Letter From American In Ramallah

Ali Eteraz in his eponymous blog:

Following is a letter from an American in Ramallah, who is a friend of a friend. Checkpoints, Nasrallah, IDF, jokes, arrests, kidnapping — it’s all in there. We pick up after the initial greeting:

I apologize for the huge gaps in my emails. These past few weeks have
been very very busy and it has become nearly impossible for me to plan
ahead of time. Yesterday I was planning on going to Hebron when my
friend called me and told me that there was going to be a huge rally
“welcoming” Condalezza Rice. Sure enough he was right. The rally was
enormous. All of Ramallah—all the stores, all the supermarkets, all
the food stands—shut down protesting her arrival and the entirety of
the city hit the streets yelling, screaming, and chanting. So while
Condalezza was talking peace in Arafat’s compound, the entire city was
on the streets telling her to ‘go back to where she came from.’
Judging from the rally, it seems that Abu Mazen, the Palestinian
president, and Condalezza Rice were the only two people in all of
Ramallah (or more accurately all of the West Bank) who didn’t realize
that Condalezza was wasting her breath talking to a powerless
government and a powerless people. I guess the Bush Administration
never got the newsflash that more than half of the Palestinian
government was detained only a few weeks back by Israeli soldiers and
now are being tried in court. There are a few leaders who managed to
escape the roundups and the Israeli soldiers have come into Ramallah
nearly every night looking for them.

More here.

jon lee anderson in lebanon


A middle-aged woman in a black chador came over. When I asked if she minded living underground, she smiled and said, in a gravelly voice, “It’s all the same to me. If Israel and America want to do this to us, all we can do is to bear the situation, so if we have to stay underground we will. We don’t mind staying here as long as the boys are O.K.”—a reference to Hezbollah’s fighters—“and as long as Sheikh Nasrallah is fine. We can bear anything. Death is normal to us, and, anyway, it means we’ll go to heaven.” She told us that four children had been born in the underground garage. Two were boys, and they had been named Waaed, which means “the promising one,” and Sadeq, which means “the truthful one,” “because Sheikh Nasrallah says, ‘We have the promise of liberating the south.’ ” She added, “We don’t think the Israelis will come to Beirut, but, if they do, we know what to do with them.” A young pregnant woman standing next to her laughed and made lunging, stabbing motions with her hand.

more from The New Yorker here.

spooky real estate writing

I fall in love with individual books all the time, books I praise passionately, even promiscuously, to anyone who will listen. Out of the hundreds I read every year and blog about, though, only a few speak to me so loudly that I bestir myself from torpor and plunge into fanatical book-fiendish evangelizing. Toni Schlesinger’s Five Flights Up and Other New York Apartment Stories came to me for review this January in the form of a ridiculously cumbersome wad of xeroxed eleven-by-seventeen pages, inadequately secured by binder clips: it weighed three or four pounds, at a guess, with the flat cartilaginous heft of a stingray. Once I recovered from the format, I felt the shock—painful, delightful—you experience when you encounter something so perfect you’re furious you didn’t know about it sooner. My list of such things includes the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs,” Paradise Lost, Fabergé eggs, and the taste and texture of meringue. You will have your own list, but find a place on it if you can for this collection of the columns Schlesinger wrote for the Village Voice from 1997 to 2006 under the rubric Shelter.

more from The Believer here.

Entropy and Anthropic Explanations

Over at Cosmic Variance, Sean Carroll has a great post on Ludwig Boltzmann, entropy, and anthropic explanations.

A recent post of Jen-Luc’s reminded me of Huw Price and his work on temporal asymmetry. The problem of the arrow of time — why is the past different from the future, or equivalently, why was the entropy in the early universe so much smaller than it could have been? — has attracted physicists’ attention (although not as much as it might have) ever since Boltzmann explained the statistical origin of entropy over a hundred years ago. It’s a deceptively easy problem to state, and correspondingly difficult to address, largely because the difference between the past and the future is so deeply ingrained in our understanding of the world that it’s too easy to beg the question by somehow assuming temporal asymmetry in one’s purported explanation thereof. Price, an Australian philosopher of science, has made a specialty of uncovering the hidden assumptions in the work of numerous cosmologists on the problem. Boltzmann himself managed to avoid such pitfalls, proposing an origin for the arrow of time that did not secretly assume any sort of temporal asymmetry. He did, however, invoke the anthropic principle — probably one of the earliest examples of the use of anthropic reasoning to help explain a purportedly-finely-tuned feature of our observable universe. But Boltzmann’s anthropic explanation for the arrow of time does not, as it turns out, actually work, and it provides an interesting cautionary tale for modern physicists who are tempted to travel down that same road.

Can the Bombing of Dresden be Justified?

In The Weekly Standard, Hitchens considers whether the destruction of German cities was justified.

There is something grandly biblical and something dismally utilitarian about this long argument between discrepant schools of historians and strategists. In the Old Testament, God reluctantly considers lenience for the “cities of the plain,” on condition that a bare minimum of good men can be identified as living there. The RAF code name for the first major firestorm raid on Hamburg was “Operation Gomorrah.” And this was a city that had always repudiated the Nazi party. Some say that Dresden was not really a military target and that it was obliterated mainly in order to impress Joseph Stalin (perhaps not a notably fine war aim) while others–Frederick Taylor most recently–argue that Dresden was indeed a hub city for Hitler’s armies, and that doing a service to a wartime ally is part of the strategic picture in any case.

This leaves us with a somewhat arid and suspect antithesis: Were these bombings war crimes, and if so, were they justified on the grounds that they shortened the duration of the criminal war itself?

Anthony Grayling, a very deft and literate English moral philosopher, now seeks to redistribute the middle of this latent syllogism. He argues from the evidence that “area bombing” was not even really intended to shorten the war, and that in any case it did not do so. And he further asserts that the policy was an illegal and immoral one by the same standards that the Allies had announced at the onset of hostilities. This, at least, has the virtue of recasting a hitherto rather sterile debate. And some of what he says is unarguable.

The Night Listener

Patrick Stettner has a remarkable talent for telling stories about trust, narratives, and what happens to our relationships when we lose faith in the truth of what we are told. His new film, The Night Listener, adapted from the Armistead Maupin’s novel, has a few layers of this, oddly leading one review to state, “Although the movie opens with a claim that it was “Inspired by a true story,” I almost wish it hadn’t, simply because the tale is strong and genuine enough to stand on its own without the prop of a true story claim.” “Genuine enough” that the claim to truth is just a “prop”: both strange and quite an endorsement. The film opens this Friday.

Armistead Maupin’s 2000 novel The Night Listener pre-dated the Jayson Blair and James Frey scandals that challenged readers’ trust in dramatic “true” stories. But Maupin anticipated the issue when he personally became subject to a story he began to suspect was more or less than met the eye. An investigation followed, and Maupin ultimately fashioned The Night Listener, a fictionalized version of his experience. The slippery natures of truth, fiction, lies, and wishful thinking now get full play in the screen adaptation of The Night Listener, starring Maupin’s friend and fellow San Francisco native Robin Williams.

Life After Earth: Imagining Survival Beyond This Terra Firma

From The New York Times:

When the dust settles after World War III, or World War IX, humanity will still want to grow pineapples, rice, coffee and other crops. That is why in June on the island of Svalbard in the Norwegian Arctic, all five Scandinavian prime ministers met to break ground on a $4.8-million “doomsday vault” that will stockpile crop seeds in case of global catastrophe.


While it boasts the extra safety of Arctic temperatures, the seed bank is just the latest life-preservation plan to reach reality, joining genetic banks like the Frozen Ark, a British program that is storing DNA samples from endangered species like the scimitar-horned oryx, the Seychelles Frégate beetle and the British field cricket.

To a certain group preoccupied with doomsday, these projects are laudable but share a deep flaw: they are Earth-bound. A global catastrophe — like a collision with an asteroid or a nuclear winter — would have to be rather tame in order not to rattle the test tubes in the various ark-style labs around the world. What kind of feeble doomsday would leave London safe and sound?

More here.

Forty Winks: Science and Sleep

From Science:

Sleepgrass_ccl_160_jpg Do you tend to hit the snooze button on your alarm clock several times before getting out of bed? Does it take you forever, on certain days, to get yourself together before you leave the house? How many mornings have you decided that you need an extra cup of coffee just to get started, or an afternoon slug of espresso to make it through the day?

Do you ever take catnaps at your desk during lunch hour? Are there times when your patience runs so thin that you can barely listen to the stories of a colleague whose company you ordinarily enjoy? Do you recall snapping at your supervisor or your partner only to regret it moments–or days–later? Do you fall asleep in front of the TV when you come home from the lab? These can all be signs of a sleep deficit, which can cause a number of different problems if you choose to overlook them.

Recently, I attended a late-afternoon lecture given by a visiting scholar I had been looking forward to hearing. As the lights dimmed and he began his PowerPoint presentation, I felt my eyelids closing. As my chin fell onto my chest, I don’t know whether I was more startled or mortified. As I looked around to see whether the speaker or anyone else in the small group had noticed, my heart was pounding. The fear of a recurrence kept me vigilant for the rest of the lecture.

More here.