October 31, 2011
Petty Gripes and Halloween Horrors
by James McGirk
A large pile of garbage has accumulated outside my front door. One of my neighbors is fighting with our landlord. She leaves bags of refuse just outside of the receptacle, untied and upside down so as to better disgorge their payload of soiled panty-liners onto the pavement in front of our house. The cans are in a wire enclosure a few yards away, very easy to access; convenience and squeamishness are not the issue here.
This mischief is intentional. I know it is. Each arrangement is more shocking than the last, the woman has a serial killer’s flair for the grotesque. There is motive too. She was once employed by our landlord as the garbage-minder but was suddenly replaced. I can only assume she is baiting the city into fining him for violating New York's sanitary code. So far it hasn’t worked. She remains a tenant in good standing and the area is horrific. Armies of cockroaches scurry over discarded pizza boxes and piss-soaked kitty litter. And anybody on the block who feels their garbage is too nasty to keep in their own bin will happily dump it on ours. They don’t even bother doing it under cover of darkness any more.
I tell you all this because the other day I opened my door and found a jack-o-lantern sitting on my doorstep: A shitty one. A disgusting withered one collapsing in on itself with rot. At the time I was wearing heavy boots and my first impulse was destroy the thing. I swung my foot back, and was about to punt the thing into the road when I stopped myself. It was almost Halloween, and this unhygienic squash seemed as a fitting a tribute to the horrors I had experienced in New York City as any I could possibly hope for. And believe me there are horrors-a-plenty in this supposedly spic-and-span city.
I remembered years ago hoisting a box of books and watching a lentil drop out. I nudged it with my toe and watched it sprout legs and wobble toward a crack in the floor. This ruddy dot was no lentil, it was a bedbug, a descendent of the hordes who snuck into our next door neighbor’s house concealed inside of a charming old world couch they had fished from the trash.
The minute squatters feasted on her for a few days, but she left in horror soon after, leaving them hungry for more blood. They wriggled through the hundred-year old grout into the building’s plumbing system. In the moist darkness they nuzzled by the warmth of the boiler pipes and multiplied and colonized their new quarters and crept up flues and radiator tubes to emerge in our bedroom, anesthetize our skin and drink our blood. My fair-skinned, redheaded companion awoke one morning to find golf-ball sized welts crawling up her veins in unmistakable bedbug “triads” – also known as breakfast, lunch and dinner.
I forget whether I smashed the fucker, I hope I did, but frankly I doubt it. I was in shock. For over a year since the infestation began we had taken every precaution, disposed of every scrap of furniture a bedbug nymph might have conceivably crawled into and concealed itself inside of, and anything I had wanted to save was decontaminated in a freezer for 24 hours at a time. Everything else was destroyed. I had lined the walls with anti-bedbug poisons and slept in an army cot with its feet resting in tubs of isopropyl alcohol yet still one of them had managed to eek out a living in our apartment, no doubt drinking its blood meal from our twenty-two year old cat who was in the room recovering from a bowel resection.
To live on the margins in New York City is to live life filled with torment. Most of these are minor aches that on their own are bearable but en masse begin to cauterize your very soul. I spend two hours a day on the subway commuting, essentially steeped in the smells and personal spaces of strangers. There are mariachi bands elbowing their way through crowded cars. Aggressive panhandlers and preachers, bands of fools pummeling buckets and bins for pocket change, and subway acrobats who twirl around the bars, their boots passing inches from your face plus all the usual sensory insults: the hungry commuter eating her fried fish after a hard day’s work, those horrible moments around 4pm when the doors slide open and an entire middle school classroom pours into the car and you are forced to atone for every preadolescent hijink by witnessing them performed one after another in front of you in a confined space.
The subways themselves are deteriorating. Inclement weather will paralyze the system, leaving you stranded deep underground in the dark with no air-conditioning, pressed against a dozen malodorous strangers (not that I can talk, no matter how much anti-perspirant I smear under my pits, after an hour chasing the train in a collared shirt and tie I too am drenched and pungent). Most obnoxious of all are the people who clip their nails on the train. And yet you get used to all of this. Select fuses are blown and with the help of sunglasses, music and reading material you can often drown out about a third of it.
(And of course you can’t leave the city even if you wanted to. To afford to live in New York at some point you’ll have to get rid of your car and when you do you’re committed because there is nowhere else in the country you can live without a car. Or so we tell ourselves in order to remain here...)
Inclement weather turns petty gripes into horrors. When I returned to New York after a two-year stay in New Haven (I discovered the bedbug while moving out of my old apartment) I chose an old boiler factory on the outskirts of Bushwick as a home (literally on the border with Ridgewood, Queens). As fall turned to winter I began to regret this choice. Our utility lines came to an address in the Borough of Brooklyn, while our mail was addressed to a house number in Ridgewood, Queens. As the flakes began to fall, we tried in vain to ignite our heater. It eventually took a month-long odyssey through the bowels of New York’s intermingled utility conglomerates to figure out who was supposed to deliver gas and why it wasn’t being delivered. Then one bitterly cold morning the thing failed and I spent hours turning it on and off.
For months I had been bothered by what I thought was an inconsiderate neighbor’s alarm going off while he was on holiday. There didn’t seem to be a pattern to the rings, though I never thought about that I just assumed it was an alarm clock. What else would have such a piercing siren? I pictured a young professional hitting his snooze button over and over again in the coldest, earliest hours of the morning. Then one morning he returned and called the fire department. The shrieking alarm was really a carbon monoxide detector. Our flue was set too close to the wall and soot had accumulated, choking the flame and causing it to emit concentrations of carbon monoxide gas that would kill us in a few hours, according to the strangely gleeful gas man, who was happy to tear open our wall and turn off the gas but not so happy to turn back on once repairs had been made. Once more it took almost a month of enduring the sort of indoor cold that puckers your knuckles before the heat came on again.
This year the snow came early. But as I looked at the weather forecast and saw the warnings for a “wintery mix” on the way I assumed this year we would be as snug and cozy as one might expect for paying nearly $2000 a month in rent and utilities. The night before the great big storm I returned home early and found a half dozen fire-trucks parked around the house and smoke pouring from a neighbor’s window. They must have had the same problem we had firing up the gas heater and resorted to an old fashioned radiator. This radiator had ignited a pile of kitchen waste and it set off the sprinkler system. The damage to their unit was pretty minor, mostly smoke damage, and everyone else got off all right except for the rock band next door who lived in the basement and had sealed up their drain pipe. (And they seem to be doing fine – I had hoped the sprinkler would damage their drum set but they were practicing the very next day, so the damage wasn’t fatal). The only real damage was to our unit. Over zealous firemen had mistaken our door for the front door, and pried it off its hinges and stormed in.
A kindly neighbor noticed the torn-open door leaning from its hinges, and found our cats cowering beneath the bed. He padlocked what was left of our door and escorted out the firemen, who according to the policeman who showed up later that night to remind us that the unit was legally uninhabitable without functioning door, “really get off on kicking down doors.” One of the perks of the job, I suppose. As the flakes began to fall and cover our garbage mound I got up from my spot beside the heater, beneath the brand new carbon monoxide monitor and realized that I couldn’t see the pumpkin. And then I did see the pumpkin. What was left of it: one of the firemen had stomped it flat.
The paradox of (some) conceptual art
by Dave Maier
All art is "conceptual" in the sense that it has a cognitive aspect: if it engages our senses but not our minds, it is mere eye or ear candy (not that there's anything wrong with same, but it's not "art" in the relevant sense). A work of art is usually called "conceptual art" if its sensory aspect is much less important than in conventional art, or even entirely irrelevant to it. In Sol LeWitt's definition (1967), for example, Wikipedia tells us, "In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art."
That last part of LeWitt's definition seems specific to his own aims, as if we take the first part to be the essential part, there are plenty of other sorts of conceptual art besides his. More typical (as Wikipedia rightly goes on to note) is the idea that conceptual art is a particularly potent way for art to "examine its own nature." This idea has arguably been an aim of art since the beginning, at least implicitly, but in conceptual art it comes to the foreground and indeed pushes everything else off the stage entirely.
As much subject to Sturgeon's Law ("90% of everything is crap") as anything else, most conceptual art is good for a chuckle at best, or maybe a "huh." So it's not surprising that the lesson about the nature of art that most people draw from conceptual art is that conceptual art = lousy art. Even – especially – when we are trying to fair to it, it can seem that to appreciate conceptual art properly, we must ignore as irrelevant any (not surprisingly unexciting) sensory properties it may have, in order better to grasp its message about how to see or hear in artistically significant ways. For example, Tracy Emin's My Bed looks exactly like what it is (i.e., her bed), but to complain that it is not much to look at (which is true enough) would be to miss its point. However, if conceptual art is to comment on conventional art rather than replace it, it will at least sometimes need to leave in place the default idea that even when our concern is art's cognitive features, we approach it through experiencing its sensory qualities.
The paradox of conceptual art, then, is that in forcing us to think about the nature of art rather than simply enjoying it, it can shift our attention away from the very things we need to see or hear if we are to draw its conceptual lesson properly.
I'll try to explain how this paradox works with respect to a particular example, for which this shift is virtually impossible to avoid. First, however, I need to acknowledge that it cannot apply to all kinds of conceptual art (which itself strengthens the paradox where it does apply). In some cases, for example, a work forces us away from its sensory aspect not, as in My Bed, by ignoring it, but instead by not having one in the first place, or at least not of the expected modality (as any artwork has to engage my senses at some point if I am to learn about it at all). The most famous example of this sort is John Cage's silent piece of music, 4'33", which really deserves a post of its own (you have been warned). Here the point is that since the work has no musical content at all, we are forced to look (or listen) elsewhere.
Similarly, LeWitt's very definition of conceptual art, above, suggests that even when art is not (seemingly) musical, the conceptual core of conceptual art lies not in its actual manifestation, but instead in the instructions it provides for others. These instructions can be very specific (if not specific enough to result in a single perceptual image); but sometimes they are so open-ended that no conceivable set of sensory experiences, however varied, could possibly be identified with the work itself. Many 60s-era "compositions" are like this: Karlheinz Stockhausen, if memory serves, has one where the performer is ordered to go meditate silently for 3 days without food, after which he/she is to go directly to his/her instrument (of unspecified type) and do whatever seems appropriate. Pauline Oliveros and Lamonte Young have many similar works. And we cannot overlook works which, while the sound of a perfomance would be all-too-easily imaginable, one fervently hopes and believes were never performed (I speak here of Philip Corner's One antipersonnel-type CBU bomb will be thrown into the audience).
The 60s are over, but in the visual arts at least conceptual art has gone mainstream, and much of this is old hat nowadays. It's clear in this context that nothing would be easier than to regard the following work as yet another such self-indulgent (and by now utterly derivative) trifle, whenever it was "composed" (my source [David Cope, New Directions in Music, p. 104] does not indicate the date, nor (shock, horror) does Google). Here, in the "composer's" own words, is his explanation:
When I was asked to compose a piece for orchestra, I had no idea what they wanted, except an experience of some kind. I wrote and asked for a complete list of the other works included in concerts of the series, and when I discovered that the concert preceding the night of my premiere included Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, I made up my mind. I insisted that my work be unrehearsed (there wouldn't have been much anyway, as these things go) and that I would bring score and parts the night of the concert. Imagine the shock when the conductor and players opened their music to find the work that they had performed the night before ... but they performed it, much to the anger and horror of the audience and reviewers. They were angry, of course, not at the sounds but at my plagiarism (legal, according to copyright laws) but few realized they listened to the sounds in an entirely new way—something very good, very creative, in my way of thinking. No, I did not receive money for my endeavor! (The work, by the way, was titled Symphonie Fantastique No. 2.)
This work seems to have all the elements of the 90% of conceptual art which falls under Sturgeon's Law: lazy, smartass composer, self-righteous about money, dictatorial, elitist, self-congratulatory, and boring as hell. Been there, seen that, spurned the t-shirt as ridiculously overpriced and ugly to boot. And this was indeed my first reaction, as well as several subsequent ones. But then (as intended?) I started to think about it.
Like 4'33", Symphonie Fantastique No. 2 is intended (let's be charitable and take the composer at his word) to get the audience to "listen to the sounds in an entirely new way". But what way is that? My suggestion here is that we put aside for a moment our understandable assumption that to describe this work just is to grasp its point (which leads us, inevitably, to dismiss it as trite). We do this because we assume, as seemingly intended, that the sensory aspect of the work is irrelevant, as, after all, those sounds would be identical to (a performance of) an entirely different work, one which may be quite familiar to us – the by now all-too-common lesson of conceptual art.
But this cannot be right, as we can see if we actually spend some time imagining, and thinking about, what it might really be like to attend a performance of this work (at least, at its premiere), and actually sit there listening to it. So there you are, ready for this new work. It's called Symphonie Fantastique No. 2, which you either do or do not recognize as a reference to the Berlioz work. Let's say you do, and like most orchestra-goers, are very familiar with the old warhorse. So you are surprised and, yes, as the composer relates, angry when you hear the familiar opening measures of the original work, made all the more familiar by your having attended the previous night. This isn't what I paid for!
But as the music continues, doubt creeps in. It certainly sounds like Symphonie Fantastique; but how well do you know that work? For all the title tells you, this version could be different in any way at all, from an extra note in the woodwind theme to a doubling of the second violin line to an extra repeat before the development section. You search your memory, and focus your attention on any possible novelty. Maybe the composer is doing to Berlioz what Mahler did when he conducted Beethoven, modifying it as he sees fit. Or maybe he's trying to recompose the work in his own idiom (as you check to see if the composer hasn't listed his name as "Pierre Menard").
As the first movement ends and you wait for the second to begin, you realize that a change may happen at any time. For all you know you are about to hear the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony – and then, with a start, you see that your position is in some ways like that of those present at the premiere of Symphonie Fantastique itself. You simply do not know what you are going to hear next. As it happens, the second movement begins in the familiar way. You exhale, but the original problem persists. You like the symphony, but for you the middle movements simply do not stick in the memory as do the first and last. You redouble your efforts at concentration.
You are still perturbed that the composer is pulling a stunt; but that melody in the second movement is really very nice, and what difference should it make whose name is on the program if what you are hearing is the same? For a moment you are angry at yourself, and perhaps it is this that is the composer's point. But no, surely his point is just the opposite, as you originally thought. Your attention returns to the music as the strings swell in harmony. Did they play it that way last night too?
This question turns out to be harder to answer than you thought. Last night you were hearing a famiiar work and concentrating on the performance; but here you are not even sure what you are listening to, even when (as you surmise) it is the same thing. What would count as a "good" performance of this work? Would an ideal performance sound the same as one of the original? Or might one be able to tell them apart? After all, accompanying one's perception of every note of the new work is the lingering possibility that the next ones will be not Berlioz's at all, as well as the relief and satisfaction of hearing the actual notes as expected instead of what could very well be cacophony.
And what do the orchestra, and the conductor, think about all this? Will the rude surprise, and the feeling that whatever they do tonight, they cannot be accused of slaughtering Berlioz any more than the "composer" himself has, mean that they will simply mail it in? Or will the conductor take extra care that tonight, at least, will not suffer from last night's shaky performance from the percussion section? ("NOW!", his gestures say, "not a half-beat later!") Or will they perceive a newfound freedom in the release from conventional expectation? Maybe tonight they will be able to make the old chestnut sound fresh and new – not simply by playing it (i.e. the same way) in these new circumstances, but by playing it with new emphases: here, isn't this crescendo exciting, this melody entrancing, when you hear it with fresh ears?
For a moment you wonder what this is like for those who do not know the work as well as you, or at all. Maybe it will seem to them like a work in the retro-symphonic mode, as George Rochberg and others have attempted. Its "extra" movement may strike them as an interesting innovation – which of course it was at the time! For they will have no worries as you have had, and may even praise the work as a welcome relief from the Beethoven 'n' Brahms which is all they know. Or perhaps they will hear it as boring, not in its identity to a familiar work, but instead in its difference, as Mozart is the only classical composer they ever liked, and this new thing is too weird for them. Is their naiveté to be pitied or envied?
As the work moves toward its apocalyptic conclusion, the repeated Dies Irae theme takes on a new significance. Was it a coincidence after all that yesterday's symphony was the inspiration for this one? Or is there more to it than that? The conceptual-art aspect of the work strikes you all at once with the force of the trombone's death knell. The orchestral tradition is a walking zombie, it says, however full of borrowed life we have made it seem tonight. Nothing can ever sound the same after this. How can we sit there night after night knowing exactly what we are going to hear? It seems so very pointless. We may as well ascend the scaffold.
However, that feeling soon passes, replaced by excitement at the approaching climax (and yet again with the recurring worry, only slightly diluted by the preceding movements, that the rug may yet be pulled away). The urge to demand a refund, so strong a mere forty minutes ago, now seems faintly ridiculous, even as the feeling of being played for a sucker remains hovering in the background. I wouldn't want to do this again! But again you start, with the realization that even if Symphonie Fantastique No. 2 appears once again on the subscription list, you at least will no longer be able to hear it again even if you wanted to. It will lose its distinction, and be only hearable as the same old Berlioz work it always was. In fact if you wanted to hear this orchestra play Berlioz again next year (perhaps to hear if they will ever iron out the kinks in those percussion entrances), you might as well come see them do Symphonie Fantastique No. 2.
And you are less sure than you were before that you know what conceptual art is.
Ways to Be American Abroad: A Working Guide
Every Sunday morning, over the simulacra of breakfast burritos, we have brunch. Sometimes, talk turns to language skills, our relative proficiencies in Russian. This one guy knows Arabic, used to live in Cairo.
“How did you learn Arabic?” someone asks him. “How” was the question, not “why,” nonetheless:
“I think for the same reason everyone in our generation wanted to,” this guy of my generation says, trying to catch my eye.
I’m not having any of this answer, I already know. “After 9/11, I think…everyone just wondered how the hell this happened.”
No, no. I don't speak Arabic, we're not even in an Arabic speaking country right now, but I'm still, like, NO.
Be too nice. Probably suspiciously so. Smile during all interactions. Say thank you at the end of every social interaction and in particular every service related transaction. Thanks for bringing me water. Thanks for giving me change at the grocery store. Thanks for handing me my bag of groceries. Thanks for moving out of my way on this crowded public transport. Thanks for allowing me to order at this restaurant without it being terribly complicated. Thanks! You do mean this, by the way, you can’t help yourself. Find that your niceness sometimes impedes your ability to get things done here.
Alternatively, be too rude. Sometimes by accident, because you actually cannot speak. Sometimes on purpose: get unreasonably annoyed and huffy when you get water with gas instead of still water, with no lemon, and when people cannot understand you, which is often. Complain often about the food you are eating, expecting other Americans to agree. Laugh too loudly, even when sober. You can’t help yourself. Find that your rudeness sometimes impedes your ability to get things done here.
Wear clothes whose appropriateness you have not fully considered. Wear military fatigues. Wear a suit. Wear shorts. Wear spaghetti straps. Wear long sleeves you think are modest but forget to consider the tightness of your clothes. Wear flip-flops – people will stare. Wear urban sportswear that makes local teens envious, or giggly. Wear workout clothes that make grandmothers glare. Wear freshly ironed shirts under cashmere sweaters with dark slacks. If under 30, cultivate a well-traveled stubble that highlights the fact that, actually, you have been traveling all over, not just in the capital.
“We toured your base last weekend,” she told me in a warm antipodean drawl. She was really friendly, and alone at the party, like me. Her husband works at a mining company. “That sounds interesting,” I said, about the base tour, not so sure I meant that. “It was very interesting,” she said. “It is very large, very busy. You can buy crisps that aren’t Pringles there.” Elsewhere at this party, someone has made homemade raspberry vodka.
Only go to parties where there are only other expats. Or, only go to parties where there are only locals. Be proud of the fact you’re not like other Americans, but be ready to have the same kind of conversation in both settings: where are you from, why are you here? This doesn’t bother you. Being new in a foreign city is like being a freshman in university, in its clubbiness and ease of meeting people, but for this question, the extra bit about why are you here. It couldn’t be, like college, just to learn. Could it?
Speaking of learning, don’t learn the language. Enjoy the fact that most people can speak at least a little English and that they are often eager to practice it on you. Or: learn the language with eager dedication. Hire a tutor to meet you twice a day and spend your evenings poring over your homework, or feeling bad about not doing so. Alternatively, buy a phrasebook or app, learn how to say please and thank you and excuse me and I want, and feel smug in front of the first sort of people and lazy in front of the latter.
Avoid cigarettes, and go for early morning jogs through the park, where you are the only jogger besides the odd Dutchman. Alternatively, smoke lots of cigarettes and eat plenty of Pringles (you aren’t imagining it: they are everywhere: those tubes ship well). For bonus points, show how au fait you are, how not like other Americans, smoke a local brand, secretly or openly wowed that it exists outside the movies.
In the nightclub, get unreasonably excited when they play Bon Jovi. Or, get really excited when they play “California Love.” Try and fail to rap along. Or, just stay at the table frowning when they play Bon Jovi, Tupac, or anything familiar. Roll your eyes at the rest of your cohort while they wave their arms in the air. Smoke your cigarettes quietly at your booth – isn’t it funny they still let you smoke inside here? It reminds you of being younger.
We were in a “German pub,” where there is a fountain with a statue of a knight outside. It reminds me of Miyazaki films that take place in menacingly beautiful imaginary Europesque places. There is that smoked shredded cheese snack and a variety of decent beer. The wait staff is in jaunty Germanic costumes. “Oh, do you know him? He’s so full of it,” she grumbles, taking a long drag on the red Irish beer. “He comes here for one month a year and thinks he can write about it.”
Avoid political conversation, because you just don’t get it and you never well, and you still get people’s names confused and are embarrassed about this, and anyway, you were never that interested in politics.
Or, actively intitiate political conversation. Show how engaged you are, how not like other Americans, by offering nuanced critiques of the administration’s policies. Try to remember what you read in that course during your BA four years ago, or in The Atlantic and The New Yorker three months ago, or on Twitter today, about the history or the political situation here. Complain about Bush (or hold your tongue testily while other Americans do). Lament Obama (or hold your tongue testily while other Americans do).
Alternatively, just listen, because
No, I just wanted to wake up in the morning and look out the window to a new place, and see what I could see. Isn't that why you're here, too?
Permit Me To Protest
Brian texted back: “Also.” But we were on opposite sides of the street and the police barricades were making it impossible to crossover.
The police, in their blue uniforms, wielding batons and shields, wearing bullet proof vests and helmets and even mounted on horseback strutted up and down several block of Broadway at Times Square as though they were on a catwalk of power showing off to the crowds their latest toys for holding back the crowds. Why on earth would they be on horseback in this day and age if not to show that they were capable of trampling people the good old fashioned way? “Beachwear!” Someone in the crowd shouted invoking the Wendy’s ads from decades ago which poked fun at the totalitarian State of the Soviet Union and its lack of imagination. I looked up at the hundreds of dazzling almost blinding electronic billboards over Time Square and realized the joke went even further. The Billboards overhead were selling only one product—discontent---eat this—drink this, wear this—listen to this, watch this—consume, consume, spend—spend--spend and you will be happy!
The protesting crowd good naturedly teased the posturing of the police “Join us! Join us!”Some of the cops smiled back awkwardly others pretended to be unfazed and tough, while others in white shirts looked as mean and tough as they were. In age and anxiety they mirrored the protestors. Whether a protester or a policeman—it seemed clear here that everyone needed to earn a paycheck. The men and women constituting the police force and the protesters shared the same issues of eroding salaries, pensions, social security and rising costs of mortgages, taxes and health insurance. The cops in their blue shirts or white shirts—outfitted with guns, batons, taser guns, pepper spray, plastic and metal handcuffs, walkie-talkies and the protestors accessorized with cardboard placards, American flags, cameras and ideals seemed equally like puppets in an elaborate street theater: as if all were bit parts in an overwhelming landscape of billboards flashing, blinking and winking while the ticker tape circling above announced “Occupy Wall Street Protests Goes Worldwide.” Thousands of cameras were flashing along with thousands of cell phone and video cameras and cameras of all sorts. Security surveillance cameras were everywhere in probably the most densely monitored, square in the world. A giant billboard in fact was flashing back our filmed images on a screen across from us along with a clothing advertisement. In itself, it was a slogan for the privatization of the State’s writ on infringement of privacy.
People, protests, property, parks, public, private, police, prisons, press, politics and permits. To those who are tone deaf these sound like disparate slogans. But the Occupy Wall Street protest movement across the country and across the globe has shown that these are all issues that can be funneled into one or two over arching concerns.
An overarching issue is the public versus private ownership in everything from police to politicians to parks to property all over the planet in its cities and its villages. Whether it is a military or it is police the purpose seems to be to serve this end of privatization.
The reaction by the law enforcement agencies to the protests have proven that people protesting the occupation or privatization of public property are viewed as criminals by the privately owned 21st century state. In Times Square it felt like the eleventh hour in terms of urgency with people protesting this alarming trend. In the eleventh hour of the 21st century in Times Square: I watched the police pushing the barricades even further in on the sidewalk cramming the demonstrators even further on an already narrow space and creating a potential crisis if the crowd got jammed in and someone fell or a stampede broke out because of all the police on horseback. The police steadily pushed back the barricades and diminished the space where protesters could stand and it seemed that the cops by doing this were forcing the crowds to overflow onto the street and creating the pretense for arresting people for not remaining within the designated area for the protests. As I watched this situation at Time Square I thought of all the fences and blockades and barricades in other parts of the world where people are squeezed off of their lands—their homelands—their homes razed to the ground and bulldozed turned into private properties---while the people are forced into dangerous environments—flood basins or coastlands or unwelcoming hostile cities in their own or foreign countries—in the path of disaster—or into cities where they have no chance of incomes—living in ghettos—begging, living on the streets homeless—only to be further abused and harassed by police and militaries.
This is a global trend of a not so slow and steady move of diminishing public space, this creeping movement to eradicate the public. Now it’s all about this isn’t it: the privatization of public goods and the use of police to protect private property? The protesting of this without a permit is considered a crime.
“The greatest thing in the world is happening in the greatest city in the world!” I said to a rookie cop who looked as though he was seventeen and had just been pressed into service at the last moment. He seemed unsure and nervous as he faced the crowds—plastic handcuffs in bunches dangling from the hooks on his belt, on the ready. He smiled tentatively, nodded “Yes!” He said as if awestruck. “Yes!”
“How many people do you think are here today?”
He replied: “Thousands and thousands—a lot!”
I kept an eye on the police line on the other side of the street where the cops were steadily pushing the barricades further into the crowd steadily increasing their space while narrowing the space allowed to the protestors. I thought back to a overcast Spring day eleven years ago when I first learned that in the US a permit was required to protest. It came as a shock and as a ridiculous idea—why would anyone protesting, have to first get a permit—what if they were protesting the State? I realized that freedom of speech and freedom of movement required a permit if you planned to protest. It was a weekend in Washington DC—and on my way from my office I had stopped to watch protesters on Pennsylvania Avenue. Demonstrators were protesting against many issues including the IMF and the World Bank. This particular protest, on April 15, 2000, was against the Prison Industrial Complex. The police was so heavy that the protesters were forced off of Pennsylvania Avenue and away from the IMF and World Bank building on to 20th street between I Street and K street. I walked on the sidewalk alongside the protest march onto 20th street. Kids with multiple tattoos, and multiple colored hair dyes were dancing to the beat of multiple drums—it was delicious—a gorgeous sight. I was thrilled. Suddenly I noticed that a police line in riot gear--helmets, batons, guns in holsters with a wall of shields in front of their bodies were blocking off the entrance to the street from Pennsylvania Avenue—a similar line was forming at the entrance to K Street. I kept asking “What’s happening? What’s wrong?” I was told by the protesters that they didn’t have a permit to protest on this street. The protesters were about to be arrested on this technicality that they were in a space—for which they did not have a permit to protest. They had a permit for Pennsylvania Avenue but not for the side streets. The police had managed to force them on to the side street and then corral them in.
I and over 700 other people had been imprisoned in on 20st street. I made my way through the protesting, cheering, dancing crowd towards the K street line of police and as I approached the line a policeman barked at me: “Stand back! Don’t take another step forward! Get back!” He raised a baton towards my head as though he was going to strike me. It was a frightening moment for me. I backed away instantly —astonished and scared. A couple of hours passed by as I sat in the middle of the street talking to a group of kids about my work on community development and safety nets. We talked about how important it was to have such street protests which were vital to those people even on the inside who wanted to reform an entrenched system. Then I noticed that the young protesters were beginning to pass around marker pens and were busily writing phone numbers and names on their forearms. I asked them in a panic what they were doing and they told me that they were writing the phone numbers of lawyers. They would be allowed one phone call each once they were arrested.
“Arrested! Arrested?” I protested—“This will be a disaster for me!” I’m not a citizen! I work for the World Bank” I pointed towards the buildings nearby.” And much as Mr. Wolfensohn will love my mingling with you guys, I could get into big trouble!” The young protesters I had been talking to looked at me worriedly. One purple haired guy said, “C’mon lets go explain your situation to the police, do you have any identification on you?” Luckily I had. I walked back to the police line accompanied by the young man and again as we got near enough a baton was raised. “Wait” I shouted “Wait!” I thrust the blue identification document forward. Immediately the baton was lowered, the shields parted and the same arm that had raised a baton aimed at my head now was put protectively around my shoulders and I was yanked forward away from the young protester who had accompanied me and onto the other side of the barricade. Now a fastidious—solicitous tone more appropriate to a nanny was applied to me: “Ma’am are you alright? What were you doing getting caught up in there like that? You could have been hurt in there…you should have identified yourself sooner!”
The protesters who were protesting the Prison Industrial Complex had been imprisoned on their street in their capital and were about to be arrested there for protesting. I stood in astonishment watching more than 700 kids being arrested and put on waiting buses. I stood on the sidewalk with members of the British press—we laughed about how the DC police chief had effectively created 700 committed protesters and how tonight new loves would start and heroes would be made. Many of us watching seemed to be looking on nostalgically but I stood there repeating the same question: “You need a permit to protest?” A decade later those very kids and bystanders won a class action suit against the DC police in the amount of US$13.7 million or about US$ 18,000 each for the entrapment that day of pushing them off of Pennsylvania where they had a permit to 20st street where they did not. The class action suit was for the defense of the first amendment right to free speech. They won and got US$13.7 million or US$18,000 each.
Did the settlement in favor of those who were arrested, for protesting show that they system worked and it was okay? For the system, yes it was okay. The system worked—the system hired lawyers, who earned fees for winning cash compensation for those who were arrested. The system transacted in the manner it was set up for. However, would it not have been more important to not have argued or settled for a monetary compensation—but rather for freedom of speech and the abolishment of permits for protest?
Eleven years later, on a fall day in another season of protests with at least three wars underway overseas, and an economy in crisis, a private security guard forced a friend and me off of the steps of an adjacent building to the Zuccotti Park. I was reading a poem and Eva, a young film maker was filming me—Zuccotti Park was in the background. It was the day when the City, pleading hygiene concerns, had said the park needed to be cleaned by its private owners implying that the occupiers would have to leave it or be forced out. Earlier the two of us had been sitting on the steps discussing what to do—whether to interview random occupiers to create portraits of their concerns or tape my reading of a poem that fit the occasion.
Eva asked the guard “What have we done? Do all these people standing around here work in this building—where’s the law that says we can’t stand here—look over there there’s a guy with a camera and there and there and there—why aren’t you telling them to leave—and that’s guy?”
“Are you giving me attitude? Are you going to argue with me? Get out of here!” shouted the security guy.
“Come on Eva let’s move—don’t argue.” I said. Here we were with dozens of police cars and hundreds of policemen standing nearby focused on peaceful protesters as a private security man pushed us off of the steps at the exterior of a building next to Zuccotti Park. Could he do that? And while Eva was asking him to provide evidence that he had the right to stop us and push us off and make us leave—I was pulling at her while trying to placate this man.
“Can I read you my poem?” I asked him trying to soften his tone. Again I found myself flirting with power instead of protesting it. What was I going to do? Focus on a reading of poetry to this thug while he read us the Riot act?
“No!” He growled, “Leave right now! Get off this--- get off this is private property, move right now!”
Eva stood her ground and repeated her demand of wanting to see the rules and signage that prevented her from being where she was and doing what she was doing. I grabbed her arm—and dragged her down the steps with me. As we crossed the street passed the line of police cars, passed cops, passed the police tower to the park--my knees shaking, I said to Eva trying to reclaim a level of self control and dignity, “Always flirt first with authority, try that first, it can be disarming.”
She glanced at me askance.
I went up to two cops in NYPD uniforms—I told them what had happened and asked them if we had done something illegal by standing on the steps—reading poetry, and videoing the process. No said the cops, then one of them waved at the protesters around us—and said—“It’s because of this—that’s why the guy didn’t let you stand there and do that—best for you not to do that there.”
Eva and I proceeded with our portraits—it was the afternoon of Thursday October 13, 2011. The protestors were facing eviction on the pretext and excuse that the park needed to be cleaned by Brookfield properties its private owner. The accuracy of this claim that the park was privately owned was brought to light as a result of this situation. It was unclear whether Zuccotti Park and other parks were private or public and how they had been transferred from being public spaces to private ownership. The occupation was entering its fifth week. The chances that they would face police brutality the next morning if indeed the eviction went forward as planned seemed to loom large and even if they managed to win the day and stay on which they did, they would face it another day. Then there was the fact of snow which surely would arrive soon enough as a natural evictor. What did the protesters expect to achieve? What were their demands? This was not the point in this moment. The point was what was already fully demonstrated by the protests and what had been revealed through this protest. What would be achieved was what was revealed. The protests would show the type of violent push back (“the oddity of a Marine who faced enemy fire only to be attacked at home” by law enforcement agencies) that becomes immediately visible from the law enforcement agencies, the laws and regulations and the entire apparatus of the State when the people protest and question its credibility. The protests would show how the entire system moves to discredit and denigrate a demand for accountability and how it insists on erasing dissent.
The protests have made evident the very severe and dangerous contradictions between what is etched in stone: for the people, by the people of the people versus the unaccountable privatization of everything from police to politicians to parks to property.
Also by Maniza Naqvi
The Leftist And The Leader (A Play)
Sughra Raza. Fort Point puddle. 2010
by Stefany Anne Golberg
We haven’t always known we’re waiting. For millions of years, we waited to evolve, we waited for ourselves, but we didn’t know we were waiting then. For millions of years after that, as animals, creatures of the land, we waited in the way that animals do. We waited for seasons so that we could eat, we waited for birth so that we had purpose. But still, we didn’t know that we were waiting. So we weren’t actually waiting. We were just being. And then, at some point, long ago but not so long ago that we cannot remember, we started to have consciousness, awareness. We learned that we could control the things we waited for, could plant what we most desired to eat, and so forth. And with this understanding, we stopped just being and started waiting.
The last time we really considered waiting may have been the 1950s and 1960s, when Existentialism was popular. Existentialism put thinking about waiting back on the menu, because it was primarily a philosophy that sought to understand Time and what we were supposed to do about it, this airy abstract concept that affected every little thing we did but yet had no control over.
In 1953, the world saw the first production of what is the greatest Existential work about waiting that I know—certainly the most famous—the play Waiting for Godot.The plot of Godot, if one can call it that, a plot, is this: two men distract themselves while waiting (for Godot) with a variety of amusements including but not excluding: telling stories, eating, singing, sleeping, exchanging hats, talking about the past, hugging, thinking about leaving, and contemplating suicide. The men are named Vladimir and Estragon and the play is in two acts. In 1956, Irish literary critic Vivian Mercier wrote that, with Waiting for Godot, Beckett had “achieved a theoretical impossibility—a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats. What's more, since the second act is a subtly different reprise of the first, he has written a play in which nothing happens, twice." Because Godot never arrives, no one has ever been sure what to believe about Godot, about what or who a Godot is. Some people think that Godot really does show up, though the details of this are mysterious. A lot of people interpret Godot as Death, that Vladimir and Estragon spend the play waiting for death, and thus that the act of waiting is like dying. But waiting is more insidious than that. Waiting is not dying; it is absence. In the act of waiting, we spend a whole bunch of energy trying to fill up all the absence, but as we do so, everything just keeps feeling emptier. Still, it doesn’t stop us from trying.
Because Waiting for Godot is not about Godot but about waiting, thinking about Godot leads us into the very same trap that Vladimir and Estragon fell into, i.e. that if you just think hard enough about waiting you can start to live again. Beckett was fully aware of the emptying out of life that happens when you are thinking about waiting. And when he himself started thinking about waiting, he had an insight into a terrible truth: Never again, Beckett knew, can we wait and just be. Now, when we wait, we are inevitably thinking about waiting—the two are inextricable. Waiting had become consciousness of Time, horrible oppressive Time. Time is God. What we are doing when we are waiting/thinking about waiting, Beckett told us, is trying to get closer to God. Meaning just this: When we wait, we are trying to control the uncontrollable, to understand the incomprehensible.
On a platform, a woman stares down the tracks, looking for the face of a train. She is wearing red, maybe to attract the train, to pull it closer to her, faster to her, like the woman of Babylon in Revelations hastening the end of the world. There is a man too, several men, they are looking at their wrists, shifting around, trying to act casual, trying to hold it together. The platform is full of men and women, waiting, waiting to get home—or to go… somewhere? Each of them is listening to a private concert—presumably, understandably, different private concerts, though one wonders what would happen if all the musics could suddenly be heard at once. It would be a fitting soundtrack for the chaos of waiting.
How is waiting for an arrival different than waiting for a departure? Is that there much of a difference, really, between coming and going?
Just this year, an American man named Harold Camping figured out that the end of the world was happening, that Judgment Day was nigh, and that it would happen on May 21, 2011. He figured out this date with numerology. As they waited, Camping and his followers occupied themselves by advertising for Judgment Day. All around the country, billboards were put up and announcements made on the radio. Campings’ believers passed out flyers on the street and invested their life savings into the campaign. Why not? Many quit their jobs to prepare for the looming end times.
On May 21, 2011, Judgment Day did not come. At least, not in the form that was recognizable as such, and so if Judgment Day did come it didn’t count. But even Harold Camping admitted that no Judgment Day had come. He had been mistaken, Camping told his followers, told the press. May 21 was not Judgment Day. All the same, Camping then said, the end of the world was still happening. On October 21, 2011, just like he had predicted.
What did all these believers do when the wait was finally over, when no Judgment Day came? Of course, we know. But this question is irrelevant anyway. What makes us understand the world the way we do, what shapes us, is not that events will happen, but that we wait for them to happen.
WHAT WE DO WHILE WAITING
1. Look at the time. (note: we can’t control time!)
2. Look at each other.
3. Look at books.
4. Look at billboards and flyers.
4. Look at devices that play music.
5. Think about our day past.
6. Think about the day ahead.
7. Think about waiting.
We all focus our lives around some BIG EVENT, or intermittent series of big events, with an endless smorgasbord of activities thrown in. Dates are the markers of these events. Dates and times. Calendars and clocks don’t tell us what we do. They tell us what we wait for.
Waiting has become one of the more difficult tasks humanity faces. With each new tool we make to count Time, speed Time, slow Time, waiting becomes more and more terrible. The most difficult thing about waiting is, as we agreed, being forced to have a relationship with the unknown. Technologies have gotten better at helping us predict the future, with the result that our waiting time—i.e. our time spent in the presence of the unknown—is minimized. But it’s still not enough. It’s never enough.
Is waiting a state of being or is it an act of consciousness? It’s hard to say. One thing we know, though. Waiting is undesirable, regrettable, at times frustrating as all hell, and to be avoided at any cost. Waiting signals a breakdown of order. In modern times, when we are waiting, it’s because we think that something is not functioning properly, someone isn’t doing their job.
This might be my own hang-up, but lines are the worst form of waiting after the ultimate wait—waiting for death—which is to say that waiting in lines is the worst occasion of waiting after life itself. I once wrote a song that compared standing in lines to little deaths, drops into the infinite when you feel that your very self has no reason, no power, when you think about the past and future at once, and it takes everything you have to maintain an atmosphere of order and sense. In other words, to maintain patience. Often, when we are waiting together, the patient are considered weak. The strong rail against waiting. You can tell who are the strong ones in a waiting situation. How dare you make me wait? is something they might say. But let’s not forget that patience is order, and impatience is chaos.
I called the song ‘Queuing Theory’. Queuing theory is the study of waiting in lines. Examples of Queuing theory occasions for study are:
– waiting to pay in the supermarket
– waiting for information
– planes waiting to circle before they can land
– waiting to be served in a restaurant
– waiting for a train
About waiting, you might ask:
– what is the average waiting time of a customer?
– how many customers are waiting on average?
– how long is the average service time?
– what is the chance that one of the servers has nothing to do?
Queuing theory is useful for people in operations management, for helping businesses get the most bang out of their waiting buck. It helps businesses decide just how much or how little control they can or need to have over their customers’ waiting times. If you are a mathematician, knowledge of Queuing theory might make you more or less patient in a waiting situation. But mathematicians know the disturbing fact about Queuing theory. They know that the models for Queuing theory often assume infinite numbers of customers, infinite numbers of ‘queue capacity’. Queuing theory often predicts wait times for a world that has no limit to waiting. Some think this is a flaw of the theory. But perhaps it is a secret truth, a secret we all know, too.
By allowing ourselves to wait we are making one very presumptuous presumption about life: that we actually have somewhere to go, something to do. Waiting pisses us off, but without waiting, how would we know if our lives had meaning?
Waiting pisses us off, too, because of all these expectations that we have about Time, but the reason we have expectations is that we expect Time to move in a linear fashion. Time has a beginning and an end. Anyone who tries to suggest otherwise, that time perhaps moves in circles or spirals, or, like the String Theorists, that there are multiple times existing concurrently—these people are duly denounced and ignored. Time, as we ALL KNOW, has a beginning and it has an end. When we step on to the train platform, we are starting one moment—the imminent arrival of the train—that we know will end with a final act—the arrival of the train. When the train doesn’t come, we don’t just get annoyed, we get scared. We are terrified when the train doesn’t come because it’s at this moment that we start to think to ourselves: Maybe I’ve got this wrong. Maybe there is no ending, and no beginning either. Maybe my whole life is an infinite loop of this: getting to the train, getting on the train, being on the train, leaving the train, missing the train, never having gotten on the train. But if that’s the case, then my life is continuity. If that’s the case, I don’t have to ask, “What am I waiting for?” If that’s the case, I’m never really waiting. I’m never waiting for time to pass, because for time to pass it has to eventually start and stop. If that’s the case, maybe waiting is just another word for living. It’s a devastating thought though, I would say. To live is to wait. To live is to wait.
There’s a sigh of relief when the train finally comes, but why? It’s not as though lives have changed by this fact, the train’s arrival, even one tiny bit. But it feels like it. The end of a wait feels like a movement towards something. The end of a wait feels like the beginning of something new. But if you can live inside the waiting, can be present for the wait, rather than wishing it finished, rather than holding your holding your breath—you can almost trick yourself into believing that you are really living.
Alice in the Kitchen
by Hasan Altaf
One of the reviews of the 2010 film Reflections of a Blender (directed by André Klotzel from a script by José Antônio de Souza), in O Estado de São Paulo, describes it as "not a realistic film, but one that takes place in a real world in which poetic license is necessary for the development of the story." My reading is slightly and perhaps only semantically different - to me, Reflections is entirely a realistic film (one interpretation would suggest that it is simply a story told by an unreliable, possibly crazy narrator) in which one small link to reality has been severed.
The poetic license, the severed link in question: The blender of the title (not all blenders, certainly not all appliances or objects) can think, reflect and talk to its owner. In every other respect, the movie is completely realistic - it takes place in a world exactly like ours, down to the way a man annoys his wife by slurping his soup. There is something particularly unsettling - I think the technical world might be "uncanny" - about seeing our own world become just slightly unmoored; it's as if the ties that hold us down are being cut, one by one, leaving us just enough time to make sense of the process.
Reflections of a Blender is not particularly unsettling, at least not in its conceit. It's very much a comedy, and the word that actually came to mind for its technique was "whimsy." Talking animals, animate objects: Whimsy of this sort is a tempting technique, but also difficult to pull off; one false movie and you end up with Aishwarya Rai in The Mistress of Spices, begging her chilies to talk to her. As a technique, it is also probably less complicated in movies for children (anything Pixar), or in action films, where the robot's conversational abilities are less troubling than the robot's attempt to take over the world. In otherwise realistic movies intended for adults, whimsy of the kind embodied by an introspective blender might easily become "cute," too precious to have any real effect. Klotzel balances the cuteness of the talking blender (voiced by Selton Mello) with darkness, an overall twistedness that pulls in the other direction.
The (human) protagonist of the film, for example, is the blender's mistress and friend, Dona Elvira (Ana Lúcia Torre). In her old age, she decides she needs to make a little extra money to supplement her husband's income as a night watchman. She does not, however, turn to crocheting, painting watercolors, baking cookies, or even her former career as a smoothie-maker. She takes up instead her childhood hobby: Taxidermy. One day her husband lays a package on her lap, and she unwraps it to reveal a dead white rabbit. She is as thrilled as a child. (The rabbit, which was cute when alive, when stuffed comes out utterly demonic. Dona Elvira's house fills up with these things; her mailman even brings her the corpse of his mother's cat.)
It's hard to talk about this movie without giving away the entirety of the plot, but in the end the plot is fairly predictable - the fun is in the twists and turns, the execution. Reflections plays on our expectations, not showing all its cards until close to the end. We don't get firm ground, or even a (human) character to identify with. The policemen who investigate the disappearance of Dona Elvira's husband are either bureaucratic stuffed shirts, or so over-the-top that we cannot take them seriously. The mailman and Dona Elvira's neighbor, even a particular nurse at the hospital, are also perfectly warped. They're normal enough to be recognizable, but just a bit too bizarre for us to trust them.
In the end, the character I identified with most was the blender. He is charming, funny-sad, and interesting - exactly what one looks for in a friend. He is also, by definition, an outsider, who acquires consciousness by accident and has to learn to understand and make sense of the world around him. The blender's loneliness, his pushiness and push-over-ness, his "quest" all seem completely human: We've all been in that situation. In this comedy, and the blender is the straight man.
Reflections of a Blender is, at one level, just good entertainment - the theater, when I saw it, was packed, and the audience laughed and cringed in all the right places (sometimes both together). I think the movie succeeds because it walks so perfectly the line between "whimsy" and "uncanny," between harmless preciousness and out-and-out weirdness. The two might be like opposite ends of a spectrum, mirror images, essentially the same technique but employed for completely different ends. It's a tightrope act, of sorts, and it might be a fairly good reflection of life in general - of the bizarreness of day-to-day life, which can veer from the comic to the tragic and back again.
In a sense we are all like this blender; we wake up one day to a world that has its own rules, and we spend our time trying to make sense of them, to figure out our place in a system that operates according to its own absurd, inexorable logic. And that it is a blender is fitting, too: Everything (seriously, everything) is chopped up by those blades, in the end; even the toughest bits of bone can be pureed to smoothness and then poured down the drain.
In my drawing a line moves
northwest along the edge
of a white birch
toward the top left limit of a page
like an inky contrail
tracing an idea of something
seen in a white sky
it banks up and right
along the dark underside of the shadow of a limb
until it branches again and again
retelling a tale of deciduous DNA,
limbs a matrix of lines
without sound or scent,
a tree that can’t be touched;
an impression eery as a still ghost
in a closed room
unmoved by wind
untroubled by cold or heat
impossible to be climbed
even by Frost’s swinger of birches,
being abstract as many arts
……………………… .…. —and every art’s
a dependent clause in the narrative of genes
moving as it does
through lips and limbs
singing dancing leaping
until at its delta it reposes
not spent but
quietly seeping to the sea
it spreads the remains of its tale
leaving it to the furies
of what storms
by Jim Culleny
© Oct. 29, 2010
On an Architecture of Laundry in Tokyo
by Ryan Sayre
A few months back, a friend and I were in the underwear
section of a Tokyo area UNIQLO disagreeing over what kind of drawers she ought to buy for her imaginary husband. Boxers seemed the obvious choice to me. She was leaning toward briefs. I was in favor of solids. She was of the opinion that stripes would better suit him.
This friend of mine is among the not insignificant number of women in Tokyo who hang men’s clothes out to dry with their own undergarments to ward off would-be panty thieves, stalkers and/or peeping Toms. So here we were, scarecrow shopping at UNIQLO.
In the end, my gender wasn’t enough to dissuade her from what I thought was a fashion misdemeanor. But what could I say? She had, after all, been shopping for this imaginary man for a decade. The poor guy ended up with a pair of Size M briefs, blue with light grey stripes.
Hanging laundry out to dry on the veranda might seem a strange departure from the techno-domesticity that we like to imagine governs all aspects of Japanese urban life. Nevertheless, the obsession for washing clothes in Japan is matched only by an equally obsessional aversion to the use of clothes dryers. The Japan Soap and Detergent Association conducted a survey in 2010 that found as many as seventy percent of women do laundry seven days a week. When passing through a residential peri-urban neighborhood, overcrowded geometries of stripes, plaid, argyle and polka-dot come at the eye from all angles. Before the 1964 Olympics the government called on Japanese citizens to temporarily reel in these clotheslines. While Japan is supposed to be the seat of architectural austerity, cleanliness and orderliness rarely keep such distant company as they do on the exterior of a Japanese apartment block. The more an apartment dweller gives herself over to cleanliness, the more she throws her building’s facade into a savagery of colorful disarray.
Laundry becomes an important architectural form in Tokyo, a fixture in the blueprint of city life. Ask a child to draw the apartment building she lives in and I'd wager she’d pull every crayon out of the box to capture the mess of bedding pouring out the windows and draped over the balcony’s edge. She’d no doubt wear all the pastels in the box down to little nubs trying to draw enough powdery blue and pink clothes pins to keep all her pretty clothes from being blown away by a gust of wind.
Hygiene provides a rationale to do more laundry, laundry in turn allows one to take a direct role in the architectural project of city life. Architects in Japan draft buildings under the assumption that the structure will stand for no longer than thirty years. Only 13% of homes there last long enough to have a second owner cook in their kitchen or bathe in their bathtub. Urban structures are taken down almost as quickly as they are put up. A well-known and likely apocryphal legend has an American couple purchasing a home in a Tokyo neighborhood. The couple returns a month later with a moving truck only to find an empty plot of land where their house had stood. The kindly man next door comes rushing over to greet his new neighbors. “You see?” he says with a sweeping gesture, “They took the trouble to remove that old house for you. No charge!”
If buildings are transient entities for draftsmen and homeowners, for housewives, the architects of Tokyo’s ever-changing facade, architecture is downright fleeting. But for that, it is no less solid in each of its daily instantiations. Sport uniforms and school gear, socks and aprons all act as the fluttering tiles of a nearly sentient mosaic. After peeling away from the exterior of a building and enjoying a brief sojourn in a drawer, laundry hitches a ride through the subway tubes and out to all corners of the city. It rides on the backs of mother, father and child as a moving architecture, miniature murals which, after a day on the town, are returned the following morning to their post among the cotton swatches that together constitute the the colorfully embellished curtain wall of Tokyo's buildings.
In the 1960s, the avant-garde architectural group, the Metabolists, put their energies into refashioning Tokyo with organic and articulated architecture. It never occurred to them that Tokyo was already exactly this. With Kisho Kurokawa’s Nakagin-capsule hotel, purportedly the world’s first modular skyscraper, the Metabolists saw a radical vision of a flexible and organic future. But how much less transportable these concrete cubes were than the architecture of laundry that already prevailed in the city around them! Can it be an accident that Kurokawa’s detachable living modules looked uncannily like oversized laundry machines, stacked one atop the next thirteen stories into the air? A fully articulated urban city was not just the stuff of Kurokawa's active Deleuze-inspired imagination. A modular, moble architecture was part and parcel of the urban housewife’s daily routine, a routine set on spin-cycle.
Taro, we can see, had little league practice yesterday. Sayako had ballet. Father’s dress shirt is nowhere to be seen. A business trip, perhaps? If postmodern buildings are designed, as Fredric Jameson says, for photographs, then the Japanese balcony is a family portrait conceived for architecture. The whole family is there, backs held straight. The only thing missing is that little patch of flesh between the neckline of Taro’s uniform and the brim of his baseball cap. All that’s unaccounted for is the sheepish smile half-way between the embroidered collar of Sayako’s leotard and her sequin bedecked tiara. In a laundry-centric world — why not?— it is not people, but clothes that toil away at the office, that go out for drinks, that get called up to bat. It’s clothes that look forward to a good hot bath the morning after a hard day's work. It’s dirty clothes that refuse to wear us around town for a second day in a row, not we them.
As my friend and I inched forward in the UNIQLO checkout line, we made small-talk about her imaginary husband. He's athletic, “Hence the briefs,” she reminded me. That said, he's been developing a bit of a paunch lately, “From staying out till all hours drinking with his workmates, ya know?” His favorite T-shirt, an accidental hand-me down from one of her real boyfriends, had a yellowish stain on the chest. We decided it would be a musturd stain. By the time we got to the register, her imaginary companion felt more or less at home in his blue size M briefs with light grey stripes. They suited him as much as the plaid pajamas we bought him on my previous visit to Japan. The fantasy wasn’t mine. It wasn't hers either. It belonged to the would-be peeping Toms, to the clothes themselves, and ultimately it belonged to Tokyo. It was the ever-so slight alteration in the fabric of the city, the small change in the total composition of Tokyo's architecture of laundry that she would effect the following morning when she put the laundry out on the veranda to dry.
Cemeteries and Prairies
by Kevin S. Baldwin
One of the little-known delights of the Midwest is pioneer cemeteries. These are burial places dating from the late 18th century to the early years of 20th century, during the period of westward territorial expansion.
Like many people, I find cemeteries to be places that promote contemplation at many levels, the most obvious being one's own mortality. Unavoidable, but perhaps best not to dwell on. Another level is on the mortality of the people buried there. The typical ages at death, and high child and infant mortality rates are major reality checks on just how unusual the period that we in the first world enjoy today is: But for vaccinations and antibiotics many of us would be under the sod ourselves.
I like to focus on how these people lived rather than how they died. As I read their headstones, I wonder, what events encompassed their lives? What, if anything, did they read besides the Bible? How did they prosecute a daily existence in this area, through subzero winters and blazing hot summers? If they were immigrants, what was their voyage to the New World like? What did they bring with them? What did they leave behind? There are a couple Civil War casualties. Sons, daughters, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, elderly, adults, teens, children, infants, and so on,…
At yet another level it is easy to get wrapped up in the craftsmanship evident in the carving of the headstones: The fonts, the epitaphs, and the iconography are all fascinating. The range of size and quality of the stones is also quite extraordinary.
The plot I am most familiar with is a postage-stamp sized acre in the midst of some enormous farms called Spring Grove Cemetery. It is easily recognizable from the highway from late Fall through early Spring because the headstones and vegetation stand in high relief compared to the carefully mowed and plowed remains of the corn and soybeans that surround it. Spring Grove is not a fertilized, manicured plot. It was never plowed, so a myriad of native tall-grass prairie plants still reach skyward every spring, slowly obscuring the graves within.
We (meaning the Biology Department where I teach) burn part of the plot every Spring to ensure that the native plants continue to thrive. In contrast to the annual grasses we plant like corn and wheat, which have been carefully selected to put as little energy into roots and stems and as much into seeds as possible, these perennials have massive, deep systems to ensure survival throughout the driest droughts and hottest fires. They sprout anew from beneath the ashes and dust left behind by a blaze. We burn only about half the plot at a time to ensure that insects and wildlife can find refugia in the unburnt sections and recolonize the newly burnt patches.
Burns are fun. Low winds are essential to keep things from spreading out of control. Even so, we occasionally we burn a bit more than intended. The first prairie burn I ever took part in was spectacular. I could hear its crackling on the opposite side of a rise from where I was standing long before I saw it. Something about that sound awakened a primeval part of my brain. A shot of adrenalin coursed through my body accompanied by a heightened state of awareness. I was ready to run if necessary either to escape the blaze or to chase down whatever fled the flames. My inner Australopithecus was definitely on for a while that day and it was intoxicating. Subsequent burns have not had the same effect despite my fervent hopes that they might. Still, they are something to behold. A small blaze can explode into a fierce but brief conflagration. A year's worth of biomass accumulation is consumed in seconds, generating heat that can burn the hair off your knuckles from meters away. And then suddenly it's over, leaving behind some ash and smoldering embers, with curls of smoke circling around your ankles. Epic destruction, yet the possibility for renewal. The phosphorus and other nutrients released by the fire is suddenly available to nourish the next year's growth. Within a few days, green shoots are poking up through the remains of the burn and by the end of summer many of the plants are 2 meters tall again, swaying in the breeze.
Cemeteries and prairies: Empirical parables about The Circle of Life? You bet. And also the source of an unexpected turn of events: The pioneers were the ones who busted the sod with the new-fangled steel plow in the middle of the 19th Century. They fed themselves and a growing population at what was then, the edge of their civilization. Today, their burial place is an Illinois Nature Preserve. Ironically, bits of the prairie that these pioneers were so eager to break and convert into food is now preserved by the presence of their remains.
Thanks to Dillon Harris for the photos.
Airplanes, Asparagus, and Mirrors, Oh My!
by Meghan D. Rosen
Last month, I asked you to submit a science-y question that you'd like to have answered in simple terms. You asked about light, and mirrors, and spices and space— I was delighted by the scope of the questions posed.
This month my fellow SciCom classmates tackled three. Steve Tung glides through the mechanics of flight; Beth Mole spouts off about asparagus pee; and Tanya Lewis reflects on mirrors.
If you have more burning science questions, just post them in the comments. We'll be back next month with more answers.
And if you don't have a science question, but do have a thought or a picture to share, check out www.sharingamomentofscience.tumblr.com
How can an airplane fly upside down?
Daredevil pilots execute stunning aerobatic maneuvers― loops, rolls, spins, and more― sometimes while upside down for a long time. How do they do it? It might seem that the force keeping a right-side-up plane aloft would push a flipped plane down.
The trick is how the plane is angled in the air. Pilots can adjust the tilt to lift the plane, even when it is upside down.
You may have stuck your hand outside of a moving car and felt the rushing air push it up or down. Tilt your hand more, and that force is stronger. Turn your hand upside down and it still happens, though it might not be as powerful.
Plane wings, flipped or not, work the same way― tilt them up more, and air lifts the plane more. There are drawbacks and limitations, however. Higher angles cause more drag, slowing the plane. Tilt too far and the plane loses its aerodynamic properties and falls like a rock.
But not all airplanes can fly upside down. Some depend on gravity to fuel the engines; some would break under the different stresses of flying inverted. Stunt airplanes use specially designed wings, bodies, and engines to be more agile, more durable, and more versatile.
Steve Tung once dreamed of designing airplanes and rockets. He now dreams of pithy, memorable prose. (He received a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering with a concentration in fluid mechanics from Cornell University) Twitter: @SteveTungWrites
Many years ago Mel Brooks asked the one question which had haunted him all these years: "Why, after I eat a few stalks of asparagus, does my pee pee smell so funny?"
It wasn’t until recently that scientists started to unravel this odorous riddle. The answer lies with both the whizzer and the whiffer.
When we digest asparagus, its sulfur-containing compounds can break down into stinky subunits that strike as early as 15 minutes after eating. Although the culprit behind the smelly bathroom visits hasn’t been caught, the most likely suspect is methanethiol.
But in bathroom exit surveys, only some asparagus eaters say they can smell the excreted evidence.
In 2010, scientists went digging through a database that linked genetic data with survey data including answers to questions like ‘Have you ever noticed that your pee smells funny after you eat asparagus?’
They found that people who have particular DNA changes around a set of genes responsible for olfactory receptors—molecular smell detectors in your nose—are more likely to be able to smell asparagus pee.
So for those that can’t smell asparagus pee, it might not mean that you can’t make it.
Last year a different set of scientists waved pee vials under people’s snouts to sniff out who could make asparagus pee and who could smell it.
They confirmed that some schnozzles can’t smell asparagus evidence. But they also found that some people don’t seem to make it either, at least not in detectable amounts.
Since scientists haven’t pinned down the stinky subunit responsible, they can’t say for certain if it’s not there at all or just at really low levels that we can’t smell.
For now, it seems likely that our abilities to make and smell asparagus pee probably exist on sliding scales, and whether or not you can smell it seems unrelated to whether or not you can make it—so, continue to ponder in the potty.
Beth Mole earned her PhD in microbiology at UNC Chapel Hill studying a potato pathogen and did postdoctoral research on antibiotic resistant bugs at UNC's Eshelman School of Pharmacy. She started writing about science in 2008 for Endeavors magazine and is currently enrolled in the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz.
When you look in the mirror and point your right arm out to the side, your reflection in the mirror points its left arm. But when you point up above your head, your reflection doesn’t point to its feet. Even if you lie on your side and point your arm out, the mirror seems to “know” to switch which arm your reflection points, even though that’s now up or down relative to the ground.
What’s going on? Actually, mirrors don’t reverse things left-and-right, they reverse them in-and-out. Imagine casting a rubber mold of yourself, then turning the mold inside-out. Your reflection would face you, but your arms would appear to switch sides.
Another way to think about it is this: write something on a piece of semi-transparent paper and hold it up to the mirror. The reflected writing is, of course, a mirror image. But now turn the paper around so the writing faces you, and look at the reflection in the mirror. The writing is the right way round again. The reflection is like a stamp, making a “light print” of the writing on the page.
Tanya is a graduate student in the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz. She is an incurable science geek with a penchant for storytelling. She can be reached at tanlewis (at) gmail (dot) com or on twitter @tanyalewis314
October 30, 2011
The Arab Intellectuals Who Didn’t Roar
Another piece by Robert Worth in the NYT Magazine:
IN mid-June, the Syrian poet known as Adonis, one of the Arab world’s most renowned literary figures, addressed an open letter to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. The stage was set for one of those moments, familiar from revolutions past, in which an intellectual hero confronts an oppressive ruler and eloquently voices the grievances of a nation.
Instead, Adonis — who lives in exile in France — bitterly disappointed many Syrians. His letter offered some criticisms, but also denigrated the protest movement that had roiled the country since March, and failed even to acknowledge the brutal crackdown that had left hundreds of Syrians dead. In retrospect, the incident has come to illustrate the remarkable gulf between the Arab world’s established intellectuals — many of them, like Adonis, former radicals — and the largely anonymous young people who have led the protests of the Arab Spring.
More than 10 months after it started with the suicide of a Tunisian fruit vendor, the great wave of insurrection across the Arab world has toppled three autocrats and led last week in Tunisia to an election that many hailed as the dawn of a new era. It has not yielded any clear political or economic project, or any intellectual standard-bearers of the kind who shaped almost every modern revolution from 1776 onward. In those revolts, thinkers or ideologues — from Thomas Paine to Lenin to Mao to Vaclav Havel — helped provide a unifying vision or became symbols of a people’s aspirations.
The absence of such figures in the Arab Spring is partly a measure of the pressures Arab intellectuals have lived under in recent decades, trapped between brutal state repression on one side and stifling Islamic orthodoxy on the other. Many were co-opted by their governments (or Persian Gulf oil money) or forced into exile, where they lost touch with the lived reality of their societies. Those who remained have often applauded the revolts of the past year and even marched along with the crowds. But they have not led them, and often appeared stunned and confused by a movement they failed to predict.
Martha Graham's Appalachian Spring
Pain is no more or no less profound than any other sensation
Lata Mani excerpted in the Wall Street Journal:
It is often suggested that pain is beyond description, that language breaks down at the terminus of pain. It is certainly true that when one is in the midst of the cluster of physical sensations that we call pain, the last thing on one’s mind is finding the right words to make poetry out of one’s suffering. But there is nothing essentially mysterious about pain. It can, and for the body in pain must, be spoken of, even if only in the abbreviated cry to God, taking the form of a groan, curse, or a helpless “I don’t know how much more of this I can take”. No, pain is not beyond the horizon of meaning, beyond conceptualization. Rather it is squarely within the world of signification.
Pain throbs. Pain shreds. Pain darts. Pain weaves sly patterns across the length and breadth of the body. Pain stabs. Pain pulses. Pain plummets the body into a vortex unknown and at times fearful. Pain nags. Chronic pain drones repetitiously, monotonously, ad nauseam. Pain flays the surface of the skin, turning it almost translucent with frailty. Pain makes one so weak that the whole world is experienced through its omnipresent filter. Pain drains everything into its core. Pain can be focused as the point of a pinhead or as dispersed as one’s consciousness and, if suffered long enough, the pinpoint can seem to grow and swallow one’s entire physical being. Pain can be as hard as steel or as soft as a ripe pear. Pain shudders. Pain shivers.
Neuroscience and Justice
MICHAEL GAZZANIGA is a Neuroscientist; Professor of Psychology & Director, SAGE Center for the Study of Mind, University of California, Santa Barbara. His books include Human; The Ethical Brain; and Who's In Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain (forthcoming, November 11th).
MICHAEL GAZZANIGA: What I'm going to do is talk about neuroscience and how it may impact justice. I had to give a talk recently to judges and lawyers, but it really is the same talk you would give anybody. It is a summary of four years of effort that I've put into this MacArthur Law and Neuroscience project. How that came about is there was a meeting in New York of lawyers, philosophers, neuroscientists, and psychologists. They met four or five years ago to talk about whether one should study the topic of law and neuroscience. I left the room to go to the bathroom or something, I came back and they said, okay, you're directing it. So don't leave the room when these things are going on because you get saddled with surprises! Since "basic neuroscience for judges and lawyers" was exactly the wrong talk for you at 3:00 o'clock this afternoon, let's say "perspectives on basic neuroscience" because the former one reminds you of your high school biology class which most of you probably didn't like. I'm going to give you the fastest three-minute review of neuroscience. As I said I just gave to the judges of the Second Circuit Court of New York. Many of you maybe have cases in front of the Second Circuit, and they have a retreat every year up at Lake Sagamore , New York. The idea is: You can't, obviously, for someone who's not in neuroscience, you can't communicate the wealth of neuroscience in a hundred lectures, let alone one, let alone a few minutes. But you can kind of get a feel for it. I want to take you through that feel and then take that into the question of how is this field of neuroscience going to impact how we think about the law and, more importantly, how we think about justice.
So here's the fastest three minutes of neuroscience ever. It basically shows you there's a bunch of tracks in the brain. And these tracks weave around and have specific connections. And they wind up connecting to areas that are processing centers. Put all this together, as you can see here, and we discover little areas that are brighter than others. And this is all now easily done, as everyone knows, in brain imaging labs. The specificity of actually combining the centers (where information gets processed) with the actual wiring to those centers has been a very recent development, such that it can be done in humans in vivo, which is to say, in your normal college sophomore. We can actually locate their brain networks, their paths: whether they have a certain kind of connectivity, whether they don't, and whether there may be an abnormality in them, which leads to some kind of behavioral clinical syndrome. In terms of the Neuroscience and Justice Program, all this leads to the fact that that's the defendant. And how is neuroscience supposed to pull this stuff together and speak to whether someone is less culpable because of a brain state?
At the Met, a New Vision for Islam in Hostile Times
Robert Worth in The New York Times:
Over the past decade, many Americans have based their thoughts and feelings about Islam in large part on a single place: the blasted patch of ground where the World Trade Center once stood. But a rival space has slowly and silently taken shape over those same years, about six miles to the north. It is a vast, palacelike suite of rooms on the second floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where some of the world’s most precious Islamic artifacts sit sequestered behind locked doors. On a recent afternoon, Navina Haidar stood in these rooms as a wash of voices echoed up from the halls of the Greek and Roman galleries, far below. Only three weeks remained until the long-hidden Islamic galleries were to be unveiled to the public, and Haidar — an elegant 45-year-old who was raised in New Delhi by a Muslim father and a Hindu mother — still had decisions to make. She has spent more than eight years devising a vision of Islamic tradition that is far more diverse, and less foreign, than the caricature mullahs and zealots who have come to define Islam for much of the non-Muslim world.
“We’re thinking of putting the Koran pages right here, by the entrance,” Haidar said, gazing at two eight-feet-tall manuscript pages in sloping Arabic script that date to the 15th century, parked casually on dollies. “That would make a bold statement right up front about Islam.” Around her, ladders and scaffoldings stood casually alongside life-size Afghan figures in stone and curved Ottoman daggers in gold. There is far more at stake here than the overhaul of a permanent collection at the Met, itself a once-in-a-generation event. The museum’s directors are acutely aware that their collection will be unveiled at a time when Islam is a more inflammable subject than ever. That is no small part of what makes Haidar so nervous as she prepares for opening day. It is also one reason the galleries — closed since 2003 — spent so long in the dark.
More here. (Note: Congratulations to dear Navina on this magnificent accomplishment and to her parents and my dear friends Kusum and Salman Haidar on their daughter's spectacular success. The new galleries are an absolute must-see at the Met)
‘The yellow of the Caribbean seen from Jamaica at three in the afternoon.’
- Gabriel García Márquez
Meditation on Yellow
At three in the afternoon
you landed here at El Dorado
(for heat engenders gold and
fires the brain)
Had I known I would have
brewed you up some yellow fever-grass
but we were peaceful then
child-like in the yellow dawn of our innocence
so in exchange for a string of islands
and two continents
you gave us a string of beads
and some hawk’s bells
which was fine by me personally
for I have never wanted to possess things
I prefer copper anyway
the smell pleases our lord Yucahuna
our mother Attabeira
It’s just that copper and gold hammered into guanin
worn in the solar pendants favoured by our holy men
fooled you into thinking we possessed the real thing
(you were not the last to be fooled by our
As for silver
I find that metal a bit cold
The contents of our mines
I would have let you take for one small mirror
to catch and hold the sun
I like to feel alive
to the possibilities
perhaps as you sip tea
at three in the afternoon
a bit incontinent
despite your vast holdings
(though I was gratified to note
that despite the difference in our skins
our piss was exactly the same shade of yellow)
I wished for you
a sudden enlightenment that
we were not the Indies
No Yellow Peril here
though after you came
plenty of bananas
You gave us these for our
– in that respect
there was fair exchange
But it was gold
on your mind
gold the light
in your eyes
gold the crown
of the Queen of Spain
(who had a daughter)
gold the prize
of your life
the crowning glory
the gateway to heaven
the golden altar
(which I saw in Seville
five hundred years after)
Though I couldn’t help noticing
(this filled me with dread):
silver was your armour
silver the cross of your Lord
silver the steel in your countenance
silver the glint of your sword
silver the bullet I bite
Golden the macca
which mark our passing
the only survivors
on yellow-streaked soil
We were The Good Indians
The Red Indians
The Dead Indians
We were not golden
We were a shade too brown.
At some hotel
overlooking the sea
you can take tea
at three in the afternoon
served by me
skin burnt black as toast
(for which management apologizes)
but I’ve been travelling long
cross the sea in the sun-hot
I’ve been slaving in the cane rows
for your sugar
I’ve been ripening coffee beans
for your morning break
I’ve been dallying on the docks
loading your bananas
I’ve been toiling in orange groves
for your marmalade
I’ve been peeling ginger
for your relish
I’ve been chopping cocoa pods
for your chocolate bars
I’ve been mining aluminium
for your foil
And just when I thought
I could rest
pour my own
– something soothing
like fever-grass and lemon –
cut my ten
in the kitchen
a new set of people
to lie bare-assed in the sun
wanting gold on their bodies
cane-rows in their hair
with beads – even bells
So I serving them
Red Stripe beer
I cane-rowing their hair
with my beads
But still they want more
want it strong
want it long
want it black
want it green
want it dread
Though I not quarrelsome
I have to say: look
I tired now
I give you the gold
I give you the land
I give you the breeze
I give you the beaches
I give you the yellow sand
I give you the golden crystals
And I reach to the stage where
(though I not impolite)
I have to say: lump it
or leave it
I can’t give anymore
For one day before I die
from five hundred years of servitude
I due to move
from kitchen to front verandah
overlooking the Caribbean Sea
drinking real tea
with honey and lemon
eating bread (lightly toasted, well buttered)
with Seville orange marmalade
I want to feel mellow
in that three o’clock yellow
I want to feel
though you own
the silver tea service
the communion plate
you don’t own
the tropics anymore
I want to feel
you cannot take away
the sun dropping by every day
for a chat
I want to feel
you cannot stop
Yellow Macca bursting through
the soil reminding us
of what’s buried there
You cannot stop
those street gals
flaunting themselves everywhere
I want to feel:
you cannot tear my song
from my throat
you cannot erase the memory
of my story
you cannot catch
(for you have to born
you cannot comprehend
of anacondas changing into rivers
like the Amazon
boas dancing in my garden
arcing into rainbows
(and I haven’t had a drop
to drink – yet)
You cannot reverse
Bob Marley wailing
making me feel
in that Caribbean yellow
at three o’clock
any day now.
by Olive Senior
from Gardening in the Tropics
Bloodaxe Books, © 1994
Niall Ferguson's Civilisation: The West and the Rest
Pankaj Mishra in the London Review of Books:
‘Civilisation’s going to pieces,’ Tom Buchanan, the Yale-educated millionaire, abruptly informs Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. ‘I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read The Rise of the Colored Empires by this man Goddard? … The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be – will be utterly submerged.’ ‘Tom’s getting very profound,’ his wife Daisy remarks. Buchanan carries on: ‘This fellow has worked out the whole thing. It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.’ ‘We’ve got to beat them down,’ Daisy whispers with a wink at Nick. But there’s no stopping Buchanan. ‘And we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilisation – oh, science and art, and all that. Do you see?’
‘There was something pathetic in his concentration,’ Carraway, the narrator, observes, ‘as if his complacency, more acute than of old, was not enough to him any more.’ The scene, early in the novel, helps identify Buchanan as a bore – and a boor. It also evokes a deepening panic among America’s Anglophile ruling class. Wary of Jay Gatz, the self-made man with a fake Oxbridge pedigree, Buchanan is nervous about other upstarts rising out of nowhere to challenge the master race.
Scott Fitzgerald based Goddard, at least partly, on Theodore Lothrop Stoddard, the author of the bestseller The Rising Tide of Color against White World Supremacy (1920). Stoddard’s fame was a sign of his times, of the overheated racial climate of the early 20th century, in which the Yellow Peril seemed real, the Ku Klux Klan had re-emerged, and Theodore Roosevelt worried loudly about ‘race-suicide’.
Meme Weaver: The author tries—and fails—to cash in on a big idea
Marshall Poe in The Atlantic:
When I was young I wanted to write a challenging book of ideas. I had in mind the kind of “deep” book that public intellectuals of the 1950s and ’60s wrote: The Lonely Crowd, The One-Dimensional Man, The End of Ideology. Intellectuals talked seriously about them in magical places like New York and San Francisco, places I—being in Kansas—knew nothing about. Unfortunately, I didn’t really have anything deep to say. So I did what most intellectually ambitious young Americans do. I went to graduate school. I found nothing deep to say there. Instead, I learned to do research and write clearly. In the years that followed, I wrote books, but not deep books of ideas. My books were focused, well-documented demonstrations of some minor fact about the world. They added to what we know. That’s something.
Yet I still hungered to write a book of ideas. I knew I wouldn’t ever do so in academia. So after about a decade of teaching at a big university you’ve probably heard of, I left to work in a staff position at a big magazine you’ve probably heard of. In my mind, this magazine stood at the pinnacle of American intellectual life. I didn’t think working at the big magazine would make me a public intellectual. I wasn’t hired as a writer; I was hired as a researcher. I cannot say, however, that I didn’t want to see my name in the big magazine.
In 2005, Wikipedia was taking off. I thought its history might be interesting. So I wrote a piece on spec about the founding of Wikipedia. The editors at the big magazine liked it, and they published it in the summer of 2006. Around the time my Wikipedia article appeared in the big magazine, another Wikipedia piece appeared in another big magazine. Wikipedia was suddenly, as Tina Brown says, “v. hot.” This was my chance to write a book of ideas—not that I had any good ideas to write about. I sent an e-mail to a literary agent picked at random, asking whether I could write a book about Wikipedia-style collaboration on the Internet. I got a call within minutes. The nice fellow at the other end of the line (who, incidentally, is still my agent) said he’d read my article. I could get a book deal with a big New York trade publisher.
More here. [Thanks to Thomas Wells.]
Easter 1916, for Alice Mary Higgins
Fiesta! for Michael D Higgins
Michael D Higgins Career Montage
Irish President Elect Michael D Higgins Acceptance Speech
An amazing speech by a friend of ours here at 3QD, Michael D Higgins, who has just been elected president of Ireland in a rather incredible story of last minute political heroics and the like. Again, our congratulations to Michael and to the whole Higgins family (Alice Mary in particular). A frickin' incredible story all around.
October 29, 2011
Editing the genome: Scientists unveil new tools for rewriting the code of life
R. Alan Leo in the Harvard Gazette:
The power to edit genes is as revolutionary, immediately useful, and unlimited in its potential as was Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press. And like Gutenberg’s invention, most DNA editing tools are slow, expensive, and hard to use — a brilliant technology in its infancy. Now, Harvard researchers developing genome-scale editing tools as fast and easy as word processing have rewritten the genome of living cells using the genetic equivalent of search and replace — and combined those rewrites in novel cell strains, strikingly different from their forebears.
“The payoff doesn’t really come from making a copy of something that already exists,” said George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School who led the research effort in collaboration with Joe Jacobson, an associate professor at the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “You have to change it — functionally and radically.”
Such change, Church said, serves three goals. The first is to add functionality to a cell by encoding for useful new amino acids. The second is to introduce safeguards that prevent cross-contamination between modified organisms and the wild. A third, related aim, is to establish multiviral resistance by rewriting code hijacked by viruses.
How Samuel Beckett Stood Up for German Jews
Benjamin Ivry in Forward:
Although Nobel Prize-winning author Samuel Beckett is known for his tragicomically inert characters, he himself was an anti-Nazi activist during World War II. Unlike the ever-absent Godot, the bedridden vagrant protagonist of his novel “Molloy” or the despairing characters in his play “Endgame” who lack legs and the ability to stand, Beckett — though painfully shy and prone to melancholy — was a dynamic member of the French Résistance. His surprising wartime actions are detailed, if not fully explained, in the 2004 biography from Grove Press, “Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett” by James Knowlson.
Like his mentor, James Joyce, Beckett was unusually philo-Semitic among European modernist writers, and he joined the Résistance, Knowlson notes, soon after Joyce’s Jewish friend and amanuensis, Paul Léon, was arrested in Paris (Léon would later be murdered in Auschwitz). A fuller understanding of Beckett’s motivation for his pro-Jewish and anti-Nazi activism had to wait until two new books appeared.
Taking us from wartime to the early part of the author’s great achievements, Cambridge University Press has just published “The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 2, 1941–1956” following the first volume in 2009. This adds to insight gleaned from “Samuel Beckett’s German Diaries 1936–1937,” released in June by Continuum. Author Mark Nixon, analyzing still-unpublished journals by Beckett, describes the latter’s reactions to a sojourn in Germany intended to improve his grasp of the language and knowledge of the visual arts.
Together, these books underline how profound Beckett’s ties were with the Jewish people.
Ashis Nandy: on Pakistan’s latent “potentialities”
Christopher Lydon at Radio Open Source:
Ashis Nandy, our sparkling Sage of New Delhi, is in effect a psycho-analyst of post-colonial South Asia. On the way home from Lahore, we stopped to ask the great man about Pakistan — and the “myth of Pakistan” which, he has written, “originates in India and dominates India’s public life,” too. “Pakistan is what India does not want to be… both a double and the final rejected self… the ultimate symbol of irrationality and fanaticism.”
Such is the myth. The reality and the possibility of Pakistan, and Ashis Nandy’s feeling about India’s neighbor come out very differently in conversation. “I feel at home in Pakistan,” said the poster version of the Bengali intellectual. “I miss only the vibrancy, the stridency of the political opinions that are articulated against fundamentalism and the state.” Pakistan is “a troubled country,” he is saying, “but not moribund, not a failed state” and not about to become one.
Ashis Nandy has just made his own study, in 1500 interviews, of the wounds of the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan — among the searing and decisive memories of his own boyhood in Calcutta.
Read more and listen to the interview here.
Why We Can't Tell Good Wine From Bad
David McRaney in The Atlantic:
The Truth: Wine experts and consumers can be fooled by altering their expectations.
You scan the aisles in the liquor store looking for a good wine. It's a little overwhelming -- all those weird bottle shapes with illustrations of castles and vineyards and kangaroos. And all those varieties? Riesling, Shiraz, Cabernet -- this is serious business. You look to your left and see bottles for around $12; to your right you see bottles for $60. You think back to all the times you've seen people tasting wine in movies, holding it up to the light and commenting on tannins and barrels and soil quality -- the most expensive wine has to be the better one, right?
Well, you are not so smart. But, don't fret -- neither are all those connoisseurs who swish fermented grape juice around and spit it back out.
Wine tasting is a big deal to a lot of people. It can even be a professional career. It goes back thousands of years, but the modern version with all the terminology like notes, tears, integration, and connectedness goes back a few hundred. Wine tasters will mention all sorts of things they can taste in a fine wine as if they were a human spectrograph with the ability to sense the molecular makeup of their beverage. Research shows, however, this perception can be hijacked, fooled, and might just be completely wrong.
In 2001, Frederic Brochet conducted two experiments at the University of Bordeaux.
Boy From Ghana Has Got Beat Boxing Talent
a fantasy of empire
In 1929, two years after he resigned from his job as a policeman in Burma, George Orwell settled, in his mind at least, the question that still troubles many people in Britain and the US: whether the British empire was good or bad. Burma’s “relationship with the British empire”, Orwell wrote, “is that of slave and master. Is the master good or bad? That is not the question; let us simply say that this control is despotic and, to put it plainly, self-interested.” Writing in 1942 about Rudyard Kipling’s legend of British soldiers, administrators and engineers in the colonies carrying heroically the white man’s burden, Orwell was blunter. “He does not seem to realise,” Orwell wrote, “any more than the average soldier or colonial administrator, that an empire is primarily a money-making concern.” This, broadly speaking, was a consensus about the British empire that Orwell shared with some unlikely people: India’s governor-general Lord Bentinck, who in 1834 reported that the “bones of the cotton weavers” driven into destitution by British free traders “are bleaching the plains of India”; Adolf Hitler, who greatly admired and sought to emulate in eastern Europe what he called “the capitalist exploitation of the 350m Indian slaves”; as well as anti-colonial leaders and thinkers from Egypt to China who developed a systematic critique of the empire of “free trade”.more from Pankaj Mishra at the FT here.
the maus' shadow
Art Spiegelman has been here before. At 63, dressed in black jeans, a denim shirt and that ubiquitous vest, he is talking, again, about his graphic memoir "Maus," the saga of his father Vladek's experiences during the Holocaust and of Spiegelman's efforts to get to know that father — to inhabit his story, if you will. "Maus" was originally published in two parts, the first in 1986 and the second in 1991; it won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992, the first comic to be so honored. Still, for the last two decades, Spiegelman has kept doubling back, reconsidering the project, drawing its mouse-like protagonist into nearly everything. "I'm blessed and cursed by this thing I made that obviously looms large for me and for others," he observes on a sunny October morning in Beverly Hills, eyes blinking behind wire-frame glasses as he smokes on the balcony of his room in the Four Seasons Hotel. "But the result is that I can't do this thing that seems quite easy but that I just can't do, which is: 'That's that, and now I'm working on a new thing, and it's a whole other thing.' I just can't get out of its gravitational field."more from David L. Ulin at the LA Times here.
Why Malthus is back in fashion
Lisping, reclusive and reviled by the working class of his day, the Reverend Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) – the man behind the idea that the ‘lower orders of society’ breed too quickly – would probably be surprised by his current popularity. Because that’s what he is today: popular. Commentators, activists and academics positively fall over themselves in the rush to say, ‘you know what, that Malthus had a point. There are too many people and, what’s more, they are consuming far too much.’
Earlier this summer, a columnist for Time magazine was in no doubt as to the pastor’s relevance. The global population is ‘ever larger, ever hungrier’, he noted, ‘food prices are near historic highs’ and ‘every report of drought or flooding raises fears of global shortages’. ‘Taking a look around us today’, he continued, ‘it would be easy to conclude that Malthus was prescient’. Writing in the British weekly, the New Statesman, wildlife lover Sir David Attenborough was similarly convinced: ‘The fundamental truth that Malthus proclaimed remains the truth: there cannot be more people on this Earth than can be fed.’ Not to be outdone, the liberal-left’s favourite broadsheet, the Guardian, also suggested that Malthus may have been right after all: ‘[His] arguments were part of the inspiration for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, and they have validity in the natural world. On the savannah, in the rainforests, and across the tundra, animal populations explode when times are good, and crash when food reserves are exhausted. Is homo sapiens an exception?’ The melancholy tone whispered its answer in the negative. Writing in the New York Times, Paul Krugman was less coy: ‘Malthus was right!’ shouted the headline. Given the encomia that are currently coming the way of Malthus you may well wonder what exactly it was that he was meant to be right about. To find the answer to this it is worth actually taking a look at the work, first published in 1798, on which his supposed prescience is based: An Essay on the Principle of Population. It makes for surprising reading.
Roaring at the Screen With Pauline Kael
Frank Rich in The New York Times:
Though Kael often made a shtick out of her Western roots — all the better to cast herself as a rebel in opposition to the East Coast intellectual establishment she resented — she was in fact a second-generation American of “Yentl”-ish heritage. Her parents had migrated from Poland to the slums of Hester Street and ultimately to the then pastoral town of Petaluma, Calif., where they joined a thriving community of Jewish chicken farmers. Kael, the youngest of five children, was born there in 1919. She adored her father, Isaac, a flagrant adulterer. “Rather than resenting her father for his infidelity to her mother,” Kellow writes, “Pauline seemed almost to take pride in it.” As an adult, she “would be drawn steadily to similarly unapologetic, confident and self-reliant males — as friends, sometimes as lovers and often as objects of professional admiration.” In that last category were the directors Robert Altman, Sam Peckinpah, James Toback and Brian De Palma. After Isaac Kael lost his farm in the economic turmoil of the late ’20s, he sought work in San Francisco, where Pauline would become a precocious high school student and an expert debater who in one competition, tantalizingly enough, faced Carol Channing. (Alas, the topic and the victor aren’t named.) After graduation, Kael entered Berkeley as a philosophy major and stepped up her prodigious consumption of literature. But she quit college before graduation, impatient to pursue a career as a writer of short fiction and plays. By then she was also pursuing serial attachments to men who had something other than confidence and self-reliance in common. They were all poets, and all gay or bisexual — Robert Duncan, Robert Horan and James Broughton.
Kael and Horan hitchhiked across America in 1941 to break into the Manhattan literary world. Broke and homeless upon arrival, they camped out in Grand Central Terminal. Horan wandered the streets in search of food, and one night caught the eye of the composers and lovers Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti when they spotted him weaving in front of Saks Fifth Avenue as they walked home from the opera. The couple unofficially adopted Horan, and, unsurprisingly, he peeled away from Kael. Thus began an odyssey, lasting more than a decade, in which she supported her writing habit with what she called “crummy jobs” — among them stints as a publishing-house grunt, a clerk at Brentano’s, a violin teacher and a freelance tutor. After some four years of defeat in her efforts to break into professional writing in New York, she returned to San Francisco. By the early ’50s, she was running a laundry and tailoring business off Market Street, desperate to support her young daughter, Gina, fathered out of wedlock by Broughton in 1948. She continued to crank out unpublished stories and unproduced plays in whatever spare time she could find. When she learned that Gina had a congenital heart defect, she could not afford the surgery needed to repair it. Once Kael’s fortunes finally changed, it was through a lucky break as improbable as starlets being discovered at Schwab’s drugstore. Arguing with a friend about a film in a Berkeley coffeehouse in the fall of 1952, she was overheard by Peter D. Martin, the founder of a new film-criticism journal, City Lights. Martin was so captivated by Kael’s riff that he invited her to review Chaplin’s “Limelight” — which she did, in a pan revealing her critical voice in embryo. Mocking the film’s climax, in which the Chaplin hero, a has-been clown, dies in the wings of a theater after achieving redemption, Kael wrote that it was “surely the richest hunk of self-gratification since Huck and Tom attended their own funeral.” The piece attracted the attention of Mary McCarthy, among others, and soon Kael was submitting articles about film to other small but prestigious outlets like Partisan Review and Sight and Sound. At the ripe age of 33, she had at last found her subject as a writer. She had also found a literary community, in an exploding Bay Area bohemia populated by the likes of Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Peter Martin’s partner in creating the legendary City Lights bookstore and the founder of its publishing-house spinoff.
Friend of 3QD just declared president of Ireland
VETERAN Labour politician Michael D Higgins was declared Ireland’s next president last night after a collapse in support for his nearest challenger, Independent Sean Gallagher, in Thursday’s vote. The first official count gave Mr Higgins 40 per cent of the vote. The resounding victory – 701,101 votes out of 1.77 million – was secured with a tidal wave of 11th hour support for the 70-year-old from Galway after controversy over his biggest rival’s political fundraising past. Mr Higgins, a former government minister, came from 15 points behind in the opinion polls last weekend to seal his victory, with all other candidates conceding defeat. Amid hectic scenes at the National Count Centre in Dublin Castle, president-elect Mr Higgins said his term in office would be about inclusion, ideas and transformation.more from The Scotsman here. (Some of us will never forget Michael Higgins reciting his poetry at Flux Factory during a late night event some years ago. Wonderful man. Congrats to Ireland!)
October 28, 2011
Philosophical Education or Legitimations of Analytic Philosophy?
Santiago Zabala in Purlieu:
Being is challenged in the university today by the hegemony of analytic philosophy. The teaching of how to measure the quality of philosophical argumentation through formal logic is squeezing out ontological accounts of existential problems from the history of philosophy. An increasing number of departments all over the world are funded and rewarded only as long as they follow the secure path of modern science; in other words, if they adopt a problem-solving approach that assures objective results. In classrooms, the transmission of logical notions prevails over fruitful dialogues with the aim of educating students according to certain metaphysical assertions. While this transmission might be useful for being at the university, it definitely is not useful for Being in the university—an institution where it is possible to question the fundamental concepts of philosophy and also of oneself. If, as Hans-Georg Gadamer explained, “we understand only when we understand differently,” then much more than the transmission of information happens during a lecture; there is also the possibility to disclose to students (and professors) their interpretations, differences, or even existence. Philosophy does not stand together with other disciplines, such as medicine or architecture, in legitimizing practices; rather, its practice is questions whose answers have never been legitimized or settled.
Wouldn’t It Be Cool if Shakespeare Wasn’t Shakespeare?
Stephan Marche in the New York Times:
“Was Shakespeare a fraud?” That’s the question the promotional machinery for Roland Emmerich’s new film, “Anonymous,” wants to usher out of the tiny enclosure of fringe academic conferences into the wider pastures of a Hollywood audience. Shakespeare is finally getting the Oliver Stone/“Da Vinci Code” treatment, with a lurid conspiratorial melodrama involving incest in royal bedchambers, a vapidly simplistic version of court intrigue, nifty costumes and historically inaccurate nonsense. First they came for the Kennedy scholars, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Kennedy scholar. Then they came for Opus Dei, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Catholic scholar. Now they have come for me.
Professors of Shakespeare — and I was one once upon a time — are blissfully unaware of the impending disaster that this film means for their professional lives. Thanks to “Anonymous,” undergraduates will be confidently asserting that Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare for the next 10 years at least, and profs will have to waste countless hours explaining the obvious. “Anonymous” subscribes to the Oxfordian theory of authorship, the contention that Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford, wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Among Shakespeare scholars, the idea has roughly the same currency as the faked moon landing does among astronauts.
The good news is that “Anonymous” makes an extraordinarily poor case for the Oxfordian theory. I could nitpick the film all day.
Christopher Hitchens Drops the Hammer
Counsel for OWS from Iran’s Green Movement
Kusha Sefat in Juan Cole's blog Informed Consent:
Following the disputed Presidential election in Iran, our Western compatriots gave many suggestions on combating state oppression. Various tactics and strategies were devised for Iranian protesters, some on this very blog. It seems that most of those recommendations were ineffective within Iran’s particular social and political context. It may be worth outlining some of the tactics that were in fact useful to Iranian protesters particularly as the OWS movement kicks into high gear (assuming these tactics make sense within the American socio-political context). The following are the Top 10 most effective tactics for the OWS, stemming from the experience of mass social movement in Iran.
1) Pick a color to represent your movement and wear it daily in public places (work, restaurant, etc.). Remember, this is a numbers game. You want maximum visibility, and to bring your movement into everyday life.
2) Have an all-inclusive strategy. Accept people with different views who are willing to join you in protest. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to know what you want as a movement yet. The goal at this stage is to point to your opponents and say that they have been lying to you; that the show they have constructed is false and that you are sick of it.
3) Demonstrate peacefully. Committing violence during demonstrations leads to ruptures within your movement, diminishes public sympathy, and gives the security forces a reason to violently suppress your protest.
From The Paris Review:
Near the beginning of Salvador, Joan Didion’s 1982 account of a repressive state in the thick of civil war, Didion goes to the mall. She’s looking for the truth of a country held in its aisles, and also tablets to purify her drinking water. She doesn’t find the tablets, but she does find everything else: imported foie gras and beach towels printed with maps of Manhattan, cassette tapes of Paraguayan music, vodka bottles packaged with stylish glasses. She writes:
This was a shopping center that embodied the future for which El Salvador was presumably being saved, and I wrote it down dutifully, this being the kind of “color” I knew how to interpret, the kind of inductive irony, the detail that was supposed to illuminate the story. As I wrote it down I realized that I was no longer much interested in this kind of irony, that this was a story that would not be illuminated by such details, that this was a story that would perhaps not be illuminated at all.
Her intelligence excavates a truth at once uncomfortable and crystalline: in the middle of a war you can’t see, you still want to look. You want to squint your keen and cutting eyes at whatever you can find. Because your subject is fear, and fear isn’t something with a particular scent or tint, only something in the air that makes it difficult to breath. It will not respond to any name when you call it into the light. Every night in El Salvador, people were being picked up in trucks, killed, and thrown in landfills, and Joan Didion stood looking at a row of imported vodkas, thinking, What? Just pointing at them, because they were there, and what right did they have? Irony is easier than hopeless silence but braver than flight. The problem is that sometimes your finger shakes as you gesture, there is no point, and you can’t point anywhere—or at least not at anything visible. I sometimes find myself in the role that Didion casts aside—the aisle-wandering, detail-pillaging self, who comes for water-purifying tablets and leaves with the price-tagged Cliff Notes of a country’s suffering.
Matriot Acts, Act 1 (History of Mankind)
you no longer believe in anything
movement of train, mauve waves
gets you down or
war at the back and crown of head
PsyOps, o chicken little the sky! the sky!
o the fallen sky an edge of blue
still breathing those colors?
a garden broken & restored many times
how often trying to leave it, bend away
words from that beautiful throat
listen or break or oscillate or
clamor as opposed to "read about"
could you be my model human being
up there on the dais?
o you, she...maybe he's the one
& we came back from the cinema
glow behind our tears
and you saying a woman, a woman!
how tragic to be such slender thread of a woman
where was I being led?
more people thick in space
in constant motion
twisted around a clock
solar wind, solar heat, sociable matrix
it's an atavistic mixed-up dream
and stirs the branches
high in Freedom Park
it was the voice of a desultory fragment
of speech now, talking about "state" and "union"
how darkness turns at the wrist
by Anne Waldman
from History of Mankind
Friendly bacteria move in mysterious ways
Many yoghurts are loaded with live bacteria, and labelled with claims that consuming these microorganisms can be good for your health. But a study published today shows that such yoghurts have only subtle effects on the bacteria already in the gut and do not replace them. Nathan McNulty, a microbiologist at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, recruited seven pairs of identical twins, and asked one in each pair to eat twice-daily servings of a popular yoghurt brand containing five strains of bacteria. By sequencing bacterial DNA in the twins' stool samples, the team showed that the yoghurt microbes neither took up residence in the volunteers' guts, nor affected the make-up of the local bacterial communities. Jeffrey Gordon, the microbiologist at Washington University who led the study, was not surprised. "We were only giving several billion bacterial cells in total to the twins, who harbour tens of trillions of gut microbes in their intestines," he says.
October 27, 2011
The World of the Intellectual vs. The World of the Engineer
Timothy Ferris in Wired:
Being an intellectual had more to do with fashioning fresh ideas than with finding fresh facts. Facts used to be scarce on the ground anyway, so it was easy to skirt or ignore them while constructing an argument. The wildly popular 18th-century thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose disciples range from Robespierre and Hitler to the anti-vaccination crusaders currently bringing San Francisco to the brink of a public health crisis, built an entire philosophy (nature good, civilization bad) on almost no facts at all. Karl Marx studiously ignored the improving living standards of working-class Londoners — he visited no factories and interviewed not a single worker — while writing Das Kapital, which declared it an “iron law” that the lot of the proletariat must be getting worse. The 20th-century philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend boasted of having lectured on cosmology “without mentioning a single fact.”
Eventually it became fashionable in intellectual circles to assert that there was no such thing as a fact, or at least not an objective fact. Instead, many intellectuals maintained, facts depend on the perspective from which are adduced. Millions were taught as much in schools; many still believe it today.
More here. And here is a reaction from Massimo Pigluicci in Rationally Speaking:
“The world of the intellectual vs the world of the engineer” [...] is a quasi incoherent rant about the evils of intellectualisms and the virtues of applied science. Ferris writes, I would argue as an intellectual, in one of the most intellectual of contemporary publications, about how the battle between intellectualism and science-engineering has been waged since the beginning of the printing press. The results are in - science/engineering won hands down - time to close the curtain on intellectualism.
Ferris engages in such a stereotypical piece of anti-intellectualism that Richard Hofstadter (the sociologist who authored the classic Anti-intellectualism in American Life) could have used him as a poster boy. Hofstadter defined anti-intellectualism as “a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.” Indeed, Hofstadter even identified the precise category of anti-intellectualism to which Ferris’ rant belongs: instrumentalism, or the idea that only practical knowledge matters and should be cultivated. In America, the attitude traces its roots to the robber barons of the 19th century, as exemplified by the attitude of Andrew Carnegie about classical studies: a waste of “precious years trying to extract education from an ignorant past.”
Pixar Animator Rethinks Hindu Mythology
Maria Popova over at Brain Pickings:
What if you could cross The Night Life of Trees, the magical artwork based on Indian mythology, with The Ancient Book of Myth and War, that delightful side project by a team of Pixar animators? You’d get The Little Book of Hindu Deities: From the Goddess of Wealth to the Sacred Cow — an impossibly charming illustrated almanac of gods and goddesses by Pixar animator Sanjay Patel. These beautiful stories from Indian mythology span the entire spectrum of human experience — petty quarrels and epic battles, love and betrayal, happiness and loss — with equal parts humor and respect, pairing each full-color illustration with a lively profile of that deity.
In the book’s introduction, Patel notes his fascination with Japanese animation, which influenced his style in depicting the Hindu deities — a curious case of creative cross-pollination across cultures. For an added smile, Patel originally self-published the book before Plume picked it up.
Is Self-Knowledge Overrated?
More on Kahneman from Jonah Lehrer in the New Yorker:
[T]here is a subtle optimism lurking in all of Kahneman’s work: it is the hope that self-awareness is a form of salvation, that if we know about our mental mistakes, we can avoid them. One day, we will learn to equally weigh losses and gains; science can help us escape from the cycle of human error. As Kahneman and Tversky noted in the final sentence of their classic 1974 paper, “A better understanding of these heuristics and of the biases to which they lead could improve judgments and decisions in situations of uncertainty.” Unfortunately, such hopes appear to be unfounded. Self-knowledge isn’t a cure for irrationality; even when we know why we stumble, we still find a way to fall.
Consider the story of Harry Markowitz, a Nobel Prize-winning economist who largely invented the field of investment-portfolio theory. By relying on a set of complicated equations, Markowitz was able to calculate the optimal mix of financial assets. (Due to loss-aversion, most investors hold too many low-risk bonds, but Markowitz’s work helped minimize the effect of the bias by mathematizing the decision.) Markowitz, however, was incapable of using his own research, at least when setting up his personal retirement fund. “I should have computed the historical co-variances of the asset classes and drawn an efficient frontier,” Markowitz later confessed. “Instead, I visualized my grief if the stock market … went way down and I was completely in it. My intention was to minimize my future regret. So I split my contributions 50/50 between bonds and equities.”
Football coaches have performed just as badly. Although it’s now clear that their biases have a meaningful impact—a coach immune to loss aversion would win one more game in three seasons out of every four—their collective decision-making hasn’t improved.
This same theme applies to practically all of our thinking errors: self-knowledge is surprisingly useless.
Pakistan Aslant: the two-hour version
Christopher Lydon at Radio Open Source:
Both hours are illuminating the judgment that (1) Pakistan is not about to destroy itself, much less go away and (2) that Pakistan’s mutually-abusive marriage with the United States is not about to end, either. When our Pentagon accuses the Pakistan’s army intelligence of targeting American troops, and when Secretary of State Clinton says we’re not going to take it anymore, count on it that the Pakistan story is with us for a while. But what’s the history unfolding here? How did it come to this? What do Pakistanis say?
What I didn’t know, going in, was the deep old under-layer of tribulation in Pakistan. I wasn’t prepared for the edgy energy of Pakistan either, the confidence of tough people, and much beauty, too. Among the contradictory truths that we Americans barely know about Pakistan are (1) that it’s a cultural powerhouse (in poetry, fiction, and especially music) in South Asia and beyond; (2) it’s been a resentful and prickly junior partner in our US-sponsored proxy wars for thirty-plus years — first (embracing terrorism) against the Soviets and later against the terrorist groups and ideologies we promoted; (3) the troubles of Pakistan can be (and in conversation often are) traced back before the Cold War and the Islamic revolution to the moment of birth in 1947, the Partition of British India that created two unequal sibling rivals in 1947; and (4) that thoughtful Pakistanis talk not only of the rising trend of estrangement from the US but also of a convergent trend toward inequality and the over-reach of elites in both countries.
Listen to the excellent programs here.
The Effect Effect
Daniel Engber in Slate:
In 1969, the psychologist Robert Zajonc published an article about a curious study. He'd posted a silly-sounding word—either kardirga, saricik, biwonjni, nansoma, or iktitaf—on the front page of some student newspapers in Michigan every day for several weeks. Then he sent questionnaires to the papers' readers, asking them to guess whether each word referred to "something 'good' " or "something 'bad.’ " Their answers were consistent, if a little strange: Nonsense words that showed up in print many times were judged to be more positive than those that appeared just once or twice. The fact of their repetition, said Zajonc, gave the words an aura of warmth and trustworthiness. He called this the mere exposure effect.
Maybe you've heard about this study before. Maybe you know a bit about Zajonc and his work. That's good. If you've already seen the phrase mere exposure effect in print, then you'll be more likely to believe that it's true. That's the whole point.
Psychologists have devised other ways to make a message more persuasive. "You should first maximize legibility," says Daniel Kahneman, who describes the Zajonc experiment in Thinking, Fast and Slow, a compendium of his thought and work. Faced with two false statements, side-by-side, he explains, readers are more likely to believe the one that's typed out in boldface. More advice: "Do not use complex language where simpler language will do," and "in addition to making your message simple, try to make it memorable." These factors combine to produce a feeling of "cognitive ease" that lulls our vigilant, more rational selves into a stupor. It's an old story, and one that's been told many times before. It even has a name: Psychologists call it the illusion of truth.
See how it works? A simple or repeated phrase, printed in bold or italics, makes us feel good; it just seems right. For Kahneman, that's exactly what makes it so dangerous.
Amazing underwater swim
"Wife-sharing" haunts Indian villages as girls decline
Nita Bhalla at Reuters:
Social workers say decades of aborting female babies in a deeply patriarchal culture has led to a decline in the population of women in some parts of India, like Baghpat, and in turn has resulted in rising incidents of rape, human trafficking and the emergence of "wife-sharing" amongst brothers.
Aid workers say the practice of female foeticide has flourished among several communities across the country because of a traditional preference for sons, who are seen as old-age security.
"We are already seeing the terrible impacts of falling numbers of females in some communities," says Bhagyashri Dengle, executive director of children's charity Plan India.
"We have to take this as a warning sign and we have to do something about it or we'll have a situation where women will constantly be at risk of kidnap, rape and much, much worse."
Why are people so afraid of Ennahda?
Tunisia is a country with a strong secular identity, but it is equally true that, since the fall of Ben Ali and the annulment of the constitution, practicing Muslim Tunisians have acquired greater space and visibility. Ennahda is without a doubt the symbol for these pious Tunisians, even though Ennahda’s leading candidate in the Tunis 2 constituency (perhaps the most important one) does not wear a veil. Outside the party headquarters in the Montplaisir district, crowded with the national and international press, Souad Abderrahim offers interviews and smiles. With her blue suit, sunglasses and a smile for the TV and newspaper cameras, she even embodies a certain glamour. She seems at ease, obviously she has practiced during the last few days of the election campaign, talking to people, making media appearances and charging up the crowds at the last rally held at the Ben Arus stadium, a working-class district in Tunis where hundreds of veiled and non-veiled women turned up to applaud her. Souad briefly answers questions that are ultimately all addressed at the same issue. What role will women play if Ennahda wins the elections? Victory is now a certainty, and the only element unknown is by what margin. And the answer is always the same, “Our aim is the freedom of all women. The veil is a religious and a personal choice.”more from Antonella Vicini at Reset here. (Also, please give a few bucks to our fundraising campaign so we can get this damn thing over. Thanks.)
Vacant, Limpid, Angelic
Willem de Kooning may or may not have been a bad painter, according to his persistent and vocal detractors, but he was surely a bad influence, giving rise to a “Tenth Street touch” that was a stereotype of spontaneity, anxiety reduced to a mannerism. This opinion has become a truism, one of the few that the likes of Hilton Kramer and Yve-Alain Bois can agree on. For Clement Greenberg, a chief detractor who had once been a supporter, more promising than de Kooning’s followers were color-field painters like Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis, whose stained canvases retained something of the abstract expressionist’s spontaneity without the physical trace of the touch. Others preferred the clean lines of hard-edge painting, of Pop art or Minimalist objects—anything that would eliminate the particularity of the artist’s hand. But a hand like de Kooning’s could never have been removed from sight so easily. Robert Rauschenberg proved it with his famous Erased de Kooning Drawing of 1953. The 27-year-old Rauschenberg spent months laboring to efface the traces of the elder artist’s ink and crayon. “I wore out a lot of erasers,” he later recalled. Yet traces of de Kooning remain, inexpugnable. It’s hard to tell from those faint inflections of the paper’s whiteness what the work it once was might have looked like (no photograph of it ever existed), but that something was once there remains evident. Given how much time and effort it took Rauschenberg to achieve this distinctly unvirginal, non-Mallarméan whiteness, whatever had been there must have been formidable.more from Barry Schwabsky at The Nation here.
a master of the universe?
The consequences of the State Department cables were similarly complex and gradual. They are an archive of unimpeachable value to contemporary historians and probably had some influence in triggering the start of the Arab revolutions in Tunisia. Reverberations have been felt in Ireland, India and Ethiopia. Several American ambassadors have had humiliating apologies to make; one resigned. But the relation between information and governance stands where it did before. Assange needed allies and expertise. But his inexperience and autocratic impatience drove them away. If the WikiLeaks revelations had been directed by a cohesive group of skilled operators who cooperated to minimize the distractions of an information-saturated world and to make the very strongest moral impact with the powerful data at their disposal, it is likely the world would have taken a different kind of notice. The evidence, not the man, would have been the story.more from George Brock at the TLS here.