Wednesday, August 31, 2005
One Fed measure of the net impact of offshoring on jobs
From the Federal Reserve Bank of New York:
"Recent concerns about the transfer of U.S. services jobs to overseas workers have deepened long-standing fears about the effects of trade on the domestic labor market. But a balanced view of the impact of trade requires that we consider jobs created through the production of U.S. exports as well as jobs lost to imports. A new measure of the jobs gained and lost in international trade flows suggests that the net number of U.S. jobs lost is relatively small—2.4 percent of total U.S. employment as of 2003."
A growing state of mind that needs a firm rebuttal
Conspiracies are profoundly satisfying. They solve every problem, explain everything difficult and give form and shape to things that are otherwise untidily complicated. They provide the easy answer. Why did something bad happen? Because bad people conspired against the good who would otherwise have conquered. Usually, the theory reverses an incontrovertible but (to the conspiracy theorist) inconvenient fact. It is a growing state of mind that, once it takes hold, spreads easily from small things to big beliefs. It needs a firm rebuttal, even when it invades relatively unimportant-seeming things - such as was Shakespeare really Shakespeare?
This week the latest sample arrives with great media fanfare. Viscountess Clare Asquith's book Shadowplay: the Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare - featured on the Today programme, no less - promotes the conspiracy theory that Shakespeare used his plays secretly to promote the outlawed Catholic faith. If the Da Vinci Code strikes at Catholicism, here the Catholics strike back by laying claim to the greatest writer of them all.
New Antibiotics Successful against Superbugs
The misuse and overuse of antibiotics has led to the rise of so-called superbugs--bacteria that have developed a resistance to widely used antibiotics and pose a threat to public health. Scientists have thus been investigating alternative treatment options. At a presentation given yesterday at a national meeting of the American Chemical Society in Washington, D.C., researchers unveiled one such candidate: a novel type of antibiotic that has shown promise against bacteria that survive in the face of conventional medications.
Tuesday, August 30, 2005
This intriguing and still developing project is worth a regular visit.
"Some artists, all over the globe were asked to share their personal window. They made a few minutes field recording from their everyday soundscape. At one geographic point, at one moment,
they catched the sound environment from their window and made a picture of it. The main idea is close to one of movement, ubiquity, immobile tourism.
How to share one's very own identity when confronted to other places? The window, just as the browser's window, becomes the access onto other dimensions (space, time, sound), and proposes as a new platform. At that very, fixed, moment, the frozen picture becomes one object of sharing."
(Hat tip: Sneh)
Show me the Science
From The Edge:
UNINTELLIGENT DESIGN: (SCOTT ATRAN:) In recent days President Bush has echoed conservative religious calls to give belief in intelligent design equal time with evolutionary theory in public schools. If heeded, this would debase both religion and science by muddling and weakening their different missions.
SHOW ME THE SCIENCE:
"The proponents of intelligent design use an ingenious ploy that works something like this," writes Tufts philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, and author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea. "First you misuse or misdescribe some scientist's work. Then you get an angry rebuttal. Then, instead of dealing forthrightly with the charges leveled, you cite the rebuttal as evidence that there is a "controversy" to teach." To date, scientists have held back with regard to engaging the proponents of "intelligent design" on the battlefield of scientific discourse, reasoning being that by simply having a discussion, the ID crowd gains a respectable platform for their views.
Monday, August 29, 2005
Critical Digressions: Gangbanging and Notions of the Self
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,
We got a tattoo on our back the other day – a serpent wrapped around a large Gothic cross. Then we dropped by the barber’s down the street for a blond Mohawk. In the afternoon, we pumped some iron and went shopping and in the evening, we jacked a car and took out a couple of gang-bangers before retiring to a strip-club for the remainder of the night. You see, for last fortnight we’ve been navigating the streets of Los Santos in a low-rider – with spiked custom rims and a mad stereo system – listening to Eric B. and Rakim, wearing a wife-beater, a green bandana and a sneer.
You can too. Rockstar Games’ wildly popular videogame “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” allows you to summon your inner gangsta. You “control the main character…CJ, who has just returned to his old neighbourhood after learning of his ‘moms’ death. However all is not well as he drives into his old town, framed for the murder of a [cop] and unpopular with his old gang CJ must not only win back the trust of the gang but he must also learn exactly what happened to his family and return his jaded gang back to the glory days.” As in most role playing games (RPG), you may adhere to the plot or just hang out.
Unlike most RPG games which are typically set in the distant, mythical past (Diablo) or several millennia into the future (Final Fantasy) – games in which you assume the persona of, say, a barbarian, wizard or dwarf – “San Andreas” doesn’t offer temporal escapism: it’s grounded in contemporary America and in Americana, an unusual premise and conceit. The game, for instance, features the voices of icons of pop culture: Samuel L. Jackson (as a corrupt cop), Ice T (uncharacteristically, a rapper), Axl Rose (a chilled out radio DJ) and even Peter Fonda. When driving, you can turn to one of many radio stations that play country, classic rock, old school gangsta rap and eighties nostalgia. We’ve been listening to Bob Dylan, the Isley Brothers, Kool and the Gang as well as Snoop Doggy Dog and Cypress Hill. There’s even a talk-show station. A reviewer writes that “the most impressive thing about the talk station is that the news breaks update as you play the game...you’ll also hear a sports show, a matchmaking program, and a gardening show, whose host is played by the never subtle Andy Dick.”
Moreover, and more interestingly, much like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, San Andreas is a fictional reconstruction of California. “San Andreas’” virtual cantons correspond to L.A.’s Compton, Verona or Beverly Hills and as the game progresses you may venture into San Francisco or Las Vegas. Topographical correspondence aside, the personality of the Los Angeles changes from Compton to Beverly Hills: the cars are bigger and better, the shops chicer, and the barbers have lisps. Women no longer stomp around in tracksuits; they slink around in Sharon-Stone-in-“Basic-Instinct”-like dresses (and, on the beach, they’re clad in thongs). A reviewer claims that “San Andreas’…oozes much more atmosphere and feels far more realistic than anything we have seen before.” We almost agree. “Half-Life 2” is a remarkable, atmospheric game that gives “San Andreas” a run for its money. And Rockstar’s “Max Payne 2” is a masterpiece, a game that possesses the texture and trajectory of a novel.
“San Andreas” is also a commentary on California, Los Angeles, Americana, the gangsta life, popular culture, gender relations, race relations and class, analagous in ways to the satire characteristic of “Simpsons” or even to the sensibility of contemporary American fiction: think David Foster Wallace, Bret Easton Ellis (who has also made his audience empathize with a psychopath), even Don Delillo (circa Mao II or Americana). The meta-commentary is not only explicit on the whimsical billboards, the “Ammu-Nation” storefronts and army recruitment adds on the radio but implicit in the plot and the choices you are presented with as a protagonist. CJ, for instance, overhears the following conversation between his brother, Sweet, and sister, Kendl:
SWEET: I’m tired of you not listening to me, girl.
KENDL: And I’m tired of you acting like you own me. I can see who I want to see.
SWEET: It just ain’t right you seeing some cholo mother-f*cker.
KENDL: Ohhh, what - a no good narrow minded hypocrite gang banger telling me what is right and what is wrong. Let me guess, Sweet - senseless killing right, but a boyfriend from the Southside, wrong?
SWEET: Some things ain’t just meant to happen. I mean what if ya’ll have kids. Leroy Hernandez? That don’t sound good, girl.
KENDL: His name ain’t Hernandez.
SWEET: Or Lopez, either, you racist f*ck! That ain’t how Mom raised us.
SWEET: I ain’t racist. I just know how they feel about you. And look at you, you’re dressed like a hooker!
A commentator notes that “Anyone who has steered away from the series because of its unethical moments will not be surprised to learn that San Andreas is more of the same. With drugs, gangbanging, drive bys and the largest profanity count in console history it’s quite obvious that…San Andreas deserves its 18 certificate. It’s obvious to anyone with common sense that the humour is satirical...” To be expected, “San Andreas” has stirred controversy in America. An 85-year old grandmother has spearheaded a class-action suit against Rockstar Games, citing false advertising, fraud and abuse. As a rule of thumb, grandmothers should not play MA or mature rated games. We believe those quick to offend should stick to activities such as basket-weaving or boulles. But since gaming has become a larger industry than Hollywood, it now attracts great scrutiny. As usual, controversies in popular American discourse - whether it’s about movies (“Team America”) or music (2 Live Crew) - do not concern violence, misogyny or racism so much; controversy mostly concerns sex. The US Congress is investigating the infamous “Hot Coffee” modification. “In the unmodified version of San Andreas, the player sees an exterior view of the girlfriend's house while hearing the muffled voices of [CJ] and his girlfriend as they engage in coitus. However, the Hot Coffee modification enables a minigame which allows the player to actually enter the girlfriend’s bedroom and control [CJ]’s actions during sex.”
We’ve been weaned on the Amiga – a machine than was arguably two decades ahead of its time – on games that include the seminal “Shadow of the Beast,” the infinitely playable “Xenon 2,” “Speedball 2” and “SWIV 2” and the arcade hit “Ninja Warriors.” We’ve been weaned in simpler times: videogames did not antagonize grandmothers, galvanize the Congress or demands exegesis, philosophical inquiry, then. On the other hand, San Andreas begs the attention of academics and cultural critics as it raises questions about the relationship of the virtual universe and medium to reality, about representations and construction of the self. Our very own Descha Daemgen poses an interesting question about virtual money: “Does this new emergent virtual online gaming economy mark a threshold in how we have come to transmit, to produce, and to imagine value?” You bet. We can answer this question, simply, anecdotally: when we make moolah in “San Andreas,” we feel quite pleased.
Boys and girls, Rockstar Games’ “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” is not merely a video-game. It is, to be trite, a way of life. The thug life. We identity with our virtual Doppelganger. In the virtual Compton, for instance, we’re always looking behind our back because the Ballas, a rival gang, are out to gun us down. Outside Compton, we feel freer. Cruising by the sea at dusk, we aspire to leave the hood, to buy a nice place on the beach and start a family. But we keep getting pulled back in.
In the preface to The Broken Estate, James Wood writes, “Fiction is real when its readers validate its reality; and our power so to validate comes both from our sense of the actual real (‘life’) and from our sense of the fictional real...” In real life, when idling in Karachi traffic or chatting with somebody we’ve just been introduced to at a dinner or before turning in for the night after a few drinks, we find our self mulling whether we should earn our gang’s respect or just cruise around Beverly Hills; whether we should place our hard earned paper on Donner’s Kebab or One-Eyed Warrior (at 10 to 1 odds) at an OTB or earn a pittance shaking down some honkies and crackers on the beach; whether we should put in requisite time and patience to court a girlfriend or just pay for a ho. If self perception contributes to notions of identity, then, boys and girls, we’ve virtually become an OG, an original gangsta. So although we’ve been listening to NWA’s anthem, “F*ck the Police,” since we sprouted chest hair, we only now appreciate the pathos that suffuses the lyrics.
Other Critical Digressions, yo:
The Media Generation and Nazia Hassan
The Naipaulian Imperative and the Phenomenon of the Post-National
Dispatch from Karachi
Live 8 at Sandspit
And the OCD, the original Critical Digression
Dispatches: The Other Sweet Science
Prim, preppy, and proper; sometimes stylish, sometimes snobbish; always, to use the marketing term, classic: these are people's commonly if vaguely held impressions of the game of tennis. Each new group of rebels, from the tennis brats (led by McEnroe, Vilas and Connors), to the young, peroxided Agassi, to the country-club scandalizing Williams sisters, stand out, according to this view, because they contrast so strongly with the politesse of the sport of the tasteful rich, the sport of whites in white. This set of received opinions about the social milieu from which tennis came might have some credibility as a remembrance of time past. It's also all wrong. Far from a leisurely and well-mannered display of sporting good cheer, the game is at heart about controlled brutality. There is much virtuosity and style involved, but if professional tennis resembles any other sport, it's boxing. Both consist of a dialectical exchange, a conversation, between two opposed personalities, who are attempting to send the same deep message: "You cannot hope to defeat me, even if your skills are superior, because I won't stop, I won't give in, I won't tire, until I destroy you." The significant difference between the two sports is only in their chosen media. In boxing, the only intermediary between the two combantants is their gloves. In tennis, the players communicate indirectly, by the sweet science of applying force and imparting spins to the ball; it speaks a poetic language of aggression.
Here's your chance to appreciate this savage beauty: the U.S. Open, the last of tennis's four Grand Slam tournaments (the others being the Australian Open, Roland Garros, and Wimbledon). It begins this morning in Flushing Meadows, Queens, a short hop on the 7 train from Grand Central. Go in person. If you've only seen tennis on TV, mostly you end up following the ball in a kind of video-game trance, watching it go this way and that, the players themselves materializing only at the last instant to hit it. What you miss is the movement, the guessing, the psychic uncertainty that plagues each as they attempt to wrong-foot and misdirect the other. You miss the electric fields that crackle in the air in the decisive moments of a grueling five-setter. You miss sequences like this one, from the first professional tennis match I ever attended: in the 2001 Wimbledon final, in the absence of Pete Sampras (dislodged by an 18-year-old named Roger, about whom more below), Patrick Rafter and Goran Ivanisevic played an almost unbearably tense final set. Rafter's nerve failed first: at the climatic moment, he served a miserably safe ball slowly into play, which Ivanisevic contemptuously lashed past him. Now Ivanisevic, one of the top servers in history, had only to unleash a decent one to win. He couldn't. A historically great professional, he served five times into the bottom of the net before finally succeeding. On television one saw only an inexplicable performance at a crucial moment; in person, the devastating pregnancy of the moment made failure seem a perfectly human response.
Above all, what you see in person is the incredible variety of spins, speeds, and placements of the ball that professionals are able to conjure. Point after point, you watch and begin to understand the necessity of the unexpected. The standard groundstroke, hit with topspin, can be struck with booming pace and arc high over the net before curling down inside the line and jumping or kicking back at the opponent. Yet if she or he finds a rhythm and begins to respond, the all-important ability to dictate play, to make the other essentially reactive, can be lost. So, variety: every so often a sliced ball, floating low over the net and then skidding, or maybe a sneak attack, coming into the net and pounding away the surprised response. Or maybe an occasional lob, or other changes in pattern designed to confuse. The loneliness of tennis tactics, of being out there by yourself and working out what to do, demands a fortitude that inspires the audience and perplexes the person across the net.
The absolute master of this kind of bewilderment is tennis' majestic young king, Roger Federer. Federer not only plays every shot with facility, he varies his patterns considerably at important moments, unlike every other player, who stick to their "bread and butter" when it really matters. Even more remarkably, Federer interprets the unfolding action flawlessly and unconsciously. Like a conversationalist to whom the other's speech occurs before it is uttered, Federer knows what the other player will do before he does it - his opponent's tactics actually seem to occur to him before they do to the other. For this reason Federer is never out of place, never unbalanced, always smooth, always balletic. For this reason he can win on any surface, under any conditions, against any player, playing any style. Unlike Sampras, who seemed to approach breaking records as hard work to be slogged through, or McEnroe, for whom talent was a burden that cut him off from others, Federer seems to play with a pure joy in his miraculous abilities. Sampras's goal was to accrue numbers; Federer's is to express himself in as eloquently as possible, to play in all its senses. It's a worthy quest. The uncanny, almost empathetic anticipation that marks all his play has allowed him to dominate as no one in my twenty years of watching tennis has. You'd do well to allow yourself the pleasure of witnessing him; without hyperbole, he is a genius.
Playing Henry Bolinbroke to Federer's Richard II is the piratical young Spaniard Rafael Nadal. Like Bolingbroke, Nadal is a character of huge confidence and instinctive dominance, whose utter lack of fear and pragmatic brutalism carried him past Federer at Roland Garros in May. It must be grindingly oppressive to play him: where others stare at Federer's poetic breakthroughs in awe, Nadal simply clenches his jaw and refuses to let a ball get past him. It takes three, sometimes four shots that would be winners against anyone else to win a point against the terrifying Rafa (the only player who approaches his defensive abilities is, of course, the chameleonic Federer). When Federer plays, one gets the sense of a brilliant soliloquy being delivered; the victim is rendered no more relevant than Yorick's cranium. By contrast, watching Nadal is like watching a tormenting matador (if you'll excuse the too-obvious metaphor) generate sympathy for his opponents, who are humanized in their suffering.
If tennis is like boxing, my favorite pugilist is still Andre Agassi. Now well into his mature elder sportsman role, Agassi still will astonish you with the pugnaciousness of his hitting. His backhand is a left uppercut, his forehand a right cross. His quarterfinal with Nadal, should it precipitate, will be a thing of supreme, cross-generational electricity (Nadal is nineteen; Agassi has played professionally for nineteen years). Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt, and Marat Safin, all former champions, will be in the running. Look out for the hearthrobbing Felianco Lopez and Robbie Ginepri, too. On the women's side is has become very difficult to predict who will do well. Elegant Venus Williams won Wimbledon in inspirational fashion, but hasn't played much since. Lindsay Davenport cannot seem to stay healthy and fresh enough to win long matches. Kim Clijsters, the hottest player on tour, has a history of vain attempts on big stages, as does Amelie Mauresmo. Maria Sharapova is capable of winning, and so is Serena Williams, Justine Henin-Hardenne and the defending champion, Svetlana Kusnetsova. I don't want to spend much time handicapping the field, though, because I would rather encourage the spectator to take a front-row seat at a small court (this is easily possible in the first week), and watch any two of the best two hundred tennis players on the planet. Up close, you can appreciate the gorgeous subleties, unthinkable crosscourts, and lonely tactics of the other sweet science.
A Scholarly Spat Over Dante
Bud Parr of litblog Chekhov's Mistress here follows the vitriol poured on the newish Penguin Dante in English, an anthology of translations introduced by Eric Griffiths of Cambridge University and edited by Griffiths and Matthew Reynolds. Harvard's Helen Vendler gave Dante in English a royal thrashing in the LRB, focusing especially on Griffiths' Introduction, which is really a long essay. Parr's notes are useful:
Vendler concludes: "It is acutely disappointing to see a new presentation of Dante that seems, at least to me, so false to the spirit of the author." She takes on Griffiths' “desperation...that nobody will pay any attention to Dante unless he is jazzed up in contemporary slang.”
Well, there's nothing like a transatlantic Harvard-Cambridge Dante scholar's grudge match. I take it Vendler and Griffiths aren't chums, although this sort of tedious light aggressive banter, of course, afflicts intellectual life at Cambridge UK just as much as at Cambridge MA. By reputation, Griffiths can dish it out as well as take it - indeed, he's very much known as a maverick, but he is also regarded by many students as an invigorating and memorable teacher; perhaps he'll respond. As to why this volume so upset Vendler, who is known to avoid writing bad reviews, it's not super clear.
Vendler is probably wrong to claim that Griffiths has a wholesale "patronising attitude towards religion." Griffiths' book The Printed Voice of Victorian Poetry was cited in Geoffrey Hill's collection of essays, Style and Faith, and Hill is a poet who takes religion rather seriously, to put it mildly. You practically have to have a degree in religious studies to understand Hill - his brilliant book-length poem The Triumph of Love is almost as supersatured with obscure religious references as William Gaddis' The Recognitions.
As a sidebar, it's interesting to note that there could hardly be two more different poets than Geoffrey Hill and Seamus Heaney, Vendler's own contemporary poet of choice. It's intriguing but probably fanciful to imagine that all this might be seen as two strong and poetically irreconcilable intellectual constellations (Vendler/Heaney, Griffiths/Hill) locking horns. That said, it would also be difficult to find two critics more different than Vendler and Griffiths. Vendler tends toward the straightforward, like Heaney, and sometimes, unlike Heaney, the obvious - she's said that "the work of criticism is a patriotic impulse of a sort" (Ugh), and "when you're in a state of perplexity, sadness, gloom, elation, you look for a poem to match what you are feeling" (OK, but there's surely a little more to it). Griffiths, on the other hand, like Hill, is a dense thicket of British wit. You can see this in the passage that Vendler singles out as supposedly abusive to religion:
Even today, if you walk round an old but still serving church, you may light on a rich jumble: the statue of a saint whose cult has subsided, lacking an arm; a pile of cyclostyled pastoral letters; plasticene oxen, asses and cribs; the various wherewithal of flower-arrangers; in my experience, there is also often (usually behind the altar along with inexplicable quantities of papier-mâché) a mineral-water bottle containing a virulently green liquid.
I find this funny and actually rather loving in an odd way, although its relation to Dante is a bit tangential; Vendler is not amused, and preempts a possible response by wondering in her conclusion if Griffiths would find her review "pedantic and humorless". My description of it would be a characteristic misunderstanding of tone. To twist something Pynchon says in Gravity's Rainbow, there is an Atlantic of some sort between Vendler and Griffiths.
For what it's worth, I personally think there ought to be a ten-year moratorium on new English translations of Dante, which are really a kind of cottage industry at this point, perhaps by-product of American poets being forced to learn other languages during their graduate studies. Indeed, it seems to me that since poetry has largely lost its cultural place our prominent poets are better known for their translations than their own work. On a less frivolous note, Mr. Parr suggests The Poet's Dante, which has translations by Borges and Eliot as well as Merwin and Pinsky, as an alternative or complement to Dante in English.
Monday Musing: Three Dreams, Three Athletes
Sports figures have always held great fascination for me, and over the years I have regarded various athletes with an almost worshipful awe. When I was a child, there was the legendary cricket batsman, Hanif Mohammed, who still holds the world record for most runs in an innings in first class cricket: an unbelievable 499. I met him once along with a bunch of other neighborhood kids when he was having his car air-conditioner repaired at a workshop near our house in Karachi. He was already retired by then, and seemed very ordinary in person (I don't know what I was expecting). There was Safdar Abbas, lighning-quick left-forward on the national hockey team, who had gone to Habib School where reverential tales of his speed and skill were still oft-exchanged when a little later I attended 4th and 5th grades there. There was Tanveer Dar, penalty corner specialist for Pakistan's hockey team in the 70s, who had a name too cool sounding to ignore. Tanveer Dar. I still like saying it.
Later, there were three squash players in succession, Geoff Hunt of Australia, and then, Jehangir Khan and Jansher Khan of Pakistan. Another squash player also had a cool sounding name and an unconventional game, both of which took a hold on my psyche: Gogi Allauddin. I played squash against him once at the Lahore gymkhana at a time when I believe he was ranked number 2 in the world. Mutual friends had introduced us and he had no idea how good or bad I was but was arrogant enough that before we started, he said that if I was able to win a single point in a game of 21 points, he would buy me dinner. I bought him dinner. An Austrian skier I was temporarily obsessed with was Franz Klammer, and around the same time I had the severest crush on Nadia Comeneci, even daydreaming about marrying her (I was too young for more imaginative fantasies) when I wasn't too busy planning my wedding to Miss Müller, my 7th grade German teacher. (Miss Müller once took the whole class out to a German restaurant for a bit of exposure to German culture, and my eagerness to impress her was such that on a dare from another kid I ate a whole candle that was on our table. Needless to say, this stunt did not have the desired effect of making the lovely Miss M. want to marry 12-year-old me, but I did eventually manage to seduce another more susceptible Miss M., also a native German-speaker, into marriage.) I even met Imran Khan once, possibly the most shockingly good-looking man I have ever met, though I was never a great fan of his for some reason. But by far the greatest object of my athletic adoration has always been and remains Mohammad Ali, the greatest of all time.
Three of the most famous athletes of our time are Michael Jordan, Lance Armstrong, and Mohammad Ali. Jordan may or may not be the greatest basketball player of all time, but he undoubtably holds the highest value in the psychological economy of basketball fans as well as the general public. Armstrong probably is the greatest cyclist of all time, but bicycling itself has never been very glamorous a sport. Mohammad Ali's place in the history of boxing is a subject of neverending counterfactual debate of the "What if Tyson and Ali fought when each was in his prime?" variety, but he, of course, more than any other athlete, seized our collective imagination in a way that far transcends his prodigious pugilistic prowess. (We are not similarly obsessed with Pete Sampras, or Ian Thorpe, or Tiger Woods, or Carl Lewis, or Wayne Gretzky.) Why is this? What is it about these three individuals that has arrested our attentions so?
Maybe it is this: each of them is the symbolic embodiment of an age-old human dream. In the case of Michael Jordan, it is the dream of flight. The desire to defy the clutch of gravity is as old as human history: to escape the poverty of Earth's surface for the rich freedom of three-dimensional air, to have an eagle's-eye view of tiny Terra. And catching air is what Michael Jordan could do better than any other human, ever. He could float. He could soar. He could fly. He is about as close as anyone in real-life has gotten to leaping tall buildings in a single bound. And he made it look graceful. (High jumpers may be able to jump higher, but the Fosbury Flop is not very balletic; no poetry can attach to a movement correctly called a "flop" onto a mattress. Hop, skip, jump, leap, flop, plop, whatever; it ain't flight.) On the contrary, Jordan follows an upright and, like all objects in a gravitational field, lovely parabolic arch after leaving the ground. As he approaches the top of the arch, his vertical speed gradually slows to zero, and for an infinitesimal but seemingly-infinite instant he is suspended high in the air, floating in space, frozen in time, legs splayed underneath or treading air, arms reaching up, one hand cocked underneath the ball ready to propel it on its own parabolic path to the basket while the other supports it lightly from the side. This is the moment one remembers, not the moment when the ball inevitably clears the rim. Oddly enough, it is only in flight that Jordan is an extraordinarily compelling figure. Closer to the ground, he often looks awkward with his tongue stuck out of the side of his mouth, and despite his ubiquitous presense in every medium by way of commerical endorsements, he retains an air of shyness. Off the court he seems not very articulate or particularly interesting in any other way.
Lance Armstrong embodies the dream of immortality, and he does it doubly. Unlike car racing, or even the 100-meter dash, bicycle racing is not about speed. It is about endurance. It is about lasting forever. It is about not dying. And Armstrong never dies. He is known to break away from the pack of cyclists behind him, making them expend stupendous effort in catching up, which he encourages by slowing down just a bit, then repeating this process again and again until the buildup of lactic acid in the legs of his hapless competitors causes such excruciating pain that they freeze up. They die. He doesn't. And he didn't even die when his testicular cancer metastasized to his lungs and brain. He kept going. He is the ultimate Energizer Bunny, and keeping on going and going is what the dream of immortality is all about. If you can come back from death's door and win the Tour de France seven times in a row, you are about as immortal as can humanly be. The other interesting thing about Armstrong is his body. Unlike Jordan and Ali, whose stature, size, and shape immediately indicate their difference from you and me, Lance looks like my local pizza-delivery boy (well, I guess there is that bicycle connection). We all feel like we could be Lance Armstrong if we just tried hard enough. There is nothing on the surface to indicate that this man has a heart that is a third bigger than the rest of us, that it can beat at more than 200 beats per minute, that his cancer-scarred lungs can take in more oxygen than a healthy male twice his size, that his muscle-efficiency is 8 percent greater than average, or that his muscles produce half as much lactic acid as normal people. He is ideally built to do what he does. Lance is gonna' live forever, like we all wish we could.
Mohammad Ali's most famous fight of all, the Rumble-in-the-Jungle against George Foreman in 1974 in Zaire, is the athletic world's most powerful instantiation of the David versus Goliath story. It speaks to our dream of the triumph of cunning and skill over brute strength. And this is what Ali's life has been about, inside and outside of the ring. He is not a big boxer, as heavyweights go, but he more than makes up in speed and nimbleness what he lacks in size. Ali's hold on our psyches is such that I can remember my mother, who knew and cared nothing about sports, not only getting up in the middle of the night to watch the Rumble-in-the-Jungle live via-satellite, but very earnestly saying a prayer for Mohammad Ali to win. If you have not seen the documentary When We Were Kings, please do yourself a favor: buy the DVD and watch it every Sunday as I used to do until I practically had it memorized. Norman Mailer and George Plimpton were at the fight covering it as journalists, and comment on the fight looking back. There is music by James Brown and B.B. King, and there is the fight itself, along with delightful footage of Ali from before and after the fight, including his reciting some of his poetry, such as this bit to describe what he has been doing to train for the fight:
I wrestled with an alligator,
I tussled with a whale,
I have handcuffed lighting,
Thrown thunder in jail.
Yesterday, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick.
I'm so mean I make medicine sick!
The movie, and Ali's story, is so moving that several of the people I have shown the film to have wept at the end, out of sheer joy and admiration for the man. At the time, Ali was a bit of a has-been fighter in his 30s while George Foreman was the new, young, invincible, 22-year-old heavyweight champion of the world. Foreman was built like a bull with the personality of a pitbull. He was taller, heavier, and had much greater reach than Ali. He was nothing like the amiable teddy bear of a guy-next-door we know so well now from commercials for his electric grill and Midas mufflers. And the sheer force of his punches had already become mythic. The bookmakers gave him 7-to-1 odds againts Ali. Ali didn't care. Mohammad Ali crushed him in an 8th round knockout in a blindingly fast flurry of punches (see picture), having tired him out earlier in the fight by inventing what we now know as the rope-a-dope trick (leaning back against the ropes in a defensive stance and letting your opponent pound you until he or she gets exhausted). Ali became world champ for the third time that day.
But Ali is such a colossus that his herculean boxing accomplishments can only explain a small part of his appeal. I cannot think of another human being as physically beautiful, as talented, as intelligent, as charming, as articulate, as funny, vivacious, and brave, and as morally principled, as Mohammad Ali. Mohammad Ali has been the greatest international symbol of standing up to overwhelming might that the sports world has ever produced. He is the modern-day David that took on the Goliaths of racism, the U.S. government, even the Nation of Islam--after he broke with it. He gave hope and strength to those who opposed the Vietnam war and American imperialism, not only within America, but everywhere. He refused to run away to Canada to avoid the draft and faced the prospect of jail instead. He was stripped of his title and was not allowed to box for years. He suffered and sacrificed for his beliefs, and he never gave in. Ali is the only sports figure ever with Nelson Mandela-like dignity. As George Plimpton puts it toward the end of When We Were Kings: "What a fighter. And what a man."
I'm gonna live forever
I'm gonna learn how to fly
My other recent Monday Musings:
Francis Crick's Beautiful Mistake
The Man With Qualities
Special Relativity Turns 100
Vladimir Nabokov, Lepidopterist
Stevinus, Galileo, and Thought Experiments
Cake Theory and Sri Lanka's President
Sunday, August 28, 2005
Thoughts in Exile: Interview of Shirin Neshat
Pradeep Dala in Ego Magazine:
Internationally-acclaimed photographer, filmmaker, and video artist Shirin Neshat has been interpreting boundaries in Islam—boundaries between men and women, between sacred and profane, between reality and magic realism—through her work for many years. She came to New York to study art, but the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 made it impossible for Neshat to return for over eleven years. Returning to Iran in 1990 after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, Neshat found that the Iran of her childhood was smothered under a layer of conservative, fundamentalist Islamic tradition. Feeling that she had something to say, Neshat came back to New York and began working on a series of extraordinary photographs and video installations through which she explored her relationship with Islam and Iran. In particular, she is known for a unique and stirring visual discourse on the place and identity of women in Iran, and on the complex relationship between genders in Islam.
Susan Pederson reviews Bodily Matters: The Anti-Vaccination Movement in England, 1853-1907 by Nadja Durbach, in the London Review of Books:
If, like me, you are young enough to have been immunised against diphtheria and polio in the mass public health campaigns of the postwar period, but old enough to have known victims of these childhood scourges, it may be hard to think of vaccination except within a narrative of progress. Almost paralysed with dread of the needles awaiting us, my sisters and I nonetheless understood ourselves to be lucky children, rescued by heroic doctors and a benevolent state from the implacable and unseen demons that had randomly crippled or killed so many of our parents’ generation.
Today, this confident alliance of doctors, parents and public health officials is hard to find. Scary if unproven allegations of a link between infant vaccination and both bowel disorders and autism have helped fuel mass movements of parents critical of vaccination in both the US and UK. In Britain, uptake rates for the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine are falling, leaving scientists, doctors and public health officials scrambling to reassure parents not only of the safety of vaccines but, more challengingly, of their necessity in a Western world where ‘wild’ cases of measles or rubella are now rare. The press, prone to approach medical matters either through the human interest story (‘Did Leo Blair have the MMR?’) or as a ‘debate’ between two equally plausible positions, has shown itself ill-suited to the task of reporting on scientific data, while on the web claims to expertise flourish unchecked. In cyberspace, organisations urging parents as rational human beings to inform themselves of the risks of vaccination before delivering up their children to the syringe jostle with harrowing pictures of infants struck down by vaccines and the delusional rantings of anti-semites and conspiracy theorists. (Check out www. christianparty. net, where Jonas Salk’s great work developing a polio vaccine is lambasted as a Jewish plot aimed at infecting ‘Christian children’ with monkey-borne diseases.)
Everyone does not have a novel inside them
Tim Clare in The Guardian:
There is an auld axiom beloved of burnt-out English teachers, glamour-impoverished fantasists and a million other drudges seeking to transcend their lives of quiet desperation: everyone has a novel inside them.
This slogan has been appropriated as an article of faith by the amateur writing community, whilst its corollary - as a novelist, you have six-and-a-half billion potential rivals - remains the gravest of heresies. Like a blind man in a room of ill-positioned rakes, any group indulging in such wilful myopia is doomed to a series of unpleasant collisions with reality.
Curiously unsatisfied with the idea that being a successful novelist requires the ability to write books that a consistently large number of people are prepared to buy, jaded scribblers search instead for an explanation that will permit them to retreat with their pride and delusions intact. As W Somerset Maugham put it: "I have never met an author who admitted that people did not buy his book because it was dull."
Conservationist Plan Would Give Lions, Elephants a Home on the Range
Kate Wong in Scientific American:
People hoping to glimpse lions, cheetahs, elephants and other megafauna in their natural environment must journey to Africa's wildlife reserves. But if one group of ecologists and conservationists gets its way, safari-goers could soon head for the Great Plains of the U.S. instead.
In a report published today in the journal Nature, Josh Donlan of Cornell University and his colleagues propose replacing the large carnivores and herbivores that disappeared from North America 13,000 years ago, at the end of the Pleistocene epoch. Noting that humans likely had a part in these extinctions and that our subsequent activities have stunted the evolutionary potential of most remaining megafauna, the scientists say we have an ethical responsibility to address these problems. But rather than just managing extinction, they argue, conservation biology should aim to actively restore natural processes.
My Life as a Hack
Ben Yagoda in Slate:
I can recall seeing only one movie about a freelance writer: Woody Allen's Celebrity. In an early scene, a movie star (played by Melanie Griffith) takes the hack (Kenneth Branagh) on a tour of her childhood home then seduces him in her old bedroom.
That struck me as unrealistic. It's been my experience as a freelancer that film stars almost never invite you to their houses.
It did happen to me once, however. About 15 years ago, Rolling Stone asked me to profile the teenage Uma Thurman. We had lunch at the Russian Tea Room (where Rolling Stone bought Uma a caviar-blini combination so expensive it had an unlisted price) then took a pit stop at her family's apartment on the Upper West Side. There was no seduction, the least of many reasons being that her little brother was due home from school any minute. Even so, the whole thing was a highlight of my freelancing career to that date.
On Poetry: I and You
David Orr in the New York Times Book Review:
Poets who write only poetry are like musicians who play only cowbell: oddly cool, but mostly just odd. More typically, poets work on their poems alongside an array of literary and quasi-literary projects, from novels (Hardy) to plays (Yeats) to libretti (Dryden) to art reviews (John Ashbery) to advertising slogans for Lay's Potato Chips (James Dickey). Marianne Moore even once spent a month helping Ford come up with names for the car that was eventually christened the Edsel. (Moore's suggestions included ''The Intelligent Whale,'' so you can't say the company didn't get its money's worth.) Yet while poets have excelled at a number of sidelines, they've done some of their sharpest work in a genre that's often overlooked: the personal letter. Not all great poets are great letter writers, of course, but the correspondence of Pope, Keats, Rilke and many others is more than simply an interesting supplement to the poetic canon; without these letters, poetry as we know it wouldn't exist.
The Beauty of Deceit
Carl Zimmer in his blog, The Loom:
Sometimes a picture can tell you a lot about evolution. This particular picture has a story to tell about how two species--in this case a fly and an orchid--can influence each other's evolution. But the story it tells may not be the one you think.
Coevolution, as this process is now called, was one of Darwin's most important insights. Today scientists document coevolution in all sorts of species, from mushroom-farming ants to the microbes in our own gut. But Darwin found inspiration from the insects and flowers he could observe around his own farm in England.
Darwin's thoughts about coevolution began with a simple question: how do flowers have sex? A typical flower grows both male and female sexual organs, but Darwin doubted that a single flower would fertilize itself very often. Flowers, like other organisms, display a lot of variation, and Darwin thought that the only way flowers could vary was if individuals mates, mixing their characters. (Sex turns out not essential for creating variation, but it does do a good job of creating it.) But in order to have sex, plants can't walk around to find a mate. Somehow the pollen of one flower has to get to another. Not just to any flower, moreover, but to a member of its own species.
Scale buildings in a single bound
David Cohen in New Scientist:
All you do is fire a rope to the top of the structure using a harpoon gun or grappling hook, and then fit the rope into the device, called PowerQuick, which attaches to your climbing harness. Then just sit back and squeeze a lever.
PowerQuick has been developed by Quoin International based in Carson City, Nevada, and can lift a load of 145 kilograms at a rate of 1 metre per second. A battery-powered motor turns a series of wheels and cogs to pull the rope through the device. One battery charge is enough to scale the Statue of Liberty five times, or 250 metres in total. If you let go of the device it automatically stops and holds its position, and it can also be used for a slow controlled descent.
a new method of achieving a rude aim
Miss Manners in the Washington Post:
Heckling is attempting to go respectable.
Traditionally, interrupting performers and speakers with wisecracks and insults was the specialty of nightclub drunks. Later it was taken up by political dissenters who were not inclined to wait for the question-and-answer period.
Heckling was never, however, considered to be a polite way of registering objections during live speeches or performances. The approved methods of showing disapproval are withholding applause, or, in extreme cases, booing (for opera crowds) and walking out in the middle (for more dignified crowds). Now, Miss Manners has observed, heckling is attempting to reinvent itself under the popular name of "audience participation." The Internet having given us the means of widely disseminating immediate personal reactions to just about everything, the idea has arisen that doing so will enhance any format.
Shalimar the Clown: Fall of the tightrope walker
Salman Rushdie’s new novel tells the tale of Shalimar, whose romantic downfall turns to fury then destruction. Justine Hardy finds the Booker of Bookers winner in eloquent form. THE PUPPET MASTER IS BACK. He was absent for a while, busy with re-invention, polemic and courtship. The intervening years have perhaps softened him to the extent that he almost allows us to believe that we are independently able to grasp his art. But no, with a snap, he reminds us that he holds the strings. We just get to dance around beneath his elevated acrobatics, bragging to our friends that yes, indeed we understand how the tightrope tricks are done.
This is an important book, a wonderful reversing story with a cast of characters with names that are not their names, and ideals that have been thrust upon them, but this is not a real study of the anatomy of terrorist warfare or its perpetrators. Remember this as you read this vast story set in a splintering world reflected in lakes.
Brain cells tune in to music
The discovery of a group of pitch-sensitive cells in the brain has sent reverberations through the field of music perception. Researchers think that studying these neurons will reveal how our minds grasp songs and speech. In recent years, researchers have looked at the role played by the primary auditory cortex, the brain region known to digest sounds. Human brain scans have indicated that a peripheral bit of this brain region is active when we try to identify pitch. But no one could find cells that responded to specific frequencies, leaving it a mystery how we interpret them. A study with marmoset monkeys (Callithrix jacchus) has now shown up specific neurons that do just that. "This is the first evidence that there are individual neurons in the brain that are encoding for pitch," explains Josh McDermott, a music psychologist based in Cambridge at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Saturday, August 27, 2005
Evolution versus Metamorphosis
Thomas Jones in the London Review of Books:
As Ian Hacking said in the last issue of the LRB, quoting Steven Rose quoting Theodosius Dobzhansky, ‘nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.’ Since we use our brains to make up stories, and to make sense of the stories of others, it’s hard to disagree with the idea that the capacity for storytelling is the result of evolution. And it’s easy enough to concoct prehistoric situations in which making up stories would have been an aid to survival or reproduction, or both.
Once upon a time, there were two cavemen called Bill and Ben, who were rivals for the affections of a beautiful cavewoman called Beryl. (If you think this story is going to take a reactionary turn, you’re not wrong. But that’s because it belongs in the tradition of evolutionary psychology just-so stories, which have a tendency to provide a pseudoscientific – because unfalsifiable – justification for the status quo. As how could they not? Since the circular logic behind them goes something like this: things are how they are; they are this way because that’s how they evolved; here’s a plausible reason for them to have evolved this way; they couldn’t be any other way.) One day, Bill returned to the cave after a morning’s hunting and told an elaborate and plausible story about how he had killed the sabretooth tiger that had been terrorising the neighbourhood. Ben, delighted at the news, rushed out of the cave to enjoy the tiger-free sunshine and tell the neighbours. He was promptly eaten by the sabretooth, which Bill hadn’t killed after all. With Ben out of the picture, and Beryl suitably impressed by his tall tales of heroism, Bill was comfortably able to pass on his genes, which all lived happily ever after.
More on Explanation vs. Justification in Politics
Related to this past Monday's Musing, Brad Delong has an excellent post this week on History, Politics and Moral Philosophy, which includes a response by Jeff Weintraub and many thoughtful comments from readers.
"Where explaining crosses into justifying--or excusing--is when you go on to say not just "we have pushed their buttons in ways that have, predictably, generated bad consequences" but also to say either that "in acting as they have, they have been their best selves and acted from praiseworthy and moral motives," or that "given their circumstances, we cannot condemn them for not being their best moral selves." Where I sit, I see many arguing that brutal theocratic thuggist terror-bombers are being (predictably) human, and that we ought to recognize that people will be human in calculating what we should do. I see very few Westerners arguing that brutal theocratic thuggist terror-bombers are being moral, or even that it is unfair to blame brutal theocratic thuggist terror-bombers for not being their best selves.
Where I sit, I see considerably more Westerners trying to spread ignorance by condemning explanations which they dislike as 'excuses.'"
An interview with Tzvetan Todorov
In Eurozine and via Political Theory Daily:
"[Vita Matiss] You place the question of the parallels between Nazism and communism within a specific European post-World War II historical and philosophical context. As you point out, this context was not at all favourable for people like Margarete Buber-Neumann and David Rousset. Is the context for raising the issue of the similarities between these totalitarian regimes significantly more propitious today?
Tzvetan Todorov: Vast question... First of all, a comparison of the two totalitarian regimes is not something new. On the eve of the Second World War, when the first democratic and liberal criticisms of the two regimes emerged in both Europe and the United States, it had even become rather common -- just about everywhere, those who observed the rise of these two totalitarian regimes were susceptible to their similarities. This similarity attained its apogee in September 1939, when, after the German-Soviet pact, that is, Nazi-Communist pact, both totalitarian leaders embarked upon a common political path, when Hitler and Stalin simultaneously invaded Poland. At this moment, it was clear for everyone that the two regimes not only resembled each other, but that they were accomplices.
What made the comparison difficult was the Second World War."
A profile of Robert Trivers
In The Guardian, a profile of Robert Trivers (via Crooked Timber):
"Despite switching disciplines - from maths to law to history then the sciences - Robert Trivers profoundly influenced evolutionary biology with his theory that our sense of justice has Darwinian explanations. But he suffered severe mental breakdowns and his career at Harvard was dogged by controversy. After 15 years in genetics he has now turned to anthropology.
Robert Trivers could have been one of the great romantic heroes of 20th-century science if he'd died in the 70s, as some people supposed he would. But here he is, loping down the quiet, pale corridors of Harvard's Programme in Evolutionary Development, a powerfully built man about six foot tall, bespectacled, dressed in trainers, narrow blue cord trousers, a black leather jacket and a knitted watchman's cap. His language matches the macho clothes: for an Ivy League professor, he says 'fuck' a lot."
Crowds go ape over ‘humans’ zoo exhibit
LONDON - Caged and barely clothed, eight men and women monkeyed around for the crowds Friday in an exhibit labeled “Humans” at the London Zoo. “Warning: Humans in their Natural Environment” read the sign at the entrance to the exhibit, where the captives could be seen on a rock ledge in a bear enclosure, clad in bathing suits and pinned-on fig leaves. Some played with hula hoops, some waved. Visitors stopped to point and laugh, and several children could be heard asking, “Why are there people in there?”