This month brings the UK release of Babel, the third and most ambitious part of the trilogy. Where Amores Perros took Mexico City as its subject, Babel takes the world: it was shot in four countries and five languages. It stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as a couple hit by disaster while travelling across Morocco. Interlinking stories focus on two young Moroccan brothers from a Muslim family, a deaf-mute Japanese teenager and a Mexican nanny – all of whom, in their own ways, confront misery and death. Although Iñárritu himself contends that it is “a film about hope” (he said that about 21 Grams, too), by the end you feel you have been privy to a long scream of pain. Humanity is so vulnerable, so misguided, and the world so horribly unfair. It is also possibly the best film you will see all year: searing, ambitious and provocative cinema.
more from the New Statesman here.
Carl Zimmer in Scientific American:
Natural selection is not natural perfection. Living creatures have evolved some remarkably complex adaptations, but we are still very vulnerable to disease. Among the most tragic of those ills—and perhaps most enigmatic—is cancer. A cancerous tumor is exquisitely well adapted for survival in its own grotesque way. Its cells continue to divide long after ordinary cells would stop. They destroy surrounding tissues to make room for themselves, and they trick the body into supplying them with energy to grow even larger. But the tumors that afflict us are not foreign parasites that have acquired sophisticated strategies for attacking our bodies. They are made of our own cells, turned against us. Nor is cancer some bizarre rarity: a woman in the U.S. has a 39 percent chance of being diagnosed with some type of cancer in her lifetime. A man has a 45 percent chance.
These facts make cancer a grim yet fascinating puzzle for evolutionary biologists. If natural selection is powerful enough to produce complex adaptations, from the eye to the immune system, why has it been unable to wipe out cancer? The answer, these investigators argue, lies in the evolutionary process itself. Natural selection has favored certain defenses against cancer but cannot eliminate it altogether. Ironically, natural selection may even inadvertently provide some of the tools that cancer cells can use to grow.
Allen Esterson in Butterflies and Wheels:
How is it that someone of [Howard] Gardner’s intellectual eminence, a psychologist to boot, can read Freud so credulously, and even come up with the manifest absurdity that Freud presented us with “transcripts” that enable us to judge for ourselves the validity of his alleged clinical findings? The same, of course, may be asked, in more general terms, of innumerable academics and intellectuals in the twentieth century – and the answer is just as elusive. My best guess is that Freud’s extraordinary gifts as a story-teller and rhetorician cast a kind of spell over many readers, so much so that they find it almost inconceivable that what he reports are not authentic accounts of his historical and clinical experiences. There was some excuse (just) for this before around 1980. Thereafter the knowledge that Freud’s accounts of the early history of psychoanalysis were questionable was easily accessible in the literature, and doubts about the accuracy of his clinical accounts were being voiced. Today, credulity exemplified by Howard Gardner’s statement quoted above can surely only be explained by a longstanding attachment to Freud’s writings as a consequence of early acquaintanceship with them (usually in the course of a University education at a time when Freud was almost universally revered in the United States), plus what I’m inclined to describe as a kind of wilful ignorance of the critical writings on Freud of the last three decades. (See, e.g., the bibliography below.)
I would add that self-deception in regard to his achievements, enabling him to maintain an utter conviction as to the rightness of his “cause”, played a considerable role in enhancing the persuasive force of Freud’s writings. As Gellner [1985, p. 216] observed, “the idea that he might be deceiving himself does not seem to have entered his consciousness”. And again Gellner, writing of Freud’s assertion that there was no need for empirical confirmation of his contentions because the clinical evidence was so overwhelming: “This would suggest a person capable of some persisting indulgence in self-delusion.”
I’ll leave Gellner to have the last word. Summing up Freud’s achievements he concluded: “Freud did not discover the Unconscious. What he did do was to endow it with a language, a ritual, and a church.”
Vijay Prashad in Himal (via Amitava Kumar):
With Anthems of Resistance, Ali Husain Mir and Raza Mir, two brothers hailing from Hyderabad, in the Deccan, come bearing a substantial gift. Archaeologists of a lost sensibility, they tear the wild foliage of communal hatred aside and take us to a promised land: this is not freedom itself, but the articulation of revolution by a generation of poets. The story begins in 1934, at a Chinese restaurant in London, where some of the greatest artists of the day met to found the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA). Their unabashedly modernist manifesto called upon artists to “rescue literature and other arts from the priestly, academic and decadent classes in whose hands they have degenerated so long; to bring the arts into the closest touch with the people; and to make them the vital organs which will register the actualities of life, as well as lead us to the future.”
The Urdu writers in the group inaugurated a tradition known as taraqqi-pasandi (progressivism), and poets such as Firaq Gorakhpuri and Josh Malihabadi wrote revolutionary anthems to shake off the cobwebs of custom for the creation of an enlightened future.
From the Oxford University Press blog:
Simon Blackburn is a Professor at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of Truth: A Guide, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, Think, and Being Good, among many other books. Today he weighs in on truth and truthiness, a subject he knows much about since writing his own book on “Truth.” Truth: A Guide offers a penetrating look at the definition of truth using the guidance of history’s most brilliant minds.
There never seems to be the right time to write a book. No sooner had my book on Truth: A Guide gone to press than new outbreaks of the diseases for which it hoped to be a cure broke out all over the world. The new Pope, on the eve of his election, started fulminating about relativism and the world going to the dogs through not acknowledging the sovereignty of the Roman Catholic Church. And then the White House started sneering at the “reality based community” as the washed-up historical relics of a vanished age. And we have their apparent alternative, ‘truthiness’ introduced by comedian Stephen Colbert. According to Wikipedia this is ‘the quality by which a person claims to know something intuitively, instinctively, or “from the gut” without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or actual facts’.
This is certainly bad and certainly a phenomenon of our times. I think Colbert had bigger game in his sights however: truthiness is also something more akin to what a philosopher might call constructivism, or the sense that we are somehow in control of what the facts are, that they can be not only spun but actually constructed in accordance with our own agendas.
More here. [Thanks to Rebecca Ford.]
In New York magazine, Sam Anderson on Martin Amis:
Martin Amis is the undisputed Grand Wizard of Schadenfreude—he dramatizes it in his novels, dispenses it in his essays, and seems to inspire it personally in everyone within a 3,000-mile radius. As he once told an interviewer, “People doing each other down, competing, their savagery—that’s my patch.” It’s no surprise, then, that over the past 35 years insulting Amis has become a competitive sport among book reviewers. He’s been maligned by his father (“I can’t get to the end of a paragraph”), his hero (Updike called one of his plots “unmentionable”), his friend (Christopher Hitchens accused him of “mushy secondhand observations”), and his fellow novelists (A. S. Byatt: “male turkey cocking”; Anita Brookner: “an assault on the reader’s good faith”). He seems to have generated a feedback loop of intercontinental bitterness. At the height of his fame in the mid-nineties, the media feasted on him for weeks after he left his wife, fired his agent, and spent a chunk of an exorbitant book advance repairing his exorbitant teeth; things got so bad that Salman Rushdie, who had his own problems at the time, accused the media of attempting to “murder” Amis. (Amis’s own response to the scandal seemed calculated only to metastasize the nastiness: “Envy never comes to the ball dressed as envy, it comes dressed as high moral standards or distaste for materialism.”) Recently, improbably, things have only got worse. As Amis nears 60, he has started to hemorrhage his old powers—a great loss to literature, but an incalculable gain for the art of sniping—and the critics have attacked with special verve, like matadors whipping out their fanciest moves at the end of a bullfight. Michiko Kakutani wrote that his last novel, Yellow Dog, was “like a sendup of a Martin Amis novel written by someone intent on sabotaging his reputation,” and the novelist Tibor Fischer famously dismissed it as “not-knowing-where-to-look bad … like your favourite uncle being caught in a school playground, masturbating.”
The immediate question raised by Amis’s newest novel, House of Meetings, then—the mystery that will keep everyone riveted until its final page—is: How terrible is it? Can we unleash the hatchet sentences we’ve all been mentally sharpening for three years? (I’m eager to use mine: “Martin Amis’s new novel is so kidney-rupturingly nauseating that the human race should annihilate itself via nuclear warfare purely out of the shame of sharing a genetic code with him.”) Despite some improbably glowing early reviews—many of which have the flavor of apology for the Yellow Dog business (cf. Kakutani)—the book is, unfortunately, disappointing on a couple of levels. It’s not nearly as good as we want it to be, but it’s also—heartbreakingly—not nearly as bad.
George Plimpton in Time (on whose cover Ali appeared three times):
Though Ali won the gold medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960, at the time the experts didn’t think much of his boxing skills. His head, eyes wide, seemed to float above the action. Rather than slip a punch, the traditional defensive move, it was his habit to sway back, bending at the waist — a tactic that appalled the experts. Lunacy.
Nor did they approve of his personal behavior: the self-promotions (“I am the greatest!”), his affiliation with the Muslims and giving up his “slave name” for Muhammad Ali (“I don’t have to be what you want me to be; I’m free to be what I want”), the poetry (his ability to compose rhymes on the run could very well qualify him as the first rapper) or the quips (“If Ali says a mosquito can pull a plow, don’t ask how. Hitch him up!”). At the press conferences, the reporters were sullen. Ali would turn on them. “Why ain’t you taking notice?” or “Why ain’t you laughing?”
More here. Below see the video of what many consider Ali’s best fight ever, Muhammad Ali vs. Cleveland Williams, 1966:
And here is a different video of the same fight (do yourself a favor and watch watch Ali dance!). I wrote about Ali last year in an essay here at 3QD (scroll down). Happy Birthday, Muhammad Ali!
William Grimes reviews In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India by Edward Luce, in the New York Times Book Review:
India’s dizzying economic ascent began in 1991, when the government abruptly dismantled the “license raj,” a system of tight controls and permits in place since independence in 1947. Mr. Luce, as you might expect from a Financial Times reporter, does a superb job of explaining the new Indian economy and why its transformation qualifies as strange.
Unlike China, India has not undergone an industrial revolution. Its economy is powered not by manufacturing but by its service industries. In a vast subcontinent of poor farmers whose tiny holdings shrink by the decade, a highly competitive, if small, technology sector and a welter of service businesses have helped create a middle class, materialistic and acquisitive, along with some spectacularly rich entrepreneurs.
Paul Raffaele in Smithsonian Magazine:
By midmorning’s light, a military helicopter descends on the Shandur Pass, a 12,300-foot-high valley hemmed in by mountains whose jagged peaks soar another 8,000 feet above us. This part of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province is usually inhabited only by hardy shepherds and their grazing yaks, but today more than 15,000 assorted tribesmen are on hand as Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf emerges from the chopper, a pistol on his hip.
Musharraf, who has survived several assassination attempts, seems to be taking no chances in a province roamed by Muslim extremists. But still, he has come: after all, it’s the annual mountain polo match between Chitral and Gilgit, rival towns on either side of the Shandur Pass.
Persians brought the game here a thousand years ago, and it has been favored by prince and peasant ever since. But as played at Shandur, the world’s highest polo ground, the game has few rules and no referee. Players and horses go at one another with the abandon that once led a British political agent to label Chitral “the land of mirth and murder.”
Mike Davis in New Left Review:
Welcome to a strange paradise. But where are you? Is this a new Margaret Atwood novel, Philip K. Dick’s unpublished sequel to Blade Runner or Donald Trump on acid? No. It is the Persian Gulf city-state of Dubai in 2010. After Shanghai (current population 15 million), Dubai (current population 1.5 million) is the planet’s biggest building site: an emerging dreamworld of conspicuous consumption and what the locals boast as ‘supreme lifestyles’. Despite its blast-furnace climate (on typical 120° summer days, the swankier hotels refrigerate their swimming pools) and edge-of-the-war-zone location, Dubai confidently predicts that its enchanted forest of 600 skyscrapers and malls will attract 15 million overseas visitors a year by 2010, three times as many as New York City. Emirates Airlines has placed a staggering $37-billion order for new Boeings and Airbuses to fly these tourists in and out of Dubai’s new global air hub, the vast Jebel Ali airport. Indeed, thanks to a dying planet’s terminal addiction to Arabian oil, this former fishing village and smugglers’ cove proposes to become one of the world capitals of the 21st century. Favouring diamonds over rhinestones, Dubai has already surpassed that other desert arcade of capitalist desire, Las Vegas, both in sheer scale of spectacle and the profligate consumption of water and power.
Elizabeth Gudrais in Harvard Magazine:
Humans seem to have an instinct for music. Certain songs have a quality that makes us want to tap our toes and sing along. We can’t quite say what makes good music, but we know it when we hear it. Sheet music, which tells musicians very precisely which notes to play and when, provides little clue to that mystical ingredient, but Dmitri Tymoczko ’91 has devised a new way to map music that aims to do just that.
Tymoczko (pronounced tim-OSS-ko), who spent this past academic year as a composer in residence at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, has developed a way to represent music spatially. Using non-Euclidean geometry and a complex figure, borrowed from string theory, called an orbifold (which can have from two to an infinite number of dimensions, depending on the number of notes being played at once), Tymoczko’s system shows how chords that are generally pleasing to the ear appear in locations close to one another, clustered close to the orbifold’s center. Sounds that the ear identifies as dissonant appear as outliers, closer to the edges.
The system “allows you to translate these half-formed intuitive understandings into very precise, clear language,” says Tymoczko, an assistant professor of music at Princeton. “Personally, I find that incredibly cool.” So, apparently, did Science, which recently published his mathematically based exposition—the only music-theory paper the journal has accepted in its 127-year history.
From the StoryCorps website:
StoryCorps is a national project to instruct and inspire people to record each others’ stories in sound.
We’re here to help you interview your grandmother, your uncle, the lady who’s worked at the luncheonette down the block for as long as you can remember—anyone whose story you want to hear and preserve.
To start, we’re building soundproof recording studios across the country, called StoryBooths. You can use these StoryBooths to record broadcast-quality interviews with the help of a trained facilitator. Our first StoryBooth opened in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal on October 23, 2003. StoryCorps opened its second StoryBooth in New York City in Lower Manhattan on July 12, 2005. We also have two traveling recording studios, called MobileBooths, which embarked on cross-country tours on May 19, 2005.
We’ve tried to make the experience as simple as possible: We help you figure out what questions to ask. We handle all the technical aspects of the recording. At the end of the hour-long session, you get a copy of your interview on CD. And thanks to the generous contributions of our supporters, we ask for only a $10 suggested donation.
Since we want to make sure your story lives on for generations to come, we’ll also add your interview to the StoryCorps Archive, housed at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, which we hope will become nothing less than an oral history of America. (See the press release on the Library of Congress Web site.)
A video is available which explains the StoryCorps experience in more detail. You can view it by clicking here. (Quicktime, 10MB)
More here. [Click “About” at the site for more info.]
Brian Boyd in The American Scholar:
We love stories, and we will continue to love them. But for more than 30 years, as Theory has established itself as “the new hegemony in literary studies” (to echo the title of Tony Hilfer’s cogent critique), university literature departments in the English-speaking world have often done their best to stifle this thoroughly human emotion.
Every year, heavy hitters in the academic literary world sum up the state of the discipline in the Modern Language Association of America’s annual, Profession. In Profession 2005, Louis Menand, Harvard English professor, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and New Yorker essayist, writes that university literature departments “could use some younger people who think that the grownups got it all wrong.” He has no hunch about what they should say his generation got wrong, but he deplores the absence of a challenge to the reigning ideas in the discipline. He laments the “culture of conformity” in professors and graduate students alike. He notes with regret that the profession “is not reproducing itself so much as cloning itself.”
But then, curiously, he insists that what humanities departments should definitely not seek is “consilience, which is a bargain with the devil.” Consilience, in biologist E. O. Wilson’s book of that name, is the idea that the sciences, the humanities, and the arts should be connected with each other, so that science (most immediately, the life sciences) can inform the humanities and the arts, and vice versa.
David Biello in Scientific American:
I am a moderate procrastinator. Even when I believe that I would be best served by finishing a task (say, filing this story), I will occasionally put it off in favor of some short-term reward (like a much needed caffeine fix). This tendency on my part to delay what is in my long-term interest can now be explained by a simple mathematical equation, according to industrial psychologist Piers Steel of the University of Calgary.
Steel developed the equation U = E x V / I x D, where U is the desire to complete the task; E, the expectation of success; V, the value of completion; I, the immediacy of task; and D, the personal sensitivity to delay, as a way of mathematically mapping a given individual’s procrastination response. So, for example, my desire to finish this article is influenced by my relative confidence in writing it well and the prospect of a paycheck as well as a looming deadline and my inherent desire to go home at the end of the day. “You’re more likely to put something off if you’re a very impulsive individual,” Steel says. But, “if you only work at the last minute, time on task tells.”