May 31, 2007
A Third Way: Normalizing relations will help both sides
Michael McFaul and Abbas Milani in the Boston Review:
Recent developments in Iran have convinced advocates of both “softer” arms-control approaches and more hard-line regime-change strategies that their analyses are correct and their policy prescriptions are working. The arms-controllers see a Tehran more willing to negotiate; the regime-changers see increasing repression. Though evidence for both claims can be marshaled, neither offers balanced insight into Iranian behavior or a sensible strategy for breaking the decades-long impasse in U.S.-Iranian relations. We need a novel approach, a third way—simultaneously pursuing arms control and democratization by means of engagement, not coercion.
Today Iran seems to be more willing to find a negotiated settlement to its problems with the international community. The April 2007 crisis over the British sailors held captive in Iran was solved with unexpected alacrity and relative ease. Moreover, Supreme Leader Khamenei has reportedly given Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, new special powers to negotiate on the nuclear issue (a meeting between Larijani and the EU’s Javier Solana suggests that there is something to the reports). At a May 2007 conference in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, Iranian diplomats met with their American counterparts. Meanwhile, Iranian advocates of confrontation with the West, lead by President Ahmadinejad, have recently suffered a sharp decline in power.
First Chapters Writing Competition Winner Announcement
We are thrilled to announce that Terry Shaw, author of The Way Life Should Be is the Grand Prize Winner of Gather.com’s First Chapters Writing Competition. In addition, in a surprise move, Simon & Schuster has decided to award a second publishing contract to runner-up Geoffrey Edwards, author of Fire Bell in the Night. Congratulations to Terry and Geoffrey for such a tremendous achievement.
“It was a pleasant surprise to discover that the Gather.com community had done their job so well that in the end we decided to go with a grand prize winner and a runner up,” commented Mark Gompertz, Executive Vice President, Publisher, Touchstone. “We look forward to publishing both of these terrific novels in the fall.”
WHY DO SOME PEOPLE RESIST SCIENCE?
Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg at Edge.org:
It is no secret that many American adults reject some scientific ideas. In a 2005 Pew Trust poll, for instance, 42% of respondents said that they believed that humans and other animals have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. A substantial minority of Americans, then, deny that evolution has even taken place, making them more radical than "Intelligent Design" theorists, who deny only that natural selection can explain complex design. But evolution is not the only domain in which people reject science: Many believe in the efficacy of unproven medical interventions, the mystical nature of out-of-body experiences, the existence of supernatural entities such as ghosts and fairies, and the legitimacy of astrology, ESP, and divination.
There are two common assumptions about the nature of this resistance. First, it is often assumed to be a particularly American problem, explained in terms of the strong religious beliefs of many American citizens and the anti-science leanings of the dominant political party. Second, the problem is often characterized as the result of insufficient exposure to the relevant scientific facts, and hence is best addressed with improved science education.
We believe that these assumptions, while not completely false, reflect a misunderstanding of the nature of this phenomenon. While cultural factors are plainly relevant, American adults' resistance to scientific ideas reflects universal facts about what children know and how children learn. If this is right, then resistance to science cannot be simply addressed through more education; something different is needed.
The Danish Language Needs Help
[Thanks to Mark Blyth.]
beer v wine
Part of beer's populist appeal—and its edge in the beer vs. wine war—has always been its absence of cant about its main point: to provide a little (or a lot of) happy intoxication. You can appreciate wine, but you drink beer, the saying goes. Wine's cult of connoisseurship has always had a specious edge. Like the Victorian obsession with the "grace" of the nude female form, the high-flown language and ceremony of wine-drinking can seem like a fig leaf of sorts, a cover for fancy-pantses who like to get buzzed.
Wine connoisseurship became more palatable to Americans, though, when wine talk changed. As Sean Shesgreen pointed out in the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required), the old vocabulary of wine, passed down to us from the English squirearchy, graded wines in class terms, privileging pedigree and refinement. The ultimate parody of this kind of wine talk is James Thurber's cartoon line: "It's merely a naive domestic Burgundy, but I think you'll be amused by its presumption."
more from Slate here.
dennett: Understanding magnifies delight and awe
How would you answer to the objection that the scientific study of religion misses the target because it addresses answers to questions on the sense (of life, of the world) with an instrument (science) that doesn’t exactly deal with that sense (of life, of the world)?
Science better than any other activity, does deal with facts regarding experience, belief, knowledge, evidence. Science doesn’t attempt to create beauty (the way the arts do, for instance) but science can study how the arts create beauty—to put it with deliberate oversimplification. Similarly, science doesn’t attempt to do what religion attempts to do, but science can study, scientifically, what religion attempts to do, and how it does it.
Don’t you believe that the naturalisation of phenomena like religion (but also philosophy) stiffens and simplifies the multiplicity of human experience too much?
No, on the contrary, I think naturalisation improves our understanding, makes the phenomena both more intense and clearer, more wonderful. The scientific account of the solar system and the ‘heavens’ is far more awe-inspiring than the old myths about gods and flaming chariots being pulled across the sky. I think nature lovers who don’t know anything about biological theory are like music lovers who don’t know how to read music, who don’t know about harmony, theory, etc. Understanding magnifies delight and awe.
more from RESET here.
Lewycka, who was 58 when her life-transforming novel appeared two years ago, used to teach journalism and PR at Sheffield Hallam University, to which she is still attached in some vague, part-time, institution-boosting capacity. It quickly becomes apparent that she is a far better interviewer than I am, and is soon asking me questions. She is the sort of person who, on first meeting, you feel you have known all your life. Funny, open, energised; a bit like her fiction. Readers must feel it, too - hence the 800,000 sales of Tractors in the UK and the remarkably ugly book awards ("What on earth can you do with a Nibbie?") that litter her resolutely unmodernised kitchen.
So has this vast success after almost 40 years in pursuit of publication changed her life - if not her kitchen? She laughs. "It has in some ways. It had always been my dream to be a writer, and obviously having your dream come true is fantastic. But there is something a bit terrible about it as well, because once your dream has come true, what else is there? It was your dream and it becomes your job, and then it's not a dream any more."
more from The Guardian here.
My brother, the bomber
What turned Mohammad Sidique Khan, a softly spoken youth worker, into the mastermind of 7/7? I spent months in a Leeds suburb getting to know Khan's brother. A complex and disturbing story of the bomber's radicalisation emerged.
Suicide bombing is not just a religious phenomenon. It is employed by many secular organisations, including the Kurdish PKK and the Marxist Tamil Tigers. In fact, until 2000, the Tamil Tigers had carried out more suicide attacks than all other groups put together. Over the years, the profiles of individual bombers have also varied, from young boys to, more recently, women. Ariel Merari, a Tel Aviv University psychologist, has profiled 50 suicide bombers and found that there were hardly any common factors. None were deranged or schizophrenic. Few had problems like depression. Merari concluded that the only factor linking all forms of suicide terrorism was the way bombers were recruited and trained. It is the psychology of the group, not the individual, that is key.
This was something that the French sociologist Émile Durkheim identified nearly 100 years ago in Suicide: A Study in Sociology. Durkheim contrasted "egotistical" suicide—caused by a person feeling disconnected from society—with "altruistic" suicide, which occurs when "integration is too strong."
For my BBC research team, our first month in Leeds was a write-off because no one would talk. This silence was the first sign that Beeston's Pakistani community might harbour the kind of cohesive group in which an "altruistic" mentality could flourish.
Michael Ondaatje, In Peak Form
From The Washington Post:
The more one talks to Michael Ondaatje about the way he writes his novels, the more one is drawn toward a simple, cautionary conclusion:Kids, don't try this at home. Ask the author of "The English Patient," "Anil's Ghost" and the just-published "Divisadero" if he has ever worked from an outline and he bursts out laughing. "I did try once," he says. "I wrote a kind of treatment." But this brief stab at planning destroyed his enthusiasm for the material: "So then I said, 'Now, why would I want to write that?' "
Many writers start novels without knowing precisely where they're going. But when it comes to improvisation, Ondaatje is an extreme case. He begins with fragmentary images or situations -- a plane crashing in the desert, say, or a bedridden man talking to a nurse -- and starts constructing scenes from the fragments. It will be several years before "a kind of approximate draft" materializes. Then comes a prolonged self-editing phase, crucial to Ondaatje's creative process, which can take two more years. "I move things around," he has explained, "till they become sharp and clear, till they are in the right location. And it is at this stage that I discover the work's true voice and structure."
So he does have an outline. It just doesn't show up till he's nearly done.
A project to record everything we do in life
Alec Wilkinson in The New Yorker:
October arrived in 1998, and Gordon Bell went paperless, after hearing from a professor at Carnegie Mellon who was engaged in a project to scan a million books and post them online. The professor, a friend of Bell’s named Raj Reddy, had called to ask if he could scan and post Bell’s books, including one on how to start a high-tech business. Bell said, “Of course.” This, by the way, is the Gordon Bell, aged seventy-two, of Microsoft, who has been described as “the Frank Lloyd Wright of computers”; who, at the Digital Equipment Corporation, was among the first engineers to fashion computers into a network; who led the National Science Foundation effort to link the world’s supercomputers—the Internet. The Gordon Bell, incidentally, who believes that one day houses will have no windows, so it won’t matter where they are—screens on the walls will display whatever we want to look at. (Bell would like the screens in his dining room to display the view from a window of the Orient Express; he would also like to hear the train’s sound effects.) The Gordon Bell who, owing to Reddy’s call, and by means of custom programs and gadgets, now collects the daily minutiae of his life so emphatically that he owns the most extensive and unwieldy personal archive of its kind in the world.
May 30, 2007
Bush's Amazing Achievement
Jonathan Freedland in the New York Review of Books:
One of the few foreign policy achievements of the Bush administration has been the creation of a near consensus among those who study international affairs, a shared view that stretches, however improbably, from Noam Chomsky to Brent Scowcroft, from the antiwar protesters on the streets of San Francisco to the well-upholstered office of former secretary of state James Baker. This new consensus holds that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a calamity, that the presidency of George W. Bush has reduced America's standing in the world and made the United States less, not more, secure, leaving its enemies emboldened and its friends alienated. Paid-up members of the nation's foreign policy establishment, those who have held some of the most senior offices in the land, speak in a language once confined to the T-shirts of placard-wielding demonstrators. They rail against deception and dishonesty, imperialism and corruption. The only dispute between them is over the size and depth of the hole into which Bush has led the country he pledged to serve.
The 100 Sexiest Cars in the World
From Top Gear:
Ford Mustang Fastback: bigger than Steve McQueen
Forget all the film-star nonsense, the Mustang Fastback is a star in its own right -though if you're going to get pedantic, then you need a post-'67 car with the wide front track.
Better still, you should get a 'GT' with disc brakes, firmed-up suspension and extra-loud exhaust. Don't worry that the rear-quarter panel scoops are fake, just enjoy the fact that if you were serious enough, then the 'Cobra Jet' versions culminated in the 428Ci GT500KR (or 'King of the Road') that produced a not-inconsiderable 500bhp. There are also, apparently, some films that feature this car...
Calcutta, by all accounts, is changing. The city now calls itself "Kolkata", reverting to the demotic variant of "Kalikata", the name of one of the three villages the Muslim Governor of Bengal sold to the East India Company in 1698. The new name has the sanction of the state, but it has to reckon with the stubborn habits of an amphibious culture. The University of Calcutta, set up in 1857, is in Bengali "Kalikata Visvavidyalay", and the authorities have failed to make room for the new official name in its formal title in both languages. Calcutta is not an ancient city, not at least by Indian standards, and yet one is none too sure of the etymology of its name. The devout like to believe that it derives from the goddess Kali. Pilgrims, they say, had always flocked to Kalighat, the famous temple on the bank of the old river that, after changing course, is now no wider than a moat. It is one of the fifty-two spots over which the body of Sati (a form of Shakti like Kali herself) was scattered, when Vishnu had to dismember the corpse to stop her enraged husband Siva from destroying the world. In some ways, Calcutta strikes outsiders as having been true to its myth of origin. It is in some ways like the orphaned fragment of a lost corpus, forever caught on the hop between imminent ruin and desperate remedy.
more from Eurozine here.
"Why does it always have to be fire?/Why does it always have to be brimstone?" sings Rufus Wainwright on "Do I Disappoint You", the opening track of the Canadian-American songwriter's first comprehensive assault on the mainstream. If it is always high drama round Rufus's way, that is because he encourages it, packing both his life and his music with unabashed pomp and theatrical flourishes.
Currently composing an opera for the New York Met, the 33-year-old also recently performed an acclaimed tribute show to the gay icon Judy Garland. He has appeared on his album sleeves dressed as a pre-Raphaelite maiden, and now here he is in hilariously camp monogrammed lederhosen. The over-egging of puddings rarely ceases.
more from The New Statesman here.
ted hughes as poet-translator
Translation is an imperfect art – even an impossible one. That is the truism. But it would be a very eccentric devotee of literature who for lack of Greek or Russian refused to read Homer or Tolstoy. Lyric poetry is more challenging to the translator than narrative literature is, since little can be separated out from the choice of specific words, their sounds, rhythms and associations, to say nothing of poetic form and the elaborations of syntax. That is why there are lyric poets of the first rank – Goethe and Pushkin are prime examples – whose poems are not as well known in Britain as their fame might lead us to expect. Nevertheless, most good poets attempt translation in the course of a life’s work and serious readers of poetry will want to have some familiarity with, let us say, Catullus or Baudelaire. There are those who claim, moreover, that poetry is essentially metamorphic – a process that includes negotiations with other texts and the transformation of experience into language, rhythm and form. To such a conception of poetry, the act of verse translation is fundamental.
more from the TLS here.
The Intelligibility of Nature
In American Scientist, Margaret Jacob's reviews Peter Dear's The Intelligibility of Nature: How Science Makes Sense of the World:
Why are science's instrumental techniques effective? The usual answer is: by virtue of science's (true) natural philosophy. How is science's natural philosophy shown to be true, or at least likely? The answer: by virtue of science's (effective) instrumental capabilities. Such is the belief, amounting to an ideology, by which science is understood in modern culture. It is circular, but invisibly so.
Readers are apparently expected to conclude that, although other disciplines that accumulate knowledge display many factors that explain their relative effectiveness or success, science alone is solely about theories and methods of inquiry. Truth or lesser falsity cannot explain science's success, nor can the replication of experimental methods and results. And the historical circumstances, or context, that may have shaped the science are also irrelevant.
Let's see how this approach works for the history of 17th-century science. Once, when Aristotle held sway, natural philosophy was seen as distantly related to instrumentality and superior to it. Gradually, thanks to Bacon, Descartes and especially Newton, "doing things and understanding things . . . became increasingly folded into one another." The resulting ideas we have today about nature "are all shaped by our acceptance of the images of reality that we owe to science in its guise as natural philosophy." If we assign intelligibility to the world, it is because science has "powerful social authority . . ., which serves to render most people unable to refuse a knowledge-claim presented as a 'scientific fact.'"
Doha Debates: Norman Finkelstein and Andrew Cockburn vs. Martin Indyk and David Aaronovitch on the Pro-Israel Lobby
In the BBC's Doha Debates, Norman Finkelstein and Andrew Cockburn vs. Martin Indyk and David Aaronovitch on the "Israel lobby" and criticism of Israel.
At the latest Doha Debate held at the prestigious Oxford Union in the United Kingdom on May 1st, two-thirds of the student audience approved a motion claiming that Israel's supporters are stifling Western debate about Israel's actions.
The event at the world famous debating society of Oxford University marked the first time the Doha Debates have been held outside Qatar.
The Debate took place amid mounting controversy over the role of the pro-Israel lobby in the United States and accusations that it has suppressed criticism of Israel - a charge that the lobby vigorously denies.
An Interview With Sari Nusseibeh
[Jon Wiener of Dissent]: The biggest obstacle in any peace settlement, according to the Israelis, is the Palestinian claim of a right of return. In 1948 your mother’s family was expelled from land that had been theirs for generations. What do you tell your Palestinian comrades about the right of return?
[Sari Nusseibeh]: This is the most painful part of a compromise that has to be made between Israelis and Palestinians. We have to think not only of the past but also of the future. I’ve been accused of arguing that we don’t have a right of return. That is false. I think we have a right of return. But we have other rights as well. We have a right to freedom. We have a right to independence. We have a right to create a new future. And very often in life the implementation of one right conflicts with the ability to implement another. You have to make a choice. In this case, I’ve been arguing with my peers, my colleagues, my people, that we must choose, and that, morally speaking, the best choice is to opt for the right to freedom, the right to independence, and the right to a new future.
Scientists develop tiny implantable biocomputers
Researchers at Harvard and Princeton universities have taken a crucial step toward building biological computers, tiny implantable devices that can monitor the activities and characteristics of human cells. The information provided by these “molecular doctors,” constructed entirely of DNA, RNA, and proteins, could eventually revolutionize medicine by directing therapies only to diseased cells or tissues.
Evaluating Boolean logic equations inside cells, these molecular automata will detect anything from the presence of a mutated gene to the activity of genes within the cell. The biocomputers’ “input” is RNA, proteins and chemicals found in the cytoplasm; “output” molecules indicating the presence of the telltale signals are easily discernable with basic laboratory equipment. Benenson and his colleagues demonstrate in their Nature Biotechnology paper that biocomputers can work in human kidney cells in a culture.
Alexander Waugh looks back at his family -- England's wittiest writers
Michael Dirda in The Washington Post:
For more than three generations the Waughs have been extremely prominent literary figures in Great Britain. Arthur Waugh oversaw Chapman and Hall (publishers of Dickens, among others); both his sons, Alec and Evelyn, became well-known writers, the latter arguably the leading English novelist of the century; and one of Evelyn's many offspring, Auberon, was long reviled and revered for his no-holds-barred, fiercely scathing and very funny political and social journalism. The author of this memoir, Alexander Waugh, is Auberon's son, and he has already thrown in with the family business by bringing out works bearing such ambitious (and perhaps slightly ludicrous) titles as Time and God. He tells us, in passing, that nine of Arthur Waugh's descendants have already produced 180 books.
May 29, 2007
Forro In the Dark
We were lucky enough to have Forro in the Dark play at our 1st Annual 3QD party a couple of years ago. The band was formed by our old friend (and brilliant percussionist) Mauro Refosco during an impromptu jam session on his birthday some years ago. Those of you who have seen them perform live know how truly amazing they are. The rest of you should really try to catch them somewhere in the US or Europe during their tour this summer. Get more information about dates in different cities here. They often have amazing guest musicians, for example, here David Byrne plays with them (although this video fails to give a good sense of how transporting their music is):
And you can see a video of them playing live in NYC here.
paul berman takes on Tariq Ramadan
The Rushdies of today find themselves under criticism, compared unfavorably in the press with the Islamist philosopher who writes prefaces for the collected fatwas of Sheik al-Qaradawi, the theologian of the human bomb. Today the menace to society is declared to be Hirsi Ali and people of similar minds, of whom there are quite a few: John Stuart Mill's Muslim admirers, who are said to be just as fanatical as the fanatics. During the Rushdie affair, courage was saluted. Today it is likened to fascism.
How did this happen? The equanimity on the part of some well-known intellectuals and journalists in the face of Islamist death threats so numerous as to constitute a campaign; the equanimity in regard to stoning women to death; the journalistic inability even to acknowledge that women's rights have been at stake in the debates over Islamism; the inability to recall the problems faced by Muslim women in European hospitals; the inability to acknowledge how large has been the role of a revived anti-Semitism; the striking number of errors of understanding and even of fact that have entered into the journalistic presentations of Tariq Ramadan and his ideas; the refusal to discuss with any frankness the role of Ramadan's family over the years; the accidental endorsement in the Guardian of the great-uncle who finds something admirable in the September 11 attacks--what can possibly account for this string of bumbles, timidities, gaffes, omissions, miscomprehensions, and slanders?
Two developments account for it. The first development is the unimaginable rise of Islamism since the time of the Rushdie fatwa. The second is terrorism.
more from TNR here.
levinas: the otherness of the other person
Modern Western Civilization presents us with a Janus-like face: On one side Renaissance Humanism which begins in Italy in the 14th century with Petrarch, on the other side Enlightenment Rationalism which begins in France in the 17th century with Descartes.
After Descartes, there is a dangerous tendency to separate the two cultural phenomena and consider Humanism either anachronistic, or superseded. The inevitable result has been sheer confusion in the area of cultural identity; consequently, at this critical juncture of the new polity called European Union, there is talk of a “democratic deficit,” that democracy that is integral part of Western Civilization.
We are in urgent need of cultural guides to show us how to better harmonize the two above mentioned phenomena. One such guide is Emmanuel Lévinas’ humanistic philosophy. In as much as it challenges the Western rationalistic philosophical tradition, it is extremely important for the emergence of a renewed European cultural identity. It explores in depth the threats to the authentic cultural identity of Europe, how modalities of thinking powerfully affect other ideas and shape a whole cultural milieu, sometimes with less than desirable consequences.
more from Ovi Magazine here.
england: putrid gums, imposthumated lungs, sour flatulencies
When you think of a high-society dance in the England of the 1770s, for example, this passage in Tobias Smollett’s 1771 novel, “The Expedition of Humphry Clinker,” probably isn’t what you have in mind: “Imagine to yourself a high exalted essence of mingled odours, arising from putrid gums, imposthumated lungs, sour flatulencies, rank armpits, sweating feet, running sores and issues...besides a thousand frowzy streams, which I could not analyse.” Though the description is lightly fictionalized, Cockayne says, odor-wise it’s dead-on.
more from Boston Globe Ideas here.
Geneticists identify four new breast-cancer genes
Breast cancer — which will affect about one in every nine women in Britain and the United States — is known to have a strong genetic influence. But until now, known genes could account for only about a quarter of the genetic component of cancer risk. To search for some of the many other genes thought to make small differences to a woman's breast-cancer risk, Easton and his colleagues compared the genomes of some 4,400 women with breast cancer with those of about 4,300 who did not have the disease.
They identified 30 differences in single DNA bases that seemed to be linked to the disease. These were then compared in more than 20,000 women with breast cancer and in a similar number of controls. The results are reported in Nature. Three of the newly discovered genes are involved in controlling the growth of cells. The gene with the strongest association was fibroblast growth factor receptor 2, or FGFR2. Women who have two copies of the high-risk version of this gene — about 16% of the population — have a 60% greater chance of developing breast cancer than do those with no copies of the gene, Easton and his colleagues found.
The Brain: Malleable, Capable, Vulnerable
From The New York Times:
The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph From the Frontiers of Brain Science. By Norman Doidge
An amputee has a bizarre itch in his missing hand: unscratchable, it torments him. A neuroscientist finds that the brain cells that once received input from the hand are now devoted to the man’s face; a good scratch on the cheek relieves the itch. Another amputee has 10 years of excruciating “phantom” pain in his missing elbow. When he puts his good arm into a box lined with mirrors he seems to recognize his missing arm, and he can finally stretch the cramped elbow out. Within a month his brain reorganizes its damaged circuits, and the illusion of the arm and its pain vanish.
Research into the malleability of the normal brain has been no less amazing. Subjects who learn to play a sequence of notes on the piano develop characteristic changes in the brain’s electric activity; when other subjects sit in front of a piano and just think about playing the same notes, the same changes occur. It is the virtual made real, a solid quantification of the power of thought. From this still relatively primitive experimental data, theories can be constructed for the entirety of human experience: creativity and love, addiction and obsession, anger and grief — all, presumably, are the products of distinct electrical associations that may be manipulated by the brain itself, and by the brains of others, for better or worse.
Some thoughts on writing well
John Leo in City Journal:
So how should we write and restore the integrity of good English? Candor, clarity and sincerity are important keys. All of us are weary of writers who dance around their subjects, protecting friends, bending facts to push a cause. “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” Orwell wrote. “When there is a gap between one’s real and declared aims, one turns instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms.”
Further, our minds are clogged with the clichés, idioms, and rhythms of other people, and we have to work to avoid them. Paul Johnson says, “Most people when they write, including most professional writers, tend to slip into seeing events through the eyes of others because they inherit stale expressions and combinations of words, threadbare metaphors, clichés and literary conceits. This is particularly true of journalists.”
Kurt Vonnegut has said that a writer’s natural style will almost always be drawn from the speech he heard as a child. Vonnegut grew up in Indiana, where, he said, “common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin.” He wrote: “I myself find I trust my own writing most and other people seem to trust it most, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am.”
Günter Grass: How I Spent the War
From The New Yorker:
In 1943, when I was a fifteen-year-old schoolboy in Danzig, I volunteered for active duty. When? Why? Since I do not know the exact date and cannot recall the by then unstable climate of the war, or list its hot spots from the Arctic to the Caucasus, all I can do for now is string together the circumstances that probably triggered and nourished my decision to enlist. No mitigating epithets allowed. What I did cannot be put down to youthful folly. No pressure from above. Nor did I feel the need to assuage a sense of guilt, at, say, doubting the Führer’s infallibility, with my zeal to volunteer.
It happened while I was serving in the Luftwaffe auxiliary—a force made up of boys too young to be conscripts, who were deployed to defend Germany in its air war. The service was not voluntary but compulsory then for boys of my age, though we experienced it as a liberation from our school routine and accepted its not very taxing drills. Rabidly pubescent, we considered ourselves the mainstays of the home front. The Kaiserhafen battery became our second home. At first there were attempts to keep school going, but, as classes were too often interrupted by field exercises, the mostly frail, elderly teachers refused to travel the wearisome dirt road to our battery.
'Resistance to science' has early roots
Dan Vergano in USA Today:
"Scientists, educators and policymakers have long been concerned about American adults' resistance to certain scientific ideas," note Yale psychologists Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg in the review published in the current Science magazine. In 2005 for example, the Pew Trust found that 42% of poll respondents think people and animals have existed in their present form since the beginning of time, a view that is tough to reconcile with evidence from fossils. Many people believe in ghosts, fairies and astrology. "This resistance to science has important social implications because a scientifically ignorant public is unprepared to evaluate policies about global warming, vaccination, genetically modified organisms, stem cell research, and cloning," the psychologists say.
In the last three decades, studies of children show that they quickly pick up an intuitive understanding of how the world works, say the researchers. For example, babies know that objects fall and are real and solid (even though physics experiments show they are mostly made of atoms containing empty space.) "These intuitions give children a head start when it comes to understanding and learning about objects and people. However, they also sometimes clash with scientific discoveries about the nature of the world, making certain scientific facts difficult to learn," the review says.
Buster Keaton in Speak Easily
From Videos with Bibi:
Many more such videos here.
Cannes' top prize goes to film about abortion
The low-budget, naturalistic film about a student who goes through horrors to ensure that her friend can have a secret abortion beat out 21 other movies in competition for the Riviera festival's top prize, the Palme d'Or -- including films by well-known directors like Quentin Tarantino, the Coen brothers and Wong Kar-wai.
Mungiu, who was awarded the prize by actress Jane Fonda, said he did not have the idea for the film a year ago, and did not even have money to shoot it just six months ago. He hoped the win would be "good news for the small filmmakers from small countries."
May 28, 2007
Dispatches: It's Only Food
After my piece about the arrival of Whole Foods on the Lower East Side, a friend asked me, "Why is food so important?" Having thought about the question, I realized that wasn't quite the right question: that piece wasn't really about food. Instead, the arrival of a giant organic supermarket is about the dilution of the pleasures of urban life. Such retailers represent a descent into a cosseted, unvarying lifestyle of convenience. They are also a form of false diversity: just as the rows upon rows of gas-station fridges filled with hundreds of varieties of soft drinks, all made by Coca-Cola or Pepsi-Co, are a false diversity. The potential loss is very real: they offered to buy out a friend's nearby wine shop to eliminate their competition. So it's not food, exactly, but the suburbanization of New York City that was the issue: Whole Foods is just a big symptom of that. But I want to make a different argument here: that the reason we gravitate towards "corporate parents," as Jayasree said so nicely in the comments, is that we live in a state of induced hysteria about food.
I once had the opportunity to have coffee with Andros Epanimondas, who had been the assistant to one of my greatest heroes, Stanley Kubrick. Reminiscing, he mentioned that, over dinner, he once saw Kubrick hurriedly alternating bites of his main course and bites of a chocolate cake. He asked why. Kubrick, busy preparing for his greatest project to date, the unrealized Napolean, simply responded, "Andros, it's only food!" It may sound funny, but I think that's a healthy attitude, especially in today's heated food culture, where Ed Levine can talk up the pizzeria DiFara's and suddenly people are waiting in line for an hour (on Avenue J!) for a slice of pizza. Or where New York Times food critic Frank Bruni has become an Old Testament deity, capricious and capable of unleashing plagues on your Jeffrey Chodorow's and your Keith McNally's in retribution for the mortal sin of hubris. (For the record, I too agree with the opinion of David Chang, the current darling of New York chefs, on Chodorow: he's the anti-Christ.) Food has become an at times unhealthy obsession.
The last decade's avalanche of information about food, where to get it, what's in it, and how it's made has been mostly a very good thing: the industrialized food system that wallows in corn syrup, hydrogenated soybean oil, and boneless, skinless chicken breasts is finally being recognized as unhealthy for both individuals and society, as well as the very soil. American culture is in the gradual process of rediscovering the pre-industrial food system, and recovering some of the benefits that many other countries have yet to lose: seasonality of fruits and vegetables, the higher quality of meats produced by smaller-scale production, etc.
This gradual rediscovery of pre-industrial food production shows especially in a current trends that I want to discuss. This is the anxiety about ever "safer" foods - a trend that is obviously mostly positive in that it means people are thinking about what they eat. On the other hand, labels are often a shortcut for thinking: the mania for organic food, whether trucked from a farm ten miles away or flown from ten thousand, is an example. Another is the degree to which the problems of contamination of anti-resistant bacteria associated with giant feedlots and factory farms have led advertisers to provoke and exploit the public's fear of illness, to the point where people don't trust things to be safe unless labeled.
This leads to increasingly circular solutions, such as the irradiation of ground beef as a response to the potential dangers of gargantuan meatpacking plant that have consolidated most of the country's meats. What's worse, it discourages people from seeing foodstuffs as natural products and encourages a kind of magical thinking about the world as a harbor of dangerous bacteria that can only be banished by the application of chemicals. It is anti-holistic and tends towards seeing complex, industrial things like a Big Mac as more real, more understandable, and safer than a raw piece of cow's flesh. It takes time and effort to undo the digust that has been incited in us by commercial propaganda, effort that usually only leisured people have the opportunity to make. That's why sophistication about food is another way to announce your social position.
Germ-phobia cleverly incited by Proctor and Gamble lies underneath lots of this: we live in a culture that is pathologically afraid of pathogens. Why is it that raw-milk, unpasteurized cheese is not permitted in this country, which basically means that great cheese is outlawed? Fear of germs. The great irony of this squeamishness is that fast food is the single most dangerous source of anti-resistant strains of bacteria that have evolved in our feedlots. Even though, most people would pick a spicy chicken sandwich over a raw oyster picked up off the beach, which serves ConAgra very well, thank you. And it's only the very lucky among us who are ever in a situation to stroll a beach with wild oysters on it anyway - it happened to me once and I still marvel at it over the chicken cutlet sandwich from my deli.
A word about the spiciness of the chicken: when the quality of a foodstuff is low, the easiest single way to disguise it is to hide it's flavor. I think you can correlate the rise of a taste for hot sauces over the last thirty years to the increasingly dismal flavor of chicken breasts. Not that I dislike spicy food - I love it - but the food at Taco Bell simply uses capsacin to anaesthetize some pretty awful ground beef. The overloading of ingredients is a similar tendency: when the quality of something simple is really good, it's usually delicious with a squeeze of lemon and buttered bread.
A show like Alton Brown's "Good Eats," as informative as it is, is possibly the apotheosis of magical thinking about food. Brown is so meticulous about preparation, so sterilized is his every surface, that you forget that most of the food he makes and supposedly improves (cakes, macaroni and cheese, tomato sauce) were developed by humble kitchen staffs and home cooks, and should not be hard to make. He has a mania for visiting the local big-box retailer to find the perfect culinary appliance. Only Brown with his intensely overeager, overthought approach can make you feel like cooking is best approached by amateur chemists. (I wonder what Harold McGee thinks of him.) Brown makes eating seem like a pretext for a hobbyist to invent pulley systems for lowering turkeys into hot oil. Food is dangerous, food can easily come out badly, you must be extremely anal to make food safely and well. But for all his geekery, who would you rather eat a meal cooked by, Brown or the comparatively simple Jacques Pepin?
I feel a little strange, as someone who loves eating as much as I do, saying this, but shouldn't we be more interested in who we're eating with than what we're eating? Isn't it a measure of how abstracted our eating habits have become that we pay such hysterical attention to them? Is it a compensatory overreaction to the lack of a grounded, seasonal national cuisine of the kind many other nations have? Finally, isn't it sad that we are so rarely in a position to eat food whose history is knowable - you caught this fish, you picked these nettles - that gleaning food has become a kind of luxury hobby only available to the rich? The most characteristic desire in urban foodie culture now is to raise your own chickens and dine on the eggs. What does that say about how much we value our individual taste experiences and how little we trust others in our society to provide for us?
My other Dispatches.
monday musing: the civilization behind wire
Sometime during the early part of the twentieth century the foundations were laid for a new civilization. Czeslaw Milosz once described it as being 'behind wire'. That phrase has stuck with me. That it was a new civilization, a new way of looking at man, there is no doubt. Just what that means for us, now and forevermore, is something we're still thinking about—as we should be. It will take a long time to stew this one over and there is good reason not to rush, not to miss any of the details. The new civilization behind wire was based on a seemingly contradictory pair of assumptions. One, that human beings are dangerous. Two, that human beings are nothing. But in the end there was a master logic that held these two propositions together. The civilization behind wire was to take dangerous human beings and prove to them, in the brutal schoolyard of experience, that they are, in fact, nothing at all. Dangerous human beings, in the face of their nothingness, tend to become less dangerous. Most of the pupils died convinced. Those that staggered out of the camps alive (sort of) were a mixed and mixed-up bag. Most of them came out simply broken. Another way to look at it is to see men like Stalin and Hitler as theological figures. They were interested in the soul. They were interested in experimenting with the soul. And with a remarkable audacity that can almost be admired, if with a shudder, they wanted to defeat the human soul. Aleksander Wat, the Polish poet and philosopher who spent some time in the Gulag system, once opined in his extraordinary memoir My Century:
I want to stress this point: the essence of Stalinism is the reforging of souls. … The point was not to correct the five or fifteen million in [the corrective camps] because they were a minority and Stalin was concerned with large numbers, large percentages; the only point was the population as a whole. … The point was for everyone to feel that threat at every moment, to know that the camps were terrible and that this could not be spoken of because this was something holy, sacral.
The wager at the foundation of the civilization behind wire was a brash one, it was absolute. The bet was that human beings could be made into slaves completely and utterly. The bet was that there is nothing in human 'nature' that makes them any more creatures of freedom than creatures of absolute servility. The bet was that men will become slaves and like it; will, in some cases, thrive in it. It is unclear exactly what is the final outcome, the final lesson of the civilization behind wire. Did it succeed in its basic proposition and fail for other reasons? How much did it reveal man to be a nothing? How much did it shatter the last illusions of men? These are uncomfortable thoughts, unsettling areas for human inquiry. That's why the region of literature that deals with the civilization behind wire sits in a special and ghettoized region of the mind. I'll confess a physical feeling of apprehension mixed with something close to electricity when I pick up certain books by Primo Levi, Aleksander Wat, Imre Kertész, Tadeusz Borowski, Danilo Kis, Gustav Herling, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and so on. I'm always sickly amused that such books are often betrayed already on their back covers by the promotional quotes that invariably adorn them. It is as if we are so zealous to inoculate ourselves from these books, to mute their terribleness, that we coat them even on their front and back covers with what amounts to a tissue of protective misrepresentations, lies. We understand that this literature is important, but at the same time we want it to go away. My copy of Gustav Herling's 'A World Apart: The Journal of a Gulag Survivor' is furnished with a quote from The Observer that opines it "will be read for its humanity and beauty of expression." I suppose that is true. But it would not have been my first choice in characterizing a book that contains the following description of the logic of the civilization behind wire:
A prisoner is considered to have been sufficiently prepared for the final achievement of the signature only when his personality has been thoroughly dismantled into its component parts. Gaps appear in the logical association of ideas; thoughts and emotions become loosened in their original positions and rattle against each other like the parts of a broken down machine; the driving belts connecting the past with the present slip off their wheels and fall sloppily to the bottom of the mind; all the weights and levers of mind and willpower become jammed and refuse to function; the indicators of the pressure gauges jump as if possessed from zero to maximum and back again. … the next morning he wakes feeling empty as a nut without a kernel and weak after the inhuman strain to which his whole organism has been subjected during the past few months, but dazzled by the thought that everything is already behind him. When a prisoner walks between the bunks without saying a word to anyone, it is easy for the others to guess that he is a convalescent with rapidly healing scars and a newly-assembled personality, taking his first uncertain steps in a new world.
True, Gustav Herling was able to preserve his remarkable humanity through his ordeals and later was able to express those ordeals with his gift for beautiful expression. But that is not why 'A World Apart' is an important book. It is so because it explains to us, in rather torturous detail, exactly the process by which human beings were reduced to nothing and then rebuilt into something even less. End of story. My copy of Primo Levi's 'Survival in Auschwitz' proclaims that it is "a lasting testament to the indestructibility of the human spirit." Primo Levi was a remarkable and brave man and his writings are a gift, if from hell. But the last several sentences of 'Survival in Auschwitz' read:
Because we also are broken, conquered: even if we know how to adapt ourselves, even if we have finally learnt how to find our food and to resist the fatigue and cold, even if we return home. We lifted the menaschka on to the bunk and divided it, we satisfied the daily ragings of hunger, and now we are oppressed by shame.
Primo Levi's book is not about the 'indestructibility of the human spirit' but about its destructibility. Levi's book is about how we can adapt to that destructibility, even in our shame, even in our recognition that we can be made into slaves in a heartbeat. Finally, my copy of Imre Kertész's 'Fatelessness' carries, in a quote from The Washington Times, the claim that the book is "an ornate and honest testimony to the human spirit." That's simply insane actually and probably the result of a time-squeezed reviewer never having bothered to read the book. The reviewer simply saw that it was a novel by an Auschwitz survivor and assumed it could be described as a 'testimony to the human spirit'. And that's the problem in a nutshell. Nothing about the civilization behind wire is a testimony to the human spirit, except, perhaps, in being a testimony to the fact that the human spirit can be crushed into dust more quickly and efficiently and devastatingly than we ever wanted to believe. Among the many virtues of Imre Kertész's novel is the extent to which he allows himself, through what amount of mental effort we can only imagine, to portray the civilization behind wire as something that has become natural to those who inhabit it, as just another way that human beings live. Here is his description of an evening at Auschwitz:
Here and there, more suspect plumes of smoke mingled with more benign vapors, while a familiar-sounding clatter drifted up faintly my way from somewhere, like bells in dreams, and as I gazed down across the scene I caught sight of a procession of bearers, poles on shoulders, groaning under the weight of steaming cauldrons, and from far off I recognized, there should be no doubting it, a whiff of turnip soup in the acrid air. A pity, because it must have been that spectacle, that aroma, which cut through my numbness to trigger an emotion, the growing waves of which were able to squeeze, even from my dried-out eyes, a few warmer drops amid the dankness that was soaking my face. Despite all deliberation, sense, insight, and sober reason, I could not fail to recognize within myself the furtive and yet—ashamed as it might be, so to say, of its irrationality—increasingly insistent voice of some muffled craving of sorts: I would like to live a little bit longer in this beautiful concentration camp.
The implication of that sentence "I would like to live a little bit longer in this beautiful concentration camp" and the tortuous way that the sentence is finally squeezed out of the barely comprehensible experience that elicited it, is the very essence of the literature of the civilization behind wire. I can't blame anyone for not wanting to think that sentence through, to ponder how it could have been uttered and what it means that it was. But, there we are. The civilization behind wire did exist and it has left to us a legacy. I very much wish this weren't the case. But it is.
Could France’s new odd couple—Sarkozy and Kouchner—spell the end of French privilege for Africa’s most venal?
Edward B. Rackley
In the 1960s, post-colonial Africa was the most hopeful place on the planet. Post-partum exuberance in Europe’s former colonies was infectious and abundant. Yet fate has not been kind to sub-Saharan Africa. From Namibia to Guinea to Somalia, the path of most sub-Saharan nations has traced an arc of intimate complicity with the predatory appetites of their former colonial masters. Nowhere has this neo-colonial continuation of anti-development and enrichment by and for the few been more evident than in France’s former colonies.
The nature of governance in these ex-colonies attests to the abiding power of the self-serving instinct and immediate gain, over and against the long-term goal of national progress. Such is the confounding irony of Africa’s entire post-colonial era in nations previously occupied by France, Britain, Portugal and Belgium alike: why is the colonial, predatory model of governance so faithfully re-enacted by ruling African elites? It’s as if all that negative conditioning only succeeded in instilling a predatory instinct in the new ruling class. Why are Mandela-style visions for collective prosperity not more common, given the shared experience of subjugation and occupation across the continent?
Two to Tango
Colonialism’s direct rule in Africa was subjugation globalized. African independence in the early 1960s opened the door to fresh national possibilities. New African leaders claimed to reject the culture and values of the former occupier but happily overtook their infrastructure, education systems and administrative apparatus. “Authenticity” campaigns were launched in many countries; western attire and Christian names were banned in an effort to restore the indigenous to its rightful pride of place. Private companies held by former colonials were nationalized and dispersed among the new political elites, the results of which were just as disastrous as Mugabe’s land re-distribution schemes in Zimbabwe. Yet genuinely radical or “clean slate” beginnings, in affairs of the state as in art, are illusory.
During the cold war, western foreign policy in post-colonial Africa sought political stability, access to raw materials, and a common front against the Soviet threat. Military hardware and training for elite presidential guards was a common form of international assistance, a quid pro quo in exchange for access to resources and for remaining faithful to western capitalism. African leaders were not pressed on human rights, “good governance” or controlling corruption as they are today. The massacres of Idi Amin were insignificant compared to the Soviet threat.
Shortly after the fall of the Berlin wall, western strategies towards Africa shifted as the need for quid pro quo camaraderie faded. The US gradually disengaged. Multiple internecine wars arose to topple African dictators, newly vulnerable without superpower protection. The UN struggled to contain the violence in Somalia, Liberia, Congo-Kinshasa, Congo-Brazzaville, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Burundi, Angola, and more recently Ivory Coast and Sudan. Peace deals were brokered, mostly on the cheap, resulting in a new crop of leaders.
As Africa imploded in the 1990, France in particular found itself on the receiving end of a massive outpouring of illegal immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. This influx continues at a massive pace, regularly making headlines in the international media. For Sarkozy and other EU leaders, the “African disaster” and the ongoing human exodus towards Europe constitutes a social, economic and political crisis and hot potato, engaging and enraging all sides of the domestic political spectrum.
After independence, the new leaders of France’s ex-colonies chose to “respect continuity” by maintaining close political and economic ties with the former occupier. A common franc zones was initiated among the former colonies and the resulting currency, the CFA, was tied to the French franc to ensure stability. A parallel to the British Commonwealth was sought; its first articulation was issued the Ivoirian leader Houphouet-Boigny. La Françafrique would designate the unofficial confederation, bound by language, common history and appreciation of the ties that bind power and wealth. As the machinations of this network involving French oil companies, arms dealers and notoriously corrupt regimes came under increasing public scrutiny in the 1990s, Françafrique was subsequently adopted by F-X Verschave as the title of his book, La Françafrique. Le plus long scandale de la République (1999). Françafrique also means “France à fric,” fric being slang for cash. [More on this network, including interactive maps and histories by country, at Stop-Francafrique.com]
Since ceding control of its African colonies in 1960, France continued to support and protect the new client states, fending off insurgents or usurping leaders no longer of use. Between 1960 and 1994 alone, it carried out 16 non-UN mandated military interventions in former colonies. As of 2002, France maintains defense pacts with eight countries (Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, CAR, Djibouti, Cameroon, Comoros, Senegal, Togo), provides technical and material support to the national armies in 30 others, and has 14500 troops stationed in five countries. In return, France receives privileged, sometimes exclusive access to raw materials.
The political returns on this relationship for African leaders can be grand. President Omar Bongo of Gabon first rose to power in 1967 with French help; Gnassingbé Eyadéma of Togo ruled for 38 years until his death in 2005, when his son assumed the presidency, thanks to a nod from Paris. Jean-Bedel Bokassa, self-proclaimed “emperor” of the Central African “empire” and later tried for cannibalism, was ingloriously deposed by the French secret service while visiting Kadhafi in 1979. Belgium conducted affairs with Mobutu of the former Zaire in this way, as did the US with its African clients for the duration of the cold war. The closest American parallel to Françafrique is the way the US treats its Latin American “backyard” in the pursuit of profit and opportunistic alliance (recall the infamous “School of the Americas” still in operation at Fort Bennington GA).
France’s most infamous support to a rotten ally, the Habyarimana regime in Rwanda, led to recurrent accusations of complicity in the genocide as perpetrated by officials and military authorities from the ethnic Hutu majority then in power. France then intervened with Operation Turquoise, after 100 days of slaughter, ostensibly to prevent a “second genocide” by the invading Tutsi army against Hutus on the run towards neighboring Zaire. While some lives were saved, the French buffer zone allowed genocidaires to escape safely, proving the critics’ point that France is loyal to its puppet regimes no matter how venal or murderous.
Since the recent Sarkozy presidential victory, Africa observers are a-twitter over probable shifts in French policy on African immigrants, and whether the Françafrique network will finally be laid to rest. Consternation and surprise followed Sarkozy’s appointment of Bernard Kouchner as Foreign Minister, the socialist and well-known humanitarian. Kouchner is also the architect of the so-called droit d’ingerence (“the right to intervene on humanitarian grounds in the internal conflicts of sovereign states, which was recognized by international law in 1988. It has since served as the basis for inter-state military interventions on humanitarian grounds (Kosovo, Côte d’Ivoire, etc).
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that French paratroopers landed near Birao in the Central African Republic on March 4 to recapture an airstrip held by a rebel faction (reprint here). An email from colleagues at Médecins Sans Frontières working out of Birao confirmed the report of the French intervention, ostensibly to stem a swell of rebel activity in the northeast quadrant of the country where violence has driven refugees into southern Chad and Sudan, further destabilizing the region.
The intervention was not the first for France in this country, where bolstering the country’s sagging leadership in Bangui, the country’s capital, has been a regular occurrence through several regimes since independence. While the WSJ article used the incident to highlight France’s long history of covert military interventions in its former colonies to support despotic regimes by extinguishing local insurgencies, its primary thrust was to question Sarkozy’s recent claims that the pattern of military meddling in African politics would cease.
Some pundits argue that an end of Françafrique will come “naturally,” as French foreign policy is modernized and subsumed by the EU. This would be an unfortunate disappearance act, for it would sacrifice France’s unique experience and knowledge of African realities. France under Sarkozi and Kouchner is far better positioned to create and drive policy renewal as an individual state than would behemoth multilateral that is the European Union. Yes a common front among EU states is needed, but this should not preclude or eclipse a reformed French policy on Africa. Hopefully Sarkozy and Kouchner will not duck the challenge of reforming Françafrique by passing the hot potato to Brussels, where reaching multilateral consensus can take years, the result an incoherent soup of compromise and concession between member states.
The big question is what will become of the client states themselves, the “backyard” of Françafrique and its cronyist web of privilege and profit. Omar Bongo of Gabon has already emphasized his friendship with Sarkozy, explaining that were he new president to reject him, (Bongo) would respond, “Ce n’est pas sérieux Nicolas, […] the fundamentals of Françafrique will remain, and can only be improved upon.” But whether armed invasions to bolster dubious regimes continue where no viable alternative exists and murderous chaos is literally at the door?
There is a potential humanitarian argument to be made for propping up drooling dictators if their demise is sure to unleash untold carnage as it did in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Congo-Kinshasa. The stage is set in Chad today, where French troops are supporting a delusional autocrat, President Idriss Déby, as violence escalates and spills over from Darfur. Without a foreign armed presence as a deterrent, things would certainly be much worse.
Kouchner’s visage humain
Besides the fresh perspectives Kouchner will bring to the table and, one hopes, the rapid retirement of the Françafrique cronies and kickback systems, Sarkozi needs a “human face” to deal with the immigration issue. Credited with single-handedly inventing the humanitarian movement, Kouchner is the face of humanitarianism in France. Serving with the Red Cross in the Biafran civil war in the late 1960s, he later broke publicly with the institution over its unwillingness to expose the government’s role in sustaining the famine to attract international attention. Out of this experience he founded Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in 1971, which in 1999 won the Nobel Peace Prize for its pioneering and controversial approach to emergency relief work. In 1980, after a similar breach with MSF, he founded Médecins du Monde.
How will Kouchner respond to France’s “immigration problem”? Sarkozy, in a deft play on classic French solidarité, claims the immigration crisis points to the common destiny binding France and its former colonies—yet “another occasion to satisfy mutual interest through joint problem solving.” Will the Kouchner solution see a tempering of his humanitarian instincts in a bow to national interest and pragmatism? In 1979, Kouchner responded to a different migrant crisis, the Vietnamese “boat people,” by filling a giant lifeboat with aid workers and journalists to rescue a fleeing, desperate population. The adventure also served to highlight the alleged totalitarianism of the Vietnam regime. A potent symbolic and life-saving idea at the time, such grandiose gestures are less feasible now given the scale of the current African exodus. (Its inverse, an equally grandiose gesture of quarantine and rejection—the erection of enormous concrete walls—is the current favorite of conservatives in Israel and America).
Efforts to solve the impasse will doubtless be multi-faceted and contain complimentary strategic elements. Opening the floodgates has never been an option; “fortress Europe” and forced deportations have been the modus operandi since early 2000. Since his election last month, Sarkozy has already spoken of a 1:1 ratio of legal entry per available employment opportunity. But what will the African side of the solution look like? More stable regimes and job creation is the probable thrust of the policy, as Champs Elysée has already subsumed its development ministry, harnessing its development budget to the more dominant national interest machine. (The same is happening in Washington as USAID gets relegated to the State and Defense Departments toolbox).
Syphilitics on crutches
Françafrique may be buried or modernized under another name, but that won’t solve the mother of Africa’s problems, its governance crisis. Realistically, then, what are the immediate alternatives to propping up syphilitic regimes? Option 1: Let the people decide. The persistence of Mugabe’s grip on power shows how unready that population is to mobilize for change—no one wants to get killed. Popular reticence to risk life and limb is not indifference or ignorance; it is a calculated survival strategy common in many dysfunctional African states. As a result, there is no structured or coherent vox populi in the dozens of African countries living under Mugabe clones.
Option 2: Let the venal autocrats fall to any armed would-be liberator, and deal with the outcome. This is not a solution, it is a recipe for recurrent humanitarian disaster. If memory serves, Rwanda is the only internecine conflict in Africa since the cold war where a rebel group took power and actually delivered a superior product over the preceding regime. Liberia, Sierra Leone and Congo-Kinshasa were all ruled by corrupt cronies and were toppled viciously, but none were replaced by functional cabal, autocrat or enlightened despot who could restore order and rebuild the state.*
Option 3: Arrete le propping and forcibly remove them from power, à la Saddam. Where there is no local political system to step in and fill the void left by a charismatic autocrat (which rarely exists because smart autocrats destroy systems so everyone depends on them), this option will result in Iraqi-style failure or will require the installation of another dictator, fuelling an eternal new boss/old boss spin cycle.
A spoonful of democracy
Sarkozy has also said he will give development aid only to democratic regimes, and stop using the French army to control the political landscape in its former colonies. This is easy talk. The elephant in the room is that no magic solution exists to bring about more humane, transparent governance in Africa. Everything short of a continent-wide Marshall Plan has been tried: the tireless efforts by human rights groups to build civil society—what have these come to after thirty years of training and documenting systematic and atrocious abuses? When is the democratic genie going to pop out of the much-rubbed and fetishized lamp, assiduously cultivated and endlessly bankrolled by western democratization groups? Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s 2005 election in Liberia is one cause for hope. Other alleged democracies and favorites of the west, Kenya and Uganda come to mind, are extremely fragile whose presidents serve at the pleasure of the national army.
[Indulge me the following aside: Western governments fund the ballots, the pencils, the voting urns and booths, the observers, the armed guards, the voter registration process, ad infinitum, for most all elections in developing countries. When a party we don’t like wins, say, Hamas in Palestine, we insist that the elections were rigged and to start over. Unbowed, our mirage of miraculous democratization remains intact: just add candidates, willing voters and stir. Presto! Democratic process is born, fully formed and self-aware, straight from the test tube. Should you be undecided about whether the exportation of western-style democracy is what the developing world needs, sign on with the Carter Center and go observe upcoming elections in Asscrackistan, Zimzongoland, or wherever. I assure you a good time—and that no further proof of the scandalous charade that is the democratization business will be needed.]
The priority for the Sarkozy-Kouchner couple will be to conclude a viable foreign policy on the African disaster, both internally within specific nations, and the increasing outpouring of migration towards Europe. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Kouchner bury his head in the hallways of Brussels EU offices, spending less time expounding on French policy and positions on the plethora of problems facing sub-Saharan Africa. It is in the end far easier to construct and drive a bilateral foreign policy, and make it “more humanitarian,” “less hawkish” or even to pull the plug on the dirtier dealings of Françafrique than it will be to engage a multilateral mechanism like the EU to build and implement a common front on African policy that combines development and humanitarian assistance in sufficient measure, commercial investment and economic/employment development, and military training and assistance to fledgling but representative democracies, as in Liberia or Congo-Kinshasa.
In rural Africa today, subsistence livelihoods are the norm, even for those lucky enough to have received formal education. Where there is peace, the lumpen majority can hardly be called a proletariat given a near total absence of employment opportunities. Many of the rural poor I’ve met in Congo-Kinshasa, an ex-colony of Belgium, pine openly for re-colonization. But if a Marshall Plan for sub-Saharan Africa is out of the question, can Sarkozy and Kouchner at least get some of these people a job?
* In Angola and Congo-Brazzaville, western powers ultimately came around to support the side with the oil—Congo-B president Sassou Nguesso is a card-carrying member of Françafrique, so no surprise there. But in Angola, Dos Santos’ MPLA party was adamantly pro-Soviet, with Cuban troops protecting extraction facilities run by American companies. Go figure.
Hedda Sterne. Untitled 1985-90.
Thanks to Anjuli Raza Kolb.
Imaginary Tribes #4
The Qyzyk Nomads
Justin. E. H. Smith
It was not much in the way of pillow talk, but after a night like the one we'd just spent, nothing could surprise me. "Do you want to hear a folk tale?" Tanya asked. "I heard it when I was running a polyclinic in Nebit-Dag a few years ago." "Tell it to me," I said.
"Once there was a camel on his way to the capital, to praise Turkmenbashi, the Father of all Turkmen," Tanya began. "He came across a dog, who asked: "camel, camel, where are you going?' 'To the capital, to praise Turkmenbashi, the father of all Turkmen,' replied the camel. 'Take me with you,' said the dog. 'Come along, dog,' said the camel. They walked and walked and along the road they met a goat. 'Camel, camel, dog, dog, where are you going?' 'To the capital, to praise Turkmenbashi, the Father of all Turkmen.' 'Take me with you.' 'Come along, goat,' they replied. And they walked and walked and they met a mouse. 'Camel, camel, dog, dog, goat, goat, where are you going?' "To the capital, to praise Turkmenbashi, the Father of all Turkmen.' 'Take me with you.' 'Come along, little guy!'
"So they walked and walked until they came to a giant pit in the road. 'I am the biggest and strongest of all,' said the camel, 'I will jump across.' And he jumped, but made it only halfway, and fell into the pit. 'I am stronger than the camel,' said the dog, and he jumped and fell into the pit. The goat and the mouse jumped in after them.
"'Well here we are in a pit,' they complained, 'how shall we ever get to the capital to praise Turkmenbashi, the father of all Turkmen?' But after a while they grew hungry, and forgot about praising Turkmenbashi, the father of all Turkmen. 'How shall we decide whom to eat?' the dog asked. 'Here is what we will do,' the camel replied. 'We will all cry out, and whoever cries out in the highest voice, we'll eat him right up.' And the camel cried out: 'uuhhh-uuhhh'. And the dog cried out: 'oohhh-oohhh'. And the goat cried out: 'eeehh-eeehh'. And the mouse cried out: 'iii-iii', and they ate him right up. But soon enough they were hungry again, and the goat said: 'Here is what we shall do. We shall all cry out, and whoever cries in the lowest voice, we'll eat him right up.' And they all cried out in turn: 'eeehh-eeehh', 'oohhh-oohhh', 'uuhhh-uuhhh', and the goat and the dog jumped upon the camel, and strangled him. 'What a feast we shall have now!' they exclaimed.
"And they ate and ate for days, but when the dog noticed that they would soon run out of meat, and that the goat was eating far more than his share, he took a portion of the camel's entrails, and hid them in the corner. And when there was no more of the camel to share, the dog began to nibble upon the entrails he had hidden. 'Dog, dog,' said the goat, 'what's that you're eating there?' And just then the dog had an idea: 'I've cut open my stomach and I'm eating my own entrails to stave off my hunger. You should do the same.' 'That's a good idea,' said the goat, and he cut open his stomach, and died, and the dog ate him right up. Whether he ever made it to the capital to praise Turkmenbashi, the Father of all Turkmen, or not, I have no idea."
"What the hell kind of tale is that?" I asked when she was finished. "What possible point could there be in telling such a tale?" "I don't know," Tanya replied. Maybe it's political. Maybe it's an allegory about the Niyazov regime." "Is that the autocrat who styled himself 'Turkmenbashi'? The one who died of a heart attack last year?" "You don't know anything," Tanya answered.
That wasn't entirely fair. I do know some things. For example, according to Norman Butts, in his ethnographic study of the Qyzyk nomads of the Karakum Desert of central Turkmenistan, Pastoral Nomads of the Turkmen SSR (Smithsonian Monographs, 1971), unmarried mothers and pregnant teenagers are often married off to non-human entities: trees, mountains, prayer rugs, little terracotta figurines of lions or of soldiers. The need to match each individual with a spouse is so great among the nomads that often teenage girls who are simply very homely, with missing teeth, or crooked smiles, or uneven breasts, are married off to their father's old sandals, or to a goat, which then becomes a "man-goat" [erkek-geçi] and may not be eaten for the duration of its life. When the boys are conscripted in the Turkmen national army, or go off to indulge their lust for war by signing up as mercenaries in some nearby jihad, leaving a dearth of young men behind, girls are made to marry whatever entity --animate or inanimate, celestial or terrestrial, passing or enduring-- the elders happen upon. Thus one girl marries a drinking bowl, and from then on only she may drink out of it; one marries a scrofulous dog, which from then on no one may beat; and one marries a wispy cloud that evaporates some hours later, and spends the rest of her days a widow in mourning.
The Qyzyk tell a tale of a girl who was married off to a figurine. It's hard to tell what the figurine was supposed to be. The National Museum in Ashqabat has hundreds of them on display, where they are labeled simply: 'zoomorphic statuettes'. The animals have four stubs as legs, a thick, round torso, and a head with a snout and two semicircular ears, but from these features there's just no way to establish that they're more cow than horse, or more bear than dog. It is clear, anyway, that they are not camels.
The statuettes were left by earlier, unidentified inhabitants, and were clearly used by these inhabitants for ritual purposes. (The truth is that their provenance is a complete mystery. The only other primitive art they even remotely resemble comes from Gabon in West Africa.) The Qyzyk have no idea what these ritual purposes were, but enough of them have been rooted out of the sand by goats desperately searching for a rare bite of vegetation, or have simply been exposed by the winds, that the Turkic nomads have themselves come to incorporate them into their own social system. They are, indeed, the only objects in Qyzyk social life that have no concrete use-value whatsoever. You cannot use them as cooking utensils, you cannot use them to hold down the corners of a goat-hide tent. You may only use them as decoration in an otherwise perfectly minimalist encampment, or you may rub them as a charm to ward off hoof-and-mouth disease. Or, at the behest of a female elder, you may marry off a husbandless girl to a zoomorph, so long as it has two perfectly unchipped discs as ears, and four solid zoomorphic legs. Such a marriage naturally curtails the possibility of future descendants from the girl, but it is believed to greatly increase fertility among the goats, with whom the Qyzyk live in a relationship that from the outside appears so close as to qualify as symbiosis in the rigorous biological sense, and that from the inside appears so meaningful as to make the life of a Qyzyk in the absence of goats quite simply unthinkable.
Once there was a girl with the straightest of teeth and the most even of breasts. She had black, black hair like the night that fell to her waist, which by her twelfth year was already round and full, and promised many sons to whomever would be fortunate enough to take her as his wife. No one saw this promise more than Saguk, a handsome young goatherd. But the girl's grandmother was worried about a string of recent deaths among the goats, and in any case she had always suspected Saguk's grandmother of sorcery. Her granddaughter was to have nothing to do with the boy.
The grandmother went to her own son, and said: "Your daughter's waist is round and full now, and many a young goatherd has taken note. You must arrange for her marriage now, or all too soon we will find her 'married' on the floor of some neighbor's tent." "I will kill the usurper who takes her away without my consent," said the girl's father. "Then we must act now," said her grandmother, and she pulled a zoomorphic statuette from a satchel hanging at her waist. The statuette was perfect: not the slightest trace of a chip in the ears, a big, robust torso, and four solid legs, not like those of some scrawny, goat, but like the legs of an unkown beast: a beast with weight to bear.
"What are you showing me that for?" said the father. "I need grandsons to tend to my goats, not some figurine!" "Soon you won't have any goats at all if you don't do what I say!" replied the old lady. "Haven't you been paying attention? Half of your goats have been left behind for the vultures, and the rest look ready for the same fate!" "What is happening?" asked the father. "Why are all my goats dying?" The old lady pointed to the tent of Saguk's grandmother, and that was all that needed to be said.
She held up the figurine and said to her son: "This has been passed down in our family since before there was a desert. It comes from those who came before us, who knew how to speak to the animals. Look at it. It is perfect. Your daughter will marry it, and the dying will end."
And so a wedding was arranged, and all the members of the encampment, even Saguk's scowling grandmother, emerged from their tents to watch, and the holy words that consecrate a marriage were spoken by Suqtyk, the oldest man. Saguk himself was strangely missing, and some were whispering that he had gone off to kill himself in the treacherous dunes.
"O desert sands," Suqtyk intoned, "O winds, blow hither. O sky, O quenching water, O hearty meat, nourish the loins of these two, your children, that they may bring forth generations of goatherds, stalwart and hawk-eyed." At the mention of 'generations,' the father elbowed his mother and gave her a look of concern, but the old lady snapped back: "That's what he has to say, you fool. That's what he says at every wedding." He thought he saw Saguk's grandmother crack a mischievous grin at the mention of the same word, but he knew better than to contradict his own mother, and kept silent.
So the father stood back, and allowed everything to proceed according to custom. He left his own goat-hide tent for the night, and went to sleep in his brother's tent (which on any other occasion would have been strictly taboo, as this sleeping arrangement exposes him to the wiles of his sister-in-law [tügül]. Qyzyk sisters-in-law are notorious for seducing their husbands' brothers on their niece-in-laws' [qåzäqlar] wedding nights as their oblivious husbands snore). His daughter retired to his own tent with the figurine, as tradition demands.
She set it on the ground beside the blankets, lay down upon them, and began, as she did every night, to think of Saguk. She imagined him kissing her, and gently removing the lace that held her hair atop her head. She had heard her grandmother and father whispering before the marriage, about Saguk's own grandmother, but had understood very little. She also understood little of what had transpired that very day, what the significance of this little statuette was for her life, what exactly the trinket meant with respect to the one thing that mattered: the future, with Saguk.
She thought of him so intensely she could barely stand it. She thought for hours, and could not sleep. At last, she decided to do what she had always done on sleepless nights like this: to go out and stare through the flaps of Saguk's tent, and watch him in his gentle sleep. She sprang up and headed for the flap, but was stopped by a voice from beside the bed. "Where are you going?" it asked. The girl was stunned, and did not dare move. "I just. I had to go... you know," said the girl.
"Let down your hair," said the zoomorph. And the girl reluctantly let down her hair. She shook it out, and it fell down to her buttocks. She kept her eyes closed and shook her head in long full swings, and she told herself that when she stopped, and opened her eyes again, the statuette would speak no more.
"Take off your robe," said the zoomorph, when the girl stopped shaking her head. And the girl began to cry. "But you're just a figurine!" she said to him. "A figurine made of earth!" "I am your husband," said the zoomorph. He stared at her with a threatening look in his eyes, and the girl, trembling with fear, took off her robe.
"How is it that you have eyes now?" she asked him, folding her arms in front of her to conceal her even breasts. "'Before you were but the vaguest form of an animal." "That is not important," the zoomorph replied, smiling. "Come over to me now, upon the blankets."
"How is it that you smile now?" she asked him. "Before you had no mouth at all." "That too is not important," he replied. And she went over to lie with him upon the blankets, closing her eyes in fear, praying to the night sky that when she opened them the zoomorph would speak no more.
"How is it that you are a man now?" she asked, when she lay down on the blankets and felt him pressed up against her. "Open your eyes," the voice said, and when she did the girl saw not some brute statue, but her own Saguk. She rejoiced, and pressed him to her. "How did you get here? How did you turn yourself into that statue and marry me?" "My grandmother," he replied. "She knows the real secrets of those who came before us. The figurines are not for decoration. They are not charms to keep the goats from dying." "What are they then?" asked the girl, smiling. "They are vehicles of souls," Saguk said. "My grandmother stole the figurine from your grandmother's satchel last night, and spoke some words I did not understand, and the next thing I knew I was an animal made of earth!" "What was it like?" asked the girl, beaming with joy and wonder. "It was worth it, my love," he replied, and then they began to kiss, and spoke no more.
Saguk's grandmother peeked in beneath the tent flaps, and could not keep herself from cackling. The girl thought she heard something, and became still. "It's just the wind," Saguk whispered to her. "Just the wind blowing hither, bringing forth generations of goatherds!" And the two of them laughed and laughed, and held each other tight. And off in the dunes the goats searched in vain for even so much as the rudest leaf, as a kettle of vultures --who enjoy no prominent place in Qyzyk folklore, though they are as abundant in the fearsome, life-hating Karakum as any wretched beast-- circled greedily about them.
Previous installments in the Imaginary Tribes series may be found here:
For an extensive archive of Justin Smith's writing, go to www.jehsmith.com.
Teaser Appetizer: Why Does BIL Breathe?
My brother-in- law (BIL) has been breathing all his life but is unaware of the amount of air he has sucked in - over 200 million liters! He has inhaled 500 ml per breath - a little less during childhood - 15 times every minute to keep his body working for 51 years.
“Now, that is lot of air.” he exclaims.
BIL, an affable, portly man of liberal bend feels guilty of this enormous selfish appropriation. The guilt probably is also an overflow from his job – he manages a hedge fund.
When I ask him, “ What do you do?”
He mumbles, “I work for a hedge fund.”
“But what do you actually do to be so rich?”
He just smiles.
I try to assuage his hedge-fund-guilt by telling him that he did not hoard all that air, but exhaled an equal volume. But as a blue blood liberal - who thrives on a staple of guilt - this disconcerts him even more: he exhaled 200 million liters of pollution.
He cajoles me, "If you explain what happened to all that air, I will tell you about the hedge fund."
So, here I go: Neurons in the brain stem (brain–spinal cord junction) regulate the autonomous respiratory rhythm; some neurons control the rate, while others control the depth of breathing. These neurons are sensitive to carbon dioxide (CO2) level in the blood; when the CO2 level crosses a threshold, sensors (chemoceptors) in the neck vessels and brain alert the respiratory neurons to initiate a breath. While cerebral cortex can direct the autonomous respiratory center to hold a breath for some time, it cannot override the chemical stimulus of CO2, which is why you cannot voluntarily hold your breath indefinitely.
With each breath, the diaphragm muscle, that partitions the chest from the abdomen, descends and the rib cage expands, which creates a negative pressure inside the chest cavity. The air from higher atmospheric pressure gushes in, fills the respiratory passages and reaches the small gas exchange sacs (alveoli). When the lung pressure equals the atmospheric pressure, the breath ends. The lung tissue also has stretch sensors, which send signals to the respiratory center to terminate lung expansion, which prevents over inflation and rupture.
About 500 ml of air rush into the chest, of which, 300 ml fill up the non breathing spaces like trachea and bronchial tubes. About 200 ml travel to alveoli - the active breathing sacs at the end of the breathing passages. About 60% of the inhaled air at rest, does not participate in gas exchange and occupies the dead space. During exercise and deep breathing more lung alveoli open up to accommodate increased inhaled volume of air.
During exhalation the diaphragm ascends, rib cage contracts, increasing the pressure inside the chest, which pushes out the air.
The walls of alveoli lay in apposition to the walls of the thin capillary blood vessels, which together form a respiratory membrane for exchange of gases. The gases diffuse from higher to lower pressure gradient. Thus, oxygen crosses from alveolar air into the blood and carbon dioxide moves in reverse.
Hemoglobin, the oxygen-loving-red-protein in blood, clutches oxygen in its quaternary embrace and swishes to the farthest tissues, where it unloads its valuable cargo to allow the oxygen-depleted cells breathe and thrive. Low tissue oxygen tension, acidic ph and some enzymes stimulate oxygen release from hemoglobin. Oxygen again follows the simple rule of diffusing from higher tension to lower and crosses the cell membrane into the interior, where it ignites the energy combustion by working as the terminal electron acceptor in the electron transport chain (ETC) near the mitochondrial membrane. ETC uses oxygen to generate adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the storehouse of cellular energy. All food components - fats, carbohydrates, and proteins - participate in the manufacture of ATP, which works as a ‘battery’ that powers the cell. The uncoiling of the high-energy phosphate bonds of the ATP provides the energy for metabolism and muscular activity.
“BIL are you listening?” I shout as I see him yawning.
“Yes, I am, go on. And what about the toxins and pollutants we produce?”
I continue: we produce CO2 during metabolism, which diffuses from the cells into the blood, mixes with plasma and travels back to the alveoli and forms major portion of the exhaled air.
We also form damaging ‘free oxygen radicals’ during metabolism. An atom is in a stable state when all the electrons in the outer orbit have a complimentary electron spinning in opposite direction. A ‘free radical’ has at least one unpaired electron in the outer orbit, which makes it highly reactive. To achieve stability, the atom ‘ steals’ an electron from a neighboring molecule converting it into to a free radical. To restore its own stability, this newly formed radical, in turn, captures an electron from another surrounding molecule thus setting up a chain reaction. Oxygen radicals - with two unpaired electrons in the outer shell - are readily formed in the cell during metabolism. These roving radicals snatch electrons from fatty acids of the cell membrane (lipid per-oxidation) causing decay and senescence. Approximately 2 to 5% of the total oxygen intake has the ability to form the highly damaging radicals by electron escape. During exercise, oxygen consumption can increase up to 20 times; electron escape from the ETC multiplies, generating considerably more damaging radicals.
“BIL, are you there?”
“Yes, I am. Energy giver oxygen is also a toxic radical. With each gasp of life comes a whiff of death.”
BIL could be right but for the antioxidants - the molecules with ability to mop up roving radicals. Body produces its own protective antioxidants and it extracts some from food, such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, oil and meats. . These antioxidants readily donate their electrons to unstable radicals and electron depleted antioxidants are not harmful themselves. The fat-soluble antioxidants, Vitamin E, beta-carotene and coenzyme Q line the cell membrane and the water-soluble antioxidants like vitamin C, glutathione peroxidase and catalase scavenge the interior of the cell. Under normal circumstances these suffice, but during increased oxygen use, like exercise, excessive radical production may overwhelm body defense causing lipid per-oxidation and cellular damage.
I summarize for BIL, ”The respiratory cycle involves, autonomous breathing, carrying oxygen to the needy tissue which extract it to use it for metabolism and produce unwanted by products like CO2 and free radicals. CO2 exits through the lungs and antioxidants neutralize the radicals.”
BIL demands, “Now tell me more about that dead space you talked earlier.”
I repeat, “ Even though we inhale about 500 ml with each breath, only 200ml actively participate in gas exchange. The rest just fills up the space in the air passages.”
BIL looks into the sky and pontificates, “That is the nature of human action: most of the human endeavor lands in dead space, seemingly futile. But that is the good news. The better news is that very little of human action is of any consequence, which unfortunately generates all the bad news.”
Now, BIL gets earnest and adds “Every living person consumes air every few seconds. That must make air the largest consumption good in the world and that is a huge market opportunity – bigger than food, water, oil, religion or war. But where is the business?”
I remind him that respiratory therapy for ‘the breathing - challenged’ is a big business, but BIL reminds me that the normal non- ailing healthy lungs form a much bigger market. I tell him that the Yoga peddlers have exploited the ‘business of normal breath’ and quote some data that I read recently, “The US Patent and Trademark Office has granted 150 yoga-related copyrights, 134 patents on yoga accessories and 2,315 yoga trademarks.”
Unimpressed, he remarks, “The opportunity has not been exploited enough.”
I loose my patience, “Then go to moon and mine oxygen! Oxygen is the most abundant element in lunar soil, constitutes nearly half of it by weight. Your mined oxygen from the moon can play big in space ventures.”
“How do we arbitrage this?” he enquires.
I stare at him with dumb expression; I don’t even understand his question.
“Arbitrage is like diffusion of oxygen across gradients; it equilibrates the gradient of the financial markets.”
Now, confusion contorts my dumb expression. He notices my silence and says,” You wanted to know what I do for my living; I will tell you. For my detractors I am a selfish free radical who steals from others; for my supporters I am an anti-oxidant bringing stability to the inherently inefficient systems; but I think, I am like the cushion of air in the dead respiratory space, mostly futile, but ready to pounce when action erupts.”
May 27, 2007
Bill Clinton on Climate Change
From the New York Times:
Bill Clinton talked to The Times's Andrew C. Revkin after announcing his new plan to fight global climate change at the Large Cities Climate Summit in New York.
Video interview here.
106,000 aluminum can-Seurat, the number used in the US every thirty seconds
The Known World
Steven Pinker reviews The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science by Natalie Angier, in the New York Times:
In “The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science,” Natalie Angier aims to do her part for scientific literacy. Though Angier is a regular contributor to the Science Times section of this newspaper, “The Canon” departs from the usual treatment of science by journalists, who typically cover the “news,” the finding that upsets the apple cart, rather than the consensus. Though one can understand why journalists tend to report the latest word from the front — editors’ demand for news rather than pedagogy, and the desire to show that science is a fractious human activity rather than priestly revelation — this approach doesn’t always serve a widespread understanding of science. The results of isolated experiments are more ephemeral than conclusions from literature reviews (which usually don’t fit into a press release), and the discovery-du-jour approach can whipsaw readers between contradictory claims and leave them thinking, “Whatever.”
Angier’s goals are summed up in two words in her subtitle: beautiful basics. “The Canon” presents the fundamentals of science: numbers and probability, matter and energy, the origins and structure of living things, and the natural history of our planet, solar system, galaxy and universe. These are, she judges, the basics that every educated person should master, and a prerequisite to a genuine understanding of the material in any newspaper’s science coverage.
More here. [Thanks to Robin Varghese.]
Do voters have any idea what they are doing?
Gary J. Bass in the New York Times Magazine:
...Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University, has attracted notice for raising a pointed question: Do voters have any idea what they are doing? In his provocative new book, “The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies,” Caplan argues that “voters are worse than ignorant; they are, in a word, irrational — and vote accordingly.” Caplan’s complaint is not that special-interest groups might subvert the will of the people, or that government might ignore the will of the people. He objects to the will of the people itself.
In defending democracy, theorists of public choice sometimes invoke what they call “the miracle of aggregation.” It might seem obvious that few voters fully understand the intricacies of, say, single-payer universal health care. (I certainly don’t.) But imagine, Caplan writes, that just 1 percent of voters are fully informed and the other 99 percent are so ignorant that they vote at random. In a campaign between two candidates, one of whom has an excellent health care plan and the other a horrible plan, the candidates evenly split the ignorant voters’ ballots. Since all the well-informed voters opt for the candidate with the good health care plan, she wins. Thus, even in a democracy composed almost exclusively of the ignorant, we achieve first-rate health care.
The hitch, as Caplan points out, is that this miracle of aggregation works only if the errors are random.
Principles of economics, translated
[Thanks to Mark Blyth and Ben Rosamond.]
Visiting Professor, Visiting Spouse
Margaret Busby in The Guardian:
According to Yoruba wisdom, as one approaches elder status, one ceases to indulge in battles. "Some hope!" comments Wole Soyinka, early in his new memoir: "When that piece of wisdom was first voiced, a certain entity called Nigeria had not yet been thought of." Now past his biblical three-score-and-ten and with a distinctive mass of white hair making him the most recognisable of African writer-elders, Soyinka shows no sign of laying down the cudgels or his pen just yet. Last month's flawed Nigerian elections to deliver a successor to President Obasanjo had Soyinka calling for a new poll, declaring that: "It is not right to accept the unacceptable." His love-hate relationship with his homeland testifies to his refusal to back down in the face of injustice and tyranny, possessing as he does "an over-acute, remedial sense of right and wrong, of what is just and unjust".
You Must Set Forth at Dawn is an extraordinary chronicle (the title derives from a Soyinka poem that goes on to promise the traveller "marvels of the holy hour"), as much an insider's political biography of Nigeria as an updating of the author's own restless story since the publication over a quarter of a century ago of his first autobiographical work. Soyinka's Aké: The Years of Childhood was a modern classic and fortunately, he was persuaded to abandon his vow not to "pursue the task of recollection and reflection beyond the age of innocence, calculated at roughly eleven and a bit".
Sarah Crown in The Guardian:
Hay snorkles for top words:
Snorkle, freedom, midwifery and interglobular are just some of the suggestions authors and visitors to the Hay festival have come up with at the launch of a nationwide search for our favourite word.
Education Action, one of the festival's official charities, is using the 'Words for the World' campaign to draw attention to their support for education for children in conflict zones. Festival visitors are being asked to donate £1 to add their favourite word to a pinboard outside the charities' tent, and Education Action is calling on everyone from authors and journalists to politicians and members of the public to visit the website and add their own favourite words.
The charity chose the festival to launch their campaign, says Education Action's communications manager Pippa Ranger, because "Hay plays host to some of the most literate people in the world, and we're working with some of the least literate. Those who value and have benefited from education can show their support for the millions of children around the world who need it."
About the Hay festival here.
the mournful perfectness of the triple rhyme
In her latest volume, Native Guard, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, Natasha Trethewey finds a wormhole to the past through the Negro spiritual. Its sounds can be heard in nearly every poem in this taut, mournful book, elevating grief into song, turning the blues into something as sacred and fleshly as mud:
It rained the whole time we were laying her down;
Rained from church to grave when we put her down.
The suck of mud at our feet was a hollow sound.
The woman being buried is, one presumes, the poet's mother, but Native Guard doesn't have the whiff of the personal the way so much contemporary poetry does. Indeed, it hardly grieves in the conventional sense. Instead, it feels more like the ephemera that crowded the fiction of the late German novelist W.G. Sebald.
more from The Philadelphia Inquirer here.
levi: readapting ourselves to the complexity of being human
Levi is justly revered for his masterly memoirs, beginning with “Survival in Auschwitz” and continuing through “The Reawakening,” “The Periodic Table” and finally, and most darkly, “The Drowned and the Saved.” “Survival in Auschwitz” was written in a white heat soon after Levi’s liberation and published in 1947, though translation and recognition came much more slowly. It has often been noted, but is worth noting again, that the American title represents an unfortunate decision by the publisher to replace the haunting Italian title, “Se Questo È un Uomo” — “If This Is a Man” — with a more utilitarian one. The decision signals a confusion that exists in Levi’s reputation and that perhaps existed even inside of him: the urge to poeticize and philosophize competing with the need to bear witness, to record in as literal and straightforward a manner as possible the Nazi war against Western civilization in general and Jews in particular. But in all his writing, Levi, who worked as an industrial chemist much of his life, combined scientific detachment with deep, sympathetic imagination, a combination that allowed him to parse with excruciating clarity all the degradations — large and small, physical, psychic and spiritual — of the Nazi genocide.
more from the NY Times Book Review here.
'Living plugs' smooth ant journey
From BBC News:
Scientists from the University of Bristol observed that, when ants were foraging on rough terrain, some of them used their own bodies to plug potholes. They even chose which of them was the best fit to lie across each hole. The flatter surface provided the rest of the group, which can number 200,000, a faster route between prey and nest. The research, published in the journal of Animal Behaviour, said that the team first noticed the army ants' (Eciton burchellii) unusual behaviour in the insects' native rainforest home in Panama.
To investigate this further, the researchers inserted wooden planks, drilled with a variety of different sized holes, into the army ants' trails. They found that the ants did indeed plug the holes, but the team also discovered that individuals would size-match themselves to a hole for the best fit.
The Clear Blue Sky
Reviewed by Frank Rich in The New York Times:
By Don DeLillo.
No matter where you stood in the city, the air was thick after the towers fell: literally thick with the soot and stench of incinerated flesh that turned terror into a condition as inescapable as the weather. All bets were off. New Yorkers who always know where they’re going didn’t know where to go. Cab drivers named Muhammad were now feared as the enemy within; strangers on the street were improbably embraced like family under a canopy of fliers for the missing. Such, for a while anyway, was the “new normal,” though the old normal began to reassert itself almost as soon as that facile catchphrase was coined. Today 9/11 carries so many burdens — of interpretation, of sentimentality, of politics, of war — that sometimes it’s hard to find the rubble of the actual event beneath the layers of edifice we’ve built on top of it. (Or built on top of all of it except ground zero.)
May 26, 2007
Bill Maher on the French
[Thanks to Mark Blyth and Matthias Matthijs.]
greener on the other side of the puddle
Nicolai Ouroussoff in the NYT:
The headquarters of the federal environment agency in Dessau, Germany, occupies a low-slung building on the edge of an abandoned gasworks. Dessau, a center for munitions production during the war, was virtually obliterated by Allied bombs. Over the next 50 years, East German factories saturated the soil with chemical and industrial waste. Yet both the agency building and its location might be said to embody a new, ecologically sensitive Europe.
Designed by a young Berlin-based firm, Sauerbruch Hutton, the building is touted as one of the most efficient in the world, but it doesn’t wear its sustainability on its sleeve. Four stories high, it wraps around a vast interior courtyard that is cooled and heated by a system of underground pipes. Vents in the glass roof allow hot air to escape, and an occasional breeze passes through the courtyard’s gardens. The sinuous wood structure is clad in horizontal bands of candy-colored, enameled glass panels, in shades of green, red and blue. The pattern, it turns out, is carefully tuned to the surrounding environment: the green reflects a nearby park; the red, the brick facades of an industrial shed; and the blue, the sky.