Our Fantasy Nation?

Nicholas D. Kristof in the New York Times:

Kristof_New-articleInline-v2 With Tea Party conservatives and many Republicans balking at raising the debt ceiling, let me offer them an example of a nation that lives up to their ideals.

It has among the lowest tax burdens of any major country: fewer than 2 percent of the people pay any taxes. Government is limited, so that burdensome regulations never kill jobs.

This society embraces traditional religious values and a conservative sensibility. Nobody minds school prayer, same-sex marriage isn’t imaginable, and criminals are never coddled.

The budget priority is a strong military, the nation’s most respected institution. When generals decide on a policy for, say, Afghanistan, politicians defer to them. Citizens are deeply patriotic, and nobody burns flags.

So what is this Republican Eden, this Utopia? Why, it’s Pakistan.

More here.

looking behind the stuff and nonsense

Alice in Wonderland 2

Of all the miracles that pinpoint the histories of our literatures, few are as miraculous as that of the birth of Alice in Wonderland. The well-known story is worth repeating. On the afternoon of July 4, 1862, the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, accompanied by his friend the Reverend Robinson Duckworth, took the three young daughters of Dr. Liddell, Dean of Christ Church, on a three-mile boating expedition up the Thames, from Folly Bridge, near Oxford, to the village of Godstow. “The sun was so burning,” Alice Liddell recalled many years later, “that we landed in the meadows down the river, deserting the boat to take refuge in the only bit of shade to be found, which was under a new-made hayrick. Here from all three came the old petition of ‘Tell us a story,’ and so began the ever-delightful tale. Sometimes to tease us—and perhaps being really tired—Mr. Dodgson would stop suddenly and say, ‘And that’s all till next time.’ ‘Ah, but it is next time,’ would be the exclamation from all three: and after some persuasion the story would start afresh.” When they returned, Alice asked Dodgson to write out the adventures for her. He said he would try, and sat up nearly the whole night putting down the tale on paper, and adding a number of pen-and-ink illustrations; afterwards, the little volume, entitled Alice’s Adventures Underground, was often seen on the drawing-room table at the Deanery. Three years later, in 1865, the story was published by Macmillan in London under the pseudonym of “Lewis Carroll” and the title Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

more from Alberto Manguel at Threepenny Review here.

funnily enough

Dan+dennett+wired+portrait

“It’s funny because it’s true.” There are a lot of theories, like this one, that try to explain why we find things funny. But like the blind man’s description of the elephant, most of them are only partially right. In their recently published book Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind, Matthew Hurley, Daniel Dennett, and Reginald Adams Jr.—a cognitive scientist, a philosopher, and a psychologist—set out to discover a grand unified theory of humor. That theory would properly address questions such as: Why do only humans seem to have humor? Why do we communicate it with laughter? How can puns and knock-knock jokes be in the same category as comic insults? Why does timing matter in joke telling? And, of course, what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for a thing to be funny?

more from Nina Shen Rastogi at Slate here.

enter the inertwingularity

Intertwingled1

“Intertwingularity” is a term coined by Ted Nelson to express the complexity of interrelations in human knowledge. He wrote: “EVERYTHING IS DEEPLY INTERTWINGLED. In an important sense there are no “subjects” at all; there is only all knowledge, since the cross-connections among the myriad topics of this world simply cannot be divided up neatly…” And on that note, here are a bunch of “cross connections among a myriad of topics” that are very much not divided up neatly. The Noosphere and IDEA SEX: This “all knowledge” that Nelson refers to, akin to an invisible compendium of our collective intelligence, was coined by Pierre Teilharrd de Chardin as “the noosphere”, the ‘thinking’ layer of reality, sitting above the biosphere. If you want to experience this Noosphere directly, this trippy, numinous, truth-composite of the human species, all you have to do is visit a typical museum: art is the mirror we hold up to ourselves: yet more so than ordinary mirrors that only reflect our physical anatomy, museums reflect our psychic mind, our extended selves, they are a physical aggregate of the human species talking to itself at the highest levels, in real time.

more from Jason Silva at Big Think here.

Beyond Orientalism

Image Alexander Bevilacqua in n+1:

Many readers have been introduced to European–Near East relations by the books of Bernard Lewis and Edward Said, both of whom, albeit in very different ways, emphasized the missed opportunities and the lack of commensurability between European and Arab and Muslim societies. Despite decades of both sober criticism and seething polemic, the most frequently cited critical paradigm for examining East-West relations remains that of Said’s Orientalism (1978). Whatever Orientalism’s merits in explaining the 19th and 20th centuries, which are the book’s primary focus, for the period from the Renaissance to the French Revolution, Said’s model of intercultural relations is not a helpful or accurate explanatory device. In the early modern era, the balance of power had not yet tipped in Europe’s favor, and 19th- and 20th-century events were far from foreseeable. Today, thanks to several recent investigations by historians, it is possible to perceive a richer and more complex history, one that acknowledges both the animosities and the mutual attractions that brought Europeans and Ottomans into contact and exchange. Alongside the great military engagements of the early modern era, and before the very different ones of the 19th century, curiosity, imitation, and translation flowered.

Who created Ratko Mladic?

Mladic_poster_468x125 Slavenka Drakulic in Eurozine:

Ratko Mladic will now be judged in a court of law, which is the only way to determine whether an individual is guilty or innocent. But is his individual guilt – as well as that of other war criminals on all sides – all it boils down to? After the terrible wars that ravaged the former Yugoslav republics of Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo, leaving at least 100,000 dead and a million homeless, can Mladic's trial be the end of the story?

n his first hearing in Belgrade, addressing the judge and all present, Mladic said “Don't blame me, it is you who elected Milosevic. Tko vam je kriv! (Who else is to blame!)” Certainly, he was trying to evade his own guilt by implying that he was only following orders. Although he rejected the authority of the ICTY and the charges against him, this will presumably be his line of defence. After all, Karadzic was his commander-in-chief as the president of Republika Srpska. But Mladic did have a point. If he is to be tried, what about citizens who repeatedly voted for Milosevic and Karadzic and their policies of nationalism, hatred and war? What about the responsibility of voters who, by casting their votes, made Mladic's war crimes possible? By sending him to The Hague, are they washing their own hands while marching towards the EU?

Is there such a thing as collective political responsibility? That is the question every side avoids asking. Certainly, it is impossible to talk of the collective guilt of an entire population, be it the Serbs or any other nation. But can the citizens of Serbia (or Bosnia or Croatia), who voted time and again for nationalist leaders who led them into destructive wars, truly believe that they had no part in the transformation of Mladic into a war criminal?

Bigness

799px-Women_of_Puducherry Isaac Chotiner reviews Patrick French's India: A Portrait, in TNR:

Patrick French’s India: A Portrait, which the author calls an “intimate biography of 1.2 billion people,” has received a number of hostile notices in the Indian press. As in the case of Slumdog Millionaire, many of the reviews seem concerned with the ways in which India is being interpreted. And a number of the criticisms lend credence to the notion that outsiders describing a foreign country are bound to be reprimanded. Pankaj Mishra, the first-rate novelist and essayist, has slammed French in two separate reviews, accusing him of ignoring India’s agricultural sector, minimizing the country’s widespread poverty, and making excuses for a new collection of oligarchs who seem completely uninterested in the welfare of the populace. French’s best chapter, on the nepotistic character of Indian politics, is dismissed by Mishra as being “blindingly plain” to any “sentient” observer. By this standard, French should not have written about impoverished Indians: Indian poverty is also blindingly plain to anyone who spends a day in the country.

But French’s book does exhibit some of the tendencies that have greeted the arrival of a “new” India with rose-tinted glasses. French, whose last effort was an astounding biography of V.S. Naipaul, is certainly aware of the dangers of writing about India, but he has trouble avoiding them. “Nearly everyone has a reaction to India, even if they have never been there,” he writes in his introduction.

They hate it or love it, think it mystical or profane; find it extravagant or ascetic; consider the food the best or the worst in the world. For East Asians, it is a competitor and a source of some of their own spiritual traditions. For Americans, it is a challenge, a potential hub of cooperation or economic rivalry—both countries are diverse and hulking, their national identities strong and to an extent constructed, their populations loquacious and outgoing and admiring of entrepreneurial success.

This cliché-ridden, Manichean passage begs several questions. For example, how many countries have unconstructed national identities? And how many travelers actually think the food in India is really the best or the worst in the world?

Trading Stories

Jhumpa Lahiri in The New Yorker:

Jhumpa In the fifth grade, I won a small prize for a story called “The Adventures of a Weighing Scale,” in which the eponymous narrator describes an assortment of people and other creatures who visit it. Eventually the weight of the world is too much, the scale breaks, and it is abandoned at the dump. I illustrated the story—all my stories were illustrated back then—and bound it together with bits of orange yarn. The book was displayed briefly in the school library, fitted with an actual card and pocket. No one took it out, but that didn’t matter. The validation of the card and pocket was enough. The prize also came with a gift certificate for a local bookstore. As much as I wanted to own books, I was beset by indecision. For hours, it seemed, I wandered the shelves of the store. In the end, I chose a book I’d never heard of, Carl Sandburg’s “Rootabaga Stories.” I wanted to love those stories, but their old-fashioned wit eluded me. And yet I kept the book as a talisman, perhaps, of that first recognition. Like the labels on the cakes and bottles that Alice discovers underground, the essential gift of my award was that it spoke to me in the imperative; for the first time, a voice in my head said, “Do this.”

As I grew into adolescence and beyond, however, my writing shrank in what seemed to be an inverse proportion to my years. Though the compulsion to invent stories remained, self-doubt began to undermine it, so that I spent the second half of my childhood being gradually stripped of the one comfort I’d known, that formerly instinctive activity turning thorny to the touch. I convinced myself that creative writers were other people, not me, so that what I loved at seven became, by seventeen, the form of self-expression that most intimidated me.

More here.

So Much More Than Plasma and Poison

Natalie Angier in The New York Times:

Jelly Among nature’s grand inventory of multicellular creatures, jellyfish seem like the ultimate other, as alien from us as mobile beings can be while still remaining within the kingdom Animalia. Where is the head, the heart, the back, the front, the matched sets of parts and organs? Where is the bilateral symmetry? Yet if any taxonomic dynasty is entitled to the originalist mantle, to the designation of genuine emblematic earthling animal, and also to brand the rest of us the alien arrivistes, it is the jellyfish. A diverse group of thousands of species of gooey, saclike invertebrates found throughout the world, the jellyfish are preposterously ancient, dating back 600 million to 700 million years or longer. That’s roughly twice as old as the earliest bony fish and insects, three times the age of the first dinosaurs.

“Jellyfish are the most ancient multiorgan animal on earth,” said David J. Albert, a jellyfish expert at the Roscoe Bay Marine Biological Laboratory in Vancouver, British Columbia.

More here.

Emergency Management

Louisiana Avenue in Chehalisby Dave Munger

One thing you can't see on a TV news report is the sound of a flood. It's a sort of muffled silence, like a windless forest the morning after a snowstorm. When you hear a dog barking in the distance, it's muted, like some hidden force is slowing its voice before it reaches you. Listen a little closer and you might hear the floodwaters lapping up on your back porch.

Finally, look at the still-darkened curtains of your window and you'll see the rippling reflections of streetlights emanating from the lake that was once your front yard.

It's 5:30 am. Last night when you went to bed, everything seemed fine. Sure, it was raining, but Centralia, Washington gets tons of rain. Sure, there was some flooding in the area, but when you bought this house a two years ago, you were assured it wasn't on a flood plain. This land has never flooded; it's high ground nearly a mile from the river.

You struggle to your feet, limp to the front door, and open it, hoping that your car will start. One look at the water lapping over its hood tells you it won't. It's only then that you notice the smell, a combination of gasoline, raw sewage, and toxic chemicals. The foundation of your house is perhaps three feet above ground level, and the water is inching towards your doorstep.

There is stifling dampness everywhere, like being in a boathouse with water where the floor should be. In effect, you are in such a place: The water is now just inches below your feet, rising steadily in your crawlspace. Helicopters rattle by every minute or two, searching for stranded inhabitants or covering the flood for local news stations.

Read more »

A Pole Without a Santa Claus

Year-without-santa-ani5I am a climate change refugee. Until recently, I, along with the other elves, inhabited the North Pole, living and working at Santa's workshop. We had seen the end of the ice cap coming for years with ever larger summmer melt-offs but were in denial until it finally disappeared. Part of the denial stemmed from the fact that we had long since outsourced all production to China and other third world countries. “How much ice would really be needed to maintain a headquarters at the North Pole?” we thought. Lists were computerized as was all design work. We no longer needed the warehouses for paper storage of current work or archives. Productivity was up, yet square-footage was down: Life was good. We managed to digitize nearly all the records going back to the beginning, and fortunately we were able to back it up to the cloud before our server farm was swallowed up by the Arctic Ocean. Children won't even noticed that we've “moved.”

Most people don't realize this, but we got our start in the seasonal gift-giving business with Hanukah. It really was a small family operation back then. There have never been all that many Jews, and let's face it, knocking out a few menorahs and dreidles is trivial compared to the diversity and quantity of what the Christian kids expect these days. Who would have suspected that when we signed-on to do Christmas, we were contributing to our own eventual demise?

So our quaint village and workshop have now slipped beneath the waves. We'll be able to keep the classic images going for a while given the state of photoshopping and CGI, but it will never be quite the same. You probably got a taste of the next-generation imagery with the Rankin/Bass-like, faux stop-motion, Mel Gibson-narrated special that came out a couple years ago. You know, the one in which the tears of the world's children soaked up all the excess carbon dioxide and saved the north pole (and of course, Christmas!). Treacly beyond belief, but nonetheless a big hit despite in reality being too little, too late (and people accuse of us of magical thinking!).

Read more »

Sympathy for Monsters: Reflecting on the Film ‘Let Me In’

by Tauriq Moosa

In his treatise, On the Sublime and Beautiful, Edmund Burke wrote: “No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.” The extent to which this is true is beyond our concern, but there is little doubt fear often puts rationality in a cage, chains the door and kicks it into a silent corner. It is this reaction that great horror writers, from Edgar Allan Poe to Clive Barker and Stephen King to John Ajvide Lindqvist, have sought in their works. It is not the alien beings or giant monsters which terrify us as readers, but often human characters portrayed in vulnerable positions fighting to escape the horror of their sudden environment.

NosferatuShadow

Consider a world populated by giant monsters. Giant monsters who hunted other giant beasts, as non-human animals do here ‘in the wild’. A book that described this might be interesting, but hardly terrifying if it made no reference of threats to humans or creatures with vague properties of personhood (emotions, consciousness, etc.). It would be about as terrifying as a nature documentary on whale sharks. And think of the corollary: a house. Houses on their own hardly seem interesting places, but in the right kind of light, penned by a master story-teller, they can become the most terrifying of places.

It is thus the relation to humans or beings with personhood that matter. The wonderful movie ‘Wall-E’ has a robot title-character who displays emotions, actions, self-consciousness (i.e. properties of personhood). We identify with Wall-E because of these properties, showing that we care for persons not necessarily or only for humans. That is why any robot or alien – or even toys – have to display personhood for us to care: they need not even be shaped like humans for us to care about them. As long as they display engagement with their environment, there is reason for us to care about their well-being (since they display a care for their individual well-being and others’).

Read more »

I Don’t Remember His Name, But He Was Tall and Had a Large Adam’s Apple

by Akim Reinhardt

Mr. Sabatini? I think that was his name. It’s hard to remember.

The Man Who Wasn't There Maybe it was a plumb position awarded to him because he had buttered up the right school official. Maybe he was owed a favor by a union representative. But for whatever reason, he was not among us very often. There were a few days early in the year, and after that he reappeared now and again, but for the most part, he wasn’t there.

At that particular stage in my life, however, Mr. Sabatini?’s irregular presence did not distress me. It was the 10th grade, and I too was irregular. I was rounding out my last growth spurt, going from being one of the shortest kids in the class to the tall side of average, at least by New York City standards, where the average male is, well, very average. It’s certainly not Minnesota. There were also the requisite signs of a burgeoning adolescence: pimples, a deeper voice, mysterious frustrations about girls. Or were they now women?

Adding to the irregularity, it was also my first year in high school. Our junior high school had gone through ninth grade. Here I was, amid 6,000 students who circulated through a massive building in a new neighborhood. So to have an irregularly appearing teacher? Sure. It seemed perfectly reasonable at that point. Why ask why?

For whatever reason, Mr. Sabatini? was scarcely seen. Instead, we had a student teacher. Our student teacher was the kind of person you wish you could invent if he didn’t really exist, though you probably couldn’t. Soft-spoken, mid-twenties, and already balding, he had a boyish charm, ready smile, quiet joy, and inner calm that I would later come to associate with the Midwest. He was also a marine (or was it the army?) who specialized in skiing. Down the slopes with a machine gun, like James Bond. And he was also given to wearing pink shirts. This was 1982. Not a lot of men were wearing pink shirts. Especially not ex-Marines.

Read more »

Hi, my name’s Sarah and I’m an ENTP

MBTI I’m an ENTP, preferring extroversion over introversion, intuition over sensing, thinking over feeling and perceiving over judging. In case you didn’t know, this is my MBTI® score, or Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®. When I first took on my new role in a leadership development group, I heard everyone throwing around these letters “I’m a J, so I’m going to need to get into the details here”, “I’m going to need some time to process this alone because I’m an I”, etc. I had no clue what these people were talking about, but it all seemed to mean something to them and they would talk for hours on end about their interactions with their teams, their families, and with each other using this jargon.

According to the Myers-Briggs organization, “the essence of the theory is that much seemingly random variation in the behavior is actually quite orderly and consistent, being due to basic differences in the ways individuals prefer to use their perception and judgment.” By taking a test, rating preferences of various situations and activities on a sliding scale, the claim is that your underlying personality type and preference can be mapped. “The theory of psychological type was introduced in the 1920s by Carl G. Jung. The MBTI tool was developed in the 1940s by Isabel Briggs Myers.”

I was a total sceptic. As far as I was concerned, the idea that by answering a few questions, my personality type could be reduced to 4 letters (with some granularity of preference under that) was pure mumbo jumbo. Moreover, I was sure that there must be a degree of self-selection; at some level I would guess what the question was trying to measure and would select an answer based on how I wanted to be rated.

And then I took the test and had the results explained to me by a certified MBTI® practitioner. I have to say, I’ve been totally converted. I did the MBTI® II level, which gives the greater granularity and the results were so spot on, and not necessarily what I would have “chosen” to be represented as, thereby undercutting my self-selection theory. As I scanned through my report, I realized that this test had totally nailed who I am and what my preferences are. It was explained to me that it is certainly possible, and often necessary, for someone to act out of preference, for someone who’s a P like me, preferring to plunge into tasks, to force themselves to be more methodical, but that such “out of preference” activity will never be easy or pleasant for me, often putting me “in the grip”, MBTI® terminology for experiencing extreme stress. And it’s so true; I can be methodical and organized, it’s just never natural or pleasant. Similarly with so many of the other preferences.

Read more »

Monday Poem

A Sprawl of Cemeteries

Blood for blood is in our bones
the bass line of a perpetual requiem

Justice says carpe diem
to sooth the killed. As expected
the living hoot and gloat, or wail
asking Why did it have to be him?

Why other arrangements
have not been made
in the leaves of good books
so that blood and honor are not wound
as they are in the syntax and squalls
of scripture and the cyclones
of our double helix is anybody’s guess

Why is left to be mulled
by simple folk who think that
death for death yields no more
than a sprawl of cemeteries

by Jim Culleny, 5/2/11