Slaves in the Family

From New York Times:

Ship In today’s history books, slavery has become the foundation for our understanding of the past, and almost all universities in the country offer some course on the subject. Books pour from the presses; by one count more than 75 have been published this past year. More are on the way, along with the usual array of CD’s and Web sites.

But despite this enormous outflow, controversies continue. For some, slavery is a handy metaphor for exploitation (thus “wage slavery” and the “slavery of sex”). Today’s sweatshops, they say, are indistinguishable from yesterday’s sugar mills and cotton fields. For others, however, chattel bondage is not just one kind of coercion. Its specific attributes distinguish it from all other forms of oppression, giving it a unique place in human history. And for all Americans, there is the enduring contradiction of their republic as both the beacon of liberty and the world’s largest slaveholder.

So the publication of David Brion Davis’s “Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World” could not be more welcome. As much as any single scholar, Davis, a professor emeritus and the former director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale University, has made slavery a central element in modern historiography. Although the focus of “Inhuman Bondage” is largely on the Americas, he appreciates that the slavery of the recent past cannot be understood apart from its long history, one that reaches back to antiquity and stretches across the globe.

More here.

Friday, May 12, 2006


From The Edge:Evo_1

Science is the big news. Science is the important story. Science is public culture….Yet at the same time, religious fundamentalism is on the rise around the world, and our own virulent domestic version of it, under the rubric of “intelligent design,” by elbowing its way into the classroom abrogates the divide between church and state that has served this country so well for so long. Moreover, the intelligent-design (ID) movement imperils American global dominance in science and in so doing presents the gravest of threats to the American economy, which is driven by advances in science and in the technology derived therefrom.

This book — sixteen essays by Edge contributors, all leading scientists from several disciplines — is a thoughtful response to the bizarre claims made by the ID movement’s advocates, whose only interest in science appears to be to replace it with beliefs consistent with those of the Middle Ages.

More here.

Muslim punk band Kaminas shreds stereotypes


Basim Usmani and Shahjehan Khan had already decided they weren’t going to play a song whose title includes the name of a 13th-century Muslim poet (Rumi) and a slur for homosexual. If taken out of context, they worried, the song might be misconstrued as a bad joke and the musicians as a pair of gay-bashing Pakistani-American Muslims.

In fact, the song is a farcical jab at Siraj Wahhaj, a tough-talking Brooklyn imam who is admired for his fiery sermons and anticrime programs but who in 1992 allegedly said he would burn down a proposed gay-friendly mosque in Toronto. But although the song’s point has been made to Muslims, the mostly white audience at a Brooklyn bar called Galapagos last month probably wouldn’t have gotten it. ”What are we proving by playing it to a bunch of just punk-rock kids who’ve got no idea?” said Usmani, 22, who lives in Lexington, Massachusetts.

So singer/bassist Usmani, guitarist Khan, and their drummer Adam Brierley kept Rumi under wraps. Instead, kids in mohawks and goth gear danced to ”Sharia Law in the USA” and ”Wild Nights in Guantanamo Bay.” Meet the Kominas(Kaminas), a musical threesome from the Boston area ready to take on conservative clergy and Homeland Security.

More here. (Attention: Naheed and Hassan)

Don’t abandon me

Colm Tóibín on Borges: A Life by Edwin Williamson, in the London Review of Books:

Borges20jorge20luis20iiOn 9 March 1951, Seepersad Naipaul wrote from Trinidad to his son Vidia, who was an undergraduate at Oxford: ‘I am beginning to believe I could have been a writer.’ A month later, Vidia, in a letter to the entire family, wrote: ‘I hope Pa does write, even five hundred words a day. He should begin a novel. He should realise that the society of the West Indies is a very interesting one – one of phoney sophistication.’ Soon, his father wrote again to say that he had in fact started to write five hundred words a day. ‘Let me see how well the resolve works out,’ he wrote. ‘Even now I have not settled the question whether I should work on an autobiographical novel or whether I should exhume Gurudeva.’ Gurudeva and Other Indian Tales had been privately published in Port of Spain in 1943. It would be Seepersad Naipaul’s only book. He died in 1953 at the age of 47.

For writers and artists whose fathers dabbled in art and failed there seems always to be a peculiar intensity in their levels of ambition and determination. It was as though an artist such as Picasso, whose father was a failed painter, or William James, whose father was a failed essayist, or V.S. Naipaul, sought to compensate for his father’s failure while at the same time using his talent as a way of killing the father off, showing his mother who was the real man in the household.

Jorge Luis Borges was in Majorca in 1919, writing his first poems as his father, Jorge Guillermo Borges, was working on his only novel, which, like Seepersad Naipaul’s book, was printed privately…

More here.

Was Stephen Colbert funny?

James Wood in The New Republic:

Colbert1There is an interesting difference between watching Colbert on video (I was not at the dinner) and reading the text of his skit (available on Colbert is not always funny on television: He sometimes fluffs lines, he has a limited range of facial expressions, and he is trapped in the jacket of his impersonation of Bill O’Reilly, condemned to a single parodic posture. At the White House dinner, all this was evident.

But the transcript is something else. To read it is to be subjected to a brilliant, relentless flow of the bitterest invective. There are plenty of funny cracks, if you are after the kind of comedy-by-committee that provides Jay Leno with his nightly ration: “By the way, before I get started, if anybody needs anything else at their tables, just speak slowly and clearly into your table numbers. Somebody from the NSA will be right over with a cocktail.” Or: “I believe the government that governs best is the government that governs least. And by these standards, we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq.” Or: “I’ve got a theory about how to handle these retired generals causing all this trouble: Don’t let them retire!”

But more interesting are those moments when Colbert’s text is not funny: “I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message: that, no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound–with the most powerfully staged photo-ops in the world.”

More here.

What are you buying when you buy organic?

Steven Shapin in The New Yorker:

Whole20foodsIn 2004, Whole Foods opened a fifty-eight-thousand-square-foot mega-mart in the new Time Warner Center, at Columbus Circle, with forty-two cash registers, a two-hundred-and-forty-eight-seat café, and three hundred and ninety employees. “Our goal is to provide New Yorkers with an engaging shopping experience and to become an integral part of this truly unique community,” a company executive said. And in 2004 Whole Foods crossed the Atlantic, acquiring six Fresh & Wild stores in London and making plans to open others there under its own name. Its ambitions are global.

More here.

The World According to Azim Premji

“He built an outsourcing empire that works for Fortune 500 companies, and still makes cooking oil. He became India’s biggest high-tech tycoon, then finished his bachelor’s degree. It all makes sense, once you get to know him.”

Joel McCormick in Stanford Magazine:

Premji_openerPremji was just finishing his engineering studies at Stanford in 1966 when he got word of his father’s sudden death. “It came as a complete shock,” he says. “I just had to rush back.” He had only one term until his graduation, a passage the news would delay 30 years. (Premji eventually sought—and got—permission to attend arts courses by correspondence to complete the requirements for his bachelor’s degree. “I had met all the core requirements for engineering—I just wanted that degree.”)

At 21 he had to get down to running Western India Vegetable Products Limited (a name later shortened to Wipro). Oddly enough, the thought of managing the family concern had never entered his head. “My interest was more in developing countries, more in a World Bank kind of a thing.” When Wipro began piling up profits, Premji turned his attention back to development causes, starting corporate and family foundations devoted largely to overhauling primary education across the country.

As it happened, his dad had had other interests himself and hadn’t been very keen on minding the store. Mohamed Hasham Premji, according to India Today, had been invited by Muhammad Ali Jinnah to come to Pakistan to serve as finance minister in the country’s first cabinet.

More here.

In Defense of Sentimentality

Gerda Wever-Rabehl in Metapsychology:

Home_porcelain03Among many philosophers, talk about sentimentality, kitsch or erotic love is just not done. Yet in Defense of Sentimentality, [Robert] Solomon talks specifically about those emotions so often and so easily dismissed by philosophers.  While post-modernism, feminism and cognitive science have by now quite adequately wiped out the dichotomy between emotion and reason, Solomon does not merely emphasize this by now well-established interconnection between the two. He goes one step further and takes aim at the philosopher’s contempt for what are more often than not considered to be lowly emotions, such as horror, gratitude, sentimentality and the desire for vengeance. He then proceeds to question “the emphasis on dullness and self-righteousness as a prominent feature of philosophical and political discussions of the virtues” (p. 186). Rather than continuing this focus on dull and big theories, Solomon concentrates on the ways in which we actually experience emotions such as a fondness for kitsch, enthusiasm, energy and being “turned on” (emotions considered at best feeble by the philosophical establishment) and explores in refreshing and amusing ways their virtues. It is the stuff, says Solomon, whether philosophers like it or not, of which the human condition is made and without which civilized life would simply be impossible.

More here.

Ships’ logs give clues to Earth’s magnetic decline

Patrick Barry in New Scientist:

The voyages of Captain Cook have just yielded a new discovery: the gradual weakening of Earth’s magnetic field is a relatively recent phenomenon. The discovery has led experts to question whether the Earth is on track towards a polarity reversal.

By sifting through ships’ logs recorded by Cook and other mariners dating back to 1590, researchers have greatly extended the period over which the behaviour of the magnetic field can be studied. The data show that the current decline in Earth’s magnetism was virtually negligible before 1860, but has accelerated since then.

Until now, scientists had only been able to trace the magnetic field’s behaviour back to 1837, when Carl Friedrich Gauss invented the first device for measuring the field directly.

The field’s strength is now declining at a rate that suggests it could virtually disappear in about 2000 years. Researchers have speculated that this ongoing change may be the prelude to a magnetic reversal, during which the north and south magnetic pole swap places.

But the weakening trend could also be explained by a growing magnetic anomaly in the southern Atlantic Ocean, and may not be the sign of a large scale polarity reversal, the researchers suggest.

More here.

Oochy woochy coochy coo

From The Economist:

1906st2A group of scientists has discovered that women are attracted to men who are fond of children. In years gone by, that announcement might have qualified for one of the late Senator William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece awards for pointless scientific research—except that what this particular group of scientists has shown is that women can tell who is and is not fond of children just by looking at their faces.

The members of the group in question, led by James Roney of the University of California, Santa Barbara, are part of the revival of a science that once dared not speak its name—physiognomy. In the late 18th century, and during most of the 19th, it was believed that the shape of a person’s head could tell you something about his character. Such deterministic thoughts fell out of favour during the 20th century. Most behavioural scientists thought that environment, not biology, shaped behaviour, and even those who did not could not see how the shape of the head or features of the face could possibly be relevant. What Dr Roney and his colleagues have found is that they are.

More here.

2006 Business Week/Architectural Record China Awards

Clifford Pearson in the Architechtural Record:

060408_jianianhua_1The first group of winning projects are located all over China—from Lijiang and Chongqing to Shenzhen and Beijing—and their architects come from both China and abroad. They range from a small elementary school made of local stone to a modern glass-and-steel office building. But all of them embody a set of values in which design is seen as an investment, not just an expense. And all of them show the benefits of architects and clients working together to rethink basic assumptions and explore new ways of solving design challenges.

With China in the midst of an unprecedented building boom, we feel that an awards program that honors the best of this work will set a standard that others will have to follow.

Check out the 16 winners here.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Sexonomics — Prostitutes’ Incomes

John Allen Paulos in his Who’s Counting column at ABC News:

Bigjap_5…Lena Edlund of Columbia University and Evelyn Korn of Eberhard-Karls-Universitat Tubingen, have published an intriguing paper, “A Theory of Prostitution,” in the Journal of Political Economy.

Making simplistic but more or less plausible assumptions and applying the tools of economic model-making, they searched for the answer to a puzzle: Why is it that prostitution is so relatively well-paid?

Before getting to why this is, they document that in diverse cultures and over many centuries, prostitutes have indeed made much more, sometimes several multiples more, than comparably (un)skilled women would make in more prosaic occupations. From medieval France and imperial Japan to present-day Los Angeles and Buddhist Thailand, this income differential has persisted, although its size depends on various factors.

More here.

In prose of science

“Ian McEwan appeals for a living tradition in science as in literature, to guide our progress from the past through to the future.”

From The Age (Australia):

Ian_mcewanEliot did not find it preposterous “that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past”. We might discern the ghost of Auden in the lines of a poem by James Fenton, or hear echoes of Wordsworth in Seamus Heane. Ideally, having read our contemporaries, we return to re-read the dead poets with a fresh understanding.

Can science and science writing, a vast and half forgotten accumulation over the centuries, offer us a parallel living tradition? If it can, how do we begin to describe it? The problems of choice are equalled only by those of criteria. Literature does not improve; it simply changes. Science, on the other hand, as an intricate, self-correcting thought system, advances and refines its understanding of the thousands of objects of its study. This is how it derives it power and status. Science prefers to forget much of its past – it is constitutionally bound to a form of selective amnesia.

More here.

U hear wot the critix b chattin?

Tim Martin reviews Londonstani by Gautam Malkani, in The Independent:

Malkani_1There are a number of reasons to feel dubious about Londonstani. First up, it’s marketed as a street-level transmission from elusive old multicultural Britain, that El Dorado of the publishing world that publishers claim, year after year, to have located in yet another sluggish tale of love and loss in London. Second, it’s a story of teenage rudeboys on the streets of Hounslow that’s written, somewhat paradoxically, by the Cambridge-educated editor of the Financial Times Creative Business pages. Third, it’s narrated in an admixture of txtspk, gangsta rap and various forms of slang (“U hear wot ma bredren Jas b chattin?”) that will baffle non-Playstation generations and make anyone sigh who ever raised an eyebrow at Irvine Welsh.

Yet bumps aside, Londonstani is an enthralling book.

More here.

Decline and fall of the Roman myth

Ex-Python Terry Jones in the London Times:

Nobody ever called themselves barbarians. It’s not that sort of word. It’s a word used about other people. It was used by the ancient Greeks to describe non-Greek people whose language they could not understand and who therefore seemed to babble unintelligibly: “ba ba ba”. The Romans adopted the Greek word and used it to label (and usually libel) the peoples who surrounded their own world.

The Roman interpretation became the only one that counted, and the peoples whom they called Barbarians became for ever branded — be they Spaniards, Britons, Gauls, Germans, Scythians, Persians or Syrians. And, of course, “barbarian” has become a byword for the very opposite of everything that we consider civilised.

More here.

A. M. Rosenthal Dies at 84; Editor of The Times

From The New York Times:Rosenthal

A. M. Rosenthal, a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent who became the executive editor of The New York Times and led the paper’s global news operations through 17 years of record growth, modernization and major journalistic change, died yesterday in Manhattan. He was 84. His death, at Mount Sinai Medical Center, came two weeks after he suffered a stroke, his son Andrew said. Mr. Rosenthal lived in Manhattan.

From ink-stained days as a campus correspondent at City College through exotic years as a reporter in the capitals and byways of Europe, Asia and Africa, Mr. Rosenthal climbed on rungs of talent, drive and ambition to the highest echelons of The Times and American journalism. Brilliant, passionate, abrasive, a man of dark moods and mercurial temperament, he could coolly evaluate world developments one minute and humble a subordinate for an error in the next. He spent almost all of his 60-year career with The Times — he often called it his life — but it was a career in three parts: reporter, editor and columnist.

More here.

Monica Ali and Zadie Smith are in the minority

From The Guardian:Smith1

While 7.9% of the UK’s population is of ethnic minority origin, only 50 (1%) of this year’s top 5,000 bestsellers are by BME writers, despite the high profile of award-winners Zadie Smith, Andrea Levy and Monica Ali. The report points the finger at publishers who are reluctant to commission books targeted at an ethnic minority group or to tailor books to appeal to a specific audience.

However, publishers who responded to the survey tended to emphasise the importance of the quality of the writing above the cultural setting of a book or the author’s own ethnicity. Jason Arthur, editor of Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal’s Tourism (Vintage), commented, “It’s probably a lie to say that what is in an author’s background has no influence. But the first consideration is always the story and how it’s written. ” Another, anonymous, respondent from the publishing industry said, “Colour is a dazzling irrelevance that simply sucks up to the PC brigade. If a submission is good, it’s good”.

More here.

The cracked kettle of Flaubert

Eric Ormsby in The New Criterion:

In the summer of 1930, Willa Cather chanced to form a brief friendship with an elderly lady at the Grand Hôtel d’Aix in Aix-les-Bains. As they chatted, Cather realized that her companion was Caroline Commanville, Flaubert’s beloved niece, then in her eighties. At one of their meetings, the novelist mentioned how much she admired “the splendid final sentence of Hérodias” which Caroline then recited from memory, “Comme elle était très lourde, ils la portaient al-ter-na-tive-ment,” drawing out that final adverb which, in Cather’s words, “is so suggestive of the hurrying footsteps of John’s disciples, carrying away with them their prophet’s severed head.” In English this would become something like “as it was very heavy, they took turns carrying it,” and the effect, which in the original accentuates the dead weight of the grisly relic, would be lost.

The anecdote is illuminating, not only because it demonstrates the reverence of ear which sophisticated French readers once brought to cherished texts—and Caroline was far from unique in her attentiveness to such cadences—but because it furnishes an apt example of what the French call “la mélodie de la phrase,” the music of a sentence.

More here.

Julian Voss-Andreae expands the molecules of life through sculpture

Lindsay Borthwick in Seed Magazine:

Jvacollagen_1German-born artist Julian Voss-Andreae sculpts the molecules of life and the universe, rendering the invisible visible. His background in quantum physics imbues him with the necessary faculty to enlarge the machinery under the surface of organisms. His latest sculpture, “Unravelling Collagen” (2005), was unveiled on May 10th in San Francisco’s Orange Memorial Sculpture Park and will remain on view until 2008. The stainless steel structure stands 11 feet tall and examines the architecture of collagen, the human body’s most abundant protein, which gives shape to our bones, teeth, tendons and cartilage. Seed spoke with Voss-Andreae while he was still at work on the piece, which he says took an unexpected turn when he chose to veer away from collagen’s exact molecular structure and “follow his artistic intuition.”

What appeals to you about making protein sculptures?
At first, I was just fascinated by the structures themselves. As a physicist, you see only very small molecules, like H2O, and the connection between them and our big bodies isn’t that obvious. Somewhere in between the two, the whole aesthetic changes. You go from the mathematical to the organic. Proteins are right in between these two worlds: the non-living and the living.

More here.

Lost in Translation

David Cole in The Nation:

Translation is the art of erasing oneself in order to speak in another’s voice. Good translators speak for others, not for themselves. So when NYU graduate student Mohammed Yousry took on the job of translating Arabic for lawyers representing Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric convicted of conspiring to bomb several bridges and tunnels around Manhattan, Yousry agreed, like any good translator, to follow his lawyers’ lead. For doing his job, he now faces the possibility of twenty years in prison as a supporter of terrorism. He is scheduled to be sentenced in a federal court in New York in September.

More here.