Borat is no Ali G

by Ram Manikkalingam

Borat was disappointing – long, tedious, and repetitive. Maybe I had already seen too many clips on TV. So there was nothing new, except a faux plot to link together a series of previous episodes. There were some scenes that made me laugh, some scenes that made me gag, and some scenes that made me cringe. What is remarkable is not how bad the movie is, but how popular it became. Other bad movies have also become box office hits. But they have not been as badly filmed, as repetitive, or as crass as this. There is no doubt that Borat was a “phenomenon”.

This has nothing to do with the quality of the film, and everything to do with its politics. Borat manages to parody Muslims and “expose” Americans at the same time. He caters to both those who are anti-Islamic and anti-American. He allows them the guilty pleasure of indulging in that which is forbidden – portraying Muslims as ignorant, sexist, and anti-semitic – by portraying middle-class White Americans as ignorant, sexist, and anti-semitic. This is a potent combination, capable of drawing together a large audience in the US and Western Europe, resentful of Muslims in their midst and the global pre-ponderance of American power.

Borat takes on ordinary Americans, some who are bigoted, but most of who are not. Unlike Ali G, who takes on the powerful ones – from Newt Gingrich to Noam Chomsky – irrespective of their politics. Borat allows those who are anti-Muslim and anti-American to interpret him in ways that enable them to entertain, and thus indulge, themselves. He even permits, those who are simply anti-American to excuse his anti-Islamic parodies, as just that, and enjoy themselves. And sometimes he even permits those who are simply anti-Muslim to enjoy themselves – by hinting that this is where a multiculturalism gone awry will take the world.

About 15 years ago, I traveled through parts of China for a few weeks with my white middle-class midwestern friend from Ohio, Mark. Neither Mark, nor I spoke a word of Chinese. But we managed to get around China, from Guangzhou (on the border with Hongkong, to Xinjiang, on the border with, yes, Kazakhstan, through Xian and Chengdu. I am still astounded at the extent to which we were able to make ourselves intelligible – so as to buy food, and train tickets, find hotels and restaurants, visit museums and historic sites, and generally get around – without knowing a single word in a common language with our interlocutors. What made this possible?

The Chinese we interacted with gave us the benefit of the doubt. When we used Chinese words and got the pronunciation invariably wrong – they did not take the wrong word we had used at face value and proceed on the basis of what would have been clearly irrational statements. Rather they tried to organise their thoughts in ways that made what we said intelligible to them. Then they proceeded to help us with what we wanted. Mistakes were made, but they were always explicable in the context. And our vulnerability to locals in a foreign land was never exploited – except the one tout who took us for a ride and cost us a fortune in a restaurant. But even that was explicable in the end, and of course quite rational.

The way we get along in strange places is by depending on the interpretive charity of strangers. We expect that they will make amends for our mistakes – linguistic and/or cultural – and assist us in interpreting a different world. What is remarkable is how well this works, seldom leading to complete failure to comprehend each other in the midst of linguistic and cultural difference. It works because when we come across people with whom we struggle to communicate, they also struggle back. And the mutual struggle involves simultaneously holding two contradictory ideas about the person we are communicating with. She is just like us and she is not like us.

She is just like us, because the way she understands a person or a situation or an event or an act, is similar to the way we would. And her thoughts cohere together much like mine would, making it possible for her to make her world intelligible to me. And she is not like me, because she may have a belief or a view or a thought, that I would find weird, awkward, queer, or simply wrong. But this can be explained in ways that I understand, precisely because she is just like me, bringing her closer to me, even if neither (she nor I) revise our views leading us to agree about this (weird, awkward, queer or wrong) belief. And so we go around the world taking for granted this human facility to engage with strangers and depend on their communicative charity to successfully navigate very complex terrains of culture and society without a second thought.

Success in communicating depends on the willingness to suspend judgment during those crucial initial moments when you are not certain that you understand exactly what the other person is saying. And this is exactly what Borat exploits to pull his stunt – the human propensity to communicate in ways that make us seek to understand each other better, even if we may not ultimately agree. He does this by exaggerating exactly the kind of cultural difference – accent, gesture, walk and attitude – that would make any interlocutor assume a high likelihood of miscommunication, thus ensuring that they would give him even more latitude in making the most outrageous comments about women, Jews, Muslims and others, who may come to mind.

To me what was remarkable about the movie, were the large number of instances where people either watched in bemused or stony silence (a large fraction of the audience at the Rodeo and even at the country and western bar), or clear, if polite, discomfiture – like the guests in the wealthy Southern home. The instances where people actually went along uncritically – the homophobe in the Rodeo, the frat boys in the trailer, or the audience in the western bar – were relatively few in retrospect. After hundreds of hours of footage, the instances where Americans were sufficiently abusive towards others were reduced to such a short time – and even these cases were not unambiguous.

Borat’s conceit is that it is only ignorant, islamophobic, not to mention sexist and racist, Americans who would behave in this way upon meeting a stranger. But, this way of behaving is not just American, it is human. And it is humanly necessary, particularly if we have to ensure that we are not failing to communicate with someone who appears at first blush to be so very different from us. And it usually works because fortunately there are so few Borats in this world we inhabit together.

ROYAL DE LUXE: THE SAGA OF THE GIANTS

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Before reading another line, watch the video, especially if you think you’d rather not.

One is hungry for a few facts now.

That was the French street theatre company Royal de Luxe in London last May.  The show was The Sultan’s Elephant, created in honor of the Jules Verne centenary in 2005, and performed that year in Nantes.  Founded in 1979 by Jean-Luc Courcoult, Royal de Luxe has since then made theatre in public spaces in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America.  The London engagement, years in the planning by the British production company Artichoke, was the debut of the Little Girl Giant, as she has come to be called, in the English-speaking world.  You could probably just make out the Elephant – at least its trunk — hosing her down.  At around 20 and 40 feet high, respectively, both were designed by a longtime Royal de Luxe collaborator, Francois Delaroziere .  The video, shot by Mike Connolly of Electric Pig, is by far the best document of the event on the Web, and the place to start if you cannot in person see Royal de Luxe.  Les Balayeurs du Desert, a French rock band that has worked with the company since the 1980’s, provided the music.  The song is “Decollage” — their riff on “It Amazes Me” by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh, the vocal sample by a digitally remixed Blossom Dearie.

Those are the bits I would have found it calming to latch onto when I first saw the video last summer.  I needed to be sure it wasn’t Photoshopped, as you do when you see a thing on the monitor that can’t be real.  Attaching a name to the consciousness in control of the event became paramount, no less than had it been a towering crime I’d witnessed.  But none of this helped, ultimately, for I still can’t take it in.  And that, I came to understand, is precisely the point.

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Royal de Luxe is both renowned and secretive.  Based in Nantes, it has no Web site, doesn’t go in for ordinary PR, and if for artistic reasons the whole company needs to move to Cameroon or to China for many months at a time, then it does so, appearing there as in the West with permission but without fanfare. Gathering outdoors to make the small marionettes that have been their acting partners since long before the Giants, the actors casually attract local interest, which can at first be skeptical.  By the time of leave-taking, however, the village is ensorcelled, the months-long interlude most often likened by everyone to dream.   

Except in the United States, the fame of Royal de Luxe now outpaces its stealth.  So precautions are taken that, despite high anticipation of an appearance, an audience remains in a condition to be startled by it. Jean-Luc Courcoult is far too much the man of the theatre ever to lose the advantage of surprise.

When Royal de Luxe next appears, at the Reykjavik Arts Festival later this spring, no one there but the functionaries who must know them shall have all the details in advance.  The venue is simply the streets and open spaces of the city — by the lake, by the harbor and in the city center.  Admission is not only free, but accidental, since the show may begin anywhere, even in two places at once, and will overtake its audience bit by bit, for they shall not have known where to assemble and wait for it.  Once it begins, it will keep moving, and people will follow it or even try to run a little ahead of it en route to the next corner it seems bound for, where others shall have started to hear things and look up.  No member of that audience, not even the most avid, will see the show in its entirety – like the London event, it will be structured to make that impossible.  Courcoult has said only that a special story for Icelanders will be enacted, by Little Girl Giant and other familiar figures, that, on the morning of May 10, “something unexpected will happen in Rekjavik.” 

Thus will begin the latest chapter in a Royal de Luxe narrative that spans three continents and fifteen years, The Saga of The Giants.

The Giant Who Fell From the Sky

Biggiant_copy_2 The inaugural show, The Giant Who Fell From The Sky, was conceived for the people of Le Havre in 1993.  Lying supine, his ribcage rising and falling as he exhaled white dust for his own cloudy atmosphere, the 38-foot carved wood sleeping Giant was laced Gulliver-style to the street.  Baffled onlookers hesitantly prodded him, and he opened basketball-sized eyes in which blood vessels showed, taking on the look of terrible suffering nobly borne that would never leave him. To walk the city, he was hauled up into a scaffolding six stories high; red-liveried actors hanging onto ropes leapt from it to the ground, landing slowly, counter-weighting and lifting his sandaled feet.  He swung his arms, he turned his head this way and that, he parted his lips and gazed down, sweeping the crowd with his eyes as he marched, looking as if he did not quite believe what he saw or the fix he was in, a haggard incredulity being one of his signature expressions. And the faces of the townspeople, from toddlers to the very old, lining the streets six or eight deep and leaning out of windows, were solemn and rapt.

Trucks figured in this — big ones — for here was serious tonnage.  Apart from drivers, more than thirty liveried actors, in choreographed motion all over the scaffolding, were needed to keep the Giant groomed and on the move.  One man turned a wheel the size of a helm to open and close his mouth, another hovered near his shoulder to brush dusty traces of respiration from his lips with a broom. It is one of the paradoxes of the Giants that, seeing an unbelievable thing, and seeing plainly the levers and ropes and pulleys and humans required to make it work – for none of this is ever concealed in a Royal de Luxe performance — you believe in it utterly.

The stories of the Giant, written by Courcoult, are always very simple – just a few lines long, with deep cultural resonances.  To cite a feature that counts heavily with him, you could tell them to a child.  Each is enacted over several days, nights included, it being of the utmost importance that the Giant abide with the town.  During that entire time, the Giant is out in the open, his hair and face getting wet in the rain, sleeping by night in a chair the size of a cantilever bridge, breathing always — and dreaming.

On that first visit to Le Havre, the story goes, the Giant was frightening to the people of the town only when he dreamt; the morning after, cars were found impaled on trees, or pinned to the asphalt with a 10-foot fork, the work of his dreams. And so, on the second night a wall of light – motley thousands of battery-operated headlights mounted on a twenty by thirty foot frame — was erected to prevent his losing consciousness.  Head dropping to his chest again and again in the painterly golden light, the Giant spent a wakeful night.  A blonde singer, Peggy, wearing a long blue opera cape with a stiff collar, climbed out of a white limo and was lifted thirty feet onto the scaffolding to sing to him, the better to divert him from dreaming.  Un bel di vedremo, sang Peggy, a few yards from his face, the anguished and sleepy longing she saw there finally making her turn away.  On the morning of the third day, a hole had been torn in the wall of light, the immense scaffolding was torqued and knocked aside, flattening still more cars, and the Giant was gone.

He returned to Le Havre on two occasions between 1993 and 1998. In that time, he would lose a leg – causing middle-aged Frenchmen ordinarily nothing if not buttoned down to weep openly – acquire a son, a 20-foot black giant, on a trip to Africa, regain the leg, and, in 2000, send a crate of giraffes to Le Havre.  The giraffes, a tender, tree branch-tearing mother towering delicately over the city, and her calf, all legs, were the crane-operated forerunners of the 46-ton elephant seen by more than one million people in London in 2006.

The Giant’s last appearance anywhere was in August, 2006, in the South of France.  Looking as relaxed as his watchful countenance allows, he sat barefoot on a lounge chair anchored to the river bed by the Pont du Gard. Just as it is understood that the Little Black Giant is his son, Little Girl Giant, last seen in Chile in January, when she chased down and caged a rhinoceros, is his daughter.  It is rumored she will face her father in Reykjavik in the spring, and that the meeting might not be friendly.

Telling a Story to an Entire Town
                               
Jlcphotoredpants In a conversation with Odile Quirot, Courcoult tells how the idea of the Giants occurred to him.

“For years, I wondered how one could tell a story to an entire town.  On a Plane to Rio, the idea of using out-size marionettes came to me… People have believed in giants since the year dot.  Every culture on earth has stories about them.  I find the giant more powerful than God or religion – because it is more make-believe yet more human.”

Interviewed for Les Cahiers du Channel, Courcoult discusses with Jean-Christophe Planche how The Saga of The Giants works its effects on the grown men who weep, the women of a certain age who lose their composure like maenads.

“Over three or four days I try to tell a whole town something intense which will be talked about everywhere, be it in the bakery or the bar, on the pavement or in the office… I have seen adults crying as the giant leaves.  They have obviously lived other things, sometimes difficult, and yet this makes them cry.  I don’t believe they are crying because [the Giant] is leaving but because of the loss of their imagination.  Over several days, they have dreamt as adults and now it’s finished.  Most adults have difficulty dreaming.”

Courcoult has not gone on record – that I could discover – with more theory-bound observations about his method than these.  While he is almost always described as a visionary, even by people who mean no very good thing by that term, he is entirely direct in conversation. As an artist, he just wants to knock you down, and to see the look on your face when that happens. “How the public reacts is as important as the form of the show,” he says of the highly participatory experiences he creates for audiences.  Music plays a big role in it.  “I am constantly on the lookout for sounds from my era.  Music…directly assails the emotions and feelings.  I take great care with it.  It must not crush feelings by crudely emphasizing the action taking place.”

The closest Royal de Luxe has ever come to an indoor performance is the Roman arena at Nimes.  One reason for this is that Courcoult is a self-described claustrophobe. But he likes to blow things up and smash them to pieces, too.  Open air allows for “poetic risk,” he says, and the light is right: “you can create explosions, hellfire.” A performance in an outdoor public space is by definition a free event open to all comers, and this is key. “By putting on the show in the public arena and free of charge I can reach people as they are, whereas in traditional theatres you only meet those who have dared to cross the threshold…I try to move people, and this ambition will not be restricted by [the audience’s] financial means or their culture.”

Genius Envy
          
Flyinghat It was not wasted on the British that The Sultan’s Elephant came from France, and was many times more prodigious than any homegrown thing.

Julian Crouch, a maker of large site-specific images and co-artistic director of the company Improbable, writes of seeing the Elephant move for the first time. “The thing was real.  It was alive and it was enormous and it was really there.  And in the midst of my pure admiration I could feel something crumble inside me.”  What crumbled, it turned out, was his notion of how unfeasible it was trying to get a large image to do many things at once instead of just one thing – a idea foundational to his twenty years of experience designing and making such. 

With frankness, Crouch tells how it felt to be a maker of theatre watching Little Girl Giant hoisted from the time capsule that had smashed down onto the tarmac in Central London. “When they lifted [her] out of the rocket, the crowd just gasped.  Of course I work in ‘the business’ so I tried to stifle my own gasp, but by the time her flying-hat was off and she blinked and shook out her hair, I was absolutely and completely lost.  She was beautiful.  But really beautiful.  In a deep way… And [there was] a little voice in my head that said, ‘you could never, ever have made this.’ ”

Immediately following the event, LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre) sponsored a day of discussion among British theatre makers, educators and arts administrators. Reading the papers given on this occasion, one appreciates both the tone of raddled admiration and the newly hatched catch-up strategies.  A top administrator spoke passionately about “the next Elephant” – presumably an indigenous one – being inevitable.  Some opined that the show had been “about money” or “about power,” as if the lack of those timeless benisons was all that prevented work of similar quality occurring routinely. Julian Crouch attended the conference, as did Helen Marriage of Artichoke, the company that produced The Sultan’s Elephant. That night, Crouch sent an email to Marriage, voicing these sentiments: ”I have no desire to see Britain grow a Royal de Luxe, and will be very irritated if we try.  It was such an honour to see that work, and it is insulting to the company and their long history to suggest that it is in any way replicable.”

This is not to say a hard look at the conditions friendly to Royal de Luxe could never be instructive to the British or to any other people pondering the direction of public art in their lands. 

Conceding that the success of Royal de Luxe is “due to the power of their work, its popularity with the public and their uncompromising attitude in presenting it,” Edward Taylor, a joint artistic director of the Whalley Range Allstars, a British outdoor theatre troop founded in 1982, writes about other factors that provided a crucial nudge. “The development of street theatre in France was helped no end by the levels of financial support in a system which demonstrates what is possible in the arts if you put serious thought into how to sustain the people who make it happen.”

Taylor argues that not only national, regional and local funding are necessary – and did, in the case of Royal de Luxe, unstintingly kick in – but also the setting up of various “regional creation centres (large workshops where companies can live and create work without unnecessary interruption).” And more: that the French national benefit scheme paying performing artists a wage when they’re not working is what enables large-scale groups to stay together during a non-performing period, taking the rehearsal time they need.  It’s all to do, Taylor says, with whether performing artists are regarded as an important asset in a nation’s economic life. In any case, this is exactly the level of support that has led to “larger and more expensive French shows being created over the years.”  Note, Taylor does not insist, superior ones. “Of course, big is not necessarily better,” he concludes, “but when a work of this scale [The Sultan’s Elephant] can convey such strong emotions to large audiences, it has an irresistible power.”

For A Few Good Pieces

Artists beset with frequent interruptions of their work, who live without medical care in poor housing and exhaust themselves with two or three dead-end jobs at a time to keep going until they are next paid to perform, may look on the French system as a Utopia greatly to be desired.  Yet the same model is repugnant to anyone suspecting that money would only be wasted on cheap red wine, exorbitant rehearsals, and plain old hanging out.  Everyone can agree, however, that The Saga of The Giants is no accident, and is anything but the product of social Darwinism in the arts.

The big question, then, is how, in making a policy decision for such as Royal de Luxe potentially to develop and flourish, can anyone be sure the result will not come artistically closer to synchronized swimming than to Royal de Luxe? To the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade than to The Sultan’s Elephant?  One answer is found in mulling over yet another question – why we would expect public funds spent incubating the arts to produce more precise results than like amounts spent on other necessarily speculative programs in the public interest.

Read more »

Suspicions Turn to Cricket’s Dark Side

Marc Lacey in the New York Times:

Screenhunter_13_mar_25_1658Cricket, especially that rambunctious form of the sport practiced in the Caribbean, has always been about far more than the ball, the wickets and the smartly dressed men standing out in the sun.

From the pulsating steel drums, to the gyrating fans, to the rum drinks swigged down like water, off-pitch antics always rival the game itself on the islands.

But when the Jamaican authorities confirmed that the coach of the disappointing Pakistani national team had been strangled, the Cricket World Cup, which is being played on nine different Caribbean islands this month and next, gained the world’s attention in a way the sport never quite has outside the cricket-crazed countries of the former British Empire.

More here.

UPDATE: More on Bob Woolmer’s murder from CNN here.

The Debate on European Multiculturalism and Islam, Bassam Tibi’s Comments

Also in signandsight.com, the latest in the multiculturalism debate: this time, Bassam Tibi.

When I was asked to give my opinion on this debate, I was just returning from the USA. They have an expression over there which is a good way to challenge to people who like to talk but have little to say: “What are we talking about?” The topic of “Europe and Islam” is more important than profiling Tariq Ramadan and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who are often thrown together in a meaningless comparison. It’s also more important than the debate between prominent authors such as Timothy Garton Ash or Ian Buruma, who share not only celebrity status, but also the tendency to talk incompetently about Islam. My sense is that this debate, which is of extraordinary importance to Europe, needs to be made less personal and more objective. This is as essential for Europe as it is for Muslims living there, of which I am one.

Despite this call to de-personalisation, I’ll allow myself two comments on Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Tariq Ramadan, around whom this debate is revolving, to its detriment. What Hirsi Ali says about Islam is an affront to Muslims and to anyone who knows anything about Islam. When, for instance, she claims that our prophet and our holy book, the Koran, are a fiction, she insults all Muslims and puts a smirk on the faces of all historians of Islam. Of course, Hirsi Ali has every right to turn her back on Islam in the name of religious freedom and this is what she has done. But she should not abuse the religion just to score points cheaply for herself.

As for her opponent in this objectionable debate, Tariq Ramadan, who calls himself an Oxford professor (he is there for a limited term as a fellow – a fellowship is not a professorship – but it is not unusual for him to treat facts in this manner), I would certainly not ascribe to him the “reform of Islam” as many do. What has he reformed in Islam?

Pentagon Preps Mind Fields

Noah Shachtman in Wired News:

Screenhunter_11_mar_25_1649The idea — to grossly over-simplify — is that people have more than one kind of working memory, and more than one kind of attention; there are separate slots in the mind for things written, things heard and things seen. By monitoring how taxed those areas of the brain are, it should be possible to change a computer’s display, to compensate. If a person’s getting too much visual information, send him a text alert. If that person is reading too much at once, present some of the data visually — in a chart or map.

At Boeing Phantom Works, researchers are using AugCog technologies to design tomorrow’s cockpits. The military expects its pilots to someday control entire squads of armed robotic planes. But supervising all those drones may be too much for one human mind to handle unassisted.

Boeing’s prototype controller uses an fMRI to check just how overloaded a pilot’s visual and verbal memories are. Then the system adjusts its interface — popping the most important radar images up on the middle of the screen, suggesting what targets should be hit next and, eventually, taking over for the human entirely, once his brain becomes completely overwhelmed.

More here.

Degrees in homeopathy slated as unscientific

Jim Giles in Nature:

Screenhunter_10_mar_25_1643As debate rages in the United States over whether intelligent design should be taught in science classes, another topic that many researchers see as a pseudoscience is claiming scientific status within the British education system.

Over the past decade, several British universities have started offering bachelor of science (BSc) degrees in alternative medicine, including six that offer BSc degrees in homeopathy, a therapy in which the active ingredient is diluted so much that the dose given to the patient often does not contain even a single molecule of it. Some scientists are increasingly concerned that such courses give homeopathy and homeopaths undeserved scientific credibility, and they are campaigning to get the label removed (see Commentary, ‘Science degrees without the science‘).

More here.

Habermas on Europe, As Europe Turns 50

This weekend is the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. In Signandsight.com, an interview with Jürgen Habermas on the EU and the political project of “Europe”.

What long-term goals should be pursued by the EU as a political body? Does your vision include a “United States of Europe” with a common government, citizenship, armed forces, etc.? What should Europe’s political structure look like 50 years from now?

[Habermas] A bold vision for 50 years down the line will not help us get on right now. I am content with a vision for the period leading up to the European elections in 2009. Those elections should be coupled with a Europe-wide referendum on three questions: whether the Union, beyond effective decision-making procedures, should have a directly elected president, its own foreign minister, and its own financial base. That is what Belgium’s Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt advocates. Such a proposal would pass muster if it won a “double majority” of EU member-states and of individual citizens’ votes. At the same time, the referendum would be binding only on those EU member-nations in which a majority of citizens had voted for the reforms. If the referendum were to succeed, it would mean the abandonment of the model of Europe as a convoy in which the slowest vehicle sets the pace for all. But even in a Europe consisting of a core and a periphery, those countries which prefer to remain on the periphery for the time being would of course retain the option of becoming part of the core at any time.

Ernest Hemingway’s Finca Vigia

Bob Hoover in the Pittsburg Post-Gazette:

Screenhunter_09_mar_25_1622“Finca Vigia” or Lookout Farm was the only house Hemingway owned outright. He bought it in 1940. From its full staff of servants to its secluded swimming pool, the finca fitted Hemingway like his favorite “guayabera,” the traditional Cuban shirt.

The writer and his fourth wife, Mary, sailed from Cuba July 25, 1960, leaving behind the “silver, Venetian glassware, eight-thousand books … and Ernest’s small collection of paintings, one Paul Klee, two Juan Gris, five Andre Masson, one Braque …” along with 70 cats and at least nine dogs.

Hemingway never returned. He killed himself with a double-barreled shotgun blast July 2, 1961, at his other home, in Ketchum, Idaho.

The government of Cuba, however, refuses to let “Papa’s” presence on the island die. After appropriating the property in 1961, it continues to promote Hemingway as a cultural icon, casting him as a mythical figure on a level just below Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

More here.

Brain Teasers

Clive Thompson in Wired News:

TetrisIf Tetris looked precisely like an IQ test, then maybe playing Tetris would help you do better at intelligence tests. Johnson spun this conceit into his brilliant book of last year, Everything Bad Is Good For You, in which he argued that video games actually make gamers smarter. With their byzantine key commands, obtuse rule-sets and dynamic simulations of everything from water physics to social networks, Johnson argued, video games require so much cognitive activity that they turn us into Baby Einsteins — not dull robots.

I loved the book, but it made me wonder: If games can inadvertently train your brain, why doesn’t someone make a game that does so intentionally?

I should have patented the idea. Next month, Nintendo is releasing Brain Age, a DS game based on the research of the Japanese neuroscientist Ryuta Kawashima.

More here.

Can You Live With the Voices in Your Head?

From The New York Times:

Voices75_2 Angelo, a London-born scientist in his early 30s with sandy brown hair, round wire-frame glasses and a slight, unobtrusive stammer, vividly recalls the day he began to hear voices. It was Jan. 7, 2001, and he had recently passed his Ph.D. oral exams in chemistry at an American university, where, for the previous four and a half years, he conducted research into infrared electromagnetism. Angelo was walking home from the laboratory when, all of a sudden, he heard two voices in his head. “It was like hearing thoughts in my mind that were not mine,” he explained recently. “They identified themselves as Andrew and Oliver, two angels. In my mind’s eye, I could see an image of a bald, middle-aged man dressed in white against a white background. This, I was told, was Oliver.” What the angels said, to Angelo’s horror, was that in the coming days, he would die of a brain hemorrhage. Terrified, Angelo hurried home and locked himself into his apartment. For three long days he waited out his fate, at which time his supervisor drove him to a local hospital, where Angelo was admitted to the psychiatric ward. It was his first time under psychiatric care. He had never heard voices before. His diagnosis was schizophrenia with depressive overtones.

For more than a half-century, auditory hallucinations have primarily been studied and discussed in terms of severe mental illness, most notably schizophrenia, and linked to bizarre delusions, disordered thought and emotional dissociation. Approximately 75 percent of patients diagnosed with schizophrenia hear voices, and for the majority the experience is overwhelmingly negative.

More here.

Is Beauty Truth and Truth Beauty? How Keats’s famous line applies to math and science

From Scientific American:

WHY BEAUTY IS TRUTH: A HISTORY OF SYMMETRY by Ian Stewart.Tiger The title of Ian Stewart’s book (he has written more than 60 others) is, of course, taken from the enigmatic last two lines of John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”–that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. But what on earth did Keats mean? Stewart’s first 10 chapters, written in his usual easygoing style, constitute a veritable history of mathematics, with an emphasis on the concept of symmetry. When you perform an operation on a mathematical object, such that after the operation it looks the same, you have uncovered a symmetry.

Stewart concludes his book with two maxims. The first: “In physics, beauty does not automatically ensure truth, but it helps.” The second: “In mathematics beauty must be true–because anything false is ugly.” I agree with the first statement, but not the second. We have seen how lovely proofs by Kempe and Dudeney were flawed. Moreover, there are simply stated theorems for which ugly proofs may be the only ones possible.

Because symmetry is the glue and tape that binds the pages of Stewart’s admirable history, a stanza from Lewis Carroll’s immortal nonsense ballad The Hunting of the Snark could serve as an epigraph for the book:

You boil it in sawdust: you salt it in glue:
You condense it with locusts and tape:
Still keeping one principal object in view–
To preserve its symmetrical shape.

More here.

kanan makiya: what went wrong?

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“I want to look into myself, look at myself, delve into the assumptions I had going into the war,” he said. “Now it seems necessary to reflect on the society that has gotten itself into this mess. A question that looms more and more for me is: just what did 30 years of dictatorship do to 25 million people?”

“It’s not like I didn’t think about this,” he continued. “But nonetheless I allowed myself as an activist to put it aside in the hope that it could be worked through, or managed, or exorcised in a way that’s not as violent as is the case now. That did not work out.”

more from the NY Times here.

Zbigniew Herbert: great

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In the early 1970s, the American poet Larry Levis served as chauffeur and guide for Zbigniew Herbert when the Polish poet was teaching at a university in Los Angeles.

Only once, Herbert told Levis, had he ever driven a car, and that was during the war, after a clandestine meeting of the underground. Herbert found his driver shot in the head by the Nazis. To escape the same fate, he pushed the body aside and drove away.

“He said all this without any visible emotion. It was stated as fact only,” Levis wrote. “That was his way or one of his ways. It was all a matter of carving out a style so impermissive of the merely and suspiciously personal, a style so lean and scrupulous and classical, that the poem cast out the poet, and what was said cast out the sayer.”

more from the Philadelphia Inquirer here.

a devious Old Possum

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For a good many decades, thick fumes of incense have been wafting from the English literary establishment in the general direction of TS Eliot. The latest offering by the acolytes to the high priest is this study by Craig Raine, which admits that some of Eliot’s drama isn’t up to much but otherwise won’t hear a cross word about the great man. “There is no evidence,” Raine piously remarks, “that Eliot was either a fornicator or a homosexual,” as though being homosexual was a trespass to be vigorously rebutted. Eliot was not, he rashly maintains, a misogynist either, even though the poetry is shot through from end to end with a fear and loathing of women. He even seeks to face down the charge that this ascetic ex-bank clerk was a bit of a dry old stick, although Eliot himself admitted as much.

Why do critics feel a need to defend the authors they write on, like doting parents deaf to all criticism of their obnoxious children?

more from Prospect Magazine here.