December 31, 2011
Ein glückliches neues Jahr!
Progressives and the Ron Paul fallacies
Glenn Greenwald in Salon:
The Ron Paul candidacy, for so many reasons, spawns pervasive political confusion — both unintended and deliberate. Yesterday, The Nation‘s long-time liberal publisher, Katrina vanden Heuvel, wrote this on Twitter:
That’s fairly remarkable: here’s the Publisher of The Nation praising Ron Paul not on ancillary political topics but central ones (“ending preemptive wars & challenging bipartisan elite consensus” on foreign policy), and going even further and expressing general happiness that he’s in the presidential race. Despite this observation, Katrina vanden Heuvel — needless to say — does not support and will never vote for Ron Paul (indeed, in subsequent tweets, she condemned his newsletters as “despicable”). But the point that she’s making is important, if not too subtle for the with-us-or-against-us ethos that dominates the protracted presidential campaign: even though I don’t support him for President, Ron Paul is the only major candidate from either party advocating crucial views on vital issues that need to be heard, and so his candidacy generates important benefits.
Whatever else one wants to say, it is indisputably true that Ron Paul is the only political figure with any sort of a national platform — certainly the only major presidential candidate in either party — who advocates policy views on issues that liberals and progressives have long flamboyantly claimed are both compelling and crucial. The converse is equally true: the candidate supported by liberals and progressives and for whom most will vote — Barack Obama — advocates views on these issues (indeed, has taken action on these issues) that liberals and progressives have long claimed to find repellent, even evil.
Scientists List 2011's Most Fascinating Discoveries
Over at Live Science:
Matt Sponheimer, anthropologist at University of Colorado, Boulder:
"One of the big controversies that has been playing out in 2011 is what were the environments in which early hominin lived. There has been something of a fight between the Tim White and Thure Cerling groups over this, with the last salvo being a 2011 paper by Cerling, et al. White, et al. had been pushing for closed, even forested environments, while Cerling, et al. are pushing for quite open and probably very dry environments. These scenarios have very important implications for our understanding of human evolution." [Top 10 Mysteries of the First Humans]
Zen Faulkes, brain, behavior and evolution researcher at University of Texas, Pan American:
"We are making headway in using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) brain scans to make crude predictions about what people 'think.' Lots of people are investigating the neural bases of deception, and from this, people have been thinking about whether fMRI could be used as a lie detector. This idea is so common now that it was even featured on 'MythBusters.'
"This paper showed a very simple way to 'beat the machine.' It's important because it shows that this fast-moving and exciting field of neuroscience is still very much at the basic research stage. It shouldn't be rushed out of the lab into law enforcement and intelligence communities yet."
An Interview with Michael Ondaatje
John McIntyre in the Barnes and Noble Review:
The Barnes & Noble Review: In an essay on Leonard Cohen, you once wrote, "Nothing is more irritating than to have your work translated by your life."
Michael Ondaatje: I was probably about eighteen years old at the time (laughs). Not to be trusted. No, I think he was someone who, very early on, was playing with the whole "persona" thing. I mean, he was "Leonard," in quotation marks, and at that time in Canada, he was really kind of the only poetry superstar. I guess the problem is that, if that's the only way of interpreting the work, it's an irritation. But obviously, in this book, by using that name, I'm stepping into the lion's mouth.
BNR: But there were a couple of points where you seemed to make a very distinct choice to separate yourself from the narrator. One that stands out is when the narrator says, "I am someone who has a cold heart." I hate to interpret that through the lens of your life, but to me it wasn't at all the impression your other work gives of you as a man.
MO: Actually, that would be the moment that clarified for me the distinction between me and him. I think that what's interesting is what you invent, in that even if it's fictional, it has many, many grains of yourself, and many grains of alternative selves. And what you pick as an alternative life is in many ways as autobiographical. It's like painters' self-portraits. On one level they're always more sophisticated than they are, or more humble than they are.
Sri Lanka’s Ghosts of War
Namini Wijedasa in the NYT:
THE Sri Lankan government’s defeat of the separatist Tamil Tigers in 2009 ended a three-decade war that took tens of thousands of lives. But only now is the government beginning to acknowledge its huge human cost. Two weeks ago, a government-appointed reconciliation commission released a long-awaited report, giving voice to the war’s civilian victims for the first time.
From August 2010 to January 2011, hundreds of people appeared before the commission in tears, begging for news of their loved ones, many of whom had last been seen in the custody of security forces. A doctor spoke of how they managed to survive under deplorable conditions in places “littered with dead bodies and carcasses of dying animals.”
In October, I visited a rural school just 6 miles from Mullivaikkal, on the northeast coast of the island, where the army finally crushed the Tigers — an area still off-limits to civilians. The government says there are too many land mines to allow resettlement; critics say there are too many bodies in mass graves.
The classroom had a new roof, but more than two years after the war ended, its walls were still pockmarked with shrapnel, a window was shattered and the floor was cracked. Most students’ uniforms were discolored; many wore flip-flops and carried tattered bags. A 7-year-old with a deep scar across his back stared at me. A shell had landed while his family slept and his sister was killed, he told me in a thin voice.
One child after another spoke of injuries and deaths caused by shelling; of lingering wounds; of forced conscription by the Tigers; of poor widowed mothers; and of family members missing after being taken into state custody.
What Really Happened to Strauss-Kahn?
Edward Jay Epstein in the New York Review of Books:
May 14, 2011, was a horrendous day for Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then head of the International Monetary Fund and leading contender to unseat Nicolas Sarkozy as president of France in the April 2012 elections. Waking up in the presidential suite of the Sofitel New York hotel that morning, he was supposed to be soon enroute to Paris and then to Berlin where he had a meeting the following day with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He could not have known that by late afternoon he would, instead, be imprisoned in New York on a charge of sexual assault. He would then be indicted by a grand jury on seven counts of attempted rape, sexual assault, and unlawful imprisonment, placed under house arrest for over a month, and, two weeks before all the charges were dismissed by the prosecutor on August 23, 2011, sued for sexual abuse by the alleged victim.
He knew he had a serious problem with one of his BlackBerry cell phones—which he called his IMF BlackBerry. This was the phone he used to send and receive texts and e-mails—including for both personal and IMF business. According to several sources who are close to DSK, he had received a text message that morning from Paris from a woman friend temporarily working as a researcher at the Paris offices of the UMP, Sarkozy’s center-right political party. She warned DSK, who was then pulling ahead of Sarkozy in the polls, that at least one private e-mail he had recently sent from his BlackBerry to his wife, Anne Sinclair, had been read at the UMP offices in Paris.
Trials and Errors: Why Science Is Failing Us
Jonah Lehrer in Wired:
The good news is that, in the centuries since Hume, scientists have mostly managed to work around this mismatch as they’ve continued to discover new cause-and-effect relationships at a blistering pace. This success is largely a tribute to the power of statistical correlation, which has allowed researchers to pirouette around the problem of causation. Though scientists constantly remind themselves that mere correlation is not causation, if a correlation is clear and consistent, then they typically assume a cause has been found—that there really is some invisible association between the measurements.
Researchers have developed an impressive system for testing these correlations. For the most part, they rely on an abstract measure known as statistical significance, invented by English mathematician Ronald Fisher in the 1920s. This test defines a “significant” result as any data point that would be produced by chance less than 5 percent of the time. While a significant result is no guarantee of truth, it’s widely seen as an important indicator of good data, a clue that the correlation is not a coincidence.
But here’s the bad news: The reliance on correlations has entered an age of diminishing returns. At least two major factors contribute to this trend. First, all of the easy causes have been found, which means that scientists are now forced to search for ever-subtler correlations, mining that mountain of facts for the tiniest of associations. Is that a new cause? Or just a statistical mistake? The line is getting finer; science is getting harder. Second—and this is the biggy—searching for correlations is a terrible way of dealing with the primary subject of much modern research: those complex networks at the center of life.
Eyebrow Dancing Girl
Climbing MOUNT EVEREST
This fullscreen panorama was published in connection with the 50 year anniversary in May 2003, for the first who reached the top of Everest. 50 years ago May 29 1953 The top of Mount Everest was reached for the first time by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. Since then 1.200-1.500 has climbed the top. Nobody knows the exact number. More than 140 climbers died on the way. On May 24, 1989 the Australian photographer and mountaineer Roderick Mackenzie reached the summit. He was no 271 since 1953. He made which as far as I know is the only 360 degree panorama From the top. Roderick Mackenzie made the image at the top of Mount Everest May 24 1989. Below is in his own words his feelings of the event.
Why did I climb Everest?
I have a theory that people climb for the smell of it. Air at very high altitude smells completely different to lower altitudes. People become addicted to this smell and need more and more to get less and less of it. This is what makes them get higher. What did I think of on the summit? When I reached the south summit I was suffering from a lack of Spanish Olives. I was most preoccupied with thoughts of the tin of olives sitting in my tent at base camp. The preoccupation was the result of a very intense dream about olives which was interrupted by the alarm summoning me to our summit attempt. When I reached the south summit the view to the main summit interested me from a mountaineering point of view and all dreamings of olives were banished from my head. On the summit I felt a mixture of apprehension and curiosity. Our only comments to each other after initial congratulations were about the fact that the summit is precisely half way. It seemed to me that the curvature of the earth was apparent, and I spent some time trying to think of a means to test if this was a real observation or an illusion. In the end I decided it was an illusion, but it was a strong illusion. Overall my main feeling was of surprise.
More here. (Note: Thanks to Iqbal Riza)
The Dirt About Gossip
From The New York Times:
Gossip, in Epstein’s definition, is “one party telling another what a third party doesn’t want known.” A clunky subtitle — “The Untrivial Pursuit” — calls attention to a premise that would seem to be self-evident: now that gossip looms so huge in public life, he contends, the “major rap” against it, “that it is trivial, is no longer the main thing to be said about it, if it ever was.” As objections to gossip go, this one has been collecting dust for quite some time, and Epstein, by placing it front and center, seems to be justifying his choice of subject to the disapproving ghosts of his grandparents. By far the more likely case to be made against gossip at the start of the 21st century would be that it has become so invasive and ubiquitous.
All religions condemn gossip, and Judaism has gone so far as to declare it a sin: a sin to initiate it, to repeat it, to listen to it. Yahweh’s position, then, is unequivocal. But Epstein is of two minds, and while he deplores the blight gossip has inflicted on our culture, he convincingly argues that it serves any number of worthwhile purposes, from the literary (Elizabeth Hardwick called it “character analysis”) to the sociological (David Sloan Wilson, a professor of biology and anthropology at Binghamton University, says it’s important in regulating behavior and defining membership in a group). Ultimately, what makes Epstein such a congenial authority on the subject is that he relishes good gossip himself.
Not so long ago, environmentalism was assumed to be a leftwing cause: anti-capitalist, pro-social justice and on the side of the underdog. It is only recently that the idea that green goes better with blue than red has gained credence and in the philosopher Roger Scruton environmental conservatism has found its most eloquent, intelligent and passionate advocate. He is scathing about those on the left who “regard ‘conservatism’ as a dirty word, with no semantic connection to the ‘conservation’ they favour”. He argues that the link between the two is much more than etymological. “Conservatism and conservation are two aspects of a single long-term policy, which is that of husbanding resources and ensuring their renewal.” Scruton’s case for a green conservatism is compelling. Phrases such as “frugality is founded on the principle that all riches have limits”; “it is easier to destroy than it is to restore”; and society “is a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are to be born” could easily be inserted into speeches by ecologists. In fact, they all come from the pen of conservatism’s intellectual hero, Edmund Burke.more from Julian Baggini at the FT here.
Here's the striking thing about James M. Cain's essay "Paradise," originally published in the American Mercury in March 1933: Even then, before many of the prevailing tropes about Los Angeles had yet to assert themselves, we were already looking at the place through a mythic filter, one Cain sets out to undermine. You can see it in that fantastic opening sequence, with its intention to wash out all the preconceptions that have emerged from "Sunkist ads, newsreels, movie magazines, railroad folders, and so on." You can see it in the deftly rendered metaphor by which Cain reframes Southern California as a kind of watercolor, because it "blurs here and there, and lacks a very clear outline." He's right, of course, as he is about the legendary "land of sunshine, fruit, and flowers" — all of which, he admits, are part of the territory, just "not with the lush, verdant fragrance that you have probably imagined." For Cain, then, the idea is to cut through all the nonsense and offer up a vision of (as that long-ago issue of the Mercury promised on its cover) "What Southern California Is Really Like."more from David L. Ulin at the LA Times here.
graham is in pico's head
Iyer, a journalist and world traveler, the author of seven books of nonfiction and two novels, begins his own memoir this way: “I was standing by the window in the Plaza Hotel, looking out.” Where is this Plaza Hotel? In New York? Hardly. It’s in La Paz, Bolivia, a country where Iyer and a friend nearly died in a car crash on a mountain road one New Year’s Day. And who is Iyer? The answer to that question unfolds in the ensuing pages, emerging from behind a scrim of other characters — not only Greene, but the author’s philosopher father, Raghavan Iyer, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, as well as Iyer’s old traveling companions and school friends and the women he has encountered along the way. Iyer is far from the first Greenite to write about this prolific figure, whose long and illustrious career encompassed scores of novels, essays, short stories and plays. Greene’s official biographer, Norman Sherry, devoted more than 2,000 pages, gathered in three volumes, to an exploration of the author’s boyhood and manhood, his conflicted Roman Catholicism, his love affairs and friendships, his devious psychology. Greene teased out the knotted skein of attitudes that tangled his psyche in his published works, whose overall theme can be usefully (if reductively) condensed to the sentence that appears in his play “Carving a Statue,” in which a sculptor describes the subject that shapes his work: “My indifference and the world’s pain.”more from Liesl Schillinger at the NY Times here.
December 30, 2011
Is Incest Wrong?
Tauriq Moosa in Big Think:
In my time teaching students about making choices, especially moral ones, based on sound reasoning and evidence, we often range into areas many have not thoroughly considered. After all, everything deserves scrutiny if we are to be fairly sure an idea (or belief) is worth pursuing, defending and so on. If this idea is worth our support, it will pass tests of reasonable scrutiny; if it does not, it either means we must strengthen the idea by addressing its failings or discard it altogether. For example, there is no good reason to justify the oppression of gay people or women – though there are plenty of reasons people do. Thus because there are no good arguments to support oppressing gay people, the idea should be discarded and indeed opposed where it arises. In an effort to battle bad ideas, we should scrutinise (or at least be willing to scrutinise) every view, belief and idea we have.
Nothing is sacred in my class (indeed, we’ve debated the merits of sanctity itself). We engage with questions that focus on real-life matters, which tend to evoke knee-jerk reactions of dismissal and/or disgust.
With this in mind, my students asked whether incest or necrophilia is wrong. Since in many countries, both of these are automatically crimes, I think it’s important to consider what arguments there are for considering these as automatically wrong. However, just because something is right or wrong does not mean that the law follows suit. Something can be legal and be wrong by a moral standard, and vice versa. Here we are mainly considering the morality of these two supposedly taboo types of sexual conduct. Are they, by definition, wrong?
Tariq also looks at whether necrophilia is wrong.
More Justice through More Europe
Ulrich Bielefeld and Nikola Tietze interview Ulrich Beck in Eurozine:
Mittelweg 36: What do the financial crisis and the nuclear energy crisis represented by Fukushima mean for Europe?
Ulrich Beck: I'd see the dynamics and the relevance of both events – the financial crisis and Fukushima – in terms of my concept of the risk society, or world risk society. The risk society is a could-be-society. The term risk refers to the "could-be", the anticipation of catastrophes in the present. One has to differentiate here between the future, of which we know nothing, and our conception of the future, which is portrayed or socially constructed as a global risk in the widest sense. This catastrophic subjunctive is the typhoon of events that broke into the centre of social institutions and people's daily lives in the form of the financial crisis (though not only that): irregular, rooted neither in the constitution nor democracy, charged with unacknowledged incomprehension, blowing away hitherto fixed points of reference. As a result, the sense of a kind of common destiny arises. This is indicated by the abrupt downturns in the financial markets, whose turbulence makes tangible the interconnectedness of different worlds. If Greece declares bankruptcy, is that another sign that my pension in Germany is no longer safe? What does "state bankruptcy" actually mean? For me? Who would have thought that the banks, usually so arrogant, would ask the states for help, and that the chronically hard-up states would rush through measures enabling astronomical sums to be placed at the disposal of these cathedrals of capitalism? Today, it is universally taken for granted. That isn't to say that people actually understand what it means to be joined by a common financial destiny consisting of insecurity, incomprehension and the sense of cross-border dependency. This anticipation of global risk works its way into the very capillaries of daily life and, as I see it, is one of the major forms of mobilization in the twenty-first century. Everywhere these kinds of threat are perceived locally as cosmopolitan events creating an existential bond between one's own life and everyone else's. Such events collide with the conceptual and institutional framework that has so far delineated how we think about society and politics. They challenge this framework from within and at the same time encounter differing cultural conditions and contexts that lead to very contrary cultural and political estimations of the risks.
The Rule of Thumb: Vagina Types and Variability of Female Orgasm
MelodiousMsM over at Mosex blog:
In 1924 a revolutionary research paper on the female orgasm was published in Europe under the pen name A. E. Narjani. But as it turns out, the real author was actually Princess Marie Bonapart, great-grandniece of Emperor Napoleon I of France and daughter of Prince Roland Bonaparte. After she married Prince George of Greece and Denmark in 1907, her official title became Her Royal Highness, Princess George of Greece and Denmark.
Sadly, the Princess suffered from what many women today still do – the inability to reach orgasm solely through vaginal intercourse. Defying the social mores of her era, she discovered she could reach orgasm through masturbation. While this led her to blame physiology and not psyche, it still left her deeply frustrated with her husband and eventual four other lovers. But the Princess refused to accept such fate as a permanent condition! Instead, she began some of the most revolutionary work of her time on female sexuality and anatomy while also embarking on her quest for orgasm by penetrative sex.
She first examined and interviewed 243 women. One by one she measured the distance between their clitorises and the vaginas, then compared the distance to their frequency and ease of orgasm. What she discovered was a direct correlation between the ability to orgasm through vaginal sex and the measurement of space between the vagina and the clitoris. She categorized the findings from her subjects in three ways: paraclitoridiennes (para meaning “alongside”), mesoclitoriennes (meso meaning “in the middle”), and téléclitoridiennes (télé meaning “far”).
Paraclitoridiennes were the fortunate ones. The space between their vaginas and clitorises measured less than one inch. For the 69% of her test subjects that fell into this category, vaginal orgasm was easier than ever to reach. However, similar studies conducted in modern times prove this statistic extremely high.
Indie Rock Virtues
Richard Marshall interviews Josh Knobe:
3:AM: So how did you start? You have brought a freshness to academia, how come?
Josh Knobe: From very early on I was interested in philosophical questions but I always had a fear of academia. I thought that if I ever became an academic I’d became this dried up person and spend my life writing about something that no one would ever read or care about. And I’d write about it for a few years for a few other professors who’d obsess over it but it would make no difference. So then after I was an undergraduate I was still very interested in philosophy but instead of going to philosophy school I instead did a whole bunch of weird jobs. I was working with homeless people and teaching English in Mexico and doing translations in France. So then over time I began to feel that I wasn’t getting anywhere and I’d always had this interest in philosophical problems and they wouldn’t go away. So in the end I decided to return to academia and I eventually did return to grad school.
3:AM: And what kind of philosophy interested you at the time, given that experimental philosophy didn’t exist then, obviously!
JK: At the time before I went to grad school the kind of philosophy I was interested in was very much the traditional philosophy. I was obsessed with Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and so I wanted to investigate and do the kinds of things that they were doing. So that was what my sense of what philosophy was all about. But at the same time I was doing all this research in psychology. I had published a bunch of papers with someone who had been a grad student at the time when I was an undergraduate student. And we were working away at these psychological projects. But at that time I saw this work as being sort of a thing on the side and separate from my real interests, which I took to be my philosophical interests. And then when I got to grad school something kind of weird happened. Someone started to write a commentary on the stuff that we had been doing in the psychology journals. But this person was in philosophy and wanted to treat these psychological papers as being of philosophical importance. So he’d be saying, you know, I think you’re right about this, wrong about that, maybe this needs better evidence. But he was treating it all as if it had philosophical significance.
Manners for the modern world
Rather than laying down a system of rules like such classic authorities as Emily Post, Alford sought to establish the premises on which good manners are based. “Manners,” as he defines them, are more fundamental than “etiquette” or “protocol,” which vary from culture to culture. Pointing with your finger is rude in Japan, while loudly slurping your noodles is de rigueur. Some African tribes honor visitors by spitting on them. Are there any universals? “I’d like to think that being modest about one’s achievements, and taking a newcomer in hand and explaining some of the peculiarities of a new setting to him, are both considered thoughtful acts around the world,” Alford writes, but even the appropriate methods for doing either change depending on where you are and whom you’re with.
I would also argue that manners can be relative within the mind of a single individual. An anecdote (for anecdotes are the very soul of books on manners): I recently witnessed a man on an elliptical trainer at my gym scold a woman on a nearby machine for taking a (very brief and soft-spoken) phone call that was obviously from a doctor. It’s true that cellphone use in that area can be annoying and is therefore prohibited, but this is the same man who favors everyone around him with an angry running commentary on whatever he’s watching on TV as he works out. “One of the more curious aspects of bad manners,” Alford astutely observes, “is that we almost never think that we ourselves have them.” Which is why, when it comes to politeness, the letter of the law matters far less than the spirit. What Alford finally concludes is that courtesy derives from “imagination” rather than a careful adherence to established rules or even simple empathy. “Good manners,” he writes, “are your ability to take on another person’s point of view regardless of your own.”
Must-see science videos of 2011
Science educator James Drake put together 600 pictures from the International Space Station to create this video view of an orbital night flight. It's been viewed more than 6 million times on YouTube since September. Follow the links at the bottom for more night-flight videos.
A wine bottle fell from a wagon and
broke open in a field.
That night one hundred beetles and all their cousins
and did some serious binge drinking.
They even found some seed husks nearby
and began to play them like drums and whirl.
This made God very happy.
Then the "night candle" rose into the sky
and one drunk creature, laying down his instrument,
said to his friend ~ for no apparent
"What should we do about that moon?"
Seems to Hafiz
Most everyone has laid aside the music
Tackling such profoundly useless
-- versions of Hafiz by Daniel Ladinsky
Popular English fiction of the twentieth century did not have much of a shelf life. J. B. Priestley, Angela Thirkell, Warwick Deeping, Dorothy L. Sayers. It is hard to think of anyone reading them now, except for curiosity value. Bring the list up to date – with John Fowles or Kingsley Amis – and you see the same thing happening; they are crumbling before your eyes, like exhumed bones exposed to ultraviolet. Not so P. G. Wodehouse, who is now bought and read more than ever. Wodehouse occupies a role in the history of twentieth-century literature that is more or less unique – though it bears points of comparison with the role of Agatha Christie. Both writers were “dated” almost before they were first published. Both were patient, hard-working, and humble enough to write what their public wanted. Both were occasionally tempted to write “something different”, but they knew that a cobbler should stick to his last. Having enjoyed some books by Dorothy L. Sayers, Wodehouse tried Five Red Herrings and pronounced it “a lousy story”. “Tick her off”, he wrote to the man who had sent it to him, “and make her get back to the old snappy stuff.” In another letter in this collection, written in 1932, Wodehouse tried to read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. “Aren’t these stories of the future a bore. The whole point of Huxley is that he can write better about modern life than anybody else, so of course he goes and writes about the future.”more from A. N. Wilson at the TLS here.
amis does the GOP
"Oops" sounds even worse—even more sheepish and abject—if you say it with a Texan accent: something like “Ewps.” It was certainly an arresting moment. When was the last time a would-be emperor denuded himself in the space of a single syllable? Yet it also pointed to more general confusions. Over the course of about a generation, it has come to seem that while the Democratic Party represents the American mind, the Republican Party represents, not its heart, and not its soul, but its gut. The question is as old as democracy: should the highest office go to the most intellectually able candidate, or to the most temperamentally “normative” (other words for normative include “unexceptional” and “mediocre”)? In the rest of the developed world, the contest between brain and bowel was long ago resolved in favor of brain. In America the dispute still splits the nation. Things are slightly different, and more visceral, in periods of crisis. Nine years ago, if you remember, the populace looked on in compliant silence as the president avowedly “went with his gut” into Baghdad. Until very recently it looked as though the GOP had been blessed with the most intensely average candidate of all time. Rick “Crotch” Perry (the nickname derived from his habit of readjusting his blue jeans) was a shoeless farm boy from an old Rebel family, a straight-C student and Aggie yell leader, a devout Air Force pilot who rose to become the potent governor of a major state.more from Martin Amis at Newsweek here.
December 29, 2011
’ll Be Your Mirror: What Pakistan sees in Imran Khan
Madiha Tahir in Caravan the Magazine:
SEX, OR AT LEAST THE IDEA of it, is never far from Imran Khan. It reveals itself in the casual remark of an urbane 20-something friend, a well-educated and usually sensible woman who turned to me and said that she would “do Imran”. “You know,” she further explained, “as a feather in my cap.” It sometimes hangs in the air, almost visible, and as thick as the cloying perfume of the “aunties”—well-heeled middle-aged housewives clutching their fading youth as desperately as they do the last yard of cloth at designer lawn sales—who thrash and push and shove, banging lesser folk with their bulky handbags so they can rub shoulders with Imran, if only for a furtive moment.
Heterosexual boys also desire Imran in their own way. They queue up impatiently, jostling each other among coils of barbed wire, shouting their passions to Imran’s security team from behind the protest stage where the Great Khan is seated—wanting to be let inside, to see him up close, to be near him.
It seems safe to say that Khan is the only major politician in Pakistan presently capable of exuding this kind of appeal: this was how one sociologist summed up to me why Imran’s party, the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf (PTI), or Movement for Justice, might pose a serious threat to Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) in the latter’s traditional stronghold of Punjab. “I mean, he’s Imran Khan—he’s not ganju,” she said, using the word for “bald” to refer to the rotund and balding Sharif. A report in the Christian Science Monitor echoed the point: “With his good looks and seeming willingness to speak plainly,” wrote Issam Ahmed, “Khan is to Pakistan what Sarah Palin is to the US.” For his part, Khan would probably prefer to be Pakistan’s second Zulfikar Ali Bhutto—the fiery populist founder of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).
For a long time after he entered politics, there was little reason to believe Khan posed a threat to anything other than his own status as a national hero. But that’s no longer the case: after uneven turnouts at PTI demonstrations for the better part of this year, the party defied predictions by rallying roughly 200,000 supporters in a roaring gathering in Punjab’s capital city, Lahore, on 30 October 2011. It’s too soon to tell whether that turnout will translate into votes in the elections scheduled for 2013, but it may well mark the moment that PTI went from being ridiculous to respectable in the mainstream.
War No More
Timothy Snyder in Foreign Affairs (via Andrew Sullivan):
Treating Nazi Germany as a historical aberration also allows Pinker to sidestep the question of how Germans and central and western Europeans became such peaceful people after the demise of Nazism. This is a strange oversight, since European pacifism and low European homicide rates are where he begins the book. Today's Europe is Pinker's gold standard, but he does not ask why its levels of violence are the lowest in all of his charts. If, as he contends, the "pleasures of bourgeois life" prevent people from fighting, Pinker should also consider the place where these are most fully developed, and how they became so. Pinker persuasively relates how postwar economic cooperation among European states led to a pacifying interdependence, but he fails to stress that the postwar rebirth of European economies was a state-led enterprise funded by a massive U.S. subsidy known as the Marshall Plan. And he says very little about the concurrent development of redistributive social policy within those states. State power goes missing in the very places where states became preoccupied with welfare rather than warfare.
Pinker believes that people are more pacific when they have the time and the occasion to repeat interactions and reconsider their actions. Yet he has trouble acknowledging that, according to his own story, the one and only agent that can create that sort of cushioned society with educated minds and spare time has been the functional welfare state. This refusal seems rooted in Pinker's commitment to free-market libertarianism. His book's vision of a coming age of peace is a good example of how two trends favoring political passivity -- the narcissistic discursiveness of the American left and the antistate prejudices of the American right -- conspire in the same delusion: that while we talk, talk, talk, markets do the work of history. Unlike the Enlightenment thinkers he lauds, Pinker fails to see that the state is not simply, as he puts it, "an exogenous first domino" that fell long ago, beginning a chain of events but remaining motionless itself. L'état, c'est nous: the state is what we do, how we vote, the military service we do or do not perform, the taxes we do or do not pay, the federal grants that we do or do not apply for.
Pinker shows his libertarian hand when he casually claims that "economic illiteracy" causes redistributive policies and thus "class conflict." Many have made this claim, of course, but as he notes without seeming to realize he is disproving his own hypothesis, today's redistributive European welfare states are the most peaceful in world history. Pinker, who exhibits no economic expertise, confuses economic literacy with a blind faith that unconstrained markets are a self-sustaining good.
What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality
Robert J. Richards in American Scientist:
In the Descent of Man (1871), Darwin gave over several chapters to developing his theory of the evolution of conscience. He argued that the fundamental, altruistic impulse originated in the community selection of those protohuman clans that by chance had individuals who, because they possessed “the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good.” Such groups would prosper as their altruistic instincts became ever keener. Darwin believed this biological evolution would be abetted by cultural evolution, as groups began to learn that superficial characteristics of skin color and other racial features overlay a common humanity. They would continue to widen the moral circle of response to include other groups whom they would gradually come to recognize as “one of us.” Darwin quite proudly declared that no one else had approached the problem of morality exclusively from the point of view of natural history. He believed he could accomplish what Kant had desired: an explanation for the moral sense, which “has a rightful supremacy over every other principle of human action.”
In Braintrust, Patricia Churchland, a philosopher at the University of California at San Diego, seems intent on advancing a project comparable to Darwin’s through the application of the most recent science, as the subtitle of her book suggests: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality. Readers may, however, decide instead to stick with that old-time evolution.
Churchland does not think that moral behavior can be reduced to any special kind of activity, as Darwin believed; rather, in her view, the term “moral” hovers over a variety of social behaviors, behaviors that might attract the same term but vary considerably across different cultures and individuals.
Ruin, the collector, and ‘sad mortality’
IN 1943, THE PHYSICIST Erwin Schrödinger delivered a series of lectures at Trinity College, Dublin. In these he argued that the metabolism of any organism feeds upon its environment in order to free itself as far as possible from consistent entropic decline. The entropic decline is expressed in the equation: S1 – S ≥ 0. This might be the most depressing thing the human species has ever said to itself. Entropy always maximises its life-destroying possibilities. Things go from bad to worse. We’re all doomed. Maximum entropy once achieved is the state of thermodynamical equilibrium. Entropy ends where life ends, at the point of absolute zero, minus 273 degrees centigrade. Short of that, things are still going on to some extent. Schrödinger argued that in battling away to minimise the entropy that condemns it to death, the organism always ingests negative entropy: it effectively creates order in an anti-entropic manoeuvre. A plant is continually borrowing order from the sunlight so as to stay alive and grow. The capture and retention of energy is the first principle of life. So we have here a cosmic dialectic between order and disorder. These two mighty forces are in constant battle and negotiation. At the microcosmic level, the collector ventures continuously into the disordered city so as to rescue some fragments of order, like Aeneas bearing his father Anchises away from the burning ruins of Troy. In his essay ‘Unpacking My Library’ Walter Benjamin speaks of the life of the collector consisting of ‘a dialectical tension between the poles of disorder and order’. We could equally well describe this polarity as that between contingency and causality: every bookshop, every auction, is a field of contingency from which might emerge another proof of causality.more from Alan Wall at the Fortnightly Review here.
Cri de Coeur
The writer and historian Thomas Carlyle, who coupled extraordinary prejudices to extraordinary wisdom, declared in 1841 that “the Hero can be Poet, Prophet, King, Priest or what you will, according to the kind of world he finds himself born in.” Carlyle was not saying that the circumstances of our environment exclusively shape who we are, but that our surroundings determine that which we appear to stand for. Though Ulysses’s actions remain the same, in the telling by the Romans he was a brutish, ruthless trickster; in that of the Greeks, a hero. The two denominations are not necessarily contradictory. The truth be told, most of our heroes are ruthless tricksters, whether their ruses succeed or not. Depending on whether we consider them to have been on the side of the devils or the angels, we consecrate them in our pantheon or damn them for eternity. Robin Hood, Joan of Arc and Che Guevara were all outlaws, and we have granted them the status of heroes because, however bloody their actions, we have decided that they chose the better side.more from Alberto Manguel at Geist here.
re re re re-evaluating Stephen King
Is there any other living novelist who calls for a perpetual re-evaluation as much as Stephen King? Thirty-seven years after the publication of his first novel, Carrie, King still seems not just underrated but uncomprehended. For years his critical evaluation was hampered by the dual whammy of his being not only a genre writer but an immensely successful one. He was ridiculed and dismissed when he was paid any attention at all, yet when he didn’t go the convenient route of fading away after a few bestsellers (all but two of his books have remained in print), a sort of grudging attention began to be paid to him. Occasionally it was even approving. At a conference of postmodern novelists at Brown University, the critic Leslie Fiedler, who had written appreciatively of King (even mischievously calling him a closet intellectual), announced to an assembled group that included William Gaddis, Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover, “When all of us are forgotten, people will still be remembering Stephen King.” The serious consideration King has sporadically received over the years peaked in 2003, when the National Book Foundation honored him with a medal for lifetime achievement. The dedication was exactly right: “Stephen King’s writing is securely rooted in the great American tradition that glorifies spirit-of-place and the abiding power of narrative.” Notable among the expected harrumphing that followed was the noxious black cloud hanging over New Haven, which materializes whenever Harold Bloom decides a barbarian is about to defile the canon (see also Rowling, J.K.).more from Charles Taylor at The Nation here.
The dolphin jetpack that lets you swim like one
Dispelling the Myths of Men in Drag
Elyssa Maxx Goodman in the Good Men Project:
In reality, men have been wearing dresses for thousands of years. There’s even an early reference to cross-dressing in the Old Testament. True drag, though, was borne of the stage, when women were not allowed to perform so men took their places in any ridiculous frippery necessary to display some semblance of feminine qualities. Shakespeare was said to use the phrases “enter Dressed Resembling a Girl” or “enter Dressed As Girl” in his plays as notes for male actors, which later evolved into “drag.”
Being a drag queen, however, is different from simply doing drag. A drag queen is primarily a homosexual male who dresses in women’s clothing to entertain. Some sing, some dance, some do stand-up comedy. But a male in drag is not necessarily a drag queen—Milton Berle, Flip Wilson, and even Adam Sandler are all heterosexual males who have donned female attire for comedic effect, but did not do it as a career, as a drag queen does.
For a long time, drag was relegated to gay culture, but in the 1970s with gay liberation movement and the popularization of glam rock icons in outlandish makeup and gender-bendy costumes like David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, it experienced a move to the surface.
Where Will the Next One Come From
The next one will come from the air
It will be an overripe pumpkin
It will be the missing shoe
The next one will climb down
From the tree
When I’m asleep
The next one I will have to sow
For the next one I will have
To walk in the rain
The next one I shall not write
It will rise like bread
It will be the curse coming home
by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra
Occupy Wall Street: what would Gandhi say?
Ruchira Gupta in The Guardian:
As a citizen of India, and as a citizen of the world we all inhabit, I offer one of Gandhi's most basic ideas to those Occupying Wall Street. India is the world's biggest democracy and the US is the world's most powerful democracy. I know the actions of the United States profoundly affect my country's future – but I also know the reverse is true. The Occupy Wall Street movement was partly inspired by demonstrations in Cairo's Liberation Square – "March like an Egyptian!" was one of its slogans – and the peaceful demonstrators in Wall Street's Zucotti Park ate pizzas ordered on the web by supporters in Libya.
India gained independence without a war, something even the United States can't claim. This was largely due to Gandhi's understanding that the ends don't justify the means, the means are the ends; the means we choose dictate the ends we get. As this has come down to us, it is popularly understood as non-violence, but it went far deeper than that. After all, if actions are only against something, however unjust, the result will not satisfy people's need to see and taste and live and work for something that is just. Even if the negative effort wins, a new negative will replace it because a critical mass of people haven't learned to live in a positive way. Gandhi went so far as to say that civil disobedience is "worse than useless…without …constructive effort."
More here. (Note: The writer and dear friend Ruchi Gupta, the strongest advocate against sex trafficking in India and now worldwide, has certainly shown the way with her own constructive work which has won her a place as one of the 19 leaders in Clinton's Global Initiative)
Aging Brains Match Youth in Some Mental Tasks
From Scientific American:
The researchers studied how people of different ages performed when put through a battery of cognitive tests, which included guessing the number of asterisks on a screen (fewer or more than 50) and identifying strings of letters as either words or non-words. The new research added young kids into the mix, from elementary-school age through college age. They found the very young kids slower at decision-making tasks, with performance improving with older groups. "Younger children are not able to make as good of use of the information they are presented, so they are less accurate," Ratcliff said. "That improves as they mature."
Individuals aged 60 and older also had a slower response time for these tasks, but the researchers found that instead of just taking longer to follow the same thought process as young people, the older people took longer to make sure they responded accurately. These older people even could be trained to respond quicker in some decision-making tasks without hurting their accuracy, similarly to younger adults. "Older people don't want to make any errors at all, and that causes them to slow down. We found that it is difficult to get them out of the habit, but they can with practice," study researcher Gail McKoon, also from Ohio State, said in a statement. "For these simple tasks, decision-making speed and accuracy is intact even up to 85 and 90 years old."
December 28, 2011
Michael Dummett, 1925-2011
A.W. Moore in The Guardian [h/t: Justin Smith]:
Sir Michael Dummett, who has died aged 86, was one of the greatest British philosophers of the 20th century. He was also an international authority on tarot cards, a campaigner for racial justice and a devoted family man. His wife, Ann, was a co-worker in his fight against racism and collaborated with him on a number of publications on the subject.
Dummett was a staunch advocate of "analytic" philosophy, the fundamental tenet of which he took to be that "the philosophy of language is the foundation of all other philosophy". He also once characterised it as "post-Fregean philosophy", the 19th-century German philosopher Gottlob Frege having done as much as anyone to treat the philosophy of language in this way. Much of Dummett's own work was accordingly devoted to the interpretation and exposition of Frege's ideas, and he will be as well remembered for his exegesis of Frege as he will for his own seminal contributions to analytic philosophy.
Frege held that the way in which the words in a sentence combine reflects the structure of the thought that the sentence expresses. In the sentence "Michael smokes," a proper name combines with a verb so as to express the thought that a particular person, Michael, indulges in a particular activity, smoking. This thought is true if Michael does in fact smoke, and false otherwise.
On this apparently innocuous and simple basis, Frege erected an elaborate set of ideas that have had an immense influence. Nevertheless, Dummett believed that Frege made certain assumptions concerning truth and falsehood that could be called into question. Frege allowed for the possibility of a thought that was neither true nor false. An example would be the thought that Father Christmas smokes. Given that there is no such person as Father Christmas, then neither is there anything to make this thought true or false. But Frege was not in the least reluctant to admit that a thought could be true or false without our having any way of telling which. An example might be the thought that Plato would have enjoyed smoking. This is what caused Dummett to pause.
Hitchens, Athens, 1984
Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker:
In Athens, we stole time from the conference to eat, and drink, and explore. We climbed the Parthenon, and, needless to say, Christopher was as erudite and entertaining a guide as one could imagine. But there was a touch of melancholy, a hint of preoccupation, about his mood.
That road trip never took place. On our third day in Athens I got an urgent call from home. My father, who was in treatment for lung cancer, had been rushed to the hospital and was in the intensive-care unit. A ventilator was keeping him alive, but he might die at any moment.
Christopher instantly took over, booking my flight to New York for me the following afternoon and turning his full attention to me. That evening we talked far into the night, mostly about our parents. He stunned me with a long, wrenching, and extraordinarily moving story—the story of his father, the silent former naval officer Eric, and his mother, the dreamy, self-sacrificing, faintly exotic (and secretly part Jewish) Yvonne, and their unhappy marriage.
The climax of the story was a shocker. Until that week, Christopher told me, he had not been to Athens for eleven years—not since 1973, when he was twenty-four. Greece then was still governed by a quasi-fascist military junta, against which he had written and spoken. The junta’s indifferent authorities had custody of the body of his mother, which he had come, alone, to recover: in an Athens hotel, with her lover, Yvonne Hitchens had committed suicide.
A Symposium on American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us
Over at The Immanent Frame, there is an interesting discussion on David Campbell and Robert Putnam's American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us with a series of responses to the book by John Torpey, Molly Worthen, Jon Butler and David Hollinger. Hollinger:
Is bland beautiful? Almost never, most of us would say. But when it comes to religion in a diverse society, the answer may be yes.
This is the chief, if probably unintended implication of American Grace, which I take to be the most successfully argued, comprehensive sociological study of American religion in more than half a century. Robert Putnam and David Campbell harvest a generation of research and mature reflection about how religious affiliations of all kinds divide and unite Americans of different generations, regions, sexes, educational levels, and ethno-racial groups. Will Herberg’s endlessly discussed Protestant-Catholic-Jew, a book of 1955, was not remotely as methodologically self-conscious and as empirically grounded as is American Grace, but one must go back to Herberg to find so striking a single volume purporting to explain the religion of an author’s contemporary Americans. If this coming generation of scholars and journalists allow Putnam and Campbell to define the terms of conversation to the extent that our predecessors allowed Herberg to perform this role, we will be in fine shape.
Why does this book prompt the suspicion that bland may be beautiful? Because Putnam and Campbell argue that the decline of intense, sectarian devotion to any particular faith enables religious believers to be more tolerant and appreciative of ideas and practices different from their own. Putnam and Campbell’s central, data-driven theme is the fluidity of American religion. Americans move in and out of religious affiliations with dizzying frequency. While in other societies religious identity is more often perceived “as a fixed characteristic,” they explain, in the United States “it seems perfectly natural” to refer to one’s religion as a mere “preference.”
Story Theory: Confessions of a Literary Darwinist
R. Salvador Reyes over at the Tottenville Review:
First confession. I didn’t start out this way: believing that art is a Godless domain, a tactically-consumed, evolutionarily-wrought siren to the mind—just another victim hunted by our massive, pulverizing desire to devour and catalog every pattern in the universe that presents itself to our perpetually-ravished brains. I didn’t believe any of those things. Not in the beginning.
In the beginning, I just wanted to write. Why should I care how humans had come to love literature and art? I didn’t care. Until I asked the question. How had humans come to love literature and art? People have been asking this for centuries, and they’ve put forth a plethora of fascinating answers. But during the last couple of decades, theorists have started examining the question through the lens of evolution—and it’s beginning to look like a new future for literary studies is taking shape. Two of the most eloquent and compelling arguments for art’s evolutionary roots are the recently published On the Origin of Stories (Harvard University Press), by Brian Boyd and The Art Instinct (Bloomsbury Press), by Denis Dutton. Both seem destined to become part of the foundation of the emerging field of Literary Darwinism—where literature is being examined from new viewpoints, like neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. It’s a field that’s beginning to gain a following in the halls of academia, but my own journey to Literary Darwinism was trod outside those halls. I was simply a writer who wondered why readers sought out and consumed the literary objects I was trying to create. And while Boyd’s and Dutton’s books focus on the evolutionary answers to why humans began and continue to create art, as an artist I was more interested in how evolution has shaped audiences’ responses to art.
Because Literary Darwinism’s territory is still raw and untamed, taking the journey without a tour guide has given me the chance to carve my own path into its wilderness. Think of this as my travelogue—something to provide a view of this freshly-discovered fauna and flora from a writer’s perspective.
How a mental disorder opened up an invisible world of colour and pattern
As Wain’s condition worsened, so his pictures of cats became more abstract until, towards the end of his life, they were barely recognisable as cats at all, instead becoming intricately detailed, fractal shapes full of unnaturally (at least for a cat) bright colours. The foreknowledge that they are images of felines allows the viewer to pick up on certain shapes – the pointy triangular ears and some features of the face – but without it, you would be hard-pressed to realise these are cats.
The tale of Wain’s life is a sad one. For a time he was a successful artist, but a series of poor investment decisions left him penniless and he began to develop mental health problems in the early 20th century. He deteriorated quickly, becoming a suspicious and sometimes violent man, prone to incoherent, rambling speech. In 1924 he was incarcerated in the pauper ward at Springfield Mental Hospital in Tooting, south London, not far from where I live. After intervention by some famous and influential figures, including Stanley Baldwin, the Prime Minister of the day, and H.G. Wells, Wain was transferred to more pleasant surroundings. He ended his days in Napsbury Hospital, north of London, which had a garden and, happily for Wain, a colony of cats. In this environment he was able to resume drawing, and it was here he produced some of his most spectacular work.
Will the real Imran Khan please stand up?
Tintin est Mort!
On March 3rd, 1983, the French daily Libération ran under an unusual cover: Against a black background, as though seen through a telescope, a circular drawing portrayed a cowlicked boy lying face down in the snow while a white fox terrier keened brokenly beside him. Tintin est Mort! tolled the headline. It was in fact Hergé, the Belgian-born creator of the tufty-haired hero, who had departed the day prior, but the headline of that issue — in which Libération replaced every illustration, including those for political news, TV listings, weather reports, and even ads, with drawings from Hergé’s canon — indicated the extent to which the man had become enmeshed with his famous creation. For the French-speaking world, it may as well have been Tintin who’d died, rather than the man who, despite valuing lightness, clarity, and humor above all, was never nearly so clear and precise in his politics as he was in his art. Hergé’s style, to bowdlerize Roland Barthes, might be called biographical: He and Tintin are linked by this very tension between truth and simplicity. The Tintin stories — published in 1929 in the right-leaning Catholic newspaper Le Petit Vingtieme, then later in Hergé’s own Journal Tintin and the series of Casterman albums through which we know them now — are celebrated for what the Dutch artist Joost Swarte, writing in 1977, dubbed Hergé’s ligne claire, or “clear line,” style. In his use of uniform, strong lines, flat, saturated color, and clearly delineated shapes and volumes, Hergé negotiates between the techniques of his era’s naturalistic adult adventure comics like Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy and those of gag-based newspaper strips like Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff.more from Jenny Hendrix at the LA Review of Books here.
Once again we start the journey from Cairo to Amman and from there to the bridge. Since my first crossing in 1996, after thirty years of exile, I have crossed many times, sometimes with ease and sometimes with difficulty. I’ve seen Israeli soldiers whose seriousness, which can rise to the level of scowls of superiority, never leaves them and others who practice their job with professionalism, as though they were customs inspectors and nothing more. In the eyes of some, I’ve seen a certain confusion and, very occasionally, I’ve seen one who smiles or shows some desire to be of help. There is no homogeneity to their features—Ethiopian, Brooklynite, Slavic, Yemeni. The common factor is that they’re all armed. Some are newly conscripted adolescents, male and female, and some of these seem bewildered by their daily contact with hundreds of the Arab ‘enemy.’ In all cases, though, the rifles are ready for use at any moment. Taken together, they constitute a nightmare for every Palestinian who crosses the bridge. It’s difficult to trust the smile of a person carrying weapons here. Our problem with the Jew, here in this ‘Jewish state’ as they insist on calling it, is that all three or four generations of Palestinians have seen of him is his helmet. They’ve seen the Jew only in khaki, with his finger on the rifle’s trigger. They’ve seen him only as a sniper at a window, an officer in a tank, a conscript at a checkpoint, a guard clacking his metal heels past the doors to prison cells or along the long corridors that separate them, or a heavy hand in the interrogation rooms, where Israeli law allows the use of what they call ‘moderate physical force’(!) to extract confessions. Many western journalists who maintain a studied and malign blindness to the Occupation have asked me whether the Palestinian people are really ready to coexist with the Jews and I reply that we coexisted with them for hundreds of years in Palestine, the Arab countries, and Andalusia, and that it is Europe, which reproves us and holds us to account, that couldn’t coexist with them and sent millions of them mercilessly to the Holocaust. What is asked of us today, however, and has been ever since their military occupation of our land, is to coexist with their tanks in our bedrooms! Show me one person in this world, I say to them, who can live with a tank in his bedroom.more from Mourid Barghouti at Guernica here.
christmas in india
I always say that I fell in love with my husband at Kinko’s. Charged with printing blown up photographs for the annual fundraiser for the afterschool program where we both worked, I arrived to pick them up only to find the pictures grainy and only half of the job completed. While I panicked that I’d be fired and was ready to scream at the woman at the counter, Terence calmly, but firmly explained what needed to be done and the urgency with which it had to be completed. We’d been dating for less than two months, but in that moment I thought, this is the person I need by my side. Three years later, we were engaged. For our Christmas affianced, we booked a trip overseas, eager to show our independence, and maybe even create a new tradition apart from our families. On December 22, 2009, we arrived to New Delhi, India. Our plan was to spend a few days there, and then on Christmas Eve we would take a train to Agra so that we could see the Taj Mahal on Christmas Day. From there, we’d travel through Rajasthan and eventually fly to Mumbai. We had tickets for an early morning train out of Delhi, and when we arrived at the station it was still dark. I knew immediately that I didn’t want to be there. People huddled around fires that were lit on the sidewalks and beggars swarmed. I told myself that when the sun came up, everything would feel less scary, but in my rush to get downstairs to the train track, I missed a step. My legs folded forward in a way that only a camel’s should.more from Courtney Knowlton at The Common here.
Photographs of the year 2011
From The Guardian:
I was in Pakistan a year ago for DFID, looking at the impact of British aid in helping people affected by the floods. In northern Sindh a vast area had been flooded, but the waters had finally receded enough for local communities to start to return. While we were there the local NGOs told us about this odd phenomenon: miles and miles of flooded land, where every piece of vegetation was shrouded in these spider webs, like candy floss. It was stunning – a surreal sight. The trees were the only things above the water, so it was a very strange landscape, definitely ghostly.
A Hipster’s Guide to Hinduism
Sanjay Patel arrives at the entrance of San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, breathless. His vahana, or vehicle, is a silver mountain bike; his white helmet is festooned with multicolored stickers of bugs and goddesses. Though we’ve barely met, Patel takes my arm. He propels me through dimly lit halls, past austere displays of Korean vases and Japanese armor, until we arrive at a brightly lit gallery. This room is as colorful as a candy store, its walls plastered with vivid, playful graphics of Hindu gods, demons and fantastic beasts. “This is awesome.” Patel spins through the gallery, as giddy as a first-time tourist in Times Square. “It’s a dream come true. I mean, who gets the opportunity to be in a freakin’ major museum while they still have like all their hair? Let alone their hair still being black? To have created this pop-culture interpretation of South Asian mythology—and to have it championed by a major museum—is insane.”
The name of the show—Deities, Demons and Dudes with ‘Staches—is as quirky and upbeat as the 36-year-old artist himself. It’s a lighthearted foil to the museum’s current exhibition, Maharaja: The Splendor of India’s Royal Courts. Patel, who created the bold banners and graphics for Maharaja, was given this one-room fiefdom to showcase his own career: a varied thali (plate) of the animated arts. “I’ve known of Sanjay’s work for a while,” says Qamar Adamjee, the museum’s associate curator of South Asian Art, ducking briefly into the gallery. At first, she wanted to scatter examples of Patel’s work throughout the museum; the notion of giving him a solo show evolved later. “[Hindu] stories are parts of a living tradition, and change with each retelling,” Adamjee observes. “Sanjay tells these stories with a vibrant visual style—it’s so sweet and so charming, yet very respectful. He’s inspired by the past, but has reformulated it in the visual language of the present.”
Love won't behave. I've tried
all my life to keep it chained up.
Especially after I gave up pleading.
I don't mean the woman,
but the love itself. Truth is,
I don't know where it comes from,
why it comes, or where it goes.
It either leaves me feeling the knife
of my first breath
or hang-dog and sick
at someone else's unstoppable
and as the blues song says,
can't sit down, stand up, lay down pain.
Right now I want it.
Well, that's not strictly true.
It's just been too long.
Too long and my heart is like
a house for sale in a lot full of high weeds.
I want to go down to New Orleans
and find the Santeria woman
who will light a whole table full of candles
and moan things, place a cigar
and a shot of whiskey in front of Chango's picture
and kiss the blue dead Jesus on the wall.
I want something.
Used to be I'd get a bottle
and drink until the lights went out
but now I carry my pain around everywhere I go
because I'm afraid
I might put it down somewhere and lose it.
I've grown tender about my mileage.
My teeth are like stonehenge and my tongue
is like an old druid fallen in a ditch.
A soul is like a shrimper's net they never haul up
and it's full of everything:
A tire. A shark. An old harpoon.
A kid's plastic bucket.
An empty half-pint.
A broken guitar string.
A pair of ballerina's shoes with the ribbons tangled
in an anchor chain.
And the net gets heavier until the boat
starts to go down with it and you say,
God, what is going on.
In this condition I say love is a good thing.
I'm ready to capsize.
I can't even see the shoreline.
I haven't seen a seagull in three days.
I'm ready to drink salt water,
go overboard and start swimming.
Suffice it to say I want to get in the bathtub
with the Santeria woman and steam myself pure again.
The priest that blesses the water may be bored.
Hung over. He may not even bless it,
just tell people he did. It doesn't matter.
What the Santeria woman puts on it with her mind
makes it like a holy mirror.
You can float a shrimp boat on it.
The spark that jumps between her mind
and the priest's empty act
is what makes the whole thing light up
like an oilslick on fire against a sunset over Oaxaca.
So if I just step out into it.
If I just step off the high dive over a pool
that may or may not have water in it;
that act is enough
to connect the two poles of something
and make a long blue arc.
I don't have a clue about any of this.
Come on over here and love me.
I used to say that drunk.
Now I am stark raving sober
and I say, Come on over here and love me.
by Doug Anderson
from The Moon Reflected Fire
Alice James Books, 1994
December 27, 2011
Final Proof that Faster-Than-Light Neutrinos are Impossible?
Even though it seemed exceedingly unlikely, I wanted to see what a world in which the future could shape the past looked like. Alasdair Wilkins in io9:
Washington University St. Louis physicist Ramanath Cowsik and his team have come up with what is quite possibly an impossible problem for these faster-than-light neutrinos to overcome. Instead of focusing on the neutrinos themselves, Cowsik looked at the other subatomic particles in the experiment that were smashed together to create the neutrinos.
Here's how the OPERA experiment worked: Protons were shot towards a stationary object, which produced a pulse of particles known as pions. These are low-mass subatomic particles that are composed of a pair of quarks. (For more on pions, check out our particle physics field guide.) These pions were magnetically forced through a long tunnel, and there they decayed into neutrinos and muons, which are like a more massive cousin of electrons.
When the particles reached the end of the tunnel, the muons smashed into the wall and came to a stop, but the extremely light neutrinos slipped right through and made their way to Gran Sasso, a journey they seemingly completed 60 nanoseconds too quickly.
The problem, from a theoretical perspective, is how to fit the pions into this story. To reach superluminal speeds, the neutrinos must have possessed extreme amounts of energy. The law of conservation of energy and momentum demands that that energy came from somewhere — specifically, the pions. But Cowsik calculated that if pions were to have enough energy to create faster-than-light neutrinos, then their lifetimes would also increase.
Physics on the Fringe
Michael D. Gordin in American Scientist:
Many people enjoy doing physics, and the vast majority of them work as professional scientists. Margaret Wertheim’s Physics on the Fringe, however, is about the minority, those who devote a significant portion of their lives to investigating the structure of the universe at their kitchen tables while their families sleep. These individuals (those she discusses are, with one exception, all men) did not train as scientists and then fail to find employment in their chosen field. And they are not amateurs who study physics textbooks and read scholarly journals. They are at the fringe, a place most of us ignore completely.
That is because the fringe is, well, fringy. Among Wertheim’s protagonists are those who deny quantum mechanics, postulate new structures for atoms, revive the ether or reject special relativity, and just about all of them despise general relativity. They self-publish their theories—sometimes they just photocopy handwritten manuscripts—and circulate them among scientists worldwide, who usually end up tossing them in the wastebasket. Wertheim, an accomplished science writer, has collected such texts for years now and sympathetically narrates many of them for us. Such ephemera are very hard to come by, given their frequent encounters with the trash heap, and her archival efforts are to be lauded (as is the renewed attention she brings to mathematician Augustus De Morgan’s delightful 1872 book, A Budget of Paradoxes, which catalogs the rejectamenta of the science of his day). She wants us to take these “outsider physicists” seriously, not as a kooky cultural phenomenon, but as people actually doing science in a way that demands as much attention from mainstream science as folk art now claims from the elite art community.
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A Shared Fate: The Political Implications of the Eurozone Crisis
Jan-Werner Müller in The Boston Review:
Paul Krugman recently wondered whether it was possible to be “both terrified and bored” by the Eurozone crisis. It is indeed terrifying: the EU—the most important political innovation since the invention of the democratic welfare state—might break apart, or worse. Some are predicting the return of large-scale political violence; protesters on the streets of Athens are already comparing Greece, 2011 to Dachau, 1933. But the crisis is also boring, in that a sad pattern has predictably been repeating itself: markets jitter; politicians declare a make-or-break moment; national leaders host an all-night summit; bleary-eyed, they declare the crisis’s final resolution; the market-confidence fairy makes a brief appearance; and then the cycle starts all over again.
By now most people have settled on one of two economic solutions: either let the European Central Bank act as lender of last resort and issue Eurobonds (everyone’s view, it seems, except the German government’s) or impose discipline so as to avoid inflation and a permanent Southern European Mezzogiorno (the official German view).
In the economic debate, however, it is easy to lose sight of the political and, ultimately, moral stakes. While it’s true that much of the business of the EU is business—running a common market—European integration was always first and foremost a political project: its goals included enduring peace, the entrenchment of democracy in member states, and, most recently, moving toward “ever closer union.” The crisis may indeed require Europeans to get serious about political union, at least among the Eurozone countries. But political union will not work without some sense of democratic legitimacy, which the current proposal for tighter cooperation among national executives is unlikely to generate.
Brian Leiter on the Analytic/Continental Distinction
Over at Philosophy Bites:
Many philosophers self-identify as 'analytic' or 'continental' philosophers. But does this sort of label make sense? Brian Leiter, who, amongst other things, is an expert on Nietzsche, is sceptical of the value of the terms as typically used. In this episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast he explains why.