Sunday Poem

Kudzai

Kudzai,
when your first birthday passed
without a word
without a symbol
you kept quiet;
and when your second passed
without a present
without a party
you kept quiet.
But when your third birthday passed
you made your own car,
a mud car you drove around,
making your own world,
making your life with care
at the closed gate of privilege.
.

by Julius Chingono
from Flag of Rags
A joint publication by Quartz Press
and Hippogriff Press, Johannesburg

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Power to the people: a Syrian experiment in democracy

New World Summit–Rojava, Part I from New World Summit on Vimeo.

Carne Ross in the FT:

Perhaps the last place you would expect to find a thriving experiment in direct democracy is Syria. But something radical is happening, little noticed, in the eastern reaches of that fractured country, in the isolated region known to the Kurds as Rojava.

Just as remarkable, perhaps, is that the philosophy that inspired self-government here was originated by a little-known American political thinker and one-time “eco-activist” whose ideas found their way to Syria through a Kurdish leader imprisoned upon an island in the Sea of Marmara. It’s a story that bizarrely connects a war-torn Middle East with New York’s Lower East Side.

I visited Rojava last month while filming a documentary about the failings of the western model of democracy. The region covers a substantial “corner” of north-east Syria and has a population of approximately 3m, yet it is not easy to get to. The only passage is by small boat or a creaky pontoon bridge across the Tigris from Iraq.

Turkey has closed its borders with Rojava, preventing all movement from the north, including humanitarian supplies to Kurdish-controlled areas. To the south, in Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government does not make access easy; permits for journalists are not straightforward and, we were told, repeat visits are discouraged.

The isolation is not only physical. Turkey regards the Syrian Kurd YPG militia that is fighting the jihadi organisation Isis in Rojava as synonymous with the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), a longstanding enemy inside Turkey. The YPG’s advance against Isis along Syria’s northern border has been halted by the declaration by Turkey of a so-called “safe zone” to the west of the Euphrates between the front line and the Kurdish-controlled canton of Afrin in the north-west. For the Kurds, the motive seems transparently clear: to prevent the formation of a contiguous area of Kurdish control along Turkey’s southern border.

The KRG, which collaborates with Turkey against the PKK, has also been reluctant to support the YPG, even though they share a common enemy in the shape of Isis.

More here.

Wouldn’t you like to know what’s going on in my mind?

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John Preskill in Quantum Frontiers [via Sean Carroll]:

I suppose most theoretical physicists who (like me) are comfortably past the age of 60 worry about their susceptibility to “crazy-old-guy syndrome.” (Sorry for the sexism, but all the victims of this malady I know are guys.) It can be sad when a formerly great scientist falls far out of the mainstream and seems to be spouting nonsense.

Matthew Fisher is only 55, but reluctance to be seen as a crazy old guy might partially explain why he has kept pretty quiet about his passionate pursuit of neuroscience over the past three years. That changed two months ago when he posted a paper on the arXiv about Quantum Cognition.

Neuroscience has a very seductive pull, because it is at once very accessible and very inaccessible. While a theoretical physicist might think and write about a brane even without having or seeing a brane, everybody’s got a brain (some scarecrows excepted). On the other hand, while it’s not too hard to write down and study the equations that describe a brane, it is not at all easy to write down the equations for a brain, let alone solve them. The brain is fascinating because we know so little about it. And … how can anyone with a healthy appreciation for Gödel’s Theorem not be intrigued by the very idea of a brain that thinks about itself?

The idea that quantum effects could have an important role in brain function is not new, but is routinely dismissed as wildly implausible. Matthew Fisher begs to differ. And those who read his paper (as I hope many will) are bound to conclude: This old guy’s not so crazy. He may be onto something. At least he’s raising some very interesting questions.

More here.

How to Solve the Hardest Logic Puzzle Ever

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Brian Gallagher in Nautilus:

The Hardest Logic Puzzle Ever goes like this:

Three gods A, B, and C are called, in some order, True, False, and Random. True always speaks truly, False always speaks falsely, but whether Random speaks truly or falsely is a completely random matter. Your task is to determine the identities of A, B, and C by asking three yes-no questions; each question must be put to exactly one god. The gods understand English, but will answer all questions in their own language, in which the words for “yes” and “no” are “da” and “ja,” in some order. You do not know which word means which.

Always up for a challenge, I sat down on my couch, pen and paper in hand, confident I could conquer the puzzle in two hours tops. It seemed to me that all I had to do was start by coming up with three questions at once and then work out their consequences. I asked A, for example, whether B was True; asked B whether A was True; and asked C whether he was True. Hours later, having asked the gods every yes and no question I could think of, I understood how the puzzle got its name. Clearly my questions weren’t compelling the gods to answer the way I wanted them to.

Frustrated, I went in search of enlightenment. The master atop the mountain turned out to be Boolos, who solved the puzzle in 1996. How he did it turns out to be one of the best lessons in logic and truth I have ever received. If you’d like to give the puzzle a try yourself, you can stop reading here. Good luck! If you succeed, you have my congrats. But if you don’t, come on back and you can go over Boolos’ solution with me below.

More here.

‘THE STORY OF MY TEETH’ BY VALERIA LUISELLI

Story-of-my-teethRosie Clarke at The Quarterly Conversation:

Humorous and heartbreaking, The Story of My Teeth is Luiselli’s follow-up to her award-winning debut, Faces in the Crowd. The author’s mastery of entrelacement was epitomized in that first book, which weaves together three plots into an intricate, and increasingly complex, braid of poignant narratives, where fact and fiction become indivisible (a refrain also common to this new work). Born in Mexico City in 1983, and currently based in New York City, Luiselli has lived in Costa Rica, South Africa, India, France, Spain, and South Korea. Despite such varied environments, two places in particular form a crucial part of her fiction: both Mexico and Manhattan play pivotal roles, often more like characters than settings. While Faces in the Crowd took us into the heart of Harlem, in The Story of My Teeth the nooks and crannies of the Distrito Federal are made tangible through Luiselli’s deftly descriptive prose, with the assistance of photographs documenting the real-life locations featured in the novel.

Written in instalments for the workers of the Jumex juice factory in Ecatepec, Mexico City,The Story of My Teeth recalls the heyday of serialized literature, when publishing chapters sequentially in magazines was a way of broadening readership to include those unable to afford books. In this case, each chapter was distributed among workers in the form of an egalitarian chapbook (with some so enamoured that a weekly reading group was formed, Luiselli subsequently receiving MP3 recordings of their meetings). In contrast to 19th-century serializations, modern technology allowed her to mold her written responses to include workers’ input. In this way, The Story of My Teeth is highly collaborative, and while Luiselli’s skill as storyteller is indisputable, the book’s rich sense of authenticity, locale, and character are surely in part due to numerous personal contributions, in addition to the many factual elements involved in what is otherwise an improbable tale.

more here.

on Michel Houellebecq’s ‘Submission’

1108-BKS-Knausgaard-LEAD-master675Karl Ove Knausgaard at The New York Times:

“Through all the years of my sad youth Huysmans remained a companion, a faithful friend; never once did I doubt him, never once was I tempted to drop him or take up another subject; then, one afternoon in June 2007, after waiting and putting it off as long as I could, even slightly longer than was allowed, I defended my dissertation, ‘Joris-Karl Huysmans: Out of the Tunnel,’ before the jury of the University of Paris IV-Sorbonne.”

So ran my first Houellebecq sentence, the beginning of the novel “Submission.” What kind of a sentence is it? It is not in any way spectacular, more distinctly literary, certainly not the opening of a blockbuster — and not just because it concerns a man whose youth was dismal and his relationship to what the vast majority of people would consider a highly obscure author of the 19th century, but also because the sentence in itself (at least as I read it in the Norwegian rendering, which I sense perhaps is closer in style to Houellebecq’s original than Lorin Stein’s graceful English translation) is anything but impressive, rather it is strikingly ordinary, sauntering in a way, slightly disharmonious and irregular in rhythm, untidy even, as if the author lacks full mastery of the language or is unused to writing.

What does this mean? It means that from the outset, the novel establishes a human presence, a particular individual, a rather faltering and yet sincere character about whom we already know something: His youth was unhappy and endured by the reading of novels, which became so important to him he felt compelled to study literature, in a sheltered environment in which he wished to remain for as long as possible, the environment in which literature is read and written about.

more here.

on ‘Augustine: Conversions and Confessions’, by Robin Lane Fox

Ae770a9d-8605-4b40-8465-ba199b650b76John Cornwell at the Financial Times:

Citing earlier Christian writers, Lane Fox quarrels at the outset with claims, controversial to this day, that Augustine “invented” original sin — the doctrine that the entire human race, with the exception of the Virgin Mary, inherited the sin of Adam and Eve and its consequences. His discussion of Augustine’s sexual exploits (“I was boiling over,” wrote Augustine, “because of my fornications”) goes beyond the standard commentaries to claim that “he has influenced our vocabulary for sexual desire ever since”. He refers to Augustine’s “flexibility” with the language of sex, and the dynamism of his metaphors. Where Augustine says that “the brambles of lust” were growing “beyond my head”, Lane Fox suggests that Augustine “actually did things, aged fifteen, and was as ‘wicked’ as possible”. In other words, his sexual sins, even at an early age, were no mere “impure thoughts”. Lane Fox is convinced, moreover, that Augustine probably indulged in same-sex liaisons as well as heterosexual ones.

With a dig at “pained modern liberal readers” who attempt to avoid the fact, he hammers home the significance of Augustine’s belief in predestination — that heaven awaits only those chosen by God, however hard the excluded try. He emphasises that Augustine was not claiming that he turned to God and thereby received God’s grace, but that God’s grace alone enabled him to turn in the first place. It is God who seeksus out.

more here.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths: Barbara Comyns’s daring depiction of childbirth.

Emily Gould in The Paris Review:

SpoonsChildbirth, in literature, almost always takes place “offstage,” outside a book’s main action. Even contemporary novels, unless they are specifically about motherhood, birth babies in a sentence or two. What was Comyns up to, then, in devoting three chapters of this short book to Sophia’s labor and delivery? One possibility: the description of Sophia’s labor make the class and sex limbo that threatens her life inescapably clear: she is too middle-class to give birth, as poor people still mostly did in 1930, at home, but she is too poor to give birth, as richer women did, attended by competent doctors in a private hospital. Instead, she is treated brutally at the public hospital where a thoughtful friend of a friend has managed to get her admitted as a charity case. The fate that awaits her there is horrifying in part because its horror is so commonplace; millions of women shared it, and worse, still do. Even today birth is pathologized and shrouded in mystery in most of the developed world. Comyns, with her knack for defamiliarization that reveals the strangeness of the most familiar, was a perfect observer of the absurdity of the situation in which her narrator—and in which she—found herself. “Besides being very uncomfortable it made me feel dreadfully shamed and exposed. People would not dream of doing such a thing to an animal. I think the ideal way to have a baby would be in a dark, quiet room, all alone and not hurried.”

With these frank and detailed chapters, Comyns elevates what might have been a commonplace melodrama about a girl led astray into much more unusual sort of novel—especially for its time. The particulars of Sophia’s birth are outdated, but the feelings she describes—of shame, helplessness, and terror, wonder at her baby countered by fear for his life—are still far too common in life, yet still far too rare in literature.

More here.

The End of the Cold War

Duncan White in The Telegraph:

Gorbachev-largeOn May 28 1987, a skinny 19-year-old German took off from Helsinki in his Cessna and made for Moscow. Flying into Soviet airspace, Mathias Rust was tracked for a while by a MiG fighter, but carried on undaunted, flying low in a bid to avoid radar. Once over the Soviet capital, he used a map to find his way to Red Square, and took two low passes in an attempt to clear a space for a landing amid the gathering crowd before touching down on a neighbouring bridge. He chatted to the bemused Muscovites in awkward English; he said he wanted to “build an imaginary bridge” across the Iron Curtain. He asked if he might speak to Mikhail Gorbachev. The KGB had other ideas and locked him up.

Gorbachev, it turns out, was not even in Moscow, but at a meeting of Warsaw Pact leaders in East Berlin. When he was informed that an amateur aviator had penetrated what was supposed to be the most sophisticated air defence system in the world, he told the gathered leaders it constituted a grave humiliation for the Soviet Union. Inwardly, though, he was jubilant: Rust had given him leverage over the hardliners in the military who opposed his reforms. Eduard Shevardnadze, minister of foreign affairs and Gorbachev's partner in Perestroika, was so delighted that he celebrated by getting stuck into a bottle of brandy in his hotel room. The irony was that for all Rust's sentimental nonsense about imaginary peace bridges, his escapade did help to pave the way for major treaties on nuclear disarmament between the United States and the USSR. At a meeting of the Politburo on May 30, the defence minister Sergei Sokolov was forced to resign, and many sackings followed. It was a heavy blow to Gorbachev's opponents. Rust, meanwhile, spent two months in prison before being released in a diplomatic goodwill gesture.

More here.

‘Islam and the Future of Tolerance’ and ‘Not in God’s Name’

Irshad Manji in The New York Times:

MANJI-superJumboCivilization has a civility problem. This I learned long before Donald Trump. In 2005, the prominent “new atheist” Richard Dawkins shouted his disapproval at me — from the audience — during my TED talk at Oxford University. More recently, the novelist Salman Rushdie chastised me on Twitter for suggesting that even atheists worship something. Many of Rushdie’s followers, worshiping their own wisdom, responded to my tweet with vitriol. Defending the value of doubt through crude certitude is a sign of our times. How refreshing, then, to read an honest yet affectionate exchange between the Islamist-turned-liberal-Muslim Maajid Nawaz and the neuroscientist who advocates mindful atheism, Sam Harris. “Islam and the Future of Tolerance” begins on an impolitic note. Harris tells Nawaz that to reform Islamic practices one must “pretend” that “jihad is just an inner spiritual struggle, whereas it’s primarily a doctrine of holy war.” Nawaz counters: “Religion doesn’t inherently speak for itself” because “no scripture, no book, no piece of writing has its own voice.” Human interpretation is everything. Their back-and-forth clarifies multiple confusions that plague the public conversation about Islam. We learn the difference between Islam and Islamism, as well as the fascinating distinctions among political Islamists, revolutionary Islamists and militant Islamists. Crucially, we discover how Nawaz himself fell in with an Islamist organization. He speaks of his “identity crisis,” brought on by British racism and pounced on by charismatic recruiters trolling for vulnerable youth. Grievance born of secular sins — discrimination by the liberal democratic state — preceded his Islamist ideology, not the other way around.

While appreciating Nawaz’s individual experience, Harris pushes his friend to come clean and admit that religious conviction is the starting point for many Islamists. Without denying this, Nawaz proceeds to school Harris in more nuance. Frankly, though, Harris seems distracted by another agenda. He is listening to reply rather than to understand — and he replies by letting loose about liberals, who “totally discount the role that religious beliefs play in inspiring a group like the Islamic State.”

More here.

Is the Economy Really in Trouble? A Debate

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Neil Irwin in the NYT's The Upshot:

I have no idea how the United States economy is doing. And the closer I look at the data, the more contradictory it looks.

A strong case could be made that it is in its most vulnerable spot in years, at risk of a new recession amid a global slowdown. The market for many types of risky bonds is in disarray, and “the dangers facing the global economy are more severe than at any time since the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy in 2008,” the former Treasury secretary Lawrence H. Summers wrote recently.

There is also a strong case that the United States economy is robust enough to withstand whatever challenges might arise from overseas, and that the evidence of a slowdown is scattered and overstated. Fewer people have filed for unemployment insurance in recent weekly readings, for example, than any time since 1973.

I’ve tried several times in the last few weeks to convince myself that one of those stories is correct, but just can’t decide between them. And because The New York Times is not fond of headlines that include the “shruggie” emoticon (for the uninitiated, that would be ¯_(ツ)_/¯), I have held off writing anything.

Why am I telling you all this? Because sometimes the most accurate portrayal of a situation revolves around uncertainty — and because we journalists aren’t always honest about that. This is my effort to be a little more honest.

Rather than picking an analytical case and pretending to be more certain than I am, I want to walk readers through the conflicting evidence. Below, I do so in the form of the debate that has been playing out within my own head — and, very likely, around conference tables at every economic research group and central bank you can think of.

It sure feels as if we’re on the verge of something bad. The expansion is six years old, making it already the fourth-longest since World War II. If the economy does soften, the Federal Reserve is out of ammunition to do much of anything about it. This feels a little like late 2000, when there were signs the economy was losing momentum even though growth was still technically positive. Then in 2001 there was a mild recession.

Whoa, not so fast. Back then there was a huge correction in the stock market and downturn in business investment that caused the recession. What are the sectors that you see correcting in 2015 or 2016 that put the economy at that much risk?

More here.

If Stable and Efficient Banks Are Such a Good Idea, Why Are They So Rare?

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Over at Princeton University Press, chapter 1 of Charles W. Calomiris & Stephen H. Haber's Fragile by Design:The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit:

Everyone knows that life isn’t fair, that “politics matters.” We say it when our favorite movie loses out at the Academy Awards. We say it when the dolt in the cubicle down the hall, who plays golf with the boss, gets the promotion we deserved. We say it when bridges to nowhere are built because a powerful senator brings federal infrastructure dollars to his home state. And we say it when well-connected entrepreneurs ob- tain billions in government subsidies to build factories that never stand a chance of becoming competitive enterprises.

We recognize that politics is everywhere, but somehow we believe that banking crises are apolitical, the result of unforeseen and extraordinary circumstances, like earthquakes and hailstorms. We believe this because it is the version of events told time and again by central bankers and treasury officials, which is then repeated by business journalists and television talk- ing heads. In that story, well-intentioned and highly skilled people do the best they can to create effective financial institutions, allocate credit effi- ciently, and manage problems as they arise—but they are not omnipotent. Unable to foresee every possible contingency, they are sometimes subjected to strings of bad luck. “Economic shocks,” which presumably could not possibly have been anticipated, destabilize an otherwise smoothly running system. Banking crises, according to this version of events, are much like Tolstoy’s unhappy families: they are all unhappy in their own ways.

This book takes exception with that view and suggests instead that the politics that we see operating everywhere else around us also determines whether societies suffer repeated banking crises (as in Argentina and the United States), or never suffer banking crises (as in Canada). By politics we do not mean temporary, idiosyncratic alliances among individuals of the type that get the dumbest guy in the company promoted to vice presi- dent for corporate strategy. We mean, instead, the way that the fundamen- tal political institutions of a society structure the incentives of politicians, bankers, bank shareholders, depositors, debtors, and taxpayers to form coalitions in order to shape laws, policies, and regulations in their favor— often at the expense of everyone else. In this view, a country does not “choose” its banking system: rather it gets a banking system that is con- sistent with the institutions that govern its distribution of political power.

More here.

The nature and dynamics of world religions

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Nicolas Baumard and Coralie Chevallier in The Proceedings of the Royal Society (via Dan Sperber):

Abstract

In contrast with tribal and archaic religions, world religions are characterized by a unique emphasis on extended prosociality, restricted sociosexuality, delayed gratification and the belief that these specific behaviours are sanctioned by some kind of supernatural justice. Here, we draw on recent advances in life history theory to explain this pattern of seemingly unrelated features. Life history theory examines how organisms adaptively allocate resources in the face of trade-offs between different life-goals (e.g. growth versus reproduction, exploitation versus exploration). In particular, recent studies have shown that individuals, including humans, adjust their life strategy to the environment through phenotypic plasticity: in a harsh environment, organisms tend to adopt a ‘fast' strategy, pursuing smaller but more certain benefits, while in more affluent environments, organisms tend to develop a ‘slow' strategy, aiming for larger but less certain benefits. Reviewing a range of recent research, we show that world religions are associated with a form of ‘slow' strategy. This framework explains both the promotion of ‘slow' behaviours such as altruism, self-regulation and monogamy in modern world religions, and the condemnation of ‘fast' behaviours such as selfishness, conspicuous sexuality and materialism. This ecological approach also explains the diffusion pattern of world religions: why they emerged late in human history (500–300 BCE), why they are currently in decline in the most affluent societies and why they persist in some places despite this overall decline.

More here.

Court and the Indian state

Court2Shivani Radhakrishnan at n+1:

THE FIRST SCENE of Chaitanya Tamhane’s debut film, Court, opens with a distant view of a makeshift stage in a Bombay slum. Workers have gathered to watch a charismatic Dalit singer, who, backed by vocalists and drummers, belts out jeremiads against the false gods of the age: the greed found in glitzy new shopping malls and the “dense” thickets of racism, nationalism, and caste-ism into which people have fallen. Backed by an image of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the anti-caste activist and author of the Indian constitution, the singer’s message is insistent: people no longer recognize their oppressors. “This era of blindness / has gouged out our eyes,” he calls out. “A gent appears a crook / an owl looks like a peacock.” “The good ones are forgotten / the good-for-nothings, praised,” the backing singers respond. “The enemy is all destructive / yet we sing his praise,” the singer continues. “Time to know your enemy.”

But who is the enemy? This has been a longstanding quarrel within the Indian left: many take the caste system to be the primary enemy of national progress. Indian Marxists, though, have largely argued that the real enemy is class, that India’s caste system is really nothing but a class system in disguise. Tamhane’s film, which follows the state trial of Narayan Kamble, a fictional Dalit poet and singer (played in the film by Vira Satidhar) who is arrested shortly after the opening scene’s performance, skillfully reveals the sterility of the class or caste debate.

more here.

Clarice Lispector polished her prose until it shimmered with a taut irregularity

Kofman_lispector_imgAva Kofman at The Nation:

Much like that elusive goal, Lispector’s persona was almost always out of reach: hidden in language, fragments, gazes. She often obscured the details of her birth in 1920, treating it as an incidental event in her family’s escape from the anti-Jewish pogroms in Chechelnik, Ukraine. (They eventually settled in the northern Brazilian city of Recife.) Lispector scholar Earl Fitz wasn’t the first critic, hungry for authenticity, to call her an “incorrigible liar.” “She wore a lot of masks,” Fitz said, “and when she would take one off you’d think she was revealing something, but all she was revealing was another mask.”

Throughout her lifetime, the rumors persisted: Her name was a pseudonym; she didn’t exist; she was a liar, a diplomat, a man. Idra Novey, in the afterword to her recent translation of The Passion According to G.H., recalls a telling anecdote: A young woman, obsessed with Lispector’s work, is desperate to meet her. But when the young woman finally visits, Lispector sits silently in her apartment, staring and saying nothing, until the acolyte, terrified, flees.

Novey’s anecdote of an anecdote resembles most of Lispector’s stories: a simple plot, prolonged by the author’s stubborn meditations on emptiness, God, mortality, and eternity—­in other words, an extended wrestling with the void where language is not.

more here.