Monday Musing: I Love Airports

People look at me truly aghast when I reveal to them that I often book flights with the most amount of connections possible. I love airports.Images_2 Probably it is a sickness of some kind and a personal problem. I like to be in airports. Images1I like to wander around in them. I like the way they smell and the way the world feels inside of them. I like grandiose and beautifully constructed airports but I like crap airports too. I like the airports of the first, second, and third worlds. I like regional airports and airports where you have to walk out onto the tarmac to board your plane. Images2I like picking people up at airports. I like waiting for them. I like airport bars and the way margaritas taste at airports.

If you had to pick a symbolic structure for the 20th century it might very well be the airport. Through all the disappointments, failures, violence and horror of the 20th century it is also the century that took flight. The airplane, metal birds, improbable sky captains. They are funny things and they are beautiful. I like to watch them, from inside of them and from without. I like the fact that when you enter an airport you leave the particular and enter the universal. I like the comings and goings of the airport because it feels like an intensification of all possibilities.

Images3_1I was joking with a friend recently, at an airport, about what it would mean to become ‘airport man’. Airport Man is a version of Nietzsche’s overman withImages4_1out all the contempt for everyday experience. The Airport Man is able to adjust his own experiences to the fact that the airport is a site for modern experience. If you aren’t comfortable in an airport, you aren’t adequate to the present age and you aren’t preparing yourself for the future. You must love the airport, you must become one with the airport. You must will that all experience be airport experience.

We imagined a re-writing of literature. “Lady Chatterley’s Airport”. “Airports in the Time of Cholera”. “Catcher in the Airport”. “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Airport”. “Remembrance of Airports Past”. “The Airport of Wrath”. “The Unbearable Airport of Being”.

Images5Images6Perhaps the most interesting thing about the airport is its basic assumption: people need and want to go other places to deal with other people. This is one of the most lovely aspects of human need. The world can be a fascinating and joyful place. The airport is the strange, anonymous, beautiful, ridiculous vehicle for that need. The airport is good.

I love airports.

Happy Monday.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

More on Pop Culture and Smartness

Malcolm Gladwell has an interesting review of Steven Johnson’s “Everything Bad is Good for You.” It’s another nail in the coffin for all those cultural conservatives on the Left and the Right who love to tell their grand stories about the decline of all things in our stupid modern age.

Johnson… imagine[s] what cultural critics might have said had video games been invented hundreds of years ago, and only recently had something called the book been marketed aggressively to children:               
Reading books chronically understimulates the senses. Unlike the longstanding tradition of gameplaying—which engages the child in a vivid, three-dimensional world filled with moving images and musical sound-scapes, navigated and controlled with complex muscular movements—books are simply a barren string of words on the page. . . .
Books are also tragically isolating. …
But perhaps the most dangerous property of these books is the fact that they follow a fixed linear path. You can’t control their narratives in any fashion—you simply sit back and have the story dictated to you.

The Chattering Masses

From The New York Times:

Adda Some facts you had better get used to: you will never get to eavesdrop on Sartre and Genet at the Cafe de Flore, or watch Irving Howe and Philip Rahv getting worked up about Roth and Mailer at the Tip Toe Inn on the Upper West Side. And if you wander into Le Figaro Cafe you won’t find Kerouac and Ginsberg hollering at each other in holy ecstasy — just some N.Y.U. kids talking about relationships.

But the tradition of freestyle intellectual conversation lives on in Calcutta. The city (officially renamed Kolkata in 2001) has an oral culture as lively and cerebral as that of 1950’s New York or Paris. Bengalis love to talk, especially about exalted topics (the notion that some topics are exalted still holds currency there, even among postmodernists).

Talk is cheap: students of the University of Calcutta discuss topics like Dostoyevsky and demographics over samosas at an adda at Puttiram’s Cabin cafe (in the picture).

More here.

Central Asia?

The tumultuous political events in many of the central Asian republics over the last months ought to be a much greater source of discussion and commentary than they have been. Uzbekistan is the latest to catch fire.

_41145543_bodyafp203President Islam Karimov blamed the violence on Islamic extremist “criminals”. He said about 10 soldiers, and “many others”, were killed.

However, witnesses said troops opened fire on unarmed civilians. Some said they had seen at least 200 bodies.

The government said it was back in control of the city on Saturday, and had retaken administrative buildings.

But huge crowds were on the streets, shouting “killers, murderers” and demanding the president step down.

“What kind of government is this?” one of the protesters said to the Associated Press.

“People were raising their hands up in the air showing they were without arms but soldiers were still shooting at them.”

Saturday, May 14, 2005

The Autumn of the Autocrats: The meaning of Lebanon

Fouad Ajami writes in Foreign Affairs:

They quarreled with Rafiq Hariri’s way of rebuilding Beirut, dismissing his renewal project as an assault on the capital’s archaeological heritage and the graceful old city of fabled memory. They wrote off his ambitious economic policy, pointing to the vast public debt that accumulated under his stewardship. Many Lebanese saw Hariri as Saudi Arabia’s man, never quite taking to the swashbuckling way he climbed to the heights of power. But on February 14, when the former prime minister was struck down by a huge bomb that shattered his motorcade as it passed near Beirut’s swank hotels and sea front — in the very district his construction company had remade from rubble — Lebanon had its first “martyr” in many years.

The entrenched systems of control in the Arab world are beginning to give way. It is a terrible storm, but the perfect antidote to a foul sky. The old Arab edifice of power, it is true, has had a way of surviving many storms. It has outwitted and outlived many predictions of its imminent demise.

But suddenly it seems like the autumn of the dictators. Something different has been injected into this fight. The United States — a great foreign power that once upheld the Arab autocrats, fearing what mass politics would bring — now braves the storm. It has signaled its willingness to gamble on the young, the new, and the unknown. Autocracy was once deemed tolerable, but terrorists, nurtured in the shadow of such rule, attacked the United States on September 11, 2001. Now the Arabs, grasping for a new world, and the Americans, who have helped usher in this unprecedented moment, together ride this storm wave of freedom.

More here.

Fiction: Broken Verses by Kamila Shamsie

From The London Times:

Shamsie The Sufi notion that “Hell is nothing more or less than the absence of the Beloved” lies at the heart of Kamila Shamsie’s ambitious but overwrought new novel. Set in present-day Karachi, it is nar- rated by Aasmaani, a 31-year-old woman obsessed by her mother, Samina, who disappeared 14 years ago. Being the daughter of a political activist and feminist icon was never going to be easy in Pakistan, but Aasmaani was also partly abandoned when Samina embarked on a passionate and very public affair with a dissident writer known as “the Poet”. “For a good part of the first 12 years of my life the Poet was either in prison or self-imposed exile,” Aasmaani recalls, “and wherever he was she wasn’t far behind.” Nor is Samina far behind when the Poet is murdered: she never returns from a walk on the beach and everyone except Aasmaani believes she has committed suicide.

More here.

9/11 and the American Empire

From Neutopia Magazine:

911 In what is perhaps the most detailed and accessible refutation of the “official” story of 9/11, author and theologian David Ray Griffin breaks new ground with this transcript of a lecture delivered at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on April 18, 2005, and first broadcast on C-Span2 and BookTV, April 30, marking the first time any mainstream media source has consented to air any material challenging the “official” story. What resulted was a tour-de-force of logic and reason, and a clarion call to people of faith everywhere to build a mass-movement to end the American Empire.
“I will begin by unpacking the key terms in the title of my talk: “9/11,” “American empire,” and “religious people,” beginning with the last one.

1. Religious People

Although I am a Christian theologian, I am in this talk addressing religious people in general. I am doing so because I believe that religious people should respond to 9/11 and the American empire in a particular way because of moral principles of their religious traditions that are common to all the historic religious traditions. I have in mind principles such as:

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbors’ oil.
Thou shalt not murder thy neighbors in order to steal their oil.
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbors, accusing them of illicitly harboring weapons of mass destruction, in order to justify killing them in order to steal their oil.”

More here.

Of Two Minds

Jim Holt in The New York Times:

Mind Opportunities for observing the human mental circuitry in action have, until recent times, been almost nonexistent, mainly because of a lack of live volunteers willing to sacrifice their brains to science. Today scientists are able to get some idea of what’s going on in the mind by using brain scanners. In the current issue of Nature Neuroscience, however, Frank Tong, a cognitive neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University, and Yukiyasu Kamitani, a researcher in Japan, announced that they had discovered a way of tweaking the brain-scanning technique to get a richer picture of the brain’s activity. Now it is possible to infer what tiny groups of neurons are up to, not just larger areas of the brain.

Last year, Tibetan Buddhist monks, with the encouragement of the Dalai Lama, submitted to functional magnetic resonance imaging as they practiced ”compassion meditation,” which is aimed at achieving a mental state of pure loving kindness toward all beings. The brain scans showed only a slight effect in novice meditators. But for monks who had spent more than 10,000 hours in meditation, the differences in brain function were striking. Activity in the left prefrontal cortex, the locus of joy, overwhelmed activity in the right prefrontal cortex, the locus of anxiety. Activity was also heightened in the areas of the brain that direct planned motion, ”as if the monks’ brains were itching to go to the aid of those in distress,” Sharon Begley reported in The Wall Street Journal. All of which suggests, say the scientists who carried out the scans, that ”the resting state of the brain may be altered by long-term meditative practice.”

More here.

‘A Slight Trick of the Mind’: Old Man Holmes

From The New York Times:Holmes

Mitch Cullin’s new novel imagines Holmes, in extreme old age, as witness to the birth of our own era — a time, as Cullin puts it, ”of lonely, searching souls.”

This is a novel about the fraying of reason under the stress of unanswerable emotional demands. Back home in Sussex, 14-year-old Roger, the housekeeper’s boy, has taken Holmes on as a surrogate father. Holmes likes the boy’s way with bees, and has encouraged the affection, in his stoic way. Added to these overlapping narratives is a third, this one in the form of an unfinished first-person tale written by Holmes concerning an old romantic infatuation, uncovered by Roger in Holmes’s study. Roger reads this story (and Holmes finishes writing it) before our eyes. Each one of these plots turns on Holmes’s reticence, his willful refusal to express what he feels in his heart; in each case, this decorum proves finally unsustainable, and the book ends in a swirl of intense, nearly animal, pain.

More here.

Rockin’ feet

Preview87 A somewhat bizzare collection of rock stars’ shoes and feet photographs was taken by German rock photographer Roland Owsnitzki in the last 20 years. The project is called “Feet Me

“Roland Owsnitzki is not a foot fetishist. “No, no, no, no,” says the 50-year-old German photographer from Berlin. “I’m not into that sort of thing.” So you haven’t got a pervy Helmut Newton thing going on? “Not at all. I just find feet really expressive.”

Laleh Seddigh, “the little Michael Schumacher”

Speaking of female fighter-pilots in the Pakistan Air Force, here’s some news from Iran. Otto Pohl in the New York Times:

14fpro[Laleh] Seddigh loves speed. She also loves a challenge. Last fall, she petitioned the national auto racing federation in this male-dominated society for permission to compete against men. When it was granted, she became not only the first woman in Iran to race cars against the opposite sex, but also the first woman since the Islamic Revolution here to compete against men in any sport.

What’s more, she beat them.

“I like competition in everything,” the striking 28-year-old said after parking the car and going for tiramisù in a cafe in North Tehran. “I have to move whatever is movable in the world.”

More here.

The evolution of creationism

William Saletan in Slate:

To understand the fight in Kansas, you have to study what evolutionists accuse creationists of neglecting: the historical record. In the Scopes trial, creationists defended a ban on the teaching of evolution. That was the early, authoritarian stage of creationism—the equivalent of Australopithecus, the earliest hominid. Gradually, evolution gained the upper hand. In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that states couldn’t even require equal treatment of evolution and creationism. By 1999, creationists were asking the Kansas board not to rule out their beliefs entirely. This was creationism’s more advanced Homo erectus phase: pluralism.

Six years later, evolutionists in Kansas are under attack again. They think the old creationism is back. They’re mistaken. Homo erectus—the defense, on pluralist grounds, of the literal account of Genesis—is beginning to die out. The new challenger, ID, differs fundamentally from fundamentalism. Like its creationist forebears, ID is theistic. But unlike them, it abandons Biblical literalism, embraces open-minded inquiry, and accepts falsification, not authority, as the ultimate test. These concessions, sincere or not, define a new species of creationism—Homo sapiens—that fatally undermines its ancestors. Creationists aren’t threatening us. They’re becoming us.

More here.

Abu Ghraib Isn’t Guernica

Christopher Hitchens in Slate:

Botero1_1Ian McEwan observed recently that there were, in effect, two kinds of people: those who could have used or recognized the words “Abu Ghraib” a few years ago, and those to whom it became a new term only last year. And what a resonant name it has indeed become. Now the Colombian painter Fernando Botero has produced a sequence of lurid and haunting pictures, based on the photographs taken by American war criminals, with which he hopes to draw attention to the horrors inflicted there. But his true ambition, he says, is to do for Abu Ghraib what Picasso did for Guernica.

More here.

Environmental economics — who will pay?

From The Economist:

At the Miraflores lock on the Panama Canal it is possible to watch the heartbeat of international trade in action. One by one, giant ships piled high with multi-coloured containers creep through the lock’s narrow confines and are disgorged neatly on the other side. If it were not for the canal, these ships would have to make a two-to-three-week detour around South America. That would have a significant effect on the price of goods around much of the world. It is therefore sobering to consider that each ship requires 200m litres of fresh water to operate the locks of the canal and that, over the years, this water has been drying up.

Scientists at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, in Panama, think that reforesting the canal’s denuded watershed would help regulate the supply. One of them, Robert Stallard, a hydrologist and biogeochemist who also works for the United States Geological Survey in Boulder, Colorado, has operated in the country for two decades, and knows the terrain well. A deforested, grass-covered watershed would release far more water in total than a forested one, he admits, but that water would arrive in useless surges rather than as a useful steady stream. A forested watershed makes a lot more sense…

Viewed this way, any scheme to reforest the canal’s watershed is, in fact, an investment in infrastructure. Normally, this would be provided by the owner. But in this case the owner is the Panamanian government, and Panama is in debt, has a poor credit rating and finds it expensive to borrow money. And yet investing in the canal’s watershed clearly makes economic sense. Who will pay?

More here.

Spring birth leads to earlier menopause

Michael Hopkin in Nature:

The season in which a woman is born influences the age at which she will go through the menopause, suggests a survey of northern Italians.

The survey, which looked at nearly 3,000 post-menopausal women at three clinics, revealed that those born in March showed the earliest menopause, at an average age of 48.9 years. At the other end of the scale, those born in October remained fertile until an average age of 50.3, with many lasting beyond 55.

More here.


Ilan Stavans in The New Republic:

The word “camouflage” is nowhere to be found in the canonical 1971 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Is this yet another proof that lexicographers leave out, or otherwise disguise, clues in their dictionaries for users to notice?

Browsing a dictionary requires breath, curiosity, and patience. Every time I open one, I’m filled with expectation: What will I discover about the words I use on a daily bases that I didn’t know before? What kind of mysteries did the compiler set out for me to uncover? Dictionary makers approach their discipline–the deciphering, and characterization, of the entire vocabulary bank constituting a language–in a cold-blooded, objective fashion, assuring readers no prejudice goes unpunished. What folly! Dictionaries, after all, are catalogs of social misconceptions. Look up the word “Jew” in Sebastián de Covarrubias’s Tesoro de la lengua castellana, the first full-fledge lexicon of the Spanish language, published in 1611, and you’ll find a description of a people who “continue to profess the Mosaic Law, which is a shadow of the truth.” Or open the Trésor de la langue française to “amour” and you’ll find as oblique reference: “love is sometimes more than just love, but also sometimes less.”

More here.

Abortion leads to less crime

Jim Holt reviews Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, in the New York Times:

Levitt has strayed far from the customary paddock of the dismal science in search of interesting problems. How do parents of different races and classes choose names for their children? What sort of contestants on the TV show ”The Weakest Link” are most likely to be discriminated against by their fellow contestants? If crack dealers make so much money, why do they live with their moms? Such everyday riddles are fair game for the economist, Levitt contends, because their solution involves understanding how people react to incentives. His peers seem to agree. In 2003, Levitt was awarded the John Bates Clark Medal, bestowed every two years on the most accomplished American economist under 40…

The trivia alone is worth the cover price. Did you know that Ku Klux Klan members affixed a ”kl” to many words (thus two Klansmen would hold a ”klonversation” in the local ”klavern”) or that the secret Klan handshake was ”a left-handed, limp-wristed fish wiggle”? In the mid-1940’s, a Klan infiltrator began to feed such intelligence to writers for the radio show ”The Adventures of Superman,” who incorporated it into the plotline, thereby making the Klan look ridiculous in the eyes of the public and driving down its membership. Levitt uses the rise and fall of the K.K.K. to illustrate the power of hoarded information.

More here.  Buy this book from Amazon with one click here.

Paul Theroux’s Drug Junket

“Paul Theroux planned to follow in Burroughs’s footsteps and experience the ultimate high in the rainforest, but instead he found oil prospectors, exploitation, and tourists in search of healing.” Theroux writes about it in The Guardian:

TherouxDrug tour was my name for it. “Ethnobotanical experience” was the prettified official name for it, and some others spoke of it as a quest, a chance to visit a colourful Indian village, a clearing in the selva tropical, where just a few decades ago American missionaries sought early martyrdoms among the blowguns and poison-tipped arrows of indignant animists resisting forcible conversion to Christianity.

The people who organised this drug junket characterised it as a high-minded field trip, eight days in the rainforest, to experience eco-awareness and spiritual solidarity, to learn the names and uses of beneficial plants. One of those plants was ayahuasca. There was no promise of a ritual yet heavy hints were dropped about a “healing”. We would be living in a traditional village of indigenous Secoya people, deep in Ecuador’s Oriente province, near the Colombian border, on a narrow branch of Burroughs’ Putumayo, where the ayahuasca vine clinging to the trunks of rain forest trees grows as thick as a baby’s arm.

More here.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Philip Ball Wins Science Book Prize

Mike Holderness and Maggie McDonald in New Scientist:

“One of the things about being an outsider is that you don’t have to think of anything to say.” With these words, Philip Ball accepted the 2005 Aventis Prize for Science Books at a ceremony at the Royal Society in London, UK, adding: “If only I’d put that money on myself at 8 to 1.”

His winning book Critical Mass considers the use of statistics in the attempt to discover new insights into group behaviour and the functioning of society. The book visits many unexpected corners of politics, economics and sociology, and offers a novel take on the links between the history of political philosophy, Newtonian physics and statistical mechanics.

More here.

Rushdie appreciates bloggers

Charlotte Abbott in Publishers Weekly:

As books like The Kite Runner and Reading Lolita in Tehran dominate the bestseller list, there are other signs that U.S. readers may be waking up to writers born abroad. The week-long PEN World Voices festival of international literature, which closed April 22, drew more than 8,000 people to 43 events in New York City. Many panels were sold out, forcing the organizers to turn away an estimated 2,000.

“We guessed the audience would be there, but it was a real thrill to see the response,” said Salman Rushdie, president of the PEN American Center, who attributed the diverse and youthful turnout to an “enormous amount of blogging” about the festival. With 75 foreign writers and 36 from the U.S., it was the largest international gathering of writers in New York since the PEN congress in 1986.

More here.  And there’s more, including audio archives of the conference, at PEN’s website here.