January 31, 2008
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The Coldest Place in the Universe
Tom Shachtman in Smithsonian Magazine:
Where's the coldest spot in the universe? Not on the moon, where the temperature plunges to a mere minus 378 Fahrenheit. Not even in deepest outer space, which has an estimated background temperature of about minus 455°F. As far as scientists can tell, the lowest temperatures ever attained were recently observed right here on earth.
The record-breaking lows were among the latest feats of ultracold physics, the laboratory study of matter at temperatures so mind-bogglingly frigid that atoms and even light itself behave in highly unusual ways. Electrical resistance in some elements disappears below about minus 440°F, a phenomenon called superconductivity. At even lower temperatures, some liquefied gases become "superfluids" capable of oozing through walls solid enough to hold any other sort of liquid; they even seem to defy gravity as they creep up, over and out of their containers.
Physicists acknowledge they can never reach the coldest conceivable temperature, known as absolute zero and long ago calculated to be minus 459.67°F. To physicists, temperature is a measure of how fast atoms are moving, a reflection of their energy—and absolute zero is the point at which there is absolutely no heat energy remaining to be extracted from a substance.
The Sociopaths of the Virtual World
Julian Dibbell in Wired:
The Albion Park section of Second Life is generally a quiet place, a haven of whispering fir trees and babbling brooks set aside for those who "need to be alone to think, or want to chat privately." But shortly after 5 pm Eastern time on November 16, an avatar appeared in the 3-D-graphical skies above this online sanctuary and proceeded to unleash a mass of undiluted digital jackassery. The avatar, whom witnesses would describe as an African-American male clad head to toe in gleaming red battle armor, detonated a device that instantly filled the air with 30-foot-wide tumbling blue cubes and gaping cartoon mouths. For several minutes the freakish objects rained down, immobilizing nearby players with code that forced them to either log off or watch their avatars endlessly text-shout Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Get to the choppaaaaaaa!" tagline from Predator.
The incident, it turns out, was not an isolated one. The same scene, with minor variations, was unfolding simultaneously throughout the virtual geography of Second Life. Some cubes were adorned on every side with the infamous, soul-searing "goatse" image; others were covered with the grinning face of Bill Cosby proffering a Pudding Pop.
Soon after the attacks began, the governance team at San Francisco-based Linden Lab, the company that runs Second Life, identified the vandals and suspended their accounts. In the popular NorthStar hangout, players located the offending avatars and fired auto-cagers, which wrapped the attackers' heads in big metallic boxes.
Pablo Casals plays BACH - Suite no 1 for Cello - part 1
more valiant huffing on Barthelme's behalf
Donald Barthelme was the Stephen Sondheim of haute fiction—a dexterous assembler of witty, mordant, intricate devices that, once exploded, exposed the sawdust and stuffing of traditional forms. His stories weren’t finely rendered portrait studies in human behavior or autobiographical reveries à la Johns Updike and Cheever, but a row of boutiques showcasing his latest pranks, confections, gadgets, and Max Ernst/Monty Python–ish collages. Like Sondheim’s biting rhymes and contrapuntal duets, Barthelme’s parlor tricks and satiric ploys were accused early on of being cerebral, preeningly clever, hermetically sealed, and lacking in “heart”of supplying the clattering sound track to the cocktail party of the damned. Yet, like Sondheim, Barthelme was no simple Dr. Sardonicus, licensed cynic. His radiograms from the observation deck of his bemused detachment evidently touched depths and won converts, otherwise his work wouldn’t have inspired so many salvage operations intended to keep his name alive and his enterprise afloat. Mere smarty show-offs don’t garner this kind of affection from a younger breed of astronauts. Just as there always seems to be a Sondheim musical poised for Broadway revival (Company in 2006, Sunday in the Park with George right now), Barthelme’s bundle of greatest hits and obscure outtakes has been parceled out in a series of reprintings and repackagings since his death in 1989. He’s always poised on the verge of being majorly rediscovered without ever quite making it over the crest, despite the valiant huffing done on his behalf.
more from Bookforum here.
As a group, the pictures also summon up more ancient associations. They offer a counterclaim to other allusions to the Venus of Willendorf (Austria, 30,000 B.C.E.) in contemporary art. This tiny statue, with its mute pendant head and protruding belly, breasts and thighs, is thought to be a fertility deity. The sculpture plays a significant role in the quite brilliant opening chapter of Camille Paglia’s (probably deservedly maligned) book, “Sexual Personae”.
Paglia describes this figurine as containing women’s essential power: that of the dark, primitive mysterious forces of procreation and destruction, of instinct and blood, rooted in the earth. Paglia says, "She isthe too-muchness of nature… She is remote as she kills and creates. She is the cloud of archaic night."
Stubby, oversized confederates of the Venus of Willendorf are a staple of Jeff Koons production; she is embodied in the early Vacuum Cleaners, in the Rabbit, and the Puppy, among other works. By utilizing this sign, Koons argues that commercial culture furnishes society with primordial energy in order that it may be psychically healed.
more from artcritical here.
A brief history of the future
Loneliness shadows science fiction, and is made more acute by its customary settings amid the emptiness of space, with solitary voyagers or beleaguered bands of adventurers encountering the hostilities of planets that deny the consolations of familiarity. The opening images of Walter M. Miller’s brilliant “I Made You” (1954) are typical:It sat on the crag by night. Gaunt, frigid, wounded, it sat under the black sky and listened to the land with its feet, while only its dishlike ear moved in slow patterns that searched the surface of the land and the sky The land was silent, airless. Nothing moved, except the feeble thing that scratched in the cave.
The “feeble thing” turns out to be a man, about to be destroyed by the suffering robot that he has created.
more from the TLS here.
The broad-backed hippopotamus
Rests on his belly in the mud;
Although he seems so firm to us
He is merely flesh and blood.
Flesh and blood is weak and frail,
Susceptible to nervous shock;
While the True Church can never fail
For it is based upon a rock.
The hippo’s feeble steps may err
In compassing material ends,
While the True Church need never stir
To gather in its dividends.
The ‘potamus can never reach
The mango on the mango-tree;
But fruits of pomegranate and peach
Refresh the Church from over sea.
At mating time the hippo’s voice
Betrays inflexions hoarse and odd,
But every week we hear rejoice
The Church, at being one with God.
The hippopotamus’s day
Is passed in sleep; at night he hunts;
God works in a mysterious way—
The Church can sleep and feed at once.
I saw the ‘potamus take wing
Ascending from the damp savannas,
And quiring angels round him sing
The praise of God, in loud hosannas.
Blood of the Lamb shall wash him clean
And him shall heavenly arms enfold,
Among the saints he shall be seen
Performing on a harp of gold.
He shall be washed as white as snow,
By all the martyr’d virgins kist,
While the True Church remains below
Wrapt in the old miasmal mist.
Is There Happiness After the 40s?
Closing in on 40? 50? Feel like life is passing, er, has passed you by? Maybe even left you in the dust? You're not alone. In fact, new research shows that fellow midlifers throughout the world--or at least a significant chunk of it--share your pain. But fear not: if you endure, the study shows, things will begin looking up again, once you get over that speed bump in the road of life called (gasp!) middle age. Researchers from Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., and the University of Warwick in Coventry, England, after scouring 35 years worth of data on two million people from 80 nations, have concluded that there is, indeed, a consistent pattern in depression and happiness levels that is age-related and leaves us most blue during midlife.
According to the study, set to be published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, happiness follows a U-shaped curve: It is highest at the beginning and end of our lives and lowest in-between. The researchers found that the peak of depression for both men and women in the U.K. is around 44 years of age; in the U.S., women on average are most miserable at age 40 whereas men are when they hit 50. They found a similar pattern in 70 other countries. So what's at the root of this depressing dip? Not sure, say authors Andrew Oswald of Warwick University and Dartmouth's David Blanchflower, both economists. But they speculate, as Oswald put it, that "something happens deep inside humans" to bring us down rather than shattering events (such as divorce or job loss), because it tends to creep up on us over time.
America still works
From Prospect Magazine:
Anyone who reads the serious press about the condition of the US might be excused for believing that the country is headed towards a series of deep crises. This impression is exacerbated by economic slowdown and by the presidential primaries, in which candidates announce bold plans to rescue the country from disaster. But even in more normal times there are three ubiquitous myths about America that make the country seem weaker and more chaotic than it really is. The first myth, which is mainly a conservative one, is that racial and ethnic rivalries are tearing America apart. The second myth, which is mainly a liberal one, is that America will soon be overwhelmed by religious fundamentalists. The third myth, an economic one beloved of centrists, is that the retirement of the baby boomers will bankrupt the country because of runaway social security entitlement costs.
America does, of course, have many problems, such as spiralling healthcare costs and a decline in social mobility. Yet the truth is that apart from the temporary frictions caused by current immigration from Latin America, the US is more integrated than ever. Racial and cultural diversity is in long-term decline, as a result of the success of the melting pot in merging groups through assimilation and intermarriage—and many of the country's infamous social pathologies, from violent crime to teenage drug use, are also seeing improvements. Americans are far more religious than Europeans, but the "religious right" is concentrated among white southern Protestants. And there is no genuine long-term entitlement problem in the US. The US suffers from healthcare cost inflation, a problem that will be solved one way or another in the near future, long before it cripples the economy as a whole. And the long-term costs of social security, America's public pension programme, could be met by moderate benefit cuts or a moderate growth in the US government share of GDP. With a linguistically united, increasingly racially mixed supermajority and a solvent system of middle-class entitlements, the US will remain first among equals for generations to come, even in a multipolar world with several great powers.
January 30, 2008
Carl Zimmer in his brilliant blog, The Loom:
How do new kinds of bodies evolve? It's a question that obsesses many scientists today, as it has for decades. Yesterday, Olivia Judson, an evolutionary biologist and book author, published a blog post entitled "The Monster is Back, and It's Hopeful," in which she declared that these transitions can happen in sudden steps.
Even before I had finished reading Judson's piece, I got an email from the prominent evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne grousing about it. Coyne, who teaches at the University of Chicago, is an expert on the genetics of adaptation as well as the origin of new species. He has written potent, eloquent attacks on creationism in places like the New Republic (pdf). Recently he has also begun to express skepticism about the grander claims for evolutionary developmental biology--"evo-devo" for short (see this pdf for more).
I thought it would be interesting to hear what Coyne had to say--at length. Since he does not (yet) have a blog of his own, I invited him to write a guest post for The Loom. He kindly sent in the following piece, which appears below the fold, entitled "Hopeless Monsters." Please give Dr. Coyne a warm welcome to world of science blogging, and let him know what you think in the comment thread.
The Art Catalog
Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:
The people who put together 30,000 Years of Art: The story of human creativity across time and space were no fools. They realized that the preface, introduction, and justification would either have to be infinite or non-existent. They chose the void. Two pages into the book and you’re already looking at art. No discussion about what art is, what characteristics the works share, who chose the works, why they are representative. Nothing. There’s one brief statement running in a narrow column on the first full page. It says: "From the time when human beings can first be called human, they have felt compelled to depict themselves and their world — as gods, mortals, animals or abstractions." It's so broad as to say everything and therefore nothing at all.
And then the book begins in earnest. If there are ideas here, they are latent in the book itself, hiding within the explanatory text for each work and in the decisions of what to include and not to include. But despite the unwillingness to address definitions, the book itself is nothing but a massive, stupefying piece of chutzpah. Here is art, from the dawn of (human) time until today. The silence, the unwillingness to address the largeness in the claim, is either a bit of coyness, astounding self-confidence, or a form of blissful ignorance.
I prefer to think that it’s a piece of coyness.
not a "contrast gainer"
So occupied is "God's Crucible" with every twist and turn of military and political history, in fact, that Mr. Lewis's would-be controversial interpretation, and his lessons for the present, are mostly forgotten. They surface only in the form of occasional valentines to the Spain of the Umayyads — whose "ethos of storied tolerance and mutuality...might have served as a model for the continent" — and corresponding insults to Carolingian Christendom — "an economically retarded, balkanized, fratricidal Europe that, in defining itself in opposition to Islam, made virtues out of religious persecution, cultural particularism, and hereditary aristocracy."
The problem with such verdicts is not just that they are unconvincingly reductive, but that they are clichés. If Western readers know anything about Muslim history, it is that Golden Age Spain was a golden age. That this moment of relative tolerance and prosperity coincided with the Dark Ages in Western Europe helps to make it what Saul Bellow called a "contrast gainer."
more from the NY Sun here.
courbet: the savage life
In 1854 Gustave Courbet sent his patron and friend the rich philanthropist Alfred Bruyas a self-portrait, accompanying it with a letter:
It is the portrait of a fanatic, an ascetic. It is the portrait of a man who, disillusioned by the nonsense that made up his education, seeks to live by his own principles. I have done a good many self-portraits in my life, as my attitude gradually changed. One could say that I have written my autobiography.
This statement was somewhat premature (he was only forty-five at the time), but it is true that he was fascinated by his own appearance and some twenty self-portraits are extant. In the 1860s, when Emile Zola was trying to sum up Courbet's achievement, he wrote that he saw him as "simply a personality." Certainly Courbet made much of his own personality, and the revolution that he effected owed more than a little to the vividness of his presence and to the myth that he very soon succeeded in building up around himself.
more from the NYRB here.
free bob avakian?
IT WAS HARD to miss, splashed recently across a full page of The New York Review of Books: an advertisement featuring the boldface words, "Dangerous times demand courageous voices. Bob Avakian is such a voice." ...
Some of the signatories were regulars on left-wing petitions, but even for people often associated with radical causes, signing a pro-Avakian ad seemed bizarre. Did they not know what he stands for - or did they just not care?
Avakian is the chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, a tiny Maoist organization whose most visible activity is running several branches of a store called Revolution Books. (There's a branch on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge.) Through the bookstores, the party's website and newspaper, and his prolific pamphleteering, Avakian has advanced his views: Mao Zedong's China was "wondrous," according to Avakian's autobiography, and, despite the show trials, mass purges, and other acts of tyranny that Avakian acknowledges, Joseph Stalin had "an overall positive historical role."
more from The Boston Globe here.
Wednesday Bonus Poem
I was feeling grouchy about some comments at 3QD and then I read this:
A Cat in an Empty Apartment
Dying--you wouldn't do that to a cat.
For what is a cat to do
in an empty apartment?
Climb up the walls?
Brush up against the furniture?
Nothing here seems changed,
and yet something has changed.
Nothing has been moved,
and yet there's more room.
And in the evenings the lamp is not on.
One hears footsteps on the stairs,
but they're not the same.
Neither is the hand
that puts a fish on the plate.
Something here isn't starting
at its usual time.
Something here isn't happening
as it should.
Somebody has been here and has been,
and then has suddenly disappeared
and now is stubbornly absent.
All the closets have been scanned
and all the shelves run through.
Slipping under the carpet and checking came to nothing.
The rule has even been broken and all the papers scattered.
What else is there to do?
Sleep and wait.
Just let him come back,
let him show up.
Then he'll find out
that you don't do that to a cat.
Going toward him
on very offended paws.
And no jumping, purring at first.
[Thanks to Jim Culleny and the lovely Frederica Krueger.]
Stolen Kidneys: Not Urban Legend Anymore
Victoria's Secret: Raj Quartet
Christopher Hitchens in The Atlantic Monthly:
There are not as many theories about the fall of the British Empire as there once were about the eclipse of its Roman predecessor, but one of the micro theories has always appealed to me more than any of the macro explanations. And it concerns India. For the first century or so of British dominion over the subcontinent, the men of the East India Company more or less took their chances. They made and lost reputations, and established or overthrew regional domains, and their massive speculations led to gain or ruin or (as in the instance of Warren Hastings) both. Meanwhile, they were encouraged to pick up the custom of the country, acquire a bit of the lingo, and develop a taste for "native" food, but -- this in a bit of a whisper -- be very careful about the local women. Things in that sensitive quarter could be arranged, but only with the most exquisite discretion.
Thus the British developed a sort of modus vivendi that lasted until the trauma of 1857: the first Indian armed insurrection (still known as "the Mutiny" because it occurred among those the British had themselves trained and organized). Then came the stern rectitude of direct rule from London, replacing the improvised jollities and deal-making of "John Company," as the old racket had come to be affectionately known. And in the wake of this came the dreaded memsahib: the wife and companion and helpmeet of the officer, the district commissioner, the civil servant, and the judge. She was unlikely to tolerate the pretty housemaid or the indulgent cook. Worse, she was herself in need of protection against even a misdirected or insolent native glance. To protect white womanhood, the British erected a wall between themselves and those they ruled. They marked off cantonments, rigidly inscribing them on the map. They built country clubs and Anglican churches where ladies could go, under strict escort, and be unmolested. They invented a telling term -- chi-chi -- to define, and to explain away, the number of children and indeed adults who looked as if they might have had English fathers and Indian mothers or (even more troubling) the reverse. Gradually, the British withdrew into a private and costive and repressed universe where eventually they could say, as the angry policeman Ronald Merrick does in The Day of the Scorpion, the second volume of Paul Scott's Raj Quartet: "We don't rule this country any more. We preside over it."
Live slow die young: Sedentary lifestyles could make you old before your time
Active people could be up to 10 years 'younger' than couch potatoes, at least according to one measure of biological age. Tim Spector, director of the Twin Research Unit at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, looked at the levels of physical activity of 2,401 twins and assessed the length of their telomeres - the 'caps' on the ends of their chromosomes that help to protect the DNA from wearing down during the replication process that replenishes cells. Telomeres shorten over an individual’s lifetime and are thought to function as a marker for ageing. Smokers and obese people were already known to have shorter telomeres than their healthier counterparts.
The team found that, on average, telomeres in the most active group (who took more than 3 hours 20 minutes of exercise a week) were 200 nucleotides longer than that of the least active group (who took less than 16 minutes exercise a week). “This difference suggests that inactive subjects may be biologically older by 10 years compared with more active subjects,” say Spector and colleagues in their paper in Archives of Internal Medicine.
And now you ask
what is my message
I say with Nabokov
I am a poet
not a postman
I have no message.
but I want the cadences
of my verse to crack
the carapace of indifference
prise open torpid eyelids
thick-coated with silver.
I want syllables
that will dance, pirouette
in the fantasies of nymphets
I want vowels that float
into the dreams of old men.
I want my consonants
to project kaleidoscopic visions
on the screens of the blind
& on the eardrums of the deaf
I want pentameters that sing
like ten thousand mandolins.
I want such rhythms
as will shake pine
angsana, oak & meranti,
out of their pacific
slumber, uproot them-
selves, hurdle over
buzz-saw & bull-dozer
and rush to crush
with long heavy toes
merchants of defoliants.
I want every punctuation --
full-stop, comma & semi-colon
to turn into a grain of barley,
millet, maize, wheat or rice
in the mouths of our hungry;
I want each & every metaphor
to metamorphose into a rooftop
over the heads of our homeless.
I want the assonances
of my songs to put smiles
on the faces of the sick,
the destitute & the lonely,
pump adrenaline into the veins
of every farmer & worker
the battle-scarred & the weary.
and yes, yes, I want my poems
to leap out from the page
rip off the covers of my books
and march forthrightly to
that sea of somnolent humanity
lay bare the verbs, vowels
syllables, consonants . . . & say
"these are my sores, my wounds:
this is my distended belly:
here I went ragged and hungry:
in that place I bled, was tortured;
and on this electric cross I died.
Brothers, sisters, HERE I AM."
January 29, 2008
It's Troubled, But It's Home
Mohsin Hamid at his website (first published in the Washington Post):
As my wife and I board our flight from London to Lahore, evident all around us is a longing for home -- for the friends and family who are central to Pakistani culture in a way that many foreigners find so remarkable. (As an admiring American roommate of mine once said, "All you guys do is hang out.") This duality of Pakistan as a place both troubled and normal, a place capable of producing a large diaspora while also affectionately tugging at those who have left, is often lost on the world's media. International news outlets tend to cast Pakistan as the one-dimensional villain of a horror film, a kind of Jason or Freddie whose only role is to frighten. Scant attention is paid to the hospitality, the love for music and dance, or the simple ordinariness of 164 million people going about their daily lives.
As we take our seats on a Pakistan International Airlines Boeing 777, my fellow passengers do not look to me like embodiments of the hearts and minds of an important frontline state in the "war on terror." They look like people excited to be headed home.
Elisabeth Herschbach reviews Animal Architects: Building and the Evolution of Intelligence by James L. Gould, in Metapsychology Online Reviews:
Termites -- tiny, blind creatures less than 1/10th of an inch in size-- build towering 20-foot-high structures equipped with wells and waste dumps, gardens and nurseries, and even complicated systems of air ducts and ventilation shafts for climate control. Hummingbirds fashion hammock nests from bits of bark, lichen, and downy moss woven together with spiderweb silk. Beavers, those master engineers of the rodent world, construct underwater lodges and ingeniously designed dams and canals to control the water flow of the rivers, streams, and lakes where they reside. And countless other species of animals produce webs, hives, cocoons, burrows, lairs, nests, and even tools that, especially given the size and nature of the builders, are marvels of construction and design. (Consider, for example, that on a human scale, the 20-foot tower of a termite would be the equivalent of nearly three miles high, far surpassing our tallest skyscraper.)
Mad Driving Skills
Compare with India/Pakistan Style Driving:
Some myths about the rise of China and India
Pranab Bardhan in the Boston Review:
After more than a century of relative stagnation, the economies of India and China have been growing at remarkably high rates over the past 25 years. In 1820 the two countries contributed nearly half of the world’s income; by 1950, with the industrialized West having pulled away, their share had fallen to less than one-tenth. Today it is just less than one-fifth, and projections suggest that by 2025 it will rise to one-third. (In 2008 the World Bank is expected to issue revised numbers about cost of living in China and India, which may somewhat reduce these estimated income shares, both current and future).
The consequences of this expansion are extraordinary. The Chinese economy in particular has made the most headway against poverty in world history, with hundreds of millions of people moved out of the most extreme poverty within just a generation. (The environmental consequences are comparably remarkable, though perhaps proportionately disastrous).
What explains this strikingly rapid growth? The answer that continues to dominate public discussion in the United States runs along the following lines: decades of socialist controls and regulations stifled enterprise in India and China and led them to a dead end. A mix of market reforms and global integration finally unleashed their entrepreneurial energies. As these giants shook off their “socialist slumber,” they entered the “flattened” playing field of global capitalism. The result has been high economic growth in both countries and correspondingly large declines in poverty.
one wintry day
in a swirl of mud and snow
a police car came screaming
down the street
shoving and pushing
its way through traffic
the funny thing was that
no matter how smug it acted
it could not shake off
the coat of snow that covered it
and made it look identical
to every other car
all crawling like hearses
and that’s why it was upset
as it passed
a poet who was crossing the road
got splattered from head to toe
with mud thrown by its filthy wheels
what he saw
made him suddenly feel like crying
associating what he'd just seen
with the ambiguous link
between this police car
of the state
and the idea that
poetry is like snow
A Fight for Life Consumes Both Mother and Son
From The New York Times:
“A good death” may be one of the emptiest phrases in the English language. Research has confirmed that no two people use it to mean exactly the same thing. Even the premise is unclear; for whom, exactly, is that death supposed to be good? Many would prefer a swift, sudden and painless exit for themselves — but a little warning when it comes to friends and relatives, with time to prepare and to say goodbye.
“A bad death” is another matter. We all know those when we see them, the miserably protracted and painful affairs that overwhelm everyone — the deceased and survivors alike — with panic, guilt and bitter regrets. And now we have a new benchmark of bad. The writer Susan Sontag's death, as set out in this short and immensely disturbing account by her son, David Rieff, must rank as one of the worst ever described.
Three decades of having cancer, being treated for cancer or waiting for cancer to recur might bring out the inner philosopher in some. In Ms. Sontag, an inner adolescent seems to have emerged instead, with each battle and victory strengthening her determined appetite for life and her conviction that she was immortal.
Atheism Is the New Black
All the professional atheists get it wrong. So does theologian John F. Haught's new book.
Jessa Crispin in The Smart Set:
In the house I grew up in, there was no god but Science, and the PBS Nova programming was his prophet. There was a little-g god, as we attended church every week, but we were just there for the dose of morality and the teachings of Jesus. So what if we did not believe in concepts like heaven or hell, probably not the devil, and now that you mention it, that idea of an omnipotent creator? Going to church wouldn’t do us any harm. There is no fire and brimstone with Methodists — just a few hymns, a quiet sermon, and a potluck lunch in the basement sure to include casseroles made with Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup.
God did not follow us home. My father did not lead us in prayer at dinner, but he did design chemistry experiments for me and my sisters to perform in the basement, to be followed by detailed lab reports. I never saw him awed at church, only when he woke us at 2 a.m., wrapped us in quilts, and took us outside to watch meteor showers. And he was perhaps the only father who regaled his family with a spot-on Carl Sagan impression. (“Dad, how many slices of pizza are left?” “Billions and billions! Oh wait, no, I ate the last one.”)
This was in Kansas, a state that produced Fred Phelps and his “God Hates Fags” protests, a state the decided (mercifully briefly) that the theory of evolution was just pulled out of Darwin’s ass. After I left, I was as cagey as a backpacker in Europe about my state of origin, wanting to sew a Nebraska flag onto my pack. I later became terrified of the world leaders suddenly discussing the End of Days and throwing the word “crusade” around. Relief came when the latest trend in publishing turned out to be atheist manifestoes. Finally. Some rational thinking. I lunged at Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great, Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, and Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. They will show us the way.
Imagine my surprise, then, when it turned out I was becoming as embarrassed to be associated with atheists as I had been with Kansans.
A film score and an orchestral work by Jonny Greenwood
Alex Ross in The New Yorker:
There may be no scarcer commodity in modern Hollywood than a distinctive and original film score. Most soundtracks lean so heavily on a few preprocessed musical devices—those synthetic swells of strings and cymbals, urging us to swoon in tandem with the cheerleader in love—that when a composer adopts a more personal language the effect is revelatory: an entire dimension of the film experience is liberated from cliché. So it is with Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie “There Will Be Blood,” which has an unearthly, beautiful score by the young English composer Jonny Greenwood. The early scenes show, in painstaking detail, a maverick oilman assembling a network of wells at the turn of the last century. Filmgoers who find themselves falling into a claustrophobic trance during these sequences may be inclined to credit the director, who, indeed, has forged some indelible images. But, as Orson Welles once said of Bernard Herrmann’s contribution to “Citizen Kane,” the music does fifty per cent of the work.
More here. [Thanks to Asad Raza.]
Statements made in the media can surreptitiously plant distortions in the minds of millions. Learning to recognize two commonly used fallacies can help you separate fact from fiction.
Yvonne Raley and Robert Talisse in Scientific American:
In 2003 nearly half of all Americans falsely assumed that the U.S. government had found solid evidence for a link between Iraq and al Qaeda. What is more, almost a quarter of us believed that investigators had all but confirmed the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, according to a 2003 report by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes and Knowledge Networks, a polling and market research firm. How did the true situation in Iraq become so grossly distorted in American minds?
Many people have attributed such misconceptions to a politically motivated disinformation campaign to engender support for the armed struggle in Iraq. We do not think the deceptions were premeditated, however. Instead they are most likely the result of common types of reasoning errors, which appear frequently in discussions in the news media and which can easily fool an unsuspecting public.
News shows often have an implicit bias that may motivate the portrayal of facts and opinions in misleading ways, even if the information presented is largely accurate. Nevertheless, by becoming familiar with how spokespeople can create false impressions, media consumers can learn to ignore certain claims and thereby avoid getting duped. We have detected two general types of fallacies—one of them well known and the other newly identified—that have permeated discussion of the Iraq War and that are generally ubiquitous in political debates and other discourse.
What if the Muslim armies hadn’t been stopped at the French border?
Joan Acocella in The New Yorker:
...however much Muhammad’s immediate successors may have struggled with their souls, they also, in the eighty-some years following his death, conquered Syria, Egypt, North Africa, Anatolia, Iraq, and Persia. By the beginning of the eighth century, Muslim forces stood at the northwest corner of Africa. There, only the Strait of Gibraltar, nine miles wide, separated them from the Iberian Peninsula. Iberia at that time was ruled by the Visigoths, a Christian people who did their best to wipe out other religions within their territory—Judaism, for example. There is some evidence that the Iberian Jews invited the Muslims to invade. In 711, they did so. The state that they established in Iberia, and maintained for almost four centuries, is the subject of David Levering Lewis’s “God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570 to 1215” (Norton; $29.95).
This book has to be understood in context, or, actually, two contexts. The first is post-colonialism, the effort on the part of scholars from the nineteen-seventies onward to correct the biases that accompanied and justified the colonization of eighty-five per cent of the earth by European powers between the sixteenth and the twentieth centuries. In that period, according to Edward Said’s 1978 “Orientalism”—the founding document of post-colonial thought—history-writing about the Near East and the Middle East was an arm of empire. Its goal was to make non-Western peoples seem uncivilized, so that European control would appear a boon. Since Said, much writing on Europe’s former colonies has been an effort to redress that injustice.
The other context in which Lewis’s book must be read is, of course, the history of terrorism, since the late nineteen-seventies, on the part of people claiming to be instructed by the Koran.
More here. [Thanks to Asad Raza.]
January 28, 2008
Below the Fold: Out-niggering and Our First “Black President”
by Michael Blim
George Wallace reflecting on his first and unsuccessful run for governor of Alabama in 1958 defeat, made a remarkable vow. “Well, boys,” he said, “no other son of a bitch will ever out-nigger me again.” Needless to say, no one did, as you might recall.
Perhaps until now. Bill Clinton, self-proclaimed and rather foolishly acclaimed by some who shall go nameless as the first “Black” president has played the race card with a finesse that even Wallace might have admired. He has niggered Barack Obama. After he and Mrs. Clinton began to see that African-Americans were turning to Obama – doubtless armed to with polling data (I am guessing here) that might have indicated an African-American swing toward Obama in other states, this most ruthless and cunning couple, the Macbeths of our time, played the race card.
And Bill Clinton knows it. There is nothing, and I hope that progressive Southerners will forgive me this, like the expertise of a Southern politician in out-niggering, to use Wallace’s infelicitous phrase. Clinton employed it with a devilish finesse. Why, “Jesse Jackson won South Carolina twice in 1984 and 1988. And he ran a good campaign. Senator Obama’s run a good campaign here, he’s run a good campaign everywhere.” (Financial Times, January 28, page 4) The Financial Times, a straight-ahead, moderately conservative but rigorously reported newspaper concluded: “Mr. Clinton’s bleary-eyed implication was clear: Mr. Obama is a black candidate whom blacks disproportionately support.”
The specter of “block voting,” another code word in the South for the historic attempts of African-American to change Southern society comes to mind. Clinton has transformed Wallace’s technique: he uses race to “triangulate,” another unseemly strategy he brought to the White House and now spews forth as the hatchet man for Senator Clinton. He’s not baking cookies. He is artfully playing against African-Americans in order to pick up whites and Latinos for the Clinton campaign down the road. This is triangulation in its meanest form. Before it meant isolating progressive Democrats and working with Republicans to steal the middle ground of American politics out from under both of them. Recall “welfare reform,” the Defense of Marriage Act – oh, I don’t want to get started – both signed just in time for his re-election?
No noose-swinger is he. No, the Wallaces and Sparkmans and Russells – and yes the early Lyndon Johnson -- they were pikers in comparison. They merely consolidated the white vote. Clinton seeks to take out not only the black vote (if Senator Clinton can’t get enough of it), but to pick up both whites and Latinos – a kind of multi-culti racism without a ready precedent as I see it, at least now.
Niggering Obama makes a perverse sense that a Southern politician really understands. In the North, white politicians are no dummies. They consolidate white votes too by playing the race card. Their play must be both obvious, but careful in the final analysis. In big cities, few white politicians can countenance completely alienating African-Americans. They must share at least some power with them when they govern. In Chicago, my hometown, the elder Mayor Richard Daley was elected and re-elected with an overwhelming African-American vote, as Mike Royko, the inventor of Slats Grobnik, noted with a bittersweet irony. Yes, Chicago Congressman William Dawson ran a plantation on the South Side, ever since he had turned Democrat during the New Deal.
Chicago since the sixties was often described by social scientists as the most segregated, and by implication most racist, northern city in the nation. But something is lost in this description. African-Americans gained real power in Chicago, and they did it because white resistance began to whither under the relentless pressure of African-American politicians.The first black mayor, Harold Washington, came up working in the Daley machine, as did three generations of African-American politicians before him. After Obama took a whupping in his run for Congress – buried by a well-oiled African-American wing of the famous intergenerational Daley Machine, he still found some room for his rise, as so many other African-American politicians in Chicago have done before him.
Niggering in the North is done not by nailing African-Americans wholesale. – not these days anyway I would argue. But white politicians work up white racists by stigmatizing the Jacksons (not Jackson Jr. by the way who now has the congressional spot that Obama failed to win and is liberal force within the new Daley machine) and the Al Sharptons. These are the blacks to watch out for. They are the pushy ones – the “uppity” ones. In this way, white politician consolidate their white votes and still find a way to work with powerful black politicians after Election Day.
But the resentment of white politicians was visceral. How they hated Adam Clayton Powell. There was one uppity black man. How they hated Harold Washington, another uppity. These politicians knew the moves, and could beat the openly racist white politicians through their extraordinary insight, whether in running campaigns, or in Powell’s case helping pass the most progressive social legislation to come out of the Congress since the New Deal.
The Clintons, one expects the former President in particular, must really hate what is happening. An African-American politician, of all people, could become the real first black president. Another Clinton myth dismantled. The poor man sees himself becoming the Eisenhower of his generation.
But whereas, the General was an old-fashioned racist, Bill Clinton is of the new breed. He won’t be out-niggered, but in a new sense. He and the Senator can’t run an overtly racist campaign. After all, some of their best friends….. Oh, by the way, does my memory deceive me, or were the most spectacular of Clinton’s political executions during his regime the throwing overboard of Lani Guinier, Jocelyn Elders, and Andrew Young – all black “friends of Bill?’ Help me readers on this one. I could never keep up with Bill and Hillary’s betrayals.
But they can try to make Obama black. Watch out, they are saying to whites and Latinos, those old black block voters are going to get their way. And God knows, you both will find yourselves on the outside looking in. Think of what would happen if they escape the plantation? Given what’s been done to them, their revenge could be frightful.
And, of course, we Clintons will lose our grip on the best job, the most perks, the most lucrative book deals and speaking engagements, and the best elbow-rubbing in the world as we know it. Why they even paid off Bill’s legal expenses incurred in the little mess with that woman that the old yard dog didn’t have sex with.
Let a black man grab this? Not on your life. If we have to nigger him, well, the polls say we’ll make out. Another one over the side – that’s just a day’s work for us. We’ve been doing it so long, what’s another one to us?
George Wallace has found his heir, only in a politician smarter and more modern. But Bill be out-niggered? Not on your life. Or Obama’s for that matter.
TEMPORARY COLUMNS: MY FRIEND UNSEATS THE AUSTRALIAN PM
by Ram Manikkalingam
Prime Minister John Howard’s days were numbered the day Dr. Senan Nagararatnam, a radiologist in Sydney, took two weeks leave from work and went to Bennelong – Howard’s electorate - to campaign against him. I have known Senan since we were in first grade at Royal Junior School in Colombo. You couldn’t win an argument with Senan – however good your logic, your rhetoric or even your volume. If rhetoric was not on his side – he used logic. If logic was not on his side he used rhetoric. And if neither was on his side – he used volume. Whichever way you went at it – you always lost. And the argument always ended with Senan proclaiming loudly in front of the whole class – “Machan you do not know what the hell you’re talking about – so shut the .... up”. Someone should have warned John Howard.
I was in Australia recently and Senan drove down from Sydney to spend an evening with me. Like many Tamil families – his left Sri Lanka in the mid 80s when the fighting intensified and it started becoming uncomfortable to live in Sri Lanka particularly as a Tamil. However, unlike many members of the diaspora, Senan developed a real interest in the politics of the country where he chose to settle. He said his interests first began because he would read the papers daily – both to improve his English and to stave off boredom when he first moved to Sydney - and then because he started following politics more closely. Senan, is one of those peculiar people – who loves a good fight – but doesn’t like to hurt anyone. The result is that he enjoys watching people slug it out (verbally) – and occasionally joins in himself. And I suspect that this is why he deepened his interest in Australian politics – the stakes there after all are much lower than the volume. In any case, Senan has developed a good centre-left politics of support for basic freedoms, economic re-distribution and the underdog (whoever that might be). So Howard, to begin with, was definitely not his cup of tea. [Photo on left shows current Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.]
All immigrants in Australia do not share this view. Many have traditionally voted for Howard’s liberal party – endorsing policies based on the simple premise that if you work hard and lead a frugal life you will succeed, if the state gets out of the way. Howard, himself, comes from a background where such an experience proved to be true. The son of lower middle class owners of a small business, he saw how working hard and saving money enabled his parents to improve their lives. And he finally became prime minister of Australia. The flip side of Howard’s thinking of course is that those who do not succeed have only themselves to blame. Oddly, many immigrants who move to Australia share this thinking. I say oddly, not because it is surprising that they have social views about, say homosexuality and abortion that are relatively conservative, but that though they have moved to another country in order to do better for themselves, they still cannot see how their doing better is so closely tied to the political system in which they live.
Instead they attribute their success – in getting to a new place and doing well – to precisely the fact that it is individual effort, not social support that matters. Moreover, they look at a country like Australia with relatively generous social welfare provisions (healthcare, housing and unemployment benefits) and treat with a mixture of dismissal and disdain those who are originally from Australia, whether white or Aboriginal, and fail to succeed. They are dismissive of White Australians for not doing much better than they do under such favourable circumstances, and disdainful of Aboriginal Australians for being at the bottom of the heap.
So the immigrant community in Australia has a diversity of views, and do not always share the centre-left perspective that Senan has. Still they do come together on one issue. Since they are immigrants, they are uncomfortable with the politics of nativism in Australia – that also invariably has a racially exclusivist tone to it. Despite the presence of a large non-White native Australian population, it is hard in Australia to separate nativism from opposition to non-Whites. And successful immigrant communities in Australia, like the Chinese and South Asians are also affected by this. They are uncomfortable with direct or indirect appeals to race – which invariably come from the conservative end of the political spectrum. And John Howard was noted for this on many occasions.
In August 1988, Howard created controversy with the following comment about Asian immigration into Australia:
“I do believe that if it is - in the eyes of some in the community - that it's too great, it would be in our immediate-term interest and supporting of social cohesion if it were slowed down a little, so the capacity of the community to absorb it was greater.”
Advocating what he called a one Australia policy Howard opposed land rights for aboriginal Australians and the shifting focus of Australia away from Europe and towards Asia.
Subsequently, Howard took his time to disassociate himself from Pauline Hanson, who founded the “One Nation” party and campaigned on a platform of anti-immigration and anti-multiculturalism. Her policies, which included a combination of protectionism, nationalism and social conservatism, resonated in the late 90s with a significant fraction of the population. From a high of 8% of the national vote in the federal elections of 1998, however, her party’s popularity dwindled to a measly 0.3% in the election of December 2007. But not before she had a significant impact on national politics, particularly the shift in the platforms of the Liberal party towards the anti-immigrant right.
Finally there was the infamous MV Tampa affair. Here the Australian government, led by Howard, accused seafaring asylum seekers of throwing their children overboard in order to get permission to enter Australia. They refused to permit the MV Tampa, a Norwegian freighter that had gone to the rescue of the refugees at sea, to land on Christmas Island, an Australian territory and sent Australian special forces on board to enforce this order. The incident eventually led to a serious diplomatic dispute, with Norway accusing Australia of violating its maritime and humanitarian obligations under international law. It eventually emerged that the Howard government had knowingly lied about the refugees throwing children overboard in an effort to demonise them, and get public opinion on their side. Australia suffered a serious blow to its reputation of tolerance and openness, but John Howard’s coalition gained popularity and won the elections held shortly thereafter.
Why did John Howard, who appeared unassailable only a few months ago, not only lose the elections in December 2007, nationally, but also lose his own seat in parliament. So I asked Senan, who loves to travel during his vacation, why he instead took two weeks off to work against Howard, in his own electorate.
Senan mentioned two factors – Mohamed Haneef and “Work Choices”. Mohamed Haneef was an Indian physician working in Australia, who was falsely accused of association with terrorism. He is distantly related to one of the perpetrators of the attacks on Glasgow airport and had left his SIM card with a balance in it, with him after leaving the UK. And because Dr. Haneef was found to be leaving the country shortly after the incident on a one-way ticket to India, he was charged with associating with terrorists. All the “suspicious” activities had very innocent explanations. He could not afford a ticket and asked his father-in-law to buy him a one way ticket. And he wasn't fleeing after the attack in Glasgow, but was finally able to find other doctors to cover for him at the hospital that week. Eventually charges against him were dropped, but his visa was revoked, and he was sent back to India. To the credit of the Australian judicial system and Dr. Haneef’s courageous lawyer, Stephen Keim, he not only won his case, but his visa was re-instated. The minister who revoked his visa was also rebuked by the court, for loosely interpreting the term association to imply family or professional relationships.
What is remarkable about the Mohamed Haneef case was that not just the judiciary, but also a large section of Australians were unhappy. Australians, whatever their background, have a strong sense of fair play. And they sensed very quickly that this was a case of a young man being victimised by powerful politicians to scare others into toeing the line. The hospital where Dr. Haneef worked, and the Prime Minister of the State of Queensland, where the hospital is located, all said that Dr. Haneef was welcome back anytime.
Then, there was “Work Choices” the Howard government’s legislation to radically overhaul the industrial relations framework of Australia. The result was a pro-business legislation that weakened collective bargaining agreements, permitted individual contracts between employers and employees, and facilitated the dismissal of employees under circumstances that had hitherto been considered unfair. The Autralian trade union movement and the labour party opposed this legislation. Still, it passed muster in parliament and became the law. There were widespread protests against “Work Choices” and a great deal of unease among voters across the entire political spectrum, except maybe the super rich. Even the middle class was affected as their employers pressured them into individual contracts that lacked the protection of collective bargaining arrangements backed by a trade union.
And, finally, there was John Howard, himself. Having served out eleven years as Prime Minister, the second longest since Sir Robert Menzies, even his ardent supporters were getting a bit tired of seeing him around all the time, and his long time critics were getting ready to get rid of him.
I teased Senan, that he put on his walking shoes and went to Bennelong to join all the other “Chardonnay Socialists” in ousting John Howard. And they succeeded, helped by a charismatic, courageous and attractive labour candidate Maxine McKew, who was a well known anchorwoman for Australian TV.
And it did not hurt that the then leader of the opposition and current Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd , a fluent Mandarin speaker, campaigned in Bennelong. In the past decade Bennelong had changed from a predominantly White middle class neighbourhood to an ethnically mixed immigrant neighbourhood with a significant East Asian immigrant population.
So in-between sipping a lot of chardonnay, Senan walked many miles around Bennelong, educating voters about whom to vote for and how to do so, in Australia’s relatively complicated single transferable voting system. Senan was both a cause and a symptom of why John Howard lost. Until this past election, he had mainly discussed and argued about politics, but had never become directly involved. This time he actually worked to unseat John Howard. And he won.
Down to the Bone
If I could un-ring certain bells and un-wind time I
would, but can’t, so instead, I'll just ride this bucket
of bones till the wheels fly off; till ball-joints grind
and drop from sockets; till this xylophone of ribs riffs
the music of the spheres; until my funny bone
tells its last joke; till my shoulder blades cleave the
universe in two and find the nut within; until I'm
hipper than both hips and happier; till I'm savvy at
last, slicker than elbow grease, and mute as a smart
metatarsal; until I'm wiser than a thought-stuffed
skull; until I knee-cap my inner sonofabitch to stop
his useless jawin' so I can hear one clear day
resound off tiny anvils and ride the lyrical looped
song of a backyard bird round Lew Welch's ring of
I'll just splint what needs splinting right here at home.
Shomei Tomatsu. Untitled, Tokyo 1969; From the Series "Protest".
Gelatin silver print.
Monday Musing: Replying to Euler
Review of Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up by John Allen Paulos
You may know the (almost certainly apocryphal) story of an 18th century encounter between the brilliant Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler and the French freethinking encyclopaedist and philosopher Denis Diderot:
Diderot had been invited to the court by Catherine the Great, but then annoyed her by trying to convert everyone to atheism. Catherine asked Euler for help, and he informed Diderot, who was ignorant of mathematics, that he would present in court an algebraic proof of the existence of God, if Diderot wanted to hear it. Diderot was interested, and, according to De Morgan, Euler advanced toward Diderot, and said gravely, and in a tone of perfect conviction: "Sir, ( a + bn )/n = x , hence God exists; reply!" Diderot had no reply, and the court broke into laughter. Diderot immediately returned to France.
Not being ignorant of mathematics, had John Allen Paulos been in the place of Diderot, he would have had no trouble replying. He could just have presented Euler with a copy of his charming and brief book Irreligion. In Irreligion, Paulos provides (in the form of musings about them) refutations of twelve arguments for the existence of God which "range from what might be called the golden oldies of religious thought to those with a more contemporary beat," and he does so with verve, a robust prose, and a very welcome sense of humor. Along the way, we learn all sorts of interesting mathematical tidbits in short side-discussions of related issues. And there are delicious little anecdotes sprinkled throughout. I can't resist immediately providing an example of the latter:
[I am reminded] of a story related by Bertrand Russell about when he was entering jail as a conscientious objector during World War I. The admitting clerk asked him his religion, and when Russell responded that he was an agnostic, the clerk shook his head and said he'd never heard of that religion but that all of them worship the same God. [p. 79]
* * *
Let's get to the meat. To give a sense of Paulos's modus operandi, I'll present one of his refutations briefly here. This one, he calls The Argument from Prophecy (and the Bible Codes). For each of the arguments that he discusses, Paulos first distills them into a formal structure. Here's what that looks like for this argument:
- A holy book makes prophesies.
- The same book or adherents of it report that these prophesies have come true.
- The book is indubitable and asserts that God exists.
- Therefore God exists.
First, Paulos notes that in any narrative, the more details that are supplied, the more true it starts to seem. For example, if asked which of the following narratives is more likely to be true,
- Congressman Smith took a bribe last year.
- Congressman Smith took a bribe last year, took another one this year, used some of the money to rent a secret apartment for his young intern, and spent the rest on luxurious "fact-finding" trips with her.
many people will pick the second one even though mathematically speaking, any statement alone always has a higher probability of being true than its conjunction with any other statement(s):
Embedding God in a holy book's detailed narrative and building an entire culture around this narrative seem by themselves to confer a kind of existence on Him. Holidays, traditions, ideals, cultural identities, as valuable as they occasionally might be, all seem to add to the unwarranted presuppositions underlying them. Their familiarity also serves to inure us to the vindictive, petty, and repellent aspects of the God character. [p. 62]
Second, Paulos notes that people, even if they are deluded, often reinforce each others beliefs. A kind of "all-of-us-can't-be-wrong" thinking, and then he points to an interesting mathematical result:
note that testimony that someone is telling the truth is self-undermining if the likelihood of truth-telling is less than 1/2. If people are confused, lying, or otherwise deluded more often than not, than their expressions of support for each other are literally less than worthless.[p.64]
He goes on to give an example with two people who each get the truth right only 1/4 of the time. What is the probability if one of them makes an assertion and the other supports it as true, that it is actually true? Paulos shows with some simple mathematics that the probablity now drops to 1/10:
The Moral: Confirmation of a person's unreliable statement by another unreliable person makes the statement even less reliable. [p. 65]
The rest of the chapter is devoted to a probabilistic analysis showing that there is nothing unusual about the Bible Codes. Such codes could be extracted from any sufficiently large text, and they have been. For example, War and Peace has been shown to contain codes for "Jordan," "Chicago," and "Bulls" very close together, prompting Paulos to sarcastically declare Tolstoy a basketball clairvoyant!
* * *
The book is organized into three sections, each of which deals with four arguments. The first presents traditional ones, such as the ontological argument, and the argument from design. The second deals with subjective arguments such as the one I presented above. And the third section is on psycho-mathematical arguments such as Pascal's wager. Each section also contains short asides with commonsensical comments on various dubious assertions and practices in religion. For example, discussing Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ, Paulos writes:
Assume for the moment that compelling historical documents have just come to light establishing the movie's and the Bible's contentions that a group of Jews was instrumental in bringing about the death of Jesus; that Pilate, the Roman governor, was benign and ineffectual; and so on. Even if all this were the case, does it not seem hateful, not to mention un-Christian, to blame contemporary Jews? ...even if we give full credit to Plato's twenty-four-hundred-year-old account of Socrates' death, what zealous coterie of classicists or philosophers would hold today's Greeks responsible? [p.92-93]
Nowhere is Paulos preachy or condescending. His tone remains always detached and his humor dry. Paulos is not interested in engaging in polemics or spewing invective. This is a sincere, calm, humane and timely examination of a phenomenon nowadays much in the news, one we can benefit by reading regardless of our beliefs.
All my previous Monday Musings can be seen here.
Have a good week!
January 27, 2008
Suharto is Dead
This may be a little newsy, but one of the most corrupt and murderous dictators of the late 20th century has died, never having been tried. In the NYT:
Mr. Suharto had been hospitalized on Jan. 4 with heart, lung and kidney problems, according to medical officials of Pertamina Hospital in Jakarta. His condition worsened dramatically over the weekend and he lost consciousness and stopped breathing on his own, they said.
A statement issued by the chief presidential doctor, Marjo Subiandono, said he was declared dead at 1:10 p.m. The cause of death was given as multi-organ failure.
Mr. Suharto was driven from office in 1998 by widespread rioting, economic paralysis and political chaos. His rule was not without accomplishment; he led Indonesia to stability and nurtured economic growth. But these successes were ultimately overshadowed by his pervasive and large-scale corruption; repressive, militarized rule; and a convulsion of mass bloodletting when he seized power in the late 1960s that took at least 500,000 lives.
katyn: a movie that matters
The ruins of a Russian Orthodox monastery, 1939: paint peels from the walls, light filters in from the cracks in the ceiling, cigarette smoke whirls through the air. Primitive wooden camp beds are stacked up high, one on top of the other, for the monastery has been turned into a prison. The prisoners, soldiers in khaki-brown wool uniforms and black boots, are gathered in a large group. Craning their heads forward, they listen to their commanding officer make a speech. Solemn and tired, he does not ask them to fight. He asks them to survive. "Gentlemen," says the general, "you must endure. Without you, there will be no free Poland."
The scene ends. The audience—at least the audience in the Warsaw theater where I watched the film—sighs, rustles, collectively draws its breath. Those watching know, as they were meant to know, that the soldiers, the flower of Poland's pre-war officer corps, did not survive. And without them, there was indeed no free Poland.
more from the NYRB here.
getting hold of dworkin
Few scholars working today can match Ronald Dworkin’s range of intellectual interests, and none writes about complex legal and philosophical issues with greater elegance or charm. The successor to H. L. A. Hart as Professor of Jurisprudence at Oxford and currently the Jeremy Bentham Professor of Law at University College London and Frank Henry Sommer Professor of Law at New York University, Dworkin is one of this era’s preeminent legal and political theorists. A regular contributor to the NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS, Dworkin is also a familiar public intellectual and a regular participant in public debates about controversial issues in political morality.
Although his works, individually, are models of clarity, Dworkin has written so much, and contributed to so many different debates in practical philosophy, that it can be difficult to appreciate the full scope and range of his intellectual achievements. Arthur Ripstein’s collection of essays, RONALD DWORKIN, aims to help readers meet that challenge. A volume in the Cambridge University Press series, Contemporary Philosophy in Focus, it seeks to introduce readers who are not intimately familiar with Dworkin’s works to his several major philosophical contributions.
more from Law and Politics Book Review here.
rilke's letters TO A YOUNG PLUMBER
15 July 1898 Munich
Your letter arrived just a few days ago. I want to thank you for the great confidence you have placed in me. You must first know that I would never presume to critique your theory that "It is not always essential to flux the interior of a tee before sweating the joint," although I am concerned that you haven't yet acquired your own plumbing "style." I do see (if I am reading these specs correctly) that you have insinuated something personal, something yours, into the annealed tubing of your project with the "cantankerous" (great word!) commode. Let me direct you, if I may, to what, at least in my mind, is an essential text to accompany you on your plumbing journey: The International and Uniform Plumbing Codes Handbook (1897) by Uder Weiss. While Weiss writes with his customary prolixity, his breadth of scope is matched only by his depth of vision, and we must accept his idea that in order to understand our craft we must "plumb" its essence (I love how one can use that word in two ways and it kind of means the same thing) and retreat into its history, indeed, into its primordial anima. Are you prepared for this adventure, good sir? If the answer is yes, then you are already well on your way.
And all success upon your path!
Rainer Maria Rilke
more from McSweeney's here.
Gandhi's grandson resigns from Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence
Arun Gandhi's resignation statement:
My statements on the recent Washington Post blog was couched in language that was hurtful and contrary to the principles of nonviolence.
My intention was to generate a healthy discussion on the proliferation of violence. Clearly I did not achieve my goal. Instead, unintentionally, my words have resulted in pain, anger, confusion and embarrassment. I deeply regret these consequences.
I would like to be part of a healing process. The principles of nonviolence are founded on love, respect, understanding and compassion. It is my sincere hope that this situation will give me and others the opportunity to work together to transform anger and negative emotions, create deeper mutual respect and understanding and build more harmonious communities.
And the offending blog post from the Washington Post:
Jewish Identity Can't Depend on Violence
Jewish identity in the past has been locked into the holocaust experience -- a German burden that the Jews have not been able to shed. It is a very good example of a community can overplay a historic experience to the point that it begins to repulse friends. The holocaust was the result of the warped mind of an individual who was able to influence his followers into doing something dreadful. But, it seems to me the Jews today not only want the Germans to feel guilty but the whole world must regret what happened to the Jews. The world did feel sorry for the episode but when an individual or a nation refuses to forgive and move on the regret turns into anger.
The Jewish identity in the future appears bleak. Any nation that remains anchored to the past is unable to move ahead and, especially a nation that believes its survival can only be ensured by weapons and bombs. In Tel Aviv in 2004 I had the opportunity to speak to some Members of Parliament and Peace activists all of whom argued that the wall and the military build-up was necessary to protect the nation and the people. In other words, I asked, you believe that you can create a snake pit -- with many deadly snakes in it -- and expect to live in the pit secure and alive? What do you mean? they countered. Well, with your superior weapons and armaments and your attitude towards your neighbors would it not be right to say that you are creating a snake pit? How can anyone live peacefully in such an atmosphere? Would it not be better to befriend those who hate you? Can you not reach out and share your technological advancement with your neighbors and build a relationship?
Apparently, in the modern world, so determined to live by the bomb, this is an alien concept. You don't befriend anyone, you dominate them. We have created a culture of violence (Israel and the Jews are the biggest players) and that Culture of Violence is eventually going to destroy humanity.
[Thanks to Ruchira Paul.]
Beyond Baker Street
From The Wshington Post:
When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle died in 1930, he was famed as the creator of Sherlock Holmes. But he was also the author of many other books, a missionary for spiritualism and a frequent defender of the embattled British Empire. As acts of imagination, Conan Doyle's re-inventions of himself -- physician, novelist, patriot, journalist, celebrity and occasionally even sleuth asked to solve real-life crimes -- rival his creation of the immortal consulting detective. A new biography and a new collection of letters display the many aspects of Conan Doyle's character, revealing in fresh detail the human being behind the waxed mustache and tightly buttoned waistcoat of his portraits.
Andrew Lycett titles his comprehensive and surprisingly action-packed biography The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes, but he doesn't skimp on his subject's other accomplishments. Conan Doyle complained for decades that his fictional detective's popularity kept the author from achieving better things, and Lycett demonstrates that Holmes was indeed only one child of a busy brain. He reminds us of the historical novels, including Micah Clarke and The White Company, as well as the science fiction masterpiece The Lost World.
The scrap merchant supreme
From The Guardian:
Walter Benjamin's Archive: Images, Texts, Signs
Whereas Proust's evocation of the blissful past was as easy as eating a cake, Benjamin likened himself to 'a man digging'. Proust's enchanted reveries typically happened in a cafe or a park. Benjamin, however, was working in a graveyard and his 'spade probing in the dark loam' was likely to encounter a cadaver. Unlike Proust, he did not have the luxury of completing his mnemonic research. He had to quit Paris after the fall of France. His archive, patchily pieced together in this book, which derives from an exhibition in Berlin, was dispersed among friends and in part destroyed.
He died in the Pyrenees in 1940, probably killing himself with an overdose of morphine: he had despaired of being allowed to cross into Spain and then into neutral Portugal, from where he could have sailed to safety in America. He was only 48. The manuscripts in the briefcase Benjamin was carrying vanished. All that mattered to the authorities was his meagre bankroll, used to settle his hotel bill and the cost of his funeral. He might have been sourly or sadly amused by the fate of his treasured meditation 'On the Concept of History', which was, no doubt, binned when the room occupied by this dead transient was cleaned out.
Pakistan's Universities - Problems and Solutions
by Pervez Hoodbhoy (first published in Dawn):
General Pervez Musharraf's regime boasts of its successes in science and education at home and abroad. Recently, I saw Pakistan's successes trumpeted by a large official delegation headed by Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman, the chairman of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) at a conference in Trieste, Italy. They came to address a special session on science development in Pakistan - the only country that had requested and paid for such special treatment at the conference. Those who did not know about the state of science in Pakistan were amazed by the claims made. Those who knew better were stunned by the flood of self-serving lies, half-truths and deceit.
The claims made were several. A 300 percent jump in research publications shows that academic activity in Pakistan has vastly increased; nine new engineering universities with European teaching faculty will soon be established; the 3000 Pakistani students sent overseas for higher degrees will revolutionize the university system upon return; Ph.Ds produced annually from Pakistani universities will soon approach the spectacular figure of 1500; mathematics is now a strong discipline in Pakistan; and so forth.
The truth is very different. Even though the spending on higher education has increased 15 times over the last five years, the improvements have been cosmetic. Genuine science in Pakistan has actually shrunk, not grown, over the last three decades. The trend has not been reversed. Euphoric claims notwithstanding, public university education in Pakistan remains miserably backward by international standards. Its real problems are yet to be touched.
Take the HEC's first claim: the 3-fold increase in Pakistani academic
publications. Fantastically large per-paper monetary rewards to university
teachers - a practice not adopted anywhere else in the world for excellent
reasons - have indeed boosted publication rates. But publishing more
papers is not the same as doing more research. Instead, the high rewards
have caused an explosion of plagiarism, theft of intellectual property,
publication of trivial results and falsified data, and publication of
slightly different versions of the same paper in different journals. Most
published papers are worthless academically and scientifically.
The reader can readily verify the last point. All that is needed is a
computer and an internet connection. Simply type www.scholar.google.com
into your browser, and then the name of any individual scientist or
scholar you want. (Academic databases even more comprehensive than Google
are available but not free.) A list of publications of that person,
together with a count of the number of times his/her papers have been
cited by other scholars, will be displayed. Remember that a piece of
scientific work is important only if it is useful to other scientists, or
to industry in the form of patents that lead to new products (a separate
database exists for that). So, in a matter of seconds, one can see which
individuals are considered important by the world of science and academia.
The results of such database searches are eye-opening. A majority of
papers by Pakistani authors, even if published in international journals
by some hook or crook, have exactly zero citations (once self-citations
are removed). Such papers have contributed nothing. They may just as well
have not been written. The average number of citations per Pakistani paper
is 3.41 (includes self-citation), which is much below that in
scientifically advanced countries.
Still more shocking is the citation record of some of Pakistan's most
well-advertised scientists, whose relentless self-promotion at government
expense would be considered a crime in another country. While they have
hundreds of papers and books to their credit, most of these have
zero-citations. Others in their field seem to have scarcely noticed any of
their work. On the other hand the reader can check that about 25-30 other
Pakistani scientists, who are unadvertised, relatively unknown, and have
published far fewer papers, nevertheless have much better citation records
and a moderately good international standing in their respective fields.
Now for the HEC's nine Pak-European universities project: This is a
stunning disaster. The most advanced university (in terms of construction
and planning) was the French engineering university in Karachi. Named
UESTP-France, with a completion cost of Rs. 26 billion rupees, it was to
have begun functioning in October 2007. There is still no official
explanation for why this did not happen, no new date has been set, and no
account given of the money already spent.
On the face of it, making Pak-European universities sounds like a
wonderful idea. Pakistan would pay for France, Sweden, Italy, and some
other European countries to help set up, manage, and provide professors
for new universities in Pakistan. It would be expensive - Pakistan would
have to pay the full development costs, recurrent expenses, and euro-level
salaries (plus 40% markup) for all the foreign professors and
vice-chancellors. But it would still be worth it because the large
presence of European professors teaching in these Pakistani universities
would ensure good teaching. High-standard degrees would subsequently be
awarded by institutions in the respective European countries.
Even commonsense said that the project could not work. Perhaps one can
persuade beefy mercenaries of the French Foreign Legion to go to some
country where suicide bombings happen daily and killing of ordinary
citizens by terrorists is routine. But it takes an enormous leap of faith
to think that respectable academics from France - or any other European
country for that matter - will want to live and teach in Pakistan for a
year or more. Travel advisories issued by several European governments
warn against even brief visits. That the French professors did not turn up
at UESTP-France is scarcely surprising. But, lost to their mad fantasies,
HEC planners are now working on the vain assumption that the Germans and
Swedes are made of sterner stuff than the French.
A wiser leadership would have aimed for one properly planned new
engineering university, set up under the European Union. It would have
sought external help for adding engineering departments to existing
universities, as well as to massively upgrade existing ones. But these
relatively modest goals are unacceptable to the present HEC leadership
that believes, like the Musharraf regime as a whole, in grand plans rather
than practical, feasible, reforms.
Showing the hollowness of the other official claims of progress would take
more space than available here. Slick PowerPoint presentations by HEC
officials throw one figure after another at dizzying speed giving the
impression of fantastic progress. But the intelligent listener must ask
many questions: does it make sense to select thousands of students on the
basis of a substandard high-school level numeracy and literacy test, and
then send them for an expensive graduate-level education in Europe? Will
the quality of Pakistani graduates not be further degraded by pushing Ph.D
production far beyond the capability of the present universities?
It is time to end the fetish of buying tons of expensive scientific
equipment that, at the end of it all, produce only zero-citation papers
and zero patents. Curiously, after a bunch of projects were exposed as
phony, the HEC broke with its past practice and now no longer puts on its
website details of HEC-funded projects. It is also time to stop HEC
officials and HEC delegates from gallivanting across the globe at public
expense on the vaguest of excuses for "fact-finding" missions and
There must be an independent investigation of the HEC's plans and
financing, a review of its programs, and a full audit of accounts. The
inquiry should be jointly done by the future government through the PAC
and NAB, assisted by a citizens committee. Individual whims and personal
ambitions must be checked to protect the national interest. Pakistan is a
poor country although, looking at the HEC’s spending patterns, one would
conclude the opposite.
WHAT REAL REFORM REQUIRES: The record-setting increase in the budget for
higher education - which shot up from Rs 3.8 billion in 2002 to Rs 33.7
billion in 2007 - has led to little beyond cosmetic changes. So, what can
Solutions are needed at three distinct levels - determining correct
funding priorities, implementing approved plans and projects responsibly,
and, most importantly, inducing changes in values to promote and enable
Current spending priorities are the haphazard expression of individual
whims, not actual needs. For example, most Pakistani students in higher
education (about 0.8 million) study in about 700 colleges. These colleges
receive pitifully small funding compared to universities. During
2001-2004, the funds annually allocated to colleges averaged a miserable
sum of Rs 0.48 billion and the spending per college student was only one
sixth that for a university student. Subsequently this has become worse.
It is no surprise then that public colleges are in desperate shape with
dilapidated buildings, broken furniture, and laboratory and library
facilities that exist only in name.
Meanwhile, many public universities are awash in funds. They have gone on
a shopping binge for all kinds of gadgetry - fax machines, fancy
multimedia projectors, and electricity-guzzling airconditioners. But it
would be hard to argue that any of this has served to improve teaching
quality even marginally. Worse, the availability of "free money" has led
to the pursuit of numerous madcap projects such as the HEC's hugely
expensive, but failed, attempt to bring in hundreds of fearful European
university professors to teach in a country where suicide bombers kill at
The beggarly treatment of colleges compared to universities is often
justified on grounds that universities perform research while colleges do
not. But, notwithstanding a few honorable exceptions, this "research" has
added little to the stock of existing knowledge as judged by the
international community of scholars. Nevertheless, in 2005/2006
university research funding totaled a whopping Rs 0.342 billion. Past
experience shows that much of the money will be used to buy expensive
research equipment that will find little if any real use.
Instead of continuing to pay for dubious research, funding priorities must
shift to improving teaching quality, especially in colleges. Pakistani
university and college students, as well as their teachers, are far below
the internationally accepted levels in terms of basic subject
understanding. As one indicator, performance scores of Pakistanis on the
US Graduate Record Examinations, which test subject basics, are miserably
poor compared to students from India or China. For example, of the 56
M.Phil and Ph.D students who recently took the physics exam from the best
physics department in the country - that at Quaid-e-Azam University - none
was able to get even a semi-respectable score in this entry-level exam.
Because bad teaching quality largely comes from having teachers with
insufficient knowledge of their subject, it is important both to have
better teacher selection mechanisms and to create large-scale
teacher-training academies in every province. Established with
international help, these academies should bring in the best teachers as
trainers from across the country and from our neighbours. It is hard to
see any trainers coming from western countries, although one should try to
get them. This effort will cost money and take time - perhaps on the order
of a billion dollars over 5 years. These high-quality institutions should
have a clear philosophy aimed at equipping teachers to teach through
concepts rather than rote learning, use modern textbooks, and emphasize
basic principles of pedagogy, grading, and fairness. They should award
degrees to create an incentive for teachers to go there and to do well.
Until a sufficiently large number of adequate university teachers can be
generated by the above (and various other) means, the senseless policy of
making new universities must be discontinued. The HEC prides itself in
almost doubling the number of public universities over 6 years. But there
is nothing to be gained from a department of English where the
department's head cannot speak or write a grammatically correct
non-trivial sentence of English; a physics department where the head is
confused about the operation of an incandescent light bulb; a mathematics
department where graduate students have problems with elementary surds and
roots; or a biology department where evolution is thought to be
new-fangled and quite unnecessary to teach as part of modern biology.
Better academic planning and management at the national level - which has
no monetary cost - is crucial to having higher education institutions that
actually function. Major quality improvements could result from using
nation-wide standardized tests for student admission into higher education
institutions; teaching teachers to use distance-learning materials
effectively; and designing standardized teaching laboratories that may be
efficiently duplicated across Pakistan.
But implementation of even the best plans comes to naught without good
management at the institutional level. Good leaders have made a difference
in their respective institutions. Unfortunately, Pakistan has a patronage
system because of which unqualified and unsuitable military men, as well
as bureaucrats, are often appointed as vice-chancellors, principals, and
registrars. Therefore most institutional heads are inept and vital tasks
remain unimplemented. These include enforcement of academic ethics,
creating the culture of civilized debate on campuses, encouragement of
community work, etc. The harm done by badly chosen senior administrators
cannot be undone by any amount of money.
DEEPER ISSUES: Sixty years of consistent failure force us to search for
reasons that go beyond fiscal and administrative issues. What sets us
apart from the developed world, or even India and Iran? In Pakistan the
dead hand of tradition stands squarely in the way of modern education and
a modern mindset that relies on critical thinking. The educational system,
shaped by deeply conservative social and cultural values, discourages
questioning and stresses obedience.
In seeking change, it will be important to break the tyranny of the
teacher, a relic of pre-modern social values. Closed minds cannot
innovate, create art and literature, or do science. Most Pakistani
students memorize an arbitrary set of rules and an endless number of facts
and say that X is true and Y is false because that’s what the textbook
says. (I grind my teeth whenever a master's or Ph.D student in my
university class gives me this argument!)
There has to be social acceptance of modern education which, at its
fundamentals, is entirely about individual liberty, willingness to accept
change, intellectual honesty, and constructive rebellion. Critical thought
allows individuals to make a revolutionary difference and to reinvent the
future. Else they will merely repeat the dysfunction of the past.
To open minds, the change must begin at the school level. Good pedagogy
requires encouraging the spirit of healthy questioning in the classroom.
It should therefore be normal practice for teachers to raise such
questions as: How do we know? What is important to measure? How to check
the correctness of measurements? What is the evidence? How to make sense
out of your results? Is there a counter explanation, or perhaps a simpler
one? The aim should be to get students into the habit of posing such
critical questions and framing reasoned answers.
Reforming higher education in Pakistan has a chance only if considers the
totality of problems, such as outlined here, and if solution strategies
are pursued with honesty and integrity. This task has yet to begin.
HEC SPOKESPERSON (10 Jan, 2008):
This is with reference to the article "Sham university reforms" by Pervez
Hoodboy (Jan 2). Since its formation in 2002, the Higher Education
Commission has made remarkable progress, implementing the much needed
reforms. These include: setting of stringent requirements for the
appointment and promotion of faculty members, strict quality control of
PhD programmes, establishment of a digital library providing free access
to 23,000 international journals to all public sector universities.
It has also introduced an e-books programme so that every public sector
university now has access to 45,000 textbooks from 220 international
publishers, has initiated a programme of live lectures from
technologically advanced countries through video conferencing in real time
and with full inter-activity.
Moreover, changes in the salary structure of academics under the tenure
track system have been made through which salaries of scholars active in
research have been increased significantly.
Most universities in Pakistan, including the Quaid-i-Azam University, have
adopted this system. Introduction of a foreign faculty hiring programme
through which the "brain drain" from Pakistan has been converted into a
"brain gain" with over 200 eminent faculty members, who had worked for
most of their lives in technologically advanced countries, have now
returned to join universities in Pakistan.
These changes have been implemented and they are changing the landscape of
our universities to the benefit of the nation.
The HEC reforms have been internationally praised. A WB report says that
"these positive reforms already have benefited the universities". It goes
on to state that the "HEC has placed quality improvement of the higher
education sub-sector at the centre of its agenda" and that "the programmes
spelled out in the medium-term development framework of the HEC are an
impressive set of initiatives".
Praising the leadership provided by Prof (Dr) Atta-ur-Rahman within the
HEC, it states that "the HEC has gained authority since its inception in
part because of its own strong and professional leadership, independent
board and ample funding" and that "still a young institution, the HEC
already has a legacy. Since its inception, it has been startlingly active
and has shaken up the world of the universities".
These reforms were presented at a meeting of the Academy of Sciences of
the Developing World (TWAS) in Trieste by a delegation of leading
scientists of Pakistan comprising Dr Amir Mohammad, Prof (Dr) Sheikh
Riazuddin, Prof Iqbal Chaudhary, Prof Qasim Mehdi, Prof Tassawar Hayat and
The presentations highlighted the achievements that Pakistan has made
during last five years through the HEC programmes. By calling these
presentations half-truths etc, Dr Hoodbhoy does no justice to Pakistan.
His stand is that increase in our research output has arisen due to
"explosion of plagiarism, theft of intellectual property, publication of
trivial results and falsified data, and publication of slightly different
versions of the same paper in different journals".
This is wrong. It is the HEC which has taken firm steps to control and
eliminate plagiarism by laying down a clear policy against it.
By trivialising more than 1,600 research articles from Pakistan in the
world's top journals in subjects ranging from anthropology to zoology, the
writer only exposes his own biases.
Mr Hoodbhoy is also critical of the initiative to establish a number of
new universities of engineering, science and technology. Such universities
take years to plan and implement.
The French-sponsored university has been deliberately delayed to enable
the formation of a strong consortium of French universities. Calling this
delay a "stunning disaster" is again an example of a typical exaggeration.
He also wrongly says that there has been extravagant funding of our higher
education sector. The budget of all 57 public sector universities in
Pakistan put together is $500 million, which is about 40 per cent less
than that of the National University of Singapore.
SAMINA WAQAR Director-General (Public Relations), HEC, Islamabad
HOODBHOY RESPONDS TO WAQAR (Dawn, 15 Jan 2008)
The HEC has, as expected, responded to my expose (Dawn, 2 Jan) of its
unconscionable squandering of public funds by trotting out its usual list
of claimed achievements (Dawn, 10 Jan). But this spiritless reply does not
address the issues I raised, except distantly and peripherally. Instead,
it takes refuge in a 2006 World Bank report, issued by a WB team led by
Benoit Millot, that lavishes praise upon the HEC for having effected
"quality improvement of the higher education sub-sector", and for having
revolutionized Pakistans universities.
I find this fascinating and disturbing. This is a perfect example where
two institutions are driven by shared needs -- the WB to lend and the HEC
to spend. While the WB report is printed on glossy paper, is written in
fine English, and has beautiful graphics, it is fundamentally flawed
because it contains no meaningful data on the quality of education in
Pakistani universities. Browsing though WB publications, I simply did not
see any report that purports to be a scientifically performed survey on
this specific matter.
When and how, may I ask, did the WB check the quality of faculty or that
of the student body across Pakistani universities? Has it surveyed
library and laboratory facilities, the content of university courses, the
standard of examination papers, the presence (or lack thereof) of academic
colloquia and seminars on campuses, etc? Was any assessment made of the
number of days in a year that the universities actually functioned, the
suitability of those appointed as vice-chancellors, employer satisfaction
with university graduates, etc? These are crucial quality indicators.
Unless one has reasonably reliable data on such matters, the opinions
expressed in the quoted WB report are simply vacuous.
If the WB has indeed carried out a relevant survey, I would be most
grateful to know the reference to such work and apologize in advance for
any hurt caused. On the other hand, if there is no such work, then I would
like to know what the WBs $1500 per-day education consultants do in a
third-world country beyond cutting and pasting from official reports. If
other sections of the World Bank operate similarly, then one fears for
The HEC has picked many numbers that suit its purposes but has not
attempted to see if they are meaningful. It is unfortunate that the HEC
spokesperson accuses me of trivializing all 1600 research papers published
in recent times. I did not. Instead, I merely showed that the interested
reader -- using the free Google.Scholar data base mentioned in my article
-- can judge each one of these papers to see if anyone in the world has
found them useful or interesting. Unfortunately, all but a tiny fraction
have zero citations.
To my mind, publishing even two dozen papers yearly -- provided they are
highly original and well-cited -- would have a far healthier impact on our
universities than the hundreds of junk papers generated by the
government's per-paper reward scheme. While the spokesperson lamely claims
that "It is the HEC which has taken firm steps to control and eliminate
plagiarism by laying down a clear policy against it", no such thing is
evident. On the contrary, newspapers in Pakistan and abroad are full of
stories about Pakistani academics who freely plagiarize materials across
the globe as they rush to grab the rewards.
Finally, I do believe that there is an alternative direction in which to
improve and expand higher education, and which could gainfully use the
huge sums now allocated to the HEC. For this, the interested reader is
referred to part-II of my article (Dawn, 12-01-2008).
Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad.
A President Like My Father
Caroline Kennedy in the New York Times:
Over the years, I’ve been deeply moved by the people who’ve told me they wished they could feel inspired and hopeful about America the way people did when my father was president. This sense is even more profound today. That is why I am supporting a presidential candidate in the Democratic primaries, Barack Obama.
My reasons are patriotic, political and personal, and the three are intertwined. All my life, people have told me that my father changed their lives, that they got involved in public service or politics because he asked them to. And the generation he inspired has passed that spirit on to its children. I meet young people who were born long after John F. Kennedy was president, yet who ask me how to live out his ideals.
Sometimes it takes a while to recognize that someone has a special ability to get us to believe in ourselves, to tie that belief to our highest ideals and imagine that together we can do great things. In those rare moments, when such a person comes along, we need to put aside our plans and reach for what we know is possible.
We have that kind of opportunity with Senator Obama.
More here. [Thanks to Ruchira Paul.]
William Shakespeare - Sonnet
January 26, 2008
The Future of Marriage
Stephanie Coontz in Cato Unbound:
Any serious discussion of the future of marriage requires a clear understanding of how marriage evolved over the ages, along with the causes of its most recent transformations. Many people who hope to “re-institutionalize” marriage misunderstand the reasons that marriage was once more stable and played a stronger role in regulating social life.
For most of history, marriage was more about getting the right in-laws than picking the right partner to love and live with. In the small-scale, band-level societies of our distant ancestors, marriage alliances turned strangers into relatives, creating interdependencies among groups that might otherwise meet as enemies. But as large wealth and status differentials developed in the ancient world, marriage became more exclusionary and coercive. People maneuvered to orchestrate advantageous marriage connections with some families and avoid incurring obligations to others. Marriage became the main way that the upper classes consolidated wealth, forged military coalitions, finalized peace treaties, and bolstered claims to social status or political authority. Getting “well-connected” in-laws was a preoccupation of the middle classes as well, while the dowry a man received at marriage was often the biggest economic stake he would acquire before his parents died. Peasants, farmers, and craftsmen acquired new workers for the family enterprise and forged cooperative bonds with neighbors through their marriages.
tree of smoke
Tree of Smoke is many things—Johnson’s magnum opus, a pastiche of Vietnam novels and movies and nonfiction accounts, a philosophical exploration of military intelligence, an atmospheric thriller in the mode of Graham Greene or John Le Carré—but perhaps most interestingly it is the prequel we didn’t know existed to Johnson’s entire body of work. No fewer than eight of its characters have appeared in Johnson’s other novels, and perhaps more: an interesting but futile guessing game results after a while. Is the missionary and aid worker Kathy Jones of Tree of Smoke the cynical, unnamed narrator of The Stars at Noon, Johnson’s moody novel of Nicaragua in the mid-1980s? And is the Englishman with whom that narrator becomes fatally entangled related, somehow, to Anders Pitchfork, the British ex-paratrooper who appears in Tree of Smoke? Even more interesting, perhaps: was Tree of Smoke the novel Johnson meant to give us in, say, 1980, but was bedeviled by for nearly three decades?
If so, it was worth the wait.
more from VQR here.
Magnetic Fields and Cat Power
Aging, though, tends to trump coyness, even in indie rock; these days, Bill Callahan records under his own name, and Darnielle raids his real-life childhood for inspiration. Yet Marshall and Merritt -- who together have indulged every kind of make-believe there is -- remain more evasive than ever. "Distortion," in the great abstruse Magnetic Fields tradition, is an uncharacteristically loud record conceived as a sonic homage to the Jesus and Mary Chain's landmark noise-pop record "Psychocandy." On it, Merritt variously channels a necrophiliac, a drunk, a nun, an ax murderer and a prostitute. Making things even more confusing, half the record is sung by Shirley Simms, a collaborator on "69 Love Songs." On Cat Power's "Jukebox," which includes covers of songs by Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell and Hank Williams, Marshall pours herself into people as wildly distinct as James Brown and Bob Dylan. Still, now that both are grown up and all -- Merritt's 42, Marshall 36 -- one might well ask: Why the masquerade?
more from Salon here.
democratic, generous, angry and thoroughly in the American grain
Whenever anyone writes about the “New York intellectuals” — the group of male Jewish writers who came to prominence in the years after the Second World War — Kazin’s name is near the top of the list. And yet he wasn’t a typical member of the tribe. If you were drawing a composite sketch of a model New York intellectual, you’d make him an atheist, largely unconcerned with spiritual questions; a partisan of European literary modernism; and a creature whose political thinking had been forever marked by 1930s debates about socialism and Communism. Kazin, by contrast, was God-haunted (“I want my God back” is the next-to-last sentence of his 1978 memoir, “New York Jew”); unquenchably fascinated by American literature and American history; and politically radical, but in a fashion that owed less to Marx than to Whitman — Kazin’s radicalism was democratic, generous, angry and thoroughly in the American grain.
more from the NY Times Book Review here.
Chris Faatz in Powell's Books:
Any new book by Charles Simic is a cause for celebration.
You can get caught up in these poems, haunted for days by an image, torn asunder by a line. This is the mark of a great poet, that he or she can speak so directly and so poignantly to our realities, even when the words chosen come from the realm of the wonderful, the magical, the surreal, the thoroughly unexpected.