Saturday, May 31, 2014

Making (Un)Natural Faces

Human Emotions

A Young Bearded Man: West Riding Lunatic Asylum, London; 1869
Source: Wellcome Library, London

In an article from The Public Domain Review, Stassa Edwards "explores Charles Darwin’s photography collection, which includes almost forty portraits of mental patients given to him by the neurologist James Crichton-Browne. The study of these photographs, and the related correspondence between the two men, would prove instrumental in the development of The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), Darwin’s book on the evolution of emotions."

Edwards writes:
The mentally ill, as Victorian mores held, were emotionally uninhibited and unconstrained. Unable to conform to social norms, the insane were hardly concerned with the suppression of emotion required by the cultured and the sane. To Darwin, Crichton-Browne’s photographs represented something more useful than marketable trinkets. The raw emotion of the inmates at West Riding Lunatic Asylum was primitive, more authentic, and certainly closer to man’s evolutionary ancestors. Crichton-Browne’s project, his interest in capturing the true look of mania, proved a valuable discovery for Darwin.
The connection between controlled facial expressions and sanity and between uninhibited raw emotion and insanity continues to fascinate; this is especially notable when one looks at the staged photos of powerful and power-seeking business and political leaders. There is an unnaturalness in all this conformity, as if blandness has become a de-facto standard. But can this really be? One must conclude that the sameness in facial expressions reveals a lot more unsavory and unhealthy thoughts and emotions than these men and women wish to reveal.

You can read more of the article and see more images at [PubDomRev]

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Top Ten Posts: Stats, Diversities and Distributions

On Blogs

Photo Credit: Eli G. Greenbaum; 2014

Here is a list of the top ten posts (as of May 28, 2014) for this blog, which dates to August 2010, when I wrote my first article. The blog now contains a healthy 1,591posts and a total of 633,270 page-views. This equates to an average, or mean, of 398 page-views per post. I don't yet have figures for the median, but it is likely around the 250 mark.

The numbers cited below are provided by Google.

 1. My Last Post                                                          
(Aug 31, 2013)                                                              13,427

2. 2001: A Space Odyssey                                          
(Nov. 20, 2010)                                                              10,064

3. Sheldon Levy: The Many Faces of Humanity              
by Sheldon Levy
(Feb 11, 2011)                                                                   6,701

4. Can We End Poverty?
(Nov 24, 2010)                                                                  6,237

5. The Merchant Of Venice:                                            
Shylock's Monologue
(June 24, 2011)                                                                   5,409
6. Losing Sociability
(Aug 22, 2012)                                                                   4,369

7. Ariel Sharon: Six Years Later
(Apr 23, 2012)                                                                    4,204

8. Anti-Social Corporations & The Governments
(Jan 24, 2014)                                                                     3,679

9. Bruce Springsteen: This Land Is Your Land
(Sept. 11, 2011)                                                                   3,157

10. See No Evil; Hear No Evil: It's All Israel's Fault
by Prof. George Jochnowitz
(Apr 9, 2013)                                                                       3,044

The top ten posts generated a total of 60,291 page-views, or 9.5% of the over-all total page-views. There is a nice distribution among what interests readers of this blog, which says much about over-all human diversity among readers in tastes and in ideas.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Pluralistic Ignorance & Loneliness

The Human Self

“Men who no longer can make sure of the reality which they feel and experience through talking about it and sharing it with their fellow-men, live in the same nightmare of loneliness and uncertainty which, in a normal world, is the terrible fate of insanity.”
Hannah Arendt, “Ideology and Propaganda

Lonely Thoughts: Morrow writes: At the same time, developments in technology and the rise of mass participation in social networks may also contribute to the growth or persistence of loneliness, in Arendt’s sense. Such technologies certainly make it more difficult to achieve the kind of solitude recommended by Arendt as the condition for effective contemplation – as anyone who owns a smartphone knows.

In an excellent article posted in the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, Paul Morrow writes how modern surveillance technologies and the omni-presence or constant calling of social media can undermine both independent thought and human individuality, leading to conformity in thinking and to increased loneliness—the sum total leading also to what is called pluralistic ignorance.

Morrow writes in "The Emperor’s New Clothes and Pluralistic Ignorance," recalling the well-known fable by Hans Christian Andersen:
Pluralistic ignorance is a particular kind of popular delusion. It occurs when the various members of a group or population (1) do not know some fact or accept some principle, (2) do not know that their peers do not know that fact or accept that principle, and (3) act in such ways as to avoid revealing their lack of knowledge or acceptance to their peers. In the story of the Emperor’s new clothes, as Cristina Bicchieri has pointed out, the condition of pluralistic ignorance explains why, though neither the emperor nor his subjects can see the magic robes, all act as if they can. Many may doubt the reality of those robes, but fear of public degradation prevents any from airing these doubts before the bold child speaks out.

States of pluralistic ignorance can be sustained by sterner forces than fear of public disgrace, as Hannah Arendt’s 1950 lecture explains. The basic subject of Arendt’s talk is familiar from movies like The Lives of Others and books like 1984. She is concerned with the straitened states of mind that systematic surveillance and severe curtailments of freedom of expression can produce. Arendt’s analysis of the “nightmare of loneliness and uncertainty” induced by totalitarian forms of government and social control suggests that the cumulative effect of such repressive policies is to uncouple belief from judgment, conviction from action. But this is just what characterizes the condition of pluralistic ignorance.
This is evident today, which is not surprising to anyone who enters the realm of social media, which although has much to recommend it, is no replacement for serious discussion and engagement with individuals physically present nearby. (Such ought to be one of the benefits of university education, notably as it applies to the humanities.) Offering a comment or even a sign of acknowledgement does produce some social cohesion, and it does allow individuals to both express themselves and to receive some evidence that they and their thought life is based on reality. But in some way it also increases the level of loneliness, which is not the same as solitude; healthy persons do not desire the former, but they often require the latter.

Morrow writes:
Loneliness, on Arendt’s view, is the condition of persons whose beliefs, formed by active or passive processes, remain largely privately held, and are rarely submitted to the scrutiny of others in the form of judgments, or tested more rigorously still in the form of action. Loneliness can result from formal prohibitions on expression or action, as seen in totalitarian societies; but it can also result from informal standards and patterns of life which disvalue political – and overvalue social or commercial –interactions.
Against loneliness, Arendt opposed the condition of solitude. This is the condition of isolation that thinking persons temporarily enter in order to review their beliefs or principles undistracted by the tumult of social and political life. Solitude is distinguished by loneliness insofar as the beliefs or commitments formed in this condition of temporary retreat are expressly intended for eventual exhibition in the political sphere in the form of judgments and actions. 
Or, to put it another way, thought ought to eventually lead to action, especially of the moral or ethical kind. Otherwise, it can be a very lonely existence.I, too, am not exempt from this most human of conditions.

You can read more of the article at [HannahArendt]

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Gould & Menuhin: Bach Violin Sonata No. 4

Glenn Gould and Yehudi Menuhin together perform J.S. Bach's Violin Sonata No. 4 in C minor, BWV1017; it dates to 1965. In a Collections Canada archive on Glenn Gould, an article describes some of the background notes to this performance of 1965 ("Introduction to The Last Puritan" by Bruno Monsaingeon).

Monsaingeon writes:

Los Angeles - late July 1973
I happen to be spending a few days in the company of Yehudi Menuhin who came to give two concerts in California. Tomorrow, he will travel back to Europe while I will be flying to Toronto where I am to meet Glenn Gould for the first time. I mention this to Yehudi, curious as I am to know his feelings vis-a-vis an artist whom I admire but have never met, although we did exchange a rather voluminous written correspondence over the past few months. Much to my surprise, I learn that Yehudi and Glenn know each other personally; that they have in fact played together. Yehudi undertakes to relate the occasion: "It dates back to 1965; Glenn Gould had invited me to participate in one of his television appearances and had asked me to play with him sonatas by Bach and Beethoven and... the Schoenberg Fantasy. As you well know, Schoenberg is not amongst those twentieth century composers for whose music I have an immediate and irresistible appeal. When I arrived at Glenn's place in Toronto for our first scheduled rehearsal, I met a man of genius to whom the Schoenbergian structures and idiom were natural elements. We worked on the Fantasy together and he magnificently managed to convey to me the profound understanding and true love he had for that music. It was a revelation."
Gould was Canadian, and very much so. Much, perhaps too much, has been written about Gould's outward peculiarities, such as humming when he played, the need to sit fourteen inches above the floor and only perform in a chair built by his father. (You can see Gould performing here.) 

Then there was the matter of Gould's awkward social behavior, which was discussed too much. Gould was considered an eccentric for wearing gloves, a beret and an overcoat, even in warm weather. He also was adverse to being touched and later in life avoided most personal intercourse, communicating chiefly by phone and letters.

Yet, he was a man of deep habits, says a CBC documentary on Gould:  "Sometime between two and three every morning Gould would go to Fran's, a 24-hour diner a block away from his Toronto apartment, sit in the same booth and order the same meal of scrambled eggs."

Monday, May 26, 2014

CIJR Gala Luncheon

Canada-Israel Relations

CIJR is an academic institute unique in speaking directly to the public, Jewish and non-Jewish. It addresses key issues like Iran, Iraq and nuclear weapons, Holocaust revisionism after Auschwitz, the status of the West Bank and Jerusalem, Israel civil rights and the Gaza boycott. It addresses the Middle East conflict, Arab and European delegitimation of Israel, and Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations through the up-to-date analyses of its respected on-line, e-mail, fax and print publications.

One of the most admirable jobs in civic society is in defense of something noble and good. Defending democracy and human rights falls under such a category; and the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research, or CIJR, does an excellent job of it. Operating out of modest offices in downtown Montreal, it is many things: it is an academic institute; it is a resource centre; it is a centre of academic inquiry; it is a centre of defense for liberal democracy, including fighting anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. This is a serious organization that does excellent work in this area; I recommend it without qualification. The Gala Luncheon in Toronto takes place on Wednesday June 11, 2014; RSVP at, or at 1.855.303-5544.

Viewing Animals, Viewing Ourselves

On Self-Recognition

An article, by David P Barash  in Aeon raises the question on why humans (homo sapiens) have a long-standing and continued interest in our animal cousins. One answer is that by looking and understanding animals, we get to understand more about ourselves. So posits Barash, an evolutionary biologist, and professor of psychology and biology at the University of Washington.

He writes:
One plausible explanation is that people, at least some of the time, look at animals – non-human primates in particular – as reflections, albeit distorted, of themselves.
This suggests some of the evolutionary underpinnings of the human penchant for animal-watching. First, that we are living, breathing, perspiring, seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, eating, defecating, urinating, copulating, child-rearing, and ultimately dying animals ourselves. It is plausible that deep in the human psyche there resides the simple yet profound recognition of a relationship between Us and Them. ‘We be of one blood, ye and I,’ was the incantation taught to Mowgli in Rudyard Kipling’s memorable Jungle Book collections (1894-5). It confirmed the jungle boy’s connection with his non-human caretakers, friends and relatives. Perhaps it is ‘only natural’ that we, animals ourselves, reach out to other creatures. Even if we can’t talk to them à la Doctor Dolittle, or share the most intimate aspects of our lives, like Mowgli, at least we can lose – more likely, find – ourselves in watching them.
This is a fascinating scientific explanation, in that by looking and observing animals we can see various human behaviours, some of which are preferable to the ones we often now find normative in human society. It might well be that by observing animals we adults catch a glimpse into our better more naturalistic selves. And for both children and adults, animals represent the type of freedom and lack of restraints that humans rarely have. I suspect that our fascination with animals will only increase in the coming years.

You can read the rest of the article at [Aeon]

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Place Of Love In Human Justice

On Decency

Emotions Writ Large: Karen Shook writes in a sidebar to this article: Among those in her own life who have served as exemplars, Nussbaum mentions “first, Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, one of the great giants of US Reform Judaism, a great campaigner for social justice and also a person of deep and loving humanity. He was the rabbi of my temple, and blessed me at my adult bat mitzvah in 2008. He was tough and challenging, not a sentimental guy at all, and that was an important aspect of his greatness. And then, because I am so saddened to have learned of his death, Arthur Danto, the wonderful philosopher of art. Arthur approached both artworks and people with a spirit of passionate generosity. His views were challenging, and his standards rigorous, but there was such love in everything he did. Because of his unfocused eye, I always thought of him as Wotan–but a Wotan with a difference. If the Ring were rewritten with Arthur Danto in the lead role, it would be redemption by love from the start, not only at the tragic ending.”
Source: TimesHigherEducation

An article, by Geraldine Van Buren, in the Times Higher Education puts forth the important argument that love has a place in both the political sphere and in human justice and morality, an argument thoughtfully and passionately made by Martha Nussbaum, an American philosopher and the current Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago; she is also one of my favourite modern philosophers.

Van Buren, a professor of international human rights law, Queen Mary, University of London, writes in a review ("Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice, by Martha Nussbaum; November 7, 2013) of Nussbaum's Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (2013):
It is wrongly assumed that only oppressive societies benefit from cultivating public emotions. Yet orators, including Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, understood the need to reach out and inspire strong emotions in seeking to overcome unacceptable inequalities. Martha Nussbaum’s central question, therefore, is a fundamental one: how can a “decent” society do more for stability and motivation in cultivating public emotions without becoming illiberal and dictatorial?

Regrettably, there is a political tendency to focus on respect as the only critical public emotion necessary for a “good” society. Nussbaum convincingly demonstrates that respect alone is insufficient, because it is cold and too inactive to overcome what she sees as humanity’s tendency towards exploitation. Nor is respect grounded in human dignity sufficient to overcome inequality, which is why one of the most recently created national constitutions, that of South Africa, does not focus solely on dignity but emphasises the essential twining of dignity with equality. Nussbaum argues that we must guard against division and hierarchy “by cultivating appropriate sentiments of sympathy and love”.

There is unease in some public debate about acknowledging a pride in society’s core values. However, a pride in the value a society places upon the core tenet of freedom of speech is not inherently illiberal, providing that society protects the right to the freedom of speech of peaceful dissenters.

Love not only makes the world go round but, according to Nussbaum, is also at the heart of all of the essential emotions that sustain a decent society. Her definition of love as “intense attachment to things outside the control of our will” serves her argument well, although it is arguably too narrow, as love can also attach itself to that within our will. She argues that public emotions have two facets: the institutional and the motivational. Although her book addresses the latter, she accepts that the two are oars that need to work together.

Nussbaum distinguishes eudaemonism from egoism. Although both appraise the universe from a personal perspective, eudaemonism recognises that all people have intrinsic value, even though those who provoke the strongest emotions ought to come within what she describes as our “circle of concern”. The goal then is to be able to move abstract principles and people who are distant to us into that circle of concern, so that their fate becomes necessary to our own sense of personal well-being.
Nussbaum has long argued about the importance and place of literature and the arts in general to contribute to a decent and tolerant and open society. This is not the same as having the arts used as tools of propaganda and totalitarian thinking, which has been the case in totalitarian regimes. 

On the matter of love, there is a tendency among humans, it seems, to keep it private, locked up and given out in small parcels—as if it is a rare gift. This is not suggesting that we ought to gush over everything, that we ought to have overwrought emotions, but it does mean that there is a need for more genuine displays of healthy emotion in a society that has often replaced the fabricated with the real.

Humanity is fragile, and one resultant response is that humans often resort to self-protective actions to avoid being open and transparent, leading to the hardening of their hearts. How we view and speak about individuals says much on how we view greater society.  I agree that a major component of societal decency is love, and without it, society becomes harsh, cruel and callous. As always, Prof. Nussbaum gives us all something good to think about.

You can read the rest of the article at [TimesHigherEducation].

Friday, May 23, 2014

These Shoes Are Made For Talking

This & That

Shoe Shopping, Soul Searching: "The great decisions of human life have as a rule far more
to do with the instincts and other mysterious unconscious factors than with conscious will and
well-meaning reasonableness. The shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no recipe
for living that suits all cases. Each of us carries his own life-form—an indeterminable form
which cannot be superseded by any other," Carl Jung, Modern Man In Search Of a Soul (1933)

Photo Credit:
John Stillwell; PA
Source: The Guardian

An article, by Moira Redmond, in The Guardian looks at how footwear is displayed in literature; it's not a highly intellectual topic, or it might not at first seem so, but it is nevertheless interesting to see the way footwear plays a minor but consistent role in many novels that we have come to enjoy.

Redmond writes:
JK Rowling's list of what she wants to include when she guest-edits Woman's Hour includes "the myth and power of shoes": what a fantastic subject. Once you start looking, shoes shine out at you all over the place, from Cinderella's glass slipper to Dorothy's red shoes in the Wizard of Oz. (Though strangely they don't feature in Harry Potter much, apart from Hagrid, whose "feet in their leather boots were like baby dolphins".)

While men have shoes, too – think of Raskalnikov in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment scrubbing the bloodstains from his boots and worrying about his socks – it is women who wear the really important shoes in books, and you can track women's lives via the key items of footwear.

Let's start with some little girls: the Fossil sisters from Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes (and it's noticeable that many of her other books have been retitled and re-packaged to form a "Shoes" series). They have ballet shoes, white kid slippers, and tap and character shoes in patent leather with ankle straps.

This sounds twee, but it's not: the girls need to work and earn money, and these shoes are kit – even if there is a little sentiment involved in the way Posy cherishes her mother's ballet shoes.

In Judy Blume's teen classic Are You There God? It's Me Margaret, the heroine is nearly 12, and is told that if she wants to be one of the cool girls at her new school she has to wear loafers with no socks. Her mother thinks this is ludicrous, and Margaret gets blisters, but she does end up in a secret club.
This article got me thinking about shoes and boots. This, in turn, lead me down the rabbit hole of memory to the 1960s pop song by Nancy Sinatra, "These Boots Are Made For Walking," a song that I recently visited and enjoyed. It might be the same way with shoes, long considered the domain of women; yet, men can also enjoy a favourite pair of footwear, or two or three.

Such doubts are easily and quickly dispelled after you take a visit to a sports store, where hundreds of different pairs of running and sports shoes line the walls; the choices of styles and colours can dazzle. There are as many choices as there are individual tastes.

Or if your tastes run more upscale, there are the fine shoe stores who sell Italian-made shoes. One of our former prime ministers was known to prefer Gucci loafers. The right pair of comfortable and well-fitting shoes can make all the difference between a fine day, or a miserable one.

You can read more of the article at [TheGuardian].

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Packing Your Life Away

On Books

Books On A Shelf: We reside in a two-bedroom apartment in Toronto, which has
seven bookshelves crammed with books. I bought the last bookshelf after moving here,
and it is already filled to capacity. I might have to either give away some books before
I purchase new ones or finally use my e-reader, which sits on one of my shelves collecting dust.
Photo Credit: Perry J. Greenbaum

An article, by Linda Grant, in The Guardian gives us book lovers something to think about, notably, the decisions we must make on which books to keep and which books to give away, when it is necessary to move to smaller quarters. No one rational would consider this a major problem, but there is a feeling of sadness for some of us—some of the practically minded persons would consider this is a fetish or a sentimental love or bibliophilia—when we have to discard a book from our collection. A collection that for many of us represents decades in the making.

In "I have killed my books," Grant writes:
In the middle of my move I watched a documentary called The Flat. A family was clearing out the Tel Aviv apartment of a 97-year-old woman who had recently died. She had lived there for 70 years, since arriving from Germany in the 30s. The walls of the flat were lined with books published in her native language. Her grandson called in an antiquarian book dealer. He took the volumes off the shelf and hurled them with force to the floor. "No one reads Balzac," he said. "No one reads Shakespeare. Nobody wants Goethe. Know how many books they throw away in Germany?"

Who destroys books? Cities, churches, dictators and fanatics. Their fingers itch to build a pyre and strike the match. On 10 May 1933, students gathered in Berlin to dance around a bonfire of 25,000 "un‑German" books. They burned, among many others, Bertolt Brecht, Otto Dix, Heinrich Heine, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and HG Wells. They destroyed them because the contents were too dangerous. Now, in an apartment on the Mediterranean, the same authors were being dumped because no one wanted to read them. They are the detritus not just of the digital revolution but of disposable living and small houses.

And I, too, have committed murder in my library. I have killed my books.

The little girl who lay in bed, a circle of illumination on the sheets from her toadstool nightlight, afraid to go to sleep because her Struwwelpeter picture book lay next to her in the dark confinement of the ottoman with her toys, frightened of the scissorman who cuts off the thumbs of children who suck them – that small person who understood, even before she could read, the power of a book, has just liquidated half her own.
I also watched this Israeli documentary, and was saddened by the words of the antiquarian book dealer. Tastes change, I guess. I, too, have on a couple of occasions given away books before moving to other residences, and I, too, have had to be ruthless when making such decisions. The books we read are connected to a memory of a time and a place when we read them and, equally important, what was taking place in our personal lives. Often, these memories are happy, but not always. But this past moment might have been a time of transition or change. Thus, there is a sense that we are giving away a part of ourselves. An important part.  A sense of loss.

It might seem all pretty foolish and sentimental to some of you.

You can read the rest of the article at [The Guardian].

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Becoming Excited About The Periodic Table

On Chemistry

Image result for The Periodic table
The Periodic Table: In reviewing The Knowledge by Lewis Dartnell, Michael Brooks writes that the Table of Elements might hold the answers to fighting news strains of antibodies currently resistant to our antibiotics. “The periodic table makes an appearance because reading its patterns after the Apocalypse will help us find ways to exploit the properties offered by natural substances. It may be worth starting now, however.” 

In a book review article (The Knowledge by Lewis Dartnell), by Michael Brooks, in New Statesman, the Periodic Table gets some notice that might long be overdue. For many students of high school chemistry, the periodic table is a dusty chart of chemical elements with little importance and purpose other than memorizing its elements and its placement on the table to pass an exam or two.

Yet, like many things of our childhood, we grow out of one state and enter another. So, it depends on how one views things. This table of elements is not only a  monumental achievement of human ingenuity that begs for recognition, but moreover, it might hold important information on bettering the human condition.

Brooks writes:
This month, researchers will gather at the Royal Society for two days of meetings about the periodic table of the elements. To most people, the phrase conjures up images of a fading poster on a chemistry lab wall – but to scientists, it is “the most fundamental natural system of classification ever devised” (in the words of the organisers).

And it’s not a thing of the past – the periodic table is still inspiring new angles of research. Because it suggests connections and similarities between elements, it is a source of ideas for extending our range of tools for manipulating nature and finding medical solutions. That third row of transition metals, for instance, might look boring but it isn’t if you have cancer. More than half of chemotherapy patients receive platinum in their treatment but it may not be as effective as some of the other metals in the third row, such as osmium and rhenium, research is discovering.
The periodic table has come a long way since its creation. We have added dozens of elements and have even learned to make 26 elements that nature didn’t get round to creating. By examining the building blocks of the natural world, we have designed some blocks of our own and extended the natural atomic scope by almost a third. According to the astrobiologist Lewis Dartnell, the periodic table is “a colossal monument to achievement, as impressive as the Pyramids or any of the other wonders of the world”. He makes this claim in his book The Knowledge, which was published last month.
That it is. The Russian scientist, Dmitri Mendeleev, is credited with publishing the first internationally recognized periodic table, in 1869, which then contained 65 elements. The beauty of the table is found in its symmetry, in that it tabulates, or shows, the commonality of elements, where a period is one horizontal row on the table of elements; and a group a vertical row. Currently, there are 118 elements on a standard periodic table comprising 7 periods and 18 groups. [When I was in high school, the periodic table was taped to my bedroom wall. For a basic understanding of its arrangement, see here.]

What this article is attempting to say, I would suggest, is that the solution to some of humanity's problems lies in understanding the relationship between and among elements, that is, in understanding the elements that make up our planet. It is about acquiring knowledge and how to apply it, which requires great effort. The earth does not easily reveal its secrets, so to speak. Humans have to dig to unearth it. A book that I would highly recommend is Primo Levi's The Periodic Table, published in 1975.

Of the many problems humanity is now facing, one in particular is not receiving the due it ought to: a host of antibodies are currently resistant to antibiotics. Brooks writes: "Researchers have been warning of the growing threat from antibiotic resistance since the 1980s…. We know, for instance, that the answer to antibiotic resistance, if there is one, must lie within the elements of the periodic table, or the combinations they offer. "

You can read more of the article at [NewStateman].

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Dust Bowls Of Oklahoma

On Climate

An article, by Laura Parker, in National Geographic says that in America's heartland, notably Oklahoma, its farmers are once again experiencing dust bowls, in many ways reminiscent of the 1930s.

Parker writes:
In Boise City, Oklahoma, over the catfish special at the Rockin' A Café, the old-timers in this tiny prairie town grouse about billowing dust clouds so thick they forced traffic off the highways and laid down a suffocating layer of topsoil over fields once green with young wheat.

They talk not of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, but of the duster that rolled through here on April 27, clocked at 62.3 miles per hour.

It was the tenth time this year that Boise City, at the western end of the Oklahoma panhandle, has endured a dust storm with gusts more than 50 miles per hour, part of a breezier weather trend in a region already known for high winds.

"When people ask me if we'll have a Dust Bowl again, I tell them we're having one now," says Millard Fowler, age 101, who lunches most days at the Rockin' A with his 72-year-old son, Gary. Back in 1935, Fowler was a newly married farmer when a blizzard of dirt, known as Black Sunday, swept the High Plains and turned day to night. Some 300,000 tons of dirt blew east on April 14, falling on Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., and, according to writer Timothy Egan in his book The Worst Hard Time, onto ships at sea in the Atlantic.

"It is just as dry now as it was then, maybe even drier," Fowler says. "There are going to be a lot of people out here going broke."

The climatologists who monitor the prairie states say he is right. Four years into a mean, hot drought that shows no sign of relenting, a new Dust Bowl is indeed engulfing the same region that was the geographic heart of the original. The undulating frontier where Kansas, Colorado, and the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma converge is as dry as toast. The National Weather Service, measuring rain over 42 months, reports that parts of all five states have had less rain than what fell during a similar period in the 1930s.
This was a tough period for American farmers of the southwest, which was nicely covered in realist novel form by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939. It tells about the hardships that farmers from the American southwest faced as a result of the drought and subsequent dust bowls.

Since the people lived off the land, if the land was negatively affected, then they could not live as they liked. Many were forced to leave Oklahoma and went to California. This book, which made Steinbeck famous and a popular novelist, tells this story through one family, the Joads, and of their experiences on the road and in California.

Here is one pertinent passage, which, sadly, rings true today:
If he needs a million acres to make him feel rich, seems to me he needs it ’cause he feels awful poor inside hisself, and if he’s poor in hisself, there ain’t no million acres gonna make him feel rich, an’ maybe he’s disappointed that nothin’ he can do’ll make him feel rich.
And so it is written.

You can see more photos and read the rest of the article at [NatGeo].

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Bee Diversity: It's Good For Everyone

Our Food

Honeybees: A honey bee pollinates a blueberry blossom in Arkansas.
Photo Credit:
Bills Barksdale; AgStock Images; Corbis

An article, by Natasha Gelling, in Smithsonian looks at a study that confirms that bee diversity is good for our agricultural food supply. This is good news in light of the news about colony collapse disorder and the loss of the honeybees, which currently accounts for 80 percent of insect pollination of crops.

Gelling writes:
But honeybees aren't the only bees in the pollination game—nor are they, necessarily, the most effective. There are more than 20,000 species of bees, and 4,000 of those are native to North America (the honeybee is not one of them). These native pollinators are—in some conditions—actually better pollinators than honeybees, but they're harder to control. "There has been a lot of research done in the past year looking at wild bees and their contribution to pollination—in a lot of systems wild bees enhance pollination that ways that managed bees like honeybees don’t," explains Hannah Burrack, Associate Professor at North Carolina State University (NCSU).
Earlier this year, a group of bee researchers published a study in Science linking biodiversity of bees to improved crop yields—biodiversity being a sort of insurance policy for our food system. But because wild bees aren't as easily managed as honeybees, farmers might be hesitant to instate practices that would draw native pollinators to their fields.

Now, new research from Burrack and her colleagues at NCSU suggests that increasing the diversity of their pollinators might do more than benefit a farmer's crop—it could benefit their bottom-line enough to offset the initial investment in increasing biodiversity, making the effort worth it. The research was published today in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

"The interest in my lab for this project grew out of those grower interactions," Burrack notes. "They wanted to know who their pollinators were and how they were interacting and benefiting, potentially, their crops."

Alongside David Tarpy, a honeybee biologist at NSCU, Burrack and others measured the effect of bee biodiversity on an important North Carolina crop: blueberries. They selected a number of commercial blueberry farms, which they visited once a week during bloom season for a two-year period. Before the bloom season started, the scientists placed cages over a select number of branches—a control group—to keep pollinators temporarily away. During the bloom season (a four to five week period) the scientists would walk through the rows for a set period of time, counting and identifying the species of bees that were present—they found five distinct groups: honey bees, bumble bees, southeastern blueberry bees, carpenter bees and small native bees.

Then they would regularly expose the caged branches to pollinators in one of three ways: they would uncage the branch and allow any present pollinators to visit for a set period of time (open pollination), they would expose the branch to only one species of bee to test that bee's efficiency on a per-visit basis (single visit pollination) or they would simply keep the branch covered, testing how much pollination could come from the specific shrub's flowers pollinating themselves (closed pollination).
That diversity was thus far shown to be beneficial for blueberries opens up the possibility that this knowledge might also be transferable and good for other plants and crops. This would in some way become a way out, a solution of sorts, for farmers who have relied solely on honey bees for pollinating their agricultural crops. This does not suggest in any way that scientists ought to abandon their search for determining the defining reason(s) for colony collapse disorder; they ought to continue, but at the same time this offers some relief to farmers and, equally it must be added, to consumers of these agricultural crops.

You can read the rest of the article at [Smithsonian].

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Eleanor Marx: Her Father's Daughter

Family InHeritance

Mrs Eleanor Marx Aveling, daughter of Karl Marx.jpg
Eleanor Marx [1855-1898]: Lisa Jardine writes: “Intellectually, what she brought of her own to the political arena was a vision that incorporated the rights of women. As she wrote in 1886 in The Woman Question, ‘For women, as for the labouring classes, no solution of the difficulties and problems that present themselves is really possible in the present condition of society. ’ ”
Photo Credit: Hurst and Blackett Publishers; London
Source: Wikipedia

An article, by Lisa Jardine in Financial Times, reviews Rachel Holmes' Eleanor Marx: A Life, about the preferred daughter of Karl Marx.

Jardine writes:
Eleanor Marx joked that she had inherited her father’s nose but not his genius and, if she anticipated that it was her fate to be overshadowed by the author of Das Kapital, then she could only be proved correct. Yet contemporaries who knew her work as an activist, writer and translator would have protested nonetheless at the injustice. Now, in Rachel Holmes’ fine biography, we have all the evidence we need to revise this modest self-assessment.

Eleanor was born on January 16 1855 in a two-room garret in Dean Street, London, the sixth child of Karl Marx and Jenny von Westphalen. Only two of her siblings survived into adulthood – her sisters Jenny and Laura, 11 and 10 years older than her, respectively. The eldest son, Edgar, died of tuberculosis 12 weeks after Eleanor’s birth and from that point her father seems to have invested all his hopes and affection in the family’s most recent arrival. He and Eleanor would be soulmates until his death in 1883.

One consequence for Eleanor, known throughout her life as “Tussy”, was that her education was almost entirely conducted at her father’s knee. She barely attended formal school – in part because the family was always so short of money, surviving for periods on money raised by pawning linen and jewellery, or on generous handouts from Karl’s collaborator Friedrich Engels. Instead, she learnt French and German from her French-speaking older sisters and German-speaking mother, while her father encouraged his own love of “book-worming” in her from as soon as she could read.

Karl introduced her to Shakespeare, to the English, French and American novel, to Scott, Balzac and Fielding. He encouraged her writing and love of the theatre. Years later Eleanor recalled: “He would, all unconscious though she was of it, show his little girl where to look for all that was finest and best in the works, teach her – though she never thought she was being taught, to that she would have objected – to try and think, to try and understand for herself.”
This is definitely wise counsel from a father to his daughter, an idea that I have attempted to instill in my own children. It remains to be seen how successful my attempts will be in the face of a strong societal pressure to conform. There is a marked difference between being part of a community, a healthy social need, and conforming to such a degree as to nullify the individual and his or her identity. Fighting for individual and civil rights, it seems, is always carried out by flawed idealistic individuals, often leading to tragic consequences; Eleanor Marx did not escape this fate.

You can read the rest of the article at [FT].

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Seeking Asylum In America Is No Easy Matter

Human Detention

Detained In The U.S.Stauffer writes: “As a party to the United Nations Convention Against Torture, the U.S. agreed to 'not return refugees to countries where their life or freedom would be threatened and where they are more likely than not to be tortured.' In the old days, asylum seekers were rarely detained.”
Illustration Credit: Brian Stauffer
Source: VillageVoice

An article (“Asylum Insanity: Welcome to the Land of the Free;” April 8, 2014), by , in The Village Voice writes that it is no easy matter for foreigners to obtain asylum in the United States; it is often the case that when asylum seekers land in America, they are immediately placed in detention.

Over the past five months, the Voice visited detainees at two immigration detention centers and conducted extensive interviews with outreach workers, attorneys, academics, and other experts on the asylum process. Our investigation revealed how a process created to save innocent lives has come to embody some of the worst aspects of American immigration policy: The nation's system of mass deportations and incarceration has devastating consequences for vulnerable individuals who seek nothing more than safety and a new beginning.

The immigration overhaul the Senate passed in June 2013 addresses several issues with asylum, but the legislation remains stalled in the House of Representatives. Raising concerns about fraudulent claims, some Republican leaders are now pushing draconian measures that would put even more asylum seekers behind bars. House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia, has said the asylum system is "exploited by illegal immigrants in order to enter and remain in the United States."

"The tone of immigration politics, even when it comes to asylum seekers, has gotten really vicious," says Alina Das, co-director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the New York University School of Law. "People have generally forgotten what it means to be seeking asylum in our country. It's really disturbing, and I think it's a sad commentary on how easily a minority of elected officials can hijack an issue that should really speak to core American values."

Though the political climate looks bleak for advocates of asylum reform, an ongoing pilot project offers a glimmer of hope. The project allows Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials at facilities in New York City, Newark, San Antonio, Chicago, and Minneapolis-St. Paul to release select detainees seeking asylum into a program coordinated by the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. As of March 31, the program has helped secure temporary housing and social services for 32 people, including survivors of torture, victims of domestic abuse, and LGBT individuals, all of whom would otherwise have remained jailed indefinitely.

"There's growing recognition from ICE that maybe detention is not appropriate for all of these folks," says Megan Bremer, a staff attorney at LIRS. Early successes aside, Bremer cautions that the arrangement is only temporary and receives zero government funding. "A lot of programs locally are running on a deficit. If it wasn't for all the volunteers providing time and services, the program would not be in existence."

Beyond the humanitarian concerns, the cost of detaining asylum seekers and other nonviolent immigrants creates an enormous burden for American taxpayers. The Department of Homeland Security budget for "custody operations" in the 2014 fiscal year is $1.84 billion. According to DHS's own estimates, if the agency used electronic ankle monitoring and other less expensive alternatives instead of detention, the government could save more than $1.44 billion annually: a 78 percent reduction in costs.

Yet every day at airports and border crossings around the country, immigrants like Mohamed— who committed no crime beyond seeking to save his own life—are locked up for weeks, months, and even years. And if they are sent home, deportation can be tantamount to a death sentence.
America is not alone in viewing all individuals who enter its borders in non-traditional ways as suspicious or suspect; many nations act in similar ways, but not all resort to detention, or act so hostile to humans who want a better life. Despite this, America remains a destination of choice for many, if not most, seeking asylum, as a land of freedom from the many types of persecution they face in their lands of origins.

That America acts in this manner is not new; it was the same after the First World War. An article on U.S. immigration policy, which was essentially based on restricting "certain races," and instituting quotas, notes:
Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act in 1921, followed by the Immigration Act of 1924, which was aimed at further restricting the Southern Europeans and Russians who had begun to enter the country in large numbers beginning in the 1890s. This ultimately resulted in precluding the all "extra" immigration to the United States, including Jews fleeing Nazi German persecution.
The Immigration Act of 1924 set quotas for European immigrants so that no more than 2% of the 1890 immigrant stocks were allowed into America.
Although it allowed hundreds of thousands of displaced persons (DPS) to enter its borders after the Second World War, including many displaced Jews, the U.S. became slightly more tolerant to all immigrants only two decades after the end of the Second World War, in 1965, with the passage of Hart-Celler Act as part of President Johnson's Great Society programs.

One can argue, and perhaps it is a weak or immoral argument, that a nation can decide whom it wants within its borders; it seems that the United States has always done that, and the kind of thinking and restrictive legislation currently in place is nothing new. It might be that mass communication makes it seem such ideas are under somewhat more scrutiny than they have been in the past.

The United States, despite its flaws, will draw millions of individuals from other nations each year—some legal (documented), some illegal (undocumented)—because its flaws are arguably significantly less than those of the nations from which these people come. And a small proportion of them will eventually become citizens, contributing to the nation's betterment.

You can read the rest of the article at [VilVoice].

Saturday, May 10, 2014

A Non-American's View Of The Vietnam War

War Memories
Vietnam War's End: Evacuation of CIA station personnel by Air America on the rooftop
of 22 Gia Long Street in Saigon on April 29, 1975.
[I remember this image and others, while
watching the war and its end on TV while I was a senior in high school.]
Jäntti writes: "The Vietnam war narrative, encapsulated by the statements of Carter and Cohen,
represents possibly the most disturbing case since the second world war of indifference towards
(if not approval of) an apocalyptic destruction of a country and its people. How would the
international community have reacted if the Germans had reflected on their past military
aggression in the same terms as the US has reflected on Vietnam?"

Photo Credit
Hubert van Es UPI
Source: Wikipedia

When one talks to an American of a certain age and mien about the Vietnam War, one almost gets the impression that it was the  nation of Vietnam that had invaded the United States, instead of the other way around. And if persons inside the U.S. admit the war was wrong on any level, including morally, which many Americans now do, they will refer to the Americans killed or to the Americans maimed, or to the Americans suffering mental illness as a result of battle.

But it is rare to hear about those it killed or those it wounded, the faceless Other. Or to the number of homes American bombs destroyed or to the deforestation and to farmland such bombs and other weapons of mass destruction made inhabitable.

So powerful is this narrative in America of its nobility and goodness that it is hard to convince people of the core facts, chiefly, that the war also killed the inhabitants, in so many ways, of the nation that the U.S. had willfully and callously invaded. This makes the article by Bruno Jäntti in Le Monde diplomatique all the more noteworthy. In "Four decades after Vietnam," Jäntti writes:
The American public’s ignorance of the core facts of the war (or indifference to it) may seem surprising. Take a Gallup poll in November 2000: of respondents between 18 and 29, 27% said the US was backing North Vietnam, 45% said South Vietnam and 28% expressed no opinion at all. What about support for the war among the US public at the end of the 1960s? According to a Gallup poll in July 1969, more than a year after the My Lai massacre, 53% of respondents approved of Nixon’s handling of the war.

If many Americans do not know the basic outlines of the history of the war, their knowledge of US crimes against Vietnam and the Vietnamese is not likely to be high either. Yet the US dropped more bombs in South Vietnam than the total number of bombs dropped by all sides in World War II put together — in fact more than twice the amount. Twelve million acres of Vietnam’s forest and 25 million acres of farmland, at least, were destroyed by American saturation bombing; and over 70 million litres of herbicidal agents were sprayed over the country.

The shortcomings of the conventional narrative mean that Vietnamese deaths caused by the US are debated through widely varying figures — anywhere from hundreds of thousands to millions. According to Robert McNamara, 3.6 million Vietnamese were killed in the war.)

Researchers from Harvard Medical School and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, who published one of the most meticulous studies in 2008, put the Vietnamese death toll at 3.8 million. According to Nick Turse, an American historian and investigative journalist who has conducted ground-breaking research on the Vietnam war, even this “staggering figure may be an underestimate.”

The US offensive also wounded 5.3 million Vietnamese civilians, and up to 4 million Vietnamese fell victim to toxic defoliants used by the US in large swathes of the country. When the US finally withdrew, the war had created 200,000 prostitutes, 879,000 orphans, 1 million widows and 11 million refugees.

As a part of a two-day conference in 2006, “Vietnam and the Presidency”, former US president Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) gave his well-known account of the war and its effects on his presidency. Carter, one of the post-war presidents who least advocated an aggressive US foreign policy, stressed the importance of moving “beyond the Vietnam War to better things.” Carter laid special emphasis on what he called a “healing process” — for Americans, needless to say — and claimed that under his administration “that healing process made major strides forward”.

He even said that process was “complete [when] the Vietnam heroic monument, one of the most popular places in Washington” was erected, soon after the Carter presidency ended. The inscription on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial says that “[o]ur nation honors the courage, sacrifice, and devotion to duty and country of its Vietnam veterans.” Not a word about the Vietnamese.

Carter’s commentary served as an unpleasant but illustrative reminder of thinking in the US political culture. It was time to move “beyond the Vietnam war to better things”. Even more revealingly, Carter said: “I don’t feel that we ought to apologize or to castigate ourselves or to assume the status of culpability”, stressing that “the destruction was mutual”.
So says Carter, the ostensibly least-arrogant and militant of American presidents, which also makes him the least-liked and -admired modern president in the U.S. If this indeed represents the best one can expect from an American elected official on a war that had no justification or military purpose, then it says much of what dominates official thinking and of America's ability to easily deny its past culpability while at the same time manufacturing an emotional and patriotic (or nationalistic) narrative to explain it away. The sad thing is that most Americans accept this as normative and necessary in a world that they view as dangerous and hostile to U.S. interests.

This "explaining away", however, includes military actions that other nations would describe as crimes against humanity. Such is the way it is with militarily powerful nations which desire to remain so at any cost. The United States is very good at "putting things behind it" and "moving on"; in some cases this can be admirable, but not in this case, when so many lives have been lost for nothing. But with another two costly wars almost behind it (Iraq and Afghanistan), this type of serious questioning and deep soul-searching is unlikely to happen soon, if ever. It is not the American way.

You can read the rest of the article at [LeMonde]

Friday, May 9, 2014

A Russian Family Of Six Surviving In Isolation

On Faith

Two Sisters: Agafia Lykova and her sister Natalia. Agafia, now in her seventies, is the only
surviving member of the family; she lives alone in the taiga, high above the Abakan.
Source: Smithsonian

An article, by Mike Dash, in Smithsonian recounts the story of a Russian family who were living in a remote part of Siberia, isolated from all human contact, unaware that the Second World War had taken place, unaware that man had landed on the moon, and unaware, for that matter, of the many modern conveniences and comforts of life.

They were discovered in 1978 when geologists were out prospecting southern Russia a few hundred miles from the Mongolian border.  Traveling by helicopter, they flew over a thickly wooded valley adjacent to a river that acted as a tributary to the mighty Abakan.  It was there that the helicopter pilot saw evidence of human habitation, 6,000 feet up the mountainside.

This was an unexpected find, since the Soviet authorities had no record of anyone living here, the nearest settlement being 150 miles away, and yet  this is precisely what this family of six—the Lykovs wanted, to remain undetected.

Dash writes
Slowly, over several visits, the full story of the family emerged. The old man’s name was Karp Lykov, and he was an Old Believer–a member of a fundamentalist Russian Orthodox sect, worshiping in a style unchanged since the 17th century. Old Believers had been persecuted since the days of Peter the Great, and Lykov talked about it as though it had happened only yesterday; for him, Peter was a personal enemy and “the anti-Christ in human form”—a point he insisted had been amply proved by Tsar’s campaign to modernize Russia by forcibly “chopping off the beards of Christians.” But these centuries-old hatreds were conflated with more recent grievances; Karp was prone to complain in the same breath about a merchant who had refused to make a gift of 26 poods of potatoes to the Old Believers sometime around 1900.

Things had only got worse for the Lykov family when the atheist Bolsheviks took power. Under the Soviets, isolated Old Believer communities that had fled to Siberia to escape persecution began to retreat ever further from civilization. During the purges of the 1930s, with Christianity itself under assault, a Communist patrol had shot Lykov’s brother on the outskirts of their village while Lykov knelt working beside him. He had responded by scooping up his family and bolting into forest. Peter the Great’s attempts to modernize the Russia of the early 18th century found a focal point in a campaign to end the wearing of beards. Facial hair was taxed and non-payers were compulsorily shaved—anathema to Karp Lykov and the Old Believers.
I would recommend that you to read the rest of this article. If this story shows anything, it is that some individuals will do anything to maintain their beliefs and their way of life, both carrying with them a sense of belonging and identity. That such beliefs against modernization will in a few cases drive some people underground might trouble some persons; the story is a fascinating encounter with the power of faith and belief, and survival it seems, and how these innate human characteristics can overcome comfort. For this family, it was survival that was the defining and driving force.

You can read more of this article at [Smithsonian].

arrive, though, the taiga blooms, and for a few short months it can seem almost welcoming. It is then that man can see most clearly into this hidden world–not on land, for the taiga can swallow whole armies of explorers, but from the air. Siberia is the source of most of Russia’s oil and mineral resources, and, over the years, even its most distant parts have been overflown by oil prospectors and surveyors on their way to backwoods camps where the work of extracting wealth is carried on.
Karp Lykov and his daughter Agafia, wearing clothes donated by Soviet geologists not long after their family was rediscovered.
Thus it was in the remote south of the forest in the summer of 1978. A helicopter sent to find a safe spot to land a party of geologists was skimming the treeline a hundred or so miles from the Mongolian border when it dropped into the thickly wooded valley of an unnamed tributary of the Abakan, a seething ribbon of water rushing through dangerous terrain. The valley walls were narrow, with sides that were close to vertical in places, and the skinny pine and birch trees swaying in the rotors’ downdraft were so thickly clustered that there was no chance of finding a spot to set the aircraft down. But, peering intently through his windscreen in search of a landing place, the pilot saw something that should not have been there. It was a clearing, 6,000 feet up a mountainside, wedged between the pine and larch and scored with what looked like long, dark furrows. The baffled helicopter crew made several passes before reluctantly concluding that this was evidence of human habitation—a garden that, from the size and shape of the clearing, must have been there for a long time.
It was an astounding discovery. The mountain was more than 150 miles from the nearest settlement, in a spot that had never been explored. The Soviet authorities had no records of anyone living in the district.

The Lykovs lived in this hand-built log cabin, lit by a single window “the size of a backpack pocket” and warmed by a smoky wood-fired stove.
The four scientists sent into the district to prospect for iron ore were told about the pilots’ sighting, and it perplexed and worried them. “It’s less dangerous,” the writer Vasily Peskov notes of this part of the taiga, “to run across a wild animal than a stranger,” and rather than wait at their own temporary base, 10 miles away, the scientists decided to investigate. Led by a geologist named Galina Pismenskaya, they “chose a fine day and put gifts in our packs for our prospective friends”—though, just to be sure, she recalled, “I did check the pistol that hung at my side.”
As the intruders scrambled up the mountain, heading for the spot pinpointed by their pilots, they began to come across signs of human activity: a rough path, a staff, a log laid across a stream, and finally a small shed filled with birch-bark containers of cut-up dried potatoes. Then, Pismenskaya said,
beside a stream there was a dwelling. Blackened by time and rain, the hut was piled up on all sides with taiga rubbish—bark, poles, planks. If it hadn’t been for a window the size of my backpack pocket, it would have been hard to believe that people lived there. But they did, no doubt about it…. Our arrival had been noticed, as we could see.
The low door creaked, and the figure of a very old man emerged into the light of day, straight out of a fairy tale. Barefoot. Wearing a patched and repatched shirt made of sacking. He wore trousers of the same material, also in patches, and had an uncombed beard. His hair was disheveled. He looked frightened and was very attentive…. We had to say something, so I began: ‘Greetings, grandfather! We’ve come to visit!’
The old man did not reply immediately…. Finally, we heard a soft, uncertain voice: ‘Well, since you have traveled this far, you might as well come in.’

The sight that greeted the geologists as they entered the cabin was like something from the middle ages. Jerry-built from whatever materials came to hand, the dwelling was not much more than a burrow—”a low, soot-blackened log kennel that was as cold as a cellar,” with a floor consisting of potato peel and pine-nut shells. Looking around in the dim light, the visitors saw that it consisted of a single room. It was cramped, musty and indescribably filthy, propped up by sagging joists—and, astonishingly, home to a family of five:
The silence was suddenly broken by sobs and lamentations. Only then did we see the silhouettes of two women. One was in hysterics, praying: ‘This is for our sins, our sins.’ The other, keeping behind a post… sank slowly to the floor. The light from the little window fell on her wide, terrified eyes, and we realized we had to get out of there as quickly as possible.

Agafia Lykova (left) with her sister, Natalia.
Led by Pismenskaya, the scientists backed hurriedly out of the hut and retreated to a spot a few yards away, where they took out some provisions and began to eat. After about half an hour, the door of the cabin creaked open, and the old man and his two daughters emerged—no longer hysterical and, though still obviously frightened, “frankly curious.” Warily, the three strange figures approached and sat down with their visitors, rejecting everything that they were offered—jam, tea, bread—with a muttered, “We are not allowed that!” When Pismenskaya asked, “Have you ever eaten bread?” the old man answered: “I have. But they have not. They have never seen it.” At least he was intelligible. The daughters spoke a language distorted by a lifetime of isolation. “When the sisters talked to each other, it sounded like a slow, blurred cooing.”
Slowly, over several visits, the full story of the family emerged. The old man’s name was Karp Lykov, and he was an Old Believer–a member of a fundamentalist Russian Orthodox sect, worshiping in a style unchanged since the 17th century. Old Believers had been persecuted since the days of Peter the Great, and Lykov talked about it as though it had happened only yesterday; for him, Peter was a personal enemy and “the anti-Christ in human form”—a point he insisted had been amply proved by Tsar’s campaign to modernize Russia by forcibly “chopping off the beards of Christians.” But these centuries-old hatreds were conflated with more recent grievances; Karp was prone to complain in the same breath about a merchant who had refused to make a gift of 26 poods of potatoes to the Old Believers sometime around 1900.

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