3QD’s Best Books of 2006

Here’s the 3rd annual Christmas Eve booklist from some of the editors and writers of 3 Quarks Daily (last year’s list can be seen here):

1.  The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century, by Sheri Berman

Political history in the industrial world may have ended, argues this pioneering study, but the winner has been social democracy – an ideology and political movement that has been as influential as it has been misunderstood. Berman looks at the history of social democracy from its origins in the late nineteenth century to today and shows how it beat out competitors such as classical liberalism, orthodox Marxism, and its cousins, Fascism and National Socialism by solving the central challenge of modern politics – reconciling the competing needs of capitalism and democracy. Bursting on to the scene in the interwar years, the social democratic model spread across Europe after the Second World War and formed the basis of the postwar settlement. This is a study of European social democracy that rewrites the intellectual and political history of the modern era while putting contemporary debates about globalization in their proper intellectual and historical context. –Mark Blyth

2. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

I picked it up at about 11pm one night and I did not put it down—literally—until I had finished it. That might not be saying much, because it’s a short, tight book of flawless prose that only takes about five hours to read, but all the same—I couldn’t put it down. It’s rare that you find a book like that, no? The Road is gripping and beautiful and tragic, completely unsentimental but aching with loss and regret, longing and love. Here are the first three lines of the book: “When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.” Incredible. “Dark beyond darkness”:McCarthy takes all the risks with language that we’re not supposed to take, and he succeeds.

Someone Important told me recently that the real measure of a book is whether it changes your life. I don’t know. That seems a bit heavy-handed and sophomoric to me, and I’m not fifteen anymore. I think I may have wept at the end of this book. I do know that in that darkest hour before dawn, having just finished The Road, ego-smashed and raw, with many of the notes at the darker end of my emotional spectrum still echoing around me, I sat for a while and watched the heave of my wife’s back as she slept. Whether or not it changed my life, this book made me want to thank whatever artist it was who shaped the exquisite details of everyday life and–even more–saw fit to place me here, among them. –Timothy Don

3.  The Social Sources of Financial Power, by Leonard Seabrooke

A state’s financial power is built on the effect its credit, property, and tax policies have on ordinary people: this is the key message of Leonard Seabrooke’s comparative historical investigation, which turns the spotlight away from elite financial actors and toward institutions that matter for Lower Income Groups. Seabrooke argues that legitimacy contests between social groups and the state over how the economy should work determine the legitimacy of a state’s financial and fiscal system. Ideally, he believes, such contests compel a state to intervene on behalf of people below the median income level, leading the state to broaden and deepen its domestic pool of capital while increasing its influence on international finance. But to do so, Seabrooke asserts, a state must first challenge powerful interests that benefit from the concentration of financial wealth. A great book that really makes you think again about what you think you know. –Mark Blyth

4.  Creme de la Phlegm: Unforgettable Australian Reviews, by Angela Bennie

This book is memorable for all the wrong reasons. As Angela Bennie says in the Preface, the book “focuses on how negative criticism is written and received and what that might tell us about the wider culture.” Every Australian artist should read it and have a hard think about what these kinds of reviews signify. –Peter Nicholson

5.  Stravinsky: The Second Exile: France and America 1934-1971, by Stephen Walsh

This is a book I have enjoyed reading this year, wherein Igor, Vera and Bobsky take
on the world, and the first Mrs Stravinsky leaves it. What once seemed an impossibly glamorous lifestyle, with the dramatis personae regularly bumping into the great and the not-so-good, is here shown in its true creative colours. The starkly contrasting sunlight and shadow are comprehensively set forth, leaving readers to ponder the fate of a centrifugal artistic life in the modern period. –Peter Nicholson

6.  Everyman, by Philip Roth

Most of the very good books I have read that were published this year have been fiction. If you have Philip Roth’s Everyman, do not leave it unread. It is very good. You can read it in two days. But it will be around for a while, and it will wait for you. It is the bell that tolls. –Timothy Don

7.  Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World, by Paul Cartledge

In 480 BC, a huge Persian army, led by the inimitable King Xerxes, entered the mountain pass of Thermopylae as it marched on Greece, intending to conquer the land with little difficulty. But the Greeks—led by King Leonidas and a small army of Spartans—took the battle to the Persians at Thermopylae, and halted their advance—almost. It is one of history’s most acclaimed battles, one of civilization’s greatest last stands. And in Thermopylae, renowned classical historian Paul Cartledge looks anew this history-altering moment and, most impressively, shows how its repercussions have bearing on us even today. The invasion of Europe by Xerxes and his army redefined culture, kingdom, and class. The valiant efforts of a few thousand Greek warriors, facing a huge onrushing Persian army at the narrow pass at Thermopylae, changed the way generations to come would think about combat, courage, and death. The battle of Thermopylae was at its broadest a clash of civilizations; one that momentously helped shape the identity of classical Greece and hence the nature of our own cultural heritage. –Timothy Don [book description from Amazon.com]

8.  Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America, by Frances Fox Piven

Challenging Authority argues that ordinary people exercise real power in American politics mainly at those extraordinary moments when they rise up in anger and hope, defy the rules that ordinarily govern their daily lives, and by doing so, disrupt the workings of the institutions in which they are enmeshed. These are the conditions that produce the democratic moments in American political development. –Michael Blim [book description from Amazon.com]

9.  Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions, by Lisa Randall

Randall, a professor of physics at Harvard, offers a tour of current questions in particle physics, string theory, and cosmology, paying particular attention to the thesis that more physical dimensions exist than are usually acknowledged. Writing for a general audience, Randall is patient and kind: she encourages readers to skip around in the text, corrals mathematical equations in an appendix at the back, and starts off each chapter with an allegorical story, in a manner recalling the work of George Gamow. Although the subject itself is intractably difficult to follow, the exuberance of Randall’s narration is appealing. She’s honest about the limits of the known, and almost revels in the uncertainties that underlie her work—including the possibility that some day it may all be proved wrong. –Abbas Raza [book description from The New Yorker]

10. Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, by Marc Hauser

Marc Hauser’s eminently readable and comprehensive book Moral Minds is revolutionary. He argues that humans have evolved a universal moral instinct, unconsciously propelling us to deliver judgments of right and wrong independent of gender, education, and religion. Experience tunes up our moral actions, guiding what we do as opposed to how we deliver our moral verdicts. For hundreds of years, scholars have argued that moral judgments arise from rational and voluntary deliberations about what ought to be. The common belief today is that we reach moral decisions by consciously reasoning from principled explanations of what society determines is right or wrong. This perspective has generated the further belief that our moral psychology is founded entirely on experience and education, developing slowly and subject to considerable variation across cultures. In his groundbreaking book, Hauser shows that this dominant view is illusory. Combining his own cutting-edge research with findings in cognitive psychology, linguistics, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, economics, and anthropology, he examines the implications of his theory for issues of bioethics, religion, law, and our everyday lives. –Abbas Raza [book description from Amazon.com]

A Mission to Convert

H. Allen Orr in the New York Review of Books:

Orrphoto_1Scientists’ interest in religion seems to come in waves. One arrived after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. Another followed in the 1930s and 1940s, inspired by surprising revelations from quantum mechanics, which suggested the insufficiency of conventional physical theories of the universe. And now scientists are once again writing about religion, apparently provoked this time by the controversy surrounding intelligent design.

During the last year, a number of popular books on religion by scientists or philosophers of science have appeared. Daniel Dennett kicked things off with his Breaking the Spell (2006), an investigation into the possibility of a science of religion. Reviewing evolutionary, psychological, and economic theories of the origin and spread of belief, Dennett covered much ground but reached few conclusions. In the last few months, three prominent scientists—all biologists—have published their own books on belief. Richard Dawkins, the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, has given us The God Delusion, an extended polemic against faith, which will be considered at length below.

More here.

After-Christmas shopping and the Spillover Effect

Victor Limjoco in Discover Magazine:

Holiday shoppers beware. That pleasantly surprising sale price can actually bust your budget. A new study by a behavioral scientist shows why we often spend more when we’re convinced that we’re saving. Economists call it the “spillover effect” when a sale on one item can spur extra spending on unrelated items throughout a store.

Behavioral economist Robert Meyer, a researcher at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, says that retailers take advantage of this when they use discounts to hopefully create a ripple effect throughout the store. “That little local surprise not only affects how many units that you buy of that one product, but also it affects your whole attitude towards what you do elsewhere in the store,” Meyer says.

But no one knows exactly why it happens. To figure out the mechanisms behind this phenomenon, Meyer teamed up with the University of Arizona’s Narayan Janakiraman and Arizona State University’s Andrea Morales. They had volunteers shop in a virtual grocery store and instructed them to supply their household cupboards over a simulated 35 weeks. A $50 prize was given to the four volunteers with the lowest shopping costs.

Meyer found that, on average, if the price of the needed item was cheap, volunteers felt an obligation to stay in the store and shop.

More here.

Nadine Gordimer and the Hazards of Biography

Rachel Donadio in the New York Times:

Screenhunter_2_19Few relationships are as complex as that between a living author and his biographer. In a startling recent example, Nadine Gordimer — the South African writer who helped bring the world’s attention to the evils of apartheid and won the 1991 Nobel Prize for her efforts — had a bitter falling out with Ronald Suresh Roberts, the young biographer to whom she had granted extraordinary access during his five years of research. Since it appeared last year, Roberts’s biography, “No Cold Kitchen,” has been the talk of literary South Africa. This year it made the non fiction shortlist for the country’s highest literary accolade, the Sunday Times Alan Paton Prize, eventually losing to two AIDS memoirs.

How this author-biographer relationship ran aground is a drama as rich as any to come out of post-apartheid South Africa.

More here.

How to Cure a Sex Addict

Christopher Beam in Slate:

Screenhunter_1_27A recent article on Hillary Clinton’s political engine-revving mentioned that her husband, Bill, has received “counseling for a sex addiction.” How do you cure a nymphomaniac?

The same way you’d cure any kind of addict: with counseling, group therapy, and, in some cases, medication. You won’t find an entry for “sexual addiction” in DSM-IV, the standard manual of mental disorders. In fact, there’s some controversy as to whether “addiction” is the best terminology for what might just be a naturally heightened sex drive. But many doctors discuss it in the same terms as a chemical dependency: Like drug addicts, sex junkies exhibit escalating behavior, withdrawal symptoms, and an inability to stop despite adverse consequences. Self-deceptive thinking and denial (e.g., “I did not have sexual relations with that woman“) may play a role, often accompanied by feelings of shame. Having lots of sex isn’t the only symptom. Looking at lots of porn also counts, as does acting out with anonymous partners, or excessive masturbation. (Sound familiar? Find out if you’re a sex addict here.)

More here.

Dawkins the Dogmatist?

Andrew Brown in Prospect Magazine:

It has been obvious for years that Richard Dawkins had a fat book on religion in him, but who would have thought him capable of writing one this bad? Incurious, dogmatic, rambling and self-contradictory, it has none of the style or verve of his earlier works.

In his broad thesis, Dawkins is right. Religions are potentially dangerous, and in their popular forms profoundly irrational. The agnostics must be right and the atheists very well may be. There is no purpose to the universe. Nothing inconsistent with the laws of physics has been reliably reported. To demand a designer to explain the complexity of the world begs the question, “Who designed the designer?” It has been clear since Darwin that we have no need to hypothesise a designer to explain the complexity of living things. The results of intercessory prayer are indistinguishable from those of chance.

Dawkins gets miffed when this is called “19th-century” atheism, since, as he says, the period of their first discovery does not affect the truth of these propositions. But to call it “19th-century” is to draw attention to the important truth added in the 20th century: that religious belief persists in the face of these facts and arguments.

This persistence is what any scientific attack on religion must explain—and this one doesn’t. Dawkins mentions lots of modern atheist scientists who have tried to explain the puzzle: Robert Hinde, Scott Atran, Pascal Boyer, DS Wilson, Daniel Dennett, all of them worth reading. But he cannot accept the obvious conclusion to draw from their works, which is that thoroughgoing atheism is unnatural and will never be popular.

More here.

subtle thinking, subtle art


C. K. Williams’s poems are broad in scale and narrow in scope. He has been misunderstood as an entirely “social” poet, but his real subject is the mind that attempts, never entirely successfully, to ward off the social world that bombards it from every side. His lines, longer than those written by any other significant English-language poet, suggest a big, Whitman-like appetite for worldly variety. This is not simply the case. Williams is a poet of imaginative composure amid real-world disarray. His fastidious, refined heart camps in the middle of the worldly misery that minimizes its claims.

To read Williams’s “Collected Poems” (over 680 pages, spanning more than 35 years) is therefore to behold a contest between “poetry” and its system of values and an opposing system, call it “anti-poetry.” Anti-poetry usually gets the first word, as a scan of Williams’s openings reveals:

One of those great, garishly emerald flies that always look
freshly generated from fresh excrement

The only time, I swear, I ever fell more than abstractly in
love with someone else’s wife

Willa Selenfriend likes Paul Peterzell better than she likes me
and I am dying of it.

more from the NY Times Book Review here.

a baggy monster of a book


Pynchon thinks on a different scale from most novelists, to the point where you’d almost want to find another word for the sort of thing he does, since his books differ from most other novels the way a novel differs from a short story, in exponential rather than simply linear fashion. Pynchon’s work has absorbed modernism and what has come after, but in its alternating cycles of jokes and doom, learning and carnality, slapstick and arcana, direct speech and poetic allusiveness, high language and low, it taps into something that goes back to the Elizabethans, who potentially addressed the entire world, made up of individuals with differing interests and capacities. He also thinks big because he is extremely American (like many of his fellow citizens, he is never so American as when traveling abroad). In this way he is reminiscent of the “millionaire ascetic” in Borges’s story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” who “declared that in America it was absurd to invent a country, and proposed the invention of a whole planet.” Here, in Against the Day,by his own admission, he has made what “with a minor adjustment or two [is] what the world might be.”

Which is not what the world oughtto be, mind you. Thinking big is not necessarily megalomania, and fiction-writing is not exactly voodoo. Against the Day is a flawed time machine, trying without much luck to find a version of history where iniquity failed to triumph, but in the process coming up with many reasons why it should continue to be resisted.

more from NY Review of Books here.

best art books



A black stain spreads across the northern hemisphere, stretching from Poland and Croatia to the Far East and dwarfing Europe and North America. This is the vast territory encompassed by East Art Map: Contemporary Art and Eastern Europe (Afterall Books), a survey of art produced under Communism from 1945 to the present. Divided into three sections—color images, a guide to the histories and artistic output of individual countries, and critical essays—this squat red tome is both a manifesto and a major work of revisionist history.

Part of East Art Map’s significance derives from the fact that it was assembled by the five-man Slovenian collective IRWIN (painters, performers, and relational artists par excellence), who collaborated with a team of more than forty contributors. IRWIN is among today’s most articulate interrogators of Eastern European identity and its relationship to the West and to itself; this book consolidates twenty years of the group’s own practice-based research under the banner of the Neue Slowenische Kunst (New Slovenian Art) movement.

more from Artforum here.

How the shuttle returns to Earth

From BBC News:

Shuttle_2 To return to Earth the space shuttle must make a series of complicated manouevres to align itself into the correct position to achieve a safe descent.

1. The shuttle flies upside down in orbit to control its heating.
2. To re-enter the atmosphere, the shuttle is turned tail first to the direction of travel, and fires its engines to slow its speed.
3. The orbiter is then flipped the right way up and enters the top layer of the atmosphere at about a 40-degree angle from horizontal with its wings level.4. The orientation keeps its black thermal tiles facing the majority of the heat – as high 1,650C (3,000F) on the leading edges of the wings and nose.
5. As its speed drops, the shuttle starts to fly more like an aircraft, using its rudder and wing flaps for control. It banks sharply to slow its speed still further
6. The shuttle falls from a height of more than 360km at speeds that top Mach 30, and at an angle of 19 degrees, far steeper than that of a commercial aircraft. The spacecraft comes to a dead stop half a world a way from where it began the descent.

Adirondack Couch

From The New York Times:
                   Seated, from left: Sigmund Freud, G. Stanley Hall and Carl Jung in 1909.

PUTNAM CAMP: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam, and the Purpose of American Psychology. By George Prochnik.

Sigmund Freud visited the United States only once, in 1909. As his boat reached the East River, Freud asked his companions, Carl Jung and Sandor Ferenczi, “Don’t they know we’re bringing them the plague?” G. Stanley Hall, a psychologist and the president of Clark University, in Worcester, Mass., had invited Freud to deliver five lectures. Freud intended to infect his audience with theories about unconscious impulses, sexual repression and the benefits of psychotherapy.

More here.

Red Squirrels Plan Ahead for Babies

From Scientific American:

Squirre Nut-obsessed squirrels scurry around collecting and secreting away food for the future. The amount of acorns they find, though, is not what determines how many baby squirrels there will be in the spring. Instead, squirrels predict how abundant their food supply will be the following year and coordinate a second litter to be born during times of bountiful harvests, says a new study.

Some trees, including those with seeds favored by red squirrels, have years of very high seed yields, followed by years of lower seed production, creating what Stan Boutin, a biologist at the University of Alberta, calls a “swamp and starve” strategy. Usually, the size of a predator population depends on how much food is available. When resources are plentiful, they reproduce more. The problem is that the food supply may dwindle by the time their young are born.

More here.

Math takes Science’s spotlight in 2006


Scicover A controversial proof of a 102-year-old mathematical puzzler has taken the top spot on the journal Science’s annual list of scientific breakthroughs. Other entries on the top 10 list ranged from the deciphering of Neanderthal DNA to studies of the world’s shrinking ice sheets. But it was Russian mathematician Grigory Perelman’s proof of the Poincare Conjecture, literally one of the field’s million-dollar challenges, that most impressed America’s premier peer-reviewed science publication. For mathematicians, Perelman’s achievement would qualify “at least as the Breakthrough of the Decade,” Science’s editors said.

Science’s editor-in-chief, Donald Kennedy, admitted that mathematical papers don’t often get the star treatment, “partly because higher mathematics is a subject that’s technically difficult to explain.” However, the Russian mathematician’s work on the Poincare Conjecture stands out for several reasons. First of all, Kennedy noted that the conjecture has “defeated many brilliant minds” since it was first proposed in 1904 by Henri Poincare, who is generally regarded as the founder of topology.

More here.

Mathematical proof is foolproof, only in the absence of fools

Brian Hayes in American Scientist:

Here is how proof is supposed to work, as illustrated by an anecdote in John Aubrey’s Brief Lives about the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes:

He was 40 yeares old before he looked on geometry; which happened accidentally. Being in a gentleman’s library in…, Euclid’s Elements lay open, and ’twas the 47 El. libri I. He read the proposition. “By G—,” sayd he (he would now and then sweare, by way of emphasis), “this is impossible!” So he reads the demonstration of it, which referred him back to such a proposition; which proposition he read. That referred him back to another, which he also read. Et sic deinceps, that at last he was demonstratively convinced of that trueth. This made him in love with geometry.

What’s most remarkable about this tale—whether or not there’s any trueth in it—is the way Hobbes is persuaded against his own will. He starts out incredulous, but he can’t resist the force of deductive logic. From proposition 47 (which happens to be the Pythagorean theorem), he is swept backward through the book, from conclusions to their premises and eventually to axioms. Though he searches for a flaw, each step of the argument compels assent. This is the power of pure reason.

For many of us, the first exposure to mathematical proof—typically in a geometry class—is rather different from Hobbes’s middle-age epiphany.

More here.

Eating in the Dark

From France 24:

In many ways this restaurant “in the dark” can be compared with its wicked neighbour: a sensual feeling creeps in as one walks into a dark mysterious room, where complete strangers share the same table. Many find the atmosphere thrilling. Others find it somewhat unsettling.

Before entering the dark void, one is greeted in a brightly lit bar where diners are asked to lock up all their belongings including digital watches and their mobiles. Customers wait as their names are called out: “Mohamed and Julie, you both are on Elizabeth’s table.” I don’t know either of them!

To add to everyone’s excitement, the Dans le Noir team strongly recommends the surprise menu. Once the order is placed, the real adventure begins. Diners hold on to one another as they make their way through a dimly lit passage. “And especially watch out for the bottle,” shouts out the waiter escorting us through the corridor. He may be blind but he’s no different from most of the gruff Parisian waiters. (Bottles, by the way, are always put in the middle of the table and not on the side.)

And finally, after passing through two curtains, I am allowed to enter Dans le Noir’s dark dining room. The complete darkness makes me fumble and become claustrophobic. As I get accustomed to my surroundings, I feel more at ease. I can throw my table etiquette out of the window, pick my nose, and stick my tongue out at my neighbour. As I imagine myself behaving like an eight-year old, the diner sitting behind me reassuringly grabs my shoulder. “Take it easy, Sam,” he says. My name is Elizabeth.

Once seated, I explore the table top with my hands, trying to locate the cutlery. I hit my neighbour by mistake. The bottle is safely placed in the middle. The starters arrive, and the plate feels big. I decide to take advantage of the darkness and eat with my hands – only God can see me!

Khadra’s Attack

In electronic intifada, Amal Awad reviews the pseudonymous Yasmina Khadra’s Attack.

Yasmina Khadra is the pseudonym for Mohamed Moulessehoul, a former Algerian army officer who decided to write under his wife’s name to avoid army censorship. He was in Sydney last year for the Writers’ Festival, at which he spoke about his novel The Swallows of Kabul. It was set in Afghanistan, but he confessed that he had never been there before, and I couldn’t help but wonder how he described the land and the atmosphere of oppression.

Reading The Attack, I wondered the same thing. While there is little description of surroundings, and Khadra is a very capable writer, I doubted he had ever been there. This doesn’t weaken the book so much as emphasise that his narration is an outsider’s voice. This is apt given that his main protagonist, through whom the story is told in first person, behaves very much like a neutral observer in the raging Israeli-Palestinian conflict – that is, until a horrifying event forces painful re-examination.

Dr Amin Jaafari is a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship. He is an incredibly successful surgeon, awarded numerous honours and living a seemingly idyllic life with his beloved wife, Sihem. They have a beautiful house, but no children. They have strong friendships with Israelis, absorbing a lifestyle that rejects a traditional approach; they’re not practising Muslims. Amin and Sihem are ostensibly the best examples of integration, and despite some tension in the hospital, Amin is blissfully unaware of differences. If we are to believe him, his wife is generally satisfied too.

papert and the hive mind


THE FIELDS OF computer science and education suffered a blow on Dec. 5, when Seymour Papert, the 78-year-old cofounder of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab, was struck by a motorbike in Hanoi. Papert, who had come to Hanoi for a conference on teaching math with computers, remained in a coma as of Friday.

Strangely, shortly before the accident, Papert had been discussing how to build a computer model of Hanoi’s notoriously chaotic traffic. He found it an interesting instance of a theme closely associated with his work: “emergent behavior,” or the way that large groups of agents following simple rules, with no central leader, can spontaneously create sophisticated systems and activities. Examples include schools of fish, anthills, bee swarms, and, apparently, Vietnamese motorbike drivers.

more from Boston Globe Ideas here.

insect architecture, organic labyrinths, woozy doodles, and pretzels


Over the last 40 years, the painter Brice Marden has been photographed wearing funny hats, wielding stick-like paintbrushes in his studios, sitting on Cezanne’s tomb, or occupying some breathtaking piece of real estate that he owns. Whether meant ironically or romantically, these photos have helped people think of Marden as some rock star shaman-Zen master-saint of paint. Unlike most self-conscious image manipulation, however, these photos haven’t obscured Marden’s amazing achievement or diminished his enormous influence.

This is because, since around 1986, Marden has methodically and compulsively, sometimes annoyingly, but nevertheless magnificently, made a seemingly endless, slowly evolving series of exotically colored paintings with Hellenistically shallow space and artery- and spaghetti-like looping lines and squiggles that move within these canvases like snakes in a box. These paintings resemble abstract illuminated manuscripts, subway maps from Shangri-la, insect architecture, organic labyrinths, woozy doodles, and pretzels. Depending on your point of view, Marden is either a keeper of the faith of painting or caught in a formulaic feedback loop.

more from The Village Voice here.

quiet revolution


The bus rumbled along a highway in southwest Iran, passing a series of anti-aircraft batteries and rickety guard towers before pulling in through a checkpoint to the Bushehr nuclear plant compound. Having anticipated significant difficulties finding, much less nearing, the reactor, I stared in stunned silence at its dome. So much for state secrets. It glistened like a mosque.

I sat in the women’s section at the back, mentally drafting the travel brochure: “Welcome to Bushehr! Take our budget bus tour of the facility that has everyone talking!” One could imagine the collective synaptic energy emanating from Washington, London, Paris, and Bonn, striking the gleaming white dome like flint sparks. Yet to my fellow travellers—locals being taken to their homes surrounding the plant, weary labourers half asleep in the men’s section, women in the brightly coloured layers traditional in the Persian Gulf—it was just an average day in a quiet Iranian fishing village where nothing much happens. They didn’t even look out the window.

more from The Walrus here.

The General as Politician

In the LRB, Tariq Ali on Musharraf:

Musharraf tells us he agreed to become Washington’s surrogate because the State Department honcho, Richard Armitage, threatened to bomb Pakistan back to the Stone Age if he didn’t. What really worried Islamabad, however, was a threat Musharraf doesn’t mention: if Pakistan refused, the US would have used Indian bases.

Musharraf was initially popular in Pakistan and if he had pushed through reforms aimed at providing an education (with English as a compulsory second language) for all children, instituted land reforms which would have ended the stranglehold of the gentry on large swathes of the countryside, tackled corruption in the armed forces and everywhere else, and ended the jihadi escapades in Kashmir and Pakistan as a prelude to a long-term deal with India, then he might have left a mark on the country. Instead, he has mimicked his military predecessors. Like them, he took off his uniform, went to a landlord-organised gathering in Sind and entered politics. His party? The evergreen, ever available Muslim League. His supporters? Chips off the same old corrupt block that he had denounced so vigorously and whose leaders he was prosecuting. His prime minister? Shaukat ‘Shortcut’ Aziz, formerly a senior executive of Citibank with close ties to the eighth richest man in the world, the Saudi prince Al-Walid bin Talal. As it became clear that nothing much was going to change a wave of cynicism engulfed the country.

Musharraf is better than Zia and Ayub in many ways, but human rights groups have noticed a sharp rise in the number of political activists who are being ‘disappeared’: four hundred this year alone, including Sindhi nationalists and a total of 1200 in the province of Baluchistan, where the army has become trigger-happy once again. The war on terror has provided many leaders with the chance to sort out their opponents, but that doesn’t make it any better.