Wednesday, April 22, 2015
Peter Forbes in The Guardian:
The “Origin of Life” is a conundrum that could once be safely consigned to wistful armchair musing – we’ll never know so don’t take it too seriously. You will probably imagine that it’s still safe to leave the subject in this speculative limbo, without very much in the way of evidence. You’d be very wrong, because in the last 20 years, and especially the last decade, a powerful new body of evidence has emerged from genomics, geology, biochemistry and molecular biology. Here is the book that presents all this hard evidence and tightly interlocking theory to a wider audience. While most researchers have been bedazzled by DNA into focusing on how such replicating molecules have evolved, Nick Lane’s answer could be characterised as “it’s the energy, stupid”. Of all the definitions of life, the one that matters most concerns energy: the churn of metabolic chemistry in the cells and the constant intake of nutrients and expulsion of waste are the essence of life. Information without energy is useless (pull the plug on your computer); information could not have started the whole thing off but energy could.
It is widely recognised that the creation of a viable primitive living cell, capable of reproduction and Darwinian selection, has three requirements: a containing membrane, which acts as an interface between the organism and the environment; replicators able to store the genetic instructions for the organism and to synthesise its chemical apparatus; and a way of taking energy from the environment and putting it to work to run the cell’s processes. Lane shows how all the rest can follow if we put energy first. He is a researcher in evolutionary biochemistry at University College London who has been developing his grand energy theory of life, the universe and everything for more than two decades, explaining it in the books Oxygen (2002), Power, Sex, Suicide(2005) and Life Ascending (2009), which won the Royal Society book prize in 2010. He is an original researcher and thinker and a passionate and stylish populariser. His theories are ingenious, breathtaking in scope, and challenging in every sense. To read him, it helps, as Richard Dawkins once said of himself when embarking on an intricate passage in The Blind Watchmaker, to bring your “mental running shoes”.
Rana Dajani in Nature:
Certain problematic attitudes towards science have been imported into Muslim societies as a part of rapid globalization and modernization — the rejection of the theory of evolution, for example. But this also offers an opportunity. I teach evolution to university students in Jordan. Almost all of them are hostile to the idea at first. Their schoolteachers are likely to have ignored or glossed over it. Still, most students are willing to discuss evolution, and by the end of the course, the majority accept the idea. If Muslim students can challenge ideas on such a controversial academic topic, then they can also approach other aspects of their lives by questioning — and not just blindly accepting — the status quo. These tools and attitudes are crucial to the development of their personalities and to becoming responsible citizens.
Students in my classes often get a shock. I wear a hijab, so they know that I am a practising Muslim, yet they hear me endorsing evolution as a mechanism to explain diversity and the development of species, and citing Charles Darwin as a scientist who contributed to our understanding of the emergence and diversification of life on Earth. I am almost always the first Muslim they have met who says such things. Some students complained to the university that I was preaching against Islam, but university officials were satisfied when I showed them that evolution featured in the university’s approved textbooks and that what I teach in my lecture comes straight from these texts. I commended the students who complained for their courage in supporting what they believed, and offered to sit down and discuss their concerns with them. In teaching, I offer a detailed explanation of the natural evolution of plants and artificial breeding. Later, we discuss antibiotic resistance, influenza vaccines and the development of HIV drugs. After these discussions, most students are willing to accept evolution as a mechanism for the emergence of all species except humans. Many quote evidence from the Koran that is interpreted to mean that Adam — and so humans — were created spontaneously. Human evolution remains taboo because the students are not ready to relinquish the concept that humans were created differently. I remind them that Muslims are warned against arrogance, and that humans are only part of creation.
Muslim scholars such as Hussein al-Jisr and Ahmad Medhat in the 1880s supported evolution. Before Darwin, al-Jahiz and others proposed rudimentary evolutionary theories in the ninth century. I point out that the apparent controversy over evolution and Islam arose only in the twentieth century, when Darwin’s ideas became associated with colonialism, imperialism, the West, atheism, materialism and racism. Muslim religious scholars gradually took a stand against evolution, which the public adopted. The scholars used Christian creationist arguments to support their stance, transferring the Western war between science and religion to Islam.
Tuesday, April 21, 2015
Mark Joseph Stern in Slate:
Far from an infallible science, forensics is a decades-long experiment in which undertrained lab workers jettison the scientific method in favor of speedy results that fit prosecutors’ hunches. No one knows exactly how many people have been wrongly imprisoned—or executed—due to flawed forensics. But the number, most experts agree, is horrifyingly high. The most respected scientific organization in the country has revealed how deeply, fundamentally unscientific forensics is. A complete overhaul of our evidence analysis is desperately needed. Without it, the number of falsely convicted will only keep growing.
Behind the myriad technical defects of modern forensics lie two extremely basic scientific problems. The first is a pretty clear case of cognitive bias: A startling number of forensics analysts are told by prosecutors what they think the result of any given test will be. This isn’t mere prosecutorial mischief; analysts often ask for as much information about the case as possible—including the identity of the suspect—claiming it helps them know what to look for. Even the most upright analyst is liable to be subconsciously swayed when she already has a conclusion in mind. Yet few forensics labs follow the typical blind experiment model to eliminate bias.
Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky, exiled from the Soviet Union in 1972, has inspired a number of memoirs since his death. One big one was missing, until a few weeks ago.
Ellendea Proffer Teasley‘s Brodsky Among Us is now in its third printing, although it was released only last month in Russia by Corpus, one of the largest publishers in Russia. Reviews have been laudatory – and the book quickly shot to the top ten at the main Moscow bookstore, Moskva. The author is now on her triumphant tour of Russia, giving talks, media interviews, book signings, press lunches, and photo ops. With her late husband,Carl Proffer, she co-founded the avant-garde, U.S.-based Russian publishing house Ardis during the Cold War. Together, they brought Brodsky to America.
The literary acclaim has caught Ellendea off-guard. Russians generally like their poets stainless, and her memoir is as candid as it is affectionate. Her Brodsky is brilliant, reckless, and deeply human. “I did not expect the response I’m getting,” she wrote to me. “It is so moving to me. They understood exactly what I was doing, and they are grateful that it’s not more myth-making.”
While I have been encouraging her to write a memoir for years, I had not seen enough of her writing to anticipate what such a work would look like. Frankly, I did not expect anything of this caliber – an engaging, compulsively readable text that is bodacious, graceful, seamless. Perhaps I should not have been surprised: five years after Carl’s untimely death in 1984, she received a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in her own right. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, she has kept a low profile; this book marks her powerful comeback as a major figure in Russian literature.
Readers, however, have always cherished Trollope’s presentation of a world which seemed, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s words, “as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting they were made a show of.” Of his fictional county of Barset, Trollope himself declared that to him, it had “been a real county, and its city a real city, and the spires and towers have been before my eyes, and the voices of the people are known to my ears, and the pavement of the city ways are familiar to my footsteps.” He felt most strongly about his characters:
I have wandered alone among the rocks and woods crying at their grief, laughing at their absurdities, and thoroughly enjoying their joy. I have been impregnated with my own creations till it has been my only excitement to sit with the pen in my hand and drive my team before me at as quick a pace as I could make them travel.
As a novelist, he sets out to engage us in the same way—his narrator “seizes” us, as he says, “affectionately by the arm,” and in his companionable company we meet people who become, over the course of many pages and volumes, as vivid and distinct to us as our friends and family. Like their creator, we enter vicariously into their pleasures and sorrows, puzzle over their difficulties, scoff at their folly, and rejoice in their happiness.
THEY ARE DISAPPEARING. When I arrived in Toronto in 1978 and first became involved with Armenian issues, there were many survivors still alive. Every year on April 24—the day commemorating the Armenian genocide—we would head to Ottawa. There, survivors would present testimonials, and offer living proof of the systematic campaign of extermination carried out by Ottoman Turks a century ago.
These people would tell their haunting stories—stories that Canadians needed to hear. Unlike the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide has not been universally acknowledged. Turkey—the successor state to the Ottoman Empire—still refuses to admit the historical fact of the event. And with each passing year, there are fewer and fewer survivors left to disprove the deniers with eyewitness recollections.
In the immediate aftermath of World War I, there was hope for accountability. When the Young Turk government collapsed in 1918, many former senior party members fled to Germany, a wartime ally. But the incoming Turkish administration arrested hundreds of those officials who remained in the country—and their collaborators—on suspicion of having participated in the orchestration of the deportations and killings. The suspects were charged with a variety of offences, including murder, treason, and theft. In a series of trials that took place between 1919 and 1920, former Young Turk officials delivered startling confessions and revealed secret documents that outlined the tactics they employed in carrying out their genocidal program.
Max Tegmark in Edge:
I find Jaan Tallinn remarkable in more ways than one. His rags-to-riches entrepreneur story is inspiring in its own right, starting behind the Iron Curtain and ending up connecting the world with Skype. How many times have you skyped? How many people do you know who created a new verb?
Most successful entrepreneurs I know went on to become serial entrepreneurs. In contrast, Jaan chose a different path: he asked himself how he could leverage his success to do as much good as possible in the world, developed a plan, and dedicated his life to it. His ambition makes even the goals of Skype seem modest: reduce existential risk, i.e., the risk that we humans do something as stupid as go extinct due to poor planning.
Already after a few short years, Jaan’s impact is remarkable. He is a key supporter of a global network of non-profit existential risk organizations including The Future of Humanity Institute, The Machine Intelligence Research Institute, The Global Catastrophic Risk Institute, The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at University of Cambridge, and The Future of Life Institute, the last two of which he co-founded.
I’ve had the pleasure to work with him on The Future of Life Institute from day one, and if you’ve heard of our recent conference, open letter and well-funded research program on keeping artificial intelligence beneficial, then I’d like to make clear that none of this would have happened if it weren’t for Jaan’s support.
More here, including video.
Husna Haq in Christian Science Monitor:
We live in an era that celebrates the self and places foremost value on achieving wealth, fame, and status. New York Times columnist David Brooks achieved all of that and learned that none of it made him happy. Then he came across a group of women tutoring immigrants in Frederick, Maryland. None of them were particularly wealthy or famous but "they just glowed." "They radiated a goodness and a patience and a service," Brooks told 'CBS This Morning.' "They weren't talking about how great they were. They were just – nothing about themselves at all. And I thought, well I've achieved more career success than I ever thought I would, but I looked at the inner light they had, and I said, I haven't achieved that."
And so, he set out to explore that elusive quality, a certain contentment through selflessness. The result was "The Road to Character," a new book in which Brooks profiles some of the world's greatest leaders, thinkers, and humanitarians, in an effort to shine a light on the sort of moral virtues that have been discounted in the modern age. "It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues," he wrote in a New York Times oped piece which quickly became the NYT's most-emailed story of the day. "The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?" "We're raised in a society called the 'big me' society," Brooks said Monday on "CBS This Morning." "In 1950, the [Gallup organization] asked high school kids, are you a very important person? Then 12 percent said yes. Asked again in 2005, 80 percent said, yes, I'm a very important person. We all think we're super important. "That's great for your career if you're branding yourself. That's great for social media, if you want a highlight reel of you own life you can put up on Facebook, but if you want inner growth, you've got to be radically honest," Brooks said. "...[T]he road to character is built by confronting your own weakness." In his "The Road to Character," Brooks found that great people in history became that way by doing just that – confronting their weaknesses.
President Obama betrayed him. He’s stopped publishing new work. He’s alienated his closest friends and allies. What happened to America’s most exciting black scholar?
Michael Eric Dyson in The New Republic:
"Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned” is the best-known line from William Congreve’s The Mourning Bride. But I’m concerned with the phrase preceding it, which captures wrath in more universal terms: “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned.” Even an angry Almighty can’t compete with mortals whose love turns to hate.
Cornel West’s rage against President Barack Obama evokes that kind of venom. He has accused Obama of political minstrelsy, calling him a “Rockefeller Republican in blackface”; taunted him as a “brown-faced Clinton”; and derided him as a “neoliberal opportunist.” In 2011, West and I were both speakers at a black newspaper conference in Chicago. During a private conversation, West asked how I escaped being dubbed an “Obama hater” when I was just as critical of the president as he was. I shared my three-part formula for discussing Obama before black audiences: Start with love for the man and pride in his epic achievement; focus on the unprecedented acrimony he faces as the nation’s first black executive; and target his missteps and failures. No matter how vehemently I disagree with Obama, I respect him as a man wrestling with an incredibly difficult opportunity to shape history. West looked into my eyes, sighed, and said: “Well, I guess that’s the difference between me and you. I don’t respect the brother at all.”
West’s animus is longstanding, and only intermittently broken by bouts of calculated love. In February 2007, West lambasted Obama’s decision to announce his bid for the presidency in Illinois, instead of at journalist Tavis Smiley’s State of the Black Union meeting in Virginia, calling it proof that the nascent candidate wasn’t concerned about black people. “Coming out there is not fundamentally about us. It’s about somebody else. [Obama’s] got large numbers of white brothers and sisters who have fears and anxieties, and he’s got to speak to them in such a way that he holds us at arm’s length.” It is hard to know which is more astonishing: West faulting Obama for starting his White House run in the state where he’d been elected to the U.S. Senate—or the breathtaking insularity of equating Smiley’s conference with black America.
And also see this: Michael Eric Dyson’s Interview on His Break With Cornel West
And counterpoint in Salon: Cornel West was right all along
And this from The Nation: Cornel West Is Not Mike Tyson
Natalie Angier in The New York Times:
By all evidence, Nero’s favorite color was green. The Roman emperor dressed in green, collected emeralds, cheered at the chariot races for the “green stable” team, and was particularly fond of eating green leeks. Goethe praised green as the “soothing” marriage of the chromatic opposites yellow and blue. George Washington called green “grateful to the eye,” and painted his Mount Vernon dining room a brilliant verdigris. And let’s not forget that everybody’s favorite elephant, Babar, wore a dapper suit in a “becoming shade of green.” Scientists, too, appreciate green’s many charms and for manifold reasons, starting with one best grasped through a walk in a newly spring-sanctioned park. Chlorophyll, the pigment that makes plants green, lies at the heart of photosynthesis, the fundamental electrochemical enterprise that continues to dazzle the scientists who study it, and who say it should dazzle us, too. After all, not only does photosynthesis spin sunlight and water into the sugars we eat, it spawns as a happy waste product the oxygen we breathe. “All food comes from photosynthesis,” said Petra Fromme, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Arizona State University. “There would be no higher life on Earth without it.”
Green, she added, “is the color of life.” In surprising new research on the evolution of different forms of photosynthesis, scientists have found that the prized oxygen-making variety may be much older than anybody suspected, and that the greening and aerating of Earth could well have begun soon after the earliest living cells appeared.
The New Song
For some time I thought there was time
and that there would always be time
for what I had a mind to do
and what I could imagine
going back to and finding it
as I had found it the first time
but by this time I do not know
what I thought when I thought back then
there is no time yet it grows less
there is the sound of rain at night
arriving unknown in the leaves
once without before or after
then I hear the thrush waking
at daybreak singing the new song
by W.S. Merwin
from The Moon Before Morning
Copper Canyon Press, 2014.
Monday, April 20, 2015
Recently my Chinese students in Beijing asked me why the U.S. media was so critical of China –always wagging a finger about human rights (forgetting about U.S. violations like NSA spying, drone bombing, Guantanamo, and so on). "Can't Americans see," one student asked, "that our Chinese way is different but still successful?"
How successful is the Chinese government? Over the last three decades, the Communist Party has pulled hundreds of millions of people from poverty. It has done this partly through controversial but needful policies like the "one child rule." Moreover, China's annual GDP growth has averaged 10%. China is the world's leading exporter, and second only to the U.S. in imports. Its unemployment rate is between 4 and 7 %, and its literacy rate is 95%. In short, the Party has been very successful, and is not going away anytime soon.
Ironically, the Chinese people already think of themselves as a democracy. But it is democracy "with Chinese characteristics." China has seen itself as democratic, minzhu or "people driven," since the 1911 revolution. Even Mao Zedong characterized the early People's Republic of China as a "new democracy" and a "people's democratic dictatorship."
Surprising to many westerners, Chinese people do vote for their politicians, but it's a hierarchical electoral system. Local people directly elect the regional chapters of the "People's Congresses." Then the People's Congresses elect the "National People's Congress" (the national legislator). Finally, the president and the State Council are elected by the National People's Congress. The voting is bottom-up, but nominations of candidates are usually top-down. This is precisely the sticking point for the recent "Occupy Central" movement in downtown Hong Kong. They want to reject the Chinese style of democracy (of top-down nominations) in favor of western style voting (at all levels). Beijing's approach, however, is not the reflection of some Orwellian fascist agenda, but an organic result of deep Chinese cultural commitments.
Am I my brother’s keeper?
…………… —Genesis 4:9
At first I was able, then I was not Abel,
I’d walked with Cain. I was battered off my feet
Before I became a name of biblical proportions
I just tended sheep, then suddenly
my lambs stood bleating as I lay bleeding
The world had changed. No longer Abel
I became a metaphor among metaphors,
a theological thing, the crux of a yarn
told and told again, whose blood
cried from dirt, from amongst my brother’s
cabbages and grains, seeping down through roots
while farmer Cain, my fratricidal brother,
sobbing, muttering, also became a mythic
Then I was not Abel, though Cain
was ever marked as Cain
…………………. —the stuff of me driven down
like a stake beneath a hammer, Cain and I became
characters of tales, companions, occupants of verses,
a breeze a minstrel’s breath disperses
......... echoes in a clamor
......... two coins in priestly purses
......... Abel the innocent
......... Cain the stuff of curses
by Jim Culleny
by Ahmed Humayun
A shepherd tending to well fed sheep on a lush green field, the blades of grass glistening in the sunlight. A bustling marketplace with stalls sparkling with multi-colored fruit and loaves of freshly baked bread. A father looking on affectionately as his young sons frolic in a playground.
These images are culled from the advertising campaign of a highly successful global brand, though likely not the one you have in mind: these are all high quality, high definition images found on pro-ISIS Twitter feeds, advertising life in the self-proclaimed Islamic state. That the brutality of ISIS - the beheadings, mass executions, child soldiering, and enslavement - has galvanized Western media attention is unsurprising but it comprises only one element of its vast propaganda campaign. No other violent extremist organization in the Muslim world has gone to such lengths to define and broadcast a new cultural expression, which amounts to a branded vision of violent extremism as a consumerist lifestyle choice under the ambit of a restored caliphate. Transfixed by the ghoulish atrocities, we overlook the subtle cunning of brand ISIS.
Cultural Innovation and Jack Daniels
According to cultural brand strategy, in mature markets competitors engage in ‘dog eat dog' competition based on incremental feature improvements that yield limited margins.  However, social disruptions create crises for incumbents, and present ideological opportunities for innovative niche brands to emerge and capture market share. Effective ideological innovation creates new cultural expressions that repurpose shared cultural content such as myths and cultural codes.
Consider the use of cultural strategy in the case of Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey. By the end of the first half of the 20th century in the United States, there were dozens of varieties of undistinguished whiskeys, none of them with leading market share. Among them was Jack Daniels. Yet the brand got ahead of its competitors and became a global brand through the deft, deliberate use of cultural strategy.
By the mid-1950s, the U.S. economy had undergone a major transition where traditional occupations of farming and small enterprise had been replaced by white collar professions in massive corporate bureaucracies. Whiskey in the United States is typically entangled with cultural associations of masculinity and class. At this time, virtually all whiskey brands including Jack Daniels touted their customers as successful status seeking, corporate climbing ‘organization men'. Yet by 1965, Jack Daniels had positioned itself as the embodiment of ‘rugged individualism'. It did this, for example, by emphasizing its traditional, pre-industrial methods of making whiskey, and associating the brand with stories from frontier mythology. By jettisoning cultural orthodoxy and advancing an innovative alternative ideology, Jack Daniel's crushed its competition and today ranks among the world's top global brands.
Akram Dost Baloch. Code # 14355.
Mixed media on canvas board.
by Yohan J. John
The DNA molecule is often described as the book of life, as a blueprint for constructing the organism, or as a program for computing the organism. These metaphors have become so pervasive that we often forget that they are metaphors. In this essay I'd like to take this class of metaphor —the life-as-information metaphor — seriously, and investigate what some recent findings in molecular biology look like when mapped onto the world of books, blueprints and programs. I'd like to run with the information metaphor, seeing how far it can take us. I think this will help us understand the limits of the metaphor, but more importantly, it can help us appreciate the richness and complexity of biological processes, and the sheer scale of the ongoing endeavor to understand the science of life. [In part I of this series I looked at the origins of information theory and computer science, and in part II I traced the history of genetics, up to the discovery of the genetic code. This essay continues the themes from those columns, but can be read as a standalone article.]
The discovery of the double helix structure of the DNA molecule in the mid 20th century was the culmination of a quest to understand the nature of heredity that had begun a little over a century before. In the early 19th century, biologists began asking two intertwined questions about organisms: the question of heredity, and the question of development. How did hereditary traits pass from one generation to the next? And what biological, chemical and physical processes were involved in the development of the organism from an embryo? The first question was often described as a question of 'ultimate causes', and was closely linked to the theory of evolution by natural selection. Charles Darwin's theory depended on inheritance, but he could only provide speculative accounts of the physical basis of heredity. Many 19th century cell biologists were more interested in what they saw as the nuts and bots of biology, and preferred to investigate the question of development. They believed that only 'proximal causes' could be tested in a lab, and perhaps even witnessed under a microscope. Evolutionary theory by contrast seemed more like philosophy.
The two sorts of question 19th century biologists were interested in find their counterpart in two broad spheres of genetics research: transmission genetics, which studies how hereditary traits pass from one generation to the next, and developmental genetics, which studies how genes participate in the physical processes by which traits become manifest in cells and in organisms. The concept of the genotype is useful when thinking about transmission genetics: the genotype is the sum total of the genetic makeup of an organism, and in a sense represents all the potential hereditary traits that can become manifest. Nowadays the word 'genome' is used in a closely related way. When thinking about developmental genetics, the concept of the phenotype is central: it is the sum total of an organism's observable traits, which are not just a product of the genetic makeup, but are also influenced by the environment, and by the developmental process itself. Transmission genetics studies how the inheritance, reassembly and mutation of genetic material lead to the formation of a genotype, whereas developmental genetics studies how the potential latent in the genotype is actualized to give rise to the phenotype.
by Rafiq Kathwari
My friend Irfan and I drove a Gypsy with faulty brakes to Baba's shrine nestled in the Himalayan foothills. "You must go show your respect," Mother had urged when I told her I was flying to Srinagar. "Say a prayer for your health and wealth."
Her father, Sultan Bastal, a prosperous cashmere shawl merchant, who made Kashmir home after wheeling, dealing on the Silk Route, had married three times hoping for an heir, but his wives had proved barren. "Or, perhaps, it was him," Mother said.
And so, Sultan Sahib, invoked his faith in Sufism, went on a haj to Baba's shrine. He wore a white turban, customary in his era; rode shot gun as his tonga-wallah drove their one horse buggy on a dirt road fringed by miles of poplars all the way from Srinagar to Tangmarg,
where the dirt road ended and a foot trail started, a journey in those days, Mother said, of at least three days in late summer when past winter's snow melts. Sultan Sahib and tonga-wallah rested often to give their horse a break from his uphill task. Glacial streams laughed
by the road. Sultan Sahib flung his arms wide in wonder at a view of a virgin valley diffused in light. Clouds flirted naked peaks on the horizon. He trekked a pine-scented forest to the thatched-roof shrine, where he tied a thread to carved wooden roses, and wept as he
prayed for a son, "O, Baba, beloved saint, make me a model of your mercy." And 90 years later here we were, Irfan and I, parking our rusty jeep in an ersatz bus stop littered with rubbish. Baba Reshi, resting for five centuries under alabaster, preached Divinity lives in the
garden within and in the wasteland without. The first thing I saw was a bunker, an example of many bunkers in the Kashmir valley: bold white capitals on blue tarpaulin:
RESPECT ALL SUSPECT ALL.
A fascist credo packed with sad irony, baring a strategy of the world's most populous democracy —a lie I'm tired of hearing—to subvert teachings of saints who brought Sufism to Kashmir, Kashmir to Sufism. I strolled around the barbed wire, a tote slung over my
shoulder, grinned at a para-military, an Uzi slung over his shoulder, his belly prosperous.
"Namaste," I said joining my hands. "Where from?" he asked. "Mumbai," I lied. "And you?" I asked. "Allahabad," he said. "O," I said, "Where Ganges and Yamuna merge." He nodded,
waved me through without rifling my tote, but asked, "Where friend from?" "A local," I said, realizing at once I had pushed Irfan under the clichéd bus. O, Fuck. "Open
bag," para-military barked. Irfan did as told. "Who you? Why here? Where going?"
by Mara Jebsen
I cross the country.
Towns crackle, bullet holes bleeding light.
Yellow, hard, a bright-mustard honey.
There are bees and bees in the skull in the sky.
Amnesia, I think, is the white air inside
an airplane. And fears, I expect, are bizarre
infant-plants that grow without sun
in the very wee hours. To share
these wee hours with suited up-bodies,
--- odd, erect, banal---
is a warm thing. I can’t find my worry.
My mother’s ______, my brother’s
______, No. These
Are in the ground, steaming up, up, up.
We go fast, some empty-headed angels.
by Brooks Riley
By Namit Arora
(On the ethnic history and politics of Sri Lanka and a review of Samanth Subramanian’s This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War. A shorter version appeared in the Times Literary Supplement earlier this month. Below is the original long version—the director’s cut.)
Few regions in the world, of similar size, offer a more bracing human spectacle than the beautiful island of Sri Lanka. It abounds in deep history and cultural diversity, ancient cities and sublime art, ingenuity and human folly, wars and lately, even genocide. It has produced a medley of identities based on language (Sinhala, Tamil, English, many creoles), religion (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, animism), and geographic origin (Indian, Malaysian, European, Arab, indigenous), alongside divisions of caste and class. Rare for a country its size are the many divergent accounts of itself, fused at the hip with the politics of ethnic identities—a taste of which I got during my month-long travel on the island in early 2014.
The Sri Lankan experience has been more traumatic lately, owing to its 26-year civil war that ended with genocide in 2009. The country’s three main ethnic groups—Sinhalese (75 percent), Tamil (18 percent), and Muslim (7 percent)—now live with deep distrust of each other. One way to understand Sri Lankan society and its colossal tragedy is to study the causes and events that led to the civil war. What historical currents preceded it? Did they perhaps make the war inevitable? What was at stake for those who waged it? What has been its human toll and impact on civic life? In his brave and insightful work of journalism, This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War, Samanth Subramanian attempts to answer such questions while bearing witness to many of its tragedies.
A Brief Social History of Sri Lanka
Around two-and-a-half millennia ago, waves of migrants from the Indian subcontinent overwhelmed the island’s indigenous hunter-gatherers, the Veddah (a few descendants still survive). Migrants arriving from modern day Bengal, speakers of Prakrit—an Indo-European language that evolved into Sinhala—intermixed with indigenous islanders to later become the Sinhalese. Other migrants from southern India, speakers of Tamil and other Dravidian languages and belonging mostly to the Saivite sect, also intermixed with the islanders to later become the Tamils of Sri Lanka. Which group of migrants arrived first, a question hotly pursued by the nationalists, lacks scholarly resolution. Both groups established themselves in different parts of the island: the Sinhalese in the center, south, and west, the Tamils in the north and east.
Sunday, April 19, 2015
The scientist turned author has just won the James Tiptree award for her first novel, The Girl in the Road, as she works toward a goal of ‘radical empathy’.
Lydia Kiesling in The Guardian:
Monica Byrne is about to head to a coffee shop and sort 23,000 words’ worth of notes into the bones of a new novel when I speak with her. “Fifty per cent of novel writing is just organisation,” she tells me. “It’s like writing a thesis.” Byrne, who was lately awarded the James Tiptree award for her debut novel The Girl in the Road, has a master’s degree in geochemistry fromMIT and an alternative future in the sciences if writing doesn’t pan out. On off-days, she tells me, she reminds herself that if she doesn’t write, she’ll wind up “a lab tech for my whole life”.
Given her track record, this seems unlikely. Byrne’s first fiction efforts got her accepted into the prestigious Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s workshop, where she took a class with Neil Gaiman. She has a polymath’s assortment of interests and skills – pile “accomplished playwright” on to her résumé with the geochemistry degree. As she works on her new novel, set in Belize, she’s also writing a new play, an absurdist work called Such Cake, about two people trying to put on a good show despite the overwhelming evidence that, according to Byrne, “95% of all theater is bad”.
Her work has a kinetic quality that seems the natural habit of a quick mind, as difficult to pin down as the metallic hydrogen that forms a major plot point in The Girl in the Road. The novel travels nimbly from science to spirituality to geopolitics, claiming territory inside and outside of its genre.
Mohammed Dajani Daoudi’s ancestors include custodians of King David’s tomb, two mayors of Jerusalem, and an assassinated peace activist. Dajani, a Palestinian professor of political science, non-violent activist, and founder of al-Wasatia, a moderate Islamic movement, is actively upholding this lineage.
Born in Jerusalem in 1946, Dajani experienced the ramifications of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war firsthand. As Israelis took over Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem, his family fled to Egypt, only to return as refugees in 1949. After the 1967 war, during which Dajani was separated from his family, he joined the ranks of Fatah, which advocated for the liberation of Palestine through armed struggle, and trained as a guerilla.
In 1970, Dajani’s passport was revoked by Jordan during the so-called Black September civil war, and in 1975 he was deported from Lebanon to Syria. Disappointed by the corruption he observed within Fatah, he took the opportunity to “divorce” politics and “marry” academics. He then, on an Algerian passport he was granted, traveled to the United States to complete a series of advanced degrees, including a master’s in social science at Eastern Michigan University, a PhD in government from the University of South Carolina at Columbia, and a PhD in political economy from the University of Texas at Austin. In 1985, King Hussein of Jordan issued Dajani a pardon, allowing him to return to Amman, where he worked at the Applied Science University as chair of the political science and diplomacy department.
Elisabeth Rosen in The Atlantic:
That morning, as communist troops swept into the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon and forced the U.S.-backed government to surrender, the North Vietnamese Army soldier marked the end of the war along with a crowd of people in Hanoi. The city was about to become the capital of a unified Vietnam. “All the roads were flooded by people holding flags,” Nguyen, now 65, told me recently. “There were no bombs or airplane sounds or screaming. The happy moment was indescribable.”
The event, known in the United States as the fall of Saigon and conjuring images of panicked Vietnamese trying to crowd onto helicopters to be evacuated, is celebrated as Reunification Day here in Hanoi. The holiday involves little explicit reflection on the country’s 15-year-plus conflict, in which North Vietnam and its supporters in the South fought to unify the country under communism, and the U.S. intervened on behalf of South Vietnam’s anti-communist government. More than 58,000 American soldiers died in the fighting between 1960 and 1975; the estimated number of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians killed on both sidesvaries widely, from 2.1 million to 3.8 million during the American intervention and in related conflicts before and after.
In the United States, the story of America and South Vietnam’s defeat is familiar. But North Vietnam’s war generation experienced those events differently, and several told me recently what it was like to be on the “winning” side.
Avner Cohen and William Burr in Politico:
For decades, the world has known that the massive Israeli facility near Dimona, in the Negev Desert, was the key to its secret nuclear project. Yet, for decades, the world—and Israel—knew that Israel had once misleadingly referred to it as a “textile factory.” Until now, though, we’ve never known how that myth began—and how quickly the United States saw through it. The answers, as it turns out, are part of a fascinating tale that played out in the closing weeks of the Eisenhower administration—a story that begins with the father of Secretary of State John Kerry and a familiar charge that the U.S. intelligence community failed to “connect the dots.”
In its final months, even as the Kennedy-Nixon presidential race captivated the country, the Eisenhower administration faced a series of crises involving Cuba and Laos. Yet, as the fall of 1960 progressed, President Dwight D. Eisenhower encountered a significant and unexpected problem of a new kind—U.S. diplomats learned and U.S. intelligence soon confirmed that Israel was building, with French aid, a secret nuclear reactor in the Negev Desert. Soon concluding that the Israelis were likely seeking an eventual nuclear weapons capability, the administration saw a threat to strategic stability in the Middle East and a nuclear proliferation threat. Adding fuel to the fire was the perception that Israel was deceitful, or had not “come clean,” as CIA director Allen Dulles put it. Once the Americans started asking questions about Dimona, the site of Israel’s nuclear complex, the Israelis gave evasive and implausible cover stories.
A little anecdote about an occurrence sometime in September 1960 sheds light on the development of U.S. perceptions that Israel was being less than honest about Dimona.