A Journal of the Irrepressible

Archive for the ‘evolution’ Category

Generosity by Richard Powers

leave a comment

Richard Powers is a master of sleight-of-hand. He writes novels full of science but escapes being called a science fiction writer. In Generosity: An Enhancement, the latest novel by the MacArthur “genius” grant and National Book Award winner (for The Echo Maker), Powers feints and flourishes in order to — presto-magico — pull together two seemingly unrelated themes: genetic engineering and creative nonfiction.

In Powers’ hands, the relation between the two themes is laid bare: they both are concerned with the nature, manipulation, and enhancement of reality. In recent years, we’ve seen the formerly innocuous genre of memoir mutate into the high-stakes blockbuster industry of creative nonfiction. And woe unto he who fudges the truth in his memoir, who tells a lie, however small. What used to be par for the course in memoir is now a cardinal sin: remember James Frey and A Million Little Pieces? Read the rest of this entry »

  • Share/Bookmark

Written by Brian

January 21st, 2010 at 11:13 am

Narrative Is a Conflict Engine

leave a comment

Dan o’ Xark! has an interesting piece on narrative journalism and its evolution. I’ve commented on Dan’s thinking before and admire his intellectual creativity and restlessness.

What he’s up to in this piece is arguing for an end (or at least an alternative) to long-form narrative journalism in favor of…. something else.

Journalism schools have taught view-from-nowhere, AP Style-compliant, mass-media-voice long-form feature writing for decades, and readers just aren’t interested. Educating another generation of students to file 75-inch profiles of local United Way executives, written for the annual press contest judges who determine next-year’s promotions, just isn’t much of an answer to the market-side questions that demand our attention.

True enough. But the really interesting point he makes comes a bit further down:

Classic narrative follows a subject through a conflict to a resolution. And if our primary means of understanding something as complex as global warming is just a series of narratives about conflict, then we’re not going to make much progress. This is one reason why American mainstream news organizations kept emphasizing critics of global warming, even though the most credible peer-reviewed studies favored the anthropogenic warming theory championed by Al Gore…. We didn’t need better narrative journalism about global warming, we needed less of it. We needed a way of communicating that encouraged the evaluation of facts instead of the balancing of rhetoric. It’s a shift that requires a radically different theory of the press.

It’s difficult to see how a “different theory of the press” is going to change something that has nothing, really, to do with the press and everything to do with cognition. You can present things in ways that encourage an evaluation of facts (e.g., charts and graphs or, as Dan suggests by way of example, box scores), but we’re still going to contextualize those facts by way of a conflict-driven narrative.

If the facts don’t move us, we don’t care. And in order to be moved, in order for facts to move, they must in some way, an engine-like way, face resistance. We need to at least imagine counterfactuals: I’m not here, I’m there, in that person’s shoes.

So Dan’s example of the critics of global warming getting face time in the media makes sense. If you want to do something about it, start by reporting from the critics’ point of view: the climate isn’t changing, you report, and then give many column inches to the critics of that view.

Dan argues that, without box scores,

how many at-bats would never have been recorded for future historians because they didn’t fit into the narrative the writer picked as he hammered out a story on deadline?

Fair enough. But those historians will do nothing with that information without first recontextualizing it as conflict-driven narrative. Indeed, lovers of baseball routinely recontextualize box scores, mentally pitting pitcher against batter and so on.

It’s not journalism that needs to evolve to address your concerns, Dan; it’s the human brain that must change.

  • Share/Bookmark

Written by Brian

October 30th, 2009 at 4:07 pm

Diego Stocco’s Experibass

leave a comment

Diego Stocco took grafted bits of a violin, a viola and a cello to a double bass and came up with an awesome mutant monster.

I came up with a quadruple-neck experimental “something” that I thought to call Experibass. To play it I used cello and double bass bows, a little device I built with fishing line and hose clamps, a paintbrush, a fork, spoons, a kick drum pedal and a drum stick. I hope you’ll like it!

Diego Stocco – Experibass from Diego Stocco on Vimeo.

  • Share/Bookmark

Written by Brian

October 8th, 2009 at 6:33 pm

Rapid burst of flowering plants set stage for other species

leave a comment

A new University of Florida study based on DNA analysis from living flowering plants shows that the ancestors of most modern trees diversified extremely rapidly 90 million years ago, ultimately leading to the formation of forests that supported similar evolutionary bursts in animals and other plants.

This burst of speciation over a 5-million-year span was one of three major radiations of flowering plants, known as angiosperms. The study focuses on diversification in the rosid clade, a group with a common ancestor that now accounts for one-third of the world’s flowering plants. The forests that resulted provided the habitat that supported later evolutionary diversifications for amphibians, ants, placental mammals and ferns.

“Shortly after the angiosperm-dominated forests diversified, we see this amazing diversification in other lineages, so they basically set the habitat for all kinds of new things to arise,” said Pamela Soltis, study co-author and curator of molecular systematics and evolutionary genetics at UF’s Florida Museum of Natural History. “Associated with some of the subsequent radiations is even the diversification of the primates.”  Read more…

  • Share/Bookmark

Written by Brian

February 20th, 2009 at 12:26 pm

“an angel floating deliciously through space” – Interview with Lucy Kavaler

one comment

I read Mushrooms, Molds, and Miracles: The Strange Realm of Fungi, by Lucy Kavaler, which has been republished in the Authors Guild Back-in-Print series of notable books. I reviewed Mushrooms a while back, and said in part:

Originally published in 1965, Mushrooms, Molds, and Miracles stands as a landmark in popular science writing. There had been field guides to fungi before her, but Kavaler’s book may be the first to broadly and popularly survey those life forms without which Gaia would have no groove.

When originally published, Kavaler’s Mushrooms was described as “fascinating” by Time magazine in a lead review, and as “superb” by the New Haven Register.

I asked Kavaler a few questions via email, about drug plants and using the Web to once again market her book. Here is her reply; the voice of the interviewer is interpolated by Kavaler. Read the rest of this entry »

  • Share/Bookmark

Written by Brian

December 10th, 2007 at 11:04 pm

Solo Worker

leave a comment

You have to ask of the solo insect, fly or bee: who do you work for?

insectophobia is killing my country.” (to paraphrase Graham Nash)

I just swatted a fly. A big, fat solo fly. (Need I say black?)

Can you believe something like one-third of the world’s energy out-take goes to ag inputs? Fertilizer, pesticide, herbicide, jesus christ water. Most of that is nitrogen (fertilizer), because we kill the plants that fix the nitrogen and feed the insects that thwart the pests that kill the plants we really want to eat or process.

We are food miners and we don’t have enough insects. Damn.

  • Share/Bookmark

Written by Brian

August 2nd, 2007 at 9:29 pm

May I See Your ID?

leave a comment

The creationists’ back-door attempt to sneak their mythology into public education is called Intelligent Design. The issue is on trial as I write in Pennsylvania. The matter has been well covered by a number of publications, including The Onion which, as usual, has fair and balanced reporting. What a lot of the coverage has missed is the racism inherent to Intelligent Design (ID). That’s because the race card is kept hidden by both advocates and enemies of ID. Advocates of ID also try to keep the “G” word out of the discussion, too. But the canny critic sees through the veil. The argument goes like this. ID is racist because it is an argument for the design of complex systems. Some systems, though, are better designed than others. Read the rest of this entry »

  • Share/Bookmark

Written by Brian

October 24th, 2005 at 1:09 pm