Arturo Escobar: a post-development thinker to be reckoned with

Drawing on influences from Foucault to Said, the Colombian's arguments have a sophistication that often goes unrecognised.

Simon Reid-Henry in The Guardian:

MDG--Arturo-Escobar-009One response to the development impasse caused by modernisation and dependency theories was “can do” neoliberalism; another involved reflection on the very purpose of development. This took shape across “alternative” approaches including environment, gender and sustainability. All these approaches grew up alongside the neoliberal right, but most were drowned out, for a time at least, by its noisiness.

Perhaps the most distinctive new approach, however – one set on meeting the new right's noisiness with a strategic and all-encompassing silence – was the post-development thinking embodied by the work of Colombian scholar Arturo Escobar.

Escobar's ideas are best summed up in his 1995 book Encountering Development, which offered much more than an analysis of mainstream development economics or the sprawling array of development actors and institutions it spawned. It was a critique of the whole rotten edifice of western ideas that supported development, which Escobar regarded as a contradiction in terms and a sham. For Escobar, development amounted to little more than the west's convenient “discovery” of poverty in the third world for the purposes of reasserting its moral and cultural superiority in supposedly post-colonial times.

More here.

on the ‘higher’ friendship between men and women

Streeter_Happiness2Baflr30.2_34cmykGeorge Scialabba at The Baffler:

When Mill was twenty-four and already a rising intellectual star, he met Mrs. Taylor, twenty-three, the wife of a Unitarian businessman and mother of two children. John had recently come through the depression he famously described in his Autobiography, caused, he was convinced, by having starved his feelings. Harriet was brilliant, beautiful, and fearless. Both were smitten, instantly and forever. Except when one or the other was convalescing (they were both tubercular), they rarely went a day without seeing or writing each other until she died twenty-eight years later, in 1858. (For the first nineteen of those years, they met openly at her house, thanks to her remarkably enlightened husband, John Taylor, of whom there is a small commemorative medallion on display in the Harriet Taylor Room.)

Mill insisted that everything he wrote after meeting Taylor was a joint production—she had the flashes of inspiration that he laboriously worked out. Some subsequent critics have doubted that this was true of his Logic and other philosophical writings. But it was surely true of The Subjection of Women, his powerful and influential critique of sexual inequality. Mill was already an advanced feminist when they met (which was, he later wrote, the only reason she gave him the time of day). But she enlarged his vision and kindled his indignation. The latter is perhaps the most striking feature of Mill’s treatise. Wollstonecraft’s Vindication had a conciliatory, occasionally even pleading, tone. But The Subjection of Women gave no quarter, rhetorically. The relentlessness of the prose in the cause of emancipation fits right into today’s sex-war rhetoric.

more here.

The decline of liberal democracy in Europe’s midst

10955Gábor Halmai at Eurozine:

Hungary's illiberal turn, which has significantly weakened the rule of law safeguards instituted by the 1989-1990 constitutional process, can be described as a 'constitutional counter-revolution'.[1] At the same time, it has not resulted in the restoration of either a single-party or police state structures. Rather, the Hungarian system since 2010 is better characterized as a 'democradura'.[2] In the following, I describe the elements and possible reasons for Hungary's political transformation.[3] The failure of the elite (myself included) that built liberal democracy in Hungary is one of the issues discussed. Another is why the first twenty years of regime transition did not see the emergence of greater respect for constitutional values. This would have prevented the rapid deconstruction of democracy or, at the very least, have made the collapse more difficult.

Especially after the refugee crisis, the Hungarian situation is also a test as to whether, and to what extent, the civilized world, especially Europe, can enforce global values in countries that are members of the international community, and of value-based communities such as the European Union and the Council of Europe. So far, the results by no means qualify as a success. The Hungarian government's minor concessions have been due not to the resolve of European institutions, nor to the power its value-enforcement mechanisms, but to the exigencies of Hungary's economic situation.

more here.

Two essay collections examine race relations in America

Cover00Jabari Asim at Bookforum:

All of which brings me back to Richard Wright’s suggestion, in Native Son (1940), that literature is a battleground on which blacks and whites have often fought over the very “nature of reality.” All too often, differing approaches to language reflect sharply contrasting visions of American society. For African Americans, the disparate language of our country’s racial majority has seldom been separate from customs and policies that hinder complete access to the “grand experiment” we continue to hear so much about. Into this schism steps Jesmyn Ward, whose novel Salvage the Bones won the 2011 National Book Award. In her introduction to the new anthology The Fire This Time, she finds evidence of this clash of visions in George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin. She looks at images of the latter’s baby face and sees a child. But she recognizes that “most Americans” look at the same person and see someone quite different: “some kind of ravenous hoodlum, perpetually at the mercy of his animalistic instincts.”

Around a year after Martin’s death, Ward began the project that became The Fire This Time. She writes that she wanted to provide writers of her generation with an opportunity “to dissent, to call to account, to witness, to reckon.” Anthologies of this sort are plentiful and powerful, at least to African American readers, those most likely to engage and embrace such efforts, which include The New Negro (1925), Black Fire (1968), and Step into a World(2000). That there have been so many of these books, decade after decade, speaks to their limited utility beyond the sympathetic circles where black artists and thinkers congregate—there always have been new atrocities to respond to, clueless assessments to refute, hostilities to defend against.

more here.

Wednesday Poem

Where do we Go From Here

Through the cold glass of a winter window
where crazed weather holds my breath
to task,
a tangled canopy of tree and sky
becomes that ornately carved pediment:
Banteay Shrei in late afternoon
just south of where great rivers
are diverted by Chinese dams—
visions of yuan, mouths screaming for profit,
a world where Mao means anything.

A modern woman stands alone
in the stillness of a place
where life may not have been
that different. She tries
to untangle the skeins of power
from tradition’s weave.
Nothing moves. All things speak.
Impossible to know for sure
but these stones tell her:
pay attention.

by Margaret Randall
from Where do we Go from Here
Wings Press, San Antonio, TX

Babies Have a Microbial Window of Opportunity

Finlay et al in Scientific American:

BabyUntil very recently, whenever we thought of microbes — especially around babies — we considered them only as potential threats and were concerned with getting rid of them, and it is no surprise why. In the past century, most human communities have experienced the benefits of medical advances that have reduced the number and the degree of infections we suffer throughout life. These advances include antibiotics, antivirals, vaccinations, chlorinated water, pasteurization, sterilization, pathogen–free food, and even good old-fashioned hand washing. The quest of the past 100 years has been to get rid of microbes — “the only good microbe is a dead one.” This strategy has served us remarkably well; nowadays, dying from a microbial infection is a very rare event in developed countries, whereas only 100 years ago 75 million people died worldwide over a span of two years infected with H1N1 influenza virus, also known as the Spanish flu. At first glance, our war on microbes along with other medical advances has truly paid off. The average life span in the US in 1915 was 52 years, approximately 30 years shorter than it is today. For better or for worse, there are almost four times more humans on this planet than only 100 years ago, an incredibly accelerated growth in our historic timeline. Evolutionarily speaking, we have hit the jackpot. But at what price?

More here.

High Hitler: how Nazi drug abuse steered the course of history

Rachel Cooke in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_2249 Sep. 27 18.34The German writer Norman Ohler lives on the top floor of a 19th-century apartment building on the south bank of the river Spree in Kreuzberg, Berlin. Visiting him there is a vertiginous experience. For one thing, he works – and likes to entertain visitors – in what he calls his “writing tower”, a flimsy-seeming, glass-walled turret perched right on the very edge of the roof. (Look down, if you dare, and you will see his little boat moored far below.) For another, there is the fact that from this vantage point it is possible to discern two Berlins, one thrusting and breezy, the other spectral and grey. To our left, busy with traffic, is the Oberbaum Bridge, where there was once a cold war checkpoint, and beyond it the longest remaining section of the Berlin Wall, its doleful length rudely interrupted by the block of luxury flats that went up in 2013. As for the large building immediately opposite, these days it’s the home of Universal Music. Not so very long ago, however, it was the GDR’s egg storage facility.

Does all this press on Ohler as he sits at his desk, the light bouncing off the screen of his laptop? Is it ghostly sometimes? “Yes, it is strange,” he says, smiling at my giddiness. But then he has long believed in a certain kind of time travel. “I remember the 90s. The wall had just come down, and I was experimenting with party drugs like ecstasy and LSD. The techno scene had started up, and there were all these empty buildings in the east where the youth [from east and west] would meet for the first time. They were hardcore, some of those guys from the east – they didn’t understand foreigners at all – and the ecstasy helped them to lose some of their hatred and suspicion. Sometimes, then, you could step into a room, and you could just see the past. Of course, it’s not like that now. I don’t take drugs any more. But I can remember it, and maybe that was why I was able to write this book.”

The book in question is The Total Rush – or, to use its superior English title, Blitzed – which reveals the astonishing and hitherto largely untold story of the Third Reich’s relationship with drugs, including cocaine, heroin, morphine and, above all, methamphetamines (aka crystal meth), and of their effect not only on Hitler’s final days – the Führer, by Ohler’s account, was an absolute junkie with ruined veins by the time he retreated to the last of his bunkers – but on the Wehrmacht’s successful invasion of France in 1940.

More here.

A non-probabilistic quantum theory produces unpredictable results

Lisa Zyga in

ConstructortQuantum measurements are often inherently unpredictable, yet the usual way in which quantum theory accounts for unpredictability has long been viewed as somewhat unsatisfactory. In a new study, University of Oxford physicist Chiara Marletto has developed an alternative way to account for the unpredictability observed in quantum measurements by using the recently proposed theory of superinformation—a theory that is inherently non-probabilistic. The new perspective may lead to new possibilities in the search for a successor to quantum theory.

The unpredictability observed in quantum experiments is one of the unique features of the quantum world that sets it apart from classical physics. One prominent example of quantum unpredictability is the double-slit experiment: When sending a stream of particles (such as photons or electrons) through two small slits in a plate, the individual particles are detected at different locations on a screen behind the plate. Although it's possible to predict the probability of a particle impacting at a certain location, it's not possible to predict specifically where any individual particle will end up.

Traditionally, this apparent probabilistic behavior that is observed in experiments has been accounted for in by using the Born rule. In 1926, the German physicist Max Born developed this rule to determine the probability of finding a quantum object at a certain location—or more generally, the probability that any measurement on a quantum system will produce a particular observed outcome, depending on the quantum state of the object.

The Born rule is a unique part of quantum theory in that it is the only stochastic, or randomly determined, element in quantum theory. The Born rule has basically been added by fiat on top of a theory that is otherwise deterministic.

More here. [Thanks to Farrukh Azfar.]

The earliest known Arabic short stories in the world have just been translated into English for the first time

Robert Irwin in The Independent:

The_History_of_Ali_BabaThe Ottoman sultan Selim the Grim – having defeated the Mamluks in two major battles in Syria and Egypt – entered Cairo in 1517.

He celebrated his victory by watching the crucifixion of the last Mamluk sultan at the Zuwayla Gate. Then he presided over the systematic looting of Cairo’s cultural treasures. Among that loot was the content of most of Cairo’s great libraries. Arabic manuscripts were shipped to Istanbul and distributed among the city’s mosques. This is probably how the manuscript of Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange ended up in the library of the great mosque of Ayasofya.

There it lay unread and gathering dust, a ragged manuscript that no one even knew existed, until 1933 when Hellmut Ritter, a German orientalist, stumbled across it and translated it into his mother tongue. An Arabic edition was belatedly printed in 1956.

In the 1990s, when I was working on my book The Arabian Nights: A Companion, I came across references to this story collection and, since it sounded very like The Arabian Nights (or, to give it its correct title, The Thousand and One Nights), I thought I ought to have a look at it. The stories in Tales of the Marvellous were indeed as fantastic and exotic as those in the Nights, and I felt as other scholars might feel if they had come across a missing part of The Canterbury Tales or a lost play by Shakespeare.

The stories are very old, more than 1,000 years old, yet most of them are quite new to us. Some years later, I suggested to Malcolm Lyons, the translator of a recent edition of the Nights, that having completed that mighty task, he might consider translating Tales of the Marvellous.

More here.

A museum’s misguided attempt to rescue the past

1.-The-Met-Breuer-side_photograph-by-Ed-Lederman-996x1024Rachel Poser at Harper's Magazine:

The Breuer building, a mean pile of granite and concrete that squats darkly on a corner of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, was built as a kind of monument to the Metropolitan Museum’s long-standing distaste for contemporary art. In 1929, the Met refused Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s gift of more than five hundred contemporary American works by the likes of Edward Hopper, George Bellows, and John Sloan. The Met’s refusal precipitated the founding of the Whitney Museum, which outgrew its row houses on West 8th Street and some time later commissioned Marcel Breuer, a Hungarian architect who had been part of the Bauhaus, to design what is commonly described as an inverted Babylonian ziggurat as its new home. Built in a neighborhood otherwise known for its Beaux-Arts and Renaissance Revival mansions, the Breuer opened in 1966 to near-universal derision. (Ada Louise Huxtable, though herself a fan, said at the time that the Breuer was “the most disliked building in New York.”)

Housed just half a mile from the Met on 5th Avenue, the Whitney served for a generation as a kind of poor relation to America’s largest and most visited museum, which for most of its history has preferred European traditionalism to the gut punches of the avant-garde. Early in their careers, Jackson Pollock and Louise Bourgeois joined sixteen other American artists, who would become known as the Irascibles, to write an open letter, calling the Met “notoriously hostile to advanced art.” The museum’s stance was unchanged as late as 1999, when its director sided with Mayor Rudy Giuliani, an irascible of another sort, in his condemnation of a contemporary show at the Brooklyn Museum that featured supercharged works such as Mark Quinn’s Self, a frozen cast of the artist’s head made from ten pints of his own blood.

more here.

poetry and politics

CitizenFrank Guan at The Point:

If poetry has a distinct class character, it also has a pronounced racial bent. Just as the American middle class is disproportionately white compared to the general population, an overwhelming majority of American poets are white. The parallel with high art and high fashion, those other tertiary fields, is instructive: in each field the criteria by which quality is assessed is so subjective, and the costs of entry for members of marginalized social groups so high—university certification, unpaid internships, the extra time required to master shibboleths and mores one’s white peers have been well versed in since childhood—that the demographics of the field, historically dominated by a white supermajority, remain as they are. Of all American literary genres, poetry has always been, by a wide margin, the most segregated. Though they appear together in anthologies, the fact is that white poets and black poets belong to two completely distinct traditions whose mutual relation, at best, has been nothing more than glancing.

The canon of white American poetry, with its extremely strong inclination toward still life and landscape and its implicit upper-middle-class presumption that solitude, not company, is the primary and most immediate (though not necessarily most desired) state of being, is predicated on white social hegemony: for most of American history only whites had free access to the countryside and the stability and autonomy required to be at ease there. Contrarily, the canon of black American poetry, with its invariable ground notes of defiance and urgency and its acute social awareness, constitutes a Sisyphean effort to assert the collective humanity of black Americans.

more here.

farming in space

Dyson_1-101316Freeman Dyson at the NYRB:

Farming is an art that achieved success after innumerable failures. So it was in the past and so it will be in the future. Any successful human settlement in space will begin as the Polynesian settlements in the Pacific islands began, with people bringing pigs and chickens and edible plants on their canoes, along with the skills to breed them. The authors of Beyond Earth imagine various possible futures for human settlement in various places, but none of their settlers resemble the Polynesians.

Jon Willis’s All These Worlds Are Yours describes the possibilities for alien forms of life to exist in remote places and the practical steps we might take to discover them. The places that are discussed are the planet Mars, the moon Europa of Jupiter, the moons Titan and Enceladus of Saturn, and the newly discovered planets orbiting around other stars. Willis considers Enceladus to be the most promising place for us to look for evidence of life. Enceladus has active geysers spraying jets of salt water and steam into space from hot spots on its surface. The geysers must originate in an underground system of channels connected to a warm deep ocean in which life might be flourishing. To study possible traces of life in microscopic detail, we should send an unmanned spacecraft through the jets to collect samples of droplets and vapor and bring the samples back to Earth to be examined at leisure in a well-equipped laboratory.

more here.

Hillary Clinton Brings Out the Real Donald Trump

John Cassidy in The New Yorker:

First-Debate-08-1200Words matter when you run for President,” Hillary Clinton said toward the end of Monday night’s happening at Hofstra University, on Long Island. Clinton was criticizing Donald Trump for his loose language regarding America’s allies in Asia, but she could have been summing up the lopsided debate, which saw her doing virtually everything she needed to do while Trump indicted himself with his own words. As anybody familiar with Clinton’s career could have predicted, she was extremely well prepared for her first debate against Trump. After finding an opening to voice the key theme of her campaign early on—“We have to build an economy that works for everyone, not just those at the top”—she spoke confidently and with precision more or less throughout. Although some of her attack lines sounded rehearsed—“Trumped-up trickle-down” was one that she repeated—they were still effective. She didn’t say anything that will come back to haunt her, and her only really awkward moments came when her opponent attacked her for reversing her position on the Trans Pacific Partnership. Trump, on the other hand, had evidently been telling the truth, for once, when, in the lead-up to Monday night, he said he didn’t believe in spending a lot of time on debate prep. His spontaneity and direct language played to his advantage in some of the debate’s early exchanges. But as the night wore on, and as the discussions got more detailed, his lack of respect for the format got him into all sorts of trouble. First, there were his errors of omission. Trump’s harsh stance on immigration and his depiction of Clinton and other professional politicians as puppets of corporate interests have both helped propel his campaign to this point. But on Monday, speaking before an enormous national audience, he barely mentioned the wall he wants to build across the U.S. border with Mexico, and he didn’t bring up Clinton’s ties to monied interests at all.

Then there was the damage done by the things he did say. At one point, Lester Holt, the moderator, asked Trump about his refusal to release his tax returns, a subject that Trump must have known would come up. He replied by saying that he would release his returns “when she”—Clinton—“releases her thirty-three thousand e-mails that have been deleted.“ Perhaps Trump thought he was being smart with this this answer, but it only gave Clinton a chance to respond, which she did with relish. “So you’ve got to ask yourself: Why won’t he release his tax returns?” she said, seizing the moment. “Maybe he’s not as rich as he says he is … maybe he’s not as charitable as he claims to be.” Then Clinton raised another theory, one that I and others have written about: “Or maybe he doesn’t want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he’s paid nothing in federal taxes.” Here, you’d expect the target of the attack to sense the danger. Evidently, Trump didn’t. Having interrupted Clinton during most of her previous answers, he did so again. “That makes me smart,” he said. Even on Twitter, where people were pulling apart Trump’s words with the relish of a class of third graders dissecting a worm, it took a few seconds for this statement to sink in. Had he really just boasted that he didn’t pay any federal taxes? Indeed, he had.

More here.

When a Spouse Dies, Resilience Can Be Uneven

Jane E. Brody in The New York Times:

BRODY-master768Losing a beloved life partner is never easy at any age, no matter the circumstance. The loss can be sudden and totally unexpected — a fatal heart attack, traffic accident or natural tragedy like a flood or earthquake. Or the loss can be long in coming from a progressive illness that gives the surviving spouse weeks, months, even years to prepare for and presumably ”adjust” to its eventual inevitability. Psychologists have long maintained that after a brief period of sometimes intense bereavement, the vast majority of surviving spouses adjust well, returning to their previous work, daily routines and prior state of contentment within a few months to a year – a psychological outcome referred to as resilience. Studies by George A. Bonanno and colleagues at Columbia University as well as others, for example, have found that 60 percent of people who lost a spouse were resilient — satisfied with their lives and not depressed.

But new research is calling this global assessment inadequate to describe the aftermath of spousal loss for many if not most people, suggesting a need for more effective and specific ways to help them return to their prior state of well-being. Someone who ranks high in life satisfaction may nonetheless be having considerable difficulty in other domains that can diminish quality of life, like maintaining a satisfying social life, performing well at work or knowing who can help when needed. The Jewish faith in which I was raised offers one such source of support, specifying a period of mourning that gives survivors needed time to adjust to a new normal. It designates a weeklong visitation — the shiva — during which friends and relatives gather with the bereaved to express condolences and relate memories of the deceased. It also calls for a yearlong period of readjustment that includes daily prayers and no attempt to meet a new partner.

More here.

The Dangerous Discounting of Donald Trump

by Ali Minai

DJT_Headshot_V2By this point in US Election 2016, everyone acknowledges that the Presidential candidacy of Donald Trump is one of the most transformative phenomena to arise in American society in a long time – possibly since the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, of which it is, in some ways, a perverted mirror image. However, it's ludicrous and perverse aspects should not blind anyone – including its adherents – to its corrosive but real power. Those who had until recently discounted Trump are gradually beginning to realize this, and mockery is being replaced with a mixture of fear and perplexity.

Foremost among the perplexed are the American elites and the chattering classes, who have tended to treat the candidacy of Donald Trump for President as a running farce. His frequently offensive and ignorant statements – usually via twitter – have become a staple of late-night comedy, and the cause for general derision in the news media. A surge in the polls after the Republican convention triggered a temporary bout of concern that he might actually win, but that concern receded as a very successful Democratic convention and Trump's disparaging of the Khan family boosted Hillary Clinton to a double digit national lead. A narrative settled in that Trump was finished, even as Clinton's lead has gradually declined, and now stands in the 2-4 percent range. While this has triggered a new round of anguish among Democrats, it has not yet completely changed the overall notion that, surely, the American people will not vote for someone as patently unqualified and irresponsible as Trump. The American people themselves have bolstered this assumption, with poll after poll showing that large majorities of voters consider Clinton more qualified and temperamentally suited to be President. A recent survey showed that nearly half of voters – including 22% of Trump supporters! – believe that he will use a nuclear weapon. Yet, what is often left unexplained is why the same polls typically show the head-to-head race between Trump and Clinton as very close. The implicit belief seems to be that voters will eventually come to their senses. In fact, this discrepancy should indicate exactly the opposite: That a certain chunk of voters have looked at both candidates, realized that Trump is unqualified to be President, but are nevertheless willing to vote for him. These voters have apparently considered and rejected rational arguments against Trump, suggesting that no further rational argument is likely to sway them. The same is true for the issues of bigotry and racism that are clearly relevant with regard to Trump. Most Clinton-supporters and the elite media have assumed that, once Trump's long history of bigotry against minorities and women became well-known, it would be impossible for him to win. The initial response to the Khan controversy reinforced this view. However, recent polling data suggests that this notion is not altogether justified either. As with competence, there is a segment of voters who know about Trump's bigotry, do not agree with it, but are still willing to overlook it. This segment is not necessarily identical with the one willing to overlook his incompetence, but there is probably considerable overlap. In any case, it appears that counting on the good sense of American voters to protect the world from Trump may be too optimistic.

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by Tasneem Zehra Husain
ImgThere's no doubt about it: conflict commands attention.
Perhaps it made sense as an evolutionary strategy. Historically, the conflicts we would become aware of were those that occurred in our immediate vicinity, and as such, could have life or death consequences. The penalty for ignoring such a scenario, in favor of something more pleasant, could be fatal. Those of us who attuned their ears to sounds of eminent disaster lived longer.
Focusing on potentially explosive situations might have served us well in days gone by (and of course it is still a necessary reflex in many scenarios) but continuing to do so, in our increasingly connected world where the news rains down on us incessantly, means that we are subjected to a barrage of negativity all day long.
The sensational headlines that follow us everywhere, the incessant chorus of strife and war and disaster that closes in on us, is not because the world is going to hell in a hand basket, but because the media giants who bombard us with soundbites around the clock know that conflict has the ability to arrest us in your tracks, to force us to pay attention. Life isn't any harder now than it was a century ago, in fact in many ways it is much easier; scholars have argued that the world is actually becoming a better, more just place; but since we hear mostly about what goes wrong, both in our backyards and at the other end of the globe, each of us is burdened with a planet's worth of woe. And as a result, we are growing increasingly weary.
Perhaps it is to counter this feeling of fatigue and ennui that a new wave of positivity has started rippling through the world. There is a slow, but growing, trend towards ‘feel-good' stories, reminders that in this apparently doomed world, there are surprising moments of grace. This is a movement I can completely get behind. Attention works such that it multiplies that which is focused on; stories of reconciliation, of people helping each other, of wounds being healed and problems solved – these act as a balm for our minds and our souls.
Funnily enough, what prompted these philosophical musings today was the thought that Nobel season is upon us. Just over a week from now, on the morning of Tuesday, October 5th, someone (or three someones) will be getting that fabled call from Sweden. Of course we can't ever say for sure, but there are years when the choice seems far more obvious than in others. I think it's fair to say that the international physics community would be quite shocked if the prize was not awarded for the detection of gravitational waves, and Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne and Ronald Drever did not end up wearing this year's laurels.

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Vladimir Židovec Overshares

by Holly A. Case


Croatian State Archives, main reading room

This story—a true one—is about a graphomaniac. I found him in the Croatian State Archives, Zagreb, where even the washrooms have signature tiles. Art nouveau beads drip from the lamps over the desks and carefully restored owls stare down from the tiled ceiling. The building, once wasted on university students cramming for exams, is now reserved exclusively for carriers of the twin fevers, bibliophilia and graphomania (that is, for historians), and is saturated with the smell of old paper and the dust of disintegration.

There, in a collection marked F. 227 MVP NDH Zagreb, 1941-1945, I came upon the chubby, bespectacled Vladimir Židovec (b. 1907), one-time lawyer and “first-class chess player.” His paper footprint filled folder upon folder, spilling over the edges of collections: foreign ministry, interior ministry, party archive, people's tribunal… I tracked him through the Second World War; shopped with him for his first tuxedo when the brand new German puppet known as the Independent State of Croatia sent him as its ambassador to Bulgaria; listened in as he and the Bulgarian prime minister talked politics over cabbage and pork cutlets; checked inventories of his state-furnished rooms in Sofia; bent over desks and tables as he wrote and wrote and wrote; and gawked at the Bulgarian social and political scene through his quirky “who's who” of Bulgaria.

Dimo Ačkov: “Knows Turkish well. Was a personal friend of Kemal Pasha [Atatürk].”

Dimitar Čorbev: “Very sly man. Some affairs have been mentioned in connection with his name. Good speaker.”

Georgi Genov: “Easily frightened. Hasn't left his house in the evening for a long time.”

Mihail Genovski: “Lately he has come under suspicion by the Germans. It is to be expected that steps will be taken against him.”

His documentary zeal vis-à-vis the lives of others left little room for details of his own person, so it was only in a folder of personnel files that I found certificates of recognition and praise from his superiors. My own assessment was similar, but for different reasons: One of his colleagues, the Croat ambassador to Slovakia, was barely literate by comparison, wrote few and uninformative reports, and got drunk and went to the beach, where he bawled out youngsters for going to the beach rather than joining the fight against the Soviets.

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