Complicating the History of the Left


Murtaza Vali in Blouin Artinfo (image “Der Weisse Engel,” 2011. Video, photographs, and text):

For many who followed developments at and around Zuccotti Park last fall through Naeem Mohaiemen’s prolific Facebook posts, his occasional asides — excerpted dialogue from the cult-hit 1990s teen drama “My So-Called Life”; the box-office performance of the latest installment of the “Harold & Kumar” franchise; a negative review of Steven Spielberg’s recently released film “The Adventures of Tintin” — may have seemed out of character. But anyone acquainted with Mohaiemen or his work knows that he is a keen but somewhat perverse polymath, whose possible subjects of analysis run the gamut from newsworthy events of historical record to the sorts of minor cultural artifacts that constitute what the literary theorist Lauren Berlant has dubbed the “silly archive.” Employing photography, video, and text — formats commonly used by the traditional news media — Mohaiemen, an artist, activist, and writer dually based in New York and Dhaka, Bangladesh, embeds painstaking archival research into a web of richly observed personal anecdotes and pop-culture references, presenting an idiosyncratically annotated narrative that enriches, complicates, and challenges dominant historical accounts.

Take Mohaiemen’s contribution to last year’s Sharjah Biennial: “The Young Man Was (Part 1: United Red Army),” a 67-minute video about the September 28, 1977, hijacking of Japan Airlines Flight 472, en route from Paris to Tokyo to Dhaka, by a unit of the Japanese Red Army. The film is anchored and bracketed by Mohaiemen’s personal memory of himself as a frustrated eight-year-old whose favorite TV show, “The Zoo Gang,” was superseded by a live broadcast of the hijacking-and-hostage crisis. An unprecedented media event for the young nation of Bangladesh, whose broadcast capabilities at the time were rudimentary at best, the airplane drama dragged on for days, a seeming eternity for the little boy awaiting the return of his beloved show.

While researching the project, Mohaiemen stumbled upon archival audio-recordings of the marathon radio negotiations between the hijackers’ representative, code-named Dankesu, and the Bangladeshi hostage negotiator, Air Vice Marshall A. G. Mahmud, operating from the control tower. As might be expected, in the film, Mohaiemen intersperses excerpts from these recordings with snippets of archival video — blurry bits of the original black-and-white broadcast; Japanese, American, and local news coverage of the standoff; the wonderfully dated opening credits of “The Zoo Gang”; and a sequence from a film starring one of the airplane hostages, the actress Carole Wells — all held together by his measured voice-over, which fills in the broader historical and political context.

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Why things happen


Mathias Frisch in Aeon:

{i}magine a video clip of the spreading waves played backwards. What we would see are concentrically converging waves. For some reason this second process, which is the time-reverse of the first, does not seem to occur in nature. The process of waves spreading from a source looks irreversible. And yet the underlying physical law describing the behaviour of waves – the wave equation – is as time-symmetric as any law in physics. It allows for both diverging and converging waves. So, given that the physical laws equally allow phenomena of both types, why do we frequently observe organised waves diverging from a source but never coherently converging waves?

Physicists and philosophers disagree on the correct answer to this question – which might be fine if it applied only to stones in ponds. But the problem also crops up with electromagnetic waves and the emission of light or radio waves: anywhere, in fact, that we find radiating waves. What to say about it?

On the one hand, many physicists (and some philosophers) invoke a causal principle to explain the asymmetry. Consider an antenna transmitting a radio signal. Since the source causes the signal, and since causes precede their effects, the radio waves diverge from the antenna after it is switched on simply because they are the repercussions of an initial disturbance, namely the switching on of the antenna. Imagine the time-reverse process: a radio wave steadily collapses into an antenna before the latter has been turned on. On the face of it, this conflicts with the idea of causality, because the wave would be present before its cause (the antenna) had done anything. David Griffiths, Emeritus Professor of Physics at Reed College in Oregon and the author of a widely used textbook on classical electrodynamics, favours this explanation, going so far as to call a time-asymmetric principle of causality ‘the most sacred tenet in all of physics’.

On the other hand, some physicists (and many philosophers) reject appeals to causal notions and maintain that the asymmetry ought to be explained statistically.

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The Great Divide


William Dalrymple in The New Yorker:

In August, 1947, when, after three hundred years in India, the British finally left, the subcontinent was partitioned into two independent nation states: Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. Immediately, there began one of the greatest migrations in human history, as millions of Muslims trekked to West and East Pakistan (the latter now known as Bangladesh) while millions of Hindus and Sikhs headed in the opposite direction. Many hundreds of thousands never made it.

Across the Indian subcontinent, communities that had coexisted for almost a millennium attacked each other in a terrifying outbreak of sectarian violence, with Hindus and Sikhs on one side and Muslims on the other—a mutual genocide as unexpected as it was unprecedented. In Punjab and Bengal—provinces abutting India’s borders with West and East Pakistan, respectively—the carnage was especially intense, with massacres, arson, forced conversions, mass abductions, and savage sexual violence. Some seventy-five thousand women were raped, and many of them were then disfigured or dismembered.

Nisid Hajari, in “Midnight’s Furies” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), his fast-paced new narrative history of Partition and its aftermath, writes, “Gangs of killers set whole villages aflame, hacking to death men and children and the aged while carrying off young women to be raped. Some British soldiers and journalists who had witnessed the Nazi death camps claimed Partition’s brutalities were worse: pregnant women had their breasts cut off and babies hacked out of their bellies; infants were found literally roasted on spits.”

By 1948, as the great migration drew to a close, more than fifteen million people had been uprooted, and between one and two million were dead. The comparison with the death camps is not so far-fetched as it may seem. Partition is central to modern identity in the Indian subcontinent, as the Holocaust is to identity among Jews, branded painfully onto the regional consciousness by memories of almost unimaginable violence.

More here.

Looking at the world through the eyes of Barbara Hepworth

Barbara_hepworth_working_on_curved_form_bryher_ii_1961_courtesy_bowness_hepworth_estateAli Smith at The New Statesman:

She is known for these holes, and for strings – at a certain point she began using strings over the hollows and holes of some of her abstract works, as if gesturing towards some mythical Orphean instrument, or conjuring a reminder of gut membrane. “The strings were the tension I felt between myself and the sea, the wind and the hills,” she wrote, both matter of fact and ­romantic. Henry Moore was dismissive, “a matter of ingenuity rather than a fundamental human experience”, he said of the stringing – as if ingenuity weren’t pretty fundamental to the human experience. “If every artist could truly, and with dedication, pull the string with which he was born – to the end – then a new concept could evolve,” Hepworth said in 1966, recalling her friendship with Piet Mondrian in a London full of cross-fertilisation between artists living and working together in the 1930s, London vibrant with pople who had left Europe in the rise of totalitarianism, all working in the face of the oncoming war. Those strings are somehow about such connecting, and also about stamina.

It is hard not to quote Hepworth’s own words about her art. She was an elegant articulator of her own and others’ work (keen in any case to represent herself: she usually took the official photographs of her work, and work by her second husband, Ben Nicholson, too, when they were together, for publicity and showing purposes; she happens also to have been a very good photographer).

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is there cause and effect?

OB-NN589_ridley_G_20110415170035Mathias Frisch at Aeon Magazine:

The early 20th-century English philosopher Sir Bertrand Russell concluded from these considerations that, since cause and effect play no fundamental role in physics, they should be removed from the philosophical vocabulary altogether. ‘The law of causality,’ he said with a flourish, ‘like much that passes muster among philosophers, is a relic of a bygone age, surviving, like the monarchy, only because it is erroneously supposed not to do harm.’

Neo-Russellians in the 21st century express their rejection of causes with no less rhetorical vigour. The philosopher of science John Earman of the University of Pittsburgh maintains that the wooliness of causal notions makes them inappropriate for physics: ‘A putative fundamental law of physics must be stated as a mathematical relation without the use of escape clauses or words that require a PhD in philosophy to apply (and two other PhDs to referee the application, and a third referee to break the tie of the inevitable disagreement of the first two).’

This is all very puzzling. Is it OK to think in terms of causes or not? If so, why, given the apparent hostility to causes in the underlying laws? And if not, why does it seem to work so well?

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Buster Keaton’s Cure

Keaton_4imageCharlie Fox at Cabinet Magazine:

Here he is, a little man in his trademark outfit of porkpie hat and rumpled suit. He ignores all conversational prompts, playing dumb and nodding a little as if out of beat with the situation, mid-daydream. “The American public would like to hear you say something. Would you say something? Go ahead,” Wynn cajoles him, “speak!” And upon these ventriloquist’s orders, Buster commences a routine that looks like a ludic premonition of the anguished choreographies found in Samuel Beckett’s plays. (Shortly before his death, he would appear as the solitary figure in Beckett’s metaphysically queasy 1965 short, Film).1 Carefully, the voice must be readied—the whole body is involved. He shrugs his shoulders a few times, bends his knees to ensure that he’s suitably limber, then performs some exaggerated respirations that make his chest swell and deflate like a ragged bellows. There’s a mysterious procedure of cheek massage and jaw agitation in which he looks like a gargoyle attempting to reverse the effects of amphetamines. He spritzes something into his mouth, the host looks quizzically on, and what shy laughter there was in the audience has receded like a weak breeze. Then, at last, he says “Hello!” in an eager innocent’s yelp. Wynn is astonished! His owlish eyes go wide, and Buster falls, exhausted, into his arms as the audience chuckles. Television is probably more accommodating to such outbursts of staccato weirdness than any other medium, but Buster’s act is much more than just an odd trick.

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Why the Pope’s letter on climate change matters

Quirin Schiermeier in Nature:

PopeA very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.… It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity.

This statement mirrors faithfully the basic conclusion at which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has arrived time and again. Cardinals who were involved in drafting the encyclical consulted leading scientists about the physical causes of climate change, so it is not surprising that science surfaces in the letter. But the Pope’s recognition of human-induced global warming is an unflinching rebuke to climate-change doubters who might have hoped to find an ally in the Catholic Church. No wonder many scientists have greeted the encyclical with unusual enthusiasm. “It is unique in that it brings together faith and moral with the world of reason and ingenuity,” said climate scientist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in Germany, at a Vatican press conference today in Rome. “I can testify that everything in the encyclical is in line with science.”

More here.

Slavery’s Long Shadow

Paul Krugman in The New York Times:

RaceMy own understanding of the role of race in U.S. exceptionalism was largely shaped by two academic papers. The first, by the political scientist Larry Bartels, analyzed the move of the white working class away from Democrats, a move made famous in Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” Mr. Frank argued that working-class whites were being induced to vote against their own interests by the right’s exploitation of cultural issues. But Mr. Bartels showed that the working-class turn against Democrats wasn’t a national phenomenon — it was entirely restricted to the South, where whites turned overwhelmingly Republican after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Richard Nixon’s adoption of the so-called Southern strategy. And this party-switching, in turn, was what drove the rightward swing of American politics after 1980. Race made Reaganism possible. And to this day Southern whites overwhelmingly vote Republican, to the tune of 85 or even 90 percent in the deep South.

The second paper, by the economists Alberto Alesina, Edward Glaeser, and Bruce Sacerdote, was titled “Why Doesn’t the United States Have a European-style Welfare State?” Its authors — who are not, by the way, especially liberal — explored a number of hypotheses, but eventually concluded that race is central, because in America programs that help the needy are all too often seen as programs that help Those People: “Within the United States, race is the single most important predictor of support for welfare. America’s troubled race relations are clearly a major reason for the absence of an American welfare state.”

More here.

‘The Festival of Insignificance,’ by Milan Kundera

Diane Johnson in the New York Times:

21-Johnson-blog427Milan Kundera, now 86, has been living quietly in France since his defection from Czechoslovakia in 1975, seven years after the Soviet invasion that ended the so-called Prague Spring of 1968 and nearly 15 years before the Velvet Revolution that brought down the Communist ­regime. Earlier, he had been an enthusiastic member of the Communist Party, but had left it and become a dissident. Because of this animated political history, he has remained controversial and was criticized by some for running out prematurely on the struggles of his nation. In 2008, he had to refute charges that he had denounced one of his friends to the Communist authorities.

In Paris since then, not surprisingly, Kundera has preserved an apolitical stance. He is rarely seen in public, yet continues as a productive novelist, reworking and recasting the existentialist philosophical and political ideas that have interested him since his now classic novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” brought him wide acclaim in the early 1980s. He has subsequently published, besides essays and a play, four other novels: “Immortality,” “Slowness,” “Identity” and “Ignorance,” exploring subjects that bear intimately upon the human situation, as their titles imply.

His new novel, “The Festival of Insignificance,” divided into seven short ­sections, was, like his other recent work, first written in French. Well translated by Linda Asher, it suggests he has not quite finished with the Soviet era. Slight, almost terse at barely over 100 pages, it resumes his earlier preoccupations and personal history, here set in contemporary Paris.

More here.

New DNA Results Show Kennewick Man Was Native American

Carl Zimmer in the New York Times:

19KENNEWICK1-blog427In July 1996, two college students were wading in the shallows of the Columbia River near the town of Kennewick, Wash., when they stumbled across a human skull.

At first the police treated the case as a possible murder. But once a nearly complete skeleton emerged from the riverbed and was examined, it became clear that the bones were extremely old — 8,500 years old, it would later turn out.

The skeleton, which came to be known as Kennewick Man or the Ancient One, is one of the oldest and perhaps the most important — and controversial — ever found in North America. Native American tribes said that the bones were the remains of an ancestor and moved to reclaim them in order to provide a ritual burial.

But a group of scientists filed a lawsuit to stop them, arguing that Kennewick Man could not be linked to living Native Americans. Adding to the controversy was the claim from some scientists that Kennewick Man’s skull had unusual “Caucasoid” features.Speculation flew that Kennewick Man was European.

A California pagan group went so far as to file a lawsuit seeking to bury the skeleton in a pre-Christian Norse ceremony.

On Thursday, Danish scientists published an analysis of DNA obtained from the skeleton. Kennewick Man’s genome clearly does not belong to a European, the scientists said.

More here.

Of weapons programs in Iran and Israel, and the need for journalists to report on both

Dan Drollette, Jr. in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

IsraelNuclearGradientSmallAlthough Iran’s nuclear program dominates the headlines now (and did apparently have a military dimension at one time), that program has yet to produce a nuclear weapon, judging from the available public evidence. Meanwhile, the country pushing most aggressively for complete elimination of any prospect of an Iranian bomb—Israel—has an unacknowledged nuclear arsenal of its own. Although others project higher numbers, nuclear arsenal experts Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris estimate that Israel has roughly 80 warheads, built in secret.

It is noteworthy that while negotiations over limiting Iran’s enrichment program have taken center stage in news coverage—and will likely dominate the headlines as a final agreement is or is not reached at the end of this month—the history of Israel’s covert nuclear program draws relatively little media attention. Israel has long maintained a policy of nuclear ambiguity, neither confirming nor directly denying that it has a nuclear deterrent, and the United States government has officially taken the same stance, prohibiting its officials from stating that Israel is a nuclear weapons country.

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Food as Art: Representation and Meaning

by Dwight Furrow

ScreenHunter_1234 Jun. 22 16.56One of the main hurdles confronting the view that fine cuisine is a fine art is to say what fine cuisine is about. Paintings refer to something beyond the painting and thus a painting can have meaning and can be interpreted. What do dishes refer to? Are they just flavor combinations that refer to nothing beyond the meal or do the flavors have meaning that can be decoded and elucidated, as a reader might grasp the symbols in a poem? Here is a quote from essayist and literary critic William Deresiewic articulating the standard puzzlement often expressed when confronted by this question of the meaning of food:

But food, for all that, is not art. Both begin by addressing the senses, but that is where food stops. It is not narrative or representational, does not organize and express emotion. An apple is not a story, even if we can tell a story about it. A curry is not an idea, even if its creation is the result of one. Meals can evoke emotions, but only very roughly and generally, and only within a very limited range — comfort, delight, perhaps nostalgia, but not anger, say, or sorrow, or a thousand other things. Food is highly developed as a system of sensations, extremely crude as a system of symbols. Proust on the madeleine is art; the madeleine itself is not art. A good risotto is a fine thing, but it isn’t going to give you insight into other people, allow you to see the world in a new way, or force you to take an inventory of your soul.

This dismissive argument from Deresiewic receives support from many philosophers throughout history writing on the arts. Even Carolyn Korsmeyer, the philosopher most responsible for putting food on the philosophical map, while granting that food is worthy of serious aesthetic attention, has reservations about food being a fine art. “Ought we now to take the next step and conclude that foods also qualify as works of art in the full sense of the term? That they represent in their own medium the same sorts of objects as paintings, sculptures, poems, and symphonies? I do not believe we should.” (Korsmeyer, Making Sense of Taste, 124)

Korsmeyer argues that food acquires meaning only because of its context, the ceremonies and rituals that surround the serving of food. Food, of course, is richly symbolic. The apple in Eve's hand represents the fall of humanity. The apple in Mom's apple pie represents her loving solicitude. For the Genoan, pesto is the taste of home; for coastal New Englanders it’s a clambake. Chicken soup is a symbol of healing; the Thanksgiving turkey a symbol of gratitude, abundance, and the gathering of family. There is plenty of meaning here to keep the semioticians busy.

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Foolish Logic

by Alexander Bastidas Fry

Logics When we face difficult questions vague answers can offer a feeling of clarity that binary answers cannot. The laws of nature and the foibles of humans do not always allow strict classification into true and false. Even when such a dichotomy exists how do we find the absolute truth? And what is more, how do we know the right question? Everything and everyone seems to have an answer and a question. During moments of introspection, the full moon may even ask you a question, or offer an answer with clarity. The moon is an object that is utterly real and tangible, but it is never quite present or reachable. It alludes to a bright idea that has no consequence. Take this old story,

A monk sat in the forest with three students. He took out his fan and placed it in front of him, saying, “Without calling it a fan, tell me what this is.”

The first said, “You could not call it a slop-bucket.” The master poked him with his stick.

The second and third students were actually rocks that the master had mistaken for students, because it was getting very dark. Suddenly, the master and his pupil felt afraid and alone.

In the distance a wolf howled.

The Zen tradition of paradoxical or even seemingly nonsensical stories like this, a koan, is to provoke doubt in understanding. Or to provoke true insight. Either way we would be fools to not take wisdom offered when there are wolves in the distance, sharks circling, or clouds gathering. Old Buddhist, Zen, and Sufi stories are searching for wisdom or answers to threats hidden in that shadows. But often the stories show all the search is for naught, there is nothing in the shadows. Indeed, many of the reoccurring themes and animals in those stories are not situations we encounter today. In the city there are troubled people on the corner and parking tickets. As I look out the window I see someone getting written a parking ticket. I think that a sort of modern koan is that parking signs that are always written in the negatory; statements which do not state what is permitted, only things which are un-permitted. The modern world casts new-old spells on people. What wisdom do we need in the modern world?

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The Long Shadow of Nazi Indoctrination: Persistence of Anti-Semitism in Germany

by Jalees Rehman

Anti-Semitism and the holocaust are among the central themes in the modern German secondary school curriculum. During history lessons in middle school, we learned about anti-Semitism and the persecution of Jews in Europe during the middle ages and early modernity. Our history curriculum in the ninth and tenth grades focused on the virulent growth of anti-Semitism in 20th century Europe, how Hitler and the Nazi party used anti-Semitism as a means to rally support and gain power, and how the Nazi apparatus implemented the systematic genocide of millions of Jews.


Image of a Hitler Youth meeting from the German Federal Archive via Wikimedia

In grades 11 to 13, the educational focus shifts to a discussion of the broader moral and political context of anti-Semitism and Nazism. How could the Nazis enlist the active and passive help of millions of “upstanding” citizens to participate in this devastating genocide? Were all Germans who did not actively resist the Nazis morally culpable or at least morally responsible for the Nazi horrors? Did Germans born after the Second World War inherit some degree of moral responsibility for the crimes committed by the Nazis? How can German society ever redeem itself after being party to the atrocities of the Nazis? Anti-Semitism and Nazism were also important topics in our German literature and art classes because the Nazis persecuted and murdered German Jewish intellectuals and artists, and because the shame and guilt experienced by Germans after 1945 featured so prominently in German art and literature.

One purpose of extensively educating Germany school-children about this dark and shameful period of German history is the hope that if they are ever faced with the reemergence of prejudice directed against Jews or any other ethnic or religious group, they will have the courage to stand up for those who are being persecuted and make the right moral choices. As such, it is part of the broader Vergangenheitsbewältigung (wrestling with one's past) in post-war German society which takes place not only in schools but in various public venues. The good news, according to recent research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Nico Voigtländer and Hans-Joachim Voth, is that Germans who attended school after the Second World War have shown a steady decline in anti-Semitism. The bad news: Vergangenheitsbewältigung is a bigger challenge for Germans who attended school under the Nazis because a significant proportion of them continue to exhibit high levels of anti-Semitic attitudes more than half a century after the defeat of Nazi Germany.

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Monday Poem

““The best evidence we have suggests that early Earth was completely covered by oceans…(but) if you link two amino acids together to make a protein, you have to remove water.” And that would have been impossible if the amino acids were immersed in an ocean. Life needed some land—literally a beachhead—to get started.” —Tim Folger , writer, National Geographic, Discover, Scientific American


though landbound, we were all once ships
we understand the sea which undulates within us
we’re bobbing on its swells of time
swept by winds that touch and grind us

few think we’re flawlessly designed
there are breaches in our hulls
we come perilously close to rocky spits,
adrift, each one looking for a beachhead
longing for a place that’s still
while everything around us shifts
the patch of earth by which god’s seas are parted
where future past and present sit
where love and luck may then be started

by Jim Culleny

Banglaphone Fiction I

by Claire Chambers

In the 1940s, around the time that the British Raj was disintegrating, Bengalis were coming to Britain in Lascars large numbers. (Smaller numbers had travelled to the country from as long ago as the seventeenth century onwards.) Many of them hailed from Sylhet in what is now northeast Bangladesh. Some of these new residents had previously been lascars, working on the crews of ships or as cooks. Settling in areas such as East London's Spitalfields, Sylhetis pioneered Britain's emerging curry restaurant trade, laboured for long hours and with few rights in the garment industry, and worked as mechanics.

Sylhetis have made an inestimable contribution to the fabric of British life over more than three centuries. This is most frequently recognized in their association with Brick LaneBrick Lane, the popular road of curry houses in East London. And too often their contribution to literature is reduced to one novel, Brick Lane, Monica Ali's 2003 debut about the famous street and its denizens. I will explore Ali's text in a future 3QD piece. However, this article seeks to broaden out the debate to English-language literature from authors writing about Britain who come from across the Bengaliyat. This word 'Bengaliyat' denotes national and cultural continuities between East and West, Hindu and Muslim Bengal.

As I mentioned in a previous article, the first book written in English by a South Asian author was Sake Travels of Dean MahometDean Mahomed's The Travels of Dean Mahomet. Although Mahomed grew up in Patna, he claimed to be related to the Nawabs who governed Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa between 1740 and 1854. He is often thus categorized as a Bengali-British writer. The Travels of Dean Mahomet is an epistolary account of his journey through northern India, drawing on conventions of sentimental fiction and Western travel writing. Written to an imaginary English 'Sir', these letters describe 'Mahometan' habits and customs such as circumcision, marriage, and death rites.

Although his book focuses on India, Mahomed's travels took him far from the Dean Mahomedsubcontinent. From 1784 to 1807, he lived in Cork, where he married a Protestant gentlewoman, Jane Daly, converted (on paper at least) to her religion, and fathered the first few of what would turn out to be a family of at least eight children. Here he had a chance meeting with another traveller, Mirza Abu Taleb Khan, who was on a brief Irish visit in 1799 and was also an excellent travel writer. Whereas Mahomed cast his gaze eastwards to India for the benefit of a Western audience, Khan primarily wrote about Europe in Persian for his fellow Indians. Probably because of a withdrawal of his patronage in Ireland which created economic and social pressures, Mahomed and Jane relocated to London in 1808. There they set up the first Indian restaurant in Britain, the Hindostanee Coffee House, in 1810. London's high overheads and Britons' then timid taste buds meant that it went bankrupt in 1812.

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Artificially Flavored Intelligence

by Misha Lepetic

“I see your infinite form in every direction,
with countless arms, stomachs, faces, and eyes.”
~ Bhagavad-Gītā
11 16

TheScream-mod3About ten days ago, someone posted on an image on Reddit, a sprawling site that is the Internet's version of a clown car that's just crashed into a junk shop. The image, appropriately uploaded to the 'Creepy' corner of the website, is kind of hard to describe, so, assuming that you are not at the moment on any strong psychotropic substances, or are not experiencing a flashback, please have a good, long look before reading on.

What the hell is that thing? Our sensemaking gear immediately kicks into overdrive. If Cthulhu had had a pet slug, this might be what it looked like. But as you look deeper into the picture, all sorts of other things begin to emerge. In the lower left-hand corner there are buildings and people, and people sitting on buildings which might themselves be on wheels. The bottom center of the picture seems to be occupied by some sort of a lurid, lime-colored fish. In the upper right-hand corner, half-formed faces peer out of chalices. The background wallpaper evokes an unholy copulation of brain coral and astrakhan fur. And still there are more faces, or at least eyes. There are indeed more eyes than an Alex Grey painting, and they hew to none of the neat symmetries that make for a safe world. In fact, the deeper you go into the picture, the less perspective seems to matter, as solid surfaces dissolve into further cascades of phantasmagoria. The same effect applies to the principal thing, which has not just an indeterminate number of eyes, ears or noses, but even heads.

The title of the thread wasn't very helpful, either: “This image was generated by a computer on its own (from a friend working on AI)”. For a few days, that was all anyone knew, but it was enough to incite another minor-scale freakout about the nature and impending arrival of Our Computer Overlords. Just as we are helpless to not over-interpret the initial picture, so we are all too willing to titillate ourselves with alarmist speculations concerning its provenance. This was presented as a glimpse into the psychedelic abyss of artificial intelligence; an unspeakable, inscrutable intellect briefly showed us its cards, and it was disquieting, to put it mildly. Is that what AI thinks life looks like? Or stated even more anxiously, is that what AI thinks life should look like?

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How Often Should You Clean Your Room?

by Jonathan Kujawa

The mathematics of the everyday is often surprisingly deep and difficult. John Conway famously uses the departmental lounge of the Princeton mathematics department as his office. He claims to spend his days playing games and doing nothing with whomever happens to be in the lounge, but his conversations about seemingly mundane questions has led to no end of delightful and deep mathematics. Chatting with math folks about the everyday can quickly lead to undiscovered country.

A much loved tradition among any group of mathematicians is talking math in the department lounge at afternoon tea. Nearly every department has such a tea. Some are once a week, some every day. There may or may not be cookies. What is certain, though, is that everyone from the retired emeriti to undergraduate students are welcome to stop by for a revitalizing beverage and a chat. More often than not it leads to talk about interesting math. You can begin to imagine why John Conway hangs out in the Princeton math lounge and Alfréd Rényi joked “A mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems” [1].

You might think the conversation swirls around the work of the latest winners of the Abel prize or folks trying to impress by describing the deep results of their morning's efforts. There is some of that. But just as often the conversation turns into an energetic discussion about the mathematics of the everyday. Several years ago I was involved in a heated discussion about whether or not the election laws of the State of Georgia could allow for a certain local election to become caught in an endless loop of runoff votes. The local media's description of the electoral rules seemed to allow this absurdity. Of course the argument could easily be resolved with a quick Google search, but where's the fun in that? A search was done, but not until all possible scenarios were thoroughly thrashed out and a nickel wagered.

My colleagues, Kimball Martin and Ravi Shankar, asked themselves an innocuous tea-time question: “How often should you clean your room?” Easy to ask, the question is surprisingly difficult to solve. In math problems come in three flavors: so easy as to be not very interesting, so hard as to be unsolvable, and the sweet spot in the middle where the questions are both interesting and solvable. When to clean your room turns out to be a question of the third kind.


The Stockholm Public Library

To have a chance in using math to answer a question you have to figure out what you're really asking. In the end Kimball and Ravi settled on the following scenario. Imagine you have a collection of objects which are all in order. For example, they could be books in alphabetical order on a shelf. After you've read a book you drop it on the large pile of books on your desk. From time to time you think of a book you'd like to read (let's say you'd like to reread the collected works of Shel Silverstein). Since the books in the pile are in no particular order, if the Shel Silverstein book is in the pile you have to go through the books one by one to find it. It's much faster to find the book when it's on the shelf. On the other hand, it takes time to put the books back on the shelf.

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