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An engraving of Ren� Descartes by W. Holl after painting by Franz Hals. (Library of Congress/Library of Congress)
An engraving of Ren� Descartes by W. Holl after painting by Franz Hals. (Library of Congress/Library of Congress)

Descartes was on to something Add to ...

This makes us human?

" Cogito ergo sum - I think therefore I am - was coined by René Descartes in 1637. He was struggling to find a solid philosophical basis for how we know about reality and truth," says a review in the New Scientist of The Recursive Mind: The Origins of Human Language, Thought and Civilization, by Michael Corballis, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Auckland. "This also turns out to be one of the most famous examples of recursion, the process of embedding ideas within ideas that humans seem to do so effortlessly. So effortlessly and so skillfully, in fact, that it's beginning to look like the one true dividing line between animals and humans that may hold up to close scrutiny."

Artists with clean hands

"Alexander Gorlizki is an up-and-coming artist, known for paintings that superimpose fanciful images over traditional Indian designs," The Wall Street Journal reports. "… Mr. Gorlizki lives in New York City. The paintings are done by seven artists who work for him in Jaipur, India. 'I prefer not to be involved in actually painting,' says Mr. Gorlizki, who adds that it would take him 20 years to develop the skills of his chief Indian painter, Riyaz Uddin. 'It liberates me not being encumbered by the technical proficiency,' he says. It's a phenomenon that's rarely discussed in the art world: The new work on a gallery wall wasn't necessarily painted by the artist who signed it. Some well-known artists, such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, openly employee small armies of assistants to do their paintings and sculptures. Others hire help more quietly."

Drop the hammer

"Could increased opportunity be bad for you?" asks The Boston Globe. "If it's fickle or illusory, it might be. A recent article in the Yale Alumni Magazine highlights a phenomenon some sociologists call 'John Henryism.' It starts when you respond to stresses beyond your control by working extra hard; if, despite your hard work, those same stresses keep you from succeeding, then the effect can feed back into itself, pushing you to work even harder. That kind of sustained, hopeless effort, some epidemiologists believe, can have long-term physiological effects. John Henryism takes its name from the legend of a mighty railroad worker who took on a new, steam-powered hammer in a contest. He won, but the effort killed him: As the song goes, 'He died with his hammer in his hand.' "

Fat cats at a discount

"A central Ohio animal shelter with an abundance of chubby cats is having a sale on its fattest felines, hoping a discount entices potential owners to take one home," says Associated Press. "The Capital Area Humane Society says the fat cats are on sale this summer for $15 [U.S.]each or two for $20, instead of the usual $70 adoption price. Development manager Mary Hiser says the cats packed on the pounds before arriving at the shelter, and the extra weight can cause them health problems."

Flight of the fat cats

"Wealthy U.S. individuals have already pulled most of their money from Swiss private banks and could exit altogether as a global clampdown on tax evasion and banking secrecy benefits onshore rivals, a report showed," Reuters says. "Boston Consulting Group (BCG) data showed U.S. clients have withdrawn almost completely from Swiss banks since 2006, particularly since an extended tax dispute between U.S. authorities and UBS, Switzerland's largest bank. North American assets held in Swiss private banks fell to just 2 per cent of the total in 2010 from 18 per cent just four years earlier, the BCG report showed."

Pollution in Egypt? Who knew?

"Ancient Egyptians may have been exposed to air pollution way back when," says LiveScience, "according to new evidence of particulates in the lungs of 15 mummies, including noblemen and priests. Particulates, tiny microscopic particles that irritate the lungs, have been linked to a wide array of modern-day illnesses, including heart disease, lung ailments and cancer. The particulates are typically linked to post-industrial activities, such as fossil-fuel burning. But after hearing of reports of such particulates being found in mummy tissue, Roger Montgomerie, a doctoral student at the KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology at the University of Manchester, decided to take a closer look at mummified lung tissue. … The 15 mummified lungs he's examined so far all showed particulates, and the levels of them are not much below what he'd expect in modern-day lungs. 'I would say it would be less than modern day, but not much less,' Montgomerie told LiveScience. This is 'quite bizarre if you think about it, considering we have the mass burning of fossil fuels and an awful lot of pollution that has been going on since the industrial revolution.' "

Thought du jour

"You can know a person by the kind of desk he keeps. If the president of a company has a clean desk then it must be the executive vice-president who is doing all the work."

- Harold Geneen (1910-97), U.S. business executive

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