• Rumpole on America

    From Episode S01E03 (“Rumpole and the Honorable Member”)

    Oh, there is something you’ll have to be very careful of in America, Nick… The hygiene. Oh, it can be most awfully dangerous. The purity. The grim determination not to adulterate anything. Well, cheers.”

    Can be found here – at least for now

    (Also – note to self – Peter Kittle – Thatcher’s institutions: Hegemony and national identity in popular British fiction Chapter 4 – The Law of Empire: Rumpole and the Postcolonial Prerogative)

  • Ideoplagiarism and policymaking

    대한민국 교육부장관 박순애 관한 표절논란 기사가 많이 떴는데 여기서 가장 중요한 포인트는 셀프 표절이다 (self-plagiarism). The fancy word for this is “ideoplagiarism.” Now, plagiarism per se is an indefensible act in academia – where people peddle in the currency of ideas, it is nothing less than thievery. However, self-plagiarism – I would argue – is a different kettle of fish.

    One of the things that got 박순애 in trouble is that she took a paper that she published, I believe, as a doctoral student at the University of Michigan and translated it into Korean and republished in 한국정치학회보, and this is seen as ethically suspect (CV-padding). Everyone is now so inured to publications as academic signifiers that we forget that they exist to DISSEMINATE IDEAS. So how is re-publishing papers – especially papers on policy – for a non-anglophone readership an issue ethically (as long as the author states clearly that this is what she/he is doing)? If she wishes to cast a wide net and influence policy, re-publishing in another language is not only ethically acceptable but is an obligation of the author.

    Mark Israel has a nice piece on the issues of ideoplagiarism.

    In biology, ideoplagiarism is embedded in the culture of publication. You can argue that review papers are a form of ideoplagiarism – but that they serve a useful function (agglomeration of disparate ideas). There is also the practice of distributing data over multiple papers – which can affect how you plan experiments and frame your theoretical constructs in the first place.

    In Korean society, where there is a free flow of academics into and out of government, and academic expertise is generally held in high regard, the stakes are even higher and the media get involved in its usual hamfisted way and you end up with distorting effects.

  • Tunneling through Tradition

    Life is never easy for a Japanese filmmaker interested in making small, quiet movies. Whether you are Juzo Itami, Naomi Kawase, or Shunji Iwai, any success leads, invariably, to comparisons with the great man himself. The shadow of Japan’s greatest director, and perhaps the most Japanese of Japanese directors, Yasujiro Ozu, looms large over the country’s cinematic landscape and cultural aesthetic. Unlike Kurosawa (too Western in his influences, too taken with himself), Ozu was a gentler, quieter filmmaker. His movies were warm and circumscribed and full of affection. His shadow now looms large, but it grew slowly, methodically, incrementally – each movie adding another brick in the edifice of his greatness (and where later movies recapitulated prior ones).

    For any ambitious Japanese filmmaker, the shadow of Ozu must feel like a burden. Or, at the very least, a nuisance. And for all his gentleness, Hirokazu Koreeda is an ambitious and uncompromising director – both artistically and politically. And even a cursory examination of his films leaves you wondering why anyone would make the Ozu comparison – Koreeda is a social realist focused almost exclusively on society’s economic losers. Even before his breakout movie, Shoplifters, he populated his world with life’s deadenders – unemployed painting restorers (Still Walking), pathetic gamblers (After the Storm), abandoned children (Nobody Knows). Ozu, on the other hand, was a resolutely middle class filmmaker focused almost exclusively on middle class concerns. Koreeda himself argues that people in the West have a skewered view of Ozu because, often, the only Ozu film that they have actually seen is Tokyo Story which is very un-Ozu-esque in tone (influenced by Ozu’s bleak and pessimistic contemporary, Mikio Naruse). Koreeda has claimed as his greater influence the British social realist, Ken Loach – and anyone who watches a Koreeda film can see his kinship with the Ken Loaches and the Mike Leighs of this world.

    Yet, there was always something plaintive about Koreeda’s rejection of Ozu. Koreeda’s movies are about families and, like Ozu’s, they are warm and humane and accessible. Despite his reputation as an auteur with Hitchcockian control over each project, there is nothing excessive, indulgent nor obscure in a Koreeda movie. Our Little Sister (2015) is two hours long, and yet it feels restrained. And here, finally, the director seems to have embraced his inner Ozu. The movie feels like an homage to the old man, sometimes subtly and sometimes not so subtly. It is set in the seaside town of Kamakura where Ozu is buried, and there is even a scene where one of the lead characters, Sachi (played admirably by Haruka Ayase) and her wayward mother, Miyako (Shinobu Otake) walk up to a cemetery to visit the grave of Sachi’s grandmother. Miayko asks for forgiveness of her dead mother’s spirit – forgiveness for not visiting her grave more often and for not being a good daughter. An homage if there ever was one. And many of the scenes look as if they could have come straight out of an Ozu movie:





    The film is based on the serialized manga series Umimachi Diary, and Koreeda does a fine job culling some of the comic book’s excesses. For example, in the manga Yoshino’s boyfriend is revealed to be a high school student (a very manga-esque conceit) and ignored in the film. Suzu’s athletic prowess is also whittled down considerably (although Suzu Hirose comes across as a very credible soccer player). The character of Sanzo Hamada was not so much cast as pulled off the page and given physical form – Takafumi Ikeda was born to play this role. And although not exactly given a free reign, there is some serious talent on display here – including the aforementioned Haruka Ayase whose beauty is almost regal (and who has been often cast, unforgivably, in too many bimbo roles – Hotaru no Hikari, Kodai Family, Honnoji Hotel), and also Masami Nagasawa, Kaho and Suzu Hirose – the latter a limited actress who manages to convince under Koreeda’s direction and in the embrace of her more sure-footed colleagues. Also in the film are the two Koreeda stalwarts – Kirin Kiki and Lily Franky, both of whom in this instance make very brief appearances.

    In a grander sense, the message in this film is about the freedom that comes with forgiveness and acceptance. It is a counterpoint to an earlier film, Still Walking (Aruitemo, aruitemo) (2008) which is about the rot that comes with the inability to forgive. It is life’s great irony, I suppose, that by honoring the shadows of the past, you disentangle yourself from it. To respect is to distance. And it says something about a talent as fine as Hirokazu Koreeda that he can work through his own feelings and resentments as a filmmaker and still produce a work that is not in the least self-absorbed.

    A review of Our Little Sister, of course, cannot ignore the “tunnel” scene:


    How rare is this in film, how impossibly difficult it is to capture a moment of pure contentment, an exquisite piece of modern filmmaking. And notice the sakura petal caught in her hair for the duration of that moment before it floats away. Real contentment comes when you give up on old grievances and long-held resentments. And note how Koreeda captures that moment through movement. No eye-level static shots, no fixed cameras, no wooden formality, unchanging, unyielding. Contentment comes with freedom in the form of movement – a moving crane shot, a backward tracking shot and a lateral tracking shot – breaking free from didactic manners in a breathtaking tunnel of cherry blossoms. Yasujiro Ozu would not have approved.

  • To Read: Sunday, September 5, 2021

    1) India’s DNA COVID vaccine is a world first – more are coming Opinion
    2) We Studied One Million Students. This Is What We Learned About Masking.
    3) More than 50 long-term effects of COVID-19: a systematic review and meta-analysis | Scientific Reports
    4) Public human microbiome data dominated by highly developed countries | bioRxiv
    5) An Irrational Party of Rational Members: The Collision of Legislators’ Reelection Quest With Party Success in the Japan Socialist Party – Ko Maeda, 2012

  • Rough Phage in the Diet

    Over the years, I have heard several variants of the Brenner/Zinder story. To summarize, Norton Zinder isolated the f2 phage which contains an RNA genome.

    Bearing in mind how little was known in 1960, when Zinder isolated bacteriophage f2; the discovery of RNA phages had great potential for use in the study of fundamental molecular processes, such as protein synthesis, including its initiation and termination. Clearly, there were good reasons why molecular biologists of the day, including Brenner, wanted to obtain their own samples of f2 phage. So, as the legend goes, Brenner, among others, requested a sample of f2 from Zinder. And, Zinder wrote back to all, saying that the phage was not available.

    So, cranky Zinder wouldn’t share his discovery. But…

    … here is the delightful part of the story. Knowing how carefree researchers can be in the laboratory, Brenner is said to have dipped Zinder’s letter in a culture of E. coli (the f2 host), thereby readily growing up a stock of f2 for himself.

    So, the virus was on the letter Zinder sent out saying they couldn’t have the virus. What would you call this? Epistolary transduction? Corresponduction?

    Unfortunately, the story isn’t true:

    Brenner also confesses that he might have added to the original myth by hinting that the story actually might be true. In reality, Brenner isolated many RNA phages himself by taking sewerage from the Cambridge, Massachusetts, sewer treatment plant and plating it on bacteria expressing a sex factor.

    Never underestimate the allure of a good story. Scientists are as susceptible to urban legends and memes as anyone else.

    Read the whole story on Leonard Norkin’s blog.

  • All the Raj

    Some thoughts upon reading David Gilmour’s The British in India.

    1) The title of the book lacks parentheses, The British (in India). Or at the very least, a comma – The British, in India. After all, the focus is on the British character and what the colonial experience reveals about it (apparently, it wasn’t all bad). And if you find yourself rolling your eyes and saying to yourself, here we go, white people talking about themselves again…, you might be right. But at least Gilmour is aware of that reaction. In that sense, this is a very modern book – aware of racial, cultural contexts. And the relentless focus on the experience of the white colonizer comes across as less an act of, ahem, imperious superiority as one of modesty. Excuse me, he seems to say. India is much too big and broad and complex – and trying to do justice to the entirety of the Raj is an impossible task for a single book. Let mine be a more circumscribed task. Focusing on white people as, well, an act of humility.

    2) The British went to India for a myriad of reasons, and not all of them martial or mercenary. In fact, it is somewhat curious – at least in my reading of the book – how ancillary those motives really were, given the images that we conjure up when we think of the Raj. Columns of khaki-dressed soldiers bayonetting mutinous locals, or the East India Company hauling off wooden crates of stolen treasures. But the soldiers were tucked away in their barracks and the box-wallah were to be found at the bottom of the social barrel.

    3) So, who were the British in India, and what the bloody hell were they up to? Well, they weren’t making music, or writing books, or doing anything much in the way of intellectual heavy lifting – the usual sorts of things you would expect the British to get up to when they aren’t working. These weren’t those sorts of British. You might have expected the exoticism of India, the adventure of traveling to faraway places and witnessing man’s inhumanity to man to produce a treasure of great books. In terms of literature, colonial India should not be a topic, it should have been a genre. But the Raj produced – among the British, I hasten to add – almost no books of much worth. There was Rudyard Kipling to be sure, one by George Orwell, one by E. M. Forster, perhaps the Paul Scott quadrology could be added to the mix. There was some execrable nonsense (M. M. Kaye, that sort of thing) but that was pretty much the end of it. But the Anglo-Indians were a self-selected bunch and it becomes clear that the espirit de corps was an indifference, hostility even, to the intellectual life. These were practical men and women who believed in doing practical things. Rather pig sticking than poetry. This forms the heart of the Gilmourian defense in the exercise of Empiring – that people went from an abundance of motives, and not all of them bad. Many went to proselytize and to teach, and many fell in love with the place.

    4) The center of life – in the minds of both for the locals as for the Anglos – was the famed ICS (Indian Civil Service), indefatigable, incorruptible, incorrigible. And there lies the rub – how did the Raj manage to keep going, taking such a toll on both the colonized and the colonials? Reading the book, the British Empire feels like a kind of self-reinforcing mechanism, an institutional animal hell-bent on self-survival on the grandest of scales, maintained by positive feedback, path dependent, ultimately unsustainable. Empire was a beast to be fed, not a means to a political or mercantile end. You served the British Empire, the British Empire did not serve you.

    5) In its approach, The British in India is a very modern book. Its theses are buttressed by an arsenal of facts – evidential pile-ups, cross-indexed nuggets of information. I suppose such a book would have been possible before the days of spreadsheets, tagging and search terms, but it would have been hardly worth the effort required. I for one would like to know the ins and outs of Gilmour’s, um, content management system because he certainly puts it to good use.

  • Random old COVID links

    Cleaning up my computer, and tidying up old COVID-related links that I had saved.

  • Climbing Mount Irascible

    (photograph by Istvan Hargittai)

    If the scientific autobiography belongs to “a most awkward literary genre,” the scientific book review must belong to a decidedly tedious one. And Erwin Chargaff’s review of Watson’s The Double Helix is the exception that proves the rule.

    In 1968, Gunther Stent (a contemporary of Jim Watson and a fellow member of the Phage Group) wrote a review called What they are saying about Honest Jim in the Quarterly Review of Biology (Vol. 43-2, 1968) (DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/405728). This piece was what one might call a meta-review – a “review of the reviewers” – where Stent turns over (at times a bit testily) various published commentary about Watson’s book. Stent subsequently adapted his meta-review for the the Norton Critical Edition of The Double Helix that he edited which includes all the reviews that he comments on.

    (Note: Interestingly, Jerry Donohue – yet another character in Watson’s book – wrote a similar meta-review in the Quarterly Review… (Vol. 51-2, 1976) (https://doi.org/10.1086/409312) this time of Anne Sayre’s biography of Rosalind Franklin – Rosalind Franklin and DNA).)

    The reviewers in The Double Helix make for a scraggly bunch: eminent biologists – Richard Lewontin (evolutionary biologist), P. B. Medowar (immunologist), Conrad Waddington (embryologist) and André Lwoff (microbiologist); philosophers of science – Bronowski, Merton; as well as various writers – Ellmann, Lear, Morrison. And also, for some reason, one by Alex Comfort (The Joy of Sex).

    Notable in its absence from the book was Erwin Chargaff’s own review A quick climb up Mount Olympus which was published in Science. You could ask what on earth the editors of Science were thinking when they commissioned a book review from someone who not only appears in the book, but is a figure of derision. One suspects that their motivations were somewhat akin to children throwing a box of fireworks into a blazing pit just to see what would happen. This was 1968 – fifteen years after Watson and Crick’s first Nature paper, six years after the DNA/protein Nobel Prizes were doled out. To Chargaff, the publication of The Double Helix must have felt like salt being rubbed into a festering wound. He would not grant permission to have his review included in the Watson book, so we are left with Stent’s – somewhat awkward – paraphrase.

    Stent writes:

    To some readers, unfamiliar with Chargaff’s speeches and writings, his review must have seemed surprisingly sarcastic; to other readers, aware of Chargaff’s long-standing lack of appreciation for the achievements of Watson and Crick in particular and for the working style of molecular biology in general, the review may have seemed unexpectedly mild.

    Stent is spot-on here. If you are used to reading the usual run-of-the-mill book reviews in Science, A quick climb up Mount Olympus reads like a vicious, angry attack. But anyone familiar with Chargaff (for instance, his memoir, Heraclitean Fire), the review seems – well – a bit tepid.

    Yet, perhaps pre-warned by the editors, perhaps simply more careful given the size of the megaphone, or perhaps having convinced himself of the efficacy of a more modest strategy, Chargaff still manages to flourish an extremely sharp carving blade.

    As one might expect, his is a buttery start, an almost sentimental defense of Rosalind Franklin – by then, already dead ten years.

    I knew Miss Franklin personally, as I have known almost all the others appearing in this book; she was a good scientist and made crucial contributions to the understanding of the structure of DNA. A careful reading of even of this book will bear this out.

    Sentimental, perhaps. But not without intent. And it is also telling that he refers to her as “Miss Franklin” – this is 1968 after all, and even her defenders could not quite see her as an equal.

    But Chargaff is not one for a sympathetic touch, and spends his valuable Science space in more familiar territory, wielding that knife. He accuses both Watson and Max Perutz, somewhat cagily, of ethically suspect behavior:

    The workers at King’s College, and especially Miss Franklin, were naturally reluctant to slake the Cavendish couple’s thirst for other people’s knowledge, before they themselves had had time to consider the meaning of their findings. The evidence found its way, however, to Cambridge.

    The obvious implication here – very much not stated – is that the “Cavendish couple” were very much in the habit of “slaking their thirst for other people’s knowledge,” including, no doubt, Chargaff’s own. A famous meeting between Chargaff and the “Cavendish couple” is mentioned in both The Double Helix and Heraclitean Fire, and in the latter the passage ends, rather plaintively, with “I told them all I knew,” followed by: “I believe that the double-stranded model of DNA came about as a consequence of our conversation; but such things are only susceptible of a later judgment: Quando iudex est veturus, Cuncta stricte discussurus.

    In his charge of unethical conduct, Chargaff quotes the passage from Watson’s book where Perutz shows the “Cavendish couple” his copy of a Medical Research Council report containing Rosalind Franklin’s summary of her data. (This, in turn, drew letters of protest from both Watson and Perutz which are also included in the Stent edition).

    In Chargaff’s review, he judges Watson’s memoir as largely trivial (a judgment as much of the author as the book): “… we are made to look through a keyhole at scenes with which we have no business. This is perhaps unavoidable in an autobiography; but then the intensity of vision must redeem the banality of content.”

    But if he is made to look through a keyhole, Chargaff is quite happy to speak of the banality that he witnesses as long as it casts the author in an unfavorable light – for instance, Watson’s decision to go the cinema to witness Hedy Lamarr’s “romps in the nude” in Ecstasy. A movie that Chargaff describes as “rather poor.”

    (Note: the film can be seen here)

    Chargaff’s review is a delectable piece of bitchiness, nastier even than the famously nasty book it reviews. Perhaps by 1968, he was resigned to the idea that he would be forever framed as the “loser” in a race that he never asked to participate in, but it simply was not in his nature to go down without a fight. And fight he did.

  • Salvador Elizondo *The Graphographer*

    I write. I write that I am writing. Mentally I see myself writing that I am writing and I can also see myself seeing that I am writing. I remember writing and also seeing myself writing. And I see myself remembering that I see myself writing and I remember seeing myself remembering that I was writing and I write seeing myself write that I remember having seen myself write that I saw myself writing that I was writing and that was writing that I was writing that I was writing. I can also imagine myself writing that I had already written that I would imagine myself writing that I had written that I was imagining myself writing that I see myself writing that I am writing.