February 28, 2006
Peter Galbraith in the New York Review of Books:
Two books, George Packer's The Assassins' Gate and L. Paul Bremer's My Year in Iraq: The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope, written with Malcolm McConnell, are essential for those who want to understand what went wrong. Packer's book is written with great clarity and draws on his experience as one of The New Yorker's more perceptive reporters. He is clearly a thorough and careful notetaker. As a result, the people he writes about—Washington neoconservatives, CPA bureaucrats, and ordinary Iraqis whose lives were turned upside down by decisions made elsewhere—speak to the reader in their own voices. In analyzing the war, Packer begins with the ideologies that shaped its architects' thinking and then brilliantly describes the unrealistic assumptions and bureaucratic maneuvering that resulted in the US taking over Iraq with no plan for its postwar administration. Bremer, as his title suggests, does not believe that the occupation was a complete disaster. He provides a briskly written account of an eventful year, assigning most of the blame to others, notably Donald Rumsfeld, General Ricardo Sanchez, and the members of the Iraqi Governing Council whom he appointed. The value of his book lies in his often inadvertent revelations of failure.
Keith Gessen in The New Yorker:
A new book of Grossman’s war writings—a collection taken from his notebooks and his published pieces—has just appeared in English as “A Writer at War” (Pantheon; $27.50), translated by Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova. Beevor, whose book “Stalingrad” is the definitive account of the fighting in that city and relies heavily for color on Grossman’s reportage, is very fond of Grossman, and this collection weaves together his texts alongside lucid historical commentary to tell the story of the war through Grossman’s eyes. But what about Grossman himself? One wants to read the notebooks as a novel of education, recording a growing consciousness of the brutality and the corruption of the Soviet regime. In fact, a bit disappointingly, the Grossman we meet at the beginning of the book is already skeptical and wary of the regime. He notes the propaganda in the papers. “The bedraggled enemy continues his cowardly advance,” goes the headline, as the Germans take town after town. Interrogations of occasional German prisoners (at this point it was mostly Red Army soldiers who were being taken prisoner, in the hundreds of thousands) are absurd and demoralizing, a pathetic kind of Soviet tourism.
Gravity is the only glue
Bryant Varney of Northern Michigan University constructs replicas of buildings using wooden Jenga blocks. Here's the Sears Tower:
More crazy Jenga buildings here.
Barnosky and I
Jeff Barnosky in the Morning News (via Phronesisaical):
The other one, the one called Jeff Barnosky, is the one who buys things. Expensive things and confusing things. Seven bottles of Vaseline. A salt shaker. A Ford Escape. I walk through the streets of Dallas—even though I’ve never been there—and shop at every store. Last Tuesday, I apparently put a down payment on a condo in Orlando. I know of Jeff Barnosky through his charges. He likes waffles, strip clubs, and miniature golf. The other Barnosky rides the highways of America, filling up his 30 gallons with the good stuff, making sure that his engine hums as he takes in the heart of America, staying at the best hotels, ordering room service (more waffles!), and stopping at retail outlets to buy thousands of dollars in leotards.
I applaud the other Barnosky for pursuing his advanced degrees; at least I assume that’s what he’s doing with $40,000 in private student loans. At night, I try to watch television as the phone rings, asking me to pay my outstanding bills. I simply tell them that they must call the other Jeff Barnosky, the one who has digital cable at his winter house in Aspen and broadband at the place he summers in Montauk.
One night, after hearing my name praised on the local public radio station for taking care of their pledge drive in a single phone call (and breaking their heart in a follow-up call), I come home to find my girlfriend packing her bags. She looks up at me, on the verge of tears...
Tasmanian Devils Spread Cancer by Biting
From The National Geographic:
For ten years a facial cancer has threatened to wipe out Australia's Tasmanian devils. The cancer is spreading fast, and scientists now say the disease transferred in tooth-baring combat. Now dubbed devil facial-tumor disease, the ailment produces enormous growths that push the animals' teeth out of line and make it difficult for them to eat. Afflicted animals generally die of starvation within six months. The disease has spread rapidly. Today biologists report that few animals evade it long enough to live into old age, which for a Tasmanian devil means about five years.
Scientists have long known the disease is infectious, but nobody understood what caused it. Now they've found the answer: The animals inject cancer cells into each other when they engage in mating battles.
A Plague of Cannibals
The wrath of god is the traditional explanation for plagues of marauding insects that devour everything in their path. What really drives the swarm, according to a new study of crickets, is a hankering for protein and salt, along with the fear of getting cannibalized. Every few years, Mormon crickets march across the western United States by the millions. Last spring, a team led by Stephen Simpson, an ecologist at the University of Sydney, Australia, found some clues to their motivations in the trail blazed by a 1-kilometer long Mormon cricket marching band. For one thing, the crickets were not starving because they left most edible plants untouched. But they gobbled anything high in protein, such as seed pods, flowers, and even mammal feces. Salt also seemed to be on the menu; the crickets swallowed soil if it was soaked with urine. And a strange clue was the discovery that many crickets were eating each other.
Cavegirls were first blondes to have fun
Roger Dobson and Abul Taher in the London Times:
The study argues that blond hair originated in the region because of food shortages 10,000-11,000 years ago. Until then, humans had the dark brown hair and dark eyes that still dominate in the rest of the world. Almost the only sustenance in northern Europe came from roaming herds of mammoths, reindeer, bison and horses. Finding them required long, arduous hunting trips in which numerous males died, leading to a high ratio of surviving women to men.
Lighter hair colours, which started as rare mutations, became popular for breeding and numbers increased dramatically, according to the research, published under the aegis of the University of St Andrews.
Wings of desire
"They have 32,000 major parts, 750,000 rivets, 23 miles of wiring and, when assembled, a pair will have a span wider than a football pitch. But if the wings of the Airbus A380, the biggest passenger plane ever built, are unprecedented in scale, it is the journey they take from north Wales to the company's HQ in southern France that is truly astonishing. Aida Edemariam follows one wing on its epic voyage, and traces an extraordinary tale of engineering."
From The Guardian:
When the A380 finally goes into service at the end of this year, it will carry about 550 people, making it the largest passenger aircraft ever to take to the skies. It is not the largest aircraft ever built (the Russian Antonov, a freighter, holds that honour), but at up to 35% greater capacity, it can claim to represent as titanic a revolution in commercial flying as Boeing's jumbo - the 747-400 - was 36 years ago. Partly because of the unique challenges of its size (73m in length, the equivalent of seven London Routemasters queued nose to tail, and with a wingspan of 79.8m) and partly because of demands from airlines that planes should be quieter, less polluting and above all cheaper to fly per passenger, it has not been enough simply to tinker with designs for previous aircraft. Airbus went back to the drawing board and designed the A380 from scratch, which means it is also as major a technological achievement as Concorde. Being manufactured at 16 different European sites, however, using the skills of 1,500 suppliers in 30 countries, this singular aeroplane demands a level of international cooperation that the Concorde project did not even hint at.
Raised by Wolves
Our friend, Lindsay Beyerstein, of Majikthise, relates endearing details of her childhood while explaining that it is possible to be the child of academics and still be a decent person (unlike, say, Alex Rawls--yes, son of the John Rawls):
My parents met in Berkeley in the 1960s while my dad was doing his PhD. Being raised by academic hippies is like being raised by wolves--you can rejoin human society, but you can never integrate seamlessly.
In my family, even pets and infants are addressed in complete sentences. There are no taboo subjects, except when the conservative relatives visit from the interior. Then we can't talk about religion.
I remember the day in kindergarden when one little boy announced that he had a baby brother. How did that happen, someone asked. The kid said something about God. Other kids were floating theories about angel-storks. I felt I had to set the record straight. Many children cried. My mom was called in for a parent-teacher conference. The teacher was very upset.
"Did she tell the truth?" Mom asked.
"Oh, yes," the teacher said, "In great detail."
"I don't think we have a problem, then," Mom said.
My uncle, the philosopher, used to be a heavy smoker. One day when I was about six, I said, no doubt irritatingly,
"If I were you, I wouldn't smoke."
He answered, "If you were me, you'd smoke. I smoke." I thought about that for a long time.
Another early philosophical memory is from a long car trip. My mom sent my dad to the library to get some books on tape to amuse me 10, and my brother 6. He came back with "The Death of Socrates" and "On The Road." By the time we reached southern Washington my brother and I were sobbing inconsolably and mom looked about ready to kill dad. The mood brightened after we popped in "On the Road" and mocked the dated sex scenes as a family.
More here. [Lindsay needs money for a new computer. Help her!]
Recent Quantum Computing Advance, Brilliantly Explained
Robin posted this and then this a couple of days ago about a puzzling advance in quantum computing. Both posts confused most people who read them (even the writers at Nature seemed quite unsure of what exactly they were reporting, taking refuge in vague but dramatic language), so I turned to the smartest physicist I happen to be friends with, Sean Carrol, of Cosmic Variance for clarification. He has obliged (thanks Sean!) with a tour de force of scientific exposition. It is still not trivial (please, we are talking advanced quantum theory here!) to understand, but if you pay careful attention, you should get the basic idea. This is how he explains it:
Quantum mechanics, as we all know, is weird. It’s weird enough in its own right, but when some determined experimenters do tricks that really bring out the weirdness in all its glory, and the results are conveyed to us by well-intentioned but occasionally murky vulgarizations in the popular press, it can seem even weirder than usual.
Last week was a classic example: the computer that could figure out the answer without actually doing a calculation! (See Uncertain Principles, Crooked Timber, 3 Quarks Daily.) The articles refer to an experiment performed by Onur Hosten and collaborators in Paul Kwiat’s group at Urbana-Champaign, involving an ingenious series of quantum-mechanical miracles. On the surface, these results seem nearly impossible to make sense of. (Indeed, Brad DeLong has nearly given up hope.) How can you get an answer without doing a calculation? Half of the problem is that imprecise language makes the experiment seem even more fantastical than it really is — the other half is that it really is quite astonishing.
Let me make a stab at explaining, perhaps not the entire exercise in quantum computation, but at least the most surprising part of the whole story — how you can detect something without actually looking at it. The substance of everything that I will say is simply a translation of the nice explanation of quantum interrogation at Kwiat’s page, with the exception that I will forgo the typically violent metaphors of blowing up bombs and killing cats in favor of a discussion of cute little puppies.
So here is our problem: a large box lies before us, and we would like to know whether there is a sleeping puppy inside. Except that, sensitive souls that we are, it’s really important that we don’t wake up the puppy. Furthermore, due to circumstances too complicated to get into right now, we only have one technique at our disposal: the ability to pass an item of food into a small flap in the box. If the food is something uninteresting to puppies, like a salad, we will get no reaction — the puppy will just keep slumbering peacefully, oblivious to the food. But if the food is something delicious (from the canine point of view), like a nice juicy steak, the aromas will awaken the puppy, which will begin to bark like mad.
It would seem that we are stuck. If we stick a salad into the box, we don’t learn anything, as from the outside we can’t tell the difference between a sleeping puppy and no puppy at all. If we stick a steak into the box, we will definitely learn whether there is a puppy in there, but only because it will wake up and start barking if it’s there, and that would break our over-sensitive hearts. Puppies need their sleep, after all.
Fortunately, we are not only very considerate, we are also excellent experimental physicists with a keen grasp of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics, according to the conventional interpretations that are good enough for our purposes here, says three crucial and amazing things...
More here. [Photo shows Sean Carroll.]
February 27, 2006
What is it with these writers who feel the need to make up significant portions of their "true life" stories? Why do they think they're going to get away with it (they never do), and why does the literary world feign surprise with each new scandal? At least the much-feted youthful phenom J. T. Leroy had the novelty value of not existing at all; Leroy was invented by the California couple who had supposedly adopted him and promoted his story of childhood abuse to celebrities. The beleaguered James Frey presents the more typical case. The Oprah Book Club chose his memoir precisely because of its depiction of the author's harrowing real life experiences, and therein lies the rub: the success of this kind of book relies on the public's voracious appetite for horrible and nasty events, but of course they have to have really happened in order to satisfy our voyeurism. We feel disgusted and cheated by the revelation that the author's life may not have been as wretched and terrifying as he or she had convinced us it was.
So, is the problem that there is simply not enough interesting reality to go around - in economic terms, there's more demand than supply, essentially forcing writers to invent it simply because it would make a better story than what actually happened? Is reality, at least the "good" kind that will sell, like oil, a kind of precious and finite commodity? Or is that people who actually have nightmarish lives tend not to have the wherewithal, connections, literary skills, or relentless desire for self-promotion required to please our compulsive need to pry into their suffering? (As a friend pointed out, in such cases it's often true that the writer's supporters and promoters have an inkling of the fraudulence to be unmasked later on; part of the attraction of any good con job involves a nagging feeling at the back of head that one is being scammed.)
The current trend to consume reality as entertainment or even art - from Survivor, American Idol, and The Swan to the memoir fad in publishing - isn't actually new. Daniel Defoe basically invented the English novel when he realized that the public's demand for shipwreck stories was so insatiable that he could just make something up rather than actually go through all the bother of risking his life on a deserted island. The result was Robinson Crusoe. Defoe, intriguingly, claimed that he hated fiction in his Serious Reflections: "This supplying a story by invention is certainly a most scandalous crime...It is a sort of lying that makes a great hole in the heart, at which by degrees a habit of lying enters in."
Viewing the novel as a form of compulsive lying - the entire story has to be internally coherent and plausible even while every detail is false - is one way to understand why so many memoirs bend the truth. A lot of memoirists are novelists, and novelists lie for a living. William Faulkner, for example, wore a phony uniform and claimed throughout his life that he served as an airman in WWI; he did learn to fly, and his fiction about flying, in Pylon and his WWII short story "Turnabout," is masterful. The word "fiction" comes from a root meaning "to fashion something." It's the magic mechanism of fabrication, the urge to create what Shakespeare, in The Tempest, called "the baseless fabric of this vision."
Should we care whether it's made up or not? Clearly, there are some cases where a line is crossed, like The Painted Bird, whose author, Jerzy Kosinski, pretended to have experienced the horrors of WWII up close. (Kosinski's suicide is often linked to the reputation-destroying revelation that the story was made up.) But most memoirists' sins are minor: exaggerations, additions, tall tales, and the like. Of course, anybody who puts dialogue of any kind into a memoir is essentially writing fiction. Unless they possess a preternatural memory, they have no choice but to invent what people said. Perhaps there are hidden rules to this sort of thing: everyone understands that it's possible that not every hilarious comment recorded in a David Sedaris story was actually said, word for word, but nobody would (or should) conclude that Sedaris is trying to trick anyone. The standard, then, is somewhat murky in a similar fashion to the problem of plagiarism, which, it is generally agreed, must be intentional in order to be a serious academic offense. Similarly, it is not enough to misremember the name of the hospital where you were born, you have to be caught making up lies about how you were born with a hole in your lung and how it shaped your later character, by a blogger who looks up your medical records.
Hollywood has taken the lead in parsing the finer distinctions of the reality-based fiction. In addition to the old standby Based Upon a True Story, we now have the brilliant formulation Based On True Events, or the even more interesting Inspired by True Events. These terms have become increasingly all-encompassing. Presumably, if somebody is on their way to get coffee and they witness a mugging, and later turn the incident into a screenplay, that could be "based on true events," whereas if they only read about the mugging in a newspaper while sitting in the coffeeshop and did the same thing, they have been "inspired by true events." But these phrases aren't just so vague as to be meaningless, or studio legalese. They are also statements implicitly acknowledging that a story is far more salable if it can be shown to have some connection, however tenuous, with something that once really happened. The horror movie bomb White Noise, for example, was promoted with a frightening commercial - far more scary than the movie itself - in which (supposedly real) recordings of the voices of dead people had been caught on tape speaking from beyond the grave.
In their movie Fargo, the Coen Brothers already mocked this entire concept by claiming that their film was based on a true story when it almost certainly wasn't. ("Names have been changed out of respect for the dead," the opening credits read, surely a fitting ironic prelude to the "respectful" wood-chipper scene.) The Coens hemmed and hawed when they were asked to fill in details about their sources, but the deception was deliberate and satirical. It was a sly comment on our entire obsession with reality, as well as a nod to the implausible "true detective" pulp stories invoked and parodied in The Man Who Wasn't There. Weren't the Coens really making a subtle case for fiction, and for art, where receding levels of playful irony operate in ways that true stories, limited to the facts, can only dream about?
The process of inserting fiction into reality can have unexpected consequences. Consider the case of Ted Perry, a professor of film at Middlebury College who worked on a television documentary, Home, about enivronmental issues, in 1972. Perry was asked to write a script about the virtues of environmentalism, but the show's producers thought that Perry's words would sound better if some of the text was presented as the wisdom of a respected Native American historical figure, Chief Seattle. The show claimed that Chief Seattle had said, "The earth does not belong to man - man belongs to the earth." Decades later, the saying is still ascribed to Chief Seattle, and appears in school textbooks and bumper stickers. Perry, in a turnabout from the norm, has spent years trying to get the true story out. (The saying is really an inversion of a line of poetry by Robert Frost: "The land was ours before we were the land's.") In all probability, however, the phrase would have never become famous without the trickery. Chief Seattle was a profound guy with plenty of wisdom, and someone realized, shrewdly, that the quotation was more marketable as a Seattleism than a Perryism.
I think it was Schopenhauer who once said that there are two kinds of books worth reading, the kind that exposes us to an experience we could never have ourselves, and the kind that is artfully written and constructed. The best kind of reality entertainment, such as Norman Mailer's "true life novel" The Executioner's Song - or The Armies of the Night, with its slogan "The novel as history, history as a novel" - combines both dimensions. But the truth is that many books achieve their only salability and public interest because they are true; the plain fact is that they are often so badly written that they could not sell as fiction. If your writing is false, then your story had better be true.
Monday Musing: Darfur, Privatized Humanitarian Intervention, and Moral Ambiguity
It’s one of the moments in the annual cycle where some of us at 3QD increase our focus on Darfur. Tilting toward the liberal-lefty bleeding heart side of the spectrum, we get incensed by the news, then feel that perhaps we’re being too monomaniacal and strident. Perhaps something by the powers that be suggests that something may be done—Colin Powell calls it a “genocide”, the African Union intervenes, using mostly Rwandan soldiers—lessens the urgency for attention. Then it all goes to pot—the UN puts the Sudan on its Human Rights Commission, really, and the AU decides, of all things, to host this year’s summit in Khartoum of all places and, even worse, considers Sudanese President Omar El Bashir a candidate for chair of the AU. (Denis Sassou-Nguesso of the Republic of Congo was elected.)
This has happened a few times now, with the fact that it has happened a few times being the result of the lack of meaningful action by the international community of nation-states. This current rise in our own attention to Darfur resulted from a few disconnected events: a quick back and forth about Darfur in the comments section of a post, a conversation with a friend of a friend at a party about the work she’s been doing to help organize an upcoming call to action on Darfur, and an HRW report that Janjaweed militia are attacking refugee camps in Chad and the Chadian army is no longer protecting many of the camps. The cycle has been iterated often enough that it seems unlikely that anything will be done—suggestions of NATO intervention included.
In the midst of some back and forth in the comments section of the blog, I recalled a questioned posed by Daniel Davies over at Crooked Timber a while ago. Davies was commenting on an editorial about Sir Mark Thatcher’s alleged bankrolling of a coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea, which is run by a venal and brutal petty dictator—although no one was under the illusion Sir Thatcher was motivated by a desire to liberate the country.
The serious issue raised by this joke is, if we accept the logic of the “strong version” of humanitarian intervention, then why should we also say that it is only the job of states to carry out such interventions? Since, ex hypothesi, any special position for states is ruled out by the strong pro-war internationalist liberal stance, why shouldn’t groups of private individuals take action? For example, Harry’s Place has five main contributors, each of whom could probably raise about $200,000 if they took out a second mortgage; maybe they should be ringing up Executive Outcomes and getting a few estimates in on smallish African states. Why leave this to the government?
Certainly, mercenaries have been used before. Both Executive Outcomes and Sandline International were used in Sierra Leone against the remarkably thuggish Revolutionary United Front of Foday Sankoh, and they were apparently very effective and relatively cheap. (To make it perfectly clear, I’m not a fan of mercenaries, whom I consider slightly better than international arms dealers, whom I consider, by and large, parasites that feed upon the weakest member of our species.) The UN under Annan considered using Executive Outcomes in Rwanda in the face of the unwillingness of the international community to halt a genocide.
In a footnote the his post, Davies clarifies, “By this [“strong version”] I mean the version pushed in the pro-war blogosphere, under which any intervention that removes a bad regime is by that token good. Not the rather stronger criterion used by Human Rights Watch.” That criterion is fairly straightforward:
In our view, as a threshold matter, humanitarian intervention that occurs without the consent of the relevant government can be justified only in the face of ongoing or imminent genocide, or comparable mass slaughter or loss of life. To state the obvious, war is dangerous. In theory it can be surgical, but the reality is often highly destructive, with a risk of enormous bloodshed. Only large-scale murder, we believe, can justify the death, destruction, and disorder that so often are inherent in war and its aftermath. Other forms of tyranny are deplorable and worth working intensively to end, but they do not in our view rise to the level that would justify the extraordinary response of military force. Only mass slaughter might permit the deliberate taking of life involved in using military force for humanitarian purposes.
I don’t think that anyone doubts that the criterion has been met in Darfur. HRW of course is calling for UN-approved intervention carried out by the military forces of member-states, not mercenaries. Davies had raised the question of privatized humanitarian intervention to imply that the strong state-led interventions of the sort seem in Iraq are wrong and wrongheaded by appeal to our intuitions that it would be wrong if carried out by a private force, or at least it seemed so by the tone. (If states have no privileged place in sense that sovereignty is inviolable even if they’re committing atrocious crimes, then states don’t necessarily have a privileged place in the sense of a monopoly in using arms to stop these atrocities, though for many reasons we may want to turn to them first.)
Certainly, on the Left, one of the greater and more heroic images is of the international brigades that came to the defense of the Spanish Republic against fascists. (Yes, they were not mercenaries but idealistic volunteers, but that seems a technical difference rather than an ethical one. Idealist NGOs in this hypothetical would be hiring specialists, who I imagine are better at armed conflict than human rights workers.) In fact, if there was a problem in retrospect with the defense of the Republic, it was the involvement of the Soviet Union.
I’m not advocating that we do so here, that is, have private organizations send in mercenaries. Rather, I’m trying to work out an ethical puzzle or quandary. (The internet is supposed to be an effective tool for pooling information, deliberation and collective problem solving. While that dynamic usually works with technical issues with a right answer, it may help with this moral-technical problem of how should we go about assigning weights to the competing moral principles involved.)
I’m aware of the problems associated with NGOs raising money to hire mercenaries to intervene in humanitarian disasters: unlike with states, there is the problem of weak or absent institutions for exercising accountability, and that fact could thereby lead to more chaos; there is no transparency; there is the problem of precedent, in that do I want some alliance of radical anti-abortion forces in the world to raise money and take out a weak government which allows abortion because it believes it to be mass murder; there is the problem that it encourages mercenaries (parasites) by creating a demand for them; there is the fact that it is a crime in most countries to conduct this kind of private foreign policy; that the further privatization of certain services which are collective goods, the provision of which should be subject to democratic debate and monitoring, is the last thing that the world needs; and there are probably many more that don’t come to mind right now.
Against this there is: the fact that Darfur is a catastrophe; that we are witnessing state failure, in the sense that those who are supposed to stop this sort of thing have failed to do so on enough occasions for us to believe that they won’t do so at all, and perhaps in the same way that individuals have a right to organize their own security if states cannot provide reasonable safety, perhaps we have a right to organize collective security when states won’t; that it is reasonable at times to commit a lesser crime to prevent a greater one; and that it would save a lot of lives. (While the figures come from Executive Outcomes and are probably very self-serving, it’s not unlikely that 1,500 EO mercenaries in Rwanda could have saved tens of thousands of lives.) Perhaps even more importantly, that there are instances which act as exceptions, where other principles weigh enough to suspend in that instance countervailing principles, and that by acting in this instance in violation of the lesser principle, we’re not nullifying it altogether. Darfur may be a reasonable candidate for such an instance. But this last part is just the pro side being the pro side.
In all honesty, I don’t know how to weigh these against each other. I go back and forth, and I find that my best moral reasoning doesn’t seem to yield any kind of resolution to it.
Sojourns: Judaism as Style
I've found myself listening to the much-hyped, Hasidic reggae/hip-hop artist Matisyahu the last couple days. Needless to say, that makes me a confirmed bandwagon jumper. The live recording of "King without a Crown" and the accompanying video shot in Austin TX have been getting heavy rotation. His new CD is due next week and already two shows have been sold out at Manhattan's sizable Hammerstein Ballroom. Writing this column, I merely join the rubes finally noticing a sub-cultural phenomenon as it percolates up to the mainstream.
Let me say at the outset that I am no aficionado of dancehall or reggae. But for what it's worth, it does seem to me that the rhythms of toasting and the syncopations of Jewish prayer and song go well together (biddi-bum, biddi-diddi-bum, sounds equally appropriate for Marley or Tevya). And I like the easy translations Matisyahu has made from Jah to Hashem while incorporating elements of Torah, the Psalms, and the like. Still, I don't really know enough about music to do anything other than listen to it, and so I'll leave the discussion of the songs to those who can write about them with some expertise. What interests me here instead is the phenomenon of Matisyahu himself. At first glance, he has every appearance of a novelty act, an amusing suturing of Lubovitcher Judaism with West-Indian dancehall. Use whatever metaphor you would like. He's a jerk pastrami sandwich, Vanilla Ice made from Manishevitz. Except that he's not. Read over his fawning press, and you'll see that he's survived the inevitable skepticism. Indeed, the verdict has come in on the opposite side. Matisyahu is an authentic fusion of two distinct musical, ethnic, and religious cultures: Jewish and West Indian, matzo and roti. He's a one man, cross-pollinated product of Crown-Heights Brooklyn.
OK, so in other words, one myth has taken the place of another. We are to imagine a yeshiva boy who cut class to run across Flatbush Avenue and spend afternoons spinning and toasting with the boys from the Islands. But that isn't exactly right either. As is usually the case, the truth is more complicated and more interesting. Matisyahu was born Matthew Miller to a middle-class secular family in West Chester Pennsylvania. Late in his teens, he found God and decided to become Orthodox while staring deeply at the mountains during a camping trip in Colorado. He subsequently enrolled in a Hasidic yeshiva designed especially for converts to Orthodoxy. The young Matthew Miller seems to have had a wide interest in music, but his interest in the particular religious culture of Jewish Hasidism, with its messianic mysticism, its separatist resistance to modern living, and in the particular, Lubavitch sect he joined, its commitment to the charismatic authority of the late Rabbi Menachem Scheerson, was rather late in coming. It is not right to say that he was Hasidic and then found reggae. Rather, the two seem to have fed off each other in a wholesale reconfiguring of his life.
What is interesting about this, I think, is that the intensely religious and observant Judaism that so marks the persona of Matisyahu was something that he chose, not something he was born into. The beard and the side curls, the long black coats and felt hats, the tsitsis and the like, are self-conscious stylings. They are a Hasidic aesthetic, or Hastheatic, if you will. I do not mean to disparage at all the sincerity of Matisyahu's beliefs. His commitment to the messianic religiosity of Lubovitcher Hasidism is evident in his lyrics and in his life. Even so, the religious persona is clearly as much a question of style as it is of belief. The more so, I would imagine, for his audience. There is something intrinsically appealing about seeing a Hasid perform his kind of music and perform it well. Matisyahu's Judaism is interesting because it is so visible and marked, so much like the inner city of a mythical old-world. When it is fused with the musical style of his West-Indian neighbors, it is clearly updated to our polyglot and hybrid moment.
Matisyahu's sudden popularity is owing in part to the role he has taken within a larger resurgence of hipster Judaism in popular culture, a fascination with Yiddishkeit and klezmer and Bar-Mitzvah-Disco and the like. As it has long been, Judaism is here a sign of urbanity, of knowingness, and of cosmopolitanism. But in this case the urbanity and knowingness and cosmopolitanism dwell in the musical hybridity: the nexus of Hasidism, reggae, and hip-hop as distinct urban forms. Thus I suspect that few of Matisyahu's listeners are drawn to the religious content of his music, important as that content may be to him. Whether they know it or not, they are drawn to the familiar unity of Judaism and modernity, the ineffably current and relevant something that resonates in the sound of the Yiddish or the Hebrew, the look of the side curls and the tsitsis, when they are combined and overlaid with an unexpected kind of music. So, while there is little in Hasidism one can relate to as doctrine, and even less as a way of life, there is something clearly attractive about it as a contemporary style. So much so that the fusion with reggae and dancehall and hip hop seems not so implausible, and not at all kitsch. Given the alternatives, that is not so bad a use for religion.
PERCEPTIONS: An exceptional alphabet
Peter D. Haines. Migration. 2001.
300 elements in bronze. Longest 14".
Talking Pints: The Bode Miller Problem and Hamas
In my last column I noted how Political Science, along with most social sciences, has a bigger problem with prediction than seems to be generally acknowledged. This is of course hardly unique to members of this particular tribe; the media are even worse. Take for example the US media’s treatment of Bode Miller in the Winter Olympics. For those of you who have been living in a cave for the past month, Miller was the ‘sure thing’ for the US ski team. After all, he had his own set of sponsored ads, videos, and an interactive website from Nike. Miller was competing in five events and was, according to the US media, the front runner to lift possibly all five gold medals. Quite why this was the case was a mystery to me. Sure, he’s a damn good skier, but if you looked at his world cup results you would see that he was hardly head-and-shoulders above the competition, and in particular events he was well below the top rank.
Now, consider that each event Miller participated in at the Olympics was hardly an independent event due to the psychological impact of each result on the next, and that he is fully entitled (like the rest of us) to have a bad day at the office. Well, he did. He missed in all five events. Needless to say the media are now picking his corpse clean for defying their predictions. As the New York Times put it after his first ‘failure’ – “He is paying the price for misplacing career priorities.” Quite how the writer of this piece knows exactly where Miller left his priorities is unclear. The fact that he did not win is insufficient evidence, and you can bet your last dollar that had he won his next event such concerns would have been completely erased. Moreover, the last time anyone won five gold medals at a Winter Olympics was Eric Heiden in 1980 for speed skating. As far as I am aware, no one has ever won five medals in an Alpine event. Why Miller didn’t win could be a surprise only if one was deliberately ignoring much relevant information. Indeed, taking a select few data points and projecting them forward as an inevitability almost always produces disappointing results.
Two things stand out for me from this nonsense. First, why is anyone surprised that Miller did not win any gold medals, let alone five, when no one has ever done so? Second, and more interestingly for the non-skiers out there, why do people have a tendency to take two or three data points and project them into the future as an inevitable trend? Beyond the hype associated with US contenders, and the sheer myopia of the US media to the possibility of ‘foreigners’ actually beating the home-grown talent, such a tendency has consequences far beyond the Winter Olympics.
Consider Condoleezza Rice and Hamas’ electoral victory. The Secretary of State noted after Hamas’ victory at the polls that “I don't know anyone who wasn't caught off guard by Hamas's strong showing.” In fact, me, my wife, my cat, and The Economist Newspaper all knew this was coming down the track. Why then didn’t the Secretary of State, with all the resources at her disposal, not have an inkling that such a thing was going on? Perhaps what might be called ‘the Bode Miller problem’ was at work here too?
Consider that on issues as disparate as the invasion of Iraq, Social Security privatization, and energy policy, the Bush administration has never been one to let mere facts get in the way of a good ideology. Disconfirming evidence is screened out and only confirming evidence is admitted. A few supporting data points are projected as a trend while everything else is ignored.
In the case of the election of Hamas, while Fatah had recently done what the US has wanted in terms of halting suicide attacks, holding elections, and playing nice with Israel (all of which was acknowledged (trended) by the US), what Israel had done to Fatah over the past few years, in particular, bombing the PLO’s governing infrastructure into the ground thus cutting off their all important patronage network, was, like the totality of Miller’s results, totally ignored. The trend-line predicting Fatah’s victory was projected forward since only confirmatory data were being examined, and everything that didn’t fit the trend was ignored. Consequently, when a Palestinian voter said at an exit poll “Fatah hasn't done anything for us,” this seemed to come as surprise; despite it being manifestly obvious to anyone who wanted to look at the totality of the data. Simply ignoring data because it does not fit with a preconceived model can be justified if the data is randomly distributed and constitutes clear ‘outliers’ from the observed trend. But to ignore a clear trend in the data and simply focus on what you want to see is pretty much guaranteed to end up producing a nasty surprise, pace Hamas.
Now this tendency to see trends, ignore data, and pointlessly project into the future is not only sadly common among the media and the political classes, (remember the US government not so long ago predicting budget surpluses into infinity on the basis of three data points?) it has determinate effects on likely future outcomes. When Hamas won the election the reaction of the US, Israel, and even the normally placid Europeans, was swift and condemnatory, and who could be surprised by this? After all, the Hamas Charter of 1988 does call for the destruction of Israel and cites The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the current “Nazi-Tartar” invasion by the West as reason enough. Indeed, there are undeniably a lot of data points out there pointing to actions by Hamas consistent with that interpretation and those ends. But even here there may be a ‘Bode Miller problem’ at work in that even here the past may prove no real guide to the future.
Consider that until into the 1990s the main body of the Irish Republican Army believed and proclaimed (quite seriously) that the UK government was holding the six counties of the North hostage as part of a colonial struggle, despite the exercise costing the rest of the UK millions of pounds each month with nothing in return except mainland bombings and death. Indeed, some breakaway Republican groups still adhere to the same beliefs. Yet, in order to believe such things one has to filter out massive amounts of data and project the few points that fit the preferred theory into the eternal and unchanging future. But when is the future ever eternal and unchanging? I am sure that much of Hamas is quite capable of continuing to believe in the forgery of the Protocols and act violently towards Israel, but let’s remember that one could have made the same projections about the IRA a decade ago, and yet they changed fundamentally, and quite unexpectedly.
Filtering the data to see only one trend negates potential futures. Seeing Hamas as a trend that cannot be stopped inevitably leads one to conclude that isolation and punishment is the only way forward. But Hamas has only ever known isolation and punishment. As such, proposals to cut-off aid in order to encourage capitulation is to fundamentally misread the data. True, there has been no IRA-like change yet, but to address the situation as an inevitable conflict preordained in the data will surely bring about such a conflict since we are blind to other possibilities.
So is expecting Bode Miller to win five gold medals the same as expecting Hamas to never change? Yes, but with one difference. Whereas Miller ‘failed’ on his own terms given the competition and the randomness of the day (after all, he might win six world cup races in a row in 2007), Hamas may only really ‘fail’ in the eyes of the Palestinians if the West and Israel are seen to make them fail. Key to the West and Israel doing this is to pick the data points they want to see (Hamas as unchanging and violent due to the trend line of the data) and project it forward.
Now, I freely admit that I know more about skiing than I know about the intricacies of Middle Eastern politics, but it does seem to me that, as the millions of people who read their astrology every day attest, humans like patterns and can see them in almost anything. Add to this ‘the Bode Miller problem’ that we can ignore much of importance in order to see much of irrelevance since it reinforces the patterns that we want to see, and perhaps it is better to let Hamas run the schools’ budget rather than deprive them of it. After all, something new in the data might be the start of a new trend, both for Bode Miller and Hamas.
Old Bev: Letter to Dalton Conley
Dear Dr. Conley,
You won’t remember me. I took your “Introduction to Sociology” lecture in the Fall of 2001 at New York University; I received a B+ in the course and we never spoke. I liked your class because it was full of good conversation starters and softball assignments and my only complaint was that I was required to buy your 1999 title “Being Black, Living in the Red” (we discussed it for only half of one session and the connection was shaky). I thought of you again when a glamour-shot of you appeared in O: The Oprah Magazine. I experienced a brief thrill. But I can’t say I would have spent much more energy on you had it not been for your New York Times op-ed that appeared on December 1 of last year, "A Man’s Right to Choose."
By now a rebuttal of your argument is old hat – it’s been four months – but gosh, I was riled up. A few days after I read your statement that “If a father is willing to legally commit to raising a child with no help from the mother he should be able to obtain an injunction against the abortion of the fetus he helped create,” I sat in Blue 9 Burger with my boyfriend and struggled, between bites, to articulate a scathing letter to the Times that would use remembered principles from Intro to Soc. to dismember your argument. My basic strategy was to remind you of one Tuesday morning when you asked your class to “Think about bathroom lines. The women’s line is always longer. Why?” By this point, my ears had perked up (conversation starter!). “They do more in there,” you continued. “They have to sit down, they have to use sanitary products, they change babies more than the men do. But the bathrooms are the same size as the men’s, and so the lines are longer.” I was convinced: for all members of society to receive equal treatment, their inequalities must be addressed. The women should have more stalls than the men, so everybody can pee and buy popcorn at intermission. So when I reached the portion of “A Man’s Right to Choose” when you described the “real work” of pregnancy as “morning sickness, leg cramps, biological risks and so on,” and used that reduction to argue that a male lifetime commitment to his child should render that nine-month female commitment fairly irrelevant, I was baffled. It seemed to me that pregnancy alone (forget the kid!) could and often does threaten a woman’s job, support system, and health. Her boss doesn’t care, her family sure does, and not in a good way, and her diabetes can’t handle it. Those problems aren’t solved with soda crackers and a back rub, Dr. Conley. What you glibly called “biological risks and so on” is a exclusively female set of predicaments, and should inform women’s rights accordingly.
I didn’t write that letter, and I didn’t need to. Critics much more intelligent and eloquent than I, namely Longview Fellow Carole Joffe, took you up on your challenge to examine “men's claims to a role in the reproductive decision-making process” outside of marriage. In her open letter to you, she primarily focuses on the practical (or rather, impractical) implications of your proposal, finding that it “would create havoc in this already over-regulated and unnecessarily chaotic branch of the health care system.” Joffe points to surrogate mothering as an example of what happens when a pregnancy involves two contractually bound parties, and she asks how your proposal would accommodate these documented problems: “What happens when prenatal diagnosis in such a pregnancy reveals severe fetal anomalies? Does the father now have the right to change his mind about wanting the child that will result from this pregnancy? Even if he does relent and free the woman to choose an abortion, he is subjecting her to a later, more complex and considerably more expensive procedure. And will the father also have the right to monitor the pregnant woman’s behavior during her pregnancy? Will he obtain further court orders to forbid drug and alcohol use? If the pregnancy becomes “high risk,” will he ask a court to mandate bed rest, and to forbid sexual intercourse with others during the pregnancy?” I must say that though I was compelled by the anecdotes you shared about your ex-girlfriend’s abortion (against your wishes) and your friend’s ex-fiancee’s pregnancy (against his wishes), I found Joffe’s scenarios of more urgent concern. If you haven’t yet read her letter, I strongly urge you to do so – she also includes information about the “considerable efforts to involve men in the abortion process in appropriate ways.”
I’m imagining you. You’ve just read Joffe’s letter. You’re happy she paid you such attention, and you think she makes some great points. Mostly though, you’re frustrated. She took you too seriously. I don’t think you were actually trying to argue for a society that would subject women to such treatment, I think you were trying to urge your readers to think for a few moments about the incongruity of child support and abortion laws in this country. You’re a pro-choice guy with personal experience with abortion, and all you want to do is have a conversation. “I can accept that it is ‘your’ body but will someone please then just engage the argument that fatherhood should then be voluntary?” you beg of those who responded online to your Huffington Post piece, "Why My ‘Man’s Right to Choose’ Abortion Argument is Made from a Feminist Perspective." You've used the site to admit you oversimplified in your piece, and to clarify your argument, and to say you shouldn’t have written that bit about how a committed dad “should be able to obtain an injunction against the abortion of the fetus he helped create.” You’re aching for a real dialogue about fathers and mothers and pregnant women and men who impregnate them, and everyone’s focusing on that pesky question: But how would it work?
I'm interested in that dialogue too, and your initial question crossed my mind again today. “…[W]hen men and women engage in sexual relations both parties recognize the potential for creating life,” you wrote in December. “If both parties willingly participate then shouldn't both have a say in whether to keep a baby that results?” And I wondered why, Dr. Conley, you chose to focus your energy solely on reproductive rights after conception. Unmanageable, Impractical, Outrageous! we scream when you imply coerced pregnancies and abortions. But what about contraception? Manageable, Practical, Sound. I don’t think both parties should have a legal say in whether to terminate a pregancy that results from consensual sex, but I do think both parties should be able to negotiate the potential for creating life on equal terms. And right now, male options – condoms, abstinence, withdrawal, vasectomy – just pale in comparison to the scads available to women. I’ve got abstinence, diaphragms, the sponge, spermicide, the female condom, an I.U.D., Plan-B, tubal ligation. And more significantly, I’ve got the pill, the patch, the shot, the ring, and sometime soon, a spray. If men and women conceive as equal partners, I wonder why you’re not upset about the gross inequality of contraceptive options for men and women, and why you aren’t taking notice of the trial study of a male birth-control 'pill' conducted by the pharmaceutical companies Organon and Schering AG that was set to finish the same month that your op-ed appeared in the Times.
Continuous and reversible male contraception isn’t a new idea. In 2003, Duke University Press published Nelly Oudshoorn’s "The Male Pill: A Biography of a Technology in the Making." In it, Oudshoorn states that the viability of such contraceptives was firmly established as early as the 1970s, and argues that the reason you don’t have a prescription for a male birth control pill is more of a cultural, political, and economic story than a scientific one. Excess testosterone, administered orally, as an implant, or injection, lowers sperm count dramatically. Recent research indicates that when combined with progesterone, the hormones can effectively disable sperm production – and clinical trials of the testosterone-progesterone combination are now under way in Europe and Canada. Alternatively, some researchers posit that rendering sperm unable to reach an egg would do the trick; a study at the University of Washington found that monkeys became infertile when immunized against eppin, a protein found on the outside of sperm that’s necessary for fertilization. Both Planned Parenthood and HowStuffWorks.com have informative and readable articles that support Oudshoorn’s contention that the barriers facing male contraception aren’t technological. Rather, she cites lack of funding, unwillingness of research participants, and larger cultural representations of masculinity that don’t have room for pharmaceuticals that cause male infertility (consider for a moment the ubiquity of Viagra and the total absence of male birth control) as the major obstructions. Nevertheless, Oudshoorn concludes that the advent of male contraceptives is inevitable – as is a reevaluation of gender roles and responsibility.
I think she’s right, and I think you’ll be able to have an equal voice in the bedroom before the clinic and the courts. I think you should focus your attention less on your partner’s body, and more on your own. “A Man’s Right to Choose” rests on the assumption that your sperm is a unavoidable surrender, and that years of child support payment depend on a sea of factors out of your control. Did the condom break? Did we conceive? Is she going to have this kid? If you could use a safe, reliable, affordable, and reversible medication that would allow you to decide whether you were capable of creating life – as women have for years – I doubt you would feel as victimized in this debate. Obviously male birth control couldn’t necessarily prevent situations like yours or your friend’s, but a man should have the right to choose what he’s offering his partner. I think we agree that the ideal number of abortions is zero – and providing men with a way to control their fertility gives them a stake in that number.
Permit me to remind you of the closing words of “A Man’s Right to Choose.” You wrote: “Better to deal with the metaphorical dirty diapers than to pursue an inconsistent policy toward fatherhood and an abortion debate that doesn’t acknowledge the reality of all actors involved. Otherwise, don’t expect anything more of me than a few million sperm.” I’d like you to expect more of yourself, Dr. Conley. I’d like you to consider practically where your agency, both as a prominent scholar with many press contacts and as a male sexual partner, is most valuable and viable. It’s not in the message boards of the Huffington Post, or in court orders. It's back where you started, in the pages of the New York Times and in the bedroom.
Temporary Columns: Vietnam War, Iraq War
I recently visited Dien Bien Phu, a dusty nondescript Vietnamese border town near Laos. Here, French fantasies of re-colonialism were dashed by a Vietnamese peasant army. Visiting Dien Bien Phu is not difficult for a progressive anti-imperialist left liberal. There are no mixed emotions, at least politically. Who can begrudge Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese Communist Party their great victory in Dien Bien Phu? Even the Americans thought the French were a lost cause. They refused to help France directly when Dien Bien Phu was about to fall.
I was taken around by a motorcycle taxi to the different battlefield sites. They included the hills and other the strong points which the Vietnamese inexorably took, despite a heroic French defence, the French Commander’s bunker, and the war cemeteries. The motorcycle taxi driver stopped on the way to the war cemeteries and bought sticks of incense. He made me burn them for the souls of the dead, French and Vietnamese. I was surprised that he wanted me to burn incense sticks for French souls as well. I should not have been.
The Vietnamese did not fight a xenophobic war. They fought an “internationalist war”. This may sound strange in these days of “identity politics” when your ethnic or religious identity is supposed to determine the side you are rooting for, or whether you live or die. In his official memoir of the war, General Vo Nguyen Giap commander of the Vietnamese forces, considered the mastermind of the French defeat in Dien Bien Phu, thanked the French people and the French Communisty Party for their support of the Vietnamese cause. Ho Chi Minh, the first President of Vietnam and founder of the Indo Chinese Communist Party, was also a founder of the French Communist Party.
Ho Chi Minh’s bedroom and study are still as they were on the day he died. The books near his bedside include one on New Zealand Verse, another on the Indian nationalist leader Veer Savarkar, another on the history of Vietnam, another on Marxism and several other titles I could not read clearly. These books were written in English, German, French, Russian and Vietnamese. He read all these languages, and spoke many of them. No party hack, however sophisticated, could have put such an eclectic collection of books together after his death. It had to be his.
The Museum of Women in Hanoi described the support they received from women’s groups in the West opposed to the war. The Vietnamese highlighted, maybe even exaggerated, the international support they got from the people of countries who had sent troops to fight them – from France, the US and Australia. Peace activists traveled to Hanoi, and were welcomed as friends.
Watching the TV news of bombings in Baghdad every night, while visiting Vietnam, it was hard not to think about the current war against another US occupation. There are many reasons for Americans to oppose the US occupation of Iraq. It is leading to the loss of American lives. It is diverting resources away from fighting Al-Qaeda. It is exacerbating hatred of the US in the World. It is making the world less safe for Americans. There are also many reasons for Iraqis to oppose the occupation. It has yet to deliver stability to their country. It is contributing to sectarian violence. It is preventing Iraqis from taking charge of their own destiny. It is strengthening Islamic extremism in Iraq. And it is a foreign army.
These factors together may eventually lead to a parallel with Vietnam, when the costs of occupation - for the occupiers and the occupied - become less bearable than the consequences of a pullout. It is not clear that we are there yet – politically. In all the death and mayhem in Iraq, there is still a possibility that a democratic, secular multinational society may emerge from it. And it is not unimportant that Iraq’s neighbours – Iran and Turkey – still seem to believe that this is preferable to the alternative. This is not inconsistent with arguing the invasion was wrong, not just in international law, but for the people of Iraq. (The UN position.)
Whatever the similarities between the US occupations of Iraq and Vietnam, there is a critical difference in the attitude of the Viet Minh and the radical Islamists resisting the respective occupations. The former fostered and supported the creation of a peace movement from the anti-war movement in the US. They welcomed and highlighted the efforts of peace activists who came to Hanoi. The radical Islamists in Iraq are stunting the development of an antiwar movement. They are kidnapping and executing the very kind of people the Vietnamese welcomed and embraced.
[Last photo shows Harmeet Singh Sooden, a peace activist taken captive in Iraq.]
February 26, 2006
The Dark Side of China’s Rise
"China’s economic boom has dazzled investors and captivated the world. But beyond the new high-rises and churning factories lie rampant corruption, vast waste, and an elite with little interest in making things better. Forget political reform. China’s future will be decay, not democracy."
Minxin Pei in Foreign Policy:
Upon close examination, China’s record loses some of its luster. China’s economic performance since 1979, for example, is actually less impressive than that of its East Asian neighbors, such as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, during comparable periods of growth. Its banking system, which costs Beijing about 30 percent of annual GDP in bailouts, is saddled with nonperforming loans and is probably the most fragile in Asia. The comparison with India is especially striking. In six major industrial sectors (ranging from autos to telecom), from 1999 to 2003, Indian companies delivered rates of return on investment that were 80 to 200 percent higher than their Chinese counterparts. The often breathless conventional wisdom on China’s economic reform overlooks major flaws that render many predictions about China’s trajectory misleading, if not downright hazardous.
Lindsay on the John Gibson Show
Lindsay Beyerstein was on the John Gibson Show this past Friday. Every week on "Blue Blogapalooza", Gibson interviews a liberal blogger. Most of you know that we are huge fans of Lindsay's and that she always make us think in new and more insightful ways. You can hear the interview here.
A Danish drama
From Prospect Magazine:
Jyllands-Posten is Denmark’s largest paper, with a circulation of about 150,000. It is a provincial paper, aligned with the party of prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen. The paper’s main offices are in Aarhus, the country’s second largest city. It is where I grew up, and the paper still sits on the coffee tables in my family circles. This is a conservative paper and it has always minded the religious and political sensitivities of its core readership: Lutheran farmers and the provincial middle class. It still does. A few years ago the paper rejected a cartoon portraying Jesus Christ because, it thought, publication would offend the readers. The illustrator of the Jesus cartoon gave his Jyllands-Posten rejection letter, which he had kept, to the Guardian. Jens Kaiser, the editor of Jyllands-Posten's Sunday edition, had written, "I don't think Jyllands-Posten's readers will enjoy the drawings. As a matter of fact, I think that they will provoke an outcry. Therefore I will not use them." When confronted with the old rejection letter, he said, "It is ridiculous to bring this forward now. It has nothing to do with the Muhammad cartoons.” Some saw double standards at play.The Muhammad cartoons started out as a political gag. Flemming Rose, the paper’s culture editor, decided last summer that he was fed up with what he described as the spreading of “self-censorship” on matters related to Islam and solicited cartoonists for drawings of “how they saw the Prophet.” Cartoons are an important anti-totalitarian expression, Rose wrote, and therefore the paper had asked 40 Danish cartoonists to draw their image of Muhammad. Only 12 responded. The 12 cartoons were published last September, under the headline “Muhammad’s Face.” As examples of the epidemic of self-censorship, Rose cited a stand-up comedian who had complained that he was afraid to make fun of Muhammad on television, and a children’s book author who complained that he could not get anyone to illustrate his book about Muhammad. Rose also claimed that three theatres had put on shows deriding George W Bush but none Osama Bin Laden. (Considering that a member of parliament from the Danish People’s party has called Muslims “a cancer on Danish society,” some people—including the former foreign minister and EU commissioner, Uffe Ellemann-Jensen—say the problem is that there is too little self-censorship in Denmark.)It is said that humour does not travel well, but these cartoons really were not very funny.
In 1851, Thomas Carlyle wrote to Ralph Waldo Emerson recommending William Bartram's Travels, noting that the book "has a wondrous kind of floundering eloquence in it; and has also grown immeasurably old." In 1789, just two years prior to the publication of Bartram's travelogue, an English curate, amateur naturalist, and less far-flung traveler named Gilbert White issued his equally floundering and eloquent book The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. Whereas Bartram explored the then-wilderness of the American South (in addition to the nobly savage customs of the Seminoles, Cherokees, and Choctaws), presenting the marvels of people and place as having no limit or boundary, White confined himself to human and natural decorum and a world filled with all manner of borders and bounds, from the glebe-close to the ewell and the ha-ha, the garden wall to the turnip patch. Whereas Bartram concerned himself with the exotic practices of the Indians and fought with alligators, White contented himself with his local, familiar surroundings and, among other critters, with an imported tortoise named Timothy. Both men, however, reached similar conclusions concerning creatures who belong more comfortably to Nature than does civilized man. On a friendly encounter with a fierce-looking Seminole, Bartram remarked, "Can it be denied, but that the moral principle, which directs the savages to virtuous and praiseworthy actions, is natural or innate?" And White recorded this note when observing Timothy's eager warmth for the woman who fed him: "Thus not only ‘the ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib,' but the most abject reptile and torpid of beings distinguishes the hand that feeds it, and is touched with the feelings of gratitude!"
Now comes Verlyn Klinkenborg to give both voice and charm to White's humble and aged Timothy. His splendid novel, Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile, is also eloquent in its floundering, if we regard it as perfectly natural for a tortoise, out of its native element, to have somewhat halting prose.
more from Bookforum here.
Early in the twentieth century, artists began jumping out art’s window. The Russian modernists soared into the revolutionary sky. The Dadaists, arching an eyebrow, admired the cracked glass. The Cubists couldn’t stop blinking, beautifully agog. At mid-century, Robert Rauschenberg went through the window with American gusto. He had an appetite for the churning street outside, and he seemed full of jazzy slang. He was rude—vitally and impishly rude—in a way no American painter (except the de Kooning of Woman I) had ever been before him. He’d put anything in art: postcards, socks, street junk, paint, neckties, wire, cartoons, even stuffed animals. Especially stuffed animals. The absurdist taxidermy was funny as well as provocative. The goat-and-rooster shtick made wicked fun of both the macho posturing of the fifties and the holy pomposities then gathering around painting. Sometimes, art needs a good rooster squawk.
Once through the window, Rauschenberg had one of the great, decade-long runs in American art, which is now the subject of “Robert Rauschenberg: Combines” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Organized by Paul Schimmel of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles—Nan Rosenthal oversaw the installation at the Met—the exhibit includes 67 works created between 1954 and 1964. Among them are both famous works (the goatish Monogram) and rarely exhibited pieces. Rauschenberg himself invented the term “Combines” to describe a pungent style of mix-and-match collage. In his oeuvre, this early decade of the Combines, especially the first five years, matters the most. It anticipates much that came later, and it raises an important question: Are the Combines less than meets the eye, a slapdash everything-but-the-kitchen-sink style that ultimately just celebrates energy for energy’s sake?
more from New York magazine here.
What Does Islam Look Like?
From The New York Times:
By far the most prominent exhibition of contemporary art on the subject yet seen in New York opens today at the Museum of Modern Art. You would never guess that subject, though, from its title — "Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking" — in which the word Islam does not appear.
All but three of the featured artists were born in some part of the so-called Islamic world: Algeria, Egypt, India, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Palestine and Turkey. But they all live and work in the West and have made their careers in the mainstream international art scene, which means in Europe and the United States. Another example are the immaculately executed paintings of Shahzia Sikander, who was born in 1969 to a Muslim family in Pakistan. They combine courtly Mughal and Rajput themes — portraits of rulers and dancers — with images of fighter jets, oil rigs, mosque domes, predatory animals and paradise gardens, as if telescoping related, destructive histories.
Ms. Sikander studied miniature painting in art school in Lahore, and radically transformed the medium after moving to the United States, adding personal and political content. Her new work met with disapproval in Pakistan, where she was accused of, among other things, pandering to Western taste. Yet a number of younger Pakistani artists have recently followed her lead. (Also see 3quarksdaily posting on Ms. Sikandar by Sughra Raza here).
Six of them are showing at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Conn., (through March 12) as a collective called Karkhana, which the artists formed as an activist gesture in response to the political and religious aggression worldwide after Sept. 11. Only one lives in Lahore now. The others are in Chicago, New York and Melbourne, Australia.
They collaborate by mail, each artist adding new elements to paintings when they receive them. The images include Mughal dress patterns; New York subway maps; amorous couples; Western politicians as clowns and Islamic clerics as satyrs; outtakes from colonial photographs; images of nature (birds, flowers, trees) and of violence (daggers, bullets, guns), interspersed with calligraphy and scribbles. (Also see 3quarksdaily posting on Karkhana by Sughra Raza here).
The Dawn of Brains and Bones
Carl Zimmer in his always excellent blog, The Loom:
Go back far enough in our history--maybe about 650 million years--and you come to a time when our ancestors were still invertebrates. That is, they had no skulls, teeth, or other bones. They didn't even have a brain.
How invertebrates became vertebrates is a fascinating question, made all the more fascinating because the answer tells us something about how we got to be the way we are. In order to reconstruct what happened, scientists can study several different kinds of evidence. They can look at the bodies of invertebrates to find the ones that share traits with vertebrates not found in other invertebrates. Those common traits may be signs of common ancestry. Scientists can look for signs of this ancestry by studying the DNA of vertebrates and invertebrates. They can also examine the fossil record, to discover transitional forms that offer clues to the transitions that can't be found in living species.
Bloggers at the Gate
Ari Melber in The Nation:
By now, most people are weary of hearing how blogs are changing American politics. The search engine Technorati estimates 70,000 new blogs are created every day, but most are obscure and will remain so forever. Only a few bloggers have the audience and credibility to effectively break stories, pressure the traditional media, incubate new ideas or raise real money. These influential bloggers are usually sharp, opinionated and focused on the world "offline." They refuse to view events through the solipsistic blinders of their own websites.
Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, the founding writers of MyDD and Daily Kos, are two such influential bloggers. They've written a provocative new book that offers a perceptive analysis of progressive politics and proposes to revolutionize the Democratic Party through a "bloodless coup."
How did the Taliban’s chief spokesman end up at Yale?
Chip Brown in the New York Times Magazine:
Before Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi opened the Yale course catalog last summer, his education had been painfully unacademic; his reading list mixed the Koran and Persian poets with the grimmest primers of poverty and war. He was the sixth of seven children, born in 1978 in the Arghandab River valley village of Kohak, where his parents were born. They were Pashtuns — the dominant ethnic group of southern Afghanistan and parts of western Pakistan. For centuries the Arghandab valley had been the breadbasket of Afghanistan, famous for its grapes and pomegranates as well as for the fierce Pashtun clans that bloodied the armies of Alexander the Great and a litany of subsequent invaders. Rahmatullah arrived the year before the Soviet invasion, the most savage conflict of all. Many of the mud-brick homes and orchards of the family's village were obliterated by napalm; the whole region was salted with small, beguilingly shaped "bat mines" designed to blow the hands off children. Two of Rahmatullah's sisters were pulled alive from bomb rubble; an aunt was not so lucky, another of the estimated 1.5 million people killed during the 10-year Soviet occupation.
Health Care Forum: Canada Vs. U.S.
From the Washington Monthly (via Kottke.org):
With health care near the top of everybody's issue list in this election year, we wanted to call attention to one of the issues the country should be thinking about: how U.S. health care stacks up against Canada's universal single-payer system. We knew that Adam Gopnik and Malcolm Gladwell have both lived in Canada and developed strong feelings about socialized health care--pro and con. And, as we have long had the highest regard for their work, we thought it would be interesting to bring them together for a debate through which they could share their insights with each other and our readers. Because they both work for The New Yorker, we asked the permission of their editor, David Remnick, to undertake this project and he was kind enough to grant it. Robert Worth, one of our contributing editors, volunteered his services as moderator.
My wife's sister had a very, very premature baby born in Edmonton six years ago, the kind of baby who normally lives in about 20 percent of cases--and they had eight months of intensive care. I mean really intensive care. And the baby ended up living. It was a pound and a half at birth, the smallest baby that survived in western Canada in that year. The one thing they never thought about, the one thing they never considered, the one thing they never had to pay a moment's attention to was: How much will this cost? When does our insurance run out? It simply was not in the agonizing equation of worry and concern that they had to face. That seems to me, in itself, the most powerful argument you can make for socialized medicine, to put it in the bluntest possible terms.
It's interesting, because my own personal experience... We'll start with the anecdote. When I was 16, I was working 12-hour shifts as a dishwasher. I was biking home one night in the dark and something happened and I ran off the road and I basically impaled my eye on a stick. I was unconscious for several hours, came to, biked home. When I woke up the next morning, my right eye had essentially... The pupil had come out of the socket. A huge swelling. I went to the doctor. The doctor examined me and sent me home. The swelling didn't go down...
February 25, 2006
DNA 'could predict your surname'
Paul Rincon at the BBC:
It is not perfect, but could be an important investigative tool when combined with other intelligence.
The method exploits genetic likenesses between men who share the same surname, and may help prioritise inquiries.
Details of the research from the University of Leicester, UK, appear in the latest edition of Current Biology.
The technique is based on work comparing the Y chromosomes of men with the same surname. The Y chromosome is a package of genetic material found normally only in males.
It is passed down from father to son, just like a surname.
Their Master's Voice
Max Rodenbeck in the New York Review of Books:
When Osama bin Laden speaks, people listen. They tend, however, to hear different things. Take the coverage of his latest voice-from-the-mountain tape, released in mid-January. The New York Times and The Washington Post both headlined with the words "Bin Laden Warns of Attacks." The equivalent two highbrow Arabic-language newspapers, al-Hayat and al-Sharq al-Awsat, led instead with the news that the al-Qaeda leader had offered a truce.
Neither version was wrong. As all four papers went on to explain, bin Laden had done both things: threatened to strike America again, and proposed a hudna, or cease-fire. Yet the difference in emphasis pointed to the roots of deeper misapprehensions. How, more than four years after September 11, and after so much subsequent bloodshed, can this fugitive terrorist still command the respect and admiration of a good number of his fellow Muslims? And why, after the mobilization of so many resources, has America's campaign against him produced such unsatisfactory results?
One simple answer is that neither most Americans nor many Muslims have been listening closely enough. As a result, neither has fully understood the man, his motivations, or his aims. Whereas bin Laden continues to manipulate and mislead his Muslim audience, America has failed either to undermine him effectively or to speak persuasively to the Muslim public.
More on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Quantum Computer Experiment
From Nature, a more descriptive article on the quantum computer that can solve problems before even running:
A quantum computer is very different from a traditional desktop computer. It uses the laws of quantum mechanics to perform many calculations at once where a conventional computer could do them only one at a time. This drastically cuts the time a quantum computer takes to find the answer.
This is made possible by the fact that quantum objects, such as individual atoms or photons of light, can be placed in 'superposition' states, mixtures of states that are mutually exclusive in everyday objects. A quantum switch, for example, could be simultaneously on and off.
That's the key to quantum computation, because it means that a quantum computer can be placed in a superposition of states where it is running and not running. This leaves an imprint of the 'running' state on the history of the 'not running' state, such that one can look at the latter and determine something about the former.
"Some people like to think of this as two different universes", explains computer scientist Richard Josza of Bristol University in England. In one universe the computer runs, while in a parallel universe it doesn't.
One might say then that the computer does actually run, but in a 'parallel universe'. "So you wouldn't be charged for the cost of running it," says Josza.
Justin on David Horowitz and the "Academic Bill of Rights"
In Counterpunch.org, Justin Smith (3QD contributor) looks at David Horowitz's "Academic Bill of Rights".
Horowitz regularly raises alarms on his website (www.frontpagemag.org) over 'the 100 most dangerous academics in America,' and has helped Students for Academic Freedom to draft an 'Academic Bill of Rights,' in which it is proposed that '[a]ll faculty shall be hired, fired, promoted and granted tenure on the basis of their competence and appropriate knowledge in the field of their expertise,' that '[n]o faculty shall be hired or fired or denied promotion or tenure on the basis of his or her political or religious beliefs,' and that '[e]xposing students to the spectrum of significant scholarly viewpoints on the subjects examined in their courses is a major responsibility of faculty. Faculty will not use their courses for the purpose of political, ideological, religious or anti-religious indoctrination.' ...
Let me briefly describe what it's like to be a left-wing humanities professor. In my spare time, I seek the abolition of the death penalty, and the conservation of mountain gorillas. These are good causes, I think, and I hope to see progress made on them in my lifetime.
In my classes, I drone on about Descartes's cogito argument, Leibniz's monads, etc. Students ask for extensions on their papers, go MIA for weeks at a time, eventually turn in essays on 'Dick Hart's cogito argument' and 'Liebniz's nomads,' and after it's all over plead with me to bump their grades up an extra notch or two since, as they're sure I understand, law school admissions are really competitive. I apply for federal grant money for my research on 17th-century theories of natural motion, and the agency asks me to explain the 'relevance' and 'applicability' of my work for 'today's society.'
The Security Council's Next Moves on Darfur
Though prospects for any decent response appear slim given the indecency of the international community, it's still important to monitor government and UN responses to the crimes against humanity taking place in Darfur. (Though a while ago someone at Crooked Timber did ask whether we--private citizens--had good reasons not to pool money, hire mercenaries, and intervene if we believed that there are morally compelling reasons for intervention and if governments and international security organizations were unwilling to do so.) Here's the latest Security Council Report update on the Council's March agenda on and prospects for Darfur.
The Council will renew the mandate of the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS). But the major focus of attention will be the transition from the AU operation in Darfur (AMIS) to a new UN operation.
If the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) ministerial meeting on 3 March endorses the transition, this will open the way for the Council to work on the details of the mandate for the UN operation in March.
At the time of writing, it seems possible that Council members will adopt an interim resolution or presidential statement before the end of February reinforcing the momentum in favour of a transition.
The sanctions regime and the Panel of Experts mandate, which expire on 29 March, will be renewed. But sanctions issues are likely to become controversial and it is unclear whether the focus on the transition issue will lead to delays on listing violators...
There is also US interest in an increased NATO role in providing extended logistical support, perhaps also enforcing a no-fly zone in Darfur. While there is strong opposition, particularly within the AU, to NATO-commanded troops on the ground in Darfur, it may be that an enhanced support (and perhaps a ready reaction reserve role outside Sudan) for NATO could be viewed more favourably.
The sanctions issue is likely to become a controversial element.
space, the place
During the Cold War the major political players tried to trump each other with space technology. Most notably, the Soviet space station Mir and the US space shuttle programme attempted to assert their respective country’s invulnerability and dominance. The photographs from the archive of the German news magazine Der Spiegel that lined the way into ‘Rückkehr ins All’ (Return to Space) provided the historical backdrop to the space race, which persisted until 1989. Yet this multi-layered exhibition focused on contemporary artistic production, from painting to internet art, taking history only as a tentative cue.
With the immediacy of the Soviet–American confrontation gone, artists have taken a more ‘relaxed’ point of view – such was the curatorial premise of this exhibition. After their excitement about space in the 1960s and subsequent disillusionment from the 1970s onwards, artists’ interests came to be dominated by historical and cultural references. Tom Sachs’ The Crawler (2003), a large-scale model of the space shuttle Challenger, which broke apart shortly after take-off in 1986, was a memorial to technology that NASA is about to abandon. Similarly the video Dreamtime (2001), by Jane and Louise Wilson, documented a relic of space travel – the former Soviet rocket launch station in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Both works figured as direct and literal memories of the techno-political ambitions to which the Soviet Union and USA once clung.
more from Frieze here.
romans take britain
Twenty-five years ago, Howard Brenton set out to shock the bourgeoisie with his play, The Romans in Britain, at the National’s Olivier Theatre. It contained everything that the theatre of that age loved to use for this purpose – foul language, male nudity, simulated sex acts on stage, sympathy for the downtrodden Irish – all combined in a timeless and formless disunity. From this point of view, the play was a huge success. “FURY OVER NUDE PLAY SHOCKER”, was the London Evening Standard’s front-page headline; “A disgrace . . . disgusting . . . GLC chief Cutler threatens grant cut over new NT drama”, it continued. Sir Peter Hall, absent in New York, was telephoned, and replied with typical bluster:
“It is in my view an ambitious and remarkable piece of dramatic writing. . . . Caesar’s Roman army was noted for its brutality and sexual licence. This is apparent in one scene in the play. The director and author feel it is a context that could not be side-stepped or ignored. If I thought it was meretricious and encouraging what it is supposed to be deploring then I would not put it on.”
The theatrical establishment was having great fun.
more from the TLS here.
The most startling moment in "My Year in Iraq," L. Paul Bremer III's memoir from his days as the head of the American occupation, comes near the end, when violent uprisings were sweeping most of the central and southern parts of the country in May 2004. With the whole American enterprise verging on collapse, Bremer decided to secretly ask the Pentagon for tens of thousands of additional American troops — a request that, as the rest of his book makes clear, was taboo in the White House and Pentagon.
Bremer turned to Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top American commander in Iraq, and asked him what he would do with two more divisions, as many as 40,000 more troops. General Sanchez did not hesitate to answer. "I'd control Baghdad," he said. Bremer then mentioned some other uses for the soldiers, like securing Iraq's borders and protecting its infrastructure, to which General Sanchez replied: "Got those spare troops handy, sir?"
This is a jaw-dropping scene, and probably in ways that Bremer did not intend.
more from the NY Times Book Review here.
Virus Link to Rare Form of Prostate Cancer Revives Suspicions of Medical Detectives
From The New York Times:
A team of scientists in Cleveland and San Francisco said yesterday that they had discovered a new virus in patients who had a rare form of prostate cancer. The patients all had a particular genetic mutation. The virus, called XMRV, could prove to be harmless. Other viruses cause certain cancers of the liver and the cervix. Prostate cancer causes 30,000 deaths a year in this country, making it the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in men, behind lung cancer.
The discovery came from a collaboration between scientists in different fields: genetics in Cleveland and virology in San Francisco. About 10 years ago, in Cleveland, Dr. Robert H. Silverman discovered a gene called RNAsel that is present in all people and that helps fight viruses. But men with the mutation are at greater risk for prostate cancer. Two years ago, in San Francisco, Dr. Don Ganem and Dr. Joe DeRisi created a virus chip with the goal of discovering unknown viruses that might cause human disease. The scientists began their collaboration after Dr. Silverman read about the virus chip. Using the chip, the researchers in California tested tissue removed at surgery from 86 prostate cancer patients. Among the 20 prostate tumor samples from men with mutations in both copies of the RNAsel viral defense gene, eight — or 40 percent — had the virus. This compared with only 1 of 66 (1.5 percent) tumors from men with at least one normal copy of the gene. Tests showed that the viruses in the patients were the same, even though there was no relationship between any of the patients.
World population to hit 6.5 billion on Saturday
A population milestone is about to be set on this jam-packed planet. On Saturday, Feb. 25, at 7:16 p.m. ET, the population here on this good Earth is projected to hit 6.5 billion people. Along with this forecast, an analysis by the International Programs Center at the U.S. Census Bureau points to another factoid, Robert Bernstein of the Bureau's Public Information Center advised LiveScience. Mark this on your calendar: Some six years from now, on Oct. 18, 2012 at 4:36 p.m. ET, the Earth will be home to 7 billion folks.
Even more striking is that the time required for the global population to grow from 5 billion to 6 billion — just a dozen years — was shorter than the interval between any of the previous billions.
On average, 4.4 people are born every second.
February 24, 2006
Made in Palestine: From March 14th in NYC
From Electronic Intifada:
Made in Palestine is the first museum-quality exhibition devoted to the contemporary art of Palestine to be held in the United States. It is a survey of work spanning three generations of Palestinian artists who live in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, parts of Israel, Syria, Jordan, and the United States.
The exhibition was curated by James Harithas during a month long stay in the Middle East, aided in his mission by Palestinian artist Samia Halaby. Made in Palestine premiered at The Station Museum of Contemporary Art in Houston, Texas and in 2005 traveled to San Francisco, CA, and Montpelier, VT.
[Photo by Michael Stravato shows Mary Tuma's "Homes for the Disembodied", 2000. Media: 50 continuous yards of silk. Thanks to Moshe Behar.]
Have too many cooks spoiled the prebiotic soup?
Antonio Lazcano in Natural History Magazine:
Twenty-five years ago, Francis Crick, who co--discovered the structure of DNA, published a provocative book titled Life Itself: Its Origin and Nature. Crick speculated that early in Earth’s history a civilization from a distant planet had sent a spaceship to Earth bearing the seeds of life. Whether or not Crick was serious about his proposal, it dramatized the difficulties then plaguing the theory that life originated from chemical reactions on Earth. Crick noted two major questions for the theory. The first one—seemingly unanswerable at the time—was how genetic polymers such as RNA came to direct protein synthesis, a process fundamental to life. After all, in contemporary life-forms, RNA translates genetic information encoded by DNA into instructions for making proteins.
The second question was, What was the composition of Earth’s early atmosphere? Many planetary scientists at the time viewed Earth’s earliest atmosphere as rich in carbon dioxide. More important, they were also skeptical about a key assumption made by many chemists who were investigating life’s origin—namely that Earth’s early atmosphere was highly “reducing,” or rich in methane, ammonia, and possibly even free hydrogen. In a widely publicized experiment done in 1953, the chemists Stanley L. Miller of the University of California, San Diego, and Harold C. Urey had demonstrated that in such an atmosphere, organic, or carbon-based, compounds could readily form and accumulate in a “prebiotic soup.” But if a highly reducing atmosphere was destined for the scientific dustbin, so was the origin-of-life scenario to which it gave rise.
In Crick’s mind, the most inventive way to solve both problems was to assume that life had not evolved on Earth, but had come here from some other location—a view that still begs the question of how life evolved elsewhere.
Crick was neither the first nor the last to try to explain life’s origin with creative speculation. Given so many difficult and unanswered questions about life’s earthly origin, one can easily understand why so many investigators become frustrated and give in to speculative fantasies. But even the most sober attempts to reconstruct how life evolved on Earth is a scientific exercise fraught with guesswork. The evidence required to understand our planet’s prebiotic environment, and the events that led to the first living systems, is scant and hard to decipher. Few geological traces of Earth’s conditions at the time of life’s origin remain today. Nor is there any fossil record of the evolutionary processes preceding the first cells. Yet, despite such seemingly insurmountable obstacles, heated debates persist over how life emerged. The inventory of current views on life’s origin reveals a broad assortment of opposing positions. They range from the suggestion that life originated on Mars and came to Earth aboard meteorites, to the idea that life emerged from “metabolic” molecular networks, fueled by hydrogen released during the formation of minerals in hot volcanic settings.
This flurry of popular ideas has often distracted attention from what is still the most scientifically plausible theory of life’s origin, the “heterotrophic” theory.
Can movies change our minds?
Maria DiBattista in the Los Angeles Times:
Movies can envision the need for social change, but it is unclear that they can help bring it about. They are better at pointing the way to a different, happier, more fulfilling life. Not the least interesting thing about the hopeless love dramatized in "Brokeback Mountain," which garnered eight Oscar nominations last week, is how many social hopes it has inspired. Ang Lee, after winning the award as best director at the Golden Globes, hailed "the power of movies to change the way we're thinking," although he later thought it advisable to wait to "see how it plays out."
So far, "Brokeback Mountain" plays out as a love story that has ignited the cultural equivalent of a range war. Typical of conservative salvos is Don Feder's denunciation of the film as one of Hollywood's "agitprop epics" that he lambastes for being "anti-American … religion adverse and into moral relevancy." Frank Rich pronounced the film "a landmark in the troubled history of America's relationship to homosexuality," and he exuberantly declared that it "is not leading a revolution but ratifying one, fleshing out — quite literally — what most Americans now believe."
What makes Cupid's arrows stick?
Thomas Stuttaford in the London Times:
Cupid, the son of Venus, sharpened his arrows, too — in a similar way to that employed at the Fleggburgh surgery, though he used blood rather than oil on his grindstone. There is a legend, followed up by Shakespeare, that Cupid had two types of arrow: one gave rise to long-lasting, committed, so-called virtuous love, the other to lust. The arrows that led to lasting love were gold, which would have needed careful sharpening to penetrate and stay embedded.
The lovestruck person hit by a golden arrow would pass through the three stages leading to lasting commitment — lust, acceptance and attachment, and deep friendship. What could be more virtuous? Cupid’s other arrows were leaden: although they might strike their victim, they were unlikely to penetrate, let alone to remain embedded. Cupid’s leaden arrow gave rise to short-lived, lustful, sensual passion.
That there are different types of love, the virtuous and the lustful, the one lasting and the other transient, is accepted by neurophysiologists and psychologists. The brain and the hormonal endocrine system have been studied, as has the biochemical and radiological effect of the two types of arrow. Cupid’s arrows now are made neither of gold nor of lead, but by visual images and, above all, by a whiff of pheromones or scent.
The U.S., Islamists, and the Nuclear Threat
Zia Mian and Pervez Hoodbhoy in openDemocracy:
In unabashedly imperial language, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who initiated the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, writes in his book The Grand Chessboard that the US should seek to "prevent collusion and maintain dependence among the vassals, keep tributaries pliant and protected, and to keep the barbarians from coming together".
To keep the "barbarians" at bay, Pentagon planners have been charged with the task of assuring American control over every part of the planet...
But there is a downside to this. And the long-term consequences will not be to the advantage of the U.S. because the nuclear monopoly has broken down. There are others who would be nuclear warriors...
The danger of a nuclear conflict with the United States, and the west more broadly, comes not from Muslim states, but from radicalised individuals within these states. After 9/11, Pakistan's military government insisted that there was no danger of any of its nuclear weapons being taken for a ride by some radical Islamic group, but it didn't take any chances. Several weapons were reportedly airlifted to various safer, isolated, locations within the country, including the northern mountainous area of Gilgit.
This nervousness was not unjustified — two strongly Islamist generals of the Pakistan army, close associates of General Musharraf, had just been removed. Dissatisfaction within the army on Pakistan's betrayal of the Taliban was (and is) deep; almost overnight, under intense American pressure, the Pakistan government had disowned its progeny and agreed to wage a war of annihilation against it.
Quantum Computer Solves Problem Even Before It's Turned On!
By combining quantum computation and quantum interrogation, scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have found an exotic way of determining an answer to an algorithm – without ever running the algorithm.
Using an optical-based quantum computer, a research team led by physicist Paul Kwiat has presented the first demonstration of "counterfactual computation," inferring information about an answer, even though the computer did not run. The researchers report their work in the Feb. 23 issue of Nature.
Quantum computers have the potential for solving certain types of problems much faster than classical computers. Speed and efficiency are gained because quantum bits can be placed in superpositions of one and zero, as opposed to classical bits, which are either one or zero. Moreover, the logic behind the coherent nature of quantum information processing often deviates from intuitive reasoning, leading to some surprising effects.
"It seems absolutely bizarre that counterfactual computation – using information that is counter to what must have actually happened – could find an answer without running the entire quantum computer," said Kwiat, a John Bardeen Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Physics at Illinois. "But the nature of quantum interrogation makes this amazing feat possible."
Andrew Delbanco interviewed on new Melville book
RB: You say that the world that Melville came into was close to a medieval world and the world that he left was a world that more closely resembled a modern world.
AD: That’s a fast and loose use of the world “medieval.” But the huge changes he lived through did strike me, as I was rummaging around about Melville’s world, [that] he was born in 1819 in New York City. It was a place then where there were no mechanical form of transportation, no suspension bridges, no tall buildings. But by the time Melville died in New York 72 years later the place had come to feel like the New York that we love and love to hate today. And the way I tried to express this was to say that when Melville was born, the fastest way you could send a message more complicated than could be sent via drum beat or smoke signals or semaphore was to write it down and send it by a messenger on a horse. And that has been the case throughout human history. But by the time Melville was 25 we had the telegraph and then the transatlantic cable, and before the end of Melville’s life, the telephone and electricity, and the Brooklyn Bridge. So the way I tried to represent this, I had one map from 1817, a year or so before Melville was born, and it has all these empty streets, and New York City consisted mainly of the tip of Manhattan. Another map of New York from 1890, a year before he died, and that map is so crabbed and crowded. I put the two maps side by side at the beginning of the book, and they tell the story, I think.
more from The Morning News here.
painting in tongues
“Painting in Tongues,” MOCA’s new international survey of young practitioners of the world’s second-oldest profession, claims a distinguished pedigree from among the more subversive, idiosyncratic and visually gifted artists of the modern era. My desert island list of 20th-century painters would also probably include Francis Picabia, Sigmar Polke, Martin Kippenberger, Albert Oehlen and Jim Shaw. Gerhard Richter I can take or leave — his work’s pretty and clever enough, but for all his genre-busting, his ideas seem narrow and authoritarian. Still, I wouldn’t kick him out of my art-bed. And as part of a lineup of standards against which to frame a cluster of international emergy painters, he, like the rest, cuts a pretty formidable figure.
I doubt if any of the seven “Tongue” painters would choose to be assessed in such company, though a couple of them could plausibly ascend to the same league given time. Pieced together from an assortment of fashionable hometown, British and German approaches to contemporary painting issues, the exhibition succeeds foremost as a showcase of distinct individual practices, ranging from the washy convention-fetishizing belle-époque slacker doodles of Kai Althoff to the alarming twin monkey tower sculpture by Rodney McMillian, which could only be included in a painting show whose premise is militant heterogeneity within individual painters’ oeuvres.
more from the LA Weekly here.
Jurassic "Beaver" Found; Rewrites History of Mammals
It looks a lot like a beaver—hairy body, flat tail, limbs and webbed feet adapted for swimming—but it lived 164 million years ago. A well-preserved fossil mammal discovered in northeastern China has pushed the history of aquatic mammals back a hundred million years, a new study says. It is the oldest swimming mammal ever found and the oldest known animal preserved with fur, the researchers say in their report, which will be published in tomorrow's issue of the journal Science.
"The origin of fur predates the origin of modern mammals," said study co-author Zhe-Xi Luo, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. "This discovery has pushed fur-bearing nearly 40 million years further into the past," Luo said.
Hindus put bounty on MF Husain
Bare-footed artist Husain pulled his painting depicting “Mother India” as a naked woman from an auction after protests by rightwing Hindu nationalists. “Anyone who kills Husain for making obscene paintings of goddess Sarswati and Bharat Mata (Mother India), (and) the Danish cartoonist will be given 51 crore rupees ($11.5 million) in cash,” the board said in a statement.
Board president Ashok Pandey said that the amount would be doubled if the task was carried out by Yaqoob Qureshi, the state minister who announced a similar reward for the heads of the cartoonists. We do not distinguish between Islam and Hinduism,” Pandey said.
February 23, 2006
Why Doctors So Often Get It Wrong
David Leonhardt in the New York Times:
With all the tools available to modern medicine — the blood tests and M.R.I.'s and endoscopes — you might think that misdiagnosis has become a rare thing. But you would be wrong. Studies of autopsies have shown that doctors seriously misdiagnose fatal illnesses about 20 percent of the time. So millions of patients are being treated for the wrong disease.
As shocking as that is, the more astonishing fact may be that the rate has not really changed since the 1930's. "No improvement!" was how an article in the normally exclamation-free Journal of the American Medical Association summarized the situation.
This is the richest country in the world — one where one-seventh of the economy is devoted to health care — and yet misdiagnosis is killing thousands of Americans every year.
How can this be happening? And how is it not a source of national outrage?
A BIG part of the answer is that all of the other medical progress we have made has distracted us from the misdiagnosis crisis.
Closing the e-Commons, a Tragedy in the Making
In The Nation:
The nation's largest telephone and cable companies are crafting an alarming set of strategies that would transform the free, open and nondiscriminatory Internet of today to a privately run and branded service that would charge a fee for virtually everything we do online.
Verizon, Comcast, Bell South and other communications giants are developing strategies that would track and store information on our every move in cyberspace in a vast data-collection and marketing system, the scope of which could rival the National Security Agency. According to white papers now being circulated in the cable, telephone and telecommunications industries, those with the deepest pockets--corporations, special-interest groups and major advertisers--would get preferred treatment. Content from these providers would have first priority on our computer and television screens, while information seen as undesirable, such as peer-to-peer communications, could be relegated to a slow lane or simply shut out.
Under the plans they are considering, all of us--from content providers to individual users--would pay more to surf online, stream videos or even send e-mail. Industry planners are mulling new subscription plans that would further limit the online experience, establishing "platinum," "gold" and "silver" levels of Internet access that would set limits on the number of downloads, media streams or even e-mail messages that could be sent or received.
Wedding Science and Hinduism, shotgun style
Meera Nanda in Economic and Political Weekly:
Rather than bring religion under the limits of scientific reason, India has witnessed a steady co-option of science into the spirit-based cosmology and epistemology of "the Vedas." ...That “the Vedas” are conflated with science as we know it today will hardly come as news to anyone who knows anything about India. This is routine business and has been going on since the very introduction of modern science and technology in India, dating back to the 18th century. (Indian rationalists, in comparison, have never enjoyed the same degree of cultural hegemony. The marginalisation of rationalism in India’s cultural politics is a topic for another day and another essay.)
Most Indians pause to think about this streak of scientism in modern Hinduism, just about as much as fish pause to reflect upon the water they live in – which is not much at all. It has become a part of the commonsense of modern, science-educated, English-speaking Indians to treat the teachings of popular gurus, yogis and swamis as vaguely “scientific,” and therefore modern. Indian scientists, for the most part, have not challenged the religious uses of science: they tend to keep their laboratory lives and their personal lives in separate water-tight compartments. Our public intellectuals and social critics, meanwhile, have been more exercised about the real and imagined scientism of the modern Indian state, than about the scientism that pervades modern Hinduism.
I believe that we need to pay closer attention to Hindu scientism because it is a symptom of the deeper cultural contradictions that afflict India’s modernity.