Remembering Robert Stone

RobertstoneStephen Goodwin at The American Scholar:

Robert Stone, who died on January 10, was a member of the all-but-vanished tribe of hard-living, two-fisted, wildly ambitious American novelists who grew up in Hemingway’s slipstream. In the 1960s, when Bob was writing his first novel, Hall of Mirrors, the elders were guys like Norman Mailer, William Styron, Saul Bellow, and Nelson Algren. They punched like heavyweights. They swung for the fences. They all stalked that shaggy beast, the Great American Novel.

Or so it seemed to an impressionable younger writer like me; I felt just enough younger to have missed out on something. Perhaps I romanticized the generation of writers ahead of me, but from the safety of the academy—I was on path of the writer-teacher—they did seem larger-than-life: more adventurous, more daring, more glamorous that the rest of us would ever be.

By the time I met Bob, he had already won the 1975 National Book Award for his second novel, Dog Soldiers, a thriller that linked the disastrous war in Vietnam with the drug culture that was epidemic on the home front. That book is richly populated with the kinds of characters who would become familiar to his readers: the druggies, the drunks, the psychopaths, the world-weary, the desperate, and the deluded, some of them so violent, cruel, or just plain loony that they could strike fear in your heart.

more here.


ImagesMichael Dirda at The Washington Post:

When I first picked up this eerie-looking paperback, attracted by the half-spider, half-human figure on the cover, its author was completely unknown to me. That doesn’t happen a lot (he said immodestly). I could see that Mynona was the German word for “anonymous” spelled backward, but that only fed my curiosity. So I turned to the dust jacket flap of “The Creator” and read the following:

“Mentioned in his day in the same breath as Kafka, Mynona, aka Salomo Friedlaender (1871-1946), was a perfectly functioning split personality: a serious philosopher by day (author of ‘Friedrich Nietzsche: An Intellectual Biography’ and ‘Kant for Kids’) and a literary absurdist by night, who composed black-humored tales he called ‘Groteske.’ His friends and fans included Martin Buber, Walter Benjamin, and Karl Kraus.”

I think it was “Kant for Kids”— the mind reels — even more than the mention of Kafka or literary absurdism that made me look further into this odd novella, originally published in 1920.

more here.

Michel Houellebecq Defends His Controversial New Book

M.-houellebecq-2010�sylvain-bourmeau-e1420217389165Michel Houellebecq interviewed at Paris Review:

Where did you get the idea for a presidential election, in 2022, that came down to Marine Le Pen and the leader of a Muslim party?

Well, Marine Le Pen strikes me as a realistic candidate for 2022—even for 2017 … The Muslim party is more … That’s the heart of the matter, really. I tried to put myself in the place of a Muslim, and I realized that, in reality, they are in a totally schizophrenic situation. Because overall Muslims aren’t interested in economic issues, their big issues are what we nowadays call societal issues. On these issues, obviously, they are very far from the left and even further from the Green Party. Just think of gay marriage and you’ll see what I mean, but the same is true across the board. And one doesn’t really see why they’d vote for the right, much less for the extreme right, which utterly rejects them. So if a Muslim wants to vote, what’s he supposed to do? The truth is, he’s in an impossible situation. He has no representation whatsoever. It would be wrong to say that this religion has no political consequences—it does. So does Catholicism, for that matter, even if the Catholics have been more or less marginalized. For those reasons, it seems to me, a Muslim party makes a lot of sense.

But to imagine that such a party might find itself poised to win a presidential election seven years from now

I agree, it’s not very realistic. For two reasons, actually. First—and this is the most difficult thing to imagine—the Muslims would have to succeed in getting along with each other. That would take someone extremely intelligent and with an extraordinary political talent, qualities that I give to my character Ben Abbes. But an extreme talent is, by definition, an unusual occurrence. But supposing he existed, the party could take off, but it would take longer than seven years.

more here.

Man Down: why men are ridiculous

Amanda Marcotte in Slate:

BookMen: Notes From an Ongoing Investigation may be the most provocative title in a long list of provocative book titles from essayist Laura Kipnis—a remarkable feat for a woman whose previous works include Against Love and Bound and Gagged.

…Repeatedly, she zeroes in on how keenly men are rankled by their revoked entitlement to female flattery, and it’s always hilarious. Christopher Hitchens’ fantasy that men and not women evolved humor for reproductive purposes, she writes, has “the slightly musty air of the 1960-ish Kingsley Amis, wrapped in nostalgia for the merry days when sexual conquest required an arsenal of tactics deployed by bon-vivantish cads on girdled, girlish sexual holdouts.” And in a particularly hilarious piece looking at right-wing male reactions to Hillary Clinton, she muses, “You’d think they were talking about their first wives.” Kipnis paints all this male anxiety in the face of women’s growing power as both humorous and poignant. Thankfully though, despite the residual chill girl tendencies, she never suggests that women should abandon feminism to calm men down.

More here.

Can This Treatment Help Me?

Austin Frakt and Aaron E. Carroll in The New York Times:

Health-articleLargeConsider aspirin for heart attack prevention. Based upon both modifiable risk factors like cholesterol level and smoking, and factors that are beyond one’s control, like family history and age, it is possible to calculate the chance that a person will have a first heart attack in the next 10 years. The American Heart Association recommends that people who have more than a 10 percent chance take a daily aspirin to avoid that heart attack. How effective is aspirin for that aim? According to clinical trials, if about 2,000 people follow these guidelines over a two-year period, one additional first heart attack will be prevented. That doesn’t mean the 1,999 other people have heart attacks. The fact is, on average about 3.6 of them would have a first heart attack regardless of whether they took the aspirin. Even more important, 1,995.4 people would never have a heart attack whether or not they took aspirin. Only one person is actually affected by aspirin. If he takes it, the number of people who remain heart attack-free rises to 1996.4. If he doesn’t, the number remains 1995.4. But for 1,999 of the 2,000 people, aspirin doesn’t make any difference at all.

…The Mediterranean diet, which is heavy in vegetables, fruits, nuts and olive oil; moderate in fish and poultry; and light in dairy, meat and sweets; has long been advocated as a means to avoid heart disease. In people who have never had a heart attack, but who are at risk, the N.N.T. is 61 to avoid a heart attack, stroke or death. And that is for people who adhere to the diet for about five years. For those at higher risk, who have already had a heart attack, to avoid one additional death, the N.N.T. is about 30. That’s the number of people who would have to adhere to the diet for four years so that one extra person survived. About 1.4 people out of 30 such people will die no matter what they eat; 27.6 will not die no matter what they eat. Only one will benefit from sticking to the diet.

More here.

Tuesday poem


I wake up in the middle of the night
hear the house settling, the ceiling creaking
realize I have no bottled water
canned food, flashlight, rifle or bullets
stored in the hidden room off of my office

my children can't live on
holiday decorations or bagged, off-season clothing
if the war comes
id the monsters come
if civilization slows to a standstill before
crumbling to dust

I think of my hands catching rabbits
and wonder if I could really
gut and skin a squirrel
if I could master the skills
of building fired and making traps
as my ancestors did
35,000 years ago

my husband snorts in irritation beside me
coming out of sleep as I twitch
in despair of our future helplessness
with my need to rush out of bed to fill empty milk jugs
with tap water, break coffee cups and plates to make
arrowheads and spears

by Holly Day
from CadillacCicatrix

The Politics of Barbarism

by Ahmed Humayun

ScreenHunter_962 Jan. 26 10.27Is there a method to the madness of Islamist extremism? Yes, if a voluminous literature produced by militants in Arabic and other languages is to be believed. One example of the genre is the militant manual, the Management of Savagery, a text highly influential among Islamist radicals, and translated from Arabic into English by the combating terrorism center at West Point. It is a curious amalgamation of geopolitical analysis, religious propaganda, social psychology, and military tactics. The work has some literary pretensions but it is of uneven quality and gives the impression of being pasted together from disparate sources.

Yet it also outlines a clear, coherent worldview, a theory of geopolitical change, and, when it is not recycling superficial clichés about Western decadence, offers penetrating insight into how terrorist tactics can succeed, even when they appear to fail. It is a call to action that outlines a series of concrete, often diabolically clever steps that have been followed by a wide range of militant groups. There is a striking parallel between the prescriptions in the text and the actions of ISIS, the militant group that now controls a vast chunk of territory in the Arab heartland.

The fall of the Ottoman Caliphate, and the partition of the Middle East by European powers has long been a preoccupation of radicals in their diagnosis of the ills plaguing Arab societies. The text takes the same stance, rejecting not just the current governments that prevail in the Middle East, but the global order as a whole. It sees a world in which major powers in the center – the United States, above all – ally with tyrannies in the periphery, imposing through them a foreign, 'apostate' order in Muslim majority societies.

This historical moment is not unprecedented, it is argued. After the breakdown of political order such as that occurred in the early 20th century there is always a period of transition before a new settled order comes into being. Such a transitional state prevails in the Muslim world today. Militant groups should therefore seek to 'vex' and 'exhaust' the enemy- the regimes ruling their societies, or their Western allies. This will catalyze the breakout of chaos – the weakening of political authority across the land, creating opportunities for militants to 'manage the savagery' successfully, so that the ultimate goal, an Islamic state, may be realized.

Read more »

Monday Poem

$hip of $tate

I'm on a big boat
(which the nautically savvy call

if this ship's a cocoon of light atmosphere
its steel will float, but it will tip
if its load’s unbalanced—
if its equilibrium is off
it will start to list,
if not corrected
it will end a sacrificial goat
sucked to bottom
as Neptune's universal laws
will have directed

and insist

by Jim Culleny


Remembering Old Friends: Cars I have known and loved

by Carol A. Westbrook

My DeSoto Detroit copyNew Year's Eve, 2014. Time to ring in the New Year, to reminisce about good times, and remember old friends that have left our lives. No, I'm not referring to relatives who have passed, or ex's that have moved on, I'm talking about … cars.

Now, I'm not a car person like my husband, who has cars like Imelda Marcos has shoes, one for every season, in both of our houses. I like to drive only one car at a time; I grow attached to my car, give it a name, and when necessity demands “out with the old, in with the new,” I shed a silent tear on losing a good friend.

I've not yet taken a picture of a favorite car, though at times I wish I had, unlike my husband, Rick, who has photographed every car he has ever owned, and some he has rented. Rick's first car was a 1957 DeSoto HemiHead V8, shown here.

MGBThe next picture shows him as a young assistant professor in 1968, with his powder-blue, 1965 MGB convertible.

He has even photographed some cars that he has rented, such as the memorable black, 100 series BMW hatchback that we drove on the Autobahn in Germany, as you can see in the picture. We even drove this delightful car through the “autos verboten” square near the 500-year-old cathedral in Strasbourg on market day–quite by accident–after bad advice from our GPS.

I searched my photo archives to see if I could find pictures of my own favorite drives, but they exist only incidentally, at the periphery of a family photo, or near a landmark on a vacation trip. I don't need a picture, though, because I remember them all well, every car I ever called my own. I rarely remember the model and the year, but I remember its make and color, “like a girl,” Rick would say.

Read more »

Flogging Hate

by Maniza Naqvi

Flogging newspapers with hate drawn up as free speech is a cheap self serving marketing trick. Nothing new there. Hate sells war. It sells weapons. It sells newspapers. Hate sells.

Floggings and cartoons to caricature Muslims as the newest kid on the block to hate, well that's relatively new in the scheme of history and things. And who does that? The House Saud for one, which has condemned a citizen blogger to a thousand lashes in 20 batches of 50 lashes each for his speech. Public floggings, though this one has been postponed, are routine in the Kingdom of the House Saud. The House Hebdo flogs Muslims too. Both flog and lash Muslims. And neither of them protests or caricatures war. A funny thing happened while the wars were being waged in these last fourteen years—Mecca was transformed into a strip Mall by the House of Saud. Charlie Hebdo and the House of Saud have another thing in common they couldn't give two hoots about the Prophet. They both sneer at him. And both probably consider their own versions of caricatures in the name of the Prophet their most sustainable profit making enterprise.

And both are supported by the so called leaders of freedom of speech. Witness how free speech and freedom were caricatured when those great defenders of human rights and freedom of speech, the Saudi foreign minister, Netanyahu and the President of Gabon formed the frontline at the march in Paris on January 11, 2015. Witness the eulogizing of the chief financier of extremism this week in Riyadh by all these leaders of freedom of speech–sellers of weapons, guzzlers of oil.

But lashes, words and caricatures can be survived. You cannot survive bombs and bullets. The House Saud and stunts like the House Hebdo sell hate and ensure that bombs and bullets will continue to be produced and used without question. France is the largest seller of weapons to Saudi Arabia, followed by the UK and Germany and Sweden and the US. Germany has announced its decision yesterday to stop selling weapons to Saudi Arabia. The majority of the Germans want Germany to stop all trade with Saudi Arabia. That is a good step.

Read more »

Fish stews

by Rishidev Chaudhuri

ScreenHunter_960 Jan. 26 09.48Fish stews occupy a wonderful middle ground between delicacy and robustness, suggesting sun and warmth and brine, and yet also being mouth-filling and meaty and deeply flavorful. They’re happy at simple weeknight dinners and at parties, and can be dressed up with more varied sets of ingredients (crabs, mussels and clams, shrimp/prawn). And they’re good for the imagination, encouraging the mind to wander through seaside towns and small fishing villages strung along the coasts (looping along the Atlantic, detouring through the Mediterranean, encircling Africa and heading up the Arabian Sea, along India, then getting briefly distracted by the thousands of south-east Asian islands before encountering the grand Pacific).

The basic route to making a fish stew is simple and similar to many other soups and stews: sauté aromatics (like garlic, onions, fennel, ginger) until translucent, add some herbs/spices and stock or wine or coconut milk, simmer for a while to let the flavors blend, and then add the seafood and cook till done. Two templates I use frequently are a vaguely Mediterranean seafood stew built around fennel, anchovies, olive oil and white wine, and an Indian Ocean mixture of ginger, chilli, coconut milk, fish sauce, and tamarind.

The recipes described below are neither of these (those templates are easily found elsewhere on the Internet), though they are closer to the second and reflect the flavors of South India. The two recipes are fun to contrast: both use very similar ingredients and derive from the same culinary vocabulary, but they employ two different strategies. The first is lightly flavored and clean, a simple mix of vegetables and fish simmered in a delicate white coconut milk broth, and lives at the same Indo-Western intersection that produces the spiced versions of European roasts and stews that dot the colonial and post-colonial South Asian landscape. The second is sharper, richer, and more aromatic, and is distinguished by its use and treatment of whole spices and by the browning of the aromatics.

Both recipes are for about 1 pound or 500 grams of seafood (a good size for 2 or 3 people), with the first described using fish, and the second with prawn/shrimp. But both go well with other seafood, and are excellent with a mixture of fish, prawns and mussels/clams. If you’re using a mixture, you could add the thicker fish pieces first and the thinner pieces and shellfish a little later, so as to make sure they don’t overcook.

Read more »



My mother tells this story
about her childhood in Kashmir
years before she married my father.

“I remember our horse Burak,
hoofs scuffing snow, nostrils fuming,
hitched to an open cart. Relatives,

showering rice and rose petals
on Mohammed’s shrouded body—
the son my father always wanted

to whom I was betrothed—
wailed not for a soul departed
but sang of a bride waiting

for an intended groom
who succumbed
to the Mother Of All Chills.”

Four score and three years later
Mother rises from the bright
Ethan Allen tightback couch

at her son’s home in New Rochelle
to do what now she does best
—merging time past and time present—

whispers across Long Island Sound,
have they given you a transfusion

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

When Startups Begin to Fail

This is the 3rd of a series of brief weekly pieces on the unfolding journey of a new incubator based in New Delhi:, @StTnL. Checkout earlier pieces in the series: Entering Startup Tunnel and What Makes an Incubator Tick?

by Aditya Dev Sood

6a00d8341c562c53ef01bb07d80aae970d-320wiPrashant and Ishita came to see me on Monday afternoon. We’re a bit uncertain at this point about our startup concept, Ishita began… Maybe you can tell that we don’t perfectly align on the idea anymore…? I could tell no such thing, so I just looked intently back at them as they continued. Basically, I would like to use the remainder of the incubation program to pursue another idea, said Prashant, having to do with music, which is what I’m really about. Ishita has several ideas up her sleeve that she’s considering, including the one we came in with.

And so it begins, I thought. We’d accepted eleven startups to the program. Ten got back to us saying they would join but then we realized with had a conflict between two of them who were both working in the social health space. We withdrew our offer to one of them, bringing the cohort down to nine teams. One cofounder bailed when he finally got around to reading the fine print of our contract, leaving us with eight. Or perhaps we’re back up to nine given that Prashant and Ishita now represent two startups? Or perhaps, more realistically speaking, we’re actually down to seven?

It’s really hard for me to tell you guys what to do, I finally said.

Read more »

How will we crack the brain?

Adam J Calhoun in Medium:

ScreenHunter_959 Jan. 25 23.09If you would like see things straight out of a a science fiction movie, you should visit a neuroscience laboratory. Technology and science has advanced so quickly that I am not sure the public understands how advanced we are. Depending on the species, creating new transgenic animals — where you slip new genetic material into an organism — starts at ‘pathetically easy.’ During my PhD, there were days I would create the DNA for five or ten new transgenics in one go; creating the animals themselves was hardly a challenge. Light can be used as a physical force to move things around (“optical tweezers”). Scientists routinely create custom-made viruses to go forth into a chosen animal and label a precise set of neural cells. We can rain light down onto an animal to replay — or delete — memories. The recent creation of the CRISPR system allows genetic engineering to occur at unprecedented levels.

And the technology is advancing — fast. Things that seemed impossible five years ago are being commercialized right now. But for all that the brain is still largely a black box that we can prod and poke without understanding what it is actually doing, or how it got there. It begs us to ask the question: what are the directions neuroscience is heading to make a sense of this neural hydra?

More here.

Aggressive prayers, curses, and maledictions

Elizabeth McAlister in The Immanent Frame:

PrayerThis speech form is known as imprecatory prayer, from the Latin, imprecate, “invoking evil or divine vengeance; cursing.” The use of scripture as a form of imprecatory prayer has long been covertly practiced by both Christians and non-Christians. But the slogan to “Pray for Obama: Psalm 109.8” circulated openly on t-shirts and bumper stickers during the 2008 presidential race. Similarly, Reverend Wiley Drake, the second vice-president of the First Southern Baptist Church, issued in 2006 a statement claiming that his prayers for the death of a slain abortion provider George Tiller had been answered. These instances give us a rare display of imprecatory prayer in the US public sphere, and constitute prime examples of the use of negative prayer in American political life and beyond.

These bizarre cases caught my attention, since cursing and imprecation are usually associated in the popular imagination with my longtime area of research: the traditional Afro-Haitian religion called Vodou. The negative image of Vodou as sorcery is one that I and others have worked to dispel as part of a project of ethnographic redescription. We have worked to humanize Vodou and portray its full role in Haitian society, writing of elaborately developed prayers, liturgical rhythms, and songs, dances, and ritual that serve to mediate between life and death, to construct family, and to heal…

My research with Haitian spirit-workers reveals that instances of negative prayer are always concerned with a desire for justice or self-defense. For example, I once watched a Haitian spirit priestess in New York City offer her client a remedy for coping with sexual harassment in the workplace. “Pray Psalm 35, let destruction come upon him unawares,” she instructed, “and place a snakeskin in your shoe. You will tread soundlessly and slip away from him while he is destroyed by your guardian spirits.” In this instance, a new immigrant, vulnerable and perhaps undocumented, found in negative prayer a path of recourse against an insidious form of everyday injustice.

Read the full post here.

A.I. Has Grown Up and Left Home


David Auerbach in Nautilus (René Descartes’ illustration of dualism.Wikimedia Commons):

Our approach to thinking, from the early days of the computer era, focused on the question of how to represent the knowledge about which thoughts are thought, and the rules that operate on that knowledge. So when advances in technology made artificial intelligence a viable field in the 1940s and 1950s, researchers turned to formal symbolic processes. After all, it seemed easy to represent “There’s a cat on the mat” in terms of symbols and logic:


Literally translated, this reads as “there exists variable x and variable y such that x is a cat, y is a mat, and x is sitting on y.” Which is no doubt part of the puzzle. But does this get us close to understanding what it is to think that there is a cat sitting on the mat? The answer has turned out be “no,” in part because of those constants in the equation. “Cat,” “mat,” and “sitting” aren’t as simple as they seem. Stripping them of their relationship to real-world objects, and all of the complexity that entails, dooms the project of making anything resembling a human thought.

This lack of context was also the Achilles heel of the final attempted moonshot of symbolic artificial intelligence. The Cyc Project was a decades-long effort, begun in 1984, that attempted to create a general-purpose “expert system” that understood everything about the world. A team of researchers under the direction of Douglas Lenat set about manually coding a comprehensive store of general knowledge. What it boiled down to was the formal representation of millions of rules, such as “Cats have four legs” and “Richard Nixon was the 37th President of the United States.” Using formal logic, the Cyc (from “encyclopedia”) knowledge base could then draw inferences. For example, it could conclude that the author of Ulysses was less than 8 feet tall:


(writtenBy Ulysses-Book ? SPEAKER)

(equals ?SPEAKER JamesJoyce))

(isa JamesJoyce IrishCitizen)

(isa JamesJoyce Human)


(isa ?SOMEONE Human)

(maximumHeightInFeet ?SOMEONE 8)

Unfortunately, not all facts are so clear-cut. Take the statement “Cats have four legs.” Some cats have three legs, and perhaps there is some mutant cat with five legs out there. (And Cat Stevens only has two legs.) So Cyc needed a more complicated rule, like “Most cats have four legs, but some cats can have fewer due to injuries, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that a cat could have more than four legs.” Specifying both rules and their exceptions led to a snowballing programming burden.

More here.

The Art of Critique: Victor Serge’s “Midnight in the Century”


Guy Patrick Cunningham in The LA Review of Books:

I TREASURE GREAT POLITICAL FICTION, in part because it’s so rare. Literature — fiction in particular — thrives with time, whereas the specifics of political struggles are notoriously transient. That makes it hard to write truly political work, as opposed to more abstract “novels of ideas” that might reflect on political themes only indirectly. Certainly George Orwell managed to write fiction that combined political ideas and literary technique — though even he grounded his most important work in science fiction (1984) or fable (Animal Farm). But the political novelist who makes the biggest impression on me is Victor Serge, the longtime political radical who took up literature after turning away from the Soviet Communist Party.

Serge’s biography often gets in the way of talking about his gifts as a writer. To be fair, he lived one of the most interesting lives of any 20th-century man of letters: stateless, a veteran of seemingly every radical movement of the early 20th century, from the anarchists to the Bolsheviks, he participated in the struggle against Franco in Spain, organized against Hitler in both Germany and later in France (where Serge worked with the French Resistance), and he was an early — and vocal — critic of Stalin in the USSR. Susan Sontag considered him a hero, and plenty of others have agreed with her. The fact that all of his novels deal explicitly with political movements in which he participated or historical events he experienced firsthand makes it even easier to get caught up in the drama of his life — especially since he wrote about it so well in his seminal Memoirs of a Revolutionary. But, for the contemporary reader, Serge’s literary gifts outweigh his value as a witness to a particular moment in history. Perhaps no political writer better combined a strict attention to history with a command of novelistic technique. As a result, looking at his work offers great insight into why some political fiction endures even after it has long passed.

The 1939 novel Midnight in the Century, brought back into print in December 2014 by NYRB Classics, exemplifies what makes Serge so compelling. The book mostly concerns itself with the life of several members of the USSR’s Left Opposition, internally exiled to Chernoe, a remote (fictional) town near the Chernaya (sometimes called the Black River). Rather than focus on one or two main characters, Serge focuses on the group itself, while occasionally looking out on Soviet society as a whole. In his Memoirs, Serge explains his disinterest in solitary heroes. “We never live only by our own efforts, we never live only for ourselves; our most intimate, our most personal thinking is connected by a thousand links with that of the world.”

More here.