January 31, 2006
Why Frey's memoir lies matter
"Fabricating events in a memoir can have serious consequences for readers as well as for the author."
Niki Shisler in The Guardian:
Does it really matter whether a memoir is embellished? Frey's "recovery" from drug and alcohol addiction is, according to him, "the primary focus of the book". I have been in recovery for over a decade, so I know that it's life-and-death stuff. One of Frey's key themes is that he "recovered" by force of will alone. No AA, no 12 steps, no support group; just him and his demons. The message is that if he can drag himself out of the pit of hell, then anyone can. Except he didn't.
Just think how dangerous that is. Addicts and alcoholics are desperate vulnerable people; if you're going to offer them a way out, you'd better be certain it works. But how can you be, if you haven't walked the path? The reader reviews for Frey's book on Amazon contain this nugget: "I've been to four funerals in the last 12 months. One of them was a guy who dropped out of AA/NA after reading Frey's crap - before it had been exposed as a fraud. He decided to follow Frey's advice ... He lasted about three months before he got high again. He was dead two months after that."
Frey claims his memoir has "emotional truth". But "emotional truth" is meaningless when it's woven around events that bear no relation to reality - unless you're writing fiction. This memoir was touted around publishers as a novel for a long time, unable to get a publishing deal. That should tell us everything.The book only works because we believe he really lived it. As fiction, it simply wasn't good enough.
Chemical stories can make you blind
Helene Guldberg in Spiked Online:
Making Sense of Chemical Stories is a welcome corrective to the abundance of misinformation about chemicals. Chemicals are often presented as substances that are harmful to our health and the environment and should be avoided. But the idea of a chemical-free existence is absurd: the world is full of chemicals, both natural and manufactured, and we could not exist without them. Today, it is especially the 'man-made', 'synthetic' or 'industrial' chemicals that we are encouraged to avoid. 'But how do we explain the fact that we are living longer and healthier lives?' asked Andrew Cockburn, director of Toxico-Logical Consulting Ltd, at the launch of the Sense about Science report. In the UK in 1840 the average life expectancy was only 40 years of age; today it is nearer to 80. 'That makes us the healthiest hypochondriacs that ever existed', said Cockburn.
Influential writer/thinker an anti-Semitic, pro-Hitler creep?
Carlin Romano in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
Where have we seen this story before? An influential European writer and thinker, celebrated in his mature years for works of sophisticated philosophical nuance, turns out to have been an anti-Semitic, pro-Hitler creep in his 20s.
The standard query immediately presents itself: Will the nefarious politics destroy the reputation?
Marta Petreu's An Infamous Past: E.M. Cioran and the Rise of Fascism in Romania (Ivan R. Dee, 2005), inevitably hurtles humanists of a certain age back to other names and scandals — de Man, Heidegger, Eliade — with its exposé of the expatriate Romanian anointed by Susan Sontag in her 1968 introduction to The Temptation to Exist as "the most distinguished figure" then writing in the lyrical, aphoristic, antisystematic tradition of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein.
Cioran, a lapidary ironist born in Romania, fled to Paris on a scholarship in 1937 (Petreu reports that Cioran faced possible prosecution for a newspaper piece urging a "St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre" of older Romanian intellectuals). After a brief repatriation to Romania in 1940 following the fall of Paris, he returned to his beloved Left Bank in early 1941 and lived there until his death.
Ancient Athenian Plague Proves to Be Typhoid
David Biello in Scientific American:
More than 2,000 years ago, a plague gripped the Greek city of Athens. Ultimately, as much as a third of the population succumbed and the devastation, which helped Sparta gain the upper hand in the nearly 30-year-long war between the city-states. That much Thucydides--an ancient historian, general in the war and plague victim who recovered--conveys in his History of the Peloponnesian War. But he did not leave a precise enough description to decide definitively whether the disease was bubonic plague, smallpox or a host of other ailments. Now DNA collected from teeth in an ancient burial pit points to typhoid fever.
The paradox at the heart of any cultural institution
Jed Perl in The New Republic:
There is a paradox at the heart of any cultural institution. It is that the men and women who dedicate themselves to these essential enterprises exert a fiscal and administrative discipline that has nothing whatsoever to do with the discipline of art, which is a disciplined abandon. I imagine that for anybody who founds or sustains or rescues or re-invents a museum, an orchestra, or a dance company, this tension between the institution and the art comes to feel like a natural paradox. There is always a balancing act involved, which helps to explain why the very greatest institution-builders (Lincoln Kirstein comes to mind) invariably have something of the artist's temperament. And when we consider how rare such people are, we realize that there is nothing surprising about the fragility, the mediocrity, and the downright banality of so many cultural enterprises. If making art is hard, making an arts institution work may be harder still.
I believe it is important to recall the daunting nature of these challenges as we consider the deeply troubling state of the Museum of Modern Art a year after its re-opening.
Hamas's Point of View
Khalid Mish'al in The Guardian:
It is widely recognised that the Palestinians are among the most politicised and educated peoples in the world. When they went to the polls last Wednesday they were well aware of what was on offer and those who voted for Hamas knew what it stood for. They chose Hamas because of its pledge never to give up the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people and its promise to embark on a programme of reform. There were voices warning them, locally and internationally, not to vote for an organisation branded by the US and EU as terrorist because such a democratically exercised right would cost them the financial aid provided by foreign donors.
The day Hamas won the Palestinian democratic elections the world's leading democracies failed the test of democracy. Rather than recognise the legitimacy of Hamas as a freely elected representative of the Palestinian people, seize the opportunity created by the result to support the development of good governance in Palestine and search for a means of ending the bloodshed, the US and EU threatened the Palestinian people with collective punishment for exercising their right to choose their parliamentary representatives.
More here. [Thanks to Mark Blyth.]
Seydou Keita: From tin of negatives, mural-sized conflicts
Michael Pips in the New York Times:
Even by the elevated standard of the New York art world, the rumor was exceptional: a tin of negatives buried in Africa for three decades that, when opened, revealed the work of a photographer who was neither "outsider" nor "indigenous" but spectacularly modern. And so the bejeweled and bohemian showed up at the Gagosian Gallery the evening of Oct. 18, 1997, wearing Fulani bracelets beneath their Charvet cuffs, blouses referencing Matisse referencing North African fabrics, Xhosa men in dinner jackets.
As accustomed as they were to art-world rumors, as familiar as they had become with exaggerations in the photo market, they could not help but be impressed. They saw mural-size black-and-white portraits in which the intricate designs of tribal costumes were set against backdrops of arabesque and floral cloths, the subjects disappearing into dense patterning that suggested Vuillard. A number of the photographs sold immediately, at prices of up to $16,000, and by the end of the evening, many in the crowd stood childlike in front of their limousines, waiting to catch sight of the photographer whose images they would never forget...
It is a story that includes screaming fights, a lawsuit and charges of theft, forgery and perjury. It survives the photographer himself, who died in 2001. And it touches on the broadest channels of human history, from colonialism to capitalism to revolution to race. But it also involves a conflict of the most rarefied sort - a philosophical disagreement over the nature of photography and the concept of authenticity.
coetzee on translation
BOOKS of mine have been translated from the English in which they are written into some 25 other languages, the majority of them European. Of the 25 I can read two or three moderately well. Of many of the rest I know not a word; I have to trust my translators to render fairly what I have written.
Whether that trust is well placed I find out only rarely, when a bilingual reader who has compared translation with original happens to report back to me.
Some such reports come as a jolt. In Russia, I discover, The Master of Petersburg has been renamed Autumn in Petersburg; in the Italian version of Dusklands, a man opens a wooden crate with the help of a bird (what I wrote was that he used a crow, that is, a crowbar).
more from The Weekend Australian here.
Study Strengthens Link between Virus and Weight Gain
New study results bolster the controversial hypothesis that certain cases of obesity are contagious. Over the last 20 years, some research has suggested that certain strains of human and avian adenoviruses--responsible for ailments ranging from the chest colds to pink eye--actually make individuals build up more fat cells. Having antibodies to one strain in particular, so-called Ad-36, proved to correlate with the heaviest obese people, and in one study, pairs of twins differed in heft depending on exposure to that virus. Now researchers have identified another strain of adenovirus that makes chickens plump.
Physiologist Leah Whigham of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her colleagues inoculated young male chickens with three strains of adenovirus--Ad-2, Ad-31 and Ad-37. She and her team then monitored the chickens for three and a half weeks, recording their food intake throughout. Though the infected chickens and noninfected controls consumed the same amount of food and were exposed to the same conditions, chickens carrying Ad-37 were found to have nearly three times as much fat in their guts and more than two times as much fat over their entire body at the end of the three-and-a-half week period. The other two virus strains appeared to have little effect on weight.
Whether or not hand-washing will help with weight management remains to be determined.
A Genius Finds Inspiration in the Music of Another
Einstein once said that while Beethoven created his music, Mozart's "was so pure that it seemed to have been ever-present in the universe, waiting to be discovered by the master." Einstein believed much the same of physics, that beyond observations and theory lay the music of the spheres — which, he wrote, revealed a "pre-established harmony" exhibiting stunning symmetries. The laws of nature, such as those of relativity theory, were waiting to be plucked out of the cosmos by someone with a sympathetic ear.
Thus it was less laborious calculation, but "pure thought" to which Einstein attributed his theories. Einstein was fascinated by Mozart and sensed an affinity between their creative processes, as well as their histories. As a boy Einstein did poorly in school. Music was an outlet for his emotions. At 5, he began violin lessons but soon found the drills so trying that he threw a chair at his teacher, who ran out of the house in tears. At 13, he discovered Mozart's sonatas.
From 1902 to 1909, Einstein was working six days a week at a Swiss patent office and doing physics research — his "mischief" — in his spare time. But he was also nourished by music, particularly Mozart. It was at the core of his creative life. And just as Mozart's antics shocked his contemporaries, Einstein pursued a notably Bohemian life in his youth. His studied indifference to dress and mane of dark hair, along with his love of music and philosophy, made him seem more poet than scientist.
January 30, 2006
Temporary Columns: Writing About Rape
I recently read a memoir about rape in Russian-occupied Germany: A Woman in Berlin. In the book, an anonymous young woman recounts her experiences during the first few weeks of Russian occupation. The memoir was written in real time. It reflects the urgency and immediacy of the moment. The recounting was stark, unsentimental and lacked self-pity. The young woman struggled with rape on a daily basis. She was raped by Russian soldiers and by officers, both, young and old. She traded sex with familiar rapists for food, shelter and protection from unfamiliar ones.
Although she used the word rape to describe her experiences, she, never used the term rapist to describe any of the men. She saw the men who raped her as more than just Russian soldiers with weapons forcing themselves on her and other women. The soldiers were young peasant boys from Tartarstan, or older toughened sergeants from the Urals, or middle class Muscovites, or the handsome Pole from Lvov. Understanding Russian, and having traveled in Russia, and read Pushkin and Tolstoy, she did not have the luxury of her neighbours, who could easily lump all Russians together and dismiss them as barbaric and crude men from the uncivilised East. She could recognize, and even almost come to like the Russian occupiers as individuals.
She describes this parting scene of a major who had spent many nights in her bed (more sick and lonely, than violent and overpowering):
The major looks at me a long time as if to photograph me with his eyes. Then he kisses me in the Russian style on both cheeks and marches out, limping without looking back. I feel a little sad, a little empty. I think about his leather gloves, which I saw for the first time today. He was holding them elegantly in his left hand. They dropped on the floor once and he hurried to pick them up, but I could see they didn’t match – one had seams on the back while the other didn’t. The major was embarrassed and looked away. In that second I liked him very much.
She could not dismiss or deplore Russians as a group, leave alone as a uniquely bad one. She made an effort to understand, even empathise with them, and their situation. She was tolerant, albeit dismissively, of men in general, and contemptuously so of German ones in particular. Her description of how the women of Berlin viewed rape in the context of a destructive war was laced with black humour. Referring to US firebombing versus Russian rape she quotes Berlin women as saying – “better a Russki on top than a Yank overhead”.
Her writing reminded me of Primo Levi -- also a “victim” of World War II Germany. While his experiences were very different from A Woman in Berlin, they shared a similar sensibility. They were willing to accept their shared humanity with their tormentors, even as they opposed and resisted them. Primo Levi’s experience in Auschwitz and that of the woman in Berlin cannot be easily compared. Levi faced the systematic oppression of a Nazi state machine bent on humiliating and killing Jews. The woman in Berlin by contrast, was oppressed in the context of the chaos of the initial days of a military occupation – that even she seemed to welcome. Rape was incidental to the military occupation, not intended by it. Her tormentors were uncomfortable with what they were doing, even as they did it. The Nazis who invented and ran the extermination camps viewed Jews as questionably human and therefore deserving exclusion from the human race and extermination. “Even if the Nazis did not always believe in race theory wholeheartedly, they still denied the shared humanity of humankind.”. The Russian occupiers of Berlin did not have a racial ideology that treated Germans as subhuman or deserving of humiliation as a race.
The experience of A Woman in Berlin is also distinct from the reports of mass rape of Tutsi women in Rwanda or Muslim women in Bosnia. Here rape was a weapon of war, not incidental to it. There is no record in the Soviet archives of rape being a policy of the Red Army. The memoir illustrates how a transaction that seems so completely dominated by brute force – men with guns forcing themselves on helpless women – can also involve negotiations between victim and perpetrator. Still, these rapes would be considered war crimes, even though there was no explicit order from Moscow to rape German women, and some women seemed to consent to some sexual activity, albeit under pressure. Each individual act would be a war crime because of the context in which it occurred – under military occupation - making consent itself, irrelevant to the crime. The conditions under which the choice took place already constrained it.
The experiences of Primo Levi and the woman in Berlin are disparate. Yet, there is a striking similarity in their sensibility. They write with a stunning moral clarity and deep human empathy. They never question the common humanity of humankind. Their writing is literary moral rather than political theory. Still, it expresses a sensibility that needs to be captured for a more decent politics.
In The Decent Society, Avishai Margalit comes closest to the political theorizing of such a world. Leaders who mobilize their people against great injustice and oppression, even as they re-affirm the humanity of those who oppress and discriminate against them contribute to creating such a world. In contrast other leaders who also fight against the oppression of their people question the humanity of their oppressors, not just particular actions, or the politics that leads to these actions. Emerging from an ethos of oppression or discrimination of their people, their politics lacks moral imagination – the ability to create the sensibility of a common humanity. This is fundamental to a peaceful moral politics that is not just an accidental outcome of a balance of power.
Primo Levi or A Woman in Berlin appeal to us. They are inspiring tales of human survival in the midst of great adversity. They are self-reflective about their survival. They do not shy away from narrating the compromises they made to survive and the happenstance involved in it. Because they are unsentimental and lack self-pity – even as we are horrified and sometimes even saddened by what we read, we are never depressed nor dejected. They are also ordinary people, whose heroism and survival stems from banal acts of goodness, not extraordinary ones. And they write with a clarity and precision about the ambiguously singular moment when evil and good intersect – and neither prevails, permanently.
This is because they take their particular experiences – as a Jew or as a woman in Berlin - and make them universal. They do this not by telling us a story about how the oppressed and defiled - a Jew or a Woman - are a part of humankind - but rather by never questioning the common humanity they share with those who oppress and defile. We read them because they express the possibility of an inchoate universalism at the very moment when it seems to have been banished, forever - in the midst of the starkest divide between the self and the other.
Sojourns: Varieties of Academic Reception
Over a year ago, Perry Anderson pronounced in The London Review of Books that Pascale Casanova's La République mondiale des letters, translated into English last January as The World Republic of Letters (Harvard, 2005) "is likely to have the same sort of liberating impact at large as Said's Orientalism, with which it stands comparison." I remember thinking at the time that this seemed unlikely, that whatever strengths Casanova's book might have as a study of how national literatures compete for attention in the global marketplace it would probably not have a paradigm shifting influence in the literary humanities. While it is too soon to know for sure, the early returns seem to suggest I was right. Casanova's book has been received as important—noteworthy even—but not as something being read across the discipline, something that everyone in English or Comparative Literature has to read to remain part of the academic conversation.
By now I hope it is clear that I'm less interested here in the content or quality of Casanova's book than in the hype that has attended its appearance. This sort of hype is not a new thing. Only four years ago, Emily Eakin wrote a rather silly article in The New York Times pronouncing that Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire had become gospel for theory starved professors of literature now that deconstruction had passed out of fashion. Needless to say, Eakin had little idea what was going on in the humanities. Whatever else one might say about Hard and Negri—and again, their work has been well received and influential—it has not spawned a school or a movement with close to the impact that Derrida and DeMan had in the seventies and eighties. Emily Eakin is no Perry Anderson of course. But what interests me in this sort of prognostication is the recurrent desire to herald the next big thing in the literary humanities, the book or critic or school of thought that is likely to shake English departments out of the doldrums and back into the center of academic life. For some time, those outside of English (and some within it) have waited for this next big thing to happen. And it hasn't. And it most likely won't for some time. And that is probably a good thing.
I had a sense that Casanova's book was not going to have the impact of Said's because I knew intuitively that no book could. Why is this so? Wide-ranging impact within the academy (or, to be immodest, paradigm change) requires a vertically organized discipline with a relatively shared set of concerns. That is to say, the writing of a comparatively small number of scholars must be regarded by the wider professoriat as the state of the art. At the same time, the discipline as a whole must have something of a coordinated language of inquiry, one that can be addressed, criticized, and moved in one direction or another. The impact of Said's Orientalism provides a case study of just this structure of reception. So too do the other great works of criticism and theory written during the heyday of English: Jameson's The Political Unconscious, Greenblatt's Renaissance Self-Fashioning, Sedgwick's The Epistemology of the Closet. These were books that reached beyond their particular concerns and shaped the language of an entire field of study and with that the larger academy. They gave an élan to English as the discipline of disciplines. Something appears to have changed within the broader intellectual culture over the past decade and a half to make that position untenable. Many books within English have an impact on their specific sub-fields, few or none on the discipline as a whole. The structure of reception that would provide the sort of canonization achieved by Orientalism—that is, the ability to reach across sub-fields to change the language of the discipline—is no longer in place. The vertical organization of English has loosened, as there are simply more books, published at all levels of the university system, than Said or Jameson could probably have imagined. (The reasons for this range from heightened demands for tenure to the democratization of the discipline itself.) The result is a certain centrifugal dispersion of the discipline at large complimented by a centripetal pull within each sub-field. I cannot name a single book read by all of English over the past decade but I can name several read by all of my particular sub-field. I just won't bore you by naming them.
English does not have a shared method of study or a single object of analysis. Perhaps it never did. But the moment when the discipline was organized in such a fashion to produce the illusion of such coherence has surely passed. What we see in even as astute a thinker as Perry Anderson is a certain nostalgia, one that will most likely continue to produce the occasional anointing of the next big thing, the newest trend, the latest method to capture the mind and habits of the literary humanities. And those pronouncements will continue to ring false and to seem a little passé.
PERCEPTIONS: The Unbearable Lightness...
Richard Misrach. Monolake 2, California, 1999.
Monday Musing: Hepburn and Heloise, A Tribute to the Defiance of Women
(On the occasion of a recent viewing of The Philadelphia Story)
In the early twelfth century a brilliant philosopher and logician named Abelard fell in love with a remarkable young woman named Heloise. Abelard tricked her uncle into thinking that he would be giving her academic tutoring and then the two fell into a torrid love affair in which the rest of the world seemed to melt away. But the world always comes back. The uncle discovered the ruse and plotted his revenge. Eventually, the uncle hired several men to break into Abelard’s home and chop off his testicles. Abelard became a monk and Heloise a nun. But before that fateful day Abelard proposed that he would marry Heloise and though this would end his career as scholar and teacher and force them into a layman’s life it might protect them from further censure or retribution. Heloise refused and then later acquiesced, though it did nothing to prevent their terrible fate. In his Historia calamitatum, Aberlard, rather self-absorbedly, relates that Heloise realized that marriage would have removed his great mind from the public sphere and could not allow such an event to occur. In a letter written to Abelard many years after the events in question Heloise corrects him on this matter. Referring to Abelard’s Historia calamitatum, she writes, “[b]ut you kept silent about most of my arguments for preferring love to wedlock and freedom to chains. God is my witness that if Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honor me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to posses for ever, it would be dearer and more honorable to me to be called not his Empress but your whore.” Nowhere in recorded history does there exist a more astoundingly moving, if somewhat disturbing, testimonial to love. It is as beautiful a thing as a human can say. “God knows I never sought anything in you except yourself” she writes to Abelard, “I simply wanted you, nothing of yours.” Thus, for Heloise, “[t]he name of wife may seem more sacred or more binding, but sweeter for me will always be the word mistress, or, if you will permit me, that of concubine or whore.” The point, she is saying, is in the trust and love that holds two people together, screw what the world thinks.
One can’t help feeling in reading the letters between the two that Abelard is never as steadfast to that ideal as Heloise. It is she who upholds the ethics of pure intention that Abelard had set forth in his Scio te ipsum (Know Thyself). By that doctrine, there is nothing in the act itself that merits praise or condemnation, but everything in what the act intends. “Wholly guilty though I am,” she says “I am also, as you know, wholly innocent. It is not the deed but the intention of the doer which makes the crime, and justice should weigh not what was done but the spirit in which it was done.” The ‘as you know’ that she throws into the phrase directed at Abelard is not without its bite. That is why she can proclaim herself a whore as an act of defiance, and an act of love.
Katharine Hepburn was a whore. She fell in love with Spencer Tracy and he fell in love with her but because of his allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church he would never get a divorce from his wife. So he and Hepburn lived in some form of sin together until his death. It is hard not to feel that her position was the nobler and braver of the two, though she never seems to have chided him much for it. They made a number of classic films together and one in particular, Adam’s Rib, that is a secretly utopian film. It imagines a situation in which a man and a woman could love one another and make each other better for it, instead of tearing one another apart, slowly or quickly as the case may be. One of the best details of the movie is the fact that they both have the same pet name for each other, Pinky. One can only imagine the process of emotional exhaustion by which they finally reached the sublime stasis of Pinky and Pinky. That, in itself, is one of those small triumphs of love.
Hepburn liked to wear pants and she wanted to live, as she put it, ‘like a man’. By that she meant primarily that she wasn’t going to take any shit and, moreover, she was going to get away with it. She was sometimes accused of being cold and lacking in emotional range as in the famous quip by Dorothy Parker that her performance in “The Lake” ‘ran the gamut of emotions, from A to B’. Still, it’s not hard to imagine that Parker was occasionally jealous of a woman who could be exactly what she wanted and never seem particularly tortured about it either. Hepburn always claimed to envy the ‘meat and potatoes’ style of her love, Mr. Tracy. Which is to say that one can do a lot in the space between A and B. Perhaps no role captures the full range of that limited range better than her Tracy Lord character from The Philadelphia Story. Her eventual route back to marriage with CK Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) is a tribute to everything she ever stood for as the marriage seems the least important part of the process. Indeed, she considers marriage to no less than three different men throughout the film. But that only serves to make her all the more wonderful, more powerful. It is the ethics of pure intention that really matters. The link between woman, whore, defiance, freedom, etc., and the ambiguity of it all is made further delicious by the fact that the notorious underage porn star of the 80’s took her name, Traci Lords, from the Hepburn character in the movie.
Every once in a while Hepburn will look away from the camera in one of her movies. Her chin will point upwards a bit, imperiously, and the high cheekbones will give the whole performance a far away feel. It is not clear entirely what she is looking at in such moments. It is simply remarkable that someone would be able to look away like that.
Vollmann, Crane, and Adventure Journalism
The only real surprise about William T. Vollmann winning the 2005 National Book Award for Europe Central was that merit was rewarded. In literature as in life this is not always the case. I have been reading Vollmann since my college days in the mid-1990s, when a love affair with a Canadian caused me to pick up Fathers and Crows, the second of the Seven Dreams series, about Jesuits in Quebec. (This might be mere sentimentality, but I still believe it's his best book.) The Vollmann award means that serious novels are still being taken seriously, despite Norman Mailer's comments at the ceremony to the contrary during his depressing Lifetime Achievement speech. ("It's a shame in the literary world today that passion has withered, producing fiction that is all too forgettable," said Mailer. "I'm watching the disappearance of my trade. The serious novel may be in serious decline.") Does Vollmann publish too much? I leave the question open - it's not rhetorical. Vollmann's style is perhaps overly mannered and has not developed much over the years (he started in the stratosphere but has stayed at the same relative altitude), although in his best writing the mannerism works to his advantage. But his seemingly monomaniacal prolixity is more likely to be a sign of compulsive brilliance more than anything else, so that the complaint is almost meaningless - roughly the same could be said of Dickens, for example. This is genius in more than one sense: you get the feeling Vollmann has an actual daemon sitting on his shoulder dictating book after book.
The writer that Vollmann brings to mind most strongly is not Dickens, however, but Stephen Crane. At first this may seem like an odd comparison, given that Crane's devotion to literary realism is very far from being Vollmann's first priority. Like Crane, Vollmann writes both adventure journalism and novels. Like Crane, Vollmann is drawn to wars and conflict zones. Vollmann's series of books about prostitution surely have a classic literary source in Crane's Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. Like The Red Badge of Courage, Vollmann's historical novels are strongly flavored with reality and research. Vollmann's tremendous output matches or perhaps even exceeds the famously productive Crane, who by the time he died at age twenty-eight had already published two novels, a multitude of short stories and poems, as well as an immense body of journalism. (The authoritative edition of Crane's work, published by the University of Virginia, apparently runs to ten volumes.) It's almost as if Crane knew that time would be short; a sense you get reading Vollmann as well, who, you sometimes feel, has lived longer than he thought he might. Even Vollmann's short chapters, with their antiquated newspaper-dispatch style headings, call to mind works like "Stephen Crane's Own Story" (1897).
Crane made his name as a war correspondent, covering, for example, the sinking of the Commodore, a ship laden with arms bound for Cuba. This happened in 1897, just prior to the sinking of the Maine and the entry of American into the Spanish-American War. Journalists were more than observers in the conflict. The representation of the coverage in Citizen Kane isn't far off the mark regarding the pro-war Yellow Journalism of the Hearst papers of the day. Phyllis Frus and Stanley Corkin, the editors of the excellent Riverside Crane volume, write that
The existence of newsreels, filmed reproductions of events, and even enactments that were clearly remote from the action in Cuba provided people in the United States with images of warfare that made it a kind of spectator sport in which most viewers had a clear rooting interest. With his writing, Crane helped create the new public sphere, and as a celebrity journalist, he participated in it.
Iraq was not the first time that reporters were embedded, and the problems of bias they created are nothing new. Crane reported under fire with the marines direct from a very different Guantanamo. Vollmann's An Afghanistan Picture Show, published in 1992, ten years after he flung himself into the middle of the struggle against the Soviets, has the self-mocking subtitle "How I Saved the World." In it, Vollmann dissects himself as much as the conflict, creating a ruthless (and very timely) examination of the entire concept of American altruism when it is combined with an emphasis on military solutions. (Not everything Vollmann wrote about Afghanistan was perfect - when the New Yorker sent him back to check up on the country during the 1990s, Vollmann was at times too soft on the Taliban, acknowledging their crimes but presenting received ideas about how they had brought stability to the country.)
Here's the problem with adventure journalism more generally: it's not written by experts or beat reporters, and therefore only infrequently rises above the usual combination of local color, exoticism, florid prose, and received opinion back home. (Good adventure writers, among whom I count friends and some of our best writers all around, are to be admired all the more for rising above this level.) The adventure writer is essentially a proxy for the reader, an American dropped into a strange - and, ideally, somewhat dangerously atmospheric, hopefully more atmospheric than dangerous - locale. It's understandable, but no less peculiar, that we would rather read what American magazine writers think about the Taliban, for example, rather than someone like, say, Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani who writes in English and has covered the region's politics for something close to two decades. But the adventure journalist gives us something we desperately need - an exotic fix.
This thirst for far-flung locations and the current craze for dispatches is surely not bad in itself; I tend to enjoy it, as a kind of literary stamp collecting. Also, it's probably another "since September 11" type of trend, and hopefully a sign of renewed American interest in the outside world. The only downside is that the entire genre excludes those legions of literary types who are retiring homebodies and prefer to stay in bed all day crafting sentences. Not everyone should be forced to be a reporter, that's my thesis; writing shouldn't be a form of reality TV in which one auditions for a part in the national conversation by exposing oneself to mud and murder.
I think it was Schopenhauer who once wrote that there are two kinds of good books, those which introduce the reader to an experience they couldn't have themselves, and those which use language in a remarkable way. Probably all good writing combines something of both, but the rise of adventure journalism involves a lopsided emphasis on one aspect against the other. It also represents another chapter in the American tradition of anti-intellectualism, for it is against "thought" and for "experience." Our magazines are full of direct experience - like the kind that comes mediated through a translator on a two-week junket. Of course, the best writers in this field manage to combine thought and observation in a kind of genre-bending tag-team wrestle, and, in doing so, are creating a fine new genre in the process, don't get me wrong. Vollmann is an ideal example.
Even though much of Crane's and Vollmann's fiction is based on research, interviews, and reportage, it is more enduring stuff. "The Open Boat" is a classic, whereas "Stephen Crane's Own Story" is more ephemeral. Maggie was based on Crane's real experiences with prostitutes, but the imaginative work outlives the adventurism, just as Vollmann's The Royal Family feels superior to his Butterfly Stories. But it is the historical fiction of both writers - The Red Badge of Courage and Europe Central, respectively (plus, for my money, Fathers and Crows) - that critics have celebrated as their greatest accomplishments. Historical fiction might be the least fictional of fictions, the most closely related to facts, a genre involved directly with actuality as a magical element in the alchemy. But these two novels have more in common than an obsession with or addiction to the atmosphere of violent conflict. They are both novels documenting real events that their authors never could have experienced. It's almost as if their thirst for experience was so overwhelming that when they ran out of the amount of reality available to them directly they had to fabricate other worlds to inhabit as well.
Talking Pints: Happy Birthday, Political Science
Towards the end of this year, The American Political Science Review will publish its 100th anniversary issue. In researching for a submission to this centennial issue, I examined what political scientists have been saying for the past 100 years, and in doing do something very odd struck me: that the arguments that I have been having for a decade with my colleagues about the idea of a science of politics being at all possible are the same arguments that have been going on in the pages of The American Political Science Review since its inception.
Then and now, political scientists tend to fall into two camps. In the first camp are those who wear the badge of ‘scientist’ and see their field as a predictive enterprise whose job it is to uncover those general laws of politics that ‘must’ be out there. The second camp contains those who think the former project logically untenable. For years now I have tried (largely in vain) to convince my colleagues in the first camp that the idea of a political ‘science’ is inherently problematic. I have marshaled various arguments to make this case, and each of these has been met by a some variant of; ‘political science is a young science’; ‘what we face are problems of method’; and that ‘more ‘basic research is required’. Then, with ‘more and better methods’ we will make ‘sufficient’ progress and ‘become’ a science. I remain unconvinced by this line of argument, but it was enlightening to see it played out again and again over a century.
Discovering that these same arguments have been going on for 100 years was both heartening (I was in good company) and depressing (‘round and round we go’). But in doing so I discovered something else. If political science is a ‘science’ by virtue of its ability to predict, as many of its ‘scientific’ brethren maintain, then it really should have been abandoned years ago since the prediction rate of my field over the past 100 years is less than what would be achieved by throwing darts at dartboard while wearing a blindfold. To see why this is the case consider the following potted history of political science.
From its inception in 1906 until World War One American political scientists took ‘public administration’ as its object and the Prussian state as the model of good governance. Sampling on this particular datum proved costly to the subfield however when the model (Germany) became the enemy during World War One and the guiding models of the field collapsed. Following this debacle, political science retreated inwards during the 1920s and 1930s. One can scan the American Political Science Review throughout these tumultuous decades for any sustained examination of the great events of the day and come up empty. What I did find however were reports on constitutional change in Estonia, committee reform in Nebraska, and predictions that the German administrative structure will not allow Hitler to become a dictator.
After World War Two this lack of ‘relevance’ haunted the discipline and its post-war re-founders sought to build a predictive science built upon the process notions of functionalism, pluralism, and modernization. These new theories saw societies as homeostatic systems arrayed along a developmental telos with the United States as everyone’s historical end. Paradoxically however, just as the field was united under these common theories, they were suddenly, and completely, invalidated by the facts of the day. At the height of these theories’ popularity, the United States was, contrary to theory, tearing itself apart over civil rights, Vietnam, and sexual politics while ‘developing’ countries were ‘sliding back’ along the ‘developmental telos’ into dictatorships. Despite these events being the world’s first televised falsification of theory, once again political science turned inward and ignored the lesson waiting to be learned – that prediction in the social world is far more difficult than we imagine, and the call for more ‘rigor’ and ‘more and better methods’ will never solve that problem. Our continuing prediction failures continue to bear this out. Since its ‘third re-founding’ in the 1980s till today, political science has predicted the decline of the US (just as it achieved ‘hyper-power’ status); completely missed the decade long economic stagnation of Japan (just as it was supposed to eclipse the US); missed the end of the Cold War, the growth of international terrorism, and the rebirth of religion in politics.
After reviewing this catalog of consistently wrong calls, a very simple question occurred to me. If political science is a science by virtue of its ability to predict, and its prediction rate is so awful, can it be a science even in its own terms? I would say that it cannot. But this answer itself begged another, and I think more interesting, question; why is my field’s ability to predict so bad? The answer to this question is not found in the pages of the American Political Science Review. Rather, it is found in how political science as a discipline, through its training, thinks about probability in the social world. To see why this is the case I ask the reader to follow me through three ‘possible worlds’ that have three different probability distributions, and then decide which world it is that political science studies - and which one it thinks it studies.
Our first (type-one) world is the world of the dice roll where the generator of outcomes is directly observable. Here we live in a world of risk. We know when throwing a die (the generator) that there are six possible outcomes. Given the ability to directly observe the generator and a few dozen throws of the die, the expected and actual means converge rapidly via sampling, and this is sufficient to derive the higher moments of the distribution. This distribution, given the known values of its generator, is reliably ‘normal’ and sampling the past is a good guide to the future. One is not going to throw a ‘300’ – there are only six sides on the die - and skew the distribution. This type one world is reliably Gaussian, and is, within a few standard deviations, predictable. Political science thinks it operates in this world. This is the familiar world of the bell-curve.
Our second world (type-two), is a world with fat tails (Gauss plus Poisson) where uncertainty rather than risk prevails. An example of the generator here would be a stock market. Although one can sample past data exhaustively, one does not observe the generator of reality directly. Consequently, one can ‘throw a 300’ since large events not seen in the sample may skew the results and become known only after the fact. For example, stock market returns may seem normal by sampling, but a ‘Russian Default’ or a ‘Tequila Crisis’ may be just around the corner that will radically alter the distribution in ways that agents cannot calculate before the fact. This is a world of uncertainty as much as it is risk. Agents simply cannot know what may hit them, though they may be think that the probability of being hit is small.
Our third possible world (type-three) is even more unsettling. Imagine a generator such as the global economy. In this case, not only can one not see the generator directly, agents can sample the past till doomsday and actually become steadily more wrong about the future in doing so. As two probabilists, Nassim Taleb and Avatel Pilpel, put it, with such complex generators “it is not that it takes time for the experimental moments…to converge to the ‘true’ [moments]. In this case, these moments simply do not exist. This means…that no amount of observation whatsoever will give us E(Xn) [expected mean], Var(Xn) [expected variance], or higher-level moments that are close to the “true” values…since no true values exist.”
To see what this means, consider the following example. Macroeconomics, like political science, has had at least four general theories of inflation over the past fifty or so years, which suggests two things. First, that these theories cannot be general theories since they change every decade or so. Second, that such theories might be thought of as general (at the time they were constructed given the sample that they were derived from) but such theories must become redundant since the actual sources of inflation change over time.
For example, if the agreed-upon causes of inflation in one period, (monetary expansion) are dealt with by building institutions to cope with such causes (independent central banks), this does not mean that inflation becomes impossible. Rather, it means that the conditions of possibility change such that the theory itself becomes redundant. In such a world outcomes are fundamentally uncertain since the causes of phenomena in one period are not the same causes in a later period. Given this, when we assume that outcomes in the social world conform to a Gaussian distribution we assume way too much. Any sample of past events can confirm the past, but cannot be projected into the future with the confidence we typically assume. Take away that prior assumption of ‘normality’ in the distribution and standard expectations regarding prediction fall apart.
Given this, which world is the world most likely studied by political scientists? Our type-one world can be ruled out since if the world was so predictable our theories should be able to predict accurately. Given the record in this regard, it is safe to conclude that the world we occupy is not this one. Our type-two world seems suspiciously normal most of the time, but our theories ‘blow up’ much more than they should since most of the action occurs in the tails and we cannot see the generator of outcomes. This sounds more like the world where people actually live.
A type-three world is even worse however, since in a type-three world all bets are off as to what the future may bring. Humans do not however deal particularly well with such uncertainty and try to insulate themselves from it. Whether through the promulgation of social norms, the construction of institutions, or the evolution of ideologies, the result is the same. Human agents create the stability that they take for granted. In taking it for granted however they assume the world to be much more stable than it actually is. Consequently, our theories about the world we live in tend to assume much more stability, and thus predictability, than is warranted.
In short, we cannot live in a type-three world, so we build institutions, cultures, and societies to cope with uncertainty. But when we are successful at doing so we assume we live in a type-one world of predictability and develop theories to navigate such a world. Unfortunately, we actually have succeeded only in constructing our type-two world of fat tails, and this is why we are constantly surprised. We think (and model) type-one while living type-two. Meanwhile, as a discipline, we refuse to admit the possibility of a type-three world generating both the others.
The result is that the action is in the tails, and we, given our type-one assumptions and models, are blind to what is going on there. So we focus, like the proverbial drunk under the lamp-post, on the middle of the distribution since that is where the (theoretical) light is; and like the proverbial drunk, we are constantly surprised that our keys are actually to be found somewhere else entirely. Political science may have reached the ripe old age of 100, and I congratulate it for doing so. It did so however by imagining the world to be quite different from what it is, and by completely ignoring its predictive failures. If however political science wants to be around for another 100 years it may want to think a bit more about what those failures are trying to tell us.
January 29, 2006
Keillor on Lévy
In The New York Times, Garrison Keillor has a funny review of Bernard-Henri Lévy's American Vertigo.
As always with French writers, Lévy is short on the facts, long on conclusions. He has a brief encounter with a young man outside of Montgomery, Ala. ("I listen to him tell me, as if he were justifying himself, about his attachment to this region"), and suddenly sees that the young man has "all the reflexes of Southern culture" and the "studied nonchalance . . . so characteristic of the region." With his X-ray vision, Lévy is able to reach tall conclusions with a single bound.
And good Lord, the childlike love of paradox - America is magnificent but mad, greedy and modest, drunk with materialism and religiosity, puritan and outrageous, facing toward the future and yet obsessed with its memories. Americans' party loyalty is "very strong and very pliable, extremely tenacious and in the end somewhat empty." Existential and yet devoid of all content and direction. The partner-swapping club is both "libertine" and "conventional," "depraved" and "proper." And so the reader is fascinated and exhausted by Lévy's tedious and original thinking: "A strong bond holds America together, but a minimal one. An attachment of great force, but not fiercely resolute. A place of high - extremely high - symbolic tension, but a neutral one, a nearly empty one." And what's with the flurries of rhetorical questions? Is this how the French talk or is it something they save for books about America? "What is a Republican? What distinguishes a Republican in the America of today from a Democrat?" Lévy writes, like a student padding out a term paper. "What does this experience tell us?" he writes about the Mall of America. "What do we learn about American civilization from this mausoleum of merchandise, this funeral accumulation of false goods and nondesires in this end-of-the-world setting? What is the effect on the Americans of today of this confined space, this aquarium, where only a semblance of life seems to subsist?" And what is one to make of the series of questions - 20 in a row - about Hillary Clinton, in which Lévy implies she is seeking the White House to erase the shame of the Lewinsky affair? Was Lévy aware of the game 20 Questions, commonly played on long car trips in America? Are we to read this passage as a metaphor of American restlessness? Does he understand how irritating this is? Does he? Do you? May I stop now?
America is changing, he concludes, but America will endure...
Thanks, pal. I don't imagine France collapsing anytime soon either. Thanks for coming. Don't let the door hit you on the way out. For your next book, tell us about those riots in France, the cars burning in the suburbs of Paris. What was that all about? Were fat people involved?
In the Economist,
MOST people, even the law-abiding, have ambiguous feelings towards the police. They are a salvation when it comes to protecting life, limb and property, but their efforts are, perhaps, slightly less welcome if your foot happens to slip momentarily on the accelerator. Few, however, would argue that human societies could dispense with their activities altogether. Even in villages, where everybody knows everybody else and social disapproval and the near-certainty of exposure are enough to discourage most criminal acts, the local bobby is a reassuring presence.
Most people, too, would assume such policing is uniquely human. But they would be wrong—at least if Jessica Flack, of the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, and her colleagues are correct. For Dr Flack thinks that monkey societies also have police. Moreover, removing those police makes such societies less happy places...
Dr Flack had discovered this behaviour in earlier research. Her latest work, just published in Nature, looked at how important policing is in maintaining harmony in the monkeys she studies, an Asian species called the pigtailed macaque. To do so, she went to the opposite end of the biological scale from that occupied by ethology (the science of animal behaviour) and borrowed a technique from genetics, called knockout analysis. In genetics, this involves “knocking out” a particular gene and seeing what effect its absence has on a cell's biochemical network. In ethology, it involves removing particular animals from a group and seeing what effect that has on the group's social network.
Ground Level Portraits of the Red Army
Not all understanding [of the Soviet Union] is derived from documents newly salvaged from the archives. Some of the sources for understanding the tragedy and glory of Russia’s war have been waiting to be “discovered” and employed for decades, yet in a sense they were always available. This is the case of the two magnificent books under review here. Vasily Grossman completed his novel Life and Fate in 1960, but Mikhail Suslov, chief of the Cultural Section of the Central Committee, decided that it would not be published for at least 200 years, and the KGB seized all copies it could lay its hands on.
Life and Fate is finally being recognized as one of the greatest masterpieces of the twentieth century. But it had to be smuggled to Switzerland and only gradually came to be known by an international readership. It was finally published in Russia after the fall of Communism. An extraordinary combination of a sprawling nineteenth-century Russian novel and a Soviet social-realist depiction of simple men’s discovery of their capacity for heroism and sacrifice, the book was based on Grossman’s own experience at the front as a correspondent for the Red Army’s official paper, Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star). Thanks to Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova, the notebooks on which Grossman based much of his novel, written during his time at the front – where he spent most of the war years – are now available in an excellent English translation.
It is true that one doesn’t normally speak of Mozart and Sid Vicious in the same breath, but they do have this in common: primitivism. Rock’n’roll began as a primitivist movement, and it renews itself with mini-primitivisms, of which punk is just one example. To see Mozart as a primitivist is a little harder, since his style is so identified with the civilized and the rational, things we think of as anti-primitive, and yet the Classical movement in music, like its companion neoclassicism in art, owed everything to the primitivist desire to begin anew by stripping away the false and inessential. Écrasez l’infâme. To the Baroque’s heavy sauces, multiple courses, and thickly layered combinations of tastes and textures, the Classical would propose a nouvelle cuisine.
more from the TLS here.
company of moths
Writers are part of that even larger company of readers, and in the second poem of the collection Palmer suggests that he is at that point in his career where he can address even his own poetry as if it were another’s (though this has probably been true since the beginning), reusing the phrase “Dearest Reader” (“Dearest Reader from the future-past”), which both appeared in and served as title for the first poem of First Figure (1984). While there is nothing new under the sun or after Sun (1988), there is still this projected reader to address and somehow please by variations. In a poem called “Night Gardening” late in the book, the poet makes a bad-faith promise to this reader both to be new and to be no longer the same:
A reader writes to complain
that there are no cellphones in my poems,
so here is one,
its body chrome,
its face a metallic blue.
It’s neither transmitting nor receiving.
A woman from Duluth requests
that I cease sending secret messages
to her in my poems.
This I will do forthwith.
And the blackbird at evening.
She says, you have misrepresented the
there where it turns
by the holm oak and the bed
of winter hyacinths.
This I will correct.
more from Geoffrey O'Brien on Michael Palmer at the Boston Review here.
Thomas Hirschhorn's latest exhibition is a walk-in manifesto, a book of the dead about the psychic place where mysticism, modernism, mayhem, and terror collapse into one another. Many will find this show revolting. Not because it's bad or resembles a parade float from perdition, or weakens on repeated visits, but because of Hirschhorn's use of violent imagery and his supposed aestheticizing of it. One critic has already lambasted the show as an "adolescent crapfest" that evinces "a puerile addiction to the macabre and the scatological." This reaction is too easy. It's also fishy, considering that horrific images--from lynching pictures to gangland murders--have been seen and produced in America for more than a century.
more form the Village Voice here.
Baby rhino makes debut at California zoo
Lali, which means "darling girl" in Hindi, is one of about 2,550 Indian rhinos in the world, 150 of which are in parks and zoos. The species is considered critically endangered because of human encroachment on its native habitats in India and Nepal and because the rhinos have been poached for their horns, which some believe have medicinal value.
Indian rhinos, which have one horn and large folds of skin that look like armor, are also slow to multiply because of their long, 16-month gestation period. Lali, who was born Dec. 3, weighs 180 pounds but could grow to about 5,000 pounds, Galindo said. Lali is the 16th Indian rhino at the San Diego park.
Virus Used to Track Elusive Cougars
To follow the movements of cougars in remote areas of western North America, a team of biologists has found a different kind of tracking device: a virus. Borrowing a method used to study human demographics, biologist Roman Biek and his colleagues took samples from 352 cougars in the Rocky Mountain region of the United States and Canada.
The researchers analyzed the samples for strains of feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), which is common in big cats and does not appear to affect them. The analysis identified eight major FIV strains carried by cougars in Montana, Wyoming, British Columbia, and Alberta. These unique strains allowed the scientists to track where the cats had been and at approximately what time. One strain spread over a distance of 620 miles (1,000 kilometers), while others remained relatively isolated. Results of the team's research appear in the current issue of the journal Science.
A hit man repents
"John Perkins didn't wield a gun - he wasn't even a paid-up CIA agent - but he did have nefarious ways of making countries around the world bend to the will of the US. Until, he tells Gary Younge, his conscience got the better of him and he looked for other ways to change the world."
From The Guardian:
On November 24 2002, Lucio Gutierrez swept to power in Ecuador's presidential election. It was a momentous victory for the populist, leftwing leader who had pledged support for the poor indigenous Indians in a country where 60% live in poverty.
The way John Perkins tells it, within a week Gutierrez had a visitor. "An economic hit man walked into his office and said, 'Congratulations, Mr President, I just want you to know that over here I've got a couple of hundred million dollars for you and your family if you cooperate with your Uncle Sam and our oil companies. And over here I have a man with a gun in his hand and a bullet with your name on it.'"
Within two months of his election, Gutierrez had apparently made his choice. Implementing a swingeing austerity programme that attacked the very livelihoods of the people who elected him, he raised fuel prices by more than 35% and froze public sector workers' salaries for a year.
The next generation of nuclear power?
"South Africa and China are moving forward with nuclear energy based on what scientists believe is a safer design."
Charlie Schmidt in Environmental Science & Technology:
Climate change is just one of the problems linked to carbon-based fuels that have sparked a renewed interest in nuclear power. While stakeholders debate the merits of this approach, the nuclear industry and its supporters are exploring next-generation reactors that might be safer and less expensive than the ones used today. The pebble bed modular reactor (PBMR), which is based on a decades-old German design, ranks among the top contenders.
PBMR’s supporters describe the technology as inherently safe and appropriate not just for rich, industrialized countries but also for developing nations. “The beauty of the pebble bed reactor is that you don’t need an MIT Ph.D. to run it,” muses Andrew Kadak, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s department of nuclear science and engineering. “That means you can use it even in countries that don’t have the degree of history or background in nuclear technology that we have in Western Europe or here.”
PBMR proponents point to another advantage: Each reactor module generates about 170 megawatts of electrical power (MWe), far less than the 1000 MWe produced by a standard light water reactor. PBMR can thus be scaled according to need...
Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy
Michael Feingold reviews the book by Park Honan, in the New York Times:
People who complain that we have so few biographical facts about Shakespeare, and use that lack of data as an excuse for indulging in fantasies about who "really" wrote his plays, should ponder the case of Christopher Marlowe (at one time a favorite candidate for that ghostwriter role), about whom even less is known. He flashed across the Tudor literary scene for a stunningly brief period, raising the standards of poetic achievement and transforming Elizabethan theater. Few pre-Shakespearean English plays still hold the stage; they include at least four of Marlowe's. In recent decades, "Tamburlaine the Great" (its two parts usually condensed into one evening), "The Jew of Malta," "Doctor Faustus" and "Edward II" have had regular revivals.
This is all the more remarkable because Marlowe (1564-93), unlike Shakespeare, is not the writer to comfort an audience with a jolly evening in the theater. A contrarian of epic stature, he's most often celebrated as an embodiment of rebellion in every form: a cynic about all received ideas of society and religion; almost certainly a homosexual; most likely a government spy; probably an atheist; possibly even a dabbler in the occult; and, to round off the list, a glorifier of violence who died in a tavern brawl.
Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother, modified. From Worth1000.com (via Boing Boing). And I can't resist throwing in one more picture:
Lots more here.
January 28, 2006
The Hamas Victory, a View from Gaza
The latest events can only be described as a political earthquake, both locally and regionally. Not only are these the first truly democratic and hotly contested elections in the Arab Middle East, but also the first time an Islamic party has come to power through the system and the popular will of the people.
To say we are entering a new stage is an understatement. Everyone knew Hamas would do well in these elections and that they would constitute a significant challenge to the ruling party. But this well?
Voters in Gaza were shocked.
"I cast a sympathy vote for Hamas but truthfully I did not expect them to win at all. It was a surprise to everyone; no one expected this to happen," a young college student said.
Even Hamas members and supporters were surprised.
"We thought we'd get at most 50% of the votes," one Hamas insider told me.
"We didn't expect the security forces and the upper classes to vote for us, but it seems they might have tipped the balance. I guess we're more popular than we realised."
How the new government will take shape and whether western positions towards it will evolve have all yet to answered. It's likely that Hamas will form a kind of national unity government, or a coalition of some sort, with a mixture of other parties. The burden of the sudden and overwhelming responsibility for running a state and answering to their constituents' long and varied list of demands may be more than they can deal with alone at the moment.
The Economics of a Ph.D.
Gary North on the economics of a Ph.D. (via Political Theory Daily Review).
Ph.D. students are a lot like gamblers. They expect to beat the odds. The gambler personifies odds-beating as Lady Luck. The Ph.D. student instead looks within. "I am really smart. These other people in the program aren't as smart as I am. I will get that tenure-track job. I will make the cut. I will be a beneficiary of the system."
If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Also, if ego were marketable, all Ph.D. graduates would get tenure...
At $20,000 or more per year in tuition and living expenses, plus the $35,000+ not earned in the job market, trying to earn a Ph.D. is a losing proposition.
In some departments, the years invested are horrendous. Breneman's dissertation went into the grim details, department by department. Anyone seeking a degree in philosophy was almost doomed to failure, yet the Ph.D. degree took on average over a decade beyond the B.A. to earn. There were almost no college teaching jobs when they finished. That was before the glut.
Earning a Ph.D. may pay off if your goal is status, although I don't understand why anyone regards a Ph.D. as a status symbol that is worth giving up five to ten years of your earning power in your youth, when every dime saved can multiply because of compounding. If the public understood the economics of earning a Ph.D., people would think "naïve economic loser" whenever they hear "Ph.D."
A word to the wise is sufficient.
Revisiting the Cold War
In The Guardian, James Buchan reviews two new books on the Cold War, The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis and The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times by Odd Arne Westad.
Gaddis is glad the cold war was fought as it was fought and won by the side that won it. Like some primary-school teacher, he hands out prizes for effort to pretty well everyone: Eisenhower, Nixon, Walesa, Reagan, Thatcher, Pope John Paul, Deng Xiaoping and, above all, Gorbachev, who managed to defuse the whole contraption without it blowing up in his face.
Odd Arne Westad, the Norwegian-born scholar who heads the Cold War Studies Centre at the London School of Economics and has hitherto concentrated on China and the Far East, is less sanguine. He believes that the cold war, far from being a conflict necessary to clear the ideological air, was a continuation, under new management, of the old European colonial enterprise. Westad, too, gives out prizes but only to the tragic failures: Lumumba, Cabral, Guevara, Gorbachev.
Each approach has its charm. It is pleasant, on reading Gaddis, to see the public events of one's childhood or youth gathered into a lucid and elegant narrative and, as it were, put away out of sight. Westad offers a philosophy of history that, though not wholly free of leftese, better accommodates 9/11 and the US occupation of Iraq. There is no wasteful overlap. Westad ignores Berlin 1948, Gaddis has nothing on Katanga 1964.
Why do men have nipples?
Because we are mammals and blessed with body hair, three middle ear bones, and the ability to nourish our young with milk that females produce in modified sweat glands called mammary glands. Although females have the mammary glands, we all start out in a similar way in the embryo. During development, the embryo follows a female template until about six weeks, when the male sex chromosome kicks in for a male embryo. The embryo then begins to develop all of its male characteristics. Men are thus left with nipples and also with some breast tissue.
Men can even get breast cancer and there are some medical conditions that can cause male breasts to enlarge. Abnormal enlargement of the breasts in a male is known a gynecomastia. Gynecomastia can be caused by using anabolic steroids. So, if your favourite athlete suddenly develops man boobs and starts winning gold medals, you know the reason why.
Scientists have had a smashing idea that could help them explore beneath Mars's dusty surface. Slamming a hefty chunk of copper into the planet should excavate enough material to reveal water ice or carbon-based chemicals lurking underground, according to a proposed NASA mission. The idea follows the success of Deep Impact, a mission that fired a copper 'impactor' into comet Tempel 1, while its delivery craft recorded the whole show with an array of sensors. The new mission takes exactly the same approach to Mars. Called THOR (Tracing Habitability, Organics and Resources), it would be the second of NASA's Mars scout missions, low-cost probes that are designed and built in just a few years. The first scout, Phoenix, is due to launch in August 2007.
THOR has been proposed by Phil Christensen, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University, Tempe, and David Spencer of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Christensen estimates that the impactor should be about 100 kilograms or so, and hit the planet at more than 15,000 kilometres per hour. It is hoped this would make a crater roughly 50 metres in diameter, and up to 25 metres deep. Meanwhile, its mother ship would look for ice, minerals and organic compounds thrown out by the crash.
Why Not Build a Bomb?
James Traub in the New York Times Magazine:
The problem with the N.P.T. is that it legitimates the wrong thing - not just the peaceful use of nuclear energy but the "inalienable right" to produce your own nuclear fuel. The solution, then, is to eliminate, or at least circumscribe, that right. And this is what Washington has spurned. Last year, Kofi Annan's "high-level panel" on U.N. reform endorsed the Proliferation Security Initiative and suggested that more nations join. It also proposed that the International Atomic Energy Agency would act as "guarantor for the supply of fissile material to civilian nuclear users." Nations would no longer be able to argue, as Iran now does, that they need to produce their own enriched fuel in order to ensure a steady supply for peaceful purposes. The proposal wouldn't have stopped the rogue states, but it would have delegitimated them.
The Bush administration apparently accepts the idea; it just doesn't want to see an international agency empowered to execute it. The White House has proposed that the countries that currently produce nuclear fuel - led, presumably, by the U.S. - band together to guarantee a steady and low-cost supply of uranium enriched for civilian purposes. Neither the Iranians nor other recipients are likely to accept such an arrangement. But maybe there's something halfway, or a quarter of the way, between the two systems. So far, however, the administration won't even try.
Diary - Richard Dawkins
Richard Dawkins in The New Statesman (via One Good Move):
It's been a week of handling fallout from The Root of All Evil?, my TV documentary about religion. Of course religion is not the root of all evil. No single thing is the root of all anything. The question mark was supposed to turn an indefensible title into a debatable topic. Gratifyingly, title notwithstanding, the e-mails, letters and telephone calls to Channel 4 have been running two to one in favour. The pros mostly praise Channel 4's courage in finally saying what many people have been thinking for years. The antis complain that I failed to do justice to "both sides", and that I interviewed fundamentalist extremists rather than the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The balance is (over-) provided by Thought for the Day, Prayer for the Day, Songs of Praise, the Daily Service, Faith to Faith, Choral Evensong, Sunday Half-Hour, The Story of God, Belief, Beyond Belief, and others. Mine was a brief opportunity to put the other side. As for my "extremist" interviews, would that Pastor Ted Haggard were extreme. In neo-con America, he is mainstream. President of the 30 million-strong National Association of Evangelicals, he has a weekly phone conversation with Bush. My other "extremist", Yousef al-Khattab (Joseph Cohen) of Jerusalem, was supposed, as an American Jew turned Israeli settler turned Muslim, to see both sides and give a balanced perspective. Wrong!
A Lot of Nerve
Susan Lanzoni reviews Nerve Endings: The Discovery of the Synapse by Richard Rapport, and The War of the Soups and the Sparks: The Discovery of Neurotransmitters and the Dispute over How Nerves Communicate by Eliot Valenstein, in American Scientist:
Scientific style and personality loom large in Nerve Endings and The War of the Soups and the Sparks, two new books documenting discoveries about the neuron's anatomical structure and its modes of transmitting nerve impulses. These volumes tell a story that begins in the late 19th century and is still being written today. Both accounts meld individual biographies of scientists with descriptions of experimental procedures and raise questions about the ways in which styles of research, creativity and intuition have contributed to the practice of experimental neuroscience.
In Nerve Endings, Richard Rapport, a neurosurgeon by training, focuses on the life and work of the Spanish artist and scientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal and to a lesser extent on Cajal's Italian rival, Camillo Golgi. Cajal's late 19th-century conception of a discrete nervous cell, separated from other cells by a gap (later called a synapse), came to replace the older reticular theory, which postulated that nervous tissue comprised a seamless, continuous web—an unbroken network, or reticulum—through which nerve impulses could travel in any direction. Golgi's adamant advocacy of the reticular theory was the source of his conflict with Cajal.
Scientists discover world's smallest fish
Bradley S. Klapper of the AP, in HappyNews.com:
Mature females of the Paedocypris progenetica, a member of the carp family, only grow to 7.9 millimeters (0.31 inches) and the males have enlarged pelvic fins and exceptionally large muscles that may be used to grasp the females during copulation, researchers wrote in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, published Wednesday by the Royal Society in London.
"This is one of the strangest fish that I've seen in my whole career,' said Ralf Britz, zoologist at the Natural History Museum in London, who helped analyze the fish's skeleton. "It's tiny, it lives in acid and it has these bizarre grasping fins. I hope we'll have time to find out more about them before their habitat disappears completely."
The previous record for small size, according to the Natural History Museum in London, was held by an 8-millimeter species of Indo-Pacific goby.
Quit Complaining About Your Job
More "quit complaining about your job" pictures here.
Men Are From Vengeance
William Saletan in Slate:
Do men enjoy punishing evildoers? A study published last week in Nature suggests we do. Scientists planted actors among volunteers playing a game. Some actors played fairly; others played unfairly. Then the researchers delivered electric shocks to the actors while monitoring the brains of volunteers who looked on.
Men, like women, showed "empathy-related activation in pain-related brain areas" when shocks were administered to actors who had played fairly. But when shocks were delivered instead to actors who had played unfairly, empathetic responses in men, unlike women, "were significantly reduced." In fact, men showed "increased activation in reward-related areas, correlated with an expressed desire for revenge." Apparently, judgment controls men's feelings more than women's. It determines who gets our empathy and who gets our schadenfreude—the joy of watching the suffering of someone you dislike.
The study's authors say we need more evidence before asserting differences in empathy and schadenfreude between men and women. But we already have such evidence, in the form of polls about crime, war, and torture. All you have to do is look for gender differences, or lack thereof, on questions that touch various dimensions of the psychology of punishment.
January 27, 2006
Cronyism and Kickbacks
Ed Harriman on the economics of reconstruction in Iraq, in the London Review of Books:
The sums are simple. Reconstruction will cost considerably more than originally imagined. The American administration has committed most of its funds. The Iraqis have neither the money nor the expertise to run the projects that have been completed. There’s little transparency or accountability. To judge from the audits published so far, at least $12 billion spent by the Americans and by the Iraqi interim and transitional governments has not been properly accounted for. Almost three years after the fall of Saddam, the GAO reports, ‘it is unclear how US efforts are helping the Iraqi people obtain clean water, reliable electricity or competent healthcare.’ The Bush administration has decided to provide no more reconstruction funds.
The auditors who have discovered Iraq’s deepening financial crisis have been ignored. They asked the US ambassador and the US military commander in Iraq for their views. Neither replied. The US State Department was to submit estimates of how much it will cost to complete all American-funded projects in Iraq to the White House Office of Management and Budget. The Office won’t discuss the matter. Earlier this month, Brigadier-General William McCoy told reporters: ‘The US never intended to completely rebuild Iraq . . . This was just supposed to be a jump-start.’
British Push Bottles Up German Rear
Carl Zimmer has an article entitled "Fossil Yields Surprise Kin of Crocodiles" in the New York Times:
Scientists at the American Museum of Natural History have discovered a fossil in New Mexico that looks like a six-foot-long, two-legged dinosaur along the lines of a tyrannosaur or a velociraptor. But it is actually an ancient relative of today's alligators and crocodiles.
The discovery is a striking example of how different animals can evolve the same kind of body over and over again.
For almost 60 years, the 210-million-year-old fossil has been hiding in plain sight. It was lodged in a slab of rock dug up in 1947 in New Mexico by a team led by Edward Colbert, a paleontologist at the museum.
More from the NYT here. Benjamin Zimmer, Carl's brother, has an interesting take on the title of Carl's article and asks why the kin of crocodiles were so surprised? He writes in his blog, Language Log:
It's a great example of the kind of ambiguous sentence that teachers of introductory syntax classes often present to their students (like the old standby, "I hate visiting relatives"). If this were a diagramming exercise in Syntax 101, the students would have to come up with phrase-structure trees to account for the structural ambiguity:
The ambiguous reading hinges on whether "yields" is understood as a noun or a verb. Once a reader decides to parse "yields" as a plural noun (with "fossil" understood as an attributive modifier), then the garden path has been established. The unusual headlinese of "surprise kin" further encourages the alternate parsing.
A similar ambiguous headline occasionally gets hauled out for the amusement of linguistics classes: "British Push Bottles Up German Rear." Again, the key to the battling interpretations is whether a single word (in this case "push") is parsed as a noun or a verb.
More from Benjamin here. And last, Carl Zimmer also has a review of the Darwin show at the American Museum of Natural History in Discover Magazine:
Mounted on a carrot and a plum, two soldiers armed with swords and trumpets make war on one another. The Battle of the Fruit and Vegetable Soldiers is no ordinary child's sketch. The artist was a young Francis Darwin, son of the celebrated Charles, and the drawing appears on the back of a manuscript page of his father's most famous work, On the Origin of Species. Tucked away in a glass case in a corner of the American Museum of Natural History's new Darwin exhibit, the page is one of only 28 to survive from the original manuscript of what many called "the book that shook the world." It also succeeds in doing what all the fierce debates cannot. It shows Charles Darwin not as a figurehead in a great fight but as a real human and a devoted father, loath to waste paper, who gave his children discarded manuscript sheets to scribble upon.
Far from being an icon, Darwin was a man who led a dramatic life. He had adventures in exotic lands, fathered 10 children with his wife (and cousin), Emma Wedgwood, and conducted experiments on earthworms, barnacles, and insects (he once lay motionless on his couch to let a wasp drink from his eye).
Beer-bot pours chilled drinks for thirsty humans
Will Knight in New Scientist:
Japanese beer maker Asahi plans to give away 5000 personal bartending bots, each of which can store up to six cans of beer in a refrigerated compartment within its belly. At the push of a button the simple robots will open a can and pour the chilled contents into a glass for a thirsty owner.
To win one of the beer-bots, in a promotion for the company's new low malt beer, contestants must collect 36 tokens found on the specially marked beers. But the competition, starting in February, is only open to those in Japan.
Some robotics experts see the promotion as a fun way to promote a wider interest in robotics. Others, however, say it is a gimmick that distracts from genuine robot research.
A mind well ahead of its time
"Paracelsus was an alchemist, shaman and magician. But he was also the first scientist, a doctor whose influence is still felt today."
Peter Ackroyd reviews The Devil's Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science by Philip Ball, in the London Times:
“I am different,” Paracelsus wrote. “Let this not upset you.”
But it did. He was denounced as a fanatic or impostor and reviled as a drunkard. He was forced to wander from city to city in search of work and bread. He was considered coarse and vulgar, but replied characteristically that “I am a rough man born in a rough country, and what seems silk in my eyes may be but homespun to you.” This was the man who, according to his latest biographer, “started a medical revolution and founded a chemical tradition”.
The “rough country” was Switzerland, but he made all Europe his province. The year of his birth, 1493, can plausibly be seen as the beginning of the modern era. It might be described as the birth of the scientific era, but the word would have meant nothing to him. The term “scientist” was not coined until the 1830s. For Paracelsus and his contemporaries, magic, alchemy and astrology were absolutely embedded within natural philosophy and experimental procedure. Newton was an alchemist and numerologist who drew up arcane recipes for the transmutation of gold and dreamed of rebuilding the Temple of Solomon. Paracelsus predates him by 150 years, but the two philosophers shared the same vital mingling of experimental and transcendental, observed and occult.
INDIA'S MORAL POLICE
Padma Rao in Spiegel:
The walls of the country's temples are decked with acrobatic friezes of copulating couples. Erotic fables tell of the Hindu God of Love flirting outrageously with naked milkmaids bathing in a river. And next to its philosophical considerations about happiness in marriage, the Kama Sutra also offers useful tips for the entire palette of sexual delight. India's ancient history is studded with unabashed sex.
But what about a female tennis star who wears shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt? Or what happens when an actress so famous her fans dedicate temples to her begins to share her views on condoms and pre-marital sex? Smooching pairs in discotheques? Lovers holding hands on the beach?
By Krishna, no.
In recent months, political opportunists in India, acting in the name of "protecting the innocence of India's youth" and "Indian morality," have campaigned a crack-down against sexual liberation in the world's largest democracy. They have brought the work of parliaments to a halt, they have incited mobs and they have successfully pushed for changes to the laws. In a country that has traditionally been better known for the pleasures of the flesh, enforced virtue is fast spreading.
Hang the Red Lanterns
From CNN: A man walks past a display of red lanterns, hung as a symbol of good luck, from a tree at Ditan (Temple of Earth) Park in Beijing, on January 23, decorated for a Lunar New Year temple fair. The tradition of temple fairs during the Spring Festival holiday dates back over a thousand years in Northern China and though it was banned by the Communists in the 1950s for promoting feudalistic superstition, the tradition slowly re-emerged in pace with China's opening economy of the 1980s. Today, visits to the city's various temple fairs remain one of the most popular ways for Beijingers to spend the weeklong public holiday. [I just liked this picture.]
How Spotless Carpet Gets Into Your Blood
Researchers have discovered that a wide variety of stain-resistant products contain volatile compounds that can escape and break down into perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). This indestructible chemical has been accumulating in humans and wildlife, and it has been shown to harm laboratory animals. In related news, the Environmental Protection Agency yesterday asked major manufacturers of these compounds to cut their use by 95% over the next 4 years.
PFOA is used in the process of manufacturing polymers that can repel stains, keep grease on the inside of fast food wrappers, and improve the properties of polishes, paints, and hair-care products. Environmental scientists and regulators are worried because PFOA and related chemicals don't break down, and they cause cancer and developmental effects in lab animals. The environmental puzzle is that PFOA itself is not found in consumer products.
To Banish a Cancer
Medicine usually progresses in incremental steps. One antidepressant or cholesterol-lowering drug follows another with only marginally improved therapeutic benefit. Vaccines are different. Disease prevention through immunization, whether for polio or mumps, has the potential to transform medical practice, sometimes eliminating illness altogether. Smallpox is now (we hope) confined to heavily protected freezers in Russia and at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Vaccine developers appear to be on the verge of another remarkable achievement. Two vaccines that are nearing approval by the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S.--one from Merck, the other from GlaxoSmithKline--have demonstrated in clinical trials that they can prevent infection from the two types of the human papillomavirus (HPV) that account for up to 70 percent of cervical cancers. That could make a big dent in a disease that is the second most common malignancy affecting women worldwide and that kills more than half of its victims. In the U.S., in excess of 10,000 women contract invasive cervical cancer annually and nearly 4,000 die of the disease.
THE MURROW DOCTRINE
Nicholas Lehmann in The New Yorker:
During the war, Murrow never had to play the role of the dispassionate reporter. He was an important player in the Allied war effort, and, under the circumstances, that did not conflict with his journalistic role. Murrow’s special significance was in making Americans see, through his broadcasts about the Blitz, that the European war was not something faraway and irrelevant. When Harry Hopkins, F.D.R.’s right-hand man, came to London for a visit, eleven months before Pearl Harbor, he met with three people on his first day in town: Anthony Eden, Winston Churchill, and Murrow. Churchill was a personal friend as well as a journalistic subject, and Murrow had a wartime affair with Churchill’s daughter-in-law, Pamela Digby Churchill, who later married Averell Harriman.
The magic runs out for Nobel laureate García Márquez
Sam Jones in The Guardian:
He may be a 78-year-old who picked up the Nobel prize for literature almost a quarter of a century ago, but, even so, few chroniclers would have foretold that Gabriel García Márquez would lay down his pen. Or has he?
"I've stopped writing," the author told Barcelona's La Vanguardia in an interview at his home in Mexico. "2005 was the first year in my life that I didn't write a line."
Despite the dramatic declaration, the Colombian went on to say there might yet be another book in him - if inspiration proved forthcoming. "With all the practice I've got, I'd have no problems writing a new novel," he said. "But people do notice if you haven't put your heart into it."
January 26, 2006
on dan flavin
Flavin enjoyed what he thought of as the paradox of the commonplace: the everyday industrial hardware itself, and the incidental, uncontrollable spread of the light. He liked the shadows cast by the housings against the wall, the mixing and reflections and variety of effects the light performed as it bounced off walls, as the colours mingled, as it played games with the rods and cones of the viewer's eyes. But what Flavin did was not Op art, nor Pop art, nor what came to be called minimalism. He didn't believe in "minimal art" in any case, saying that he always thought "people to whom it was applied were making a simple and constructive change, and mostly in terms of themselves". Pressed on what he thought of his friend Donald Judd's seminal essay Specific Objects, which dealt with the very issues and ideas Flavin's art was seen as exemplifying, he claimed he had never properly read it.
more from The Guardian here.