Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Pragmatists 'R' Us
E. J. Dionne, Jr. in The New Republic:
President-elect Barack Obama has now made three things clear about his plans to bring the economy back: He wants his actions to be big and bold. He sees economic recovery as intimately linked with economic and social reform. And he is bringing in a gifted brain trust to get the job done.
Just three weeks after Election Day, Obama has already expanded his authority by seizing on "an economic crisis of historic proportions," as he described it on Monday, to call for a stimulus package that will dwarf in size anything ever attempted by the federal government.
But Obama is also using the crisis to make the case for larger structural reforms in health care, energy and education -- "to lay the groundwork for long-term, sustained economic growth," as he put it. Obama clearly views the economic downturn not as an impediment to the broadly progressive program he outlined during the campaign but as an opportunity for a round of unprecedented social legislation.
Pairs of Shoes
My future lives come to me in dreams
Come silently with torn soles.
I am like a skilled shoemaker
Greeting the wandering breath of these feet.
These dreams — my other selves
Sprawl out to sleep like a litter of puppies,
Pinches of ashy fur standing up in tufts
Their young hair like hens’ fluffed feathers
They lie on their stomachs, pressing against my shadow.
Pairs of shoes from yesterday will come tomorrow
Am I their native land, or a land foreign to them?
Their house, or an inn?
Which road guided them to me?
Tonight I decide to open myself to these dreams,
As anxious for their arrival as a child yearning for milk.
Perhaps fireflies will draw them in a different direction
And perhaps the shoes are no longer ripped.
I feel empty as a newborn animal.
I spread out like a homeless evening
To meet these footprints turning toward me.
Translated from the Vietnamese by Ben Tran
From The Washington Post:
In 1938, while visiting a new villa built by the Irish designer Eileen Gray, Le Corbusier was inspired to improve on her work. He admired the white-walled classicism and industrial finesse of the home, which was built in the spirit of his own domestic architecture. But he thought it needed a little something. And so Le Corbusier stripped naked, took out his paint brushes and covered the house with large, sexually provocative images. "One of the murals was on the previously spare white wall behind the living-room sofa, so that what had been specified by Gray to be a point of visual respite was now an animated scenario," writes Nicholas Fox Weber in his new biography, Le Corbusier: A Life. Gray, who admired Le Corbusier and was, like many architects, proprietary about her work, felt "raped" by the incident.
Le Corbusier -- the Swiss modernist who, along with Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright, laid down the commandments of 20th-century architecture -- might have known better. After all, he became so enraged by how the art was hung in the house he built for the wealthy collector Raoul La Roche that he broke with his best friend at the time, the painter Amédée Ozenfant, who had perpetrated the unauthorized hanging: "I insist absolutely that certain parts of the architecture should be entirely free of paintings," he wrote.
A Whisper, Perhaps, From the Universe’s Dark Side
From The New York Times:
A concatenation of puzzling results from an alphabet soup of satellites and experiments has led a growing number of astronomers and physicists to suspect that they are getting signals from a shadow universe of dark matter that makes up a quarter of creation but has eluded direct detection until now.
“Nobody really knows what’s going on,” said Gordon Kane, a theorist at the University of Michigan. Physicists caution that there could still be a relatively simple astronomical explanation for the recent observations.But the nature of this dark matter is one of the burning issues of science. Identifying it would point the way to a deeper understanding of the laws of nature and the Einsteinian dream of a unified theory of physics. The last few weeks have seen a blizzard of papers trying to explain the observations in terms of things like “minimal dark matter” or “exciting dark matter,” or “hidden valley” theory, and to suggest how to look for them in particle accelerators like the Large Hadron Collider, set to begin operation again outside Geneva next summer.
“It could be deliriously exciting, an incredibly cool story.”
First lady got back
Erin Aubry Kaplan in Salon:
Free at last. I never thought that I -- a black girl who came of age in the utterly anticlimactic aftermath of the civil rights movement -- would say the phrase with any real sincerity in my lifetime. But ever since Nov. 4, I've been shouting it from every rooftop. I'm not excited for the most obvious reason. Yes, Obama's win was an extraordinary breakthrough and a huge relief, but I don't subscribe to the notion that his capturing the White House represents the end of American racial history. Far from it. There is a certain freedom in the moment -- as in, we are all now free from wondering when or if we'll ever get a black president. Congratulations to all of us for being around to settle the question.
But what really thrills me, what really feels liberating in a very personal way, is the official new prominence of Michelle Obama. Barack's better half not only has stature but is statuesque. She has coruscating intelligence, beauty, style and -- drumroll, please -- a butt. (Yes, you read that right: I'm going to talk about the first lady's butt.)
AMERICANS, INCLUDING ELECTED OFFICIALS, EARN A FAILING GRADE WHEN TESTED ON AMERICAN HISTORY AND ECONOMICS
From the American Civic Literacy Program website:
Are most people, including college graduates, civically illiterate? Do elected officials know even less than most citizens about civic topics such as history, government, and economics? The answer is yes on both counts according to a new study by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI). More than 2,500 randomly selected Americans took ISI’s basic 33 question test on civic literacy and more than 1,700 people failed, with the average score 49 percent, or an “F.” Elected officials scored even lower than the general public with an average score of 44 percent and only 0.8 percent (or 21) of all surveyed earned an “A.” Even more startling is the fact that over twice as many people know Paula Abdul was a judge on American Idol than know that the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people” comes from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
Complete results from ISI’s third study on American civic literacy are being released today in a report entitled Our Fading Heritage: Americans Fail a Basic Test on Their History and Institutions. The new study follows up two previous reports from ISI’s National Civic Literacy Board that revealed a major void in civic knowledge among the nation’s college students. This report goes beyond the college crowd however, examining the civic literacy of everyday citizens, including selfidentified elected officials. But according to ISI, the blame and solution again lie at the doorstep of the nation’s colleges.
Take the quiz yourself here. I was proud that my Italian wife managed to score 10% higher than the average American college graduate (she got 67%), but then in my infinite arrogance, I lost a dishwashing bet with her that I could ace the quiz by getting three answers wrong! :-)
I did eke out an 'A' though! Report your own score in the comments.
Monday, November 24, 2008
Lunar Refractions: Debauched Grace—Gainsbourg is no Gorbachev…
I’ve spent the weekend out in the cold, and as I sit here sipping a glass of hot water with a wedge of lemon, the song that’s been stuck in my head for the past few months returns yet again to mind. Unexpectedly, yet somehow logically, the taste of this citron chaud cold cure I first learned from a Parisian friend of mine has my ears ringing with “Un zeste de citron / Inceste de citron,” provisional titles for the song Serge (and Charlotte) Gainsbourg published some twenty-four years ago as “Lemon Incest.” I can already hear you saying, “Wow, it doesn’t take much…” but no, my mind isn’t always in the gutter—or, if it is, at least it’s in an artistic way. The material on Serge Gainsbourg—his discography, filmography, biography, bibliography, and various other -ographies of all sorts—is inexhaustible. Equally inexhaustible is my ability to listen to this particular song over and over and over; though this may be reason to worry—as if I needed yet another—I’ve decided my fascination with it is worth investigating for what it may have to say about the creative process (pun intended … and no, I didn’t say procreative process!).
I first heard Serge’s mellifluous voice flowing from the stereo in the apartment of a friend of a friend (merci, Elise); I’d just moved to New York—literally the day before—and the tracks on Couleur Café, a posthumous compilation expanding upon the eponymous 1964 EP, intrigued and disoriented me. Where did this music come from, Africa? French Guiana? France proper? But soon this city began its inexorable take-over of my life, and my memory of those beats ceded to more pressing questions: where am I, where have I come from, and just where do I want to go? All those questions most people ask themselves soon after arrival here. But then Serge—Gainsbourg père, one might call him, given his love of literature and painting, as well as the creative enterprises many of his family members have also undertaken—came back with a vengeance.
I See New York, New York U.S.A. (Oh, c’est haut!)
Upon moving here I had a brief stint in a bookshop. The pay was miserable, but never since my childhood evenings at the library had I been able to spend so much calm time totally surrounded by books. One day I came across book with sans serif pink and purple lettering and what looked to be a reclining nude—but male, smoking, and photographed rather than painted—on the cover. The subtitle of Sylvie Simmons’s biography Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes said it all, and periodically over the next eight years I enquired about the book whenever I found myself in a bookstore: all had carried it at some point in the past, none had it in stock. This September I finally got lucky, and delved right into the pages between its fruity covers on the subway ride home that evening. Reflecting on the fact that in many respects, for all their promise, my later cubicle gigs never gave me as much future fodder as that humble little bookstore had, I was immensely grateful for my past servitude and current freedom … and for having finally found the bio.
I had an inkling that the difficulties and triumphs of any New Yorker paled in comparison to his, but I had no idea; were he alive still, he’d have turned eighty this year. As you can guess, given his dates (1928–1991), young Lucien Ginsburg—an evidently Jewish (albeit assimilated) aspiring painter in mid-century Paris who left high school and then the École des Beaux Arts to follow in his immigrant father’s footsteps to play in various piano bars—was in for a hard time. So how can anyone sublimate the experience of being forced to wear a patch that could get you shipped off to the camps, escaping to stay with a family of hospitable strangers in a small town hours away from home, and hiding behind a different family name? By turning it all—and yourself—into art, of course. It may have taken three decades, but all that, with his experience in the military added in to boot, became a source to be raided for his 1975 album Rock Around the Bunker, complete with song titles like “Nazi Rock,” “Yellow Star,” and “S.S. in Uruguay.” The whole thing was done to music reminiscent of the fifties and sung in a very Elvis-esque tone, though before long he decided on the more radical step of splitting himself in two by creating an alter ego (more on that later). This is one approach to creativity: be yourself, have that taken away; reinvent yourself, be someone else; assume the personae of others, and make them your own. Rock around the bunker that is your ego and your life.
The idea of genius comes up repeatedly in his bio and many of his television appearances and interviews. I don’t know that Whitney Houston qualified for the epithet in the mid-eighties when he said she was a genius (see below), but in light of his considerable output, he unequivocally does. He appears not to have liked the term, or was at least too humble to ever have applied it to himself—though he had no qualms about taking credit for his ugliness, saying that “ugliness has more going for it than beauty does: it endures.” So what’s an ugly man obsessed with beauty to do? Expose everything in its own particular type of beauty. According to one interview, he gave up painting because “I wanted to have an artistic genius, and all I had was talent.” Being disinclined to settle for mediocrity, he must’ve rightly felt that in music, at least, he had more than talent going for him.
I’d twist the term genius to say it’s applicable to his work insofar as he’s captured the sense of genius loci as it might’ve been understood by the mythic Wandering Jew—the man who’s seen it all, experienced it all, lived a long time (and will, indeed, by condemnation or not, live on forever), all the while remaining somewhat excluded. In his oeuvre, Gainsbourg combines many traditions—rock, classical, jazz, reggae, rap—to create what many now consider one of the keystones of popular music; but it’s worth remembering that it wasn’t always popular, and certainly can’t be traced back to any one tradition. Instead, his genius was precisely that ability to transcend place and time (if not language), loot tradition for all it’s worth, and put out something that no one, anywhere, had ever heard before—say, a song for an innocent little girl about lollipops and how much she loves it when her lollipop’s anise-flavored sugar runs down her throat…. A tender France Gall won the 1966 Eurovision contest (an American Idol of sorts, sans painfully televised tryouts) with just such a song, and was later upset to learn that its lyrics could insinuate something other than her love of candy—could a nineteen-year-old back then really have been so pure, so much more naïve than today’s nineteen-year-old? And what’s wrong with a little insinuation when it leads to such sweet, scary, laughable clips as the one of young Gall and not-quite-so-young Gainsbourg singing that duet? One of my main criteria for whether something is art or not is how deeply it changes your idea of self and your life, and it sounds like this song changed France’s life deeply indeed. Over the years several more muses would come into his life to set the scandal bar slightly higher than it ever had been before.
Oh Daddy Oh (Daddy Oh…)
[Parental/filial advisory: this is the part with lemons and incest in it.] Gainsbourg had been married, had a child, and divorced by the time he met Jane Birkin, who had also been married, had a child, and divorced. Three years after briefly baring all at seventeen (take that, Mademoiselle Gall!) in a playful scene of Antonioni’s Blowup, Birkin found herself in Paris for a film test, and was set as heroine opposite Gainsbourg’s hero in Slogan. But I cannot go into everyone’s lengthy artistic c.v.s here: long story short, their union produced a daughter named Charlotte. She is now a singer, actress, and mother in her own right, after debuting at age thirteen (take that, Madame Birkin!) in the (in)famous “Lemon Incest,” the aforementioned 1984 duet with her father. While many people may be familiar with that song, not everyone knows that it also appeared as the last track of an album the two released together in 1986, Charlotte For Ever. My personal favorite is track three, “Oh Daddy Oh.” Aside from its catchy tune, it’s even more interesting when you hear some of the words this father puts into his daughter’s mouth:
Oh Daddy oh Daddy oh Oh Daddy oh Daddy oh
Tu te prends pour Alan Poe You take yourself for Edgar Poe
Huysmans Hoffmann et Rimbaud Huysmans Hoffmann and Rimbaud
Such references—to the Decadent author of Au Rebours (Against Nature), the poet in Offenbach’s semi-fictitious eponymous opera, and two other poets—says a lot about this particular Daddy, and his ability to make fun of himself via words penned to be tossed right back at him by his own daughter. Much as he was a musician, reading his lyrics one notes how he was equally a poet; not only that, but a poet who more often than not was capable of keeping remarkable rhyme schemes without having to break tradition, and while sustaining double, sometimes triple entendres. I suppose he left his revolutionary energies to the parts of his life that lay outside the strictly compositional precepts of verse writing—i.e., the sexual, political, and non-verbal artistic realms.
Returning briefly to Birkin’s sparklingly blonde appearance in Blowup, another curious connection emerges: the brunette friend with whom she harasses the photographer is played by none other than Gillian Hills. Three years earlier, a nineteen-year-old blonde Hills (a familiar age, n’est pas?) had sung at Serge’s side in another episode that falls well into the category of his recurring theme of young women and old men, to directly quote his 1959 song “Jeunes femmes et vieux messieurs.” See this excerpt from their 1963 “Une petite tasse d’anxieté:”
Où m’emmenez-vous ? Where are you taking me?
Etes-vous donc devenu fou ? Have you gone crazy?
Un p’tit tour au bois A little ride through the woods
Si vous n’avez pas peur de moi If you’re not afraid of me…
Mais vous vous trompez You’re mistaken,
Je n’ suis pas celle que vous croyez I’m not what you take me for…
Between the sixties and the eighties, the Vieille Canaille’s young woman counterpart is seen in her transformation, over several albums, from uncooperative lass to instigating vixen, culminating in “Lemon Incest.” For those who are ready to accuse the old man of going too far, here’s the key verse, sung by Charlotte:
L’amour que nous n’ f’rons jamais ensemble The love we’ll never make (to one another)
Est le plus rare le plus troublant Is the most rare, the most troubling
Le plus pur le plus énivrant The purest, the most intoxicating
Sublime love is all of those things, and when a thirteen-year-old tells you so, how can you denounce it? Sure, she may not yet have the necessary life experience, but compare this to Marilyn’s songs from the fifties (especially her rendition of Cole Porter’s “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” in Some Like it Hot), and tell me these women didn’t fully determine the words they sang and how they sang them.
Now for that alter ego I mentioned earlier: a lot of artists are known for their multiple personalities, be they clinically certified or not. While Gainsbourg always kept things clean within the family, he was nevertheless a very open, free man. In the late seventies the highly cultured, somehow elegant (at least melodically speaking) Gainsbourg created an alter ego named Gainsbarre; the latter was a drunken lout, a provocateurconstantly enveloped in a blue-grey cloud of smoke issuing from the ever-present Gitane in his mouth, and loved to make appearances on live national television. Simmons points out that Gainsbarre came into being shortly after Birkin walked out on him, and it was only a few short years before he was even conducting interviews with himself, the civil, suit jacket–wearing Gainsbourg delving into the depths of the sunglass-masked, leather jacket–wearing Gainsbarre to discuss his/their courage, fears, having to wear a star… in short, a philosophical conversation.
Such moments showed Gainsbarre at his best, whereas his appearances on other TV shows often proved superlative in other, less flattering ways. The two most well known occasions were what I’ll call the Houston incident and the 500-Franc incident. In the first, he and Whitney Houston were guests on a popular talk show. Less than two minutes into it, after claiming his mic doesn’t work, he abruptly interrupts Michel Drucker, the interviewer/interpreter, saying “You are not Reagan, and I am not Gorbachev, so don’t try, eh! I said I want to fu*k her.” (Mais j’ai bien dit que je voulait la baiser.) The comparison he used for that scold is curious, and reveals a certain political awareness one might think such a drunken man wouldn’t have. To run with it, there are similarities: both Gainsbourg and Gorbachev were of Russian descent; both grew up under totalitarian regimes; both help foster a disintegration of barriers and greater cultural (not to say economic) exchange on many levels. But as far as I know, Gainsbourg never did a Vuitton ad.
But he did burn money in other, less fashionable ways. In the 500-Franc incident he was seen, again on live national television, illegally taking his lighter to a bill and burning roughly the same percentage of his total earning he paid in taxes. He’s careful to specify that he knows it’s illegal but doesn’t care, and, more importantly, that his anger stems from the fact that the government funnels the money into nuclear (energy and weapons) and other such wastes, not to the poor. Remind you of any other administration?
Un Role Model
Ultimately, Lucien Ginsburg/Serge Gainsbourg/Gainsbarre/Le Vieille Canaille was not just an unparalleled artist, but he was “un role model,” a linguistically mixed concept I’ll awkwardly translate, just as so many of his lyrics lose their grace in translation: in latter-day, anglo-filled French, un role model = a role model (un bon exemple); in English (sure, add the hyphen), he’s plainly an un-role model, the sort of man you might never want your son to take after, but undeniably a role model nonetheless—perhaps a role model of the sort clearly attested to by dozens of little boys on a children's TV show dressed up as him, complete with cigarette and (hopefully faux) glass of liquor in hand, five-o'clock shadows on their sunglass-clad faces, and greyed hair singing a modified version of one of his old songs as an homage.
To round out this picture of the young painter turned musician turned activist—the real renaissance man—along comes his (semi-autobiographical) novel Evguénie Sokolov, whose protagonist is a struggling young painter suffering from a terrible, chronic case of gas. He literally takes a shitty situation and harnesses his shortcoming to create pieces he terms “gasograms,” much like the surrealists’ automatic paintings (Gainsbourg adored Dalì). In both the book and the song, young Evguénie Sokolov, and by extension his creator, echoes the idea that taboos are simply time-dependant limits he’s unfettered by and will, on the contrary, turn to his advantage where possible.
For myself, in my own creative endeavors, the points and ideas I take from Gainsbourg’s songs and life are most encouraging. Critics often have an agenda that doesn’t apply to you. Critics are often wrong; when they aren’t wrong, it behooves you to find out why. Style both matters and doesn’t matter at all. The style of the day, in particular (i.e., the twist, les ye-ye), can be nice but is often forgettable. Smoking and drinking can facilitate great works of art. Smoking and drinking can kill you. Proper grammatical construction can be a hindrance (i.e., “Je t’aime, moi non plus,” “I love you, me neither”). Amid all the hot air—intestinal and otherwise—beauty (often masked in ugliness) reigns supreme.
For months I’ve been waiting for the right time to address this adoration I harbor for Serge, and it never comes, but as my citron chaud runs low I know I have a lot more to listen to before we’re done. Now I’m just waiting for some linguist or French music and lit specialist to begin the lexicography of Gainsbourg’s multi-entendres.
Sunday, November 23, 2008
Sughra Raza. Afternoon. Shadows Series. Autumn 2008.
the great escapist
In an interview with me in 1997, Le Clezio explained that during this period he was greatly affected by Aldous Huxley's seminal dsytopian tract, Brave New World. This influence is most evident in The Giants, a novel describing a Big Brother-style society of surveillance, founded on the seduction of the consumer and the control of language by "the Masters". With characters called Machines and Tranquillity, trapped in a massive supermarket named Hyperpolis, Le Clezio echoes Huxley's horrific vision of the future in a premonitory portrait of the manipulative power of advertising. The inescapable oppression of modern Western civilisation and the fear of what it might lead to is the essential message that Le Clezio seeks to convey here, and there is little hope for new beginnings or a better way of being in the world. More optimistic insights came to him, however, as he travelled and experienced other cultures. After brief periods working as a teacher in Thailand and a librarian's assistant in Mexico, he spent considerable time in the early '70s living among the Embera indians, deep in the forests of Panama.more from The Australian here.
Structures Smaller than Light
The elegant ribbon drawings that became standard depictions of proteins originated in the sketches of Jane S. Richardson, now a professor of biochemistry at Duke University. The schematics Jane and David Richardson created and refined continue to help biologists untangle protein structures—combinations of helices (corkscrew shapes) and strands gathered into sheets—and thus tie form with function.
Robert Kosara interviews Jane S. Richardson in American Scientist:
J. S. R. In high school,I was a very active amateur astronomer; later I majored in math, physics and astronomy in college. I switched to philosophy at some point, and went to graduate school at Harvard for a year. I even got an M.A. in teaching. Eventually, I ended up joining the lab at MIT where my husband was getting his degree. This was in the '60s, right after the structures of two important proteins, hemoglobin and myoglobin, had been published. It was an exciting new field, and I was fascinated by these complicated structures. I treated them as another kind of natural history, similar to astronomy. The philosophy training turned out to be quite useful; it makes you skeptical about everything. I later joined Duke University, originally in the anatomy department and later in biochemistry with my husband.
atlas shrugged updated
Dagny and Hank searched through the ruins of the 21st Century Investment Bank. As they stepped through the crumbling cubicles, a trampled legal pad with a complex column of computations captured Dagny's attention. She fell to her hands and knees and raced through the pages and pages of complex math written in a steady hand. Her fingers bled from the paper cuts, and she did not care. "What is it, Dagny?" "Read this." "Good God!" "Yes, it's an experimental formula for a financial strategy that could convert static securities into kinetic profits that would increase at an almost exponential rate."more from McSweeney's here.
Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books:
Scandal is our growth industry. Revelation of wrongdoing leads not to definitive investigation, punishment, and expiation but to more scandal. Permanent scandal. Frozen scandal. The weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist. The torture of detainees who remain forever detained. The firing of prosecutors which is forever investigated. These and other frozen scandals metastasize, ramify, self-replicate, clogging the cable news shows and the blogosphere and the bookstores. The titillating story that never ends, the pundit gabfest that never ceases, the gift that never stops giving: what is indestructible, irresolvable, unexpiatable is too valuable not to be made into a source of profit. Scandal, unpurged and unresolved, transcends political reality to become commercial fact.
We remember, many of us, a different time. However cynically we look to our political past, it is there that we find our political Eden: Vietnam and its domestic denouement, Watergate—the climax of a different time of scandal that ended a war and brought down a president.
giving money to the bozos
I am ambivalent about whether the auto industry should receive the 25 billion dollars that they are begging and pleading for from the U.S. taxpayers. On the one hand, I realize that millions of jobs depend on the industry and that saving these jobs is not only a humane thing --- it also may help the country(and even the rest of the world) from sliding into a deeper recession in the long-term. On the other hand, I worry that it will be a waste because the industry has lost so much money and so many jobs in recent years that these firms are in a death spiral that is impossible to stop (GM alone lost 39 billion last quarter). I also believe it will be a waste because the leaders of these firms (at least GM, which I know best) are so backward and misguided that the thought of giving these bozos any of my tax money turns my stomach – which is pretty much the same point made by observers ranging from ultra-capitalist Mitt Romney to near-socialist documentary filmmaker Michael Moore. Recall that Moore made the famous film that attacked GM, Roger and Me.more from Bob Sutton here.
Somali Pirates in Discussions to Acquire Citigroup
Andrew Willis quotes Andreas Hippin in the Globe and Mail:
The pirates would buy Citigroup with new debt and their existing cash stockpiles, earned most recently from hijacking numerous ships, including most recently a $200 million Saudi Arabian oil tanker. The Somali pirates are offering up to $0.10 per share for Citigroup, pirate spokesman Sugule Ali said earlier today. The negotiations have entered the final stage, Ali said.
"You may not like our price, but we are not in the business of paying for things. Be happy we are in the mood to offer the shareholders anything," said Ali.
The pirates will finance part of the purchase by selling new Pirate Ransom Backed Securities. The PRBS's are backed by the cash flows from future ransom payments from hijackings in the Gulf of Aden. Moody's and S&P have already issued their top investment grade ratings for the PRBS's.
The Pakistan Test
Nicholas D. Kristof in the New York Times:
Reporting in Pakistan is scarier than it has ever been. The major city of Peshawar is now controlled in part by the Taliban, and this month alone in the area an American aid worker was shot dead, an Iranian diplomat kidnapped, a Japanese journalist shot and American humvees stolen from a NATO convoy to Afghanistan.
I’ve been coming to Pakistan for 26 years, ever since I hid on the tops of buses to sneak into tribal areas as a backpacking university student, and I’ve never found Pakistanis so gloomy. Some worry that militants, nurtured by illiteracy and a failed education system, will overrun the country or that the nation will break apart. I’m not quite that pessimistic, but it’s very likely that the next major terror attack in the West is being planned by extremists here in Pakistan.
You Can't Mate with Heavy Artillery
Doug Brown in Powells Book Review:
Several years ago Lloyd and Mitchinson entertained readers with The Book of General Ignorance. Now they are back with this fun overview of the animal world. Unlike many factoid-ish general overviews, The Book of Animal Ignorance isn't dumbed down for beginners. Scientific names are almost always given in addition to common names, and interesting etymologies are commonly provided. I have a master's degree in zoology, and I learned quite a few new things.
The book is laid out as an alphabetic bestiary, from aardvarks to worms. Each critter gets a couple of pages, allowing more than just a cursory glance. Lloyd and Mitchinson have good eyes for entertaining tidbits and present them with dry British humor. For instance, we learn that Adelie penguins excrete with a rectal pressure about four times that of humans, or looked at another way, "the same as a keg of lager." We also learn that a quarter pound of bat guano "contains more proteins and minerals than a Big Mac." One of my favorite bits of wry humor, from the cat entry:
Right up until the seventeenth century it amused people to stuff wicker effigies of the pope with live cats and then burn the lot. This produced sound effects that pleased Puritans but not cats; they have exceptionally sensitive hearing and can even hear bats.
Or this one about cicadas:
The nineteenth–century French entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre tried to demonstrate that cicadas were deaf by firing a cannon toward a tree full of them. The songs didn't change, but not because they were deaf. The sound of the cannon was meaningless to them: you can't mate with heavy artillery.
Strange Fruits: Rethinking the gay twenties
Mason Stokes in Transition Magazine:
I woke up this morning with my business in my hand.
If you can’t bring me a woman, bring me a sissy man.
—Kokomo Arnold, “Sissy Man Blues,” circa 1927
The historian David Levering Lewis once described Alain Locke’s 1925 essay “The New Negro”—arguably the Magna Carta of the Harlem Renaissance—as “seminal.” As it turns out, Locke was more “seminal” than Lewis may have known. There’s a story that has been making the rounds among Locke scholars in recent years. Apparently Dorothy Porter Wesley, the longtime curator of the Locke papers at Howard University, once confided to a friend that she had thrown something of Locke’s away. The friend was shocked, since Wesley was known to be an unusually scrupulous curator; destroying a piece of evidence would be a serious violation of whatever oath curators swear to uphold. Wesley was disinclined to reveal what, precisely, she had tossed, but her friend was persistent, and eventually she confessed. The item in question was Alain Locke’s semen collection.
This is all we have: a rumor that such a collection existed, and was discharged into the dustbin of history. But what kind of collection was it? Were the samples drawn from Locke himself, collected over time as a kind of autobiography—a time-lapse portrait of the great man’s virility? It seems like a redundant enterprise, archiving one’s seed, given that a fresh supply is always near to hand. But perhaps the collection was more diverse, comprising donations from friends, acquaintances, or passersby. If this is the case, then who were the donors? Might Locke’s viscous archive have been—to take just one example—another place to go “looking for Langston”?
Langston Hughes was, after all, of more than literary interest to Locke. If you look Locke up in the index to Arnold Rampersad’s biography of Hughes, you’ll find an entry called, “seduction campaign on L. H.” As Rampersad tells the story, Countee Cullen, the unofficial poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance, had introduced the two men. “Write to him,” Cullen advised Locke, “and arrange to meet him. You will like him; I love him.” When Locke finally put pen to paper, he composed an extraordinary letter written largely in a sort of gay code. He valued “friendship,” he wrote, “which cult I confess is my only religion, and has been ever since my early infatuation with Greek ideals of life...You see, I was caught up early in the coils of classicism.” Knowing Hughes was then living on the West Hassayampa, a ship docked at Jones Point, Locke casually noted that he was a great enthusiast of sailors. Hughes’s response was even more coy: he asked Locke if he liked Walt Whitman and confessed that he himself loved the Calarnus poems Whitman’s poem cycle on the subject of manly attachment. But if Hughes shared Locke’s general interests, he was not, it appears, inclined to Locke’s particulars. Matters never went beyond this exchange of letters, and the failure proved a bitter disappointment for Locke, who had clearly hoped to catch Hughes in the coil of classicism he so artfully dangled in his letter.
Saturday, November 22, 2008
The Ayatollah Begs to Differ
Not long ago, while visiting family in Tehran, I found myself in an elevator with an elderly Iranian man. When the doors opened at our floor, we both instinctively took a step back and beckoned the other forward. Thus was launched that uniquely Iranian social ritual of exaggerated politesse called ta'arouf -- a self-deprecation contest to see who can subordinate himself more. "After you," the man said, gesturing toward the open door. "No," I said, stepping farther back into the elevator. "After you." "I insist," the man replied. "I cannot," I responded. "I am your servant," he said. "I am your slave," I answered, my back now pressed against the elevator wall.more from the LA Times here.
A century is a mere blink in the history of mankind, but it’s a long time in the history of show business. Just about a hundred years ago, a Chicago-born talent manager started a franchise called the “Follies” that set New York on its ear. He apotheosized the showgirl and changed the entertainment rulebook by making the revue an ethnic stew. He later went on to produce “Show Boat,” the first great American musical. But who knows much about Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. today? To most New Yorkers he’s just a name on a dinosaurish single-screen movie house in Midtown. Even the stars he showcased — Fanny Brice and Will Rogers, Eddie Cantor and Marilyn Miller — are mostly just names in the pages of theater histories. Among Ziegfeld’s long A-list of “Follies” regulars, W. C. Fields alone forged a big-time career in the movies, ensuring the only kind of immortality that seems readily marketable today, the kind that can be uploaded onto YouTube in easily digestible nuggets.more from the NY Times here.
What if the between-the-lines Republican message is the true illusion?
Slavoj Zizek frets in In These Times:
To get the true Republican message, one should take into account not only what is said but what is implied.
Where we hear the message of populist frustration over Washington gridlock and corruption, the glasses would show a condoning of the public’s refusal to understand: “We allow you NOT to understand — so have fun, vent your frustration! We will take care of business. We have enough behind-the-scenes experts who can fix things. In a way, it’s better for you not to know.” (Recall Vice President Dick Cheney’s hints at the dark side of power, as he successfully orchestrated an expansion of presidential executive power.)
And where the message is the promise of change, the glasses would show something like this: “Don’t worry, there will be no real change, we just want to change some small things to make sure that nothing will really change.” The rhetoric of change, of troubling Washington’s stagnant waters, is a permanent Republican staple. (Recall former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s populist anti-Washington rise to power in 1994.)
Let us not be naïve here: Republican voters know there will be no real change. They know the same substance will go on with changes in style. This is part of the deal.
AN INTERVIEW WITH JACQUES VERGÈS
In Der Spiegel:
SPIEGEL: You have defended some of the worst mass murderers in recent history, and you have been called the "devil's advocate." Why do you feel so drawn to clients like Carlos and Klaus Barbie?
Vergès: I believe that everyone, no matter what he may have done, has the right to a fair trial. The public is always quick to assign the label of "monster." But monsters do not exist, just as there is no such thing as absolute evil. My clients are human beings, people with two eyes, two hands, a gender and emotions. That's what makes them so sinister.
SPIEGEL: What do you mean?
Vergès: What was so shocking about Hitler the "monster" was that he loved his dog so much and kissed the hands of his secretaries -- as we know from the literature of the Third Reich and the film "Der Untergang" ("Downfall"). The interesting thing about my clients is discovering what brings them to do these horrific things. My ambition is to illuminate the path that led them to commit these acts. A good trial is like a Shakespeare play, a work of art.
More Physiological Determinants of the Vote
I'd meant to post this piece a while ago. Olivia Judson in the NYT:
Here’s something I’ve found myself speculating about recently: could the obesity epidemic have a political impact? In particular, could obesity in a pregnant woman influence the eventual political outlook of her child? I came to this question after mulling over a number of facts.
First, according to a report published last month in the journal Science, strong political views are correlated with distinct physiological responses to startling noises and threatening images. Specifically, the study found that people who support warrantless searches, wiretapping, military spending and so on were also likely to startle at sudden noises and threatening images. Those who support foreign aid, immigration, gun control and the like tended to have much milder responses to the stimuli. (The study only included people who described themselves as having strong political opinions; the physiology of apathy has not been looked at.)
Second, in other animals, the way an individual responds to threat is part of its personality. If you put a bird like a great tit into a room it’s never seen before, some individuals will be quick to start exploring; others will be slow.
Stars, Stripes and Civil Rights
Thomas Sugrue in the London Review of Books:
Of the various iconic representations of the flag of the last half-century, from Jasper Johns’s series of paintings to the image of construction workers hoisting it above the debris at the collapsed World Trade Center in September 2001, one of the most famous is the subject of Louis Masur’s latest book. On 5 April 1976, the photographer Stanley Forman of the Boston Herald American followed a group of anti-Civil Rights protesters onto the plaza outside Boston’s City Hall. His picture shows Joseph Rakes, a white teenager, wielding Old Glory as a spear, lunging forward as if he were about to impale Theodore Landsmark, a well-dressed black attorney who’d had the misfortune to cross paths with the protesters. As Landsmark tries to dodge his attacker, a heavy-set white man appears to restrain him, readying him for martyrdom.
In the bicentenary year of America’s independence, Forman’s photograph was a reminder that, despite celebrations of its revolutionary glory and proclamations of its national greatness, the country had not overcome its original sin of racism. That Forman shot his photograph in Boston, a city that called itself the Cradle of Liberty, made it even more effective. Most Americans associate racial injustice with the South, and many Northerners insist on their racial innocence. ‘If I hear the four hundred years of slavery bit one more time,’ a white Northerner complained to the journalist Pete Hamill in 1970, ‘I’ll go outta my mind.’
The Crisis & What to Do About It
George Soros in the New York Review of Books:
The salient feature of the current financial crisis is that it was not caused by some external shock like OPEC raising the price of oil or a particular country or financial institution defaulting. The crisis was generated by the financial system itself. This fact—that the defect was inherent in the system —contradicts the prevailing theory, which holds that financial markets tend toward equilibrium and that deviations from the equilibrium either occur in a random manner or are caused by some sudden external event to which markets have difficulty adjusting. The severity and amplitude of the crisis provides convincing evidence that there is something fundamentally wrong with this prevailing theory and with the approach to market regulation that has gone with it. To understand what has happened, and what should be done to avoid such a catastrophic crisis in the future, will require a new way of thinking about how markets work.