Monday, February 28, 2011
A Conversation with Mahmood Mamdani
by Robert P. Baird
A little over a month ago I asked Mahmood Mamdani if he’d be willing to have a conversation about Ugandan politics in advance of the presidential elections here. Often described as the intellectual heir of Edward Said, Mamdani has attracted praise, scorn, and much international attention for his richly detailed and often stridently contrarian analyses of contemporary African events. He is the author, most recently, of Saviors and Survivors, a critical and controversial analysis of the Save Darfur Coalition.
Mamdani is one of the most acute observers of African events working today, and he has a deep and complicated personal relationship to Uganda’s recent political history. Born in Kampala to Indian Muslim parents, he was exiled (along with the rest of the country’s Asian population) by Idi Amin in 1972. He earned a Ph.D from Harvard in 1974 and has taught at universities in Tanzania, Uganda, South Africa, and the U.S. Currently he is a professor of anthropology and government at Columbia University and the director of the Makerere Institute for Social Research (MISR) in Uganda. He and his wife, the filmmaker Mira Nair, split their time between Kampala and New York.
Mamdani graciously agreed to an interview, but by the time we met in his purple-walled office at the MISR, the uprising in Egypt had become all-engrossing. I decided to take the opportunity to get his early thoughts about the revolutions in North Africa. (As it happened, the Feb. 18 presidential elections in Uganda saw Yoweri Museveni extend his twenty-five-year rule over Uganda with 68% of the vote, despite widespread and credible allegations of bribery and vote-rigging.)
I asked Mamdani if he thought the events in Egypt and Tunisia could have any influence in Uganda. He told me, “You have to remember that we had our civil war [in 1980-6].” The chaos that Hosni Mubarak swore would follow his removal, Mamdani noted, was something that Museveni was counting on Ugandans to remember. “It’s still within living memory, and that’s a powerful deterrence.”
Still, he argued, “it’s hard to overestimate what’s happening in Egypt.” When I asked for specifics, he said that beyond their immediate and local effects, the events in Tunisia and Egypt offered the world a new image of Arab identity. The theme is one that has occupied Mamdani for some time. In his 2005 book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, Mamdani identified the dominant Western view of Islam after 9/11 as one that saw Muslims as captives of their own culture, incapable of any but destructive responses to the demands of modernity:
In post-9/11 America, Culture Talk has come to focus on Islam and Muslims who made culture only at the beginning of creation, as some extraordinary, prophetic act. After that, it seems Muslims just conformed to culture. According to some, our culture seems to have no history, no politics, and no debates, so that all Muslims are just plain bad. According to others, there is a history, a politics, even debates, and there are good Muslims and bad Muslims. In both versions, history seems to have petrified into a lifeless custom of an antique people who inhabit antique lands.
Needless to say, Mamdani rejected both of these views. But what he sees in the North African uprisings, he told me, is a potent image of Arab political agency. “The Arab no longer appears in the figure of the terrorist. The Egyptians you see are young and old, Muslim and Christian, even babies.”
That shift, he suggested, could have critical geopolitical ramifications. “It could give us the solution to the Palestinian problem. The specter of the Arab terrorist has had a powerful effect on the average American and the average Israeli. If that changes, it may prompt a recognition that it’s time to solve the Palestinian problem. Already you can see some officials talking about it.”
Mamdani also expressed hope that the North African revolutions would put an end to the post-9/11 style of American foreign policy. “It’s significant that Obama has come to power at a time of U.S. decline,” Mamdani said, suggesting that Obama was the perfect person to do the kind of public posturing that America’s bifurcated foreign policy requires. The president could offer up the pious rhetoric of human rights far more credibly than George W. Bush, while at the same time authorizing a huge security footprint around the world.
But now, Mamdani suggests, “the U.S. has the chance to rethink its whole strategy. It’s the kind of moment that comes in the wake of losses, a chance to recut the foreign-policy cloth in the light of America’s declining empire.” The popular uprisings in North Africa and the geopolitical rejiggering that is sure to follow offer the U.S. a chance to prove its commitment to ideals like popular sovereignty and democracy promotion. “That is Obama's challenge and his opportunity.”
I left Mamdani’s office about two hours before a military spokesman announced Hosni Mubarak’s resignation on Egyptian state television. Even at that late hour, after the occupation of Tahrir Square had survived more than two weeks, the course of the protests seemed unpredictable. I asked Mamdani what he thought about the prospects for a revolution. He was optimistic.“You’ve got to remember: these are the people who built the pyramids. They can draw on that, and more, as they seek to move immovable objects.”
The Ramanujan of Chess
by Hartosh Singh Bal
The perils of writing about Ramanujan, as I did in my last 3QD column, is that there will always be those who insist that a better educated Ramanujan would have been a worse mathematician. One response is to say that by the same token a worse educated Euler would have been a better mathematician, an argument that to my knowledge has never been made, another is to relate a remarkable story that parallels the tale of Ramanujan. A story that is reasonably well known within the world of chess but has somehow escaped the attention of the world outside.
In the telling of the story much of what I quote is borrowed from several sources, the most important being a compilation by Edward Winter. The material available is insufficient to piece together a life but it is enough to outline the story. In 1929, a man from Sargodha in Punjab arrived in England, part of the entourage of a Nawab. He had learnt chess in the Indian way, the modern form played in the West had some significant modifications, and he finished last in the first tournament he played. He learnt from the experience and within months went on to win the British Chess Championship, repeating the feat in 1932 and 1933. He also played top board for Britain in three chess Olympiads registering impressive performances against some of the top players in the world. His one game against the Cuban world champion Jose Raul Capablanca was a victorious masterpiece, and is counted among the great games of all times. And then in 1933 he disappeared, headed back to what is today Pakistan with his patron, never to play competitive international chess again.
The talented chess player and writer Reuben Fine, a contemporary, has written of him:
The story of the Indian Sultan Khan turned out to be a most unusual one. The “Sultan” was not the term of status that we supposed it to be; it was merely a first name. In fact, Sultan Khan was actually a kind of serf on the estate of a maharajah when his chess genius was discovered. He spoke English poorly, and kept score in Hindustani. It was said that he could not even read the European notations.
After the tournament [the 1933 Folkestone Olympiad] the American team was invited to the home of Sultan Khan’s master in London. When we were ushered in we were greeted by the maharajah with the remark, “It is an honor for you to be here; ordinarily I converse only with my greyhounds.” Although he was a Mohammedan, the maharajah had been granted special permission to drink intoxicating beverages, and he made liberal use of this dispensation. He presented us with a four-page printed biography telling of his life and exploits; so far as we could see his greatest achievement was to have been born a maharajah. In the meantime Sultan Khan, who was our real entrée to his presence, was treated as a servant by the maharajah (which in fact he was according to Indian law), and we found ourselves in the peculiar position of being waited on at table by a chess grand master.
The maharajah in question was Malik Umar Hayat Tiwana, father of Malik Khizr Hayat, the Unionist chief minister of Punjab for the five eventful years leading up to Partition. But the years that matter in this story are the ones the father spent in London from 1929 to 1933. One of the largest landlords in Punjab, he was, in addition to his greyhounds, passionate about ``motoring, polo, pig-sticking, riding, shooting, athletics, hawking, coursing’’, the last with enough interest for him to become President of the British Falconers' Club.
The story of Sultan Khan being a serf seems unlikely, in all likelihood he was part of a network of patronage that may have included musicians, wrestlers and talented chess players. This is at best a surmise because it is difficult to reconstruct any information about Sultan Khan before his arrival in England. What seems to be commonly agreed is that he knew almost no English, he had no knowledge of the theory of modern chess that had developed in the West or the games between top chess players that had been recorded for at least fifty years before his arrival.
He was trained in the Indian system, which differs in two important ways from modern chess. It does not allow the pawn to be moved two steps in the first move, nor does it permit the interchange of the king and rook that goes by the name of castling. Both these differences strongly impact the opening moves and so it is safe to say he was unaware of much of the modern theoretical developments in the opening.
It is for this reason that the Oxford Companion to Chess states, ``When Sultan Khan first travelled to Europe his English was so rudimentary that he needed an interpreter. Unable to read or write, he never studied any books on the game, and he was put into the hands of trainers who were also his rivals in play. He never mastered openings which, by nature empirical, cannot be learned by the application of common sense alone. Under these adverse circumstances, and having known international chess for a mere seven years, only half of which was spent in Europe, Sultan Khan nevertheless had few peers in the middlegame, was among the world's best two or three endgame players, and one of the world's best ten players. This achievement brought admiration from Capablanca who called him a genius, an accolade he rarely bestowed.’’
The parallels between Ramanujan and Sultan Khan’s stories are striking. Both were geniuses largely untutored in the vast theoretical development of their respective fields in the West who nonetheless managed a proficiency that enabled a journey to England. Once in England they brought an insight to their work that ranked them amidst the very best in their profession. In Ramanujan’s case his career was cut short by an untimely death, in Sultan Khan’s case much the same impact was achieved by his return to Sargodha.
But to make something of these parallels it is necessary to compare and contrast chess and mathematics. Some of the differences are obvious, computers today outperform humans at chess, they have barely made a dent in trying to do mathematics. This points to one substantive difference, chess is a huge but finite endeavor where both humans and computers narrow down a large number of possibilities at any stage by the prior knowledge and experience they bring to each game. In this context today it is possible to speak of a player’s intuition but it is no longer possible to talk of an inexplicable insight that leads to a move that no one could have foreseen.
The parallels are equally obvious, merit in either field is not a subjective measure, good chess players and mathematicians prove themselves. There are even some similarities in the process of arriving at mathematical truths and a chess game. The opening is the equivalent of the theoretical study that goes into tackling a problem but it is the middlegame and endgame where players must bring their talent to bear. There are good chess players with a limited opening repertoire, just as there are mathematicians whose knowledge of theory is not extensive but no one who plays the middlegame badly can ever be considered a great chess player.
Both Ramanujan and Sultan Khan were badly served by their lack of theoretical knowledge, deprived as they were of the education that their peers in the West received. But in either case exceptional talent ensured each left a mark. It is no wonder that the one book on Sultan Khan, a compilation of his best games, resorts to the oldest possible stereotype, casting Sultan Khan as an `Indian mystic’.
This is reminiscent of the kind of labels that are still affixed to Ramanujan. But in the case of Sultan Khan they are even less defensible because the step by step process of playing chess is far more amenable to analysis than the leap of imagination that leads to mathematical insight.
What marked Sultan Khan’s chess was his positional mastery, his games exemplify the very rationality that has often been seen as the hallmark of Western thought. Sultan Khan’s knowledge of the Western opening repertoire improved his game. In his case it is rather clear that if he had been better educated in chess theory, if he did not have to face the handicap of dealing with the fifty extra years of preparation that each opponent of his in the west brought to the board in every game, he would have not been just one of the best players of his times, he would have been one of the best players of all times. This suggests a similar conclusion should apply in Ramanujan’s case.
From the series Mirror Paintings.
Silk screen prints on polished steel.
Lovers tiff, impending divorce or trial separation?
by Omar Ali
On the 27th of January, while driving through Mozang (an extremely crowded section of Lahore city) in a rented Honda Civic, American citizen Raymond Davis shot two men who were riding a motorcycle. Soon afterwards, another vehicle that was racing to (presumably) rescue Mr. Davis, ran over a third person and killed him too. These seem to be the only undisputed facts about the event. Shortly afterwards, Pakistani TV channels showed one of the dead men with a revolver and an ammunition belt around his waist. It was also claimed that the two men were carrying several mobile phones and possible some other stolen items. But soon after the event, the story began to change. From a robbery attempt gone bad, it morphed into Mr. Davis assassinating two young men without obvious cause. Raymond’s own status was immediately in dispute and within a few days the network of websites that is thought to represent the views of Pakistan’s deep state were stating that Davis was a CIA agent, he was being tailed by the ISI and he had shot two ISI agents. They also claimed Davis was working with the “bad Taliban” to do bad things in Pakistan, while trying to spy on the “good Taliban” and other virtuous jihadist organizations like the LET.
Since then, the US has itself admitted that he worked for the CIA and relatively sober Pakistani military analysts have hinted that the two victims were ISI agents who had been tailing Raymond for over an hour.Much is being made of these revelations, but to an outsider it seems obvious that his status cannot have been a surprise to the ISI. You cannot have 5 CIA agents renting houses in Lahore and tailing people without the ISI knowing about it. Nor would it be a huge surprise to learn that a CIA agent was there under diplomatic cover; all countries get diplomatic status for their spies and if the host country does not like a spy, they can always kick him out by declaring him persona non grata. The legal question revolves around whether he formally had diplomatic status or not, whether diplomatic status qualifies him for immunity once a truly serious crime has been committed, and what exactly happened in Mozang (was it an attempted robbery and therefore self-defense, or did he shoot two ISI agents, with or without provocation, or were they terrorists, or something else?).
But the strategic question is more interesting: why, after the event, did psyops organs of the deep state jump all over the case? Clearly, if he shot two robbers and the ISI did not want a fuss, they could have used their vast media resources to project exactly that story and he would have been out of there in no time. If he shot two of their men then the issue becomes more complicated, but at a strategic level, it remains Pakistan’s choice: whether to make it a huge issue or settle it quietly. Time will tell if the quiet option was dropped because of American ham-handedness and arrogance, or the ISI opting for confrontation. But it was clearly dropped and a very public confrontation was encouraged, with all the usual suspects in action. But to what end? Does the ISI want a divorce or is this a lover’s quarrel, to be made up after the CIA coughs up flowers and some new concessions? It seems the smart money is on the latter scenario (making up after a tiff, rather than an actual divorce). Pakistani friends whose opinion I respect insist that Pakistan has the US over a barrel right now and will get what it wants, then quietly let Raymond go, or arrange some other face-saving deal for all concerned. But there is always the chance that carefully calculated operations can go awry. Even if the ISI only planned to push the CIA a little and get them to tone down some overly intrusive operations and get some concessions on India-specific Jihadis and other issues dear to their little hearts, the change in public and official opinion on both sides may not be turned on and off like a tap. They may have wanted to push to the edge and step back at the last moment (a skill at which they consider themselves great masters) but there is such a thing as “too much success”. One hopes they know what they are doing, but people who are old enough to remember 1971 and Kargil may be excused for feeling a little trepidation; this crowd has been known to overestimate their skills. The irony is, Kiyani sahib is probably the smartest man to ever hold that exalted position at the head of GHQ (and is an amazing genius compared to the last man in that position) and it will be sad to see things go south on his watch. And even if the US has no option but to cooperate, the extremism and anti-Americanism that has been fanned within Pakistan may one day come back to haunt them.
When I wrote about “Pakistan predictions” last month, I got some flak from liberal friends for being insensitive and politically incorrect (too negative about certain third world groups, not enough condemnation of American imperialism). I promised to say more about this topic in this month’s piece. First of all, it is true that I assume that people in Pakistan have plans and ambitions of their own. I also assumes that the US is not some kind of God-like power. These assumptions run contrary to the kind of Eurocentrism that is commonplace in Western liberal academia and that assigns agency only to White people, while regarding Brown people as almost childlike victims of their superiors in the West (I am obviously being deliberately provocative in my choice of words…these are not the words which the liberals themselves would ever use about their beliefs, but I do feel that while these words are crude and inflammatory, I think they are still an accurate depiction of a certain mindset). But I think I will stick by those assumptions because I regard the fashionable Western (and Westernized) liberal view as being unconsciously racist and do not find their exalted opinion of imperialist prowess to be credible.
In addition there are also some specific delusions about Afghanistan and Pakistan that I think need to be confronted in this matter and I will try to explain my position about them a little.
1. The Imran Khan delusion: this delusion holds that all was well in Afghanistan and Pakistan until America invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and upset the peaceful status quo. According to this version of events the US and other powers got General Zia to arm and train Jihadist terrorists to fight the Russians in Afghanistan (no Pakistani interest in this scheme is implied) and then left Afghanistan without building schools and hospitals in 1992. Then things sort of coasted along more or less peacefully for the next 12 years, until 9-11 (which is frequently believed to be a Mossad-CIA operation) happened. After this event, the US came and said “we want our old friends dead now”. Since then, Pakistan has been dutifully trying to kill these maniacs and the current Pakistani government in particular is trying its best to kill them and suffering vastly in the process, so it is unfair of the US to ask us to "do more". I think this version of events misses some crucial points.
First of all, the jihadi project was indeed a CIA project, but it was also our project from the very beginning. America wanted Russia humbled in Afghanistan, but we wanted that humbling to be done by Islamist jihadis under our control. Our leaders (specifically Zia and Akhtar Abdul Rahman) also had the “vision” to see in this an opportunity to settle scores with India and plant the seeds of a wider area of influence in Central Asia, and so on and so forth. Second, after the CIA finished its dirty business in Afghanistan and left, “we” multiplied the jihadi infrastructure by 10. We redirected it to Kashmir and spread it throughout Pakistan. Of course the Westoxicated middle class had very little notion of what was going on. These were serious things, handled by serious people in the security establishment, not shared with the rest of the country except on a “need to know basis”. But it is disingenuous to think the multiplication of jihadi militias throughout the nineties was also America's fault (though the US did ignore it, perhaps because they thought it improves their leverage over India, perhaps because they were busy with other things). Then, after 9-11 (which was not an inside job in my view, primarily because I see no reason to think that the US secret agencies are capable of such vast and successful deception), “we” (the Pakistani security services) protected good jihadis and failed to go after their indoctrination and finance pipelines because “we" wanted the infrastructure kept alive for future use against India.
Of course, even if the rickety state apparatus has decided to go all out against the jihadis, the process will be neither pretty nor quick. There is no simple way to put the genie back into the bottle. The half million who are already trained (Arif Jamal's figure in Shadow War) will have to be dealt with. Luckily, some have already moved on to other occupations and others have become simple criminals, busy with kidnapping and armed robbery. But the more committed ones will have to be disarmed and jailed or killed and they are not easy targets. In fact, those with a strong stomach can watch this video to see that even the ex-Godfathers of the Taliban are not safe from their wrath. These are the Kharijis of today; they are not amenable to reason. In any case, in order to stop them the state will have to shut down their financing, crack down on their above-ground supporters and win the battle of ideas in the mind of the public (and improve its functioning in general and make it less unjust, deficiencies it shares with India's rickety state). None of that can succeed if the state's own paid propagandists are busy spreading confusion and propaganda that undermines this effort. It will also not succeed if the army is simultaneously trying to protect assets it hopes to use against India (because the “good jihadis” don’t seem to understand the distinction and frequently help out the “bad jihadis”). It will also not succeed if Saudi and Gulf financing is not being intercepted. In short, it will not stop unless the India-centric, zero-sum national security mindset is changed because that mindset leads to these people and their mentors being protected. For proof of this, you need to look no further than Musharraf’s moronic interviews with Der Spiegel and the Atlantic council . In fact Put those interviews together with Admiral Fasih Bokhari's article and you can see that the overgrown adolescents who are America's great white hope in Pakistan are perhaps more dangerous and deluded than the ball-scratching, nose-dripping, corrupt gangsters in the civilian political parties. But, military men being military men, no Pentagon general seems to be able to resist the sight of a man in a finely starched uniform, especially if he also likes whisky (the one sure sign of "enlightened moderation", if the diplomatic reports of the US embassy from the last 50 years are any guide).
I am aware that some people think that the primary reason this effort is not being conducted effectively is not because of any real or imagined Indian threat but because the existence of this insurgency is in fact our ticket to more aid and assistance. I personally think this is too conspiracy-minded, but who knows. Another factor to consider is the role of the Military-Mullah alliance in domestic Pakistani politics. i.e. the fact that the army uses the mullahs as muscle power against secularists, mainstream politicians and "pro-Indian" elements. And of course, some demented ideologically committed junior officers may find the jihadists useful against heretics like Shias and Ismailis and other "undesirables". The last category (I hope) is confined to the lower ranks. The senior officers are not so much jihadist, as they are limited in their imagination and hooked on India-hatred and US aid, and not necessarily in that order.
2. The romantic Left delusion. This is the belief that Pakistan’s corrupt elite deserves to be overthrown by the lower classes and the Taliban are (an unfortunate but expected) instrument of this necessary revolution. Actually the first part of this delusion is not a delusion. The Pakistani elite is not just corrupt, they have been practically suicidal. Where other corrupt third world elites have mismanaged the state, provided poor governance, oppressed the poor and failed to evolve a stable political system, Pakistan’s elite (which in this case means the army high command and their supporters) have done something no other third world elite has managed. They have armed, trained and encouraged their own executioners in the course of a demented scheme of trying to wrest Kashmir from India while laying the foundation for a mini-empire in central Asia. But the second part of this delusion is the real delusion here. The Pakistani Taliban is not the Bolshevik party; in fact, they are not even the Iranian Mullahs. They were created by the army as an outgrowth of the American-sponsored Afghan jihad. Their leadership is derived from the Madrasahs and think tanks sponsored by Saudi money and inspired by Syed Qutb and the most virulent Wahhabi and Salafist clerics in the world. They were guided by the jihadist faction of GHQ, men inspired by Maudoodi and his children, not by Marx or even Ali Shariati. They have absolutely no workable social or economic plan. If they do overthrow the elite, what follows will be a nightmare of historic proportions. If the whole thing does not dissolve into anarchy, it will be stabilized by an army coup. After purging liberals and hanging Veena Malik, the dictatorship of the mullahtariat will degenerate into an Islamic version of Myanmar, not revolutionary Iran or Castro’s Cuba.
So, coming back to our original topic: does the Raymond Davis affair reflect a lover’s spat or an impending divorce? My guess is that its not a divorce. The US has few options and neither does Pakistan. We are probably in for more of the same, but with a chance that one of these days the ISI will find itself the victim of too much success and will not be able to pull back from the brink of divorce. Meanwhile, when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything is a nail. So I expect the state department to pass out more money to GHQ, I expect the CIA to fund some new insane lunatic fringe to counter their last lunatic fringe, I expect the Pentagon to ask for more money for weapons and a good hard "shock and awe campaign", I expect professors in San Francisco to blame colonialism, and I expect Islamists to blow themselves up with even greater devotion. May Allah protect us from anything worse.
Criminal Behavior American-Style
The first in the TEACHED short film series. To learn more, go to www.teached.org.
The don of Pérignon
A year ago (February 2010) I met, in Lagos, Nigeria, Pascal Pecriaux, “Ambassador” for French champagne brand Moët & Chandon. The profile below provides insight into Pecriaux’s life – in and out of wine-tasting – and the Nigerian obsession with champagne. Nigeria ‘discovered’ champagne in commercial quantities (by importation, of course) following the oil boom of the 1970s (starting in 1973/74 and lasting much of the decade). The love affair has continued to this day. Time Magazine reports that the coup-plotters who murdered Nigerian Head of State, Murtala Mohammed, on February 13, 1976, "apparently made their move after an all-night champagne party."
I wrote this piece not long after meeting Pecriaux:
By Tolu Ogunlesi
On a Friday afternoon at the Lagos Sheraton, a group of people are gathered in one of the banquet rooms. Most are Sheraton staff – waiters and waitresses. There are also a few journalists, like me. We are all waiting for Pascal Pecriaux.
Pecriaux is a “Wine Ambassador” who has flown all the way from the village of Champagne in France, to spread the gospel of Moët to a Nigerian audience. By the time he steps into the room, two hours behind schedule, we are not the only ones waiting for him. Rows of empty champagne flutes line the tables in front of us, and half a dozen or so bottles peek from ice-boxes at the far end of the room.
Moët is one of the most easily recognizable badges of honour flaunted by Nigeria’s elite, especially its young upwardly mobile class. If the frequency of its appearance in the lyrics of Nigerian hiphop songs and in music videos is anything to go by, Marc Wozniak, Deputy General Manager of the Lagos Sheraton, is absolutely right when he says that Moët is “the most common and most well-known champagne in Nigeria.” David Hourdry, Moët Hennessy’s Market Manager for Western Africa says that “Nigeria is today the biggest market for Moët & Chandon in all Africa.”
In his heavily accented English Pecriaux encourages us to ask questions. “I really can be boring,” he quips. But his job, which he describes as travelling around the world “to taste our champagne and to talk”, is certainly not boring. In the last decade he has visited 60 countries.
Pecriaux has worked with Moët & Chandon since 1978, when, over a one-month period, he “changed everything” – moved homes, got married and changed jobs (his old job was as an internal auditor at Unilever). Around that time he even started to grow a moustache as well (his wife took ill, and he settled on the idea of a moustache to amuse her). “But at the time the moustache was brown. Now it is white,” he quickly reminds me. Unlike the moustache, however, I doubt that the bald patch atop his head is a personal choice.
Travelling the world tasting and talking champagne has given him tremendous insight into patterns of human behaviour across the world. He is dismayed by consumers who, because of inexperience, “consider champagne [merely] as a drink of pleasure and of celebration, and [thus] pay less attention to the complexity of the wine and the fact that it is wine.” Such consumers, he says, are only interested in consuming champagne because it is “something fashionable and expensive, which can be replaced by any other fashionable thing.”
The Russians were like that at first, he says. On his first trip to that country (which, before his first trip there, hadn’t hosted a “champagne training” since the Russian revolution in 1917), he observed that “[they] were not really interested in quality, they were interested in brands, in spending as much money as possible on what they consumed.”
But things soon changed, the inexperience increasingly giving way to a sophisticated appreciation. On a return visit, two years later, “people were really asking questions… very precise and sometimes tricky questions.” He likens the Nigerian market to the Russian one, and foresees a similar transformation happening here. “I think that affluent Nigerians who enjoy Moët are also people who travel abroad, who meet foreigners, so are exposed to other experiences. Naturally they become more demanding and they try to understand the pleasure they have.”
If he hadn’t become a Moët Ambassador, what else would he have been? “[A] hermit,” he says, straight-faced. “The pleasure which I have with [Moët] probably cannot be replaced with something else.” Possibly not even his love for hot-air ballooning.
Pecriaux takes literature as seriously as his wines. “Mainly French classical literature,” he explains. “My best friend is a writer of the French renaissance of the 16th century, Michael du Montaigne, he wrote one big book which I’ve read maybe four times or five times.” His post-retirement reading list is intimidating: Balzac, Stendhal and Proust. “I made the choice a long time ago, with a few exceptions, to read dead authors, because then there’s a natural selection… [the] selection is made by time. If after two centuries a writer is still printed, he’s still talked about; maybe this means he’s worth reading.”
This trip is his first to Lagos, and he’s loved every bit of it. He says it reminds him of his year-long stay in Ivory Coast in the early 1970s, on French military service. “It was my first experience of another culture; I’m still marked by it. I still feel it, it was a great experience. It’s the Africa I love, and I found elements of it [in Lagos].”
When he retires, in a few months, it’ll be to “take care of my cellar, drink my wines instead of drinking my employer’s wines, read my books, take care of my garden, settle down and travel for my own pleasure.”
Moët is manufactured from three different varieties of grapes: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. “What really matters is the raw material,” says Pecriaux. He explains that the wine-making process can only “maintain / magnify” the innate qualities of the grapes.
The grapes must possess “very specific characteristics”, conferred by the weather – which varies from year to year. One important quality the grapes must possess to make the final cut is that they must be “just ripe”. Coming a close second to the quality and character of the grapes is the wine-making process (“Méthode Champenoise”).
At harvest, the grapes are picked by a band of 3,000 “pickers” employed by Moët & Chandon. Picking is done only by hand. The grapes are then taken in small baskets to processing centers (the company currently has six of those). Everything possible is done to avoid damage to the grapes. At the processing centers the grapes are crushed gently, so gently that only 2,500 litres of wine is taken from 4,000 kg of fruit; and each batch of wine is transferred into a giant stainless steel vat. (The company has 700 of those vats).
The choice of stainless steel is to help minimize the risk of oxidation of the wine. With the juice sitting in the vats, waiting patiently to be turned into wine, Moët’s secret practices are ready to commence. The wine house has its own secret strains of yeast (“yeast that respects the aromas coming from the grapes”) to facilitate the fermentation process.
Following this is the blending process, where batches (from different vats, and even different years) are combined by a team of 11 “winemakers”. The blending is done in a giant vat (6,000 hectolitre capacity). When full the vat will contain hundreds of thousands of bubbles.
The wine is then transferred into bottles. Special strains of yeast, as well as rock sugar, are added to the bottles, which are sealed with crown-corks. A second round of fermentation, which may last weeks, takes place in the bottles. The wine-making process is deemed completed only at the discretion of the “Master Blender”.
After the secondary fermentation, impurities are expelled from the bottles by a special freezing technique, sugar is added, and the bottles are corked, and labelled. The world’s leading champagne, and one of its finest luxury brands, is born.
'Pop Something' (below), by Nigerian dentist-turned-hiphop-musician, Dr. Sid, is one of the country's best known Champagne-Anthems. Yahoozee, another of those anthems, proclaims a manifesto of "Champagne Hennessy Moët for everybody." The Moët brand is a too-conspicuous feature in the song's video. Yahoozee, a shameless celebration of the art - and rewards - of email scamming, and the cash-suffused lives of its youthful practitioners, is the song which famously got former US Secretary of State, Colin Powell dancing, at the ThisDay Music and Fashion Festival in London in 2008. (None of the blame should go to Mr. Powell though; he could not have been expected to understand the lyrics, which are a mixture of Yoruba, pidgin English and urban Nigerian slang.)
A Simple Ontology
It may be that a flower’s petals
are held to stems by thought
and the wind is a counter-thought
that plucks petals from stems,
shifts them across a field
and sets them softly upon the grass
to repose in contemplative resolution
next to the notion of a grub-pulling crow
For all I know the wind itself may be
a palpable bright idea,
something about motion
and the abhorrence of vacuums
something about coming and going,
about ferocity, about stillness
about war and the absence of war
Maybe the moon is the concept of fullness,
loss, abatement, regeneration from slivers,
hope at the hour of the wolf, the opposite of
darkness at the break of noon, the
upside of shadow
For all I know Descartes may have had it right
and this, from horizon to horizon, may be
a simple ontology, an inherent
daisy chain of ideas
chasing its tail
Anyway, one idea
conceived in this synapse nest
is to harvest thought from thought
under a perception of blue
while the conception of breeze
riffles the hint of hair
and I place them like dreams of plums
into the essence of basket
and give them with the intention of love
to my belief in the natural
thought of you
by Jim Culleny
Did viruses invent DNA?
by George Wilkinson
Cells across the tree of life are built with very similar components: A wall to keep everything in, DNA which stores the genome, and RNA and protein which take care of the mechanics and metabolism. These components are heavily interdependent, and it is an ongoing puzzle how the modern cell emerged from the prebiotic chemistry of early earth. (See Wikipedia here ). There are two major approaches to try to bridge this gap. The first is to try to synthesize biotic compounds from a soup of plausible precurors, as in Miller and Urey’s “lightning experiment.” [Miller shown performing the experiment in photo on the right.] The converse approach is to scrutinize living organisms for hints of their ancestors, specifically the Last Universal Cellular Ancestor (LUCA).
RNA was likely to be among the very first of the modern information polymer classes to emerge, because RNAs can do the jobs of genome storage (now done mainly by DNA) and enzymatic action (now done mainly by protein). Proteins might have come second, and DNA last. So how did DNA take over the job of genome storage?
There are some clues from comparative genomics that the DNA world developed subsequent to LUCA. The handling of RNA (transcription, translation) is similar among all the major domains of life, suggesting that these tools were present in the common ancestor of all present-day cells and diverged subsequently in archaea, bacteria, and eukaryotes. In contrast, the means of handling and copying DNA vary quite a bit, with, for example, the major bacterial DNA processing enzymes lacking archaeal/eukaryotic homologs. DNA polymerases (the copying enzymes) in the various domains of life are in each case more closely related to viral proteins than to comparable proteins from the other domains of life. These data, and recent appreciation of the life-like capabilities of giant viruses, have led some researchers to an interesting suggestion: DNA as a genomic storage compound originated in viruses as a way of evading the defenses of ancient cells.
According to this view, ancient viruses, as with the ones today, could only make copies of themselves by succesfully infecting a host. So they become engines of innovation, using every possible dodge to get their genetic payload inside the host cell. In an early, RNA-protein world, there would not be enzymes to degrade DNA, so a virus encoded by DNA would have a big survival advantage. This suggests a scenario in which a clever parasite brings along DNA plus the means of copying DNA-- a different parasite at least for bacteria and archaea/eukaryotes-- and hijacks the cell's existing interpretation equipment. The symbiosis of virus plus RNA/protein cell eventually resulted in the modern arrangement of DNA, RNA and protein.
With this topic it is important to realize that the ideas are very speculative and contentious. The attraction of this idea- that the parasite-prey relationship is a very old evolutionary engine- actually also makes trouble because modern day parasites and prey, especially in the microbial world, exchange and exapt whole genetic modules. There is thus even a middle view, in which two-way “technology transfers” between viruses and canonical cellular life will have completely obscured DNA's origins.
Can Egypt Be Turkey?
by Jenny White
Turkey has been bandied about this past week as a model to be emulated by the new nations being born like small supernovas across the Middle East. Turkey was founded by a powerful military that doesn’t flinch from coups, but has also had a functioning and fair, if flawed, electoral democracy since 1950. The country currently appears to have found a place for Islamic piety within its political system without jamming any of its democratic wheels, although the process has been noisy and contentious. Its present elected government, under the Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish acronym AKP), consists primarily of politicians who see themselves as pious individuals running a secular system. Some Turks believe that their intentions are secular, some don’t, but the democratic wheels keep turning. The AKP government has managed to make Turkey’s economy the fifteenth biggest in the world in GDP, only lightly sideswiped by the global turndown. There’s another election coming up this June and AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has promised that if his party doesn’t win, he’ll leave politics. All indicators show that he has nothing to worry about, but the critical element of his promise is the assumption that his party could lose, and then he would leave. That’s the trick of democracy that “eternal leaders” in the Middle East haven’t come to terms with. You lose, you leave. What has to be in place for this simple equation to become as second-nature as it is in Turkey? I happen to be teaching a course on Turkey this semester, so I posed the question to my students: Would the “Turkey Model” work in the Middle East? Here are some of the variables they came up with.
Who chooses the system? Is it top-down or bottom-up?
Turkey’s democracy was an entirely top-down imposition by Ottoman officers and bureaucrats who had wrestled back the territory that now makes up Turkey from European powers that had conquered the Ottoman Empire in WWI. Their leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was celebrated as a war hero, the savior of Turkey, and became its first president. He initiated extreme reforms, among them replacing Ottoman with the Latin alphabet (imagine someone telling you that in six months time, we’ll only be using Arabic script) and requiring men and women to emulate western fashion; veiling was discouraged and outright banned for civil servants, teachers, students, doctors.
What will be the central elements of a new national identity? Islam? Ethnicity? Nationalism? Who gets left out?
Early in the Republic, the Turkish state took control of mosques and religious instruction in schools; imams became civil servants and their sermons were vetted. Ataturk outlawed Islamic brotherhoods, even the ones that had supported his revolution, because he considered religion – especially the organized kind – to be potentially divisive, just like ethnic identities. Kurds were free to be full members of society and even members of parliament, but only if they did so as Turks. Unity became a fetish, and people with other ethnic and religious affiliations and identities were demonized or worse. Between 1923 and 1950, only one party – Ataturk’s Republican People’s Party – was in charge.
You would think that this top-down reorganization of the most basic elements of society would incur some resistance. Indeed, there were rebellions led, for instance, by the Nakshibendi Islamic brotherhood, which objected to the Turkish Grand National Assembly's summary vote to eliminate the Khalifate, a formal positon of leadership of the world’s Muslims. Kurds weren’t happy either (although the syncretistic minority Alevi Kurds tended to support the new regime), nor were non-Muslims, who suffered one pogrom and indignity after another. And most of the country still had no clue about what was going on. Three-quarters of the population were peasants in the countryside, where it might take days to ride a donkey from one village to another.
So the reforms primarily affected the few urban centers where the already westernized bureaucrats and officers lived. Last week, Egypt's Tahrir Square was populated by Muslim and Christian Egyptians, young secular techies and Muslim Brothers, men and women – their history of friction laid aside for the revolution. Egyptians will be weaving a new national unity from their own tattered skeins of identities.
Where are the women?
Turkish women were encouraged to attend university, enter the professions, to vote and populate the public sphere –women’s civilized modernity becoming the prime exhibit in the Kemalist revolution’s display window. Despite a highly visible contingent of educated women in the professions, though, today Turkey ranks near the bottom on international measurements of women’s status, due primarily to women’s extremely low and still declining labor participation rate (now 22%, down from 34% in 1988) and the low numbers of women in public life. When the Grand National Assembly was constituted, Ataturk appointed a few women MPs. Women’s representation in parliament has only recently increased – to 9 percent. Just this week, Turkey’s Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors elected 211 judges to the Supreme Court of Appeals and the Council of State. Only six were women.
A common pattern seems to be that during a revolution women are activists, heroines in the line of fire, and up-front emblems of the struggle for equality and liberty. But once the revolution is won and becomes consolidated as political work, that is the arena of men, and women are asked to please step into this comfy, honorable glassed-in space where you can be seen, but not heard. Where are the women from Egypt’s Tahrir Square in the negotiations with the army for a new constitution, a new national system?
Is there a charismatic leader? What is his intention?
Ataturk was an autocratic but beloved dictator, by all accounts a charismatic man, who planned to institute elections when he thought the country was ready – when they had imbibed national unity and become educated in the principles of the Kemalist plan. The upshot is that the founding myth of a military strongman who brings democracy (think, the Egyptian military at this moment) only works if the strongman has democratic intentions to begin with and is popular or charismatic enough to make the necessary changes in education, lifestyle, economy, and so on, that produce a productive, cohesive nation. Turkey isn’t there yet, even after sixty years of free elections. The Kurdish problem continues to bite; the army for a long time felt no compunction to take over the government or push out politicians if they deviated from the Kemalist path of unity.
What is the army’s role?
The military early on appointed itself as guardian of Ataturk’s principles and of the unity and integrity of the state, stepping in at will to correct the "dangerous" populist tendencies of the elected governments. Last week my class discussed Turkey’s first multi-party election in 1950 and its aftermath a decade later -- a coup by a military that thought the popularly elected government liked power a bit too much and was pandering to Islam. The 1971 coup was followed by new elections and yet another coup in 1980 -- a coup every decade. We fast-forwarded from time to time to see where all this was headed – the more radical Islamist parties of the 1990s, replaced by their moderate offspring, the AKP, that these days keeps winning elections and recently has managed to put the army into a box. Here is another important characteristic of the Turkish model over most of the past sixty years: The army carries out a coup, rewrites the constitution, then steps back and allows elections. The Turkish army sees itself as the guardian of democracy.
Will Egypt’s army step back and allow the people to elect whomever they choose? Will the elected party be willing to step down if it is thrown out in the next round? In the region, the answers to these questions generally have been no. Whereas Turkey’s army (or its Constitutional Court) has removed governments from power that it believes are too “Islamic” or ineffectual or authoritarian, they’ve stepped back to let their citizens try again. And again. (Inevitably in post-coup elections, the army’s favored candidate does not win.) Compare this to other countries in the region where the army dislikes the ideological or religious stand of the elected party, takes over and stays in power, not trusting the process. Or elections are rigged so the same party stays in power for decades, allowing the army, like other government supporters, to grow fat and rich.
Who in the region has any experience with giving up power willingly? Can that be learned as a principle, a rule, like telling time on your watch? Or does it have to be ingrained from a young age along with an appreciation of the satisfactions of democracy and the benefits of accommodating the will of the people? Does democracy have to be learned, and can an army learn it? Much depends on the personality and intention of the strongman.
Was there a colonial history? Does the nation want to be like Europe, or throw off Europe?
Another important difference between Turkey and any country in the Middle East is that Turkey was never colonized, as was Egypt by the British, Libya by the Italians, Tunisia by the French, and so on. The Ottoman Turks were the colonial power in the region for hundreds of years before the Europeans barged in. So if they selected Western lifestyle elements, clothing styles, literature and architecture, as they had been doing since the 19th century, that was a choice made from a position of strength. Egyptian nationalists initially emulated the West, but in the 1970s, spurred by the Islamist movement, Egyptians began to reject the lifestyle of the colonizer. To be Egyptian meant to find your own non-European identifying national characteristics. Muslim dress, for instance, became national dress.
What role does political Islam play?
Arab nationalism made some inroads across the region as a unifying political identity, especially for the middle class, but young men migrating from the countryside found the Muslim Brotherhood more welcoming; it provided a network to find jobs, brides, and connections in the heartless cities. This is also true in Turkey, where the Kemalist nationalist ideal was pounded into the heads of generations of children, many of whom still gravitated to Islamic movements like the relatively recent and now widespread Fethullah Gülen movement that provides exactly that allure – education, job training, national and global business connections, and the warmth of community. Arab nationalism in the 1970s brought peasants into the cities to be educated, but there they also saw first-hand the system’s corruption and many injustices, driving them to seek economic justice through socialism and then through Islam. Is this an opportunity for unity, justice, and upward mobility, or is it a threat to democracy? That depends on whether and how the system addresses aspirations for social mobility, justice, and the desire to live a pious lifestyle.
In Turkey, despite military interference, one elected politician after another has added brick by brick the elements that shore up democracy when it becomes more than just voting, but rather allows the fractious merging of opposing views and lifestyles. The first freely elected government in 1950 built roads and factories that allowed millions of peasants to flood the cities for work. That government was deposed by the army in 1960 for being too autocratic and religious, and the prime minister was hanged. But with geographic mobility, social mobility became possible. And with social mobility, new sectors of the population came to power and got to define society. Empty stomachs keep people – and their sometimes disturbingly conservative and/or radical ideas, lifestyles, and demands -- down.
How is the economy doing? Can young men get married?
Can Turkey afford to experiment with incorporating Islam into the political system because people’s stomachs are full, weddings are subsidized, cheap products are widely available, and people believe they can get ahead, even if they probably can’t? Despite Turkey’s booming economy, the unemployment rate has stagnated around 10 percent for more than a decade. And there are still pockets of great poverty, especially in Turkey’s eastern, mostly Kurdish provinces. That’s where the Kurdish rebellion took hold and where the Marxist-Leninist Kurdish PKK and the Turkish army are still locked in a death grip. In the mid-1980s, after half a century of a state-controlled economy, Turkey opened its doors to the global economy and bloomed. Fruit and vegetable exports from Turkey’s fertile lands boomed, as did exports of manufactured items like refrigerators and televisions, and construction know-how. The expertise had been there, but had had nowhere to go. Mid-sized enterprises that had been stifled have recently let loose entrepreneurial jet trails.
Many of these were owned not by the secular Kemalist elites, but by pious businessmen from the provinces. Their success – the press called them the Anatolian Tigers – fed the development of an Islamic bourgeoisie with big houses and couture veiling, pious gated communities and vacation resorts, a whole Islamic lifestyle based on commodities and overlapping closely – and challenging -- the tastes of the secular elite. It’s one thing if the woman cleaning your kitchen floor is wearing a headscarf, but it’s quite another when a veiled woman arrives in an SUV to shop at your favorite trendy boutique. The Islamic bourgeoisie -- and the hope for upward mobility that they inspired – encouraged people to vote for parties like the AKP that seemed to embody that hope. A good proportion of AKP voters are not pious, but respond to that same hope. Some voters simply wanted their pious lifestyles to be respected, something they felt the secular and Kemalist parties did not do.
Like Turkey before the boom, Egyptian state industries provided redundant dead-end jobs for many people – a tea man for every floor. Egypt’s economy went global in the 1990s, but few of the profits trickled down. Wages have remained so low for decades that a tiny rise in the price of state-subsidized bread might mean that a man cannot marry. His family eats, say, ten loaves of bread a day in lieu of more expensive food, and saves a few pennies toward the apartment and dowry without which their son can’t marry. If the price of bread goes up a penny, there is nothing to save. The overthrow of Mubarak is much more than a bread riot, but surely one factor driving young men is that a small elite has hogged all the matrimony. If there is no satisfying economic transformation like Turkey’s that spreads the wealth and encourages entrepreneurship, or if the army sticks with sweatshop enterprises that they and their cronies control, then what would Egyptian voters look for down the road? Could there be a credible pious prosperity party like AKP? If not, what would parties have to offer their voters?
Is there mobilizing potential?
The talk is all about Twitter and Facebook as mobilizing engines of revolution. Overthrowing a dictator is a simple enough message, but will social networking work with more nuanced positions and issues? Who in Egypt’s hinterland would read Tweets from politicians about their stand on issues? Perhaps there could be virtual parties; Rachid Gannouchi, the Tunisian religious leader of the Nahda Party is said to have 73,000 Facebook friends.
When the Turkish Republic was founded, there was simply no communication. The Kemalist revolution incubated in the cities for two decades, allowing the system to be set up, the lifestyle expectations to sink in, an educational system to be fine-tuned that would produce Kemalist citizens. That system was then systematically expanded throughout the nation as it became accessible through roads. The nation was brought online slowly, so to speak, and there was time to write the program and tweak it before submitting it to the information shock of a multiparty electoral system. What country in the Middle East has that kind of time – or patience? The availability of instant communication lures us into imagining mass agreement and believing that everyone can be brought on board simultaneously for the long haul.
Do you see what I see?
I showed my class the results of a recent (pre-revolution) survey carried out by a Turkish think-tank. The Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) report surveyed people in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq and Iran about Turkey’s role in the Middle East. More than 65 percent of respondents said they felt Turkey could be a model for the region; 18 percent disagreed. Those who agreed did so for the following reasons: Turkey was Muslim; its economy; its democratic government; and its support for Palestinians and Muslims, in that order. Those who didn’t think Turkey was a good model for the region cited its secular political system, it's not Muslim enough, the country’s relations with Western nations, and because there is “no need for a model”, in that order. Most Arabs see the AKP as a religious party that found acceptance not just in a secularist Turkey but in Europe as well.
In other words, people in the Middle East seem to see the Turkish Model primarily as Muslim (whether they are pro or con). Yet when Westerners speak about the Turkish Model, they assume it will be secular. And the Turks? They are first and foremost Turkish nationalists and tend to view their own system, their society and even their Islam as intrinsically Turkish and superior. They’re willing to guide, share the benefit of their hard-accumulated wisdom, but don’t expect Egypt to become Turkey. As a student in my class exclaimed in exasperation, “The Middle East looks at Turkey and sees the Muslim; the Europeans focus on the democratic part, and Turks are focused on Turkishness.” Tweet that!
My Little Chickadee
Article and photos by Wayne Ferrier
She says she doesn't really go for millionaires, she rather prefers surfer dudes, SUV guys, et cetera, not Mr. Private Plane, even though she is known as the millionaire matchmaker. She has a hot new DVD out titled “How To Get Married In A Year,” but she is as yet unmarried herself. She has been called the Simon Cowell of dating, known for making quick, straight forward comments. I confess I had no idea who Patti Stranger was when I first saw her as a guest on the Nate Berkus show a couple weeks ago. I don't really watch much TV, and I only had The Nate Show on as background noise, when I heard Patti giving her dating advice to some of the people in the audience. Jen, a pretty blond, was invited to come up on stage, have a seat, and ask Patti for guidance.
Jen had been on a date and it was really, really awkward. Patti leaned forward interested. Jen revealed that they had met for the first time in a restaurant and it was going fine until they started talking about their hobbies. Jen's date said that his hobby was—of all things—birdwatching. Patti's face turned sour, registering first dismay then unabashed disgust. Nate saw Patti's intense reaction to Jen's revelation and burst into hysterical, almost embarrassed, laughter. While the audience roared, Nate's face turned a shade redder and stayed that way though the entire interaction. But this was the exact response Jen was looking for. She squealed, “Yes exactly! Patti, that's why I need help, because I just can't just look at him and say next! So I let him go on and on about this story about birdwatching.”
Patti's advice: “Every girl needs a hundred dollars in a different compartment of her purse called stash cash, you always have to have it, whether you're in a city or a suburb, it doesn't matter, to get out of Dodge. So you get up and you say to him, I think you're a really great guy, I think you're awesome, you're just not my type, I don't want to waste your time, I don't want to hold you up, I think I'm going to get going. But if I know somebody I'll send them your way. There's no wasting time, you're too hot and single to be wasting time on a birdwatcher!”
Jen replied, “Oh that's good!” To Nate's defense he didn't respond much, he wrapped it up and went onto the next question. I was a little taken aback. Are birdwatchers really that revolting? Maybe this explains why I haven't had a decent date in awhile. I'm not really a birdwatcher per se. I don't own a pair of binoculars, and I don't travel to all the best birding sites around North America just to see birds. However, when I find myself in those sites I often approach a birder and ask them a couple questions, as very often their knowledge of the local ecosystem may be rather extensive. I do admit to having a couple feeders hanging near my house. And I try to learn as much about birds as I can. I listen to their songs and attempt to learn who is who and what they're saying. According to Patti Stranger's standards, I don't have a lot going for me. I'm too old, even though I am around Patti Stranger's age. I probably won't become a millionaire anytime soon, unless I get lucky playing the lottery. I haven't been surfing in years. And I'm probably worse in habits than your common everyday variety birdwatcher. I'm into all kinds of nature, not just birds. This may explain my recent bombs on the dating scene. I do just about everything wrong. I once showed up on a date driving a Plymouth Voyager instead of an SUV. I know, I know! And once I elected to go to the Nature Preserve rather than to hike to the waterfall that the girl really wanted to see. Asked what I did over the weekend by another girl, I admitted that I had wasted a perfectly good Sunday studying aquatic invertebrates in a stream in the woods. She never called back. Now you know what kind of a guy I am—one of those who goes on and on about nature.
So here I go again. Relatively tiny, chickadees are unafraid of humans. Even wild caught birds rapidly adjust to captivity. There are more than forty species of them, chickadees and titmice (genus Parus), which are found in most habitats in the Northern Hemisphere. And this is why I'm primarily interested in them. They coexist well with humans. They even thrive living among us. In this way I am different from those environmentalists who worry endlessly over every fragile species and neglect, or even hate, the more robust ones. Chickadees have all those qualities that make them robust survivors. They are small, adaptable, can live close to or away from people. They tolerate a wide variety of habitats across a very large geographical range. Most northernly chickadee populations don't migrate, even in the absence of feeders. Yet they have been more successful than many types of neotropical birds, who are now facing numerous challenges in both their summer and winter sites, and a reduction of numbers.
Staying north all winter, chickadees need to keep warm, and on particularly cold nights, most, if not all, of their fat reserves can be depleted by morning. So they must get up early and replenish. It may seem to those of us who feed them, that all they care about are sunflower seeds. But this is not quite true. In the summer they are mostly insectivorous and include more vegetable matter only during the winter months. Their vegetarian diet might include bayberries, blackberries, blueberries, poison ivy berries, goldenrod, ragweed, sumac, wild cherries, the fruits of tulip trees, and the seeds of coniferous trees. Animal food preferred are caterpillars, even pests like gypsy moths and tent caterpillars, which many other birds won't go for. They also like animal fat (that's why they readily eat the suet you put out), and in the forests they will feed on animals as big as a dead deer carcass, pecking through the skin to get at the subcutaneous fat. They have even been seen feeding on dead skunks.
Natural born profiteers, they prefer quality food over quantity, and will choose sites that offer the best kind of food, rather than any old food, first. Then they like a regular source. If you are feeding them, keep your feeders stocked with quality seed and suet or they may leave and go to a site that's more dependable. On cold and windy days they usually feed at lower heights and higher elevations on calmer days; so if you want more birds around, place your feeders at strategically different elevations. Dominant birds prefer to feed at the safest sites, which means away from predators, like the neighbor's cat.
Many Parids store food. They often prepare the food before it is cached. Insects are usually beheaded and perhaps some other parts are removed as well. Sunflower seeds and suet are also stored. Chickadees can store hundreds, if not thousands, of items per day. They don't stock it in just one place however, but each item is stored in a different location; yet these little birds seem to remember where it all is! Later they may retrieve the items and move them to yet another, safer location, farther away from the food source. They usually start removing the best quality food first, from the primary cache site to secondary or even tertiary cache sites later. (This kind of memory is impossible for humans, as most of us can't remember anything more complected than a telephone number. I have trouble even finding my car keys). Storage sites can be just about anywhere: cracks and crevasses, under pieces of bark, inside curled leaves and in needle clusters of conifers, wedged in the edges of broken tree branches, buried in the ground or beneath snow.
This system of multiple cache sites may help each bird keep its stash away from other birds who might come across it. Birds don't seem to be able to spy on other birds to find their stash though. It seems the experience of physically moving food items around puts it in their memory. Some of the most interesting work on avian memory being conducted today is on Parids.
During the non-breeding season Parids often travel in mixed-species flocks, which consist of insectivorous birds of different species that move together while foraging. These mixed-species flocks are distinctly different from simple feeding aggregations, which are groups of several species of birds at areas of locally high food availability. A mixed-species foraging flock typically has a nuclear species that seems to be central to its formation and movement. Species that trail them are called attendant species. Attendants usually join the foraging flock only when the flock enters their territory. In the North Temperate Zone, mixed species foraging flocks are often led by chickadees and tits, and are joined by kinglets, nuthatches, treecreepers, warblers, and woodpeckers.
There is some evidence of social learning among species—they seem to learn from each other, and to some extent partition out duties, where individuals specialize. And even in mixed flocks each bird might have a contributory duty. For example, woodpeckers benefit being in the flock where they are protected by the always alert Parids who give warning when something is amiss, while the woodpeckers might prove useful because they can dig for insects underneath the rotting wood of dead trees, exposing the goods for the rest of the flock.
During the non-breeding season winter flocks have a relatively stable membership from September to March. Flock sizes are usually larger in the northern ranges than in the south. Regular supplemental food, such as feeders, can increase flock size and several flocks may share a feeder. Though there may be some inter-flock territorial disputes, arguments are more common earlier in the season and become more relaxed as winter progresses. A flock's range is usually distinct and may be as large as forty acres. Flocks are based on some kind of hierarchical system and therefore some kind of individual recognition is going on here. Chickadees can clearly tell the rank of a bird some distance away. Gotta love those Parids. And thanks for listening.
So Patti, that date we had lined up, I don't think it's going to work out. You can save your stash cash. I think you're a really great girl, in fact you're awesome. It's just you're not my type.
Smith, Susan M. 1991 “The Black-capped Chickadee, Behavioral Ecology and Natural History” Cornell University Press.
Epiphany at the Waterhole, Part Three
(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.
Are we there yet?
Our Divine is simply the most acceptable conceptual metaphor our limited minds can imagine and can cope with at this time. The nearest equivalent to our group mind consensus.
Our Divine is a snapshot of our conceptions of the Divine.
Ever-changing and always needed.
Usually the Divine just needs a tweak here and there. Generally we really don’t imagine the Divine any incrementally better than we did yesterday. But we can work with this business model better than other previously available ones.
Sometimes a new god comes to town.
Let us create a Cosmic Force, or rather customize our own Cosmic Force.
Revenge! (Yeah, I want some revenge.)
All monster movies are about revenge. A corollary must be that revenge makes us monsters. We watch monster movies to express the rage that we cannot get revenge for otherwise.
We let the monsters on stage so we can deal with the monsters of our own Id, those gnarly beasties we dare no unleash in real life. (And of course Dracula stands next to us in the mirror. That we cannot see Dracula means the only true monsters are our imaginations.)
Okay, okay. I said you could customize your own Cosmic Force and here I went and co-opted the darker sides of your imagination.
Let me do John Lennon one step better.
Let us open the Divine up. Let us have a contest.
Imagine a new divine. Base it on … “what we need today.” Not the worn-out dogmas that stifled and strangled our imaginations in the past few millennia. (The ones we most disagree with.) In 25 words or less …
“Imagine the Divine.”
Send your fancies to:
The Pope. Any Pope.
Winners get to design their own Afterlife. Yes, you can even imagine your own hell or your own heaven. Populate it with your favorite people or those who you really think belong in the bowels of hell. I know who’s going to my hell. OTOH, me and my cat Rugrat will meet in Heaven. (I got some explaining to do. He didn’t know that last trip to the vet’s was the last trip to the vet’s.)
After all this, what have I achieved?
I don't know what "God" means. Go ask theologians, religion scholars and deep thinkers to define God and I will bet each one will give us a different definition.
The Divine is an amorphous idea, like water taking the shape of its containers. It bleeds across the horizon, in all compass directions, ‘way beyond where we can see. By imagining what “God” means -- by gauging its range and domain, its significance, its implications, and its reverberations -- then we begin framing the borders of our behaviors.
Yet … all deities are vaguely familiar. They need to be universal, if not generic, if not Cosmic. The Divine can be a variety of Divines. Polytheism is not a problem but a solution. With polytheism, for instance, theodicy is no problem. We just say there’s another god at work.
Being Human, we (yes, all of us humans ever) desperately need a Divine for an infinity of reasons. Partly, to rationalize our insignificance in a vast dark cosmos. Most importantly, to superimpose PURPOSE on our lives.
The Herd tells us how to behave. Religion is the mayonnaise that binds the meat to the bread slices. It gives us a reason to believe, to trust the instincts of the Herd. (Any condiment works as well as mayonnaise, just as any religion binds us to our values and priorities.)
Our imagination produced the Divine. He has our image. He resembles us. We can do no better than that … being human. We stretched our imagination to its limits and even tried thinking beyond. (We have no way to measure our success, either.)
We invented the Divine to transform ourselves. It might not have been conscious, but it always was deliberate. It was selfish, but who else could we do this for, if not for ourselves? Being Human, we wobble between selfishness, self-absorption, and self-centeredness. (So much for our moral gyroscopes.)
Imagining God made us better people because we work better when we work together. Opening the heavens provided a foundation atop the muck and mud of animal desires. (Yes, we are still animals.) That it works as well as it does is what we should focus on. Consider how much worse we could be … and how often we have behaved worse in the past. Each day we are decent beings is a plus for our species. (And the rest of the organic world sighs in relief.)
Imagining the Divine is escaping our worst fears about ourselves. The Divine is always one quantum jump higher. We hope. So we reach. We do get better behaved. Collectively, anyway. Maybe even inevitably if we believe some evolutionary psychologists, although the pace may be glacial and, yes, we can slip back down the slope too easily.
One problem with gods is they end up being fallible. Our fault, of course. Our imaginations falter, can’t reach high enough into infinity or eternity. The gods crash, like my computer. (I blame Bill Gates for that.)
Think of a Divine as a language. A language does only what the culture needs. We coexist and encounter and interact and overlap, and we find the language evolves to what we need to say. And a vocabulary is tools and weapons for the future.
The ancient joke is that the Inuit of the Arctic Circle have 42 different words for snow. (All of which start with “goddamn.”) In truth, they do not. But all of us can conceive of how a large vocabulary for snow could evolve in that geography and climate, in that hazardous situation. Forty-two different words for snow might be necessary for survival above the Arctic Circle.
Through trial and error, the Divine is an ever-expanding vocabulary.
At the same time, the Divine is generally a story, a narrative that we can lose ourselves in, much like a dream. We imagine it, and for a time the universe makes a different kind of sense than when we are conscious and critical.
Divine stories do not make literal sense. These stories are always irrational. Scholars for instance pontificated for centuries on how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
(I lied before. It takes two to tango. Can you see them?)
First we image Our Divines, the Divine then explains the inexplicable, our lives are good and meaningful for a while, and our shamans and priests come along and deconstruct that Divine with their dogma, and they even provide a storyline for the adults to explain to the kids.
Being Human, we had a ginormous number of reactions to the Divine.
Some of us become bashful facing the Divine. Or humble. Even pious.
Some of us found great satisfaction or drew great inspiration from the Divine. Some of us desire absolute submissiveness; the Divine can fill those needs, too. Some of us even seduce ourselves. We lust after God. But we will never catch Him. Being OCD, that’s fine.
For some of us, imagining the Divine means the Divine becomes a self-validating system of thought. How easy some of us embrace these fabricated perspectives. We take them to heart and to soul.
Along the way, some of us lose touch with reality. The Divine becomes magic dust and confuses us, distracts us, blinds us. Being human, we lie to ourselves more efficiently. Thanks to our fantasy POV, the Divine and our relationship with it are magnified and then glorified into His Undying Unconditional Love for us. Before we’re done, the Divine loves us as much as our dogs love us.
We own dogs and eat pigs. We eat pigs but pigs are smarter than dogs. But the dog is man’s best friend. Well, in our Western Civilization anyway. In the Middle East folks have for millennia noticed that pooches enjoy gnoshing on carcasses in the streets. Next time we see a dog food commercial where the dog gobbles it up, we should imagine that’s us being gnoshed.
One of my students once wrote a litany of personal beliefs, none of which I had ever read in a paper before. (What other word fits better than litany? Tirade?) Here is the conclusion:
God does not love us. If God loved us he would get too close to us and destroy us. He needs to keep this feeling at bay. This may be why some people do not love him. But, what they don’t understand is sometimes in certain circumstances if two things came together because of love they would ruin each other. It’s just like when two friends get too close and love each other, break up, and ruin the friendship they had. The relationship between God and man would be lost if he loved us. We need to love him for this reason. We need to love the fact that he is able to hold himself strong and not get too close to us. In doing so, he is saving us.
I hear a strong and powerful Voice at work, and I am mesmerized. This Voice may be the Voice of us Being Human. Not the only voice. Just the one we fear hearing the most. The one we deny until we face-down the abyss.
As I said, a Divine becomes a self-validating system of thought. Consider how easy some of us embrace these fabricated perspectives. We ignore or misinterpret the Divine. Some of us think the Divine supports and furthers our particular agenda. We use our self-derived sense of moral superiority to stifle what is inconvenient to our agenda. Sometimes what get stifled most is other people’s lives. You know, innocent souls.
Thanks to our imagining a Divine, some of us can go galumphing on and on, smug and condescending as a missionary, irritating the bejesus out of the rest of us. (I guess I’m revealing my opinion about missionaries, eh?)
Some clowns even think and act as if they are morally superior to the rest of us. They are of course dishonest and irrational, sometimes downright reprehensible. Their moral superiority will eventually be revealed as utter bankruptcy. In the meantime we try to be tolerant of those fools. We babysit them just as we babysit the testosterone bullies on our freeways. Moving aside so they can feel superior blasting down the road.
Some of us think fundamentalism is the only valid path or relationship to have with the Divine. Some of us got so loony that we demand blood revenge when we feel our Divine has been slighted or dissed. Those who disagree, we can always kill them as unbelievers, heretics, atheists, apostates, agnostics, Jews or (fill in the blank.)
In truth, if the Divine feels so offended, hey, It can take care of itself. (Trust me: that the Divine pulls Its punches comes from Its exercise of free will.)
Imagining the Divine gave too many of us a power that can sustain megalomaniac fantasies. We hijack our religions, hold them hostage and terrorize innocents with box cutters and suicide bombs. We trample others’ freedoms and liberties in the Name of Our Lord for our own self-interest. We cripple our young until they grow stilted shadowing our hatreds with new violence and shouting new crudities.
9/11 was just the tip of the iceberg, too.
We must not sail too close.
I think religion should wear a leash.
Imagining the Divine helps constitute what is our humanity.
The Divine is a synthesis of our abilities and disabilities, a woven cloth of our strengths and weaknesses, and a neon sign in the desert twilight of our preoccupations. We programmed our POV of the Divine. We created as dramatic a storyline as our imagination could … well … imagine. Our vanity is engine enough for all of our illusions or delusions, for all our miracles or mirages.
Imagine the Divine being indifferent to us. Well, that’s no fun. Although no outcomes would change. (One hopes no outcomes would change. Cross our fingers.)
Can we imagine the Divine repulsed by us? Perhaps we should go read Frankenstein again. The Doctor is repulsed by his own creation. Yes, the novel should have been named Frankenstein’s Monster. But our sympathies have difficulty extending to him. We know ourselves too well, it seems. (Monsters are our alter egos?)
Imagine a Divine (so repulsed by us) with a heart of stone over our shameful, sinful behaviors. Hey, we need a Divine to forgive us. (The great Greek poet C. F. Cavafy says the gods always acquit, which is not the same as forgive.) The Cosmos is cold chemicals if the Divine won’t forgive us. As we become more sophisticated, the more unnatural this Divine becomes. The more unnatural our relationship becomes, well, an unforgiving deity soon wears out Its welcome. We get tired of being under this microscope. Nothingness becomes better than an afterlife with a Divine who won’t forgive us.
Consider the Mayans who sacrificed humans for life-giving rain. Their priests are gone. So are their kings. And what happened to the Mayans themselves? Nothing. The population density of the Yucatan stayed about the same as before and even after the Mayan Empire.
The Mayan gods became unforgiving. Unresponsive and unsatisfied, they sent droughts instead of rain. During those extended droughts, the Mayan people voted “against” their religion with their feet. (That business model didn’t work anymore.) They just stopped going to temple. (Sounds familiar, eh?) The Mayans still live where they always lived. They changed their Divines. The Old Ones were useless; praying to them didn’t bring back the rain. Their priests got killed or fled in search of new jobs. (Now we know why our parish priest is always so jumpy.)
Dump the Old Divine.
Long live the New Divine.
My two cents says our ability to imagine a Divine is a direct outgrowth of our brain structure. Until we have proof, you will have to take my word on it. Have faith, my sons and daughters. (Whoa, I sound like a priest!)
Being Human, we have a theory of mind, which is the ability to project intent into other animals or even into inanimate objects. (That door has it in for me! Why else would it keep banging me when I got through it?)
We are the only critters on this planet aware of our own evolution. We evolved out of a desperate need to be more aware of our situation. We interpret behavior in others. How successful are we? How good are we? If we got it wrong, we might get eaten or dead.
Amusingly, imagining the Divine got a friendly goose early on with our primeval instinct to exaggerate. We distort images after we get bored with them, or we exaggerate what we find most attractive, or what will catch our attention most. The unusual, the anomalies catch our attention. What is unrealistic catches our attention.
Our need for a Divine says much about our psychological make-up.
The lioness hunts. She blends better with the beige savannah. The lion himself rules the pride. He stays home. His ladies like his mane for its masculinity. And size matters.
We spent millions of years out there on the cold savannah, listening with horror to predators and carnivores chewing and gnawing our kinfolk in the night. We heard our loved ones’ final screams and tried blocking them out.
Being lonely causes stress.
The Divine cares about our abilities and our disabilities.
Who else could we turn to? Who else could we call?
We in the West anthropomorphize Cosmic Forces because, well, we got lonely. So we imagined and invented a human-like Cosmic Agency and plopped it right into our situation and gave it dominion over us and the situation we are in.
We still do this. As individuals now who should know better, we mutter, “Dear God, help me find a parking space in this mall.” All we need is a parking space, yet we call in the Special Forces.
A Divine with a human-like personality solves our anxieties.
We feel good (better?) in the Divine Presence.
A Divine that is aware of us is flattering to us. Being Human, we love being flattered, even if by one of our creations.
Easier to attach ourselves to a Divine who is patient and sympathetic, who has a sensitive heart, as we have a sensitive heart to lower forms of life.
Our Divine must be sociable, too, but not like little old ladies or a batch of puppies. We don’t want an emasculated or effeminate Divine – except when we really need and want our mommies.
We fantasize about the Divine because our imagination gave us a leg up on the carnivores of the savannah. We could imagine the universe. Hey, my fellow neighbors on the savannah … Neener, neener, neener. I wrestle with God.
But in my heart of hearts I know He loves me.
Over time, we imagined the Divine as kin. Yes, the kinship between Human and Divine was created. And over time we became synchronized.
He (heart) me!
“Our Father, up in heaven, hallowed be thy Name …”
Our Divine will respond and answer our prayers. Those cues are life-like and thus they reinforce the illusions. The Divine helps define what constitutes Humanity.
OTOH, we abhor a Divine who would be as insensitive to us as we are to lower forms of life. Oops.
As our machines evolve in quantum jumps, as they gain their own “theory of mind,” will our computers, our robots fall in love with us (their creator) as we have fallen in love with our conceptions of the Divine? Will they fear us as we fear the divine? Will they be attached through affection and loyalty to us?
Better we should ask ourselves: Do animals believe in god?
Do elephants, dolphins and apes believe in a Divine? Personally I could not count that theory out. A capacity for empathy carries a lot of weight with me. I sense possibilities where I do not see evidence.
OTOH, no way do animals see us as Divine. Any animal with even rudimentary memory knows we are the devil. (Imagine their despair!) So who do they pray to for deliverance from us?
One definition of theory of mind is knowing the difference between sorrow and pity.
The real ultimate animal question really stings:
Can an animal pity us?
by Haider Shahbaz
Today, Lahore is drenched. A shy sun has disappeared. The night hides in darkness muddy water invading the streets. It jumps from under car’s tyres on to unsuspecting pedestrians. It is mid-July; I am back from boarding school to watch a dirty, white, rather ungraceful minaret. There are strange things that the first sight, after three years, of a fog-covered minaret - the same minaret you watched everyday for fifteen long years - can do to a man, a boy. You are here to watch it with me, wearing that disgusting plaid you love, plastic glasses askew on your small nose, thin-lipped smile and a long neck. The nights of full moon have passed. We have just come back from our fifteenth trip to a bakery in fifteen days. I and you are in a search for the perfect dessert.
Yes, for the perfect dessert. Amongst low, Lahori rooftops, parallel Islamabad streets, ruined Greek cities, bright bakeries, semi-naked sword wielding emperors, and idlers, monochrome family pictures of uncles in stiff military suites, dilapidating Mughal art, grand old castles and wrinkled storytellers.
But will we ever find the perfect dessert? The perfect ending? The perfect good-bye? Maybe we shouldn’t, so we keep coming back to find it again.
To many more waves.
Well, can I kiss you, then?
Thoroughly unromantic. She thought.
But we’re friends. And I’m seeing someone.
Thoroughly unromantic. He thought.
But it’s just a kiss.
It’s never just a kiss.
Did you know there was a wall here? There is a wall here! Hahahaha! Buddy, look, there is a wall here!
Buddy sat silent, observing, trying to touch the refrigerator from across the room.
Buddy. Hey! Buddy! We need to get out of here!
Criss-crossing, hopping, navigating, undressing and addressing Buddy.
We need to get the fuck out of here. Fuck the job. Fuck that desk. Fuck that magazine. We’ll sit in this room and trip all day. And we’ll tell everyone to come join us. We’ll never have to eat again or sleep again or work again. But we’ll fuck. We’ll fuck in between trips. Hahaha. Fuck. I have a penis. Buddy! I have a penis! How beautiful. And an anus. Look at my hands. Look at them. Wait. Wooow! I can touch your skin with them. I’m telling you Buddy. Let’s get out. We’ll get a hippie van and ride across the USA! We’ll spend our life together. You and me. Whad’ya say Buddy?
Right on, Buddy said.
Right on? What are you? Black? I think I’m coming down Buddy. You know, there are other people in this world. They come knocking. Will you hug me? I’m feeling cold. I think I’m coming down.
It comes in waves.
Take a hit from the bong. It will help you come down.
Buddy! What are you thinking?
Black and White and Yellow and Brown. Black and White and Yellow and Brown.
I love you Buddy!
I love you too. It will be fine. Just take a hit from the bong.
Black and White and Yellow and Brown. Black and White and Yellow and Brown.
It’s 5.30 in the morning. The sun still hasn't come up here; well, the sun never comes up here, but you know what I mean. I am sitting in my common room. The books I got from the library for my paper are stacked neatly in three stacks on one side of me, on a blue couch that I am sitting on. There is a rectangular wooden table in front of me which is also full of books: my suitemate's paper. We are all busy going groggy over final papers which our professors will have to read. Why we do this I'll never understand. But then again, there are so many things I don’t understand. There are two bedrooms (each for two people) in my suite. In my room, roommate is sound asleep. He is a complete stranger to me; an amicable one, we make do. In the last bedroom are Adam and Jason. Adam is addicted to snuff and Nietzsche these days, and I think he is falling for Tory again. Tory is the girl he was having sex with for the past few months. He stopped that because he is still in love with Angie, or so he thinks. Angie is in China and sends him long e-mails. This makes me think if I like Andrea. Andrea is the girl I think I like. I think she likes me too. Well, I don't know what it means to like someone. We kissed and laughed. We slept together. I took care of her cats. But these things are all so confusing, no? Jason is annoying, gay and well-meaning. I don't really know him. He is typical: studious, musical, awkward. I guess I call him typical because I don't know him.
The chair is wet. The marshmallow bottle is not open. A few people stare at each other. The smoke slowly rises from the ashtray. They do not put their feet down on the floor because it is all wet. It is a peculiar night. Yasmin had invited him over for dinner at her house. She had promised him Arab food, good company and some pot; he went to be reminded of her old college apartment. They were gathered around a white coffee table on her balcony. Someone was talking of Habermas. Someone else chimed in with his thoughts on the human condition-borrowed, as usual. He had started to feel fever creeping in. He had had a sore throat for some time. The little white coffee table between them, standing on four stout legs, was really the only thing holding them together. Of course, the small plastic bag which had held pot half an hour ago helped. It lay there, rather uneasily, aware of its function as the meat of the plot. Sarah was sitting next to him. She brought the flat chest back into his erotic imagination. She was sitting cross-legged, in torn black tights, and staring at the table with large smoky eyes. He tried to kiss her at the end of the night but she refused. He started walking back to his place. Not pessimistic, not even dejected. Simply bored. A little feverish.
“It’s about how a woman holds you at night.”
A few nods. Some smiles. A reluctant sip of beer. He knew what they were thinking: cranky old man and his stupid advice. He continued:
“How she lies next to you or on top of your shoulder. How she touches your chest. Does she kiss your neck?”
He was back; the old Plough and Harrow with its wooden bar and its shiny pint glasses was always there to welcome him. The dim yellow lights. The stinging, frothy ale. Ben, his favourite bartender. Thirty minutes from his house to here, everyday. House: 42 Elluned Street; he could never call it home. He could never call anyplace home. Always hurrying, finding a new house. And now? Ten years had passed on this corner but still - house. Maybe – he sometimes thought – he didn’t know how to make a home. Why bother now?
The students left. They always did. He liked them like that – people. Coming and going. Never staying. Unless, of course, if they insisted. He, then, got used to them. Their laughs. And silences. And their smell. And how they held him at night. He remembered all that. He remembered no faces now. Just how they held him at night.
Loud opinions, an old cane and a new TV: he had few possessions. But many boxes: old and crumpled; new and firm; papers and manuscripts; toys and letters; bygone days. A big old house; just like him. Bare, to place his boxes and hold his memories, within its naked walls. He had much of those two: memories and boxes. Many miles from his country, why he had chosen this place to live, without friends and family, nobody knew. There was no racism in this town; he had no problems.
He had two mattresses in one of the bedrooms. That is where he would lie. Watch his ceiling. Go off to sleep. Dream.
She entered as a stranger, a complete unknown. She gave him her arms to rest in, her body to kiss, her ear to talk to and her big black eyes where he could see his reflection. In her short frame she held a lot of affection; all the affection that he needed from an older woman. She held him so close it was painful, but never uncomfortable. He was afraid to cling to her, especially that night. He had been burning with fever. Lying in his bed, cursing god and the weather, too lazy to take medicine. She called him and told him to come over. She gave him medicine and a bed and lied down next to him, silently kissing his neck, running her tiny fingers through his curly hair and whispering comforts. She knew what to do: what medicines he needed, how warm he should be feeling, when he will break into a sweat and when the fever will go away. She always did. And in the morning, feeling rested and awake when he entered her, it was rejuvenating. She held him around the waist with her legs, slowly digging her nails in his back and her teeth in his shoulders. It felt like he had emptied himself and yet never been so full. Her bed was in front of the window and the sunlight was peeping in. They sat up and he rolled her and himself a cigarette.
“Why do you have that moronic smile on your face?”
He didn’t have an answer so he kept staring, moronic smile intact. He thought she understood. He thought she smiled as well.
Laila Lalami to Judge 2nd Annual 3QD Arts & Literature Prize
UPDATE 3/21/11: The winners have been announced.
UPDATE 3/13/11: List of finalists.
UPDATE 3/12/11: List of semifinalists.
UPDATE 3/4/11: See full list of nominees: Voting round is now open.
Dear Readers, Writers, Bloggers,
We are very honored and pleased to announce that Laila Lalami has agreed to be the final judge for our second annual prize for the best writing in a blog or e-zine in the category of Arts & Literature. (Details of last year's A&L prize, judged by Robert Pinsky, can be found here.) Laila Lalami was born and raised in Morocco. She attended Université Mohammed-V in Rabat, University College in London, and the University of Southern California, where she earned a Ph.D. in linguistics. Her essays have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, the New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a British Council Fellowship and a Fulbright Fellowship. She was short-listed for the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2006 and for the National Book Critics’ Circle Nona Balakian Award in 2009. She is the author of the short story collection Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits and the novel Secret Son. Her work has been translated into ten languages. She is currently Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California at Riverside. Dr. Lalami has also been responding to the recent upheavals in Arab countries, and you may see some of that work here. Her well-known blog is here, and you may also follow her on Twitter here.
As usual, this is the way it will work: the nominating period is now open, and will end at 11:59 pm New York City Time (EST) on March 2, 2011. There will then be a round of voting by our readers which will narrow down the entries to the top twenty semi-finalists. After this, we will take these top twenty voted-for nominees, and the four main editors of 3 Quarks Daily (Abbas Raza, Robin Varghese, Morgan Meis, and Azra Raza) will select six finalists from these, plus they may also add up to three wildcard entries of their own choosing. The three winners will be chosen from these by Dr. Lalami.
The first place award, called the "Top Quark," will include a cash prize of one thousand dollars; the second place prize, the "Strange Quark," will include a cash prize of three hundred dollars; and the third place winner will get the honor of winning the "Charm Quark," along with a two hundred dollar prize.
(Welcome to those coming here for the first time. Learn more about who we are and what we do here, and do check out the full site here. Bookmark us and come back regularly, or sign up for the RSS feed.)
February 23, 2011:
- The nominations are opened. Please nominate your favorite blog entry or e-zine piece by placing the URL for the blog post (the permalink) in the comments section of this post. You may also add a brief comment describing the entry and saying why you think it should win. (Do NOT nominate a whole blog, just one individual blog post.)
- Blog posts or e-zine articles longer than 4,000 words are not eligible.
- Each person can only nominate one blog post.
- We will accept poems and fiction, as well as book or art reviews, criticism, and other types of writing about arts or literature.
- Entries must be in English.
- The editors of 3QD reserve the right to reject entries that we feel are not appropriate.
- The blog entry may not be more than a year old. In other words, it must have been written after February 22, 2010.
- You may also nominate your own entry from your own or a group blog or e-zine (and we encourage you to).
- Guest columnists at 3 Quarks Daily are also eligible to be nominated, and may also nominate themselves if they wish.
- Nominations are limited to the first 200 entries.
- Prize money must be claimed within a month of the announcement of winners.
March 2, 2011
- The nominating process will end at 11:59 PM (NYC time) of this date.
- The public voting will be opened soon afterwards.
March 11, 2011
- Public voting ends at 11:59 PM (NYC time).
March 21, 2011
- The winners are announced.
One Final and Important Request
If you have a blog or website, please help us spread the word about our prizes by linking to this post. Otherwise, post a link on your Facebook profile, Tweet it, or just email your friends and tell them about it! I really look forward to reading some very good material, and think this should be a lot of fun for all of us.
Best of luck and thanks for your attention!
Sunday, February 27, 2011
The Return of Crowds and Power
I've noticed that in response to all the uprisings in the Arab world analysts, pundits and writers reaching for their copies of Elias Canetti's Crowds and Power. Here's Will Self in The New Statesman:
It's been a fantastic three months for those of us gripped by the dynamics of crowds. First, we had student demonstrations here in Britain spiralling out of control; then, we saw Tunisians link arms to push out their corrupt regime; finally, millions took to the streets of Egyptian cities, pitting their sheer weight of numbers against the sclerotic - but still vicious - government of Hosni Mubarak.
Perhaps the most celebrated analyst of the crowd was the Nobel laureate Elias Canetti, whose 1960 magnum opus, Crowds and Power, aimed to do for modern mass movements what Frazer's Golden Bough did for "primitive" ritual. To Canetti, both socialism and capitalism were political systems defined by "the modern frenzy of increase", in which production led to ever bigger crowds of goods and consumers.
This sense of industrialised society as a crowd, at root, directs Canetti to his definition of power as the coincidence of the desires of the ruler(s) and the ruled.
By this view, it's easy to understand the presence of crowds of people on the streets as symptomatic of a disjunction between the two: only when the crowd has been reabsorbed into the social fabric has synchronous equilibrium been achieved. In Canetti's jargon, the crowd in Tahrir Square was "stagnating", whereas the crowds of the quiescent Cairene unemployed before the revolt could be characterised as "rhythmic".
Canetti showed a nice understanding of how masses of people make their own political weather when he caustically observed that "fire unites a theatre more than a play can" - but his vision was underscored by the apocalyptic mood music of mutually assured destruction. "Rulers tremble today," he wrote, not "because they are rulers but as the equals of everyone else . . . Either everyone will survive or no one."
What is X-Phi Good For?
David Papineau in The Philosopher's Magazine:
When philosophers study knowledge, consciousness, free will, moral value, and so on, their first concern is with these things themselves, rather than with what people think about them. So why exactly is it so important to philosophy to discover experimentally that people differ in their views on these matters? We wouldn’t expect physicists to throw up their hands in excitement just because somebody shows that different cultures have different views about the origin of the universe.
Experimental philosophers are surprisingly vague on this issue. If pressed, they tend to mutter something about discrediting the role played by “intuitions” in traditional philosophy, before rushing off to design their next questionnaire. But this is far too quick. Exactly what role intuitions play in philosophy is a matter of debate, and the details of this debate matter to the significance of experimental philosophy.
Experimental philosophy does itself a disservice by not stopping to explain what it is good for. My own view is that it has an important if limited contribution to make to orthodox philosophical debates, in ways I’ll explain later. But its advocates often claim much more, suggesting that their new method somehow discredits all traditional philosophy. Out with the old, in with the new! In the absence of any reasoned support for this radical manifesto, it is all too easy for critics to dismiss the movement as a fad without foundations.
Isn’t it enough that experimental philosophy is interesting in its own right? Aren’t we all fascinated by the quirks in human thinking that it uncovers? Maybe so, but this doesn’t explain why these findings matter to philosophy. The human mind is very quirky in its attitudes to snakes, spiders, and sex, in ways which are well worth studying, but nobody thinks that these quirks are the province of experimental philosophy.
The “official X-phi” website proclaims that “experimental philosophy involves the collection of empirical data to shed light on philosophical issues.” But how, to repeat the question I started with, do empirical data about everyday thinking help us with real philosophical issues? The comparison with physics is telling once more. Psychologists have done much to investigate everyday thinking about physical topics – “folk physics” as it is sometimes called – and their findings are certainly interesting. Who would have believed that everyday thought is so committed to outmoded Aristotelian laws of motion? But knowing about folk physics doesn’t help with real physics. So why should knowing about folk philosophy help with real philosophy?
From Cairo to Doha
Teodorin's World: Playboy bunnies. $2 million Bugattis. Bags full of cash. Meet the world's richest minister of agriculture and forestry
Ken Siverstein in Foreign Policy:
The owner of the estate at 3620 Sweetwater Mesa Road, which sits high above Malibu, California, calls himself a prince, and he certainly lives like one. A long, tree-lined driveway runs from the estate's main gate past a motor court with fountains and down to a 15,000-square-foot mansion with eight bathrooms and an equal number of fireplaces. The grounds overlook the Pacific Ocean, complete with swimming pool, tennis court, four-hole golf course, and Hollywood stars Mel Gibson, Britney Spears, and Kelsey Grammer for neighbors.
With his short, stocky build, slicked-back hair, and Coke-bottle glasses, the prince hardly presents an image of royal elegance. But his wardrobe was picked from the racks of Versace, Gucci, and Dolce & Gabbana, and he spared no expense on himself, from the $30 million in cash he paid for the estate to what Senate investigators later reported were vast sums for household furnishings: $59,850 for rugs, $58,000 for a home theater, even $1,734.17 for a pair of wine glasses. When he arrived back home -- usually in the back seat of a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce or one of his other several dozen cars -- his employees were instructed to stand in a receiving line to greet the prince. And then they lined up to do the same when he left.
The prince, though, was a phony, a descendant of rulers but not of royals. His full name is Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue -- Teodorin to friends -- and he is the son of the dictator of Equatorial Guinea, a country about the size of Maryland on the western coast of Africa.
Jed Perl on Giuseppe Arcimboldo and Franz Xaver Messerschmidt
From The New Republic:
When artists of earlier eras become subjects of renewed interest, you can be sure that big changes are in the air. All too often relegated to specialized studies in the history of taste, such shifts in an artist’s fortunes are among our most reliable guides to current attitudes and values, a look into the dark glass of the past that can also function as a mirror in which we see reflected some aspect of ourselves. There is certainly as much to be learned about the present as about the past from two small and beautifully focused museum shows in recent months, one at the National Gallery in Washington devoted to the sixteenth-century Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the other at the Neue Galerie in New York devoted to the eighteenth-century German sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt.
While the revival of interest in both these artists began a century ago, the impact that Arcimboldo and Messerschmidt are now having, among artists and art historians, is on a scale unknown a generation earlier. Both Arcimboldo and Messerschmidt are in many respects confounding personalities, connoisseurs of strangeness and disquietude, administrators of shocks and surprises who were in search of a form that almost by definition violated the norm. Are they just what we need in our seen-it-all-done-it-all era? Or are they merely the latest sideshow at the funhouse that the art world has become?
Charlie Sheen or Muammar Qaddafi?
Michael Solomon in Vanity Fair:
1. “Remember these are my people...not yours...we will continue on together...”
2. “…maybe they should let their women and their daughters go out.”
3. “We won’t lose victory from these greasy rats and cats...”
4. “Clearly I have defeated this earthworm with my words—imagine what I would have done with my fire breathing fists.”
5. “Walk with me side-by-side as we march up the steps of justice to right this unconscionable wrong.”
6. “I fire back once and this contaminated little maggot can't handle my power.”
7. “Shame on you, you gangsters. Surrender…”
8. “They are trigger happy and they shoot especially when they are stoned with drugs.”
9. “I am like the Queen of England.”
10. “I’m not Thomas Jefferson. He was a pussy.”
Answers here. [Thanks to David Schneider.]
هاله محمود .. يشيب هذبها... رفاقة عمر
This is the last article being posted in honor of Black History Month. Do take a moment to listen to Billie Holiday's sublime rendition here:
"Strange Fruit" was a poem written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish high-school teacher from the Bronx, about the lynching of two black men. He published under the pen name Lewis Allan. In the poem, Meeropol expressed his horror at lynchings, possibly after having seen Lawrence Beitler's photograph of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana. He published the poem in 1936 in The New York Teacher, a union magazine. Though Meeropol/Allan had often asked others (notably Earl Robinson) to set his poems to music, he set "Strange Fruit" to music himself. The piece gained a certain success as a protest song in and around New York. Meeropol, his wife, and black vocalist Laura Duncan performed it at Madison Square Garden. (Meeropol and his wife later adopted Robert and Michael, sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of espionage and executed by the United States.)
Barney Josephson, the founder of Cafe Society in Greenwich Village, New York's first integrated nightclub, heard the song and introduced it to Billie Holiday. Other reports say that Robert Gordon, who was directing Billie Holiday's show at Cafe Society, heard the song at Madison Square Garden and introduced it to her. Holiday first performed the song at Cafe Society in 1939. She said that singing it made her fearful of retaliation, but because its imagery reminded her of her father, she continued to sing it. She made the piece a regular part of her live performances. Because of the poignancy of the song, Josephson drew up some rules: Holiday would close with it; second, the waiters would stop all service in advance; the room would be in darkness except for a spotlight on Holiday's face; and there would be no encore.
- Southern trees bear strange fruit,
- Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
- Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
- Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
- Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
- The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
- Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
- Then the sudden smell of burning flesh!
- Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
- For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
- For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop,
- Here is a strange and bitter crop.
More here. (Note: Abbas, thank you for introducing me to this song.)
The destiny of this pageant lies in the Kingdom of Oil
Robert Fisk in The Independent:
The Middle East earthquake of the past five weeks has been the most tumultuous, shattering, mind-numbing experience in the history of the region since the fall of the Ottoman empire. For once, "shock and awe" was the right description. The docile, supine, unregenerative, cringing Arabs of Orientalism have transformed themselves into fighters for the freedom, liberty and dignity which we Westerners have always assumed it was our unique role to play in the world. One after another, our satraps are falling, and the people we paid them to control are making their own history – our right to meddle in their affairs (which we will, of course, continue to exercise) has been diminished for ever. The tectonic plates continue to shift, with tragic, brave – even blackly humorous – results. Countless are the Arab potentates who always claimed they wanted democracy in the Middle East. King Bashar of Syria is to improve public servants' pay. King Bouteflika of Algeria has suddenly abandoned the country's state of emergency. King Hamad of Bahrain has opened the doors of his prisons. King Bashir of Sudan will not stand for president again. King Abdullah of Jordan is studying the idea of a constitutional monarchy. And al-Qa'ida are, well, rather silent.
But a lighter note. I've been hunting for the most memorable quotations from the Arab revolution. We've had "Come back, Mr President, we were only kidding" from an anti-Mubarak demonstrator. And we've had Saif el-Islam el-Gaddafi's Goebbels-style speech: "Forget oil, forget gas – there will be civil war." My very own favourite, selfish and personal quotation came when my old friend Tom Friedman of The New York Times joined me for breakfast in Cairo with his usual disarming smile. "Fisky," he said, "this Egyptian came up to me in Tahrir Square yesterday, and asked me if I was Robert Fisk!" Now that's what I call a revolution.
Saturday, February 26, 2011
Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan
Dexter Filkins in the New York Times Book Review:
The new religion, of course, is counterinsurgency, or in the military’s jargon, COIN. The doctrine of counterinsurgency upends the military’s most basic notion of itself, as a group of warriors whose main task is to destroy its enemies. Under COIN, victory will be achieved first and foremost by protecting the local population and thereby rendering the insurgents irrelevant. Killing is a secondary pursuit. The main business of American soldiers is now building economies and political systems. Kill if you must, but only if you must.
The showcase for COIN came in Iraq, where after years of trying to kill and capture their way to victory, the Americans finally turned the tide by befriending the locals and striking peace deals with a vast array of insurgents. In 2007 and 2008, violence dropped dramatically. The relative stability in Iraq has allowed Americans to come home. As a result, counterinsurgency has become the American military’s new creed, the antidote not just in Iraq but Afghanistan too. At the military’s urging, President Obama has become a convert, ordering thousands of extra young men and women to that country, in the hopes of saving an endeavor that was beginning to look doomed. No one in the Obama administration uses the phrase “nation-building,” but that is, of course, precisely what they are trying to do — or some lesser version of it. Protect the Afghan people, build schools and hold elections. And the insurgents will wither away.
So what’s wrong? Why hasn’t the new faith in Afghanistan delivered the success it promises? In his remarkable book, “The Wrong War,” Bing West goes a long way to answering that question. “The Wrong War” amounts to a crushing and seemingly irrefutable critique of the American plan in Afghanistan. It should be read by anyone who wants to understand why the war there is so hard.