Sunday, September 21, 2014
Seth Stevenson in Slate:
Before any of the six entrants in the 2014 Sinquefield Cup had nudged a white pawn to e4, they’d already been hailed as the strongest collection of chess talent ever assembled. The tournament, held in St. Louis, featured the top three players in the game. The weakest competitor in the field was the ninth best chess player on the planet.
The favorite was current world No. 1 and reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen. The young Norwegian—who is among the best players in the history of chess—strolled into the lounge of the St. Louis Chess Club as the most alluring grandmaster ever, a brilliant, handsome 23-year-old with a modeling contract for the clothing company G-Star Raw. Forget about his overmatched foes. If anything could stop Carlsen, his fans reckoned, it would be the swirl of distractions occupying the parts of his brain not given over to memorizing Nimzo-Indian variations.
As the tournament began on Aug. 27, Carlsen was mired in an ongoing faceoff withFIDE, the international governing body of chess. There are a few things you should probably know about FIDE—or the Federation Internationale des Echecs, if you’re feeling continental. FIDE is, by all accounts, comically corrupt, in the vein of other fishy global sporting bodies like FIFA and the IOC. Its Russian president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who has hunkered in office for nearly two decades now, was once abducted by a group of space aliens dressed in yellow costumes who transported him to a faraway star. Though I am relying here on Ilyumzhinov’s personal attestations, I have no reason to doubt him, as this is something about which he has spoken quite extensively. He is of the firm belief that chess was invented by extraterrestrials, and further “insists that there is ‘some kind of code’ in chess, evidence for which he finds in the fact that there are 64 squares on the chessboard and 64 codons in human DNA.”
Jonathan Webb at the BBC:
Apart from humans, chimpanzees are the only primates known to gang up on their neighbours with lethal results - but primatologists have long disagreed about the underlying reasons.
One proposal was that human activity, including destroying habitats and providing food, increased aggression.
But the new findings, published in Nature, suggest this is not the case.
Instead, murder rates in different chimp communities simply reflect the numerical make-up of the local population.
The international study was co-written by more than 30 scientists and gathers data from some 426 combined years of observation, across 18 different chimp communities.
A total of 152 killings were reported. This includes 58 that were directly observed by researchers; the rest were counted based on detective work - tell-tale injuries or other circumstances surrounding an animal's death or disappearance.
Interestingly, the team also compiled the figures for bonobos, with strikingly different results: just a single suspected killing from 92 combined years of observation at four different sites. This is consistent with the established view of bonobos as a less violent species of ape.
Hussein Ibish in Bookforum:
As this review was going to press, the latest bout of hostilities between Hamas and other Gaza-based militants and Israel had become even more bloody and destructive than 2009’s brutally named Israeli incursion into Gaza, Operation Cast Lead. An estimated 1,700 people have been killed. Between 70 and 80 percent of them were Palestinian civilians, and at least 200 were children. Israel has so far attacked seven UN schools serving as refugee shelters, provoking harsh condemnation even from the United States. Meanwhile, Hamas has drawn criticism from the global community for using abandoned schools to store ordnance. Sixty-four Israeli troops have been killed, along with three civilians—a stark contrast to Operation Cast Lead, which claimed the lives of just nine Israeli soldiers, four of them killed by friendly fire. The cost reckoned in damage to infrastructure and property in Gaza remains all but impossible to calculate. The war has reportedly displaced some 460,000 people—nearly a quarter of Gaza’s entire population. The present conflict appears unlikely to come to a complete stop—and if it does, there’s no reason why it wouldn’t flare up again at any moment.
With so much international attention focused on Gaza, it’s finally occurring to many Americans and other Westerners that the region has its own history, and that this history is key to sorting out the present conflict. So in this sense, Jean-Pierre Filiu’s Gaza: A History arrives at a propitious moment; if anything, Filiu’s book—“the first comprehensive history of Gaza in any language,” the publisher claims, probably correctly—is long overdue. Gaza isn’t exactly exhaustive; it dashes through the area’s lengthy and complex ancient, classical, and Islamic imperial histories in a mere thirty pages or so.
Carl Zimmer in his excellent blog, The Loom:
There’s a unity to life. Sometimes it’s plain to see, but very often it lurks underneath a distraction of differences. And a new study shows that there’s even a hidden unity between our slipped disks and the muscles in a squirming worm.
Scientists call this unity “homology.” The British anatomist Richard Owen coined the term in 1843, sixteen years before Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species. Owen defined homology as “the same organ in different animals under every variety of form and function.” For example, a human arm, a seal flipper, and a bat wing all have the same basic skeletal layout. They consist of a single long bone, a bending joint, two more long bones, a cluster of small bones, and a set of five digits. The size and shape of each bone may differ, but the pattern is the same regardless of how mammals use their limbs–to swim, to fly, or to wield a hammer.
Darwin argued that homology was the result of evolution. The common ancestor of humans, seals, bats, and other mammals had a limb which became stretched and squashed in various contortions. And over the past 150 years, paleontologists have found a wealth of fossils that help document how the tiny paws of Mesozoic mammals diversified into the many forms found in mammals today.
But Darwin wasn’t just out to explain the evolution of mammals. He saw a kinship across the entire living world. And that’s where things got complicated. Anatomists in Darwin’s day could find no clear counterparts to many of the traits in our own bodies in distantly related animals.
It turns out the homology is there, but you just need the right eyeglasses to see it.
Daniel Genis in The Concourse:
When I tell people that I recently finished serving a 10-year prison sentence for armed robbery, mostly in maximum-security facilities, I often feel a question lingering in the air. The moment I sense it, I try to respond to the awkward silence in some offhanded way, though it is hard to be blithe and whimsical when you're telling people you were never raped in prison.
I can speak only for myself, but in my own time in the New York State system, I rarely saw or even heard about non-consensual sex between men. Perhaps I was just very lucky. Maybe I'd been incarcerated only in the "softer" corners of the penal system. Rape does happen, and all over any prison there are signs with a number to call to anonymously report it, which I always thought was less a matter of sodomy than of legal liability.
But more common, from what I could see, was an older prisoner taking a young and inexperienced kid under his wing. Most often, this kid has no money and likes to get high; there are many such people in prison, and they tend to burn their bridges early and totally. And so the older man, who has usually already served major time, feeds the kid, and gets him a little something to smoke or snort. Now the kid has become a "fish." They start working out together, then showering together, then there is a massage, and finally, the kid is asked to "help" the older guy out. He's "no homo," but he has needs…
More here. [Thanks to Maeve Adams.]
Nathaniel Comfort in Nature:
Is race biologically real? A clutch of books published this year argue the question. All miss the point.
Michael Yudell's Race Unmasked and Robert Sussman's The Myth of Race can be read as inadvertent retorts to former New York Times journalist Nicholas Wade's A Troublesome Inheritance, published while the former were in the press. Wade's book is by far the most insidious, but all three are polemics that become mired in proving (in Wade's case) or disproving (in the others') whether race is biological and therefore 'real'. This question is a dead end, a distraction from what is really at stake in this debate: human social equality.
Race is certainly real — ask any African American. It originated long before the science of genetics, as sets of phenotypes and stereotypes. These correlate with haplotypes, clusters of genetic variation. In this sense, race is genetically 'real'. But those correlations depend on judgement calls. Wade cites population-genetics studies that identify three principal races: caucasian, African and East Asian. Elsewhere he cites five, adding Australasian and Native American; or seven, splitting caucasians into people from Europe, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. A study in Scientific Reports this year identified 19 “ancestral components”, including Mozabites, Kalash and Uygurs (D. Shriner et al. Sci. Rep. 4, 6055; 2014). Palaeogeneticist Svante Pääbo and others have revealed the underlying human genetic variation to be a series of gradients. Whether and how one parses that variation depends on one's training, inclination and acculturation. So: race is real and race is genetic, but that does not mean that race is 'really' genetic. The completion of the draft human-genome sequence in 2000 led some optimists to forecast the end of race (one of them, Craig Venter, wrote the foreword to Yudell's book), but use of the term in the biomedical literature has actually increased since then. For clinicians, race is a matter of pragmatism. Although each of us is genetically and epigenetically unique, our ancestry leaves footprints in our genomes. Consequently, clinicians use familiar racial categories such as 'black' or 'Ashkenazi Jewish' as crude markers of genotypes, in a step towards individualized medicine. For them, the reality of race is immaterial; diagnosis and treatment are what count (see page 301).
Land of the Houyhnhnms
........it is what they see done every day, and
.....they look upon it as one of the necessary
.....actions of a reasonable being. —Swift
even crossing the street
how not to draw the ire
of tall, beautiful blonds
(chiseled from the bosom of Odin)
for the WALK sign
on a street empty of cars,
glaring at me,
the dark little savage,
unable to abide by civil law,
already on the other side of the street.
LUND, SWEDEN, MARCH 2009
by Sassan Tabatabai
The Pen and Anvil Press, 2011
Saturday, September 20, 2014
In Full Stop:
Paul Holdengräber of the New York Public Library claims that good conversation can leave one “hopeful about the possibility of speech.”
As one of the world’s leading conversationalists, he would know. In the hundreds of events he’s done since coming out to New York a decade ago to join the library as their director of Live from the NYPL, he’s spoken with everyone from Mike Tyson to John Waters, Toni Morrison to Matthew Barney, Pete Townshend to Paul Auster, Harold Bloom to Jay-Z. Listening to him talk with various artists and intellectuals, one is reminded of the fact that Western philosophy began with dialogue. How could it have started with anything else? Conversation, which is really just connection, is what makes us human, what gives us our will to live.
I’ve never been more hopeful about the possibility of speech, and thus hopeful about the possibility of life itself, than the two times I’ve had the privilege to converse with this curator of public curiosity.
Tyler Malone: What is conversation to you and what is its value?
Paul Holdengräber: It’s interesting to have children in that regard because one thing you notice very early on is that conversation is how we become human. The word “infant” literally means “without the possibility of phatic expression.” We begin our lives by being spoken to and then slowly by responding. It’s what makes us come together as a kindred species. Without this dialogue, without this possibility of exchange, part of our humanity — that which makes us truly human — is lost. So for me conversation is a way of going back to that initial moment. Conversation is a giving and a taking, back and forth.
You know, the only sport I emphatically love is ping pong. Now I often play with my young boy at six in the morning before he goes off to school. I caught myself thinking the other day that our game was but a variation on what I do professionally. Ping pong is a form of exchange, of back and forth, of quick and slow, of spin and no spin — conversation is something of that nature.
Patrícia Vieira on Doris Summer's The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities and Peter Brooks's (ed.) The Humanities and Public Life, in The LA Review of Books:
Peter Brooks’s edited collection The Humanities and Public Life and Doris Sommer’s The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanitiesoffer spirited defenses of the humanities that attempt to explain why these fields of study matter. Both volumes cogently argue for the significance of the humanities, focusing primarily on their role in public life. Studying philosophical, historical, and artistic works may well make one a better person — or at least more knowledgeable, skilled, or intelligent — but these two books are chiefly concerned with the public benefit of such studies. What is the social function of the humanities? Is there a correlation between reading and ethics? What about between the humanities and human rights? Can the arts empower disenfranchised communities and, if so, in what ways?
Brooks’s volume is based upon the papers given at a symposium he convened at Princeton University. It brings together essays by a group of distinguished scholars from various fields in the humanities, together with a few representatives from the social sciences, to reflect on a series of key issues related to the social function of their research and teaching. The editor’s introduction is followed by Judith Butler’s article “Ordinary, Incredulous,” which, surprisingly enough, is one of the most melancholic pieces in the collection. Going back to Louis Althusser’s concept of ideology, Butler denounces neoliberal anti-intellectualism that substitutes ideologically backed “obviousnesses” for genuine thought. One of these obviousnesses is the compulsion to justify the humanities for their instrumental value, as being useful for economic or political life.
The humanities are precisely the space to consider what value is and to ponder upon different ways of valuating, in other words, to unravel the obviousnesses of ideology.
David Marquand reviews Inventing the Individual: the Origins of Western Liberalism by Larry Siedentop and Liberalism: the Life of an Idea by Edmund Fawcett, in TNR:
In its 19th-century heyday, as Fawcett’s history reminds us, liberalism was optimistic, passionate and imbued with strongly held moral convictions. Without using the terms, its proponents were for Burke’s social freedom and for Mill’s vision of human nobility. In France, radicals such as Clemenceau took on the army, an exceptionally reactionary Catholic Church and an ugly wave of anti-Semitism in defense of the unjustly imprisoned Captain Dreyfuss, an Alsatian Jew by origin. In Britain, Gladstone made his extraordinary transformation from High Tory to Liberal messiah because he came to believe that the masses were nobler and more virtuous than the classes.
Twenty-first-century liberalism is a pale shadow of its 19th-century ancestor. Albeit with some honourable exceptions, the passion and optimism have gone. Latter-day Clemenceaus and Gladstones are nowhere to be seen. Burke’s vision of social freedom has virtually disappeared from the liberal repertoire; few now echo Mill’s call for strenuous self-improvement. For the most part, today’s liberals see individuals as free-floating, history-less and untethered social atoms, quite unlike the rooted, flesh-and-blood individuals presupposed by their counterparts of yesteryear. The most obvious result is that, all too often, the robust moral convictions of the past have withered into a querulous self-righteousness, strongly tinged with moral relativism.
Why should this be?
Levé’s projects often invite us into discomfort, into awkward gaping at the failures of art. This work features a number of speakers—a confused adolescent trying to recount a dream, an old man recalling a shameful event which he describes “through a long and obscure circumlocution which he alone understands.” Another man tells a story with too many characters that soon becomes impossible to follow. It is like the worst episode of This American Life ever. It puts us in mind of one of the remarkable things about Levé’s career: that he seems to have rejected conventional narrative right from the beginning. There was no realist teething phase as with the American avant-gardists David Markson, Padgett Powell, and David Shields. This innate confidence could be attributed to the strong tradition of French experimental writing, particularly the Oulipo group. The notion of potential literature is obviously in play here, with the paradoxical liberations offered by its strict forms. The specters of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Raymond Roussel also haunt Levé’s intricately imagined performances, stupefying films, and impossible architecture. In Workshe is obsessed with those moments at which conventional art-responses break down: the catalog includes a number of projects where masterpieces are turned into bad copies, videos played without sound, books attributed to the wrong authors. It is a systematic undermining of “aura” as Walter Benjamin put it memorably in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” his ode to democratization and lament for art’s failed transcendence.
Her thesis is that the climate movement has been a victim of appalling timing. Scientists came to a decisive view on the dangers of global warming in the 1980s, a decade when faith in the power of unfettered markets surged and it was harder than ever to make the case for collective action, market regulation and a strong role for the state.
Now, she argues, a looming climate crisis has created a “historic opportunity” to attack globalisation, privatisation and other aspects of an economic model that is fundamentally at odds with a habitable climate. Just as the disasters of the Great Depression and the second world war ushered in a swath of social and economic reforms, from retirement pensions to public housing, Klein hopes the climate threat will galvanise a grassroots movement to revive vigorous market interventionism.
This is, of course, precisely the type of thinking that some conservative writers have long claimed underpins a “watermelon” climate movement (green on the outside, red on the inside) filled with closet socialists using global warming to advance their ideological aims. On this, Klein is frank: “I have long been greatly concerned about the science of global warming – but I was propelled into a deeper engagement with it partly because I realized it could be a catalyst for forms of social and economic justice in which I already believed.”
Noel Malcolm in TheTelegraph:
'Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. We thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where’s the harm? September 11 changed all that.” So said Richard Dawkins, who until his retirement enjoyed the title of Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Some of us began to wonder whether Dawkins had secretly renegotiated the terms of his job, becoming instead the Professor for the Public Misunderstanding of Religion. To argue that one act of terrorism, however extreme, committed by members of one radical movement proved the harmfulness of all religion was a strange piece of reasoning. But, undeniably, it caught a popular mood, and the Dawkins-Hitchens denunciation of religious faith as a force for evil in the world has been on a roll ever since. If the argument here were just about radical Islamism, this debate would at least have a clear and narrow focus. But the Dawkinsite argument is grafted on to an older tradition of anti-religious rhetoric going back to Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire, who compiled an entire history of religiously inspired mayhem – from the brutal campaigns of the ancient Israelites to the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and the many “wars of religion” in western Europe. This is a heavy burden for any would-be defender of the faith to pick up and deal with.
Karen Armstrong does not flinch from this task. A prolific author of books about religion, she seems to have the right qualifications to be a moderate, non-dogmatic apologist for it: as a former nun, she can see things, so to speak, from both sides of the convent wall. Previously she has written about early religious history as well as modern fundamentalism; her new book runs from the one to the other, from Gilgamesh to bin Laden, covering almost five millennia of human experience in between. This is both an apologia and a history book, aimed always at supplying the context of what may look like religiously motivated episodes of violence, in order to show that religion as such was not the prime cause.
Marc Parry in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
On a Friday night in early August, Corey Robin put out a call on his blog. There had been plenty of grumbling over the University of Illinois’s decision to revoke a job offer to Steven G. Salaita, who gained notoriety for incendiary tweets about Israel. But it had not been enough to persuade the university to reinstate the professor. So Mr. Robin, a political theorist at the City University of New York’s Brooklyn College, ratcheted up the pressure.
He suggested that scholars in every field begin organizing public statements refusing to accept any invitations to speak on any campus of the University of Illinois—a serious disruption of academic business.
"Nobody’s gonna do this," Mr. Robin remembers telling his wife, who was reading in the bedroom of the Park Slope apartment that the couple shares with a daughter and five cats.
To his surprise, they did. Philosophers, citing CoreyRobin.com, took up the challenge. The boycotts snowballed. English professors. Political scientists. Anthropologists. All signed on, and Mr. Robin blogged each fresh step. By the professor’s last count, more than 5,000 scholars have joined boycotts.
The Salaita Affair has riveted academe.
Elliott Colla in his blog:
My first year as a student in Cairo. I visit Cairo’s main book market located in the famous area of Ezbekiyya. When Napoleon tried to conquer Egypt, this was the site of a man-made lake surrounded by the ornate palaces of Turkish Pashas and high-ranking officials of the late Mameluke state. A century later, during British rule, the lake had been filled in and the area converted into a vast entertainment district. Bars and theatres, cabarets and brothels catered to Cairo’s elites who met in this border zone located between the medieval casbah and the new colonial downtown. By the time I get to Cairo, most of this history has disappeared under flyovers and Soviet-era concrete projects. Still, a few sordid belly-dance clubs still hold out over near the decrepit old fire station and post office.
The book market is literally fastened to an old black iron fence. Inside the bars, sit the stately gardens of Ezbekiyya Park, completely off-limits to the general public. Outside, the book market stalls cling to a tiny strip between the fence, a chaotic bus depot, and the busy streets of Ataba.
I do not read Arabic in 1985. So, I mostly look around at the posters. During those years, most of them featured the Indian beefcake actor, Amitabh Bhachchan and a woman provocatively fixated on a snake, her full red lips about to kiss it.
On the 10th anniversary of the Clinton Global Initiative, Bill Clinton assesses the state of the world, and of his post-presidency
James Bennet in The Atlantic:
In his distinction-defying way, Clinton has managed to prove the worriers both right and, more fundamentally, wrong. He certainly hasn’t focused; instead, he has found a way to turn his appetite for everything and everyone—along with his instinctive preference for what he has called “bite-size” approaches over sweeping, one-size-fits-all solutions—into a force for significant change, through the Clinton Foundation and through the do-gooder conference he created, the Clinton Global Initiative, or CGI, as he usually calls it. Overall, Bill Clinton has conducted the most energetic, high-profile post-presidency since at least Teddy Roosevelt’s, pouring himself into philanthropic, political, and, yes, moneymaking ventures. But besides supporting his wife as she worked as a senator, secretary of state, and once-and-future presidential candidate, he has made his most unconventional contribution through the Clinton Global Initiative. On the cusp of its 10th anniversary, I sat down with the former president in Washington, D.C., to ask about its lessons so far, and what he hopes to do with it in the future.
One is becoming as well-known for her autobiographical work as she is for her test for what movies meet a gender-balance baseline. Another directed one of the best-reviewed and most surreal documentaries of the past decade and has a follow-up on this year's film-festival circuit. Another has been leading the fight for gay-marriage rights since 2004 in Massachusetts.
Alongside cartoonist Alison Bechdel, The Act of Killing director Joshua Oppenheimer and attorney Mary Bonauto, other 2014 MacArthur Award winners are exploring the subtleties of race via psychology and poetry, using math to model the human brain or define the limits of prime numbers, or providing physical, home and job security to some of the country's most at-risk populations.
Anand Giridharadas in The New York Times:
There are places in America where life is so cheap and fate so brutal that, if they belonged to another country, America might bomb that country to “liberate” them. This book is a mesmeric account of such a place — a ghetto near Newark — that asks the consummate American question: Is it possible to reinvent yourself, to sculpture your own destiny? “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace” seeks answers in the true story of two men, reared in the same mostly black, mostly luckless neighborhood, whose trajectories spectacularly diverge. One man is Shawn, born to a sweet-talking, drug-pushing father named Skeet, who tries to keep his son from books, fearing they will make him too soft for a hard world. Instead, Skeet teaches Shawn how to fight, intimidate, know everyone on avenues where it’s lethal not to. When Skeet is imprisoned for killing two women, Shawn inherits his friends. He becomes a dealer, too, eventually sleeping in his car, wearing a Kevlar vest. The other man is Rob, son of a feistily aspirational mother, who, while toiling in kitchens, wishes for her child the escape she never had. She borrows books from the local library to read to her small son, and later buys him the first volume of an encyclopedia, getting additional ones, letter by letter, when she can afford them. She navigates their bleak world to find institutions and people who will help him. A Benedictine school rescues Rob. A bank executive offers to pay all his college expenses. Yale accepts him. He majors in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, and works in a cancer and infectious disease laboratory.
What makes this book so devastating is that these two men, Rob and Shawn, are really one: Robert DeShaun Peace, who went from a New Jersey ghetto to Yale to wherever men go after dying face down, knees bent, in a drug-related murder.
We Are Here
we are here
slaving for sovereignty by selling freedom
into the captivity of patriotism.
we are here silent, brainwashed
we are here
poor, frightened, and angry
wondering who is the next torture victim or petrol-
we are here, clutching at a fragile economy
a disintegrating social system.
we are here feasting on propaganda
while poets sing praise litanies
we are here
queuing for basic commodities
chasing sky-rocketing prices
doing business in an unstable environment
we are here where the dollar is extinct
and millionaires are homeless
mother, what happened to the breadbasket of Africa?
sister, what happened to Africa’s paradise?
brother, what happened to the sunshine city
and that of Kings?
we are here honouring the zhing-zhong products flooding the
market while home industry gathers dust in
well, we are here,
wondering where, when and how
we lost our bearings.
by Cosmas Mairosi
from Poetry International Web, 2007
Friday, September 19, 2014
Ian Sample in The Guardian:
Not to be confused with the more prestigious – and lucrative – prizes doled out from Stockholm next month, the Ig Nobels are awarded for science that makes people laugh and then makes them think.
The winners this year received their awards at a ceremony at Harvard University, where a stern eight-year-old girl was on hand to enforce the strict 60 second limit on acceptance speeches. The ceremony is organised by the science humour magazine, Annals of Improbable Research.
Speaking at the event was Rob Rhinehart, creator of the all-in-one food, Soylent, and Dr Yoshiro Nakamatsu, a prolific inventor with more than 3,000 patents who won an Ig Nobel in 2005 for photographing every meal he ate in the previous 34 years.
Holding the flag for Britain, though only figuratively because the flight to Boston cost too much, was Amy Jones, who shared the Ig Nobel prize forpsychology. Her work with Minna Lyons at Liverpool Hope University revealed that people who habitually stayed up late were, on average, more self-admiring, manipulative and psychopathic.
"To be honest, I hadn't heard of the awards before," Jones told the Guardian. "It's absolutely overwhelming. No one could be more surprised than me."
People who display the traits often do very well in life, having desirable jobs and more sexual partners, she said. "Successful psychopaths are going to end up in all the high end jobs, in charge of companies, making millions. The unsuccessful psychopaths are the ones that end up in jail."