From the New York Review of Books:
“Now I realise for the first time,” wrote William Faulkner to a woman friend, looking back from the vantage point of his mid-fifties, “what an amazing gift I had: uneducated in every formal sense, without even very literate, let alone literary, companions, yet to have made the things I made. I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know why God or gods or whoever it was, selected me to be the vessel.”
The disbelief Faulkner lays claim to is a little disingenuous. For the kind of writer he wanted to be, he had all the education, even all the book-learning, he needed. As for company, he stood to gain more from garrulous oldsters with gnarled hands and long memories than from effete littérateurs. Nevertheless, a measure of astonishment is in order. Who would have guessed that a boy of no great intellectual distinction from small-town Mississippi would become not only a famous writer, celebrated at home and abroad, but the kind of writer he in fact became: the most radical innovator in the annals of American fiction, a writer to whom the avant-garde of Europe and Latin America would go to school?
Michael Young of Lebanon’s Daily Star has a fascinating account of the mercurial Walid Jumblatt.
Asked whether it is true that he once with wicked humor offered the conservative Maronite Christian patriarch a copy of Eduardo Galeano’s leftist critique of the industrialized world, ”Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World,” Jumblatt answered yes and brought out two books he was currently reading. Both were utterly unexpected in that barren intellectual vale populated by most Lebanese politicians: ”At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities,” by Jean Amery, and ”The New Meaning of Treason,” by Rebecca West. He added that he is a great admirer of Robert D. Kaplan, whose hardheaded pessimism has so often been anathema to Jumblatt’s left-wing soul mates in the West. Jumblatt is forever complicating his secular, leftist image.
Jumblatt’s pragmatic ecumenism is common among Lebanese, which helps to explain why followers of Lebanon’s once-hostile militias have been demonstrating together against Syria since Hariri’s murder. Perhaps it is one reason that Christians have forgiven Jumblatt for what he did to them, even if they do not forget; another is that the Lebanese system of communal compromise is propped up by amnesia, necessary since few emerged from the civil war looking good. A third is that Walid Jumblatt, given his experience, versatility and influence, is perhaps the only national leader the opposition still has.
Toward the end of a lunch he was giving, Jumblatt ordered first one and then a second glass of liqueur. He was very tired, he said; the alcohol apparently was to help him nap. Friends say Jumblatt’s nights are sleepless. Walking an eternal tightrope does that to you.
If you’re wondering what a ‘Druze’ is I would recommend perusing the Institute of Druze Studies website at San Diego State University. There, among other things, you will find tantalizing bits of information like the following:
Although the structure of the Druze society helps unite them into a socially cohesive community, it also divides them into two main classes: “the initiated” known in Arabic as ‘uqqal, literally “wise,” who are familiar with the religious teachings; and “the uninitiated” known as juhhal, or literally “ignorant” who are not initiated in the Druze doctrine. Only those members of the community who demonstrate piety and devotion and who have withstood a lengthy process of candidacy are initiated into the teachings of the Druze faith. Women may also be initiated in the Druze doctrine. The Druze tradition considers women to be more spiritually prepared than men to enter such circles because they are considered less likely to be exposed to deviant or immoral practices such as murder and adultery.
Jeff Zeleny reports in ths Chicago Tribune:
Obama has worked to navigate the complicated channel of etiquette in the Senate, a place that can be hidebound by its fusty conventions, protocol and feigned gentility. He has already had face-to-face meetings with 14 senators to seek their thoughts or offer his help. His political touch is nimble, his smile works overtime.
He was among the first to call Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) after she fainted while delivering a speech in late January. He reacted with humor when Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) butchered his name during a speech at the National Press Club, saying: “Osama bin . . . uh, Osama” before finally settling on “Obama.”
And on a recent afternoon, Obama paid a visit to Sen. Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat first elected to the Senate in 1958 and the chamber’s resident keeper of the institutional flame. Sitting in Byrd’s library, Obama listened as his elder talked about protocol, history and regret.
There was Byrd, a former Ku Klux Klan member, sitting with Obama, only the third African-American elected to the Senate. The meeting was private. But as Obama walked back to his office later that day, he said Byrd had talked about a mistake he made in his younger years “that is now the cross around my neck.”
“I said if we were supposed to be perfect, we’d all be in trouble,” Obama recalled, “so we rely on God’s mercy and grace to get us through.”
That he is even serving in the Senate with Byrd is no small feat of history.
Read more here.
Laura Spinney reports in The Guardian:
In one of his famous cartoons, American Gary Larson has cows standing about on their hind feet, smoking fags by the side of a road. One of them, the lookout, shouts “Car!” and by the time the motorist reaches them he gazes out on an idyllic scene of cows munching grass on all fours. The cows are doing cow things, and all is well with the world.
It’s a good joke, of course. Or maybe a dark reference to the not-so-distant past when Europeans – and some Americans – dressed animals up, put them on trial for heinous crimes and executed them, thereby judging them on a par with humans when it came to freely deciding their actions and being morally responsible for the outcomes. But new research suggests that animals have far more complex cognitive and social skills than we gave them credit for.
First for some findings. Last October, Ana da Costa and colleagues at the Babraham Institute in Cambridge reported that when sheep were isolated from their flock, they experienced stress as measured by increases in heart rate, stress hormones and bleating. But showing them pictures of familiar sheep faces reduced their stress on all three counts. The same effect was not produced when they were shown pictures of goat faces or inverted triangles. Other research has shown that if offered a choice of two feeding stalls, pigs will avoid the one they remember being shut into, previously, for several hours after eating, and go for the one they were released from quickly. Lame broiler hens, or hens bred for meat, will choose food laced with painkillers over food that is not. And rainbow trout will learn to react to cues that predict noxious stimuli, moving away from them to a different part of the tank.
Read more here.
I am a huge fan of Jonathan Corum’s work at style.org. His two most recent projects are this interactive map of the Iraqi election results, with a “provisional mapping tool” you can use to adjust ratio of pixels to votes, and this wonderful tool which parses the statistical happenings of various keywords in the George W. Bush State of the Union speeches. It turns out that Bush is becoming more verbose – the average number of words in his sentences is steadily growing with each new major speech.
Bertha Pan’s film Face is now out, and it sounds very promising. From The New York Times:
“A meditation on the conflict between family loyalties and personal ambition, ‘Face’ is the kind of independent film that can feel slight on a first viewing. But like its original soundtrack — a streetwise blend of hip-hop, Chinese opera, and American and Asian pop songs — it’s likely to remain in your head long afterward.”
On a recent trip to London I rekindled an old passion for stamps and stamp-collecting, that ultimate nerd hobby whose very name, “philately,” is a sure-fire ticket to the deformation of any young boy’s social life. At the newish British Library, there’s a fantastic stamp collection located in the prestigious area of the, er, well, it’s actually in the cafe. You can browse it while inhaling the remnants of other peoples’ lunches.
Of particular note were the World War II collections, including stamps from Nazi occupied countries, the “Judenpost” of the ghettos, and the various underground Polish postal systems. The Polish government-in-exile created stamps in London for circulation in occupied Poland depicting various liberating aircraft and tanks. (Polish political prisoners also sent letters from Auschwitz, according to this illustrated article.)
The Poles also had an underground post operating under the noses of the Germans, complete with time-date stamps, an entirely alternate system. The punishment for discovery was death, so that there is something immensely civilized about the use of official stamps and seals on the underground letters. The Model Collection displays various Allied stamps in the Occupied Zones of Germany set up by Yalta. Stamps with Hitler’s image on them had to be recycled, and each of the occupiers had different systems for attempting to oblierate the image using various ink blots and geometrical patterns.
Andre Glucksmann writes of the assassination of Aslan Maskhadov.
The Russian authorities have succeeded. Their only opponent now is Shamil Basayev, the radical warlord they themselves trained and often spared, be it in Budyonnovsk or Dagestan. Mr Putin, the Soviet agent who spends his holidays in the company of Messrs Schröder and Berlusconi, finds himself faced with a man like himself, a man who may not have his clout yet, but already his cruelty. The massacre may now continue, the attacks recommence.
Aslan Maskhadov had just declared a unilateral ceasefire and announced he represented Western values, not those of radical Islamism. This ceasefire had been respected by all boeviki (Chechen fighters) for the past month. Maskhadov had shown his strength. The time had therefore come to kill him to prevent the spirit of “permanent revolution” – which our friend, the Czar, abhors – from reaching the northern Caucasus.
Not a single Western leader dared call for the Kremlin to negotiate with the only legitimate leader of a martyred and heroic people. Remember Ahmed Shah Massoud of Afghanistan? First he resisted the Russians, then the Islamists. He was abandoned by the world’s democracies and assassinated – to Osama Bin Laden’s benefit. There too, not one of our representatives contradicted Vladimir Putin when he equated Chechen pro-independence military resistance with international terrorism. On the contrary, Chirac and Schröder proclaimed the master of the Kremlin the archangel of peace in view of his sympathy towards Saddam Hussein, a blank cheque the KGB man has now cashed in.
Stripped of their morals, our leaders have also shown remarkable political stupidity. Who will now be able to calm the thousands of torture victims who dream of nothing but revenge?
Following up on my post from last week, the Hindustan Times reports that United States has denied Narendra Modi a visa for his planned visit.
“In a stinging snub to Chief Minister Narendra Modi, the US on Friday revoked his visa apparently because of Gujarat riots two days before his travel there, drawing strong protest from India which sought ‘urgent reconsideration’ of the ‘uncalled for’ decision.
Angry at the development, Modi said it amounted to an ‘insult to India’. He accused Washington of following ‘double standards’ and said the ground on which he had been denied visa was ‘baseless’ as no court of law in India or world had found him violating religious freedom.
The US Embassy said it had revoked Modi’s tourist/business visa and diplomatic visa under US Immigration and Nationality Act.
‘We confirm that the Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi applied for but was denied diplomatic visa under Section 214 (b) of the Act because he was not coming for the purpose that qualified for diplomatic visa,’ US Embassy spokesman said.”
George Kennan, the man whose strategy for containing Communism shaped much of the post-war world, has died.
“George F. Kennan, the American diplomat who did more than any other envoy of his generation to shape United States policy during the cold war, died on Thursday night in Princeton, N.J. He was 101.
Mr. Kennan was the man to whom the White House and the Pentagon turned when they sought to understand the Soviet Union after World War II. He conceived the cold-war policy of containment, the idea that the United States should stop the global spread of Communism by diplomacy, politics, and covert action – by any means short of war.
As the State Department’s first policy planning chief in the late 1940’s, serving Secretary of State George C. Marshall, Mr. Kennan was an intellectual architect of the Marshall Plan, which sent billions of dollars of American aid to nations devastated by World War II. At the same time, he conceived a secret ‘political warfare’ unit that aimed to roll back Communism, not merely contain it. His brainchild became the covert-operations directorate of the Central Intelligence Agency.”
The Youth Movement continues in New York arts.
The second “Greater New York,” the youth-besotted, cheerful, immodestly ingratiating jumbo survey of contemporary art, has opened to the predictable mobs at P.S. 1 in Queens. It roams from roof to basement, weaving in stairwells, a ramshackle behemoth. . . .
The show peruses a scene whose wide stylistic range, persistent teenage infatuations and overall dexterousness are firmly entrenched characteristics of the marketplace. Craft and finesse are de rigueur. Descendants of Amy Sillman, Shahzia Sikander and Elizabeth Peyton perform ever-greater feats of willowy elegance. Gallerists and their client pools of hedge-fund optimists, competing for the latest hot list, troll university campuses for budding talents. Last time, there were hardly enough Chelsea galleries to go around. Now there aren’t enough artists. Some of the show’s wall labels, I noticed, have galleries hastily scrawled in pen, as if the artists, buoyed by their inclusion here, were suddenly snatched up in the interval between printing and pasting up the names.
Rachel Donadio in the New York Times:
In 1937, H. L. Mencken offered some advice to the son of the publisher Alfred A. Knopf. ”My guess is you’d have more fun at Yale than at Princeton, but my real choice is Harvard,” he wrote. ”I don’t think Harvard is a better university than the other two, but it seems that Americans set a higher value on its A.B. If I had a son I’d take him to Cambridge and chain him to the campus pump to remain there until he had acquired a sound Harvard accent. It’s worth money in this great free Republic.”
And so it is. No university occupies a more central place in the American imagination than Harvard. In ”The Sound and the Fury,” the Compson family sells an inheritance of pastureland to send their son Quentin north to Harvard. His experience there, albeit fictional, does not become the stuff of university promotional materials. Bedeviled by a Southern past at odds with the secure respectability that Harvard promises to confer, Quentin cracks up and drowns himself in the Charles River. ”Harvard my Harvard boy Harvard harvard,” he daydreams at one point. Repeated over and over, the word is reduced to syllables, those syllables to nothing.
Harvard, boy, Harvard. What is Harvard? That question has come to the fore more than ever during the tumultuous presidency of Lawrence H. Summers. A brilliant economist who took office in 2001, Summers has become known for his brutally direct leadership style. As one joke circulating has it, he opens his mouth only to change feet.
Michelle Pauli in The Guardian:
Einstein may not seem like an obvious muse for poets, but he inspired Terry Pratchett to celebrate the fact that he had “worlds enough and time / to spare an hour to find a rhyme” and Sir Patrick Moore to ponder on “the deep futility of all ephemeral things”.
They were among the authors and experts who were invited by the British Association for the Advancement of Science (the BA) to celebrate national science week and Einstein year by writing a poem based around the work of the famous physicist.
The competition was also open to the public, and the winners were announced today, with the adult prize going to a versified imaginary conversation with Einstein.
Gordon Judge’s poem, which manages to include the legendary equation E=mc2, begins
I once saw Einstein on a train
Which whistled past our station.
‘Your clock ticks much too slow,’ I yelled.
‘Ach, nein. That’s time dilation
and goes on to provide an ‘idiot’s guide’ to the theory of relativity in four-line stanzas.
More here. And read the winning poems here. It truly is an “idiot’s guide” since Gordon Judge already gets the science wrong in the second stanza, I just noticed (and too bad no one at the BA did):
“I’m travelling near the speed of light
(A trick I’ve learned to master).
To me, your clock goes much too quick –
You’re getting older, faster!”
On the contrary, to Einstein, Gordon’s clock would also be slowed for symmetrical reasons (to each observer, the other’s clock appears slow).
John Leonard on Jonathan Letham in the New York Review of Books:
In The Fortress of Solitude, his great white whale of a novel, Jonathan Lethem chases after childhood, neighborhood, and the American leviathan of race relations. In Men and Cartoons, a grab bag of his stories, he paddles a kayak downstream over waters not exactly rapid. Old friends from elementary school reappear in order to deplore the compromises and corruptions of their former classmates. Bygone parents are revealed to have been capable of secret, sexual exultations. Young lovers in a burgled house go to bed with the ghosts of past relationships made visible by a magic spray. Artists, agents, editors, opticians, and a talking sheep named Sylvia Plath negotiate dystopias of gridlock. In “Access Fantasy,” one character lives in his car in a city-wide traffic jam on the wrong side of a One-Way Permeable Barrier.
But the joke’s on Hemingway. According to Lethem, men without women employ comic books to compensate for their absence. When his characters aren’t listening to Frank Zappa and the Talking Heads, or dreaming up scenarios for interactive video games, or hiring out as “advertising robots” at the local Undermall, or destroying the world with air bags made of cabbages, they are thinking about Stan Lee and R. Crumb, Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Dr. Doom, and Captain America. If Norman Mailer, Thomas Pynchon, Walt Whitman, and Carl Jung show up in “Super Goat Man,” the most ambitious of these stories, they are really only red herrings or highbrow beards in an epic tale of an Electric Comics superhero from the Sixties who is reduced in the Eighties to teaching a college seminar on “Dissidence and Desire: Marginal Heroics in American Life 1955–1975.”
Reza Aslan in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
From the very moment that God spoke the first word of Revelation to Muhammad — “Recite!” — the story of Islam has been in a constant state of evolution as it responds to the social, cultural, political, and temporal circumstances of those who are telling it. Now it must evolve once more.
It may be too early to know who will write the next chapter of Islam’s story, but it is not too early to recognize who will ultimately win the war between reform and counterreform. When 14 centuries ago Muhammad launched a revolution in Mecca to replace the archaic, rigid, and inequitable strictures of tribal society with a radically new vision of divine morality and social egalitarianism, he tore apart the fabric of traditional Arab society. It took many years of violence and devastation to cleanse Arabia of its “false idols.” It will take many more to cleanse Islam of its new false idols — bigotry and fanaticism — worshiped by those who have replaced Muhammad’s original vision of tolerance and unity with their own ideals of hatred and discord. But the cleansing is inevitable, and the tide of reform cannot be stopped. The Islamic Reformation is already here. We are all living in it.
Full essay here.
T. A. Frank. in The New Republic:
If present trends continue, the term “liberal” may eventually come to mean something like “conservative who occasionally disagrees with G. Gordon Liddy.” To fight back, TNR Online has decided unilaterally to reclaim the parameters of the debate. We’ll allow the Bush administration to hold down the right end of the spectrum, but no longer will we permit The Nation to represent the far left–that job will instead fall to the dedicated journalists at KCNA, the news agency of North Korea. As for the middle, that can still be represented by David Gergen. (We would have chosen David Broder but, unlike Gergen, Broder has occasionally been unavailable for televised comment.) …
TNR ONLINE’S BUSH-GERGEN-PYONGYANG TEST OF LIBERALISM:
1. About Condoleezza Rice, I agree with:
A. George W. Bush: “America has benefited from the wise counsel of Dr. Condoleezza Rice and our family has been enriched by our friendship with this wonderful person.”
B. David Gergen: “Listen, there’s nothing to say that she won’t be a terrific secretary of state. She may well be. She’s obviously a woman of enormous stature.”
C. North Korea: “Condoleezza Rice [is] a handmaid of the United States’ aggressive external policy and a faithful spokeswoman for the U.S. munitions monopolies.”
Correct answer: B. While North Korea deserves credit for use of the terms “munitions monopolies” and the under-used “handmaid,” the correct liberal answer is Gergen’s, since it’s true that Rice’s tenure may indeed prove “terrific”–in the original (example: “terrific conflagration”) sense of the word.
Rest of the test here.
Patrick Cavanagh in Nature:
Although we rarely confuse a painting for the scene it presents, we are often taken in by the vividness of the lighting and the three-dimensional (3D) layout it captures. This is not surprising for a photorealistic painting, but even very abstract paintings can convey a striking sense of space and light, despite remarkable deviations from realism.
The rules of physics that apply in a real scene are optional in a painting; they can be obeyed or ignored at the discretion of the artist to further the painting’s intended effect. Some deviations, such as Picasso’s skewed faces or the wildly coloured shadows in the works of Matisse and other Impressionists of the Fauvist school, are meant to be noticed as part of the style and message of the painting. There is, however, an ‘alternative physics’ operating in many paintings that few of us ever notice but which is just as improbable. These transgressions of standard physics — impossible shadows, colours, reflections or contours — often pass unnoticed by the viewer and do not interfere with the viewer’s understanding of the scene. This is what makes them discoveries of neuroscience. Because we do not notice them, they reveal that our visual brain uses a simpler, reduced physics to understand the world. Artists use this alternative physics because these particular deviations from true physics do not matter to the viewer: the artist can take shortcuts, presenting cues more economically, and arranging surfaces and lights to suit the message of the piece rather than the requirements of the physical world.
In discovering these shortcuts artists act as research neuroscientists, and there is a great deal to be learned from tracking down their discoveries.