June 30, 2006
Is Bush’s nightmare Venezuela’s salvation?
Greg Grandin in the Boston Review:
There is something quaint—flattering, even—about the way Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez insists on calling George W. Bush “Mr. Danger.” The taunt, which Chávez delivers in English with rolled-out vowels and pinched consonants, evokes an earlier era of cloak-and-dagger politics and lends Bush a certain mystery that he is generally denied in these shrill times of stateless terrorism. Mr. Danger, it turns out, is a minor character in Rómulo Gallegos’s 1929 novel Doña Barbara, a landmark in Venezuelan literature and before the fiction boom of the 1970s one of the most widely read Latin American novels in the world. A “great mass of muscles under red skin, with a pair of very blue eyes,” he is one of many unsympathetic misters who populate 20th-century Latin American social and magical realist prose, beginning in 1904 with the Chilean writer Baldomero Lillo’s abusive mine foreman Mr. Davis and continuing through Mr. Brown, the manager of a U.S. banana company in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.
‘Big Brother’ eyes make us act more honestly
Debora MacKenzie in New Scientist:
We all know the scene: the departmental coffee room, with the price list for tea and coffee on the wall and the “honesty box” where you pay for your drinks – or not, because no one is watching.
In a finding that will have office managers everywhere scurrying for the photocopier, researchers have discovered that merely a picture of watching eyes nearly trebled the amount of money put in the box.
Melissa Bateson and colleagues at Newcastle University, UK, put up new price lists each week in their psychology department coffee room. Prices were unchanged, but each week there was a photocopied picture at the top of the list, measuring 15 by 3 centimetres, of either flowers or the eyes of real faces. The faces varied but the eyes always looked directly at the observer.
In weeks with eyes on the list, staff paid 2.76 times as much for their drinks as in weeks with flowers. “Frankly we were staggered by the size of the effect,” Gilbert Roberts, one of the researchers, told New Scientist.
Social Networking for Bookworms
Aaron Rutkoff in the Wall Street Journal:
...for Tim Spalding, a computer programmer and bibliophile, listing a few titles in an online profile isn't enough. He sought a way to catalog his entire book collection -- and to check out what was lining other people's shelves.
To satisfy his curiosity, Mr. Spalding created a Web site where members can create library-quality catalogs of the books they own and display their collection to fellow online bookshelf browsers. "When I come into someone's house, the first thing I do is look at their bookshelf," Mr. Spalding admits. "This is totally that thing -- it's books as mental furniture."
He launched LibraryThing.com in August as a way to bring the organizational joys of the librarian to a wider array of book nerds. Ten months later, his concept has blossomed into a vibrant community with 47,670 registered members -- some paying -- and a user-created catalog that includes more than 3.6 million volumes. In theory, that makes LibraryThing the 58th largest library in the U.S.
In Slate, exchanges between Barbara Ehrenreich and Jason Furman on whether Wal-Mart is good for the working class and for Wal-Mart workers.
[Furman] Maybe you're ready to grant my point that Wal-Mart's low prices are great for the 298 million Americans who don't work there. But what about the 1.3 million Americans who do work for Wal-Mart? Here the evidence is murkier, in part because Wal-Mart refuses to release the data on its wages and benefits that could clear up a number of questions. What we do know is that its wages and benefits are about average for the retail sector—which is to say, not so great. It is harder to quantify other aspects of the job, like the quality of the work, the number of breaks, the prospects for advancement. You should let me know how you think it compares.
Studies have reached conflicting conclusions about the impact of Wal-Mart on local labor markets, with some finding that it creates more jobs than it displaces and others finding that it reduces jobs and nominal wages. Personally, I don't put a huge amount of stock in any of these findings because I believe that Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve decide the total number of jobs nationwide. If anything, the greater competition and productivity growth associated with the growth of Wal-Mart may have played a role in allowing the Federal Reserve to tolerate the high level of job creation in the 1990s.
Money Doesn't Make You Happy, Well, Maybe A Little
In the current issue of Science (behind a subscription wall) there is a piece by Alan B. Krueger, Daniel Kahneman, David Schkade, Norbert Schwarz, and Arthur Stone that suggests the link between income and happiness is mostly an illusion.
[Abstract] The belief that high income is associated with good mood is widespread but mostly illusory. People with above-average income are relatively satisfied with their lives but are barely happier than others in moment-to-moment experience, tend to be more tense, and do not spend more time in particularly enjoyable activities. Moreover, the effect of income on life satisfaction seems to be transient. We argue that people exaggerate the contribution of income to happiness because they focus, in part, on conventional achievements when evaluating their life or the lives of others.On the research, from Eureka Alert:
For the new study, the researchers examined data from the 2004 survey to illustrate misperceptions that more money buys more happiness. Their experiment extended previous studies in which people have exhibited a "focusing illusion" when asked about certain factors contributing to their happiness -- attributing a greater importance to that factor once it has been brought to mind. For example, when people were asked to describe their general happiness and then asked how many dates they had in the past month, their answers showed little correlation. But when the order of the questions was reversed for another group, the link between their love lives and general happiness became much greater.
To test whether this illusion applied to income, Krueger, Kahneman and their colleagues studied the responses given by the women in the 2004 DRM survey. After they were asked to report the percentage of time they spent in a bad mood the previous day, they were asked to predict how much time people with certain income levels spend in a bad mood.
Survey respondents expected women who earned less than $20,000 a year to spend 32 percent more of their time in a bad mood than they expected people who earned more than $100,000 a year to spend in a bad mood. In actuality, respondents who earned less than $20,000 a year reported spending only 12 percent more of their time in a bad mood than those who earned more than $100,000. So the effect of income on mood was vastly exaggerated.
Power on How to Recover US Influence in the World
Samatha Power offers some thoughts on fixing American foreign policy, in Harvard Magazine.
Can American foreign policy be fixed? Whether the alarms are caused by our plummeting global standing, our deadly war in Iraq, our democratization efforts (which have produced outcomes we don’t like), or our often seemingly self-defeating efforts to curb terrorism, most Americans are now prepared to acknowledge that the United States is in trouble abroad. Because of our current strategic, financial, and reputational predicament, much of what follows sounds directed at the Bush administration. But it is essential that we acknowledge the degree to which this administration has exposed and exacerbated structural fis sures that were evident long before it took office. If the United States is to turn things around, it must identify the flaws in the conception and conduct of its foreign policy and fix what is fix able. Rather than leaving foreign policy to the “experts,” the rest of us must insist that our government play a role in the world that is more attentive to the values and long-term interests of its citizens.
Jeffrey Goldberg and the War
Ken Silverstein in Harper's magazine looks at Jeffrey Goldberg and the Iraq war.
Last week Jeffrey Goldberg, the Washington correspondent for the New Yorker, spoke at a panel session here that asked the burning question, “Can Liberals—and Only Liberals—Win the War on Terror?” Readers may recall that Goldberg was, in the year leading up to the war, a strong proponent of invading Iraq, and wrote a number of articles that echoed the administration's arguments for toppling Saddam Hussein. That was no coincidence, since his reporting relied heavily on administration sources and war hawks (and in at least one crucial case, a fabricator).
Goldberg and his friends predicted that events would unfold smoothly in Iraq, and now that they haven’t, he wants to make sure that U.S. troops stay put and fight the war that he helped promote. The Democrats, he told the Washington panel, can regain power only by reaching out to their conservative wing (and to voters even further to the right who over the years have migrated from the party to the G.O.P.). He's been interviewing members of this vital voting-bloc, he said, and he was able to report that they would “like to leave Iraq but they'd really like to win Iraq” and are looking for “a party and leadership” that can lead the way to victory.
In 1936 Freud wrote a letter to Romain Rolland, offering him a speculation about a particular memory as a 70th birthday gift. The memory concerned a trip Freud took to Athens with his brother, and his own ‘curious thought’ at the sight of the Acropolis: ‘So this all really does exist, just as we learned in school!’ Freud describes himself as two people, one making the comment and the other perceiving it:and both were amazed, although not by the same thing. One of these persons behaved as though . . . he was obliged to believe in something the reality of which had until then seemed uncertain to him . . . But the other person was rightly surprised, because he had not known that the real existence of Athens, the Acropolis and this landscape had ever been a matter of doubt.
Perhaps, Freud says, he was just registering the difference between knowing about something and seeing it with one’s own eyes, but he thinks ‘that would be a strange way of dressing up an uninteresting commonplace,’ and quickly moves on to develop an argument suggesting that his reaction was a disguised expression of a continuing disbelief not in the Acropolis, but in his own chances of getting there. But why didn’t he say just that? Why was his disbelief ‘doubly displaced’, as he puts it, shifted into the past and ‘away from my relation to the Acropolis to the Acropolis’ very existence’? He didn’t actually doubt the existence of the Acropolis in the past and he couldn’t doubt it in the present, since he was there; but his unmistakable feeling was that ‘there was something dubious and unreal about the situation.’
How To Treat the Help?
Youll Never Nanny in This Town Again by Suzanne Hansen.
I grew up in Berkeley in the 1960s and 1970s, and every housewife I knew had a once-a-week "cleaning lady," the title itself an oxymoron that revealed perfectly the ambivalence the employers had about hiring help. The cleaning ladies were black; most wore uniforms, and all were the tolerant beneficiaries of an exaggerated white liberal guilt that lent itself to diatribes about the importance of integrating the schools, but not to relaxed standards concerning the proper way to wax and buff a hardwood floor.
Beyond that, my experience with hired help came from books and the movies, until I spent several years of my early adult life under the sway of a woman who had always had servants and who had been raised in a house full of them in the Deep South. She taught me how to treat the weekly cleaning person who came to my New Orleans shotgun house once a week: I was always to pay her, even if I was out of town and didn't need her services ("Just because you don't need her doesn't mean she doesn't need her check"); I was to be unconcerned and gracious about broken dishes or chipped candlesticks ("Whoever does the cleaning is going to do the breaking"); and I was to understand that it was the way of domestic workers to fall short of money, and the obligation of householders to get them out of scrapes. I came to appreciate that the various trials of the employee's life were very much my business, that ours was inherently an association of unequals, and that decency demanded that I keep that uppermost in my mind and behave accordingly.
Ants on Stilts Help Show Bugs Have "Pedometers"
Hunting for food, ants roam haphazardly. But when they find it, they use celestial cues, perhaps from the sun, to head back to their nests more or less in a straight line—rather than retracing the tortuous journeys they'd made on their outbound searches. Instead, a new study suggests that ants have internal "pedometers," or step counters, that help them gauge how far they have traveled. Food was placed about 33 feet (10 meters) from an ant nest. When ants found the food the researchers collected the insects before they had time to carry it back to the nest.
Twenty-five of the ants were then put gently on their backs. Scientists glued stilts made of pig bristles to the insects' legs—a delicate procedure that had to be done quickly so the ants wouldn't forget what they were doing and fail to return home. Another 25 ants had their legs surgically shortened by chopping off part of the bottom segment. For the ants on stilts, each step now covered more distance than they were used to. They overshot the nest, running an average of more than 50 percent farther than they should have. Those with shortened legs undershot by nearly as much.
June 29, 2006
Summers Discusses Stormy Harvard Tenure
From the AP in the New York Times:
AP: What do you expect will be the legacy of your presidency?
Summers: I think it's been a very good five years for the university. We've expanded our commitment to equal opportunity by becoming the first university in the country to eliminate tuition for families earning under $60,000, laid a foundation for that threshold to increase in the future. We've substantially increased the university's commitment to public service.
The university has launched the greatest period of scientific expansion in its history. Twenty football fields worth of laboratory space are now either under construction or in the planning stage, including space for the stem cell institute, which is filling a gap left when the federal government abdicated in this area.
Benjamin Disraeli and the politics of performance
Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker:
When Lytton Strachey’s “Eminent Victorians” was published, in 1918, it included, in addition to the portraits of his leading characters, cameos of almost all the other famous Victorians: Cardinal Newman is alongside Cardinal Manning in Manning’s chapter; Gladstone is glimpsed in the chapter on General Gordon; and Lord Palmerston is visible, grimacing, behind Florence Nightingale. The only Victorian of eminence missing in the ironic gallery is the most ironic of them all, Benjamin Disraeli: man of fashion, satiric novelist, twice Prime Minister, and the dominant figure of the Conservative Party in Britain from 1846 until his death, in 1881.
The reason for leaving him out is plain: Strachey’s figures, large and small, are invariably studies in that sanctimonious hypocrisy which Strachey imagined to be the keynote of the period. And of all the things that Disraeli was—mocker and opportunist, hired gun and flatterer, gadfly and courtier—the one thing that no one could ever call him was sanctimonious and hypocritical.
Chinese, English speakers vary at math
Randolph E. Schmid of the AP, in Wired News:
Simple arithmetic was easily done by both groups, but they used different parts of the brain, a new study shows.
Researchers used brain imaging to see which parts of the brain were active while people did simple addition problems, such as 3 plus 4 equals 7. All participants were working with Arabic numerals which are used in both cultures.
Both groups engaged a portion of the brain called the inferior parietal cortex, which is involved in quantity representation and reading.
But native English speakers also showed activity in a language processing area of the brain, while native Chinese speakers used a brain region involved in the processing of visual information, according to the report in Tuesday's issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The West and the spirit of giving
Mohammed A. R. Galadari in the Khaleej Times:
Dear readers, some people in the Third world countries have these peculiar notions about the people in the West that they are atheists and infidels who do not follow or practice any religion. There are also common misconceptions about the Western lifestyle; that they constantly run after money and material wealth and there is no place for spirituality or beliefs in their lives.
But it is there in the West that people are donating their hard earned money and wealth to the poor and needy and for research on killer diseases like cancer and Aids. And we are not talking about peanuts; it's huge, really big money, running into hundreds of billions. The combined wealth given in charity by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet is larger than the GDP of Kuwait.
Bill Moyers Interviews Salman Rushdie
From the Faith and Reason series on PBS:
Salman Rushdie is a celebrated novelist, short-story writer, and essayist who gained international notoriety in 1989 when Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini demanded his execution for his portrayal of the prophet Mohammed in the novel THE SATANIC VERSES.
Born into a Muslim family in Bombay, India, in 1947, Rushdie began his writing career in the mid-1970s, after settling in England. His second novel, MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN, an allegory of post-independence Indian society, catapulted him to fame in 1981 and was awarded Britain's Booker Prize for best novel. In 1993, the novel was named the "Booker of Bookers," as the best novel to receive the award in the prize's 25-year history.
Rushdie followed MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN with a string of seven highly acclaimed novels, among them THE SATANIC VERSES (1988), THE MOOR'S LAST SIGH (1995) and THE GROUND BENEATH HER FEET (1999). Most of the author's novels are set on the Indian subcontinent and focus on actual political and historical events interwoven with myth, fantasy, and folklore - a technique that has drawn comparisons to the "magic realism" of South American writers like Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Read more and watch the video here. [Thanks to Zaneb Beams.]
Love, loss and all points in between
Why isn't Hisham Matar angrier? In 1990, when he was a student in London, his father - a Libyan dissident living in Cairo - was kidnapped, taken back to Tripoli, imprisoned, tortured. He smuggled several letters out from Abu Saleem jail detailing his treatment, but there has been no word since 1995. The not-knowing must be hideous - so how to square that with this charming, engaging, patient young man?
Matar, whose first novel is being touted as the literary event of the summer, suggests meeting in Holland Park, on the western fringe of central London. No doubt this is a way of keeping me out of the rented flat he shares with his American-born photographer wife, but it's appropriate, too. He often walks here in the morning before writing. "I find it calming," he explains. "There's always a problem when you write, something you're trying to resolve, and sometimes a view can be inspiring."
Isn't blackjack just another game of chance? Isn't the player relying solely on the random turn of the cards? Not according to former Massachusetts Institute of Technology mathematics professor Edward O. Thorpe, who has shown that by combining several different strategies, the player can shift the advantage, ever so slightly, in his (or her) favor. Surely, the casinos will catch wind of this new gambling system and shut down all of their blackjack tables. Apparently, there's no need. Thorpe published his findings, replete with mathematical evidence, in 1955, but hardly anybody takes the time to learn the system. It is possible to use skill to turn luck to your advantage, but not enough people bother to make it a problem for the casinos. The job market is like that, too. Then one day, I found myself at a daylong "Careers in Science" seminar.
And speaker after speaker gave variations on the same answer: It was luck. For those of us who hadn't gotten lucky yet, it wasn't a very satisfying answer.
So I started to look for other things these speakers had in common. I didn't have to look far. These speakers had put as much effort into the presentation as they had into gathering the information that went into them. Even if they felt lucky, these people weren't the type to wait for the phone to ring. Maybe they were lucky, but they also worked hard, made good decisions, and took pains to present themselves well.
Linklater's A Scanner Darkly
Who is Richard Linklater, really? In the last 15 years he's written and directed great, meandering films about disaffected types who don't do a whole lot of anything besides kicking back and philosophizing (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Waking Life), but he's also made tightly plotted movies about equally disaffected types who band together to combat a repressive social order (The Newton Boys, Fast Food Nation, even The School of Rock, and Bad News Bears). It's as though the left and right hemispheres of Linklater's brain have been competing! Which is, of course, precisely the problem faced by narcotics agent Bob Arctor, the protagonist of Philip K. Dick's brilliant 1977 science-fiction novel A Scanner Darkly.
So, will Linklater's new, rotoscoped adaptation of A Scanner Darkly, starring Keanu Reeves as Arctor, reveal once and for all which side of Linklater's brain is the dominant one? That is, will Keanu and his drug buddies, played by Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder, and Rory Cochrane (reprising his role in Dazed and Confused), get politicized and take action against their not-too-distant-future surveillance society? Or will these slackers stay glued to their couches, enteg themselves with interminable Linklater-esque bull sessions?
The answer is: both. After all, in what sci-fi fans describe as the "phildickian" worldview, binapposites—good/evil, real/unreal—are impossible ever to untangle.
3QD's World Cup Analyst Alex Cooley, In Withdrawal, On The Last Rounds
[Alex writes] The last few days that have comprised the second round of the World Cup might just be my favorite time in all of sports. In just four days the World Cup goes from the active involvement and global football fiesta of 32 teams to the final hardcore 8 teams that will actually challenge for the cup. It also means that in between the 2nd round and Q-finals, the first two days of football withdrawal and the unsettling prospect of actually being sober in the afternoon. I've taken some of the extra time to see the highly entertaining "Berlin-Tokyo, Tokyo-Berlin" exhibit at the New National Gallery (recommended if you're in Berlin before the end of October or maybe it was just novel to visually experience something other than 22 guys running after a ball). To continue to bring the tone of 3QD down a few notches through my endless drivel, here are some further thoughts about the last few days.
So the games are for real this time which means that one moment of madness or misjudgment really does mean "its over." I definitely sensed this nervousness among the German supporters before their 2nd round clash with Sweden, although all fears were soon dispatched after their young striker Lucas Podolski bagged a couple of goals in the first 10 minutes to send the over-hyped Swedes on their way and get the German World Cup party going again. Later that evening, the Mexicans played Argentina tough and did a much better job of tracking Argentina's off the ball runs than any of the Euro teams. But they too fell to a moment of brilliance and a wonder goal from Maxi Rodriguez (MaxiGoooooooooool) in extra time.
Spare a thought for the Aussies, perhaps the most hard done of the unlucky 8 that were just eliminated. They played a tight and contained match against much fancied Italy and although they never looked like scoring they were comfortably looking forward to 30 minutes of extra time with a man advantage when calamity struck in the very last minute. Even more sadly, the Aussie exit means no more trips to the Uluru resort pub, our local Aussie joint in Berlin. According to one local observer, Uluru's pre-World Cup clientele usually consisted of 3 unemployed blokes playing darts…so when a hoard of Aussies Googled the "Ozzie pub" and descended before the all important Aussie-Croatia clash the stunned owner ran out of Aussie beer 15 minutes before kickoff and had to send his mates out to buy more drink and plastic cups. He was more prepared beer-wise for the Italy game, but, alas, the loving Aussie fans had to learn the hard way: whiny Italian diving in the penalty area in additional time against minor team in knockout stages of World Cup = penalty = see you in 2010!
Of course that sorry piece of officiating looked absolutely Pierluigi Colina-like compared with the previous day's parade of cards shown by Russian ref Ivanov in the Kung-fu movie that was Holland-Portugal. The hapless ref showed a World Cup finals record four red cards and 16 yellows but let the game slip away, providing some terrific entertainment and fine melodrama for the neutrals. Although the Portugal came out of the wrestling ring to claim the win, the real winners are the English who will now get to play the Portuguese without their first choice creative and defensive midfielders, Deco and Costinha.
Now admittedly, most of Cooley's previous group picks were as rubbish as a Swiss penalty, but 3 of my final 4 are still alive, with only the underachieving Spanish going home early. Looking forward to the Q-finals we'll see what Argentina and Portugal bring to the table this weekend, but there is a creeping sense of inevitability about a Germany-England final on July 9. This doesn't necessarily mean that these are the 2 best teams (although the Germans may well be), just that by some strange atmospheric conditions the teams have completely morphed into stereotypes of each other. The Germans have been playing attacking, fearless, attractive football, making full use of their excellent wide players and dangerous overlapping runs by their fullbacks. On the other hand, this year's England team, as a German friend noted when watching their toothless win against Ecuador, is eerily reminiscent of the German teams of the 1980s - a dysfunctional midfield with bouts of comical defending, but getting lucky with the draw and doing just enough to win each match from a set piece (all hail the right foot of Beckham!). Sorry, folks, Sven's men have "Finalist" written all over them.
No blushes about my Ukraine pick. After getting absolutely hammered by Spain and beating Tunisia on a dodgy penalty of their own, the "Ukrainian train" is about to dispatch these Italian whiners and make Cooley look like a genius for including them in my final four.
Finally, let's just quickly glance over my prediction that the Team NikeFIFASamba would be upset in the second round. So the Cats from Ghana couldn't quite do it - no biggie, the moment of joy merely has been temporarily delayed. I have no doubts that the recently rejuvenated French team (or Ribery and some of his hard Parisian pals who hang around the Gare du Nord) will heroically send our Brazil packing and Ronaldo in search of more potato salad. Mark's just got back, se we're off for a couple of Kir Royales and in search of French jerseys.
Now, everyone, sing with me, "Allons enfants de la Patrie/Le jour de gloire est arrivé! "
June 28, 2006
Cerebroscopes and Explanations
In Seed, Paul Bloom on the dubious merit of fMRI based explanations. (Via Language Log.)
A couple of years ago, a friend asked me to be a pilot subject for one of her fMRI studies. I immediately said yes, in large part because most of the psychologists I knew had their brains scanned at one time or another, and I was feeling left out. It was a tedious experience, involving the memorization of long strings of numbers—and being inside a magnet is like being buried alive, only louder. So when I emerged from the machine an hour later, I was grouchy.
But then she took me to a screen and showed me a record of my brain at work. It made up for the hour of torment. I was entranced.
Newspapers, magazines, TV and blogs very often discuss psychology these days as a series of studies that involve some measure of neural activity, usually fMRI. The most compelling studies are those which probe the brain while the subject is made to think about something controversial, such as politics, sports teams, race, sex, corporate brands or morality. It makes for great press releases. But fMRI imagery has attained an undue influence, and we shouldn't be seduced.
Egypt Bans The Da Vinci Code
There is soooo much that's wrong in this story, that it's hard to know where to begin, in Al Ahram.
"We [at the ministry] ban any book that insults any religion," Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni told parliament last week. That the list now includes Dan Brown's international bestseller The Da Vinci Code, translated into Arabic in 2003 and widely available since then, drew a round of applause from parliamentary members. The blockbuster film based on the book is likewise to be banned.
"The book is based on Zionist myths, and it contains insults towards Christ, insulting the Christian religion," Coptic MP Georgette Sobhi told the People's Assembly last week.
"Creativity is good, but not when the writer seeks to shake religious beliefs and contradict basic religious tenets," said Bishop Piscenti of Helwan Church.
The People's Assembly debated the book and film at the request of several Coptic MPs, who were joined by Muslim Brotherhood members.
"The Brotherhood had opposed the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed and will oppose any insult to Jesus Christ," said Hussein Ibrahim, a Brotherhood MP.
The applause did not extend to cultural and human right circles, which saw the decision to ban the book and the film as politically motivated, and dealing a blow to freedom of expression and creativity.
Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post:
Geoff Nicholson is an Anglo-American novelist -- he lives in London and Los Angeles -- whose subjects often have been "obsession, sex, and the relationships between people and things," so perhaps it stands to reason that he is the first writer to devote an entire book to the subject of people who collect "any type of object or artifact that is primarily sexual." Or at least the first writer to do so in public, since heaven knows what lurid volumes may be hidden away in some secret library of erotica. In any case, collecting matters of a sexual nature certainly dovetails with his favorite themes, so you won't be surprised to learn that he has risen to the task.
Sex Collectors is mainly a lark, irreverent and amusing, but it's thoughtful, too, on matters such as sexual obsession, the urge to collect, art versus pornography. Nicholson understands that collecting often is far more than a hobby, and he cites "plenty of psychologists, not least Freud . . . who'll tell you that collecting is an anal compulsion," though with regard to the subject at hand "anal" may not be exactly the right word.
National Security, European Data Privacy and the Case of SWIFT
The revelation that SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication), which routes trillions of dollars between banks every day, was sharing it records of financial transfers with the CIA, in possible contravention of European law, may be building up to become a storm. The story first broke in the New York Times. Scott Martens over at A Fistful of Euros, a day after the NYT article:
Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber also weighs in:
I’ve been surprised at the lack of uproar over the discovery that the CIA has been data mining SWIFT transfer archives. I suppose it’s because this is far from the first troubling secret breech of the right to privacy by the Bush administration, and most people - the ones that don’t have large sums of money - generally don’t have any banking privacy anyway. But this new secret program touches a core Bush constituency: white-collar criminals. If Bush is able to secretly monitor transactions in the name of anti-terrorism, a future Democratic government might be able to use it against money laundering and accounting fraud. That’s surely something the Republican Party could never stand for.
SWIFT is headquartered in Belgium, but operates computer centres both in the US and the EU, so the company probably was not in a position to refuse the government’s request. According to page 4 of the original NY Times article: “Intelligence officials were so eager to use the Swift data that they discussed having the C.I.A. covertly gain access to the system, several officials involved in the talks said.” If they were prepared to break in to get the data, there was little to be gained by the firm taking a stand.
Predictably, the Weekly Standard deems the NYT a national security threat and is calling for its prosecution for publishing the story.
I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop on this for the last few days, and it finally has. Privacy International has filed complaints with umpteen European and non-European data regulators that SWIFT has illicitly shared European citizens’ financial data with US authorities. This could have some very interesting consequences. Now bear in mind as you read the below analysis that I am not a lawyer. I have, however, spent a lot of time over the last six years working on and writing about privacy issues in the EU-US relationship, so I do have a good grasp of the political issues involved.
The key issue here is whether or not SWIFT (which is a sort of transactional clearing house, based in Belgium) did or didn’t break European law in providing information to US authorities. Cue background explanation of how complicated the implementation of EU privacy law is. European privacy is (with exceptions: see below) governed by the so-called Data Protection Directive, which, like all EU directives is supposed to be implemented in national legislation.
THUS ATE ZARATHUSTRA
Woody Allen in The New Yorker:
There’s nothing like the discovery of an unknown work by a great thinker to set the intellectual community atwitter and cause academics to dart about like those things one sees when looking at a drop of water under a microscope. On a recent trip to Heidelberg to procure some rare nineteenth-century duelling scars, I happened upon just such a treasure. Who would have thought that “Friedrich Nietzsche’s Diet Book” existed? While its authenticity might appear to be a soupçon dicey to the niggling, most who have studied the work agree that no other Western thinker has come so close to reconciling Plato with Pritikin. Selections follow.
Fat itself is a substance or essence of a substance or mode of that essence. The big problem sets in when it accumulates on your hips. Among the pre-Socratics, it was Zeno who held that weight was an illusion and that no matter how much a man ate he would always be only half as fat as the man who never does push-ups. The quest for an ideal body obsessed the Athenians, and in a lost play by Aeschylus Clytemnestra breaks her vow never to snack between meals and tears out her eyes when she realizes she no longer fits into her bathing suit.
Shutting Down Science
In January 2001 the New England Journal of Medicine published a study showing that reducing salt in the diet could lower blood pressure, even in people without hypertension. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, which funded the study, quickly posted a press release on its Web site announcing the findings.
The Salt Institute, an industry group, was stung by the study's results. Unable to challenge the data on scientific grounds, the institute found another way to attack them. It filed a petition under the Data Quality Act--a law ironically intended to ensure that regulations are based on solid science--arguing that the findings did not meet the act's standards and that the heart institute had therefore broken the law by posting them...
It was the first time the right to petition in court under the Data Quality Act was challenged, but it will most likely not be the last. Nobody keeps an exact tally, but something like 100 Data Quality Act petitions have been filed with dozens of different government agencies. Most have been initiated by industry groups, disputing scientific reports that could lead to tougher regulations. If subsequent petitions are accepted by the courts, the litigation could tie up government reports indefinitely, long before their data could lead to any government action.
The Great Rising, or Mutiny, of 1857
"As we enter the 150th anniversary of 1857, William Dalrymple casts a new look at one of Indian history's most enigmatic episodes, and its aftermath."
William Dalrymple in Outlook India:
In June 1858, the Times correspondent William Howard Russell—a man now famous as the father of war journalism—arrived in the ruins of Delhi, recently recaptured by the British from the rebels after one of the bloodiest sieges in Indian history. Skeletons still littered the streets, and the domes and minars of the city were riddled with shell holes; but the walls of the Red Fort, the great palace of the Mughals, still looked magnificent: "I have seldom seen a nobler mural aspect," wrote Russell in his diary, "and the great space of bright red walls put me in mind of (the) finest part of Windsor Castle." Russell's ultimate destination was, however, rather less imposing. Along a dark, dingy back passage of the fort, Russell was led to the cell of a frail 83-year-old man who was accused by the British of being one of the masterminds of the Great Rising, or Mutiny, of 1857, the most serious armed act of resistance to Western imperialism ever to be mounted anywhere in the world. "He was a dim, wandering-eyed, dreamy old man with a feeble hanging nether lip and toothless gums," wrote a surprised Russell. "Not a word came from his lips; in silence he sat day and night with his eyes cast on the ground, and as though utterly oblivious of the conditions in which he was placed.... His eyes had the dull, filmy look of very old age.... Some heard him quoting verses of his own composition, writing poetry on a wall with a burned stick."
The prisoner was Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, direct descendant of Genghis Khan and Tamburlane, of Akbar, Jehangir and Shah Jehan.
The Perils of "Blogofascism", or How TNR Moved To The Ridiculous
The New Republic is increasingly silly. In The American Prospect, Matthew Yglesias takes the piss out of culture critic Lee Siegel's alarms of "blogofascism".
As Ron Rosenbaum explained in a classic January 2002 New York Observer article, Hitchens was, along with Andrew Sullivan, a George Orwell for our times. Coining the term "Islamofascism" was a "brilliant stroke . . . devastatingly effective in describing who the terrorists, the al-Qaeda/Taliban nexus, really are." Yes, yes. Paul Berman did us the further favor, in his book Terror and Liberalism, of revealing that, despite appearances, not only were Islamic jihadists the same as Nazis, but both were also the same as secular nationalist Baathists. For that matter, despite decades of superficial rivalry, Syrian Baathism was the same as Iraqi Baathism. And, of course, as Hannah Arendt taught us long ago, if something is the same as fascism (as many things are these days) then it's also the same as Communism.
This was all very enlightening, needless to say. But the threats of the past are now obsolete -- since the liberation of Iraq, neither Islamofascism nor Baathofascism nor even Naziofascism need trouble us much.
The world, then, has recently been dangerously lacking in "-ofascist" (or perhaps O'Fascist, like in Ireland) threats. Thankfully, New Republic culture critic Lee Siegel has now uncovered the most insidious threat of all: Bloggers. "The blogosphere," he told us last week, "radiates democracy's dream of full participation" but is, in fact, "hard fascism with a Microsoft face." Some thought Siegel was engaging in a little ill-advised overstatement. But no. The bold truth-teller was all-too-serious, as he revealed in his follow-up post, "The Origins of Blogofascism" -- a work of Arendt-ian import, if not quite scale and scope.
"Constructive biology?" Think of the cell as operating system, and engineers taking the place of traditional biologists in retooling stripped down components of cells (bio-bricks) in much the vein as in the late 70s when electrical engineers were working their way to the first personal computer by assembling circuit boards, hard drives, monitors, etc. It's not an accident that the phrase "bio-hackers" is in the conversation, as this new crowd has a lot in common with the computer engineers who were around the homebrew computer club of the '70s leading the development of the personal computer.
Central to this move to engineer biology, to synthesize life, is Harvard researcher George Church. "Today I am involved in a number of synthesis and sequencing endeavors," he says. "First, the BioFab group works together on 'constructive biology', which has a number of tightly overlapping parts of a Venn diagram."
With Food Line, Ali Makes Obesity an Opponent
From The New York Times:
In a delicate dance of legend, marketing and money, Mr. Ali plans to introduce reduced-calorie foods and beverages for young adults, evoking his status as a three-time heavyweight boxing champion and American icon. The first products to roll out in convenience stores early next year will be packaged snacks with names like Rumble, Shuffle and Jabs — fruit-laden rolls and finger foods baked into vaguely signature shapes like boxing gloves and punching bags. Some flavors, like barbecued chicken and Buffalo wings, are a twist on snack classics, while others, like sweet corn and cole slaw, evoke the farmer's market.
The new line has the lofty aim of fighting youth obesity, with no snack containing more than 150 calories. Each is fortified with vitamins and fiber, said Edward Rapp, a senior member of Mr. Ali's new company, GOAT Food and Beverage (GOAT being an acronym for — what else? — Greatest of All Time).
June 27, 2006
The Promise of the Coming Finnish Presidency of the EU
Speaking of Halliday, he sees much promise in Finland's coming presidency of the EU, in openDemocracy.
Finland is also intent on using the EU presidency to promote more active dialogue with the Muslim world and with the middle east. The country's long association with UN peace-keeping and diplomacy in conflict-zones is an asset here. Martti Ahtisaari is only the most prominent current figure in this regard; the former Finnish president (1994-2000) has applied experience gained in Namibia and Kosovo to his Crisis Management Initiative, which specialises in conflict-prevention, state-building and human-security projects.
The Finns are worried by the tensions between Europe and the Muslim world over Iraq and Iran, which (as with the Danish cartoon crisis) have a "domestic" as well as foreign-policy dimension: the presence of large migrant communities across western Europe means that even countries of the Baltic region are no longer insulated from the shockwaves of conflict in or relating to the middle east.
In October 1980, the Czech astronomer Z. Vávrová of the Klet' Observatory at Ceske Budejovice discovered Planet Number 03479, a celestial body the size of a large asteroid, in the nether reaches of the cosmos. The astronomer named it after his favorite writer, Curzio Malaparte. A literary homage drifting in outer space would have appealed to a writer who inhabited an unclassifiable planet of his own, a writer known for ingenious deceptions, morbid hilarity, and what one might call heartfelt insincerity.
However engaged he became in the splendors and miseries of the sad century he lived in, Malaparte carried himself with an air of antic dignity, an almost posthumous detachment redolent of a cosmic private joke. He embraced ideas with the grip of an octopus and abandoned them as casually as Kleenex.
more from Bookforum here.
fred halliday and why the new left review is right
Danny Postel: What exactly were you saying?
Fred Halliday: My view is that the kind of position which the New Left Review and Tariq have adopted in terms of the conflict in the Middle East is an extremely reactionary, right-wing one. It starts with Afghanistan. To my mind, Afghanistan is central to the history of the Left, and to the history of the world, since the 1980s. It is to the early 21st century, to the years we’re now living through, what the Spanish Civil War was to Europe in the mid and late 20th century. It was the kitchen in which the contradictions of the contemporary world, and many of the violent evils of the century, were cooked and then spread out. Just as Italian and German fascism trained in Spain for the broader conquest of Europe and the Mediterranean,the militant jihadi Islamists, of whom bin Laden was a part, received their training, their primal experiences, in Afghanistan. They have been carrying out this broad jihad across the Middle East and elsewhere ever since, including, of course, the attacks of September 11th. You cannot understand this unless you go back to Afghanistan in the 1980s.
But who was responsible? Pakistani intelligence, Saudi Arabia and the United States. Read Bob Woodward’s book on Casey, The Veil, or Steven Cole’s book on Afghanistan, Ghost Wars. The U.S. was deeply implicated. My view is that anybody who could not see that issue then, or in retrospect, is objectively on the Right. And I think Tariq is objectively on the Right. He’s colluded with the most reactionary forces in the region, first in Afghanistan and now in Iraq. He has given his rhetorical support to the Sunni insurgency in Iraq—who have no interest in democracy or in progress for the people of Iraq whatsoever, whether it’s the Baathists, with their record of 30 years of dictatorship, or the foreign Sunnis with their own authoritarian project. The position of the New Left Review is that the future of humanity lies in the back streets of Fallujah.
more from Salmagundi here.
Having Older Brothers Increases a Man's Odds of Being Gay
The number of biological older brothers a boy's mother has carried--whether they live with him in the same household or not--affects his chances of being gay. The findings, reported this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, by Anthony Bogaert of Brock University, lend credence to the theory that it's not the social or rearing factors that influence a man's sexual orientation, but rather prenatal mechanisms that begin in the womb.
The idea that prenatal mechanisms may influence sexual orientation has been around for a couple of decades. In 1996, Bogaert along with colleague Ray Blanchard correlated sexual orientation in men with the number of older brothers, but it wasn't clear if that influence was occurring because the boys shared the same household or because they had shared the same womb.
Memento Mori: Remembering Susan Sontag
From The Village Voice:
On Photography: A Tribute to Susan Sontag
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Much of her work negotiated the distance between extremes of feeling and intellect. Many were offended by an article she published just after 9-11, noting the "courage" of the hijackers who crashed into the World Trade Center; but as we seesawed in those weeks between grief and numbness, who could forget her (radical) exhortation: to think. Sontag touched upon 9-11 again in her last book, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), a brilliant extended meditation on the uses and abuses of photographs of war and disaster.
Shows about critics are a tricky business. There's a tendency for the writer's words, reproduced in wall texts or captions, to eclipse the pictures, narrowing their meaning to a single interpretation. Sontag's aphoristic style, heir to Walter Benjamin's epigrammatic insights, works particularly well in this context. (She was heir to Benjamin as well in her preoccupations with surrealism, the politics of the image, and the 19th-century as the cradle of modernity, while Roland Barthes was like her sentimental Parisian cousin in their shared obsession with photography's whiff of mortality.)
Gauss's Day of Reckoning
"A famous story about the boy wonder of mathematics has taken on a life of its own."
Brian Hayes in American Scientist:
In the 1780s a provincial German schoolmaster gave his class the tedious assignment of summing the first 100 integers. The teacher's aim was to keep the kids quiet for half an hour, but one young pupil almost immediately produced an answer: 1 + 2 + 3 + ... + 98 + 99 + 100 = 5,050. The smart aleck was Carl Friedrich Gauss, who would go on to join the short list of candidates for greatest mathematician ever. Gauss was not a calculating prodigy who added up all those numbers in his head. He had a deeper insight: If you "fold" the series of numbers in the middle and add them in pairs—1 + 100, 2 + 99, 3 + 98, and so on—all the pairs sum to 101. There are 50 such pairs, and so the grand total is simply 50×101. The more general formula, for a list of consecutive numbers from 1 through n, is n(n + 1)/2.
The paragraph above is my own rendition of this anecdote, written a few months ago for another project. I say it's my own, and yet I make no claim of originality. The same tale has been told in much the same way by hundreds of others before me. I've been hearing about Gauss's schoolboy triumph since I was a schoolboy myself.
The story was familiar, but until I wrote it out in my own words, I had never thought carefully about the events in that long-ago classroom. Now doubts and questions began to nag at me.
The India Model
Gurcharan Das in Foreign Affairs:
Summary: After being shackled by the government for decades, India's economy has become one of the world's strongest. The country's unique development model -- relying on domestic consumption and high-tech services -- has brought a quarter century of record growth despite an incompetent and heavy-handed state. But for that growth to continue, the state must start modernizing along with Indian society.
GURCHARAN DAS is former CEO of Procter & Gamble India and the author of India Unbound: The Social and Economic Revolution From Independence to the Global Information Age.
Should the United States sacrifice its republican institutions in order to fulfil an imperial vocation?
Robert Sidelsky in the New York Review of Books:
The question of how the world should be run, and America's part in its running, is the subject of much academic and political discussion in Washington these days. The factual questions are: Is the United States on the road to becoming an empire like the Roman and British Empires before it? What are the prospects for such an enterprise in today's world? More speculatively, does globalization require an imperial underpinning? There are also questions of value: Is imperialism a good or bad thing? Should the United States sacrifice its republican institutions in order to fulfil an imperial vocation? Gregor Dallas's 1945: The War That Never Ended can be read as setting the scene for this discussion. The Second World War cleared away the European empires, actual and aspiring, leaving the United States and the Soviet Union as the two contending superpowers. The collapse of the Soviet Union concluded the "unfinished business" of the war, by leaving the United States the sole superpower and simultaneously creating a single world economy. The dynamics of postwar US supremacy and the question of whether they are pushing the United States toward formal empire are the subject matter of Charles Maier's Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors.
New York City most courteous place on planet
Jennifer Harper in the Washington Times:
The Big Apple just got a lot shinier. New York City is the most courteous place on the planet, according to a survey released yesterday by Reader's Digest. And at the bottom of the heap lurks Bombay. India's financial capital has bombed -- deemed the very rudest.
The publication staged a global civility derby among 35 cities around the world, using undercover reporters to conduct more than 2,000 simple courtesy tests among unwitting passers-by, clerks and the proverbial men -- and women -- on the street.
Would they hold open doors, say "thank you" or help retrieve a sheaf of wayward papers on the sidewalk? Well, yes -- and no, depending on the locale. Still, it is reassuring to note that even in times of tumult and uncertainty, earthlings proved fairly genteel: The survey revealed that overall, the test cities were courteous an average of 55 percent of the time.
And what about poor Bombay?
June 26, 2006
Dispatches: Chicken Country
I'm currently living temporarily in Parkersburg, West Virginia, a state of affairs that has led me to think quite a bit about locality. My dreams, of course, before coming here were to finally make contact with authentic American folkways, and hopefully foodways, to find local diners and farm markets and maybe even meet a grizzled trapper, a la Withnail and I, who would supply me with rabbits or venison or brook trout. Ah, Asad, you idiotic city slicker. The most popular grocery in town is at Wal-Mart, and the diner is Denny's. (Though the Georgian fast-food chain, Chick-Fil-A, and their superbly simple chicken sandwich (toasted buttered bun, fried chicken cutlet, pickles), leaves me overjoyed. When I get back, I think I'm going to open a Chick-Fil-A on, like, Metropolitan and Lorimer and rake it in.) If anything, the national food distribution system is more entrenched and dominant here in sleepy P-burg, with its forty thousand people, than in New York, where I can choose which season's milk I want my Parmigiano-Reggiano from DiPalo's to have been made from, thank you very much. (I like winter, and I am insufferable.) But the experience of extreme difficulty finding any locally, sustainably produced food here in WV has gotten me thinking.
A couple of years back, my aunt was kind enough to invite me to a house she rented in Cape Cod during the summer. Naturally, given my fish obsession, I visited the well-stocked local fish store, excited about the prospect of partaking of the local catch. Yet upon questioning the honest staff about the provenance of their selection, I learned that while some fish was locally caught, much of the fish was shipped in by truck - swordfish from the Carolinas, bluefin tuna via Boston or even New York's now-defunct Fulton Fish Market, etc. I'd had a similar experience in the charming little English seaside town of Aldeburgh, where there was a great selection of fish trucked in from Billingsgate, London's wholesale market, resting prettily on ice, or being fried and wrapped in newspaper at the delicious fish-and-chip shop on the high street. (Random aside: I groggily concussed myself one morning there because of the medievally low doorframes.) Somehow, this seemed wrong, even though in London I would happily buy little vongole shipped from the Adriatic, cause that seems like a metropolitan prerogative. I was buying into the pastoral myth of the countryside as the authentic source of food.
So, the fish shops of Wellfleet and Aldeburgh are far better than the fish shops in, say equally picturesque mountain villages, yet the fish they stocked was, for the most part, equally accessible to retailers anywhere. Why the paradox? Expectation creates demand, and people expect fish near the sea, and like to assume it came right out of that sea, and usually don't ask if it did. So fishmongers do business by the sea, often selling farmed fish like cod and salmon that it's really hard to catch in the sea nowadays, while local fishermen cannot get distribution locally. Of course, there is wild seafood to be had in Wellfleet and Aldeburgh, it's just harder to come by in this confusingly globalized day and age. In the case of Cape Cod, strolling down to the beach revealed thousands of native Wellfleet oysters lying around; I'm happy to report that we gathered and ate at least two hundred, and that my little nephew Sam really liked the tiny crab hitchhiking in our bucket. The point, however, is that locality is very difficult to ascertain in our current food system, dominated as it is by supermarkets with global supply systems. Even regional food preferences, where they exist, are largely now maintained for show rather than for the traditional reason that a particular food is in prolific supply in a region, with a few exceptions, such as Maine lobster, Maryland crab and Pacific salmon.
There's a reason those three items are all, well, seafood. Fish and seafood are the last wild creatures we eat much of. But even farmed food's origins are increasingly unclear these days, as I was finding here in Parkersburg, where my fantasies of connection with the land were being completely thwarted. By coincidence, the new Michael Pollan book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, had just come out. Really three books in one, it recounts three meals in Pollan's trademark analytical goody two-shoes style, one following a confined steer to McDonald's, one from an organic farm, and one foraged and hunted by Pollan. The McDonald's meal comes at the end of a long, and utterly fascinating, description of the dominance of subsidized corn production in the U.S. economy, and how the overabundance of cheap corn threatens to ruin our environment and our very selves. Pollan makes the astute point that industrial monocultures such as the corn, chicken, and beef industries transform the nation's landscape into a dystopia. Rather than the aesthetically pleasing little system of a Georgic ode, we have instead literally disgusting operations the sight and smell of which must be kept in quarantine out of sight. The synthetic fertilizers and pesticides that industrial agriculture requires pollute water tables and turn frogs hermaphroditic. The addiction to feeding cheap corn to cows, a ruminant that evolved to eat grass, means that harmful bacteria such as E.Coli multiply in their stomachs. And finally, the transformation of the rest of that pile of surplus corn into byproducts such as oils, starches, syrups and stabilizers means that most of our cheapest food is just corn byproducts (it occurs to me, with horror: et tu, Chick-Fil-A?). If I was to propose the simplest possible anti-industrial agriculture diet, I'd say: just don't eat or drink anything with high-fructose corn syrup or vegetable (i.e. corn and soybean) oil.
To my pleasant surprise, however, Pollan's second meal is a sunny account of Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm in the nearby Shenadoah Valley. Salatin is a hero of the "managed pasture" movement, which entails rotating animals on pasture and allowing the grass to recover, rather than separately inputting synthetic fertilizers, corn, and antibiotics. He pioneered moving chickens in mobile coops after his cows, allowing them to pick grubs and worms out of the cow's manure, in the process fertilizing the fields, keeping the steer disease-free, and filling their own stomachs. He has created similarly symbiotic relationships between the pigs, rabbits, and sheep on his farms, all of which rotate around the property while never being allowed to exhaust the pasture. Salatin's beef eat only grass, which according to Pollan makes for a much healthier and beefier beef, which is confirmed by my experience of Argentinian grass-fed beef (which, sadly and absurdly, is as illegal here as Pakistani mangoes and unpasteurized French cheese). And I know for a fact that free-ranging chickens eating a varied diet as Salatin's do make for much better eating than do your average Purdue broiler. Salatin is a bit of a nutcase (when Pollan asks how people in New York can get access to food like this, Salatin replies, "Why do we need a New York City?") but his methods are impeccable, and from 100 acres of farm and 450 acres of forest he produces 30,000 dozen eggs, 11,000 chickens, 25,000 pounds of beef, 25,000 pounds of pork, 1000 turkeys, and 500 rabbits annually. Of course, this is a drop in the ocean: we'd need thousands of farms like Polyface to feed people this stuff, and food would be much more expensive.
Although, I wonder if it wouldn't be a good thing for meat, at least, to be a great deal more expensive. Why should we subsidize the cost of disease-ridden meats itself produced from subsidized corn when people spend barely any money on food as it is? Would less meat and less sugar in the American diet be a bad thing? Maybe the worst and most objectionable thing of all, though, about contemporary U.S. foodways is the flavor. Let's be honest. The U.S.A. has the worst quality produce in the world. An apple or a peach or a strawberry from an average supermarket taste like mildly flavored cellulose. An apple from an orchard, ripe, in October, tastes complex and perfumed; a summer strawberry from an allotment is like an uncloying little sugar bomb; a real ripe peach from, say, Turkey, in summertime is simply absurdly good to eat. Yet here we are in the richest country in the world, etc, etc, etc, and we eat food that's fit for the table of some Protestant Low Country in which toil and suffering in this world bring redemption only in the next. Unpasteurized cheese, which millions of Europeans eat safely every year, is illegal here out of fear. Yet the FDA would rather irradiate beef, killing its taste entirely, than impose any punishment upon producers whose product is routinely contaminated with lethal fecal matter. How are we screwing up this bad?
I don't have an answer, other than to say that I'm going to be heading over to Salatin's to fill a cooler with grass-fed beef and chickens and eggs soon. Pretending to be Argentine, by eating that beef with some chimichurri and some Malbec will be nice. So, I have realized, will eating food that accords with my general philosophy of taste: it's better to perform labor procuring something that tastes good than trying to redeem something that doesn't. A subway ride to a good butcher is better cooking than following thirty-six steps from Eric Ripert's cookbook with watery scallops and woody rosemary. The increasing spiciness of American fast food, I think, is tied to an increasing need to camouflage the blandness and insipidity of the main ingredients. Not that I'm saying spicy food is bad; I'm Pakistani, after all. But excessive concealment is a sign of bad ingredients - I have my mother's father's favorite cookbook, from 1920's India, and the recipes are amazingly simple: korma has chicken, onions, ginger, red pepper, and saffron.
New York is as guilty of overcomplexity as anywhere, with its chattering vogues for senseless combinations and magical thinking about this season's ingredient, be it lotus bulbs or pork belly. How often do you see pastas or sandwiches that have four or five too many things on them? And how rarely do you see people with the rigor of gastronomes past, with a steady assurance as to what goes with what, in what season? Now we ridicule such inflexibility, residing bravely as we do in the great masala of today, where we have oversweet versions of Thai food served to us by French chefs. Take that, orthodoxies of yesterday!, comes our adolescent cry. Meanwhile, we've never eaten the simple, decent reduction from which the lemongrass reduction departs, and have no sense of which rules are being broken. And lest you think that cooking rules are some kind of dead-European-male thing, some sign of domination, remember this: all cuisines are bounded languages in which utterances have a grammar, and Mexicans, Provençals and Indians are equally protective of their regional foodways. There's much pleasure to be had from intermingling them, but much to be lost by forgetting that people ate certain ways because long experience and settled tradition embody much more knowledge of their food than we have.
I recently tried to convince my sister that no spices whatsoever are needed to enhance a good chicken, and thusly cooked her the dish whose recipe I'm about to give you, along with some by-recipes that come along with buying a whole animal and using it unwastefully. But don't try it with a factory bird from Giant Eagle, as I did recently, the flesh is mushy and dry simultaneously, and the muscle tone is weird, and the bird just doesn't taste like anything. So get something good and then don't do much to it. Try this if I haven't convinced you. All you need is one good chicken; of course, finding one is harder than it should be.
This dish is a touchstone of simplicity, and won the argument with my sister. I like it with mashed potatoes. I read accounts of roast chickens in food books all the time, and often order it to test a kitchen, the same way you might do with tandoori chicken and naan at a tandoori place. By the way, Simon Hopkinson's Roast Chicken and Other Stories is one of my favorite cookbooks, simple and methodologically sound and really indicative of a chef's whole style, and he recounts some great tales of L'Ami Louis in Paris and their roast poulet de Bresse with fries. Oh man.
One chicken, smallish (free-range essential, organic preferable)
Half a lemon
Pepper (don't even ask; yes, freshly)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Farenheit. Take the neck and organs out of the chicken's cavity, reserving for stock, and put the chicken in a roasting pan. Put the lemon half in, cut side "up." Smear butter all over the chicken, leaving a prodigious amount on the breast. Sprinkle with a lot of salt and pepper.
Put the chicken in the oven and leave it for an hour. Open up and check if it's getting too browned, if so, turn down to 350. If not, leave and check again in fifteen minutes. Pull the chicken out, and poke a paring knife into the thigh - the juices will come rushing out clear as a bell. You should have a really beautiful bird with burnished dark-golden, crackling skin.
Carve the chicken into pieces (drumsticks, thighs, wings and breast) and remove to platter. If you don't know how, just do it; you'll be fine, it's dead easy. Now pour off the accumulated juices into a small saucepan, spooning off excess oil, and squeezing the lemon half into the mix, and boil for a bit (you can mix in some flour here if you want a thick gravy - I prefer thinner juices as a sauce). Spoon over the chicken, or pass around. Putting these pieces of chicken over mashed potato provides more starch to absorb the reduced chicken jus, which is a great idea. Make it with a good chicken, and I guarantee this recipe.
Roast chicken bones (including what's on people's plates - don't be shy)
Celery stalk, broken in half
Slice of ginger
Clove of garlic
Put it all in a pot, just cover with water, and bring to boil. Skim, turn down, and simmer for two hours. At this point, you'll have a nice chicken-y stock that beats the pants off any can or cube and you can salt it properly and strain it. But don't throw away the bones; take the leftover chicken pieces from the stockpot and pick the meat off the bones - there will be a great deal on the back, especially the two little pearly nuggets on the underside. French people have some sexy name for them, and they are good.
THREE CHINESE CHICKEN SOUPS
A good way to use chicken stock and meat; funny and old-fashioned but comforting and nice. Another is to use all the meat for a nice chicken salad. Another is to cook any vegetable in season (asparagus, celeriac, peas, nettles, you name it) in the stock and then puree it, topping with more pepper and a little Parmigiano, if you want. Another is to braise lamb shanks in it with onion and fennel and top them gremolata (minced parsley and garlic, mixed). Another is... well, you get it: it's good to have some stock around.
Chicken stock with extra chicken meat (see above)
Flake the reserved meat into the pot of stock, which is simmering on the stove. Add a little vinegar and a little soy sauce. Simmer away for a while and then pick one of these three options:
1. Egg Drop: Mix about two tablespoons cornstarch and equal water, then mix into stock, stirring vigorously. Let thickening magic occur for a while. Beat an egg in a bowl, and pour into soup, stirring. You're done. Serve with thinly sliced superhot little Indian chilies soaked in vinegar in a little bowl.
2. Chicken Corn: Add a couple of ears worth of corn kernels or a can of corn to the stock. Then follow the instructions for Egg Drop.
3. Hot and Sour: Add sliced fresh mushrooms, cubed tofu, julienned bamboo shoots, some sliced pork if you have it, extra soy and vinegar, and a mess of white (or black) pepper. Then follow the instructions for Egg Drop.
The rest of Dispatches.
Teaser Appetizer: Sleep and Insomnia, A Letter to Shakespeare
The other day I counted the word “sleep” in 167 passages of your work and I am sure I did not count them all. You have penned sleep in its own image and as a metaphor. You knew sleep:
“The innocent sleep, sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care, The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath, Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course, Chief nourisher in life's feast.” (Macbeth, Act II)
And you knew sleep’s associated afflictions, especially its deprivation: insomnia.
Enjoy the honey-heavy dew of slumber: Thou hast neither figures nor no fantasies Which busy care draws in the brains of men; Therefore thou sleep’st so sound. (Julius Cæsar, Act II)
The purpose of my letter is to share with you new information we have learned about sleep and insomnia since your demise in 1616.In the intervening four hundred years; we have invented complex contraptions to study a sleeping person. We can record the brain activity, eye movement, muscle tone, breathing patterns and measure the levels of various substances (chemicals, molecules, hormones) floating in the blood. All these studies have yielded considerable information.
We now describe the architecture of sleep according to the movement of the sleeping eyes, which when moving rapidly is the “rapid eye movement” (REM) phase; the rest is the non rapid eye movement phase (NREM). We start our sleep with NREM and get into REM before waking up. NREM starts with easy arousal light sleep (stage1 and 2) and marches into deep sleep (stage 3 and 4) from which a slumbering person is difficult to arouse. The unpleasant experiences of night terrors, sleepwalking and bed-wetting – the afflictions you are familiar with -- occur during deep sleep.
Macbeth had a troubled stage 4 sleep:
“Ere we will eat our meal in fear and sleep In the affliction of these terrible dreams That shake us nightly: better be with the dead, Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace, Than on the torture of the mind to lie In restless ecstasy” (Macbeth, act III)
And Lady Macbeth too sleep walked in her deep stage 4 sleep:
“Since his majesty went into the field, I have seen her rise from her bed, throw her night-gown upon her, unlock her closet, take forth paper, fold it,. write upon't, read it, afterwards seal it, and again return to bed; yet all this while in a most fast sleep.” (Macbeth, Act V)
Mr. Shakespeare, Did Parolles wet his bed in REM sleep or deep sleep?
“In his sleep he does little harm, save to his bed-clothes about him” (Alls Well That Ends Well, Act IV)
The sleep cycle starts with stage1 during which we drift in and out of sleep, our brain activity slows down. Then we enter stage 2: our brain activity slows down further; our muscles may suddenly jerk but our eyes do not move. Stage 3 shows periods of slow moving delta waves on recording of the brain activity and in stage four our muscles are immobile and brain activity reflects only delta waves. REM sleep follows stage 4: the eyes throw jerky movements, blood pressure rises, breathing becomes shallow and rapid, temporary muscle paralysis ensues, heart pounds faster, men get penile erections and the brain waves gather speed. We indulge in dreams during this active stage of sleep -- the brain is hardly idle. (Most mammals and birds show REM sleep, but cold blooded animals and reptiles do not. Do other mammals dream?)
Mercutio got it wrong:
“True, I talk of dreams, which are the children of an idle brain” (Romeo and Juliet, Act I)
We sleep in cycles of NREM and REM and about 90 to 100 minutes elapse from the beginning of stage 1 to the end of REM. This cycle repeats 3 to 6 times at night. In a cycle of 100 minutes, the duration of stage 1 is 10 minutes, stage 2 is 50 minutes; stage 3 and 4 is 15 minutes and finally REM lasts 25 minutes. If we miss our REM sleep, we fall into REM the next night without other stages, till we catch up with this REM deficit.
We flash signals from the base of the brain which either awaken us or put us to sleep. These chemical signals or neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine exude from the nerve cells (neurons) of the brain stem and keep the brain awake. Other neurons at the base of the brain turn off the awakening process and we fall asleep. The levels of adenosine build up while we are awake and subside during sleep. Caffeine containing potions like coffee and tea inhibit adenosine.
REM sleep is regulated by the part of brain -- we call Pons, which sends signals to other parts of the brain and also inhibits neurons in the spinal cord causing temporary paralysis.
We have learnt our bodies function in a cyclic rhythm spread over 25 hours: we call it circadian rhythm. Mere 200,000 neurons in the suprachiasmic nucleus (SCN) of hypothalamus play the role of the body clock. Sunlight or other bright light and even external noise triggers SCN which signals the pineal gland to shuts off the production of melatonin. The pineal gland secrets melatonin (a drowsiness inducing hormone) at night and in darkness. Some people with blindness suffer from sleeping disorders because they are unable to respond to light. Traveling long distance in a short period (jet lag) or change of shift at the work place can disrupt the circadian rhythm.
The neuro-chemical control of sleep is autonomous and we can not voluntarily deprive ourselves of sleep. Cleopatra in her raging defiance may have succeeded in starving herself but to defy sleep was an empty threat.
“Sir, I will eat no meat, I'll not drink, sir; If idle talk will once be necessary, I'll not sleep neither: this mortal house I'll ruin, Do Caesar what he can. Know, sir, that I will not wait pinion'd at your master's court.” (Antony and Cleopatra, Act V)
Voluntary sleep deprivation may not be possible, yet we have enough reasons to loose sleep: anxiety, depression and body pain. Iago could not sleep because of pain...
“And, being troubled with a raging tooth, I could not sleep.” (Othello, Act III)
And King Richard was anxious.
“For never yet one hour in his bed Have I enjoy'd the golden dew of sleep, But have been waked by his timorous dreams.” (King Richard III, Act IV)
In our “progress” we have added a few more causes of insomnia: jet lag, shift change and stimulant drugs. People who work at night and travel through time zones disturb the sunlight stimulus to circadian regulation.
We have found that sleep is essential for survival – at least for rats. Scientists made rats live on a platform floating in tub of water. When rats drifted into REM sleep their muscles got paralyzed and they slipped off the platform and fell into the water. Poor rats! Wet and drenched they struggled and climbed back onto the platform went into paralyzing REM sleep and fell into water again. Deprived repeatedly of REM sleep, they died in 3 weeks instead of usual 2 to 3 years.
Mr. Shakespeare, do you accuse us of being sadistic? We defend the progress of science at all costs! This very scoundrel race of rats spread the germs that devastated London with bubonic plague which must have caused you a few sleep less nights! Well, we people are adept at taking revenge for historical blood feuds; in his case it is against the rats. Well, they are all rats!
You ask what have we achieved in the past 400 years? We have accumulated wealth and information; yet it is true that our restless days still end up in sleepless nights. King Henry also knew it; money can buy you a bed but not sleep.
“Not all these, laid in bed majestical, Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave, And, but for ceremony, such a wretch, Winding up days with toil and nights with sleep,” (King Henry V, act IV)
You probably think the information gained in the last 400 years has cured our insomnia... not so Mr. Shakespeare: 30 to 50 percent of our people now suffer from insomnia; we are a sleep deprived world. Here is some news for you from the Boston Globe:
The Institute of Medicine report said loss of sleep has increased in recent decades due to longer workdays and computer use and television watching taking up more time. Lack of sleep increases the risk of a variety of health problems, the report said, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and heart attacks. It also raises the chances of injury or death due to accidents at work, home, or in automobiles. Studies in the 1990s estimated the cost of medical care for sleep disorders at $15.9 billion, the report said. In addition, fatigue is estimated to cost businesses about $150 billion a year in lost productivity and mishaps, and damage from motor vehicle accidents involving tired drivers amounts to at least $48 billion a year. The National Sleep Foundation issued a report indicating only 20 percent of US adolescents get the recommended nine hours of sleep a night.
So, here we are, four centuries after you! Amazing: so much knowledge, yet how little we have learned! We have coaxed but a few ounces of wisdom from the tons of information we have collected and culled. Our data could fill the cavernous base of a medieval church and all the wisdom will rise but slim as a spire. From you we need to learn to build with in the scaffold of wisdom and not on the foundation of data. We need at least as many seers as we have scientists.
“Not poppy, nor mandragora, nor all the drowsy syrups of the world, Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep, Which thou owedst yesterday.” (Othello, Act III)
Sojourns: Bored by the World Cup
Let me confess at the outset that my lack of interest in the World Cup is matched only by my ignorance of the sport itself. Call me what you will. A philistine. A provincial. A vulgarian. An ugly American. But I have not been getting up in the morning to watch the matches. There is a reason for this I think. Sports are an acquired taste and deeply autobiographical. I grew up on the Jewish faculty-brat diet of baseball and basketball. By the time I was in college and self-consciously developing an interest in the arts and literature, televised sports seemed like something from a distant planet. When I returned to watching sports in my thirties, it was with the intense relish of rediscovering forgotten pleasures. I wanted the sweet succor of bygone days and older knowledge. Learning new things was for different regions of my brain and other times of day. Thus soccer fell between the cracks in my life. Too bad for me, I hear you say.
By not developing an interest in the World Cup, or at any rate by not professing one, I am something of a traitor to my own professional class. Even the most sports-averse and tweed-adorned professor these days can be seen taking a break to watch the surprising run of Ghana or the stalwart march of the Germans. (I find no great surprise, for example, that this very website, ordinarily so earnest and sober, so interested in international affairs, science, and medicine, has two separate bloggers reporting from the games.) The World Cup has in other words developed an odd kind of reach. It is both sports and not sports. Clearly billions of people who grew up in countries other than my own feel an intensity of fandom I cannot really understand, but which equally clearly provides the kind of visceral pleasure in viewing I can. I am however not interested here in what motivates soccer fans in the countries where the sport thrives. What I'm interested in, rather, is the acquired situational appreciation of soccer and its elevation into a sport that is more than a sport.
Perhaps I should just phrase this is as a simple question. Why do intellectuals or the chattering classes or the intelligentsia care so much about the World Cup? The least generous answer is simple Europhilia. Like smoking Gauloises or eating haggis, watching the tournament expresses a kind of vicarious belonging to a different continent, a sign that you spent your junior year abroad in Florence or Paris or Edinburgh and, when pressed, even know a word or two in a different language. Seen this way, one's viewing habits provide a form of cultural capital and means of distinction. The sport is not simply a competition like the World Series; it is rather something of an aesthetic artifact, the appreciation of which becomes a badge of sophistication. It is, in the words of the New York Times, a "beautiful game."
To be a little less cynical, the World Cup is for some clearly less about sports than about international relations and politics. On this account, the games are interesting for their allegorical significance. Teams really do represent nations after all. If say Ghana defeats France then centuries of colonialism and domination are momentarily upended in a great reversal of fortune. Even the uglier dimensions of the tournament—violence, "hooliganism," racism, and the like—are interesting because they express some underlying sociological or political cause. One is interested in the sport not because it is a "beautiful game" but because of what it reveals about class tensions, race war, the new Europe, etc.
In either case, viewers of the World Cup watch the game from a sort of distance: the distance of aesthetics or of politics. The first translates the game into a mark of distinction and cultural capital; the second translates the game into an allegory or a symptom. The thing about such distance, at least for me, is that it gets in the way of the deeply intuitive and primal enjoyment that accompanies watching a sport with which one is intimately familiar. So I return to autobiography. Suburban kids now seem to be introduced to soccer as a matter of course. (Hence the specter of the American "soccer mom" looming large over pollsters and politicos everywhere.) When I was in elementary school back in the 70s, however, soccer was only beginning to be touted as the next thing to come. Some day soon, we were told, everyone would be kicking checkered balls, right about the same time as we would be measuring things in metric. The great metric conversion never came. And by the time soccer camps and leagues sprung up I was very much into other things. I simply never developed the self-transcending pleasure watching soccer that I did with other sports.
I tend not to think my own history is that unique, so I doubt that many Americans of my generation did either. While I am interested in the interest in the World Cup, therefore, the tournament itself leaves me bored.
Monday Musing: Susan Sontag, Part 2
The first part of this essay can be found here.
Inevitably, the exaltation and dreams of unity that she harbored during the Sixties were to disappoint Sontag, as they did everyone else. She was going to have to come down from those heights and find her own version of Zagajewski’s soft landing. And that is another thing that makes Susan Sontag so remarkable. At her most exalted, writing in 1968, just after returning from Hanoi, she says:
“I recognized a limited analogy to my present state in Paris in early July when, talking to acquaintances who had been on the barricades in May, I discovered they don’t really accept the failure of their revolution. The reason for their lack of ‘realism’, I think, is that they’re still possessed by the new feelings revealed to them during those weeks—those precious weeks in which vast numbers of ordinarily suspicious, cynical urban people, workers and students, behaved with an unprecedented generosity and warmth and spontaneity toward each other. In a way, then, the young veterans of the barricades are right in not altogether acknowledging their defeat, in being unable fully to believe that things have returned to pre-May normality, if not worse. Actually it is they who are being realistic. Someone who has enjoyed new feelings of that kind—a reprieve, however brief, from the inhibitions on love and trust this society enforces—is never the same again. In him, the ‘revolution’ has just started, and it continues. So I discover that what happened to me in North Vietnam did not end with my return to America, but is still going on.”
The world did return to normalcy, if not worse. But Sontag didn’t indulge in the outright lunacy of the New Left as it spiraled off into fantasyland. (Though she did endorse something of the mood of the New Left in one of her less successful and rather more hysterical essays “What’s Happening in America? (1966).” Still, when the chips were down she didn’t take that path. She kept her head.)
And the hint as to how she kept her cool is already there in the above passage. Her commitment to the integrity of the individual mind was a buttress for her. The solid structure of her mental edifice, built with that sternness of pleasure she never abandoned, allowed her to come in for a soft landing while people like the Situationists or the Yippies or The Weathermen floundered or came apart at the seams.
More than that, she was able to recognize her own missteps and rethink her exaltation. Even as she continued to lament the way in which her new experiences were sullied and her new consciousness never came to pass, she realized that much of its promise, especially in its political variants, had been an illusion. Increasingly in her essays in the Eighties and Nineties she celebrated the writers and artists of Central and Eastern Europe who fought the disaster of the ‘revolution’. In 1997, she was to write, “Intellectuals responsibly taking sides, and putting themselves on the line for what they believe in . . . are a good deal less common than intellectuals taking public positions either in conscious bad faith or in shameless ignorance of what they are pronouncing on: for every Andre Gide or George Orwell or Norberto Bobbio or Andrei Sakharov or Adam Michnik, ten of Romain Rolland or Ilya Ehrenburg or Jean Buadrillard or Peter Handke, et cetera, et cetera.”
She came to see that communism in Vietnam had been a lie and a farce, even as the Vietnamese resistance to the American war machine had been noble and just. She went to Bosnia again and again and never, for even a moment, indulged in the repellant apologies for Serbian nationalism that many of her colleagues on the Left dishonored themselves with. In fact, she always saw Europe and North America’s failure in Bosnia as another manifestation of the shallow interest in material happiness and comfort.
Such a vapid happiness was not what Sontag was referring to in her quest for difficult pleasure.
This is not to say that she was happy about politics and culture after the Sixties. Sometimes she was outright despondent. Sometimes she felt she had been tricked. She marveled how her own arguments had come back to haunt her. Things that she had advocated for in the Sixties were realized in ways completely contrary to her original intentions.
For instance in her seminal essay “Against Interpretation” (1962), she argued that criticism had become too Baroque. It was preventing immediate appreciation of things as things. So she made a call for transparence. “Transparence,” she said, “means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are.” And then notoriously, at the end of the essay, she proclaimed, “In place of a hermeneutics, we need an erotics of art.”
Later, she came to realize that history had pulled something of a fast one on her. People did begin to appreciate, even worship, surface and appearance. Camp moved further into the mainstream. But it wasn’t happening in the way that Sontag intended. In a preface to Against Interpretation written in 1995 and entitled “Thirty Years Later . . .” she addressed the issue.
“It is not simply that the Sixties have been repudiated, and the dissident spirit quashed, and made the object of intense nostalgia. The ever more triumphant values of consumer capitalism promote--indeed, impose--the cultural mixes and insolence and defense of pleasure that I was advocating for quite different reasons.”
She won a battle at the expense of the greater victory she was hoping for. There was a revolution in a sense, and a democratizing of culture. But Sontag realized that it wasn’t leading to pleasure, real pleasure. Instead, it led to a devaluation of the seriousness of intellect that Sontag took to be a prerequisite for genuine pleasure. In what she calls her own naiveté, Sontag, in the Sixties, made an appeal for changes that consumer culture was only too ready to provide during the next few decades. But those changes came as an empty package. Talking thirty years later about the essays of Against Interpretation, she says, “The judgments of taste expressed in these essays may have prevailed. The values underlying those judgments did not.”
In response to this cruel trick of history, Sontag did verge dangerously close to nostalgia on occasion. Perhaps that is understandable. Her problem was even more acute than the problem of the Central Europeans for whom she had such sensitivity. Central Europeans might look back with some wistfulness on the intense seriousness of the ‘bad old days’ but they were, still, the bad old days. For all of Sontag’s hesitation in identifying with the Sixties as a movement, it was during those years that she experienced her greatest pleasures in art and understanding. They weren’t bad old days at all for her.
And she felt that as she was getting older she was simultaneously witnessing the disappearance of much of what had given her the greatest pleasure. In 1988, she expressed this as a European elegy. Europe, to Sontag, always represented resistance to the tide of philistinism—she even calls it barbarity—that emanates from America and its consumer culture. She says, “The diversity, seriousness, fastidiousness, density of European culture constitute an Archimedean point from which I can, mentally, move the world.”
By the late Eighties, she believed that that Archimedean point was drifting away as Europe became more homogeneous and “Americanized”. Without naming it directly, her contempt for the idea of European integration (this, again, in 1988) is palpable. What she calls the ‘diversity’ of Europe is predicated, for Sontag, on preserving the differences that come with national and thereby cultural boundaries. But with all the language of preservation and loss, Sontag manages to rescue the essay from outright nostalgia. She recognized the malleability and relativity of the “idea of Europe”. The idea of Europe is at its most potent, she argued, when wielded by the Central and European intellectuals who used it, implicitly, as a critique of the Soviet domination they were resisting. But Sontag was also aware that the rallying cry of “Europe” was distinctly unpalatable when raised in Western Europe as a warning against the new immigration. This latter point has only become more incisive in recent years. As always, Sontag was ahead of the times.
Indeed, by the end of her lament for Europe, Sontag turns a corner. Having aired her grievances, she begins to move forward. She comes in for another soft landing. She begins to shift onto another battlefield, moving just as quickly as modern experience does. That quickness, that readiness to move at the pace in which new experiences present themselves allows her, in seeming paradox, to find what is solid and lasting in things. “The modern has its own logic,” she writes, “liberating and immensely destructive, by which the United States, no less than Japan and the rich European countries, is being transformed. Meanwhile, the center has shifted.”
Having started “The Idea of Europe (One More Elegy)” by veering into a cultural conservatism that she spoke so eloquently against in her earliest essays, she manages to steer herself back into more Sontag-like territory. She is prepared to become an exile again, as she always was in the first place. Exiled in the sense that every intellect of integrity stands alone in the last instance, as a self. In asking what will happen next, as the greatness of Europe fades and transforms, Sontag refers to Gertrude Stein’s answer to those who wondered how she would deal with a loss of her roots. “Said Gertrude Stein, her answer perhaps even more Jewish than American: ‘But what good are roots if you can’t take them with you’.”
Susan Sontag always understood the melancholic personality lingering in the back alleys of modern consciousness. She understood the will to suicide in men like Walter Benjamin. She knew why Benjamin lived under the sign of Saturn and could write:
"The resistance which modernity offers to the natural productive élan of a person is out of proportion to his strength. It is understandable if a person grows tired and takes refuge in death. Modernity must be under the sign of suicide, an act which seals a heroic will . . . . It is the achievement of modernity in the realm of passions."
Sontag understood the will to death and failure in Artaud. She understood the will to silence in Beckett and John Cage. Not only did she understand these things, she could write about them clearly, put her finger on them. She knew that Nietzsche's prognostication about the coming nihilism had come to pass in much of the modern, and modernist, aesthetic she cherished so dearly.
She felt the exhaustion of the modern spirit. But she wasn't exhausted by it. In her essay on Elias Canetti, "Mind as Passion," she wrote the following;
"'I want to feel everything in me before I think it', Canetti wrote in 1943, and for this, he says, he needs a long life. To die prematurely means having not fully engorged himself and, therefore, having not used his mind as he could. It is almost as if Canetti had to keep his consciousness in a permanent state of avidity, to remain unreconciled to death. 'It is wonderful that nothing is lost in a mind', he also wrote in his notebook, in what must have been a not infrequent moment of euphoria, 'and would not this alone be reason enough to live very long or even forever?' Recurrent images of needing to feel everything inside himself, of unifying everything in one head, illustrate Canetti's attempts through magical thinking and moral clamorousness to 'refute' death."
Sontag is writing about Canetti but she is writing about Sontag too. As much as she measured and reported the pulse of an era in thought, art, morals, . . . as much as she eulogized its passing, she also stood for the brute continuation of life, of pleasure, and of joy. She's dead now, but there is nothing that stimulates a desire to live more than reading one of her essays. If it so happens that we're stumbling into an age of new seriousness and new sincerity we're doing so partly because Susan Sontag showed us how important the world can be.
June 25, 2006
The Other Intelligent Design Theories
David Brin in Skeptic Magazine:
While scientists and their supporters try to fight back with judicious reasoning and mountains of evidence, a certain fraction of the population perceives only smug professors, fighting to protect their turf — authority figures trying to squelch brave underdogs before they can compete. Image matters. And this self-portrayal — as champions of open debate, standing up to stodgy authorities — has worked well for the proponents of Intelligent Design (ID). For now.
Yet, I believe they have made a mistake. By basing their offensive on core notions of fair play and completeness, ID promoters have employed a clever short-term tactic, but have incurred a long-term strategic liability. Because, their grand conceptual error is in believing that their incantation of Intelligent Design is the only alternative to Darwinian evolution.
If students deserve to weigh ID against natural selection, then why not also expose them to…
Regilous Chauvinism Shuts Down M. F. Hussain Exhibition
Awaaz South Asia Watch, which does a lot to fight Islamist fanaticism and the Hindu fascism of groups such as the RSS in the subcontinent, is fighting to reopen an exhibition of work by an Indian Muslim artist.
South Asia Watch urges Asia House, London to re-open the exhibition of the work of renowned Indian artist, MF Husain. Awaaz condemns the forced closure of the exhibition following violence, harassment and intimidation by fundamentalists claiming to represent the views of British Hindus. The fundamentalists who vandalised the paintings reflect the authoritarian ideologies and tactics of militant Hindu Right groups in India.
In India, organisations such as the extremely violent Bajrang Dal, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other organizations linked to the fascist-inspired Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) , have repeatedly attacked MF Husain and other artists, filmmakers, intellectuals and cultural practitioners. In 1998, Hindu Right groups attacked and ransacked Husain’s Bombay home, one of several such attacks on the artist and his work. Hindu Right groups have regularly attempted to undermine the freedom of thought and expression enshrined in the Indian constitution and reflected in the vibrancy of Indian culture.
In Hindu traditions there is an extensive history of wide and diverse representations of the sacred deities, including nude, erotic and other depictions. Hinduism has never possessed a concept of censorship or blasphemy of the kind that authoritarian groups wish to promote. A key reason the exhibition is being attacked is because MF Husain is a Muslim. Groups involved have used religious claims to mask a political agenda that owes to the Hindu Right, an agenda which has caused considerable violence and misery in India since the 1980s.
The Growing Indian Online Game Market
The East Asian craze for online gaming spreads to the subcontinent, which oddly sees it as something to compete with East Asia over, in Wired.
Add another category to India's intensifying regional competition with China: online gaming.
Five years after China pulled away from its giant southern neighbor in all things internet, young Indians are logging on for Quake 4 and Counter-Strike marathons in rapidly growing numbers. Deepening PC and broadband penetration, together with invigorated promotion and heightened game awareness, have India on the cusp of an online gaming explosion.
And those leading the charge aren't shy to admit that the elephant has a dragon in its sites.
"We are going to catch China by 2010," says Sukamal Pegu, the 24-year-old founding member of the gaming division at Indiatimes Online, South Asia's largest internet service provider. "It will be a challenge, but we're making strides on China every day."
The Universal Library and The End of the Author
In The New York Times Book Review, John Updike sees an end to authorship with the digitization of the written word.
Last month, The New York Times Magazine published a lengthy article that gleefully envisioned the end of the bookseller, and indeed of the writer. Written by Kevin Kelly, identified as the "senior maverick" at Wired magazine, the article describes a glorious digitalizing of all written knowledge. Google's plan, announced in December 2004, to scan the contents of five major research libraries and make them searchable, according to Kelly, has resurrected the dream of the universal library...
Unlike the libraries of old, Kelly continues, "this library would be truly democratic, offering every book to every person." The anarchic nature of the true democracy emerges bit by bit. "Once digitized, books can be unraveled into single pages or be reduced further, into snippets of a page," Kelly writes. "These snippets will be remixed into reordered books and virtual bookshelves. Just as the music audience now juggles and reorders songs into new albums (or 'playlists,' as they are called in iTunes), the universal library will encourage the creation of virtual 'bookshelves' — a collection of texts, some as short as a paragraph, others as long as entire books, that form a library shelf's worth of specialized information. And as with music playlists, once created, these 'bookshelves' will be published and swapped in the public commons. Indeed, some authors will begin to write books to be read as snippets or to be remixed as pages."...
This is, as I read it, a pretty grisly scenario. "Performances, access to the creator, personalization," whatever that is — does this not throw us back to the pre-literate societies, where only the present, live person can make an impression and offer, as it were, value?
Like a Conspiracy Virgin
From Mother Jones:
Did I mention I was sitting right up front? I’ve never even been that close to the turkey at Thanksgiving dinner. Her appeal was paranormal. Beyond superstardom, and approaching the pop-spiritual. I felt I was in the presence of a shape-shifting daughter of the Illuminati, a Manchurian material girl, a queen of mind-control with a multi-millionaire mind by whom I desperately wanted to be abducted.
It was totally awesome. Resistance was futile.
The Simple Life
From The New York Times:
CALL it the prodigy's paradox: If the world greets an author's first novel with bear hugs and cries of "Huzza," the second effort nearly always gets the cold shoulder, the suspicious look. Often, there are rumblings that the second novel might never have been published if not for the success of the first. But is that fair? Is it possible to judge a sophomore effort solely on its own merits?
The prodigiously gifted Monica Ali has found a way to sidestep this booby trap. Her second book, "Alentejo Blue," a loosely interwoven collection of stories set in and around a Portuguese village, has so different a voice, tempo, mood and theme from her first book, "Brick Lane," that the two seem to share no family resemblance, no authorial DNA. It's almost as if they were produced by different writers.
"Brick Lane," published three years ago when Ali was 35, is a sprawling yet tightly cohering novel, set in London and Bangladesh, that uses one woman's unwieldy life to put a human face on the struggle between the first world and the third, Islam and secularism, tradition and modernity, fate and free will, men and women, youth and age. It's the kind of achievement that entitles its creator to sit with her hands folded for the rest of her days, knowing she has produced a lasting work and need only write again if she really feels like it. Clearly, Ali feels like it. Her new book demonstrates her versatility and hints at the breadth and variety of her interests.
The forgotten founder: John Witherspoon
Roger Kimball in The New Criterion:
He is as high a Son of Liberty, as any man in America.
—John Adams on John Witherspoon, 1774
Who is the most unfairly neglected American Founding Father? You might think that none can be unfairly neglected, so many books about that distinguished coterie have been published lately. John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington—whom have I left out? It has been a literary festival of Founders these last few years, and a good thing, too. But there is one figure, I believe, who has yet to get his due, and that is John Witherspoon (1723–1794). This Scotch Presbyterian divine came to America to preside over a distressed college in Princeton, New Jersey, and wound up transmitting to the colonies critical principles of the Scottish Enlightenment and helped to preside over the birth and consolidation of American independence.
THE FUTURE OF FUSION
"After years as a purely experimental science, a decade-long international effort will make nuclear fusion a reality."
Britt Peterson in Seed Magazine:
It's hard to take fusion energy seriously when its proponents employ descriptors like "power of the Sun" and "energy from a star" to explain it. This kind of hyperbole—and the fact that scientists have never created a sustained fusion reaction capable of generating more electricity than it soaks up—make fusion sound like a fantastical scheme devised by Lex Luthor. But in the wake of the current energy crisis, new money and political support may finally channel enough resources into fusion to make the elusive process a reality.
On May 24, the US, EU, Russia, China, South Korea, Japan and India signed on to help build the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in Cadarache, in the south of France. ITER is the largest fusion research project to date and one of the biggest international scientific collaborations ever. Its budget is 10 billion euros over 20 years, more than three times that of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. The reactor is scheduled to be functional by 2016.