July 31, 2010
An Agnostic Manifesto
Faith-based atheism? Yes, alas. Atheists display a credulous and childlike faith, worship a certainty as yet unsupported by evidence—the certainty that they can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence. (And some of them can behave as intolerantly to heretics who deviate from their unproven orthodoxy as the most unbending religious Inquisitor.)
Faced with the fundamental question: "Why is there something rather than nothing?" atheists have faith that science will tell us eventually. Most seem never to consider that it may well be a philosophic, logical impossibility for something to create itself from nothing. But the question presents a fundamental mystery that has bedeviled (so to speak) philosophers and theologians from Aristotle to Aquinas. Recently scientists have tried to answer it with theories of "multiverses" and "vacuums filled with quantum potentialities," none of which strikes me as persuasive. (For a review of the centrality, and insolubility so far, of the something-from-nothing question, I recommend this podcast interview with Jim Holt, who is writing a book on the subject.)
Having recently spent two weeks in Cambridge (the one in the United Kingdom) on a Templeton-Cambridge Fellowship, being lectured to by believers and nonbelievers, I found myself feeling more than anything unconvinced by certainties on either side. And feeling the need for solidarity and identity with other doubters. Thus my call for a revivified agnosticism. Our T-shirt will read: I just don't know.
Not a Day Over Infinity
Abraham Verghese in The New York Times:
In his remarkable Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Beak of the Finch,” Jonathan Weiner followed Peter and Rosemary Grant, biologists who had spent years studying birds in the Galápagos Islands. Their work showed that finches evolve rapidly in response to changes in the food supply, a discovery that ran counter to Darwin’s idea that natural selection operates only very slowly. Weiner’s portrait of this scientific couple worked well as a narrative portal to that story of evolutionary biology.
In his new book, “Long for This World,” Weiner makes similar use of another brilliant theoretical scientist, the English gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, a tireless proselytizer for radical life extension. But unlike the Grants, de Grey emerges on the page as someone who can be taken only in small doses. “Medievally thin and pale,” as Weiner puts it, with a luxuriant beard that recalls “Father Time before his hair turned gray” or “Timothy Leary unbound,” he is given to provocative statements that can turn into sermons. Nevertheless, with de Grey as his main character, Weiner explores the fractured, fuzzy science and pseudoscience of immortality.
“This is a good time to be a mortal,” Weiner writes, noting that life expectancy in the developed world is about 80 years, and improving. Yet evolution has equipped us with bodies and instincts designed only to get us to a reproductive age and not beyond. “We get old because our ancestors died young,” Weiner writes. “We get old because old age had so little weight in the scales of evolution; because there were never enough Old Ones around to count for much in the scales.” The first half of life is orderly, a miracle of “detailed harmonious unfolding” beginning with the embryo. What comes after our reproductive years is “more like the random crumpling of what had been neatly folded origami, or the erosion of stone. The withering of the roses in the bowl is as drunken and disorderly as their blossoming was regular and precise.”
Saturday PoemThe Map
Land lies in water; it is shadowed green.
Shadows, or are they shallows, at its edges
showing the line of long sea-weeded ledges
where weeds hang to the simple blue from green.
Or does the land lean down to lift the sea from under,
drawing it unperturbed around itself?
Along the fine tan sandy shelf
is the land tugging at the sea from under?
The shadow of Newfoundland lies flat and still.
Labrador's yellow, where the moony Eskimo
has oiled it. We can stroke these lovely bays,
under a glass as if they were expected to blossom,
or as if to provide a clean cage for invisible fish.
The names of seashore towns run out to sea,
the names of cities cross the neighboring mountains
--the printer here experiencing the same excitement
as when emotion too far exceeds its cause.
These peninsulas take the water between thumb and finger
like women feeling for the smoothness of yard-goods.
Mapped waters are more quiet than the land is,
lending the land their waves' own conformation:
and Norway's hare runs south in agitation,
profiles investigate the sea, where land is.
Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors?
--What suits the character or the native waters best.
Topography displays no favorites; North's as near as West.
More delicate than the historians' are the map-makers' colors.
by Elizabeth Bishop
a gastro-structuralist’s dream
There’s not much I won’t or can’t eat. I’ve eaten crocodile in Holland; barbied kangaroo at Uluru and mountain oysters in Wyoming. But tongue has always tested my gag reflex. Lambs’ tongues are a particular problem because, since they are pretty much the same size as our own, one stands a fair chance of biting the former rather than the latter. Given that tongues are dense with cell receptors (50 to 100 for each so-called bud), the experience can be acutely painful and bloody. But there’s another telling aspect to my lingophobia, which is to do with the separate, but connected, functions of the tongue that precludes the possibility of consumption. Biting one’s tongue is an act expressing pre-emptive remorse in the mouth. It’s the threat of damaging or mutilating that multi-tasking organ, the instrument of utterance and consumption, that is at the root (not to pun) of my tongue anxiety, I suppose. Do any of us really want to eat our own words? La langue, the word and the idea, is, of course, a gastro-structuralist’s dream, especially when allied to the palate; though the connection between language and eating seems not to have occurred to Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), the founding father of modern linguistics who first posited a distinction between la langue (a system of language) and la parole (speech or individual utterances). Saussure never seems to have reflected on the fact that it is the elemental experience of taste, registered on the tongue’s cell receptors, which gives rise in the infant to sound communication; and that, further evolved, is the defining characteristic of what distinguishes humans from dumb beasts.more from Simon Schama at the FT here.
bottomless belly button II
"There are many types of genres," declares the busy spine of Dash Shaw's monumental 2008 graphic novel, "Bottomless Belly Button" (Fantagraphics: 720 pp., $29.99) "This is: family comedy/drama/horror/mystery/romance." It's as much taxonomical cheat sheet as it is a boast: in being so reductive, Shaw also broadcasts his ambition. Formally inventive and emotionally acute, "Bottomless Belly Button" indeed proves to be all those things: as fascinating and affecting a depiction of family ties as Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections" or Wes Anderson's "The Royal Tenenbaums." Set at a beachside house, the story is centered on a couple's decision to divorce, after four decades of marriage. Their three grown children (including one who sees himself, and whom we see, as a frog) visit to spend a final week together. But Shaw doesn't jump right into the thick of the drama, comedy and the rest. "Bottomless Belly Button" begins with deconstructions and instructions. The book is "not for children"; it consists of three parts, and we are advised to "take breaks from reading between them." A primer of draftsman's terms shows us stippling, hatching and three-point perspective. "There are many types of sand," states an omniscient narrator. "The cloud of sand when it's poured out of a shoe. Spotty sand stuck to a naked back. Hard sand. Cracked sand when you apply pressure with your heel. Pee on sand: it suddenly goes dark. Sand sifted out of a bathing suit. Mud sand." Each type is illustrated, a single panel per page; later Shaw will do a similar introduction to the types of water. Shaw calls attention to his artistry right as we are about to forget it, swept up in the story that follows.more from Ed Park at the LAT here.
let there be artificial light
One dark and electrically stormy night, the lights blinked out in our rented Maine cabin. Lacking candles or a flashlight, my mother knew just what to do: she poured the hamburger grease from a frying pan into a teacup, then tore a few dangling strands of cotton from the open knee of my bell-bottom jeans. She set the wick in the fat and struck a match. A teenager at the time, I’d never been quite so impressed with parental competence. The lights eventually came back on, and I forgot about the burger lamp until reading Jane Brox’s “Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light,” which takes us from fat to fluorescence and on into the future (beyond the bulb, that is). The book starts off promisingly, in the dim past. Forty thousand years ago, by the caves of Lascaux, our ancestors made lamps of animal fat puddled in hollowed-out stone. Wicks were twisted lichen or moss. In other places at other times, humans lighted their way with corralled fireflies, torches of burning pine knots, or dried salmon on a stick. When Shetland Islanders needed a lamp, Brox writes, “they’d affix a petrel carcass to a base of clay, thread a wick down its throat, and set it alight.” These early flames were not brilliant; they smoked, gave off foul odors and required constant tending. No wonder folks went to bed as soon as their work was done. Millenniums passed. Improvements — in wicks, vessels, fuels and ways to ignite them — came slowly, though somewhat less so for some: “The wealthy and powerful have always been the first to acquire new kinds of light and have always had more of it than others,” Brox writes.more from Elizabeth Royte at the NYT here.
July 30, 2010
Down to the Last Cream PuffSteven Shapin reviews Au Revoir to All That: The Rise and Fall of French Cuisine by Michael Steinberger in the LRB:
Alice B. Toklas wrote her Cookbook, she said, ‘for America’, partly to explain the ‘delicacy and poignancy’, the perfect balance, of French cooking. (Alice’s recipe for boeuf bourguignon doesn’t have Julia’s rigour, but then Julia doesn’t have Alice’s recipe for hash brownies.) For another American Alice, a year in France in the 1960s was transformative. A single dinner in a Brittany restaurant changed everything for her, and, through her, for much of America: ‘I’ve remembered this dinner a thousand times … I learned everything in France.’ When she got back to Berkeley, Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse as a homage to French cuisine and last year France returned the favour when she joined Julia Child in the Légion d’honneur.
And so France has a unique power to let Americans down. One of the first and most influential of the disappointed was Adam Gopnik. Writing in the New Yorker in 1997, Gopnik asked whether there was ‘a crisis in French cooking’. The question was rhetorical. ‘The muse of cooking’ had abandoned France and, shockingly, ‘migrated across the ocean to a spot in Berkeley, with occasional trips to New York and, of all places, Great Britain’. What good was a mother who had to take cooking lessons from her own daughters? In 2003, coinciding with American outrage over France not joining the Iraq invasion (remember the wonderfully rechristened ‘Freedom fries’?), the New York Times Magazine announced the stunning news that ‘Barcelona, not Paris, is now the vanguard capital of Europe, not least because of its wildly experimental cooking … Something happened in France – they ran out of gas.’ The excellent American food and wine writer Michael Steinberger now follows Gopnik and the New York Times, concerned that haute cuisine has gone to pot. The disappointment is clear; its cause is not so clear. Is the problem that French cooking is not what it was, or that it is? In Casablanca, Bogie reminded Ingrid Bergman that ‘We’ll always have Paris.’ Now, it’s not so certain we will.
The basic cause of France’s falling behind is a failure to innovate. For Gopnik, ‘one of the principles of high French cooking’ is a commitment not just to intensity but to innovation, making things ‘far more original than anyone can imagine’. Combinations, preparations, tastes which are not just very good but very new – things to eat that expand your vocabulary of tastes. That’s why high cooking is supposed to be an art, like a painting that shows you a horse in a way you’ve never thought to look at a horse before and changes your subsequent perceptions of horses. And French haute cuisine was long supposed to be like the winner of a horse race, not to be the fastest, but to be the most innovative.
That’s pretty much Steinberger’s position too.
Phytoplankton Population Drops 40 Percent Since 1950Lauren Morello and ClimateWire in Scientific American:
The microscopic plants that form the foundation of the ocean's food web are declining, reports a study published July 29 in Nature.
The tiny organisms, known as phytoplankton, also gobble up carbon dioxide to produce half the world's oxygen output—equaling that of trees and plants on land.
But their numbers have dwindled since the dawn of the 20th century, with unknown consequences for ocean ecosystems and the planet's carbon cycle.
Researchers at Canada's Dalhousie University say the global population of phytoplankton has fallen about 40 percent since 1950. That translates to an annual drop of about 1 percent of the average plankton population between 1899 and 2008.
The scientists believe that rising sea surface temperatures are to blame.
"It's very disturbing to think about the potential implications of a century-long decline of the base of the food chain," said lead author Daniel Boyce, a marine ecologist.
They include disruption to the marine food web and effects on the world's carbon cycle. In addition to consuming CO2, phytoplankton can influence how much heat is absorbed by the world's oceans, and some species emit sulfate molecules that promote cloud formation.
A Normal Man in a Not So Normal World
Amitava Kumar in The Caravan:
On a warm July morning, I boarded the London Tube to Boston Manor station. The southbound Piccadilly Line, represented by a Navy Blue line on my map, would terminate at Heathrow airport. My stop came a few stations before the line ended.
The people I had come to meet were waiting outside in a car, and after introductions had been made, we drove to a store to buy meat and beer for lunch. The man who was driving was in his early 30s. He wore a stylish shirt and dark glasses. His name was Aryian Singh, but he later told me that this wasn’t what he had been named at birth. He had changed his name after he had come out of prison. When I questioned him about his job, he said he was working on a couple of film projects but didn’t provide details. I noticed that there were small scars on his face. I later learned that a couple of them were from injuries inflicted by his mother when he was a kid—once, his mother had smashed his face with a milk bottle.
The man whose face I was now watching in the rearview mirror interested me. His name change and the reason for it wasn’t what one has come to expect as a staple of Indian fiction about diasporic lives—Samiullah changing to Sam or a Madhu becoming Maddy, one pining for the neem tree outside his ancestral home and the other for her mother’s cardamom-scented fish curry. In those stories, particularly those written in the US, the only crime a human seems capable of is forgetting to write a letter home. Or if there are transgressions they seem to have blossomed out of a fantasy spun out in a garden called a creative writing MFA programme. But Aryian Singh’s story appeared to be different.
The Burqa and the Body Electric
Feisal G. Mohamed in the New York Times:
In her post of July 11, “Veiled Threats?” and her subsequent response to readers, Martha Nussbaum considers the controversy over the legal status of the burqa — which continues to flare across Europe — making a case for freedom of religious expression. In these writings, Professor Nussbaum applies the argument of her 2008 book “Liberty of Conscience,” which praises the American approach to religious liberty of which Roger Williams, one of the founders of Rhode Island Colony, is an early champion.
Williams is an inspiring figure, indeed. Feeling firsthand the constraint of religious conformism in England and in Massachusetts Bay, he developed a uniquely broad position on religious toleration, one encompassing not only Protestants of all stripes, but Roman Catholics, Jews and Muslims. The state, in his view, can legitimately enforce only the second tablet of the Decalogue — those final five commandments covering murder, theft, and the like. All matters of worship covered by the first tablet must be left to the individual conscience.
Straightforward enough. But in the early years of Rhode Island, Williams faced quite a relevant challenge.
Monogamy unnatural for our sexy species
Christopher Ryan at CNN:
Couples who turn to a therapist for guidance through the inevitable minefields of marriage are likely to receive the confusing message that long-term pair bonding comes naturally to our species, but marriage is still a lot of work.
Few mainstream therapists would contemplate trying to persuade a gay man or lesbian to "grow up, get real, and stop being gay." But most insist that long-term sexual monogamy is "normal," while the curiosity and novelty-seeking inherent in human sexuality are signs of pathology. Thus, couples are led to believe that waning sexual passion in enduring marriages or sexual interest in anyone but their partner portend a failed relationship, when in reality these things often signify nothing more than that we are Homo sapiens.
This is a problem because there is no reason to believe monogamy comes naturally to human beings. In fact, for millions of years, evolutionary forces have cultivated human libido to the point where ours is arguably the most sexual species on Earth.
What you bump into when you stand back from a photograph
In the historical process by which scupture is no longer a thing you have made somewhere else, but is instead a gesture you make before the camera, a curious upstairs-downstairs, gentlemen and players game of class is enacted – a coda to the paragone debates (Leonardo versus Michelangelo) of the high renaissance. Now that the sculptor no longer “gets dirty” – from sculpture that is; he or she gets more than dirty, as Dine and Kusama and Gilbert and George and Cindy Sherman all demonstrate, in their performances – the dematerialization of the art object elevates the sculptor to a higher class, the class of thinking (rather than making) artist, to be rewarded with attributed authorship of works (photographs) they didn’t make. And to earn that honor they had to stop making works in their own medium. Everything started so amicably in this show, with albumen virtually caressing marble, that the divorce half way through of photography and sculpture, with no joint custody, is all the more brutal. Dropped from the narrative are non-celebrity photographers who actually enriched their medium at the service of sculpture: I’m thinking of John Riddy’s work for Anthony Caro for instance or Aurelio Amendola’s on Michelangelo. (Incidentally, why are there no Henry Moore photographs of Henry Moore?)more from David Cohen at artcritical here.
death and saramago
In September 2008, on assignment for this newspaper, I traveled to the Canary Islands to interview the man whom, until June 18 of this year, I regarded as the world's greatest living writer: José Saramago. For nearly two years, I had been courting the Portuguese Nobel laureate through his American publisher and British publicist before finally winning his consent, just prior to the U.S. publication of Death With Interruptions, a magnificently wry fable about the unforeseen complications that arise when the Grim Reaper treats herself to an extended holiday (and ends up falling in love with a cello player). It was, one might suggest, an unsurprising subject for a writer who, then 85, had recently survived a near-fatal bout of pneumonia. Except that death and Saramago were bedfellows as far back as his second novel, The Manual of Painting and Caligraphy, written when he was nearly 60. Death, too, is everywhere in Blindness, the 1995 international best-seller in which an unexplained epidemic of sightlessness reduces the human race to a primitive, animalistic state; and in his masterpiece, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, which observes the final months in the life of an exiled doctor returning to his native Lisbon.more from Scott Foundas at The LA Weekly here.
thoughts on stoves
The Magic Stove and the soup kitchens of London and Ireland could be seen as preparatory phases of Soyer’s most lasting contribution to fuel economy and mass cooking: his field stove. Its origin makes interesting historic material. From 1853 to 1856, a relatively small but disproportionately disastrous war was fought on the Crimean peninsula between the Russian army and an allied force consisting of Turkish, French, and British troops. Due to a complete lack of information, military incompetence, and a deplorable state of organization in the field, thousands of men died unnecessarily. Supply lines hardly existed and casualties, once placed in hospitals, were certain to die of hunger and infectious diseases. It was through the reports of the correspondent Lord William Russell, who wrote from the battlefield for the Times, that the British public learned of the abominable situation on the Turkish coast and the Crimean peninsula.14 It was Russell’s, and consequently Florence Nightingale’s, conviction that the staggering number of casualties was not the result of combat, but of fatally bad management.more from Thomas A. P. Van Leeuwen at Cabinet here.
Feted British authors are limited, arrogant and self-satisfied, says leading academic
From The Guardian:
Their mantelpieces might creak under the collective weight of literary gongs but, according to one leading academic, leading contemporary British authors such as Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes are unworthy of the accolades they receive. In an outspoken attack, Gabriel Josipovici, the former Weidenfeld professor of comparative literature at Oxford University, condemned the work of the giants of the modern English novel as hollow. He said they were like "prep-school boys showing off" and virtually indistinguishable from one another in scope and ambition. The fact that such writers had won so many awards was "a mystery", Josipovici told the Guardian. He added: "It's an ill-educated public being fed by the media – 'This is what great art is' – and they lap it up." It is a view apparently now shared by at least some others, given that the latest offerings by Martin Amis, McEwan and Rushdie were among the more prominent omissions from this year's Man Booker longlist, revealed earlier this week.
"We are in a very fallow period," Josipovici said, calling the contemporary English novel "profoundly disappointing – a poor relation of its ground-breaking modernist forebears". He said: "Reading Barnes, like reading so many other English writers of his generation – Martin Amis, McEwan – leaves me feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner. The irony which at first made one smile, the precision of language which was at first so satisfying, the cynicism which at first was used only to puncture pretension, in the end come to seem like a terrible constriction, a fear of opening oneself up to the world. "I wonder, though, where it came from, this petty-bourgeois uptightness, this terror of not being in control, this schoolboy desire to boast and to shock." Such faults were less generally evident in Irish, American, or continental European writing, he added.
How to feed a hungry world
With the world's population expected to grow from 6.8 billion today to 9.1 billion by 2050, a certain Malthusian alarmism has set in: how will all these extra mouths be fed? The world's population more than doubled from 3 billion between 1961 and 2007, yet agricultural output kept pace — and current projections (see page 546) suggest it will continue to do so. Admittedly, climate change adds a large degree of uncertainty to projections of agricultural output, but that just underlines the importance of monitoring and research to refine those predictions. That aside, in the words of one official at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, the task of feeding the world's population in 2050 in itself seems “easily possible”. Easy, that is, if the world brings into play swathes of extra land, spreads still more fertilizers and pesticides, and further depletes already scarce groundwater supplies. But clearing hundreds of millions of hectares of wildlands — most of the land that would be brought into use is in Latin America and Africa — while increasing today's brand of resource-intensive, environmentally destructive agriculture is a poor option. Therein lies the real challenge in the coming decades: how to expand agricultural output massively without increasing by much the amount of land used.
What is needed is a second green revolution — an approach that Britain's Royal Society aptly describes as the “sustainable intensification of global agriculture”. Such a revolution will require a wholesale realignment of priorities in agricultural research. There is an urgent need for new crop varieties that offer higher yields but use less water, fertilizers or other inputs — created, for example, through long-neglected research on modifying roots (see page 552) — and for crops that are more resistant to drought, heat, submersion and pests. Equally crucial is lower-tech research into basics such as crop rotation, mixed farming of animals and plants on smallholder farms, soil management and curbing waste. (Between one-quarter and one-third of the food produced worldwide is lost or spoiled.)
there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I'm too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I'm not going
to let anybody see
there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I pour whiskey on him and inhale
and the whores and the bartenders
and the grocery clerks
never know that
there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I'm too tough for him,
stay down, do you want to mess
you want to screw up the
you want to blow my book sales in
there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I'm too clever, I only let him out
at night sometimes
when everybody's asleep.
I say, I know that you're there,
so don't be
then I put him back,
but he's singing a little
in there, I haven't quite let him
and we sleep together like
and it's nice enough to
make a man
weep, but I don't
by Charles Bukowski
from The Last Night of the Earth Poems, 1992
July 29, 2010
Verballing AbuseChristopher Beha reviews Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story, in bookforum:
As Gary Shteyngart's third novel begins, Lenny Abramov is seated on a "UnitedContinentalDeltamerican" flight to New York after a year in Rome. Taking out a collection of Chekhov's stories to pass the time, Lenny receives harsh stares from his fellow passengers. "Duder," one tells him, "that thing smells like wet socks." Perhaps America has changed during Lenny's sojourn in the capital of the ancient world.
On landing, he discovers that his old college friend Noah Weinberg will be airing his welcome-home celebration live on GlobalTeens—a Facebookish social-networking site. "Before the publishing industry folded," Lenny explains, Noah "had published a novel, one of the last that you could actually go out and buy in a Media store. Lately he did 'The Noah Weinberg Show!,' which had a grand total of six sponsors. . . . The show got hit about fifteen thousand times a day, which put him somewhere in the lower-middle echelon of Media professionals." Lenny has some reservations about broadcasting this intimate occasion but realizes that "this is exactly the kind of thing I have to get used to if I'm going to make it in this world."
In the early pages of Super Sad True Love Story, Shteyngart has quite a bit of fun filling in the details of his postliterate near future, where "verballing" face-to-face feels quaint and everybody interacts instead by way of the iPhone-like devices called äppäräti. He is particularly good with Lenny's acquiescence—"the kind of thing I have to get used to"—illustrating how unthinkingly our needs adapt to technology, rather than the other way around.
Winner-Take-All Politics: Public Policy, Political Organization, and the Precipitous Rise of Top Incomes in the United StatesJacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson in Politics and Society (via bookforum):
Abstract: The dramatic rise in inequality in the United States over the past generation has occasioned considerable attention from economists, but strikingly little from students of America politics. This has started to change: in recent years, a small but growing body of political science research on rising inequality has challenged standard economic accounts that emphasize apolitical processes of economic change. For all the sophistication of this new scholarship, however, it too fails to provide a compelling account of the political sources and effects of rising inequality. In particular, these studies share with dominant economic accounts three weaknesses: (1) they downplay the distinctive feature of American inequality –namely, the extreme concentration of income gains at the top of the economic ladder; (2) they miss the profound role of government policy in creating this “winner-take-all” pattern; and (3) they give little attention or weight to the dramatic long-term transformation of the organizational landscape of American politics that lies behind these changes in policy. These weaknesses are interrelated, stemming ultimately from a conception of politics that emphasizes the sway (or lack thereof) of the “median voter” in electoral politics, rather than the influence of organized interests in the process of policy making. A perspective centered on organizational and policy change –one that identifies the major policy shifts that have bolstered the economic standing of those at the top and then links those shifts to concrete organizational efforts by resourceful private interests –fares much better at explaining why the American political economy has become distinctively winner-take-all.
The Reluctant Feudalist
Daisy Rockwell in Chapati Mystery:
Everyone wants to be Manto. He is the gold standard of South Asian fiction. Even those who claim to dislike his work or find him offensive write about him because they want to write like him. Or forget just writing like him: Manto is the kind of author his readers want to dive into, like a swimming pool, or wear every day, like a sweatshirt. Manto is a pair of prescription glasses. No, he’s more than that. He’s a habitus.
If anyone writing in English has begun to capture something of Manto in their own writing, it is Daniyal Mueenuddin in his recent collection of short stories. The spare and elegant prose, the gift of understatement and the unflinching gaze at the darker side of human nature in Pakistani society are all reminscent of Manto. Mueenuddin has cited Chekhov as an important influence (“I am constantly reading Chekov. I am never not reading Chekov”). But in a list of five important books on Pakistan (for the website Five Books), the first book Mueenuddin lists is Khalid Hasan’s translation of many of Manto’s Partition-related short stories, Mottled Dawn. In his description of the relevance of the book he observes:
For me, Saadat Hasan Manto is important as a writer because you see with stories like this there is nothing prettied up about his writing. One of the things that I object to about most of the people who write about Pakistan is “the scent of mangoes and jasmine school of writing”. I think that does a disservice to the country and plays into the stereotypes that most Westerners have about Pakistan, and he certainly doesn’t do that. He tells it like it is, with all the violence, madness and political turmoil that involves.
Mueenuddin’s characters are similarly rarely ‘prettied up’ (with some notable exceptions, see below). They use one another, calculate, cheat, manipulate and desert. But where Manto’s stories illustrate the principle that depravity is a natural human state that emerges even more in times of acute crisis, such as the Partition, when men (especially) rejoice and rush out to commit the acts towards which they are innately inclined, Mueenuddin’s humanity trends more to petty manipulation and callousness. In fact, almost none of them are willing to kill, for land, for gold or even for women, as promised so tantalizingly by the quote that opens the book.
More here. (Note: My dear friend, Daisy Rockwell, has written this brilliant analysis of Mueenuddin's work...read this but then also read Manto and Mueenuddin!)
Social Ties Boost Survival by 50 Percent
From Scientific American:
A long lunch out with co-workers or a late-night conversation with a family member might seem like a distraction from other healthy habits, such as going to the gym or getting a good night's sleep. But more than 100 years' worth of research shows that having a healthy social life is incredibly important to staying physically healthy. Overall, social support increases survival by some 50 percent, concluded the authors behind a new meta-analysis. The benefit of friends, family and even colleagues turns out to be just as good for long-term survival as giving up a 15-cigarette-a-day smoking habit. And by the study's numbers, interpersonal social networks are more crucial to physical health than exercising or beating obesity.
"I don't think a lot of people recognize that our relationships can have a physical impact as well as emotional," says Julianne Holt-Lunstad, an associate psychology professor at Brigham Young University and co-author of the new study, published online July 27 in PLoS Medicine. The researchers analyzed results from 148 studies—which included a total of 308,849 participants—going back to the early 20th century. Most studies assessed survival in contrast to mortality from all causes, although the authors rejected studies that focused on suicide or accidental deaths. "The findings are very exciting and show how important social relationships are for improving survival," Kira Birditt, an assistant research professor at University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, who was not involved in the new study, noted in an e-mail to ScientificAmerican.com.
Thursday PoemThe Blueness
The blueness reaches from horizon to horizon
wrapping everything in blueness,
poppy fields, a prisoner hanging from his wrists
in Alabama sunshine that I heard about
on the morning news. Is there hope for us?
The phrase, Se frego la cosa is stuck in my brain
and I am trying to resist the temptation
to rhyme it with Julius LaRosa, but who
would remember him? Such buttery
memories I have that dribble down the sky
giving it a sickly green tinge, like those strange
Jerusalem sunsets when we lay expertly pleasing
each other like a single serpent devouring itself.
Now the wind shakes the palm outside the window
so soothingly flapping the blueness back.
This time it's a thin, almost invisible blue
just this side of whiteness, barely audible,
and I want to lie on the carpet with you listening
to whatever blue is saying now. Remember
the first dream is what it says: the closet, the pile
of shoes and the bones you found underneath.
The hell with that. Just look at this sky will you,
how it covers us with its soft, blue fabric of illusion.
by Richard Garcia
from The Blue Moon Review
on the gulf
New Orleans’s Saint Charles Avenue is lined with oak trees whose broad branches drip Spanish moss and Mardi Gras beads from the pre-Lenten parades, and behind the oaks are beautiful old houses with turrets, porches, balconies, bay windows, gables, dormers and lush gardens. There are no refineries for miles, hardly even gas stations on the stretch I was on in mid-June, and the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded on 20 April and the oil welling up a mile below it were dozens of miles away as the bird flies. So there was no explanation for the sudden powerful smell of gasoline that filled my car for several blocks or for the strange metallic taste in my mouth when I parked at the Sierra Club offices uptown, except that since the BP spill such incidents have been common. As of mid-July, the spill is supposed to be plugged at last, except that the plug is temporary at best, and the millions of gallons of oil are out there in the ocean, on the coast – and in the air.more from Rebecca Solnit at the LRB here.
vilnius: nostalgia city
What probably marks Vilnius most strongly is the fact that the city is almost always construed as an object of nostalgia. The text of Vilnius is created by people severed from their city and thus extremely sensitive to the particulars of its everyday life: at this point one should remember Kekstas and his extraordinary letters, but also more prominent personalities, for instance, Czeslaw Milosz or Adam Mickiewicz. There is a similarity between Vilnius and Warsaw here, but in the text of Warsaw, nostalgia surfaces either during the war years as, for instance, in Julian Tuwim's and Aleksander Wat's texts, or marks the longing for the past, for the irrevocably destroyed pre-war city. In the text of Vilnius, such emotional complexity is also present, but nostalgia here is more frequent, more deeply rooted and more multilayered. And – this is probably the most important aspect – it affects not only individuals but entire ethnic and national groups. I suggested a long time ago that the Lithuanian capital had always been a border city with its border moving from place to place over the years: Vilnius would, for instance, find itself close to the lands of the Teutonic Order (Prussia – ed.) or, in the interwar period, some 30 kilometres from independent Lithuania; now, too, it is located 150 kilometres from Poland and a mere 30 kilometres from Alexander Lukashenka's Belarus and thus at the eastern border of the European Union. This bordering frequently cut off the nation nostalgic about the city considered theirs: before World War II, these were the Lithuanians; now they are the Poles, Belarusians and Israel-based Jews.more from Tomas Venclova at Eurozine here.
man v myth
Jonathan Fenby tells a revealing story. On May 29, 1958, France seemed on the brink of civil war. The army in Algeria had rebelled against the politicians in Paris. The President (René Coty) had told parliament that the country’s only hope was to “turn towards the most illustrious Frenchman, towards the man who, in the darkest year of our history, was our chief for the reconquest of freedom”. Charles de Gaulle, to whom these remarks referred, left his country house in Colombey-les-deux-Églises to go to Paris. His chauffeur drove so fast that he outran the police escort, which was only able to catch up when the general stopped his car so that he could relieve himself by the side of the road. De Gaulle the myth – the most illustrious Frenchman speeding to the capital to save his country once again – met de Gaulle the man – an elderly, retired soldier with a weak bladder.more from Richard Vinen at the TLS here.
Edward Said on meeting Jean-Paul Sartre
Edward's daughter Najla brought this diary by him to my attention, and while it is now ten years old, it retains interest as one great man's remembrance of another. From the London Review of Books:
It was early in January 1979, and I was at home in New York preparing for one of my classes. The doorbell announced the delivery of a telegram and as I tore it open I noticed with interest that it was from Paris. ‘You are invited by Les Temps modernes to attend a seminar on peace in the Middle East in Paris on 13 and 14 March this year. Please respond. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre.’ At first I thought the cable was a joke of some sort. It might just as well have been an invitation from Cosima and Richard Wagner to come to Bayreuth, or from T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf to spend an afternoon at the offices of the Dial. It took me about two days to ascertain from various friends in New York and Paris that it was indeed genuine, and far less time than that to despatch my unconditional acceptance (this after learning that les modalités, the French euphemism for travel expenses, were to be borne by Les Temps modernes, the monthly journal established by Sartre after the war). A few weeks later I was off to Paris.
Les Temps modernes had played an extraordinary role in French, and later European and even Third World, intellectual life. Sartre had gathered around him a remarkable set of minds – not all of them in agreement with him – that included Beauvoir of course, his great opposite Raymond Aron, the eminent philosopher and Ecole Normale classmate Maurice Merleau-Ponty (who left the journal a few years later), and Michel Leiris, ethnographer, Africanist and bullfight theoretician. There wasn’t a major issue that Sartre and his circle didn’t take on, including the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, which resulted in a monumentally large edition of Les Temps modernes – in turn the subject of a brilliant essay by I.F. Stone. That alone gave my Paris trip a precedent of note.
When I arrived, I found a short, mysterious letter from Sartre and Beauvoir waiting for me at the hotel I had booked in the Latin Quarter. ‘For security reasons,’ the message ran, ‘the meetings will be held at the home of Michel Foucault.’
July 28, 2010
That Mitchell and Webb Look: Homeopathic ER
[H/t: Linta Varghese]
TEDxPennQuarter: Derek Brown On Reinventing the CocktailMy old friend Derek, one of the two finest mixologist I know:
A mind-meltingly stupid homeopathy policy
Martin Robbins in The Guardian:
The government has released its eagerly anticipated response to the Science and Technology Committee's Evidence Check on Homeopathy and, incredibly, it's even worse than I thought it would be. The verdict is "business as usual", with the main recommendations of the committee ignored in a fog of confusion and double-think.
You get a sense of this confusion very early on, with lines like: "given the geographical, socioeconomic and cultural diversity in England, [policy on homeopathy] involves a whole range of considerations including, but not limited to, efficacy." I actually have no idea what this means – do medicines work differently in Norfolk from the way they work in Hampshire? The report doesn't elaborate.
As expected, the word "choice" features heavily in the government's response:
There naturally will be an assumption that if the NHS is offering homeopathic treatments then they will be efficacious, whereas the overriding reason for NHS provision is that homeopathy is available to provide patient choice ... if regulation was applied to homeopathic medicines as understood in the context of conventional pharmaceutical medicines, these products would have to be withdrawn from the market as medicines. This would constrain consumer choice and, more importantly, risk the introduction of unregulated, poor quality and potentially unsafe products on the market to satisfy consumer demand."
So we can't regulate these products as medicines because they'd end up being banned, but we'll let them be called medicines anyway? It gives me a headache just trying to think down to the level of the person who wrote this stuff.
The Greenes: A Talented Tribe of Trailbrazers
From The Telegraph:
In the early years of the last century, two brothers found themselves living in a small Hertfordshire town. The elder, Charles, was the headmaster of Berkhamsted School; his six children included Graham Greene, the novelist, and Hugh Carleton Greene, the BBC’s controversial director-general in the Sixties and the bête noire of Mary Whitehouse. They were a gifted lot, elegant and clever, with round heads like cannonballs and bulbous blue eyes. A natural reserve was attributed by some to an innate coldness of disposition, by others to shyness.
After making a fortune in the coffee trade, Charles’s younger brother, Edward, bought an enormous house on the edge of Berkhamsted, and he too had six children. The “rich” Greene children had an exotic air – their mother was German and they had spent their childhood in Brazil – but they were thought to be woolly-minded by the “intellectual” Greenes, who considered themselves harder-headed and more down-to-earth. Both sets of cousins were extremely tall – so much so that when Ben Greene, the oldest of the “rich” Greene boys, was interned in Brixton in May 1940 at the same time as Oswald Mosley, his bunk had to be extended with a pile of bricks.
Experimental Error: Don't Try This at Home
In the terrible 2004 film Godsend, Robert De Niro plays a sinister obstetrician who helps a couple clone their dead son but secretly manipulates "intangibles" in the fetus so that the new child will show traits of his own dead son, who happened to be evil. While uncovering this well-thought-out and plausible scheme, the boy's father (Greg Kinnear) interviews a nanny the obstetrician once hired. "He was a doctor?" the father asks, and she replies, "A baby doctor, yeah." Then she leans closer and whispers her suspicion: "Only ... he seemed more like a scientist to me."
For me, as a scientist, when I watched the movie, those words weren't exactly the ominous bombshell the screenwriter probably intended. It was as though the nanny had said, "Only ... he sometimes ate Corn Flakes." Her comment made me consider how the public views scientists -- and how universal that perception must be for a screenwriter to presume that "scientist" is a zinger of an insult. (Maybe I should try that sometime. "Hey, jerk! Your mother is a synthetic chemist!") We are distrusted, feared, but most of all, misunderstood. We work, after all, in one of the only two professions that idiomatically follow the word "mad" -- the other such profession being "hatter."
Shorter than the blink inside a blink
the National Grid will sometimes make, when you’ll
turn to a room and say: Was that just me?
People sitting down for dinner don’t feel
their chairs taken away/put back again
much faster that that trick with tablecloths.
A train entering the Olive Mount cutting
shudders, but not a single passenger
complains when it pulls in almost on time.
The birds feel it, though, and if you see
starlings in shoal, seagulls abandoning
cathedral ledges, or a mob of pigeons
lifting from a square as at gunfire,
be warned it may be happening, but then
those sensitive to bat-squeak in the backs
of necks, who claim to hear the distant roar
of comets on the turn – these may well smile
at a world restored, in one piece; though each place
where mineral Liverpool goes wouldn’t believe
what hit it: all that sandstone out to sea
or meshed into the quarters of Cologne.
I’ve felt it a few times when I’ve gone home,
if anything, more often now I’m old
and the gaps between get shorter all the time.
by Paul Farley
from Tramp in Flames
publisher: Picador, London, 2006
Large Hadron Collider not large enough, say scientists who want a Humongous Hadron Collider
Emma Vandore in the Christian Science Monitor:
Instead of whirling atoms in giant rings, as existing colliders in Switzerland and the United States do, scientists want a new-generation machine that will shoot them straight.
Particle physicists gathering in Paris on Monday for the most important conference in their field say a linear atom blaster is needed to complement what existing colliders are telling scientists about the universe, inching them closer to understanding why we are here.
Mel Shochet, a professor at the University of Chicago, said "this is by far the most exciting time" in his particle physics career.
Speaking at a Paris news conference, Shochet said "exciting new phenomena" would be seen first by existing colliders "and then followed up in great detail" by future machines, he said at a Paris press conference.
Depending on who wants to host it — and how much they are willing to pay — the next-generation collider could potentially be built anywhere in the world — with Japan, Russia, the U.S. and Switzerland all possible hosts for the most advanced project.
Scientists Fallen Among Poets
When one mentions the Romantics, poetry and not science is the first thing that comes to mind. The iconic Romantic image of the scientist is William Blake’s highly unflattering Newton (1795), a color print finished in watercolor, hanging in London’s Tate Gallery. The scientist appears as a heroic nude, imposingly muscled like a triumphant warrior. However, the figure’s pose is a far cry from the virile address of Michelangelo’s David or Cellini’s Perseus. Newton sits on a rock ledge, folded over so that his chest rests on his knees — an attitude that, assumed for more than thirty seconds, would serve as an acute stress position under enhanced interrogation. With a geometrician’s compass he is inscribing a semicircle within a triangle, and he embodies the mathematical order in which he is rapt. The muscles outlining his back ribs form a perfect row of rhomboids; an equilateral triangle set on its vertex and a larger triangle that caps the first define the junction of his hip and lower back; his left hand drops from his wrist at a right angle, quite uncomfortably, it would seem, and the fingers of that hand are bent to form a triangle along with one leg of the compass that they hold, so that the hand appears to be of a piece with the instrument; his left foot protrudes from beneath the ledge he is sitting on, as though he were riveted to matter; and he is clearly oblivious to everything but the figure he is drawing, the calculations he is making. What Newton cannot see is the spectacular iridescence of the immense rock he is perched on, and the tremulous darkness of the night sky that one would expect to entrance a natural philosopher, as it clearly does the artist. The appropriate amazement at nature’s magnificence is far beyond poor Newton. He is a grind, without imagination, without insight, without a chance of ever understanding what he is supposed to be doing on this earth.more from Algis Valiunas at The New Atlantis here.
The American Museum of Folk Art American Folk Art Museum is one of my favorite museums in America. It’s also one of my least favorites. I love the museum because it’s committed to showing so-called “outsider art,” which I would define as art so visionary that the “real” art world can’t process it without relegating it to this ridiculous niche. (All great art is visionary; all great artists are in some way self-taught.) I hate the museum because its horrendous building smothers the art and vision contained within. And now the institution faces a new challenge: Last week brought the sad, startling news that curator Brooke Davis Anderson has been snatched up as Deputy Director for Curatorial Planning at the ambitious Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In the last decade as AFAM’s curator, Anderson, a brilliant scholar, organized extraordinary exhibitions of Martin Ramirez, Henry Darger, and Adolf Wolfli — three of the greatest artists of the 20th century. Come September, LA’s gain will be New York’s loss. (This, by the way, makes the fourth such coup, after Anne Philbin leaving the Drawing Center to become Director of the Hammer, Michael Govan departing Dia to work as Director of LACMA, and Jeffrey Deitch being named Director of LA MoCA.)more from Jerry Saltz at New York Magazine here.
If someone were to tell me that there is a Soviet composer of whom I've barely heard, who composed 26 symphonies and 17 string quartets, many of which deserve to be in the standard repertoire, my first reaction would probably be to assume they meant Nikolay Myaskovsky – that modest, noble-minded 'musical conscience of Moscow' who composed 27 symphonies and 13 quartets, some of which do speak with a unique and treasurable voice. But if that same informant said no, it's someone entirely different, then I should probably have to stifle a groan. What, yet another 'neglected genius'? Presumably one of those countless moderate or eccentric talents who deserved a better roll of the dice but who is never going to be more than a footnote in musical history? And even if I should come to share my enthusiast's point of view, isn't life too short to add such a quantity of must-know music to the in-tray? And if those are my hypothetical reactions - as a supposed specialist in the field - what can I expect when I'm the one trying to do the persuading? Well, if you are reading this essay, I suppose I can at least count on your curiosity.more from David Fanning at Sign and Sight here.
July 27, 2010
One State/Two States: Rethinking Israel and PalestineDanny Rubinstein in Dissent:
Against the background of Barack Obama’s attempt to defend the idea of “two states for two peoples” in Israel/Palestine, consider a recent talk given by the Palestinian Sufian Abu-Zayda. Abu-Zayda is fifty years old. He was born in the Jabalya refugee camp in northern Gaza, the largest of the Palestinian camps, and he is considered the Palestinian spokesman most fluent in Hebrew, which he learned during the fourteen years that he spent in an Israeli prison on charges of participating in terrorist activities. After his release in 1993, he was one of the senior Fatah leaders in Gaza and was appointed to various positions in the Palestinian government. Among other activities he has been active in the Israeli-Palestinian Geneva Initiative, in which moderates from both sides argue that it is possible to find a just two-state solution.
It was quite surprising, therefore, that Abu-Zayda, in his talk to an Israeli audience, announced that he had changed his mind. Like other Palestinians who spoke to the Israeli media over the last months, he was responding to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at Bar Ilan University—itself a response of sorts to President Obama’s June 2009 speech at the University of Cairo. With some drama, Netanyahu had agreed that a Palestinian state should be established in territory of the Land of Israel to the west of the Jordan River. This was a significant change for Netanyahu, whose roots are in the nationalist movement that has given up its earlier slogan—“There are two banks to the Jordan, this one is ours, and so is that one”—but that still demands Israeli rule in the “Greater” Land of Israel west of the Jordan. Commentators talked of a “fissure” on the Israeli Right; it was widely believed that as long as Ben Zion Netanyahu is still alive, his son wouldn’t dare rebel against the nationalist traditions of the family.
But what might have seemed unbelievable a short time ago has become a reality. Netanyahu, at the head of the nationalist, right-wing government with members like Benny Begin (son of Menachem Begin) who have consistently rejected all concessions, has accepted the idea of a Palestinian state.
In his talk at Tel Aviv University, Abu-Zayda responded to what the prime minister had said: “Many thanks to Benjamin Netanyahu. After twenty years of the peace process [since the Madrid Conference in 1991], and after the mutual recognition of Israel and the PLO [in the Oslo Accords], he finally agrees to a Palestinian state.” There was irony in his voice as he continued, “Do you think you are doing us a favor when you agree to two states? No favor at all. From my side, from the Palestinians’ side—let there be one state, not two.... I was introduced to you as Sufian Abu-Zayda from the Jabalya camp, but I’m not from Jabalya. I might have been born there, but my family had been exiled in 1948 from a village named “Breer,” where Kibbutz Bror Hayill now stands, near the Gaza border. If there will be one state, I’ll be happy to rent or buy a house near the kibbutz and live there.” And then Abu-Zayda said in a loud voice, “You are doing yourselves a favor by establishing two states, not us.”
He isn’t alone in his opinion.
Slowed Food RevolutionHeather Rogers in The American Prospect:
Morse Pitts has been cultivating the same land in New York's Hudson Valley for 30 years. His operation, Windfall Farms, is the very picture of local, sustainable agriculture. From early spring to late fall, the farm's 15 acres are luxuriant with snap peas, squash, mint, kale, and Swiss chard. Its greenhouses burst with sun gold tomatoes and an array of baby greens. Pitts, who is in his 50s and is tall with gray hair, doesn't use chemical fertilizers or pesticides or any genetically modified seeds. He cultivates biodiversity, not just vegetables.
Twice a week, he hauls his produce 65 miles south to Manhattan to sell at the lucrative Union Square farmers market. His converted school bus runs on biodiesel he makes from used vegetable oil, which he is also trying to use to power his greenhouses. Pitts does a brisk trade; demand for his produce is high, and the way he farms is increasingly valued. Since the mid-1990s the number of farmers markets has shot up 300 percent, and the organic sector has seen annual double-digit expansion.
But despite having no mortgage debt (he inherited the place), a ready market, and loyal customers, Pitts wants to leave his farm. His town recently rezoned the area as industrial, and if he wants to cultivate soil that's not surrounded by industry and its attendant potential for water and air pollution, he has to move. The problem is, he can't afford to.
Aside from the standard instability farmers must endure -- bad weather, pests, disease, and the vagaries of the market -- holistic and organic growers face great but often overlooked economic hardship. They must shoulder far higher production costs than their conventional counterparts when it comes to everything from laborers to land. Without meaningful support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, their longevity hangs in the balance. In the meantime, the USDA showers billions on industrial agriculture. Growers who've gone the chemical, mechanized route have ready access to reasonable loans, direct subsidy payments to get through tough years, and crop insurance, plus robust research, marketing, and distribution resources. Whether organic and holistic growers raise crops, like Pitts does, or grass-fed, free-range livestock, they must contend with circumstances made harder by a USDA rigged to favor industrial agriculture and factory food.
Clear and HoldCasey Walker reviews Roberta Brandes Gratz's The Battle for Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, in the Boston Review:
For half a century, rich men have talked about building a stadium at the tangled intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues in Brooklyn. Walter O’Malley hoped to construct a stadium for his Brooklyn Dodgers there, but Robert Moses—New York’s “master builder,” the bureaucrat through whom nearly all of the city’s major projects ran—refused to play nice. O’Malley took his ball and went home; the Dodgers decamped for Los Angeles in 1958.
But last March a new stadium project broke ground at Flatbush and Atlantic, where I live, and it promises to bring Brooklyn its first major sports franchise since the Dodgers’ departure—the NBA’s New Jersey Nets. In the 50 years since O’Malley’s stadium was thwarted, much has changed in the head-butting politics of American city building—and much has not.
Walk down Atlantic Avenue from Flatbush as I often do—carefully, because panel vans and car services menace pedestrians from all sides—and you will be in the footprint of the projected arena, the Barclays Center, anchor of the 22-acre Atlantic Yards project. Atlantic Yards is a familiar urban story: surrounding neighborhoods are braced for upheaval; architects have come and gone; redesigns have been announced, lambasted, tweaked, disowned; lawsuits multiply like kudzu; millions of dollars are all but blowing through the air; and the likely date of actual completion is anyone’s guess (Forest City Ratner, the developer, contends the Barclays Center will be finished by 2011, but the Web site does not give a timetable for the rest of the project).
Though I have closely followed the Atlantic Yards scuffle for years, I barely know what the project is anymore, what it will look like, or what it will contain. My guess is you would find city officials who are similarly unsure.
The Culture of SexJessa Crispin reviews Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, in The Smart Set:
I largely agree with the thesis that we have built our relationships around ideas that are actually toxic — that lifelong monogamy is not only an achievable goal but the absolute ideal, that infidelity must be met with swift divorce or else you are a doormat, that deviation from this template means there is something wrong with you. Yet while reading Sex at Dawn I was angry, frustrated, and bored, not to mention bewildered that grown adults striving to be taken seriously would write in a never ending torrent of puns — the names of the chapters alone (from “Who’s Your Daddies?” to “Mommies Dearest”) are a table of contents of horrors. Their simplistic ideas, their denial of the dark side of sexuality, seemed no better than my junior high belief in the brutal force of male sexuality. The truth lies somewhere between “men oppress women with their uncontrollable needs” and “women oppress men with their socially constructed monogamous love.”
Ryan and Jethá are not just writing a book of anthropology — they want to change modern marriage. They are not researchers, but a psychologist and a psychiatrist, respectively. Their idea of real world application, then, will say a lot about the book as a whole, as it reveals their agenda. Men need sex. Lots of it. With lots of different women. And this final chapter of the book tilts the balance heavily. Young men, newly charged with hormones, need sex in order to keep from becoming violent. As an example, they mention a society in which a special house is established so adolescent boys and girls can engage in sex freely. (Never mind the studies that report that early sexualization of girls is harmful to them, such as Harold Leitenberg’s study that showed the younger girls started having sex, the more likely they were to engage in drug and alcohol use and suffer from depression. Ryan and Jethá don’t mention those.) And for women who are not comfortable with the idea of allowing their husbands to fool around on the side, the authors have some guilt for them:
Monogamy itself seems to drain away a man’s testosterone... Researchers have found that men with lower levels of testosterone are more than four times as likely to suffer from clinical depression, fatal heart attacks, and cancer when compared to other men their age with higher testosterone levels.
They continue, “We know that many female readers aren’t going to be happy reading this, and some will be enraged by it, but for most men, sexual monogamy leads inexorably to monotony.” And death, apparently. Despite their evidence that women’s orgasms and sexual needs are fulfilled by multiple partners, one after the other, there is no corresponding “Men aren’t going to like hearing this, but your wives are going to need to bang the entire German World Cup team — this is what she needs it to be fully orgasmic.”
A Man Outside: John A Hall's Biography of Ernest GellnerScott McLemee in The National:
It is easy to imagine why Ernest Gellner would be one of the universally known figures in Anglophone intellectual life. A polymath whose work ranged across anthropology, history, philosophy, and sociology, his mind wrestled with an encyclopedia’s worth of nagging questions about nationalism, modernity, civil society, imperialism, Islam, psychoanalysis, ethics and epistemology. “I am not a donkey,” he liked to say, borrowing a line from Max Weber, “and I don’t have a field.”
He wrote clearly and trenchantly, with brio and dry wit. Clearly these were not among the qualities that had rubbed off on him from Weber (let alone from Immanuel Kant, another of the master-thinkers defining the horizons of his work). By my count, roughly half of Gellner’s almost two dozen books are collections of essays – a wry running commentary on half a century of public intellectual life following the Second World War: existentialism, structuralism, the thaws and re-freezings of the Soviet bloc, and the varieties of dissident enthusiasm in the West… These pieces revisit the themes and preoccupations of his monographic works, and retain their vitality, well after the original polemical targets have been forgotten.
All of this, to repeat, should explain Gellner’s monumental prominence – except for the fact that he has no such prominence. There are Foucauldians aplenty and Rortyans by the score – and even the occasional stray Marcusean, tending the flame. But of Gellnerians, there is scarcely a trace. Not that Gellner has been completely forgotten. His work remains central to debates on the nature of nationalism. But only with John Hall’s intellectual biography do we have a suitable treatment of Gellner’s work as a whole, seen on its own very large scale.
Khaled: The King Of Rai
Banning Eyre at NPR:
He was born Khaled Hadj Brahim in 1960 in the Mediterranean port city of Oran — or "Crazyville," as he once called it. Oran marks an intersection of cultures, a place where Spanish, Moroccan, French, Arabic, American, Berber, Jewish and gypsy ideas and idioms collided. Khaled came of age during the lull between two bloody conflicts: the 1950s war that freed Algeria from French colonialism; and the religiously fueled civil war of the 1990s. In a land torn apart by intolerance and violence, Khaled stood out as an artist who embraced openness and peace.
Khaled was also a bad boy, a playboy and a partier, even rejecting the polite traditions of Algeria's poetry. When a traditional Oranese poet wants to describe love, Khaled once explained to me, the poet will speak in metaphor — for example, about a pigeon. Khaled says he prefers to take a different approach.
"When I sing rai," Khaled said, "I talk about things directly: I drink alcohol, I love a woman, I am suffering. I speak to the point."
Ecology: A world without mosquitoes
Every day, Jittawadee Murphy unlocks a hot, padlocked room at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Maryland, to a swarm of malaria-carrying mosquitoes (Anopheles stephensi). She gives millions of larvae a diet of ground-up fish food, and offers the gravid females blood to suck from the bellies of unconscious mice — they drain 24 of the rodents a month. Murphy has been studying mosquitoes for 20 years, working on ways to limit the spread of the parasites they carry. Still, she says, she would rather they were wiped off the Earth. That sentiment is widely shared. Malaria infects some 247 million people worldwide each year, and kills nearly one million. Mosquitoes cause a huge further medical and financial burden by spreading yellow fever, dengue fever, Japanese encephalitis, Rift Valley fever, Chikungunya virus and West Nile virus. Then there's the pest factor: they form swarms thick enough to asphyxiate caribou in Alaska and now, as their numbers reach a seasonal peak, their proboscises are plunged into human flesh across the Northern Hemisphere.
So what would happen if there were none? Would anyone or anything miss them? Nature put this question to scientists who explore aspects of mosquito biology and ecology, and unearthed some surprising answers.
Translating Stories of Life Forms Etched in Stone
Sean B. Carroll in The New York Times:
In 1909, Charles Walcott, a paleontologist and secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, discovered one of the greatest and most famous fossil troves high in the Canadian Rockies on Burgess Pass in British Columbia. The slabs of Burgess Shale that Walcott excavated contained the earliest known examples at the time of many major animal groups in the fossil record, in rocks that were about 505 million years old. Walcott’s discovery was further evidence of the so-called Cambrian Explosion — the apparently abrupt appearance of complex animals in the fossil record within the Cambrian Period, from about 542 to 490 million years ago. Although not seen before on the scale documented in the Burgess Shale, the emergence of trilobites and other animals in the Cambrian was familiar to paleontologists, and had troubled Charles Darwin a great deal.
The difficulty posed by the Cambrian Explosion was that in Darwin’s day (and for many years after), no fossils were known in the enormous, older rock formations below those of the Cambrian. This was an extremely unsettling fact for his theory of evolution because complex animals should have been preceded in the fossil record by simpler forms. In “On the Origin of Species,” Darwin posited that “during these vast, yet quite unknown, periods of time, the world swarmed with living creatures.” But he admitted candidly, “To the question why we do not find records of these vast primordial periods, I can give no satisfactory answer.”
A Jungle Tiananmen
It was several days after the deaths in Bagua, and we were in a tiny car flying down a washboard gravel road—some left-of-nowhere oil company throughway punched into the Peruvian Amazon—when the paramilitary cops flagged us down. Everybody in the back was asleep: Plinio leaning on Alcides, Alcides—snoring—leaning on me. I elbowed Plinio. There are three rules for reporting in the Amazon: 1) add two screwups to every plan; 2) there is no such thing as a “little problem”; and 3) you never—ever—go in without an Indian guide. Plinio was mine. He was wiping sleep from his eyes as the cop, in military pants tucked into black boots, approached the car, a machine gun over his soldier. I wanted to go home. “It is routine,” Plinio said. “It is the state of emergency. He’s checking our IDs. Just remember our story.” He meant to remember the lie we’d concocted: that my partner, Duncan, and I were making a documentary about the Amazon’s threatened biodiversity. In fact, we were there investigating the impact of Peru’s booming oil industry on the forest’s indigenous villages. Many people don’t realize that Peru controls most of the Amazon’s headwaters—a massive chunk of the rainforest second only to Brazil’s portion—or that Peru’s past two pro-business presidents have bet the ranch on the area’s oil-rich energy lodes.more from Kelly Hearn at VQR here.
the song that levels us
The memorable, artless clarity of the Happy Birthday song is the essence of its genius. So with all its deliberate simplicity, it’s funny that the Happy Birthday song is a little bit hard to sing. We’ve all experienced this. As the end of each phrase gets progressively higher, you are, average singer, taken outside your comfortable vocal range, so that by the time you get to the third “birthday” (and it’s the “birth” note that's the biggest problem) you’re practically in eunuch territory. Luckily, this high note happens quickly and only once so you can jump down from it safely and finish the song within the more gentle territory of the second line. (As opposed to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” for instance, a virtuoso song that nobody sings, a high-note holocaust which forces you to start really high from the get-go and keep singing higher and higher until you miraculously finish or implode.) We might think of this as the great flaw in "Happy Birthday to You." To be fair, though, the “birth” note is not a problem inherent in the song. It’s starting “Happy Birthday to You” in a key that is too high which spells disaster. But here’s the thing: Because the song is always sung spontaneously, by a random group with (usually) uneven musical abilities, the key is always too high. The distance between the lowest note in the Happy Birthday song and the highest is eight steps and they happen, in that third line, right next to each other. That’s a whole octave leap. I’ve guesstimated that .0001 percent of the world’s population can make this octave leap. And yet we all sing it, time and again, debasing ourselves. Why? Because it’s funny. Every time. If you have Pavarotti in your gang, it makes no difference. “Happy Birthday to You” makes the collective sound terrible and, in doing so, makes everyone laugh. I’ve decided that the octave leap, the most curious part of the Happy Birthday song, is its finest element. “Happy Birthday to You” is disarming. It levels us.more from Stefany Anne Golberg at The Smart Set here.
Perhaps the most unlikely hero to emerge from this summer’s World Cup was Paul the octopus, a lightly spotted invertebrate living in an aquatic center in Germany. Paul earned worldwide fame for successfully “predicting” the winner of eight out of eight soccer games, including the final match. Before each game, Paul’s keepers would place two food-filled boxes, each of which was decorated with one team’s national flag, in the creature’s tank. Whichever box Paul ate from first was considered to be his pick. The octopus nailed it all eight times. Though Paul’s success seems mainly to have been luck — evidence for psychic sports forecasting ability in octopuses is, well, somewhat lacking — if you were looking to consult a brainy animal, you could do worse than an octopus. Research is increasingly revealing that there’s something sophisticated going on inside the octopus’s soft and squishy head. The critters, it seems, are surprisingly smart.more from Emily Anthes at The Boston Globe here.
July 26, 2010
From An Old Book: An Old but Durable Commitment
by Michael Blim
A bag of books for two bucks, said the sign. Deflation has hit the little Connecticut country library used book sales I haunt each summer. Imagine what you can stuff into a big supermarket paper bag, and then cross-rough it with a run of terrific books – a book of Giotto’s frescoes, Graham Greene’s The Comedians, three P.D. James mysteries, George F. Kennan’s Russia and the West under Lenin and Stalin, a compilation of comic art propaganda that includes a study and pictures of Hansi: the Girl Who Loved the Swastika (the protagonist escapes Nazism by becoming a bride for Christ). All of these and A Guide to Thomas Aquinas.
All of these books bid for my affections, hoping for a quick conquest of my summer reading plans. Having laid hands on Robert Sherwood’s Hopkins and Roosevelt (1948) my fate was sealed. And fortunately for me, having spent as 3QD readers know the past two summers on first Hitler and then Stalin thanks to my library sales book buys.
What a delight to read the history of heroes once more. Sherwood tells the story of how Roosevelt and Hopkins, FDR’s alter ego insofar as he ever had one, battled the Great Depression and World War II together, with Hopkins the iron fist in Roosevelt’s velvet glove. The story is told with admiration and a beguiling humility. Though a successful playwright and a speechwriting White House denizen from 1940 onward, Sherwood never lost his awe of the two men, sharing intimate space and time with two persons who never shared their intimate thoughts with anyone.
Sherwood’s sense of wonder at what he observed is perhaps only exceeded by the reactions of a sympathetic reader. Hopkins, an Iowa-born New York social worker, put 4 million people to work in one month during the dark winter of 1933-34 and got 180,000 public works projects up and running in four. He put millions more to work with the Works Progress Administration, and after 1937 with half a stomach and successions of near-death crises due to chronic metabolic diseases left over after his bout with cancer, ran the Lend-Lease program that put ships, planes, tanks, and arms in the hands of a half a dozen of America’s allies in World War II and acted as FDR’s confidential agent with Churchill, Stalin, and their military and diplomatic staffs.
For all that Roosevelt did in his three and a half terms as President, he also left us the world blueprint of international organizations including the United Nations by which we still operate today. He was a man of indomitable spirit whose convictions were simple and unwavering, even as his means to accomplish them were shifting and often devious. In a world ruled by “policy” and polling where White Houses execute about-faces after bad overnight numbers, Roosevelt believed that society must help and support its citizens, and the state in no uncertain terms was charged by the people to carry out society’s will.
Sherwood cites a passage from a remarkable speech Roosevelt as Governor of New York gave to an extraordinary session of the state legislature on August 21, 1931. I quote it at length because of its germinal significance for the political beliefs of Roosevelt the man, before he became Roosevelt the president:
“What is the State? It is the duly constituted representative of an organized society of human beings, created by them for their mutual protection and well-being. ‘The State’ and ‘The government’ is but the machinery through which such mutual aid and protection are achieved. The cave man fought for existence unaided or even opposed by his fellow man, but today the humblest citizen of our State stands protected by all the power and strength of his Government. … The duty of the State toward the citizens is the duty of the servant to his master. … One of these duties of the State is that of caring for those of its citizens who find themselves the victims of such adverse circumstance as makes them unable to obtain even the necessities for mere existence without the aid of others. … To these unfortunate citizens aid must be extended by Government, not as a matter of charity, but as a matter of social duty.” (Sherwood, 1948, 31)
Roosevelt’s beliefs seem almost embarrassingly simple. The state serves the greater social purpose of protecting and supporting all of its citizens, but most especially those in need. Full stop.
For reasons that continue to be perplexing and profoundly enraging, neither the Administration nor the Democratic Party in Congress seems capable of upholding this one basic proposition under which they were rewarded with power in the first place.
Now they are faced once again with the imperative to act. They need to assure that the rich pay marginally more taxes again, while those less fortunate do not. The so-called Bush tax cuts are due to expire. Study after study has shown that the rich garnered the lion’s share of the tax savings from the Bush tax cuts. An IRS study reported by Floyd Norris in The New York Times (July 24, 2010) shows that the over 300,000 taxpayers reporting incomes of one million dollars or more recouped 13% of the nation’s 2008 reported income, indeed a drop from 16% in 2007, but still higher than their share in 2004.
For the nation’s rich, this is no great cause for alarm. As a frequent reader of Robert Frank’s Wall Street Journal’s blog on the wealthy, I have not detected symptoms of great distress. No network news shows feature stories of the rich becoming the newly indigent. Luxury goods makers, after having taken a severe hit in the winter of 2008-2009, are making lots of money again thanks to increased demand.
Even if the rich were suffering, how many others less fortunate than they have suffered too? Even if a case were made to not take in new funds with higher taxes in order to support a fragile economic recovery, how could this money not be given to the truly needy? It is not a matter of charity, as FDR noted in 1931, but a social duty.
The campaign to sustain tax breaks for the rich is not question of economics good or bad, but another battle in the war of the rich and the right on the Rooseveltian state, the most fundamental guarantee upon which the Democratic Party – even after the betrayals since the late seventies – is still based. As Oregon Senator Ron Wyden put it in The New York Times (July 25, 2010): The political clash over the Bush tax cuts “is code for the role of government, the debate over the size of government and the priorities of the nation.”
Democratic and White House desertion in the defense of this bedrock principle upon which their historic legacy is founded and upon which their future legitimacy depends will rend asunder their majorities and any prospect of effective governance.
They had best take a stand – and win.
Moral Questions in the Ancient Art of Human Enhancement (Now With Venn Diagrams)
I've been named an "Affiliate Scholar" at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, so I thought I'd think about where I fit in the Humanist/Transhumanist matrix. Then I thought I'd draw a Venn diagram or two.
Somewhere along the line we've developed the habit of announcing that, thanks to new technology, we're forever on the verge of revolutionizing what it means to be human. Maybe it came in with the Industrial Revolution and our parallel discovery of modern medical science. Whatever the source, consider this 1933 quote from British engineer Allan Young, in his book Forward From Chaos. As Jo-Anne Pemberton noted in her book Global Metaphors, Young heralded the dawn of what he called the 'Electric-Machine-Power Age' as follows:
"The advent of radio art has provided a revolutionary change in the method and rate of thought dissemination. The human voice is now able to encircle the globe in the twinkling of an eye ... It is thus possible for me to project my thoughts instantly into the mind of someone living on the opposite side of the planet ..."
To which the modern mind can only add, "Really? From radio?" If he were alive today, Allan Young would probably be a Transhumanist like most of my friends at the IEET. In 1933, as in the decades before and since, people have been announcing that technology is about to radically alter the scope, power, and nature of human existence.
"The evolution of the radio machine ... seems to be one of the very biggest happenings in our civilization ... I stresss the importance of the great acceleration we are now witnessing in the whole process of translating thought into action ..."
And the funny thing is, then it actually does. Humanity was transformed by radio - and by what Young called "the aeroplane." By the time these transformations became ubiquitious, however, they had also become ordinary - even boring. The truth is that we've been transforming our minds and our bodies for generations. Take life extension, a favorite topic for Transhumanists: Life expectancy increased from 18 years in the Bronze Age to 25 years in Colonial America (although infant mortality affected the numbers significantly), and it approaches 80 years in that country today. Medicine and public health lowered infant mortality in
Somebody already engineered the human lifespan - but they did it with the (often unequal) distribution of resources like food, shelter, disease and accident prevention, and medical care.
Blogger Dale Carrico calls IEET a "robot cult outfit," presumably for its support of Transhumanism and its interest in topics such as life extension and human/machine interfaces. But Allan Young became a human/machine hybrid when he picked up a radio microphone, just as his ancestor did when he picked up a club or an axe. The most common mistake made by both Transhumanists and their opponents is to present the divide between them as black and white or binary. Except for the most extreme deep ecologists and "off the grid" types, almost everyone involved in the debate over the human future accepts some degree of technological intervention over human destiny, whether its vaccines, antibiotics, or eyeglasses. It's only when we get to radical life extension or uploading brains into computers (if that's possible) that things get iffy for some folks.
Carrico's characterization of IEET as "white guys of the future" is a little unfair, given the presence of women and at least one person of color there, but he has the beginnings of a point anyway. There are an awful lot of white males involved in this discussion, including me and (presumably) Carrico. That's probably a cultural artifact, but it needs to change. My own interests include the impact of new human technologies of black, brown, poor, and Third World people (see "Mesothelioma As Metaphor" for an example), and the participation of a more diverse group is necessary to deepen my understanding of the issues. But the discussion has to start somewhere, and this white-guy-dominated group seems like a reasonable place to start talking.
I had a dinner conversation with Natasha Vita-More, a leading Transhumanist, when I gave a presentation at an IEET seminar last year. I told her that I wasn't a Transhumanist but that, since I didn't understand the label or see the point of it, I couldn't be a non-Transhumanist either. "What will you do in the future?" she asked. My answer was: "Whatever seems like the next right thing at the time, I guess." Which is where the Venn diagram comes in ...
Most people essentially divide human enhancement, past and present, into two categories. They do this whether they realize that they're doing it or not. These categories are "good" and "bad." Most people consider pacemakers a "good" enhancement, for example, while some would consider extreme plastic surgery a "bad" enhancement. I would add a third category of enhancement: "inevitable." That results in a Venn diagram that looks like this:
Some enhancements will be "inevitable," whether or not they're seen as good or bad. For example, future enhancements in cosmetic surgery and sexual performance improvement are unavoidable. The fact that one may consider them positive or negative additions to the human experience will not slow down the economic and cultural forces that are making them inevitable. So the social debate that should be underway today - but isn't - should involve working toward commonly accepted definitions of which are "good" and "bad" enhancements, and should include creating policies that anticipate the impact of the ones that are inevitable.
It should be noted, by the way, that some of the enhancements we label as "bad" today will be ones we think very differently about in the future. If someone had asked me thirty years ago to categorize PDAs, laptops, emails, and other technologies that bind you to your work life 24 hours a day, I would have absolutely considered them negative. Jacques Attali wrote in the 1980s of "global nomads" chained to their professions by laptop computers wherever they go, and I was appropriately horrified. Yet without my iPhone, I become restless and uneasy. Yesterday's "bad enhancement" is today's necessity ... and tomorrow's addiction.
Here's one more Venn diagram:
Consider cell phones: They were once an elitist technology, available only to the wealthy, but lower production costs have made them an egalitarian tool available to many Third World people. They've also become the source material for a new category of craftsman/entrepreneur, as I saw firsthand when I went to Africa several years ago:
Cell phones have become an "egalitarian" technology. This was predictable, because this type of technology becomes less expensive over time. Other forms of tech are less likely to become more affordable as time passes, uses for economic and political reasons rather than technical ones. (Pharmaceuticals come to mind, as well as technologies based on closely-held natural resources.) Some of the technologies in each category, both egalitarian (low-cost) and elitist (high-cost), will be socially controlled - through public insurance programs or national regulations, for example. I would argue that one role for public debate is to encourage research into potentially egalitarian technologies, while ensuring there is an adequate social framework for distributing those whose unavailability would lead to increased inequity and social injustice. Libertarians would no doubt vehemently disagree, arguing that government shouldn't socially control any technologies ... that is, until the subject of terrorists with nukes comes up.
These two Venn diagrams represent my first crude attempt to frame a context for discussing the impact of human enhancement technologies on people at all economic and social levels. They're not much, but they're a start. And if you give me a radio, I'll be able to project them instantly into the thoughts someone on the other side of the globe. Allan Young would be proud.
[i] Mabel C. Buer, Health, Wealth and Population in the Early Days of the Industrial Revolution,
[ii] World Health Organization (WHO) survey, 2008
perceptions: more on KarachiInspired by Abbas, I am sharing some of my photos of Karachi from this spring. (There are countless more!)
Buses at dusk.
Off Korangi Road.
Near Sea-view, Clifton.
Kavvay anticipating sunset.
Sunset at Clifton.
Power Walk. Park on the way to Golf Club.
Maneuvering through traffic.
Sughra Raza.February, March 2010. Karachi, Pakistan.