New York Place Names and the Politics of Renaming

My friends Lenny Benardo and Jennifer Weiss on the politics of renaming in New York.

A FEW weeks ago, most Brooklyn residents would have pleaded ignorance about the person for whom Manhattan Beach’s Corbin Place is named. But with the recent airing of the distasteful history of the man Corbin Place memorializes, local politicians have been leading a charge to rename it. A public hearing on possibly renaming the street is scheduled for tomorrow [Februaru 26th].

But renaming is a bad idea. Street names function as a barometer of social values at a given time, and as such have historical significance that goes beyond a name. If anything, we should consider co-naming the street, a solution that has been adopted in Brooklyn and other parts of the city…

[T]he Corbin Place affair presents an opportunity to illustrate why renaming streets, no matter how odious the people involved, is not the answer. Whitewashing the past does not offer historical redress, it obscures history. Corbin’s ideas, while extreme, reflected the realities of the day when Jews were excluded and ostracized as a matter of course. It would be impossible, for example, for an Austin Corbin, no matter how significant his accomplishments, to get a street in his honor today.

Furthermore, changing Corbin Place could be the start of a slippery slope with respect to other streets bestowed on the less than meritorious. Among many of Brooklyn’s founding families who have streets named for them — the Bergens, Lefferts and Lotts — are prominent slaveholders (the Lotts, among Kings County’s largest slaveholders, are memorialized in an avenue, a place and a street). All told, Brooklyn’s streets appear to have more than 70 slaveholders represented. And Peter Stuyvesant, who apparently lends his name to Stuyvesant Avenue, was an anti-Semite of the first order. In 1654, Stuyvesant petitioned the Dutch West India Company to expel the first Jews who settled in New Amsterdam.

Scapegoating Pakistan

Ken Silverstein in Harper’s Magazine:

Pakistan_1Other countries, as former senior CIA official Michael Scheuer reminded me, do not look at the world from the same point of view as the United States. “The first duty of any intelligence agency,” he said, “is to protect the national interest. Pakistan is not going to destroy the Taliban because at some point they would like to see the Taliban back in power. They cannot tolerate a pro-Indian, pro-American, pro-Russian, pro-Iranian government in Afghanistan. They already have an unstable Western border and have to worry about a country of one million Hindus that has nuclear bombs.”

That point was echoed by a second retired CIA official, who asked to remain anonymous. “The United States,” he told me, “has never recognized the essential security concerns of Pakistan, which are on its eastern border. India can be in Islamabad in three days. We tell them India would never do that, but they have fought three wars against India. Pakistan cannot be put in a position where it might have to fight a war on two fronts, from India and Afghanistan.”

More here.  [Thanks to Husain Naqvi.]

The Changing, er, Face of Dining

For a while I joked that Asad should do a review of the best strip club buffets in the city (prompted by all the buffet ads, especially in mid-town, not as a connoisseur of strip clubs) for 3QD. (The idea of that combination seems bizarre to me.) But The New York Times’ Frank Bruni has taken the first step.

IT may be laughable when someone says he gets Penthouse magazine for the articles. It’s no joke when I say I went to the Penthouse Executive Club for the steaks.

Over the years I’d read reports that this pleasure palace, on a stretch of West 45th Street closer to the edge of Manhattan than most diners venture, peddled more than one kind of seductive flesh. And I felt obliged — honestly, I did — to check it out, knowing that great food often pops up where you least expect it.

You can find bliss in the soulless cradle of a strip mall. Why not the topless clutch of a strip club? And so, early this month, I gathered three friends for an initial trip (dare I call it a maiden voyage?) to the Penthouse club — or, more specifically, to the restaurant, Robert’s Steakhouse, nestled inside it.

We were strangers to such pulchritudinous territory, less susceptible to the scenery than other men might be, more aroused by the side dishes than the sideshow: underdressed, overexposed young women in the vestibule, by the coat check, at the top of the red-carpeted stairs up to the restaurant, on the stage that many of the restaurant’s tables overlook.

The Expansion of Private Property Rights

It may seen a bit policy wonky, but it’s a historic step. The People’s Republic debates the reform of property rights, in the Beijing Review.

Chinese philosopher Mencius, who lived over 2,200 years ago, once said, “People can have a long-term life plan only after knowing their private properties are secured.”

This teaching deeply influenced China for more than 2,000 years, but after the People’s Republic was founded in 1949, public ownership gradually played a dominant role.

Since China began to embrace the market economy in the early 1980s, private property rights and ownership have been increasing, but they remain an unfamiliar concept for many in the country.

Following a revision to China’s Constitution to include private property rights protection, the country is now expected to adopt the Property Law this March. If passed at the annual session of China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), that law would define and regulate property rights across China for the first time.

A draft property law had its first reading in China’s legislature in 2002 as part of a civil code. Since then it has been deliberated on for seven times. During those deliberations the full text of the draft law was also released to the general public to solicit opinion. At the 25th session of the 10th NPC Standing Committee held last December, lawmakers reached a consensus on the draft law.

Primo Levi on Weightlessness from Dante to NASA

In Granta, there is this beautiful peice.

From this persistent dream of weightlessness, my mind returns to a well-known rendition of the Geryon episode in the seventeenth canto of th Inferno. The ‘wild beast’, reconstructed by Dante from classical sources and also from word-of-mouth accounts of the medieval bestiaries, is imaginary and at the same time splendidly real. It eludes the burden of weight. Waiting for its two strange passengers, only one of whom is subject to the laws of gravity, the wild beast rests on the bank with its forelegs, but its deadly tail floats ‘in the void’ like the stern-end of a Zeppelin moored to its pylon. At first, Dante was frightened by the creature, but then that magical descent to Malebolge captured the attention of the poet-scientist, paradoxically absorbed in the naturalistic study of his fictional beast whose monstrous and symbolic form he describes with precision. The brief description of the journey on the back of the beast is singularly accurate, down to the details as confirmed by the pilots of modern hang-gliders: the silent, gliding flight, where the passenger’s perception of speed is not informed by the rhythm or the noise of the wings but only by the sensation of the air which is ‘on their face and from below’. Perhaps Dante, too, was reproducing here unconsciously the universal dream of weightless flight, to which psychoanalysts attribute problematical and immodest significance.

The ease with which man adapts to weightlessness is a fascinating mystery. Considering that for many people travel by sea or even by car can cause bouts of nausea, one can’t help feeling perplexed. During month-long spells in space the astronauts complained only of passing discomforts, and doctors who examined them afterwards discovered a light decalcification of the bones and a transitory atrophy of the heart muscles: the same effects, in other words, produced by a period of confinement to bed. Yet nothing in our long history of evolution could have prepared us for a condition as unnatural as non-gravity.

Thus we have vast and unforeseen margins of safety: the visionary idea of humanity migrating from star to star on vessels with huge sails driven by stellar light might have limits, but not that of weightlessness: our poor body, so vulnerable to swords, to guns and to viruses, is space-proof.

Dennett v. Orr, Round V

In Edge.org, the latest in the Daniel Dennett -H. Allen Orr exchange: H. Allen Orr responds to Dennett’s open letter:

Dennett asks me to identify some allegedly serious thinkers on religion. I named two in my review but am happy to name them again: William James and Ludwig Wittgenstein. I chose these two as both wrote after Darwin and had training in science or engineering; both were, then, presumably in a position to recognize the challenges posed to religion by science. One may or may not find convincing James’s attempt to discern whether religion is possible in an age of science or Wittgenstein’s interpretation of religious practice. Indeed I myself have reservations about their claims. But I find it shocking that someone writing at book-length on religion would fail to discuss, or even mention, their views or those of their intellectual equals. What, for instance, does Dawkins think of Wittgenstein’s picture of religion? Does he reject Wittgenstein’s idea that believers sometimes use language in a way that differs from (and is incommensurable with) how we normally use language? Would he even count Wittgensteinian-style religion as religion? And, if not, is it still child abuse? Is it evil? (For more on Dawkins and Wittgenstein, and from a bona fide philosopher, see Simon Blackburn’s superb review of Dawkins’s earlier book, A Devil’s Chaplain (The New Republic, December 1, 2003).)

The bottom line is that Dawkins, by ducking serious thought on religion, made things far too easy for himself. One result is that the naïve reader of The God Delusion can walk away from the book wholly unaware that serious post-Darwinian thinkers have wondered if religion is really so simple as Dawkins pretends.

The man who might have been—and could still become—President

David Remnick in The New Yorker:

Al_gore_snl“Saturday Night Live” is erratic in middle age but rarely cruel. An exception came late last spring, when, at the stroke of eleven-thirty, an NBC announcer gravely told the American people to stand by for a “message from the President of the United States,” and Al Gore, surrounded by Oval Office knickknacks, came into focus to deliver what could best be described as an interim report from a parallel, and happier, galaxy. President Gore reviewed some of his actions and their unintended consequences:

In the last six years we have been able to stop global warming. No one could have predicted the negative results of this. Glaciers that once were melting are now on the attack. As you know, these renegade glaciers have already captured parts of upper Michigan and northern Maine. But I assure you: we will not let the glaciers win.

Nor was this the only problem. Although Social Security had been repaired, the cost had been high: the budget surplus was “down to a perilously low eleven trillion dollars.” The price of gas had dropped to nineteen cents a gallon, and the oil companies were hurting. (“I know that I am partly to blame by insisting that cars run on trash.”) After winning the plaudits of a grateful world—and turning Afghanistan into a premier “spring-break destination”—Americans could no longer risk travelling abroad, for fear of “getting hugged.” Even the national pastime was in danger. “But,” Gore added hopefully, “I have faith in baseball commissioner George W. Bush when he says, ‘We will find the steroid users if we have to tap every phone in America!’ ”

The cruelty here was not to Gore, who probably requires no prompting to brood now and then about what might have been, but to the audience. It is worse than painful to reflect on how much better off the United States and the world would be today if the outcome of the 2000 election had been permitted to correspond with the wishes of the electorate.

More here.

Digging up the Dead: uncovering the life and times of an extraordinary surgeon

Robert Douglas Fairhurst in New Statesman:

25098Few biographers come to the task as well qualified as Druin Burch, whose training as a doctor means that he is used to emerging from the dissecting room and “finding bits of fat and connective tissue later in the day, trodden onto the sole of my shoe or hitching a ride in the fold of my jeans”. And few subjects are as well suited to this treatment as Astley Cooper (1768-1841), the charismatic surgeon whose skill, energy and talent for self-promotion helped to drag medicine into the modern age. Having trained at Guy’s Hospital at a time when surgeons were little better than licensed butchers, Cooper’s professional dedication to investigating how the human body worked, rather than how it was popularly supposed to work, produced a revolution in surgical techniques with aftershocks that continue to be felt. (His research into the anatomy of the breast is still being cited in the 21st century.)

As is often the case with ambitious men, Cooper’s story is really two stories: one which traces his rise to worldly success and influence, and the other which traces the gradual decline of his youthful political idealism. In 1792, with a revolutionary glint in his eye, he made a pilgrimage to Paris, and was an appalled witness to the violence of the mob as they processed through the streets with bits of the bodies they had torn apart, like a grotesque parody of the enlightened surgical techniques he had gone there to learn. By 1820, having meekly submitted to his employers’ demands for a public recantation (not altogether convincingly excused by Burch as “a pragmatic choice, a sensible one”), he had been so dazzled by the glamour of the court that he could describe the bloated and debauched George IV, seemingly without any irony, as “the Prince of grace and dignity”.

It is an unappealing trajectory, and Burch doesn’t gloss over the unpleasant aspects of Cooper’s personality: the vanity that sometimes confused the “theatre” of surgery with a love of self-display; the clumsy sense of humour that led him once to ask his hairdresser to reach into a tub of hair powder which he had replaced with monkey entrails; the willingness to use body-snatchers in his quest for new anatomical specimens; and especially the obsession with dissection that seemed to go well beyond the needs of medical science.

More here.

Genes uncover dairy farming origins

Sara Wood and John Pickrell in Cosmos Magazine:

Screenhunter_06_feb_28_1107A new genetic analysis of ancient human remains proves that humans were unable to digest milk prior to the spread of agriculture and dairy farming within the last 8,000 years.

Though all people can digest milk in infanthood, most of the world’s population lose that ability at between two and five years of age.

At this time their bodies stop producing an enzyme called lactase, which is essential for digestion of lactose sugars found in dairy products. Most Asians, sub-Saharan Africans, native Americans and Pacific Islanders remain lactose intolerant today.

However, a mutation in many European and some African populations allows them to produce lactase into adulthood, and in these cultures dairy products – such as milk cheese and yoghurt – traditionally form a key component of the diet.

More here.

A makeshift idea for the Olympics

Christopher Hawthorne in the Los Angeles Times:

28144551For decades, cities have seen Olympic bids as among the most effective ways to jump-start civic ambition. Barcelona used the run-up to the 1992 Summer Games as an occasion to reinvent its waterfront, among other expensive improvements. And Beijing is remaking itself at a breakneck pace as it gets ready for the Olympics next year.

But as Chicago and Los Angeles jockey for the right to hold the 2016 Summer Games, a different vision of what the Olympics mean for cities is emerging. It is decidedly modest. This pair of American cities, so different in so many ways, seem to agree that the best way to win the Olympics — and to pay for them — is to design a sort of pack-and-go games. Put aside any notions of an Olympics that might spur interest, here or in Chicago, in new subway lines or massive architectural icons. A central goal in both bids is to avoid the white elephants that have plagued Sydney and other host cities.

More here.

FALLING IN LOVE

From Edge:

Minsky02 MARVIN MINSKY, computer scientist at MIT, is a 1st Generation Artificial Intelligence Pioneer, and author of Society of Mind and the recently published The Emotion Machine: Commonsense Thinking, Artificial Intelligence, and the Future of the Human Mind.

No one finds it surprising these days when we make machines that do logical things, because logic is based on clear, simple rules of the sorts that computers can easily use. But Love, by its nature, some people would say, cannot be explained in mechanical ways — nor could we ever make machines that possess any such human capacities as feelings, emotions, and consciousness.

What is Love, and how does it work? Is this something that we want to understand, or is it one of those subjects that we don’t really want to know more about? Hear our friend charles attempt to describe his latest infatuation.

“I’ve just fallen in love with a wonderful person. I scarcely can think about anything else. My sweetheart is unbelievably perfect — of indescribable beauty, flawless character, and incredible intelligence. There is nothing i would not do for her.”

On the surface such statements seem positive; they’re all composed of superlatives. But note that there’s something strange about this: most of those phrases of positive praise use syllables like “un,” less,” and “in” — which show that they really are negative statements describing the person who’s saying them!

Wonderful. Indescribable.
(I can’t figure out what attracts me to her.)

More here.

Vesuvius erupts again … in simulation

From MSNBC News:Vesuvius_simulation_hmed_12p_1

At least 300,000 Italians living near the Vesuvius volcano would be killed the next time it erupted if they were not evacuated beforehand, according to the first three-dimensional supercomputer simulation of the event. But in a surprise, up to 200,000 others living in the north-northwestern areas of the high-risk “Red Zone” could have more time to escape, thanks to the volcano’s towering Mount Somma rim, which acts as a natural barrier, scientists say.

“For the first time, we have seen that these flows could be substantially diverted,” Augusto Neri, of the National Geophysical and Vulcanology Institute in Pisa, who led the research, said Tuesday. “It seems that Mount Somma acts as an effective barrier. But this doesn’t mean that they’re safe.”

More here.

Why has mankind always loved to draw animals?

David Attenborough in The Telegraph:

Animals were the first things that human beings drew. Not plants. Not landscapes. Not even themselves. But animals. Why? The earliest known drawings are some 30,000 years old. They survive in the depths of caves in western Europe. The fact that some people crawled for half a mile or more along underground passages through the blackness is evidence enough that the production of such pictures was an act of great importance to these artists.

Screenhunter_05_feb_27_1739  

But what was their purpose? Maybe drawing was an essential part of the ceremonials they believed were necessary to ensure success in hunting. Maybe the paintings were intended not to bring about the death of the creatures portrayed but, on the contrary, to ensure their continued fertility so that the people would have a permanent source of meat. We cannot tell. One thing, however, is certain. These drawings are amazingly assured, wonderfully accurate and often breathtakingly beautiful.

This practice of painting images of animals on walls has persisted throughout our history. Five thousand years ago, when men in Egypt began to build the world’s first cities, they too inscribed images of animals on their walls.

More here.

The Last Time I Saw Paris

From the Bahia de Banderas News:

There were numerous refugees in Mexico City following the Spanish Civil War, and pre & post WWII. For the most part they were the intelligentsia fleeing war torn Europe, and ended up teaching at Mexico City College, the National University and the American High School. They represented an extraordinary wealth of experience which made, for me, an educational opportunity unmatched elsewhere at the time. (I attended MCC 1955-1959.)

Mme Germainé Dauchat taught French at Mexico City College during the 1940s and 50s. She was an extraordinary woman with an extraordinary story of survival under the Nazis during the Paris Occupation. I have transcribed her story “The Last Time I Saw Paris” from two 1947 issues of the Mexico City College “El Conquistador.” — Joseph M. Quinn

The Last Time I Saw Paris
Germainé Dauchat

When the war broke out in 1939 I was teaching Latin and German in a boys’ high school in Pontoise, a small town on the Seine 60 kilometers northwest of Paris. Pontoise was a railroad center and had a military barracks, and thus German planes were bombing the area quite frequently.

Many Parisian parents sent their children to this small city, feeling they would be out of danger away from the metropolitan area, but it turned out that it was more dangerous for them in Pontoise than if they had remained in Paris. Fortunately there was a large cave near the school and this served as a convenient shelter during air raids.

Eventually we had more teachers in the school than students. The minister of the interior, Paul Reynaud (later premier), had issued a decree forbidding teachers to abandon their posts. Nevertheless parents withdrew their children one by one. I commuted every day from Paris until it was no longer possible to travel to Pontoise. How well I remember that last day!

It was June 11, 1940 and the Germans were only a few miles from Paris. My train was stopping every few minutes. The bridge over the Seine was barricaded and I found it necessary to get off the train and climb over the barricade. There was a terrible bombing going on, and the Germans were using incendiary bombs. I could see houses blowing up as though they were made of playing cards.

More here.  [Thanks JMQ.]

Believers vs. Non-believers

Britain’s new cultural divide is not between Christian and Muslim, Hindu and Jew. It is between those who have faith and those who do not. Stuart Jeffries reports on the vicious and uncompromising battle between believers and non-believers.

From The Guardian:

Screenhunter_01_feb_27_1704The American journalist HL Mencken once wrote: “We must accept the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.” In Britain today, such wry tolerance is diminishing. Today, it’s the religious on one side, and the secular on the other. Britain is dividing into intolerant camps who revel in expressing contempt for each other’s most dearly held beliefs.

“We are witnessing a social phenomenon that is about fundamentalism,” says Colin Slee, the Dean of Southwark. “Atheists like the Richard Dawkins of this world are just as fundamentalist as the people setting off bombs on the tube, the hardline settlers on the West Bank and the anti-gay bigots of the Church of England. Most of them would regard each other as destined to fry in hell.

“You have a triangle with fundamentalist secularists in one corner, fundamentalist faith people in another, and then the intelligent, thinking liberals of Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, baptism, methodism, other faiths – and, indeed, thinking atheists – in the other corner. ” says Slee. Why does he think the other two groups are so vociferous? “When there was a cold war, we knew who the enemy was. Now it could be anybody. From this feeling of vulnerability comes hysteria.”

“We live together but we don’t know each other,” says Tariq Ramadan, the Muslim scholar and senior research fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford.

More here.  [Thanks to Dhiraj Nayyar.]

Hinduism and Virgin Comics

Virgin Comics, started by Richard Branson’s Virgin, has been putting out a number of comics that are based on Hindu themes and that modernize Hindu epics. You can find a free pdf issue here. Devi (pictured) is on its 6th issue.

Devi_2

Walk In, which just debuted in December, may be the ultimate pastiche.

Have you heard about outsourcing? This is a story about outsourcing. See, there’s a planet out there called Terra and they outsource their prisoners to us here on Earth. We’re their penal colony. But the prisoners don’t know it. Nor do they know their crimes.

Ian Dormhouse is one of those prisoners. He doesn’t know it. Until he meets a stripper in a past-its-prime burlesque club in Moscow. Oh–and there’s the octopus on her shoulder. And there’s the gangster who’s dream Ian saw that he wasn’t supposed to. (Because now he’s posing as a dreamreader in the club to get close to the girl.) And there’s the German rock band that plays mind-altering music–literally.

Hopefully, it won’t all devolve into a Hindu variant of Left Behind. [H/t Linta Varghese]