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.

Yes, it’s official, men are from Mars and women from Venus, and here’s the science to prove it

In his fascinating new book the developmental biologist Lewis Wolpert argues that there is actually hard science behind many of our stereotypical gender roles.

Lewis Wolpert in The Telegraph:

ScreenHunter_810 Sep. 26 11.59In My Fair Lady Professor Higgins sings a song about the difference between the sexes, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” It comes from an amusingly, ludicrously biased male point of view, but I have used it as the title for my new book on the subject to remind us that the differences between men and women remain a major issue.

I am a developmental biologist who has studied how embryos develop from the fertilised egg. Genes control the development of the embryo by providing the codes for making proteins, which largely determine how cells behave.

The cells in the human embryo give rise to the structure and function of our brains and bodies. These cells determine whether we are male or female, and I want to understand the extent to which important differences in the behaviour of men and women are controlled by their genes during development and by the action of hormones both in the womb and in later life.

Exactly how different men and women are is, of course, a controversial subject. The view that there are inborn differences between the minds of men and women is being challenged by others who call this the pseudoscience of “neurosexism”, and are raising concerns about its implications. They emphasise instead social influences, such as stereotyping, in determining the differences in the behaviour of the sexes.

More here.

Can nuclear talks overcome Arak?

Ariane Tabatabai in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

Tabatabai_ArianeAmid the thorny nuclear negotiations between Iran and six world powers, most observers have recognized two main sticking points: How much to limit Tehran’s ability to enrich uranium, and how sanctions will be lifted. But as meetings resume between Iran and its negotiating partners—the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany, also known as the P5+1— an issue once thought settled is anything but.

The Arak Heavy Water Reactor, also known as IR-40, almost derailed the initial rounds of talks in 2013. Following the conclusion of the interim deal in November of that year, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius expressed his concerns over the reactor, telling the French newspaperLe Monde (link in French) that “Arak, the most proliferation-prone facility, the one producing the most plutonium, is not necessary for civilian use. But once it goes online, we cannot destroy it.”

More here.

Blaise Cendrars’ first-person narratives

36e8c414-43d9-11e4_1097148hRichard Sieburth at The Times Literary Supplement:

Inspired by his shipboard reading of Baudelaire’s “Mon Coeur mis à nu” and Goethe’s Dichtung und Wahrheit, the forty-page logbook of “Mon Voyage en Amérique” contains the germ of all of Cendrars’s future autobiographical writings, staging as it does the phoenix-like (and deeply Christian) drama whereby the ashes of a former self are converted into a blaze of resurrection. As he glimpses the lighthouses of New York Harbor after three weeks at sea, the poet cries out rhapsodically: “C’est une nouvelle naissance! Je vois des feux briller, comme à travers l’épaisseur de la chair . . . . Je me souviens, je me souviens des splendeurs apparues . . . . Vais-je crier ainsi qu’un nouveau-né? . . .” He signed the first text he wrote on his arrival with his new baptismal name: “Blaise Cendrart” (the final “s” would appear a year later) – perhaps derived from the copy of Villon he carried with him (“A mal, être ars et mis en cendre”) or a reminiscence of Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo (“Und alles wird mir nur zur Asche / Was ich liebe, was ich fasse”). Beneath a quickly sketched self-portrait he scrawled “Je suis l’autre!” – the very phrase that Gérard de Nerval (another literary hero) had once inscribed next to a lithograph of his likeness. From which Cendrars drew the Schopenhauerian corollary, often quoted in his work: the world is my representation.

more here.

George Sluizer (1932-2014)

161726588Ryan Gilbey at The New Statesman:

The Dutch director George Sluizer, who has died aged 82, made only one perfect work: The Vanishing. There are surprisingly few filmmakers who can even match that tally. This 1988 picture follows its own remorseless logic to the natural conclusion, and makes no compromises or concessions along the way. It is so unsettling and strange that to put it in the Thriller or Horror section, or to call it Psychological Drama, would be to diminish it, and give only the feeblest impression of its powers. At the beginning of the film, a woman disappears during a pit-stop that she and her boyfriend make in the middle of a long drive. Years later, the bereft man is contacted by the person who abducted her and offered a choice that is tantalising and terrifying.

Sluizer directs with unshakable calm throughout. Stanley Kubrick told him it was “the most horrifying picture I’ve ever seen”. When he asked whether it was even more horrifying than Kubrick’s own The Shining, the senior director replied that it was. Kubrick’s producer, Jan Harlan, explained: “The Vanishingwas real. The Shining was a ghost film. A huge difference.”

more here.

How Stoical Was Seneca?

Beard_1-100914_jpg_250x1108_q85Mary Beard at The New York Review of Books:

The problem about Seneca is that it was always difficult to pin him down (and so it remains). What Tacitus is saying, in his carefully chosen words, is that in his last hours he was “shaping…still” an imago of himself that he had been working on, revising, and adjusting for most of his life, in many different forms. Like it or not, there is something elusive, even a whiff of “spin,” about Seneca.

Romm finds a vivid symbol of that elusiveness in the surviving likenesses of the philosopher (“images” in yet another sense). Before the nineteenth century, the favored image of Seneca (now demoted to “Pseudo-Seneca”) was “a gaunt, haggard, and haunted” portrait sculpture that has survived in several ancient versions. It is not named, but it so matched everyone’s preconceptions of what the elderly philosopher must have looked like that it was simply assumed to be him. In 1813, however, a double-sided portrait—showing two male heads, back to back—was unearthed in Rome, probably dating to the third century AD: one was clearly labeled, in Greek, “Socrates,” the other, in Latin, “Seneca” (“the two sages joined at the back of the head like Siamese twins sharing a single brain,” as Romm has it).

more here.

The colossal government failure that obstructed a potentially major medical breakthrough

Tom Shroder in Salon:

The therapeutic properties of the synthetic compound MDMA, which would soon become known on the street as Ecstasy, were discovered by Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin, a leading researcher for Dow Chemical in the late 1950s and early 1960s who had been so awed by the psychoactive effects of mescaline that he decided to devote his life to experimenting with similar compounds, which he concocted in a backyard lab at his home in Lafayette, California. When he cooked up MDMA and “taste-tested” the drug in the 1970s, he thought he’d discovered a pleasant “no-calorie martini.” Then he increased the dose. The world cracked open.

“I am afraid to turn around and face the mountains,” he wrote in his lab notes, “for fear they will overpower me. But I did look, and I am astounded. Everyone must get to experience a profound state like this. I feel totally peaceful. I have lived all my life to get here, and I feel I have come home. I am complete. I feel absolutely clean inside, and there is nothing but pure euphoria. I have never felt so great, or believed this to be possible.” Shulgin urgently contacted his friend, the psychiatrist Leo Zeff, who following the lead of pioneering researchers in the 1950s and early 1960s, had been using psychedelic drugs like LSD, mescaline and psilocybin to assist in therapy with private patients. In 15 years of psychedelic practice, he hadn’t done any formal studies of his results, but his patients often said they felt they accomplished more in one session with Zeff than they had in years of traditional therapy. By the time Shulgin contacted him, Zeff was ready to retire — until he tried the MDMA.

More here.

India’s spacecraft beams back first Mars photos

Gulab Chand in PhysOrg:

AnindianspacIndia became the first Asian country to reach Mars on Wednesday when the unmanned Mangalyaan spacecraft entered the planet's orbit after a 10-month journey, all on a shoestring budget. The mission, which is designed to search for evidence of life on the planet, is a huge source of national pride for India as it competes with Asian rivals for success in space. India beat rival neighbour China, whose first attempt flopped in 2011 despite the Asian superpower pouring billions of dollars into its programme.

At just $74 million, India's mission cost less than the estimated $100 million budget of the sci-fi blockbuster “Gravity”. It also represents just a fraction of the cost of NASA's $671 million MAVEN spacecraft, which successfully began orbiting the fourth planet from the sun on Sunday. India now joins an elite club of the United States, Russia and Europe who can boast of reaching Mars. More than half of all missions to the planet have ended in failure. No single nation had previously succeeded on its first go, although the European Space Agency, which represents a consortium of countries, pulled off the feat at its first attempt. Scientists presented the Mars photos on Thursday to Prime Minister Narendra Modi who was on hand in the command centre to witness the achievement. “The success of our space programme is a shining symbol of what we are capable of as a nation,” a jubilant Modi said on Wednesday.

More here.

Thursday Poem

Today I'm Going to Start Living Like a Mystic

Today I am pulling on a green wool sweater and walking across the park in a dusky snowfall.  The trees stand like twenty-seven prophets in a field, each a station in a pilgrimage—silent, pondering.  Blue flakes of light falling across their bodies are the ciphers of a secret, an occultation.  I will examine their leaves as pages in a text and consider the bookish pigeons, students of winter.  I will kneel on the track of a vanquished squirrel and stare into a blank pond for the figure of Sophia.  I shall begin scouring the sky for signs as if my whole future were constellated upon it.  I will walk home alone with the deep alone, a disciple of shadows, in praise of the mysteries. 

by Edward Hirsch
from Lay Back the Darkness
Knopf/Random House, Inc

the architecture of stories

BuildingStories_ChrisWareMerve Emre and Christian Nakarado at The Point:

At the crossroads of architecture and the comic is Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp, the love story of architecture professor Asterios Polyp—an unwieldy, snobbish, weak-chinned scrap of a man—and his lovely wife Hana. Asterios is one of the paper architects of the 1980s and 1990s avant-garde, a tight-knit coterie of poststructuralist designers who took their cues directly from French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s understanding of architecture as a form of writing. Like Derrida’s one-time collaborator Peter Eisenman, Asterios’s reputation rests on “his designs, rather than on the buildings constructed from them.” Nothing he has designed has ever been built. Rather, his career is an accumulation of riddles, abstractions and analogues, systems and sequences “governed by their own internal logic.” They take little by way of inspiration from the material world and give next to nothing back. Asterios Polyp, we could conclude, is the story of a man who could have authored a savvier version of Yes Is More.

Mazzucchelli draws Asterios as an extension of his intellectual sensibilities, a not-so-subtle takedown of architectural theory that’s delightful to behold in comic form. At his most pedantic moments—lecturing a class on Apollonian versus Dionysian design, or boasting about his sexual prowess at a faculty meeting—Asterios’s body morphs into an artist’s mannequin, a cool blue assemblage of hollow geometries that bear no relationship to the world around him.

more here.

Martin Amis’s “The Zone of Interest.”

140929_r25510-320-240-1Joyce Carol Oates at The New Yorker:

When Theodor Adorno declared, in 1949, that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” he could hardly have anticipated the ensuing quantity of poetry and prose that actually concerned itself with the Holocaust, still less its astonishing range and depth. The category now encompasses the densely narrated psychological-historical realism of André Schwarz-Bart and Imre Kertész, the Kafka-inspired dreamscapes of Aharon Appelfeld, and, later, the elliptical, deeply original fictions of W. G. Sebald. As the generations of firsthand witnesses give way to younger generations, literary works that confront the subject have often been more circumspect; recent novels by Susanna Moore and Ayelet Waldman achieve their emotional power by focussing upon characters peripheral to the terrible European history that has nonetheless altered their lives. The conflagration must be glimpsed indirectly, following Appelfeld’s admonition that “one does not look directly into the sun.”

Such circumspection has not been Martin Amis’s strategy in approaching the Holocaust. The Nazi death camps at Auschwitz provide a setting for Amis’s tour de force “Time’s Arrow: or The Nature of the Offense” (1991), in which the lifetime of a Nazi doctor-experimenter is presented in reverse chronological order, from the instant of his death (as the affable American Tod Friendly) to his conception (as the ominously named German Odilo Unverdorben), witnessed by a part of himself that seems to be his conscience, or his soul.

more here.