Women in International Law

In The Nation, Martha Nussbaum reviews Catharine MacKinnon’s Are Women Human?

MacKinnon has gathered the speeches and articles that she has delivered over the past twenty years on sex equality and international law. The result is a sparkling book, perhaps her finest. Unsettling in the best sort of way, Are Women Human? shows her to be not only a prodigiously creative feminist thinker who can see the world from a fresh angle like nobody else (and I mean the angle of reality, as opposed to the usual one of half-reality) but also one of our most creative thinkers about international law. As elsewhere in MacKinnon’s work, we find plenty of trenchant and eloquent writing; but we also find more systematic analysis and more extensive scholarship than we sometimes get, and the book is the richer for it.

MacKinnon’s central theme, repeatedly and convincingly mined, is the hypocrisy of the international system when it faces up to some crimes against humanity but fails to confront similar harms when they happen to women, often on a daily basis. There is a category of torture, and we think we know how to define it. We think we know what it does: It uses violence to control and intimidate. And yet when violence is used to control and intimidate women “in homes in Nebraska…rather than prison cells in Chile,” we don’t call it torture, and we somehow think it is not the same thing. Torture in Chile is not explained away as the work of isolated sick individuals. We know it is political, and we can see how systemic it often is. When violence happens to women in Nebraska, we say, Oh well, that was only some sicko, and men really aren’t like that. Well, given the numbers, shouldn’t we ask more questions about that?

Voices of Peace Muffled by Rising Mideast Strife

Michael Slackman in the New York Times:

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Regional momentum is supporting hard-liners. Newspapers and television commentators have assailed Egypt and Jordan for trying to negotiate a peaceful solution between Hamas and Israel. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who planned to call a referendum on whether to support a two-state solution, has been increasingly silenced. Even the Hamas leadership in Gaza, which had sought to forge a consensus with other Palestinian factions, found itself trumped by its more militant members.

More here.

A Practical Quantum Computer

Via EurekaAlert:

Physicists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have designed and built a novel electromagnetic trap for ions that could be easily mass produced to potentially make quantum computers large enough for practical use. The new trap, described in the June 30 issue of Physical Review Letters,* may help scientists surmount what is currently the most significant barrier to building a working quantum computer–scaling up components and processes that have been successfully demonstrated individually.

Quantum computers would exploit the unusual behavior of the smallest particles of matter and light. Their theoretical ability to perform vast numbers of operations simultaneously has the potential to solve certain problems, such as breaking data encryption codes or searching large databases, far faster than conventional computers. Ions (electrically charged atoms) are promising candidates for use as quantum bits (qubits) in quantum computers. The NIST team, one of 18 research groups worldwide experimenting with ion qubits, previously has demonstrated at a rudimentary level all the basic building blocks for a quantum computer, including key processes such as error correction, and also has proposed a large-scale architecture.

Far From the Madding Gerund

Essays from one of my favorite blogs, Language Log, have been collected into Far From the Madding Gerund. Robert Greene reviews it in Slate.

David Foster Wallace once invented an organization called the “Militant Grammarians of Massachusetts” whose members boycott stores with signs reading “10 items or less.” It was a joke (from the novel Infinite Jest), but it’s not too far-fetched. Eats, Shoots & Leaves, a book that took as its primary subject the misuse of various punctuation marks, became an international best seller a few years ago, and on bookstore shelves today it has plenty of company: Between You and I: A Little Book of Bad English; The Grouchy Grammarian; The Dictionary of Disagreeable English; Lapsing Into a Comma, and so forth.

These books tend to be written by prescriptivists—people who would dictate how language should be used. Descriptivists—those who would describe how language is actually used—have rarely had such eloquent (or prolific) spokesmen. As a result, they’re often ridiculed. Wallace, who himself is a somewhat militant grammarian, has argued that descriptivism is hopeless as a scientific endeavor: Using what people actually say and write to determine appropriate English usage is, he says, like writing an ethics textbook based on what people actually do. But descriptive linguists have finally found persuasive champions in Mark Liberman and Geoffrey Pullum, who have collected a series of essays from their blog Language Log into a new book, Far From the Madding Gerund.

The two bring usefully different styles to their arguments. Pullum, a syntactician at UC-Santa Cruz and currently a Radcliffe fellow at Harvard, can be vicious (and very funny), whether criticizing inept usage or demolishing prescriptivist myths. Liberman, a phonetician at Penn, takes a more data-driven approach, analyzing modern vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar with custom-written computer scripts and plain old Google.

literature tasmanian and newfoundlandish

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It matters because we expect literary fiction to be universal and particular at the same time, and accurate in its particularities. Tasmanian and Newfoundland literatures have captured the international imagination, to the extent that they have, partly because they are charting uncharted territory—the specific details of place, voice, cadence, and wit that come from living on islands at the periphery, at the ends of the earth. London, Paris, Rome—these are places that have existed as solid landscapes in our imaginations for centuries. But the imaginary landscapes of Tasmania and Newfoundland are still relatively wild.

more from The Walrus here.

graffiti at the Brooklyn Museum

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In retrospect, just when the party got going it came to a screeching halt. Inadvertently, the exhibition reminds us that the high-low hybrid of grafitti didn’t produce particularly memorable art. Oh, there’s a sense of awkwardness that’s endearing, and bravura as the artists show off their chops, but the paintings testify to what emerged as a kind of “truth”–spray paint on canvas was never as good as the real thing happening in the street. Graffiti had to be tamed in order to function as proper art, and that was the beginning of the end.

Despite their efforts, the Brooklyn Museum contributes to the “dumbing down” of graffiti art by couching it as harmless child’s play. An immense wall, constructed dead center in the middle of the exhibition and accessorized with felt-tip pens, invites children to scribble and become little graffiti artists in their own right.

more from the Village Voice here.

packer on liberal internationalism

One of the greatest challenges of the next few years will be to rescue democracy, human rights, and national security from the company these words have recently kept. A clear-eyed understanding of our predicament begins with the recognition that American interests and values do not always rhyme; imagining that they do makes it more likely that in the end we’ll compromise both. How can the U.S. fight jihadism without supporting dictatorships? Regime change by force has proved disastrous; elections have brought to power Islamists whose commitment to democracy is doubtful; ongoing blank checks written to Saudi princes, Pakistani generals, and a decaying dynasty in Cairo are bound to bankrupt sender and receiver alike. It’s hard to imagine a waning of the jihadist threat that doesn’t involve some kind of liberalization in the Muslim world, either because Islamism comes to be reformed from within or because it comes to be rejected by subject populations. (Iran, several decades ahead of the Arab countries, is where this struggle can be seen in sharpest relief.) A serious American policy toward Islamism will do well what the Bush Administration has done badly or not at all, and without the triumphalist speeches: modest, informed, persistent support for reformers, without grand promises of regime change; concerted efforts at reconstruction and counter-insurgency that bring to bear the full range of government agencies as well as alliances and international institutions. Since these tasks will fall to the United States one way or another, we should learn to do them better rather than vow never to try again. Large ideas drawn from historical analogies can help as guiding frameworks, but the glamorous certainties they seem to offer are illusions; we still have to think for ourselves.

more from The New Yorker here.

Prophet of the revolution

From The Guardian:Shelley1

The discovery of a lost work by a major writer has always caused much excitement among critics and academics. The revelation in today’s Times Literary Supplement that an early poem by the great Percy Bysshe Shelley has come to light, and is in the possession of a London bookseller, will cause even more excitement than most.

The quintessential English romantic poet deserves a better place in history than Matthew Arnold’s description of him as “a beautiful but ineffectual angel beating in the void his luminous wings in vain”. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was a poet who wrote of beauty, and is always associated with his works To the Skylark and The Cloud, but Shelley wanted his poetry to be “the trumpet of a prophecy” that would ring down the ages to give voice to the inhumanity we see all around us. He was a devoted and courageous advocate of freedom, a political stance that quickly blossomed into a fierce anti-militarism: his hatred of war was one of the forces that “hurt him into poetry”. From an early age he was writing poetry against the Napoleonic wars. In an early poem, Queen Mab, Shelley cannot contain his fury:

War is the statesman’s game, the priests delight,

The lawyer’s jest, the hired assassin’s trade.

More here.

Meerkats Teach Pups How to Eat Risky Food

From The National Geographic:Meerkat

The behavior is the first hard evidence of active teaching by a nonhuman mammal, researchers say. Chimpanzees and other mammals have been shown to teach their young passively—babies learn by watching adults. But adult meerkats in the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa were observed devoting much time and effort to teaching pups how to handle tricky food items—a task that carried no immediate advantage for the adults. In addition to lizards, beetles, and millipedes, deadly scorpions are on the meerkats’ menu.

Some of these scorpion species have enough venom to kill a human, while others are armed with powerful pincers. Meerkats encourage their pups to practice killing and eating such risky meals by bringing the youngsters live prey, according to the study, done by researchers at the University of Cambridge in England.

More here.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

An Impala’s-Eye View of Highway History

Finn-Olaf Jones in the New York Times Book Review:

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For those of us reared on family car vacations, Jack Kerouac and every buddy road story from Lewis and Clark to “Thelma and Louise,” crossing the country is such an American ritual it’s like pledging allegiance to the flag at 65 miles per hour. Get that average speed up to a mere 110 and, thanks to the miracle of the Interstate, it’s possible to race across the continent in one day and still have time to pick up a couple of Happy Meals at the drive-through.

The Interstate highway system turned 50 this month. Robert Sullivan, chronicler of swamps, whales and rodents (as the author of “Meadowlands,” “A Whale Hunt” and “Rats”), now applies his onion-peeling skills to the evolution of this multilane leveler of mountains, deserts, rivers and regionalism.

More here.

Michael Jackson the Muslim?

Andrew O’Hagan in the London Review of Books:

Michael_jackson_leaves_neverland_for_bahSince being acquitted of child molestation charges last summer, Michael Jackson has been hanging out in Bahrain, enjoying the hospitality of the ruler’s poptastic son Sheikh Abdullah. Jackson is said to have become a Muslim (which is sure to please his critics on Good Morning America), but evidence would suggest he has yet to get the hang of Islamic custom. Not long after arriving in the famously tolerant state, he caused uproar when he entered the ladies’ loos at the Ibn Battutah Mall dressed in female headgear and positioned himself at the mirror to put on his make-up.

Jackson’s new friend has a bit of cash, and the pair have set up a record label called Two Seas Records. Sheikh Abdullah bin Hamad al-Khalifa is also the governor of Bahrain’s Southern Region, but that hasn’t prevented him finding time to write a song with Jackson’s brother Jermaine, ‘a passion-filled song that calls for world peace and global solidarity in the face of wars and disasters’. According to local correspondents, the record already has a title, ‘He Who Makes the Sky Grey’, but no release date is in sight. The king’s son has high hopes for the recording. He recently called a press conference in order to claim that the project ‘intends to bridge the gap between East and West’. Meanwhile, Jackson is in the habit of smiling widely beside his new friend. Things are going well in Bahrain. According to the Militant Islam Monitor, he is planning to build a new mosque in Manama.

More here.  [Photo is a spoof from GQ.]

Addressing the public about science and religion

Murray Peshkin in Physics Today:

I have been speaking to diverse small groups about science and religion in the context of the ongoing national debate about the teaching of evolution in our public schools. The response to my talks has been almost uniformly positive. It would be useful for other physicists to do as I have been doing.

My audiences have been service clubs such as Rotary, high-school and college students of science and science journalism, a school-based community event, a League of Women Voters chapter, a Unitarian church, and a microscopy club. They have ranged from a dozen to some 60 or 70 people. Access is a problem but not an insuperable one, since organizations have program chairs hungry for speakers, and local newspapers, especially small suburban ones, are interested in publicizing such activities.

I am not trying to convert the convinced anti-evolutionist. I am trying to inform people about the issues and their importance. That goal is important for scientists because the integrity of science teaching in our public schools is under serious attack. So far, the courts have mostly come to the rescue, but in the end public opinion will carry the day. Reasonable people need to know what science is about, especially what an established scientific theory is and how scientists know when it’s right. Nonscientists are vulnerable to arguments like “Evolution is only a theory” and “What’s the harm in teaching alternative theories as well?”

More here.

Rated X on campus

“U. of C. magazine offers erotica, photos and advice for sexually liberated students —- but don’t tell their parents.”

Patricia M. Jones in the Chicago Tribune:

The emergence of college sex magazines such as the U. of C.’s — which often are supported financially by student governments as recognized student organizations — first started gaining national attention in 1999 when Vassar College students started a magazine called Squirm.

Since then, sex magazines have cropped up at elite institutions from Yale to Harvard to Boston University.

The magazines include student-friendly information on sex, provocative columns opining about sex and titillating photo essays that often focus on what else — sex — and the publications have been a hit with students.

More here.

wizard of the crow

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“African languages refused to die,” wrote Ngugi wa Thiong’o two decades ago in his seminal volume Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, evoking the vitality and defiance with which Africans have met the specter of linguistic annihilation. At the core of Ngugi’s own aesthetic lies an analogous pairing of vigor and resistance, sustained by his commitment, also declared in that book, to composing his works in African languages (specifically, Kikuyu and Kiswahili) rather than in English. More generally, he has written that “the real language of humankind” is the “language of struggle,” and in Wizard of the Crow, the satiric political allegory that is his most ambitious novel to date, the turmoil convulsing the fictional state of Aburiria is cast as a fight for the voice of the nation. “We want our voice back,” shout the demonstrators gathered to oppose Aburiria’s reigning despot, known only as the Ruler. The country’s chief antigovernment faction, the Movement for the Voice of the People, identifies itself primarily not with justice or even self-determination but with a much more fundamental power: speech.

more from Bookforum here.

das kapital as literature

Das Kapital has spawned countless texts analysing Marx’s labour theory of value or his law of the declining rate of profit, but only a handful of critics have given serious attention to Marx’s own declared ambition – in several letters to Engels – to produce a work of art. One deterrent, perhaps, is that the multilayered structure of Das Kapital evades easy categorisation. The book can be read as a vast Gothic novel whose heroes are enslaved and consumed by the monster they created (“Capital which comes into the world soiled with gore from top to toe and oozing blood from every pore”); or as a Victorian melodrama; or as a black farce (in debunking the “phantom-like objectivity” of the commodity to expose the difference between heroic appearance and inglorious reality, Marx is using one of the classic methods of comedy, stripping off the gallant knight’s armour to reveal a tubby little man in his underpants); or as a Greek tragedy (“Like Oedipus, the actors in Marx’s recounting of human history are in the grip of an inexorable necessity which unfolds itself no matter what they do,” C. Frankel writes in Marx and Contemporary Scientific Thought). Or perhaps it is a satirical utopia like the land of the Houyhnhnms in Gulliver’s Travels, where every prospect pleases and only man is vile: in Marx’s version of capitalist society, as in Jonathan Swift’s equine pseudo-paradise, the false Eden is created by reducing ordinary humans to the status of impotent, alienated Yahoos.

more from Guardian Books here.

pierre huyghe

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Tom Morton: The title of your exhibition ‘Celebration Park’ at ARC / Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and Tate Modern, London, evokes a future project, somewhere between an amusement park and an international expo or world fair. Can you tell me about it?

Pierre Huyghe: When you want to push the exhibition towards a more performative scale, you end up rethinking the conditions of its reception. ‘Celebration Park’ is an exhibition of exhibitions, and an exhibition about another exhibition to come. It starts with this idea of celebration – something to embrace, something that you experience on a time-based protocol. The temporal structure of the original world fair allowed experimental proposals, but when people started thinking of the idea of progress as embarrassing, this kind of place lost its meaning. In another way the amusement park failed as a pathetic illusion and vulgar master-plan. I’m looking for a permanent exhibition that grows as an organism, an arrangement between heterogeneity, a series of pavilions hosting an experience of a real situation, a system of representation that participates in the construction of an experience.

more from the interview at Frieze here.

Strange Times, My Dear: The Pen Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature

From The Atlantic Monthly:Book_10

In The Captive Mind, his brilliantly lucid reflection on totalitarianism and its temptations, Czeslaw Milosz devoted most of his essays to the problem of communism and the intellectuals. In one chapter, however, he turned aside to view another manifestation of tyranny, and also to examine the verbal and literary means by which it could be thwarted. The essay is called “Ketman.” It means the art and science of dissimulation, particularly in matters of religion. The ferocious orthodoxy of the Shia mullahs of Iran, Gobineau wrote, could be circumvented by, say, a heretical disciple of Avicenna, as long as the man was careful to make every outward show of conformity. With this done, he could begin to introduce all manner of subversive philosophy into his sermons and addresses:

Ketman fills the man who practices it with pride. Thanks to it, a believer raises himself to a permanent state of superiority over the man he deceives, be he a minister of state or a powerful king: to him who uses ketman, the other is a miserable blind man whom one shuts off from the true path whose existence he does not suspect; while you, tattered and dying of hunger, trembling externally at the feet of duped force, your eyes are filled with light, you walk in brightness before your enemies. It is an unintelligent being that you make sport of; it is a dangerous beast that you disarm. What a wealth of pleasures!

Milosz immediately saw the application of this to the double life that was being lived by so many writers and intellectuals under Stalin’s imperium. The Soviet regime to some extent “needed” culture, but also needed to contain it. Milosz was not to foresee that this state of affairs — deemed “Absurdistan” by one Czech author — would one day satirize itself out of existence.

More here.

Mind Over Matter

From Science:

Mind_2 Using an array of hair-thin electrodes implanted in his brain, a 25-year-old quadriplegic man was able to operate a computer, open and close a prosthetic hand, and manipulate a robotic arm just by thinking about it, according to a new study. Such a brain-computer interface may one day help restore movement and communication to people paralyzed from spinal cord injuries, strokes, and disorders such as muscular dystrophy and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Researchers have previously inserted single electrodes into paralyzed people, providing them with limited computer cursor control. They’ve also put more complicated electrode arrays into monkeys. But no one had ever put a large number of microelectrodes into a paralyzed person; indeed, no one knew whether neurons in the motor cortex, the brain region primarily responsible for movement control, would still produce decipherable signals after years of disuse.

More here.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Negroes, communists and Moslems

Peter Kiefer in the New York Times:

Italy’s interior minister, Giuliano Amato, said today that a number of swastikas were daubed on the walls of Rome’s Jewish quarter during the postgame festivities. “As an Italian I feel ashamed, and as interior minister I am alarmed by such things,” Mr. Amato reportedly said during a visit to Rome’s main synagogue.

And a number of Italian politicians and the French ambassador to Italy issued a strong rebuke to remarks made by Roberto Calderoli, the former minister of reform and a member of the right-wing Northern League party.

After the Cup victory he said that the Italians had vanquished a French team that was comprised of “Negroes, communists and Moslems.” Italian soccer is no stranger to extremist politics. Italian football matches are often used as a platform for far-right fans to express racist sentiments.

More here.