Is Bush’s nightmare Venezuela’s salvation?

Greg Grandin in the Boston Review:

Chavez20and20bushThere is something quaint—flattering, even—about the way Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez insists on calling George W. Bush “Mr. Danger.” The taunt, which Chávez delivers in English with rolled-out vowels and pinched consonants, evokes an earlier era of cloak-and-dagger politics and lends Bush a certain mystery that he is generally denied in these shrill times of stateless terrorism. Mr. Danger, it turns out, is a minor character in Rómulo Gallegos’s 1929 novel Doña Barbara, a landmark in Venezuelan literature and before the fiction boom of the 1970s one of the most widely read Latin American novels in the world. A “great mass of muscles under red skin, with a pair of very blue eyes,” he is one of many unsympathetic misters who populate 20th-century Latin American social and magical realist prose, beginning in 1904 with the Chilean writer Baldomero Lillo’s abusive mine foreman Mr. Davis and continuing through Mr. Brown, the manager of a U.S. banana company in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

More here.

‘Big Brother’ eyes make us act more honestly

Debora MacKenzie in New Scientist:

We all know the scene: the departmental coffee room, with the price list for tea and coffee on the wall and the “honesty box” where you pay for your drinks – or not, because no one is watching.

In a finding that will have office managers everywhere scurrying for the photocopier, researchers have discovered that merely a picture of watching eyes nearly trebled the amount of money put in the box.


Melissa Bateson and colleagues at Newcastle University, UK, put up new price lists each week in their psychology department coffee room. Prices were unchanged, but each week there was a photocopied picture at the top of the list, measuring 15 by 3 centimetres, of either flowers or the eyes of real faces. The faces varied but the eyes always looked directly at the observer.

In weeks with eyes on the list, staff paid 2.76 times as much for their drinks as in weeks with flowers. “Frankly we were staggered by the size of the effect,” Gilbert Roberts, one of the researchers, told New Scientist.

More here.

Social Networking for Bookworms

Aaron Rutkoff in the Wall Street Journal:

Library_1…for Tim Spalding, a computer programmer and bibliophile, listing a few titles in an online profile isn’t enough. He sought a way to catalog his entire book collection — and to check out what was lining other people’s shelves.

To satisfy his curiosity, Mr. Spalding created a Web site where members can create library-quality catalogs of the books they own and display their collection to fellow online bookshelf browsers. “When I come into someone’s house, the first thing I do is look at their bookshelf,” Mr. Spalding admits. “This is totally that thing — it’s books as mental furniture.”

He launched in August as a way to bring the organizational joys of the librarian to a wider array of book nerds. Ten months later, his concept has blossomed into a vibrant community with 47,670 registered members — some paying — and a user-created catalog that includes more than 3.6 million volumes. In theory, that makes LibraryThing the 58th largest library in the U.S.

More here.

Debating Wal-Mart

In Slate, exchanges between Barbara Ehrenreich and Jason Furman on whether Wal-Mart is good for the working class and for Wal-Mart workers.

[Furman] Maybe you’re ready to grant my point that Wal-Mart’s low prices are great for the 298 million Americans who don’t work there. But what about the 1.3 million Americans who do work for Wal-Mart? Here the evidence is murkier, in part because Wal-Mart refuses to release the data on its wages and benefits that could clear up a number of questions. What we do know is that its wages and benefits are about average for the retail sector—which is to say, not so great. It is harder to quantify other aspects of the job, like the quality of the work, the number of breaks, the prospects for advancement. You should let me know how you think it compares.

Studies have reached conflicting conclusions about the impact of Wal-Mart on local labor markets, with some finding that it creates more jobs than it displaces and others finding that it reduces jobs and nominal wages. Personally, I don’t put a huge amount of stock in any of these findings because I believe that Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve decide the total number of jobs nationwide. If anything, the greater competition and productivity growth associated with the growth of Wal-Mart may have played a role in allowing the Federal Reserve to tolerate the high level of job creation in the 1990s.

Money Doesn’t Make You Happy, Well, Maybe A Little

In the current issue of Science (behind a subscription wall) there is a piece by Alan B. Krueger, Daniel Kahneman, David Schkade, Norbert Schwarz, and Arthur Stone that suggests the link between income and happiness is mostly an illusion.

[Abstract] The belief that high income is associated with good mood is widespread but mostly illusory. People with above-average income are relatively satisfied with their lives but are barely happier than others in moment-to-moment experience, tend to be more tense, and do not spend more time in particularly enjoyable activities. Moreover, the effect of income on life satisfaction seems to be transient. We argue that people exaggerate the contribution of income to happiness because they focus, in part, on conventional achievements when evaluating their life or the lives of others.

On the research, from Eureka Alert:

For the new study, the researchers examined data from the 2004 survey to illustrate misperceptions that more money buys more happiness. Their experiment extended previous studies in which people have exhibited a “focusing illusion” when asked about certain factors contributing to their happiness — attributing a greater importance to that factor once it has been brought to mind. For example, when people were asked to describe their general happiness and then asked how many dates they had in the past month, their answers showed little correlation. But when the order of the questions was reversed for another group, the link between their love lives and general happiness became much greater.

To test whether this illusion applied to income, Krueger, Kahneman and their colleagues studied the responses given by the women in the 2004 DRM survey. After they were asked to report the percentage of time they spent in a bad mood the previous day, they were asked to predict how much time people with certain income levels spend in a bad mood.

Survey respondents expected women who earned less than $20,000 a year to spend 32 percent more of their time in a bad mood than they expected people who earned more than $100,000 a year to spend in a bad mood. In actuality, respondents who earned less than $20,000 a year reported spending only 12 percent more of their time in a bad mood than those who earned more than $100,000. So the effect of income on mood was vastly exaggerated.

Power on How to Recover US Influence in the World

Samatha Power offers some thoughts on fixing American foreign policy, in Harvard Magazine.

Can American foreign policy be fixed? Whether the alarms are caused by our plummeting global standing, our deadly war in Iraq, our democratization efforts (which have produced outcomes we don’t like), or our often seemingly self-defeating efforts to curb terrorism, most Americans are now prepared to acknowledge that the United States is in trouble abroad. Because of our current strategic, financial, and reputational predicament, much of what follows sounds directed at the Bush administration. But it is essential that we acknowledge the degree to which this administration has exposed and exacerbated structural fis sures that were evident long before it took office. If the United States is to turn things around, it must identify the flaws in the conception and conduct of its foreign policy and fix what is fix able. Rather than leaving foreign policy to the “experts,” the rest of us must insist that our government play a role in the world that is more attentive to the values and long-term interests of its citizens.

Jeffrey Goldberg and the War

Ken Silverstein in Harper’s magazine looks at Jeffrey Goldberg and the Iraq war.

Last week Jeffrey Goldberg, the Washington correspondent for the New Yorker, spoke at a panel session here that asked the burning question, “Can Liberals—and Only Liberals—Win the War on Terror?” Readers may recall that Goldberg was, in the year leading up to the war, a strong proponent of invading Iraq, and wrote a number of articles that echoed the administration’s arguments for toppling Saddam Hussein. That was no coincidence, since his reporting relied heavily on administration sources and war hawks (and in at least one crucial case, a fabricator).

Goldberg and his friends predicted that events would unfold smoothly in Iraq, and now that they haven’t, he wants to make sure that U.S. troops stay put and fight the war that he helped promote. The Democrats, he told the Washington panel, can regain power only by reaching out to their conservative wing (and to voters even further to the right who over the years have migrated from the party to the G.O.P.). He’s been interviewing members of this vital voting-bloc, he said, and he was able to report that they would “like to leave Iraq but they’d really like to win Iraq” and are looking for “a party and leadership” that can lead the way to victory.

Revisiting Psychoanalysis

Michael Wood in the London Review of Books.

In 1936 Freud wrote a letter to Romain Rolland, offering him a speculation about a particular memory as a 70th birthday gift. The memory concerned a trip Freud took to Athens with his brother, and his own ‘curious thought’ at the sight of the Acropolis: ‘So this all really does exist, just as we learned in school!’ Freud describes himself as two people, one making the comment and the other perceiving it:

and both were amazed, although not by the same thing. One of these persons behaved as though . . . he was obliged to believe in something the reality of which had until then seemed uncertain to him . . . But the other person was rightly surprised, because he had not known that the real existence of Athens, the Acropolis and this landscape had ever been a matter of doubt.

Perhaps, Freud says, he was just registering the difference between knowing about something and seeing it with one’s own eyes, but he thinks ‘that would be a strange way of dressing up an uninteresting commonplace,’ and quickly moves on to develop an argument suggesting that his reaction was a disguised expression of a continuing disbelief not in the Acropolis, but in his own chances of getting there. But why didn’t he say just that? Why was his disbelief ‘doubly displaced’, as he puts it, shifted into the past and ‘away from my relation to the Acropolis to the Acropolis’ very existence’? He didn’t actually doubt the existence of the Acropolis in the past and he couldn’t doubt it in the present, since he was there; but his unmistakable feeling was that ‘there was something dubious and unreal about the situation.’

How To Treat the Help?

From The Atlantic Monthly:Nanny

Youll Never Nanny in This Town Again by Suzanne Hansen.

I grew up in Berkeley in the 1960s and 1970s, and every housewife I knew had a once-a-week “cleaning lady,” the title itself an oxymoron that revealed perfectly the ambivalence the employers had about hiring help. The cleaning ladies were black; most wore uniforms, and all were the tolerant beneficiaries of an exaggerated white liberal guilt that lent itself to diatribes about the importance of integrating the schools, but not to relaxed standards concerning the proper way to wax and buff a hardwood floor.

Beyond that, my experience with hired help came from books and the movies, until I spent several years of my early adult life under the sway of a woman who had always had servants and who had been raised in a house full of them in the Deep South. She taught me how to treat the weekly cleaning person who came to my New Orleans shotgun house once a week: I was always to pay her, even if I was out of town and didn’t need her services (“Just because you don’t need her doesn’t mean she doesn’t need her check”); I was to be unconcerned and gracious about broken dishes or chipped candlesticks (“Whoever does the cleaning is going to do the breaking”); and I was to understand that it was the way of domestic workers to fall short of money, and the obligation of householders to get them out of scrapes. I came to appreciate that the various trials of the employee’s life were very much my business, that ours was inherently an association of unequals, and that decency demanded that I keep that uppermost in my mind and behave accordingly.

More here.

Ants on Stilts Help Show Bugs Have “Pedometers”

From The National Geographic:Ant_2

Hunting for food, ants roam haphazardly. But when they find it, they use celestial cues, perhaps from the sun, to head back to their nests more or less in a straight line—rather than retracing the tortuous journeys they’d made on their outbound searches. Instead, a new study suggests that ants have internal “pedometers,” or step counters, that help them gauge how far they have traveled. Food was placed about 33 feet (10 meters) from an ant nest. When ants found the food the researchers collected the insects before they had time to carry it back to the nest.

Twenty-five of the ants were then put gently on their backs. Scientists glued stilts made of pig bristles to the insects’ legs—a delicate procedure that had to be done quickly so the ants wouldn’t forget what they were doing and fail to return home. Another 25 ants had their legs surgically shortened by chopping off part of the bottom segment. For the ants on stilts, each step now covered more distance than they were used to. They overshot the nest, running an average of more than 50 percent farther than they should have. Those with shortened legs undershot by nearly as much.

More here.

Summers Discusses Stormy Harvard Tenure

From the AP in the New York Times:

Larry_1 Lawrence Summers steps down Friday after five tumultuous years as president of Harvard University. The Associated Press asked him about his tenure there, and his responses are excerpted below.

AP: What do you expect will be the legacy of your presidency?

Summers: I think it’s been a very good five years for the university. We’ve expanded our commitment to equal opportunity by becoming the first university in the country to eliminate tuition for families earning under $60,000, laid a foundation for that threshold to increase in the future. We’ve substantially increased the university’s commitment to public service.

The university has launched the greatest period of scientific expansion in its history. Twenty football fields worth of laboratory space are now either under construction or in the planning stage, including space for the stem cell institute, which is filling a gap left when the federal government abdicated in this area.

More here.

Benjamin Disraeli and the politics of performance

Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker:

Tempx_disraeli2When Lytton Strachey’s “Eminent Victorians” was published, in 1918, it included, in addition to the portraits of his leading characters, cameos of almost all the other famous Victorians: Cardinal Newman is alongside Cardinal Manning in Manning’s chapter; Gladstone is glimpsed in the chapter on General Gordon; and Lord Palmerston is visible, grimacing, behind Florence Nightingale. The only Victorian of eminence missing in the ironic gallery is the most ironic of them all, Benjamin Disraeli: man of fashion, satiric novelist, twice Prime Minister, and the dominant figure of the Conservative Party in Britain from 1846 until his death, in 1881.

The reason for leaving him out is plain: Strachey’s figures, large and small, are invariably studies in that sanctimonious hypocrisy which Strachey imagined to be the keynote of the period. And of all the things that Disraeli was—mocker and opportunist, hired gun and flatterer, gadfly and courtier—the one thing that no one could ever call him was sanctimonious and hypocritical.

More here.

Chinese, English speakers vary at math

Randolph E. Schmid of the AP, in Wired News:

EquationThings add up differently for native English speakers compared with people who learned Chinese as a first language.

Simple arithmetic was easily done by both groups, but they used different parts of the brain, a new study shows.

Researchers used brain imaging to see which parts of the brain were active while people did simple addition problems, such as 3 plus 4 equals 7. All participants were working with Arabic numerals which are used in both cultures.

Both groups engaged a portion of the brain called the inferior parietal cortex, which is involved in quantity representation and reading.

But native English speakers also showed activity in a language processing area of the brain, while native Chinese speakers used a brain region involved in the processing of visual information, according to the report in Tuesday’s issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

More here.

The West and the spirit of giving

Mohammed A. R. Galadari in the Khaleej Times:

Dear readers, some people in the Third world countries have these peculiar notions about the people in the West that they are atheists and infidels who do not follow or practice any religion. There are also common misconceptions about the Western lifestyle; that they constantly run after money and material wealth and there is no place for spirituality or beliefs in their lives.

But it is there in the West that people are donating their hard earned money and wealth to the poor and needy and for research on killer diseases like cancer and Aids. And we are not talking about peanuts; it’s huge, really big money, running into hundreds of billions. The combined wealth given in charity by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet is larger than the GDP of Kuwait.

More here.

Bill Moyers Interviews Salman Rushdie

From the Faith and Reason series on PBS:

Salman_8Salman Rushdie is a celebrated novelist, short-story writer, and essayist who gained international notoriety in 1989 when Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini demanded his execution for his portrayal of the prophet Mohammed in the novel THE SATANIC VERSES.

Born into a Muslim family in Bombay, India, in 1947, Rushdie began his writing career in the mid-1970s, after settling in England. His second novel, MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN, an allegory of post-independence Indian society, catapulted him to fame in 1981 and was awarded Britain’s Booker Prize for best novel. In 1993, the novel was named the “Booker of Bookers,” as the best novel to receive the award in the prize’s 25-year history.

Rushdie followed MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN with a string of seven highly acclaimed novels, among them THE SATANIC VERSES (1988), THE MOOR’S LAST SIGH (1995) and THE GROUND BENEATH HER FEET (1999). Most of the author’s novels are set on the Indian subcontinent and focus on actual political and historical events interwoven with myth, fantasy, and folklore – a technique that has drawn comparisons to the “magic realism” of South American writers like Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Read more and watch the video here.  [Thanks to Zaneb Beams.]

Love, loss and all points in between

From The Guardian:Hishammatar982734_1

Why isn’t Hisham Matar angrier? In 1990, when he was a student in London, his father – a Libyan dissident living in Cairo – was kidnapped, taken back to Tripoli, imprisoned, tortured. He smuggled several letters out from Abu Saleem jail detailing his treatment, but there has been no word since 1995. The not-knowing must be hideous – so how to square that with this charming, engaging, patient young man?

Matar, whose first novel is being touted as the literary event of the summer, suggests meeting in Holland Park, on the western fringe of central London. No doubt this is a way of keeping me out of the rented flat he shares with his American-born photographer wife, but it’s appropriate, too. He often walks here in the morning before writing. “I find it calming,” he explains. “There’s always a problem when you write, something you’re trying to resolve, and sometimes a view can be inspiring.”

More here.