Reanimating the Brain, Baseball in Europe, and Destroying Public Art
We’ve just passed the midway point in this year’s baseball season. Players are on pace to hit 1,000 more home runs than last year. Why? More aerodynamic baseballs: “The laces are thinner… the leather is substantially smoother…”
Cole Stangler wonders if baseball has a future in Europe: “[B]eing a baseball fan in Europe has been a largely solitary experience, one of those things I’ve learned to keep to myself, like my obsession with country music and Ken Burns documentaries. But as I learned at the London series, there are actually plenty of others like me. Last weekend, 120,000 of them filled the sold-out seats at London Stadium for both games combined. About thirty percent of the tickets were sold in the United States, according to MLB, a figure that also includes season-ticket holders of the Red Sox and Yankees. But the other 70 percent were sold in the United Kingdom, that is, to actual baseball fans in Europe. Many were Americans, but not all of them.”
Art critics on the left and right agree: The decision by the San Francisco Board of Education to paint over a mural depicting the life of George Washington is a bad one. Here is Brian T. Allen at National Review: “Victor Arnautoff (1896–1979) painted the 13 panel murals — covering 1,600 square feet — in 1936 for the just-built George Washington High School. They depict the life of Washington. They’re well done. Arnautoff was one of the best muralists employed by the Works Progress Administration. The WPA hired artists during the depth of the Depression to decorate public buildings. After he worked with the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, he painted murals throughout America. The murals don’t deify Washington. No cherry trees are cut down. Arnautoff presented to young minds the nuances and contradictions, the good parts and bad parts, of America’s founding history. Some of the board members conceded this but insisted that exposing students to nuances and contradictions might scare them or, worse, hurt their feelings. Overwhelmingly, students don’t want the murals destroyed. The school’s alumni association wants them to remain, too. I suspect many people in San Francisco agree.” Zachary Small takes a middle way that still supports the mural’s preservation: “Those who oppose the mural’s removal fail to see the pain it inflicts on people whose ancestors have actually experienced the suffering it depicts. Those who seek the mural’s destruction fail to see anything salvageable in the painting. A solution would be to accommodate both sides of the argument by making it an educational exercise for students. Turning Arnautoff’s mural into a memorial would honor the artist’s original intentions while allowing students to evolve its purpose.”
Mark Athitakis reviews Karl Marlantes’s Deep River: “A decade ago, American fiction writers had finally begun to reckon with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, packing their observations into taut, gemlike and ironic short stories and novels. Karl Marlantes didn’t get cc’d on that itinerary for post-9/11 fiction. Instead, in 2010 he delivered Matterhorn, a heaving 600-page epic about the Vietnam War that was largely about the plodding, crushing effort of a company of Marines to reclaim control of a mountaintop base. The shelf of Vietnam War fiction was stuffed full, but Marlantes, a Vietnam vet, was confident it could hold one more title. Readers proved him right: Published first by the tiny press El León Literary Arts before Atlantic Monthly Press took it on, Matterhorn became a surprise bestseller. Plainly, we craved a big war novel, even (especially) one that wasn’t about the wars we were in. And Marlantes seemed happy to indulge us . . . There’s something similarly, stubbornly offbeat about Marlantes’ second novel, Deep River . . . It too is a massive work, a 700-plus-page tale about three Finnish siblings in Oregon’s logging country from 1893 to 1932. It is also a literary generation or so out of step.”
William Logan is an excellent critic. What’s missing in his work if anything? A “vertical dimension,” James Matthew Wilson argues: “Eliot was right then, as Logan is now. Our understanding of a poem depends upon the kind of refined perceptions Logan has always possessed and the kind of wide-ranging assembly of facts that he gives us here. But there is a problem. Eliot was rightly suspicious of reducing criticism’s wide aims to a narrow method. Logan has gone farther and proposed not only that no method is desirable but no general critical principles are possible. It would all be a ‘mug’s game,’ he has written elsewhere. Eliot reached an opposite conclusion.”
Essay of the Day:
In The New York Times Magazine, Matthew Shaer writes about recent work to restore the functioning of animal brains and create “mini brains” from scratch. In addition to the use of human stem cells (which, if they are embryonic, is murder, though the Times doesn’t mention this), what are the philosophical and moral problems with such research? Here’s a snippet:
“In recent years, some scientists have moved from the study of the organic tissue to the wholesale creation of artificial brain matter. Grown from human stem cells reprogrammed to act like neurons, brain organoids, or ‘mini brains,’ can mimic some of the functions of their biological counterparts — last year, for example, the biologist Alysson Muotri announced that his lab at the University of California had grown brain organoids with neurons that fired at a level consistent with that of a preterm infant. Muotri has said he hopes to use the creations to research brain function and formulate disease models without buying lab animals or expensive specimens from brain banks. ‘The potential uses are vast,’ he has said.
“So, too, are the ethical quandaries. Writing in his forthcoming book on the biological origins of consciousness, The Feeling of Life Itself: Why Consciousness Is Widespread but Can’t Be Computed, Koch argues that the chance that an advanced organoid ‘experiences anything like what a person feels — distress, boredom or a cacophony of sensory impressions — is remote. But it will feel something.’ Ideally, Koch adds, ‘it would be best if this tissue were anesthetized.’
“To Sestan and others, there is a mandate to keep pushing, not least because of what it might mean to the world at large: more diseases combated, more treatments developed, more lives saved and, above all, a fuller glimpse of a dauntingly complex organ. The brain remains ‘the most mysterious’ of all the organs, as Sestan put it to me. ‘The least — what is the right word? Let’s see — well understood.’ He went on: ‘If you’re nuts enough to make the brain the thing you study, you must accept that there will always be more questions than answers. You’ll always be searching. Always.’”
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“Sestan was determined to think like a scientist, not a philosopher. The existential questions interested him far less than the practical ones. ‘Our goal, our intention, was to do basic biology,’ he told me. ‘And we had to be focused on what we were doing, because it was so important that everything was done correctly, that all the data was solid. When you let your imagination go berserk, when your mind wanders, you make mistakes, and one thing that I knew was that this was likely going to be the hardest thing, technically speaking, I’d ever done, and we couldn’t afford any mistakes.’
“Still, as Sestan acknowledged to me, the project was an outlier for him. He felt compelled to put certain safeguards in place: He added ‘blockers’ to the perfusate, to prevent the rise of electrical activity should the experiment succeed in restoring the neurons to do anything resembling consciousness; later, for the same reason, he began keeping a syringe full of a powerful anesthetic in his lab.”
Photo: Lake Misurina.
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