The Great Cyberheist

James Verini in the New York Times Magazine:

ScreenHunter_01 Nov. 20 09.56 One night in July 2003, a little before midnight, a plainclothes N.Y.P.D. detective, investigating a series of car thefts in upper Manhattan, followed a suspicious-looking young man with long, stringy hair and a nose ring into the A.T.M. lobby of a bank. Pretending to use one of the machines, the detective watched as the man pulled a debit card from his pocket and withdrew hundreds of dollars in cash. Then he pulled out another card and did the same thing. Then another, and another. The guy wasn’t stealing cars, but the detective figured he was stealing something.

Indeed, the young man was in the act of “cashing out,” as he would later admit. He had programmed a stack of blank debit cards with stolen card numbers and was withdrawing as much cash as he could from each account. He was doing this just before 12 a.m., because that’s when daily withdrawal limits end, and a “casher” can double his take with another withdrawal a few minutes later. To throw off anyone who might later look at surveillance footage, the young man was wearing a woman’s wig and a costume-jewelry nose ring. The detective asked his name, and though the man went by many aliases on the Internet — sometimes he was cumbajohny, sometimes segvec, but his favorite was soupnazi — he politely told the truth. “Albert Gonzalez,” he said.

More here. [Thanks to Ejaz Haider.]

Writer’s Writer and Writer’s Writer’s Writer

Julian Barnes in the London Review of Books:

JulianBarnes_228x344 If you go to the website of the restaurant L’Huîtrière (3, rue des Chats Bossus, Lille) and click on ‘translate’, the zealous automaton you have stirred up will instantly render everything into English, including the address. And it comes out as ‘3 street cats humped’. Translation is clearly too important a task to be left to machines. But what sort of human should it be given to?

Imagine that you are about to read a great French novel for the first time, and can only do so in your native English. The book itself is more than 150 years old. What would/ should/do you want? The impossible, of course. But what sort of impossible? For a start, you would probably want it not to read like ‘a translation’. You want it to read as if it had originally been written in English – even if, necessarily, by an author deeply knowledgable about France. You would want it not to clank and whirr as it dutifully renders every single nuance, turning the text into the exposition of a novel rather than a novel itself. You would want it to provoke in you most of the same reactions as it would provoke in a French reader (though you would also want some sense of distance, and the pleasure of exploring a different world). But what sort of French reader? One from the late 1850s, or the early 2010s? Would you want the novel to have its original effect, or an effect coloured by the later history of French fiction, including the consequences of this very novel’s existence? Ideally, you would want to understand every period reference – for instance, to Trafalgar pudding, Ignorantine friars or Mathieu Laensberg – without needing to flick downwards or onwards to footnotes. Finally, if you want the book in ‘English’, what sort of English do you choose? Put simply, on the novel’s first page, do you want the schoolboy Charles Bovary’s trousers to be held up by braces, or do you want his pants to be held up by suspenders? The decisions, and the colouration, are irrevocable.

More here. [Thanks to Vladimir Chechik.]

How Broadway Conquered the World


Though his book is unusually good, Larry Stempel is not the first to sum up the history of the Broadway musical theater. The literature, as they say, is vast. They say that about subjects where literature is not the first thing you want. You want it only later on, after you have already fallen for the subject because of its inherent enjoyability, and not because of what can be brought to it by way of explanation. In that respect, Broadway itself was vast almost from the start, when a musicalized version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, first staged in 1853, included Stephen Foster’s catchy lament “Old Folks at Home,” of which even the lyrics were in blackface. “All de world am sad and dreary …” The way the word world sat on the note clinched the deal. Anybody’s grandmother could have a crack at singing it, even though she herself was as Old Folks as you could get. Something similar was true for any other show that clicked. People would come to it so that they could go home singing. People who didn’t go to the opera loved going to the musicals. Eventually people who did go to the opera went to the musicals as well. More eventually still, the musicals turned into operas—Carousel and its many successors are essentially operas, but with easier arias, and plots that add up—as America’s most energetic indigenous art form went on conquering the world. Most eventually of all, the British musicals conquered Broadway, but they got the idea from the place they conquered. The same would be true if a show starring Kim Jong Il—also responsible for music, book, and lyrics—started its New York run next week.

more from Clive James at The Atlantic here.

the elements of human


Anthropology won a large and appreciative audience in the West in the first half of the twentieth century by combining adventure stories like those of the great Victorian explorers with a new sensitivity to the rich human lessons that could be learned from the ‘natives’. Figures such as Franz Boas, Bronislaw Malinowski and Margaret Mead ventured into remote corners of the world still unfamiliar to Westerners: the Arctic, far-flung Pacific islands, and the interior of New Guinea. They brought back not human captives or golden treasure but the fruits of the new techniques of ‘participant-observation’: reports on the stories people told themselves in myths and religious observance; how they coped with the challenges of adolescence, relations between men and women, gift giving and commercial exchange; and how they struck a balance between the demands of the individual and the needs of the community. Such reports proved compelling: especially after the First World War, when ‘Western civilisation’ was inclined to doubt itself, the ‘natives’ provided fresh resources for thinking about how best, and how variously, to be human. The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, though born after these pioneering anthropologists and before the First World War, made his impact in the second half of the twentieth century and had something quite different to offer: theory. How to explain the appeal of this new and rather forbidding commodity, and to build it into a biography, is Patrick Wilcken’s challenge.

more from Peter Mandler at Literary Review here.

Babies and robots learn from each other

From PhysOrg:

Baby_gaze1_h By imitating human joint movement in its shoulders, arms, hands and head, Cosmobot motivates to develop new skills more quickly than is typical with traditional therapy. Supported in part by the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Small Business Innovation Research Program, scientists developed the assistive social robot primarily to work with children ages 5-12, including those with autism and . But why does this work? Why do children respond so favorably to educational programs taught by technology? And when the technology is a robot made from inanimate materials, how do children learn to distinguish between the robot and a living thing? The answer, it turns out, may have far-reaching implications for interaction with “social” robots for both children and adults.

Working with a group of 18-month-old toddlers and a metallic robot, a team of scientists from the University of Washington (UW) recently determined that it is not only what something looks like, but how it moves and interacts with others that give even inanimate objects social significance. In fact, they say these characteristics give lifeless objects meaning to all humans regardless of age.

More here.

Older but Not Wiser?

From Scientific American:

Older-but-not-wiser_1 The invitations come in the mail, covered in large print: “Investment Workshop—Free Gourmet Lunch!” “Avoid the Biggest Financial Mistakes Seniors Make!” “Protect Your Financial Security!” At the lunch, the salmon is accompanied by an investment pitch, with reminders that “there's a high rate of return,” and “only a few opportunities are left.” Many of these free lunch seminars are scams aimed at retirees. Nearly six million seniors have attended such seminars in the past three years, the senior advocacy group AARP estimates—although conventional wisdom says that there's no such thing as a free lunch.

Despite their years of experience, however, older people are more likely to err in their financial decisions by overemphasizing potential benefits and downplaying potential risks. Now insights from psychology, economics and neuroscience may help us understand why and how those errors occur. Older adults aren't as upset by possible financial losses as young people are, psychological research has shown, and Stanford University researchers found in a recent brain-imaging study that seniors' brains don't anticipate a loss as much as younger ones do. That might be leading them to make less rational—and therefore less profitable—choices. But the news isn't all bad; a better understanding of why these mistakes happen may make it easier to prevent them.

More here.

Friday Poem

Romance Sonambulo

Green, how I want you green.
Green wind. Green branches.
The ship out on the sea
and the horse on the mountain.
With the shade around her waist
she dreams on her balcony,
green flesh, her hair green,
with eyes of cold silver.
Green, how I want you green.
Under the gypsy moon,
all things are watching her
and she cannot see them.

Green, how I want you green.
Big hoarfrost stars
come with the fish of shadow
that opens the road of dawn.
The fig tree rubs its wind
with the sandpaper of its branches,
and the forest, cunning cat,
bristles its brittle fibers.
But who will come? And from where?
She is still on her balcony
green flesh, her hair green,
dreaming in the bitter sea.

–My friend, I want to trade
my horse for her house,
my saddle for her mirror,
my knife for her blanket.
My friend, I come bleeding
from the gates of Cabra.
–If it were possible, my boy,
I'd help you fix that trade.
But now I am not I,
nor is my house now my house.
–My friend, I want to die
decently in my bed.
Of iron, if that's possible,
with blankets of fine chambray.
Don't you see the wound I have
from my chest up to my throat?
–Your white shirt has grown
thirsy dark brown roses.
Your blood oozes and flees a
round the corners of your sash.
But now I am not I,
nor is my house now my house.
–Let me climb up, at least,
up to the high balconies;
Let me climb up! Let me,
up to the green balconies.
Railings of the moon
through which the water rumbles.

Now the two friends climb up,
up to the high balconies.
Leaving a trail of blood.
Leaving a trail of teardrops.
Tin bell vines
were trembling on the roofs.
A thousand crystal tambourines
struck at the dawn light.

Green, how I want you green,
green wind, green branches.
The two friends climbed up.
The stiff wind left
in their mouths, a strange taste
of bile, of mint, and of basil
My friend, where is she–tell me–
where is your bitter girl?
How many times she waited for you!
How many times would she wait for you,
cool face, black hair,
on this green balcony!
Over the mouth of the cistern
the gypsy girl was swinging,
green flesh, her hair green,
with eyes of cold silver.
An icicle of moon
holds her up above the water.
The night became intimate
like a little plaza.
Drunken “Guardias Civiles”
were pounding on the door.
Green, how I want you green.
Green wind. Green branches.
The ship out on the sea.
And the horse on the mountain.

Federico García Lorca
Translated by William Logan

Read more »

A 2,300-year-old sex scandal

Tony Perrottet in The Smart Set:

ID_TS_PERRO_GREAT_AP_001 You might think a 2,300-year-old sex scandal would eventually lose some of its bite. But when it comes to paragons of masculinity such as world conqueror Alexander the Great, it doesn’t. With his 2004 film Alexander, writer-director Oliver Stone outraged stiff-necked military types with his depiction of the macho Macedonian king, history’s most brilliant warrior, flirting with his boyfriends up and down the Khyber Pass. In between gore-splattered battles, Alexander (played by Colin Farrell) flounces about in makeup at drunken Babylonian banquets, shoots suggestive glances to his male entourage, and indulges in a passionate kiss with one of his officers — all the sort of behavior that would be frowned upon in the U.S. military today, for example. But according to Paul Cartledge, professor of Classics at Cambridge University, the film is actually very coy about Alexander’s busy homoerotic life: There is no real doubt that he took a young Persian eunuch named Bagoas as his lover in Babylon, and that at the height of his power he was still carrying on a torrid affair with his studly childhood sweetheart, Hephestaion. On the other hand, we also know that Alexander sired at least one son — with his wife, the lovely Afghani princess Roxanne — and that he maintained a bevy of voluptuous mistresses as he stormed his way across the Middle East.

So was Alexander bisexual? In fact, the Greeks themselves would not have understood the question. They were shocked by Alexander’s love life for other reasons.

More here.

Science fails to face the shortcomings of statistics

Tom Siegfried in Science News:

ScreenHunter_01 Nov. 19 12.04 Supposedly, the proper use of statistics makes relying on scientific results a safe bet. But in practice, widespread misuse of statistical methods makes science more like a crapshoot.

It’s science’s dirtiest secret: The “scientific method” of testing hypotheses by statistical analysis stands on a flimsy foundation. Statistical tests are supposed to guide scientists in judging whether an experimental result reflects some real effect or is merely a random fluke, but the standard methods mix mutually inconsistent philosophies and offer no meaningful basis for making such decisions. Even when performed correctly, statistical tests are widely misunderstood and frequently misinterpreted. As a result, countless conclusions in the scientific literature are erroneous, and tests of medical dangers or treatments are often contradictory and confusing.

Replicating a result helps establish its validity more securely, but the common tactic of combining numerous studies into one analysis, while sound in principle, is seldom conducted properly in practice.

Experts in the math of probability and statistics are well aware of these problems and have for decades expressed concern about them in major journals. Over the years, hundreds of published papers have warned that science’s love affair with statistics has spawned countless illegitimate findings. In fact, if you believe what you read in the scientific literature, you shouldn’t believe what you read in the scientific literature.

More here.

Black Feminism, Tyler Perry Style

JANET-400 Salamishah Tillet in The Root:

Leave it to Tyler Perry, a man best known for playing Madea, a modern-day Mammy, to try to redefine black feminism for the mainstream.

Perry admits that he didn't know much about Ntozake Shange's choreopoem, For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, but that didn't stop him from taking on this black feminist bible nevertheless.

First produced on Broadway in 1976, For Colored Girls was written by Shange during the height of both the black power and feminist movements. Shange's play, much like the 1970s debuts of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye and Alice Walker's The Third Life of Grange Copeland, was a coming-of-age story that uniquely featured the point of view and political experiences of black women.

Breaking long-standing cultural silence on topics such as domestic violence, sexual abuse and abortion in the experimental form of a choreopoem that combined words with movement, Shange created what the New Yorker's Hilton Als once described as a “firebomb of a poem. Through the 'colored girls,' the disenfranchised heard a voice they could recognize, one that combined the trickster spirit of Richard Pryor with a kind of mournful blues.”

But the play's boldness was not simply in its diagnoses of black women's blues but in its unwavering belief that black feminism was a viable remedy for those blues. Soyica Diggs Colbert, a scholar of African-American theater at Dartmouth College, says that the play's ultimate message was always one of black freedom.

“Through dancing, singing and coming together,” Dr. Colbert notes, “or what the play describes as 'a layin on of hands,' the women developed rites that begin to repair the damage caused by domestic and sexual violence. No easy resolution, but a triumphant one nonetheless.”

In the hands of Perry, one of Hollywood's most conservative black evangelical voices, Shange's feminist message of gender equality, reproductive justice and sexual liberation has been seriously compromised.

Snake Meat and Reefer: Horacio Castellanos Moya

189723161X.01.MZZZZZZZ Jacob Mikanowski in The Millions:

This is what meeting one of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s narrators is like: you’re in a squalid cantina in Guatemala City, in an alley by the archbishop’s palace. Or maybe it’s a chic place in San Salvador, across from the mall, where the waiters are gorgeous and they serve fancy cold cuts with the rioja. They come late, and when they arrive they seem a little off – a little strung out, a little jumpy. Right away, they want to tell you everything, all at once: about the article in today’s paper by some has-been calling them a hack, Kati’s dress and how fat she looks in it, a conspiracy between drug dealers and the military police, the best place to get oysters, and isn’t marimba music terrible, the worst, and how they’d like to sleep with the Spanish girl from the human rights office, and did you hear about Olga?, of course she’d already fucked him before she died. It’s a torrent. You can’t get a word in edgewise so you just sip your beer or your wine and wonder if it’s the cocaine talking or something they got from their psychiatrist. But you are enjoying yourself, because however one-sided it is, they’re supplying everything a good conversation needs – sex, secrets, politics, and death, and because they’re funny, really funny, even as they’re being morbid or petty or paranoid. And they are paranoid – persecution-complex, Nixon-level paranoid. But as Kurt Cobain said, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you. Besides, you think, in this country, who knows what’s true and what isn’t, so you relax and settle into a rhythm and take in every story as it comes. And that’s when the real mayhem starts.

Even at the rare moments when they aren’t narrated in first-person, Horacio Castellanos Moya’s novels feel like monologues. Like the best monologues, they float on a wave of relentless interiority, a steady stream of talk which feels like it is being pumped directly out of someone’s skull and which, however insane, carries the electricity of live thought (Moya has been lucky to have translators – Katherine Silver and Lee Paula Springer – who have been able to render this whoosh in English).

In an interview at The Quarterly Conversation, Moya claimed to be influenced by Elias Canetti’s conception of the writer as “a custodian of metamorphoses,” the writer as someone who has the ability “to metamorphose himself into the people of his time, no matter how weak, miserable or dark they are.”



In the fall of 2009, Helene Rosen, her husband, Yoni, and eight of their eleven children moved from Baltimore to Cusco, Peru, to harvest human hair.1 Helene is a forty-four-year-old Orthodox Jew and self-proclaimed “master sheitel designer” who began making wigs fifteen years ago, for ten dollars an hour; her custom hairpieces now sell for up to two thousand. “You can bring me any wig,” she said this past winter, sitting at the table in her spare dining room in Cusco, “and I can tell you how old it is, how much it has been worn, and if it has ever been repaired. I can tell you everything about it.” Helene first encountered sheitels, which Orthodox women have worn since the nineteenth century as an alternative to covering their hair (as Jewish modesty law dictates), in 1995. She had moved to Lakewood, New Jersey from Israel, where most Orthodox women wear headscarves called snoods rather than wigs.

more from Julia Sherman at Triple Canopy here.

Across the Great Divide


Cinema is a strangely autistic medium, often offering aid and encouragement to obviously pathological misanthropes, which isn’t really a problem when that translates primarily into the form and content of their work — look at Stan Brakhage. Unfortunately, what you get when it translates further — into the very socioeconomic infrastructure for the creation of filmic artworks itself — is that poisonously hierarchical, anticreative cesspool known as Hollywood. And I’ve never even written a screenplay! There are exceptions, of course: Robert Altman and John Cassavetes were both legendary for their willingness to destabilize the pyramidal protocols of the Tinseltown factory and locate the creative heart of their cinematic art in the resultant chaos. But as often as not, their work wound up as meditations on the desperate impossibility of bridging the communication gap between humans; even the most egalitarian of team players ultimately are defeated by the inherent hermeticism of the medium. Whether through avant-garde eliminations of plot, character, the camera, authorial decision-making or intelligible pictorial content; or conversely through Imax, 3-D, Scratch ‘n’ Sniff and similar William Castle-type attempts at virtuality, the filmmaker’s efforts to reach out and establish contact with an audience comes up against a raised drawbridge that is as narrow as the 1/48-second gap between projected frames and as vast as the gulf between you and your ex.

more from Doug Harvey at the LA Weekly here.

quivering with Veteranenstolz


These two volumes of Günter Grass’s autobiography come in the wake of the controversy set off by the interview he gave to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in 2006, on the launch of the first volume in the trilogy, Peeling the Onion (Beim Hauten der Zwiebel), in which he admitted that he had served as a teenage member of the Waffen SS in the closing months of the war. It was an item that had failed to appear in the official biography published four years earlier. As a lifelong moral arbiter who had never been shy of pointing the finger at prominent figures with pasts to hide, the revelation made Grass into a kind of sitting duck. He made little attempt to defend himself, other than to say that he thought that his whole life as a writer had been an attempt to redress the indoctrination he had suffered during the Nazi era. His writing, as Michael Hamburger has pointed out, has always been characterized, in a cultural landscape with deep ideological divides, by its “prodigious equipoise”: Grass was ingenious at keeping his politics out of his imaginative life and defending his right to produce work that is “wrong and beautiful”. But there is something either extremely naive or perversely blind about not having come clean earlier, and some critics even accused him of timing his confession to generate interest in the autobiography. Grass may simply be a better writer than a moralist in that what counts for him is less the events than the business of interpreting them, and he has made plain his impatience with conventional autobiography. But autobiography has to pay tribute to document and fact – otherwise it is not what it claims to be.

more from Iain Bamforth at the TLS here.

The Data-Driven Economy

Andrew Dermont in Big Think:

ScreenHunter_25 Nov. 18 15.19 Studies have shown that people who have recently read online obituaries tend to be higher purchasers of weekend rental cars. Why this is true isn't exactly clear to Dave Morgan, founder of Tacoda Inc., an online advertising company that was acquired by Aol. in 2007 for $275 million. But the correlation in the data is significant enough that Avis, Hertz, and Enterprise Rent-a-Car ads should start appearing in front of you soon after you have read about the passing of an old friend, a loved one, or (as is often the case when reading obituaries) someone you didn't know at all.

Consumers today are knowingly and unknowingly providing businesses with more data than they've ever been capable of collecting before. Internet entrepreneurs, privacy analysts, and business consultants alike believe that for the next fifty years, capitalism around the world will (for better or worse) be focused on sussing out what all this data actually means. “We are finding things that are completely non-intuitive,” says Morgan. “This is just the very beginning of this enormous explosion of information being available about what people do, how they react to information, and how they interact with each other.”

More here.

What Oscar Wilde could teach us about art criticism

Jed Perl in The New Republic:

Frankfurt-kitchen If Walter Benjamin were alive today, would he be writing a little essay about “Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen,” the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art? It is easy to imagine Benjamin crafting a few intricate, elegant pages, combining a collector’s ardent admiration, an intellectual’s theoretical flights, and a novelist’s sensitivity to the pop-chic ambience at MoMA. I found myself indulging in this little fantasy the other day, as I read “Old Toys,” an essay Benjamin published in the Frankfurter Zeitung in 1928, about an exhibition at the Märkisches Museum, an event that definitely got his imagination going. Benjamin marveled at the works on display, speculated about the reasons for the exhibition’s popularity, and indulged in his quirky brand of Marxist analysis, observing that “[o]nce mislaid, broken, and repaired, even the most princely doll becomes a capable proletarian comrade in the children’s play commune.”

More here.

In praise of the daily walk

From The Guardian:

A brisk half hour walk a day will keep you healthy – and sane – say researchers. Eight people reveal what walking means to them

Simon Armitage, poet

Celebrity-walkers-006 I try to get in a bit of a walk most days. Most times it's a toss up between going for a walk and staying in and writing a poem, but it often leads to the same thing. I go on to the moors – we live on the edge of the Pennines and Saddleworth moor, and it can be quite bleak and quite dangerous. Sometimes I go off-piste, but there are issues around here with land ownership so sometimes I stick to the roads and the routes and sometimes I wilfully transgress, which gives me a kick. Some people have said there's a relationship between poetic meter and the fall of your foot – and possibly your heartbeat might be thought of as an iambic beat when it's amplified by walking. Often when I go for a walk I come back with a poem. There's a sense of creativity about it, and a sense of wellbeing that you are getting the organs and lungs and the blood moving. You never come back from a walk feeling worse – sometimes you come back feeling colder and wetter though, especially up here.

More here.

Antimatter held for questioning

From Nature:

Cern For physicists, a bit of antimatter is a precious gift indeed. By comparing matter to its counterpart, they can test fundamental symmetries that lie at the heart of the standard model of particle physics, and look for hints of new physics beyond. Yet few gifts are as tricky to wrap. Bring a particle of antimatter into contact with its matter counterpart and the two annihilate in a flash of energy. Now a research collaboration at CERN, Europe's particle-physics lab near Geneva, Switzerland, has managed, 38 times, to confine single antihydrogen atoms in a magnetic trap for more than 170 milliseconds. The group reported the result in Nature online on 17 November. “We're ecstatic. This is five years of hard work,” says Jeffrey Hangst, spokesman for the ALPHA collaboration at CERN.

An antihydrogen atom is made from a negatively charged antiproton and a positively charged positron, the antimatter counterpart of the electron. The objective — both for ALPHA and for a competing CERN experiment called ATRAP — is to compare the energy levels in antihydrogen with those of hydrogen, to confirm that antimatter particles experience the same electromagnetic forces as matter particles, a key premise of the standard model. “The goal is to study antihydrogen and you can't do it without trapping it,” says Cliff Surko, an antimatter researcher at the University of California, San Diego. “This is really a big deal.”

More here.