up and down


A dual career as an illustrator and star puppeteer isn’t exactly a route to fame and fortune today, but back in the twenties and thirties, Tony Sarg pulled it off. And even if he’s no longer a household name, everyone knows Sarg’s biggest project: In 1928, he floated the idea of creating giant inflatable figures that could be paraded down Broadway and got Macy’s to try them out on Thanksgiving. (A few years later, he did the first set of the store’s animated Christmas windows, too.) Raised in Germany, Sarg popularized old-world marionette technique in the U.S., performing at the Chicago and New York world’s fairs and designing the latter fair’s official map. A master of branding before the word existed, he also opened a small chain of kiddie stores, and produced toys and books and puzzles by the carload until his death in 1942.

more from New York Magazine here.

String Theory, With No Holds Barred

From Science:

Greene If Michael Turner had known what he was in for, he might have stayed home. As the moderator of a debate held here last night at the National Museum of Natural History, the University of Chicago cosmologist had the unenviable task of trying to crown a winner in a match-up between Brian Greene and Lawrence Krauss, two physics heavyweights duking it out over the merits–or lack thereof–of the so-called Theory of Everything.

String theory assumes that elementary particles are tiny vibrating strings that exist in multiple dimensions. In trying to unite Einstein’s theory of gravity with quantum mechanics, it hopes to answer mysteries about the beginning of the universe and the very nature of matter, energy, and time. The claims are deep, and opponents of the theory say the findings so far have been shallow, even nonexistent. Last night’s debate did little to settle the argument, but a packed house of academics, physics geeks, and just-curious laypeople seemed to enjoy themselves nonetheless.

More here.

The American Prison Nightmare

Jason DeParle in the New York Review of Books:

Jackson_jail_1For much of the twentieth century, about one American in a thousand was confined to a cell. The proportion of Americans behind bars started rising in the mid-Seventies, and by 2003 had done so for twenty-eight consecutive years. Counting jails, there are now seven Americans in every thousand behind bars. That is nearly five times the historic norm and seven times higher than most of Western Europe.

The penal population grew because crime increased; because the number of police and prosecutors grew (which raised the odds of punishment); and because policymakers, disillusioned with the ethos of rehabilitation, imposed tougher penalties. The increase in severity occurred on the front end with longer sentences and reduced judicial discretion to shorten them, and on the back end by making fewer prisoners eligible for early release.

Meanwhile, the “war on drugs” led to the arrest of growing numbers of small-time users and dealers. By the late 1990s, 60 percent of federal inmates were in for drug offenses. The result is an ever-growing prison system, populated to a significant degree by people who need not be there. It was no liberal advocate but Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy who offered a damning view of criminal justice in the United States: “Our resources are misspent, our punishments too severe, our sentences too long.”

More here.

Islamic Banking: Is It Really Kosher?

Muslim scholars say the Qur’an prohibits collecting interest on loans. But many banks, both global and local, have found clever ways to meet religious strictures. It’s a system that may be hypocritical, but also profitable.

Aaron MacLean in American Magazine:

Halal20banking20300The financial instruments that 20th-century Islamic theorists championed were updated versions of medieval commercial instruments, still known in the Islamic financial sector by their Arabic names: in addition to bonds, known as sukuk, there are profit-and-loss sharing instruments known as musharaka or mudaraba, Islamic leases known as ijara, and a commercial trade instrument called murabaha, the flexibility of which has made it extremely popular among Islamic financial firms.

Banking, as an institution, evolved at the same time as the unprecedented economic growth in Europe over the past 500 years. That growth was made possible in part by the codification, in the 12th century, of a distinction between usury and interest in the Christian tradition.

The Islamic world witnessed the development of corporate contract law and the European banking system from afar. A mixture of traditional arrangements and, later, imported Western practices prevailed in Muslim countries. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that anyone tried to combine the two, governing a modern bank according to Islamic law.

More here.

Are Free Traders the Biggest Threat to Globalization?

Dani Rodrik in the FT (via DeLong):

Which is the greatest threat to globalisation: the protesters on the streets every time the International Monetary Fund or the World Trade Organisation meets, or globalisation’s cheerleaders, who push for continued market opening while denying that the troubles surrounding globalisation are rooted in the policies they advocate?

A good case can be made that the latter camp presents the greater menace. Anti-globalisers are marginalised. But cheerleaders in Washington, London and the elite universities of north America and Europe shape the intellectual climate. If they get their way, they are more likely to put globalisation at risk than the protesters they condemn for ignorance of sound economics.

That is because the greatest obstacle to sustaining a healthy, globalised economy is no longer insufficient openness. Markets are freer from government interference than they have ever been. Import restrictions such as tariff and non-tariff barriers are lower than ever. Capital flows in huge magnitudes. Despite barriers, legal and illegal immigration approaches levels not seen since the 19th century.

Ousted Chief Justice Speaks Out in Pakistan

From The Washington Post:Law

The nation’s suspended chief justice received a hero’s welcome from some 2,000 lawyers Wednesday as he gave his first address since President Pervez Musharraf removed him from the bench nearly three weeks ago. The Supreme Court judge, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, was showered with rose petals and greeted with boisterous chants of “Go, Musharraf, go!” by supporters who have rallied to Chaudhry’s side and want Pakistan’s president to resign.

The clash between Musharraf and Chaudhry has riveted the nation since the judge was suspended on March 9, and many here feel it represents the most serious domestic challenge to Musharraf since he came to power in a military coup eight years ago. Critics say the decision to suspend Chaudhry was an attempt by Musharraf to crush the judiciary ahead of elections planned for later this year.

More here.

The Crunch

From Orion Magazine:Crunch

I write this on the fifth day of January in the year of our Lord 2007. Here in Vermont we’ve just come through the most snowless and warmest December in our history. The lakes are wide open, and the radio just forecast sixty degrees and pouring rain for tomorrow.

Norman Thomas, the great democratic socialist leader of the twentieth century who ran six times for president, used to say, “There are no lost causes, only causes not yet won.” Which has always struck me as a useful credo. And indeed, Thomas saw most of the outlandish ideas of his youth (Social Security, the eight-hour day, the five-day week) eventually enshrined not only in law but in conventional wisdom as obvious common sense. As Martin Luther King often observed, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Sometimes, too, King would quote James Russell Lowell’s “Once to Every Man and Nation”:

Truth forever on the scaffold
Wrong forever on the throne
Yet that scaffold sways the future
And behind the dim unknown
Standeth God within the shadow
Keeping watch above his own.

More here.

What I cannot create I do not understand


Predicting the future of technology is a mug’s game, but that doesn’t stop people from trying to do it. I still enjoy looking through my 1902 copy of The Romance of Modern Invention, which devotes as much space to the telautograph as to the telephone, and predicts that the horseless carriage will solve the problems of city congestion. The two very different books by Martyn Amos and Robert Frenay share the premise that biology is going to be extremely important in twenty-first-century technology, taking over from the electronics that has dominated recent decades. There are good reasons for expecting change, one of these being that there are physical limits to how small silicon-based electronic circuits can be made. Smaller means better in the world of computing, and computers have been shrinking in size for the past forty years. Moore’s Law states that the number of components that can be packed onto a given silicon chip doubles every eighteen months, but the end is in sight for this steady progress. In contrast, biological systems manage to store and manipulate information more compactly than any silicon-based device can achieve. In particular, DNA holds information in digital form, just like a computer, and uses fewer than fifty atoms to store one bit.

more from the TLS here.

ruby satellite


When you title an exhibition after the ramblings of a deranged schizophrenic convinced that Russian clones are controlling the government, and that a disease spread by cannibals is flooding the nation, and that a ‘Ruby Satellite’ that manipulates time may be the last best hope in defeating these cannibals and clones – well, you’ve got a tall order already. The sad, real-life denouement of this bizarre tale is that two Capitol police officers (mistaken for cannibals) were fatally shot by Russell Eugene Weston Jr. in 1998 as he stormed the United States Senate in search of the controls to said satellite. As crazy as this story is, it does contain all the elements of what this exhibition, curated by Ciara Ennis, was all about: compulsion and power – how they are played out and how we navigate the spaces in between.

more from Frieze here.

from the cadences of Calvinism to the experiments of Wallace Stevens and Gertrude Stein


While ferociously pious, Jonathan Edwards was also way into metaphysics. Thanks to Jeremiah Dummer’s gift of five hundred volumes, which began making their way into the Yale library in 1714, the undergraduate Edwards enthusiastically discovered Descartes, Arnauld, Locke, and—most crucially for Joan Richardson’s A Natural History of Pragmatism—an edition of Isaac Newton’s Opticks (1704), which Edwards read time and time again. From the repetition of Samuel Clarke’s Latin translation of Newton’s English version of Opticks, Richardson finds etched into Edward’s later sermonic rhetoric a prismatic network of “light” (lumen), and from this link, she distills her fascinating premise: Attention to these sorts of lexical echoes will get us from the cadences of Calvinism to the experiments of Wallace Stevens and Gertrude Stein.

more from Bookforum here.

against love


The captive; the fugitive; the lost, the found: the story of Natascha Kampusch – of an abducted girl who disappears at the age of ten and who returns a grown-up woman – became a worldwide sensation. Even before the public had seen her “new” face it was already visible to all as a digital identikit, and in one of the numerous front pages featuring the pro-ordained “face of the year”, even given a Warholian makeover, stylized as a pop icon. After the pale star had completed, to the dissatisfaction of all voyeurs, her first interview, Austrian public television announced the third highest ratings in broadcasting history: a blockbuster in the time of postmodernism, when blockbusters have long since ceased to exist, because no story sounds “incredible” any more. Why this one? What was it about the story of K. that made it so good, so fascinating, so attractive to the masses? Why, especially at first, did it seem more exciting than any thriller, more gripping than Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs and all the other artificial hells produced by the culture industry? And – to stick with stories that really happened – why did it also seem more interesting than the Dutroux case in Belgium? Lastly, why was the event just a flash in the pan, in so far as media enthusiasm fizzled out after just a few weeks?

more from Eurozine here.

William Dalrymple, Ram Manikkalingam and Manan Ahmed discuss The Last Mughal

3 Quarks Daily’s own Ram Manikkalingam, and Manan Ahmed, joined William Dalrymple to discuss Dalrymple’s latest book The Last Mughal on the nationally syndicated NPR program Radio Open Source, with Christopher Lydon. This is Chris Lydon at the Radio Open Source website:

William Dalrymple, the Scots historian who’s “gone native” in Delhi and written brilliantly about Delhi, City of Djinns, and its English denizens in the Raj, White Mughals, has rewritten the story of the Sepoy Mutiny from the largely untapped Indian National Archive. It brings the perspective of innumerable private and individual tragedies to one of the critical upheavals of modern history. For American readers in 2007, Dalrymple’s fresh telling of 1857 finds a startling parallelism in the “clash of civilizations” thinking that paved our way into Iraq and the British attitudes that had hardened through the 19th Century in a toxic brew of racism, cultural contempt and Christian evangelicalism.

Although it had many causes and reflected many deeply held political and economic grievances – particularly the feeling that the heathen foreigners were interfering in the most intimate way with a part of the world to which they were entirely alien – the uprising was articulated as a war of religion, and especially as a defensive action against the rapid inroads that missionaries, Christian schools and Christian ideas were making in India, combined with a more generalised fight for freedom from occupation and western interference.

… as we have seen in our own time, nothing so easily radicalises a people against us, or undermines the moderate aspect of Islam, as aggressive western intrusion in the east: the histories of Islamic fundamentalism and western imperialism have often been closely, and dangerously, intertwined. In a curious but very concrete way, the extremists and fundamentalists of both faiths have needed each other to reinforce each other’s prejudices and hatreds. The venom of one provides the lifeblood of the other.

William Dalrymple, “The last Mughal and a clash of civilizations”, The New Statesman, 16 Oct 2006

There are clear lessons here, as Dalrymple says. I am at the half-way point in his book, racing through it with the encouragement of reviews and commentaries in, for example, the indispensable 3 Quarks Daily and The Guardian.

Read more and listen to the program here.

Exxon’s Shame

Peter Rothberg in The Nation:

Tanker_350The reality is that after eighteen years and countless false promises, ExxonMobil has still not paid the billions of dollars in punitive damages that the courts have determined it owes the spill victims–this despite the fact that the company posted the most profitable year in 2006 of any corporation in history. In 1994, a federal court in Anchorage, Alaska, awarded $5 billion in punitive damages to fishermen, Native Alaskans, and other plaintiffs in a class action suit against the oil giant. But rather than accepting its obligations Exxon has been fighting the verdict, employing hundreds of lawyers, filing countless appeals and effectively buying science that supports its claims.

This has added injury to injury as more than 30,000 people whose lives and livelihood were disrupted by the spill have now been dragged through years of litigation. During this time, according to the advocacy group ExposeExxon whose excellent mailing prompted this column, 6,000 plaintiffs have died waiting for compensation.

More here.

Pakistan’s Silent Majority Is Not to Be Feared

Mohsin Hamid in the New York Times:

Hamid450I was one of the few Pakistanis who actually voted for Gen. Pervez Musharraf in the rigged referendum of 2002. I recall walking into a polling station in Islamabad and not seeing any other voter. When I took the time required to read the convoluted ballot, I was accosted by a man who had the overbearing attitude of a soldier although he was in civilian clothes. He insisted that I hurry, which I refused to do. He then hovered close by, watching my every action, in complete defiance of electoral rules.

Despite this intimidation, I still voted in favor of the proposition that General Musharraf, who had seized power in a coup in 1999, should continue as Pakistan’s president for five more years. I believed his rule had brought us much-needed stability, respite from the venal and self-serving elected politicians who had misgoverned Pakistan in the 1990s, and a more free and vibrant press than at any time in the country’s history.

More here.

Discarding a long-held evolutionary theory

Lindsay Borthwick in Seed Magazine:

Screenhunter_03_mar_28_1513Scattered throughout the human genome are thousands of mutations that biologists have treated mostly as footnotes. They’re hardly few in number—in coding regions of the genome, there are as many as 15,000—but biologists regard them as mutations that simply don’t change the way a cell functions. Both in name and effect, they have been accepted as “silent.” Now, however, new discoveries are showing that silent mutations appear to play an important role in dozens of human genetic diseases, a fact that is forcing biologists to discard a long-held evolutionary theory and to reexamine the very rules governing the transfer of information from DNA to proteins.

To understand the importance of this realization, it’s necessary to review how infrormation is transfered from genes to proteins…

More here.