You really must read . . .

From The Guardian:

Paperbacks The Booker prizewinner, Barack Obama's memoir or an introduction to the meaning of life – which books stood out for you in 2008?

Steven Bailey
Bognor Regis

Barack Obama's grandly titled The Audacity of Hope (Canongate) was first published in 2006. But he's now taken on a new importance. The book acts both as a personal statement – his reflections on faith, family and race – and as a considered analysis of the political system. Will his high-minded ideals be compromised by the messy practicalities of the American political process?

Sam Banik

Judt's Reappraisals (Heinemann), about our collective cultural amnesia, is an excellent anthology of essays on writers, humanists and Marxist intellectuals. Judt is enlightening on the political milieu of European nations, America's last half-century and Israel. Steve Toltz's Booker-shortlisted debut, A Fraction of the Whole (Hamish Hamilton), is an elegantly written novel about a family of émigrés in Australia.

More here.

TOP TEN SPACE PHOTOS: Most Viewed of 2008

From The National Geographic:

Earth The heavens smiled down on Earth Monday in a rare celestial trifecta of Venus, Jupiter, and the moon. The planets aligned—an event known as a conjunction—Sunday night, and were joined by a thin sliver of moon on Monday. (Related: “Sky Show December 1: Jupiter, Venus, Moon Make 'Frown'” [December 1, 2008].) The rare planetary meeting was visible from all parts of the world, even from light-polluted cities such as Hong Kong and New York.

People in Asia witnessed a smiley face (above, photographed from Manila, Philippines), while skywatchers in the United States saw a frown. The three brightest objects in the sky were so tightly gathered that one could eclipse them with a thumb, according to NASA's Web site. The next visible Venus-Jupiter conjunction will be on the evening of March 14, 2012, but the two planets will appear farther apart in the sky.

More here.

Saturday Poem

One may measure and measure after a listening look
but never without troubling the flow. –Li Chen

Man and Camel

Mark Strand

On the eve of my fortieth birthday
I sat on the porch having a smoke
when out of the blue a man and a camel
happened by. Neither uttered a sound
at first, but as they drifted up the street
and out of town the two of them began to sing.
Yet what they sang is still a mystery to me —
the words were indistinct and the tune
too ornamental to recall. Into the desert
they went and as they went their voices
rose as one above the sifting sound
of windblown sand. The wonder of their singing,
its elusive blend of man and camel, seemed
an ideal image for all uncommon couples.
Was this the night that I had waited for
so long? I wanted to believe it was,
but just as they were vanishing, the man
and camel ceased to sing, and galloped
back to town. They stood before my porch,
staring at me with beady eyes, and said:
“You ruined it. You ruined it forever.”

Louder than bombs

Andrew Exum in The National:

ScreenHunter_15 Dec. 27 14.39 Israeli officials, led by defense minister and Labour Party leader Ehud Barak, have been talking since the summer about the “disproportionate” punishment they intend to inflict on Lebanon in the event of another war. News reports suggest that the Israeli Defense Forces are training for a large-scale ground campaign backed by punishing air and artillery strikes. “In the last war, we made a distinction between Hizbollah targets and Lebanese national targets,” a senior IDF general told The Jerusalem Post last month, adding that “there is no longer a reason to make this distinction.”

The head of the IDF’s Northern Command, Gadi Eisenkot, left no doubt about Israel’s aims when he told an Israeli paper that the army had devised a “Dahiyeh Doctrine” – in which Israel would level large swathes of the mostly-Shiite southern suburbs of Beirut, where Hizbollah maintains many of their offices and enjoys overwhelming support from the local population.

“We will wield disproportionate power against every village from which shots are fired on Israel, and cause immense damage and destruction. From our perspective, these are military bases,” he said. “This isn’t a suggestion. This is a plan that has already been authorised.”

More here.

Violens’ “Spectator & Pupil” music video directed by Alia Raza

Paul Lester in The Guardian:

There are bad New Bands, there are promising ones, there are even a few great ones. And then there are those who you just know are going to dominate the scene for the next few months at least. Many of the agenda-setting new bands we've praised in this column over the last year have been American – Fleet Foxes, MGMT, Black Kids, Boy Crisis, Hockey, Amazing Baby, Chairlift – which somewhat makes a mockery of, or renders redundant, the notion of British-only music awards like the Brits and the Mercury Prize. How can geography be a criterion when you're measuring musical worth?

Violens, to be geographically precise, belong in the pantheon of Great New New York Bands. They only formed last winter, but already they're responsible for some highly accomplished and beautifully realised music, with the emphasis on the “beautiful”. We say that because we assumed from their name (pronounced vy-lenz) that they were going to be some sort of sub-Sonic Youth art-drone collective, when actually their breezy psychedelia recalls the late-60s sunshine-pop heyday of The Zombies, The Left Banke and their ilk, only with a shiny 80s production. Some of it really is rather lovely, but then if you see their name as a conflation of “violence” and “violins” it makes sense, and suits these lushly orchestrated songs about nightmares, the passage of time, speculations on spiritual messages and accounts of drug-induced hallucinations.

More here.

Have a Thermodynamically Consistent Christmas

Sean Carroll in Cosmic Variance:

ScreenHunter_14 Dec. 27 13.07 The important event this Dec. 25 isn’t celebrating the birthday of Isaac Newton or other historical figures, it’s the release of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a David Fincher film starring Brad Pitt and based on the story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. As you all know, it’s a story based on the device of incompatible arrows of time: Benjamin is born old and ages backwards into youth (physically, not mentally), while the rest of the world behaves normally. Some have pretended that scientific interest in the movie centers on issues of aging and longevity, but of course it’s thermodynamics and entropy that take center stage. While entropy increases and the Second Law is respected in the rest of the world, Benjamin Button’s body seems to be magically decreasing in entropy. (Which does not, strictly speaking, violate the Second Law, since his body isn’t a closed system, but it sure is weird.)

It’s a great opportunity to address an old chestnut: why do arrows of time have to be compatible? Why can’t we imagine ever discovering another galaxy in which entropy increased toward (what we call) the past instead of the future, as in Greg Egan’s story, “The Hundred Light-Year Diary”? Or why can’t a body age backwards in time?

First we need to decide what the hell we mean. Let’s put aside for the moment sticky questions about collapsing wave functions, and presume that the fundamental laws of physics are perfectly reversible. In that case, given the precise state of the entire universe (or any closed system) at any one moment in time, we can use those laws to determine what the state will be at any future time, or what it was at any past time. That’s just how awesome the laws of physics are. (Of course we don’t know the laws, nor the state of the entire universe, nor could we actually carry out the relevant calculation even if we did, but we’re doing thought experiments here.) We usually take that time to be the “initial” time, but in principle we could choose any time — and in the present context, when we’re worried about arrows of time pointing in different directions, there is no time that is initial for everything. So what we mean is: Why is it difficult/impossible to choose a state of the universe with the property that, as we evolve it forward in time, some parts of it have increasing entropy and some parts have decreasing entropy?

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Slumdog Millionaire’s Bollywood Ancestors

Amitava Kumar in Vanity Fair:

Satya_confrontation-300x151 Slumdog Millionaire has a pedigree. Its director, Danny Boyle, says there are at least three Bollywood films that inspired him directly. Those films were themselves influenced by a long family tree that stretches back to the last days of the nineteenth century.

Here, then, is a list of Slumdog’s ten most flamboyant and influential Bollywood ancestors:

Black Friday (2004). This film, by young director Anurag Kashyap depicts the March 1993 bomb blasts that tore apart Bombay (as Mumbai used to be called). It was based on a book by journalist S. Hussain Zaidi and filmed in an edgy, realistic style. A famous sequence from the film, a 12-minute police chase through the crowded Dharavi slum, is mimicked by Danny Boyle in the opening scene of Slumdog Millionaire, where truant slum-kids take the place of Black Friday’s militants.

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The 10 Best Foods You Aren’t Eating

Jonny Bowden at ABC News:


ScreenHunter_13 Dec. 27 12.52 Absent from most American kitchens, this cruciferous vegetable is a major player in European and Asian diets.

Why it's healthy: One cup of chopped cabbage has just 22 calories, and it's loaded with valuable nutrients. At the top of the list is sulforaphane, a chemical that increases your body's production of enzymes that disarm cell-damaging free radicals and reduce your risk of cancer. In fact, Stanford University scientists determined that sulforaphane boosts your levels of these cancer-fighting enzymes higher than any other plant chemical.

How to eat it: Put cabbage on your burgers to add a satisfying crunch. Or, for an even better sandwich topping or side salad, try an Asian-style slaw. Here's what you'll need:

4 Tbsp peanut or canola oil
Juice of two limes
1 Tbsp sriracha, an Asian chili sauce you can find in the international section of your grocery store
1 head napa cabbage, finely chopped or shredded
1/4 cup toasted peanuts
1/2 cup shredded carrots
1/4 cup chopped cilantro

Whisk together the oil, lime juice, and sriracha. Combine the remaining ingredients in a large mixing bowl and toss with the dressing to coat. Refrigerate for 20 minutes before serving. The slaw will keep in your fridge for 2 days.

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Jurassic Dad

Carl Zimmer in his excellent blog, The Loom:

ScreenHunter_12 Dec. 27 12.45 Birds are like nothing else on Earth–in the sense that they have lots of traits in common that are not found in quite the same package in other animals. All birds have feathers, for example, and they can either fly or have evolved birds that did fly. You don’t see some feathered reptile running around on all fours. But that distinctness is merely an artefact of extinctions. The closest living relatives of birds today are alligators and crocs, and they share a common ancestor that lived some 250 million years ago. All of the species on the lineage that led from that ancestor to birds are extinct. The ground-running dinosaurs disappeared. There are fossils of birds that could fly 120 million years ago, but they became extinct too. To see how birds became so unique, scientists have to burrow down the evolutionary tree, and burrow into the ground.

I’ve written here about some of the things they’ve discovered in the process, such as flightless dinosaurs that probably used feathers to show off to the opposite sex. Feathered dinosaurs also laid eggs in nests and incubated them much as birds do today. And today (as in, this particulary day of the week), David Varricchio of Montana State and his colleagues are reporting that it was the father dinosaurs who were sitting on the eggs.

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How Not to Make Peace in the Middle East

Hussein Agha and Robert Malley in the New York Review of Books:

Foreign affairs had no more than a small part in Barack Obama's presidential campaign, and the Middle East peace process only a fraction of that. Yet the sorry prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians make a break with past US policy on this matter imperative, regardless of the new administration's priorities.

The need for a move away from the lethal mix of arrogance and ignorance characteristic of George W. Bush's presidency is hard to dispute. That is not all that needs breaking away from. Some observers have welcomed the past year's surge of older-style US diplomacy, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's multiple visits to the region, efforts to build Palestinian institutions and security forces, and negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians over a final status agreement. Yet spin aside, these efforts hardly can be deemed successful. Realities on the ground—from settlement construction to deepening divisions within Palestinian and Israeli societies to growing disillusionment with a two-state solution—render the possibility of a peace accord increasingly remote.

The failings of Bush's efforts have also revived nostalgia for President Clinton's. But it is a nostalgia born as much of anger with the present as of longing for the past. The 1990s were a time of US activism on behalf of peace, yet there is a record to contend with. It is not as forgiving. On this issue, Clinton's term concluded in failure, and it is a failure that bears at least some relation to the policies so lamented today.

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Reboot the FCC

Lawrence Lessig in Newsweek:

ScreenHunter_11 Dec. 26 20.26 Economic growth requires innovation. Trouble is, Washington is practically designed to resist it. Built into the DNA of the most important agencies created to protect innovation, is an almost irresistible urge to protect the most powerful instead.

The FCC is a perfect example. Born in the 1930s, at a time when the utmost importance was put on stability, the agency has become the focal point for almost every important innovation in technology. It is the presumptive protector of the Internet, and the continued regulator of radio, TV and satellite communications. In the next decades, it could well become the default regulator for every new communications technology, including, and especially, fantastic new ways to use wireless technologies, which today carry television, radio, internet, and cellular phone signals through the air, and which may soon provide high-speed internet access on-the-go, something that Google cofounder Larry Page calls “wifi on steroids.”

If history is our guide, these new technologies are at risk, and with them, everything they make possible. With so much in its reach, the FCC has become the target of enormous campaigns for influence. Its commissioners are meant to be “expert” and “independent,” but they've never really been expert, and are now openly embracing the political role they play. Commissioners issue press releases touting their own personal policies. And lobbyists spend years getting close to members of this junior varsity Congress.

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One Hacker’s Audacious Plan to Rule the Black Market in Stolen Credit Cards

Kevin Poulsen in Wired:

ScreenHunter_10 Dec. 26 20.14 The heat in Max Butler's safe house was nearly unbearable. It was the equipment's fault. Butler had crammed several servers and laptops into the studio apartment high above San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood, and the mass of processors and displays produced a swelter that pulsed through the room. Butler brought in some fans, but they didn't provide much relief. The electric bill was so high that the apartment manager suspected Butler of operating a hydroponic dope farm.

But if Butler was going to control the online underworld, he was going to have to take the heat. For nearly two decades, he had honed his skills as a hacker. He had swiped free calls from local telephone companies and sneaked onto the machines of the US Air Force. Now, in August 2006, he was about to pull off his most audacious gambit yet, taking over the online black markets where cybercriminals bought and sold everything from stolen identities to counterfeiting equipment. Together, these sites accounted for millions of dollars in commerce every year, and Butler had a plan to take control of it all.

More here.

No bed for Francis Bacon

Crucify2 Alan Jenkins in the TLS:

For Bacon, a chronic asthmatic, the struggle began early: it was the struggle for breath itself. The second son of a bad-tempered military man-turned-horse breeder and the heiress to a Sheffield steel fortune, he was brought up in Ireland and England in a succession of big houses where the omnipresence of dogs and horses was a perpetual challenge to his well-documented will to live. Bacon senior made no secret of his disappointment in his sickly, sensitive son, whose party piece was to appear at family gatherings in full drag. Michael Peppiatt is one among many writers on Bacon to make the connection, in his absorbing biography Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an enigma (1995, now revised, updated and reissued by Constable in paperback), between the father’s screaming rages, the child’s gasping for air and the importance of the gaping mouth in the work of the mature artist. The killings and house-burnings of the Irish uprising and Civil War (“Violence upon the roads; violence of horses”, in Yeats’s words) formed the backdrop to Bacon’s childhood, further enlivened by the attentions of the grooms who were encouraged to take horsewhips to the young master to punish him for the attentions he was over-fond of paying them.

Three of his four siblings died premature deaths, but Francis would enjoy long life, vigorous appetites and legendary resilience, physical and psychological. Ejected from the family at sixteen, he soon discovered the resourcefulness and the hunger for risk that would sustain him both as a homosexual adventurer and a painter, along with his preferred modus vivendi: to lurch between opulence and squalor, between a punishing creative routine and an equally punitive, if delighted (and delightful), dissipation.

Michael Pollan on What’s Wrong with Environmentalism

Kate Davidson interviews Pollan In AlterNet:

Well, it's pretty simple. There are three things we need to do. One is fairly easy and the other two get harder. One is back off on this commitment to ethanol, reduce the subsidies we're giving– it's about 51 cents a gallon now– and cut out the tariffs on importing ethanol from Brazil. They can produce it more efficiently, and basically we're protecting our market by keeping that ethanol out.

The next thing we have to do is a little more complicated. The other reason for this increase in food prices, and it's related, is the high price of oil. If the food economy is as dependent on oil as I'm suggesting, we need to get the food economy off of fossil fuel and back onto the sun. We have to in effect “re-solarize” our food chain by getting animals off of feedlots, where they are eating grain and competing with people for grain.

We need to develop organic agriculture, which helps sequester carbon and reduces the need for fossil fuel in the form of synthetic fertilizers. We need to move towards a more sustainable, more solar-based agriculture. That will take a lot of price pressure off, because so much of the underlying, expensive input in agriculture is oil. So you have a situation today where SUVs in America are competing with eaters around the rest of the world for good food and arable land. You can imagine who's going to win.

Philosophers on God

Alex Byrne in Boston Review:

The world was very different when a distinguished philosopher could say, as St. Thomas Aquinas did, “the existence of God can be proved in five ways.” Contemporary Christian philosophers often content themselves with pulling up the drawbridge and manning the barricades, rather than crusading against the infidel. Alvin Plantinga, perhaps the most eminent living philosopher of religion, devotes the five hundred pages of his Warranted Christian Belief to fending off objections to either the truth or rationality of belief in traditional Christian doctrines. He does not argue for the existence of God, and still less for the truth of Christianity; rather, his main question is whether a reasonable person who finds herself with firm religious convictions should change her mind. Plantinga is not trying to persuade Dawkins and company to change their minds.

The traditional arguments for God’s existence are very much worth our attention, though, for at least three reasons: they are of great intrinsic interest; popular discussions of them often fail to pin down their defects; and one argument, the “design argument,” has had a new lease on life as the intellectual underpinning of the intelligent design movement.

The Dismal Economist’s Joyless Triumph

Joseph Stiglitz in Daily News Egypt (via Economist's Voice):

Many in the developing world have benefited greatly from the last boom, through financial flows, exports, and high commodity prices. Now, all of that is being reversed. Indeed, it is the ultimate irony that money is now flowing from poor and well-managed economies to the US, the source of the global problems.

The point of reciting these challenges facing the world is to suggest that, even if Obama and other world leaders do everything right, the US and the global economy are in for a difficult period. The question is not only how long the recession will last, but what the economy will look like when it emerges.

Will it return to robust growth, or will we have an anemic recovery, à la Japan in the 1990’s? Right now, I cast my vote for the latter, especially since the huge debt legacy is likely to dampen enthusiasm for the big stimulus that is required. Without a sufficiently large stimulus (in excess of 2 percent of GDP), we will have a vicious negative spiral: a weak economy will mean more bankruptcies, which will push stock prices down and interest rates up, undermine consumer confidence, and weaken banks. Consumption and investment will be cut back further.

Many Wall Street financiers, having received their gobs of cash, are returning to their fiscal religion of low deficits. It is remarkable how, having proven their incompetence, they are still revered in some quarters. What matters more than deficits is what we do with money; borrowing to finance high-productivity investments in education, technology, or infrastructure strengthens a nation’s balance sheet.

Chaplin lifted weary world’s spirits

From The Washington Times:

Chaplin The story of Chaplin's life is well-known, or at least, it is thought to be: The hellish Victorian upbringing and terrifying poverty, the lightning, apparently inexorable rise of the vaudeville protege, the journey to America, the early involvement in the one-reeler movies and then the dizzying ascent to superstardom and legendary status. Also, the notorious promiscuity throughout his prime years, improbably settling down to belated domesticity and enduring happiness in late-middle age with what was, in effect, a child bride; the principled and courageous defiance and condemnation of fascism and Nazism, and then the utterly naive soft spot for communism and Stalin. However, psychiatrist Stephen Weissman shines a fresh and fascinating light on all these things so it is as if we are learning them all anew.

Here at last is a showbiz biography that is not just a tired collection of superficial press clippings. Here is a psychological study of a major artist delivered without pretension, jargon or absurdity – three curses that poor Orson Welles has attracted in especial intensity. Dr. Weissman tells a riveting story delivered like a good dry martini – in perfect proportion, just right. It is also a story filled with surprises: Chaplin did not have a Jewish father. His father, Charlie Chaplin Sr., was a brief minor star of the English Victorian music hall in London who burned out fast and died of drink. Dr. Weissman convincingly argues Charlie's classic drunk slapstick routines as The Tramp were inspired directly by observation of his poor, permanently inebriated father.

More here.


Obituary: Harold Pinter, 1930-2008

From The Guardian:

Pinter-no-man300 Harold Pinter, who has died at the age of 78, was the most influential, provocative and poetic dramatist of his generation. He enjoyed parallel careers as actor, screenwriter and director and was also, especially in recent years, a vigorous political polemicist campaigning against abuses of human rights. But it is for his plays that he will be best remembered and for his ability to create dramatic poetry out of everyday speech. Among the dramatists of the last century, Beckett is his only serious rival in terms of theatrical influence; and it is a measure of Pinter's power that early on in his career he spawned the adjective “Pinteresque” suggesting a cryptically mysterious situation imbued with hidden menace.

Pinter was born into a Jewish family in the London borough of Hackney. His grandparents were Jews who had fled persecution in Poland and Odessa. His father, Jack, was a hard-working tailor whose own family had artistic leanings: his mother, Frances, came from a convivial, extrovert and spiritually sceptical clan. And it was not difficult to trace in Pinter's own complex personality elements from both sides of the family. He balanced his father's faintly authoritarian nature with his mother's instinctive generosity.

Pinter was an only child: as a boy, he conducted conversations in the back garden with imaginary friends. But such circumstances conspired to give him a sense of solitude, separation and loss: the perfect breeding-ground for a dramatist. He was evacuated to Cornwall at the age of nine where he became aware of the cruelty of schoolboys in isolation. Back in London during the Blitz, he also absorbed the dramatic nature of wartime life: the palpable fear, the sexual desperation, the genuine sense that everything could end tomorrow. All this fed into his work as a writer: his memories of wartime London led to a particularly vivid 1989 screen adaptation of Elizabeth Bowen's The Heat of the Day.

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