World’s First Climate-Controlled City

Carl Engelking in Discover:

Indoor-cityImagine a city where the temperature is always perfect and you never have to worry about a rainy day ruining your day’s plans. Sound like fiction? If you live in Dubai, a city-state already known for ambitious feats of engineering, a mini-metropolis with a thermostat is poised to become a reality. Officials in Dubai last week announced plans to build the world’s first climate-controlled city. Dubbed the Mall of the World, the 48 million-square-foot complex will feature 100 hotels and apartment buildings, the world’s largest indoor theme park and the world’s largest shopping mall. For years, oil was the commodity that kept the United Arab Emirates’ economic engine running, but tourism is now one of the UAE’s largest sources of revenue. In a country where summertime temperatures routinely exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit, officials hope the Mall of the World will beat the heat and serve as a year-round tourist destination.

The Mall of the World is expected to accommodate some 180 million visitors annually, and every visitor can savor the sealed city for a week without ever stepping foot outside. Enclosed promenades 7 kilometers long, with trams for quick transport, will connect visitors to all the facilities and districts throughout the mall. The Mall of the World’s centerpiece will be the cultural district, which will recreate the world’s most famous landmarks from London, New York and Barcelona. The cultural district will be enclosed in a massive, golf-ball shaped dome and play host to weddings, conferences, performances, and a host of other celebrations.

More here.

Bertrand Russell’s lofty pacifism

Jonathan Ree in The New Humanist:

BertrandBertrand Russell must be one of the most celebrated public intellectuals of all time. Early in the 20th century he won international fame for his contributions to mathematical logic and advocacy of “scientific method in philosophy”. Later he stirred up storms of controversy with pamphlets denouncing Christianity and traditional sexual morality. But in the 1960s he became even more famous on account of his activism in the cause of nuclear disarmament and peace: the issue, as far as he was concerned, was not just human welfare, but “has man a future?” Right at the end of his life (he died in 1970, at the age of 97) he described his philosophical legacy as “trivial” and unworthy of scholarly attention, “at least”, as he put it, “compared with the continued existence of the human race”. Russell became the first president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1958, but resigned two years later in order to preside over the Committee of 100, which promised to be more militant than CND, using any means necessary to get the British government to ban the bomb. “There is,” he wrote,

a very widespread feeling that however bad their policies may be, there is nothing that private people can do about it. This is a complete mistake. If all those who disapprove of government policy were to join massive demonstrations of civil disobedience they could render government folly impossible and compel the so-called statesmen to acquiesce in measures that would make human survival possible.

The impact of Russell’s rhetoric – his arch sarcasms, unflappable certainties and stark antitheses – was enhanced by images of a dapper old gentleman sitting down in the street with fellow protestors and getting himself arrested in 1961 for breach of the peace. When asked by the magistrate whether he promised to be of good behaviour he said, “No, I do not” and was sentenced to seven days in Brixton prison.

More here.

Adventures in the Anthropocene

Hoare_07_14Philip Hoare at Literary Review:

Some 40 per cent of the earth's ice-free land mass is now intensively farmed to produce food. Only 12 per cent of its rivers run freely to the seas. Nearly one billion people go hungry every day; 1.5 billion are overweight or obese. Each year, more than 300,000 sea birds die on fishing lines and 100 million sharks are killed. Every square kilometre of sea contains 18,500 pieces of floating plastic. Only 1 per cent of the world's urban population are breathing air clean enough to meet EU standards according to a 2007 report by the World Bank (the Chinese government, fearing social unrest, redacted it on publication).

These are the facts we hear every day, yet we seem inured to their impact. In the wake of last February's storms, I took a train ride across Suffolk and into Essex. The land around the tracks was flooded, it was an almost apocalyptic scene, yet my fellow passengers barely gave the inundation – and the devastation that it represented to both the wildlife and the human managers of the land – a second glance. It felt like a glimpse of the future: a drastically changed world, greeted with a weary shrug of the shoulders.

more here.

How women got in on the Civil Rights Act

140721_r25240_p233Louis Menand at The New Yorker:

For twenty years, the belief that the sex provision was a monkey wrench that unintentionally became part of the machine was the conventional wisdom about Title VII. But when scholars—including Michael Gold, Carl Brauer, Cynthia Deitch, Jo Freeman, and Robert Bird—dug into the archives they not only learned that the real story of the sex amendment was quite different; they essentially uncovered an alternative history of women’s rights.

The person behind the sex amendment was the seventy-nine-year-old leader of a tiny fringe organization called the National Woman’s Party. Alice Paul was a major figure in the American suffragist movement, back at the time of the First World War. Paul was a Quaker. She attended Swarthmore and then the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned the first of many advanced degrees. In 1907, she went to study in Britain and got caught up in the suffragist movement, led by Emmeline Pankhurst. It changed her life.

Pankhurst ranks with Gandhi and King as one of the great practitioners of what King and others called “direct action.” She had suffragists break windows, chain themselves to the gates of Buckingham Palace, disrupt meetings.

more here.

Nadine Gordimer (1923 – 2014)

ImgresNadine Gordimer in Granta (2005):

'Beethoven was one sixteenth black,' the presenter of a classical music programme on the radio announces along with the names of musicians who will be heard playing the String Quartets No. 13 Op. 130 and No 16 Op. 135.

Does the presenter make the claim as restitution for Beethoven? Presenter's voice and cadence give him away as irremediably white. Is one sixteenth an unspoken wish for himself?

Once there were blacks wanting to be white.

Now there are whites wanting to be black.

It's the same secret.

Frederick Morris (of course that's not his name, you'll soon catch on I'm writing about myself, a man with the same initials) is an academic who teaches biology and was an activist back in the apartheid time, among other illegal shenanigans an amateur cartoonist of some talent who made posters depicting the regime's leaders as the ghoulish murderers they were and, more boldly, joined groups to paste these on city walls.

more here.

The Advanced Metrics of Attraction

John Allen Paulos in The New York Times:

JohnThe essayist Alain de Botton has been writing a great deal lately about crushes, those sudden infatuations aroused by the merest of stimuli — the way she subtly rolls her eyes at a blowhard’s pronouncements, her intentional dropping of a glass to attract a waiter’s attention, the way he casually uses his iPhone as a bookmark. In beautiful prose laden with examples, Mr. de Botton describes how attraction can cascade into exultation but, alas, gradually dissolve into disillusionment and a slow vanishing of the mirage. A crush is undeniable, he writes, but barely explicable. That assertion appealed to my own sometimes reductionist mind-set, and I realized that the bare bones of the thesis could be expressed in statistical terms. Let’s begin by imagining a person to be an assemblage of traits. Many are personal — our looks, habits, backgrounds, attitudes and so on. Many more are situational: how we behave in the myriad contexts in which we find ourselves. The first relevant statistical notion is sampling bias. If we want to gauge public feelings about more stringent gun control, for instance, we won’t get a random sample by asking only people at a shooting range. Likewise, a fleeting glimpse of someone, or a brief exchange with him or her, yields just a tiny sample of that person’s traits. But if we find that sample appealing, it can lead to a crush, even if it is based on nothing more than an idealized caricature: We see what we want to see. In the throes of incipient romantic fog, we use what the psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” calls System 1 thinking — “fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic and subconscious.”

The second relevant statistical notion is Bayes’s theorem, a mathematical proposition that tells us how to update our estimates of people, events and situations in the light of new evidence. A mathematical example: Three coins are before you. They look identical, but one is weighted so it lands on heads just one-fourth of the time; the second is a normal coin, so heads come up half the time; and the third has heads on both sides. Pick one of the coins at random. Since there are three coins, the probability that you chose the two-headed one is one-third. Now flip that coin three times. If it comes up heads all three times, you’ll very likely want to change your estimate of the probability that you chose the two-headed coin. Bayes’s theorem tells you how to calculate the new odds; in this case it says the probability that you chose the two-headed coin is now 87.7 percent, up from the initial 33.3 percent.

More here.

ISIS: The New Taliban

Ahmed Rashid in The New York Review of Books:

Isis-mosul_jpg_600x700_q85In the days since the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took control of much of northern Iraq, Western leaders and analysts have expressed alarm at what they have called a powerful new form of jihadism. Some have likened ISIS to a new al-Qaeda. Both assessments are wrong. In its rapid advance toward Baghdad, ISIS has already eliminated national boundaries between Iraq and Syria, captured significant arms and weapons caches, caused a spike in global oil prices, reinvigorated ethnic and sectarian conflict across the Arab world, and given Islamic extremism a dramatic new source of appeal among many young Muslims. On June 30, the first day of Ramadan, ISIS also declared that it was reestablishing the “Caliphate,” long an aspiration of other jihadist groups.

Yet despite these accomplishments, ISIS may not be as unusual as it has been described. Nor does it seem primarily interested in global jihad. In many ways, what the group is doing to Syria and Iraq resembles what the Taliban did in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the early 1990s. Like the Taliban, ISIS’s war so far has been about conquering territory rather than launching an al-Qaeda-style global jihad or issuing fatwas to bomb New York or London. Although it has attracted some three thousand foreigners to fight for it, ISIS’s real war is with fellow Muslims, and in particular Shias, against whom it has called for a genocidal campaign. Just as the Taliban changed the contours of Islam in south and central Asia so ISIS intends to do the same in the Middle East. ISIS is also seeking territorial control of the central Middle East region. There are several instructive parallels between the two groups. The hardcore forces of ISIS probably number fewer than 10,000 trained fighters; the Taliban never numbered more than 25,000 men—even at the height of the US surge when there were over 150,000 Western troops in Afghanistan and twice that many Afghan soldiers.

More here.

Caliphs as Entrepreneurs

by Ahmed Humayun

Abu-dua-time-100-featIslam has a new caliph, at least if the Iraq-based militant organization that calls itself the Islamic State is to be believed.* In what was touted to be his first public appearance, self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi spoke about the necessity for implementing Sharia and using war to defeat the enemies of God, the obligation incumbent upon all Muslims to choose a leader, and issued a call for Muslims to join the jihad under his tutelage. While Bin Laden was fond of holding forth wearing commando jackets in rugged terrain, Baghdadi wears resplendent black robes and delivers his incitement to war in the form of a Friday sermon from a grand and stately pulpit in a mosque in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

The media-savvy proclamation of Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi is not a response to popular grassroots clamor in the Muslim world. Nor should we overstate the success of the Islamic State – twenty thousand fighters, at the most, will not suffice to restore a transnational global caliphate. Polls conducted in different Muslim majority societies certainly indicate strong support for Islam in public life—and in particular, for the role of Islamic law in delivering justice and organizing society. Yet there is no indication that Muslims yearn for the return of the caliphate, an institution that was already moribund at the dawn of the 20th century before its abolition by Turkey in 1924.

As with any fledgling movement, militants assert their ideological claims to be natural and inevitable, rooted in history and justified by theology. The truth, however, is that there is little consensus among Muslims on the specific role that Islam should play in contemporary state and society. While this ambivalence has limited the moral and political resonance of militant proclamations, it has also created an opportunity to exploit the general ideological appeal of Islam. This is why militant ideology matters.

Yet we will have to look beyond religious debates in order to understand the growing strength of militant groups such as the Islamic State across large swathes of Muslim majority societies. A key factor has been the growing weakness of the political status quo and the perception of its illegitimacy for various reasons that might include failing authoritarianism, the corruption of ruling elites and the dysfunctional governance they impose, and the force of kinship bonds that disdain the boundaries of modern nationalisms.

Read more »

Monday Poem

In the beginning was the word —John 1:1


send me a poem that hunkers on haunches
watching for the day to begin, that waits
for the right word to come with the sun
during the last hours of the night-watch
when all are asleep except the watcher
and there is still rustling in the underbrush,
the wordless sounds of something moving in the dark,
in the raw underpinning of the day,
in the interval between now and now,
at the birth of light, at the end of night
send me a poem that does not lie
that does not yield, but does not smite

by Jim Culleny

Science: the Quest for Symmetry

by Yohan J. John

Attitudes toward science in the public sphere occupy an interesting spectrum. At one extreme there are the cheerleaders — those who seem to think that science is the disembodied spirit of progress itself, and will usher us into a brave new world of technological transcendence, in which we will merge with machines and upload our minds to the cloud. At the other extreme there is decidedly less exuberance. Science in its destructive avatar is often called scientism, and is seen as a hegemonic threat to religions and to the humanities, an imperial colonizer of the mind itself.

The successes of science give the impression that it has no limitations, either in outer space or inner space. But this attitude attributes to science somewhat magical powers. The discourse surrounding science might benefit from an awareness that its successes are closely tied to its limitations. The relationship between scientists and the rest of society needs mutual understanding and constructive criticism, rather than a volatile mix of reverence, fear, and mistrust. The veil of the temple of knowledge must be torn in two — or at least lifted up from time-to-time.

To this end, it might be illuminating to see scientific ideas as tools forged in workshops, rather than spells divined by wizards in ivory towers. The tool metaphor also reminds us that science is not merely an outgrowth of western philosophy — it is also the result of the painstaking work of “miners, midwives and low mechanicks” whose names rarely feature in the annals of Great Men. [1]

So what sort of toolbox is science? I'd like to argue that it's a set of lenses. These lenses allow us to magnify and clarify our perceptions of natural phenomena, setting the stage for deeper understanding. The lenses of science reveal the symmetries of nature, so we might call them the Symmetry Spectacles. The Symmetry Spectacles are normally worn by mathematicians and theoretical physicists, but I think that even laypeople interested in science might find that the world looks quite interesting when viewed through them.


So what is symmetry? Most people have an intuitive sense of what symmetry is. Symmetry connotes evenness, or balanced sameness. An asymmetrical object is skewed, off-balance, and uneven. It is easy to grasp that a scalene triangle is asymmetrical, whereas an isosceles triangle is symmetrical. To many people an equilateral triangle seems even more symmetrical than an isosceles triangle. The goal of a formal approach is to make explicit our intuitions about symmetry. Mathematicians and theoretical physicists define symmetry as follows:

Symmetry is immunity to a possible change.

How can we apply this notion of symmetry to the scalene, isosceles and equilateral triangles?

Read more »

A Thought Experiment, and One (or More) Earnest Questions

by Debra Morris

Asr-cover2010Imagine flipping through a copy of the academic journal Sociology and Social Research. One article in particular—”Our Schizoid Culture”—catches your eye. The author is well-known: a professor of sociology, soon-to-be editor-in-chief of the American Sociological Review, and, in something of a blow to “two cultures” thinking, future poetry editor for the Humanist magazine. Certainly you could quibble with a number of statements, and some of them seem so wide-ranging as to be inarguable, but in general you share the author's dismay at the “great deal of irrational, contradictory behavior” within contemporary American culture. You agree: “When an individual exhibits similar symptoms, the psychiatrist calls him neurotic, or if he lacks ‘insight' into his difficulties, psychotic.” This is what accounts for, and in your mind fully justifies, the article's tone: honest, emphatic, no-nonsense, but also deeply attuned to ordinary pain and suffering—quite unlike the academic caviling to which you're accustomed. Yes, someone needs to say it: in many domains of life our culture is so confused, so riven, as to be quite, well, unwell. Really, all politics aside, it would be hard to argue with any of this:

We praise competition, but practice merger and monopoly…. We praise business organization but condemn and prevent labor organization…. We give heavier and more certain sentences to bank robbers than to bank wreckers. We boast of business ethics but we give power and prestige to business [disruptors]…. Everybody is equal before the law, except … women, immigrants, poor people.… We ridicule politicians in general but honor all officeholders in particular and most of us would like to be elected to something ourselves. We think of voting as the basis of democracy, but … seldom find more than fifty per cent of eligible voters actually registering their ‘will.'… Democracy is one of our most cherished ideals, but we speak of upper and lower classes, ‘look down on' many useful occupations, trace our genealogies…. We believe in the brotherhood of man, but we are full of racial, religious, economic, and numerous other prejudices and invidious distinctions. We value equality, but tolerate greater inequality of wealth and income than has ever existed in any other society…. We drape nude statues and suppress noble books…. We try to foster participative recreation, but most of it is passive, much of it vicious, and almost all of it flagrantly commercialized…. This is the age of science, but there is more belief in miracles, spirits, occultism, and providences than one would think possible…. Our scientific system produces a specialism that gives great prestige and great technical skill, but not always great wisdom…. The very triumphs of science produce an irrational, magic-minded faith in science….

Realize, now, that the article was written in 1935. The author was Read Bain, professor of sociology at Miami University in Ohio. As a founding editor of the American Sociological Review, he would become embroiled in early disputes between the “scientists” and “humanists” in his own discipline. He was thus involved in theorizing—and, in that spontaneous way of so many early- to mid-20th-century American academics—practicing in the mode of a “public intellectual,” that figure who today, apparently, is nowhere to be found.[i] In terms of Bain's analysis as synopsized above, and even more to the point, in terms of the social critique it so earnestly propounds, what struck me when first reading it was how contemporary it sounded and how apt its reproaches were.

Read more »


by Lisa Lieberman

As a break from the seriously depressing topics I’ve been writing about lately, and in honor of Bastille Day, I offer this tribute to French gangster films.

First off, you need the fedora. The gangster accessory de rigueur, Muni Scarface it was already iconic by the time Paul Muni popularized the look in Scarface (1932). Al Capone, Clyde Barrow, John Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly were all photographed wearing one. Baby Face Nelson was astute enough to recognize the souvenir value of his trademark fedora, bartering it for food and a place to hide after a botched bank job.

By the time Bogey donned one to play ‘Bugs' Fenner alongside Edward G. Robinson in Bullets or Ballots (1936), it was a bit passé. Robinson, you will note, sports a derby, signaling his authority over his fedora-wearing lackeys. (That's Bogey on the right, with the gun.) Bullets Fedoras

Leave it to the French to reinvent the gangster look and give it panache. In Pépé le Moko (1937), Jean Gabin wears the hat, but he adds a gallic touch: a silk scarf. Gabin's character has style—something his American counterparts lacked—but more importantly, he's got heart. Love will be his undoing, and we're not talking about a fling with some cheap, two-timing dame. We're talking epic love, the kind of love that inspires poetry and songs. Ah, l'amour.

Director Julien Duvivier gives us a tragic hero in the classical tradition Le Moko 2who is the victim of fate. Pépé is wanted in France for various crimes. He's been hiding out in the Casbah of Algiers for two years, sheltered by the local inhabitants who will take any opportunity to defy the colonial authorities. He may be king of the Algerian underworld, but exile has turned bitter for Pépé, whose longing for Paris recalls Ovid's lament in the Tristia: “Say that I died when I lost my native land.” Here we see him looking mournfully out over the rooftops of the Casbah to the sea, toward France and freedom, both of which elude him.

Read more »



by Rafiq Kathwari

My sister-in-law and I sat in the back seat of the Volkswagen as my older brother drove

in desperate rain through red lights to Maimonides. “Kicking,” she said, putting my

hand over her round belly. Shy, I lowered my gaze to her flip-flops on the car floor. She

gave birth to a son in Brooklyn eight years to the day JFK was shot in Dallas. A new

alien in New York, I babysat my cute nephew in a stark rental on Park Avenue in

Yorkville, with a view of Gimbels, now a long extinct department store. His dad rode the

IRT to work on Pine Street; his mom was a salesperson in Herald Square at Korvettes

another extinct store. The boy and I both discovered Big Bird on a Zenith console, my

first TV exposure at age 22. Our Park Avenue closets were stocked with handmade

Numdah rugs Grandfather had shipped from our ancestral home, Kashmir, hoping we’d

become rich fast carpeting America from sea to shining sea. I watched him dunk hoops

in Perturbia, his long hair swishing to Metallica, “Soldier boy, made of clay.” He hunted

jackrabbits at the family farm upstate, where he signed up at the local NRA, his dad’s

rifle on the boy’s shoulder. He scaled a peak one summer in Kashmir, the knotty dispute

forever a passionate subject at the dining table, sweetened often by ice cream after the

dishes were washed, and reruns of All In The Family wrapped up Prime Time. He

praised Allah at the Islamic Center Sunday School on California Road to which I once

gave a brand name vacuum cleaner that failed to suck up the holier-than-thou Talibs.

Allah alone knows what seeds they sowed in his receptive mind for he made his little

sister weep, shaming her for wearing leotards to her ballet class. She loved ballet classes,

and she always looked up to her big brother. He persuaded his dad to stop serving liquor

to guests, and he made his parents proud calling out the Call to Prayer at an annual apple

picking at the farm, an odd religious intrusion that on a crisp Fall day made me feel sad,

because I like my cider with a splash of vodka.

Read more »

The obstaclean theory of matter

by Charlie Huenemann

Obstacle_rock.jpg.scaled500Denying the existence of the material world never goes down well. No matter how clever and compelling the arguments, most of us want to insist that matter exists – and as our insistence becomes more vehement, we start pounding tables, as if that will impress our interlocutors.

Time and again over the years, I have tried selling idealism to students through George Berkeley's arguments. “You know, all you ever experience are perspectives of the world, right? So what idea can you possibly have of a world existing in itself, independently of any perspective? None, of course. So why not dispense with it, and just believe in perspectives that are coordinated with one another?” No dice. They are unmoved.

And I have also tried the more Greco-Germanic route. “You know, the more we strive to understand the physical world around us, the more we end up expressing the world in mathematical structures and relations. So why not think of the world as a set of mathematical structures, and forget about the alleged 'matter' that is supposed to instantiate those structures?” Again, blank stares (thought perhaps it is because I used the word “instantiate”).

In any case, most of us feel a deep need to assert the reality of the material world. Indeed, some of us sneer at the idea of trying to go without it. “Good luck crossing the street,” some may advise a would-be idealist. “The cars might not share your philosophy.” But I wonder – what is behind this deep need? What does the idea of “matter” do for us to earn such dedication on our part?

The more I have thought about it, the more I am drawn to an “obstaclean” theory of matter. To put the theory as simply as possible: matter is ultimately stuff that gets in our way. Material objects are obstacles, pure and simple. We might want this or that, and so we embark upon some plan, but then – wham! Something gets in our way. We didn't plan for that, and we certainly didn't want it. It's there independently, on its own. That's what matter does. That's what matter is. It is the sh*t that gets in our way.

Read more »

Germany Wins, World Cup Justice Is Served

Tunku Varadarajan in The Daily Beast:

ScreenHunter_721 Jul. 14 07.20Mario Götze has the face of a choirboy and the sort of wispy fuzz on his chin that would be derided as “bum fluff” in an unforgiving schoolyard. He also has venom in his striker’s boots, venom with which he delivered death to Argentina in the World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro.

We had had a captivating but goalless 90 minutes of regulation play and were in the game’s supplementary phase. Andre Schürrle, Germany’s winger, ran down Argentina’s left flank and looped a luscious pass to Götze in the 23rd minute of extra time. Götze, the German center-forward, had made his way into a scoring position behind a scrum of defenders, and what he did next was balletic and ruthless: He let the ball come on to his chest, which was tensed to receive it but soft enough to drop the ball to his feet; and as the ball descended, the pace of Schürrle’s pass having been taken off it, Götze whipped it into the Argentine goal. Germany led 1-0. Minutes later, it had won, 1-0.

Let us pause, here, for a taste of numbers: Until Götze’s goal, scored with just over six minutes left on the clock, Argentina had not conceded for 457 minutes of play. That is an astonishing spell of impregnability, one that looked set to last through to a penalty shoot-out tonight.

More here.

How Politics and Lies Triggered an Unintended War in Gaza

J. J. Goldberg in Forward:

W.gazajjgoldberg-070914In the flood of angry words that poured out of Israel and Gaza during a week of spiraling violence, few statements were more blunt, or more telling, than this throwaway line by the chief spokesman of the Israeli military, Brigadier General Moti Almoz, speaking July 8 on Army Radio’s morning show: “We have been instructed by the political echelon to hit Hamas hard.”

That’s unusual language for a military mouthpiece. Typically they spout lines like “We will take all necessary actions” or “The state of Israel will defend its citizens.” You don’t expect to hear: “This is the politicians’ idea. They’re making us do it.”

Admittedly, demurrals on government policy by Israel’s top defense brass, once virtually unthinkable, have become almost routine in the Netanyahu era. Usually, though, there’s some measure of subtlety or discretion. This particular interview was different. Where most disagreements involve policies that might eventually lead to some future unnecessary war, this one was about an unnecessary war they were now stumbling into.

Spokesmen don’t speak for themselves. Almoz was expressing a frustration that was building in the army command for nearly a month, since the June 12 kidnapping of three Israeli yeshiva boys. The crime set off a chain of events in which Israel gradually lost control of the situation, finally ending up on the brink of a war that nobody wanted — not the army, not the government, not even the enemy, Hamas.

More here.

Whisper it softly: it’s OK to like Germany

Stewart Wood in The Guardian:

Germanys-Bastian-Schweins-011Something strange is stirring in Britain this weekend. It's the sound of Brits being nice about Germany. In tonight's World Cup final in Rio, Germany face Argentina at the end of the most memorable tournament in my lifetime. And it seems pretty clear that, for many of us, Germany is the team we will be cheering. A cynic might say this is just because dislike for Argentina exceeds that for Germany. But that's not what is going on. Germany's football in Brazil (and especially against Brazil) has been exceptional. Wanting Germany to win is based on wanting the best team in the tournament to win.

Dip into the weekend papers, the blogosphere & the musings of the twitterati, and you'll see multiple variants on a similar sentiment: “I can't quite believe it, and I never thought this would happen, but I find myself supporting Germany. Fancy that!”

Usually our praise for German football is similar to our praise for Germans in other spheres of life where they lead the world. We cloak it in begrudging virtues: “efficient”, “clinical”, “ruthless”. Germans are applauded in the language we use to describe well-functioning inanimate objects, such as Mercedes cars, or Miele dishwashers. And characteristics of good cars and dishwashers are, by implication, characteristics of people that you admire in a slightly resentful way.

So we are impressed with Germany, but we don't have any particular affection for it or its people. We have respect for Germany, but we don't want to spend much time there. We applaud Germans' economic success, but we resent their dominance of the European Union. We make lots of jokes at their expense, but we say they have no sense of humour.

More here.

The problem of Richard Feynman


Via Jennifer Ouellette, Matthew R. Francis in Galileo's Pendulum:

Feynman stories that get passed around physics departments aren’t usually about science, though. They’re about his safecracking, his antics, his refusal to wear neckties, his bongos, his rejection of authority, his sexual predation on vulnerable women. Admittedly, that last one isn’t usually spelled out so blatantly. It’s usually framed as “oh, times were different” or “that was just Feynman being himself” or (if the person was at leasttrying to not to let the behavior slide) “he was a flawed human being”. Some simply ignore that side of him entirely. Some will pull out the admirable example of his encouragement of Joan Feynman, his sister, as proof that he couldn’t truly harbor horrible attitudes about women.

The problem is that the facts are against any excuses. Feynman pretended to be an undergraduate to get young women to sleep with him. He targeted the wives of male grad students. He went to bars and practiced a technique that isn’t so different from the reprehensible “game” of the pick-up artists (PUAs).[1] This is all public record, including anecdotes in his own words from his sorta-memoirs Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman and What Do You Care What Other People Think?[2]

At Boing Boing, Maggie Koerth-Baker quoted from an infamous passage where Feynman describes the evolution of his thinking on disrespecting women. (For an even longer quote, see this one at the Restructure! blog.) Not only did he think this way, he also considered it important enough to describe in detail for his memoirs several decades after the events in question, and not to repudiate it either. As Koerth-Baker says,

To Feynman’s credit, he seems to decide this isn’t something he wants to keep doing. But he never seems to get what was really wrong with the idea and it’s frustrating that he seems to get close to the realization that you can (le gasp!) just treat women like humans, only to swish past it and end up in a pit of vile crap.

He evidently considered it an important part of his life’s story.

And let’s face it: Feynman frequently unkind toward men too. In his memoirs, he tends to spin things to make himself into the smartest one in the room, and to make even his friends look like losers by comparison. Excessive self-deprecation is one thing, but it seems a trifle unfair to take potshots at friends in a medium where they can’t defend themselves.

In my best behavior, I am really just like him
Look underneath my floorboards for the secrets I have hid.

So wrote Sufjan Stevens in his powerful and creepy song “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” While I think Stevens is going for a quasi-Calvinist perspective on human nature — we’re all so fundamentally screwed up that the difference between an ordinary singer and a serial killer is small — the point that we all harbor secrets is a valid one. Feynman’s life — both the bad and good — are more public knowledge than hopefully most of ours will ever be.

More here.