the human drift


There was once supposed to have been a city, located not far from Niagara Falls, where 60 million people lived in 24,000 apartment buildings, each 25 stories tall. In Metropolis, as the city was named, the apartment buildings were arranged in a regular pattern and served as the central hubs or cogs around which life there revolved. Short, neatly landscaped walkways connected the buildings together and led to wider and longer avenues that crisscrossed through the city. Schools, recreation and amusement centers, flower conservatories, parks as ample as they were well-planted, and buildings for food production and storage clustered around every apartment building, each of which accommodated about 2,500 people in comfort and high style. According to the city’s creator, “the most magnificent modern hotel in New York could not compare in beauty of its rooms and liberality of its service with any one of these thousands of buildings of Metropolis.” … Metropolis never did exist, however, except in the elaborate and detailed pages of The Human Drift, an 1894 utopian tract by King Camp Gillette.

more from Cabinet here.

Pham Xuan An (1927-2006)


Recognized as a brilliant political analyst, beginning with his work in the nineteen-sixties for Reuters and then for the New York Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor, and, finally, as a Time correspondent for eleven years, Pham Xuan An seemed to do his best work swapping stories with colleagues in Givral’s café, on the old Rue Catinat. Here he presided every afternoon as the best news source in Saigon. He was called “Dean of the Vietnamese Press Corps” and “Voice of Radio Catinat”—the rumor mill. With self-deprecating humor, he preferred other titles for himself, such as “docteur de sexologie,” “professeur coup d’état,” “Commander of Military Dog Training” (a reference to the German shepherd that always accompanied him), “Ph.D. in revolutions,” or, simply, General Givral.

We now know that this is only half the work An did as a reporter, and not the better half. An sent the North Vietnamese a steady stream of secret military documents and messages written in invisible ink, but it was his typed dispatches, now locked in Vietnam’s intelligence archives and known to us only through secondhand reports, which will undoubtedly rank as his chef d’oeuvre. Using a Hermes typewriter bought specially for him by the North Vietnamese intelligence service, An wrote his dispatches, some as long as a hundred pages, at night. Photographed and transported as undeveloped rolls of film, An’s reports were run by courier out to the Cu Chi tunnel network that served as the Communists’ underground headquarters.

more form the amazing story in The New Yorker from last year here.
ABC bio, obit here.

Libya Moves to Execute the Tripoli Six

In Nature:

Imagine that five American nurses and a British doctor have been detained and tortured in a Libyan prison since 1999, and that a Libyan prosecutor called at the end of August for their execution by firing squad on trumped-up charges of deliberately contaminating more than 400 children with HIV in 1998. Meanwhile, the international community and its leaders sit by, spectators of a farce of a trial, leaving a handful of dedicated volunteer humanitarian lawyers and scientists to try to secure their release.

Implausible? That scenario, with the medics enduring prison conditions reminiscent of the film Midnight Express, is currently playing out in a Tripoli court, except that the nationalities of the medics are different. The nurses are from Bulgaria and the doctor is Palestinian.

For back ground on the case, see here.

Mukhtar Mai’s Blog

Mukhtar Mai writes a blog for women’s justice in Pakistan (in Urdu). From the BBC, some excerpts in English:

1 July 2006

I came back to my village, Mirwala, (after a trip to Poland) and was devastated to hear what had happened in a nearby village, Wadowala.

A nine-year-old girl, Naseem Bibi, had been abused. Not just that, but another girl had been promised to be handed over to settle the dispute arising over the incident.

I was devastated to hear this.

Here I was talking about women’s rights abroad but what about my own neighbourhood?

I was really disappointed and worried. How long will this continue?

But then I thought, oppression of women has to end. Instead of losing heart, I need to keep fighting.

(Here, you can find the blog in Urdu.)

Differential Sexual Habits of Music Fans by Genre

In Scientific American:

Fans of hip hop music are likely to have had more sexual partners in the last five years while many of those who prefer classical strains will have tried cannabis, according to a study released on Thursday.

Psychologist Adrian North from the University of Leicester surveyed 2,500 Britons to find out how their musical tastes related to their lifestyles and interests.

He said the results showed said it was possible to discover clues about what people were like simply from the music they liked.

Almost 38 percent of hip hop devotees and 29 percent of dance music fans were more likely to have had more than one sexual partner in the last five years compared to just 1.5 percent of country music fans.

[Hat tip: Steven Balis.]

India’s Cash-for-Fatwa Scandal

From Time:

Last week, many Muslims in India, like their counterparts around the world, gathered on the streets to burn effigies of the Pope and shout slogans denouncing him for his remarks on Islam and violence. Even before that fully died out, however, a new controversy erupted — one that has turned Muslim ire against some of their own local clerics.

India’s “cash-for-fatwas” scandal broke out last weekend when a TV channel broadcast a sting operation that showed several Indian Muslim clerics allegedly taking, or demanding, bribes in return for issuing fatwas, or religious edicts. The bribes, some of which were as low as $60, were offered by undercover reporters wearing hidden cameras over a period of six weeks. In return for the cash, the clerics appear to hand out fatwas written in Urdu, the language used by many Muslims in Pakistan and India, on subjects requested by the reporters. Among the decrees issued by the fatwas: that Muslims are not allowed to use credit cards, double beds, or camera-equipped cell phones, and should not act in films, donate their organs, or teach their children English. One cleric issued a fatwa against watching TV; another issued a fatwa in support of watching TV.

Adding to the shock in India, home to the world’s third-largest Muslim population (approximately 150 million), is that some of the clerics apparently caught in the sting operation teach at important institutions — one belongs to India’s most famous Islamic seminary, the Darul Uloom at Deoband.

More here.

Fruit fly study sheds light on human sleep


Fly_6 After a long day spent socializing or learning who to flirt with, scientists say fruit flies need to sleep longer, shedding light on what sleep may actually do for humans. Sleep remains a mystery. To delve into why people need to sleep, neurogeneticist Indrani Ganguly-Fitzgerald at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, Calif., and her colleagues Paul Shaw and Jeff Donlea at Washington University in St. Louis experimented with fruit fly genetics and behavior.

“Flies do most things that humans do—they eat, they sleep, they fight, they mate, they forage for food,” Ganguly-Fitzgerald told LiveScience. Just as is often the case with humans, flies sleep a lot as young ones, sleep little as they get older, and “stay awake more after being fed caffeine and become sleepy in response to anti-histamine compounds,” she said.

One idea scientists have about sleep is that our brains require it to process what we experienced during the day. The researchers found normal fruit flies that were allowed to socialize took hour-long daytime naps, compared to 15-minute catnaps taken by the isolated insects.

Their need for sleep grew with the size of the group they socialized with.

More here.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Ending Sacrifices to the God of Vengeance

In Counterpunch, our Justin Smith on ending the death penalty.

What is it we are doing when we execute someone? One bit of insight into the true nature of capital punishment may be discerned by considering the odd practice of keeping death-row prisoners on suicide watch. Why bother if the plan is to execute them anyway? Part of the answer seems to be that the aim of capital punishment is not simply to bring it about that the prisoners are dead, but to bring it about that they are killed. In this respect, even if we do not eat their remains, their deaths resemble the ritual slaughter of animals more than we might like to think. There is moreover an important conceptual difference worth pausing on for a moment between slaughter and extermination: nobody would object if a vermin exterminator found a method of getting pigeons or raccoons or rats to commit suicide, while a cow that killed itself would no doubt be deemed inedible. Capital punishment, then, is not the practice of reducing the number of living murderers in the world. It is an ancient and savage spectacle that can be traced back to pagan sacrifice of both humans and animals, but cleaned up and made palatable through modern institutional procedures, through the legitimizing apparatus of euphemism- filled paperwork, lengthy delays and somber expressions conveying the impression that, when, the moment finally comes, it has to be that way.

Abolitionism, as opposed to reformism, would refuse to accept the somber tone of the judges and sheriffs and governors, by replying: no, it does not have to be that way. The balance of justice can be maintained without periodic sacrifices. Abolitionism would advertise the moral taint these public figures invite through their involvement in the affair, and it would show why the reformist arguments by themselves, while useful for saving the lives of individual Death Row inmates, fail to take seriously the fundamental incompatibility of capital punishment with other basic principles of morality and justice that our society claims to accept.

Is Terrorism the Key to a Republican Victory

The Economist on the upcoming elections:

[T]he Gallup poll found specific evidence that Mr Bush’s strategy of vowing again and again to catch or kill terrorists is helping his party. Gallup discovered that among registered voters who think terrorism is the most important issue, far more think Republicans would do a better job than Democrats in fighting it (68%-17%). Among those who said the war in Iraq was their top issue, it was the other way around: 60% thought Democrats would handle Iraq better, while only 23% said Republicans would. So if the Republicans can maximise the number of people thinking about terror on election day, maybe they can hang on to both arms of Congress.

Some news helps them: for example, the alleged British plot to blow up transatlantic airliners. And advertisements put out by pro-Republican pressure groups add unsubtle mood music. One from the Centre for Security Policy urges Americans to “Vote as if your life depends on it. Because it does.” Another, from a group called Progress for America, states simply that “These people want to kill us.”

Human Rights in Kashmir, the One on the Pakistani Side

Violating the Human Rights of Kashmiris seems to be another thing that India and Pakistan have in common. From Human Rights Watch:

In Azad Kashmir, a region largely closed to international scrutiny until a devastating earthquake hit last year, the Pakistani government represses democratic freedoms, muzzles the press and practices routine torture, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

Based on research in Azad Kashmir (which means “free Kashmir”) and Pakistan, the 71-page report, “‘With Friends Like These …’: Human Rights Violations in Azad Kashmir,” uncovers abuses by the Pakistani military, intelligence services and militant organizations.

“Although ‘azad’ means ‘free,’ the residents of Azad Kashmir are anything but,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Pakistani authorities govern Azad Kashmir with strict controls on basic freedoms.”

Before a massive earthquake struck in October, Azad Kashmir was one of the most closed territories in the world. Tight controls on freedom of expression have been a hallmark of government policy in Azad Kashmir. Pakistan has prevented the creation of independent media in the territory through bureaucratic restrictions and coercion. Publications and literature favoring independence is banned. While militant organizations promoting the incorporation of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir state into Pakistan have had free rein to propagate their views, groups promoting an independent Kashmir find their speech sharply, sometimes violently curtailed.

[Hat tip: Lucy Mair.]

men pacing about on their plinths


The Royal Academy is filled with bodies: pliable bodies, sexy bodies, fused bodies, suffering bodies, languorous bodies and pleasuring bodies. Among them are martyrs, lovers, the great, the good and the damned. Iconic bodies that kiss and think; others standing still and walking. Bodies dancing, crouching, wanking, exposing themselves to our gaze; bodies that seem to look back and turn away as we circle them. What all these bodies are doing, most of all, is being. And being with them, in these tremendously animated and peopled rooms, where the Royal Academy’s Rodin exhibition opens on Saturday, is itself a complex pleasure. We, too, are bodies among these bronze, plaster, marble and terracotta others. Walking among these entire and fragmentary beings, I think about what it is to be flesh and blood.

more from The Guardian here.

thomas nagel and michael sandel fight!


I appreciate Thomas Nagel’s careful exposition of the themes of my book Public Philosophy, a collection of essays on the role of moral argument in politics [“Progressive but Not Liberal,” NYR, May 25]. Although he is an ardent defender of Kantian/Rawlsian liberalism, precisely the view my work challenges, he fairly presents the question at stake: Can the principles of justice that define our basic rights and liberties be neutral with respect to substantive moral and religious controversies (as Rawls and Nagel claim), or does reasoning about justice sometimes require us to engage directly with such controversies (as I claim)?

Oddly, Nagel’s review takes on a nasty edge when he rises to the defense of Rawls. Nagel claims that I “ridicule” and “deride” Rawls’s view, and casts my disagreement with Rawlsian liberalism as a failure to understand it. I leave it to readers of Public Philosophy to judge for themselves whether anything I say about Rawls remotely approaches ridicule or derision. But I would like to show why Nagel is wrong to insist that my critique of liberal neutrality is based on a misunderstanding of the liberal position.

more from the NY Review of Books here.

all donne


“Doing Donne” has proved too much for many scholars. Like God the Father, told repeatedly in Donne’s “Hymn” that “When thou hast done, thou hast not done”, they have struggled to accommodate Donne’s texts and life records in their entirety: these seem too complex and shifting. Back in 1936, I. A. Shapiro assured the Oxford University Press that his edition of Donne’s letters would be delivered in a fortnight – or so I was told by my late mother, his colleague at the University of Birmingham. Shapiro died in March 2004, full of years, the Letters undelivered. In default of such an edition, it has been widely felt that a comprehensive biography could not be written. R. C. Bald, who embarked on one, died suddenly in 1965 after finishing only ten of the eighteen chapters of John Donne: A Life, though the work was ably completed by W. Milgate. First Sir Herbert Grierson, and then Dame Helen Gardner – neither of whose names appears in the index of Donne: The reformed soul by John Stubbs – gained major honours for careers which included long and arduous collation and analysis of the many manuscript texts of Donne’s poems according to classical principles of textual criticism. Barely was Gardner cold in her grave, however, before a team of editors in America, led by Gary A. Stringer, embarked on a great Variorum Edition of the Poetry of John Donne (being published by Indiana University Press), adopting a radically different editorial approach. Time will tell who among us will live to see this project completed. John Stubbs may well do so, for he is not yet thirty.

more from the TLS here.

something to do


Ric Burns’s four-hour documentary on Andy Warhol’s career, which aired on PBS’s American Masters Series and is now showing at New York’s Film Forum, opens with a priceless piece of footage. Andy, in sunglasses, is being interviewed in front of a few of his Brillo boxes by an earnest someone, while an insider in a business suit looks on, smirking.

“Andy,” she asks, “the Canadian government spokesman said that your art could not be described as original sculpture. Would you agree with that?” Warhol answers, “Yes.” “Why do you agree?” “Well, because it’s not original.” “You have just then copied a common item?” “Yes.” The interviewer gets exasperated. “Why have you bothered to do that? Why not create something new?” “Because it’s easier to do.” “Well, isn’t this sort of a joke then that you’re playing on the public?” “No. It gives me something to do.”

more from Arthur Danto on Warhol at The Nation here.

string theory: maybe not so great


IT IS almost a century since Einstein did his finest work; more than 30 years since theoretical physicists developed the standard model that describes the basic building blocks of nature. Not a lot has happened since, despite the best efforts of thousands of theorists and the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars. Two new books blame string theory.

String theory is an attempt to unify two fundamental ideas in physics—quantum theory and general relativity—by building everything in the universe from tiny strings and membranes existing in 10 or 11 dimensions. The theory has been the dominant area of research in theoretical physics for the past 20 years. Unfortunately its promise remains unfulfilled. As yet, string theory has made no predictions that could prove it to be wrong. Since being falsifiable is one of the tests of what constitutes a science, Lee Smolin and Peter Woit have come to the conclusion that string theory is unscientific; not only that, they regard it as mere conjecture and unworthy of being called a theory at all.

more from The Economist here.

“Lucy’s Baby” — World’s Oldest Child — Found by Fossil Hunters

From The National Geographic:

Lucy_3 The 3.3-million-year-old fossilized toddler was uncovered in north Ethiopia’s badlands along the Great Rift Valley. The skeleton, belonging to the primitive human species Australopithecus afarensis, is remarkable for its age and completeness, even for a region spectacularly rich in fossils of our ancient ancestors, experts say. The new find may even trump the superstar fossil of the same species: “Lucy,” a 3.2-million-year-old adult female discovered nearby in 1974 that reshaped theories of human evolution.

Lucy_sle Some experts have taken to calling the baby skeleton “Lucy’s baby” because of the proximity of the discoveries, despite the fact that the baby is tens of thousands of years older.

The child was probably female and about three years old when she died, according to the researchers. Found in sandstone in the Dikika area, the remains include a remarkably well preserved skull, milk teeth, tiny fingers, a torso, a foot, and a kneecap no bigger than a dried pea. Archaeologists hope that the baby skeleton, because of its completeness, can provide a wealth of details that Lucy and similar fossils couldn’t.

More here.

Brain electrodes conjure up ghostly visions

From Nature:

Brain_26 Simple stimulation of the brain can cause the mind to play complex and creepy tricks on itself, neurologists have discovered. They found that, by inserting electrodes into a specific part of the brain, they could induce a patient to sense that an illusory ‘shadow person’ was lurking behind her and mimicking her movements.

Doctors treating the patient, a 22-year-old woman with epilepsy, found that when they stimulated a brain region called the left temporoparietal junction, the patient sensed the presence of a sinister figure behind her who copied her actions. They suspect that the effect is due to the mind projecting its own movements onto a phantom figure conjured up by the brain, an effect that is seen in some patients with serious psychiatric conditions.

“It was quite astonishing — she definitely realized the ‘person’ was taking the same posture as she did, but she didn’t make the connection,” says Olaf Blanke of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, who led the research. “To her it remained a different person, an alien — exactly what you find in schizophrenics.”

More here.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Shahzia Sikander wins MacArthur “Genius” Award

I really couldn’t be more pleased or proud that my longtime friend and fellow Pakistani New Yorker, Shahzia Sikander, has won a $500,000 John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship. She is being characteristically humble about it, and seems more concerned about the class she is teaching this semester than celebrating. All of us here at 3QD send her our heartiest congratulations!

This is from the MacArthur Fellowship website:

Shahzia_2Shahzia Sikander
New York, New York
Age: 37

Shahzia Sikander is an artist whose visually striking, resonant works merge the traditional South Asian art of miniature painting with contemporary forms and styles.  Her art ranges from intimate watercolors to mural-scale wall paintings and multi-layered paper installations, from intricate photographs to bold juxtapositions of painting and digital animation.  Trained as a miniaturist at the National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan, Sikander recasts the conventions of this centuries-old tradition and challenges notions about the division of art and craft.  While traversing cultural, geographic, and psychological boundaries and combining seemingly disparate formal elements, she skillfully expresses a respect for the distinctiveness of the cultures she explores.  The results are painstakingly detailed drawings and vibrantly hued paintings that reveal themselves over time and reflect profoundly on the relationship between the present and the past and the richness of multicultural identities.  In other projects, Sikander experiments with digital media to uproot the unity of her own miniatures and reposition their fragments with graceful movements of camera-work.  This artist’s constant rethinking of media and visual sources makes her work a fluid, elaborately rendered commentary on diasporic experiences and our ever-changing world.

More here. My sister Sughra had posted a painting by Shahzia here some time ago. Other past posts at 3QD about Shahzia are here, here, here, and here. Here’s a work by Shahzia:


from the porfolio
Medium: Color photogravure with sugar lift aquatint
Paper size: 18-1/4 x 14-1/2″
Image size: 10 x 7-1/2″
Paper: Somerset Satin Soft White
Edition: 25

And here is Shahzia’s official website. The other 2006 MacArthur Fellows can be seen here.

charm offensive in uganda


My arrival in Kampala coincided with the opening of the government’s media centre. As marabou storks wheeled in languid circles in the sky and his soldiers paced outside, President Museveni slouched grim-faced in his chair, showing no sign of the legendary charm as his staff introduced themselves.

Then he began to talk, and an extraordinary thing happened. His eyes boggled, his hands flew, his face came alive. He cracked jokes in Luganda and dropped the odd proverb. Lecturing “my children, my young friends” on the need to develop “ideological understanding”, he talked about how larvae became butterflies, said Africa was undergoing a similar metamorphosis, and cited the 500 years it took Europe to move from feudalism to modernity.

more from The New Statesman here.