Monday, March 10, 2014
Strained Analogies Between Recently Released Films and Current Events: Non-stop, the Ben Bernanke Biopic
by Matt McKenna
Over the past year, theatres have been inundated with terrific biopics: Leonardo DiCaprio won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street, Matthew McConaughey won an Oscar for his rendition of Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club, and 12 Years a Slave won best picture for its depiction of the life of Solomon Northrup. Less talked about, but even more interesting than the aforementioned films is Non-stop, the recently released Ben Bernanke biopic starring Liam Neeson. Granted, the film isn't a straight retelling of the economist's life--at no point does Neeson's character open up an Excel document and ponder interest rates. Instead, Neeson's character spends most of his time texting terrorists and punching people in the nose, things for which Bernanke isn't particularly well known. Don't be fooled by these surface differences, however. Director Jaume Collet-Serra realized that, in order to adequately tell the story of Ben Bernanke's life as the chairman of the Federal Reserve, he would have to do it through the lens of a suspense-thriller set on a transatlantic flight.
Non-stop is a fantastic example of a high-concept film: an international flight is hijacked, and the accused hijacker happens to be Bill Marks, the American air marshal assigned to protect the plane. Because the movie is more of a mystery film than an action film, the overarching tension isn't so much about the safety of the passengers on board. Rather, audiences are expected to wonder whether or not Marks, played by Liam Neeson, is actually hijacking the plane or if he is, in fact, attempting to save it from being hijacked. The is-he-a-good-guy-or-is-he-a-bad-guy question that pervades Non-stop mirrors the questions surrounding Ben Bernanke and his tenure as chairman of the Federal Reserve. In a sense, Bernanke was the air marshal assigned to protect the United States economy. And indeed, the policies Bernanke enacted while the economy was "hijacked" by the Great Recession have engendered voluminous commentary on the subject of whether or not he did a good job or a bad job at improving the country's economic outlook.
by Tara* Kaushal
Some thoughts on diet and exercise, food and drink, and health. Conceptual image by Sahil Mane Photography.
I've been on one diet or the other since I was in my teens. Most have been the very definition of crash (cigarettes and Diet Coke for a week, anyone?) and, later, I've tried more wholesome, longer-term lifestyle ones (that I would soon abandon and revert to my yoyo crash-trash diet cycle). First, it was only for aesthetic reasons, to lose weight; the lifestyle diets, Eat More Weigh Less and the like, started when I started to encompass health and fitness as a goal for my body (duh)!
Diet vs. Exercise: A Gendered Choice?
While all of us recognise that the key to a healthy body is a combination of good-for-you food and exercise (and not smoking, limited drinking, etc, and the absence of genetic and birth defects) most people fall in to one or the other category—some preferring exercise, unable to control their need to eat, drink and be merry; others preferring to diet or at least practice diet control, unable or unwilling to exercise. There are the some that do both, as we all should, and those, of course, that do neither.
I've realised that the choice, whether to diet or exercise, both or neither, is quite personality driven. Dieting is passive, to not eat; exercise is active, to get off your butt… And, in light of this fact, I hate to admit that my observation, that more women choose to diet, more men choose to exercise, falls in to gender stereotypes. Though there are exceptions all around, and my casual survey, of friends and boyfriends, and numbers from my local gym, has a small sample size, one could analyse my observation to bits. Is it because women are more driven by aesthetics, we are judged on them from an early age; and power, muscle, sports are traditionally male? Then there are the questions of time, priorities and lifestyle factors, and socioeconomic and cultural positioning. (More about the question of genderism in sports.) Also, men or women, individuals negotiate a complex social, familial, ethical, religious, consumerist, emotional, psychological and gendered relationship with food and drink.
by Josh Yarden
The white pigeon
waiting perhaps worrying
perched high up on a shadowy ledge
does not know that wall
once supported an ancient shrine venerated and contested
does not know it is a symbol of peace
among the humans
seeking respite from the sun
in a safe, defensible position
We are no different
fashioning safe dwellings for our offspring
negotiating a delicate balance in a precarious place
confering our fears, hopes and dreams
upon unknowing creatures
by Leanne Ogasawara
It is my second favorite essay of all time: C.S Lewis' Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages. First delivered as a lecture in 1956, the piece was later published posthumuously in this collection of his essays in 1966. Unlike in my #1 favorite essay, William Golding's magnificent Hot Gates, CS Lewis does not seek to form arguments or to persuade. What he does instead is to transport the reader back in time, illuminating the medieval world-view using nothing more than words alone.
He begins his essay urging the reader to perform an experiment. He says,
Go out on any starry night and walk alone for half an hour, resolutely assuming that pre-Copernican astronomy is true.
Look up at the sky with that assumption in mind. The real difference between living in that universe and living in ours will, I predict, begin to dawn on you.
Intrigued, I decided to take him up on his suggestion. It so happened that my beloved and I had found ourselves up on the summit of Mauna Kea, on the Big Island. Home to the world's greatest collection of large telescopes, the skies up there are dark and famously clear.
As a girl, I had wanted to become a cosmologist. It was my first great passion. And, in addition to reading astronomy books voraciously, I spent many nights using my amateur telescope to look up at the stars from my parent's house in Los Angeles. Growing up, I drifted away from cosmology, turning naturally toward philosophy. Still, I always loved the stars--for as Van Gogh said, they make me dream. Returning home to Los Angeles about twenty five years after leaving it, I have been dismayed by their disappearance. What happened to all those myriad of stars of my childhood? Indeed, I cannot recall the last time I saw the Milky Way--had never seen it in Japan and was sad to see it was simply invisible from LA now. It is dis-heartening, really, since the splendid vision of the stars at night is something that we used to just take for granted.
by Grace Boey
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading - treating - till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through -
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum -
Kept beating - beating - till I thought
My mind was going numb -
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space - began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here -
And then a Plank in Reason broke,
And I dropped down, and down -
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing - then -
* * *
In the poem, I felt a Funeral, in my Brain, Emily Dickinson watches a part of herself die as she sinks into insanity. The fragmentation and loss of the Self that Dickinson describes is a common theme amongst victims of mental illness. By their very nature, conditions like schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder have profound impact on one's personality, behaviour and beliefs. Mental illness can rear its head and usurp one's identity at any time; what happens next can be confusing and frightening, for victims as well as their loved ones.
by Bill Benzon
My earliest memory is of a song about a fly that married a bumblebee. I've been told–I don't really remember this–that early one morning I played that record so often that it drove a visiting uncle to distraction.
I don't know how many people count music as their earliest memory, but I surely can't be unique in that. For music is a basic and compelling form of human experience. Martin Luther believed that "next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts, and spirits." And so it does.
Which perhaps is why we are so ambivalent about it. If it can control us, then it is dangerous. Why else would repressive regimes have worked so hard to suppress jazz and rock and roll? Why would the Taliban attempt to suppress all music?
But let us set the danger aside. It is the power that interests me.
Some years ago Roy Eldridge, the jazz great trumpeter, told Whitney Balliett (American Musicians: 56 Portraits in Jazz) about playing with Gene Krupa:
When ... we started to play, I'd fall to pieces. The first three or four bars of my first solo, I'd shake like a leaf, and you could hear it. Then this light would surround me, and it would seem as if there wasn't any band there, and I'd go right through and be all right. It was something I never understood.
What's going on? I suppose we could say it had something to do with the brain and nervous system, but what?
In a similar vein Vladimir Horowitz, the classical pianist, told Helen Epstein (Music Talks: Conversations with Musicians): "The moment that I feel that cutaway–the moment I am in uniform–it's like a horse before the races. You start to perspire. You feel already in you some electricity to do something." Again, the nervous system, getting him primed, for what?
"When I'm right and the band is right and the music is right," [Sonny] Rollins said, "I feel myself getting closer to the place where the sound is less polished and more aboriginal. That's what I'm striving for. The trumpeter Roy Eldridge once told a guy he could only reach a divine state in performance four or five times a year. That sounds about right for me."
A divine state? What's that – perhaps it's another one of those things that the nervous system rigs up, no? Perhaps. We might also wonder whether or not it's the same thing that Martin Luther had in mind when he talked of music as "the greatest treasure in the world." And yet they lived in such different worlds, after all: Martin Luther, Sonny Rollins, Roy Eldridge, and Vladimir Horowitz.
Sunday, March 09, 2014
A nice empirical study of vaccine risk communication--and an unfortunate, empirically uninformed reaction to it
Dan Kahan at the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School:
Pediatrics published (in “advance on-line” form)an important study yesterday on the effect of childhood-vaccine risk communication.
The study was conducted by a team of researchers including Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reiﬂer, both of whom have done excellent studies on public-health risk communication in the past.
NR et al. conducted an experiment in which they showed a large sample of U.S. parents with children age 17 or under communications on the risks and benefits of childhood vaccinations.
Exposure to the communications, they report, produced one or another perverse effect, including greater concern over vaccine risks and, among a segment of respondents with negative attitudes toward vaccines, a lower self-reported intent to vaccinate any “future child” for MMR (mumps, measles, rubella).
The media/internet reacted with considerable alarm: “Parents Less Likely to Vaccinate Kids After Hearing Government’s Safety Assurance”; “Trying To Convince Parents To Vaccinate Their Kids Just Makes The Problem Worse”; “Pro-vaccination efforts, debunking autism myths may be scaring wary parents from shots”. Etc.
Actually, I think this a serious misinterpretation of NR et al.
From The Telegraph:
'I never forget a face, but in your case I’d be glad to make an exception.'
Les Dawson (1931-1993):
'My wife sent her photograph to the Lonely Hearts Club. They sent it back saying they weren't that lonely.'
Bob Newhart ( September 5, 1929-):
'I don't like country music, but I don't mean to denigrate those who do. And for the people who like country music, denigrate means 'put down'.
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900):
'The English country gentleman galloping after a fox is the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable.'
Dorothy Parker (1893-1967):
'If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.'
W.C Fields (1880-1946):
'Start every day off with a smile and get it over with.'
The Distracted Public: Saul Bellow on How Writers and Artists Save Us from the “Moronic Inferno” of Our Time
Maria Popova in Brain Pickings:
“The writer cannot make the seas of distraction stand still, but he [or she] can at times come between the madly distracted and the distractions.”
In 1990, fourteen years after he received the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Pulitzer Prize, and two years after being awarded the National Medal of Arts, Saul Bellow delivered a lecture at Oxford University titled “The Distracted Public.” Eventually included in It All Adds Up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future(public library), Bellow’s talk laments the “moronic inferno” — a phrase he borrowed from Wyndham Lewis — produced by the “contemporary crisis” of distraction, “the apocalypse of our times,” calling on artists and writers to raise their voices in countering that “massive and worldwide” “hostile condition” of humanity.
Bellow begins by considering the role of the artist — the writer — in society, and in societies of various regimes:
The writer cannot make the seas of distraction stand still, but he [or she] can at times come between the madly distracted and the distractions. He [or she] does this by opening another world. “Another world,” I am fully aware, carries suggestions of never-never land, and people will be asking themselves how seriously any man can be taken who still believes that the moronic inferno can be put behind us, bypassed or quarantined by art. It isn’t as though the champions of art had won any great victories. Madame Bovary dies of arsenic, and Flaubert the artist-chronicler is dangerously wounded too. Tales of love and death can be mortal to the teller. Yet for many people … the abandonment of art cannot happen. Dictatorships did not succeed in frightening artists to death, nor has democracy done them in altogether, although some observers consider democracy to be by far the greater threat. In the West, Stalinism is sometimes seen as a political disaster but, to artists, a blessing in disguise. It kept them serious. They died, leaving us great works. With us, the arts sink into the great, soft, permissive bosom of basically indifferent and deadly free societies…
Simon Kuper in the FT:
In two recent columns I explained how to save France and the UK. Now that’s done, it’s time to save America. The solution is obvious. The US needs to model itself on its most sanctified institution: the military. I speak from experience. In 2007 and 2008 I spent time on a US military base in a southern state, giving seminars to officers. Being a typical pinko anti-war European, I’d expected to hate the place. Instead I found it idyllic, intellectual and safe. Pottering about the base, I saw several things that the US could learn from its military:
1. Build socialism. Life in the US military is much like life in Sweden (unless you’re off in Afghanistan spreading democracy). The officers in my seminars spent a quarter of their careers in education, because the US military believes in life-long learning. The military also provides socialised healthcare, subsidised childcare, early pensions etc. I’ve never seen a socialist paradise like it, and I grew up in the Netherlands in the 1970s. Most of the military’s entitlements will survive the budget cuts now being proposed by Chuck Hagel, the defence secretary.
2. Ban guns. I was surrounded by fearsome warriors yet I felt perfectly safe, partly because hardly anyone is allowed to carry guns on US military bases. The “right to bear arms” just doesn’t apply there.
3. Believe in science. Any institution that spends its time firing drones from Nevada at pedestrians in Yemen is going to be pro-science. The Pentagon frets about climate change, and the army aims to be “net zero energy” by 2030. The superhero-like Navy Seals are already fuelled partly by solar power.
Pagan Kennedy in The NYT:
IF you walk into a farm-supply store today, you’re likely to find a bag of antibiotic powder that claims to boost the growth of poultry and livestock. That’s because decades of agricultural research has shown that antibiotics seem to flip a switch in young animals’ bodies, helping them pack on pounds. Manufacturers brag about the miraculous effects of feeding antibiotics to chicks and nursing calves. Dusty agricultural journals attest to the ways in which the drugs can act like a kind of superfood to produce cheap meat.
But what if that meat is us? Recently, a group of medical investigators have begun to wonder whether antibiotics might cause the same growth promotion in humans. New evidence shows that America’s obesity epidemic may be connected to our high consumption of these drugs. But before we get to those findings, it’s helpful to start at the beginning, in 1948, when the wonder drugs were new — and big was beautiful.
That year, a biochemist named Thomas H. Jukes marveled at a pinch of golden powder in a vial. It was a new antibiotic named Aureomycin, and Mr. Jukes and his colleagues at Lederle Laboratories suspected that it would become a blockbuster, lifesaving drug. But they hoped to find other ways to profit from the powder as well. At the time, Lederle scientists had been searching for a food additive for farm animals, and Mr. Jukes believed that Aureomycin could be it. After raising chicks on Aureomycin-laced food and on ordinary mash, he found that the antibiotics did boost the chicks’ growth; some of them grew to weigh twice as much as the ones in the control group.
Mutations in a gene associated with leukaemia cause a newly described condition that affects growth and intellectual development in children, new research reports. A study led by scientists at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, identified mutations in the DNA methyltransferase gene, DNMT3A, in 13 children. All the children were taller than usual for their age, shared similar facial features and had intellectual disabilities. The mutations were not present in their parents, nor in 1,000 controls from the UK population.
The new condition has been called 'DNMT3A overgrowth syndrome'. The research is published today (Sunday) in the journal Nature Genetics and is a part of the Childhood Overgrowth Study, which is funded by the Wellcome Trust, and aims to identify causes of developmental disorders that include increased growth in childhood. The DNMT3A gene is crucial for development because it adds the 'methylation' marks to DNA that determine where and when genes are active. Intriguingly, DNMT3A mutations are already known to occur in certain types of leukaemia. The mutations that occur in leukaemia are different from those in DNMT3A overgrowth syndrome and there is no evidence that children with DNMT3A mutations are at increased risk of cancer.
The Iron Bridge
I am standing on a disused iron bridge
that was erected in 1902
according to the iron plaque bolted to a beam,
the year my mother turned one.
Imagine—a mother in her infancy,
and she was a Canadian infant at that,
one of the great infants of the province of Ontario.
But here I am leaning on the rusted railing
looking at the water below,
which is flat and reflective this morning,
sky-blue and streaked with high clouds,
and the more I look at the water,
which is like a talking picture,
the more I think of 1902
when workmen in shirts and caps
riveted this iron bridge together
across a thin channel joining two lakes
where wildflowers now blow along the shore
and pairs of swans float in the leafy coves.
1902—my mother was so tiny
she could have fit into one of those oval
baskets for holding apples,
which her mother could have lined with a soft cloth
and placed on the kitchen table
so she could keep an eye on infant Katherine
while she scrubbed potatoes or shelled a bag of peas,
the way I am keeping an eye on that cormorant
who just broke the glassy surface
and is moving away from me and the bridge,
swiveling his curious head,
slipping out to where the sun rakes the water
and filters through the trees that crowd the shore..
And now he dives,
disappears below the surface,
and while I wait for him to pop up,
I picture him flying underwater with his strange wings,
as I picture you, my tiny mother,
who disappeared last year,
flying somewhere with your strange wings,
your wide eyes, and your heavy wet dress,
kicking deeper down into the lake
with no end or name, some boundless province of water.
by Billy Collins
from Sailing Alone Around the Room
Random House 2002
Saturday, March 08, 2014
In some ways, Stanley Crouch is the perfect candidate to write Bird’s biography. He’s been one of the boys on the beat of American culture for quite some time, with a Macarthur grant, several provocative essay collections, and a fine novel to his credit. Even better, Crouch has been one of the precious few public intellectuals to valorize jazz and insist and demonstrate how jazz can be seen as not only one of the pure products of America gone crazy but also its historic pulse, its backbeat, a trope that swings. One of the themes Crouch emphasizes is reflected in a quote from the Austrian novelist Hermann Broch: “the civilization of an epoch is its myth in action.” This insight is useful not only in giving a background for Parker’s eventual triumph and decline but also in showing how his music promised a certain kind of freedom one might have felt at a certain time and place, if you were willing to let it take you over. It’s the kind of democratic promise implicit in what they used to call American classical music, with collective improvisation and individual expression put in constant interplay, an offspring of the blues that reckoned with classical structures, music made for and by people who, with some notable exceptions, never found satisfaction anywhere else.
It’s for the best that Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker is the first volume of two. Some reviewers have complained about the novelistic, occasionally montage-like approach Crouch takes in telling the story of Parker‘s youth and adolescence. It’s been suggested that Crouch is padding his material or being self-indulgent. I see the point, but I would argue that this stylistic choice isn’t even Crouch’s fault.
In the winter of 1933, an 18-year-old named Patrick Leigh Fermor set out from the Hook of Holland to cross Europe on foot. His goal was Istanbul, which he bookishly insisted on calling Constantinople. He had little more in his rucksack than a volume of Horace and a few blank notebooks. He also had a bad reputation: The masters who expelled him from school — for a flirtation with a local girl — saw only “a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness.” He spent the next year charming his way through a doomed prewar landscape of landed aristocrats, feudal peasants and benevolent monks, sleeping alternately in schlosses and hayricks. It was a journey that would become legendary, not so much for the extraordinary things he saw and recorded as for his prose — an utterly unique, hybrid vehicle that combines youthful exuberance with a dense, dauntingly erudite display of verbal artifice. Unlike most authors of travel literature (a rattlebag genre that doesn’t really do him justice) Leigh Fermor does not confine his role to that of camera obscura. He builds dense whorls of wordplay to echo the carvings in an old church door; he slips into baroque historical fantasias, scattering a shrapnel of words like “gabions,” “hydromel,” “eyot” and “swingletrees” at the unsuspecting reader. In between salvos, there are moments of ferocious humor and quiet, lyrical beauty.
In part, this richness is a measure of the extraordinary gap between the experience and its narration.
Ultimately, however, none of these provides a satisfactory answer because it is indeed a genuine paradox, an irresolvable contradiction at the heart of human existence. The best we can do, suggests Slingerland, is “to not push too hard when trying is bad, and not think too much when reflection is the enemy”. If we do that, “the flow of life is always there, eager to pull us along in its wake.”
There is an important insight connecting all three of these books, one that much smart thinking neglects. It is that you cannot reduce anything truly worthwhile simply to a technique you can learn and use to get your desired result. Rather, what is most profoundly rewarding always springs from deeply held values. Klein, for example, mentions that to gain insight, it is important that the thing we are thinking about flows from our own interests. Slingerland also says that wu-wei involves “the absorption of the self into something greater” than yourself, and it is our values that tell us what we truly believe is greater. And Epley’s account suggests that unless you genuinely value the perspectives of others, and not just those that conform to your own, you are not going to understand them. Really effective smart thinking is not, therefore, just a means to an end: it has to be rooted in what we see as ends in themselves, the values by which we live.
Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:
What if happiness is impossible? What if “men are always discontented because they are always unhappy?” What if, in their hearts, “they feel and they are well aware that they are unhappy, that they suffer, that they do not find enjoyment, and in that they are not wrong?” What if this unhappiness is increased by the fact that men “think they have the right to be happy, to enjoy life, not to suffer, and in that too they would not be wrong, if it were not for the fact that what they expect is, if nothing else, impossible?”
Hard thoughts, especially for those of us who live in a country that declared, in one of its founding documents, that the pursuit of happiness is an inalienable right.
These and other fairly depressing thoughts about happiness can be found in a new English translation of a book called Zibaldone. Zibaldone — which translates roughly as “mental hodge-podge” — is the life’s work of the 19th-century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi. The central thesis of Zibaldone is that life is miserable and there is nothing to be done about it. The work consists of interrelated notebook entries from throughout Leopardi’s life. The recent English version runs to a little over 2,000 pages, in very small font size. Last year it was released to what one would have expected to be complete silence.
Unexpectedly, people liked it. The book was the surprise hit of 2013. It was reviewed by prominent intellectuals in the New York Times, the New Statesman, Harper’s Magazine, the New Republic, the Financial Times, the New York Review of Books, and even here inThe Smart Set.
The best way to read Zibaldone is to skip around on a theme. There’s no way to read the book in linear fashion. A person who attempted to read Zibaldone cover to cover would more than likely go insane. Since the book may cause you to blow a gasket anyway, why not do it on your own terms? Flip to the editorial index, find a subject that interests you, then go to the relevant section in the body of the text. Sooner or later you’ll hit a footnote, which will refer you to another section of the book. You can proceed in this way more or less indefinitely, or until you decide to pick up a new thread.
Colin Robinson in The Guardian:
A great deal has been written recently about the frustrations ofpublishing a book with Julian Assange, mainly in a widely discussed, marathon article for the London Review of Books by Andrew O'Hagan.O'Hagan relates his experiences when working as a ghostwriter on an autobiography of the WikiLeaks leader that ended up being published in opposition to its subject's wishes. I'm the co-publisher of Assange's most recent book (Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet) and I, too, have found the experience frequently exasperating.
Let me give an illustration. It's June of last year and I'm at a party in New York when a friendly, youngish man with a beard and a beer engages me in conversation. He tells me he is a journalist on one of the city's listings magazines and asks what I do for a job. I reply that I'm a publisher and he asks whose books I'm working on. I pick the one writer of whom I'm pretty certain he will have heard. "Well," I say, shouting to make myself heard above the music, "I've just published Julian Assange." The young man's demeanour changes abruptly and he fixes me with a sneer. "Assange," he echoes, "he's a bit of a cunt isn't he?"
I've become wearily accustomed to this over my time working with Assange: the vituperation heaped on my author, the scorn directed at me for giving him a platform. I know the general script that will follow. And, sure enough, here it so often comes, as if read from the page: "I mean, he's a weirdo isn't he? That massive ego. And the sex offences in Sweden."
It's almost impossible to counter this kind of attitude, with its shallow presumptions about the character of someone never met and the guilt of someone never tried.
Oliver Burkeman at CNN:
At first glance Pinker's implacable optimism, though in keeping with his sunny demeanour and stereotypically Canadian friendliness, presents a puzzle. His stellar career -- which includes two Pulitzer Prize nominations for his books How the Mind Works (1997) and The Blank Slate: The modern denial of human nature (2002) -- has been defined, above all, by support for the fraught notion of human nature: the contention that genetic predispositions account in hugely significant ways for how we think, feel and act, why we behave towards others as we do, and why we excel in certain areas rather than others.
This has frequently drawn Pinker into controversy -- as in 2005, when he offered a defense of Larry Summers, then Harvard's President, who had suggested that the under-representation of women in science and maths careers might be down to innate sex differences.
"The possibility that men and women might differ for reasons other than socialization, expectations, hidden biases and barriers is very close to an absolute taboo," Pinker tells me. He faults books such as Lean In, by Facebook's chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, for not entertaining the notion that men and women might not have "identical life desires." But he also insists that taking the possibility of such differences seriously need not lend any justification to policies or prejudices that exclude women from positions of expertise or power.
Jan Morris in The Telegraph:
This tremendous book puts me in mind of a huge murky kaleidoscope, an ever-shifting display through which one image remains ambiguously constant. The scene is the tumultuous world of the Arabs during the last stages of the First World War; the enigmatic central figure is that of Thomas Edward Lawrence, a small Anglo-Irish archaeologist in his late twenties, later to be known as Lawrence of Arabia. It was a populist, even patronising epithet, because there was nothing Arabian about him. This hefty volume, though, by a scholarly American journalist, demonstrates how central he was to the infinitely convoluted, deceptive and contradictory goings-on that were eventually to bring into being the Middle East as we know it now.
Until the First World War the whole region, including today’s Iraq, Syria, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the petty Persian Gulf emirates and Egypt, were nominally part of the Ottoman Empire with its capital at Constantinople – nominally, because the British Empire in effect governed Egypt and the Gulf states, and possessed the port of Aden. The impending collapse of the Ottomans in the so-called Great War meant that almost the entire region would eventually be up for grabs among the victors, and it is cosmopolitan opportunism, as the conflict approached its conclusion, that is Scott Anderson’s huge subject. The scramble has been repeatedly chronicled for the best part of a century, but nobody has explored the subject with quite such intensity, and from quite so many angles.
War is too weird a thing to make sense of when it’s actually happening. It’s not just the combat, which by its nature is unintelligible. Armed conflict so fundamentally alters the environment it takes hold of that no aspect of life escapes undistorted: not love, not friendship, not sleep, not trust, not conversation. In war, even boredom is strange. The war in Iraq is finally over, at least for Americans, which means, in a way, that we may finally begin to comprehend it. I don’t mean in a historical sense: A multitude of books have already dissected the war’s origins, costs and wider implications. I mean in a human sense: what the war felt like, what it did to people’s brains, how it changed the lives it did not consume. This is not, strictly speaking, the realm of journalism or history, but of fiction and memoir. The best literature of the Vietnam War, like Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” captured the ways the conflict splintered the psyches of the men who fought it and how it rattled around in their minds, and in the minds of the people who loved them, long after the fighting ended. All wars do that, but O’Brien, drawing on his experience as a foot soldier, connected those dislocations to the very particular milieu that formed the American experience in Vietnam: the moral ambiguity, the invisible enemy, the jungle, the waste.
In “Redeployment,” Phil Klay, a former Marine who served in Iraq, grapples with a different war but aims for a similar effect: showing us the myriad human manifestations that result from the collision of young, heavily armed Americans with a fractured and deeply foreign country that very few of them even remotely understand. Klay succeeds brilliantly, capturing on an intimate scale the ways in which the war in Iraq evoked a unique array of emotion, predicament and heartbreak. In Klay’s hands, Iraq comes across not merely as a theater of war but as a laboratory for the human condition in extremis. “Redeployment” is hilarious, biting, whipsawing and sad. It’s the best thing written so far on what the war did to people’s souls.