Thursday, September 30, 2004
The Cult of Che: more on The Motorcycle Diaries
"The cult of Ernesto Che Guevara is an episode in the moral callousness of our time. Che was a totalitarian. He achieved nothing but disaster. Many of the early leaders of the Cuban Revolution favored a democratic or democratic-socialist direction for the new Cuba. But Che was a mainstay of the hardline pro-Soviet faction, and his faction won. Che presided over the Cuban Revolution's first firing squads. He founded Cuba's "labor camp" system—the system that was eventually employed to incarcerate gays, dissidents, and AIDS victims. To get himself killed, and to get a lot of other people killed, was central to Che's imagination...
The present-day cult of Che—the T-shirts, the bars, the posters—has succeeded in obscuring this dreadful reality. And Walter Salles' movie The Motorcycle Diaries will now take its place at the heart of this cult. It has already received a standing ovation at Robert Redford's Sundance film festival (Redford is the executive producer of The Motorcycle Diaries) and glowing admiration in the press. Che was an enemy of freedom, and yet he has been erected into a symbol of freedom. He helped establish an unjust social system in Cuba and has been erected into a symbol of social justice. He stood for the ancient rigidities of Latin-American thought, in a Marxist-Leninist version, and he has been celebrated as a free-thinker and a rebel. And thus it is in Salles' Motorcycle Diaries."
The Surreal Egotist
"Having proclaimed himself a genius while in his 20's, Salvador Dalí went on to promote this notion with such relentless conviction that the egotist eventually overshadowed the artist. By the time he died in 1989, leaving hundreds of signed sheets of paper to spawn a fake Dalí industry, many in the art world had turned against him.
Yet Dalí never lost his popular appeal. Expelled from the Surrealist movement in 1939, he remained the best known Surrealist. And even after Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art had supplanted Surrealism, a major Dalí retrospective in Paris in 1979 still drew 800,000 visitors. Today, among 20th-century artists, his renown is probably exceeded only by Picasso's.
Unsurprisingly, then, the centenary of his birth has spawned Dalí exhibitions across his native Catalonia and elsewhere in Spain, Europe and the United States. Of these, two traveling blockbusters stand out. Supported by the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation, they are trying to jump-start a reassessment of his oeuvre.
'Dalí and Mass Culture,' which tracks his impact on today's visual language, was shown in Barcelona this spring and Madrid this summer and will be at the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., from Oct. 1 through Jan. 30. And 'Dalí,' which dwells on his paintings, is at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice through Jan. 16 and will be presented at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from Feb. 16 through May 15."
More by Alan Riding here in the New York Times.
Cures Before Cash
"Victoria Hale is a rare breed: a drug company chief on a mission to vanquish diseases of the developing world. In 2000, disillusioned with the pharmaceutical industry, she launched America's first non-profit drug company. She tells Michael Bond how she persuaded the industry to part with undeveloped drugs that her venture is now trying to turn into cures for some of the world's most lethal diseases."
Interview with Victoria Hale here in New Scientist.
Earth's 'hum' springs from stormy seas
"An enigmatic humming sound made by the Earth may be caused by the planet’s stormy seas, suggests a new analysis.
Japanese seismologists first described the Earth’s humming signal in 1998. It is a deep, low-frequency rumble that is present in the ground even when there are no earthquakes happening. Dubbed the “Earth’s hum”, the signal had gone unnoticed in previous studies because it looked like noise in the data."
More here from New Scientist.
Muslims belatedly turn a critical eye to Wahhabism
Well, better late than never, I suppose. Here, Sadik H. Kassim discusses "Wahhabism: A Critical Essay" by Hamid Algar.
"After September 11, when their utility had expired, the Wahhabists and the offshoots they produced were discarded into history’s waste bin of American allies gone bad (see Manuel Noriega, Saddam Hussein, etc.). It was now proper to write about them. Even the fashion magazine Interior Design got into the game, scoring a hit for a December 1, 2001 article making a snide reference to Wahhabism.
Despite the upsurge in the number of articles, the topic is still treated very superficially. Wahhabis are often described in clichéd terms as being the “Puritans” of the Muslim world. An analogy I have never liked. True the Puritans espoused a literal interpretation of scriptural texts; beyond that, however the similarities are minimal. The Puritans were intellectual heavyweights coupling Renaissance humanism with knowledge of scriptures and divinity. They complemented their religious readings with the Greek classics of Cicero, Virgil, Terence and Ovid. In addition to writing the first children books, they emphasized public schooling for all and founded Harvard, the first American university. For them, religion provided a stimulus and prelude for scientific thought. Among their members, they could count numerous fellows of the Royal Society of London. Most importantly, the Puritans were political and religious outcasts.
The Wahhabis certainly are not Puritans in any true sense of the word. The more apt comparison, I believe, is the evangelical Christian movement in modern times. Both the Wahhabis and the Evangelicals champion an ultra-literalist interpretation of the holy texts, casting them both at odds with the precedents set by their ancestors and with their co-religionists in modern times. Both Evangelicals and Wahhabis shun scientific/rational thought and treat the idea of a renewed interpretation of religious texts as anathema. Both groups have tremendous financial resources enabling the rapid spread of their beliefs. Most importantly, both have disproportionate access to the corridors of power—the Evangelicals and their incestuous relationship with the Bush administration, the Wahhabis and the Saudi royal family, although the latter is in a state of flux."
Disorder is Good for You
"Ever since Darwin, biologists have assumed that living things tend toward order. But now they're discovering that life at the molecular level is fraught with chaos and chance."
Short article here by Jonah Lehrer in Seed Magazine.
Debate Drinking Game
Wonkette has this debate drinking game on her blog:
• Anyone tells that story about Bobby Kennedy turning up the thermostat before the Kennedy-Nixon debate: Take a sip of a hot toddy.
• Doris Kearns Goodwin mentions Lyndon Johnson: Pee outside.
• Someone shows a clip of Al Gore sighing: Recount your chads.
• A Republican operative compares Kerry to a classical orator: Drink an ouzo-and-hemlock cocktail.
• A Democrat operative uses the phrase "can't run on his record": Go to Stetson's...
Start drinking for real after the jump.
Drink One Sip If:
Anyone says "terrorism"
Anyone says "Halliburton"
Anyone says "flip flop"
Anyone says "Saddam Hussein"
Anyone blames "the media"
Anyone mentions their own military service
Anyone says "September 11"
One candidate interrupts another candidate
Drink Two Sips If:
Bush says "cut and run"
Kerry says "W stands for wrong"
Either candidate talks past their time limit
Kerry brings up Bush's "Mission Accomplished" moment...
Salman Rushdie takes on Patriot Act
Rushdie, 56, said he was concerned by government bodies 'noseying into what should be personal creative space'.
He presented a 180,000-name petition asking Congress to repeal portions of the Patriot Act which give access to book-buying and library records.
Campaigners argue the act, passed after 11 September, harms personal freedoms."
More here from the BBC.
History of Birdwatching
Review of Stephen Moss's and Ian Wallace's books here in The Guardian.
Wednesday, September 29, 2004
The scope and structure of the insurgency in Iraq
This lengthy assessment of the insurgency in Iraq in the Boston Review paints a depressing picture (well, "depressing" depending on if you see the insurgency as a bunch of medievally minded mafias or as a national liberation force.)
"Muqtada [al-Sadr] has managed to alienate a considerable element of his community. In fact, none of the insurgent groups, whether Sunni or Shi’i, have a nationwide legitimacy in this fragmented country; each has a message that appeals only to a specific community.
But these limits on support for the insurgents have not translated into an advantage for the coalition. In preventing the insurgency from transcending the constraints of localization, the center of gravity remains, without a doubt, the people—ordinary Iraqi citizens who crave security and law and order, and then economic activity.
The insurgency can evolve, and indeed, from the vantage point of summer 2004 appears to be evolving, into patterns of complex warfare and violence. Should this evolution continue, the prospects for American success in bringing about Iraqi security, political stability, and reconstruction will be nonexistent."
Via politicaltheory.info come this piece in Wired on the spread of creation "science":
"'[T]each the controversy' has become the rallying cry of the national intelligent-design movement, and Ohio has become the leading battleground. Several months after the debate, the Ohio school board voted to change state science standards, mandating that biology teachers 'critically analyze' evolutionary theory. This fall, teachers will adjust their lesson plans and begin doing just that. In some cases, that means introducing the basic tenets of intelligent design. One of the state's sample lessons looks as though it were lifted from an ID textbook. It's the biggest victory so far for the Discovery Institute. 'Our opponents would say that these are a bunch of know-nothing people on a state board,' says Meyer. 'We think it shows that our Darwinist colleagues have a real problem now.'
But scientists aren't buying it. What Meyer calls 'biology for the information age,' they call creationism in a lab coat. ID's core scientific principles - laid out in the mid-1990s by a biochemist and a mathematician - have been thoroughly dismissed on the grounds that Darwin's theories can account for complexity, that ID relies on misunderstandings of evolution and flimsy probability calculations, and that it proposes no testable explanations.
As the Ohio debate revealed, however, the Discovery Institute doesn't need the favor of the scientific establishment to prevail in the public arena."
The globalization debate heats up again
With the exception of the war, few issues incite more passions these days than “globalization”. (It's “Jihad vs. McWorld”, in another sense.) The debate in some ways has been going on since decolonization, but its shows no trend towards being resolved anytime soon. Both sides of the debate, moreover, see the fate of the world’s poor caught up in the fight, and each insists that its way will improve the poor’s lot most.
The sides are not so easily divided into left and right, as recent debates suggest. David Held’s piece in OpenDemocracy (subscription required) has provoked a number of responses from across the spectrum. To take one (free) example, Patrick Bond retorts from the “anti” camp:
“‘Without suitable reform’, he [Held] writes, ‘our global institutions will forever be burdened by the mantle of partiality and illegitimacy.’ But these are not ‘our’ institutions – they are the tools of global capital and the petro–militarists in the White House and Pentagon. In any case, suitable reforms have proven impossible, given the terribly adverse global–scale balance of forces prevailing in recent years, and for the foreseeable future. Hence, virtually all feasible global–scale reforms actually legitimise, strengthen and extend the system of accumulation by dispossession.”
And another, Jadgish Bhagwati from the “pro”, in defense of globalization camp:
“[I]f you take countries during a forty-year postwar period, the economic ‘miracles’ with more 3% growth rate in per capita income also had similar growth rates in their trade. The economic ‘debacles’, with growth rates of zero or negative per capita income also had abysmal growth of trade.
Of course, we economists know that this does not tell us what caused what:. But when you undertake analysis of specific countries in depth, e.g. India, China and the Far East, it is foolish to claim that growth took place exogenously to trade policy and trade expanded as a consequence. [Rodrik has tried to argue otherwise for India but without success.] That other factors contribute to growth or decline is, of course, true but opening to trade was critical in enhanced outcomes and without it, the growth could not have been sustained.”
I was reminded of this debate because of the fierce discussion on Brad DeLong’s site. DeLong has an intense, lengthy post on an article on coir mat makers in India by Seth Stevenson in Slate. (DeLong, it should be noted, is hardly a simple, knee-jerk and uncritical proponents of economic globalization as this piece on capital mobility shows. Neither is Bhagwati for that matter.) DeLong is merciless in his indictment.
“By this way of thinking, Seth Stevenson is a thief. No, he is worse than your common-variety thief: a common-thief steals from the rich, while Stevenson steals their livelihood from the poor. Stevenson is a thief who steals the poor's livelihod. No, he is even worse--for he incites others to steal the poor's livelihood as well. And he is even worse than that: a thief--even the master of a gang of thieves--makes use of what he steals, while Stevenson simply destroys the looms . . .”
What's odd is that for a debate about an issue presumably with a "fact of the matter" (does trade make people richer or poorer? more or less equal? does it dissolve indigenous cultures in the poorer parts of the world?), it has taken the tone of a moral (maybe even religous) dispute, with all sides invoking the interests of the poor of the world.
Tuesday, September 28, 2004
Huge asteroid, named Toutatis, to fly past Earth tomorrow
On September 29, Toutatis will be within a million miles of Earth, or about four times the distance to the Moon.
No space rock this big will pass so close in the next century, scientists say. And while similarly large asteroids have hit the planet in the distant past, none so big have come so close since astronomers have had the means to notice them. Many smaller space rocks have been spotted much closer, even inside the orbit of the moon."
More here from CNN.
MacArthur "genius grants" awarded
"...grant recipients announced yesterday by the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation include a high-school debate coach, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and a glass expert whose work is featured in Seattle's City Hall."
More here from The Seattle Times.
Daniel Dennett on Paul Churchland
"To some observers, such as those of various mysterian persuasions, Paul and I are scarcely distinguishable, both happily wallowing in one 'scientistic' or 'reductionistic' swamp or another, taking our cues from cognitive scientists and unwilling or unable to begrudge even a respectful hearing to their efforts to throw shadows on the proceedings. For those who can see no significant difference between us, this essay will try to sharpen a few remaining disagreements, while at the same time acknowledging that in fact we are approaching harmony on a number of heretofore contested topics. I will try to close the gap further, much as I have always enjoyed his loyal opposition."
Why do the eyes of painted portraits seem to follow you around?
"From second-rate horror films to episodes of Scooby-Doo, ominous paintings whose staring eyes follow a character around the room, no matter where they go, have been used to spooky effect. But now a team of scientists believe they have solved the mystery of how they do it."
M.C. Escher's "Relativity" in LEGO®
"Unlike many of Escher's other 'impossible' pictures (like 'Ascending and Descending') , there is actually no optical illusion involved here. Gravity seems to be working in three different directions simultaneously, but the picture shows a perfectly self-consistent physical scene. So modelling it should certainly be feasible. But while Escher's picture has three different "up"s, LEGO isn't quite so flexible..."
Click here for more details.
World Wide Words
"The 1500+ pages archived on this site have been written over the past eight years and several more are added every week. Most are about English words and phrases—what they mean, where they came from, how they have evolved, and the ways in which people sometimes misuse them. A few others concern issues of grammar, style and punctuation."
The Looking Glass Wars
Mr Beddor, who produced gross-out movie There's Something About Mary, and is a former world champion skier, has transplanted Alice into a modern and violent fantasy world that could have come straight out of a computer game...
Mr Beddor makes no apology for drawing on the many modern influences in his book, including films Star Wars and The Matrix."
"Young readers will appreciate it - it's quite violent but in context" says John McLay, book reviewer.
More here from the BBC.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl
After a local newspaper's feature on her, about 2,000 people came for opening night - everyone from serious collectors to the artist's preschool teacher. She earned more money than she could comprehend. The gallery owner said it was his most successful show ever and scheduled a second one for October.
So celebrate, the artist did. During a recent visit, she climbed on a big bouncing ball shaped like a frog, grabbed the handles and bounced around the house with laughter pealing and pigtails flying.
The artist is Marla Olmstead. She is 4...
In all, Marla has sold 24 paintings totaling nearly $40,000, with the prices going up. Her latest paintings are selling for $6,000. Some customers are on a waiting list."
More here in the New York Times.
The Writer's Tale
"No literary life excites as much speculation or poses as many puzzles as that of William Shakespeare. The keen interest in Shakespeare's biography that began in the 18th century is a natural byproduct of his preeminence in our culture.
For all his fame, however, there are few outright certainties. The paper trail that does exist teases and tantalizes. Scholars have records of Shakespeare's birth in 1564, and mentions of his work in the theater. There is evidence of his unpaid taxes and legal quarrels, a few property transactions, and a will.
Indeed, it is more than scholars know about many of Shakespeare's artistic contemporaries. But the overall narrative thread of Shakespeare's life is frayed in many places, and broken completely in others.
Tying that thread back together is the goal of Stephen Greenblatt's new biography, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (W.W. Norton). In the book, Mr. Greenblatt seeks to combine the scholarship that has made him a central figure in the world of literary theory with the demands of a popular audience."
Monday, September 27, 2004
Hitchens, Sullivan, and treating reasons as causes
Via Norman Geras, playwright and writer Johann Hari has an interview with Hitchens on his apostasy from the Left. The case of Hitchens and the Left is one that's been watched by larger and larger audiences since 9/11. I've had mixed feelings about Hitchens' long before the war--for example, when he suggested that feminists should give up on the abortion issue, and when he insisted that the subjugation of the natives in the Western hemisphere was a good thing in the end ("deserving to be celebrated with great vim and gusto"), or his second rate (at his best moments) and hack (at the worst ones) takes on Edward Said these days.
But I have been wary of arguments that explain his positions on the war in terms of opportunism, alcoholism, some closeted homosexuality (as Alexander Cockburn came close to doing), or the natural evolution of Trotskyism. Personally, I'm anti-fascist in my politics (across the fascist spectrum for that matter, Islamism and Ba'athism, Hindu chauvinism and the inheritors of the Kach, what have you). But I do have disagreements with Hitchens about how the war should be fought, about those who are leading the fight, and have been skeptical whether the future and world they want to bring about is the one I want. But I do take Hitchens's reasons for his positions to be genuine. Hari's piece in the Independent takes Hitchens' views seriously, too, lets Hitchens be (lefty) Hitchens.
"'Look: inequalities in wealth had nothing to do with Beslan or Bali or Madrid,' Hitchens says. 'The case for redistributing wealth is either good or it isn't - I think it is - but it's a different argument. If you care about wealth distribution, please understand, the Taliban and the al Quaeda murderers have less to say on this than even the most cold-hearted person on Wall Street. These jihadists actually prefer people to live in utter, dire poverty because they say it is purifying. Nor is it anti-imperialist: they explicitly want to recreate the lost Caliphate, which was an Empire itself.'"
So too does this Marc Cooper post on Hitchens, inspired by the Independent article.
The comments to Cooper's post did remind me of a discussion spurred by Matthew Ygelsias's posts on Andrew Sullivan's decision not to vote for Bush. Some had taken a post by Yglesias to suggest that Sullivan is opposing Bush because of Bush's stance on gay marriage. Yglesias's follow-up started quite a debate/discussion on the blogosphere.
"One thing you learn studying the philosophy of mind is the difference between a cause and a reason. Ask me why I'm a liberal, and I could give you two different sorts of answers. One would be based on reasons -- I would present arguments as to why I think liberalism is the correct political theory and then say that I am a liberal because of liberalism's correctness. Another would be based on causes -- my parents were liberals, as were the overwhelming majority of people I grew up with and interacted with until the very recent past, and I never found a compelling reason to abandon the ideology of my youth, though I've certainly changed my views on various specific reasons.
Causal explanations are interesting, but ultimately it's disrespectful to talk about people in causal terms. There can be no doubt that Bush's Texas swagger has had a (causal) influence on my evaluation of him as a man and as a president, but that fact notwithstanding, the appropriate thing for those who may disagree with me about this or that is to evaluate my arguments -- my reasons. Now I think it would be silly to deny that, in a causal sense, the FMA plays a larger role in Andrew's thinking than in the thinking of most people . . . but this is a dehumanizing and ultimately fruitless line of inquiry. He, like everyone else, gives reasons for his views and if you disagree with him (or me) you ought to take issue with his (or my) arguments, not make silly ad hominem attacks."
Very discourse ethical, to be Habermasian. But is it that simple? DeLong throws in a few qualifications.
"It may be immoral ('disrespectful') for some transcendental reason to analyze other Minds in terms of their causes rather than their reasons. But it is also counterproductive--at least, it is counterproductive for a Mind that is in the reach-true-conclusions business rather than in the yea-for-my-team! business. For it's only by taking the reasons advanced by other Minds seriously that one has a chance of improving the quality of one's thought. That is the key reason to pay attention to reasons rather than causes when analyzing other Minds.
In Andrew Sullivan, however, do we have a Mind as we have defined it?"
It seems to me anyway that there are a few reasons to point to causes, rather than reasons. First, we legitimately can and do point to causes to explain why people hold the views they do--ideology, in short. Is it disrespectful to suggest that a Nazi may hold the views s/he does because of their upbringing, being surrounded by racist and anti-Semitic propoganda, etc?
Second, we do also point to causes to suggest that the reasons that an adversary offers for or against one positions isn't their motive for or against that position and that the audience shouldn't trust their reasons as ones they would hold (though this is sort of weak). But this isn't aimed at the speaker and is probably a bit Machiavellian in the way that all politics is.
Finally, we can offer causes as reasons to change or refine our beliefs; we do this with ourselves--at least if we're honest--to see if we hold some position or another for something other than good reasons. In this vein, we can also offer causes to change someone of their own beliefs (though to be effective, the openness will have to be symmetrical), in a kind of social equivalent of therapy.
But read the debate around the web.
Branson's move into space tourism
It's either the zietgeist or it's just herding in both journalism and the blogosphere--
I lean toward the latter, but following on the post on flying cars below, there's this from the BBC.
"The news that Sir Richard Branson has signed a deal to take paying passengers into space suggests the Ansari X-Prize has achieved its goal of bringing space tourism closer to the masses. One of the aims behind the $10m (£5.7m) challenge was to galvanise enthusiasm for private manned spaceflight, thereby bringing 'out of this world' tourism within reach of ordinary people.
In the past, space travel has been open only to the privileged few; either government-back astronauts or millionaires with enough spare cash to book a flight on a Russian Soyuz rocket to the International Space Station.
If and when the Virgin venture - dubbed Virgin Galactic - begins offering its first spaceflights, the tickets will still be expensive. A sub-orbital flight is expected initially to cost about £100,000."
Hemingway Bullfight Tale From 1924 Turns Up
"Eighty years after they were written, a previously unknown story and a handwritten letter ascribed to Ernest Hemingway have surfaced to stir a literary and legal dispute between people who want to see them published and people who don't.
At present, the opponents of publication - notably the custodians of the Hemingway estate - are winning, according to several people on both sides of the debate. But that has not detracted from the long, twisty tale of the documents themselves: a two-page letter and a five-page slapstick account of a bullfighting incident written in 1924. Not only do the documents offer an insight into the personality of a young Hemingway, scholars say, but they also illuminate the powerful appeal exerted by even modest discoveries of previously unknown writing by literary giants like Hemingway, who died in 1961."
More here from the New York Times. The passport photo of Hemingway is from around the time that he wrote the story (1923).
The academic uses of blogging
In keeping with the self-referential character of the blogosphere, a recent post and article has pointed to one use of blogs that I hadn't considered.
"Currently, I'm collaborating on a moral psychology experiment about ordinary speaker's use of the term 'intentionally'. I'm also working on a paper about Quine, analyticity and gay marriage, a philosophical analyss of 'media bias' arguments, and some other more traditional projects."
It ends with "I'd be very grateful for feedback on the above sketch."
It may point a growing trend, the use of blogs for academic research. This Guardian piece discusses the trend.
"Creating a blog to track the progress of your PhD thesis might seem like the ultimate delaying tactic - a way to avoid ever actually writing the thing itself. But for Esther MacCallum-Stewart, currently doing a D.Phil thesis on popular culture during the first world war at the University of Sussex, the opposite has been true. She began blogging about her thesis (www.whatalovelywar.co.uk/war/) in February 2002, initially to keep track of the ideas she was developing. 'I realised I was making notes all over the place, and they weren't making any sense at all.'"
The trend seems very related to what you find in academic blogs such as Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal, Crooked Timber, and a Fistful of Euros--often thoughtful discussions of issues but in a format that lets you track and search them easily. It's an altogether different type from the references/filters of Arts and Letters Daily or SciTechDaily, and from the passing but definitive judgment without argument (often with failed wit of the "Sontag Award Nominee" sort) one finds in Andrew Sullivan or Wonkette. All in all, a positive trend, I would say.