issa touma

Ph21

The triumphs and travails of Syrian photographer Issa Touma make for pretty gripping stories in themselves. But above and beyond that, he has taken some truly amazing and beautiful photographs. Touma’s account of his struggles with the Baath party in Syria while trying to run his gallery and an international photography exhibit can be found at Joshua Landis’ site here.

More information about Nazar: Photographs from the Arab World, can be found here.

Some amazing pictures from Touma’s series, Sufi, can be found here.

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Kimworld

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By the time Kim Jong Il, the Dear Leader, took over from his father as the absolute ruler of North Korea, the country was a slave society, where only the most trusted caste of people were allowed to live in sullen obedience in Pyongyang, while vast numbers of potential class enemies were worked to death in mines and hard-labor camps. After Kim Il Sung’s death, in 1994, the regime suspended executions for a month, and throughout the following year it committed relatively few killings. Since this was at the height of a famine, largely brought on by disastrous agricultural policies, hundreds of thousands were already dying from hunger. Then word spread that Kim Jong Il wished to “hear the sound of gunshots again.” Starving people were shot for stealing a couple of eggs.

More from the admirable Ian Buruma in The New Yorker here.

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The Other Brain Also Deals With Many Woes

From The New York Times:

Gut Two brains are better than one. At least that is the rationale for the close – sometimes too close – relationship between the human body’s two brains, the one at the top of the spinal cord and the hidden but powerful brain in the gut known as the enteric nervous system.

For Dr. Michael D. Gershon, the author of “The Second Brain” and the chairman of the department of anatomy and cell biology at Columbia, the connection between the two can be unpleasantly clear. “Every time I call the National Institutes of Health to check on a grant proposal,” Dr. Gershon said, “I become painfully aware of the influence the brain has on the gut.” In fact, anyone who has ever felt butterflies in the stomach before giving a speech, a gut feeling that flies in the face of fact or a bout of intestinal urgency the night before an examination has experienced the actions of the dual nervous systems.

More here.

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Monkey see, monkey go all-in: Primates prefer gamble over safe reward

From MSNBC:Monkey_1

When given a choice between steady rewards and the chance for more, monkeys will gamble, a new study found. And they’ll keep taking risks as the stakes rise and dry spells get longer. The research, in which scientists also pinpointed brain activity during the gambling, could provide insight into the human penchant for risk. In humans, it’s thought that low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin might make one more risk-prone and impulsive. Perhaps, the scientists say, future work will shed light on the source of pathological gambling, obsessive-compulsive disorder and even depression.

More here.

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August 22, 2005

Atelier: Real Sweat Shops, Virtual Gold

In December of 2004, a 22-year-old Australian gamer spent $26,500 of real money to buy a virtual island in the online game Project Entropia. Its game developers described the virtual island as containing “…beautiful beaches ripe for developing beachfront property, an old volcano with rumors of fierce creatures within, [an] outback… overrun with mutants, and an area with a high concentration of robotic miners guarded by heavily armed assault robots indicates interesting mining opportunities…” Though the sheer dollar value of the purchase may strike us as a fairly outlandish (pardon the pun) sum to be laying out for a castle in the sky, the virtual real estate market is booming; it’s quite possible that this young Australian gamer will even turn a profit on his virtual property once he has rented, leased, or sold plots of his island paradise to other online gamers. It is not only virtual real estate, however, that is being traded online.

As a result of the wide-spread popularity of MMORPGs – an acronym which stands for massive(ly) multiplayer online role-playing games – virtual objects of all kinds have begun to emerge as sources for potential profit. Online site No Sweat, describes the trajectory of online trading as follows:

“In these games, as in other role playing and computer games, over time one acquires possessions, skills, rank and so on. Often, moving on in the game is a long, slow tedious process — and many computer gamers look for short-cuts to get beyond the lower levels of the game. In MMORPGs, those shortcuts might involve getting hold of objects (including virtual money) from other players. Those objects can be traded. Which means that outside of the virtual worlds, trading can also take place. Many players seem willing to part with their cash (real-world cash, that is) in order to buy virtual objects in the games.”

The end result of this virtual trading is staggering; as virtual world critic Julian Dibbell points out, the economic yield of virtual commerce is very real:

“[I]n an academic paper analyzing the circulation of goods in Sony Online’s 430,000-player EverQuest…an economist calculated a full set of macro- and microeconomic statistics for the game’s fantasy world, Norrath. Taking the prices fetched in the $5 million EverQuest auctions market as a reflection of in-game property values, professor Edward Castronova of Cal State Fullerton multiplied those dollar amounts by the rate at which players pile up imaginary inventory and came up with an average hourly income of $3.42. He calculated Norrath’s GNP at $135 million — or about the same, per capita, as Bulgaria’s. In other words, assuming roughly proportional numbers for other major online role-playing games… the workforce toiling away in these imaginary worlds generates more than $300 million in real wealth each year.”

Even more alarming, however, is the fact that this virtual economy has begun to employ exploitative methods more commonly found in the “real world.” In a recent U.S. court case, a member of the online gaming world of EverQuest sued Sony Online for its newly enacted ban of virtual object trading. During the course of the case it came to light that the plaintiff had been running a series of Mexican sweatshops in which workers were paid to play these online role-playing games and to virtually farm, forage, and otherwise produce virtual objects that were then sold for real U.S. currency on E-bay and other online trading houses. And this is hardly an isolated incident. According to an article by Tim Guest , in mainland China “people are employed to play the games [from] nine to five, scoring virtual booty which IGE [Internet Gaming Entertainment] can sell on at a profit to Western buyers.” And a California-based company known as gamersloot.net was employing Romanians to play MMORPGs for ten hours a day, earning $5.40 a day, or the equivalent of $0.54 an hour.

Insofar as these virtual worlds are capable of producing objects which seamlessly enter into our real-world economy, items that are priceable, desirable, and scarce, if not exactly material or useful in the ways that we are used to, and insofar as these virtual objects have a real effect on the “real economy”, the distinction between the virtual and the real seems to have become disturbingly attenuated. The fact that these virtual objects are as exchangeable as any other material commodity seems to suggest that, at least from money’s lofty perch, it looks like dollars all the way down.

MMORPG programmers, in fact, have become quite adept at tweaking these online economies. The Economist reports that programmers

“routinely produce the virtual equivalent of an antiquities market, creating overwhelmingly high demand for certain virtual objects that have no other utility within the game, a demand based on nothing more than the sheer scarcity of a given item. They control the inflation rate of their online currency by having players sink huge amounts of virtual gold and platinum into exorbitantly expensive luxury items [according to an online report, neon-colored avatar hair dye has recently become the luxury item par excellance] that can only be bought from non-player merchant bots, effectively taking large sums of money out of general circulation.”

Given the sheer oddness of our increasingly digitized economy, how is it, then, that we still tend to view the world (if we, in fact, still do) as a relatively stable place? From what golden coffer do we pluck out that highly burnished but unfounded belief that our money will be worth as much tomorrow as it is today? As Nigel Thrift has pointed out, “…unlike previous times, there is remarkably little anxiety now about the apparent loss of traditional representations of money. Generally speaking, the system of money is trusted.”

That the value of these virtual items, (including various forms of virtual gold which serve as currency in many of these online gaming worlds, and which seem to function and accrue value as any other “real-world” currency would) is predicated upon nothing more than the online gaming communities acknowledgement of their value is, in many respects, nothing new. A similar epistemological structure – one dependent upon our shared belief in the power of socially produced fictions – seems to underpin all of our monetary and financial instrumentation. This begs the question: Does this newly emergent virtual online gaming economy mark a threshold in how we have come to transmit, to produce, and to imagine value? Or is it merely the case that these gamers are a new type of virtual investor, one whose play happens to yield real monetary value and, consequently, produce real exploitative side-effects?

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Monday Musing: Terrorism, Free Will and Methods of Comparison

For the last four years, since the attack on September 11, 2001, the political side of the blogosphere has tossed arguments back and forth about cause, free will, and responsibility. I first noticed it in a piece by Hitchens shortly after the attack. September 11th was also the 28th anniversary of the coup d’etat of the Allende government by Pinochet. Hitchens’ invocation of the coup and comparison of the Chilean left with al Qaeda had a simple point. The US had been instrumental in the overthrow of Allende and the massacre of leftists that followed. The Chilean left had a real and deep grievance against the US, yet, we couldn’t possibly imagine Chilean socialists hijacking planes and flying them into the World Trade Center, killing thousands of people. The implication was clear: grievances fueled by the sins of the US just aren’t enough to justify the actions of al Qaeda terrorists.

Nothing really followed in terms of the debate from Hitchens’ piece, even though he’d mentioned it a few times. But the question of the role of grievances (in the form of US foreign policy) in 9/11 picked up and keeps popping up. The debate was extended to discussions of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Al Aqsa Martyr’s brigade terrorism, and a brief but quickly curtailed discussion of the massacre of children at Beslan a year ago. By the time of the bombings in London, the debate had become clarified.

Few, if any, of those engaged in the back and forths were confused about explanation and responsibility. An action or event by victims can causally contribute to an act of terrorism, but what that means for responsibility was at heart of the issue. In terms of the present war, it’s hard to argue that had the US not been involved in Middle East politics—if it did not support Israel, had it not had bases in Saudi Arabia, and had it not been behind placing sanction on Iraq—the acts would’ve taken place anyway. That claim is a causal claim in the “not without which not” way.

Very few responded to any explanation of terrorist attacks by referring to US foreign policy with accusations of being an apologist for terrorism—after all, no one thinks that a scholar of how the Holocaust happened is letting Nazis off the hook. Moreover, the administration itself had implicitly admitted that US foreign policy (support for corrupt governments) had helped fuel extremist movements.

But the debate wasn’t about cause but about “root causes” and what “root causes” meant for responsibility. More sharply, it raised a question about when explanation melds into a justification or apology for terrorism. The issue led to a brief back and forth between Norm Geras (with Eve Gerrard) and Chris Bertram. The former:

“One morning Elaine dresses in that particular way and she crosses Bob’s path in circumstances he judges not too risky. He rapes her. Elaine’s mode of dress is part of the causal chain which leads to her rape. But she is not at all to blame for being raped. The fact that something someone else does contributes causally to a crime or atrocity, doesn’t show that they, as well as the direct agent(s), are morally responsible for that crime or atrocity, if what they have contributed causally is not itself wrong and doesn’t serve to justify it. Furthemore, even when what someone else has contributed causally to the occurrence of the criminal or atrocious act is wrong, this won’t necessarily show they bear any of the blame for it. If Mabel borrows Zack’s bicycle without permission and Zack, being embittered about this, burns down Mabel’s house, Mabel doesn’t share the blame for her house being burned down. Though she may have behaved wrongly and her doing so is part of the causal chain leading to the conflagration, neither her act nor the wrongness of it justifies Zack in burning down her house. So simply by invoking prior causes, or putative prior causes, you do not make the case go through – the case, I mean, that someone else than the actual perpetrator of the wrongdoing is to blame. The ‘We told you so’ crowd all just somehow know that the Iraq war was an effective cause of the deaths in London last week.”

Bertram’s response was simple.

“One of their examples concerns rape. Of course rapists are responsible for what they do, but suppose a university campus with bad lighting has a history of attacks on women and the university authorities can, at minimal cost, greatly improve the night-time illumination but choose not to do so for penny-pinching reasons. Suppose the pattern of assaults continues in the darkened area: do Geras and Garrard really want to say that the university penny-pinchers should not be blamed for what happens subsquently? At all? I think not.”

These discussions were about clarifying intuitions and understanding of cause and responsibility (agency, free will). But it was a spike; discussions continued to be peppered with comparisons with historical examples. Juan Cole in a post had pointed to Israeli occupation as the cause/reason for Palestinian terrorism, a post that drew the following from Jeff Weintraub.

“[I]n 1922-1923 about a million and a half Greeks fled or were expelled from Anatolia (with several hundred thousand Turks and other Muslims ‘exchanged’ in the opposite direction). Most of these people lived in refugee camps for a while, in both Israel and Greece, but I am not aware that they generated terrorist groups with a policy of systematically murdering Arab or Turkish civilians. . . Did these expulsions ‘provoke significant terrorism on the part of the displaced’? Not that I can recall. . . [I]t is not inevitable, or even common, for large-scale transfers or expulsions of populations (which, unfortunately, have been all too frequent during the past century) to ‘provoke significant terrorism on the part of the displaced’.”

I raise this discussion about terrorism, its causes, and moral responsibility not to jump into it. But it did strike me how an everyday form of Mill’s method of comparison plays itself out in partisan debates. John Stuart Mill spelled out an inductive method of causal reasoning. We infer that for a class or set of instances of phenomena we find a common circumstance or element, we infer that the common element(s) cause the phenomenon. Similarly, if we are facing differing outcomes in which all elements were common save one, we infer that difference is causally relevant to the outcome. These can be joined. They can be measured in degrees, in the sense of the degree to which the common element was present and the outcome covaries with its presence. Get enough causal understandings together (pairing up causes and outcomes, being sophisticated to account for interactions, etc.) and we can generate law-like propositions. While methods of uncovering law have become much more sophisticated, this basic approach remains common in the social science, even though deductive approaches, such as those that are based on rationality, are also very prominent.

Mill proposed this methodology largely to understand natural phenomena and they remain a serious element of how we examine natural phenomenon. Statistical inference is a descendant of this technique. But the social world has been far, far less amenable to the objective that the method was aimed for, uncovering laws, or law-like regularities.

Some time ago, the philosopher Jon Elster argued that the social sciences confront a problem in that the same (social) mechanism can operate in different directions, largely due to differing contexts—but in a situation where we cannot fully specify all the elements of the ‘context’. We are faced with a complex interaction of several mechanisms in way we haven’t fully specified. The social “sciences” don’t quite make the “science” cut for that reason.

The tendency in discussions, especially in political discussions, has been to toss in free will, which is hardly unreasonable. But I’m not sure that comparison will get us there. My belief that the dispossessed have a choice over their response and means of their response doesn’t depend on the information that Anatolian Greeks didn’t blow up civilians. Rather, it depends instead on not being able to see what mechanism would get me there in the narrow comparative case. Add a lot more elements—indoctrination, differing organizational capacity perhaps—then maybe, which has been the response.  But if the debate has reached what feels like a dead end, it may speak more of the kinds of arguments we appeal to.

Happy Monday.

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Lives of the Cannibals: Rage

It is 10 pm on Wednesday night and a man is screaming on the 1/2/3 platform at Times Square station. His voice gives no clue as to age or race. It’s impossible even to determine the man’s trouble: his tone is shrill and his words are stretched and twisted to accommodate rage. Walk down the platform twenty feet and discover that the man is Chinese, bald, in his mid-fifties. He is 5’6 or so and portly. In different circumstances, you would not think him capable of producing this noise. The subway arrives and the man boards, amply preceding himself. His voice is undiminished inside the metal walls, and his fellow riders immediately flee to other cars. He doesn’t care. Over the train’s clamor you can hear him screaming all the way to Brooklyn.

It’s an important irony that here in New York, in this city that is the finest achievement of modern American urban life, a city that fairly reeks of cool and sophistication, we are reduced (or refined) to our basest fundamental selves. Stringent isolation and the madness of the crowd coexist here, giving rise to New York’s exquisite hybrids–the stone-faced mothers and muttering businessmen and sly derelicts. Had Darwin lived today, he would not have had to visit the Galápagos to induce his theory. Two weeks in the city–at the Pennsylvania Hotel across from Penn Station, perhaps–would serve him well enough to discern natural selection and test its mettle on the street. Indeed, New York is the result of 7,000 years of urban technology, the fantastic product of art, science and political method, and yet nowhere on Earth offers a comparable opportunity to observe human behavior in its purest instinctual form.

We pine in love and we decay in sadness. In shame we cower and from revulsion we withdraw. Fear chases us away. These are retiring emotions. Expressed or simply felt, they are private things, shared and managed among friends, or at least those we know. They emanate modestly, rarely achieving anything like powerful broadcast. Anger is different. Anger is the orangutan’s effulgent orange ass. It exists for its expression, and even in its chastened state we describe it in a way that indicates its volatility: it seethes and smolders, and we step lightly nearby, reasonably fearing its explosion. Internalized, anger is nevertheless evident. The hissed obscenity and the compact jab of an arm (silence! it says, get away!), these are inflections of rage suppressed, and they are obvious to see. They are warnings we heed.

If New York lost Broadway, if thieves looted the Museum Mile and if the observation deck of the Empire State Building were closed permanently for renovation, the city fathers would still have anger to trot out for the entertainment of cash-carrying visitors from the heartland, a sort of ecotourism tweaked for the Ur of contemporary urban landscapes. After all, New York is nothing if not a whore–why not capitalize on its wealth? Colorful pamphlets could be distributed, primers that elucidate the finer points of rage-watching and direct curious visitors to the best blinds in the city. Zagat could compile a survey. Twenty-eight points out of 30 for the corner of 44th and Lexington, where Grand Central Terminal disgorges its fretful loads. Bright red double-deckers could tour the worst traffic snarls and at the same time exacerbate the gridlock, thereby affording their wide-eyed charges the opportunity to be targets of the city’s sporting take on road rage. The Germans and Japanese, the Kansans on holiday, valued, credit-wielding consumers in sherbet bermudas and baseball caps, they would feel a sudden sense of brotherhood twenty feet up as they listened to the narration of their tour-guide (“notice the dents in the hoods of the cabs–bonnets to you Brits–made by the fists of pedestrians”) and pointed out to one another the most fearsome verbal and gesticular threats from these fascinating New Yorkers, ranging free in their preserve.

None is above rage. The extravagantly degreed publisher on his way to work is likely to test his manhood, his courage, by way of the pitch of his shoulders on a construction-narrowed sidewalk. Beneath these skyscrapers and amidst this rush of transit, by God he will not give ground to the slouching thug or the high-heeled secretary as they make their opposite way in the shuffling line beside him. And how many times has he struck another, absorbing the blow of a body as steadfastly as possible, giving nothing away, not even a flinch? Why, every day. Multiple times a day. This is a dynamic city. There’s construction on every block.

Certainly, New York City is a brightly painted streetwalker, vulgar, sexually overt, but it is a debutante and a housekeeper too, and all three ladies are masters of the subtle sneer and the public snub. Rage finds many forms, not least of which are disdain and its underprivileged cousin resentment. The brutality of these expressions takes its cumulative effect, transforming the city into a breeding ground for creeping insanity, making it the de facto capital of lonely mumblers, who quietly suffer the violent discourtesy of thousands in the course of their plodding daily lives. There you go, Chief. No, really, it’s my fucking pleasure. In these poor sensitive souls, whose nerves would be grated by the comparatively mild depredations of a Midwestern city like Pittsburgh or St. Louis, New York effects a paranoia of the chronic, distracted variety. These obscure ghosts, whose eyes remain fixed on the distance or the concrete before them, and whose tolerance for the physical intimacy of subway cars tends to endure for a stop or two at most, these victims are spotted easily for their twitchy gaits and pained faces, and for their hair-trigger shoulders, which tense at the first peal of laughter in the street.

Fifteen years ago, New York received a great deal of credit for its sustained calm in the wake of acquittals for the LA cops who beat down Rodney King. There was wonder in the voices of politicians and pundits, who saw unrest in Los Angeles, Seattle, Philadelphia and Newark, and assumed that America’s shameless skyscraping capital would fall in line with the others. It didn’t. Remarkable, they said, an unlikely development. In fact, if not for the pustulating seam of rage running right down the center of this city, we would have been at each other’s throats. We were physically exhausted from the angry contest of our day, and we had no energy left to avail ourselves of the cool relief of riot. Anyway, we have our own infected wounds from which we draw murderous inspiration. It would hardly do to adopt the rage of another, lesser city. Los Angeles can keep its Kings and Furmans, thank you very much. We’ve got Howard Beach and Crown Heights, Yankel Rosenbaum and Al Sharpton, and apocryphal packs of black teenagers, who wild away a lovely evening under the electric lamps of Central Park.

Jed Palmer

[This is posted by Abbas because Jed had some trouble with his own account.]

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August 21, 2005

Lenin Shot at Finland Station

Slavoj Zizek in the London Review of Books:

Why is the flourishing genre of ‘what if?’ histories the preserve of conservative historians? The introduction to such volumes typically begins with an attack on Marxists, who allegedly believe in historical determinism. Take this latest instalment, edited by Andrew Roberts, who has himself contributed an essay on the bright prospects that would have faced Russia in the 20th century had Lenin been shot on arriving at the Finland Station. One of Roberts’s arguments in favour of this kind of history is that ‘anything that has been condemned by Carr, Thompson and Hobsbawm must have something to recommend it.’ He believes that the ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité ‘have time and again been shown to be completely mutually exclusive’. ‘If,’ he continues, ‘we accept that there is no such thing as historical inevitability and that nothing is preordained, political lethargy – one of the scourges of our day – should be banished, since it means that in human affairs anything is possible.’

This is empirically not the case. Roberts ignores the central ideological paradox of modern history, as formulated by Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In contrast to Catholicism, which conceived of human redemption as being dependent on good deeds, Protestantism insisted on predestination: why then did Protestantism function as the ideology of early capitalism? Why did people’s belief that their redemption had been decided in advance not only not lead to lethargy, but sustain the most powerful mobilisation of human resources ever experienced?

More here.

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How India Reconciles Hindu Values and Biotech

From The New York Times:Mishra184

In 2001, President Bush restricted federal financing for stem cell research. The decision, which was shaped at least partly by the Republican Party’s evangelical Christian base, and which disappointed many American scientists and businessmen, provoked joy in India. The weekly newsmagazine India Today, read mostly by the country’s ambitious middle class, spoke of a “new pot of gold” for Indian science and businesses. “If Indians are smart,” the magazine said, American qualms about stem cell research “can open an opportunity to march ahead.” Just four years later, this seems to have occurred. According to Ernst & Young’s Global Biotechnology Report in 2004, Indian biotechnology companies are expected to grow tenfold in the next five years, creating more than a million jobs.

In the meantime, the poor may be asked to offer themselves as guinea pigs. In an article on biotechnology last year, India Today asserted: “India has another gold mine – the world’s largest population of ‘naïve’ sick patients, on whom no medicine has ever been tried. India’s distinct communities and large families are ideal subjects for genetic and clinical research.”

More here.

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F. Scott Fitzgerald Gets a Second Act After All

From The New York Times:

Gatsby_1 IT’S one of those fantasies, I think, that Fitzgerald is a glamorous and romantic figure,” said the author and film historian David Thomson, speaking of the Jazz Age legend F. Scott Fitzgerald. “Not that I think in real life he was, but his life has come down to us that way. And Hollywood therefore feels that he ought to be graspable.” Like an unrequited love, the surprisingly ungraspable dream of translating Fitzgerald’s doomed romanticism to the big screen has gotten under moviedom’s skin yet again.

More here.

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Original manuscript of Einstein paper found

From USA Today:

Einstein_4The original manuscript of a paper Albert Einstein published in 1925 has been found in the archives of Leiden University’s Lorentz Institute for Theoretical Physics, scholars said Saturday.

The handwritten manuscript titled “Quantum theory of the monatomic ideal gas” was dated December 1924. Considered one of Einstein’s last great breakthroughs, it was published in the proceedings of the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin in January 1925.

High-resolution photographs of the 16-page, German-language manuscript and an account of its discovery were posted on the institute’s Web site.

“It was quite exciting” when a student working on his master’s thesis uncovered the delicate manuscript written in Einstein’s distinctive scrawl, said professor Carlo Beenakker. “You can even see Einstein’s fingerprints in some places, and it’s full of notes and markups from his editor.”

More here.  [Thanks to Winfield J. Abbe.]

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August 20, 2005

The incredible lightness of Salman

Salman_3 From The London Times:

Salman Rushdie has emerged from the dark Satanic years, happier and more buoyant than he has been in decades. Here, he talks to Ginny Dougary about the war on terror, wonderful women – and why he thinks Joanna Trollope is cool. From beginning to end, the whole encounter was both magical and undeniably real. It was slightly startling to find that none of the receptionists or bar staff in the fashionable New York club where we meet had heard of one of their more famous members, but it was also the first welcome sign that his name is no longer an automatic  byword  for “terrorist death sentence”. To see him, leaning over the rooftop swimming pool embracing his eight-year-old son, Milan, a beautiful dark-haired boy, slippery as a seal – with no security, no bodyguards, not even a flicker of interest from the other Manhattanite parents – is evidence that there is, indeed, the possibility of normal life after the fatwa.

But beyond this, quite contrary to expectation, there is an ineffable lightness about Salman Rushdie. He has the gift of making you feel happy. As a master storyteller, it is no surprise that his conversation is pricked with telling and entertaining anecdotes. He is also so relaxed, funny and beguiling that it is easy to understand why gorgeous women, among them Marie Helvin, Kylie Minogue, Nigella Lawson, not to mention his model-actress-filmmaker wife number four, Padma Lakshmi, flock to his side. Is it because I have just been reading his fantastical novels that I imagine the ghost of his old, hunted self banished by the force of this resolutely sanguine, free man?

More here.

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Researchers creating life from scratch

From MSNBC News:Life

They’re called “synthetic biologists” and they boldly claim the ability to make never-before-seen living things, one genetic molecule at a time. They’re mixing, matching and stacking DNA’s chemical components like microscopic Lego blocks in an effort to make biologically based computers, medicines and alternative energy sources.  The rapidly expanding field is confounding the taxonomists’ centuries-old system of classifying species and raising concerns about the new technology’s potential for misuse. Though scientists have been combining the genetic material of two species for 30 years now, their work has remained relatively simplistic. So a new breed of biologists is attempting to bring order to the hit-and-miss chaos of genetic engineering by bringing to biotechnology the same engineering strategies used to build computers, bridges and buildings.

More here.

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Badminton moves out of the backyard

Daniel B. Wood in the Christian Science Monitor:

P3aThrough Aug. 21, some of the best athletes from 52 countries are competing in the first World International Badminton Federation Championships to be held in the United States.

As they do, two stories unfold.

One: This is not your father’s backyard-barbecue badminton – played with racquet in one hand, lemonade or hotdog in the other. Top Olympic-quality athletes who have trained five to six hours daily, six to seven days a week for decades, are exhibiting peak form and concentration.

For those in the know, it turns out, this is not exactly fresh news. But, officials say, the vast majority of Americans, locked into the cultural-norm sports of baseball, basketball, and football – are not in the know.

Two: The very fact that the US is hosting its first world championship is – as several officials, participants, and audience members repeat ad infinitum – a very big deal.

More here.

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August 19, 2005

If you do it too much, you’ll go blind

It seems that pornography can make you go blind, sort of. From The Economist:

“IT’S true. Pornography can make you blind. Look at a smutty picture and, according to research by Steven Most, of Yale University, and his colleagues, you will suffer from a temporary condition known as emotion-induced blindness.

Dr Most made this discovery while studying the rubbernecking effect (when people slow down to stare at a car accident). Rubbernecking represents a serious lapse of attention to the road, but he wondered if the initial reaction to such gory scenes could cause smaller lapses. The answer is, it does. What he found was that when people look at gory images—and also erotic ones—they fail to process what they see immediately afterwards. This period of blindness lasts between two-tenths and eight-tenths of a second. That is long enough for a driver transfixed by an erotic advert on a billboard to cause an accident.”

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A new biography of Anna Akhmatova

In The Economist, a review of Elaine Feinstein’s biography of Anna Akhmatova.

“THE extraordinary misery of her life and the extraordinary merits of her poems make AnnaAkhmatova_pic  Akhmatova one of the great literary figures of modern times. Elaine Feinstein’s comprehensive and accessible biography evokes contradictory pity and gratitude in the reader. The pity makes one wish that Akhmatova’s life had been easier. If only she had had one nice man in her life (her friendship with Isaiah Berlin aside), instead of many horrible ones. If only she had emigrated before the revolution. If only she had enjoyed better health. If only Soviet Russia had not been run by monsters who persecuted genius.

But then gratitude kicks in. It is through Akhmatova’s eyes, queuing at the prison gate in the hope of handing in a food parcel to her imprisoned son, that we read the finest poetic depiction of the horrors of Stalinism.”

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New York City, as overheard by New Yorkers

Among other things, New York is a city of eavesdroppers; trust me, becoming one is unavoidable.  Sam Anderson in Slate considers the issue.

“If we could somehow pool the combined eavesdropping of the entire city, we’d probably hear things never before spoken in human history.

This seems to be the ambition of the Web site Overheard in New York, which enlists a large volunteer army of informants (around 350, by my count) to report the conversations they hear on the street. As the site has become increasingly popular—media attention, a book in the works, an official spinoff, and many unofficial imitations—the virtual chatter has thickened into a steady roar. Two years ago, the site posted just one quote per day; now it posts 12 or more. Its archive has grown well into the thousands.

The site takes its motto from a comment overheard in Greenwich Village: ‘Anytime you overhear people, if you only hear a second of what they say, it’s always completely stupid.’ (Take a moment to bodysurf on that tidal wave of meta-irony.) But the motto is misleading: The site isn’t just a gallery of stupidity. Most of the comments achieve something more remarkable—they manage to be both massively stupid and infinitely meaningful . . .”

(Hat tip: Maeve Adams)

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Reading Literature through the Prism of Evo-Psych

David Barash in Evolutionary Pyschology:

“Just as nature is said to abhor a vacuum, it abhors true altruism. Society, on the other hand, adores it. A dose of evolutionary biology not only helps clarify the origins of this ancient conflict between individual and group, it also points out how often the two are ultimately the same, since groups are frequently made up of relatives. . .

Part of the difficulty of being human is the often agonizing need to decide where to draw the line between self and society. And part of the delight of our best stories is the opportunity to watch others struggling to do just that. There, by the grace of evolution, go a large part of “ourselves,” part hungry octopus, part Tyrone Slothrop, part selfish sinner and part altruistic saint, by turns big-hearted and narrow minded, self-actualizing and groveling groupie. In his “Essay on Man,” Alexander Pope concluded, with some satisfaction,

Reason and Passion answer one great aim

That here Self-love and Social are the same …”

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The Philosophy of Art

In The Nation, an interview with Arthur Danto:

The art world today is highly globalized. More and more, the same artistic values are globally shared, which must mean that ultimately other values will be shared. In this respect, things have changed drastically in art since I began writing. Recently, I got a letter from Khalad al-Hamzah, an artist in Jordan, who received funding to execute a conceptual work based on some of my philosophical ideas. I was quite overwhelmed that in a country where we mostly are aware of political matters, the avant-garde works with concepts that would be grasped by the avant-garde anywhere and everywhere. Islam prohibits images, but is open to conceptual art–and today most art is conceptual. The landscape is made to order for philosophers!

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Andrew Mwenda

Uganda1

Being the most prominent journalist in Uganda is a little like having the best arm in the New York Mets’ bullpen–the honor is a poisoned chalice if ever there was one. But in a country where reporters are customarily bought off, threatened, or shunned by public officials, Andrew Mwenda is someone unique: a figure larger than most of the people he covers. Mornings, Mwenda’s byline appears in Uganda’s main independent newspaper, where he routinely exposes stories of government skullduggery and scandal. Evenings, he conducts a rollicking political talk show on a popular radio station, hosting everyone from shady generals to exiled presidents to Western visitors like foreign aid activist Jeffrey Sachs. In the hours in between, Mwenda can be seen holding court beneath a shady tree at an outdoor Indian restaurant in downtown Kampala, attired in a tailored suit, trading gossip and spouting opinions. Imagine Bob Woodward and Chris Matthews wrapped into one diminutive, thirtysomething, hyperactive, pipsqueak-voiced package, and you start to get the idea. When the Ugandan police came to arrest Mwenda last week, on charges of sedition, a lot of his friends wondered, “What took them so long?”…

more from TNR here (registration required).

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