the great Bohumil Hrabal

PortraitZuzana Slobodová at The Times Literary Supplement:

Both books reflect Hrabal’s fascination with language, and it is here that his main achievement lies. Hrabal started out as a surrealist poet, and his stories and novels are written in the form of prose poetry, which borders on surrealism while remaining highly readable. Like his literary idol, Jaroslav Hašek, the author of The Good Soldier Švejk, Hrabal recorded and made use of aimless, often coarse conversations overheard in Czech pubs. But unlike his cynical “older brother”, Hrabal juxtaposed this with lyricism and sentiment, dabbled in automatic writing, made verbal collages, switched from comedy to tragedy, and hopped between styles without warning. His vocabulary is as rich as that of James Joyce. The effect is magical and impossible to translate in its full beauty, though the translators of both these volumes deserve high praise.

David Short, who has also successfully rendered Hrabal’s Pirouettes on a Postage Stamp (reviewed in the TLS, April 10, 2009), seeks above all to capture the exact meaning and linguistic register of Hrabal’s language – his metaphors, cultural references and even the names of his characters. When a word is so obscure that few Czechs would understand it (eg pankejt, translated as “the verge of the road”), he resorts to etymological research. The result is a painstakingly accurate translation, which still preserves Hrabal’s flow. Short also moves away from the traditional rendering of Hrabal’s term pábení as “palavering”. His “rambling on” better encapsulates the essence of a book in which, for example, an uninvited guest barges into Hrabal’s house, gets drunk on his beer, predicts the writer’s death, and advises him in exhaustive detail to be buried near a football pitch (Hrabal was a passionate football fan).

more here.

just read hrabal

8024623161.01.MZZZZZZZJohn Yargo at The Millions:

Bohumil Hrabal was born near the beginning of World War I in Brno, in the Austro-Hungarian empire. He was raised by a gallery of colorful relatives, including an uncle who served as an early model for the gregarious and unscrupulous type that populated his later novels. His legal studies at Charles University in Prague were interrupted by the Second World War. After the Communists took over, he worked as a stage hand and industrial worker. He published one book of poetry in the late 1940s, but didn’t publish fiction until he was 42.

When he did begin writing stories and novels, his methods for composing fiction were radical. According to David Short, one of his translators, the Czech writer was a prolific cut-and-paste stylist. The expansive tone and patient rhythms of Hrabal’s writing belies just how drastic his revisions were. According to Short, Hrabal uses “words unknown to anyone;” his cryptologisms still confound lexicographers.

Married in 1956, Hrabal traveled between a co-op flat in a northern district of Prague and a chalet in the Kersko in central Czechoslovakia. He routinely fled the cramped Soviet-style apartment for the more idyllic countryside. A film adaptation of his novel Closely Watched Trains came out in 1967, and it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, a high point of the Czech New Wave. According to the film historian Philip Kerr, Hrabal preferred the movie over his novel.

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Geoff Dyer at a conference on . . . Geoff Dyer

2014+29dyer2Philip Maughan at The New Statesman:

I couldn’t help but smile on a recent, drizzly afternoon when an earnest, hyper-intelligent historian from Queen Mary, University of London, concluded a lecture entitled “What Colour Was the 1990s?” – an echo of Dyer’s debut novel, The Colour of Memory (1989) – by putting his head in his hands and confessing: “I suppose I don’t know what I mean by the 1990s. I don’t know what I mean by colour.”

It was a brave and welcome admission. I had no idea what he meant either. The lecture was the eighth in a day-long series of talks being given at the first international conference dedicated to the work of the English writer Geoff Dyer, held on 11 July at Birkbeck, University of London. It was a happy occasion, only complicated slightly by the fact that Dyer himself was seated in the back row throughout the day, taking notes with a yellow pencil on a floppy white pad. The main problem was one of etiquette. “When speaking about the work, use Dyer,” urged Dr Bianca Leggett, the convenor of the conference, in her opening remarks. “When speaking about the man in the room, use Geoff.”

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bananas and foreign policy

From delanceyplace.com:

BananaIn the early 20th century, with American industry just beginning to expand overseas and Latin America still just emerging from colonial shackles, bananas became one of America's first powerhouse industries: “[Bananas] are the world's largest fruit crop and the fourth-largest product grown overall after wheat, rice, and corn. … In Central America, [American banana companies] built and toppled nations: a struggle to control the banana crop led to the overthrow of Guatemala's first democratically elected government in the 1950s, which in turn gave birth to the Mayan genocide of the 1980s. In the 1960s, banana companies — trying to regain plantations nationalized by Fidel Castro — allowed the CIA to use their freighters as part of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. … Eli Black, the chairman of Chiquita, threw himself out of the window of a Manhattan skyscraper in 1974 after his company's political machinations were exposed. …

On August 12, [1898], Spain surrendered [Cuba in the Spanish-American War] and the United States gained control over the island, opening a naval base at Guantanamo Bay. Over the next thirty-five years; the U.S. military intervened in Latin America twenty-eight times: in Mexico, in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Cuba in the Caribbean; and in Panama, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica and El Salvador, in Central America. The biggest consequence of those incursions was to make the region safe for bananas. One of the first businesses to enter Cuba was United Fruit. The banana and sugar plantations it established would eventually encompass 300,000 acres. An 1899 article in the Los Angeles Times described Latin America as 'Uncle Sam's New Fruit Garden', offering readers insight into 'How bananas, pineapples, and coconuts can be turned into fortunes.' …

More here.

Cancer biomarkers: Written in blood

Ed Yong in Nature:

BiopsyIn 2012, Charles Swanton was forced to confront one of cancer's dirtiest tricks. When he and his team at the Cancer Research UK London Research Institute sequenced DNA from a handful of kidney tumours, they expected to find a lot of different mutations, but the breadth of genetic diversity within even a single tumour shocked them. Cells from one end differed from those at the other and only one-third of the mutations were shared throughout the whole mass. Secondary tumours that had spread and taken root elsewhere in the patients' bodies were different again1

The results confirmed that the standard prognostic procedure for cancer, the tissue biopsy, is woefully inadequate — like trying to gauge a nation's behaviour by surveying a single street. A biopsy could miss mutations just centimetres away that might radically change a person's chances for survival. And although biopsies can provide data about specific mutations that might make a tumour vulnerable to targeted therapies, that information is static and bound to become inaccurate as the cancer evolves. Swanton and his team laid bare a diversity that seemed insurmountable. “I am still quite depressed about it, if I'm honest,” he says. “And if we had higher-resolution assays, the complexity would be far worse.” But researchers have found ways to get a richer view of a patient's cancer, and even track it over time. When cancer cells rupture and die, they release their contents, including circulating tumour DNA (ctDNA): genome fragments that float freely through the bloodstream. Debris from normal cells is normally mopped up and destroyed by 'cleaning cells' such as macrophages, but tumours are so large and their cells multiply so quickly that the cleaners cannot cope completely. By developing and refining techniques for measuring and sequencing tumour DNA in the bloodstream, scientists are turning vials of blood into 'liquid biopsies' — portraits of a cancer that are much more comprehensive than the keyhole peeps that conventional biopsies provide. Taken over time, such blood samples would show clinicians whether treatments are working and whether tumours are evolving resistance.

More here.

Thursday Poem

Van Gogh

Well, he lived among us and hated winters.
He moved to Arles where summer and blue jays
obliged him to cut off his ear.
Oh, they all said it was a whore
but Rachel was innocent. When cypresses
went for a walk in the prison yard
he went along and sketched them.
His suns surpassed God’s.
He spelled out the Gospel for miners
and their potatoes stuck in his throat.
Yes, he was a priest in sackcloth, who hoped
that one day humans would learn to walk.
He willed mankind his shoes.

by John Balaban
from Path, Crooked Path (Copper Canyon Press, 2006)
translated from the Bulgarian with the author,
Lyubomir Nikolov

Notes on Bantu Philosophy

Justin E. H. Smith in his blog:

6a00d83453bcda69e201a511ebbe8c970c-400wiThere is an observation sometimes made in connection with the history of philosophical reflection on the nature of human distinctness, that language has moved in, in the past few centuries, to fill a role that had previously been taken up by belief in a divinely implanted soul. We allow the faculty of language to play a role in defining what is most excellent about human beings in part because appeals to the inherence of an immortal, eternal, immaterial principle that makes us what we are have, to put it bluntly, fallen out of fashion. While for the most part the soul now has a greatly reduced place in contemporary philosophy, a reduction that was already well under way in the 19th century, nonetheless language is often invoked in ways that suggest that it is this faculty that gives us our own share of divinity, as the soul once did. Thus the poet Paul Valéry evocatively describes language as “the god gone astray in the flesh.”

More here.

Collective Punishment in Gaza

Rashid Khalidi in The New Yorker:

ScreenHunter_732 Jul. 30 20.14Three days after the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched the current war in Gaza, he held a press conference in Tel Aviv during which he said, in Hebrew, according to the Times of Israel, “I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.”

It’s worth listening carefully when Netanyahu speaks to the Israeli people. What is going on in Palestine today is not really about Hamas. It is not about rockets. It is not about “human shields” or terrorism or tunnels. It is about Israel’s permanent control over Palestinian land and Palestinian lives. That is what Netanyahu is really saying, and that is what he now admits he has “always” talked about. It is about an unswerving, decades-long Israeli policy of denying Palestine self-determination, freedom, and sovereignty.

What Israel is doing in Gaza now is collective punishment. It is punishment for Gaza’s refusal to be a docile ghetto. It is punishment for the gall of Palestinians in unifying, and of Hamas and other factions in responding to Israel’s siege and its provocations with resistance, armed or otherwise, after Israel repeatedly reacted to unarmed protest with crushing force. Despite years of ceasefires and truces, the siege of Gaza has never been lifted.

More here.

what it’s like to be an anti-war Israeli

Marina Strinkovsky in New Statesman:

IsraelOn Saturday, I attended an extremist demonstration in Tel Aviv. Some 5,000 other dangerous fanatics and I gave up a small slice of our weekend to express our intolerably radical views to a hostile or, at best, indifferent public, surrounded by a thick protective wall of visibly disgruntled border police and a 20-foot wide cordon of metal barriers. Some waved the Palestinian national flag; many carried signs saying things like “Stop the War” and “End the Occupation”. We chanted “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies” and distributed bumper stickers with the subversive slogan “It won’t end until we talk”. One guy carried a clutch of olive branches. Tea candles spelled out the Hebrew word slicha – forgiveness. The message was meant for the embattled Gazan civilians but it might as well have been for our colleagues, friends and relatives, many of whom would consider us deluded at best, traitors at worst. I'm sure most of us hadn’t advertised our intention to attend the demo in advance; I certainly didn’t. Protest is one thing, but the angry recriminations of loved ones – that is something I admit is beyond the scope of my bravery. In my life, I have faced potatoes lobbed at me from upper floors by small children on demonstrations and anguished accusations of indifference to my family’s safety. I know which hurt more.

This was not the first anti-war protest in Israel this month; there had been many actions and demonstrations, poorly covered by western media, if covered at all. The rally, which was organised by activists from Hadash (socialist) and Balad (pro-binational state) parties, represents the very edge of electoral possibility in Israel. The more mainstream left and centre-left organisations such as Peace Now and Meretz, which are staunchly committed to a two-state future and support for the military, openly distanced themselves. A small counter-demonstration was being held behind a wall of police cars; at previous events anti-war activists had been physically set upon. The overwhelmingly male, right-wing cadre protesting against us waved Israeli flags and, from what I heard, shouted disjointed obscenities – “smelly leftists”, “you take it up the ass”, that sort of thing.

More here.

probiotics could prevent obesity and insulin resistance

From KurzweilAI:

Obese-mouseVanderbilt University researchers have discovered that engineered probiotic bacteria (“friendly” bacteria like those in yogurt) in the gut produce a therapeutic compound that inhibits weight gain, insulin resistance, and other adverse effects of a high-fat diet in mice. “Of course it’s hard to speculate from mouse to human,” said senior investigator Sean Davies, Ph.D., assistant professor of Pharmacology. “But essentially, we’ve prevented most of the negative consequences of obesity in mice, even though they’re eating a high-fat diet.”

The findings published in the August issue of the Journal of Clinical Investigation (open access) suggest that it may be possible to manipulate the bacterial residents of the gut — the gut microbiota — to treat obesity and other chronic diseases. Davies has a long-standing interest in using probiotic bacteria to deliver drugs to the gut in a sustained manner, in order to eliminate the daily drug regimens associated with chronic diseases. In 2007, he received a National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator Award to develop and test the idea. Other studies have demonstrated that the natural gut microbiota plays a role in obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. “The types of bacteria you have in your gut influence your risk for chronic diseases,” Davies said. “We wondered if we could manipulate the gut microbiota in a way that would promote health.”

More here.

Wednesday Poem

Comete

Uphill in Melbourne on a beautiful day
a woman is walking ahead of her hair.
Like teak oiled soft to fracture and sway
it hung to her heels and seconded her
as a pencilled retinue, an unscrolling title
to ploughland, edged with ripe rows of dress,
a sheathed wing that couldn't fly her at all,
only itself, loosely, and her spirits.
A largesse
of life and self, brushed all calm and out,
its abstracted attempts on her mouth weren't seen,
not its showering, its tenting. Just the detail
that swam in its flow-lines, glossing about—
as she paced on, comet-like, face to the sun.

by Les Murray
from Subhuman Redneck Poems, 1996

Refugee Crisis: The Stunning Collapse of Syria’s Safe Spaces

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Farrah Hassen in Foreign Policy in Focus (Photo: UNHCR Photo Unit / Flickr):

While filming a documentary in Syria in the summer of 2003, I visited the Jaramana refugee camp near Damascus. Run by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine, Jaramana at the time housed around 5,000 registered Palestinian refugees from the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967 and their descendants.

At Jaramana, rows of decaying homes slightly larger than office cubicles lined newly built roads. The flurry of young children playing tag, teenage boys riding rusty bicycles down the cramped streets, and the commanding shriek of babies injected some color into a landscape otherwise dominated by the grayish hues of stone edifices and smoke emanating from burnt trash. Like a Rembrandt painting, the Damascus sun’s unforgiving rays bounced across concrete walls, casting shadows of uncertainty over the elderly and young Palestinians alike.

Up until that point, I had not comprehended the mix of courage, desperation, and determination demanded by refugees. Neither could I conceptualize the scope of the challenges faced both by humanitarian aid groups struggling to deliver aid to the refugees and the countries struggling to host them.

Eleven years later, Syria—a host country to 540,000 Palestinian refugees and, at its peak in 2007, 1.5 million Iraqi refugees—now faces its own refugee crisis after over three years of bloody civil war.

The number of Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) already rivals the scale of the displaced in countries like Afghanistan and Somalia, which have endured much longer-running conflicts. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 2.8 million refugees have fled Syria for nearby countries, including Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and Turkey. 6.5 million remain internally displaced.

With a total population of 22 million, that means that nearly half of the Syrian population has been displaced by war since March 2011. In fact, within a span of five years, Syria has moved from being the world’s second-largest host of refugees to the second-largest producer of them.

If they’re still alive, the Palestinian families I spoke with in Jaramana have had to endure a deluge of bombs, guns, and tanks unleashed by rebel groups and regime forces alike. Or they may have fled their homes, yet again, to a neighboring country. Like their Iraqi counterparts in Syria, they face the reality of becoming double refugees, adding to their heightened insecurity as already displaced people.

Meanwhile, the countries that have absorbed Syria’s refugees are straining at the seams.

More here.

We Experiment On Human Beings!

Christian Rudder in the OKCupid blog:

All dating sites let users rate profiles, and OkCupid’s original system gave people two separate scales for judging each other, “personality” and “looks.”
I found this old screenshot. The “loading” icon over the picture pretty much sums up our first four years. Anyhow, here’s the vote system:

Our thinking was that a person might not be classically gorgeous or handsome but could still be cool, and we wanted to recognize that, which just goes to show that when OkCupid started out, the only thing with more bugs than our HTML was our understanding of human nature.

Here’s some data I dug up from the backup tapes. Each dot here is a person. The two scores are within a half point of each other for 92% of the sample after just 25 votes (and that percentage approaches 100% as vote totals get higher).

In short, according to our users, “looks” and “personality” were the same thing, which of course makes perfect sense because, you know, this young female account holder, with a 99th percentile personality:


…and whose profile, by the way, contained no text, is just so obviously a really cool person to hang out and talk to and clutch driftwood with.

After we got rid of the two scales, and replaced it with just one, we ran a direct experiment to confirm our hunch—that people just look at the picture. We took a small sample of users and half the time we showed them, we hid their profile text. That generated two independent sets of scores for each profile, one score for “the picture and the text together” and one for “the picture alone.” Here’s how they compare. Again, each dot is a user. Essentially, the text is less than 10% of what people think of you.

More here.

Soak the Rich

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An exchange on capital, debt, and the future between David Graeber and Thomas Piketty in The Baffler (image: © C.K. Wilde):

Moderators: Is capitalism itself the cause of the problem, or can it be reformed?

Piketty: One of the points that I most appreciate in David Graeber’s book is the link he shows between slavery and public debt. The most extreme form of debt, he says, is slavery: slaves belong forever to somebody else, and so, potentially, do their children. In principle, one of the great advances of civilization has been the abolition of slavery.

As Graeber explains, the intergenerational transmission of debt that slavery embodied has found a modern form in the growing public debt, which allows for the transfer of one generation’s indebtedness to the next. It is possible to picture an extreme instance of this, with an infinite quantity of public debt amounting to not just one, but ten or twenty years of GNP, and in effect creating what is, for all intents and purposes, a slave society, in which all production and all wealth creation is dedicated to the repayment of debt. In that way, the great majority would be slaves to a minority, implying a reversion to the beginnings of our history.

In actuality, we are not yet at that point. There is still plenty of capital to counteract debt. But this way of looking at things helps us understand our strange situation, in which debtors are held culpable and we are continually assailed by the claim that each of us “owns” between thirty and forty thousand euros of the nation’s public debt.

This is particularly crazy because, as I say, our resources surpass our debt. A large portion of the population owns very little capital individually, since capital is so highly concentrated. Until the nineteenth century, 90 percent of accumulated capital belonged to 10 percent of the population. Today things are a little different. In the United States, 73 percent of capital belongs to the richest 10 percent. This degree of concentration still means that half the population owns nothing but debt. For this half, the per capita public debt thus exceeds what they possess. But the other half of the population owns more capital than debt, so it is an absurdity to lay the blame on populations in order to justify austerity measures.

But for all that, is the elimination of debt the solution, as Graeber writes? I have nothing against this, but I am more favorable to a progressive tax on inherited wealth along with high tax rates for the upper brackets. Why? The question is: What about the day after? What do we do once debt has been eliminated? What is the plan? Eliminating debt implies treating the last creditor, the ultimate holder of debt, as the responsible party. But the system of financial transactions as it actually operates allows the most important players to dispose of letters of credit well before debt is forgiven. The ultimate creditor, thanks to the system of intermediaries, may not be especially rich. Thus canceling debt does not necessarily mean that the richest will lose money in the process.

More here.

The “Act of Witnessing:” Journalism’s Responsibilities in Covering Tragedy

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Kaitlin Solimine in Hippo Reads

In the aftermath of the Malaysia Air Ukraine incident, one thing was clear: the damage ran deep. But beyond the obvious and important political scope, what is the responsibility of media outlets when covering the tragedy?

A day after the incident, the New York Times ran this front page piece about the airplane’s “trail of debris.” Rather than focusing solely on the investigation efforts and/or the deeply historical politics, the NYT piece spent a majority of its word count detailing the gruesome remains of those who were traveling on Malaysia Air Flight 17—including what the victims were wearing, the posturing of their bodies, and even the name addressed on a parking ticket found in the debris.

There’s no doubt that a war’s reach is horrific. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl writes about his experience as a psychiatrist imprisoned in Auschwitz, and the complications of documenting the horrors of a concentration camp:

“To attempt a methodological presentation of the subject is very difficult, as psychology requires a certain scientific detachment. But does a man who makes his observations while he himself is a prisoner possess the necessary detachment? Such detachment is granted to the outsider, but he is far too removed to make any statements of real value. Only the man inside knows. His judgments may not be objective; his evaluations may be out of proportion. This is inevitable.”

How are journalists to document an experience in which they may be an integral part while also possessing the “necessary detachment” of reportage?

More here.