A Man Outside: John A Hall’s Biography of Ernest Gellner

Bilde Scott McLemee in The National:

It is easy to imagine why Ernest Gellner would be one of the universally known figures in Anglophone intellectual life. A polymath whose work ranged across anthropology, history, philosophy, and sociology, his mind wrestled with an encyclopedia’s worth of nagging questions about nationalism, modernity, civil society, imperialism, Islam, psychoanalysis, ethics and epistemology. “I am not a donkey,” he liked to say, borrowing a line from Max Weber, “and I don’t have a field.”

He wrote clearly and trenchantly, with brio and dry wit. Clearly these were not among the qualities that had rubbed off on him from Weber (let alone from Immanuel Kant, another of the master-thinkers defining the horizons of his work). By my count, roughly half of Gellner’s almost two dozen books are collections of essays – a wry running commentary on half a century of public intellectual life following the Second World War: existentialism, structuralism, the thaws and re-freezings of the Soviet bloc, and the varieties of dissident enthusiasm in the West… These pieces revisit the themes and preoccupations of his monographic works, and retain their vitality, well after the original polemical targets have been forgotten.

All of this, to repeat, should explain Gellner’s monumental prominence – except for the fact that he has no such prominence. There are Foucauldians aplenty and Rortyans by the score – and even the occasional stray Marcusean, tending the flame. But of Gellnerians, there is scarcely a trace. Not that Gellner has been completely forgotten. His work remains central to debates on the nature of nationalism. But only with John Hall’s intellectual biography do we have a suitable treatment of Gellner’s work as a whole, seen on its own very large scale.

Khaled: The King Of Rai

Banning Eyre at NPR:

ScreenHunter_01 Jul. 27 19.26 He was born Khaled Hadj Brahim in 1960 in the Mediterranean port city of Oran — or “Crazyville,” as he once called it. Oran marks an intersection of cultures, a place where Spanish, Moroccan, French, Arabic, American, Berber, Jewish and gypsy ideas and idioms collided. Khaled came of age during the lull between two bloody conflicts: the 1950s war that freed Algeria from French colonialism; and the religiously fueled civil war of the 1990s. In a land torn apart by intolerance and violence, Khaled stood out as an artist who embraced openness and peace.

Khaled was also a bad boy, a playboy and a partier, even rejecting the polite traditions of Algeria's poetry. When a traditional Oranese poet wants to describe love, Khaled once explained to me, the poet will speak in metaphor — for example, about a pigeon. Khaled says he prefers to take a different approach.

“When I sing rai,” Khaled said, “I talk about things directly: I drink alcohol, I love a woman, I am suffering. I speak to the point.”

More here.

Ecology: A world without mosquitoes

From Nature:

Mos Every day, Jittawadee Murphy unlocks a hot, padlocked room at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Maryland, to a swarm of malaria-carrying mosquitoes (Anopheles stephensi). She gives millions of larvae a diet of ground-up fish food, and offers the gravid females blood to suck from the bellies of unconscious mice — they drain 24 of the rodents a month. Murphy has been studying mosquitoes for 20 years, working on ways to limit the spread of the parasites they carry. Still, she says, she would rather they were wiped off the Earth. That sentiment is widely shared. Malaria infects some 247 million people worldwide each year, and kills nearly one million. Mosquitoes cause a huge further medical and financial burden by spreading yellow fever, dengue fever, Japanese encephalitis, Rift Valley fever, Chikungunya virus and West Nile virus. Then there's the pest factor: they form swarms thick enough to asphyxiate caribou in Alaska and now, as their numbers reach a seasonal peak, their proboscises are plunged into human flesh across the Northern Hemisphere.

So what would happen if there were none? Would anyone or anything miss them? Nature put this question to scientists who explore aspects of mosquito biology and ecology, and unearthed some surprising answers.

More here.

Translating Stories of Life Forms Etched in Stone

Sean B. Carroll in The New York Times:

Sean In 1909, Charles Walcott, a paleontologist and secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, discovered one of the greatest and most famous fossil troves high in the Canadian Rockies on Burgess Pass in British Columbia. The slabs of Burgess Shale that Walcott excavated contained the earliest known examples at the time of many major animal groups in the fossil record, in rocks that were about 505 million years old. Walcott’s discovery was further evidence of the so-called Cambrian Explosion — the apparently abrupt appearance of complex animals in the fossil record within the Cambrian Period, from about 542 to 490 million years ago. Although not seen before on the scale documented in the Burgess Shale, the emergence of trilobites and other animals in the Cambrian was familiar to paleontologists, and had troubled Charles Darwin a great deal.

The difficulty posed by the Cambrian Explosion was that in Darwin’s day (and for many years after), no fossils were known in the enormous, older rock formations below those of the Cambrian. This was an extremely unsettling fact for his theory of evolution because complex animals should have been preceded in the fossil record by simpler forms. In “On the Origin of Species,” Darwin posited that “during these vast, yet quite unknown, periods of time, the world swarmed with living creatures.” But he admitted candidly, “To the question why we do not find records of these vast primordial periods, I can give no satisfactory answer.”

More here.

A Jungle Tiananmen


It was several days after the deaths in Bagua, and we were in a tiny car flying down a washboard gravel road—some left-of-nowhere oil company throughway punched into the Peruvian Amazon—when the paramilitary cops flagged us down. Everybody in the back was asleep: Plinio leaning on Alcides, Alcides—snoring—leaning on me. I elbowed Plinio. There are three rules for reporting in the Amazon: 1) add two screwups to every plan; 2) there is no such thing as a “little problem”; and 3) you never—ever—go in without an Indian guide. Plinio was mine. He was wiping sleep from his eyes as the cop, in military pants tucked into black boots, approached the car, a machine gun over his soldier. I wanted to go home. “It is routine,” Plinio said. “It is the state of emergency. He’s checking our IDs. Just remember our story.” He meant to remember the lie we’d concocted: that my partner, Duncan, and I were making a documentary about the Amazon’s threatened biodiversity. In fact, we were there investigating the impact of Peru’s booming oil industry on the forest’s indigenous villages. Many people don’t realize that Peru controls most of the Amazon’s headwaters—a massive chunk of the rainforest second only to Brazil’s portion—or that Peru’s past two pro-business presidents have bet the ranch on the area’s oil-rich energy lodes.

more from Kelly Hearn at VQR here.

the song that levels us


The memorable, artless clarity of the Happy Birthday song is the essence of its genius. So with all its deliberate simplicity, it’s funny that the Happy Birthday song is a little bit hard to sing. We’ve all experienced this. As the end of each phrase gets progressively higher, you are, average singer, taken outside your comfortable vocal range, so that by the time you get to the third “birthday” (and it’s the “birth” note that’s the biggest problem) you’re practically in eunuch territory. Luckily, this high note happens quickly and only once so you can jump down from it safely and finish the song within the more gentle territory of the second line. (As opposed to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” for instance, a virtuoso song that nobody sings, a high-note holocaust which forces you to start really high from the get-go and keep singing higher and higher until you miraculously finish or implode.) We might think of this as the great flaw in “Happy Birthday to You.” To be fair, though, the “birth” note is not a problem inherent in the song. It’s starting “Happy Birthday to You” in a key that is too high which spells disaster. But here’s the thing: Because the song is always sung spontaneously, by a random group with (usually) uneven musical abilities, the key is always too high. The distance between the lowest note in the Happy Birthday song and the highest is eight steps and they happen, in that third line, right next to each other. That’s a whole octave leap. I’ve guesstimated that .0001 percent of the world’s population can make this octave leap. And yet we all sing it, time and again, debasing ourselves. Why? Because it’s funny. Every time. If you have Pavarotti in your gang, it makes no difference. “Happy Birthday to You” makes the collective sound terrible and, in doing so, makes everyone laugh. I’ve decided that the octave leap, the most curious part of the Happy Birthday song, is its finest element. “Happy Birthday to You” is disarming. It levels us.

more from Stefany Anne Golberg at The Smart Set here.



Perhaps the most unlikely hero to emerge from this summer’s World Cup was Paul the octopus, a lightly spotted invertebrate living in an aquatic center in Germany. Paul earned worldwide fame for successfully “predicting” the winner of eight out of eight soccer games, including the final match. Before each game, Paul’s keepers would place two food-filled boxes, each of which was decorated with one team’s national flag, in the creature’s tank. Whichever box Paul ate from first was considered to be his pick. The octopus nailed it all eight times. Though Paul’s success seems mainly to have been luck — evidence for psychic sports forecasting ability in octopuses is, well, somewhat lacking — if you were looking to consult a brainy animal, you could do worse than an octopus. Research is increasingly revealing that there’s something sophisticated going on inside the octopus’s soft and squishy head. The critters, it seems, are surprisingly smart.

more from Emily Anthes at The Boston Globe here.

From An Old Book: An Old but Durable Commitment

by Michael Blim

Fdr A bag of books for two bucks, said the sign. Deflation has hit the little Connecticut country library used book sales I haunt each summer. Imagine what you can stuff into a big supermarket paper bag, and then cross-rough it with a run of terrific books – a book of Giotto’s frescoes, Graham Greene’s The Comedians, three P.D. James mysteries, George F. Kennan’s Russia and the West under Lenin and Stalin, a compilation of comic art propaganda that includes a study and pictures of Hansi: the Girl Who Loved the Swastika (the protagonist escapes Nazism by becoming a bride for Christ). All of these and A Guide to Thomas Aquinas.

All of these books bid for my affections, hoping for a quick conquest of my summer reading plans. Having laid hands on Robert Sherwood’s Hopkins and Roosevelt (1948) my fate was sealed. And fortunately for me, having spent as 3QD readers know the past two summers on first Hitler and then Stalin thanks to my library sales book buys.

What a delight to read the history of heroes once more. Sherwood tells the story of how Roosevelt and Hopkins, FDR’s alter ego insofar as he ever had one, battled the Great Depression and World War II together, with Hopkins the iron fist in Roosevelt’s velvet glove. The story is told with admiration and a beguiling humility. Though a successful playwright and a speechwriting White House denizen from 1940 onward, Sherwood never lost his awe of the two men, sharing intimate space and time with two persons who never shared their intimate thoughts with anyone.

Sherwood’s sense of wonder at what he observed is perhaps only exceeded by the reactions of a sympathetic reader. Hopkins, an Iowa-born New York social worker, put 4 million people to work in one month during the dark winter of 1933-34 and got 180,000 public works projects up and running in four. He put millions more to work with the Works Progress Administration, and after 1937 with half a stomach and successions of near-death crises due to chronic metabolic diseases left over after his bout with cancer, ran the Lend-Lease program that put ships, planes, tanks, and arms in the hands of a half a dozen of America’s allies in World War II and acted as FDR’s confidential agent with Churchill, Stalin, and their military and diplomatic staffs.

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Moral Questions in the Ancient Art of Human Enhancement (Now With Venn Diagrams)

Electric flesh brushI've been named an “Affiliate Scholar” at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, so I thought I'd think about where I fit in the Humanist/Transhumanist matrix. Then I thought I'd draw a Venn diagram or two.

Somewhere along the line we've developed the habit of announcing that, thanks to new technology, we're forever on the verge of revolutionizing what it means to be human. Maybe it came in with the Industrial Revolution and our parallel discovery of modern medical science. Whatever the source, consider this 1933 quote from British engineer Allan Young, in his book Forward From Chaos. As Jo-Anne Pemberton noted in her book Global Metaphors, Young heralded the dawn of what he called the 'Electric-Machine-Power Age' as follows:

“The advent of radio art has provided a revolutionary change in the method and rate of thought dissemination. The human voice is now able to encircle the globe in the twinkling of an eye … It is thus possible for me to project my thoughts instantly into the mind of someone living on the opposite side of the planet …”

“The evolution of the radio machine … seems to be one of the very biggest happenings in our civilization … I stresss the importance of the great acceleration we are now witnessing in the whole process of translating thought into action …”

To which the modern mind can only add, “Really? From radio?” If he were alive today, Allan Young would probably be a Transhumanist like most of my friends at the IEET. In 1933, as in the decades before and since, people have been announcing that technology is about to radically alter the scope, power, and nature of human existence.

And the funny thing is, then it actually does. Humanity was transformed by radio – and by what Young called “the aeroplane.” By the time these transformations became ubiquitious, however, they had also become ordinary – even boring. The truth is that we've been transforming our minds and our bodies for generations. Take life extension, a favorite topic for Transhumanists: Life expectancy increased from 18 years in the Bronze Age to 25 years in Colonial America (although infant mortality affected the numbers significantly), and it approaches 80 years in that country today. Medicine and public health lowered infant mortality in London from nearly 75% before the Industrial Revolution to 31% afterward[i]. But these advances have been unequal. Life expectancy in the poverty-stricken Calton area of Glasgow, for example, is 8 years less than in the Lenzie neighborhood less than ten miles away.[ii]

Somebody already engineered the human lifespan – but they did it with the (often unequal) distribution of resources like food, shelter, disease and accident prevention, and medical care.

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The Borges behind the fiction: Colin Marshall talks to Latin American fiction translator Suzanne Jill Levine

Suzanne Jill Levine is a noted translator of creative, innovative, adventurous Latin American Fiction from authors like Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Severo Sarduy, and Manuel Puig. She’s also a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the general editor and co-translator of Penguin Classics’ five new volumes of nonfiction and poetry from widely respected Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges: On Writing, On Mysticism, On Argentina, The Sonnets, and Poems of the Night. Her own book The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction has been recently reissued by Dalkey Archive. Colin Marshall originally conducted this interview on the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas. [MP3] [iTunes]

Levine2 Purely as a reader of Latin American fiction, leaving aside all the issues of translation for one moment, where does Borges reside in the Latin American fiction map in your mind, relating to all the other authors you’ve read?

He has often been called the father of the Latin American novel. Certainly the new Latin American novel, as of the mid-20th century. I think that’s very correct; that’s a good way of putting it. I hate to use biological or patriarchal terms here, but he truly was such an amazing inventor, such an amazing adventurer in the world of literature, that his ideas, his concepts, his way into literature really inspired all these writers. He directly inspired García Márquez, but even the generation before that: Julio Cortázar, Bioy Casares. So many writers were impacted by Borges and his way of dealing with literature and writing.

What’s interesting about him is that he really was first a poet, and always considered himself a poet. I think his approach to writing, no matter whether it’s fiction, poetry, essays, is in some ways poetry. I think that’s what makes the Latin American novel what it was, so special, so innovative. It was how it was dealing with language, how it was renewing language. That’s what made it exciting, bringing in these obviously new genres like magical realism, of which Borges is definitely a precursor.

Borges inspired those older than him, he’s inspired so many younger, he continues to inspire, people haven’t stopped going back to him. He has a bigger audience than ever, arguably. Is it the poetry that causes this? Is it his use of language, specifically, that people find in Borges that draws them to it?

He really is, conceptually, a revolutionary, and I think he just invented a way of looking at literature that was always there, except he made us conscious of it. He made us aware of it. For example, people have said, “Well, Borges invented the World Wide Web.” In a way, you could say he has.

That’s a bold claim.

It’s a bold claim. Borges invented the notion that we are all inside the text. The text is everything and there’s no originality — of course, he’s one of the most original writers there is! He’s also so paradoxical. People are intrigued by the paradoxes that come up time and again in Borges. And yet, his paradoxes are as old as Socrates, and even older. It’s just that he knew how to bring all of culture in to the 20th century. At first, he kind of rejected it. In On Writing, my anthology, the very first statement is the Ultra Manifesto — remember, he was an Ultraist.

Two or three years after being an Ultraist, he rejected the posturing of the avant-garde, but he says here something I really think sums up who he is. He says, “Two aesthetics exist: the passive aesthetic of mirrors and the active aesthetic of prisms. Guided by the former, art turns into a copy of the environment’s objectivity or the individual’s psychic history.” There, of course, he sums up all of realism, no? “Guided by the latter, art is redeemed, makes the world into its instrument and forges, beyond spatial and temporal prisons, a personal vision.” That’s Borges. This idea of this “personal vision”: he says here, “Let’s throw out everything and start anew,” but what he actually discovers is, “Let’s take in it all and start anew!” And that’s why people love him. They can always start from anywhere and start anew. I think that’s what is so Borgesian.

It can sound rarefied to someone who hasn’t read Borges. We talk about how much he’s getting into his works, and what sounds like very intellectual concepts he uses. Yet he touches such a wide range of readers. It seems like the way he uses these ideas and the way he uses these techniques couldn’t be that rarefied. How does he get such a wide appeal?

It’s true; it’s not that rarefied. It’s sort of the way he says things. People are suddenly struck by a new way of looking at things. It’s not so much what he says; it’s how he says it. Another text in On Writing, which nobody has read before in English — and even very few people in Spanish — is this 1926 text. Here, the guy was like 26, he was very young. It’s called “Stories from Turkestan”. He basically announces magical realism way before anybody was talking about it. And in the most concrete terms! This is what makes him delightful.

Look what he says here: “The essence of the stories from Turkestan is generosity, a virtue of the plains and the shepherds.” He goes on to say, “Time, in these chimerical stories of Turkestan, not only expands but has the loose shape of dreams.” It’s the way he makes language so concrete. Even though he’s writing prose, it’s poetry in the way he uses images in such a concrete way. I think he brings home these concepts with his taste for language, his ability to make language speak.

What was your first encounter with Borges’ work?

Way back. I went to Spain when I was a young student, and then when I got back to college my senior year, the professors were talking about Borges. This is, like, in the late sixties. I already was aware of Borges, like many of us who were studying Spanish and Latin American literature. But then I met this wonderful critic who became a very important influence in my early life as a literary critic, as a scholar, and as a writer, really. His name was Emir Rodriguez Monegal. He was a Uruguayan critic, also a professor at Yale, who really brought Borges home to all of us. He was somebody who discovered him at age fifteen. The first book I actually engaged with in a more specific way was an early work of fiction of his called The Universal History of Infamy. Which was hysterical, because it’s this tiny book with seven short stories, and he’s calling it the universal history of crime, basically! You have to be draw to this.

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Monday Poem

“Black holes, Big Bang, Bada Bing, quantum space, worm holes, the Theory of Strings; space is a smorgasbord of metaphors of things.” –Roshi Bob, The Theory of Theories and Other Anomalies; Bench Press, 2011

Fun in Space
Call me nomad, but
rootlessness is my routine

From where I stand
space seems to beg for exploration
not occupation. Occupation of space
requires a military state of mind
Armies are trained for it. Individuals however,
grow dull and lethargic just occupying space

There’s no substitute for dynamism
when facing space

When I stumble upon a new chunk
I like to engage it many times over
laying out alternate trajectories
bisecting circles
flying off on tangents
or just nosing around looking for

If the wind’s right you might catch me
boogalooing along an hypotenuse
or oscillating between the foci of an ellipse
I go at it from all angles by any means

For example I’ve found a trampoline’s
a satisfying way to explore space:
up, down, up, down
Along similar lines (if you have the money)
a space shuttle is good too:
up, down, up, down

There are various ways to approach space
We can grid it off and tackle it one little corner at a time
or go at it whole, working it as Jackson Pollock would a canvas
What we choose depends upon our depth of indoctrination
or degree of personality disorder

Whatever our milieu, space can be an exhilarating place
–or is it places?

In fact space is full of surprises
(moving beyond bland Euclidean space that is;
the plainest of all geometries)
Still, you gotta hand it to the guy
Euclid’s space may be old hat,
but it’s a space that’s served us well over the years
Try getting from here to there without it

But what really psyches me
are novel topologies of space
There’s nothing more exhilarating
then space that pushes the envelope

Consider the quirky but tasty appeal of a torus
(the deep-fried cuisine of crime-stoppers),
the intriguing infinity of a Möbius strip,
or the warm and cozy feel
inside a conversation-laced pub
These are boundary-pushing spaces all, but
they’re nothing
up against the reality-bending possibilities
of warped space as given by Einstein
and can’t hold a candle
to the almost mystically
tangled theory of strings

Just the thought of Einsteinian or string space
neutralizes any residual sense of metaphysical claustrophobia
left over from grade-school catechism
under hard nuns

Me? I never miss the chance to savor space
With six point eight billion of us on the planet,
at our present rate of consumption,
you never know when
we might run out

by Jim Culleny
June 2007

Divorcing Tradition: Freedom, Equality and Marriage

Arings Marriage can mean many different things to different people. For some, it’s all about the wedding – often an event with the pomp and opulence of a fairy tale ball. For others, it’s about the legal arrangement and the accompanying benefits, which could mean anything from health insurance to citizenship. Still for others, the most important part may be the commitment to sharing a life together.

In recent decades, the issue of gay marriage has been widely debated. Should two men in a committed relationship enjoy the same benefits as a man and a woman in the same domestic arrangement? If it were simply an issue of basic human rights and equality, then the answer is clear – gays and lesbians are human, so human rights should apply. But gay marriage violates tradition, and tradition is important to many people.

Traditions are part of our history, part of our culture, and part of who we are. The degree to which we suffer to maintain traditions reflects their great importance. Maintaining tradition has been worth the pain of genital mutilation, ceremonial scarring, and foot binding. Nevertheless, traditional practices have been disappearing steadily. For example, in many places, women are now considered full persons. They’re allowed to work outside the home, to wear pants, and to vote. For those who value tradition, this is a trend that must stop.

One might argue that traditional practices should be abandoned when they no longer make sense. But as French mathematician Blaise Pascal recognized, the heart has its reasons that reason doesn’t understand. Some things are simply more important than reason, and for many, tradition is one of them.

If there is any doubt about the appropriateness or morality of same-sex marriages, we can always turn to religion for answers. According to many religions, marriage is supposed to be between a man and a woman. The woman is supposed to stay at home and be subservient and they should have lots of children. Some religions also advocate putting people to death for minor deviations from the traditional paradigm. Roman Catholicism seems to be tolerant of some deviations, like pedophilia, but not others, like homosexuality or the use of contraception.

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By Tolu Ogunlesi


Africa their Africa

AfricaWhen Western tourists talk about Africa somehow it seems to me that what they really mean is East and Southern Africa, places like Namibia and Kenya and Botswana and parts of Uganda where you will find safaris and zebras and elephants and lakes in abundance.

When I think of Tourists' Africa I almost never think of Nigeria. Tourists stay away from a country like Nigeria – those masses of foreigners to be seen at the arrival terminal of the Lagos International Airport (MMIA) are diplomats and NGO-types and oil workers and journalists and researchers, and maybe spies. (And of course the occasional ‘Nigerian letter’ victim desperately hoping to recover a lost fortune). For most of them there will be the lure of money to be made / earned – as hardship allowance or crazy business profit. Nigeria is one country where foreigners come to make money, not fritter it away on guided tours and lakeside resorts.

In the Congo they will be aid workers and diamond-seeking businessmen and gorilla savers; ditto the Sudan (minus the gorilla-savers and businessmen). In Liberia and Sierra Leone they will be IMF and World Bank officials. In Guinea Bissau they will mostly be cocaine merchants and US drug enforcement agents.

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Eating Our Popcorn While We Weep: Remembering Karen Ballentine

7726_143972584424_513199424_2474849_7414566_n 3qd friend Karen Ballentine died Friday after a struggle with cancer. Her comments and insights revealed a keening intellect that dissolved what Auden called the “conventions [that] conspire to make this fort assume the furniture of home,” but one that was still infused with a deep compassion. Her letter to Abbas on the 5th anniversary of September 11th is telling:

Dear Abbas,

When I read that 3QD was devoting all of Monday's blog to 9-11, I had mixed feelings. I know you grieve it, as many of us do. I know you lost a friend. And even for those New Yorkers who came out with themselves and their loved ones unscathed, as I did, still, it was traumatic.

Since then, as we know, so many others…the Bush Administration, the Hollywood executives, the lawyers, the real estate moguls, Anne Coulter, Osama, and every justifiably angry but tragically misguided jihadist has found what they need to promote their own agendas in that tragedy.

Even as we “New Yorkers”, the children of so many different nations, religions, races, and beliefs found our own community, and our own hope, the rest of the nation has been stuck on the virtual (via CNN and the web) trauma, without experiencing recovery, as we all did through the force of our common humanity.

That might be the key difference between 911 and Katrina: both Manhattan and D.C. recovered from the terrorist attacks on 911. But the nation did not.

With Katrina, on the other hand, the nation got over it, but the victims, the dead, their loved ones, their comunities, especially the poor African Americans of the lower ninth, as well as the working people all along the gulf…they did not.

In both cases, albeit for different reasons, America has let its people down.

Die Young, Live Fast: The Evolution of an Underclass

Mg20727692.100-1_300 Mairi Macleod in New Scientist:

FROM feckless fathers and teenaged mothers to so-called feral kids, the media seems to take a voyeuristic pleasure in documenting the lives of the “underclass”. Whether they are inclined to condemn or sympathise, commentators regularly ask how society got to be this way. There is seldom agreement, but one explanation you are unlikely to hear is that this kind of “delinquent” behaviour is a sensible response to the circumstances of a life constrained by poverty. Yet that is exactly what some evolutionary biologists are now proposing.

There is no reason to view the poor as stupid or in any way different from anyone else, says Daniel Nettle of the University of Newcastle in the UK. All of us are simply human beings, making the best of the hand life has dealt us. If we understand this, it won't just change the way we view the lives of the poorest in society, it will also show how misguided many current efforts to tackle society's problems are – and it will suggest better solutions.

Evolutionary theory predicts that if you are a mammal growing up in a harsh, unpredictable environment where you are susceptible to disease and might die young, then you should follow a “fast” reproductive strategy – grow up quickly, and have offspring early and close together so you can ensure leaving some viable progeny before you become ill or die. For a range of animal species there is evidence that this does happen. Now research suggests that humans are no exception.

Certainly the theory holds up in comparisons between people in rich and poor countries. Bobbi Low and her colleagues at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor compared information from nations across the world to see if the age at which women have children changes according to their life expectancy (Cross-Cultural Research, vol 42, p 201). “We found that the human data fit the general mammalian pattern,” says Low. “The shorter life expectancy was, the earlier women had their first child.”

But can the same biological principles explain the difference in behaviour between rich and poor within a developed, post-industrialised country?

Blindly Working Through the Past

Bookcover Jörg Magenau reviews Christa Wolf's autobiography, in Signandsight (originally in Die Taz):

Las Vegas is not the first place you would associate with Christa Wolf. She doesn't stay long. She sets herself a 60 dollar limit at roulette and stops there. She throws a few joyless coins into the one-armed bandit before retiring wearily to bed, early. A welcome escape from gambling hell. As far as earthly pleasures go, she is not easily led into temptation.

This scene comes at the end of what her publishers somewhat boldly describe as her new “novel”. “Stadt der Engel oder The Overcoat of Dr. Freud” (city of angels or The Overcoat …) is in fact memoirs couched in fiction and it is all about being seduced. It is only here, on the road to Navajo – and the Hopi Indians – that she finally manages to let go and show some interest in the things that come her way: the landscape, the people. It's no coincidence that her journey ends in Death Valley where she glides over into a dream vision. A pull “towards the end” is ever-present in this book. Death nears with old age; it is time to take stock.

In the months beforehand, between September 1992 and May 1993, when Christa Wolf was a guest at the Getty Center in Los Angeles – almost everything revolved around herself and her history, her life in the GDR, socialism, and most of all, the shock that she experienced in the summer of 1992, when the Gauck Authority (for the Stasi Archives -ed.) presented her with the 42 folders of so-called “Stasi victim files” and a slim portfolio that detailed her activities as an “IM”, or informal cooperator, between 1959 and 1962.

The acronym “IM” was the mark of the devil in year two of a reunified Germany. The public had taken to the moral high ground and was in no position to make nuanced differentiations. And now the great moralist herself, Christa Wolf, had been caught red handed.

The Web Means the End of Forgetting

25privacy-span-articleLarge Jeffrey Rosen in the NYT Magazine:

We’ve known for years that the Web allows for unprecedented voyeurism, exhibitionism and inadvertent indiscretion, but we are only beginning to understand the costs of an age in which so much of what we say, and of what others say about us, goes into our permanent — and public — digital files. The fact that the Internet never seems to forget is threatening, at an almost existential level, our ability to control our identities; to preserve the option of reinventing ourselves and starting anew; to overcome our checkered pasts.

In a recent book, “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age,” the cyberscholar Viktor Mayer-Schönberger cites Stacy Snyder’s case as a reminder of the importance of “societal forgetting.” By “erasing external memories,” he says in the book, “our society accepts that human beings evolve over time, that we have the capacity to learn from past experiences and adjust our behavior.” In traditional societies, where missteps are observed but not necessarily recorded, the limits of human memory ensure that people’s sins are eventually forgotten. By contrast, Mayer-Schönberger notes, a society in which everything is recorded “will forever tether us to all our past actions, making it impossible, in practice, to escape them.” He concludes that “without some form of forgetting, forgiving becomes a difficult undertaking.”

It’s often said that we live in a permissive era, one with infinite second chances. But the truth is that for a great many people, the permanent memory bank of the Web increasingly means there are no second chances — no opportunities to escape a scarlet letter in your digital past. Now the worst thing you’ve done is often the first thing everyone knows about you.