The Anatomy of a Massacre


Faisal Devji in the LA Review of Books:

ON MAY 13, nearly 50 Ismailis were massacred on a bus in Karachi. The attack was claimed by two militant groups, each referring in its statements to the Islamic State (ISIS) and events in the Levant as much as Pakistan. These murders seemed to constitute one more example of the globalization of sectarian violence in the Muslim world. The phenomenon had arguably begun in Pakistan, partly in the form of a proxy war between Iran and her enemies across the Persian Gulf following the Islamic Revolution. Apparently, it has now returned to its country of origin. But there was something new about the Karachi killings, not least because they targeted a community that hadn’t previously been on the frontline of religious conflict, having largely avoided politics and without any state backing it.

Prior to the bus attack, Ismailis, a small and globally dispersed branch of the Shia sect that subjects Islamic prescriptions to allegorical interpretation, had been targeted in Pakistan’s most populous city once before. In August 2013, bombs were thrown into two Karachi Jamat Khanas (places of worship), killing a couple of people. Ismailis had been the victims of low-grade sectarian violence, however, in the mountainous regions of Chitral and Gilgit, where they form significant rural populations alongside Sunni and other Shia groups. But even here they were not important actors. In addition to heresy, they were generally accused of being pro-Western, even of trying to carve out an American puppet state that would have brought together the Ismaili populations of northern Pakistan and Afghanistan with those of eastern Tajikistan — to say nothing of western China.

More here.

This Is My Vision Of “Life”: Richard Dawkins

Introduction by John Brockman in Edge:

Dawkins_4_11_15_web__0My vision of life is that everything extends from replicators, which are in practice DNA molecules on this planet. The replicators reach out into the world to influence their own probability of being passed on. Mostly they don't reach further than the individual body in which they sit, but that's a matter of practice, not a matter of principle. The individual organism can be defined as that set of phenotypic products which have a single route of exit of the genes into the future. That's not true of the cuckoo/reed warbler case, but it is true of ordinary animal bodies. So the organism, the individual organism, is a deeply salient unit. It's a unit of selection in the sense that I call a “vehicle”. There are two kinds of unit of selection. The difference is a semantic one. They're both units of selection, but one is the replicator, and what it does is get itself copied. So more and more copies of itself go into the world. The other kind of unit is the vehicle. It doesn't get itself copied. What it does is work to copy the replicators which have come down to it through the generations, and which it's going to pass on to future generations. So we have this individual / replicator dichotomy. They're both units of selection, but in different senses. It's important to understand that they are different senses.

Now, because the individual organism is such a salient unit, biologists after Darwin got into the habit of seeing the organism as the unit of action, and therefore they asked the question, what is the organism maximizing? What mathematical function is the organism maximizing? Fitness is the answer. So fitness was coined as a mathematical expression of that which the organism is maximizing. Of course, what fitness really is, or what it ought to be if we understand it properly, is gene survival. For a long time fitness was equated in people's minds with reproduction, with having a large number of children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. Bill Hamilton and others, but mostly Bill Hamilton, realized that you had to generalize that because, if what's really going on is working to pass on genes, offspring, grandchildren, et cetera, are not the only ways of passing on genes. An organism can work to enhance the survival and reproduction of its siblings, its nephews, its nieces, its cousins and so on.

More here.


Tom Whipple in More Intelligent Life:

KilheaderIN AN UNDERGROUND vault beneath a hill overlooking Paris, behind a steel door whose lock requires three keys—only two of which are in France—and protected by three glass covers, lives the kilogram. Not a kilogram but The kilogram. For the past 125 years, this sleek cylinder of platinum-iridium has defined mass for the world. The vault is buried under the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures (BIPM), a whitewashed stately home a discreet distance from Paris, with extensive gardens for physicists to roam in and views across a grand meander of the Seine. The BIPM exists to control, define and distribute the Standard International (SI) units by which science—and indeed non-science—makes its measurements: the second, the metre, the mole, the candela, the ampere, the kelvin and the kilogram. You might call it the spiritual centre of the metric system—if the rational world of revolutionary France’s metrification programme allowed room for anything as irrational as the spiritual.

…THE KILOGRAM AS we know it was created at the first General Conference on Weights and Measures, held in France in 1889 and attended by 20 of the world’s more science-minded nations. As the Enlightenment progressed, spreading knowledge and developing the modern empirical methods, it became clear that, for science to work, its practitioners had to agree on units. If an experiment in Rio de Janeiro used a gram of catalyst heated to 75 degrees, someone repeating that experiment in Tokyo needed to know that a gram and a degree meant the same on both sides of the Pacific. Following almost a century of discussion, the conference defined the key units of measurement, and the kilogram was forged and incarcerated. In the years since 1889, around 100 daughter kilograms have been made, some in platinum-iridium, others in stainless steel. Most have been distributed around the world to provide national mass standards. Six are kept here in Paris, to be used as a check on the main kilogram.

More here.

Sunday Poem


My Clan Mother is the great she-devil
of the forest. She stands twenty feet
over fields of wild rhubarb, Dutch cabbage.

Her face is black, blacker than the blue
of night where stars shed tears into rivers,
lakes, onto the windscreen of my car.

If I weren’t in such a hurry
I would pull over, wait for her
to pluck me from the hard shoulder.

Together we could hunt boar
in the forest and at night stay dry
beneath the cauls of newborn children.

by Celia de Freine
from Faoi Chabáistí is Ríonacha
publisher: Cló Iar-Chonnachta, 2001

You Won’t Believe What Word This Column Is About!

Ben Zimmer in the Wall Street Journal:

ScreenHunter_1211 Jun. 06 17.21What happens when a dictionary adds the word “clickbait” to its pages and publicizes the news with a bit of clickbait?

Last week, Merriam-Webster said it had added 1,700 new entries to its Unabridged Dictionary. It defined “clickbait,” one of the words featured, as “something (such as a headline) designed to make readers want to click on a hyperlink, especially when the link leads to content of dubious value or interest.”

And in a move that poked fun at the conventions of clickbait itself, Merriam-Webstershared a link to the announcement on Twitter with the come-on, “You won’t believe what we just added to the dictionary!” (Other additions include “emoji,” “meme” and “jegging.”)

Not everyone was amused.

More here.

‘Words Without Music,’ by Philip Glass

07subGANN-master675Kyle Gann at The New York Times:

The “making” of a composer is the real subject of “Words Without Music.” Glass outlines his years before the successes of his operas “Satyagraha” (1980) and “Akhnaten” (1983) in loving detail; his life and work since then — including his film scores for Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Errol Morris and others — is skimmed through, with all-too-quick descriptions of the remarkable (and mostly nonfamous) people he has known.

One struggles to imagine how any human could have kept his schedule in the late ’50s and early ’60s: composing from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., loading trucks in the evenings, practicing piano several hours a day, attending classes, taking music and yoga lessons, going to movies and art exhibitions with friends, driving a motorcycle cross-country. Side stories feature cameos by figures one might not associate with Glass. He shared an apartment with the blind composer Moondog, who dressed as a Viking and played his ­compositions on the streets of Midtown Manhattan. And he recounts inventing the “Hardart,” a keyboard of toy instruments, for the fictional P. D. Q. Bach’s ­Concerto for Horn and Hardart, written by his Juilliard chum Peter Schickele — and making it a transposing instrument in the key of E so Schickele would have an added challenge.

more here.

‘Boswell’s Enlightenment’ by Robert Zaretsky

A-detail-from-Joshua-Reyn-010James Campbell at The Observer:

While studying in Utrecht in 1764, the trainee lawyer and diarist James Boswell met a young woman called Belle de Zuylen – known as Zélide in Boswell’s journal – a novelist, religious doubter and amorous adventurer, with a lightning mind which “flashes with so much brilliance [it] may scorch”. Boswell was in search of a wife, and Belle, he assumed, would be in need of a husband.

Despite being rebuffed, he persisted in his attentions, finally applying, not to Belle herself, but to her father. The “terms of the treaty”, as Robert Zaretsky puts it in Boswell’s Enlightenment, were “as onerous as they were outlandish”. As Mrs Boswell, Belle would swear never to see, or write to, another man, not to publish any literary works without her husband’s approval and, in the words of the proposal, “never to speak against the established religion or customs of the country she might find herself in”, which was most likely to be Scotland. It appears that Belle’s father passed on the invitation because when Boswell tried again a year later, Belle herself replied that all she knew of Scotland was that it produced “decidedly despotic husbands and humble, simple wives who blushed and looked at their lords before opening their mouths”.

more here.

‘The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar’ by Helen Vendler

VendlerWilliam H. Pritchard at The Boston Globe:

A new book by Helen Vendler is always occasion for gratitude, since for more than 50 years she has provided us with the most exacting writing about poetry of any American critic. Even more welcome than the 27 essays on poets — all of them, except for Herman Melville, from the past century — is a 14-page introduction in which she accounts for her life as a critic. The principles under which she has operated are unqualifiedly stated, the major one being the “compulsion to explain the direct power of idiosyncratic style in conveying the import of poetry.” This means a distaste for considering poems “under gross thematic rubrics,” and a belief that, one poet, one poem, is superior to another, the critic’s job being among other things to demonstrate these distinctions in value.

Vendler’s learning has shown itself in books on Yeats, Wallace Stevens, George Herbert, Keats, Shakespeare, and Emily Dickinson. As with the poets she writes about, that learning is less traditional and scholarly than, in her words, “deeply etymological and architectonic.” She notes that historically, the academic profession of English as she knew it, while “not unfriendly” to literary criticism (the old battles between literary history and close reading having ended), was unfriendly to reviewing, considering it to be mere journalism. For Vendler, reviewing poetry — and with a single exception all her writing has been about poetry — was rather a chance to speak forcefully and originally about a contemporary poet, or to see an older one, like Melville, in a new perspective.

more here.

let’s have a year of publishing only women

Kamila Shamsie in The Guardian:

KamilaSeveral years ago, Martin Amis chaired a literary festival panel on “The Crisis of American Fiction” with Richard Ford, Jay McInerney and Junot Díaz. I was in the audience, and halfway through the discussion leaned over to the person sitting next to me and said: “Clearly the crisis of American fiction is that there are no women in it.” It’s not just that there weren’t any women on the stage. In the entire discussion, which lasted nearly an hour, there was no mention of Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson, Annie Proulx, Anne Tyler, Donna Tartt, Jhumpa Lahiri or any other contemporary female writer. A single reference to Eudora Welty was the only acknowledgment that women in the US have ever had anything to do with the world of letters. Díaz, near the end of the hour, made the point that the conversation had centred on white American males, but it was too little, too late,

…I would argue that is time for everyone, male and female, to sign up to a concerted campaign to redress the inequality. Last year a number of readers, critics and at least one literary journal, the Critical Flame, signed up to a “Year of Reading Women” (for the Critical Flame it was female writers and writers of colour). Why not take it a step further? Why not have a Year of Publishing Women: 2018, the centenary of women over the age of 30 getting the vote in the UK, seems appropriate. Of course, there will be many details to work out, but the basic premise of my “provocation” is that none of the new titles published in that year should be written by men. I’ve been considering literary fiction so far but other groups within fiction – and non-fiction – publishing could gain from signing up too. The knock-on effect of a Year of Publishing Women would be evident in review pages and blogs, in bookshop windows and front-of-store displays, in literature festival lineups, in prize submissions. We must learn from the suffragettes that it’s not always necessary or helpful to be polite about our campaigns.

More here.

Blackish in america

Bas Dreisinger in The New York Times:

Book“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” Abraham Lincoln declared in his 1858 speech presaging the Civil War. Such a house sits at the heart of Mat Johnson’s ribald, incisive novel “Loving Day.” Bequeathed to the narrator, Warren Duffy, by his deceased father, it’s a roofless, ramshackle mansion in a black neighborhood in Philadelphia: “I look at the buckling floors. I look at the cracks in all the walls, the evidence of a foundation crumbling beneath us. I smell the char of the fire, the sweet reek of mold, the insult of mouse urine. I see a million things that have to be fixed, restored, corrected, each one impossible and each task mandatory for me to escape again.” The house is haunted. There are ghosts, mostly of neighborhood crackheads — that is, if we take Warren’s word for it; our narrator’s psyche is as wrecked as his inheritance. An “inept” comic book artist — “My work is too realistic, too sober” — he has moved back to America from Wales after a failed business and broken marriage. He’s wrecked, too, by his liminal ­racial status: His father was an Irishman, his mother was black and he comfortably claims neither — call him a man divided against himself. “I am a racial optical illusion,” he says.

Warren lives and breathes what W. E. B. Du Bois called double consciousness, by which the American black person is “always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others. . . . One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.” Except Warren’s body is white, making things even thornier; he’s perpetually performing a black identity that isn’t written all over his face — as when he describes “letting my black voice come out, to compensate for my ambiguous appearance. Let the bass take over my tongue. Let the South of Mom’s ancestry inform the rhythm of my words in a way few white men could pull off.” In “Loving Day,” Johnson, author of the graphic novel “Incognegro” and the novel “Pym,” delivers an extended literary metaphor about race and mixed-race in America. It’s a semi-autobiographical one — he has called the book “my coming out as a mulatto” — that can at times feel belabored, but the novel ultimately triumphs because it is razor-sharp, sci-fi-flavored satire in the vein of George Schuyler, playfully evocative of black folklore à la Joel Chandler Harris — yet it never feels like a cold theoretical exercise. “Loving Day” is that rare mélange: cerebral comedy with pathos.

More here.

A Practical Vision of a More Equal Society


Thomas Piketty reviews Anthony B. Atkinson's Inequality: What Can Be Done?, in the NYRB (Keystone/Getty Images):

Atkinson here makes two especially innovative suggestions. On the one hand, he calls for the establishment of a national savings program allowing each depositor to receive a guaranteed return on her capital (below a certain threshold of individual capital). Given the drastic inequality of access to fair financial returns, particularly as a consequence of the scale of the investment with which one begins (a situation that has in all likelihood been aggravated by the financial deregulation of the last few decades), this proposal strikes me as particularly sound. In Atkinson’s view, it is intimately bound up with the larger issue of a new approach to public property and the possible development of a new form of sovereign wealth fund. The public authority cannot resign itself merely to go on piling up debt and endlessly privatizing everything it possesses.

On the other hand, alongside this national guaranteed and insured savings program, Atkinson proposes establishing an “inheritance for all” program. This would take the form of a capital endowment assigned to each young citizen as he or she reached adulthood, at the age of eighteen. All such endowments would be financed by estate taxes and a more progressive tax structure. In concrete terms, Atkinson estimates that, with current revenue from the British estate tax, it would be possible to finance a capital endowment of slightly more than £5,000 for each young adult. He calls for a far-reaching reform of the system of inheritance taxation, and especially for greater progressivity with regard to the larger estates. (He proposes an upper rate of 65 percent, as with the income tax.) These reforms would make it possible to finance a capital endowment on the order of £10,000 per young adult.

More here.

Friday Poem

Hold the bird in the left hand, and commence
to pull off the feathers from under the wing.
Having plucked one side, take the other wing
and proceed in the same manner, until all the
feathers are removed.

– Mrs Beeton’s Household Management


I raise Paisley wounds,
spill yellow pollen of fat.
This is reversing time, like a vandal

who scores shellac blooms
from a soundbox, tightening to snapping
the strings of a lute.

As if I scraped a poem’s lard
from vellum. As brattish
as kicking a cat.

In pale skin are magnolia buds:
the muscles that worked wings,
but I’ve undone the wings,

gripping each pinion
as if to slide home the marriage ring
and never dream of flying again;

I’ve plucked the eyed, seed feathers,
the chicky down, the fine human hair
like first casing of mushroom spawn,

the long quills that striped across
the evening sun this week,
trembling in the rainstorm’s target.

by Jen Hadfield
from Almanacs
publisher: Bloodaxe, 2005
ISBN: 1852246871