A new biography looks at a crucial time in the life of the master of spiritual desolation

From The Washington Post:Kafka

Like Pascal, Kierkegaard and Baudelaire, Franz Kafka (1883- 1924) is one of the great masters of spiritual desolation. We don’t actually read his work, we are harrowed by it. In German of classical directness and purity, this desk functionary of the Prague Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute presents tableau after tableau of what Pascal called ” la misre de l’homme sans Dieu ,” the misery of man without God. All of Kafka’s unfortunate protagonists — Georg Bendemann in “The Judgment,” Gregor Samsa in “The Metamorphosis,” Josef K. in The Trial — struggle against the one great, serious truth about life: Each of us is fundamentally and inescapably alone, especially in the face of death.

Reiner Stach’s Kafka builds on much of this research. (Drawing by Franz Kafka and a portrait taken in 1910 (From “Kafka”).

More here.

Waking up to how we sleep and dream

From Harvard Gazette:Sleep_illus_2

We spend about a third of our lives asleep. What really goes on during this time? The answer: more than anyone ever dreamed. This research is based on well-established findings that the brain doesn’t stop working when we sleep. During as much as 20 percent of our sleeping time, we exhibit rapid bursts of eye movements, and our brains are almost as active as when we are awake. Called REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, these are periods of vivid dreaming. During the rest of our sleep, even though consciousness is greatly diminished, our brain cells remain surprisingly active.

“Studies show that hallucinatory mental content is lowest during active waking and highest during REM sleep,” says Allan Hobson, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “The incidence of thinking is highest during quiet waking and lowest during REM sleep. The implication of these findings is that the sleeping brain can either generate its own perceptions or it can think about them. It cannot do both at the same time. Therefore, dreaming is as hallucinatory and thoughtless (delusional) as so-called mental illness.”

Think of that next time you try to make sense out of your dreams.

More here.

Ayn Rand: As Astonishing as Elvis

Jenny Turner reviews Ayn Rand by Jeff Britting, in the London Review of Books:

1108223511_6007If you try to find out about the legacy of Ayn Rand, your search engine will probably direct you first to aynrand.org, a website run by the Ayn Rand Institute in California. The ARI was founded in 1985, three years after Rand’s death, by Leonard Peikoff, her friend and heir. It runs a newsletter called Impact and, via the Objectivist Academic Center, undergraduate courses in the Randian world vision.

Objectivism was the name Rand gave to the system of philosophy she developed in a 30,000-word speech that took her two years to write and which forms the centrepiece of her bestselling novel, Atlas Shrugged (1957). It was later elaborated in speeches, lectures and interviews, in the six non-fiction books Rand published in her lifetime, and a further dozen-odd published after her death. Objectivism is also promulgated by the Objectivist Center in Washington DC, until recently run by David Kelley, the author of A Life of One’s Own: Individualism and the Welfare State. Kelley split from the ARI in 1990, ‘dismayed’ by ‘the exploding excesses’ of its ‘official, dogmatic approach’. The Center supports lectures and social events, a journal called the New Individualist (until recently the Navigator), a venture called the Atlas Society and an online Objectivism Store selling T-shirts, bags, hats, badges and inspirational posters such as Morality Made Visible, which features the Manhattan skyline, Twin Towers intact, with a quotation from The Fountainhead, Rand’s bestselling novel of 1943.

More here.

The Day the Sea Came, Part I: A Ghost in the Water

Barry Bearak in the New York Times Magazine:

27coverFor the earth, it was just a twinge. Last Dec. 26, at 7:59 a.m., one part of the planet’s undersea crust made an abrupt shift beneath another along a 750-mile seam near the island of Sumatra. The tectonic plates had been grating against each other for millenniums, and now the higher of the two was lifted perhaps 60 feet. For a planet where landmasses are in constant motion across geological time, the event was of no great moment. But for people – who mark the calendar in days and months rather than eons – a monumental catastrophe had begun, not only the largest earthquake in 40 years but also the displacement of billions of tons of water, unleashing a series of mammoth waves: a tsunami. These surging mounds of water raced toward land with the speed of a jet aircraft and then slowed as they reared up to leap ashore at heights of 50 feet and higher. They were long as well as tall, stampeding inland and carrying with them all they were destroying. People caught in the waves became small ingredients in an enormous blender, bludgeoned by concrete slabs and felled trees, stabbed by jagged sheets of glass, tangled up in manacles of wire.

The number of the dead and missing is now estimated at 232,000.

More here.

Digital Library With a Worldview

From Wired News:

The Library of Congress is kicking off a campaign Tuesday to work with other nation’s libraries to build a World Digital Library, starting with a $3 million donation from Google.

Librarian of Congress James Billington said he is looking to attract further private funding to develop bilingual projects, featuring millions of unique objects, with libraries in China, India, the Muslim world and other nations.

This builds on major existing digital documentary projects by the Library of Congress — one preserving an online record of Americana and another documenting ties between the United States and Brazil, France, the Netherlands, Russia and Spain.

“The World Digital Library is an attempt to go beyond Europe and the Americas … into cultures where the majority of the world is,” Billington said.

As an example, Billington said the Library of Congress is in discussions with the national library of Egypt to include a collection of great Islamic scientific works from the 10th through the 16th century in the World Digital Library.

More here.

Physicist Lawrence Krauss turns on his own

Paul Boutin in Slate:

KraussLawrence Krauss, a professor of physics and astronomy at Case Western Reserve University, has a reputation for shooting down pseudoscience. He opposed the teaching of intelligent design on The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer. He penned an essay for the New York Times that dissed President Bush’s proposal for a manned Mars mission. Yet in his latest book, Hiding in the Mirror, Krauss turns on his own—by taking on string theory, the leading edge of theoretical physics. Krauss is probably right that string theory is a threat to science, but his book proves he’s too late to stop it.

String theory, which stretches back to the late 1960s, has become in the last 20 years the field of choice for up-and-coming physics researchers. Many of them hope it will deliver a “Theory of Everything”—the key to a few elegant equations that explain the workings of the entire universe, from quarks to galaxies.

More here.

Serbian President Proposes Dividing Kosovo

Dusan Stojanovic of the AP at ABC News:

Serbia’s president on Thursday formally proposed dividing Kosovo between its independence-seeking Albanian majority and a Serb minority as the chief U.N. mediator met with government officials.

Martti Athisaari, the envoy who was appointed earlier this month by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and is on his initial fact-finding mission in the Balkans, said the troubled province’s final status will ultimately be decided by the Security Council after his report.

More here.  [Thanks again to Samad Khan.]

Tariq Ali on Amartya Sen

Review of Sen’s The Argumentative Indian from The Nation:

Tariq3The sage of Bengal has pronounced. Pluralism, we are informed, has an ancient pedigree in Indian history. It is embedded in the oldest known texts of Hinduism and, like a river, has flowed through Indian history (including the Mughal period, when the country was under Muslim rule) till the arrival of the British in the eighteenth century. It is this cultural heritage, ignored and misinterpreted by colonialists and religious fanatics alike, that shapes Indian culture and goes a long way toward explaining the attachment of all social classes to modern democracy. Senaeasmall The argumentative tradition “has helped to make heterodoxy the natural state of affairs in India,” exerting a profound influence on the country’s politics, democracy and “the emergence of its secular priorities.” This view informs most of the thought-provoking essays in Amartya Sen’s new book, a set of reflections on India written in a very different register from his other books on moral philosophy and poverty. It is designed not so much for the academy but as a public intervention in the country of his birth, to which he remains firmly attached despite the Nobel Prize and his latest posting at Harvard as a Boston Brahman…

Given the title of Sen’s book, it would be churlish to prove him wrong by simply nodding in approval, as is so often the case in our wonderful subcontinent. What follows, then, from this argumentative Pakistani is the expression of a few doubts concerning his central thesis and the odd complaint with regard to some omissions.

More here.  [Thanks to Samad Khan.]

November 26, 2005

100 Notable Books of the Year


From The New York Times:

Fiction & Poetry

BEYOND BLACK. By Hilary Mantel. (John Macrae/Holt, $26.) Neurotic, demanding ghosts haunt a British clairvoyant in this darkly comic novel.

A CHANGED MAN. By Francine Prose. (HarperCollins, $24.95.) A neo-Nazi engages a Jewish human rights leader in this morally concerned novel, asking for help in his effort to repent.

COLLECTED POEMS, 1943-2004. By Richard Wilbur. (Harcourt, $35.) This urbane poetry survived the age of Ginsberg, Lowell and Plath.

EMPIRE RISING. By Thomas Kelly. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25.) A muscular historical novel in which the Irish erect the Empire State Building in a cheerfully corrupt New York.

ENVY. By Kathryn Harrison. (Random House, $24.95.) A psychoanalyst is unhappy but distant until Greek-tragedy things start happening in this novel by an ace student of sexual violation.

More here.

the evolution of venom

Carl Zimmer writes about venom and the origin of snakes:

Bryan “Back in February I discovered the remarkable work of Australian biologist Bryan Grieg Fry , who has been tracing the evolution of venom. As I wrote in the New York Times, he searched the genomes of snakes for venom genes. He discovered that even non-venomous snakes produce venom. By drawing an evolutionary tree of the venom genes, Fry showed that the common ancestor of living snakes had several kinds of venom, which had evolved through accidental “borrowing” of proteins produced in other parts of the body. Later, these genes duplicated to create a sophisticated cocktail of venoms–a cocktail that varied from one lineage of snakes to another.”

More Here

More on what the Internet means for democracy and association

In First Monday, a sprawling piece by Beth Noveck on the collaboration, deliberation, representation and identity on the internet.

Participating in a group — in whatever form — is also not the same as deliberation. Deliberation — or the public exchange of reasoned ideas through face–to–face conversation — can be one of the central activities of group life. But groups can now engage in “conversation” without talking. Much recent political theory describes experimental forms of idealized deliberation that is perfectly representative or pluralist or equal. These strictures make the institutionalization of deliberation impossible in an imperfect world of busy people. They also constrain our ability to “scale” deliberation into a widespread practice by means of the Internet. This contributes to a perception of deliberation as an elite pastime. This is not to say that there is no place for socially engineered conversations but that the Internet is enabling forms of collective dialogue that produce social interaction without formal deliberation in any technical sense. Members of a group can create a shared map or diagram to represent the state of mind of the group as, if not more, easily than they can have a conversation in real time. Representative politics has co–opted the term deliberation. Not everyone needs to converse face–to–face about every issue every time to achieve collective action. Technology is beginning to replace the vast array of social and visual clues, cues and customs that we depend upon to organize the public exchange of reason. Technology is changing what it means to deliberate.

Groups may be institutionalized or decentralized. They may participate in representative political life or they may just as well be a non–incorporated collection of people committed to a particular issue, such as the Dean Corps or a Meetup. Yet these groups can have real political power, produce real affective loyalty from their members and shape the political culture of a society.

Mike Ladd on His Music

In frontwheeldrive, an interview from February with the musician Mike Ladd.

frontwheeldrive: Tell me about Negrophilia. What were your aims with this record and how did it all come together?

Mike Ladd: The concept has been with me for a long time. I think in a way, all of my records have touched on this topic, especially when you are a Black artist doing stuff that doesn’t make the mainstream or is esoteric, and you have to contend with a large portion of your audience being white (especially when that wasn’t your primary intended audience). That said, when Patrine Archer Straw’s book came around, I had to read it, and it touched on at least some of the origins of the Negrophilia phenomenon. A phenomenon that has grown beyond Elvis and is as bizarre as Michael jackson, Eminem, and Condeleza Rice having tea and smoking stems in a drum circle in Norway.

The Defense Budget and the War on Terror

Charles V. Peña of the Cato Institute looks at runaway U.S. defense spending, in Issues in Science and Technology.

For fiscal year (FY) 2005, military spending will be nearly $500 billion, which is greater in real terms than during any of the Reagan years and surpassed only by spending at the end of World War II in 1945 and 1946 and during the Korean War in 1952. The White House is asking for an FY 2006 Department of Defense (DOD) budget of $413.9 billion, which does not include funding for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The administration argues that increased military spending is a necessary part of the war on terrorism. But such logic assumes that the war on terrorism is primarily a military war to be fought by the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. The reality is that large conventional military operations will be the exception rather than the rule in the war on terrorism. Instead, the military’s role will mainly involve special operations forces in discrete missions against specific targets, not conventional warfare aimed at overthrowing entire regimes. The rest of the war aimed at dismantling and degrading the al Qaeda terrorist network will require unprecedented international intelligence and law enforcement cooperation, not expensive new planes, helicopters, and warships.

The Misleaders: Who is Dick Cheney kidding?

From Slate:

Bush_3 Dick Cheney calls it “dishonest,” “reprehensible” and “not legitimate” to claim that the administration misled the public about prewar intelligence. In his speech at the American Enterprise Institute on Nov. 21, the vice president added for good measure that “any suggestion that prewar information was distorted, hyped or fabricated by the leader of the nation is utterly false.” Most Democrats in Congress think that prewar intelligence was indeed distorted and hyped—though not “fabricated,” which, like the accusation that they have accused Bush of “lying,” is a straw man of Cheney’s. Democrats believe that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice, and others misrepresented what our government knew about Saddam Hussein’s WMD capacity and his links to terrorists in order to make a stronger case for invading Iraq.

So, who’s right? Did Bush officials mislead us, or didn’t they?

More here.

November 25, 2005

Interview with Jirí Grusa

In Context, an interview with Jirí Grusa.

Jirí Grusa was born in 1938 in Pardubice, East Bohemia, in what is now the Czech Republic. After receiving a degree from Charles University in Prague in 1962, Grusa became involved with several literary magazines and with the Prague Theater. Grusa was arrested in 1974 for “the crime of initiating disorder” after distributing nineteen copies of his novel The Questionnaire and expressing his intent to have it published in Switzerland. He was released after two months as a result of worldwide attention and protests. After his citizenship was revoked in 1981, he moved to West Germany and, ironically, as a result of the political changes of the late ’80s, became the Czech ambassador to Germany. In 2004 he became the president of International PEN.


ANA LUCIC: In the interview entitled “The Questionnaire, or the Sixteen Answers of Mr. Grusa” you say that “all good authors are really nothing but translators—from a universal and ideal language.” Could you elaborate on this idea?

JIRI GRUSA: “All good authors are really nothing but translators”—for me, to a certain extent, this is a kind of a “psychological preservation philosophy.” If an author (like myself) loses one language (and in my case this is the Czech language), the characteristic style that brought him readers also dwindles away. In an attempt to find another language—in my case it was German—I determined that it had nothing of this “meta-language” quality. What binds the authors around the world is the Lingualität, also the possibility to name what is not named yet. At the same time this is the reason for all personal misfortune, and also for metaphysical fortune.

On the question of human rights, so-called ‘Asian values’ aren’t what they used to be

From The Boston Globe:China

HANOI – As China’s President Hu Jintao welcomes President Bush to Beijing this weekend, he’s surely hoping to avoid another lecture on human rights like the one Bush delivered Wednesday in Kyoto, Japan. These days, however, it’s not only America or the international community that are pushing China and Vietnam towards greater respect for human rights. It’s their own citizens. In Hong Kong in recent years, democracy rallies have drawn hundreds of thousands of marchers; on the mainland, mass protests over corruption and environmental degradation have proliferated. Private property rights, the freedom to assemble and to criticize the government, and the expectation that government is bound by the rule of law, are all gradually becoming ”Asian values” – even in Hanoi.

More here.

Young and Privileged, but Writing Vividly of Africa’s Child Soldiers

From The New York Times:

Iwea184 POTOMAC, Md., Nov. 21 – Uzodinma Iweala’s brutal debut novel, “Beasts of No Nation,” is filled with the stink of violence. Mr. Iweala’s own life couldn’t be further removed from his main character’s. Mr. Iweala, or Uzo, as his friends call him, grew up in this Washington suburb. He attended the elite St. Albans School, then Harvard, from which he graduated in 2004. He has perfect posture, a soft, polite voice, a scarf elegantly draped around his neck. He has just turned 23, and he has known little suffering in his young life. From where, then, did this horrifying story about child soldiers in Africa come?

“In my senior year of high school, I read an article in Newsweek about child soldiers in Sierra Leone,” said Mr. Iweala, sitting in the large living room of his parents’ home, his voice still hoarse from yelling at the Harvard-Yale football game. “I felt a sense of shock – this was happening in the region where I’m from and people don’t know about it. I wanted to understand.” So he wrote a three-page sketch about a child soldier, then put it away.

At Harvard, Mr. Iweala studied creative writing, learning the basics of character and plot development in fiction. Then, one day in his junior year, Mr. Iweala, who was co-president of the African Students Association, heard a speaker, China Keitetsi, describe her experiences after being kidnapped at 9 and forced to fight in the Ugandan civil war. Afterward, Mr. Iweala said, he told Ms. Keitetsi that his parents wanted him to go to medical school. “She said, ‘Oh, that’s interesting; I have no parents.’ ”

Deeply moved by their meeting, he dug up his old sketch and began to expand it. This time “it just flowed,” he remembered.

More here.

November 24, 2005

Supernovae Back Einstein’s “Blunder”

From Scientific American:Einstein_1

When Albert Einstein was working on his equations for the theory of general relativity, he threw in a cosmological constant to bring the universe into harmonious equilibrium. But subsequent observations by Edwin Hubble proved that the universe was not static. Rather, galaxies were flying apart at varying speeds. Einstein abandoned the concept, calling it the biggest blunder of his life’s work. Observations in the 1990s, however, proved that the universe was not only flying apart, it was doing so faster and faster. This seemed to point to a dark energy filling space that actually repelled ordinary matter with its gravity, in contrast to all other known stuff, including dark matter. A number of theories have been developed to explain what this dark energy might be, including Einstein’s long discarded cosmological constant.

More here.

How a virus can morph into a killer

From MSNBC:Flu

The 1918 Spanish flu killed at least 20 million people around the globe. Fears of a similar pandemic have health officials concerned the death toll could be much higher in a modern outbreak, which researchers say is very likely if the current deadly bird flu morphs into a strain that can be transmitted by humans. Travel between countries has become vastly more frequent and quicker, which would hasten the spread of a highly contagious and lethal virus. In the last of a three-part series, LiveScience examines how a virus jumps from birds to humans and reaches pandemic proportions.

More here.

November 23, 2005

the press

In a previous article, I described many of the external pressures besetting journalists today, including a hostile White House, aggressive conservative critics, and greedy corporate owners.[2] Here, I will concentrate on the press’s internal problems—not on its many ethical and professional lapses, which have been extensively discussed elsewhere, but rather on the structural problems that keep the press from fulfilling its responsibilities to serve as a witness to injustice and a watchdog over the powerful. To some extent, these problems consist of professional practices and proclivities that inhibit reporting —a reliance on “access,” an excessive striving for “balance,” an uncritical fascination with celebrities. Equally important is the increasing isolation of much of the profession from disadvantaged Americans and the difficulties they face. Finally, and most significantly, there’s the political climate in which journalists work. Today’s political pressures too often breed in journalists a tendency toward self-censorship, toward shying away from the pursuit of truths that might prove unpopular, whether with official authorities or the public.

Michael Massing on ‘the press’ in the New York Review of Books.