February 28, 2009
David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton in Prospect:
The caricature of a philosopher is of an otherworldly professor sitting in a comfy armchair in an Oxbridge college, speculating on the nature of reality using only his or her intellect and a few books. This has some basis in reality. Chemistry requires test tubes, history needs documents. In recent years, the main tool of the philosopher has been grey matter. The subject’s evolution can be painfully slow, tiptoeing forward from footnote to footnote. But not always. Every so often a new movement overturns the orthodoxies of received opinion. We might just be entering one of those phases.
A dynamic new school of thought is emerging that wants to kick down the walls of recent philosophy and place experimentation back at its centre. It has a name to delight an advertising executive: x-phi. It has blogs and books devoted to it, and boasts an expanding body of researchers in elite universities. It even has an icon: an armchair in flames. If philosophy ever can be, x-phi is trendy. But, increasingly, it is also attracting hostility.
The Four Horsemen
A more perfect union: Barack Obama’s Speech on Race
From The New York Times:
Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.
The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.
Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution – a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.
And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part – through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk - to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.
This was one of the tasks we set forth at the beginning of this campaign – to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America. I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together – unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction – towards a better future for our children and our grandchildren.
This belief comes from my unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people. But it also comes from my own American story.
I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton’s Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners – an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.
It’s a story that hasn’t made me the most conventional candidate. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts – that out of many, we are truly one.
Scientists Model Words As Entangled Quantum States In Our Minds
Lisa Zyga in physorg.com (via polymeme):
Research has shown that words are stored in our memories not as isolated entities but as part of a network of related words. This explains why seeing or hearing a word activates words related to it through prior experiences. In trying to understand these connections, scientists visualize a map of links among words called the mental lexicon that shows how words in a vocabulary are interconnected through other words.
However, it’s not clear just how this word association network works. For instance, does word association spread like a wave through a fixed network, weakening with conceptual distance, as suggested by the “Spreading Activation” model? Or does a word activate every other associated word simultaneously, as suggested in a model called “Spooky Activation at a Distance”?
Although these two explanations appear to be mutually exclusive, a recent study reveals a connection between the explanations by making one novel assumption: that words can become entangled in the human mental lexicon. In the study, researchers from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Australia and the University of South Florida in the US have investigated the quantum nature of word associations and presented a simplified quantum model of a mental lexicon.
Stephen Daldry’s The Reader
Alan Stone in the Boston Review:
The power of The Reader, however, is that it is psychologically believable. Schlink’s book is written in short chapters; each offers at least one telling psychological insight about dreams, about memory, about the disconnect between what I do and what I am. Schlink subtly raises the vexing and intriguing problem of responsibility and agency early in the novel. Michael says:
I think, I reach a conclusion, I turn the conclusion into a decision, and then I discover that acting on the decision is something else entirely, and that doing so may proceed from the decision, but then again it may not. Often enough in my life I have done things I had not decided to do.
One of the great virtues of literature is that it conveys a kind of truth about the human condition, and that truth is what Schlink gives us.
The line between the intention and the action is deeply problematic when we think about our own lives. Explaining radically evil behavior in others, we would like to believe the connection is clearer; the evil–doers are monstrous people. Hannah Arendt refuted that claim, inventing the phrase the “banality of evil” in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Adolf Eichmann, the man directly responsible for the destruction of European Jewry, was portrayed in Israel at his trial as a monster. But Arendt could find no connection between who he was and the evil he did. Her account might suggest Michel Foucault’s general thesis that evil has gone out of our world and sickness has come into it. But it should be noted that Arendt also concluded that Eichmann was not sick. She found nothing, not even madness, to connect the person and his heinous acts.
Afghan treasures give peek into history
From the Houston Chronicle:
Beautiful, priceless works of art illuminate a rich, historic mosaic of cultures, civilizations and trade along the fabled Silk Road of Central Asia — a far cry from the war-torn, Taliban-ravaged Afghanistan of today.
Many of the objects on view are literally “hidden treasures.” They were thought to have been lost, stolen or destroyed during the country’s recent years of strife and turmoil.
In 1988, as the 10-year Soviet occupation was ending and civil violence was escalating, museum staff were able to spirit away several boxes of the most valuable treasures, including the “Bactrian Hoard,” more than 20,000 mostly gold artifacts that few had ever seen. No one was sure how or even if the treasures had survived.
It was a joyous occasion when, in 2003, Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced that the treasures were intact and had been located.
Fredrik Hiebert, the National Geographic curator of the show, who is a specialist in ancient Silk Road sites, said he was invited to take part, several months later, in the opening of the boxes. “I gasped,” he said. “I knew exactly what they were, but I never thought I’d get to see them.”
...and a little more updike
John Updike filled his 50 years of writing with probably seven or eight normal writing careers. He did so by fusing two artistic virtues that rarely meet in the same person: a frisky, easy, improvisational energy and a rigorous, workaday discipline. He was both the ant and the grasshopper, accountant and poet, Trollope and Rimbaud. His solution to the daily crisis of inspiration was simply not to have it: He wrote steadily, with very little angst, three pages a day, five days a week. Along the way, he mastered pretty much every genre humans have seen fit to invent, including such comparatively rare forms as the self-interview via a fictional alter ego, the book review in the style of the book under review, and the sonnet about one’s own feces (“a flawless coil, / unbroken, in the bowl”). The resulting body of work is so large and thoroughly lauded, the achievements by now so familiar—the casual erudition, the freakish powers of micro-observation, the pioneering description of once-neglected middle-class hobbies such as adultery and divorce—that it can be hard, today, to see any of it fresh. His productivity itself was intimidating: that never-ending series of series (Bech, Rabbit, Eastwick) and collection of collections. The prospect of dipping into his work sometimes feels like going for a day hike on Mount Everest.more from NY Magazine here.
can't get enough flannery
Flannery. She liked to drink Coca-Cola mixed with coffee. She gave her mother, Regina, a mule for Mother’s Day. She went to bed at 9 and said she was always glad to get there. After Kennedy’s assassination she said: “I am sad about the president. But I like the new one.” As a child she sewed outfits for her chickens and wanted to be a cartoonist. She reluctantly traveled to Lourdes and claimed she prayed for the novel she was working on, “The Violent Bear It Away,” which she referred to as Opus Nauseous. She referred to each of her novels as Opus Nauseous. Rust Hills, the fiction editor of Esquire, put her in the middle of the “red-hot center” in his Literary Establishment chart of 1963. Elizabeth Hardwick took her to dinner at Mary McCarthy’s apartment, where McCarthy conceded that the communion wafer was a symbol of the Holy Ghost and a pretty good one, whereupon Flannery made her famous reply, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.”more from the NY Times here.
good 'ol dorothy
Literature is supposed to be a serious, solitary profession. Then why were William Wordsworth, his sister Dorothy and their best friend Samuel Coleridge having so much fun together in the English Lake District in 1798? The three of them were inseparable, wandering the countryside together, Coleridge often high on opium and the Wordsworths tripping on nature. In "The Prelude," Wordsworth would later recollect that they "wantoned in wild poesy." They walked for miles every day, talking to beggars, communing with birds and flowers, and lying in ditches staring into the sky. The two men produced an amazing body of work in this annus mirabilis that they published jointly in "Lyrical Ballads." Wordsworth's ballads about the lives of the rural poor and Coleridge's visionary poems such as "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" enlarged the discourse and transformed the aesthetic and language of English poetry.more from the LA Times here.
Jim Holt in The New York Times:
THE HOUSE OF WITTGENSTEIN: A Family at War
By Alexander Waugh
“A tense and peculiar family, the Oedipuses,” a wag once observed. Well, when it comes to dysfunction, the Wittgensteins of Vienna could give the Oedipuses a run for their money. The tyrannical family patriarch was Karl Wittgenstein (1847-1913), a steel, banking and arms magnate. He and his timorous wife, Leopoldine, brought nine children into the world. Of the five boys, three certainly or probably committed suicide and two were plagued by suicidal impulses throughout their lives. Of the three daughters who survived into adulthood, two got married; both husbands ended up insane and one died by his own hand. Even by the morbid standards of late Hapsburg Vienna these are impressive numbers. But tense and peculiar as the Wittgensteins were, the family also had a strain of genius. Of the two sons who didn’t kill themselves, one, Paul (1887-1961), managed to become an internationally celebrated concert pianist despite the loss of his right arm in World War I. The other, Ludwig (1889-1951), was the greatest philosopher of the 20th century.
Who better to chronicle such a clan than Alexander Waugh, himself the scion of a distinguished and colorful family? In his previous book, “Fathers and Sons,” Waugh wrote with a fine comic touch about his grandfather Evelyn and his father, Auberon. Here he moves from a farcical to a tragic vein. Yet the Wittgensteins, for all their Sturm und Drang, can be as funny as the Waughs. We are told, for example, that the first spoken word of one of the Wittgenstein boys was “Oedipus.”
The author brings another advantage to his subject: he is a music critic (and sometime composer), and the Wittgensteins were the musical family par excellence.
February 27, 2009
Solving a 17th-Century Crime
Joseph Caputo in Smithsonian Magazine:
The boy does not have a name, but he is not unknown. Smithsonian scientists reconstructed his story from a skeleton, found in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, buried underneath a layer of fireplace ash, bottle and ceramic fragments, and animal bones.
Resting on top of the rib cage was the milk pan used to dig the grave. "It's obviously some sort of clandestine burial," says Kari Bruwelheide, who studied the body. "We call it a colonial cold case."
Bruwelheide is an assistant to forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley. After more than a decade of cases that span the centuries, the duo has curated "Written in Bone: Forensic Files of the 17th-Century Chesapeake," on view at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History through February 2011. The exhibit shows visitors how forensic anthropologists analyze bones and artifacts to crack historical mysteries. "The public thinks they know a lot about it, but their knowledge is based on shows like ‘Bones' and ‘CSI,' so they get a lot of misinformation," Owsley says. "This is an opportunity for us to show the real thing."
Take the boy in the clandestine grave...
Government Talk Pretty One Day
Alan Wolfe in The New Republic:
Talk about judges making up law out of whole cloth--that, pretty much, is what the U. S. Supreme Court has just done. In Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, the Court, by a unanimous vote, concluded that a somewhat offbeat religious group has no right to place a monument touting what it calls the Seven Aphorisms on public land that already features a monument to the Ten Commandments.
A unanimous verdict suggests that Summum was on shaky legal grounds to begin with. But the decision of Samuel Alito, endorsed by the other conservative judges, relied on reasoning that drew strong objection from some of the Court's more liberal members. It's not complicated, Alito argued. The government, like any individual--or, for that matter, corporation--has the right to free speech. If it chooses to say that one religion's teachings should be represented in public and another's should not be, telling it that such a act constitutes discrimination in favor of one religion and against another is tantamount to denying the government its right to say whatever it wants.
I am the sedentary champion of the city
Popular fiction is supposed to be essentially story-driven; the proof that it works is the sound of the pages turning. But a few of the great pop writers were stylists, above all, and their success is measured by a different sound, that of the snort of appreciation followed by a phrase read out loud to a half-sleeping spouse in bed at night. The pages stop turning while we admire the sentences. Few readers of Raymond Chandler can recall, or even follow, the plot of “Farewell, My Lovely”—Chandler himself couldn’t always follow his plots. What they remember is that Moose Malloy on a Los Angeles street was as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel-food cake. Of all the pop formalists, the purest and strangest may be Damon Runyon, the New York storyteller, newspaperman, and sportswriter who wrote for the Hearst press for more than thirty years, inspired a couple of Capra movies, and died in 1946. Runyon’s appeal, though it has to be fished out like raisins from the dreary bran of his O. Henry-style plotting, came from his mastery of an American idiom. We read Runyon not for the stories but for the slang, half found on Broadway in the nineteen-twenties and thirties and half cooked up in his own head. We read Runyon for sentences like this: “If I have all the tears that are shed on Broadway by guys in love, I will have enough salt water to start an opposition ocean to the Atlantic and Pacific, with enough left over to run the Great Salt Lake out of business.”more from The New Yorker here.
"I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. … By the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs."1 Thus the magic moment in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) when the creature is brought to life by what is usually considered (though Shelley does not say so outright) the infusion of an electric "spark of being" into a constructed body. Shelley’s story emerged amid heated disputes among London physicians over the nature of life itself. Against the view of mechanists and materialists, who argued life could be reduced to the complex organization of physiology, vitalists asserted that some other force or spirit must be superadded to bodies to achieve living animation. Vitalist John Abernethy thus declared, "The phaenomena of electricity and of life correspond."2 To support their case, vitalists often pointed to the "animal electricity" described by Bolognese physician Luigi Galvani, who had seen the legs of a dissected frog twitch when touched with a metal scalpel in the presence of electricity. Another Italian, Alessandro Volta, rejected Galvani’s claim that such animal electricity was a distinctive form of electricity, and simulated it by bringing different metals into contact in moisture, thus contributing to his invention of the "voltaic pile" or battery. Volta’s experiments troubled vitalist accounts, but dramatic experiments supported them.more from Cabinet here.
the two germanys
I wonder what Syd Barrett was doing on July 21, 1990, whilst his former Pink Floyd bandmate Roger Waters was cranking the bombast to 11 in Berlin by supersizing that already bloated paean to bilious self-pity known as The Wall and conflating it with the decommissioning — six months prior — of the “anti-Fascist protective rampart” that had divided the German capital and stood as a symbol of Yankee/Soviet stalemate for the previous quarter century. Probably painting. After his death in 2006, it was revealed that Syd had spent much of his three-decade withdrawal from show business making art, which he sometimes photographed before painting over or destroying. The question that nags me is this: Which is the greater creative act, micromanaging a spectacular but rehashed postmodern Gesamtkunstwerk for half a million people (and millions more via live satellite TV — and all ostensibly for charity!), or daubing away in a Cambridge cellar on a canvas that will probably never see the light of day?more from the LA Weekly here.
Malika Amar Sheikh
She doesn’t have arms
Her vision utterly dead
She stands in a showcase
She manages to cling
To the rocky robes of culture
Between her legs
And stony lips
Women in the cities melt
Turn into statues of Venus
A primeval woman
Lets out a stony scream
The city collapses
At her feet
Throwing the sky
Fear the Kindle
Farhad Manjoo in Slate:
It's hard not to love Amazon's new e-book reader. For starters, it's gorgeous. Unlike its bulky predecessor, the redesigned $359 Kindle, which came out this week, is light, thin, and disappears in your hands. If you think there's no way you could ever get used to curling up with an electronic reader, you haven't given the Kindle a chance. Load up a good book and you'll soon forget you're reading plastic rather than paper. You'll also wonder how you ever did without it. The Kindle makes buying, storing, and organizing your favorite books and magazines effortless. You can take your entire library with you wherever you go and switch from reading the latest New Yorker to the latest best-seller without rolling out of bed. In my few days using it, I was won over: The Kindle is the future of publishing.
And that's what scares me. Amazon's reader is a brilliant device that shanghais book buyers and the book industry into accepting a radically diminished marketplace for published works. If the Kindle succeeds on its current terms, and all signs suggest it'll be a blockbuster (thanks Oprah!), Amazon will make a bundle. But everyone else with a stake in a vibrant book industry—authors, publishers, libraries, chain bookstores, indie bookstores, and, not least, readers—stands to lose out.
African-American literature and arts had begun an expansion just before the turn of the century. In the performing arts, black musical theatre featured such accomplished artists as songwriter Bob Cole and composer J. Rosamond Johnson (brother of writer James Weldon Johnson). Jazz and blues music by legends such as Clyde Livingston, moved with black populations from the South and Midwest into the bars and cabarets of Harlem.
In literature, the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar and the fiction of Charles W. Chesnutt in the late 1890s were among the earliest works of African Americans to receive national recognition. By the end of World War I, the fiction of James Weldon Johnson and the poetry of Claude McKay anticipated the literature that would follow in the 1920s. They described the reality of black life in America and the struggle for racial identity.
The first stage of the Harlem Renaissance started in the late 1910s. 1917 saw the premiere of Three Plays for a Negro Theatre. These plays, written by white playwright Ridgely Torrence, featured black actors' conveying complex human emotions and yearnings. They rejected the stereotypes of the blackface and minstrel show traditions. James Weldon Johnson in 1917 called the premieres of these plays "the most important single event in the entire history of the Negro in the American Theatre." Another landmark came in 1919, when Claude McKay published his militant sonnet If We Must Die. Although the poem never alluded to race, to black readers it sounded a note of defiance in the face of racism and the nationwide race riots and lynchings then taking place. By the end of the First World War, the fiction of James Weldon Johnson and the poetry of Claude McKay was describing the reality of contemporary black life in America.
In the early 1920s, a number of literary works signaled the new creative energy in African-American literature. Claude McKay's volume of poetry, Harlem Shadows (1922), became one of the first works by a black writer to be published by a mainstream national publisher . Cane (1923), by Jean Toomer, was an experimental novel that combined poetry and prose in expressing the life of American blacks in the rural South and urban North. Confusion (1924), the first novel by writer and editor Jessie Fauset, depicted middle-class life among black Americans from a woman's perspective.
With these early works as the foundation, three events between 1924 and 1926 launched the Harlem Renaissance. First, on 21 March 1924, Charles S. Johnson of the National Urban League hosted a dinner to recognize the new literary talent in the black community and to introduce the young writers to New York's white literary establishment. As a result of this dinner, the Survey Graphic, a magazine of social analysis and criticism interested in cultural pluralism, produced a Harlem issue in March 1925. Devoted to defining the aesthetic of black literature and art, the Harlem issue featured work mostly by black writers and was edited by black philosopher and literary scholar Alain Locke. Later that year Locke expanded the special issue into an anthology, The New Negro.
The second event was the publication of Nigger Heaven (1926) by white novelist Carl Van Vechten. The book was a spectacularly popular exposé of Harlem life. Although the book offended some members of the black community, its coverage of both the elite and the baser sides of Harlem helped create a Negro vogue that drew thousands of sophisticated New Yorkers, black and white, to Harlem's exciting nightlife. It also stimulated a national market for African-American literature and music.
Finally, in the Autumn of 1926 a group of young black writers produced their own literary magazine, Fire!!. With Fire!! a new generation of young writers and artists, including Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, and Zora Neale Hurston, emerged as an alternative group within the Renaissance.
Picture: Langston Hughes, a prominent poet of the Harlem Renaissance.
Weight-Loss Winner: A Diet High in Fiber, Low in Calories
From Scientific American:
Some say the secret to losing weight is forgoing greasy, fatty foods like French fries; others swear that shunning carbs in favor of all-protein grub is key. Many popular weight loss plans recommend that dieters consume specific ratios of fat, protein and carbohydrates. (The Zone diet, for instance, prescribes 40 percent carbs, preferably complex carbs like veggies and whole grains, 30 percent protein and 30 percent fat). But a study published today in The New England Journal of Medicine suggests that the smartest way to lose weight is to eat heart healthy foods (think: Mediterranean diet—lots of veggies and fish, limited amounts of red meat) and reduce your caloric intake.
"Reduced calorie, heart-healthy diets can help you lose weight, regardless of the proportions of fat, protein and carbohydrates," says study co-author Catherine Loria, a nutritional epidemiologist at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute in Bethesda, Md. The researchers, led by Frank Sacks, a professor of cardiovascular disease prevention at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, focused their study on 811 overweight and obese adults ages 30 to 70 in Boston and Baton Rouge, La. ("Overweight" includes those with a body mass index (BMI) between 25 and 29.9; people are considered obese if they have a BMI over 30. The BMI is a standard index used to gauge body fat based on a person's height and weight.)
David Byrne Makes Sense Of His Tour
Rebecca Milzoff in New York Magazine:
Last spring, as David Byrne was finishing his first album with Brian Eno in 28 years, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, he came to a bittersweet realization: “It felt wonderful singing the songs, and I knew if I didn’t tour, then the recording process would be the last time for quite a while that I’d enjoy performing them—except in the shower.” The tour, subtitled “Songs of David Byrne and Brian Eno,” evolved from a set of Everything songs into a production that features selections from all of the duo’s collaborations (including the monumental My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and some Talking Heads songs). “I realized I could tie the present to the past with the thematic thread of Brian’s involvement,” says Byrne, who noticed, for instance, that “Poor Boy” (new) and “Crosseyed and Painless” (old) were both structured around just one or two chords. Sixty-nine performances in seven countries and only one wardrobe malfunction later (“The audience got so enthusiastic all of a sudden”), the show stops at Radio City this Friday and Saturday. Byrne deconstructed the intricate production (including seven musicians, three dancers, choreography, and costumes) while on a ferry to New Zealand’s Waiheke Island—ever-present bike at hand.
1. Mauro Refosco
Percussion and Guitar
The show is a true collaboration. “Mauro suggested that [a dancer] give the drummer his cutoff cue at the end of ‘Life During Wartime.’ A simple but brilliant idea.”
2. Graham Hawthorne
Byrne has worked with the rhythm section for ten years. Hawthorne “also does programming and wine recommendations.”
3. Mark Degliantoni
Former member of Soul Coughing with whom Byrne did some shows “back in the day.”
February 26, 2009
Elektra in Tehran
Anita Desai in the New York Review of Books:
An ominous title. Opening the new book by the author of the phenomenally successful and greatly loved Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), one wonders if it will contain further revelations about the revolution in Iran that she survived, and even triumphed over, by her passion—and her ability to convey that passion—for the classics of Western literature. Actually, it is a memoir of her life growing up in a well-to-do family in Iran, but one soon discovers that it, too, is an act of rebellion against a tyranny.
Unlike her first book, which displays a constant curiosity about and awareness of the world around her, in her memoir the world shrinks to
those fragile intersections—the places where the moments in an individual's private life and personality resonate with and reflect a larger, more universal story.
Here the silence referred to in the title is not that which a tyrannical state imposes on its citizens, or of the witnesses who choose not to speak, or of the victims who fear to speak—rather, it is about
the silences we indulge in about ourselves, our personal mythologies, the stories we impose upon our real lives.
Yet the imposition of such a tyranny—and the rebellion against it—can be the most powerfully influential element in a life. In Nafisi's case it is the tyranny of a mother—and so her memoir joins a long procession of books and films by daughters about their mothers and the battles they fought to assert their own womanly identities and tell their own womanly narratives.
The evolution of Harun Yahya's "Atlas of Creation"
Salman Hameed in Science and Religion News:
Harun Yahya may not accept evolution but his Atlas of Creation is certainly evolving. The process is not natural selection nor is there much intelligence at work here. We are left with a newly discovered process that we may call the Harunian omission (Yahyan omission - just doesn't have the correct pazzaz to it). Harunian omission is the mechanism by which ignorant mistakes are omitted in the hopes that no one will notice the change. It works on individual or groups of claims - but all of this has to take place while sounding belligerent towards those pointing out the mistakes. The key is never to admit that there was ever a mistake in the first place.
Couple of months ago I had posted a video of Dawkins picking apart Harun Yahya's Atlas of Creation. He pointed to several examples of clear idiocy in the Atlas. For example, on page 468 of the Atlas, Yahya urges us to look at the picture of a modern eel and compare it with an ancient fossil of an eel-like creature. Based on their resemblance, Yahya claims that this is a clear example where species have not changed - and hence it invalidates evolution. Well - apart from the misunderstanding of how evolution works, the picture in the Atlas was not that of a modern eel - but rather that of a snake.
The bone-crushing power of the apes has been greatly exaggerated
John Hawks in Slate:
After last week's chimpanzee attack in Connecticut, in which an animal named Travis tore off the face of a middle-aged woman, primate experts interviewed by the media repeated an old statistic: Chimpanzees are five to eight times stronger than people. The literature—or at least 19th-century literature—concurs: Edgar Allan Poe's fictional orangutan was able to hurl bodies and pull off scalps. Edgar Rice Burroughs' fictional anthropoid apes were likewise possessed of remarkable strength. Even Jules Verne's gentle ape, Jupiter, had the muscle to drag a stuck wagon from the mire.
Pulled scalps? Unstuck wagons? No doubt, chimpanzees are different from us. Their climbing lifestyle accentuates the need for arm strength. A chimp on four legs can easily outrun a world-class human sprinter. But it sounds extreme to suggest that humans are only an eighth as strong as chimpanzees. Consider that a large human can bench-press 250 pounds. If the "five to eight times" figure were true, that would make a large chimpanzee capable of bench-pressing 1 ton. It's just the sort of factoid the zoo staff might tell you to keep you from knocking on the glass.
The suspicious claim seems to have originated in a flapper-era study conducted by a biologist named John Bauman.
Peace will be achieved only by talking to Hamas
Letter published in The Times of London:
Sir, If every crisis is also an opportunity, it is now time to rethink the strategy for achieving peace in the Middle East. The latest and bloodiest conflict between Israel and Hamas has demonstrated that the policy of isolating Hamas cannot bring about stability. As former peace negotiators, we believe it is of vital importance to abandon the failed policy of isolation and to involve Hamas in the political process.
An Israeli–Palestinian peace settlement without Hamas will not be possible. As the Israeli general and statesman Moshe Dayan said: “If you want to make peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.” There can be no meaningful peace process that involves negotiating with the representative of one part of the Palestinians while simultaneously trying to destroy the other.
Whether we like it or not, Hamas will not go away. Since its victory in democratic elections in 2006, Hamas has sustained its support in Palestinian society despite attempts to destroy it through economic blockades, political boycotts and military incursions. This approach is not working; a new strategy must be found. Yes, Hamas must recognise Israel as part of a permanent solution, but it is a diplomatic process and not ostracisation that will lead them there. The Quartet conditions imposed on Hamas set an unworkable threshold from which to commence negotiations. The most important first step is for Hamas to halt all violence as a precondition for their inclusion in the process. Ending their isolation will in turn help in reconciling the Palestinian national movement, a vital condition for meaningful negotiations with Israel.
We have learnt first-hand that there is no substitute for direct and sustained negotiations with all parties to a conflict, and rarely if ever a durable peace without them. Isolation only bolsters hardliners and their policies of intransigence. Engagement can strengthen pragmatic elements and their ability to strike the hard compromises needed for peace.
The new US Administration and the appointment of George Mitchell as the Middle East envoy give hope that a new strategy grounded in realism and not ideology will be pursued. Without this, there will be no two-state solution and no peace and security for either Israelis or Palestinians. We must recognise that engaging Hamas does not amount to condoning terrorism or attacks on civilians. In fact, it is a precondition for security and for brokering a workable agreement.
Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon
Dr Shlomo Ben-Ami (Israel Foreign Minister, 2000-01)
Betty Bigombe (former Uganda Government minister)
Alvaro de Soto (UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and Envoy to the Quartet, 2005-07).
Gareth Evans (Australian Foreign Minister, 1988-96)
Peter Gastrow (former Member of Parliament in South Africa and member of the National Peace Committee and the National Peace Secretariat)
Gerry Kelly (Sinn Féin member of the Northern Ireland Assembly)
John Hume (Leader of the Social
Democratic Liberal Party of Northern Ireland, 1979-2001)
Dr Ram Manikkalingam (Founder of the Dialogue Advisory Group)
Lord Patten of Barnes
"My first opera made me famous, my second made me infamous," wrote John Adams in his memoir, Hallelujah Junction, published last year. In 1987, his Nixon in China transformed the world of opera with the boldness and originality of its subject and staging (by Peter Sellars), the brilliance of its libretto (by Alice Goodman) and its expressive music, both exuberant and reflective, parodic and sincere. On first hearing it, I was exhilarated by the realisation that this art form was not doomed simply to recycle works of the past, but that it was still capable of producing a masterpiece. In 1991 the same team of Adams, Sellars and Goodman produced The Death of Klinghoffer, based on the 1985 hijacking by Palestinian terrorists of the Achille Lauro, an Italian cruise liner, and the murder of Leon Klinghoffer, an elderly, wheelchair-bound Jewish American on board. Well-received at its premiere in Brussels, this measured and melancholy work, modelled in part on Bach's Passions, ran into a firestorm of criticism when it reached the United States. "I must have been out of my mind to think that an opera which opened with a 'Chorus of Exiled Palestinians' would be received in Brooklyn with placid equanimity," says Adams now.more from the New Statesman here.
sammy j was money
It is a nice symbolic irony, then, that this year marks the 300th anniversary of the greatest professional writer in English literature. "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money," Samuel Johnson used to say. And while James Boswell, his friend and biographer, hurried to point out that "numerous instances to refute this will occur to all who are versed in the history of literature," Johnson's dictum does contain an essential truth about the kind of writer he was. "His character and manners were aggressive, and he saw life itself as a perpetual contest," writes Jeffrey Meyers in the introduction to his fluent and accessible new biography, Samuel Johnson: The Struggle. The other new life of Johnson to appear this season, Samuel Johnson: A Biography, by Peter Martin, is more academic and less literary than Meyers', but it might as well share that combative subtitle. Martin, too, sees Johnson's life as a long "contest" with poverty, sickness, and neurosis—a contest in which Johnson's talent and professionalism allowed him to triumph.more from Slate here.
ayn rand refuses to die
How did a Russian-born novelist become such an influential “thought leader” for American CEOs, entrepreneurs, and MBAs — and even Alan Greenspan? Consider the message behind Ayn Rand best sellers The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, which speaks to anyone with ambition and a big ego: The gifted should do what’s in their self-interest. If you have a sharp mind, it is your moral responsibility to make yourself happy. The weak are not your problem. “I am for an absolute laissez-faire, free, unregulated economy,” Rand told CBS interviewer Mike Wallace in 1959. “If you separate the government from economics, if you do not regulate production and trade, you will have peaceful cooperation, harmony, and justice among men.” Rand’s critics claim that the current financial crisis proves her theories unrealistic and selfish. “Her economic ideas were never really relevant or workable,” says Rick Wilson, a sociology instructor at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., which offers a class on Rand’s writings. “The time we’re living through is just another example of that.” And yet 51 years after Atlas Shrugged was published, Rand’s writing still wields considerable influence in business.more from Portfolio here.
When the oak tree fell
some cut a branch and stuck it in the ground
calling upon people to venerate the same tree,
others mourned in elegies
the lost forest their lost life,
others made collections of dried leaves
showed them at fairs made a living,
others asserted the harmfulness of deciduous trees
but disagreed about the kind of reforestation
or even the need for it,
others, including me, claimed that as long as there are
earth and seeds there’s the possibility of an oak.
The problem of water remains open
African Americans in the United States Congress
Since 1870, 123 African Americans have served in the United States Congress. This figure includes five non-voting members of the House of Representatives who represented the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In addition, in 1868, one candidate was elected to the House but was not seated due to an election dispute.
Reconstruction and Redemption
The right of Blacks to vote and to serve in the United States Congress was established after the Civil War by the Fifth,Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. The Thirteenth Amendment (ratified December 6, 1865), abolished slavery. The Fourteenth Amendment (ratified July 9, 1868) made all people born or naturalized in the United States citizens. The Fifteenth Amendment (ratified February 3, 1870) forbade the denial or abridgment of the right to vote on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude, and gave Congress the power to enforce the law by appropriate legislation. In 1866, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and the Reconstruction Act, which dissolved all governments in the former Confederate states with the exception of Tennessee, and divided the South into five military districts to protect the rights of newly freed blacks. The act required that the former Confederate states ratify their constitutions conferring citizenship rights on blacks or forfeit their representation in Congress.
As a result of these measures, blacks acquired the right to vote across the Southern states. In several states (notably Mississippi and South Carolina), blacks were the majority of the population, and were able, by forming coalitions with pro-Union whites, to take control of the state legislatures, which at that time elected members of the United States Senate. In practice, however, only Mississippi elected black Senators. On February 25, 1870, Hiram Rhodes Revels became the first black member of the Senate and thereby also the first black member of the Congress. Blacks were a majority of the population in many congressional districts across the South. In 1870, Joseph Rainey of South Carolina became the first black member of the United States House of Representatives and thereby the first directly elected black member of Congress. Blacks were also elected from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and Virginia. All of these Reconstruction era black senators and representatives were members of the Republican Party. To many blacks, the Republicans represented the party of Abraham Lincoln and of the Emancipation Proclamation, while the Southern Democrats represented the party of slavery and secession. Until 1876, the Republicans made genuine efforts to ensure that southern blacks were able to vote. After the disputed Presidential election of 1876 between Democratic Samuel J. Tilden, governor of New York, and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, governor of Ohio, an agreement between Democratic and Republican factions was negotiated, resulting in the Compromise of 1877. Under the compromise, Democrats conceded the election to Hayes and promised to acknowledge the political rights of blacks; Republicans agreed to no longer intervene in southern affairs and promised to appropriate a portion of federal monies toward southern projects....
ART AND HUMAN REALITY: A Talk With Denis Dutton
What we regard as the modern human personality evolved during the Pleistocene, between 1.6 million and 10,000 years ago. If you encountered one of your direct ancestors from the beginning of the Pleistocene moseying down the street today, you would probably call the SPCA and ask for a crew with tranquilizer darts and nets to cart the beast off to the zoo. If you saw somebody from the end of the Pleistocene, 10,000 years ago, you'd call the Immigration & Naturalization Service—by that time our ancestors wouldn't have appeared much different from any of us today. It is that crucial period, those 80,000 generations of the Pleistocene before the modern period, which is the key to understanding the evolution of human psychology. Features of life that makes us most human—language, religion, charm, seduction, social status-seeking, and the arts—came to be in this period, no doubt especially in the last 100,000 years.
The human personality—including those aspects of it that are imaginative, expressive, and creative—cries out for a Darwinian explanation. If we're going to treat aspects of the personality, including the aesthetic expression, as adaptations, we've got to do it in terms of three factors.
The first is pleasure: the arts give us direct pleasure. A British study a few years ago showed that six percent of all waking life of the average British adult is spent enjoying fictions, in movies, plays, and on television. And that didn't even include fictional books—bodice-rippers, airport novels, high literature, and so forth. That kind of devotion of time and its pleasure-payoff demands some kind of explanation.
February 25, 2009
Coming Soon: Capitalism 3.0
Dani Rodrik in Project Syndicate:
[The] “mixed-economy” model was the crowning achievement of the twentieth century. The new balance that it established between state and market set the stage for an unprecedented period of social cohesion, stability, and prosperity in the advanced economies that lasted until the mid-1970’s.
This model became frayed from the 1980’s on, and now appears to have broken down. The reason can be expressed in one word: globalization.
The postwar mixed economy was built for and operated at the level of nation-states, and required keeping the international economy at bay. The Bretton Woods-GATT regime entailed a “shallow” form of international economic integration that implied controls on international capital flows, which Keynes and his contemporaries had viewed as crucial for domestic economic management. Countries were required to undertake only limited trade liberalization, with plenty of exceptions for socially sensitive sectors (agriculture, textiles, services). This left them free to build their own versions of national capitalism, as long as they obeyed a few simple international rules.
The current crisis shows how far we have come from that model. Financial globalization, in particular, played havoc with the old rules. When Chinese-style capitalism met American-style capitalism, with few safety valves in place, it gave rise to an explosive mix. There were no protective mechanisms to prevent a global liquidity glut from developing, and then, in combination with US regulatory failings, from producing a spectacular housing boom and crash. Nor were there any international roadblocks to prevent the crisis from spreading from its epicenter.
The lesson is not that capitalism is dead. It is that we need to reinvent it for a new century in which the forces of economic globalization are much more powerful than before. Just as Smith’s minimal capitalism was transformed into Keynes’ mixed economy, we need to contemplate a transition from the national version of the mixed economy to its global counterpart.
The Story of Charles Dickens's 'Chaste Little Harem' for Misfits
John Bowen in the TLS:
There is a lost book by Dickens, one that recorded some of the most remarkable encounters of his life. Within it, he catalogued the stories told him by the women – prostitutes, confidence tricksters, thieves and attempted suicides – whom he interviewed before they were admitted to Urania Cottage, the refuge for fallen women he established in Shepherd’s Bush in the 1840s and effectively directed for a decade or more. The money – substantial sums, for this was “high-end philanthropy” – came from the immensely wealthy Angela Burdett-Coutts, but the initial scheme and much of its everyday direction was Dickens’s alone, his most important and most characteristic charitable venture. Jenny Hartley’s excellent new book tells this extraordinary story with compassion, common sense and a lively awareness of the unruly, self-dramatizing energies (both Dickens’s and the women’s) at play within and beyond the home’s four walls.
He was the greatest novelist of the age, Burdett-Coutts its richest heiress, and they were determined to offer a chance to people who had none, or only bad ones. They could only help a tiny proportion of the great tide of vulnerable young women who washed up in the prisons and workhouses of mid-Victorian England, but they did so with determination, energy and imagination. The aged Duke of Wellington, with whom the much younger Miss Coutts was conducting a clandestine courtship, dismissed prostitutes as “irreclaimable”. More resistance came from the women themselves, many of whom rejected the prospect of a year’s quiet domesticity followed by emigration to a distant colony that were the conditions for entry.
The Future of Freedom and Control in the Internet Age
Over at the Open Societies Institute, an audio of the event:
The Open Society Institute and Asia Society hosted an event with Open Society Fellows Rebecca MacKinnon and Evgeny Morozov that explored the changing landscape of Internet censorship. Special attention was given to the techniques employed by governments to co-opt and steer online discussions in ideologically convenient directions. Focusing on the specific cases of Russia and China, the panelists discussed how the strategies and tools of control, manipulation, and censorship have evolved in both countries.
War Crimes in Sri Lanka
Sampath Perera in Countercurrents:
A report released last Friday by the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has provided a glimpse into the criminal character of the Sri Lankan government's war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Entitled "End ‘War' on Civilians," it calls on the government to "immediately cease its indiscriminate artillery attacks on civilians in the northern Wanni region and its policy of detaining displaced persons in internment camps".
The HRW is no friend of the LTTE. The report criticises the LTTE's failure to allow civilians to leave its small remaining territory and its shooting at those who try. It also calls on the LTTE to stop placing its fighters near population centres. "With each battlefield defeat, the Tamil Tigers appear to be treating Tamil civilians with increased brutality," James Ross, HRW legal and policy director, said in a press release.
These allegations are routinely made by the Sri Lankan government to justify its war and repeatedly echoed in the local and international media. What the HRW report does, however, is to undermine the government's own lies, which are rarely challenged in the press. The government and the military have denied all responsibility for civilian casualties and where they have been proven, blamed them on the LTTE.
In its press release, the HRW is unequivocal: "The Sri Lankan government has indicated that the ethnic Tamil population trapped in the war zone can be presumed to be siding with the LTTE and treated as combatants, effectively sanctioning unlawful attacks.
Frederica Krueger and the Eflite Blade mCX
I've recently become obsessed with flying radio-controlled helicopters, and everyone already knows that I am obsessed with my cat, Frederica Krueger, so I decided to combine the two in a video. I actually own four RC helicopters, from the tiny Eflite Blade mCX coaxial 4-channel model shown in the video, to a much larger Esky Honeybee CP2 6-channel machine with variable pitch main rotor which makes it capable of advanced aerobatics including inverted flight. But this tiny Blade mCX is my favorite because it is a true technological marvel of electronics, materials science, mechanics, and aerodynamics.
Of course, I spend more time repairing and maintaining the helicopters than flying them! If you decide to buy an RC helicopter, have a look at this guide, and know that it takes quite a while to learn to fly them. I was overconfident, bought an advanced model first, crashed and broke it into two in the first minutes (seconds, really) of flight, and then read (too late!) that that is the fate of more than 50% of RC helicopters once they come out of their box for the first time! (I ordered spare parts and managed to repair it with the help of my friend Georg who owns things like a soldering iron and a drill, but it took most of a day. By the way, I myself own only one tool, a Swiss Army knife, but it is this one!)
The scene at the end is the view of the mountain Plose, and the Eisack river, from my apartment in Brixen. And also as you can see at the end, Freddy is quite bored by the whole thing. By the way, I was cooking and then flying the helicopter quickly while my rice came to a boil (and I had a willing camera-woman available), that is why I am wearing an apron in part of the video. :-)
ashbery explains a nest of ninnies
James Schuyler and I began writing A Nest of Ninnies purely by chance. It was July 1952 and we were being given a lift back to New York from East Hampton, N.Y. where we had spent the weekend as guests of the musical comedy librettist John Latouche. Latouche planned to make a short movie starring us and our friend Jane Freilicher called “Presenting Jane,” from a scenario by Schuyler. A few scenes had just been shot, including a scene of Jane walking on water (actually a submerged dock on Georgica Pond); the film was never finished though Schuyler’s script recently surfaced and is going to be published soon. Now we were in a car being driven by the young cameraman, Harrison Starr, with his father as a passenger in the front seat. Since neither Jimmy nor I knew the Starrs very well, we at first contented ourselves with observing the exurban landscape along the old Sunrise Highway (this was before construction of the now infamous Long Island Expressway). Growing bored, Jimmy said, “Why don’t we write a novel?” And how do we do that, I asked. “It’s easy—you write the first line,” was his reply. This was rather typical of him—getting a brilliant idea and then conscripting someone else to realize it. Not to be outmaneuvered, I contributed a three-word sentence: “Alice was tired.”more from Context here.
The SS man lives on. More than half a century after the members of this organisation finally slipped out of their blood, sweat and office-dust covered uniforms once and for all, they are a more familiar sight than ever. Instantly recognisable in their high boots and black garb they stomp through films, comics and novels. So I find it surprising, neither as reader nor author, that a former SS officer has been saying "je" in a prize-winning "French bestseller for over a year now and "ich" in the 400-page German translation since the Febrary 23rd. And it's not as if anyone in this country who takes up Jonathan Littell's novel "Les Bienveillantes" doesn't know what they're in for, historically speaking. An SS man as narrator inevitably means no end of blood and thunder combined with the elaborate logistics and technological innovations necessary for the mass murder of what National Socialism deemed inferior human beings and enemies of the state. These crimes have been comprehensively documented and extensively recounted. Parallel to this factual research and fictionalisation, in the second half of the twentieth century - from the Nuremburg Trials to the most recent book publications - these crimes have been ascribed with a singular distinctiveness. More so than other horrific deeds, those committed by the SS are seen to possess a transcendent, metaphysical quality, which to this day, conjures up the very essence of evil.more from Sign and Sight here.
some movies pry open your skull and punch you in the brain
There’s a certain brand of movie that I most enjoy. Some people call them “Puzzle Movies.” Others call them “Brain Burners.” Each has, at some point or another, been referred to as “that flick I watched while I was baked out of my mind.” But the phrase I find myself employing, when casting around for a succinct term for the entire genre, is “Mindfuck Movies.” It’s an expression I picked up from a college roommate of mine, an enormous Star Trek: The Next Generation fan who adored those episodes when the nature of reality itself was called into question, usually after the holodeck went berserk or Q showed up and hornswoggled everyone into thinking they were intergalactic dung beetles (or whatever…I never really followed the show myself).more from The Morning News here.
Percy Bysshe Shelley
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert ... Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works ye mighty and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Quark star may hold secret to early universe
Paul Parsons in New Scientist:
When supernovae explode, they leave behind either a black hole or a dense remnant called a neutron star. However, recent calculations suggest a third possibility: a quark star, which forms when the pressure falls just short of creating a black hole.
Astronomers believe these form after the neutron star stage, when the pressure inside a supernova rises so high the neutrons disintegrate into their constituents - quarks. These form an even denser star than neutrons.
Observing a quark star could shed light on what happened just after the big bang, because at this time, the universe was filled with a dense sea of quark matter superheated to a trillion °C. While some groups have claimed to have found candidate quark stars, no discovery has yet been confirmed.
Now Kwong-Sang Cheng of the University of Hong Kong, China, and colleagues have presented evidence that a quark star formed in a bright supernova called SN 1987A (pictured), which is among the nearest supernovae to have been observed.
More here. [Thanks to Angus Faulkner.]
Racial segregation in the United States
Racial segregation in the United States has meant the physical separation and provision of separate facilities (especially during the Jim Crow era), but it can also refer to other manifestations of racial discrimination such as separation of roles within an institution, such as the United States Armed Forces up to 1948 when black units were typically separated from white units but were led by white officers. Racial segregation in the United States can be divided into de jure and de facto segregation. De jure segregation, sanctioned or enforced by force of law, was stopped by federal enforcement of a series of Supreme Court decisions beginning with Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954. The process of throwing off legal segregation in the United States lasted through much of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s when civil rights demonstrations resulted in public opinion turning against enforced segregation. De facto segregation — segregation "in fact" — persists to varying degrees without sanction of law to the present day. The contemporary racial segregation seen in America in residential neighborhoods has been shaped by public policies, mortgage discrimination and redlining.
After Congress passed the Reconstruction Act of 1867, the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1870 providing the right to vote, and the Civil Rights Act of 1875 forbidding racial segregation in accommodations, Federal occupation troops in the South assured blacks the right to vote and to elect their own political leaders. The Reconstruction amendments asserted the supremacy of the national state and the formal equality under the law of everyone within it. However this radical Reconstruction era would collapse because of multidimensional racialism related to the spread of democratic idealism. What began as region wide passage of ‘Jim Crow’ segregation laws that focused on issues of equal access to public activities and facilities would by 1910 have spread throughout the south, mandating the segregation of whites and blacks in the public sphere.
Outstanding 'complexity' wins Naomi Klein £50,000 inaugural Warwick prize
From The Guardian:
The complexity of Naomi Klein's portrayal of the rise of disaster capitalism, The Shock Doctrine, has won its author the inaugural £50,000 Warwick prize for writing. The biennial prize, run by Warwick University, is promising to be one of the most unusual prizes on the books calendar, not least because it will tackle a different theme every two years, with "complexity" chosen as its initial focus. Chair of judges and author of "weird fiction" China Miéville praised The Shock Doctrine as a "brilliant, provocative, outstandingly written investigation into some of the great outrages of our time" which has "started many debates, and will start many more". The book charts Klein's four-year investigation into moments of collective crisis, such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, dubbing the ways in which they are exploited by global corporations "disaster capitalism".
"At a time when the news out of the publishing industry is usually so bleak it's thrilling to be part of a bold new prize supporting writing, especially alongside such an exciting array of other books," Klein said on learning of her win. She beat an extremely diverse shortlist which ranged from scientific theory to Spanish fiction to take the award, seeing off strong competition from Mad, Bad and Sad, Lisa Appignanesi's intricate study of the relationship between women and mental illness, and Alex Ross's Guardian first book award-winning history of 20th-century music, The Rest is Noise. Francisco Goldman's investigation into the murder of Guatemalan bishop Juan Gerardi, The Art of Political Murder, Stuart A Kauffman's Reinventing the Sacred and the solitary novel on the shortlist, Enrique Vila-Matas's study of an obsessive writer, Montano's Malady, completed the line-up.
When the hive mind works, it's a beautiful thing
Michael Agger in Slate:
Why is the Internet the place where civil discussion goes to die? It must be something in the tubes. Before there even was a mainstream Internet, in 1990, Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Mike Godwin coined Godwin's Law: "As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one." If you put a group of slightly asocial, opinionated people behind usernames, the conversation descends into flame wars and miscellaneous insanity.
Which is why I am so impressed with Ask MetaFilter, a question-and-answer site that grew out of the MetaFilter community in 2003. It's one of the few places on the Internet where you can find sensible, accommodating, actually helpful discussion. For example, last October, the user "Hands of Manos" posed the following query: "How can I be less cynical?" He went on to explain, "I hate most movies, I lost faith in the God I was raised to believe in as a child and I find very little joy in most things now a days" and noted, "My wife is pissed because I'm so negative and doubtful of everything."
Thoughtful replies were posted immediately, with suggestions ranging from volunteering to banjo playing to avoiding "emotionally toxic" people to reading David McCullough's book on John Adams to looking at a blog that collects examples of how the world is getting better all the time.
February 24, 2009
Whistling at the Northern Lights
Jason Wilson in The Smart Set:
Friends often accuse me of being too nostalgic. By afternoon, they say, I’ve become misty-eyed over what I’ve eaten for breakfast. That’s not completely true, I tell them. I’m sure there’s been a few bowls of cereal that have been unremembered or unremarked upon. But my protests are half-hearted, because I know my friends are right. Case in point: On a recent trip to Iceland, I became weepy at the sight of three sheep grazing in a grassy field underneath the summer midnight sun.
Let me explain that this was my first trip to Iceland in several years. In my 20s, over the course of nine visits, I spent what some might consider to be an eccentric amount of time in Iceland. I would like to tell you that I had a grand purpose — that I was translating the ancient Sagas or convincing the Icelanders not to hunt whales. But no, when I was wasn’t driving aimlessly on gravel roads shooting photos of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, most of my time was spent hanging out in the bars and cafes of Reykjavík.
During one late summer visit, I fell in with a Finnish woman named Eeva-Liisa and a Danish woman named Trine, who were also artfully perfecting their aimlessness.
More here, including slide show.
El Dorado really did exist
Fawcett, however, was convinced that the Amazon wilderness - an area virtually the size of the continental United States - concealed the remnants of at least one, and probably more, highly advanced civilizations. He was the last of a breed of explorers to venture into blank spots on the map with little more than a machete, a compass, and an almost divine sense of purpose, and he spent nearly two decades gathering evidence to prove his case and pinpointing a location. With his 21-year-old son, Jack, and Jack's best friend, Raleigh Rimell, Fawcett finally set off into the Brazilian jungle to find the City of Z. Then he and his party vanished, giving rise to what has been described as "the greatest exploration mystery of the 20th century." Fawcett had warned that no one should follow in his wake due to the danger, but scores of scientists, explorers, and adventurers plunged into the wilderness, determined to recover the Fawcett party, alive or dead, and to return with proof of Z. In February 1955, the New York Times claimed that Fawcett's disappearance had set off more searches "than those launched through the centuries to find the fabulous El Dorado." Some were wiped out by starvation and disease, or retreated in despair; others were murdered by tribesmen firing arrows dipped in poison. Then there were those adventurers who had gone to find Fawcett and, like him, simply disappeared in the forests that travelers had long ago christened the "green hell."more from Boston Globe Ideas here.
Anthony Bourdain visits Ferran Adrià
Bayesian Updating and Evolutionary Search: On Bayes, Darwin and Wallace
Cosma Shalizi over at Three-Toed Sloth:
[T]here are many situations where Bayesian learning does seem to work reasonably effectively, which in light of the Freedman-Diaconis results needs explaining, ideally in a way which gives some guidance as to when we can expect it to work. This is the origin of the micro-field of Bayesian consistency or Bayesian nonparametrics, and it's here that I find I've written a paper, rather to my surprise.
I never intended to work on this. In the spring of 2003, I was going to the statistics seminar in Ann Arbor, and one week the speaker happened to be Yoav Freund, talking about this paper (I think) on model averaging for classifiers. I got hung up on why the weights of different models went down exponentially with the number of errors they'd made. It occurred to me that this was what would happen in a very large genetic algorithm, if a solution's fitness was inversely proportional to the number of errors it made, and there was no mutation or cross-over. The model-averaged prediction would just be voting over the population. This made me feel better about why model averaging was working, because using a genetic algorithm to evolve classifier rules was something I was already pretty familiar with.
The next day it struck me that this story would work just as well for Bayesian model averaging, with weights depending on the likelihood rather than the number of errors. In fact, I realized, Bayes's rule just is the discrete-time replicator equation, with different hypotheses being so many different replicators, and the fitness function being the conditional likelihood.
As you know, Bob, the replicator dynamic is a mathematical representation of the basic idea of natural selection. There are different kinds of things, the kinds being called "replicators", because things of one kind cause more things of that same kind to come into being. The average number of descendants per individual is the replicator's fitness; this can depend not only on the properties of the replicator and on time and chance, but also on the distribution of replicators in the population; in that case the fitness is "frequency dependent". In its basic form, fitness-proportional selection is the only evolutionary mechanism: no sampling, no mutation, no cross-over, and of course no sex. The result is that replicators with above-average fitness increase their share of the population, while replicators with below-average fitness dwindle.
This is a pretty natural way of modeling half of the mechanism Darwin and Wallace realized was behind evolution, the "selective retention" part — what it leaves out is "blind variation".
Berlusconi and Italy's Decline
Perry Anderson in the LRB:
Berlusconi, catapulted onto the political stage as Craxi fled into exile, thus embodies perhaps the deepest irony in the postwar history of any Western society. The First Republic collapsed amid public outrage at the exposure of stratospheric levels of political corruption, only to give birth to a Second Republic dominated by a yet more flamboyant monument of illegality and corruption, Craxi’s own misdeeds dwarfed by comparison. Nor was the new venality confined to the ruler and his entourage. Beneath them, corruption has continued to flourish undiminished. A few months after the centre-left governor of Campania, Antonio Bassolino – formerly of the PCI – was indicted for fraud and malversation, the governor of Abruzzo, Ottavio Del Turco, another stalwart of the centre-left – formerly of the PSI – was also arrested, after a private-health tycoon confessed to having paid him six million euros in cash as protection money. Berlusconi is the capstone of a system that extends well beyond him. But, as a political actor, credit for the inversion of what was imagined would be the curing of the ills of the First Republic by the Second belongs in the first place to him. Italy has no more native tradition than trasformismo – the transformation of a political force by osmosis into its opposite, as classically practised by Depretis in the late 19th century, absorbing the right into the official left, and Giolitti in the early 20th, co-opting labour reformism to the benefit of liberalism. The case of the Second Republic has been trasformismo on a grander scale: not a party, or a class, but an entire order converted into what it was intended to end.Where the state has led, society has followed. The years since 1993 have, in one area of life after another, been the most calamitous since the fall of Fascism. Of late, they have produced probably the two most scalding inventories of avarice, injustice, dereliction and failure to appear in any European country since the war. The works of a pair of crusading journalists for Corriere della Sera, Gian Antonio Stella and Sergio Rizzo, La Casta and La Deriva, have both been bestsellers – the first ran through 23 editions in six months – and they deserve to be. What do they reveal? To begin with, the greed of the political class running the country.
The Formula That Killed Wall Street
Via DeLong, Felix Salmon in Wired:
When the price of a credit default swap goes up, that indicates that default risk has risen. Li's breakthrough was that instead of waiting to assemble enough historical data about actual defaults, which are rare in the real world, he used historical prices from the CDS market. It's hard to build a historical model to predict Alice's or Britney's behavior, but anybody could see whether the price of credit default swaps on Britney tended to move in the same direction as that on Alice. If it did, then there was a strong correlation between Alice's and Britney's default risks, as priced by the market. Li wrote a model that used price rather than real-world default data as a shortcut (making an implicit assumption that financial markets in general, and CDS markets in particular, can price default risk correctly).
It was a brilliant simplification of an intractable problem. And Li didn't just radically dumb down the difficulty of working out correlations; he decided not to even bother trying to map and calculate all the nearly infinite relationships between the various loans that made up a pool. What happens when the number of pool members increases or when you mix negative correlations with positive ones? Never mind all that, he said. The only thing that matters is the final correlation number—one clean, simple, all-sufficient figure that sums up everything.
The effect on the securitization market was electric. Armed with Li's formula, Wall Street's quants saw a new world of possibilities. And the first thing they did was start creating a huge number of brand-new triple-A securities. Using Li's copula approach meant that ratings agencies like Moody's—or anybody wanting to model the risk of a tranche—no longer needed to puzzle over the underlying securities. All they needed was that correlation number, and out would come a rating telling them how safe or risky the tranche was.
As a result, just about anything could be bundled and turned into a triple-A bond—corporate bonds, bank loans, mortgage-backed securities, whatever you liked. The consequent pools were often known as collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs. You could tranche that pool and create a triple-A security even if none of the components were themselves triple-A. You could even take lower-rated tranches of other CDOs, put them in a pool, and tranche them—an instrument known as a CDO-squared, which at that point was so far removed from any actual underlying bond or loan or mortgage that no one really had a clue what it included. But it didn't matter. All you needed was Li's copula function.
James Baldwin’s Flight from America
Claudia Roth Pierpont in the New Yorker:
Baldwin had been fleeing from place to place for much of his adult life. He was barely out of his teens when he left his Harlem home for Greenwich Village, in the early forties, and he had escaped altogether at twenty-four, in 1948, buying a one-way ticket to Paris, with no intention of coming back. His father was dead by then, and his mother had eight younger children whom it tortured him to be deserting; he didn’t have the courage to tell her he was going until the afternoon he left. There was, of course, no shortage of reasons for a young black man to leave the country in 1948. Devastation was all around: his contemporaries, out on Lenox Avenue, were steadily going to jail or else were on “the needle.” His father, a factory worker and a preacher—“he was righteous in the pulpit,” Baldwin said, “and a monster in the house”—had died insane, poisoned with racial bitterness. Baldwin had also sought refuge in the church, becoming a boy preacher when he was fourteen, but had soon realized that he was hiding from everything he wanted and feared he could never achieve. He began his first novel, about himself and his father, around the time he left the church, at seventeen. Within a few years, he was publishing regularly in magazines; book reviews, mostly, but finally an essay and even a short story. Still, who really believed that he could make it as a writer? In America?
The answer to both questions came from Richard Wright. Although Baldwin seemed a natural heir to the Harlem Renaissance—he was born right there, in 1924, and Countee Cullen was one of his schoolteachers—the bittersweet poetry of writers like Cullen and Langston Hughes held no appeal for him. It was Wright’s unabating fury that hit him hard. Reading “Native Son,” Wright’s novel about a Negro rapist and murderer, Baldwin was stunned to recognize the world that he saw around him.