An Explosive Sorrow


Amitava Kumar in Caravan:

THIS IS THE 18TH MARCH OF 1974. It was the day after my eleventh birthday, and I stood on the roof of my parents’ home in Patna, along with my family and some visitors from Arrah and faraway Saharsa, who had been unable to leave because of the curfew imposed all over Patna. There were reports that police had fired into the crowds of rioting students who had marched on the state assembly. We were playing antakshri, in our small group, because one young woman with us, a distant relative, was a wonderful singer. She had light brown eyes, and her hair curled over her forehead in the manner of a Hindi film-star of that decade. The horizon was grey with smoke rising from burning buildings.

The student protests, which would soon find their leader in the septuagenarian activist from Patna, Jayaprakash Narayan—JP, as everyone called him—went on unabated for the rest of that week, resulting in the deaths of 27 people. The movement gathered strength, and soon spread to other states; the following summer, feeling besieged as her power eroded, Indira Gandhi would suspend civil liberties and declare a state of emergency. None of this meant much to me then; 26 June 1975, the date the Emergency began, was memorable to me for years afterward because my tonsils were removed that day. When I regained consciousness, after having been put under anaesthesia, I remember hearing my father and uncles discussing the arrests that were taking place outside the ward at the Patna Medical College and Hospital.

A little more than a decade later, as a graduate student in America, I found a book of photographs by Raghu Rai called Bihar Shows the Way. In that book, alongside commentary by the veteran journalist Sunanda K Datta-Ray, I saw black-and-white photographs from those days on Patna’s streets: soldiers from the Central Reserve Police Force lathi-charging JP and his followers; the rifles of the Bihar Military Police aimed at the students; JP on his bed in his Kadam Kuan home, and then in Gandhi Maidan, addressing the people in the gentle twilight. The discovery of this book was part of a pattern for me, a pattern of coming into adult consciousness at a great distance from my hometown, and returning to it through books and visits. In time I would understand the purpose of those returns as attempts to find out what made Patna a place of such intense contradictions: a place that on the one hand stood self-conscious of its own backwardness, the capital of India’s poorest state, and, on the other, as a place from whose vantage-point it would be possible to predict the future of India.

The Past Gets Bigger and the Future Shrinks: An Interview with Martin Amis

Jane Graham in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

JANE GRAHAM: You began writing seriously when you were relatively young, despite having been more interested in comic books up until your mid-teens. Did it ever occur to you that you might make a living doing something else?

1374391737MARTIN AMIS: Well, my father [Kingsley Amis] was a writer and it seemed natural to start writing in my late teens. I think it was good that I began when I was young and bold and foolish, otherwise I’d have become too self-conscious and aware of the weight of not having written anything yet. I think at that age everyone is looking inside themselves, processing their own thoughts, working themselves out — writers are just people who never grow out of it.

JG: Did it hang over you at first, being the son of such a popular writer in Britain? Or did you think you might capitalize on it?

MA: I started writing so young that I didn’t think about it much. I read his stuff and liked his stuff and was very conscious of being in the same tradition as him, the comic novel. Then it hangs over you a bit later on, especially in Britain anyway — it doesn’t matter so much elsewhere. But here, where he’s still a sort of presence — people get sick of you because you and your father have been around so long. They don’t separate you. It’s as if I was born in 1920. People think, Oh no, not that name again.

JG: Why do you think Kingsley made such a point of not being interested in your work?

MA: I think you’re irritated by your youngers and tend to be respectful of your elders. When I hear about some sensational new writer I sort of think, Shut up… you’ve got to be around for a long time before you can really say you’re a writer. You’ve got to stand the test of time, which is the only real test there is.

More here.

What a Peahen Really Watches When a Peacock Tries to Impress Her

Greg Miller in Wired:

ScreenHunter_254 Jul. 28 22.31The peacock’s tail gave Darwin fits. At first, it seemed to fly in the face of his theory of natural selection. How could evolution possibly favor such cumbersome and conspicuous accoutrement? The very sight of those feathers, Darwin famously wrote to a colleague, made him sick. He soon realized, however, that the feathers might serve another purpose: enhancing the male’s reproductive success even as they made him more visible and vulnerable to predators. The concept of sexual selection was born, and the peacock’s tail remains a textbook example of it to this day.

But exactly what it is about the male’s display that females find attractive is far less clear.

Studies with feral peafowl at a British wildlife park in the 1990s suggested that it’s the ornamentation. Behavioral ecologist Marion Petrie of Newcastle University and her colleagues found that males with more eyespots mate more often. When the researchers used scissors to snip off 20 eyespots from several males, females showed less interest in them. Petrie’s work suggested that in the mind of a peahen, eyespots are pretty sexy.

If that’s true, she should spend a lot of time looking at them when the male does his display, says Michael Platt, a neuroscientist at Duke University and co-author of the new paper, published today in the Journal of Experimental Biology. Platt has previously used eye-tracking equipment to study primate behavior, including the social interactions of freely-moving lemurs, and in the new study he and colleagues developed an even smaller system that could fit on the head of a peahen.

More here.

Mountains of the mind

Adam Thorpe in the Times Literary Supplement:

Thorpe---cover_358819hOn August 8, 1786, two men reached the highest point in Europe, which to them was the top of the world: both hailed from Chamonix, a clockless rusticity of roofs in the valley below. Michel-Gabriel Paccard was its up-to-date doctor; Jacques Balmat a peasant farmer and chamois hunter with a sideline in crystals. For decades the mountain in question, some three miles high, had been celebrated for its glaciers, not its snow-capped altitude; Chamonix had very few visitors before the 1770s. Only hunters ever dared to go high in these colossal mountains, the peaks sensibly given up to dragons and ghosts – the mind’s old poetry of health and safety.

William Windham, a young Englishman on his grand tour, had led a mock caravan to Savoy’s glaciers in 1741 and published a pamphlet with a fellow traveller, Pierre Martel, in which the name “Mont Blanc” appears as the supposed highest point. Thus the mountain was first “discovered” – one of the plethora of assumptions that Peter Hansen gleefully dismantles in this learned and complex analysis of “multiple modernities” as seen through the prism of mountaineering.

Two essential elements of modernity are the foundation myth and the assertion of the solitary will: both illustrated by Petrarch’s ascent of Mont Ventoux in 1336. Interrupting his admiration of the view by opening St Augustine’s Confessions at random, Petrarch fell on a stern admonition: “And men go to admire the high mountains . . . and pass themselves by”. He hurried back down in silence, convinced of the vaster landscape of contemplation. Five hundred years later, Jacob Burckhardt identified this moment in Provence as the arrival of the inward-looking “modern man”, the beginning of the modern age.

More here. [Thanks to Ahmad Saidullah.]


From Edge:

But first, what is “SciFoo”? The annual event is run by three sponsors: O'Reilly Media (Tim O'Reilly is responsible for “FOO”, or, “friends of O'Reilly”), Nature Magazine (and their spin-off company, Digital Science), and Google. This year 62% of the participants were new. This approach keeps the event new and fresh every year. The ratio of participants to interesting people? 1-to-1. As theoretical physicist and Nobel Laureate Frank Wilczek noted in his report on SciFoo 2007 for Edge:

“SciFoo is a conference like no other. It brings together a mad mix from the worlds of science, technology, and other branches of the ineffable Third Culture at the Google campus in Mountain View. Improvised, loose, massively parallel—it's a happening. If you're not overwhelmed by the rush of ideas then you're not paying attention.”

DesertPAUL SAFFO: Kröpelin's Mysteries of the Sahara: The single most astonishing session for me was Stefan Kröpelin's “Miracle of the Sahara.” Kroplin compressed 40 years of research and exploration into a whirlwind tour of the Sahara's mysteries and what it is like to do science there. Summarizing conditions, he noted, “Sometimes, you get stuck hundreds of times per day… and the real problem isn't the heat; it's the cold.” The size of the U.S, Kröpelin's Sahara is full of mysteries: Gilf Kebir, a sand plateau atop an ancient fluvial system in Southwest Egypt holds rock art from the middle Holocene, over 10,000 figures in one cave alone. The Wadi Howar was thought by Heroditus to be the source of the Nile; now it is vast desert, but in it's heart is the Ounianga Kebir, a cluster of freshwater aquifer-fed “gravity lakes,” and home to seven crocodiles, the remnant of an Ice Age population, now isolated from other crocs by hundreds of miles of searing desert. But the biggest mystery was sitting right in front of Kröpelin as he spoke. It was a chunk of “Libyan Desert Glass,” 28 million year-old fused glass the color of pale emerald and the purest natural glass in the world. Discovered by Europeans in 1932, the stuff is strewn across a vast area of desert at the edge of Egypt's great Sand Sea. Kröpelin's chunk looked like a glass meteorite, complete with ablation regmaglypts, suggesting that the glass was created by a meteor strike that liquefied the surface rocks in a process not unlike that which created tektite strewn-fields elsewhere on the earth. Except… no one has found a crater. Perhaps the glass is a radiative melt artifact of a Tunguska-like airburst? Others speculate that it is hydrovolcanic in origin, but no has found a volcanic source.

More here.

Sunday Poem


In the absence of women on board,
when the ship reached the point where no landmass
was visible in any direction
and the funk had begun to accrue-
human funk, spirit funk, soul funk-who
commenced the moaning? Who first hummed that deep
sound from empty bowels, roiling stomachs,
from back of the frantically thumping heart?
In the absence of women, of mothers,
who found the note that would soon be called “blue,”
the first blue note from one bowel, one throat,
joined by dark others in gnarled harmony.
before the head-rag, the cast-iron skillet,
new blue awaited on the other shore,
invisible, as yet unhummed. Who knew
what note to hit or how? In the middle
of the ocean, in the absence of women,
there is no deeper deep, no bluer blue.

by Elizabeth Alexander
from American Sublime
Graywolf Press, 2005

Authors’ Favorite First Lines of Books

From The Atlantic:

First%20lines%20authorsWhen I interviewed Stephen King for the By Heart series, he told me about some of his favorite opening lines in literature. Then, the author had an off-the-cuff idea. “You could go around and ask people about their favorite first lines,” he said. “I think you'll find that most of them, right away, establish the sense of voice we talked about. Why not do it? I'd love to know, like, Jonathan Franzen's favorite first line.” So I reached out to Franzen and 21 other writers. In honor of King's new novel Joyland and its nouveau-pulp publisher Hard Case Crime, there are a good number of crime writers featured in this list. Other writers I spoke to don't write crime fiction at all, preferring to focus on other brands of human mystery. Collected below, the opening lines they picked range widely in tone and execution–but in each, you can almost feel the reader's mind beginning to listen, hear the inward swing of some inviting door.

Megan Abbott (Dare Me, The End of Everything)

I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. –Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest

Charles Ardai (Editor, Hard Case Crime; author of Fifty-to-One)

The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of the Dancers. –Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye

More here.

Twelve Absent Men: Rebuilding the American Jury

Albert W. Dzur in the Boston Review:

Dzur_featureLay citizens no longer have opportunities to play decisive roles in our justice system. Judicial business is handled every day in most courthouses, but weeks can pass without a jury being empanelled.

And though consistently given high approval ratings as an institution in public opinion surveys, the jury feels dead to many who do serve. When it does actually take to court, the jury often seems an appendage of the criminal justice administrative complex, netted in formalities, rules, and procedures. The legal action, at least up to the time of deliberation, is elsewhere. Writing about an impressive federal courthouse in Boston that opened in 1998, legal scholar Judith Resnik notes that only seven or eight trials were held in each of the building’s courts in its inaugural year, and the number has since declined. The lights are off as much as they are on in trial courts across the country.

Until the early 20th century, the jury was the standard way Americans handled criminal cases, but today we operate largely without it. It has been supplanted by plea agreements, settlements, summary judgments, and other non-trial forums that are usually more efficient and cost-effective in the short term. In addition to cost and efficiency, justice officials worry about juror competence in the face of scientific and technical evidence and expert testimony, further diminishing the opportunity for everyday people to serve.

The result is that juries in the United States today hear a small fraction of cases. In 2005 the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that juries heard 4 percent of all alleged criminal offenses brought before federal courts. State courts match this trend.

More here.

How shipping containers made distance irrelevant

Andrew Curry in Nautilus:

032More than any other single innovation, the shipping container—there are millions out there, all just like the ones stacked on the Hong Kong Express but for a coat of paint and a serial number—epitomizes the enormity, sophistication, and importance of our modern transportation system. Invisible to most people, they’re fundamental to how practically everything in our consumer-driven lives works.

Think of the shipping container as the Internet of things. Just as your email is disassembled into discrete bundles of data the minute you hit send, then re-assembled in your recipient’s inbox later, the uniform, ubiquitous boxes are designed to be interchangeable, their contents irrelevant.

Once they enter the stream of global shipping, the boxes are shifted and routed by sophisticated computer systems that determine their arrangement on board and plot the most efficient route to get them from point to point. The exact placement of each box is a critical part of the equation: Ships make many stops, and a box scheduled to be unloaded late in the journey can’t be placed above one slated for offloading early. Imagine a block of 14,000 interlocked Lego bricks—now imagine trying to pull one out from the middle.

The container’s efficiency has proven to be an irresistible economic force.

More here.

Ditching the leap second would mean decoupling clock time from the Earth’s rotation – from day and night itself

Dava Sobel in Aeon:

ScreenHunter_249 Jul. 27 21.58In 2015, leap seconds will come up for international review. Four decades of use have allowed time for certain factions to find fault with the leap second, and to question whether periodically resetting all the clocks in the world is actually worth the bother.

I can certainly sympathise with that sentiment. The semi-annual switch between standard time and summer time all but undoes me. Only one of my clocks picks up the radio signal telling its hands when to ‘spring forward’ or ‘fall behind’, and I resent having to fiddle with all the others. Then, too, I find the single hour’s time difference more disturbing to my equilibrium than a multi-time-zone dose of travel-induced jet lag, probably because the seasonal change is imposed upon me. Nothing would please me more than to see my government abolish daylight-saving time, which is already widely ignored by other countries. It is ignored with impunity even by individual states and counties within the continental United States. Ending it at a stroke would not cause the slightest wrinkle in time.

The leap second, on the other hand, though only one-60th of one-60th of one hour, is not so easily dispatched. Neither the US Congress nor the British Parliament wields the clout to topple it. A leap second doesn’t just reset the clock; it changes the length of a minute. Leap seconds are persistent, too. Eliminating future ones will not expunge the 25 already in existence. Embedded in a wealth of time-stamped data sets, their presence will be felt indefinitely, like 25 peas under the mattress of history.

More here.



T here is a famous photograph taken in 1972 at a lunch given by George Cukor in his Los Angeles home to introduce fellow directors, all elderly and distinguished, to Luis Buñuel. It’s like an informal meeting of the Hollywood pantheon and would have been even more impressive had not Fritz Lang and John Ford been forced by frailty to leave early. Most of them smile cheerfully or at least manage some sociable expression. But two of them don’t. One is Buñuel, who’s sitting to the right of Alfred Hitchcock, his eyes firmly directed towards George Stevens on his other side in a manner that suggests suspicion and bewilderment. Even more expressionless is Rouben Mamoulian. He is on Hitchcock’s left, but a little apart from everyone else and slightly in front of them. His presence as one of the great American directors is appropriate, as is his position slightly separate from, and ahead of, these peers. And there is a certain mystery about him that he seems aware of in this photograph. His place in the history books as a major figure in the development of the cinema is assured – as a master stylist, a metteur en scène perhaps, rather than an auteur.

more from Philip French at the TLS here.