Kundera, Respekt and Contempt

Kundera Jana Prikryl in The Nation:

In early 2008, an investigative reporter named Janek Kroupa helped Vlastimil Tlustý–then a member of the conservative ODS Party who was waging an internecine contest against Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek–to stage compromising photos of Tlustý enjoying a bath with a young woman. Apparently animated by professional curiosity, Kroupa established a fictive detective agency as a front for shopping around the images to other ODS members to see if anyone in Tlustý's orbit had an appetite for blackmail. Jan Morava, then a 29-year-old ODS member of Parliament from a district just north of Prague, took the bait, trying to sell the photos to Mladá fronta Dnes, a national newspaper (in a deal prearranged by Kroupa). And in a remarkable twist, Morava told the “detectives” that by way of paying for the photos, he had a fresh commission to offer: he wanted to be photographed on the sly with another young woman, the 23-year-old daughter of Olga Zubová, a Green Party member whose support of ODS legislation was considered inadequate. Morava intended to use these images to suggest that Zubová's daughter was being watched, thereby pressuring the legislator to bolster her support of ODS. The entire scheme was finally exposed in September, when Kroupa had enough evidence–much of it footage from hidden cameras–to undermine Morava. Prime Minister Topolánek called for both politicians to resign and criticized the reporter's “provocative” approach to journalism. Morava broke into tears at the press conference in which he announced his departure. Tlustý rode it out and managed to remain in office. And despite the questions raised about his ethics, Kroupa seems only to have burnished his reputation with this manufactured exposé.

Read more »

The Questions C.P. Snow Raised 50 Years Ago By Asking: Where Are We Now?

E.O. Wilson, Janna Levin, Laszlo Barabasi, Steven Pinker, Marc Hauser and Rebecca Goldstein discuss the issue over at Edge:

“Are we beyond the Two Cultures?” asks Seed Magazine in its May 7 commemoration of the 50th anniversary of C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures lecture. Readers following Edge since it began 12 years, 285 editions, and 2,939,953 words ago, know how to answer this question. Fortunately, Seed follows up and asks “Where are we now?”

It's been clear for several years that the third culture I predicted I fifteen years earlier has been in need of an update. “There are encouraging signs,” I wrote in “The Expanding Third Culture” (2006), “that the third culture includes scholars in the humanities who think the way scientists do. Like their colleagues in the sciences, they believe there is a real world and their job is to understand it and explain it. They test their ideas in terms of logical coherence, explanatory power, conformity with empirical facts. They do not defer to intellectual authorities: Anyone's ideas can be challenged, and understanding and knowledge accumulate through such challenges. They are not reducing the humanities to biological and physical principles, but they do believe that art, literature, history, politics—a whole panoply of humanist concerns—need to take the sciences into account.”

Seed has played in this field of ideas, creating their own kind of culture, one that embraces artists, architects, novelists designers, musicians, etc., presenting their work in vibrant and imaginative ways.

In the videos below, Seed asks six notable scientists, authors, thinkers — all also early Edge contributors — (E.O. Wilson, Janna Levin, Albert-László Barabási, Steven Pinker, Marc D. Hauser, and Rebecca Goldstein) — to comment on where the third culture is today.

the shakespeare gap


Reading the deserved critical huzzahs for the current production of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone has me thinking about a bee always in my bonnet. Critics swoon over the “poetry” of Wilson’s language–but Shakespearean language is equally poetic, and yet I suspect his poetry reaches far fewer of us across an entire evening than Wilson’s can, and the reason is language change and how hard a time we have dealing with it. One writer beautifully captures the mood of most audiences at Shakespeare performances as “reverently unreceptive,” “gratified that they have come, and gratified that they now may go.” One need only take a look at the faces in the lobby as the audience files out–the gray-haired gent’s polite grin, the thirty-something couple’s set jaws, the adolescent girl’s petulant weariness – with general interest oriented suspiciously more towards getting to the rest room and planning where to go for a bite than in discussing the play. I last noticed this at BAM’s Macbeth last year, as interesting a production as it was.

more from TNR here.

truly, for all its flaws, Wikipedia is a wonderful thing


1993 wasn’t so long ago; Bill Clinton was president, a fact that the Columbia editors boast about having been able to include at the last moment (the last moment here meaning the weeks or months between the book’s being set and its arriving in the shops or in the hands of door-to-door salesmen). Yet in encyclopedia publishing, 1993 is now prehistory. Even 2000, when a sixth – one has to presume final – edition of the Columbia appeared, belongs to another age. Two years later, a one-time market analyst called Jimmy Wales started up an experimental online project called Wikipedia, which allowed volunteers to create their own encyclopedia entries that could then be revised or even entirely rewritten by anyone else who happened to be logged on. Wales, like everyone else involved in the project, didn’t know if it would work, but since the technology was available it seemed worth a try. In its first year, Wikipedia generated 20,000 articles, and had acquired 200 regular volunteers working to add more (this compares with the 55,000 articles in the Columbia, all subject to rigorous standards of editing and fact-checking, though this in itself was a small-scale enterprise compared to the behemoths of the industry like the Encyclopaedia Britannica, whose 1989 edition covered 400,000 different topics). By the end of 2002, the number of entries on Wikipedia had more than doubled. But it was only in 2003, once it became apparent that there was nothing to stop it continuing to double in size (which is what it did), that Wikipedia started to attract attention outside the small tech-community that had noticed its launch. In early 2004, there were 188,000 articles; by 2006, 895,000. In 2007 there were signs that the pace of growth might start to level off, and only in 2008 did it begin to look like the numbers might be stabilising. The English-language version of Wikipedia currently has more than 2,870,000 entries, a number that has increased by 500,000 over the last 12 months.

more from the LRB here.

film auden


For some six months in 1935–6, W. H. Auden was employed by the General Post Office (GPO) Film Unit on a modest salary of £3 a week, even less than he had made in his previous job as a schoolmaster. (His friend and collaborator Christopher Isherwood, by contrast, would soon be earning £200 a month working for Alexander Korda at Shepperton Studios.) For this whole period Auden would be intensively and productively engaged – as scriptwriter, assistant director, lecturer, writer and, on one occasion, in front of the camera, dressed as a department store Father Christmas. Harry Watt, the co-director of Night Mail, the most celebrated product of Auden’s time in the film industry, recalled him at work (in his memoir Don’t Look at the Camera): Auden sat down to write his verse . . . . He got a bare table at the end of a dark, smelly corridor. We were now bursting at the seams, and the last corner available was in what was inevitably called “the back passage”. It ran parallel with the theatre, where films were constantly being shown. At one end, a bunch of messenger boys played darts, wrestled, and brewed tea.

more from the TLS here.

The Origin of Life

From The American Scientist:

Soup As the frontiers of knowledge have advanced, scientists have resolved one creation question after another. We now have a pretty good understanding of the origin of the Sun and the Earth, and cosmologists can take us to within a fraction of a second of the beginning of the universe itself. We know how life, once it began, was able to proliferate and diversify until it filled (and in many cases created) every niche on the planet. Yet one of the most obvious big questions—how did life arise from inorganic matter?—remains a great unknown.

Our progress on this question has been impeded by a formidable cognitive barrier. Because we perceive a deep gap when we think about the difference between inorganic matter and life, we feel that nature must have made a big leap to cross that gap. This point of view has led to searches for ways large and complex molecules could have formed early in Earth’s history, a daunting task. The essential problem is that in modern living systems, chemical reactions in cells are mediated by protein catalysts called enzymes. The information encoded in the nucleic acids DNA and RNA is required to make the proteins; yet the proteins are required to make the nucleic acids. Furthermore, both proteins and nucleic acids are large molecules consisting of strings of small component molecules whose synthesis is supervised by proteins and nucleic acids. We have two chickens, two eggs, and no answer to the old problem of which came first.

More here.

Thursday Poem

the times
Lucille Clifton

it is hard to remain human on a day
when birds perch weeping
in the trees and the squirrel eyes
do not look away but the dog ones do
in pity.
another child has killed a child
and i catch myself relieved that they are
white and i might understand except
that i am tired of understanding.
if this
alphabet could speak its own tongue
it would be all symbol surely;
the cat would hunch across the long table
and that would mean time is catching up,
and the spindle fish would run to ground
and that would mean the end is coming
and the grains of dust would gather themselves
along the streets and spell out:

these too are your children this too is your child

From Blessing the Boats: New & Selected Poems
1988-2000 (BOA Editions, 2000)

With a wave of the hand

From Scientific American:

With-a-wave-of-the-hand_1 Go into any busy coffee shop and you are likely to see people engrossed in conversation, waving their hands around. A man at the counter describes the coffee he wants to buy – in a mug, not a to-go cup – and his hand takes a familiar shape, as if he were already holding the cozy mug. Nearby, two sisters laugh, as one tells a story about a trip to the barrier reef and all of the fish that she saw, her hands wiggling and darting in an invisible sea in front of her. The drive to gesture when speaking is fundamental to human nature.

If you have thought about why we gesture you probably assumed that we gesture to help others understand what we are saying. Pretending to hold a ceramic mug can help the barista understand exactly which mug you want. Showing how the fish darted to and fro can help your sister get a more vivid picture of what the reef looked like to you. But might gesture also serve another purpose? Many scientists now think that gestures can help the person making them — that moving your hands can help you think. Researchers have become increasingly interested in the connection between the body and thought – in the ways that our physical body shapes abstract mental processes. Gesture is at the center of this discussion. Now the debate is moving into learning, with new research on how students learn to solve math problems in the classroom.

More here.

Taliban-Style Justice Stirs Growing Anger

Pamela Constable in the Washington Post:

ScreenHunter_01 May. 21 10.09 When black-turbaned Taliban fighters demanded in January that Islamic sharia law be imposed in Pakistan's Swat Valley, few alarm bells went off in this Muslim nation of about 170 million.

Sharia, after all, is the legal framework that guides the lives of all Muslims.

Officials said people in Swat were fed up with the slow and corrupt state courts, scholars said the sharia system would bring swift justice, and commentators said critics in the West had no right to interfere.

Today, with hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Swat and Pakistani troops launching an offensive to drive out the Taliban forces, the pendulum of public opinion has swung dramatically. The threat of “Talibanization” is being denounced in Parliament and on opinion pages, and the original defenders of an agreement that authorized sharia in Swat are in sheepish retreat.

More here.

Math and the City

Steven Strogatz in the New York Times:

Portrait_strogatz_240x270 One of the pleasures of looking at the world through mathematical eyes is that you can see certain patterns that would otherwise be hidden. This week’s column is about one such pattern. It’s a beautiful law of collective organization that links urban studies to zoology. It reveals Manhattan and a mouse to be variations on a single structural theme.

The mathematics of cities was launched in 1949 when George Zipf, a linguist working at Harvard, reported a striking regularity in the size distribution of cities. He noticed that if you tabulate the biggest cities in a given country and rank them according to their populations, the largest city is always about twice as big as the second largest, and three times as big as the third largest, and so on. In other words, the population of a city is, to a good approximation, inversely proportional to its rank. Why this should be true, no one knows.

Even more amazingly, Zipf’s law has apparently held for at least 100 years. Given the different social conditions from country to country, the different patterns of migration a century ago and many other variables that you’d think would make a difference, the generality of Zipf’s law is astonishing.

More here. [ Photo copyright Julian Dufort. SEEDMAGAZINE.COM ]

153 of the newly-elected MPs in India have criminal cases pending against them

From the BBC:

_45795815_election_226afp “There are now 153 MPs with criminal charges and 74 of them with serious criminal charges,” Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) and National Election Watch, a civil society alliance working for clean politics and accountable governance, said in a press release.

The study said the opposition BJP has most MPs with pending criminal cases at 43 – out of which 19 MPs have serious criminal cases against them.

The Congress party has 41 MPs with criminal cases – out of which 12 MPs have serious charges against them, it added.

The study said a comparison of top 10 MPs with criminal records in 2004 and 2009 elections indicated that number of candidates with very serious criminal backgrounds had declined.

“Several heavy weight candidates with a criminal background have been rejected by voters. In fact, top five MPs with criminal cases from the 2004 Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament) have been rejected by voters.”

But, what remains worrying is that many of the MPs are charged with serious criminal offences, including murder and gang war.

More here.

a coarser sieve


Howard Hughes, whose acumen outside certain areas of expertise (aeronautics and the acquisition of beautiful actresses) was rarely sound, once said something intelligent about the relative merits of two movie directors. The remark was delivered in early 1939, when George Cukor had been shooting “Gone with the Wind” for about three weeks. An adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s thousand-page blockbuster novel, from 1936, about the Old South, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, the movie was the largest and most expensive production in Hollywood up to that time, with a huge cast, massive sets (the city of Atlanta was burned down and then rebuilt), and hundreds of unshaven and bandaged extras trudging across the landscape. As half of Hollywood maliciously cheered, the production slipped into disaster. The script could be kindly described as a mess, and the star—Clark Gable—was in turmoil. The initial rushes displeased David O. Selznick, the legendary, manic producer who dominated every aspect of the film, and he suddenly fired Cukor, who, he later said, couldn’t have handled the more spectacular elements of the movie. In Cukor’s place, Selznick hired Victor Fleming, who was then directing the other big picture in town, “The Wizard of Oz.” Fleming was a vigorous and resourceful man, but few people considered him an artist. The change pleased Gable but distressed the two female leads—the young stage and film actress Vivien Leigh, just arrived from England and not yet a star, and Olivia de Havilland, who was then Howard Hughes’s girlfriend. Both women depended on Cukor, who was known as a “woman’s director,” and de Havilland brought her troubles to Hughes, who advised: “Don’t worry, everything is going to be all right—with George and Victor, it’s the same talent, only Victor’s is strained through a coarser sieve.”

more from The New Yorker here.

a curmudgeon speaks


The street I have lived on for seventeen years is suddenly alive with children. It is quite a delightful place to be nowadays. When I moved here, I don’t believe there was a child on the block apart from my own, who were there only in the summers and on holidays. Now there must be dozens of them, most not yet of school age. Last Halloween, I noticed how many of my neighbors who are young parents accompanied their little ones on their trick-or-treating rounds while themselves dressed up as witches or pirates. I take it this is a manifestation of the “parenting” craze. A word that didn’t exist when I was a young parent—still less when I was the child of young parents—is now used to describe that mode of child-rearing that begins with the reform of the adult to be more child-like rather than, as in generations past, the child to be more adult-like. Mom and dad now involve themselves in their children’s pastimes out of a supposed duty of empathy that is somehow continuous with responsibility for their children’s safety and well-being. I’m sure that there is much that is good about the new parenting, and it must be rather thrilling for the children, at least in their early years. Yet I can’t but see a disquieting connection to the infantilization of the popular culture and the phenomenon of the “kidult” or “adultescent” who dresses in t-shirts and shorts, slurps up fast food, watches superhero movies, and plays video games well into his thirties or even forties. It’s true that there have been for more than a century certain protected areas of childish innocence where Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy or whatnot have been suffered to remain undisturbed, for a time, by adult consciousness. But this demesne has expanded to include much new territory—like Harry Potter and Batman, who provided so many of the costume themes for Halloween last year—and to encroach on ever more of what once would be considered adulthood. Mom and dad must be intimately involved in their children’s fantasy world not only out of duty to the children but because it is, increasingly, their world too.

more from The New Atlantis here.

doctors in the bedroom


A half-century ago, the researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson brought sex into the laboratory. For thousands of years, sex had been the object of philosophical inquiry and religious stricture, occupying everyone from shamans to psychoanalysts, and giving the world an oceanic supply of marital and extramarital strife. But it hadn’t really been studied, not in the clinical, moment-by-moment manner that Masters proposed. The problem, believed Masters, a stern ob-gyn at Washington University in St. Louis, was that you couldn’t study sex solely by asking people about it, because they were so often unaware of – or dishonest about – what was going on in their own bodies. Along with Johnson, an assistant who soon rose to the rank of co-researcher, Masters brought people, singly and in pairs, into examining rooms and observed them closely with the tools and technologies of modern medicine as they passed into and out of sexual arousal.

more from the Boston Globe here.

Wednesday Poem

Adam Zagajewski

I watched the arctic landscape from above

and thought of nothing, lovely nothing.

I observed white canopies of clouds, vast

expanses where no wolf tracks could be found.

I thought about you and about the emptiness

that can promise one thing only: plenitude—

and that a certain sort of snowy wasteland

bursts from a surfeit of happiness.

As we drew closer to our landing,

the vulnerable earth emerged among the clouds,

comic gardens forgotten by their owners,

pale grass plagued by winter and the wind.

I put my book down and for an instant felt

a perfect balance between waking and dreams.

But when the plane touched concrete, then

assiduously circled the airport's labryinth,

I once again knew nothing. The darkness

of daily wanderings resumed, the day's sweet darkness,

the darkness of the voice that counts and measures,

remembers and forgets.

Translation: Clare Cavanaugh
From Eternal Enemies by Adam Zagajewski;
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008

The evolutionary argument for Dr. Seuss

From Salon:

Story Why do human beings spend so much time telling each other invented stories, untruths that everybody involved knows to be untrue? People in all societies do this, and do it a lot, from grandmothers spinning fairy tales at the hearthside to TV show runners marshaling roomfuls of overpaid Harvard grads to concoct the weekly adventures of crime fighters and castaways. The obvious answer to this question — because it's fun — is enough for many of us. But given the persuasive power of a good story, its ability to seduce us away from the facts of a situation or to make us care more about a fictional world like Middle-earth than we do about a real place like, oh, say, Turkmenistan, means that some ambitious thinkers will always be trying to figure out how and why stories work.

The latest and most intriguing effort to understand fiction is often called Darwinian literary criticism, although Brian Boyd, an English professor at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and the author of “On the Origin of Stories,” a new book offering an overview and defense of the field, prefers the term “evocriticism.” As Boyd points out, the process of natural selection is supposed to gradually weed out any traits in a species that don't contribute to its survival and its ability to pass on its genes to offspring who will do the same. The ability to use stories to communicate accurate information about the real world has some obvious usefulness in this department, but what possible need could be served by made-up yarns about impossible things like talking animals and flying carpets?

Boyd's explanation, heavily ballasted with citations from studies and treatises on neuroscience, cognitive theory and evolutionary biology, boils down to two general points. First, fiction — like all art — is a form of play, the enjoyable means by which we practice and hone certain abilities likely to come in handy in more serious situations. When kittens pounce on and wrestle with their litter mates, they're developing skills that will help them hunt, even though as far as they're concerned they're just larking around. Second, when we create and share stories with each other, we build and reinforce the cooperative bonds within groups of people (families, tribes, towns, nations), making those groups more cohesive and in time allowing human beings to lord it over the rest of creation.

More here.

Darkness and light

From The Guardian:

The-Dark-Side-of-Love-by--002 Syria, more than most, is a land of stories and storytellers. The farmers and shopkeepers describe early Islamic battles or episodes from the Crusades as if they'd attended them in person. A gathering of friends is quickly elevated into a group performance of jokes, laments, myths and conspiracies. Even Syrian surnames suggest stories: there are families called The-Milk's-Boiled, Sip-The-Yoghurt and Undone-Belt. “The deeper you swim into our stories,” a village rhetorician once told me, “the more you understand that they have no floor.”

Yet Syria is better known for its poets, and its TV dramas, than for its novelists. Egypt, with its unending metropolis, is the home of the Arabic novel, and Egypt produced the Arabs' master of fiction, Naguib Mahfouz. But a flame equally bright now burns from Damascus, via Germany, as shown by what may turn out to be the first Great Syrian Novel.

In The Dark Side of Love, Rafik Schami exploits all the resources of the classic realist novel and then goes a little further, forging a new form out of Syrian orality. His basic unit is not chapter or paragraph, but story; a thousand bejewelled anecdotes and tales are buried here, ready to spring, but each is melded with such dazzling surety into the whole that reading the book is always compulsive. In its final, self-exposing passage, Schami compares his method to mosaic work, in which every shiny object is a beauty in itself, yet which in combination, at a distance, reveals a still greater beauty. The novel is even Tolstoyan in its marrying of the personal, social and political spheres, of private with national life.

More here.

The Death of Black Nationalist Culture?

A video and audio of a discussion by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Baz Dreisinger, Peniel E. Joseph & Victor Laval over at NYPL Live:

With an African-American president in the White House—and the first black chairman voted to head the Republican National Committee—has black nationalism become irrelevant? Novelist Victor LaValle explores the personal and political valences of the nationalist idea, and makes a case for embracing a more ecumenical view of black experience—including the freedom to move beyond traditional conceptions of blackness. Baz Dreisinger, author of Near Black: White to Black Passing in American Culture; Peniel E. Joseph, author of Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America; and Atlantic Monthly contributing editor Ta-Nehisi Coates respond.