Sunday Poem

Mapping the Interior

Imagine that you had a dishcloth
Bigger than the one mothers put on the bread
To slow its cooling, that you could spread
Over the whole kitchen floor to bring up its face
As clearly as the features on the cake.

You’d have a print you could lift up
To the light and examine for individual traces
Of people who came to swap yarns, and sit on
Sugan chairs that bit into the bare floor, leaving
Unique signatures on concrete that creased
Over time into a map you could look at and

Imagine what those amateur cartographers
Were thinking when their eyes fell, in the silence
Between the stories, that was broken only by
The sound of the fire and whatever it was that
Was calling in the night outside.

by Eugene O'Connell
from One Clear Call
Bradshaw Books, Cork, © 2003

Storms

Mitch Dobrowner in Lensculture:

Dobrowner_1Landscape photographers count ourselves lucky to be in the right place at the right time if a storm system is moving through — but I wanted to actively pursue these events. Since storms are a process (not a thing) I needed a guide. I soon connected with Roger Hill (regarded as the most experienced storm-chaser in the world); he introduced me to Tornado Alley and the Great Plains of the United States. In July 2009 Roger and I tracked a severe weather system for nine hours — from its formation outside of Sturgis, South Dakota, through Badlands National Park and into Valentine, Nebraska. Eventually we stopped in a field outside of Valentine, and there we stood in awe of the towering supercell (a thunderstorm with a deep rotating updraft) which was building with intake wind gusts of 60mph. It was like standing next to a 65,000-foot-high vacuum cleaner. It was unlike anything I had seen before in my life; the formation of the supercell had an ominous presence and power that I had never witnessed or experienced before. I remember turning to Roger, who was standing next to me, and saying, 'what the ****… you have to be kidding me'. It was only the second day of my “experiment” in shooting storms, but I knew without a doubt that this experiment would become an important project to me.

Words are inadequate to describe the experience of photographing this immense power and beauty. And the most exciting part is with each trip I really don’t know what to expect. But now I see these storms as living, breathing things.

More here. [Editor's note: You'll discover a lot more detail when you look at these images in our high-resolution slide show.]

The Era of Small and Many

Bill McKibben in Orion Magazine:

SmallEarlier this year, my state’s governor asked if I’d give an after-lunch speech to some of his cabinet and other top officials who were in the middle of a retreat. It’s a useful discipline for writers and theorists to have to summarize books in half an hour, and to compete with excellent local ice cream. No use telling these guys how the world should be at some distant future moment when they’ll no longer be in office—instead, can you isolate themes broad enough to be of use to people working on subjects from food to energy to health care to banking to culture, and yet specific enough to help them choose among the options that politics daily throws up? Can you figure out a principle that might undergird a hundred different policies? Or another way to say it: can you figure out which way history wants to head (since no politician can really fight the current) and suggest how we might surf that wave?

Here’s my answer: we’re moving, if we’re lucky, from the world of few and big to the world of small and many. We’ll either head there purposefully or we’ll be dragged kicking, but we’ve reached one of those moments when tides reverse. Take agriculture. For 150 years the number of farms in America has inexorably declined. In my state—the most rural in the nation—the number of dairies fell from 11,000 at the end of World War II to 998 this summer. And of course the farms that remained grew ever larger—factory farms, we called them, growing commodity food. Here in Vermont most of the remaining dairies are big, but not big enough to compete with the behemoths in California or Arizona; they operate so close to the margin that they can’t afford to hire local workers and instead import illegal migrants from Mexico. But last year the USDA reported that the number of farms in America had actually increased for the first time in a century and a half. The most defining American demographic trend—the shift that had taken us from a nation of 50 percent farmers to less than 1 percent—had bottomed out and reversed. Farms are on the increase—small farms, mostly growing food for their neighbors.

More here.

Lynn Margulis 1938-2011

John Brockman in Edge:

LynnBiologist Lynn Margulis died on November 22nd. She stood out from her colleagues in that she would have extended evolutionary studies nearly four billion years back in time. Her major work was in cell evolution, in which the great event was the appearance of the eukaryotic, or nucleated, cell — the cell upon which all larger life-forms are based. Nearly forty-five years ago, she argued for its symbiotic origin: that it arose by associations of different kinds of bacteria. Her ideas were generally either ignored or ridiculed when she first proposed them; symbiosis in cell evolution is now considered one of the great scientific breakthroughs.

Margulis was also a champion of the Gaia hypothesis, an idea developed in the 1970s by the free lance British atmospheric chemist James E. Lovelock. The Gaia hypothesis states that the atmosphere and surface sediments of the planet Earth form a self- regulating physiological system — Earth's surface is alive. The strong version of the hypothesis, which has been widely criticized by the biological establishment, holds that the earth itself is a self-regulating organism; Margulis subscribed to a weaker version, seeing the planet as an integrated self- regulating ecosystem. She was criticized for succumbing to what George Williams called the “God-is good” syndrome, as evidenced by her adoption of metaphors of symbiosis in nature. She was, in turn, an outspoken critic of mainstream evolutionary biologists for what she saw as a failure to adequately consider the importance of chemistry and microbiology in evolution. I first met her in the late 80's and in 1994 interviewed her for my book The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution (1995). Below, in remembrance, please see her chapter, “Gaia is a Tough Bitch”. One of the compelling features of The Third Culture was that I invited each of the participants to comment about the others. In this regard, the end of the following chapter has comments on Margulis and her work by Daniel C. Dennett, the late George C. Williams, W. Daniel Hillis, Lee Smolin, Marvin Minsky, Richard Dawkins, and the late Francisco Varela. Interesting stuff.

More here.

Jeffrey Eugenides talks about ‘The Marriage Plot’ and pokes fun at literary theorists

From The Christian Science Monitor:

JeffJeffrey Eugenides published his first novel at 33 after he was fired from his position as executive secretary at the Academy of American Poets. The reason he lost his job? He was spending too much time at work honing the manuscript of his debut novel “The Virgin Suicides” (1993). “Middlesex,” his second novel, earned Eugenides a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2002. “The Marriage Plot,” just released in October, is Eugenides' third novel which took him nine years to complete. The story centers around three college students – Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell – all of whom graduate from Brown College in 1982. The book is a postmodernist take on the original marriage plot within the Victorian novel. A lot of the time, it is also a novel about other novels, in which the characters spend their time discussing Derrida, Tolstoy, Austen, and Hemingway. The second half of the book moves away from literary theory, and in some colorful scenes set in Paris, Calcutta, and New York, Eugenides explores the difficulties of dealing with mental illness, failed romance, and one man’s battle with his faith in religion. And of course Eugenides also returns to his central source of inspiration: the coming-of-age story. Eugenides recently spoke to the Monitor about the extent of free will, why semiotics is needlessly convoluted, and how reading James Joyce nearly made him choose a career in religion over a career in writing.

Your new novel moves more towards realism than your previous work. Why the change in style?

I’ve always considered myself a realist at heart. I’ve never written a book that violated physicalprinciples. My books often have an atmosphere of the fantastic or
the surreal, but actually nothing happens in them that couldn’t happen in reality, so I don’t know if this book is that much of a departure in terms of realism.

More here.

Saturday Poem

Arriving Shortly

When amma came
to New York City,
she wore unfashionably cut
salwar kurtas,
mostly in beige,
so as to blend in,
her body
a puzzle that was missing a piece –
the many sarees
she had left behind:
that peacock blue
Kanjeevaram,
that nondescript nylon in which she had raised
and survived me,
the stiff chikan saree
that had once held her up at work.

When amma came to
New York City,
an Indian friend
who swore by black
and leather,
remarked in a stage whisper,

“This is New York, you know –
not Madras.
Does she realise?”

Ten years later,
transiting through L.A. airport
I find amma
all over again
in the uncles and aunties
who shuffle past the Air India counter
in their uneasily worn, unisex Bata sneakers,
suddenly brown in a white space,
louder than ever in their linguistic unease
as they look for quarters and payphones.
I catch the edge of amma’s saree
sticking out
like a malnourished fox’s tail
from underneath
some other woman’s sweater
meant really for Madras’ gentle Decembers.

by K. Srilata
from Arriving Shortly
Publisher: Writers Workshop, Kolkata, © 2011

Look, I Made a Hat

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It might be that the stage musical is now pretty well over as a form. Certainly, the gloomy parade of ‘juke-box’ musicals through the West End doesn’t give one much hope for the future. It is difficult to pick out a worst offender, but the Ben Elton We Will Rock You, confected from the Queen catalogue, is as bad as any. Its premise, of taking the work of a curious-looking, homosexual, Parsi, excessive genius like Freddie Mercury and turning it into an idiotic story about two clean-cut stage-school kids Putting the Show on Right Now says something truly terrible about the musical: it says that it can only deal with conventional views of conventional subjects. The demonstration of just how untrue that really is comes with the collected works of Stephen Sondheim, who is surely the greatest figure in the entire history of the stage musical. In his long career, he has not hesitated to address difficult subjects. It’s certainly true that other classics in the genre have dealt with some serious issues — race relations in Showboat, the Anschluss in The Sound of Music, even trade union movements in The Pyjama Game and urban prostitution in Sweet Charity. When Sondheim takes on themes of colonial exploitation (Pacific Overtures), political assassinations (Assassins) or Freudian psychological depths (pretty well the whole oeuvre), he is not stepping outside the previously established limits of the form.

more from Philip Hensher at The Spectator here.

thinking through ows

Ows-1

Protests do not write policy. And something as loosely formed as the OWS action shouldn’t be drafting white papers. What protests can do most effectively is to alter the common sense understanding of what is right and wrong. In this case, the OWS action makes other sufferers of debt and disenfranchisement feel that their problems are political—not a symptom of personal shortcomings, and not just the unfortunate side effect of a passing miscalculation by the Peter Orszags of the world. The real “goal” of OWS is to rally together everyone who is willing to say to Washington, “American democracy cannot bear this inequality.” This movement may prove to be adept at waging ideological war against the disastrous free-marketeers, occupying the airwaves as well as the streets—but it will indeed fall to others to write legislation and to organize economic priorities in debt-wracked communities. The OWS protests should operate in concert with such efforts (OWSers have assisted foreclosure resistance in Queens, for instance), and should put up new forms of protests that keep the public’s eyes on the culprits. Bank occupations have already begun. Major campaigns are now successfully exhorting citizens to move their savings and checking accounts from big banks to local credit unions. The black box of high finance has finally been pried open and exposed for the unregulated machine of destruction that it is, and the alternatives being proposed in the tumult of Occupy Wall Street sound pretty smart to me.

more from Sarah Leonard at Bookforum here.

agatha

600full-agatha-christie

Agatha Christie was not cozy. She earned the title the Queen of Crime the old-fashioned way — by killing off a lot of people. Although never graphic or gratuitous, she was breathtakingly ruthless. Children, old folks, newlyweds, starlets, ballerinas — no one is safe in a Christie tale. In “Hallowe’en Party,” she drowns a young girl in a tub set up for bobbing apples and, many chapters later, sends Poirot in at the very last minute to prevent a grisly infanticide. In “The ABC Murders,” she sets up one of the first detective-taunting serial killers. The signature country home aside, Christie’s literary world was far from homogenous. Her plots, like her life, were international, threading through urban and pastoral, gentry and working class, dipping occasionally into the truly psychotic or even supernatural. Christie murders were committed for all the Big Reasons — love, money, ambition, fear, revenge — and they were committed by men, women, children and in one case, the narrator. Some of her books are truly great — “Death on the Nile,” “And Then There Were None,” “The Secret Adversary,” “Murder on the Orient Express,” “Curtain” to name a few — and some are not. But even the worst of them (“The Blue Train,” “The Big Four”) bear the hallmarks of a master craftsman. Perhaps not on her best day, but the failures make us appreciate the successes, and the woman behind them, that much more.

more from Mary McNamara at the LA Times here.

The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception

Drew DeSilver in The Seattle Times:

2016723867Back in 1982, Air Florida Flight 90 was attempting to take off from Washington, D.C., in a blinding snowstorm. Though the co-pilot was concerned the plane's wings hadn't been thoroughly de-iced and his instrument panel wasn't displaying the correct airspeed, the pilot dismissed his concerns until seconds before the plane crashed into the Potomac River, killing all but five aboard.

The crash, as cockpit voice recordings later showed, was primarily the result of the pilot's overconfidence leading him to ignore or minimize a whole series of warning signs that his more observant, but less assertive, colleague had pointed out to him. It's one of the most dramatic illustrations of the costs of self-deception in Robert Trivers' new book, “The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life” (Basic Books, 397 pp., $28).

Trivers, an evolutionary biologist who teaches at Rutgers, starts by asking one of those questions that seems obvious once someone else asks it: Why should our brains — whose job, after all, is to make sense of everything we see, hear, touch, taste and smell — be so prone to self-deception? Natural selection would seem to work against creatures who persistently fail to see the world as it is, yet self-deception seems to be deeply embedded in our psyches.

Trivers' answer, which he first advanced in 1976 and has been elaborating since, is that we deceive ourselves the better to deceive others. If we can convince ourselves that we are stronger, smarter, more skillful, more ethical or better drivers than others, we're a long way toward convincing other people too.

More here.

Africa Unleashed: Explaining the Secret of a Belated Boom

Edward Miguel in Foreign Affairs:

9781933286518It is well known that the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s were a disaster for the countries of sub-Saharan Africa. In a period when other underdeveloped regions, especially Asia, were experiencing steady economic growth, Africa as a whole saw its living standards plummet. Nearly all Africans lived under dictatorships, and millions suffered through brutal civil wars. Then, in the 1990s, the HIV/AIDS epidemic exploded, slashing life expectancy and heightening the sense that the region had reached rock bottom. It was no surprise when an intellectual cottage industry of Afro-pessimists emerged, churning out a stream of plausible-sounding explanations for Africa's stunning decline. The verdict was simple: Africa equaled failure.

What is less well known is that Africa's prospects have changed radically over the past decade or so. Across the continent, economic growth rates (in per capita terms) have been positive since the late 1990s. And it is not just the economy that has seen rapid improvement: in the 1990s, the majority of African countries held multiparty elections for the first time since the heady postindependence 1960s, and the extent of civic and media freedom on the continent today is unprecedented. Even though Africa's economic growth rates still fall far short of Asia's stratospheric levels, the steady progress that most African countries have experienced has come as welcome news after decades of despair. But that progress raises a critical question: what happened?

More here.

How It Went

Christopher Buckley in the New York Times Book Review:

Buckley-popupKurt Vonnegut died in 2007, but one gets the sense from Charles J. Shields’s sad, often heartbreaking biography, “And So It Goes,” that he would have been happy to depart this vale of tears sooner. Indeed, he did try to flag down Charon the Ferryman and hitch a ride across the River Styx in 1984 (pills and booze), only to be yanked back to life and his marriage to the photographer Jill Krementz, which, in these dreary pages, reads like a version of hell on earth. But then Vonnegut’s relations with women were vexed from the start. When he was 21, his mother successfully committed suicide — on Mother’s Day.

It’s a truism that comic artists tend to hatch from tragic eggs. But as Vonnegut, the author of zesty, felicitous sci-fi(esque) novels like “Cat’s Cradle” and “Sirens of Titan” and “Breakfast of Champions” might put it, “So it goes.”

Vonnegut’s masterpiece was “Slaughterhouse-Five,” the novelistic account of being present at the destruction of Dresden by firebombing in 1945. Between that horror (his job as a P.O.W. was to stack and burn the corpses); the mother’s suicide; the early death of a beloved sister, the only woman he seems truly to have loved; serial unhappy marriages; and his resentment that the literary establishment really considered him (just) a writer of juvenile and jokey pulp fiction, Vonnegut certainly earned his status as Man of Sorrows, much as Mark Twain, to whom he is often compared, earned his.

Was Kurt Vonnegut, in fact, just that — a writer one falls for in high school and college and then puts aside, like one of St. Paul’s “childish things,” for sterner stuff?

More here.