Vacant, Limpid, Angelic


Willem de Kooning may or may not have been a bad painter, according to his persistent and vocal detractors, but he was surely a bad influence, giving rise to a “Tenth Street touch” that was a stereotype of spontaneity, anxiety reduced to a mannerism. This opinion has become a truism, one of the few that the likes of Hilton Kramer and Yve-Alain Bois can agree on. For Clement Greenberg, a chief detractor who had once been a supporter, more promising than de Kooning’s followers were color-field painters like Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis, whose stained canvases retained something of the abstract expressionist’s spontaneity without the physical trace of the touch. Others preferred the clean lines of hard-edge painting, of Pop art or Minimalist objects—anything that would eliminate the particularity of the artist’s hand. But a hand like de Kooning’s could never have been removed from sight so easily. Robert Rauschenberg proved it with his famous Erased de Kooning Drawing of 1953. The 27-year-old Rauschenberg spent months laboring to efface the traces of the elder artist’s ink and crayon. “I wore out a lot of erasers,” he later recalled. Yet traces of de Kooning remain, inexpugnable. It’s hard to tell from those faint inflections of the paper’s whiteness what the work it once was might have looked like (no photograph of it ever existed), but that something was once there remains evident. Given how much time and effort it took Rauschenberg to achieve this distinctly unvirginal, non-Mallarméan whiteness, whatever had been there must have been formidable.

more from Barry Schwabsky at The Nation here.

a master of the universe?


The consequences of the State Department cables were similarly complex and gradual. They are an archive of unimpeachable value to contemporary historians and probably had some influence in triggering the start of the Arab revolutions in Tunisia. Reverberations have been felt in Ireland, India and Ethiopia. Several American ambassadors have had humiliating apologies to make; one resigned. But the relation between information and governance stands where it did before. Assange needed allies and expertise. But his inexperience and autocratic impatience drove them away. If the WikiLeaks revelations had been directed by a cohesive group of skilled operators who cooperated to minimize the distractions of an information-saturated world and to make the very strongest moral impact with the powerful data at their disposal, it is likely the world would have taken a different kind of notice. The evidence, not the man, would have been the story.

more from George Brock at the TLS here.

Love and Anarchy: Emma Goldman’s passion for free expression burns on

Vivian Gornick in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

EmmaA handful of radicals throughout the centuries have intuited that a successful revolution includes a healthy passion for the inner life. One of them was the Russian-Jewish anarchist Emma Goldman, born in 1869. The right to stay alive in one's senses, and to live in a world that prizes that aliveness, was, for her, a key demand in any struggle she cared to wage against coercive government rule. The hatred she bore the centralized state was rooted in what she took to be government's brutish contempt for the feeling life of the individual. Fellow radicals who exhibited a similar contempt were to be held to the same standard. Comrades were those who, in the name of the revolution, were bent on honoring the complete human being.

Although Mikhail Bakunin, that fiercest of Russian anarchists, was one of her heroes, his famous definition of the revolutionary as a man who “has no interests of his own, no feelings, no habits, no longings, not even a name, only a single interest, a single thought, a single passion—the revolution” was as abhorrent to Goldman as corporate capitalism. If revolutionaries gave up sex and art while they were making the revolution, she said, they would become devoid of joy. Without joy, human beings cease being human. Should the men and women who subscribed to Bakunin's credo prevail, the world would be even more heartless after the revolution than it had been before.

More here. (Note: One of the best autobiographies I have ever read is Emma Goldman's Living My Life. It is beautifully written, full of wisdom and inspiring! My friends Seema and Vania named their daughter Emma after reading it.)

The Scariest Zombies in Nature

From Smithsonian:

AntOnce the fungus invades its victim’s body, it’s already too late. The invader spreads through the host in a matter of days. The victim, unaware of what is happening, becomes driven to climb to a high spot. Just before dying, the infected body—a zombie—grasps a perch as the mature fungal invader erupts from the back of the zombie’s head to rain down spores on unsuspecting victims below, starting the cycle again. This isn’t the latest gross-out moment from a George A. Romero horror film; it is part of a very real evolutionary arms race between a parasitic fungus and its victims, ants.

One zombie by itself is not necessarily very scary, but in B movies from, Night of the Living Dead to Zombieland, Hollywood’s animated corpses have a nasty habit of creating more of the walking dead. Controlled by some inexplicable force, perhaps an intensely virulent pathogen, the main preoccupation of a zombie is making other zombies. The story line is pure drive-in movie schlock, yet the popular mythology of zombies has lately been spattered with a coating of biological truth. There actually are organisms that have evolved to control the minds and bodies of other creatures, turning once normal individuals into dazed victims that fulfill the parasite’s need to reproduce itself.

More here.

European Summits in Ivory Towers

De_GrauweAs the Euro crisis worsens, Paul De Grauwe in Vox:

When it [the ECB] announced its programme of government bond buying it made it known to the financial markets (the enemy) that it thoroughly dislikes it and that it will discontinue it as soon as possible. Some members of the Governing Council of the ECB resigned in disgust at the prospect of having to buy bad bonds. Like the army, the ECB has overwhelming (in fact unlimited) firepower but it made it clear that it is not prepared to use the full strength of its money-creating capacity. What is the likely outcome of such a programme? You guessed it. Defeat by the financial markets.

Financial markets knew that the ECB was not fully committed and that it would stop the programme. As a result, they knew that the stabilisation of the price of government bonds would only be temporary and that after the programme is discontinued prices would probably go down again. Few investors wanted to keep these bonds in their portfolios. As a result, government bonds continued to be sold, and the ECB was forced to buy a lot of them.

There is no sillier way to implement a bond purchase programme than the ECB way. By making it clear from the beginning that it does not trust its own programme, the ECB guaranteed its failure. By signalling that it distrusted the bonds it was buying, it also signalled to investors that they should distrust these too.

Surely once the ECB decided to buy government bonds, there was a better way to run the programme. The ECB should have announced that it was fully committed to using all its firepower to buy government bonds and that it would not allow the bond prices to drop below a given level. In doing so, it would create confidence. Investors know that the ECB has superior firepower, and when they get convinced that the ECB will not hesitate to use it, they will be holding on to their bonds. The beauty of this result is that the ECB won’t have to buy many bonds.

Why has the ECB not been willing to use this obvious and cheaper strategy?

The Language of Global Protest

Dr2402c_thumb3Jan-Werner Mueller in Project Syndicate:

The protest movements that have flared up across the West, from Chile to Germany, have remained curiously undefined and under-analyzed. Some speak of them as the greatest global mobilization since 1968 – when enragés in very different countries coalesced around similar concerns. But others insist that there is nothing new here.

The Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev, for example, has claimed that what we are actually experiencing is 1968 “in reverse.” “Then students on the streets of Europe,” he says, “declared their desire to live in a world different from the world of their parents. Now students are on the streets to declare their desire to live in the world of their parents.”

No name and no clear interpretation have yet attached itself to the movements. But how they describe themselves – and how analysts describe them – will make an important difference in the direction they might take. Such self-understandings should also influence how citizens generally should respond to these movements.

Nineteen sixty-eight was famously over-theorized. Student leaders, or so most people remember, were constantly producing convoluted manifestos that combined Marxism, psychoanalysis, and theories about Third World liberation struggles. What is easily forgotten is that even the most theory-eager leaders of the time understood that ultimately, the protest movements that helped to define 1968 didn’t come out of seminar-room discussions.

The German leader Rudi Dutschke, for example, insisted that the movement was driven by “existential disgust” – and anger, provoked by the Vietnam War in particular. Many putative “theorists” themselves declared that the enragés should let go of revolutionary textbooks and, instead, “practically problematize” inherited radical strategies. Put more simply: they were supposed to make it up as they went along.

In that sense, 1968 and today’s protests are not as different as some observers claim.

Wednesday Poem

Arctic Starflower

Block Number 11

Anywhere in the forest, but often freely
around the underbush, along rich moor edges
or in the loose moss. When the arctic starflower stands beneath
leafy trees, it’s as if it, too, rustles
and the crown draws shine from the silver of the aspen leaf.

There was a block called number 11.
There was a prison innermost in the prison.
There was a window in there without sound.
There was a thing which was to wait.
There was a hunger punishment meant to make the hip-bone shine.

The arctic starflower spreads like silent shoots
under turf, with buds and wounds where a new
stalk is to grow. Each star opened on its own.
No neighbour. But at night the crown’s threads
step forth with blood veins in a little too white skin.

There was a block called number 11.
There was a punishment innermost in the punishment.
It was slow and like a kiss given by no one.
It was like a groom for Antigone locked inside the cave.
It was behind an electric fence that was to be transformed into a wide-open gate.

The name of the arctic starflower saves no one,
and the crown has just as often seven lobes as six.
So let’s call it “history’s cracked bandage”,
as stunted and tasteful as a white hair in the mouth.
The arctic starflower sparkles in the forest against rust-red ground.

by Øyvind Rimbereid
from Herbarium
Publisher: Gyldendal Forlag, Oslo, 2008

© Translation: 2011, May-Brit Akerholt
Publisher: First published on PIW, 2011

A Lovesong for India by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

From The Guardian:

A-Lovesong-For-India-Tales-fIn a long and distinguished writing career, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has moved with apparent ease between novels, short stories and film scripts. She has also moved between continents: India, to which she went with her husband as a young woman, New York, London. She is now 84; this collection of short stories has all her trademark versatility, throwing up a diverse cast of characters, skipping from the mansion of a Bollywood star to professional life in New York. Eleven stories, sternly sorted into categories: India, Mostly Arts and Entertainment, The Last Decades.

I think I would rather have had them shuffled. Variety is one of her strengths – the shape-shifting quality of her imagination, the flourish of some new and entirely different setting, occupation, personality. Her own life would seem to be without compartments, and it is impossible not to see the life reflected in the work, the chameleon quality of a person moving at ease through Delhi or SoHo, but perhaps always the outsider looking on, taking note. The powerful title story seems to be an indictment of some parts of contemporary India. The outsider in this case is an Englishwoman, herself with British Indian Civil Service ancestry, long married to an Indian administrator of probity and integrity, who is chagrined by their son's involvement with a new power structure of corruption and manipulation; perhaps both he and his wife are now the outsiders. The theme of the European absorbed by – besotted with – India surfaces again in the story of Maria, a professor of oriental studies, who becomes the acolyte to a flamboyant and possessive Indian poetess, thus losing, eventually, all control over events.

More here.

Researchers find a country’s wealth correlates with its collective knowledge

From PhysOrg:

EconomiccompWhat causes the large gap between rich and poor countries has been a long-debated question. Previous research has found some correlation between a nation’s economic prosperity and factors such as how the country is governed, the average amount of formal education each individual receives, and the country's overall competiveness. But now a team of researchers from Harvard and MIT has discovered that a new measure based on a country's collective knowledge can account for the enormous income differences between the nations of the world better than any other factor.

The researchers, led by Ricardo Hausmann, director of Harvard’s Center for International Development and former Minister of Planning for Venezuela, and Cesar A. Hidalgo, assistant professor at MIT’s Media Laboratory and faculty associate at Harvard’s Center for International Development, have published a book called The Atlas of Economic Complexity. Starting today, the book is free to download at The authors plan to launch the book during an exclusive event at Harvard's Center for International Development on October 27th. Attendees will include chief economists of the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, among other guests. In the book, the authors show how the total amount of embedded in a country’s economy can be measured by a factor they call “economic complexity.” From this perspective, the more diverse and specialized jobs a country’s citizens have, the greater the country’s ability to produce complex products that few other countries can produce, making the country more prosperous.

More here.

How Revolutionary Tools Cracked a 1700s Code

John Markoff in the New York Times:

25code_graphic-thumbWideIt has been more than six decades since Warren Weaver, a pioneer in automated language translation, suggested applying code-breaking techniques to the challenge of interpreting a foreign language.

In an oft-cited letter in 1947 to the mathematician Norbert Weiner, he wrote: “One naturally wonders if the problem of translation could conceivably be treated as a problem in cryptography. When I look at an article in Russian, I say: ‘This is really written in English, but it has been coded in some strange symbols. I will now proceed to decode.’ ”

That insight led to a generation of statistics-based language programs like Google Translate — and, not so incidentally, to new tools for breaking codes that go back to the Middle Ages.

Now a team of Swedish and American linguists has applied statistics-based translation techniques to crack one of the most stubborn of codes: the Copiale Cipher, a hand-lettered 105-page manuscript that appears to date from the late 18th century. They described their work at a meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics in Portland, Ore.

Discovered in an academic archive in the former East Germany, the elaborately bound volume of gold and green brocade paper holds 75,000 characters, a perplexing mix of mysterious symbols and Roman letters. The name comes from one of only two non-coded inscriptions in the document.

More here.

Johnny Depp on Hunter S. Thompson

Johnny Depp in The Daily Beast:

1319382410987You’d get a phone call at 3 a.m., and he used to call me “Colonel Depp,” because he made me a Kentucky colonel, and he’d say, “Colonel, what do you know of black-hairy-tongue disease?” And I was like, “What? I don’t know!” He’d say, “Well, I’m going to send you all the information about this, man. We must be aware of this thing.” He was deeply concerned that the disease would infiltrate our ranks.

Or you’d get a call in the middle of the night saying, “When can you meet me in Cuba? I need you in Havana, man, I’m going to do a piece down there and we’re going to go as Rolling Stone correspondents.” When Hunter made a request like that, you made it happen. Hunter wanted to interview Castro, but we never got through to him, so the story turned into our adventures down there. He referred to me as “Ray, my bodyguard.” It was wonderful—just me and Hunter prowling around Havana, going to these various restaurants or homes that you’re not supposed to go and eat at, but you’re invited. It was totally ludicrous and surreal.

If I have a favorite period with Hunter, it would most definitely be when I was living with him in his basement in the spring of ’97 in this one room across from the “war room” that he called “Johnny’s room.” We were like a couple of roommates. I went onto Hunter’s hours. We’d go to sleep about 9 or 10 in the morning and be up for breakfast at about 7 p.m.

More here.

Aaloo Andey: Satire with a bite in Pakistan

M Ilyas Khan at the BBC:

ScreenHunter_15 Oct. 26 12.32Aaloo Andey (potato and egg curry) is the first single from an underground band called the Bayghairat (Shameless) Brigade and the video has gone viral in Pakistan, with tens of thousands of hits on YouTube.

Its scathing lyrics take on taboo subjects such as Islamic fundamentalism and the Pakistani army chief in a way that no one has done before.

It also pours scorn on Pakistani society where ruthless killers – such as Mumtaz Qadri who killed a politician for his religious views and Ajmal Qasab the sole surviving gunman from the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks – are glorified as heroes by some.

This is a place, the song goes, where a Pakistani Nobel prize-winning physicist, Abdus Salam, is forgotten because he is from the minority, and much reviled, Ahmadi community.

Bayghairat Brigade are three young men with a sense of humour but also, clearly, with a sense of despair about Pakistan.

The potato and egg curry of the title is just a way of lamenting how Pakistani society dishes out the same old rubbish year after year.

But do the band members realise that they may have put their lives on the line?

More here. And here's the video:

OWS’s Beef: Wall Street Isn’t Winning – It’s Cheating

Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone:

D46de7e669258111981a55aa5da100884fbbc2a2I was at an event on the Upper East Side last Friday night when I got to talking with a salesman in the media business. The subject turned to Zucotti Park and Occupy Wall Street, and he was chuckling about something he'd heard on the news.

“I hear [Occupy Wall Street] has a CFO,” he said. “I think that's funny.”

“Okay, I'll bite,” I said. “Why is that funny?”

“Well, I heard they're trying to decide what bank to put their money in,” he said, munching on hors d'oeuvres. “It's just kind of ironic.”

Oh, Christ, I thought. He’s saying the protesters are hypocrites because they’re using banks. I sighed.

“Listen,” I said, “where else are you going to put three hundred thousand dollars? A shopping bag?”

“Well,” he said, “it's just, they're protests are all about… You know…”

“Dude,” I said. “These people aren't protesting money. They're not protesting banking. They're protesting corruption on Wall Street.”

“Whatever,” he said, shrugging.

These nutty criticisms of the protests are spreading like cancer.

More here.

John McCarthy — Father of AI and Lisp — Dies at 84

Cade Metz in Wired:

ScreenHunter_14 Oct. 25 17.11When IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer won its famous chess rematch with then world champion Garry Kasparov in May 1997, the victory was hailed far and wide as a triumph of artificial intelligence. But John McCarthy — the man who coined the term and pioneered the field of AI research — didn’t see it that way.

As far back as the mid-60s, chess was called the “Drosophila of artificial intelligence” — a reference to the fruit flies biologists used to uncover the secrets of genetics — and McCarthy believed his successors in AI research had taken the analogy too far.

“Computer chess has developed much as genetics might have if the geneticists had concentrated their efforts starting in 1910 on breeding racing Drosophila,” McCarthy wrote following Deep Blue’s win. “We would have some science, but mainly we would have very fast fruit flies.”

According Daphne Koller — a professor in the Stanford AI Lab who still carries the torch for McCarthy’s orthodox vision of artificial intelligence — it’s a quote that sums up both McCarthy and his work. “The word that bests describes him is ‘uncompromising’,” she tells Wired. “He believed in artificial intelligence in terms of building an artifact that could actually replicate human level intelligence, and because of this, we was very unhappy with a lot AI today, which provides some very useful applications but focuses on machine learning.

More here.

An epic journey through the Arabian desert

Michael Dirda in Salon:

Arabian_sands_stewart_coverFor years I meant to read “Arabian Sands,” Wilfred Thesiger’s account of two punishing camel journeys during the late 1940s across Southern Arabia’s Empty Quarter. Now that I have, I can sheepishly join the chorus of those who revere the book as one of the half dozen greatest works of modern English travel writing. Thesiger’s other masterpiece, “The Marsh Arabs” (1964), is almost as good. There he describes the seven years during the 1950s that he spent living in the wetlands of Iraq’s Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

“The Marsh Arabs” is enthralling, yet “Arabian Sands” remains the austere masterpiece, worthy of comparison with the classics of polar endurance, like Apsley Cherry-Gerrard’s “The Worst Journey in the World,” and with those roomy mansions of desert literature, C. M. Doughty’s “Travels in Arabia Deserta” and T. E. Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” While most travel writing today is essentially journalism, Arabian Sands is an epic poem:

A cloud gathers, the rain falls, men live; the cloud disperses without rain, and men and animals die. In the deserts of southern Arabia there is no rhythm to the seasons, no rise and fall of sap, but empty wastes where only the changing temperature marks the passage of the years. It is a bitter, desiccated land which knows nothing of gentleness or ease…. Men live there because it is the world into which they were born; the life they lead is the life their forefathers led before them; they accept hardships and privations; they know no other way. Lawrence wrote in “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” “Bedouin ways were hard, even for those brought up in them and for strangers terrible: a death in life.” No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will have within him the yearning to return, weak or insistent according to his nature. For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match.

This is the stirring prologue to “Arabian Sands,” yet it already sounds a faintly elegiac tone, a recognition that an ages-old way of life is vanishing. As Thesiger writes, “I went to Southern Arabia only just in time.”

More here.