bernhard: remorseless fury at a callous universe


In 1988, to commemorate Austria’s annexation by Adolf Hitler fifty years earlier, a new play was commissioned from Thomas Bernhard. The author of eleven novels and more than twenty plays, Bernhard had a well-deserved reputation as the country’s most provocative postwar writer: he spent his career alternately mocking and mourning Austria’s Nazi legacy, which, with typical bluntness, he once represented as a pile of manure on the stage. At first, he declined to participate in the commemoration, saying with caustic humor that a more appropriate gesture would be for all the shops once owned by Jews to display signs reading “Judenfrei.” But the author of plays like “The German Lunch Table,” in which family members gathered for a meal discover Nazis in their soup, could not resist such a rich opportunity to needle Austria’s political and cultural élite. “All my life I have been a trouble-maker,” he once wrote. “I am not the sort of person who leaves others in peace.”

more from The New Yorker here.

An Argument Against Mourning Pinochet, From the Right

John Londregan offers a right-wing argument against Pinochet, in The Weekly Standard.

Despite Pinochet’s initial declaration that he was the temporary leader of a temporary government, he managed to push aside the other heads of the armed forces, and to remain in power for the next 16 and a half years, longer than any other ruler, elected or otherwise, in the post-independence history of Chile. During the long years of military rule, Pinochet remorselessly sought control. He outlawed political parties and had opponents murdered. The butcher’s bill for his time in power included the lives of over 3,000 of his fellow citizens (in a country of 15 million), not counting the many thousands more who were tortured by the government, and the thousands driven into exile. Pinochet sought to transform Chilean society, and he incorporated a series of free-market economic reforms as a part of his recipe for success.

His embrace of economic reform seems unlikely to have sprung from a commitment to freedom, given the overarching contempt for liberty that characterized the rest of his government. Rather, in order to insulate himself from the consequences of his murderous seizure of power, Pinochet sought out political allies, and his free market reforms helped him to garner support domestically on the right, and also among members of the international community. One must be careful not to fall into Pinochet’s trap–accepting his brutal seizure of power and tyrannical rule as a natural accompaniment of free market reforms. Propagandists on the left lost no time in seeking to discredit economic freedom by associating it with Pinochet. To this day, we hear from Moscow that it takes a Pinochet to implement economic reforms successfully; Vladimir Putin seems all too willing to have Pinochet’s uniform taken in a few sizes so he can try it on.

What Hangs on the Question “Is The US an Empire?”

In the Harvard International Review blog, Stephen Wertheim comments on Alex Motyl’s answer to the question whether America is an empire. (Now if Dan Nexon would weigh in.)

Is America an empire? In the midst of much academic debate, political scientist Alexander J. Motyl asks a practical question: what does it matter?

“Imagine,” he writes, “that policy analysts and scholars stopped applying the label to the United States. Would it make any difference? I think not. The challenges facing the country—war in Iraq, nuclear weapons in Iran and North Korea, rising authoritarianism in Russia, growing military power in China, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, terrorism, avian flu, climate change, and so forth—would be exactly the same, as would US policy options…Life would go on, and no one—except for scholars of empire—would notice the difference.”

Motyl is undeniably right that challenges and policy options would be exactly the same. What he misses is that policymakers might never think of them or take them seriously. Here are two recent examples from Motyl’s own list.

If policymakers thought of America as an empire, they might have thought it prudent to plan for postwar occupation of Iraq. “I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called nation-building,” George W. Bush declared in the 2000 presidential debates. Evidently he believed his rhetoric. When deciding to invade Iraq, the Bush administration found little need to draw up long-term plans to rule and reconstruct the country. Nor did Democrats in Congress press the point. Nor is the US military equipped, in doctrine or manpower, to do large-scale nation-building. Why prepare for what America by nature “doesn’t do?”

If policymakers thought of America as an empire, they might have been quicker to grasp Islamist terrorism as a major threat before 9/11. Policymakers were focused on state actors. And rightly, if America is solely a nation-state capable of being threatened solely by nation-states. By contrast, stateless tribal fighters are the age-old enemies of empire. They sacked Rome until Rome fell. They raided China from the north, conquering the realm several times despite the Great Wall built to keep them out. Pirates harassed Britain at sea. A clear lesson of empire is to beware the barbarian on the frontier. But if there is no empire, there is no frontier and no barbarian to beware.

Resisting Creationism

In ScienceNOW Daily News:

School officials in Cobb County, Georgia, yesterday agreed to drop their 4-year attempt to tell high school biology students that evolution is only a “theory.” Local school officials had fought a ruling by a federal judge to remove stickers that they had placed on textbooks, but yesterday, they threw in the towel, pledging to adhere to the state science curriculum and also to pay $167,000 in legal fees to the plaintiffs. In return, the five parents who brought the suit agreed to drop any further legal action against the school district.

“The case is done, and they have agreed never again to put stickers in the textbooks,” says Debbie Seagrave, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Georgia affiliate, which represented the parents in Selman v. Cobb County. School board chair Teresa Plenge said the district decided to forgo “the distraction and expense of starting all over with more legal actions and another trial.”

The legal battle began after the school board embraced the arguments of parents who felt the teaching of evolutionary theory unfairly neglected the biblical story of creation. The board voted in September 2002 to apply stickers to 35,000 textbooks warning that “evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things” and that “this material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.” In 2004, several parents sued the school board in federal court, and last year, District Judge Clarence Cooper ordered the stickers removed on the grounds that the language amounted to an unconstitutional endorsement of a religious belief (ScienceNOW, 14 January 2005). An appellate court rejected the school board’s appeal, saying it lacked sufficient information to issue a ruling, and remanded the case to the district court.

Cyberspace Experiments as a Response to Ethical Constraints on Social Research

In EurekaAlert!:

By repeating the Stanley Milgram’s classic experiment from the 1960s on obedience to authority – that found people would administer apparently lethal electrical shocks to a stranger at the behest of an authority figure – in a virtual environment, the UCL (University College London) led study demonstrated for the first time that participants reacted as though the situation was real.

The finding, which is reported in the inaugural edition of the journal PLoS ONE, demonstrates that virtual environments can provide an alternative way of pursuing laboratory-based experimental research that examines extreme social situations.

Professor Mel Slater, of the UCL Department of Computer Science, who led the study, says: “The line of research opened up by Milgram was of tremendous importance in the understanding of human behaviour. It has been argued before that immersive virtual environment can provide a useful tool for social psychological studies in general and our results show that this applies even in the extreme social situation investigated by Stanley Milgram.”

Stanley Milgram originally carried out the series of experiments in an attempt to understand events in which people carry out horrific acts against their fellows. He showed that in a so cial structure with recognised lines of authority, ordinary people could be relatively easily persuaded to give what seemed to be even lethal electric shocks to another randomly chosen person. Today, his results are often quoted in helping to explain how people become embroiled in organised acts of violence against others, for example they have been recently cited to explain prisoner abuse and even suicide bombings.

Brain Gain: Mental Exercise Makes Elderly Minds More Fit

From Scientific American:Brain_4

The mind is not as agile as it once was, even at the ripe old age of 34. Names elude me, statistics slip away, memory fades. This is just the first step on a long journey into senescence; and by 74, if I make it that far, I might remember practically nothing. That age is the average of a cohort of 2,802 seniors who recently participated in a long-term study to see if anything can be done to reverse this age-related mind decline. The good news: there is.

Sherry Willis of Pennsylvania State University led a team of scientists that followed this group of adults, aged 65 and older, still living independently between 1998 and 2004. The seniors came from all walks of life, races, and parts of the country, including Birmingham, Ala., Detroit, Boston and other major cities. They all had one thing in common when the study commenced: no signs of cognitive impairment.

More here.

Re-Imagining Pakistan

From despardes:

Jinnah (Commencement lecture by Pervez Hoodbhoy at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi, December 9, 2006.) To help us along, let’s imagine a film like “Jinnah”. You die and fly off to the arrival gate in heaven where an angel of the immigration department screens newcomers from Pakistan. Admission these days is even tougher than getting a Green Card to America. You have to show proofs of good deeds, argue your case, and fill out an admission form. One section of the form asks you to specify three attitudinal traits that you want fellow Pakistanis, presently on earth, to have. As part of divine fairness, all previous entries are electronically stored and publicly available and so you learn that Mr. Jinnah, as the first Pakistani, had answered – as you might guess – “Faith, Unity, Discipline”. This slogan was in all the books you had studied in school, and was emblazoned even on monuments and hillsides across the country. Since copying won’t get you anywhere in heaven, you obviously cannot repeat this.

What would your three choices be? As you consider your answer, I’ll tell you mine. First, I wish for minds that can deal with the complex nature of truth. My second wish is for many more Pakistanis who accept diversity as a virtue. My third, and last, wish is that Pakistanis learn to value and nurture creativity.

More here.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Darfur as a “Feel Good” Story

Does this mean that the attention on Bosnia and Rwanda was also just about feeling good? Alexander Cockburn in Counterpunch.

As a zone of ongoing, large-scale bloodletting Darfur in the western Sudan has big appeal for US news editors. Americans are not doing the killing, or paying for others to do it. So there’s no need to minimize the vast slaughter with the usual drizzle of “allegations.” There’s no political risk here in sounding off about genocide in Darfur. The crisis in Darfur is also very photogenic.

When the RENAMO gangs, backed by Ronald Reagan and the apartheid regime in South Africa were butchering Mozambican peasants, the news stories were sparse and the tone usually tentative in any blame-laying. Not so with Darfur, where moral outrage on the editorial pages acquires the robust edge endemic to sermons about inter-ethnic slaughter where white people, and specifically the US government, aren’t obviously involved.

Since March 1 the New York Times has run seventy news stories on Darfur (including sixteen pieces from wire services), fifteen editorials and twenty-one signed columns, all but one by Nicholas Kristof. Darfur is primarily a “feel good” subject for people here who want to agonize publicly about injustices in the world but who don’t really want to do anything about them. After all, it’s Arabs who are the perpetrators and there is ultimately little that people in this country can do to effect real change in the policy of the government in Khartoum.

The Trans Fat Ban Through the Lens of Buchanan and Tullock, and Maybe Marx

In response to the NYC ban on trans fats, Ampersand noted, “Banning trans fats in restaurants, but not in grocery stores, doesn’t make sense. I guess the supermarket lobby is more powerful than the fast-food and donut lobby.” The Economist’s blog takes on the question:

I’d guess that it has more to do with public choice theory than ardent lobbying. Since national food producers are unlikely to reformulate their entire line for the benefit of a few million New Yorkers, a trans-fat ban would sweep large categories of food off the supermarket shelves, in a way that would be directly and obviously attributable to the ban (since they would disappear from every supermarket shelf at once). Banning them in restraurants, on the other hand, will merely make some of the food taste worse, other of the food more expensive, and so forth, in a thoroughly idiosyncratic way. Consumers are unlikely to connect thousands of subtles shift in their local restaurant fare to the ban, as they surely would of glazed donut holes suddenly vanished from the shelves of the city. The legislators do not need to be paid to act in their own self interest.

Although for me, this answer suggests Marx (on obscured casual pathways as a mechanism in ideology, here, with causes attributed not to inputs but to other factors) as much as it does public choice, which is not to say that the answer is correct.

Danto On Art and Philosophy

In Naked Punch, an interview with Arthur Danto on art and philosophy:

I: So would you say then that now you need, really, a talent to notice or a talent to think, rather than a talent to craft?

ACD: Exactly. That`s it. I mean, Barbara and I just visited her nephew, who`s a sculpture student at Rutgers, and he`s building these intricate house-of-cards structures with tiles painted with nail polish. He gets all the girls to give him their old nail polish. It was really quite beautiful and he has this incredible patience. So you know it seems to be a transformation of a really remarkable sort. I felt with the Whitney Biennial of 2002, where you had all of these artists that no one ever heard of, that they were all working. Here was a beautiful work: it was a little collaborative called Praxis, just a man and a woman and they had this little storefront down in the East Village. You could go in on Saturdays and get one of three things: you could get a hug, you could have a band-aid put on and they would kiss it, or you could ask for a dollar and they`d give you a dollar. Simple things, but people would go in, they`d line up, get hugged, ask for a band aid—she`d put it on and make them feel better—or they`d get a dollar. And I thought, God how simple can life get, but there was something very moving about that work. It was interactive, people just came in, the couple were being artists in this kind of way. I thought it had a lot of meaning.

Libya Sentences Six Medics to Death

The news story of the day may just be the tragic verdict of the show trial (I suppose all show trial verdicts are tragic) of six foreign medical workers in Libya accused of deliberately infecting 400 children with HIV. In

A Libyan court today condemned to death six foreign health professionals accused of infecting over 400 children with HIV in 1998. The court refused to take into account a swathe of independent scientific evidence indicating that the outbreak had begun several years before the accused began working there and was caused by poor hygiene at the hospital.

The defence say they intend to appeal to the Supreme Court, which would be the last chance that the medics would have of being acquitted. Emmanuel Altit, the head of the international defence team, says the international community can help by insisting that scientific evidence be taken into account.

Behind-the-scenes discussions are also ongoing between the European Union, Bulgaria, the United States and Libya to find a diplomatic solution (under Islamic law, victims’ relatives may withdraw death sentences in return for compensation) but so far this has proved elusive.

The verdict has prompted widespread international condemnation. “We are appalled by the decision of the Libyan court to sentence the five Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian doctor to death,” says a statement from The World Medical Association and the International Council of Nurses. They emphasize that the denial of health problems that can promote the accidental spread of HIV, such as the use of dirty needles, is an ongoing, dangerous situation in Libya. “How many children will go on dying in Libyan hospitals while the Government ignores the root of the problem?”

How Food Allergies Come About

In the American Scientist, Per Brandtzaeg tells us about how we develop food allergies.

The story of food allergy is a story about how the development of the immune system is tightly linked to the development of our digestive tract or, as scientists and physicians usually refer to it, our gut. A human being is born with an immature immune system and an immature gut, and they grow up together. The immune system takes samples of gut contents and uses them to inform its understanding of the world—an understanding that helps safeguard the digestive system (and the body that houses it) against harmful microorganisms.

The many-layered defenses of the immune system are designed to guard against invaders while sparing our own tissues. Food represents a special challenge to this system: an entire class of alien substances that needs to be welcomed rather than rebuffed. An adult may pass a ton of food through her gut each year, nearly all of it distinct at the molecular level from her own flesh and blood. In addition, strains of normal, or commensal, bacteria in the gut help with digestion and compete with pathogenic strains; these good microbes need to be distinguished from harmful ones. The body’s ability to suppress its killer instinct in the presence of a gut-full of innocuous foreign substances is a phenomenon called oral tolerance. It requires cultivating a state of equilibrium, or homeostasis, that balances aggression and tolerance in the immune system. Intolerance, or failure to suppress the immune response, results in an allergic reaction, sometimes with life-threatening consequences.

Unseen UK

From Lens Culture:Unseen_1

In this age when many famous fine art photographers and photojournalists strive to capture the mundane, the banal, the everyday reality of our existence, it is like a breath of fresh air to come upon this unique collection of inexpensive snapshots taken by inexperienced camera operators.

These are truly delightful photos of ordinary day-in-the life experiences taken by the men and women who deliver the mail throughout Great Britain.This project — conceived, managed and edited by the young photographer Stephen Gill — offered the free use of disposable cameras to every member of the Royal Mail. Hundreds took him up on the offer, and as a result, Gill painstakingly reviewed over 30,000 images to end up with the best of the best. It is apparent that everyone had fun in the process.

The goal was to create intimate documentary views of the UK that are rarely seen except by postal carriers, utility workers, garbage collectors, and so on.

More here.

Don’t Whistle While You Work

From Science:

Happy_3 Does a good mood help when doing your job? Not always, a new study suggests. Happy thoughts can stimulate creativity, but for mundane work such as plowing through databases, being cranky or sad may work better. The study is the first to suggest that a positive frame of mind can have opposite effects on productivity depending on the nature of a task.

Stress, anxiety, and a bad mood are notorious for narrowing people’s attention and making them both think and see only what’s right in front of them; for example, a person held at gunpoint usually recalls nothing but the weapon itself. Well-being, on the other hand, is known to broaden people’s thinking and make them more creative. But whether a good mood also expands people’s attention to visual details was unknown.

More here.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Don’t Curb Your Enthusiasm

Australian poet and author Peter Nicholson writes 3QD‘s Poetry and Culture column (see other columns here). There is an introduction to his work at and at the NLA.

One of my favourite television shows in recent times has been Curb Your Enthusiasm. Larry David, Executive Producer of Seinfeld, plays ‘Larry David’ in a largely-Los Angeles milieu. Life seems to be either a series of excruciating personal humiliations or monumental social faux pas. The humour here is by turns uproarious, occasionally wistful and often very, very rude. I recommend it to anyone who wants to clear away the blues. Larry’s long-suffering ‘wife’ Cheryl has to put up with Larry as he tries to get along in a world that is always at a tangent to where Larry wants it to be. The lesson seems to be: curb your enthusiasm. Venture outside the expected and you will be unmercifully crushed by status quo expectations.

Which is just what you must not do in art if you want your work to have any chance of making it past the present moment. Don’t curb your enthusiasm. That is the main lesson. Your enthusiasm may be somewhat forbidding—Ibsen, unfashionable—Rachmaninov, or a variety of volupté—take your pick. The essential thing is the passion you bring to bear on your work, which naturally has its own tides of compulsion and lassitude.

Speaking of Rachmaninov, there was an outstanding concert given here in Sydney recently when Vladimir Ashkenazy took the Sydney Symphony Orchestra through an all-Rachmaninov program of the Three Russian Songs, the Piano Concerto No 1 (Alexsey Yemtsov) and The Bells (Cantillation, Steve Davislim, Merlyn Quaife, Jonathan Summers). Poor Rachmaninov, who had so much bad press dumped on him in his lifetime and who had to put up with continual sniping by 12-tone monomaniacs. But it has ended up being Rachmaninov who has triumphed. His music is heard and enjoyed across the planet for the reason that it is in touch with the human on a deep level. It does not deny our humanity. Here in Sydney Rachmaninov’s music surged through the Concert Hall with a grandeur and spirit that was electrifying. This effect did not appear out of the blue, but came through rehearsal, the careful harnessing of resources and, no doubt, long hours of practise by choir and soloists. Yemtsov, the pianist, had enthusiasm in spades. He didn’t behave as if he was being crucified at the piano as he performed, in the manner of some virtuosi. The music came first and last.

A few weeks earlier the Wiener Philharmoniker under the direction of Valery Gergiev performed in Australia for the first time. In advance, the programming didn’t look all that interesting. Tchaikowsky 5. Brahms 4. But how wrong could one be. The Brahms was a performance of a kind where you felt you were being forced to look at a terrifying piece of unearthed Greek statuary. What could account for this intensity? Perhaps the Beslan massacre was uppermost in Gergiev’s mind as he conducted, or maybe it was the orchestra’s close association with the composer—the Fourth Symphony played by the Vienna Philharmonic was the last concert music Brahms heard. At any rate, enthusiasm was the key. The players love making music together, and it shows. I guess that follows for Nine Inch Nails or U2 as well.

Enthusiasm that tears a passion to tatters is no use at all. You may feel something strongly, but that won’t get you through in art where you must apply technical skills, and subtlety, to the finished product. One skill which seems in short supply these days is the ability to see, on the whole, Mozart and Picasso notwithstanding, that less is more. Poetry especially seems to be experiencing the equivalent of bulimia as books pour forth. Just who is going to be reading all this stuff in the future? Very few people I should think, though I’d be happy to be proved wrong. For writers, enthusiasm means quiet persistence, letting the praise or blame fly by, going from A to B without getting diverted by the passing parade. And I think it means putting greatness of spirit in your way—it should be sitting on your shoulder.   

Caspar David Friedrich had enthusiasm, even as his work fell from popularity. Need anyone still point out the profound example of Vincent van Gogh. Cole Porter with his crushed legs but indomitable spirit had it. You feel it right through Gershwin, though a brain tumour killed the composer at far too young an age. There is so much creative beauty in the world and it is all filled with a kind of joyfulness at the fact of existence. It is there in philosophical enquiry and mathematical modelling. Surely Nietzsche had it, along with his migraines and bad digestion. And when the clerk in Berne came up with the Special Theory of Relativity, there too was a superabundance of the fröhliche Wissenschaft.

Well, you may end up in art having to do the equivalent of Larry David at the end of the second season of CYE when he is made, after another disastrous imbroglio, by court order, to carry a scarlet letter placard saying I STEAL FORKS FROM RESTAURANTS in front of The W Hotel as his erstwhile employees in the television industry, on their way to a network symposium, frostily avoid him. And Larry is probably thinking, along with Mahler—my time will come. However, whether it comes or not, in culture there can be no trade-offs with those who (don’t) know. That is clear. 

The worms will come out of the woodwork. People will be unkind, to put it mildly. Your work will be ignored or misrepresented. All that is to be expected. At all events, the lesson must go home. In art, in life, don’t curb your enthusiasm.


               ICI REPOSE
        VINCENT van GOGH

Not here the slippage
Of motive, the bull market,
Dressage of cocktail and auction;
Neither the victory lap nor prize.
And yet, pushed out, vertiginous paint,
Cypress and flower spinning,
Nature’s cusp stubbed on canvas,
A bandaged head staring with love,
And that alone, at each malignant defeat.

Ours is a tepid dreaming
With not even the courage of beauty.
We wish our Age of Noise
To be an almanac footnoted,
Its mug celebrities
Caught in silverfish pages,
But still we won’t avoid
An empty room dimming our glamour.

Theories puffed, the boast
Of a thousand critical niceties,
Are shed in the fierce night,
One name cast
Near sulphurous soil,
Whose paintings keep,
For we who believe
Not in greatness, nor the strength of art,
In the space reserved for grace,
The sharktooth eye
Of a winnowing field
And yellow starlight shining.

Written 1989 Published 1997


Waiting for Tet

Michael Goldfarb, reviewing Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s new book Imperial Life in the Emerald City in the December 17 New York Times, remarks: “Regardless of how the war ends, Iraq is not Vietnam.”

Wanna bet? Engaged once more in a fantastic imperial over-reach, we are retracing the steps that led to the final defeat and withdrawal from Vietnam. Let us hope it is sooner than later, and no new Richard Nixon emerges to slow it down.

Once More Vietnam
Consider the parallels and what they tell us about American imperialism. The Vietnamese Tet offensive two months shy of 39 years ago destroyed the illusion of a possible American victory in Vietnam. President Johnson, realizing that the US was losing the war, sacked Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and charged his successor, Clark Clifford, with making and “A to Z” assessment of the US war effort. All the wise men of the time were convened, ranging from famous retired generals like Omar Bradley, Maxwell Taylor and Matthew Ridgeway, future Secretary of Defense Cyrus Vance, Under-Secretary of the Treasury and future Wall Street financier George Ball, McGeorge Bundy, then head of the Ford Foundation, powerful Wall Streeter and former Treasury Secretary C. Douglas Dillon, and finally to Dean Acheson, Truman Secretary of State, principal architect of the Cold War, and the wisest of wise men. Perhaps only the figure of a President of Harvard was missing from the august cast.

Their recommendations changed the course of American involvement in the Vietnam War. American Commander William Westmoreland’s request for 250,000 more troops was rejected, and bombing North Vietnam for peace was declared a failure. The group decided that a military victory was unattainable, and that de-escalation and a negotiated peace were the only viable options.

Professor Richard Hunt sums up in Vietnam and America (edited by Marvin Gettleman,, 1995) how the Tet Offensive by the North Vietnamese in January, 1968, set the policy shift in motion:
“This demonstration of the vulnerability of U.S. leadership was not lost on many sectors of the ruling class who now began to argue openly that the government had made a mistake and that policy in Vietnam and elsewhere had to be rebuilt around a recognition of the limitations of U.S. power. Never again would any administration be able to unite the entire ruling class behind a strategy of U.S. aggressive military victory in Vietnam.”

And Now Iraq
Once more the Secretary of Defense has been sacked, and the wise men have spoken. “The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating,” the Iraq Study Group reports. The new Secretary of Defense Gates admits “we are not winning.” Colin Powell says “we are losing,” though “we have not lost.” The Army is broken, he believes. The Army will break, says its head Peter Schoomaker, without additional troops to meet current combat levels, never mind additional troops to be used in what the White House is calling “a surge,” newspeak for escalation.

Negotiation, “Iraqization” of the ground war, and pressure on the Iraqi government to take up the slack: just the approach recommended by the Vietnam wise men almost 39 years ago. The new wise men, as James Baker and Lee Hamilton make clear in their letter of transmittal of the Iraq Study Group Report, back a “bipartisan approach” to retrieve “the unity of the American people in a time of political polarization,” so that the country can develop “a broad, sustained consensus.”

The wise men, stalwarts of the American ruling class, seek to salvage the American empire in the Middle East and create true believers once more of the American people. They offer a skimpy fig leaf to Brother Bush, though with a plan that even Michael Gordon, the New York Times military aficionado noted was a re-hash of several already shelved proposals for winning the war in Iraq, with his front page offered perhaps in penance by his publisher. So endangered is American hegemony in the Middle East, however, that the wise men put Israel on notice that territorial withdrawal and a two-state solution must be part of the plan for peace and American success in the region. No wonder Israeli Prime Minister let slip that he had nuclear weapons. He and his gang must be a bit scared right now.

But Bush resists, and despite public protests of many a retired general, something not seen since Douglas MacArthur’s insubordination forced Truman to fire him. Bush seems still in control of Iraq policy. He and his cabal, reports Robert Dreyfuss in the December 18 issue of the Nation, recently considered supporting a coup against Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Malaki. Better a general, a strong man, to set things straight, they reasoned. But, alas, no Diem he. Apparently, al-Malaki had heard the news too. After initially snubbing Bush, he showed up in Amman on November 29 for his half-hearted anointing by Bush “as the right guy for Iraq.”

So Bush still has his war, but he has not yet had his Tet offensive. The wise men strive in vain: there can be no consensus on their terms or Bush’s for the resolution of the Iraq War. There is no basis for their consensus, as there is no basis for their success. Just like Ho Chi MInh thirty-nine years ago, no one now is going to give the United States an out.

Would you? After a war that has killed an estimated half a million Iraqis, that has triggered a civil war that has set Sunnis and Shiites upon each other?

We must grimly await anew a Tet. Only then, will Americans say to their rulers and their ruling class that enough is enough. Or perhaps they will say it to us.

Random Walks: Primal Instincts

ApocalyptoEveryone seems to be abuzz these days about Apocalypto, the latest directorial effort by Mel Gibson. Gibson’s suffered a bit of beating in the press of late for his drunken anti-semitic rants, but never let it be said that the man can’t tell a good story. Apocalypto is Braveheart with a Mayan twist, and just as much gratuitous blood and gore as The Passion of the Christ.

The hero is a young man named Jaguar Paw, whose village is attacked by a Maya war party. The captured villagers are herded back to the Maya city, where the women are sold as slaves and the men are painted blue and sacrificed atop a stone pyramid. Jaguar Paw is spared and escapes, and the rest of the film follows his journey through the rainforest — former Maya captors in hot pursuit — to be reunited with his wife and son.

Much has been made of the “factual inaccuracies,” historical anachronisms, and other liberties taken with specifics of Mayan culture. For instance, many of the details of the human sacrifice apparently were taken from Aztec rituals (eg, the blue paint, the cutting out of the heart, and the decapitation). The Maya didn’t use metal javelin blades, they used obsidian (volcanic glass) for their cutting tools and weapons; they were only just beginning to experiment with metal work when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the early 16th century. And the use of ant mandibles to suture wounds is also understood to have been an Aztec practice. So Gibson and his team essentially conflated various aspects of Mesoamerican culture.

Personally, I don’t have a big problem with directors taking a few liberties when creating an obviously fictional feature film. Most of us can tell the difference between that and, say, a documentary. Nonetheless, it’s good that archaeologists and historians are speaking up about some of the mis-representations, because it helps increase awareness and broaden the general public’s knowledge of a truly magnificent ancient culture. The Maya were about a lot more than human sacrifice and stunning architectural ruins.

For starters, the Maya independently developed the concept of zero by 357 AD — long before the Europeans, who didn’t figure it out until the 12th century. They were also quite advanced in the realm of astronomy, despite being limited to observing the heavens with the naked eye. The most obvious error in Apocalypto is when Jaguar Paw is spared being sacrificed by a timely solar eclipse, which supposedly awed the Maya priests into freeing the remaining captives. Okay, the eclipse occurs just before a full moon, when in reality, 15 days would have to pass. I’m willing to grant Gibson some artistic license on that front. The real problem is that the Maya would have known all about the solar eclipse, and would hardly have found it awe-inspiring. Their calendar was sufficiently accurate to enable them to predict both solar and lunar eclipses far into the future, and their codices have survived as evidence of their expertise.

But it’s their architectural feats that people find most awe-inspiring, especially the giant, stepped pyramids, which Wikipedia informs me date back to the “Terminal Pre-classic period and beyond.” They’re not just visually stunning; there is growing evidence that many Maya structures also provide a sort of “Stone Age” sound track via unusual acoustical effects. Thanks to a rapidly emerging interdisciplinary field known as acoustical archaeology, more and more people who study various aspects of Maya culture are beginning to suspect that at least some of those sound effects were the result of deliberate design.

Among the strongest proponents of this hypothesis is David Lubman, an acoustical consultant based in Orange County, California, who has been visiting the sites of Mayan ruins for years, recording sound effects, and taking them back home for extensive scientific analysis. Back in 1999, I wrote about his work with the great pyramid at Chichen Itza, part of the Mayan Temple of Kukulkan, for Salon. The pyramid is famous, first, for a visually stunning, serpentine “shadow effect” that occurs during the spring and fall equinox; according to some Maya scholars, the temple seems to have been deliberately designed to align astronomically to achieve that spectacular effect.

The second effect is an acoustic one: clap your hands at the bottom of one of the massive staircases, and it will produce a piercing echo, that Lubman, for one, thinks resembles the call of the quetzal, a brightly colored exotic bird native to the region. He considers it the world’s first and oldest sound recording, making the Maya the earliest known inventors of the soundscape. Similar effects have been noted at the Maya pyramid at Tikal in Guatamala, and at the Pyramid of the Magicians in Uxmals, Mexico. In the past, such effects were ascribed to design defects, but Lubman thinks they may have been deliberate — implying that, far from being savage primitives, the Maya’s grasp of engineering and acoustical principles rivaled their astronomical accomplishments.

It’s been seven years since I wrote that article, and Lubman hasn’t been idle. He’s turned his attention to the Great Ball Court at Chichen Itza, a huge field measuring 545 feet long and 225 feet wide. It’s essentially a Stone Age sports arena, where a part-sport, part-ritualistic ball game (common to ancient Mesoamerican cultures) was played, known in Spanish as juego de pelota. It was a literal bloodsport, known as the sport of life and death. It was extremely violent, requiring players to wear heavy padding. Even so, they often suffered serious injuries, and occasionally players died on the field. There is evidence that, in the Aztec version, the losers would be sacrificed to the gods, and their skulls used as the core of a newly made rubber ball for the next game. This was considered to be a great honor, so they might have considered it “winning.” Guides at Chichen Itza insist that it was the winning team members who were sacrificed. (Personally, I can’t think of a better reason for throwing a game.)

The Great Ball Court has another interesting feature: it’s a sort of “whispering gallery,” in which a low-volume conversation at one end can be clearly heard at the other. Similar “whispering gallery” effects can be found in many European domed cathedrals — most notably St. Paul’s in London — but it’s the curved domes that create the amplification effect as sound waves bounce off the surfaces. The Great Ball Court has no vaulted ceiling, and even today, the source of its amplification is incompletely understood, although theories abound. Lubman believes that the parallel stone walls are constructed in such a way that they serve as a built-in waveguide to more efficiently “beam” sound waves into the temples at either end.

There is also a bizarre flutter echo, lasting a few seconds, that can be heard between two parallel walls of the playing field; you can listen to a sound sample here. This acoustical effect is the subject of Lubman’s most recent work, which he presented earlier this month at a meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in Hawaii. Invariably, in Western architecture, such flutter echoes arise from design defects, so for decades this effect at the Great Ball Court has been disregarded by archaeologists. Ever the maverick, Lubman believes that in the case of the Great Ball Court, such an echo might have been a deliberate design. Lubmangbc_photo

The flutter echo would have been heard every time a ball hit the wall of the playing field — and possibly even when it the hard surfaces of the protective gear worn by the players. There is an eerie resemblance to the sound of a rattlesnake about to strike, and many of the carvings in the stone surfaces at Chichen Itza feature rattlesnakes. Some modern Maya interpret the flutter echoes as the voices of their ancestors, according to Lubman.

In fact, weird sound effects seem to be par for the course at the sites of Maya ruins. Chichen Itza also has “musical phalluses”: a set of stones that produce melodic tones when tapped with a wooden mallet. And at Tulum on the Yucatan coast, guides have reported clear whistles when the wind direction and velocity are just right, which Lubman believes could have been a possible signal to warn of developing storms.

There are plenty of scholars who remain skeptical of Lubman’s theories, and intent is well-nigh impossible to conclusively prove in the absence of express written historical documentation stating that intent. Even Lubman admits his “evidence” for intentional design is a bit circumstantial.

His work is fascinating, nonetheless, and really — why couldn’t a society as advanced in math and astronomy and architecture as the Maya also have figured out how to create strange acoustical effects with their structures? We think of them as Stone Age primitives, and violence was undoubtedly a huge part of their culture. I certainly wouldn’t advocate a return to those traditions, but Lubman’s work offers a window into this lost culture that indicates the Maya were far more sophisticated and complex than the brute savages depicted in Gibson’s otherwise-entertaining film. Perhaps there’s an element of wishful thinking there, but unlike Apocalypto, there’s some solid scholarship behind Lubman’s theories. It isn’t outright fiction.

When not taking random walks at 3 Quarks Daily, Jennifer Ouellette writes about science and culture at her own blog, Cocktail Party Physics. Her latest book, The Physics of the Buffyverse, has just been published by Penguin.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

People track scents in same way as dogs

From Nature:

Scent If you think only hounds can track a scent trail, think again: people can follow their noses too, a new study says. And they do so in a way very similar to dogs, suggesting we’re not so bad at detecting smells — we’re just out of practice.

Scientists have found that humans have far fewer genes that encode smell receptors than do other animals such as rats and dogs. This seemed to suggest that we’re not as talented at discerning scents as other beasts, perhaps because we lost our sense of smell when we began to walk upright, and lifted our noses far away from the aroma-rich earth. A team of neuroscientists and engineers, led by Noam Sobel of the University of California, Berkeley, and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, decided to test this conventional wisdom.

The team first laid down a 10-metre-long trail of chocolate essential oil in a grass field (the scent was detectable but not strong or overpowering). Then they enlisted 32 Berkeley undergraduates, blindfolded them, blocked their ears and set them loose in the field to try to track the scent. Each student got three chances to track the scent in ten minutes; two-thirds of the subjects finished the task. And when four students practiced the task over three days, they got better at it.

Next, the team tested how the students were following the trails. They counted how many whiffs of air each student took while tracking the scent trail, and tested the effect of blocking one nostril at a time. The scientists found that humans act much like dogs do while tracking a scent, sniffing repeatedly to trace the smell’s source. They didn’t do so well with one blocked nostril, suggesting that the stereo effect of two nostrils helps people to locate odours in space.

The study proves that humans aren’t so bad at smelling after all, says neuroscientist Gordon Shepherd of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

More here.

How the gospel story grew in the telling


Jesus_1 For Christians, ’tis the season for shepherds and kings, animals and angels to gather together around the manger — at least in countless Nativity scenes around the world. But it takes more than any one of the four Gospels to assemble that precise tableau: The three kings (actually, astrologers) come from Matthew, while the shepherds come from Luke.

Did we say four Gospels? Actually, in the early centuries of the Christian church, there were quite a few more than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. For example, references to the ox and the donkey surrounding the infant Jesus come not from the four accepted gospels, but from an also-ran scripture called the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. Still other apocryphal texts portray the child Jesus as a divine “Dennis the Menace” — smarting off to his neighbors, giving his playmates a swift kick, even striking an offending youngster dead and then grudgingly bringing him back to life.

More here.