September 30, 2005
Dawkins on the Opiate of the Masses
From Prospect Magazine:
Gerin oil (or Geriniol to give it its scientific name) is a powerful drug which acts directly on the central nervous system to produce a range of characteristic symptoms, often of an antisocial or self- damaging nature. If administered chronically in childhood, Gerin oil can permanently modify the brain to produce adult disorders, including dangerous delusions which have proved very hard to treat. The four doomed flights of 11th September were, in a very real sense, Gerin oil trips: all 19 of the hijackers were high on the drug at the time. Historically, Geriniol intoxication was responsible for atrocities such as the Salem witch hunts and the massacres of native South Americans by conquistadores. Gerin oil fuelled most of the wars of the European middle ages and, in more recent times, the carnage that attended the partitioning of the Indian subcontinent and, on a smaller scale, Ireland.
Smart Beer Mat
Julie Clothier at CNN:
The "smart" beer mat, created by Matthias Hahnen and Robert Doerr from Saarland University in Saarbruecken, southwest Germany, can sense when a glass is nearly empty, sending an alert to a central computer behind the bar so waiters know there are thirsty customers.
The students' supervising professor, Andreas Butz, told CNN the plastic beer mat had sensor chips, which measured the weight of the glass, embedded inside.
When the weight of the glass drops to a certain level, the sensor chips detect that it is close to empty and alerts the bartender via a radio signal.
A review of Levy's Female Chauvinst Pigs
Over at Nerve.com, Kara Jesella reviews Ariel Levy's book Female Chauvinist Pigs.
"Something is going on with this country when the only way to tell the hipster girls dry-humping one another on lastnightsparty.com from the sorority girls parading around in wet T-shirts at MTV's Spring Break is by counting their tattoos (hint: the first group has more). Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (Free Press), thirty-year-old Ariel Levy posits that as pornography has permeated American society, a new and pervasive genre of woman has arisen: the Female Chauvinist Pig.
Anxious to be perceived as hot, and reluctant to feel left out of what Levy calls 'the frat party of pop culture,' FCPs eagerly make sex objects out of other women and themselves, claiming that watching Drew Barrymore whirl around a pole in the Charlie's Angels sequel and posing for Playboy is 'empowering.' Levy thinks they're kidding themselves, mistaking sexual power for real power and, worse, believing that mimicking the sexuality of strippers, Playmates, and porn stars — women who are paid to simulate real women's sexuality — is power in the first place."
Lewontin on Evolution, Creationism, and Extensions of the Darwinian Framework
Richard Lewontin reviews two new books on the evolution debates in the New York Review of Books.
"The development of evolutionary biology has induced two opposite reactions, both of which threaten its legitimacy as a natural scientific explana-tion. One, based on religious convictions, rejects the science of evolution in a fit of hostility, attempting to destroy it by challenging its sufficiency as the mechanism that explains the history of life in general and of the material nature of human beings in particular. One demand of those who hold such views is that their competing theories be taught in the schools.
The other reaction, from academics in search of a universal theory of human society and history, embraces Darwinism in a fit of enthusiasm, threatening its status as a natural science by forcing its explanatory scheme to account not simply for the shape of brains but for the shape of ideas. The Evolution–Creation Struggle is concerned with the first challenge, Not By Genes Alone with the second."
jim jarmusch's ghostbusters
Sigourney Weaver cameo. She's possessed again. What can Bill Murray do about it? He chooses to do nothing. They part. Is that a hint of regret on his face? Could be. Or maybe he is thinking of something else. Is that the devil himself turning her eyes a lurid red? Or is it an allergy? Either interpretation is valid. Slow fade to black. Bill Murray in a ceremony at the governor's office. It seems as if he has saved the entire state from an attack of ghosts. The details are not clear. The governor makes a speech. Fade from the speech into reverb-drenched strains of Mahler as Bill Murray's reflection shivers in a black window, framed by falling snow. Bill Murray is not listening. He gazes out the window, musing over lost time. Or it could well be that he is thinking of a kind of cake he enjoys. One corner of his mouth curls upward. Or, just as likely, downward. The movement is so subtle, perhaps it did not happen at all. Snow. Slow fade to black.
more from McSweeney's here.
An Index of Failed States
From Foreign Policy and The Fund for Peace, a failed states index.
"How many states are at serious risk of state failure? The World Bank has identified about 30 'low-income countries under stress,' whereas Britain’s Department for International Development has named 46 'fragile' states of concern. A report commissioned by the CIA has put the number of failing states at about 20.
To present a more precise picture of the scope and implications of the problem, the Fund for Peace, an independent research organization, and FOREIGN POLICY have conducted a global ranking of weak and failing states. Using 12 social, economic, political, and military indicators, we ranked 60 states in order of their vulnerability to violent internal conflict. . . . The resulting index provides a profile of the new world disorder of the 21st century and demonstrates that the problem of weak and failing states is far more serious than generally thought. About 2 billion people live in insecure states, with varying degrees of vulnerability to widespread civil conflict."
Fodor on Blackburn's Truth
In the TLS, Jerry Fodor reviews Simon Blackburn's Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed.
"Reading Simon Blackburn’s new book
Truth: A guide for the perplexed prompted these dour reflections. Blackburn thinks there is currently a cultural crisis over the relativity (or otherwise) of truth and knowledge. He pitches it pretty strong. The conflict plays out, he says,
'not only between different people, but grumbles within the breast of each individual. [It] is about our conception of ourselves and our world, about the meaning of our sayings, and indeed the meaning of our activities, and of our lives . . . . the stakes in this war are enormous
. . . . Today dogmatisms feed and flourish on the desecrated corpse of reason. Astrology, prophecy, homoeopathy, Feng shui, conspiracy theories, flying saucers, voodoo, crystal balls, miracle-working angel visits, alien abductions, management nostrums and a thousand other cults dominate people’s minds, often with official backing. 'Faith education' is encouraged by the British Prime Minister, while Biblical fundamentalism, creationism and astrology alike stalk the White House.'
Blackburn offers as an antidote a balanced, informed, civil, literate and reasonably neutral account of the dispute between philosophical Relativism and philosophical Absolutism. His thought seems to be that our perplexities might be resolved if only we could get straight about the metaphysics and epistemology of truth. "
Ronald Dworkin on Judge Roberts
As this is written, there seems no doubt that the committee and then the Senate will confirm Judge Roberts's nomination, probably, in the latter case, by a large margin. He is a stunningly intelligent lawyer who may well prove to be an excellent chief justice. The country will have to wait and see. But Senator Biden was right when he said that in approving his nomination the Senate is "rolling dice." The Judiciary Committee allowed him to keep his jurisprudential convictions, if he has any, almost entirely hidden. The senators asked him to comment on very specific cases and issues, an invitation he steadily—though with at least one notable exception—refused. I believe he was wrong to refuse to answer these specific questions. His argument that it is unfair to litigants to reveal his present opinion of issues he might later confront is very weak. His honest statement of his present views would in no sense be a promise or commitment. He will have to consider arguments in specific cases before making a decision, and he will join a Court most of whose other members have publicly stated their opinions on many of the issues that will come before them without raising any question of fairness to future litigants, who must often argue knowing that certain justices are disposed to vote against them. His argument, moreover, wholly neglects a very powerful contrary consideration: that according to any plausible view of democracy the public has a right to know his views on matters affecting their fundamental rights in some detail before their representatives award him lifetime power over those rights.
more from The New York Review of Books here.
Sugimoto: history of history
The exhibit currently on view at the Japan Society in New York.
One of the most internationally-acclaimed Japanese artists living today, Hiroshi Sugimoto is best known for his photographic series of empty movie theaters and drive-ins, seascapes, dioramas and wax museums. This exhibition juxtaposes Sugimoto's exquisitely minimalist works, selected from the photographer's past and most recent series, with fossils, artworks and religious artifacts ranging from prehistoric to the 15th century, all drawn from his own collection. . . . The exhibition, Sugimoto writes, addresses "recorded history, unrecorded history, and still another history--that which is yet to be depicted… like parts waiting to be assembled in a do-it-yourself kit."
Viennese Actionist Otto Mühl hit a very sensitive nerve several decades ago, and he's still doing so today. In Hamburg this summer, you can see filmed documentation of the works that first put Mühl on the map: his truly radical "Matieralaktionen" (Material Actions) of the '60s. For the first time, all eighteen films of these carefully staged actions are on view, along with around two hundred drawings and photographs dating from the '60s to the present. In the films, naked bodies—smeared with flour, mud, excrement—are the focal point. Often, the borders between desire and violence, sensuality and childishness are blurred.
more from Artforum here.
Return of the time lord
From The Guardian:
Stephen Hawking can only communicate by a twitch in his right cheek, yet his attempt to explain the universe to ordinary people has made him the world's most famous living scientist. His 1988 book, A Brief History of Time, clung to the bestseller lists for 237 weeks. It sold one copy for every 750 people on earth - even if they didn't all read it - and earned him cameos in cult shows such as the Simpsons and Star Trek. In a rare interview he talks to Emma Brockes about disability, why women can't read maps and thinking in 11 dimensions.
I ask if he gives two hoots that there aren't many top women scientists, and if he has an idea as to why. "It is generally recognised that women are better than men at languages, personal relations and multi-tasking, but less good at map-reading and spatial awareness. It is therefore not unreasonable to suppose that women might be less good at mathematics and physics. It is not politically correct to say such things and the president of Harvard got in terrible trouble for doing so. But it cannot be denied that there are differences between men and women. Of course, these are differences between the averages only. There are wide variations about the mean."
It's been said, primarily by your ex-wife, that you have nothing but contempt for the arts, in particular medieval Spanish poetry [her PhD subject]. "Not entirely. An awful lot of the arts world is mediocre or sham. But there are a few great works that have a direct effect on people." These two questions have taken almost three-quarters of an hour to answer. I ask: "If you could go back in time, who would you rather meet, Marilyn Monroe or Isaac Newton?" and after 10 minutes he says in that voice that makes the blandest statement sound profound: "Marilyn. Newton seems to have been an unpleasant character."
That Famous Equation and You
DURING the summer of 1905, while fulfilling his duties in the patent office in Bern, Switzerland, Albert Einstein was fiddling with a tantalizing outcome of the special theory of relativity he'd published in June. His new insight, at once simple and startling, led him to wonder whether "the Lord might be laughing ... and leading me around by the nose." But by September, confident in the result, Einstein wrote a three-page supplement to the June paper, publishing perhaps the most profound afterthought in the history of science. A hundred years ago this month, the final equation of his short article gave the world E = mc².
Before 1905, the common view of energy and matter thus resembled a man carrying around his money in a box of solid gold. After the man spends his last dollar, he thinks he's broke. But then someone alerts him to his miscalculation; a substantial part of his wealth is not what's in the box, but the box itself. Similarly, until Einstein's insight, everyone was aware that matter, by virtue of its motion or position, could possess energy. What everyone missed is the enormous energetic wealth contained in mass itself.
September 29, 2005
photos and text by Tamara Lischka
From Lens Culture:
When I was a child I occasionally found mermaid’s purses - egg cases for sharks and skates which had washed up on the beach. I wanted to open the purses, to find out if the leathery sacks actually contained a baby shark or not, but spent long minutes filled with anxiety about what I would see if I did. Would the fish still be alive? Would it squirm or move? Having destroyed its haven, could I really just stand there and watch the fetus die? Eventually such thoughts eclipsed all curiosity, and so I always put the purse back down on the sand and left it undisturbed.
In the past my work has held its secrets close, literally enclosed in the sculptural spaces created by curled fingers and closing hands... But now the hands are beginning to open, long sequestered thoughts and feelings finally examined and revealed.
"Facts, schmacts. You can use facts to prove anything that's even vaguely true," Homer Simpson. So Congress tries fiction instead
Via Wonkette, science and policy drift further apart.
"Tomorrow, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, led by anti-environment champion James Inhofe (R-OK), will hold a hearing to “discuss the role of science in environmental policy making.
It’s an important topic, given the tendency in Washington to choose ideology over facts. Unfortunately, Inhofe’s witness list wasn’t available on the committee’s website, so we called today to find out who would be speaking.
We received the following list. As you’ll see, the featured witness isn’t a noted environmental scientist, or an expert in regulatory policy. It’s Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton.
And why would Inhofe invite a fiction author to testify on the role of science in environmental policy making?"
blackburn and truth
Truth is basically a recasting of the culture wars with the great philosophers enlisted as protagonists. Blackburn starts the book with a discussion of William James, later goes back as far as Locke and Bishop Berkeley and Kant, and has generously long sections on recent analytic philosophers, some of whom he admires, like Quine, and some he deplores, such as Sellars. Blackburn is himself a philosophy professor at Cambridge University, best-known in professional circles for a doctrine he pioneered called "quasi-realism." Blackburn the quasi-realist is widely recognized as a lucid, careful, and generous philosopher. His two heroes are Hume and Wittgenstein; keying off them, he has pointed to a middle way, whereby we might reject a strictly realist account of knowledge, but without lapsing into the flabbiness of relativism, or emotivism, or what philosophers sometimes call noncognitivism.
more from Slate here.
MIT Unveils Laptop for the Masses
From BBC News:
Nicholas Negroponte, chairman and founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Labs, has been outlining designs for a sub-$100 PC.
The laptop will be tough and foldable in different ways, with a hand crank for when there is no power supply.
Professor Negroponte came up with the idea for a cheap computer for all after visiting a Cambodian village.
His non-profit One Laptop Per Child group plans to have up to 15 million machines in production within a year.
A prototype of the machine should be ready in November at the World Summit on the Information Society
Children in Brazil, China, Egypt, Thailand, and South Africa will be among the first to get the under-$100 (£57) computer, said Professor Negroponte at the Emerging Technologies conference at MIT.
danto on perl
"New Art City" is, of course, New York City, the scene and in a variety of ways the subject of Jed Perl's engaging narrative of the history of New York art from, in his terms, its Golden Age in the 1940s to the end of its Silver Age in the '60s. The artists of both these ages are heroic figures in Perl's pantheon, and he writes about them with informed admiration and critical generosity. With one qualification, these attitudes, together with the historical schema of ages of decreasing luminosity, make this book a pendant to Perl's earlier Paris Without End—an equally engaging celebration of the capital of modern art after World War I, before it was replaced in this capacity by New Art City. Perl's qualification has to do with the crossover figure of Marcel Duchamp, about whose gifts and contributions he is ambivalent, though he is far from ambivalent about what he regards as the artist's baleful influence as a kind of serpent in the paradise that was New York before the emergence in the late '50s of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns and the Pop art explosion they helped detonate. The age of Pop has no Hesiodic counterpart for Perl: Metallurgy knows no metal base enough to emblematize the degradation of art that took place under its auspices in the '60s. The contempt and sarcasm he marshals in writing about it here match the tantrums of critical negativity he now and again exhibits as art critic for The New Republic.
more from Bookforum here.
Bissell on Packer's new Iraq book
Free of cant—but not, crucially, of anger—Mr. Packer has written an account of the Iraq War that will stand alongside such narrative histories as A Bright Shining Lie, Fire in the Lake and Hell in a Very Small Place. As a meditation on the limits of American power, it’s sobering. As a pocket history of Iraq and the United States’ tangled history, it’s indispensable. As an examination of the collision between arrogance and good intentions, it could scarcely be improved upon. It’s also a welcome answer to the compelling but ultimately empty stares through the rifle scope offered by such recent combat accounts as Evan Wright’s Generation Kill and John Crawford’s best-selling The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell. In short, The Assassins’ Gate is a book every American needs to read.
more from the NY Observer here.
How Many More Will Die in Iraq?
We are a nation at war—globally—against terrorism. But here at home, except for extra security at travel terminals, one could hardly guess it. There is no war footing to be seen. Washington has not mobilized Americans on the home front. President Bush has made it clear that he wants it that way. Yet the war is real. And the sacrifices are being borne solely by the roughly 160,000 men and women in uniform who are risking—and losing—their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. And by their grieving and worried families. National politicians, though they lavish the country's military population with warm rhetoric in public, privately do not regard them as a voting bloc to worry about.
RICHARD DAWKINS TOPS PROSPECT'S LIST OF BRITAIN'S TOP 100 PUBLIC INTELLECTUALS
Richard Dawkins has comfortably topped Prospect's poll of the top 100 public intellectuals in Britain. Over a thousand people voted for their top five public intellectuals from the list of 100 published in the July issue of Prospect.
It's interesting to note that the very first edition of Edge in December, 1996 featured a talk by Dawkins entitled "Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder". The site began in part as an extension of my 1991 essay on "The Emerging Third Culture" which stated that "The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are."
In Edge #1, as an introduction to the Dawkins piece, I wrote: "Richard Dawkins enjoys the high regard of his peers both for his writing and his thinking. Sir John Maddox, editor emeritus of Nature, notes that "Climbing Mount Improbable has the grandeur of Darwin's The Origin of Species, but that's not surprising—it covers the same ground. Nobody can look at this book and then put it down unread—and nobody who reads it can fail to understand what Darwin is all about." According to Danny Hillis, "notions like selfish genes, memes, and extended phenotype are powerful and exciting. They make me think differently. Unfortunately, I spend a lot of time arguing against people who have overinterpreted these ideas. They're too easily misunderstood as explaining more than they do. So you see, this Dawkins is a dangerous guy. Like Marx. Or Darwin."
Congratulations to Richard Dawkins!
Green Acres In Skyscrapers
From Wired News:
Tens of thousands of empty storage containers are stacked in towers along I-95 across from the harbor in Newark, New Jersey. They're heaped there in perpetuity, too cheap to be shipped back to Asia but too expensive to melt down.
Where many might see a pile of garbage, Lior Hessel sees, of all things, an organic farm. Those storage containers would be ideal housing for miniature farms, he believes, stacked one upon another like an agricultural skyscraper, all growing fresh organic produce for millions of wealthy consumers. And since the crops would be grown with artificial lighting, servers, sensors and robots, the cost of labor would consist of a single computer technician's salary.
Arctic Ice Cap Continues To Shrink
From The New York Times:
The floating cap of sea ice on the Arctic Ocean shrank this summer to what is probably its smallest size in a century, continuing a trend toward less summer ice that is hard to explain without attributing it in part to human-caused global warming, various experts on the region said today.
The findings are consistent with recent computer simulations showing that a buildup of smokestack and tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases could lead to a profoundly transformed Arctic later this century in which much of the once ice-locked ocean is routinely open water in summers.
It also appears that the change is becoming self sustaining, with the increased open water absorbing solar energy that would be reflected back into space by bright white ice, said Ted A. Scambos, a scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., which compiled the data along with NASA.
September 28, 2005
book reviews based on one random sentence
THE CITY OF GOD by St. Augustine (tr. Marcus Dods, D.D.)
“There is, then, nothing to hinder the gods from mingling in a bodily form with men, from seeing and being seen, from speaking and hearing.”
What happens when a humble grocery store clerk gets a special message… from the Man Upstairs himself?
This question is hilariously answered in St. Augustine’s rollicking City of God.
Augustine has dashed off the kind of page-turner that has the reader automatically casting the movie in his or her head. To play God, may this reviewer humbly suggest Whoopi Goldberg or Danny DeVito? Either performer would bring a rare humanity and sly wit to what otherwise might be a daunting role.
by William Faulkner
“‘And so it was the Aunt Rosa that came back to town inside the ambulance,’ Shreve said.”
There’s no getting rid of Aunt Rosa. She’s a feisty old gal with a quick tongue, and she can use today’s modern slang as easily as any teenager.
Aunt Rosa is, of course, the memorably wacky central character of William Faulkner’s delightfully dark comedy, Absalom, Absalom!
The whole family is waiting for Aunt Rosa to die so they can inherit her vast fortune, but the stubborn old battle-ax just won’t comply. Every time it looks like the end, Aunt Rosa pulls off another miraculous recovery.
How long will it be before the oddball cast of nieces and nephews decides to take matters into their own hands?
Fans of classic British comedy from the Ealing Studio will appreciate the decidedly morbid—and hilarious—twists and turns.
more from Jack Pendarvis at The Believer here.
The kid-friendly feeling of animation clings to Kota Ezawa's remakes of "serious" video works and documents. Take, for instance, his current installation: A simple arrangement of three projections placed side-by-side with audio bubbles for listening hung from the ceiling. The projection on the left remakes archival footage of a press conference during John Lennon and Yoko Ono's famous Amsterdam "Bed In" for peace in 1969. The center animation recreates Susan Sontag lecturing at Columbia in 2001. The third is a take on Joseph Beuys' 1974 talk at the New School in New York, where he discussed his ideas about art and invited audience members onstage to debate him. There's something comical about all this: the flat colors; the moving, animated eyes and mouths; the range of accents; the overlapping of voices, which suggests the chatter at an extra discourse-y cocktail party.
more from Artforum here.
Elusive giant squid photographed
From San Francisco Chronicle:
For decades, scientists and sea explorers have mounted costly expeditions to hunt down and photograph the giant squid, a legendary monster with eyes the size of dinner plates and a nightmarish tangle of tentacles lined with long rows of sucker pads. The goal has been to learn more about a bizarre creature of no little fame -- Jules Verne's attacked a submarine, and Peter Benchley's ate children -- that in real life has stubbornly refused to give up its secrets.
While giant squid have been snagged in fishing nets, and dead or dying ones have washed ashore, expeditions have repeatedly failed to photograph a live one in its natural habitat, the inky depths of the sea. But two Japanese scientists, Tsunemi Kubodera and Kyoichi Mori, report today in a leading British biological journal that they have made the world's first observations of a giant squid in the wild. (Picture from MSNBC).
People love Wi-Fi access to the Internet. More and more, they are using the wireless connection technology at Starbucks cafés, in airport lounges and at home. Wi-Fi seems irresistible because it makes the Net available to users anytime, anywhere. It provides fast communications links that allow e-mail messages to appear almost instantly and Web pages to paint computer screens quickly--all with the mobility and freedom that has made cell phones nearly ubiquitous.
Wi-Fi and other wireless communications technologies are growing--and changing--dramatically. More and more people in the U.S. and elsewhere are abandoning landline telephone service in favor of wireless cell phones, and municipal governments such as Philadelphia's are creating citywide Wi-Fi coverage areas. Meanwhile the use of third-generation (3G) cellular telephony is on the upswing, and a new wireless technology called WiMAX may soon have a strong presence in the market. Increasingly, we are living in a wireless world.
September 27, 2005
Remembering Maxine Rodinson
In openDemocracy, Fred Halliday remembers the great French Marxist historian of the Middle East, Maxine Rodinson.
"The greatest of all French writers on the middle east (and arguably the greatest tout court) is however less renowned today than he deserves to be. Maxime Rodinson (1915-2004) was certainly the formative influence on my own work.
Rodinson’s life-story fused scholarship and political commitment. He was born in Paris to a radical, Jewish, working-class family, and worked his way to the Sorbonne where he studied Semitic languages, ethnography and sociology, before teaching for seven years in a Muslim school in Lebanon. He returned to Paris to work in the Bibliotheque Nationale (in charge of oriental printed books) and later in the Sorbonne as professor of middle-eastern ethnology and old south Arabian languages.
Throughout, his political engagement was consistent and profound. He spent two decades (1937-58) in the French Communist Party (PCF), but remained devoted to independence of mind and accuracy in research, traits that flowered in the decades he spent as a Marxist writer after he broke with the party."
A review of Gray's Consciousness
In Science and Consciousness, a review of Jeffrey Gray's Consciousness: Creeping up on the Hard Problem.
"Gray’s book is well worth the read. His coverage of models that address the hard problem of consciousness is reasonably complete. Gray is highly skilled at thoroughly critiquing each model (always finding both strengths and weaknesses). He gives the same constructive criticism to each model, in exactly the same measure he gives his own. His style is entirely fair-minded and refreshing.
I, for one, agree with most aspects of Gray’s comparator model wherein consciousness serves in late error detection, especially the next time a stimulus is presented. One potential point missed by Gray (but perhaps alluded to) is that consciousness may, in some instances, provide a representation of the stimulus-response. As Gray astutely argues in matters of brain, everything is a representation."
A new biography of the Moor of Petersburg
Andrew Kahn looks at Hugh Barnes' new biography of Pushkin's great grandfather, Abram Petrovich Ganibal.
"The life of Abram Petrovich Ganibal (1697–
1781), the great-grandfather of Alexander Pushkin, reads like a parable of Enlightenment cosmopolitanism, a fable of reason and happenstance perfectly straight out of the pages of Voltaire’s Candide. Abducted as a child from his native homeland somewhere near Chad, he was sold into slavery in Constantinople. A shady Croatian operating as a Russian spy whisked him away from the intrigues of Sultan Ahmed III’s seraglio to the court of Peter the Great in the newly founded St Petersburg. Other blackamoors were named for their owner Tsar, taking both his Christian name (Petr) and patronymic (Petrovich). At some point the child baulked at being just another Petr Petrovich Petrov, gaining permission to retain his name Ibrahim (in the Russian variant, Abram)."
The 600th anniversary of the amazing voyages of Admiral Zheng He
"SIX hundred years ago, in 1405, the Chinese imperial fleet set out on its first voyage to explore and trade with the world. The logistics of the enterprise remain unparalleled in maritime history - 27,000 men aboard 317 ships. The most impressive vessels were the treasure ships, built of hardwood, 130 metres long and 50 metres wide; by the side of them, Columbus’s 28-metre long Santa Maria, in which he reached the Americas, would have looked like a dinghy, and he had only three ships and 270 men.
The ships had hulls with multiple watertight compartments for buoyancy, nine masts, and 12 gigantic sails made of bamboo slats rather than woven cloth; the slats could be angled like venetian blinds, which enabled the ships to sail in winds unusable by western craft. They carried trade and tribute goods and supplies; aboard was a massive complement of bureaucrats, merchants, interpreters, astrologers, priests, cooks, doctors, marines - soldiers trained to operate at or from sea."
What we believe (and don't believe) about health care
In Mother Jones, Rudy Teixeira tries to make sense of survey results of American opinions about health care.
"So, it appears that the public is very open to a government-supported system of universal coverage, but not sure about how (and how fast) to get there and what kind of system it really wants. This is a challenging environment for advocates of universal coverage. To be effective, they will need to resolve a number of unanswered questions about public responsiveness to a universal coverage message.
1. Does the public see a connection between universal coverage and containing health care costs? If so, what kind and how can that connection be strengthened? If not, what can be done to create that connection?
2. The public says it favors a government role in guaranteeing health insurance coverage for all. But how does the public envision that role? And what does the public really hear when terms like 'universal coverage' and 'guaranteed health insurance' are used? Do advocates know what kind of terminology would actually work the best when talking about these goals with the public?
3. If the public believes access health care is a 'right,' is that the best way to talk about the goal of universal coverage? If not, what is the best way to connect to Americans’ values in and around the health care issue?"
UN reform and the problem from hell
Samantha Powers in Le Monde Diplomatique (english edition), looks at the UN:
"Blaming the UN for the Rwandan genocide or for Iran’s nuclear weapons programme, as Richard Holbrooke, former US ambassador to the UN, says, 'is like blaming Madison Square Garden when the New York Knicks play badly'. The UN is a building. It is the behaviour and priorities of the states within it that need to be reformed. Take two notorious examples of the UN in crisis: peacekeeping and mismanagement. The most serious accusations against the UN have been that the massacres in Rwanda in 1994 and Srebrenica in 1995 happened in the presence of UN peacekeepers.
Annan, who then ran the department of peacekeeping operations in New York, was warned by Romeo Dallaire, his field general in Rwanda, of the imminent events. Annan, unforgivably, failed to pass the warning to the Security Council.
But who must bear the greatest responsibility for allowing the genocide? Annan, who predicted that the warning would cause member states either to do nothing or to flee Rwanda (a prediction borne out during the genocide, when western powers withdrew UN peacekeepers)? Or Bill Clinton who, fearing that US troops might get drawn in, demanded that the blue helmets be evacuated when the massacres were already happening? Or François Mitterrand, who had helped arm and train the murderers, and whose French soldiers parachuted in to rescue leading perpetrators during the last days of the killings?
Has anything changed? Western nations have heeded the lessons of the 1990s, but not by ensuring that peacekeeping is done well. Instead, they have avoided peacekeeping altogether."
Can German Conservatism survive?
Charles Hawley in Der Spiegel:
"According to Thursday's Süddeutsche Zeitung, the leader of the CDU's Bavarian sister party, Governor Edmund Stoiber has already begun blaming Merkel internally for 'her cold and heartless rhetoric' used in the campaign.
But publicly, everybody on the right side of Germany's political spectrum is acting as though the 35.2 percent result for the combined CDU and Bavarian Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) -- while perhaps a bit disappointing -- is really no big deal. On Tuesday, in fact, in the first meeting of the newly-elected CDU parliamentary group, Merkel was confirmed as the party's front woman with 98.64 percent of the votes cast.
But the ritual sacrifice is almost sure to come. After all, it's much easier to blame Merkel for the party's election debacle than it is to face the truth exposed on Sunday: The right side of the German political spectrum is in an unfocused freefall. And conservative Germany is a shambles."
Bollywood battles Mr. Bean in Afghanistan
Now, India's Bollywood and its raunchy song and dance numbers and wet saris compete with Mr Bean and women's wrestling in the Sadat music and film market, a chaotic cacophony of sound where it's always night inside and it's always packed.
"I like Mr Bean, he is very funny," says 12-year-old Mohammed Rahim, from behind the counter of his father's Ariana VCD Center.
"I watch him all the time."
Ariana is one of the dozen or so shops in the market. Rahim says he sells 50 VCDs of British comedian Rowan Atkinson's famously bumbling Mr Bean every week.
It takes an eccentric to read dictionaries for pleasure. I do not use the word insultingly; I am glad that there are such people out there, and I wish there were more. however, in the category of works that are admired more than they are read—the Faerie Queene and Remembrance of Things Past are typical members—a dictionary must be at the absolute top of the list. While Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, which celebrates its two hundred and fiftieth anniversary this year, is a greatly admired book, it is also surely one of the least read. Yet Macaulay called it “the first dictionary which could be read with pleasure,” and even a short look at it will reveal the truth of his assessment.
more from Bookforum here.
No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese's documentary about Bob Dylan's early years, is but the latest item in a flood tide of Dylanalia that, in trying to pay due homage to America's most important rock artist, constricts his four-decade career to its first six years. (The film is reviewed today in Slate by David Yaffe.) Though delightful to watch—it's artfully made and studded with revealing tidbits—the documentary wallows in baby boomer nostalgia, replete with loving shots of bustling Greenwich Village and period footage of JFK romping with Caroline and John-John. Even the film's literary companion—a book released simultaneously but sold separately—is not a new biography or oral history, but a precious "scrapbook" festooned with pullout and pop-up reproductions of lyric sheets, concert tickets, newspaper articles, and similar memorabilia. Ironically, all the hoopla ends up reducing Dylan to the avatar of the 1960s that the film makes clear he has never pretended to be.
more from Slate here.
Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge
From Science (via Boing Boing):
Science Magazine and the National Science Foundation are pleased to present the 2005 winners and honorable mentions in the third annual Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge. The links below will take you to the articles describing the achievements of these creative and gifted scientists -- as well as an online slide presentation showcasing the competition's winners and honorable mentions, and a profile of one of the winners on Science's Next Wave. All material is freely available to all visitors to Science Online.
schama: pulling no punches
Tough love is what Schama has to offer his adopted homeland of 20 years: a riposte to the blood and glory of David McCullough's 1776 and the vaingloriously named Freedom Tower that will rise to this symbolic number of feet on the site of the World Trade Centre. His constant use of the word 'patriot' to describe the American revolutionaries seems freighted with a contemporary distaste.
For the New York of 1776 that Schama describes is under temporary British control, a safe haven for tens of thousands of fleeing blacks who see a far better hope of salvation in Britain's King George than a nascent American republic. And who, having fought for the British in uniforms bearing the insignia 'Liberty to slaves', will risk death in the water attempting to reach their army's disappearing evacuation ships rather than return to the mercy of their former masters.
more from The Observer here.
Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians joining forces to save Dead Sea
Joshua Hammer in Smithsonian Magazine:
On a sweltering August afternoon, Israeli environmental activist Gidon Bromberg stops abruptly beside a gaping crater, more than 60 feet deep. "Better not walk any farther," he warns. "The ground could swallow us whole."
Up and down the Dead Sea, on the Jordanian and Israeli coasts, the shoreline is pockmarked by these sinkholes. The Dead Sea is shrinking, and as it recedes, the fresh water aquifers along the perimeter of the lake are receding with it. Salt deposits beneath the surface of the shoreline are collapsing without warning.
Bromberg directs Friends of the Earth Middle East, the most active of several environmental groups working to galvanize concern for the dying sea. With a staff of Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians, the environmentalists want to pressure the region's governments to reform what they call "shortsighted" water policies they say have been sucking dry the Dead Sea—and the rivers, particularly the Jordan, and streams that feed it—for decades.
Which of These Foods Will Stop Cancer?
The diet messages are everywhere: the National Cancer Institute has an "Eat 5 to 9 a Day for Better Health" program, the numbers referring to servings of fruits and vegetables, and the Prostate Cancer Foundation has a detailed anticancer diet. Yet despite the often adamant advice, scientists say they really do not know whether dietary changes will make a difference. And there lies a quandary for today's medicine. It is turning out to be much more difficult than anyone expected to discover if diet affects cancer risk. Hypotheses abound, but convincing evidence remains elusive.
So should people who are worried about cancer be told to follow these guidelines anyway, because they may work and will probably not hurt? Or should the people be told that the evidence just is not there, so they should not deceive themselves?
A Cool Early Earth?
In its infancy, beginning about 4.5 billion years ago, the earth glowed like a faint star. Incandescent yellow-orange oceans of magma roiled the surface following repeated collisions with immense boulders, some the size of small planets, orbiting the newly formed sun. Averaging 75 times the speed of sound, each impactor scorched the surface--shattering, melting and even vaporizing on contact. These fiery conditions had to subside before molten rock could harden into a crust, before continents could form, before the dense, steamy atmosphere could pool as liquid water, and before the earth's first primitive life could evolve and survive. But just how quickly did the surface of the earth cool after its luminous birth? Most scientists have assumed that the hellish environment lasted for as long as 500 million years, an era thus named the Hadean. Major support for this view comes from the apparent absence of any intact rocks older than four billion years--and from the first fossilized signs of life, which are much younger still.
In the past five years, however, geologists--including my group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison--have discovered dozens of ancient crystals of the mineral zircon with chemical compositions that are changing our thinking about the earth's beginnings.
The New Yorker Interviews John McPhee
My friend Tom Wentworth turned me on to John McPhee some years ago, and I've been a fan ever since. Here, Matt Dellinger of TNY interviews him:
You’ve written about truckers and riverboat-barge pilots and UPS workers, and now coal trains. Why these subjects?
JOHN MCPHEE: This is part of a series of articles about people who work in freight transportation. It will be incorporated in a book titled “Uncommon Carriers,” to be published next May by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. The phrase “people who work in” is here because these pieces aren’t tomes about the economics of freight—it’s about the people who work in freight transportation, that’s the point I want to emphasize.
Hurricanes and global warming - a link?
Richard Black at the BBC:
Take the president of the world's most powerful nation. Add two intense and damaging natural storms which bring destruction to that country; then mix in the widely held view that the same nation's environmental policies are partially responsible for those storms.
In the polarised world of climate change, this cocktail has proved an irresistible temptation to organisations which campaign against President Bush's administration in support of enhanced action to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
The latest to succumb was the British newspaper The Independent, which screamed on its front page: "This is global warming", above an alarmingly portentous graphic of Hurricane Rita's projected path.
But is it global warming?
Smashing Open the Universe
Lisa Randall in Prospect Magazine:
In a couple of years, we might be forced to radically revise our ideas about the underlying nature of matter and our conception of the universe. In 2007, the large hadron collider (LHC) will begin operating at Cern, near Geneva, boosting particles to energy levels that have never before been produced on Earth. Physicists will then combine results from the LHC experiments with insights from their theoretical investigations to explore phenomena whose effects are only detectable at small distances and high energies.
The theory known as the Standard Model of particle physics describes all known matter and the forces through which it interacts. Experiments have thoroughly tested the Standard Model, and its basic ingredients are almost certainly correct. But the Standard Model cannot be the final word: it leaves open important questions about the origin of elementary particle masses and puzzles such as the relative weakness of gravity. The LHC will help to resolve these mysteries, and scientists all over the globe are busily preparing experiments they hope will provide answers to these questions.
Carlos Fuentes on Cervantes, Kafka, and the saving grace of literature
From Sign and Sight:
Not long ago, the Norwegian Academy addressed one hundred writers from all over the world with a single question: Name the novel that you consider the best ever written.
Of the one hundred consulted, fifty answered: "Don Quixote de la Mancha" by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Quite a landslide, considering the runners up: Dostoevsky, Faulkner and Garcia Marquez, in that order. The results of this consultation pose the interesting question of the long-seller versus the best-seller. There is, of course, no answer that fits all cases: Why does a bestseller sell, why does a long-seller last?
Don Quixote was a big bestseller when it first appeared in 1605, and has continued to sell ever since, whereas William Faulkner was definitively a bad seller if you compare the meager sales of "Absalom, Absalom" (1936) to those of the really big-seller of the year, Hervey Allen's "Anthoy Adverse", a Napoleonic saga of love, war and trade.
Don Quijote: ESA targets asteroids to study deflection capabilities
Carl Sagan, from his book Billions and Billions:
Some mass extinctions of life in the past are now understood by immense mantle plumes gushing up through the surface and generating lava seas where solid land once stood. Others are due to the impact of a large comets or near-Earth asteroids igniting the skies and changing the climate. In the next century, at the very least we ought to be inventorying comets and asteroids to see if any of them has our name on it.
From ESA News:
Based on the recommendations of asteroid experts, ESA has selected two target asteroids for its Near-Earth Object deflecting mission, Don Quijote.
The current scenario envisages two spacecraft in separate interplanetary trajectories. One spacecraft (Hidalgo) will impact an asteroid, the other (Sancho) will arrive earlier at the target asteroid, rendezvous and orbit the asteroid for several months, observing it before and after the impact to detect any changes in its orbit...
While the eyes of the world were on the Asian tsunami last Christmas, one group of scientists were watching uneasily for another potential natural disaster – the threat of an asteroid impact.
On 19 December 2004 MN4, an asteroid of about 400 m, lost since its discovery six months earlier, was observed again and its orbit was computed. It immediately became clear that the chances that it could hit the Earth during a close encounter in 2029 were unusually high. As the days passed the probability did not decrease and the asteroid became notorious for surpassing all previous records in the Torino and Palermo impact risk scales - scales that measure the risk of an asteroid impact just as the Richter scale quantifies the size of an earthquake.
September 26, 2005
Atelier: Hurricanes, Race, and Risk
Ray Nagin, mayor of New Orleans, has, as of yesterday, officially invited the residents of Algiers to return to their homes. Algiers, a neighborhood of 57,000 people, is situated on the other side of the Mississippi River, away from the main part of New Orleans; consequently, it was largely untouched by the massive flooding from Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, and, unlike much of the rest of the city, it has clean water and electricity. The Ninth Ward, on the other hand, perhaps the hardest hit of all the New Orleans neighborhoods, was the site of a second round of crumbling levees and massive flooding, this time courtesy of Hurricane Rita. The differences between these two neighborhoods – one predominantly white and middle class, the other impoverished and overwhelmingly black – are, of course, largely over-determined. It seems, however, that of all the differences between Algiers and Ninth Ward, the most nettlesome one continues to be the fact of their racial difference, a difference, for sure, that New Orleans, especially given its racially contentious history, is keenly aware of. It is this racial distinction, and the host of inequities that this distinction serves to cover up, that has been so ruthlessly exposed and indicted by the arrival of Hurricane Katrina.
What is unusual about New Orleans is that, historically speaking, racial segregation in U.S. cities has generally followed a purely horizontally- oriented spatial logic. Detroit provides perhaps the best example of this movement: generous FHA housing subsidies encouraged whites to migrate to the outlying suburbs, while those residents who remained in the inner city, an overwhelming number of whom were black, were left to grapple with the difficulties of an inner city that was increasingly dilapidated, de-industrialized, and under-serviced. The topography of New Orleans is a spatial manifestation of these same generous and highly racist Federal Housing Administration loans; we see a similar urban sprawl effected by the movements of whites out of the center of the city. The history of New Orleans, when seen through its longue durée, adds a particular Cajun piquancy to the normal ways in which space is meted out in relation to race. Of all the amenities available to white New Orleans, its most easily forgotten has always been its relative safety from the contingent forces of nature. While New Orleans had its last colossal flood in 1927, the Ninth Ward has suffered several smaller ones: the Industrial Canal, which cuts through the Ninth Ward, and which failed during Katrina’s onslaught, has failed three times before, once during Hurricane Flossy in 1956 and again during Hurricane Hilda in 1964 and Hurricane Betsy in 1965.
Because of its peculiar geography, New Orleans has always been a disaster waiting to happen; consequently, real estate values in New Orleans reflect and anticipate this impending danger: how badly a given flood or hurricane affects you is determined primarily by where in New Orleans you live. The Ninth Ward is both the poorest and the lowest part of New Orleans. This confluence of qualities particular to the Ninth Ward make sense once we examine those gross inequities that Hurricane Katrina served to expose. In New Orleans, differing abilities to insure against the contingencies of the future are not only bifurcated along an axis of race, but are also physically materialized within the built environment. The spatial features of New Orleans only truly make sense, however, if we take into consideration the ways in which race serves to cover over these economic and spatial inequalities.
In the context of the United States, the construction of race has historically manifested as a black and white binary; such a forced construction needs perpetual maintenance, of course: the case of Plessy v. Ferguson (1892) – brilliantly analyzed in Saidiya V. Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection– is only the most dramatic instantiation of a wide variety of legal and social mechanisms employed to maintain the fiction of racial difference. This fiction – to be cynical for a moment – continues to provide a necessary service: blackness has always functioned in this country, albeit in historically varied ways, as an alibi for those economic inequalities that are an inherent feature of capitalism.
Blackness serves to simultaneously elide the cause and corporeally represent the effect of capitalism’s inherent inequality. By reifing the equivalence between blackness and say, poverty, there is a retroactive, normative ‘logic’ that comes to the fore which precludes blackness from being seen as a bodily attribute that has been constructed to always already represent a category of people positioned as poor and unequal. This reified equivalence insists upon a direct causal relation that equates blackness in its ontological essence with the existential fact of being poor and unequal. Blackness, to function as it does, requires an illogical confluence between the realm of appearances and the realm of "essences". To the extent that supposed cultural or economic inequalities come to be represented and representable to society by the appearance of black skin, the structural inequalities of our economic system are, to a certain extent, made to disappear.
As the flood waters recede, so too will the media coverage; perhaps it would do us all well to continue attending to a disaster whose aftermath has exposed more acutely and more incisively than perhaps any other event of the last decade the insidious function of race within the United States. Forced into the national spotlight by a gross and perhaps even criminally negligent mishandling of those worst-off residents of New Orleans, the vast majority of them both poor and black, race (accompanied as always by its steadfast companion, racism) has finally come clean: the sorry truth is that racial distinctions (and the inevitable hierarchy and exploitation that attends such distinctions) are as American as apple pie; race was violently stitched into our nation’s very fabric, right from its beginning. It is high time we looked carefully, without flinching, at that warped and misshapen pattern that our nation has woven.
Planks from the Lumberyard
Spider Holes & Spider Goats: Tuning in the (White) Noises from the Margins
As if anyone needed further reason to become even more paranoid (or is it “perceptive”?), a marine involved in the capture of Saddam Hussein tells us that the “spider-hole” scenario was a carefully contrived spectacle directed by a “military production” unit; apparently Hussein was actually found in a “modest home in a small village” the day before. And, although by now it’s been long forgotten, the same seems to be true of the classic image of our troops assisting Iraqis with the toppling of the Saddam statue in Firdos square, which was almost certainly a thoroughly staged spectacle meant to shift public opinion (which, by and large, it did). These stories made only the tiniest disturbances in the mainstream media’s coverage, and were quickly lost in the endless maelstrom of disastrous news pouring in from both home and abroad.
Despite the surfeit of available information and the variety of news sources, it’s hard to know who or what to believe these days: when we are made to rely on questionable evidence to understand events we have not witnessed, the whole epistemological structure crumbles. Connections are indeed everywhere, but it takes a certain degree of sense and maybe even taste to follow them; it seems doubtful, for instance, that the resemblance of the satellite image of Hurricane Katrina to an unborn fetus bears any theodical significance.
The curious paranoid, however, will find his strangest and worst fears confirmed (and plenty of fuel to feed his fire) in reading some choice bits from the FBI files on “unusual phenomena,” now readily available on the FBI’s website thanks to the freedom of information act. There you will find extraordinary accounts of the FBI’s investigation into the rampant cattle mutilations in the midwest in the 70s and 80s; or the remarkable story/hoax of the “Majestic 12” , a secret ensemble of the country’s top scientific minds gathered to collaborate on decoding top secred alien codes found at Roswell. It’s unsettling to read through these files and consider how many man hours and tax dollars must have been spent investigating each of these cases which, to the contemporary field officer, must have seemed even more strange. And as any viewer of the X-Files could tell you, what better way to expose an event as a hoax than to offer the files freely to the public. If you are wondering, by the way, the source of the ongoing cattle mutilations has never yet been determined.
Skeptical? Let’s turn for a moment to “nature.” Have you heard about the spider-goats of Plattsburgh, New York? These two genetically-modified goats are surrounded by razor wire and guarded by armed security for the spider silk they produce in place of their goat milk, which is 3 times stronger than kevlar and intended for use in weaving bulletproof clothing, medical sutures, or superstrong ligaments. Perhaps you’ve heard of the parasitic hairworm, the zombifying parasite that rewires the grasshopper’s brain, inducing it to take a suicidal leap into open water? Or the wasp that injects its larvae into the orb-weaver spider, where it grows until the day before killing its host, it rewires its brain so that the spider weaves a web custom-made for the larvae to pupate in? And I’m sure things get far weirder still.
Although these strange noises issuing from the margins are rarely picked up by the major media, they resonate on more than just the paranoid registers. At the very least, they make for interesting reading; at best they provide non-normative perspectives and logics through which to receive and evaluate the larger flows of information. Allowing for the possibility that things are darker and more strange than they appear need not necessarily be considered the the first step down the fun-house hall of paranoia. Between spider holes and spider goats lies a great swath of unprocessed and poorly understood phenomena, things that only the figures on the margins seem to take seriously, be they (mad?) scientists or independent media hounds. And who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, the noise generated by the alt. zines and indy media of the world, speaks to you?
Critical Digressions: The Three-Step Program for Historical Inquiry
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,
When we read, especially fiction, we are all aware that that power and perspective have an inverse correlation. First-person narration – “I” – although intimate, is generally said to be “unreliable” (as your grade school English teacher must have informed you when lecturing on Huckleberry Finn or My Antonia or The Catcher in the Rye) while third-person narration is thought to render reality (as you learned in your class on Russian Realism in college). Compare the following: “On Monday morning, I slid out of bed, dull, dead, and only after a cigarette, and after having surveyed 3Quarksdaily, I felt alive, connected in some way to the world around me”; “He woke on Monday morning, wearily slid out of bed, smoked a cigarette, and sat before his laptop, surveying the posts on 3Quarksdaily.” The former employs idioms suggesting subjectivity – dull, dead, alive – with the latter catalogues facts. In a way, reality is measured by the distance between narrator and subject: when narration pulls away, it exerts more control over the subject and the “world” of a novel or story. (Of course, there are exceptions: Lolita and Midnight’s Children come immediately to mind.) But this is just a matter of perception. Both are constructions, fictions (although the wild popularity of 3Quarksdaily is an undisputable fact).
Historically, the third-person has had a monopoly on reality. History, in fact, has been written in the third-person. But we know that history is also a construction, and has often been a fiction. (Napoleon apparently said, “What is history, but a fable agreed upon...”) We are all aware that in the US, creationists are presently lobbying for the reintroduction of Biblical myths in history textbooks. Indeed for many literal interpreters of religious texts – Christian, Muslim, Jew or Hindu – Darwin’s monkey business is tantamount to blasphemy. Many elementary-school textbooks in madrassas across the Muslim world preach obscurantist Islamism. Interestingly, Pervez Hoodbhoy, the Pakistani physicist and activist, notes that in 80’s Afghan “children’s textbooks designed by the University of Nebraska under a $50million USAID” posed the following types of questions: “One group of maujahidin attack 50 Russian soldiers. In that attack 20 Russians are killed. How many Russians fled?” In India, during the recent tenure of the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – textbooks were rewritten to include the fictional “Indus-Saraswati civilization” and exclude “many awkward facts, like the assassination of…Gandhi by a Hindu Nationalist in 1948.” But these are obvious instances of history as fiction. We have to be cognizant of subtler fictions.
In his book, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, Mahmood Mamdani, director of the Institute of African Studies at Columbia, writes:
“When [a 16th] century Italian missionary…brought a European map of the world-showing the discoveries of America-to China, he was surprised to find that the Chinese were offended by it. The map put Europe in the center of the world and split the Pacific, which meant that China appeared on the right-hand edge of the map. But the Chinese had always thought of China as literally the ‘Middle Kingdom,’ which obviously should have been in the center of the map. To please his hosts, [he] produced another map, one that split the Atlantic, making China more central. In China, maps are still drawn that way, but Europe clung to the first type of map. The most commonly used map used in North America shows the [US] at the center, sometimes splitting the Asian continent in two.”
Manifestly, even east and west are entirely subjective locations. And of course, “East” and “West,” are constructions, perhaps even fictions. On the first page of Orientalism, the book (and idea) that shook the grand edifice of history and historicism to it’s core, Edward Said, writes, “The Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunted memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences.” He continues:
“Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between the ‘the Orient’ and…‘the Occident.’ Thus a very large mass of writers…poets, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economist, and imperial administrators, have accepted the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, ‘mind’, destiny, and so on.”
You, in the know, may be cognizant of Orientalism’s implications theoretically, but may be unable to apply it to our understanding of other histories or, for that matter, to popular discourse. It takes considerable effort. Earlier in the summer, you may remember, after watching the Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven,” we became interested the series of events that have come to be known as the Crusades, the classic, epic (indeed the first) confrontation between the East and the West. How do you go about approaching the Crusades, events so infused with competing agendas and colored by contemporary events? This is how: you read three different versions – Runciman’s comprehensive, old school, Orientalist trilogy; P.M. Holt’s spare catalogue of events and personalities; and Amin Malouf’s engaging, novel, novel-like The Crusades Through Arab Eyes.
You may justifiably ask: why go through the trouble? Because history, ladies and gentlemen, informs notions about ourselves – who we are as much as what has been. For instance, we denizens of the Subcontinent, have been weaned on the Two-Nation Theory, a theory stipulating that Muslims and Hindus have historically been two separate nations. This theory, in various incarnations, has informed the way we have thought about ourselves since about 1857. In the last two decades, however, this theory has been debunked by the likes of Ayesha Jalal, the MacArthur-winning historian at Tufts; Willam Dalrymple, who in White Mughals depicts the syncretistic culture of the Subcontinent; and by H.M. Seervai, the Indian constitutional expert who in Legend and Reality ascribes Partition not to Jinnah but to Nehru and Mountbatten, the last British viceroy.
The implications of these academic inquires permeate popular discourse: when L.K. Advani, the hardline leader of the BJP (a party that instigated pogroms killing close to ten thousand people in Bombay and Gujrat) was recently invited to Pakistan, he proclaimed in an inspired moment that M.A. Jinnah, the “founder of Pakistan,” was not only a “great man” but a secular one. Although the BJP has since dismissed Advani because of his remarks, debate on Jinnah’s worldview has been reignited in the Pakistani and Indian presses. The idea of Jinnah (or the paradigmatic personae of Akbar and Aurengzeb for that matter), who has been a construct of British historiography and of Indian and Pakistani nationalisms (and, not to mention, of Attenborough’s film, “Gandhi”), is changing. Moreover, our conception of ourselves, of our history, is also changing.
We all have our own, parochial agendas. We need to make them explicit: this is who we are and this is why we read and write. The pretense and conceit of the third-person needs to be reviewed. And we have to ask: why do we ask the questions we ask?
In the effort to make revise history, we propose a three-step-program for historical inquiry. (1) Labeling system for academia: Like the FDA, which regulates labels on everything from cereal boxes to psychopharmaceuticals, a global agency, the HHA – the Human History Agency – should be orgainzed to checks for idiom, tone and trajectory of history textbooks as well as the author’s background. (For example, WARNING: AUTHOR WORE WIGS AND WAS A KNOWN ANTI-SEMITE. THIS READING OF HISTORY IN STRONG DOSES WILL DISTORT YOUR UNDERSTANDING OF THE WORLD. SIDE EFFECTS INCLUDE HEADACHE, CONSTIPATION.) The agency would also review history sociologically and anthropologically, addressing questions that may include: why did Dante shove Mohammed in Hell when he borrowed Arabi’s eschatological infrastructure? Or, why is Socrates deified in epistemology when Khaldun, the father of economics, sociology and anthropology, is relegated to the periphery? Or, why is Said being revised? And, why the obscrantist legacy of men with pubic beards - from the Kharijites, Naqshbandiya, Ibn Tamiyah to the Salifis, Whahabis, Bannah, Qutb and Mawdoodi, exerts so much influence on modern Muslim political thought? In a strage way, Wikepedia, the online encyclopedia, plays a role similar to that of the proposed HHA. (2) Due diligence for readers: As we have mentioned, this requires reading at least two different books with competing agendas (for example, Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States should complement any readings in US history and McCullough’s 1776). (3) Travel: By traveling, we get perspective, an outsider’s perspective, a sort of third-person perspective – like the bird-eye view from the airplane – as well as an on-the-ground, insider’s perspective. Note, than when fused, the third-person and first-person is the second-person: you, we.
monday musing: 7 train
It's a rather long story as to why, but Stefany, my wife my love, and I have just spent roughly twelve hours riding back and forth on the 7 train in Queens, New York. For those who don't know, the 7 train runs from Times Square in Manhattan out to Main Street in Flushing, Queens. It's a trip from one world into another. No, it's a trip through several worlds and a number of levels of experience on top of that.
A few years ago John Rocker, a pitcher for the Atlanta Braves, hurled some attention the 7 train's way with notable comments to Sports Illustrated. He said of New York, "It's the most hectic, nerve-racking city. Imagine having to take the [Number] 7 train to the ballpark, looking like you're [riding through] Beirut next to some kid with purple hair next to some queer with AIDS right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It's depressing."
Of course, it's easy to make fun of a silly hick like John Rocker. It's rather more difficult to explain just how wonderful and sublime it is to meander across the Queens landscape on an early Fall afternoon dipping down into the street life of particular neighborhoods and then ascending again to the platforms of the friendly old train. It straddles whole blocks. It dominates an entire chunk of Queens Blvd., and then Jackson and before that it weaves through the massive warehouses of Long Island City like an ancient snake that has its own well-worn paths.
The 7 train is great in a million ways but it really shows off after Hunter's Point when it gets to burst out of the tunnel and go above ground. It's a cocky train. That probably comes from sitting around at Times Square and 5th Ave. and Grand Central. The 7 train knows the bright lights and the glamour. But that's not where it stays or where it spends its time. The 7 train heads out to Queens and it has its heart there.
Not able to get its head straight after the blast across the East River the 7 train bounces around the lost blocks of LIC like its trying to find someone it knows or shake someone it doesn't. The developers in LIC spent so long concentrating on the neighborhood as naught but a residential appendage of Manhattan that that is what it feels like. It's a vampire living for someone else.
But the rest of Queens was made for people to live in and they do. When the 7 train settles down on Queens Blvd. and then works its way into Woodside and Jackson Heights you can feel its gentle chugging on the old wooden tracks and you can hear a kind of metallic, mechanical confidence. If you have an ear for such things.
The train is filled with everybody, by the way. There is no greater definition of everybody than the 7 train. There is no more powerful statement of 'everybody' than scanning your eye across a stretch of 7 train at anytime, any day, whenever you like it and some struggling fuck-up from Mexico or Bangladesh or Korea or Uzbekistan or Ecuador or Kenya or Romania has a kid on his lap and is stroking the kids hair and saying in whatever mumbly-talk incomprehensible language "go to sleep my sweet child go to sleep my lovely child I'm doing everything for us that I possibly can."
If you ride the 7 train enough like I do you see that kind of shit all the time. You might think you get blasé about it but you don’t. It makes some part of your chest cavity swell up dumb and sputtering and overdrawn. That might be one response to John Rocker types if it could be expressed more clearly.
You've got tons of Indians and other flavors of South Asian around the 60's and 70's and then it's dominated by Latinos in the blocks after that. It's not the same New York as other places here and that doesn't mean it's either better or worse. What is remarkable is the sense of transference that occurs. Manhattan is an international place but it brings all the world into its orbit. Queens reverses that.
I'm sure that walking around certain blocks in Corona Park more closely approximates walking down a specific street in some little po-dunk town in the countryside of Columbia or Peru than anything else in the world. It's like the fucking Incan empire had a second wind on a few of those streets.
And then boom, you're in the frickin far East. Korea, China, Korea, China, a touch of the Philippines and throw in whatever else. Main Street is just simply Asia, which kind of delights the mind to consider for a moment.
Anyway, I hope this is how all things get. I hope all cities get smooshed up and tossed around like Queens did. I hope the 7 train isn't something just accidental that happened and will go away, will get lost somehow or forgotten. When the sun is sliding away to the West and you’re standing on one of the sparse platforms of the 7 train you see Queens like a weird urban plain at the foot of the Manhattan skyline. It's sweet and quiet but for the slow rumble of the subway cars doing their rounds day and night. This is a new kind of nature that I love and I'll speak for as best I can. It's as good as anything.