Michael Gorbachev in the New York Times:
THE acute phase of the crisis provoked by the Georgian forces’ assault on Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, is now behind us. But how can one erase from memory the horrifying scenes of the nighttime rocket attack on a peaceful town, the razing of entire city blocks, the deaths of people taking cover in basements, the destruction of ancient monuments and ancestral graves?
Russia did not want this crisis. The Russian leadership is in a strong enough position domestically; it did not need a little victorious war. Russia was dragged into the fray by the recklessness of the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili. He would not have dared to attack without outside support. Once he did, Russia could not afford inaction.
The decision by the Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev, to now cease hostilities was the right move by a responsible leader. The Russian president acted calmly, confidently and firmly. Anyone who expected confusion in Moscow was disappointed.
More here. [Thanks to Syed Tasnim Raza.]
The first week of the twenty-ninth Olympiad of the modern era, and the first to be held in China, was always going to be sprinkled with diplomatic tensions. Most were quickly diffused, and many were highly enjoyable. If, during the United States basketball team’s casual flattening of their Chinese opponents on Sunday night, you could bear to glance away from LeBron James and up to the stands, there was an exquisite awkwardness to be seen in the gestures of Yang Jiechi, the Chinese minister of foreign affairs, who was seated next to President Bush. As a matter of etiquette, how excitedly, if at all, should you applaud when your home team scores, given that your honored guest is of the enemy camp? Will the pride of that guest receive a dent? Even when Yao Ming, whose status in China is roughly equivalent to that of Simba at the end of “The Lion King,” opened the scoring in less than a minute, and the whole place went nuts, Yang contented himself with a few soft palm-pats, just above his knees, and soon after that went into a permanent freeze of geniality.
more from The New Yorker here.
This illusion was created by A. Kitaoka in 2004, who also owns the copyright. You may see more illusions at his website.
Robert Fulford in the Canadian National Post:
Consider the way a human face speaks with silent eloquence. In the view of Raymond Tallis, an eminent British doctor and a talented writer, the face of a man or woman constitutes “the most sign-packed surface in the universe.” Nothing else we see carries more meaning. Every face displays a pattern of dense emotional responses in the present and an archive of its owner’s experience in the past. And each one is both unique and mysterious.
In his new book, The Kingdom of Infinite Space: A Fantastical Journey Around Your Head (Yale University Press), Tallis sets out to make his readers into “astonished tourists of the piece of the world that is closest to them, so they never again take for granted the head that looks at them from the mirror.” He begins his examination with the face.
Christopher Hitchens in The Atlantic Monthly:
“I am a ‘left conservative.'” That was Norman Mailer’s jaunty but slightly defensive self-description when first I met him, at the beginning of the 1980s. At the time, I was inclined to attribute this glibness (as I thought of it) to the triumph of middle age and to the compromises perhaps necessary to negotiate the then-new ascendancy of Ronald Reagan. But, looking back over his extraordinary journal of a plague year, written 40 years ago, I suddenly appreciate that Mailer in 1968 had already been rehearsing for some kind of ideological synthesis, and discovering it in the most improbable of places.
Party conventions have been such dull spectacles of stage management for so long that this year it was considered nothing less than shocking that delegates might arrive in Denver with anything more than ceremonial or coronational duties ahead of them. The coverage of such events, now almost wholly annexed by the cameras and those who serve them, has undergone a similar declension into insipidity. Mailer could see this coming: having left the 1968 Republican gathering in Miami slightly too early,
he realized he had missed the most exciting night of the convention, at least on the floor, and was able to console himself only with the sad knowledge that he could cover it better on television than if he had been there.
This wasn’t quite true yet: what we have here is the last of the great political-convention essayists, and the close of a tradition that crested with H. L. Mencken and was caught so deftly in Gore Vidal’s play The Best Man. You will note the way in which Mailer decided to write about himself in the third person, using the name “the reporter.” This isn’t invariably a good idea, but it generally works in this instance, even when Mailer muses, of himself, that the
Democratic Convention in 1960 in Los Angeles which nominated John F. Kennedy, and the Republican in San Francisco in 1964 which installed Barry Goldwater, had encouraged some of his very best writing.
Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times:
When Americans were asked in a 2007 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press to name the journalist they most admired, Mr. Stewart, the fake news anchor, came in at No. 4, tied with the real news anchors Brian Williams and Tom Brokaw of NBC, Dan Rather of CBS and Anderson Cooper of CNN. And a study this year from the center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism concluded that “ ‘The Daily Show’ is clearly impacting American dialogue” and “getting people to think critically about the public square.”
While the show scrambled in its early years to book high-profile politicians, it has since become what Newsweek calls “the coolest pit stop on television,” with presidential candidates, former presidents, world leaders and administration officials signing on as guests. One of the program’s signature techniques — using video montages to show politicians contradicting themselves — has been widely imitated by “real” news shows, while Mr. Stewart’s interviews with serious authors like Thomas Ricks, George Packer, Seymour Hersh, Michael Beschloss and Reza Aslan have helped them and their books win a far wider audience than they otherwise might have had.
Most important, at a time when Fox, MSNBC and CNN routinely mix news and entertainment, larding their 24-hour schedules with bloviation fests and marathon coverage of sexual predators and dead celebrities, it’s been “The Daily Show” that has tenaciously tracked big, “super depressing” issues like the cherry-picking of prewar intelligence, the politicization of the Department of Justice and the efforts of the Bush White House to augment its executive power.
Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:
The idea of a “canon” is in tatters. A canon needs an established cultural authority, and there is no guiding authority in culture anymore. There are no real gatekeepers. The barbarians aren’t merely at the gates — they long ago passed through the gates and are comfortably strolling around town. They are ordering lattes at the museum café right now. More honestly, perhaps, it should be said that we’re all barbarians. We are them and they are us. This is a terribly bothersome situation to some people, usually to the very people who still think they can show a difference between themselves and the barbarians. They don’t want to be barbarians. The most succinct response to such people is: tough shit. The task at hand is to deal with the world as it actually is, not as you wish it were.
Once you stop complaining and start getting back to work, it becomes clear that the barbarianization of all things affords some interesting opportunities. There are benefits to having a canon, of course. For one, you’ve got standards by which to measure yourself and others. But one of the most troubling things about a canon is the way it becomes unquestionable. You’re never able to ask the canon “Why?” It is the standard by which one asks why. This is meant to prevent infinite regress. If the standard can itself be judged, then there must be a more primary standard, and so on, ad infinitum. The canon stops all of that cold. It answers those disturbing questions before they can even be asked. You learn from the canon in order to understand what the rules are and then you go out and apply them. What you cannot do is turn back and start asking questions about the canon itself. A canon doesn’t work that way.
Tim Flannery in the Guardian on the latest in global warming.
In this summer of 2008, it feels as if our future is crystallising before our eyes. Food shortages, the credit crisis, escalating oil prices, a melting Arctic ice cap and the failure of the Doha trade negotiations: one or all of these issues could be the harbingers of profound change for our global civilisation. And just 16 months from now, in December 2009 in Denmark, humanity will face what many argue is its toughest challenge ever: to agree the fundamentals of a climate treaty to succeed the Kyoto protocol.
It all seems to have happened so quickly. Just two years ago we received warning of an imminent disaster – a climatic shift that “could easily be described as hell: so hot, so deadly that only a handful of the teeming billions now alive will survive”. The Cassandra was no deep green fundamentalist, but James Lovelock, the acclaimed scientist, pro-nuclear advocate and past adviser to Margaret Thatcher, who, 27 years earlier, had surprised the scientific community with his book Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (OUP). At a time when reductionist science (which breaks down the world into small units in order to understand it) prevailed, Lovelock took the opposite approach, describing Earth as a single, self-regulating entity, whose function can be disturbed by human activities. It became one of the most influential books of the 20th century.
In The Revenge of Gaia (Penguin), published in August 2006, the 86-year-old Lovelock concluded that “we have unknowingly declared war on Gaia”, and that our only hope of rescue lies in a massive deployment of nuclear energy. The book found a wide readership, yet it failed to mobilise humanity to swift action. His nuclear solution instead divided environmentalists, and the bleakness of his vision was difficult to bear. And again his science went against conventional wisdom, for the most widely accepted assessment of future climate change at the time indicated that his bleak outcome was only a remote possibility.
Sahotra Sarkar reviews Fuller’s book in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews (via bookforum):
Fuller’s analysis of the intellectual disputes over contemporary ID creationism is almost vacuous. The chapter on complexity does not even broach the many fairly sophisticated responses and rebuttals spurred by Behe’s and Dembski’s arguments (see Sarkar  and Sober  for an entry into this literature). It is less than clear that Fuller has deigned to familiarize himself with the intellectual terrain in which Behe and Dembski operate, let alone the arguments of their critics. ID creationists would serve themselves better by engaging a more competent defender. For readers seeking an introduction to the technical issues surrounding contemporary creationism, this book is useless.
Moreover, as noted earlier, Fuller’s account of the Dover trial is unreliable. Similarly, the discussion of naturalism and supernaturalism is less than compelling. If supernatural entities are nothing other than theoretical entities that are the most remote from experiment (however this is measured), the supernatural still falls under the purview of natural law. There are no miracles, no room for divine intervention, not even space for the deity to jumpstart processes such as the Cambrian “explosion”, which ID creationists take to be one of the major occasions when the deity fueled information into the progress of life on Earth. Fuller’s is not a sense of “supernatural” that would excite real creationists or inflame any of their critics. As with the discussion of complexity, Fuller fails to engage the interesting debate over naturalism that ID creationism has generated. Just as the third chapter demonstrated Fuller’s lack of familiarity with the work of Behe and Dembski, the remarks on supernaturalism shows him to be equally non-cognizant of the work of the third member of ID creationism’s intellectual triumvirate, Philip Johnson.
If there is any positive contribution that this book makes, it will have to be because of the historical perspective it brings to the science-religion dispute. But this is where the book has even less to offer.
Joshua Freeman in Dissent:
Perlstein can avoid grappling with how much did not change under Nixon because he devotes very little attention to domestic policy during that administration, to what the federal government actually did. He rightly points out that Nixon himself found foreign affairs and politics far more interesting. But what Nixon did on the domestic front suggests that his administration had more in common with the postwar liberal consensus than the neoliberal conservatism that followed. Nixon had no problem with expansive government, supporting or at least acquiescing to a domestic agenda far to the left of not only the current Republican Party but arguably today’s Democratic Party as well. Nixon supported the Equal Rights Amendment, proposed a guaranteed national income to replace the degrading and dysfunctional welfare system, accepted indexing of Social Security benefits to the cost of living, signed into law one environmental bill after another, supported using the previously sacrosanct Highway Trust Fund for mass transportation projects, made affirmative action a major weapon in the federal antidiscrimination arsenal, and even went so far as to use wage-and-price controls—a horrifying notion to free market ideologues—to check inflation. During the eight years Nixon was elected to serve as president (including the period when Gerald Ford finished out his second term), federal social spending, adjusted for inflation, rose at an annual rate of nearly 10 percent, compared to just under 8 percent during the Kennedy-Johnson years. Rather than a period of right-wing change, the Nixon administration represented the last great moment of liberal rule, even down to its fanatic, immoral pursuit of that horrifying project of postwar liberalism, the war in Vietnam.
As Aristide himself puts it: “It is better to be wrong with the people than to be right against the people.” Despite some all-too-obvious mistakes, the Lavalas regime was in effect one of the figures of how “dictatorship of the proletariat” might look today: while pragmatically engaging in some externally imposed compromises, it always remained faithful to its “base”, to the crowd of ordinary dispossessed people, speaking on their behalf, not “representing” them but directly relying on their local self-organisations. Although respecting the democratic rules, Lavalas made it clear that the electoral struggle is not where things are decided: what is much more crucial is the effort to supplement democracy with the direct political self-organisation of the oppressed. Or, to put it in our “postmodern” terms: the struggle between Lavalas and the capitalist-military elite in Haiti is a case of genuine antagonism, an antagonism which cannot be contained within the frame of parliamentary-democratic “agonistic pluralism”.
This is why Hallward’s outstanding book is not just about Haiti, but about what it means to be a “leftist” today: ask a leftist how he stands towards Aristide, and it will be immediately clear if he is a partisan of radical emancipation or merely a humanitarian liberal who wants “globalisation with a human face”.
more from The New Statesman here.
It happens all the time: you’re registering a free e-mail account or making a purchase online, when up pops a wavy, multicolored word. The system asks you to retype the word – and you roll your eyes, squint a little, and transcribe. This little test is one of the most successful techniques for making sure the person trying to log on is really a human, and not a digital “bot” prying into the site.
But now, when you type that word, something else may be happening as well: You may be deciphering a word from a decaying old book, helping to transform a historic text into a new digital file.
In May of last year, computer scientists started using those cryptic-looking words to solve a frustrating problem. Digital cameras at libraries worldwide are scanning millions of pages of old books, automatically “reading” the texts and turning them into computer files. But as books age, their typography smudges and flakes away. While human readers have little trouble comprehending even the most mangled words, sophisticated computer software still hangs up on them.
more from Boston Globe Ideas here.