Saturday Poem

Little Cambray Tamales
Claribel Alegria

(makes 5,000,000 little tamales) – for Eduardo and Helena
who asked me for a Salvadoran recipe

Two pounds of mestizo cornmeal
half a pound of loin of gachupin
cooked and finely chopped
a box of pious raisins
two tablespoons of Malinche milk
one cup of enraged water
a fry of conquistador helmets
three Jesuit onions
a small bag of multinational gold
two dragon’s teeth
one presidential carrot
two tablespoons of pimps
lard of Panchimalco Indians
two ministerial tomatoes
a half cup of television sugar
two drops of volcanic lava
seven leaves of pito
(don’t be dirty-minded, it’s a soporific)
put everything to boil
over a slow fire
for five hundred years
and you’ll see how tasty it is.

Translated from the Spanish by D.J. Flakoll From
WOMAN OF THE RIVER (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989)


A work in progress

From The Guardian:

Shakespeare460 Of all the beneficiaries of literary luck, Timon of Athens is perhaps the luckiest. All of Shakespeare’s plays that appear in the First Folio would have been lost had the playwright’s actor colleagues John Heminge and Henry Condell not preserved them for posterity. But Timon was not supposed even to have been in the Folio. It takes the space reserved for Troilus and Cressida. Since that play had already been published in quarto, and particularly since there was some argy-bargy over copyright, another had to be dropped in that fitted. Timon was the play. To celebrate that good fortune, and at the invitation of Guildhall in London, I find myself waiting one morning at Guildhall Library with two of the actors from the Globe’s revival of Shakespeare’s satire – Simon Paisley Day, who plays Timon, and Patrick Godfrey, who is Flavius. The library holds one of the best Folios in existence, and this is the first time I have come into contact with one.

There is a certain Indiana Jones quality about the experience, as I imagine there would be for anyone from the literary world or the theatre. The First Folio is shrouded in mystery: is it all Shakespeare’s work? How were the plays collected, and by whom? How much impurity is in them? There is also the Folio’s tangled journey through time, as the 400 copies got sold and resold, and travelled all over the place, and were buried, and dug up, and stolen, and found, and collected, and became artefacts. There are only 14 so-called “perfect” copies left, one of which is here at Guildhall. Above all, there is the excitement of coming into contact with something so authentic, so close to the source, so in touch with the original magic.

The physical modesty of the Folio also has a kind of Indiana Jones aspect to it. At the end of The Last Crusade, the hero has to choose which of a selection of goblets and cups is the Holy Grail. Unlike the villain who goes for the gaudiest, Indiana walks past all the jewel-encrusted containers, and goes for the plain wooden cup. At Guildhall, we are shown down two staircases, into a small, brightly lit room. There, on the table, resting on cushions, is an unassuming book, about two feet by one, and three inches thick, which was rebound in leather a hundred years ago. We gather round, and there is a gentle holding of breath on opening it, but any anticipation that it might shine or glow, or that some literary radioactivity will pour out of it is disappointed.

More here.

The Arrangement

From The New York Times:

MARRYING ANITA A Quest for Love in the New India

By Anita Jain

Book Like many single women looking for love in New York, the journalist Anita Jain was fed up with the local dating scene. In 2005, Jain, who was then 32, wrote an article for New York magazine ­— “Is Arranged Marriage Really Any Worse Than Craiglist?” — in which she wondered whether she should let her Indian relatives find her a husband. It seemed tempting. What marriage-minded woman doesn’t dream of never having to walk into a singles bar again? Yet, while few modern Westerners would be willing to outsource their spousal selection (heck, most won’t even let their mothers set them up on a coffee date), Jain actually hopped on a plane to Delhi. It was the reverse journey her father had taken more than three decades earlier, when he left his homeland for America in search of better job opportunities. Jain, on the other hand, was going to India for what she hoped would be better dating opportunities.

It isn’t until the final weeks, when her parents visit, that she tries the arranged marriage route. By then, it’s apparent that while you can take the girl out of America, you can’t take American ideals out of the girl: she still craves a romantic spark. Of course, there’s nothing new in the story of a woman seeking a husband. What’s new here — and stunningly so — is Jain’s engaging, intelligent voice, at turns wry (when she catches sight of a former Sikh suitor without his turban, she comments: “Now that I can actually see him, I realize he’s kind of cute”) and provocatively curious (why do her smart, married Indian cousins, who aren’t allowed to defecate during the day in their own homes, seem more at peace with their lives than she is?). The result is less a dating memoir than a thoughtful, incisive exploration of the nature of connection. Ultimately, Jain seems to be asking, Is modernization really progress? After all, if with choice comes freedom, then why do so many single women feel imprisoned by their loneliness?

More here.

Mohsin Hamid on Pervez Musharraf

From Time Magazine:

A_essay_0901Musharraf’s legacy is a mixed one. Like many Pakistanis, I was appalled when he seized control of Pakistan in 1999. Pakistan had stagnated in the 1990s under the bickering and incompetent elected governments of Benazir Bhutto and her rival Nawaz Sharif. But I recalled the damage done by the oppressive dictatorship of General Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s and had no desire to see Pakistan revert to military rule.

I began to revise my opinion of Musharraf after 9/11. The U.S. invaded Afghanistan in response to terrorism, and the terrorist attack on its parliament later that year led India to threaten to do the same to Pakistan. Musharraf seemed to offer firm leadership in this time of crisis, managing to reverse Pakistan’s policy of support to the Taliban and embarking on a normalization process with India.

By the midpoint of Musharraf’s nine-year rule, a combination of sound economic policies and foreign aid had resulted in rapid growth for Pakistan. Optimism was in the air, and Pakistani friends of mine who had lived abroad for years — artists, bankers, architects, professors — were flocking back home.

Musharraf spoke in favor of tolerance, women’s rights and moderate interpretations of Islam. He liberalized the media, allowing dozens of private television channels to operate and freely criticize the government.

More here.

The American John Milton

Robert Pinsky in Slate:

080818_book_miltontnGreat art is great not because it enters an academic curriculum, and neither is greatness affirmed by the awarding of prizes or titles. But great is not necessarily a vague term. It can indicate work that penetrates the shapes, feelings, ideas, and sounds of a culture, as in the cadences of speech. Sometimes that kind of penetration is so deep, so transforming, that it is nearly invisible, or barely acknowledged.

W.E.B. Du Bois, the American essayist and political leader, begins the peroration of his great essay “On the Training of Black Men” with a sentence like a symphonic chord, fortissimo, compact, rousing:

I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not.

This statement, and the paragraph it introduces, come at the climax of an argument against the idea of measured progress, associated with Booker T. Washington: first training a generation of freed slaves to be cooks and carpenters, then a generation of clerks, then artisans, and, finally, in four or five generations, doctors and judges and scholars. Du Bois, on the other side of this famous and crucial American argument, had emphasized individual qualities: “teach the workers to work and the thinkers to think; make carpenters of carpenters, and philosophers of philosophers, and fops of fools.”

More here.

three scoops of rice and a piece of clothing from Hnin Se


When night falls in Rangoon, the city’s spectacular decay—patches of black mold devouring the yellowed walls of colonial buildings, trees growing wildly into crumbling third-story terraces—nearly disappears from view. The tea shops fill up, locals crowd the bookstalls on Pansodan Road, and the city, which seems furtive and depressed by day, becomes a communal stage. In the Chinatown district, two men in an alley crank out schoolbooks with a hand-operated printing press. At a sidewalk fish market, women sell shrimp, scallops, and squid by candlelight, while two teen-agers nearby strum guitars. Further east, along the Rangoon River, in the old residential quarter of Pazundaung, the wooden houses are open to the street, like storefronts, revealing an old woman sitting on a couch, a living-room shrine strewn with votive candles, and two men laughing as they listen to a radio.

One such evening in June, I had dinner at an outdoor restaurant north of downtown with a young man I’ll call Myat Min. He grew up in a working-class township on the outskirts of Rangoon, the son of a mechanic and a woman who sold spices from Thailand. His father had been trained by British Air Force officers, and in the years after the 1962 coup, which gave control of the country to the Burmese military, he kept the family radio tuned to the BBC. Each evening, he ate fried noodles, listened to the news in English, and cursed the dictatorship.

more from The New Yorker here.

rock crystal


Last year, Stanford University Press published a selection of Hannah Arendt’s essays on the arts under the title “Reflections on Literature and Culture.” One of the pieces in the volume was Arendt’s review of a 1945 translation of the novella “Rock Crystal,” by the 19th-century Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter. To Arendt, Stifter (1805-68) was “one of the very few great novelists in German literature,” whose work stood out for its “pure happiness, wisdom, and beauty.” Above all, Arendt stressed the power of Stifter’s natural descriptions: He was “the greatest landscape painter in literature … someone who possesses the magic wand to transform all visible things into words.”

In casting Stifter as a writer of lucid serenity, a maker of natural idylls, Arendt was following a long critical tradition. One standard history of German literature describes him as “a poetic soul” with “a serious, sane view of life,” who remained “untouched by the political currents of his age.” It all sounds a bit dull and worthy, and perhaps helps to explain why Stifter remains almost unknown to English readers, despite his high rank in German literature. As even Arendt acknowledged, “nothing in our time or in the non-German literary tradition … meets this work half-way. Our sense of homelessness in society and of alienation in nature … are constantly contradicted by Stifter.”

more from the NY Sun here.

if tank glut treasure, no pain


A lone gunslinger rides into town, ties his horse to the hitching post, and strides down the middle of Main Street. Two rival gangs come flooding out of their respective hideouts: the White Gang on one end of the street, the Reds on the other. There’s a buried treasure hidden somewhere nearby, and everyone’s crazy to find it, so the lone gunman stands between the two gangs and makes them an offer.

“Witch axe gonna by it. Marvy rose? What there—if tank glut treasure, no pain.”

Welcome to Sukiyaki Western Django (First Look), the English-language Western by Japanese director Takashi Miike. The all-Japanese cast, augmented by Quentin Tarantino in two cameo roles, learned their English dialogue phonetically and attack their lines as if the words were small furry animals that need to be beaten into submission. The dialogue is crammed with weird, Christopher Walken-esque line readings and bizarre placement of emphases—phrases like “You old biddy,” “Dang!” and “You reckon?” become hilariously divorced from meaning. But, like an alcoholic reduced to drinking sterno, the more you drink, the more brain cells you fry, and the better it tastes. Before long you not only start to understand Miike’s “through the looking glass” English but also to appreciate the cadences. It’s something like the dialogue in Deadwood or Cormac McCarthy’s writing: stiff, alien, occasionally silly but not without a hypnotic elegance all its own.

more from Slate here.

Elias Khoury remembers his friend Mahmoud Darwish

From Abu Dhabi’s The National:

Screenhunter_04_aug_29_1244“What will we write when you’re dead?” I asked him. And he told me a story about the assassination of Ghassan Kanafani.

Darwish recalled that he was taken by surprise when the Palestinian poet Kamal Nasser walked angrily into his office at the Palestinian Research Centre in 1972, holding the obituary The Poet had written for Kanafani. Nasser threw the article on the desk and demanded, gently, “What will you write about my death, now that you’ve written everything in this article?”

Less than a year later, when Nasser too was assassinated by Israel, Darwish wrote the poem Palestinian Wedding, in which:

Never will lover reach lover
Except as martyr or fugitive.

More here.

Proof Positive

From Harvard Magazine:

Clock As academics work to understand the architecture of the universe, they sometimes uncover connections in mysterious places. So it is with Smith professor of mathematics Richard L. Taylor, whose work connects two discrete domains of mathematics: curved spaces, from geometry, and modular arithmetic, which has to do with counting. Taylor has spent his career studying this nexus, and recently proved it is possible to use one domain to solve complex problems in the other. “It just astounded me,” he says, “that there should be a connection between these two things, when nobody could see any real reason why there should be.”

This is not the first instance of finding in geometry an elegant explanation for a seem- ingly unrelated phenomenon. Scholars during the Renaissance, seeking a mathematical basis for our conceptions of beauty, fingered the so-called Golden Ratio (approximately 1.6 to 1). Some analyses find the ratio in structures—most famously the Parthenon—built centuries before its first written formulation. More recently, scientists have found that the faces people find most beautiful are those in which the proportions conform most closely to the ratio. The geometry-arithmetic connection explored by Taylor solves another puzzle that has enticed mathematicians across centuries. In 1637, French mathematician Pierre de Fermat scrawled in a book’s margin a theorem involving equations like the one in the Pythagorean theorem (a2 + b2 = c2), but with powers higher than two. Fermat’s theorem said such equations have no solutions that are whole numbers, either positive or negative. Go ahead, try—it is impossible to find three integers, other than zero, that work in the equation a3 + b3 = c3.

The French mathematician also wrote that he had discovered a way to prove this—but he never wrote the proof down, or if he did, it was lost. For more than 350 years, mathematicians tried in vain to prove what became known as Fermat’s Last Theorem. They could find lots of examples that fit the pattern, and no counterexamples, but could not erase all doubt until Princeton University mathematician Andrew Wiles presented a proof in 1993.

His discovery made the front page of the New York Times, but six months later, the Times reported that another mathematician had found a mistake in the new proof.

More here.

Politics, Spectacle and History Under Open Sky

From The New York Times:

Barack Under clear skies after a humid day, the crowd of nearly 80,000 was a hodgepodge of suited Democratic donors, senators, delegates, party bigwigs, celebrities, political tourists, teenage volunteers and older voters — many of them African-American — bent on seeing a moment they had thought they would never witness. Some waited for five hours in baking heat in a line up to a mile long to come to the stadium. “I have no reason to be here other than to be a part of history,” said Janelle Murph, who had booked a last-minute flight from Baltimore to see the first African-American accept the nomination of a major party on the 45th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. “When I realized it was on that anniversary, it just felt like fate. I had to be there.”

As afternoon turned to evening, the mood evolved from giddy to serious to — by the time Mr. Obama was talking about Iraq — nearly silent. Mr. Obama’s face loomed on big video screens overhead while he spoke. About half of the crowd remained standing throughout, a group that included far more young people in the stands than delegates on the floor.

An elderly African-American man removed his oversize red, white and blue hat in deference as Mr. Obama spoke.

More here.

Akeel Bilgrami on Gandhi


Screenhunter_03_aug_28_2102In the philosophical tradition Gandhi is opposing, others are potential objects of criticism in the sense that one’s particular choices, one’s acts of moral conscience, generate moral principles or imperatives which others can potentially disobey. For him, conscience and its deliverances, though relevant to others, are not the well-spring of principles. Morals is only about conscience, not at all about principles.

There is an amusing story about two Oxford philosophers which makes this distinction vivid. In a seminar, the formidable J L Austin having become exasperated with Richard Hare’s huffing on about how moral choices reveal principles, decided to set him up with a question. ‘Hare’, he asked, “if a student came to you after an examination and offered you five pounds in return for the mark alpha, what would you say?” Predictably, Hare replied, “I would tell him that I do not take bribes, on principle!” Austin’s acid response was, “Really? I think I would myself say, ‘No thanks’. ” Austin was being merely deflationary in denying that an act of conscience had to have a principle underlying it. Gandhi erects the denial into a radical alternative to a (western) tradition of moral thinking. An honoured slogan of that tradition says, “When one chooses for oneself, one chooses for everyone”. The first half of the slogan describes a particular person’s act of conscience. The second half of the slogan transforms the act of conscience to a universalised principle, an imperative which others must follow or be criticised. Gandhi embraces the slogan too, but he understands the second half of it differently. He too wants one’s acts of conscience to have a universal relevance, so he too thinks one chooses for everyone, but he does not see that as meaning that one generates a principle or imperative for everyone. What other interpretation can be given to the words ‘One chooses for everyone’ in the slogan, except the principled one?

In Gandhi’s writing there is an implicit but bold proposal: “When one chooses for oneself, one sets an example to everyone.” That is the role of the satyagrahi. To lead exemplary lives, to set examples to everyone by their actions.

More here.  [Thanks to Thomas Zipp.]

The Philosopher’s Annual 10 Best Philosophy Papers, 2007

Via bookforum (links available over at The Philosopher’s Annual):

“Reflection and Disagreement”
Adam Elga
from Nous 41 (2007), 478-502

“Why Nothing Mental is Just in the Head”
Justin Fisher
from Nous 41 (2007), 318-334

“Socrates’ Profession of Ignorance”
Michael N. Forster
from Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 3 (2007), 1-36

“When is a Brain Like a Planet?”
Clark Glymour
from Philosophy of Science 74 (2007), 330-347

Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton at the Convention

M_id_35744 Amitava Kumar reports from the DNC, in the Indian Express:

Near the end of his book The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama recalls a phone conversation with his wife Michelle after getting elected to the U S Senate, a conversation during which he began to tell her about a significant piece of legislation that he was fighting to get passed. But Michelle Obama had something else on her mind. She said to her husband, “We have ants.”Ants?

Yes, they were the problem. In the kitchen and in the bathroom upstairs. Michelle wanted Barack to pick up ant traps for their home. This conversation made the rookie Senator wonder if someone like Ted Kennedy or John McCain bought ant traps on the way home from work.

The point of the anecdote, I think, was to establish that Obama’s needs, and his family’s needs, even when he became a Senator, were ordinary. But a part of the story’s purpose is also to tell us that it is Michelle Obama who keeps Barack practical and grounded.

Was this the task that she was once again burdened with on Monday night?

Not to put too fine a point on it but ants just didn’t belong in Pepsi Center. The place is huge, its interiors soar. The very scale of things suggests size and ambition and vast sums of money. What occurred to me as I stood outside was that the building could swallow several of Saddam’s palaces.

In fact, I was still unprepared for the immensity inside and it took my breath away. If the practical entered the picture, as it must, at the level of planning and detail, it was only in the service of something grand. Michelle Obama delivered a powerful and deft speech, telling the story of her family and attempting earnestly to define herself for strangers. Except that she was also responding in a very precise way to criticism made of her in the past, and this open act, because it was being performed on such a big public stage, threatened each utterance by exposing its fragility.

I understood this more fully only when I came out of the Pepsi Center, and a friend of mine, who is black and a writer, sent me a text message from upstate New York saying that Michelle’s humanity had been diminished that evening: the white majority had imposed on her the view that she could be considered acceptable only if she said nothing critical of her own country.

Of Craps and Calculus

Craps Jennifer Ouellette on the research for her upcoming book:

Few science bloggers have the good fortune to write off a Vegas trip as “research”, but that’s exactly what it was: my next book for Penguin is all about my experiences as a former English major learning calculus, inspired by a series of blog posts I wrote in 2006. (Current working title: Dangerous Curves: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Calculus. “Love” is rather a strong word. “Grudging appreciation” would be more accurate, but it just doesn’t make for a snappy subtitle.) It’s a testament to how far I have come over the years in breaking out of the kneejerk “mathogynist” mindset that I would even contemplate writing such a book, never mind relish the prospect. Perhaps that’s because my pedagogical approach flies in the face of how the subject is usually taught; in fact, the Spousal Unit once observed that I was learning calculus “inside out.” (He could have said “ass backwards,” but he’s far too polite.)

It all started with an impulse purchase of a series of DVD lectures offered by the Teaching Company: “Calculus Made Clear,” with a math professor at the University of Texas, Austin, named Michael Starbird. (He also has a DVD lecture series on probability.) The Spousal Unit noted approvingly that there were actual equations/derivations involved in the lectures, so it wasn’t just a lightweight “concept” course. Whatever. The two need not be mutually exclusive; a truly good teacher, like Starbird, will include both. He presented the underlying concepts beautifully, plus he told little historical anecdotes along the way about Buffon’s Needle, the Newton/Leibnitz debate, Archimedes, even the famed “Dido’s Problem” in the Aeneid. Nothing makes an English major happier than a strong, compelling narrative. Give us a good story, and we’ll follow you anywhere — even into the minefield of solving scary equations.

Ever the supportive partner, the Spousal Unit started leaving me simple calculus-related exercises on our resident white board in the mornings, just to shake off the dusty cobwebs of the math portions of my brain. I brushed up on geometry and algebra — which reminded me how much I’d genuinely enjoyed geometry in high school, before I bought into the whole “mathogynist” self-identity. (Who knows where that came from? I earned straight A’s in all my math and science classes.) And I took on some supplementary reading, including books by John Allen Paulos, Jason Bardi’s The Calculus Wars (a history of Newton and Leibnitz), and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Calculus. (The latter should perhaps be renamed The Half-Wit’s Guide to Calculus, since it assumes a bit more knowledge than the average adult recovering mathogynist has at his/her fingertips. That high school trig class was a long time ago….)

Love and Valour in The Ramayana

The British Library is having an extensive exhibition on the Indian epic.  The website has quite a number of manuscript images, guides, etc. An interesting podcast:

Neil Gaiman on the Ramayana (MP3, 45min, 18.3MB) Listen now

Neil Gaiman, author of the Sandman stories and many others, talks about his film treatment of Ramayana to Ravi Swami, animator, filmmaker and recent judge at the British Animation Awards.