van gogh drawings


Fame hasn’t always been kind to the reputation of Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), whose drawings are now featured in an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s owing to his fame, after all, that van Gogh is still so often described as a deranged genius—the man who cut off his ear in a fit of paranoid rage. Yet the artist’s drawings often tell a different story. For while it’s true that in these drawings every dot, squiggle and stroke of van Gogh’s emphatic pen is charged with an uncommon emotional weight, it’s also true that his draftsmanship is just as often governed by a sustained feat of pictorial precision and control. Complex spatial perspectives are strictly observed even in drawings that are overcrowded with visual detail, and every image—including the artist’s self-portraits—is rendered with a faithful depiction of its observed subject.

more from Hilton Kramer at The New York Observer here.

Is Osama Dead or Alive?


Is he dead or alive? Now newspaper Ausaf published from Multan has reported that Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden died four months ago in a village near Kandahar of severe illness. He was campaigning at Bamiyan, fell very ill, returned to Kandahar where he died and was buried in the “Shada graveyard in the shadow of a mountain.” Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf was not far from the truth when he told reporters from CBS News last month, “he has become a cult, I think.”

More here.

Waiting for an Islamic Enlightenment

Tariq Ali on “No God But God” in the Guardian:

God Reza Aslan is an Iranian-American writer, a Shia by persuasion, and informs us in the prologue to his book that he will be denounced as an apostate by some and an apologist by others, but that the latter does not bother him since “there is no higher calling than to defend one’s faith”, especially in times of ignorance and hate.

The Shia sects and some of their more esoteric beliefs have little to do with Islamic theology. An Iranian equivalent of Monty Python’s Life of Brian will deconstruct all this one day. Shia mythology (some of it uncritically recycled here) transformed a crude bid for power by Ali’s son, Hussain, and his defeat and death at the hands of the Caliph Yazid, into a sacred martyrdom commemorated to this day with an annual display of self-flagellation and blood-spilling. The reform solution is to ban the self-flagellation and instead encourage participants to donate their blood to hospitals. It’s an amusing idea that misses the whole point about the processions, designed by the Shia clergy to encourage obedience, inculcate the idea of an eternal martyrdom and maintain their grip.

More here.

Raving Egomania and Utter Batshit Insanity

Cosma Shalizi, indubitably one of the smartest persons in the blogoshere, has posted a brilliant and very substantive review (in other words, he has said in an erudite manner what I thought but couldn’t express anywhere nearly as well when I read the book) that he wrote of Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science, when it had come out a couple of years ago:

Normally, scientific work is full of references to previous works, if only to say things like “the outmoded theory of Jones [1], unable to accommodate stubborn experimental facts [2–25], has generally fallen out of favor”. This is how you indicate what’s new, what you’re relying on, how you let readers immerse themselves in the web of ideas that is an particular field of research. Wolfram has deliberately omitted references. Now, this is sometimes done: Darwin did it in The Origin of Species, for instance, to try to get it to press quickly. But Wolfram has written 1100 pages over about a decade; what would it have hurt to have included citations? In his end-notes, where he purports to talk about what people have done, he is misleading, or wrong, or both. (An indefinite number of examples can be provided upon request.) To acknowledge that he had predecessors who were not universally blinkered fools would, however, conflict with the persona he is try to project to others, and perhaps to himself.

Let me try to sum up. On the one hand, we have a large number of true but commonplace ideas, especially about how simple rules can lead to complex outcomes, and about the virtues of toy models. On the other hand, we have a large mass of dubious speculations (many of them also unoriginal). We have, finally, a single new result of mathematical importance, which is not actually the author’s. Everything is presented as the inspired fruit of a lonely genius, delivering startling insights in isolation from a blinkered and philistine scientific community. We have been this way before.

More here.

Taiwan to ignore flu drug patent

From BBC News:

TamifluTaiwan has responded to bird flu fears by starting work on its own version of the anti-viral drug, Tamiflu, without waiting for the manufacturer’s consent.

Taiwan officials said they had applied for the right to copy the drug – but the priority was to protect the public.

Tamiflu, made by Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche, cannot cure bird-flu but is widely seen as the best anti-viral drug to fight it, correspondents say.

More here.

The Fall of the Warrior King

Dexter Filkins in the New York Times Magazine:

23coverEven in an Army in which ferocious competition produced nearly perfect specimens of brains and lethality, Sassaman stood apart. Commanding some 800 soldiers in the heart of the insurgency-ravaged Sunni Triangle, Sassaman, then 40, had distinguished himself as one of the nimblest, most aggressive officers in Iraq. From his base in Balad, a largely Shiite city in a sea of Sunni villages, Sassaman bucked the civilian authorities and held local elections months earlier than in most of the country’s other towns and cities. His relations with the locals in Balad were so warm that on each Friday afternoon, inside a circle of tanks on an empty field, his men would face off against the Iraqis for a game of soccer. He was a West Point grad and the son of a Methodist minister. As quarterback for Army’s football team in the 1980’s, he ran for 1,002 yards in a single season and carried West Point’s team to its first bowl victory. Everyone in the Army knew of Nate Sassaman.

Yet as his junior officers briefed him in January about what had happened to two Iraqis his men detained that night by the Tigris, the straight lines and rigid hierarchy of the Army that had created him seemed, like so many other American ideas brought to this murky land, no longer particularly relevant…

The events that would end the career of one of the Army’s most celebrated midlevel officers sent a shock through the American force in Iraq. It is only now, with the Army’s investigation complete and Sassaman’s career over, that the story can be pieced together from interviews with him, his comrades and the Iraqis. Twenty-two months after that night on the Tigris, it is a tale that seems like a parable of the dark passage that lay ahead for the Americans in Iraq.

More here.

MacMansions on MacQuasars

From Now or Never:

The other day one of my students asked me what I thought about our spending billions to explore space when we have so many problems here on earth that need our attention.  It’s a good question. The USA’s scoping out another moon shot as we speak. China’s orbiting the globe now and should soon be as dizzy as other super-duper powers. Mars is on the horizon. Before you know it there’ll be MacMansions on MacQuasars, yet bad news falls from terra firma’s firmament without let-up.  Sadly the human record  seems to tell us our’s is a conflict without resolution, a condition without a cure.

It’s deja vu cloned and cubed.

What we’re caught up in is the eternal call of the moment wrestling with our obsession with the unknown. Instant gratification chronically usurping future returns.  In modern 1st world parlance, it’s like being strapped to a table in a fast food joint wolfing juicy supersizes with fries until we’re bigger than Jupiter, instead of getting out there and exploring Jupiter.  It’s an endless state of affairs.  We might as well be Sysiphus, and this dilemma our rolling stone.  God knows we need the exercise.

More here.

Better than a Timex

From Discover:

SOMETIMES, WHEN THINGS GET SUFFICIENTLY WEIRD, SUBTLETY NO longer works, so i’ll be blunt:  The gleaming device I am staring at in the corner of a machine shop in San Rafael, California, is the most audacious machine ever built. It is a clock, but it is designed to do something no clock has ever been conceived to do—run with perfect accuracy for 10,000 years.

Everything about this clock is deeply unusual. For example, while nearly every mechanical clock made in the last millennium consists of a series of propelled gears, this one uses a stack of mechanical binary computers capable of singling out one moment in 3.65 million days. Like other clocks, this one can track seconds, hours, days, and years. Unlike any other clock, this one is being constructed to keep track of leap centuries, the orbits of the six innermost planets in our solar system, even the ultraslow wobbles of Earth’s axis.

Made of stone and steel, it is more sculpture than machine. And, like all fine timepieces, it is outrageously expensive. No one will reveal even an approximate price tag, but a multibillionaire financed its construction, and it seems likely that shallower pockets would not have sufficed.

Fleeing to Europe

Der Standard (via Sign and Sight) looks at the politically charged issue of asylum seekers (refugees) in Europe in this interview with the Portuguese journalist, Paulo Moura on African refugees in Morocco.

Der Standard: In recent years, the EU has let it be known it has plans to create outposts for African refugees in North Africa. Haven’t these outposts existed for a long time now?

Paulo Moura: Yes, as informal camps. In general, the refugees see it as their right to solve the problem as they see fit. What is certain is that they want to come to Europe, and there is nothing that can change their minds. They live to reach Europe. So it wouldn’t be a good idea to set up such camps. The last time I was in one of these “underground camps” in a forest near Ceuta, a refugee leader said that the official outposts wouldn’t change the refugees’ condition one bit. The money would be used for the local people of the country in question. “Official” camps only serve to give Europeans a clear conscience.

Morocco receives financial aid from the EU. What impact does this have? Are institutions in place that supervise this money flow?

The country receives money to solve problems where they occur. But the way this is done is unacceptable. Prison conditions are miserable, and the jails are filled to overflowing. Thousands of people continue to live and die in the forests and deserts, and nothing is done to stop it. And the system of corruption in Morocco pervades every level – from the government to the police to the military. So it’s impossible to exercise control.

praising agee


Agee’s film criticism sounds like that too, a calculated yet self-exceeding improvisation. Its culmination is the twenty-five-page essay he wrote for Life in September 1949 titled “Comedy’s Greatest Era.” Agee’s premise was simple: “As soon as the screen began to talk, silent comedy was pretty well finished.” In a Bob Hope film, “the fun slackens between laughs like a weak clothesline.” What Agee loved in silent movies was the same thing that he loved in nineteenth-century daguerreotypes and New Orleans jazz, an unselfconscious authenticity of the kind Schiller called “naïve” rather than sentimental. Agee began his essay in a mock-analytic mode: “In the language of screen comedians four of the main grades of laugh are the titter, the yowl, the bellylaugh and the boffo. The titter is just a titter. The yowl is a runaway titter. Anyone who has ever had the pleasure knows all about a bellylaugh. The boffo is the laugh that kills.” Agee examined the smiles of the great comedians: Harold Lloyd’s “thesaurus of smiles” which “could at a moment’s notice blend prissiness, breeziness and asininity,” or Buster Keaton–the “most deeply ‘silent’ of the silent comedians”–whose smile “was as deafeningly out of key as a yell.” The twitchings of Harry Langdon’s clueless face “were signals of tiny discomforts too slowly registered by a tinier brain; quick, squirty little smiles showed his almost prehuman pleasures, his incurably premature trustfulness.” And then there was Chaplin, some kind of ultimate for Agee: “Of all comedians he worked most deeply and most shrewdly within a realization of what a human being is, and is up against.”

more from TNR here.

Schama on rubens


The thing about entitling your show “Master in the Making” is that it assumes a public already sold on just what it was that got made. But that couldn’t be less true in the case of Rubens. In any given museum on any given Sunday, the empty gallery is invariably “Flemish, 17th Century”, where gatherings of massively upholstered nudes shift their dimpled weight opposite a collision of horses and carnivores, while by the door an obscure and pallid saint embraces his martyrdom with rolled-up eyes. Punters enter, take a quick gander, assume the proper expression of the glazed, the cowed, the awed and the baffled, and then accelerate towards the door marked “Rembrandt”.

more from the Guardian Unlimited here.

giant squid


OK, Us, you’ve had your fun. Now you best pay attention. Those pictures you took crossed a lot of lines, and I, Giant Squid, want to set some ground rules if you ever want me to cooperate again. Giant Squid doesn’t have a lot of patience.

Not all of the pictures made Giant Squid mad. The first ones of me underwater, for example—those were all right. Nonintrusive, plenty of Japanese scientists on hand to make it legit. All in all, pretty understandable, pretty exciting even, considering that Giant Squid hadn’t ever been photographed in his natural environment before. Hell, I’ve been a giant squid my whole life, and even now sometimes just the fact that a creature like me exists is enough to make Giant Squid ink himself. For the sake of science, Giant Squid is glad you’re happy with those shots. Giant Squid saw some of them on Yahoo!’s newswire, and he’s gotta say they turned out pretty well.

But now it’s gotten out of hand. . .

more from McSweeney’s here.

Magnetic stimulation helps stroke victims


From The Harvard Gazette:

To recover from a stroke, it helps to get the two sides of the brain talking to each other again. One way to do this is by waving a magnetic wand over the heads of stroke victims, a Harvard researcher has found. The technique, called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), is painless. Felipe Fregni, a neurologist at Harvard Medical School, has used it to improve the movement skills of people whose brains have been damaged by strokes, skills that include everything from writing to putting on your pants.

Stroke3450 Frengi is having some success adjusting the go and no-go signals with magnetic pulses generated in the wand. He and his colleagues at the Harvard Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation have “pulsed” 26 patients so far, with encouraging results.

More here.

‘Shakespeare’; ‘A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare’: Straight Out of Stratford

From The New York Times:Shakespeare_4

By now research and criticism have shed so much light on Shakespeare that anyone interested enough to read these books knows the broad outlines of his life: childhood and schooling in Stratford in a household probably hiding condemned Roman Catholicism under a Protestant facade; marriage at 18 to the 26-year-old Anne Hathaway and the births of three children; the so-called lost years, during which Will may have worked for a butcher (unlikely) or tutored in the homes of Lancashire nobility (more likely). The coming to London as actor, playwright and poet, involved in the rivalries among various acting companies and competition with fellow playwrights. Perhaps also something about the mainly good relations with two monarchs, Elizabeth and James, and with certain prominent noblemen. Finally, the retirement to Stratford and life as a wealthy landowner, only sporadically punctuated by collaboration with other dramatists.

Personally, I hail the anonymous student who stated, “Shakespeare’s plays were written by William Shakespeare or another man of that name.”

More here.

Ben Marcus vs. Jonathan Franzen

Jess Row in Slate:

Living, as we do, in the aftermath of this age of grand theories, it’s hard to read Ben Marcus’ essay in the current issue of Harper’s—with the wonderful tongue-in-cheek title “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It”—without asking: Does he really mean it? Title notwithstanding, it seems he really does. He means it when he says, “In the literary world, it’s not politic to suggest that the brain is even involved in reading”; when he proclaims that “literature is dying”; when he describes himself as “responding to an attack from the highest point of status culture.” These sentences have the unmistakable flavor of the avant-garde, in the original military sense of the word. They carry what Barth (referring to his own work) called “the whiff of tear gas at their margins.” “This is not a manifesto,” Marcus concludes. But if not, it’s as close to one as we’re likely to see from a writer of fiction today. Profoundly nostalgic—as so many manifestoes turn out to be under close examination—it returns us to the pure spirit of modernism and the rhetoric of cultural crisis, of vanguards and reactionaries, of the Chosen and the Left Behind. As such, it’s an unnecessary, and disingenuous, attempt to repolarize American literary culture.

More here.  [Thanks to Asad and Husain Naqvi.]

‘I Will Eat Your Dollars’

On Nigerian scammers in the Los Angeles Times:

To them, the scams, called 419 after the Nigerian statute against fraud, are a game.

Their anthem, “I Go Chop Your Dollars,” hugely popular in Lagos, hit the airwaves a few months ago as a CD penned by an artist called Osofia:

“419 is just a game, you are the losers, we are the winners.
White people are greedy, I can say they are greedy
White men, I will eat your dollars, will take your money and disappear.
419 is just a game, we are the masters, you are the losers.”

“Nobody feels sorry for the victims,” Samuel said.

Scammers, he said, “have the belief that white men are stupid and greedy. They say the American guy has a good life. There’s this belief that for every dollar they lose, the American government will pay them back in some way.”

More here.