I want my country back

Sehar Tariq in The News International:

Talib Today we legislated that a group of criminals would be in charge of governing and dispensing justice in a part of Pakistan according to their own obscurantist views. They have declared that the rulings of their courts will be supreme and no other court in the land can challenge them. They have also declared that their men that killed and maimed innocent civilians, waged war against the Pakistani army and blew up girls schools will be exempt from punishment under this law. A law that does not apply equally to all men and women is not worthy of being called a law. Hence today we legislated lawlessness.

What was most disturbing was the quiescence of the Parliament to this legislation. The utter lack of debate and questioning of this ridiculous legislation was appalling. The decision was not informed by any independent research or expert testimony, and to my knowledge none of the parliamentarians are authorities on matters of security, rule of law or regional conditions in Swat. This signals disturbing possibilities. Either our politicians are too afraid to stand up to criminals or maybe they don't possess the foresight to gauge the national impact of this action. There is no hope for a country led by cowards or fools.

How can one be hopeful about the political future of a country where the will and the wisdom of politicians becomes hostage to the threats of barbarians? How can I be optimistic about a country where doyens of the media like Ansar Abbasi hear the collective silence of the parliamentarians as the resounding support of the people of Pakistan, but are deaf to the threats issued by the Taliban to anyone opposing the legislation? How can I feel secure in a country where the army, despite receiving the largest chunk of our resources, cannot defeat a bunch of thugs? How can I expect justice when there are different laws for different citizens, and I as a woman am a second class citizen? How can I be inspired by a country where there is no culture, no music, no art, no poetry and no innovative thought?

How can I be expected to return to a country where women are beaten and flogged publicly, where my daughters will not be allowed to go to school, where my sisters will die of common diseases because male doctors cannot see them? How can I be expected to call that country home that denies me the rights given me by my Constitution and religion? I refuse to live in a country where women like me are forced to rot behind the four walls of their homes and not allowed to use their education to benefit the nation. By endorsing the NAR and giving in to the Taliban, Parliament has sapped my hope and optimism. Parliament has dealt a deathly blow to the aspirations of the millions of young Pakistanis who struggle within and outside the country, fuelled by sheer patriotism, for a peaceful, prosperous and progressive Pakistan.

When there is no hope, no optimism, no security, no justice, no education, no progress, no culture – there is no Pakistan. Maybe it is because I am the grandchild of immigrants who was raised on stories of hope, patriotism and sacrifice that even in this misery I cannot forget that Pakistan was created to protect the lives, property, culture and future of the Muslims of the Subcontinent. It was not established to be a safe haven for terrorists. We fought so that we could protect the culture of the Muslims of the Subcontinent, not so that we could import the culture of Saudi Arabia. Our ancestors laid down their lives so that the Muslims of the Subcontinent – both men and women – could live in a land free of prejudice, not so that they could be subjected to violent discrimination of the basis of sect and gender.

More here. (Note: Thanks to dear friend Abha Pandya.)

Saturday Poem

In Praise of Dreams
Wislawa Szymborska

In my dreams
I paint like Vermeer van delft.

I speak fluent Greek
and not just with the living.

I drive a car
that does what I want it to.

I am gifted
and write mighty epics.

I hear voices
as clearly as any venerable saint.

My brilliance as a pianist
would stun you.

I fly the way we ought to,
i.e., on my own.

Falling from the roof,
I tumble gently to the grass.

I’ve got no problem
breathing under water.

I can’t complain:
I’ve been able to locate Atlantis.

It’s gratifying that I can always
wake up before dying.

As soon as war breaks out,
I roll over to my other side.

I’m a child of my age,
but I don’t have to be.

A few years ago
I saw two suns.

And the night before last a penguin,
clear as day.

translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak & Clare Cavanagh
from: View With a Grain of Sand; Harcourt Brace, 1993

How to Understand the Disaster

Robert Solow reviews Richard Posner's A Failure of Capitalism, in the NYRB:

Judge Posner evidently writes the way other men breathe. I have to say that the prose in this book often reads as if it were written, or maybe dictated, in a great hurry. There is some unnecessary repetition, and many paragraphs spend more time than they should on digressions that seem to have occurred to the author in mid-thought. If not exactly chiseled, the prose is nevertheless lively, readable, and plainspoken. The haste may have been justified by the pace of the events he aims to describe and explain. Posner has an extraordinarily sharp mind, and what I take to be a lawyerly skill in argument. But I also have to say that, in some respects, his grasp of economic ideas is precarious. In his book on public intellectuals, Posner blames the decline of the species on the universities and their encouragement of specialization. I may be acting out that conflict. Remember that even hairsplitting is not so bad if what is inside the hair turns out to be important.

The plainspokenness I mentioned is what makes this book an event. There is no doubt that Posner has been an independent thinker, never a passive follower of a party line. Neither is there any doubt that his independent thoughts have usually led him to a position well to the right of the political economy spectrum. The Seventh Circuit is based in Chicago, and Posner has taught at the University of Chicago. Much of his thought exhibits an affinity to Chicago school economics: libertarian, monetarist, sensitive to even small matters of economic efficiency, dismissive of large matters of equity, and therefore protective of property rights even at the expense of larger and softer “human” rights.

Read more »

Making Extra Dimensions Disappear

MattJohnson Matt Johnson in Cosmic Variance:

Extra dimensions. Sounds preposterous at first. Well, perhaps more accurately, it sounds preposterous to most people who don’t do high-energy theory. But, really I assure you, there are many well-motivated reasons why us wacky theorists like to ponder the existence of extra dimensions.

For one, as shown long ago by Kaluza and Klein, it is possible to get Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism in four dimensions by taking 5 dimensional General Relativity and wrapping one of the spatial dimensions up in a circle too small to see. The smaller the circle is, the harder it is to move in this “other direction,” and so there is no danger in getting lost on the way home. In this way, Maxwell’s equations have an elegant geometrical origin and gravity and electricity & magnatism are combined into one force (5 dimensional gravity).

Another strong motivation comes from string theory, which is only a consistent quantum theory of gravity if there are 10 or 11 dimensions in total. Again, since we don’t see them, it is necessary to hide the existence of the extra dimensions. Inspired by the fact that it was possible to hide one extra dimension by wrapping it up in a circle, generally the extra 6 or 7 dimensions are thought to be “compactified” into a very small compact geometry like a sphere or a torus.

At this point, the five-year-old in the audience is insistently asking, “If you have all these extra dimensions, and you are telling me that they are wrapped up into this tiny ball, how did they get wrapped up in the first place? Why are the four dimensions we see so large, and the others so small?”

The book everyone wishes they’d written


What is the best book for those who want to learn how to read English poetry? Were the ancient Greeks passionate and conflicted or just coldly rational (and why should we care)? How should we interpret landscapes, from Pembrokeshire to Papua New Guinea? And where can we find the most authoritative analysis of what is going on between men and women, not least within universities? To answer such questions, Times Higher Education asked leading scholars – in disciplines ranging from anthropology and architecture to social policy and international relations – to select a title from their personal canon. Their reflections are an inspirational introduction to a weekly series that will in time cover most of the academic landscape. Our writers were asked to choose a key text that defined their subject, set their personal academic agendas or even changed their lives. A single formative reading experience can often launch a long and distinguished academic career.

more from Times Higher Education here.

de rerum natura


At a moment in history when God is said to participate in world politics, the pungent ode to nature De rerum natura, composed by the Roman poet Titus Lucretius Carus, can provide a dose of sanity. What the atomist Epicurus called ataraxia—the tranquility of mind achieved when one is freed from the fear of occult controllers—Lucretius transformed into a prophetic materialism. His lyric treatise, published in the first century bce, predicts everything from atomic physics to the existence of DNA and casts it all in melodious hexameters.

Unlike the many prose versions of De rerum natura, David Slavitt’s new translation (University of California Press, $15) gives us six-beat English versions of the Latin original. Here’s how he renders the passage in which Lucretius acknowledges his debt to Epicurus:

It was long the case that men would grovel
upon the earth,
crushed beneath the weight of Superstition
whose head
loomed in the heavens, glaring down with her
dreadful visage
until Epicurus of Greece dared to look up and
confront her,
taking a stand against the fables and myths of
the gods . . .

more from Bookforum here.

The summers were hotter, the girls were prettier, the TV was better


As a drama writer it’s my job to place obstacles in the way of my characters: how they overcome those obstacles defines who they really are. I entered the 1970s as a hormonally unbalanced 12-year-old, facing a decade of obstacles armed only with a fresh patch of pubic hair, an ever-present erection and a Raleigh Chopper. What happened to me over those 10 years shaped and defined who I am, what I think and what I believe. And what a time to come of age: the decade that finally washed its hands of the lethargic, pot-smoking, flower-in-your-hair generation that preceded it and developed attitude. An attitude that was then squandered by the new romantic fops of the 80s. The 70s were special – don’t let anyone tell you different. We were no longer “going to Scarborough Fair” or wearing kaftans. We were a generation about to wear six-inch platform shoes and swap Donovan for Ziggy Stardust.

more from the Observer Review here.


When it comes to health care, economists ignore their own rules.

Dean Baker in the Boston Review:

ScreenHunter_08 Apr. 24 13.25 Fundamental economic principles tell us that goods should be sold at their marginal cost of production—the cost of producing one more unit of the good. If a company needs to pay twenty dollars for the material and labor used to produce one more shirt, then shirts should sell for twenty dollars plus a small profit-earning markup. The price-equals-marginal-cost principle maximizes economic efficiency and limits opportunities for fraud and corruption. Building on this principle, economists also strongly advocate globalization: the elimination of trade barriers allows consumers to buy goods and services from where they are cheapest, thus maximizing global efficiency and output.

Unfortunately, when it comes to health care, these principles are routinely violated. Prescription drugs that could be manufactured and sold profitably for a few dollars per prescription may instead sell for thousands. Performing one more high-tech scan or other medical test may require just a few cents of electricity and a couple of hundred dollars worth of a technician’s or a doctor’s time. But diagnostic procedures can be billed at several thousand dollars a shot. Prices are often well above marginal costs, yet economists involved in health care reform rarely recognize this as a problem.

Nor do they show their usual zeal for trade. Health care may have features that make it place-specific, but globalization offers clear opportunities for gains.

More here.

The Origin of Life

James Trefil, Harold Morowitz, and Eric Smith in American Scientist:

ScreenHunter_07 Apr. 24 13.14 In this article we present a view gaining attention in the origin-of-life community that takes the question out of the hatchery and places it squarely in the realm of accessible, plausible chemistry. As we see it, the early steps on the way to life are an inevitable, incremental result of the operation of the laws of chemistry and physics operating under the conditions that existed on the early Earth, a result that can be understood in terms of known (or at least knowable) laws of nature. As such, the early stages in the emergence of life are no more surprising, no more accidental, than water flowing downhill.

The new approach requires that we adopt new ways of looking at two important fields of science. As we will see below, we will have to adjust our view of both cellular biochemistry and thermodynamics. Before we talk about these new ideas, however, it will be useful to place them in context by outlining a little of the history of research on the origin of life.

More here.

Descent into Chaos

Lecture at the University of Chicago by Ahmed Rashid in December of 2008:

The growing instability and resurgence of Islamic extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan pose a great threat to U.S. interests and global security. In his new book, Descent into Chaos, Ahmed Rashid examines the rising insurgency, booming opium trade, and weak governance in Afghanistan, concluding that U.S. strategy in the region has been a complete failure.

Strikingly, Thoreau Meets His Match

From The Washington Post:

Henry Late in April 1844, a pair of misfits went camping on the Concord River in Massachusetts, with plans to survive “Indian-style” on the fish they caught. The forest along the banks was dangerously dry, but one of the young men started a campfire anyway. Encouraged by a brisk wind, the flames quickly spread to the grass and then to the pines and birch trees. Before the end of that awful day, 300 acres had been reduced to ash.

You know this accidental arsonist as the world's most famous naturalist, Henry David Thoreau. But to the aggrieved men of Concord, he was known for many years as that “damned rascal,” the “Woodsburner.” Not surprisingly, Thoreau didn't refer to this incident in his classic meditation on nature, “Walden; or, Life in the Woods.” He couldn't even bring himself to mention it in his own journal until six years after the fact, when he finally described the fire with such shameless pride and self-justification that you want to slap him upside his Transcendental head.

But now, 165 years later, that awful day finally bursts back into flame. John Pipkin's brooding first novel, “Woodsburner,” starts on the morning of April 30, as Henry David squats on the bank of Fair Haven Bay and strikes a match he bummed from a shoemaker. The novel ends that evening, as the blackened forest glows in the darkness and soot snows down on the town of Concord. Over the course of this momentous day, Pipkin moves back in time and across the Atlantic, describing several other characters whose lives are lit by their own fires and altered by Thoreau's conflagration.

More here.

Vistas of Perfection: The self-dissatisfied life and art of James Agee

From Harvard Magazine:

Agee In September 1928, James Agee moved in to his freshman dorm at Harvard—room B-41 in George Smith Hall, a building that is now part of Kirkland House. Decades later, after Agee had become a kind of legend—for his tormented life and early death, no less than for his great books, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and A Death in the Family—his roommate, Robert Saudek, remembered what it was like to catch a first glimpse of the 18-year-old Tennessean. Already, he wrote, Agee seemed somehow larger than life, more like an apparition or a force of nature than a college freshman:

The door burst open and in strode the roommate—tall, shy, strong, long arms and legs, a small head, curly dark hair, a spring in his heels as he bounded past with a wicker country suitcase in one hand and an enormous, raw pine box on his shoulder. He turned his head suddenly, squinted his eyes in an apologetic smile, said softly, “Hello, Agee’s my name,” swept through to an empty bedroom and deposited his belongings, bounded back through the gabled, maroon-and-white study, murmured “See you all later,” waved an awkward farewell and didn’t show up again for several days. Such was the magnetic field that had rushed through the room, that I didn’t even think to introduce myself. Now that I had seen him, heard him, and learned to pronounce his name, he was more of a stranger than before.

More here.

Sharmila Sen on Ian Almond

From The Front Table:

03 Two Faiths, One Banner by Ian Almond is an attempt to reverse one particularly dangerous strain of collective amnesia that has infected the world today. It is this collective amnesia that leads people to see Islam as deeply non-Western and a threat to the Christian West. If we are to continue writing the history of the West at all, Ian tells us, we must stop airbrushing Muslims and Jews out of it. So, he cleverly takes the idea of war and conflict, something we are all obsessed with these days (The War on Terror, The War on Drugs, Clash of Civilizations) and turns it on its head. He shows us how Muslims and Christians, far from having an unrelentingly antagonistic history, have often fought on the same side, against other Muslims and Christians, during defining moments of European history. From Andalusia, to Sicily, to Turkey, to Crimea, this is a history of the West that shakes us out of our collective amnesia. In the process, Ian also offers us an Islamic history of Europe.

It is not easy to stop forgetting. Amnesia is a wall. It partitions the past from the present. Muslim from Christian. Us from Them. You from Me. There is some comfort behind such partitions or we would not have been clinging to them for so long.

More here.

Indian business students snap up copies of Mein Kampf

Monty Munford in The Telegraph:

ScreenHunter_06 Apr. 24 12.31 Booksellers told The Daily Telegraph that while it is regarded in most countries as a 'Nazi Bible', in India it is considered a management guide in the mould of Spencer Johnson's “Who Moved My Cheese”.

Sales of the book over the last six months topped 10,000 in New Delhi alone, according to leading stores, who said it appeared to be becoming more popular with every year.

Several said the surge in sales was due to demand from students who see it as a self-improvement and management strategy guide for aspiring business leaders, and who were happy to cite it as an inspiration.

“Students are increasingly coming in asking for it and we're happy to sell it to them,” said Sohin Lakhani, owner of Mumbai-based Embassy books who reprints Mein Kampf every quarter and shrugs off any moral issues in publishing the book.

“They see it as a kind of success story where one man can have a vision, work out a plan on how to implement it and then successfully complete it”.

More here.

The Effects of Alcohol on Social Behavior

Jesse Bering in Scientific American:

Intoxicating-studies_1 Given the sobering costs of drinking on society (alcohol accounts for 70 percent of fatal traffic accidents, and nearly the same annual percentage of murders, spousal battery and child abuse) alcoholism has justifiably been the focus of considerable attention by clinical psychologists over the years. It’s certainly not my intent to downplay these serious issues associated with drinking. Believe me, here in Northern Ireland I’d wager there are more pubs than there are fast food restaurants in all of Texas, and one needn’t look far in Belfast to see how ruinous alcohol can be on the lives of those affected.

Yet one mustn’t always be a teetotaling bore, either. There is such a thing as responsible drinking; and over the past few decades, fun-loving psychologists have occasionally explored some of the quirky effects of moderate drinking on social behavior and cognition. Dostoyevsky used to refer to vodka as the “Russian God,” which, if you think about it, is still a decent metaphor for the type of spiritual escapism available in an 80 proof bottle of today’s Absolut. In fact, back in 1965, Harvard University psychologists Rudolf Kalin and David McClelland, along with Michael Kahn from Yale University, found precisely this type of “metaphysical” effect of drinking on male college students.

More here.