The editors of Seed select the year’s outstanding books

Goodbye to 2008 with one last list:

Bestbooks1INLINE

Autism's False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure
By Paul A. Offit (Columbia University Press)
In a perfect world, the public's knowledge would mirror the scientific consensus. In Autism's False Prophets, vaccine expert Offit dissects how shady lawyers, suspect science, self-interested politicians, and equivocating journalists have derailed this hope, convincing millions that vaccines cause autism even as the scientific community has proven the theory false. More than a book about a disease, it is an ode to uncorrupted science and a cautionary tale that data alone is never enough. Buy

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex
By Mary Roach (W.W. Norton)
There are many humorous science books. There are not many hilarious science books. With Bonk, a review of science's study of sexual behavior, Mary Roach has written a volume so viscerally funny, it's easy to overlook how obsessively she researched her subject. But Roach's tales of a day with pig inseminators, a hands-on experience with penile implants, and a romp under an ultrasound machine serve as not-so-subtle reminders of her commitment to writing the first-ever comprehensive book on sex research. Buy

More here.

Why bombing Ashkelon is the most tragic irony

Robert Fisk in The Independent:

Robertfisk That is why Gaza exists: because the Palestinians who lived in Ashkelon and the fields around it – Askalaan in Arabic – were dispossessed from their lands in 1948 when Israel was created and ended up on the beaches of Gaza. They – or their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren – are among the one and a half million Palestinian refugees crammed into the cesspool of Gaza, 80 per cent of whose families once lived in what is now Israel. This, historically, is the real story: most of the people of Gaza don't come from Gaza.

But watching the news shows, you'd think that history began yesterday, that a bunch of bearded anti-Semitic Islamist lunatics suddenly popped up in the slums of Gaza – a rubbish dump of destitute people of no origin – and began firing missiles into peace-loving, democratic Israel, only to meet with the righteous vengeance of the Israeli air force. The fact that the five sisters killed in Jabalya camp had grandparents who came from the very land whose more recent owners have now bombed them to death simply does not appear in the story.

Both Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres said back in the 1990s that they wished Gaza would just go away, drop into the sea, and you can see why. The existence of Gaza is a permanent reminder of those hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who lost their homes to Israel, who fled or were driven out through fear or Israeli ethnic cleansing 60 years ago, when tidal waves of refugees had washed over Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War and when a bunch of Arabs kicked out of their property didn't worry the world.

Well, the world should worry now.

More here.

Vergangenheitsbewältigung

Meinhofbig

There is an ungainly German word, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, that has no equivalent in the English language. It means “coming to terms with past,” and it was coined to refer to the efforts of German intellectuals, journalists, and even some politicians who, over the past half century, insisted that facing unpleasant truths about their country's history was both a moral and political necessity. As a result of these efforts, Vergangenheitsbewältigung has become part of the core political culture of contemporary Germany.

A new German movie that has attracted considerable attention in Europe is part of this tradition–albeit in an unusual way. While Vergangenheitsbewältigung generally refers to examination of the Nazi era, this film looks at another chapter in German history: the rise, during the 1970s, of a radical left-wing group called the Red Army Faction (or the Baader-Meinhof Gang, after its leaders, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof). Obviously, the group's crimes were in no way analogous to those of the Nazis; the RAF ultimately murdered 34 people, while the Nazis murdered millions. Still, an honest reckoning with the past is exactly what the movie attempts. And, in providing a frank and unsentimental depiction of the brutal excesses associated with 1960s radicalism, it sets an example that Hollywood would do well to follow.

more from TNR here.

the year in maps

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IN THE EARLY Middle Ages, if an educated Westerner set out to make a standard map of the world, here is what he would do: draw a circle, then a horizontal band across that circle, then a vertical band dividing the bottom half of the circle in two. The result resembled a hood ornament with a “T” in the middle. The semicircle at the top was Asia; the identical quarter-circles below were Europe and Africa. Today, it’s easy to feel superior to a society that thought Europe and Africa looked like matching slices of pizza, but we shouldn’t. That medieval map said very little about how the world was shaped, but it had a lot of information: For starters, it told you that God’s creation was symmetrical, and thus perfect, and that its apex was Jerusalem. In a deeply religious society in which most people never made it more than a few miles from home, this was understood to be far more important than knowing the exact contours of the Mediterranean. Thanks to satellites, surveying, and ever-increasing computing power, mapping has become geographically accurate beyond the dreams of a medieval mind. But many of those same technological advances have also brought us full circle: Maps have increasingly become vehicles not just for telling us how the world looks, but for organizing and representing all sorts of information.

more from Boston Globe Ideas here.

New Year Poem

///
New Year Poem 2009
J.M. Culleny

How d’ya feel about the new year, chum?
I’m just glad the old one’s gone.
Not gone –can't you see it’s a continuum?

I can, but ‘scuse my circumspection.
All time is one.
It’s true, all years are frames in a projection.

Yeah, but, some are very stark and stand out.
Some are good, some glum.
Too bad how this one’s panned out.

So, we gonna celebrate and drink up?
What for? What’s new?
Let’s just toast that there aren’t more
disasters we can think up.
/

Shame of the House of Saud: Shadows over Mecca

Daniel Howden in The Independent:

ScreenHunter_07 Dec. 31 15.15 Irfan Ahmed al-Alawi, the chairman of the Islamic Heritage Foundation, set up to help protect the holy sites, says the case of the grave of Amina bint Wahb, the mother of the Prophet, found in 1998, is typical of what has happened. “It was bulldozed in Abwa and gasoline was poured on it. Even though thousands of petitions throughout the Muslim world were sent, nothing could stop this action.”

Today there are fewer than 20 structures remaining in Mecca that date back to the time of the Prophet 1,400 years ago. The litany of this lost history includes the house of Khadijah, the wife of the Prophet, demolished to make way for public lavatories; the house of Abu Bakr, the Prophet's companion, now the site of the local Hilton hotel; the house of Ali-Oraid, the grandson of the Prophet, and the Mosque of abu-Qubais, now the location of the King's palace in Mecca.

Yet the same oil-rich dynasty that pumped money into the Taliban regime as they blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan six years ago has so far avoided international criticism for similar acts of vandalism at home. Mai Yamani, author of The Cradle of Islam, said it was time for other Muslim governments to ignore the al-Sauds' oil wealth and clout and speak out. “What is alarming about this is that the world doesn't question the al-Sauds' custodianship of Islam's two holy places. These are the sites that are of such importance to over one billion Muslims and yet their destruction is being ignored,” she said. “When the Prophet was insulted by Danish cartoonists thousands of people went into the streets to protest. The sites related to the Prophet are part of their heritage and religion but we see no concern from Muslims.”

More here.

What to Do About the Torturers?

David Cole in the New York Review of Books:

ScreenHunter_06 Dec. 31 14.35 The story of America's descent into torture in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, has been told now by many writers. Mark Danner, Jane Mayer, and Ron Suskind have written brilliant expositions of the facts, showing how the drive to prevent the next attack led the administration's highest officials to seek ways around the legal restrictions on coercive interrogation of suspects.[1] After the abuses at Abu Ghraib came to light, the military itself commissioned three detailed investigative reports, including highly critical ones by Major General Antonio Taguba and by a panel led by former defense secretary James Schlesinger. Among other factors, they blamed ambiguity in the standards governing interrogation—an ambiguity ultimately attributable to the attempts at evasion directed from the top. Congressional committees have held numerous public hearings into the use of coercive interrogation tactics at both Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. The Center for Constitutional Rights, the ACLU, and the NYU Center on Law and Security have each published collections of official documents, which effectively indict the government using its own words.[2]

But undoubtedly the most unusual and deeply revealing take on the subject is the work of the British lawyer and law professor Philippe Sands. As Alexis de Tocqueville showed long ago, sometimes it takes the eyes of an outsider to show us ourselves. Sands, a leading international lawyer and a professor at University College London, took it upon himself to conduct his own personal investigation of one aspect of the torture policy—the Army's adoption of coercive tactics to interrogate suspects at Guantánamo.

More here.

SELF AWARENESS: THE LAST FRONTIER

V.S. Ramachandran in The Edge:

Rama201 One of the last remaining problems in science is the riddle of consciousness. The human brain—a mere lump of jelly inside your cranial vault—can contemplate the vastness of interstellar space and grapple with concepts such as zero and infinity. Even more remarkably it can ask disquieting questions about the meaning of its own existence. “Who am I” is arguably the most fundamental of all questions. It really breaks down into two problems—the problem of qualia and the problem of the self. My colleagues, the late Francis Crick and Christof Koch have done a valuable service in pointing out that consciousness might be an empirical rather than philosophical problem, and have offered some ingenious suggestions. But I would disagree with their position that the qualia problem is simpler and should be addressed first before we tackle the “Self.” I think the very opposite is true. I have every confidence that the problem of self will be solved within the lifetimes of most readers of this essay. But not qualia.

The qualia problem is well known. Assume I am an intellectually highly advanced, color-blind martian. I study your brain and completely figure out down to every last detail what happens in your brain—all the physico-chemical events—when you see red light of wavelength 600 and say “red”. You know that my scientific description, although complete from my point of view, leaves out something ineffable and essentially non-communicable, namely your actual experience of redness. There is no way you can communicate the ineffable quality of redness to me short of hooking up your brain directly to mine without air waves intervening (Bill Hirstein and I call this the qualia-cable; it will work only if my color blindness is caused by missing receptor pigments in my eye, with brain circuitry for color being intact.) We can define qualia as that aspect of your experience that is left out by me—the color-blind Martian.

More here.

Still Paging Mr. Salinger

From The New York Times:

Salinger-2-500 On Thursday, J. D. Salinger turns 90. There probably won’t be a party, or if there is we’ll never know. For more than 50 years Mr. Salinger has lived in seclusion in the small town of Cornish, N.H. For a while it used to be a journalistic sport for newspapers and magazines to send reporters up to Cornish in hopes of a sighting, or at least a quotation from a garrulous local, but Mr. Salinger hasn’t been photographed in decades now and the neighbors have all clammed up. He’s been so secretive he makes Thomas Pynchon seem like a gadabout.

Mr. Salinger’s disappearing act has succeeded so well, in fact, that it may be hard for readers who aren’t middle-aged to appreciate what a sensation he once caused. With its very first sentence, his novel “The Catcher in the Rye,” which came out in 1951, introduced a brand-new voice in American writing, and it quickly became a cult book, a rite of passage for the brainy and disaffected. “Nine Stories,” published two years later, made Mr. Salinger a darling of the critics as well, for the way it dismantled the traditional architecture of the short story and replaced it with one in which a story could turn on a tiny shift of mood or tone.

More here. (Thanks to Alia Raza)

The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books

Matthew Price in The National:

Like many cultural conventions, the canon of great books is one part myth, another part wishful-thinking. At once self-limiting and ever expanding, the western literary and philosophical tradition has grown by means organic and totally artificial. Classics, after all, were once new; but only posterity decides which works survive to be handed down from generation to generation, and which vanish into obscurity.

Few would deny that the likes of Aristotle, Cervantes and Shakespeare are central figures in the western canon. But what, exactly, do we mean when we speak of literary greatness? The very notion is enshrouded in a kind of hoary mysticism. The Victorian critic Matthew Arnold wrote of “the best that has been thought and known in the world,” but that only takes us so far. There is a cloudy, if universal agreement – a convenient fiction, really – that such an elevated category exists, but there are not, and never will be, fixed criteria for determining those books that are entitled to the sobriquet “great”.

Greatness may be bestowed by a kind of collective acclaim, in the accretion of hundreds of years of opinion from critics, academics, writers and thinkers. And it is ultimately the authority of cultural elites that forms the boundaries of what we keep in the canon – by reading it, teaching it, writing about it – and what falls by the wayside. Taking this measure – the wisdom of crowds, if you will – one could define the canon of great books in an expansive sense: it includes those works that have, over time, been esteemed as great. This was the approach taken in 2006 by the New York Times, which polled “a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages” in an attempt to crown the best American novel of the last quarter-century. (Toni Morrison’s Beloved was the winner.) In this conception, the canon is a fluid, living thing: its boundaries ebb and flow as new works emerge and older books fall out of favour.

But this descriptive approach strikes a certain kind of mandarin as far too permissive – and there remains always a temptation to prescribe a list instead: to pin down, once and for all, a definitive and precise list of imperishable works that speak to all ages and eras, monuments of aesthetic accomplishment; not just those books we do still read, but what we should read.

More here.

Doctor Doom: Global Stag-Deflation Has Arrived

Roubini The return rate on gifts and the cashing of gift cards is up considerably. Elsewhere holiday gift cards from places like Wal-Mart are increasingly being used for food purchases. Things are looking worse and worse. Roubini in Project Syndicate:

Traditionally, central banks have been the lenders of last resort, but now they are becoming the lenders of first and only resort. As banks curtail lending to each other, to other financial institutions, and to the corporate sector, central banks are becoming the only lenders around.

Likewise, with household consumption and business investment collapsing, governments will soon become the spenders of first and only resort, stimulating demand and rescuing banks, firms, and households. The long-term consequences of the resulting surge in fiscal deficits are serious. If the deficits are monetized by central banks, inflation will follow the short-term deflationary pressures; if they are financed by debt, the long-term solvency of some governments may be at stake unless medium-term fiscal discipline is restored.

Nevertheless, in the short run, very aggressive monetary and fiscal policy actions – both traditional and non-traditional – must be undertaken to ensure that the inevitable stag-deflation of 2009 does not persist into 2010 and beyond. So far, the US response appears to be more aggressive than that of the euro zone, as the European Central Bank falls behind the curve on interest rates and the EU’s fiscal stance remains weak.

Given the severity of this economic and financial crisis, financial markets will not mend for a while. The downside risks to the prices of a wide variety of risky assets (equities, corporate bonds, commodities, housing, and emerging-market asset classes) will remain until there are true signs – towards the end of 2009 – that the global economy may recover in 2010.

Gideon Levy on the Assault on Gaza

In Ha'aretz:

Israel did not exhaust the diplomatic processes before embarking yesterday on another dreadful campaign of killing and ruin. The Qassams that rained down on the communities near Gaza turned intolerable, even though they did not sow death. But the response to them needs to be fundamentally different: diplomatic efforts to restore the cease-fire – the same one that was initially breached, one should remember, by Israel when it unnecessarily bombed a tunnel – and then, if those efforts fail, a measured, gradual military response.

But no. It's all or nothing. The IDF launched a war yesterday whose end, as usual, is hoping someone watches over us.

Blood will now flow like water. Besieged and impoverished Gaza, the city of refugees, will pay the main price. But blood will also be unnecessarily spilled on our side. In its foolishness, Hamas brought this on itself and on its people, but this does not excuse Israel's overreaction.

The history of the Middle East is repeating itself with despairing precision. Just the frequency is increasing. If we enjoyed nine years of quiet between the Yom Kippur War and the First Lebanon War, now we launch wars every two years. As such, Israel proves that there is no connection between its public relations talking points that speak of peace, and its belligerent conduct.

Israel also proves that it has not internalized the lessons of the previous war. Once again, this war was preceded by a frighteningly uniform public dialogue in which only one voice was heard – that which called for striking, destroying, starving and killing, that which incited and prodded for the commission of war crimes.

We have no words left

Ali Abunimah in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_04 Dec. 30 15.15 “I will play music and celebrate what the Israeli air force is doing.” Those chilling words were spoken on al-Jazeera on Saturday by Ofer Shmerling, an Israeli civil defence official in the Sderot area adjacent to the Gaza Strip. For days Israeli planes have bombed Gaza. Almost 300 Palestinians have been killed and a thousand injured, the majority civilians, including women and children. Israel claims most of the dead were Hamas “terrorists”. In fact, the targets were police stations in dense residential areas, and the dead included many police officers and other civilians. Under international law, police officers are civilians, and targeting them is no less a war crime than aiming at other civilians.

Palestinians are at a loss to describe this new catastrophe. Is it our 9/11, or is it a taste of the “bigger shoah” Matan Vilnai, the deputy defence minister, threatened in February, after the last round of mass killings?

Israel says it is acting in “retaliation” for rockets fired with increasing intensity ever since a six-month truce expired on 19 December. But the bombs dropped on Gaza are only a variation in Israel's method of killing Palestinians. In recent months they died mostly silent deaths, the elderly and sick especially, deprived of food, cancer treatments and other medicines by an Israeli blockade that targeted 1.5 million people – mostly refugees and children – caged into the Gaza Strip. The orders of Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, to hold back medicine were just as lethal and illegal as those to send in the warplanes.

More here.