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Archive for January, 2009

haliphron-atlanticus

Females of Haliphron atlanticus are very large, reaching 400 mm ML or a total length up to 2m (Nesis, 1982). Body tissues are gelatinous; the mantle is short and broad and the head wide; the eyes are large and the short arms have a deep web. The funnel is embedded in head tissue. Males are much smaller than females but are relatively large (ca. 300 mm total length) for an argonautoid. The hectocotylus develops in an inconspicuous sac in front of the right eye which gives the male the appearance of having only seven arms. The hectocotylus detaches at mating. Females brood their eggs, which are attached to the oral side of the arm bases near the mouth (Young, 1995).

This species is widely distributed from tropical to high latitudes and occupies meso- to bathypelagic depths. It is commonly associated with slopes of land masses. The habitat of this octopod is unusual. It has been captured in bottom trawls and videotaped swimming within centimeters of the ocean floor (brooding female) suggesting a benthopelagic habitat along the slope. However, it has also been taken from the open ocean thousands of meters from the ocean floor and hundreds of miles from the nearest slope.

– from Tree of Life web project on haliphron atlanticus:

Also, animations of the beast swimming in its deep sea void: http://www.mnh.si.edu/cephs/young92/cephs6.html

Alabaster pale, blood drained white,

gelatinous mayonaise flesh

held together by tissue mesh,

drifting alone above stygian sludge.

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The goal of Daniel Lord Smail’s book is close to my heart, in that one of the various projects he outlines is to broaden the use historians make of other disciplinary fields (beyond say sociology and archeology usually connected to history) to include genetics and neural psychology as tools of historical analysis. This appeals to me personally, both because I started out as a science kid, studying dinosaurs and dead things, and then moved on to studying dead humans, and because in a general sense, I’ve always felt acquiring even a rudimentary understanding of the sciences, of ecology, biology, chemistry, psychics, paleontology (or architecture, or art, or economics) is crucial to understanding our world both in a pressing, active, engaged way and for the sheer joy of knowing the world, and being baffled by it (plus, all my friends are scientists or technicians, and I don’t feel foolish around them and their languages of genomes and code). This is hardly a new project, or one that is not generally of interest or support amongst historians; the irony, of course, is that people in the sciences have always been willing to interact with history as a discipline, and almost any description of DNA or chemisty begins historically, even in the most rudimentary, remedial textbook, and because many fields (geology, paleontology) are themselves a kind of history, studying what Smail calls, quoting others, ‘deep time.’


It is the historians who have let us down, writes Smail, and so this book is really directed at them. Of course, anyone with any interest in either neuro-chemistry, human evolution, or history and its writing will understand and enjoy this book. Smail’s prose is clear and engaging, his arguments lucid and his examples generally well chosen. The main thrust of On Deep History and the Brain is not just to argue for more inter-disciplinary work to be done, but that the focus of history has still been far too presentist (should I point out that Smail is a French medievalist, and like many of their brilliant and cantankerous ilk resents the marginalization of his area of study?) and far too documentary in its attention; documents in the sense of written documents, whereas Smail argues for the older meaning of document, ‘that which tells,’ which basically means anything: DNA and archeology, studies of the brain, can tell us as much about our more distant past, and indeed are the only source for it; “all rely on evidence extracted from things” that “encode information from the past” (48). Why privilege the written word? Because it is privileged by historians, deeply imbedded since Vico and Ranke in the writing of history and excluding all non-written sources. Yet scientists have long considered their objects of research, in a metaphorical sense, to be texts, archives, information contained in remains and traces that can be used to tell a story. Take for instance genetics and brain chemistry. Progress in these fields, rooted in the evolutionary history of the human race, has made it possible to trace our past much further back than ever possible; no longer, says Smail, should the distant past be treated as totally alien and beyond us, there should be, in essence, no prehistory, no division between the glowing world of the written world and what was once claimed was a static, frightful, ignorant world. And why not? We have given voice to the voiceless, and no one, as Smail says, “would deny history of the Incans, Great Zimbabwe or to the illiterate slaves and peasants of societies past and present” (6). Why then our ancestors?

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The problem is that historians have been trapped, even in the age of Hayden White, in the meta-narrative of Western Civilization. History begins with the written word, with cities and urban man, right in Mesopotamia where the Garden of Eden was placed in medieval and early modern history. We have secularized the story but not fundamentally changed its structure or its conclusions that human history, and therefore humanity worth studying, started at 4000 BC and led to Europe (despite the absurdity of some its claims, such as the idea of continuity between Babylon and Bolingbroke, its ignorance of archeological examples demonstrating much earlier urban civilization in Iran and Turkey, and its continuing marginalization of China, India, the Americas until the 70’s). Of course, there was resistance: H. G. Wells, for one, started his Outline of History in human prehistory. But by and large historians have insisted on a clear delineation between prehistory and history: only civilizations that write history, are aware of the past, can be modern, and only collective societies, united by writing and language in part, can be modern, beyond the mindless horror of prehistory. History is when evolution ceased to affect us, ceased to influence our behavior, when we broke the chain through writing and cities. Smail doesn’t seek to question the importance of writing or cities or agriculture in changing mankind, but he does question how epochal it was: housing has been around for tens of thousands of years, constructed at the size of later housing of hide and bone and centred around the hearth, oral histories for just as long, even agriculture and trade may be older than we imagine.

(more…)

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“I think progress is the biggest enemy on earth, apart from oneself… I think we’re gonna take good care of this planet shortly…there’s never been a weapon created yet on the face of the Earth that hadn’t been used. We’re run by the Pentagon, we’re run by Madison Avenue, we’re run by television, and as long as we accept those things and don’t revolt we’ll have to go along with the stream to the eventual avalanche. As long as we go out and buy stuff, we’re at their mercy. We’re at the mercy of the advertiser and of course there are certain things that we need, but a lot of the stuff that is bought is not needed…

We all live in a little Village. Your village may be different from other people’s villages but we are all prisoners.”

-Patrick McGoohan, 1977

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How fitting that Patrick McGoohan should leave our little global village within weeks of princiapl shooting finishing on the remake of his brainchild, the brilliant and still subversive The Prisoner.  If it be triumph or tragedy, he need not see it; his feelings about it are largely unknown, though in some ways it shows promise; it will be tightly focussed, only six episodes long, which despite its punny elements is only one longer than the original projected run of McGoohan’s Prisoner.   On the other hand, quotes from the director reveal that they are consciously trying to seperate the remake from the original, make it a new beast, update it and make it relevant, the standard defenses of those who always think they can improve on someone else’s artistic project.  A remake is a tenuous project, because no matter how often the remaker claims to respect and admire the original, there is always a tension between contempt and a desire to improve, and a deep-seated reverence for this cultural product; and below all that, money.  The Prisoner was a unique television programme,  a success critically, artistically and commercially, a  popular hit of subversive, difficult science fiction.  Will the remake be able in any way to match that particular moment in time when McGoohan could make a genuinely popular attack on those who run us?

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Number 6: I will not make any deals with you. I’ve resigned. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered! My life is my own!

Somehow, I doubt it, no matter how hard it tries.  It is too tempting to call McGoohan a visionary, especially now that he is dead, and thankfully he was not right about our nuclear self-destruction,  but that The Prisoner remains relevant today is a sad commentary on the stagnancy of our political and economic system: we were ran by television, Madison Avenue and the Pentagon then, and we are now, so to speak.  It isn’t prophecy then, really, any more than Jules Verne predicted the future: he knew of television protype experiments when he wrote about television ‘prophetically’.  McGoohan was no prohet, but he distilled something, crystalised and popularised a critical analysis of the world; few who have seen The Prisoner would mistake it or forget its accomplishment.  Which raises the question: is a remake even necessary?  Obviously it’s too late now one way or the other: it has been made and will be broadcast.  But The Prisoner, like McGoohan himself, aged very well, and little dates it save some of the clothes and the later episodes.  What a remake would offer is beyond me. At least those remaking seem to care more than the original people slated to do it.

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Number 2: What in fact has been created? An international community. A perfect blueprint for world order. When the sides facing each other suddenly realize that they’re looking into a mirror, they’ll see that this is the pattern for the future.

Number 6: The whole earth as… ‘The Village’?

Number 2: That is my hope. What’s yours?

Number 6: I’d like to be the first man on the moon!

The BBC reported on 4 May 2006 that Granada TV in Britain would revive the series for the Sky One network in 2007. Christopher Eccleston, who you may, or may not, know as the second newest incarnation of Doctor Who, has been linked with the role, but these were rumours; the Radio Timesfor 3 June – 9 June claimed the new series would be titled Number Six and not The Prisoner. American cable network AMC was to co‑produce; I’ll let you judge what the quality of this show would be from this newspeak laden nonsense:  “The Prisoner is like Pandora’s box ‑ it’s the ultimate conspiracy thriller,” said Damien Timmer, executive producer of the show.”Like 24, the new series will entrap you from the opening scene. We hope it will tap into this iconic show’s existing cult following, whilst creating a whole new generation of fans.” Which means, bear with, the man tapped to fill McGoohan’s shoes as producer had no clue what the show was about, because The Prisoner is the opposite of 24, with no violent shoot outs, evil lesbians and pro-American patriotic chestbeating and righteous torture.

In October 2007, British broadcaster ITV stepped in to replace Sky One as co‑producer with AMC. They are  the ones still going ahead with it.  Sir Ian McKellan will play Number 2, which really is not news anymore Apparently, the talking heads of the network also claim their new version will be “a racy, radical reinvention of the original show.” The richest part of this story is that Sky One, a British television channel owned by Rupert Murdoch was producing this show up until ITV, the orginal producers, stepped in. A remake of one of the most anti-authoritarian television programmes being funded by a news channel notorious for its spin related to the Iraq War, for one, and for its genuine low level, a la CanWest here, of editorial and journalistic freedom.  That’s so ironic you can eat it with a spoon.

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Perhaps the remake will be all too dreary and topical, full of war on terror references, torture, suicide bombings, and Blairisms and the national security states post nine-eleven, which will turn this into a gritty British Battlestar Galatica; unfortunately, The Prisoner was not the original Battlestar, all feathered hair and hippy new age mormon nonsense.  McGoohan dealt with all these issues before, and did so elusively enough that they couldn’t be pinned down; who and what ran The Village was and is beyond us, and the side they were on really didn’t matter in the end.  The remake will have to tread that same line without being a joke or a travesty; of course, it doesn’t really matter, as long as it makes money; there is nothing constitional about respecting the ‘rights’ of a piece of art once it has been bought, sold and traded as commodity.  ITV doesn’t have any need or desire to respect McGoohan’s memory, or the production he was so involved with.  My only hope is that the show ends as the original does, with Number 6 still a prisoner in London, thinking he is free.  London, and Britain, is the Village; the most surveilled society on Earth, where 200 CCTV cameras sit within a mile of Orwell Boulevard.

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Jean Paul Satre, Nausea

nausea

A classic, a Nobel-Prize winner, the literary work of existentialism alongside Camus’ L’Etranger. How is one to feel after Nausea?  How is one supposed to feel after existentialism?  This not between existentialism and marxism, ther is nothing but pitiuless withering contempt, for those who have not been enlightened, who have not had the awakening to authetic humanity.  That is, not a phony; there is something very similar between the astetic hippy and his concern for the fake, the fraud, the tool; and the existentialist, who sneers at the petty conventions and platitutes of the bourgeois world: the smiling youth, in love without knowing why, the quarelling couples unsure of themselves, all that being “motionless and empty, plunged in a horrible ectasy.”  It is easy to be immune to this kind of writing and philosophy; I’ve read Sartre, I’ve passed my existential phase, or so I assumed that it would be easy enough to dismiss, especially Roquentin whose awareness of what he says is pettiness and bad faith is just as easily the crankiness of a loner, disaffected and isolated from any sense of meaningful human contact and construing it as enlightenment rather than failure.

And yet the Self-Taught Man.  He, more than any of the overt philosophy of Nausea haunts me.  Because he is, in a way, me.  And Roquentin’s criticism and contempt for him is withering and crippling, especially to a young student beginning to feel that the academic and intellectual world is a trifle too serious and demanding than his dedication will allow.  Self-education, autodidaticism, I have followed those paths, spent years removed from post-secondary education, from the halls of hallowed knowledge to ‘expand my mind’ in an equally cliched fashion.  No discipline to my reading, no conscious effort to formulate and understand it.  Just reading, and pretending reading is knowledge.  That is the Self-Taught Man, who shrinks from responsibility and commitment to ‘deeper’ knowledge, whether of the history Roquentin studies or of existential truth as well.  The coward’s way out: that is the question, isn’t it?  Easy humanism, easy socialism, easy assurance, easy confidence in civilization, in man, in society, in love.  Too easy.  Struggle then?  Only to see the awful energy of life; but I have, and I flee.

Almost every existentialist work I”ve read demands an extremely personal response, more so than almost any other style of novel, play or poem.  The private Catholic poetry of Cesar Vallejo, or the compulsive love of surrealism do not affect me so.  The novels of Victor Serge, Bruno Janieski, Ilya Ehrenberg, even Celine, do not have that same forcing of introspection, of questioning, of a claustrophibic, inescapable feeling of crisis, of personal judgement and decision and interrogation, now, now, now.

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Two Brief Thoughts

Thoughts on Palestine and Hamas:

Hamas is accused by Israel of hiding bombs and weapons amongst civilian populations and essentially using them as human shields; most famously, the Israeli government bombed a UN school, justifying this action by the same claim, that Hamas had secreted weapons there.  The UN catagorically denied this, and in this case, was quite right to do so.  That it might happen is much harder to deny, and leaving aside from the moral and strategic considerations of stashing weapons amongst civilians, and whether Hamas actually engages in such a practice, the Israeli accusation bothers me.  The IDF claims it takes great care to warn homes that are to be demolished or bombed ahead of time, theoretically allowing time for the inhabitants to escape.  They warn the soon to be former tenants that Hamas has hidden guns and rockets in their homes, schools, hospitals.  Though the subtext certainly demands elaboration, that those bombed, evicted or killed knew about the weapons, the general way in which these warnings and declarations were reported and issued suggested, curiously, that the guns and rockets had been snuck in, without the tenants knowing that their house had just become an arms depot.  I take it Hamas has been trained by ninjas, then, or Santa Claus.

mmk

This is how the takeover will look from your end, Middle America.

During the United States election, a dark episode best forgotten, if only for a moment, much was made by the more…convinced…opponents of Barack Obama that he was not what he claimed to be, that he was, indeed, a traitor of the highest order.  A communist.  A crypto-Muslim.  Well-educated.  Alien to American life and values, the haunting Other; this is all pretty bog-standard, repeated ad nauseum for months and years as if through repetition reality might melt away.  The accusation barely stands up, but stand it does: Obama was a Muslim sleeper agent, programmed to overthrow the United States, throwing off his wide smiled face once ensconed in the White House to reveal the hungry eyes and sprawling beard of the Terrorist, whose phrenology suggests the dim disposition of a common criminal.  And so they stock up on guns, hoping in their paranoid-critical mode to avoid what surely might seem the end of the world.  A thought:  John McCain spent several years in a North Vietnamese prison camp, did he not?  Subjected to harsh tortures and brutal interrogations, so bad he has stood ever more against the use of torture as a reliable means of extracting meaningul information from a prisoner.  And yet, and yet: what if it were not Barack who is the candidate, but McCain, and only the election of the United States’ first black president prevented the rise of a man programmed by communist ‘gooks,’ as he might colourfully call them, to overthrow the government and establish a proletarian dictatorship, Hanoi-style, all of us sent off to work camps and learn humility and toughness after so many years of dreaming soft-bellied bliss.

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Been reading Discover Magazine‘s Top 100 science stories of 2008, and some other assorted articles on the world that may naturally be ignored in the larger scheme of things.  A sample:

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“The microscopic aquatic creatures known as bdelloid rotifers are used to enduring dry spells—in more senses than one. In their common habitats of moss, soil, and seasonal pools, these minuscule, transparent animals routinely survive periods of complete dessication that can last from days to years. They also hold the record for celibacy among animals: All 460 known species of bdelloids consist exclusively of egg-laying females that have essentially been cloning themselves for 100 million years. Their endurance has long posed a kind of scientific mystery, as the majority of asexually reproducing species tend to fade away over time. But a genetic study published in May in Science [subscription required] hints that bdelloids emerging from a drought might have a kind of bizarre sex after all.

For most life-forms, going for long periods without water spells certain doom. But dehydrated bdelloids somehow reconstitute themselves when moisture returns, even though their metabolic activity stops, their cell membranes rupture, and their DNA probably gets fragmented too. “You add water, they fix themselves up, and they swim away,” says lead investigator Matthew Meselson of Harvard University.”

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And the first known case of virus preying on virus:

“Viruses, generally the most minuscule of parasites, apparently have to contend with vermin of their own. In August, infectious diseases physician Didier Raoult of the Université de la Méditerranée in Marseille, France, reported [subscription required] that he had discovered a tiny virus infecting another, a giant virus called Mamavirus. This unexpected type of attack suggests for the first time that one virus may influence the evolution of other viruses.

Raoult and his colleagues found Mamavirus in water taken from a cooling tower in Paris. The giant virus, a strain of the previously identified and slightly smaller Mimivirus, was found through microscopy to be infected by a 50-nanometer-wide virus. They named it Sputnik, after the first satellite to orbit Earth.

When the scientists cultured Mamavirus and Sputnik with an amoeba, they found that Sputnik forces Mamavirus to produce not just copies of Sputnik but fewer, and deformed, versions of itself. And when they sequenced Sputnik’s genome, they found its small ring of DNA contained genes from three different viral families, including Mamavirus.”

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And best of all, persistent man-made chemical pollutants have been found in deep-sea octopods and squids:

“It was surprising to find measurable and sometimes high amounts of toxic pollutants in such a deep and remote environment,” Vecchione said. Among the chemicals detected were tributyltin (TBT), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), brominated diphenyl ethers (BDEs), and dichlorodiphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT).  They are known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs) because they don’t degrade and persist in the environment for a very long time.

Cephalopods are important to the diet of cetaceans, a class of marine mammals which includes whales, dolphins and porpoises. Cephalopods are the primary food for 28 species of odontocetes, the sub-order of cetaceans that have teeth and include beaked, sperm, killer and beluga whales and narwhals as well as dolphins and porpoises.

Recent studies have reported the accumulation of POPs in the blubber and tissues of whales and other predatory marine mammals as well as in some deep-sea fish. Other investigators had speculated that the pollutants in marine mammals had resulted from feeding on contaminated squids. However, almost no information existed prior to this study about POPs in deep-sea cephalopods. Vecchione and colleagues wanted to see if whales had a unique capacity to accumulate pollutants or if they were simply one of the top predators in a contaminated deep-sea food web.

The researchers collected nine species of cephalopods from depths between 1,000 and 2,000 meters (about 3,300 to 6,600 feet) in 2003 in the western North Atlantic Ocean using a large mid-water trawl.  Species were selected for chemical analysis based on their importance as prey and included the commercially important short-finned squid Illex illecebrosus, as well as cockatoo squid, “vampire squid”, and the large jelly-like octopus Haliphron atlanticus.”

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An undescribed Cirroteuthidae

An undescribed Cirroteuthidae

The finned octopods are of medium to large size (up to 1.5 m total length, although there is a photographic record of one estimated to be over 4 m in total length: Voss, 1988). The body is usually gelatinous and strongly foreshortened. The mantle opening is reduced and swimming via jet propulsion seems to have been abandoned. Fins are present and are the primary means of locomotion. The fins attach to and are supported by the internal shell which has an unusual consistency (i.e., cartilage-like structure) and an unusual shape (i.e., a U, V or saddle-shape). The arms have one series of suckers down the midline of each arm and a series of cirri along each side of each arm (i.e., two cirri per sucker). The cirri alternate with the suckers along the arm length. The web is usually well developed and may reach the tip of the arms.

– from the excellent Tree of Life web project, on cirrata

Octopus

I want to paint you poems full of fire,
you who I do not know.
Now my mind is tested with love which
twists and wavers from side to side and which
some day soon you may see…
I want you to cascade through ten thousand
rainbows with me and dredge mountains
from the sea:
you who I now begin to know.
But emotion is pent up inside,
too scared of dying again to live,
and meanwhile I must endure your
red-copper hair screaming like a
water-baby black eyes stare
from my ceiling:
you who I now truly know…
Now I cannot see too clearly
and already my trellis stands bare…
How can I break free of these overclinging
arms which entwine and enfold me?… And reach
to the clear blue sea?
I want you to know, but how can I
tell you? I want you to see
but my o
wn eyes are blind…
The Octopus now enfolds me,
I know you too well…

– Peter Hammill, Van Der Graaf Generator, 1970

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