September 30, 2011
Obama’s Palestinian Veto: Let’s Be Honest
Henry Siegman in the New York Review of Books:
Over the past few days, much has been written about the Palestinian bid for UN recognition of its statehood and Washington’s opposition to it. But the real importance of last week’s events at the UN does not lie with the US response itself, but with the effect that response has had on the international community. For now, the Palestinian bid must be reviewed by a special UN committee, a process that will take weeks or months, thus postponing any immediate reckoning with the veto threatened by the Obama Administration. But for the first time, there is a broad recognition of the emptiness of the American claim that the US is uniquely qualified to bring the Israel-Palestine conflict to an end, and awareness that it may instead be the main obstacle to peace.
This recognition marks a dramatic shift from only two years ago. In his speech in Cairo in June 2009, Obama seemed to announce a new American commitment to fairness, international law, and a two-state solution when he proclaimed that:
the Palestinian people—Muslims and Christians—have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than 60 years they’ve endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations—large and small—that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.
In his speech at the UN General Assembly last week, however, Obama reserved his compassion for those responsible for the Palestinians’ misery. “Let’s be honest,” he said. “Israel is surrounded by neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it,” and Israeli citizens have been killed by suicide bombers on their buses. “These are facts, they can not be denied,” he said. As noted by The New York Times’s Ethan Bronner, the speech could have been written by an Israeli government official: “It said nothing about Israeli settlements, the 1967 lines, occupation, or Palestinian suffering, focusing instead on Israeli defense needs.”
Personal Best: Top athletes and singers have coaches. Should you?
Atul Gawande in The New Yorker:
After eight years, I’ve performed more than two thousand operations. Three-quarters have involved my specialty, endocrine surgery—surgery for endocrine organs such as the thyroid, the parathyroid, and the adrenal glands. The rest have involved everything from simple biopsies to colon cancer. For my specialized cases, I’ve come to know most of the serious difficulties that could arise, and have worked out solutions. For the others, I’ve gained confidence in my ability to handle a wide range of situations, and to improvise when necessary. As I went along, I compared my results against national data, and I began beating the averages. My rates of complications moved steadily lower and lower. And then, a couple of years ago, they didn’t. It started to seem that the only direction things could go from here was the wrong one.
Maybe this is what happens when you turn forty-five. Surgery is, at least, a relatively late-peaking career. It’s not like mathematics or baseball or pop music, where your best work is often behind you by the time you’re thirty. Jobs that involve the complexities of people or nature seem to take the longest to master: the average age at which S. & P. 500 chief executive officers are hired is fifty-two, and the age of maximum productivity for geologists, one study estimated, is around fifty-four. Surgeons apparently fall somewhere between the extremes, requiring both physical stamina and the judgment that comes with experience. Apparently, I’d arrived at that middle point. It wouldn’t have been the first time I’d hit a plateau. I grew up in Ohio, and when I was in high school I hoped to become a serious tennis player. But I peaked at seventeen. That was the year that Danny Trevas and I climbed to the top tier for doubles in the Ohio Valley. I qualified to play singles in a couple of national tournaments, only to be smothered in the first round both times. The kids at that level were playing a different game than I was. At Stanford, where I went to college, the tennis team ranked No. 1 in the nation, and I had no chance of being picked. That meant spending the past twenty-five years trying to slow the steady decline of my game.
The Marriage Plot
The first thing we know about Madeleine Hanna is her library. "To start with, look at all the books," Jeffrey Eugenides suggests of his heroine, and proceeds with a tracking shot of her shelves: "A lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen, George Eliot and the redoubtable Brontë sisters… the Colette novels she read on the sly… the first edition of Couples, belonging to her mother, which Madeleine had surreptitiously dipped into back in sixth grade…" Madeleine Hanna is an English major at Ivy League Brown University in 1982. Her thesis is concerned with "the marriage plot" as it existed in the 19th-century novel and the way, with marriage having lost its gravitas in her era of quickie divorces and prenups, the novel itself has been diminished. Much as Madeleine may believe this thesis as a critic, however, as a 20-year-old woman there is much about her life that seems Victorian. She is, cliche of cliches, caught in a love triangle herself, torn between two fellow undergraduates: the charismatic and depressive Leonard Bankhead on the one hand and the studious and spiritual Mitchell Grammaticus on the other. Her heart shouts Leonard (most of the time); her head and her Waspish parents murmur Mitchell.
As well as locating the style of Madeleine's dilemma, Eugenides's opening tracking shot of those library shelves is also a nudge to the reader: this is the territory we are in. And here is the challenge he sets himself: to breathe new life into the redundant marriage plot; to create a properly absorbing love triangle, not only as pastiche or irony, but as something as full of life as those books on Madeleine's shelf. In the 400-odd pages that follow he mostly succeeds in this aspiration, both knowingly and brilliantly. This is Eugenides's third novel. It is 18 years since the precocious and perfectly formed The Virgin Suicides marked him out as a writer who would always be required reading. In between times, the fabulous family saga Middlesex, which, along the way, told of the unlikely coming of age of a hermaphrodite in Michigan, became a huge bestseller and Pulitzer prize-winner, without ever seeming entirely coherent.
A Eulogy for Carl Oglesby
In 1965, when Carl Oglesby threw himself into the New Left—“the movement” was the more intimate term, meaning life-force, energy, motion—he was a 30-year-old paterfamilias with a wife and three small children, living in a nice little Ann Arbor house on (he relished the memory) Sunnyside Street, making a solid living as a technical editor-writer for a military-industrial think-tank called Bendix. He golfed, drove a snappy little sports car, wrote plays, and smoked good dope—a damn fine life for the son of an Akron rubber worker and the grandson of a coal miner. He’d been a champion debater in high school and at Kent State University, and for a time an actor. Pretty much an autodidact, he was reading Cold War revisionist scholarship in an effort to figure out why America, the only country on earth he could ever have hailed from, was burning up peasants on the other side of the world. At high velocity, as people did then, he “went through changes.” One minute he was writing against the Vietnam war for a Democratic congressional candidate (who refused to deliver the speech); the next, he was writing it up for the University of Michigan literary magazine; the next, he was turning it into a pamphlet for Students for a Democratic Society, which was organizing a national demonstration against the war but didn’t yet have any antiwar “literature” on offer.more from Todd Gitlin at TNR here.
the Western Desert art movement
SINCE the first triumphs of the Western Desert art movement, which had its origins in remote Papunya 40 years ago this month, a shining dream has haunted the Australian indigenous art market: the dream of international acceptance and global cultural prestige. Those first, mysterious boards with their elusive symbols painted by the desert men; the grand topographic panels of the mid-1980s; the wild, jagged colour fields poured out in the far western sand-dune communities in recent years: how is it they charm Australian audiences so easily and dominate private collections and state galleries in this country, yet fail to win such concerted admiration in the wider world? Aboriginal art promoters and enthusiasts, Australian and foreign, have tried repeatedly in the past two decades to overcome the indifference of the fickle, shifting contemporary culture establishment and stage breakthrough shows that would put the indigenous tradition on the map: regularly, a landmark exhibition is held, word spreads, then ebbs away, and all the optimism dies.more from Nicolas Rothwell at The Australian here.
A walk through the Egyptian Museum in Cairo with licensed tour guide Ahmed Mohammed, at the rate of 150 Egyptian pounds per hour
Really. I heard there are police interrogation chambers in the basement. No, those are next door. But four days after the revolution they found one tourist walking around down there, he was looking to find more Tutankhamun exhibit. I heard this from security police. After the revolution, we took a lot of time to repair ourselves. I don’t know if it is right to tell you this kind of information — tourists are going to think Egypt is not safe. Anyway, when Tutankhamun was alive, he slept in this bed. Very uncomfortable, very narrow. You know, when I was working here with a Russian tour group, when I told this woman that this is Tutankhamun’s bed, she asked me a very strange question: “Where is his wife?” I have nothing to tell her! I wanted to make a joke. I tell her, “Maybe under the bed.” She told me, “No, no, not like that. I mean, the bed is so narrow, they must have only done 67.” I asked her, “What?” She said, “You know, 67, they do it all over the world, especially in Russia.” I say, “How old am I? I’m thirty years old, I don’t understand what this means, 67.” For thirty minutes, she explains it to me. I’ve been married for nine years, I’ve never done 67. No joking! Tutankhamun and his wife — first love story. She was his half-sister — first love story. They found two sarcophagus, side by side. And here’s his toilet, made of papyrus.more from Bidoun here.
The Reluctant Luddite
Dirk Olin in Dartmouth Alumni Magazine:
Carr’s biography makes sense in hindsight. Game player, English major, punk—he is now a journalist and leading iconoclast of the information age. He has written three books, with the most recent, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, arguing that online overuse is infecting society with collective attention deficit disorder. The book earned Carr the title of Pulitzer finalist earlier this year.
That thesis “came out of a personal realization,” Carr says. “I came to the conclusion that my brain had been reprogrammed due to my use of the Internet. I just didn’t have the concentration I used to have. And not just with books. I was getting antsy even reading a longish magazine piece.”
But isn’t that what happens as one approaches middle age?
“That was my initial thought,” says Carr. “But a lot of studies show that attention spans for things like reading can increase as you get older. No, I think the Net has retrained me so that I expect to consume information rapidly, jumping around and clicking on links and checking e-mail, even when I’m in the middle of reading something else.”
The point of departure for his current work was formulated as a question—“Is Google Making Us Stupid?”—that headlined his article in The Atlantic in 2008 and led to his Pulitzer-nominated tome. The Shallows offers calm, collected provocation. Slate called the book “Silent Spring for the literary mind.”
The Neuroscience of Beauty
Steven Brown and Xiaoqing Gao in Scientific American:
The notion of “the aesthetic” is a concept from the philosophy of art of the 18th century according to which the perception of beauty occurs by means of a special process distinct from the appraisal of ordinary objects. Hence, our appreciation of a sublime painting is presumed to be cognitively distinct from our appreciation of, say, an apple. The field of “neuroaesthetics” has adopted this distinction between art and non-art objects by seeking to identify brain areas that specifically mediate the aesthetic appreciation of artworks.
However, studies from neuroscience and evolutionary biology challenge this separation of art from non-art. Human neuroimaging studies have convincingly shown that the brain areas involved in aesthetic responses to artworks overlap with those that mediate the appraisal of objects of evolutionary importance, such as the desirability of foods or the attractiveness of potential mates. Hence, it is unlikely that there are brain systems specific to the appreciation of artworks; instead there are general aesthetic systems that determine how appealing an object is, be that a piece of cake or a piece of music.
We set out to understand which parts of the brain are involved in aesthetic appraisal.
Is Das Racist’s Himanshu Suri for real?
Vivek Menezes in The Caravan:
The first time Das Racist ever performed ‘Michael Jackson’, the first single from their much-anticipated debut album Relax, was at Columbia University’s Bacchanal Spring Concert on 30 April earlier this year. The picturesque, grassy quadrangle in the centre of campus was packed with thousands of students and walk-in concertgoers from thegrittier neighbourhoods beyond the university’s walls, and the Brooklyn-based trio was notching another step on their improbable journey toward rap credibility: opening up for the west coast rap legend Snoop Dogg.
I was standing stagefront when Das Racist’s Himanshu Suri (aka ‘Heems’) announced the song; a distinct hush of anticipation fell over the crowd. Within moments, the band exploded across the stage, frenetically yelling the song’s catchphrase into their mics: “Michael Jackson! One Million Dollars! You feel me? Holler!” Just one scant minute later, the audience had taken up the refrain, and the callback spread all the way to the back of the crowd, hundreds of yards from where I stood—a few thousand people hollering, and I was doing the same.
But before they had even begun to captivate the audience with their music, and make us dance uncontrollably at their feet, Das Racist had first made sure to ruffle the feathers of the elite crowd that stood before them, filling the air with palpably awkward and uncertain murmurs. “This is the most collegiate shit I ever seen,” Heems said when he had first walked onto the stage. With an expression that made it seem as if he was smelling something putrid, he continued: “You look like a Tommy Hilfiger ad.” He proceeded to greet the Ivy Leaguers with a “shout-out” to Queens College and Stony Brook University, both decidedly public institutions. The audience was thoroughly confused, and it only got worse.
In Prenzlauer Berg
Justin E. H. Smith in his blog:
Among the grimmer thoughts one has to contend with on any visit to Berlin is this: that one could very well be staying not only in the logistical nerve center of the Final Solution, but in the very building, and perhaps in the very same room, in which a Holocaust victim once lived. This possibility rose to 50%, in fact, when I was in Berlin a few days ago, and stayed in a six-unit building which housed, according to the commemorative plaques paved into the sidewalk outside, three separate Jewish couples who did not see the end of the war.
These plaques ensure that no visit to Berlin will ever be too fun. They are also the most decent, and most properly scaled, Holocaust memorials I've seen, anywhere, just the opposite of the misfired maze near the Brandenburger Tor (which induces, paradoxically, a sense of fun one knows one isn't supposed to be having), and a universe away from the grandiose theoretical statement of Libeskind's Jewish Museum. The plaques pull you away from the abstraction of large numbers and into the scene of what must have happened right there, in that building, the scene of individual lives unravelling.
September 29, 2011
Why (and how) to tax the super-rich
Bruce Ackerman and Anne Alstott in the Los Angeles Times:
President Obama is right to insist on the "Buffett rule": Millionaires should not be paying income tax at a rate lower than their secretaries'. But correcting this inequity is only a small step toward fairness.
The more serious inequality problem facing the United States involves overall wealth, not just income. While the top 1% of Americans earned 21% of the nation's income, they owned a staggering 35% of the wealth in 2006-07, the most recent year for which statistics are available. We should be taxing that wealth directly, and not merely focusing on million-dollar incomes.
We propose a 2% annual wealth tax on households owning more than $7.2 million in net assets. Such a tax would target the 0.5% of Americans at the top of the pyramid, and would yield at least $70 billion a year. This calculation is based on Federal Reserve data that we have updated to take into account the recession's impact on housing and stock prices to 2009. Because we have used very conservative assumptions, the revenue yield could well be higher.
Obama's operational proposal for a "Buffett tax" is vague, so it's hard to predict how much it would raise. But our initiative would generate at least half the $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction that Congress' super-committee is aiming to achieve over the next decade. And the burden would fall on the Americans who have suffered least from the economic downturn.
The Kings' Dessert, or how to create 16.000 honey strings in two minutes
A Thousand Feet of Snow
Stars are again like a teary ballad, and at nights
dogs tune their cloven violins.
I do not let sorrow come,
I do not let it near.
A thousand feet of snow over my heart.
I mumble a lot to myself, in the street
I sing aloud.
Sometimes I see myself in passing, with a hat, perfect food
for winds, with some thought or other aslant.
I talk about death, when I mean life. I walk with my papers
in a mess, I don’t own a single theory, only a swearing dog.
When I ask for liquor, I’m offered ice-cream,
I may be a Spaniard, with my hairline
low like this, indeed:
I may not be from these parts.
I sweat, trying to talk, once and a while
Almost more than for my death, I mourn for my birth.
And all I ask for
is a thousand feet of snow over my heart.
by Sirkka Turkka
from Mies joka rakasti vaimoaan liikaa, © 1979
© Translation: 2001, Kirsti Simonsuuri
Tuhat metriä lunta sydämen päälle
Tähdet ovat taas kuin itkuinen balladi, ja aina iltaisin
koirat virittävät haljenneita viulujaan.
En anna surun tulla,
en päästä sitä lähelle.
Tuhat metriä lunta sydämen päälle.
Mutisen paljon itsekseni, kadulla
Näen itseni joskus ohimennen, päässä hattu, oikea tuulen
ruoka, ja jokin ajatus kallellaan.
Puhun kuolemasta, kun tarkoitan elämää. Kuljen paperit
sekaisin, en omista yhtään teoriaa, vain kiroilevan koiran.
Kun pyydän viinaa, minulle tarjoillaan jäätelöä,
taidan sittenkin olla espanjalainen, tukanraja
tällä tavoin alhaalla, todellakaan:
en taida olla täältä päin.
Hikoilen ja yritän puhua, välillä taas
Melkein enemmän kuin kuolemaa, suren syntymääni.
Ja kaikki mitä pyydän
on tuhat metriä lunta sydämen päälle.
a reformation of the culture and practice of science
“Faster.” Could any other word better capture the reigning paradox of our age? The world today—whether measured in technological or ecological terms—appears to be changing more rapidly than ever before. Our modern system for generating novelty and prosperity has stretched to encompass the entire planet, growing more complex and expansive, so that now it seems to groan and shudder beneath its own weight. In its service, some things are falling apart: Non-renewable resources are profligately consumed, ecosystems disrupted, and social traditions steadily relinquished. There seems no way to stop or slow these processes without causing immense, cascading catastrophe. The only alternative then is to quicken our pace, to innovate past these growing pains. But where is the center of this innovation, and can it hold? Science is the center, and academia, industry, and government all must work together to strengthen and stabilize it. It was science that brought us here, through careful and systematic investigation—and exploitation—of phenomena in the natural world. And it is the endeavor of science that holds the greatest promise for ensuring the continued and widespread positive growth of our civilization.more from Seed here.
Libertarians With Antlers
Charles Darwin, not Adam Smith, will one day be considered the father of economics, says Cornell University professor and New York Times columnist Robert H. Frank in his new book, The Darwin Economy. He argues that Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection gives a better description of how markets work, and fail, than Smith's theory of the invisible hand. This insight reverses two centuries of intellectual traffic. Thomas Malthus' ideas shaped Darwin's, and many of the tools of modern evolutionary biology, such as game theory, are borrowed from economics. It leads Frank to many excellent suggestions for improving society by means of a fairer and more efficient tax system that takes the laws of biology into account.
The same insight also leads him to say some misleading things about how natural selection works. Frank's biological misfires aren't mere naivety; they touch on ideas at the leading edge of evolutionary thought and show what stands in the way of the reforms he advocates. Frank bases his argument on the Darwinian notion that life is graded on a curve. How much is enough depends on what others have got. Most people, for example, would rather live in a 4,000-square-foot house that was bigger than their neighbor's than a 6,000-square-foot house that was the smallest on the street. Economists call these positional goods, and contrast them with things that aren't so relative, such as safety at work, where most people think it's better to be safe in absolute terms than the safest worker in a hazardous factory.
I've been collecting anonymous photographs for more than two decades now and probably own a thousand or so, in all kind of formats. Nineteenth-century tintypes and cyanotypes, cabinet cards and cartes de visite, turn-of-the-century RPPCs (Real Photo Postcards), disaster pix, police mugshots and Bertillon cards, photo-booth strips, deaccessioned newspaper photos (especially ones with white crop marks), old prom photos, not to mention a recently acquired batch of ratty, Nan Goldin–style, 1970s Polaroids. Should I be in rehab? Lately I’ve managed to put a small part of my collection into serious, made-for-collectors-type albums—the organic kind, that is, with acid-free archival sleeves and glassine pockets. You can get them in the kale and beets section at Whole Foods. But most of my pictures, alas, remain scattered about, secreted away in boxes and drawers and plastic bags, stuck into books, or else just hiding out somewhere in my house. Where, I’m not sure: domestic life becomes ever more Grey Gardens–like. No more vintage photo shows, says spouse Blakey—nor will I be going anywhere near the eBay log-in page—until I unearth all the mute, two-dimensional Missing Persons already lurking somewhere in the downstairs closet. As addictions go, collecting old photos of obscure provenance may be harmless enough.more from Terry Castle at the Paris Review here.
Easily embarrassed? Study finds people will trust you more
If tripping in public or mistaking an overweight woman for a mother-to-be leaves you red-faced, don't feel bad. A new study from the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that people who are easily embarrassed are also more trustworthy, and more generous. In short, embarrassment can be a good thing. "Embarrassment is one emotional signature of a person to whom you can entrust valuable resources. It's part of the social glue that fosters trust and cooperation in everyday life," said UC Berkeley social psychologist Robb Willer, a coauthor of the study published in this month's online issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Not only are the UC Berkeley findings useful for people seeking cooperative and reliable team members and business partners, but they also make for helpful dating advice. Subjects who were more easily embarrassed reported higher levels of monogamy, according to the study.
"Moderate levels of embarrassment are signs of virtue," said Matthew Feinberg, a doctoral student in psychology at UC Berkeley and lead author of the paper. "Our data suggests embarrassment is a good thing, not something you should fight." The paper's third author is UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, an expert on pro-social emotions. Researchers point out that the moderate type of embarrassment they examined should not be confused with debilitating social anxiety or with "shame," which is associated in the psychology literature with such moral transgressions as being caught cheating. While the most typical gesture of embarrassment is a downward gaze to one side while partially covering the face and either smirking or grimacing, a person who feels shame, as distinguished from embarrassment, will typically cover the whole face, Feinberg said.
Being human offers homo sapiens variety, or some elasticity, in social life, though sociologists claim that people’s personalities disappear with no one else around. Imagining this evacuation, I see a person alone in a self-chosen shelter, motionless on a chair, like a houseplant with prehensile thumbs. Diane Sawyer, an unctuous American TV news anchor, once asked a mob assassin: ‘But haven’t you ever thought, “How can I do this? Who am I?”’ The man looked at her with incredulity, then said: ‘I’m a gangster.’ Now, it’s true that people (a.k.a. human beings) named themselves human and also defined humanity, but this tautological affair entails neuroses: do we have a natural state? To say there isn’t one doesn’t quell anxiety, and ‘just act natural’ and ‘be yourself’ remain resilient punch-lines to the shaggy-dog story called existence. There are instincts and drives, the basics from which Sigmund Freud theorized – but, oh, the complex array of acts that might satisfy these!more from Lynne Tillman at Frieze here.
Rethinking Central Banking
Barry Eichengreen, Eswar Prasad, and Raghuram Rajan over at Vox:
In the wake of the global financial crisis, there is an emerging consensus that the framework underpinning modern central banking – known as flexible inflation targeting – needs to be rethought.
* A monetary policy framework focusing on price stability and output growth will also affect financial stability through its impact on asset valuations, commodity prices, credit, leverage, capital flows, and exchange rates.
* One country’s monetary policy can spill over to other countries, especially when central banks follow inconsistent frameworks, with cross-border capital flows serving as the transmission channel.
All this suggests that the conventional framework for central banking is inadequate (eg Dalla Pellegrina et al 2010). It is too narrow to meet domestic and global needs, as we argue in Eichengreen et al (2011).
Consensus on dissatisfaction; disagreement on solutions
There may now be broad consensus on this general point, but there is still little agreement about the particulars of the new framework. It is time to move beyond dissatisfaction with the prevailing framework and properly flesh out an alternative. In our view and that of our colleagues (listed below), that alternative should have the following elements:
* Financial stability should be an explicit mandate of central banks.
Other micro- and macroprudential policies should be deployed first, wherever possible, in the pursuit of financial stability, but monetary policy should be regarded a legitimate part of the macroprudential supervisors’ toolkit.
* When rapid credit growth or other indicators of financial excess accompany asset price increases, the authorities should employ stress tests to measure the effects of changes in credit conditions on asset prices, economic activity, and financial stability.
Instead of seeking to identify bubbles, the authorities should simply ask whether current financing conditions are raising the likelihood of sharp reversals in asset prices that are disruptive to economic activity.
The Louvre Less Traveled
Elaine Sciolino in the NYT:
[O]ver the years, I’ve come up with my own Louvre must-see list from the museum’s permanent collection of 35,000 paintings, sculptures, furnishings and objects. And I am always on the lookout for more hidden treasures, an exercise made easier with the publication two weeks ago of “Louvre: Secret et Insolite” (Louvre: Secret and Unusual) by Louvre Editions/Parigramme. People who don’t speak French need not shy away: the 119 works of art are illustrated with color photos.
Who knew that the right hand of Winged Victory sits in a protective glass case to the left of the massive sculpture? The marble statue itself was discovered in more than 100 pieces in 1863, but the hand, which is powerful despite its three missing fingers, was dug up only in 1950. (The tip of her ring finger and her thumb turned up in a storage drawer in a museum in Vienna.)
And what about Michelangelo’s two marble nude Slaves, commissioned as part of a grand tomb for Pope Julius II, and not quite finished? The Dying Slave is beautiful, smooth-skinned and young, his elbow raised, his left wrist strapped to the back of his neck; he seems to be in a deep slumber rather than on the verge of death. The Rebellious Slave is heavier, rougher and tormented. They exude such raw eroticism, you feel as if you should turn away.
September 28, 2011
Why we need less democracy
Peter Orszag in The New Republic:
In an 1814 letter to John Taylor, John Adams wrote that “there never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” That may read today like an overstatement, but it is certainly true that our democracy finds itself facing a deep challenge: During my recent stint in the Obama administration as director of the Office of Management and Budget, it was clear to me that the country’s political polarization was growing worse—harming Washington’s ability to do the basic, necessary work of governing. If you need confirmation of this, look no further than the recent debt-limit debacle, which clearly showed that we are becoming two nations governed by a single Congress—and that paralyzing gridlock is the result.
So what to do? To solve the serious problems facing our country, we need to minimize the harm from legislative inertia by relying more on automatic policies and depoliticized commissions for certain policy decisions. In other words, radical as it sounds, we need to counter the gridlock of our political institutions by making them a bit less democratic.
I know that such ideas carry risks. And I have arrived at these proposals reluctantly: They come more from frustration than from inspiration. But we need to confront the fact that a polarized, gridlocked government is doing real harm to our country. And we have to find some way around it.
Robert Socolow in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:
Let's review the messages in our 2004 paper in Science. The paper assumes that the world wishes to act decisively and coherently to deal with climate change. It makes the case that "humanity already possesses the fundamental scientific, technical and industrial know-how to solve the carbon and climate problem for the next half-century." This core message surprised many people, because our paper arrived at a time when the Bush administration was asserting that, unfortunately, the tools available were not suited for addressing climate change. Indeed, at a conference I attended at that time, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham insisted that a discovery akin to the discovery of electricity was required.
Our focus on "the next half century" was novel; the favored horizon at the time was a full century -- and still is. We argued that "the next fifty years is a sensible horizon from several perspectives. It is the length of a career, the lifetime of a power plant, and an interval whose technology is close enough to envision."
In a widely reproduced Figure (see below) we identified a Stabilization Triangle, bounded by two 50-year paths. Along the upper path, the world ignores climate change for 50 years and the global emissions rate for greenhouse gases doubles. Along the lower path, with extremely hard work, the rate remains constant. We reported that starting along the flat emissions path in 2004 was consistent with "beating doubling," i.e., capping the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration at below twice its "pre-industrial" concentration (the concentration a few centuries ago).
Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934–1961
James Salter in the New York Review of Books:
Ernest Hemingway, the second oldest of six children, was born in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1899 and lived until 1961, thus representing the first half of the twentieth century. He more than represented it, he embodied it. He was a national and international hero, and his life was mythic. Though none of his novels is set in his own country—they take place in France, Spain, Italy, or in the sea between Cuba and Key West—he is a quintessentially American writer and a fiercely moral one. His father, Clarence Hemingway, was a highly principled doctor, and his mother Grace was equally high-minded. They were religious, strict—they even forbade dancing.
From his father, who loved the natural world, Hemingway learned in childhood to fish and shoot, and a love of these things shaped his life along with a third thing, writing. Almost from the first there is his distinct voice. In his journal of a camping trip he took with a friend when he was sixteen years old, he wrote of trout fishing, “Great fun fighting them in the dark in the deep swift river.” His style was later said to have been influenced by Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, journalism, and the forced economy of transatlantic cables, but he had his own poetic gift and also the intense desire to give to the reader the full and true feeling of what happened, to make the reader feel it had happened to him. He pared things down.
LG Optimus Hyper Facade in Berlin
[Thanks to John Ballard.]
Although I’ve yet to see sandwich-board men on the steps of the nation’s capitol declaring that the end of the world is nigh, I expect that it won’t be long before the Department of Homeland Security advises the country’s Chinese restaurants to embed the alert in the fortune cookies. President Obama appears before the congregations of the Democratic faithful as a man of sorrows acquainted with grief, cherishing the wounds of the American body politic as if they were the stigmata of the murdered Christ. The daily newscasts update the approaches of weird storms, bring reports of missing forests and lost polar bears, number the dead and dying in Africa and the Middle East, gauge the level of America’s fast-disappearing wealth. Hollywood stages nostalgic remakes of the Book of Revelation; video games mount the battle of Armageddon on the bosom of the iPad. Nor does any week pass by without a word of warning from the oracles at the Council on Foreign Relations, Fox News, and the New York Times. Their peerings into the abyss of what to the Washington politicians are known as “the out years” never fail to discover a soon forthcoming catastrophe (default on the national debt, double-dip recession, global warming, nuclear proliferation, war in Iran) deserving the close attention of their fellow travelers aboard the bus to Kingdom Come. If the fear of the future is the story line that for the last ten years has made it easy to confuse the instruments of the American media with the trumpets of doom, the cloud of evil omens is not without a silver lining.more from Lewis Lapham at Lapham's Quarterly here.
Void darkness, Ginnungagap
Retelling a great myth is like performing a famous piece of music: between faithfulness to the familiar score and personal interpretation of it lie many risks and choices. Between the worldview of a Norse skald, or poet, and that of a writer ten or fifteen centuries later, the scope for risks and choices is immense. Ragnarök, A S Byatt's contribution to the Canongate Myths series, is a brilliant, highly intelligent, fiercely personal rendition of the Scandinavian mythology. Its personal element has particular resonance for me because, like A S Byatt, I was a child during the Second World War. I, too, read the Norse myths, and like her I found they made sense of the strange world we were growing up in. But California was a long way from the north of England, and the versions of the story I knew were very different from hers. She read the translation of Wägner's scholarly edition; I read Padraic Colum's, written principally for younger readers. Colum gave the often incoherent material narrative shape, humanised its brutality to some extent, brought out its harsh humour, and told it in fine, clear prose. Byatt was dealing with something nearer the raw material. But we were both reading a story that moved inexorably through war towards doom.more from Ursula K Le Guin at Literary Review here.
does Europe fail if the euro fails?
The reason this crisis keeps grinding ever deeper is because the euro itself is a machine for perpetual destruction. The currency is fundamentally warped and misaligned. It spans a 30pc gap in competitiveness between North and South. Intra-EMU current account deficits have become vast, chronic, and corrosive. Monetary Union is inherently poisonous. The countries in trouble no longer have the policy tools — interest rates, QE, liquidity, and exchange rates — to lift themselves out of debt-deflation. Just as they had few tools to prevent a catastrophic credit bubble during the boom. Their travails were caused in great part by negative real interest rates set by the ECB (irresponsibly) for German needs. Their fiscal deficits (and remember, Spain and Ireland ran big surpluses in the boom) have exploded because of the Great Recession itself — as they have in the UK, US, and Japan. Draconian fiscal tightening might be manageable for these countries if the Teutonic bloc is willing to offset the contraction in demand by cranking up their own stimulus, allowing the intra-EMU imbalances to close from both ends. But the Teutons instead cling to their pieties, and their morality tale. The result is the downward spiral that we can all see.more from Ambrose Evans-Pritchard at The Telegraph here.
The decline of violence: Steven Pinker’s new book argues that the modern world is more peaceful, not less
From The Boston Globe:
Somewhere in the world, every second of every day, people are being beaten, shot, and stabbed. The news is a litany of bombings and political assassinations, deadly riots and gang warfare. The lucky among us merely hear about it. Some days, when the body count is particularly high, it can be hard to stave off the sense that our species is more brutal and more bloodthirsty than at any other point in history.
Steven Pinker used to wince at the carnage like everybody else, and wonder how the human race had managed to lose its way so horribly. Then, in 1989, he stumbled upon something remarkable: a graph in a history book, compiled by a political scientist named Ted Robert Gurr, showing that the homicide rate in England had declined sharply since the 13th century. Pinker was astonished. The rate had fallen in some areas by as much as one hundredfold. Could it be true, he wondered, that humans had actually become less violent with time, as opposed to more? And if so, how had we done it? Pinker, now a psychology professor at Harvard, was then a rising star at MIT known primarily for his work on how the mind processes language and vision. In the years after his eye-opening encounter with the Gurr graph, his interest in broader questions about human nature and the brain would lead him to write a series of bestselling books, including “How the Mind Works” and “The Blank Slate,” which helped establish him as one of the most recognizable public intellectuals of the past 20 years.
Experimental Error: Nobel Gas
Adam Rubin in Science:
I'm not good at meeting celebrities. I don't just mean the time I narrowly missed shaking hands with Judd Hirsch because my girlfriend had to use the bathroom, which still makes me a little angry every time I think about it. I mostly mean that the few times I've met famous people, my brain has locked up and I couldn't make normal conversation. Case in point: The summer before college, I met then-President Bill Clinton. He said, "Nice to meet you," and I replied with the same. Then he asked where I was going to go to college, and instead of saying "Princeton," I said, "Uh ... I forget." I think I even gave him a look that said, "Come on, help me think of the name of this place. Surely you've at least got a good guess -- you're the president!" And that was the whole encounter. Which is why, when I learned that I would meet Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn (physiology or medicine, 2009), I had nightmares that she'd ask, "How are you?" and I'd reply, "Balloons."
So I familiarized myself with the work that earned her the Nobel Prize: her co-discovery of telomerase, the enzyme that elongates telomeres within cells. But when we finally met, Dr. Blackburn threw me a curveball. Before I could say any of the intelligent scientific things I'd rehearsed, she told me that she'd read my book, which immediately filled me with shame, because my book is a comical guide to stealing free food in graduate school. I wondered whether I had negatively influenced the future of science by stealing time from a brilliant researcher, time she could have otherwise used to cure cancer. I imagined having to apologize to the world's cancer patients: "Sorry, guys. I know you were hoping for a cure, but I distracted the scientist who was your best hope with jokes about muffins." Dr. Blackburn enjoyed the book, or at least she was nice enough to lie about it. "You're a very good writer," she said, and that's exactly when my brain locked up. Knowing, at a primal level, that I ought to answer a compliment with a compliment, I said, "Thanks. You're ... very good ... at, uh, learning about ... telomeres." Then, following an awkward silence during which I realized I'd possibly just made the stupidest comment Dr. Blackburn had ever heard, someone else called her away to another part of the room.
Operation Twist and the Limits of Monetary Policy in a Credit Economy
The conventional cure for insufficient aggregate demand and the one that has been preferred throughout the Great Moderation is monetary easing. The argument goes that lower real rates, higher inflation and higher asset prices will increase investment via Tobin’s Q and increase consumption via the wealth effect and reduction in rewards to savings, all bound together in the virtuous cycle of the multiplier. As I discussed in a previous post, QE2 and now Operation Twist are not as unconventional as they seem. They simply apply the logic of interest rate cuts to the entire yield curve rather than restricting central bank interventions to the short-end of the curve as was the norm during the Great Moderation.
But despite asset prices and corporate profits having rebounded significantly from their crisis lows and real rates now negative till the 10y tenor in the United States, a rebound in investment or consumption has not been forthcoming in the current recovery. This lack of responsiveness of aggregate demand to monetary policy is not as surprising as it first seems:
* The responsiveness of consumption to monetary policy is diminished when the consumer is as over-levered as he currently is. The “success” of monetary policy during the Great Moderation was primarily due to consumers’ ability to lever up to maintain consumption growth in the absence of any tangible real wage growth.
* The empirical support for the impact of real rates and asset prices on investment is inconclusive. Drawing on Keynes’ emphasis on the uncertain nature of investment decisions, Shackle was skeptical about the impact of lower interest rates in stimulating business investment. He noted that businessmen when asked rarely noted at the level of interest rates as a critical determinant. In an uncertain environment, estimated profits “must greatly exceed the cost of borrowing if the investment in question is to be made”.
If the problem with reduced real rates was simply that they were likely to be ineffective, there could still be a case for pursuing monetary policy initiatives aimed at reducing real rates. One could argue that even a small positive effect is better than not trying anything. But this unfortunately is not the case.
September 27, 2011
Facing down my eighth-grade tormentor
Steve Almond in Salon:
Yeah. It was mostly in this metal shop class we took together.
I definitely remember taking that metal shop class in eighth grade. And I was thinking about it, since you sent that original email, and I do remember being in a relationship with someone where I was the bully or the dominant, because I remember feeling that. But I never would have put two and two together and thought it was you.
I had this sense of being totally frozen out. And it was clear, or it seemed clear to me, that you were calling the shots. You were the alpha of that group.
It's funny you would say that, because this was around the time that Billy Dempsey entered the picture --
Yeah, I remember Billy coming up to me at the lockers, I think you were there for this, and threatening to kick my ass.
I don't remember that, but it wouldn't surprise me. The thing is, we had this very tortured relationship where I spent the entire time trying to prove myself to him. Billy was athletically more gifted than me and he was fearless and willing to get into fights with anybody, whereas I always saw myself as an egghead nerd. So it's quite possible, I could easily see, if there was an opportunity for me to prove to Billy that I was his equal in terms of being the macho guy I would have grabbed at it.
The Many Faces of Charles Dickens
From The Telegraph:
‘The history of the Victorian age will never be written,” Lytton Strachey announced at the start of his waspish clutch of biographical sketches Eminent Victorians, not because of what has fallen between the cracks of the historical record, but because “we know too much about it”. The same is true of Dickens’s life, which has often been treated as the pivot around which the Victorian age revolved. From the spelling mistake on his birth certificate, to the neatly folded notes he left for his children if they used bad language, every document has been filleted for facts, every stray anecdote transformed into a revealing flash of personality. As with Shakespeare, his only serious rival for the title of the nation’s favourite author, the books, articles and blogs about him have multiplied to the extent that nobody can possibly read them all. Attempting then to write about him is like trying to cut up a blue whale with a penknife.
That doesn’t stop us trying. Next week sees the publication of my new biography Becoming Dickens, in which I investigate how in the space of five years an unknown reporter became the most famous novelist in the world. Within a few days it will be joined by Claire Tomalin’s cradle-to-grave Charles Dickens: a Life and Lucinda Hawksley’s more compact Charles Dickens, and later by Simon Callow’s book on Dickens’s love of the theatre. They will be followed by several documentaries, glossy BBC adaptations of Great Expectations and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and a film about his lengthy secret affair with the actress Ellen Ternan. In 2012, his bicentenary year, Dickens’s face will be everywhere, his presence inescapable.
The Simplest Health Solutions? It’s Complicated
Abigail Zuger in The New York Times:
Take what must be the greatest cheap medical fix in all of history: the bar of soap. Soap never stops proving itself. As recently as 2005, a study from the slums of Karachi, Pakistan, showed that free bars of soap (and lessons in how to use them) cut rates of childhood killers like diarrhea and pneumonia by half. But you don’t find soap in American hospitals anymore, at least not in its classic solid rectangular form. A variety of expensive improvements have replaced it, all created in response to the various ways in which modern doctors and patients reflexively undermine good, inexpensive tools. First, we automatically capture these things for our own personal use: Bars of soap left in any public place are likely to disappear in short order. (That is why toilet paper rolls are generally locked into their little metal houses.) Second, we find fault with them. People will actually use the observation that bar soap is “dirty” as an excuse not to wash their hands. (Studies have shown that you will not pick up somebody else’s germs from a piece of soap, however dingy it may look.)
Regime Change Doesn’t Work
Alexander Downes in Boston Review:
Beyond the question of whether it is wise for the United States to seek regime change in yet another country while it continues to clean up the mess from the last two, the Libya adventure begs a reconsideration of the wisdom of regime change in general. Focusing on consequences, I will steer clear of issues of legality and moral justification. Rather, I ask what the historical record tells us about the capacity of externally imposed regime change to bring peace, stability, and democracy to target countries. Is the bloody aftermath of regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq the exception or the rule? Does regime change work?
The short answer is: rarely. The reasons for consistent failure are straightforward. Regime change often produces violence because it inevitably privileges some individuals or groups and alienates others. Intervening forces seek to install their preferred leadership but usually have little knowledge of the politics of the target country or of the backlash their preference is likely to engender. Moreover, interveners often lack the will or commitment to remain indefinitely in the face of violent resistance, which encourages opponents to keep fighting. Regime change generally fails to promote democracy because installing pliable dictators is in the intervener’s interest and because many target states lack the necessary preconditions for democracy.
Gratitude and Forbearance: On Christopher Lasch
Born in Omaha in 1932, the year Franklin Roosevelt was elected president, Christopher Lasch graduated from Harvard in 1954, during the Eisenhower era’s mood of anxious complacency, and from there went directly to Columbia to do graduate work in history. Lasch’s career as a historian began as it would end forty years later with his death, with a search for the moral resources for the next New Deal. Lasch rejected the liberal history of Arthur Schlesinger Jr.—whose legitimation of the cold war he disliked, and whose view of the permanence of the New Deal’s achievements he found naïve. He learned much of modern social science as well as European political and social thought, and took psychoanalysis and theology seriously. He became one of the nation’s most prominent intellectuals, but he increasingly doubted the capacity of his colleagues to guide their fellow citizens. His first book, The American Liberals and the Russian Revolution, a critique of liberalism’s early capitulation to imperialism, sold a few hundred copies when it appeared in 1962. His next book was published three years later. Called The New Radicalism in America, 1889–1963: The Intellectual as a Social Type, it depicted intellectuals’ sometimes unintended subservience to power, and it made him famous. Lasch regarded his success in part as a burden, and throughout his life he would insist on the importance of his ties to family, friends, colleagues and students.
David Spiegelhalter on Statistics and Risk
Over at Five Books:
Let’s have a look. First up is The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow, which looks at how the mathematical laws of randomness affect our lives.This is a general introduction to the history of probability and the way it comes into everyday life. It intersperses the historical development with modern applications, and looks at finance, sport, gambling, lotteries and coincidences.
It starts off with quotes from Cicero feeling that people were being misled by thinking that the gods influenced the throw of a die. Then it carries on through the early development of probability in the 16th century with [Italian Renaissance mathematician Gerolamo] Cardano. He threw two dice and looked at the distribution of the sum of the two faces. There was an incredibly popular game called Hazard where you threw two dice and betted on what the total would be. Amazingly, people had been gambling for centuries and had never realised you could do maths on gambling. Probability – which used to be known by the wonderful term “the doctrine of chances” – grew out of this.
the devil's advocate
Cynicism, for Bierce, was not just an attitude; it was his life force. It’s ironic then that The Devil’s Dictionary is seen today primarily as a delightful little book of irreverent (if now anachronistic) witticisms. This is entirely Bierce’s fault. In life and in art, Bierce made it his prerogative to present himself as a Class A misanthropic know-it-all. Much of the real sensitivity and even anguish that produced The Devil’s Dictionary is obscured by an intentional ironic distance. By the time The Devil’s Dictionary was published, Bierce was 69. He had made a career as a curmudgeon, a writer with a big personality who always kept distance between himself and his public. He was famous for his motto “nothing matters” and was known as “Bitter Bierce.” Even his popular short stories, based on his experiences of the Civil War (see the classic “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”) were never autobiographical, never meant to bring readers closer to the man. He publicly attacked friends, employers, and of course, other writers. (Bierce had a literary run-in with Oscar Wilde once after the latter declared satire to be “as sterile as it is shameful, and as impotent as it is insolent.” Bierce responded in print with a torrent of insults, calling Wilde “a gawky gowk,” a “dunghill he-hen.” and the “littlest and looniest of a brotherhood of simpletons” who had “the divine effrontery to link his name with those of Swindburne, Rosetti and Morris.”) How could someone who addressed his book to “those…enlightened souls who prefer dry wines to sweet, sense to sentiment, wit to humor and clean English to slang” be taken all that seriously, especially by 21st-century readers? Today, The Devil’s Dictionary comes off as smart but smug. Who was Ambrose Bierce to pronounce such judgments on humanity?more from Stefany Anne Golberg at The Smart Set here.
Most of what we associate with Victorian art is condensed into this picture: story-telling, social nuance, naturalism down to the last detail (“all the red-headed boys in Finchley” took turns sitting for the tousled ginger-haired child, for example, who appears as a mere fragment), humour (the cabbages dangling from the boat’s edge) balancing sentimentality, with the whole animated by vivid, piercing colour – the woman’s brilliant bonnet ribbon, fuchsia, crimson, mauve, magenta, fluttering across the picture; the deep maroon skeins of the deck rope – set against the grey wintry light and swell of a dull green sea. For the first time since this painting left Brown’s studio in 1855 it is shown here alongside a delicious preparatory oil sketch that reveals significant differences: the faces are finely featured, delicate as ivory and porcelain, rather than weather-beaten; textural details – an elaborate green and red embroidered shawl rather than the plain grey, for example – give a sumptuous surface sheen redolent of a Flemish miniature.more from Jackie Wullschlager at the FT here.
And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you'll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
by Seamus Heaney
from The Spirit Level
publisher:Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996
paint speaking up for itself
Hals was an unusual artist in that, especially in the first half of his career, he was able to paint, with little or no coyness, people grinning, or being plain happy. The relative scarcity in the history of painting of people giggling or looking like they have just said or heard something tickling indicates how hard it must be for a painter to bring off such a thing. Hals’s images of laughter and mirth come across as being the underpinning of his approach. It is as if his work is based on a philosophical position, and he is saying, “We are alive, so how can we not be cheerful?” Far from all his people are effervescent. He was hardly a painter propounding a thesis. As Seymour Slive, our foremost authority on the artist, has suggested, Hals seems to have taken the key to each of his pictures from the nature of his encounter with the sitter. (Slive’s writings on Hals have the same warmth, directness, energy, and clarity that rise from the paintings.) The experience of the 1989 retrospective, which was largely Slive’s work and which can almost be recaptured in its catalog, where the reproductions are large and good, is that we are encountering a storehouse of subtle moods and expressions.more from Sanford Schwartz at the NYRB here.
September 26, 2011
Two old lovers
near the sea of love
in a cove off a bay
no storm can reach,
lean into each other
not for past passion,
not listening for a poet’s speech
just listing, leaning each into each
by Jim Culleny
A year of writing about poverty
For nearly a year now, I've been writing here about poverty in America and what it's like to be in my brother's shoes: Like millions of Americans, Mark is a man who has worked hard for most of his life but is now unable to support himself. For a variety of reasons, today's column will be my last for 3QuarksDaily, and I thought I'd use it to sum up what I've learned over the past year.
1. Poor people are just like everyone else. This should be obvious, but for many, it's not: Most poor people want to be productive members of society. They have dreams and aspirations and to the extent that they are able, they are working to achieve them.
2. Poor people are not just like everyone else. This is the less-obvious corollary. Nearly every poor person has suffered enough misfortune to render him or her incapable of earning enough to cover even the basic necessities of life; nearly everyone else has not. In Mark's case, his body simply wasn't suited to the hard, physical jobs he was able to find. Eventually his body gave out, and he was forced to give up his long-established independent lifestyle and ask for help from the government, friends, and family.
3. Poor people are not like other poor people. Some poor people are lazy, some are not. Some poor people are uneducated, some are not. For every stereotype about poor people, there are thousands—millions—of poor people who do not fit that stereotype. But that doesn't mean there aren't some aspects of being poor that impact nearly all poor people. For example,
4. Trouble disproportionately impacts the poor. For most people, an unexpected setback like a car breakdown or an illness is an annoyance, but for the poor, it can unleash a catastrophic cascade of events. If your car breaks down and you have only $200, which you were planning on spending for the electric bill, you may face a choice between living without power or living without a job: If you can't pay to get the car fixed, you can't get to work. Many poor people have no sick leave: Get so sick that you can't work, and you get fired.
5. Getting government aid is hard, dehumanizing work. When Mark finally realized he could no longer support himself, it took years for him to be officially deemed "disabled" and therefore eligible for Federal assistance. Worse, the process almost requires that a person abandon hope: "You have to convince yourself you're disabled," Mark said at the time. "Your whole life you've been thinking about taking care of yourself [and suddenly] you're no good anymore and you need help."
The process of justifying your aid doesn't stop once you are place on Social Security Disability. You still need to prove, twice a year, that you need medical coverage, food stamps, and continually demonstrate that you are disabled and unable to work.
I could go on, but one thing I've learned about poor people over the past year is that cataloging their problems doesn't help much.
The very act of making a list was depressing, because it served as a reminder of how bad things really were for Mark. Indeed, that's one of the reasons I won't be writing this column any more, because constantly reminding a poor person of how much they are suffering is, if you'll excuse the expression, a piss-poor way to help.
So how can I help? How can anyone help? I think the key is to start by listening. Make an effort to connect to a poor person, preferably someone you already know or are related to. Just call or visit them every once in a while. If you get along all right, you might make a commitment to a regular visit or call, say once a week. Once you've gotten to know that person, you'll have a better idea of how you can help. But you need to help on their terms. Don't assume "they don't know what's good for them." They might not want you to help with what seems to you to be the most obvious problem. Maybe that's something they want to do for themselves. Maybe there are deep-seated problems that make it difficult for them to face what are actually symptoms rather than root causes.
But most importantly, you can be an advocate for change. Despite their large numbers, the poor don't have much of a voice in politics. The influence of deep-pocketed donors on politicians is so pervasive that it's taken for granted, as if it would be impossible for anyone to overcome. But politicians do listen to constituents if their numbers are large enough, so when you get a chance, remind your political representatives that they need to represent all the people.
If you need a reminder of some of the issues facing the poor today, you could start by taking a look at my previous columns on 3QD.
November 22, 2010: Portrait of an artist as a middle-aged man
December 20, 2010: Selling a disability
January 17, 2011: Where it hurts
February 14, 2011: Necessary luxury
April 11, 2011: Inflation for you, but not for me
May 9, 2011: Are marathons worth it?
June 6, 2011: Emergency Management
August 1, 2011: The Value of a Dollar
It's been a privilege for me to write this column, but it has also been extremely difficult, both for me, and for my brother Mark, who has had to relive many painful moments in order to give me material. Now I'm going to spend more of my time trying to be a little more constructive with my help, and I hope you will too.
Herodotus, the Iliad, and 9/11
By Namit Arora
Homer’s Iliad is the story of an epic war between the Greeks and the Trojans. The apparent cause of the war was the ‘abduction’ of Helen by Paris—Helen was the wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta; Paris was the son of Priam, king of Troy. Menelaus, his pride wounded, called on other Greek kings bound to him by an oath. Joining forces, they set sail and laid siege to the coastal city of Troy in Asia Minor. Mostly an account of the last days of the war, the Iliad teems with intrigue, character, and incident.
Herodotus, the 5th century BCE historian regarded as the father of history, lived more than three hundred years after the Iliad was written. He is justly famous for preferring rational—rather than mythical and supernatural—explanations for human events; to understand his past he looked to the actions, character, and motivations of men. Among the more charming passages of Histories is his take on the Trojan War. In his day and age, the Iliad was considered a true account of Greek ancestry and it was obligatory for every Greek schoolboy to read it. Cultivated Greek gents were expected to recite colorful stretches from it.
From the start, Herodotus had trouble with the Iliad. He found it odd that the Trojans, ‘when the Greeks ran off with their women, never troubled themselves about the matter; but the Greeks, for the sake of a single [Spartan] girl, collected a vast armament, invaded Asia, and destroyed the kingdom of Priam’. He doubted that Helen could have been taken from Sparta against her wishes, and even if she was, wasn’t that deed the work of a rogue, unworthy of such a large mobilization by the Greeks? What also didn’t sit well with his sense of human nature was the response of the otherwise reasonable Trojans to the Greek invasion, for ‘surely neither Priam nor his family could have been so infatuated as to endanger their own persons, their children and their city, merely that Paris might possess Helen.’
Herodotus did ultimately accept some parts of Homer’s account, including the Greek motivation for the invasion, absurd as it seemed to him. For the rest he offered the ‘true’ story based on his own research, adding, ‘It seems to me that Homer was acquainted with [the true] story, and discarded it, because he thought it less adapted for epic poetry’. What really happened, suggests Herodotus, was even worse than the story the Iliad recounts. After Paris took Helen from Sparta, a gale swept them to the Egyptian coast where the Nile meets the sea. There, the slaves on Paris’s ship, seizing a chance to escape their lot, revolted and informed the ‘warden of that mouth of the river’ about Paris’s deed. The matter reached the local king who promptly had Paris arrested. The king spared Paris’s life but detained Helen and the treasures that acompanied them until Menelaus ‘comes in person and takes them back with him’. Before sending Paris off, the king fumed at him, calling him the ‘basest of men’ for having ‘seduced the wife’ of his own host, exciting her mind, and stealing her away from her husband.
Paris went home empty-handed. There was no Helen in Troy during the ten-year siege, but the Greeks refused to believe the Trojans who kept saying so. After foolishly razing Troy—and fighting for a decade in the wrong place while suffering heavy losses—the Greeks finally realized the truth and Menelaus recovered Helen from Egypt. As evidence for this much darker account of the Trojan War, Herodotus cites some other stories and a few Egyptian authorities, backing it up with a fine analysis of human nature: investigative journalism c. 450 BCE. Herodotus was a pious man nevertheless, and held that it was Divine Providence that shipwrecked the Greek armies returning from Troy, so ‘it might be made evident to all men that when great wrongs are done, the gods will surely visit them with great punishments.’
It seems to me that the post-9/11 decade has some parallels with the Trojan War. Consider the following account: a few rogues descend on the U.S. and kill 3,000 civilians. Horrid as it is, it is a crime no worse than many that Americans have previously committed against others, except this one is seen by all on TV. To avenge it, the U.S. goes overboard; it mobilizes a formidable military force, ropes in a few allies, and launches multi-year wars against two countries half-way around the world. One is to find the chief rogue Osama, the other to find WMDs.
Both wars together kill hundreds of thousands more civilians, wounding and displacing millions, costing the U.S. taxpayer over three trillion dollars—not to mention all the opportunity costs—hurling it deeper into debt and recession and worsening its already strained social services, perhaps beyond repair. And after all that, Osama is found living for years in a different country and there are no WMDs. Like the ‘true’ account of the Trojan War by Herodotus, this one is much too hard to bear. Will the bards please rise and give us a more palatable version?
More writing by Namit Arora?
The Utterly Amazing Future Awaiting High-Tech Humanity: An Interview With Dr. Michio Kaku, The Author Of "Physics Of The Future"
by Evert Cilliers aka Adam Ash
If you're interested in the future, or if you're a sci-fi freak, or a geek, or a lover of science, or a transhumanist, or a singularity nut, or a fan of Bladerunner or 2001: A Space Odyssey, or all of these (like me), this book is for you.
Author Dr. Michio Kaku gives us three futures to contemplate in his comprehensive overview of everything science is doing to take us into a future that is unimaginably different, weird and wonderful:
a) where we will be in the near term (present to 2030)
b) in midcentury (2030 to 2070)
c) in the far future (2070 to 2100).
Dr. Kaku's predictions are not only informed by the fact that he's a supersmart scientist himself (with the rare ability to explain abstruse science to ignorant amateurs like me), but that he has personally visited with more than 300 of the relevant scientists and hung out at their laboratories where our future is being designed right now.
Here's a brief list of some of his more startling predictions:
1. We will be operating internet computers that are lodged in contact lenses by blinking our eyes and making hand movements Theremin-style in the empty air.
2. We will have the ability to bring back the woolly mammoth and Neanderthal man, although Dr. Kaku is not so sure that we'll be able to bring back any dinosaurs.
3. Many diseases will be gone as dangerous genes are clipped out of humanity's DNA. Nanobots will be cruising our bloodstreams to zap rogue cancer cells long before they can take us down. We will beat most diseases except virus-caused stuff like the common cold or AIDS, because their viruses can mutate faster than we can learn to zap them.
4. Robots will only become smart once we are able to imbue them with emotions. Why? Because you can't make decisions without emotions. For example, people with brain injuries, which disconnect their logical centers in their cerebral cortex from the emotional center deep inside the brain, are paralyzed when making decisions. They cannot tell what is important or not. When shopping, they cannot make any decisions. That's why emotions are the next frontier in artifcial intelligence.
5. We will definitely be able to increase our lifespans (perhaps even live forever). Dr. Kaku quotes Richard Feynman as saying: "There is nothing in biology yet found that indicates the inevitability of death. This suggests to me that it is not at all inevitable and that it is only a matter of time before biologists discover what it is that is causing us the trouble and that this terrible universal disease or temporariness of the human's body will be cured."
The following interview with Dr. Kaku was conducted by email, and gave me a chance to ask some basic questions to give you an overview of his mind-blowing book.
1. Dr. Kaku, I used to listen to you in the 1990s on WBAI in New York. You were my favorite radio personality. Not only because you questioned authority, but also because you could explain abstruse matters of science in ways I could understand. I remember you explained superstring theory so well that I thought I clearly understood the whole thing for at least two weeks. First off, explain how everything in our world will be made intelligent with smart chips.
Moore 's Law states that computer power doubles every 18 months, which means that by 2020, chips may eventually cost a penny, which is the cost of scrap paper that we throw away. This means that chips will be everywhere and nowhere, like electricity is today. The word "electricity" has largely disappeared from the English language, and the word "computer" will soon follow it into the trash heap of history. This is because chips will be everywhere, in our clothes, body, furniture, walls, even in our contact lenses. In fact, internet contact lenses will give us the ability to identify strangers when we look at their faces, translate from one language to another, and download information from the internet, just by blinking. Actors will no longer have to memorize lines. Students will not have to memorize silly facts for exams.
2. Programmable matter: what is it and how will it change our interaction with the world?
Shape shifting seems like something from science fiction, but programmable matter may make it possible. The Intel Corp, in particular, is investing heavily in this technology. Programmable matter is based on the idea of making microscopic chips, the size of the head of a pin, that can stick to other chips via varying electrical charges. In one formation, these chips may combine to form something like a sheet of paper. But if you reprogram the charges on these chips, they suddenly rearrange to form, say, a cup or plate. Push another button, and these chips rearrange to form forks and spoons. In principle, one can envisions billions of these chips which are programmed to form furniture, buildings, even cities, at the push of a button. So in the future, when you want the latest Christmas toy, you will download the blueprint and rearrange last year's toy to form this year's toy. This could replace recycling, since you recycle chips to create anything you want. This could also alter society itself, since you will be able to create most objects simply by asking for them.
3. Tell us how telepathy and telekinesis might become real.
By mid-century, it should be commonplace for us to control computers around us via our mind. EEG sensors, for example, can pick up electromagnetic signals from the brain, amplify them, and can be programmed to control objects around us. MRI scans can detect blood and energy flows in the brain, so that patterns of electrical activity can be photographed. Since looking at an object creates a MRI pattern in our brain, scientists are developing a "dictionary of thought," which is a form of mind reading.
Or, chips can be placed directly onto the brain itself and then connected to a computer. Stroke victims, who are totally paralyzed, have been hooked up in this way, so that they can now read and write e-mail, play video games, control wheel chairs. In fact, these paralyzed individuals can now do anything you can do on a computer.
This will give us telepathic control of computers. Just by thinking, we will be able to drive cars, order tickets and plan vacations, send e-mails, and even move objects around (a form of telekinesis, using magnetism to push objects with the power of the mind).
4. Designer children: what are the ethical questions involved?
Today, parents spend hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to give their kids every advantage in this cruel world. In the future, parents will be able to tinker with the genes of their kids as well, which creates ethical questions.
For example, should children be ranked by intelligence tests when genes might be found which can enhance our intelligence by taking an expensive pill?Should we praise musically talented children in an age when you can buy genes which give us perfect pitch and musical ability? Or will people pay to see their favorite teams compete, knowing that the winner will be ones which can afford the best athletic genes on the market? Ultimately, we have to ask the question of who gets enhanced and who doesn't. Society will have to democratically decide how far to push this technology.
5. What are some ways in which we may be able to increase our lifespans, while we stay youthful-looking at the same time?
There are several ways in which we might be able to extend our life spans:
i) Already, we can grow, from your own cells, many parts of the body, including skin, blood, blood vessels, bone, noses, ears, bladders, windpipes. In 5 years, perhaps the first liver will be grown from your own cells. Within 20 years, many common organs will be routinely grown. So in the future, you will not die of organ failure.
ii) The telomeres at end of our chromosomes are like a biological clock. After each cell reproduction, the ends get shorter and shorter, until (after about 60 reproductions) they disappear (like the fuse on a stick of dynamite) and the cells become inactive and eventually die. But with the enzyme telomerase, one can "stop the biological clock." In this way, scientists have already "immortalized" human skin cells in a cell culture. These cells have divided thousands of times.
iii) Caloric restriction has lengthened the life span of every animal tested so far (except humans), from yeast cells to primates. If you eat 30% less, you live 30% longer. Scientists want to duplicate this process without having to starve yourself. So far, SIR-2 is a gene (from the sirtuin class of genes) which seems to regulate this process.
iv) Eventually, all of us with have our genomes on disks. Scientists will then scan the genes of millions of old people, then millions of young people, and then subtract. In this way, it should be easy to identify the handful of genes which control the aging process. Already, 60 genes have been found. Also, we are 98.5% genetically identical to the chimpanzee, yet we live twice as long, Among a handful of genes separating us from the chips, are the genes which double our lifespan.
6. Please explain Kardashev's ranking of Type I, II and III civilizations and why it may be useful, and why we are, according to Carl Sagan, a 0.7 civilization.
When ranking future civilizations, physicists use energy as the key parameter. This was used by Nicolai Kardashev in the 1960s to rank civilizations into Type I, II and III.
i) A Type I civilization is planetary. It can use all the energy falling on its planet from the sun.
ii) A Type II civilization is stellar, and can use all the energy emitted by its sun.
iii) A Type III civilization is galactic, using the energy of an entire galaxy.
Each type uses 10 billion times more energy than the previous type.
Kardashev then estimated how long it may take for our civilization (a type 0) to attain these higher rankings (measured in thousands of years). We can also rank civilizations from science fiction on this scale. Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon would rank as Type I. The Federation of Planets from Star Trek would rank as Type II. The Empire of Stars Wars (or the Borg from Star Trek) would rank as Type III. This leaves open the possibility of a Type IV civilization, which would have extra-galactic power, perhaps from Dark Energy. This would be the "Q" from Star Trek.
A simple exponential formula can be derived to rank these civilizations. Carl Sagan estimated, therefore, that we are actually a Type 0.7 civilization (still about 100 years away from reaching Type I status). So our destiny, within this century, is to make the historic transition from a Type 0 to a Type I civilization. This is our fate.
This is just a taste of a feast of mind-boggling speculative non-fiction. Get a copy, and lose yourself in the physics of our future.
Worst. Song. Ever.
I was eating a slice at one of my neighborhood pizzerias the other day. Well actually it was two slices and a drink: either a plastic bottle of corn syrup, or a large styrofoam cup with ice and corn syrup, your choice. That’s their lunch special for five and change. I went with the plastic bottle of corn syrup.
So anyway, there I was, having at it, and all the while the 1970s station on their satellite radio was being piped in as usual. For the most part, it’s a pleasant enough way to pass the fifteen minutes or so that it takes for me to get my food, plop into a hard booth, and then wolf it down. Mostly what wafts down from the overhead speakers are harmless tunes you’ve heard a thousand times before, hits from that fabled decade when viable music could be found on both AM and FM radio stations.
For someone like me, born in 1967 and raised on radio, it’s almost impossible to find a song that I haven’t heard before on a station like this. The whole thing is a predictable corporate endeavor that minimizes risk and targets demographically derived profits by tightly cleaving to an established catalog with which I am intimately familiar. It’s the usual fare of black music (Disco, R&B, Funk) and white music (Rock and Pop) from the era: Billboard hits that were once ubiquitous and now run the gamut from standards to novelties. At best, every now and then they might surprise you with a tune you haven’t heard in a while, unearthing a pleasant memory and triggering the release of some wistful endorphins in your brain.
But not last Friday.
When I get home from work
I wanna wrap myself around you
I wanna take you and squeeze you
Til the passion starts to rise
“That’s pretty insipid,” I thought to myself. But it’s just typical, `70s soft-rock crap: a poorly constructed and saccharine ode love wrapped around a painfully obvious cock metaphor. I’ll just ignore it. But then came:
I wanna take you to heaven
That would make my day complete
I nearly cackled out loud before catching myself, trapping the aborted laughter as a snort and bringing up a little piece of mozzarella. I wanna take you to heaven, that would make my day complete? As in, you know, it’s been a pretty good day up until now, was super productive at work, got a nice compliment from the boss, didn’t hit any traffic on the way home, and now if I could just flag us a cab after dinner and go up to heaven, well, that would be a really great way to round out the day. Seriously?
I was mildly stunned, contemplating the phenomenal stupidity of the song, when it broke into the chorus:
But you and me ain't no movie stars
What we are is what we are
We share a bed
and TV, yeah
And then I cocked my head like a dog does at a curious sound. “Holy shit. Wait a second,” I thought, unnerved by a sense of confused nostalgia. “I think I actually know this.”
And that's enough for a workin' man
What I am is what I am
And I tell you, babe
well that's enough for me
Wow. I haven’t heard this song in at least a quarter-century, probably longer. But it’s all coming back to me now, and you know what? I think I used to like it. Quite a bit. I had completely forgotten about it, and now here I am, listening to it again unexpectedly, and being rather surprised to find out that it is absolutely one of the worst songs ever.
On an aesthetic level, when the 1970s worked, they really worked. Anyone old enough to remember them knows what I’m talking about. For those too young, I’m sorry, but you missed it, and its likes shan’t be seen again in our lifetimes, I’m afraid. But the `70s also sometimes bombed really hard, and that hit or miss quality is one of the main reasons why all these years later, the 1970s are both emulated and mocked, romanticized nostalgically and shunned in horror.
Striped, knee-high tube socks, avocado kitchen appliances, short gym shorts, sideburns, track suits, afros, wide pointy collars and lapels, formica, bell bottoms, plexi-glass, cocaine, speedos, polyesther, and colors, colors everywhere.
It’s all still pretty divisive.
For the most part, I loved it, and still do, but the super seventies style didn’t always work. No denying that there was a lot of shit. And this song, as it turns out, managed to take every bad `70s cliche and execute it poorly.
For example, you’ve got schmaltzy lyrics and an intrusive orchestra. Now unfortunately, both of those things were pretty commonplace during the 1970s. In and of themselves they’re nothing remarkable, just cheesy crap that was part and parcel of the music scene. So how do you bring the verbal and aural cheese to the next level of awful?
You have the string section swell just as the singer declares: But that’s enough for a workin’ man, what I am is what I am.
And you do it, apparently, without any sense irony.
That’s emblematic of the kind of deeply ingrained flaws afflicting this song. It takes something that sucks and makes it suck even more. For example, it is also a victim of that classic 1970s ending: the fade.
I remember picking up a book of Journey sheet music when I was a teenager (yes, I had every Journey album in high school, let’s just get that out of the way now). Studying that book and learning to play those songs taught me three things. First, and most importantly, don’t ever, ever stop believin’. Second, you’ll only have so much fun playing guitar music on a piano. Beautiful fuckin’ instrument, the piano, but not much for power chords. And third, the official music theory description for the end of most Journey songs is apparently: Repeat, Ad Lib, Fade.
I would’ve preferred something more poetic, like the words Keep Playing over and over again in smaller and smaller font, but either way it alerted me to the artifice of what was going on. It’s like the musical equivalent of a laugh track on a sitcom: a lazy, half-assed, corporate way to pull everything together, a cheap and sloppy shortcut that tries to create the illusion of being tight, sharp, and successful. Can’t be bothered to write a joke that’s actually funny? End it with a laugh track and hope no one notices. Can’t be bothered to figure out an actual ending for your song? End it by fading out and hope no one notices.
So needless to say, I wasn’t surprised that as I was finishing the crust on my second slice, this god-awful song was bringing its torturous sound scape to a decrescendo via the dreaded fade out. But even the way it did that was stupefying. Because, though it was a bit unexpected by this point, the song actually has a natural stopping point. A damn near perfect stopping point, really. This minor-chorded fiasco could’ve gotten one thing right by ending as the music dies down and approaches the home chord while the singer croons, I’ll tell ya baby, that’s just enough for me.
Yeah, ya know what? That would work. Despite everything that’s gone horribly wrong up until now, it could still find a nice ending, a somewhat artistic dovetail as everything comes together to create a graceful exit for an otherwise embarrassingly shitty song.
Except it doesn’t actually end there. Inexplicably, the orchestra starts up again. Woodwinds, strings, the whole deal. It’s as if they’re on a tape loop, and after they’ve finished going through their charts, they wind it up again right on cue, for no good reason, and commence a completely pointless, half-minute fade out from the top.
Anyway, the important thing is that it was finally over. I just shook my head in dismay. How was it that I ever liked this song to begin with? How on earth did I once think this thing had good lyrics, catchy chord progressions, and some heartfelt soul?
Oh yeah. I was nine.
Anyway, the biggest surprise of all? The artist. Turns out it was Alice Cooper of all people. Yeah, Mr. Welcome to My Nightmare, Mr. Scarey Makeup, Mr. Bloody Stage Show, Mr. Legendary Drug Consumption, Mr. Chicken Killer, the whole nine yards. He was the talentless, soft rock creep who penned and sang the unfathomably bad “You and Me.” You know, the same guy who once released an album called Muscle of Love.
Cooper co-wrote it with guitarist Dick Wagner. It was produced by Bob Ezrin and appears on his 1977 solo album Lace and Whiskey. It was the lead single and peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard pop chart. The b-side was “It’s Hot Tonight”.
Alice Cooper’s “You and Me”: Worst. Song. Ever.
Though of course I’m open to your suggestions.
Leslie Shows. Shapes Quarry, 2007.
by Kevin S. Baldwin
Anniversaries be they of marriages or births, are generally a time to celebrate (another lap around the sun, yeah!). They can also be a time of darker speculation: “What if I had stayed single, gotten married, married someone else, hadn’t been so career-focused, or hadn’t been born?” These “what if” scenarios are the subject of many novels and films (e.g., A Christmas Carol, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Family Man, and It's a Wonderful Life), because they link regret, acceptance, and possibility.
Anniversaries also focus our attention on particular dates or years. Two years ago, there was much celebration of the bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth (1809) and the sesquicentennial of his publication of his On the Origin of Species (1859). In 1859, John Stuart Mill published On Liberty and Edwin Drake discovered oil in western Pennsylvania. The competitive pursuit of liberty through the consumption of oil has characterized much of the late 19th and all of the 20th Century. With regard to the recent sesquicentennial of 1859, my purpose is not so much to ask “what if?” (as in the stories and films cited earlier) as it is to ask “what now?” The result is that I hope to offer a way to incorporate the full implications of Darwin, Drake, and Mill’s work to get us to the next big anniversary in 2059.
How did we get to 1859? To understand Darwin, we need to recall Malthus whose 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population established the idea that food production increased arithmetically (or linearly) while populations increased geometrically (or exponentially), thus growing populations would rapidly outstrip their food supply. Malthus' insights informed both Darwin's and Alfred Russel Wallace's formulations of natural selection and they acknowledged him explicitly in their writings.
Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859 is most remembered for the principle of natural selection and its popularization into phrases like Herbert Spencer's (1864) “Survival of the fittest” and Alfred Tennyson's (1849) “Nature, red in tooth and claw.” Even today, a reference to The Origin evokes the idea that life is hard and competitive. In a word: Darwinian.
The second great contribution of 1859 was Edwin Drake's discovery of oil near Titusville, Pennsylvania, which launched the American petroleum industry. Oil is an astonishingly energy dense material. A single 42 gallon barrel of oil may contain the energy-equivalent of about 25,000 hours of human labor. Oil also provides the chemical feed-stock for many items that we consider to be essential (e.g., chemicals including plastics and pharmaceuticals). Cheap, readily available oil has given us lots of energy to do many things and make lots of stuff.
The third great contribution of 1859 was John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, which advocated for the moral and economic freedom of individuals from government and other citizens. Mention Mill today and terms like utilitarianism, libertarianism (both upper and lower case), and individual freedom come to mind immediately. On Liberty is perhaps best known for the phrase: “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”
Combined with the seemingly inexaustible supply of cheap energy in the form of oil, competition and individuality became the defining metaphors for the development of western civilization in the late 19th and 20th centuries. A selective reading of the lessons of 1859 would be that life, including the human condition, is a struggle, energy is cheap and abundant, and the pursuit of individuality and freedom are paramount. Does this not sound like America in the first decade of the 21st Century?
Oil has been called “The Prize” by historian Daniel Yergin who has chronicled its discovery and control for the last 150 years and coined the phrase “Hydrocarbon Man” to describe our present stage of development. As a civilization, we are guilty of conflating our ingenuity with cheap, concentrated energy and all that it allows us to do. The Prize has given us excessive pride: hubris.
What about post-hydrocarbon man? A spate of books, papers and websites have appeared recently that attempt to look ahead to a world without oil (Kunstler, Life after the Oil Crash, Duncan, & others). M. King Hubbert's famous 1956 prediction of peak U.S. Oil by 1970 was eerily prescient. Globally, Peak Oil may have already happened or is looming in the not too distant future. Oil is getting harder to find. Drake found it at less than 70 ft. Average well depth today is about one mile, and the deepest are over 7 miles. Oil is getting riskier to extract. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010, blew out in nearly a mile beneath the water's surface. Oil is also getting harder to extract. Energy Returned on Energy Invested (ERoEI) dropped by a factor of 10 over the last 80 years. The ERoEI of oil extraction from tar sands may be as low as 2 to 1 and ethanol is either slightly better or worse than 1 to 1, depending on a few assumptions. The implications are not pretty: Peak Oil can only be recognized in retrospect and once it is reached, the decline in production can be rapid, on the order of 7 - 15% per year, especially with newer oil extraction technologies that are tapping out new reserves faster than ever (Kunstler). Duncan paints a particularly dark picture with his Olduvai hypothesis, which posits that with the end of oil, human population will rapidly drop to about 2 billion by the year 2050.
As a side effect of giving us the incredible power to alter our destinies locally in the short term, oil has had global effects in the long term (e.g., global climate change in the form of warmer, more variable earth, and the associated mass extinctions, which could include our own species). In short, we as a civilization and perhaps as a species are being squeezed by two events of our own making: Peak Oil and Global Climate Change. Even if a newly thawed Arctic were found to be full of oil, extracting it would push atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations still higher while merely forestalling the inevitability of Peak Oil just a bit.
We have arrived at this point through a selective reading of both Darwin and Mill. Just at the moment Darwin showed us how we fit into the scheme of things, Drake gave us the energy and material wealth to deny it, and Mill supplied the philosophical justification to use that energy. We have behaved as if there are no consequences to our actions, but there is no free lunch. We need to reconsider the events of 1859 to see where we went wrong and how we can chart a new path.
In addition to natural selection, Darwin made many other important contributions. His sketch of the diversification of species from a single stock in his 1837 notebook is, in my mind, one of the most profound drawings in the history of humanity . He realized that there is one tree of life in which all living organisms are related to one another. Some contemporaries outside of science appreciated this fully. Writer Thomas Hardy grokked Darwin to a surprising degree. In a letter from 1910, Hardy wrote: "Few people seem to perceive that the most far-reaching consequence of the establishment of the common origin of species is ethical; that it logically involved a readjustment of altruistic morals, by enlarging, as a necessity of rightness, the application of what has been called “the Golden Rule” from the area of mere mankind to that of the whole of the animal kingdom." Thus we are obligated by relatedness to be better stewards of the Earth and its inhabitants.
Darwin also clearly articulated the concept of what we now know as Deep Time, which he derived from James Hutton who had described the age of the earth as has having "no vestige of a beginning-no prospect of an end." Three hundred years before Darwin, Bishop Ussher estimated of the earth's age at 6,000 years based on Biblical interpretation. Darwin thought that the earth was on the order of 100,000,000 years old. Notice that his estimate has three more zeroes, or is three orders of magnitude, or 1,000 times greater. Modern estimates put the earth at 4,500,000,000 years or two powers of ten even greater than Darwin thought. The earliest organisms appear in the fossil record 3,800,000,000 years ago. We now know from several lines of evidence that humans and chimpanzees last shared a common ancestor 5,000,000 years ago, and that anatomically modern humans appeared about 100,000 years ago. So, over the last 150 years we have moved from believing the earth and all living beings were created 6,000 years ago, to the idea that all preceding life has led up to us (Mark Twain famously quipped something to the effect that no one would argue that the Eiffel tower was built for the sole purpose of supporting the paint at its top). Today, science recognizes that we are only the most recent, in a very long line of species stretching back nearly 4 billion years.
Darwin repeatedly used the phrase "economy of nature" in The Origin and other works. Though the etymology of this phrase goes back at least to Burnet (1692), Darwin was among the first to explicitly connect natural and political economies. The word economy is thought to have originated in the late 15th Century either from the French économie, or via Latin from the Greek oikonomia, or 'household management' (from oikos 'house' + nemein 'manage'). Today we refer to natural economy as ecology, which originated as oecology in the late 19th Century, from the Greek oikos + -logy (a subject or study of interest), (New Oxford American Dictionary, 2005). Though I consider myself to be an ecologist, I prefer the terms natural and political economies because they share the same root of 'house' and they in fact share the same house. Ecological economics as a field is an attempt to bridge the two houses. Too many economists ignore the natural world and ecologists tend to forget about economics as they attempt to arrive at solutions for ecological problems. Political economies are embedded within natural economies, not separate from them. Darwin knew this and we need to relearn it. Tea Partiers and GOP politicians are attempting to undermine environmental protections because they perceive ecology and economy to be diametrically opposed. The recent global financial bubble and subsequent meltdown provide another example of what can happen when the two are viewed separately. It took record high oil prices in the summer of 2008 to prick the bubble and remind us of how truly dependent we are on natural resources and why they should be renewable.
Another contribution of Darwin's was his recognition of coevolution. Organisms not only compete with each other, but can cooperate to achieve new capabilities. The coevolution of flowering plants and pollinators is well known. The endosymbiotic theory of eukaryote origins is a classic case of cooperation. Lichens are a symbiosis (living together) of an alga and a fungus, which by working together can live in harsh environments. Reef building corals are another example of an alga teaming up with another organism to do something remarkable. By following these examples, we may be able to do a better job of coevolving and cooperating with the earth rather than regarding it as a source of endless wealth to be extracted and a sink in which to dump wastes.
One of the things that is frequently overlooked in On Liberty is Mill's emphasis on the "harm principle" and the importance of thinking about the consequences of decisions"[T]he only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others." In short, Mill is big on both freedom and responsibility.
Humans have acquired great power through our numbers (now approaching 7 billion) and our ecological footprints (now approaching 2.1 global hectares per capita globally and 9.4 global hectares per capita in the U.S.; Global Footprint Network). We have been using land intensive resources unsustainably since the the 1980's (Wackernagel et al.). Concerns about deficit spending have preoccupied the Tea Party members of the U.S. Congress recently, yet they are incurious about the much more serious deficits we are running with our planet. We need to begin acting responsibly soon. Using Hardy's interpretation of Darwin we can define our responsibilities to include other species and even ecosystem processes. If we can grant rights to corporations, why not grant them to other living creatures and the emergent systems that really matter? (We can't eat derivatives, especially now that transactions are handled electronically. Back in the days before computers we could have at least fed worthless paper to cows to convert it into meat!). By folding political economies into natural economies perhaps we can begin to do things like index interest rates to rates of soil creation (which are very low; on the order of a centimeter per century), rather than externalize the costs of soil erosion while making up the nutrient deficit with fossil fuel-derived fertilizers.
As we transition from Peak Oil to post oil, humans will once again be subjected to the realities of Malthus and Darwin. Peak oil and global warming will demand our best efforts to create workable political, economic, spiritual, and technical solutions. Unparalleled cooperation amongst ourselves and with rest of the natural world will be essential. The recent 150th anniversary of 1859 offers much to celebrate and even more to think about. More complete consideration of the discoveries and implications of 1859 may offer us the outlines of a workable future.
Global ecosystems 'face collapse' BBC News. 24 Oct. 2006. Retrieved 24 June 2009.<http:// news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/6077798.stm>
Burnet, T. The sacred theory of the earth. Carbondale,: Southern Illinois University Press. [ca. 1692] 1965.
Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. John Murray. 1859.
Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol, Chapman and Hall. 1843.
Richard C. Duncan. The Olduvai Theory: Energy, Population, and Industrial Civilization. The Social Contract. Winter, 2005-2006.
The Family Man. Dir. Brett Rattner. Perf. Nicholas Cage, Téa Leoni, and Don Cheadle. Universal Pictures, 2000.
Global Footprint Network. 2009. 24 June 2009. <http://www.footprintnetwork.org>.
Hutton, James. 'Theory of the Earth', Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 1(2): 209-304, 1788.
It's a Wonderful Life. Dir. Frank Capra. Perf. James Stewart, Donna Reed, and Lionel Barrymore. Liberty Films (II), 1946.
The Last Temptation of Christ. Dir. Martin Scorcese. Perf. Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey. Universal Pictures, 1988.
Kunstler, James Howard. The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century. Atlantic Monthly Press. 2005.
The New Oxford American Dictionary, Second Edition, Erin McKean (editor). Oxford University Press, May 2005.
Life after the Oil Crash. Matt Savinar. rev. Sept. 2008. Accessed: 21 June 2009. <http://lifeaftertheoilcrash.net/>.
Malthus, Thomas. Essay on the Principle of Population. Anonymously Published. 1798.
Spencer, Herbert. Principles of Biology, D. Appleton & Co. New York, 1864-1867.
Tennyson, Alfred. In Memoriam A.H.H., Canto 56. 1849.
Wackernagel, M. B. Schulz, D. Deumling, A. C. Linares, M. Jenkins, V. Kapos, C. Monfreda, J. Loh, N. Myers, R. Norgaard, and J. Randers. Tracking the ecological overshoot of the human economy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. 99: 9266-9271. 2002.
Yergin, Daniel. The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power. Simon and Schuster. 1991.
How We Look at Women, and Why
by Joy Icayan
I was recently in one of those hole-in-the-wall drinking places with friends from the human rights community. It was a rather decrepit place, just a bunch of plastic tables and monobloc chairs and a small booth that served dirt cheap beer and street food. In the mornings it was transformed into a canteen. The toilets in the restroom didn’t flush. Vendors peddling nuts, eggs and apples came in and out. We went there at least once a week to talk of politics and personal lives and take advantage of the cheap beer. That night, we had brought a friend—a French volunteer. She was in her sixties, spending her retirement visiting the world and talking to people. It was her first time in my country, and since she seemed game for everything, including travelling alone to mining-affected indigenous communities six hours from the city, we decided to bring her to our little hidden place.
Now this place had a videoke machine in one corner and a television forever tuned to a horse racing channel in another. The videoke machine had one of those preprogrammed reels of scantily clad women, mostly Caucasian women in bikinis running along a beach, or pole dancing or walking or fixing their hair, or pouting at the camera. It was a constant barrage of cleavage and thighs and it went on whatever song you chose; eventually the clips repeated themselves, or the same women repeated themselves in different ‘storylines’. We were used to it; there were other reels you could choose, reels of marine life or cartoon characters, but most machines played the clips of the women. That night, someone from another table had requested to turn the machine on, and started a bad rendition of a love song.
Our French visitor stared at the video going on, it was just the camera doing a quick close up scan of a pretty woman’s body. We had been talking about mining. “Stop me,” she said “before I smash that screen.”
It had been something of a joke, of course, but until that moment none of us had seriously thought about what was wrong with the clips. Annoying and silly, yes, but that was it. It was everywhere--in the cheap bars, in rural clubs, even in some homes. And there was something rather ironic to that; that we would often meet there to discuss activism and the rights of vulnerable people, that at that time one of the most controversial bills in the Congress was something on reproductive health, a bill that proposed access to information and methods of reproductive health, and we couldn’t quite understand how people, a sizable portion of the population could oppose that.
“I really am going to smash that screen,” she said, and we knew her enough at that point, respected her guts, that we thought we had better leave.
Walk the talk, we often say. I would like to think we have perhaps a better awareness of women’s rights. Most people would anyway; most people condemn violence against women—rape, sexual assault, neglect etc etc. We are all advocates for this—that is easy enough at least in theory, but to prevent the unnecessary sexualisation of women, to fight against the kind of environment that makes all these evils persist—that would be more difficult.
I was telling my male friends once that we read a social psych study in class which showed women could sometimes tolerate sexual harassment in the workplace. My female friends agreed—sometimes it gets tiring to have to fight against it all the time, sometimes you don’t want to be seen as uncool, sometimes it even gives you leverage. Sometimes you wonder if men’s energy (or boredom) just knows no boundaries. Most of the time, I’m sure they mean no harm, that they just want a quick laugh or a boost to the conversation. But is precisely these things—normalizing it, telling ourselves it’s okay that lets it thrive, that makes us blind to its existence.
My friend has formed quite an effective way to deal with it. Every time she gets saturated with talk of someone’s breasts, she blurts out, “Wow, and your dick is huge?”
It’s not something I’d advocate (since it’s still objectification), but at the very least being confronted about that kind of attitude works. The person often shuts up or leaves the room. I love it when human beings can be expected to replicate the results of a Psych101 book—refuse to reinforce an attitude or behavior and you diminish its power. It’s all about power, and gender equality only works when neither gender has more of it than the other.
And it’s dreadful how this has trickled down. I often ask my three year old niece to sing me something because I love how she gets the tune but mixes the English lyrics to the point that they become rather senseless. One time she decided she’d rather dance. And then she did something I couldn’t figure out at first—the music was upbeat but the dance was too slow. I felt something was wrong with it, it didn’t feel like a typical child’s dance—with the typical jumping and twirling and all that. Then I figured out what it was—a pole dancing routine. I was, of course, horrified. I asked her where she learned that, but she either couldn’t remember or was too shy to tell. People could call this a case of bad parenting, of the effects of media consumption, or children growing up too fast. You can call it a lot of things.
And then you'd have do something.
How Does My Garden Grow?
by Gautam Pemmaraju
A distinct advantage to my small rental in the once ‘leafy suburb’ of Bandra in western Bombay is its garden. Actually, not quite a ‘garden’ in the sense that it is arranged with great care or acuity, tended to diligently, or bedecked with decorative flowers and plants, it is rather, for the most part, an unkempt, somewhat derelict yard with several planted trees and a wide range of wild ferns, creepers, fruit, herb, and vegetable plants. The diversity of botanical life is pretty fascinating, not to mention the many song birds, from the White-Throated Fan Tail, the Oriental Magpie Robin to the Asian Koel, and lest I forget, the many worms, slugs, bees, butterflies, garden lizards, frogs, squirrels, snails that are to be found in residence - occasionally at my doorstep. Itinerant cats, the odd fatigued kite, noisy crows, sparrows and pigeons, barn owls, and bandicoots pass through, and I have often imagined an irascible rodent knocking at my door demanding a change of music.
The space around me is a wild urban garden.
Encircled by tall apartment blocks, the low-rise character of the structure allows for immediate contact with what is outside. Boundary walls enclose this very modest plot of land that supports an impressive range of plant life. When in season, there are guavas that may be picked from outside my window; some ripe ones, half eaten by parakeets, fall to ground and release a squishy, heady aroma. Two types of bananas – a large beveled plantain (possibly from Kerala) which can be used raw (in cooking) or eaten when ripe, and the small, squat and delicious local elchi (butter plantain). Cultivated coconut, including one variety brought from Singapore, and seasonal mangoes are in abundance. The lone lime tree, verdant and generously fertile at one time, which used to catch the fancy of telephone linesmen, postmen and other civic workers entering the premises, is in need of some help. Recently, the jackfruit tree bore fruit for the first time. Several others though – custard apple, tamarind, Java Plum or Jambul, fig, locally known as umber – are yet to be as productive as the others.
The many things that my surroundings provide – fruit, herbs, space for friendly gatherings, succour and psychological relief – lead me to consider it in more detail. What does the garden mean and how may it be imagined? In setting out to ‘appreciate’ the garden, how do I then examine its form, function, and its extended notion? How do gardens grow - physically, around us and in cities; metaphorically, in imagined ways through creative pursuits; and psychologically, in our individual minds and the collective consciousness of urban residents?
David Cooper, in A Philosophy Of Gardens, examines a complex range of thoughts on gardens – from “conceptual ones (‘What is a garden?’); ontological ones (‘Is a garden simply a complex philosophical object?’); normative ones (‘What makes a garden successful or great?’)”, which, he suggests at the outset to be immediate concerns entertained by philosophers of art. Pointing to a great variety of garden literature, from the empires of antiquity to the ‘Renaissance garden’, Cooper, invokes art historian Eugenio Batisti’s ‘…a place of pleasure…feasts, entertainment of friends…a restorative for both body and soul’ in beginning to inquire as to how gardens “more emphatically and intimately enter into our lives”. The experience of gardens, he informs us here, has been often alluded to as ‘pure’, ‘rewarding’ and ‘innocent’ - thoughts echoed by Epicurus and English writer/gardener John Evelyn. Garden experience, as Cooper discusses, is then a ‘morally and philosophically instructive’ one.
There is of course, the practical, utilitarian aspect of gardens. In my case, a distinct absence of garden aesthetics and the ‘enhancements of the processes of everyday life’ (Cooper quotes Dewey here) with no decorating or arranging whatsoever, renders it a sort of ‘marginal’ (see this) or ‘grey’ garden; not the kind, Cooper points out, “over the millennia that have inspired the appreciation and engagement of human beings”. Referring here to conceptual art, John Cage’s Silent Piece, jardin trouvé, and ‘matchbox sized Zen gardens’, Cooper offers that his explorations are not concerned with these kind of conceptualisations, although, such ideas, offer by way of contrast, how a garden is indeed classically defined. Cooper quotes here, Mara Miller’s definition:
Any purposeful arrangement of natural objects…with exposure to the sky or open air, in which the form is not fully accounted for by purely practical considerations such as convenience.
Gillian Tindall, in City Of Gold – The Biography of Bombay, informs us that when the English took on the seven islands of Bombay in the mid 17th century, the intervening breaches between them, or Flats as they are known, were but swampy tracts of land upon which little else but samphire would grow, and coconut palms around the edges. The draining of these swamps led to the composite aggregation of the seven islands, and thus the formation of the modern city. The coconut palm Tindall informs us “helped form these salt swamps in the first place, and so raise Bombay out of the waters”. The shedding of their leaves formed rich organic matter over the centuries, as did one other kind of manure, she writes:
…Bombay can claim the eccentric distinction of being largely based on rotten fish and the leaves of the coconut palm.
This practice though, was eventually banned, as Tindall informs us, following a court letter from London to the Bombay government in 1708: “The buckshawing or dunging of the toddy trees with fish, occasions in a great measure the unwholesomeness of the Bombay air.”
Earlier still, in the mid 16th Century, Tindall writes of the Portuguese ‘Marrano’ botanist and honorary court physician Garcia da Orta, whose name, “whether by coincidence or in consequence, means ‘of the garden’”. In what is now a restricted area, Garcia da Orta was responsible we are informed, for the Manor House (behind the Town Hall), which subsequently housed British Governors. Tindall quotes the ‘only surviving description’ of the house, written in 1675 by a Company surgeon, John Fryer:
About the house was a delicate garden, voiced to be the pleasantest in India, intended rather for wanton dalliance, Love’s artillery, than to make resistence against an invading foe. This garden of Eden or place of terrestrial happiness would put the searchers upon as hard an inquest as the other has done in its posterity…The walks which before were covered with nature’s verdant awning, and lightly pressed by soft delights, are now open to the sun and loaded with harder cannon.
Critically, Tindall writes later of the changes in land use, and of how there is no specific, clearly defined moment, as is the case with European cities, where planted land transformed into housing land. She points out instead that this change perhaps took place in degrees and that,
Early accounts of the native town speak of ‘houses thickly clustered within a coconut wood’ which later and imperceptibly become ‘houses standing in gardens’. Indian land records are just that – they do not describe the building on the land.
Herbs and vegetables, plantains and coconuts are rarely seen in the populous areas of the city, Tindall observes, while quoting the account of a 19th century commentator Maria Graham, whose observations describes houses with ‘small gardens…containing a few herbs and vegetables, a plantain tree or a coconut or two’. Tindall’s biography was written three decades ago. The changes since then are dramatic.
Mahim Nature Park is a 37 acre redeveloped landfill, opposite Dharavi - unfailingly referred to as Asia’s largest slum. Avinash Kubal, the Deputy Director of the park, tells me that it was developed not just as a ‘green zone’, or ‘lung’; it was rather, a broader initiative to also impart ecological knowledge to the public at large in a tactile way. Conceived by WWF-India in the 70’s, the park now supports over 200 species of trees, 38 species of butterflies and 80 species of birds, and is described as a ‘mini-forest’. Speaking of the decline of indigenous tree species, the emphasis on display/decorative plants, he shows me survey statistics of trees in Mumbai Metropolitan region - about 60% of the trees are exotics, and they occupy nearly 80% of tree-covered land. Low impact, local climate and soil conditions, natural drainage, and supporting ecology of plants, insects, birds and other animals, are elemental ideas in envisioning more harmonious interventions in ‘greening’ the city, Kubal points out to me.
On a Sunday morning a few weeks ago, I went to meet Preeti Patil of Urban Leaves (see here and here) – an organisation that promotes urban agriculture practices and initiatives. She runs two urban farms, and the one at Mahim Nature Park is located on top of a concrete water tank. It’s a critical idea to what their practice represents for it practically demonstrates how terrace/roof gardens may be successful. With a focus on collective participation and community building, Patil runs informal classes every Sunday morning, imparting basic skills in composting, soil culture, planting, trimming and maintenance of plants, besides discussing ideas of sustainability, biodiversity and ‘green’ issues. General health, recipes and chitchat are part and parcel of these sessions. Deeply influenced by the natural farming methods of Masanobu Fukuoka and his broader ecological approach, Patil also practices and promotes Permaculture - Urban Leaves periodically conducts workshops. This December they will be hosting the 2nd National Seminar on Urban Agriculture in Bombay. The principle here is simple – concretization should not come in the way of finding ‘green’ solutions and growing your own produce in a low-impact, natural, chemical-free and sustainable way, is not very complicated but is instead very fulfilling. “No greater joy” in Patil’s words.
Several such urban initiatives are gathering momentum across India. There are many challenges and obstacles of course - individual, community and systemic alike. The APMC (Agricultural Produce Market Committees) act is in dire need of reform, Ravi Venkat says to me. Venkat quit his corporate job 8 years ago and is today a full time farmer with a 4 acre plot in Dahanu, around 150 KM north of the city. He is also a part of the Hari Bhari Tokri collective – a group of like-minded farmers, who grow organic produce in farms close to the city and who provide the harvest to a small group of registered city-dwellers. Various states and union territories of India have adopted the APMC act to establish and regulate agricultural produce markets but it is seen by many to be ridden with problems – promoting monopolistic practices, cartelization, price manipulation, shortchanging famers, etc. How many processes/people exist before the produce reaches urban consumers? What are the monetary and social costs involved? These questions weigh heavy here.
Julius Rego, an independent botanical expert who also conducts nature trails, very kindly consented to have a walk-about in my garden. He points out to me a Red Bead Tree, locally known as gunj, on account of the fact that the seeds were traditionally used as weight measures. In raw form they are toxic, but can be eaten cooked. He spots also Canna, a water filtering plant; Stinging Nettles, a soup of which is good for anemia apparently (amongst other folk remedies); Diascorea, named after the Greek botanist Dioscorides; Cleome, a wild herbaceous plant growing as a weed, popularly known as Spiderflower or Wild Mustard; Euphorbia, a medicinal spurge with succulent branches; a Country Almond tree that draws bats (as do the Banana trees for their flower nectar Julius tells me on my inquiry); Maidenhair ferns; an Indian Mast Tree also known as a False Ashoka or a Buddha Tree and whose wood is used for ship’s masts; and the curiously named Mahatma or Dracaena. We spot a Common Tailorbird near the almond tree as Julius points out Bucida, the few Fishtail Palms (the sap is used to make jaggery and also a palm wine), a couple of Fig trees, the large Asian Rubber Tree (the canopy of which extends into my balcony when overgrown) and the commonly found Subabul. Civic authorities have aggressively planted Subabul while environmentalists point to its invasive and harmful character.
Pointing to how the garden world is also populated with creative designers, craftsmen, critics, connoisseurs, much like the ‘art’ world and with similar institutional features such as competitions and shows, David Cooper suggests that the two main models for garden appreciation are that of ‘art’ and of ‘nature’. Both are insufficient he argues. While gardens may certainly be ‘artistic’ (and even conceptualist), the idea of the constancy of physical change through practice, seasonal changes, phenomenal changes (such as light altering perception) in a garden separates it from a painting or a sculpture or even ‘avant-garde’ work designed for change (such as Duchamp’s Large Glass). As ‘human artefacts imbued with purpose’, gardens are ‘walked through’ and there are no privileged viewpoints and no framing, Cooper further argues. And nature appreciation imposes no constraints, he writes, but instead offers that there is a ‘relative freedom from human artifice’ and a ‘freedom integral to the aesthetic appreciation of nature’. Both models fail ‘for symmetrical reasons’ Cooper says.
The art model insufficiently heeds the fact that gardens are transformations of natural places, containing natural things and subject to natural processes, while the nature model insufficiently heeds the fact that gardens are the products of human artifice.
Fusing the two is also not entirely satisfactory Cooper says and points to Eastern models of aesthetic appreciation where such distinctions do not exist, particularly in Japanese models, which, citing Allen Carlson, he argues further ‘presupposes a unity of the artificial and the natural’.
(My friend Fumiya Sawa, an independent curator/essayist, points to ritualistic tea ceremonies and traditional garden practice here. See Katsura Rikyu. He mentions also ‘Borrowed Scenery’ or Shakkei - a sophisticated practice of ‘incorporating background landscape into the composition of a garden’. Tangentially, my thoughts go to wax fruit and window food displays. Surely utilitarian, purely aesthetic functions and the numerous in-betweens, commute freely with post-modern dexterity? Friend and artist Sudarshan Shetty points me to the fact that utilitarian elements and concepts are freely integrated into conceptual formulations, blurring any and all boundaries. He says also that temporal, environmental, phenomenal factors are relevant insofar as their integration into discourse – the time of day, the lighting, sounds and smells, etc. You do not necessarily need to ‘be’ in a gallery space to appreciate, or even ‘experience’ the artwork).
Cooper argues that a factorized model of nature and art appreciation does not account for ‘atmosphere’, which he explores as being alongside ‘mood’, ‘feeling’, ‘tone’ and fuzei (see this page where it is described further) a term used in Japanese garden practice, which can be understood as elegance and ‘may refer to the enjoyable sense of melancholic pathos’, or even to, quoting Mary Keen, ‘that elusive feeling’.
CM Villiers-Stuart, in the Great Gardens of the Mughals (1913), writes early on, unsurprisingly I might add, that Indian gardens are linked very closely to social and religious life, and that general design apart, the choice of every flower, tree and plant had specific symbolic meaning and a manner of arrangement. Framing Indian garden design and practice largely in ‘art’ terms, the colonial writer says that the ‘essentially religious outlook’ that Indian art practice was predicated upon is far removed from the ‘self-conscious art of present day Europe’. It is in this literary/artistic vein that he epigrammatically invokes the medieval Persian poet Sadi,
I saw some handfuls of the rose in bloom,
With bands of grass, suspended from a dome.
I said, " What means this worthless grass that it
Should in the rose's fairy circle sit? "
Then wept the grass and said, " Be still! and know
The kind their old associates ne'er forgo.
Mine is no beauty here or fragrance true,
The role of gardens, the flowers and fruit they bear, and loss/decay, is resplendent in religious writing. Paradise gardens, celestial fruit and flowers, mythical plants with miraculous medicinal properties – its an incredibly vast area and beyond the scope of this essay (as is erotic writing – there is a great deal of relevant sringara literature). The loss of a garden, the fall from a state of grace, is a fascinating theme though. It provokes in my mind dystopian images – those of war, conflict and carnage. The binary oppositions of green, verdant and life-affirming versus charred landscapes, brutalized gardens, and ugliness of human artifice is captured in a single image by WG Sebald in The Alps In The Sea, an essay in the posthumously published collection Campo Santo:
…I saw rows of little green plastic trees hardly an inch high surrounding cuts of meat and offal displayed in the shop windows of ‘Family Butchers’. The obvious fact that these evergreen plastic ornaments must be mass-produced somewhere for the sole purpose of alleviating our sense of guilt about the bloodshed seemed to me, in its very absurdity, to show how strongly we desire absolution and how cheap we have always bought it.
If in a harmonious conception of natural versus built-up and green versus concrete in urban cities we consider a diverse range of thoughts and applications, then small backyards, terrace/balcony gardens perhaps present themselves as microtonal features – adaptive responses to complex composite growth. In striving to meet ideals, utopian constructs offer both fine detail and impossible dreams. In Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities Of Tomorrow, the fusing of the town and the countryside, radiating away from a circular central park with houses and gardens located on relative concentric positions, there are then peripheral fruit farms, large farms, convalescent homes, cow pastures, and new forests. It is no mere fusing for Howard, but is instead a marriage: “…and out of this joyous union will spring a new hope, a new life, a new civilization”. The ‘two magnets’ of town and country in Howard’s imagination must be collapsed into one for individually, they do not form the ‘full plan of purpose of nature’. Town symbolises society, culture, art, religion, whereas the country “is a symbol of God’s love and care for man. All that we are and all that we have comes from it”.
David Cooper invokes Thoreau and walking through gardens as ‘walking through history’ in discussing ideas of relationships with others in garden practice – there are ‘cumulative meanings’. Interestingly, the last chapter of his book is titled ‘Garden As Epiphany’. In his ‘modest proposal’ he points to a chain of co-dependencies between nature and man where one relationship further embodies another,
The Garden exemplifies a co-dependence between human endeavour and the natural world…The Garden, to put it portentously, is an epiphany of man’s relationship to mystery. This relationship is its meaning.
Julius Rego shows me a Bimbli fruit tree on which there is a single fruit. Meant to be sour and tart, it is commonly used by the local East Indian community. Pickles and preserves are made out of it. I’ve never eaten it before.
September 25, 2011
Crediting Poetry: Nobel Lecture by Seamus Heaney
From the Nobel winners' site:
When I first encountered the name of the city of Stockholm, I little thought that I would ever visit it, never mind end up being welcomed to it as a guest of the Swedish Academy and the Nobel Foundation. At the time I am thinking of, such an outcome was not just beyond expectation: it was simply beyond conception. In the nineteen forties, when I was the eldest child of an ever-growing family in rural Co. Derry, we crowded together in the three rooms of a traditional thatched farmstead and lived a kind of den-life which was more or less emotionally and intellectually proofed against the outside world. It was an intimate, physical, creaturely existence in which the night sounds of the horse in the stable beyond one bedroom wall mingled with the sounds of adult conversation from the kitchen beyond the other. We took in everything that was going on, of course - rain in the trees, mice on the ceiling, a steam train rumbling along the railway line one field back from the house - but we took it in as if we were in the doze of hibernation. Ahistorical, pre-sexual, in suspension between the archaic and the modern, we were as susceptible and impressionable as the drinking water that stood in a bucket in our scullery: every time a passing train made the earth shake, the surface of that water used to ripple delicately, concentrically, and in utter silence.
But it was not only the earth that shook for us: the air around and above us was alive and signalling too. When a wind stirred in the beeches, it also stirred an aerial wire attached to the topmost branch of the chestnut tree. Down it swept, in through a hole bored in the corner of the kitchen window, right on into the innards of our wireless set where a little pandemonium of burbles and squeaks would suddenly give way to the voice of a BBC newsreader speaking out of the unexpected like a deus ex machina. And that voice too we could hear in our bedroom, transmitting from beyond and behind the voices of the adults in the kitchen; just as we could often hear, behind and beyond every voice, the frantic, piercing signalling of morse code.