The War as an Escape for the Complexity of Politics, or yet more on Hitchens

The al-Qaeda attack on the United States on September 11th, 2001 did much to realign political affiliations: Jude Wanniski writes occassionally for CounterPunch, Hitchens tours London with David Horowitz and Paul Johnson, not to mention how he turns his former comrades-in-arms into the targets of his famed and prodigous mad-lib like political verdict generator–the one that couples “soft”, “idiocy”, “cretin”, “nasty”, “stupid” with the target’s ethics, morality, judgement, imagination, and intellect. 

It once seemed to me that the aftermath of the attack for many on both sides of the spectrum was a return to an era when politics were clear–think the Spanish Civil War or the fight against the Nazis as the many “Bush=Hitler” signs suggest.  (It still does when the passions fire up.)  Enemies and enmity grew from the size of a louse to life-size to something world historical.  Here’s a piece by George Scialabba from n+1 that traces an evolution (or is it revolution?) of this sort in Hitchens’ thinking.  Somewhere in it seems to be a lesson about many on both sides.

“About any sufferings that cannot serve as a pretext for American military intervention, moreover, Hitchens appears to have stopped caring. . .  He is ‘a single-issue person at present,’ he wrote in endorsing President Bush for reelection. This issue, compared with which everything else is ‘not even in second or third place,’ is ‘the tenacious and unapologetic defense of civilized societies against the intensifying menace of clerical barbarism.’

. . .

Why? What accounts for Hitchens’s astonishing loss of moral and intellectual balance?

. . .

Randolph Bourne, criticizing the New Republic liberals of his era for supporting America’s entry into World War I, wondered whether

realism is always a stern and intelligent grappling with realities. May it not sometimes be a mere surrender to the actual, an abdication of the ideal through a sheer fatigue from intellectual suspense? . . . With how many of the acceptors of war has it been mostly a dread of intellectual suspense? It is a mistake to suppose that intellectuality makes for suspended judgments. The intellect craves certitude. It takes effort to keep it supple and pliable. In a time of danger and disaster we jump desperately for some dogma to cling to. The time comes, if we try to hold out, when our nerves are sick with fatigue, and we seize in a great healing wave of release some doctrine that can be immediately translated into action.

Compare Hitchens’s widely quoted response to 9/11: ‘I felt a kind of exhilaration . . . at last, a war of everything I loved against everything I hated.’ More recently, explaining to Nation readers last November ‘Why I’m (Slightly) for Bush,’ he testified again to the therapeutic value of his new commitment: ‘Myself, I have made my own escape from your self-imposed quandary. Believe me when I say . . . the relief is unbelievable.’ I believe him.”

Little Boy

There have been a number of aticles about the current show at the Japan Society in New York entitled Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture. Having just had a chance to see it, I couldn’t recommend it more. Japan’s can be a difficult culture to penetrate. I’m not sure full penetration occurs here, but it would be hard to see this exhibit without some flashes of understanding.

Here’s the NY Times review from Roberta Smith.

The work of Aya Takano sticks in one’s mind, to say the least. The picture on this post is from her illustration for Hiroshi Homura’s “Mail Mania Mami’s Summertime Move With Rabbit.”

What’s in a Name?

by Tasneem Zehra Husain
ScreenHunter_2744 Jul. 03 11.45

Maluma and Takete

No offense to Shakespeare, but I've never quite bought into the philosophy that names are immaterial. Calling a rose by another name might not affect its smell, but it could well impact our association with the flower.

To me, the act of naming borders on the sacred. Names, I feel, shouldn't be easily replaceable; they are not placeholders or dummy variables, but titles, clues to the true nature of something, and as such, they should contain the essence of whatever it is they label.
I know this may sound naive; and I admit it smacks of fairy tales and myths: fantasy worlds where knowing someone's true name (Rumplestiltskin, for instance) grants you power over them, but there is a fair bit of evidence that even here in the ‘real world', a name – both the visual arrangement of letters, as well as their sound – impacts our perception of the named.
The most quoted example is that of German psychologist Wolfgang Kohler's famous study, in which he made up two nonsense words, maluma and takete and drew two shapes to accompany them – one sharp and angular, the other a rounded squiggle. When asked to pair the object with the name, the vast majority of respondents labelled the rounded object maluma and the angular one takete.
Adam Alter describes this and several other studies in his New Yorker piece before concluding that "as soon as you label a concept, you change how people perceive it."
If I was to argue this point, I thought, I could probably say all I had to on the subject just using the Higgs Boson as a case study. In my opinion, most of the misconceptions about this celebrity particle came about due to wrong names.

Read more »

Wallace on Right-Wing Radio

I don’t normally post links to The Atlantic because their online archive is only available to subscribers. But, with apologies to non-subscribers, here’s an exception made for David Foster Wallace’s “Host,” a gigantic and brilliant dissection of right-wing radio, which also has an innovative hypertextual color-coded element for its footnotes. Let me plead with readers to pick up a copy of the April Atlantic just to read this article. There’s other interesting stuff in there too, like this ideologically-skewed Hitchens review of Ian McEwan’s Saturday.

Role of Dreams in Evolution of Human Mind

Paper by Michael S. Franklin and Michael J. Zyphur in Evolutionary Psychology:

This paper presents an evolutionary argument for the role of dreams in the development of human cognitive processes. While a theory by Revonsuo (2000) proposes that dreams allow for threat rehearsal and therefore provide an evolutionary advantage, the goal of this paper is to extend this argument by commenting on other fitness-enhancing aspects of dreams. Rather than a simple threat rehearsal mechanism, it is argued that dreams reflect a more general virtual rehearsal mechanism that is likely to play an important role in the development of human cognitive capacities. This paper draws on current work in cognitive neuroscience and philosophy of mind in developing the argument.

More here.

Feminist icon Andrea Dworkin dies at 59

Simon Jeffery in The Guardian:

AndreadworkinThe American feminist icon, writer and campaigner Andrea Dworkin, who linked pornography to rape and violence, died at the weekend, her agent said today. She was 59 years old.

Her radical-feminist critique of pornography began with her first book, Woman Hating, published when she was 27. She campaigned frequently on the subject, helping to draft a law in 1983 that defined pornography as a civil rights violation against women.

More here.

The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

James Gleick reviews a biography of Oppenheimer in the Washington Post:

OppenheimerThe atomic bomb would surely have come into existence without Oppenheimer to lead the Manhattan Project, but the label “Father of the Bomb” could be attached to no one else. He felt his responsibility deeply. His self-lacerating conscience let him see with immediate and lasting clarity what his success meant for humanity. If he had done nothing else — if nothing else had happened to him — Oppenheimer would still be one of the 20th century’s great, complex, defining figures.

More here.

Predicting a Baseball’s Path

From American Scientist:

Wave_7 With the crowd going wild and sweat pouring from your every pore, you have to concentrate on the ball that is about to be launched in your direction. You must gather as much information about the pitch as quickly as you can in order to make crucial decisions.

As we will show, you get just a few hundreds of milliseconds to figure out what kind of pitch—perhaps traveling at almost 100 miles per hour—is heading toward the plate. In that instant, you must observe the ball’s spin and predict how it will move on its way to the plate. It’s a daunting computational task. Luckily, we can describe a few clues for you to use. And you will need them soon, because that fearsome pitcher is rocking back on his pivot leg. In a split second, his arm will swing through a great arc and send a baseball hurtling your way.

More here.

Two Film Series Spotlight Indian Cinema’s Dual Traditions

In the Village Voice:

Amitabh With some high-profile releases in the past few years, increased press coverage, and tourist-friendly phenomena like Bombay Dreams, the Bollywood brand is quickly finding its place in American pop culture’s mainstream masala. Now, two uptown series attempt to flesh out the recent history of Indian cinema. Lincoln Center fetes mega-luminary Amitabh Bachchan, touted record-book-style as “the biggest film star in the world.” The title of Bachchan’s tribute is inspired by a 1999 BBC online poll that named him Superstar of the Millennium. Bachchan bested not only Sir Laurence Olivier and Charlie Chaplin but presumably Sarah Bernhardt and David Garrick; Bachchan’s sheer number of film roles—almost 150 since his debut in 1969—was no doubt a decisive factor. In his first hit, the violent revenge narrative Zanjeer (1973), the towering, baritone-voiced actor established the model for his later on-screen persona: the “angry young man” who takes on the powerful and unscrupulous but displays a charismatic decorum between smackdowns. In keeping with Bollywood’s market-friendly smorgasbordism, Bachchan served as Dustin Hoffman, John Travolta, and Sylvester Stallone rolled into one.

More here.

Art out of invisible forces

Tracy Staedter at the Discovery Channel:

Weirdfield2_zoomA physics class competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., has students making art out of invisible forces.

The Weird Fields contest, part of the undergraduate course “Introduction to Electricity and Magnetism,” — encourages students to use a special computer program that converts mathematical formulas into visual representations of electromagnetic fields.

The resulting swirls, loops, circles and squares, while not necessarily corresponding exactly to those occurring in nature, offer a creative way to understand some of the most abstract concepts in physics.

More here.

Kooser wins Pulitzer, 2nd poet laureate term

From USA Today:

Kooser_1The American poet laureate, appointed by the librarian of Congress, does not write poems on public events like his British counterpart, who is appointed for life. He performs a minimum of official duties so he can pursue his own ideas to promote poetry.

Kooser’s idea was to offer a free weekly poem to U.S. newspapers. The second poem, Jonathan Greene’s “At the Grave”, was posted Thursday on the program’s Web site,

More here.  Read some Kooser poems here, like:

Flying at Night
Above us, stars. Beneath us, constellations.
Five billion miles away, a galaxy dies
like a snowflake falling on water. Below us,
some farmer, feeling the chill of that distant death,
snaps on his yard light, drawing his sheds and barn
back into the little system of his care.
All night, the cities, like shimmering novas,
tug with bright streets at lonely lights like his.

Lynn Margulis on Ernst Mayr, Biologist Extraordinaire

From American Scientist:

EarnstmayerThe death of the last of the great evolutionary biologists of the 20th century concluded an intellectual movement in the study of evolution—a point of view whose most striking aspect was the extent to which all of the evolutionary history of life on Earth was perceived as a subdiscipline of biology. Whereas Thomas Kuhn, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, might have called it a paradigm, Ludwik Fleck (author of Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, 1935) would have recognized the correlated demise of neo-Darwinism and the death of Professor Mayr as a paradigm lost.

An accomplished naturalist, Ernst Mayr began his work in 1923 at the age of 19. The last of his 25 books, a collection of essays called What Makes Biology Unique? Considerations on the Autonomy of a Scientific Discipline, was published by Cambridge University Press in the summer of 2004, one month after his 100th birthday!

More here.

3QD Monday Musing: Cake Theory and Sri Lanka’s President

Even though we are for the most part a “links” blog, the editors of 3 Quarks Daily have decided that we will take turns writing a short column each Monday, where we can talk about whatever we feel like. No one else wanted to do the first one so it has fallen to me by default, and I’ll take this opportunity to just ramble on about a bunch of things…

Last fall, the President of Sri Lanka, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, gave a very good speech on conflict resolution at the Asia Society in New York City, at which I was present, and in which, among other things, she commented that:

PresConflict resolution has become today, a high profile subject taught in universities and lectured on, at many a seminar and conference. Experts in this field are held in awe in some circles in many countries. Yet, conflict resolution is not new. It has only been packaged differently in our age.

Afterwards, there was a reception and a friend introduced me to the President, to whom I said that although she was right about there being a lot of fancy repackaging of age-old wisdom in the academic field of conflict resolution, there have been some interesting intellectual developments, in mathematics, for example, which do provide new tools for avoiding or even resolving conflicts. As an example, I brought up cake theory.

Cake theory basically looks at methods of how to divide a cake among n persons so that each of them feels they got a fair share. For example, for two persons, one method would be to have one person cut the cake into two pieces, after which the other person gets to choose which piece she wants. This obviously gives the first person great incentive to carefully cut the cake into equal halves, otherwise she will get stuck with the smaller one. It gets a little more complicated for greater numbers of persons, but the problem has been solved for arbitrary n.

One method for dividing the cake into an arbitrary number of portions is described in the Wikipedia this way:

Another method begins with the first person portioning off 1 / n of the resource (for n people). Each following person then examines the portion in turn, removing a part for themselves if they believe the portion to be larger than 1 / n. The last person to remove part receives the portion. The process continues until the entire resource has been fairly divided.

The problem may be modified by requiring the division to be envy-free: that is, each recipient should not only believe that they have at least 1 / n of the resource (according to their measure) but that no other recipient has received more than they have.

The President seemed interested, so I went on to point out that this method has already been used in the Law of the Sea Treaty to divide under-sea mining resources between industrialized and developing countries:

The Convention of the Law of the Sea, which went into effect in 1994, incorporates such a scheme to protect the interests of developing countries when a highly industrialized nation wants to mine a portion of the seabed underlying international waters. The country seeking to mine would divide that area into two portions. An independent agency representing the developing countries would then choose one of the two tracts, reserving it for future use. [See more here.]

Sri_lankan_president_margit_and_abbasAt this point, Madam President’s philistine handlers decided that she had been subjected to a long enough insane-sounding harangue on “cakes” and “the sea” by me, and she was dragged off to be introduced to someone more polite. But she was interested, and subsequently had my wife, Margit, and me over to the Presidential Palace in Columbo for drinks when we were visiting friends in Sri Lanka later in the year.

Anyhow, we had a great time in Sri Lanka, and were saddened to hear that, among so many lives and so much else, the beautiful old hotel we stayed at on the beach in the coastal city of Galle was destroyed by the tsunami. But even that most horrific of disasters may have a silver lining in terms of our theme of conflict resolution, making possible more fruitful negotiations between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers (the LTTE): there is more about that here.

I was reminded of all this by a great post yesterday at Something Similar by Jeff Hodges, about The Fair Division Calculator.

Have a good week!

Euripides’s war-torn Hecuba resonates

Susannah Clapp in The Observor:

Redgrave_1  Bringing the ancient Greeks closer to us is probably the only cultural achievement of the war in Iraq. The translation of the play’s action into the 21st century is more or less seamless: the chorus of lamenting women could be the background to the report of an atrocity; the cycle of revenge, with its bloody display of children’s bodies, now looks almost routine.

The case is clear and there’s no need for Harrison’s translation – fleshy, forthright, always robust, but sometimes overdone – to thump down every modern parallel. A few nods in the direction of the here and now work well: triumphant Greeks swagger about the coalition’s plans; there’s a lament about the price paid for democracy. These signals would have been enough. Darrell D’Silva’s otherwise powerful Odysseus takes things too far with his intermittent George Dubya accent.

And there is Vanessa Redgrave. You see the outlines of what she can do here and the uniqueness of what she does.

More here.

Hawaii Territory

Nancy Morris in The American Heritage:Hawaii

From the observation deck of the Aloha Tower there is a panoramic view of the Honolulu waterfront and a once infamous district known as Iwilei. Looking for local color, Somerset Maugham went slumming there and wrote this in his notebook: “You go down side-streets by the harbour, in the darkness, across a rickety bridge, and you come to a road, all ruts and holes; a little farther … there is a certain stir, an air of expectant agitation; you turn down a narrow alley, either to the right or to the left, and find yourself in the district… . The pretty bungalows are divided into two lodgings; each is inhabited by a woman, and each consists of two rooms and a kitchenette.”

A prostitute named Sadie Thompson, Maugham was to find, lived in one of those bungalows. Shortly after Maugham’s Iwilei adventure, the police shut down the district. Sadie was out of business and sailed off to Samoa. As it turned out, Maugham was on board that ship too and suffered through her loud gramophone and late-night trysts. In Samoa, temporarily stranded by a storm, he found himself in the same boardinghouse as Sadie. There was a reallife hypocritical missionary staying in the boardinghouse too, although he seems not to have met the final grim end of Maugham’s character Davidson. Sadie’s adventures became Maugham’s most famous short story, “Rain.” The writer did not even bother to change her name: Passenger lists published in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser record a “Somerset Maugham” and a “Miss Thompson” departing Honolulu for Pago Pago on the Sonoma, December 4, 1916.

More here.