July 31, 2011
The Tea Party's Sacred Cows and the Privilege of Absurdity
Scott Atran in the Huffington Post:
Recent research into seemingly intractable conflicts indicates that, for better or worse, radical movements that have attempted revolutionary changes in society do truly act on what they believe to be their sacred values -- core moral principles that resist and often clash with rational calculations. Once locked into sacred values there is a denial of the validity of opposing positions no matter how logically or empirically well-founded. Market fundamentalism -- irrational belief in the rational wisdom of the market -- is one case that Nobel laureate Danny Kahneman and financial analyst Nassim Taleb have debunked.
Congressional Tea Party holdouts against raising America's deficit ceiling behave as if any compromise on the issue would violate a sacred commitment to honor the Founding Fathers' wishes that government be as disentangled from people's personal lives (and from foreign adventures) as much as the defense of their physical safety allows. This "existential" commitment is a rebellion against "the tyranny of government," symbolized by increasing taxation. They believe their way will buck the republic's historical trend over the last 235 years toward larger government, and ultimately produce a leaner, downscaled federal authority despite almost certain immediate damage to America's economy and power.
Bono & Frank Sinatra: I've Got You Under My Skin
Autophagy is an old trope of advertising
Justin E. H. Smith in his eponymous blog:
Surely there must be a name, in advertising parlance, for the figure of the anthropomorphized food item that happily consumes a non-anthropomorphized version of itself? I first noticed Yocco years ago when driving through central Pennsylvania, and I admit he's haunted me ever since. What could he be thinking? What would existence as Yocco, the Hot Dog King, be like?
He is delighted, it is clear, but does his delight flow from the fact that human beings, the true anthropomorphs, enjoy eating his lesser brethren, the hot dogs that were destined to remain mere hot dogs? Or is he delighted because he himself is free to eat his lesser brethren? Do they constitute him, like the subjects of Hobbes's Leviathan? Is Yocco aware of this? Does Yocco not know what, exactly, he is? And, if he does, does it not horrify him?
Of course, autophagy is an old trope of advertising. We see it in abundance on the signs outside barbecue joints: the pig joyfully digging into a plate of pork, or, even more absurdly, the pig delighted to present itself as an already prepared pork product. Now the former possibility is not all that unverisimilar: pigs do resort to cannibalism regularly and without qualms.
Harmony of Means and Ends
Henry Farrell has started an interesting blogosphere discussion of 'left neoliberalism' and about a 'theory of politics. The post has provoked responses from Delong. Cosma Shalizi's take on the whole thing is worth a read:
What Henry means when he talks about "a theory of politics" is a theory about how political change (or stasis) happens, not about what political ends are desirable, or just, or legitimate, which is much of what I take "political theory" to be. "What are the processes and mechanisms by which political change happens?" is, at least in part, a separate question from "What would a good polity look like?", and Henry is talking about the former, not the latter. Of course the answer to the first question will tend to be context-dependent, so specialize it to "in contemporary representative democracies", or even "America today" if you like.
The first importance of such a theory is instrumental: if you want to have policies that look like X, a good theory of politics would help you figure out how to achieve X-shaped policies. But the second importance is that the theory might change your evaluation of policies, because it would change your understanding of their effects. The U.S. tax deduction for mortgage interest is arguably economically inefficient, since it promotes buying housing over renting, for no very clear economic rationale. But in so doing it (along with massive government intervention in forming and sustaining the mortgage market, building roads, using zoning to limit the construction of rental property, etc.) helps create a large group of people who are, or think of themselves as, property owners, possessors of substantial capital assets and so with a stake in the system*. If the deduction were, for instance, means-tested, it would not be nearly so effective politically.
Or again, if, for instance, you like material prosperity, you might favor policy X because (you think) it promotes economic efficiency. (Some other time, we can and should have the conversation about "economic efficiency", and the difference between "allocating scarce resources to their most valuable uses" and "allocating resources to meet effective demand", i.e., about the injustice inherent in the market's social welfare function.) But if you are also egalitarian, and policy X would make it easier for a small group of already-privileged people to wield political influence, then you might decide that policy X is not, after all, worth it, because of its inegalitarian political effects. (At a guess, some, but not all**, of Brad DeLong's reaction to Henry's posts is explained by letting X = "Clinton-era financial deregulation".) If you value a certain kind of distribution of political power as such (democracy, aristocracy, the vanguard party, rule by philosopher kings central bankers, etc.), a theory of politics would becomes an important part of how you gauge the value of different policies, at least ones which you think would tend to change how much power different individuals, or groups of individuals, would have.
Seven Creepy Experiments That Could Teach Us So Much (If They Weren’t So Wrong)
In Wired Magazine (via Rationally Speaking):
When scientists violate moral taboos, we expect horrific consequences. It’s a trope in our storytelling that goes back at least to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: However well-intentioned our fictional scientists may be, their disregard for ethical boundaries will produce not a peer-reviewed paper in Science but rather a new race of subhuman killers, a sucking wormhole in space-time, or a profusion of malevolent goo.
In the real world, though, matters aren’t so simple. Most scientists will assure you that ethical rules never hinder good research—that there’s always a virtuous path to testing any important hypothesis. But ask them in private, perhaps after a drink or three, and they’ll confess that the dark side does have its appeal. Bend the rules and some of our deepest scientific conundrums could be elucidated or even resolved: nature versus nurture, the causes of mental illness, even the mystery of how humans evolved from monkeys. These discoveries are just sitting out there, waiting for us to find them, if only we were willing to lose our souls.
What follows are seven creepy experiments—thought experiments, really—that show how contemporary science might advance if it were to toss away the moral compass that guides it. Don’t try these at home—or anywhere, for that matter. But also don’t pretend you wouldn’t like to learn the secrets that these experiments would reveal.
The Jargon of the Novel, Computed
Ben Zimmer in The New York Times:
We like to think that modern fiction, particularly American fiction, is free from the artificial stylistic pretensions of the past. Richard Bridgman expressed a common view in his 1966 book “The Colloquial Style in America.” “Whereas in the 19th century a very real distinction could be made between the vernacular and standard diction as they were used in prose,” Bridgman wrote, “in the 20th century the vernacular had virtually become standard.” Thanks to such pioneers as Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, the story goes, ornate classicism was replaced by a straight-talking vox populi.
Now in the 21st century, with sophisticated text-crunching tools at our disposal, it is possible to put Bridgman’s theory to the test. Has a vernacular style become the standard for the typical fiction writer? Or is literary language still a distinct and peculiar beast?
Scholars in the growing field of digital humanities can tackle this question by analyzing enormous numbers of texts at once. When books and other written documents are gathered into an electronic corpus, one “subcorpus” can be compared with another: all the digitized fiction, for instance, can be stacked up against other genres of writing, like news reports, academic papers or blog posts.
One such research enterprise is the Corpus of Contemporary American English, or COCA, which brings together 425 million words of text from the past two decades, with equally large samples drawn from fiction, popular magazines, newspapers, academic texts and transcripts of spoken English. The fiction samples cover short stories and plays in literary magazines, along with the first chapters of hundreds of novels from major publishers. The compiler of COCA, Mark Davies at Brigham Young University, has designed a freely available online interface that can respond to queries about how contemporary language is used. Even grammatical questions are fair game, since every word in the corpus has been tagged with a part of speech.
On Ethics, Part I: Moral Philosophy’s Third Way
Massimo Pigliucci in Rationally Speaking:
Ethics, its implications and its justifications keep appearing at Rationally Speaking in a variety of forms, from my critique of Sam Harris’ scientism to my rejection of Objectivism, from Julia’s skepticism about meta-ethics to Michael’s criticism of the non-morality of markets. This is, of course, inevitable because ethics is both a crucial component of our lives and a topic that can — with due caution — be approached rationally, which means it does belong to this blog.
So, I have decided to take the bull by its nasty horns and do a multi-part series on ethics (haven’t decided how many parts just yet) with the following objectives: a) make as clear as possible my “third way” between moral relativism and objective moral truths (this essay); b) systematically explore the differences among the major ethical systems proposed by philosophers: deontology, consequentialism, virtue ethics and egalitarianism; and c) apply the method of reflective equilibrium to my own thinking about ethics to see whether I need to revise my positions about moral philosophy (I am starting this quest with a marked preference for virtue ethics, but mixed with the apparently not so easy to reconcile with egalitarianism of John Rawls). We’ll see how far we get, yes?
The starting point for my discussion of what I will refer to as ethics’ “third way” is a recent thoughtful article published in The Stone, the New York Times’ philosophy blog. There, NYU philosopher Paul Boghossian does an excellent job at summarizing the perennial discussion between moral relativists and moral absolutists. Boghossian introduces an interesting contrast to make his readers think about the differences among moral absolutism, moral relativism, and nihilism. Consider first the ancient concept of witches. We (well, most of us) no longer believe that there are witches in the world, so we have dropped talk of witches altogether, engaging in what Boghossian calls “eliminativism” about witches (analogous, of course, to the much more debatable eliminativism in philosophy of mind proposed by Patricia and Paul Churchland).
From The Paris Review:
I’m waiting for the elevator in a medieval-themed hotel in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, when the elevator doors open to reveal a heated exchange between a bald man in a Hawaiian shirt and a puppet shaped like a toucan. My presence brings an uncomfortable end to their private imbroglio. Both stare at me silently as I enter the elevator, and for five awkward floors I’m brought into direct contact with what George Bernard Shaw described as the “unvarying intensity of facial expression” of puppets, an attribute he believed makes them more compelling actors than humans. I’m at the Vent Haven ConVENTion where, each July, hundreds of ventriloquists, or “vents,” as they call themselves, gather from all over the world. For four days, they attend lectures on the business, getting advice on AV equipment, scriptwriting, or creating an audience through social networking. They listen to a keynote address by Comedy Central’s ventriloquist-in-residence, Jeff Dunham, who exhorts his notoriously defensive colleagues to “quit complaining that people say we’re weird. We talk to dolls. We are weird, ok. Just own it.” They eat at a Denny’s off the highway and visit the creationist museum down the road. And they don’t go anywhere without the accompaniment of their alter egos.
At the convention, the puppets are a slim but boisterous majority. They crowd in around you. They critique you. They grope you. They chatter continuously. Being around them approximates what it would be like to read people’s minds. It is a most unpleasant experience—a great deal more unsettling, of course, isn’t what they say but that they say anything at all. All over the hotel, in conference rooms, in hallways, at the bar, ventriloquism is practiced in its purest form: not as a stage show, but as an ongoing, unscripted social interaction, a live conversation between humans and their golems. At a drunken party one night, in the hotel’s “hospitality suite,” I witness one dummy operating another dummy, as the human source of both voices sits silently nearby, pretending to compose a text message. The mini bar has lips, which cruelly insult anyone who walks by, the origin of its voice impossible to determine. Almost as soon as I join the party, I am molested by a busty lady puppet, a faded showgirl. She swoons onto my shoulder. “Godaaamn,” she slurs. “Where have you been?” Her vent is a burly, unsmiling dude with a shaved head, a muscle shirt, and camo shorts. He smells strongly of whiskey.
Pakistan through a journalist’s lens
Zubeida Mustafa in Dawn:
Aboard the Democracy Train — a title borrowed from Benazir Bhutto’s campaign by train for the 1988 election — is an account of politics in Pakistan through the experiences of a female reporter, Nafisa Hoodbhoy, working in a predominantly male environment. As a Dawn staffer from 1984 to 2000, she had access to people and places which gave her a ringside view of politics in Pakistan. It goes to her credit that she put her knowledge to good use. What has emerged is a remarkably readable and anecdotal account of events in Pakistan. For the author’s contemporaries, the book is a journey down memory lane. By skilfully weaving in the story of her own life in journalism — the society she grew up in, her westernised upbringing in an elite and privileged family, her English medium school education and her disconnect from her Sindhi linguistic antecedents — Hoodbhoy provides an excellent perspective to a foreign reader of life in Pakistan when, in spite of many dichotomies and contradictions, people co-existed in relative harmony.
Hoodbhoy puts forth her opinion on why Pakistan failed to develop as a stable democracy: “the over-indulged state had, since the creation of the nation, taught political leaders one simple lesson: when they fell out with the military, they could be shaken down like dates from a palm tree.” The period covered in the book was a unique era of transition from press controls to relative freedom that came with the abolition of the hated Press and Publications Ordinance.
We cross the bridge, quietly.
The bathing girl does not see us
till we've stopped and gaped like fools.
There are no catcalls, whoops,
none of the things that soldiers do;
the most stupid of us is silent, rapt.
She might be fourteen or twenty,
sunk thigh deep in the green water,
her woman's pelt a glistening corkscrew,
a wonder, a wonder she is; I forgot.
For a moment we all hold the same thought,
that there is life in life and war is shit.
For a song we'd all go to the mountains,
eat pineapples, drink goat's milk,
find a girl like this, who cares
her teeth are stained with betel nut,
her hands as hard as feet.
If I can live another month its over,
and so we think a single thought,
a bell's resonance.
And then she turns and sees us there,
sinks in the water, eyes full of hate;
the trance broken.
We move into the village on the other side.
by Doug Anderson
from The Moon Reflected Fire
Alice James, 1994
July 30, 2011
Jerome Liebling, 1924 - 2011
Randy Kennedy in the NYT:
Jerome Liebling, whose subtly powerful pictures and the lessons he drew from them influenced a generation of socially minded photographers and documentary filmmakers, died on Wednesday in Northampton, Mass. He was 87.
His death was announced by Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., where he taught for more than two decades.
Mr. Liebling was among a wave of pioneering photographers — including Walker Evans, Berenice Abbott, Helen Levitt and Gordon Parks — who took to the streets of New York in the 1930s and ’40s to make art by turning their cameras onto corners of urban life that had mostly been ignored by the photographers before them.
His experience as a child of the Depression growing up in Brooklyn, Mr. Liebling said, formed an impulse throughout his career to “figure out where the pain was, to show things that people wouldn’t see unless I was showing them.” Over a half-century much of his work depicted painful subjects far too directly for magazines or newspapers to show them: mental patients in state hospitals, cadavers used by New York medical students, blood-drenched workers at a Minnesota slaughterhouse.
Jerome Liebling was born in New York on April 16, 1924, the son of a waiter. After serving in the Army in North Africa and Europe during World War II, he returned to New York and studied art and design at Brooklyn College with the painter Ad Reinhardt, whose fledgling photography program provided Mr. Liebling with his first camera. He joined the Photo League, the socially minded photographers’ cooperative, and worked with Paul Strand, whose complex, hard-edged compositions exerted a strong early influence.
The Storm after the Calm
Michel Rocard in Project Syndicate:
Could the financial crisis of 2007-2008 happen again? Since the crisis erupted, there has been no shortage of opportunities – in the form of inadequate conclusions and decisions by officials – to nurture one’s anxiety about that prospect.
Over the course of the three G-20 summits held since the crisis, world leaders have agreed to tighten financial regulation slightly, but only for banks, while leaving other market players free of restrictions and scrutiny. As was true before the crisis, no one is monitoring the almost limitless “virtual” market for derivatives, where money moves freely without official rules or contact with the real economy.
And large players have plenty of cash with which to speculate, especially given the United States Federal Reserve’s decision to inundate the world with a sea of liquidity. The result has not been investment in productive assets that boost employment in the US, as the Fed intended, but rather a run-up in global commodity prices and a growing bubble in the housing markets of the major emerging economies.
Simply put, there are no brakes that could stop the global economy from blundering into another financial crisis.
Fooled by Science
H. Allen Orr on David Brooks' The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement in the NY Review of Books:
The Social Animal is more ambitious and, in some ways, more serious than his earlier books. Gone is the focus on what are likely passing fads in American culture and gone, at least largely, is the irreverent wit that characterized his previous efforts. Instead, The Social Animal is an attempt to write an accessible treatment of a set of weighty topics, many of which require Brooks to stretch in a distinctly scientific direction. The book, which was excerpted earlier this year in The New Yorker, focuses on big and somewhat diffuse questions: What has science revealed about human nature? What are the sources of character? And why are some people happy and successful while others aren’t?
To answer these questions, Brooks surveys a wide range of disciplines, including evolutionary psychology, neurobiology, cognitive science, behavioral economics, education theory, and even the findings of marriage experts.
Given all this, you might expect The Social Animal to be a dry recitation of facts. But Brooks has structured his book in an unorthodox, and perhaps unfortunate, way. Instead of a chapter on evolutionary psychology, followed by one on child development, and so on, he tells a story. Following Rousseau’s approach in Émile, Brooks makes his larger points within a fictional narrative. This literary conceit is presumably intended both to keep the reader’s attention and to provide a natural frame for all the research that Brooks reports. So as the characters in his narrative live through childhood, we hear about the science of child development, and as they begin to date we hear about the biochemistry of sexual attraction. Nothing if not thorough, Brooks carries this conceit through to the death of one of his characters.
The Milkman in the Night
Marina Lewycka reviews Andrey Kurkov’s The Milkman in the Night, in the FT:
Andrey Kurkov’s new book is a surreal tale of post-Soviet Ukraine, in the same vein as his cult novel Death and the Penguin but with less poignant irony and more straight farce.
The Milkman in the Night opens with a night-time murder, followed by the interception at an airport of a suitcase full of mysterious ampoules and some bizarre goings-on at a private clinic where impoverished single mothers are paid to express their surplus breast milk. From there the plot unwinds in a complex helter-skelter of more and more improbable events. Sometimes the inventiveness is exhilarating, at other times the sheer implausibility of the narrative can grate.
The characters who unleash these extraordinary plots are humble people eking out a precarious living in the unglamorous corners of Kiev and its impoverished hinterland. Irina, a single mother, travels into Kiev every day from the snowbound village of Lipovka to sell her breast milk. Dima, a sniffer-dog handler at Boryspil airport, tries to change his luck by stealing a dodgy suitcase. Semyon, a private bodyguard to a parliamentary deputy, is revealed to be a sleepwalker with a separate nocturnal life of which his daytime self is completely unaware; his wife Veronika makes friends with the eccentric widow of the pharmacist whose murder opens the book.
In the best absurdist tradition, the priest who comes to exorcise Dima’s house and car charges extra because there are no airbags, while the murdered pharmacist had developed an elixir called Anti-Wimp, which stimulates not only courage but also an exaggerated sense of social justice (politicians order it by the bucket-load). If this isn’t enough, the pharmacist’s widow has his body plasticised and seats him by the window in her apartment until it begins to smell; her friend does the same with her dead husband and the two women finally bury their spouses next to each other. And so it goes on.
Beauty and Mumbai's beastly trade
From The Independent:
Sonia Faleiro was simply in search of a story she could sink her teeth into. A campaigning reporter on a number of Indian newspapers, the 33-year-old from Goa adhered to one overriding credo: "To convey information about people we know nothing of."
And so, when she came across a small news item about dance bars in Mumbai, dens of iniquity in which disadvantaged young women were used and abused by the city's elite, she knew that here was something worth delving into. "I met with one of the girls, Leela," she says, "a 19-year-old who had no doubt suffered [as a child, her father sent her out to be gang-raped by the police] but who, since arriving [in Mumbai], was so alive, and so optimistic." Faleiro spent several months shadowing this engagingly self-dramatising heroine, convinced that she was worthy of far more than a mere article. The result, six years after they first met, is Beautiful Thing, a book that throws the doors open on Mumbai's sex trade.
Know Thyself: Easier Said Than Done
From The New York Times:
A few days before a review of my latest book appeared in these pages, I wrote to my editor, saying I had seen an advance copy and how much I liked the color illustration of the yellow moon. He replied that I must be mistaken, since the Book Review doesn’t use color. The next weekend he wrote to say he couldn’t think what had come over him — he reads the Book Review every week, and had somehow not noticed the color. Odd. And yet these lapses can happen to the best of us. Ask yourself what the Roman number four on the face of the church clock looks like. Most people will answer it looks like IV, but almost certainly the truth is it looks like IIII.
Why are we so bad at knowing — in this case remembering — what passes through our own minds? The philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel, in “Perplexities of Consciousness,” contends that our minds, rather than being open-access, are largely hidden territory. Despite what we believe about our powers of introspection, the reality is that we know awfully little about what our conscious experience amounts to. Even when reporting current experience, we make divergent, confused and even contradictory claims about what it’s like to be on the inside.
when i was torn by war
i took a brush
immersed in death
and drew a window
on war’s wall
i opened it
i saw another war
and a mother
weaving a shroud
for the dead man
still in her womb
by Sinan Antoon
from Iraqi Poetry Today
Zephyr Press, 2003 Translated from the Arabic by the poet
July 29, 2011
Daniel Mason in Lapham's Quarterly:
On June 6, 1800, nearly a year into his scientific journey through South America, Alexander von Humboldt arrived at a mission on the Orinoco River called La Concepción de Uruana. It was a stunning site. The village sat at the foot of granite mountains, amidst huge pillars of stone that rose above the forest. Weeks before, Humboldt had seen mysterious etchings on the summits of such rocks—painted, the natives told him, by ancestors carried up there by the waters of a great flood.
Although weakened by bouts of fever and hunger, Humboldt was in fine spirits. In the preceding months he had watched the Leonid meteor shower fill the sky, experienced his first earthquake, and confirmed the communication of the Orinoco and the Amazon rivers through the Casiquiare Canal. He had collected electric eels and watched the dissection of a manatee. If at times the mosquitoes were so thick as to obscure the horizon and prevent his reckoning of latitude, or if other times ant hordes filled his canoe, he pushed on, spurred, he wrote, by an uncertain longing “for what is distant and unknown.”
Humboldt and his botanist companion Aimé Bonpland (and Indian servants, and pressed plants, and jars of preserving spirits, and a chattering menagerie of birds and monkeys in cages on his boats) stayed at Uruana for only one day, conversing with the missionary Fray Ramon Bueno and visiting the Otomac villagers. For all of nature’s splendors, it was the people of Uruana that most caught Humboldt’s attention: “a tribe in the rudest state,” “considered dirty even by their neighbors,” “ugly, savage, vindictive, and passionately fond of fermented liquors,” and yet presenting “one of the most extraordinary physiological phenomena” Humboldt had ever seen. The Otomacs ate earth, “a prodigious quantity” of it. During the two to three months of the rainy season, when the high and turbulent waters of the river made fishing difficult, they claimed to eat nothing but.
The Kingdom and the Towers
Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan in Vanity Fair (h/t: Andrew Sullivan):
For 10 years now, a major question about 9/11 has remained unresolved. It was, as 9/11-commission chairmen Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton recalled, “Had the hijackers received any support from foreign governments?” There was information that pointed to the answer, but the commissioners apparently deemed it too disquieting to share in full with the public.
The idea that al-Qaeda had not acted alone was there from the start. “The terrorists do not function in a vacuum,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters the week after 9/11. “I know a lot, and what I have said, as clearly as I know how, is that states are supporting these people.” Pressed to elaborate, Rumsfeld was silent for a long moment. Then, saying it was a sensitive matter, he changed the subject.
Three years later, the commission would consider whether any of three foreign countries in particular might have had a role in the attacks. Two were avowed foes of the United States: Iraq and Iran. The third had long been billed as a close friend: Saudi Arabia.
In its report, the commission stated that it had seen no “evidence indicating that Iraq cooperated with al-Qaeda in developing or carrying out any attacks against the United States.”
Iran, the commission found, had long had contacts with al-Qaeda and had allowed its operatives—including a number of the future hijackers—to travel freely through its airports. Though there was no evidence that Iran “was aware of the planning for what later became the 9/11 attack,” the commissioners called on the government to investigate further.
This year, in late May, attorneys for bereaved 9/11 family members said there was revealing new testimony from three Iranian defectors. Former senior commission counsel Dietrich Snell was quoted as saying in an affidavit that there was now “convincing evidence the government of Iran provided material support to al-Qaeda in the planning and execution of the 9/11 attack.” That evidence, however, has yet to surface.
As for Saudi Arabia, America’s purported friend, you would have thought from the reaction of the Saudi ambassador, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, that the commission had found nothing dubious in his country’s role. “The clear statements by this independent, bipartisan commission,” he declared, “have debunked the myths that have cast fear and doubt over Saudi Arabia.” Yet no finding in the report categorically exonerated Saudi Arabia.
Over at Tablet Magazine, "the debut edition of 'Long Story Short,' a new podcast on people and ideas in Jewish life":
Rosa Luxemburg was always an anomaly. One of the fiercest thinkers of the early 20th century, this Marxist philosopher and firebrand activist led masses of rebels during a time when politics was governed entirely by men. Living in Berlin, she was of Polish Jewish descent but not at all concerned with the plight of Jews. Unlike her male, dogmatic, and dull peers, she believed in love and passion and life’s small but great joys. In 1919, when she was just 47 years old, she was brutally murdered by her opponents. Long after many of her colleagues have been reclassified as tyrants by history’s unremitting hand, Luxemburg’s popularity is greater than ever; each year, thousands of young activists flock to her grave for inspiration.
But how is Luxemburg relevant to Jewish history? And what, if anything, would she have to say to Sarah Palin and her Tea Party supporters? The critic and essayist Vivian Gornick joined Long Story Short host Liel Leibovitz to discuss these questions in the first installment of Long Story Short
What I Think About When I Think About Dominique Strauss-Kahn
Rochelle Gurstein in The Nation:
Now that Nafissatou Diallo has taken the extraordinary step of telling the public her version of what Dominique Strauss-Kahn did to her at the Sofitel Hotel in clinical and tearful detail, I found myself revisiting the many dispiriting thoughts that have come to me regarding this case. When I first read the New York Times report of what happened, I was revolted. And so I read with approval all the criticism of the blinding arrogance and staggering stupidity of powerful men like Dominique Strauss-Kahn who had abused their position and taken advantage of women. I felt a kind of moral satisfaction when I saw a picture of a crowd of hotel maids (mostly minority and I assumed poorly paid) assembled in front of the courthouse yelling "shame" at Strauss-Kahn when he appeared for his arraignment.
Then it turned out the accuser was an "unreliable witness." She had lied on her application for asylum, she had lied on her income tax returns, she had been less than forthright about her boyfriend in jail, and she had told conflicting stories about what happened after she was allegedly sexually assaulted by Strauss-Kahn. She was a liar, the consensus emerged but, as commentators who were still sympathetic to her pointed out, that did not mean that she was lying about what Strauss-Kahn did to her in the hotel room. Yet, even as I continued to entertain that possibility, I felt the force of the outraged reaction of the French to what they saw as a barbaric legal system, inflamed and abetted by a salacious, rumor-mongering press—and I understood. I cringed as I thought about the infamous "perp walk" (that awful little phrase) and felt the hollowness, as I have often felt before, of our vaunted legal principle of the presumption of innocence.
From there, and before I could help it, I felt myself being pushed into a familiar and discomfiting inner dialogue that starts with acknowledging the distressing truth that I somehow manage to live, as do most people, as if I did not know about the odious barbarisms of our legal system. The leering spectacle of the "perp walk" is the least of it.
Gaddafi is stronger than ever in Libya
Richard Seymour in The Guardian:
The war on Libya has not gone well. Kim Sengupta's report on Wednesday detailed this starkly:
"Fresh diplomatic efforts are under way to try to end Libya's bloody civil war, with the UN special envoy flying to Tripoli to hold talks after Britain followed France in accepting that Muammar Gaddafi cannot be bombed into exile.
The change of stance by the two most active countries in the international coalition is an acceptance of realities on the ground. Despite more than four months of sustained air strikes by Nato, the rebels have failed to secure any military advantage. Colonel Gaddafi has survived what observers perceive as attempts to eliminate him and, despite the defection of a number of senior commanders, there is no sign that he will be dethroned in a palace coup.
The regime controls around 20% more territory than it did in the immediate aftermath of the uprising on 17 February."
If the Gaddafi regime is now more in control of Libya than before, then this completely undermines the simplistic view put about by the supporters of war – and unfortunately by some elements of the resistance – that the situation was simply one of a hated tyrant hanging on through mercenary violence.
Choir (Perpetuum Jazzile) uses their hands to simulate storm: Africa
Why So Smart? Why So Dumb?
Hugo Mercier in Psychology Today:
Reasoning is funny. Not the act of reasoning-although it can also be fun-but the cognitive skill that allows us to figure out math problems and decide what computer to buy. We can agree that reasoning is responsible, at least in part, for some of the greatest achievements of humankind, from calculus to the International Space Station. Yet we should also agree that people can reason their way to asinine beliefs -- we are poisoned by the souls of aliens dropped in volcanoes millions years ago -- and disastrous decisions -- Napoleon's ‘invasion' of Russia. And it's not that some people are smart while others are dumb: Isaac Newton spent more time bent on alchemy than on mathematics and, for their many faults, neither L. Ron Hubbard nor Napoleon were dunces.
Psychologists interested in reasoning cannot expect to recreate such dramatic events as the creation of calculus or the decision to attack Russia in the lab. Instead, they must work with ‘toy models,' simple problems that people can try to solve in less than half an hour before going back to their routine. The most commonly used of these problems is known as the Wason Selection Task -- after its creator the pioneering psychologist Peter Wason. Many of you may already be familiar with it, but if you aren't, you can try to solve the problem yourself - it's laid out in figure one. Take your time.
Did you answer A, or A and 4? If yes, you are in good company, comfortably sitting with the large majority of the thousands of people who've faced the Wason Selection Task. But psychologists would not be nearly as interested in a problem that most people get right: the correct answer, arrived at by about 10% of participants, is A and 7. Why 7? Because if there's a vowel and the other side of the 7 card, then the rule is false. Why not 4? Because even if there's a consonant on the other side of the 4 card, the rule can still be true: it doesn't say that a consonant must have an odd number on the other side. Here's a nice toy model of reasoning's failures: a simple task leading to abysmal performance.
Now for the toy model of reasoning's successes. It is called the Wason Selection Task -- after its creator the pioneering psychologist Peter Wason. It is depicted in figure one. A large majority of people manages to find the correct solution, showing how efficient reasoning can be at solving logical problems.
Wait. How can the very same problem illustrate both reasoning's failures and its successes? The task is the same. The people solving it are the same. What's the catch? The context. In the first toy model, people face the problem on their own. In the second they solve it in groups.
The Asylum Seeker
Suketu Mehta in The New Yorker:
The writer met Caroline one Friday evening in the cafeteria of the upscale Manhattan supermarket where she worked. She was a twenty-something African immigrant without papers who was living three lives: as Cecile Diop, a woman with papers who had been in the country for ten years; as Caroline the African rape and torture victim; and as herself, a middle-class young woman who wanted to make a life in America. (Names and other identifying details have been changed throughout.) Diop, a fellow expat from central Africa, had lent Caroline her Social Security number so that she could get the job. Caroline was expecting her first paycheck, which she would give to Cecile to cash. “Some of them take half,” Caroline said, about such arrangements between immigrants. Caroline had come to the U.S. the previous summer for a family wedding. When her parents left, she stayed, even after her tourist visa expired. Now she was working on a story—a four-page document that she would give to the lawyer she had hired, and to immigration officials—saying that she was beaten and raped more than once by government soldiers in her country. “I have never been raped,” she admitted. It’s not enough for asylum applicants to say that they were threatened, or even beaten. They have to furnish horror stories. Inevitably, these atrocity stories are inflated, as new applicants for asylum get more inventive about what was done to them. Caroline’s parents are supporters of a controversial opposition leader, and government soldiers ransacked their house twice. Although they didn’t rape her or her sisters, they beat her brother. To buttress her asylum claims, Caroline has to obtain a letter from a hospital stating that she had been treated for torture. Describes her therapy sessions. Caroline was getting help in crafting her narrative from a Rwandan man the writer calls Laurent, who was a sort of asylum-story shaper among Central Africans. The writer accompanied Caroline to the immigration office where she made her case for asylum. Describes her interview with the immigration official, Novick. He wanted specifics about her rape and mistreatment back home. Last year, about fifty thousand people applied for asylum here. Less than five per cent came from central Africa. In all, 21,113 applicants were given asylum. The majority of asylum seekers in America, immigration experts say, really would be at serious risk if they were returned to their countries. Caroline does indeed have a “well-founded fear of persecution” if she returns, but she felt that she had to augment the story with a rape because the immigration system can better comprehend such a story. A couple of weeks later, Caroline returned to the asylum office and was told that her application had been approved.
How to Eat Like the President of the United States
Richard Nixon: This president was eating his share of humble pie when he resigned his office in the wake of the Watergate scandal. But his actual last meal at the White House was a simple affair: slices of pineapple arranged around a plop of cottage cheese, paired with a glass of milk and served on a silver tray. Somehow I don’t think this particular dish will catch on in popularity, at least given the context in which it was served.
Ronald Reagan: This former commander in chief started eating jelly beans in the late 1960s as a means of helping him kick a smoking habit—and his affection for the candies grew to the point that, in 1973, he wrote to the chairman of the Jelly Belly company saying “we can hardly start a meeting or make a decision without passing around the jar of jelly beans.” Video on display shows Reagan heading a cabinet meeting with his hand perpetually dipping into a glass jelly bean jar.
Michelle Obama: One of the closing images of the show is of Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden on the south lawn. First planted in 2009, it was the first vegetable garden to grace the executive mansion’s property since the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration. (The Clintons kept a small garden on the White House roof, but were told that planting a bona-fide garden on the grounds would break with the formal aesthetic of the White House property.) The 2011 garden includes a melange of vegetables such as spinach, peas, broccoli and lettuce. The produce will be used in the White House kitchen.
July 28, 2011
the age of dissolution
At the beginning of time, the great gods churned the ocean and found the nectar of immortality, only to have the demon-god Rahu steal it and gulp it down. The sun and moon gods tattled to Vishnu, who beheaded the demon; his body perished, but his head, having absorbed the nectar, had become immortal. Since then, whenever he can manage it, Rahu, the lord of petroleum mining, fertilizers, chemicals, stock markets, and destructive growth—that is to say, the lord of contemporary India—swallows the sun and the moon. But they always sail back out of his gaping throat and rearrange themselves in the sky. At 6:24 a.m. on July 22, 2009, I stood with seventy thousand people hip-deep in the gray, gluey mud of the Ganga, swirling with ashes, flowers, sloughed-off sin, and fecal bacteria.1 Although the sun had stumbled into a stratus sky only an hour ago, the clouds gave way and starlight began to play on the opalescent tides. We battled a compulsion to stare straight into the cosmic misalignment; we mutely implored the sun to pass through Rahu’s mouth, throat, and neck once again.more from Bidisha Banerjee at Triple Canopy here.
The woman is perfected
It’s always interesting when a very strange book is also an enduringly popular book. The Bell Jar has sold more than three million copies and is a mainstay of American high school English classes; it was made into a movie in 1979, and another version, starring Julia Stiles, is currently in production. Like The Catcher in the Rye, it is a touchstone for a certain kind of introspective, moody teenager—the kind of teenager who used to listen to the Cure and, later on, Tori Amos, and who these days listens to—actually I have no idea, but she definitely has a blog. (There are an amazing variety of embarrassing shrines to The Bell Jar online.) Unlike Catcher, it also has other sources of partisan support: feminists of the 1970s claimed Plath as a martyred patron saint of repressive domesticity, and mental illness advocates have found in her work easily identifiable symptoms and syndromes that were misdiagnosed and barbarically treated. As much as it was initially underappreciated by the British press, The Bell Jar was overpraised on its American publication. As such, it has frustrated generations of critics and biographers by refusing to be quite the great novel you’d want a great poet’s only novel to be. The book’s appeal comes into focus only when a reader drops her outsized expectations; after that, a more complex story reveals itself. Under the pretense of describing mental breakdown and recovery, Plath was free to bare her stand-in narrator’s nastiest, most selfish impulses. In doing so, she both dramatized and exemplified the conflict inherent in trying to be both a great writer and a nice person.more from Emily Gould at Poetry here.
the Lithuanian Holocaust
In early July the words “Hitler was right” were painted in Russian on the memorial stone to the 72,000 Jews who were murdered at the Ponary Forest near Vilnius in Lithuania. On another monument close by, a vulgar reference was made to the compensation the Lithuanian government has made to the descendants of murdered Jews. No one seems to have noticed. Vilnius, now the capital of Lithuania, was known for centuries as the “the Jerusalem of Lithuania” because of its centrality to medieval and early modern Jewish thought and politics. In the medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the early modern Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Jews settled in Vilnius in considerable numbers from both west and east. Over centuries, Jews prospered under a regime that permitted them local autonomy. During the waning of the Commonwealth in the eighteenth century, Vilnius was home to scholars such as Elijah ben Solomon, the “Gaon of Vilne,” the great opponent of the Hasidic movement. In the nineteenth century Vilnius was home to the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, in the Russian Empire.more from Timothy Snyder at the NYRB here.
A male porn star speaks
Tracy Clark-Flory in Salon:
A naked woman is sitting on a bar stool, her legs held open by two real-life customers who casually sip their beers as porn actor James Deen repeatedly slams into her. A couple of men stand next to the action with their iPhones held out at arm's length, but mostly the crowd seems more interested in the glasses of whiskey being passed around than in the moaning girl. They pour the shots down their throats and someone lets a burp rip.
This is a shoot for one of Kink.com's many BDSM fetish websites, Public Disgrace, in which "women are bound, stripped, and punished in public." There are three porn actors and the rest of the 15 or so people at this tiny watering hole -- all male save for two women -- are fans of the site or just people off the street. My friend who tipped me off about the shoot is one of the latter: He happened to be walking by the bar when he noticed that something was being filmed inside and as a video editor he couldn't resist checking it out.
In his rage against Muslims, Norway's killer was no loner
Seumas Milne in The Guardian:
It's comforting, perhaps, to dismiss Anders Behring Breivik as nothing more than a psychotic loner. That was the view of the Conservative London mayor, Boris Johnson, among others. The Norwegian mass killer's own lawyer has branded him "insane". It has the advantage of meaning no wider conclusions need to be drawn about the social context of the atrocity.
Had he been a Muslim, as much of the western media concluded he was immediately after the terrorist bloodbath, we can be sure there would have been no such judgments – even though some jihadist attacks have undoubtedly been carried out by individuals operating alone.
In fact, however deranged the bombing and shooting might seem, studies of those identified as terrorists have shown they rarely have mental illness or psychiatric abnormalities. Maybe Breivik will turn out to be an exception. But whether his claim that there are other members of a fascistic Christian terror network still at large turns out to be genuine or not, he has clearly fostered enthusiastic links with violent far-right groups abroad, and in Britain in particular.
Those include multiple contacts with the Islamophobic English Defence League, which has repeatedly staged violent protests against Muslim communities. "You're a blessing to all in Europe," Breivik apparently told EDL supporters in an online message, hailing "our common struggle against the Islamofascists". Whatever Breivik has done, he hasn't done in isolation.
Geoffrey West: The surprising math of cities and corporations
Enduring unwelcome awkward flirting at CERN and elsewhere
Jennifer Oulette in Scientific American:
Last week, Linda Henneberg, a young science communication intern at CERN in Switzerland — best known these days as the home of the Large Hadron Collider — wrote a blog post about her experiences at the laboratory as both a woman and a non-PhD physicist. Haltingly, timidly, even a bit apologetically, she confessed, “I’ve never felt more constantly objectified, hit on, and creeped on than while at CERN.”
She was careful to say that she has not encountered blatant sexism of the most egregious sort, although she has endured unwelcome awkward flirting: a wink and a hand on the knee, lame attempts at playing “footsie” with her under the table during meetings, and of course, tacky double entendres. Even then, she cut the guys a lot of slack; it’s just social awkwardness, she rationalized, not a malicious attempt to make her feel uncomfortable — and yet, she does feel uncomfortable. (There may also be cultural factors at play, given the international diversity at CERN.)
What she found equally bothersome is that because she’s a woman in education, not physics research, she simply isn’t taken seriously by her male colleagues at CERN, who apparently treat her with amiable condescension. Henneberg holds an undergraduate degree is in physics and a graduate degree in science communication, yet “[P]eople here, men especially, treat me like some sort of novelty item. Like because I am not a physicist, I have nothing substantive to contribute to CERN, but it’s cute that I try.”
This is Not the End of the Book
From National Post:
Fear not, bookworms and library rats. Two fellow bibliophiles, novelist (The Name of the Rose) and critic Umberto Eco, and playwright and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, have collaborated on a volume whose title says it all: This is Not the End of the Book: A Conversation Curated by Jean-Philippe de Tonnac.
Eco lays out his argument very early in this “conversation.” (Don’t ask me what “curated” means.) “There is actually very little to say on the subject,” Eco states. “The Internet has returned us to the alphabet … From now on, everyone has to read. In order to read, you need a medium. This medium cannot simply be a computer screen.” The implication of Eco’s logic is clear. E-books have their place in the world of letters, but not necessarily one of total dominance. “One of two things will happen,” Eco continues in his march of logic. “Either the book will continue to be the medium for reading, or its replacement will resemble what the book has always been, even before the invention of the printing press. Alterations to the book-as-object have modified neither its function nor its grammar for more than 500 years. The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved.”
The Break: Italian bribery and billiards
From The Independent:
The Break is small and perfectly formed. This is just as well, since reaching its end leaves the reader desirous to start all over again, and/or furious at its brevity. This is all the more surprising since the subject of the novel is billiards – not one about which I have ever felt passionate. No more have I ever held an interest in boxing, yet I still voted for the young Italian writer Pietro Grossi's Fists to win last year's Premio Campiello. As with his literary inspiration Hemingway's novels on safari hunting and bullfights, the glory is in the writing – here succinctly rendered in Howard Curtis's translation.
As in Fists, style beats content in being spare without being sparse, taut without seeming tight. Both novels are about duels to the death, and each ends in surprising reversals and redefinitions of winning and losing. The Break sees the world through the eyes of Dino, who generally keeps those eyes down to ground level, laying roads. In the detail of using first paving slabs and then tarmac, working alongside the immigrants Saeed and Blondie for an increasingly corrupt chain of municipal officials, Dino gradually apprehends the backhanded way things are done in his provincial town.
July 27, 2011
a New Film Criticism?
It’s news to no one that film production has changed radically since 1954, when François Truffaut and the writers at Cahiers du Cinéma created auteur theory. Yet film criticism, both academic and popular, usually maintains that the director is the paramount force behind the production of cinematic meaning. Though auteurs exist (e.g. Werner Herzog, Catherine Breillat, Wong Kar-Wai), for the vast majority of entertainment cinema, meaning is determined by a different force: a manufactured zeitgeist, a false urgency sustained by the barrage of advertisement, conversation, and criticism about a movie that creates a sense that films reflect their cultural moment. I call this the “film current.” What makes so many mediocre, repressive, boring, or stupid films seem worth discussing? Why are movies like Crash, Juno, or Slumdog Millionaire treated as relevant, new, even subversive? The film current. For most major film releases, marketing costs a quarter to a third of the production budget; this money goes to establishing a film’s ubiquity and “cultural relevance” while masking its inadequacies, inviting critics to regard it as a window to the psychological state of the American people, and regard themselves as insightful for doing so.more from Willie Osterweil at The New Inquiry here.
just say no to Müdigkeitsgesellschaft
Byung-Chul Han has written no less than fourteen very different books that defy attempt to pigeonhole them into a single concept. From monographs on Heidegger and Hegel to books on globalisation, death, power and the Western passion story. "Duft der Zeit. Ein philosophischer Essay zur Kunst des Verweilens" [The scent of time. A philosophical essay on the art of lingering] is the title of one publication from 2009 – but woe betide any bookseller who places it among gift books, despite its flowery title! It was namely here that Han so brilliantly formulated his criticism of the restlessness of the animal laborans. In his later essay on the "Müdigkeitsgesellschaft" or tiredness society, Han went on to explain how the never-ending pressure of the active life can destroy us. The realisation that the perseverance slogan of positive thinking, as prompted by the dictates of increased efficiency, makes people sick has long since trickled down to the foundations of self-help literature. Han argues pathogenetically. It stands to reason that a culture which coined "Yes we can" as the self-confident slogan of the eternal "can-do" suffers from sicknesses like depression, borderline personality disorder and burnout syndrome. The cause of this internally rooted set of problems is the positively viewed constant potency of an incessant readiness to perform. The scourge of our time is called voluntariness. No longer is it an external repressive power that even leads to the deformation of society, as even in the previous century. "The disciplinary society," writes Han "is still ruled by the no. Its negativity creates madmen and criminals. The performance society on the other hand creates depressives and failures." In short, the problem today is not the other but the self (which constantly and emphatically says "Yes!").more from at Sign and Sight here.
a new kind of crazy
We have our little boxes for people. “Christian fundamentalist” – although Breivik insists in his own screed that he’s not religious (“Although I am not a religious person myself, I am usually in favor of a revitalization of Christianity in Europe” p. 676) . “Psychopath,” though he has no criminal record, and his former stepmother describes him as a nice guy. Perhaps we are dealing with a new psychology, a new class of criminal – aided and abetted by technology and mass communication – and none of our usual boxes fit. Perhaps psychology itself doesn’t fit. As Apostolidès said, some in this growing class of murderers are more than willing to kill brutally to promote their ideas. A scary thought, and apparently a contagious one. Each atrocity attempts to outdo the other in scope and depravity. It seems like we are trapped, globally, in an irreversible spiral of imitated violence. Violence, as René Girard notes, spreads mimetically like a fever over the planet.more from Cynthia Haven at The Book Haven here.
China's European Shopping Spree?
Mark Blyth in Foreign Affairs:
Last week's EU agreement to refinance Greece's debt seems to have calmed markets concerned with the possible default of Greece and subsequent contagion in the eurozone. But EU refinancing was not the only solution on offer: in June, an entirely different solution was hinted at from an unlikely source.
When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was on a tour of European capitals last month, he stressed two things at each stop: that a stable eurozone is vital to China and that China is Europe's friend. Indeed, from Beijing's perspective, when it comes to Europe, self-interest and altruism neatly coincide. If China were to buy only half of all outstanding Greek sovereign debt (a bargain at around $220 billion, a fraction of China's dollar assets), it would not only resolve the eurozone crisis and add to Chinese prestige but it would help give Beijing the sort of reserve asset that it needs to diversify its holdings out of dollars. Currently, 70 percent of China's reserves are in dollars, and China does not even make the list of the top 40 holders of Greek debt. But why would China not take such an opportunity?
For one, China probably has as little faith in the EU's ability to solve its debt crisis over the long run as do the rest of the world's financial markets, more bailouts notwithstanding. But another answer is possible -- one that links the 2008 financial crisis and the 2011 European bond market crisis to a possible Chinese end run around the 2007 Foreign Investment and National Security Act. This U.S. law makes it hard for China to diversify out of its $3 trillion-plus holdings of U.S. dollars and buy sensitive U.S. assets such as aerospace, technology, and defense-related companies.
As a result of the unintended consequences of U.S. and European actions in financial markets, there is now the possibility that, even with this latest bailout, China could buy such sensitive assets from Europe, at fire-sale prices.
Neocons' Iraq Criticism Rings Hollow
F. Gregory Gause III in The National Interest:
While Washington gets ready to default, another deadline looms on the horizon: December 31, 2011, when all American forces are due to be out of Iraq. The dysfunction of Iraqi politics has made it impossible for Baghdad to do what most people think is the rational thing—to request that some American forces remain to assist the Iraqi government in strengthening both its internal and external security capabilities. The Obama administration has signaled repeatedly that it is willing to do so, but that has not stopped neoconservative critics and former Bush administration officials from blaming Obama for Iraq’s failure to get its act together. The irony, of course, is that the democracy they were so proud to give Iraq (at such great cost to both Americans and Iraqis) is the reason that their preferred policy of continued American military presence in the country is not working out.
The neocon criticism of the Obama administration for not doing enough to bring the Iraqis to their senses is shot through with internal contradictions. Frederick and Kimberly Kagan wrote in the Weekly Standard in April that “[t]he ball is not in Maliki’s court. It is in Obama’s court,” contending that a lack of serious American commitment to Iraq was forcing Maliki into Iran’s arms. They called on the president to “stand by Iraq’s leaders as long as those leaders stand by the democratic processes now tenuously in place.”
But it is those very democratic processes that are blocking Maliki from renegotiating the Status of Forces Agreement (sofa) that sets the December 31 deadline. The Sadrist bloc in the Iraqi Parliament, an important part of Maliki’s governing majority, is dead set against a continued American military presence. Other Iraqi politicians, who whisper to visiting American journalists and pundits how much they want U.S. forces to stay, will not argue that position in public or try to put together a parliamentary majority in favor of an extension of the sofa. Maliki himself is unwilling to take this case directly to the parliament or the Iraqi people. Presumably they, as democratic politicians, know their own public opinion and their own political landscape better than the Kagans do. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the desire of committed ideological minorities like the Sadrists to get the Americans out is not counterbalanced by any mobilized Arab Iraqi constituency that wants them to stay, and that the median Arab Iraqi voter (Kurds would hold different opinions) would be just as happy to see the U.S. troops go. That might be the wrong decision, but it seems to be the democratic one.
On Discovering Life
Dimitar Sasselov in Seed:
CERN’s Large Hadron Collider has begun refining our understanding of the fabric of space and time, and NASA’s Kepler mission is sharpening our estimates of how common Earth-like planets are in our galaxy. Yet as these cosmic-scale projects open the second decade of the new millennium they are returning science to a frontier that seems oddly 19th century. Science is going back to the scale of life—that middle ground of minute energies and high complexities that lies between the immense galaxies and the infinitesimal particles.
My statement that life is science’s new focus sounds naive and out-of-touch—after all, just open the newspapers or see the research budgets for biology and medicine, and you’ll notice an overwhelming amount of interest and funding for the life sciences. But that all has to do with us humans: first and foremost, with our health and bodies, and second, with our environment, the ecosystems of planet Earth. There is an aspect of life sciences that has been largely absent: the confrontation of fundamental questions of biology much as particle accelerators grapple with fundamental questions of physics. The roll call of early pioneers and prospectors is notable, but short. Fortunately, increasing numbers of researchers are now re-entering this fertile frontier.
The open secret of this emerging frontier is that we do not have a fundamental definition or understanding of life. Similarly, we do not understand life’s origins, how life emerges from chemistry. We do know that the chemistry of life on Earth, or “Terran” biochemistry for short, is rather restrictive in its molecular permutations. Unnecessarily so, it seems, given the enormous choice of good options provided by chemistry for building biological bodies and functions. However, we do not know whether nature or nurture is the reason. The bio-chemistry we see (and are!) could be universal, like gravity, where the same basic rules apply anywhere. Or our biochemistry could instead be one of many options, one that just happened to fit Earth’s environmental conditions.
Hell on Utøya
Prableen Kaur in Eurozine:
I'm awake. I can't sleep anymore. I'm sitting in the living room. Feel grief, anger, happiness, God I don't know what. There are too many emotions. There are too many thoughts. I am afraid. I react to every noise. I will now write about what happened at Utøya. What my eyes saw, what I felt, what I did. The words come straight from the gut, but I will still withhold many names out of respect for my friends.
We'd had an emergency meeting in the main building after the bombings in Oslo. Then there was a separate meeting for the members from Akershus and Oslo. After the meetings, many were still in and around the main building. We took comfort in being in safety on an island. No one knew that hell was about to explode around us too.
I was in the main hallway when panic struck. I heard shots. I saw him shoot. Everybody started to run. The first thought was: "Why is the police shooting at us? What the f***?" I ran into the small assembly hall. People ran. Screamed. I was scared. I managed to get into one of the rooms towards the back of the building. We were many in there. We were all lying on the floor. We heard more shots. Got more scared. I cried. I didn't understand. I saw my best friend through the window and wondered if I should go out to get him. I didn't have time. I saw the fear in his eyes. I remained lying on the floor in the room for a few minutes. We agreed not to let anyone else in in case the killer came. We heard more shots and decided to jump out of the window. Panic broke out among us. Everybody in the room rushed to the window and tried to jump out. I was the last and thought: "I am the last one to jump out of the window. Now I will die. I'm sure, but perhaps it is ok, then I know that the others are safe." I threw my bag out the window. Tried to climb down but lost my grip. I landed hard on the left side of my body. A boy helped me up. We ran into the woods. I looked around. "Is he here? Is he shooting at me? Can he see me?" A girl had broken her ankle. Another was badly injured. I tried to help a little before continuing down to the water. I took shelter behind some sort of cement wall. We were many. I prayed, prayed, prayed. I was hoping that God could se me. I rang mum and said it was not certain we would meet again but that I would do everything I could to make it through. I told her several times that I loved her. I heard the fear in her voice. She cried. It hurt. I sent an SMS to my dad, said I loved him. I sent an SMS to someone else I love very, very much. We kept in contact for a while. I sent an SMS to my best friend. He did not reply.
He didn't want to fight, but Ifti Nasim could provoke
From Chicago Tribune:
Ifti Nasim, who died of a heart attack Friday night at 64, was one of the most famous Chicagoans most Chicagoans have never heard of. He was a columnist, a radio show host and a poet who earned followers around the world for his poems about life as a gay Pakistani.He was a luxury-car salesman at Loeber Motors for a while, too, and once, the story goes, sold a Mercedes to Oprah Winfrey. She asked how big the engine was. He replied, "Are you going to sleep with it?" Since last weekend, Nasim has been mourned by friends and fans from India to France, from Facebook to the shops of Chicago's Devon Avenue. On Saturday, 1,000 or so crowded into the Muslim Community Center on Elston Avenue to pray over his body.
"According to every convention, my friend Ifti was all wrong," blogged Azra Raza, a prominent oncologist. "He was born in the wrong country. He should have been born in Hollywood. ... He was born in the wrong body. He should have been Marilyn Monroe." Being born "wrong" was what made Nasim the remarkable person he was, though. The son of a newspaper owner in Faisalabad, an industrial city built on cotton, he was the fifth of seven kids of his father's first marriage. His mother died when he was young. "As one of a large family," he once said, "I was the invisible child."
Think healthy, eat healthy: Scientists show link between attention, self-control
You're trying to decide what to eat for dinner. Should it be the chicken and broccoli? The super-sized fast-food burger? Skip it entirely and just get some Rocky Road? Making that choice, it turns out, is a complex neurological exercise. But, according to researchers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), it's one that can be influenced by a simple shifting of attention toward the healthy side of life. And that shift may provide strategies to help us all make healthier choices—not just in terms of the foods we eat, but in other areas, like whether or not we pick up a cigarette. Their research is described in a paper published in the July 27 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.
When you decide what to eat, not only does your brain need to figure out how it feels about a food's taste versus its health benefits versus its size or even its packaging, but it needs to decide the importance of each of those attributes relative to the others. And it needs to do all of this more-or-less instantaneously. When the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) is active, it allows the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) to take into account health benefits as well as taste when it assigns a value to a particular food.
Where I Live
garden, pond, uphill
pasture, run-in shed.
Through pines, Pumpkin Ridge.
Two switchbacks down
church spire, spit of town.
Where I climb I inspect
the peas, cadets erect
in lime-capped rows,
hear hammer blows
as pileateds peck
the rot of shagbark hickories
year's pterodactyl nests.
humped like bears
dot the outermost pasture
where in tall grass
clots of ovoid scat
butternut-size, milky brown
announce our halfgrown
moose padded past
into the forest
to nibble beech tree sprouts.
in dapple-shade. Violets,
landlocked seas I swim in.
I used to pick bouquets
for her, framed them
with leaves. Schmutzige
she said, holding me close
to scrub my streaky face.
Almost from here I touch
my mother's death
by Maxine Kumin
from Where I Live: New & Select Poems 1990-2010
July 26, 2011
Rebellion Against Pluralism
Yascha Mounk in n+1:
If we are to make sense of the horrific terror attack that shook Norway this past Friday, we must try to place it in the context of recent European politics. That context, in turn, points to one fact more than any other: over the last decade, Europeans have grown increasingly obsessed with the threat supposedly posed by foreigners, immigrants, and Muslims.
All over the continent, far-right parties have been celebrating remarkable successes. Establishment politicians, once keen to display their enlightened attitudes towards outsiders, have honed their populist rhetoric against foreigners. Books about the doom that would ensue if ethnic Europeans should become minorities in their own countries—like Germany Does Away with Itself, Thilo Sarrazin’s runaway success last year—have topped bestseller lists week in and week out.
Naturally, some commentators have expressed concern about these developments. But both in newsrooms and on the streets they mostly have been decried as fools whose obsession with multiculturalism is a naïve remnant of a more innocent era. Nothing wrong with their good intentions, Europeans of all nationalities and social strata intone, but they are sadly inapplicable to the 21st century, when islamofascism in general, and hordes of unwashed Muslims in particular, are threatening the European way of life.
Anders Behring Breivik, who has admitted responsibility for the death of seventy six innocents, is undoubtedly a madman. But madmen can be spurred on by anything in their environment they are able to construe as legitimation or encouragement—and, in recent years, there was plenty of that to go around in Europe.
The Radical Loser
Hans Magnus Enzensberger from a while ago, in Sign and Sight:
Those who content themselves with the objective, material criteria, the indices of the economists and the devastating findings of the empiricists, will understand nothing of the true drama of the radical loser. What others think of him – be they rivals or brothers, experts or neighbours, schoolmates, bosses, friends or foes – is not sufficient motivation. The radical loser himself must take an active part, he must tell himself: I am a loser and nothing but a loser. As long as he is not convinced of this, life may treat him badly, he may be poor and powerless, he may know misery and defeat, but he will not become a radical loser until he adopts the judgement of those who consider themselves winners as his own.
Since before the attack on the World Trade Center, political scientists, sociologists and psychologists have been searching in vain for a reliable pattern. Neither poverty nor the experience of political repression alone seem to provide a satisfactory explanation for why young people actively seek out death in a grand bloody finale and aim to take as many people with them as possible. Is there a phenotype that displays the same characteristics down the ages and across all classes and cultures?
No one pays any mind to the radical loser if they do not have to. And the feeling is mutual. As long as he is alone – and he is very much alone – he does not strike out. He appears unobtrusive, silent: a sleeper. But when he does draw attention to himself and enter the statistics, then he sparks consternation bordering on shock. For his very existence reminds the others of how little it would take to put them in his position. One might even assist the loser if only he would just give up. But he has no intention of doing so, and it does not look as if he would be partial to any assistance.
Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:
Was there something good about communism? Was there something decent about the form of life that existed behind the Iron Curtain? As a political question, this can be answered definitively in the negative. Soviet-style communism was a failure by definition. It couldn't sustain itself. It was also a system that relied — in its Stalinist period — on outright terror. Its totalitarian tendencies continued past the Stalinist days. Even in the relatively benign incarnation of the ’70s and ’80s, the world of the Soviet Empire was a world of political repression and the stifling of civil society. We are all aware of these facts. Indeed, they are so comfortable that we never seem to tire of repeating them. That is also why an art show such as “Ostalgia” hides behind imprecise language and an ambivalence of purpose. It is a show that doesn't want to be caught taking the wrong political line. We are assured — in the explanations of artwork, in the press releases, in the catalogue, and in much of the work chosen — that this is a show that will do its job in critiquing the evils of communism.
But that is not what drove the curators at the New Museum to put up a show called “Ostalgia.” No one is interested in a show that condemns the politics of a civilization that no longer exists. In fact, the core impulse of “Ostalgia” is to explore a feeling that has nothing directly to do with politics at all. What art can show us about the society of the former Soviet Bloc is something that discussions of politics and society don't have immediate access to. Art can show us the immediacy of life as it was felt and experienced in that time, in that place.
What we find in “Ostalgia” is surprising. We find a great deal of ease. I'm not talking about material comfort or an "easy life." I am talking about human ease, to coin a term.
More here. [Photo shows Morgan in Moscow last week.]
Breivik and His Enablers
Roger Cohen in the New York Times:
On one level Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian responsible for the biggest massacre by a single gunman in modern times, is just a particularly murderous psychotic loner: the 32-year-old mama’s boy with no contact with his father, obsessed by video games (Dragon Age II) as he preens himself (“There was a relatively hot girl on [sic] the restaurant today checking me out”) and dedicates his time in asexual isolation to the cultivation of hatred and the assembly of a bomb from crushed aspirin and fertilizer.
No doubt, that is how Islamophobic right-wingers in Europe and the United States who share his views but not his methods will seek to portray Breivik.
We’ve seen the movie. When Jared Loughner shot Representative Gabrielle Giffords this year in Tuscon, Arizona — after Sarah Palin placed rifle sights over Giffords’ constituency and Giffords herself predicted that “there are consequences to that” — the right went into overdrive to portray Loughner as a schizophrenic loner whose crazed universe owed nothing to those fanning hatred under the slogan of “Take America Back.” (That non-specific taking-back would of course be from Muslims and the likes of the liberal and Jewish Giffords.)
Breivik is no loner. His violence was brewed in a specific European environment that shares characteristics with the specific American environment of Loughner: relative economic decline, a jobless recovery, middle-class anxiety and high levels of immigration serving as the backdrop for racist Islamophobia and use of the spurious specter of a “Muslim takeover” as a wedge political issue to channel frustrations rightward.
With friends like these
Feisal H. Naqvi in the Express Tribune:
Till recently, I had nothing but respect for Mr Shashi Tharoor. He is not only an accomplished writer and a former under-secretary-general of the UN, but a popularly elected member of India’s parliament. All these are substantial achievements. At the same time, Mr Tharoor’s recent column “Delusional liberals” (Deccan Chronicles, July 21) left me greatly disappointed.
Since Mr Tharoor’s column was but the latest in a series of cross-boundary literary salvos, some background is necessary. This latest border incident began with an examination by Aatish Taseer of Pakistan’s so-called ‘obsession’ with India and, more specifically, the fact that even ‘liberals’ like his late father took much pleasure in any travails which happened to come India’s way. In terms of content, what Taseer Jr had to say was not entirely incorrect, though grossly overstated. However, the references to his father were entirely gratuitous as seen by some Pakistanis, which combined with the tenuous nature of his conclusions, inspired one Ejaz Haider to pen a response (titled “Aatish’s personal fire” and published on these pages on July 19).
Ejaz’s reply to Aatish Taseer made, in essence, two points. The first was that the article was massively simplistic. The second was that our apparent obsession with India was partly justified given the Pakistan-specific nature of India’s military preparations.
Tharoor sahib’s response to Ejaz, in turn, also had two things to say. The first was that Ejaz had missed the apparently evident point that India is a peace-loving nation whose military capabilities are all non-violent and defensive in nature. The second was that, like other Pakistani liberals, Ejaz’s commitment to critical thinking was liable to be overwhelmed by atavistic nationalistic impulses.