Monday, February 28, 2005
No Place to Hide
Telis Demos reviews No Place to Hide by Robert O'Harrow, in The New Republic:
To veteran Washington Post reporter Robert O'Harrow, September 11 was the tipping point in a battle for civil liberties. For decades, private companies and hush-hush government projects have been expanding and improving their ability to gather information about American citizens. When the planes hit the towers, the political will to use these capabilities was born, and since then a frightening new surveillance society has arisen, according to No Place to Hide. In anecdote after anecdote, O'Harrow details the incredible range and variety of information being collected, and how the FBI and other agencies have begun learning to put it to use. He explores new fingerprint and eye-scan technologies that the government can now match up to terrorist watch lists. He notes that the Department of Homeland Security has awarded record-setting contracts to private firms to analyze the disparate consumer data floating around, tag people who make suspicious purchases and travel arrangements, and create actionable police reports. O'Harrow recounts many instances where this information wasn't used against terrorists but rather in routine police investigations, for which the post-9/11 intelligence reforms were never intended.
The expensive pleasures of the ringtone
Sasha Frere-Jones in the New Yorker:
In 1997, your cell phone could make two kinds of sounds. It could “ring”—our anachronistic word for the electronic trill that phones produce when you receive a call—or it could play a single-line melody, like “Für Elise.” If you’ve ever heard a cell phone bleep out Beethoven without the harmony, you’ll understand that this wasn’t much of a choice. At about this time, Nokia, the Finnish cell-phone company, introduced “smart messaging,” a protocol that allowed people to send text messages to one another over their phones, and Vesa-Matti Paananen, a Finnish computer programmer, realized that it would work equally well for transmitting bits of songs. Paananen developed software called Harmonium that enabled people to program their cell phones to make musically complex sequences—melodies with rudimentary harmonic and rhythmic accompaniment—that they could forward to friends using smart messaging.
...ringtones generated four billion dollars in sales around the world in 2004...In 2004, the Korean ringtone market was three hundred and fifty million dollars, while the CD market for singles was just two hundred and fifty million...
London Calling, 25 years later
With London Calling, the Clash merged the arty daring and political sincerity of the '60s with the rage and trashy nihilism of the '70s. Pop music has been many things since, but it has never again been as artistically and commercially dominated by rock 'n' roll. Now that London Calling is 25 years old, an anniversary currently being celebrated with a handsome box set and a lot of reverential air guitar, the time has come to think of their record as the lads intended: as the headstone for the rock era.
Why were the Clash so well-positioned to take punk rock beyond punk rock?
Allah, the Army, and America’s War on Terror
Farah Stockman reviewed Pakistan’s Drift Into Extremism: Allah, the Army, and America’s War on Terror by Hassan Abbas, in the Boston Globe:
Perhaps the biggest secret Abbas reveals is how this array of politicians, one after the other, betrayed the secular vision of the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, to seek legitimacy and popularity through religious parties.
Abbas, a former Pakistani police officer and one-time adviser to the Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf, sheds light on mysteries that the vast majority of American readers have never wondered about: Why did Pakistan's army launch an attack on Kargil Heights, a rocky crag in Indian-held Kashmir, just as peace talks between the two nuclear powers were making progress?
Why did Pakistan shuffle around the army command at a crucial point in a war with India? Was the United States behind the coup against Bhutto? Why did the unruly militant group Muttahidah Quami Movement, or MQM, split apart in December 1991 ("They gave ideological reasons as the cause of the split," Abbas writes, "but the ISI," the Pakistani intelligence agency also known as the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, "was behind the split.")
Such insider stories have elevated this book to the bestseller list in India, where newspapers have carried some of its juiciest tales, but it's harder to find in Cambridge, where Abbas is a visiting scholar at Harvard Law School and a doctoral candidate at Tufts' Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
Manuscripts treated as fossils
From the BBC News:
John Cisne, writing in Science magazine, says manuscripts from the Middle Ages have a lot in common with animal populations.
For this reason, he claims, he can work out how many copies of a manuscript once existed and how regularly they were destroyed, simply by applying a biological model.
Historians have cautiously welcomed this rare link between the arts and sciences.
Paul Theroux recalls high times with Hunter S Thompson
From The Guardian:
America is a country that celebrates fakes and posturers, but Hunter S Thompson, who shot himself to death inside his walled compound, Owl Farm, in Colorado, on February 20, was the real thing. The genuine article, as he would have said; the real McCoy. He lived the life he wanted, as half outlaw, half hero, without any inhibition; broke the law when he felt it impinged upon him, was beholden to no one, shot holes in any fakery he found - either with a .44 Magnum or a breezy vocabulary; and he died the same way, at the moment of his choosing, probably in great pain from a variety of ailments - spinal injury, broken bones and psychic wounds. "Pain" in the metaphysical sense too.
drugs killed Hunter S Thompson's literary gifts
Neil McCormick in the Daily Telegraph:
His greatest period of creativity certainly commences with Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, written in 1972. The Great Shark Hunt, published in 1979, contains his last work of any merit.
The 11 books Thompson published in the next 25 years were a patchwork of half-finished columns and poorly researched articles, the occasional flashes of brilliant prose serving only to illuminate his lack of coherent thought and the ever-dimming light of his genius. As he retreated from the front line of journalism, he became a freak show on the corner of American pop culture.
Cows are gay nymphomaniacs
Jonathan Leake in London's Sunday Times:
Once they were a byword for mindless docility. But cows have a secret mental life in which they bear grudges, nurture friendships and become excited over intellectual challenges, scientists have found.
Cows are also capable of feeling strong emotions such as pain, fear and even anxiety — they worry about the future. But if farmers provide the right conditions, they can also feel great happiness.
The findings have emerged from studies of farm animals that have found similar traits in pigs, goats, chickens and other livestock. They suggest that such animals may be so emotionally similar to humans that welfare laws need to be rethought.
The Age of Unreason
Will Englund in the Baltimore Sun (free registration required):
Reason has been taking a beating recently, and it's not hard to see why. If Americans are flocking to religious faith, to revealed dogma, to creationism, to a place where no one pays any heed to a logic based on if x then y, it's because reason gave us a world that hardly makes sense anymore.
Yes, I know - two centuries ago, America itself was a product of the Age of Enlightenment, and of a belief that people had it within their own power to make a better life for themselves, to throw off the shackles of superstition and build a more perfect union. And it nearly happened. Look what reason - as expressed through social, technological and scientific progress - gave birth to: the First Amendment, the Erie Canal, the cotton gin, the light bulb, the submachine gun, the income tax, the Model T Ford, the exit poll, the Edsel, the New Jersey Turnpike, the polio vaccine, the tonsillectomy, the nose job, death by lethal injection, and call waiting...
Let me ratchet this up a little. The Age of Reason may have reached its glorious acme in the late 19th century. But in some ways it started to go off the rails soon after. Reason said that humans could be bred like peas or hogs to produce a better specimen - a line of thinking that reached its logical conclusion at Auschwitz. Reason said that energy and mass are related - as the residents of Hiroshima were to learn. Reason said that history and economics were decipherable by way of the scientific method; thus Das Kapital , and thus The Gulag Archipelago.
Sunday, February 27, 2005
Sabahat Ahsan, M.D., 1938-2005
The following obituary is from the Buffalo News:
Born in Muzzaffarnagar, India, she graduated from Aligarh Muslim University and Gandhi Medical College.
She emigrated to Karachi, Pakistan, in 1962 and practiced obstetrics and gynecology there and in Lahore before coming to the United States in 1971. She settled briefly in Cincinnati before coming to Buffalo in 1972. She continued to visit Pakistan annually and remained devoted to its culture.
For 23 years, she took care of indigent patients at the East Side Health Clinic in Buffalo, choosing to do that over having a private practice.
She designed her ultramodern house and much-admired garden.
A lover of the arts, Dr. Ahsan patronized many cultural institutions in Buffalo and New York City.
She was married twice - to Mohammed Kamal Pasha from 1959 to 1967 and Dr. Syed Tasnim Raza from 1971 to 1996. A son, Farooq Raza, died in 1991.
Survivors include two daughters, Samina Raza-Eglimez of Amherst and Alia Raza of New York City; a son, Asad Raza of New York City; three grandchildren; two brothers, Wahid Mohammed of Buffalo and Ahmed Mohammed of Islamabad, Pakistan; and two sisters, Wajahat Fatima and Farhat Fatima, both of Islamabad.
Obituary and death notice here.
Sabahat Ahsan was the mother of 3 Quarks Daily editor (and my nephew) S. Asad Raza. You can read a moving tribute to his mother, that Asad gave at the memorial service, here.
Christo's gates in Central Park will be taken down this weekend. Whatever one may think of them in the end, they did give us something to talk about for a while (see our earlier posts here, here, here, here, and here). Let me give the last word to Hal Foster, Townsend Martin Professor of Art at Princeton, writing in the London Review of Books:
‘The Gates’, the orange portals and banners that punctuated many of the paths in Central Park from 12 to 27 February, were greeted with great delight. People were first softened up by the numbers – 7532 portals, 5290 tons of steel, 60 miles of vinyl tubing, 116,389 miles of pleated nylon, 23 miles of trails, $21 million in costs – and then worked over by all the wacky presentations by the Bulgarian-born Christo and his French-born partner Jeanne-Claude (she of the punk-red hair). Contemporary art is big, bright, expensive and eager to please, right? So maximise these qualities, involve as many people as possible (640 paid workers to assemble the gates and 340 volunteer ‘ambassadors’ to open them), and you have a winning formula. Scale of work and size of audience will trump everything else (the hero of the piece might be the head engineer), and the piece will triumph as spectacle. If the actual location of The Gates was the park, its effective site was the global media (including the souvenir market online): that is to say, its site was everywhere.
But what if we consider the piece, perversely, in terms of the old criteria of colour and line?
More here. (Thanks to Setare Farz for bringing this article to my attention.)
In the Shiite south, Islamists and secularists struggle over Iraq’s future
George Packer in the New Yorker:
Whether the terrible violence in Iraq will grow even worse depends, in part, on the character of the country’s first democratic government. Its new leaders are already suggesting that Islam, in a rigid or sectarian cast, will not dominate Iraqi politics. This will provoke a conflict within Shiism, for Iraq has extremists of every kind, and it will not be smooth or easy, but at least it will be something other than a death struggle among Iraq’s Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. Basra, where politics has begun to move fitfully toward a state that might someday be called normal, offers one model for a way out of the logic of civil war. “I will fight the terrorism of thoughts,” Majid al-Sary said, bringing his fist down on his desk. He was awaiting Youssef al-Emara, whose party had won the elections; they had made an appointment to continue their discussion that afternoon. “The elections showed the strength of religious ideas here. I will stay and fight those bad ideas. It’s changing from a fight against violence and explosions to a new category—thoughts.”
Interview: Breaking the barriers
Michael Bond in New Scientist:
Palestinian Moien Kanaan and Israeli Karen Avraham are on opposite sides of one of the world's most bitter conflicts, yet they are working together - under very different conditions - to uncover a genetic basis for hearing loss.
They are investigating the genes behind inherited deafness with Mary-Claire King at the University of Washington in Seattle, on a grant from the National Institutes of Health. Their collaboration is also part-funded by money from the Dan David prize, which allows a Palestinian from Bethlehem University to study in Avraham's lab in Tel Aviv.
Left at the church
Shaoni Bhattacharya in New Scientist:
Gay men employ the same strategies for navigating as women - using landmarks to find their way around - a new study suggests.
But they also use the strategies typically used by straight men, such as using compass directions and distances. In contrast, gay women read maps just like straight women, reveals the study of 80 heterosexual and homosexual men and women.
"Gay men adopt male and female strategies. Therefore their brains are a sexual mosaic," explains Qazi Rahman, a psychobiologist who led the study at the University of East London, UK.
The Lost Soldiers of Stalag IX-B
Roger Cohen in the New York Times Magazine:
On the European front in the last months of World War II, the Nazis sent 350 U.S. Army prisoners of war to work in a concentration camp in eastern Germany. First on the list were all the American Jews they could find.
Richard Dawkins Reports from the Galápagos Islands
The first of a series of three articles by Dawkins to appear in The Guardian:
I am writing this on a boat (called the Beagle, as it happens) in the Galápagos archipelago, whose most famous inhabitants are the eponymous (in Spanish) giant tortoises, and whose most famous visitor is that giant of the mind, Charles Darwin. In his account of the voyage of the original Beagle, written long before the central idea of The Origin of Species condensed out of his brain, Darwin wrote of the Galápagos Islands:
"Most of the organic productions are aboriginal creations, found nowhere else; there is even a difference between the inhabitants of the different islands; yet all show a marked relationship with those of [South] America, though separated from that continent by an open space of ocean, between 500 and 600 miles in width. The archipelago is a little world within itself ... Considering the small size of the islands, we feel the more astonished at the number of their aboriginal beings, and at their confined range ... we seem to be brought somewhat near to that great fact - that mystery of mysteries - the first appearance of new beings on this earth."
True to his pre-Darwinian education, the young Darwin was using "aboriginal creation" for what we would now call endemic species - evolved on the islands and found nowhere else. Nevertheless, Darwin already had more than a faint inkling of that great truth which, in his mighty maturity, he was to tell the world.
New Letters from Percy Bysshe Shelley, Atheist
From the BBC News:
The correspondence, written by Shelley and his friend and biographer Thomas Jefferson Hogg, was destined for a car boot sale before being identified.
The letters could fetch £30,000 when they go on sale at Christie's in June.
Shelley and Hogg were expelled from Oxford University in 1811 for writing a pamphlet about atheism.
Both men were summoned before the authorities when the article was circulated. Shelley refused to co-operate and Hogg protested.
SDSS J090745.0+24507 Leaves the Galaxy
Dennis Overbye in the New York Times:
Was it something we said?
A star has been spotted flying out of the Milky Way. And it apparently won't be back.
Astronomers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics recently clocked the star's velocity at 1.5 million miles an hour, twice as much as it needs to escape the galaxy's gravitational field, making this the first galactic runaway to be discovered.
The runaway is a blue star about three times as massive as the Sun in the constellation Hydra. It is known formally and numbingly as SDSS J090745.0+24507, based on its coordinates in the sky, but Dr. Warren Brown of the center, the leader of the team that discovered it, also refers to it simply as "the outcast."
Saturday, February 26, 2005
The Strenuous Effort of Ijtihad: Who Owns Islamic Law?
David Glenn in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
...a few prominent liberal scholars are aggressively promoting a concept that they believe can nurture democracy and allow an authentic Islam to thrive in the modern world. Islam can regenerate itself, these scholars say, if it returns to the principle of ijtihad.
The Arabic term -- which literally means "strenuous effort" -- has historically referred to the practice of systematically interpreting Islamic religious texts in order to resolve difficult points of law. (In an oft-cited example, early Muslim jurists strove to interpret an ambiguously phrased Koranic verse about how long a divorced woman must wait before remarrying.) In the early centuries of Islam, ijtihad was confined to an elite set of scholars and jurists (mujtahidin) with rigorous training in the religion's texts and laws. Beginning around the 12th century, most Muslim communities restricted the practice even further: Some juridical schools declared outright that "the gates of ijtihad have been closed," while other regions limited the practice of ijtihad to questions of the family and everyday life.
Today's proponents of ijtihad take a far more expansive view. "There will be no Islamic democracy unless jurists permit the democratization of interpretation," wrote M.A. Muqtedar Khan, a professor of political science at Adrian College, in a 2003 essay. In Mr. Khan's view, political elites in the Muslim world have for centuries restricted the development of democracy and political accountability by hiding behind religious principles that they proclaim to be fixed in stone. Mr. Khan argues, in effect, for an end run around the entire traditional apparatus of Muslim jurisprudence. Believers should instead, he suggests, look directly to the Koran and to the practices of Muhammad and his companions, and use their own efforts at interpretation to build ethical communities.
A friend to some of us here at 3quarks, Tom Bissell, has garnered himself a very nice write-up indeed for his excellent new book of short stories, God Lives in St. Petersburg. Bissell co-wrote (with Jeff Alexander) what is one of the funniest and cleverest pieces in recent McSweeney's history (barring our own rather brilliant J.M.Tyree's essay about the implausability of the trash compactor in Start Wars) about Chomsky and Zinn giving their commentary to The Fellowship of the Ring. Here's a fragment:
Zinn: Of course. "The world has changed." I would argue that the main thing one learns when one watches this film is that the world hasn't changed. Not at all.
Chomsky: We should examine carefully what's being established here in the prologue. For one, the point is clearly made that the "master ring," the so-called "one ring to rule them all," is actually a rather elaborate justification for preemptive war on Mordor.
About God Lives In St. Petersburg, Pankaj Mishra writes:
"Bissell writes prose here as vivid and forceful as anything in his first book. The short story seems to be the right form for him; he artfully expresses the emotions stirred up by his own forays into the world outside America. The narrator of "Chasing the Sea" was edhy and garrulous, if always engaging. In "God Lives in St. Petersburg," Bissell reveals himself to be not only a subtle craftsman but also a mordant observer of a new generation lost in a complex world."
Understanding Pol Pot?
Could it be that because Pol Pot identified himself so thoroughly with his revolution, there was no him for us to know? Isaac Deutscher's biography of Stalin, and Alan Bullock's of Hitler, manage to ''bring alive'' tyrants whose personal lives were banal. Perhaps the problem is that Pol Pot was mediocre in almost every sphere: a failed technical student, an uninspired military leader who wasted the lives of his troops in badly planned offensives and ignored emergencies, a misguided ruler. In sum, Pol Pot would exert little claim on our attention were it not for the fact that millions died through his cruelty and incompetence. In ''Brother Number One,'' Chandler admits defeat at the outset: ''I was able to build up a consistent, but rather two-dimensional picture. . . . As a person, he defies analysis.''
Lunch with Albert
Niccolo Tucci wrote in the November 22, 1947 issue of the New Yorker about his lunch with Einstein in Princeton:
“But of course,” he replied, slightly surprised at my amazement. And so I heard, partly from him and partly from Miss Dukas, that he reads the Greeks to Maja every night for an hour or so, even if he has had a very tiring day. Empedocles, Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Thucydides receive the tribute of the most advanced and abstract modern science every night, in the calm voice of this affectionate brother who keeps his sister company.
“You know,” I said, “that is great news. Young Americans, who have an idea of the pure scientist worthy of the comics, should be told that Einstein reads the Greeks. All those who relish the idiotic and dangerous myth of the scientist as a kind of Superman, free from all bonds of responsibility, should know this and draw their conclusions from it. Many people in our day go back to the Greeks out of sheer despair. So you too, Herr Professor, have gone back to the Greeks.”
He seemed a little hurt. “But I have never gone away from them,” he said. “How can an educated person stay away from the Greeks? I have always been far more interested in them than in science.”
The End Is Near
Alex Beam in the Boston Globe:
Inventor/entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil has become the high-tech version of the cartoon character carrying the sign: "The End Is Near." With dogged consistency, the founder of eight different technology companies has been proselytizing an end-of-humantime event called the Singularity, a Buck Rogers vision of the hypothetical Christian Rapture.
Like everything, the term was first coined by mathematician John von Neumann, who spoke a half-century ago of "the ever accelerating progress of technology . . . approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race." More recently, San Diego State computer scientist Vernor Vinge has predicted that man-made "entities with greater than human intelligence" would dominate the planet.
In his forthcoming book, "The Singularity Is Near," Kurzweil calls the Singularity "the inevitable next step in the evolutionary process." Already, human activity is enhanced by technological substitutes, e.g., robotic prostheses, artificial skin, blood plasma, etc. The Singularity, which Kurzweil says will occur at mid-century, is the moment when biological material ceases to exist, and we become products of the revolution in "GNR": genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics.
Gore Vidal on James Purdy
From the New York Times Book Review:
On Purdy's latest book jackets I hail him as ''an authentic American genius''; emphasis on the two adjectives. Purdy's prose is often reminiscent of the century before last when nouns were apt to do double duty as verbs, like ''funning,'' which an editor once told Purdy was not authentic American speech even though any student of W. C. Fields's early movies knows that it is: ''I was just funning, dear,'' says Fields to the inimitable Gloria Jean. Purdy was born and raised in New England's most authentic annex, the Western Reserve, whose crown jewel is the state of Ohio, or, as Dawn Powell once sweepingly put it, ''All Americans come from Ohio originally, if only briefly.'' That was then, of course. Frontiers have since shut down, and true blue is often mistaken by twilight's last gleaming for red.
Your unconscious is making your everyday decisions
Marianne Szegedy-Maszak in U.S. News & World Report:
The snap judgment. The song that constantly runs through your head whenever you close your office door. The desire to drink Coke rather than Pepsi or to drive a Mustang rather than a Prius. The expression on your spouse's face that inexplicably makes you feel either amorous or enraged. Or how about the now incomprehensible reasons you married your spouse in the first place?
Welcome to evidence of your robust unconscious at work.