The Tragedy of Jinnah

Simon Kovar in The Liberal:

Jinnah ‘Inexplicability’ is the word attached by one historian to the communal bloodletting that accompanied the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. The term suggests a certain exhaustion with an archive that paints a picture of what, in hindsight, appears to combine both political stupidity and popular barbarism. It is easy in such circumstances to search around for a villain of the piece. For many, the character of Muhammad Ali Jinnah fits the bill perfectly: Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film Gandhi depicts Jinnah as patrician, cold and distant. The ‘Mahatma’ is shown receiving almost as a physical body-blow Jinnah’s (fictitious) threat of civil war unless the demand for Pakistan is acceded to – the saint cowed by the opportunistic politician.

‘Mahattenborough’ (to use Salman Rushdie’s memorable phrase) is certainly guilty of semi-deifying a man, Gandhi, who – in his religious doctrines, abusive personal experiments and response to European fascism in the 1930s – was far from blemish-free. But he is guilty too of libeling Jinnah, one of the sole liberal voices at the high table of Indian politics. It is noteworthy that the Hindu nationalist politician L.K. Advani, an apologist for the slaughter of Indian Muslim citizens in Gujarat, chose the word ‘secular’ to describe Jinnah during a visit to Pakistan in 2005. Advani was criticised for apparently having ‘praised’ Pakistan’s founder; but the Hindu far-right is not noted for regarding the epithet ‘secular’ as a term of praise.

In fact, Jinnah fits quite closely the model of the classic liberal politician.

More here.

Learn to Think Better: Tips from a Savant

From Scientific American:

Think-better-tips-from-a-savant_1 Daniel Tammet is author of two books, Born on a Blue Day and Embracing the Wide Sky, the latter of which came out in January. He is also a linguist and holds the European record for reciting the first 22,514 digits of the mathematical constant pi. Scientific American Mind contributing editor Jonah Lehrer chats with Tammet about the way his memory works, why the IQ test is overrated, and a possible explanation for extraordinary feats of creativity.

Scientific American Mind: Your recent memoir, Born on a Blue Day, documented your life as an autistic savant. You describe, for example, how you are able to quickly learn new languages and remember scenes from years earlier in cinematic detail. Are you ever surprised by your own abilities?

Daniel Tammet: I have always thought of abstract information—numbers, for example—in visual, dynamic form. Numbers assume complex, multidimensional shapes in my head that I manipulate to form the solution to sums or compare when determining whether they are prime or not. For languages, I do something similar in terms of thinking of words as belonging to clusters of meaning so that each piece of vocabulary makes sense according to its place in my mental architecture for that language. In this way, I can easily discern relations between words, which helps me to remember them. In my mind, numbers and words are far more than squiggles of ink on a page. They have form, color, texture, and so on. They come alive to me, which is why as a young child I thought of them as my “friends.” I think this is why my memory is very deep, because the information is not static. I say in my book that I do not crunch numbers (like a computer). Rather I dance with them.

More here.

There Are Four Lights!

Revisiting Star Trek: The Next Generation's eerily prescient torture episode.

Julia Lapidos in Slate:

ScreenHunter_01 May. 08 10.29 In an episode from the series' sixth season, Capt. Picard embarks on a mission to destroy a biological weapon and is taken prisoner by a hostile alien race, the Cardassians. Believing that Picard is privy to strategic military secrets, the Cardassians inject him with a truth serum. When this technique fails to produce information, the Cardassians string up their captive in a stress position, strip him naked, and subject him to extreme physical torment—zapping him with a pain-administering device. For good measure, the lead Cardassian interrogator also devises a test meant to inflict mental anguish: He points four bright lights at Picard and asks him, repeatedly, to say that there are five. (A clear homage to the four-vs.-five-fingers sequence in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.)

Powerful when it aired in 1992, the episode is even more resonant in 2009. When Picard's comrades on the Enterprise learn of Picard's capture, they insist that the Cardassians abide by the terms of a Geneva-like “Solanis Convention.” The Cardassians rebuff the request: “The Solanis Convention applies to prisoners of war … [Picard] will be treated as a terrorist.”

More, including video of the scene, here.

Magic and the Brain: Teller Reveals the Neuroscience of Illusion

Jonah Lehrer in Wired:

One of the first tricks in Penn and Teller's Las Vegas show begins when Teller—the short, quiet one—strolls onstage with a lit cigarette, inhales, drops it to the floor, and stamps it out. Then he takes another cigarette from his suit pocket and lights it.

No magic there, right? But then Teller pivots so the audience can see him from the other side. He goes through the same set of motions, except this time everything is different: Much of what just transpired, the audience now perceives, was a charade, a carefully orchestrated stack of lies. He doesn't stamp out the first cigarette—he palms it, then puts it in his ear. There is no second cigarette; it's a pencil stub. The smoke from the first butt is real, but the lighter used on the pencil is actually a flashlight. Yet the illusion is executed so perfectly that every step looks real, even when you're shown that it is not.

Penn and Teller demonstrate the seven basic principles of magic.

The trick is called Looks Simple, and the point is that even a puff on a cigarette, closely examined, can disintegrate into smoke and mirrors. “People take reality for granted,” Teller says shortly before stepping onstage. “Reality seems so simple. We just open our eyes and there it is. But that doesn't mean it is simple.”

For Teller (that's his full legal name), magic is more than entertainment. He wants his tricks to reveal the everyday fraud of perception so that people become aware of the tension between what is and what seems to be. Our brains don't see everything—the world is too big, too full of stimuli. So the brain takes shortcuts, constructing a picture of reality with relatively simple algorithms for what things are supposed to look like. Magicians capitalize on those rules. “Every time you perform a magic trick, you're engaging in experimental psychology,” Teller says. “If the audience asks, 'How the hell did he do that?' then the experiment was successful. I've exploited the efficiencies of your mind.”

More here.

Obama is Spock: It’s quite logical

Our president bears a striking resemblance to the rational “Star Trek” Vulcan whose mixed race made him cultural translator to the universe.

Jeff Greenwald in Salon:

Obama Spock Anyone who followed the early “Star Trek” with regularity knows how charismatic Spock was. If there were two characters I wanted to be as a young man, they were Spock — and James Bond. Both displayed total self-confidence, and amazing problem-solving skills. Both traveled to exotic destinations, and were irresistible to women. And both shared a quality that my generation lacked completely: composure.

While Bond had his weaknesses (anything in a bikini), Spock was virtually unflappable. The most startling marvels in the cosmos were “fascinating.” Disasters were “unfortunate,” perhaps even “tragic.” The raised eyebrow, the lifted chin, the vaguely sarcastic mien — these were coins of the realm to my pubescent friends. How did we weather the terrors of grade school, and survive the irrational outbursts of parents and teachers? By invoking Spock. Who served as our logical, enlightened counterpoint to the madness of the late 1960s? Who else but Spock?

“I am a first-generation 'Star Trek' fan, and I've long argued that many of my deepest political convictions emerged from my experience of watching the program as a young man growing up in Atlanta during the civil rights era,” declares Henry Jenkins, co-director of the MIT comparative media studies program and author of “Convergence Culture.” “In many ways, my commitment to social justice was shaped in reality by Martin Luther King and in fantasy by 'Star Trek.'”

Obama, Jenkins points out, positioned himself in the primaries as a man “at home with both blacks and whites, someone whose mixed racial background has forced him to become a cultural translator.” In this sense Obama even surpasses Spock, whose struggle to reconcile his half-human, half-Vulcan genes is a continual source of inner conflict.

More here.

The Prince of Washington

From The Washington Post:

Prince Few diplomatic marriages are as hopelessly knotted — or emotionally fraught — as the one between Saudi Arabia and the United States. First joined in 1945 under an oil-for-security agreement, the two countries leaned on each other through the Cold War, the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The House of Saud provided welcome relief to President Jimmy Carter during the energy crisis in the '70s; later, Saudi mujaheddin were dispatched against Russian-occupied Afghanistan. Only after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when it was discovered that 15 of the hijackers were Saudi nationals, did this “special relationship” — always informal, never really defined — begin to sour.

As former Washington Post reporter David B. Ottaway hints in his sweeping history, “The King's Messenger,” it's a miracle the odd couple made it even that far. Saudi Arabia is “a secretive monarchy, Islamic theocracy, and Sunni monoculture,” while the United States is a “religiously pluralistic society, wide-open democracy, and Babel of cultures,” Ottaway writes. “Holding the alliance together was a delicate diplomatic task for both sides, requiring the downplaying of differences, secrecy, and often outright duplicity.” Over the years, much of that diplomacy — and on occasion, the duplicity — fell not to a king or president, but to a single courtier: Bandar bin Sultan, the self-proclaimed “peasant prince.”

More here.

Is David Simon Wrong About Blogs and Local Reporting?

In the NYT's Opinionator blog, Eric Etheridge responds to David Simon:

Yesterday Senator John Kerry held hearings on the “Future of Journalism.” One expert who took the chair to testify was David Simon, the former Baltimore City Sun reporter who later created the HBO series “The Wire.”

Simon stressed that he was not there to make a “Luddite argument against the Internet and all that it offers.” What did concern him was the disappearance of a certain kind of reporting he says bloggers don’t do:

But democratized and independent though they may be, you do not — in my city — run into bloggers or so-called citizen journalists at City Hall, or in the courthouse hallways or at the bars and union halls where police officers gather. You do not see them consistently nurturing and then pressing sources. You do not see them holding institutions accountable on a daily basis.

Read more »

the future is mat


It’s all to play for, as far as the history of art in our times goes. An era of cultural as well as economic excess is drawing to a close. The principles that inspired artistic production are soon likely to follow into the dustbin of history those principles by which our economies were run, carrying with them the reputations of some of the most successful artists of our times. Out will go the idea that near identical conceptual works of art can be mass produced by factory-studios until demand is exhausted; out will go the idea that high production values—shininess, the quality of fabrication—are enough to define the art of our time; out will go the idea that art can criticise greed and stupidity by imitating it. Modernism, it seems, has finally succumbed to the decadent super-sized clichés of some conceptual artists. It’s at moments like these that new directions in art emerge, and overlooked artists from the recent past are re-appraised; and I have recently spotted what seem to be a few green shoots of artistic recovery. Last year at the Haunch of Venison gallery, I came across an extraordinary kinetic sculpture by the British artist Mat Collishaw as part of his solo show “Shooting Stars.”

more from Prospect Magazine here.

lindsay’s vision


Lindsay’s planning apparatus had tried to respond to Jacobs’s criticisms of second-wave metropolitanism, but the mayor’s technocratic idealism was ultimately quashed by communities that had, by nature of living with the consequences of Moses’s projects, become resistant to the very idea of urban planning. The promise of John Lindsay went unfulfilled, and his departure from City Hall sounded the death knell of large-scale planning. Nevertheless, that promise lives on, however buried under the patina of late-’70s urban decay, the vulgar commercial projects erected en masse in the ’80s and ’90s, and the more recent vogue for speculative luxury condos and gaudy renovations of older tenements and townhouses. In examining a few of the projects built under the Lindsay administration, it is possible to discern the traces of other, unrealized proposals, the palimpsest of a master plan, and the enduring impact of a partially realized metropolitan vision—elements of which might well be resurrected to address our own needs.

more from Triple Canopy here.

the nibelung gap


Many years ago William Morris declared that the legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, the Völsungs and the Nibelungs, deserved to become the Northern Homer, and he was right. It has everything: the dragon Fáfnir and the valkyrie Brynhild, werewolves and dwarves, mysterious interventions by a one-eyed deity, a sword broken and reforged, a fabulous treasure-hoard and, above all, a magic ring with a curse on it. It also has – and this may have prevented it from realizing its potential, at least in Morris’s long verse retelling of 1876 – many lurking embarrassments: incest, child-murder, human sacrifice, what looks very like ceremonial female suicide or suttee. Yet even more alluring and provoking than what is in the legend, is what might have been there once but is there no more. The relationship between the various forms of the Nibelung legend was recognized in the nineteenth century as the Königsproblem of Germanic philology, which has never been solved. We still possess four main ancient sources, two Norse (the Völsunga saga and a brief epitome in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda), one in German (the Nibelungenlied), and one in Norse but derived from German, in the legendary compendium of the Þiðrekssaga. There is a fifth, for the legend gave rise to over half (fifteen out of twenty-nine) of the poems contained in the main manuscript of Eddic poetry surviving, the Codex Regius. However, some of those poems concern later additions to the cycle, several deal only with the complaints of Gudrún after all is over, and where the heart of the story should be, there is a gap.

more from the TLS here.

Thursday Poem

Seamus Heany

Masons, when they start upon a building,
Are careful to test out the scaffolding;

Make sure the planks won’t slip at busy points.|
Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints.

Yet all this comes down when the job’s done,
Showing off walls of sure and solid stone.

So if, my dear, there sometimes seems to be
Old bridges breaking between you and me,

Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall,
Confident that we have built our wall.

Torture-tape Gulf prince accused of 25 other attacks

US lawyers claim they have videos implicating Abu Dhabi royal in more cases of torture, a week after outcry over his assaults on Afghan businessman.

Paul Harris in The Observer:

ScreenHunter_01 May. 07 11.16 The wealthy Gulf prince at the centre of a “torture tape” scandal has been accused of attacking at least 25 other people in incidents that have also been caught on film, it has been claimed.

Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al-Nahyan is now under investigation in the United Arab Emirates after the shocking tape showed him beating a man with a nailed plank, setting him on fire, attacking him with a cattle prod and running him over.

But now lawyers for American businessman Bassam Nabulsi, who smuggled the tape out of the UAE, have written to the justice minister of Abu Dhabi – the most powerful of the emirates that make up the UAE – claiming to have considerably more evidence against Issa.

“I have more than two hours of video footage showing Sheikh Issa's involvement in the torture of more than 25 people,” wrote Texas-based lawyer Anthony Buzbee in a letter obtained by the Observer.

More here.

US interrogators may have killed dozens

John Byrne in The Raw Story:

United States interrogators killed nearly four dozen detainees during or after their interrogations, according a report published by a human rights researcher based on a Human Rights First report and followup investigations.

In all, 98 detainees have died while in US hands. Thirty-four homicides have been identified, with at least eight detainees — and as many as 12 — having been tortured to death, according to a 2006 Human Rights First report that underwrites the researcher’s posting. The causes of 48 more deaths remain uncertain.

The researcher, John Sifton, worked for five years for Human Rights Watch. In a posting Tuesday, he documents myriad cases of detainees who died at the hands of their US interrogators. Some of the instances he cites are graphic.

More here.

Dark matter intrigue deepens: Space telescope may have glimpsed hint of mystery particles

From Nature:

News New data from two experiments — one in space, one on a balloon floating above Antarctica — hint at a tantalizing detection of dark matter, the mysterious stuff comprising 85% of the universe's matter. The evidence is a reported excess of high-energy electrons and their antimatter counterparts, positrons, which could be created as dark matter particles annihilate or decay. The signal from Fermi, the orbiting gamma-ray telescope, is subtle, whereas that claimed by the balloon-borne Advanced Thin Ionization Calorimeter (ATIC) is much more pronounced. The differences are puzzling, but the findings — according to some — could herald the birth of a new age of dark matter exploration.

“We may very well be seeing the beginning of the discovery era,” says Dan Hooper, a theorist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, who is not affiliated with either of the experiments. Peter Michelson, principal investigator for the instrument on Fermi that made the detection, cautions that his group is not yet claiming to have found a smoking gun for dark matter. The signal could also come from more mundane sources nearby, such as pulsars, the spinning remnants of supernovae. “But if it isn't pulsars, it is some new physics,” says Michelson, of Stanford University in California.

More here.