The Romance of Birthright Israel

Kiera Feldman in The Nation:

ScreenHunter_04 Jun. 18 17.21 The seekers are young, just beginning to face the disappointments of adulthood. Their journey is often marked by tears. They may weep while praying at the Western Wall, their heads pressed against the weathered stone, or at the Holocaust Museum, as they pass the piles of shoes of the dead. Others tear up in Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl military cemetery, while embracing a handsome IDF soldier in the late afternoon light. But at some point during their all-expenses-paid ten-day trip to a land where, as they are constantly reminded, every mountain and valley is inscribed with 5,000 years of their people’s history, the moment almost always comes.

When Julie Feldman (no relation), then 26 and a Reform Jew from New York City, arrived at Ben Gurion Airport in December 2008, she called herself “a blank slate.” She returned as the attack on Gaza was under way, armed with a new “pro-Israel” outlook. “Israel really changed me,” she said. “I truly felt when I came back that I was a different person.”

It was mission accomplished for Birthright Israel, the American Zionist organization that has, since its founding in 1999, spent almost $600 million to send more than 260,000 young diaspora Jews on free vacations to the Holy Land.

More here.

Why you can’t ever “know” anything exactly?

Ethan Siegel in Starts With A Bang:

Double-slit-fringes-realistic-thumb-500x161-66198 Looking down at the fundamental nature of matter, down past our cells and organelles, deep into the individual molecules and inside of the atoms that make them up, at long last, you get to things like the fundamental particles that make up all the known matter in the Universe.

Things like electrons, photons, and the quarks that make up protons and neutrons, are all, as best as we can tell, fundamental particles. That means we can't break them up into anything smaller; they're not “made” of anything else.

And that's where things get weird.

Let's say I take some light — what particle physicists call photons — and I shine it through some slits. Two slits of finite width, two infinitely-thin slits, and one slit of a finite width. What type of pattern would I see?

Well, you'd see the classic patterns that come about because of two well-known and well-understood phenomena: interference and diffraction. Now it might seem weird to you, because these are properties of waves, but we can treat light like a wave without too much difficulty.

On the other hand, if we used something like electrons, you might expect a different result.

This is the result you'd get if you threw a bunch of tiny grains of sand at these two slits. Some grains go through one slit, some grains go through the other, and you wind up with two separate piles of sand on the other side.

So what happens when you send the electrons through? They make the interference pattern!

But we're clever, so what we do, to avoid the electrons from interfering with one another, is to send them through one-at-a-time. And over time, we count up what they're doing. Here are the results.

More here.

hitch on mamet


Propagandistic writing of this kind can be even more boring than it is irritating. For example, Mamet writes in “The Secret Knowledge” that “the Israelis would like to live in peace within their borders; the Arabs would like to kill them all.” Whatever one’s opinion of that conflict may be, this (twice-made) claim of his abolishes any need to analyze or even discuss it. It has a long way to go before it can even be called simplistic. By now, perhaps, you will not be surprised to know that Mamet regards global warming as a false alarm, and demands to be told “by what magical process” bumper stickers can “save whales, and free Tibet.” This again is not uncharacteristic of his pointlessly aggressive style: who on earth maintains that they can? If I were as prone to sloganizing as Mamet, I’d keep clear of bumper-sticker comparisons altogether. On the epigraph page, and again on the closing one, Mamet purports to explain the title of his book. He cites the anthropologist Anna Simons on rites of initiation, to the effect that the big secret is very often that there is no big secret. In his own voice, he states: “There is no secret knowledge. The federal government is merely the zoning board writ large.” Again, it is hard to know with whom he is contending. Believers in arcane or esoteric or occult power are distributed all across the spectrum and would, I think, include Glenn Beck. Mr. Beck is among those thanked in Mamet’s acknowledgments for helping free him from “the bemused and sad paternalism” of the liberal airwaves. Would that this were the only sign of the deep confusion that is all that alleviates Mamet’s commitment to the one-dimensional or the flat-out partisan.

more from Christopher Hitchens at the NYT here.

the father


I didn’t know my father. I didn’t know him, and I never had. Not only that, but all the rich and textured memories I had once possessed were lost, buried under the horrors of his last few years. All I had were a few painful memories from childhood – ones I didn’t know that I wanted to share, and the image of a frail, wizened husk of a man, drowning in despair. I couldn’t and wouldn’t make a book out of that. I considered giving the money back. But in the end, I pulled myself together and did what everyone does when they want to know more about a person. I Googled him. Then I went to the library. To say I found my father at the Duke University library would not be an overstatement. There, among more than 20,000 documents that comprise the William Styron Papers, I met the man I never knew and became reacquainted with the father I thought I’d lost. The archive had first been established in the early 1950s with a series of donations from my grandfather, who had kept every scrap of paper ever written by and about his only son. Between 1943 and 1953, Daddy wrote 104 letters to his father, chronicling everything from his boarding school travails to college life, his two stints in the Marines, his apprenticeship as a young writer, and the precocious triumph of his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness (1951). My father, I learned, had been a terrible student, just like me. And he also had a father who tacitly encouraged his son’s far-fetched dreams. Over the years Grandpop, and eventually Daddy, contributed ever more Styronalia to Duke. Scrapbooks, manuscripts, monographs, magazine articles, speeches, and thousands of pieces of correspondence, all of which have been exquisitely preserved and curated. My father didn’t edit his contributions much. He seemed to realise his finest legacy, like the literature he created, relied on the diamond-like beauty of hard truths. The William Styron Papers is an unparalleled resource for scholars, biographers, and students interested in 20th-century literature. But for me it is something of incomparable personal value: a key to my greatest mystery.

more from Alexandra Styron at the FT here.



In 1944, a 14-year-old boy, future novelist Imre Kertész, was rounded up while on an excursion in the countryside near Budapest and sent to Auschwitz. And then to Buchenwald. Surviving the camps and returning to Budapest, he was asked, simply, by his surviving family and friends, “Where have you been?” In his work, Kertész reflects on how quickly he discovered that no one really wanted to know what he had experienced. And yet, Kertész’s entire literary life has been an attempt at answering that simple question in the trilogy of novels, “Fatelessness,” “Fiasco” and “Kaddish for an Unborn Child” — an attempt that earned him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2002. His other books describe in particular detail his dreary survival under the communism in Hungary. Finally published in an English translation, “Fiasco” is actually the middle book of the trilogy and describes, in the opening third, the fictionalized experiences Kertész must have had in writing “Fatelessness” — having it rejected by a publisher as being unsuitable for publication. “As I now see clearly, to write a novel means to write for others — among others, for those who reject one,” he muses. The later parts of “Fiasco” follow a writer very much like Kertész who is going about his life in the tediously circumscribed environment of communist Hungary.

more from Thomas McGonigle at the LA Times here.

The best holiday reads: Writers recall their most memorable holiday reads

From Guardian:

Man-reading-on-a-beach-007 AS Byatt

I was married (for the first time) in the summer of 1959. I was working on a D Phil in Oxford on 17th-century religious allegory. My supervisor was the great Helen Gardner. I went to see her at the end of the academic year. She said, not for the first time, that the academic life required a nun-like devotion and chastity. She said that when I married my state research grant would be withdrawn as I would be a married woman – a married man had his grant increased. After these blows she made gracious conversation. She was, she said, reading Proust. She gave a little laugh. In English, of course – she wasn't up to reading him in French. In a state of pure rage I walked into Blackwell's, purchased the whole of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu in French, and began reading. I read all summer, across Europe, back in England. That was when I knew I was a writer, not an academic. Every sentence was a new revelation of what language could do. At first I needed a dictionary, and then I didn't, mostly. I had never met so finely woven a tapestry of writing. I began to plan a novel that would be as long as my life, that would make life and novel one. That didn't exactly work out. But that was my very best summer of reading.

Jonathan Franzen

In 1997, when my mother knew she didn't have long to live, she spent a good part of her life savings and took her three kids and their families on a cruise to Alaska. I'd been working on a piece of fiction about cruises, and I'd rushed to finish it before getting on the ship, because I didn't want to be influenced by a real cruise experience. But I was ready for a real vacation – unlimited food and drink and coastal scenery – and the book I brought along was Halldôr Laxness's novel Independent People. It's a story about an Icelandic sheep farmer, but it's also a story about everything: modernity, history, freedom, love. Its excellence was almost a problem for me, because once I was hooked I just wanted to stay in my stateroom and read it. Fortunately the northern summer days were endless, and I could read all afternoon and still have hours after dinner to soak up the Iceland-like light and air. The best reading experiences partake of eternity, because we forget time for a while and thereby escape it. When I came to the end of Independent People, I cried like I've never cried over a novel, before or since.

More here.

‘How the Hippies Saved Physics’

From The New York Times:

JOHNSON-popup “What the Bleep Do We Know!?,” a spaced-out concoction of quasi physics and neuroscience that appeared several years ago, promised moviegoers that they could hop between parallel universes and leap back and forth in time — if only they cast off their mental filters and experienced reality full blast. Interviews of scientists were crosscut with those of self-proclaimed mystics, and swooping in to explain the physics was Dr. Quantum, a cartoon superhero who joyfully demonstrated concepts like wave-particle duality, extra dimensions and quantum entanglement. Wiggling his eyebrows, the good doctor ominously asked, “Are we far enough down the rabbit hole yet?” All that was missing was Grace Slick wailing in the background with Jorma Kaukonen on ­guitar.

Dr. Quantum was a cartoon rendition of Fred Alan Wolf, who resigned from the physics faculty at San Diego State College in the mid-1970s to become a New Age vaudevillian, combining motivational speaking, quantum weirdness and magic tricks in an act that opened several times for Timothy Leary. By then Wolf was running with the Fundamental Fysiks Group, a Bay Area collective driven by the notion that quantum mechanics, maybe with the help of a little LSD, could be harnessed to convey psychic powers.

More here.

remember the vorticists


A century ago, rebellious young artists across Europe banded together in a succession of loudly publicised avant-garde movements. After Expressionism had erupted in Germany, Cubism revolutionised painting in France. Then the Futurists came out of Italy, demanding that art should celebrate the blurred excitement of machine-age dynamism. Rival groups issued manifestos, proclaiming their ability to transform everyone’s vision of the modern era. The years leading up to the first world war were alive with the energy of all these conflicting “-isms,” and in the summer of 1914 a new British movement was announced by a belligerent magazine called BLAST. This publication marked the arrival of Vorticism, and it burst on the world with the impact of a bomb. The thick, black capitals peppering its pages had the force of a loudhailer. The images reproduced in BLAST proved that British art was being revolutionised by a fresh, London-based generation of painters and sculptors dedicated to extreme, urgent renewal. They wanted to sweep away the inhibiting legacy of the “VICTORIAN VAMPIRE,” and now the summer exhibition at Tate Britain intends to celebrate the landmark importance of the Vorticists’ achievement.

more from Richard Cork at Prospect Magazine here.

A Revolution of Equals


In the days immediately following the toppling of President Zine El Abedine Ben Ali on 14 January, Tunis was a city exhilarated by the success of the revolution. Energized protestors kept up pressure on the newly formed interim government. A sit-in outside government offices in the Kasbah led to the ousting of the few remaining politicians associated with the old regime. Trade unions, now emboldened, organized strikes to demand better salaries and working conditions. On Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the Tunisian equivalent of the Champs-Elysées, strangers spontaneously gathered to discuss politics, economics and social issues. Under the tree-lined central promenade, near the sweet-smelling popcorn stalls or sitting at the Paris-style cafés, people from all walks of life were conversing. As I wandered around talking to them, it was clear that all were proud of their achievement and felt they had won back their dignity. They were thrilled to speak freely, and it was truly exciting to see everyone exercise freedom of speech as if it were a newly discovered skill that needed testing and practice. It was, put simply, democracy in action.

more from Lana Asfour at Granta here.

steeped in magic


W. B. Yeats spent much of 1937 in London, and in Sussex, in two separate houses: one belonging to his friend Dorothy Wellesley, and the other to Edith Shackleton Heald, with whom Yeats began his last affair in June. Writing to his wife George at home in Rathfarnham near Dublin in September 1937, he informed her, “A Vision comes out on Oct 7 so you may destroy all proofs etc. I shall send you three of my six copies as you are part author”. It is hard to imagine Rathfarnham flooded with waves of gratitude. It was George’s honeymoon discovery of her talent for automatic writing, beginning as a sly attempt to consolidate her marriage, which set Yeats on the path of his symbolic cosmology, A Vision, and fifteen years’ joint work. She spent the first three years of her marriage from 1917 in regular sessions of automatic writing, followed by bouts of part-conscious “sleep” dictation; the first version of A Vision, published in 1925, went through numerous drafts, and was finally typed by George, only to be followed by a second, completed in 1931 but not published for a further six years.

more from Clair Wills at the TLS here.

Impact Evaluation and the Millennium Villages Experiment in Africa

Michael A. Clemens in the Boston Review:

Clemens_36_3_sauri The Millennium Villages project (MVP) is an ambitious program to break targeted African communities free from extreme poverty and thereby demonstrate how poverty in general can be eradicated. Run by the United Nations Development Programme and Columbia University’s Earth Institute—headed by renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs—the MVP began its pilot phase in a Kenyan village in 2004 and has grown to include numerous rural village clusters in nine other countries. It hopes to scale up its approach across much of Africa, and has plans on other continents as well.

The MVP’s strategy employs an intense, multi-pronged aid package for agriculture, education, health, and infrastructure—with a total cost of about $1.5 million per village cluster spread out over five years. It seeks to disrupt, all at once, the factors that together create the conditions for destitution. The MVP treatment simultaneously deploys a variety of aid-financed interventions, including fertilizer, anti-malaria bed nets, and school meals, among many others. Where a single intervention might leave villagers trapped in poverty by other problems, the MVP asserts that its simultaneous execution of several interventions can break villages out of poverty traps for good.

Although its aims are noble and its leaders well-intentioned, the MVP suffers from a glaring omission: it is not conducting an objective and independent evaluation of its impacts.

More here.

What Is Social Psychology, Anyway?

Steven Pinker in

Showimagebio In his defense of social psychology as it is currently practiced, Timothy Wilson repeats the canard that evolutionary explanations of traits are exercises in “storytelling” which can “explain anything.” He boasts, for example, that he can make up a story in which the redness of blood is an adaptation:

“What if in our very early mammalian history, blood was more brown, but there was a mutation that made it more red, and that turned out to have survival value because if an animals were bleeding, those with red blood would be more likely to notice it, and then they'd lick it. Because licking has healing properties, this conveyed a survival advantage, and so red blood was selected for, and blood became red. Am I right? Or is Steve [Pinker] right, that the color of blood is not an adaptation? Who knows.”

What this shows is that Timothy Wilson can think up a ludicrous evolutionary hypothesis. It does not show that all evolutionary hypotheses are similarly ludicrous. In fact we do know who's right about blood. Chemists tell us that the redness of blood is a necessary physical property of oxygenated hemoglobin, necessary for gas exchange in virtually all vertebrates. This immediately implies that any adaptive hypothesis is otiose. Adaptive hypotheses are needed to explain traits that are improbable given the biologically and physically possible variation in organisms. (This is a basic principle of theoretical biology, most clearly articulated by George Williams in 1966.) The redness of blood is not improbable among mammals; its probability is 1. Moreover, molecular phylogeny has traced the history of hemoglobin hundreds of millions of years, and we know that there was never a stage of mammalian evolution in which oxygenated blood was any other color but red.

Even if, in defiance of biology and common sense, one were to take the wound-licking hypothesis seriously, it would be easy to test it empirically.

More here.

Call Off the Global Drug War

Jimmy Carter in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_01 Jun. 17 15.43 In an extraordinary new initiative announced earlier this month, the Global Commission on Drug Policy has made some courageous and profoundly important recommendations in a report on how to bring more effective control over the illicit drug trade. The commission includes the former presidents or prime ministers of five countries, a former secretary general of the United Nations, human rights leaders, and business and government leaders, including Richard Branson, George P. Shultz and Paul A. Volcker.

The report describes the total failure of the present global antidrug effort, and in particular America’s “war on drugs,” which was declared 40 years ago today. It notes that the global consumption of opiates has increased 34.5 percent, cocaine 27 percent and cannabis 8.5 percent from 1998 to 2008. Its primary recommendations are to substitute treatment for imprisonment for people who use drugs but do no harm to others, and to concentrate more coordinated international effort on combating violent criminal organizations rather than nonviolent, low-level offenders.

These recommendations are compatible with United States drug policy from three decades ago. In a message to Congress in 1977, I said the country should decriminalize the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, with a full program of treatment for addicts. I also cautioned against filling our prisons with young people who were no threat to society, and summarized by saying: “Penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself.”

More here.

Tastes Like Disco: A Meal from 1978

From Smithsonian:

Grasshopper-pie-470 This weekend, for my husband’s 33rd birthday, I decided to borrow a fun idea from Sara Bonisteel at the Epi-Log and prepare a dinner of recipes from the year he was born. Bonisteel used the issue of Gourmet magazine from her birth month, but rather than tracking down the June 1978 issue I decided to use recipes from The New York Times. Even before I saw Bonisteel’s post, I had been kicking around the idea of throwing a series of decade-specific dinner parties inspired by The Essential New York Times Cookbook, Amanda Hesser’s excellent and weighty collection, which I received for Christmas last year. It contains recipes from throughout the Gray Lady’s history, along with lots of other fun information like timelines and suggested menus. I didn’t like the sound of any of the 1978 recipes from the cookbook, though, so I went to the newspaper’s searchable online archive. Because I am a few (ahem, seven) years older than my husband, I actually remember 1978 pretty well. My mother was clearly not cooking from the Times—her repertoire of fried tacos, baked cheese spaghetti and sloppy joes was shockingly absent from the archive.

More here.

Friday Poem

Farewell to the Earth

We buried him with a potato in each hand
on New Year’s Day when the ground was hard as luck,
wearing just cotton, his dancing shoes plus
a half bottle of pear cider to stave off the thirst.

In his breast pocket we left a taxi number
and a packet of sunflower seeds; at his feet was
the cricket bat he used to notch up a century
against the Fenstanton eleven.

We dropped in his trowel and a shower of rosettes
then let the lid fall on his willow casket.
The sky was hard as enamel; there was
a callus of frost on the face of the fields.

Dust to dust; but this was no ordinary muck.
The burial plot was by his allotment, where
the water butt brimmed with algae and the shed door
swung and slammed as we shook back the soil.

During the service, my mother asked
the funeral director to leave; take away some hair
and the resemblance was too close; and yet
my father never looked so smart.

I kept expecting him to walk in, his brow
steaming with rain, soil under his fingernails
smelling of hot ashes and compost;
looking for fresh tea in the pot.

by Christopher James
publisher: The Poetry Society (website)
London, © 2009

Beyond Condoms: The Long Quest for a Better Male Contraceptive

From Scientific American:

Beyond-condoms-the-long-q_1 A joke among researchers in the field of male contraception is that a clinically approved alternative to condoms or vasectomy has been five to 10 years away for the past 40 years. The so-close-yet-so-far state of male contraceptive development has persisted in large part because of three serious hurdles: the technical challenges of keeping millions of sperm at bay, the stringent safety standards that a drug intended for long-term use in healthy people must meet, and, ultimately, the question of whether men will use it. Any sex-ed grad can tell you: the only two effective contraceptives for men today are condoms and vasectomy. Condoms have been around for at least 300 years, with early versions made of animal intestines. Today's rubber prophylactics are relatively cheap and widely available, offer bonus protection against sexually transmitted infections, and are 98 percent effective against pregnancy if used properly. On the other hand, surgery to cut the vas deferens (sperm ducts) is nearly foolproof in pregnancy prevention but is usually considered irreversible and tantamount to sterilization. “It's appalling that besides condoms men only have a surgical nonreversible method,” says Regine Sitruk-Ware, a reproductive endocrinologist at the Population Council in New York City.

For decades the promise seemed to lie in a hormonal approach—an analogue to the female birth control pill—that would adjust the hormones controlling sperm production. Inconsistent results among men and side effects associated with long-term testosterone use have, however, led some researchers lately to set their sights elsewhere. Newer, nonhormonal methods target various developmental nodes in the formation of sperm, their motility and their egg-penetrating capabilities. There is also work on a form of reversible vasectomy which involves blocking the vas deferens with a polymer gel that may later be dissolved.

More here.

the spirit of dfw


Wallace, ever the seeker, wants to find the situation’s spiritual potential. Now redemption lies not amid the congregation of AA but along the thorny path of solitary asceticism. The story of the contortionist, that victor over the body, makes reference to Catholic stigmatists like Padre Pio and Therese Neumann (who was said to have subsisted on Communion wafers), as well as to a Bengali holy man. On the other side of boredom, says Fogle’s instructor (who seems to be a Jesuit priest), lies “a denomination of joy unequaled by any you men can yet imagine.” The path of corporeal transcendence is represented in The Pale King most fully by a taxman named Drinion. In the manuscript’s second-longest section—Pietsch places it near the end—Drinion listens to the confessional monologue of a fellow agent, the gorgeous Meredith Rand. (Their beauty-and-the-beast relationship recalls that of Gately with Joelle.) Listening, remember, was Wallace’s ethical ideal. Drinion’s concentration is complete, and as Rand talks away, he starts to levitate, like saints and yogis before him. But Drinion achieves his bliss at an enormous price—that, essentially, of having no self. Co-workers consider him “possibly the dullest human being currently alive.” He seems to have no interiority: no feelings, no imagination, no relationships, hardly even a past. “I don’t think I’m really anything,” he tells Rand. “I don’t think I’ve ever had what you mean by sexual attraction.” If perfect Zen emptiness is the only route to happiness, there’s something wrong with Wallace’s vision. He’s willing to try to be a grown-up, but he can’t imagine that there might be anything good about it. Tedium, deadness, drudgery, imprisonment: but no possibility of fulfilling work, or the joys of childrearing, or the increase of powers, or the growth of wisdom—no recompense at all, abundant or otherwise.

more from William Deresiewicz at The Nation here.

lapham as koala


In both the periodical and tabloid press these days, the discussion tends to dwell on the bread alone—its scarcity or abundance, its price, provenance, authenticity, presentation, calorie count, social status, political agenda, and carbon footprint. The celebrity guest on camera with Rachael Ray or an Iron Chef, the missing ingredient in the recipes for five-star environmental collapse. Either way, sous vide or sans tout, the preoccupation with food is front-page news, and in line with the current set of talking points, this issue of Lapham’s Quarterly offers various proofs of the proposition that the belly has no ears. No ears but many friends and admirers, who spread out on the following pages a cornucopia of concerns about which I knew little or nothing before setting the table of contents. My ignorance I attribute to a coming of age in the America of the late 1940s, its cows grazing on grass, the citizenry fed by farmers growing unpatented crops. Accustomed to the restrictions imposed on the country’s appetite by the Second World War’s ration books, and raised in a Protestant household that didn’t give much thought to fine dining (one ate to live, one didn’t live to eat), I acquired a laissez-faire attitude toward food that I learn from Michael Pollan resembles that of the Australian koala. The koala contents itself with the eating of eucalyptus leaves, choosing to ignore whatever else shows up in or around its tree.

more from Lewis Lapham at Lapham’s Quarterly here.