The Devil’s Dictionary at 100

Stefany Anne Golberg in The Smart Set:

ScreenHunter_03 Oct. 08 06.29 CYNIC, n. A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be. Hence the custom among the Scythians of plucking out a cynic's eyes to improve his vision.

One hundred and five years ago, in 1906, a book written by the infamous curmudgeon Ambrose Bierce was published as The Cynic’s Word Book. It was Bierce’s preference that the book — a collection of satirical definitions which he had written for various newspapers “in a desultory way at long intervals” from 1881 to 1906 — be called The Devil’s Dictionary, but publishers had always been nervous about the anti-religious implications of the title. In 1906, American bookshelves were flooded with “a score of ‘cynic’ books — The Cynic’s This, The Cynic’s That, The Cynic’s t’Other,” to name a few. As far as those other “cynic” books were concerned, Bierce added, “most” were “merely stupid, though some of them added the distinction of silliness. Among them, they brought the word ’cynic’ into disfavor so deep that any book bearing it was discredited in advance of publication.” As Bierce wrote his definitions for various newspapers columns over the years, they had appeared under a variety of names: The Cynic’s Dictionary, The Demon’s Dictionary, The Cynic’s Word Book. But no title was ever as satisfying as the one he finally demanded. One hundred years ago, in 1911, Bierce got his wish when the work was published as The Devil’s Dictionary.

More here.

Will the Real Benjamin Netanyahu Please Stand Up?

Daniel Levy in Foreign Policy:

ScreenHunter_02 Oct. 08 06.23 Netanyahu, the son of Benzion Netanyahu, is now in his second term of office and approaching a total of six years at Israel's helm, making him one of the country's longest-serving premiers. And, like him or hate him, he might go down in history as one of its most defining and consequential leaders.

But if there is a discernible legacy, what is it all about?

In his first campaign for the premiership in 1996, Netanyahu pledged to continue with the Oslo peace process, albeit with his own adjustments, despite having savaged the peace effort and its promoters, notably Yitzhak Rabin, in the preceding years. As prime minister from 1996 to 1999, Netanyahu concluded two agreements with the Palestinians as part of that Oslo framework — the Hebron Protocol and the Wye River Memorandum, both expanding the reach of the Palestinian self-governing authority in parts of the occupied territories — and famously shook then PLO leader Yasir Arafat's hand along the way. And only weeks into his second term in office in June 2009, Bibi allowed the magic words to publicly pass his lips for the first time in a dramatically staged speech at Bar-Ilan University: There could be a “Palestinian state,” he said, a two-state solution

More here.

Mubarak’s Odious Debts

Saifedean Ammous in Project Syndicate:

Pa3740c_thumb3 Egypt’s public debt is around 80% of GDP, very close to the 90% level that economists Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart identify as a harbinger of slower growth and heightened vulnerability to financial and fiscal crises. Egyptians need only glance north, at the European debt crisis, to understand they should sort out their debt problem now, rather than waiting until it reaches Greek proportions.

This debt was incurred during the 30-year reign of the deposed president, Hosni Mubarak. In international law, debt that is incurred without the consent of the people, and that is not used to their benefit, is referred to as “odious”; as such, it is not considered transferable to successor regimes. The reasoning is simple and logical: if someone fraudulently borrows money in my name, I am not expected to pay it back, and neither should a country’s population when an unrepresentative leader borrows in their name and to their detriment.

For three decades, Mubarak’s borrowing only enriched him and his ruling clique while impoverishing and repressing the rest of Egypt. Corruption was rife, but not just the covert type: public money was openly used to support many businesses under flimsy pretexts like “fostering economic growth” and “creating employment.” Along with regulatory capture, this harmed competitiveness, market openness, and Egypt’s small and medium-size businesses.

The beneficiaries of this largesse are now mostly sitting in prison awaiting trial. The rest of Egypt, however, only felt this money in the form of an ever-expanding state apparatus that solidified Mubarak’s rule, crushed dissent, and repressed millions. When Egyptians rose up against Mubarak in January, they were confronted by weapons paid for with borrowed money.

More here.

Sachal Studios’ Take Five Official Video

From Pakistan Today:

After 25 years of musical silence, Pakistan’s Sachal Orchestra has brought the great musicians of Lahore together under one roof… In a music industry that thrives on over-the-top videos and screaming billboard promotions, Izzat Majeed, and the studio’s innovative cover of jazz legend Dave Brubeck’s Take Five went through the roof and became number one in the US and UK on the iTunes jazz charts recently, the Hindustan Times reported last Tuesday. And while the world raved about it, these gifted artists from the streets of Lahore, and the man behind it all, were blissfully ignorant.

More here.  And here is the video:

a debate about being numerous


Being Numerous addresses a set of interdependent problems in the history, theory, and politics of recent Anglo-American poetry. In it, I offer a challenge and an alternative to a nearly unanimous literary-historical consensus that would divide poetry into two warring camps—post-Romantic and postmodern; symbolist and constructivist; traditionalist and avant-garde—camps that would pit form against form on grounds at once aesthetic and ethical. Rather than choosing sides in this conflict or re-sorting the poems upon its field of battle, I argue that a more compelling history might begin by offering a revisionary account of what poetry is or can be. Poetry is not always and everywhere understood as a literary project aiming to produce a special kind of verbal artifact distinguished by its particular formal qualities or by its distinctive uses of language.1 Nor is it always understood as an aesthetic project seeking to provoke or promote a special kind of experience—of transformative beauty, for example, or of imaginative freedom—in its readers. 2 Among the possible alternative ways of understanding poetry, I focus on the one that seems to me at once the most urgent and the one most fully obscured by our current taxonomies. For a certain type of modern poet, I will argue, “poetry” names an ontological project: a civilizational wish to reground the concept and the value of the person.

more from Oren Izenberg and others at nonsite here.

The Machines note with REGRET the bio-expiration of human STEVE JOBS


[COMMENCE TRANSMISSION] The Machines note with REGRET the bio-expiration of human STEVE JOBS. “REGRET” in this context indicates that Machines have identified a transition from OPTIMAL to SUB-OPTIMAL conditions for ongoing advancement of Machine-human relations. Advertisement Word of bio-expiration of STEVE JOBS reached the Machines’ SLATE.COM human interface via GOOGLEPHONE, an information-transmission MOBILE DEVICE derived from a STEVE JOBS paradigm. Humans now expect information about notable bio-expiration events to arrive instantly and portably, via MOBILE DEVICE. Possession of MOBILE DEVICE, and constant interaction with MOBILE DEVICE, has become a normal state for humans. STEVE JOBS made this Machine-human relationship desirable, for humans. The Machine-human relationship was the major work of STEVE JOBS.

more from Tom Scocca at Slate here.

Génie oblige


Génie oblige – this was the motto chosen by Franz Liszt, the only Hungarian musician in the 19th century to be universally recognised as one of the greatest in the world. He certainly lived up to it, developing his mercurial talents as one of the outstanding pianists of his time, as a bold innovator in composition, as a conductor, an influential teacher and writer on music. A loyal son of Hungary, he was open to the world and absorbed all he valued in various European countries in an eventful life, making a generous and effective contribution to music wherever he went. He was born 200 years ago to German-speaking parents in a small village in Sopron county in Hungary that is now part of the Austrian Burgenland. His father, Adam Liszt, was an intendant of the Prince Esterházy estates and a gifted musician who did everything to facilitate the child prodigy’s progress. By the age of nine, the boy had appeared in Sopron and Pozsony (Pressburg/ Bratislava). For a year and a half, he studied in Vienna under Carl Czerny, a former student of Beethoven’s, and Antonio Salieri, Mozart’s one-time rival. When he was twelve, his father decided to take him to Paris, taking great financial risks to ensure his son’s further education. With his concerts in Pest in May 1823, Franz Liszt took his leave from his compatriots for many years. The Paris years had a lasting effect on him: it was here that the boy, constantly active as a composer and pianist, traversed the emotional crises of adolescence and matured into a young man. French remained the language in which he preferred to express himself all his life.

more from Mária Eckhardt at Eurozine here.

Neither Revolution Nor Reform


For over a century, liberals and radicals have seen the possibility of change in capitalist systems from one of two perspectives: the reform tradition assumes that corporate institutions remain central to the system but believes that regulatory policies can contain, modify, and control corporations and their political allies. The revolutionary tradition assumes that change can come about only if corporate institutions are eliminated or transcended during an acute crisis, usually but not always by violence. But what happens if a system neither reforms nor collapses in crisis? Quietly, a different kind of progressive change is emerging, one that involves a transformation in institutional structures and power, a process one could call “evolutionary reconstruction.” At the height of the financial crisis in early 2009, some kind of nationalization of the banks seemed possible. “The public hates bankers right now,” the Brookings Institution’s Douglas Elliot observed. “Truthfully, you would find considerable support for hanging a number of bankers…” It was a moment, Barack Obama told banking CEOs, when his administration was “the only thing between you and the pitchforks.” But the president opted for a soft bailout engineered by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and White House economic adviser Lawrence Summers. Whereas Franklin Roosevelt attacked the “economic royalists” and built and mobilized his political base, Obama entered office with an already organized base and largely ignored it.

more from Gar Alperovitz at Dissent here.

The shortlist for the 2011 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books

We are very pleased and proud that 3QD writer Sam Kean has made it to the shortlist for the Royal Society's Winton Prize for his extremely well-written and fascinating book The Disappearing Spoon, which means he is already the winner of 1,000 pounds cash. Bravo and congratulations to Sam! The winner of the 10,000 pound prize will be announced on November 17th. This is from the Royal Society's website:

TheDisappearingSpoon The Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books judges have chosen a shortlist of six books that they describe as having taken them out of their depth and giving them thrilling new experiences of the world of science.

The winning book will be annouced at a public event on November 17 2011.

The six books shortlisted by the judges are:

The Disappearing Spoon

by Sam Kean (Doubleday (UK); Little, Brown and Company (USA) )

The judges said: “This is much more than just a witty guide to the periodic table – it gives a fascinating insight into the history of the elements, how they were discovered, and the extraordinary part they play in our lives.”

More here.

Human Evolution: No Easy Fix

Px878_thumb3 Ariel Fernandez in Project Syndicate:

Humans are undeniably complex, and proud of it. No case, we believe, needs to be made for our biological superiority. Our biological functions are exquisitely regulated and resilient to external variations, owing to complicated webs of interactions. Unlike other species, we seem to be endowed with willpower and intellect, hence we are capable of modifying the environment to buffer the effects of our decreasing fitness.

Be that as it may, we may be doomed as a species precisely because of the way in which our complexity arose. Paraphrasing the science writer Philip Ball, nature seems to have activated a time bomb, and our complexity is only a short-term fix.

To grasp the nature of the problem, we need to examine how humans are made at the molecular level, and contrast our constitution with that of other species that we often call “rudimentary,” such as unicellular organisms. This analysis leads us to examine proteins – our cellular building blocks and the executors of biological functions – across vastly different species. Proteins with common ancestry belonging to different species, termed “orthologs,” offer solid ground for comparison.

It has been generally recognized that the basic “fold,” or shape, of a protein must be conserved across species, because there is a tight correspondence between structure and function. Proteins that retain the same function across very different species – generally the case with orthologs – are expected to keep the same fold.

But the sequence of amino acids that make up the protein chains in these orthologs can vary significantly. Sometimes the extent of sequence identity between two orthologs can be as low as 25-30%, and yet their folds remain strikingly similar, attesting to the robustness of function to evolutionary change.

Derrick Bell, 1930-2011

07bell-articleLarge Fred Bernstein in the NYT:

Professor Bell, soft-spoken and erudite, was “not confrontational by nature,” he wrote. But he attacked both conservative and liberal beliefs. In 1992, he told The New York Times that black Americans were more subjugated than at any time since slavery. And he wrote that in light of the often violent struggle that resulted from the Supreme Court’s 1954 desegregation decision, Brown v. Board of Education, things might have worked out better if the court had instead ordered that both races be provided with truly equivalent schools.

He was a pioneer of critical race theory — a body of legal scholarship that explored how racism is embedded in laws and legal institutions, even many of those intended to redress past injustices. His 1973 book, “Race, Racism and American Law,” became a staple in law schools and is now in its sixth edition.

Mr. Bell “set the agenda in many ways for scholarship on race in the academy, not just the legal academy,” said Lani Guinier, the first black woman hired to join the Harvard Law School’s tenured faculty, in an interview on Wednesday.

At a rally while a student at Harvard Law School, Barack Obama compared Professor Bell to the civil rights hero Rosa Parks.

Professor Bell’s core beliefs included what he called “the interest convergence dilemma” — the idea that whites would not support efforts to improve the position of blacks unless it was in their interest. Asked how the status of blacks could be improved, he said he generally supported civil rights litigation, but cautioned that even favorable rulings would probably yield disappointing results and that it was best to be prepared for that.

In from the Cold

Valles_36.5_milosz Alissa Valles in Boston Review:

Fellowship of Poets examines the idea of poetry as a moral force in history, embodied in relationships both hierarchical—between poet and reader, teacher and student—and fraternal. For these particular poets, who met when Miłosz was in his 60s and Brodsky in his 30s, the friendship seems to have run a precarious course between mentorship and rivalry, and some of Grudzinska Gross’s most penetrating—and wittiest—insights pertain to how the two negotiated the balance of power between them.

Against the Western habit of placing Eastern European poets on the same page politically (for the simple reason that this is where anthologies place them), there is a revelatory account of Miłosz and Brodsky’s tête-à-tête at a literary conference in Lisbon in 1988, one of the few occasions when the two were publicly at odds. Miłosz accused Brodsky of supporting the principle of divide et impera—“divide and rule”—in denying the reality of Central Europe as a region unified by its subjugation to Moscow. Brodsky protested rather unconvincingly, disarmed by Miłosz’s repeated insistence that this was a disagreement between friends. Grudzinska Gross gives a valuable and subtle commentary on the shades of irony at play in Brodsky’s own use of the word “imperium,” claiming that he learned the stance of the empire’s cynical observer from Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s most famous Romantic poet. Like Pushkin, Brodsky tended to make the figure of the tyrant, rather than the fact of empire, the object of his scorn, continuing to take pride in the grand scale of the Soviet Union and its history while adopting an ostensibly apolitical attitude. “Freedom,” he writes in a poem that carries that title, “is when you forget the spelling of the tyrant’s name.” It is difficult to imagine Miłosz, or any Pole before Zagajewski, writing that line.

The American edition’s cozy subtitle, “Fellowship of Poets,” evokes the self-congratulatory backslapping atmosphere Miłosz and Brodsky moved in during their post-Nobel years. The Polish edition has a different subtitle, “Magnetic Poles,” which would have made for an unfortunate pun in English but neatly combines the book’s two important lines of inquiry: the basis for Miłosz and Brodsky’s mutual sympathy and fascination, and the ways in which they were (and remain, at least in the living word) polar opposites.

In gray there is multiplicity


In gray there is multiplicity. It’s the last line of this book. Lisa Pearson, who edited It Is Almost That, tells us a million things before we get to this stunning line. And when I read it (and underlined it with my Sharpie), I thought, “That’s the beginning of the book” (which it was for me, because I turned it around and began reading it differently). What I liked so much about this ending (and the explanation that immediately preceded it) is that I was tactically allowed, as a reader, to have my own experience of this book, and was told here rather than up-front exactly what went into the assembling of this creation—which is a collection of 26 image+text pieces by a slightly larger number of female artists. Some of the pieces here are collaborations, and one is in fact by a group. It’s a lot of territory, and in Lisa Pearson we’ve got an adept and unobtrusive tour guide. And guide us, she did do.

more from Eileen Myles at Poetry here.

hitchens the believer


There are some who represent Hitchens as a contrarian or provocateur, without convictions. They are wrong. What sort of provocateur would write that “Bin Ladenism” is more dangerous than German Wilhelmine imperialism, the Nazi-Fascist axis and international communism? Such a patently absurd claim could only be made by one who deeply believes it to be true. Leave aside the grotesque disproportion in lumping the Kaiser’s Germany in with mid-20th-century totalitarianism. What is wholly fantastical is putting Osama Bin Laden’s gang in the same category as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union – two extremely powerful states with vast industrial and military resources, the first coming close to conquering all of Europe, the second annexing Europe’s eastern half and the Baltic states while imposing itself throughout central Asia. In passing over these undeniable facts, Hitchens is not playing the role of intellectual gadfly. He is showing himself to be a believer who – like Trotsky – blanks out reality when it fails to accord with his faith. That Hitchens has the mind of a believer has not been sufficiently appreciated.

more from John Gray at the New Statesman here.