An Affair to Remember

Daniel Mendelsohn in the New York Review of Books:

MendelsohnBrokeback Mountain—the highly praised new movie as well as the short story by Annie Proulx on which the picture is faithfully based—is a tale about two homosexual men. Two gay men. To some people it will seem strange to say this; to some other people, it will seem strange to have to say it. Strange to say it, because the story is, as everyone now knows, about two young Wyoming ranch hands who fall in love as teenagers in 1963 and continue their tortured affair, furtively, over the next twenty years. And as everyone also knows, when most people hear the words “two homosexual men” or “gay,” the image that comes to mind is not likely to be one of rugged young cowboys who shoot elk and ride broncos for fun.

Two homosexual men: it is strange to have to say it just now because the distinct emphasis of so much that has been said about the movie—in commercial advertising as well as in the adulatory reviews—has been that the story told in Brokeback Mountain is not, in fact, a gay story, but a sweeping romantic epic with “universal” appeal. The lengths to which reviewers from all over the country, representing publications of various ideological shadings, have gone in order to diminish the specifically gay element is striking, as a random sampling of the reviews collected on the film’s official Web site makes clear. The Wall Street Journal‘s critic asserted that “love stories come and go, but this one stays with you—not because both lovers are men, but because their story is so full of life and longing, and true romance.”

More here.

Man in the Moon’s cataclysmic birth revealed

Carolyn Fry in New Scientist:

Dn87061_250Shock waves from ancient lunar impacts may be responsible for creating the Earth’s single most famous face – the “Man in the Moon”.

People have long interpreted a series of dark patches on the Moon’s surface as a human face but no one knew how they formed. Now, scientists at Ohio State University, US, appear to have solved the mystery by creating a topographical model of the Moon and mapping gravity signatures of rocks all the way to the core.

Their findings suggest that the impacts of ancient collisions on the far side of the Moon were so great they caused a corresponding bulge on the near side, and the Earth’s gravitational pull further tugged at this bulge.

Those colossal movements opened cracks in the crust and let magma from the lunar mantle flood onto the surface, at a time when the Moon was still geologically active. This solidified to form what we now see from Earth as the eyes, nose and mouth of the Man in the Moon.

More here.

Resurrecting Pompeii

Doug Stewart in Smithsonian Magazine:

Pompeii_childDaybreak, August 25, A.D. 79. Under a lurid and sulfurous sky, a family of four struggles down an alley filled with pumice stones, desperately trying to escape the beleaguered city of Pompeii. Leading the way is a middle-aged man carrying gold jewelry, a sack of coins and the keys to his house. Racing to keep up are his two small daughters, the younger one with her hair in a braid. Close behind is their mother, scrambling frantically through the rubble with her skirts hiked up. She clutches an amber statuette of a curly-haired boy, perhaps Cupid, and the family silver, including a medallion of Fortune, goddess of luck.

But neither amulets nor deities can protect them. Like thousands of others this morning, the four are overtaken and killed by an incandescent cloud of scorching gases and ash from Mount Vesuvius. In the instant before he dies, the man strains to lift himself from the ground with one elbow. With his free hand, he pulls a corner of his cloak over his face, as though the thin cloth will save him.

The hellish demise of this vibrant Roman city is detailed in a new exhibition, “Pompeii: Stories from an Eruption,” at Chicago’s Field Museum through March 26.

More here.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Navahoax

“Did a struggling white writer of gay erotica become one of multicultural literature’s most celebrated memoirists — by passing himself off as Native American?”

Matthew Fleischer in LA Weekly:

Sm10ledeIndeed, getting to the bottom of Nasdijj’s story is no easy task. He alleges a nomadic existence that is virtually free of specific names or places, rendering it difficult to substantiate his claims. A Google search brings up first and foremost his blog — www.nasdijj.typepad.com. (Shortly after Nasdijj was contacted for this story, his blog was taken offline.) A sampling of his almost daily blogs over several months suggests that one (and perhaps only one) thing is clear: Nasdijj is a very angry man. If in the books his passion and fierceness are modulated and concentrated, his blog posts are full of rants and denunciations. Targets include the American health care system, government treatment of Indians, middle-class values and, especially, the publishing industry.

More here.

The Science of Hit Songs

Bjorn Carey in LiveScience.com:

A new study reveals that we make our music purchases based partly on our perceived preferences of others.

Researchers created an artificial “music market” of 14,341 participants drawn from a teen-interest Web site. Upon entering the study’s Internet market, the participants were randomly, and unknowingly, assigned to either an “independent” group or a “social influence” group.

Participants could then browse through a collection of unknown songs by unknown bands.

In the independent condition, participants chose which songs to listen to based solely on the names of the bands and their songs. While listening to the song, they were asked to rate it from one star (“I hate it”) to five stars (“I love it”). They were also given the option of downloading the song for keeps.

“This condition measured the quality of the songs and allowed us to see what outcome would result in the absence of social influence,” said study co-author Matthew Salganik, a sociologist at Columbia University.

In the social influence group, participants were provided with the same song list, but could also see how many times each song had been downloaded.

Researchers found that popular songs were popular and unpopular songs were unpopular, regardless of their quality established by the other group.

More here.

Their Own Version of a Big Bang

Stephanie Simon in the Los Angeles Times:

Evangelist Ken Ham smiled at the 2,300 elementary students packed into pews, their faces rapt. With dinosaur puppets and silly cartoons, he was training them to reject much of geology, paleontology and evolutionary biology as a sinister tangle of lies.

“Boys and girls,” Ham said. If a teacher so much as mentions evolution, or the Big Bang, or an era when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, “you put your hand up and you say, ‘Excuse me, were you there?’ Can you remember that?”

The children roared their assent.

“Sometimes people will answer, ‘No, but you weren’t there either,’ ” Ham told them. “Then you say, ‘No, I wasn’t, but I know someone who was, and I have his book about the history of the world.’ ” He waved his Bible in the air.

“Who’s the only one who’s always been there?” Ham asked.

“God!” the boys and girls shouted.

“Who’s the only one who knows everything?”

“God!”

“So who should you always trust, God or the scientists?”

The children answered with a thundering: “God!”

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

Singling out the Palestinians? Reciprocal demands are the key to peace

Moshe Behar in Electronic Intifada:

Quartet30012006In and around Israel’s “capital of the Qassam rockets,” where I teach, the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections has left Israelis as divided as always. While some think that it can be a positive development – as Hamas is probably the sole Palestinian party capable of delivering on a binding Israeli-Palestinian agreement – others deem this wishful thinking and believe the existing Israeli-Palestinian gridlock will continue for years to come. A recent poll reflects this ambivalence with 48% of Israelis favoring a dialogue with Hamas and 43% against.

Amid this internal Israeli debate, the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations – the so-called Middle East Quartet – delivered an insufficiently helpful message. Erroneously convinced that they had ‘lined up in solidarity’ with us, Israeli Jews, the Quartet lost no time declaring that Hamas “must be committed to nonviolence, recognize Israel and accept the previous agreements and commitments.”

Appropriate as these words may or may not be, even entering students in Sderot understand that any political tango takes two to succeed and that singling out Hamas for special treatment is certain to benefit neither Israelis nor Palestinians in this troubled land. Why, therefore, has the Quartet never declared that “Israel must be committed to nonviolence, recognize a Palestinian state and accept the previous agreements and commitments”?

Self-proclaimed “pro-Israeli” individuals are likely to label this proposition preposterous; yet the honest among them must recall two empirical facts. First, an examination of the pattern of “violence” of the past five years reveals that the Palestinian-Israeli ratio of deaths stands at 4:1. Thus, ending this violence depends as much on Israel’s compliance with the Quartet’s terms as with the Palestinians.

More here.  [Thanks Shiko.]

back to myth

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In the South, there’s a popular bumper sticker that reads IN CASE OF RAPTURE, THIS CAR WILL BE DRIVERLESS. At a time when literalists are loud and creationists expend so much energy twisting the beautiful stories of the Bible into pseudoscience, this is an excellent occasion to raise three cheers for myth—to praise it, revive it, show off its protean splendor. In A Short History of Myth, Karen Armstrong’s brief work introducing Canongate’s new Myth series, she makes a case for this sacred form’s contemporary relevance. “Like a novel, an opera or a ballet, myth is make-believe; it is a game that transfigures our fragmented, tragic world, and helps us to glimpse new possibilities by asking ‘what if?'” A myth is powerful for precisely the same qualities that a literal reader might deride—there are knots and holes in the story, and the meanings are unfixed. In other words, it predicates its own retelling.

more from Bookforum here.

africa, china

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An African revolution that needs noticing: ‘The Chinese are the most voracious capitalists on the continent and trade between China and Africa is doubling every year.’

I arrived in Sierra Leone in June 2005, at the height of the rainy season. Mud washed down the pot-holed streets of the capital, Freetown, and knots of beggars, some without arms or legs, huddled under trees and against battered shop-fronts. It was a fortnight before the G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, where Bob Geldof and Bono were to celebrate a huge increase in aid to Africa, but in the Bintumani Hotel no-one spoke of this. Gusts of rain-filled wind blew through the hotel’s porch to set the large red lanterns swinging. Cardboard cut-outs of Chinese children in traditional dress had been stuck on the windows. The management had just celebrated Chinese New Year.

more from Granta here.

rembrandt, 400

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Rembrandt would be remembered as an extraordinary self-portraitist if he had died young at, say, 45. But he lived much longer and it is the work of his old age that one most admires: that intimate, unflinching scrutiny of his own sagging, lined and bloated features, with the light shining from the potato nose and the thick paint: the face of a master, the face of a failure and a bankrupt. Life, and his own mismanagement of life, has bashed him but no one could say it has beaten him.

Such is the message of a work like the late Kenwood House self-portrait, 1661-62. By now Rembrandt was the supreme depictor of inwardness, of human thought, whether it is the self-reflection of Bathsheba or the meditation of Aristotle. He had done pictures of himself that fairly radiate a gloating success, but the deepest was saved for the last decade of his life, when he painted himself as a painter at work, holding brushes, palette and maul-stick. He has his back to a wall, or perhaps a large canvas. On the canvas are two large arcs, incomplete circles. What are these abstract forms doing there? They come from Rembrandt’s reading of a well-known and indeed exemplary story in Pliny. The great Greek painter Apelles, so Pliny’s story goes, went to visit an equally famous ancient master, Protogenes, on the island of Rhodes. But Protogenes was out, and so Apelles, rather than leave him a note, drew on his studio wall a perfect circle, freehand. Protogenes would realise that only an artist of Apelles’ skills could possibly have done this. So Rembrandt places himself before the message that compares him to Apelles, king and ancestor of his art. Old age has at last freed him to make an incontrovertible, utterly simple proof of mastery. The circle has closed.

more from Robert Hughes at the Guardian here.

Wounded by the West

From The New York Times:Desai162

ALTHOUGH it focuses on the fate of a few powerless individuals, Kiran Desai’s extraordinary new novel manages to explore, with intimacy and insight, just about every contemporary international issue: globalization, multiculturalism, economic inequality, fundamentalism and terrorist violence. Despite being set in the mid-1980’s, it seems the best kind of post-9/11 novel.

“The Inheritance of Loss” opens with a teenage Indian girl, an orphan called Sai, living with her Cambridge-educated Anglophile grandfather, a retired judge, in the town of Kalimpong on the Indian side of the Himalayas. Sai is romantically involved with her math tutor, Gyan, the descendant of a Nepali Gurkha mercenary, but he eventually recoils from her obvious privilege and falls in with a group of ethnic Nepalese insurgents. In a parallel narrative, we are shown the life of Biju, the son of Sai’s grandfather’s cook, who belongs to the “shadow class” of illegal immigrants in New York and spends much of his time dodging the authorities, moving from one ill-paid job to another.

What binds these seemingly disparate characters is a shared historical legacy and a common experience of impotence and humiliation. Almost all of Desai’s characters have been stunted by their encounters with the West.

More here.

Fractals and art: In the hands of a master

From Nature:

Fractals_1 Jackson Pollock, famed for his ‘poured’ paintings, was defiant in facing down the cynics who viewed them as random splatterings. “I can control the flow of paint; there is no accident.” And several decades after the abstract expressionist’s death, science proved him right. In the late 1990s, physicist Richard Taylor analysed a selection of Pollock’s poured paintings and found they were composed of distinct fractal patterns — made by dripping or pouring paint straight on to a canvas. Indeed, it seems that ‘Jack the Dripper’ was refining the fractal characteristics of his paintings long before the mathematics to analyse them was invented.

Now, Taylor’s evidence may prove critical in determining the authenticity of a group of recently discovered paintings that could be Pollocks. “A Pollock poured painting can be sold for millions of dollars.” In 1998, for instance, Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952 was valued at US$40 million.

More here.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Where the Rich and Elite Meet to Compete

Paul Farhi in the Washington Post:

AllsportcoomberrunoneAs always, the biggest delegations, and the big winners, will come from a familiar pool. In the history of the winter competition, dating from its inception in 1924, competitors from only six countries — the Soviet Union/Russia, Germany (East, West and combined), Norway, the United States, Austria and Finland, in that order — have won almost two-thirds of all the medals awarded. Only 17 countries have ever amassed more than 10 medals during the past 19 winter Olympiads. Only 38 countries have won even one medal.

This had turned the Winter Olympics into a remarkably insular competition. The Czech Republic (and Czechoslovakia before it) has won more medals than China, home to about one-fifth of humanity. Norway, a nation with a population smaller than metropolitan Washington, has won three times as many winter medals as the nations of Asia, Latin and South America, Australia and Polynesia, the Middle East and the Caribbean Basin combined.

More here.

Ladies’ man

Brian Cathcart reviews J D Bernal: the sage of science by Andrew Brown, in the New Statesman:

A couple of days after D-Day, the scientist J D Bernal, who had played an important part in planning the landings, went ashore at Arromanches himself and, catching sight of a group of French nuns, tried to engage them in conversation. In his diary he records with disappointment that his polite greeting “was received with frozen and taciturn virtue”.

The nuns were probably wise to scuttle away, for they are pretty well the only women to cross Bernal’s path in the first 250 pages of this marvellous book – blood relatives aside – whom he does not take swiftly to his bed.

Though we hear little of him today, Bernal was a globally important figure in the mid-20th century, both as scientist and political activist, and he proves a biographer’s gold mine on those terms alone. However, his sexual antics are so extra-ordinarily compulsive that they sometimes steal the show.

More here.

So, the Prophet Mohammed walks into a bar …

Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, the noted wit, expert on freedom, and unelected religious leader—the leader who counts—of Iran, observed the other day that in the West, “casting doubt or negating the genocide of the Jews is banned but insulting the beliefs of 1.5 billion Muslims is allowed.” He apparently thought this was a devastating point. Touché, Ayatollah Khamanei.

The worldwide fuss over 12 cartoon images of the Prophet Mohammed (some mocking, some benign) that ran in a Danish newspaper has already killed at least 10 people. Many self-styled voices of Islam have made the bizarre comparison between showing pictures of the Prophet Mohammed and expressing doubt about the Holocaust. A government-controlled Tehran newspaper announced a contest for cartoons about the Holocaust, asking “whether freedom of expression” applies to “the crimes committed by the United States and Israel.” In a spirit of “see how you like it,” a European Muslim group posted on the Web a cartoon of Anne Frank in bed with Hitler.

Muslim complaints about a Western double standard would be more telling if the factual premise was accurate. But it is not. In fact, it is nearly the opposite of the truth. Nothing is easier and more common in the West, including the United States, than criticizing the United States—except for criticizing Israel. A few Western countries have stupid laws, erratically enforced, against denying the Holocaust, but that hasn’t stopped Holocaust denial from becoming a literary industry and cultural phenomenon. This is distressing to many Jews and others because making sure that the world remembers the Holocaust has become the main strategy for trying to prevent another one. The willingness of so many people to disbelieve the reality of a historical event as relatively recent and well-documented as the Holocaust leads you to despair of the human capacity for reason, along with more or less every advance in human affairs since the Dark Ages. Nevertheless, there has been no rioting about the historical reality of the Holocaust. No one has died over it.

Meanwhile, whatever point these European Muslims were making with their cartoon of Hitler and Anne Frank is more or less disproved by their very exercise. No one tried to stop them from putting the cartoon on the Web. The notion that jokes about Anne Frank are beyond the pale is provably false. There’s a play running in New York right now called “25 Questions for a Jewish Mother.” It’s a monologue written and acted by stand-up comic Judy Gold, who says on stage every night that her mother used to read to her from a pop-up version of Anne Frank’s diary and would say, “Pull the tab, Judith. Alive. Pull it again. Dead.” Maybe you had to be there. But the New York Times reviewer called the play “fiercely funny, honest and moving” and did not demand that the author be executed, or even admonished.

more from Michael Kinsley at Slate here.

science!

Hooke

A long-lost 17th century manuscript charting the birth of modern science has been found gathering dust in a cupboard in a Hampshire home. Filled with crabby italics and acerbic asides, the 520 or so yellowing and stained pages are the handwritten minutes of the Royal Society as recorded by the brilliant scientist Robert Hooke, one of the society’s original fellows and curator of experiments.

The notes describe in detail some of the most astounding and outlandish scientific thinking from meetings of the society between 1661 to 1682. There is the very earliest work with microscopes, confirming the first sightings of sperm and micro-organisms. There is correspondence with Sir Isaac Newton and Sir Christopher Wren over the nature of gravity, with the latter’s proposal to fire bullets into the air to see where they might drop. And there is a page that lays to rest the bitter controversy over who designed the watch that would eventually lead to the first measurements of longitude.

more form The Guardian here.

lebanon as beatrice

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Just after dawn, on the morning of April 13, 1300, Dante enters the Earthly Paradise at the top of Mt. Purgatory. There, amid an angelic procession, a prophet sings a line from the Song of Solomon, “Come with me from Lebanon and be crowned.” Beatrice then appears and speaks to Dante. The poet is overcome with her presence; he weeps and stammers. Of this impossible but sublime meeting in the 64th line of the 64th canto of The Divine Comedy, Jorge Luis Borges wrote, “Beatrice existed infinitely for Dante; Dante existed very little, perhaps not at all, for Beatrice.” Borges ruefully concludes, “To fall in love is to create a religion that has a fallible god.” Walid Raad, founder of the semi-fictitious Atlas Group, a collective that archives ephemera from Lebanon’s civil war, shares both Borges’s proclivity for elaborate fiction laced with apparent fact and Dante’s rhetoric of exile. Raad transforms his native Lebanon into a kind of Beatrice, or lost love.

more from Salz at the Village Voice here.

david scott interview

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Stuart Hall: David, your book Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment is written in the shadow of what you call the exhaustion and collapse of “the social and political hopes that went into the anti-colonial imaginary and postcolonial making of national sovereignties.” What do you think went wrong, fundamentally, with that project?

David Scott: Stuart, here’s one way of answering your question. I was born in 1958 in Jamaica. And since Independence came in 1962 I am part of the first generation to grow up more or less entirely inside the New Nation. I have no personal experience of colonialism. I have no memory of the Union Jack coming down, no sense of an ending and a new beginning. I live, therefore, not so much the contrast between the colonial and the postcolonial as the early internal struggle over the kind of nation it would be. The 1970s was my generation’s short decade of hope and expectation and longing. Whether you were a Rastafarian (as I was for a while in high school), or whether you were part of Michael Manley’s democratic socialist People’s National Party or the communist Worker’s Party of Jamaica (or, as I was, on the fringes of both), you lived inside a surging momentum (well, maybe not surging) for radical social change. The 1980s brings this lurching to a close with the assassination of Walter Rodney in June 1980; the defeat of Michael Manley in October of the same year; and the implosion of the Grenada Revolution in 1983. I am old enough to have believed in the 1970s, but I am also young enough to be skeptical of the mythology of the narrative of emancipation and to be able to cast an impassive eye on its rhetorical structure. This is the generational vantage from which I come at Conscripts of Modernity.

more from BOMB here.

photography and art

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Photography has had its own difficult relationship with fine art, one that hasn’t really been resolved to this day. Why take the time and expense to have a portrait, a picture of your house, or views of exotic lands painted when you can get a truer-to-reality depiction with a simple photograph? As this turf war took center stage, Modernists seized on photography for its inherent abstraction, its immediacy, and its very lack of historical baggage. This essentially oppositional position — combined with the medium’s scientific, journalistic and amateur documentary functions (i.e., snapshots) — kept it out of the inner circle of legitimate art media for most of the 20th century.

By the time photography finally started coming into its own in the early ’70s, the art establishment’s authority was under serious attack from a number of cultural forces — including the emergence of Outsider art as a legitimate parallel to the fine-art world, with its own star system, dealers, collectors and critics. Recent mainstream interest in “de-skilled” art-making, the exponential growth in available photographic technology (particularly digital), and the curatorial reclamation of “found” and amateur photography have further blurred the boundaries of what might be called Outsider photos — before the boundaries have even been established.

more from Doug Harvey at the LA Weekly here.

Julian Barnes on Flaubert

From the Times Literary Supplement:

FlaubertFlaubert is exemplary, indeed talismanic, for the stern separation he made between his public and private writings. His novels are objective constructions which unfold in authorial absence; his letters are a place of riotous opinion-giving and frank emotional unbuttoning. Yet the distance between the two was not empty but connective. It was part of Flaubert’s literary strategy to treat his correspondence as a déversoir, an overflow, an outlet which purged the intrusive self and helped liberate the fiction into its desired impersonality. Three years before Madame Bovary appeared, he bade farewell, in a letter to Louise Colet, to “the personal, the intimate, to everything connected with me”. His “old project” of one day writing his memoirs was now officially abandoned: “Nothing personal tempts me any more”.

This makes such overflow as we have the more fascinating: the incomparable letters, but also the travel notes and the Cahiers intimes of 1840–41.

More here.