November 30, 2011
Addition Is Useless, Multiplication Is King
Sanjoy Mahajan in Freakonomics:
TIME magazine has been running a series called “Brilliant: The science of smart” by Annie Murphy Paul. The latest column, “Why Guessing Is Undervalued,” quoted several results from research on learning estimation, a topic near to my heart. One result surprised me particularly:
…good estimators possess a clear mental number line — one in which numbers are evenly spaced, or linear, rather than a logarithmic one in which numbers crowd closer together as they get bigger. Most schoolchildren start out with the latter understanding, shedding it as they grow more experienced with numbers.
I do agree that children start out with a logarithmic understanding. I first learned this idea from a wonderful episode of WNYC’s Radio Lab on “Innate numbers” (Nov. 30, 2009). The producers had asked Stanislas Dehaene to discuss his research on innate number perception.
One of his studies involved an Indian tribe in the Amazon. This tribe does not have words for numbers beyond five, and does not have formal teaching of arithmetic. But the members have a sophisticated understanding of numbers. They were given the following problem: on a line with one object at one end, and nine objects at the other end, they were asked, “How many objects would you place directly in the middle of the line?”
What number would you choose?
Twenty years ago I would have chosen five, for five is the average of one and nine: It is larger than one by four, and smaller than nine also by four. Thus, it is halfway on a linear (or additive) number line. Almost all Western students also choose five. However, the members of the Indian tribe chose three. That choice also makes sense, but in a different way: Three is larger than one by a factor of 3, and smaller than nine also by a factor of 3. Thus, three is halfway between one and nine on a multiplicative or logarithmic number line.
Dehaene concludes, and I agree, that our innate perception of numbers is logarithmic (or multiplicative); and that we learn our linear (or additive) scale through our culture.
More here. [Thanks to Annie Murphy Paul.]
The Worst Book Ever Written
Gabe Habash at the Publishers Weekly blog PWxyz:
Before you get all riled up about how we’ve previously called two other books (How to Avoid Huge Ships and Dildo Cay) the Worst Book Ever, you should know that sometimes PWxyz makes mistakes. Please forgive us our mis-pronouncement and come, walk with us down the hallowed halls of literary infamy, for we have a whopper of a book to show you.
In 1987, The Book Services Ltd published a slim, 144-page cookbook called Microwave for One. The book is by Sonia Allison, who has quite a few publications under her belt. But she’s best known for her masterpiece of tragedy, a book whose title and cover is so rife with sadness that one almost has the urge to brush the invisible tears from Ms. Allison’s face as she leans over her microwave and her food spread.
Very little is known about the contents of the book, except for the few that have been lucky enough to chance upon a copy. Let’s turn to these Amazon customer reviews for some insight.
“After the divorce” by Benjamin L. Hamilton
After the divorce my diet consisted primarily of uncooked ramen and whiskey. Occasionally I wondered aloud if I’d ever have another home cooked meal again.
Then I discovered “Microwave for One” and everything changed.
My favorite chapters were:
Chapter 1: Plugging in your Microwave and You
Chapter 4: How to Wait 3 Minutes
Chapter 11 [BONUS CHAPTER]: Eating with Cats
In closing, I give this book 2 thumbs up (and a paw!). Thanks Sonia Allison!
More here. [Thanks to Charles J. Shields.]
the iron lady
Not long after she resigned as prime minister, in 1990, Margaret Thatcher began to write her memoirs. I met her at a dinner party and asked her what she would call them. The famous blue eyes flashed at me: “Undefeated!” she declared. This expressed a sober arithmetical fact. Uniquely at that time in British politics, Margaret Thatcher had won three general elections in a row as party leader and had never lost any. Before she had the chance to contest her fourth, she was deposed by members of Parliament from her own party in a coup. Yet, even in that contest, the pure numbers were on her side. In 1990, when the Conservative Party staged a challenge to her leadership, she won more legislators’ votes than her main rival, but not enough to avoid a second ballot. Her Cabinet colleagues convinced her that she would be humiliated in the runoff, and she resigned.more from Charles Moore at Vanity Fair here.
A Jew in the Northwest
I was standing, like a good Northwesterner, in the produce section of my locally owned organic-food supermarket—this was a couple of years ago, not long after I had moved to Portland from the New York City area—when I heard a voice in my ear. “Excuse me,” it said. “You’re a Jew, aren’t you?” My sphincter clenched. There were two ways this could go, and neither one was good. Either the guy I could now sense hovering at my elbow was a Lubavitcher, doing outreach among his fallen brethren (drawing them near, in the term of art), or he was a Jew for Jesus, hoping to tell me about the Lord. In the first case, I would sling the brushback pitch that I had learned to keep at hand for such occasions, amply familiar from life in New York. Ma ha’avodah hazose lachem? I would say: What is this worship to you?—the words of the Wicked Son in the Passover story. (“To you,” the Haggadah explains, “and not to him. By excluding himself from the community, he has negated the essential.”) In the second case, I would probably just start screaming and ripping up his pamphlets, as I did to a guy in the subway once. Christian missionaries tend to transform me into a kind of Semitic Incredible Hulk, a ball of ethno-historical rage. (A third possibility, that I’d been teleported back to Poland, circa 1941, and was about to be invited into a cattle car, I discounted as unlikely.)more from William Deresiewicz at The American Scholar here.
fighting the agreeable ooze
If one were to point out that the wider authority of literary criticism is barely discernible today, one could hardly be accused of courting a controversy or kicking up a fuss. There certainly is a coterie of Americans for whom literature and its criticism is a matter of urgency or livelihood or both, but the notion of the literary critic as a cultural gatekeeper, whose judgments shape tastes and move units, sounds either fanciful or anachronistic, depending on whether you believe that such a creature ever really existed. Our culture is now so big and so varied, the population so diverse and so fragmented, that the very idea of anything or anyone having “wider authority” sounds silly, if not absurd. Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain, a selection of Dwight Macdonald’s work from the 1950s and ’60s, includes the kinds of big, critical pronouncements that today would be met with eye rolls of annoyance or, more likely, blank stares of indifference. Macdonald started out as a journalist, and he wrote literary criticism that was as politically informed as it was aesthetically attuned. His voice was cantankerous and opinionated; he provided readers with the larger context as well as the close read. And he wrote much of this biting, caustic criticism for The New Yorker, where he was a staff writer for more than a decade.more from Jennifer Szalai at The Nation here.
Henry Morton Stanley's Unbreakable Will
Is willpower a mood that comes and goes? A temperament you’re born with (or not)? A skill you learn? In Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Florida State University psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and New York Times journalist John Tierney say willpower is a resource that can be renewed or depleted, protected or wasted. This adaptation from their book views Henry Morton Stanley’s iron determination in the light of social science.
In 1887, Henry Morton Stanley went up the Congo River and inadvertently started a disastrous experiment. This was long after his first journey into Africa, as a journalist for an American newspaper in 1871, when he’d become famous by finding a Scottish missionary and reporting the first words of their encounter: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Now, at age 46, Stanley was leading his third African expedition. As he headed into an uncharted expanse of rain forest, he left part of the expedition behind to await further supplies. The leaders of this Rear Column, who came from some of the most prominent families in Britain, proceeded to become an international disgrace. Those men allowed Africans under their command to perish needlessly from disease and poisonous food. They kidnapped and bought young African women. The British commander of the fort savagely beat and maimed Africans, sometimes ordering men to be shot or flogged almost to death for trivial offenses. While the Rear Column was going berserk, Stanley and the forward portion of the expedition spent months struggling to find a way through the dense Ituri rain forest. They suffered through torrential rains. They were weakened by hunger, crippled by festering sores, incapacitated by malaria and dysentery. They were attacked by natives with poisoned arrows and spears. Of those who started with Stanley on this trek into “darkest Africa,” as he called that sunless expanse of jungle, fewer than one in three emerged with him. Yet Stanley persevered. His European companions marveled at his “strength of will.” Africans called him Bula Matari, Breaker of Rocks. “For myself,” he wrote in an 1890 letter to The Times, “I lay no claim to any exceptional fineness of nature; but I say, beginning life as a rough, ill-educated, impatient man, I have found my schooling in these very African experiences which are now said by some to be in themselves detrimental to European character.
Bam! How comics teach science
Can you really learn relativity from a comic book? The Japanese have been using manga for decades to teach complex subjects, and now Americans are doing it too. No Starch Press, a San Francisco publishing house, puts out a whole line of manga-style books on math and science, picked up from the original Japanese and translated for the American market. Yes, there's a "Manga Guide to Relativity," as well as calculus, linear algebra, biochemistry and other head-banging subjects. The plot lines may sound sappy to grown-ups. Usually they involve a cute schoolgirl or schoolboy who's challenged by an equally cute teacher to master a seemingly impenetrable subject. But Bill Pollock, the founder and president of No Starch Press, says the books get the job done, especially for students who are at a crucial age for math and science education. "We're not out to publish the best manga ever," Pollock told me. "The manga is a vehicle."
Educational comics are nothing new, of course: Classics Illustrated, for example, was delivering comic-book versions of English lit and science class back in the '50s. (I still get the heebie-jeebies when I recall the Classics Illustrated version of "Jane Eyre" that sat in the comic-book box at Grandma's house.) More recently, cartoonist Larry Gonick has been using the comic-book format to explain subjects ranging from chemistry to physics to sex. This year, one of the items on my holiday book list is "Feynman," a graphic-novel biography of the bongo-playing physicist. But manga books come from a different cultural tradition — the same tradition that spawned Pokemon, Hello Kitty and other Japanese imports that American kids have grown up with. In Japan, there's a manga subgenre ("gakushu manga") that is completely focused on education. These books, which range around 200 pages in length, are the ones that have been adapted into English-language "manga guides."
The Crises of Democratic Capitalism
Wolfgang Streeck in New Left Review:
The collapse of the American financial system that occurred in 2008 has since turned into an economic and political crisis of global dimensions. How should this world-shaking event be conceptualized? Mainstream economics has tended to conceive society as governed by a general tendency toward equilibrium, where crises and change are no more than temporary deviations from the steady state of a normally well-integrated system. A sociologist, however, is under no such compunction. Rather than construe our present affliction as a one-off disturbance to a fundamental condition of stability, I will consider the ‘Great Recession’ and the subsequent near-collapse of public finances as a manifestation of a basic underlying tension in the political-economic configuration of advanced-capitalist societies; a tension which makes disequilibrium and instability the rule rather than the exception, and which has found expression in a historical succession of disturbances within the socio-economic order. More specifically, I will argue that the present crisis can only be fully understood in terms of the ongoing, inherently conflictual transformation of the social formation we call ‘democratic capitalism’.
Democratic capitalism was fully established only after the Second World War and then only in the ‘Western’ parts of the world, North America and Western Europe. There it functioned extraordinarily well for the next two decades—so well, in fact, that this period of uninterrupted economic growth still dominates our ideas and expectations of what modern capitalism is, or could and should be. This is in spite of the fact that, in the light of the turbulence that followed, the quarter century immediately after the war should be recognizable as truly exceptional. Indeed I suggest that it is not the trente glorieuses but the series of crises which followed that represents the normal condition of democratic capitalism—a condition ruled by an endemic conflict between capitalist markets and democratic politics, which forcefully reasserted itself when high economic growth came to an end in the 1970s. In what follows I will first discuss the nature of that conflict and then turn to the sequence of political-economic disturbances that it produced, which both preceded and shaped the present global crisis.
Walk-Through-Wall Effect Might Be Possible With Humanmade Object
Nathan Collins in Science Now:
If you've ever tried the experiment, you know you can't walk through a wall. But subatomic particles can pull off similar feats through a weird process called quantum tunneling. Now, a team of physicists says that it might just be possible to observe such tunneling with a larger, humanmade object, though others say the proposal faces major challenges.
If successful, the experiment would be a striking advance toward fashioning mechanical systems that behave quantum mechanically. In 2010, physicists took a key first step in that direction by coaxing a tiny object into states of motion that can be described only by quantum mechanics. Tunneling would be an even bigger achievement.
So how does quantum tunneling work? Imagine that an electron, for example, is a marble sitting in one of two depressions separated by a small hill, which represent the effects of a sculpted electric field. To cross the hill from one depression to the other, the marble needs to roll with enough energy. If it has too little energy, then classical physics predicts it can never reach the top of the hill and cross over it.
Tiny particles such as electrons, however, can still make it across even if they don't have enough energy to climb the hill. Quantum physics describes such particles as extended waves of probability—and it turns out that there is a probability that one of them will "tunnel" through the hill and suddenly materialize in the other depression, even though the electron can't occupy the high ground between the two low spots.
It sounds unlikely, but scientists and engineers have amply demonstrated quantum tunneling in semiconductors in which electrons tunnel through nonconducting layers of material.
Slavoj Zizek and Harum Scarum
Hamid Dabashi in Al Jazeera:
In Gene Nelson's "Harum Scarum" (1965), featuring Elvis Presley as the Hollywood heartthrob Johnny Tyronne, we meet the action movie star travelling through the Orient while promoting his new film, "Sands of the Desert". Upon arrival, however, Elvis Presley/Johnny Tyronne is kidnapped by a gang of assassins led by a temptress "Oriental" named Aishah, who wish to hire him to carry out an assassination. Emboldened by proper "Western virtues", Elvis will do no such thing and manages to sing and dance his way out of the way of the conniving "Orientals".
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian philosopher, made a rather abrupt staccato observation - a hit-and-run strike worthy of an action hero - very much reminiscent of the fate of Elvis Presley and his Oriental sojourn:
"I think today the world is asking for a real alternative. Would you like to live in a world where the only alternative is either anglo-saxon neoliberalism or Chinese-Singaporean capitalism with Asian values? I claim if we do nothing we will gradually approach a kind of a new type of authoritarian society. Here I see the world historical importance of what is happening today in China. Until now there was one good argument for capitalism: sooner or later it brought a demand for democracy ... What I'm afraid of is, with this capitalism with Asian values, we get a capitalism much more efficient and dynamic than our western capitalism. But I don't share the hope of my liberal friends - give them ten years [and there will be] another Tiananmen Square demonstration - no, the marriage between capitalism and democracy is over."
What precisely are these "Asian values," when uttered by an Eastern European, we Asians of one sort or another may wonder? Did capitalism really have to travel all the way to China and Singapore (as Elvis did to the Orient) to lose all its proper Western virtues (and what exactly might they be) and become corrupted (or indeed carry its destructive forces to its logical conclusions)? So, are we to believe, when it flourishes in "the West", capitalism flowers in democracy and when it assumes "Asian values" it divorces that virtue and becomes a promiscuous monster?
Elvis Presley indeed. Let us rescue capitalism from that treacherous Aishah and her Asian values and have it go back to his Western virtues.
What Zizek is warning the world against is capitalism with its newly acquired "Asian values", as distinct from what he calls "our [his] Western capitalism", he insists, obviously adorned with "Western virtues" - which promiscuity has already resulted in decoupling the happily-ever-after marriage of capitalism and democracy.
November 29, 2011
Richard Rhodes explores Hedy Lamarr’s other career
Sam Kean in Slate:
Imagine that, on Sept. 12, 2001, an outraged Angelina Jolie had pulled out a pad of paper and some drafting tools and, all on her own, designed a sophisticated new missile system to attack al-Qaida. Now imagine that the design proved so innovative that it transcended weapons technology, and sparked a revolution in communications technology over the next half-century.
Believe it or not, this essentially happened to Hedy Lamarr. Often proclaimed “the most beautiful woman in the world,” the 26-year-old Lamarr was thriving in Hollywood when, in mid-September 1940, Nazi U-boats hunted down and sank a cruise ship trying to evacuate 90 British schoolchildren to Canada. Seventy-seven drowned in the bleak north Atlantic. Lamarr, a Jewish immigrant from Nazi-occupied Austria, was horrified. She decided to fight back, but instead of the usual celebrity posturing, she sat down at a drafting table at home and sketched out a revolutionary radio guidance system for anti-submarine torpedoes.
This unlikely tale is the subject of Richard Rhodes’ new book, Hedy’s Folly. Compared to his other works, like the magisterial (and quite hefty) The Making of the Atomic Bomb, this book breezes by in 272 chatty pages. Rhodes succeeds in the most vital thing—capturing the spirit of a willful woman who wanted recognition for more than her pretty face—but he skims over the deeper questions that Lamarr’s life story raises about the nature of creative genius.
Occupation as Fairness
Joshua Cohen and Seth Resler in The Boston Review:
Seth Resler: John Rawls’s magnum opus is A Theory of Justice, published in 1971. Let’s talk about what the theory actually is. It has its own name, which is “justice as fairness,” and there are two principles involved. Tell me about them.
Joshua Cohen: A Theory of Justice defends two principles of justice. The first principle is an expression of what we conventionally refer to in the United States as liberal ideas about liberty. The idea is that everyone is entitled to equal fundamental liberties including political liberty, freedom to participate in the political process, religious liberty, freedom of speech and association, freedoms associated with the rule of law—including protection of bodily integrity. Rawls says that principle has priority. That’s the first principle of the theory. We’ll call it the Liberty Principle.
The second principle has two parts, and because it has two parts it is a little more complicated than the first one. The first part of the second principle provides a way to think about equality of opportunity. The idea is that where you end up shouldn’t depend on where you start out, that your birth should not fix your fate. A little more precisely, it says that if you take two people who are equally motivated and equally able, their chances in life should not depend on differences in their social backgrounds. Your chances in life shouldn’t depend on your class background, your family background, the neighborhood you grow up in; they should depend on what you’re able to do and what you’re motivated to do. So, equally able and equally motivated, you have equal chances. That is Equality of Fair Opportunity.
The Debated Truth About the Crackdown on Occupy
Naomi Wolf in The Guardian:
US citizens of all political persuasions are still reeling from images of unparallelled police brutality in a coordinated crackdown against peaceful OWS protesters in cities across the nation this past week. An elderly woman was pepper-sprayed in the face; the scene of unresisting, supine students at UC Davis being pepper-sprayed by phalanxes of riot police went viral online; images proliferated of young women – targeted seemingly for their gender – screaming, dragged by the hair by police in riot gear; and the pictures of a young man, stunned and bleeding profusely from the head, emerged in the record of the middle-of-the-night clearing of Zuccotti Park.
But just when Americans thought we had the picture – was this crazy police and mayoral overkill, on a municipal level, in many different cities? – the picture darkened. The National Union of Journalists and the Committee to Protect Journalists issued a Freedom of Information Act request to investigate possible federal involvement with law enforcement practices that appeared to target journalists. The New York Times reported that "New York cops have arrested, punched, whacked, shoved to the ground and tossed a barrier at reporters and photographers" covering protests. Reporters were asked by NYPD to raise their hands to prove they had credentials: when many dutifully did so, they were taken, upon threat of arrest, away from the story they were covering, and penned far from the site in which the news was unfolding. Other reporters wearing press passes were arrested and roughed up by cops, after being – falsely – informed by police that "It is illegal to take pictures on the sidewalk."
Corey Robin responds:
On Friday, Naomi Wolf made the attention-grabbing accusation in the Guardian that federal officials were involved in, indeed ordered, the violent crackdowns against Occupy Wall Street protesters that we’ve been seeing across the country these past few weeks.
Congressional overseers, with the blessing of the White House, told the DHS [Department of Homeland Security] to authorise mayors to order their police forces – pumped up with millions of dollars of hardware and training from the DHS – to make war on peaceful citizens.
The next day, Joshua Holland debunked Wolf’s claims on Alternet.
I don’t have anything to add to Holland’s excellent critique. Wolf gets her facts wrong, and he shows it.
To my mind, though, the problem is bigger than that: The reason Wolf gets her facts wrong is that she’s got her theory wrong. And though many were quick to jump off her conspiracy bandwagon once Holland pointed out its flaws, I suspect that one of the reasons they were so quick to jump on it in the first place is that they subscribe to her theory.
Why Marriage is a Declining Option for Modern Women
Kate Bolick in The Observer:
For thousands of years, marriage had been a primarily economic and political contract between two people, negotiated and policed by their families, church and community. It took more than one person to make a farm or business thrive, and so a potential mate's skills, resources, thrift and industriousness were valued as highly as personality and attractiveness. This held true for all classes. In the American colonies, wealthy merchants entrusted business matters to their landlocked wives while off at sea, just as sailors, vulnerable to the unpredictability of seasonal employment, relied on their wives' steady income as domestics in elite households. Two-income families were the norm.
Not until the 18th century did labour begin to be divided along a sharp line: wage-earning for the men and unpaid maintenance of household and children for the women. Coontz notes that as recently as the late 17th century, women's contributions to the family economy were openly recognised, and advice books urged husbands and wives to share domestic tasks. But as labour became separated, so did our spheres of experience – the marketplace versus the home – one founded on reason and action, the other on compassion and comfort. Not until the postwar gains of the 1950s, however, were a majority of American families able to actually afford living off a single breadwinner.
All of this was intriguing, for sure – but even more surprising to Coontz was the realisation that those alarmed reporters and audiences might be on to something. Coontz still didn't think that marriage was falling apart, but she came to see that it was undergoing a transformation far more radical than anyone could have predicted, and that our current attitudes and arrangements are without precedent. "Today we are experiencing a historical revolution every bit as wrenching, far-reaching, and irreversible as the Industrial Revolution," she wrote.
Last summer I called Coontz to talk to her about this revolution. "We are without a doubt in the midst of an extraordinary sea change," she told me. "The transformation is momentous – immensely liberating and immensely scary. When it comes to what people actually want and expect from marriage and relationships, and how they organise their sexual and romantic lives, all the old ways have broken down."
Giving thanks for error bars
Sean Carroll in Cosmic Variance:
Error bars are a simple and convenient way to characterize the expected uncertainty in a measurement, or for that matter the expected accuracy of a prediction. In a wide variety of circumstances (though certainly not always), we can characterize uncertainties by a normal distribution — the bell curve made famous by Gauss. Sometimes the measurements are a little bigger than the true value, sometimes they’re a little smaller. The nice thing about a normal distribution is that it is fully specified by just two numbers — the central value, which tells you where it peaks, and the standard deviation, which tells you how wide it is. The simplest way of thinking about an error bar is as our best guess at the standard deviation of what the underlying distribution of our measurement would be if everything were going right. Things might go wrong, of course, and your neutrinos might arrive early; but that’s not the error bar’s fault.
Now, there’s much more going on beneath the hood, as any scientist (or statistician!) worth their salt would be happy to explain. Sometimes the underlying distribution is not expected to be normal. Sometimes there are systematic errors. Are you sure you want the standard deviation, or perhaps the standard error? What are the error bars on your error bars?
Robert Reich: "The REAL Public Nuisance"
the suffering of the vegetables
Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, the aforementioned carrot vivisector, was a serious man of science. Born in what is today Bangladesh in 1858, Bose was a quintessential polymath: physicist, biologist, botanist, archaeologist. He was the first person from the Indian subcontinent to receive a U.S. patent, and is considered one of the fathers of radio science, alongside such notables as Tesla, Marconi, and Popov. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1920, becoming the first Indian to be honored by the Royal Society in the field of science. It’s clear that Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose was a scientist of some weight. And, like many scientists of weight, he has become popularly known for his more controversial pursuits — in Bose’s case, his experiments in plant physiology. Perhaps it was his work in radio waves and electricity that inspired Bose’s investigations into what we might call the invisible world. Bose strongly felt that physics could go far beyond what was apparent to the naked eye. Around 1900, Bose began his investigations into the secret world of plants. He found that all plants, and all parts of plants, have a sensitive nervous system not unlike that of animals, and that their responses to external stimuli could be measured and recorded. Some plant reactions can be seen easily in sensitive plants like the Mimosa, which, when irritated, will react with the sudden shedding or shrinking of its leaves. But when Bose attached his magnifying device to plants from which it was more difficult to witness a response, such as vegetables, he was astounded to discover that they, too, became excited when vexed. All around us, Bose realized, the plants are communicating. We just don't notice it.more from Stefany Anne Golberg at The Smart Set here.
on the American way of death
There are, in other words, two aspects to the phenomenon of death. On the one hand, there is death itself — immutable, the single certainty all of us face, unchanging as it has always been. On the other hand, though, is how we living face the death of others, which is constantly changing, composed of ritual, emotion, and something that each culture and each generation must define — and redefine — for itself. Our current culture seems generally uncomfortable with facing the prospect of mourning, and even more uncomfortable with the dead body itself. Only nine days after the attacks of September 11, 2001, George W. Bush forcefully declared that it was time to turn grief into action, attempting to foreclose any extended period of public mourning period. And personal losses aren’t much different; half a century ago, Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death laid bare the amount of chemicals, makeup, and money we waste in order to give death a pleasant, less death-like appearance. Death is a thing to be acknowledged but not dwelled on, not faced head-on.more from Colin Dickey at the LA Review of Books here.
ken russell (1927-2011)
It is the commonplace fate of British cinema's more visionary talents to end their careers marginalised and even mocked. This was certainly what happened to Ken Russell, who has died aged 84. In his latter years, with his shock of white hair and his red face, the director cut a cantankerous and slightly buffoonish figure. He asked for money for interviews. His greatest work wasn't much in circulation. Those who knew him from such lesser efforts as The Fall Of The Louse Of Usher (2002), his eccentric and low-budget Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, or for his Cliff Richard and Sara Brightman videos, were probably baffled that he had such a glowing reputation. The director's son Alex Verney-Elliott said his father had died in hospital after a series of strokes. Russell's widow, Elize, said she was "devastated" by her husband's death, which had been "completely unexpected". Even in his pomp, he had always been a figure of considerable controversy. He was so often called the "enfant terrible" of British film that no one paid as much attention to his craftsmanship as they should have done.more from Geoffrey Macnab at The Independent here.
Each cold October morning he went out
into the Gate Field and walked up and down,
like the horse-drawn seed-drill quartering every inch
to make sure the harvest was kept constant,
reading his Office, every sentence
of the forty pages for the day. In the evening,
as the colder darkness fell with the crows’
harsh calling, he sat alone in the back
benches of the unheated chapel, hour
after hour, staring for inspiration
at the golden, unresponsive tabernacle.
by Bernard O'Donoghue
Publisher: PIW, © 2011
Aging stem cells may explain higher prevalence of leukemia, infections among elderly
Human stem cells aren't immune to the aging process, according to scientists at the Stanford University School of Medicine. The researchers studied hematopoietic stem cells, which create the cells that comprise the blood and immune system. Understanding when and how these stem cells begin to falter as the years pass may explain why some diseases, such as acute myeloid leukemia, increase in prevalence with age, and also why elderly people tend to be more vulnerable to infections such as colds and the flu.
"We know that immune system function seems to decline with increasing age," said Wendy Pang, MD. "This is the first study comparing the function and gene expression profiles of young and old purified, human hematopoietic stem cells, and it tells us that these clinical changes can be traced back to stem cell function." Specifically, the researchers found that hematopoietic stem cells from healthy people over age 65 make fewer lymphocytes — cells responsible for mounting an immune response to viruses and bacteria — than stem cells from healthy people between ages 20 and 35. (The cells were isolated from bone marrow samples.) Instead, elderly hematopoietic stem cells, or HSCs, have a tendency to be biased in their production of another type of white blood cell called a myeloid cell. This bias may explain why older people are more likely than younger people to develop myeloid malignancies.
Human Nature’s Pathologist
Carl Zimmer in The New York Times:
Dr. Pinker has focused much of his research on language on a seemingly innocuous fluke: irregular verbs. While we can generate most verb tenses according to a few rules, we also hold onto a few arbitrary ones. Instead of simply turning “speak” into “speaked,” for example, we say “spoke.” As a young professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he pored over transcripts of children’s speech, looking for telling patterns in the mistakes they made as they mastered verbs. Out of this research, he proposed that our brains contain two separate systems that contribute to language. One combines elements of language to build up meaning; the other is like a mental dictionary we keep in our memory.
This research helped to convince Dr. Pinker that language has deep biological roots. Some linguists argued that language simply emerged as a byproduct of an increasingly sophisticated brain, but he rejected that idea. “Language is so woven into what makes humans human,” he said, “that it struck me as inconceivable that it was just an accident.” Instead, he concluded that language was an adaptation produced by natural selection. Language evolved like the eye or the hand, thanks to the way it improved reproductive success. In 1990 he published a paper called “Natural Language and Natural Selection,” with his student Paul Bloom, now at Yale. The paper was hugely influential. It also became the seed of his breakthrough book, “The Language Instinct,” which quickly became a best seller and later won a place on a list in the journal American Scientist of the top 100 science books of the 20th century.
November 28, 2011
More about pluralism and perspectivism
by Dave Maier
A couple of weeks back here at 3QD, Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse told us about a certain contentious use of the term "pluralism" in philosophy, which tries to identify a particular conception of philosophical method with the institutional virtues of toleration, openmindedness, and cute little bunnies. In their opinion, however, that doesn't fly: "every conception of the scope of toleration identifies limits to the tolerable. And for every conception of toleration, there is some other conception that charges the first with undue narrowness[.... There] is in the end no way of eschewing the substantive evaluative issues," i.e., in order to identify the virtue of toleration with a supposedly "pluralistic" method.
Well, yes – no slam dunk for the "pluralistic" side. But just for that very reason, it's worth a look at those substantive issues which we cannot eschew. This will involve making a few distinctions (mmm ... distinctions ...), so let's get started.
What kinds of "pluralism" are there in philosophy? First, as Aiken and Talisse indicate in referring to "the idea of pluralism as a political movement within Philosophy [my emphasis]", one could be a "pluralist" by believing that the range of philosophers hired by university philosophy departments should be wide rather than narrow. Is the point of a philosophy department to be a center of research into a particular subdiscipline or issue or method, or rather to provide as broad a selection of courses for students as is practical given the department's resources? Notably, such a "pluralist" might come from anywhere on the philosophical spectrum. One could think of the university's educational mission in this latter way no matter how one pursued one's own philosopical agenda.
Naturally, departmental hiring is one of the main ways this issue comes up. Why should we get another X scholar when we don't have even one Y scholar? Students are clamoring for Z; should we give it to them, even though – or because – that's not really what we do here? Politically, the game goes like this: when you are in the minority, you call for inclusion and pluralism; while when you are in the majority, you call for quality control or even the stamping out of heresy. Again, this is independent of the content of your views or your philosophical method.
Of course, if Y or Z is bollocks, then maybe we shouldn't hire a scholar of same in any case. As we've already agreed, everyone beleves in quality control, no matter what their views about "pluralism" in the above sense. So again, simply waving the flag of pluralism (and attacking "exclusion") is not particularly helpful or informative. Naturally one's judgment of whether Y or Z is indeed bollocks will depend on one's own philosophical commitments, so we'll need to look there for other senses of "pluralism."
Philosophers disagree about the nature and purpose of philosophy itself. This is why it can seem that one such conception is inherently more "pluralistic" than another. For example, one might think that philosophy is the rigorous search for the one correct doctrine, the one that gets reality right, that represents it as it really is, independently of how it appears. Or one might think instead that there can be no such doctrine, so that philosophy is the development of various types of tools for dealing with reality, or of disclosing different aspects of reality to us, or of ways to dispel philosophical confusion. Proponents of the latter views (themselves a plurality) naturally self-ascribe "pluralism" to distinguish themselves from the perceived obsession of their opponents with True Doctrine – especially when they join together for political/institutional reasons. Yet of course each such philosopher can be just as dogmatic as any in the first group. (As A & T say, "it turns out that for the self-described pluralists, the category of the tolerable and to-be-included extends only as far those who see Philosophy in roughly the same way they see it.")
Still, it's no accident that the battle lines have formed in the way they have, at least recently. Since those calling for pluralism tend to be "continental" philosophers, it's natural to assimilate this controversy to that between realism and relativism. This is because "analytic" philosophers – the dominant group in American philosophy departments – tend to be realists in search of the one true doctrine, while continental philosophers have tended to value more literary and conversational or hermeneutic approaches, which can be difficult to distinguish from relativism. We won't be able to make departmental hiring decisions in this space today; but we can at least examine the connection between one's philosophical orientation and one's attitude toward difference and disagreement.
If you're a relativist, it seems that you would indeed be a "pluralist"; but then it's not clear that you would have any right to the idea of "quality control" at all. Must I then embrace realism and dogmatism in order to be "tolerant" in the sense in which it is indeed a virtue – one consistent with using one's judgment about what is valid and useful and what is bollocks? If so, then one engages in "quality control" simply by rejecting as bollocks any resistance to realism in philosophy, regardless of institutional politics.
But as I have already argued in this space, one can resist realism without falling into relatvism as a result. In an earlier post on the matter I said that Nietzsche resists realism by telling us to use the various perspectives in the service of knowledge, suggesting that they cannot simply amount to knowledge in themselves - that is, they are not themselves beliefs to refute or confirm. Yet they can't simply be detached from epistemic considerations, or it wouldn't make sense to argue for them, and perspectivism would then indeed devolve into some sort of relativism (e.g. historicism). This means that perspectivists cannot dodge the traditional challenge: how can perspectivism be tolerant of other perspectives? And if it is not, then what is the virtue of "perspectivism" if it simply amounts to a dogmatic attachment to its own rejection of dogma? Opponents usually present this challenge in the form of a dilemma: is perspectivism true, or just another perspective? The implication is that to say that it's the truth undermines its content (which supposedly rejects truth); while to admit that it isn't – that it's "just another perspective" – undermines its claim on us.
In other words, the issue here is self-reference. Everybody knows that relativism can, or must, run into self-referential difficulties, provoking the snippy rejoinder that "relativism isn't 'true-for-me'". Less often recognized, and the key to the issue, is that realism does as well. Realism gives us a philosophical account of reality and truth. Is it true? The realist thinks he is on safe ground, self-referentially speaking, in being able, unlike the relativist who "rejects truth," to say "yes it is". But philosophical realism isn't the same thing as the empirical truths it describes. What is it for philosophical doctrine to be true? One can then retreat to a further account to stop the regress; but is that metaphilosophical doctrine then true in turn (and what does that mean in any case?)? Only in platonism can the regress be stopped (indeed, this is the very essence of the platonistic strategy – to ground truth in a transcendent ideal). This is of course not a refutation, as perhaps platonism can be made coherent after all; but it should cast some doubt on the easy assumption that self-reference is a point for realism.
In fact it is neither realism nor relativism, but instead perspectivism, which meets the challenge of self-reference head-on, as we can see from a detailed answer to the question of how perspectivism deals with the apparent paradox of non-perspectivist perspectives. In the Nietzschean terms of my earlier post, "objectivity [i.e. commitment to which is sufficient to repel charges of relativism] in inquiry is not the suppression of our subjective interests but instead the 'ability to control one's Pro and Con'". Here's a way (not necessarily The way) of understanding this. Think of "Pro" as the pluralist element in perspectivism: every distinct perspective is a perspective on reality, and is thus potentially capable of revealing truths invisible from other perspectives. "Con" is the epistemic element: every perspective different from my own incorporates beliefs about the world which I consider false, and thus contains error as far as I'm concerned. Perspectivism thus means maintaining a balance between these elements (and not a facile political "balance" between competing perspectives).
Now, I can recognize what someone says as manifesting a different perspective on reality, and appreciate it without dismissing it, only to the extent that I understand it. If Davidson is right, this requires interpretive charity; but there's a tension between charitable readings, placing oneself imaginatively in the others' shoes ("Pro"), on the one hand, and, on the other, preserving one's own sense of how the world is, recognizing the possibility of error ("Con") in what the other guy says. This is not a contradiction, as realists imply with their one-line dismissals ("relativism isn't true-for-me"), but instead a tension – in the sense that tensions are good, prompting one to steer carefully between Scylla and Charybdis.
How does this work? Let's consider a case which puts a different spin on the idea of pluralism and tolerance in philosophy. "Speculative realists" are continental philosophers who complain about a stifling orthodoxy of ... idealism and relativism. We might expect them to call for "pluralism," and in a way they do. However, here it's due less to metaphilosophical considerations – after all, they're realists – than a need for open-ended brainstorming, seeing as there is as yet no settled orthodoxy to defend (except perhaps the unacceptability of idealism) or even any coherent research program to focus on.
Now you might think that the last thing I as a "perspectivist" want to hear is renewed calls for realism and (yikes) a "turn toward Platonism." And indeed one option I have here is to take them at their word that they are realists, and as a committed opponent of same, treat them as hostile (as lawyers say on TV). Quentin Meillassoux's book After Finitude contains passages which sound very much like Alan Sokal's fatuous dismissals of (what he sees as) continental relativism, and it seems like I should be within my rights to close the book at that point and walk away shaking my head.
But this is not my only option. For one thing, it may be uncharitable, and it certainly doesn't show any exercise of interpretive imagination on my part. To dismiss "speculative realism" as simply mistaken may be, in my terms borrowed from Nietzsche above, to let my "Con" control me rather than the other way around. How then can I balance it with my "Pro," seeing realism as a potentially valid perspective on reality even while rejecting it in favor of perspectivism?
The reference here to a potential failure of imagination, and one which is specifically interpretive, is our clue. Even when my concern is "simply" to understand rather than judge, doing so effectively involves the use of my whole array of faculties – including the faculty of judgment. That is, the interpretive or hermeneutic element of perspectivism, as inherited from Davidson and Gadamer, cannot be separated from the evaluative or epistemic element. "Perspectives" – like Wittgenstein's "forms of life" – are to be thought of in both doxastic and semantic terms: as incorporating both beliefs about how things are and the ways in which we pick them out and give them significance. Successful interpretation – and indeed successful inquiry – requires a skilled interplay between the two aspects.
Considered in their semantic aspect, different perspectives provide diverse ways of thinking about what we take ourselves to know. In this context, consider the status of the parallel postulate in the various systems of geometry. We used to think that Euclidean geometry was true: it got space "right". Yet even though we now believe otherwise, we don't reject it as "false." It isn't "true," but we can use it as a way to speak truths about (say) the Euclidean plane. Similarly, we can use Newtonian physics to state undeniable truths about the macroscopic world. (Note for example that the discovery that solid objects are mostly empty space at the subatomic level doesn't mean that tables aren't solid after all – knock your head against one if you don't believe me.)
If we left it at that, as it is easy to do, we would be sent back into the relativism of diverse conceptual schemes set over against the empirical content of belief about the world. But it is fundamental to Davidson's conception of interpretation that this dualism is incoherent. This means that I may select among my interpretive options – and thus the framing of my epistemic commitments – as I see fit in the context, rather than seeing them as determined for me ahead of time. This allows us, again, to see the "Pro" and "Con" in a productive tension, rather than as constituting the implied self-refuting contradiction, a tension I may (if, as Nietzsche says, I am "healthy" enough to do so) control for my own purposes, rather than letting them control me. It also ties together the perspectivist rejection of the philosophy/metaphilosophy dualism with the related interpretivist rejection of the dualism of conceptual scheme and empirical content.
How might this help me see "speculative realism" as something potentially more valid than more Stupid Realist Tricks? I have up to now been in the habit of interpreting continental idealism charitably, as providing hints (or even more) for ways to get past the dualisms inherent in much contemporary philosophy. But in interpreting continental realism, I may decide to take another tack. In looking for a way (following Davidson) to maximize shared belief with realists for interpretive purposes, I may, as they do, treat idealistic post-Heideggerians as hostile, emphasizing for rejection their differences from my own views instead of the similarities. In that context, I can see a "turn toward Platonism" as potentially a good thing, and construe my qualms not as a priori disagreement with the whole idea (as when I throw After Finitude across the room in disgust) but instead as a cooperative – and, again, interpretive – effort to understand where exactly such a turn would leave us, and how exactly talk of "independent" objects is to be construed.
It bears repeating that even this degree of Horizontverschmelzung (I love that word) leaves plenty of room for pushing back. (Davidsonian "charity" has its limits, a point which critics often miss, though Davidson himself is very clear on the matter.) This is not to say that my interpretive freedom is complete – another sense in which interpretive charity is limited. I can see the possibility of fruitful discourse here, rather than disgusted mutual rejection (which after all may still occur) only because I see potential resources nearby. Some "speculative realists" appeal not simply to tiresome anti-idealist persiflage but also to philosophers (such as Deleuze, Delanda, etc.) I consider at least potential allies. Deleuze's description of the "state philosophy" he opposes sounds like a laundry list of the contemporary Cartesian theses I reject; yet Deleuze is clearly not a relativist. If I didn't see this possible common ground (say if I had only the parts of After Finitude I've managed to get through so far to guide me), I would have no choice but to let my "Con" take the day – and not necessarily wrongly either.
It remains to be seen whether this is possible, and in any case I've run over. But at least it should be clear that the issue of "pluralism" has philosophical substance beyond that of institutional politics.
The Kreutzer Sonata in Addis Ababa
I stare at the garbled reflection, shifting shape, regiments of memory’s purchase, in full face and profile, read the riot act, novel, in the uneven mirror of an emperor’s palace as I identify myself and try to tear off a niqab.
When Leo Tolstoy heard the Kreutzer Sonata, played for the first time, it moved him to write his controversial novel by the same name. Perhaps the music of the sonata resonated with his already heightened sense of war weary inner turmoil, as though under each peaceful note fevered a conflict between the generosity of intent and the tightness of guilt and complicity. As though, it was a troubling sense of heightened anxiety, a railing against injustice, and the whole sale commoditization of humanity: a typical plea of an intellectual for truthful release from what is morally reprehensible.
Count Leo Tolstoy was a scion of an oppressive system, a vastly wealthy feudal landlord, who owned serfs and whose pedigree was older and more aristocratic then the Czar himself. Yet, he was known as a critic of the system, a social reformer, an ascetic and a moralist. He took a stand on and spoke out against every kind of humanitarian transgression from the mishandling of famines in Russia to the persecutions of dissenters and censorships by an often opaque and cruel regime. He was expected to do so, to be the voice of social conscience, by everyone in Russia: by the Progressives and the public who revered his writings and novels and considered him the counter point on moral authority.
The Kreutzer Sonata, the novel was a damning commentary on the social order of the day: the unfortunate concert and marriage between imperialism, war, poverty and famine. The very same forces that beat the drums of war and had financed war, trained militias and militaries and laid the foundation for famine, had simultaneously, played the violin of piety and pity and anointed themselves as saviors by financing food, priests and nuns to feed the hungry in those famines. The very same forces which financed sophisticated equipment and machinery for war and colonization which benefited the wealthy in filling their already overflowing coffers, simultaneously prescribed to the poor the enlistment in militaries and back breaking manual labor to earn enough to eat. These financiers were the less than one percent of the population who were the so called representatives of ethics and morality and owned fabulous amounts of wealth, while the majority the ninety nine percent lived in hunger and misery. The Kreutzer Sonata was an author’s accusation that an unjust and cruel social order was not a mysterious thing, invisible and from God, but rather, it was the creation of humans—individuals—complicit in its creation and perpetuation, whose most basic personal instincts and behavior were responsible for the larger evil in society of unsuitable wants and violence. Understandably, like the Occupation Wall Street Movement today (here and here), Tolstoy’s novel was at that time when it was published in 1889 ill received by the polite, unethical and tight elite. In the era of Queen Victoria, Tolstoy whose ancestry included Czarina Catherine the Great, was judged by the polite society of aristocrats as being mad.
The music of the Kreutzer Sonata, perhaps helped to remove the hesitation and the veneer of etiquette and decorum for Tolstoy—And in that moment the simple themes of war, peace, good, evil, beauty, love and betrayal around which he had organized his own life and about which he had narrated and mapped out elaborate complex stories, making the unpalatable, palatable, much like the Ethiopian way of conveying meaning through the devise of wax and gold ---perhaps, in that moment, all the pretenses for this unraveled. And in that moment a very conflicted, broken hearted, passionate and tormented author –as authors generally perhaps are, a father of thirteen who had buried four children, a husband, a war veteran, a feudal landlord, an adored author of great novels, a social commentator, a man renouncing God and finding himself---perhaps in that moment Tolstoy, decided to say it all unvarnished. Perhaps he decided to not accuse God and not hold God responsible. Perhaps in that moment Tolstoy held men, responsible for human violence---and held himself and others like him responsible for creating the sanctity of violence in the name of God. The kind of violence that distorted religion and defined piety and salvation as meaning feeding the poor, the orphaned and the doing of charity instead of sharing resources and creating jobs. Perhaps, Tolstoy in a sublime moment of music found that the ultimate form of loving God is to leave God out of it, and to be the judge and the jury and to hold oneself responsible.
If Anna Karenina, the voluminous novel, is a wax and gold anatomy and embellishment of the realities of love, marriage and betrayal—and if the longer War and Peace is a similar gold leafing and many layered wax and gold that adds in the dimension of war’s violence—then the 78 page novel Kreutzer Sonata is the unvarnished and unembellished heart of the matter in which Tolstoy’s wife murdering protagonist claims that the source of oppression lies in the packaging and defining of lust as love. According to Tolstoy, ephemeral carnal desire—fleeting lust is caught and trapped by society by being raised up on to a redeeming and civilizing pedestal of the institution of marriage which is nothing but a rotting sexual slavery from which treacherous forms of escape are the only choices of salvation.
The Kreutzer Sonata is about a man who kills his beautiful wife the mother of his four children in a fit of jealousy suspecting her of an affair with her music teacher. The institution of marriage, here, is the ultimate unfortunate alliance of war and its justification through the definition of modernity: the accumulation of capital. And this unfortunate morality is the ultimate imperialism.
The Unfortunate Marriage of Azeb Yitades (here and here), a novel by Nega Mezlekia portrays such an alliance. Nega Mezlekia tells the story of how power regardless of gender exploits for its own advancement. It is as much about the willful degradation of a young woman, as it is about divisiveness, the spoiling of the land and the culture in the small village of Mechane near Gelemso once a highway comes through it. The story is set in Ethiopia in the period 1961 through the 1990s, a period of profound change, in the country’s history: of drought, the end of monarchy, student movements, the Derg regime (military junta), famine and the revolution which brought in the Government,currently in its twentieth year. It is the story of the unfortunate downfall of Azeb a proud, beautiful, bright girl, through the pressures of social and economic change and her attraction and marriage of choice to the village bully, a sexual molester and tormentor. This story of torment and survival is set in a beautiful village in eastern Ethiopia, green and prosperous until a road is constructed through it for the purpose of miners and loggers. This causes a profound change on the small village: the exploitation and grabbing of resources by outsiders,the denuding of the forests, and even the grabbing of the villagers souls through the advent of foreign missionaries. All this deeply affects Azeb’s father an Ethiopian Orthodox priest and the ancient Christian traditions of the villagers. The story is about the breakdown of traditions and faith that cannot stand up to the juggernaut of change and the external pressures and stresses which include Azeb’s journey from proud girl--to prostitute-- to running a bar and brothel-- to much worse.
The religion of Azeb’s ancestors, pre Christianity and Islam, might have been Wakafanna, which is the original faith of the land of Oromia where Mechane and Gelemso are located. It is a faith that predates Christianity and Islam and believes in a unifying benevolent creator of all living things in nature and the environment. Waka means God. Wakafatha is one who believes in God. It’s a faith that practices taking only as much as you need from the earth, growing what you eat, cherishing the bounties of the earth as a gift given by the Creator. Its symbols of worship include grass, wind, trees, coffee, butter, land and water. It’s a faith to which many young educated Ethiopians are returning. And, perhaps, a belief system, which, I would like to believe, would have resonated with Tolstoy—In my opinion he would have considered himself a Wakafatha, if presented with the thought. I would like to believe it would resonate with many people today who are forcibly evicted from their lands all over the world and also with those who were evicted from Zuccotti Park on November 15, 2011.
This is about reading The Kreutzer Sonata, it is about the unholy marriage of empire, it is about Leo Tolstoy, a gold embroidered Bismillah over the entrance of an emperor’s bedchamber, Ethiopian Jazz, the assassination of Graziani, terrorism, it is about the 33rd regiment, Queen Victoria, Charles Napier, Cecile Rhodes, Tippu Sultan, Emperor Tewodros, Coke, the Wall Street Journal and Googling about what else happened in 1889 when the novel The Kreutzer Sonata was published. But mostly perhaps, it’s about the shape of my heart.
This is about reading the Kreutzer Sonata in Addis Ababa and watching a documentary recently released called Tigray: Then and Now (here), which starts with: “In 1984 a devastating famine took the lives of one million Ethiopians in northern Ethiopia.” Just like that, really? Here is yet another feel good attempt that pats us all on the back for the goodness we are capable of and starts by showing Ethiopia, as it is usually portrayed, as a famine prone place in need of being saved by foreigners. The film does indeed accurately show the results in Tigray today (northern Ethiopia) of the Productive Safety Nets Program and other programs that have built up the capacity of farmers for food security and reduced environmental degradation. This is absolutely true and incredibly impressive. The Government led program supported by international assistance has reversed and arrested fifteen years of year on year deterioration in household food security and productive assets. This is an achievement, of which to be proud, for which, I applaud many of my colleagues. The problem with this documentary is right at the start. It does not mention the reasons for the famine and leaves an impression on the viewer that the famine happened because of a lack of productive approaches or some weakness in the people--a lack of knowledge of simple basic notions of irrigation or farming or the lack of lots of money. When, in fact, the drought became a famine because of the war that surrounded the Tigray region: the civil war between Ethiopia and what is now Eriteria. Conflict and its attendant realities caused problems when people who depended on the land and on agriculture---farmers, were caught up in the war and there were food shortages. Then when there were efforts made to bring in food from other parts of the country where there were surpluses or even international food aid it was stopped and used as a weapon of war. The very same international community which is now taking credit for dodging the bullet because of the good approaches to creating food security--was responsible at that time for playing a role in creating the insecurity that caused a famine in 1984. At that time they fought their proxy ideological wars through Eriteria and Ethiopia during the cold war scenario of the early 80s supporting their “teams” of ideologues and changing their support when it suited them. Who received food and who starved was also part of the weapons used. The narrative must be truthful of the clear connection on how war led to famine. And when war leads to a famine then famine is a form of genocide. Unless the man made problem is clear and the responsibility is taken and acknowledged--the problem itself of "famine" which is man-made and genocide in the form of famine is ever present.
In a taxi, its dashboard and seats covered in a synthetic red fur on a Saturday night after an evening out---- spent in a lounge full of foreigners mostly business executives, military and aid workers living in Addis or visiting from Juba, Sudan, next door and Addis’s elite: desperate women and swaggering men masters of the planet—I listen to the conversation of my companions about the front page news: In Dawro in south western Ethiopia a man set himself on fire as a form of political protest. He died. Newspapers reported that “medical records, his families and local communities confirmed Yenesew Gebre, who burned himself to death in Tercha town in Dawro Zone, to have mental illness.” In another piece of news doing the rounds the city, a flight stewardess, was severely wounded and blinded when in a fit of jealousy her husband, stabbed her in the eyes. This is the kind of news that routinely comes from Pakistan too. I stop the cab, I get out. I want to walk back to my hotel I tell my protesting companions. I pick my way in the dark on Bole Avenue on the uneven sidewalk, past the young, scantily clad beautiful girls shivering in the cold Addis night-squinting in the headlights of SUVs slowing down to check them out or pick them up. I nod a greeting to each surprised girl that I pass as respectfully as I possibly can muster. Hand on my heart a slight bow of my head. I think of the art work I have seen by the artist Zerihun Seyoum.
Past the traffic of, expensive cars, rushing by, with Addis Ababa’s rich young generation of party goers. Past the white clad bundles of, women and men, sitting on the sidewalk with babies in their laps asking for money or food. I walk as fast as I can and feel breathless, the high altitude in Addis takes some getting used to. I think about the astonishing power of the two women Ethiopian runners Firehiwote Dado and Buzunesh Deba who came in first and second in the New York City Marathon.
I keep walking until I reach my hotel. Past all this, past the older European and Arab men, who are guests in the hotel, who have entered its lobby at the same time as I do, unabashed with young beauties purchased for the night. I think of how the narrative of the Kreutzer Sonata would suggest that prostitutes, in fact, are the liberated earning women, who provide relief to their sisters, the indentured sex slave —the powerless or clueless wives of their clients who probably think that their husbands are in “Africa” saving the world. Passed all this I to sit down in my hotel room to write and listen to the sonata. In the silence of my hotel room enter my usual companions—the sounds of the azaan from a mosque and the bells striking the lengthening hours from the nearby Medhane Alem church, the BBC on mute—images of talking heads discussing the financial crisis, Greece’s and Italy’s defaults and the threat to the European Union. For what else is there to do on a Saturday evening in Addis for a single foreign woman of a certain age, part of perhaps, the new regiment of foot soldiers of Empire?
Kreutzer Sonata was originally dedicated by Beethoven to the violin virtuoso and child prodigy George Bridgetower (here and here) who came to visit him in Vienna in 1803. Beethoven even appreciated the slight change that Bridgewater made to the violin part—when they played the new piece together in its first public performance on May 24, 1803. But unfortunately not much later the two had a quarrel because Beethoven felt that Bridgewater had insulted a lady friend of his. As a result Beethoven dedicated the sonata to the violinist Rudolph Kreutzer who never played it because he felt that it had already been performed and it was too difficult to play.
Tolstoy rages against the sexual slavery embedded in marriage and sanctified by the church and doctors —a marriage in which child after child is produced as a result of satisfying a husband’s inability to control himself— Wives are subjected to endless sexual demands, while trapped into a cycle of pregnancies and births without recourse—and while pregnant or nursing or recovering are still submitting to their husband’s relentless needs—which affect their health—and remove the chances of full recovery and cause yet another pregnancy—affecting the chances of a healthy baby being carried in a body depleted by having just given birth. Tolstoy’s rage is similar to that voiced by health workers and gender specialists working in development in Africa.
While I listened to the music and read the Kreutzer Sonata, the joyous wails of the seventh billionth child announced his entrance into the world in a hut, or a tent or under the open sky or a mansion or a hospital somewhere in the world. It was reported that the baby had been born on October 31st in India though the UN expects this significant number in March 2012. Is it a child born to a poor single mother in one land destined to be adopted by a mother in another land? Is it a child born in poverty--a poverty caused by stolen wealth and rescued into wealth? Is the baby a boy? Most likely, the baby is a boy, if an ultra sound machine had been around the mother—for girl fetuses are likely to be aborted in India and China. Estimates are in millions of female infanticide and girl fetuses are aborted in preference for boys. I wondered, if that 7th billionth child was born in Ethiopia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh or in the US. The news said the baby was born in India. But how did they know? What if the child was born in the Appalachia or in Addis Ababa? Was this child born out of a fervent desire for his birth, or was she unwanted? Was he born into a poor yet happy family? Was she born because her parents wanted another child or because her parents needed another child to ensure the survival of at least a few children or was she born because her mother had no say in becoming pregnant? Was she born to a mother exposed and infected with HIV by her husband? Was this child the first or the thirteen born to her mother, or the first of many to come in quick succession to the same mother? The chances are high that this child was born in poverty. The chances are high s/he will struggle to survive hunger, sickness and the violence of his circumstances. The chances are high that this child will be a street child, homeless, landless, forced to flee out of every form of refuge: make shift lean-to hut or tent --forced to flee by security forces which threaten him but protect the rich and their properties in the fast urbanizing world that s/he is born into. The chances are high that while s/he struggles, all around her, rise and thrive, the symbols of a few people owning all the resources and living a good life, while s/he is forced to scavenge for her survival. And when and if s/he protests and they have the decency not to shoot her they will show her newly minted papers, plans and policies that make what they do, the law, and her an outlaw.
I spend the evening writing and the next morning being Sunday, I spend the day at the Ras Makonnen palace---then later, at an artist’s studio, and much later in the evening the Jazzamba lounge (here, here, here), listening to the very special Ethiopian Jazz: the mandolin player, the horns, the dimmed light of chandeliers at the renovated space at the Hotel Taitu ( more here, here, here , and background music to Broken Flowers here and the Sapranos here).
Tolstoy considers the uncontrollable appetite for sexual power as the underlying source of greed, violence, the ownership of property, poverty and of course imperialism. It is the subtext for the systematic foundation of imperialism: a certain kind of prostitution, a certain kind of purchase requiring a certain kind of victim and a rape. And yet it was a woman, Queen Victoria, in Tolstoy’s time, who, led and exemplified this uncontrollable appetite of imperialism and violence. And this century, too, has its female faces of Condelissa Rice and Hillary Clinton rattling on in the same age old manner (here lecturing the African Union leaders in Addis Ababa in June 2011 as NATO continued to bomb Libya). The cadence of her voice an unfortunate relentless drone, the tone, tone deaf and mean. There was a power failure at minute six of her speech yet she soldiered on.
The Ethiopian Emperor Tewodros II and the war veteran Leo Tolstoy had much in common: their royal aristocratic blood, an orthodox Christian faith (with some differences) and a common enemy, Queen Victoria. In fact, the Emperor, the Indian king Tippu Sultan, Leo Tolstoy and the Russian Czar all had Queen Victoria as a common enemy and all had faced her representatives: the British 33rd regiment.
The former barracks of the British Raj called Abyssnia lines are along Drigh road in Karachi which leads to the airport. The history of the 33rd regiment suggests that the distance from Drigh road to Bole road that goes to the airport in Addis Ababa is short and that this history perhaps makes it one long stretch of a single road. The 33rd Regiment received from the British Empire many honors for its battles in the Crimea, in India and in Ethiopia, such as, the battle honor of Abyssnia. The Abyssnia Lines, the military barracks in Karachi, constructed during the British Raj, were named after the 33rd Regiment of the British Army, which was, for awhile, stationed there.
Reading the Kreutzer Sonata, in between the Abyssnia Lines and Ras Makonnen palace, now transformed into the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, the linkages between the two –the reasons for what brings me to Ethiopia to work on food insecurity become disconcertingly louder in tones. I have taken flights from Karachi’s Jinnah airport to get to Ethiopia to do good, to fight poverty---to bring change. The 33rd took a ship from Karachi's port in the 19th century to, also, bring change. To say that nothing has changed, where so much has changed, would be naïve, and yet power still appears to lie in the same structures which use the same means to advance its interests.
In 1867 the 33rd arrived in Ethiopia from Karachi where they were stationed at the time. The 33rd were part of an expedition led by Robert Napier which was sent to Ethiopia to free a group of Christian missionaries who had been allegedly seized by the King Tewodros II. The battle against the King Tewodros II raged on for days and finally King Tewodros II was found dead, having shot himself with a pistol. The pistol he had used to kill himself had been a gift from Queen Victoria. When his death was announced all opposition to the British ceased. The regiment later received the battle honor Abyssnia.
On the pretext of freeing European hostages, Great Britain sent the 33rd Regiment led by the son of Sir Charles Napier, Lt. General Robert Napier, to attack Ethiopia in the 19th century. Similar pretexts are underway in the region in the 21st century, however, instead of a regiment of men, now unmanned drones are employed.
Earlier, in 1799, the 33rd Regiment had a decisive part to play in the defeat of Tippu Sultan of Mysore in the Battle of Seringapatam. In that battle Tippu Sultan was killed. The regiment won a battle honor for its involvement in the action. Five decades later the 33rd fought the Russians in the Crimea war alongside the French and laid siege of Sevastopol. In 1854 Leo Tolstoy was a commissioned officer serving on the Danube front and requested transfer to Sevastopol. He fought in that war, after which, he wrote his The Sebastopol Sketches. Leaving the Crimea and Tolstoy, in 1857 the 33rd deployed to India and took part in the military operations against the Indian Mutiny. The rebellion against the British Empire was squashed, and the Emperor Bahadar Shah Zafar was crushed, humiliated and imprisoned in Burma.
Getting to the heart of these linkages and relationships and finding himself complicit, and powerless against his own worst instincts, proclivities and temptations--- Tolstoy sought at the end of his life to remove himself from worldly temptations which to him perhaps fed and emanated from a repressive social order. As a reaction he renounced —even music and even his own novels.
The Kreutzer Sonata and Tolstoy’s earlier novels were written when the world was in a dramatic shift—evangelism was on the rise while at the same time new technologies were revolutionizing terms of engagement in communications and movement and changing hierarchies and relationships. Society was changing dramatically with the advent of the steam engine—as dramatically as the internet shifted thinking and connectivity to the world.
In 1889 the feudal order was changing. Socialism and ideas of cooperatives were catching hold. That year in 1889 idealists gathered and regrouped for the second International and declared the first of May as the International Workers Day. A social change was in the offing but the egregious folly of Imperial ambitions continued to lay the grounds for violence and famine for another century. In 1889 there were many significant milestones such as the Universal Exposition opened in Paris and the Eiffel Tower was completed. Moulin Rouge opened in Paris.
The introduction of the steam engine like the internet was a great revolution, with the widespread of railways, the intense industrialization and the reforms in laws such as the emancipation of serfs. All of these influenced Tolstoy’s novels. The train was a symbol, perhaps, of time, of history, of progress and of inevitable change. The train carrying Lenin into St. Petersburg station was still a ways away. Tolstoy took his last journey escaping his home by train and died at a train station. The Kreutzer Sonata is narrated on a train journey.
The Kreutzer Sonata was first read in 1889 by an invalid old world of a dying aristocracy which was beginning to feel its rot. In Russia whilst the wealthy feudal landlord Tolstoy, a veteran of war, was ensconced at his estate Yasnaya Polyana, hundreds of miles away in France Marcel Proust, too had served for that one year in 1889 as an enlisted soldier and was writing his Remembrance of Things Past. Proust, was soon to be confined and snug, in his invalid’s bed in Paris, having noted: The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.
In Great Britain the Empress of India, Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee was still years away but diamonds and empire were on her mind when on October 29, of 1889 she granted Cecil Rhodes, the founder of De Beers, rights to Zambezia. The edition of The Kruetzer Sonata which I read has an unforgiving Forward by Doris Lessing, the British author born in Persia, now Iran, where her ex military father worked at the Imperial Bank. She was raised in Rhodesia now Zimbabwe, where her father owned an unsuccessful farm of a thousand acres. She writes “What we have here in The Kreutzer Sonata is the power and energy but not the sanity of judgment.” She refers to Tolstoy as a fanatic. This sort of language, as we know, from recent media coverage of social activism and protest, is the typical smug sneer of the elite.
If War and Peace and Anna Karenina are the paleontology of violence and oppression then the Kreutzer Sonata unveils its source, the heart of it, unvarnished. And no wonder it was not at all well received by polite society—of course not! Tolstoy was made to explain himself and apologize. He did write an explanatory piece but he only reemphasized his views.
It was the reign of Queen Victoria that laid the foundation and sung and played the martial music loudest, of apartheid and empire, from the Crimea, to Constantinople, to Agra to Addis Ababa. In 1889 the Great Games raged on in the Horn of Africa and between Russia and Great Britain in South and Central Asia. The port town of Karachi flourished as a garrison for British troops stationed in barracks with names such as Abyssnia line. The Central Asian khanates of Khiva, Bukhara and Kokand were about to fall under the Russian Czar’ empire. In 1889 the British Raj created the Imperial troops made up of Indians to be used by the British Army in its ventures beyond India. Empress Market in Karachi, which was named after Victoria, and serviced her troops stationed in the city. It was constructed in 1889, one amongst many buildings of the British raj in the city including the port.
Wall Street Journal and Coca Cola made their debut in 1889. This seems somehow relevant in the November and December of 2011. As I write of Tolstoy’s outrage against the social order, the protestors in Zuccotti Park have been evicted. They have been protesting against the violence of greed and capitalism and have been evicted from a park. Their protest movement gathers momentum as their peaceful movement is met with force and the fury of the powerful who try their level best to vilify the movement for being violent and lacking coherence. The Pemberton Medicine Company or Coca-Cola Company, as it was later known was incorporated in Atlanta, Georgia. I have often wondered and been astonished about how while food, medicine and development assistance seem scarce and logistically difficult and costly to get from the capitals of countries to villages, the bottled sugary drink called Coca-Cola is availabile in seemingly limitless supply in the remotest and poorest corners of the planet. Messages on good nutrition, whereever they are badly needed, are non-existent on billboards but the slogan: Coke Is It is ubiquitous. Indeed Coke became “it” in its pattern of expansion and in its branding. Coke sponsored Coke Studios emerged in Pakistan to put under its logo and brand name the country’s abundant wealth of musical talent, more than a century later during the US occupation of Afghanistan. Speaking of music, in 1889, Gustav Mahlers completed his First Symphony. Vaslav Nijinsky, one of the most gifted dancers in history, the Russian ballet dancer and choreographer of Polish descent was born that year. The first jukebox was unveiled at the Palais Royale Saloon, San Francisco.
In Ethiopia in March 1889 Emperor Yohannes IV, was defeated and died in the Battle at Metema (Gallabad) against Abdallahi ibn Muhammad of Sudan. And in May the Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II and Italy signed the Treaty of Wichale: “The treaty ceded territories previously part of Ethiopia, namely the provinces of Bogos, Hamasien, Akkele Guzay, Serae, and parts of Tigray to Italy. This treaty laid the foundation for these territories to become the Italian colony and modern state of Eritrea. Article 17 of the treaty was understood differently by the two sides. The Italian version of the passage stated that Ethiopia was obliged to conduct all foreign affairs through the Italian authorities. In effect, making Ethiopia an Italian protectorate, while the Amharic version of the treaty merely gave Ethiopia the option of communicating with third powers through the Italians.” In return, Italy promised financial assistance and military supplies. Disputes over Article 17 of the treaty led to the First Italo–Ethiopian War.
While this happened in Ethiopia, significant events in the history of Empire were happening in India as well. In India in 1889 Jawarlal Nehru was born. Mohammad Ali Jinnah was offered an apprenticeship with a British enterprise at the London office of Graham's Shipping and Trading Company, a business that had extensive dealings with Jinnahbhai Poonja's firm in Karachi. Both men with dubious histories in their own domestic lives were destined to assist in the tearing apart of their shared homeland.
The Ras Makonnen Palace inside the campus of the Addis Ababa University where I sat on the steps, The Kreutzer Sonata in hand, seemed far from the concerns of war and upheaval. I sat there rereading the Forward and the After Words while I waited for the museum to open. The peaceful solitude seemed multiplied given the crowds just beyond the campus gates. I had navigated my way here having walked past crowds of people waiting for blue mini bus taxis, past shoeshine boys crouching on the ground busily polishing the shoes of men and women seated on crates or stone benches, past the beggars in wheel chairs, hideously scarred or bloated with disease, past those who were new arrivals from rural areas and who looked bewildered and who with their shepards' wooden staffs and white muslin robes seemed as though they had stepped out of the old testament, past the friendly young man who hawked pirated DVDs, past another selling cell phone cards, past the mobile mechanic waiting for distress calls from stranded motorist whose cars had broken down along the avenue. Past the typical weekend hourly event of passing by motorcades of wedding processions of rented stretched Hummer limousines accompanied by rented black Mercedes Benzes filled with the wedding party: brides and bridesmaid wearing western outfit, the whole procession preceded by a pick-up truck on which a videographer was documenting the entire proud moment of borrowed, almost Texan, prosperity and pomp.
On the steps of the beautiful baroque building, the drought threatening to become a famine in the Horn of Africa this year and the wars in the neighboring countries, seemed a distant reality . There was news that the UN agency which focuses on children, UNESCO had recognized Palestine as a full member to the organization on the basis that only a full membership would allow for cultural sites in Palestine to be listed as World cultural heritage sites by UNESCO. The Unites States in response to this withheld sixty million of its dollars from UNESCO. The sounds of the sonata grew louder.
The grounds of the palace inside the Addis Ababa University were peaceful and tree lined. And an elaborate fountain directly in front of me was in need of repair: dry and empty. Here, there were no beggars or street children constantly close at hand, demanding attention and alms. I looked across towards the Palace gate in the distance, its two store figures, of the lions of Juda, which were barely visible, in turn, looked outward at the world outside the gates. Even with all the hub-hub outside the gates, it was an eerily quiet day as though the city had gone away on holiday—Large areas of the city have been emptied and cleared of residences mostly shanty homes but others as well: small businesses of shops and restaurants to make way for high rises and urban development. The juggernaut of modernity and urban development of parking lots, highways and freeways has arrived in Addis. Residents have been relocated to new low income highrise apartment blocks on the peripheries of the city. The campus, too, seemed subdued and uncharacteristic of an atmosphere where the young and the idealists congregate.
Would the seventh billionth baby and its generation grow up in a world which would reverse the violence and damage of empire? Would the seventh billionth baby grow up without the damage of religious extremism and terrorism, the twin spawns which Empire has created for its pretexts for occupation and advancement? Would that new generation be freed of the deep seated sadness and violence of societies? Would they inherit a world where individual attempts at restoring and healing would have had taken root?
On the palace steps I sat under a banner which announced an event honoring the 50 years of service to Ethiopia by Richard Pankhurst, the Ethiopia scholar who was honored at the Ras Makonnen palace recently. The palace which houses the Ethiopia Institute of Studies also houses a museum and an art gallery. In Ras Makonnen Palace— its audience room has been converted into a library, with red carpeting and crystal chandeliers. There, an audience had gathered, to pay tribute to Richard Pankhurst, made up mostly of the city’s gentry—mostly aged and polite society: some royal blood and aristocracy, some former bureaucrats, academics, PhD students working on Ethiopian art in Cologne and Addis Ababa and people from foreign embassies interested in this sort of thing. The large room was filled to capacity and as is de rigeur in such circumstances a young woman fainted from the heat—covered as she was from head to toe in the newly minted and growing fashion of hijabs and abayas in Addis. Most of the audience, hadn’t noticed the incident of vapors in the back benches and had gone on listening in rapt attention to one speech after the next by honored guests including Ian Campbell, whose book The Plot to Kill Graziani had only recently been launched in this very same venue and who sat on a dais with the chief guest himself. One by one they paid tribute to and lauded the fifty years of service of Richard Pankhurst and the Pankhurst dynasty. Richard Pankhurst was noted for being the son of his mother Sylvia Pankhurst the British communist suffragette, feminist, ardent Ethiopia supporter and anti fascist.—And in his own right, her son was being honored for his work on the preservation of history and culture of the country and bringing back to Ethiopia stolen treasures from London and Rome—the Obelisk, an amulet a shield and many more.
I made my way to the girl who had been laid out in a faint outside in the hallway—I knelt down beside her on the floor fanning her face with a copy of a folded newspaper. I attempted to undo the black hijab wound tightly around her head and throat. She was thin and not more than eighteen. The moment I loosened her scarf her eyes shot open in alarm and she looked at me with an angry gaze. She went from a faint to eyes wide open with distrust. I responded with saying “I’m Muslim! Muslim! Now take this scarf off so that you can breath and cool off you silly little girl!” My appearance didn’t seem to fit my claim, I noted the surprise on her face. However, it seemed to have worked and she let me loosen the scarf and apply cold water to her forehead. I washed her feet in an attempt to revive her. She drank some water--- I learnt that she had been fasting even though it was not the month for fasting. Fasting during every week is a prescribed ritual of the Orthodox Christians. Muslims fast outside of the days of Ramadan, as well, to make up, for fasts they didn’t keep during Ramadan, or for other cultural reasons. Nevertheless, I scolded her, made a fuss over her, made her drink water and a few sips of Coke for the sugar and then left her to her friends.
Here on these steps of the palace there had been an attempt to assassinate Graziani. He had survived but the two would-be assassins, from what is now Eriteria, were killed—as were thousands of residents in Addis Ababa, who were massacred on the orders of Graziani in his awful attempt to root out any insurgency against him. Their homes and neighborhoods were razed to the ground in three awful days of February 19-21, 1937.
Emperor Haile Selassie built the palace in 1930 but it was taken over by Rudolphe Graziani, as his Administration office in 1936. He was the hated Italian Viceroy, known as the Hyena of Libya for his atrocities in North Africa. The Italians occupied Ethiopia for five years from 1936-1941 and were repelled and thrown out by the Ethiopians by 1941. Haile Selassie then in exile in London was brought back by the British who assisted in ousting the Italians and reinstalling him as Emperor.
From where I sat, flanked by two baroque bronze statues carrying lamps,—I could see the flagpole— at the edge of the empty fountain. There are fourteen steps leading up to the flagstaff—each step commemorates a year of the Fascist reign of Mussolini. In the quiet campus, I sat there contemplating the forces at play today--- If one were to draw a straight line from these steps to Tahrir Square in Cairo, the city, where despite the student revolution, the military remained in firm control, the distance would be of a few hundred miles as the crow flies. If one were to draw a line from Tahrir Square to Zuccotti Park in New York the distance was of thousands of miles yet the influence of Tahrir Square was clear and the reaction of power to having its legitimacy questioned, similar. And from these steps at Ras Makonnen palace if I were to draw a line to Pakistan as the crow flies of a few thousand miles, the threatening tone of a rise of Fascism there, in that perpetual frontline state, to America’s wars seemed imminent in the November of 2011 as Empire’ puppeteers sought to install yet another stooge in an image they preferred for Pakistan.
Over ten thousand delegates from around the planet are to converge in Addis Ababa for the 16th annual International Conference on HIV/AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Diseases (ICASA). Ten thousand! Maybe, even more than that---upto 36,000 will attend! Leaders, current and former, heads of states, kings, princes, princesses and queens are expected to address the conference. Rumor has it that George W. Bush will attend. The roads will be blocked for important motorcades to rush to and fro from the airport to the hotels to the conference center. The hotels are fully booked and there is no more room at the inns even for ready money. The Ethiopian Herald has an extensive article on the conference on HIV/AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Diseases: about how important the hosting of this conference is for tourism for Ethiopia. A chance to show the world the international standard in hotels and security that Ethiopia has achieved. The newspapers also carry coverage on an event on the international day of prevention of violence against women celebrated by the UN this week. And a conference organized by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development for Eastern African countries (IGAD) was held to discuss how to militarily fight terrorism in Somalia by subsuming the militaries of Kenya and Ethiopia under something called AMISOM. War rages on in the region, drones fly. Famine threatens. Have ten thousand delegates ever gathered to stop war?
Inside the palace I stared at my widened reflection in an opulent old mirror in a large gold gilt frame which leaned, floor to ceiling, against a wall in the hallway leading into the library on the ground floor. It occurred to me in a moment of reflection, that the 33rd regiment was deployed to all the places where I too, had gone for work carrying an arsenal of silver bullets of prescriptions of policies, credit, food and cash transfers. Could it be that we were part of the same enterprise? From the foot soldier in the 33rd to Jinnah, to Haile Selassie, to lowly cogs in the great wheel such as myself--we were all linked. Reflected behind me in the mirror was a statue of the emperor and the cardboard display of the historical timeline from the time of the Palace Construction under Emperor Haile Selassie to the Italian Occupation—to the reinstatement by the British of Emperor Haile Selasie to the visit of Queen Elizabeth and----- Oh look, that photograph---isn’t that Mrs. Rose Kennedy—the wife of Joseph and the mother of John?
Around the corner and down the hallway from the mirror, a red carpeted staircase led to the three floors above—including to the bedchambers of the Emperor Haile Selassie and his wife. Above the doorway leading to the emperor’s bed chamber the curators have hung a framed Arabic verse: “In the Name of God the Beneficent and Merciful” embroidered in gold thread against a dark green background of velvet. Confused, I tried to find out what was going on. Could it be that the influence of a wealthy Saudi investor in the country led to such embellishments in return for donations for the upkeep of the museum? For Emperor Haile Selasie was not Muslim. I asked around. Ah! But the Emperor designate I learned, Ali or Lij Iyasu V of Ethiopia may have been. The circumstances surrounding his death and his burial place remain shrouded in mystery. Rumor has it that that Emperor Haile Selassie ordered his guards to kill him. Other accounts dispute this and suggest that Iyasu died of natural causes. His grandson and current Iyasuist claimant to the Ethiopian throne, Lij Girma Yohannes, claims that the Emperor designate Iyasu's body was brought to the Guenete Leul Palace (now the Ras Makonnen Palace) and buried there in secret. And perhaps, deliciously, those tending the museum are keepers of all such artifacts and secrets. They are mindful of the past. They have also to their credit located the septuagenarian manservant and restored to him his job. As a child Ato Memo tended to the tea and drinks for his Royal Highness Haile Selassie. As a result the Emperor’s chambers are still tended to by the very same manservant Ato Memo, who keeps a watchful eye on the visitors and greets them warmly—most of the visitors to the museum don’t know his provenance. The museum curators have resurrected him as well—providing him with a stipend for caring for these chambers. He is the living artifact in this museum.
An Art gallery in the museum has been established on the top floor—which includes musical instruments and 13th and 14th century Ethiopian Orthodox Christian icons. Apparently, according to their rescuers, these icons, were discarded by and rescued from numerous churches and markets all over Ethiopia. These were doomed to be destroyed from neglect or were found on garbage heaps. About 350 of these icons are in the museum’s possession, a third of them are on display. I thought I heard the sounds of a Sonata as I walked around the display cases.
In classical Ethiopian paintings, the good people are signified when they are depicted and shown with their full faces suffused in light. A face in profile signifies an evil character or a person with malicious intent. A painting in the hallway of the museum depicts Emperor Menelik II and his Empress both full faced---holding a banquet—some faces are in profile. But all the eyes in the painting are askance—as if in polite deference to each other or---as if everyone is keeping a vigilant eye on his neighbor and looking at everyone else with distrust. I am struck by the painting—the grouping of the characters at long tables—the rows upon rows of inner and outer circles, the emperor and empress looking on while the royal family sits at a table set apart.
This depiction of royal banquets and gatherings in the paintings is evocative of the participants gathered around long tables, of inner and outer circles, attending lengthy meetings at the daily conferences and seminars held routinely at lavish hotels in Ethiopia on poverty, health, conflict and development. I cannot help but note the similarity and wonder if portrayed would these be in full face?
Other Posts by Maniza Naqvi:
The Leftist And The Leader (A Play)
So, Socrates to young Plato said,"The things we think we know are like shadows
cast on the walls of a cave by a distant light of unseen things we do not know.".
A Hole in The Banal
You called last night troubled.
Looking for something in particular
(a pink balloon shaped like the heart
of your long dead cousin)
you'd stumbled upon a hole in the banal:
a weakened spot in the thin skin of our conceits
stretched so taut over the otherworld
a hint of it broke through and pierced
your shell of rapt doing
and you glimpsed the truth of shades
that dance upon the walls of caves
to music most often unheard
under the rush of jets,
behind the daily brushing of leaves against sky,
drowned by the litanies of radios,
made almost silent by
the roar of willed tornadoes
blowing through the aisles of malls,
muted by the fierce narcissism of war,
the accumulation of stuff thrown up
as dikes to keep the unspeakable sea at bay
and you wondered if perhaps Socrates was right
So I recalled for you a day driving to Colrain
when a song bled from the dash
so filled with poignancy my heart broke too
and I sobbed from the steel arched bridge
where two rivers meet to the office door
remembering my mother,
my father, and Danny my autistic brother,
hearing them hearing me sob
through a veil of ordinary tears and regret
saltier than the Dead Sea
This is where you and I meet, where we all meet,
on the beach of that sea, catching now and then
between horizon and surf, glimpses of creatures
breaking through, breaching the membrane
between worlds unexpectedly
as we wonder how the dancing shadows
on cave walls can be true
by Jim Culleny
by James McGirk
Our brains are filled with the whispering of objects, the shrieking presence of things we lust after or despise or simply want to ignore but can’t for all the noise. It seems impossible to write fiction without addressing it but so little does. Part of this is the nature of the medium. The contemporary novel or short story is a ghostly place, a necropolis where memories are dissected and pinned to the page.
“Anecdotes don't make good stories,” the great Canadian short story writer Alice Munro once told an interviewer, “Generally I dig down underneath them so far that the story that finally comes out is not what people thought their anecdotes were about.”
Writing literary fiction is a bit like tunneling (minus the physical component). You gnaw a room out of the wall of the previous one, scaffold it with description and feed in a few disembodied voices, hoping the histories and hierarchies those voices are quibbling over create enough momentum to propel your reader into the next room. Munro takes this a step further, using the shape of those excavations to back engineer a second, deeper narrative structure from the first.
Hers is a second order of story, ideal for spelunking the complex residue of a lifetime of deep emotion, but one that seems to collapse the realm of the object. Unless an author like Munro is a pure technological determinist, a deep dive into character motivation seems unsuited to describing a world where the collective ache of consumer culture - and being left out of it - might manifest itself in something like the Occupy Wall Street movement. Yet it is not impossible to use intricately rendered characters as a way to roam the realm of material consciousness.
George Saunders writes grotesques, mostly short stories and novellas that echo and amplify our material and marketing obsessed culture. He lets the language of capital and its bureaucratic and corporate brethren intrude into his characters’ consciousnesses. Abominations like advertising jingles and double-speak substitute for the emotions of the disenfranchised nobodies who populate his stories. His characters all but drown in this soup of gibberish, but rather than just let his characters sink, Saunders redeems them, letting odd little bits of mysticism, especially ghosts, seep through his stories and sometimes exact revenge.
“Sea Oak” follows this pattern; it’s a story of a passive but sympathetic father who earns a living as an erotic dancer but is failing at it and about to be fired. His family is saturated with the idiocy of television and consumer culture.
“My sister's baby is Troy. Jade's baby is Mac. They crawl off into the kitchen and Troy gets his finger caught in the heat vent. Min rushes over and starts pulling. "Jesus freaking Christ!" screams Jade. "Watch it! Stop yanking on him and get the freaking Vaseline. You're going to give him a really long arm, man!"”
A shot at redemption comes from beyond the grave when the narrator’s spinster Aunt Bernie dies during a robbery, then returns to life as a macabre version of the ghosts in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, horrifiing the rest of the family into shaping up by giving them a glimpse of the macabre future they faced. Meanwhile Aunt Bernie tries to savoring all of the material pleasures she denied herself while alive, visibly decaying as she does this. It’s an acerbic maximalist style that is almost pungent with politics and agendas, yet for all of his contempt of objects and consumer culture, Saunders acknowledges the power and influence that this strange other realm of objects has in his stories.
Ernest Hemingway wrote that in his stories he tried to “get the feeling of the actual life across, not just to depict life, or criticize it, but to actually make it alive.” He deployed an austere style that he compared to a iceberg: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”
Tao Lin has pushed this minimalist ethos of Hemingway's into a sort of rolling laconic rumble, and although some critics view Lin as a sort of anti-literature art project (or self-promoting fraud) there is an undeniable accumulation in his sentences. Take this paragraph of “Relationship Story,” for example, for all its apparent rambling, each word of the following paragraph seemed too crucial to cut:
“In August they visited Michelle’s separated parents in Pittsburgh. Michelle’s father gave Paul his 650-page, self-published memoir. Her mother brought Michelle and Paul to a Chinese restaurant that was one gigantic room, high-ceilinged and low-lit as a natural-history museum. The next night Paul had a fever and Michelle gave him Tylenol Flu and cream-of-broccoli soup and, on her L-shaped sofa, holding each other, they watched a movie about a blind woman hanged for murdering a man who raped her after stealing her life savings. Michelle, who was staying home a few more days, dropped Paul off at the airport the next morning and he stood in line feeling both zombielike and feathery, like he might unidirectionally collapse, for about 30 minutes before learning that his flight was canceled. He called Michelle and she returned and he crawled into the backseat hazily imagining a heavily medicated version of himself holding hands in IKEA with an affectionate Michelle who was watching him sip an interesting, miso-y broth. “Can we go to IKEA?” he said, on his back, eyes closed.”
Tao Lin demonstrated his genius for self-promotion with a series of increasingly sophisticated juxtapositions. He emerged on the scene in 2007 by harassing Gawker, which was then a sort of haven for the New York literati; then having established himself (N.B. this process included winning literary prizes for his poetry collections), Lin began self-publishing novellas with titles like “Shoplifting from American Apparel,” which, of course, was immediately suspected of being a crass attempt at generating attention and sales. Since then, he has continued to play against his critics, naming a book Richard Yates, after the author, which again seemed like a stunt given Yates' reputation as the grandmaster of suburban ennui (i.e. Lin's metier), while writing columns for Vice Magazine and other vulgarities seemingly designed to drive his priggish detractors wild, yet maddeningly relevent to his own literary work.
Lin’s writing works through juxtaposition. There seems to be an enormous space howling around each of Lin’s sentences. The passage above echoes the bleak but prosperous existence of the separated parents, the emptiness of airports and strip malls, the bland food they eat and generic furniture they sit on. He knows his characters the way Hemingway ordains an artful omitter should, but he also knows the power of a brand like Ikea or Tylenol Flu and lets those objects cast their shadows into the text, and just lets them sit there and do their thing. It’s a bit like the poems in Charles Simic The World Doesn’t End or the carefully arranged contents of Joseph Cornell’s boxes, the ones Simic claimed to have been inspired by. Tao Lin's silent juxtapositions seem to be the syntax of the material realm.
Stories are a primitive sort of brain scan. An enormous amount of our neural throughoutput is devoted to the slightly morbid reenactment of old memories and the anticipation of new ones, which is probably the same part of brains that generate fiction. But our stories could also benefit by paying attention to the other media crackling our collective lobes. Computer games have an approach to objects that is almost diametrically opposed to most fiction writing. The acquisition of items, such as a weapon, changes the narrator’s relationship to his or her surroundings. In a story it is the narrative that usually changes the narrator. Research into messy desks and pathological hoarding suggests a link between organizing objects in our environment with memory, and projecting belief systems into our environment. Anyone who has ever dismantled an estate after a death of a loved one can’t help but assemble a sort of narrative from the deceased’s possessions. Which perhaps suggests that the best way to write about objects might be to do what Tim O’Brien did in “The Things They Carried” and list them and let the them speak for themselves.
Gaze at the dripping flags and talk of the parade you have witnessed
Some Notes Made on Evacuation Day 2011
by Jen Paton
One hundred years from this moment, crowds in this same city would stand on the streets, in the rain, under “stars and stripes from every Flag-pole,” to commemorate this day, and to commemorate it for the last time on such a scale: “every tower, every steeple, every rooftop which commanded” river views would be “peopled with human beings,” and thousands would brave torrential rain to catch a glimpse of the festivities. Two hundred and twenty five years later, this would be the subject of a snarky Gawker Post. Two hundred and twenty eight years later, a humorous conversation in The Daily Show. But for now, in 1783, it’s just eight hundred guys waiting at Bowery, waiting for the signal.
Once this road was a footpath for the people who lived here first, a bit later it was a road that led to the Dutch Governor General's farm. At one o'clock, in the distance, they heard the cannon fire, fired from the departing enemy ship, and this meant it was safe to enter New York City. They marched in, a newspaper would say a few weeks later, with "an inviolable regard to order and discipline, as Tyranny could never be enforced." (qtd in Hood, 2004). Quite.
The occupying British commander, Sir Guy Carleton, now on a ship living the island, had received the orders to evacuate months before. It was a delicate operation: the Americans wanted military control of the city as soon as possible, the better to quell any lingering dissent there, but they also hoped to keep the British army and their own from exchanging fire in the process. Carleton had to pull out not only his troops, but the thousands of refugees loyal to him, who had been streaming into this city since rebel victory became assured, as well as the slaves liberated from the enemy who had sought refuge within its walls. He would leave with thousands of refugees, including 3000 freedmen, whom the British promised to “pay” the Americans for at Washington’s insistence and, apparently, never did. Some would settle in Nova Scotia, of which some would end up in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
There was also the bay, the infamous bay. For years rebel prisoners were kept on ships in Wallabout Bay, from Walloon bay, where "perhaps 11,000" died, their bodies hastily buried or dumped into water to wash up on the surrounding shores of Brooklyn. British treatment of the prisoners, alive or dead, was much chronicled, most notably through Philip Freneau’s "The British Prison Ship", published in 1780.
THE various horrors of these hulks to tell,
These Prison Ships where pain and penance dwell,
Where death in tenfold vengeance holds his reign,
And injur'd ghosts, yet unaveng'd, complain;
This be my task —ungenerous Britons, you
Conspire to murder whom you can't subdue. —
It is inarguable that this is what the British spent a good few centuries doing. Of course, it’s never simple, is it. Freneau’s claim to actually have been imprisoned on those boats has fallen into disrepute. And as for the British treatment of American bodies, however terrible it was, Robert Cray has discussed how little real attention Americans in Charge paid to these dead after victory. Most of them were poor and unidentifiable, or not seen to be worth identifying. Bleached bones sat on Brooklyn beaches for years. In 1788, a group of laborers stormed a medical college believing, probably falsely, that they were stealing body parts from the unburied dead.
But history marches on and deifies itself, and Evacuation Day, commemorating this British departure, Became a Thing. Fancy dinners. Parades. Speeches. Fancier artillery exercises. In a 2003 paper , Clifton Hood tracks Evacuation Day as a way of examining how a tradition morphs, and sometimes eventually lapses into a curious aside.
Just after the war, New Yorkers were still finding their feet as a community in recovery, and didn’t really have time for such things as parading about. But by 1787, as debate about whether to ratify the Constitution intensified, Federalists publicized Evacuation Day celebrations – at that moment, mainly private, indoor affairs - to remind newspaper readers that a strong federal government was part and parcel with the esprit de something Americans demonstrated that fateful day. The professionalized military reviews that arose over subsequent decades, notes Hood, "advertised a European style professional army as one of the chief blessings of national government" , even though the ranks of the “national army” were filled out for parade day with private militias – an irony not lost on Republican newspapers of the day.
Mere parading grew into Quite A Show. Cannons and artillery blared in feu de joie - firings of joy- where companies fired their musket in elaborate coordinated crescendos as tests of skill became a part of the public celebrations. By the 1820s and 30s, New York newspapers ran advertisements for Evacuation Day revues in all the big theaters. Probably related to this razzmatazz, in this period, as the last actual survivors of the Revolutionary War died off, there was much grumbling from old timers that people just didn’t get it anymore: "their interest seems lost, however important the object commemorated." (New York Herald, 1848, qtd. by Hood, as above).
During the Civil War, popular attendance at Evacuation Day events soared, though, rather than commemorating loss or preening military prowess, concerns were different – maintaining the continuity of a riven country, but on Union terms.
In 1865, the mood was quite somber, with 50,000 at Gettysburg just months before, when the The New York Times wrote:
"It is to be hoped that the occasion will be observed with some of that joyousness and bonhommie customary in days gone by, when a gigantic war had not swept away so many landmarks and traditions of the past."
The Times lamented that New Yorkers used to celebrate Evacuation Day proudly:
The honest citizens of these ancient days were wont to dress themselves in their best doublet and hose, and make an imposing parade as they marched through the streets. Cannon ushered in the rising sun, saluting the god of day as he rose from his slumbers, and the green and classic Battery was hidden from view beneath the sulphurous smoke of the artillery.
However, the outbreak of Civil War had distracted the public with its "intense excitements, its battles and sieges, its marches and retreats, its sad reverses and glorious victories, [which] caused the public mind to lose that veneration for Evacuation Day which was previously entertained for it. "
This year, though, would be different, the Times told us. This was the year to remember what happened that day. The military would be parading, and - as the Times wrote in excruciating detail their orders to march "in full white glove". The Eighth Regiment would march to the home of one MRS CHARLES A. SECOR, returning a flag she had donated to them four years before, "the banner having been carried by the command with honor to itself and credit to the city." Never forget.
Attendance at public celebrations of Evacuation Day like this one also became a way for new Americans, particularly Irish-Americans, to solidify their American/Union identity as well as hate on the English – a “bonhommie” that would stick for a decade or so after the Civil War. The Irish World’s notice from 1873 makes explicit why Evacuation Day held such appeal:
The forces of King George leave New York, bag and baggage, a free city in a free land, 1783. [Let us hope we will not have to wait till 1883 for the forces of Victoria to leave in the same way, a place we know of, where they have no right to be.] (Irish World, quoted by Hood, 2003).
Evacuation Day’s centennial celebration in 1883 was its largest. “Gloomy skies overhung the city yesterday morning” the Times intoned (in what is a rather incredibly written, Wikileak-from-Dagestan style narrative). The next morning, the day of the thing, the weather cleared, for a while at least, and business stopped completely, and it was “doubtful if ever before in the history of the City so many persons came to together as flocked the streets that day.” The city was “full of strangers” who had come to see, many unable to secure accommodation and struggling through muddied streets “with satchels and valises in their hands.” The Times tells us these folks didn’t mind there were no rooms left to rent in the city that day, as “when night fell upon the gloomy, muddy streets, they were still crowded with people, who waded through the puddles, gazed at the dripping flags on the buildings, and talked of the parade they had witnessed and the many features of the celebration.”
This spectacular marked the last gasp of Evacuation Day as a public affair. In following years, celebrations receded behind closed doors, celebrated by the Sons and Daughters of the Revolution – up until really a few years ago, when there have been some coordinated light shows and other neo-Evacuation Day commemorations, though none on a grand scale, involving all of New York and America.
Even that centenary evening, though, it was clear it would never be the same. The Chamber of Commerce hosted an elegant dinner for soldier-participants and for themselves – the committees comprised of "presidents of merchants exchanges, bankers, railroad executives, corporate lawyers" (Hood, as above) who had organized the whole grand affair.
This hint of elitism masquerading as populism, and the general spectacular, led the Irish American to accuse “these degenerate Americans” of “aping..everything English…[and] slight[ing] their own country, show[ing] they regret the abolition of class distinctions, and the equalization of all men before the law, that their Revolution brought about.” (1883, qtd. by Hood, as above).
Evacuation Day evening in 1883, one hundred years after 800 men waited at the Bowery, while parade organizers and participants dined, the valise carrying people were to have enjoyed a fireworks show, but these were “postponed on account of the rain.” Not to worry: they would “be given [the next night] if the weather is fair, and, if not, on the next pleasant evening.”
Marie Lorenz. Tide and Current Taxi project. 2005- Present
"The Tide and Current Taxi is a rowboat water taxi in the New York Harbor, operated by the artist Marie Lorenz. Each trip is planned to coincide with strong tidal currents in the harbor, all documented with pictures and stories ..."
The Witness You Want to Be
by Hasan Altaf
In their outlines, all of Joan Didion's novels seem more or less the same: The protagonist is always a woman, in some way "troubled"; there are always men, usually two, usually powerful in some way; there is sometimes a son but always a daughter, who is generally what the woman is "playing for," as Maria Wyeth puts it in Play It As It Lays (1970): "What I play for here is Kate." The stories of the troubled women torn between the two men and trying to save or reconnect with or find their children do not, in general, end happily; the children remain lost, the men too are gone (divorce, death, abandonment, some combination thereof), and at the end the woman we've been following is alone and still in some way "troubled."
The first time I read Didion's novels, I read them all at once, and the similarities began to annoy me: If they were all going to be the same, what was the point in reading more than one? (There are other writers who do this, who write the same story time and time again, and those in general I abandon after the first; Didion's style is what always kept me coming back.) Recently, however, as a way of preparing for the publication of Blue Nights, I went back and reread the novels, starting with Run, River (1963) and ending with The Last Thing He Wanted (1996). The second read-through answered this question for me. It also answered another, perhaps more important question - what is the point for the writer in telling the same story so many times?
I still feel that the characters in Didion's novels are almost interchangeable (Treat Morrison can stand in for Jack Lovett, Inez Victor and Charlotte Douglas have much in common) but as a writer I don't think she is particularly interested in her characters. The real subject of her novels seems to me to be systems, structures, societies. Each of the novels is set in a different world - Sacramento agricultural society, Hollywood, "the three or four solvent families in Boca Grande" - and these worlds all have their own rules for their own games. The protagonists of the novels are slightly out of sync with their societies; they do not or cannot play the game they are expected to. Maria Wyeth again: "I mean, maybe I was holding all the aces, but what was the game?"
More than that, these are all closed-off worlds that are under some kind of threat, as the Sacramento Valley faces development in Run, River or as the war in Vietnam changes the American political landscape in Democracy (1984). In her novels what Didion writes about is an individual's inability, failure or refusal to operate successfully within a system or society that is not even on its own terms entirely successful anymore. This is of course what Didion's essays are famous for, too, and what I think I love most about them (beyond of course that style) - Didion operates at the place where the personal and the political intersect, where the failures of an individual or a group come across something larger. The theme is expressed most obviously in Where I Was From (2003), in which the author's personal history and the history of California are explored side by side, but it was there from the beginning. Even as Didion's focus turns more personal, in The Year of Magical Thinking (2006) and now Blue Nights (2011), the same theme is there. Perhaps the "trajectory" has simply turned around.
But focusing on the novels: Reading all of them together has another impact, too, which is for a writer I think more striking. It's in the narration, the point of view, and how that changes from one book to the next. Run, River could be seen as a more or less traditional third-person novel (for the most part), but that was already beginning to break by Play It As It Lays, which is told largely in the third person but includes sections from the perspectives of Maria Wyeth, her husband Carter, and their friend Helene. The tension between what the character could say and what the writer wanted us to know was obvious even in Run, River, and the later novels all deal with this in different ways. In Democracy Didion directly inserts herself, as Joan Didion; in The Last Thing He Wanted the "I" is another character, a journalist following a story.
While my favorite of her novels is probably for now Run, River (it's a first novel, a younger novel, a novel of nostalgia and homesickness), the device I find most interesting is in A Book of Common Prayer (1977). For this novel, Didion invents a new character, one who has no real equivalents as such in the other books: Grace Strasser-Mendana, a first-person narrator who not only has her own story but also somehow manages, plausibly, to give us the perspective of Charlotte Douglas. As she tells us Charlotte’s story, she creates her own, and we end up with two strands intertwined – the novel’s final line, Grace saying “I have not been the witness I wanted to be,” hits us once for Charlotte and once for Grace.
In an interview with the Paris Review in 1978, Didion said that the device of third person and first person together of Play It As It Lays emerged simply because she wasn't "good enough" to tell the whole story in the first person. She added, "The juxtaposition of first and third turned out to be very useful toward the ending, when I wanted to accelerate the whole thing." That does seem to make things a little easier for the writer, but if that were the only issue, I don't think she would have continued to use variations on that device in her other novels, too. There is something more important, or perhaps just more consistent, at work.
If everything we write is in some way autobiographical, in some way about ourselves (which based on my own experience seems to be reasonably accurate), with these disjointed narrators Didion has found a way in which we can both "be" ourselves and "observe" ourselves directly. We all have this tendency, I think - at the same time as we live our lives, we're watching them, narrating them, telling a story to make sense out of them. "Joan Didion" and Inez Victor worked together at Vogue, they met later in Kuala Lumpur; Grace Strasser-Mendana and Charlotte Douglas could be seen as the two sides of a coin, women from the American West who somehow wound up in Boca Grande. The narrators and the protagonists reflect our own conflicting impulses, our own ability (and need) to analyze our lives as we live them. The difference might just be that most of us have this ability, to some extent, while people such as Maria Wyeth or Charlotte Douglas do not. As Inez Victor puts it, in Democracy, memory is the major casualty of a life in politics; extend that outwards. (We also get the chance, with this method, to rewrite the story, to have it a different way, as Didion does at the end of The Last Thing He Wanted: “I want those two to have been together all their lives” – another natural impulse that in fiction frequently gets suppressed.)
Joan Didion's novels are of course pleasurable as novels - the style, the dialogue, the weather ("Anyone can do weather," she writes in Democracy, which is true but not entirely accurate; anyone can do weather but not everyone can do weather like Joan Didion). Reading them simply as stories did not quite work for me, but reading them again, as a "writer," did; in sequence, they seemed like another kind of education, a new lesson. The first lesson was the hopeless kind that leads to several futile attempts to "do weather" like Joan Didion, but the second - a lesson in possibilities, in purpose - will, hopefully, stick. We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, a famous phrase of Didion's; you can see it working itself out in her novels, and for me it seemed the gift of a kind of freedom. We can tell ourselves whatever stories we need to, however we need to; we can both live our lives and then shape them; we can imagine every different ending. We just can’t all do it quite like Joan Didion.
Pain, Humility, and Thanksgiving
by Kevin S. Baldwin
There is nothing quite like a serious illness or injury to focus one's mind on what is truly important. I recently injured my back (probably from lifting my 6 year old off the floor where he had fallen asleep). I do this about once a year, usually by forgetting to bend at the knees when lifting something. I bent my knees this time, but I guess it wasn't enough. I don't recall a pull or a pop, but over the next few days, things slowly deteriorated. I went from taking 2 Ibuprofen at a time to 4 at a time, and even that didn't help like it usually does.
Eventually, while climbing stairs, a turn on a landing threw my back into such spasms that I collapsed. Sweat began pouring off my face and I felt extremely nauseous. This was terra incognita for me. Had I ruptured a disc? (I guess I've been pretty lucky so far. I am pushing 50 yet have suffered no broken bones, major accidents, or diseases. I think I took a single Tylenol after my wisdom teeth were pulled). Suddenly, I was helpless and in agonizing pain.
Pain is one of these enigmatic aspects of existence. It serves a purpose, but there can be too much of a good thing. Pain and swelling keep you from moving or using an injured area so it can heal. Of course, a lot of pain is uncomfortable and has a way of consuming most or all of your mental bandwidth. People who are born without pain receptors tend to live short lives because of all the injuries they suffer without realizing it.
I remained crumpled on the landing while pondering my next move. Not enough room to stretch out: I would have to stand up. After several attempts that ended when my lower back locked-up, I finally convinced myself to work through that pain and made it back to being vertical. Standing was actually fairly comfortable as long as I didn't move. But I couldn't be stranded on the landing for the rest of the day. I ended up sitting down on the stairs and pushing myself up backwards one step at a time. I grabbed the handrails at the top of the stairs and managed to pull myself up and drag myself to the bedroom to lie down.
I've always been intrigued how this kind of personal suffering tends to result in an almost obligatory internal monologue of "what have I done to deserve this?" and "what do I need to do to get it to stop?" In the absence of any kind of scientific understanding, I could see how demons, evil spirits, or other supernatural agents could easily be assigned blame. Given how social we humans are it isn't too difficult to see why some could ascribe social significance to injuries and illness. Karma seems all too real at these times and I began cataloguing any people I could have possibly wronged recently or any situations that I could have handled better.
In my new state, the simplest tasks required huge applications of will and planning. How to now get in the bed? How to move once in the bed? If I lay flat on my back, the pain was substantial but manageable. Any attempt to shift position resulted in complete lock-up, as if my lower lower back were hooked up to an electric power source. A beached whale probably had more grace and flexibility. Something as routine as getting up and going to the bathroom took on a whole new meaning. I lost my appetite and even suppressed thirst because initiating the inevitable trip to the john was so unpleasant. Not good.
What followed was the longest night ever. Unable to sleep and unable to move: All I could do was think about pain. I began to understand why addiction to painkillers was so common. I even managed to feel some empathy towards Rush Limbaugh. I often think of the repetitive motion injuries that workers in the local slaughter-house must endure working 8 hour shifts at high intensity. What about others who suffer chronic, severe pain? The depression and suicidal ideations they deal with suddenly made much more sense. Not that they didn't before, but it is one thing to think about or understand pain abstractly, but it is another to actually experience it directly. No wonder some people are so crabby. I gained new respect for people I knew who suffered from various maladies but didn't let it get to them.
By morning, things had not improved: Every movement was by necessity very deliberate and minimal, as if I had discovered a kind of Zen kinesiology. My wife insisted on driving me to the doctor's office. We took the minivan, because I wasn't sure I could lower myself into or extricate myself from our sedan. She commented that I moved like a 90 year old. I certainly felt decades older. Is this what I had to look forward to? The handholds placed throughout the van and office took on a new significance and utility. Ramps looked much more inviting than stairs.
The doctor's exam revealed a muscle strain but, thankfully, no obvious damage to the intervertebral discs. She prescribed a muscle relaxant and a pain killer. I thanked her deeply and repeatedly, went to the pharmacy, and very quickly began feeling better. I had dodged a bullet.
To what extent has minimization of risk, and our understanding of pain and illness and the ability to mitigate their effects dulled us to the central realities of existence and rendered us immune to the suffering of others? Physical anthropologists tell us the patterns and frequencies of bone fractures and other injuries in early humans resemble those of modern-day rodeo riders. Just about everybody was hurt or hurting. There was a universality or democracy of suffering. Before antibiotics, infections were frequently equal opportunity. Calvin Coolidge lost his son to sepsis resulting from a blister on his foot. It is unimaginable today that a president's child would die of anything short of the most aggressive cancer. Would the 1% be a little more concerned about the rest of us if they spent a few sleepless nights in agony? Would some serious discomfort or illness prompt the deficit super committee to quit posturing and compromise? I don't really want to wish infirmity on anybody, but perhaps some good can come from it.
The whole experience was supremely humbling. It stripped me bare. Possessions and ambitions suddenly didn't matter any more. I just wanted to feel better, get back to my life and family, and try to be better at what I do in the time I have left on this planet. Fortunately, I am able to (for now). And for that, this Thanksgiving weekend took on a special meaning.
November 27, 2011
Inverting the Turing Test
Stuart Shieber in American Scientist:
In his book The Most Human Human, Brian Christian extrapolates from his experiences at the 2009 Loebner Prize competition, a competition among chatbots (computer programs that engage in conversation with people) to see which is “most human.” In doing so, he demonstrates once again that the human being may be the only animal that overinterprets.
You may not have heard of the Loebner competition, and for good reason. The annual event was inspired by the Turing test, proposed by Alan Turing in his seminal 1950 paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” as a method for determining in principle whether a computer possesses thought. Turing meant his test as a thought experiment to address a particular philosophical question, namely, how to define a sufficient condition for properly attributing intelligence, the capacity of thinking, to a computer. He proposed that a blind controlled test of verbal indistinguishability could serve that purpose. If a computer program were indistinguishable from people in a kind of open-ended typewritten back-and-forth, the program would have passed the test and, in Turing’s view, would merit attribution of thinking.
The Loebner competition picks up on this idea; it charges a set of judges to engage in conversation with the chatbot entrants and several human confederates, and to determine which are the humans and which the computers. At the end, a prize is awarded to the “most human” chatbot—that is, the chatbot that is most highly ranked as human in paired tests against the human confederates. “Each year, the artificial intelligence (AI) community convenes for the field’s most anticipated and controversial annual event,” Christian says. Well, not so much. The AI community pretty much ignores this sideshow. It’s the chatbot community that has taken up the Loebner competition.
Offense, irony, comedy, and who knows what else
Jed Perl in The New Republic:
They are selling postcards of Hitler in the gift shop at the Guggenheim Museum. To be precise, they are selling photographic reproductions of a work entitled Him, a polyester portrayal of the Führer that is one of the works by Maurizio Cattelan in his retrospective at the museum. I can imagine being outraged or at least troubled by the postcards in the gift shop, except that by the time I saw them I had already been bombarded by this exhibition in which nearly all of Cattelan’s oversized neo-Dadaist baubles have been hung from the ceiling of Frank Lloyd Wright’s rotunda. Cattelan’s Hitler doll—like his Picasso doll, his bicycle, his dinosaur, and the rest of the 128 items in this stupefyingly sophomoric show—is engineered for offense, irony, comedy, or who knows what else. Those who are bothered by the Hitler postcards in the gift shop are naturally going to be dismissed as insufficiently hip. The same goes for those who are disturbed by the sight of one of the world’s greatest public spaces once again turned over to an art world charlatan as his personal playpen. My own feeling is that the postcards, however misbegotten, are speech we accept, although not necessarily embrace, in a society we prize for its openness. What is really disquieting is the event that has occasioned these postcards. “Maurizio Cattelan: All”—that’s the title of the show—amounts to hate speech directed at the sponsoring institution.
Donald Duck as a Nazi
Mapping the Interior
Imagine that you had a dishcloth
Bigger than the one mothers put on the bread
To slow its cooling, that you could spread
Over the whole kitchen floor to bring up its face
As clearly as the features on the cake.
You’d have a print you could lift up
To the light and examine for individual traces
Of people who came to swap yarns, and sit on
Sugan chairs that bit into the bare floor, leaving
Unique signatures on concrete that creased
Over time into a map you could look at and
Imagine what those amateur cartographers
Were thinking when their eyes fell, in the silence
Between the stories, that was broken only by
The sound of the fire and whatever it was that
Was calling in the night outside.
by Eugene O'Connell
from One Clear Call
Bradshaw Books, Cork, © 2003
Mitch Dobrowner in Lensculture:
Landscape photographers count ourselves lucky to be in the right place at the right time if a storm system is moving through — but I wanted to actively pursue these events. Since storms are a process (not a thing) I needed a guide. I soon connected with Roger Hill (regarded as the most experienced storm-chaser in the world); he introduced me to Tornado Alley and the Great Plains of the United States. In July 2009 Roger and I tracked a severe weather system for nine hours — from its formation outside of Sturgis, South Dakota, through Badlands National Park and into Valentine, Nebraska. Eventually we stopped in a field outside of Valentine, and there we stood in awe of the towering supercell (a thunderstorm with a deep rotating updraft) which was building with intake wind gusts of 60mph. It was like standing next to a 65,000-foot-high vacuum cleaner. It was unlike anything I had seen before in my life; the formation of the supercell had an ominous presence and power that I had never witnessed or experienced before. I remember turning to Roger, who was standing next to me, and saying, 'what the ****... you have to be kidding me'. It was only the second day of my “experiment” in shooting storms, but I knew without a doubt that this experiment would become an important project to me.
Words are inadequate to describe the experience of photographing this immense power and beauty. And the most exciting part is with each trip I really don’t know what to expect. But now I see these storms as living, breathing things.
The Era of Small and Many
Bill McKibben in Orion Magazine:
Earlier this year, my state’s governor asked if I’d give an after-lunch speech to some of his cabinet and other top officials who were in the middle of a retreat. It’s a useful discipline for writers and theorists to have to summarize books in half an hour, and to compete with excellent local ice cream. No use telling these guys how the world should be at some distant future moment when they’ll no longer be in office—instead, can you isolate themes broad enough to be of use to people working on subjects from food to energy to health care to banking to culture, and yet specific enough to help them choose among the options that politics daily throws up? Can you figure out a principle that might undergird a hundred different policies? Or another way to say it: can you figure out which way history wants to head (since no politician can really fight the current) and suggest how we might surf that wave?
Here’s my answer: we’re moving, if we’re lucky, from the world of few and big to the world of small and many. We’ll either head there purposefully or we’ll be dragged kicking, but we’ve reached one of those moments when tides reverse. Take agriculture. For 150 years the number of farms in America has inexorably declined. In my state—the most rural in the nation—the number of dairies fell from 11,000 at the end of World War II to 998 this summer. And of course the farms that remained grew ever larger—factory farms, we called them, growing commodity food. Here in Vermont most of the remaining dairies are big, but not big enough to compete with the behemoths in California or Arizona; they operate so close to the margin that they can’t afford to hire local workers and instead import illegal migrants from Mexico. But last year the USDA reported that the number of farms in America had actually increased for the first time in a century and a half. The most defining American demographic trend—the shift that had taken us from a nation of 50 percent farmers to less than 1 percent—had bottomed out and reversed. Farms are on the increase—small farms, mostly growing food for their neighbors.
November 26, 2011
Lynn Margulis 1938-2011
John Brockman in Edge:
Biologist Lynn Margulis died on November 22nd. She stood out from her colleagues in that she would have extended evolutionary studies nearly four billion years back in time. Her major work was in cell evolution, in which the great event was the appearance of the eukaryotic, or nucleated, cell — the cell upon which all larger life-forms are based. Nearly forty-five years ago, she argued for its symbiotic origin: that it arose by associations of different kinds of bacteria. Her ideas were generally either ignored or ridiculed when she first proposed them; symbiosis in cell evolution is now considered one of the great scientific breakthroughs.
Margulis was also a champion of the Gaia hypothesis, an idea developed in the 1970s by the free lance British atmospheric chemist James E. Lovelock. The Gaia hypothesis states that the atmosphere and surface sediments of the planet Earth form a self- regulating physiological system — Earth's surface is alive. The strong version of the hypothesis, which has been widely criticized by the biological establishment, holds that the earth itself is a self-regulating organism; Margulis subscribed to a weaker version, seeing the planet as an integrated self- regulating ecosystem. She was criticized for succumbing to what George Williams called the "God-is good" syndrome, as evidenced by her adoption of metaphors of symbiosis in nature. She was, in turn, an outspoken critic of mainstream evolutionary biologists for what she saw as a failure to adequately consider the importance of chemistry and microbiology in evolution. I first met her in the late 80's and in 1994 interviewed her for my book The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution (1995). Below, in remembrance, please see her chapter, "Gaia is a Tough Bitch". One of the compelling features of The Third Culture was that I invited each of the participants to comment about the others. In this regard, the end of the following chapter has comments on Margulis and her work by Daniel C. Dennett, the late George C. Williams, W. Daniel Hillis, Lee Smolin, Marvin Minsky, Richard Dawkins, and the late Francisco Varela. Interesting stuff.
Jeffrey Eugenides talks about 'The Marriage Plot' and pokes fun at literary theorists
From The Christian Science Monitor:
Jeffrey Eugenides published his first novel at 33 after he was fired from his position as executive secretary at the Academy of American Poets. The reason he lost his job? He was spending too much time at work honing the manuscript of his debut novel "The Virgin Suicides” (1993). “Middlesex,” his second novel, earned Eugenides a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2002. “The Marriage Plot,” just released in October, is Eugenides' third novel which took him nine years to complete. The story centers around three college students – Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell – all of whom graduate from Brown College in 1982. The book is a postmodernist take on the original marriage plot within the Victorian novel. A lot of the time, it is also a novel about other novels, in which the characters spend their time discussing Derrida, Tolstoy, Austen, and Hemingway. The second half of the book moves away from literary theory, and in some colorful scenes set in Paris, Calcutta, and New York, Eugenides explores the difficulties of dealing with mental illness, failed romance, and one man’s battle with his faith in religion. And of course Eugenides also returns to his central source of inspiration: the coming-of-age story. Eugenides recently spoke to the Monitor about the extent of free will, why semiotics is needlessly convoluted, and how reading James Joyce nearly made him choose a career in religion over a career in writing.
Your new novel moves more towards realism than your previous work. Why the change in style?
I’ve always considered myself a realist at heart. I’ve never written a book that violated physicalprinciples. My books often have an atmosphere of the fantastic or
the surreal, but actually nothing happens in them that couldn’t happen in reality, so I don’t know if this book is that much of a departure in terms of realism.
When amma came
to New York City,
she wore unfashionably cut
mostly in beige,
so as to blend in,
a puzzle that was missing a piece –
the many sarees
she had left behind:
that peacock blue
that nondescript nylon in which she had raised
and survived me,
the stiff chikan saree
that had once held her up at work.
When amma came to
New York City,
an Indian friend
who swore by black
remarked in a stage whisper,
“This is New York, you know –
Does she realise?”
Ten years later,
transiting through L.A. airport
I find amma
all over again
in the uncles and aunties
who shuffle past the Air India counter
in their uneasily worn, unisex Bata sneakers,
suddenly brown in a white space,
louder than ever in their linguistic unease
as they look for quarters and payphones.
I catch the edge of amma’s saree
like a malnourished fox’s tail
some other woman’s sweater
meant really for Madras’ gentle Decembers.
by K. Srilata
from Arriving Shortly
Publisher: Writers Workshop, Kolkata, © 2011
Look, I Made a Hat
It might be that the stage musical is now pretty well over as a form. Certainly, the gloomy parade of ‘juke-box’ musicals through the West End doesn’t give one much hope for the future. It is difficult to pick out a worst offender, but the Ben Elton We Will Rock You, confected from the Queen catalogue, is as bad as any. Its premise, of taking the work of a curious-looking, homosexual, Parsi, excessive genius like Freddie Mercury and turning it into an idiotic story about two clean-cut stage-school kids Putting the Show on Right Now says something truly terrible about the musical: it says that it can only deal with conventional views of conventional subjects. The demonstration of just how untrue that really is comes with the collected works of Stephen Sondheim, who is surely the greatest figure in the entire history of the stage musical. In his long career, he has not hesitated to address difficult subjects. It’s certainly true that other classics in the genre have dealt with some serious issues — race relations in Showboat, the Anschluss in The Sound of Music, even trade union movements in The Pyjama Game and urban prostitution in Sweet Charity. When Sondheim takes on themes of colonial exploitation (Pacific Overtures), political assassinations (Assassins) or Freudian psychological depths (pretty well the whole oeuvre), he is not stepping outside the previously established limits of the form.more from Philip Hensher at The Spectator here.
thinking through ows
Protests do not write policy. And something as loosely formed as the OWS action shouldn't be drafting white papers. What protests can do most effectively is to alter the common sense understanding of what is right and wrong. In this case, the OWS action makes other sufferers of debt and disenfranchisement feel that their problems are political—not a symptom of personal shortcomings, and not just the unfortunate side effect of a passing miscalculation by the Peter Orszags of the world. The real "goal" of OWS is to rally together everyone who is willing to say to Washington, "American democracy cannot bear this inequality." This movement may prove to be adept at waging ideological war against the disastrous free-marketeers, occupying the airwaves as well as the streets—but it will indeed fall to others to write legislation and to organize economic priorities in debt-wracked communities. The OWS protests should operate in concert with such efforts (OWSers have assisted foreclosure resistance in Queens, for instance), and should put up new forms of protests that keep the public's eyes on the culprits. Bank occupations have already begun. Major campaigns are now successfully exhorting citizens to move their savings and checking accounts from big banks to local credit unions. The black box of high finance has finally been pried open and exposed for the unregulated machine of destruction that it is, and the alternatives being proposed in the tumult of Occupy Wall Street sound pretty smart to me.more from Sarah Leonard at Bookforum here.
Agatha Christie was not cozy. She earned the title the Queen of Crime the old-fashioned way — by killing off a lot of people. Although never graphic or gratuitous, she was breathtakingly ruthless. Children, old folks, newlyweds, starlets, ballerinas — no one is safe in a Christie tale. In "Hallowe'en Party," she drowns a young girl in a tub set up for bobbing apples and, many chapters later, sends Poirot in at the very last minute to prevent a grisly infanticide. In "The ABC Murders," she sets up one of the first detective-taunting serial killers. The signature country home aside, Christie's literary world was far from homogenous. Her plots, like her life, were international, threading through urban and pastoral, gentry and working class, dipping occasionally into the truly psychotic or even supernatural. Christie murders were committed for all the Big Reasons — love, money, ambition, fear, revenge — and they were committed by men, women, children and in one case, the narrator. Some of her books are truly great — "Death on the Nile," "And Then There Were None," "The Secret Adversary," "Murder on the Orient Express," "Curtain" to name a few — and some are not. But even the worst of them ("The Blue Train," "The Big Four") bear the hallmarks of a master craftsman. Perhaps not on her best day, but the failures make us appreciate the successes, and the woman behind them, that much more.more from Mary McNamara at the LA Times here.
The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception
Drew DeSilver in The Seattle Times:
Back in 1982, Air Florida Flight 90 was attempting to take off from Washington, D.C., in a blinding snowstorm. Though the co-pilot was concerned the plane's wings hadn't been thoroughly de-iced and his instrument panel wasn't displaying the correct airspeed, the pilot dismissed his concerns until seconds before the plane crashed into the Potomac River, killing all but five aboard.
The crash, as cockpit voice recordings later showed, was primarily the result of the pilot's overconfidence leading him to ignore or minimize a whole series of warning signs that his more observant, but less assertive, colleague had pointed out to him. It's one of the most dramatic illustrations of the costs of self-deception in Robert Trivers' new book, "The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life" (Basic Books, 397 pp., $28).
Trivers, an evolutionary biologist who teaches at Rutgers, starts by asking one of those questions that seems obvious once someone else asks it: Why should our brains — whose job, after all, is to make sense of everything we see, hear, touch, taste and smell — be so prone to self-deception? Natural selection would seem to work against creatures who persistently fail to see the world as it is, yet self-deception seems to be deeply embedded in our psyches.
Trivers' answer, which he first advanced in 1976 and has been elaborating since, is that we deceive ourselves the better to deceive others. If we can convince ourselves that we are stronger, smarter, more skillful, more ethical or better drivers than others, we're a long way toward convincing other people too.
Africa Unleashed: Explaining the Secret of a Belated Boom
Edward Miguel in Foreign Affairs:
It is well known that the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s were a disaster for the countries of sub-Saharan Africa. In a period when other underdeveloped regions, especially Asia, were experiencing steady economic growth, Africa as a whole saw its living standards plummet. Nearly all Africans lived under dictatorships, and millions suffered through brutal civil wars. Then, in the 1990s, the HIV/AIDS epidemic exploded, slashing life expectancy and heightening the sense that the region had reached rock bottom. It was no surprise when an intellectual cottage industry of Afro-pessimists emerged, churning out a stream of plausible-sounding explanations for Africa's stunning decline. The verdict was simple: Africa equaled failure.
What is less well known is that Africa's prospects have changed radically over the past decade or so. Across the continent, economic growth rates (in per capita terms) have been positive since the late 1990s. And it is not just the economy that has seen rapid improvement: in the 1990s, the majority of African countries held multiparty elections for the first time since the heady postindependence 1960s, and the extent of civic and media freedom on the continent today is unprecedented. Even though Africa's economic growth rates still fall far short of Asia's stratospheric levels, the steady progress that most African countries have experienced has come as welcome news after decades of despair. But that progress raises a critical question: what happened?
Richard Feynman - No Ordinary Genius
[Thanks to Farrukh Azfar.]
How It Went
Christopher Buckley in the New York Times Book Review:
Kurt Vonnegut died in 2007, but one gets the sense from Charles J. Shields’s sad, often heartbreaking biography, “And So It Goes,” that he would have been happy to depart this vale of tears sooner. Indeed, he did try to flag down Charon the Ferryman and hitch a ride across the River Styx in 1984 (pills and booze), only to be yanked back to life and his marriage to the photographer Jill Krementz, which, in these dreary pages, reads like a version of hell on earth. But then Vonnegut’s relations with women were vexed from the start. When he was 21, his mother successfully committed suicide — on Mother’s Day.
It’s a truism that comic artists tend to hatch from tragic eggs. But as Vonnegut, the author of zesty, felicitous sci-fi(esque) novels like “Cat’s Cradle” and “Sirens of Titan” and “Breakfast of Champions” might put it, “So it goes.”
Vonnegut’s masterpiece was “Slaughterhouse-Five,” the novelistic account of being present at the destruction of Dresden by firebombing in 1945. Between that horror (his job as a P.O.W. was to stack and burn the corpses); the mother’s suicide; the early death of a beloved sister, the only woman he seems truly to have loved; serial unhappy marriages; and his resentment that the literary establishment really considered him (just) a writer of juvenile and jokey pulp fiction, Vonnegut certainly earned his status as Man of Sorrows, much as Mark Twain, to whom he is often compared, earned his.
Was Kurt Vonnegut, in fact, just that — a writer one falls for in high school and college and then puts aside, like one of St. Paul’s “childish things,” for sterner stuff?
November 25, 2011
New Analysis Deals Critical Blow to Faster-than-Light Results
Natalie Wolchover in Live Science:
Those famous neutrinos that appeared to travel faster than light in a recent experiment probably did not, a group of scientists say, because they failed to emit a telltale type of radiation.
According to one physicist in the group, "it's hard to argue against" this latest objection to the controversial faster-than-light result produced by other scientists in the same Italian laboratory.
In a paper posted to the physics pre-print site arXiv.org, the group, which runs the ICARUS (Imaging Cosmic and Rare Underground Signals) experiment based at Gran Sasso Laboratory (LNGS) outside Rome, argues that any faster-than-light particles would be expected to emit a particular type of radiation as they traveled. Because they didn't detect any of this coming from the neutrinos — and because the particles didn't seem to be shedding energy in the form of undetected radiation — they must have been traveling at or below the speed of light.
Ultimately, the ICARUS group is arguing that the OPERA group, which ran the experiment that measured neutrinos making a trip from CERN Laboratory in Switzerland to LNGS in Italy 60 nanoseconds faster than light would have done, must have made some mistake in its timekeeping.
The Justice Cascade: Six Questions for Kathryn Sikkink
Scott Horton interviews Kathryn Sikkink in Harper's, via Andrew Sullivan:
1. You start your work by examining the collapses of brutal military dictatorships in Europe’s southern tier (Greece, Spain and Portugal), and point out that although political and social processes led to accountability in Greece and Portugal, they didn’t in Spain. Will accountability for the horrendous crimes of the Franco period be avoided forever, or have they merely been delayed?
Based on charges filed by associations of victims and their families, Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón opened an investigation in 2008 into more than 100,000 cases of executions and disappearances that took place from 1936 to 1951. So, we are talking here about executions and disappearances that happened between sixty and seventy-five years ago. My book is about the trend toward individual criminal accountability, which requires that cases be brought against specific living perpetrators. Virtually all of the suspected perpetrators in Spain are now dead. Although individual criminal accountability for human rights violations from that period is no longer possible, other forms of accountability are needed. In particular, many family members still hope to locate the remains of their relatives, to rebury those remains, and to know more about the circumstances that led to the deaths. Such truth-telling is still necessary and possible, even if individual criminal accountability is not.
2. Samuel Huntington wrote that if accountability trials were to be conducted, they had to occur immediately in the wake of transition or not at all. His view seems to have been the received wisdom of political scientists twenty years ago. Have the intervening events tended to sustain or to refute him?
The single most forceful finding of my research is that on this issue, Huntington was completely wrong. Justice comes slowly — often painfully, unacceptably slowly in the eyes of victims — but surprisingly it often does come. Domestic courts in Uruguay took twenty years to sentence former authoritarian leaders Juan María Bordaberry and General Gregorio Álvarez for ordering the murders of political opponents. The Extraordinary Chambers in Cambodia issued its first conviction last year, more than thirty years after the horrors of the killing fields.