The Source of Bad Writing

Steven Pinker in the Wall Street Journal:

BN-ES328_writin_G_20140925111406Why is so much writing so bad? Why is it so hard to understand a government form, or an academic article or the instructions for setting up a wireless home network?

The most popular explanation is that opaque prose is a deliberate choice. Bureaucrats insist on gibberish to cover their anatomy. Plaid-clad tech writers get their revenge on the jocks who kicked sand in their faces and the girls who turned them down for dates. Pseudo-intellectuals spout obscure verbiage to hide the fact that they have nothing to say, hoping to bamboozle their audiences with highfalutin gobbledygook.

But the bamboozlement theory makes it too easy to demonize other people while letting ourselves off the hook. In explaining any human shortcoming, the first tool I reach for is Hanlon's Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. The kind of stupidity I have in mind has nothing to do with ignorance or low IQ; in fact, it's often the brightest and best informed who suffer the most from it.

I once attended a lecture on biology addressed to a large general audience at a conference on technology, entertainment and design. The lecture was also being filmed for distribution over the Internet to millions of other laypeople. The speaker was an eminent biologist who had been invited to explain his recent breakthrough in the structure of DNA. He launched into a jargon-packed technical presentation that was geared to his fellow molecular biologists, and it was immediately apparent to everyone in the room that none of them understood a word and he was wasting their time. Apparent to everyone, that is, except the eminent biologist. When the host interrupted and asked him to explain the work more clearly, he seemed genuinely surprised and not a little annoyed. This is the kind of stupidity I am talking about.

Call it the Curse of Knowledge: a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.

More here.

Scottish independence would have been good for Britain too

Thomas Wells in The Philosopher's Beard:

20131109_LDP001_0The Scots have made their choice. The British Union will continue. I can understand their hesitancy, their decision to opt for security and an assured place in something that more or less works, rather than to seize their freedom. Especially under the onslaught of love bombing and scaremongering that characterised the last weeks of the No campaign. Under the circumstances, declining independence was a reasonable choice to make. It was moreover the sovereign act of a nation that firmly establishes its right to revisit that choice in future.

As an Englisher though, my interest in the Scottish referendum goes beyond the perspective of the Scots. I was concerned with how Scottish independence might affect Britain as a whole. Not that much it seemed at first. 5 million people and a couple of large cities leaving is not an existential challenge. Losing the labour MPs from Scotland would have meant another decade or more of Tory governments, which would have been unpleasant but not intolerable.

The really significant consequences of Scottish independence, I came to realise, concerned political psychology. I was assisted to this realisation by the histrionic rhetoric of The Economist in defence of the Union.

The Economist's editors were particularly concerned with Britain's international stature: “The rump of Britain would be diminished in every international forum: why should anyone heed a country whose own people shun it?”

Why indeed. I agree with The Economist that Scottish independence would have taken the Great out of Britain. But I think that would have been a good thing!

More here.

The Myth of Religious Violence

Karen Armstrong in The Guardian:

5192edde-2c49-46eb-9878-32b6feb835ae-1020x612The ferocious cruelty of these jihadist fighters, quoting the Qur’an as they behead their hapless victims, raises another distinctly modern concern: the connection between religion and violence. The atrocities of Isis would seem to prove that Sam Harris, one of the loudest voices of the “New Atheism”, was right to claim that “most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith”, and to conclude that “religion itself produces a perverse solidarity that we must find some way to undercut”. Many will agree with Richard Dawkins, who wrote in The God Delusion that “only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness in otherwise sane and decent people”. Even those who find these statements too extreme may still believe, instinctively, that there is a violent essence inherent in religion, which inevitably radicalises any conflict – because once combatants are convinced that God is on their side, compromise becomes impossible and cruelty knows no bounds…

But perhaps we should ask, instead, how it came about that we in the west developed our view of religion as a purely private pursuit, essentially separate from all other human activities, and especially distinct from politics. After all, warfare and violence have always been a feature of political life, and yet we alone drew the conclusion that separating the church from the state was a prerequisite for peace. Secularism has become so natural to us that we assume it emerged organically, as a necessary condition of any society’s progress into modernity. Yet it was in fact a distinct creation, which arose as a result of a peculiar concatenation of historical circumstances; we may be mistaken to assume that it would evolve in the same fashion in every culture in every part of the world.

We now take the secular state so much for granted that it is hard for us to appreciate its novelty, since before the modern period, there were no “secular” institutions and no “secular” states in our sense of the word. Their creation required the development of an entirely different understanding of religion, one that was unique to the modern west. No other culture has had anything remotely like it, and before the 18th century, it would have been incomprehensible even to European Catholics. The words in other languages that we translate as “religion” invariably refer to something vaguer, larger and more inclusive. The Arabic worddin signifies an entire way of life, and the Sanskrit dharma covers law, politics, and social institutions as well as piety. The Hebrew Bible has no abstract concept of “religion”; and the Talmudic rabbis would have found it impossible to define faith in a single word or formula, because the Talmud was expressly designed to bring the whole of human life into the ambit of the sacred. The Oxford Classical Dictionary firmly states: “No word in either Greek or Latin corresponds to the English ‘religion’ or ‘religious’.” In fact, the only tradition that satisfies the modern western criterion of religion as a purely private pursuit is Protestant Christianity, which, like our western view of “religion”, was also a creation of the early modern period.

Traditional spirituality did not urge people to retreat from political activity. The prophets of Israel had harsh words for those who assiduously observed the temple rituals but neglected the plight of the poor and oppressed. Jesus’s famous maxim to “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” was not a plea for the separation of religion and politics. Nearly all the uprisings against Rome in first-century Palestine were inspired by the conviction that the Land of Israel and its produce belonged to God, so that there was, therefore, precious little to “give back” to Caesar. When Jesus overturned the money-changers’ tables in the temple, he was not demanding a more spiritualised religion. For 500 years, the temple had been an instrument of imperial control and the tribute for Rome was stored there. Hence for Jesus it was a “den of thieves”. The bedrock message of the Qur’an is that it is wrong to build a private fortune but good to share your wealth in order to create a just, egalitarian and decent society. Gandhi would have agreed that these were matters of sacred import: “Those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.”

Read more here.

Bodyslamming for Jesus: Inside the Bizarre World of Christian Wrestling

Harmon Leon in AlterNet:

Christian_wrestlingThe Christian Wrestling Federation bodyslams for Jesus—literally. On the surface, the CWF looks like a normal WWE wrestling event, with costumed characters jumping from the ropes and wrestlers being hit in the back of the head with chairs. Sometimes there’s blood. Sometimes there’s an elbow to the thorax. Except, these violent wrestling moves are all done for the love of Jesus Christ and to save souls. Welcome to the world of the Christian Wrestling Federation. Like a “sleeper hold” from above, for the past 14 years, the Dallas-based religious grappling group has performed more than 600 events, in 34 states, and has seen over 25,000 people giving their lives to Christ, while simultaneously enjoying the benefits and thrills of professional wrestling.

…In the non-ironic words of the Christian Wrestling Federation, their goal is, “To be a Christian outreach ministry that shares the love of Jesus Christ, through wrestling events around the world.” Sure, giving someone the Guillotine Maneuver or Sleeper Hold in front of a crowd of screaming fans doesn’t seem very Christ-centric, but the CWD can explain. According to their website, “The Bible says we are to use unique and different ways to reach people for Christ. This is what the CWF is all about… reaching people in a unique way. With wrestling’s popularity at an all-time high, many people can be reached, and in turn, our goal is to convert them to Christ’s love. The focus of the CWF is to win souls for Christ. Our passion is seeing the lost become saved. The CWF is committed to anything we can do to honor Christ and the local church.” “There were men in the Bible who dressed up in loincloths and ran through the marketplace all in the name of Christ, ‘Look at me! Look at me! I look crazy, I look freaky,’” explains Rob Adonis, a Christian wrestler who runs events in Georgia. “But now you’re listening to me so I’m going to give you some Jesus. Our philosophy is to get them in here. Do whatever you got to do and give them the truth. Give them the truth and the truth will set them free, you know, that’s our goal.”

More here.

Ticking Time Bomb

Jess Row in The New York Times:

RowAmong people who routinely deal with violence, pain, cruelty and injustice — ­domestic violence counselors, aid ­workers, paramedics, public defenders, immigrant advocates — there’s a phenomenon known as secondary trauma. It’s also sometimes called vicarious trauma, or empathic strain. In her book, “Trauma Stewardship,” Laura van Dernoot ­Lipsky, a former social worker, defines it as being unable to live with the knowledge that, despite our best efforts, most of the world’s suffering goes “unnoticed and unattended.” “Still,” she writes, “people who are working to help those who suffer . . . must somehow reconcile their own joy — the authentic wonder and delight in life — with the irrefutable fact of suffering in the world.” Though Lipsky probably wouldn’t embrace the comparison, I want to take the risk of offense and say that this sentence applies almost equally well to many contemporary Pakistani novelists. Pakistan is a country where the fact of suffering is indeed irrefutable, whether we’re speaking of the horrific treatment of women and religious minorities, the use of terrorism — both insurgent and state-sponsored — as a tool of political strategy or simply the persistence of the most extreme poverty in a country that wastes billions on a state of perpetual war. From novelists in such a climate you might expect a response of escapism, or simply escape, but consider, for example, Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif, Nadeem Aslam, Kamila Shamsie: What unites these very different writers is a stubborn insistence on, in Lipsky’s words, the reconciliation of joy and suffering in the texture of everyday life.

Bilal Tanweer is another such stubborn Pakistani writer, and in “The Scatter Here Is Too Great” he takes the question of reconciliation head-on, as subject and as method. This is a collection of fragments — not quite short stories, not quite chapters — that assemble into a partial, and highly idiosyncratic, portrait of a bombing at a railway station in Karachi, told from the perspective of witnesses, victims, family members, friends, associates, lovers. The exact target and intent of the bombing, and the identity of the perpetrators, are not given, and although there are a few graphic descriptions of the horror of the event — “A man tears away from another burning car with a large scrap of metal sunk into the back of his shoulder. He’s screaming but his screams barely reach you” — the focus again and again shifts away from the scene of death to the daily struggles, fantasies and resentments of the living. Immersed in the story of a young boy whose older sister’s illicit boyfriend is a victim of the bombing — that is, three degrees removed from the actual event — we forget, temporarily, about the chaos and clamor and horror of Karachi and grieve instead for the three baby chicks given to the boy as presents, which he kills, unwittingly, and buries in a flowerpot.

More here.

Saturday Poem


When I leave you I turn to stone
and when I come back I turn to stone

I name you Medusa
I name you the older sister of Sodom and Gomorrah
you the baptismal basin that burned Rome

The murdered hum their poems on the hills
and the rebels reproach the tellers of their stories
while I leave the sea behind and come back
to you, come back
by this small river that flows in your despair

I hear the reciters of the Quran and the shrouders of corpses
I hear the dust of the condolers
I am not yet thirty, but you buried me, time and again
and each time, for your sake
I emerge from the earth
So let those who sing your praises go to hell
those who sell souvenirs of your pain
all those who are standing with me, now, in the picture

I name you Medusa
I name you the older sister of Sodom and Gomorrah
you the baptismal basin that still burns

When I leave you I turn to stone
When I come back I turn to stone

by Najwan Darwish
translation: Kareem James Abu-Zeid
from Poetry International Web

The Contradiction of Nuclear Democracy: An interview with Elaine Scarry

Simon Waxman in the Boston Review:

ScreenHunter_813 Sep. 27 11.48This is the anniversary of “the day the world almost died.” On September 26, 1983, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov was bunkered near Moscow, monitoring readings from the Soviet nuclear early warning satellite Oko, when he received an alert of impending U.S. nuclear attack. But he judged the warning a false alarm and chose not to notify his superiors, who, operating under the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, may have been compelled to respond in kind. Petrov was right; the United States had made no attack. The system had malfunctioned, but catastrophe was averted.

Last year, on the thirtieth anniversary, the United Nations held high-level disarmament talks. Now the body has declared September 26 the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.

But while many share this aspiration, nuclear weapons have remained a stubborn feature of our lives. Though Barack Obama made arms reduction an early centerpiece of his presidency, and won a Nobel Peace Prize partially on the strength of his “vision of a world free from nuclear arms,” the United States is plowing money into upgrades of the nuclear arsenal. Annual spending on nuclear weapons is now greater than at any time during the Cold War.

But nuclear weapons haven’t been used since 1945. Is the persistence of the arsenal really a problem?

Philosopher and Boston Review contributor Elaine Scarry believes it is. Earlier this year she published Thermonuclear Monarchy, a book that continues her arguments about the corrupting effects of unaccountable executive power, particularly in the realm of national security. Scarry contends that because nuclear weapons make citizen control of military force impossible, maintaining a nuclear arsenal is fundamentally anti-democratic. To be a nuclear-armed state is to invest the executive with dictatorial powers over immeasurable destructive capacity.

More here.

A Private Tour of the CIA’s Incredible Museum

Inside the agency's headquarters is a museum filled with relics from half a century of cloak-and-dagger exploits.

David Wise in Smithsonian Magazine:

ScreenHunter_811 Sep. 26 17.29A chill wind whipped off the Warnow as a retired railroad worker shuffled through the streets of the port city of Rostock one winter night in 1956. He wore the drab clothes typical of East German residents. But when a second man appeared from the shadows, the elderly German revealed that he was wearing a pair of distinctive gold cuff links embossed with the helmet of the Greek goddess Athena and a small sword.

The second man wore an identical pair. Wordlessly, he handed the German a package of documents and retreated back into the shadows. The German caught a train for East Berlin, where he handed the package and the cuff links to a CIA courier. The courier smuggled them to the agency’s base in West Berlin—to George Kisevalter, who was on his way to becoming a legendary CIA case officer.

The man who retreated back into the shadows was Lt. Col. Pyotr Semyonovich Popov, an officer of the GRU, the Soviet military intelligence agency. Three years earlier, Popov had dropped a note into an American diplomat’s car in Vienna saying, “I am a Soviet officer. I wish to meet with an American officer with the object of offering certain services.” He was the CIA’s first Soviet mole, and Kisevalter was his handler. Popov became one of the CIA’s most important sources through the 1950s, turning over a trove of Soviet military secrets that included biographical details on 258 of his fellow GRU officers.

It was Kisevalter who had decided on the cuff links as a recognition signal. He gave them to Popov before Moscow recalled the GRU officer in 1955, along with instructions: If Popov ever made it out of the USSR again and renewed contact with the CIA, whoever the agency sent to meet him would wear a matching set to establish his bona fides.

More here.

Why Am I Brown? South Asian Fiction and Pandering to Western Audiences

Jabeen Akhtar in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

Welcome-to-Americastan-243x366I once took a guy I was dating to lunch at an Indian restaurant. I was trying to get him to go vegan, and there is no bigger hedonistic ritual for vegans than the weekend Indian lunch buffet, a guaranteed plethora of plant-based dishes that have been feeding Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists for centuries. We feast on curry, rice, naan, and sometimes that sketchy cubed melon, and sink into the stuffed plastic benches with heavy Bacchus bellies, hiccupping fiery chutney back into our throats (it hurts!) and forcing ourselves into Round 2 and 3 to get our money’s worth.

My date and I got in line, and his colorfully tatted arm handed me a warm plate. We stood behind a flock of sorority girls, patiently waddling toward the buffet items, passing over the meat but hovering above the vegetables. Even here, I was primed to ignore the standard korma dish, knowing it was heavy on dairy, and the spinach and paneer cheese. But as I scanned the steaming metal tins twice over, I grabbed my date’s plate away.

“Wait,” I said. “Nothing here’s vegan. This isn’t normal.”

“Well, maybe it is, and you just don’t know it, cause you’re from Pakistan,” he winked.

If I wasn’t so hungry and annoyed by the lack of buffet options, I might have thought my Caucasian date’s attempt at demonstrating he could distinguish between India and Pakistan was cute, even admirable. Instead, I started counting. Out of the 18 dishes offered, only one, the eggplant, was vegan.

More here.

Angkor’s Children

“Angkor’s Children” is a story of hope and determination in the face of horror, the horror of war and of the ‘Khmer Rouge time’ in Cambodia. Along with the numberless lives lost, there was a very real possibility that a centuries-old culture (and culture is what makes people, individuals, into a People) would die with them, that a nation would no longer know itself. “Angkor’s Children” tells how and why it hasn’t been allowed to die, and how traditional arts can revive, come to terms with modern life, and thrive. It’s a heartening example of the irrepressible will to live. I recommend it. — Sam Waterston, Actor

The Jihadis Return: Isil and the New Sunni Uprising

Peter Oborne in The Telegraph:

Isil_3051328bAs British politicians take the decision whether to bomb Iraq yet again, Patrick Cockburn has produced the first history of the rise of the Islamic State or Isil. No one is better equipped for this task. Cockburn, one of our greatest war correspondents, has charted the Iraqi insurrection and the Syrian civil war. His book makes compelling reading. He traces the roots of the Islamic State to the Western invasion of Iraq 11 years ago, when Saddam’s army was disbanded by its American conquerors. With nowhere else to go, some joined forces with al-Qaeda in a brutal rebellion against what they saw as a foreign occupation. AQI (al-Qaeda in Iraq) was defeated by General Petraeus’s “surge” of 2008, but this partial victory was not consolidated. When the Americans left Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki led a Shia administration that made no serious attempt to bring the Sunnis into government. The marginalisation of the Sunni tribes might have had limited consequences but for the Syrian insurrection, which started in the summer of 2011. This insurgency was backed by the West, but militants soon took over the fighting, controlling tracts of eastern Syria and western Iraq. National borders were effectively abolished.

In this powerful book, Cockburn shows how a series of errors by the United States and its Western allies created the conditions for the rise of Isil. First, the 2003 invasion of Iraq left behind a disenfranchised and embittered Sunni minority. Second, Western sponsorship of the Syrian insurrection created the perfect playground for Baghdadi’s bloodthirsty warriors. Cockburn shows that Western intelligence agencies were heavily involved at every level. However they appear to have been clueless about what was really happening.

More here.

A chip that can simulate a tumor’s ‘microenvironment’

From KurzweilAI:

T-MOCPurdue University researchers have developed a chip capable of simulating a tumor’s “microenvironment” to test the effectiveness of nanoparticles and drugs that target cancer. The new tumor-microenvironment-on-chip (T-MOC) will allow researchers to study the complex environment surrounding tumors and the barriers that prevent targeted delivery of therapeutic agents, said Bumsoo Han, a Purdue associate professor of mechanical engineering. Researchers are trying to perfect “targeted delivery” methods using various agents, including an assortment of tiny nanometer-size structures, to selectively attack tumor tissue. The endothelial cells that make up healthy blood vessels are well organized and have small pores in the tight junctions between them. So one approach is to design nanoparticles that are small enough to pass through pores in the blood vessels surrounding tumors but too large to pass though the pores of vessels in healthy tissue. The problem: the endothelial cells in blood vessels around tumors are irregular and misshapen, with larger pores in the gaps between the cells. “It was thought that if nanoparticles were designed to be the right size they could selectively move toward only the tumor,” Han said. But the pressure of “interstitial fluid” inside tumors is greater than that of surrounding healthy tissue. This greater pressure pushes out most drug-delivery and imaging agents, with only a small percentage of them reaching the target tumor.

Now, new research findings suggest that the T-MOC system is capable of simulating the complex environment around tumors and providing detailed information about how nanoparticles move through this environment. Such information could aid efforts to perfect targeted delivery methods. The findings are detailed in a research paper appearing online this month and will be published in a print edition of the Journal of Controlled Release in November. The T-MOC chip is about 4.5 centimeters (1.8 inches) square and contains “microfluidic” channels where tumor cells and endothelial cells are cultured. The chip also incorporates extracellular matrix – a spongy, scaffold-like material made of collagen found between cells in living tissue.

More here.

Isaiah Berlin, Pasternak, and the Zhivago story

Ston05_3618_04Frances Stonor Saunders at the London Review of Books:

‘Zhivago’, in the pre-revolutionary genitive case, means ‘the living one’. On the novel’s first page a hearse is being followed to the grave. ‘Whom are you burying?’ the mourners are asked. ‘Zhivago’ is the reply, punningly suggesting ‘him who is living’. After his first reading of the draft early chapters, at the British Embassy in Moscow in 1945, Berlin felt that he had seen a flare sent up from the survivor of a cataclysm. Swept away by the novel’s defiant personal claim for the indomitable Russian soul, he was sure that Bolshevism’s systematic programme of turning Russia away from Western civilisation couldn’t be completed as long as such writing existed. Before leaving his diplomatic post, he turned in a long memorandum – what he called, misleadingly, a ‘rambling discourse on the Russian writers’ – containing extended resumés of his meetings with Pasternak, Akhmatova, Chukovsky and others. It was a founding text of the Kulturkampf, as important in its way as George Kennan’s Long Telegram (also written in 1946) was to the shaping of the political Cold War. In a letter accompanying the report, Berlin requested that it be treated as ‘confidential’ because of ‘the well-known consequences to the possible sources of the information contained in it, should its existence ever become known to “them”’.

We’ll call this next chapter in the novel of the novel ‘The Alphabet Men’. It’s the bit where the CIA, MI6 and their little helpers at the FO, IRD, BBC, IOD, SRD, CCF, RFE, RL, VOA and BVD process the purloined microfilm of the Russian text into ‘combat material’ for the Cold War.

more here.

Friday Poem

Cockspur Bush

I am lived. I am died.
I was two-leafed three times, and grazed, Cockspur
but then I was stemmed and multiplied,
sharp-thorned and caned, nested and raised,
earth-salt by sun-sugar. I was innerly sung
by thrushes who need fear no eyed skin thing.
Finched, ant-run, flowered, I am given the years
in now fewer berries, now more of sling
out over directions of luscious dung.
Of water crankshaft, of gases the gears
my shape is cattle-pruned to a crown spread sprung
above the starve-gut instinct to make prairies
of everywhere. My thorns are stuck with caries
of mice and rank lizards by the butcher bird.
Inches in, baby seed-screamers get supplied.
I am lived and died in, vine woven, multiplied.

by Les Murray

ukraine: From borderlands to bloodlands

Zhurzhenko_borderlands_468wTatiana Zhurzhenko at Eurozine:

Contemporary cultural studies likes the concept of “borderlands” because it seems to fit our complex, interrelated and dynamic world and provides an alternative to the homogenizing logic of nationalism and the related ideal of mono-ethnicity. In recent decades, borderlands have been re-construed as contact zones, as systems of communication and as social networks. As geopolitically amorphous zones “in between”, they generate hybrid identities and create political, economic and cultural practices that combine different, often mutually exclusive values. Moreover, borderlands are associated with multiculturalism, cultural authenticity and cosmopolitanism. Yet from the nation-building perspective, their ambiguity is nothing to be celebrated. Mixed and overlapping identities and multiple loyalties pose a challenge to the nationalizing agenda and potentially threaten the integrity of a nation-state.

These two approaches clashed over eastern Ukraine, a former Soviet heartland and since 1991 a new borderland. From the perspective of some Kyiv and Lviv intellectuals the Russian speaking population of eastern Ukraine – which voted for the Communists and for oligarchic parties and was indifferent and even hostile to the national idea – were post-Soviet “creoles” lacking Ukrainian identity.

more here.