Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day

Remember the conscientious objectors who stood up for what they believed in.

Remember the civilians who died as "collateral damage" while the armies fought in the name of one thing or another.

Remember the gays and lesbians who wanted to fight for their country but weren't allowed to.

Remember those imprisoned for speaking out against unjust wars, or even just talking truthfully about the horrors of war. They weren't shouting "fire" in a crowded theater; they were standing outside a burning cinema telling people they shouldn't go inside.

Remember all those who struggled to retain their humanity and dignity during wartime, pity those who tried and failed to do so, and disdain those who did not even try.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Fleck and the Bank

The Chinese character for 'crisis', he reads,
binds together danger and extreme
caution, averse to risk and opportunity.

("The Bank" III)

Even before the Internet (remember that?), vaguely attributed quotations from "exotic" languages (for our purposes, "non-Western") made the rounds as tidbits of wisdom that could be used as guides to good living or success. Here, Rob A. Mackenzie bitingly mocks the spurious idea (see Victor Mair's dismantling of it here) that the Chinese character for "crisis" is a combination of "danger" and "opportunity."

The "he" in question is the main character of Fleck and the Bank, a banker friend of "Rob" (to whom a letter in the book is addressed) who disappeared in August 2011. These lines rebuild a cliché of contemporary "management wisdom" so as to turn it on its head: "danger + opportunity" becomes an aversion to both. 

Such dismantling appears most strikingly in a prose poem called "Now and in the Hour of Our Death," which is ostensibly the note that Fleck left behind when he disappeared. Near the end of it, there is this wonderful sentence:

There's too much in life: you can't describe it, yet he who dares to speak of it, bears witness, and calls to witness him to whom he speaks.

In the notes at the back of the book, this poem is described as "a collage of cut 'n' pasted sources from the first and/or last lines of books stacked along a single shelf in Fleck's kitchen." Before the Internet, research on this would have involved a trip to the library (and one with as wide-ranging a collection as Fleck), but now I was able to quickly discover the source here—or rather, sources: "There's too much in life: you can't describe it" is the last line of Les Murray's verse novel Fredy Neptune, and the rest comes from Martin Buber's I and Thou. The "it" in Buber refers, however, to "God's existence," not the "too much in life" that can't be described in Murray. Mackenzie's revision of the orientalist cliché about "crisis" turns it upside down; here, he disorients both Murray and Buber, finding a new opportunity in their juxtaposition.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Translation Workshop in Switzerland, October 2012

Here's an announcement from the Looren Translation House in Switzerland:

October 17 – 24, 2012

ViceVersa - Fifth German and English workshop at the Translation House Looren Workshop

leaders: Karen Nölle (Germany) and Shelley Frisch (USA)

We invite translators from German to English and English to German to apply for our fifth translators’ workshop, which will provide the opportunity to present and discuss their translations-in-progress.

In addition to the work on texts, the program will include meetings with literary movers and shakers.

Applications deadline: June 30, 2012

For the application form, see the Looren web page here.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A Ground-Up Millipede

Thomas Willis was a 17th-century English doctor who, among other things, coined the term "neurology" and collaborated with Christopher Wren (who did the drawings) to produce the first accurate description of the structures of the human brain. The story of Willis's research and medical practice is told in Carl Zimmer's book Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain ... (there's more to its title, but it's just marketing ...).

Zimmer talks a great deal about the historical context of seventeenth-century England, not just to add color but because Willis's biography (like that of anyone living through it) was strongly influenced by the English Civil War. After the Restoration and the Great Fire of London, Willis moved his practice from Oxford to London and became the most famous physician in England (in part because of his work with Wren describing the brain). Zimmer writes of his medical practice as follows:

His theories about how people became sick and how the body worked were hugely popular. Yet his remedies remained, as ever, generally useless. He continued prescribing his eclectic blend of medicines—a blistering plaster for one patient, a ground-up millipede for another—and claimed success when his patients recovered and escaped blame when they didn't. If they recuperated, they usually did so in spite of his attentions.

The popularity of a medical treatment bears no necessary relationship to its effectiveness. Its popularity might well be based on other things—in this case, the fame of Willis's research—or on logical fallacies, such as the clear post hoc, ergo proper hoc moment in the above passage. Perhaps ground-up millipedes are good for something, but no matter how much he had discovered about the structure of the brain, Willis was probably just making it up when he decided that millipedes would do the job.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Germ Theory

It's hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that there might be people out there—doctors, even!—who dispute the germ theory of disease. But there are, and some of them are trying to provide medical treatment to terminally ill patients (and anyone else they can convince to put themselves into their hands), as is shown by this post about such a case.

David Gorski writes of the era when the germ theory was first developed:

Béchamp, as you may remember, was a contemporary of Louis Pasteur and proposed a competing hypothesis for the cause of infectious disease, which he dubbed the pleomorphic theory. The concept he championed was that bacteria do not cause disease but are rather a manifestation of disease. In other words, diseased tissues produce bacteria, arising from structures that Béchamp called microzymas, which to him referred to a class of enzyme. Béchamp postulated that microzymas are normally present in tissues and that their effects depended upon the cellular terrain. Of course, as we all know, ultimately Pasteur’s ideas won out based on evidence, experimentation, and clinical observation, relegating Béchamp to more or less a historical footnote. In fairness, it should be remembered that, 150 year ago, it wasn’t entirely clear who was correct, Pasteur or Béchamp. Given the technology and tools of the time, it was not a trivial matter to determine where bacteria arose, although it didn’t take long before experiments and methodology were developed that pretty much put Béchamp’s concepts to bed for good.

The point is well taken: when Pasteur was first developing his ideas, there were many other ideas in the air, and his ideas "won out" not because of some conspiracy to make them win out, but because they fit the evidence best.

If you're looking for an "alternative" doctor, at least try to find one who does not dismiss the germ theory and claim, among other things, that HIV "is not a virus but an alkaline antibody to buffer acid or antigens."

I'm not sure what I'll do when somebody comes along and says, "But Pasteur was wrong!"