Photographs Tell a History of Palestinians Unmoored

Isabel Kershner in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_430 Nov. 30 19.13There is one picture of Palestinian children studying around a small table by the dim light of gas lamps in the Beach Camp in Gaza, and another of children peeking over a sandy dune, with rows of small, uniform shacks of a desolate refugee camp in the background. In a third, a family walks across the Allenby Bridge, the father carrying two bulging suitcases, a young son clutching a white ball, heading east over the Jordan River.

These are a few of the black and white images, many of them powerful and haunting, that will eventually constitute a digital archive compiled by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the first part of which was unveiled Thursday at a gallery in the Old City here. Together, they capture the Palestinian refugee experience from the 1948 war onward, giving form to a seminal chapter in Palestinian history, identity and collective memory.

For decades, about half a million negatives, prints, slides and various forms of film footage have been hidden away in the archive of UNRWA, the organization that assists Palestinian refugees. Stored in buildings in Gaza and Amman, Jordan, the materials had begun to grow moldy.

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Reverse-Engineering a Genius (Has a Vermeer Mystery Been Solved?)

David Hockney and others have speculated—controversially—that a camera obscura could have helped the Dutch painter Vermeer achieve his photo-realistic effects in the 1600s. But no one understood exactly how such a device might actually have been used to paint masterpieces. An inventor in Texas—the subject of a new documentary by the magicians Penn & Teller—may have solved the riddle.

Kurt Anderson in Vanity Fair:

I.2.vermeer-the-music-lesson-method-02In the history of art, Johannes Vermeer is almost as mysterious and unfathomable as Shakespeare in literature, like a character in a novel. Accepted into his local Dutch painters’ guild in 1653, at age 21, with no recorded training as an apprentice, he promptly begins painting masterful, singular, uncannily realistic pictures of light-filled rooms and ethereal young women. After his death, at 43, he and his minuscule oeuvre slip into obscurity for two centuries. Then, just as photography is making highly realistic painting seem pointless, the photorealistic “Sphinx of Delft” is rediscovered and his pictures are suddenly deemed valuable. By the time of the first big American show of Vermeer paintings—at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in 1909—their value has increased another hundred times, by the 1920s ten times that.

Despite occasional speculation over the years that an optical device somehow enabled Vermeer to paint his pictures, the art-history establishment has remained adamant in its romantic conviction: maybe he was inspired somehow by lens-projected images, but his only exceptional tool for making art was his astounding eye, his otherworldly genius.

At the beginning of this century, however, two experts of high standing begged to differ. Why, for instance, did Vermeer paint things in the foreground and shiny highlights on objects slightly out of focus? Because, they say, he was looking at them through a lens.

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The Fluid Dynamics of Archerfish Hunting by Spitting

Aatish Bhatia in his blog Empirical Zeal at Wired:

Archerfish-spittingArcherfish are incredible creatures. They lurk under the surface of the water in rivers and seas, waiting for an insect to land on the plants above. Then, suddenly, and with unbelievable accuracy, they squirt out a stream of water that strikes down the insect. The insect falls, and by the time it hits the water, the archerfish is already waiting in place ready to swallow it up. You have to marvel at a creature that excels at what seems like such an improbable hunting strategy – death by water pistol squirt…

…Technically, the term archerfish doesn’t refer to a single species of fish but to a family of 7 different freshwater fish, that fall under the genus Toxotes. They strike with remarkable accuracy, and just a tenth of second after the prey is hit, they quickly move to the spot where it will hit the water. Unlike most baseball players who have to keep their eyes on a fly ball to track it, in less than the blink of an eye, the archerfish is in place, waiting for the insect to arrive.

If that isn’t impressive enough, consider this. When these archerfish squirt water, their eyes are underwater. If you’ve spent any time in a swimming pool, you’ll know that light bends when it enters water. A less astute fish might not correct for this bending of light, and would be tricked into thinking that the insect is somewhere it isn’t. But not the archerfish. This little aquatic physicist is able to seamlessly correct for the bending of light. And it isn’t a minor correction – when the perceived angle of the target is 45 degrees, its true angle is off by as much as 25 degrees.

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reading Frank Baker’s “the birds”

Birds-frank-bakerMichael Dirda at The Washington Post:

“There were short days in winter when the City seemed to glitter with half-revealed secrets. Days when it rained steadily; when lights were lit early in shops and offices; when the shining streets were domed by the humps of glossy umbrellas. On such days a common goodwill seemed to fall naturally from harassed people, hurrying here and there to catch bus, train, or tram. In face of discomfort, a vision of home, with firelight, tabby-cats, and rich cups of mellow tea, seemed to buoy up men and women.”

As the summer heat continues, our hero escapes to Wales for a short holiday, then later returns to London and falls in love with a young but preternaturally wise Russian woman. Meanwhile, like ghosts or diabolical guardian angels, the now ubiquitous “pests of the air” have grown increasingly menacing. More and more often, an individual bird will suddenly imprint on a single person and never let him or her out of sight, always fluttering nearby. People go mad or commit suicide. Sometimes they are found savagely clawed and pecked to death. Inexorably, “The Birds” builds to a spectacular, cinematic finale, half holocaust, half apocalypse.

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The Life of Basil Bunting

English-poet-Basil-Buntin-009Mark Ford at The Guardian:

Basil Bunting's Collected Poems opens with “Villon”, drafted when he was 25 and then handed over, like The Waste Land four years before it, to Ezra Pound for dramatic cuts and improvements. We know relatively little about the 15th-century French poet François Villon, beyond the fact that he was involved in a murderous brawl, was banished from Paris and spent time in jail. He was clearly a hell-raiser and a vagabond, which made him popular with modernist types who sought models of poetic virility and were keen to distance themselves from the effeteness and dandyism of the fin‑de-siècle. Pound, although he was tone-deaf, wrote an opera based on “Le Testament de Villon”; in his book of essays The Sacred Wood TS Eliot compared the same work favourably to Tennyson's In Memoriam.

“Blacked by the sun, washed by the rain,”Bunting writes of Villon, “hither and thither scurrying as the wind varies.” Bunting emerges from Richard Burton's thoroughly researched and enthralling biography as living a life far more active and variegated than the bookish Eliot's, and even than the pugnacious, controversial Pound's. Like Villon, Bunting had several spells behind bars.

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zibaldone is madness

ZibaldoneSteve Donaghue at The Quarterly Conversation:

It was madness to write; it was madness to cart around Italy in an enormous wooden chest; it was madness to preserve after its creator died; it was madness to publish; it would be madness to read, and there is no word but madness for the utterly staggering task editors Michael Caesar and Franco D’Intino (and a small cadre of seven translators who, if they divided their labors equally, would each have been responsible for a chunk of text equal in length to Anna Karenina) have performed in a new book from Farrar, Straus and Giroux (whose funding of it was also madness): they have given to the world the first complete, fully indexed, and fully annotated English-language translation of the Zibaldone ever done.

It was Nietzsche (an admirer of the Zibaldone, along with Sainte-Beuve, Herman Melville, Walter Benjamin, and Samuel Beckett) who once wrote that if you stare into the abyss long enough, the abyss stares into you, and the equivalent here has happened with stark inevitability: the editors have partaken in full measure of their author’s madness. Under ordinary circumstances, it might be mordantly funny to hear Caesar and D’Intino claim, of a 4,526-page jottings-book collected over sixteen years, that it’s “not directed in any teleological sense,” but such amusement dries up quick when confronted with the aggravated tone of unshared obsession:

even after publication, there was no impact on anthropologists, historians, linguists, psychologists, philosophers, political scientists, aestheticians, musicologists, and scientists, who would yet have found treasure there, anticipations and astonishing intuitions. Such obtuseness, inexplicable in itself, damaged the poet too, in the long run, if it is true that the fame of some of the great exemplars of the European canon (suffice it to mention Novalis, Coleridge, Baudelaire) rests also upon solid theoretical and philosophical writings.

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This is what happiness looks like

Dan Haybron in Salon:

What_is_happiness-620x412What exactly does happiness involve? When people think about happiness in emotional terms, they tend to picture a specific emotion: feeling happy. So powerful is this association that happiness frequently gets reduced to nothing more than cheery feelings or ‘smiley-face’ feelings. This is a radically impoverished understanding of happiness: there’s much more to being happy than just feeling happy. Think about those periods in your life when you were happiest. Not so much that day when you were elated over a special event, like the birth of a child. Rather, those times of relatively sustained happiness. Not everyone experiences such periods, but if you have, I suspect they looked something like our picture of Big Joe Fletcher, or the photograph of my father and me in [the picture above]: good stretches of time wholly absorbed in something you love doing, feeling fully yourself and in your element. Energized, alive, and yet also, deeply settled and at peace—no doubts, no fretting, no hesitation. And yes, feelings of joy here and there, perhaps a good dose of laughter. But those feelings are not the most important part of the story.

We can usefully break happiness down into three broad dimensions. Arguably, each dimension corresponds to a different function emotional states play in our lives. But in this book I will skip the argument and simply present the view. We can think of happiness as a kind of emotional evaluation of your life. Some parts of this evaluation are more fundamental than others. At the most basic level will be responses concerning your safety and security: letting your defences down, making yourself fully at home in your life, as opposed to taking up a defensive stance. I will call this a state of attunement with your life. Next come responses relating to your engagement with your situation: is it worth investing much effort in your activities, or would it be wiser to withdraw or disengage from them? Finally, some emotional states serve as endorsements, signifying that your life is positively good. People often make the mistake of thinking all emotional states are like that.

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Fifty Years Later, Why Does ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ Remain Contentious?

Adam Kirsch in The New York Times:

Bookends-Adam-Kirsch-articleInlineFew controversial books remain controversial 50 years after they were published. But the storm of indignation that greeted “Eichmann in Jerusalem” when it appeared in the pages of The New Yorker, and then in book form, has not fully died down even now. Hannah Arendt’s interpretation of the trial of Adolf Eichmann remains a classic, a touchstone in the 20th century’s thinking about morality and politics. But it is a classic constantly targeted for revision: David Cesarani challenged Arendt’s interpretation of Eichmann in his biography of the Nazi bureaucrat, as did Deborah Lipstadt in her study “The Eichmann Trial.” It’s no secret that reaction to “Eichmann in Jerusalem” has often divided along religious lines. Mary McCarthy, Arendt’s close friend, noted this fact in a Partisan Review symposium: “A gentile, once the topic is raised in Jewish company (and it always is), feels like a child with a reading defect in a class of normal readers — or the reverse. It is as if ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ had required a special pair of Jewish spectacles to make its ‘true purport’ visible.” To illustrate McCarthy’s point, compare her own characterization of the book — “a paean of transcendence, heavenly music, like that of the final chorus of ‘Figaro’ or the ‘Messiah’ ” — with Saul Bellow’s acerbic take in “Mr. Sammler’s Planet”: “making use of a tragic history to promote the foolish ideas of Weimar intellectuals.”

What made, and still makes, “Eichmann in Jerusalem” so inflammatory to some readers is in large part Arendt’s tone; but tone, in this case, is closely connected to substance. Arendt, who fled the Nazis in 1933 and again after they conquered France in 1940, was reckoning in this book with the evil that had claimed the lives of millions of her fellow Jews, and damaged her own life as well. To counter this injury with a display of pride was for her a moral imperative, a way of showing her utter contempt for Nazism. Indeed, the whole idea of the “banality of evil” is at bottom a way of denying Nazism any glamour or substance, of relegating it to the realm of nonbeing.

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The life and work of Victor Serge represents the Russian democratic revolution that never was

Sophie Pinkham in The Nation:

Pinkham_museumoftherevolution_imgIn his Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Victor Serge describes a 1927 visit to Grigory Zinoviev, a high-ranking Soviet official who had just been expelled from the Communist Party’s Central Committee. With his novelist’s eye for detail, Serge writes:

Zinoviev, in his small apartment in the Kremlin, feigned a supreme tranquility. At his side, covered by glass, lay a death mask: Lenin’s head lying abandoned on a cushion. Why, I asked, had not copies of so poignant a mask been widely distributed? Because its expression held too much in the way of grief and mortality; considerations of propaganda compelled a preference for bronzes with uplifted hands.

Stalin’s Soviet Union had no room for sadness or ambiguity. It chose bronze: hard, unyielding and triumphant, public rather than private.

A novelist, poet and journalist, Victor Serge was born in Belgium in 1890, the child of impoverished Russian revolutionaries. He began his political life as an anarchist, but in 1919 he joined the Bolsheviks in Russia, where his international connections and knowledge of French, Spanish, German and English made him an important asset for the Comintern, the organization meant to facilitate a worldwide revolution. An outspoken member of the Communist Party’s left opposition to Stalin, Serge was expelled from the party in 1928, jailed briefly, then arrested and deported to the Kazakh border in 1933. Thanks to energetic protests from French intellectuals, his life was spared, and he was allowed to leave the USSR in 1936. In France, he started corresponding with the exiled Trotsky, even though he believed that the Trotskyist movement offered no hope for a “renewal of the ideology, morals, and institutions of Socialism.”

With his literary gifts, psychological insight and proximity to key players, Serge is one of the greatest chroniclers of Europe’s socialist revolutions, and he offers a unique perspective.

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Will Netanyahu learn his lesson?

Carlo Strenger in Haaretz:

ScreenHunter_427 Nov. 29 19.55Two events should wake up Benjamin Netanyahu from his illusion that he can dictate the Free World’s policies on crucial matters. Firstly, Israel almost lost participation in Horizon 2020, the most important research cooperation with the EU in recent Israeli history because Netanyahu’s government at first refused to comply with the EU’s guidelines of not funding institutions or projects beyond the Green Line.

Secondly, the world powers have signed an interim deal with Iran that Netanyahu has ferociously opposed. His demand had been that no deal was acceptable that doesn’t completely dismantle Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity, and the agreement signed tacitly accepts Iran’s right to enrich uranium to a low level.
These two incidents have something in common. They raise the question to what extent Israel can expect to force its views onto its closest and most important strategic allies, the U.S. and Western Europe, and what the price is of trying to do so.

There is growing tension between Netanyahu and his hardline coalition partners who subscribe to the Biblical description of the people of Israel as “a people dwelling alone, not reckoned among the nations.”

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Return of Spain’s Sephardim

Sef_bookSteven Philip Kramer at Hedgehog Review:

In November of last year, Spain's government announced its intention to make amends for one of the greatest injustices in the nation’s history. The ministers of justice and foreign affairs promised an easing of naturalization requirements for descendants of Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. (Portugal, which banished its Jewish population in 1497, followed suit by speedily passing a law that granted the same right to members of the Portuguese Jewish diaspora.) Slight though it might have seemed, Spain’s proposed act of restitution signaled a real commitment to righting an old and grievous wrong.

For centuries before King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile acceded to the request of the Spanish Inquisition to expel all Jews who had not converted to Christianity, the Iberian Peninsula had been home to one of the largest and most dynamic Jewish communities in the world. First under a succession of Muslim caliphs who ruled what was known as Al Andalus (the present-day region of Andalusia), then in regions slowly reconquered by Christian forces, Jews played a vital role in the intellectual, cultural, administrative, and commercial life of Spain, not least as intermediaries between the frequently antagonistic Christians and Muslims.

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Croatia: A cautionary tale

Drakulic_cac_468wSlavenka Drakulic at Eurozine:

It is late November. The day is grey and chilly but people on Zagreb's main square are patiently queuing up in front of a stand where a few men are collecting signatures. Another appeal to the government to save shipyards or factories? A union calling for another strike? Another plea to the state by impoverished pensioners? No, these people are waiting to sign a petition – the latest fashion in Croatia. This particular one is demanding a referendum to forbid the use of a minority alphabet and language, unless that minority makes up 50 per cent (!) of the population. It is aimed at Serbs and the use of the Cyrillic alphabet in Vukovar, the town on the border with Serbia. Over 30 per cent of Vukovar's population are Serbs and it is their constitutional right to use the Serbian language. But the town suffered more than any other at the hands of the Serbian military and paramilitary during the war over twenty years ago, and today it is still divided – plaques and signs in Cyrillic are destroyed and the divide manipulated for political purposes.As of last week, these petitioners – war veterans calling themselves the “Council for Defence of Croatian Vukovar” – have gained in strength and confidence. On Monday, 18 November, their members, some of them dressed in some kind of paramilitary uniform, prevented the entire Croatian government, along with the diplomatic corps, from joining tens of thousand of people honouring the dead in Vukovar.

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Barbara Stanwyck’s hardworking rise to Hollywood stardom

Cover00Geoffrey O'Brien at Bookforum:

The career is well known, or at least available for inspection. The life was, deliberately, more opaque. Some actors disport or destroy themselves in spectacular ways; some go to war; some go into politics. Stanwyck just worked. While she drew some tabloid attention with the breakup of her marriages to Frank Fay and Robert Taylor, by Hollywood standards her life lacked scandal. It did not lack suffering, however, least of all in its earliest phases. The most absorbing chapters of Victoria Wilson’s A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True, 1907–1940, the first volume of what will be a two-part biography, lay out the retrievable details of that early life, and the process by which Ruby Stevens of Flatbush, Brooklyn, established herself by the age of twenty-four as “a new sensation in the world of pictures.” These first episodes can be taken as a key to later performances, as if in acting Stanwyck had replayed, with multiple variants and alternative outcomes, the circumstances that shaped her. She found something better than acting school to inform her work. As Wilson writes, “She was able to use her shoals of loss and regret, her feelings of being an orphan, the outsider . . . and focus these things, adapt them, to create women on the screen whom audiences admired and knew to be true.”

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The Problem with ‘Brogrammers’

Rebecca Burns in In These Times:

BurnsRound_shutterstock_96518512 It’s no secret that Silicon Valley has a problem with sexism and racism, but the revelation in October, as Twitter prepared for its initial public stock offering (IPO), that the company didn’t have a single woman or person of color on its board, rekindled a long-running debate on how to challenge these exclusions from the tech industry. The debate had another twist earlier this year with the arrival of Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, which calls on women to stop lowering their own career expectations. Some celebrated Sandberg’s book as a new feminist manifesto, while others panned it as placing all the onus on women. “At last, a feminism the patriarchy can get behind,” writes tech blogger Shanley Kane. Sandberg’s call for individual women to “lean in” and work harder in the service of their employer also dovetails with tech’s disdain for collective action in the workplace, exemplified by Silicon Valley’s hostility toward the October BART strike. (One CEO of a San Francisco-based tech company suggested this solution to the strike: “Figure out how to automate [BART drivers’] jobs so this doesn’t happen again.”) Is the “tech feminism” embodied by a few white executives incompatible with a movement for workers’ rights in a sector that makes up a growing share of the economy? In These Times talked about the ways that racism, sexism and classism are coded in the tech sector with Kat Calvin, founder of Blerdology, a network for African Americans in tech; Ashe Dryden, a tech diversity educator and consultant; Kate Losse, author of The Boy Kings, a memoir about working at Facebook; and Telle Whitney, president and CEO of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology.

Kate: Silicon Valley thinks that the gender/race composition of the board doesn’t matter until there is public attention. And that’s part of the problem. Tech won’t be a truly progressive industry until tech companies care about inclusivity from an early stage.

Ashe: Statistically, women tend not to get promoted much higher than mid-level management and are driven out of the industry at an earlier point in their careers, which makes it much harder for them to attain these types of positions. For instance, 56 percent of women leave tech within 10 years, which is twice the attrition rate of men.

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