A Conversation with Mahmood Mamdani

by Robert P. Baird

Mahmood Mamdani-1A little over a month ago I asked Mahmood Mamdani if he’d be willing to have a conversation about Ugandan politics in advance of the presidential elections here. Often described as the intellectual heir of Edward Said, Mamdani has attracted praise, scorn, and much international attention for his richly detailed and often stridently contrarian analyses of contemporary African events. He is the author, most recently, of Saviors and Survivors, a critical and controversial analysis of the Save Darfur Coalition.

Mamdani is one of the most acute observers of African events working today, and he has a deep and complicated personal relationship to Uganda’s recent political history. Born in Kampala to Indian Muslim parents, he was exiled (along with the rest of the country’s Asian population) by Idi Amin in 1972. He earned a Ph.D from Harvard in 1974 and has taught at universities in Tanzania, Uganda, South Africa, and the U.S. Currently he is a professor of anthropology and government at Columbia University and the director of the Makerere Institute for Social Research (MISR) in Uganda. He and his wife, the filmmaker Mira Nair, split their time between Kampala and New York.

Mamdani graciously agreed to an interview, but by the time we met in his purple-walled office at the MISR, the uprising in Egypt had become all-engrossing. I decided to take the opportunity to get his early thoughts about the revolutions in North Africa. (As it happened, the Feb. 18 presidential elections in Uganda saw Yoweri Museveni extend his twenty-five-year rule over Uganda with 68% of the vote, despite widespread and credible allegations of bribery and vote-rigging.)

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The Ramanujan of Chess

by Hartosh Singh Bal

The perils of writing about Ramanujan, as I did in my last 3QD column, is that there will always be those who insist that a better educated Ramanujan would have been a worse mathematician. One response is to say that by the same token a worse educated Euler would have been a better mathematician, an argument that to my knowledge has never been made, another is to relate a remarkable story that parallels the tale of Ramanujan. A story that is reasonably well known within the world of chess but has somehow escaped the attention of the world outside.

ScreenHunter_12 Feb. 28 10.35 In the telling of the story much of what I quote is borrowed from several sources, the most important being a compilation by Edward Winter. The material available is insufficient to piece together a life but it is enough to outline the story. In 1929, a man from Sargodha in Punjab arrived in England, part of the entourage of a Nawab. He had learnt chess in the Indian way, the modern form played in the West had some significant modifications, and he finished last in the first tournament he played. He learnt from the experience and within months went on to win the British Chess Championship, repeating the feat in 1932 and 1933. He also played top board for Britain in three chess Olympiads registering impressive performances against some of the top players in the world. His one game against the Cuban world champion Jose Raul Capablanca was a victorious masterpiece, and is counted among the great games of all times. And then in 1933 he disappeared, headed back to what is today Pakistan with his patron, never to play competitive international chess again.

The talented chess player and writer Reuben Fine, a contemporary, has written of him:

The story of the Indian Sultan Khan turned out to be a most unusual one. The “Sultan” was not the term of status that we supposed it to be; it was merely a first name. In fact, Sultan Khan was actually a kind of serf on the estate of a maharajah when his chess genius was discovered. He spoke English poorly, and kept score in Hindustani. It was said that he could not even read the European notations.

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Lovers tiff, impending divorce or trial separation?

by Omar Ali


ScreenHunter_08 Feb. 28 10.14 On the 27th of January, while driving through Mozang (an extremely crowded section of Lahore city) in a rented Honda Civic, American citizen Raymond Davis shot two men who were riding a motorcycle. Soon afterwards, another vehicle that was racing to (presumably) rescue Mr. Davis, ran over a third person and killed him too. These seem to be the only undisputed facts about the event. Shortly afterwards, Pakistani TV channels showed one of the dead men with a revolver and an ammunition belt around his waist. It was also claimed that the two men were carrying several mobile phones and possible some other stolen items. But soon after the event, the story began to change. From a robbery attempt gone bad, it morphed into Mr. Davis assassinating two young men without obvious cause. Raymond’s own status was immediately in dispute and within a few days the network of websites that is thought to represent the views of Pakistan’s deep state were stating that Davis was a CIA agent, he was being tailed by the ISI and he had shot two ISI agents. They also claimed Davis was working with the “bad Taliban” to do bad things in Pakistan, while trying to spy on the “good Taliban” and other virtuous jihadist organizations like the LET.

Since then, the US has itself admitted that he worked for the CIA and relatively sober Pakistani military analysts have hinted that the two victims were ISI agents who had been tailing Raymond for over an hour.

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The don of Pérignon

Moet%20chandon A year ago (February 2010) I met, in Lagos, Nigeria, Pascal Pecriaux, “Ambassador” for French champagne brand Moët & Chandon. The profile below provides insight into Pecriaux’s life – in and out of wine-tasting – and the Nigerian obsession with champagne. Nigeria ‘discovered’ champagne in commercial quantities (by importation, of course) following the oil boom of the 1970s (starting in 1973/74 and lasting much of the decade). The love affair has continued to this day. Time Magazine reports that the coup-plotters who murdered Nigerian Head of State, Murtala Mohammed, on February 13, 1976, “apparently made their move after an all-night champagne party.”

I wrote this piece not long after meeting Pecriaux:

By Tolu Ogunlesi

On a Friday afternoon at the Lagos Sheraton, a group of people are gathered in one of the banquet rooms. Most are Sheraton staff – waiters and waitresses. There are also a few journalists, like me. We are all waiting for Pascal Pecriaux.

Pecriaux is a “Wine Ambassador” who has flown all the way from the village of Champagne in France, to spread the gospel of Moët to a Nigerian audience. By the time he steps into the room, two hours behind schedule, we are not the only ones waiting for him. Rows of empty champagne flutes line the tables in front of us, and half a dozen or so bottles peek from ice-boxes at the far end of the room.

Moët is one of the most easily recognizable badges of honour flaunted by Nigeria’s elite, especially its young upwardly mobile class. If the frequency of its appearance in the lyrics of Nigerian hiphop songs and in music videos is anything to go by, Marc Wozniak, Deputy General Manager of the Lagos Sheraton, is absolutely right when he says that Moët is “the most common and most well-known champagne in Nigeria.” David Hourdry, Moët Hennessy’s Market Manager for Western Africa says that “Nigeria is today the biggest market for Moët & Chandon in all Africa.”

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Monday Poem

A Simple Ontology

It may be that a flower’s petals
are held to stems by thought
and the wind is a counter-thought
that plucks petals from stems,
shifts them across a field
and sets them softly upon the grass
to repose in contemplative resolution
next to the notion of a grub-pulling crow

For all I know the wind itself may be
a palpable bright idea,
something about motion
and the abhorrence of vacuums
something about coming and going,
about ferocity, about stillness
about war and the absence of war

Maybe the moon is the concept of fullness,
loss, abatement, regeneration from slivers,
hope at the hour of the wolf, the opposite of
darkness at the break of noon, the
upside of shadow

For all I know Descartes may have had it right
and this, from horizon to horizon, may be
a simple ontology, an inherent
daisy chain of ideas
chasing its tail

Anyway, one idea
conceived in this synapse nest
is to harvest thought from thought
under a perception of blue
while the conception of breeze
riffles the hint of hair
and I place them like dreams of plums
into the essence of basket
and give them with the intention of love
to my belief in the natural
thought of you

by Jim Culleny
Feb.26, 2011

Did viruses invent DNA?

by George Wilkinson

ImagesCA8M6TEC Cells across the tree of life are built with very similar components: A wall to keep everything in, DNA which stores the genome, and RNA and protein which take care of the mechanics and metabolism. These components are heavily interdependent, and it is an ongoing puzzle how the modern cell emerged from the prebiotic chemistry of early earth. (See Wikipedia here ). There are two major approaches to try to bridge this gap. The first is to try to synthesize biotic compounds from a soup of plausible precurors, as in Miller and Urey’s “lightning experiment.” [Miller shown performing the experiment in photo on the right.] The converse approach is to scrutinize living organisms for hints of their ancestors, specifically the Last Universal Cellular Ancestor (LUCA).

RNA was likely to be among the very first of the modern information polymer classes to emerge, because RNAs can do the jobs of genome storage (now done mainly by DNA) and enzymatic action (now done mainly by protein). Proteins might have come second, and DNA last. So how did DNA take over the job of genome storage?

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Can Egypt Be Turkey?

by Jenny White

ScreenHunter_07 Feb. 28 09.55 (Photo: Ankara, 2006. Secular nationalists protest against the AKP government. Slogan on sign: If Arabs had an Ataturk, they wouldn't have fallen behind.)

Turkey has been bandied about this past week as a model to be emulated by the new nations being born like small supernovas across the Middle East. Turkey was founded by a powerful military that doesn’t flinch from coups, but has also had a functioning and fair, if flawed, electoral democracy since 1950. The country currently appears to have found a place for Islamic piety within its political system without jamming any of its democratic wheels, although the process has been noisy and contentious. Its present elected government, under the Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish acronym AKP), consists primarily of politicians who see themselves as pious individuals running a secular system. Some Turks believe that their intentions are secular, some don’t, but the democratic wheels keep turning. The AKP government has managed to make Turkey’s economy the fifteenth biggest in the world in GDP, only lightly sideswiped by the global turndown. There’s another election coming up this June and AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has promised that if his party doesn’t win, he’ll leave politics. All indicators show that he has nothing to worry about, but the critical element of his promise is the assumption that his party could lose, and then he would leave. That’s the trick of democracy that “eternal leaders” in the Middle East haven’t come to terms with. You lose, you leave. What has to be in place for this simple equation to become as second-nature as it is in Turkey? I happen to be teaching a course on Turkey this semester, so I posed the question to my students: Would the “Turkey Model” work in the Middle East? Here are some of the variables they came up with.

Who chooses the system? Is it top-down or bottom-up?

Turkey’s democracy was an entirely top-down imposition by Ottoman officers and bureaucrats who had wrestled back the territory that now makes up Turkey from European powers that had conquered the Ottoman Empire in WWI. Their leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was celebrated as a war hero, the savior of Turkey, and became its first president. He initiated extreme reforms, among them replacing Ottoman with the Latin alphabet (imagine someone telling you that in six months time, we’ll only be using Arabic script) and requiring men and women to emulate western fashion; veiling was discouraged and outright banned for civil servants, teachers, students, doctors.

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My Little Chickadee

Article and photos by Wayne Ferrier

Chickadee Branch She says she doesn't really go for millionaires, she rather prefers surfer dudes, SUV guys, et cetera, not Mr. Private Plane, even though she is known as the millionaire matchmaker. She has a hot new DVD out titled “How To Get Married In A Year,” but she is as yet unmarried herself. She has been called the Simon Cowell of dating, known for making quick, straight forward comments. I confess I had no idea who Patti Stranger was when I first saw her as a guest on the Nate Berkus show a couple weeks ago. I don't really watch much TV, and I only had The Nate Show on as background noise, when I heard Patti giving her dating advice to some of the people in the audience. Jen, a pretty blond, was invited to come up on stage, have a seat, and ask Patti for guidance.

Jen had been on a date and it was really, really awkward. Patti leaned forward interested. Jen revealed that they had met for the first time in a restaurant and it was going fine until they started talking about their hobbies. Jen's date said that his hobby was—of all things—birdwatching. Patti's face turned sour, registering first dismay then unabashed disgust. Nate saw Patti's intense reaction to Jen's revelation and burst into hysterical, almost embarrassed, laughter. While the audience roared, Nate's face turned a shade redder and stayed that way though the entire interaction. But this was the exact response Jen was looking for. She squealed, “Yes exactly! Patti, that's why I need help, because I just can't just look at him and say next! So I let him go on and on about this story about birdwatching.”

Patti's advice: “Every girl needs a hundred dollars in a different compartment of her purse called stash cash, you always have to have it, whether you're in a city or a suburb, it doesn't matter, to get out of Dodge. So you get up and you say to him, I think you're a really great guy, I think you're awesome, you're just not my type, I don't want to waste your time, I don't want to hold you up, I think I'm going to get going. But if I know somebody I'll send them your way. There's no wasting time, you're too hot and single to be wasting time on a birdwatcher!”

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Epiphany at the Waterhole, Part Three

Parts one and two.

(Wherein we dump the obsolete Adam and Eve tale of the Advent of Consciousness for a more radical and contemporary one based on evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience.)

by Fred Zackel

“Something fell out of the mirror.”

“Did you hold it upside down?”

“Yes.”

“Did you shake it?”

“Yes.”

“After I told you not to?”

“I got curious.”

We must congratulate ourselves. Name another animal capable of creating its own meaning for its existence and then imposing it on the universe. We might even be the ones who most delay their own extinction.

Are we there yet?

Our Divine is simply the most acceptable conceptual metaphor our limited minds can imagine and can cope with at this time. The nearest equivalent to our group mind consensus.

Our Divine is a snapshot of our conceptions of the Divine.

Ever-changing and always needed.

Usually the Divine just needs a tweak here and there. Generally we really don’t imagine the Divine any incrementally better than we did yesterday. But we can work with this business model better than other previously available ones.

Sometimes a new god comes to town.

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Woman

by Haider Shahbaz

Dear M,

Today, Lahore is drenched. A shy sun has disappeared. The night hides in darkness muddy water invading the streets. It jumps from under car’s tyres on to unsuspecting pedestrians. It is mid-July; I am back from boarding school to watch a dirty, white, rather ungraceful minaret. There are strange things that the first sight, after three years, of a fog-covered minaret – the same minaret you watched everyday for fifteen long years – can do to a man, a boy. You are here to watch it with me, wearing that disgusting plaid you love, plastic glasses askew on your small nose, thin-lipped smile and a long neck. The nights of full moon have passed. We have just come back from our fifteenth trip to a bakery in fifteen days. I and you are in a search for the perfect dessert.

Yes, for the perfect dessert. Amongst low, Lahori rooftops, parallel Islamabad streets, ruined Greek cities, bright bakeries, semi-naked sword wielding emperors, and idlers, monochrome family pictures of uncles in stiff military suites, dilapidating Mughal art, grand old castles and wrinkled storytellers.

But will we ever find the perfect dessert? The perfect ending? The perfect good-bye? Maybe we shouldn’t, so we keep coming back to find it again.

To many more waves.

Much love,

************************************************************************

Well, can I kiss you, then?

Thoroughly unromantic. She thought.

But we’re friends. And I’m seeing someone.

Thoroughly unromantic. He thought.

But it’s just a kiss.

Pause.

Okay.

Forty minutes.

It’s never just a kiss.

************************************************************************

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Laila Lalami to Judge 2nd Annual 3QD Arts & Literature Prize

UPDATE 3/21/11: The winners have been announced.

UPDATE 3/13/11: List of finalists.

UPDATE 3/12/11: List of semifinalists.

UPDATE 3/4/11: See full list of nominees: Voting round is now open.

Dear Readers, Writers, Bloggers,

Llalami We are very honored and pleased to announce that Laila Lalami has agreed to be the final judge for our second annual prize for the best writing in a blog or e-zine in the category of Arts & Literature. (Details of last year's A&L prize, judged by Robert Pinsky, can be found here.) Laila Lalami was born and raised in Morocco. She attended Université Mohammed-V in Rabat, University College in London, and the University of Southern California, where she earned a Ph.D. in linguistics. Her essays have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, the New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a British Council Fellowship and a Fulbright Fellowship. She was short-listed for the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2006 and for the National Book Critics’ Circle Nona Balakian Award in 2009. She is the author of the short story collection Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits and the novel Secret Son. Her work has been translated into ten languages. She is currently Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California at Riverside. Dr. Lalami has also been responding to the recent upheavals in Arab countries, and you may see some of that work here. Her well-known blog is here, and you may also follow her on Twitter here.

As usual, this is the way it will work: the nominating period is now open, and will end at 11:59 pm New York City Time (EST) on March 2, 2011. There will then be a round of voting by our readers which will narrow down the entries to the top twenty semi-finalists. After this, we will take these top twenty voted-for nominees, and the four main editors of 3 Quarks Daily (Abbas Raza, Robin Varghese, Morgan Meis, and Azra Raza) will select six finalists from these, plus they may also add up to three wildcard entries of their own choosing. The three winners will be chosen from these by Dr. Lalami.

The first place award, called the “Top Quark,” will include a cash prize of one thousand dollars; the second place prize, the “Strange Quark,” will include a cash prize of three hundred dollars; and the third place winner will get the honor of winning the “Charm Quark,” along with a two hundred dollar prize.

(Welcome to those coming here for the first time. Learn more about who we are and what we do here, and do check out the full site here. Bookmark us and come back regularly, or sign up for the RSS feed.)

PrizeArtsAnnounce2011 Details (please read carefully before nominating):

The winners of this Arts & Literature Prize will be announced on March 21, 2011. Here's the schedule:

February 23, 2011:

  • The nominations are opened. Please nominate your favorite blog entry or e-zine piece by placing the URL for the blog post (the permalink) in the comments section of this post. You may also add a brief comment describing the entry and saying why you think it should win. (Do NOT nominate a whole blog, just one individual blog post.)
  • Blog posts or e-zine articles longer than 4,000 words are not eligible.
  • Each person can only nominate one blog post.
  • We will accept poems and fiction, as well as book or art reviews, criticism, and other types of writing about arts or literature.
  • Entries must be in English.
  • The editors of 3QD reserve the right to reject entries that we feel are not appropriate.
  • The blog entry may not be more than a year old. In other words, it must have been written after February 22, 2010.
  • You may also nominate your own entry from your own or a group blog or e-zine (and we encourage you to).
  • Guest columnists at 3 Quarks Daily are also eligible to be nominated, and may also nominate themselves if they wish.
  • Nominations are limited to the first 200 entries.
  • Prize money must be claimed within a month of the announcement of winners.

March 2, 2011

  • The nominating process will end at 11:59 PM (NYC time) of this date.
  • The public voting will be opened soon afterwards.

March 11, 2011

  • Public voting ends at 11:59 PM (NYC time).

March 21, 2011

  • The winners are announced.

One Final and Important Request

If you have a blog or website, please help us spread the word about our prizes by linking to this post. Otherwise, post a link on your Facebook profile, Tweet it, or just email your friends and tell them about it! I really look forward to reading some very good material, and think this should be a lot of fun for all of us.

Best of luck and thanks for your attention!

Yours,

Abbas

The Return of Crowds and Power

Elias-canetti I've noticed that in response to all the uprisings in the Arab world analysts, pundits and writers reaching for their copies of Elias Canetti's Crowds and Power. Here's Will Self in The New Statesman:

It's been a fantastic three months for those of us gripped by the dynamics of crowds. First, we had student demonstrations here in Britain spiralling out of control; then, we saw Tunisians link arms to push out their corrupt regime; finally, millions took to the streets of Egyptian cities, pitting their sheer weight of numbers against the sclerotic – but still vicious – government of Hosni Mubarak.

Perhaps the most celebrated analyst of the crowd was the Nobel laureate Elias Canetti, whose 1960 magnum opus, Crowds and Power, aimed to do for modern mass movements what Frazer's Golden Bough did for “primitive” ritual. To Canetti, both socialism and capitalism were political systems defined by “the modern frenzy of increase”, in which production led to ever bigger crowds of goods and consumers.

This sense of industrialised society as a crowd, at root, directs Canetti to his definition of power as the coincidence of the desires of the ruler(s) and the ruled.

By this view, it's easy to understand the presence of crowds of people on the streets as symptomatic of a disjunction between the two: only when the crowd has been reabsorbed into the social fabric has synchronous equilibrium been achieved. In Canetti's jargon, the crowd in Tahrir Square was “stagnating”, whereas the crowds of the quiescent Cairene unemployed before the revolt could be characterised as “rhythmic”.

Dubstep revolutions

Canetti showed a nice understanding of how masses of people make their own political weather when he caustically observed that “fire unites a theatre more than a play can” – but his vision was underscored by the apocalyptic mood music of mutually assured destruction. “Rulers tremble today,” he wrote, not “because they are rulers but as the equals of everyone else . . . Either everyone will survive or no one.”

What is X-Phi Good For?

Rembrandtphilosopher200 David Papineau in The Philosopher's Magazine:

When philosophers study knowledge, consciousness, free will, moral value, and so on, their first concern is with these things themselves, rather than with what people think about them. So why exactly is it so important to philosophy to discover experimentally that people differ in their views on these matters? We wouldn’t expect physicists to throw up their hands in excitement just because somebody shows that different cultures have different views about the origin of the universe.

Experimental philosophers are surprisingly vague on this issue. If pressed, they tend to mutter something about discrediting the role played by “intuitions” in traditional philosophy, before rushing off to design their next questionnaire. But this is far too quick. Exactly what role intuitions play in philosophy is a matter of debate, and the details of this debate matter to the significance of experimental philosophy.

Experimental philosophy does itself a disservice by not stopping to explain what it is good for. My own view is that it has an important if limited contribution to make to orthodox philosophical debates, in ways I’ll explain later. But its advocates often claim much more, suggesting that their new method somehow discredits all traditional philosophy. Out with the old, in with the new! In the absence of any reasoned support for this radical manifesto, it is all too easy for critics to dismiss the movement as a fad without foundations.

Isn’t it enough that experimental philosophy is interesting in its own right? Aren’t we all fascinated by the quirks in human thinking that it uncovers? Maybe so, but this doesn’t explain why these findings matter to philosophy. The human mind is very quirky in its attitudes to snakes, spiders, and sex, in ways which are well worth studying, but nobody thinks that these quirks are the province of experimental philosophy.

The “official X-phi” website proclaims that “experimental philosophy involves the collection of empirical data to shed light on philosophical issues.” But how, to repeat the question I started with, do empirical data about everyday thinking help us with real philosophical issues? The comparison with physics is telling once more. Psychologists have done much to investigate everyday thinking about physical topics – “folk physics” as it is sometimes called – and their findings are certainly interesting. Who would have believed that everyday thought is so committed to outmoded Aristotelian laws of motion? But knowing about folk physics doesn’t help with real physics. So why should knowing about folk philosophy help with real philosophy?