The Velvet Underground

Mark Greif reviews The Velvet Underground by Richard Witts, in the London Review of Books:

VelvetundergroundEquinox is publishing a series of books called ‘Icons of Pop Music’. The volumes will be designed for ‘undergraduates and the general reader’. Ordinarily, I couldn’t think of anything less auspicious. Everyone likes the autobiographies of even the most inarticulate musicians; at least they can explain how they make the songs. But pop criticism can’t seem to escape the thrall of these biographies, and rarely has much to add. It won’t forsake the impulse to praise figures who no longer need to be praised. Historical pop figures are remembered as either too good or too bad to need defending; it’s guaranteed that anyone willing to read a volume on King Crimson, say, or Crosby, Stills and Nash, is already on board. Then there is the curse of Dylanology, such a blight on pop criticism: worship of lyrics as ‘poetry’, modelled on pop’s least representative major figure. This sort of writing fails the reality of pop: its special alchemy of lyrics that look like junk on the page, and music that seems underdeveloped when transcribed to a musical staff. Then there is the curse of arid musicology; and of Rolling Stone-ism, the gonzo rock journalist who thinks he is a rock star. Perhaps worst of all, there is the curse of the rhetoric of social action and ‘revolution’, a faith-based illusion that pop songs clearly manifest social history, or an exaggerated sense of what pop achieves in the world. In truth, most critics aren’t verbally equipped to describe any band’s vivid effects on its main audience: the listener at home, alone in his room.

More here.

Viacom vs. Google

Tim Goodman in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Copyright_symbol_3Figuring out whom to root for in the battle between Viacom and YouTube is pretty simple, particularly if you own a computer: Turn it on and play. YouTube, with its library of archival television and music clips and its array of user-generated video oddities, is one of the truly great gifts of an invigorated, inventive Internet. That Viacom is suing — for a chilling $1 billion — the former startup now owned by Google is likely to give YouTube devotees the willies. All those cool clips — potentially gone.

And yet, figuring out who is right in this lawsuit is also a no-brainer: Viacom. Is there even a gray area here? YouTube is profiting (or, theoretically could profit) from artistic content that it didn’t create. It’s taking something that was developed by Viacom, namely a number of popular television shows, and offering them free to YouTube users. Call it what you want — say, an infringement on our mindless fun and viewing pleasure — but it’s essentially stealing. Fair use? Uh, no. Stealing.

This knee-jerk reaction, that the Viacom lawsuit is pitting a Goliath against a David, is absurd. Yes, YouTube was a hip and clever little startup that did good for its global village of users, but now it’s a byproduct of a corporate giant, much like Viacom. Is there anything less sexy than a bloody battle for cash between two Goliaths?

As many experts are noting, this lawsuit is a negotiating tool…

More here.

Puzzlingly, Meson Changes into its Anti-Particle

In ScienceNOW, Phil Berardelli reports on a new puzzle to the standard model.

Scientists for the first time have seen a specific particle of matter spontaneously turn into its antimatter twin–a discovery that might require some rewriting of the fundamental theory that governs nature at the subatomic level.

Particle physics is like studying fine wristwatches by slamming them together to see which parts fall out. Except that the particles set loose by giant accelerators tend to exist for the briefest wisps of time–only billionths or even trillionths of a second. As a result, scientists can only observe the results of the decay of these particles, collecting data on their mass and electrical charge. Most of the time, these properties fit the Standard Model, the grand theory that has defined the nature of matter for nearly 4 decades. But sometimes, researchers see a particle behave in a new way that could crack open the door to an entirely new category of forces governing particle interactions.

That’s what happened when two international groups of physicists–the Belle Experiment using the KEK High Energy Physics Laboratory in Tsukuba, Japan, and the BaBar Experiment using California’s Stanford Linear Accelerator Center–glimpsed a heavy particle called a neutral D-meson turning into antimatter before it decayed. A D-meson consists of two smaller elements called quarks, one with a property called charm and the other with a property called anti-up. In an article to be published in Physical Review Letters, the BaBar team trained two high-energy particle beams directly at each other and then examined billions of collisions, which produced about 1 million D-mesons. About 500 showed the telltale signs that D-mesons had converted to antimatter–the same particle but containing the opposite constituents: one anti-charm quark and one up quark.

Recovering What Makes Us Human

Barbara Ehrenreich on reclaiming collective joy, in In These Times:

The enemies of festivity have argued for centuries that festivities and ecstatic rituals are incompatible with civilization. In our own time, the incompatibility of festivity with industrialization, market economies and a complex division of labor is usually simply assumed, in the same way that Freud assumed—or posited—the incompatibility of civilization and unbridled sexual activity. In other words, if you want antibiotics and heated buildings and air travel, you must abstain from taking hold of the hands of strangers and dancing in the streets.

The presumed incompatibility of civilization and collective ecstatic traditions presents a kind of paradox: Civilization is good—right?—and builds on many fine human traits such as intelligence, self-sacrifice and technological craftiness. But ecstatic rituals are also good, and expressive of our artistic temperament and spiritual yearnings as well as our solidarity. So how can civilization be regarded as a form of progress if it precludes something as distinctively human, and deeply satisfying, as the collective joy of festivities and ecstatic rituals?

Intellectual Property and the North-South Divide

Becky Hogge in openDemocracy:

Almost two years ago, openDemocracy ran an interview with Cory Doctorow, then an Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) activist, entitled “Democracy and Dissent at the World Intellectual Property Organisation”. The article exposed a United Nations organisation – as Geneva-based WIPO is – straining to accommodate a different point of view: that stronger and stronger patents, trademarks and copyright-law protection for ideas and their expression do not necessarily lead to the best outcomes for human development. Doctorow spoke of crude attempts to subvert the EFF and its allies’ message, and of dirty tactics at the negotiating table.

Conducting the interview, I held out little hope for WIPO. That it was even part of the UN seemed an anomaly. Mainly funded by the international registration of patents and trademarks, how could it ever be persuaded to take a second look at arguments which question the link between strong intellectual property (IP) protection and development?

WIPO was formed in the late 1960s, replacing the bureau that administered the Paris Convention (on patents) and the Berne Convention (on copyright). These conventions date back to the late nineteenth century, when – according to the WIPO website – “the need for international protection of intellectual property became evident [as] foreign exhibitors refused to attend the International Exhibition of Inventions in Vienna in 1873 because they were afraid their ideas would be stolen and exploited commercially in other countries.”

lincoln and douglass


Abraham Lincoln was “emphatically, the black man’s President,” wrote the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass in 1865, “the first to show any respect for their rights as men.” A decade later, however, in a speech at the unveiling of an emancipation monument in Washington, Douglass described Lincoln as “preeminently the white man’s President.” To his largely white audience on this occasion, Douglass declared that “you are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best only his step-children.” Later in the same speech, Douglass brought together his Hegelian thesis and antithesis in a final synthesis. Whatever Lincoln’s flaws may have been in the eyes of racial egalitarians, he said “in his heart of hearts he loathed and hated slavery.” His firm wartime leadership saved the nation and freed it “from the great crime of slavery…. The hour and the man of our redemption had met in the person of Abraham Lincoln.”

As James Oakes notes in this astute and polished study, Douglass’s speech in 1876 “mimicked his own shifting perspective” on Lincoln over the previous two decades.

more from the NY Review of Books here.

What sort of mind is that? It’s a world!


“Correspondence is killing me”, Balzac told his mother in 1832. “I have to write to two people at once . . . . My life is a constant miracle”; “It’s incredible how much I manage to produce.” The new edition of Balzac’s correspondence, scrupulously compiled and annotated by Roger Pierrot and Hervé Yon, fully justifies Balzac’s self-admiration. Like the earlier Classiques Garnier edition of his Correspondance, also by Roger Pierrot (1960–69), this one omits the 419 letters written by Balzac to his future wife, the Polish countess, Eveline Hanska. (These are published in a separate, two-volume edition.) Many other letters were lost or destroyed: “My husband tore your letter into a thousand pieces before my eyes”, one of his admirers told him in 1833. “Why did you send it to my house, at an hour when all wives are still asleep and all husbands are at home?”

Despite the disappearance of a large part of his correspondence, this first volume of three contains 623 letters from Balzac. Since the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade has abandoned the unfortunate practice of publishing only one side of a correspondence, this new edition, edited by Pierrot and Hervé Yon, also includes hundreds of letters from Balzac’s correspondents, forming what the editors call “an epistolary encyclopedia”.

more from the TLS here.

Thoughts on the 6 word stories

Many years ago, Salman Rushdie was having a conversation about Robert Ludlum with someone whose name I forget. Rushie’s interlocturor went on about Ludlum titles. (Some Ludlum titles for those of you unfamiliar his ouevre: The Bourne Identity; The Holcroft Covenant; The Aquitane Progression; The Chancellor [sic] Manuscript; The Scorpio Illusion; The Prometheus Deception… you get the picture.) He noted their simplicity and genius and suggested that Shakespeare could never have done that with any of his work. At which point, Rushdie immediately blurted, “The Elsinor Vascillations”.

In the comment on Wired’s 6 word story challenge, Jonathan Kramnick offer some gems in the form of 6 word rewrites of classics, among them this rendition of Hamlet: “They killed dad. What to do?” Combined Hamlet would be:

The Elsinor Vascillations

They killed dad. What to do?”

I wonder how many classics this would work for.


From The Edge:

Universe One of the highlights of this year’s interesting and eclectic TED Conference in Monterey, California, was the premiere a new work by Jonathan Harris, a New York artist and storyteller working primarily on the Internet. His work involves the exploration and understanding of humans, on a global scale, through the artifacts they leave behind on the Web.]

As humans, we have a long history of projecting our great stories into the night sky. This leads us to wonder: if we were to make new constellations today, what would they be? If we were to paint new pictures in the sky, what would they depict? These questions form the inspiration for Universe, which explores the notions of modern mythology and contemporary constellations.

Universe is a system that supports the exploration of personal mythology, allowing each of us to find our own constellations, based on our own interests and curiosities. Everyone’s path through Universe is different, just as everyone’s path through life is different. Using the metaphor of an interactive night sky, Universe presents an immersive environment for navigating the world’s contemporary mythology, as found online in global news and information from Daylife. Universe opens with a color-shifting aurora borealis, at the center of which is a moon, and through which thousands of stars slowly move.

More here.

High on Speciation

From Science:

Bird It seems like a no-brainer: To find out where most new species arise, see where most of them live. Take the tropics, home of more than half the known organisms on the planet. For a plant or animal to form a new species, something must divide its population so that individuals go their separate ways and develop unique adaptations over time. The barrier needn’t be physical: When the polar bear split from the Grizzly bear about 300,000 years ago, for example, scientists think a change in climate drove them apart. But as climate can create, it also can destroy. Harsh environments can wipe out new species that can’t adapt. Pondering that dual role led zoologists Jason Weir and Dolph Schluter of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, to wonder whether Earth’s poles were really anathema to speciation.

The pair studied 309 pairs of bird and mammal sister species (the most closely related pair from a common ancestor) living from the tropics to the poles. DNA analysis revealed that, on average, birds and mammals near the equator diverged from a common ancestor 3.4 million years ago; in contrast, those near the poles diverged less than 1 million years ago. That means new species pop up more frequently at high latitudes than they do at low ones.

More here.

Big Gamble in Rwanda

Stephen Kinzer in the New York Review of Books:

Image1Many outsiders believe that no other poor country is embarked on such a promising campaign to improve itself, and are thrilled with what President Kagame is doing. Others, however, are deeply skeptical. On a continent where development efforts have failed so spectacularly for so long, and where vast multitudes live in seemingly hopeless poverty, Rwanda’s contradictions embody a great conundrum.

With a dense population and few natural resources, Rwanda must rely on human development if it is to prosper. Kagame and other government leaders looked to top-down Asian models, especially Singapore and China, as they designed their ambitious anti-poverty plan. It rests first of all on security. The government keeps close watch on people it considers suspicious, limits their access to big towns, and periodically picks up street children and requires them either to return to their villages or accept vocational training in courses sponsored by the Red Cross. As a result of these and other measures, Kigali is probably the safest city in Africa today, and Rwanda one of the safest countries in the world. That makes foreign investors and entrepreneurs confident about moving to Rwanda. So many have arrived that this year an international school opened for their children.

More here.

Bush’s Shadow Army

Jeremy Scahill in The Nation:

Jeremy Scahill reports on the Bush Administration’s growing dependence on private security forces such as Blackwater USA and efforts in Congress to rein them in. This article is adapted from his new book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army (Nation Books).

…unbeknownst to many Americans and largely off the Congressional radar, Blackwater has secured a position of remarkable power and protection within the US war apparatus. This company’s success represents the realization of the life’s work of the conservative officials who formed the core of the Bush Administration’s war team, for whom radical privatization has long been a cherished ideological mission. Blackwater has repeatedly cited Rumsfeld’s statement that contractors are part of the “Total Force” as evidence that it is a legitimate part of the nation’s “warfighting capability and capacity.” Invoking Rumsfeld’s designation, the company has in effect declared its forces above the law–entitled to the immunity from civilian lawsuits enjoyed by the military, but also not bound by the military’s court martial system. While the initial inquiries into Blackwater have focused on the complex labyrinth of secretive subcontracts under which it operates in Iraq, a thorough investigation into the company reveals a frightening picture of a politically connected private army that has become the Bush Administration’s Praetorian Guard…

More here.

Steven Pinker on the Decline of Violence

Ethan Zuckerman in World Changing:

Pinker1_2Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, begins his presentation with an image of corpses on a truck, being taken from Auschwitz concentration camp. The image is one of many characteristic of the 20th century, a century that included brutality under Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot and the genocide in Rwanda. The 21st century, which has barely started, already includes the brutality of Darfur and the daily destruction in Iraq.

These sorts of images can lead us to thinking that modernity brings terrible violence. Perhaps native people lived in a state of harmony that we’ve departed from.

This, Pinker tells us, is bullshit. “Our ancestors were far more violent than we are.” We’re probably living in the most peaceful time of our species’s existence, a statement that seems almost obscene in light of Darfur and Iraq.

The decline of violence, he tells us, is a fractal phenomenon – we see it over the centuries, the decades and the years. That said, we see a tipping point in the 16th century – the age of reason – particularly in England and Holland.

Until 10,000 years ago, all humans were hunter gatherers. This is the group that some believe lived in primordial harmony – there’s no evidence of this. Studying current hunter-gatherer tribes, the percent of male adults who die in violence is extraordinary – from 20 to 60% of all males. Even during the violent 20th century, with two world wars, less than 2% of males worldwide died in warfare.

More here.

Schooled by ‘American Idol’

Christopher Ames in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

American_idol_judges_auditiIndeed, the dramatic moment that follows each audition mirrors the dynamics of classroom grading, putting that familiar but anxiety-producing situation into bold relief on millions of television screens. Each judge delivers a verdict, up or out, and some explanatory comments. Even the ages of the participants echo the traditional college classroom: The singers are between approximately 16 and 28; the three judges are middle-aged and all experts in their field, popular music. Randy Jackson is a widely experienced bass player and a successful record producer in several genres; Paula Abdul is a veteran choreographer and recording star with a No. 1, multiplatinum album in her past; and Simon Cowell is a British record producer who piloted a similar show in England.

We might think that Americans are eager to celebrate talented young people who can thumb their noses at the older generation and thus exorcise the lingering resentment so many harbor from being graded and evaluated in the classroom. But what American Idol reveals instead is a veritable hunger for realistic evaluation. Time and time again, contestants in the early episodes of this year’s season whine obviously off key and then insist they are highly talented — in spite of the judges’ protestations. Most of those kids have not learned how to sing, but they have mastered the self-esteem and “attitude” so valued in our culture. The persistent dynamic of these episodes is expertise putting down untalented braggadocio.

In a world full of people rating themselves highly, audiences seem to long for the enforcement of standards of taste and judgment.

More here.

The Moral Challenge of Modern Science

Yuval Levin in The New Atlantis:

A few years ago, in the course of a long speech about health policy, President George W. Bush spoke of the challenge confronting a society increasingly empowered by science. He put his warning in these words:

The powers of science are morally neutral—as easily used for bad purposes as good ones. In the excitement of discovery, we must never forget that mankind is defined not by intelligence alone, but by conscience. Even the most noble ends do not justify every means.

In the president’s sensible formulation, the moral challenge posed for us by modern science is that our scientific tools simply give us raw power, and it is up to us to determine the right ways to use that power and to proscribe the wrong ways.

The notion that science is morally neutral is also widely held and advanced by scientists…

…the moral challenge of modern science reaches well beyond the ambiguity of new technologies because modern science is much more than a source of technology, and scientists are far more than mere investigators and toolmakers. Modern science is a grand human endeavor, indeed the grandest of the modern age. Its work employs the best and the brightest in every corner of the globe, and its modes of thinking and reasoning have come to dominate the way mankind understands itself and its place.

We must therefore judge modern science not only by its material products, but also, and more so, by its intentions and its influence upon the way humanity has come to think. In both these ways, science is far from morally neutral.

More here.

those who scaled the high, hard times


Maybe it is because the word “times” occurs twice in its title that “High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967-75” achieves such a feeling for period. Even for someone who was a toddler when the experimental abstract painting in this lively, intelligent, informative survey got going—in another continent, to boot—dejà vu seems to waft from the National Academy’s fabric walls. What must this show feel like for people who lived through those years?

This was the era of spray guns and masking tape. So many of these dishevelled yet sparky paintings and paint-based objects have the trippy, hippy look of the years of the flower power movement, civil rights, ecology, and emerging feminism and gay liberation. Even brightly colored works have a limp, tie-dye, impoverished quality. Everything is rough at the edges, made from cheap or recycled materials, informal or provisional in arrangement, sometimes ethnic-looking, other times futuristic, and always at once earnest and nonchalent—in harmony with what one knows (or projects) of the look and feel of bohemia, the city, and youth culture at that time.

more from Artcritical here.

clive james and cultural amnesia


Mr. James’ tone ranges from confiding to bombastic, and he’s entertaining at either extreme. His conclusions are brilliantly reasoned, but his relentless focus on World War II, the Holocaust, Stalin’s purges and extreme authoritarianism is enough to convince you that there were no hula hoops, no soap operas, no cupcakes in the 20th century—in fact, that intellectual seriousness demands that there be no cupcakes. His essay titled “Coco Chanel” devotes one paragraph to her achievements in fashion, the rest to the concept of small luxuries, culminating with the 70 years of deprivation suffered by ordinary Soviet citizens. But also—as with every mid-century French figure that Mr. James mentions—he points out Chanel’s degree of collaboration during the Occupation. Collaboration is more than a minor theme of Cultural Amnesia. We get examples of great bravery (the historian Marc Bloch, tortured and killed for fighting with the Resistance), good intentions (Albert Camus, who played down his modest anti-Nazi efforts) and self-serving zeal (Jean-Paul Sartre, who called for the death of collaborators when his own resistance was slight). Mr. James is even more alert to the whereabouts and political activities of German intellectuals before and during the war, and his essay on Jorge Luis Borges focuses on his tacit support for an increasingly brutal Argentine regime.

more from the NY Observer here.

Reading of The God Delusion in Lynchburg, VA


Richard Dawkins reads excerpts from The God Delusion and anwsers questions at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia on October 23, 2006. This Q&A features many questions from Jerry Falwell’s Liberty “University” students. In Richard’s tour journal he says:

“Many of the questioners announced themselves as either students or faculty from Liberty, rather than from Randolph Macon which was my host institution. One by one they tried to trip me up, and one by one their failure to do so was applauded by the audience. Finally, I said that my advice to all Liberty students was to resign immediately and apply to a proper university instead. That received thunderous applause, so that I almost began to feel slightly sorry for the Liberty people. Only almost and only slightly, however.”

Video of the Q&A period, and more here.

Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space

From The New Republic:

Veil of Tears
A Review by David A. Bell

Headscarves_2 What do we call the following French person? She is born in France, and a citizen, but many of her compatriots treat her as an alien, threatening presence. She is easily recognizable, above all by her distinctive head covering, which proclaims her religious allegiance. No one questions her right to wear this garment at home or in her neighborhood’s streets, but many of the French have a different opinion when it comes to official “public spaces” — above all, public schools. For many fervent defenders of the secular Republic, letting her into the schools would pose a threat to the Republic’s very existence.

So what do we call this person? Until quite recently, we would have called her a nun. After all, hostility between the Catholic Church and the secular Republic marks broad swaths of French history. But of course it is not nuns who have been targeted by the recent law banning “ostentatious signs of religion” from French public schools, which John R. Bowen has put at the center of his lucid and thought-provoking book. The controversial French women at issue are headscarf-wearing Muslim schoolgirls.

The controversy around them continues to simmer in France, while also spilling across European borders. The Netherlands is considering an even broader ban, while Jack Straw, the leader of Britain’s House of Commons, recently attacked the wearing of veils as a “visible statement of separation and of difference,” and requested that women remove them when visiting him. This is one of the strangest, and most philosophically rattling, controversies in recent European memory, and in order to comprehend it we have to start with France, and consider the things that the odd shift from nuns to schoolgirls tells us about the relationship between religion and society there.

More here.

The legacy of Linnaeus

From Nature:

Linneus The ability to peer into living things and inspect the evolutionary scorecard encoded in their genes has transformed the whole of biology, but few fields have had their core assumptions challenged as deeply as taxonomy. From the time of Carl Linnaeus, born 300 years ago this May, taxonomy has relied on the observation and comparison of physical forms. Now it is supplemented by access to what would once have been seen not as form, but as essence.

Linnaeus himself sought a universal classification of all creation, animal, vegetable and mineral. His categorizations were not uniformly valuable, but his systematic spirit, his stress on the concept of species, and the formal but adaptable conventions of nomenclature he introduced have endured. Nature is glad to celebrate his legacy in this special issue.

DNA sequencing is a gift that Linnaeus would surely have made great use of, but it brings its own problems. It is not always easily reconciled with the careful description, annotation and curation that have been the duty and delight of the taxonomists who carried the linnaean programme forward. The classical world in which Linnaeus worked may seem, at first glance, to contrast with our present age of change. Linnaeus believed in fixed species of knowable number created by God and observable by men, in a world more like the lawns and flowerbeds of a formal garden than Darwin’s dynamic “tangled bank”.

More here.