to extrapolate from our studies to human behaviour but if you wish to learn about the behaviour of man don’t ask the ethologist; turn rather to the great writers. Read Dostoevsky, read Tolstoy.”

Which is also what I was trying to say but with less words.


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