For Agha Ashraf Ali

You light a candle
Carp the darkness

With your usual flourish
Debone a carp

Add a pinch of salt
In your carpeted kitchen

Discourse on the next course
To scrape or not the fish head,

Gaadkalley: Honorific.
You offer a scrap of history

Bestowed once by the people
On the Big Crap who betrayed them

We seize the head
Before the diem carpe us

And raise our glass
To the disappeared carpenters

Of Kashmir
A parched paradise

By Rafiq Kathwari, whose first book of poems is forthcoming in April 2015 from Doire Press, Ireland. More work here.

Kazuo Ishiguro: how I wrote The Remains of the Day in four weeks

Kazuo Ishiguro in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_933 Dec. 29 00.23Many people have to work long hours. When it comes to the writing of novels, however, the consensus seems to be that after four hours or so of continuous writing, diminishing returns set in. I’d always more or less gone along with this view, but as the summer of 1987 approached I became convinced a drastic approach was needed. Lorna, my wife, agreed.

Until that point, since giving up the day job five years earlier, I’d managed reasonably well to maintain a steady rhythm of work and productivity. But my first flurry of public success following my second novel had brought with it many distractions. Potentially career-enhancing proposals, dinner and party invitations, alluring foreign trips and mountains of mail had all but put an end to my “proper” work. I’d written an opening chapter to a new novel the previous summer, but now, almost a year later, I was no further forward.

So Lorna and I came up with a plan. I would, for a four-week period, ruthlessly clear my diary and go on what we somewhat mysteriously called a “Crash”. During the Crash, I would do nothing but write from 9am to 10.30pm, Monday through Saturday. I’d get one hour off for lunch and two for dinner. I’d not see, let alone answer, any mail, and would not go near the phone. No one would come to the house. Lorna, despite her own busy schedule, would for this period do my share of the cooking and housework. In this way, so we hoped, I’d not only complete more work quantitively, but reach a mental state in which my fictional world was more real to me than the actual one.

More here.

What We Talk about When We Talk about Holes

Evelyn Lamb in Scientific American:

ScreenHunter_932 Dec. 28 19.54For Halloween, I wrote about a very scary topic: higher homotopy groups.Homotopy is an idea in topology, the field of math concerned with properties of shapes that stay the same no matter how you squish or stretch them, as long as you don’t tear them or glue things together. Both homotopy groups and the somewhat related homology groups are different ways to describe the topology of shapes using algebra. In my post, I said that homology detects “holes” of different dimensions. But, as one commenter asked, what do I mean by holes of different dimensions?

Good question! I deliberately used “hole” as a wiggle word because there isn’t a real mathematical definition of hole. But here’s my short answer that is also the reason I’m not an algebraic topologist. If you can put it on a necklace, it has a one-dimensional hole. If you can fill it with toothpaste, it has a two-dimensional hole. For holes of higher dimensions, you’re on your own.

That answer isn’t very satisfying. Is there a better way to describe holes? I talked with some of my topologist friends and discovered two things: topologists don’t all agree on what a hole is, and it’s fun and interesting to think about different interpretations of a word whose mathematical definition isn’t completely settled. I think my larger conclusion, in the spirit of the season, is that holes are like Santa Claus: the true meaning is in your heart. So let’s look into our hearts and think about what holes are.

More here.

Rebecca Solnit: The Age of Capitalism is over

Rebecca Solnit in Salon:

Shutterstock_66271057-620x412It was the most thrilling bureaucratic document I’ve ever seen for just one reason: it was dated the 21st day of the month of Thermidor in the Year Six. Written in sepia ink on heavy paper, it recorded an ordinary land auction in France in what we would call the late summer of 1798. But the extraordinary date signaled that it was created when the French Revolution was still the overarching reality of everyday life and such fundamentals as the distribution of power and the nature of government had been reborn in astonishing ways. The new calendar that renamed 1792 as Year One had, after all, been created to start society all over again.

In that little junk shop on a quiet street in San Francisco, I held a relic from one of the great upheavals of the last millennium. It made me think of a remarkable statement the great feminist fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin had made only a few weeks earlier. In the course of a speech she gave while accepting a book award she noted, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

That document I held was written only a few years after the French had gotten over the idea that the divine right of kings was an inescapable reality. The revolutionaries had executed their king for his crimes and were then trying out other forms of government. It’s popular to say that the experiment failed, but that’s too narrow an interpretation. France never again regressed to an absolutist monarchy and its experiments inspired other liberatory movements around the world (while terrifying monarchs and aristocrats everywhere).

Americans are skilled at that combination of complacency and despair that assumes things cannot change and that we, the people, do not have the power to change them. Yet you have to be abysmally ignorant of history, as well as of current events, not to see that our country and our world have always been changing, are in the midst of great and terrible changes, and are occasionally changed through the power of the popular will and idealistic movements. As it happens, the planet’s changing climate now demands that we summon up the energy to leave behind the Age of Fossil Fuel (and maybe with it some portion of the Age of Capitalism as well).

More here.

How the invasion of Panama birthed the quagmire in Iraq

Greg Grandin in Salon:

NoriegaOperation Just Cause was carried out unilaterally, sanctioned neither by the United Nations nor the Organization of American States (OAS). In addition, the invasion was the first post-Cold War military operation justified in the name of democracy — “militant democracy,” as George Will approvingly called what the Pentagon would unilaterally install in Panama.

The campaign to capture Noriega, however, didn’t start with such grand ambitions. For years, as Saddam Hussein had been Washington’s man in Iraq, so Noriega was a CIA asset and Washington ally in Panama. He was a key player in the shadowy network of anti-communists, tyrants, and drug runners that made up what would become Iran-Contra. That, in case you’ve forgotten, was a conspiracy involving President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council to sell high-tech missiles to the Ayatollahs in Iran and then divert their payments to support anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua in order to destabilize the Sandinista government there. Noriega’s usefulness to Washington came to an end in 1986, after journalist Seymour Hersh published an investigation in the New York Times linking him to drug trafficking. It turned out that the Panamanian autocrat had been working both sides. He was “our man,” but apparently was also passing on intelligence about us to Cuba.

Still, when George H.W. Bush was inaugurated president in January 1989, Panama was not high on his foreign policy agenda. Referring to the process by which Noriega, in less than a year, would become America’s most wanted autocrat, Bush’s National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft said: “I can’t really describe the course of events that led us this way… Noriega, was he running drugs and stuff? Sure, but so were a lot of other people. Was he thumbing his nose at the United States? Yeah, yeah.”

Read the full article here.

The truth about free will: Does it actually exist? Daniel Dennett explains

David Edmunds and Nigel Warburton in Salon:

Matrix_pills2David Edmonds: One way to exercise my freedom would be to act unpredictably, perhaps not to have a typical introduction to a “Philosophy Bites” interview, or to cut it abruptly short mid-sentence. That’s the view of the famous philosopher and cognitive scientist, Daniel Dennett. He also believes that humans can have free will, even if the world is determinist, in other words, governed by causal laws, and he…

Nigel Warburton: The topic we’re focusing on is “Free Will Worth Wanting.” That seems a strange way in to free will. Usually, the free will debate is over whether we have free will, not whether we want it, or whether it’s worth wanting. How did you come at it from this point of view?

Daniel Dennett: I came to realize that many of the issues that philosophers love to talk about in the free will debates were irrelevant to anything important. There’s a bait-and-switch that goes on. I don’t think any topic is more anxiety provoking, or more genuinely interesting to everyday people, than free will But then philosophers replace the interesting issues with technical, metaphysical issues. Who cares? We can define lots of varieties of free will that you can’t have, or that are inconsistent with determinism. But so what? The question is, ‘Should you regret, or would you regret not having free will?’ Yes. Are there many senses of free will? Yes. Philosophers have tended to concentrate on varieties that are perhaps more tractable by their methods, but they’re not important.

More here.

Anxiety nation: why are so many of us so ill at ease?

Sophie Mcbain in New Statesman:

AnxietyFor a condition that affects so many of us, there is very little agreement about what anxiety actually is. Is it a physiological condition, best treated with medication, or psychological – the product of repressed trauma, as a Freudian might suggest? Is it a cultural construct, a reaction to today’s anomic society, or a more fundamental spiritual and philosophical reflection of what it means to be human? For most sufferers, the most pressing concern is whether drugs work, and if therapy is a good idea. Our modern, medical definition of anxiety could be traced back to 1980 and the publication of the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-III), the doctor’s and psychiatrist’s bible for identifying mental illness. The authors of DSM-III suggested that, according to their new criteria, between 2 and 4 per cent of the population would have an anxiety disorder. But three decades on, the America’s State of Mind Report showed that one in every six people in the United States suffers from anxiety.

The most recent nationwide survey, which took place in 2007, found that three million people in the UK have an anxiety disorder. About 7 per cent of UK adults are on antidepressants (often prescribed for anxiety, too) and one in seven will take benzodiazepines such as Xanax in any one year. Mental health charities warn that our anxiety levels are creeping even higher; they often blame our “switched-on” modern culture for this, or the financial crisis and the long recession that followed it. And yet, it is difficult to quantify whether it is our feelings of anxiety that have changed, or whether it’s just our perception of those feelings that is different: are we increasingly viewing ordinary human emotions as marks of mental illness?

More here.

‘We need permanent revolution’: how Thomas Piketty became 2014’s most influential thinker

Owen Jones in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_931 Dec. 27 22.08For a man with the unlikely description of “rock-star economist”, there is nothing rock’n’roll about Thomas Piketty’s cramped, book-lined office in a nondescript Parisian office block. By his feet are scattered various foreign translations of his publishing sensation, Capital in the Twenty-First Century: Greek, German, Japanese, and so on. There are 20 foreign editions already published, he tells me with evident pride, and another 37 to come. It must be rather surreal, I suggest: one doesn’t normally expect a French economist to become a global superstar. “Is there something particular with being French, or economists in general?” he jokes in a thick Parisian accent, effecting a faux wounded Gallic pride.

Piketty’s book is surely the most influential published by an economist in a generation, infuriating the right as much as it delighted an intellectually starved left. Using a mass of data, the book sought to expose why modern capitalism is an engine of exploding inequality: the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate at which the economy grows, he argues, and wealth is becoming ever more concentrated at the top of society.

More explosively, he proposes a global wealth tax as a check on this process, even though he has conceded this is “utopian”. He has been feted by political leaders across the western world – Ed Miliband among them – and beyond. I ask the boyish 43-year-old if his life has been thrown upside down. “Not so much. Sure, it was much more successful than I could expect – it was a gradual process, I had time to get accustomed … it’s not like a huge shock from complete anonymity to complete stardom. I’m still a little star!”

More here.

American Racial Boundaries Are Quite Distinct (For Now)

Razib Khan in The Unz Review:

41AFhg61TZL._SY344_BO1204203200_-194x300Geneticists are people of their time. I’m rather sure that if Charles Davenport had written a book with the title Race Crossing in Jamaica today it would end with a far different moral, because the dominant Zeitgeist in regards to racial admixture in the United States is far different nearly 100 years on. In my post below where I review interesting aspects of the new study from researchers in David Reich’s lab and 23andMe, The Genetic Ancestry of African Americans, Latinos, and European Americans across the United States, I didn’t cover the variation in admixture in black and white Americans too much in detail. Partly that’s because this study only improved the bigger picture on the margins, and with finer geographic grain (though these were interesting obviously). We knew that the vast majority of white Americans who are not Hispanic do not have detectable non-European ancestry. It has also long been reported and verified that a substantial minority of the total ancestry of black Americans is of European origin, with a small Native American fraction as well. Additionally, this non-African ancestry in black Americans varies by geography as well as individual to individual a great deal.

So I have to take issue when The New York Times posts articles with headlines such as White? Black? A Murky Distinction Grows Still Murkier. What genetics is showing is that in fact white Americans are shockingly European to an incredibly high degree for a population with roots on this continent for 400 years. If we removed all the history that we take for granted we’d be amazed that the indigenous peoples had so little demographic impact, and, that the larger numbers of people of partial African ancestry did not move into the general “white” population. This is in fact the case across much of Latin America, where many self-identified whites,blanco, have African and indigenous ancestry. But we do know the reasons for why North America was unique, a combination of a smaller indigenous population which underwent a mass die off, and folk migrations on a huge scale previously unimaginable in human history. Whole villages in Poland and Norway, not just working age males, decamped for the New World.

More here.

Teaching Iguala


Thomas Rath in Berfrois:

On 26 September, the municipal police of Iguala, Guerrero, shot dead three trainee teachers from Ayotzinapa. One body later turned up with the eyes gouged and skin flayed. Later, the police kidnapped 43 other students and, reportedly, handed them over to a gang of narcos (drug-traffickers) who executed the students before incinerating their bodies and throwing what remained into a river. This crime disgusted Mexico, and national and international protests soon mushroomed. The events in Iguala have made me, like many people, alternately sad, angry and – once protests began – oddly hopeful. As a historian I’ve also been fascinated to see interpretations of the event slowly emerge, and think about the different versions of Mexico’s recent past underpinning them.

The events certainly undermine the florid boosterism of the Peña Nieto administration. President Peña Nieto is a member of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), which ruled Mexico through a careful blend of co-option and violence from 1929-2000. The PRI finally lost a presidential election in 2000, but was then voted back to power in 2012. The president portrayed himself as an economic modernizer unlocking Mexico’s latent potential with sweeping market-driven reforms, dumped the militarized rhetoric of his predecessor Enrique Calderón, and downplayed levels of violence.

Much of the international press lapped this stuff up. In The Economist, Peña Nieto claimed it was “Mexico’s moment“. The cover of Time magazine announced that Peña Nieto had “changed the narrative“, a weird, but appropriately vapid headline. All of this sounds pretty hollow now; perhaps it always did in Mexico, at least outside of Los Pinos, gated communities or, say, Monterrey’s hi-tech business parks. What good are 44 free-trade agreements or renewed oil production if your loved ones rot in one of the hundreds (probably thousands) of mass graves perforating the country?

But the stakes are larger than one administration’s rhetoric. The Iguala scandal has engulfed the entire political class: Iguala’s mayor, suspected of ordering the killings, is a member of the nominally left-wing opposition party; the disastrous war against narcos was launched in 2006 by the right-wing Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), in which at least 100,000 have been killed or disappeared. These are levels of violence comparable to those in Iraq over the same period. It has also raised larger questions about where Mexico has been in the last few decades and where it’s going.

More here.

A Very Kautsky Christmas


Loren Balhorn in Jacobin (image Lucas Cranach, The Law and the Gospel. 1529):

Reading Karl Kautsky at the tail end of 2014 is a peculiar undertaking. For starters, there is the burning question of “who actually reads Kautsky?”

Vilified by the Bolsheviks and their descendants for, in their eyes,betraying the Marxist principles his writings had done so much to popularize, yet still too Marxist for comfort in the rightward-moving Social Democratic Party of Weimar Germany, the “Pope of Marxism” has largely been consigned (along with Georgi Plekhanov, Bruno Bauer, and others) to the pile of seemingly-important authors one should at least have read about, but is not obligated to actually read.

Once we move beyond this first peculiarity, we are confronted with the second: namely, that a lot of what Kautsky writes is quite good. Sure, his work is riddled with over-simplifications and teleological projections that hold little water a century after the fact. But to reduce his Marxism to these shortcomings alone is to ignore one of the most important socialists of the twentieth century.

Kautsky’s most significant contribution — namely, systematizing classical Marxist theory into a series of easily understandable, digestible works fit for mass consumption — brought socialist theory and politics into the hearts and minds of millions of European workers at the turn of the last century. Kautsky was considered a “Pope” not due to unassailable ecclesiastic authority or backroom intrigues within the upper ranks of the SPD, but rather because he represented one of the main authorities on Marxist theory in an age where the spirit of revolution was sweeping up the German working classes like never before (and never since).

He sat at the pinnacle of an expanding workers’ movement, whose promises of inevitable socialist transformation seemed plausible and within reach. He wrote for an audience of millions of eager, attentive militants, and no doubt felt a sense of responsibility to use his authority to imbue the spirit of class consciousness in his readers.

This spirit runs through Communism in Central Europe at the Time of the Reformation, in which Kautsky traces the revolutionary egalitarian impulses of subaltern Protestant currents in the Middle Ages, identifying both an “egalitarian communism” of the poor and downtrodden masses, as well as an intellectualized “Utopian communism” of the educated upper classes.

More here.

The story of Germany

0b4ece16-8a4c-11e4-9b5f-00144feabdc0Quentin Peel at The Financial Times:

There is no single German story. Political centralisation came early to Britain and France; Germany, by contrast, assumed something like its modern form less than 150 years ago. Prior to this, it was a hodge­podge of little kingdoms, principalities and dukedoms, for many centuries owing a loose allegiance to the ramshackle Holy Roman Empire. German history, according to Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, is “a composite of different, sometimes conflicting, local narratives . . . inevitably, enrichingly and confusingly fragmented”.

The existence of such multiple narratives explains much about the behaviour of modern Germany: its instinctive federalism and commitment to European integration, its readiness to compromise combined with a stubborn insistence on fiscal discipline, its deep-rooted pacifism and, above all, its unwillingness to lead. Nationalism came late to Germany, and led to the disaster of the 1930s. It is a lesson the nation has learnt more bitterly than any other. In three recent books that reflect on how Germany’s past is shaping its future — MacGregor’s Germany: Memories of a Nation, Stephen Green’s Reluctant Meisterand Hans Kundnani’s The Paradox of German Power — this fragmentation and belated nationhood provide the backdrop.

more here.

Bringing bribery out into the open

Nabila Rahhal in Citiscope (via Digg):

BriberyA few months ago, a tiny car carrying a big message rolled into 26 cities and towns across Lebanon.

The Smart car was covered with images of a driver’s license, diploma, utility meter and a gavel, and embossed in Arabic, Dek kenet el balad (“The city’s store where everything is for sale”). The drivers would park the car in front of government administration offices, to shine a light on the corruption that greases almost every government transaction here.

The Kabseh car (it means “surprise visit”) was the work of a new NGO here called Sakker el Dekkene (“close the store”). Their goal was not just to shame bureaucrats. It was also to collect data. Sakker el Dekkene has launched a smartphone app, website and telephone hotline for citizens to report when they’ve needed to pay a bribe in order to conduct government business. People exiting the government offices stopped at Kabseh to report 920 bribes, including some they’d paid just moments before.

Sakker el Dekkene’s crowd-sourced platforms give Lebanese their first means of quantifying a scourge that is all around them. Citizens report the city where their bribe took place, which government office was responsible and the amount of the bribe. While the data are far from comprehensive and hard to verify — most users opt to remain anonymous — the reports paint a grim picture. In six months, nearly 1,550 reports have been filed, with the total value of bribes paid adding up to 2.1 billion Lebanese Lira ($1.4 million U. S.).

Read the rest here.