Russia Never Wanted a War

Michael Gorbachev in the New York Times:

Oped_650THE 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.]


From Edge:

Clay I was recently reminded of some reading I did in college, way back in the last century, by a British historian arguing that the critical technology, for the early phase of the industrial revolution, was gin. The transformation from rural to urban life was so sudden, and so wrenching, that the only thing society could do to manage was to drink itself into a stupor for a generation. The stories from that era are amazing—there were gin pushcarts working their way through the streets of London.

And it wasn’t until society woke up from that collective bender that we actually started to get the institutional structures that we associate with the industrial revolution today. Things like public libraries and museums, increasingly broad education for children, elected leaders—a lot of things we like—didn’t happen until having all of those people together stopped seeming like a crisis and started seeming like an asset.

It wasn’t until people started thinking of this as a vast civic surplus, one they could design for rather than just dissipate, that we started to get what we think of now as an industrial society.

If I had to pick the critical technology for the 20th century, the bit of social lubricant without which the wheels would’ve come off the whole enterprise, I’d say it was the sitcom. Starting with the Second World War a whole series of things happened—rising GDP per capita, rising educational attainment, rising life expectancy and, critically, a rising number of people who were working five-day work weeks. For the first time, society forced onto an enormous number of its citizens the requirement to manage something they had never had to manage before—free time.

More here.

Mama gorilla mourns her dead baby


Mama_2 BERLIN – A gorilla at a zoo in the German city of Muenster is refusing to let go of her dead baby’s body several days after it died of unknown causes. Allwetter Zoo spokeswoman Ilona Zuehlke says the 3-month-old male baby died on Saturday but its 11-year-old mother continues to carry its body around. Zuehlke says such behavior is not uncommon to gorillas. Zuehlke says the mother “is mourning and must say goodbye.” The mother gorilla is named Gana.

Signs were posted near Gana’s enclosure Wednesday to explain the situation to visitors. A staff member is also present to answer questions. The baby was named Claudio and was Gana’s second baby. She had a female baby in 2007 that now lives at the Stuttgart Zoo.

More here.

olympiad: week one


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.

the spy cook


“Julia Child a Spy!” exulted last week’s headlines after the release by the National Archives of hitherto redacted names from Office of Strategic Services (OSS) personnel files.

One can only imagine the fictional narrative fantasies this declassification might inspire: Parachuted behind the lines during the German Occupation of France, the 6-foot-2 Smith College graduate met her future husband, multilingual sophisticate Paul Child, a liaison to the Resistance in the Maquis. In the clandestine world of safe houses, the daughter of the safely Republican Pasadena McWilliams clan acquired the fundamentals of French cuisine.

Would that it were true. The facts are infinitely more prosaic, but fascinating nonetheless.

more from the WSJ here.

400 years of milton


The writer of blank verse in English who exploited that way of writing, influencing countless generations of poets and changing the language itself forever, is John Milton, born 400 years ago. His writing permanently saturated American culture and discourse. Du Bois in this passage refers to Shakespeare explicitly. Implicitly, he also echoes Milton, as have many American writers and public speakers.

A political revolutionary, a radically anti-monarchist Protestant and passionate small-R republican, Milton wrote a defense of divorce and, in Areopagitica, a “Scriptural and Historical Argument in Favour of Promiscuous Reading” and against “Licensing” of publication that remains the most quoted and admired argument against censorship. He also wrote Eikonoklastes, an essay arguing against an immensely popular book called Eikon Basilike: The Portraiture of His Sacred Majesty in His Solitudes and Sufferings—a romanticized account of the spiritual beauty of the deposed and executed King Charles. Milton debunks the notion of a pious, saintly Charles with the formidable, energetic scorn of an iconoclast who knows he is right. No wonder the author of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained was such a formative American import.

more from Slate here.

The most sign-packed surface in the universe

Robert Fulford in the Canadian National Post:

Screenhunter_04_aug_20_1533Consider 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.

More here.

Wednesday Poem

Jeet Thayil

Leap tall buildings in a single bound? Forget
you, buddy, I
leap years, avenues,
financial/fashion/meatpacking districts, 23
MTA buses parked end to
end. I leap Broadway,
yoyo to
traffic light, to
bus top, to Chrysler, to jet.
You need a mind of sky, of rubber,
to understand I. You need
silence, cunning. Exhale!
You need to know that everything is metaphor,
that poems sprout
in my hands
like mystic confetti, like
neural string theory.
My brother, Mycroft, is tiny, but a genius,
oh a tiny genius, whose
“art is subtle, a precision of hallucinatory brilliance,”
—that’s serious talk, boy—
he’s ‘furthermore’ and ‘however,’ I’m
“know what I’m saying?” and ‘whatever.’
He is the ghost ant, the one who is not
there, unseen until he stops
moving. I am
companion to owl and peregrine,
emperor of air, and I’m loyal
to you my loyal subject, whose hard-won
pleasure I perform,
and though I’m not rich it takes a lot
of cash to keep me
in the poverty to which I’m accustomed.

Master of Conventions

Christopher Hitchens in The Atlantic Monthly:

Book “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.

More here.

What good is the Bard to book-shunning boys?

From The Guardian:

Shakespeare460x276_2 In order to get his own teenager reading Shakespeare, Rankin gave him graphic novel versions. And, hallelujah, the boy now wants to go and see a play. As I brushed my teeth, all I could think was, well, why not just take him to see a performance in the first place? Why are we obsessed with “reading” Shakespeare, especially since he wrote, er, plays? As any English undergraduate knows, Shakespeare’s plays are meant to be seen on stage, not on the page. So why do commentators rejoice when a teenager reads Shakespeare? Do we really believe that teenagers should be reading scripts, albeit cultural masterpieces?

So, although I wouldn’t dream of suggesting to my 12-year-old nephew that he might like to spend the weekend with Coriolanus, I would take him to a performance of it. There are probably some very precocious children who read scripts for pleasure but how many of those in a debate about reading were actually reading Shakespeare between 11 and 14? I don’t remember what, or who, I was reading at that age but it doesn’t really matter: it was the experience of lying on the sofa with a book that was important, not the titles.

And that’s what the likes of those in this debate should be focusing on: not what boys are reading but why they should be. How can we make the slow, steady experience of reading a book desirable to a boy bombarded, if he’s lucky, with so many other options, from the newest, such as iPods and the internet, to the stalwarts of TV and video games? That is the challenge and not one confined to teenagers, since adults are themselves afflicted by too much choice and decreasing attention spans.

More here.

Is Jon Stewart the Most Trusted Man in America?

Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times:

Screenhunter_03_aug_20_1212When 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.

More here.

Reconsiderations of a canon-less world

Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:

Screenhunter_01_aug_20_1057The 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.

More here.

Words of Warming

Icebergs460 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.

Steve Fuller’s Science v. Religion? Intelligent Design and the Problem of Evolution

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 [2007] and Sober [2008] 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.

Tricky Dick’s Legacy: A Review of Rick Perlstein’s “Nixonland”

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.

machines for living


Like many utopian visions that someone is crazy enough to attempt to realize, modernist architecture has always contained an element of fascism. It wasn’t just that a cuckoo notion like Le Corbusier’s “radiant city,” those celery stalks of lone skyscrapers surrounded by a verdant wasteland, was meant to simplify life, but that it was in some basic sense meant to replace it.

The light and space essential to early modernist design were a response to the darkness and claustrophobia of Victorian architecture in which so many poor were imprisoned. But the modernists’ own language suggested that the masses would simply be serving a new master. You can’t describe a dwelling as a “machine for living,” as Le Corbusier did, without having abandoned what most of us associate with the word “home”: comfort, refuge, freedom from regulation, a respite from routine. If a house or a high-rise apartment building is a machine, those living in it must be the cogs. The ultimate fulfillment of Le Corbusier’s vision might be like a Prozac version of the workers trudging off to the mines in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, drudgery tidied up and narcotized.

more from Dissent here.

zizek on haiti


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.

humans helping computers


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.

Tuesday Poem

The Battle of the Imam and the Shah
An Old Persian Legend
James Fenton
It started with a stabbing at a well
Below the minarets of Isfahan.
The widow took her son to see them kill
The officer who’d murdered her old man.
The child looked up and saw the hangman’s work —
The man who’d killed his father swinging high,
The mother said: ‘My child, now be at peace.
The wolf has had the fruits of all his crime.’
From felony to felony to crime
From robbery to robbery to loss
From calumny to calumny to spite
From rivalry to rivalry to zeal
All this was many centuries ago —
The kind of thing that couldn’t happen now —
When Persia was the empire of the Shah
And many were the furrows on his brow.
The peacock the symbol of his throne
And many were the jewels and its eyes
And many were the prisons in the land
And many were the torturers and spies.
From tyranny to tyranny to war
From dynasty to dynasty to hate
From villainy to villainy to death
From policy to policy to grave

Read more »