April 30, 2011
Terrence Tomkow in his own blog:
A runaway trolley is coming down the track. It is headed towards five people who cannot get out of its way. A Passerby realizes that he can save the five by throwing a switch and diverting the trolley down a siding, but he also realizes that if he does so, the trolley will kill a Lone Man standing on the siding.
Should you divert the trolley? Lots of folks say, "Yes!" Whether or not they are right is an interesting problem but it is not what philosophers call "The Trolley Problem". That problem involves a different case:
A runaway trolley is coming down the track. It is headed towards five people who cannot get out of its way. A passerby realizes that if he pushes a nearby fat man onto the tracks his bulk will stop the trolley before it hits the five, though the fat man himself will be killed.
Most people, including those who think it is okay to turn in TROLLEY, think that it is not okay to push the FAT MAN. "The Trolley Problem" is how to reconcile these two answers. In both cases it seems you can do something that will save five people but only by killing one. How can anyone think it okay to turn in TROLLEY but wrong to push the FAT MAN? What difference is there between the two stories that can possibly make a moral difference?
In the almost forty years since Judith Jarvis Thomson first posed the problem in this form there have many attempts to solve it but none is generally accepted as successful. Indeed a general consensus seems to have developed that the "folk intuitions" (as philosophers call them) about the difference between these cases are simply irrational.
Among the enduring mysteries of the American Civil War is why millions of Northerners were willing to fight to preserve the nation’s unity. It is not difficult to understand why the Southern states seceded in 1860 and 1861. As the Confederacy’s founders explained ad infinitum, they feared that Abraham Lincoln’s election as president placed the future of slavery in jeopardy. But why did so few Northerners echo the refrain of Horace Greeley, the editor of The New York Tribune: “Erring sisters, go in peace”? The latest effort to explain this deep commitment to the nation’s survival comes from Gary W. Gallagher, the author of several highly regarded works on Civil War military history. In “The Union War,” Gallagher offers not so much a history of wartime patriotism as a series of meditations on the meaning of the Union to Northerners, the role of slavery in the conflict and how historians have interpreted (and in his view misinterpreted) these matters. The Civil War, Gallagher announces at the outset, was “a war for Union that also killed slavery.” Emancipation was an outcome (an “astounding” outcome, Lincoln remarked in his second Inaugural Address) but, Gallagher insists, it always “took a back seat” to the paramount goal of saving the Union. Most Northerners, he says, remained indifferent to the plight of the slaves. They embraced emancipation only when they concluded it had become necessary to win the war. They fought because they regarded the United States as a unique experiment in democracy that guaranteed political liberty and economic opportunity in a world overrun by tyranny. Saving the Union, in the words of Secretary of State William H. Seward, meant “the saving of popular government for the world.”more from Eric Foner at the NYT here.
Calvin Trillin is a man of principle. He can't stand, for instance, people who talk about themselves in the third person, which made things difficult back in the days of Dole and Dukakis. He once declared that people caught trying to sell macramé should be, themselves, "dyed a natural color." And of writers, he once said: "There is no progress" — no corporate world to fall back on, no middle management. Writers are as good as the last thing they wrote, and sometimes not even that. Atop that bedrock of curious dogma, Trillin has built an itinerant and confounding career. He is viewed as a consummate New York writer, though he grew up in the sturdy Midwest. He was a big wheel in the Ivy League, though he relishes kicking the pedestals beneath those who were big wheels in the Ivy League. He became an early and influential guru of regional cuisine, though he professed to know next to nothing about the subject. During his prolific 50 years, in the New Yorker and other publications and in 27 books, Trillin has tackled a ridiculous array of subjects: politics and culture, Americana and adventure, lore and history, catfish and milkshakes, even — famously — parking. So in his latest book, "Trillin on Texas," it is surprising and even mesmerizing to watch Trillin return — sort of — to his roots.more from Scott Gold at the LA Times here.
cadences of pure poetry
Not so long ago the Reverend Mary Garbutt, Anglican pastor of a village in Northamptonshire, performed a gruelling sponsored marathon. She read out loud the entire 823,156-word text of the 1611 King James Bible over three and a half days. She read for 14 hours at a stretch, with only occasional 10-minute breaks, while parishioners stood by with orange juice, cakes and throat lozenges. Croaking through the final pages, she burst into tears, she said, from a sense of “spiritual joy”. Rector Garbutt’s project was just one of many readings, conferences, broadcasts and exhibitions in recent months to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible (KJB), which falls putatively on May 2. For centuries the dominance of the KJB was unchallenged among English-speaking Protestants, and still is among many American Christian faith communities. At his inauguration, President Barack Obama took the oath of office from Lincoln’s copy of the KJB. Reputedly the most read book in English, it now competes with scores of subsequent translations that have strived to reduce obsolete expressions; yet it still sells some 250,000 copies each year. Despite the stumbling block of its archaic language and spelling, the KJB retains for many an impression of peerless sublimity. All those “begats”, “knoweths” and “spakes”, and occasional sheer gobbledegook – “Moab is my wash-pot ouer Eom wil I cast out my shooe” (in the spelling of the 1611 edition) – interpenetrate with cadences of pure poetry.more from John Cornwell at the FT here.
In Defense of Flogging
Peter Moskos in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
When I started writing In Defense of Flogging, I wasn't yet persuaded as to the book's basic premise. I, too, was opposed to flogging. It is barbaric, retrograde, and ugly. But as I researched, wrote, and thought, I convinced myself of the moral justness of my defense. Still, I dared not utter the four words in professional company until after I earned tenure. Is not publishing a provocatively titled intellectual book what academic freedom is all about?
Certainly In Defense of Flogging is more about the horrors of our prison-industrial complex than an ode to flogging. But I do defend flogging as the best way to jump-start the prison debate and reach beyond the liberal choir. Generally those who wish to lessen the suffering of prisoners get too readily dismissed as bleeding hearts or soft on criminals. All the while, the public's legitimate demand for punishment has created, because we lack alternatives, the biggest prison boom in the history of the world. Prison reformers—the same movement, it should be noted, that brought us prisons in the first place—have preached with barely controlled anger and rational passion about the horrors of incarceration. And to what end? Something needs to change.
Certainly my defense of flogging is more thought experiment than policy proposal. I do not expect to see flogging reinstated any time soon. And deep down, I wouldn't want to see it. And yet, in the course of writing what is, at its core, a quaintly retro abolish-prison book, I've come to see the benefits of wrapping a liberal argument in a conservative facade. If the notion of tying people to a rack and caning them on their behinds à la Singapore disturbs you, if it takes contemplating whipping to wake you up and to see prison for what it is, so be it! The passive moral high ground has gotten us nowhere.
Israel: Prosperous but Unequal
Nathan Jeffay in Forward:
When Israel was invited to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared it an international “seal of approval.” But a year later, it’s clear that membership in the elite group has brought anything but approval of the country’s direction in one key area: inequality.
Israel’s ascension last May to the OECD — an organization of the world’s most prosperous economies — has shone a spotlight on the economic strengths and weaknesses of the state, as compared with other OECD countries.
Growing by 7.8% last year, the Israeli economy ranked fifth highest in growth among the group’s 34 members. Israel’s growth outstripped that of the United States, Britain, Japan, Germany and France.
At the same time, the group has reported that poverty is almost twice as widespread in Israel, 19.9% of the population, compared to the OECD average, 10.9%. The gap between the overall standard of living in Israel and that of the lowest tenth of the population was three times higher than the OECD average. In its latest release of data, made public April 12, the OECD reported that 39% of Israelis find it “difficult” or “very difficult” to live on their current incomes, well above the OECD average of 24%.
What Is Totalitarian Art? Cultural Kitsch From Stalin to Saddam
Kanan Makiya in Foreign Affairs:
In his important and encyclopedic tome on the art produced under the twentieth century's four most brutal political systems -- the Soviet Union, the Third Reich, Fascist Italy, and the People's Republic of China -- Igor Golomstock makes it clear that he is writing not about "art under totalitarian regimes" but rather about "totalitarian art," a particular cultural phenomenon with its own ideology, aesthetics, and style. This type of art did not arise because of common threads running through Soviet, German, Italian, and Chinese culture; the cultural traditions of the countries, Golomstock holds, are "simply too diverse" to explain the stylistic and thematic similarities among totalitarian works. He collects these similarities under the term "total realism," a genre that has its roots in the socialist realist art of the Soviet Union after 1932, when Stalin decreed it the only type of art acceptable.
One cannot think of a more perfect example of the totalitarian artistic impulse than Saddam's insistence that a cast of his own forearms be used as the mold from which the Victory Arch was to be made. But in general, depictions of the leader, perhaps the most common subject of total realism, had to be mythologized. It would not do, for example, for a Soviet artist to depict Stalin as the short, pockmarked, bandy-legged man that he really was. His physical attributes, as in F. S. Shurpin's portrait The Morning of Our Fatherland, had to undergo the same transformation as Stalin's version of history, to be turned into what the writer Milan Kundera so eloquently referred to as "the beautifying lie."
The Cloud Messenger by Aamer Hussein
From The Telegraph:
The title of this taut new novel from Aamer Hussein comes from a legend, in which clouds carry messages of love from separated lovers across the world. Relationships, and their varying levels of permanence, are thus the main theme, as we follow the narrator, Mehran (who appears sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, adding to the novel’s dreamlike quality), in his tangled encounters. Mehran’s youth, as a scion of a grand family in India, prepares him for adulthood in that he learns never to put too much faith in friends: they come and go, for him, like clouds, as he switches from city to city, country to country. His cultured relatives feed him poetry and stories; he ends by studying Urdu and Persian in London.
Hussein’s evocation of Mehran’s early childhood is precise and therefore of almost photographic vividness. The extraordinary – Mehran’s mother has shot a crocodile, while his aunt has bagged a tiger – rubs against the everyday, as the children long for rain and Enid Blyton. This mixing of the magical and the mundane is also key to the book. In London, Mehran finds his first fixed friendships, with Riccarda, an older, married woman who loves dancing till dawn, yet who has a son not much younger than Mehran himself; and with Marco, a wild, good-looking Italian boy who gets all the girls, and yet with whom Mehran has the tiniest of erotic frissons.
Shakespeare and the Will to Deceive
From The New York Times:
Somewhere buried under the floorboards of this splendidly devious novel is a real-life event. In 1794, a young Englishman, William Henry Ireland, came across something astonishing that he hurried to show his father: an old mortgage deed, with its seal intact, signed by none other than William Shakespeare.
The young man’s father, Samuel, an antiquarian and a passionate Shakespeare enthusiast, was thrilled, and still more thrilled when from the same mysterious source — an old chest in the possession of a reclusive aristocrat who wished his identity to remain secret — his son came up with a series of further discoveries. These included contracts; theatrical receipts; correspondence between Shakespeare and his patron, the Earl of Southampton; a letter to Shakespeare from Queen Elizabeth herself; a “profession of faith” in Shakespeare’s own hand, proving once and for all that he was a good Protestant; and the playwright’s own manuscript of “King Lear.” Alerted to the news, people crowded into Ireland’s house. James Boswell fell to his knees to kiss the great playwright’s relics. Against his son’s vehement objections, the proud Samuel hurried most of these stupendous finds into print. But he held in reserve the best of them all, until they could be returned in glory to the stage where they belonged: two full-length plays by Shakespeare, both hitherto unknown, “Vortigern and Rowena” and “Henry II.”
April 29, 2011
Quality of Life: India vs. China
Amartya Sen in the NYRB:
The steadily rising rate of economic growth in India has recently been around 8 percent per year (it is expected to be 9 percent this year), and there is much speculation about whether and when India may catch up with and surpass China’s over 10 percent growth rate. Despite the evident excitement that this subject seems to cause in India and abroad, it is surely rather silly to be obsessed about India’s overtaking China in the rate of growth of GNP, while not comparing India with China in other respects, like education, basic health, or life expectancy. Economic growth can, of course, be enormously helpful in advancing living standards and in battling poverty. But there is little cause for taking the growth of GNP to be an end in itself, rather than seeing it as an important means for achieving things we value.
It could, however, be asked why this distinction should make much difference, since economic growth does enhance our ability to improve living standards. The central point to appreciate here is that while economic growth is important for enhancing living conditions, its reach and impact depend greatly on what we do with the increased income. The relation between economic growth and the advancement of living standards depends on many factors, including economic and social inequality and, no less importantly, on what the government does with the public revenue that is generated by economic growth.
Some statistics about China and India, drawn mainly from the World Bank and the United Nations, are relevant here. Life expectancy at birth in China is 73.5 years; in India it is 64.4 years. The infant mortality rate is fifty per thousand in India, compared with just seventeen in China; the mortality rate for children under five is sixty-six per thousand for Indians and nineteen for the Chinese; and the maternal mortality rate is 230 per 100,000 live births in India and thirty-eight in China. The mean years of schooling in India were estimated to be 4.4 years, compared with 7.5 years in China. China’s adult literacy rate is 94 percent, compared with India’s 74 percent according to the preliminary tables of the 2011 census.
Two decades ago, RCMP officers drove up a winding road through the Creston Valley of southeastern British Columbia, past fields of timothy hay and cottonwood stands, to an unmarked settlement known as Bountiful. It looked a typical rural town — homesteads bordered by well-kept yards full of children running and swinging and cycling — but, in fact, the officers had come to investigate a complaint that two local patriarchs, young gun Winston Blackmore and his fifty-seven-year old father-in-law Dalmon Oler, were polygamists — an offence under Section 293 of the Criminal Code. All 1,000 or so residents of Bountiful are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), a Mormon sect that believes God’s chosen leaders should each marry several virgins and “multiply and replenish the Earth… that they may bear the souls of men.” Unashamed, Oler invited the officers into the fifteen-bedroom home he shared with his five wives and forty-eight children. Blackmore, who in addition to leading Canada’s FLDS operated a multimillion-dollar logging, trucking, and manufacturing business, was cagier about numbers, only admitting to having more than one wife. He was rumoured, however, to have at least twenty-five (many underage at the time he married them), and more than eighty children.more from Elizabeth Abbott at The Walrus here.
The reason for E. M. Forster’s apparent abandonment of fiction after the publication of A Passage to India in 1924 is now well known: “Weariness of the only subject that I both can and may treat – the love of men for women & vice versa”. Forster had written down this explanation in June 1910 in what became known as “the Locked Diary”. This notebook, which could indeed be locked by a clasp and key (occasionally mislaid), was used by Forster between September 1909 and June 1967 to record those thoughts and observations he wanted to keep private. It now forms the “central column”, as he puts it, of Philip Gardner's very welcome but problematic three-volume edition of Forster’s journals and diaries. Some previously published material apart, these volumes purportedly contain “everything by Forster that could reasonably be considered as a diary/journal, or which, though classifiable as a memoir, presents evidence of Forster not only in intellectual but in biographical terms”. As we shall see, this is not entirely accurate, but what Gardner does include covers some seventy years of Forster’s long life, running in fragmentary form from 1895 to 1965 and even reproducing brief and bald travel itineraries for holidays in France (1931 and 1955) and Italy (“possibly 1962”). The Locked Diary aside, the most interesting parts of the book are the “Incidents of War” memoir, an appropriately jagged, almost modernist mosaic created from the conversations Forster had with wounded soldiers while working for the Red Cross in Egypt during the First World War, along with extracts from their letters; the “Notebook Journal (1903–9)” and intermittent diaries kept in 1954, 1955 and 1958; and the innocently titled “West Hackhurst: A Surrey ramble”, in fact a score-settling account in Forster’s best feline manner of his eviction in 1946 from the house at Abinger Hammer his father had designed and where he had lived since 1924.more from Peter Parker at the TLS here.
New Dilemmas in Bioethics
Over at Rationally Speaking:
In this one hour episode, recorded live at the 2011 Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism, Massimo [Pigliucci] and Julia [Galef] discuss bioethics with two special guests: Jacob Appel, doctor, author, lawyer and bioethicist; and Jennifer Michael Hecht, poet and historian of science. Topics covered included: Should parents be allowed to select the gender and sexual orientation of their babies? Should pharmacists and physicians be allowed to refuse to provide treatments that violate their own religious or ethical principles? And when is assisted suicide acceptable?
Alan Wolfe reviews Lawrence A. Scaff's Max Weber in America, over at TNR's The Book:
MAX WEBER IN AMERICA? The idea seems almost preposterous. We often think of Weber as the quintessential European thinker: abstract, worldly, brooding, and difficult. The America of his period of greatest productivity, the first two decades of the twentieth century, comes down to us as isolationist, anti-intellectual, bombastic, and about to embark on flapperdom. How could one have any influence on the other?
But as Lawrence Scaff effectively shows in his new book, Weber cannot be understood without an appreciation of his experiences in this country, and America’s special path to modernity is difficult to grasp without a substantial dip into Weber’s extensive body of writing. Like Antonín Dvořák, who incorporated American spirituals and folk tunes into his symphonic and chamber compositions, Weber’s fascination with all aspects of American culture belies any notion that the new world and the old were incapable of meeting on equal terms.
Weber and his wife Marianne arrived in the United States in August, 1904 for a three-month stay. The reason for their visit was the Congress of Arts and Sciences, an offshoot of the World’s Fair in St. Louis. Once capable of generating massive fascination, World’s Fairs have lost their appeal. (The 2012 Expo will take place in Yeosu, South Korea and will be devoted to issues of coastal management.) In Weber’s day, by contrast, not only did the events in St. Louis inspire a famous musical comedy, they brought together an all-star list of American and European intellectuals to debate whether there exists a methodological unity linking the natural and social sciences. John Dewey and William James did not show up in St. Louis, which was too bad, because not only Weber but also such extraordinary German scholars as Werner Sombart and Ernst Troeltsch did.
Theodore Roosevelt invited the leading academics from St. Louis to the White House for a reception, much as the current president honors the annual March Madness champion. Weber did not attend because he preferred to go to Muskogee.
A young woman in a wheelchair,
by Ted Kooser
What Defines a Meme?
What lies at the heart of every living thing is not a fire, not warm breath, not a ‘spark of life.’ It is information, words, instructions,” Richard Dawkins declared in 1986. Already one of the world’s foremost evolutionary biologists, he had caught the spirit of a new age. The cells of an organism are nodes in a richly interwoven communications network, transmitting and receiving, coding and decoding. Evolution itself embodies an ongoing exchange of information between organism and environment. “If you want to understand life,” Dawkins wrote, “don’t think about vibrant, throbbing gels and oozes, think about information technology.”
We have become surrounded by information technology; our furniture includes iPods and plasma displays, and our skills include texting and Googling. But our capacity to understand the role of information has been sorely taxed. “TMI,” we say. Stand back, however, and the past does come back into focus. The rise of information theory aided and abetted a new view of life. The genetic code—no longer a mere metaphor—was being deciphered. Scientists spoke grandly of the biosphere: an entity composed of all the earth’s life-forms, teeming with information, replicating and evolving. And biologists, having absorbed the methods and vocabulary of communications science, went further to make their own contributions to the understanding of information itself.
Selfless behaviour brings success for all
One possibility to spur people on to save energy: people punish selfishness more when their group is in competition with others. That which motivates a football team to committed teamwork could also benefit climate change. The members of a group act in a particularly selfless manner and for the benefit of the group, especially when their community is in competition with others. They are then more likely to accept disadvantages themselves in order to punish members of their group who behave selfishly. A research group headed by the economics researcher Lauri Sääksvuori at the Max Planck Institute of Economics in Jena has gained this insight by conducting investigations involving game theory. This could result in a way of spurring people on to save energy.
A striker who is primarily interested in his own goal-scoring statistics is likely to cost his team a number of victories. But if he has to make a donation to the team kitty for each instance of reckless behaviour, he will probably let the striker picked by the trainer take the penalty kick, for example. It is possible that incentives can similarly be created to promote unselfish behaviour to protect the climate, for example. This is suggested by findings obtained by researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Economics in Jena.
The people of Bangladesh have much to teach us about how a crowded planet can best adapt to rising sea levels. For them, that future is now
Don Belt in National Geographic:
We should not be surprised. Bangladesh is, after all, one of the most densely populated nations on Earth. It has more people than geographically massive Russia. It is a place where one person, in a nation of 164 million, is mathematically incapable of being truly alone. That takes some getting used to.
So imagine Bangladesh in the year 2050, when its population will likely have zoomed to 220 million, and a good chunk of its current landmass could be permanently underwater. That scenario is based on two converging projections: population growth that, despite a sharp decline in fertility, will continue to produce millions more Bangladeshis in the coming decades, and a possible multifoot rise in sea level by 2100 as a result of climate change. Such a scenario could mean that 10 to 30 million people along the southern coast would be displaced, forcing Bangladeshis to crowd even closer together or else flee the country as climate refugees—a group predicted to swell to some 250 million worldwide by the middle of the century, many from poor, low-lying countries.
How Ayn Rand Became an American Icon
Johann Hari in Slate:
Ayn Rand is one of America's great mysteries. She was an amphetamine-addicted author of sub-Dan Brown potboilers, who in her spare time wrote lavish torrents of praise for serial killers and the Bernie Madoff-style embezzlers of her day. She opposed democracy on the grounds that "the masses"—her readers—were "lice" and "parasites" who scarcely deserved to live. Yet she remains one of the most popular writers in the United States, still selling 800,000 books a year from beyond the grave. She regularly tops any list of books that Americans say have most influenced them. Since the great crash of 2008, her writing has had another Benzedrine rush, as Rush Limbaugh hails her as a prophetess. With her assertions that government is "evil" and selfishness is "the only virtue," she is the patron saint of the tea-partiers and the death panel doomsters. So how did this little Russian bomb of pure immorality in a black wig become an American icon?
Two new biographies of Rand—Goddess of the Market by Jennifer Burns and Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne Heller—try to puzzle out this question, showing how her arguments found an echo in the darkest corners of American political life.* But the books work best, for me, on a level I didn't expect. They are thrilling psychological portraits of a horribly damaged woman who deserves the one thing she spent her life raging against: compassion.
Christy Oates: MFA Thesis Gallery Exhibition
More Than 1 Billion People Are Hungry in the World
Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo in Foreign Policy:
For many in the West, poverty is almost synonymous with hunger. Indeed, the announcement by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in 2009 that more than 1 billion people are suffering from hunger grabbed headlines in a way that any number of World Bank estimates of how many poor people live on less than a dollar a day never did.
But is it really true? Are there really more than a billion people going to bed hungry each night? Our research on this question has taken us to rural villages and teeming urban slums around the world, collecting data and speaking with poor people about what they eat and what else they buy, from Morocco to Kenya, Indonesia to India. We've also tapped into a wealth of insights from our academic colleagues. What we've found is that the story of hunger, and of poverty more broadly, is far more complex than any one statistic or grand theory; it is a world where those without enough to eat may save up to buy a TV instead, where more money doesn't necessarily translate into more food, and where making rice cheaper can sometimes even lead people to buy less rice.
But unfortunately, this is not always the world as the experts view it. All too many of them still promote sweeping, ideological solutions to problems that defy one-size-fits-all answers, arguing over foreign aid, for example, while the facts on the ground bear little resemblance to the fierce policy battles they wage.
April 28, 2011
One-State, Two-States, Bi-National State: Mandated Imaginations In A Regional Void
In all cases of Palestine/Israel‘s bordering states/societies, difficulties in consolidating a unitary secular-democratic state are evident notwithstanding that – in contrast to the territory comprising Mandatory Palestine – they do not include a sizeable (or miniscule) community of Jews (Zionist or anti-Zionist) who not only differ culturally, linguistically, religiously and (partially) ethnically but who are also (i) rabid anti-Arab Eurocentrics, let alone (ii) happen to think of themselves as a separate group possessing a right of national self-determination in their own state in the post-Holocaust world. Put differently, if Arab societies/states find it hard to amass secular-democratic entities even without the nationalist/statist presence of avidly-Eurocentric Zionists in their midst – what real material prospects are there for such a project to first evolve successfully in Palestine/Israel (while somehow circumventing societal complexities typifying such bi-national or bi-ethnic entities as Belgium, Sri Lanka, or the former Yugoslavia)?
In striking contrast to post-1967 Marxists – effectively all post-1993 tracts advocating for a secular-democratic or bi-national state are devoid of anything existing – or empirically taking place – beyond the (mandated) borders of their otherwise hopeful projection, i.e., a European-like secular-democratic-villa-state in a unified Israel/Palestine. Contemporary One-State scholars hypothesize that the secular-democratic island-state will ripen somehow within the surrounding ―womb‖ of neighboring states, all of which are neither secular nor democratic. For materialist readings of historical and contemporary affairs, such mandated imaginations in a regional void are bewildering: if the diagnosis is largely off the mark, then the corresponding prognosis runs the risk of becoming das Opium des Volkes.
The Science of Right and Wrong
H. Allen Orr reviews Sam Harris's The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values in th NYRB:
Harris was trained as a neuroscientist and received his doctoral degree from the University of California at Los Angeles in 2009. He is best known as the author of two previous books. In 2004, he published The End of Faith, a fierce attack on organized religion. The book, which propelled Harris from near obscurity to near stardom—he has appeared on The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and The O’Reilly Factor—is one of the canonical works of the New Atheist movement, along with Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (2006) and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell (2006). Harris seemed mostly to play the part of polemicist in the movement. He possesses a sharp wit and an even sharper pen, and his attacks on mainstream religion had a scorched-earth intensity. In 2006, Harris followed this up with Letter to a Christian Nation, an uncompromising response to his Christian critics.
In his latest book, The Moral Landscape, Harris shifts his sights somewhat. He is now concerned with the sorry state of moral thinking among both religious and secular people in the West. While the former are convinced that moral truths are handed down from on high, the latter are perpetually muddled, frequently believing that morals are relative, the product of arbitrary tradition and social conditioning. Harris hopes to sweep aside both kinds of confusion, convincing his readers that objective moral truths exist and that we possess a (properly secular) means for discovering them.
It may not come as a surprise that Harris thinks these required means are scientific. Science, he insists, will someday show us the way to the good life. Harris’s claims are both bold and, as expected from his previous writings, plainly put: “I will argue that morality should be considered an undeveloped branch of science.” Indeed, as the subtitle of his book promises, he will show “how science can determine human values.” Though Harris concedes that the science required for this task, particularly neurobiology, remains in its infancy, the requisite developments, he suggests, may be on the horizon. We must all face up to the fact that “science will gradually encompass life’s deepest questions.”
The Silkworm And The Woodlouse Weigh In / El Gusano De Seda Y La Cochinilla Opinan
And 3 other poems by Alan Page in bustrofedon:
They call us unfortunate / Nos dicen desafortunados
but there’s little to do here / pero aquí no hay mucho qué hacer
other than chew. / más que masticar.
What we lack in size / Lo que tenemos de chiquitos
we make up for in hunger, / lo tenemos de hambrientos,
[yes I will have that thank you] / [sí, qué rico muchas gracias]
and a kind of glacial / y una especie de paciencia
patience. / glacial.
This is just to say / Esto es sólo para decirte que
no one can stand necessity / a la necesidad nadie la aguanta
it tends to exaggerate / exagera
and the best you can do / y lo mejor que puedes hacer
is work on your mandibles, / es trabajar la mandíbula,
you know, chew. / masticarle, pues.
[I can help you with this] / [sí, yo también]
So you know, / Para que sepas,
(if it’s of comfort) / (si te sirve de consuelo)
here, / aquí,
between the dead leaves / entre las hojas muertas
and the lower greens / y el matorral
you’ll find friends. / encontrarás amigos.
:3 / :3
Katrin Sigurdardottir's ''Boiserie''
Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:
You may have noticed that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City contains strange rooms. They are tucked away in the European Interiors section or back in the American Wing. These rooms do not display simply art or artifacts; they display other rooms. Or you could say that the rooms themselves are the display. In the American wing, you can see the interior of an old colonial house, or something tasteful from the Edwardian era. There is an entire living room designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, originally part of the Little House in Wayzata, Minnesota. In the European section of the museum, the interiors give you a glimpse of palace life in the 17th century and the salons of the 18th century.
You stand at an open doorway, or perhaps gaze through a window at the interior within. You see another age, another way of life. These rooms are a throwback to another era of the museum, a time when travel was more difficult, when other forms of media were less sophisticated, when panoramas and stereoscopes and other such devices were a legitimate way to gain access to otherwise inaccessible experiences.
These display rooms are, in a sense, life-sized models, rooms in a one-to-one scale with actual places that once existed or, in fact, still exist in the real world. Indeed, the situation in these rooms is even one degree more complicated since many of the objects and pieces of furniture in the rooms are the real deal. That Louis XVI armoire is, in fact, a Louis XVI armoire and it did, once, sit in a room exactly like this one. Except that the room wasn't this one. The room is a fabrication meant to recreate the surroundings in which these real objects once existed.
I always find these rooms eerie and otherworldly for precisely these reasons. It is the mixture of reality and fabricated reality that creates a third space that seems neither of the museum nor of the world outside the museum's walls.
Thomas Powers in the LRB:
The sun never shone more brightly and a boy’s dreams never seemed in closer reach, nor the girl next door prettier, nor his friends readier for bold adventure on a Saturday free of school than all did in the ‘white town drowsing’ on the Missouri shore of the mighty Mississippi River where Mark Twain in the 1840s drank deeply of the sweetness of life, and never forgot it. ‘Free’ was a word of powerful attraction for Twain. His friend Tom Blankenship enjoyed a glorious perfection of freedom, as Twain saw things: no mother or aunts to wash, comb, dress and civilise him; no expectations to fail to meet, no sermons in church to scare him and no school to crimp his style. He slept in a hogshead, smoked a corncob pipe, went barefoot in three seasons, knew how to make himself scarce when his father showed up drunk and mean. ‘He was the only really independent person – boy or man – in the community,’ Twain recalled in his seventies, ‘and by consequence he was tranquilly and continuously happy, and was envied by all the rest of us.’
It was Tom Blankenship, rechristened as Huckleberry Finn, who whistled up ‘Tom Sawyer’ for night-time roving when the streets and back alleys were quiet in Hannibal, the village that became St Petersburg in the two novels that made Twain immortal. Not forgetting Hannibal was the work of Twain’s life. The adventures of Tom and Huck constitute the greatest of all American feats of memory. The original for ‘Tom’ was of course the original of Mark Twain, born Samuel L. Clemens, a deeply impressionable boy who resisted all entreaty to improve until the grave took him at 74 and closed the case. There is no point in trying to sort out fiction and reality in Hannibal-St Petersburg, or to distinguish ‘Huck’ from the real Tom, or ‘Tom’ from the real Sam. The life went into the books with such fidelity that the stories can be lifted out again as evidence of what ‘really’ happened or what the characters ‘really’ thought or felt.
The Tom Blankenship of history left few traces. He was a few years older than Twain, he remained in Hannibal, he was twice arrested for stealing food, he died of cholera about 1889. So far as we know, Blankenship never escaped down the Mississippi with a runaway slave but we know he was the kind of boy who would have sprung to do it. Did he not acknowledge, in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, that Jim ‘had an uncommon level head, for a nigger’? And did he not say of the slave Uncle Jake, in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: ‘Sometimes I’ve set right down and eat with him’?
Where do you go when sleep takes you away from me?
Even as I speak, the blinds are falling shut.
Failing against the inexorable escape, you slide into the deep;
simply a body beside me, tossing off the gathering heat,
murmuring in somnolent tongue –
I almost catch a word before it folds up
behind the minuscule distance between here and there,
between me and you in a place where lions become horses
and gallop around in a city in which you have found yourself
lost and unprepared for the journey.
I could call you back when your brow furrows
and your teeth make the sound like marbles
rolling against each other in a small sack made of orange netting,
but suddenly you laugh and turn away, hand on your heart and a smile.
This is how the sun discovers you in its first light
and slowly brings you back to steady breathing,
softly stepping on the surface of what divides us.
by Blessing Musariri
Barack Obama's mother: The girl who ran away
Obama's is not the old-fashioned, Clintonesque story of the small town kid who made good, nor is he that other old-fashioned tale, of the young lion from a Kennedy or Bush political dynasty. He is a new -- and increasingly more common -- 21st-century boy. The knee-jerk disdain so many of his critics have for him can be traced largely to his worldliness: He's a man who, of necessity, was brought up not to be Joe the Plumber but a citizen of the planet. Obama's mother, who died in 1995, has been, up to this point, largely a shadowy figure in his narrative. She's been portrayed as a quiet girl swept up in an exotic life, a woman who made the seemingly unthinkable choice to send her 10-year-old son far away to live with his grandparents so he could get a better education. Yet Scott's account reveals her as another kind of familiar American archetype: She's the girl who ran away. Every town has one -- the one whose personality and curiosity are too big to stay in one place, who eternally fascinates everyone she left behind.
Dunham was the smart girl who sacrificed for her family but who stayed true to her own ambitions, who married the men she loved even when cultural taboos stacked the deck against them. She went to school and made a career for herself, making her a powerful example of how strong, working mothers can raise strong men. She told her daughter "not to be such a wimp." And though she surely had pains and regrets, she told her son, "If nothing else, I gave you an interesting life." Clearly, it often wasn't easy, for either Dunham or her son. But Scott's narrative shows that an interesting life is a priceless thing. It's not just one of the greatest gifts a mother can offer her child -- it's one of the best she can hope for herself.
Secret of royal jelly's super-sizing effect on queen bees
In a paper published in Nature, Japanese researcher Masaki Kamakura describes a process he used to determine that the protein royalactin, is at least one of the components responsible for turning an ordinary female bee, into a queen. In a simple process of elimination experiment, Kamakura, was able to separate the different substances that comprise royal jelly, which then allowed him to feed those substances individually to a female bee to see which caused her to take on queen bee traits. In the simple but brilliant experiment, the individual components that make up royal jelly were obtained by allowing the jelly to decompose under different temperatures. Since the components decomposed at differing rates, Kamakura was able to separate them at each stage, which then allowed him to whip up a diet comprised of just the individual substance (mixed with other nutrients) that he fed to his test female bees, until he came upon the one that finally did the trick.
To prove his point, Kamakura also fed the royalactin mix to female fruit flies, a rather close cousin on the genetic tree, and discovered it caused queen bee like effects on them as well. They grew larger than normal, became better procreators and lived longer. A thick white milky solution, royal jelly is excreted by female nurse bees, who deposit it for the queen to eat, and that’s all she eats, which is a good thing for her, since it causes her to grow larger, weigh more, and perhaps more importantly, to live far longer than anyone else in the hive. Because of its so-called magical properties, royal jelly has also been used by us humans for thousands of years for a variety of reasons, and while some claim it can help slow the effects of aging on skin, there is no evidence to suggest it can cause people to grow larger, live longer or produce more offspring.
The Tire Iron and the Tamale
Justin Horner in the New York Times Magazine:
During this past year I’ve had three instances of car trouble: a blowout on a freeway, a bunch of blown fuses and an out-of-gas situation. They all happened while I was driving other people’s cars, which for some reason makes it worse on an emotional level. And on a practical level as well, what with the fact that I carry things like a jack and extra fuses in my own car, and know enough not to park on a steep incline with less than a gallon of fuel.
Each time, when these things happened, I was disgusted with the way people didn’t bother to help. I was stuck on the side of the freeway hoping my friend’s roadside service would show, just watching tow trucks cruise past me. The people at the gas stations where I asked for a gas can told me that they couldn’t lend them out “for safety reasons,” but that I could buy a really crappy one-gallon can, with no cap, for $15. It was enough to make me say stuff like “this country is going to hell in a handbasket,” which I actually said.
But you know who came to my rescue all three times? Immigrants. Mexican immigrants. None of them spoke any English.
Letter from Mark Twain to a snake oil peddler
From Boing Boing:
What Does The English Language Have To Do To Be Recognized As An Indian Language?
Asim Rafiqui in The Spinning Head:
A very curious essay appeared in the recent issue of The Caravan magazine. Written by Nilanjana S. Roy, titled ‘How To Read In Indian‘, it veered uncertainly between discussing the emergence of the phenomenal success of Indian writers writing in English, and a discussion of outsiders writing stories about India. Subtitled The Long History of a Literary Argument That Refuses to Go Away it clearly meant to be a literary discussion, but in fact it quickly diverged into a discussion about the outsider writing about India.
Roy begins by recounting some of the debates at a gathering of Indian writers and intellectuals at Neemrama Fort Palace, and moves towards the criticism that so-called Indian critics have made of those from the so-imagined outside writing about India. Roy mentions Mulk Raj Anand’s criticisms of Salman Rushdie, various criticisms hurled against V.S. Naipual and his works on India, and a strange reference to Pankaj Mishra’s recent critical study of Patrick French’s new book on India. As Roy elaborates:
In a sense, we have always been sensitive as a nation to what is written about us; nonfiction about the US, for instance, seldom draws as many reactions, fuelled equally by anxiety and exasperation. The anxiety comes, in the reading of many, from seeing any narrative that interrupts the neatly seductive story of India Shining; the exasperation comes from a smaller band of Indians who are tired of having what they already know and consider familiar explained to them in exhausting and unnecessary detail.
But somewhere in the middle of the essay, the focus turns to the question of language.
April 27, 2011
we are as gods, we might as well get good at it
About 40 years ago I wore a button that said, "Why haven't we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?" Then we finally saw the pictures. What did it do for us? The shift that has happened in 40 years which mainly has to do with climate change. Forty years ago, I could say in the Whole Earth Catalog, "we are as gods, we might as well get good at it". Photographs of earth from space had that god-like perspective. What I'm saying now is we are as gods and have to get good at it. Necessity comes from climate change, potentially disastrous for civilization. The planet will be okay, life will be okay. We will lose vast quantities of species, probably lose the rain forests if the climate keeps heating up. So it's a global issue, a global phenomenon. It doesn't happen in just one area. The planetary perspective now is not just aesthetic. It's not just perspective. It's actually a world-sized problem that will take world sized solutions that involves forms of governance we don't have yet. It involves technologies we are just glimpsing. It involves what ecologists call ecosystem engineering. Beavers do it, earthworms do it. They don't usually do it at a planetary scale. We have to do it at a planetary scale. A lot of sentiments and aesthetics of the environmental movement stand in the way of that.more from Stewart Brand at Edge here.
called to attention, called out of ourselves
Before reading David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, back in February, I had to enter into a nondisclosure agreement: I would not “advertise that [I had] a copy” or “share the galley (or any part of it)” or emit so much as a tweet in advance of its publication. It was the kind of thing more often associated with the Jay-Zs and Gagas of the world … and in the end, maybe best left to them. By March 30, when Amazon began shipping The Pale King to customers, Little, Brown’s attempt to control the book’s rollout would look downright laughable. Still, the results were the same. Practically every media organ in America was scrambling to cover Wallace. And one sort of has to wonder: at what point did an unfinished manuscript by a writer of avant-garde commitments and Rogetian prolixity and high Heideggerian seriousness (and footnotes) become a genuine pop-cultural event? The answer surely has something to do with the grim fact of Wallace’s 2008 suicide, at age 46. It’s worth noting, though, that he already commanded national name recognition and a devoted following, having cracked best-seller lists and dorm rooms alike with his mid-nineties megalith, Infinite Jest. It was a novel that not only forecast the rise of the web; it practically demanded it. MetaCrawling and AltaVista-ing its “anticonfluential” plot threads and pharmacological arcana became a rite of passage for the literary young. Well into the age of Google, beflanneled undergraduates could be seen listing slightly to port under the weight of the big book in their messenger bags. And though no follow-up novel was forthcoming, Wallace continued to produce volumes of short fiction and shaggily brilliant journalism.more from Garth Risk Hallberg at New York Magazine here.
O's foreign policy
Barack Obama came to Washington just six years ago, having spent his professional life as a part-time lawyer, part-time law professor, and part-time state legislator in Illinois. As an undergraduate, he took courses in history and international relations, but neither his academic life nor his work in Springfield gave him an especially profound grasp of foreign affairs. As he coasted toward winning a seat in the U.S. Senate, in 2004, he began to reach out to a broad range of foreign-policy experts––politicians, diplomats, academics, and journalists. As a student during the Reagan years, Obama gravitated toward conventionally left-leaning positions. At Occidental, he demonstrated in favor of divesting from apartheid South Africa. At Columbia, he wrote a forgettable essay in Sundial, a campus publication, in favor of the nuclear-freeze movement. As a professor at the University of Chicago, he focussed on civil-rights law and race. And, as a candidate who emphasized his “story,” Obama argued that what he lacked in experience with foreign affairs he made up for with foreign travel: four years in Indonesia as a boy, and trips to Pakistan, India, Kenya, and Europe during and after college. But there was no mistaking the lightness of his résumé. Just a year before coming to Washington, State Senator Obama was not immersed in the dangers of nuclear Pakistan or an ascendant China; as a provincial legislator, he was investigating the dangers of a toy known as the Yo-Yo Water Ball. (He tried, unsuccessfully, to have it banned.)more from Ryan Lizza at The New Yorker here.
Sometimes I wonder
why it is not so.
For ages and ages, for billions of years
we have been living in the sunlight
that is so clear
We have been breathing air
that is so clear
We have been drinking water
that is so clear
haven’t we and
what we do come
to some clarity?
with my fingers open on my lap
I am moved
Tiny fingers are
as if they were petals
of the flowers
that bloomed in me
They look proud
They look happy
snuggling with each other
As if they had never been forced to do
by Michio Mado
translation: Takako Lento
from Masters of Modern Japanese Poetry
The Morris-Lee Publishing Group,
Rosemont, New Jersey, 1999
Female Dogs Aren't Easily Fooled
The battle of the sexes has just heated up—in dogs. A new study finds that when a ball appears to magically change size in front of their eyes, female dogs notice but males don't. The researchers aren't sure what's behind the disparity, but experts say the finding supports the idea that—in some situations—male dogs trust their noses, whereas females trust their eyes. The study, published online today in Biology Letters, didn't set out to find sex differences. Cognitive biologist Corsin Müller and his colleagues at the University of Vienna and its Clever Dog Lab wanted to find out how good dogs are at size constancy—the ability to recognize that an object shouldn't change size if it disappears for a moment. But they recruited 25 female and 25 male dogs for the study, just to be safe.
When a dog came to the lab for the test, first it got to play with two balls: one the size of a tennis ball and one that looked identical but was about the size of a cantaloupe. Then the dog and owner left the room while a researcher set up the experiment. When the dog came back, it sat in front of its owner, who was blindfolded so that his or her reactions wouldn't influence the pet. One of the balls sat to the left of a screen in front of the dog, and an experimenter, hiding behind another screen, slowly pulled the ball with transparent string. As the dog watched, the ball went behind the screen. Then the ball reappeared on the other side. But in some cases, it was replaced by the other ball, so the ball seemed to have magically shrunk or grown (see video). Overall, dogs looked at the ball longer when it seemed to change size. But when Müller analyzed sex differences, "I was quite surprised," he says. Male dogs looked at the ball for about the same amount of time, whether or not it appeared to magically change size. But female dogs looked much longer at balls that changed size than at balls that remained the same—about twice as long, or 36 seconds on average. Müller warns that when animal cognition researchers put together their study groups, they may be missing this kind of effect if they aren't including equal numbers of male and female animals.
Ants team up to stay dry
A team of engineers has discovered how colonies of ants survive floods by forming themselves into life rafts. The work shows how many simple components can interact to create complex structures and behaviours, a subject that touches on crowd control, urbanization and robotics. An individual ant can float on water for a few minutes, but a clump of the insects is heavy enough to break the surface tension of the water and sink. Yet when a nest of fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) is flooded, the entire thousands-strong colony shapes itself into a raft that can stay afloat for months. "Together they form this really complex material that water should be able to get through, but can't," says Nathan Mlot, a mechanical engineer at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.
Kathryn Schulz in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
Montaigne started working on the Essays in 1572 and stopped in 1592, because he died. It is unclear if any lesser force—boredom, procrastination, the munchies—ever significantly deterred him. He wrote freely, about everything, sometimes all at once, his panoptic exuberance suggested by a sampling of chapter titles:
Of Quick or Slow Speech
Of the Force of Imagination
Of the Custom of Wearing Clothes
And that’s to say nothing of how tangential and referential matters can get within each chapter. In this, as in so many things, Montaigne was ahead of his time. Long before there was hypertext, his text was hyper; the form the Essays most resemble is the blog. He is happy to think about anything at all, and most of his thoughts have friends, acquaintances, offspring—entire family trees. As he put it, “There is no subject so frivolous that does not merit a place in this rhapsody.”
How are particles accelerated at the Large Hadron Collider?
Brian Dorney at CERN:
Firstly, physicists rely on a principle many of us learn in our introductory physics courses, the Lorentz Force Law. This result, from classical electromagnetism, states that a charged particle in the presence of external electric and/or magnetic fields will experience a force. The direction and magnitude (how strong) of the force depends on the sign of the particle’s electric charge and its velocity (or direction its moving, and with what speed).
So how does this relate to accelerators? Accelerators use radio frequency cavities to accelerate particles. A cavity has several conductors that are hooked up to an alternating current source. Between conductors there is empty space, but this space is spanned by a uniform electric field. This field will accelerate a particle in a specific direction (again, depending on the sign of the particle’s electric charge). The trick is to flip this current source such that as a charged particle goes through a succession of cavities it continues to accelerate, rather than be slowed down at various points.
A cool Java Applet that will help you visualize this acceleration process via radio frequency cavities can be found here, courtesy of CERN.
Now that’s the electric field portion of the Lorentz Force Law, what about the magnetic? Well, magnetic fields are closed circular loops, as you get farther and farther away from their source the radii of these loops continually increases. Whereas electric fields are straight lines that extend out to infinity (and never intersect) in all directions from their source. This makes the physics of magnetic fields very different from that of electric fields. We can use magnetic fields to bend the track (or path) of charged particles. A nice demonstration of this can be found here (or any of the other thousands of hits I got for Googling “Cathode Ray Tube + YouTube”).
Pakistan transgenders pin hopes on new rights
Aleem Maqbool at the BBC:
It is where we find "Shehzadi" getting ready for work.
Wearing a bright yellow dress, and scrabbling around her make-up box, she is doing her best to cover up her decidedly masculine features.
Shehzadi is transgendered: physically male, but psychologically female.
"When I was about six or seven, I realised I wasn't either a boy or a girl," Shehzadi says.
"I was miserable because I didn't understand why I was different. It was only when I met another 'she-male' that I felt peace in my heart and my mind."
Like so many other of the estimated 50,000 transgenders in Pakistan, Shehzadi left home as a teenager, to live with others from the same community.
"I'm happy being with other transgenders, but there are many problems," Shehzadi says. "People don't understand, and they abuse us. It's hard to get somewhere to live, or even to move about normally. I get teased when I stand and wait for a bus."
Shehzadi also shows us her ID card. She is unhappy that it says "male."
But this is something that should soon change.
April 26, 2011
How did Augustine write Confessions? Well, in the strict sense, he didn't - he didn't set words down on papyrus or parchment. Augustine has been painted, by artists as great as Botticelli, Carpaccio and Benozzo Gozzoli, seated at a desk and writing. He did not do that. Oh, he undoubtedly wrote notes to himself or lists of items or instructions to individual brothers in his monastic community. But the books, sermons and letters that have come down to us were all dictated to scribes. Even a book that feels as intimate as Confessions was spoken to several of the many scribes Augustine kept busy. That was the normal practice in antiquity. Even in prison, Saint Paul had a scribe on hand. Even when living as a hermit, Saint Jerome had teams of scribes. The population of ancient scribes was a vast one. Writing was a complex and clumsy process. That was especially true in the classical period, when papyrus scrolls were used. One needed at least three hands to unroll the scroll on the left, to roll it up on the right, and to write a series of columns in the intermediate spaces. Besides, even the mixing of the ink and trimming of the reed pens (quills arrived in the Middle Ages) had to be done while the scroll was held open at the spot reached by the scribe. Since the rolls were written on one side only, they could run to great lengths, as much as 30 feet long.more from Garry Wills at The New Statesman here.
african oil is changing
Jim is an American oilman from Oklahoma, and he’s sitting in a darkened corner of a whorehouse in downtown Luanda. He’s fat, white, gaping lazily at the black African prostitutes in fuchsia-colored miniskirts and heels who patrol the floor. He orders a beer, sits back on the leathery couch to watch the dimmed lights flicker off the shiny bar tops, the dark wood of the balustrades, the crystalline shimmer emanating from the disco ball that dangles like a low-hanging fruit. Waitresses in short, tight tops, jeans, and fuzzy rabbit slippers pad around sleepily taking orders and comments. Jim has been to this place and places just like it so often in the twenty years he has lived and worked in Africa that he seems — and I wonder if he also feels this — to fit in as comfortably here as anywhere else I might imagine for him, a bar in West Texas, a beetle-stained butte, gazing contentedly at the sand. More men have begun to drift in now, and along with them more languages. There is a smattering of French. And German. There’s Dutch, Spanish, and of course Portuguese, the language of the colonizers. The diamond men are coming, Jim says. And the arms men, too. The barman pumps the volume up, Bobby Brown then Shakira. More women stream in. African oil is changing, Jim explains. For a long time, several decades in fact, Nigeria was the undisputed king of the continent. It had the best oil and more of it than anyone else. Jim worked there for years, risked kidnappings, armed attacks on heavily guarded offshore rigs, the mighty chaos of Lagos. Like other oilmen he lived in a compound with grocery stores, restaurants and bars, and rarely ventured outside, and then only when it was absolutely necessary. But in 2007, times are changing, he says, ordering another bottle of Nova Cuca, a local beer, from a passing waitress and taking a slinking, unsmiling look at her bottom as she walks away. Angola is becoming the new king.more from Scott Johnson at Guernica here.
the revolution unravels
I saw a murder one afternoon in central Benghazi. The victim was a tall, heavily built man in his thirties wearing jeans and a grey sweatshirt. Three quick shots rang out to our left, my driver pulled the car in and there the man lay, one leg still moving as a slick pool of very red blood ran down the tarmac from his head. The city courts, used as offices by the rebels’ Provisional Transitional National Council since its ascent to power in Benghazi in mid-February, were just five minutes away. For all the judicial authority they had over the murder scene, with its guns, gangs and absence of police, they might as well have been in another country. The victim was a local man irritated by the sound of shooting in his apartment block doorway, where the killer had stood firing aimlessly in the air: a regular pastime in the city. He had asked the gunman to go elsewhere. Instead, the man shot him three times in the head and throat and then fled, pursued by passersby. Over the next two hours, the victim’s family seized the killer’s brother and a friend, who was blind, as hostages. Then two pickup-loads of rebels tried to storm the apartment to release the men but were driven off by heavily armed family members and residents. Guns and rage determined the outcome, not law. I left without seeing it end after the fury became too much to endure. Revolutions are tumultuous, and it would be naive to expect a smooth establishment of law and order in Benghazi so soon after the frantic violence that accompanied the populist uprising of the early spring. But Libya’s revolution is regressing, despite the air strikes by the Nato-led coalition.more from Anthony Loyd at Prospect Magazine here.
Five new stories alter our view of Daphne du Maurier
From The Telegraph:
Daphne du Maurier valued secrecy. In 1993, Margaret Forster’s haunting biography of the author drew on unprecedented access to personal letters, but was published with a picture of du Maurier on the dust-jacket cropped across the mouth. She would not give up all her secrets, not even to a fellow writer as subtle and talented as Forster. Like the Cornish house, Menabilly, which she loved all her adult life and immortalised as Manderley in Rebecca, du Maurier’s personal and creative life are cunningly hidden from view. Except that, once in a while, as though she were controlling the plot of her posthumous reputation from beyond the grave, another intriguing set of clues turns up and the certainties shift again.
Daphne du Maurier was born in 1907; the daughter of the theatre critic Gerald du Maurier and granddaughter of the novelist George du Maurier. She resolved to become a writer in her late teens and in her early twenties left London for the isolation of Fowey, on the south Cornish coast. Of du Maurier’s earliest short stories, Forster wrote: “All have one striking thing in common: the male characters are thoroughly unpleasant. They are bullies, seducers and cheats. The women, in contrast, are pitifully weak creatures who are endlessly dominated and betrayed, never capable of saving themselves and having only the energy just to survive.” In recent years, five new early stories have been discovered by a committed du Maurier fan and collector, Ann Willmore, co-owner of the shop Bookends of Fowey. These stories present some strong female characters more than capable of challenging or oppressing their unpleasant male counterparts.
All About the Invidious Irritants That Irk Individuals
From The New York Times:
If there’s anything I can’t stand, it’s somebody kicking the back of my chair. That, and the public clipping of fingernails. And loud gum chewing. Oh yes, and the neighbors’ muffled stereo, and people who are habitually late, and there are actually 20 or 30 other little problems I have with the world at large. But now on to you.
You get every bit as annoyed as I do by car alarms that never stop, fingernails screeching down blackboards, and a fly buzzing around your head. The prolonged whining of a child, your own or somebody else’s, drives you crazy. In other words, some annoyances are particular to the individual, some are universal to the species, and some, like the fly, appear to torture all mammals. If ever there was a subject for scientists to pursue for clues to why we are who we are, this is the one. And yet, as Joe Palca and Flora Lichtman make clear in their immensely entertaining survey, there are still more questions than answers in both the study of what annoys people and the closely related discipline of what makes people annoying.
I asked the professors who teach the meaning of life to tell
me what is happiness.
And I went to famous executives who boss the work of
thousands of men.
They all shook their heads and gave me a smile as though
I was trying to fool with them
And then one Sunday afternoon I wandered out along
the Desplaines river
And I saw a crowd of Hungarians under the trees with
their women and children and a keg of beer and an
by Carl Sandberg
Ian McEwan on Books That Have Helped Shape His Novels
Alec Ash in The Browser:
AA: Your first choice is What Science Offers the Humanities, by Edward Slingerland. Tell us a little about the book first.
IM: It’s a rather extraordinary and unusual book. It addresses some fundamental matters of interest to those of us whose education has been in the humanities. It’s a book that has received very little attention as far as I know, and deserves a lot more. Edward Slingerland’s own background is in Sinology. Most of us in the humanities carry about us a set of assumptions about what the mind is, or what the nature of knowledge is, without any regard to the discoveries and speculations within the biological sciences in the past 30 or 40 years. In part the book is an assault on the various assumptions and presumptions of postmodernism – and its constructivist notions of the mind.
Concepts that in neuroscience and cognitive psychology are now taken for granted – like the embodied mind – are alien to many in the humanities. And Slingerland addresses relativism, which is powerful and pervasive within the humanities. He wants to say that science is not just one more thought system, like religion; it has special, even primary, status because it’s derived from empiricism, or it’s predictive and coherent and does advance our understanding of the world. So rather than just accept at face value what some French philosopher invents about the mirror stage in infant development, Slingerland wants to show us where current understanding is, and where it’s developing, in fields such as cognition, or the relationship between empathy and our understanding on evil. Slingerland believes that there are orthodox views within the humanities which have been long abandoned by the sciences as untenable and contradictory.