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Artist, Heather Oliver             

Archive for March, 2012

The Asymptotic Approach

Monday, March 19th, 2012

The first round of the NIH budget petition that I discussed in my previous entry fell 400 signatures short by the deadline. Research scientists are nothing if not tenacious, so a second round has begun. I think this will make it, but it speaks volumes about the US public’s acceptance/understanding/appreciation of biomedical research that scientists can’t collect 25,000 signatures in a month — even a shorter one like February.

Speaking of tenacity in a more cheerful context, Chris Jones recently spoke with me on Trek.fm about life in concentric circles, starting with extremophiles on Earth, moving out to Mars, Europa, Titan, Enceladus… then onto solar systems beyond ours, whether populated by watery Neptunes or super-Earths.

“And If I Cried Out, Who Would Hear Me…?”

Monday, March 12th, 2012

– Reiner Maria Rilke, the first line of The Duino Elegies

You may recall I wrote about the condition of biomedical research a while ago: Of Federal Research Grants and Dancing Bears.

The NIH, the sole major funding source for such research, has stagnated for the last decade. People are trying to get a measly single-digit increase this year to staunch the bleeding. To get considered, the relevant petition must gather 25,000 signatures by this Sunday, March 18. If you care about basic research or therapeutic applications, follow this White House link. You will need to create an account, but the only thing they request are your name and e-mail. You can also boost this signal, if you wish. This part of the future may still be in our hands, if we don’t sit passively by.  Thank you.

Image: Allies, Susan Seddon Boulet.

The Doric Column: Dhómna Samíou (1928-2012)

Sunday, March 11th, 2012

Dhómna: Lady, Mistress (Latin original: domina – a title given to noblewomen who held a barony in their own right.)

Tradition lies heavy on my people, yet it makes us who we are – for good and ill. One of its greatest champions just left us: Dhómna Samíou, a tireless collector and preserver of folksongs who began to sing them herself in her forties, in a distinctive voice that thrummed like the finest Damascus steel.

Samíou’s parents were working-class refugees from Asia Minor; her father had been a prisoner of war in Turkey after the disastrous war in 1922. Her childhood was spent in abject poverty, in a shack without water or electricity, but also in the strong social net of mutual support that sprang up in such circumstances. Her father and sister died during the German occupation. She might have starved or been killed herself – the shacks were in a neighborhood of Athens famous for its urban resistance, which the Germans punished accordingly. She escaped the roundups because she had started working at twelve, first as a seamstress in a small tailoring establishment, then as a live-in maid in a middle-class home.

The family she worked for heard her sing constantly while she worked, so they brought her to Símon Karás, a famous music teacher and pioneering collector of traditional music. He accepted Samíou into his choir on the spot, stipulating that she should finish high school (a rare feat in that context, particularly for girls). Work in the mornings, music lessons in the afternoons, school in the evenings: that was Samíou’s life for several years. In 1954 she started working in broadcasting under her teacher. National radio (all radio was national then in Hellás) started airing traditional music, as well as making and selling records of it.

As Hellás tried to show it belonged to the First World, traditional music tottered under the onslaught of Western popular music. Samíou, like Karás, could not imagine her people’s culture without it. During her vacations she started going around the country, on her own dime, to identify and record the fast-disappearing authentic versions of folksongs. When she started becoming too independent, Karás slowly removed her from his orbit: despite his initial generosity and crucial formative role in her life, he would not brook a competitor or even a successor – especially a woman.

When the junta came, Samíou was given tenure at her job but couldn’t stomach the repression. She resigned at 43 with no safety net. At that crucial moment, Dionyssis Savvópoulos – the iconoclastic, obscenely talented enfant terrible of Hellenic music – invited her to appear in his politically and artistically daring events. That launched her career as a singer of the songs she had so lovingly found and fought to save. After the junta fell, national television commissioned Samíou to do Musical Travel, a documentary series about traditional music that is considered a classic, the foundation for all subsequent such works. Below is a part celebrating Épiros, my mother’s part of the world.

Samíou worked with all the virtuoso singers and players (usually informally taught), whether famous or obscure, who carried the songs that run in our blood. She traveled all over the world to give these songs and players an audience – not only to the diaspora communities, who drank them like water in the desert, but to non-Hellenes as well, who realized for the first time that Hellenic folk music was not just the bouzouki they heard in tourist traps. She received a huge number of honors and prestigious commissions. Yet she never behaved like a celebrity, never lost her deep connections to things that mattered or her common touch.

Samíou continued singing, teaching, recording and archiving tirelessly till her death. Others shared her love of traditional music and the effort to keep it a living, breathing concern but her knowledge, thoroughness and exactitude were unparalleled. She was a national treasure, a towering presence.

May the earth lie lightly upon you, Dhómna Samíou, Mistress of Songs.

Videos: two famous folksongs – First, Háidho from Épiros; singer/tambourine, Mánthos Stavrópoulos; clarinet, Konstantínos Neofótistos; violin, Konstantínos Saadedín; lutes, Stávros Saadedín & Napoléon Tzihás. Second, Samíou sings Tzivaéri mou (My Treasure) from the Dodecanese.

Those Who Hold Up the World

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

No matter how lucky and cosseted we are, at some point in our lives we will experience a flat tire, a broken bone… and, in today’s First World, a site hack. Being a Mac user, I’ve been spoiled in that regard. However, yesterday I detected the dreaded signs that this site had been hacked: the blog dashboard turned into a shapeless mess that would not accept new uploads (though I could still moderate comments); and while loading, the site flashed a redirect address whose suffixes are known to be the sign of hijackers. A large number of WordPress-run blogs in the service provider that hosts my site got hit with this Trojan, which infects all the index.php files and also leaves behind backdoor scripts for later re-entry.

Every task requires the right tools and the person with the knowledge to use them. In this case, I found the right person in Jim Walker of TVCNet/Hack Repair. He was willing to walk me through the repairs on the phone, for free. When it became apparent that the extent of the infection exceeded my capacity to deal with it manually, he took care of it immediately and thoroughly, for a extremely reasonable fee. It took him about six hours and he worked late into the night, not stopping till he delivered the site, scrubbed clean and intact, back into my anxious embrace.

After my experience with Jim, I know more about the workings of sites, just as I learned a lot while watching John McCoy, who set up the components of the site and still does the heavy-duty updates and tweaks that go past my own knowledge boundaries. I am glad and grateful that such people exist. They’re members of the conspiracy of the competent that quietly holds up the world. The experience also made me realize how much this site, obscure as it is, means to me. It has become an integral part of my identity. Jim and John are my physicians as much as my treasured GP. Thank you.

Top image: the original Trojan horse; burial pithos, Mykonos, ~670 BC.

Sex by Choice: the Highest Compliment

Monday, March 5th, 2012

Anyone with a functioning cortex knew that Rush Limbaugh is a vile slug from the moment he uttered his first nasty lie. His recent comments about accomplished, brave law student Sandra Fluke are not surprising, nor is his stone-ignorant equation of contraception with frequency of intercourse: he must have confused responsible sex with his own frantic consumption of Viagra – now there’s unnaturally-induced sex on demand! However, Limbaugh is not the disease, merely its symptom. The belated, lukewarm bleatings and hedgings from the Republican “leadership” and from his advertisers are telling, as is their obfuscation of the fact that contraception is already covered by health insurance; the sole difference is the existence of a co-pay.

In the last year or so, we have seen exclusion of women from decisions that affect them almost exclusively, attempts to defund Planned Parenthood, to define miscarriage as murder, to add invasive, needless sonograms to the already enormous difficulties of getting an abortion. The freak show parade that is this year’s Republican presidential lineup is banging the tin drum of “returning to family values” — aka female poverty and powerlessness, probably because all of them have little knowledge of and interest in education, the environment, the economy, international diplomacy or anything of value to anyone beyond Ponzi-scheme millionaires who live in gated communities with private security. The US is going the way of Wahhabi Saudi Arabia – perhaps a fitting trajectory, since the country seems unwilling or unable to curb its fossil fuel consumption.

The open war on women declared by the Republican Party shows how the Teabaggers and Jesufascists have kidnapped rational, civil discourse in favor of a punitive primitivism that denies basic human decency and is steadily encroaching on hard-won women’s rights. It is no surprise that most foes of contraception are fundies of abrahamic religions, which are disasters for women in any case. However, make no mistake about it: contraception has nothing to do with freedom of religion. The kernel of this sickening backlash is the wish to deny women autonomy. Nothing changed the dynamics of gender interactions like contraception. For the first time in human history, women could reliably regulate the outcome of sexual congress. It removed the specter of unwanted pregnancy – and with that, women could enjoy sex as uninhibitedly as men, finally undoing the predator/prey equation so beloved of evo-psycho Tarzanists the world over.

Ironically, the exercise of contraception, which makes joyful sex possible, is uniquely human. The only partial exception may be our bonobo cousins, who use sex as social glue (often, note bene, initiated by the female members of the group). Contrary to the corrosive lies of benighted fundies, most animals do not choose sex. They go into heat and mate compulsively. In some cases, females exercise mate choice; in others, mating pairs form monogamous bonds. But only humans incorporate sex into their repertoire of chosen pleasures, whether they’re fertile or not. So contrary to the idiotic natterings that “sex on demand” is animal-like, exercising sexual choice is in fact the highest compliment for the activity. It transforms it from instinct, compulsion or random outcome solidly into something treasured, something freely chosen – which, again contrary to the fundies’ nonsense, makes it far more meaningful and powerful than the joyless autopilot version. It is the opposite of prostitution, which is undertaken as a profession and requires control and foregoing of spontaneous pleasure by its practitioners – not that Limbaugh et al are clear on complex concepts.

This is what contraception made possible, and what is at stake here. If people want human women to become truly animal-like, they should recall that most mammals do not recognize paternity, the most common family unit is a female with sub-adult offspring and female mammals routinely abort or kill offspring when they deem the circumstances unpropitious for raising a brood. And if they think that contraception is murder, they can return to the good old days when masturbation was in a similar category. However, all this hypocrisy and twisting of facts really attempts to cloud the core issue: women as equals. By targeting this, the Jesufascists and their ilk across all nations and religions are playing on the primitive fears of men, especially at times of instability and unrest, when it’s far easier to turn on Others than to act constructively for a better collective future. As James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon) famously had a protagonist state in The Women Men Don’t See:

“Women have no rights, except what men allow us. Men // run the world. When the next real crisis upsets them, our so-called rights will vanish like—like that smoke. We’ll be back where we always were: property. And whatever has gone wrong will be blamed on our freedom, like the fall of Rome was. You’ll see.”

Contrary to Freud’s notorious question, the recurrent problem of civilization, as prevalent today as in ancient Sumer, is how to define male roles which satisfy male egos without wreaking terminal havoc. Women still have essentially no power – Tiptree’s dictum still obtains, even in the First World. I personally believe that our societal problems will persist as long as women are not treated as fully human, including the right to be sexual beings by choice. The resorting to medical excuses in support of available contraception, nice as it is, diverts the attention from the central, irreducible issue of women’s basic autonomy and fundamental rights as full humans. The various attempts to improve women’s status, ever subject to setbacks and backlashes, are our marks of successful struggle to attain our full species potential. If we cannot solve this thorny and persistent problem, we may still survive — we have thus far. However, I doubt that we’ll ever truly thrive, no matter what technological levels we achieve.