The Coming Megaslums

Jeremy Harding in the London Review of Books:

Rg_064_slumsDavis’s books are great evidential engines. Planet of Slums howls with figures. Copious examples drawn from around the globe are stacked up to illustrate a single point; comparative tables drive it home. This constant production of numbers – and a seamless access between continents – offers us the world as a single, intelligible place defined by the universal laws of accumulation and deprivation. Any sense that slum cultures and slum cities might have a specific character, beyond the common lot of misery, is tenuous. No book will give readers the impression of covering greater distances, even if they will feel by the end as though they’d been cooped up in a narrow, featureless room. Homogeneity, Davis would argue, is what late capitalism does: already a billion people live in roughly the same extraordinary way in roughly similar environments. Vast, contiguous slums are the habitat of the future for even larger numbers, yet the future looks more and more like it did the day before yesterday.

And so to the figures. By 2015 there will be at least 550 cities with a population of more than one million. Already this aggregate population is growing ‘by a million babies and migrants each week’. The peak will come in 2050, when ten billion people, by then the great majority of humankind, will be living in cities: ‘95 per cent of this final build-out of humanity will occur in the urban areas of developing countries, whose populations will double to nearly four billion over the next generation.’ Even more striking than these huge projected increases and the assertion that they are ‘final’ is the accelerating rate at which they’re taking place – nowhere faster than in China.

More here.

The ghost worlds of J. M. Barrie and Tom Stoppard

John Lahr in The New Yorker:

Screenhunter_01_mar_15_0012Can we agree that we’re all haunted? The ghost world is part of our world. We carry within us the good and the bad, the spoken and the unspoken imperatives of our missing loved ones. As children, we are dreamed up by our parents; as adults, when our parents die we dream them up in turn. Conversations rarely stop at the grave. So, when we encounter ghosts onstage, they both terrify and compel us; within their trapped energy is an echo of our own unresolved losses. Ghosts must be banished, in order to get rid of their aggression toward the living and our aggression toward them for having left us. In the theatre, ghosts are traditionally agents either of tragic provocation (the ghost of Hamlet’s father) or of comic persecution (Elvira in Noël Coward’s “Blithe Spirit”); in Tina Landau’s clever and stimulating revival of J. M. Barrie’s 1920 play “Mary Rose” (at the Vineyard), however, the ghost turns out to be a catalyst for autobiographical repair.

More here.

The 10 Most Notorious Presidential Pardons

Kristina Dell and Rebecca Myers in Time:


Whiskey_rebellionCongress enacted a steep tax on spirits in 1791 to help pay down the national debt, and hard-hit small producers protested by taking to the streets in western Pennsylvania. They quickly formed a multi-state armed rebellion and President George Washington called in 13,000 troops to quell the opposition. Intent on emphasizing federalist power, the government charged the whiskey rebel leaders with treason against the U.S., although many were released due to a lack of evidence. Virginia Governor Henry Lee, on Washington’s behalf, issued a general pardon for those who had participated “in the wicked and unhappy tumults and disturbances lately existing,” even though some of the rebels had not even been indicted. Only a few men had trials and two were convicted of treason (which meant death by hanging). Eventually, Washington pardoned those who had treason convictions and indictments. It was the first pardon in American history that overturned a criminal conviction, and the first time under the young U.S. Constitution that the federal government wielded military force to quell its own citizens.

More here.

Teenager’s Science Project Wins $100,000 Scholarship

Lakiesha R. Carr in the New York Times:

14science_lgWhen 17-year-old Mary Masterman set out to build a spectrograph, she knew it would be no easy task. The device, an instrument used to identify characteristics of different kinds of molecules, can cost thousands of dollars, and Mary was building on a budget.

“I wanted to build one that was lower costing so it would be more available to anyone interested in spectrography,” Mary said.

A senior at Westmoore High School in Oklahoma City, Mary built the spectrograph at home for $300, and her project won the top prize of a $100,000 scholarship in the Intel Science Talent Search Monday night in Washington.

More here.

Masturbation had achieved the height of its moral prestige


Freud’s favorite sexologist, Havelock Ellis, unleashed the dignified term “autoeroticism” on the world in 1899. The date was fitting, for the century that followed was nothing other than the triumphal march of masturbation—from Freud’s Dora to Joyce’s letters to Nora (“Are you too, then, like me, one moment high as the stars, the next lower than the lowest wretches?”) and Leopold Bloom on the beach (“And then Mr. Bloom adjusted with a careful hand his wet shirt”), to Kinsey and Masters and Johnson and back to Molly Bloom, yes yes yes, and Anaïs Nin of course and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick claiming that the sisters in Sense and Sensibility were masturbating (poor Jane Austen—you understate a few things and this is what they do), and then Ginsberg masturbating while his mother died, and Portnoy, and Woody Allen (“Now you’re knocking my hobbies!”), and that movie where Cameron Diaz had semen in her hair the whole time. Most touching in this procession is the extent to which male and female masturbation went hand in hand, so to speak, into the bright masturbatory future. Even radical feminists, who stressed the female right to self-pleasure in the face of male sexual incompetence, graciously extended the olive branch on this one point. For wasn’t the masturbating youth just as defenseless in our culture as the objectified, sexualized female? At one point the feminist writer Lonnie Barbach even suggested that men’s propensity to ejaculate before their female partners had achieved orgasm was the result not of selfishness but of an oppressive anti-masturbatory regime that taught boys to come as quickly as possible so as to avoid detection by their parents and schoolmasters. Now this—this was solidarity. Masturbation had achieved the height of its moral prestige.

more from n+1 here.

What queer lives we’ve had even for poets!


On June 11, 2005, The New York Times ran a correction: “A picture in Weekend yesterday with the Books of The Times review, about ‘The Letters of Robert Lowell,’ was published in error. It showed the columnist Murray Kempton, who died in 1997, not the poet.” Accidents happen, or mistakes: it wasn’t made clear how the face of the acerbic columnist was substituted for the face of the famous poet. As errors go, this one could hardly approach the Times obituary for Herman Melville, in 1891, which identified the forgotten author as “Henry Melville.” Nonetheless, it seemed starkly to register a slippage in Lowell’s reputation since his death in 1977, a change of status remarked by many reviewers, including loyal friends and defenders such as Helen Vendler and Jonathan Raban.

more from Agni here.

If the gates of ijtihad open once again, it will be in Europe

At last, books have appeared to try to fit these changed streets, scattered battles, and stray bombs into a broader intellectual context. They fall, broadly, into two schools. The first presents Europe’s fight as a Huntingtonian “Clash of Civilizations,” a war between democratic Europe and the fifteen million indigestible Muslims it has, they believe, foolishly imported from undemocratic countries. Some even predict—as Ronald Reagan’s former staffer Tony Blankley puts it—that “as hyper-tolerant, or even self-loathing, Europeans are confronted by intelligent, hyper-aggressive Muslims, a Darwinian life-or-death struggle will result in the death of European culture.”

The second school believes that this conservative analysis is a betrayal of democratic Muslim immigrants, a rebuke to the millions who have become Europeans and cannot be casually counted in the camp of jihad. They believe this is a civil war within the Muslim world, between Islamic fundamentalists and the Muslim moderates who despise them. The most optimistic of us even believe that hosting this fight is an extraordinary opportunity for Europe, because—if we manage it right—we can decisively tip Islam away from jihadism and trigger the long-awaited, long-delayed Islamic Enlightenment.

more from Dissent here.

Misconceptions: A writer recounts the ordeals she went through to have a child

From The Washington Post:Baby

WAITING FOR DAISY By Peggy Orenstein

Unlike many women who have written about the experience of trying and failing to have a baby, Orenstein doesn’t leave her feminism at the door. She writes frankly about her initial reluctance to become a mother and traces the complicated evolution of her feelings from “no! never!” to single-minded passion. Once launched on the all-consuming path, she makes stops that will be familiar to many of her readers: joyless “fertility sex”; miscarriage after miscarriage; fertility test after fertility test; expensive, uncaring reproductive-medicine specialists; adoption near-misses; attempts at the brave new universe of surrogacy. But her voice makes all the difference in the world. Far from the anguished, often reverential, super-serious tone of Internet discussion groups is this passage on her introduction to the world of fertility medicine:

“Clomid was my gateway drug; the one you take because, Why not — everyone’s doing it. Just five tiny pills. They’ll give you a boost, maybe get you where you need to go. It’s true, some women can stop there. For others, Clomid becomes infertility’s version of Reefer Madness. First you smoke a little grass, then you’re selling your body on a street corner for crack. First you pop a little Clomid, suddenly you’re taking out a second mortgage for another round of in vitro fertilization (IVF). You’ve become hope’s bitch, willing to destroy your career, your marriage, your self-respect for another taste of its seductive high.”

More here.

Wipe out a single memory

From Nature:Memory

A single, specific memory has been wiped from the brains of rats, leaving other recollections intact. The brain secures memories by transferring them from short-term to long-term storage, through a process called reconsolidation. It has been shown before that this process can be interrupted with drugs. But Joseph LeDoux of the Center for Neural Science at New York University and his colleagues wanted to know how specific this interference was.

To find out, they trained rats to fear two different musical tones, by playing them at the same time as giving the rats an electric shock. Then, they gave half the rats a drug known to cause limited amnesia (U0126, which is not approved for use in people), and reminded all the animals, half of which were still under the influence of the drug, of one of their fearful memories by replaying just one of the tones. When they tested the rats with both tones a day later, untreated animals were still fearful of both sounds, as if they expected a shock. But those treated with the drug were no longer afraid of the tone they had been reminded of under treatment.

More here.

“Longed for him. Got him. Shit,” and other very short stories

From Wired:

HemingwayernesthemingwayportretWe’ll be brief: Hemingway once wrote a story in just six words (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”) and is said to have called it his best work. So we asked sci-fi, fantasy, and horror writers from the realms of books, TV, movies, and games to take a shot themselves.

Dozens of our favorite auteurs put their words to paper, and five master graphic designers took them to the drawing board. Sure, Arthur C. Clarke refused to trim his (“God said, ‘Cancel Program GENESIS.’ The universe ceased to exist.”), but the rest are concise masterpieces.

Failed SAT. Lost scholarship. Invented rocket.
William Shatner

Computer, did we bring batteries? Computer?
Eileen Gunn

Vacuum collision. Orbits diverge. Farewell, love.
David Brin

Gown removed carelessly. Head, less so.
Joss Whedon

Automobile warranty expires. So does engine.
Stan Lee

Machine. Unexpectedly, I’d invented a time
Alan Moore

Longed for him. Got him. Shit.
Margaret Atwood

Many more here.  [Feel free to add your own as comments to this post!]

Scandals of Higher Education

Andrew Delbanco in the New York Review of Books:

Columbia20universityIt is hardly surprising that lots of rich kids go to America’s richest colleges. It has always been so. But today’s students are richer on average than their predecessors. Between the mid-1970s and mid-1990s, in a sample of eleven prestigious colleges, the percentage of students from families in the bottom quartile of national family income remained roughly steady— around 10 percent. During the same period the percentage of students from the top quartile rose sharply, from a little more than one third to fully half. If the upscale shops and restaurants near campus are any indication, the trend has continued if not accelerated. And if the sample is broadened to include the top 150 colleges, the percentage of students from the bottom quartile drops to 3 percent.[2] In short, there are very few poor students at America’s top colleges, and a large and growing number of rich ones.

More here.

How Do You Get Crabs From A Gorilla?

More on lice, from Carl Zimmer in his excellent blog, The Loom:

Pubic20liceIf pubic lice are not the sort of thing you want to be seen reading about, let me give you the opportunity to close your browser window right now. But if you’re at all curious about the secret that pubic lice have been keeping for over three million years, the tale of a mysterious liaison between our ancestors and the ancestors of gorillas–read on.

Many parasites tend to stick close to their hosts. A parasitic wasp may wander through forests and fields to find a caterpillar from a single species of butterfly in which it will lay its eggs. Blood flukes taste the water of their ponds for molecules from human skin. Wolbachia, a species of bacteria, never even has to leave its hosts, because it is passed down from mothers to their offspring. If a parasite sticks to its host for millions of years, their evolution may run on parallel tracks. As the host species splits in two, its parasite splits as well.

One of the best studied cases of parasites and hosts coevolving this way comes from pocket gophers and their lice…

More here.

Misuse of Models

Carl Wunsch in American Scientist:

Fullimage_20072510647_846What happens when an immature and incomplete science meets a societal demand for information and direction? The spectacle is not pretty, as we learn from Useless Arithmetic, a new book that describes a long list of incompetent and sometimes mindless uses of fragmentary scientific ideas in the realm of public policy. The troubling anecdotes that authors Orrin H. Pilkey and Linda Pilkey-Jarvis provide cross diverse fields, including fisheries management, nuclear-waste disposal, beach erosion, climate change, ore mining, seed dispersal and disease control. Their extended examples of the misuse of science are both convincing and depressing. The book is a welcome antidote to the blind use of supposedly quantitative models, which may well represent the best one can do, but which are not yet capable of producing useful information.

More here.

The Song Before It Is Sung


In one of the last conversations I had with Isaiah Berlin before he died, I asked him which writer or thinker most closely shared his view of things. Without hesitation, he replied: “Herzen.” Berlin revered Alexander Herzen, the 19th-century Russian radical émigré, for many reasons, but it was his insistence that humans make their own lives that resonated most deeply. Just as there is no song before it is sung – a saying of Herzen’s that Berlin loved to cite – so there is no human life until it is lived. It is an idea inherited from the Romantics, and while it captures something profoundly important, it also has a certain unreality. Humans may fashion their lives, but in some of their most vital decisions they have no choice. When facing circumstances they cannot alter, they can only act in character, sometimes with tragic results, and in this sense their lives are fated to unfold as they do.

Justin Cartwright’s The Song Before It Is Sung is, among other things, a meditation on the equivocal nature of human action as played out in the relationship of Elya Mendel and Axel von Gottberg – fictional versions of Berlin and one of the conspirators in Claus von Stauffenberg’s July Plot to assassinate Hitler, Adam von Trott, who was tortured and hideously executed in August 1944.

more from The New Statesman here.

Nature does not make such a Man once in a Century


Despite everything that has recently happened in historical and in English literary scholarship, two men still bestride the world of late eighteenth-century England: Edmund Burke and Samuel Johnson. At opposite ends of the parliamentary political spectrum, they now have one thing in common: in recent debates, their reassessment has depended on reinterpretations of their religious beliefs. In the 1950s, Burke was seen as a natural-law theorist indebted to Aquinas, implicitly arrayed against Communism; by the 1960s he was Conor Cruise O’Brien’s covert Catholic, a civil-liberties campaigner whose unacknowledged Irish allegiances produced a “slumbering Jacobite”; he progressed, in the 1980s, through a man shaped by High Churchmanship to be, today, someone whose crusades were prompted by his Anglican Latitudinarianism.

F. P. Lock has gone further than any of those who moved him into the Latitudinarian camp, even arguing that “Burke’s theism was much firmer than his Christianity”. Whatever the truth of that, Burke emerges from Lock’s two volumes as one whose broad sympathies were rooted in fundamental values: he looked on church polity, liturgy and “dogmas of religion” as being of less importance than virtue, Christianity’s common truths, and an overarching Providence. Providence is a theme running through Locke’s book: it made politics, for Burke, a “moral battlefield”. This indeed explains some of his Manichaean vision: “He tended to demonize his opponents, and was unable to conceive that they could act from conviction, or from honourable motives”.

more from the TLS here.



Before I meet Andy Goldsworthy, I have a wander round the retrospective of his work being constructed at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, near Wakefield. Goldsworthy creates moments of wonder out of local rocks and earth and trees, and this wandering prompts several questions, which I jot down in my notebook: are all farm animals abstract expressionists? Is one dry-stone waller’s work distinguishable from another’s? Just how do you suspend these three oak trees in mid-air below ground in the middle of a field? And, is sheep shit more user-friendly (for smearing on gallery windows) than cow shit?

more from The Guardian here.

Beyond Stones & Bones

From MSNBC:Originsman_07030_1

Head lice live in the hair on the head. But body lice, a larger variety, are misnamed: they live in clothing. Head lice, as a species, go back millions of years, while body lice are a more recent arrival. Stoneking, an evolutionary anthropologist, had a hunch that he could calculate when body lice evolved from head lice by comparing the two varieties’ DNA, which accumulates changes at a regular rate. (It’s like calculating how long it took a typist to produce a document if you know he makes six typos per minute.) That fork in the louse’s family tree, he and colleagues at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology concluded, occurred no more than 114,000 years ago. Since new kinds of creatures tend to appear when a new habitat does, that’s when human ancestors must have lost their body hair for good—and made up for it with clothing that, besides keeping them warm, provided a home for the newly evolved louse.

If you had asked paleoanthropologists a generation ago what lice DNA might reveal about how we became human, they would have laughed you out of the room. But research into our origins and evolution has come a long way.

More here.

What’s So Funny? Well, Maybe Nothing

From The New York Times:Laugh_2

So there are these two muffins baking in an oven. One of them yells, “Wow, it’s hot in here!” And the other muffin replies: “Holy cow! A talking muffin!” Did that alleged joke make you laugh? I would guess (and hope) not. But under different circumstances, you would be chuckling softly, maybe giggling, possibly guffawing. I know that’s hard to believe, but trust me. The results are just in on a laboratory test of the muffin joke.

Laughter, a topic that stymied philosophers for 2,000 years, is finally yielding to science. Researchers have scanned brains and tickled babies, chimpanzees and rats. They’ve discovered something that eluded Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Kant, Schopenhauer, Freud and the many theorists who have tried to explain laughter based on the mistaken premise that they’re explaining humor.

Occasionally we’re surprised into laughing at something funny, but most laughter has little to do with humor. It’s an instinctual survival tool for social animals, not an intellectual response to wit. It’s not about getting the joke. It’s about getting along.

More here.