China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy

Cosma Shalizi reviews The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy by Kenneth Pomeranz:

Spk_pomeranz_founders06One of the central questions in world history is, to put it a bit leadingly, “Why Europe, of all places?” That is, why did the Industrial Revolution begin there, leading Europe to a level of power, wealth, and global domination quite without precedent in human experience? This is inevitably a comparative question: why nineteenth century Europe, rather than one of the other centers of civilization? Why not Song-dynasty China? And also: why anyplace at all?

Pomeranz’s book is one of the most interesting, and in large measure convincing, attempts to answer this question, by focusing very specifically on north-west Europe, especially Great Britain, and comparing it intensively and symmetrically with other, comparably-developed parts of the Old World. The key claim, and perhaps the most controversial, is that it is very hard indeed to identify any internal, socio-economic causes of or dispositions towards exponential growth in the Britain, the Dutch Republic, etc. of 1750, or even 1800, which did not equally apply to comparably-sized and -developed parts of China (like the Yangzi Delta) or Japan; India, he thinks, really was further behind.

More here.  [Photo shows Kenneth Pomeranz.]

skepticism on canvas

06_36_36art

“Fucking Painters,” reads the headline in a typically acerbic oil-on-canvas in Steve Hurd’s new solo show at Rosamund Felsen Gallery. Or rather, “sretniaP gnikcuF,” as the entire lengthy text — a blogger’s review of a San Francisco Rachel Lachowicz opening — is reproduced backward, thus rendered illegible to all but the most diligent (or mirror equipped). The chatty text goes on to flatteringly characterize Lachowicz as “a seriously smart sculptor/painter who is best known for her elegant and hilarious send-ups of art by famous male artists” while name-dropping ’90s-L.A.-art-world where-are-they-now candidates Keith Boadwee, Kim Dingle and Kim Light.

more from the LA Weekly here.

They write better by writing shorter

Jack Shafer in Slate:

If you want to write better, an old mentor of mine once said, write tighter. Pick the fewest possible words, he said, and rely on compression to make your ideas explode off the page. He wasn’t thinking about the film capsules in the New York Times daily TV listings when he shared this wisdom with me, but he could have been. Outside the Times classified pages, nobody does more with the English language with less space in the paper.

The capsules spend 20 words—and usually fewer—to pass informed judgment on movies. Even if you never intend to watch any of the films, the capsules make for good morning reading. Consider this taut kiss-off of The Matrix Revolutions: “Ferocious machine assault on a battered Zion. Stop frowning, Neo; it’s finally over.” Appreciate, if you will, the efficient setup and slam of the 2 Fast 2 Furious capsule: “Ex-cop and ex-con help sexy customs agent indict money launderer. Two fine performances, both by cars.” And for compression, it’s hard to better the clip for the Julie Davis feature Amy’s Orgasm. It warns potential viewers away with just four syllables: “Change the station.”

More here.

Charles Simic on Dada

From the New York Review of Books:

Already while living in Berlin in 1915, Ball and Hennings had organized a series of antiwar literary evenings with the intention, they said, to provoke, perturb, bewilder, tease, tickle to death, and confuse the audience. In Zurich, Janco made cardboard masks reminiscent of the ones used in African rituals and Japanese theater, but also strikingly original. As Ball wrote in his journal, “The masks simply demanded that their wearers start to move in a tragic-absurd dance.” Patrons of the cabaret who came expecting to hear selections from the works of Voltaire and Turgenev or another balalaika orchestra were subjected instead to skits enacted by masked figures dressed in colorful costumes made from cardboard and poster paint who accompanied themselves with drums, pot covers, and frying pans as they recited poems that sounded like this:

Gadji beri bimba
Glandridi lauli lonni cadori
Gadjama bim beri glassala
Glandridi glassala tuffm Izimbrabim
Blassa galassasa tuffm Izimbrabim.

The noise from the stage was deafening. There was bedlam in the audience too. The performers behaved like new recruits simulating mental illness before a medical commission. In less than a month the cabaret, which at first had welcomed all modern tendencies in the arts and hoped to entertain and educate the customer, had turned into a theater of the absurd. That was the intention. “What we are celebrating,” Ball wrote in his diary, “is both buffoonery and a requiem mass.” The scandal spread.Lenin, who played chess with Tzara, wanted to know what Dada was all about.

More here.

The military’s love affair with technology

George Smith in The Village Voice:

Sharon Weinberger’s Imaginary Weapons is another tale of military technology… It’s a fascinating investigation into the investment in the hafnium bomb, a device that entranced the military because salesmen promised a weapon with the bang of an atomic bomb in the size of a golf ball. As with Halter’s book, one defining feature of the story is the military’s enthusiastic pursuit of the dubious. In Imaginary Weapons, this is tied to the philosophy that the U.S. cannot afford to be taken by “technological surprise” by any adversary. This idea has fostered blind unreason and a penchant for pursuing any and all weapons projects, no matter how irrational.

In any case, “hafnium isomer” is a radioactive material that barely exists. It is expensive and difficult to make in even microscopic amounts, yet scientists receiving Pentagon funding became convinced it could be a wonder weapon in the war on terror. The hafnium bomb would be useful for sterilizing biological terror weapons hidden in underground bunkers. Another motivation was the logic—straight out of Dr. Strangelove—that America must not fall behind in a hafnium bomb gap to terrorists or rival nations. That there was no proof of any of this did not matter.

More here.

The play’s the thing … unless you’re a novelist

Why do so many brilliant fiction writers turn out atrocious dramas – and so many good playwrights produce bad novels?”

Philip Hensher in The Guardian:

Joyce141For the first time in more than 30 years, James Joyce’s only play, Exiles, is being given a professional performance in London. The National Theatre’s production brings to light an important moment in Joyce’s career. Joyce was always interested in the stage: his first publication was a long essay on Ibsen’s When We Dead Awaken, and theatrical episodes, such as the “Night-town” scene in Ulysses, often enliven his novels. And Exiles was written at an interesting point, between the relatively sober Portrait of the Artist and the wildness of Ulysses. Surely it’s worth more than a revival every 30 years?

Unfortunately not. Exiles, like most plays written by novelists, is a notoriously plonking effort. In this homage to Ibsen, little of the master’s command of the stage is evident. If Joyce hadn’t gone on to write Ulysses, it is most unlikely that Exiles would ever be performed at all.

More here.

Did Culture Originate in Australia?

In the TLS:

Could Australia be the cradle of global culture? It seems a surprising idea, but recently a controversy has been raging about whether a sophisticated people may have lived in the remote and inaccessible Kimberley region of NW Australia as long as 60,000 years ago, before being wiped out by the aborigines. It has all been sparked off by a popular book written by Ian Wilson, author of more than twenty other books, including The Turin Shroud, Jesus: The Evidence, and Before the Flood. He emigrated to Australia in 1995. In January this year his latest opus, Lost World of the Kimberley (Allen & Unwin), was savaged by the journalist Nicolas Rothwell in The Australian, the country’s national daily. There are shades of The Da Vinci Code in the row that has developed since.

The key to this strange story is the dating of some extraordinarily beautiful prehistoric rock art which was first discovered and described in 1891 by an early settler, Joseph Bradshaw, when he became lost searching for the million-acre lease he had been granted. He came on a wall of colourful paintings, some life-size, which he likened to those of an Egyptian temple. Since then tens of thousands more sites have been found in the Kimberley with similar “Bradshaw” paintings, and it is postulated that they may predate the much better known aboriginal art, both modern and prehistoric, which is found throughout Australia.

Learning to Succeed as a Loser, on Two Continents

William Grimes in the New York Times:

Young600span_1When last spotted, at the end of his memoir “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People,” Toby Young was slinking out of Manhattan, a ruined man. Fired as an editor at Vanity Fair and banished from the Eden of American celebrity culture, he threw in the towel and returned to London.

Mr. Young, I am happy to report, learned virtually nothing from his American misadventures. “The Sound of No Hands Clapping” finds him once again madly pursuing fame and riches, worshiping the same false celebrity gods, and in general making an absolute fool of himself. For readers, this is very good news. Mr. Young’s pain is their gain.

This time around Mr. Young fails on two continents.

More here.

Questioning the American Empire

In Foreign Affairs, Alex Motyl looks at recent attempts to answer whether the US is an empire and if the lessons of empire have something to tell us about the US.

So does the United States qualify? It would be absurd to say that the 50 states are an empire. Does the United States have an empire? It is too soon to say whether occupied Iraq will become a U.S. colony, although from the way the war has been going, the chances are that it will not. Afghanistan is hardly a U.S. periphery. Puerto Rico’s relationship with the mainland might be “colonial,” as might Samoa’s and Guam’s, but a few minor islands make for a pretty dull empire.

The United States and its institutions, political and cultural, certainly have an overbearing influence on the world today, but why should that influence be termed “imperial,” as opposed to “hegemonic” or just “exceptionally powerful”? McDonald’s may offend people, but it is unclear how a fast-food chain sustains U.S. control of peripheral territories. U.S. military bases dot the world and may facilitate Washington’s bullying, but they would be indicative of empire only if they were imposed and maintained without the consent of local governments. Hollywood may promote Americanization — or anti-Americanism — but its cultural influence is surely no more imperial than the vaunted “soft power” of the European Union.

Born to be Bad

From Prospect Magazine:

Bad For most of the past century, analysis of the origins of crime has been dominated by sociological models. When Tony Blair declared in 1992 that his party would be “tough on the causes of crime,” his audience presumed that he meant that Labour would try to eliminate crime-generating social ills such as poor housing, unemployment and inadequate schools. Discussion of the possible roots of offending and antisocial behaviour within individuals rarely formed part of elite public discourse. Punishment, the courts held, should be regulated by the severity of the crime, not the criminal’s propensity to commit further offences.

One of the few challenges to this orthodoxy was made in the 1960s by Hans J Eysenck, for many years a professor at the Institute of Psychiatry. Eysenck believed that criminals’ personalities could be rigidly categorised and that most of their behaviour was inherited. But his work on crime was attacked by mainstream sociological criminologists and had little influence on policy.

More here.

Genes Give Cells an Electric Personality

From Science:Cells_2

Scientists have known for more than 150 years that wounds generate faint electric fields. Most researchers recognize that these fields play some role in wound healing, but just exactly how this worked or which genes were involved in this electric response–called electrotaxis–remained unclear.

Biomedical scientist Min Zhao of the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom and colleagues charged at the problem by creating a set of fluorescent markers that lit up when electrical signals set off a biochemical cascade inside the cell. “We saw that the same cascades that control chemotaxis [the response to chemical signals] were also involved in electrotaxis,” says team member Josef Penninger of the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Chemotaxis is also important in wound healing. The next step was figuring out which genes are involved in a cell’s electrical response. Applying electric fields to artificial wounds in cell culture dishes and real wounds in rodent corneas, the team detected epithelial cells rushing towards the wound center; reversing the field caused the cells to change direction. Then, the team disrupted a gene called p110 gamma in cultured cells. The gene codes for a chemical, called PI(3)K gamma, which is also a key player in chemotaxis. In mutants without p110 gamma, cells did not move to the wound in response to electric signals.

More here.

The Wrong Tail: How to turn a powerful idea into a dubious theory of everything

Tim Wu in Slate:

Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail does something that only the best books do—uncovers a phenomenon that’s undeniably going on and makes clear sense of it. Anderson, the Wired editor-in-chief who first wrote about the Long Tail concept in 2004, had two moments of genius: He visualized the demand for certain products as a “power curve,” and he came up with a catchy phrase to go with his observation. Like most good ideas, the Long Tail attaches to your mind and gets stuck there. Everything you take in—cult blogs, alternative music, festival films—starts looking like the Long Tail in action. But that’s also the problem. The Long Tail theory is so catchy it can overgrow its useful boundaries. Unfortunately, Anderson’s book exacerbates this problem. When you put it down, there’s one question you won’t be able to answer: When, exactly, doesn’t the Long Tail matter?

060719_books_longtailchartThe graph below [on the right, here] is the Long Tail in a nutshell.

This image accurately describes the demand for cultural products. In most entertainment industries (films, music, books, etc.) a few hits make most of the money, and demand drops off quickly thereafter. Demand, however, doesn’t drop to zero. The products in the Long Tail are less popular in a mass sense, but still popular in a niche sense. What that means is that some businesses, like Amazon and Google, can make money not just on big hits, but by eating the Long Tail. They can live like a blue whale, growing fat by eating millions of tiny shrimp.

This insight goes only so far, but like many business books, The Long Tail commits the sin of overreaching.

More here.

Jhumpa Lahiri on R. K. Narayan

From the Boston Review:

LahiriIn celebration of the 100th anniversary of R.K. Narayan’s birth, here is one way I propose that you read his Malgudi Days: one story per day for 32 consecutive days, by the end of which you will have experienced Malgudi Days as a Malgudi month, more or less. Each day’s reading, with only a few exceptions, will take about ten minutes. The vast majority of the stories are less than ten pages long; several are under five; and only one is more than 20. “What a fine idea,” you are perhaps thinking. “Ten minutes a day: I can manage that.” And if you are the type of virtuous person who is satisfied after just one piece of chocolate from a chocolate box, never tempted, until the following day, by a second, then perhaps you will be able to savor Malgudi Days in this restrained fashion.

If, on the other hand, you are like me, then you may find yourself, after the first ten minutes, reading on for 20, then 30, gobbling up one tale after the next, eventually looking up and realizing that a good portion of your day has passed…

More here.  {Photo of Lahiri by Jerry Bauer.]

Amartya Sen discusses his new book

Kenan Malik in Prospect:

150pxamartya_senJust before the anniversary of the 7/7 London bombings, a public argument broke out between Tony Blair and Britain’s Muslim leaders about the lack of progress in combating home-grown terrorism. Muslims accused the government of ignoring their advice about how best to deal with extremists. The real problem, the prime minister responded, was that moderate Muslims had not done enough to root out extremists within their own communities.

The starting point for both sides was the belief that Muslims constitute a community with a distinct set of views and beliefs, and that mainstream politicians are incapable of reaching out to them. So there had to be a bargain between the government and the Muslim community. The government acknowledged Muslim leaders as crucial partners in the task of defeating terrorism and building a fairer society. In return, Muslim leaders agreed to keep their own house in order. The argument was about who was, or was not, keeping their side of the bargain.

For Amartya Sen it is the bargain itself that is the problem. Why, he asks in his new book Identity and Violence, “should a British citizen who happens to be Muslim have to rely on clerics and other leaders of the religious community to communicate with the prime minister?”

More here.

Pakistan Expanding Nuclear Program

Joby Warrick in the Washington Post:

Pakistan_reactorPakistan has begun building what independent analysts say is a powerful new reactor for producing plutonium, a move that, if verified, would signal a major expansion of the country’s nuclear weapons capabilities and a potential new escalation in the region’s arms race.

Satellite photos of Pakistan’s Khushab nuclear site show what appears to be a partially completed heavy-water reactor capable of producing enough plutonium for 40 to 50 nuclear weapons a year, a 20-fold increase from Pakistan’s current capabilities, according to a technical assessment by Washington-based nuclear experts.

The construction site is adjacent to Pakistan’s only plutonium production reactor, a modest, 50-megawatt unit that began operating in 1998. By contrast, the dimensions of the new reactor suggest a capacity of 1,000 megawatts or more, according to the analysis by the Institute for Science and International Security. Pakistan is believed to have 30 to 50 uranium warheads, which tend to be heavier and more difficult than plutonium warheads to mount on missiles.

More here.  [Photo shows Pakistan’s Foreign ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam responding.]

Jill Greenberg’s photo technique has bloggers up in arms

Steven Barrie-Anthony in the Los Angeles Times:

TheraptureSteal a toddler’s lollipop and he’s bound to start bawling, was photographer Jill Greenberg’s thinking. So that’s just what Greenberg did to elicit tears from the 27 or so 2- and 3-year-olds featured in her latest exhibition, “End Times,” recently at the Paul Kopeikin Gallery in Los Angeles. The children’s cherubic faces, illuminated against a blue-white studio backdrop, suggest abject betrayal far beyond the loss of a Tootsie Pop; sometimes tears spill onto naked shoulders and bellies.

The work depicts how children would feel if they knew the state of the world they’re set to inherit, explained Greenberg, whose own daughter is featured in the show. “Our government is so corrupt, with all the cronyism and corporate lobbyists,” she said. “I just feel that our world is being ruined. And the environment — when I was pregnant, I kept thinking that I’d love to have a tuna fish sandwich, but I couldn’t because we’ve ruined our oceans.”

“End Times” debuted in Los Angeles in April (a portion was previously posted to the gallery site, PaulKopeikinGallery.com ), and soon thereafter an Internet brouhaha broke out that has continued to this day.

More here.  [Thanks to Steven Anker.]