David John Thomas liked to drink alone. Author Paul Ferris illustrated the point in his biography Dylan Thomas with a portrait of David John alone in a corner table at his local Welsh pub, the Bush. He describes David John Thomas as “a clever, disappointed man”. A young colleague, wrote Ferris, remembered once buying a pint for D.J. (as he was called), who accepted, and then chose to drink it in silence, at his table, alone. Pub regulars called the sulking presence who often spent his evenings there “The Professor.” As a boy, D.J. was a promising student. He had received a scholarship to study English at the University College of Wales at Aberystwyth where he graduated with first-class honors. Like many promising students of English, D.J. had dreams of being a poet. Instead, he became a grammar school teacher. He watched in anger and shame as colleagues of clearly inferior worth gained appointments to higher university positions while he remained where he was. D.J. was often ill, and wondered why he had no visitors. He cultivated a devastating schoolmaster’s sarcasm that shielded his fragile pride. Students of Schoolmaster Thomas remember an unforgiving tyrant who cursed stupid boys and dirty boys. But he made Shakespeare come alive and became known for getting his boys into Oxford and Cambridge. D.J.’s great passion for English literature was available for any boy willing to receive it. To his son Dylan, however, the clever, disappointed father gave his entire dream of a poet’s life.

more from Stefany Anne Golberg at The Smart Set here.

Reason evolved to win arguments

Patricia Cohen in the New York Times:

Sperber200 For centuries thinkers have assumed that the uniquely human capacity for reasoning has existed to let people reach beyond mere perception and reflex in the search for truth. Rationality allowed a solitary thinker to blaze a path to philosophical, moral and scientific enlightenment.

Now some researchers are suggesting that reason evolved for a completely different purpose: to win arguments. Rationality, by this yardstick (and irrationality too, but we’ll get to that) is nothing more or less than a servant of the hard-wired compulsion to triumph in the debating arena. According to this view, bias, lack of logic and other supposed flaws that pollute the stream of reason are instead social adaptations that enable one group to persuade (and defeat) another. Certitude works, however sharply it may depart from the truth.

The idea, labeled the argumentative theory of reasoning, is the brainchild of French cognitive social scientists, and it has stirred excited discussion (and appalled dissent) among philosophers, political scientists, educators and psychologists, some of whom say it offers profound insight into the way people think and behave. The Journal of Behavioral and Brain Sciences devoted its April issue to debates over the theory, with participants challenging everything from the definition of reason to the origins of verbal communication.

“Reasoning doesn’t have this function of helping us to get better beliefs and make better decisions,” said Hugo Mercier, who is a co-author of the journal article, with Dan Sperber. “It was a purely social phenomenon. It evolved to help us convince others and to be careful when others try to convince us.” Truth and accuracy were beside the point.

More here. [Photo shows Dan Sperber.]

The recent discovery of really, really big viruses is changing views about the nature of viruses and the history of life

James L. Van Etten in American Scientist:

2011526152378557-2011-07VanEttenF1 The common view of viruses, mostly true, is of tiny burglars that sneak into cells, grab the biosynthetic controls and compel the cell to make huge numbers of progeny that break out of the cell and keep the replication cycle going. Viruses are supposed to be diminutive even compared to cells that are just a micrometer (1,000 nanometers) in diameter. They are supposed to travel light, making do with just a few well-adapted genes.

In 1992, a new microorganism was isolated from a power-plant cooling tower in Bradford, England, where Timothy Robotham, a microbiologist at Leeds Public Health Laboratory, was seeking the causative agent of a local pneumonia outbreak. His search led to the warm waters of the cooling tower, a known reservoir for bacterial pathogens in the Legionella genus, which are the cause of the pneumonialike Legionnaire’s disease. Particles present in the sample were mistakenly identified as bacteria. Gram positive and visible under the microscope as pathogens within the particle-gobbling amoeba Acanthamoeba polyphaga, the entities surprisingly did not generate any product from the gene-amplifying polymerase chain reaction technique using universal bacterial primers.

Eleven years later, in 2003, the mystery organism received a new identity and a new name, Acanthamoeba polyphaga Mimivirus, for microbe-mimicking virus. Mimivirus is the largest virus ever discovered.

More here.

Aid to Pakistan: Advocacy or Analysis?

Anjum Altaf in The South Asian Idea:

Pakistan-us-flag Beyond Bullets and Bombs is the title of the latest report on aid to Pakistan from the Center for Global Development in Washington, DC. In light of the increasingly anti-Pakistan sentiment in the U.S., the report, addressed to decision and policy makers in Washington, takes on the brief to make the best possible case for the continuation of aid. Hence the subtitle: Fixing the U.S. Approach to Development in Pakistan. The report is a revealing illustration of advocacy over analysis; a more open examination would have begun by questioning the impacts of U.S. aid to Pakistan, before deciding if the total benefits of “fixing” it exceeded the total cost to both sides.

It is to the report’s credit that it is forthright and includes all the relevant pieces of information, but the way it uses that information is determined by the choice it makes. What is highlighted or slighted is entirely a function of the case that is to be advocated, and all the evidence in the report could be interpreted quite differently in order to support quite different conclusions.

The point of departure, based on a review of the history of development assistance to Pakistan, is an uncontested matter of fact: “Since 1960, all OECD and multilateral creditors have given an inflation-adjusted total of over $100 billion in development assistance to Pakistan.” The report goes on to note that there is precious little to show for this assistance, mentions all the problems of the moment, and concludes: “None of these problems—in the power, education, and water sectors, or on the fiscal front—will be resolved unless Pakistan’s political institutions and leaders can tackle them head on.”

It would seem that the obvious question to ask would be, have Pakistan’s political institutions and leaders decided, now or ever, to tackle these problems head on?

More here.

Of Course I Take Pictures of My Penis and Send Them to People

John Kenney in The New Yorker:

And I’m not alone in history.

Teddy Roosevelt, for instance, was a big fan of photographing his penis, and would pose for hours at a time. In Paris, in the twenties, it was all the rage. Hemingway’s little-known short story “Look at This Photo of My Penis” attests to it. Stalin often adorned his dacha with framed eight-by-tens, coyly saying to visitors, “Boy-oh-boy, is that a lovely penis, or what?” (The wrong answer proved costly).

Go back further, of course, and you’ll find the drawings. Jefferson was a madman for it, often sending John Adams dozens of sketches of his penis in a single day. Adams is said to have enjoyed them with his wife, Abigail, who was herself a fan of penis portraiture. Even further back, we find that Michelangelo, Raphael, and Titian all made frequent charcoal sketches of their penises, giving them as gifts (a common practice in Florence to this day). And then there are the famous cave drawings at Lascaux, France, purported to be more than seventeen thousand years old, where one sees dozens of penis portraits, crudely drawn, but a statement in their own right: a plea, as if to say, one cave man to another, “My name is Dave. This is my penis. Let us be friends.”

More here.

When bad people write great books

From Salon:

Book A reader, prompted by last week's commentary on whether great books can make you a better person, wrote in to ask a related question. Her favorite author is Charles Dickens; his books have been beacons for her. While she'd like to know more about him, she recalls reading long ago that Dickens behaved badly in his personal life. Should she investigate further, even though she worries that this will lead her to “doubt the impression I always had of Dickens: that he was a kind, sensitive soul who had suffered as a child”? As if hell-bent on providing further illustration of this dilemma, Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul played the provocateur last week by announcing that he is a better writer than any woman who has ever lived. He offered a variety of reasons for this state of affairs, none of them worth repeating. While his remarks lacked intellectual content, his antics did inspire some thoughtful responses, many of which have pointed out that talented artists can be reprehensible people.

If Dickens sometimes behaved badly, Naipaul is unquestionably a bad man, notorious for his floridly abusive relationships and bigoted ideas. Does this diminish his work? Naipaul's fiction is not to everyone's taste, but the grace of his prose and the power of his early books, especially “A Bend in the River,” is hard to deny; I admired much of that novel even as I gritted my teeth over its blinkered depiction of Africans. “A House for Mr. Biswas” is a veritable touchstone for New Yorker critic James Wood, a tough crowd if there ever was one. For myself, I ended up feeling that Naipaul's prejudices (less glaring in his earlier books, but still evident and clearly fueled by cultural insecurity) bar him from the sort of insight that renders a novelist truly wise as opposed to merely smart. Other writers make for more ambiguous cases. T.S. Eliot was an anti-Semite, Virginia Woolf a snob and Ezra Pound a flaming fascist, but I'm not ready to shrug off “The Waste Land,” “To the Lighthouse” or “The Cantos.”

More here.

From Hitler to Mother Teresa: 6 Degrees of Empathy

From The New York Times:

Evil Dr. Baron-Cohen, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Cambridge and director of the university’s Autism Research Center, proposes that evil is more scientifically defined as an absence of empathy, exacerbated by negative environmental factors (usually parental, sometimes societal) and a genetic component. When these three exist in tandem they result in what he calls a Zero-Negative personality. Zero-Negative takes at least three forms (and possibly more), borrowing from terms used in psychiatry: Zero Type P (psychopathology), Zero Type B (borderline disorder) and Zero Type N (narcissism).

Whereas psychiatry groups these three loosely under the term “personality disorders,” Dr. Baron-Cohen proposes that they all share the characteristic of zero degrees of empathy. (His “empathy quotient” scale is available in the book or online, with an instant numerical score that is translated into degrees of empathy from zero to six, or super empathy.) Viewing these disorders in terms of empathy “has very different treatment implications,” he maintains. Psychopaths aside, people with low degrees of empathy can be taught empathy, as is done in schools concerned about bullying, and treated with standard psychiatric approaches.

More here.

3QD Science Prize 2011 Finalists


The editors of 3QD have made their decision. The twenty semifinalists have been winnowed down to six, and three wildcard entries added. Thanks again to all the participants.

Once again, Carla Goller has provided a “trophy” logo that our finalists may choose to display on their own blogs. And if you like our site, please do add us to your blogroll!

So, here it is, the final list that I am sending to Lisa Randall, who will select the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd prize winners: (in alphabetical order by blog name here)

  1. Finalist_2011_science Cosmic Variance: The Fine Structure Constant is Probably Constant
  2. Dr. Carin Bondar: Sacrifice on the Serengeti
  3. Empirical Zeal: Blind Fish in Dark Caves Shed Light on the Evolution of Sleep
  4. Highly Allochthonous: Levees and the Illusion of Flood Control
  5. Laelaps: The Pelican's Beak – Success and Evolutionary Stasis
  6. Oh, For the Love of Science: Prehistoric Clues Provide Insight into Climate's Future Impact on Oceans
  7. Opinionator: Morals Without God?
  8. Scientific American Guest Blog: Serotonin and Sexual Preference: Is It Really That Simple?
  9. Starts With A Bang: Where Is Everybody?

We'll announce the three winners on or around June 21, 2011.

Good luck!


P.S. The editors of 3QD will not be making any comments on our deliberations, or the process by which we made our decision, other than to simply say that we picked what we thought were the best posts out of the semifinalists, and added three others which we also liked.

Errol Morris on Wittgenstein, or someone like him in certain respects

by Dave Maier

A few months ago, on the New York Times Opinionator blog, filmmaker Errol Morris posted a remarkable five-part series of articles, which dealt with a wide range of fascinating topics, all in search of an understanding of a traumatic incident in his past. This is a time-honored literary exercise, and Morris is a knowledgeable and skilled writer. Yet not everyone was pleased with his efforts, and some harsh words were exchanged in the ether before all became quiet once again.

Not one to let sleeping dogs lie, but also in the hope that tempers have cooled enough for us to take a sober look at the matter, I would like today, for what it is worth (and if you find it worthless, your money will be cheerfully refunded) to throw in my own two cents.

Perhaps you remember the story. As he tells it, in 1972 Morris was a graduate student at Princeton studying with Thomas Kuhn. During a heated discussion, Kuhn, a chain-smoker, threw an ashtray at Morris, missing his target but searing an unforgettable image into the young man's soul: “I see the arc, the trajectory. As if the ashtray were its own separate solar system. With orbiting planets (butts), asteroids and interstellar gas (ash).” Below this description, Morris provides for the reader a specially reenacted photograph (photo credit: Errol Morris).

Morris_ashtray7-blog427 What concerns me in this fantastic apologia cum vendetta is not the terrible wrong that was done to Morris (which included not simply the threat of bodily harm, but also ejection from the graduate program), but the rather more boring issue of the philosophical corners Morris necessarily – and unnecessarily – cuts in telling his story.

Just be glad this isn't a five-part series.

Read more »

Try not to wreck the place on your way out

by Jeff Strabone

It used to be the case that the earth took little notice of the rise and fall of empires and republics. Fields were burned, livestock slaughtered, wells polluted, but sooner or later life returned. That is not necessarily the case anymore, as recent eco-catastrophes in the Gulf of Mexico and Japan remind us. But those were accidents, right? Roll the dice on enough high-risk energy projects around the world and eventually something will go wrong. We can at least say that no one who planned the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig or the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant counted on polluting the Gulf or irradiating northern Japan. I cannot say the same for the energy-extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing, or 'fracking' for short.

Fracking offers us the one-two punch of both ecological and republican destruction at the same time. With its left, it poisons drinking water and appears to cause earthquakes. And with its right, it lands a knockout blow against government regulation, the disinterested rule of law, and that old chestnut from the U.S. Constitution, promoting the general welfare. In the case of fracking, both government and industry know the earth-shattering toxicity of its effects, yet both continue to act as partners in spreading the practice across the country. It is one thing to say that the republic is standing on shaky ground. It is quite another to mean it literally.

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MR. NOBODY: How Children Use Metaphor to Get to Sleep, Cope, Grieve and Grow

By Kate Fincke

Over the years I have asked many children how they get to sleep at night. I collect these stories. More often than not, when the children find out about my collection, they ask me to tell them all the stories I know. Secreted in the telling is a point: all children must find a way to put themselves to sleep. While parents may put them to bed, the children alone must drift off. As adults we know that insomnia is commonplace, and we do what we can to fend it off. Children, however, often rail at the realization that despite bedtime stories, snacks, lullabies or back rubs, they are, in the end, on their own. They are frequently bewildered that we cannot make them sleep. Even if adults offer suggestions (the famous sheep counting, or prayers or reading), children must actively choose to invest themselves in the strategy. Often they rebel, refusing all suggestions, insisting they have tried them all, and they just don't work.

Their recalcitrance lies in the alone-ness of sleep, the isolation, and the self-reliance. The solution lies in turning away from whomever is tucking them in — away from the hope that they can be accompanied across the threshold of sleep—and turning toward their own creativity. I believe, in the end, that drifting off is a solitary creative act.

Toddlers, we know, cannot be given their security blankets; they create them. And for a time, the security blanket soothes and will ferry the child from sleepiness to sleep. As children mature, however, the blanket no longer suffices, and the life of the mind takes over, opening the door to both imagined fears and imagined remedies. At night children commit themselves to the power of imagination. Eight-year-olds find themselves believing in monsters that during daylight hours are ridiculed. In my profession, help often comes in the form of stories —sometimes stories that are made up on the spot by child and therapist together. So when the kids ask to hear my collection of sleep stories, it often goes something like this:

I knew a boy once who was afraid of burglars at night. He was particularly worried about his window — a natural entry point for bad guys. So when he went to bed, he had his mother tuck him in extra tight so no one could get at him. Then he had her line up his twelve polar bears all around him with the biggest one at his feet and all the rest facing in, watching over him.

Once settled, he began to boot-up his imaginary computer with all sorts of burglar-catching paraphernalia. It grew to be a vastly intricate computer, loaded with invisibility functions and burglar-seeking missiles. As I understand it, he would lose himself in the details of his programming and fall off to sleep.

However, once a night, he would wake up to pee. To insure his safety, he had to run to the bathroom as fast as he could while stopping to hop twice on each hall rug. If he hopped right, sleep was guaranteed. If not—worry. If worry, then the laborious computer programming began all over again.

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Writing for Machines

by James McGirk

Kindle_iphone Writers are anxious about the Internet and all things electronic, as we worry these newfangled ways of entertaining ourselves might someday obviate our own work. The solution, perhaps, lies in understanding and adapting to this new medium. Consuming enough that we can master its complexities and render appealingly intelligent confections for our readers. But who are these readers? Are they different online than they are in print? Some of them aren’t even human. There is a new form of reader browsing the Internet. For this is no longer just the age of mechanical reproduction; we now have to contend with mechanical readers as well.

William Gibson, who coined the term “cyberspace” imagined it as a mass consensual hallucination, rendered as a cityscape, the prominence of each shape on the horizon an index of how much data was passing through a single point; a point which in 1982 a reader might have thought of as a mainframe computer, and what today, nearly thirty years later, we might identify as an html address or site. On Gibson’s Internet Google would glow the brightest, soar the highest; be an Empire State Building to the Internet’s Manhattan. Most users don’t look at the Internet by volume, however, they read it pane by pane, navigating from bookmarks or through searches, feeding keywords into an ‘engine,’ a series of algorithms, to retrieve lists of linked addresses to the information they seek. These lists are customized to the user, the results tweaked by the user’s location and previous searches. The more searches you make, the more information about yourself you reveal, the more customized the experience becomes.

From a content provider’s point of view (as opposed to a more passive content user’s point of view) an ideal Internet browser might render something close to Gibson’s landscape of crystalline data sculptures, were there a way to capture such information in real time. But commercial users would rather see traffic than the mere through-output of bits and bytes. Who consumes what information, when and why is much more important to commerce than mere bandwidth. Though online sales have grown to become big business, the Internet remains a popularity contest. The real currency of the online world is attention. Being able to read the flow of attention online would mean mastering it, and reaping the ad money that comes along with that attention. But instead of trying to follow where everyone is going all at once, content providers are instead attempting to clone their readers’ minds.

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The Folding of Bodies, Ours and Others

by Ryan Sayre

Cigarette smoke, which fills a surprisingly large number of foldingestablishments in Japan even today, is air folded many times over. Air folded into the folds of the lungs and folded back into the room with a curl. Smoke escapes from noses, mouths, and from ashtrays and it hangs in the room, giving density to common space. It folds the room into our bodies and affixes us to each other. In its ubiquity, smoke in Japan is nothing other than visible air and air, in turn, nothing other than invisible cigarette smoke, reaching into the folds of bodies and pulling them closer to one another.

To sit seza, (正座) is to sit with one's legs folded under the thighs. As the Chinese character suggests, it is to sit “correctly” (正). Despite all my studies in German, I can't say I ever learned the word or phrase to express “to have one's legs fall asleep.” In learning the Japanese language, which necessarily involves learning the Japanese uses of the body, the word shibireru and the concept it indexes find one early on in one’s studies. While the official Japanese dictionary defines shibireru as “losing sensation in part of, or in the entire body” or “to lose one's freedom of movement,” the sheer intensity and presence of pain brought on by 'correct' sitting in Japan quickly makes suspect any notion that shibireru operates under the sign of lack or loss. When a train goes into a dark tunnel, rather than robbing us of our vision, the panes of glass on either side of the lighted train car throw us back the dull reflected image of ourself straining to look outside. Perception is not lost but moved inward. Shibireru, I think, works on a similar perspectival shift. It is true that other than an intense non-localized dull pain, when our legs “fall asleep” we can't feel from them quite as we normally do. But this changes nothing of the fact that when we place our hands upon our thighs, however foreign or uncanny a feeling it may be, we can feel the two warm wedges of flesh and know them to be our own. Shibireru is not sensation's full departure but its distortion. It folds us tightly into the creases that hold apart self and other, feeling-person and felt-person.

I read somewhere, I no longer remember where, that the reason we can't tickle ourselves is that when someone else's fingers run across our bodies we suffer a stimulation overload as a result of not being able to distinguish between where we end and where the other begins. Insofar as this is true, and insofar as we agree that one can’t tickle oneself, is it then not reasonable to say that while Descartes might have proved the self's existence through an experiment of thought – I think therefore I am, the very existence of the other is proved undoubtably every time we are tickled by an Other? “tu me chatouilles donc tu es” “you tickle me therefore you are!” Maybe it is the bliss felt over the Other's proved existence every time we participate in the testing out of this little formula that accounts for why getting fixed in the folds between self and other should result in uncontrollable laughter rather than utter terror.

Listening to History

by Hasan Altaf

LISTENER_front_cover-208x312If I were to describe David Lester’s The Listener (Arbeiter Ring, 2011) as “a graphic novel about the Holocaust,” the immediate correlation drawn would be with Maus, by Art Spiegelman, an urtext of both the genre and the subject. The comparison would be unfair, and a disservice to Lester’s work; the description is correct only in the most general sense. Th e shadow of Maus is irrelevant – artistically, thematically and structurally, The Listener is completely different, and stronger for it.

The Listener avoids both the historical-memoir structure found in works like Maus (or Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis) and the more familiar parts of the Nazi-era narrative. Instead, it tells the story of a Canadian sculptor named Louise, who leaves for Europe after a Cambodian genocide survivor, inspired by her work, falls to his death in an attempt to hang a political banner. (She picks up her hate mail with startling regularity from various places on the continent.) On her wanderings, she encounters an old German couple, journalists and members of the German National People’s Party (DNVP) in the 1930s, whose story of mishandled elections in a small German state and a crucial vote that enabled the Nazi rise to power fill in the latter half of the book.

This strategy provides both opportunities and pitfalls. It is an unconventional and refreshing take on a difficult topic, and the connection between the two stories is real and important: They share a language, a focus on the relationship of politics to art and of both to truth, and there is throughout the book a yearning for something like absolution. When we see Rudolph and Marie find theirs – through telling their story to Louise and, through her, to us – it is as beautiful a moment as Lester shows it and Louise imagines it.

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In Disguise

by Jen Paton

The man disguised as Mirza Abdullah, better known as Richard Francis Burton, was overcome when he glimpsed Mecca for the first time. Burton spent years perfecting his language, his dress, his mannerisms, his very way of moving, to go undetected into a city forbidden to outsiders. And when he finally saw this city, he felt himself drawn admiringly inwards, rather than outwards: “It was as if the poetical legends of the Arab spoke truth, and that the waving wings of angels, not the sweet breeze of morning, were agitating and swelling the black covering of the shrine. But, to confess the humbling truth, theirs was the high feeling of religious enthusiasm, mine was the ecstasy of pride.”

348140-gay-girl-in-damascus In January 2011 two modern-day Westerners in disguise sought to insinuate themselves into “the Orient”, or at least its virtual space. An American man and his wife posed as a lesbian blogger living through a heady time of revolution. They took the name of Amina Arraf, named her blog “Gay Girl in Damascus,” and began chronicling the life of a completely imaginary Syrian-American woman, returned to her father’s homeland to “be a part of the change that is coming.”

Back in January, as the Middle East shook, “Amina” wrote she had to do something “bold and visible”, and that was writing a blog as an out woman in Demascus, under her real name, with “my photo.” Her writing was compelling, and she was bold. When Amina’s cousin came online last week to post that she had been detained, her readers, some of whom felt themselves friends, sounded the alarm.

And then, masks began to come off. The publicity surrounding her detention led to Newsnight’s report last week that the photographs on Amina’s blog were actually of Londoner Jelena Lecic, who had no connection to Syria. This cued the furious investigation of Andy Carvin of NPR (whose account is here), the Electronic Intifada, other news organizations, and a fleet of increasingly furious, and betrayed, Twitterati, to track down Tom MacMaster, a graduate student in medieval studies at Edinburgh, and his wife, Britta Froelicher, an expert in Middle Eastern studies and Syrian economics. Late last night, MacMaster posted a confession on Amina’s blog, which was titled an “apology” but was anything but. MacMaster wrote that “ I do not believe that I have harmed anyone — I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about.”

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Some Accounting For Taste (Food, Faith & Syncretism in the Deccan)

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Charminar_hyderabad_india_photo One fairly nondescript morning a few years ago I found myself headed to Barkas in the old city of Hyderabad to meet my friend, Saleh Ahmed bin Abdat, the Public Relations Officer (PRO) of Al-Jamaitul Yemenia bil Hind, which administers affairs related the migrant community of Yemen, particularly the Hadramaut province of Southern Yemen. As part of an ongoing project, I have been speaking to members of the community for several years now. Barkas, close to the scorpion-shaped Falaknuma Palace, is a corruption of the English word barracks, for it was here that cadre of the Irregular Arab Forces of the princely ruler of Hyderabad, the Nizam, were housed. It was 7 AM and we were scheduled for a shoot with Sheikh Ba’wazir Ba’shaiba, a 76-year-old local resident, who had recently returned from his first ever trip to the land of his ancestors. The septuagenarian, as part of the last ruling Nizam Mir Osman Ali Khan’s personal staff, had tended to the erstwhile autocrat of the independent state of Hyderabad till his dying breath. The Sheikh was a Khanazad – one of the many wards adopted by the Nizam to keep him company in his palace at King Kothi. We were late to arrive and consequently missed what was to be a delicious start to the day – a saucerful of Harees, the Turkish/Arabic originator of the more popular Haleem, a thickish, pulpy stew (or porridge) of wheat, goat meat or lamb, and spices.

In his foreword to Lila Zaouali’s Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World, Charles Perry points to the oldest surviving Arabic cookbook, Kitab al-tabikh, compiled in the 10th century by the scribe Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq. The Nabataeans, as the Aramaic-speaking Christians of Iraq and Syria were known, he informs us, contributed significantly to the Arab repertoire of dishes (and terms used to describe them). Perry points out that the pioneering scribe Ibn Sayyar devotes an entire chapter to stews called nabatiyyat, and it is here we see a mention of Harisa, a Nabataean dish: “whole grain stewed with meat until done, and then beaten to a smooth, savory paste.” Interestingly, in this illuminating foreword, Perry also mentions that there is no proscription against meat at all in Islam and ‘this surely explains why meatless dishes were called muzawwaj (“counterfeit”)’.

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Oscar Hijuelos returns to Havana and finds a family of strangers

Oscar Hijuelos in Newsweek:

1307758152832 The city of Havana in the late 1940s, with its romantic ambience, its splendid sea-worn architecture, and its wall-to-wall music, was at the heart of my best-known novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. Though I had only passed through the city as a boy in 1955, I based much of my novel’s portraiture of Havana on both the music I listened to as a youngster and the stories I had heard about it from the Cuban old-timers who would come to our apartment in Manhattan.

I can remember the colossal excitement that erupted in our little kitchen on New Year’s Eve 1958, when the Spanish-language radio announced that the forces of Fidel Castro were on the verge of entering that city. Toasts were made all around. Little did we know that Fidel’s revolution and the American embargo that resulted would bring an end to an epoch when Cubans like my folks, who had immigrated to the United States in the 1940s, could legally travel to the capital of their patria. No, during those years of the Cold War, Havana, like the rest of Cuba, became an abstraction, a forbidden city that seemed to vanish from our reach.

More here.

Nico Muhly’s tale of Two Boys: don’t expect Facebook – the Opera

Tom Service in The Guardian:

ENO’s viral video advertising Nico Muhly‘s new opera is a kick-ass three minutes of social networking lampooning. However, it’s got zippity-squat to do with the work itself. Far from questioning “how odd your online life is”, Two Boys is a human drama of obsession, love, fantasy, identity and detective work. It’s also not really about “what could go wrong” online. This is a bit of a euphemism for being induced to masturbate on-cam for someone you think is a hot chick but who turns out to be a teenage boy, and then be forced through months of psychological manipulation to stab them.

The point is, the drama of Two Boys will be, or should be, profound and tragic, rather than merely critiquing the trivialities of friend-inculcation on Facebook, as the viral video, produced in collaboration with flyer-merchants Don’t Panic and starring Jolyon Rubinstein, makes out. At least that’s how it seemed to me watching rehearsals for the piece, looking at the score, and talking to the composer himself.

More here.