November 19, 2008
Destiny rolls over me. Sometimes like an egg. Sometimes
with its paws, slamming me into the slope. I shout. I take
my stand. I pledge all my juices. I shouldn't
do this. Destiny can snuff me out, I feel it now.
If destiny doesn't blow on our souls, we freeze
instantly. I spent days and days afraid
the sun wouldn't rise. That this was my last day.
I felt light sliding from my hands, and if I didn't
have enough quarters in my pocket, and Metka's voice
were not sweet enough and kind and
solid and real, my soul would escape from my body, as one day
it will. With death you have to be kind.
Home is where we're from. Everything in a moist dumpling.
We live only for a flash. Until the lacquer dries.
From The Four Question of Melancholy (White Pine Press, 1997)
Four Takes on the Mom in Chief
From The Root:
For generations, The Mommy Wars have largely skipped black women. For most of us, staying at home to raise our children full-time was never a choice. Our families' survival depended on our wages—often earned from nurturing and caring for white families. With the rise of a post-civil rights generation, a critical mass of high-powered black women like the Princeton and Harvard-trained first lady Michelle Obama, have more options than ever. After gaining the educational credentials our mothers and grandmothers could only have dreamed of, many of us have exulted and rejoiced in having the choice to stay at home and raise our own children—a decision celebrated by black stay-at-home mothers' groups like "Mocha Moms."
As Michelle prepares to move to the White House to become "mom in chief," the always racially-charged Mommy Wars have reached new heights. In a joint effort with NPR's daily talk show Tell Me More, The Root has brought together four accomplished mothers—Rebecca Walker, Jolene Ivey, Leslie Morgan Steiner and Anna Perez—to share their takes on Michelle's choices. With viewpoints that are funny, brash and bracing, the four women bring controversial and conflicting perspectives that are sure to spark spirited and downright-heated discussions about Michelle's—and all women's—choices.
When Michelle Obama prioritized her life over her career in a widely viewed television interview, I cheered. Feminism's slippery promise of diversity has long been built around white centrism, its monopoly by women over 50, its de facto placement of the rest of us in the margins. Michelle's rise challenges that centrism. She so embodies feminist goals that she surpasses them. How will white feminists deal with that?
From Scientific American:
The empty highway stretches straight out to the horizon, so I take a moment to peek at the electronic display down in the car’s center console. I read out the numbers on the screen swiftly and glance back to the windshield, when I see ... nothing. A dense fog has swallowed the roadway, and I am driving blind. Before I can feel for the foot brake, an unmistakable warning—a brake-light red rectangle—flashes onto the windshield. Without another thought, I slam hard on the pedal, cursing loudly. My vehicle comes to a hasty halt as a disabled car emerges abruptly from the murk dead ahead. Before I can even exhale, bright lights burn all around, and laughter rings out incongruously through the passenger cabin. I remember suddenly that I’m sitting inside the VIRTTEX (VIRtual Test Track EXperiment) driving simulator lab at Ford’s Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn, Mich. The big, egg-shaped simulator dome enables specialists there to conduct driving tests under totally safe but highly convincing virtual-reality conditions. The disembodied mirth on the intercom is the control-room technicians having a chuckle over my brief discomfiture.
For the past quarter of an hour they have thrown various tasks at me—each one designed to demonstrate the dangers of driving while distracted. One of my jobs—the last one, in fact—had been to look down at the central display when asked and call out the numbers that appeared there without losing control of the vehicle. Glances away from the road that are longer than two seconds double the odds of a crash or near crash. During the follow-up debriefing, Mike Blommer, technical leader at the VIRTTEX lab, tells me that the windshield alarm that popped up during the final task is a visual alert generated by a forward-collision warning unit on Volvos. The system acts like an electronic guardian angel, monitoring traffic up front with radars and cameras and signaling the driver when it senses danger. The warning’s marked resemblance to a standard red brake light is no accident, he notes: “The engineers chose that particular signal because its meaning is intuitively clear to every experienced driver. Even though you’d never seen it before, you knew exactly what it meant and took corrective action.”
Meditating on consciousness
Michael Bond in Nature:
In the troubled relationship between science and religion, Buddhism represents something of a singularity, in which the usual rules do not apply. Sharing quests for the big truths about the Universe and the human condition, science and Buddhism seem strangely compatible. At a fundamental level they are not quite aligned, as both these books make clear. But they can talk to each other without the whiff of intellectual or spiritual insult that haunts scientific engagement with other faiths.
The disciplines are compatible for two reasons. First, to a large degree, Buddhism is a study in human development. Unencumbered by a creator deity, it embraces empirical investigation rather than blind faith. Thus it sings from the same hymn-sheet as science. Second, it has in one of its figureheads an energetic champion of science. The current Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibetans, has met regularly with many prominent researchers during the past three decades. He has even written his own book on the interaction between science and Buddhism (The Universe in a Single Atom; Little, Brown; 2006). His motivation is clear from the prologue of that book, which Donald Lopez cites in his latest work Buddhism and Science: for the alleviation of human suffering, we need both science and spirituality.
Mozart's Symphony No. 40
Dear President Obama: There are a couple of embarrassing e-mails from my past that I think you should know about
Justin Peters in Slate:
Question No. 13 on Barack Obama's extensive questionnaire for potential members of his administration: "If you have ever sent an electronic communication, including but not limited to an e-mail, text message or instant message, that could suggest a conflict of interest or be a possible source of embarrassment to you, your family, or the President-Elect if it were made public, please describe."
From: Justin Peters
hey all … my first week on e-mail and I'm already screwing it up. yesterday afternoon, I accidentally hit "reply all" and sent everyone in my address book an e-mail that I only meant to send to brad. although this was meant to be humorous, i understand that many of you found it incredibly hurtful. for the record, i don't really think that all the sophomore girls are "aspiring whores," and i certainly don't think that beth jervey is a fat and stupid hooker who never takes a shower. i also was kidding when i said those things about mrs. wenzel, beth jervey's father, and people of irish heritage. finally, i did not mean to attach that photograph of my balls. please delete that photograph asap.
November 18, 2008
A Way Out in the Caucasus
Alex Cooley in the Wall Street Journal:
By upholding the sanctity of Georgia's territorial integrity, the European Union and the United States signal to Abkhazia's de facto government that Moscow remains its only reliable partner and security guarantor. Conversely, Moscow's recognition of the two breakaway regions -- which Russia insists must fully participate in the negotiations -- sets an unacceptable legal precedent and intends to reward Russian military actions in Georgia.
Yet there is an intermediary sovereign formula that could bridge the two absolutist positions. While neither restoring Georgia's territorial integrity nor recognizing Abkhazia's independence is acceptable to all sides at the moment, Abkhazia could be placed under an international system of trusteeship or supervised administration. Similar to the processes in Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor, the United Nations would authorize international organizations to work with Abkhaz authorities to improve the territory's economic and governing capacity and democratic institutions. By placing Abkhazia under international administration for an initial period of, say, 10 years, the status issue could be deferred until the parties may be better prepared to resume peaceful talks.
the criticism begins
Obama’s politics is governed by an anti-political fantasy. It is the call to find common ground, the put aside our differences and achieve union. Obama’s politics is governed by a longing for unity, for community, for communion and the common good. The remedy to the widespread disillusion with Bush’s partisan politics is a reaffirmation of the founding act of the United States, the hope of the more perfect union expressed in the opening sentence of the US Constitution. It is a powerful moral strategy whose appeal to the common good attempts to draw a veil over the agonism and power relations constitutive of political life. The great lie of moralism in politics is that it attempts to deny the fact of power by concealing it under an anti-political veneer. At the same time, moralism engages in the most brutal and bruising political activity. But the reality of this activity is always disavowed along with any and all forms of partisanship. Moralistic politics is essentially hypocritical.
Yet, what is most hypocritical, of course, is the talk of change. What are the elements of Obama’s strategy? Let me identify three. Firstly, we have a depoliticized moral discourse of the common good, backed up by a soft and inoffensive version of historically black Christianity. Obama inhabits the rhetorical space of prophetic, black Christianity, while adopting none of its critical radicalism, none of the audacity that one can find in the sermons of Pastor Jeremiah Wright.
more from AdBusters here.
hitchens on how castro got religion
In January of 2009—on New Year's Day, to be precise—it will have been half a century since the brave and bearded ones entered Havana and chased Fulgencio Batista and his cronies (carrying much of the Cuban treasury with them) off the island. Now the chief of the bearded ones is a doddering and trembling figure, who one assumes can only be hanging on in order to be physically present for the 50th birthday of his "revolution." It's of some interest to notice that one of the ways in which he whiles away the time is the self-indulgence of religion, most especially the improbable religion of Russian Orthodoxy.
Ever since the upheaval in his own intestines that eventually forced him to cede power to his not-much-younger brother, Raúl, Fidel Castro has been seeking (and easily enough finding) an audience for his views in the Cuban press. Indeed, now that he can no longer mount the podium and deliver an off-the-cuff and uninterruptable six-hour speech, there are two state-run newspapers that don't have to compete for the right to carry his regular column. Pick up a copy of the Communist Party's daily Granma (once described by radical Argentine journalist Jacobo Timerman as "a degradation of the act of reading") or of the Communist youth paper Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth), and in either organ you can read the moribund musings of the maximum leader.
more from Slate here.
depression 2009 style
By looking at what we know about how society and commerce would slow down, and how people respond, it's possible to envision what we might face. Unlike the 1930s, when food and clothing were far more expensive, today we spend much of our money on healthcare, child care, and education, and we'd see uncomfortable changes in those parts of our lives. The lines wouldn't be outside soup kitchens but at emergency rooms, and rather than itinerant farmers we could see waves of laid-off office workers leaving homes to foreclosure and heading for areas of the country where there's more work - or just a relative with a free room over the garage. Already hollowed-out manufacturing cities could be all but deserted, and suburban neighborhoods left checkerboarded, with abandoned houses next to overcrowded ones.
And above all, a depression circa 2009 might be a less visible and more isolating experience. With the diminishing price of televisions and the proliferation of channels, it's getting easier and easier to kill time alone, and free time is one thing a 21st-century depression would create in abundance. Instead of dusty farm families, the icon of a modern-day depression might be something as subtle as the flickering glow of millions of televisions glimpsed through living room windows, as the nation's unemployed sit at home filling their days with the cheapest form of distraction available.
more from Boston Globe Ideas here.
…between our arrivals and our
Departures, it is a strangely
……………….-- Marne L. Kilates
With my wife in her usual high-altitude slump,
seat-belt fastened, the cabin lights dimmed
and bad comedy on the movie channel, I slip
into what one poet has termed the blameless country
of air travel. I've ploughed through several novels
this way, unperturbed, felt the heart-surge
when a particularly rousing phrase of Beethoven's
coincides with the exact moment of take-off. Sometimes
the peace is so rare I wave off free champagne,
and in Economy the meals are never worth missing
the view for: sunset over the Grand Canyon, or the Pacific
flowing like silk brocade. Now we enter the sphere
of maps, a world abstracted and solid all at once.
As settlements snuggle up to rivers, and paddyfields
play endless checkers on terraced hillsides, there's
space enough for long thoughts, wispy musings.
Do clouds, for instance, discharge their burdens in relief,
or do they, in their secret hearts, dream of the fallen?
And which is the life we regret, what was left behind
or the one to which we hurl at 800 km/h? Only
at such giddy velocities might we savour the wonder
of stasis, how the earth's rotation keeps us easily
in place. Just as, if we knew the true evanescence
of a second, it would stop us in our tracks --
with indecision, if not physics. Yes, even in seat 34A,
risking thrombosis, with barely enough room to clap,
there's time to ponder unseen forces, the invisible
lift beneath all our wings, only the first
human century with this luxury of boredom.
If the flight were any longer we'd resort to art.
Plot new routes to godhood. No surprise the Pyramids
(just visible beneath the cloud-cover on your left)
had tombs built like departure lounges, since
many of us too would opt to go to ground
this way -- with such conducted ease, to the sound
of our preferred music in the company of strangers.
How good to set off so eager, yet unhurried, to arrive
watched for, and welcomed at the gates.
Tumor Secrets Written in Blood
Doctors may soon be able to use blood tests rather than invasive biopsies to figure out what type of brain tumors their patients have. The findings, which come thanks to new insights about how tumor cells communicate with their environment, may also bring physicians closer to the goal of more personalized medicine. Cells are chatty, constantly exchanging proteins or electrical signals with their neighbors. For example, tumor cells can signal nearby blood vessels to grow in their direction, thereby facilitating tumor growth. Previous research has shown that many cells, including cancer cells, communicate directly with one another by emitting tiny bubbles of cellular material called microvesicles. Their importance for communication between breast cancer cells prompted Johan Skog, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, and colleagues to examine microvesicles secreted by glioblastoma, or brain tumor, cells.
Previous research had analyzed the protein and lipid content of glioblastoma microvesicles. But upon closer examination, the researchers also detected pieces of RNA. That made Skog and neurologist Xandra Breakefield, also of Harvard Medical School, wonder whether they could develop some sort of test for this genetic material. "We kind of had this wild idea that because these tumor cells are just pouring [out microvesicles], maybe we can actually see it in the blood," Breakefield says. To test their hunch, the researchers isolated microvesicles from 30 frozen tumor samples and looked for mRNA from a particular growth receptor unique to glioblastomas. The mRNA was present in nearly half of the tumor samples and in 28% of blood samples that had been drawn from patients at the same time, the researchers report online this week in Nature Cell Biology.
E.O. Wilson shifts his position on altruism in nature
Peter Dizikes in the Boston Globe:
It is a puzzle of evolution: If natural selection dictates that the fittest survive, why do we see altruism in nature? Why do worker bees or ants, for instance, refrain from competing with those around them, but instead search for food or build nests on behalf of their companions? Why do they sacrifice their own reproductive success for the good of the group?
In the 1960s, British biologist William Hamilton offered an explanation in a theory now called kin selection. When animals, often insects, help siblings or other relatives survive, they are enhancing the odds that their shared family genes will be passed on. In other words, the genes, not the individual or social group, are what counts in evolution.
Hamilton's idea was eventually accepted by most biologists, and found an enthusiastic backer, at the time, in Edward O. Wilson, the renowned Harvard evolutionist.
That was then. Now, Wilson has changed his mind, startling colleagues by arguing that kin selection does not lead to altruism.
In Bias Test, Shades of Gray
From The New York Times:
Last year, a team of researchers at Harvard made headlines with an experiment testing unconscious bias at hospitals. Doctors were shown the picture of a 50-year-old man — sometimes black, sometimes white — and asked how they would treat him if he arrived at the emergency room with chest pains indicating a possible heart attack. Then the doctors took a computer test intended to reveal unconscious racial bias. The doctors who scored higher on the bias test were less likely than the other doctors to give clot-busting drugs to the black patients, according to the researchers, who suggested addressing the problem by encouraging doctors to test themselves for unconscious bias. The results were hailed by other psychologists as some of the strongest evidence that unconscious bias leads to harmful discrimination.
But then two other researchers, Neal Dawson and Hal Arkes, pointed out a curious pattern in the data. Even though most of the doctors registered some antiblack bias, as defined by the researchers, on the whole doctors ended up prescribing the clot-busting drugs to blacks just as often as to whites. The doctors scoring low on bias had a pronounced preference for giving the drugs to blacks, while high-scoring doctors had a relatively small preference for giving the drugs to whites — meaning that the more “biased” doctors actually treated blacks and whites more equally.
Barack Obama could only happen here. Not.
David Berreby in Slate:
Last week, the New York Times told us Europe would not soon—indeed might never—see a political triumph like Obama's. It described British politics as though Disraeli had never existed and painted a similar picture of mono-ethnic France.
Desolé, cher collegues, but one year after the far-off, sunny isle of Corsica was acquired by France in 1768, there was born there one Napoleon Bonaparte, whose heavy Italian accent made him seem even more exotic to la France profonde than his strange name. At least our president-elect, born on the far-off, sunny isle of Oahu two years after it became a U.S. state, pronounces English without the marked accent of, oh, the governor of California. And speaking of German accents, the Times thumb-sucker also foresaw that there would be no German Obama any time soon. Bad timing for them: Three days later, Germany's Greens elected Cem Ozdemir, an ethnic Turk, as their new leader.
Saving Buffalo’s Untold Beauty
Nicolai Ouroussoff in the New York Times:
That assumption came to mind when I stepped off a plane here recently. Buffalo is home to some of the greatest American architecture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with major architects like Henry Hobson Richardson, Frederick Law Olmsted, Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright building marvels here. Together they shaped one of the grandest early visions of the democratic American city.
Yet Buffalo is more commonly identified with the crumbling infrastructure, abandoned homes and dwindling jobs that have defined the Rust Belt for the past 50 years. And for decades its architecture has seemed strangely frozen in time.
On the chilli trail in Assam, India
Killian Fox in the Times of London:
When you mention Assam, most people think of tea. Those on more familiar terms with the state - on the “Seven Sisters” peninsula that juts out from the northeast corner of India - will think of its beautiful national parks, abundant wildlife and the vast Brahmaputra river.
Assam is a charming place, as serene as it is lush and green, but it also harbours something so fearsome, so fiendishly powerful, that even the elephants flee from it in terror.
There is nothing at all serene about the bhut jolokia, the hottest chilli on earth. It registers an incredible 1,041,427 on the Scoville Heat Unit scale, more than double the score of the previous world record-holder (the red savina habanero).
It is 200 times hotter than Tabasco sauce. And yet, when you bite into a bhut jolokia, there is no pain at first, only a smoky flavour with an intense, apple-like sweetness. Then, after about 20 seconds, all hell breaks loose. I know this because I was foolish enough to try one.
November 17, 2008
Pythagoras and me @ 2 am
Jim CullenyI could be up all night
without a single line to write;
I might be ass-in-chair till 1st light
eyes propped with toothpicks.
Open, I might sit with digits
poised over a keyboard
like condors on thermals
scanning the earth for a bite...........................the desert page dry and white.
I might even catch some moon-talk.
...........................She speaks, you know
—whispers to Venus when I turn my head.
So how might I know then what she said?
Telepathy, a poet's curse, or worse.
Imagination, with its ears perked
for a little Music of the Spheres
(a defunct old idea that occurred to a Greek
once who was also up almost in tears
way past bedtime waiting for a theory
or the sense to hit the sheets).///
The President-Elect and India
President-elect Barack Obama will face many challenges in foreign policy, but forging a productive relationship with India will be high on that list. President Clinton took a keen interest in India, and, especially, in issues of rural development. He visited rural development projects with his usual zest and curiosity, taking a particularly keen interest in the situation of women. After his Presidency, Clinton has continued his work on issues of poverty and development. He was also virtually the only major international leader to stand up right after the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 and publicly condemn the perpetrators.
President Bush, by contrast, focused his efforts on the nuclear deal, more or less neglecting issues of poverty and development. One bright spot in the generally dismal record of his dealings with India, however, was the decision to deny a visa to Narendra Modi, who had been invited to lecture here by a group of Non-Resident Indians (NRI's). The State Department cited his role in the Gujarat pogrom as its reason for denying him a diplomatic visa and revoking his tourist visa. This courageous stance in favor of human rights and against the perpetrators of a genocide was surprising but highly welome to the large number of U. S.-based scholars of India who had petitioned the State Department in this matter.
What course will President Obama choose? Will he, like Clinton, focus on poverty, quality of life, gender equality, and an end to the politics of hate? Or will he follow the lead of the NRI community, focusing on entrepreneurship and nuclear partnership? Much discussion, this week, has focused on Obama's appointment of Sonal Shah to his transition team. I shall not add to the growing volume of commentary on Shah's links to the VHP-A, since she has already issued one statement condeming the politics of hate, and will soon be invited to clarify her position further. Shah personally is involved with only the VHP-A's relief efforts. There is room for concern, however, that someone with such close ties to an organization that has been complicit in terrorist activities against Muslims and Christians should hold such a prominent place. The whole issue deserves the further clarification that it will receive.
Instead of pursuing that question further, however, I should like to focus on a letter written by then-candidate Obama to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, dated September 23, 2008, and published in India Abroad, the October 10 issue. I address these remarks to my former University of Chicago Law School colleague in the spirit of the type of respectful yet searching criticism that I know he will recognize as a hallmark of our faculty workshops and discussions.
The Obama letter has three slightly disturbing characteristics.
First, the letter gives lengthy praise to the nuclear deal, without acknowledging the widespread debate about the wisdom of that deal in both nations. Perhaps, however, this silence simply reflects politeness: Obama is surely aware that Singh has been an enthusiastic backer of the deal, risking much political capital in the process.
Second, the letter speaks of future cooperation that will "tap the creativity and dynamism of our entrepreneurs, engineers and scientists," particularly in the area of alternative energy sources, but never mentions a future partnership in the effort to eradicate poverty and illiteracy. This silence, unlike the first, cannot be explained by politeness, since Singh has devoted a great deal of attention to issues of rural poverty, and it is plausible to think that he could have gotten a lot further had he had more help from abroad.
Third, and most disturbing, the letter commiserates with Singh for the Delhi bomb blasts, but makes no mention of Gujarat or Orissa. Obama offers Singh:
"my condolences on the painful losses your citizens have suffered in the recent string of terrorist assaults. As I have said publicly, I deplore and condemn the vicious attacks perpetrated in New Delhi earlier this month, and on the Indian embassy in Kabul on July 7. The death and destruction is reprehensible, and you and your nation have my deepest sympathy. These cowardly acts of mass murder are a stark reminder that India suffers from the scourge of terrorism on a scale few other nations can imagine."
Obama's use of the word "terrorism" to describe acts thought to be perpetrated by Muslims, while not using that same word for acts perpetrated by Hindus, is ominous. Muslims suffer greatly in India, as elsewhere, from the stereotype of the violent Muslim, and both justice and truth demand that we all do what we can to undermine these stereotypes, bringing the guilty of all religions to justice, and protecting the innocent. (The recent refusals of local bar associations in India to defend Muslims accused of complicity in terrorism, under threat of violence, shows that the rule of law itself hangs in the balance.) Particularly odd is Obama's omission of events in Orissa, which were and are ongoing. His phrase "the scourge of terrorism" is virtually Bushian in its suggestion that terrorism is a single thing (presumably Muslim) and that many nations suffer from that single thing. (Note that it is not even true that most world terrorism is caused by Muslims. Our University of Chicago colleague Robert Pape's careful quantitative study of terrorism worldwide concludes that the Tamil Tigers, a secular political organization, are the bloodiest in the world. Moreover, Pape argues convincingly that even when religion is used as a screen for terror, the real motives are most often political, having to do with local conflicts.)
Obama's letter was written during a campaign. Perhaps it reflects awareness of the priorities of NRI's who were working hard in that campaign. At this point, however, he can start with a clean slate and decide how to order his priorities regarding India. Let us hope that, like Bill Clinton, he will give the center of his attention to issues of human development (poverty, gender equality, education, health), and that, when discussing the issue of religious violence, he will study carefully the violence in Gujarat and Orissa, learn all he can about the organizations of the Sangh Parivar, and adopt a policy that denounces religious violence in all its forms. To mention one immediate issue, it would be a disaster for global justice if Obama, as President, were to heed the demands of the diaspora community to grant Narendra Modi a visa -- especially since the Tehelka expose has made so clear the cooperation of the government of the state of Gujarat in those horrendous acts of violence.
President Obama has repeatedly shown a deeply felt commitment to the eradication of a politics based upon hate. Can we have confidence that he will carry that commitment into his relationship with India, even when the demands of powerful leaders of the NRI community make that difficult? I certainly hope so.
Martha Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at The University of Chicago, and the author of The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future.
Rx: Emily Post and Laura Claridge: Two Women Possessing the Genius of Etiquette
Azra Raza reviews Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners by Laura Claridge
Laura Claridge’s enormously enjoyable, carefully researched, exhaustively annotated, insightful and engaging biography Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of Manners, made two points very clear to me; first, from birth to death, we humans need constant guidance about how to behave, and second, minding our manners can overcome even some of our most glaring deficiencies. What is fascinating about the story of Post is how startlingly fresh the message of her little blue book, Etiquette, has remained since its first appearance in 1922 (Ms. Claridge points out that “the French word for ticket, used to remind citizens to distinguish between private and public space, was actually the source of the English word etiquette”) and how universal its relevance, transcending race and nationality. One review of Etiquette when it was first published began with Mathew Arnold’s statement “Conduct is three-fourths of life.” As Ms. Claridge puts it succinctly, “The subject hardly mattered: funerals or flower arrangements, broken hearts or broken glasses, Emily held her audience in esteem, and she meant to teach her readers, would-be “Best People,” whatever their background, race or creed, to do likewise.” For deep down, the real meaning of manners, according to Ms. Post, is a demonstration of sensitivity to the feelings of others. “Best Society is not a fellowship, nor does it seek to exclude those who are not of exalted birth, but it is an association of gentle-folk [in which] charm of manner…..and instinctive consideration for the feelings of others, are the credentials by which society the world over recognizes its chosen members.”
In 2002, my husband Harvey Preisler died. The aftermath was my own painful awakening to the woeful lack of even rudimentary knowledge about the correct or polite way to behave among the most well meaning friends and family members who came forward to offer their condolences. For example, one female friend, while crying her eyes out, (precisely the wrong thing to do, per Ms. Post) began by offering to take me out to a single’s bar. A surprisingly recurring comment, also meant to be well-meaning, but one which left me baffled about how to respond, was, “Sorry to hear Harvey died, but you are looking well!” Perhaps the most patently absurd was a message left on my answering machine by a colleague saying how sorry she was that my husband was dead, but, “Don’t worry, you will join him soon and then the two of you can live happily ever after in heaven.” I remember distinctly, the evening when I was getting ready for Harvey’s memorial service, just a little over 24 hours after his death. I picked up my wedding band and looked to my sisters for guidance, “Should I still wear this?” “Yes!” As Ms. Claridge writes, “Only Emily Post understood the power of routine to hold one’s raw emotions at bay.” No wonder Etiquette was “second only to the Bible as the book most often stolen from public libraries.” Post counseled the bereaved wisely in these words, “At no time does solemnity so posses our souls as when we stand deserted at the brink of darkness into which our loved one has gone. And the last place in the world where we would look for comfort at such a time is in the seeming artificiality of etiquette; yet it is in the moment of deepest sorrow that etiquette performs its most vital and real service.”
A testament to Ms. Claridge’s own extraordinary sensitivity is her careful recounting of the comfort Joan Didion derived from re-reading Post’s Etiquette when dealing with her own private grief. This is how Ms. Claridge describes it: “Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking identifies explicitly with Emily’s words about mourning. The unlikely pairing of Didion and Post was cited often in the impressive array of reviews showered on the bestseller, a winner of the National Book Award and a runner-up for the Pulitzer. Many journalists couldn’t understand why someone as edgy and postmodern as Didion chose Etiquette to succor her. Didion explained: she had been taught from childhood to “go to the literature” in “time of trouble,” and so she pursued everything she could find about death’s anguish: memoirs, novels, how-to books, inspirational tomes, The Merck Manual, ‘Nothing I read about grief seemed to exactly express the craziness of it,’ Didion says. The one thing that spoke to her, finally, was the “Funerals” Chapter in Emily Post’s blue book on etiquette. Only Emily Post understood the power of routine to hold one’s raw emotions at bay. Only Emily Post made suffering bearable.”
Ms. Claridge points out that “Ten years before she died, Emily Post would rank second only to Eleanor Roosevelt in a Pageant magazine list of the mid-century’s most powerful women in America, in which 272 women journalists judged the influence of the country’s prominent females.”
In keeping with the style and tradition of her previous two brilliant biographies, Tamara de Lempicka and Norman Rockwell, in Emily Post, Ms. Claridge once again provides the reader with invaluable lessons in the traditions and customs of a bygone age by painstakingly reconstructing the evolving historical landscape and the cultural context surrounding her subject. Daughter of the famous architect Bruce Price and Josephine Lee (whose father “Washington Lee possessed a post-war fortune in need of spending”), Emily Post had an enchanted childhood in the type of New York high society graphically portrayed by her contemporary writer Edith Wharton. One of my favorites, also an example of Ms. Claridge’s scrupulous research and attention to detail, is the section where she describes Emily’s association with the Statue of Liberty through her beloved “Uncle Frank” (Frank Hopkinson Smith). “Miss Liberty was a gift from the French government meant to stick in the British craw upon America’s centennial. Her arm and torch had been displayed in Madison Square Park, at Twenty-fourth Street, since 1876, the next seven years spent in a national campaign to finance the statue’s foundations. Now, the construction funded at last, Uncle Frank was the man of the hour. Almost daily it seemed, Hop Smith’s name appeared conspicuously in the city newspapers, as if he were as important as Liberty herself, whose concrete support would cost the government $8.94 per cubic yard. The end of the nineteenth century was an era of numbers, an age devoted to codifying and classifying, calculations were next to godliness. Expenses were meticulously detailed for the public: Frank Smith’s base required $51,000 to $52,000. To be made of concrete composed of sand, cement, and broken stones, it would measure 93 feet square at the bottom and 70 at the top and stand 48 feet, 8 inches high. The pedestal, rising to an altitude of 112 feet, would require a platform 67 feet square at the base and 40 at the top. Reciting the numbers reinforced the statue’s significance: Who would have thought so many layers compiled the Statue of Liberty’s foundation?” “While the statue’s foundation took form, Emily was allowed to explore the cavernous secret rooms in the monument’s hollow interior.”
Ms. Claridge’s detailed account of Post’s work routines which continued literally to her dying days, and her ability to adapt to the shifting times is nothing short of inspiring. Living through the Great Depression, stock market crashes, two World Wars, the tragic loss of a brilliant father, a philandering husband and a beloved son in the prime of his life, Ms. Claridge establishes beyond a shadow of doubt that Emily Post’s one powerful anchor continued to be her exceptional dedication to work. “When her son died, Emily lost her bearings. Her suffering alternately numbed and roiled her for months, and then she fought to find her way back. From the few accounts of this period, Emily’s ability to carry on depended upon her filling every moment of her day. From developing her garden skills, to working crossword puzzles, to writing, to creating intricate models for her friends’ architects: she wanted no time to reflect.” And further down, Ms. Claridge perceptively points out, “Shrewdly, she figured out a way to keep her loss at bay while staying connected to those she had loved: through writing a textbook on architecture, she would instruct others on the Bruce tradition” (both father and son were named Bruce).
It is this astonishing strength that only a few outstanding individuals among us manage to display in times of extreme crises that separates the extraordinary from the ordinary. And it is in this context, above everything else, that Emily Post reminds me most of none other than Ms. Claridge. While this remarkable writer was working on the Post biography, she was diagnosed with a particularly lethal form of brain tumor with little chance of survival beyond a few months. Despite the bleakest of outlooks, (at one point, her ICU physician called me to request that I counsel the family to “let nature take its course with Laura now”), Ms. Claridge not only defied all odds by surviving, she restarted her work on the book in a miraculously short period of time after her surgery. Even as her brain was being regularly assaulted by the insults of radiation and chemotherapy, Ms. Claridge found her own grounding in meticulously researching and recounting another great woman’s life story. The book Emily Post, recognized early for its merit through Harvard’s Neumann Foundation and cash award, is not only a fantastic personal achievement for Ms. Claridge, it also stands as the finest testament to the indomitable sublimity of the human spirit. Both Post and Claridge transmuted tragedy into constructive pursuits, thereby representing the best of good behavior in good times and bad.
Bravo Ms. Post. Long Live Ms. Claridge.
(Picture shows from left: Margit Oberrauch, Sughra Raza, Abbas Raza, Laura Claridge and Azra Raza).
Mathis the Painter
One autumn decades ago, my then husband and I drove around France, hunting down art masterpieces. We were young and in no hurry to go home, on a mission to be swept off our feet. And France was very obliging that way. We should have been happy -- did we not live for love and art? I'll never know how far from happy he was, but I was unhappy in spite of being in love and in France, and that's pretty unhappy.
We came to Colmar, an Alsatian town of such reproachful quaintness that the locals might as well have wandered about in costume. The idea was to spend the day with the Isenheim Altarpiece, housed in the Musee d'Unterlinden, a modern structure built around the ruins of a Late Gothic convent. I knew the nearly 500 year-old work the way you do from art history class -- tiny figures writhing inside churchy frames on a textbook page, 35 mm slides so old they reduced all European painting to a green, amber and russet wash on the pockmarked projection screen of the lecture hall. And I had come to know the painter, Matthias Grunewald -- that's a self-portrait under the title, above right -- from his drawings, which had shown me I was in for something intense. You could count on German painting for that, couldn't you?
Ready, as always, to be overwhelmed by painting, I made my way to the big light vaulted room where the Isenheim Altarpiece had been displayed ever since it narrowly escaped destruction by a mob in the French Revolution. I was geared up for a complex and imposing work about 12 feet across and 10 feet high, oil on huge panels made into hinged wings that opened out to three different views. It could not possibly be seen all at once, art historians had written. Sometime after World War II, the hinged panels were dismantled and mounted free-standing, allowing you to walk among the three views: the Crucifixion, the Madonna and Child, the Annunciation, the Transfiguration, the concert of angels, the meeting in the desert of Paul the Anchorite and St. Anthony the Great. His demons.
Familiar territory, no? And, oh, had I not studied, believing my time with this work, though long in arriving, was as inevitable as the transit of Venus? I did not then understand that you could over-prepare for experience, grinding to powder your sense of encounter, building in a cosmic letdown as sturdy as a masonry ramp. This would not be the day I found out about that, however, for turning a corner into the big vaulted 700 year-old room in the Musee d'Unterlinden, I came face to face with an image of immeasurable suffering.
It was the Crucifixion, and it may be wrong to post a photo here, where few readers will take it to heart. For a long time, I have wanted to write for readers here about the Isenheim Altarpiece, but have stopped at two obstacles. First, while Internet photography is orders of magnitude better than any photos available to me back in the day, this work of art defies the camera like few others, defies it not like a painting but like an ocean. Second, it is not just religious painting, but passionately religious painting, and readers might be moved to dismiss it on those grounds, aided by photography that fails to draw them into that parallel world of freedom from the usual philosophical constraints.
Art is the direct language of the human condition, cutting through our stupefactions and sophistries with its matchless power to surprise. To do as I did, to go to Colmar and abide with these images, is to put yourself in the way of an infinite work of art, one that will throw you, and then haunt you, forever. It actually operates more like music -- it will get you. It will show you the pain beyond naming and the love beyond love, and show you that you already know these things -- and feel them, and are made of them -- no matter what you think.
Although I am, despite many inhibitions, writing about the work of art that I find more powerful than any other, I am not alone in being superlatively moved by it. I am not alone, either, in appreciating the feebleness of words and photos to give an idea of it. It's not about ideas -- why would I want to give you an idea? For all I know I could be like the street ranter who -- merely by quoting from it -- gives you the very distinct idea not to read the Bible. There are works of art that are annihilating -- blessedly so -- to your powers to conjure them, and this is one of them. That annihilation can resolve to extreme curiosity about the painter. If it does, you'll be almost on your own, out there with others who have been so curious they could find steady ground only in their imaginations. For of Matthias Grunewald -- my software won't make an umlaut over the "u," but it doesn't matter, because that's not his real name -- precious little is known.
Compared to Albrecht Durer, his almost exact contemporary, Mathis Gotthart or Nithart has barely a biography. There is no date of birth, and there was no teacher anyone can be sure of, although as a Rhinelander painting in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, Mathis must have known of Martin Schongauer. The plot of Paul Hindemith's opera of the mid-1930's, Mathis der Maler (Mathis the Painter), is counterfactual -- except that it is established that Mathis was in great distress over the Peasants' War. In the summer of 1525, when Mathis was within several years of the end of his life, 300,000 peasants rose up, from Muhlhausen in the north to Bern in the south. About 100,000 of these insurgents died, and not in battle, for, barely protesting, they were simply cut down. Order was restored, and for a long time after Mathis was known to wear a dark bandage over his face.
W. G. Sebald's prose poem, After Nature, was published in 2003, shortly after he died, although it was written much earlier. Now, there's a writer who can show you Mathis. In the first section of After Nature, "...As the Snow on the Alps," Sebald enters the painter's mind -- I am convinced of it. First, he quotes Dante.
Now go, the will within us being one:
You be my guide, Lord, master from this day,
I said to him; and when he, moved, led on
I entered on the steep wild-wooded way.
It is hard not to understand his use of these lines as both an allusion to the Dantesque themes in the Isenheim Altarpiece, and an invocation of the painter. How many people have summoned the painter to be their guide on the steep wild-wooded way? They have seen the face of the painter in many presumed self-portraits, usually in St. Paul the Anchorite, below right. Alone in the Theban desert for almost 100 years, clothed and fed by a single palm tree until a raven began flying in with a daily ration of bread, Paul knew the contemplative life, and his grave was dug by lions. Adding decades to the face of the self-portrait drawing under the title, you can see the resemblance -- but St. Anthony, too, below left, resembles the painter in a more courtly mode.
Sebald makes much of there being two of Mathis, one wilder than the other, one Grunewald, one Nithart. At the death of Mathis, Sebald tells what he left of wordly goods that were not paint, and then of paint, and then of luxury togs.
lead white and albus,
Paris red, cinnabar, slate green,
mountain green, alchemy green, blue
vitreous pastes and minerals
from the Orient. Clothing, too,
beautiful, item: a gold-yellow pair of hose,
tunics, cinnamon-coloured, the lapels overlaid
in purpled velvet with black stitching,
a grey atlas doublet, a red slouch hat
and much exquisite adornment besides.
The estate in truth is that of two men, but
whether Grunewald, an inventor of singular
hues, shared his departed friend's liking
for such gaudy arrayment
we cannot presume to say.
Mathis, painter of extremes, may have sensed a doubleness in his nature -- more than most artists do, that is. Much more. In his self-portraits, Durer famously played up a likeness to Christ as most contemporaries would have recognized Him, but Mathis probably gave his own face to Lucifer. If it is Lucifer, blending in -- sort of -- with the musical angels who serenade the Madonna, sawing away at his instrument more timorously than the others, beringed as others are not, and more extravagantly befeathered than they.
A contemporary scholar, Dr. Ruth Mellinkoff, makes that argument and supports it soundly. I believe her because, although she was writing many, many years later, her interpretation corresponds to my own thinking the day I saw the Isenheim Altarpiece, and I am under no obligation to have better reasons than that for what I hold to be true of art. Is this not the very picture of a fallen angel setting about regaining insider status? Of a painter who is both insider and exile, dandy and damned? To have painted as Mathis did, you have to have known hell -- you just don't have to have ruled over it.
You must also have seen an eclipse, Sebald writes -- "a catastrophic incursion of darkness." In October of 1502, when Mathis was around 30, "the moon's shadow slid over Eastern Europe," and Mathis,
who repeatedly was in touch
with the Aschaffenburg Court Astrologer Johann Indagine,
will have travelled to see this event of the century,
awaited with great terror, the eclipse of the sun,
so will have become a witness to
the secret sickening away of the world,
This then is how Mathis imagined the state of erosion, after nature, that he painted, the "ruining of life that in the end will consume even the stones."
Mathis believed in Salvation, so it is possible to see his masterpiece as darker, even, than he can have conceived of it himself or intended it to be seen. Among those tights and doublets and rings, among those glorious colors he left behind -- colors reputed to have been different from those of other painters, but they were not: he only used them differently -- were found Lutheran tracts. The Isenheim Altarpiece was completed two years before the Reformation got underway, and it was painted for a special purpose. The Antonite friars at Isenheim, whose Abbot commissioned the work from Mathis, were a medical order, tending the sick for whom there were no cures. There was a plague of ergotism in the land, and those who ate milled rye could become fantastically sick, losing their minds and rotting as if with leprosy before, unswiftly, they died.
As there was no cure, so there was no prevention -- anyone, at any time, could become ill like that. When they did, they were brought to the chapel at Isenheim to have before them a testament to the redemptive power of suffering. They were lain down there the better to find meaning in torment, to place hope in a distant realm, to believe that the love of God included them still and would bear them up. This is where the enormous winged altarpiece, in those days, fit in.
What’s Wrong with Homeowning?
“The first man who, having fenced off a plot of land, thought of saying “this is mine” and found people simple enough to believe him was the real founder of civil society. How many crimes, wars, murders, how many miseries and horrors might the human race have been spared by the one who, upon pulling up the stakes or filling in the ditch, had shouted to his fellow men, “Beware of listening to this imposter; you are lost, if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and that the earth belongs to no one.”
“Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men”
Two weeks ago (see “Stop the Home Wrecking and Protect America’s Future, 3qd, 11/3/08), I argued that homeowners in trouble should be helped, and that helping them should necessarily trigger a discussion of whether it is wise and just to make homeowning a universal condition in America.
I think we should do both. Most people agree that homeowners in trouble should be helped, though many often carp about how undeserving homeowners will get over on any national solution that helps all. And providing housing has been national policy since the New Deal. The Federal Housing Act of 1934 sought to encourage improvement in housing standards and conditions” as well as “to provide a system of mutual mortgage insurance.” Successive acts of Congress in 1937, 1949, 1968, 1986, and 2008 affirmed and extended the national commitment to what the 1949 act called the national goal of “decent, safe, and sanitary” housing for all.
My column received several thoughtful responses. One I found especially challenging. The writer argued that favoring homeowners discriminated against renters, and that helping people own homes was encouraging the growth of a conservative class of property-rights protectors. To move forward, the writer argued, we need to be free from property, not encumbered and conditioned by it.
As the wonderful quotation from Rousseau suggests, my 3QD respondent’s beliefs find good company in a long political and philosophical tradition fearful of the reactionary effects on the human condition of property-owning. Suffice it to recall that Thomas More in Utopia abolished private property altogether. And though Rousseau’s position on property was in fact contradictory, his attack found voice among anarchists, socialist, and communists – in short, every major radical political movement of the 19th Century. Both the Russian and Chinese revolutions sought immediately to confiscate and collectivize private property at no little cost to its owners, and with few concessions to the masses that might have harbored a bit of desire for a touch of property too.
Today, not only some people on the left still feel that property-owning, in this case homeowning, nourishes the seeds of reaction in the bosom of the body politic, but others, notably on the right politically, resent policies that facilitate homeowning. “Political extortion” by left-wing organizations such as ACORN using the Community Reinvestment Act as their club, Villain Phil in a National Review editorial (September 22, 2008) argues, “'trumped businesses’ normal bottom-line concerns.” People, according to Villain, got mortgages without the requisite income, assets, or credit, and he attributes a reverse racisim, what he sees as the bending of the housing market by the Clinton administration to serve low-income, predominately minority residents of big cities, for the sub-crime crisis.
I would submit that both sides have it wrong.
Both sides need to acknowledge that not only is providing housing a 75-year old national priority, but the policy has supported the acquisition of housing by 70% of all American households. Homeowning is normative. I think it is also very reasonable to assume that homeowning is key to the American outline of the good life. Having a home too helps people support a stable household life and keep their housing costs down, or at least more stable, instead of finding themselves exposed to the much less controllable rental market.
My challenge to both sides then is: who are you to tell a grand majority of Americans whether they should or should not own homes? Do either of you really want to redefine the American Dream to suit your political ends, the latter putatively made to serve the people, without regard to the life choices they have made?
Those on the right might reflect on the fact that conservatives since the Reagan-Thatcher period have championed homeowning as the lynch pin of the ownership society. Even the present President Bush once envisioned it as the cornerstone to his attempts to return to a society in effect without government -- a society in which everyone might be property-owners, and thereby solid conservative citizens. Where are these voices from the right now? Why is the Bush administration helping banks instead of homeowners, those new members of the "ownership society?" Explain to me why putting families in homes is not the most important thing a conservative administration can do, given its conservative healing powers.
Those on the left might reflect on their (and our) past. Does revolutionary socialism require that the people be dispossessed of all of their property down to and including their houses for the greater good? Or would justice be better served by extending homeowning to the remaining 30% without homes?
The 20th Century's two greatest revolutions in terms of size and scope, the Russian and Chinese, committed unspeakable crimes as they confiscated the private property of the masses and created a state in which the people became abject subjects of a tyranny that still visits people's memories and their children's dreams. (See my column, My Summer with Stalin, for reflections on this topic). A patch of land, a small flat -- these bits of life and their homely but personal accoutrements provide us with shelter for our spirits, some respite from the impressments of authority.
I would suggest to those taken with the revival of anarchist sentiments that while "property is theft," homeowning provides some precious autonomy from the state. As derivative as the maxim "a man's home is his castle" is of a certain possessive individualism, it is also the foundation in the Anglo-American world for the right to be left alone, as Justice Douglas put it. How does therefore homeowning not rise above class resentment and serve the greater end of a more just society?
If one must judge in theory, rather than relative to people's preferences in a relatively democratic society, I would argue Rousseau had it wrong, and his cross-channel colleague Locke had it right. In fact, it was Locke who figured out something important about the relation of property to revolution. The totally dispossessed often lack the resources to mount a revolution, and even if successful are brought up shortly under one tyranny or another. Little property-holders, peasant with their plots, artisans with their workshops, workers with their modest bungalows, are often the one more capable of bringing on salubrious social change of greater as well as lesser intensities.
It is crucial that we re-point our politics toward homeownership -- its protection in this perilous moment and its spread to all. This is the goose and gander of the thing for people on both sides of the question.
This is a ruinous time for many, and can get much worse.
If Lincoln is quoted in times of national division, Roosevelt is just the tonic for times of national peril:
"It is not in despair that I paint you that picture. I paint it for you in hope—because the Nation, seeing and understanding the injustice in it, proposes to paint it out. We are determined to make every American citizen the subject of his country's interest and concern; and we will never regard any faithful law-abiding group within our borders as superfluous. The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."
Second Inaugural Speech
Posted with the artist's permission.
Open Letter to America from a Prodigal Daughter
by T. K. Armistead
For those that are not familiar with the story of the prodigal son it seemed to have gone this way. A man had two sons, the younger son demanded his share of his inheritance while his father is still living, and went off to a distant country where he "wasted his substance with riotous living", and eventually had to take work as a swine herder --most likely a low point, because swine are not kosher in Judaism--. There he came to his senses, and decided to return home and threw himself on his father's mercy, thinking that even if his father decided to disown him, that being one of his servants was still far better than tending pigs. But when he returned home, his father greeted him with open arms, and hardly gave him a chance to express his repentance; he killed a fatted calf to celebrate his return. The older brother becomes jealous at the favored treatment of his faithless brother and upset at the lack of reward for his own faithfulness. But the father responded:
Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found. -- (Luke 15:32, KJV)
As an expatriate black American living deep in the heart of Western Europe I, like many others had turned my back and dulled my heart to America. After the election of George W. Bush and the subsequent re-election I believed that we, as a country lost its way. I couldn’t identify with any of the new values of the last eight years and felt I was no longer useful to the cause of the country. I stunted my patriotism and began to make a life in Europe with only passing interest and little attention paid to the country I once lived in. I became an American in name only, a blue passport holder, a cynic, a critic to all American interests both foreign and domestic. I became disenchanted with America and its many phrases in hyperbole. “We are the greatest nation on earth” people would exclaim but to outsiders the “greatest” nation on earth brought terror and fear. America seemed hell bent on separating the world into to halves and I felt I had the straddle the two halves surreptitiously.
After 9/11 there was a sense of love for the gentle giant that was wounded unjustly, everyone I met on the streets of Italy rallied around my family. They wanted to hold us and take care of us. We were flooded with stories of how someone’s uncle was rescued from starvation by some American solider or how a friend of a friend got a little money from his American friend and that helped start a business. This was the America they knew and now simply because of my nationality, I was now like family. My landlord, at the time, lived in America for a while and said this me, with tears in his eyes and the thickest Neapolitan accent you could imagine: “America always helps everyone out and now it is time for her to be helped, if you need anything at any time just ask to me”. I never took him up on the offer, because I had no family lost and zero damage to any property I left back in the States. But the sentiment was taken and we moved on.
Some of the patriotism came back after 9/11, I began to watch the news and saw how the people of the Nation rallied around one other. It was beautiful, it was hopeful, I was wrong. By the end of 2001 we not only made some bad decisions but, in my opinion, were set on the wrong track completely. All of the sympathy we earned with 9/11 began to erode into vitriolic attacks on America and conversations, prefaced with: “I know it’s not you but…” I became an unwilling surrogate for all the anger and confusion aimed at the U.S. I retreated further into my apathy being momentarily released from it by 9/11. “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.”
Life continued as normal with the regular blunders, hypocrisies and mishaps from the Bush Administration, then on a normal day I happened to turn on the Oprah Winfrey show—through the miracle of satellite television-- and caught a glimpse of a fellow by the name of Barrack Obama. I was curious and assumed like most people that he was a bit audacious, hopeful, naïve and kind of cute. I followed politics, but only as a curiosity, I lost all hope in the system and would live as most expat Americans do, quietly praying never to be sent ‘home’. But I have to say as the election drew to a close I began to get on board with the big idea of small change and felt like maybe this could happen. The night of the election I put my children to bed, kissed my husband and prepared for the long night ahead. I watched as the states began stacking up in Barack Obamas favor and grew more positive with each one. When the election was called at 11pm eastern time, 6am my time, I dropped to my knees a wept. I wept for all my relatives who felt fear in believing, I wept for all the men who had to wear the “I am a man” signs in the south, I wept for the WWII vets who came home from relieving oppression only to face it at home, I wept in shame for doubting my country, I wept for the challenge of a hopeful man against the winds of doubt and lastly I wept for the knowledge that the Whitehouse, I visited as a child, will now have a family that resides in it that looks like mine. As a matter of fact I tear up at every mention of President-elect Barack Obama because I am proud, I am on-board with hope, and I am back to loving the country I almost gave up on. Hopefully she welcomes me back…
I would like to end this open letter to America the way I did when I woke my children up the day after the election, please forgive the sentimentality because this really happened, it went like this: Good morning girls, Barack Obama won last night and I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands ONE nation under God INDIVISIBLE with liberty and justice for ALL. It was a little corny but necessary. Oh and there is no need to kill that fatted calf for me because I’m a vegetarian.
A Former Prodigal Daughter
November 16, 2008
Proposition 8 and the Blame Game
Wendy Cadge offers some sound advice in the context of the retrenchment of rights in California, in The Immanent Frame:
There is also tremendous diversity around homosexuality and gay marriage among local religious leaders today...Personal exposure to gay and lesbian people in family networks, seminary contexts, and local congregations was the single most important factor shaping clergy’s supportive opinions. Diversity of opinion about homosexuality and gay marriage was evident not just across groups but within every religious group we studied.
Rather than pointing fingers at African-Americans or people of faith for passing Proposition 8, we who support gay marriage across the country need to recognize two things. First, the vote—52% voted yes and 48% voted no—in California was closer than you would expect based on national public opinion surveys about gay marriage. And second, this diversity of opinion exists within families, communities, churches, and racial and ethnic groups. This will not make those of us who lost the right to marry feel better. This is a loss. But as we make our signs and plan our protests, we must do so in groups that include everyone who supports gay marriage—African Americans, people of faith, and others—rather than pointing fingers. Marriage is not a finite resource. Unfortunately, neither is blame.
Faulkner's Nobel Speech
Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.
He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed -- love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.
[H/t: Beau Willimon]
The Financial Crisis and the Bottom Billion
Via Rodrik, Bob Geldof in the FT:
Just as the crisis has been international because of globalisation, any new reforms will also need to be international. As Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, has remarked, a modernised multilateralism must put global development on a par with international finance. The next round of globalisation must be one where economic opportunities and responsibilities are more widely shared.
This moment of flux offers the chance to revive ideas that have been around for some time but have been heavily resisted. First is the Tobin tax. In 1978 James Tobin, the Nobel economist, proposed a tiny tax of 0.5 per cent or less on all foreign currency exchange transactions to deter speculation and pay for development. Some calculate this tax could yield $375bn (€289bn, £253bn) annually. Even at half that amount, it is on a par with the amount that should already have been directed to development globally. This levy, even if it is cut to 0.005 per cent would limit volatility in small economies whilst generating enormous sums for the poor. It would also cost taxpayers nothing.
Second, we need to institutionalise the means by which profits from carbon trading can be channelled to development. As Germany has already shown, this is a vast market. It involves creating incentives for polluters to pollute less while generating resources for development. It is a smart, painless way to create revenues and jobs while bringing the poor into the global economy. A Europe-wide scheme is planned, but in Washington it should be seized upon as an effective mechanism for growth and development. It, like the Tobin tax, is tax neutral to the consumer while curbing overproduction of carbon dioxide and helping the world’s poorest.
Third, this new round of globalisation must not be accompanied by a return to protectionism. Make Poverty History called for progress on debt, aid and trade. Trade is the area in which the least has been delivered.
The Seeds of the Prague Spring
Ivan Klima in Eurozine:
In 1967, I worked, together with a number of fellow writers, on the literary weekly Literární noviny, which had become by then a kind of opposition mouthpiece. Above all else, it was our experience with censorship that led us, at the June 1967 Writers' Congress, to devote so much space to issues of power and methods of suppressing freedom of speech. The speeches made on that occasion came to be viewed as the prelude to the Prague Spring of 1968.
Although Literární noviny acted rebelliously, it could not escape the constraints of the socialist system: it had its due quota of newsprint, and it was distributed by PNS (Postovní novinová sluzba, the postal news service),the only body set up for the purpose. In its advertising, PNS prided itself on importing some 5,000 titles from the Soviet Union and other "friendly" countries. Since Literární noviny was a licensed periodical, the editor received daily reports from CTK (the Czechoslovak Press Agency), including those to which only a privileged minority of functionaries and journalists had access. These reports, duplicated on red paper, usually carried commentaries broadcast by Radio Free Europe, which was otherwise subject to constant jamming, or translations of articles that had appeared in leading west European or American newspapers and magazines and concerned countries of the Soviet bloc. We were granted access to this kind of information so that we could better counteract "enemy propaganda". We were not minded to counteract it; for us, these "red reports" were a major source of information and knowledge.
Our most important and obvious source was, however, the very reality in which we lived.
In Moscow traffic with Walter Benjamin
Dragan Klaic in signandsight:
Always when in Moscow I think of Walter Benjamin and his "Moscow Diary", a record of love, pain and misery in a shabby city. In the past weeks I had been reading his "Memories of a Berlin Childhood" and the evening before I had eaten in a cafe Dona Clara in Maloya Bronya, decorated with his 1920 Berlin photos. So I imagined how I would explain present-day Moscow to the ghost of Walter Benjamin, were he to come down and sit with me here in the back seat of the Mitsubishi 4x4.
What would Benjamin want to know and how would he analyse the latest twists of the post-communist transition? When Benjamin came to Russia in December 1926, pursing his erotic fascination for the Latvian poetess Asja Lacis, Russia had abandoned its New Economic Policy, a brief flirt with small-scale capitalism, and was sliding into the long, cruel night of cultural destruction and terror. Benjamin's peregrinations through Moscow's streets and courtyards mark the traces of an old city, soon to be erased to make place for the huge edifices of Stalinist architecture. The Berlin writer saw that the communist project was hopelessly stuck, just like the Mitsubishi in traffic.
Now, 82 years later, Russia is about to take leave of the Putin-era prosperity, shored up by high energy prices, and to slide, with the rest of the world, into the turmoil of protracted economic recession. Stability, prosperity and the 7% annual rise of the GNP has brought little progress to this distant Moscow periphery other than a few Western cars, some small-scale consumerism, patched up kiosks, countless construction sites and street repairs that only exacerbate traffic congestion.
Rodrik on the G-20's Communiqué
Over at his weblog:
I was not expecting any substantial agreement on international regulatory coordination or any semblance of a new Bretton Woods, so I am not disappointed on that score. What I was looking for were three things: (i) coordination on fiscal stimulus; (ii) a commitment to provide more liquidity support, as needed, to prevent a further spread of the crisis to emerging nations; and (iii) a clear commitment not to engage in trade protection, with a monitoring mechanism to ensure the pledge is being observed.
How does the statement do in these regards? So-so. There is no coordination in the fiscal arena, the promises made to emerging markets are vague, and even though there is a clear statement on protection and export subsidization, there is no monitoring or enforcement mechanism.
What about the longer-term issues? The fundamental dilemma of financial globalization is that regulation and supervision remains national while financial markets are international.
Public Intellectual 2.0
Disquisitions about public intellectuals usually conclude that they ain't what they used to be. Subtitles from recent books on the topic include A Study of Decline and An Endangered Species? Indeed, the major point of debate is dating the precise start of the decline and fall. For some critics, Götterdämmerung started in the 1950s; for others, the 1930s. More-curmudgeonly writers place the date earlier, stretching back to the heyday of John Stuart Mill or even the death of Socrates.
The pessimism about public intellectuals is reflected in attitudes about how the rise of the Internet in general, and blogs in particular, affects intellectual output. Alan Wolfe claims that "the way we argue now has been shaped by cable news and Weblogs; it's all 'gotcha' commentary and attributions of bad faith. No emotion can be too angry and no exaggeration too incredible." David Frum complains that "the blogosphere takes on the scale and reality of an alternative world whose controversies and feuds are ... absorbing." David Brooks laments, "People in the 1950s used to earnestly debate the role of the intellectual in modern politics. But the Lionel Trilling authority figure has been displaced by the mass class of blog-writing culture producers."
But these critics fail to recognize how the growth of blogs and other forms of online writing has partially reversed a trend that many cultural critics have decried — what Russell Jacoby called the "professionalization and academization" of public intellectuals.
more from The Chronicle Review here.
Fifty years before van Gogh began doing his night paintings, Ralph Waldo Emerson observed in the opening chapter of Nature: “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which has been shown!”
The brilliance of the MoMA exhibit, which has been organized with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam (where it will go after it closes in New York on January 5), is that it captures what Emerson regarded as the miraculous, letting us see how van Gogh’s painting technique evolved over the course of the 1880s.
Van Gogh’s fascination with the night began with his “Twilight, Old Farmhouses in Loosduinen” (1883) and “Lane of Poplars at Sunset,” painted a few months later in 1884. The flat brushwork in these paintings is unremarkable, but the orange sun nearing the horizon in “Lane of Poplars at Sunset” hints at the change about to come in van Gogh’s work. A year later in “The Potato Eaters,” the direction in which van Gogh was headed becomes evident and so, too, does the fact that he was in the process of changing the sentimental approach to rural life that was so central to such French paintings as Jean-Francois Millet’s “The Sower” and Jules Breton’s “The Feast of St. John.”
more from Dissent here.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK WELCOMES you to the gym
In 1981, singer, actress Olivia Newton-John is performing in a musical video for her song "Physical." Olivia Newton-John is in the gym, not sweating, wearing headband and leotard, doing aerobics. Why is she not sweating? To answer this question, we need to reverse it and ask: Why are we not wearing a headband and leotard? And why are we sweating?
Then, I think, the meaning is clear. We are sitting in front of the TV, being couch potato, watching the illusion of nudity—which is the leotard—and the symbolism of discipline: the headband. She is doing all the work for us. She is getting physical.
With that in our minds, today we are going to do an upper-body workout with weights and the machines. OK!
more from McSweeney's here.
Odette England in lensculture:
The Ishihara Color Test is the most common clinical test for red-green color vision deficiencies in humans. It comprises 38 plates, each containing a circle of dots randomized in color and size, which form a number that is visible to people with normal color vision. However, the number in the dots is invisible, or difficult to see, for those with a red-green color vision defect. But, like mirages and memories, the Ishihara numbers are just optical phenomena. Each shows an image of things elsewhere, where refraction and reflection coexist and, to some extent, can be captured on camera.
My project, Attentional Landscapes, undertakes quasi-scientific experiments by photographically stripping and manipulating intended meaning and function.
The Mourner’s Hope: Grief and the foundations of justice
Martha Nussbaum in The Boston Review:
On August 16, 2008, Martha Nussbaum—University of Chicago professor and Boston Review contributing editor—became a bat mitzvah. Part of the ceremony is the d’var Torah: a talk by the bat mitzvah on a section of the Torah portion (parashah) and the haftarah (pl. haftarot, a biblical reading accompanying a thematically related Torah portion). Nussbaum’s talk is reproduced here.
When we are babies, we are very needy and we experience a great deal of pain. We long to be held and comforted. We long for a world in which every pain is nullified, every separation suspended by an embrace. That means that we want to be the center of the universe. Because, after all, the only way we would ever get immediate relief of every pain would be to turn others into our slaves. At first, our only awareness of others is as dimly seen forces that minister to our needs. When they do so, they can be sort of loved. (I say “sort of,” because it is not really love when an infant welcomes the breast or runs to be comforted.) When they do not minister to our needs, when they obstinately go their own separate way and fail to meet some imperative of nurture or holding, we feel rage. We want people to be the way we need them to be. Freud called the infant “His Majesty the Baby” for good reason: babies, like kings, do not understand that other people are real; they just want to rule them. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, commenting on the tendency of small children to make slaves of their parents, saw here a major threat to the very idea of a social order based on justice and political equality.
The personal call for comfort, in its infantile form, is sheer narcissism. Unreformed, it will surely defeat any thought of justice, since it does not even involve the understanding that other people are real.
Slavoj Žižek on Obama’s Victory and the Financial Meltdown
From the London Review of Books:
Noam Chomsky called for people to vote for Obama ‘without illusions’. I fully share Chomsky’s doubts about the real consequences of Obama’s victory: from a pragmatic perspective, it is quite possible that Obama will make only some minor improvements, turning out to be ‘Bush with a human face’. He will pursue the same basic policies in a more attractive way and thus effectively strengthen the US hegemony, damaged by the catastrophe of the Bush years.
There is nonetheless something deeply wrong with this reaction – a key dimension is missing from it. Obama’s victory is not just another shift in the eternal parliamentary struggle for a majority, with all the pragmatic calculations and manipulations that involves. It is a sign of something more. This is why an American friend of mine, a hardened leftist with no illusions, cried when the news came of Obama’s victory. Whatever our doubts, for that moment each of us was free and participating in the universal freedom of humanity.
In The Contest of Faculties, Kant asked a simple but difficult question: is there true progress in history? (He meant ethical progress, not just material development.) He concluded that progress cannot be proven, but we can discern signs which indicate that progress is possible.
The sequencing of a mathematical genome
Mathematicians develop computer proof-checking systems in order to realize century-old dreams of fully precise, accurate mathematics.
Julie Rehmeyer in Science News:
The one source of truth is mathematics. Every statement is a pure logical deduction from foundational axioms, resulting in absolute certainty. Since Andrew Wiles proved Fermat’s Last Theorem, you’d be safe betting your life on it.
Well … in theory. The reality, though, is that mathematicians make mistakes. And as mathematics has advanced, some proofs have gotten immensely long and complex, often drawing on expertise from far-flung areas of math. Errors can easily creep in. Furthermore, some proofs now rely on computer code, and it’s hard to be certain that no bug lurks within, messing up the result.
Bet your life on Wiles’ proof of Fermat? Many mathematicians might decline.
Still, the notion that mathematical statements can be deduced from axioms isn’t hooey. It’s just that mathematicians don’t spell out every little step. There’s a reason for that: When Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead tried to do so for just the most elementary parts of mathematics, they produced a 2,500-page tome. The result was so difficult to understand that Russell admitted to a friend, “I imagine no human being will ever read through it.”
Where humans falter, computers can sometimes prevail. A group of mathematicians and computer scientists believe that with new proof-validation programs, the dream of a fully spelled-out, rigorous mathematics, with every deduction explicit and correct, can be realized.
November 15, 2008
How to Run a Con
"The key to a con is not that you trust the conman, but that he shows he trusts you. Conmen ply their trade by appearing fragile or needing help, by seeming vulnerable."
Paul J. Zak in Psychology Today Blogs:
When I was in high school, I took a job at an ARCO gas station on the outskirts of Santa Barbara, California. At the time, I drove a 1967 Mustang hotrod and thought I might pick up some tips and cheap parts by working around cars after school. You see a lot of interesting things working the night shift in a sketchy neighborhood. I constantly saw people making bad decisions: drunk drivers, gang members, unhappy cops, and con men. In fact, I was the victim of a classic con called "The Pigeon Drop." If we humans have such big brains, how can we get conned?
Here's what happened to me. One slow Sunday afternoon, a man comes out of the restroom with a pearl necklace in his hand. "Found it on the bathroom floor" he says. He followed with "Geez, looks nice-I wonder who lost it?" Just then, the gas station's phone rings and a man asked if anyone found a pearl necklace that he had purchased as a gift for his wife. He offers a $200 reward for the necklace's return. I tell him that a customer found it. "OK" he says, "I'll be there in 30 minutes." I give him the ARCO address and he gives me his phone number. The man who found the necklace hears all this but tells me he is running late for a job interview and cannot wait for the other man to arrive.
Huum, what to do? The man with the necklace said "Why don't I give you the necklace and we split the reward?" The greed-o-meter goes off in my head, suppressing all rational thought. "Yeah, you give me the necklace to hold and I'll give you $100" I suggest. He agrees. Since high school kids working at gas stations don't have $100, I take money out of the cash drawer to complete the transaction.
You can guess the rest.
niall ferguson and the death of planet finance
This year we have lived through something more than a financial crisis. We have witnessed the death of a planet. Call it Planet Finance. Two years ago, in 2006, the measured economic output of the entire world was worth around $48.6 trillion. The total market capitalization of the world’s stock markets was $50.6 trillion, 4 percent larger. The total value of domestic and international bonds was $67.9 trillion, 40 percent larger. Planet Finance was beginning to dwarf Planet Earth.
Planet Finance seemed to spin faster, too. Every day $3.1 trillion changed hands on foreign-exchange markets. Every month $5.8 trillion changed hands on global stock markets. And all the time new financial life-forms were evolving. The total annual issuance of mortgage-backed securities, including fancy new “collateralized debt obligations” (C.D.O.’s), rose to more than $1 trillion. The volume of “derivatives”—contracts such as options and swaps—grew even faster, so that by the end of 2006 their notional value was just over $400 trillion. Before the 1980s, such things were virtually unknown. In the space of a few years their populations exploded. On Planet Finance, the securities outnumbered the people; the transactions outnumbered the relationships.
more from Vanity Fair here.
finnish is more better
I admit, I don't spend a lot of time comparing English to Finnish. Someone far more qualified than me has, tho -- that's Tero Ykspetäjä, a science-fiction fanzine editor and recent guest blogger at Jeff Vandermeer's Ecstatic Days. In addition to posting about about science fiction in Finland, he came up with the Top Five Reasons Finnish Is Cooler Than English.
1. Finnish is more equal. We don’t have gender-specific personal pronouns, there’s just “hän” meaning both “he” and “she”. This is sometimes a problem for translators, but otherwise pretty neat. It also means we don’t have a language-related problem with people who don’t identify either as a he or a she, and maybe are therefore a little better equipped to treat them more normally in other respects too. If you want, feel free to borrow the word from us. We don’t mind.
2. We have more letters than you do. Your little alphabet ends with z, but we also have å, ä, and ö. And no, those aren’t umlauts. They are totally different letters that just look like a and o with umlauts. And more is naturally better.
more from the LA Times here.
ted hughes and the hoo-ha
There are two ways to talk about the new Letters of Ted Hughes (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $45), edited by Christopher Reid. The first is to approach Hughes’s correspondence as an illuminating aesthetic record, the clearest insight we’re likely to get into the mind of a poet viewed by some critics as one of the major writers of the 20th century. The second way is to discuss, well, “It.” “It,” of course, is what Hughes called “the Fantasia,” the swirling, decades-long hoo-ha brought about by his relationship with Sylvia Plath: their brief, difficult marriage; their separation due to Hughes’s affair with Assia Wevill; and Plath’s suicide shortly thereafter. “It” ultimately involved a series of bitter clashes over Plath’s legacy, the occasional illicit removal of the surname “Hughes” from her tombstone (by aggrieved “Bell Jar” fans), a series of disputed biographies, at least one lawsuit, endless critical appraisals, reappraisals and re-reappraisals, a lame song by Ryan Adams (“I wish I had a Sylvia Plath,” Adams croons, apparently unaware that they don’t come in six-packs) and the inevitable film featuring Gwyneth Paltrow flopping around with Daniel Craig. “It” is a big deal.
more from the NY Times here.
Your Weekly Address from the President-Elect
Instead of the weekly presidential radio address of the past, Barack Obama will be recording a video address each week which will be available on YouTube. This is the first:
"Just because your opponent bit the dust doesn't mean
you won't wind up on the ropes eating crow and spitting blood."
......................................--Boris Platski, sub-prime boxing guru
Ode to Karl Marx
Old father of the horrible bride whose
wedding cake has finally collapsed, you
spoke the truth that doesn't set us free—
it's like a lever made of words no one's
learnt to operate. So the machine it once
connected to just accelerates & each new
rapdance video's a perfect image of this,
bodies going faster and faster, still dancing
on the spot. At the moment tho' this setup
works for me, being paid to sit & write &
smoke, thumbing through Adorno like New Idea
on a cold working day in Ballarat, where
adult unemployment is 22% & all your grand
schemata of intricate cause and effect
work out like this: take a muscle car &
wire its accelerator to the floor, take out
the brakes, the gears the steering wheel
& let it rip. The dumbest tattooed hoon
—mortal diamond hanging around the mall—
knows what happens next. It's fun unless
you're strapped inside the car. I'm not,
but the dummies they use for testing are.
The mischievous oracle
From The Guardian:
Quantum: Einstein, Bohr, and the Great Debate About the Nature of Reality by Manjit Kumar
Manjit Kumar's book is an exhaustive and brilliant account of decades of emotionally charged discovery and argument, friendship and rivalry spanning two world wars. In what also has to operate as a kind of group biography of Planck, Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Pauli, Dirac et al, the quasi-novelistic character sketches occasionally have a comic quality ("The son of a tax collector, Ludwig Boltzmann was short and stout with an impressive late 19th-century beard"); but the real meat of the book is the explanations of science and philosophical interpretation, which are pitched with an ideal clarity for the general reader. Perhaps most interestingly, although the author is admirably even-handed, it is difficult not to think of Quantum, by the end, as a resounding rehabilitation of Albert Einstein.
You might have thought that Einstein, the most famous scientist who ever lived, was not much in need of rehabilitation. But for a long time, the standard story of his reaction to quantum theory painted him as a grouchy old man, whose great work was long in the past, and who could no longer accept novel ideas. The truth, as Kumar shows, is very different.
For a start, Einstein was himself a pioneer of quantum theory, having suggested in 1913 that light was quantised — in other words, that it was not smoothly continuous, but could only exist in multiples of very small packets, or quanta. At the time, Kumar relates, this was "just too radical for physicists to accept". Two decades later, the great Danish physicist Niels Bohr and his colleagues, who had taken this idea and run with it, had become too radical for Einstein to accept.
James Campbell in The New York Times:
A Great Idea At the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of Great Books by Alex Beam.
The humble book has survived many attacks on its integrity over the centuries, whether from tyrannical clerics or fearful governments or the new electronic wizard that promises a peculiarly modern “pleasure of the text” via limitless accessibility. Nevertheless, publishers continue to produce books, while countless numbers of people read them and — a word that crops up frequently in relation to books — love them.
In the middle of the last century, a committee of commercially minded academics came up with its own strategy to undermine the enjoyment of reading. With the backing of the University of Chicago, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Mortimer Adler and a few others whittled the literary, scientific and philosophical canon down to 443 exemplary works. They had them bound in 54 black leatherette volumes, with the overall designation Great Books of the Western World, then hired genial salesmen to knock on suburban doors and make promises of fulfilment through knowledge. In a postwar world in which educational self-improvement seemed within everyone’s reach, the Great Books could be presented as an item of intellectual furniture, rather like their prototype, the Encyclopedia Britannica (which also backed the project). Whereas the Britannica justified its hulking presence in the home as a reference tool, however, the Great Books made a more strident demand — they wanted to be read. Unfortunately, once opened, the volumes were forbidding. Each was a small library in its own right, with slabs of text arranged in monumental double columns. The Great Books of the Western World were what books should not be: an antidote to pleasure.
The great minds behind the Great Books were Hutchins and Adler.
Amazing Giant Ant Colony
No doubt you are aware of what are known as "419" scams. Emails that begin with things like "I am the widow of the former President of Nigeria," and then promise you a fee of millions of dollars for arranging some transaction. [Read here about a woman who lost $400,000 to a Nigerian scammer!] There is also a whole cadre of devoted people who spend inordinate amounts of time and energy scamming the scammers back. This is a particularly hilarious account of one such scheme, where a man named Arthur Dent manages to convince the scammer to copy all of a Harry Potter book out in longhand and send the scanned pages to him. It is particularly gratifying to read the exchange as the scammer becomes more and more desperate.
From 419 Eater [This is the first reply by Arthur Dent to the scammer's email]:
From: Arthur Dent
To: Barrister Musa Issah
Date: January 23, 2006
Dear Mr. Issah,
Thank you very much for you interesting email, it was kind of you to contact me with your proposition.
Unfortunately I am not in a position to help you at this point in time as my company are conducting a very important 4 year long research project on Advanced Handwriting Recognition and Graphology systems.
Our work is extremely intensive and vitally important for our clients. They have committed over eight million dollars to our project and we are nearing the final stages. After nearly 4 years of research and development we are now only three months away from the conclusion and I am afraid I can allow nothing to interfere with the project until its completion.
We are always looking for paid volunteers to help with our project. If you are aware of anyone who would like to earn money by helping with our project by providing samples of their own handwriting to us then please do read the submission information below. We pay US $100.00 per page of handwriting samples.
Arthur Dent BSC. HHGTTG. PhD.
Read the rest here.
November 14, 2008
zadie on some novels
From two recent novels, a story emerges about the future for the Anglophone novel. Both are the result of long journeys. Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill, took seven years to write; Remainder, by Tom McCarthy, took seven years to find a mainstream publisher. The two novels are antipodal—indeed one is the strong refusal of the other. The violence of the rejection Remainder represents to a novel like Netherland is, in part, a function of our ailing literary culture. All novels attempt to cut neural routes through the brain, to convince us that down this road the true future of the novel lies. In healthy times, we cut multiple roads, allowing for the possibility of a Jean Genet as surely as a Graham Greene.
These aren't particularly healthy times. A breed of lyrical Realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked. For Netherland, our receptive pathways are so solidly established that to read this novel is to feel a powerful, somewhat dispiriting sense of recognition. It seems perfectly done—in a sense that's the problem. It's so precisely the image of what we have been taught to value in fiction that it throws that image into a kind of existential crisis, as the photograph gifts a nervous breakdown to the painted portrait.
more from the NYRB here.
crushing on David Gregory
Like President Bush, I first crushed out on Gregory when he popped up in the White House pressroom, the unbeatable whack-a-mole of the administration’s nightmares. Bush affectionately called him Stretch, which is the most likable thing he's done in eight years. Aside from the PDA that spills over from the gay bars in my neighborhood, I've never seen a man more in love with another man. Not just regular love, but serious romantic comedy love, the chemistry of opposites that begins as antipathy and blossoms into enduring ardor. I believe Bush felt the same anticipatory excitement as I did whenever Gregory’s lanky folding ruler body would begin to unfurl. Admittedly, I was most likely a bit more turned on by the questions, but I believe we both melted a bit at Gregory's boyish, Curious George-like face, topped by that mop of gray hair glued down into a style I refer to as “Corporate Temp Warhol.”
I love that Gregory is fun, and I love even more that he's funny. And not just by reputation, but on record. YouTube is chockablock with Gregory good times. His vaguely stoned phone interview with Don Imus from India; his hilarious appearance on Leno where he does a spot-on Bush impression; and, most famously (and already known all too well by the other Gregory lovers) his very groovy, very public boogie down to Mary J. Blige on the Today show. My favorite nerdy white man totally feeling my favorite strong black woman? Two words: mega-swoon.
more from The Daily Beast here.
face the reality
In the mainstream Zionist narrative—which includes liberal supporters—the State of Israel is the realization of legitimate Jewish nationalism. That project, having been sanctioned by the international community through both the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine (awarded to Great Britain with the understanding that the British would carry out their commitment described in the famous Balfour Declaration) and the UN partition resolution, was rejected by the Arab world. Because of this violent rejection, Israel has been forced to maintain a strong military and fight many wars as well as remain vigilant against constant terrorist attacks from its enemies. The liberal version here will admit that the settlement enterprise in the West Bank and Gaza was a mistake, and that often the Israeli government acts unwisely and unjustly. But the basic parameters of the narrative remain.
On the Palestinian side (which includes many Jews who fall outside the mainstream Zionist camp), the fundamental theme is that Zionist settlement in Palestine was a colonial enterprise, which flourished behind the guns of a major world power that did not have the right to dispose of this land, and that in order to erect an exclusivist Jewish state, the Zionists, once they achieved sufficient power, threw out most of the indigenous population and treated those that remained as second-class citizens. By and large, the Zionist enterprise is seen as similar to the European colonization of North America and Australia.
These are obviously broad-stroke descriptions, but they will do for now. With regard to these conflicting historical narratives, I have two points to make: first, there is a fact of the matter about their relative accuracy, and second, that it matters.
more from Boston Review here.