April 30, 2006
Forgive me, my sons, for I have sinned
From The Guardian:
For a decade now, we have lived with the glory of late Philip Roth. To punctuate his last four indelible novels of America and its discontents at the turn of the century, Roth has developed a periodic habit of making a sharp inward turn, an unblinking memento mori, as if to stir in himself the urgency for another major assault on his times.
The inward gesture was set in motion by the priapic Sabbath's Theater, the book in which he asked himself, in part, whether he had still the potency for creation in the face of creeping mortality. He further interrogated that question in The Dying Animal and he gets even closer to the bones of it in this short, somewhat terrifying book. Everyman takes its title and its theme from the medieval play in which an unprepared sinner is informed by Death of his imminent judgment day. Everyman, in that 15th-century incarnation, is deserted as he faces his maker by first his friends and his family and then his wealth; these impostors are followed by his strength, beauty and knowledge. All that is finally stacked in his favour in the divine audit are his good deeds. It is not a cheerful tale.
Roth's Everyman, who is godless and nameless, is already dead and nearly buried when we meet him.
Miniaturized satellites, in Nature:
A miniature satellite has arrived at the International Space Station (ISS), where it will take its first space flight in indoor comfort rather than in the harsh conditions outside the station.
Its inventors hope that the volleyball-sized probe will be the forerunner to a new generation of small satellites that can fly in formation, and possibly act as servicing robots for the ISS.
The probe arriving at the ISS this week is one of just three built by the SPHERES project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge. The Synchronized Position Hold Engage Re-orient Experimental Satellite is designed to float in space while holding a precise position.
A flotilla of such satellites could eventually act as parts of a giant telescope, maintaining their position by communicating with each other using radio links, suggests David Miller, who leads the MIT team.
Makiya's Shia Culpa
After peddling the idea that democracy in Iraq was easy as pie, Kanan Makiya decides to blame the facts, in NPQ.
The Shiite leadership have acted irresponsibly by not rising above their own sense of victimhood. This failure of imagination means they will lose more than anyone else in Iraq because they will be unable to reap the rewards of their own democratic majority status. Instead of consolidating their position, they risk provoking civil war. Iraq is on the precipice.
Though there are problems with the constitution over which one can quibble, the real issue is not the wording of the document itself or its decentralized, federal vision. It is a set of guidelines that in any case will be further interpreted down the road.
The destabilizing element is that there is no resolution over how powers are delegated or who, clearly, is accountable to whom. The Shiite leaders have not thought about the country as a whole. In the exile opposition, we have been thinking about federalism for 15 years, and even then we did not get very far in defining it. However, it is a new idea to the overwhelming majority of Iraqis who were not part of that exiled opposition; those inside the country barely grasp the concept. The relations of the regions to the center have not been thought through. The obvious implication that people filled with foreboding about the future will draw from such a document is that whoever has the most power—the Shiite majority—will implement the rules as they see fit.
Discussion on Islam, Democracy and War
Also in NPQ, Salman Rushdie, Tariq Ramadan, Imran Khan, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Reza Aslan, all on Islam, reform and democracy, war and terrorism. Reza Aslan on the democratic promise held out by Iraqi's constitution.
The truth is that despite grumblings from those who were expecting a secular, liberal democracy to arise fully formed in the midst of a bloody and chaotic occupation, the constitution of Iraq is nothing short of a miracle. This is an enlightened charter of laws written in a lawless country embroiled in a civil war, whose framers were literally dragged onto the streets and beaten to death between meetings. And yet, in spite of the odds, Iraq’s leaders have drafted a constitution that reflects the values, interests and concerns of an overwhelming majority of a fractious population in a fabricated country that has never known anything resembling genuine democracy.
But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Iraq’s constitution is the way it has managed to balance the religious identity of the people (96 percent of whom are Muslim) with the requirements of democratic pluralism. Article Two of the constitution establishes Islam as “the official religion of the state” and “a basic source of legislation,” meaning that no law can be passed that contradicts “the fixed principles of Islam.” However, not only does the constitution deliberately leave those fixed principles to be defined by the natural democratic process in accordance with the changing values and sentiments of the Iraqi people, it unequivocally states that no law can be passed that contradicts the basic rights and freedoms outlined by the constitution. Among the first of these is that all individuals have a right to complete freedom of creed, worship, practice, thought and conscience. True, a constitution does not a democracy make. Still, as the template for a stable, viable, pluralistic and distinctly Islamic democracy, Iraq could not have hoped for a better founding charter.
Schelling on Iran and Proliferation
In New Perspectives Quarterly, Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling on nuking Iran and what to do about proliferation.
The US government ought to recognize the taboo is in its favor and not try to develop a new generation of weapons with the aim of making them somehow useful on the battlefield. I’m afraid a lot of people in the Pentagon think, “We are so rich in nuclear weapons, it is a shame not to use them.” They should learn we are so rich in people and infrastructure that we will risk losing that if we encourage others, by our own example, to look positively on the use of nuclear weapons.
That is why, among other things, it is important to get the US Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty—not because testing is important, but because that treaty is a pillar of the taboo, another nail in the coffin of the idea of weapons use. The US, above all, should never say nuclear weapons should be used preemptively...
I don’t know if there is any way to stop the Iranians from acquiring nuclear weapons. If they do, we should try to persuade them to declare—as the Indians and Pakistanis have done—that they are for deterrence and defense, not for offensive use.
Further, we should assist the Iranians in making sure custody of their weapons is secure in any time of disruption. In the case of a riot in the streets, will the weapons be safe? Who might grab them in case of civil war?
How should your babies grow?
The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued new guidelines showing how babies should ideally grow. Controversially, the new charts mean that more children in Western countries could be labelled as overweight. Doctors and parents already use charts to gauge if kids are gaining height and weight healthily. But they have flaws; they were drawn up in the 1970s and based on surveys of American children, when most babies were fed formula rather than the breast milk recommended today.
The WHO's new Child Growth Standards are designed to show how children from birth to age 5 should grow when given a model healthy start in life. Researchers selected 8,440 children from Brazil, Ghana, India, Norway, Oman and the United States who were breast-fed, received good medical care and had mothers who did not smoke. They collected information on their height, weight and other growth milestones over 5 years.
If there were a statue of the Unknown Polymath it should look like Raymond Tallis: rangy, bearded, wide-eyed with disciplined wonder. For 30 years he has been rising at five in the morning to write for two hours before going off to work as a doctor. He has been a GP, a research scientist, and a professor of gerontology, one of Britain's leading experts, who has published more than 70 scientific papers and co-edited a 1,500-page standard textbook of gerontological medicine. But in the solitary hours of the early morning he has also been a distinguished literary critic, poet and philosopher who has written a radio play about the death of Wittgenstein. On June 2 he is talking at the Hay festival about human exceptionalism.
more from The Guardian Books here.
John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006)
John Kenneth Galbraith, the iconoclastic economist, teacher and diplomat and an unapologetically liberal member of the political and academic establishment that he needled in prolific writings for more than half a century, died yesterday at a hospital in Cambridge, Mass. He was 97.
Mr. Galbraith lived in Cambridge and at an "unfarmed farm" near Newfane, Vt. His death was confirmed by his son J. Alan Galbraith.
Mr. Galbraith was one of the most widely read authors in the history of economics; among his 33 books was "The Affluent Society" (1958), one of those rare works that forces a nation to re-examine its values. He wrote fluidly, even on complex topics, and many of his compelling phrases — among them "the affluent society," "conventional wisdom" and "countervailing power" — became part of the language.
more from the NY Times here.
Rochelle Gurstein: Mourning in America
The always brilliant Rochelle Gurstein is back at TNR with a superb, lovely essay:
It has long been a sociological truism that we live in a world with few meaningful public forms, social customs, or religious ceremonies. Yet it is only when we face such devastating events as the death of a loved one that we learn what such truisms mean in lived experience: at the time of our most desperate need, we find ourselves abandoned to our own devices. It is not only that the bereaved must find their way as if no one before them had ever lost a husband or a wife; those who would comfort them are equally at a loss as to what to say or do. Priests still perform last rites, religious services continue to be conducted at funerals, and even non-observant Jews are loath to give up the custom of "sitting shivah"; but what remains of the old rituals and words of consolation has come to feel increasingly hollow.
Yet it would be wrong to imagine that those who lived in societies with well-established rituals of mourning somehow had an easier time reconciling themselves to their shattered lives. Personal letters from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries occasionally include the shocking news that a grieving husband or wife could not properly recover and has died. Nor does it appear that religious faith necessarily makes that reconciliation any less torturous. Consider the case of C.S. Lewis, one of Christianity's greatest modern defenders, who kept a journal of his spiritual collapse after his wife, Helen Joy Gresham, died following a long and excruciating ordeal with bone cancer.
Is being right-handed all for the greater good?
Sandra Upson in Scientific American:
Ask why most people are right-handed, and the answer might fall along the same lines as why fish school. Two neuroscientists suggest that social pressures drive individuals to coordinate their behaviors so that everyone in the group gets an evolutionary edge.
Approximately 85 percent of people prefer their right hand, which is controlled by the left hemisphere of the brain. One theorized benefit of locating a particular function in one hemisphere is that it frees the other to deal with different tasks. But that idea does not explain why population-wide trends for handedness exist in the first place. Moreover, evidence gleaned in recent years has overturned the long-held belief that human handedness is a unique by-product of brain specialization attributable to language. A suite of studies has revealed brain lateralization in species from fish to primates. Last August, for instance, scientists discovered that in the wild, chimpanzees show hand preferences.
The presence of lateralization throughout the animal kingdom suggests some benefit from it, contend neuroscientists Giorgio Vallortigara of the University of Trieste and Lesley Rogers of the University of New England in Australia. Also, last August, in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, the two presented evidence to support their idea that social constraints force individuals toward asymmetry in the same direction. They noted, for example, that baby chickens attack more readily when a threat appears on their left. And Rogers has found that chicks with more asymmetrical brains form more stable social groups: perhaps by approaching each other on the right, she hypothesizes, the chicks fight one another less and are more likely to notice predators.
Secret rivers found in Antarctic
Helen Briggs at the BBC:
It was thought the sub-glacial lakes had been completely sealed for millions of years, enabling unique species to evolve in them.
Writing in the journal Nature, experts say international plans to drill into the lakes may now have to be reviewed.
Any attempts to drill into one body of water risks contaminating others.
Assessing Admissions: Why gaining access to elite universities is such sharply contested ground
Christopher Avery in Harvard Magazine:
In his new book, The Chosen, Jerome Karabel ’72, Ph.D. ’77, offers a provocative account of undergraduate admissions at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale from the late 1800s to the present—a period when the “Big Three” were transformed by the addition of representative numbers of women, minorities, and others who could never have enrolled before. Such a dramatic shift warrants explanation, and two decades of original research uniquely qualify Karabel, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, to provide it.
At heart, The Chosen is a great story. Karabel brings life to a century’s worth of faculty meetings and administrative maneuvering, providing an account that is both entertaining and authoritative. He also reveals many dirty secrets of the admissions process: primarily that the definition of “merit” was slanted in the past to ensure a sufficient number of “paying guests” for the universities to thrive financially. This will disquiet readers—particularly graduates of the Big Three—because of its clear implication that the admissions process is suspect, rather than sacrosanct.
The complete collection of maps from Carnegie's, Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Threats
Click on each map to view a larger image. Windows users should hold the cursor over the image and click on the icon appearing in the lower right-hand corner to expand the map to its full size.
The first five maps reflect the worldwide proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and their missile delivery systems. The country maps show the major nuclear installations, both civilian and military, in each country.
More here. [Thanks to Laura Claridge.]
April 29, 2006
beckett's greatest work
PARIS—Just weeks after the centennial of the birth of pioneering minimalist playwright Samuel Beckett, archivists analyzing papers from his Paris estate uncovered a small stack of blank paper that scholars are calling "the latest example of the late Irish-born writer's genius."
The 23 blank pages, which literary experts presume is a two-act play composed sometime between 1973 and 1975, are already being heralded as one of the most ambitious works by the Nobel Prize-winning author of Waiting For Godot, and a natural progression from his earlier works, including 1969's Breath, a 30-second play with no characters, and 1972's Not I, in which the only illuminated part of the stage is a floating mouth.
"In what was surely a conscious decision by Mr. Beckett, the white, uniform, non-ruled pages, which symbolize the starkness and emptiness of life, were left unbound, unmarked, and untouched," said Trinity College professor of Irish literature Fintan O'Donoghue. "And, as if to further exemplify the anonymity and facelessness of 20th-century man, they were found, of all places, between other sheets of paper."
more from The Onion here.
Sunn 0)))'s music recalls a tradition more typically associated with the cerebellum: Minimalism. In fact, Steve Reich's 1968 essay "Music as a Gradual Process," a seminal articulation of this objective principle applied to sound, could be cited with surprising aptness here. In it, Reich argues that the systematic reduction of the musical work will tend to render our experience of sound more material. Just as Robert Rauschenberg's 1951 "White Paintings," which are animated only by the play of exterior light and shadow, must be experienced as inhabiting space with the viewer, so too is sound displaced into the real world—that is, the world of the listener—in Minimalist composition. For Reich, narrowing the differential between compositional parts is key to accomplishing this transposition of the work from world unto itself to thing in the world: "Listening to extremely gradual musical process opens my ears to it." Paradoxically, the closer the music comes to being all of a piece—be it one-note or non-note, very loud like La Monte Young's early drone pieces or silent like John Cage's 4'33"—the more differentiated it becomes experientially.
more from Artforum here.
marx in china
Twenty years ago, Deng Xiaoping erected huge billboards throughout China that proclaimed, "Development is the Irrefutable Argument." The way Deng's slogan is translated today, China's spectacular growth rates not only win the argument, they end the argument. The government speaks in a triumphalist discourse that is actually a remarkable echo of the language of nineteenth-century England, in the heyday of what historians later learned to call 'the Industrial Revolution.' England was enjoying tremendous industrial growth and taking over more and more of the world each year. Its mass media were united in an orgy of self-celebration. And yet its level of human suffering was alarmingly high. So much of its prosperity depended on the energy of its industrial working class, yet so much of this class lived in poverty and squalor. Victorian England was the world leader in productive power, but also in human misery. Plenty of people were aware of this mass misery. But most of them, when they thought critically, denounced the whole of modern life: they wished "to get rid of modern arts, in order to get rid of modern conflicts." Marx was more complex: he wanted to affirm and to celebrate human progress, but also to confront its outrageous human costs. His thinking could be called a discourse of contradiction.In our day everything seems pregnant with its contrary. Machinery, gifted with the power of shortening and fructifying human labor, we behold starving and overworking it. The new-fangled sources of wealth, by some weird spell, are turned into sources of want. The victories of art seem bought by loss of character.
There are good reasons to say that 'everything is pregnant with its contrary' in China today and to look for a language that can grasp and penetrate its inner contradictions. It is ironic that, for decades, a travesty of Marxism was imposed on a backward, peasant China that couldn't possibly digest it. It is only now, as China goes through dramatic and explosive development, that Marx's discourse of contradiction can be a powerful critical vision of its real life.
more from Marshall Berman at Dissent here.
It's hard to overstate Gay Talese's gold-standard reputation. A few years ago, David Halberstam called him "the most important nonfiction writer of his generation, the person whose work most influenced at least two generations of other reporters."
The bedrock of that reputation consists of several exceptional magazine profiles from the 1960's, in particular "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," published in Esquire in 1966. Helped along by one of the great modern magazine headlines, the piece became a canonical archetype of the so-called New Journalism — nonfiction conceived and written in the manner of fiction, with fully rendered scenes, extended conversations and plainly subjective depictions of mood. In 1969, Talese published "The Kingdom and the Power," an institutional portrait of The New York Times, where he had been a reporter for nine years. That book became a best seller, certifying him as a literary pop star as well as a reporter's reporter. Just two years after the Times book, he published another first-rate best seller, his story of a Mafia family called "Honor Thy Father."
more from the NY Times Book Review here.
Mary Midgley’s emphasis on her early life in The Owl of Minerva is consistent with one of her most fundamental beliefs: that philosophical positions are not arrived at quite as impersonally as many philosophers would like to believe. The tendency, particularly marked among some analytical philosophers, to narrow philosophy to a technical exercise, dealing piecemeal with ever smaller issues, and its modelling itself on science and avoiding metaphysics, or even any sense of the wider context of the questions being addressed, is one she has vigorously opposed. For Midgley, reason is a tool that should serve reasonableness which itself has more disparate sources and deeper roots than many philosophers acknowledge. Even the most aseptic philosophical inquiry has a frame of reference defined at least in part by unargued intuitions and passions. It is entirely appropriate, then, that her early years figure so large in this memoir: the child is the mother of the philosopher. And what an interesting childhood she had; or at least how interesting she makes it. By the time I had reached the end of her early years, I really did want to know about her ancestors. That they occupy the second, not the first, chapter in her book is not mere eccentricity.
more from the TLS here.
The First Few Microseconds
From Scientific American:
For the past five years, hundreds of scientists have been using a powerful new atom smasher at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island to mimic conditions that existed at the birth of the universe. Called the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC, pronounced "rick"), it clashes two opposing beams of gold nuclei traveling at nearly the speed of light. The resulting collisions between pairs of these atomic nuclei generate exceedingly hot, dense bursts of matter and energy to simulate what happened during the first few microseconds of the big bang. These brief "mini bangs" give physicists a ringside seat on some of the earliest moments of creation.
During those early moments, matter was an ultrahot, superdense brew of particles called quarks and gluons rushing hither and thither and crashing willy-nilly into one another. A sprinkling of electrons, photons and other light elementary particles seasoned the soup. This mixture had a temperature in the trillions of degrees, more than 100,000 times hotter than the sun's core.
From The New York Times:
'Absurdistan,' by Gary Shteyngart. Why praise it first? Just quote from it — at random. Just unbutton its shirt and let it bare its chest. Like a victorious wrestler, this novel is so immodestly vigorous, so burstingly sure of its barbaric excellence, that simply by breathing, sweating and standing upright it exalts itself. "I stood there listening to my father's killers. Oleg and Zhora were of Papa's generation. All three had been made fatherless by the Great Patriotic War. All three had been raised by the men who had managed to avoid battle, the violent, dour, second-tier men their mothers had brought home with them out of brutal loneliness. Standing before the menfolk of my father's generation, I could do nothing. Before their rough hands and stale cigarette-vodka smells, I could only shudder and feel, along with fright and disgust, appeasement and complicity. These miscreants were our country's rulers. To survive in their world, one has to wear many hats — perpetrator, victim, silent bystander. I could do a little of each."
The young writer supplying the lines is Gary Shteyngart, who moved to the United States from Russia when he was 7, while the young bereaved oligarch he's speaking through is Misha Vainberg, who attended college here but ended up marooned back in St. Petersburg. Misha is extraordinarily fat, ambivalently Jewish, unapologetically rich and — as his homeland's best comic heroes often are — infinitely thwarted. During his collegiate heyday, he gorged at the American buffet, slurping up rap music, psychotherapy and the sky's-the-limit complacent optimism that we take for granted as a birthright but that Misha sees for what it is: a glorious geo-historical accident.
April 28, 2006
Donald Judd slept a lot. After spending a weekend at Chinati, the art museum that he established in Marfa, Texas, I can understand why. To view the sundry installations by Dan Flavin, John Chamberlain or, most important, Judd himself, requires a two-mile walk around the complex of buildings once known as Fort D.A. Russell. The 340 acres of land extends to a barely visible horizon of low-slung mountains, an unbroken vista but for Judd’s massive concrete containers, standing sentinel. So much space is enervating. It defies the very concept of an agenda. When asked the date, a local Marfian answers, "Does it really matter?" In Marfa, it doesn’t seem to matter -- which is a congenial condition for a nap and explains the beds that Judd kept in his studios.
Equally, ambition is tiring and Judd was nothing if not ambitious, accomplishing an enormous amount before dying of cancer in 1994 at age 64. Beyond the sheer, staggering beauty of his 100 milled aluminum boxes located in two restored artillery sheds, surfaces glimmering in the magical Marfa light, it is the magnitude of his ambition that is obvious. In our age of knickknack esthetics and historical amnesia, Judd’s commitment to creating an enduring art, removing a portion of it from the hubbub of commerce and securing the circumstances of its presentation for the foreseeable future is, well, impressive.
more from artnet here.
The cities where everyone is a minority: expert voices from around the world
The Commission for Racial Equality, in association with the Smith Institute, held a round table discussion on the rise of "plural cities" - those where no single ethnic group holds the demographic majority. This event took place on the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, 21st March 2006, in Leicester, which is becoming one of Britain's first plural cities. It brought together many leading experts from around the world to discuss the experiences of their cities - including Marseille, São Paulo, Los Angeles, Cape Town and Oldham, and the implications for how cities generate policy, and what it means for integration and social cohesion
more from a roundatble at The New Statesman here.
an option in darfur?
THREE YEARS OF FIGHTING in the Darfur region of Sudan have left an estimated 180,000 dead and nearly 2 million refugees. In recent weeks, both the UN and the US have turned up the volume of their demands to end the violence (which the Bush administration has publicly called genocide), but they've been hard pressed to turn their exhortations into action. The government in Khartoum has scuttled the UN's plans to take control of the troubled peacekeeping operations currently being led by the African Union, and NATO recently stated publicly that a force of its own in Darfur is ''out of the question." Meanwhile, refugee camps and humanitarian aid workers continue to be attacked, and the 7,000 African Union troops remain overstretched and ineffective.
But according to J. Cofer Black, vice chairman of the private security firm Blackwater, there is another option that ought to be on the table: an organization that could commit significant resources and expertise to bolster the African Union peacekeepers and provide emergency support to their flagging mission.
more from Boston Globe Ideas here.
Olive branch solves a Bronze Age mystery
Compared to the well-studied world of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the civilizations that flourished in the eastern Mediterranean just before Homer’s time are still cloaked in mystery. Even the basic chronology of the region during this time has been heatedly debated. Now, a resolution has finally emerged -- initiated, quite literally, by an olive branch. Scientists have discovered the remains of a single olive tree, buried alive during a massive volcanic eruption during the Late Bronze Age. A study that dates this tree, plus another study that dates a series of objects from before, during and after the eruption, now offer a new timeline for one of the earliest chapters of European civilization.
See Like a Bee
Apply a little ultraviolet light and heat, and a gumdrop of polymer transforms itself into an artificial bug eye, biophysicists report. The advance could lead to small, inexpensive wide-angle cameras for surveillance, biomedical imaging, and other applications.
Optically speaking, it's hard to take a broad view of things. To produce lenses with fields of view wider than 90°, lens makers must combine several individual lenses in an elaborate "fish eye" structure that is expensive and hard to miniaturize. Alternatively, they might try to capture a panoramic view by assembling many smaller "microlenses" pointing in different directions, like the elements in an insect's compound eye. Researchers have developed microlens arrays on light-sensitive microchips. But those devices have been flat, which limits their field of view. And researchers must align the optics with the light-detecting pixels on the chip.
April 27, 2006
Tull’s lost decade seems to constitute nothing less than the missing link between Mike Kelley’s and Jim Shaw’s curdled Pop and that of the emerging Los Angeles neo-psychedelic school. Combining a lifetime’s accumulation of formal chops and unquenchable creativity with an unholy hybrid of introspective archival obsessiveness and smart-ass pop-cultural glossolalia, Tull has produced an orgy of interpenetrating bodies of work that are as superficially entertaining as they are emotionally and structurally challenging. Let’s hope it won’t be another 10 years until his next show, but you should check out “Odd Ark” just in case — if there’s one thing Tull hasn’t learned in his wanderings in the cultural desert, it’s how to dumb it down and repeat himself for the marketplace. Dude must be thick or something.?
more from the LA Weekly here.
This sense that philosophers should occupy a special and uniquely privileged position in our national conversation is absent from Britain today. The last philosopher who lived as successfully in the public as well as the academic sphere was Isaiah Berlin. While Britain has tipped into philosophical decline, so America has risen triumphantly. John Rawls, Thomas Nagel, Charles Taylor, Richard Rorty, Hilary Putnam, Paul Boghossian, Martha Nussbaum. Their reach extends significantly beyond the academy.
These Americans now embody Kant's hope for independent-minded thinking about society in its various states. It seems there is little prospect that such ambition will prosper in modern British faculties of philosophy. Boghossian prefaces his recent study of how we think and whether "we have fundamentally misconceived the principles by which society ought to be organised" (Fear of Knowledge, 2006), by noting that his book is intended not only for philosophers but also for "anyone who values serious argument".
But in our contemporary escape from serious ideas - from the very notion of seriousness itself - our flight into the arms of irony and satire, while wonderfully bracing, leaves us all the poorer. Short-term and ephemeral gratification, perhaps. But longer-term moral stagnation and depravity.
more from The Guardian here.
Do starlings recognize grammar in songs?
Noam Chomsky has endured many attempts to disprove his widely respected theories of language, but never have any of them come from a 3-ounce bird. The European starling, a tiny virtuoso, has the ability to learn and recognize a feature of grammar that has long been thought to be unique to human languages, researchers report in a new study.
Chomsky isn't buying it, however.
A common characteristic of human grammar is inserting words and clauses within a sentence, without limit. For example, "Oedipus ruled Thebes" can become "Oedipus, who killed his father, ruled Thebes" or "Oedipus, who killed his father, whom he met on the road from Delphi, ruled Thebes," ad infinitum. More simply stated, you can insert as many brackets as you want within a sentence as long as there are as many brackets on the right as there are on the left.
She Who Controls Her Body Can Upset Her Countrymen
She goes by the name Bruna, the Little Surfer Girl, and gives new meaning to the phrase "kiss and tell." First in a blog that quickly became the country's most popular and now in a best-selling memoir, she has titillated Brazilians and become a national celebrity with her graphic, day-by-day accounts of life as a call girl here.
But it is not just her canny use of the Internet that has made Bruna, whose real name is Raquel Pacheco, a cultural phenomenon. By going public with her exploits, she has also upended convention and set off a vigorous debate about sexual values and practices, revealing a country that is not always as uninhibited as the world often assumes. Interviewed at the office of her publisher here, Ms. Pacheco, 21, said the blog that became her vehicle to notoriety emerged almost by accident. But once it started, she was quick to spot its commercial potential and its ability to transform her from just another program girl, as high-class prostitutes are called in Brazil, into an entrepreneur of the erotic.
April 26, 2006
pulls eyes over the wool
On Saturday, the town of Skarsterlan began fining Hotels.nl 1,000 euros a day for putting branded blankets on sheep. Advertising on livestock violates the town's ban on advertising along the highways.
"My first reaction was a smile; it is very creative," said Bert Kuiper, the town's mayor. "My second reaction is that we have to stop this. If we start with sheep, then next it's the cows and horses."
Hotels.nl said that it would pay the fines, but that it planned to fight the ban in court. Since the advertising strategy started, sales by Hotels.nl have been up 15 percent, and so have visits to the company's Web site, said Miechel Nagel, chief executive of Hotels.nl, a four-year-old company based in Groningen. He plans to increase the number of sheep sporting the company's logo and is searching for locations where there are frequent traffic jams.
more from the NY Times here.
all this with plastic cups
Tara Donovan’s art is phenomenological in the sense that her “site responsive” sculptures reveal the purely subjective aspects of consciousness. The vacillation between illusion and material reality prevalent in her work activates perceptual shifts. So rather than say Donovan’s “Untitled (Plastic Cups),” (2006) doesn’t work because the raw material (plastic cups) isn’t completely transformed or because we have seen this sort of thing before, we should focus on the dissociation that takes place. Tara Donovan’s work creates a dramatic tension between what cognitive neuroscientist Uri Hasson calls “activation induced by local object features and activation induced by holistic, grouping processes that involve the entire object or large parts of it.” Donovan would have prevented viewers from seeing her artworks close up if she wanted to conceal the individual units that comprise the whole. The work currently on display at PaceWildenstein is a complex version of the vase-face illusion. It contains an inherent contradiction in the sense that its physicality immediately inspires neuronal activation that is not dependent upon the physical properties of the visual stimulus. It works because both ends of the spectrum, the material reality of the stacked cups and the illusion of a terrestial or extraterrestrial landscape, absorb our attention.
more from artcritical here.
what went wrong
The Bush Doctrine of militarized democratization in the Middle East is very powerful because it ties nationalism and imperialism to a kind of liberal progressivism normally thought of as "Wilsonian," which is to say, internationalist and pro-democracy, if belligerent. The result is to make the critic seem like a critic of freedom. The critic is often trying to point out that we should untangle these aspects of our policies, supporting genuinely pluralistic movements abroad without resorting to unnecessary and counterproductive wars. Here, however, the negativity of critique collides with certain facts on the ground. The pro-Bush partisan can always say: "Look. We're in the Middle East already. Surely you don't want to be on the side of the Baathists? Surely you want to support democracy and freedom?" And then the critic is going to say: "Right, I support freedom; I support the troops, really I do!" But once that is said the real argument is over, for now we have already committed ourselves to a directly imperialistic position in the region, even if it is "liberal." Here, however, the terms "democracy" and "freedom" have been deftly assumed by the other side.
I think it is safe to say that between 9/11 and the start of the Iraq War many liberal intellectuals collapsed when confronted with this logic. Some liberals did not have the resources or the mental armor to resist this logic, while others willingly and enthusiastically submitted to it. As Lieven argues, they not only missed the malignant nationalism at the core of the administration but also positively embraced the messianism and utopianism implicit in the rhetoric of the war.
more from Steven Levine at Radical Society here.
Failure and Success of India's Maoist Movement
Forty years after their first insurrection, the Maoist Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) or "Naxalites" controls large swaths of the country.
Naxalism (as this movement is referred to in India, after the district where it originated in 1967) is a serious menace in states stretching from the Nepal border through the most backward states of north-central India - from Bihar to Jharkand, Chhattisgarh and parts of Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra.
Summoning ministers of six affected states to Delhi last week to discuss the problem, the ever-realistic Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared that Naxalism was the "single biggest security challenge ever faced by our country."
Singh was not indulging in hyperbole. In the first three months of this year at least 235 people were killed in actions by or against Naxalites.
According to a former senior official of the Research and Analysis Wing, Indian's intelligence agency, some 20,000 Naxalites now have arms and are an important factor in states comprising 20 percent of India's population. There is no doubt now that the extent of Maoist success in Nepal has directly strengthened and emboldened the Naxalites, who can also claim to deliver votes in some rural areas and thus become a factor in state politics.
Pakistan's Dame Edna
In The Observer:
By day Ali Salim has stubble, scruffy jeans and a taste for cigarettes. But at night he pulls on a sequinned sari and high heels to become Begum Nawazish Ali - catty chatshow queen and South Asia's first cross-dressing TV presenter.
'She's every woman's inspiration and every man's fancy,' smiles 27-year-old actor Salim, his nails painted gold and his eyebrows plucked after filming the latest episode of Late Night with Begum Nawazish Ali, Pakistan's answer to Dame Edna Everage.
His creation - a snobby, gossipy, middle-aged woman who flirts with her guests and flashes her dead husband's jewels - has captivated a young audience eager for satire of Pakistan's staid politicians and unafraid of sexual ambivalence. Politicians, showbusiness people and even Islamic leaders crowd on to her velveteen couch for conversation that veers from sympathetic to smutty to downright bitchy.
The show pushes the boundaries of the acceptable - and, critics say, the tasteful - in conservative Pakistani society. In one recent episode Ali sneered at the lipstick worn by an actress, then turned to Aitzaz Ehsan, a well-known Supreme Court lawyer. 'Would you mind if I call you "easy"?' she purred, batting her eyelids. 'It's so much easier on the tongue.'
A Review of Rusesabagina's An Ordinary Man
In The American Prospect, Kyle Mantyla reviews Paul Rusesabagina's memoir of the Rwandan genocide.
Rusesabagina is perhaps the most well known survivor of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, thanks mainly to Don Cheadle’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of his efforts to protect some 1,200 potential victims within the walls of Hotel Rwanda -- the real life Hotel des Mille Collines. Since the film’s release in 2004, Rusesabagina has been hailed as a hero the world over, has been traveling the United States sharing his tale and, last year, was even awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Rusesabagina’s slim book, much like the movie, gives a rather limited perspective of the horrors that unfolded over those 100 days in 1994 as it is focused almost entirely on his experience during the genocide. But that is not necessarily a drawback as Rusesabagina manages to deftly weave Rwanda’s pre-genocide history, as well as the genocide itself, into his narrative. Whereas the rampant slaughter that engulfed the tiny nation seemed to exist mostly somewhere “out there” in the movie Hotel Rwanda, Rusesabagina conveys the sense that the massacres only remained “out there” thanks to the illusion of impenetrability the hotel provided -- an illusion that existed, in large part, only because Rusesabagina worked tirelessly to create and maintain it.
Making Democracies More Responsive With Mobile Technology
A project to make government more responsive through mobile information technologies:
Among the many promises of the digital revolution is its potential to strengthen democracy and make governments more responsive to citizens’ needs. An open service platform for mobile users aims to partially deliver on that promise, making public administrations more accessible, effective and accountable.
“The idea is essentially to support and encourage access to new e-government services at any time and any place through the use of mobile communications and internet technologies,” explains Dirk Tilsner, project coordinator for the IST programme-funded project, USE-ME.GOV.
To this end, the project has developed an open service platform for mobile users that can be shared by networked authorities and institutions in terms of technical infrastructure, information and other content, while also providing a framework for commercial exploitation.
From the outset, the emphasis was placed on creating a platform that would be easy to use and specifically tailored to the needs of administrations and service providers. That meant designing software that incorporated features such as usability, openness, interoperability and scalability, and would allow for networked operation.
A day after Kaavya Viswanathan admitted copying parts of her chick-lit novel, "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life," from another writer's works, the publisher of the two books she borrowed from called her apology "troubling and disingenuous."
On Monday, Ms. Viswanathan, in an e-mail message, said that her copying from Megan McCafferty's "Sloppy Firsts" and "Second Helpings," both young adult novels published by Crown, a division of Random House, had been "unintentional and unconscious."
But in a statement issued today, Steve Ross, Crown's publisher, said that, "based on the scope and character of the similarities, it is inconceivable that this was a display of youthful innocence or an unconscious or unintentional act."He said that there were more than 40 passages in Ms. Viswanathan's book "that contain identical language and/or common scene or dialogue structure from Megan McCafferty's first two books."
Congress Considers E-Enclosure
Lindsay Beyerstein on proposed legislation that threatens to change the internet for the worse:
Phone companies must treat all calls equally, regardless of where they come from, where they're going, or what the callers are saying. Historically, the same non-discrimination policy also covered Internet communications.(Matthew Yglesias also writes on the issue in The American Prospect.)
Now, a handful of giant telecom companies and their allies in Congress are on the verge of abolishing net neutrality for broadband internet. (Video)
Art Brodsky explains:
The telephone companies, which carried all of the Web traffic until relatively recently, had to treat all of their calls alike without giving any Web site or service favored treatment over another.
Fryer and Levitt on Race and Intelligence
In tests of intelligence, Blacks systematically score worse than Whites, whereas Asians frequently outperform Whites. Some have argued that genetic differences across races account for the gap. Using a newly available nationally representative data set that includes a test of mental function for children aged eight to twelve months, we find only minor racial differences in test outcomes (0.06 standard deviation units in the raw data) between Blacks and Whites that disappear with the inclusion of a limited set of controls. The only statistically significant racial difference is that Asian children score slightly worse than those of other races. To the extent that there are any genetically-driven racial differences in intelligence, these gaps must either emerge after the age of one, or operate along dimensions not captured by this early test of mental cognition. A calibration exercise demonstrates that the observed patterns in the data can be generated by a model in which there are extremely small mean differences in intelligence across races, but where there are large racial differences in environmental factors that grow in importance as children age.
Shutting Down Alzheimer's
The human brain is a remarkably complex organic computer, taking in a wide variety of sensory experiences, processing and storing this information, and recalling and integrating selected bits at the right moments. The destruction caused by Alzheimer's disease has been likened to the erasure of a hard drive, beginning with the most recent files and working backward. An initial sign of the disease is often the failure to recall events of the past few days--a phone conversation with a friend, a repairman's visit to the house--while recollections from long ago remain intact. As the illness progresses, however, the old as well as the new memories gradually disappear until even loved ones are no longer recognized. The fear of Alzheimer's stems not so much from anticipated physical pain and suffering but rather from the inexorable loss of a lifetime of memories that make up a person's very identity.
Unfortunately, the computer analogy breaks down: one cannot simply reboot the human brain and reload the files and programs. The problem is that Alzheimer's does not only erase information; it destroys the very hardware of the brain, which is composed of more than 100 billion nerve cells (neurons), with 100 trillion connections among them.
Neurobiologist sees link between letter forms and common scenes
The shapes of letters in all languages are derived from common forms in nature, according to a new hypothesis. The idea, in some ways seemingly obvious and innately human, arose however from a study of how robots see the world. Robots employ object recognition technology to navigate a room by recognizing contours. A corner is seen as a "Y," for example, and a wall is recognized by the L-shape it makes where it meets the floor.
"It struck me that these junctions are typically named with letters, such as 'L,' 'T,' 'Y,' 'K,' and 'X,' and that it may not be a coincidence that the shapes of these letters look like the things they really are in nature," said Mark Changizi, a theoretical neurobiologist at the California Institute of Technology. Changizi and his colleagues think letters and symbols in Chinese, Latin, Persian and 97 other writing systems that have been used through the ages have shapes that humans are good at seeing.
April 25, 2006
10x10™ ('ten by ten') is an interactive exploration of the words and pictures that define the time. The result is an often moving, sometimes shocking, occasionally frivolous, but always fitting snapshot of our world. Every hour, 10x10 collects the 100 words and pictures that matter most on a global scale, and presents them as a single image, taken to encapsulate that moment in time. Over the course of days, months, and years, 10x10 leaves a trail of these hourly statements which, stitched together side by side, form a continuous patchwork tapestry of human life.How does it work?
10x10 is ever-changing, ever-growing, quietly observing the ways in which we live. It records our wars and crises, our triumphs and tragedies, our mistakes and milestones. When we make history, or at least the headlines, 10x10 takes note and remembers.
Every hour, 10x10 scans the RSS feeds of several leading international news sources, and performs an elaborate process of weighted linguistic analysis on the text contained in their top news stories. After this process, conclusions are automatically drawn about the hour's most important words. The top 100 words are chosen, along with 100 corresponding images, culled from the source news stories. At the end of each day, month, and year, 10x10 looks back through its archives to conclude the top 100 words for the given time period. In this way, a constantly evolving record of our world is formed, based on prominent world events, without any human input.(Hat tip: Linta Varghese)
Homage to Jane Jacobs (1916-2006)
One of the great thinkers of the twentieth century has passed. All residents of New York City and urban citizens of the world owe her a great debt. More here
We human beings are the only city-building creatures in the world. The hives of socially different in how they develop, what they do, and their potentialities. Cities are in a sense natural ecosystems too --for us. They are not disposable. Whenever and wherever societies have flourished and prospered rather than stagnated and decayed, creative and workable cities have been at the core of the phenomenon; they have pulled their weight and more. It is the same still. Decaying cities, declining economies, and mounting social troubles travel together. The combination is not coincidental.
It is urgent that human beings understand as much as we can about city ecology --starting at any point in city processes. The humble, vital services performed by grace of good city streets and neighborhoods are probably as good a starting point as any.
Finland's Satanic Eurovision Choice
Finland's pick for Eurovision, Lordi, and the national identity crisis it seems to have engendered, in The New York Times.
They have eight-foot retractable latex Satan wings, sing hits like "Chainsaw Buffet" and blow up slabs of smoking meat on stage. So members of the band Lordi expected a reaction when they beat a crooner of love ballads to represent Finland at the Eurovision song contest in Athens, the competition that was the springboard for Abba and Celine Dion.(Hat tip: Alex Cooley)
But the heavy-metal monster band did not imagine a national identity crisis.
First, Finnish religious leaders warned that the Freddy Krueger look-alikes could inspire Satanic worship. Then critics called for President Tarja Halonen to use her constitutional powers to veto the band and nominate a traditional Finnish folk singer instead. Rumors even circulated that Lordi members were agents sent by President Vladimir V. Putin to destabilize Finland before a Russian coup — an explanation for their refusal to take off their freakish masks in public.
Lancet Claims World Bank Fraud
Lancet accuses the World Bank of fraudulent results, wasting money and lives (in the BBC).
A Lancet paper claims the bank faked figures, boosting the success of its malaria projects, and reneged on a pledge to invest $300-500m in Africa.
It also claims the bank funded obsolete treatments - against expert advice.
The bank has denied the allegations and says it is investing $500m to $1bn (£280m-£560m) over the next five years.
But it also admits it is not easy, and sometimes "not even possible", to know exactly how much input from each donor goes into a specific activity...
"Our investigations suggest that the bank wasted money and lives on ineffective medicines."
It accuses the bank of supplying India with an anti-malarial drug, called chloroquine, at a cost of $1.8m, which it says is unsuitable for the type of malaria seen there and against World Health Organisation guidelines.
On the Importance of Being Nitpicky
Jennifer is blogging the American Physical Society April meeting in Dallas.
I was reminded of the importance of being nitpicky in physics at a press conference yesterday on experimental attempts by Eric Adelberger's group at the University of Washington to find violations in one of the most fundamental aspects of special relativity: Lorentz invariance. (For more specific detail about this experiment, and several others, go here.) That's the bit about the laws of physics being the same for all observers, regardless of frame of reference. It's something we all kind of take as a given these days, but before 1905, it was by no means accepted. Or even obvious. Physicists of prior eras firmly believed that light would show the effects of motion, but experiment after experiment failed to produce this result, with the final nail being driven in the coffin when Michelson and Morley (once again) failed to observe this prediction. But experiment after experiment has validated this particular aspect of special relativity.
So, if special relativity, as a theory, has already been confirmed, repeatedly, one might ask, why even bother to keep testing? The same question came up earlier this year with the announcement of the most precise experimental confirmation to date of another Einstein workhorse, E=mc<2>. To someone unversed in the scientific method -- and they are legion, as evidenced by all those folks who think saying evolution is "just a theory" means it's incorrect -- it seems like a waste of time to keep testing something we already know is right.
Mathematical Model May Provide Insight into How We Sense
The individual cells responsible for responding to sensory inputs--the strong scent of a flower, the light touch of a spring breeze--can cope with only a small amount of input. Yet the human ear can hear and process sounds ranging from a pin drop to the roar of a jet engine. Scientists have struggled to account for how this individually narrow range combines in a network to produce the wide range of sensed experience. Now physicists have shown how the mathematical models that describe phase transitions in physical systems might also explain our capacity to hear, see, smell, taste and touch.
Mauro Copelli and Osame Kinouchi of the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil used a mathematical formula to show how a random network of "excitable elements," such as neurons or axons, have a collective response that is both exquisitely sensitive and broad in scope. When subtle stimuli hit the network, sensitivity is improved because of the ability of one neuron to excite its neighbor. When strong stimuli hit the network, the response is similarly strong, following what are known as power laws--mathematical relationships that do not vary with scale.
Fueling Our Future
From Harvard Magazine:
Our demand for energy, on which we depend for health and prosperity, rises all the time: oil and natural gas to heat our homes; electricity for lights, refrigeration, computers, and televisions; gasoline and diesel for our cars and trucks. Fossil fuels provide 80 percent of the energy that powers civilization. The more fuel we burn, the more heat-trapping greenhouse gases we produce, principally carbon dioxide (CO2). We know the carbon is coming from fossil-fuel combustion because, as Iain Conn, executive director of British Petroleum, said in a recent visit to Harvard, isotopic fingerprinting of the carbon tells us so. The consequent global warming is already linked to a pattern of record floods, droughts, heat, and other extreme weather events around the globe, and is expected to lead to extinctions of some plants and animals. But such news from the natural world has done little to galvanize political will. Even forecasts of disastrous effects for the human sphere—severe drought in parts of Africa and Europe in the next century, and rising sea levels worldwide that will someday drown major cities—have thus far failed to mobilize public action in the United States. The time to act is running short.
More here. (For Bhaijan)
April 24, 2006
Talking Pints: Eurobashing, Some French Lessons
I came to the US in 1991, shortly after Francis Fukuyama penned his famous “End of History and the Last Man” essay. Though much contested at the time, Fukuyama’s contention that there was only one option on the menu after the end of the Cold War – capitalism über alles - seemed, from my European social democratic perspective, worryingly prescient. After all, Europe’s immediate policy response was the Maastricht Treaty. Yet a moments reflection should have shown me that there was nothing inevitable about this victory of capitalism. As Karl Polanyi demonstrated, the establishment of capitalism was a political act, not a result of impersonal economic forces. And just as Lenin thought historical materialism needed his helping hand, it was reasonable to suppose that Fukuyama and those following him didn’t want to leave capitalism’s final triumph in Europe to the mere logic of (Hegelian) history. Post Cold War capitalism needed a helping hand in the form of reinforcing a new message: that while some kind of social democratic ‘Third Way’ between capitalism and socialism, the European Welfare State (EWS), was tolerable during the Cold War, now it was over, such projects were no longer desirable, or even possible.
As a consequence, following the Japan-bashing that was so popular in the US in the 1980s, Euro-bashing came to prominence in the 1990s. A slew of research was produced by US authors claiming that in this new world of ‘globalization’, time was up for the ‘bloated welfare states’ of Europe. Unable to tax and spend without provoking capital flight, EWS’s faced the choice of fundamental reform, (become just like the US) or wither and die. Fundamental reform was, of course, some combination of privatization, inflation control, a tight monetary policy, fiscal probity, more flexible labor markets, and of course, tax cuts. Some EWS’s embraced these measures during the 1990s, some did not, but interestingly, none of them died. In contrast to the dire predictions of the Euro-bashers, the ‘bloated old welfare states of Europe’ continued on their way. Such claims for the ‘end of the EWS’ were made consistently, in fact, almost endlessly, from 1991 until today, with apparently no ill effects.
Imagine then the sheer joy of the Euro-bashers upon finding the French (the bête noir of all things American and efficient) rioting the streets to protect their right not to be fired, and in the face of unemployment rates of almost 20 percent for those under 25. Was this not proof that the EWS has finally gone off the rails? John Tierney in the New York Times obviously thought so, arguing that “when French young adults were asked what globalization meant to them, half replied, “Fear.” Likewise Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson opined, “Europe is history’s has-been. …Unwilling to address their genuine problems, Europeans become more reflexively critical of America. This gives the impression that they're active on the world stage, even as they’re quietly acquiescing in their own decline.” Strong claims, but how the French employment law debacle was reported in the US was enlightening as the fact that it was given such coverage; not as the final proof of the EWS’s impending collapse, but as evidence of the strange myths, falsehoods, and half-assed reporting about Europe that is consistently passed off as fact in US commentary.
Consider the article by Richard Bernstein in the New York Times entitled “Political Paralysis: Europe Stalls on the Road to Economic Change”. In this piece Bernstein argues that Scandinavian states have managed to cut back social protections and thereby step-up growth, and that Germany under Schroeder managed to push through “a sharp reduction of unemployment benefits” that “have now made a difference.” Note the causal logic in both statements, if you cut benefits you get growth and employment. The problem is that both statements are flatly incorrect. Scandinavian countries have in many cases increased, rather than decreased, employment protections in recent years, and the German labor market reforms have indeed “made a difference.” German unemployment is now higher than ever, and the German government can cut benefits to zero and it probably will not make much of a difference to the unemployment rate. Unfortunately reporting things in this way wouldn’t signal the impending death of Europe. It wouldn’t fit the script. In fact, an awful of a lot of things about European economies are mis-reported in the US. The following are my particular favorites.
- Europe is drowning in joblessness
- Europe has much lower growth than the US
- European productivity is much lower than that of the US
Let’s take each of these in turn:
Unemployment: It is certainly true that some European states currently have higher unemployment that the US; Germany, France and Italy being the prime examples, and it is commonly held that this is the result of inflexible labor markets. The story is however a bit more complex than this. First of all, European unemployment, if you think about it, is an empty category. When seen across a twenty year period, US unemployment is sometimes lower, sometimes higher than averaged-out European unemployment, and varies most with overall macroeconomic conditions. Consider that modern Europe contains oil rich Norwegians, poor Italian peasants, and unemployable post-communist Poles. The UK was deregulating its financial sector at the same time as Spain and Ireland were shedding agricultural labor. As such, not only is the category of ‘Europe’ empty, to speak of European unemployment is misleading at best.
Moreover, contrary to what Euro-bashers argue, the relationship between labor market flexibility and employment performance appears to run in exactly the opposite direction to that maintained. As David Howell notes, historically, “lower skilled workers in the United States have had…far higher unemployment rates relative to skilled workers than has been the case in…Northern European nations.” If so, one can hardly blame European unemployment on labor market rigidities since no such rigidities applied to these unemployed low-skilled Americans.
Indeed, why the US has a superior unemployment performance may have less to do with ‘flexibility’ and efficiency of labor markets than the US itself admits. Bruce Western and Katherine Beckett argue that “criminal justice policy [in the US] provides a significant state intervention with profound effects on employment trends.” Specifically, with $91 billion dollars spent on courts, police and prisons in contrast to $41 billion on unemployment benefits since the early 1990’s, the United States government distorts the labor market as much as any European state.
Western and Beckett used Bureau of Justice Statistics data to recalculate US adult male employment performance by including the incarcerated in the total labor pool. Taking 1995 as a typical year, the official unemployment rate was 7.1 percent for Germany and 5.6 percent for the US. However, once recalculated to include inmates in both countries, German unemployment rises to 7.4 percent while US unemployment rises to 7.5 percent. If one adds in to this equation the effect, post 9-11, the effects of a half a trillion dollar defense budget per annum, and 1.6 million people (of working age) under arms, then it may well be the case the US’s own labor markets are hardly as free and flexible as its often imagined, or that the causes of low unemployment lie therein.
Growth: Germany and France in particular do have very real problems with unemployment, but it has very little to do with flexibility of labor markets and a lot to do with the lack of growth. Take the case of Germany, the unemployment showcase of Euroland. From the mid 1990s until today its unemployment performance was certainly worse than the US, but it had also just bought, at a hopelessly inflated price, a redundant country of 17 million people (East Germany). It then integrated these folks into the West German economy, mortgaging the costs of doing so all over the rest of Europe via super-high interest rates that flattened Continental growth. Add into this the further contractions caused by adherence by Germany to the sado-monetarist EMU convergence criteria, and follow this up with the establishment of a central bank for all of Europe determined to fight an inflation that died 15 years previously, and yes, you will have low growth and this will impact employment. And yes, it is a self inflicted wound. And no, it has nothing to do with labor markets and welfare states. Germany is not Europe however, and should not be confused with it. The Scandinavian countries have all posted solid growth performances over the past several years, as have many of the new accession states.
Productivity: It is worth noting that a high employment participation rate and long working hours are seen in the US as being a good thing. This is strange however when one considers that according to economic theory, the richer a country gets, the less it is supposed to work. This is called the labor-leisure trade off, which the US seems determined to ignore. That Americans work much more hours than Europeans is pretty much all that explains the US’s superior productivity. As Brian Burgoon and Phineas Baxandall note, “in 1960 employed Americans worked 35 hours a year less than their counterparts in the Netherlands, but by 2000 were on the job 342 hours more.” By the year 2000, liberal regime hours [the US and the UK] were 13 percent more than the social democratic countries [Denmark, Sweden and Norway], and 30 percent more than the Christian Democratic countries [Germany, France, Italy].” Indeed, thirteen percent of American firms no longer give their employees any vacation time apart from statutory holidays. The conclusion? Europe trades off time against income. The US get more plasma TV’s and Europeans get to pick up their kids from school before 7pm. But the US is still more productive – right? Not quite.
Taking 1992 as a baseline year (index 100) and comparing the classic productivity measure – output per employed person in manufacturing – the US posts impressive productivity figures, from an index of 100 to 185.6 in 2004. Countries that beat this include Sweden, the ‘bloated welfare state’ par excellence, with an index value of 242.6. France’s figure of 150.1 is 20 percent less then the US, but considering that the average Frenchman works 30 percent less than the average American, the bad news is that France is arguably just as productive, it just trades-off productivity against time.
Equality and Efficiency: Most importantly, such comparatively decent economic performance has been achieved without the rise in inequality seen in the US. To use a summary measure of inequality, the GINI coefficient, which gauges between 0 (perfect equality) and 1 (perfect inequality), the US went from a GINI of 0.301 in 1979 to a GINI of 0.372 in 1997, a nineteen percent increase. Among developed states, only the UK beats the US in achieving a greater growth in inequality over the same period. While the US and the UK have seen large increases in income inequality, much of Europe has not. France, for example, actually reduced inequality from a GINI of 0.293 to 0.298 from 1979 to 1994. Germany likewise reduced its GINI from 0.271 to 0.264 between 1973 and 2000, as did the Netherlands, which went from 0.260 to 0.248 between 1983 and 1999. Moreover, despite an enormous increase in wealth inequality in the US, redistribution has not been as dramatic in Europe. While wealth inequality has increased in some countries such as Sweden, it has done so from such a low baseline that such states are still far more equalitarian today than the US was at the end of the 1970s. Today, the concentration of wealth in the US looks like pre-war Europe, while contemporary Europe looks more like the post-war United States.
Given all this, why then is Europe given such a bad press? Given space constraints I can only hazard some guesses. The intellectual laziness and lack of curiosity of the US media plays a part, as does the sheer fun of saying “we’re number one!” over and over again, I guess. What is also important is what John R. MacArthur of Harper’s Magazine noted in his response to the Tierney column discussed above; “As Tierney's ideological predecessor (and former Republican press agent) William Safire well understood, when things get rough for your side, it’s useful to change the subject.”
Given this analysis, Euro-bashing, like Japan-bashing before it, contains within it two lessons. The first that that the desire to engage in such practices probably signals more about the state of the US economy than it does about the economy being bashed. Second, that while Europe does indeed have some serious economic problems, the usual suspects accused of causing these problems are really quite removed from the scene of the crime.
Sojourns: True Crime 2
Rape is unique among crimes because its investigation so often turns on the question of whether a crime actually happened. Was there or was there not a rape, did she or did she not consent, was she or was she not even able to consent? These sorts of questions are rarely asked about burglary or murder. And rarely do those accused of burglary or murder respond that such crimes didn't happen (OJ didn't say Nicole wasn't killed, just that he didn't do it). Most criminal investigations accordingly turn up a culprit who then defends him or herself by saying that he or she did not commit the crime. In contrast, most widely publicized rape cases involve culprits denying that a crime took place. She was not raped; we had consensual sex. Or, she was not raped; we didn't have sex at all. And so therefore despite the best intentions of state legislatures and women's advocacy groups, the prosecution of rape cases still often turns its attention to the subjective state of the victim. She consented at the time and now has changed her mind. She has made the entire story up out of malice or revenge or insanity.
The ongoing story at Duke University exacerbates these basic features of rape law in several respects. Most obviously, it places the ordinary uncertainty of the case in the whirlwind of publicity. As is often so in rape cases, the story is at root about whether or not a crime happened. Every detail of the incessant reporting has circulated around and over a core piece unknown data: not whether the woman consented to have sex, but whether anyone actually had sex at all. All of the attention paid to the DNA testing in the early stages of the investigation was in the hope that this question might be answered. Human testimony is fallible. Science is not. Or so we told by shows like CSI, with their virtuoso forensic detectives. And so we are led to believe by the well-publicized use of DNA testing in recent years to exonerate and incriminate defendants past and present. As it turns out, however, the DNA testing in this case only adds to the uncertainty. According to the District Attorney most rape cases involve no DNA at all. We thus await the evidence of her body itself, the sort of specific damage wrought by forcible sex. Her body will tell us the truth, and so get us out of the back and forth of merely verbal accusations and denials.
Even this highly pitched sense of mystery and uncertainty is ultimately the ordinary stuff of well-publicized rape cases. Were the story only about crime or no-crime, the American desire for closure and distaste for the open-ended or the unsure would eventually kill off interest. What is distinctive about the Duke story is the particularly delicate politics of race and the specific context of college athletics. About the former, little more need be said than the obvious. The story is about a twenty-seven year old African American mother working her way through a historically black college who has accused three white students from the nearby elite university of rape. On this accusation rest several hundred years of history. Were this not so highly charged an accusation, the defendants' strategy would surely be more corrosive than it has thus far been. Rape law places unusual and often unpleasant (and unfair) burden on the subjective position of the victim, on her sense of her own consent or her reliability as a witness. Thus Kobe Bryant was exonerated because the accuser was traduced in public. We have (thankfully) seen little of this so far in the Duke case, even though the accuser is an exotic dancer with a criminal record who worked for an escort service. The predictable course of events would be for the defendants to claim the accuser is deranged and unreliable and, as far as possible under state law, to bring in the shadier aspects of the woman's employment and criminal history to do so. That this hasn't happened, or hasn't happened yet, is revealing about the way in which race works in public discourse.
Of course the story drew the kind of attention that it did at first not because the accuser was black but because the accused were lacrosse players at a major university. What has emerged is something like the dirty secret of athletics at an elite institution. Like Stanford or Michigan, Duke has always maintained a double image as at once an extremely selective, prestigious institution of higher-learning and a powerhouse in several key sports (especially basketball). Unlike the Ivy League, Duke and Stanford actively recruit and provide full athletic scholarships for athletes. They also maintain a vigorous booster culture of fans and alumni. The result is a separate culture for "student" athletes, who don’t really have to take the same classes as everyone else, and who are apparently coddled in lifestyles of abuse and debauchery.
The agreed-upon facts of the case ought to be seen in this light. The lacrosse team threw a party for themselves and hired two exotic dancers from a local escort service. The dancers arrived and performed their routine surrounded by a ring of taunting and beer-drinking men. Alone and without security, they complained of their treatment and left. They were coaxed back inside. One claims to be have been raped. Whatever sexual assault may or may not have taken place, the facts of the case are set against the backdrop of an aggressive Neanderthalism that is precisely the sort of thing a university should be designed to counter.
As with most accusations of rape, the legal case is certain to revolve around the question of whether a crime happened. The coverage will most likely turn to a predictable discussion of credibility combined with new revelations about the accuser and defendants' relative truthfulness. One shouldn't forget what this case has already revealed.