Of Levant and Leviathan: Cautionary Tales from a Turbulent World

Libya2011Muhammad Idrees Ahmad at the LA Review of Books:

A SPECTER is haunting the Levant — the specter of Hobbes.

As the democratic upheavals that swept the Arab world in 2011 have given way to bloodshed and instability, Western mavens are reverting to old verities. The Arab world is “not ready for democracy” they say. To restore order, to contain passions, and, above all, to protect the West from the twin dangers of terror and migration, the Arab world will need its Leviathans. For most of the post-colonial era, friendly autocrats had protected the West from these threats; they are being called into service again. If dungeons and dictators are the price of security, they reason, at least the costs are borne by others.

The United States’s dalliance with “democracy promotion” was brief and had already ended in Iraq by 2010. The Arab Spring was a blip. In Iraq, despite Nouri al-Maliki’s determined effort to shape the outcome of the 2010 parliamentary elections, his sectarian bloc had secured fewer seats than a cross-sectarian alliance led by Iyad Allawi. In a surprise move, the US government backed Maliki to serve as prime minster for a second term. “Iraq is not ready for democracy,” General Ray Odierno was told by Chris Hill, an Obama Administration official, “[it] needs a Shia strongman.”

more here.

Hillary Clinton’s Inaugural Address

Moyers and Winship in billmoyers.com:

My Fellow Americans:

GettyImages-159693685-1280x720On Friday, January 20th, Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States. As mandated by our Constitution, he received a majority of the votes in the Electoral College and thus for the next four years will be given the powers and responsibilities of our nation’s chief executive. But I believe that I, too, have a mandate, one given to me by the 65 million of you who supported me over Donald Trump in the popular vote, some 2.6 million votes more than he received. If we are to continue as a democracy, for the next four years and beyond, those voices cannot stay silent. I urge every one of you who voted for me to help express that mandate and make sure our voices are heard. As each of them comes up for re-election, we will field candidates to run against Donald Trump and his friends in Congress and the statehouses, and we will run against them hard. But until then, let us prepare by joining together as a movement and creating the constituency of what will be, in effect, a shadow government — one that will serve to track and respond to every single bad action undertaken by the Trump administration and its monolithic Congress.

This shadow government will forthrightly express its opposition to such actions and not only call them out as the damaging policy they are, but also offer constructive alternatives that we believe will serve and advance the proper agenda for our nation. No proposal or executive action will go unanswered. We’ll even voice support if it’s warranted — but I fear so far there is little evidence that will be the case. Historically, this follows the British tradition of a shadow government created by the party in opposition that monitors the ruling party and creates greater transparency, encouraging an honest dialogue based on facts and a thorough knowledge of history and policy. Our shadow government will reflect the experience and knowledge of a core group of men and women who understand how policy is made in Washington, but it will also call on the wisdom and experience of elected mayors, state legislators, public servants, activists and organizers who know the needs of our municipalities, counties and states across the country. I propose that for every Cabinet officer named by Donald Trump and confirmed by the United States Senate, we in the opposition will have a shadow cabinet member who will monitor the work of that department and comment as needed.

More here.

the making of science

Barbara Kiser in Nature:

Fungal-Futures-0-∏Maurizio-Montalti-Officina-Corpuscoli-2016_-use-this-oneThe nature of materials is being rethought. Bio-materials such as fungal webs (mycelium) can be used to ‘grow’ bricks, pots and even dresses on wood-chip, clay or textile frames. Amsterdam-based ecodesigner Maurizio Montalti of Officina Corpuscoli described how, after working with University of Utrecht microbiologists on scaling up these fungal creations, his studio began to look more like a lab. University College London materials scientist Mark Miodownik invoked a future devoid of roadworks if self-healing asphalt becomes reality. The Anthropocene offers new geologically inspired materials. ‘Fordite’, or ‘detroit agate’, is made from fine layers of hardened car paint and can be cut and polished like semi-precious stone. We may one day dig up deposits of ‘bone marble’, retrieved from the metamorphosed skeletons of culled farm animals. The fashion industry is the second most polluting in the world, but sportswear company Adidas is scooping waste plastics out of the ocean to make its knitted footwear.

Crafts people are sensitive to people’s emotional responses to materials and objects. Yet few designers are included in research teams examining interactions between robots and humans, for example. Caroline Yan Zheng from London’s Royal College of Art is using soft robotics to make wall panels and accessories that swell or reshape in response to facial emotions. People tell her they find them comforting; one day they might be used to promote calm in hospitals. Surgery is a craft – you don’t want your operation done by someone who has only read a book. Richard Arm from Nottingham Trent University brought in gorily realistic models of parts of the thoracic cavity that he has been making in silicone for surgeons to train on – complete with slimy finish, spurting arteries and the slash across the chest for you to dig your hand into. But introducing design innovations into the healthcare sector is difficult, Jeremy Myerson from the Royal College of Art noted; the sector is risk averse. His redesigned ambulance interior reduces the time it takes for paramedics to treat a patient’s wounds, by giving them better access to the patient and equipment. Yet, despite running it through ‘clinical trials’ successfully, it has yet to be taken up.

More here.

The Italian Referendum Victory

Nikil Saval in n + 1:

ScreenHunter_2424 Dec. 06 18.05The “NO” vote triumph is being assimilated in the Anglo-American press to the broad journalistic narrative of “anti-establishment populist revolt.” But the message to be derived from it is distinct from the votes for Brexit, or for Trump; for once this year (twice, if you include the narrow escape in Austria), a vote brings good news.

The campaign for Italian constitutional reform was characterized by lies, wishful fantasies, and projections. Immensely complicated and virtually incomprehensible as a written document, the constitutional reform had nonetheless a simple goal: to eliminate an entire chamber of the legislature and reduce the proportional representation of Italian voters, and thereby increase the power of the centrist parties and the prime minister, on the idea that it would make Italian governance easier. The details of the referendum were hashed out by Silvio Berlusconi and the vacuous puffin Matteo Renzi, current leader of the centrist Democratic Party (PD), before the latter had even entered Parliament.

The nature of the support made it obvious who expected to benefit. “Basta un sì” was pushed by Confindustria, the major business federation; JP Morgan; Wolfgang Schäuble; Jean-Claude Juncker; Sergio Marchionne; Barack Obama. (Berlusconi, cannily, turned against his own deal, once he recognized that its passage would tilt forces away from the Right in favor of Renzi.)

More here.

We Spoke to the Surgeon Who Gave a Man His Penis Back

Sheherzad Preisler in Nautilus:

11078_b015f24e9c4eaa54104d9abcbc99b2d0In May this year, Curtis Cetrulo, a plastic-reconstructive surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital, performed the first penis transplant in the United States. Previously his patient, Thomas Manning, 64, had most of his penis amputated to stem penis cancer, a rare form of the disease. Since the transplant, Manning has received a wave of media attention, and been a remarkably good sport about it. After the amputation, he told the New York Times, “I couldn’t have a relationship with anybody. You can’t tell a woman, ‘I had a penis amputation.’”

Cetrulo is thankful that Manning has been so good-natured about the media attention . “He’s doing it because he wants people to realize there’s some hope, despite the fact that no one’s talking about it,” Cetrulo says. And they should be. “The penile transplant-seeking patient population is desperate,” Cetrulo says. According to Cetrulo, more than 1,500 soldiers have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan who are awaiting penile transplants.

We spoke to Cetrulo about Manning’s operation, how Manning’s faring, and about the future of penis-transplant surgery.

How did you get involved in transplanting penises?

We had done a hand transplant here in 2012, and I was presenting that case in our transplant rounds when two people approached me and asked if this was possible for penile transplants.

More here.

The United States Is Not an Apocalyptic Wasteland, Explains Steven Pinker

Phil Torres in Motherboard (at Vice):

Motherboard: Trump has repeatedly painted an apocalyptic picture of contemporary America. He has talked about (black) people getting shot while walking down the street, about terrorists disguising themselves as refugeesfleeing the atrocities of Syria, and about Mexico sending its “criminals” and “rapists” across the southern border. Could you briefly explain why this characterization of the contemporary US is factually wrong?

ScreenHunter_2423 Dec. 06 17.51Steven Pinker: Unfortunately, it’s all too easy for newsreaders to believe that apocalyptic picture. The news media give lavish coverage to violent incidents, seldom follow up on negative reportage in the past, and rarely put events in statistical or historical perspective. Worse, they allow themselves to be played by violence impresarios, namely terrorists and rampage killers, who correctly anticipate that they can attract the world’s attention by killing a number of innocent people at once. This is true not just of tabloids and cable news chasing eyeballs and clicks, but of high-quality outlets who feel that by highlighting what goes wrong, they are discharging their duty as watchdogs, muckrakers, and afflicters of the comfortable.

The facts are as follows. The rate of violent crime is lower now than it was at any time between 1966 and 2009. Immigrants have a lower rate of violent crime than American citizens. Terrorists kill just three-tenths of one percent of all American homicide victims. The rate of death from terrorism in the United States was higher in the early 1970s than it is today. And since 2002, more Americans have been killed by right-wing American terrorists than by Islamic terrorists. It’s true that the rate of violent crime went up between 2014 and 2015, most likely a consequence of the retreat of active policing since Ferguson. But it’s a small uptick in the context of the massive downward trend since 1992.

More here.

the lightness of errol flynn

Errol-flynnBrian Doyle at The American Scholar:

I know this sounds crazy—believe me, I know—but I just saw 19 Errol Flynn movies in a row (from Captain Blood, the 1935 film that made him instantly famous, to 1953’s The Master of Ballantrae, his last decent film and good performance before he died in 1959, only 50 years old), and I just read all three of the books he wrote, and I have read an awful lot written and said about him by other people.

Some conclusions:

One, Errol Flynn is one of the greatest actors I have ever seen, and I have been utterly absorbed in movies and movie actors since I was five years old when my sister took me to a movie theater for the first time (to see the new hit The Swiss Family Robinson). I am no professional critic, I am no scholar, but anyone who has seen thousands of actors in maybe 2,000 films has an informed opinion beyond his own taste.

Two, Flynn’s colorful life off screen—as dashing lover, epic seducer, irrepressible rake, suave man-about-town, innocent defendant in a spurious rape trial (the charges trumped up by a corrupt Los Angeles Police Department furious at Warner Bros. for not paying the usual bribe), legendary imbiber, and penniless star who lived his last years cruising the world on his boat—overshadows the superb acting he did on screen.

more here.

How the publishing industry took on the taboo

161212_r29159-876x1200-1480695823Louis Menand at The New Yorker:

Contrary to what, Googling around, you might assume, obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment. “There is a bone in my prick six inches long. I will ream out every wrinkle in your cunt.” Those sentences are from the opening pages of Henry Miller’s first novel, “Tropic of Cancer,” which was published in France in 1934. Are they obscene? It took thirty years, but American courts eventually decided that they are not, and therefore the book they appear in cannot be banned. To get to that result, judges had to ignore the usual understanding of “obscene”—most people probably think that if “cunt” isn’t obscene, what is?—and invent a new definition for constitutional purposes. But the decision changed the way books, and, soon afterward, movies and music, are created, sold, and consumed. Depending on your point of view, it either lowered the drawbridge or opened the floodgates.

“Tropic of Cancer” is not a verbal artifact to everyone’s taste, but it made a deep impression on two people in a position to advance its fortunes. The first was Jack Kahane. Kahane was born in 1887 in Manchester, the son of Romanian Jews who had settled in the North of England and made, then lost, a fortune in the textile business. He was a Francophile, and, when the First World War broke out, in 1914, he went off to France to fight for civilization. He was gassed and badly wounded in the trenches at Ypres. But he had fallen in love with a Frenchwoman, Marcelle Girodias, from a well-off family; they married in 1917, and remained in France. In 1929, he decided to go into the book business.

He had plenty of company. Between the wars, Paris was home to many English-language presses. There were two basic types. The first specialized in modernist writers.

more here.

Odd Jobs

At the junction of Steward St and Artillery Lane - Sandys Row SynagogueAnna Hartford at Threepenny Review:

I became utterly in thrall to London. I wanted nothing more than to think of myself as legitimate there. To be real. To be a “Londoner,” or at least to be able to say, “I live in London.” I kept dwelling on the vague temporal qualifications each of these identities required. How long till you’re living there, and not just visiting? Is it three months? Six? How long till you’re a “Londoner”? Is it five years? Seven? Or do you have to be from there? I attempted rampant assimilation. Having pointedly refused anything but instant coffee in all my days, I became a filter coffee convert, in the way of my new people. I felt an immense satisfaction and sense of belonging when I could publicly cling to a paper coffee cup.

After a few months, my best friend arrived from Johannesburg. The year before we had declared that we were going to do this together: Big Ben, Beatles, pounds, center-of-everything, discover-the-world. We found our own place: it had bay windows; or, more accurately, it was a bay window. The space probably began life as a reading nook or something, back when there was enough London to go around, but by the time we showed up it had been transformed into a stand-alone studio. Likely it’s been subdivided again since then. We practiced, in these first efforts at running our own home, forgoing every imaginable tenet of domestic hygiene, without incident.

We stayed in the same room, we read the same books out loud to each other, and a few weeks in we managed to find the same job.

more here.

Can You Get Too Much Protein?

Roni Caryn Rabin in The New York Times:

ProtProtein has achieved a venerated status in the dietary world for everything from building muscle to preventing weight gain. But can you get too much of a good thing? Protein powders that come in chocolate, strawberry, and cookies and cream flavors are doled out by the scoopful and mixed into smoothies, making it possible to effortlessly consume protein in amounts that far exceed dietary recommendations. A canned protein drink can contain almost as much protein as an eight-ounce steak, and snack bars or a small bag of protein chips can pack more of the macronutrient than a three-egg omelet. But while some nutritionists have encouraged the protein craze, a number of experts are urging caution. They point out that protein powders and supplements, which come from animal products like whey and casein (byproducts of cheese manufacturing) or from plants like soy, rice, pea or hemp, are a relatively new invention. The vast majority of Americans already get more than the recommended daily amounts of protein from food, they say, and there are no rigorous long-term studies to tell us how much protein is too much. “It’s an experiment,” said Dr. John E. Swartzberg, chairman of the editorial board of the University of California, Berkeley, Wellness Letter. “No one can tell you the long-term effects, and that’s what worries me as a physician. No one can tell you what the results are going to be in people’s bodies 10 or 15 years later.” People need sufficient protein in the diet because it supplies indispensable amino acids that our bodies cannot synthesize on their own. Together they provide the essential building blocks used to make and maintain muscle, bone, skin and other tissues and an array of vital hormones and enzymes.

But the average adult can achieve the recommended intake — 46 grams of protein a day for women, and 56 grams for men — by eating moderate amounts of protein-rich foods like meat, fish, dairy products, beans or nuts every day. There are about 44 grams of protein in a cup of chopped chicken, 20 grams in a cup of tofu or serving of Greek yogurt, and 18 grams in a cup of lentils or three eggs. American men already consume much greater amounts, averaging nearly 100 grams of protein a day, according to a 2015 analysis of the 2007-2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. The revised Dietary Guidelines for Americans, released in January, cautioned that some people, especially teenage boys and adult men, should “reduce overall intake of protein foods” and eat more vegetables.

More here.

Post-Truth Politics?

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

3forkedtongue-150x150Still reeling from the unexpected outcome of the US presidential election, commentators understandably have begun diagnosing the political and intellectual condition of the country. One assessment that has been gaining traction especially among Left-leaning intellectuals is that, in electing Mr. Trump to the Presidency, the United States has embraced a “post-truth” politics. Though quickly becoming a predominant theme of political commentary, as yet the term does not have a unified meaning. Arguably, it refers instead to a several related but distinct phenomena. But if the term is going to serve any useful diagnostic function, it is necessary to disambiguate its central uses.

Most commonly, “post-truth” is employed to mark the fact that apparently a large segment of the electorate holds that although Ms. Clinton's alleged dishonesty disqualifies her for office, Mr. Trump's dozens of demonstrable lies, deceptions, and whole-cloth fabrications are acceptable, if not positively admirable. That is, our politics has become “post-truth” in that lying and dissembling no longer necessarily count against a politician. But when one regards lying as disqualifying only for one's political opponents, one reveals that one's concern isn't really with truth telling at all. One is appealing to truth in a strictly opportunistic way.

A second deployment of “post-truth” is closely related, though more radical. It concerns the newfound force of unrelenting denial. When caught in a lie or fabrication, Mr. Trump's leading tactic is to flatly deny that he ever said the lying or fabricated thing that, provably, he said. This goes beyond President Bill Clinton's infamously tortured semantics concerning “the meaning of ‘is'.” Here, Trump embraces the view of Humpty Dumpty, whose words mean whatever he at any moment declares them to mean. When meaning is fixed wholly by the speaker's will, what the speaker has said is no long evaluable by anyone but the speaker himself. Hence our politics is post-truth not only in that lying, and even asserting falsehood, is conceptually impossible. There could be no such thing as lying for those who, like Carrol's egg, refuse to be mastered by words, even by their own words.

Read more »

The Law of Small Numbers


Richard & Louise Guy [1]

by Jonathan Kujawa

On the occasion of Richard Guy's 100th birthday.

Human beings have a talent for spotting patterns. No doubt this was handy in our early days. If both Ug and Oka were violently ill after eating purple berries from a particular bush, our clan was well served to notice and avoid those berries in the future. If anything, evolution encourages us to be overly quick to infer patterns. Better safe than sorry. No need for a double blind, randomized trial with a large sample size when life and death are on the line.

Our keen sense for what is random and what is not works both for and against us. After all, as we saw last month, it was Pick's keen eye for patterns which lead him to discover his beautiful formula. For an easier example, let's write down the first few numbers of the Fibonacci sequence:


It only takes a minute to spot the rule used to generate these numbers. With a little more time we can even guess exactly which ones are even and which ones are odd [2].


Now imagine I tell you that I flipped two coins twenty-one times and got:



You would have to be an awfully trusting person to believe that both are fair coins and that I faithfully flipped and recorded the results. Our pattern seeking brain notices the regularity of Coin B. It violates our sense of what a “random” sequence of coin flips should look like. Mathematically we know each string of coins flips is equally likely. But even the most steely mathematician would be hard pressed to bet against Coin B next coming up heads.

A great icebreaker on the first day of teaching is to ask the students generate two lists of 100 coin flips: one by flipping a real coin and one by hand. Even though they do this while the instructor is out of the room, the instructor invariably can identify which is list is which. The secret is to look for long runs of heads, tails, or other patterns (like Coin B). Since all outcomes are equally likely to the coin it will happily generate strings of heads in a row. Human brains, however, notice such patterns and veto them in their effort to fake a random sequence of heads and tails. There is a running joke on this theme in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Read more »

Monday Poem

In Books

when words make love sentences are born
the world’s heft is changed by the weight of nouns,
the hesitations of hyphens and commas,
like the space between breaths,
tell the rhythm of what’s new and what’s been,
the dead stops of periods spell the end of what a breath holds,
adjectives, like the blood blush of infants
color clauses, articles wrap things in skin,
pronouns, unlike the particular names of new beings,
often identify the generalities of their forms by inclusion,
by saying, “We,” suggesting that mine and thine share,
and verbs are the darting eyes of fresh life,
the spastic gestures of unfamiliarity, the random smiles
that pass in the features of infants, sudden, uncalled-for
and of course the cautious steps of the old
reaching for footholds that once came naturally,
without thought, before the foreshadows of final words

Jim Culleny

Precipitations of Forms

by Daniel Ranard

Wandereryou cannot
turn around in
the Absolute: there are no entrances or exits
no precipitations of forms
to use like tongs against the formless

—A.R. Ammons, in Guide

The world is usually grasped by its pieces. We may speak of a “holistic” perspective, but it's hard to understand all of a thing at once, or even to talk about it all at once. So we delineate pieces within the whole; we analyze the pieces and their interactions. For instance, to understand the recent political changes in the United States, it is uninformative to treat society monolithically. On the other hand, it's impossible to consider the disparate lives of every citizen at once. Instead, we delineate groups within the whole of society – political groups, racial groups, geographic groups – and discuss their interplay. Some delineations are more useful than others; it's probably difficult to understand the 2016 election in terms of cat- and dog-lovers. And all delineations share some degree of blurriness or arbitrariness: race is already a blurry construction, and though it may be crystallized in a bureaucratic form, the distinction only makes it more arbitrary. Through these delineations, we come to understand the otherwise formless and chaotic world and even to create our experience within it.

Imagine viewing all of human history as a video on fast-forward; observed all at once, you see only the tangled scurrying human beings. You cannot usefully describe what you see, nor guess what might happen next. But to the historian, history is not formless, though it may require hard work and ingenuity to find the right units of analysis. The traditional divisions of global society into self-described nation states and political institutions may serve you well, but new divisions may also be informative. In What is Global History?, Sebastian Conrad outlines the view that historians must not “accept political entities a priori as the boundaries of analysis, but instead trace the actual scope of entanglements and interconnections and work form there.” For instance, Marx chose to analyze history as an interplay of social classes. New perspectives might require more than the simple re-organization of people into different groups; historians might also invent new abstractions, such as the concept of capital, that help organize their observations.

These abstractions can be world-changing and world-making. That is, we live in the world of our chosen abstractions, which shape our narratives about ourselves and society. Although we choose these delineations and abstractions ourselves, I would not draw the radical conclusion that all choices are equal, or that the world is anything we make of it. Some choices are more useful, or maybe also more true or beautiful.

Read more »



“Pierre Chareau: Modern Architecture and Design”, current exhibition at The Jewish Museum, New York.

“Commenting on Chareau’s work and the exhibition design, DS+R’s (exhibition design) founding partner, Elizabeth Diller, noted, “Pierre Chareau: Modern Architecture and Design is an opportunity to return to a significant figure in every architect’s education, but one primarily known through only one masterwork, the Maison de Verre. This exhibition is a rare opportunity to see so much of Chareau’s creative output brought together in one place. The challenge in undertaking its design was to provide a multi-faceted and imaginative backdrop that would highlight, but not compete with, his exceptional mastery of detailing and assemblage. By engaging with Chareau’s furniture, interiors, and collected ephemera, we are able to absorb and represent his idiosyncratic voice, which has had relatively little exposure in the U.S.'”

More here, here, and here.