Vollmann, Crane, and Adventure Journalism

The only real surprise about William T. Vollmann winning the 2005 National Book Award for Europe Central was that merit was rewarded. In literature as in life this is not always the case. I have been reading Vollmann since my college days in the mid-1990s, when a love affair with a Canadian caused me to pick up Fathers and Crows, the second of the Seven Dreams series, about Jesuits in Quebec. (This might be mere sentimentality, but I still believe it’s his best book.) The Vollmann award means that serious novels are still being taken seriously, despite Norman Mailer’s comments at the ceremony to the contrary during his depressing Lifetime Achievement speech. (“It’s a shame in the literary world today that passion has withered, producing fiction that is all too forgettable,” said Mailer. “I’m watching the disappearance of my trade. The serious novel may be in serious decline.”) Does Vollmann publish too much? I leave the question open – it’s not rhetorical. Vollmann’s style is perhaps overly mannered and has not developed much over the years (he started in the stratosphere but has stayed at the same relative altitude), although in his best writing the mannerism works to his advantage. But his seemingly monomaniacal prolixity is more likely to be a sign of compulsive brilliance more than anything else, so that the complaint is almost meaningless – roughly the same could be said of Dickens, for example. This is genius in more than one sense: you get the feeling Vollmann has an actual daemon sitting on his shoulder dictating book after book.

The writer that Vollmann brings to mind most strongly is not Dickens, however, but Stephen Crane. At first this may seem like an odd comparison, given that Crane’s devotion to literary realism is very far from being Vollmann’s first priority. Like Crane, Vollmann writes both adventure journalism and novels. Like Crane, Vollmann is drawn to wars and conflict zones. Vollmann’s series of books about prostitution surely have a classic literary source in Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. Like The Red Badge of Courage, Vollmann’s historical novels are strongly flavored with reality and research. Vollmann’s tremendous output matches or perhaps even exceeds the famously productive Crane, who by the time he died at age twenty-eight had already published two novels, a multitude of short stories and poems, as well as an immense body of journalism. (The authoritative edition of Crane’s work, published by the University of Virginia, apparently runs to ten volumes.) It’s almost as if Crane knew that time would be short; a sense you get reading Vollmann as well, who, you sometimes feel, has lived longer than he thought he might. Even Vollmann’s short chapters, with their antiquated newspaper-dispatch style headings, call to mind works like “Stephen Crane’s Own Story” (1897).

Crane made his name as a war correspondent, covering, for example, the sinking of the Commodore, a ship laden with arms bound for Cuba. This happened in 1897, just prior to the sinking of the Maine and the entry of American into the Spanish-American War. Journalists were more than observers in the conflict. The representation of the coverage in Citizen Kane isn’t far off the mark regarding the pro-war Yellow Journalism of the Hearst papers of the day. Phyllis Frus and Stanley Corkin, the editors of the excellent Riverside Crane volume, write that

The existence of newsreels, filmed reproductions of events, and even enactments that were clearly remote from the action in Cuba provided people in the United States with images of warfare that made it a kind of spectator sport in which most viewers had a clear rooting interest. With his writing, Crane helped create the new public sphere, and as a celebrity journalist, he participated in it.

Iraq was not the first time that reporters were embedded, and the problems of bias they created are nothing new. Crane reported under fire with the marines direct from a very different Guantanamo. Vollmann’s An Afghanistan Picture Show, published in 1992, ten years after he flung himself into the middle of the struggle against the Soviets, has the self-mocking subtitle “How I Saved the World.” In it, Vollmann dissects himself as much as the conflict, creating a ruthless (and very timely) examination of the entire concept of American altruism when it is combined with an emphasis on military solutions. (Not everything Vollmann wrote about Afghanistan was perfect – when the New Yorker sent him back to check up on the country during the 1990s, Vollmann was at times too soft on the Taliban, acknowledging their crimes but presenting received ideas about how they had brought stability to the country.)

Here’s the problem with adventure journalism more generally: it’s not written by experts or beat reporters, and therefore only infrequently rises above the usual combination of local color, exoticism, florid prose, and received opinion back home. (Good adventure writers, among whom I count friends and some of our best writers all around, are to be admired all the more for rising above this level.) The adventure writer is essentially a proxy for the reader, an American dropped into a strange – and, ideally, somewhat dangerously atmospheric, hopefully more atmospheric than dangerous – locale. It’s understandable, but no less peculiar, that we would rather read what American magazine writers think about the Taliban, for example, rather than someone like, say, Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani who writes in English and has covered the region’s politics for something close to two decades. But the adventure journalist gives us something we desperately need – an exotic fix.

This thirst for far-flung locations and the current craze for dispatches is surely not bad in itself; I tend to enjoy it, as a kind of literary stamp collecting. Also, it’s probably another “since September 11” type of trend, and hopefully a sign of renewed American interest in the outside world. The only downside is that the entire genre excludes those legions of literary types who are retiring homebodies and prefer to stay in bed all day crafting sentences. Not everyone should be forced to be a reporter, that’s my thesis; writing shouldn’t be a form of reality TV in which one auditions for a part in the national conversation by exposing oneself to mud and murder.

I think it was Schopenhauer who once wrote that there are two kinds of good books, those which introduce the reader to an experience they couldn’t have themselves, and those which use language in a remarkable way. Probably all good writing combines something of both, but the rise of adventure journalism involves a lopsided emphasis on one aspect against the other. It also represents another chapter in the American tradition of anti-intellectualism, for it is against “thought” and for “experience.” Our magazines are full of direct experience – like the kind that comes mediated through a translator on a two-week junket. Of course, the best writers in this field manage to combine thought and observation in a kind of genre-bending tag-team wrestle, and, in doing so, are creating a fine new genre in the process, don’t get me wrong. Vollmann is an ideal example.

Even though much of Crane’s and Vollmann’s fiction is based on research, interviews, and reportage, it is more enduring stuff. “The Open Boat” is a classic, whereas “Stephen Crane’s Own Story” is more ephemeral. Maggie was based on Crane’s real experiences with prostitutes, but the imaginative work outlives the adventurism, just as Vollmann’s The Royal Family feels superior to his Butterfly Stories. But it is the historical fiction of both writers – The Red Badge of Courage and Europe Central, respectively (plus, for my money, Fathers and Crows) – that critics have celebrated as their greatest accomplishments. Historical fiction might be the least fictional of fictions, the most closely related to facts, a genre involved directly with actuality as a magical element in the alchemy. But these two novels have more in common than an obsession with or addiction to the atmosphere of violent conflict. They are both novels documenting real events that their authors never could have experienced. It’s almost as if their thirst for experience was so overwhelming that when they ran out of the amount of reality available to them directly they had to fabricate other worlds to inhabit as well.

Talking Pints: Happy Birthday, Political Science

Towards the end of this year, The American Political Science Review will publish its 100th anniversary issue. In researching for a submission to this centennial issue, I examined what political scientists have been saying for the past 100 years, and in doing do something very odd struck me: that the arguments that I have been having for a decade with my colleagues about the idea of a science of politics being at all possible are the same arguments that have been going on in the pages of The American Political Science Review since its inception.

Then and now, political scientists tend to fall into two camps. In the first camp are those who wear the badge of ‘scientist’ and see their field as a predictive enterprise whose job it is to uncover those general laws of politics that ‘must’ be out there. The second camp contains those who think the former project logically untenable. For years now I have tried (largely in vain) to convince my colleagues in the first camp that the idea of a political ‘science’ is inherently problematic. I have marshaled various arguments to make this case, and each of these has been met by a some variant of; ‘political science is a young science’; ‘what we face are problems of method’; and that ‘more ‘basic research is required’. Then, with ‘more and better methods’ we will make ‘sufficient’ progress and ‘become’ a science. I remain unconvinced by this line of argument, but it was enlightening to see it played out again and again over a century.

Discovering that these same arguments have been going on for 100 years was both heartening (I was in good company) and depressing (‘round and round we go’). But in doing so I discovered something else. If political science is a ‘science’ by virtue of its ability to predict, as many of its ‘scientific’ brethren maintain, then it really should have been abandoned years ago since the prediction rate of my field over the past 100 years is less than what would be achieved by throwing darts at dartboard while wearing a blindfold. To see why this is the case consider the following potted history of political science.

From its inception in 1906 until World War One American political scientists took ‘public administration’ as its object and the Prussian state as the model of good governance. Sampling on this particular datum proved costly to the subfield however when the model (Germany) became the enemy during World War One and the guiding models of the field collapsed. Following this debacle, political science retreated inwards during the 1920s and 1930s. One can scan the American Political Science Review throughout these tumultuous decades for any sustained examination of the great events of the day and come up empty. What I did find however were reports on constitutional change in Estonia, committee reform in Nebraska, and predictions that the German administrative structure will not allow Hitler to become a dictator.

After World War Two this lack of ‘relevance’ haunted the discipline and its post-war re-founders sought to build a predictive science built upon the process notions of functionalism, pluralism, and modernization. These new theories saw societies as homeostatic systems arrayed along a developmental telos with the United States as everyone’s historical end. Paradoxically however, just as the field was united under these common theories, they were suddenly, and completely, invalidated by the facts of the day. At the height of these theories’ popularity, the United States was, contrary to theory, tearing itself apart over civil rights, Vietnam, and sexual politics while ‘developing’ countries were ‘sliding back’ along the ‘developmental telos’ into dictatorships. Despite these events being the world’s first televised falsification of theory, once again political science turned inward and ignored the lesson waiting to be learned – that prediction in the social world is far more difficult than we imagine, and the call for more ‘rigor’ and ‘more and better methods’ will never solve that problem. Our continuing prediction failures continue to bear this out. Since its ‘third re-founding’ in the 1980s till today, political science has predicted the decline of the US (just as it achieved ‘hyper-power’ status); completely missed the decade long economic stagnation of Japan (just as it was supposed to eclipse the US); missed the end of the Cold War, the growth of international terrorism, and the rebirth of religion in politics.

After reviewing this catalog of consistently wrong calls, a very simple question occurred to me. If political science is a science by virtue of its ability to predict, and its prediction rate is so awful, can it be a science even in its own terms? I would say that it cannot. But this answer itself begged another, and I think more interesting, question; why is my field’s ability to predict so bad? The answer to this question is not found in the pages of the American Political Science Review. Rather, it is found in how political science as a discipline, through its training, thinks about probability in the social world. To see why this is the case I ask the reader to follow me through three ‘possible worlds’ that have three different probability distributions, and then decide which world it is that political science studies – and which one it thinks it studies.

Our first (type-one) world is the world of the dice roll where the generator of outcomes is directly observable. Here we live in a world of risk. We know when throwing a die (the generator) that there are six possible outcomes. Given the ability to directly observe the generator and a few dozen throws of the die, the expected and actual means converge rapidly via sampling, and this is sufficient to derive the higher moments of the distribution. This distribution, given the known values of its generator, is reliably ‘normal’ and sampling the past is a good guide to the future. One is not going to throw a ‘300’ – there are only six sides on the die – and skew the distribution. This type one world is reliably Gaussian, and is, within a few standard deviations, predictable. Political science thinks it operates in this world. This is the familiar world of the bell-curve.

Our second world (type-two), is a world with fat tails (Gauss plus Poisson) where uncertainty rather than risk prevails. An example of the generator here would be a stock market. Although one can sample past data exhaustively, one does not observe the generator of reality directly. Consequently, one can ‘throw a 300’ since large events not seen in the sample may skew the results and become known only after the fact. For example, stock market returns may seem normal by sampling, but a ‘Russian Default’ or a ‘Tequila Crisis’ may be just around the corner that will radically alter the distribution in ways that agents cannot calculate before the fact. This is a world of uncertainty as much as it is risk. Agents simply cannot know what may hit them, though they may be think that the probability of being hit is small.

Our third possible world (type-three) is even more unsettling. Imagine a generator such as the global economy. In this case, not only can one not see the generator directly, agents can sample the past till doomsday and actually become steadily more wrong about the future in doing so. As two probabilists, Nassim Taleb and Avatel Pilpel, put it, with such complex generators “it is not that it takes time for the experimental moments…to converge to the ‘true’ [moments]. In this case, these moments simply do not exist. This means…that no amount of observation whatsoever will give us E(Xn) [expected mean], Var(Xn) [expected variance], or higher-level moments that are close to the “true” values…since no true values exist.”

To see what this means, consider the following example. Macroeconomics, like political science, has had at least four general theories of inflation over the past fifty or so years, which suggests two things. First, that these theories cannot be general theories since they change every decade or so. Second, that such theories might be thought of as general (at the time they were constructed given the sample that they were derived from) but such theories must become redundant since the actual sources of inflation change over time.

For example, if the agreed-upon causes of inflation in one period, (monetary expansion) are dealt with by building institutions to cope with such causes (independent central banks), this does not mean that inflation becomes impossible. Rather, it means that the conditions of possibility change such that the theory itself becomes redundant. In such a world outcomes are fundamentally uncertain since the causes of phenomena in one period are not the same causes in a later period. Given this, when we assume that outcomes in the social world conform to a Gaussian distribution we assume way too much. Any sample of past events can confirm the past, but cannot be projected into the future with the confidence we typically assume. Take away that prior assumption of ‘normality’ in the distribution and standard expectations regarding prediction fall apart.

Given this, which world is the world most likely studied by political scientists? Our type-one world can be ruled out since if the world was so predictable our theories should be able to predict accurately. Given the record in this regard, it is safe to conclude that the world we occupy is not this one. Our type-two world seems suspiciously normal most of the time, but our theories ‘blow up’ much more than they should since most of the action occurs in the tails and we cannot see the generator of outcomes. This sounds more like the world where people actually live.

A type-three world is even worse however, since in a type-three world all bets are off as to what the future may bring. Humans do not however deal particularly well with such uncertainty and try to insulate themselves from it. Whether through the promulgation of social norms, the construction of institutions, or the evolution of ideologies, the result is the same. Human agents create the stability that they take for granted. In taking it for granted however they assume the world to be much more stable than it actually is. Consequently, our theories about the world we live in tend to assume much more stability, and thus predictability, than is warranted.

In short, we cannot live in a type-three world, so we build institutions, cultures, and societies to cope with uncertainty. But when we are successful at doing so we assume we live in a type-one world of predictability and develop theories to navigate such a world. Unfortunately, we actually have succeeded only in constructing our type-two world of fat tails, and this is why we are constantly surprised. We think (and model) type-one while living type-two. Meanwhile, as a discipline, we refuse to admit the possibility of a type-three world generating both the others.

The result is that the action is in the tails, and we, given our type-one assumptions and models, are blind to what is going on there. So we focus, like the proverbial drunk under the lamp-post, on the middle of the distribution since that is where the (theoretical) light is; and like the proverbial drunk, we are constantly surprised that our keys are actually to be found somewhere else entirely. Political science may have reached the ripe old age of 100, and I congratulate it for doing so. It did so however by imagining the world to be quite different from what it is, and by completely ignoring its predictive failures. If however political science wants to be around for another 100 years it may want to think a bit more about what those failures are trying to tell us.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Keillor on Lévy

In The New York Times, Garrison Keillor has a funny review of Bernard-Henri Lévy’s American Vertigo.

As always with French writers, Lévy is short on the facts, long on conclusions. He has a brief encounter with a young man outside of Montgomery, Ala. (“I listen to him tell me, as if he were justifying himself, about his attachment to this region”), and suddenly sees that the young man has “all the reflexes of Southern culture” and the “studied nonchalance . . . so characteristic of the region.” With his X-ray vision, Lévy is able to reach tall conclusions with a single bound.

And good Lord, the childlike love of paradox – America is magnificent but mad, greedy and modest, drunk with materialism and religiosity, puritan and outrageous, facing toward the future and yet obsessed with its memories. Americans’ party loyalty is “very strong and very pliable, extremely tenacious and in the end somewhat empty.” Existential and yet devoid of all content and direction. The partner-swapping club is both “libertine” and “conventional,” “depraved” and “proper.” And so the reader is fascinated and exhausted by Lévy’s tedious and original thinking: “A strong bond holds America together, but a minimal one. An attachment of great force, but not fiercely resolute. A place of high – extremely high – symbolic tension, but a neutral one, a nearly empty one.” And what’s with the flurries of rhetorical questions? Is this how the French talk or is it something they save for books about America? “What is a Republican? What distinguishes a Republican in the America of today from a Democrat?” Lévy writes, like a student padding out a term paper. “What does this experience tell us?” he writes about the Mall of America. “What do we learn about American civilization from this mausoleum of merchandise, this funeral accumulation of false goods and nondesires in this end-of-the-world setting? What is the effect on the Americans of today of this confined space, this aquarium, where only a semblance of life seems to subsist?” And what is one to make of the series of questions – 20 in a row – about Hillary Clinton, in which Lévy implies she is seeking the White House to erase the shame of the Lewinsky affair? Was Lévy aware of the game 20 Questions, commonly played on long car trips in America? Are we to read this passage as a metaphor of American restlessness? Does he understand how irritating this is? Does he? Do you? May I stop now?

America is changing, he concludes, but America will endure…

Thanks, pal. I don’t imagine France collapsing anytime soon either. Thanks for coming. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out. For your next book, tell us about those riots in France, the cars burning in the suburbs of Paris. What was that all about? Were fat people involved?

Policing Monkeys

In the Economist,

MOST people, even the law-abiding, have ambiguous feelings towards the police. They are a salvation when it comes to protecting life, limb and property, but their efforts are, perhaps, slightly less welcome if your foot happens to slip momentarily on the accelerator. Few, however, would argue that human societies could dispense with their activities altogether. Even in villages, where everybody knows everybody else and social disapproval and the near-certainty of exposure are enough to discourage most criminal acts, the local bobby is a reassuring presence.

Most people, too, would assume such policing is uniquely human. But they would be wrong—at least if Jessica Flack, of the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, and her colleagues are correct. For Dr Flack thinks that monkey societies also have police. Moreover, removing those police makes such societies less happy places…

Dr Flack had discovered this behaviour in earlier research. Her latest work, just published in Nature, looked at how important policing is in maintaining harmony in the monkeys she studies, an Asian species called the pigtailed macaque. To do so, she went to the opposite end of the biological scale from that occupied by ethology (the science of animal behaviour) and borrowed a technique from genetics, called knockout analysis. In genetics, this involves “knocking out” a particular gene and seeing what effect its absence has on a cell’s biochemical network. In ethology, it involves removing particular animals from a group and seeing what effect that has on the group’s social network.

Ground Level Portraits of the Red Army

In the TLS, Omer Bartov reviews two newly published books on the Red Army, including the war diaries of the novelist Vasily Grossman.

Not all understanding [of the Soviet Union] is derived from documents newly salvaged from the archives. Some of the sources for understanding the tragedy and glory of Russia’s war have been waiting to be “discovered” and employed for decades, yet in a sense they were always available. This is the case of the two magnificent books under review here. Vasily Grossman completed his novel Life and Fate in 1960, but Mikhail Suslov, chief of the Cultural Section of the Central Committee, decided that it would not be published for at least 200 years, and the KGB seized all copies it could lay its hands on.

Life and Fate is finally being recognized as one of the greatest masterpieces of the twentieth century. But it had to be smuggled to Switzerland and only gradually came to be known by an international readership. It was finally published in Russia after the fall of Communism. An extraordinary combination of a sprawling nineteenth-century Russian novel and a Soviet social-realist depiction of simple men’s discovery of their capacity for heroism and sacrifice, the book was based on Grossman’s own experience at the front as a correspondent for the Red Army’s official paper, Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star). Thanks to Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova, the notebooks on which Grossman based much of his novel, written during his time at the front – where he spent most of the war years – are now available in an excellent English translation.

mozart, vicious


It is true that one doesn’t normally speak of Mozart and Sid Vicious in the same breath, but they do have this in common: primitivism. Rock’n’roll began as a primitivist movement, and it renews itself with mini-primitivisms, of which punk is just one example. To see Mozart as a primitivist is a little harder, since his style is so identified with the civilized and the rational, things we think of as anti-primitive, and yet the Classical movement in music, like its companion neoclassicism in art, owed everything to the primitivist desire to begin anew by stripping away the false and inessential. Écrasez l’infâme. To the Baroque’s heavy sauces, multiple courses, and thickly layered combinations of tastes and textures, the Classical would propose a nouvelle cuisine.

more from the TLS here.

company of moths


Writers are part of that even larger company of readers, and in the second poem of the collection Palmer suggests that he is at that point in his career where he can address even his own poetry as if it were another’s (though this has probably been true since the beginning), reusing the phrase “Dearest Reader” (“Dearest Reader from the future-past”), which both appeared in and served as title for the first poem of First Figure (1984). While there is nothing new under the sun or after Sun (1988), there is still this projected reader to address and somehow please by variations. In a poem called “Night Gardening” late in the book, the poet makes a bad-faith promise to this reader both to be new and to be no longer the same:

A reader writes to complain
that there are no cellphones in my poems,
so here is one,

its body chrome,
its face a metallic blue.
It’s neither transmitting nor receiving.

A woman from Duluth requests
that I cease sending secret messages
to her in my poems.

This I will do forthwith.

And the blackbird at evening.

She says, you have misrepresented the
there where it turns

by the holm oak and the bed
of winter hyacinths.

This I will correct.

more from Geoffrey O’Brien on Michael Palmer at the Boston Review here.



Thomas Hirschhorn’s latest exhibition is a walk-in manifesto, a book of the dead about the psychic place where mysticism, modernism, mayhem, and terror collapse into one another. Many will find this show revolting. Not because it’s bad or resembles a parade float from perdition, or weakens on repeated visits, but because of Hirschhorn’s use of violent imagery and his supposed aestheticizing of it. One critic has already lambasted the show as an “adolescent crapfest” that evinces “a puerile addiction to the macabre and the scatological.” This reaction is too easy. It’s also fishy, considering that horrific images–from lynching pictures to gangland murders–have been seen and produced in America for more than a century.

more form the Village Voice here.

Baby rhino makes debut at California zoo


Rhino Lali, which means “darling girl” in Hindi, is one of about 2,550 Indian rhinos in the world, 150 of which are in parks and zoos. The species is considered critically endangered because of human encroachment on its native habitats in India and Nepal and because the rhinos have been poached for their horns, which some believe have medicinal value.

Indian rhinos, which have one horn and large folds of skin that look like armor, are also slow to multiply because of their long, 16-month gestation period. Lali, who was born Dec. 3, weighs 180 pounds but could grow to about 5,000 pounds, Galindo said. Lali is the 16th Indian rhino at the San Diego park.

More here.

Virus Used to Track Elusive Cougars

From The National Geographic:Cougar

To follow the movements of cougars in remote areas of western North America, a team of biologists has found a different kind of tracking device: a virus. Borrowing a method used to study human demographics, biologist Roman Biek and his colleagues took samples from 352 cougars in the Rocky Mountain region of the United States and Canada.

The researchers analyzed the samples for strains of feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), which is common in big cats and does not appear to affect them. The analysis identified eight major FIV strains carried by cougars in Montana, Wyoming, British Columbia, and Alberta. These unique strains allowed the scientists to track where the cats had been and at approximately what time. One strain spread over a distance of 620 miles (1,000 kilometers), while others remained relatively isolated. Results of the team’s research appear in the current issue of the journal Science.

More here.

A hit man repents

“John Perkins didn’t wield a gun – he wasn’t even a paid-up CIA agent – but he did have nefarious ways of making countries around the world bend to the will of the US. Until, he tells Gary Younge, his conscience got the better of him and he looked for other ways to change the world.”

From The Guardian:

On November 24 2002, Lucio Gutierrez swept to power in Ecuador’s presidential election. It was a momentous victory for the populist, leftwing leader who had pledged support for the poor indigenous Indians in a country where 60% live in poverty.

The way John Perkins tells it, within a week Gutierrez had a visitor. “An economic hit man walked into his office and said, ‘Congratulations, Mr President, I just want you to know that over here I’ve got a couple of hundred million dollars for you and your family if you cooperate with your Uncle Sam and our oil companies. And over here I have a man with a gun in his hand and a bullet with your name on it.'”

Within two months of his election, Gutierrez had apparently made his choice. Implementing a swingeing austerity programme that attacked the very livelihoods of the people who elected him, he raised fuel prices by more than 35% and froze public sector workers’ salaries for a year.

More here.

The next generation of nuclear power?

“South Africa and China are moving forward with nuclear energy based on what scientists believe is a safer design.”

Charlie Schmidt in Environmental Science & Technology:

Cs_nuclearpowerClimate change is just one of the problems linked to carbon-based fuels that have sparked a renewed interest in nuclear power. While stakeholders debate the merits of this approach, the nuclear industry and its supporters are exploring next-generation reactors that might be safer and less expensive than the ones used today. The pebble bed modular reactor (PBMR), which is based on a decades-old German design, ranks among the top contenders.

PBMR’s supporters describe the technology as inherently safe and appropriate not just for rich, industrialized countries but also for developing nations. “The beauty of the pebble bed reactor is that you don’t need an MIT Ph.D. to run it,” muses Andrew Kadak, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s department of nuclear science and engineering. “That means you can use it even in countries that don’t have the degree of history or background in nuclear technology that we have in Western Europe or here.”

PBMR proponents point to another advantage: Each reactor module generates about 170 megawatts of electrical power (MWe), far less than the 1000 MWe produced by a standard light water reactor. PBMR can thus be scaled according to need…

More here.

Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy

Michael Feingold reviews the book by Park Honan, in the New York Times:

Fein450People who complain that we have so few biographical facts about Shakespeare, and use that lack of data as an excuse for indulging in fantasies about who “really” wrote his plays, should ponder the case of Christopher Marlowe (at one time a favorite candidate for that ghostwriter role), about whom even less is known. He flashed across the Tudor literary scene for a stunningly brief period, raising the standards of poetic achievement and transforming Elizabethan theater. Few pre-Shakespearean English plays still hold the stage; they include at least four of Marlowe’s. In recent decades, “Tamburlaine the Great” (its two parts usually condensed into one evening), “The Jew of Malta,” “Doctor Faustus” and “Edward II” have had regular revivals.

This is all the more remarkable because Marlowe (1564-93), unlike Shakespeare, is not the writer to comfort an audience with a jolly evening in the theater. A contrarian of epic stature, he’s most often celebrated as an embodiment of rebellion in every form: a cynic about all received ideas of society and religion; almost certainly a homosexual; most likely a government spy; probably an atheist; possibly even a dabbler in the occult; and, to round off the list, a glorifier of violence who died in a tavern brawl.

More here.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

The Hamas Victory, a View from Gaza

Journalist and blogger, Laila el-Haddad, on the Palestinian elections and Hamas’ victory in The Gaurdian’s news blog.

The latest events can only be described as a political earthquake, both locally and regionally. Not only are these the first truly democratic and hotly contested elections in the Arab Middle East, but also the first time an Islamic party has come to power through the system and the popular will of the people.

To say we are entering a new stage is an understatement. Everyone knew Hamas would do well in these elections and that they would constitute a significant challenge to the ruling party. But this well?

Voters in Gaza were shocked.

“I cast a sympathy vote for Hamas but truthfully I did not expect them to win at all. It was a surprise to everyone; no one expected this to happen,” a young college student said.

Even Hamas members and supporters were surprised.

“We thought we’d get at most 50% of the votes,” one Hamas insider told me.

“We didn’t expect the security forces and the upper classes to vote for us, but it seems they might have tipped the balance. I guess we’re more popular than we realised.”

How the new government will take shape and whether western positions towards it will evolve have all yet to answered. It’s likely that Hamas will form a kind of national unity government, or a coalition of some sort, with a mixture of other parties. The burden of the sudden and overwhelming responsibility for running a state and answering to their constituents’ long and varied list of demands may be more than they can deal with alone at the moment.

The Economics of a Ph.D.

Gary North on the economics of a Ph.D. (via Political Theory Daily Review).

Ph.D. students are a lot like gamblers. They expect to beat the odds. The gambler personifies odds-beating as Lady Luck. The Ph.D. student instead looks within. “I am really smart. These other people in the program aren’t as smart as I am. I will get that tenure-track job. I will make the cut. I will be a beneficiary of the system.”

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Also, if ego were marketable, all Ph.D. graduates would get tenure…

At $20,000 or more per year in tuition and living expenses, plus the $35,000+ not earned in the job market, trying to earn a Ph.D. is a losing proposition.

In some departments, the years invested are horrendous. Breneman’s dissertation went into the grim details, department by department. Anyone seeking a degree in philosophy was almost doomed to failure, yet the Ph.D. degree took on average over a decade beyond the B.A. to earn. There were almost no college teaching jobs when they finished. That was before the glut.

Earning a Ph.D. may pay off if your goal is status, although I don’t understand why anyone regards a Ph.D. as a status symbol that is worth giving up five to ten years of your earning power in your youth, when every dime saved can multiply because of compounding. If the public understood the economics of earning a Ph.D., people would think “naïve economic loser” whenever they hear “Ph.D.”

A word to the wise is sufficient.

Revisiting the Cold War

In The Guardian, James Buchan reviews two new books on the Cold War, The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis and The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times by Odd Arne Westad.

Gaddis is glad the cold war was fought as it was fought and won by the side that won it. Like some primary-school teacher, he hands out prizes for effort to pretty well everyone: Eisenhower, Nixon, Walesa, Reagan, Thatcher, Pope John Paul, Deng Xiaoping and, above all, Gorbachev, who managed to defuse the whole contraption without it blowing up in his face.

Odd Arne Westad, the Norwegian-born scholar who heads the Cold War Studies Centre at the London School of Economics and has hitherto concentrated on China and the Far East, is less sanguine. He believes that the cold war, far from being a conflict necessary to clear the ideological air, was a continuation, under new management, of the old European colonial enterprise. Westad, too, gives out prizes but only to the tragic failures: Lumumba, Cabral, Guevara, Gorbachev.

Each approach has its charm. It is pleasant, on reading Gaddis, to see the public events of one’s childhood or youth gathered into a lucid and elegant narrative and, as it were, put away out of sight. Westad offers a philosophy of history that, though not wholly free of leftese, better accommodates 9/11 and the US occupation of Iraq. There is no wasteful overlap. Westad ignores Berlin 1948, Gaddis has nothing on Katanga 1964.

Why do men have nipples?

From The London Times:Nipples_1

Because we are mammals and blessed with body hair, three middle ear bones, and the ability to nourish our young with milk that females produce in modified sweat glands called mammary glands. Although females have the mammary glands, we all start out in a similar way in the embryo. During development, the embryo follows a female template until about six weeks, when the male sex chromosome kicks in for a male embryo. The embryo then begins to develop all of its male characteristics. Men are thus left with nipples and also with some breast tissue.

Men can even get breast cancer and there are some medical conditions that can cause male breasts to enlarge. Abnormal enlargement of the breasts in a male is known a gynecomastia. Gynecomastia can be caused by using anabolic steroids. So, if your favourite athlete suddenly develops man boobs and starts winning gold medals, you know the reason why.

More here.

Mars Attack!

From Nature:Mars

Scientists have had a smashing idea that could help them explore beneath Mars’s dusty surface. Slamming a hefty chunk of copper into the planet should excavate enough material to reveal water ice or carbon-based chemicals lurking underground, according to a proposed NASA mission. The idea follows the success of Deep Impact, a mission that fired a copper ‘impactor’ into comet Tempel 1, while its delivery craft recorded the whole show with an array of sensors. The new mission takes exactly the same approach to Mars. Called THOR (Tracing Habitability, Organics and Resources), it would be the second of NASA’s Mars scout missions, low-cost probes that are designed and built in just a few years. The first scout, Phoenix, is due to launch in August 2007.

THOR has been proposed by Phil Christensen, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University, Tempe, and David Spencer of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Christensen estimates that the impactor should be about 100 kilograms or so, and hit the planet at more than 15,000 kilometres per hour. It is hoped this would make a crater roughly 50 metres in diameter, and up to 25 metres deep. Meanwhile, its mother ship would look for ice, minerals and organic compounds thrown out by the crash.

More here.

Why Not Build a Bomb?

James Traub in the New York Times Magazine:

29wwlnThe problem with the N.P.T. is that it legitimates the wrong thing – not just the peaceful use of nuclear energy but the “inalienable right” to produce your own nuclear fuel. The solution, then, is to eliminate, or at least circumscribe, that right. And this is what Washington has spurned. Last year, Kofi Annan’s “high-level panel” on U.N. reform endorsed the Proliferation Security Initiative and suggested that more nations join. It also proposed that the International Atomic Energy Agency would act as “guarantor for the supply of fissile material to civilian nuclear users.” Nations would no longer be able to argue, as Iran now does, that they need to produce their own enriched fuel in order to ensure a steady supply for peaceful purposes. The proposal wouldn’t have stopped the rogue states, but it would have delegitimated them.

The Bush administration apparently accepts the idea; it just doesn’t want to see an international agency empowered to execute it. The White House has proposed that the countries that currently produce nuclear fuel – led, presumably, by the U.S. – band together to guarantee a steady and low-cost supply of uranium enriched for civilian purposes. Neither the Iranians nor other recipients are likely to accept such an arrangement. But maybe there’s something halfway, or a quarter of the way, between the two systems. So far, however, the administration won’t even try.

More here.