The Virtues of Being Twisted

2008_07 Kathleen McGowan in Psychology Today:

A man trolls through web sites, searching for someone to fulfill his momentary fantasy. Waves of anticipation—he may find what he wants!—alternate with a nagging fear that he will be exposed as a sick freak. What would his friends and family think of him if they knew? A woman looks at her child, meanwhile, and feels crushed with disappointment. Her heart just doesn’t swell for him the way it does for his sister. She anxiously tries to hide her preference, all the while berating herself for being a terrible mother.

Feelings or habits that are out of the ordinary are great fodder for art and entertainment, but they can cause anguish to those who can’t understand—and don’t appreciate—their own outre tendencies. Of course some people are proud to be twisted, and even cultivate strangeness: Half-blue-eyed, all-pasty-white Goth rocker Marilyn Manson surely doesn’t spend much time moping around, wishing he were just like everybody else. But why do many others obsess over not being normal?

it’s johnson, always johnson


One of the more expensive items in Samuel Beckett’s working library was an 18th-century edition of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language. He probably bought it in Dublin in the 1930s, when he made extensive notes on Johnson for a play that he was planning to write about the great man. The Johnson that Beckett was interested in wasn’t “Boswell’s wit and wisdom machine”, as he put it, but a sufferer from melancholia, idleness, guilt and fears of madness and annihilation. Beckett pictured his hero as an exhausted old man, “terrified of dying, terrified of deadness”, and copied out quotations from the medical diary in which Johnson charted his own decline. The play, Human Wishes, which included a role for Johnson’s cat Hodge (“sleeping – if possible”), was eventually abandoned, but the image of the dying writer stayed with Beckett. Years later, pressed for comment on his debts to Swift and Sterne, he told his first biographer that “it’s Johnson, always Johnson, who is with me”.

more from The Guardian here.

punk half panther


Most of Juan Felipe Herrera’s many books evoke at once the hardships that Mexican-Americans have undergone and the exhilarating space for self-reinvention that a New World art offers. The child of migrant workers and now a professor at the University of California, Riverside, Herrera began to publish and perform verse in the late 1960s and early ’70s, amid the Chicano cultural ferment of Los Angeles and San Diego; he has been, and should be, admired for his portrayals of Chicano life. Yet he is no mere recorder of social conditions. Herrera is, instead, a sometimes hermetic, wildly inventive, always unpredictable poet, whose work commands attention for its style alone.

If there is one earlier writer Herrera resembles, that writer is Allen Ginsberg, whose volatile temperament he shares. In a poem dedicated to Ginsberg (and to “Oloberto & Magritta”) Herrera calls himself a “Punk Half Panther”: his slangy enthusiasms make him at home among “Toyota gangsta’ / monsters, surf of new world colony definitions / & quasars & culture prostars going blam.” Like the young Ginsberg, Herrera is at once an idiosyncratic visionary and antiestablishment advocate; like Ginsberg, Herrera manifests glee in extremes, in paeans and in jeremiads.

more from the NY Times here.

Arthur c. clarke’s last theorem


The most exciting part of “The Last Theorem” (Del Rey: 304 pp., $27), the novel by the late Arthur C. Clarke and fellow science fiction veteran Frederik Pohl, has nothing to do with the titular titillation of finding a proof for Fermat’s famous marginal musing, nor with a secret weapon called Silent Thunder that instantly renders all of North Korea a demilitarized zone, nor with the umpteenth invocation of Clarke’s famous “space elevator” concept, which substitutes traditional rocket launchers with a giant ladder to the heavens. (For these, you need look no further than Clarke’s other 2008 collaboration, “Firstborn,” with Stephen Baxter.) Rather, “The Last Theorem” involves a part of the Clarke legend that has long been acknowledged but rarely discussed.

By the time of his death in March, the 90-year-old Clarke had presented readers with myriad visions of the future, at once awesome and sobering, in books like “Childhood’s End” and the germ and eventual novelization of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Mankind regularly gets a reality check upon contact with vastly superior races, finding itself instantly demoted from center-of-the-universe status to a mere means to an inscrutable end. In the grand scheme of things, the interior life of his characters is insignificant.

Not surprisingly, his private life was excluded from the universe of his books. Though it seems an open secret among many that he was homosexual, Clarke was coy regarding his sexual orientation. (Asked if he was gay, he would respond, “No, merely mildly cheerful.”) Any link between his books and this facet of his life remains obscured.

more from the LA Times here.

Voices of Victims

From The New York Times:

Book In 2005, while a law student at the University of Miami, Mahvish Rukhsana Khan decided to volunteer as an interpreter for Afghan detainees at Guantánamo Bay. The American daughter of Afghan immigrants (her parents are Johns Hopkins-educated physicians), Khan thought it unfair that the detainees could not understand their lawyers, who did not speak Pashto, and although she didn’t know whether they were guilty, she believed they were entitled to prove their innocence. But after more than three dozen visits to the Guantánamo prison camp, Khan writes, “I came to believe that many, perhaps even most” of the detainees were “innocent men who’d been swept up by mistake.” A number of the men she met insisted they had been sold to the United States by bounty hunters, after the American military dropped leaflets across Afghanistan promising up to $25,000, or nearly 100 times the annual per capita income, to anyone who would turn in members of the Taliban or Al Qaeda.

I began “My Guantánamo Diary” wondering whether Khan was too credulous, especially after she conceded that “it may appear to some readers that I gave ample, and perhaps naïve, credence to the prisoners’ points of view.” But by the end, I was more or less persuaded by her conclusion that most of the Afghans she met were not guilty of crimes against the United States, and for a simple reason: the military ultimately released most of them. Once you know the endings to Khan’s stories, they read like the gripping narratives of the wrongly accused. There is Ali Shah Mousovi, a pediatrician who says he returned to Afghanistan in 2003, following years of exile in Iran, to open a medical clinic and rebuild his country. Soon after his return, American soldiers broke down his door, accused him of associating with the Taliban and took him to the Bagram Air Base. There, he says, he was blindfolded, hooded, gagged and repeatedly kicked in the head by American soldiers, who spat on him, cursed him and paraded him naked.

More here.

First complete Neanderthal genome sequenced

From Nature:

Neanderthal_2 The first complete genome of a Neanderthal — specifically, the mitochondrial DNA found in a 38,000-year-old bone — has been sequenced. The highly accurate sequence contains clues that our relatives lived in small, isolated populations, and probably did not interbreed with their human neighbours. “This is the first ‘finished’ genome sequence of an extinct human relative,” says the study’s lead scientist, Ed Green, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

Analysis of the DNA, taken from a bone fragment from the Vindija Cave in Croatia, puts the date of our last common ancestor at around 660,000 years ago, give or take 140,000 years. This is broadly in line with other estimates based on archaeology. The research, published in Cell, is a taster for the unveiling later this year of the complete Neanderthal nuclear genome sequence — which many hope will reveal the key genetic changes that propelled the evolution of human behaviour.

More here.

A Nightmare of Shattered Lives

Th1_247200857frere Artist Jane Frere in The Scotsman:

I was in Bethlehem working on The Nakbah Project, a programme of artistic workshops with Palestinians to create an art installation, Return of the Soul, marking the 60th anniversary of their expulsion from their homeland in 1948. Amal was one of three women I worked with in the ancient town – the others were called Imurad and Shama – who had agreed to make 200 figures. Normally these three ladies would eke out a living by creating the most exquisite Palestinian embroidery, or other craft folklore, to sell to the dwindling tourist trade. But now such tourists comprise only the most dedicated of pilgrims, bold enough to venture beyond the 8m-high towering wall, through hostile check points, to seek out the birthplace of Christ.

I knew that Imurad, Shama and Amal loved the concept behind the project. They were not only digging into their own family histories, but also those of their friends and relatives. But, really, they were desperate. Although they wouldn’t admit it, they needed the money.

So, with enthusiasm and dexterity, my Bethlehem trio swapped their needles and thread for pliers and wire. As we negotiated our way around the twists and knots, creating the skeletal wire shapes representing their fleeing grandparents, we huddled on sofas around a single bar electric fire, and out poured a litany of woes – unemployed husbands, hospital fees for the son who got shot in the leg, the struggle to support older members of their families, nearly all succumbing to an assortment of cancers. Palliative care is rarely available in hospitals there; if there is no imminent threat of death, everyone gets discharged as quickly as possible due to lack of space. But that might mean paying for medication and nutrients on drips administered at home, and if an electricity bill is not paid, the power is cut off with devastating consequences for the makeshift nurses. In my time in Palestine I gathered many stories like these, as I travelled across hostile borders observing the fragments of people’s shattered lives.

As an artist and theatre practitioner, my interests have always tended towards humanitarian concerns, and the journey an artist takes interests me almost more than the final work of art.

Prog-Rock Concept Albums, A Defense

Article_moody2 Rick Moody in The Believer:

Woe to the musician who can actually play his or her instrument. In that direction ridicule lies. Ridicule by reason of excessively long solos, of leaden grooves, of unpleasant facial posturing so as to simulate profundity.

In this regard: consider the plight of Gentle Giant. They are among the most reviled of prog-rock outfits from the ’70s. They made concept albums; they were heavily influenced (or so it was said) by the French Renaissance writer Rabelais; they were all capable of playing recorders; and, after the advent of punk, they tried to sell out and make New Wave albums. If all that were not bad enough, they started life as a soul band (Simon Dupree and the Big Sound), electing to go prog in 1969.

It would seem impossible to defend Gentle Giant, and yet that is what I mean to do. My defense rests on the following notions: 1) That 4/4 time is really boring and starts to hurt your head after a while. 2) That counterpoint, as a compositional tool, is beguiling and satisfying to the ears. 3) That a record with a lot of different instrumental textures is more consistently interesting than one on which every song has the very same instrumentation. 4) That dynamic variation is the secret to making a recording move over its course (if all of the songs start and end at the same level, there’s no reason to begin at the beginning of an album and go all the way to the end). 5) That love ditties, lyrically speaking, need not feature mere teen platitudes.

Free Hand, Gentle Giant’s album from 1975, is a fine example of these enumerated points, and a good place to start for those people who have not yet given up reading these lines.

Rising Political Violence in India and China

Paul Rogers in openDemocracy:

The exponential growth of the economies of China and India has won for these Asian giants a position of global economic and political prominence. But this process has been accompanied by profound internal discontent, some of which takes violent forms. The respective domestic experiences may be very different, but there are enough commonalities to suggest a lesson for the dominant economic model to which both states now adhere.

The east’s far west

The killing of sixteen police officers and the wounding of sixteen others in an operation in the western Chinese oasis city of Kashgar on 4 August 2008 was the most severe incident of anti-authority political violence in China for many months. The precise responsibility remains to be established, but it is likely to have been perpetrated by a separatist Islamist group which sees itself as acting on behalf of the majority Uighur population of Xinjiang region (where Kashgar is situated). The timing, in the very week of the opening of the Olympic games in Beijing on 8 August – and following an apparently coordinated attack on two buses in Kunming in the southwest province of Yunnan on 21 July which killed two people – further suggests a political motivation.

The nature and timing of these incidents have guaranteed widespread media attention in the ensuing days, both in China itself (where a year marked by the Tibet riots and the Sichuan earthquake has seen more open coverage in the official media, partly a result of its unofficial proliferation) and internationally. This is welcome insofar as greater discussion of such security issues can aid the search for understanding and solutions. At the same time, it is important not to extrapolate too far from the Kashgar attack, as it is a (still) relatively isolated example of paramilitary violence rather than in itself evidence of a long-term campaign.

John Cooley, 1927-2008

Abc_john_k_cooley_080808_main Veteran journalist and one of the more insightful observers of the Middle East, John Cooley, has passed away.  Mike Lee over at the ABC News blog World View:

John Cooley was my hero. You may not know it, but he was your hero too. John was a journalist’s journalist. But that says too little. He was a deeply intelligent, perceptive, committed and generous colleague who was unfailingly generous with his time, and with his considerable knowledge of world events.

As a radio correspondent, and an editorial sidekick to Peter Jennings, John was highly influential in helping to shape the foundations of ABC News when it was growing into itself as a world-class news organization in the early 1980s. You probably never knew John, unless you were a world leader, or intelligence operative, a secret source in an outlawed group,or an expert in the major issues of the day. I used to look at John and imagine that his skull was a massive Rolodex. That was before the first personal computers were widespread. I’m still not sure that John ever really needed something as slow as a microchip.

How can I describe him in the flesh? Do you remember those early James Bond films? John Cooley was Q, the inventor who furnished 007 with an endless supply of wondrous gadgets. If you squint your eyes, there is an element of that in JC’s relationship with PJ. But Peter was never dismissive of a Cooley cocktail of cold fact and insight. Both men were smart and committed, and complemented one another in a way that provided ABC with a behind-the-scenes rocket booster.

On Wood’s How Fiction Works

239763547 Giles Harvey in the Village Voice:

One would hope that the reading public is not so guileless nor the art of literature so glibly reducible as a recent publishing epidemic might suggest: How to Read a Book, How to Read a Novel, How to Read a Poem, How Novels Work, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Reading Like a Writer, How to Read & Why, How to Read Slowly, Why Read? What happened here? No one, to be sure, said reading was supposed to be easy, but do we really need—do we really deserve—all this florid overexplanation? Of course, the only truly indispensable advice about reading, about how to prepare oneself for it—spiritually, if you like—was given by Dr. Johnson to Boswell and is well known: Clear your mind of cant.

Cant, unfortunately, is what many of these books tend to promote (what reasonable person would want to read literature like a professor?). Given its fantastically banal title, the uninitiated reader may be forgiven for assuming that How Fiction Works, the latest book from the celebrated literary critic James Wood, is more of the same, destined for an obscure spot on the remainders shelf somewhere between How Novels Work and How to Read a Novel. Wood, however—who recently joined The New Yorker after 12 years at The New Republic—is no ordinary critic, and How Fiction Works proselytizes on behalf of literature not merely by recommending it, but by actually embodying the virtues it sets out to praise.

Literary criticism is perhaps an inherently pugnacious discipline, and it’s certainly a dialectical one. Nietzsche said that “Every talent must unfold itself in fighting,” and Wood is a case in point.

thomas frank through arthur bentley


Washington, as Frank sees it, plays host to a simple clash of interests: money and business on one side, the people on the other. “The Wrecking Crew” is written in a voice of high derision—much more so than the sincere, bewildered “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”—and it can be good, spirited fun. Frank captures a quality of exuberant bullying in those of his conservative subjects he knows well enough to identify individually, rather than categorically. He registers their self-justifying certainty that the other side is playing as rough as they are, and the soaring rhetoric about evil and freedom that they use to discuss even trivial matters.

“The Wrecking Crew” is what Arthur Bentley would call a discussion-group activity, meant to fire up the troops. It is reportorially and intellectually imprecise. How many lobbyists are there in Washington, exactly? By what yardstick did Frank conclude that we are undergoing “the greatest wave of political corruption in living memory”? What would be the sign that conservatives no longer rule, if Democrats’ controlling the political apparatus doesn’t count? Frank rarely mentions Democratic lobbyists or interest groups and glosses over the complexity in the coalitions that form the two parties: “corporations” and “conservatives” seem always to operate in perfect concert, on the Republican side. “Lobbying brings a constant pressure in a single direction,” he writes.

more from the New Yorker here.

Friday Poem

Too Late, and Too Long…

Oh Yes
Charles Bukowski

there are worse things than
being alone
but it often takes decades
to realize this
and most often
when you do
it’s too late
and there’s nothing worse
too late.

from Mississippi
Bob Dylan

The emptiness is endless, cold as the clay
You can always come back,
but you can’t come back all the way
Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long.


all the colours of the rainbow are black


We know that Woman with a Hat was painted, at speed, towards the end of summer in 1905; a larger, more elaborate landscape painting, which Matisse had intended as the lynchpin of his exhibit at the Salon, had turned out to be unfinishable in the time remaining. Leo Stein said later that Matisse dared come only once to the Salon d’Automne to see his painting in situ, for fear of scoffers, and that Madame Matisse never came at all. Denis was not the only fellow-artist to join the hue and cry. The German painter Hans Purrmann, looking back later to his days as Matisse’s pupil and ally, tells the story of Matisse’s studio colleagues asking the painter ‘what kind of hat and what kind of dress were they that this woman had been wearing which were so incredibly loud in colour. And Matisse, exasperated, answered “Black, obviously”.’

It was a joke. But the joke was a good one; and therefore it concentrated an amount of conscious and unconscious thinking in a single reversal of terms. The joke set me thinking straight away of Baudelaire’s choice of black as the bourgeoisie’s prime colour, possessing its own ‘poetic beauty, which expresses the soul of the age; an immense cortège of professional mourners, politicians in mourning, lovers in mourning, bourgeois in mourning.

more from the LRB here.

Mill on the Floss

From The Atlantic Monthly:

[Ed. note: This review was originally published in the Atlantic Monthly, June 1860.]

Book_2 IT is not difficult to understand how the reader’s attention may be attracted and his interest retained by a romance of the old chivalrous days whose very name and dim memory fill the mind with fascinating images, or by a novel whose high-born characters claim sympathy for their dignified sorrows and refined delights, or whose story is illuminated by the light of artistic culture and adorned with gems of rhetoric and fine fancy; but it is sometimes surprising to observe the favor which attends a simple tale of humble, unobtrusive, we might almost say insignificant people, whose plane of life appears nowhere to coincide with our own, and to whom romance and passion seem entirely foreign. Such a tale was Adam Bede, whose great success as a literary venture hardly yet belongs to the chronicle of the past; such a tale is also The Mill on the Floss, by the author of Adam Bede, and such, we are confident, will also be its success.

Both books have many elements in common, but the second is the greater work of art, and indicates more fairly the scope and vigor of the author’s mind. It is written in the same pure, hardy style, strong with Saxon words that admit of no equivocation or misunderstanding; it is illustrated with sketches of outward Nature and tranquil rural beauty, none the less vivid or truthful that they are drawn with the pen rather than the brush; and it is instinct with an honest, high-souled purpose. In these respects it resembles Adam Bede, but in others it surpasses its predecessor. It displays a far keener insight into human passion, a subtler analysis of motives and principles, and it suggests a mental and a moral philosophy nobler in themselves and truer to humanity and religion. The pathos, too, is more genuine; for it is not based upon the mere utterance of grief or of entreaty, — which the eloquent and the artful may, indeed, feign, — but it is found in that skilful combination of material circumstance and spiritual influence which impresses upon the feeling, more than it proves to the reason, that the hour of heart-break is at hand, and which depends less for its effect upon the dramatic power of the imagination than upon the instant sympathy of the soul.

More here. (Note: To this day, it remains one of my favorite and frequently re-read books!)

Large Hadron Collider to Get First Taste of Proton Beam

From Scientific American:

Hadron After 14 years of construction and $8 billion, the world’s mightiest particle accelerator is about to get a taste of what it was built for. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), nearing readiness outside Geneva, Switzerland, was designed to smash protons together at the highest energies ever achieved in hopes of unlocking new secrets of the universe. But to date, all that’s traveled through its circular beam pipe are ping-pong balls to test for obstructions. That’s all about to change. This weekend, CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, plans to test a key component of the accelerator by injecting a low-intensity beam of protons clockwise into the LHC and letting it travel three kilometers (two miles) through the machine.

Assuming all goes as planned, the lab announced today that it will send the first beam around all 27 kilometers (17 miles) of pipe on September 10, the machine’s official start-up date. This weekend’s test will mark CERN’s first attempt to feed protons (or, simply, “beam”) into the LHC from a chain of smaller accelerators. These feeder accelerators cannot inject straight into the LHC because their pipes are enclosed in bulky magnets that steer the protons. Instead, protons enter the LHC ring at an angle. That means a magnet has to nudge the protons to enter the circular beam pipe on the tangent. This “kicker” magnet, which CERN has never had the chance to test until now, must switch on at precisely the right moment to nudge the near light-speed beam, and then switch off just as fast.

More here.