Yes, it was the same party I had known. The Social Democrats, the heavy, rusty anchor of German democracy, are 150 years old this year. Still honest, still fearful of taking a risk, still prone to the ghastly blunders which used to make people cover their faces and say: ‘Scheisse! Trotzdem, SPD!’ – ‘Oh shit! But we’ll still have to vote for them.’ The great exhibition hall at Augsburg could have been the gigantic Westfalenhalle in Dortmund where Willy Brandt used to speak at the climax of his election tours. That harsh, hoarse, painful voice seemed to be powered by coal and iron from the Ruhr industries around him. And now, forty years on, the SPD still speaks with a steam-age accent. Peer Steinbrück, the chancellor-candidate, is a steady, potato-faced politician, not a living monument like Brandt. But his oratory has the same blast furnace glow: red-hot rather than white-hot, pouring predictably down the channels of expectation.
He is a good man, with quite a bold programme for ‘social justice’. Tax increases for the better-off, a proper minimum wage, dual citizenship for immigrants, less elbowing individualism and more solidarity in a society where das Wir entscheidet – ‘it’s the we that counts.’ The German public, surprisingly, mostly agree that increasing taxes is a sound idea. What they resent is that the idea comes from the SPD. In the same way, the Augsburg programme is widely thought to make sense, but the voters don’t fancy Peer Steinbrück. They are pissed off with Angela Merkel’s governing coalition, but reluctant to let go of Mutti’s hand. In short, the public are in one of those sullen, unreasonable moods which make politicians despair.
June 09, 2013
From 9/11 to PRISM: A Nation Gone Dotty
John Cassidy in The New Yorker:
Here’s one of the things I want to know about the government’s electronic-spying programs, which evidently give it the power to find out intimate details about virtually anybody. Who designed the spooky red-and-black logo for the National Security Agency’s Prism program? My colleague Amy Davidson correctly points out that it owes something to Storm Thorgerson’s album cover for Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon,” a ponderous recording that back in the nineteen-seventies drove me and many others to punk rock. But it’s also reminiscent of the logos featured in the cinematic version of “1984,” featuring John Hurt and Richard Burton, which came out in 1984. In the film, for example, the logo for IngSoc, the all-powerful ruling party of Oceania, the dystopian land of the future, is a red-and-black capital “V.”
Was the Prism designer, whose identity is doubtless classified, a “prog rock” fan, or did he or she share Orwell’s wry sense of humor? When you are dealing with this intelligence stuff, you certainly need an example of the latter, or you will go a bit batty. Take me. Only a few weeks ago, I praised President Obama for publicly questioningthe basis of the ongoing “war on terror.” At the time, a couple of commenters suggested I’d been duped, that it was all just fine-sounding rhetoric, but I was willing to take the President at his word. Big mistake. As the editorial board of the Timespoints out, Obama and his Administration have lost all credibility on the issue of domestic surveillance, which is an integral part of the war on terror.
It’s come to something when Rand Paul—he of the Tea Party membership, goblin-like father, and nutty conspiracy theories about the Federal Reserve—is the hero of the hour, but we have reached that point.
Rationally Speaking podcast: Sean Carroll on Philosophical Naturalism
Over at the Rationally Speaking podcast:
Astrophysicist and author Sean Carroll joins this episode of Rationally Speaking, to talk about "naturalism" -- the philosophical viewpoint that there are no supernatural phenomena, and the universe runs on scientific laws. Sean, Julia [Galef], and Massimo [Pigliucci] discuss what distinguishes naturalism from similar philosophies like physicalism and materialism, and what a naturalistic worldview implies about free will, consciousness, and other philosophical dilemmas. And they return to that long-standing debate: should scientists have more respect for philosophy?
Sean's pick: "The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human"
A Great Day for Philosophy
Ernie Lepore in the NYT's The Stone:
Along with the words to be offered here is an interesting artifact— a photograph of an assembly of some of the most important and influential philosophers of the latter half of the 20th century on one fine day in April in 1984 in front of the Hyatt Hotel in downtown New Brunswick, N.J.
And of course there is a story behind it.
It begins with Donald Davidson, who died in 2003 at the age of 86, one of the most important philosophers of the latter half of the 20th century. Though his contributions are rich and widespread, he is probably best known for his work in three areas; The theory of meaning, especially his influential theory of interpretation; the philosophy of action, in particular, his view that our reasons for our actions both cause and justify them; and the philosophy of mind, especially his defense of the thesis that though every mental event is a physical event not every type of mental event may be identified with a type of physical event.
Davidson’s philosophy is unusually unified for someone making contributions to so many areas. But this unity is difficult to appreciate because it is represented exclusively in a series of compressed, even cryptic, articles he wrote over the course of more than 40 years. These essays overlap and often presuppose knowledge of one another; and together they form a mosaic out of which emerges one of the most integrated and elegant bodies of philosophical work of our era.
June 08, 2013
So why Turkey, and why now?
On Wednesday 29 May 2013, a small group of students and ecologists tore down the barriers to occupy the Gezi Park adjoining Taksim, the most symbolic of Istanbul's central squares. Their declared aim was to stop developers from building a shopping-centre that was to be housed in a replica of a military barracks building demolished sixty years ago – resulting in the destruction of much of the park. The group attracted support from intellectuals and politicians, notably the pro-Kurdish socialist MP Sirri Süreyya Önder. The event was completely peaceful, but the police response to activists was, by any measure, disproportionate. Their repression initially forced the protesters out of the park, but caused wide public outrage. Soon, mobilized by social media, they were back – and in hugely greater numbers. By Friday 31 May, tens of thousands were clashing with police units in different Istanbul neighbourhoods, while clouds of teargas darkened the skies. Police units threw gas-bombs and teargas into metro-stations, hotel-lobbies and residential buildings. By midnight, protesters had retaken the park, even as street-fights continued and spread to many, mostly middle-class, suburbs. Hundreds of protestors were wounded and hundreds more taken into police custody. Clashes intensified on Saturday and spread increasingly around the country.more from Kerem Oktem at Eurozine here.
the hungarian way
According to Demeter, the key aspect of twentieth-century philosophical thought in Hungary is its connection to the social: questions that the most prominent figures of the century addressed are deeply rooted in the problems of society and sociality, and it is against such a characteristically Central-European socio-historical background that their works can be fruitfully interpreted as parts of a tradition. The main question therefore is the following: in the vein of German idealism and British empiricism, is it plausible to speak of something like “Hungarian sociologism” in the twentieth century? Demeter’s answer is an unequivocal “yes”, and the perspective he offers his readers gives him firm grounds to rebut the claim that Hungarian philosophy is “much less creative than it is receptive” His book attempts to paint the picture of a century’s worth of Hungarian thought from Menyhért Palágyi’s critique of psychologism at the turn of the century to Kristóf Nyíri’s contributions to communication theory in the 1990s. Demeter’s investigations are quite wide in scope, addressing not only the work of prominent Hungarian philosophers (like Menyhért Palágyi, György Lukács, Imre Lakatos, György Márkus, Ágnes Heller) but of social historians (István Hajnal), classical scholars (József Balogh), and philosophically inclined sociologists of knowledge and art (Karl Mannheim and Arnold Hauser, respectively), too.more from Ákos Sivadó at Berlin Review of Books here.
time is real
It is Smolin's view that the best hope for a solution to the difficulties that face contemporary physics – for example, the difficulties in bringing gravity into line with the rest of the currently accepted picture of reality – lies in overturning this orthodoxy and reaffirming the view that most of us non-physicists have anyway, namely that "nothing we know or experience gets closer to the heart of nature than the reality of time". In putting his case for it, Smolin says many things that are comprehensible and that, to me at least, seem both true and important. Among those things is the idea (that Smolin advances brilliantly and persuasively) that the reason physicists have come to reject the reality of time is that they have been bewitched by the beauty and success of the mathematical models they use into mistaking those models for reality. For timelessness, though not really a feature of our world, is a feature of mathematics. Two plus two equals four, but if we ask when or for how long the perplexing (though true) answer seems to be: "Well, always. It is an eternal truth. Time is irrelevant to it." And thus we seem to be driven to accepting the thought that some truths, at least, are eternal. And, if we can have timeless truths in mathematics, why not in physics?more from Ray Monk at The Guardian here.
"Bough Down," the first book by artist Karen Green, arrives trailing a train of sorrow. Green was married to writer David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide in September 2008. He was 46. Green has surfaced intermittently since then, giving few interviews. In 2009, at an exhibit in South Pasadena, she showed a piece called "The Forgiveness Machine," a 7-foot-long device into which one placed a piece of paper inscribed with what you wanted forgiven; the paper emerged, shredded, from the other end of the machine. The exhibition, one of her first public appearances since her husband's death, was draining for Green, and she told an interviewer that she struggled to make it through. She never used the machine herself. "Bough Down" is a book of prose poems interspersed with collages the size of a few postage stamps. It's not about forgiveness so much as the excruciating difficulty of living with someone terminally depressed and, after his death, the long, lonely aftermath.more from Jacob Silverman at the LA Times here.
NAPOLEON CHAGNON: BLOOD IS THEIR ARGUMENT
Thanks to Steven Pinker for initiating and facilitating this Edge Special Event with Napoleon Chagnon, the last of the great ethnographers.
Napoleon Chagnon is a Living World Treasure. Arguably our greatest anthropologist, he is brave on two fronts. As a field worker in the Amazon forest he has lived, intimately and under conditions of great privation, with The Fierce People at considerable physical danger to himself. But the wooden clubs and poison-tipped arrows of the Yanomamö were matched by the verbal clubs and toxic barbs of his anthropologist colleagues in the journal pages and conference halls of the United States. And it is not hard to guess which armamentarium was the more disagreeable to him.
Chagnon committed the unforgivable sin, cardinal heresy in the eyes of a certain kind of social scientist: he took Darwin seriously. Along with a few friends and colleagues, Chagnon studied the up-to-date literature on natural selection theory, and with brilliant success he applied the ideas of Fisher, Hamilton, Trivers and other heirs of Darwin to a human tribe which probably ran as close to the cutting edge of natural selection as any in the world. It is sobering to reflect on how unconventional a step this was: science bursting into the quasi-literary world of the anthropology in which the young Chagnon was trained. Still today, in many American departments of social science, for a young researcher to announce a serious interest in Darwin's dangerous idea—even an inclination towards scientific thinking at all—can come close to career suicide.
Faith in the Unseen: Curtis White’s ‘Science Delusion’
From The New York Times:
Is there really a menace to the humanities in the breezy flourishes of a Richard Dawkins or a Stephen Hawking? White believes that the remarks of such thinkers matter immensely in an environment that glorifies science, one in which lectures by theorists like Krauss attract more than one million YouTube viewers and a TED presentation of the “connectome” speculations of Sebastian Seung is a hot ticket while attendance at symphony halls dwindles. The connection between the two, as if the lovers of the classical repertory might not significantly overlap with the viewership of lectures on neuroscience, is the kind of implicit dichotomy assumed throughout “The Science Delusion.”
White says that high culture and science are battling over a shared ground, and that the gain of one means the retreat of the other. And he is adamant that the emergence of a new form of science storytelling, wedded to entertainment outlets like TED Talks, is creating a monster that substitutes flashy wonder for hard thinking and insulates the practice of science from a real-world political context of value decisions, large capital investment and dubious technological offshoots. He is unhappiest when it comes to popular science journalism, which he views mostly as a malodorous brew of gushing prose mixed with a dash of snake oil: “The thing that I find most inscrutable about all of the recent books and essays that have sought to give mechanistic explanations for consciousness, personality, emotions, creativity, the whole human sensorium, is how happy the authors seem about it. They’re nearly giddy with the excitement, and so, for some reason, are many of their readers.”
but not enough, we opposed them but not
enough. I was
in my bed, around my bed America
was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house.
I took a chair outside and watched the sun.
In the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money
in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,
our great country of money, we (forgive us)
lived happily during the war.
from Poetry International, 2013
Spoils Of Victory
Samanth Subramanian in Caravan:
DURING THE 1990S, the ethnic wars in the crumbling Balkans were often ascribed to what the media called “ancient hatreds”, a self-feeding cycle of fighting and vengeance with its roots deep in history: the Serbs were said to have detested the Croats since World War II and the Albanians since 1389. Deriding the theory, the journalist Stephen Schwartz joked that one might as well trace the animosity back 2,000 years, to a raid described by the Roman poet Ovid, in which the Sarmatians, notionally distant ancestors of today’s Slavs, brutally crushed the distant ancestors of today’s Albanians. So tenuous were the extrapolations that the Balkan wars could even be seen as a natural sequel to the millennia-old battle of which Ovid wrote:
Swift, on horseback, the barbarians ride to the attack;
an enemy with horses as numerous as their flying arrows;
and they leave the whole land depopulated.
The theory provided convenient historical ballast for the nightly news, Schwartz argued; even more dangerously, it suggested that the violence was inevitable. Soon after he won the presidency, Bill Clinton read Balkan Ghosts, a Robert Kaplan book that subscribed to the “ancient hatreds” model. From Balkan Ghosts, the Sarajevo journalist Kemal Kurspahic wrote in his 1997 book As Long As Sarajevo Exists, Clinton drew “the comforting thought that nothing much could be done in Bosnia ‘until those folks got tired of killing each other.’” Santayana’s maxim was turned on its head: the Slavs remembered their past too vividly and were thus condemned to repeat it.
Like a show pony, the “ancient hatreds” argument is trotted out of its stable and walked around the paddock during every ethnic conflict. The warring parties themselves are happy to shoehorn their stances into this model, buffing their credentials by claiming to be part of some grander historical purpose. So it was during the civil war in Sri Lanka. Sinhalese nationalists and Buddhist extremists—and these two groups overlapped more often than not—pointed accusing fingers to the past, when armies from Tamil kingdoms in India invaded this peaceful island, their haven of Buddhism. On the other side of the divide, Tamil nationalists contended that many of their ancestors had arrived as merchants and fishermen—perhaps even before Buddhism reached Sri Lanka—and that Sinhalese kings had repeatedly slaughtered Tamil communities and grabbed their land. Living in Sri Lanka, I frequently got the impression that the Sinhalese and the Tamils had fought two wars: the terrestrial one, which began nominally in 1983 and ended in 2009; and an abstract one, which began centuries ago and is not quite finished yet.
Richard Marshall interviews Jennifer Lackey in 3:AM Magazine:
3:AM: You’re a leading figure in social or collective epistemology. There are various positions one can take under that term, so there’s what’s called a summative and a non-summative approach isn’t there? What’s the difference between these two positions?
JL: The distinction between summative and non-summative approaches in the collective epistemology literature applies to a broad range of phenomena, including group belief, group justification, group knowledge, and group testimony. According to summativism, a group’s state can be understood in the sense that all or some members of the group are, or would be, in that state. So, for instance, on a summative account of group belief, a group’s believing a proposition amounts to all or some members of the group believing that proposition. On such a view of group testimony, a group’s testifying to a proposition means that all or some members of the group would testify to that proposition were the relevant opportunity to arise. For summativists, then, collective states can be understood entirely in terms of the states of individuals.
In contrast, non-summativists claim that a group’s state cannot be understood in this way. Instead, the group itself is the bearer of the state, where this is something over and above, or otherwise distinct from, the states of the individual members. Such views in general are supported by divergence arguments, which purport to establish that phenomena at the group level can diverge from what is happening at the individual level among the group’s members. For instance, the divergence arguments with respect to group belief hold that a group can be properly said to believe a proposition even if not a single one of its members believes it. This might happen, for example, when a department agrees to put forward a candidate as the best applicant for admission to its Ph.D. program, despite the fact that not a single one of its members actually believes this is correct; instead, they all think that this is the candidate who is most likely to be approved by the administration. In such a case, non-summative accounts of group belief take this to be a good reason to accept that the department itself, rather than any particular individual(s), believes this proposition. For non-summativists, then, a new, collective epistemology is needed to understand the states of collective entities.
3:AM: So where are you on this?
JL: There are important differences between my view of group belief and, say, my view of group testimony, but, broadly speaking, much of my work in collective epistemology aims to develop reductionist views of collective phenomena. The central idea is that collective states can be understood entirely in terms of the states of individuals and the relations between them. This does not mean, however, that the states of groups with a particular content are merely the summation of individual states with the same content.
Tocqueville in China
Rebecca Liao in Dissent:
One of the most vibrant intellectual discussions in China this year began with a tweet on Weibo, China’s premier micro-blogging service and anointed online town square. Economist Hua Sheng had just met with Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Qishan, China’s anti-corruption czar, charged with fixing the country’s most important political problem. As Sinologist Joseph Fewsmith reported, Hua breathlessly tweeted after the meeting:
I went to the sea [海, an apparent abbreviation for 中南海, the seat of Communist power] to see my old leader. He recommended I read Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the French Revolution. He believes that a big country like China that is playing such an important role in the world, whether viewed from the perspective of history or the external environment facing it today, will not modernize all that smoothly. The price the Chinese people have paid is still not enough.
Hua’s self-congratulatory reporting on social media would spur the cheapest propaganda campaign the Chinese government has instituted in years—one that is part of a tradition of intellectual suggestion by senior Chinese leaders, usually through sharing current reading lists. Wen Jiabao, China’s previous premier, popularized Marcus Aurelius’s The Meditationsby revealing that he had read it over a hundred times. And since Wang plugged The Old Regime late last year, Tocqueville’s tome has been front and center at the bookstore of the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, where China’s future leaders are trained. The curious and ambitious in China are reading it, too, making it one of the country’s best-selling titles in the last few months.
June 07, 2013
The Formidable Friendship of Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt
From The New Yorker:
In the new film “Hannah Arendt,” the political theorist’s friendship with the novelist and critic Mary McCarthy gets its first cinematic treatment. The results are not good. McCarthy, played by Janet McTeer, is blowsily silly—and though she could be wicked and subversively funny, McCarthy was far from silly. Nearly every exchange between the two women is about men and love. It is symptomatic of a trend, I think. We are in a moment of unprecedented popular interest in the matter of female friendship, and this has been greeted as a triumph for feminism. But what we get, for all that, is rather flat portraiture: women giggling about crushes before finding real fulfillment in heterosexual romance and the grail of marriage. It’s a shame, because many women hunger for models of intellectual self-confidence, and female friendships can be rich soil for them. McCarthy and Arendt’s “love affair”—as their friends described it—was a union of ferocious minds, but it was hardly unusual. Women talk about ideas among themselves all the time. It would be nice if the culture could catch up.
To give just a sample of the subjects McCarthy and Arendt talked and wrote to each other about: George Eliot, Cartesianism, Eldridge Cleaver, Kant, G. Gordon Liddy, and Sartre. Both women were members of the Partisan Review crowd, who spent much of their time talking about Stalin and Trotsky. It was at a party at an editor’s house that the friendship hit a snag. McCarthy said she felt almost sorry for Hitler; that he seemed to want the citizens of occupied France to like him struck her as ridiculous. It took four years for Arendt, who’d only narrowly evaded Nazi clutches, to forgive the remark. To her, pity for Hitler was not just absurd but offensive. A truce was struck on the Astor Place subway platform, where Arendt approached McCarthy after a meeting and said, “Let’s end this nonsense. We think so much alike.”
irving howe on arendt
The Eichmann about whom Arendt wrote was the Eichmann on display at the Jerusalem trial. There he seemed—as Simone de Beauvoir had said of the French collaborator Pierre Laval at his trial—commonplace and inconsequential, an unimaginative and feeble little fellow. (Hence the well-remembered phrase about “the banality of evil”—the killers, it seems, looked pretty much like you and me.) But even this Eichmann showed astonishing qualities, never breaking under pressure, never begging forgiveness for his crimes. Eichmann had once said, “I would jump into my grave laughing because the fact that I have the death of five million Jews on my conscience gives me extraordinary satisfaction”; Hannah Arendt dismissed this remark as mere “boasting,” the big talk of a small man. But, asked Lionel Abel in a powerful reply to Arendt, “How many people have ever boasted of having killed five million people?” That kind of boast was hardly the talk of a featureless cog in a bureaucratic machine! As for the single-mindedness with which Eichmann had pursued the goal of mass extermination, surely some profound depravity of intention or monstrousness of thought had to be at its root. No merely banal creature could have conceived or executed so horrible a crime; some version of “radical evil,” far from commonplace, had to be invoked here, and once invoked, it shattered Arendt’s view of Eichmann. Far more persuasive was a remark by Saul Bellow that “banality is the adopted disguise of a very powerful will to abolish conscience.”more from Irving Howe at Dissent here.
return to frost
A nagging question in Frost criticism in the half-century since the author’s death has been where to place him in the larger narrative of American poetry. There has been no question about the magnitude of his achievement. Realizing “the utmost of ambition,” he lodged more than a few poems “where they will be hard to get rid of.” He ranks high on the short list of great American writers. Moreover, he remains one of the few modern poets in English still read, esteemed, and quoted by all types of people from elementary school kids and chaired professors to journalists and politicians. But after Modernism, popularity itself seems suspicious—an attribute associated with Longfellow and Whittier not Pound and Stevens. Frost’s defenders—from Randall Jarrell, Lionel Trilling, and Louise Bogan in mid-century to such later champions as William Pritchard, Jay Parini, and Mark Richardson—have instinctively supported Frost’s major stature by finding ways to link his work to Modernism. In his controversial speech at Frost’s eighty-fifth birthday, Trilling praised the poet’s “ultimate radicalism” and “terrifying” view of cosmic emptiness. Viewed by some guests at the Waldorf Astoria banquet as an affront, these judgments were pure praise from the Partisan Review contributor, making the elderly poet sound like Franz Kafka or Albert Camus.more from Dana Gioia at VQR here.
Compulsive behaviour triggered and treated
Researchers have both created and relieved symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in genetically modified mice using a technique that turns brain cells on and off with light, known as optogenetics. The work, by two separate teams, confirms the neural circuits that contribute to the condition and points to treatment targets. It also provides insight into how quickly compulsive behaviours can develop — and how quickly they might be soothed. The results of the studies are published in Science1, 2.
Brain scanning in humans with OCD has pointed to two areas — the orbitofrontal cortex, just behind the eyes, and the striatum, a hub in the middle of the brain — as being involved in the condition's characteristic repetitive and compulsive behaviours. But “in people we have no way of testing cause and effect”, says Susanne Ahmari, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Columbia University in New York who led one of the studies. It is not clear, for example, whether abnormal brain activity causes the compulsions, or whether the behaviour simply results from the brain trying to hold symptoms at bay by compensating. “There’s been a big debate in the field,” says Satinder Kaur Singh of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, who studies molecules involved in OCD-like disorders but was not involved in the new studies. “What the Ahmari paper shows is that it is causative.”
The future of liberal education
Donald Kagan in The New Criterion:
Editors’ Note: Donald Kagan, Sterling Professor of Classics and History at Yale University and recipient of the National Humanities Medal (2002), retired in May.
My subject is liberal education, and today more than ever the term requires definition, especially as to the questions: What is a liberal education and what it is for? From Cicero’s artes liberales, to the attempts at common curricula in more recent times, to the chaotic cafeteria that passes for a curriculum in most American universities today, the concept has suffered from vagueness, confusion, and contradiction. From the beginning, the champions of a liberal education have thought of it as seeking at least four kinds of goals. One was as an end in itself, or at least as a way of achieving that contemplative life that Aristotle thought was the greatest happiness. Knowledge and the acts of acquiring and considering it were the ends of this education and good in themselves. A second was as a means of shaping the character, the style, the taste of a person—to make him good and better able to fit in well with and take his place in the society of others like him. A third was to prepare him for a useful career in the world, one appropriate to his status as a free man. For Cicero and Quintilian, this meant a career as an orator that would allow a man to protect the private interests of himself and his friends in the law courts and to advance the public interest in the assemblies, senate, and magistracies. The fourth was to contribute to the individual citizen’s freedom in ancient society. Servants were ignorant and parochial, so free men must be learned and cosmopolitan; servants were ruled by others, so free men must take part in their own government; servants specialized to become competent at some specific and limited task, so free men must know something of everything and understand general principles without yielding to the narrowness of expertise. The Romans’ recommended course of study was literature, history, philosophy, and rhetoric.
Kristin Beck, Transgender Navy SEAL, Comes Out In New Book
Cavan Sieczkowski in the Huffington Post:
Beck is an author and activist who served 20 years as a Navy SEAL on 13 deployments and was once a member of the elite SEAL Team 6. She is also transgender.
Beck comes out publicly as transgender in her new memoir, Warrior Princess: A U.S. Navy SEAL's Journey to Coming out Transgender, which hit stores June 1. The book describes Beck's life as Chris, a Christian boy who grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere and became a Navy SEAL. It describes someone who everyone viewed as "a hero, a warrior, a man" but who knew deep down she was transgender.
"Chris really wanted to be a girl and felt that she was a girl and consolidated that identity very early on in childhood," Anne Speckhard, a research psychologist who co-authored the biography with Beck, told ABC News. Beck suppressed her transgender identity for decades while training as a SEAL and fighting in Afghanistan, "turning off" her sexuality and consuming herself with battle.
Beck chose to stay silent in respect of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" guidelines.
Shadab Zeest Hashmi navigates the journey from Pakistan to California
Bill Donahue in Reed Magazine:
Shadab Zeest Hashmi grew up in Peshawar, Pakistan, in the shadow of the snowcapped Safed Koh mountains marking the border with Afghanistan. In the streets near her home, vendors sold plums and corn with salt and lime. She came to love the bakery that served pink coconut rolls and the clothes dyer who sat before boiling pots of dye listening to cricket games on the radio. Then at age 18, she left Pakistan to land at Reed.
It was 1991. That September, Nirvana would release its second album, Nevermind,replete with the smash hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit”; nose rings would become de rigueur among the more stylish habitués of the Paradox Café. And Shadab would never live in Pakistan again. You’d expect her poetry to be steeped in a longing for home, and in many ways it is. In her second book, Kohl & Chalk, published in early 2013, Shadab visits Peshawar with her three children and remembers:
afternoon shadows on slate verandahs,
the squeaking of a rusted seesaw,
the breaking open of a walnut in a door hinge;
its embossed shell a secret cracking.
The longing aches. Still, even though
Kohl & Chalk is a medley of piquant tableaux largely set in Shadab’s native land, it would be wrong to sum up the book as a sepia-tinted paean to the Pakistan of yore. The volume’s title hints at an outlook that is both cosmopolitan and gracefully political. Kohl is the black lead-based eyeliner that women in Africa and the Middle East have been wearing to dramatic effect since about 3000 BC. Shadab included it in the title because, she says, “My book is the story of a writing woman faced with the challenge of producing poetry while being responsible for raising a family.” “Chalk” is a subtle plea for education which, Shadab says, could prove a “great equalizer” in Pakistan’s viciously stratified society.
Why We Believe in Gods - Andy Thomson
How the US Turned Three Pacifists into Violent Terrorists
Fran Quigley has a disturbing story in Common Dreams:
In just ten months, the United States managed to transform an 82 year-old Catholic nun and two pacifists from non-violent anti-nuclear peace protestors accused of misdemeanor trespassing into federal felons convicted of violent crimes of terrorism. Now in jail awaiting sentencing for their acts at an Oak Ridge, TN nuclear weapons production facility, their story should chill every person concerned about dissent in the US.
Here is how it happened.
In the early morning hours of Saturday, July 28, 2012, long-time peace activists Sr. Megan Rice, 82, Greg Boertje-Obed, 57, and Michael Walli, 63, cut through the chain link fence surrounding the Oak Ridge Y-12 nuclear weapons production facility and trespassed onto the property. Y-12, called the Fort Knox of the nuclear weapons industry, stores hundreds of metric tons of highly enriched uranium and works on every single one of the thousands of nuclear weapons maintained by the U.S.
Describing themselves as the Transform Now Plowshares, the three came as non-violent protestors to symbolically disarm the weapons. They carried bibles, written statements, peace banners, spray paint, flower, candles, small baby bottles of blood, bread, hammers with biblical verses on them and wire cutters. Their intent was to follow the words of Isaiah 2:4: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
Sr. Megan Rice has been a Catholic sister of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus for over sixty years. Greg Boertje-Obed, a married carpenter who has a college age daughter, is an Army veteran and lives at a Catholic Worker house in Duluth Minnesota. Michael Walli, a two-term Vietnam veteran turned peacemaker, lives at the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker house in Washington DC.
In the dark, the three activists cut through a boundary fence which had signs stating “No Trespassing.” The signs indicate that unauthorized entry, a misdemeanor, is punishable by up to 1 year in prison and a $100,000 fine.
No security arrived to confront them.
The Cookbook As Literature
Hannah Gersen over at the Millions:
If you can read, you can cook — and if you can’t cook, you can always read cookbooks. At least that’s my philosophy. Although I’ve never been much of a cook, I have been fortunate to live with people who enjoy cooking — first my mother and now my husband. As a result, I’ve spent many pleasant evenings perusing cookbooks while someone else prepares a meal nearby. Growing up, I paged through The Enchanted Broccoli Forest, with its handwritten vegetarian recipes, and The Joy of Cooking — a somewhat joyless read and yet lively for the sheer number and variety of recipes. Now I am just as likely to scroll through cooking blogs in anticipation of a delicious meal, but I still love my cookbooks for their ability to take me back to a specific time and place. I also appreciate the stories and anecdotes that cookbook authors include with their recipes — although I sometimes wonder if only non-cooks like myself bother to read them.
What follows is a list of some of my favorite cookbooks to read while someone else does the cooking, a list that is, like most cookbook collections, highly personal and idiosyncratic. Please help me to round it out by leaving your own favorites in the comments.
The Enchanted Broccoli Forest by Mollie Katzen
This cookbook brings me right back to my childhood, when my mother — and a lot of my friends’ mothers — was discovering vegetarian cooking. It was first published in 1982 and the recipes are very eighties: lots of quiches, soufflés, and casseroles involving tofu. It’s written in a casual, conversational way with a lot of underlining and phrases in all-caps — can we call this “pre-blog” style? The recipes are imaginative and sometimes whimsical, including the title recipe, a casserole in which broccoli stalks are made to stand upright so that they resemble trees. You have to love the author’s passion for vegetarian cooking; at one point she lists “innocence” as one of tofu’s attributes.
Playing Moscow’s Game
Amy Knight in the NYRB blog:
It is a well-known fact that the Russian FSB (successor to the KGB) has infiltrated all the major rebel groups in these two territories. If, as numerous reports have claimed, Tamerlan [Tsarnaev] was regularly meeting with Islamic rebels in 2012, the FSB would have been aware of it. Russian authorities also would have known that he then returned to the US. Yet the Americans were told nothing about Tamerlan’s trip, or his meetings with radicals.
Instead of raising questions about Russia’s file on Tamerlan, US officials have gone out of their way since the bombings to thank Moscow for its help in fighting terrorism and welcome Russian security officials in Washington. All this has played into the Kremlin’s hands and helped reinforce its longstanding arguments that the Chechen rebels it has been fighting in a brutal counter-insurgency for years are part of a larger al-Qaeda-led group that has the goal of international jihad.
Consider what has happened in recent weeks. The head of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), which oversees domestic crime-fighting, Vladimir Kolokoltsev, traveled to Washington, where he met with US Attorney General Eric Holder, Head of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, and FBI chief Robert Mueller. All three US officials, according to public reports of the meetings, supported more cooperation with Russia in the area of security and law enforcement. Muellereven promised to share FBI files with the Russians, saying that “such resources could be useful to Russian law enforcement agencies in view of the Sochi Olympics.
Meanwhile, Russian National Security Council chief Nikolai Patrushev also visited Washington and met with Barack Obama to deliver a letter from Russian President Vladimir Putin. Patrushev and Obama reportedly discussed the importance of “deepening counter-terrorism cooperation“ between Russia and the US.
June 06, 2013
“Inside every organ, cell, and piece of DNA in our bodies lie over 3.5 billion years of the history of life”, writes Shubin, whose new book aims to extend his argument beyond the history of life on earth, all the way back to the birth of the universe, some 13.7 billion years ago. It’s an ambitious thesis – that our biology, including our consciousness, was shaped by the birth of stars and the movements of celestial bodies – but Shubin unearths plenty of supporting evidence, such as the way that our internal body clocks were pre-set by a planetary catastrophe that occurred around a billion years before the emergence of life. Long-term experiments on sleep cycles have shown how our cellular clocks run on 24-hour rhythms, which require resetting whenever we cross a time zone (hence the trauma of jet lag), and which adjust themselves continually to the changing light of the seasons. All this is due to the earth’s 23.5 degree axial tilt, the consequence of a collision with a Mars-sized asteroid some 4.5 billion years ago, the impact of which knocked our planet off-centre while leaving it with a tide-creating moon. The days, meanwhile, grow ever longer as the spinning earth is slowed by the drag of the oceans: twenty-second-century days will be two milliseconds longer than they are now, an imperceptible rate of planetary change to which our inner clocks can easily adjust.more from Richard Hamblyn at the TLS here.
jeff koons' weird blue balls
Koons has always used materials that are shiny, dense, multicolored, monochrome, or clear. He’s made marble self-portraits, a porcelain Michael Jackson, a wooden Buster Keaton. He’s created basketballs floating in vitrines of distilled water; encased new vacuum cleaners lit by fluorescence in Plexiglas towers; cast statuary and everyday objects in high chromium stainless steel; fashioned painted polychrome figurative wood sculptures; cast glass sculptures of sex. All these objects come at you with an intense optical presence. Here Koons turns to an absorptive, non-shiny, non-hard material of dead-white matte plaster. Most of the sculptures are big; some are clunky. As I stared at them, each with its glitzy blue Viagra pill on top, something freakish happened. In a few cases, the plaster surfaces absorbed so much light as the orbs atop created their distorted mirrored views—of both the sculptures themselves and the world around them—that the casts snowblinded me. They receded from my visual field and disappeared. They left the weird blue balls hovering in some new no-space, like disembodied seeing-eyes or planetoids.more from Jerry Saltz at New York Magazine here.
If "cuteness" is symptomatic of the aesthetics of contemporary consumption, "zaniness" is about production. Perhaps the classic cinematic example would be Charlie Chaplin's character in Modern Times, who struggles energetically to submit to the inhuman demands of the factory in which he works. Unable to keep up with the staccato demands of the production line, Chaplin is dragged by the conveyor belt into the heart of the machine itself. In a delirious sequence, he is wrapped around giant gears and waltzes through the innards of the machine before being spat out like Jonah from the whale. Incorporated and then ejected, he has been reborn as the little tramp, whose stuttering walk and ticky gestures echo the movement of celluloid film through a projector. Victimized by the machine, Chaplin becomes the archetypal modern zany; a jittery bundle of crankshaft limbs, whose stiff gestures make every vibration of the projector visible upon the screen. To excavate the prehistory of such slapstick, Ngai goes back to the original “zanni” of the commedia dell’arte, the illiterate peasant driven by poverty into the city and forced into the incompetent pursuit of every imaginable trade or vocation.more from Adam Jasper at Bookforum here.
How Did Life Arise on Earth?
Earth is estimated to be about 4.5 billion years old, and for much of that history it has been home to life in one weird form or another. Indeed, some scientists think life appeared the moment our planet's environment was stable enough to support it. The earliest evidence for life on Earth comes from fossilized mats of cyanobacteria called stromatolites in Australia that are about 3.4 billion years old. Ancient as their origins are, these bacteria (which are still around today) are already biologically complex—they have cell walls protecting their protein-producing DNA, so scientists think life must have begun much earlier, perhaps as early as 3.8 billion years ago. But despite knowing approximately when life first appeared on Earth, scientists are still far from answering how it appeared.
Today, there are several competing theories for how life arose on Earth. Some question whether life began on Earth at all, asserting instead that it came from a distant world or the heart of a fallen comet or asteroid. Some even say life might have arisen here more than once. Most scientists agree that life went through a period when RNA was the head-honcho molecule, guiding life through its nascent stages. According to this "RNA World" hypothesis, RNA was the crux molecule for primitive life and only took a backseat when DNA and proteins—which perform their jobs much more efficiently than RNA—developed. "A lot of the most clever and most talented people in my field have accepted that the RNA World was not just possible, but probable," Deamer said.
Life on Earth shockingly comes from out of this world
Early Earth was not very hospitable when it came to jump starting life. In fact, new research shows that life on Earth may have come from out of this world. Lawrence Livermore scientist Nir Goldman and University of Ontario Institute of Technology colleague Isaac Tamblyn (a former LLNL postdoc) found that icy comets that crashed into Earth millions of years ago could have produced life building organic compounds, including the building blocks of proteins and nucleobases pairs of DNA and RNA. Comets contain a variety of simple molecules, such as water, ammonia, methanol and carbon dioxide, and an impact event with a planetary surface would provide an abundant supply of energy to drive chemical reactions. "The flux of organic matter to Earth via comets and asteroids during periods of heavy bombardment may have been as high as 10 trillion kilograms per year, delivering up to several orders of Pmagnitude greater mass of organics than what likely pre-existed on the planet," Goldman said.
More here. (Note: Will Francis Crick be finally vindicated for his theory of Panspermia as an explanation for life on Earth?)
The Vatican Spring?
Over at the Immanent Frame, various scholars weigh in on the shift at the Vatican:
The retirement of Pope Benedict XVI and the subsequent elevation of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio to the throne of St. Peter involves a number of “firsts” for the Catholic Church: the first papal retirement in 600 years, the first election of a non-European pope in the modern era, and the first Jesuit pope ever. Even the papal name chosen by Bergoglio—Francis I, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi—is a first. Many observers both within and outside the Church have interpreted these “firsts” as a sign that the papacy of Francis I will mark a departure from his most recent predecessors and will bring much-needed reform to a Church hamstrung by the sex abuse scandal, a rigid and opaque bureaucratic structure, concerns about the role of women in the Church, and the ever-dwindling ranks of the faithful.
Early actions and statements suggest that, in keeping with his namesake, the new pope will adopt a more humble, ascetic style, and work to reorient the church toward a fuller embrace of its mission to serve the poor. But critics have also pointed out that Francis remains bound to the same conservative positions on questions of sexuality, gender, and reproduction upheld by his predecessors. Moreover, questions have been raised about the new pope’s relationship to the military junta responsible for Argentina’s “dirty war” in the 1970s and 80s, when Bergoglio served as provincial for the Jesuit order in Argentina.
Does the election of Francis I signal a major shift in Vatican policy, structure, or doctrine? How significant is Francis’ status as an “outsider” to the Roman Curia, especially his background as a Latin American and a Jesuit? Is this status likely to position him as an agent of change within the Church, or do his theological continuities with his predecessors and the entrenched Vatican bureaucracy guarantee that any reform he initiates will be largely cosmetic?
Studying Human Behavior: How Scientists Investigate Aggression & Sexuality
An interview with Helen Longino in New Books in Philosophy:
What explains human behavior? It is standard to consider answers from the perspective of a dichotomy between nature and nurture, with most researchers today in agreement that it is both. For Helen Longino, Clarence Irving Lewis Professor of Philosophy at Stanford University, the “both” answer misses the fact that the nature/nurture divide is itself problematic. In her groundbreaking book, Studying Human Behavior: How Scientists Investigate Aggression & Sexuality(University of Chicago Press) Longino looks closely at a variety of scientific approaches to the study of human aggression and sexuality to argue that there is no one right way to divide nature from nurture within the scientific approaches to the study of behavior, and that the nature/nurture dichotomy reinforces and reflects an undue emphasis on explanations that focus on the dispositions of individuals rather than those that look at patterns of frequency and distribution of behavior within populations. She reveals the distinct and incompatible ways these different approaches define the factors that explain behavior, how these different explanatory approaches are related, and how the bias towards particular types of explanation is reflected in the way the scientific findings are publicly disseminated.
Post-Structural Integrity: On "Arrested Development," Season Four
Ted Scheinman in the LA Review of Books:
Arrested Development, of course, is also a show about family, a unit the show sketches via ad absurdum caricature, all the more absurd because a lot of people seem truly to care about the largely atrocious and backbiting Bluths. (This writer included.) But Mitch Hurwitz, the show’s creator, is interested in more than the dynamics of family betrayal, and for social satire he uses the family frame as a metaphor in itself. Name a show whose politics are at once so oblique and so obvious: the Bluths were both a conspicuous model of the Bushes and a warning about con-men and short-sellers seeking to capitalize on the real estate bubble, no small foresight in 2003 when the show first aired. Biblical in its simplicity, Freudian in its symbolism (it is rumored that Buster breast-fed into his teens), Arrested Development was as rich in formal and moral delights as any other show on the planet.
Yes, it was probably too “smart” for TV, but mainly it was too weird, and non-initiates couldn’t exactly just slip into the show’s groove; plot, and the slow accretion of glimmering self-reference, were the bellylaughs. Two and a Half Men this was not. But man did it hit the spot via DVD marathon. Plus or minus the smoke, this is how Arrested Development deserves, and ought, to be watched.
The fourth season — 15 episodes released simultaneously on May 26 — has kept cognoscenti drooling for years but has also left time for new viewers to enter the welcoming, only vaguely canine circle of devotion. A lot has happened between 2005 and 2013, for the Bluths and for us. The new episodes each focus on what has happened to a given character in the years following the implosion of the latest Bluth scheme, and very rarely is it pretty to look at. If in 2003 Enron was a topical referent for the Bluths’s dynastic malfeasance, the collapse of the housing bubble, and of all the dreams and derivatives that depended on it, offer creator and executive producer Mitch Hurwitz far darker material.
June 05, 2013
Europe in a Global WorldA video of Zygmunt Bauman and Alain Touraine in conversation over at Reset DOC:
The view from Taksim Square: why is Turkey now in turmoil?
Elif Shafak in The Guardian:
"My dear Prime Minister, I was an apolitical man; then how come I took to the streets? Not for two trees. I rebelled after seeing how, early at dawn, you have attacked those youngsters who were silently protesting in their tents. I took to the streets because I do not wish my son to go through the same things and I would like him to live in a democratic country."
This poignant letter, addressing Recep Tayyip Erdogan and written by one of the protesters in Istanbul's historic Taksim Square, was widely circulated on Turkey's social media. That the owner of these words, Cem Batu, is the creative director of an advertising agency, and he and his team of well-educated, modern, young Istanbulites have been subjected to tear gas and injured during the protests says a lot about the ordeal of these last days.
It all started as a peaceful sit-in to save one of the last remaining public parks in a city of almost 14 million people. The government has been adamant about razing the park to rebuild the old Ottoman military barracks that once stood there and to then turn it into a museum or a mall. It was a decision that was made too fast and without proper public and media debate. Many people, who would opt for a public garden over a shopping mall, felt their voices were not heard by the politicians. Of these, some have ended up occupying Gezi Park. At the same time, the hashtag #occupygezi was launched, calling out for support and solidarity. As Koray Çaliskan, a political scientist from the Bosphorus University, wrote in the daily Radikal newspaper, these early protesters came from diverse ideological backgrounds, and among them were even people who had voted in the past for the party in power, the Justice and Development party (AKP).
experience only serves to torment the mind on sleepless nights
The reality of that didn’t hit me until I was almost fifty. I woke up one morning a few days before my fiftieth birthday and suddenly grasped the enormity of it. A half a century is no joke. When I was already old enough to pull the tail of our cat in Belgrade, German tanks were rolling into Paris. It wasn’t the gray hairs on my head that got me, but the deluge of memories. I remembered sitting in the first grade classroom in the fall of 1945 staring at the pictures of Marx, Stalin, and Marshal Tito that hung over the blackboard. I recalled the long forgotten brands of Balkan cigarettes; Russian, French, and American pop tunes from the war years, and the 1930s movies, of which few people alive today have any notion, that were still being shown in my childhood. So many memories came back to me at once; all of a sudden my life seemed to be that of a complete stranger. It took months to get used to it—if one can ever get used to knowing that the world and people one once knew have vanished without a trace. In the final months of my father’s life, every time I went to visit him we talked about books. He had no patience for novels any more. History still fascinated him, and so did certain philosophers. The gloomier the thinker he was reading, the more pleased my father became, since it confirmed his long-held suspicion: the world was going to hell.more from Charles Simic at the NYRB here.
A striking feature of Agamben’s work is its tendency to leap immediately from the tiniest detail to the broadest possible generalization. In Homo Sacer, for instance, we learn that the entire history of Western political thought was always heading toward the horrors of totalitarianism, as we can tell by taking a look at an obscure corner of ancient Roman law. Similarly, while his late works boast increasingly large-scale ambitions, they are nonetheless written in a fragmentary form and always make room for digressions and asides (often in the form of notes inserted right into the middle of the text, introduced by the Hebrew letter "aleph"). These idiosyncratic traits can, I believe, be traced back to Agamben’s two most significant influences: Walter Benjamin and Martin Heidegger. Agamben served as editor of the Italian edition of Benjamin’s complete works, which consist primarily of dense essays and cryptic fragments, the majority of them not published during Benjamin’s lifetime. It’s clear that Agamben admires the compression and vast interdisciplinary range of Benjamin’s work and aspires to similar effects in his own writing. The link to Heidegger is perhaps even closer: as a student in one of Heidegger’s postwar seminars, Agamben picked up the great philosopher’s ambition to provide an overarching account of the history of the West, and use that history to shed light on the contemporary world.more from Adam Kotsko at the LA Review of Books here.
This is philosophical fiction and what Janine and Ardis are hungry for and what they stumble upon in the course of their “adulteries,” goes beyond the physical or sexual, beyond earthly love. Salter and Camus have given their women a deeper reach, a solitary quest for something that no man—husband or lover—could possibly embody or provide for a woman, and vice versa. It is the aspiration, the urge, the hunger to go into the pure space of Rilke’s “open.” In the everyday Ardis and Janine yearn for an essential life, for the quiver and tremble of copious primal love. Both are “unfaithful” and in their consummation with nature, sky, the night, they are given the taste, the thirst for something transcendental and they are both saved and ruined and there will be no going back for them, ever. In the final scene of “My Lord You” when the dog is resurrected at dawn and disappears, Ardis is bereft. She will never see him again. Salter tells us that the dog may be gone—”lost, living elsewhere, his name perhaps to be written in a line someday though most probably he was forgotten, but not by her.”more from Mary Costello at Guernica here.
A beginning carpenter of words.
His letter smells of lumber.
His muse still sleeps in rosewood.
Ambitious noise in a literary sawmill.
Apprentices veneering a gullible tongue.
They cut to size the shy plywood of sentences.
A haiku whittled with a plane.
with a splinter lodged in memory.
It is hard to remove
much harder to describe.
Wood shavings fly. The apple cores of angels.
Dust up to the heavens.
by Ewa Lipska
publisher: Wydawnictwo Literackie, Krakow, 2006
Quiet professor who finally became a bestseller
Arifa Akbar in The Independent:
When the American academic and novelist John Edward Williams published his third novel, in 1965, it was greeted with a respectful, albeit muted, reception by the literary press. The New York Times gave Stoner, the story of an ordinary American man making his way in the world, a favourable enough write-up, while The New Yorker mentioned it in worthy terms in its “briefly noted” column. No other waves were made. After selling a grand total of 2,000 copies, Stoner seemed to suffer the unenviable fate of being respectfully shelved as that “quiet American novel”. Until now, that is. The “quiet” American classic has become something of a slow-burn sensation. Nearly two decades after its author’s death in 1994, Stoner is hitting Europe’s bestseller lists, and causing a stir in Britain and America. The unexpected and widespread reappraisal has earned the epithet “the Stoner phenomenon”.
Scientists capture first images of molecules before and after reaction
From UC Berkeley News Center:
Every chemist’s dream – to snap an atomic-scale picture of a chemical before and after it reacts – has now come true, thanks to a new technique developed by chemists and physicists at the University of California, Berkeley. Using a state-of-the-art atomic force microscope, the scientists have taken the first atom-by-atom pictures, including images of the chemical bonds between atoms, clearly depicting how a molecule’s structure changed during a reaction. Until now, scientists have only been able to infer this type of information from spectroscopic analysis. “Even though I use these molecules on a day to day basis, actually being able to see these pictures blew me away. Wow!” said lead researcher Felix Fischer, UC Berkeley assistant professor of chemistry. “This was what my teachers used to say that you would never be able to actually see, and now we have it here.”
The ability to image molecular reactions in this way will help not only chemistry students as they study chemical structures and reactions, but will also show chemists for the first time the products of their reactions and help them fine-tune the reactions to get the products they want. Fischer, along with collaborator Michael Crommie, a UC Berkeley professor of physics, captured these images with the goal of building new graphene nanostructures, a hot area of research today for materials scientists because of their potential application in next-generation computers.
Hanging on to Mutti
Neal Ascherson reports from Germany, in the LRB:
They always loved huge halls, the Social Democrats. They still do. Vaulted spaces taller than cathedral naves and vaster than locomotive assembly halls, mammoth sheds big enough to hold a battle-cruiser on stocks. This time I was in Augsburg, at the last SPD congress before the German federal elections on 22 September, but it was all familiar as I plodded towards the loudspeakers. The scent of bratwurst and mustard and German coffee; the aisles of lobby stalls promoting car factories, renewable energy, private health insurance or Bavarian tourism; the crop-haired bouncer scowling as he checked the press passes; the delegates clutching the party programme as they waddled through antechamber after antechamber towards the sound of the big guns. And then at last the arena itself, the loyal thousands sitting in half-darkness and staring towards a horizon on which tiny pink figures wiggled in the lights. Giant voices spoke from somewhere.
The BRAIN Initiative: A Primer
June 04, 2013
The Dreams of Italo Calvino
Jonathan Galassi in the New York Review of Books:
If you don’t count Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino (1923–1985) is the postwar Italian prose writer who has had the largest and most enduring impact outside his own country. (As a sign of this, it’s worth noting that this is the tenth consideration of his work to appear in these pages since 1970.) Calvino’s refined, gently pessimistic, humane irony rode the wave of the deconstruction of realistic fiction the way the more programmatic Frenchnouveau roman and OULIPO writers could not, gently unmasking narratorial trade secrets and reminding readers of the self-reflexive nature of the fictional game, while continuing to deliver appetizing fabulist delights.
Postwar Italian fiction offered an embarrassment of riches as substantial as that of any other European country, starting with Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s magisterial, posthumously published The Leopard (1958)—though it might arguably be considered the last great novel of the old school. Before the war, Elio Vittorini and Cesare Pavese had been greatly influenced by Hemingway and American realism; they were followed by a generation that included Giorgio Bassani, Alberto Moravia and his wife Elsa Morante, Carlo Emilio Gadda, Natalia Ginzburg, Leonardo Sciascia, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Primo Levi, to name only the most prominent—most of whom make appearances in this consistently absorbing and suggestive selection of Calvino’s letters, chosen by Michael Wood from the several thousand pages of his literary correspondence published in Italy.
Decoding Space and Time in the Brain
Aiden Arnold in Scientific American:
Spatial cognition is the study of how the mind’s cognitive architecture perceives, organizes and interacts with physical space. It has long been of interest to philosophers and scientists, with perhaps the biggest historical step towards our modern ideas occurring within Immanuel Kant’sCritique of Pure Reason(1781/1787). Kant argued that space as we know it is a preconscious organizing feature of the human mind, a scaffold upon which we’re able to understand the physical world of objects, extension and motion. In a sense, space to Kant was a window into the world, rather than a thing to be perceived in it.
While philosophers following Kant have debated his theory on space perception, it served to lay the groundwork for the twentieth century empirical investigation into how the mind constructs the space that we experience. A key piece to how this happens was provided in 1948 by American psychologist Edward Tolman.
Tolman’s main interest was studying the behavior of rats in mazes – specifically, he was interested in whether a rat came to understand the layout of an environment through purely behavioral mechanisms, or if there was a cognitive process underlying their navigation ability.
Pictures from Turkey
How Not to Win Friends and Influence the Turkish People
Mustafa Akyol in Foreign Policy:
That was not only one of the highlights of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's initial reaction to the massive protest against his government that shook Turkey in the past weekend. It was also the gist of his problem.
Erdogan, the most popular premier Turkey has seen in the past half-century, believes in what political scientists would call a "majoritarian democracy." In other words, he believes that once he gets the majority of the votes -- which he has done successfully throughout the past decade -- he has the right to make every single political decision in the country. He disregards all opposing views, and, furthermore, employs an overbearing tone to shout them down.
The recent dispute over Istanbul's Taksim Square, which triggered the demonstrations, was a perfect example. Erdogan wants to rebuild the square according to his own vision, so the Istanbul municipality, which is controlled by his political party, initiated a reconstruction project. One of the details is the replacement of Gezi Park, a small green area, with a reconstructed Ottoman military barracks, which, as Erdogan said in passing, can also serve as a shopping mall.
But many Taksim residents want to keep their park as it is, and some founded a civil society initiative asking to be heard. But the prime minister never wanted to listen. Instead, when they launched the "Occupy Taksim" campaign last week, a movement with a similar spirit to the "Occupy" movements in Western countries, Erdogan's government responded in a way one should not see in any democracy -- with a police attack on peaceful demonstrators with tear gas and water canons.
I’d like to live Elsewhere.
In hand-embroidered towns.
To meet those
who are not born into the world.
At last we would be happily alone.
No stop would wait for us.
No arrival. No departure.
Evanescence in a museum.
No wars would fight for us.
No humanity. No army. No weapon.
Tipsy death. It would be fun.
In the library a multi-volume time.
Love. A mad chapter.
It would turn the pages of our hearts in a whisper
by Ewa Lipska
publisher: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2003
translation: Robin Davidson & Ewa Elżbieta Nowakowska
from: The New Century
publisher: Northwestern University Press, 2009
Online daters do better in the marriage stakes
Couples in the United States who meet online seem to enjoy at least as much marital bliss as those who meet in more traditional venues, according to the results of an online survey of more than 19,000 people funded by online dating service eHarmony. The survey's participants consisted of people who married between 2005 and 2012. About 35% reported that they had met their spouse online, more than through introductions by friends, work and school combined. The study revealed that people who used this method to meet their spouses were slightly older, wealthier, more educated and more likely to be employed than those who went with tradition1. Yet only about 45% of these online meetings took place on a dating site; the rest occurred through social networks such as Facebook and MySpace, as well as chat rooms, online communities, virtual worlds, multi-player games, blogs and discussion boards.
“Surprisingly, we found that marriages that started online were associated with better outcomes,” says psychologist and lead author John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, Illinois, who is also a scientific adviser to eHarmony.
In the Pursuit of Longevity
Abigail Zuger in The New York Times:
At some point between George Washington and Colonel Sanders, white hair and a cane turned from symbols of elegance to suggestions of decrepitude, and an industry was born. Not that the fountain of youth wasn’t always sought after. But to look young, think young, feel young — those are distinctly modern goals.
Ms. Kessler, a no longer young but not quite old journalist who sneakily never does mention her chronological age, decided to test a host of popular techniques on herself. “I did everything,” she tells her readers, “so you don’t have to.” She starts with the cosmetics of aging, visiting a group of researchers at the University of North Carolina who specialize in digitally aging faces. Their work provides a detailed scientific analysis of the wreckage time’s chariot leaves behind: The face alone sustains almost two dozen separate assaults, from sunken cheeks to larger ears (the cartilage actually grows). With a rendition of her aged self in hand, Ms. Kessler investigates plastic surgery options, supplementing Internet window shopping with a few in-person visits. Everything she hears is light on the blood and gore, heavy on the appealing metaphors. Young skin is spandex; older is linen and needs loving attention. “I am seduced by this language,” she admits. Ultimately, though, she forgoes major procedures in favor of a little botulinum toxin to the forehead (“the change is subtle, like good lighting”) and a variety of potions and laser treatments to the rest of the face (it looks “brighter and more alive”). Surgery on the rest of the body she leaves to those with “more money than sense.” Then it is on to the body’s interior. Ms. Kessler’s first step is a complete evaluation of her risks for imminent collapse, with measurements of blood pressure, cholesterol, stamina, flexibility, oxygen-using ability. She even has a researcher check the health of her mitochondria, cell components whose vigor wanes with age. It turns out she has the mitochondria of a fit young woman, “way too much” body fat, fabulous blood pressure and iffy cholesterol. Time to embark on the cure. To eat herself younger, Ms. Kessler starves, diets, detoxes, cleanses, and supercharges her meals with berries, salmon and all the other good-fat-filled, antioxidant-rich edibles of current vogue. To sweat herself younger, she stretches, lifts weights, runs races, and signs up for not one but two classes featuring the repeated spurts of all-out exertion thought to optimize fitness. Ms. Kessler ingests a variety of vitamins and other compounds, suspending her otherwise reliable skepticism when it comes to several suspicious-sounding Eastern teas. She lies on a hypnotist’s couch to cultivate calm and optimism. It is this forward-looking spirit which, she suspects, kept her great-great-grandmother, known to all as “Old Oldie,” preparing the family breakfast well into her 10th decade.
After a year of all this activity comes Ms. Kessler’s big reveal, and indeed she has improved enough in some objective measures of biologic age to support current estimates that a full 70 percent of the disability of age may be caused by factors within our control. (The other 30 percent is genetic, and even the most energetic guinea pig can’t do a thing about it.)
Does Great Literature Make Us Better?
Gregory Currie in The NYT's The Stone:
Here, quickly, is a reason we already have for thinking the idea of moral and social learning from literature may be misguided.
One reason people like Martha Nussbaum have argued for the benefits of literature is that literature, or fictional narrative of real quality, deals in complexity. Literature turns us away from the simple moral rules that so often prove unhelpful when we are confronted with messy real-life decision making, and gets us ready for the stormy voyage through the social world that sensitive, discriminating moral agents are supposed to undertake. Literature helps us, in other words, to be, or to come closer to being, moral “experts.”
The problem with this argument is that there’s long been evidence that much of what we take for expertise in complex and unpredictable domains – of which morality is surely one – is bogus. Beginning 50 years ago with work by the psychologist Paul Meehl, study after study has shown that following simple rules – rules that take account of many fewer factors than an expert would bother to consider – does at least as well and generally better than relying on an expert’s judgment. (Not that rules do particularly well either; but they do better than expert judgment.)
Some of the evidence for this view is convincingly presented in Daniel Kahneman’s recent book “Thinking Fast and Slow”: spectacular failures of expertise include predictions of the future value of wine, the performance of baseball players, the health of newborn babies and a couple’s prospects for marital stability.