Monday, January 31, 2011
The use and misuse of Srinivasa Ramanujan
by Hartosh Singh Bal
Over the past month there have been two separate reasons to return to the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan. The first was the result of an astounding piece of mathematics by Ken Ono and his colleagues on the theory of partitions, bringing to a conclusion some of Ramanujan’s most interesting work in number theory. The second was thanks to Patrick French’s recent book – India, a portrait – which ends with a short two page biography of Ramanujan. The first Ramanujan is of course the Ramanujan who should matter, the mathematician, the second is unfortunately the Ramanujan who has come to occupy public memory, the metaphor.
It is not clear what French’s Ramanujan stands for in a chapter that seeks to explain the specifics of individual, social and organizational behavior on the basis of particular Indian traits such as religion or caste, but given the title of the chapter – Only in India – it does seem that French believes there was something particularly Indian about Ramanujan’s story.
This belief is not unique to French and has only been compounded by Ramanujan’s own description of the Goddess of Namagiri as the source of his inspiration. The result is that Ramanujan has come to embody certain romantic notion of eastern or more specifically Indian thought. Even those who want to allude to Ramanujan the mathematician do so in such terms. Paul Hoffman, in an otherwise entertaining book on the Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos – The Man who Loved Only Numbers – writes, "While Hardy and Ramanujan’s partnership lasted, the two men stood the world of pure mathematics on its head. It was East meets West, mysticism meets formality, and the combination was unstoppable."
Ramanujan’s otherwise excellent biographer Robert Kanigel devotes the entire first chapter of the book – The Man who Knew Infinity – to Ramanujan’s religious and social upbringing. However important this may have been to Ramanujan the man, the claim that it is central to Ramanujan the mathematician does not stand up to scrutiny. Ramanujan did not learn his mathematics in a temple. By the time he went to school only a few of the traditional Vedic schools still functioned. They had been largely replaced by schools teaching a curriculum based on European science.
In his 1894 book, The History of Education in the Madras Presidency (the region in the South of India where Ramanujan grew up was a separate administrative unit of British India), S. Satthianadhan quotes an 1822 description by a Collector of Bellary, A.D. Campbell, of the mathematical education that used to be handed out at in these traditional schools in the South of India, `` He (a student) then commits to memory an addition table and counts from one to one hundred ; he afterwards writes easy sums in addition and subtraction of money, multiplication and the reduction of money, measure, etc. Here great pains are taken with the scholar in teaching him the fractions of an integer which descend, not by tens as in our decimal fractions, but by fours, and are carried to a great extent. In order that these fractions together with the arithmetical tables in addition, multiplication, and the three fold measures of capacity, weight, may be rendered quite familiar to the minds of the scholars, they are made to stand up twice a day in rows, and repeat the whole after one of the monitors.’’
Taught in this manner if Ramanujan had survived to become a mathematician, he would have had to rediscover all of mathematics. Thankfully he was saved this fate, for one that was only slightly better. After the British Governor General in India, William Bentinck, decided against the traditional Indian school system in 1835, a new school system was instituted in the Madras Presidency in 1854. Sattianadhan’s book describes the ensuing curriculum for the first four standards, the same curriculum that is likely to have been followed in Ramanujan’s times:
I —Notation to thousands, easy addition, and the multiplication table to five times five. English is to be used in all cases.
II —Subtraction, multiplication, and division. The multiplication table to twelve times twelve.
III—Compound rules and reduction, with the ordinary weight, measure and money tables.
IV—Moderately easy practical questions in vulgar fractions and simple proportion.
Clearly what Ramanujan learnt in school did not differ much from what is taught today. The difference lay in the fact that Ramanujan’s obvious mathematical abilities did not come in for the notice they would have attracted at any other time or place. In his biography of Ramanujan Robert Kanigel describes that by the time he was eleven ``his classmates were coming to him for help’’, a year later he was ``challenging his teachers’’ and by the time he was thirteen her had mastered S.L. Loney’s Trignometry, an English text that some select Indian students encounter even today, but only at the age of sixteen or so.
The reason for neglecting such ability was simple. The system schooling Ramanujan was not designed to detect or produce men of outstanding talent. Satthianadhan writes, ``The Despatch of 1854 marks an era in the history of education in the Madras Presidency. It has been of 1854 called the Magna Charta of English education in India. "We have always looked upon the encouragement of education," say the Court of Directors, " as peculiarly important, because calculated not only to promote a higher degree of intellectual fitness, but to raise the moral character of those who partake of its advantages, and so to supply you (Government of India) with servants to whose probity you may with increased confidence commit offices of trust.’’
In Europe at any point after the Renaissance a student of Ramnujan’s genius would have found a mentor. In British India he was allowed to proceed in much the ordinary fashion. His talent actually became a hindrance. Even when he went to Government College, Kumbakonam in 1904 at the age of 17, he had to drop out a year later after failing English Composition. He resumed his degree at Pachaiyappa’s College but failed the Physiology examination and was forced to opt out of college for good in 1907. In 1910 he found a job as a clerk before G.H. Hardy rescued him from oblivion in 1913.
Contrast this with the career of the two great mathematicians he is often compared to, Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi and Leonhard Euler, both marked by a similar ability to reveal formulas of great depth and beauty. Euler was born in Switzerland in 1706. As a student in the University of Basle he drew the attention of another great mathematician Johannes Bernoulli who persuaded Euler’s father to let him study mathematics. The Bernoulli connection later helped Euler obtain a position in St Petersburg when he was barely 20 and at the age of 26 he took up the leading mathematical position in the Academy. Jacobi born in 1804 was the son of a banker, in 1821 he headed to the University of Berlin. After completing his PhD in 1825 he became a lecturer at the age of 21. Euler and Jacobi were no exceptions, if you compare Ramanujan’s background with that of any other great mathematician of the last 500 years, it is clear that none faced similar intellectual and economic handicaps.
Bereft of the knowledge of what was happening in the world of mathematics and cut off from the company of the kind of mathematicians who would have realized his talent Ramanujan was in effect the equivalent of a brilliant (and that is a complete understatement) high school student in his grasp of mathematical rigor. This was compounded by the fact that he was subsequently shaped by E.H. Carr’s Synopsis of Elementary Results in Pure and Applied Mathematics. It was a book probably handed down to him by college students lodging in his house. A book that is typical of a system meant to train student for examinations, with no proofs for the results it cited. In Europe a boy of his obvious ability would have been asked at the very least to read Gauss’ Disquisitiones Arithmeticae, and would have had a chance to directly engage with the work of several of the great mathematicians of the 19th century.
It was only the genius of Ramanujan that could transmute the handicaps of colonialism into a triumph. Perhaps an equivalent story is one from the Mahabharata, where a tribal boy Eklavya, brought up in an isolated forest far from the capital where the art of archery was taught by the great teacher Drona, set up a bust of Drona and practiced his art with such talent and avidity that he soon outshone the best of Drona’s pupils.
Egged on by his envious students Drona asked for Eklavya’s thumb as his `fee’ for the instruction in archery. The parallel may not be precise but even so it is not difficult to think of the lack of rigor in Ramanujan’s work as a price extracted for allowing him a glimpse into the world of modern mathematics. It can only be a surmise that born a hundred years later in India Ramanujan may well have been the greatest mathematician of the modern era. But the claim rests not on his being a Tamil Brahmin or an Indian but on his being Ramanujan.
Hardy himself had once noted, `` He would probably have been a greater mathematician if he could have been caught and tamed a little in his youth. On the other hand he would have been less of a Ramanujan, and more of a European professor, and the loss might have been greater than the gain….’’
The qualifier is in keeping with the romanticism that surrounds Ramanujan. It fits in far too comfortably with notions of the mystic East and the rational West, a comparison that has always worked to the advantage of one side. Ramanujan himself would have not chosen the course of life that was inflicted on him, as his attempts to find recognition show. It is no wonder that more than a decade later Hardy was to term his own observation `ridiculous sentimentalism’.
Left to fend for himself at sixteen by Carr, Ramanujan turned his compulsion into a virtue, arriving at mathematical truth through a process of heuristic reasoning all his own. Imagine what he could have done if Gauss, Euler and Jacobi had been his guides.
Quaeries #6: Doctor Smith His Demise
Justin E. H. Smith
Do you know what I've been doing, Isaac? I've been reading about comic sections. Do you know what those are? They are the Curves produced by the Intersection of a Conus by a Plane. Now look here, Isaac. There are not only Circles and Ellipses so form'd, but e'en edifying Parabolae and whimsical Hyperbolae. Some are most comical indeed!
What's that, Isaac? You say it's 'conic' sections about which the immortal Euclid held forth, and not 'comic' sections?
Now, Isaac, did you see a Signe hanging o'er the Door of my den, warning "Let no one enter here who is ignorant of Mathematics?" You didn't? Well that's why you're allowed in, you Orang-Outang! You are here to tighten my ankle-Clamp, not to out-do the great Roberval.
Now, to our Quaeries.
Firstly, for some period, o'er a decade of Years ago now, we repeatedly heard that jubilant Declaration: Whoomp, there it is! What was discover'd at that time, precisely? A great Treasure of Portuguese Bullion? El Dorado? Verulam's Fountain of Youth? In what barbaric Tongue, furthermore, does whoomp translate the wise Archimede's elegant exclamation, εὕρηκα? Wherefore, finally, did the Jubilation cease so suddenly? Was this Discovery at length only a Fata Morgana?
Whence, moreover, all this talk of 'Wikileaks'? Wiki, we suppose, is of the same Lingua Hottentotica as whoomp, but what is leaking 'round here besides my woe-ridden joints? Information, you say? First of all, Isaac, you know not to interrupt me once I've begun. But more importantly how could 'Information' be a-leaking and a-flowing when we are unable to receive so much as a single sensible Reply to our Quaeries?
It is said that the dux of what is left of Rome, a certain Berlusconus, is known for taking pleasure in what is call'd the 'Bunga-Bunga'. Now evidently this is a sort of ars amatoria imported from those same Hottentotical regions that have given us wiki and whoomp. But we wish to know who would feign prohibit the very Ruler of Rome, who is no reckless youth like Heliogabalus, but a man of years and stature, from going in for such Delectations? What common plebs dares tell this Caesar not to indulge his Desires, yea, e'en when the foremost among them is to cavort upon the Bed of Waldemir Poutine?
And whence comes it that this Poutine, Ruler of all Muscovy, most of foul Tartary, and assorted Borderlands, should lend his very Name to a Dish of Earth-Apples, Cheese-Curde, and Browne-Sauce, otherwise belovèd onely of the Forest-Dwellers of New France?
O to the Devil with these senseless Quaeries! As if this had any-thing to do with Lord Bacon's Project for the Advancement of Learning. I've had quite enough. Let's look at more of those comical sections. But bring the good ones. The ones with Eccentricity.
Isaac, I'm sorry. I've been so irrascible of late. So controll'd by the Passions. Not the womanly Passions (ut de passionibus virium taceam!), but the Passions of a Childe. I move from puerile Delight to the greatest Mournfulnesse as if for no Reason at all. I cannot work. I cannot ratiocinate. Nay, Isaac, 'tis clear. I am not long for this World.
Tell me, though, do you think they'll print a Notice of my Death in the Transactions of the Society? Or will Squibb, that old Booby, seek to prevent it on these grounds alone, that I compar'd his Wife to the Bahama Mer-Cow lately dissected at Gresham's Caffè-House? I meant it in the mythological sense, I did! You know, the Sirens, &c. 'Tis not my fault if upon the very mention of Mrs. Squibb the old man thought onely of the Gutts and Blubber display'd on the dissecting Table.
No matter. What is a Memorial in a small Journal, whose pages will onely yellow and rot with the passing of cruel Time?
No Isaac, do you know the one Thing that might make this old senex happy for a moment? For you to massage my ankle. You know, just the way you do.
There now, yes. That's the way... O, quam dulce...
To be continu'd, God willing...
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Tunisia, Egypt, Uganda?
Historians are generally quick and correct to insist that we jump to easy political analogies at our peril. One of the first lessons of historiography is that grand generalizations are more apt to flatter an author’s own sympathies than to capture a disinterested abstraction of events. Did Tunisia, Wikileaks, Facebook, or Twitter contribute to the Egyptian uprising? Possibly, but who would have the hubris to argue that any of these mattered more than local conditions: the rigged elections in December that gave the ruling National Democratic Party 93 percent of parliamentary seats, the bombings in Alexandria that left twenty-one Coptic Christians dead, the thirty years of daily personalized humiliation at the hands of a brutal police state.
And yet it seems possible to respect the importance of historical specificity while also acknowledging that popular energies can, and do, spread. Not for nothing is the rhetoric of revolution and counter-revolution shot through with the metaphors of fever, contagion, and conflagration. When yesterday’s unthinkable prospect becomes today’s historical fact, we are reminded that possibility can be more than a speculative concept. The events in Tunisia or Egypt make us feel political possibility, they make us experience it as an emotion, a passion no less infectious than anger or joy.
That feeling of possibility has already raised new questions for Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni, who celebrated 25 years of continuous rule last Wednesday and is widely expected to claim victory in the presidential elections scheduled for February 18. When the question of Tunisia’s relevance for Uganda was put to him directly, Museveni shocked no one by arguing that Uganda’s situation is entirely different than the one that led to the ouster of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali: “I would not want you to confuse longevity with performance...social conditions in Tunisia are different to those in Uganda which are improving.”
Others, of course, disagree. Andrew Mwenda and Charles Onyango-Obbo, two respected political commentators here, have both suggested that Museveni has already constructed the same kind of economic-demographic trap that brought down Ben Ali. They argue that too many educated youth, not enough jobs, and an environment of thoroughgoing corruption have set the stage for a revolutionary aggregate of dissatisfaction. In this week's Independent (not yet online) Mwenda notes that only 150,000 of the 400,000 Ugandans who graduate from tertiary educational institutions each year are likely to find jobs, and suggests that
these unemployed graduates are not going to sit around and passively watch the kinds of institutionalised corruption, incompetence, and nepotism that we see in Uganda. They will begin to question the existing political order.
Kizza Besigye, Museveni’s main challenger and the head of Inter Party Cooperation (IPC), a four-party opposition coalition, echoed the latter point in an interview with Reuters yesterday: “As long as there is repression that is sustained for a long time, that pent up anger builds and at some point explodes. The ground is certainly set for that kind of public expression.”
Whatever one expects for the aftermath of the elections, nobody in Uganda seriously doubts that Museveni will fail to claim victory. The president's National Resistance Movement (NRM) party has been credibly accused of bribing everyone from opposition politicians to religious leaders to the drivers of the motorcycle taxis known as boda-bodas. (Opposition parties have been accused of buying votes, but at nowhere near the levels of the NRM.) Election rigging by Museveni’s NRM is also widely expected. In 2009 the Ugandan Supreme Court found that there was “significant violation of the electoral system in all forms and manner” in both the 2001 and 2006 elections, and that “most of the violations and irregularities are perpetrated by and/or for the benefit of the incumbents in power.” And despite pressure from opposition parties and the U.S., Museveni has refused to appoint a non-partisan Electoral Commission to guarantee fair conduct of the election.
Of course, to say that Museveni won’t lose the upcoming election is not to say that he shouldn’t. He deserves much credit for rebuilding Uganda after the terror of Idi Amin’s eight-year regime and the less known but no less bloody second term of Milton Obote. The broad-based government that Museveni established in 1986 salvaged Uganda’s economy and preserved its unity at a time when, as Victoria Brittain put it, “there was no country in Africa closer to disintegration.”
But while Museveni has probably done less bad and more good for Uganda than Ben Ali or Hosni Mubarak did for their respective countries, the list of grievances against him and his National Resistance Movement continues to grow by the year. Corruption is the most common complaint and affects Ugandans at every level of society. (Uganda ranked 130th out of 180 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index in 2009.) A long military campaign against the Lord’s Resistance Army in the north of the country led to the forced internment of 1.8 million Ugandans in internal displacement camps whose conditions have been described by some as nearly genocidal.
And while press, political, and civil restrictions in Uganda are nowhere near the police-state levels of Tunisia and Egypt, neither are they minor. Opposition journalists critical of the president have been regularly hauled into court on sedition charges, and a 2009 U.S. embassy cable published by Wikileaks cited “numerous, credible allegations of unlawful detention and torture by the Joint Ant-Terrorism Taskforce (JATT), the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI), the police’s Rapid Response Unit (RRU), and other para-military outfits.”
Like his North African colleagues Museveni has been able to maintain his autocracy with the help of extended American favor. He earned his reputation as a darling of the West when he adopted a series of strict neoliberal monetary policies in the late 1980s, but he proved even more important to U.S. interests as a regional military stalwart. The war against the LRA was in many ways a proxy war with Sudan, and Mahmood Mamdani has argued that “Uganda was simply a frontline state in the [American] war on terror—that frontline being the border between Uganda and Sudan.” (The 2009 embassy cable echoed this judgment, calling Uganda “one of our primary partners in the fight against terrorism.”)
In later years that frontline would move to Somalia, where Uganda supplied more than half of the troops that constitute AMISOM, the African Union peacekeeping mission. AMISOM’s main enemy is the Shebaab, the al Qaeda-affiliated group that was responsible for the July 2010 bombings that killed 74 people in Kampala. Last fall Time quoted James Tumisiime, a Ugandan journalist, who plausibly suggested that “The U.S. is depending on Uganda to play a role in Somalia to rein in extremist forces, and in light of the attacks, the U.S. is probably beginning to think they're better off with a stable, functioning style of leadership in Uganda—someone who's not necessarily a democrat but a guy in control—rather than support change for democracy's sake.” (Uganda’s involvement in Somalia got more complicated recently after it was revealed that Museveni’s half brother was working with Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, to train a private mercenary force to fight the Shabaab without AU approval.)
If the cases of Tunisia and Egypt prove any general rule, it may be that the U.S. is no longer interested or able to protect its autocratic client states at any cost. The Ugandans I’ve spoken to have confessed themselves more resigned than angry at the thought of Museveni’s inevitable reelection, and the prospect of a country-wide popular uprising seems, for the moment, very unlikely. But as Steve Randy Waldman wrote on Twitter yesterday, “Egypt is eroding the inevitability of the status quo, there and everywhere.” Museveni has to be wondering whether and how the U.S. will respond if Besigye’s warning proves prescient and Ugandans decide they're ready for a change. He—and we—will know soon enough.
"Latenightcabdriving". Protests in Cairo. Jan 29, 2011.
Those who frequent cyberspace have likely seen this photo a dozen times by now but for us who don't :), this is the most powerful image I have found over the last 6 days of revolution in Egypt.
Abbas, I also like the version you have on Facebook, with the title "Walk Like an Egyptian".
More here for details.
Going to the Shire
On Sundays, Sylvia and I go to the Shire. As anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Tolkien’s world will tell you, the Shire is a happy place. It is a place of beginnings, homecomings, nostalgia and merrymaking. I loved the Shire, and I loved going there with Sylvia. There was a train station very close to our boarding school in South Wales, conveniently located for our Shire excursions. Every Sunday at noon we met at the train station to go to the Shire.
Now that I think about it, I met Sylvia because she introduced me to the Shire. At first, I thought it was a stupid euphemism but we grew into it. Gradually, it became a habit. I was new to the boarding school and she was a senior, two years older than me. Sixteen and Eighteen, we were struck with an underdeveloped pessimism unique to growing up. Sylvia was a girl of decadent tastes: cheap white wine, unfiltered cigarettes and fishing. The only times she tried to avoid these topics was when she was in the mood to impress boys with her feminine side but these little efforts were always doomed to fail. She could not stop talking about wine, cigarettes and fishing. How a Catalan girl had developed the habits of a truant Scot, I never found out. She never talked about herself. How I ended up being friends with her was something I knew even less about: something to do with Dostoevsky, the atman, salvia and short hair. It happened in a serenely fast rush like a tide coming in to cover my feet.
One Sunday, I was early. I recognized her coming from a distance. As she approached, she planted a noisy kiss on my cheek and flashed a wide smile. The two of us, foreigners in this vast countryside of Wales, trudged along the empty tracks and made our way to a forgotten bench, around fifteen minutes away from the station, hidden in unkempt bushes and facing the tracks. There she took out the ticket to the Shire from the front pocket of her fur coat. After warming it with her red lighter she sparked the tip and, hypnotized, watched it catch fire. We each took two puffs and kept passing. It wasn’t long before we were smiling stupidly as the cannabis set in. We were in the Shire and it was a very happy place.
It was a pleasantly chilly late afternoon. The sky had a slightly red tone to it and the clouds, timid, melted into strange shapes. It was 18 degrees Celsius. The wind was at 7 miles per hour, and the humidity was 79%. All in all, those were not a bad bunch of statistics for September around here, as Sylvia told me. She was obsessed with weather statistics. In front of us, about to start moving, was the train going to Cardiff, allowing the usual load of suited businessmen and hooded students to cram inside.
We sat there, alone. Like every Sunday. We had walked five miles to get here. To watch the trains rush past. It was a long wait and we knew no one was coming. We liked sitting there. Static, but restless, watching the people come and go. Being a student had deprived us of two valuable experiences: travelling and meeting people who were not our age. So, Sylvia would sit there, on that beige bench, flitting at the edge of these experiences and prying on the lives of those who enjoyed them. We envied them all. We had tried to join them by travelling to London once. But we hated it. Sylvia thought London was big and evil. The perpetual noise of police sirens troubled her. The gray evenings, the overcrowded and deadly silent tubes, the throngs of tourists; all this made her feel that the world was crumbling around her. She talked about communication revolutions and globalizing loneliness and the death of human senses. She talked of fast trains, lost in wildernesses and not caring, pacing towards unknown destinations. She talked of natural disasters, of paranoia.
That particular Sunday, Sylvia started talking about student life. Sylvia hated school. Not in the way that a pre-pubescent stubborn child would but in a restless way that made school stifling for her. She couldn’t fathom the world. She was occupied with all the big things happening outside our small boarding school stuck in the countryside of a place which had more sheep than people. You got caught up in trivialities: fighting, eating, working, sleeping, living. You forgot to think and see and talk. Everyday. That is everyday but Sundays. On Sundays, we went to the Shire. Just Sylvia and I.
We talked for a long time but, eventually, like every other time, the hour came to walk back. We roamed around the streets, trying to find our way back home, or maybe, more importantly, trying to find a home. One concrete stone after another. And the roads never seemed to end. No matter how fast we ran or how steadily we walked. We lost ourselves, trying to find our way back home, when all we really wanted to do, secretly, was to get more and more lost.
That Sunday was the last time I saw Sylvia. The next day she had left school before I woke up. Under their contorted and sombre faces everyone was happy that the lonely stoner had left the place. And I sat on that bench, the very same bench, the beige coloured one, which I thought suspiciously matched her fur coat; the coat that she will wrap around everything, from her dress shirts to her torn tights to the boxers she stole from her father’s cupboard. Confronting me sat, mockingly calm, the empty tracks she would stand on and pronounce her absurdly addictive gibberish which would have more lyrical resonance than many comprehensible poems. Why? Maybe her Catalan accent, the dramatic gesticulations, the stench of cheap tobacco, her weak smiles at my amazement or just her honesty. And she had left. Just like that. Like. That. She was not there to laugh her noisy laughs, to proclaim me stupid, to slap my shoulder, to pull back her light black unkempt hair away from her face.
I was left with nothing but thoughts. Thoughts upon thoughts like crushing waves: sudden memories, giddy breakthroughs, haunting regrets, bleak hopes. They tired me, endlessly. This time, there was no where to run. No country to abandon, no parents to hate, no siblings to forget, no lovers to hurt, no travels to be made. All that was tried and done. And now? Nothing but boredom. And more thoughts: Maybe she could have, at last, taught me how to make okra without making it mushy. Or she could have told me the perfect size of pineapple slice to put in a gin drink. Remember, she showed me the fastest way to roll a joint (you back roll it). And if she was still here, she would lie next to me and whisper history lessons in my ear because she knew they turned me on. We could have been perverted and ordinary together – imperfect, like a home, a shelter, an embrace.
For a long time after that I became horribly stuck. I had her letters, and her conversations. Her laughs and silences. I had her memories. Heaps and heaps of them. They nudged and poked inside my mind and sometimes they floated calmly making little circular waves. There was nothing to do and nowhere to go. Nobody went, nobody came. I was stuck in life and the excuses to stay happy were running out, one by one, everyday. I was stuck in life. Stuck in happiness. Forced smiles and salutations and acquaintances and passions.
That was when I started fleeing to the Shire everyday. Fleeing to the train station and sitting on that bench to watch them trains go by. One, two, three, four, maybe five, maybe ten but nobody came. They go around in circles, somebody told me. What a fucking joke, I thought. Like I didn’t know that.
Pakistan predictions 2009 and now...
In 2009, I took a road trip across the Northeastern United States and asked friends at every stop for their opinion on what was likely to happen next in Pakistan. The predictions I heard were gathered into the following article, which was published on Wichaar.com in April 2009. I am reproducing that article below, followed by a few words about how things look to me now, two years later.
I recently went on a road trip across the North-Eastern United States and at every stop, the Pakistanis I met were talking about the situation in Pakistan. As is usually the case, everyone seemed to have their own pet theory, but for a change ALL theories shared at least two characteristics: they were all pessimistic in the short term and none of them believed the “official version” of events. Since there seems to be no consensus about the matter, a friend suggested that I should summarize the main theories I heard and circulate that document, asking for comments. I hope your comments will clarify things even if this document does not. So here, in no particular order, are the theories.
1. Things fall apart: This theory holds that all the various chickens have finally come home to roost. The elite has robbed the country blind and provided neither governance nor sustenance and now the revolution is upon us: the jihadis have a plan and the will to enforce it and the government has neither. The jihadis have already captured FATA and most of Malakand (a good 20% of NWFP) and are inevitably going to march onwards to Punjab and Sindh. The army is incapable of fighting these people (and parts of it are actively in cahoots with the jihadis) and no other armed force can match these people. The public has been mentally prepared for Islamic rule by 62 years of Pakistani education and those who do resist will be labeled heretics and apostates and ruthlessly killed. The majority will go along in the interest of peace and security. America will throw more good money after bad, but in the end the Viceroy and her staff will be climbing rope ladders onto helicopters and those members of the elite who are not smart enough to get out in time will be hanging from the end of the ladder as the last chopper pulls away from the embassy. Those left behind will brush up their kalimas and shorten their shalwars and life will go on. The Taliban will run the country and all institutions will be cleansed and remodeled in their image.
2. Jihadi Army: The army is the army of Pakistan. Pakistan is an Islamic state. They know what to do. They will collect what they can from the Americans because we need some infidel technologies that we don’t have in our own hands yet, but one glorious day, we will purge the apostate officers and switch to full jihadi colors. The country will be ruled with an iron hand by some jihadi general, not by some mullah from FATA. All corrupt people will be shot. Many non-corrupt people will also be shot. Allah’s law will prevail in Allah’s land. And then we will deal with Afghanistan (large scale massacre of all apostates to be held in the stadium), India, Iran and the rest of the world in that order.
3. Controlled burn: This theory holds that there is no chance of any collapse or jihadi takeover. What we are seeing are the advanced stages of a Jedi negotiation (or maybe a Sith negotiation would be a better term). The army wants more money and this is a controlled burn. They let the Taliban shoot up some schools and courts (all bloody useless civilian institutions anyway). Panic spreads across the land. People like John Kerry come to Islamabad and almost shit in their pants at the thought of Taliban “60 miles away from the capital”. Just as Zia played the drunken Charlie Wilson and the whole Reagan team for fools, the current high command is playing on.
4. The coming war on the Indian border: The border of India is on the Indus, not on the Radcliffe line. The Taliban will take over the mountains, but they will be resisted at the edge of the plains. The Americans will train the army to fight this new war. There will be setbacks and loads of violence, but in the end the center will hold. America will fight a new kind of drone war in the mountains and in time, the beards will be forced to negotiate. Along the way, many wedding parties will also get bombed but you cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs. The Indian part of Pakistan will make peace with India and India will help us fight the Northern invaders. The army high command is NOT jihadi. But they lack capacity and need time to build it up. They need to be supported and strengthened. America should pay them more money and pay more heed to their tactical advice.
5. Buffer state: a variant of the above theory holds that Punjab is the historic buffer of India. All sorts of invaders come in, fight over the Punjab and capture it. Then the peasants get to work. We might even convert to whatever barbaric ideology they have brought, but in time the peasants outbreed and outflank the invaders. In the end, the invaders become Indian and help us outbreed and outlast the next invading horde. We win by “assimilation and attrition”. I am not sure if this is an optimistic theory or a pessimistic one. In India, the two are practically the same anyway.
6. No one seemed to think that peace would break out soon. No one thought the “peace deal” is the end of the matter. Jihadi sympathizers regard it as a way for the Taliban to consolidate in Swat before the inevitable advance into new territory. Anti-jihadis regard it as a necessary break to buy time while the new FC is trained, or as a surrender, or as an army plot, but NOT as a peace deal that leads to any kind of stable peace by some direct route.
My personal opinion in 2009: The state is stronger than many people think. But it is grossly incompetent and the elite itself is split and infiltrated by jihadi sympathizers. It won’t collapse soon, but all problems will continue to get worse for the foreseeable future. A big drone offensive is coming and there will be much secondary fighting in Pakistan. But there is at least a 50-50 chance that Jihadistan will NOT be able to expand into the Punjab and Sindh (though much terrorism will surely happen). The army will be gradually purged of jihadis and will one day come around to being a serious anti-jihadi force, but it won’t be easy and it may not happen. If the army continues to have jihadi sympathies, then all bets are off and many horrendous scenarios are imaginable. The US embassy may know more than we do. On the other hand, their declassified documents make it clear that they are incredibly naïve and racist in their assumptions and tend to regard the people they have colonized as mildly retarded children; so there is a good chance they don’t know batshit about what is going on, but are able to present impressive looking PowerPoints about three cups of tea with Kiyani to their bosses back home.
So what would I change today? I think the general outline remains the same and my leftist friends remain convinced that the army has not changed its spots and is still maintaining its links with jihadists while playing a double game with the US. But I am going to go out on a limb and say that I think the army is now serious about making a deal with India over Kashmir (both countries keep their current borders but allow free movement and trade across the existing line of control) and has put its jihadi dreams into very deep cold storage. But while their priorities may have changed, their propaganda narrative remains stuck in the same old anti-Indian, Jewish conspiracy mode. If anything, the usual “international Jewish-Hindu conspiracy” theory has become more entrenched. Whether the army seriously believes the old narrative is still useful, or whether this propaganda is now mainly used as a smokescreen to protect GHQ’s commanding position in national discourse while changing course below the radar is not clear to me.
Meanwhile, the domestic political picture remains confused and governance and corruption have gone from bad to worse. The PPP and the PMLN have cooperated more than most people imagined possible and the political class as a whole has done better than their terrible media reputation would suggest, but they have not been able to raise their performance to any significantly improved level. Inflation and poor economic performance have made the lives of the poor even more painful and elite corruption is as bad as ever. So while the deep state may not be on its previous suicidal Jihadist path, they risk becoming irrelevant if they do not improve governance and economic management fairly quickly. It is concievable that if some new economic disaster hits, then the ruling elite may face a very serious revolt. In addition, blasphemy and other such distractions remain potent tools in the hands of the religious right and it is possible that the army may lose control of the Islamists and the Islamist insurgency could spread deeper into Punjab. Still, if I had to make a guess one way or the other, I would say that the state will survive in more or less present format and while terrorism will continue, the existing system may still become reasonably stable. This is not saying much, but may be better than the alternatives.
Finally, I would add that this narrative is obviously politically incorrect and does not make too many allowances for liberal sensitivities. e.g. I do not write as if all evil is due to powerful White people and the innocent Brown folk will return to a state of nature once imperialism pulls out its oil-soaked fangs. That is not because I consider the imperialists to be necessarily good, but because I do not regard everyone else as lacking in agency. More on that next month, but if this narrative seems distant from the Imran Khan view of recent history, you can check out some of my reasons here.
Could Student Loan Debt Spark Insurrection?
The spark that lit the tinder was a series of what began as peaceful protests followed by disproportionate – and uneven – countermeasures by the Tunisian government. Protests began after the public self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor left destitute after harassment by local authorities. Early media coverage was stifled and word of the protests leaked out through social networks and satellite television. Tunisian authorities reacted violently, then backpedaled and granted elaborate concessions (for example Pres. Ben Ali visited Bouazizi in his hospital bed shortly before the latter died and former fled.) The government seemed weak, arbitrary and cruel. People quickly lost confidence.
The United States might seem immune to the miseries roiling Egypt and Tunisia, yet the lack of opportunities and bleak outlook among Arabian youth is hardly unique, particularly to a young American. Unemployment as measured by the number of Americans out of work for over 15 weeks and still looking is at a historically high 9.1 percent according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, yet that number belies deeper pools of unemployment and underemployment among segments of the population. Last month’s tally of job seekers and those “marginally attached and working part-time for economic reasons” was 16.7 percent. Among recent college graduates and minorities the numbers are higher still.
Repression in the United States is not just economic but systematic, according to N+1’s “Intellectual Situation.” By challenging the peculiar American phenomenon of the pejorative use of the word “elite” being directed against “cultural” as opposed to “power” elites (i.e. readers of N+1 as opposed to readers of The Wall Street Journal), N+1’s editors reveal a menacing strain of anti-intellectualism that the “resentful right, under the banner—hoisted by the likes of Beck, Huckabee, and Palin—of common sense, flatters deprivation as wisdom by implying to the uneducated that an education isn’t worth having;” doing “incalculable, unforgivable” violence to the talents and capacities of millions of people.”
The root of this astringent claim is that the Right “not only brands higher education as an instrument of class domination, but… ensures the educational system increasingly functioned in such a way as to make the accusation stick.” The Right achieved this by appropriating (perhaps unwittingly) sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s argument that educated taste is a marker of “cultural capital,” and that taste functions as an index of social status, thereby enforcing class distinctions. N+1 argues that a “truly Democratic America” would instead hew closer to Ortega y Gasset’s argument that there are two classes of creature, “those who demand much of themselves and assume a burden of tasks and difficulties, and those who require nothing special of themselves, but rather for whom to live is to be every instant only what they already are.” Thus empowered the unwashed masses would admire rather than sneer at the achievements of cultural elites, and aspire for greater achievement.
A laudable goal, certainly, and one shared by both sides of the political equation, at least their more sensible members. Crudely put the Left would prefer to marshal the resources of the state to nudge people along in their self-improvement, while the Right would rather let them do it on their own, pulling themselves up by the bootstraps and presumably succeeding in a more business-like fashion. Perhaps the “cultural elite” gives themselves too much credit. Suspicion toward cultural elitism might not stem from culture itself, but rather its self-appointed stewards, the bastions of power and wealth sitting on the boards of elite universities and august cultural institutions.
Chrystia Freeland’s “The Rise of the New Global Elite” in January 2011’s Atlantic Monthly is set against the backdrop of an increasingly stratified American economy. Wealth is concentrated in the upper echelons of society, while wages for the working and middle class have remained stagnant or declined in real terms since the 1970s. Gains are particularly high among the wealthiest Americans, where “between 2002 and 2007, 65 percent of all income growth in the United States went to the top 1 percent of the population.”
While income remains volatile in the United States, in that many people who are born poor do not stay poor and vice versa, globalization has created a plutocratic society, “in which the rich display outsize political influence, narrowly self-interested motives, and a casual indifference to anyone outside their own rarefied economic bubble.” The rich of today, says Freeland, are “hardworking, highly educated, jet-setting meritocrats who feel they are the deserving winners of a tough, worldwide economic competition—and many of them, as a result, have an ambivalent attitude toward those of us who didn’t succeed so spectacularly.” Plutocrats have blossomed all over the planet and have more in common with one another than the hoi polloi in their home countries.
According to Freeland, the plutocrat of today is no as longer concerned with “debutante balls and hunts and regattas,” preferring instead to haunt the “international conference circuit,” where attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, or securing a membership to the Bilderberg Group are the real markers of having arrived. To this new generation of geeky oligarchs, the “most coveted status symbol isn’t a yacht, a racehorse, or a knighthood; it’s a philanthropic foundation—and, more than that, one actively managed in ways that show its sponsor has big ideas for reshaping the world.”
The ideas that the ultra wealthy are bandying about and attempting to push on the non-elites of the world might give an average American or European a moment’s pause – “during a recent internal debate [at one of the world’s largest hedge funds] one of [the wealthy CEO’s] senior colleagues argued that the hollowing-out of the American middle class didn’t really matter. ‘His point was that if the transformation of the world economy lifts four people in China and India out of poverty and into the middle class, and meanwhile means one American drops out of the middle class, that’s not such a bad trade.’” Given such attitudes, surely the global elite’s financing of the nearly industrial production of education and culture deserves a little bit of scrutiny.
According to the National Philanthropic Trust, education attracts the second largest pile of donated money in the United States (after religious institutions), and that some 78 percent of high net-worth donors give to educational foundations. Yet in economic terms little of the business of the university is actually channeled toward the arts and humanities. Business, law, medicine, applied sciences, and all the other more quotidian pursuits of humanity encompass a far greater portion of a typical university’s time and resources. Harvard University, for example, graduated 1,664 baccalaureates, 512 PhDs, and awarded 4,460 professional degrees in 2008/2009, at least according to Wikipedia’s tabulations of Harvard’s “Graduate Degrees Conferred” report.
If any systematic calcification of the class system in America has taken place, it is more likely manifest in the unimaginative career tracks encouraged by our elders and betters than any change in the perception of artistic or humane achievement. A far more insidious and corrosive influence is the atrocious amount of debt it is now common for students to take on, and the compromises they are forced to make in service of that debt. According to FinAid.org, the average graduating senior carrying debt (and 59% of them do) owes $21,894. The “median additional debt is $25,000 for a Master's degree, $52,000 for a doctoral degree and $79,836 for a professional degree.” Considering government-guaranteed loans are non-dischargeable in bankruptcy, the loans will haunt all but most successful of students for decades. And as tuition rises far faster than inflation (8%), the problem is getting worse.
The self-immolation of poor Mohamed Bouazizi would not have had the resonance it did with the Tunisian public had the disparity between Tunisia’s elites and their charges been less stark. The Washington Post catalogues some of the excesses of the Ben Ali family – caged tigers, Ferraris, feasts of ice cream flown in from Saint Tropez via private jet, infinity pools! And yet for all their excess, a glance at an average Vanity Fair or Us Magazine reveals much of the same. And as Freedman points out, as legislation that appears to callously aid the upper classes at the expense of everyone else – such as banker bailouts and avoiding taxation hedge fund fees – continues to be passed; and the gap between the rich and poor continues to gapes ever wider, the risk of a populist backlash will continue grow.
Populist movements tend to stir among the not-quite-elite young. Cracks in the American edifice could well form from the nearly ubiquitous burden of student debt. And as the ice outside thaws and compound interest accumulates, perhaps some poor troubled debtor will snap and martyr him or herself on Youtube, galvanize the debt-plagued, and plunge the United States into open revolt. Perhaps it is time to gather stones and pot lids and join our Tunisian brothers and sisters.
I have trouble with old pics
their sweet bitterness
their cutting edge
—a daughter’s mittens
hung from cuffs
laid out in kodachrome
a taunt of time. Enough.
I’d rather mine old nuggets
upturn what’s scattered
in my skull —the gold
stick with what
my head will hold
I do not take nostalgic risks
The photobox stays
beneath the bed
with jewel cases of bygones
in code on disks
When my memory goes
it will not matter
I may not even know the aliens
who peer from three by fours
or are splashed on screens
in pixel splatters
Love is best as it occurs
Now is breath’s agency
Love and life are only inside time
not shot with poignancy
not both a blur
Jan 29, 2011
Epiphany at the Waterhole, Part Two
(Wherein we dump the obsolete Adam and Eve tale of the Advent of Consciousness for a more radical and contemporary one based on evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience)
by Fred Zackel
“Something fell out of the mirror.”
"Did you hold it upside down?"
"Did you shake it?"
"After I told you not to?"
"I got curious.”
We must congratulate ourselves. Name another animal capable of creating its own meaning for its existence and then imposing it on the universe. We might even be the ones who most delay their own extinction.
We may not be alone on this evolutionary journey. The journey itself may not be exclusive to any one species but open to any species that ruminates over its reflection in the waterhole. Other species may be in the process of following in our footsteps. (Don’t look back. They might be closing in.) Other species have seen themselves in the mirror. Well, individuals within those species have. Have they told the others yet? Have they brought them to the mirror? As they tell the others of their Herd … could they too have their epiphany? Even more ominously to some of us, once they see themselves in the mirror, can reading (and writing) be far behind?
We human beings saw our reflections, had that epiphany, and got aimed in a different evolutionary trajectory. We survive the Crucible of the Veldt. The Crucible of the Savannah. We went looking for greener grasses elsewhere and we went everywhere on this planet. Being desperate to survive, we adapted ourselves to almost every geography and climate. Over the multitudinous millennia, we have been tempered like swords or plowshares. We survived and thrived.
Mirrors and reading – now we are capable of symbolic thought and we can pass that information on to anyone in Our Herd. We can pass the Good News onto the Next Generation. And the one after. And the one …
(That’s why libraries are so very dangerous to the religious, by the way. As the pulpit bullies always say, Quick, let’s burn the books. All we need is my Holy Scriptures. No, not yours but my Holy Scriptures. Yours are alternatives to mine, options to my agenda, and therefore these “choices” must be heresies. You and your ideas, your visions and priorities, must be destroyed and eradicated.)
I do not know how many epiphanies we as a species have had and learned from. But a dangerous few knocked us for a loop. They have threatened us as few others have done since the inaugural Epiphany at the waterhole.
Let’s start with Galileo’s telescope. Let’s go back 400 years almost to the month. In 1610, Galileo published his “Sidereus Nuncius” (aka “The Starry Messenger”), describing the surprising observations that he had made with the new telescope. That epiphany changed how we looked at our place in the Cosmos, our position in the Great Scheme of Things.
In a famous letter to the German astronomer Johannes Kepler of August 1610, Galileo complained that some of the Church philosophers (i.e., pulpit bullies) who opposed his discoveries had refused even to look through a telescope.
My dear Kepler, I wish that we might laugh at the remarkable stupidity of the common herd. What do you have to say about the principal philosophers of this academy who are filled with the stubbornness of an asp and do not want to look at either the planets, the moon or the telescope, even though I have freely and deliberately offered them the opportunity a thousand times? Truly, just as the asp stops its ears, so do these philosophers shut their eyes to the light of truth.
These scaredy-cats wouldn’t look through a telescope for fear of seeing the Cosmic Situation. Like dumb animals, they wouldn’t look at their reflections in the waterhole.
Hey, Galileo used the word “Herd.” No kidding. You think he’s been looking over my shoulder? Do we think he understood the Epiphany of his Telescope?
Remember Cardinal Robert “Bobby Baby” Bellarmine, folks.
On 12 April 1615 Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, who was one of the most respected theologians (i.e., pulpit bullies) of his time, wrote to the Carmelite provincial Paolo Foscarini who had publicly supported Galileo, saying,
But to want to affirm that the sun really is fixed in the center of the heavens and only revolves around itself (i. e., turns upon its axis ) without traveling from east to west, and that the earth is situated in the third sphere and revolves with great speed around the sun, is a very dangerous thing, not only by irritating all the philosophers and scholastic theologians, but also by injuring our holy faith and rendering the Holy Scriptures false.
The following year the Congregation of the Index -- founded by St. Pius V in 1571 and now headed by Cardinal Bellarmine acting in the name of Paul V -- was forced to take action. Without naming Galileo, it banned all writings which treated of Copernicanism as anything but an unproven hypothesis. Literally, the Epiphany of the Telescope was a heresy.
The Epiphany was too shocking, thus too damning to any Organized Religion. This Revolution in Cosmology, as the textbooks call it, was a heresy because it offered an alternative to Our Perceived Place in the Grand Scheme of Things. It threatens our monopoly of the Story.
In 1930 Roberto Francesco Romolo Bellarmino (his real name) was canonized a saint in the Roman Catholic Church, which should still be seen as a deliberate and conscious insult to Galileo Galilei’s successes. Looking back, the actions of the Church appear unfair and unbalanced.
Oh, I know the Church’s position on Galileo has changed. Let’s take a look at this statement by Pope John Paul II, in his 4 November 1992 “L'Osservatore Romano N. 44 (1264.)”
The Pope wrote:
Thanks to his intuition as a brilliant physicist and by relying on different arguments, Galileo, who practically invented the experimental method, understood why only the sun could function as the centre of the world, as it was then known, that is to say, as a planetary system. The error of the theologians of the time, when they maintained the centrality of the Earth, was to think that our understanding of the physical world's structure was, in some way, imposed by the literal sense of Sacred Scripture....
The Pope had to repudiate the literal sense of the Bible (at least in this case.)
Look how long the Church took to state the obvious.
But there is more, of course. Recently we learned that Pope John Paul ll regularly flagellated himself while pope. He mortified himself with a leather belt he kept in the closet.
Why did the ol’ whippersnapper do it? Beats the hell out of me. Oh, and he slept on the hard floor as part of this mortification, this asceticism, this self-denial.
An old man – a lifelong celibate – whips himself daily.
And we should listen to him? Or take his “authority” with a grain of salt?
And the church wants to make him a saint?
And let us remember that Jews, Christians and Muslims all revere Abraham, that 99 year old man with the flint knife who in the dead of knife not only circumcised himself but all the males of his tribe, blood dripping down his wrist, as the roots of their religion …
Let us back away slowly, slowly …
Did we make a wrong turn in the dark?
We should consider the Next Astonishing Epiphany of the Telescope. Namely, the Epiphany that Edwin Powell Hubble (November 20, 1889 – September 28, 1953) had when he discovered … the Universe.
Hubble was an American astronomer who profoundly changed our understanding of the universe by demonstrating on New Year’s Day, 1925, the existence of other galaxies besides the Milky Way. (Oh, he did much more, too, but let’s save that for later.)
Until Hubble, we thought the Universe and the Milky Way were one and the same.
We never knew other galaxies existed. Millions of them.
We never knew the Cosmos is lousy with galaxies.
The Universe has gazillions of galaxies!
Sidebar: In our new Cosmic POV, we in the West annually hand out the Nobel Prize to those who have managed to usurp the Power of the Divine for Humanity, a sort of Prometheus Prize. You stole fire from the gods! Hubble died before he could be awarded his Prometheus Prize. But his name -- with all the proper respect from our species – has been associated with the Hubble Telescope. Oh, and think what that reflector has done for our species. Oh, the wonder, the magnificence!
At the same time the Hubble Space Telescope teaches us a profound humility. Its Ultra Deep Field shows us some reddish smudges that are light from ordinary spiral galaxies like ours from 13 billion years ago. Think in reverse the time and place that light posits us in.
Let us look at the Landing on the Moon. A dozen men walked on the moon. Only six landings in all. Hundreds of thousands of civil servants in NASA and other agencies worked and got paid to let a dozen men walk on the moon. Even televised as it was, the landing is still disbelieved. It’s a fake, it’s a fraud! I saw the documentary on Faux News! I refuse to admit the Epiphany that the Eagle has Landed!
Was what Neil Armstrong said an epiphany for our species?
“This is one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Forty years later we still dither over what to do next.
The last Epiphany I offer comes from the British naturalist Charles Robert Darwin. In 2009 we celebrated the 200th anniversary of his birth. In 2009 we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the publication of his book On the Origin of Species. The Epiphany of that book sent us all back to the waterhole.
In fact, Darwin said, we never left the waterhole.
Oh, the horror! Oh, the horror!
One hundred and fifty years later we are still in shock.
Hey, how many people do you know who disbelieve in the theory of evolution?
The displacement from evolution is too great.
Too many of us suffer from PTSD.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “Post-traumatic stress disorder is a type of anxiety disorder. It can occur after you've seen or experienced a traumatic event that involved the threat of injury or death.”
We desperately needed our every Divine.
When we moan about “living a life of quiet desperation,” yes, this is our human condition. But the Herd loves it. Desperation among a few individuals is not a problem, when the Quietude of the Herd is the True Goal. (And so Organized Religion was invented.)
Is it any wonder that Existentialism erupts inside our minds after Darwin?
After the Horror comes the Anxiety.
Perhaps you are reading this book on a city bus. Or maybe in a noisy coffee shop. Or maybe in a cubicle in a high rise where the windows don’t open.
This story is not about you. Not you personally. Not me either.
This story is about our species.
Prior to Augustine, the Christian perspective followed the traditional Judaic perspective that the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden was about Humanity’s discovery of death. Alone of all the species on this earth, according to this narrative, we understood what Death was, and the Divine was angry for us for having Discovered it. We ate the Apple from the Tree of (Fill in the Blank.) The other critters stayed behind because they were not aware they would die.
Not only did we imagine the Divine. But we sinned against it so terribly that its dark mark is retroactive to the very first pair of us. We were so evil, so special, so different. Thus we revel in our guilty feelings. (Don’t believe me? Talk to a Pentacostal.) So we had to be banished. We alone were no longer like the other animals in the Garden. We are aware and conscious of our awareness.
Without a nudge, we can see this narrative is also a story that Being Human means Becoming Aware, Becoming Conscious of Our Selves as distinct from all the other animals – all other organic life -- on the planet.
So we have a choice. Would we rather believe in the traditional Garden of Eden, or in seeing Our Reflection in the Waterhole? Which one splashes cold water on our faces?
Personally, I have little problem with either. But that’s me.
Augustine, being the traditionalist, changed (i.e., rewrote) that creation myth and said it was all about Original Sin, which is far easier for most congregations to believe … and much more useful to the Church’s agenda for Absolute Authority over Everybody in Sight.
Let us face the Truth.
Let us face our reflections in the waterhole.
Let us come face-to-face with the mirror.
Let’s chart our course from here.
Yes, some animals, other than ourselves, see their reflections in the mirror and know what it signifies. The self-reflection implies a second step, that there may be some “thought language” going on inside their animal skulls. It may well be internally mediated, even though they are unable to pass this information on to others in their Herd. On the other hand, perhaps they can communicate to their “kin,” but we cannot discern what gets transmitted. They may express this in ways we cannot grasp.
In 2010 researchers at San Diego Zoo announced that they have been studying what they describe as the "secret language" of elephants. Around two-thirds of all their communications happen at these frequencies that are too low to be picked up by human hearing. This language (this “growling” sound) is used within a herd to help the herd and individuals within that herd “interact and intercede.”
The team from the zoo have been monitoring communications (“growling”) that cannot be heard by human ears and they have already learned that pregnant females use this low frequency communication to announce to the rest of their herd that they are about to give birth.
In another experiment with different researchers, it appears that wild elephants inhabiting the plains of Amboseli National Park in Kenya can discriminate between different human languages. The animals are most likely to be alarmed when they hear the semi-nomadic Maasai (with whom they are in constant and often fatal conflict) and least threatened by the English-speaking tourists who just want to watch and take photos. Humans speaking Swahili seem to represent a middle ground between the Maasai and the English languages.
Other researchers – including Karen McComb, an animal psychologist at the University of Sussex, UK – are busy, too. McComb’s team has calculated that elephant matriarchs were able to learn the identity of at least 100 other individual elephants by voice. Meanwhile psychologists from the University of St Andrews believe that elephants keep track on up to 30 absent relatives by sniffing out their scent and building up a mental map of where they are.
We humans convince ourselves that animals don’t think, feel, and suffer like we do.
That’s why the concept of “umwelt” is also so foreign. That phrase means we simply cannot conceive what “seeing through an animal’s eyes” can mean. So we stumble and blunder and fall over our theories as if they were gigantic tongues we couldn’t stuff back into our mouths.
As I think I said somewhere else, elephants have poor eyesight, but they can recognize themselves in a mirror. They also die earlier in zoos than in the wild, just as killer whales sometimes do go crazy in theme parks. Packs of hyenas, it seems, are nothing compared to the stress of living in cages.
By the way, how would we do in similar circumstances? Would we be too docile, too ready to submit ourselves to total subjugation because we’ve civilized our restless souls?
Are we there yet?
Ships in the night
The proper basis for a marriage is mutual misunderstanding. —Oscar Wilde
People necessarily make use of assumptions in speaking to one another, choosing their words to convey necessary information succinctly and effectively. The assumption process creates a theory of mind regarding the audience, including their culture, motivations, previous experiences, etc. While communicating with a stranger or an unfamiliar audience, the speaker will seek to include extra detail or background to be certain that the message is understood. But old acquaintances share more history and might require less information to understand the speaker’s intent (and may regard excessive detail as condescension). This habit promotes quick and effortless communication. Reciprocal theories of mind between long-time friends will grow into a shared ecosystem, with experiences, inside jokes and deep comprehension.
Or not. In the case of long-married couples, spouses sometimes communicate ambiguous information no better than strangers would. Two psychologists, Boaz Keysar and Kenneth Savitzky, have been studying how people interpret and misinterpret ambiguous communications. They devised an experiment in which participants sat in a circle with their backs to one other and tried to discern the meaning of spoken ambiguous phrases chosen from everyday conversations. The “speaker” was given a list of ambiguous phrases, and instructed to read each one aloud to communicate which of four meanings was intended. For example, “it’s getting hot in here” might be a flirtatious overture, a comment about tempers rising, a warning that the cops are closing in, or a hint to open the window. The listeners in the experiment chose from among the four possible meanings based on the speaker’s verbal delivery, and the speaker would rate the likelihood that each listener got the correct message.
Even with a lot of contextual information stripped away, all listeners were able to guess the speaker’s intent at well above chance levels, which is a testament to the utility of the social assumptions the researchers are investigating. However, the speakers in this experiment consistently overestimated their own ability to communicate the appropriate meaning, and they overestimated their ability more so toward their partners than toward the strangers. They thought their spouses “got it” for 6 out of 10 phrases, when in fact the spouses averaged the same as strangers, at around 4 out of 10.
The scientists who designed this study chose the conditions to illustrate the flip side of a developed intimacy. The habits of ellipsis and allusion can become counterproductive when the topic falls outside of the shared sphere, or, as in this experiment, context is removed to the point of real ambiguity (in real life, think of emails or text messages; or, speaking near a running faucet). Speakers presume that they’re being clear; and a listener, may use their own take on the shared relationship to mistakenly believe they don’t need clarification. Preventing this sort of miscue is the basis for an entire cottage industry of counselors and marriage therapists.
Reference:The closeness-communication bias: Increased egocentrism among friends versus strangers. Kenneth Savitsky, Boaz Keysar, Nicholas Epley, Travis Carter, and Ashley Swanson. J. Exp. Soc. Psychology 47:269-273, 2011.
Cartoon © Randy Glasbergen from www.glasbergen.com <http://www.glasbergen.com>, used with permission.
The Secret Life of Cancer
by Jenny White
I’m a faithful reader of the New York Times Science Section, cover to cover, because I want to know about things, not be caught flatfooted. Somehow it seems necessary for survival to know about quarks and bosons, the social structure of ants, scientific explanations of the smile, and the sexual life of grapes. I had a fling with books explaining how to endure being stranded in snow (make an igloo) and identify edible weeds in the park. What does this say about me? I never kept any extra food in the house beyond what was fresh in the fridge until after 9/11 when I laid in some canned beets and tomato sauce and a gallon jug of water. The tomato sauce exploded and the water leaked, so clearly I am batting zero as a survivalist. Perhaps knowing things about the world lets me feel that nothing can surprise me, jump out of the dark corners beyond my peripheral vision. Illness is like that. Two months ago I saw spots and flashes in my right eye and was told I had a partially detached retina. Why? No reason. Out of the blue. Once I was allowed to read again after the repair, I read a lot about retinas. But what do we really learn about how illnesses and the body work from reading popular science? Recently, I had a long conversation with a prominent scientist at Harvard, the molecular biologist Michael R. Freeman, who explained to me what cancer was. It wasn’t anything I expected, even after years of reading science stories. It was as if he had opened a door into an alternate universe. Below is a transcript of part of our conversation.
Jenny White: Tell me what we should know about cancer?
Michael Freeman: Cancer is an uncontrolled proliferation of cells, so a tumor is actually is a swelling or a cyst, something that isn’t necessarily life-threatening, but a malignancy is something that has the potential to grow and spread in the body and its the spreading in the body as well as the growth that is lethal. We’re still trying to understand fundamental processes that are part of cancer. A recently recognized process involved in cancer, for instance, is autophagy, which means “self-eating.” This is a normal way that cells use to conserve energy and nutrients, and it’s a process that can be used by cancer cells to progress to malignant states. Tumor cells generally are in a very stressful environment, so there’s a Darwinian pressure to select for variants that can overcome various stresses. So if you’re a tumor cell and your descendants have the ability to take in nutrients from this process of autophagy, then you have a selective advantage over other cells that might be killed in the stressful environment.
JW: So basically the Pac-Man cells survive because they eat the cells surrounding them.
MF: They actually eat themselves.
JW: Are there any other cool concepts that are out there? Autophagy, self-eating Pac-Man cells. What else is going on?
MF: There’s another concept that was very new when I was a postdoctoral fellow, but is now very much understood to be a fundamental process in tumor biology, which is apoptosis or programmed cell death. This is a program that cells initiate that causes them to die. It’s basically cell-suicide. There are signaling molecules that can initiate the suicide program that’s built into the cell. This is a normal process that takes place during development. The fingers on your hand were created in part through an apoptopic mechanism, where the webbing between the digits was formed by cells killing themselves. In development, in the formation of the body plan, there’s growth as well as loss of structure. It even happens during normal life as an adult. It’s like what a sculptor does, right? A sculptor creates form by removing things.
JW: How does that fit with cancer?
MF: There are tumor cells appearing in your body every day. Your immune system will recognize these cells as aberrations and they’ll be killed. It’s a complicated biochemical process, but basically the cells initiate a suicide program, though sometimes cells arise that are resistant to those apoptopic signals. And this turns out to be a very important reason that you have malignant progression -- you have cells that resist the signals that tell them to die.
JW: And why is that? They just don’t like to be told what to do?
MF: They resist these signals because they have various biochemical pathways inside them that are either activated or disabled. Oncogenes are genes that can cause tumors. But mechanistically what that oncogene might be doing is to elicit, activate or allow certain biochemical pathways that results in a cell that can resist apoptopic signals. You can have a biochemical pathway where A protein signals to B protein signals to C protein, and the ability of A to signal to B is shut down. You have an inhibitor that’s inhibiting the A to B signal. Sometimes to initiate an apoptotic signal, you need a cell-surface receptor that needs to be positioned in a certain way on the cell surface, and it can either not be there or it can be internalized. Genes can be shut down, genes can be activated. There are a lot of different ways to cause this.
JW: It’s amazing that we move around as fully functioning human beings at all if all of these minute things can go wrong all the time.
MF: After being a biologist for many years, I still find it incredible that any organism lives decades when all of the intricate biochemistry that happens has to continue to happen almost flawlessly. You get ill and your body can repair itself. It’s amazing.
JW: What about other cool things? We’ve got Pac-Man autophagy, we’ve got cell-suicide death wishes. What else is going on?
MF: The tumor genome is massively disrupted. Over the course of a tumor’s life, you have chromosome loss, you have gene duplication, you have gene loss, you have DNA rearrangements. The popular culture analogy I like is the Borg, from Star Trek. “You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.” That’s not a perfect analogy but it shows how things can be reorganized to become virulent.
JW: Except that the Borg use creatures that then become part of them. They don’t kill the creatures.
MF: They don’t kill a creature initially, but you can think of a cancer – including the cells that are disseminated and the secondary tumors that are formed in parts of the body -- as an organism. So the cancer is an independent organism inside one’s body that, of course, is dependent on the host living; it doesn’t have a way to replicate beyond the host. It kills the host and then it dies. But in many ways it’s like an independent organism.
JW: But what is the point of this organism inhabiting you if it doesn’t help it to replicate itself. Cancer doesn’t spread, right? Isn’t it a basic biological premise that creatures evolve in order to seed their own kind?
MF: But it does inside an organism. It’s like a virus in the sense that it’ll replicate inside the organism. Viruses can obviously move between hosts, and cancer cells cannot. But within the universe of the host, it’s very much a Darwinian process. You have selection, you have progeny, you have replication, you have death, you have new variants arising all the time. The new variants are being selected. The difference is that the entire universe of the cancer is the patient, and when the patient dies, the universe ends.
JW: So why would you say it’s one organism? Aren’t you saying it’s an organism with offspring that it sends out to different parts of the body?
MF: Human beings have all these symbiotic bacteria living in their gut and elsewhere on their body, so if you look at yourself as an organism, there’s about ten times more bacterial cells that are part of your body than your actual human cells. So what does that mean? Does that mean you should be defined primarily as a bacterial colony?
JW: That’s gross! Boy, that certainly changes my vision of the human body. It’s almost like we’re a small universe in which other small organisms grow, just like we grow on the earth, destroying it as we go along, using up its carbon and its air and wood.
MF: The bacteria will be fine. No matter what we do to the earth, the bacteria will be fine. They’ve been around much longer than us; they’ve diversified tremendously.
JW: How old is cancer?
MF: I don’t know for sure, but I would say that cancer is ancient and it occurred early in association with multicellularity. Jellyfish are multicellular. They’re about 600 million years old; it’s a very ancient lineage. And it would be an interesting question – I don’t know the answer -- if they have cancer. If they had cancer then that would be evidence that cancer is at least 600 million years old.
JW: What’s the difference between bacteria and a cancer cell?
MF: The cancer cells that arise in your body are genomically very similar to you, so they’re human. The cell is deranged in some ways, but it can be unambiguously identified as human. A bacterium is a much simpler organism; it doesn’t have a nucleus; it doesn’t have chromosomes arranged the way ours are. So it’s a very different type of creature.
JW: But why do you call cancer a creature? It could be like a skin growth or a mole or something that just has grown out of control.
MF: When you look at cancer cells under a microscope, they’re a colony of creatures. They’re clearly independent from their source. If you’re going to call a single-cell organism like a protozoan a creature, then I think it’s perfectly reasonable to call a colony of cancer cells or even a single cancer cell a creature. I mean, it can crawl around, it can eat, it can respond to its environment. It’s respiring, it’s consuming food; it’s replicating. It’s very much alive.
JW: OK, now all of this is giving me the creeps. It’s much more comforting to think of cancer as something that’s not human, that’s just an invader that you might be able to kick out. So the treatments people are using to try to kill the cells individually are really not dealing with the problem.
MF: You can use the Borg analogy. The Borg takes on new abilities over time because it assimilates civilizations. But when you shoot at the Borg, you know, using some advanced photonic device, you kill the Borg. And then the second Borg comes at you and you kill that Borg. And the third Borg comes at you and you kill that one. But by the time the fourth Borg comes at you, the organism has already adapted.
JW: So you’re telling me that not only are there these creatures in their own universe inside the body, but they’re actually able to learn, take on new abilities.
MF: It’s very much like any other Darwinian evolution in that you produce variants and some of the variants are going to resist your attempts to kill them. I saw some data in 2010 from a colleague who had done whole genome scans of between ten and fifteen metastatic tumors taken from one person. You can think of these tumors as all part of an organism, using this analogy we’re talking about. But in reality when you looked at the genome of these tumors, they were radically different. Much more different than you or me, for example. So tumor cells have the ability to alter their genome in all sorts of ways that normally doesn’t occur. The genome is normally very stable. There are some significant changes that happen with sexual reproduction, but for the most part your genome that’s being replicated throughout your entire life is pretty stable. My genome isn’t that different from yours. But the genomes of these individual tumor cells – at least in this particular case – were radically different.
JW: So the tumor cells were different from the cancer patient, but also different from each other. They’re individuals!
JW: Is there any good news?
MF: Well, we know a lot about tumor biology now. I started graduate school in the early 1980s and there’s no comparison between now and then. We have a vast reservoir of knowledge now. We have a much greater ability to identify promising drugs than we did ten years ago. The goal I think of most cancer researchers is to get to the point where cancer becomes a chronic disease and it’s managed with medical therapy. I think that’s what people are shooting for.
JW: So when will all this new knowledge turn into new treatments?
MF: That part of it is very disappointing. The rate-limiting step is the means by which drugs that look promising in the laboratory can be tested in humans. This is very expensive. To move one drug through phase 1, 2 and 3 clinical trials can cost upwards of a billion dollars. The only way that can be paid for is through companies, and companies can decide to proceed with that investment or not. There are many situations where you have promising drugs and they’re not ever moved into clinical situations and tested in real patients because the cost is too high. Pharmaceutical companies have to make strategic decisions based on the bottom line, and a lot of that is divorced from science.
JW: What’s the most exciting thing to come out of your lab in the last year?
MF: Two things. One is that we discovered a gene that controls a process where a cell acquires an ability to move rapidly through tissue spaces by deforming its membrane. This is referred to as amoeboid features. We discovered a gene that regulates that process, one of the first ever found. We think the amoeboid properties are highly relevant to the way in which cells can metastasize. This is potentially a signaling network that controls metastasis.
JW: So the amoeboid form allows cancer cells to basically hail a cab and get around the body more quickly than the usual way of cancer cells creeping through tissue, and you’re taking away the car keys. That’s great. What’s the other thing?
MF: We discovered a new type of tumor-derived particle that these amoeboid cells can spit out. These particles, which are not cells, have biological activity, so they can communicate with other cells. They can circulate through the blood and potentially modify and signal cells very distantly from the primary tumor that produced the particle. And they’re large. The significance of the largeness is that you can find them more easily in circulation, and we’ve also shown that you can actually see them in tissue specimens. Their presence predicts aggressive disease. This is a new type of particle that hasn’t been described until now. Since it seems to promote tumor spread, it might serve as an indicator of aggressiveness clinically, which might improve the ability to target the tumor with specific drugs.
JW: So this particle has the ability to kick-start other cells into turning cancerous.
MW: Exactly. Another thing my lab has worked on for a number of years is the relationship between cholesterol and aggressive cancer. Our findings indicate that high cholesterol is actually tumor-promoting in the case of prostate cancer. The implication is that if you take cholesterol-lowering drugs, you might be able to inhibit cancer in some people.
JW: Do you have some words for people reading this who might now be rather depressed?
MF: I think twenty years from now, as long as we don’t pull the plug on our magnificent research efforts here in the United States, what we know now will probably seem very primitive. So it’s best to be humble.
Tigers Tigers Everywhere
On December 26, 2004 there was a magnitude 9.3 earthquake in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Sumatra. It caused a powerful tsunami that devastated the coastal regions of several countries and killed 240,000 people. News of the tsunami's destructive powers quickly made the rounds in the news media. We watched in horror and dismay the extent of the devastation. The earthquake registered 9.3, stronger than the one in Maule, Chili in February 2010, which was registered at 8.8. The 8.8 Chili quake was so strong that it shifted the Earth's crust, redistributing mass on such a scale that, according to NASA, it caused a shift in the Earth’s axis! The shift has been estimated at 8 centimeters, which affected the rate of the Earth's rotation and shortened the length of our day by some 1.26 microseconds.
As tremendous as the Chili quake was, the 2004 quake was stronger. But far stranger and much less reported—forty-four hours after the quake, NASA's newly launched Swift satellite, the Very Large Array, and other observatories picked up the arrival of a powerful gamma ray burst. A hundred times stronger than any gamma burst previously recorded, this one was as bright as a full moon, but radiated most of its energy in gamma wavelengths. This gamma burst temporarily altered the shape of our ionosphere and distorted radio transmissions. We tracked this gamma burst to activity in the neutron star SGR 1806-20, a soft gamma ray repeater, in the constellation Sagittarius, approximately 10 degrees northeast of the Galactic Center or about 45,000 light years from us.
Less than forty-eight hours after the biggest earthquake in twenty five years, a very intense gamma ray burst hit our planet! This gamma burst was 100 times brighter than anything we had seen in the twenty-five year history of gamma ray observation. Were these two highly unusual events related? We don't know how or why they would be, though it has been postulated that gravitational waves might have been a factor that set the earthquake into motion. Perhaps the gamma rays, that we monitored, were slowed down by scattering off dust particles, cosmic rays and such, making them proportionately slower than unimpeded gravitational waves that they might have been traveling with. Or perhaps the gravitational waves were going at superluminal speed—also a possibility—hitting the earth and setting off the quake and tsunami before the gamma rays could catch up. At this point who knows?
Regardless whether the two events were related or it was just an astronomical coincidence, both events triggered alarmists theories and thoughts of the end of the world. The familiar cries is God punishing us? and the Earth is upset and trying to kill us! was heard again and again. Unfortunately science and the media did not take the opportunity to explain and educate the masses on what just had happened. Nothing was said that would explain to them that plate tectonics are necessary for the continuance of life on our planet, and that the same forces that made that neutron star behave like that made us, and if those forces didn't exist and continue to function, we wouldn't be here at all.
Scientists have discovered about a dozen magnetic neutron stars, which they like to call magnetars. The magnetic field around magnetars is about 1,000 trillion gauss, strong enough to strip information from a credit card at a distance halfway to the moon or 192,000 km. Ordinary neutron stars measure just a trillion gauss; to give you an idea the sun has around 1 gauss and the magnetic field around the Earth around 0.5 gauss. Yet the diameter of SGR 1806-20 is not more than 20 kilometers, that's how dense it is!
There are a few magnetars which are called soft gamma repeaters, because they flare up randomly. Each event emits about 10^30 to 10^35 watts for about a second. For a tenth of a second, the flare on SGR 1806-20 unleashed energy at a rate of about 10^40 watts. This is more than the total energy produced by the Sun in 150,000 years! Had this happened within a dozen light years from here, it would have fried us. Fortunately, however, all the magnetars, that we know of, are much farther away than that.
Interesting stuff, yet the way science is taught us is often dry and uninteresting, and too much out of date. For example, schools often teach Newton's ideas of gravity and ignore Einstein altogether, so most of us don't have a clue—then to add insult to injury, science is propagated on television and the Internet with an alarmist air. The media is continuously feeding us stories that the sky is falling or is soon about to. Watching science channels, I have lost count how many times I've seen a show depicting how the Earth will end, never failing to warn me that it isn't if it will happen but when. First there was Frankenstein, the War Of The Worlds, Klaatu's dire warnings; in the cinema and on television, even on the radio we learn that the end is near, remember In The Year 2525? When we grow tired of the admonitions, or too numb to listen anymore, the old stories are replaced with new ones: disintegration by antimatter, microscopic black holes, the shutting down of the Earth's magnetic sphere, planetary pole reverse, super volcanoes, gigantic comets and asteroids, et cetera. Unfortunately, a significant part of the scientific community is complacent about propagating science in this way, it's good for funding. But this thinking is self-defeating, it works for awhile, but in the end it just turns people off.
I heard an old Buddhist koan told to me by one of the more eccentric professors when I was in university, which I never forgot. It goes something like this. A monk was walking through a dense forest when he noticed a hungry tiger stalking him. He hurried along but inadvertently fell off a cliff. Luckily the monk caught hold of a branch temporarily staving off what would have been a disastrous fall. Hanging by the branch he looked up to see the tiger peering down at him licking its chops. He looked down, to his surprise, another tiger was at the bottom of the cliff looking up at him, also licking its chops. Under his weight the branch started to give way and break. Just then the monk saw a wild strawberry growing in the crevice of a rock next to him. The monk picked the strawberry and popped it in his mouth, and that strawberry was the sweetest tasting strawberry he ever had. Pause, think, reflect...
In the month of December 2004, two tigers were at our door. One proved deadly enough and caused us a lot of grief, yet had the other tiger (SGR 1806-20) been closer to us, it could have been way more destructive. That's not the point. The point is is that the universe in 2004 had two tigers who were fascinating animals. They had—and still have a lot—to teach us. Both events were part of the ongoing story of the evolution of our galaxy; both events were bodies dealing with their own mass and conserving energy—one a star the other a planet. Perhaps we ought to start looking at the universe with more stoicism and curiosity. I'm not suggesting that we ignore the threats, nor to not take action when action is warranted, but we ought not worry so much, there are tigers out there, there are lions, and bears too; some may want to have us for dinner. But that's the beauty of it, isn't it? That most of the universe is 99.9999% not friendly to us, but all of it together as a coherent, harmonious system seems to be; as the anthropic theorists have stated, the cosmos seem to have been created to be perfect for human life. Or at least perfect enough to make it interesting.
Sunday, January 30, 2011
Brian Green Explains Theorizing a Multiverse ... on Colbert
The Colbert Report Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c Brian Greene
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A New Vision of the Public University
Michael Burawoy over at the SSRC blog:
The university is in crisis everywhere. In the broadest terms, the university’s position as simultaneously inside and outside society, simultaneously participant in and observer of society, – always precarious – is being eroded. With the exception of a few antiquated hold outs the idea of the ivory tower has gone. We no longer can hold on to a position of splendid isolation. We may think of the era gone by as the Golden Age of the University, but in reality it was a Fool’s Paradise that simply couldn’t last. Today, the academy has no option but to engage with the wider society, the question is how.
We face enormous pressures of instrumentalization, turning the university into a means for someone’s else’s end. These pressures come in two forms – commodification and regulation. I teach at the University of California, which, with its seven plus campuses, is (or was) surely one of the shining examples of public education in the world. This last year it was hit with a 25% cut in public funding. This is a sizeable chunk of money. The university has never faced such a financial crisis and it has taken correspondingly drastic steps – laying off unknown numbers of non-academic staff, putting pressure on already outsourced low paid service workers, furloughing academics that include world renown figures. Most significantly it involved a 30% increase in student fees, so that they now rise to over $10,000 a year, but still this is only a quarter of the price of the best private universities. These are drastic measures indeed, and a violation of California’s Master Plan for higher education, a vision of free higher education for all who desired it, orchestrated through a system that integrated two year community colleges, the state system of higher education and then, at the pinnacle, the University of California. All this is now turning to ruins.
Is it Morally Irresponsible to Theorize About a Multiverse?
A Niche for a Prophet
Eric Hobsbawm in the LRB:
San Nicandro Garganico is a modest agrarian township of some 16,000 inhabitants on the edge of the spur of the boot-shaped Italian peninsula. It has been somewhat bypassed by Italy’s postwar development and has never been on the tourist circuit, or indeed had anything about it that might attract outsiders. The railway didn’t even reach it until 1931. To judge by the photo in the current Italian Wikipedia entry, it looks pretty much the same as it did in 1957, when I visited it, curious about the subject on which John Davis has now given us a first-rate, concise and attractively written book. San Nicandro has made only two entrances onto the historical stage. It was an early centre of Italian socialism and agrarian struggle in the grain-fields of northern Apulia, whose local political head, Domenico Fioritto, became its deputy and subsequently leader of the Italian Socialist Party. The former Communist Party (now the Democratic Party) continues to supply its mayor. The second appearance of the town in the wider world was less relevant to Italian politics, but globally more prominent, though the postwar headlines would soon be forgotten. It linked the town to a group of local peasants who decided in the 1930s to convert to Judaism and eventually emigrated to Israel. John Davis has not only rescued the ‘Jews of San Nicandro’ from more than a half-century of oblivion, but used them to illuminate 20th-century Europe’s extraordinary history.
In purely quantitative terms the phenomenon was negligible: the Fascist police, ever on the watch, reported them as nine families, or 40 people. Some 30 migrated to Israel in 1949. If this group of friends and kinsmen had not chosen to be Jews, but had joined one of those evangelical sects – Seventh-Day Adventists, Pentecostalists – brought into southern Italy by emigrants returned from the US, nobody would have paid any attention to them. They would have been regarded as just another kind of Protestant, as indeed they were by the authorities on their first contact with the sect in 1936, when their prophet, Donato Manduzio, was fined 250 lire as ‘a Protestant pastor’ for conducting an unauthorised religious service. It was in that world of postwar grassroots religiosity that they belonged, though dissident village conventicles were much smaller than Catholic miracle cults such as the one that developed around Padre Pio of San Giovanni Rotonda in the same region at the same time. Though the Vatican was then, understandably, sceptical about the holy man’s claim to bear the mark of Christ’s stigmata, he was to be promoted to sainthood by Pope Wojtyla.
Where else, except from a neighbouring Pentecostalist, would Manduzio have acquired a copy of the Bible in Italian, his study of which converted him to Judaism?
Collateral unpleasantness that Washington would rather not discuss
Tony Karon in The National:
On Saturday, CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked a guest on his show how al Qa'eda fitted into events in Egypt. The question itself was reminiscent of Larry King a few years back asking Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to explain yoga.
Mr Blitzer's vigilance against Qa'eda bogeymen lurking in Egypt's democracy protests epitomises the US habit of seeing Egypt only through the prism of Washington's regional agenda.
US officials forced to explain their support for Hosni Mubarak's repressive autocracy over the past week have stressed Mr Mubarak's cooperation with Israel and support for a US regional strategy highly unpopular with the citizenry of the Arab world. As the State Department spokesman, PJ Crowley, told Al Jazeera: "Egypt is an anchor of stability in the Middle East ... It's made its own peace with Israel and is pursuing normal relations with Israel. We think that's ... a model that the region should adopt."
The fact that Mr Mubarak has been kept in power for three decades by a police state that tortures opponents and runs sham elections is collateral unpleasantness that Washington would rather not discuss. In fact, it has been happy to outsource the torture of terror suspects to Mr Mubarak's security services under the CIA's "extraordinary rendition" programme. Fearing that democracy in Egypt would empower the Muslim Brotherhood, the US has lobbied for Mubarak-initiated reforms.
But paranoia over Islamist participation restrains US support for Arab democracy, which in most countries would include Islamist parties.
road to Cairo
The consolations of understanding
From The Economist:
THE unexamined life is not worth living, or so Socrates famously told the jury at his trial. He neglected to mention that the examined life is sometimes not all that wonderful either. In 11 biographical sketches of thinkers who tried to tread in Socrates’s footsteps, plus one on Socrates himself, James Miller explores what it means to follow the philosophical calling. Much trouble and uncertainty seems to be the answer, and some of the most famous philosophers turn out not to be all that admirable or convincing, he finds. So can philosophy inspire a way of life? That is one question raised by Mr Miller, who teaches politics and liberal studies at the New School for Social Research in New York.
Fortunately, Mr Miller does not press that question too hard. Any attempt to draw an all-encompassing moral from the lives he examines would have distorted the stories he has to tell. What we get instead is a vivid set of philosophical tales that are notable for their judicious use of sources, including rare early works. The result is a fresh treatment of subjects who are often served up stale. Even Immanuel Kant, whose writings were justly described by Heinrich Heine, a poet, as having “the grey dry style of a paper bag”, emerges as human.
Babylon Revisited: When the money runs out
From The Telegraph:
Today, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald may be one of America’s most celebrated novelists, but during his lifetime, he was best known as a writer of short stories. At the end of the Twenties, he was the highest-paid writer in America earning fees of $4,000 per story (about $50,000 today) and published in mainstream magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post. Over 20 years, he wrote almost 200 stories in addition to his four novels, publishing 164 of them in magazines. When Ernest Hemingway first met Fitzgerald, in Paris in 1925, it was within weeks of the publication of The Great Gatsby; Hemingway later wrote that before reading Gatsby, he thought that Fitzgerald “wrote Saturday Evening Post stories that had been readable three years before but I never thought of him as a serious writer”. Gatsby would change all that, of course, so thoroughly that now we may be in danger of forgetting Fitzgerald’s stories. The haste in which he wrote them, in order to pay for the luxurious lifestyle he enjoyed with his wife, Zelda, means that the stories are uneven in quality, but at their best they are among the finest stories in English. And “Babylon Revisited”, a Saturday Evening Post story first published exactly 80 years ago next month – and free inside next Saturday’s edition of the Telegraph – is probably the greatest. A tale of boom and bust, about the debts one has to pay when the party comes to an end, it is a story with particular relevance for the way we live now.
Fitzgerald’s fortunes uncannily mirrored the fortunes of the nation he wrote about: his first novel, This Side of Paradise, became a runaway bestseller in early 1921, just as America entered the boom period that Fitzgerald himself would name the Jazz Age. He and Zelda became celebrities and began living the high life. They were the golden couple of the Twenties, “beautiful and damned”, as the prophetic title of Fitzgerald’s 1922 novel suggested, treated like royalty in America’s burgeoning celebrity culture. Glamorous, reckless and profligate, the Fitzgeralds were spendthrift in every sense. Much later, Fitzgerald would have to take account of all they had squandered – not only wealth, but beauty, youth, health, and even his genius.
Robert Fisk joins protesters atop a Cairo tank: "It is over."
Robert Fisk in The Independent:
The Egyptian tanks, the delirious protesters sitting atop them, the flags, the 40,000 protesters weeping and crying and cheering in Freedom Square and praying around them, the Muslim Brotherhood official sitting amid the tank passengers. Should this be compared to the liberation of Bucharest? Climbing on to an American-made battle tank myself, I could only remember those wonderful films of the liberation of Paris. A few hundred metres away, Hosni Mubarak's black-uniformed security police were still firing at demonstrators near the interior ministry. It was a wild, historical victory celebration, Mubarak's own tanks freeing his capital from his own dictatorship.
In the pantomime world of Mubarak himself – and of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in Washington – the man who still claims to be president of Egypt swore in the most preposterous choice of vice-president in an attempt to soften the fury of the protesters – Omar Suleiman, Egypt's chief negotiator with Israel and his senior intelligence officer, a 75-year-old with years of visits to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and four heart attacks to his credit. How this elderly apparatchik might be expected to deal with the anger and joy of liberation of 80 million Egyptians is beyond imagination. When I told the demonstrators on the tank around me the news of Suleiman's appointment, they burst into laughter.
Their crews, in battledress and smiling and in some cases clapping their hands, made no attempt to wipe off the graffiti that the crowds had spray-painted on their tanks. "Mubarak Out – Get Out", and "Your regime is over, Mubarak" have now been plastered on almost every Egyptian tank on the streets of Cairo. On one of the tanks circling Freedom Square was a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Beltagi. Earlier, I had walked beside a convoy of tanks near the suburb of Garden City as crowds scrambled on to the machines to hand oranges to the crews, applauding them as Egyptian patriots. However crazed Mubarak's choice of vice-president and his gradual appointment of a powerless new government of cronies, the streets of Cairo proved what the United States and EU leaders have simply failed to grasp. It is over.
Saturday, January 29, 2011
by Constantin P. Cavafy (who was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1863)
The Alexandrians turned out in force
to see Cleopatra’s children,
Kaisarion and his little brothers,
Alexander and Ptolemy, who for the first time
had been taken out to the Gymnasium,
to be proclaimed kings there
before a brilliant array of soldiers.
Alexander: they declared him
king of Armenia, Media, and the Parthians.
Ptolemy: they declared him
king of Cilicia, Syria, and Phoenicia.
Kaisarion was standing in front of the others,
dressed in pink silk,
on his chest a bunch of hyacinths,
his belt a double row of amethysts and sapphires,
his shoes tied with white ribbons
prinked with rose-colored pearls.
They declared him greater than his little brothers,
they declared him King of Kings.
The Alexandrians knew of course
that this was all mere words, all theatre.
But the day was warm and poetic,
the sky a pale blue,
the Alexandrian Gymnasium
a complete artistic triumph,
the courtiers wonderfully sumptuous,
Kaisarion all grace and beauty
(Cleopatra’s son, blood of the Lagids);
and the Alexandrians thronged to the festival
full of enthusiasm, and shouted acclamations
in Greek, and Egyptian, and some in Hebrew,
charmed by the lovely spectacle—
though they knew of course what all this was worth,
what empty words they really were, these kingships.
Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard
Will Egypt's Military Officers Free the Revolution?
Michael Wahid Hanna in The Atlantic:
When armored personnel carriers filled with soldiers began making their way into the heart of Cairo and other cities in Egypt on Friday January 28th, they were greeted with receptivity by protestors, who saw in the much-respected military a potential ally in their uprising against the regime. No doubt, the recent experience in Tunisia, where the military stepped in resoundingly on the side of the demonstrations and hastened the fall of the repressive regime of President Ben Ali, was fresh in their mind. The Tunisian military had intervened against the police forces, burnishing their image as popular heroes who shared the patriotic concerns of the brave Tunisians who defied the regime. The scenes that unfolded in Egypt made clear that the protestors there hoped to force a similar split between the security forces, run by the Ministry of the Interior, and the military.
While Egypt's military is no longer an active fighting force, it still retains more credibility as a public entity than Egypt's civilian institutions, crippled after years of neglect and one-man rule. In recent years, even some democracy activists, despondent from years of state repression and ineffectual organizing, have seen the military as the last hope for Egyptians against Mubarak's efforts to orchestrate his son, Gamal, as successor to the presidency. Now that demonstrators have overwhelmed the police forces and built popular momentum, the military, were it to shift its allegiance from Mubarak to the protesters, could effectively end the regime.