September 30, 2009
Can Evolution Run in Reverse? A Study Says It’s a One-Way StreetCarl Zimmer in the NYT:
Evolutionary biologists have long wondered if history can run backward. Is it possible for the proteins in our bodies to return to the old shapes and jobs they had millions of years ago?
Examining the evolution of one protein, a team of scientists declares the answer is no, saying new mutations make it practically impossible for evolution to reverse direction. “They burn the bridge that evolution just crossed,” said Joseph W. Thornton, a biology professor at the University of Oregon and co-author of a paper on the team’s findings in the current issue of Nature.
The Belgian biologist Louis Dollo was the first scientist to ponder reverse evolution. “An organism never returns to its former state,” he declared in 1905, a statement later dubbed Dollo’s law.
To see if he was right, biologists have reconstructed evolutionary history. In 2003, for example, a team of scientists studied wings on stick insects. They found that the insects’ common ancestor had wings, but some of its descendants lost them. Later, some of those flightless insects evolved wings again.
Yet this study did not necessarily refute Dollo’s law. The stick insects may indeed have evolved a new set of wings, but it is not clear whether this change appeared as reverse evolution at the molecular level. Did the insects go back to the exact original biochemistry for building wings, or find a new route, essentially evolving new proteins?
The fiction of Richard Powers sometimes resembles a dying satyr—above the waist is a mind full of serious thought, philosophical reflection, deep exploration of music and science; below, a pair of spindly legs strain to support the great weight of the ambitious brain. Powers thinks, and thinks well, and his almost nostalgic devotion to the European modernist tradition of “The Magic Mountain” and “The Man Without Qualities” makes him rare in American fiction. In his best books, “The Gold Bug Variations” (1991) and “Galatea 2.2” (1995), he displays an impressive command of the languages of music, genetics, computer science, and neurology, but more exciting is his willingness to engage in abstract thought, to argue and persevere, to carry arguments through the rooms of logic. (“The Gold Bug Variations,” in particular, contains several profound essays on Bach.) Contemporary American novelists, compared with Powers, can seem like intellectual visitors, fiddling in the foyers of the mind.more from James Wood at The New Yorker here.
Once upon a time the young John Baldessari was so desperate for images that he prowled back alleys hunting for discarded photographs. He’d climb into garbage bins (diving head first was never the recommended technique) and rummage around, finding curious rejected pictures of odd male bowlers (something about what their hands revealed in the follow-through) or stiff ceremonial group portraits of beaming Caucasians with faces revealing their true jack-o-lantern selves, or a stack of dead bodies, or – simply and remarkably – a photograph of a standing man in a black suit which would eventually be cropped and tilted on its side and positioned at the bottom of a horizontal stack of other men – soldiers, cowboys, etc. – all of whom appear to have been shot dead in the street. The solitary living man in the black suit is on the bottom tier, facing up.more from Benjamin Weissman at Frieze here.
Shrink the army and expand the police in Pakistan
S. Abbas Raza in Dawn:
Some of these groups are determined to attack and intimidate, if not eliminate, religious minorities. Then, we have the heavily armed militias affiliated with political parties. Finally, there are the criminal gangs involved in drug trafficking, kidnapping, carjacking, extortion, armed robbery and murder.
The idea that the army can somehow defend the country against this lawlessness is ludicrous. How can the armoured corps help fight sectarian car-bombings in Karachi? How will yet another squadron of F-16 aircraft defeat the drug smugglers in Lahore? How does the infantry do the detective work necessary to bring kidnappers and carjackers to justice? How can the army deal with the creators of mayhem that are thoroughly dispersed within our population, in every town and every city? It cannot. Yet the armed forces consume a hugely disproportionate share of Pakistan’s federal budget.
Up from the creek
where a shut-in
a mink and otter
can still be seen
and native brook trout
cross breed with the stocked
come black bears
first one and then a second
pass by my window
silent as ghosts
not a leaf disturbed
not even rousing the dogs
moving with secret purpose
through the yards.
Who knows what else appears
while others are off to work
or the gym
and gardens are left
to browsing deer
also emerging lightly
with the resurrected
from the soft Indian
to my window
with the ghost bears
on black fur.
By Harry Walsh
Lashkar-e-Tayyaba Still Robust After Mumbai Siege
Lydia Polgreen and Souad Mekhennet in the New York Times:
A new attack could reverberate widely through the region and revive nagging questions about Pakistan’s commitment to stamp out the militant groups that use its territory.
It could also dangerously complicate the Obama administration’s efforts in Afghanistan. Success there depends in part on avoiding open conflict between India and Pakistan, so that Pakistan’s military can focus on battling the Taliban insurgents who base themselves in Pakistan.
Even so, American diplomatic efforts to improve India-Pakistan relations have been stillborn. So delicate is the Kashmir issue that Indian officials bridle at any hint of American mediation.
A history of the English marriage
From The Telegraph:
Adultery, nevertheless, was rife in a society where arranged marriages between couples who had barely met were the norm among the propertied class and divorce was impossible, except for the tiny elite who could afford a parliamentary divorce. Today, adultery often leads to divorce and remarriage, but in the past there was no such option. Marriage was for life, but then how long was life? Most marriages were cut short by death with the average marriage lasting eleven years, roughly the same figure as today when it is more likely to be terminated by divorce than death.
For the Faithful, Eusociality
When Writers Speak
Arthur Krystal in the New York Times:
Vladimir Nabokov on my computer screen, looking both dapper and disheveled. He’s wearing a suit and a multibuttoned vest that scrunches the top of his tie, making it poke out of his shirt like an old-fashioned cravat. Large, lumpish, delicate and black-spectacled, he’s perched on a couch alongside the sleeker, sad-faced Lionel Trilling. Both men are fielding questions from a suave interlocutor with a B-movie mustache. The interview was taped sometime in the late 1950s in what appears to be a faculty club or perhaps a television studio decked out to resemble one. The men are discussing “Lolita.” “I do not . . . I don’t wish to touch hearts,” Nabokov says in his unidentifiable accent. “I don’t even want to affect minds very much. What I really want to produce is that little sob in the spine of the artist-reader.”
Not bad, I think, as I sit staring at the dark granular box on my YouTube screen. In fact, a damned good line to come up with off the cuff. But wait! What’s that Nabokov’s doing with his hands? He’s turning over index cards. He’s glancing at notes. He’s reading. Fluent in three languages, he relies on prefabricated responses to talk about his work.
Ministry of Silly Walks
Why I Slept with 1300 Women
Sebastian Horseley in Open:
I was 16 then and I’m 47 now. I have spent 25 years throwing my money and heart at tarts. I have slept with every nationality in every position in every country. From high-class call girls at £1,000 a pop to the meat-rack girls of Soho at £15, I have probably slept with more than 1,300 prostitutes, at a cost of £115,000.
I am a connoisseur of prostitution: I can take its bouquet, taste it, roll it around my mouth, give you the vintage. I have used brothels, saunas, private homes from the Internet and ordered girls to my flat prompt as pizza. While we are on the subject, I have also run a brothel. And I have been a male escort. I wish I was more ashamed. But I’m not. I love prostitutes and everything about them. And I care about them so much I don’t want them to be made legal.
September 29, 2009
There’s something special about naming a celestial body, putting your thumbprint in the heavens up there with Jupiter and Mars and the Horsehead Nebula. The idea speaks to our desire for immortality--attaching a name to something that, if not quite eternal, will last far longer than anyone will be around to remember. The world of commerce has figured this out, of course. Various services have arisen that claim to put your name on a star for a fee. Unfortunately, as nice as it sounds, these names don’t count: You pay your money and get a certificate, but it isn’t recognized by the only organization that actually matters, the International Astronomical Union. So what if you really do want to name a piece of the sky? Is there a way to name a newly discovered star, or planet, or comet--maybe not after yourself, but maybe after someone you admire?more from Samuel Arbesman at The Boston Globe here.
I am an American womanKatja Nicodemus interviews Lars von Trier, originally in Die Zeit, over at Signandsight:
You seem to be fascinated by power relationships. With the Dogma rules, you formulated an aesthetic manifesto and your last two films "Dogville" and "Manderlay" are based on strict formal principles. What so interests you about guidelines and rules?
I come from a family of communist nudists. I was allowed to do or not do what I liked. My parents were not interested in whether I went to school or got drunk on white wine. After a childhood like that, you search for restrictions in your own life.
But communists actually have very strict rules.
That's true, but that's where things start to get very complicated. All my life I've been interested in the discrepancy between philosophy and reality, between conviction and its implementation. The general assumption is that all people are able to differentiate more or less equally between good and evil. But if this is the case, why does the world look like it does? Why have all the good intentions of my parents come to nothing. And why do my own good intentions lead to nothing?
The Return of John Maynard KeynesPaul Krugman reviews Robert Skidelsky's Keynes: The Return of the Master in the Guardian:
In Part I of his 1936 masterwork, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, Keynes asserted that the core of his theory was the rejection of Say's Law, the doctrine that said that income is automatically spent. If it were true, Say's Law would imply that all the things we usually talk about when trying to assess the economy's direction, like the state of consumer or investor confidence, are irrelevant; one way or another, people will spend all the income coming in. Keynes showed, however, that Say's Law isn't true, because in a monetary economy people can try to accumulate cash rather than real goods. And when everyone is trying to accumulate cash at the same time, which is what happened worldwide after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the result is an end to demand, which produces a severe recession.
Some of those who consider themselves Keynesians, myself included, agree with what Keynes said in The General Theory, and consider the rejection of Say's Law the core issue. On this view, Keynesian economics is primarily a theory designed to explain how market economies can remain persistently depressed.
But there's an alternative interpretation of what Keynes was all about, one offered by Keynes himself in an article published in 1937, a year after The General Theory. Here, Keynes suggested that the core of his insight lay in the acknowledgement that there is uncertainty in the world – uncertainty that cannot be reduced to statistical probabilities, what the former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld called "unknown unknowns". This irreducible uncertainty, he argued, lies behind panics and bouts of exuberance and primarily accounts for the instability of market economies.
Where Will Synthetic Biology Lead Us?Michael Specter in The New Yorker:
"What if we could liberate ourselves from the tyranny of evolution by being able to design our own offspring?” Drew Endy asked, the first time we met in his office at M.I.T., where, until the summer of 2008, he was assistant professor of biological engineering. (That September, he moved to Stanford.) Endy is among the most compelling evangelists of synthetic biology. He is also perhaps its most disturbing, because, although he displays a childlike eagerness to start engineering new creatures, he insists on discussing both the prospects and the dangers of his emerging discipline in nearly any forum he can find. “I am talking about building the stuff that runs most of the living world,” he said. “If this is not a national strategic priority, what possibly could be?”
Endy, who was trained as a civil engineer, spent his youth fabricating worlds out of Lincoln Logs and Legos. Now he would like to build living organisms. Perhaps it was the three well-worn congas sitting in the corner of Endy’s office, or the choppy haircut that looked like something he might have got in a tree house, or the bicycle dangling from his wall—but, when he speaks about putting together new forms of life, it’s hard not to think of that boy and his Legos.
Endy made his first mark on the world of biology by nearly failing the course in high school. “I got a D,” he said. “And I was lucky to get it.” While pursuing an engineering degree at Lehigh University, Endy took a course in molecular genetics. He spent his years in graduate school modelling bacterial viruses, but they are complex, and Endy craved simplicity. That’s when he began to think about putting cellular components together.
What Have We Done to Democracy?
Arundhati Roy in The Nation:
Is it possible to reverse this process? Can something that has mutated go back to being what it used to be? What we need today, for the sake of the survival of this planet, is long-term vision. Can governments whose very survival depends on immediate, extractive, short-term gain provide this? Could it be that democracy, the sacred answer to our short-term hopes and prayers, the protector of our individual freedoms and nurturer of our avaricious dreams, will turn out to be the endgame for the human race? Could it be that democracy is such a hit with modern humans precisely because it mirrors our greatest folly--our nearsightedness?
Whitewashing Roman Polanski
Bill Wyman in Salon:
Espinoza was stating the obvious: Fugitives don't get to dictate the terms of their case. Polanski, who had pleaded guilty to having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl, was welcome to return to America, surrender, and then petition the court as he wished. Indeed, the judge even gave Polanski more than he deserved, saying that he might actually have a case. "There was substantial, it seems to me, misconduct during the pendency of this case," he said, according to the Los Angeles Times. "Other than that, he just needs to submit to the jurisdiction of the court."
Polanski deserves to have any potential legal folderol investigated, of course. But the fact that Espinoza had to state the obvious is testimony to the ways in which the documentary, and much of the media coverage the director has received in recent months, are bizarrely skewed. The film, which has inexplicably gotten all sorts of praise, whitewashes what Polanski did in blatant and subtle fashion -- and recent coverage of the case, in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and elsewhere, has in turn accepted the film's contentions at face value.
More here. [Thanks to Cyrus Hall.]
Also see: Reminder: Roman Polanski raped a child --excellent article by Kate Harding
And: Child Rape Apologists Love Roman Polanski --by Gautham Nagesh
THE MAKING OF A PHYSICIST: A Talk With Murray Gell-Mann
I was still discouraged, though, about having to go to MIT, which seemed so grubby compared with the Ivy League. I thought of killing myself (at the age of 18) but soon decided that I could always try MIT and then kill myself later if it was that bad but that I couldn't commit suicide and then try MIT afterwards. The two operations, suicide and going to MIT, didn't commute, as we say in math and physics jargon.
Quest for a Long Life Gains Scientific Respect
Nicholas Wade in The New York Times:
Sirtris Pharmaceuticals. The company is developing drugs that mimic resveratrol, a chemical found in some red wines. Resveratrol has been found to activate proteins called sirtuins, from which the company derives its name. Activation of sirtuins is thought to help the body ride out famines.
Mice and rats put on a diet with 30 percent fewer calories can live up to 40 percent longer. They seem to do so by avoiding the usual degenerative diseases of aging and so gain not just longer life but more time in good health. Sirtris’s researchers think that drugs that activate sirtuins mimic this process, strengthening the body’s resistance to the diseases of aging. The company has developed thousands of small chemical compounds that are far more potent than resveratrol and so can be given in smaller doses.
Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking: A Glorious Dawn
[Thanks to Anandaroop Roy.]
Remembering the Language Maven
Ben Zimmer at the Visual Thesaurus:
passed away over the weekend at the age of 79, and his loss is felt particularly strongly by those who loyally followed his "On Language" column in the New York Times Magazine for the past three decades. Safire retired from his Pulitzer Prize-winning political column for the Times in 2005, but he continued to relish his role as "language maven" to the very end. He was not simply a pundit on matters political and linguistic, however: he was also an extremely generous man, both publicly in his philanthropic work with the Dana Foundation and privately with friends and colleagues.
On hearing of his passing, fellow maven Paul Dickson remarked to me that Safire "opened a door which a lot of people got to walk through and play with words as a vocation." That was certainly true in my case. As a word nerd in training, I read "On Language" religiously every Sunday. When I was perhaps nine or ten, I recall taking issue with something Safire had said in one of his columns and writing a letter to him (in pencil!). Unfortunately, I was too intimidated to follow through and never mailed the letter.
Flash-forward to 2003, when I was bit braver in corresponding with him. He often published requests for assistance from those he dubbed "Lexicographic Irregulars" (word sleuths after the manner of Sherlock Holmes' Baker Street Irregulars). On this occasion he sent out a request about the history of the expression "stay the course."
September 28, 2009
Jim Carroll's Death Poem ... and Mine
using Carroll's death as an opportunity for reflection - on Jim, himself, and his life in comparison to Jim's (they were both working-class Catholic boys who stormed the hipster-poetry barricades).
Michael spoke honestly of his sense of competition with Jim, and I defended him in the "comments" section of his post, writing: "... for those who prefer to be true to a fallen writer's memory at the moment of his death, I would answer: What could be truer than that?" I then went on to tell my own story in relation to Jim's (who I didn't know):
"I, too, felt a lot of envy toward Jim Carroll. I had a manager and was trying to get a rock n roll record deal in NYC when he switched from spoken word to music and was signed in a heartbeat. He had the looks, the magnetism, the hipness ... and then, all of a sudden, he had the deal with Rolling Stones Records. (I think it was Stones ...) The truth is, my feelings had no more to do with Jim Carroll than perhaps yours did. He was a placeholder for some things inside of me that needed to get out. That's not his fault - but it's my story, which is ultimately the only one I'm qualified to write."
I was young, immature, and ambitious - a toxic combination. Things seemed to come too easily for Jim Carroll, and the truth is he did have an extraordinary gift with language - and with physical presence. It was only later in life that I learned that all brilliant writers work enormously hard, and that the post-Beat "spontaneous writing" pose was more often than not a well-crafted deceit. (Recent explorations of Jack Kerouac's On The Road rewrites demonstrate that.) And it was only after his death that I learned how painfully shy Jim was, how difficult it was sometimes for him to speak and to perform, and how directly he faced his own issues through the process of recovering from drug addiction (he had 30 years clean and sober through Narcotics Anonymous). Some of this information can be found in Alex Williams' touching New York Times piece about his final days, which includes this email to a friend:
“My self-sabotaging tendencies in all aspects of my life, along with the validation needs you referenced, go without saying. There are deep seeded reasons for both, but the latter is also an outcome of the way you are spoiled and coddled by managers, women and media et al when you are on top, and the quickness with which everyone scatters when you recede a moment.”
Jim Carroll, who wrote so well and looked so perfect for the role, had the same self-sabotaging tendencies I struggled with for so many years? And "the quickness with which everyone scatters" was something I knew too well. For a brief period in the late 1970s I was being courted by the top rock managers, taken for limousine rides, plied with fine champagne brunches and other things, and enjoying a tiny (and I mean tiny) fraction of what Jim Carroll experienced. When the demos didn't turn out well - damaged, perhaps, by my own desire to please - it all disappeared overnight. I knew how much it had hurt me, but never would have imagined that this kind of pain could be experienced by Jim Carroll - the fortunate one, the blessed one, the winner of the game.
I never connected as strongly to the Jim Carroll Band as I did to Jim Carroll the writer, though. I felt the musicians backing him were too good at rock and roll. They had all the moves down pat, without any of the minor self-mutilations needed to adequately convey his words. They got the tone right sometimes, as in the song Three Sisters, and it all came together in People Who Died. But overall I thought he would have been better served by a more electronic and experimental band (i.e. pre-hip hip, Public Image or Big Audio Dynamite), or a rawer band fronted by one of the Jones Boys (Steve of the Sex Pistols or Mick of the Clash). Or Jack Nitszche as producer, recreating the Wall of Sound.
A good example of this is the song Day and Night (seen here on YouTube). It's a really good song, and my future friend Amy Kanter tears it up on backing vocals, but it falls short of greatness. It doesn't live up musically to his devotion to craft, a devotion he saw in Kurt Cobain and described as "a young artist's remorseless passion/which starts out as a kiss/and follows like a curse."
I picked up a book of Japanese death poems on a recent trip to Hawaii and was musing about them not long before Jim Carroll's death. Most of the death poems are too self-consciously Zen for me, but several are beautiful. 'This then," one reads, "is the day the melting snowman/becomes a real man." It' not all that different from the closing page of Jim Carroll's final work, a loosely autobiographical novel. I winced slightly when I read that the lead character has a raven for a companion, but - as with all balancing acts - he seems to pull it off in the end when the protagonist dies:
Finally, a last sigh of consciousness rocked him gently on the deck of an old schooner ship. Billy’s body, dark blue like the storm clouds preceding the storm, shuttered and his eyes closed dull and loosely. Sensing young Wolfram had given up the ghost, the raven glided back down aside the dead artist, whispering a last demand.“It’s time your eyes remain shut, Billy Wolfram. Now is the time, so get on with it. Take that single step and fly.”
Was this designed to be Jim Carroll's death poem? It doesn't really matter. He had the nerve to write a paragraph in the 21st Century that includes a totem animal. Does the idea work? Does the paragraph? The answer is: He tried. He kept on storming the barricades. That's some kind of death poetry, isn't it?
Another one of those Japanese poems goes like this: "I wake and find / the colored iris / I saw in my dreams." Me, I've never intended to write a death poem. And I don't know anything about what happens after we die. But it's an image to consider: a snowman holding an iris.
Will the Manhattan Project Always Exist?
Will historians and archaeologists a few thousand years from now believe that scientists in the mid-twentieth century split the atom? That they even created a nuclear bomb? There’s a good chance the answer will be “no.” If nothing else, there’s reason to think this could be a contentious point among men and women of learning, debatable on both sides.
A span of thousands of years is both extremely short and impenetrably long. It’s short because human nature will not change much in that time. Which means our human tendency to discount the past and pooh-pooh the achievements of antique cultures will not have diminished. Dismissing technical achievements in the remote past is especially tempting. We’re willing to believe that people philandered and murdered and philosophized uselessly like we do today, but we conveniently reserve the notion of technical progress for ourselves. It’s really a poverty of imagination: They didn’t have the tools or libraries or scientific understanding we do today, so how could they have accomplished much? We tend to conflate science and technology, as if one cannot exist without the other. But without much science the Greeks did calculate the circumference of the earth; the Chinese did invent paper, gunpowder, and the printing press eons before Europeans; the Polynesians did navigate thousands of miles of open ocean on tiny barks; and the Egyptians (among many others) did log as much about the movement and appearance of stars and planets as astronomers know today. Nor are those special examples, or even unique—many technologies arose more than once.
It’s a commonplace that history written by “winners” in wars is unreliable. It’s even more unsettling to realize that normal, everyday history is just as flimsy. The theory that people before Christopher Columbus thought the earth was flat—possibly the biggest, stupidest swindle in the history of history—more or less sprung from one book, a fictionalized biography of Columbus written by Washington “Rip van Winkle” Irving in the late 1820s. Irving needed a little drama to make Columbus more than a lucky thug, so he invented the flat-earthers. Within a decade, and apparently independently, a Frenchman with a beef against Christianity invented a flat-earth conspiracy of his own—that Church fathers in the olden days had been so beholden to a few favorite Bible passages they couldn’t see the evidence for sphericity in front of their own noses. Never mind that this view was considered almost heretical by the Church itself: The idea of priests and other trembling idiots afraid of falling off the edge of the world meshed so well with what people in 1800s wanted to believe about the remote past that they swallowed the tale whole, and virtually every school book since has included some version of the story.
If the past is any guide to the future, people will do to us what we have done unto others, and they’ll have a hard time believing that so primitive a people as us could have harnessed nuclear power. After all, we lacked computers, uranium refineries, missiles, lasers, and dozens of other fundamental pieces of equipment in the 1940s. No one even knew about nuclear fission until 1939. And we’re supposed to believe a few labcoats in the desert built a bomb from scratch?
The big difference, obviously, between ancient cultures and cultures today is our hyperography: We document anything. Newspapers especially have recorded every day since about 1800 onward, and by now there’s an almost hour-by-hour record online. But that’s where four or so thousand years starts to look very, very long—time for plenty of accidents to occur. Who in the BCs ever dreamed that the Library at Alexandria would be wiped off the face of the Earth? Languages, too, will have evolved in unrecognizable ways. English will be a dodo, and we might not employ the same numerals or mathematical notations, either. Most printed media, including books—all made of cheap, convenient, mass-market paper—will have long since succumbed to pests or pollutants, crumbling into flakes. Digital media are even less stable over the long term; there’s a significant chance that almost nothing we’re “archiving” nowadays will survive to the year 3000, much less later. Paradoxically, our abundance of documents means we set little store on preserving any one item. And regardless, our long-term track record for preservation is laughable. Few works were better known in ancient times than the plays of Sophocles and Aeschylus, yet barely any exist now. Even Plato barely survived history’s guillotine—throughout medieval times, Plato was unknown in the West, living on only in Muslim countries and in footnotes to other Greek authors. Had the Muslims been worse stewards, or been conquered by marauding Christians who needed kindling or toilet paper, Socrates would have died in vain.
But let’s say that stray references to the Manhattan Project survive, and that a few pedants can even read our hieroglyphics. If the dismissive tendencies outlined above don’t throw doubts on the Manhattan Project, there are other reasons to be skeptical. Americans generally are very spiritual, and there’s no more cinching argument for dismissing the knowledge of the past than to point out how immersed people were in some all-consuming religion. (Obviously most of the scientists themselves were not believers; they simply lived in a religious society. But it’s exactly that sort of fine point that has a way of getting lost over long stretches of time.) Indeed, what will be easier to believe in retrospect—that people doing calculations by hand built nuclear weapons advanced enough to wipe out the planet? Or that a religious society took some mundane event, a science conference in New Mexico, and mythologized the whole thing? It has all the necessary elements: A small group of elite demigods, a war in the background between ultimate good and evil, heavenly objects like planes, a Jesus-like exile in the Los Alamos desert, a potent symbol in the mushroom cloud rising on the horizon ...
Besides (you can almost hear a future Foucault arguing) if these people were so clever, why didn’t they do anything with their hard-won technical knowledge? We can read in tree rings and the tiny flakes of ice around the poles that they were turning the atmosphere into a giant kiln of carbon dioxide. Why didn’t these geniuses convert to relatively clean nuclear power? Would they really have been so blind as to keep pushing forward, deciding that when fossil fuels got scarce that the best thing to do was double their dependency on them? Rubbish.
(This last objection could apply to more than just nuclear energy—but that just reinforces my general point. Will it really seem plausible to future generations that we spent so much effort to get to the moon ... and then shrugged, giving up space exploration to drive cars on Earth? Hell, there already is an angry cabal of people who don’t think we ever got to the moon. Lord help us if one of their tracts is one of the few books that survives until 6000. To future generations, such a work might seem like a deductive proof our idiocy—that for all our achievements in building roads and damns and skyscrapers, our very greatest talent was for deluding ourselves, fantasizing about bombs and flying to other planets.)
Probably the hardest evidence about nuclear bombs to account for would be the physical evidence, the forensics. Not bomb silos—those might have been anything. Churches, even. I mean lingering atoms and radioactive isotopes. But even those can be explained away. There has been at least one natural nuclear reaction in the Earth’s past (albeit the very remote past), at a place called Oklo, in Africa. (I’m not kidding.) So there’s at least some precedent for nuclear activity without humans. Most radioactive isotopes will have decayed in a few millennia anyway, returning to background levels. The ratios of non-radioactive elements that are left over won’t be normal, but we could create clever explanations for that, too. Barring any future catastrophes, virtually all the nuclear bombs in Earth’s history will have gone off between about 1945 and 1975—a period that will look suspiciously narrow in the future, practically instantaneous. In that case, an abundance of radioactive stuff could have resulted from the after-effects of a cosmic ray burst or gamma ray burst in space, or could have been the interstellar jetsam and flotsam of a supernova explosion. Terrestrial nuclear fallout would seem about the least likely explanation.
If nothing else, we can always count on good old human myopia to erase any hints that people way back when did something brilliant. Nuclear technology will never disappear, but much of the nuclear waste generated today will have long since been buried and forgotten about. The rest of the nuclear stuff, the still-fissile material, will likely be recycled into newer nuclear plants or advanced weapons. And after untold generations of ushering uranium or plutonium or whatever from plant 2.0 to plant 2.1 or missile 3.0 to missile 3.1, the ultimate origin of that material will be lost. They’re atoms, after all, and don’t have labels. We cannot uncreate nuclear material, but people can (and will) forget its source. Like so many other technologies and discoveries, humans will pinpoint its emergence at more recent date, and even if a few dissident historians insist otherwise, facts won’t trouble the majority of people, who find it more comfortable to believe that we today were flat-earthers of a different sort.
Any of the arguments above would apply a fortiori if civilization breaks down worldwide in the next few millennia, whether through disease, overpopulation, an asteroid impact, or a prolonged war. If any of those things happen, we’ll seem especially archaic, and any of our achievements will seem as remote and unlikely to earthlings in 6000 AD as the tales of Homer do today. There’s about only one thing that could unequivocally prove to people that we did possess nuclear weapons at such an early stage in human evolution: a nuclear holocaust. Probably better to be forgotten, even snickered at.
Polański's latest thriller
When Roman Polański was arrested this weekend, I immediately thought of this.
This is the genius of Dave Chappelle—that sentence could have been spoken in Polish, English or French, and “Nóż w wodzie”, “Chinatown” or “the Pianist” could fit in rather nicely in place of “Thriller” depending (of course) on one’s age and cultural demographic.
Now, I write about this not because I hold a particular grudge against Polański. In fact, considering the tragic turns that his life has taken, I find it rather difficult to pass judgment on the man, even if I remain genuinely revolted by his deeds.
Considering his complicated biography, which includes a number of obviously traumatic events, it is difficult to say with any certainty which way the cosmic scale would tip for someone like him. Like his biography, that uncertainty neither absolves him of his guilt nor does it automatically condemn him, although it must be pointed out that according to our earthly laws and customs, the morality and legality of what happened in 1977 should be reasonably clear.
But that is not why I write about him today—Polański’s worth as a human being is not for me to decide. I simply find the hypocrisy surrounding his case impossible to swallow.
Polański’s arrest in Switzerland brought out the usual sentiments from the defenders of this particular Man Of Genius Who May Have Erred In A Minor Way (But Anyway, He’s So Talented And It Was A Long Time Ago). That it is the Americans who are ultimately pursuing Polański makes it all the more ridiculous.
I am not certain that anyone in the Western world (save for members of Canada’s Conservative Party) admires or respects the reality (as opposed to the theory) of America’s justice system, but hearing the reaction to Polański’s arrest in Switzerland, one would think he had disappeared from the streets of Zurich in broad daylight (maybe to a secret Polish prison?) and that John Yoo himself tortured him for David Addington’s amusement.
French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand (speaking about Polański, not Yoo):
"I think this is awful and totally unjust.”
“Just as there is an America which is generous and which we like, so there is an America which is frightening, and that is the America which has just revealed its face."*
* If the America that executes its judicial warrants through the proper channels is what frightens Mr Mitterrand, then he has not been reading his world news lately.
“This is a high-profile action designed to send out some sort of message to someone somewhere."
"No one condones what happened in the 70s, but I think this is pretty appalling.”*
* For someone who has written a fictional account of Tony Blair’s and George Bush’s foray into the Middle East, the word “appalling” seems to come rather easily.
Director Andrzej Wajda heads a long list of Polish cultural luminaries who wrote to Poland’s president asking for diplomatic support.
“We feel that Roman Polański deserves a negative moral assessment for the events from 30 years ago. But we would also like to point out the fact by fleeing from the United States, Roman Polański escaped a judicial lynching.”
* So long as it’s a talented filmmaker, a negative moral assessment will obviously suffice. Unlike, say for others, who may face mandatory chemical castration, presently pushed by Poland's parliament...
Responding to the pressure, Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski has indicated to Polish reporters that he and his French counterpart, Bernard Kouchner, may seek a presidential pardon from Barack Obama.*
* While he’s at it, maybe he can tell a couple more jokes...
In any case, why all the fuss about Polański?
This has nothing to do with guilt or innocence—once more, without getting into the particulars of the case, the focus and the indignation of the world’s cultural (and political) elite is woefully misplaced, and a number of people who really should know better look to make a martyr out of a man who, despite his immense talent, is hardly in a position to play the part.
But then again, the Americans are pretty scary.
And he made “Thriller.”
Lunar Refractions: Hasten Slowly
Excited as I was for autumn to arrive, it’s gotten off to an awful start. After spending three days bedridden with the first all-congesting cold to hit me this season, my head is still in a fog as thick as the one that shrouded the whole city this morning. But this season’s less-than-auspicious opener did afford me one thing I almost never grant myself: many hours of calm, quiet time to rest. This is something that comes hard to me, as I tend to fill what little down time I find doing anything but relaxing. Because I felt wretched enough that none of my usual pursuits—drawing, reading, strolling—were possible, I was left only one option: to just lie there and think.
Bagatti Valsecchi Museum.
Via Gesù 5. I’d been additionally delayed in the museum’s two courtyards—ringed with intriguing inscriptions—so only made my way up the grand main stair with forty-odd minutes left before closing. It happened to be Friday, 31 July; the museum would be closed the entire month of August, and I was there for a whirlwind four-day work trip, so knew it was now or never.
Although my eyes were welcomed by an unimaginable wealth of beautiful flooring, sumptuous wall coverings, paintings, and finely worked furniture, I quickly realized what I’d need to focus on—the inscriptions. While the family bought and renovated the building in the late nineteenth century, they looked to the high Renaissance for inspiration, hence each room had an even more antique feel. The several mottos and phrases carved round the courtyards’ friezes were mere appetizers for the feast of lettering to be found inside—on the lintels above most doorways, on everyday objects, on library bookshelves, on the hearth, and even above the bathtub. One ceiling inscription read PRINCIPIUM EST PLUSQUAM DIMIDIUM SED NOSCE TE IPSUM ET CONSULE ANTE FACTUM, “A good beginning is half of the work, but know yourself, and think, before acting.” That phrase drew me into the so-called Room of the Labyrinth, where several other sayings were strung one after the other, all painted in gold atop a dark blue background, winding round the passages of a classical labyrinth:
DILIGENTIA AUGET OPUS, “Diligence increases the value of the undertaking.”
QUOD DIFFICILIUS HOC PRAECLARIUS, “That which is more difficult is more worthy of honor.”
LABOR IMPROBUS OMNIA VINCIT, “Hard work conquers all.”
VIRTUS IN ACTIONE CONSISTIT GLORIAMQUE PARIT, “Virtue lies in action, and leads to glory.”
RARA QUIDEM EST VIRTUS QUAM NON FORTUNA GUBERNET ET EST VIRTUTIS OPUS NON AD IACTANTIAM SED AD PATRIAE DECUS FAMAM EXTENDERE FACTIS, “Rare is the virtue not sustained by Fortune, and it is the task of virtue to increase, through action, it’s own name—not for the sake of vainglory, but for the reputation of the homeland.”
SIC ITUR PER ANGUSTA AD AUGUSTA, “Thus one goes from difficulty to august achievement.”
I particularly appreciated that last bit, as it seemed to be the labyrinth itself speaking to those who negotiated its twists and turns. It’s also curious to note that this well-lettered room is officially known as the passaggio del labirinto in Italian, the “Passageway of the Labyrinth,” which is more fitting both because it hasn’t the right size nor clear function to be considered a real room, and also because the idea of passage is so key to the concept of a labyrinth.
I’m tempted to think this particular image—the decorated ceiling of the Passageway of the Labyrinth—came to mind partially because I’d been staring up at the relatively unadorned, plain white ceiling of my bedroom. I’ve no good image of the ceiling inscription the above mottos were taken from because, unfortunately yet understandably, photography isn’t allowed. You’ll just have to visit for yourself—and if you do, it’s worth knowing that the Bagatti Valsecchi Museum is one of four house-museums in the Historic House Museums of Milan network; each is quite different, and all are worthy of a visit. But it’s also curious that while most rooms and passages in this luxuriant residence were richly decorated and inscribed, this was the sole area to include a ceiling inscription. As I lay supine thinking
Keep Your Eyes on the End
, “Keep your eyes on the end [goal].” This pairs well with one of the first inscriptions in the grand salon, FESTINA LENTE, “Hasten slowly.” These phrases are rich enough to warrant fuller treatment in a following post, so with that, I’ll sign off, inviting you to explore the countless other inscriptions found throughout the Bagatti Valsecchi residence either in person or on their site.
For those of you who might want one more, I offer this last thought, writ large on the wall of the library: NEC SCIRE FAS EST OMNIA, “It isn’t possible to know everything”—just in case you aspired to!
Thanks for reading; previous Lunar Refractions can be found here.
The Balls Of Obama -- Big But Soft?
By Evert Cilliers Before Obama one would have to go back to LBJ and FDR to find a US president with any balls. The rest of them have been there to serve the wishes of our elite like sissy lackeys (they're not even Heideggers fronting for the Nazis; they're more like insect-munching Rensfields to Dracula). In fact, it's been an American tradition, ever since our founding fathers, for the people to put a stooge of the plutocracy in charge. Jefferson had no idea how vacuous a voice he was crying in the wilderness when he wrote: "I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.” His hope was in total vain, because even in his day, the government equalled the plutocracy, plus he got one thing dead wrong: instead of defying the laws of the country, our plutocrats eventually found it easier to get their lobbyists to write the laws of the country.
By Evert Cilliers
Before Obama one would have to go back to LBJ and FDR to find a US president with any balls.
The rest of them have been there to serve the wishes of our elite like sissy lackeys (they're not even Heideggers fronting for the Nazis; they're more like insect-munching Rensfields to Dracula). In fact, it's been an American tradition, ever since our founding fathers, for the people to put a stooge of the plutocracy in charge. Jefferson had no idea how vacuous a voice he was crying in the wilderness when he wrote: "I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.” His hope was in total vain, because even in his day, the government equalled the plutocracy, plus he got one thing dead wrong: instead of defying the laws of the country, our plutocrats eventually found it easier to get their lobbyists to write the laws of the country.
The most flagrant toady in recent presidential memory has got to be Bill Clinton, who became a sissy lackey early on when he lost his governorship because he didn't bend over for the Tyson Foods corporation in Arkansas. After sucking up to this moneyed corporation to get his job back, he forever after kept his balls in his wife's jewellery box at home whenever he went out. He served his masters well: as president he deregulated Wall Street and demobbed the American worker by starting to send all our good manufacturing jobs abroad. As if that wasn't craven enough, Slick Willie then stood idly by while the Hutus in Rwanda sliced 800,000 Tsutsis to pieces when a Marine force of 10,000 could've prevented it. It's a toss-up whether he or Bush Jr has done the world the most harm. I wish I believed in Hell, because then I could comfort myself with the thought that Satan would probably make them share the same fired-up spit.
Now here comes Obama, a self-styled change agent on which many rudderless Americans have inscribed their pathetic hopes, who weirdly enough also happens to be the first halfway decent chap to become president since the hapless Jimmy Carter.
1. IT TAKES REAL BALLS TO TACKLE REAL PROBLEMS
Friend and foe alike marvel at Obama's self-confidence. I'd like to get more vernacular, and point out that he has big balls.
The question is: are they big but soft?
He signaled that he had big balls when he took on the Clintons for the presidency and then proved that his gonads had flecks of steel in them when he crushed the Clintons and their triangulating ways like ten tons of steaming lava running over a clueless Pompeii. But the real proof of the iron in his veins is this:
1. In his campaign he was the ONLY candidate brazen enough to correctly identify the real problems facing the nation -- education, healthcare, infrastructure, energy and the silly Iraq War.
2. Then, big surprise, he vowed to DO something about them in his first speech before Congress.
This big-balled speech was such a novel shock to the country that people were suddenly in awe of his “ambitious agenda” and soon began to wonder whether he was trying to do too much.
Jeez, all the guy was trying to do was be a president who actually solves our problems.
Yet pundits got freaked from their weak knees to their pea-brained noggins by this eccentric view of the presidency. Imagine that -- there's a man who has the power to seriously tackle the nation's problems and he's called the president! Wow.
Maybe they were so surprised because no president but Lincoln and Roosevelt had ever before thought of such a task as part of their job description. Not that solving problems came spontaneously to these two exceptional presidents either. They just happened to be our only presidents forced by circumstances NOT to ask themselves the single question all our other presidents have spent their precious terms laboring to address: “How can I help my rich friends who put me here?”
Identifying the country's real problems takes balls. Most presidents would rather not -- it means being expected to solve problems made insoluble by the plutocrats who profit from not solving them. It's much easier to create insignificant but symbol-laden phantom issues to plunge into -- the war on terror, illegal immigrants, gay marriage, the scourge of drugs, school uniforms, the V chip -- which can at least get you some votes for storming at your self-invented windmills.
Trying to solve real problems is very problematic, because it can make you look bad. The sissy lackey Clinton uncharacteristically took on one real problem in his eight-year reign, healthcare, and came out looking really stupid. He got creamed by the plutocrats on that one, and nary a peep was heard out of him about anything significant after that.
But at least he used his eight years to try something. The sissy lackey Bush Sr took on nothing. The sissy lackey Reagan took on nothing either, being a straight-up anal-to-mouth canal for plutocratic crapola. Carter neither, though he was not so much a lackey as a sissy. These guys basically did nothing more than keep the Presidential seat warm for the next Presidential stooge.
But barely ten months into his presidency, Obama has already started tackling all our biggest problems. That takes balls -- being a president who tries to live up to the job.
Not that Obama has done anything so far to upset the plutocracy itself very much: Wall Street got their boys Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner into Obama's administration, so the coast is being kept clear for our merry banksters to cause another financial meltdown in about eight years' time when they gamble up the next bubble -- green energy, most probably -- and shift another 100 million earthlings out of their jobs into the penniless hordes of the starving. Also, Obama won't dare to stick it to our other big vampire industry, the military-industrial-congressional complex. In fact, he's gone and gotten himself suckered into continuing the silly Afghan War, which he calls “a war of necessity.” Necessary for what? keeping the world safe for opium production? keeping savage warlords and Taliban wingnuts from offing each other? -- a pointless exercise that promotes American security as much as my kitty cat promotes the middle-aged desires of Tokyo businessmen who put their coins into vending machines to buy the used panties of schoolgirls.
These two big exceptions aside, our new president is actually willing and able to do something nice for the American people at large instead of handing the country over hook, line and sinker to our plutocrats (like Reagan, Clinton and the two Bushes did). Forget for a moment that Obama still feels compelled to frame his plans in plutocratic jargon, to wit, that the US needs his programs to “stay competitive” with the rest of the world -- as if the nations of the world are a bunch of wolves fighting over the same meager scraps. (A whole book could be written about how we Americans always try to sell our ideas in bogus economic jargon -- blinded by the “science” of economics which is nothing more than ideology plus numbers -- when a simple moral imperative would suffice. Cost/benefit has long replaced doing what's right as our national motivation.)
Still, Obama has begun to take his first nibbles on all fronts: on education, by providing help for Community Colleges; on the Iraq War, by dating its end; on infrastructure, with some goodies in his otherwise pretty useless stimulus plan; and on energy, with cap-and-trade. And he's opening his mouth wide for a big bite on healthcare.
2. TACKLING HEALTHCARE WITH HIS BALLS HIDDEN
The way Obama is tackling healthcare is very instructive when it comes to analyzing the largeness -- and largesse -- of his balls.
Depending on where you stand, he has been either dumb, craven or sensible. From where I sit, he has been none of these. Instead, he has been diabolically clever. Because he has kept his balls hidden throughout.
Here's the story as I see it, which even if it's off-base, is at least original, unlike the same-old same-old from our esteemed pundits (sometimes I think our punditocracy is only marginally less stupid than Republicans, and not nearly as perversely original: a herd of blow-dried TV mules bleating about the same meaningless meme -- the beer summit, the Mark Sanford emails, the Joe Wilson heckle -- every 24 hours; I always find their hair more fascinating than their opinions).
Obama knows his second term is assured if he gets anything through that is mildly reformist. After all, every president since Truman has wanted to do something about healthcare, yet not a single one of them has achieved anything except that miracle arm twister LBJ, certainly our greatest president since FDR.
So how has Obama gone about reforming healthcare? Well, in his own mind he long ago decided on the minimum reform he needs to achieve enough bragging rights to get re-elected:
1. Insure just about everyone.
2. Stop the blatantly egregious practises of the insurance industry, like refusing care on nonsense grounds -- one notorious instance being when Blue Cross/Blue Shield refused a woman an emergency operation for breast cancer because of a “pre-existing condition” of acne. (Hey, the insurance business is a gamble, and anyone who places their health bets with an insurance company is catastrophically stupid to think the odds aren't heavily stacked in favor of the house: that's how gambling works, suckers, and that's what happens when you turn healthcare over to gamblers. If it were a fair game, your insurers should at least give you back all the premiums you paid them when they finally refuse to honor their bet on your health. How about making that a law?)
Those two reforms would suffice as the minimum legislative victory Obama needs to ensure his re-election. (Of course, our economy will still be losing jobs like a chemo patient losing hair then, so a few months before the election, he may have to use the government itself to employ some of the millions of jobless Americans in WPA-type infrastructure progams; in order to re-elect Obama, we may have to become a little more French, where the government employs 21% of the workers, because we sure as heck can't rely on our “efficient free market” to save us, since this vaunted fantasy panacea of economics is better at destroying jobs than creating them these days.)
Having figured he could pull off these two reforms pretty easily, Obama set his diabolical plan in motion.
First, he got the insurance companies and big pharma out of his way. How? He conned those plutocrats plain and simple. He made them promises he may or may not keep, which they were happy to fall for, mainly because Obama is offering the greedy bastards 30 to 40 million new customers who are probably quite healthy chickens to pluck premiums from, or who'd be subsidized by the government if they're too poor to pay for their plucking themselves.
Obama conned the industry so solidly they're spending big money on running Harry and Louise commercials trumpeting reform, whereas they buried Hillarycare back in the 90s with commercials starring the same actors. Also, he made sure to sweet-talk all the doctors and nurses into reform, too.
Then he got Congress involved by handing off the job of writing the new legislation to their committees. The poor bastards have been hunkered down ever since with their healthcare lobbyists, working hard for the first time since the days of LBJ. They haven't done too badly either, except for the Senate, where a bipartisan committee headed by Senator Baucus labored mightily to poop forth a thousand-page pro-industry turd with a cute ribbon called insurance co-ops tied around it.
It's the Obama style: make overtures to all concerned, sweet talk them, spook them into action with a deadline, and then sit back to see what happens. We all know the pattern by now. You deliver an inspiring speech or two, say you're all for bipartisan solutions, invite the best ideas from everyone, make nice with the enemy -- and then wait for everyone to fight it out among themselves, which will include your opponents revealing their weak hand (as the Republicans have predictably done, ever since they've reinvented themselves as the party of the stupid -- Sarah Palin -- and the crazy -- Michele Bachmann).
Finally, if need be, you twinkle-toe in like some charming long-waisted elf spreading your signifying monkey trickster pixie dust of sweet reason all over the TV machine.
Bloody brilliant. Obama will get something, and he will be hailed as a hero (and the GOP and its death panels will be tsk-tsked to death). What a feat, our pundits will breathlessly chorus, the bugger brought us healthcare reform. Truman couldn't do it, LBJ half-did it, Carter couldn't do it, Clinton couldn't do it, but Obama, by gum, he goddamn bloody well did do it, what a conquering hero we have at long last. Hail to the Chief. Here be a dandy dude whose ass we are proud to stand in line to lick.
After all, when Obama wants something done, he sure can do it, like he did with those idiots in Detroit. That big fat mess got sorted out one-two-three, with everyone thoroughly fucked over except for Obama. It happened so quickly there hasn't been anyone complaining about Obama's cleanup job to any effect at all. Heck, it's as if the whole thing never happened.
3. OBAMA'S BALLS ARE MADE OF STEEL, RUBBER AND SILK
So Obama is playing the political game like a master, giving his enemies enough rope to hang themselves and the pundits enough straws to hype their habitual hysterical high drama out of his tiniest droppings. He's a behind-the-curtain wizard who sets a Machiavellian and inexorable juggernaut in action and sits back to watch it crush everything in its path. In healthcare, he's got a minimum reform stealth juggernaut going that will get the maximum minimum done in an area where we lag behind all the other wealthy nations (and will probably continue to do for millennia).
After all the sturm has been dranged, the Obama juggernaut will be hailed as the best thing to happen to America since a gaggle of garmentos invented Hollywood. And after the healthcare victory, the juggernaut will roll on and on and on, right over the squeaks of his opponents and the shrieks of the pundits. Barack will smile his pretty smile and talk his pretty talk and remain maddeningly unflappable.
This be the nitty of the Obama gritty: Pretty Boy Barack is the hipster of politics, and his opponents and the pundits are his rapt and blithering audience of suckers. Blind moths to a gemlike flame. It's how he won the election: through all the drama, paranoia and hysteria he floated like a calm and collected butterfly of no-drama steadiness over the bloody battlefield while his opponents fussed and fretted and fulminated and flipped and got stung anyway. He's kind of like Maurice Chevalier waving his straw boater as he dances untouched through a field of poison envy.
Now there are those who think Obama's balls are soft, because he said nothing the whole of August while townhall meetings were calling him a Nazi and Hitler and the Joker -- and worst all, a socialist -- and because he isn't drawing a line in the sand about the public option. Also, Obama doesn't behave like he's really fighting for anything -- unlike just about a 100% of all men, our sweet Prince Charming Obama the gallant faun does not wear his balls on his sleeve (contrast him with Bush and Cheney, two risible parodies of the male balls-on-their-sleeves species).
But these picayune quibbles are not the point. Obama is a practical man: he knows he can get insurance-for-all through, and stop the “pre-existing condition” scam, and that's enough to make him a big hero. As far as he's concerned, the rest is all niggledy details for others to sweat their ideologically knitted knickers over and for him to dance around nimbly: “I support a public option” and “only 5% of the insured will pick a public option” and “we'll tax everyone who makes more than $250,000 a year to pay for it” and “I won't sign a bill that adds a dime to the deficit”: pretty phrazes signifying sweet blow-all, thrown out to whatever constituency needs a kiss blown their way that day. (How about cost containment, you say, isn't that really Obama's big motivation? Maybe that's what he signals, and that's what he wants, but he's not sticking his neck out for it as far as I can see. Because it cannot be done. It can only happen if and when our health insurance companies and our doctors earn a whole lot less, and that's one can of worms everyone is kicking down the road. The nation will probably get around to it in maybe 2020.)
I'd say Obama's balls have a core of tempered steel, with a coating of resilient rubber. Only on the surface of the skin are they soft and silky-smooth to the touch, but that belies the rubber and the steel beneath. He's kind of an ogre smeared thick with pancake-makeup charm.
4. IT WILL TAKE GODZILLA BALLS TO TACKLE THE ENERGY ISSUE
Being a practical incrementalist moving towards radical reform rather than pushing for it pronto, Obama will inch his agenda forward on all fronts in his first term, and if he gets a more malleable Congress over the next few years, as he undoubtedly will, we will see real fireworks in his second term, after which we may end up with a country very different from the total fuckup we are now.
My fellow Americans, I believe y'all aint seen nothing yet. Healthcare is just Obama's first move, a way to test the waters. Soon will come education, and then more “socialism” as he launches some FDR WPA-type infrastucture-building job programs to get re-elected, and then, with his political capital sky-high in his second term, he is going to tackle the issue that might make him a great president: energy.
That's where giganto balls will come in handy.
It's the issue of our time, because it's about saving the planet from being damned by the top carnivores on the food chain: us.
It will require the oil companies, the biggest monopolists of all time, to get down and start competing with all sorts of real energy entrepreneurs in solar energy and wind turbines (T. Boone Pickens has already made his move). New infrastucture businesses like Better Place are set to become more influential than Google.
It will render the Middle East and its interminable Dark Age problems insignificant at last, as our planet enters a happy time of replacing oil as our big source of energy. The sun and the wind are cheaper; they shine and blow on all nations alike; and they will run out long after we do. As for the pitiful oil-rich Arabs, they're just too pre-modern to waste any modern time on. When nobody needs their oil anymore, they'll probably collapse in a fury of internecine killing before their saner half -- their women -- lead them out of the primeval soup they're in. They're not worth giving a twinky damn about while they take maybe another century to make up their minds about whether they want to emerge from the 13th century. As for Israel, poor Israel! they'll have to fend for themselves. Gee, maybe they'll have to stop bashing the Palestinians and make an honest deal with them to get the holocaust-denying hordes of their fellow-Abrahamaniacs off their backs.
An energy overhaul will give the world economy a massive jolt-for-good all over as we cold-turkey our veins off the oil drug and retrofit our very Dasein to the ancient renewable agrarian-like harvest of Mother Nature's eternal gifts -- the sun, the wind, the water -- into a New Age of Techne, easily as momentous as the revolution of the worldwide web. Switching from black gold to green is the biggest flip our world will hop-and-skip since we started befouling our planet with the Industrial Revolution. It's really about retooling the Industrial Revolution: turning its satanic mills into angelic plants. Marx should be alive to see capitalism going all responsibly community-minded on us. I firmly believe that's how Obama intends to scratch his initials on the tree of history.
If he has the balls to take it on -- and he repeatedly said he would last year, naming energy as our most urgent challenge -- he will grow the necessary bigger balls to see it through.
In order to get this job done -- the job of a real player instead of all our air-guitar presidents -- he has wisely surrounded himself with maximum steel-balled hardasses, from Rahm Emmanuel to Hillary Clinton to James Jones to Hilda Solis to Janet Napolitano to Valerie Jarrett to David Axelrod. There's no way these folks are going down. Anyone standing four-square against this cabal of hardcore political gangsters ... such fools will surely be flicked away like flies or pulped to lemon juice. They'll taste the boot or the knife or the axe while Pretty Boy Barack keeps flashing that deceptively humble and disarmingly boyish grin. Look at it this way: if you can take out the Clintons, taking out the Jindals and the Palins and the Romneys is like boxing with a chipmunk after you've knocked down Mike Tyson. Or this way: if you can ju-jitsu Detroit, it shouldn't be all that tough to scare the oil monopolies into playing a new green game.
In any event, come Obama's second term, the Republican Party will have suicide-bombed themselves into a small tent of gibbering crazies, and when Obama leaves office, he will hand over a country to Hillary or Jim Webb (or some other dude coming out of an Obama nowhere) that will be well on its way to sanity and common sense. His successor will then have the much easier job of adding a few finishing touches to America's big fat Obama makeover.
Get ready, folks. Some kind of happy days are a-comin' again. Of course, we'll still all be poorer than we were back in the 50s and 60s, but that's the price you pay for living in a plutocracy, where wealth gushes forever upwards, and does little more than trickle down. Even the balls of Obama aren't big enough to change that.
An-My Le. Night Operations #7. 2003-2004
Gelatin silver print.
The Owls: A Natural History
A Natural History of My Feet
By Maureen Gibbon
Right after I’m born, I turn yellow with jaundice, so doctors change part of my blood through my heels. Welshman Bérnard Keller gives me the pints. Diolch yn fawr, Bérnard.
When I’m little, my father paints my toenails.
I wear my new first grade shoes everywhere, even with nightgowns.
At fifteen I get round-heeled. I tip backward into backseats and beds.
I leave one pair of shoes in Paris.
Each summer I break in new sandals. What really breaks are blisters.
At twenty-six, my lover tells me my Via Spiga heels are “killer shoes.” I should have used one on him.
In each of my feet, there’s a fan of metatarsals. My skin’s the silk, my talus the rivet.
My ex’s mother lost her legs by inches, starting with her toes.
I plan to keep my feet on the ends of my legs.
Maureen Gibbon is the author of Swimming Sweet Arrow, Magdalena, and Thief, a new novel forthcoming from Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2010. She lives in a meadow in northern Minnesota with black bears and wild turkeys.
The Owls is a site for collaborative writing projects. Selections from the site are cross posted here by the generosity of 3QD. Projects appear according to the plans and schedules of their writers and curators. Don’t forget your mittens.
"A Natural History of My Feet" is part of the Natural Histories Project. Curator Sean Hill asked writers to: "Focus in on one particular part of your self, tangible or intangible, and write a natural history of it based on your observations. This could be a natural history of almost anything; for instance, your eyebrows, stretch marks, tongue, ingrown toenails, frowns, tragi, tendency to embellish or ignore the truth, laughs, wanderlust, farts, pragmatism, shins, or asthma." New Natural Histories appear every Wednesday. Read "A Natural History of My Earlobes" by Danielle Evans and "A Natural History of My Curiosity" by Brian Barker.
Other current projects at The Owls site include:
You can follow updates at The Owls site via RSS or join a free email newsletter by writing to owlsmag(AT)gmail(DOT)com.
“Gravitational corridors could help spacecraft ply the solar system like ships
borne on ocean currents, (say) scientists investigating space travel.”
…………………………………………………………….–The Telegraph; Sept. 10,2009
In what seems void are corridors:
avenues in nets of gravity between planets
suns moons meteors dust, channels
in nets of love between us
We set out through them
first in flame machines
burning hydrogen and smoldering lust
to come hopefully unspent upon
some new shore anywhere but here
anywhere but in boredom
anywhere but in the best place:
the den the lair the home the nest
the sanctum cloister cave the rest
anywhere but the wholly familiar
being such bold and
by Jim Culleny
September 27, 2009
Tito: Between Legend and ThrillerSlavenka Drakulic in Eurozine:
When I imagine paradise on earth, it is as a small, deserted island surrounded by turquoise blue sea, with pine trees and pebble beaches. Exactly like the one I saw the other day, while travelling on a boat towards the Brijuni archipelago in the northern Adriatic near Pula.
Josip Broz Tito must have had the very same idea when he visited the islands for the first time in 1947. However, the difference was that for him, this paradise on earth became reality. Soon afterwards, the late president of the former Yugoslavia moved to a newly built residence in Vanga, one of fourteen islands. After him, no one else had a chance to nurture the same dream. Ordinary mortals could no longer even visit the islands. It is said that the surveillance was so strict that even the fishing village of Fazana, on the mainland directly across from the archipelago, was populated solely by secret policemen and their families.
After Tito's death in 1980, the Brijuni archipelago was proclaimed a national park. On my visit that day I learned that over the thirty or so years that Tito enjoyed the privilege of living there, he often managed to spend up to four months a year in Vanga and Veli Brijun, which he loved the most. I could find out all about his life in Brijuni in a photographic exhibition from 1984 on the first floor of the local museum. There, in hundreds of sepia coloured photos, I saw him in his role as head of state with his important visitors, as well as in his private moments. I could also see that, during his stay in paradise, Tito not only relaxed. He spent his holidays working – as the head of state, chairman of the communist party and commander of the military. At the same time he played host to political leaders from Fidel Castro to Queen Elisabeth, Indira Gandhi to Willy Brandt, Leonid Brezhnev to the Persian tsar Reza Pahlavi – and many, many others.
MySpace to Facebook = White Flight?ayo Olopade in The Root:
MySpace is no longer cool. As a matter of fact, its number of users is now one-half the size of rival Facebook. Is this because MySpace is too black for the rest of America? Teenage Internet users may hold the answer. High-schoolers report their use of the social-networking giants along racial lines—MySpace is seen as “black,” while Facebook is “white.” And even within the networks, black kids befriend other black kids, Latinos mix with Latinos, and the self-segregation often practiced in real life is rampant online. Danah Boyd, a social media researcher at Microsoft and a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, compares this dash from MySpace to Facebook to “white flight” from inner cities.
The Root caught up with Boyd after she presented her “white flight” thesis to hundreds at the Personal Democracy Forum, a June conference on technology and politics at the Lincoln Center in New York City.
The Root: Your research is controversial. Are social networks truly segregated? Does teenage behavior really mimic real-life divisions?
Danah Boyd: We’re seeing a reproduction of all kinds of all types of social segregation that we like to pretend has gone away.
Even before Facebook came into play, I was working with a group of kids in a school in Los Angeles. And there was a big difference between the teachers’ language about race, and the students’ language about race. The teachers’ language was: ‘It’s a highly diverse school and all of the classes are deeply integrated, and there are no problems with race.’ That was the meta narrative. When you talk to the students, they say, ‘Well, this area is called Disneyland and that’s where the white kids hang out, and that’s the Ghetto, where the black kids hang out.’ They have all of this language for marking out the schoolyard in this super “diverse” school.
I went and looked at these kids’ MySpace profiles—this is before Facebook. Sixty to 70 percent of them had MySpace profiles that I could find. There were deep segregations in the friending patterns. Latinos friended Latino kids, black kids friended black kids, and white kids friended other white kids. There was very little overlap.
Making the Illegal Legal
Slavoj Zizek on the bureaucracy of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, in In These Times:
In Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation, Saree Makdis describes how, while the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is ultimately enforced by the armed forces, it is an “occupation by bureaucracy”: Its primary forms are application forms, title deeds, residency papers and other permits. It is with this micro-management of daily life that Israel secures its slow but steadfast expansion. One has to ask for a permit in order to live with one’s family, to farm one’s land, to dig a well, to go to work, to school, to a hospital.
Though it has been largely ignored by the media, Israel is clearly engaged in a slow, invisible process—a kind of underground digging of the mole—gradually undermining the basis of Palestinian livelihood so that, one day, the world will awaken and realize that there is no more Palestinian West Bank, that the land is Palestinian-free, and that all we can do is accept it.
The story has been going on since 1949: While Israel accepts the peace conditions proposed by the international community, it anticipates that the peace plan will fail. While condemning the openly violent excesses of “illegal” settlements, the State of Israel promotes new “legal” West Bank settlements. A look at the changing map of East Jerusalem, where the Palestinians have been gradually encircled and their space sliced, tells it all. The map of the Palestinian West Bank already looks like a fragmented archipelago.
The condemnation of unsanctioned anti-Palestinian violence obfuscates the true problem of state violence; the condemnation of illegal settlements obfuscates the illegality of the “legal” ones.
feynman worries about waves
Little Boy Heroically Shoots, Mutilates Burglar
Little Boy Heroically Shoots, Mutilates Burglar
A Novel Gearing Up for a Fantastical Feud
From The Washington Post:
Junot Diaz, Lev Grossman, Kelly Link and Kevin Brockmeier, LaValle is part of an increasingly high-profile and important cohort of writers who reinvent outmoded literary conventions, particularly the ghettos of genre and ethnicity that long divided serious literature from popular fiction. In that spirit, the epigraph for "Big Machine" is from John Carpenter's remake of "The Thing," and in LaValle's acknowledgments he thanks not just Thomas Paine but also Octavia Butler, Stephen King, Shirley Jackson and "my man Ambrose Bierce," all of whom stand as spiritual godparents to this sprawling, fantastical work.
"Lurking in toilets was my job," says Ricky Rice, the novel's narrator. Ricky is a 40-year-old janitor, a recovering junkie and childhood survivor of the Washerwomen, a communal religious cult whose catastrophic, bloody demise evokes that of the Branch Davidians and Philadelphia's MOVE organization. Ricky is cleaning a toilet stall in Utica, N.Y., when he opens a mysterious envelope addressed to him. Inside he finds a one-way bus ticket to Burlington, Vt., as well as a cryptic note: "You made a promise in Cedar Rapids in 2002. Time to honor it."
Kids' Smiles Predict Their Future Marriage Success
From Scientific American:
The paper builds on a 2001 study by psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley, that tracked the well-being and marital satisfaction of women from college through their early 50s. That work found that coeds whose smiles were brightest in their senior yearbook photographs were most likely to be married by their late 20s, least likely to remain single into middle age, and happiest in their marriage; they also scored highest on measures of overall well-being (including psychological and physical difficulties, relationships with others and general self-satisfaction).
[Thanks to Zehra Raza.]
Why I Love Al Jazeera
The Arab TV channel is visually stunning, exudes hustle, and covers the globe like no one else. Just beware of its insidious despotism.
Robert Kaplan in The Atlantic:
Has anyone watched the English-language version of Al Jazeera lately? The Qatar-based Arab TV channel’s eclectic internationalism—a feast of vivid, pathbreaking coverage from all continents—is a rebuke to the dire predictions about the end of foreign news as we know it. Indeed, if Al Jazeera were more widely available in the United States—on nationwide cable, for example, instead of only on the Web and several satellite stations and local cable channels—it would eat steadily into the viewership of The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer. Al Jazeera—not Lehrer—is what the internationally minded elite class really yearns for: a visually stunning, deeply reported description of developments in dozens upon dozens of countries simultaneously...
Al Jazeera is also endearing because it exudes hustle. It constantly gets scoops. It has had gritty, hands-on coverage across the greater Middle East, from Gaza to Beirut to Iraq, that other channels haven’t matched. Its camera crew, for example, was the first to beam pictures from Mingora, the main town of Swat, enabling Al Jazeera to confirm that the Pakistani military had, in fact, prevailed there over the Taliban.
Sunday PoemThe Solitary Angler
One day I woke up
And did not fear the old gods.
I called the number on my fridge
And when the movers arrived
I gave them everything.
On my way out of town
I spat into the wind
And did not linger to see where it landed.
Who can say for sure
If the dream has ended or begun?
A frail dimness rims my craft.
Stars swim up to the surface
Of a bottomless well
And sink back when I take my eye off them.
There is no greater calamity
Than to underestimate the strength of your enemy.
The ancients saw the stars
And called them angels.
They turned everything else into a clock
I say wear a watch if you must.
But don’t count on it.
by Suzanne Buffam
from Crazyhorse No. 75
September 26, 2009
Evolution doesn't make U-turns
Michael Torrice in Science:
Evolution doesn't make U-turns, according to a new study of proteins. The study shows that simply reversing selective pressure won't make a biomolecule revert to an earlier form. The finding confirms a much-debated biological law that, evolutionarily speaking, there's no going back.
Since the late 19th century, evolutionary biologists have debated whether evolution can go in reverse. If not, then evolution may depend on more than just natural selection. Multiple evolutionary paths could be possible through small chance events. It hasn't been easy to examine reversibility. Previous studies have focused on complex traits such as whale flippers, and scientists often lack sufficient information about ancestral traits or how present-day traits evolved.
So evolutionary biologist Joseph Thornton of the University of Oregon, Eugene, and his colleagues picked a more tractable subject: a single protein.
Contagious yawning, why we share, and Bernie Madoff
Laura Fitzpatrick in Time:
Gordon Gekko got it wrong. In his new book The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society, primatologist Frans de Waal uses a variety of studies on empathy in animals to debunk the idea that humans are competitive to the core. He talked to TIME about contagious yawning, why we share and Bernie Madoff.
How do you define empathy?
Empathy is sometimes defined by psychologists as some sort of high-level cognitive feat where you imagine how somebody else feels or how you would feel in their situation. But my definition is more focused on the whole of empathy, and that includes emotions. If you are sad and crying, it's not just that I try to imagine how you feel. But I feel for you and I feel with you.
You explain in the book that empathy really starts with our bodies: running together, laughing together, yawning together. So yawning really is contagious?
Yeah. Dogs catch yawns from their owners. Chimpanzees yawn [in response to those] that we show them. Yawn contagion is very interesting because it's a very deep bodily connection between humans or between animals. Humans who have problems with empathy, such as autistic children, don't have yawn contagion.
A Tale of Two Countries
Frederika Randall in The Nation:
Next month the Constitutional Court will rule on whether a tailor-made 2008 law granting Berlusconi full judicial immunity is constitutional. If the measure is knocked down, the prime minister could be exposed to prosecution in a corruption case. His leading ally in his Popolo della Libert party, Chamber of Deputies president Gianfranco Fini, has been marking his distance from Berlusconi and signaling he's ready to replace him. Berlusconi's European partners and the Obama administration are said to be annoyed about his effusive displays of friendship to Vladimir Putin and Muammar Qaddafi. The European Union has censured Italy for towing boatloads of desperate Eritreans and Somalis, many of them certainly eligible for refugee status, back to Libya from where they set out--and where they will be interned in barbaric prison camps. And the worst of the world economic crisis is expected to hit Italy this winter.
For the first time, there is talk about the end of Berlusconi. And for the first time, comparisons of this regime to Fascism are being advanced not just as rhetoric but in all seriousness.
Muslim Americans answer the call to serve
Salma Hasan Ali in Common Ground News Service:
Muslim Americans Answer the Call is a nationwide grassroots response to mobilise every single Muslim American in a united effort for community service. The Qur'an says: "Race one another in good works" (Qur'an 5:48). And since the campaign continued through Ramadan, many of us felt there was no better way to show our faith than in action. Beginning 22 June, the group committed to completing 1,000 community service projects, and we surpassed 3,000.
Projects ranged from partnering with the Salvation Army, an organisation dedicated to relieving poverty, to preparing thousands of meals for the homeless in our nation's capital, to working with publishers to provide textbooks for under-funded schools on Native American reservations.
Last week I attended Fast2Feed, an interfaith iftar dinner marking the end of the daily fast, at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in Washington, DC.
Morals Class Is Starting; Please Pass the Popcorn
Patricia Cohen in the New York Times:
Many of the 14,000 or so students who have taken Harvard’s wildly popular course “Justice” with Michael J. Sandel over the years have heard the rumor that their professor has a television avatar: Montgomery Burns, Homer Simpson’s soulless ghoul of a boss at Springfield’s nuclear power plant.
The joke, of course, is that Mr. Sandel — who at one time or another taught several future writers for Fox’s “Simpsons” and shares a receding hairline with the evil-minded cartoon character — is the anti-Burns, a moral philosopher who has devoted his life to pondering what is the right thing to do.
Now Mr. Sandal gets to play himself on television, not to mention online, as Harvard and public television stations across the country allow viewers to sit in on his classroom discussions about Wall Street bonuses and Aristotle, same-sex marriage and Kant, for the next 12 weeks.
More here. And watch the first episode of Justice:
Scuba Diving in a Newly Flooded Meadow
[Thanks to Michael Slatky.]
Well, this is unexpected — a comic book about the quest for logical certainty in mathematics. The story spans the decades from the late 19th century to World War II, a period when the nature of mathematical truth was being furiously debated. The stellar cast, headed up by Bertrand Russell, includes the greatest philosophers, logicians and mathematicians of the era, along with sundry wives and mistresses, plus a couple of homicidal maniacs, an apocryphal barber and Adolf Hitler. Improbable material for comic-book treatment? Not really. The principals in this intellectual drama are superheroes of a sort. They go up against a powerful nemesis, who might be called Dark Antinomy. Each is haunted by an inner demon, the Specter of Madness. Their quest has a tragic arc, not unlike that of Superman or Donald Duck.more from Jim Holt at the NYT here.
The carriage moved on. Karol sat on the driver’s seat, next to the coachman. She, in the front—and where her little head ended, there he began above her as if placed on an upper story, his back toward us, a slim contour, visible yet featureless—while his shirt billowed in the wind—and the combination of her face with the absence of his face, the complement of her seeing face with his unseeing back struck me with a dark, hot duality. . . . They were not unusually good-looking—neither he nor she—only as much as is appropriate for their age—but they were a beauty in their closed circle, in their mutual desire and rapture—something in which practically no one else had any right to take part. They were unto them-selves—it was strictly between them. And especially because they were so (young). So I was not allowed to watch, I tried not to see it, but, with Fryderyk in front of me and sitting next to her on the small seat, I was again persistently asking myself: Had he seen this? Did he know anything? And I was lying in wait to see a single glance of his, one of those supposedly indifferent ones yet sliding by surreptitiously, greedily.more from Danuta Borchardt's new translation of Witold Gombrowicz’s masterpiece at The Quarterly Conversation here.
naked lunch is 50
Naked Lunch, the chaotic masterpiece by William Burroughs, turned 50 this year, and odds are you probably haven’t read it. Not unlike Ulysses, War and Peace or anything by Thomas Pynchon, Naked Lunch is often lauded but seldom read, even by admitted bibliophiles. But for those who have indeed read it, the book packs a literary punch that continues to ripple through Western culture, particularly among avant-garde writers and (strangely enough) musicians. Which brings to mind the question: why is Naked Lunch still relevant 50 years later? Or, conversely, is it still relevant? Is this book just meaningful to a few fans and leftover NYC lit-punks who hope their special brand of shock still resonates long after the anger of youth has faded and the office job has begun to make sense? Or does Naked Lunch offer something more to the present day than anyone expected?more from Dave Teeuwen at PopMatters here.
From The New York Times:
For Byrne bicycling is partly a means, partly an end. It helps him get places, makes him feel more connected to life on the streets, and also serves as a “form of meditation” that keeps him sane. Inevitably the diary format gives the book a random, scattershot quality: Byrne is in no sense a “programmatic” bike rider, and he admits he’s sometimes just skimming over the surface of the cultures he encounters. Even so, his interests and activities — cutting-edge art exhibitions, rock festivals, a subversive PowerPoint presentation about PowerPoint presentations, a belly dance party — and certainly his personality are singular enough to give the book consistency and coherence.