Sunday Poem


Inside your body there are flowers.
One flower has a thousand petals
That will do for a place to sit.
—Kabir, “A place to sit”

Rolls of rice paper in the corner,
jars of soft-haired brushes,
elegant cakes of watercolour,
black inkstone at the centre.

My mother held the brush vertically,
never slant, arm and fingers poised,
distilling bird or breeze into
diligent rows of single characters.

Hours rippled. Years of practice urged
the true strokes forth—stiff bamboo
now waving in white air, cautious lines
ribboning silk folds of a woman's gown.

My favourite of her paintings
was of chrysanthemums. They began
as five arcs of ink, long breaths in the emptiness
alluding to stem and blossom. Then,

from the finest brush, the outline of each petal.
Flesh flowed from the fuller one, tipped
with yellow or lavender, until every crown
bloomed amid the throng of leaves.

If only I had been paper,
a delicate, upturned face stroked
with such precise tenderness.

by Fiona Tinwei Lam
Enter the Chrysanthemum
Harbour Publishing, 2009


Bill Gates at the website of the Gates Foundation:


I've heard this myth stated about lots of places, but most often about Africa. A quick Web search will turn up dozens of headlines and book titles such as 'How Rich Countries Got Rich and Why Poor Countries Stay Poor.'

Thankfully these books are not bestsellers, because the basic premise is false. The fact is, incomes and other measures of human welfare are rising almost everywhere, including in Africa.

So why is this myth so deeply ingrained?

I’ll get to Africa in a moment, but first let’s look at the broader trend around the world, going back a half-century. Fifty years ago, the world was divided in three: the United States and our Western allies; the Soviet Union and its allies; and everyone else. I was born in 1955 and grew up learning that the so-called First World was well off or “developed.” Most everyone in the First World went to school, and we lived long lives. We weren't sure what life was like behind the Iron Curtain, but it sounded like a scary place. Then there was the so-called Third World—basically everyone else. As far as we knew, it was filled with people who were poor, didn't go to school much, and died young. Worse, they were trapped in poverty, with no hope of moving up.

More here.

Rosetta comet chaser set to wake up on Monday after three years’ sleep

Ian Sample in The Guardian:

Rosetta-deploys-Philae-sp-011At 10am GMT on Monday morning an alarm clock will rouse a snoozing spacecraft that is hurtling through the darkest reaches of the solar system. Launched 10 years ago, and in hibernation for the last three, the time for action has come at last.

The European Space Agency's Rosetta probe aims for a spectacular first in space exploration. The billion-euro machine will catch up with a comet, circle it slowly, and throw down a lander to the surface. With gravity too weak to keep it there, the box of electronics and sensors on legs will cling to its ride with an explosive metal harpoon.

Together, the Rosetta probe and its lander, Philae, will scan and poke the comet as it tears towards the sun. As the comet draws near, it will warm and spew huge plumes of gas and dust in a tail more than one million kilometres long. The spectacle has never been captured up close before.

The comet, named 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, formed from cosmic debris 4.6bn years ago, before material had coalesced to form the Earth and our nearest planets, and the sun was a newborn star. Even rocket scientists find the comet's name hard work. Some opt instead for “Chury”.

By studying the comet – some of the most pristine and primordial material there is – scientists hope to learn more about the origins of the solar system. The presence of ice, and traces of organics, might hint at answers to other big questions: how Earth got its water and how life began. But first the spacecraft must wake up.

More here.

How Lewis Carroll Can Improve Your Email

Steve Leveen in the Huffington Post:

Lewis Carroll didn't live to see the 20th century, let alone the advent of email, but he knew a few things about correspondence. In the course of his career he wrote and received 98,721 letters (we know the precise count thanks to a special letter register he devised to keep track of them).

Lewis Carroll's real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, and he was a professor of mathematics at Oxford. Being a teacher, Dodgson decided to document his advice about how to write more satisfying letters. He did this in a delightful little missive called “Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter-Writing.”

Although Dodgson knew only handwritten correspondence, I invite you to observe how seven of his suggestions, now 150 years old, might help you with your keyboard correspondence. (His words come first, followed by my commentary, adjusted for email.)

1. “Your friend is much more likely to enjoy your wit, after his own anxiety for information has been satisfied.

Don't compose your response until you have reread your friend's email, keeping it freshly in mind. Then address your friend's concerns and questions first — even if there is more than one. This way your friend won't have to email you again, asking if you saw what s/he had previously written.

More here.

Dyer on Berger on photography

BergerGeoff Dyer at Bookforum:

I became interested in photography not by taking or looking at photographs but by reading about them. The names of the three writers who served as guides will come as no surprise: Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, and John Berger. I read Sontag on Diane Arbus before I’d seen any photographs by Arbus (there are no pictures in On Photography), and Barthes on André Kertész, and Berger on August Sander without knowing any photographs other than the few reproduced in Camera Lucida and About Looking. (The fact that the photo on the cover of About Looking was credited to someone called Garry Winogrand meant nothing to me.)

Berger was indebted to both of the others. Dedicted to Sontag, the 1978 essay “Uses of Photography” is offered as a series of “responses” to On Photography, published the previous year: “The thoughts are sometimes my own, but all originate in the experience of reading her book.” Writing about The Pleasure of the Text (1973), Berger described Barthes as “the only living critic or theorist of literature and language whom I, as a writer, recognize.”

more here.

the parthenon enigma

ParthenonEric Wills at The Washington Post:

For centuries, scholars have argued that the frieze’s grand procession of soldiers and chariots, musicians and maidens, and figures bearing offerings for sacrifice depicted the Panathenaia, a yearly festival of games and religious rites in ancient Athens.

In her radical reinterpretation, Connelly argues that the frieze in fact celebrated a mythical tale of human sacrifice. That may come as a surprise to those who have projected an idealized, post-Enlightenment version of democracy onto the Parthenon, Connelly argues — a version mirroring our current preference for the primacy of individual rights and of reason over belief. The Parthenon’s frieze broadcast a much different message to the battle-hardened citizens of ancient Athens: Democracy, she writes, is “no mere political arrangement but ultimately a spiritual one.”

Connelly developed her theory after happening upon a mention of a long-lost play by Euripedes when she was researching a book on Greek priestesses. “Erechtheus,” as the play was titled, had languished for centuries before it was unearthed in fragmentary form by archaeologists in a Hellenistic cemetery in Egypt.

more here.

The first world war, 100 years on

109e3264-f3c9-4738-be3b-c933916dcbf4Peter Clarke at The Financial Times:

One of the most significant wartime speeches was given by David Lloyd George in September 1914. He was then chancellor of the exchequer in the Liberal government that had taken Britain into the war; yet his own image was that of a radical with pacifist leanings – until he gave the speech. He now made the moral case for war, in the tradition of Gladstone, with rhetorical tropes about small nations rightly struggling to be free. Lloyd George identified Belgium and Serbia alongside his native Wales as the “little five-foot-five nations”, now “fighting for their freedom”, thus making it personal. Lloyd George’s own height sealed the argument. What he could not know at this time was that nearly a quarter of all Serbian males aged 15-49 were to die in a war that plainly did not “save” nor “protect” them.

The view from 1914 was thus to be modified by the view from 1918. But what about the view from 2014, now that historians have been so busy in rewriting their accounts of how the whole thing began? Were the Serbs quite so guiltless? Not if we follow the analysis in Christopher Clark’s groundbreaking book The Sleepwalkers (2012). With an impressive command of the relevant sources in many languages, Clark develops the cogent argument that the events in Sarajevo were invested with an altogether more sinister significance, once we appreciate the full force of Serbian irredentist nationalism. For us today, with our own memories of more recent Balkan conflicts, the unspoken name is surely that of Slobodan Milosevic – another ghost at the feast.

more here.

Can reading make you smarter?

Dan Hurley in The Guardian:

Smarter-The-New-Science-of-BWhen I was eight years old, I still couldn't read. I remember my teacher Mrs Browning walking over to my desk and asking me to read a few sentences from a Dick and Jane book. She pointed to a word. “Tuh-hee,” I said, trying to pronounce it. “The,” she said, correcting me, and that's when it clicked – the moment when I learned to read the word “the”. Growing up in Teaneck, New Jersey, in the 1960s, I was what Mrs Browning called “slow”. During a parent-teacher meeting, she told my mother: “Daniel is a slow learner.” I sat during lunch in the gymnasium with the – forgive the term – dumb kids. I was grouped with them during reading and maths: the “slow group”.

And then, a year later, I was rescued by Spider-Man. My best friend Dan, who was reading chapter books by kindergarten, had started reading Spider-Man and other comics with some other kid, and together they began drawing and writing their own comics. In response to this loathsome intruder's kidnapping of my best friend, I began reading comics, too, and then began scrawling and scribbling my own. Soon, Dan and I were happily spending every afternoon on our masterworks, while the interloper was never heard from again. By age 11, I was getting straight As. Later in my teens, I took a college admissions course in the US, and scored the equivalent of 136 on an IQ test. So what happened there? Was Mrs Browning right – was I actually “slow” when I was eight – and did I somehow become smarter because I immersed myself in reading and writing comic books? In part to answer that question, I spent three years interviewing psychologists and neuroscientists around the world, reviewing their studies and testing new methods they claim can increase intelligence. And while nobody would ever call reading a “new” method for improving the mind, recent scientific studies have confirmed that reading and intelligence have a relationship so close as to be symbiotic.

More here.

Deep Reader

Joyce Carol Oates in The New York Times:

BookRarely attempted, and still more rarely successful, is the bibliomemoir — a subspecies of literature combining criticism and biography with the intimate, confessional tone of autobiography. The most engaging bibliomemoirs establish the writer’s voice in counterpoint to the subject, with something more than adulation or explication at stake.

…By contrast, Rebecca Mead’s “My Life in Middlemarch” is a beguilingly straightforward, resolutely orthodox and unshowy account of the writer’s lifelong admiration for George Eliot and for “Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life” in particular — the Victorian novel, first published in the early 1870s, that was described by Virginia Woolf as “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” There is no irony or postmodernist posturing in Mead’s forthright, unequivocal and unwavering endorsement of George Eliot as both a great novelist and a role model for bright, ambitious, provincially born girls like herself, eager to escape their intellectually impoverished hometowns — “Oxford was my immediate goal, but anywhere would do.” At the age of 17, when Mead first reads “Middlemarch,” her identification with Eliot’s 19-year-old heroine, Dorothea Brooke, is immediate and unqualified, and it will last for decades. The book’s theme, “a young woman’s desire for a substantial, rewarding, meaningful life,” was “certainly one with which Eliot had been long preoccupied. . . . And it’s a theme that has made many young women, myself included, feel that ‘Middlemarch’ is speaking directly to us. How on earth might one contain one’s intolerable, overpowering, private yearnings? Where is a woman to put her energies? How is she to express her longings? What can she do to exercise her potential and affect the lives of others? What, in the end, is a young woman to do with herself?”

More here.

What Does Literature Know?


Michael W. Clune in 3:AM Magazine [h/t: Jonathan Kramnick]:

Alex Rosenberg’s diagnosis of the ills of the humanities is in fact aimed at literature departments, which he describes as suffering from “self-inflicted wounds.” But his confident attack on literary studies reveals a basic ignorance of the field. The one book he refers to as exemplary of the failures of literary research — Proust Was a Neuroscientist — was written not by a literature professor, but by a journalist subsequently discredited for plagiarism. Rosenberg’s claim that women and minority authors have shoved out the classics in English curricula is untrue in every department with which I am familiar. (We teach Phyllis Wheatly alongside Walt Whitman; Shakespeare’s stock has never been higher.) Finally, Rosenberg’s suggestion that humanities majors are in sharp and recent decline is misleading. While there was a big drop in the mid-seventies, for the past three decades the percentage of B.A.’s who receive English degrees has been stable.

Rosenberg’s solution to these imaginary problems? Literature professors must stop trying to produce knowledge, and should instead devote themselves to helping literary works “emotionally move us.” The idea that one can separate knowledge from emotion when talking about literature is puzzling. Here Rosenberg appears to be inspired not by Joseph Brodsky, but by Robin Williams’ performance in Dead Poets Society. Perhaps he believes that literary instruction should consist of professors intoning the classics soulfully to rapt classes. One wonders how he would have us respond to a student with a question about what a poemmeans.

While literature professors are hardly responsible for Rosenberg’s ignorance, we do share some responsibility for the confidence with which he expresses it. In particular, we have done a poor job of describing and defending the kind of knowledge literature can give us. The study of literature is inherently interdisciplinary. Melville’s fiction, for example, contains scientific and economic speculation, images expressive of emotional states, images expressive of philosophical beliefs, linguistically diverse characters, and a kind of technical handbook on whaling. Literary works move across the disciplinary borders of the modern research university.

More here.

Against Gopnikism

Justin E. H. Smith in his own blog:

ScreenHunter_469 Jan. 24 19.17In my outline yesterday of the malady of Gopnikism in American writing on France, I omitted to mention what must be the all-time champion of the genre, indeed a strong contender for the title of most frivolous article in the history of journalism. I am speaking of Elaine Sciolino's 'Letter from Paris' in the New York Times of September 21, 2013, “Trendy Green Mystifies France. It's a Job for the Kale Crusader!” The article describes that chapter of the life of American Kristen Beddard after she has quit her job “as an Ogilvy & Mather account manager in New York to follow her husband to Paris.” One night, out in a Paris restaurant with her husband-leader, an angel descended unto her, and caused her to say: “What if I try to bring kale to Paris?”

This is the 'spunky', rule-breaking offshoot of the august tradition of American fawning over French cuisine. I have never understood any of this (I'm with Foucault: “a good club sandwich with a Coke” is just fine for me), and so I'm hardly positioned to be bouleversé by the report of this American ingenue's failure to curtsey at the court of indigenous crudities. I couldn't care less what the French think of kale. I couldn't care less if Beddard fails in her life's mission. What interests me most here is what Sciolino's article reveals about the conventions for American writing on France. The first rule of this genre is that one must assume at the outset that France –like America, in its own way– is an absolutely exceptional place, with a timeless and unchanging and thoroughly authentic spirit. This authenticity is reflected par excellence in the French relation to food, which, as the subtitle of Adam Gopnik's now canonical book reminds us, stands synecdochically for family, and therefore implicitly also for nation.

France, in other words, is a country that invites ignorant Americans, under cover of apolitical vacationing, of living 'the good life' and of cultivating their faculty of taste, to unwittingly indulge their fantasies of blood-and-soil ideology. You'll say I'm exaggerating, but I mean exactly what I say. From M.F.K. Fisher's Francocentric judgment that jalapeños are for undisciplined peoples stuck in the childhood of humanity, to Gopnik's celebration of Gallic commensality as the tie that binds family and country, French soil has long been portrayed by Americans as uniquely suited for the production of people with the right kind of values. This is dangerous stuff.

More here.

A Countryside of Concentration Camps: Burma could be the site of the world’s next genocide

Graeme Wood in The New Republic:

ScreenHunter_468 Jan. 24 19.09The U.S. government has sent diplomats to monitor Arakan, and at key junctures in the blossoming of bilateral relations, Obama has brought up the Rohingya issue. But the Rohingya are, so far, unlucky casualties of progress, and their ongoing ethnic-cleansing hasn’t been enough to sour Obama’s rapport with the Burmese president, Thein Sein. Nor, it seems, has it managed to stir the outrage of Aung San Suu Kyi, whose lack of comment has made activists, once piously reverent, now treat her as something between demoness and fool.

With Suu Kyi silent, and the international community collectively golf-clapping as Burma edges toward freedom, the Rohingya are nearly friendless in their displaced-person camps and grim ghettos, with few real champions other than a handful of Muslim countries (Saudi Arabia, Malaysia) not known for their capacity to deal with humanitarian crises. Obama closed his Rangoon speech on what he no doubt meant as a cheery note: “I stand here with confidence that something is happening in this country that cannot be reversed.” Increasingly, it sounds like a prophecy of doom.

More here.

Should physicists stop looking for fundamental laws?

Ashutosh Jogalekar in Scientific American:

ScreenHunter_467 Jan. 24 18.53Physics, unlike biology or geology, was not considered to be a historical science until now. Physicists have prided themselves on being able to derive the vast bulk of phenomena in the universe from first principles. Biology – and chemistry, as a matter of fact – are different. Chance and contingency play an important role in the evolution of chemical and biological phenomena, so beyond a point scientists in these disciplines have realized that it’s pointless to ask questions about origins and first principles.

The overriding “fundamental law” in biology is that of evolution by natural selection. But while the law is fundamental on a macro scale, its details at a micro level don’t lend themselves to real explanation in terms of origins. For instance the bacterialflagellum is a product of accident and time, a key structure involved in locomotion, feeding and flight that resulted from gene sharing, recombination and selective survival of certain species spread over billions of years. While one can speculate, it is impossible to know for certain all the details that led to the evolution of this marvelous molecular motor. Thus biologists have accepted history and accident as integral parts of their fundamental laws.

Physics was different until now.

More here.

Classical music in America is dead

Mark Vanhoenacker in Slate: music has been circling the drain for years, of course. There’s little doubt as to the causes: the fingernail grip of old music in a culture that venerates the new; new classical music that, in the words of Kingsley Amis, has about as much chance of public acceptance as pedophilia; formats like opera that are extraordinarily expensive to stage; and an audience that remains overwhelmingly old and white in an America that’s increasingly neither. Don’t forget the attacks on arts education, the Internet-driven democratization of cultural opinion, and the classical trappings—fancy clothes, incomprehensible program notes, an omerta-caliber code of audience silence—that never sit quite right in the homeland of popular culture.

The holiday season typically provides a much-needed transfusion. But the most recent holidays came after an autumn that The New Yorker called the art form’s “most significant crisis” since the Great Recession. Looking at the trend lines, it’s hard to hear anything other than a Requiem.

Let’s start by following the money. In 2013, total classical album sales actually rose by 5 percent, according to Nielsen. But that's hardly a robust recovery from the 21 percent decline the previous year. And consider the relative standing of classical music. Just 2.8 percent of albums sold in 2013 were categorized as classical. By comparison, rock took 35 percent; R&B 18 percent; soundtracks 4 percent. Only jazz, at 2.3 percent, is more incidental to the business of American music.

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twain and jumping frogs

Jumping frogBen Tarnoff at Lapham's Quarterly:

“Jim Smiley,” subsequently retitled “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” lifted Twain to fame and laid the foundation for his later triumphs, but it isn’t especially funny anymore. What once made bankers in New York and boatmen in Baton Rouge laugh out loud would now at best elicit a halfhearted chuckle from a generous reader. It’s hard to say exactly why. Humor eludes elaborate theorizing, but it usually relies on context: on shared assumptions about the permissible and the taboo, the familiar and the strange. Some humor stays funny because its underlying truths remain in force—the flirty banter in The Taming of the Shrew, for instance, or the dick jokes inTristram Shandy. A large part of the pleasure in laughing at old material is realizing how little has changed. Other humor, by contrast, loses its power as its context fades.

“Jim Smiley” drew upon a context that has changed beyond recognition: the American West. More than just a place, the West was an idea; it spawned national legends, bestselling authors, and a menagerie of pop-culture entertainments, from the nineteenth century “horse operas” performed on Broadway to the dime novels featuring frontier outlaws. What made “Jim Smiley” such a hit was Twain’s upending of the conventions of this world, with a picture of the West at once recognizable and not.

more here.

Getting Dressed

ID_COHEN_GETTI_CO_001Paula Marantz Cohen at The Smart Set:

The items that constitute a “basic” makeup regimen are variable from person to person, though the conventional prerequisites are as follows: moisturizer, concealer, foundation, mascara, eyeliner, blush, and lipstick. All the above also happen to be umbrella categories for a vast empire of additional products. There are many varieties of concealer, for example: for blemishes, for scars, for sun discoloration, for broken blood vessels, for dark circles. Lipstick can range from practically indelible to the sheerest gloss, in flavors from watermelon to key lime pie (an ideal snack for the anorexic), and have secondary functions like lining, moisturizing, and plumping. Foundation can be liquid, spray, or powder, under the assumption that the skin is a complex geographical terrain that must be treated with different agents for different strata. The eyes have an entire phalanx of products too numerous to go into. And I haven’t even started in on products to tighten pores, fill in wrinkles, and counteract redness — all minor industries in themselves. It is also possible to use makeup the way doctors use drugs off-label: blush as shadow, lipstick as blush. And there are folkloric co-optations with things like soy sauce and wasabi. I can personally recommend toothpaste as an overnight pimple remedy.

A relatively recent cosmetic innovation that intrigues me is foundation primer. Someone in the bowels of the cosmetic industry must have had the revelation that just as an artist primes a canvas before beginning a picture, one ought to similarly prepare the skin before putting on makeup.

more here.

Richard Strauss: a reluctant Nazi collaborator

201402straussMichael Kennedy at The New Statesman:

In 1933, Hitler became Germany’s chancellor at the head of the National Socialist Party. The non-political Strauss professed not to be worried, telling his family that this government would not last long. “I made music under the kaiser,” he told them. “I’ll survive under this lot, as well.” Strauss’s beloved daughter-in-law, Alice, was Jewish and she had two sons; his publisher, Adolf Fürstner, was Jewish and he was working on the libretto for his next opera with the Austrian-Jewish playwright Stefan Zweig, a comedy based on Ben Jonson’s The Epicene (Die Schweigsame Frau) and intended for a premiere in Dresden.

In 1933, Joseph Goebbels, the minister of propaganda who was responsible for all aspects of cultural activity, set up departments to deal with each section of the arts; in November, he appointed Strauss president of theReichsmusikkammer, overseeing music. Asked later why he accepted, Strauss said: “I hoped that I would be able to do some good and prevent worse misfortunes.”

more here.