Unboxing History

November 30, 2011  |  by Bret McCabe  |  9 comments

Boxes sit stacked in a compact room on the second story of the Afro-American newspaper’s Baltimore headquarters, just down the street from the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus. They’re standard document boxes, brown, rectangular, with removable lids. They rest on metal shelving units, nearly floor to ceiling, that line and divide the room. Every box looks the same, though each has its own unique number written on it. They consume the room. Boxes, boxes, everywhere.

“This room down here contains 359 boxes,” says John Gartrell, the Afro-American archivist, as he conducts a tour of the archive. “The four rooms I showed you plus the hall cabinet plus the morgue—those are part of our general files. So, as you can see, it’s a lot.” As understatements go, that’s up there with “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

The Afro-American is one of the oldest, family-owned, continuously publishing newspapers in the country. It was founded in 1892 by John H. Murphy Sr., a former slave who earned his freedom by serving in the United States Colored Infantry’s 30th Regiment during the Civil War. It went on to publish as many as 13 editions nationwide, including one in Washington, D.C. Beginning in 1923, newspaper staff kept all the information used to create the paper’s content. These items were placed in envelopes that in turn were placed in boxes. The boxes sat in the Afro’s long-standing downtown Baltimore home. At some point, some of them were shipped to Bowie State University, where they sat on shelves. When the Afro relocated to its current location on North Charles Street in 1992, the archive’s entire box collection came with it.

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Paying Attention to Distraction

November 30, 2011  |  by Dale Keiger  |  12 comments

A friend and colleague did an interesting thing recently. He took his iPhone back to an AT&T store and departed with an ordinary cell phone. One that doesn’t have an Internet browser or email or GPS or Angry Birds or a library of his favorite 2,000 songs or pictures of his two adorable kids. He did it, he said, to get his life back from a smartphone’s siren pull on his attention. The manager of the AT&T store said that a striking number of his customers were doing the same thing—and so had he. He was fed up with the distraction.

You may have noticed, on a digital screen of your own or the television or in that relic called a newspaper, that distraction has come in for much attention. Attention from parents, teachers, social critics, neuroscientists, productivity gurus. The advent and swift saturation of digital technology has prompted renewed concern regarding the importance, and difficulty, of concentration. It has also prompted a proliferation of books, articles, and websites dedicated to the problem of attention—now more commonly called “focus”—in a time of what may be the apotheosis of distraction, the Internet.

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Forgetting of Things Past

November 30, 2011  |  by Michael Anft  |  11 comments

You park your car. You lock it up, grab your bag from the trunk, and head into work. As you do, your brain quietly gets in high gear, racing like it’s in the Indy 500. Even though it seems you’re hardly thinking about where you activated your parking brake, nerve cells in your gray matter, in a region called the entorhinal cortex, are chattering about it. Those cells, called neurons, send chemical compounds across synapses, the empty spaces between cells. Once across the gap, the compounds, known as neurotransmitters, bind to receptors on the surface of the receiving cell, sending news that your Lime Squeeze Ford Fiesta is on the pothole-scarred second floor of the garage, on the side that leads back out toward the exit, the one with the view of the water.

arts.memory2The “message” sets off a chain reaction that chemically changes neurons into ones that remember. One nerve cell can make connections with 10,000 others, so news of your humdrum, workaday parking experience excites your memory centers in an instant, shuttling signals from the entorhinal cortex to a small channeling area called the perforant pathway. The trail of neurochemical bread crumbs ends, temporarily at least, in a central brain outpost called the hippocampus. A memory of your morning parking spot parks itself there. If you were to stay at work for a couple of weeks, the memory might travel even further, to the brain’s neocortex, where it would be stored for long-term use.

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Stop That

November 30, 2011  |  by Kristen Intlekofer  |  16 comments

We’re bombarded with messages to be healthier—“The Top 5 Superfoods You Can’t Live Without,” “12 Tips for Better Heart Health,” “3 Surprising Natural Cold Remedies,” “8 Tips for Healthy Living on the Go.” Never before have we had access to so much sound information about health. But never before have...

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The Great Unknowns

August 31, 2011  |  by Michael Anft  |  1 Comment

We laugh. We blush. We kiss. But why? What, evolutionarily speaking, are the advantages of swapping germs with someone when a sloppy smackeroo is hardly integral to propagating the species? We travel on a smallish stone that orbits a yellow dwarf of a star on the edge of one of billions of galaxies in the universe. Where did all these galaxies come from? Our bodies and minds respond to the fake-out that happens when sugar pills are substituted for medicine. What makes the so-called placebo effect work?

miracle4Never mind the enduring mysteries surrounding cancer and other incurable diseases, or the enigma of the disappearing contents of your sock drawer. Scientists remain daunted by some of the most basic questions regarding human behavior, the cosmos, and the building blocks of life.

The list of what science doesn’t know is voluminous. Unraveling 14 billion years of natural history—the machinations of the universe, of cells, molecules, atoms, quarks, of why animals and humans do what they do—in the few short centuries that humanity has hashed out and honed the scientific method is a task that slogs along at its own cautious pace. Despite endless questioning, layer upon layer of observations, and long lab hours, science continues to be mocked by nature—or at least made to toss and turn at night. Here are six “problems” that have science stumped.

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Saving Hart Crane

August 31, 2011  |  by David Dudley  |  5 comments

On our second meeting, I tell John Irwin that I’ve been busy reading his favorite poet, Hart Crane. Like most civilians in the provinces outside university literature programs, I’d had scant experience with Crane, an American poet of huge ambition and unsteady temperament who died in 1932 at the age of 32. He left behind a small, knotty body of work that is invariably described as “difficult.” That’s enough to scare off most casual readers. Some people passionately love Hart Crane. Others consider his work either grandly flawed or completely terrible. And a great many in-betweens vaguely recognize the man’s name, wonder if he’s related to Stephen Crane (he’s not), but have never actually read his poems.

That’s where I was, but now I’d just spent a week with Crane’s verse. It’s, well, it’s something—ornate, overstuffed, as rich and dense as a flourless chocolate cake. “Did you like it?” Irwin asks. There’s eagerness in his voice.

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The Wrong Man

August 31, 2011  |  by Margaret Guroff  |  2 comments

The interrogation room was bare except for a few metal chairs, and its tan walls looked as if they hadn’t been painted in decades. A single transom window stood cracked open slightly, but it couldn’t relieve the room’s stuffy air. Outside, beyond view, lay the hot, dusty streets of North Africa.

The prisoner—identified by the CIA as a top al-Qaida official—sat motionless, his salmon jumpsuit stretched across a middle-aged paunch. Glenn Carle, SAIS ’85, a career CIA spy, knelt before him. “We do not have much time,” Carle told the prisoner, whom he refers to by the code name CAPTUS. “The situation is changing.”

It was autumn of 2002, and Carle had been interrogating the man for weeks. During that time he’d gained the prisoner’s trust, using the same skills he’d honed as a case officer when he manipulated foreign nationals into revealing their countries’ secrets. Carle schmoozed, he chastised, he cajoled . . . whatever it took to ingratiate himself.

By now, CAPTUS answered most of Carle’s questions freely—and, as far as Carle could tell, honestly. But there were a few key matters the prisoner wouldn’t discuss. And Carle’s superiors at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, were running out of patience.

Carle urged CAPTUS to come clean. The man had already been kidnapped by American agents off a Middle Eastern street and rendered, in the parlance, to this foreign jail, his whereabouts known only to his captors. He was being held in solitary confinement, without charge or explanation. And unless he revealed everything he knew about al-Qaida, Carle told him, his situation would get even worse: “You will be taken to a much, much nastier place.”

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The Greatest Veneration

August 31, 2011  |  by Bret McCabe  |  2 comments

John Singer Sargent’s Four Doctors looms over the West Reading Room of the William H. Welch Medical Library at the School of Medicine like a daunting challenge. The mammoth 1907 painting depicts Howard Atwood Kelly, William Stewart Halsted, William Osler, and William H. Welch, the school’s founding clinical faculty. They were considered the best of their day, and they were recruited to help the school become great. Sargent painted these men in a way that not only captured the school’s ambition but exalted the men themselves. They’re rarefied—a national anthem high note that few mere mortals can hit.

The portrait also kicked off the tradition of the Medical Institutions honoring their own. The collection contains 325 portraits at last count—mostly paintings but some photography and sculpture, too—and features faculty from Johns Hopkins Hospital and the School of Medicine, School of Nursing, and Bloomberg School of Public Health. It includes works by notable American artists—Sargent, Cecilia Beaux, William Merritt Chase, William Draper, Jamie Wyeth—as well as regional artists like Thomas Corner, Ann Didusch Schuler, and Raoul Middleman.

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“Mom! It’s Ballet!”

June 1, 2011  |  by Dale Keiger  |  2 comments

At 3:25 on a Monday afternoon last May, six young boys with numbers pinned to their shirts wait in the Patterson Park Public Charter School gymnasium. They look uncertain, stealing glances at each other and at Miss Carol and Miss Barbara, who seem to be in charge.

“Some of them are scared to come in,” says Miss Carol.

“Tell them we’re not going to bite,” says Miss Barbara.

A formidable woman who works for the school notes that 14 more boys signed up but have not shown up. She bustles out into the hallway, on the hunt for the no-shows. Miss Barbara observes a slender African American boy,  No. 1, as he spontaneously spins round and round and round, unaware that he’s being watched. “He has a natural spot,” she says, meaning he turns his head faster than his body and returns his gaze to the same spot, maintaining his body’s alignment and avoiding dizziness.

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Man in the Middle

June 1, 2011  |  by Michael Anft  |  8 comments

Of all the subjects to broach. Of all the things to bring up. Is there any better way to get people at each other than to ask them about God? Hordes have been dispatched to the Great Beyond, or at least the grave, over the issue of His nature, or whom He favors. Religion, in grand historical terms, has meant breaking out the slingshots and scimitars. In modern times, avid nonbelievers have added their (often loud) voices to the fray. You’d think the last thing a sensible, introspective person would want to do is get in the crossfire. Even if one were to write a thoughtful treatise that pleads for the moderate uses of religion in furthering the aims of humankind, he would risk becoming the enemy of the two poles of the U.S. culture wars.

Yet that’s exactly what William Egginton has done. In his book In Defense of Religious Moderation, published this month by Columbia University Press, Egginton argues that fervent believers and nonbelievers share more than they’d care to admit: a certainty that goes beyond the bounds of reason and does little more than polarize people. Their ongoing metaphysical shouting match has real-world consequences, Egginton argues. It keeps society from moving forward.

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Oh, the Places They Go

June 1, 2011  |  by Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson  |  12 comments

Baltimore may be home base, but for many in the Johns Hopkins community, travel is an essential part of the job. Research, scholarship, and clinical trials take faculty all over the world, and for some, years of dedicated study have fostered an intimate relationship with a particular locale. Here we talk to five Johns Hopkins faculty about the research that keeps them traveling to one place year after year and the lessons they have learned, not only about their area of interest but also about the people, the culture, and the place. From Cuba to Kathmandu, Syria to Italy and Germany, consider this your insider’s guide to some of the world’s most enticing destinations.

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The Johns Hopkins Magazine Not-Exactly-What-You’d-Call- Breezy Summer Reading List

June 1, 2011  |  by Johns Hopkins Staff  |  1 Comment

The idea was to pull together a list of great hot-weather reads penned by Johns Hopkins faculty and alumni. Books that would be light and intellectually airy and perfect for tucking under your arm on the way to the pool. You know, vacation reading—engaging but nothing you’d take notes on.

Well . . . It turns out that Johns Hopkins doesn’t do light and airy, at least not that often. And you probably wouldn’t want to read an entire summer’s worth of those books anyway. So instead, we worked our way through the stack of impressive Hopkins-affiliated tomes on the editors’ desks, looking for titles that promised a good read, even if they required a little effort. What did we find? A book about Maryland oysters and their gradual demise, scary cell phone science, a poetry book, a history of liberal democracy, and psychiatrists’ truth-telling about their profession. We even found a novel. We don’t expect you to read every book on the list, and we wouldn’t really recommend taking more than one or two with you on a cruise unless you’ve got a Kindle.

Look at it this way: It’s summer. Things are slowing down, vacation lies ahead. You’ve got a little extra time. Use it smartly.

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My Mom, My Avatar

February 28, 2011  |  by Piper Weiss  |  Add a comment

If you Google search “Piper Weiss”—and I shamefully do, often—a photo of my mother comes up. She’s got blunt black bangs and a mustard-colored wool frock. Her smoky eyes look just past the camera. Taken on the balcony of a Portuguese hotel, the city square and the roofs of buildings in the background, the photo has that sepia overlay like it was put through that Hipstamatic iPhone app that turns everyday photos into instant nostalgia.

It is my hope that anyone who stumbles across the photo online alongside my name assumes the snapshot is ironically vintage, technically modern, and actually me. I want to be mistaken for my mother, at least on the Internet. On my online account profiles, from Twitter to gChat, I’ve replaced my own portrait with one of my mother at 24. If you were to explain that to my mom, she’d be flattered but also have no idea what you were talking about. Her interest in technology stopped at recording TV movies on VHS tapes. All she knows is that several photos of her in her 20s are all over cyberspace. Fortunately, she’s OK with it.

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20 Questions: Africa Edition

February 28, 2011  |  by Brennen Jensen  |  5 comments

1.  How firmly has democracy taken root in Africa?

The United Nations reports that Africa currently has the greatest number of countries with democratic governments since the 1960s, though it’s far from accurate to call the continent a bastion of free and fair elections.

“Democracy has a foothold; it’s more than just a toehold,” says William Zartman, professor emeritus at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies and former director of the school’s African Studies program. “In 50 years of independence, the idea of democracy as the legitimizer of African regimes has pretty well penetrated, though this doesn’t mean that the idea of democracy is well practiced.”

Indeed, over the last couple of years, elections in Ivory Coast, Guinea, Zimbabwe, and Mauritania, among others, have been disputed, disrupted, or mired in fraud charges. Still, Zartman says, the idea of democratic participation in elections has stuck, and men and women vote with some enthusiasm across the continent. “Regimes now feel they have to claim they are democratic in order to be legitimate,” Zartman says. “The idea of democracy is there, and once the principles are there, then you can nail people to them. Then the question becomes not, are there democratic practices, but is democracy being implemented and enforced. That’s progress.”

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The Curse of the Golden Egg

February 28, 2011  |  by Dale Keiger  |  Add a comment

More than 25 years have elapsed, but Peter M. Lewis vividly remembers an early morning telephone call and subsequent walk through a city market. He was a doctoral candidate at Princeton University in the 1980s when he applied to the U.S. State Department for a summer internship. “In those days they had a good program that would place you in overseas embassies with a small stipend,” he says. “You had no choice as to your placement—if you were accepted, you were just told where you were going. So I got a phone call at 6 in the morning saying, ‘You’ve been accepted and you’re going to Lagos.’” Lewis, now director of African Studies at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, had been to Africa before but not to Nigeria. He recalls, “I went for a walk through downtown Lagos. It’s a very dense, very busy city of several million people, and the downtown area has a lot of market activity. I was looking for things to buy, souvenirs, and there were a lot of goods in the market, but it was quickly apparent that very little of it was made in Nigeria. There were textiles and padlocks and mosquito coils and machetes, and they were made in Europe, they were made in China, they were made in India, in the United States and elsewhere, but very little manufactured locally.”

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