November 30, 2007
National Geographic Photography Contest Winners
There were several categories; here are some examples that I liked:
People. Paint-splattered Ugandan Boy:
Landscape. Santa Monica Oceanfront Houses:
Animal. Male Gorilla:
There are many more photographs here. [Thanks to Marilyn Terrell.]
Cosma's Last Words on Saletan on Race and IQ
Over at three-toed sloth:
[L]et me back up a minute to the bit about relying on "peer review and rebuttals to expose any relevant issue". There are two problems here.
One has to do with the fact that, as I said, it is really very easy to find the rebuttals showing that Rushton's papers, in particular, are a tragic waste of precious trees and disk-space. For example, in the very same issue of the very same journal as the paper by Rushton and Jensen which was one of Saletan's main sources, Richard Nisbett, one of the more important psychologists of our time, takes his turn banging his head against this particular wall. Or, again, if Saletan had been at all curious about the issue of head sizes, which seems to have impressed him so much, it would have taken about five minutes with Google Scholar to find a demonstration that this is crap. So I really have no idea what Saletan means when he claimed he relied on published rebuttals — did he think they would just crawl into his lap and sit there, meowing to be read? If I had to guess, I'd say that the most likely explanation of Saletan's writings is that he spent a few minutes with a search engine looking for hits on racial differences in intelligence, took the first few blogs and papers he found that way as The Emerging Scientific Consensus, and then stopped. But detailed inquiry into just how he managed to screw up so badly seems unprofitable.
The other problem with his supposed reliance on peer review is that he seems confused about how that institution works. I won't rehash what I've already said about it, but only remark that passing peer review is better understood as saying a paper is not obviously wrong, not obviously redundant and not obviously boring, rather than as saying it's correct, innovative and important. Even this misses a deeper problem, a possible failure mode of the scientific community. A journal's peer review is only as good as the peers it uses as reviewers. If everyone, or almost everyone, who referees for some journal is in the grip of the same mistake, then they will not catch it in papers they review, and the journal will propagate it. In fact, since journals usually recruit new referees from their published authors or people recommended by old referees, mistakes and delusions can become endemic and self-confirming in epistemic communities associated with particular journals. To give a concrete example, the community using Physica A is pretty uniformly (and demonstrably) mistaken about how to tell when something is a power-law distribution, so what that journal publishes about power laws is unreliable, and those who derive their training and information from that journal go on to propagate the errors. It would be easy to find even more extreme examples from the physical and mathematical sciences (especially, I must say, among journals published by Elsevier), but it would take too long to explain why they are wrong.
A Review of John Ashbery's Notes From the Air
Ange Mlinko examines the poetry of John Ashbery, in The Nation:
The one way Ashbery's poems may always be fruitfully read is as sheer ear candy. Just glancing through his titles will confirm this (my favorite: "Yes, Dr. Grenzmer, How May I Be of Assistance to You? What! You Say the Patient Has Escaped?"). Yet where literature is concerned, we're ardent believers in the instrumental: how else to explain why the poorest art in the world, with the least influence on American culture, is routinely made the scapegoat of all art's sins? Rock and roll halts no wars; therefore let us stone poets, goes the logic. Meanwhile, the fact that visual artists become millionaires in an art market fueled by a hedge-fund bubble fazes no one.
Caution: Ear candy may segue shockingly into the sublime, as in these lines from "Chinese Whispers":
The trees, the barren trees, have been described more than once.
Always they are taller, it seems, and the river passes them
without noticing. We, too, are taller,
our ceilings higher, our walls more tinctured
with telling frescoes, our dooryards both airier and vaguer,
according as time passes and weaves its minute deceptions in and out,
a secret thread.
Peace is a full stop.
And though we had some chance of slipping past the blockade,
now only time will consent to have anything to do with us,
for what purposes we do not know.
Exactly 100 years ago, Gustav Klimt's iconic portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, now enthroned in the Neue Galerie and possibly the most famous painting in New York, was exhibited in Vienna between two soulful and sinewy sculptures by the Belgian artist George Minne. Today, after a tumultuous century of world wars and totalitarian regimes, the two sculptures have turned up on the Upper East Side at the Neue Galerie. There, once again, they flank the ethereal Frau Bloch-Bauer.
more from the NY Sun here.
"I am an Israeli. I live in Jerusalem. I have a story, not yet finished, to tell." This is the opening line of David Shulman's powerful and memorable book, Dark Hope, a diary of four years of political activity in Israel and the Palestinian territories. It is a record of the author's intense involvement with a volunteer organization composed of Israeli Palestinians and Israeli Jews, called Ta'ayush, an Arabic term for "living together" or "life in common." The group was founded in October 2000, soon after the start of the second Palestinian intifada.
"This book aims," Shulman writes,
at showing something of the Israeli peace movement in action, on the basis of one individual's very limited experience.... I want to give you some sense of what it feels like to be part of this struggle and of why we do it.
Struggle with whom? Shulman explains:
Israel, like any society, has violent, sociopathic elements. What is unusual about the last four decades in Israel is that many destructive individuals have found a haven, complete with ideological legitimation, within the settlement enterprise. Here, in places like Chavat Maon, Itamar, Tapuach, and Hebron, they have, in effect, unfettered freedom to terrorize the local Palestinian population; to attack, shoot, injure, sometimes kill—all in the name of the alleged sanctity of the land and of the Jews' exclusive right to it.
His diary proceeds to show how this happens.
more from the NYRB here.
lying here grieving,
blow your nose;
get out of bed.
Pattern the day.
Remember with love.
Dance jigs of joy
in your versatile
Sing love songs,
even if off-key.
Morning pills,3 with a glass of water.
Vision new scenes.
The curtain stays up.
You're still on stage.
Why Beauty is Truth
David W. Farmer in American Scientist:
Symmetry is a fundamental concept pervading both science and culture. In popular terms, symmetry is often viewed as a kind of "balance," as when Doris Day's character in the 1951 movie On Moonlight Bay insists that if her beau kisses her on the right cheek, then he should kiss her on the left cheek too. But in mathematics, symmetry has been given a more precise meaning. In his new history of mathematical symmetry, Why Beauty Is Truth, Ian Stewart gives this definition: "A symmetry of some mathematical object is a transformation that preserves the object's structure." So a symmetrical structure looks the same before and after you do something to it. A butterfly looks the same as its mirror image. The (idealized) wheel of a car may look the same after being rotated on its axle by 90 degrees (or possibly by 72 or 120 degrees, depending on the particular design).
Although mathematical symmetry may bring to mind a regular polygon or other geometric pattern, its roots (pun unavoidable) lie in algebra, in the solutions to polynomial equations. Thus Stewart begins his account in ancient Babylon with the solution to quadratic equations. The familiar quadratic formula gives the two roots of the degree-two polynomial equation ax 2 + bx + c = 0. The Babylonians didn't have the algebraic notation to write down such a formula, but they had a recipe that was equivalent to it.
Blue Blood, Black Genes
From The Washington Post:
Several years ago, Edward Ball took possession of an ancient family desk and discovered something in a locked compartment that to him must have seemed almost predestined. He found a collection of carefully labeled and dated locks of hair from nine of his 19th-century relatives, the oldest specimen dating from 1824. Ball was uniquely qualified to explore the implications of such a trove: His 1998 book Slaves in the Family was a National Book Award-winning investigation into his white ancestors' dealings with their African slaves. Now he held in his hands the means to take that exploration a giant step further. Perhaps modern DNA analysis of his ancestors' hair could provide evidence of unsuspected liaisons, redraw the tree of genetic relationships, and deepen Ball's understanding of his family's story and his own identity.
The Genetic Strand is the tale of Ball's efforts to extract truth from these preserved hair specimens, and of what he learned about the power and pitfalls of DNA testing as a tool for exploring ancestry. The book engagingly switches back and forth between history and science, alternating anecdotes from the lives of the family members with visits to the labs of the various biologists who assist Ball with his genetic quest.
Why do men like porn more?
Faye Flam in The Philadelphia Inquirer:
Neurobiologist and anthropologist Michael Platt of Duke University is studying differences in how the sexes respond to pictures in general. On average, his research shows, men will pay to see images of women. But you have to pay women to look at images of men!
Platt started with similar studies in monkeys. While most animals are indifferent to photos even of individuals in their own species, monkeys and apes respond to pictures much as humans do.
Rhesus macaques that Platt studied, for example, easily recognized the faces of familiar monkeys. And they liked some faces more than others, though the face wasn't always the favorite part.
Platt found that male macaques strongly preferred to look at pictures of females' rear ends and dominant males' faces. They liked them enough to pay, by sacrificing a chance to get a treat. But you had to bribe those same monkeys with treats to persuade them to look at female macaque faces or the faces of subordinate males.
Yehudi Menuhin plays Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 5
Are Aliens Among Us?
From Scientific American:
If, as many scientists believe, life can readily emerge under the right environmental conditions, it is possible that life arose on Earth more than once. Researchers are now seeking evidence of a second genesis by searching for exotic microbes that are biochemically different from all known organisms. In this image, artist Adam Questell has imagined an alien cell that carries its genetic material in twin nuclei.
Are the family clichés true?
Steve Connor in The Independent:
The difficult middle child, the spoilt only child, the wayward baby; few of us escape being labelled according to some sort of sibling stereotype. But what, really, are we to believe about the role our position in the family plays in determining our personality? Are the stereotypes true – or is the psychology of birth order just a load of hokum?
New research undertaken by scientists at the University of Oslo would suggest that there is, in fact, a good deal of truth in our family folklore. Using the IQ tests taken from the military records of 241,310 Norwegian conscripts, the scientists have found that eldest siblings are, on average, significantly "more intelligent" than second-borns. It may not seem like much, but 2.3 points on the IQ scale – the average difference between first and second siblings – could be enough to determine whether or not someone gets into a good college.
But what is equally intriguing about this study, which carries the kudos of having being published in the peer-review journal Science, is the way the scientists have tried to tease apart the possible reasons for this difference. Is it something that begins with gestation in the womb, or is it just the way siblings are reared within the family?
November 29, 2007
In the News: Turkey Considering Prosecuting Publisher of God Delusion
In the International Herald Tribune:
A prosecutor is investigating whether to prosecute the Turkish publisher of a best-selling book by atheist writer Richard Dawkins for inciting religious hatred, reports said Wednesday.
Publisher Erol Karaaslan said Wednesday he would be questioned by an Istanbul prosecutor as part of an official investigation into "The God Delusion" written by the British expert in evolutionary biology.
The investigation follows controversy about free speech in Turkey after Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk went on trial in 2005 over comments about historic abuses in Turkey.
Karaaslan could go on trial if the prosecutor concludes the book incites religious hatred and insults religious values, and faces up to one year in prison if found guilty, Milliyet newspaper reported.
The prosecutor started the inquiry into the book after one reader complained that passages in the book were an assault on "sacred values," Karaaslan said.
More Debates on Academic Boycotts
First, the analogy between Israel-Palestine and the cases Nussbaum discusses is weak. Although Nussbaum’s strategies may work well in other contexts, they are unlikely to have an impact on the situation in Israel-Palestine...Second, I will show that boycotts are not “blunt instruments” that target institutions and all their members. Boycotts can be structured so as to censure and isolate institutions while preserving the academic freedom of individuals—whatever their political views.
So far as I can see, then, Abed’s proposal amounts to a boycott only in the sense that it asks foreign academics not to give lectures or hold conferences inside Israel. At the APA, he proposed that those invited to such conferences should ask that they be relocated to a Palestinian venue. I think that this is often a good idea, but not always. A conference on social justice could usefully be relocated, and all involved would be likely to profit from the experience of meeting in East Jerusalem or on the West Bank. By contrast, a lecture I plan to give at Hebrew University this December, in memory of a scholar who dedicated his career to rabbinical education, could not plausibly be relocated, since rabbinical education is not a topic on which Palestinian academics focus; to lecture on that topic on the West Bank would be utterly bizarre.
Soutine, Perhaps the Most Underrated Artist of the 20th century
Who was Soutine? Two self-portraits here, “Auto-portrait au rideau”, where the young artist peers out shyly from a swathe of coats and scarfs, and “Grotesque”, where his irregular features, bulbous nose and fleshy lips are monstrously exaggerated and blurred into a Baconian image of violent despair, share a hungry, piercing look that attests both to physical wretchedness and an exalted, truth-seeking spirituality.
It is no accident that Soutine returned repeatedly to two types in his portraits: the pâtissier and the choir boy, purveyors of earthly and holy nourishment. Of the latter, this show has the wonderful example from the Obersteg Collection, “L’Enfant du Choeur”: cassock streaky red and white, delicate as filigree but brutal in its vitality against a sonorous blue; twisted face fragile, remote, vulnerable, without sentimentality as in all Soutine’s portraits. Rather, his art has an innocent gravity, its ringing contrasts and heavy layers redolent of Old Masters and of metaphysical longing.
Hunger, seriousness, lack of irony, all were legacies of the dirt-poor Hassidic upbringing, with its ban on graven images, from which Soutine fled. Arriving in Paris, he painted a plate of herrings, an open-mouthed fish swooning between a fork and a vase of flowers, a luscious red cabbage against a white jug, with the hallucinatory fervour of a man still starving.
All About G.V. Desani's All About H. Hatter
In the NY Sun, Hua Hsu on my favorite 20th century novel in the vernacular, sort of:
Few novels open with warnings, and courageous is the writer who opens with a warning about how the 300 pages to follow never cohere into a novel, but mingle instead at the rank of a "gesture." (This cautionary note did not appear in the original edition, but it accompanied editions from the 1970s on.) It is a perfect way to enter Desani's profoundly self-aware world, one in which the language indeed gestures at its own playful impurity, its own lack of regard for etiquette. The sentences aren't instruments of the plot. Their odd juxtapositions and careful rhythms index a different story, coalescing off the page, of a brilliant writer embracing the once-pejorative identity of the mongrel-linguist with style, pride, and wit: "I write rigmarole English, staining your goodly godly tongue, maybe: but, friend, I forsook my Form, School and Head, while you stuck to yours, learning reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic." It's the language of someone who has mastered the rules, just for fun. But submit to them? As a footnote midway through the book blurts: "Don't be ridick!"
Throughout his quest, Hatterr makes frequent reference to the fine tradition of British literature. But his self-deprecating kowtowing obscures his sly disrespect for traditions and protocol. Early on, Hatterr tries to size himself up against one of the language's greatest talents. "To hell with kittens, I am not literary, I admit you that. But I tell you, man, I have seen more Life than that feller Shakespeare! Things happen to me with accents on 'em! If I were to tell all, right from the au commencement to the la terminaison of my life-story, I should like to see some honest critic pronounce me an inferior to Shakespeare!" Given the situations Hatterr will soon find himself in, it's not an unreasonable boast. And yet Hatterr's lecture swells and swells until it reaches its simple and true punch line: "If you want to remain sane, man, keep off the libido!"
the imposition of tolerance
Life within the monastery flows smoothly. The same cannot be said for what happened “outside” the walls of Visoki. The point is that the area of Decani, stronghold of the ex-commander of the UCK (The Kosovan Liberation Army) Ramush Haradinaj, now under trial in Aja for war crimes, has been the stage for a certosina work of counter-ethnic cleansing, which forced the Serbs, ground down, threatened and downtrodden, to emigrate after the bloody two-year period of ’98-’99. Visoki is like a dot in the ocean, it is a small Serbian bastion sinking right in the middle of ethnically pure and monolithic territories. This entails particular attention on the part of the Italian military of the KFOR, the NATO contingent. Our soldiers, stationed in the “Italian Village”, at the gates of Pec, guard the entrance to the monastery, minute by minute.
Already on several occasions Albanian nationalists have thrown mortar fire on the surrounding wall of Visoki. Problems of ethnic intolerance, of contraband (the monastery “obstructs” the way to the mountain passes which lead into Montenegro and Albania) and of extra-territoriality. This last concept represents one of the cardinals of the relationship established a few months ago by Martii Ahtisaari, ex UN special envoy for Kosovo, in charge of negotiating the future socio-political organisation of the province, formally still Serbia, according to the meaning of resolution 1244 of the UN Security Council. Ahtisaari has provided extra-territorial status for Serbian churches and monasteries, similar to those given to embassies. An instrument capable of protecting the artistic and cultural patrimony of Kosovo from Albanian rage and of guaranteeing that Serb popes can continue to spread their word, even in a foreign land (the Ahtisaari plan supports the independence of Kosovo).
more from Reset's Kosovo debate here.
the english do poetry
HERE are two opening lines:
“Give me my scallop-shell of quiet,”
“Lord, the Roman hycinths are blooming in bowls and”
The first is from Walter Raleigh’s ‘The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage’, the second from T.S. Eliot’s ‘A Song for Simeon’. I quote them here solely because they both send a shiver down my spine. I could try to explain why – that haunting sc-sh-qw sound in the Raleigh, or the odd, unexpected stillness of the Eliot line caused, I think, by ‘in bowls’ and that hanging ‘and’ – but, in truth, my shiver comes from wells deeper than those plumbed by practical criticism. It comes from being and speaking English.
It is unfashionable to speak of national characteristics. Queasy types think it is akin to racism. But the truth is that nations are definably different. Most importantly, they differ in what they do best. No nation has produced better essayists than France, none has produced better composers that the Germans, better painters than the Italians, nor better novelists than the Russians. America invented jazz and still masters the form and, though some may dissent, her record in film is unsurpassed. And the English? The English do poetry.
more from The Liberal here.
fleming v Zemeckis
To solicit from a medievalist a review of Robert Zemeckis's Beowulf is to pick a quarrel unlikely to be evaded. The eminent Cambridge classicist Richard Bentley famously put down Alexander Pope's translation of Greek epic with a single sentence: "It is a pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer." "Pretty" is not the first adjective I would choose to describe Zemeckis's Beowulf. Fantastic, amazing, preposterous, corny from springing leaf to ripening ear, technically brilliant perhaps, enjoyable after a fashion--but "pretty," no. This Beowulf is all about the animated monsters. Grendel appears to be a very large version of Freddy Krueger made of Kevlar papier-maché. (His submerged "identity" as Crispin Glover is too faint to deserve mention.) He roars, rips, eats people head-first, then drools in probably symbolic fashion over the supine body of Robin Wright Penn. I mean, like, gross. The huge final flying dragon, wing-flapper, maiden-threatener, buttress-buster, more flame-thrower than fire-breather, is one mean worm. Years from now the film may well claim at least an honorable mention in cinematic history for its increment in the effects of animation through "motion capture." So far as more ordinary history goes, it has a lot to answer for.
more from TNR here.
wild, wild east
When I first moved to Moscow in the early 1990s, my friend Dasha gave me a gift-wrapped video. "Watch this," she said. "It was made years ago but it will help you understand our country." I assumed it was a melancholy epic by Andrei Tarkovsky, with lingering shots through rain-splattered windows, or perhaps a revolutionary classic such as Battleship Potemkin.
When I unwrapped the paper and looked at the cover, I found a man in a grubby white uniform surrounded by sand dunes. "White Sun of the Desert," said Dasha. "It's a Soviet-style cowboy film. The best one ever made."
more from The New Statesman here.
A.S. Byatt ruminates
Thomas Pavel once gave a splendid paper on the changes in the presentation of human nature during the history of the novel. In the beginning, he said, characters had immortal souls, and their actions took place in a battle between good and evil for the salvation or damnation of these souls. In later sentimental novels, souls had been replaced by hearts; what mattered was romantic love, and the recognition of other selves. Later still, he said, the heart had been replaced by the psyche – a system of unconscious drives, revealed in dreams, not clear to the characters, though controlled by the author, who like the analyst, understood the forms of energy and action. Iris Murdoch felt that humans – including those of her characters who were philosophers and psychoanalysts – had not understood the shift in the moral world that had come about with the absconding of God, the vanishing of external, metaphysical moral authority. Her analysts tend to be daemonic, manipulating what she described as a “system” and a “mechanism” of sadomasochism.
more from the TLS here.
The Secret to Raising Smart Kids
From Scientific American:
Hint: Don't tell your kids that they are. More than three decades of research shows that a focus on effort—not on intelligence or ability—is key to success in school and in life
- Many people assume that superior intelligence or ability is a key to success. But more than three decades of research shows that an overemphasis on intellect or talent—and the implication that such traits are innate and fixed—leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unmotivated to learn.
- Teaching people to have a “growth mind-set,” which encourages a focus on effort rather than on intelligence or talent, produces high achievers in school and in life.
- Parents and teachers can engender a growth mind-set in children by praising them for their effort or persistence (rather than for their intelligence), by telling success stories that emphasize hard work and love of learning, and by teaching them about the brain as a learning machine.
Red wine mimic can fight diabetes
An extract of red wine, resveratrol, is known to temper the damage done by fatty diets, helping to extend healthy life and battle fat-related disease. But tests in mice have suggested that gallons of vino or a super-sized pill would be necessary for humans to stand a chance of getting the same benefits. Now scientists have discovered several chemicals that mimic resveratrol but have positive effects at more modest doses. The drugs have already been shown to do as well as another type 2 diabetes treatment in rodent tests of the disease, and will soon be tested in people. The drugs could be an alternative to diabetes treatments such as Avandia (rosiglitazone) that lower blood sugar but have caused heart problems for some.
November 28, 2007
Also on Blake's 250th, Terry Eagleton on What Blake Has to Teach Us About Politics
In the Guardian:
Blake grew up in a lower-middle-class Christian milieu. But the culture from which Blake sprang was one of the most precious Britain has produced, in which Jacobin artisans and Republican booksellers rubbed shoulders with Dissenting preachers and occult philosophers; the country was effectively a police state, ridden with spies and hunger rioters. Brown's Britain is not yet a police state, but its technologies of spying and surveillance surpass the wildest dreams of the autocrats of Blake's day. Blake himself was tried for sedition and acquitted, having allegedly cried in public: "Damn the king and his country!" Today whole sectors of the labour movement bow the knee to monarchy, or at least tolerate it as a minor irritant. The history of labour from Blake to Brown is, among other things, how dissent became domesticated.
Blake's politics were not just a matter of wishful thinking, as so many radical schemes are today. Across the Atlantic one great anti-colonial revolution had held out the promise of liberty, and to the poet's delight another had broken out in the streets of Paris. Together they promised to bring an end to the rule of state and church - "the Beast and the Whore", as Blake knew them. Most of our own writers, however, seem to know little of politics beyond the value of individual liberties.
On William Blake's 250th, A Poem
Today is the 250th birthday of William Blake, one the greatest poets in the English language. So on this occassion, "Hear The Voice":
[H/t: Maeve Adams]
HEAR the voice of the Bard,
Who present, past, and future, sees;
Whose ears have heard
The Holy Word
That walk'd among the ancient trees;
Calling the lapsèd soul,
And weeping in the evening dew;
That might control
The starry pole,
And fallen, fallen light renew!
'O Earth, O Earth, return!
Arise from out the dewy grass!
Night is worn,
And the morn
Rises from the slumbrous mass.
'Turn away no more;
Why wilt thou turn away?
The starry floor,
The watery shore,
Is given thee till the break of day.'
Yevgeny Yevtushenko in the 21st Century
Chris Ross over at Bookslut:
Yevgeny Yevtushenko was playing cards with his wife and mother when the phone rang. The year was 1961 and Yevtushenko had just published the controversial poem “Babi Yar,” which recounted the massacre of Kiev’s Jewish population, a topic conspicuously unacknowledged by Soviet officials. Believing Yevtushenko’s life to be in danger, members of the University of Moscow basketball team appointed themselves his personal bodyguards and slept on his stairs at night.
The poet’s wife returned from answering the phone, annoyed. Someone had just called introducing himself as the famous Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovich. Then the phone ran again. Yevtushenko answered and a man with a soft voice introduced himself as Shostakovich and addressed the poet by his familiar patronymic. “Yevgeny Alexander," said Shostakovich, “I’m sorry to interrupt, I know you must be very busy. I love your poem ‘Babi Yar,’ very much. I was wondering if you would permit me to compose some music inspired by the poem.” Nearly speechless, the young Yevtushenko replied that he would be honored. “Good,” said Shostakovich. “The piece is already written.” It was the legendary Symphony 13, and the poem catapulted Yevtushenko into worldwide literary celebrity. After touring throughout Russia and the United States, Yevtushenko was featured on the cover of Time in 1962 as the face of Soviet Russia's newfound freedom of expression.
But today, Yevtushenko seems to regard the maturing of his legacy with a wary eye. Since the 1980s, critics have raised serious doubts about Yevtushenko’s dissident reputation. When he was elected as an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, fellow poet Joseph Brodsky resigned in protest, calling Yevtushenko a party yes-man and insisting, “He throws stones only in directions that are officially sanctioned and approved.” Others have unfavorably compared his poetry, declamatory and at times childishly earnest, to the formal innovations of his contemporaries. But at 74, Yevtushenko has not abandoned his sincerity, nor does he appear prepared to check out quite yet. The title of his forthcoming collection of memoirs, Schestu Decatnik (Sixties Parachute Man) is a neologism likening Yevtushenko’s confrontation with the present to that of a Green Beret soldier parachuting into enemy territory -- the surreal landscape of the 21st century.
Anthony Lake on Brangelina vs. Chinese Mercantilism in Africa
New Perspectives Quarterly interviews former National Security Adviser Anthony Lake:
NPQ | Some say China today is the new colonialist and neo-imperialist—extracting African resources directly or unequally trading manufactured goods for resources. Others say, or at least hope, that China is a “co-partner” in development without colonial history, helping to build infrastructure and create jobs in Africa.
On balance, which of these pictures is more accurate in your view?
Anthony Lake | I would rather call it a classic mercantilist policy. China is using infrastructural/developmental projects as a means of buying influence in the pursuit of its commercial interests and particularly in the pursuit of its interests in acquiring energy resources. We have begun to see the beginning of a backlash in Africa against China’s presence, but, in general, it’s working.
Also, China offers political support to reprehensible regimes, and engages in business practices that are often unethical and, I suspect, would be illegal for American companies.
In my view, China is driven less by geo-political ambitions in Africa than by the growing need to protect its commercial interests and need for the continent’s energy resources. Examples of China’s growing economic interests in Africa include: China’s oil imports from Africa account today for 30 percent of its total external oil dependence; in 2006, Angola surpassed Saudi Arabia to become China’s leading external supplier of oil; and as of mid-2006 the total amount of the Chinese Export-Import bank loans to Africa is valued at over $12.5 billion in infrastructural development alone.
Documentary on Buddhist Monks' Fight Against AIDS in Cambodia
At PBS Frontline:
[H/t: Lisa Guidetti]
Genocide trials have begun in Cambodia for the surviving leaders and officials of the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror in the 1970s. The "killing fields" of that era are what Cambodia is most known for internationally. But for years, the country has quietly held another frightening distinction: The nation with the highest AIDS rate in Asia.
AIDS was first identified in Cambodia in 1993. The virus spread quickly, with Cambodia's sex industry fueling the epidemic. To make matters worse, the nation's health care system, still reeling from the Khmer Rouge, struggled to respond. By some accounts, the regime left fewer than a dozen doctors in the entire country, which had an estimated population of 6.3 million. By 1997, Cambodia's HIV/AIDS infection rates had reached 3 percent of the population. Today, UNAIDS, the joint United Nations program to combat the AIDS epidemic, places that number at 1.6 percent. I went to Cambodia to explore the factors leading to the decline.
By the late 1990s, the Cambodian government had begun to tackle the crisis head on, freely enlisting aid from international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and turning to a surprising local source -- Cambodia's community of Buddhist monks.
Viruses can provide answers to questions we have never even asked
Villarreal predicts that, without an effective AIDS vaccine, nearly the entire population of Africa will eventually perish. “We can also expect at least a few humans to survive,’’ he wrote. They would be people who have been infected with H.I.V. yet, for some reason, do not get sick. “These survivors would thus be left to repopulate the continent. However, the resulting human population would be distinct” from those whom H.I.V. makes sick. These people would have acquired some combination of genes that confers resistance to H.I.V. There are already examples of specific mutations that seem to protect people against the virus. (For H.I.V. to infect immune cells, for example, it must normally dock with a receptor that sits on the surface of those cells. There are people, though, whose genes instruct them to build defective receptors. Those with two copies of that defect, one from each parent, are resistant to H.I.V. infection no matter how often they are exposed to the virus.) The process might take tens, or even hundreds, of thousands of years, but Darwinian selection would ultimately favor such mutations, and provide the opportunity for the evolution of a fitter human population. “If this were to be the outcome,’’ Villarreal wrote, “we would see a new species of human, marked by its newly acquired endogenous viruses.” The difference between us and this new species would be much like the difference that we know exists between humans and chimpanzees.
For Villarreal, and a growing number of like-minded scientists, the conclusion is clear. “Viruses may well be the unseen creator that most likely did contribute to making us human.”
more from The New Yorker here.
claustrophobia meets agoraphobia
Urs Fischer has reduced Gavin Brown’s Enterprise to a hole in the ground, and it is one of the most splendid things to have happened in a New York gallery in a while. Experientially rich, buzzing with energy and entropy, crammed with chaos and contradiction, and topped off with the saga of subversion that is central both to the history of the empty-gallery-as-a-work-of-art but also to the Gavin Brown experience itself, this work is brimming with meaning and mojo. It was also a Herculean project.
A 38-foot-by-30-foot crater, eight feet deep, extends almost to the walls of the gallery, surrounded by a fourteen-inch ledge of concrete floor. A sign at the door cautions, THE INSTALLATION IS PHYSICALLY DANGEROUS AND INHERENTLY INVOLVES THE RISK OF SERIOUS INJURY OR DEATH; intrepid viewers can, all the same, inch their way around the hole.
more from New York Magazine here.
to make the invisible visible
There is a watercolour so magical in The Age of Enchantment that you really cannot see how it is done. By the great Edmund Dulac, it is a vision of Circe on a balcony overlooking a moonlit sea upon which Odysseus approaches in his boat. Circe's pet leopards have already fallen glassy-eyed under the spell that will soon overwhelm the sailors and all is dangerously becalmed. Nothing moves except for the powdery smoke rising from an incense burner. This burner gleams gold, and yet no gold is used in the picture. The silver stars are not made with paint, so one guesses they must be invisibly tiny pinpricks of bare paper. Though everything has its own colour, from the leopards' yellow to the lilac of Circe's gown, the entire painting is somehow a deep misty blue and the smoke seems to flow right out of the image. How these effects were produced is a mystery to the eye; if the scene is enchanted, then so is the picture.
more from The Guardian here.
Nanoparticles Enable Surgical Strikes against Cancer
From Scientific American:
A team of researchers, led by Sangeeta Bhatia, an associate professor at HST and in M.I.T.'s department of electrical engineering and computer science, report in Advanced Materials that they have developed and tested injectable multifunctional nanoparticles—particles billionths of a meter in size—that they expect to become a new, potent weapon against cancer. (To provide some perspective, the width of a human hair is about 80,000 nanometers, or 0.003 inches.)
Nanoparticles could help treat cancer in a number of ways. They could be introduced into the bloodstream to locate and map tumors so that physicians would know what they were up against. Nanoparticles could also be designed to carry a payload of drugs that could be released near or even inside tumors to shrink or eliminate them. HST researchers have experimented with polymer-coated iron oxide nanoparticles held together by DNA tethers to help them create a visual image of a tumor through magnetic resonance imaging. To test the particles, the researchers implanted mice with a tumorlike gel saturated with nanoparticles and placed those mice into the wells of cup-shaped electrical coils, which activated the nanoparticles via magnetic pulses. Exposing the nanoparticles to a low-frequency electromagnetic field causes them to radiate heat that, in turn, erases the tethers and releases the drugs.
Why Aren’t You Beautiful?
Natural selection, we’re told, is the process by which nature promotes our best qualities. But a look around strains that notion. If nature selects health, beauty, and intelligence, why are most of us far from flawless?
It may be because genes involved in reproduction work against themselves in opposite sexes across generations, says biologist Katharina Foerster at the University of Edinburgh. In her study of eight generations of red deer in Scotland, she noticed a curious pattern: The most prolific male deer sired daughters that tended to have fewer offspring, while the worst male breeders (the deer equivalent of ugly) fathered females that had more offspring. This is evidence, Foerster says, of sexually antagonistic genes. The same gene that makes a buck sexually successful can leave his daughter behind.
November 27, 2007
A Review of Collier's The Bottom Billion
William Easterly reviews the book in The Lancet.
Collier does mention that causality between actions and outcomes usually fl ows in both directions, but never explains how he then establishes the causal eff ect of actions on outcomes that form the basis for his remarkably confi dent statements.
There are also lots of other tricky problems, like controlling for other factors that might be triggering both foreign actions and local outcomes—say, good or bad weather, or collapsing or soaring commodity prices. The apparent eff ect of an aid action may just be a stand-in for some other factor—for example, an economic recovery after a drought may occur at the same time as the usually tardy drought-related foreign aid arrives, generating a spurious correlation between aid and economic recovery. Controlling for third factors is both crucial and diffi cult, yet again Collier has little to enlighten the reader about just how he arrived at his assertions on which actions cause which outcomes.
Others have noticed these problems. Much of Collier’s civil war research was done when he was at the World Bank. A later evaluation of World Bank research by a blue-ribbon panel of economists, led by Angus Deaton of Princeton, singled out Collier’s civil war research for criticism on these same grounds. Deaton’s panel concluded that the “analyses in these studies cannot be used to support the conclusions that they ostensibly reach”. Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Daron Acemoglu was part of the panel and wrote the evaluation of the civil war work, saying “the correlations that are interpreted as causal eff ects are really no more than correlations”.
The problem of correlation versus causation pervades the book. “The bottom billion” are—no surprise—poor. Again, Collier presumes poverty causes war (what he calls a “conflict trap”). Poverty and war do seem to go together, but Collier fails to offer convincing evidence that a given amount of poverty relief (however that would be accomplished) would cause reduced war. And the threat of spurious correlation is still a problem, as poverty and civil war may go together only because they are both symptoms of deeper problems, like Africa’s weak states, ethnic antagonisms, and the legacy of the slave trade and colonial exploitation. His shaky analysis leads to real world advice (like foreign military intervention to break the “conflict trap”) that could be tragically wrong.
What Use is Foreign Aid?
At the Heyman Center, William Easterly, Peter Singer and Joseph Stiglitz discuss:
G. A. Cohen on A Truth in Conservatism
Via Henry Farrell, over at the Political Theory Workshop:
I have for decades harboured strongly conservative, that is, strongly small-c conservative, opinions, on many matters that are not matters of justice, and I here mount an exposition and defence of what I believe to be my widely, although perhaps not universally, shared, conservative attitude. (I do not have conservative views about matters of justice because what conservatives like me want to conserve is that which has intrinsic value, and injustice lacks intrinsic value2 (and has, indeed, intrinsic disvalue). I shall say something in section 7 about the relationship between small-c conservatism and large-C Conservatives, many of whom are indeed devoted to conserving injustice.)
I am a kind of conservative not only in that I have the strong small-c conservative attitude that I shall describe, but also in that I endorse certain conservative factual assessments according to which a lot of valuable things have been disappearing lately. I join the ranks of the complainers down the ages who say: “Things ain’t what they used to be.”
Do not suppose that, because that lamentation is perennial, it’s misplaced. Anticonservatives say, “Oh, well, people have always said that things are getting worse”, and anti-conservatives mean thereby to convey that the conservative lamentation expresses an illusion.
For those of you who missed it a few days ago, here's Larry Summers' piece that spells out the potential nightmare rushing towards us in the form of a meltdown in the financial markets.
Even if necessary changes in policy are implemented, the odds now favour a US recession that slows growth significantly on a global basis. Without stronger policy responses than have been observed to date, moreover, there is the risk that the adverse impacts will be felt for the rest of this decade and beyond.
Several streams of data indicate how much more serious the situation is than was clear a few months ago. First, forward-looking indicators suggest that the housing sector may be in free-fall from what felt like the basement levels of a few months ago. Single family home construction may be down over the next year by as much as half from previous peak levels. There are forecasts implied by at least one property derivatives market indicating that nationwide house prices could fall from their previous peaks by as much as 25 per cent over the next several years.
We do not have comparable experiences on which to base predictions about what this will mean for the overall economy, but it is hard to believe declines of anything like this magnitude will not lead to a dramatic slowing in the consumer spending that has driven the economy in recent years.
Second, it is now clear that only a small part of the financial distress that must be worked through has yet been faced. On even the most optimistic estimates, the rate of foreclosure will more than double over the next year as rates reset on subprime mortgages and home values fall. Estimates vary, but there is nearly universal agreement that – if all assets were marked to market valuations – total losses in the American financial sector would be several times the $50bn or so in write-downs that have already been announced by big financial institutions. These figures take no account of the likelihood that losses will spread to the credit card, auto and commercial property sectors. Nor do they recognise the large volume of financial instruments that depend for their high ratings on guarantees provided by credit insurers whose own health is now very much in doubt.
coppola: "This is kind of my Tennessee Williams period"
Visiting Francis Ford Coppola one day this summer on his impossibly picturesque 1,650-acre estate in the Napa Valley, where 235 of those acres are planted with grapevines whose fruit was ripening in the noontime sun—the morning fog had just started to burn off—I couldn’t help thinking that Orson Welles should have made wine, too. He only got as far as shilling for it in those corny old Paul Masson commercials that were endlessly parodied in the late 70s and early 80s. (Oleaginous basso voice: “What Paul Masson said nearly a century ago is still true today: We will sell no wine before its time.”) Welles died in 1985 at the age of 70. He spent his last decades scrounging for money to complete unfinished films, scrounging for more money to initiate new ones, and debasing his talent by acting in god-awful movies, TV shows, and commercials—shortly before his death he provided the voice for Unicron in the original, 1986 Transformers movie—in order to keep his head above water. This was not the ending anyone aside from William Randolph Hearst would have wished on him. Coppola, for his part, is now 68. It seems fair to say that he is one of the few American film directors who can match Welles both for talent and for showmanship—for sheer cinematic nerve. Like Welles, he is also no stranger to grandiosity, bunkum, overreach, self-immolation, and red ink. Unlike Welles, and thanks in no small part to those vineyards, his story looks to have a happier dénouement.
more from Vanity Fair here.
Back then, space was the place where you took on the Man
Were American science-fiction movies ever as fertile and frantic as they were in the 1970s? The one-two punch of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" and Franklin J. Schaffner's "Planet of the Apes" in 1968 kicked off more than a decade's worth of sci-fi flicks that were tough, smart, and full of ferocious social commentary. Goodbye to '60s trash such as "Robinson Crusoe on Mars" and hello to '70s social satire such as "A Clockwork Orange," "The Stepford Wives," and Woody Allen's "Sleeper." It was an era when producing a big-budget version of Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five" seemed like a good idea, but it also sowed the seeds of its own destruction, birthing four film franchises — "Star Wars," "Star Trek," "Mad Max," and "Alien" — that would deliver diminishing returns throughout the '80s and usher in the era of immense merchandising that saw smart sci-fi movies mutate into idea-deficient blockbusters.
more from the NY Sun here.
the Nau conspiracy
The North American Union is a supranational organization, modeled on the European Union, that will soon fuse Canada, the United States, and Mexico into a single economic and political unit. The details are still being worked out by the countries' leaders, but the NAU's central governing body will have the power to nullify the laws of its member states. Goods and people will flow among the three countries unimpeded, aided by a network of continent-girdling superhighways. The US and Canadian dollars, along with the peso, will be phased out and replaced by a common North American currency called the amero.
If you haven't heard about the NAU, that may be because its plotters have succeeded in keeping it secret. Or, more likely, because there is no such thing. Government officials say a continental union is out of the question, and economists and political analysts overwhelmingly agree that there will not be a North American Union in our lifetimes. But belief in the NAU - that the plans are very real, and that the nation is poised to lose its independence - has been spreading from its origins in the conservative fringe, coloring political press conferences and candidate question-and-answer sessions, and reaching a kind of critical mass on the campaign trail. Republican presidential candidate and Texas congressman Ron Paul has made the North American Union one of his central issues.
more from Boston Globe Ideas here.
The art, the poetry, the idiocy of YouTube street fights
Carlo Rotella in Slate:
I realize that this probably makes me a bad person, but I find the online archive of street fights to be edifying, even addictive, ripely endowed as it is with both the malign foolishness that tempts you to despise your fellow humans and occasional flashes of potent mystery that remind you not to give in to the temptation. There's an education in these videos—in how to fight and how not to fight, for starters (executive summary: Skip the preliminaries, strike first, and keep it coming), but also in how the human animal goes about the age-old business of aggression in the 21st century.
Here's the beginning of a guidebook, a preliminary sketch of some lessons to be learned in the land of a thousand asswhippings.
1) If you're going to pick a fight, or consent to such an invitation, know what you're getting into and be prepared for a fast start and a quick finish.
Squaring off for a street fight resembles questioning a witness in court: Like a lawyer (and unlike, say, an English professor), you should know the answer to your question before you ask it. The question is, "If we fight, who will win?" The answer frequently comes as a surprise to all involved.
For instance, this unfortunate guy picked a fight with the wrong motorist.
Scholar looks at abiding interest in the ‘Great American Novel’
From The Harvard Gazette:
Literary critics tend to discredit the concept of a “Great American Novel” as nothing more than media hype — an arbitrary appellation that has more to do with pipe dreams than merit. And yet, what would-be author hasn’t imagined, when putting pen to paper, what it would feel like to be hailed as the greatest chronicler of the age? For Lawrence Buell, Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, this contradiction is an important theme in the tradition of American fiction writing. Buell is currently tracing the history of the “Great American Novel” concept from the mid-1800s to the present day, in the hopes of unveiling why the ideal continues to exert cultural influence and invite such heated public debate. According to Buell, the idea of a Great American Novel was put into circulation immediately following the Civil War, as part of the reconciliation process. “It was a follow-up, in the cultural sphere, to political reunification,” Buell says. “There was a sense among Americans that ‘at last we have a nation, and it’s time to articulate that.’”
In modern times, Buell says, other 19th century novels such as “Moby Dick,” “The Scarlet Letter,” and “Huckleberry Finn” have become perennial nominees for the fabled title. Nominations of recent texts, however, seem to be more influenced by shifts in literary fashion. During the mid-20th century, for example, the fortunes of “The Great Gatsby” rose while John Dos Passos’ “U.S.A.” trilogy came to be seen as an outmoded period piece.
The Dance of Evolution, or How Art Got Its Start
Natalie Angier in The New York Times:
If you have ever been to a Jewish wedding, you know that sooner or later the ominous notes of “Hava Nagila” will sound, and you will be expected to dance the hora. And if you don’t really know how to dance the hora, you will nevertheless be compelled to join hands with others, stumble around in a circle, give little kicks and pretend to enjoy yourself, all the while wondering if there’s a word in Yiddish that means “she who stares pathetically at the feet of others because she is still trying to figure out how to dance the hora.” I am pleased and relieved to report that my flailing days are through. This month, in a freewheeling symposium at the University of Michigan on the evolutionary value of art and why we humans spend so much time at it, a number of the presenters supplemented their standard PowerPoint presentations with hands-on activities. Some members of the audience might have liked folding the origami boxes or scrawling messages on the floor, but for me the high point came when a neurobiologist taught us how to dance the hora. As we stepped together in klezmeric, well-schooled synchrony, I felt free and exhilarated. I felt competent and loved. I felt like calling my mother. I felt, it seems, just as a dancing body should.
In the main presentation at the conference, Ellen Dissanayake, an independent scholar affiliated with the University of Washington, Seattle, offered her sweeping thesis of the evolution of art, nimbly blending familiar themes with the radically new. By her reckoning, the artistic impulse is a human birthright, a trait so ancient, universal and persistent that it is almost surely innate.
The other day as I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room
bouncing from typewriter to piano
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
I found myself in the "L" section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word, Lanyard.
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one more suddenly into the past.
A past where I sat at a workbench
at a camp by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid thin plastic strips into a lanyard.
A gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard.
Or wear one, if that’s what you did with them.
But that did not keep me from crossing strand over strand
again and again until I had made a boxy, red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard
She nursed me in many a sick room, lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold facecloths on my forehead
then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim and I in turn presented her with a lanyard.
"Here are thousands of meals" she said,
"and here is clothing and a good education."
"And here is your lanyard," I replied,
"which I made with a little help from a counselor."
"Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth and two clear eyes to read the world." she whispered.
"And here," I said, "is the lanyard I made at camp."
"And here," I wish to say to her now,
"is a smaller gift. Not the archaic truth,
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took the two-toned lanyard from my hands,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless worthless thing I wove out of boredom
would be enough to make us even."
November 26, 2007
A Case of the Mondays: List of Most Overrated Things
I wrote this note on Facebook while feeling somewhat contrarian. My rule here is that everything has to have a large number of defenders, and as small as possible a number of detractors. Of course everything here is culture-dependent; when a category makes sense only within a specific culture, I went with the West, or the United States.
Literature: Shakespeare. If they read Dan Brown in four hundred years, they'll consider him profound, too.
Leaders: Churchill. He had a forty-year career as a military adventurer and an unabashed imperialist, and even during World War Two, he engaged in futile attempts to preserve the British Empire. And Giuliani, who took credit for things others did, and screwed up the few things that did fall under his responsibility.
Political movements: economic populism. It's more often than not a cover for authoritarianism; the sort of leaders who help the poor the most are moderate social democrats like Roosevelt and Lula, not firebrands like Huey Long and Hugo Chávez. And new atheism, whose leaders openly express their political cluelessness.
Political issues: the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Israel and Palestine have ten million people between them; Congo has sixty, Myanmar fifty, and Sudan forty. Nice priorities, people.
Linguistics: the universal grammar. Every time a language violates it, Chomskyite grammarians incorporate its additional rules into their universal grammar, as if falsifiability has gone out of style.
Science: evolutionary psychology. It's essentially a political reaction to academic Marxism, and about as rigorous as you'd expect from a politicized science.
Economics: Amartya Sen. Countries that follow his prescriptions may avoid famine, but none of them has achieved first world status. And Milton Friedman, whose economic prescriptions didn't actually cause famine, but came fairly close to that in Chile.
Social science: fill-in-the-blank studies. If e.g. gender studies departments were really about studying gender relations rather than making feminists feel good, there wouldn't be controversy whenever one of them appointed a male chair.
Philosophy: Peter Singer. His presentations about poverty and animal rights are as deep as my seventh grade geography textbooks, and about as interesting.
Popular science: ScienceBlogs. Politics gets more hits than science, so ScienceBlogs recruits screamers rather than interesting popularizers or important scientists.
Music: Elvis Presley. Even Britney Spears is less flashy and more talented.
Television: 24. Every season has been the worst season so far. Lost, which is a laundry list of clichés and plot holes. And Seinfeld, where the acting is so bad I could probably do better, and the writing is even worse.
Food: anything at a fancy restaurant. I'll grant fancy restaurants that they're tastier than McDonald's, but they're not any healthier, and they have nothing on small delis or homemade food.
Media: punditry. If I want someone to tell me how to think, it's easier to just look up his issue profile than to read his fact-free tirades.
Books: political advocacy. See under media. George Lakoff deserves singular scorn for his armchair analysis of conservatism, but none of the others is much better.
Academics: core curricula. If you care about something you'll take a class in it voluntarily; if you don't, you'll forget everything you learned five years down the line. And private schools at all levels, for being twice as expensive as equally good public schools.
Angels & Demons: Three Drafts from a Script Postponed
Surely the American public supports the Hollywood writers in their labor struggles and fervently hopes that the writers’ strike be made permanent. Writing is work, and work is a dignified contribution to society. Making someone write for CBS’s drama Cane is an inhumane labor practice and I hope this strike puts an end to it once and for all.
All joking aside, the Hollywood writer’s strike has already begun to affect not only television but also moviemaking. The first high-profile casualty, Angels & Demons, the Prequel to the Da Vinci Code, has been postponed by Sony Pictures because they haven’t yet ironed out the script. Now, all due respect to the scriptwriter, who was awarded an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind, a challenging adaptation from a nonfiction book. In perfect sincerity, adapting something as dumb as Angels & Demons is quite a difficult task. Scriptwriters are actually performing a public service in helping us not read this sort of book. They should receive the literary equivalent of “combat pay” for added trauma in the line of duty, which I’m sure takes months or years off their lives. The writers, of course, are entirely in the right in their labor dispute: if they are going to sacrifice themselves in this fashion, the least Hollywood can do is pay them fairly.
But about Angels & Demons. Its main character, Harvard "symbologist" Robert Langdon, is the same protagonist from The Da Vinci Code, although A&D was in fact written first. The two stories - calling them "novels" would be pretentious, they are fictionalized bargain-basement conspiracy theories - couldn't be more different. The secret society battling the Catholic Church in Angels & Demons is called The Illuminati, and its female lead is a mysterious and sexy Italian babe rather than a mysterious and sexy French babe.
Here is part of one of the opening chapters of Angels & Demons, excerpted from Dan Brown's official website:
Robert Langdon awoke with a start from his nightmare. The phone beside his bed was ringing. Dazed, he picked up the receiver.
"I'm looking for Robert Langdon," a man's voice said.
Langdon sat up in his empty bed [sic] and tried to clear his mind.
"This…is Robert Langdon."
He squinted at his digital clock. It was 5:18 A.M.
"I must see you immediately."
"Who is this?"
"My name is Maximilian Kohler. I'm a Discrete Particle Physicist."
I imagine the screenplay adaptation of this early, crucial scene was trying. Perhaps the first draft read something like this:
Langdon awakens from bed, dazed. A phone is ringing.
Kohler: I'm looking for Robert Langdon.
Langdon sits up, trying to clear his mind.
Langdon: This…is Robert Langdon.
Langdon squints at his digital clock: 5:18 A.M.
Kohler: I must see you immediately.
Langdon: Who is this?
Kohler: My name is Maximilian Kohler. I'm a Discrete Particle Physicist.
Okay, this needs some refining. The Hollywood Guild writer’s craft involves compression, the deft conveyance of information within an aura of suspense. Here’s a hypothetical second draft:
Langdon awakens from bed, dazed, and picks up a ringing phone.
Kohler: This is Maximilian Kohler. I'm a Discrete Particle Physicist. I'm looking for Robert Langdon.
Langdon sits up, trying to clear his mind.
Langdon: This…is Robert Langdon.
Langdon squints at his digital clock: 5:18 A.M.
Kohler: I must see you immediately.
By the third draft, a sort of buzzing elegance must pervade a Guild-quality script. Perhaps something like this will emerge after hours of painstaking work:
A phone rings. Robert Langdon awakens from bed, dazed, and squints at his digital clock: 5:18 A.M.
Kohler: Max Kohler here. I’m a scientist, but I badly need the help of a detective.
As long as these fictional drafts of the Angels & Demons script are being published in advance of the movie’s release, why not add a fictional Post-It Note to put on the very first page, reading, in the scrawl of a triumphant American craftsman and scriptwriter: By Jove, Dan Brown, I’ve made your characters sound human!
Perceptions: art outside
Sughra Raza. Apartment Autumn Window. Painting 2002, photograph at my sister Azra's house in Shrewsbury, MA, November 2007.
Acrylic on canvas. Digital photograph.
Lunar Refractions: Architecture's Towering, Teetering, Toppling Aspirations
Anselm Kiefer, the enfant terrible of ambivalently postwar-wartime art, has undertaken an astoundingly architectural series of projects, constructing several towers in vastly different settings. These curious structures exude a sense of timelessness, yet also an undeniable timeliness. Like many of the themes he deals with, they have appeared in his paintings, photographs, books, and sculptures for more than a decade now. The question of whether their most recent, more sculptural manifestations are in fact architecture or not is less important than how he approaches them, and what that approach has to say about contemporary—and not-so-contemporary—architecture.
I’ve followed these towers’ development in three key places, important not so much for their geographic locations as for their immediate topographic situations. I use situation in the broadest sense, indicating the prevailing cultural climate, as well as their physical surroundings and how they are set into them.
First is his laboratory, La Ribotte, at his home-studio in the Provencal town of Barjac. Here, amid more than forty-two “pavilions” and over two miles of tunnels in the course of creation on the estate of a former silkworm factory offered him by the French Ministry of Culture, he’s constructed and swiftly deconstructed a large grouping of towers. Significantly, they are all outdoors. The placid landscape of Provence is punctuated with these ambitious, (foolish?) pride-inspired architectonic shapes. There are shipping container forms cast in reinforced concrete, precariously stacked up to seven stories high. Some are spires,
mere metal I-beam skeletons, traces of towers with impracticable stairs leading upward, yet obviously leading nowhere. Some (the earliest ones, I suppose, as they only appear here) are built of cinderblocks or similarly ancient bricklike forms, often in a checkerboard pattern of blocks with gaps of nothingness in between. Others—cast in what looks to be oversized concrete corduroy or from massive corrugated-metal matrices—are more solid, impenetrable on the ground floor, with iron reinforcement rods sticking like protective spikes out the side of each floor plate. Nevertheless, all have at least one window, door, a skylight hinting at a meteorite’s descent, a couple missing walls, or some other opening to the outside world.
This epicenter of his experimentation, developed since his move here from Germany in the early nineties, ties together all of his many languages: there are staircases cast independently, laid on the ground, and set atop one another to form a pictogram of ocean waves (a similar, smoother outdoor sculpture has been installed at one of his collectors’ seaside estates in Southport, Connecticut); some of the stairs have stood up to reach otherwise isolated chambers high up in the towers; the surrounding fields themselves hint at, without visually resembling, the famously barren fields of his massive paintings; the blocks of the few towers built without being cast in modules look as though they were stripped from his mid-nineties Himmel-Erde (Heaven-Earth) series of painting and photographs, bricks that had in turn been recycled from Piranesi’s etchings and explorers’ old albumen photographs of Nineveh. Here he also manufactured the towers cast in miniature that have begun to appear on his monumental canvases, now making their public debut in an endless, echo-filled retrospective at the Guggenheim Bilbao.
Second is the Hangar Bicocca, a relatively new exhibition space in a former heavy industry-cum-hotspot neighborhood northeast of Milan’s city center. This grouping, dubbed The Seven Heavenly Palaces, made up of seven towers ranging from five- to seven-stories in height, sprouted up under the vast canopy of a former Pirelli industrial hangar. While the title, like so many of Kiefer’s recurring and oft-recycled names, hints at their supposedly celestial nature, their wrecked appearances betray a more infernal quality. The catalogue published on this singular work goes into detail about the names, but as with most of the names scrawled on his canvases, and now lit up in neon on these precarious-looking modular piles, I don’t feel they say as much as the visual clues do: stacks of his trademark lead-leafed books, a lead U-boat, and a glass model of Dürer’s melancholic octahedron, all set amid ticker tape–like glass strips inscribed with (literally) stellar numbers and numbered stones strewn about the ground.
All cast within the hangar and assembled on-site, these particular towers differ from their French relatives in numerous ways, most of which I would attribute to their setting. I wandered through them a couple years ago, in the after-hour penumbra of the closed, barely-lit exhibition space, when a lax security guard didn’t feel the pieces (or their visitors’ lives) were worth much care. In catalogue photos they appear under harsh spotlights, like zombie actors returning to a stage without any audience waiting in the dark auditorium. In the partial light of my visit, however, they felt truly ruinous, and before them, between them, I really felt I lived there—as if Kiefer had transported me to the destroyed Deutschland he grew up in, born into a bombed-out town, studying in an eternal night in which no one spoke of what had taken place, and what was still silently going on. That was the first time he made me live in the work, instead of just wandering by, glimpsing the devastation in passing.
Third is the forecourt of the Royal Academy, one of Piccadilly’s more prestigious cultural centers, in the heart of London. Titled Jericho, these two towers stood for a brief period in the early months of 2007. They weren’t in fact identical twins, as one measured five stories, while the other dwarfed it at six. Both towered above the three-story, rigorously meted classical façade of the Academy. While I didn’t have the privilege of walking in and around them before they were taken down to make room for the rusty two-dimensional dinosaur cut-outs the Chapman Brothers had installed by the time of my visit (quite appropriate, given Kiefer’s beliefs about human, geologic, and cosmic time, claiming he has memory of the dinosaurs), I can only imagine what an impression experiencing them so physically would have made. The apertures of his towers’ windows echoed those of the Academy’s; his structures’ skewed, heavy house-of-cards walls served to emphasize the stable, indeed royally eternal elegance of the surrounding courtyard. He told a local paper they are the Academy in 200 years, a poetically rich, architecturally erroneous assessment of the scene.
After hearing his comments about the installation of this most recent pair—the so-called twin towers the press so passionately pounced upon—it occurred to me that he has managed something few other sculptors have allowed themselves over the last thirty-odd years: he has produced and installed projects whose design pays little heed to their surroundings. It is almost as if he were unaware of, or simply doesn’t care about the ubiquitous Kraussian expanded field, the one that has so influenced sculptural discourse since the seventies. Is he perhaps a present-day proponent of that old übermodern Miesian idea that architecture is best composed and constructed independent of its setting? Does he see architecture’s ultimately autonomous essence—or the blind ambition of current iconic attempts at architecture—as distillable into these disgraceful towers, into this high-octane, ancient symbol of human hubris?
He does mention surroundings, but only when cornered into it. When an arts correspondent for London’s Independent asked what he thought, he said was thrilled by the unexpected dialogue the three elements immediately established with one another. In light of the many curious yet ultimately extraneous statements he’s dished out about his work in so many conversations over the past twenty years, it’s easy to get the misleading impression that words and poetic musings are a sufficient substitution for actually looking at his work. This series of towers refutes that, emphasizing how essential it is that we experience where it is they (and we) are, when we are, what we are. It hardly matters that he’s shrinking these powerful pieces down into diminutive modules collaged onto canvas, nor does it matter that almost everything you read about his work says more about his critics’ easy willingness to wander distractedly down a prosaic literary lane, reading Kiefer’s scrawled labels and sifting through Celan and Bachmann and Kabalic texts rather than really looking at his work. All that is indeed great reading, but he’s making visual pieces—and now sculptural, even architectural, forbidding, yet technically habitable projects—that deserve to be examined in their own right.
It may be easy to dismiss what appear to be two ruins slapped up in one of London’s fanciest, most courtly courtyards; the teetering towers in Provence’s otherwise lovely landscape might be perceived as an affront to any true architect’s attempt at designing even a single honest edifice; but the bleak buildings set into Milan’s barren postindustrial neighborhood of La Bicocca don’t allow us any escape. They are witnesses to Kiefer’s exploration of what humanity has done and devastatingly undone, over the past sixty years just as over the past six millennia. This is where we live, this is what we’ve done, and it’s all of our own design.
November 25, 2007
[de Waal] It's certainly true that a lot of what has passed for U.S. Darfur policy in the last three years has been hot air—beginning with Colin Powell's Sept. 9, 2004, determination that genocide had been committed in Darfur (and may be continuing), immediately followed by his assertion that U.S. government policy would not change. But hot air can make a difference too, when we are dealing with a government in Khartoum that has been on the receiving end of U.S. cruise missiles and that fears that the U.S. government will take sides against it in a future war for the secession of southern Sudan....
[Prendergast] First, your criticism of the advocacy community seems bizarrely misplaced, when it is the policymakers in Washington, Brussels, London, and Beijing who have been primarily responsible for the failure to confront the crime of genocide and the inability to craft relevant solutions to the complicated crisis in Darfur. Activists seek to raise the alarm bell and to shape the policy priorities of their government. We were not running the failed peace process you were a part of in 2006 that led to an escalation of violence, for example. We just want to see solutions. And we recognize that the actor that is primarily responsible for the mayhem in Darfur is the Sudanese regime and its brutal counterinsurgency campaign that has ruthlessly targeted civilian populations and attempted to divide and destroy the rebel movements and the communities that support them.
Is Zizek an Embarrassment to Academics and to the Left?
Joseph Kugelmass over at The Valve:
There is a telling moment in the film Zizek! where Zizek discusses his own books, and says that his favorite works are the ones where he manages to consider the philosophical tradition most deeply, such as Tarrying With The Negative. Although all of Zizek’s books contain analyses of popular culture and programmatic political speculation, the quarrels that he has personally found most productive have been within the long historical traditions of philosophical debate over dialectics, consciousness, subjectivity, and the way the world becomes manifest through experience. Meanwhile, believing himself capable of discussing the political issues of the day in a clear and accessible manner, Zizek has written political op-eds for a number of publications, including The New York Times, the UK Guardian, and The London Review of Books. These columns are a curious blend of agit-prop and academic exposition; while some of Zizek’s references remain bewildering to readers unacquainted with postmodern political theory, he clearly intends to write transparently and to inspire action.
In the process, he has become an embarrassment to academics and to the Left, even though, admittedly, he has never resorted to reminiscing about Frank Sinatra and Ted Williams. His newest piece, re-posted numerous places around the web, is an endorsement of Hugo Chavez that supposedly comes at the expense of the Left, which, Zizek maintains, colludes with the status quo in secret.
Zizek has become a prisoner of his own fatuous admiration for the successful seizure of power, whether it comes in the form of an attractive cinematic dream (his analysis of 300) or as somebody else’s reality (Hugo Chavez). His perpetual frustration with progressive politicians is no longer distinguishable from that of columnists like Alexander Cockburn, who use politics as a means of asserting superiority over an insular group of fellow travelers with whom they have associated all their lives.