February 29, 2012
Is Your Language Making You Broke and Fat?
Julie Sedivy in over at The Crux:
Update: Language Log's take on these claims, here and here. (H/t: commenter Brian)
Keith Chen, an economist from Yale, makes a startling claim in an unpublished working paper: people’s fiscal responsibility and healthy lifestyle choices depend in part on the grammar of their language.
Here’s the idea: Languages differ in the devices they offer to speakers who want to talk about the future. For some, like Spanish and Greek, you have to tack on a verb ending that explicitly marks future time—so, in Spanish, you would say escribo for the present tense (I write or I’m writing) and escribiré for the future tense (I will write). But other languages like Mandarin don’t require their verbs to be escorted by grammatical markers that convey future time—time is usually obvious from something else in the context. In Mandarin, you would say the equivalent of I write tomorrow, using the same verb form for both present and future.
Chen’s finding is that if you divide up a large number of the world’s languages into those that require a grammatical marker for future time and those that don’t, you see an interesting correlation: speakers of languages that force grammatical marking of the future have amassed a smaller retirement nest egg, smoke more, exercise less, and are more likely to be obese. Why would this be? The claim is that a sharp grammatical division between the present and future encourages people to conceive of the future as somehow dramatically different from the present, making it easier to put off behaviors that benefit your future self rather than your present self.
The Emperor Uncrowned
On the 10th year anniversary of the communal riots in Gujarat, Vinod Jose profiles Narendra Modi in Caravan:
MODI HAD NOT GOTTEN OFF to a good start with India’s leading business figures. Nine years ago, in February 2003, the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII)—the country’s biggest and most important business trade association—held a special session at its auditorium in New Delhi: “Meeting with Narendra Modi, the New Chief Minister of Gujarat”. The meeting was organised after a special request from Modi: he had just won a resounding victory in state elections in the wake of the riots, but he was still facing public condemnation from national business leaders and dealing with an economy reeling from the impact of the violence.
The mobs who ran wild in the streets of Gujarat did not confine their rage to local Muslims: more than 1,000 trucks were set afire, and the torching of a shipment of Opel Astra cars from a General Motors factory made international headlines. One estimate suggested that industry in Gujarat had lost 20 billion ($409 million) in the riots. The spectre of communal violence made international investors jittery—new foreign direct investment inflows had all but dried up by September 2002—while Indian industrialists openly feared further chaos in what was, even before Modi’s arrival, one of the most critical states for their business operations.
In the months after the riots, some of corporate India’s biggest names had publicly voiced their anger and concern. Deepak Parekh, the CEO of HDFC Bank, said that India had lost its face as a secular country, and that he was ashamed of what had happened in Gujarat. Cyrus Guzdar, the CMD of the shipping company AFL, compared the violence against Muslims in Gujarat to “a genocide”. Two of Bangalore’s biggest IT chieftains, Narayana Murthy of Infosys and Azim Premji of Wipro, issued strong public condemnations. At a CII national meeting in April 2002, the chairwoman of the energy major Thermax, Anu Aga, received a standing ovation after delivering an impassioned speech about the suffering of Muslims in Gujarat.
Modi knew he was under pressure. But he also knew that he had won an overwhelming electoral mandate from the voters of Gujarat—and that Gujarat, riots or no riots, was of critical importance to the chieftains of Indian business. He came to Delhi to mend his image with the captains of industry, but he would do so, as always, on his own terms.
No Parties, No Banners: The Spanish Experiment with Direct Democracy
Gianpaolo Baiocchi and Ernesto Ganuza in Boston Review:
[The movement] 15-M has evolved to become a new political subject, distinct from the original Internet-based group—Democracia Real Ya, or Real Democracy Now (DRY)—that organized the mobilization of May 15, when about 20,000 people gathered in Puerta del Sol. Three months earlier, on a Sunday night in February, ten people met in a Madrid bar to began planning the event. They had already been exchanging opinions online about the political and economic situation in Spain. Their meeting ended with both a slogan—“Real Democracy Now: we are not goods in the hands of politicians and bankers”—and plans to hold a demonstration the week before the municipal elections of May 22.
Although DRY targeted unemployment and mortgage reforms, the main message was not about the economic crisis but about the breakdown of political accountability and representation. Some commentators on the left criticized this message as insufficiently radical, but more than 500 organizations and movements supported the May 15 event, even though DRY rejected official collaboration with any political party, union, or other expression of institutionalized political ideology.
The gathering was a success. The widespread disaffection of Spanish citizens took center stage at one of the nation’s most visible sites.
That was supposed to be it.
But not all of the participants left the plaza. Initially about 50 decided to stay. By midnight, this group had dwindled to just over twenty. They decided to spend the night in the square. Most of the holdouts did not belong to any social movement; they were not seasoned activists or even members of DRY. They stayed, some of them said, because they were “tired of demonstrations that finish happily and then: nothing.”
Silence is a sounding thing, To one who listens hungrily
More here. (Note: In honor of African American History Month, we have been linking to at least one related post throughout February. The 2012 theme is Black Women in American Culture and History).
Women of the Harlem Renaissance
It was the early twentieth century, and the world had already changed tremendously compared to the world of their parents and grandparents. Slavery had ended in America more than half a century earlier. While African Americans still faced tremendous economic and social obstacles in both the northern and southern states, there were more opportunities than there had been. After the Civil War (and beginning slightly before, especially in the North), education for black Americans -- and black and white women -- had become more common. Many were not able to attend or complete school, but a substantial few were able not only to attend and complete elementary or secondary school, but college. Professional education opened up to blacks and women. Some black men became professionals: physicians, lawyers, teachers, businessmen. Some black women also found professional careers as teachers, librarians. These families in turn saw to the education of their daughters. Some saw the returning black soldiers from World War I as an opening of opportunity for African Americans. Black men had contributed to the victory, too. Surely America would now welcome these black men into full citizenship. Black Americans were moving out of the rural South, and into the cities and towns of the industrial North. They brought "black culture" with them: music with African roots and story-telling. The general culture began adopting as its own elements of that black culture: this was the Jazz Age! Hope was rising -- though discrimination, prejudice and closed doors on account of race and sex were by no means eliminated. But there were new opportunities. It seemed more worthwhile to challenge those injustices: perhaps the injustices could be eliminated, or at least made less. In this environment, a flowering of music, fiction, poetry and art in African American intellectual circles came to be called the Harlem Renaissance. A Renaissance, like the European Renaissance, in which moving forward while going back to roots generated tremendous creativity and action. Harlem, because one of the centers was the neighborhood of New York City called Harlem, by this time predominantly peopled by African Americans, more of whom were daily arriving from the South. Below are women who played key roles in the Harlem Renaissance -- some are well-known, and some have been neglected or forgotten.
- Regina M. Anderson
- Josephine Baker
- Gwendolyn Bennett
- Marita Bonner
- Gwendolyn Brooks
- Hallie Quinn Brown
- Anita Scott Coleman
- Mae V. Cowdery
- Clarissa Scott Delaney
- Jessie Redmon Fauset
- Angelina Weld Grimke
- Billie Holiday
- Ariel Williams Holloway
- Virginia Houston
- Zora Neale Hurston
- Georgia Douglas Johnson
- Helene Johnson
- Lois Mailou Jones
- Nella Larsen
- Florence Mills
- Alice Dunbar-Nelson
- Effie Lee Newsome
- Esther Popel
More here. (Note: In honor of African American History Month, we have been linking to at least one related post throughout February. The 2012 theme is Black Women in American Culture and History).
"Fireflies" by Omar Musa
How long does it take to make the woods?
As long as it takes to make the world.
The woods is present as the world is, the presence
of all its past and of all its time to come.
It is always finished, it is always being made, the act
of its making forever greater than the act of its destruction.
It is a part of eternity for its end and beginning
belong to the end and beginning of all things,
the beginning lost in the end, the end in the beginning.
What is the way to the woods, how do you go there?
By climbing up through the six days’ field,
kept in all the body’s years, the body’s
sorrow, weariness, and joy. By passing through
the narrow gate on the far side of that field
where the pasture grass of the body’s life gives way
to the high, original standing of the trees.
By coming into the shadow, the shadow
of the grace of the strait way’s ending,
the shadow of the mercy of light.
Why must the gate be narrow?
Because you cannot pass beyond it burdened.
To come into the woods you must leave behind
the six days’ world, all of it, all of its plans and hopes.
You must come without weapon or tool, alone,
expecting nothing, remembering nothing,
into the ease of sight, the brotherhood of eye and leaf.
from A Timbered Choir
When the young Mao Tse-tung agitated for revolution, he found a vivid way to get his point across to an uneducated audience: He picked up a single chopstick and snapped it in two. Then he picked up a handful of chopsticks: They would not break. Thus he showed that so long as everyone stood side by side, no force could withstand the tide of revolution. By gathering together China’s scattered, indignant chopsticks, Mao finally was able to ascend Tiananmen—the Gate of Heavenly Peace — on Oct. 1, 1949, and announce the establishment of his republic. Whether chopsticks come singly or in a handful is now an issue in China again. Mao’s successors, however, do the opposite of what he advocated, mobilizing immense resources to keep chopsticks from gathering together. The government knows that angry chopsticks are everywhere, but as long as they stay scattered, it believes it can break them in two, whatever their numbers. Thus it is that “stability maintenance” has become a key term in contemporary China. The government does not make public what it spends to maintain stability, but popular estimates go as high as 600 billion yuan. As mass protests become more frequent, that figure can only increase.more from Yu Hua at NPQ here.
There is a devil haunts thee
Abraham Lincoln’s courtship of Mary Todd was anything but smooth. At one point it helped bring on a bout of severe depression that left the future president nearly dysfunctional for a brief period and caused him to avoid Springfield’s social world for several months. In a letter to an absent friend, the future Mrs. Lincoln lamented this state of affairs and wished “that he would once more resume his Station in Society, that ‘Richard should be himself again.’ ” The expression she used is clear enough in meaning, but Lincoln’s biographers have been less certain about its source. In fact, the expression “Richard’s himself again” was in vogue in antebellum America, deriving from one of the best-known speeches in the most performed of all Shakespeare plays, Richard III. But that speech, as Lincoln himself would later point out, was not written by Shakespeare. This curious state of affairs is surprisingly emblematic of the undernourished state of our knowledge of Lincoln’s famous affinity for Shakespeare. We have so many well-attested stories of Lincoln extolling Shakespeare as a young man in New Salem, of his carrying a volume of Shakespeare’s works around with him on the judicial circuit, of his ability (and willingness) to recite from memory long passages from Shakespeare at the drop of a hat, and of his reading from the plays by the hour to his secretaries and guests as president, that there can be little doubt of his longstanding attachment to the writings of the Bard.more from Douglas L. Wilson at The American Scholar here.
our own survival is greatly over-valued
Let us recap. You don’t have to go where your immaterial soul goes—not at least if it doesn’t take your mind with it. You don’t have to go where your body goes—not at least if it doesn’t take your mind with it. What does this suggest? That you go where your mind goes or, as Locke puts it, “personal identity consists . . . in the identity of consciousness.” Let us not pause to examine what exactly Locke means by “identity of consciousness” and instead turn to the development of his view by the philosopher Derek Parfit, whose 1984 book Reasons and Persons is partly devoted to defending a “neo-Lockean” theory of personal identity and to extracting some astonishing implications from it. The basic neo-Lockean idea is that you survive just in case your psychology continues on in roughly the manner it does in ordinary life. Our psychological lives are not a series of unrelated mental events, but form a complex structure. A simple example: you go to the beach and enjoy the experience of basking on the hot sand. At noon you decide to return home at sunset, and this explains why at dusk you gather up your towel. In the evening at home you recall being at the beach, the feeling of the sand on your feet, and so forth. This illustrates what Parfit calls “psychological connectedness,” the sort of relation that holds between your decision to leave and subsequent towel gathering, and between your beach experience and subsequent recollection. We can think of your psychological life from childhood to old age as overlapping stretches of psychological connectedness, like strips of paper glued together to form a much longer strip. Parfit calls this “psychological continuity.” Parfit’s view is that personal identity—our survival or persistence over time—consists in psychological continuity and connectedness.more from Alex Byrne at Boston Review here.
February 28, 2012
On the cult of Sherlock Holmes
Leslie S. Klinger in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
On a recent short plane flight, I read Michael Dirda’s On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling in one sitting. The effect was like having a voluble but very interesting seatmate, one whom you interrupt only rarely with exclamations of agreement and perhaps a short recital of a similar anecdote from your life. I knew that I was expected to review the book, and so I sat back as the plane descended and contemplated my comments.
Best to begin with a disclaimer. I first met Dirda at the “Millennium Dinner” of the Baker Street Irregulars in January 2000. Subsequently, Dirda and I became friends, sharing meals, many conversations, and rambles around Washington and Los Angeles. Dirda has slept in my house and shared my table, and I have never left his company feeling less than a little inebriated, regardless of whether any alcohol was actually consumed. Not only does Dirda love to read and write, he loves to talk; and his talk is mostly about books, reading, and so many things that I cherish. Michael is the quintessential “bookman,” in an age when so few remain. So a chance to listen to him talk about Conan Doyle seemed likely to be an extremely pleasant way to spend my travel time.
I was mightily impressed that Dirda was speaking to the Irregulars. He was, after all, a Pulitzer-winning critic and the book editor of the Washington Post. It quickly became clear that he loved Sherlock Holmes and the entire Holmes canon as much as I did, though for different reasons.
Upper class people more likely to cheat: study
In two field studies on driving behavior, upper-class motorists were found to be four times more likely than the other drivers to cut off other vehicles at a busy four-way intersection and three times more likely to cut off a pedestrian waiting to enter a crosswalk. Another study found that upper-class participants presented with scenarios of unscrupulous behavior were more likely than the individuals in the other socio-economic classes to report replicating this type of behavior themselves.
Participants in the fourth study were assigned tasks in a laboratory where a jar of candy, reserved for visiting children, was on hand, and were invited to take a candy or two. Upper-class participants helped themselves to twice as much candy as did their counterparts in other classes.
In the fifth study, participants each were assigned the role of an employer negotiating a salary with a job candidate seeking long-term employment. Among other things, they were told that the job would soon be eliminated, and that they were free to convey that information to the candidate. Upper-class participants were more likely to deceive job candidates by withholding this information, the study found.
In the sixth study, participants played a computerized dice game, with each player getting five rolls of the dice and then reporting his or her scores. The player with the highest score would receive a cash prize. The players did not know that the game was rigged so that each player would receive no more than 12 points for the five rolls. Upper-class participants were more likely to report higher scores than would be possible, indicating a higher rate of cheating, according to the study.
Ukulele and voice cover of "Something" by The Beatles
African American History: Major Speeches
“If I had a thousand tongues and each tongue were a thousand thunderbolts and each thunderbolt had a thousand voices, I would use them all today to help you understand a loyal and misrepresented and misjudged people.” These were the words of Joseph C. Price, founder and President of Livingston College in North Carolina, who in 1890 delivered an address to the National Education Association annual convention held in Minneapolis. Price’s words reflect on the long tradition of African American oratory. Listed below are some of the most significant orations by African Americans with links to the actual speeches.
(1832) Maria W. Stewart, "Why Sit Ye Here and Die?"
Maria W. Stewart (1803-1879) was one of the first American women to leave copies of her speeches. The address below is her second public lecture. It was given on September 21, 1832 in Franklin Hall in Boston, the meeting site of the new England Anti-Slavery Society. Although as an abolitionist, she usually attacked slavery, in this address she condemns the attitude that denied black women education and prohibited their occupational advancement. In fact she argues that Northern African American women, in term of treatment, were only slightly better off than slaves.
Why sit ye here and die? If we say we will go to a foreign land, the famine and the pestilence are there, and there we shall die. If we sit here, we shall die. Come let us plead our cause before the whites: if they save us alive, we shall live—and if they kill us, we shall but die. Methinks I heard a spiritual interrogation—'Who shall go forward, and take off the reproach that is cast upon the people of color? Shall it be a woman? And my heart made this reply —'If it is thy will, be it even so, Lord Jesus!' I have heard much respecting the horrors of slavery; but may Heaven forbid that the generality of my color throughout these United States should experience any more of its horrors than to be a servant of servants, or hewers of wood and drawers of water! Tell us no more of southern slavery; for with few exceptions, although I may be very erroneous in my opinion, yet I consider our condition but little better than that. Yet, after all, methinks there are no chains so galling as the chains of ignorance—no fetters so binding as those that bind the soul, and exclude it from the vast field of useful and scientific knowledge. O, had I received the advantages of early education, my ideas would, ere now, have expanded far and wide; but, alas! I possess nothing but moral capability—no teachings but the teachings of the Holy spirit.
I have asked several individuals of my sex, who transact business for themselves, if providing our girls were to give them the most satisfactory references, they would not be willing to grant them an equal opportunity with others? Their reply has been—for their own part, they had no objection; but as it was not the custom, were they to take them into their employ, they would be in danger of losing the public patronage.
And such is the powerful force of prejudice.
More here. (Note: In honor of African American History Month, we have been linking to at least one related post throughout February. The 2012 theme is Black Women in American Culture and History).
Genomics as a Final Frontier, or Just a Way Station
Abigail Zuger in The New York Times:
The medical world is holding its breath, waiting for the revolution. It will be here any minute. Definitely by the end of the decade. Or perhaps it will take a little longer than that, but seriously, it’s right around the corner. More or less. That’s the genomics revolution, with its promise of treatment focused on the individual rather than the group. At last, patients will be more than the product of their age, sex, ethnicity, illnesses and bad habits; treatments will be aimed like a laser at their personal genetic particulars, and if those genes are not quite what they should be, then those genes will be fixed. Over the last few years, various breathless visions of this therapeutic future have been written out for public admiration. A particularly readable and comprehensive version can be found in Dr. Eric J. Topol’s new book, “The Creative Destruction of Medicine.”
Dr. Topol, a cardiologist and researcher at the Scripps Research Institute with the energy of 10 (if his prose style and his honor-laden biography are any indication), dispenses in short order with our current population-based medical strategies. They are wasteful and inexact, he points out, often marginally beneficial to the group and downright harmful to the individual. He presents an array of far better ideas, a few now actually being practiced in rudimentary form. These include pharmacogenomics, in which specific genes that govern responses to medications are routinely assayed, and cancer treatments that probe tumors for specific genetic targets rather than relying on standard chemotherapy. But that’s not all: Dr. Topol also points out that soon a person’s precise genetic data will be augmented by an extraordinary wealth of other digital data (provided by, say, the continuous monitoring of blood pressure, pulse and mood, and a variety of ultra-precise scans). The outcome will be nothing short of a new “science of individuality,” one that defines individuals “at a more granular and molecular level than ever imaginable.”
My mother writes from Trenton,
a comedian to the bone
but underneath serious
and all heart. “Honey,” she says,
“be a mensch and Mary too,
its no good, to worry, you
are doing the best you can
your Dad and everyone
thinks you turned out very well
as long as you pay your bills
nobody can say a word
you can tell them, to drop dead
so save a dollar it can’t
hurt—remember Frank you went
to highschool with? he still lives
with his wife’s mother, his wife
works while he writes his books and
did he ever sell a one
the four kids run around naked
36, and he’s never had,
you’ll forgive my expression
even a pot to piss in
or a window to throw it,
such a smart boy he couldn't
read the footprints on the wall
honey you think you know all
the answers you dont, please, try
to put some money away
believe me it wouldn’t hurt
artist schmartist life’s too short
for that kind of, forgive me,
horseshit, I know what you want
better than you, all that counts
is to make a good living
and the best of everything,
as Sholem Aleichem said,
he was a great writer did
you ever read his books dear,
you should make what he makes a year
anyway he says some place
Poverty is no disgrace
but its no honor either
that’s what I say,
by Robert Mezey
from Strong Measures
February 27, 2012
The Different Dialects of Serial Murder
by James McGirk
I do not follow contemporary cinema, but with the Oscars looming, I felt obliged to weigh in on the moving image as I experience it. Since I do not own a television and lack the sophistication and desire to sift through darknets and peer-to-peer file-sharing networks hunting for shows to download, I have resorted to Youtube’s never-ending supply of serial killer documentaries. Most are grainy and since the channels tend to abruptly disappear, are more than likely illegally uploaded. With any other genre this would be unbearable, but the crappiness of the viewing experience adds grit to these shows, which are usually collages of old photos and interviews, and the experience of watching a psychopathic killer delivered to justice becomes all the more deliciously unsettling.
After watching hundreds of these shows from all over the English-speaking world, I have begun to autopsy the peculiar relationship between the police, the bereaved, the media, and the public. There are remarkable differences between an Australian, an American, an English or even the rare Canadian depiction of society’s most heinous crime.
A serial killer is a murderer who has killed at least three people, with a refractory period, that is a length of time, between killings. There tends to also be a psychological motive, though many plunder their victims’ possessions, deep down serial killers kill because they want to or have to. The really famous ones often have a prurient interest in killing, and some of the most frenzied do horrific damage to their victims' bodies. These cases are full of sex, violence and vivid characters, and almost always have a thrilling conclusion in the form of a detective solving an increasingly violent series of murders. In other words, serial killers are the perfect fodder for television shows, or at least they would be if it weren’t for the fact that they must always balance on the narrow ledge between good taste, respect for the killers’ victims and the salacious detail their viewers crave; the latter element varies dramatically from country to country.
Most of the shows posted are American, which makes sense given the size of the American entertainment industry and for the fact that the serial killer was first categorized here in the United States. There is an enormous variety, bounded on one side by the lavishly funded and deeply investigated network shows like 48 Hours | Mystery that often follow new leads and on the other by highly speculative fare that appears late at night on little-known cable networks. Yet for all their variety there are things unique to American depictions of serial killers and their crimes. American shows are highly technical, obsessed not only with forensics and technological police-work but also jargon and procedure in general. There are shows that attempt to categorize killers, for example Most Evil is a series based on the Depravity Scale developed by NYU Medical Center’s Michael Welner, which attempts to rank killers, others attempt to look at crimes through a particular agency (such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation) or even a distinct type of investigator – such as following a bloodspatter expert like Dr. Henry Lee or a crime scene photographer. You could say that these shows are excited by the intricacies of work and demonstrate considerable respect for the police and victims, at the risk of losing some of their objectivity. This is not the case in other Anglophone countries.
One of the first major differences between Australian and American shows seems to be way they choose to re-enactment crimes. Australian programs are far bloodier and more lascivious than their American equivalents (at least in the Australian programs I have seen, which to be completely fair, were mostly Foxtel's Crime Investigation Australia). No American documentary crime show would dare depict blood pulsing from a gunshot wound or focus on the enormous heaving bosom of a woman running for her life and about to be killed, or show a man removing his shirt and hunching over a rape victim. While you might see something like this in a drama, in a show about real people and events, there is no way an American show would go so far.
Both British and an Australian crime shows are also far more skeptical of government agencies and police conduct than the average American one. The rare American show about police corruption or incompetence will usually focus on that and highlight it, and when there has been obvious accident or oversight in an investigation, more often than not an American show will be excuse the police. This is not the case for Australian or British police documentaries. The British in particular want to criticize their police forces and nearly every show describes at least one glaring issue with an investigation, and many probe the controversy surrounding a serial murder as much as the police bravery and ingenuity in catching the fiend who committed the crimes.
The American media is relatively restrained in comparison to its British and Australian cousins, not just on television, historically the British press in particular has been far more opinionated and hostile than their cousins in the Western hemisphere. Some of this is the result of differing libel laws – it’s much easier to sue for defamation in the United States and Americans in general tend to be more litigious than Britons – and there are major differences in the judicial systems. American courts hand out far tougher sentences than their British and Australian equivalents, and although serial killers usually get a life sentence no matter where they are caught, there is still a sliver of a chance of getting out, which means there is a bit more at stake in depicting a crime. There also seems to be a significant difference in the amount a defense attorney can disclose about a victim’s past, which means there may well be a lot more lewd detail floating around the Australian media. (Though for the record this author is basing his opinion entirely on television; though, to be fair, the Australian government launched a fourth inquest into the notorious baby-snatching dingo case.)
Astute readers will note that I have forgotten a country, Canada, but from my investigations there seem to have been only two notable Canadian serial killers, the Barbie Killers (who were a depraved married couple who slaughtered young women) and a former fighter pilot who turned into a predatory monster. There do seem to be a few cultural idiosyncrasies with respect to the actual crimes being committed. Australians seem more likely to kill in pairs, but like Americans, take advantage of their vast wilderness to dispose of bodies. Britons enjoy dissolving people in acid or concealing them in old farm houses and since they can’t often get hold of firearms, are more prone to stabbing and smashing than their Western cousins. Though it is easy to watch a couple hundred crime shows and make glib, cynical remarks about them, I must admit that at night, after the computer goes to sleep and I am listening to the street outside I do feel far more uneasy than I did before I began binging on this horrible stuff.
The Last Novel
by Haider Shahbaz
Kashif is a novelist who is afraid of novels: they all remind him of his failure at love. Novels, with the futility of each word, with the reflection of each phrase, with the silent spaces between sounds, remind him of nothing but loss. His novels are nothing but bloody fights with the memories of lost paradises and lost homes and lost loves.
Now that he is eighty and has a pearly beard and a semi-bald head, Kashif is writing The Last Novel. He is writing his last novel on his first love: Monika. He wants to be done, for ever and ever, with memories of Monika. Once finished, he has decided, he will spend the rest of his days watching television. Or doing anything that will not remind him of his failure at love. And if everything, really everything everything, still reminded him of nothing but his failure at love, he will commit suicide. And be done with it.
One thing is certain: this novel– the one he is writing now – will be his last one, if he ever manages to finish it. Despite the tremendous success of his previous novels, this novel is to be the one that will complete all he wants to say about fear and beauty and memory. But before we talk of novels and suicides, we must talk of love. Kashif is thinking of love because his son, Rashid, is coming to visit him. Without admitting it to himself, Kashif has decided that his son is his last chance at succeeding in love. His last chance, in other words, of getting over his memories of failed love and finishing The Last Novel.
Kashif lives alone, ridiculously alone, in his comfortable house in the countryside of Wales. Countless years ago, fifteen to be exact, on June 8th, Kashif came here to write The Last Novel. He lives with nothing but books. Or should we say: memories and fear. They are strewn all over the place. They stack up against whole walls. They litter the floors of all the rooms. They sleep with him and eat with him and bathe with him and sit outside on the open porch with him. They are, in a word, everywhere.
Kashif starts his day with a long walk because he likes the sheep around his house. He always stops for coffee at this one place in town. Elaine: that is the name of the owner. She always comes out to greet him. Good Morning. Good Morning. How are you? How are you? Beautiful day. Beautiful day. She has two daughters. Both are away at college. This makes her feel lonely. After coffee, Kashif walks back to his house, this time walking through the town rather than taking the path through the fields. He smiles and waves at the butcher, and the pub bartender, and the barber, and the bike shop owner. He stops to buy milk and bread and eggs and ham. He always cooks lunch for himself. Lunch takes time to prepare and he takes long to eat it. After a second cup of coffee with lunch, he writes poetry. He never publishes any of his poetry but has written it from a very young age and keeps writing it now because poetry keeps his mind alive to words as dancers.
In the evenings, he chooses a room in the house where the novel he wants to read is stacked. All the rooms are empty and dirty except the neatly stacked books. He rereads old novels, stopping at every sentence, letting them run down his memory. From time to time, he writes letters to friends, he calls his agent, he takes a swim in the sea next to his house. Sometimes he gets angry at books and tears out pages. He tries to write every day, but he cannot remember a single day in the past five years when he wrote more than a page. He has passages upon passages of unfinished streams of thought, lying around like lucid dreams, that he one day hopes to put together in The Last Novel.
When an old friend, who Kashif had once spent long years talking to and who was now too busy to come visit him, wrote a letter asking how he was and what he was reading these days, he replied with this:
These days, I cannot read. I cannot talk. I cannot write. I watch myself aimlessly glide through time. I live in my head and it excites me too much to hear anything else. I become afraid when someone has something to say to me. I am afraid to think, to follow my thoughts, where they want to lead me. In connected webs, my thoughts lead to memories so far forgotten that they must be painful. And I scramble to halt them. I ask them to let me stay. To let me breathe. I run away to new distractions that will never lead me back. No pasts do I want to carry, do I want to prod. And these writers, they tell me things I don’t want to be reminded of. Why they make me cry with stories of mothers and lovers and continuously lost homes. I cannot bear them. I cannot bear their words. These sentences, these alien sentences, I do not know what they mean. They break down and crumble in front of me. And I’m left in my head, hoping somebody will come and explain my sentences to me.
In his twenties, Kashif had looked forward to old age; he did not get published until he was thirty-two. He had thought that by the time he was old he would be happily married and surrounded by grandchildren who would play around him. Instead, he had spent the last fifteen years thinking about Monika and writing The Last Novel. Then Rashid called and he entertained - once again, after a very long time - the possibility of love.
Rashid called and said that he wanted to come visit. Maybe stay for a few months. It will be foolish to say that Kashif had only ever loved Monika and no other woman. Kashif had been notorious throughout his life for his torrid love affairs. He had hated and loved each of these women with a ferocious intensity he could only muster when in love. Rashid was the son of one of these women. He was his only child. But it was Monika whom he credited with teaching him how to love, and subsequently determining that he will always fail at it. Because of this he had failed to properly love Rashid until Rashid was much older and Kashif had moved in to his lonely house in the countryside to write The Last Novel.
Rashid was a painter. He had just graduated from art school and his first exhibition had been a success. He sold a few paintings for good money. At the age of twenty-eight, this was rare. He wanted to take this money and go live with his father in the countryside for a few months so he could concentrate on painting. Rashid was a handsome man with an imposing physical figure. Girls liked him because he was polite and always smelled nice. Rashid, like his father, was also troubled by love and had never fallen in love despite many chances. Rashid admired Kashif’s books which were the principal way he had gotten to know him in his adolescence. His only memory of his father from childhood was Kashif taking him out for ice cream after he successfully identified the Fire at Night by Francisco de Goya, La Grenouillere by Claude Monet, and an untitled from Rothko’s Black on Grays. After hating him for many years, Rashid finally decided to visit his father because he knew that Kashif was old and lonely. This time around he wanted to sit down with his father and talk. Really, talk.
After receiving Rashid’s call, Kashif became excited. He thought that after fifteen years he was finally being offered a chance at salvation. He set about planning for it. The house was bare so he bought new furniture and set up his son’s room. He commissioned a friend to quickly build a studio for his son. He read his son’s interviews in newspapers and art reviews. From these, he found out his favourite painters and spent lavish amounts to buy their paintings.
He rearranged the whole house he had bought countless years ago not knowing that he will never meet his son. But before we talk of that – I keep forgetting – we must talk of love. We must say that Kashif sat on his bed, waiting for his son, and thinking about Monika.
Kashif was obsessed with writing because his father had once told him that he will never write a good novel. His father had enrolled early in the military, guaranteeing himself a respectable pay, a decent house, and a wife Kashif’s grandmother approved of. Kashif -needless to say - hated, as well as feared, his father’s cowardice.
Kashif left his home in search for new stories and in order to run away from his father’s cowardice. He searched for these stories all his life and wrote them down in a career spanning nearly fifty years. But leaving his mother made him feel shelterless and abandoned. Along came Monika. When Kashif first met Monika, she got off her bike, strode up to him and said, silently and curiously,
“What keeps you so sad?”
Kashif had no idea. But to him, Monika looked like she did. And at the age of twenty-one, they both fell in love.
She told him to make his bed just like his mother did. She told him to eat properly and on time. She got worried when he drank too much and became depressed. She gave him medicines when he had fever. And sat next to him, wiping his forehead with wet cloth. She told him to shower regularly. She stood by him as he showered and told him to soap his back, which he always left unwashed before. She went with him to his favourite museums where he talked lengthily about some of the painters.
He sat with her all night when she felt sleepless and watched horror movies because she liked badly made horror movies. He got into cooking and made her delicious meals when she got back from class and was tired. He read her simple stories he liked and they both smiled at loving phrases before they went to sleep. He made her laugh. He taught her how to dance. And they danced, holding each other, on slow blues tunes about love.
Kashif met Monika at the beginning of January. As summer came to a start, they moved in to a small apartment together. Kashif became comfortable in love. He did not know that you are the most afraid in love when are the most comfortable.
Monika had a dog called Alyosha. Monika had lived with Alyosha since he was a puppy. He was a big fluffly kind of dog who was very loving and always wanted to sit in people's laps. Monika talked to him like an old lover as people often do with pets. She used odd endearing terms to address him like sweetiepie and darlingdoo and myhandsome. She sometimes had extended conversations with him about her day, telling him about her classes and what she wanted to cook and what movies she wanted to go see in the cinema. Alyosha always slept in the same bed as Monika and Kashif. Every time Monika talked to Alyosha at night before going to bed, Kashif became jealous.
One day in August, towards the end of the summer, Kashif started fighting with Monika when she began talking to Alyosha at night. He made incoherent arguments and went off on irrelevant tangents to hide his jealousy. Monika became angry because Kashif was making Alyosha sad. This made Kashif angry and he refused to sleep in the same bed. For a whole week, Kashif slept on the couch. Monika refused to talk to him unless absolutely necessary. They spent the week busying themselves in chores outside the house and only returned after dinner. They both tried flirting with other people. Finally, on the eighth day Kashif left the couch in the middle of the night and lied down next to Monika and Alyosha. She woke up and asked:
“Are you not angry at me?”
“I love you. I wish somebody could tell you how much I love you.”
And with that, it was settled.
Monika was a woman like spring. But also like fall. And winter and summer and autumn and all the seasons you can think of. She was all seasons because all seasons were because of her. But then came a day when she had to leave to go to a big city because she got a job. She wanted to do this job and make money and live properly. Not like they were living, lost in dreams, without thoughts about tomorrows. Kashif could not leave. He hated big cities. They were no good for writing stories. She left, and Kashif wrote stories about her, regretting that he had not left with her. After reading a few of his stories, M became very afraid of Kashif. She thought that he only loved words and loved nothing else. She was afraid of becoming a story. They fought and never saw each other again. Monika, when parting, told him specifically: do not ever write about me. Maybe it was that this command still ringed in his ears that he was unable to finish The Last Novel. Maybe it was that fifteen years were not enough time to write about fear. And maybe it was just that he felt shelterless and abandoned and sought new homes and open destinies for himself in his stories when there was no such thing as a new home or an open destiny in the merciless confines of memory.
People say that you get over love. You forget about it and it settles down. But all they mean is that such unsettling things can never settle down and so it is best to forget them. But old age and books brought all memories back to Kashif: clear as day, dark as night. The past is a grand old mansion, rooms and rooms and rooms: empty, full, renovated, desolate. And in each room, there hung a picture of Monika. Sometimes hidden, sometimes as big as all the walls and the ceiling and the floor. On the eve of a gray day in the countryside, when Rashid entered the house, he found his father dead on the floor of his bedroom, clutching a novel. He took this to be his last gesture towards his only love: books. What he did not know is that before dying, Kashif had tried to throw the novel against a wall, out of sheer frustration, in hopes that this throwing-against-the-wall will lessen his fear. Instead, precisely at that moment, a fatal stroke hit him. He died quickly, with the novel clutched in his hands. After his death, a few neighbors and his son gathered to bury him, and put on his plaque: Here lies a man who loved words. His son published his unfinished novel a few years after he died. He loved the plaque so much that he wrote the following inscription on The Last Novel: For the love of words. It was received tremendously well. Even critics, who had long since announced that his gift was finished, acclaimed the unfinished novel as genius. They wrote long obituaries and reviews about his ‘dedication’ and ‘vision’ and ‘voice’ and ‘reputation’.They wrote, after reading the inscription, of his love for words. How lovingly he cradled each one. How intensely he crafted them in his loneliness. He must have been lonely so as to dedicate himself to his words. Those at literary parties, especially young writers, became very impressed by his devotion to his art. They said: this is the way to write. One must love the words. If they only knew how scared he was of words. If they only knew that it was all for the love of a woman, and not for words at all.
"These series of photographs were taken at the Qalandia checkpoint. This body of work examines and captures the experience of the checkpoint which has become a hallmark of the current Israeli occupation. There are very few faces among the collection of images; rather we are invited to view a multitude of close-ups of encounters between soldiers and Palestinians wanting to cross the border."
Oil and Plume: On Habitat
by Mara Jebsen
It came to me at the hairdresser’s. A sort of image-idea about birds and goodness. Karen had me in one of those retro-space-age bubble-things and the air was roaring around my ears, drying. "I grow blonder as I speak," I kept thinking, though I wasn't speaking. Just thinking loudly through the rarified air.
Over by the window, Karen, all wrist, was erasing wings of silver-black from the temples of her client. The client’s beautiful beak-like nose grew ever more defined in the sun of the windowpane; the tufts drifting like feathers to the linoleum floor, mixing as they fell. They landed silver-brown in sunlight, like tree-bark in winter, like strokes of pencil-lead . . .
There were many women in the room: another client with hair like my sister’s (dry clouds springing from the skull; tall as an outstretched hand). I saw the hairdresser press a little piece between the knuckles of two outstretched fingers, and scissor a bit off. The girl’s eyes gleamed joyfully towards themselves in the mirror. Her hairdresser's own hair was similar, but oiled down to shaped curls. The women seemed ambivalent about this act of 'taming’; were more intent on the power of the raw material. And in its cutting, the space between them filled with camaraderie so palpable, it was nearly communion.
Two summers ago, when there was the big oil spill, the images of birds showed up first on the internet and newspapers, and then increasingly in my head unbidden, and in the dreams of my friends, and my own. What a terrible thing--birds like zombies risen from death to make us pay for sins. Can't live, can't fly. To me, the birds all looked like herons, because herons already look like a thing returned from the otherworld to give us one last chance to repent.
In this salon at the edge of the gentrified part of Park Slope, Brooklyn, a woman sweeps, and several types of hair collect against the broom's face. My own brown-blonde, the black-grey, the blurred brown curls. I am impressed by human variety. And with this fibrous thing that is waste, that is part of us and not part of us.
When the oil spill was in the news, a girlfriend of mine told me that human hair can be used to help clean oil from the ocean. I can imagine making a film about it. Salons all over the country, sweeping, piling, donating. Imagine bristling bags full of American hair . . . disgusting but wonderful.
As an ambivalent resident of Park Slope, Brooklyn, I try to find out where I stand—in relation to other New Yorkers, and in relation to birds. One of the benefits of my neighborhood is a cheap yoga studio made almost entirely of windows--an oval of glass.
The teacher one day annoys me because she has such a plaintive tone. "In our culture, rest is not something we know how to do," she keeps saying. “In our culture, we’re really bad at. . .” Then she says: “Everything in here is the exact same as everything out there.” My mind bucks; I don’t buy it. Meanwhile, what she's teaching me about how to breathe is making my whole body feel like there is new air bubbling in my blood, and that air is full of music.
Because my 300 square foot apartment is across the street from the yoga studio, I catch, in the crease where the window swoops into an oval-shape, a perfectly framed vision of my own home and a patch of blue sky. Its windows elongate; the fire-escape looks almost holy.
Seeing your life from the outside makes you a sentimentalist. I think of all the living I do in there. Is it good living? A lot of it is happy . . .
I had a friend in college who, when she felt miserable, donated blood. She later became a nurse.
Blood, hair, energy. The desire to serve. There must be some way to feel that the human body is not a sort of parasite on the environment, especially when I am sure it is capable of so much clean appetite, such joy and goodness.
I had another female friend who used to cut my hair in the backyard of a different Brooklyn apartment. The place was cheap and illegal, and no one maintained it. The yard climbed to our necks with something like kudzu, mice and wild roses. In a clear space I'd sit in a chair, and she’d trim away, making a fibrous, tinny music.
She didn't sweep up the hair. I didn't like seeing my hair on the raw dirt and the first time, I stooped to pick it up. I guess I'm superstitious. I didn't want the dirt to think I was dead. “Don't worry,” she said, “the hair will be gone tomorrow. The birds will take it for their nests.”
On Seeing Bahadur Shah Zafar
The Last Mughal Emperor
1775 - 1862
Son of a pig—
A viceroy will take pleasure
In a king exposed
Bolstered on a charpoy—
Gaunt in white kurta;
Long stem of a hookah—
A humid verandah
A garrison in Rangoon
Slithers of their brush—
A halo “God’s Shadow”
Blooming beneath his feet
In front of him as they had
In front of his father and his
The garden ravaged—
Zafar, a memory of his splendor
Restraint of his sigh, itself a sigh
Rafiq Kathwari is a Monday poet at 3Quarks Daily.
Red Moon Rising
by Maniza Naqvi
“Life, Madam is full of little, little inconveniences.” The receptionist, in a soothing tone, wearing the uniform of a friendly welcoming smile had said. “I do apologize for the delay but please give us half an hour and your room will be ready. In the meantime please enjoy our hotel lobby café and complimentary welcoming tea." He suggested, with a wave of his hand towards a space behind her. “It will only be a half hour.”
The white noise of the in house music tinkled in the background and beckoned her to be understanding and on good behavior. There was nothing to be done but wait. Her room wasn’t ready, her predecessor had left it in a mess apparently—hence the delay—and by the explanation given, she imagined that, floors had to be disinfected and so on.
Sleep deprived, she sits nursing her second cup of jasmine tea, struggling not to fall asleep in the armchair which was placed near a large potted fern.
“I thought it was you! What are you doing here?”
She starts and looks up, she hasn’t seen him in over a year—he looks the same—bloated belly, bloated face--too much whiskey. His mane of once, grey hair now white and thinning. The trade mark denim shirt still in place, the urban legend, himself.
“What am I doing here? Well, I’m here for the Literature Festival” She replies, “And you?”
“Ah the literature festival, yes I am speaking tomorrow morning in a panel.”
“Are you? So am I. Are you staying at the hotel?” She asks.
“No. Why should I stay at the hotel? I live here.”
“Yes, I know. But I thought given the hour, you may have decided to stay here.” She is irritated by the way he says it. He always has to point out to her that she doesn’t belong here.
Before she can reply, there is a power outage. They sit in the dark and in the sudden silence all around them. It lasts only a few seconds. The lights come on and daze her. She feels a headache coming on just between her eyes.
He says “So you are here. Yes. I presume to speak about your novels?”
“Yes. Of course, I am. It is a Literature festival. I wouldn’t have missed this for anything.”
He laughs. “Yes, I am sure you wouldn’t have. But you must surely know novels are good for nothing here, particularly, novels in English such as yours. What is the readership for these, other than the tiny group of venal elite? No, completely, irrelevant. Now, on the other hand there is a lady in Sialkot who writes Urdu novels, she has millions of readers—a festival such as this one has no meaning and no relevance for her or her readers. She would never come to such a thing. She is the real writer at least she is for me.”
“Good for her. She writes as she writes. And I write as I do.”
“She lives here, she is relevant.”
“I can see what you are implying, must you always hurt , be so negative…..”
“Hurt? Negative? I’m not implying anything” He interrupts her “I’m saying it quite clearly. Festivals like this are irrelevant.”
She replies in almost a whisper “And yet, even the great amazing you, the great man who remains a resident of the city, the urban legend--- you, ---- you are participating tomorrow…though you haven’t written a book have you?”
He stands up in a fury and shouts so that the few people left in the lobby at this hour around them can hear “I can’t talk to people like you!” He starts to gets up and stoops as he reaches for a bag that he has placed on the floor between them—she moves to help him pick it up—her hand touches his. He brushes her hand away---“So you are going to take over this as well—snatch this away too?” She is taken aback.
“I’m tired” she says, “I’m tired of you.”
He is furious and still loud “It really is rich how people like you come here, jet in for the limelight at festivals as though you are relevant here, as though you have something worth saying. You don’t live here, you ran away to make your pots of money elsewhere, you don’t endure the daily trials of living here…yet you show up to claim its fame for yourselves." Before she can say another word—he is gone. She feels ashamed of herself. She watches him hurrying toward the entrance of the hotel.
She feels her legs hurting, her stomach is cramping. It must be him or something she ate, and she is exhausted. The layover in Dubai was more than eight hours. She tried to write at the airport, she has missed a deadline for a short story. Her editor is patient but irritated. She’s been juggling too many things—she can’t be so many different people, one day one thing another day another. Hour to hour. Can she? At the airport she had wandered from one end to the other of the terminal counting the passing hours. She had bought a pair of Prada eyeglasses—asked other transit passengers making their way to their gates for their opinions on which pair best suited her. She had bought foundation makeup – a thing, she had never felt the need for before or ever used. Now under the glare of the airport lights, peering in the mirror on the sales counter, there seemed to be no other alternative but this. Coming back did this to her, always, she felt the need to get behind layers and layers of protection. She had changed out of her dusty weathered brown field leather boots, khaki jeans and tee-shirt into a long knee length loose cotton tunic and tight white pants—and heels. She had donned a long white cotton scarf.
Now, she enters her room, it smelled of lemon scented disinfectant—It could be a hotel room anywhere—It was that anywhere room. Her luggage has been brought in and is placed against the wall. There is a complimentary fruit basket—Keenos and strawberries. She smiles. She hears the puttering bursts of gunfire in the distance—somewhere. She goes over to the window and draws aside the heavy curtains, she draws in her breath in delight—a huge moon is rising above the Korangi creek at the mouth of the Arabian sea. Yachts and launches as though asleep, float anchored at the pier. A red moon, its reflection melts into the waters. “A red moon” She says to herself out loud. “A sign, that there will be bloodshed.”
She lies down across the width of the king sized bed—Sleep over powers her, she feels the cramps. Damn him. She feels like her skin is baking, she is hot and now sweating. So this is what a hot flash is all about. She throws off her tunic—slips out of the pants, unhooks the bra, wrenches off the panties. Aaah, the coolness of the clean sheets against her skin!
She wakes up, to the sound of hyenas laughing—they're coming up the river bed in Addis. Then she remembers where she is—it’s only the guests in the corridor making their way to their rooms. She mumbles a line—she’ll say during her talk tomorrow morning—“Someday they will put up a monument to the real heroes, the ones who sold their bodies and did hard labor as maids in the Middle East so that whole villages could eat so that the economy could prosper and who in return were assured, by their country, that if they died, if they were murdered at the hands of their wealthy employers, Ethiopian airlines would provide the coffin and fly them back home cost free.” She falls back into sleep.
She wakes to the feel of wetness beneath her—she reaches to feel between her legs--she feels the wet stickiness--- “Oh Shit”, she mutters, “Fucking shit!” She has completely forgotten the dates. She lies there in the dark she’ll ignore it, and for now sleep. The sheets are already soiled. So it doesn’t matter. She can continue to bleed. She’ll handle that in the morning. She needs to sleep. She is on in the first round of sessions in the morning—she needs to rest, she must catch up on her sleep. It comes to her, the opening line for the short story she has to write by tomorrow night “Last night she turned the moon into the star—and you no longer mattered.”
She is awakened again by her bladder, she needs to pee. The wet patch beneath her is turning her backside cold. She gets up, reaches for the lamp switch. Nothing happens. It’s another power outage. She makes her way to the bathroom, opens the door and steps in. She hears the door shut behind her with a soft woosh and a click. It’s locked shut. The lights come on.
She is standing in the corridor. Naked. Bleeding.
Also by Maniza Naqvi:
The Leftist And The Leader (A Play)
Pakistan Predictions 2012
by Omar Ali
Punditry without predictions is like a fish without a bicycle and who would ever want that? But if one does make predictions, one’s predictions can be checked. That, perhaps, is why no paid pundit makes too many predictions. But, with nothing at stake, I will not only make predictions, I will also recall predictions from 3 years ago for criticism. And dear socialist friends, please remember these are not prescriptions, they are predictions. I don’t like them much either.
In March of 2009 I took a road trip across the Eastern United States and asked several generally well informed Pakistani friends what they thought was likely to happen in Pakistan in the days to come. I am reproducing that article unchanged below; the first few theories are what my friends proposed would happen, followed by my own predictions from 2009. I consulted two of the same friends again this week and their current predictions and my own 2012 predictions follow. It is, of course, a very small and unrepresentative sample, biased towards liberals, infidels and leftists with no other input. And it is not expressed in University-Speak. So please, be gentle.
The 2009 scenarios:
1. Things fall apart: This theory holds that all the various chickens have finally come home to roost. The elite has robbed the country blind and provided neither governance nor sustenance and now the revolution is upon us: the jihadis have a plan and the will to enforce it and the government has neither. The jihadis have already captured FATA and most of Malakand (a good 20% of NWFP) and are inevitably going to march onwards to Punjab and Sindh. The army is incapable of fighting these people (and parts of it are actively in cahoots with the jihadis) and no other armed force can match these people. The public has been mentally prepared for Islamic rule by 62 years of Pakistani education and those who do resist will be labeled heretics and apostates and ruthlessly killed. The majority will go along in the interest of peace and security. America will throw more good money after bad, but in the end the Viceroy and her staff will be climbing rope ladders onto helicopters and those members of the elite who are not smart enough to get out in time will be hanging from the end of the ladder as the last chopper pulls away from the embassy. Those left behind will brush up their kalimas and shorten their shalwars and life will go on. The Taliban will run the country and all institutions will be cleansed and remodeled in their image.
2. Jihadi Army: The army is the army of Pakistan. Pakistan is an Islamic state. They know what to do. They will collect what they can from the Americans because we need some infidel technologies that we don’t have in our own hands yet, but one glorious day, we will purge the apostate officers and switch to full jihadi colors. The country will be ruled with an iron hand by some jihadi general, not by some mullah from FATA. All corrupt people will be shot. Many non-corrupt people will also be shot. Allah’s law will prevail in Allah’s land. And then we will deal with Afghanistan (large scale massacre of all apostates to be held in the stadium), India, Iran and the rest of the world in that order.
3. Controlled burn: This theory holds that there is no chance of any collapse or jihadi takeover. What we are seeing are the advanced stages of a Jedi negotiation (or maybe a Sith negotiation would be a better term). The army wants more money and this is a controlled burn. They let the Taliban shoot up some schools and courts (all bloody useless civilian institutions anyway). Panic spreads across the land. People like John Kerry come to Islamabad and almost shit in their pants at the thought of Taliban “60 miles away from the capital”. Just as Zia played the drunken Charlie Wilson and the whole Reagan team for fools, the current high command is playing on the fears and ignorance of the American embassy and morons like Kerry and even Clinton. 5 billion is peanuts. The sting has been prepared with extreme finesse. When Obama coughs up a good 10-20 billion, things will be brought under control, but just barely. The scam will continue for the foreseeable future. The jihadis may have their dreams, but the army is in charge and can easily defend the “settled areas”. The rest can stay in jihadi hands as a suitable cash cow.
4. The coming war on the Indian border: The border of India is on the Indus, not on the Radcliffe line. The Taliban will take over the mountains, but they will be resisted at the edge of the plains. The Americans will train the army to fight this new war. There will be setbacks and loads of violence, but in the end the center will hold. America will fight a new kind of drone war in the mountains and in time, the beards will be forced to negotiate. Along the way, many wedding parties will also get bombed but you cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs. The Indian part of Pakistan will make peace with India and India will help us fight the Northern invaders. The army high command is NOT jihadi. But they lack capacity and need time to build it up. They need to be supported and strengthened. America should pay them more money and pay more heed to their tactical advice.
5. Buffer state: a variant of the above theory holds that Punjab is the historic buffer of India. All sorts of invaders come in, fight over the Punjab and capture it. Then the peasants get to work. We might even convert to whatever barbaric ideology they have brought, but in time the peasants outbreed and outflank the invaders. In the end, the invaders become Indian and help us outbreed and outlast the next invading horde. We win by “assimilation and attrition”. I am not sure if this is an optimistic theory or a pessimistic one. In India, the two are practically the same anyway.
And this was my personal opinion in 2009: The state is stronger than many people think. But it is grossly incompetent and the elite itself is split and infiltrated by jihadi sympathizers. It won’t collapse soon, but all problems will continue to get worse for the foreseeable future. A big drone offensive is coming and there will be much secondary fighting in Pakistan. But there is at least a 50-50 chance that Jihadistan will NOT be able to expand into the Punjab and Sindh (though much terrorism will surely happen). The army will be gradually purged of jihadis and will one day come around to being a serious anti-jihadi force, but it won’t be easy and it may not happen. If the army continues to have jihadi sympathies, then all bets are off and many horrendous scenarios are imaginable. The US embassy presumably knows more than we do. On the other hand, their declassified documents make it clear that they are incredibly naïve and racist in their assumptions and tend to regard the people they have colonized as mildly retarded children; so there is a good chance they don’t know batshit about what is going on, but are able to present impressive looking PowerPoints about three cups of tea with Kiyani and the other brown children who inhabit the world outside the green zone..
The 2012 Predictions. This time I asked the friend who proposed “controlled burn” (lets call him comrade Zee) and Dr. A, who proposed “Jihadi army” in 2009 and then I made some new and improved predictions of my own.
1. Mutually Assured Corruption. This is comrade Zee’s current prediction (and he claims copyright on the term); Pakistan’s army and bureaucracy used to get first dibs on everything, but their short-sighted policies have weakened their hold over the country and they will now share power with the politicians and the judiciary in an arrangement of mutually assured corruption. This elite will continue to enrich itself and will provide limited governance at least in the core Punjabi and urban areas. The Jihadis will continue to occupy sections of FATA and the current on-again off-again peace process will alternate with tit for tat bombings and killings for the foreseeable future, but they will not be able to expand beyond the Islamic emirate. Punjabi Jihadis will remain divided between true believers and ISI-controlled assets and will continue to be used to milk the Americans and to maintain a background level of Islamism in society. Baluchistan will become Pakistan’s Kashmir, an unhappy population subject to harsh measures but unable to break away. Unlike Kashmiris, they will also be swamped by settlers and thumped by Jihadis allied with the army. In that sense, they will be worse off than Kashmir. But they cannot break away unless a foreign power (the USA and no other) acts on their behalf and that will not happen because the US has interests in Pakistan and no matter how badly the Pakistani army behaves, as a nuclear power they will get a second (and third and fourth) chance as long as they themselves remain aware of the limits of American patience.
2. Jihadi Army. Dr. A proposed this scenario in 2009 and he is sticking by his prediction. He says that that the “optimists” assume that economic self-interest or non-jihadist cultural elements will somehow dominate the hardcore Jihadist elements because economics and deep cultural roots trump fringe Jihadism in principle. But this fails to take into account the peculiar nature of the Pakistani state. Pakistan is the perfect marriage of Islamic supremacism, psychotic self-hatred (i.e. hatred for our own Indian roots) and elite incompetence. The elite may indeed regard hardcore Islamism as a step too far, but they are terminally corrupt and incompetent and every passing year brings us closer to revolution. And in Pakistan, the revolution will not be Marxist, it will be Islamist. An overwhelming majority of the population long since abandoned all “un-Islamic” identities in principle (though not in practice, yet). When the shit hits the fan, they will look towards something called “Islam” to solve their problems. And it won’t be the thinly imagined Islam of Ziauddin Sardar or Westernized Karachi socialites. It will be the real deal; Salafist-Wahabi Islam willing to kill all infidels. And they will start at home with Shias and other internal enemies.
My own prediction in 2012: More of the same. I agree with comrade Zee that the elite will hold on with “mutually assured corruption”. I think Baluchistan will remain a festering wound but it will not reach Bangladesh or Kashmir level of violence. I think some of the Jihadist militias in FATA will continue to fight the state but outside of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa the level of violence will be tolerable. And I think Imran Khan will not be able to solve corruption in 19 days or terrorism in 90 days. In fact, I think he won’t even be able to come into power. I think the US will gradually lessen its footprint in the region and will try to hand over a lot of the local imperialist duties to China, but the Chinese will prove too smart to take up the job. Through all this, economic growth and rapid cultural change will continue in Pakistan and will even accelerate. The army’s hold on the country will weaken over time. Their dream of a “Chinese model authoritarian regime with Islamic characteristics” will remain unfulfilled. Nothing will look satisfactory to anyone, but the state will not collapse and there will be no wider war. In short, I don’t think Pakistan is about to collapse, but I don’t think it is about to undergo some magical transformation under the wise leadership of Kiyani or Imran Khan either. And I don’t think it’s going to see an “Islamic revolution” because there is no there there. The Islamists themselves have no workable plan for any such revolution. They are mouthing empty slogans and at some level most people know this.
The long term future of Pakistan is “Indianization”. Not in the sense of “Indian cultural invasion” or “Indian hegemony”, but in the simple literal sense of “becoming more like India”. Obviously not exactly like India, but close enough for government work; a corruption-ridden, imperfect third world democracy with an expanding capitalist economy and many internal divisions and stresses and the additional burden of Islamic fantasizing. And I think there is little chance of developing a unique indigenous socialist/islamist/vegetarian short-cut past all these problems, much to the dismay of the Arundhati Roys and Tariq Alis, not to speak of Hindutvadis and Islamists. Pakistan will not show the world some new path to the future. It will be a “normal” South Asian country, trying to stabilize a democratic model derived from British Indian roots while working out a modus vivendi between its ancient cultures, its “Islamic” ideals and the modern world. The economy has now become too large for even the narrow elite to be dominated by imperial mercenary duties or scams related to the same. In that sense, things will be a little better. It’s not a perfect outcome, but we do not live in a perfect world.
February 26, 2012
Vienna and The Modern World
William Boyd in The Guardian (Photograph: Irene Lamprakou/Getty Images/Flickr RM):
Why do certain cities haunt the imagination? Not just the city itself but the city in a particular historical period. In my own case I can identify four such cities – Los Angeles in the 1970s, Lisbon in the 1930s, Berlin in the 1920s and Vienna in the years just before the first world war. Thus captivated, I wrote fiction – short stories, chapters of novels – set in each of these cities long before I ever visited them. This is the mark and measure, I suppose, of their allure – it's vicarious, it works at a great distance – but it must be some conveyed sense of atmosphere, the spirit of place, that prompts the fascination. Perhaps the most telling factor is a powerful feeling that you would like to have lived there yourself.
One of the amazing aspects of Vienna – or certainly the central city, the Inner Stadt bounded by the great circling boulevard of the Ring, is how easy it is to imagine living there – not just in the early years of the 20th century but in the 19th or even 18th century as well. It's so beautifully preserved and maintained that you can turn a corner and draw up with a shock, imagining that Mozart or Brahms could have seen the identical view. But Vienna in its fading pomp, in the last years of the Austro-Hungarian empire (1867-1918), is present before you in almost every street scene or vista. Freud's Vienna, Wittgenstein's Vienna, Egon Schiele's Vienna.
It was Egon Schiele who started my Vienna obsession. Schiele and Klimt. Up until the 1970s – when Rudolf Leopold's catalogue raisonné of Schiele's paintings and drawings appeared – Schiele was a virtual unknown. I can remember while I was at university in the 70s the sudden outpouring of postcards and posters, books or reproductions that occurred. Suddenly everyone loved Schiele and was enthralled by his short, tormented life. Schiele's angular, mannered, brilliant draughtsmanship, the blatant near-pornography of his nudes, male and female, were a thrilling revelation. I went to Vienna for the first time to write a piece about Schiele, or to be more precise to write a piece about the Leopold Museum that contains the world's biggest collection of his work. Even after decades of familiarity the actual canvases and drawings retain their power to shock and disturb. In some ways, Schiele is the perfect symbol of the Viennese antithesis – namely that this small, safe, solid, beautiful, bourgeois capital city should have housed in the early years of the 20th century such a contrapuntal, boiling ferment of modernism in every art form.
Race Finished: The Debunking of a Scientific Myth
Jan Sapp in American Scientist:
Few concepts are as emotionally charged as that of race. The word conjures up a mixture of associations—culture, ethnicity, genetics, subjugation, exclusion and persecution. But is the tragic history of efforts to define groups of people by race really a matter of the misuse of science, the abuse of a valid biological concept? Is race nevertheless a fundamental reality of human nature? Or is the notion of human “races” in fact a folkloric myth? Although biologists and cultural anthropologists long supposed that human races—genetically distinct populations within the same species—have a true existence in nature, many social scientists and geneticists maintain today that there simply is no valid biological basis for the concept.
The consensus among Western researchers today is that human races are sociocultural constructs. Still, the concept of human race as an objective biological reality persists in science and in society. It is high time that policy makers, educators and those in the medical-industrial complex rid themselves of the misconception of race as type or as genetic population. This is the message of two recent books: Race?: Debunking a Scientific Myth, by Ian Tattersall and Rob DeSalle, and Race and the Genetic Revolution: Science, Myth, and Culture, edited by Sheldon Krimsky and Kathleen Sloan. Both volumes are important and timely. Both put race in the context of the history of science and society, relating how the ill-defined word has been given different meanings by different people to refer to groups they deem to be inferior or superior in some way.
Before we turn to the books themselves, a little background is necessary. A turning point in debates on race was marked in 1972 when, in a paper titled “The Apportionment of Human Diversity,” Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin showed that human populations, then held to be races, were far more genetically diverse than anyone had imagined.
A Scorsese in Lagos: The Making of Nigeria’s Film Industry
Andrew Rice in the New York Times Magazine:
Kunle Afolayan wants to scare you, he wants thrill you, he wants to make you laugh, but most of all, he would like you to suspend your disbelief — in his plots, yes, which tend to be over the top, but also about what is possible in Africa. He bristles if you call him an “African filmmaker” — a phrase redolent of art-house cinema, which his work assuredly is not. He wants to make huge, explosive, American-style blockbusters, and he wants to make them where he lives — in Nigeria. His ambitions may sound implausible. Nigeria lacks even a reliable supply of electricity. But it does contain a chaotic creative energy that has made it the world’s most prolific producer of films.
Twenty years after bursting from the grungy street markets of Lagos, the $500 million Nigerian movie business churns out more than a thousand titles a year on average, and trails only Hollywood and Bollywood in terms of revenues. The films are hastily shot and then burned onto video CDs, a cheap alternative to DVDs. They are seldom seen in the developed world, but all over Africa consumers snap up the latest releases from video peddlers for a dollar or two. And so while Afolayan’s name is unknown outside Africa, at home, the actor-director is one of the most famous faces in the exploding entertainment scene known — inevitably — as “Nollywood.”
Salman Hameed: When Evidence Is Powerless
“The candy was seized by the FBI” — Daisy Rockwell’s Little Book of Terror
Richard Booth in his blog:
Daisy is the granddaughter of Norman Rockwell, and although that’s largely an irrelevant fact, I find something satisfying in the inter-generational dialectic occurring here: my Mormon, Midwestern family adored Norman Rockwell, and had hosts of folksy, wholesome prints of his work adorning the walls of their homes...
...not that Norman Rockwell’s work is bad; in fact, I don’t have any well-formed opinion on the stuff. But in my life it has represented a strange fantasy of pre-1960s American folk, “simpler times,” the kind of “real America” Republican politicians are always going on about, America before The Fall.
So I find great pleasure in thinking that my generation has a Rockwell too, but ours is ironic and twisted, exhibiting simultaneously a kind of melancholy wisdom and carefree cartoon wonder.
Why are Pakistanis so vulnerable to conspiracy theories?
Omar Ali in Viewpoint:
I am saying that people in Pakistan do not just believe in wild conspiracy theories because they are un-informed or illiterate (in fact, that last chestnut is clearly false, the biggest believers are all literate). Neither do they do so just because they are powerless or because their traditional worldview is collapsing in front of their eyes or because they already believe in an all-powerful deity. All those may be factors, but let us not forget one more reason they believe in wild conspiracy theories: because their leaders of public opinion tell them it is so. In other words, the widespread belief in conspiracy theories is itself a conspiracy; a small group of men (it is always men) pick up the juiciest theories from some idiot American website (usually a White supremacist or paranoid brain-dead Leftie website) and spread them far and wide in the land of the pure. They plant them as stories on their websites. Then they get their own “news” outlets to pick up these stories, quoting their own websites as sources. Then they get their opinion leaders to repeat these conspiracies, using the media and the websites as sources if needed. There is, in short, a conspiracy to spread these conspiracy theories.
So it is that we find that large sections of the Pakistani middle class believe that everything that is wrong with Pakistan is due to a Hinjew conspiracy against Pakistan.
Gwendolyn Brooks: 1917-2000
From Poetry Foundation:
Gwendolyn Brooks was a highly regarded, much-honored poet, with the distinction of being the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize. She also was poetry consultant to the Library of Congress—the first black woman to hold that position—and poet laureate of the State of Illinois. Many of Brooks's works display a political consciousness, especially those from the 1960s and later, with several of her poems reflecting the civil rights activism of that period. Her body of work gave her, according to Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor George E. Kent, "a unique position in American letters. Not only has she combined a strong commitment to racial identity and equality with a mastery of poetic techniques, but she has also managed to bridge the gap between the academic poets of her generation in the 1940s and the young black militant writers of the 1960s."
Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas, but her family moved to Chicago when she was young. Her father was a janitor who had hoped to become a doctor; her mother was a schoolteacher and classically trained pianist. They were supportive of their daughter's passion for reading and writing. Brooks was thirteen when her first published poem, "Eventide," appeared in American Childhood; by the time she was seventeen she was publishing poems frequently in the Chicago Defender, a newspaper serving Chicago's black population. After such formative experiences as attending junior college and working for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, she developed her craft in poetry workshops and began writing the poems, focusing on urban blacks, that would be published in her first collection, A Street in Bronzeville.
"An Interview with Gwendolyn Brooks" in Contemporary Literature 11:1 (Winter 1970).
Q. How about the seven pool players in the poem "We Real Cool"?
A. They have no pretensions to any glamor. They are supposedly dropouts, or at least they're in the poolroom when they should possibly be in school, since they're probably young enough, or at least those I saw were when I looked in a poolroom, and they. . . . First of all, let me tell you how that's supposed to be said, because there's a reason why I set it out as I did. These are people who are essentially saying, "Kilroy is here. We are." But they're a little uncertain of the strength of their identity. [Reads:]
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
The "We"—you're supposed to stop after the "We" and think about their validity, and of course there's no way for you to tell whether it should be said softly or not, I suppose, but I say it rather softly because I want to represent their basic uncertainty, which they don't bother to question every day, of course.
Q. Are you saying that the form of this poem, then, was determined by the colloquial rhythm you were trying to catch?
A. No, determined by my feeling about these boys, these young men.
Q. These short lines, then, are your own invention at this point? You don't have any literary model in mind; you're not thinking of Eliot or Pound or anybody in particular . . . ?
A. My gosh, no! I don't even admire Pound, but I do like, for instance, Eliot's "Prufrock" and The Waste Land, "Portrait of a Lady," and some others of those earlier poems. But nothing of the sort ever entered my mind. When I start writing a poem, I don't think about models or about what anybody else in the world has done.
More here. (Note: In honor of African American History Month, we will be linking to at least one related post throughout February. The 2012 theme is Black Women in American Culture and History).
A Page in the Life: Adonis
From The Telegraph:
We are in the Mosaic Rooms in Kensington, where Adonis – who is annually suggested as a favourite to win the Nobel Prize for Literature – has been reading his poems and exhibiting his paintings. Born near the Syrian coastal city of Latakia in 1930, Adonis learnt both the Koran and classical Arab poetry as a child before studying philosophy at Damascus University. He was jailed for supporting a socialist party and in 1956 left for Beirut, where he founded an influential poetry magazine and wrote his own experimental verse. For the past 30 years he has lived in Paris from where he has continued to write poetry and prose (now more than 50 books altogether) and often makes forceful comments on the state of the Middle East. In person he is small and dapper, with a playful sense of humour. I tell him that in 2006 I spent six months studying Arabic at Damascus University. When I heard him reading at the Mosaic Rooms, I missed a lot but some phrases rang out clearly. Although his work avoids rhyme and logical narrative progression, he still writes in the classical language I studied rather than the Syrian colloquial.
Some have suggested that one reason the Arab world remains so rigidly hierarchical is the huge gap between the formal language used in literature and politics, and ordinary speech. “The colloquial language is still poor by comparison,” he says, adding that using the classical gives the entire Arab world a universal language. Is it relevant that the Koran is the founding text of classical Arabic? Mention of Islam’s holy book brings a glint to his eye. “People talk a lot about the Koran but I doubt very much whether many Muslims read the book at all. I mean the fundamentalists but also most Muslims. In fact, Muslims are now throttling Arabic because of censorship – both social and political.”
Sunday Funny: Saul Kripke Resigns Amidst Allegations That He Faked the Results of Thought Experiments
Saul Kripke resigned yesterday from his position as Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center. While similar allegations have been circulating in unpublished form for years, a team of philosophers from Oxford University has just released a damning report claiming that they were systematically unable to reproduce the results of thought experiments reported by Kripke in his groundbreaking Naming and Necessity. The team, led by Timothy Williamson, first became suspicious of Naming and Necessity after preliminary results raised questions about related work by Hilary Putnam. While the group was initially unable to confirm that water is H2O on Twin Earth, the results turned out to be due to contaminated research materials—one of the researchers’ minds had been contaminated by Chomskyan internalist semantics.
The inability to replicate Kripke’s results could not be similarly explained away, however, as the researcher in question was excluded from the analysis of Naming and Necessity.
A Puritan’s Dilemma
Theo Anderson in In These Times:
Before his suicide in September 2008, David Foster Wallace published three short story collections, two novels, two essay collections, a book about rap music and another about infinity. His final, unfinished novel, The Pale King, was published early last year. His essay subjects ranged from Dostoevsky to the porn industry to tennis. But for all his output and range, Wallace rarely wrote about politics. The most notable exception was a long article about the 2000 primary campaign of John McCain. A prominent thread in that narrative is Wallace’s exaggerated innocence about all things political, set against the polished professionals of the mainstream press corps.
Wallace had even less to say about religion. His masterpiece, the 1,000-page novel Infinite Jest, is shot through with the quasi-religious elements of Alcoholics Anonymous. It examines recovering addicts’ commitment to a higher power, but traditional religious organizations and formal theology are almost entirely absent. The same is true of his famous 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech, published as This Is Water, which posthumously brought him to the attention of a wider audience.
If rarely his explicit subjects, though, religion and politics were nearly always Wallace’s subtexts. He mostly ignored the hideous spectacle of electoral politics in the United States, and he had no time for the nonsense that pervades much of American religious life. But his work is obsessed with the roots of our religious and political poverty. It’s a sustained jeremiad aimed at America’s spiritual childishness, and it’s a plea for preserving what is most valuable in religious thought and practice. Wallace was a Puritan, not in theology, but in his sensitivity to a set of insoluble questions and tensions that are deeply rooted in the Calvinist tradition – most notably the tension between freedom and determinism.
The Indian Litfest Bug
For Gautam Pemmaraju apropos of a conversation last night, Amitava Kumar in Caravan:
A rash of Indian bureaucrats are now authors. It doesn’t bode well, in my opinion. Our host wasn’t a closeted writer, thank God, and was merely satisfied to regard the whole lot of us as delinquents. The writer Ruchir Joshi—maybe this was a critical postmodern antic on his part—was happy to oblige. But the most petulant schoolchild at the festival was VS Naipaul. He accused the American ambassador’s wife of a severe lack of intelligence and requested that she leave the table where dinner was being served. On the last day, Naipaul erupted once again. When Nayantara Sahgal bemoaned the sins of colonialism, he interrupted her, shouting, “My life is short. I can’t listen to banalities. Banalities irritate me.”
Banalities irritate me, too, but if you are so averse to them, you ought to stay away from literary festivals. And besides, not all banalities are created equal. The first year that I went to the Jaipur Literature Festival, I was given the honour of engaging in a public conversation with my early hero, Hanif Kureishi. Hanif is a writer of clean sentences; he has a dry wit, and isn’t afraid to be perverse or provocative. He also speaks just the way he writes, his utterances coming out clothed in elegant perfection, their hair gelled. He was in fine form that morning but quite unprepared for what, best as I can recall, was the very first question from the audience: “Mr Kureishi, are you circumcised?”
That was good, very good, in fact, and amused everyone. Much better than questions like, “Sir, how many books have you read?” that had been posed to me the previous day after my own panel. I’m calling such statements banalities, but I quite appreciate their directness and honesty. It’s important to know where these questions are coming from. The man with the pressing inquiry about Hanif’s foreskin really wanted to ask about Muslim identity; his own grandson, the questioner explained, had recently been circumcised. Why should young children undergo this trauma? Of course, we might want to ask why anyone would consider writers a source of great wisdom on such worldly matters: what exactly makes someone who does nothing but spend a lot of time alone in front of their computer uniquely qualified to answer questions about violent conflicts, or stubborn social customs, or world historical changes?
February 25, 2012
What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?
Diane Ravitsch in the New York Review of Books:
In Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?, Pasi Sahlberg explains how his nation’s schools became successful. A government official, researcher, and former mathematics and science teacher, Sahlberg attributes the improvement of Finnish schools to bold decisions made in the 1960s and 1970s. Finland’s story is important, he writes, because “it gives hope to those who are losing their faith in public education.”
Detractors say that Finland performs well academically because it is ethnically homogeneous, but Sahlberg responds that “the same holds true for Japan, Shanghai or Korea,” which are admired by corporate reformers for their emphasis on testing. To detractors who say that Finland, with its population of 5.5 million people, is too small to serve as a model, Sahlberg responds that “about 30 states of the United States have a population close to or less than Finland.”
Sahlberg speaks directly to the sense of crisis about educational achievement in the United States and many other nations. US policymakers have turned to market-based solutions such as “tougher competition, more data, abolishing teacher unions, opening more charter schools, or employing corporate-world management models.” By contrast, Finland has spent the past forty years developing a different education system, one that is focused on
improving the teaching force, limiting student testing to a necessary minimum, placing responsibility and trust before accountability, and handing over school- and district-level leadership to education professionals.
To an American observer, the most remarkable fact about Finnish education is that students do not take any standardized tests until the end of high school.
Paula Findlen in The Nation:
A right thumb, a finger, a tooth. These were the contents of a reliquary acquired several years ago by a collector at an auction in Florence. Little did he know that for centuries the remains had been objects of profane devotion. Last seen in 1905, they had been sliced from the corpse of Galileo, along with another finger and a vertebra, during his highly publicized reburial in the Basilica of Santa Croce in 1737 almost 100 years after his death, and preserved in a slender case fashioned of glass and wood and crowned with a carved bust of the scientist. The reliquary’s new owner consulted Galileo experts about his find, and after the authenticity of its contents had been verified he donated it to the Museo Galileo, which is tucked behind the Uffizi in a quiet piazza overlooking the River Arno. (A dentist asked by the museum to examine the tooth concluded that Galileo suffered from gastric acid reflux and ground his teeth in his sleep.) The rediscovered reliquary is displayed adjacent to a smaller one containing Galileo’s other finger, a prized museum possession since 1927. Nearby are several artifacts of Galileo’s scientific genius: a telescope presented to the Medici and the broken objective lens of the original device with which Galileo sighted Jupiter’s four satellites in 1610.
I shit on furniture. I hate houses
"I can't give up either humanity or freedom," Joseph Roth announced in a 1935 letter to fellow Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig. Freedom was the right to fit all his possessions into two suitcases and to live in hotels; to move in a single year from Austria to Germany to France to Russia; to have no address and no bank account. He was married, to a woman committed to a mental asylum, and he had a long-term mistress. But he avoided "cooking smells and 'family life'". "I shit on furniture. I hate houses." He nevertheless felt a duty to support these women, along with their parents and children. Roth was often penniless but he still shared what money he had with eight others. On a wider scale, freedom was the license to spurn friends or nations lacking in humanity. Roth was living in Germany in 1933, but the day that Hitler became chancellor he left and never returned. "What divides me from everyone, without a single exception, who is active in Germany," he told the more accommodating Zweig, "is precisely what divides a human from an animal".more from Lara Feigel at The Guardian here.
What makes a book a gay book, or a writer a gay writer? Walt Whitman, for all his sizzling erotic verses about men, insisted to the end that he was interested only in women. Gore Vidal, who has made no secret of his attraction to men, writes sparingly about gay characters and has asserted that there is no such thing as a homosexual, only homosexual acts. James Baldwin’s novels typically repose on bookstores’ African-American shelves, rather than their gay and lesbian sections — even “Giovanni’s Room,” which centers on a relationship between two white men. Christopher Bram, who calls himself a gay novelist (his “Father of Frankenstein” was the basis of the movie “Gods and Monsters”), assumes the task of herding the gay American male writers who emerged after World War II into a coherent history, beginning with the coded innuendo of Tennessee Williams’s “Glass Menagerie” in 1944 and peaking with Tony Kushner’s luminescent “Angels in America” in 1991. In between, Bram writes, a growing stream of gay-themed novels, plays and poems, some bolder than others, prefigured or hastened sweeping changes in the culture at large. “The gay revolution,” he writes, “began as a literary revolution.”more from John Leland at the NY Times here.
When Justice Marshall decided to retire, a decidedly more conservative political atmosphere dominated national politics. Republican President George Bush was in the White House following the eight-year administration of President Ronald Reagan. President Bush saw Justice Marshall's retirement as an opportunity to appoint a more conservative judge to the Supreme Court. His choice was Clarence Thomas, a forty-three year old, conservative, African-American from Pinpoint, Georgia. Thomas would maintain the racial makeup of the Court, yet would add another conservative voice on decisions involving Affirmative Action and abortion. President Bush's nomination of Clarence Thomas was instantly controversial. Many African-American and Civil Rights organizations including: the NAACP, the National Bar Association, and the Urban League, opposed the Thomas nomination. These organizations feared that Thomas's conservative stance on issues such as Affirmative Action would reverse the Civil Rights gains that Justice Marshall had fought so hard to achieve. Women's groups including the National Organization for Women were equally concerned that Clarence Thomas, if appointed to the high court, would rule against legal abortion. The legal community also voiced apprehension about Thomas's clear lack of experience since he had only served two years as a federal judge. Despite these voices of dissent, the Thomas nomination proceeded to the Senate Judiciary Committee's confirmation hearings. The first few days of the hearings were relatively uneventful. When asked about his stance on legal abortion, Thomas claimed that he had not formulated an opinion and the issue was dropped. After a few more days of outside testimony, it appeared as if the Senate committee would easily confirm the Thomas nomination. The committee split its vote, however--seven to seven, and the nomination went to the Senate without a clear recommendation.
When the nomination moved to the floor of the Senate, it took a sudden and dramatic turn when Anita Hill, a law professor at the University of Oklahoma, came forward with accusations that Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her. Hill had worked for Thomas years earlier when he was head of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. Hill charged that Thomas harassed her with inappropriate discussion of sexual acts and pornographic films after she rebuffed his invitations to date him. A media frenzy quickly arose around Hill's allegations and Thomas's denials. When Thomas testified about Hill's claims before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he called the hearings, "a high-tech lynching for uppity Blacks." The incident became one person's word against another's. In the end, the Senate voted 52-48 to confirm Clarence Thomas as associate justice of the Supreme Court. To the many people who believed Anita Hill's claims or opposed the Thomas nomination on other grounds, Thomas's appointment was a defeat. Yet, the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas controversy had other long-term consequences beyond Justice Thomas's life-term on the Supreme Court. Foremost, national awareness about sexual harassment in the workplace heightened considerably. According to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filings, sexual harassment cases have more than doubled, from 6,127 in 1991 to 15,342 in 1996. Over the same period, awards to victims under federal laws nearly quadrupled, from $7.7 million to $27.8 million. Another repercussion of the Hill-Thomas controversy was the increased involvement of women in politics. The media heralded the 1992 election year as the "Year of the Woman" when a record number of women ran for public office and won. In the U.S. Senate, eleven women ran and five won seats--including one incumbent candidate. In the House of Representatives, twenty-four women won new seats. Many commentators saw this increase as a direct reaction to the Thomas nomination. His appointment dismayed many women, who felt that Anita Hill's allegations were not taken seriously by a Senate that was 98% male.
In the end, the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas controversy acted as a flash point that illuminated many of the central tensions of life in late twentieth-century America.
More here. (Note: In honor of African American History Month, we will be linking to at least one related post throughout February. The 2012 theme is Black Women in American Culture and History).
In the Details
Jennifer McDonald in The New York Times:
This book review would be so much easier to write were we to play by John D’Agata’s rules. So let’s try it. (1) This is not a book review; it’s an essay. (2) I’m not a critic; I’m an artist. (3) Nothing I say can be used against me by the subjects of this essay, nor may anyone hold me to account re facts, truth or any contract I have supposedly entered into with you, the reader. There are to be no objections. There are to be no letters of complaint. For you are about to have — are you ready? — a “genuine experience with art.”
This is so liberating!
Under consideration in this essay is “The Lifespan of a Fact,” which is less a book than a knock-down, drag-out fight between two tenacious combatants, over questions of truth, belief, history, myth, memory and forgetting. In one corner is Jim Fingal, who as an intern for the literary magazine The Believer in 2005 (or it might have been 2003 — sources disagree) signed on for what he must have thought would be a straightforward task: fact-checking a 15-page article. In the other corner is D’Agata, who thought he had made a deal with The Believer to publish not just an article but a work of Art — an essay already rejected by Harper’s Magazine because of “factual inaccuracies” — that would find its way to print unmolested by any challenge to its veracity. “Lifespan” is the scorecard from their bout, a reproduction of their correspondence over the course of five (or was it seven?) years of fact-checking.
The Multiverse as a Block of Swiss Cheese, Strings and Things, Branes and the Brain
Not so Selfish
Peter Richerson reviews Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis's A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and its Evolution, in Nature:
Humans are capable of remarkable feats of cooperation. Warfare is an extreme example: when under attack, hundreds or even millions of people might join forces to provide a mutual defence. In A Cooperative Species, economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis update their ideas on the evolutionary origins of altruism. Containing new data and analysis, their book is a sustained and detailed argument for how genes and culture have together shaped our ability to cooperate.
Modern hunting and gathering societies offer clues as to how human cooperation evolved. They are typically organized into tribes of a few hundred to a few thousand people. Each tribe is composed of smaller bands of around 75 individuals united by bonds of kinship and friendship. Formalized leadership is often weak, but cooperation is buttressed by social norms and institutions, such as marriage, kinship and property rights. The tribal scale of social organization probably evolved by the late Pleistocene (126,000–11,700 years ago), or perhaps much earlier.
Human societies are diverse and competitive, often violently so. Charles Darwin conjectured in The Descent of Man (John Murray, 1871) that the main evolutionary motor behind human cooperation was intertribal competition, and suggested that cooperation evolved in two stages. In ‘primeval’ times, well before the dawn of recorded history, our ancestors came under selection for cooperative instincts, such as sympathy and group loyalty. In more recent ‘civilized’ times, laws and customs have fostered cooperation on ever larger scales. Darwin contended that the primeval social emotions, more than natural selection, drove the evolution of civilization.
Michael Price takes more critical look in Evolutionary Psychology.
Prions and Chaperones: Outside the Fold
Bijal P. Trivedi in Nature News:
On a frigid winter's morning in 1992, Susan Lindquist, then a biologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois, trudged through the snow to the campus's intellectual-property office to share an unconventional idea for a cancer drug. A protein that she had been working on, Hsp90, guides misfolded proteins into their proper conformation. But it also applies its talents to misfolded mutant proteins in tumour cells, activating them and helping cancer to advance. Lindquist suspected that blocking Hsp90 would thwart the disease. The intellectual-property project manager she met with disagreed, calling Lindquist's idea “ridiculous” because it stemmed from experiments in yeast. His “sneering tone”, she says, left an indelible mark. “It was actually one of the most insulting conversations I've had in my professional life.” It led her to abandon her cancer research on Hsp90 for a decade. Today, more than a dozen drug companies are developing inhibitors of the protein as cancer treatments.
Lindquist seems able to shrug off such injustices, now. Her work over the past 20 years has consistently challenged standard thinking on evolution, inheritance and the humble yeast. She has helped to show how misfolded infectious proteins called prions can override the rules of inheritance in yeast, and how this can be used to model human disease. She has also proposed a mechanism by which organisms can unleash hidden variation and evolve by leaps and bounds. She was the first female director of the prestigious Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and has received more than a dozen awards and honours in the past five years. In a paper being published this week in Nature, she and her colleagues show that in wild yeast, prions provide tangible advantages, such as survival in harsh conditions and drug resistance.
Vladimir Nabokov and Lionel Trilling Discuss Lolita
[H/t: Tom Jacobs]
February 24, 2012
The end of the for-profit prison era?
A nationwide campaign to stem investments in private corrections companies is gathering steam.
Hannah Rappleye in Salon:
Early this year, the United Methodist Church Board of Pension and Health Benefits voted to withdraw nearly $1 million in stocks from two private prison companies, the GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).
The decision by the largest faith-based pension fund in the United States came in response to concerns expressed last May by the church’s immigration task force and a group of national activists.
“Our board simply felt that it did not want to profit from the business of incarcerating others,” said Colette Nies, managing director of communications for the board.
“Our concern was not with how the companies manage or operate their business, but with the service that the companies offer,” Nies added. “We believe that profiting from incarceration is contrary to church values.”
It was an important success for a slew of activists across the country who are pushing investors and institutions to divest from the private prison industry.
Mind-bending consequences of quantum mechanics?
Sean Carroll in Cosmic Variance:
They do things differently over in Britain. For one thing, their idea of a fun and entertaining night out includes going to listen to a lecture/demonstration on quantum mechanics and the laws of physics. Of course, it helps when the lecture is given by someone as charismatic as Brian Cox, and the front row seats are filled with celebrities. (And yes I know, there are people here in the US who would find that entertaining as well — I’m one of them.) In particular, this snippet about harmonics and QM has gotten a lot of well-deserved play on the intertubes.
More recently, though, another excerpt from this lecture has been passed around, this one about ramifications of the Pauli Exclusion Principle. (Headline at io9: “Brian Cox explains the interconnectedness of the universe, explodes your brain.”)
The problem is that, in this video, the proffered mind-bending consequences of quantum mechanics aren’t actually correct. Some people pointed this out, including Tom Swanson in a somewhat intemperately-worded blog post, to which I pointed in a tweet. Which led to some tiresome sniping on Twitter, which you can dig up if you’re really fascinated. Much more interesting to me is getting the physics right.
One thing should be clear: getting the physics right isn’t easy. For one thing, going from simple quantum problems of a single particle in a textbook to the messy real world is often a complicated and confusing process. For another, the measurement process in quantum mechanics is famously confusing and not completely settled, even among professional physicists.
And finally, when one translates from the relative clarity of the equations to a natural-language description in order to reach a broad audience, it’s always possible to quibble about the best way to translate. It’s completely unfair in these situations to declare a certain popular exposition “wrong” just because it isn’t the way you would have done it, or even because it assumes certain technical details that the presenter did not fully footnote. It’s a popular lecture, not a scholarly tome. In this kind of format, there are two relevant questions: (1) is there an interpretation of what’s being said that matches the informal description onto a correct formal statement within the mathematical formulation of the theory?; and (2) has the formalism been translated in such a way that a non-expert listener will come away with an understanding that is reasonably close to reality? We should be charitable interpreters, in other words.
Bessie Coleman 1892-1926
From Centennial of Flight:
Bessie Coleman, the daughter of a poor, southern, African American family, became one of the most famous women and African Americans in aviation history. "Brave Bessie" or "Queen Bess," as she became known, faced the double difficulties of racial and gender discrimination in early 20th-century America but overcame such challenges to become the first African American woman to earn a pilot's license. Coleman not only thrilled audiences with her skills as a barnstormer, but she also became a role model for women and African Americans. Her very presence in the air threatened prevailing contemporary stereotypes. She also fought segregation when she could by using her influence as a celebrity to effect change, no matter how small.
Coleman was born on January 26, 1892, in Atlanta, Texas, to a large African American family (although some histories incorrectly report 1893 or 1896). She was one of 13 children. Her father was a Native American and her mother an African American. Very early in her childhood, Bessie and her family moved to Waxahachie, Texas, where she grew up picking cotton and doing laundry for customers with her mother. The Coleman family, like most African Americans who lived in the Deep South during the early 20th century, faced many disadvantages and difficulties. Bessie's family dealt with segregation, disenfranchisement, and racial violence. Because of such obstacles, Bessie's father decided to move the family to "Indian Territory" in Oklahoma. He believed they could carve out a much better living for themselves there. Bessie's mother, however, did not want to live on an Indian reservation and decided to remain in Waxahachie. Bessie, and several of her sisters, also stayed in Texas. Bessie was a highly motivated individual. Despite working long hours, she still found time to educate herself by borrowing books from a traveling library. Although she could not attend school very often, Bessie learned enough on her own to graduate from high school. She then went on to study at the Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now Langston University) in Langston, Oklahoma. Nevertheless, because of limited finances, Bessie only attended one semester of college.
More here. (Note: In honor of African American History Month, we will be linking to at least one related post throughout February. The 2012 theme is Black Women in American Culture and History).
The Secret Life of Bees
Carl Zimmer in Smithsonian:
“Bees are to hives as neurons are to brains,” says Jeffrey Schall, a neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University. Neurons use some of the same tricks honeybees use to come to decisions. A single visual neuron is like a single scout. It reports about a tiny patch of what we see, just as a scout dances for a single site. Different neurons may give us conflicting ideas about what we’re actually seeing, but we have to quickly choose between the alternatives. That red blob seen from the corner of your eye may be a stop sign, or it may be a car barreling down the street. To make the right choice, our neurons hold a competition, and different coalitions recruit more neurons to their interpretation of reality, much as scouts recruit more bees.
Our brains need a way to avoid stalemates. Like the decaying dances of honeybees, a coalition starts to get weaker if it doesn’t get a continual supply of signals from the eyes. As a result, it doesn’t get locked early into the wrong choice. Just as honeybees use a quorum, our brain waits until one coalition hits a threshold and then makes a decision. Seeley thinks that this convergence between bees and brains can teach people a lot about how to make decisions in groups. “Living in groups, there’s a wisdom to finding a way for members to make better decisions collectively than as individuals,” he said.
Women and Islam: A Debate with Human Rights Watch
Over at the NYRB blog, there is an open letter to Ken Roth and Human Rights Watch from a number of prominent feminists and women's rights organizations, and a response. From the letter:
Like you, we support calls to dismantle the security state and to promote the rule of law. But we do not see that one set of autocratic structures should be replaced by another which claims divine sanction. And while the overthrow of repressive governments was a victory and free elections are, in principle, a step towards democracy, shouldn’t the leader of a prominent human rights organization be supporting popular calls to prevent backlash and safeguard fundamental rights? In other words, rather than advocating strategic support for parties who may use elections to halt the call for continuing change and attack basic rights, shouldn’t you support the voices for both liberty and equality that are arguing that the revolutions must continue?
Throughout your essay, you focus only on the traditional political aspects of the human rights agenda. You say, for instance, that “the Arab upheavals were inspired by a vision of freedom, a desire for a voice in one’s destiny, and a quest for governments that are accountable to the public rather than captured by a ruling elite.” While this is true as far as it goes, it completely leaves out the role that economic and social demands played in the uprisings. You seem able to hear only the voices of the right wing—the Islamist politicians—and not the voices of the people who initiated and sustained these revolutions: the unemployed and the poor of Tunisia, seeking ways to survive; the thousands of Egyptian women who mobilized against the security forces who tore off their clothes and subjected them to the sexual assaults known as “virginity tests.”
From the response:
Western governments should reject this inconsistent and unprincipled approach to democracy. Human Rights Watch called on Western governments to come to terms with the rise of Islamic political parties and press them to respect rights. As rights activists, we are acutely aware of the possible tension between the right to choose one’s leaders and the rights of potentially disfavored groups such as women, gays and lesbians, and religious minorities. Anyone familiar with the history of Iran or Afghanistan knows the serious risks involved. However, in the two Arab Spring nations that have had free and fair elections so far, a solid majority voted for socially conservative political parties in Egypt, and a solid plurality did so in Tunisia. The sole democratic option is to accept the results of those elections and to press the governments that emerge to respect the rights of all rather than to ostracize these governments from the outset.
Aleksandar Hemon in Guernica:
There was no Santa Claus in the Sarajevo and Bosnia and Herzegovina of my childhood. The white-bearded fat man who assessed the worth of children’s obedience and brought them presents was called Deda Mraz—Grandpa Frost. Having dispatched his proxies to schools and kindergartens in the preceding weeks, he showed up at your home in person (though always unseen) on New Year’s Eve, at midnight or so, just for you. He was non-denominational and non-ideological and delivered presents to all obedient children regardless of their ethnicity or political convictions. The old man was a civic, communal character, someone everyone waited for and was happy to see. He was welcome before the war, even during the war, but, it turns out, not so much after the war.
In December 2008, for instance, Deda Mraz received a punch in his fat gut from Arzija Mahmutović, who at the time was the director of the Children of Sarajevo, the public institution that operates twenty-four kindergartens in the city. Ms. Mahmutović refused to admit Deda Mraz to any of the kindergartens, because she believed (though she backpedaled some after the local and international outcry) that he had no place in Islamic tradition. She had no problem with parents allowing Deda Mraz to deliver presents to the children at some other place, beyond her righteous reach.
Thus was Deda Mraz cast into the pit of Bosnian politics, undergoing public humiliation that has become a kind of seasonal tradition after the war. Soon after the end of the war, for instance, Bosnian then-president Alija Izetbegović denounced the old man as a Communist fabrication. It must have been the blood-red suit that gave it away.