A January 26, 1947, contract between Kurt Vonnegut and his pregnant wife, Jane

Kurt Vonnegut excerpted in Harper's Magazine:

Vonnegut100I, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., that is, do hereby swear that I will be faithful to the commitments hereunder listed:

I. With the agreement that my wife will not nag, heckle, or otherwise disturb me on the subject, I promise to scrub the bathroom and kitchen floors once a week, on a day and hour of my own choosing. Not only that, but I will do a good and thorough job, and by that she means that I will get under the bathtub, behind the toilet, under the sink,under the icebox, into the corners; and I will pick up and put in some other location whatever movable objects happen to be on said floors at the time so as to get under them too, and not just around them. Furthermore, while I am undertaking these tasks I will refrain from indulging in such remarks as “Shit,” “Goddamn sonofabitch,” and similar vulgarities, as such language is nerve-wracking to have around the house when nothing more drastic is taking place than the facing of Necessity. If I do not live up to this agreement, my wife is to feel free to nag, heckle, and otherwise disturb me until I am driven to scrub the floors anyway—no matter how busy I am.

More here.

Thursday Poem

In Magnolia
—for my sons

when i was twenty
five .. we hiked the grass

spare trails that snake
from ocean to Swan Pond .. my

two small crab catchers & me .. we
buried pet turtles at sea
…………… beneath the crooked

footbridge .. sailed stick regattas
in the slim stream in the slow

woods .. bouncing like great
explorers of Kettle Cove & sea

slashed rocks .. listening to each other's
breath .. we trudged home sand fed

by Jim Bell
from Crossing the Bar
Slate Roof, Northfield, MA, 2005


From The New Yorker:

Solomon-rape-233Writing in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Dr. Felicia H. Stewart and Dr. James Trussell have estimated that there are twenty-five thousand rape-related pregnancies each year in the United States. While these numbers make up only a small part of this country’s annual three million unwanted pregnancies, the numbers are still extremely high. Nonetheless, the relationship between rape and pregnancy has been a topic of highly politicized debate since long before Todd Akin’s comments on “legitimate rape,” Paul Ryan’s bill with its category of “forcible rape,” and Sharron Angle’s suggestion, two years ago, that women pregnant through rape make “a lemon situation into lemonade.” There is a veritable war of statistics about rape and pregnancy, and the confusion is exacerbated by the competing agendas of the pro-choice and anti-abortion movements. It has been argued that fear promotes ovulation, and that women who are raped have a ten-per-cent risk of pregnancy; there are estimates of as little as one per cent. Numbers are also skewed when they are adjusted to include or exclude women not of reproductive age; for sodomy and other forms of rape that cannot cause pregnancy; for rape victims who may be using oral birth control or I.U.D.s; and for women who are raped and become or are pregnant as a result of consensual sex with a husband or partner who is not the rapist, before or after the rape. Women who are being abused on an ongoing basis are particularly likely to conceive in rape. Catherine MacKinnon has written, “Forced pregnancy is familiar, beginning in rape and proceeding through the denial of abortions; this occurred during slavery and still happens to women who cannot afford abortions.”

I have been researching a book, “Far from the Tree,” that deals in part with women raising children conceived in rape, and have therefore met the living reproof to Akin’s remark. Life for these children may be extremely difficult. One of the few groups founded to address this population, Stigma Inc., took as its motto, “Rape survivors are the victims … their children are the forgotten victims.”

More here.

The Accidental History of the @ Symbol

From Smithsonian:

AlpThe symbol’s modern obscurity ended in 1971, when a computer scientist named Ray Tomlinson was facing a vexing problem: how to connect people who programmed computers with one another. At that time, each programmer was typically connected to a particular mainframe machine via a phone connection and a teletype machine—basically a keyboard with a built-in printer. But these computers weren’t connected to one another, a shortcoming the U.S. government sought to overcome when it hired BBN Technologies, the Cambridge, Massachusetts, company Tomlinson worked for, to help develop a network called Arpanet, forerunner of the Internet. Tomlinson’s challenge was how to address a message created by one person and sent through Arpanet to someone at a different computer. The address needed an individual’s name, he reasoned, as well as the name of the computer, which might service many users. And the symbol separating those two address elements could not already be widely used in programs and operating systems, lest computers be confused.

Tomlinson’s eyes fell on @, poised above “P” on his Model 33 teletype. “I was mostly looking for a symbol that wasn’t used much,” he told Smithsonian. “And there weren’t a lot of options—an exclamation point or a comma. I could have used an equal sign, but that wouldn’t have made much sense.” Tomlinson chose @—“probably saving it from going the way of the ‘cent’ sign on computer keyboards,” he says. Using his naming system, he sent himself an e-mail, which traveled from one teletype in his room, through Arpanet, and back to a different teletype in his room. Tomlinson, who still works at BBN, says he doesn’t remember what he wrote in that first e-mail. But that is fitting if, as Marshall McLuhan argued, “The medium is the message.” For with that message, the ancient @, once nearly obsolete, became the symbolic linchpin of a revolution in how humans connect.

More here.

A Carefully Crafted F**k You: Nathan Schneider interviews Judith Butler

Nathan Schneider in Guernica:

Guernica: This book, you write, is a response to the policies under the Bush administration. How different would a book about the Obama administration be? Have we learned at all how to expand our circle of grief? Have we adjusted our frames?

ScreenHunter_61 Aug. 29 22.14Judith Butler: The fact is that the war in Afghanistan has escalated under the Obama administration, and though it seems as if there is a firmer policy against torture, and a clear condemnation of torture on the part of the administration, we still are responsible for an extraordinary number of brutal deaths by war. This administration was fully silent during the massacre on Gaza. And Obama himself has agreed not to disclose the full narrative and visual archive on U.S. torture—we have to ask why. I think we have to learn how to separate our impressions of Obama the man as both thoughtful and inspiring from the policies of the Obama administration. Perhaps then we can begin to see that the politics of the administration are very separate from the impression of the man. This is a painful lesson to learn, and I wonder whether the U.S. public and its European allies will actually learn it.

More here.

Despots in the Sand: A Quizzical Memoir

Ihab Hassan in Agni:

10020The Arab Spring, a blast of the hot, Khamsin wind. Spring, I said to myself, how many centuries then did the Arab Winter last? Or was that “Spring” merely an interlude, heralding yet another ice age? But give hope its due. A Tunisian street vendor called Mohamed Bouaziz torched himself and the Middle East blazed.

Look what happened within a few months: the president of Tunisia fled; the president of Egypt sat in an iron cage; the Libyan dictator, dragged from a ditch, died of a bullet fired from his own golden pistol; and the Yemeni has just “resigned” after thirty-three years of misrule. Earlier, the ogre of Iraq had been hanged. And any moment now, the tyrant of Syria, sitting under the sword of Damocles, may find his head in his lap. Interestingly, only the kings of Morocco, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, though they spurn constitutional monarchies, have been spared.

Take Egypt, where I was born. When the youths of Tahrir Square evicted the latest pharaoh from his palaces by the Nile, I thought: groovy! Then I wondered: is this the land I left seven decades ago? Finally, I saw—saw even before the Muslim Brotherhood swept freely into the Egyptian Parliament, even before other generals continued to hold power with invisible hands—that this Arab Spring would be like no other spring: it would leave the landscape of the Middle East both verdant and sere.

So, what had this dubious season to do with any of us in our addled, interactive world? What, I needed to ask, had it to do particularly with me? Tectonic shifts have tilted many lands a fraction toward democracy. Were these changes relevant to me? Did the Arab Spring touch me deeper than the news of any other day? And what of those jihadists, broken-mirror images of the despots, how did they relate to me, kinsmen in a shadow world?

The answers, I fear, may be subject to the inevitable opacity of introspection. Who can strike clear through the mask? Opacity and, worse, indifference at this stage of my self-exile.

More here. [Thanks to Ahmad Saidullah.]

Palestinian women racers find freedom behind the wheel

From Dawn:

ScreenHunter_59 Aug. 29 21.53With her bright orange pedicure, Michael Kors handbag and skinny jeans, Maysoon Jayyusi hardly looks like a Palestinian speed racer – until she gets behind the wheel.

The minute she starts up her SUV, she’s off – coursing ahead of the rest of the traffic, weaving among bewildered locals in the crowded streets of the West Bank city of Ramallah.

It’s easy to see why the team she heads – the Middle East’s first female speed racing team – has been dubbed the “Speed Sisters”.

The group of six women, Muslims and Christians from their 20s to mid-30s, have battled sceptical parents, the realities of the Israeli occupation and a sometimes disapproving public to become local stars and even the subject of a documentary.

“We feel we are free when we’re doing this,” teammate Mona Ennab, 26, said. “It’s a way to escape everything around us.”

Jayyusi, 36, said her love of speed was born out of frustrating hours stuck in long lines at Israeli checkpoints.

“I feel such depression at the checkpoints, but this speed makes me feel like I’m powerful, it helps me expel my depression,” she told AFP.

More here.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist – review

Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_58 Aug. 29 17.31The awful inevitability of Kipling's non-meeting of east and west is the subject of this movie by Mira Nair, which begins the 2012 Venice film festival, adapted from the 2007 novel by Mohsen Hamid. It's a sweeping and heartfelt tale of divided loyalties and reversion to type, in a world where the complacent ideas of globalised capitalism were shattered by 9/11.

This is bold and muscular storytelling with a plausible performance from Riz Ahmed in the lead role – though there is something flabby and evasive in the inevitable equivalence it winds up proposing between Islamic fundamentalism and aggressive American capitalism.

Ahmed is Changez, and if ever a character had a significant name, it's this one. He's a charismatic firebrand professor in Lahore, spreading anti-Americanism among his excitable students, under surveillance by the CIA and suspected of having something to do with the recent kidnapping of an expatriate American academic. And yet when Changez starts telling his life story to American journalist Bobby (Liev Schreiber) we see his troubled life unfold in flashback.

More here.

Smoke and mirrors

From Times Higher Education:

Cover_feature_160812'Agnotology', the art of spreading doubt (as pioneered by Big Tobacco), distorts the scepticism of research to obscure the truth. Areas of academic life have been tainted by the practice, but some scholars are fighting back by showing the public how to spot such sleight of hand, reports Matthew Reisz.

Doubt is the lifeblood of the academy. Historians and political scientists try never to take on trust any public statement that cannot be independently verified. Scientists look for every possible alternative factor and explanation before claiming that there is a causal link between A and B. Philosophers have even been known not to take their own existence for granted. An attitude of radical scepticism is essential for most serious research. Yet there is also a point at which such scepticism becomes pathological and irresponsible. Whole industries have an interest in casting doubt on the overwhelming evidence that smoking damages health, that nuclear energy imposes substantial risks, that climate change is taking place and that the pre-credit crunch banking system was a house of cards. Academics who cultivate the art of spreading doubt – what one scholar calls “agnotology” – are often de facto protecting corporate profits and discouraging governments and individuals from taking action. They also give authority to views that would be taken with a large pinch of salt if put forward by journalists, lawyers or public relations firms.Many people writing about academic integrity focus on clear conflicts of interest that can lead to the distortion of research agendas and the risk of corruption.

More here.

Doctors back circumcision

From Nature:

BabyExpectant parents face many anxieties in preparing for a child. For those who have a son, there is an extra complication: deciding whether to keep his foreskin or have it snipped off.

On 27 August, a report by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) concludes for the first time that, overall, boys will be healthier if circumcised1. The report says that although the choice is ultimately up to parents, medical insurance should pay for the procedure. The recommendation, coming from such an influential body, could boost US circumcision rates, which, at 55%, are already higher than much of the developed world (see ‘Cuts by country’). “This time around, we could say that the medical benefits outweigh the risks of the procedure,” says Douglas Diekema, a paediatrician and ethicist at the University of Washington, Seattle, who served on the circumcision task force for the AAP, headquartered in Elk Grove Village, Illinois. The recommendation is also sure to stir up debate. The practice of circumcision cuts deeper than the body, tapping into religious rituals and cultural identities. What is a harmless snip to some signifies mutilation to others. And in the developing world, many see it as an essential life-saving measure. Condoms are more effective at preventing disease, but are not used consistently.

More here.

How the US and Israeli justice systems whitewash state crimes

Glenn Greenwald in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_57 Aug. 29 11.48The US military announced on Monday that no criminal charges would be brought against the US marines in Afghanistan who videotaped themselves urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters. Nor, the military announced, would any criminal charges be filed against the US troops who “tried to burn about 500 copies of the Qur'an as part of a badly bungled security sweep at an Afghan prison in February, despite repeated warnings from Afghan soldiers that they were making a colossal mistake”.

In doing so, the US military, as usual, brushed aside demands of Afghan officials for legal accountability for the destructive acts of foreign soldiers in their country. The US instead imposed “disciplinary measures” in both cases, ones that “could include letters of reprimand, a reduction in rank, forfeit of some pay, physical restriction to a military base, extra duties or some combination of those measures”. Both incidents triggered intense protests and rioting that left dozens dead, back in February this year.

Parallel to that, an Israeli judge Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit against the Israeli government brought by the family of Rachel Corrie, the 23-year-old American student and pro-Palestinian activist who was killed by a military bulldozer in 2003 as she protested the demolition of a house in Gaza whose family she had come to befriend.

More here. [Photo shows Rachel Corrie.]

Lance Armstrong and the Philosophy of Making Bad Decisions

Evan Selinger in The Atlantic:

RTXSJ9S-615Lance Armstrong's decision not to fight the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has drawn mixed response: supporters and detractors wasted no time before airing their views. While some supporters maintain lack of incriminating evidence is key, others have stated that Armstrong still deserves our sympathy even if he is guilty of using banned substances. It is crucial to understand why this might be the case, as the implications of the judgment extend well beyond feelings directed at a high-profile athlete.

The sympathy-for-a-possible-cheater argument is expressed clearly in “Pillorying Armstrong: Complete Nonsense,” a piece co-written by Arthur Caplan — one of the most famous bioethicists in the U.S. — and two other NYU professors. The authors write: “Shouldn't Armstrong, especially because of the inspiration he is to cancer survivors or anyone on the short end of the advantage stick, get a pass for being no more dirty, but a whole lot better than everyone else in his sport? Armstrong isn't being investigated as the only cheater. He is in all likelihood just the best, most talented one.” In other words, we should feel bad for Armstrong because LiveStrong promotes so much social good that it blunts part of the cheating stain, and because professional cycling is rotten to the core, filled with so many cheaters that breaking the rules is the only viable way to compete.

For the sake of argument, let's say this assessment of the state of cycling is correct. Why should its constraints incline us to be sympathetic for a cheater? Why shouldn't we instead appeal to the lesson about individual responsibility and peer pressure that we learned in Kindergarten — the one that ends with not jumping off a bridge because Johnny did?

More here.

What Went Wrong in Mali?

6a00d8341c562c53ef017c3177862e970b-320wiBruce Whitehouse in the LRB:

The Republic of Mali has long been seen as the exception to the dictatorships or civil wars that have seemed the rule in West Africa since the end of the Cold War: a state that was able to shift from autocracy to democratic governance. Arid, landlocked, larger than France (its former colonial master) and Spain combined, and among the world’s poorest nations, dependent on foreign aid, Mali shook off single-party rule in 1991, when massive protests touched off a coup that ended the 23-year reign of General Moussa Traoré. The coup’s leader, Colonel Amadou Toumani Touré, presided over a transition that brought a new constitution and multiparty elections the following year.

Every five years since then Mali has held elections which have been considered generally free and fair by observers. Alpha Oumar Konaré, who won the presidential election in 1992, reformed state institutions and negotiated an end to a long-simmering rebellion by Tuareg nomads in the northern deserts, where central government had never had much control. Konaré stepped down in 2002, respecting a constitutional two-term limit, and was succeeded by Touré. Privately owned newspapers and radio stations, once a state monopoly, flourished, and the country became popular with aid donors, a destination for tourists and a regular venue for music festivals. It was a tranquil place that never made the news.

It lost that distinction on the afternoon of 21 March, when troops in Kati, just outside the capital city of Bamako, launched a mutiny.

Among the Republicans

NaipaulV.S. Naipaul's 1984 piece on the Republican National Convention, in the NY Review of Books (not much has changed):

To leave the air-conditioned auditorium and go outside was to appreciate anew the extent of the church’s properties, many of them named after Dr. Criswell. It was also—though the shadows of tall buildings made the street look cool—to be reminded of the one-hundred-degree heat of Dallas.

Most of the time you were protected from the heat, and were aware of it only as a quality of the light or in the color of the sky. But from time to time the heat came upon you like this, a passing sensation, not unpleasant, a contrast with the general air-conditioning, a reminder of the bubble in which you lived.

Dallas was air-conditioned—hotels, shops, houses, cars. The convention center was more than air-conditioned; it was positively cool, more than thirty degrees cooler than the temperature outside. Air-conditioned Dallas seemed to me a stupendous achievement, the product of a large vision, American in the best and most humane way: money and applied science creating an elegant city where life had previously been brutish.

Yet in this city created by high science Dr. Criswell preached of hellfire and was a figure. And the message of convention week was that there was no contradiction, that American endeavor and success were contained within old American faith and pieties. Karl Marx and homosexuality were on the other side of these pieties and could be lumped together.

The fundamentalism that the Republicans had embraced went beyond religion. It simplified the world in general; it rolled together many different kinds of anxieties—schools, drugs, race, buggery, Russia, to give just a few; and it offered the simplest, the vaguest solution: Americanism, the assertion of the American self.