Bush, God, Iraq and Gog

Clive Hamilton in CounterPunch:

040206bush In 2003 while lobbying leaders to put together the Coalition of the Willing, President Bush spoke to France’s President Jacques Chirac. Bush wove a story about how the Biblical creatures Gog and Magog were at work in the Middle East and how they must be defeated.

In Genesis and Ezekiel Gog and Magog are forces of the Apocalypse who are prophesied to come out of the north and destroy Israel unless stopped. The Book of Revelation took up the Old Testament prophesy:

“And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison, And shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle … and fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them.”

Bush believed the time had now come for that battle, telling Chirac:

“This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people’s enemies before a New Age begins”.

The story of the conversation emerged only because the Elysée Palace, baffled by Bush’s words, sought advice from Thomas Römer, a professor of theology at the University of Lausanne. Four years later, Römer gave an account in the September 2007 issue of the university’s review, Allez savoir. The article apparently went unnoticed, although it was referred to in a French newspaper.

The story has now been confirmed by Chirac himself in a new book, published in France in March, by journalist Jean Claude Maurice. Chirac is said to have been stupefied and disturbed by Bush’s invocation of Biblical prophesy to justify the war in Iraq and “wondered how someone could be so superficial and fanatical in their beliefs”.

More here.

The subprime New York Times reporter

From Salon:

Busted “How could a person who wrote about economics for a living fall into the kind of credit card trap that consumer groups had warned about for years?” Because bad decisions, he did make. Hoo boy. Andrews does not stint on the details — the huge credit card bills, the decision to buy a house and get remarried while still paying hefty alimony bills, the inability to make income and expenses match up. He willingly signed his name on the dotted line of mortgages that made no rational economic sense. And he fully owns up to it. Most Americans do not like to talk about their private finances, but Andrews is fearless. Anyone who has ever fought about money problems with his or her partner will wince at the unflattering portrayal Andrews delivers of his own “first-class prick”-ness. It is not a pretty sight.

“We can't keep racking up debt like this,” I told her one night, annoyed that she didn't appear to share my urgency. “Even with your job, we're spending way more than we make every month. If we keep this up, we'll lose the house.”

“Aaach, there you go again,” Patty snapped. “Why is it that every time you look at a bill you act as if the world were coming to an end? I am doing what I can to make money, and to spend as little as possible. I know better than anyone that we have money problems, but it is not the end of the world. You act as if I'm not taking this seriously unless I get as hysterical as you.”

“What the fuck are you talking about? I exploded. “Maybe you don't understand, but this is a simple question of math. We're running deeper into debt every month. It's not as though I'm crazy or that I'm imagining all this.”

I'm sorry — but I'm never going to be able to read another Edmund Andrews-bylined story without thinking of him screaming expletives at his wife, or seething in anger at his own circumstances while covering a White House press conference on housing sector reform. But strangely, what makes this book work is that while “Busted” is on the one hand a classic trashy Americana let-it-all-hang-out mea culpa worthy of Dr. Phil it is also a cogent analysis of how the mortgage lending market got out of control and submarined the U.S. economy.

More here.

The “Bitch” Evolved: Why Girls Are So Cruel to Each Other

From Scientific American:

Bitch-evolved-girls-cruel_1 About a month ago I was invited to give a brief talk to my nephew Gianni’s first grade class—nothing too deep, mind you, rather simply about what it’s like living in a foreign place such as Belfast. The highlight of my presentation was the uproarious laughter that erupted when I mentioned that people on this side of the Atlantic refer to diapers as “nappies” and cookies as “biscuits.” But one must play to the audience.

Now, my sister resides in a small town in central Ohio, so perhaps there’s something about the mid-West which breeds especially endearing and affectionate six-year-olds, but I should be forgiven for momentarily siding with Rousseau that afternoon on his overly simplistic view that society corrupts and turns such naïve, innocent cherubs into monstrous adults. To give an example, one little girl waved at me in so kind a manner that it seemed, in that instant, I was in the presence of a better species of humankind, one that naturally regards other people as benevolent curiosities and the contrivances of social etiquette haven’t tarnished and brutally tamed genuine emotions.

What punctured this rose-tinted illusion of mine was the knowledge that these diminutive figures giggling and sitting Indian-style on the carpet before me might also be viewed as incubating adolescents. Perhaps it’s just me, but I’d swear the world knows not an eviler soul than an angry, angst-ridden, hormonally intoxicated teen. And if this little pigtailed girl is anything like the rest of her gender, in just a few years’ time she will unfortunately morph into an eye-rolling, gossiping, ostracizing, sarcastic, dismissive, cliquish ninth-grader, embroiled in the classic cafeteria style bitchery of adolescent female social politics.
More here.

Pascal, Fermat, and the Seventeenth-Century Letter That Made the World Modern

Brian Hayes in American Scientist:

ScreenHunter_02 May. 27 23.41 Timothy Gowers, a distinguished mathematician at the University of Cambridge, recently conducted an experiment in collaborative mathematics. He was puzzling over an interesting problem, and rather than go off to work on it in solitude, he posted a note on his blog, inviting others to join him in seeking a solution. There have been hundreds of responses, and the voluminous discussion has spread to other blogs as well as a wiki where participants coordinate efforts and summarize progress.

If Blaise Pascal had had a blog or a wiki, perhaps he would have tried the same strategy when he took up a mathematical challenge in 1654—a problem concerned with figuring the odds in a gambling game. Instead, Pascal wrote a letter to an older colleague, Pierre de Fermat, and the two of them batted the problem back and forth in a correspondence that went on for several weeks, with occasional input from a few others. Most of the letters were later published—after the deaths of both authors—and they became foundation documents in the theory of probability. Keith Devlin now gives us a helpful guidebook to this famous episode of epistolary mathematics.

Here is the essence of the wagering problem that caused all the fuss, as Devlin presents it in a slightly simplified form:

The players, Blaise and Pierre, place equal bets on who will win the best of five tosses of a fair coin. We’ll suppose that on each round, Blaise chooses heads, Pierre tails. Now suppose they have to abandon the game after three tosses, with Blaise ahead 2 to 1. How do they divide the pot?

Since Blaise is leading, it seems he deserves a larger share of the wager. But how much larger? Gamblers and scholars had taken up this question before, at least as far back as Luca Pacioli and Girolamo Cardano a century earlier, but they had failed to settle it. Pascal and Fermat not only got the answer; they also set forth with reasonable clarity how they derived it and why it’s right.

More here.

An Excerpt from China Mieville’s The City & The City

The City and the City Surprisingly, in the WSJ:

Chapter One

I COULD NOT SEE THE STREET or much of the estate. We were enclosed by dirt-coloured blocks, from windows out of which leaned vested men and women with morning hair and mugs of drink, eating breakfast and watching us. This open ground between the buildings had once been sculpted. It pitched like a golf course—a child's mimicking of geography. Maybe they had been going to wood it and put in a pond. There was a copse but the saplings were dead.

The grass was weedy, threaded with paths footwalked between rubbish, rutted by wheel tracks. There were police at various tasks. I wasn't the first detective there—I saw Bardo Naustin and a couple of others—but I was the most senior. I followed the sergeant to where most of my colleagues clustered, between a low derelict tower and a skateboard park ringed by big drum- shaped trash bins. Just beyond it we could hear the docks. A bunch of kids sat on a wall before standing officers. The gulls coiled over the gathering.

“Inspector.” I nodded at whomever that was. Someone offered a coffee but I shook my head and looked at the woman I had come to see.



When the Bronx Zoo recently called lights out on the World of Darkness, I was disappointed. That’s not to say I was surprised: It’s news to nobody that the Bronx — like almost every other zoo, aquarium, museum, college, industry, company, household, individual — isn’t exactly flush right now, and something had to give. But though the loss of the nocturnal animals is a significant one, the exhibit’s closing was noteworthy for another reason. When it comes to zoo buildings, the World of Darkness is one of the most fascinating. The World of Darkness was built in 1969. It has no windows, and from above looks like a giant letter C; the exterior is made up of tall, narrow gray stone panels of varying heights, which pitch inward. Unlike a lot of the other things you find in zoos, there’s nothing goofy or frenetic about it. It is not austere or staid or “classic” in any historic way. You would actually never expect to stumble upon a building like the World of Darkness in a zoo. It’s the kind of structure you’d expect to find in a zoo on, say, the Krypton of 1978’s Superman. But this element of surprise is exactly what makes the building so compelling, its closing a loss. As a field, the architecture of zoos is a funny thing.

more from Jesse Smith at The Smart Set here.

to give the mundane its beautiful due


Hearing of John Updike’s death in January of this year, I had two immediate, ordinary reactions. The first was a protest—”But I thought we had him for another ten years”; the second, a feeling of disappointment that Stockholm had never given him the nod. The latter was a wish for him, and for American literature, the former a wish for me, for us, for Updikeans around the world. Though it was not as if he hadn’t left us enough to read. For years now his lifelong publishers at Knopf have been giving back-flap approximations. In the mid-1990s, in a cute philoprogenitive linking, he was “the father of four children and the author of more than forty books.” By the time of The Early Stories (2003) they had him, in a hands-in-the-air sort of way, as “the author of fifty-odd previous books.” Now, with Endpoint, they award him “more than sixty books.” Why ask for another ten years, and probably ten books, when even devoted Updikeans have probably only read half or two thirds of the corpus? Nicholson Baker’s act of homage, U and I (1991), was impudently predicated on the fact that he hadn’t by any means read all of Updike, or fully remembered what he had read—and no, he wasn’t going to do any extra homework before paying his tribute. It was a quirky approach, with which fellow Updikeans would sympathize; even if it did dangerously invite the act of imitation. I enjoyed Baker’s book, without feeling obliged to read it all.

more from Julian Barnes at the NYRB here.

protect protect


Although Jenny Holzer’s writing has often been the main focus of critics describing her art, her new and literally brilliant show makes it clear that she is as much a colorist as she is a provider of weighty aphorisms. Perhaps a reading closest to the truth would see her as an inspirational maker of active intellectual environments, whose effectiveness is far greater than the sum of their parts. At this point in time, there is a tradition of political resistance among artists—a legacy Holzer herself is partly responsible for—in the face of our government’s excessive force and anachronistically imperial ambitions. Taking our involvement in Iraq as her cue, Holzer has produced a truly political show, in which blacked-out secret document paintings and darkened handprints of persons suspected of torture add up to a bleak disregard for our military excursion. At the same time, her use of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) show her to be aware of the medium’s remarkably beautiful color, which according to both artist and curators stem from such high-brow sources as Matisse and Rothko. It seems to me somewhat exaggerated to tie modernist painting to so demotic an idiom as the LED, which after all is a technology more than a material. But maybe that is not really Holzer’s point—she wants the diodes to reach as many people as possible, and, equally important, she wants to communicate as much as possible with her writings.

more from artcritical here.

Wednesday Poems

………I've got plenty of nothin', and nothin's plenty for me.
–Ira Gershwin; Porgy and Bess

Robert Creeley

Not just nothing,
Not there's no answer,
Not it's nowhere or
Nothing to show for it –

It's like There's no past like
the present. It's
all over with us.
There are no doors…

Oh my god! Like
I wish I had a dog.
Oh my god!
I had a dog but he's gone.

His name was Zero,
something for nothing!
You like dog biscuits?
Fill in the blank.

Octavio Paz

The leap of the wave
each hour
each day

The darker side of George Eliot

From The Guardian:

Eminent-Lives-George-Elio-001 The most intriguing aspect of George Eliot's life has to be her honeymoon in Venice, in the summer of 1880. Her decision, at the age of 60, to marry John Cross, a young friend some 20 years her junior, had excited disapproval among friends and acquaintances, not least because GH Lewes, with whom she had enjoyed a long and loving relationship, had been dead for less than two years. Like Dorothea in Middlemarch, who begins to love Will Ladislaw while she is still married to Casaubon, Eliot had been delighted by Cross's youth and devotion long before Lewes's death. But their honeymoon punctured the fantasy for both when Cross leaped from the balcony of their hotel suite, sailing over three or four gondolas before landing in the middle of the Grand Canal. He was rescued and carried back to his room unharmed.

Tongues started wagging. Had Cross been in flight from the sexual demands of his older wife? “One could say he had a lucky escape!” wrote an Italian journalist with unconscious irony. Was it true Cross had begged the gondoliers not to drag him out of the canal? Brenda Maddox, in her jaunty sketch of Eliot's life, believes Cross was suffering from a recurrence of severe depressive illness. She also thinks that the marriage was unconsummated. It was, in any case, short-lived. Eliot was dead and buried in Highgate cemetery in just six months. Cross – “George Eliot's widow”, as he was unkindly known – became the keeper of the flame, producing a biography of his late wife that enshrined her as a sibyl and earnest talking head, leaving one critic to bemoan the absence of the “salt and spice” of Eliot's life.

More here.

Reality Check: The Inevitable Disappointments from Stem Cells

From Scientific American:

Reality-check-for-stem-cells_1 Happy days are here again for the embryonic stem cell (ESC) research community, or at least they should be. The day after Barack Obama was inaugurated as president in January, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration green-lighted an application from Geron Corporation to pursue the first phase I clinical trial of an ESC-based therapy (in this case, for spinal cord injury).

So scientists at last mostly have what they have been asking for. And the public should now prepare to be disappointed. To address the most obvious one first: practicable ESC-based therapies are years away. The upcoming tests of Geron’s paralysis treatment, for example, will look only at how safely it is tolerated by patients; tests of its effectiveness are further off. The therapeutic cells helped mice to partially recover from spinal injuries, but in humans they might fail to do the same or, worse, might induce tumors. It will take time to find out. New drugs often take five to nine years to progress from phase I testing to market. Moreover, many if not most of those future therapies based on ESC research may not actually involve ESCs. Patients, after all, will not be able to supply embryonic cells directly from their own body. Therapeutic ESCs would either have to come from immunologically matched stockpiles (the equivalent of blood banks) or be cloned for each patient individually. Both solutions would involve technological and legal headaches. Using adult stem cells or others reprogrammed for versatility from a patient’s own tissues may therefore prove much easier. (Adult stem cells are indeed already used to treat some blood-related and orthopedic disorders.)

More here.

Sculptor’s work made of human skin

Andrew Johnson in The Independent:

ScreenHunter_01 May. 27 10.13 Some will find it shocking, macabre, echoing the worst allegations of Nazi atrocities. An American artist has spent the past 20 years making sculptures out of human skin, and is to exhibit his work in public in the UK for the first time later this year.

Welcome to the world of Andrew Krasnow, who has tackled one of the great taboos in art. Günther von Hagens may have caused controversy with his Body Worlds exhibition of human corpses, but Krasnow goes a step further.

His works include human skin lampshades – a direct response to the belief that similar items made from the skin of Holocaust victims were found at Buchenwald concentration camp.

Using skins from white men who donated their bodies to medical science, he has created freak versions of mundane items including flags, boots and maps of America – in effect using skin like leather. His work, he says, is a commentary on human cruelty and America's ethics and morality.

More here.

bring on the paine


At the end of President Obama’s inaugural address in January 2009, he alluded to a small passage that appeared in Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense. Faced with an American economy wracked by nervousness and self-doubt Obama noted Paine’s rallying cry that galvanised and gave hope to the despairing: “Let it be told to the future world … that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive … that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [this danger].” Unique among radicals, the 200th anniversary of the death of Thomas Paine will be marked in England, in France and across the Atlantic. This is a measure of the impact of Paine’s ideas both in his own country and in parts of the world that became the centre of revolutionary political change at the end of the 18th century. Paine was perhaps fortunate to live in such invigorating times and to be able to think about them so constructively. Yet what is remarkable is that his message has been capable of speaking with immediacy to each successive generation, providing radical inspiration and comfort in troubled times. This is because Paine was a persuasive author with a gift for penetrating, lucid and memorable language. However, he was also actively participating in the revolutions he wished to inspire. Both through word and deed he could justly claim ‘the world is my country and my religion to do good.’

more from David Nash at History Today here.

nehamas on dutton


Dutton’s effort to use Darwin to go beyond the origins of art and to evaluate its forms and resolve its philosophical ambiguities is animated by the desire to find the “human universals that underlie the vast cacophony of cultural differences through history and across the globe.” But why think of these differences as a cacophony? Why not celebrate them as a proliferation of human possibilities? Because the overvaluation of unity, an avatar of Platonic idealism, which lurks within Dutton’s naturalism has impelled him to write, in effect, two different books—one of which, on the prehistory of art, is better than the other, a novel and important work. Here, he is on solid ground—if, of course, we can speak of solid ground where speculation and theory are still impossible to distinguish. The evolutionary psychology of art seems to be living through its own Pleistocene Era. But to concede as much is also to suggest that, at least, it has a future. The Art Instinct is taking some of the very first, if uncertain, steps toward it.

more from The American Scholar here.

the laboratory of Cassius Marcellus Coolidge


For more than a century, any promenade down a seaside boardwalk has required a stop at an apparently nameless apparatus: a painted wooden façade featuring a colorful character in an outlandish situation with a hole where its head should be. A tourist playfully inserting his or her head into the cartoonish scene is then recorded for posterity by a professional photographer. The genre has its favored iterations, from the weightlifting hulk to the bathing beauty, the swimmer perilously clenched in the mouth of a shark to the novice aviator nervously clutching the controls of an airplane. As one of the omnipresent features of visual mass culture in American life since the end of the nineteenth century, these façades offer the possibility of radical transformation in the guise of carefree recreation, a chance for the working-class beachgoer to become, safely and fleetingly, someone very different. As with any element of quotidian experience that seems always to have existed, the photo-caricature or comic foreground (two names given to the innovation by its inventor) does in fact have a genealogy—a complex one that winds its way through the rise of modern culture. Comic foregrounds were but one of a series of contributions to mass culture by the polymathic Cassius Marcellus Coolidge (1844–1934), who also gave the world the now-canonical “dogs playing poker” paintings and a comic operetta about a mosquito invasion in New Jersey.

more from Cabinet here.

Tuesday Poem

Fugitive Beauty
George De Gregorio

The term “fugitive beauty” came
to me in a letter. A friend’s wife
had used it in conversation. My friend
is a painter who studied in Paris.
I sought his opinion on poetry.

Fugitive beauty, evanescent, fleeting,
as if it implied a criminality
I did not understand.
Did all art start that way –
alone, furtive, so coiled
in its incubation that it feared
possible success or failure?

Fugitive, running away,
not standing with the norm, the herd,
not strong enough
to be judged?

Or did it mean beauty as Keats meant it?
“Truth is beauty, beauty truth” –
a raw truth, or a new dimension of beauty,
a new adjective
to describe eagles soaring,
no parameters,
like prisoners breaking out.

Out there by itself,
not great, not mediocre,
but flying in its own space
against all normalcy, blasting off
to its own truthfulness,
its own freedom.