champlain came first


NEW ENGLANDERS GROW up imbibing certain creation myths, most of which relate to how unbelievably historic we are. It all started here, and entire businesses — the vending of tricorne hats, for example — depend on the tight control of information relating to the beginnings of America — the Revolution, and the Salem witch trials before that, and at the dawn of time, the Pilgrims, hacking their way into the forest primeval. Everything trails in their wake; or so we like to believe.

But is it possible that New England trails in someone else’s wake? As in, the dreaded French? These disorienting thoughts will become harder to push away in 2008, as Quebec celebrates the 400th anniversary of its founding by Samuel de Champlain — the explorer who found not only New France, but much of New England as well. Indeed, if a few things had turned out differently, we might all be bundled up in scarves and hats bearing the fleur-de-lys insignia of the New France Patriots.

more from Boston Globe Ideas here.

Wednesday Poem


Powwow at the End of the World

Sherman Alexie

I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall

after an Indian woman puts her shoulder to the Grand Coulee Dam

and topples it. I am told by many of you that I must forgive

and so I shall after the floodwaters burst each successive dam

downriver from the Grand Coulee. I am told by many of you

that I must forgive and so I shall after the floodwaters find

their way to the mouth of the Columbia River as it enters the Pacific

and causes all of it to rise. I am told by many of you that I must forgive

and so I shall after the first drop of floodwater is swallowed by that salmon

waiting in the Pacific. I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall

after that salmon swims upstream, through the mouth of the Columbia

and then past the flooded cities, broken dams and abandoned reactors

of Hanford. I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall

after that salmon swims through the mouth of the Spokane River

as it meets the Columbia, then upstream, until it arrives

in the shallows of a secret bay on the reservation where I wait alone.

I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall after

that salmon leaps into the night air above the water, throws

a lightning bolt at the brush near my feet, and starts the fire

which will lead all of the lost Indians home. I am told

by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall

after we Indians have gathered around the fire with that salmon

who has three stories it must tell before sunrise: one story will teach us

how to pray; another story will make us laugh for hours;

the third story will give us reason to dance. I am told by many

of you that I must forgive and so I shall when I am dancing

with my tribe during the powwow at the end of the world.……………………………..

Sherman Alexie, “The Powwow at the End of the World” from The Summer of Black Widows by Sherman Alexie; Hanging Loose Press.


Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?

Christina Hoff Sommers in The American:

Featuredimage_2Math 55 is advertised in the Harvard catalog as “prob­ably the most difficult undergraduate math class in the country.” It is leg­endary among high school math prodigies, who hear terrifying stories about it in their computer camps and at the Math Olympiads. Some go to Harvard just to have the opportunity to enroll in it. Its formal title is “Honors Advanced Calculus and Linear Algebra,” but it is also known as “math boot camp” and “a cult.” The two-semester fresh­man course meets for three hours a week, but, as the catalog says, homework for the class takes between 24 and 60 hours a week.

Math 55 does not look like America. Each year as many as 50 students sign up, but at least half drop out within a few weeks. As one former student told The Crimson newspaper in 2006, “We had 51 students the first day, 31 students the second day, 24 for the next four days, 23 for two more weeks, and then 21 for the rest of the first semester.” Said another student, “I guess you can say it’s an episode of ‘Survivor’ with people voting themselves off.” The final class roster, according to The Crimson: “45 percent Jewish, 18 percent Asian, 100 percent male.”

Why do women avoid classes like Math 55? Why, in fact, are there so few women in the high echelons of academic math and in the physi­cal sciences?

More here.

It’s a whorehome

Josh Levin in Slate:

StoryOn Monday, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer apologized for failing “to live up to the standard I expected of myself.” The standard he failed to meet: completing a full term without making the acquaintance of high-priced call girls. According to a criminal complaint (PDF) filed in U.S. District Court, Spitzer paid $4,300 for a night with “Kristen,” an escort from Emperors’ Club. Like any 21st-century escort service, Emperors’ Club has a storefront on the Web—as of Tuesday morning, visitors to are informed that the site “has been disabled.” Thanks to Google’s cache feature, however, it’s still possible to peruse the site’s nongraphical elements. The membership guidelines, the promotional materials, and the model profiles are all still there for the browsing, offering a rare glimpse at the secrets of operating today’s brothel for the well-to-do.

Ingratiate yourself with the target audience. “Catering to the most financially elite social circles in the entire world,” the site’s welcome page begins, “Emperors Club is the elite recreation venue and private club for those accustomed to excellence.” Apparently, those accustomed to excellence do not, as you might expect, demand copy written by native English speakers. (“When seeking an evening date, a weekend travel companion, or a friend to accompany you to your next business or social event, our Icon Models are paramount preference.”)

Build a feeling of community, but also exclusivity. For its members, Emperors’ Club isn’t a whorehouse. It’s a whorehome—a full-service institution that matches “customers with the … finest concierge luxuries.”

More here.  And also this: “Why Is Prostitution Illegal?

Projects Document Anguish of 1947 Split: India’s Survivors of Partition Begin to Break Long Silence

From The Washington Post:

Train Every year in March, Bir Bahadur Singh goes to the local Sikh shrine and narrates the grim events of the long night six decades ago when 26 women in his family offered their necks to the sword for the sake of honor. At the time, sectarian riots were raging over the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan, and the men of Singh’s family decided it was better to kill the women than have them fall into the hands of Muslim mobs. “None of the women protested, nobody wept,” Singh, 78, recalled as he stroked his long, flowing white beard, his voice slipping into a whisper. “All I could hear was the sound of prayer and the swing of the sword going down on their necks. My story can fill a book.”

Although the political history of the 1947 partition has featured prominently in Indian classrooms, personal stories such as Singh’s have gone unrecorded. Hundreds of thousands of Indians have remained trapped in their private pain, many ashamed of the acts they committed, others simply wary of confronting ghosts from so long ago. Now, however, the aging survivors of partition are beginning to talk, and historians and psychologists are increasingly acknowledging the need to study the human dimensions of one of the most cataclysmic events of the 20th century.

About 1,300 survivors of partition, including Singh, have been interviewed as part of an ambitious, 10-year research project that examines the experiences of people across India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. And since late last year, a number of new books, research papers and cultural events have attempted to lift the shroud of silence surrounding partition.

More here.

How to Keep a Wasp From Cheating

From Science:

Wasp It would be easy for fig wasps to cheat. These tiny insects pollinate figs in exchange for a share of the tree’s seeds–and theoretically, the wasps could lay claim to more seeds than they deserve. But they don’t, and now biologists know why. Parasitic wasps, usually thought of as the bad guys, keep the pollinators honest. Figs and their wasps depend upon each other to reproduce. The fig “fruit” actually holds hundreds of tiny flowers and seeds, and it sports a small hole through which fig wasps enter. When inside, the wasps lay their eggs in the fig’s ovules, the flower part where seeds normally develop. Thus, each maturing larva costs the fig a seed. When adult wasps finally emerge from the fig, they pick up pollen and take it to another tree. This mutually beneficial arrangement has been around for more than 60 million years, and the wasps never seem to break the contract by using too many ovules.

A team of researchers led by evolutionary ecologist Derek Dunn of the University of Reading, U.K., thought a group of parasitic wasps might explain why. These species also depend on the fig fruit to nurture their larvae, but they show up after the fig wasps have already laid their eggs. Rather than enter the inside of the fig, the parasitic wasps drill in from the outside and lay their eggs only in ovules that already house pollinator larvae, killing the original occupants. But the parasites can’t reach all the way into the fig, so if the fig wasps aren’t greedy and only use the seeds closest to the center of the fruit, their larvae are safe from the parasites.

More here.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Meeting Mr Eliot

From The Guardian: (Great poets: The first in our daily 20th-century poetry series includes a selection of TS Eliots’ best and lesser known poems, introduced by leading poet and Eliot scholar Craig Raine).

Eliot All contemporary poetry when it is contemporary is initially baffling to its readers. Browning’s poetry was once thought to be so difficult that a Browning Society was formed to annotate and explain it. Wordsworth’s simplicity in Lyrical Ballads had its own contemporary opacity. Why was this poetry at all? And when Eliot began, there were plenty of critics who thought his work too intellectual, insufficiently emotional, to be poetry. Where was the afflatus, the uplift and the separation from ordinary prosaic life?

It looks very different now, almost a century since Eliot’s early poems were published. We can see, for example, what a brilliant, if surprising, nature poet Eliot was, despite his justified reputation as a poet of the metropolis. Nightingales “let their liquid siftings fall / To stain the stiff dishonoured shroud.”

More here.

Psychotherapy for All: An Experiment

From The New York Times:

Psych_2 At the faded one-story medical clinic in this fishing and farming village, people with depression and anxiety typically got little or no attention. Busy doctors and nurses focused on physical ailments — children with diarrhea, laborers with injuries, old people with heart trouble. Patients, fearful of the stigma connected to mental illness, were reluctant to bring up emotional problems.

Last year, two new workers arrived. Their sole task was to identify and treat patients suffering depression and anxiety. The workers found themselves busy. Almost every day, several new patients appeared. Depressed and anxious people now make up “a sizable crowd” at the clinic, said the doctor in charge, Anil Umraskar. The patients talk about all sorts of troubles. “Financial difficulties are there,” said one of the new counselors, Medha Upadhye, 29. “Interpersonal conflicts are there. Unemployment. Alcoholism is a major problem.”

The clinic is at the forefront of a program that has the potential to transform mental health treatment in the developing world. Instead of doctors, the program trains laypeople to identify and treat depression and anxiety and sends them to six community health clinics in Goa, in western India.

More here.

Pakistan’s Islamic Radicals: Defeated in the Elections

Sahabzada Abdus-Samad Khan at the World Security Network:

Samadkhan_bioMost media and Western politicians have missed the most important message of the last elections in Pakistan: the radical Islamist MMA party lost dramatically and even in its strongholds in the North-Western Frontier Province (NWFP), with its capital Peshawar, garnered much fewer votes than in 2002.

This is congruent with the recent sensational results of the opinion poll by the famous U.S.-based Gallup institute (“Who Speaks For Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think”), which surveyed 50,000 Muslims in 35 Islamic countries. According to the study, 93 percent of the Muslims hold moderate views and only a tiny minority of 7 percent are politically radical. Not only the moderate Muslims but even the radicals admire democracy, human rights and technology in the West. But the U.S. has lost its credibility and trust in the Muslim world, with a good 67 percent of moderate Muslims fearing America as an aggressive power which wants to dominate the world. The radicals are not poorer, less educated and do not pray more than the moderates- they are radical for political reasons, mainly a hatred toward the U.S. as a state and world power and a perception of too little respect of the West vis-a-vis Islam.

Back to the NWFP and the tribal areas FATA in Pakistan: the very significant development of the February 18, 2007 elections in Pakistan was the resounding defeat suffered by Islamist parties. In the 2002 election, a six-party coalition known as the Muttahida-Majles-e-Amal (MMA) won over 60 seats in the 342 member Parliament. It was feared that these pro-Taliban clerics would increase their share of power with each successive election. The results of the recent elections demonstrated otherwise; namely that the ascendancy of the MMA proved to be a “political hiccup” rather than the basis for a mass Islamist movement.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

Two Pigeons
Mary Jo Salter

They’ve perched for hours
on that window-ledge, scarcely
moving.  Beak to beak,

a matched set, they differ
almost imperceptibly —
like salt and pepper shakers.

It’s an event when they tuck
(simultaneously) their pinpoint
heads into lavender vests

of fat.  But reminiscent
of clock hands blandly
turning because they must

have turned—somehow, they’ve
taken on the grave,
small-eyed aspect of monks

hooded in conferences
so intimate nothing need
be said. If some are chuckling

in the park, earning
their bread, these are content
to let the dark engulf them—

it’s all the human
imagination can fathom,
how single-mindedly

mindless two silhouettes
stand in a window thick
as milk glass. They appear

never to have fed on
anything else when they stir
all of a sudden to peck

savagely, for love
or hygiene, at the grimy
feathers of the other;

but when they resume
their places, the shift
is one only a painter

or a barber (prodding a chin
back into position)
would be likely to notice.

James Longenbach at NYT:

Mary Jo Salter came of age as a poet in the 1970s when two tribes, the Language poets and Person_mary_jo_salter the New Formalists, were sparring. The Language poets (named after a magazine called Language) represented a new surge of experimental writing, while the New Formalists (with whom Salter was associated) wanted to resist the influence of modernism, re-energizing poetry’s relationship not only to traditional form but to narrative. Like Salter, many of the New Formalists modeled their work on a strategically narrowed version of Elizabeth Bishop, a poet who wrote both free and formal verse with homespun virtuosity. But while Bishop continues to be read, the polemics associated with both the New Formalism and Language poetry feel dated, part of the niggling history of taste rather than the grand history of art.


Do Clinton’s Ads Harken Back to Birth of A Nation?

Orlando Patterson makes the case in the NYT:

I have spent my life studying the pictures and symbols of racism and slavery, and when I saw the Clinton ad’s central image — innocent sleeping children and a mother in the middle of the night at risk of mortal danger — it brought to my mind scenes from the past. I couldn’t help but think of D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” the racist movie epic that helped revive the Ku Klux Klan, with its portrayal of black men lurking in the bushes around white society. The danger implicit in the phone ad — as I see it — is that the person answering the phone might be a black man, someone who could not be trusted to protect us from this threat.

The ad could easily have removed its racist sub-message by including images of a black child, mother or father — or by stating that the danger was external terrorism. Instead, the child on whom the camera first focuses is blond. Two other sleeping children, presumably in another bed, are not blond, but they are dimly lighted, leaving them ambiguous. Still it is obvious that they are not black — both, in fact, seem vaguely Latino.

Finally, Hillary Clinton appears, wearing a business suit at 3 a.m., answering the phone. The message: our loved ones are in grave danger and only Mrs. Clinton can save them. An Obama presidency would be dangerous — and not just because of his lack of experience. In my reading, the ad, in the insidious language of symbolism, says that Mr. Obama is himself the danger, the outsider within.

Did the message get through? Well, consider this: people who voted early went overwhelmingly for Mr. Obama; those who made up their minds during the three days after the ad was broadcast voted heavily for Mrs. Clinton.

Playmobil Security Check Point

Mark Blyth sends me this toy for the new era, over at


The customer reviews are wonderful.

Hold up now … this is obviously bogus. They make NO reference to racial profiling. I mean, what kind of slack screening system is THAT? Call that a billy club? Where’s the taser? I mean … C’MON!

It’s a good thing we are teaching our pre-schoolers the value of paranoia, fear and a healthy compliance with living in a totalitarian state. It might come in handy if the fascists of the world keep their power.

I have my bid in for a life-like model of a Guantanamo cage. I’m going to buy one and paint some bruises on the face of the lucky “guest”

Lexicographical Beneficence

Rob Walker in the New York Times Magazine: presents the visitor with a word and four choices as to what that word means. Click, learn the right answer and get another word. Correct answers lead to a higher score and harder words. It is, then, a “casual game,” the name given to a wide variety of electronic, computer or online games with a relatively simple structure and set of rules — a genre of diversion, not immersion. With tens of millions of regular players, “casual games are among the stickiest, most-sought-after content online,” according to a white paper posted on the site of the International Game Developers Association. The core texts of casual gaming are solitaire and Tetris. It’s a safe bet that a great deal of casual gaming occurs in the workplace, where it’s more discreet than paddle ball.

Because it is structured as a sort of rolling SAT vocabulary quiz, laces your time-wasting with fresh knowledge. For example: “hircine” means “goatlike,” and “omphaloskepsis” means “navel contemplation.” Thus: self-improvement.

This brings us to the greater good. The site promises that every time you give a correct answer — that, say, “rubicund” doesn’t mean “hairless,” it means “ruddy” — you donate 20 grains of rice to feed the hungry by way of the United NationsWorld Food Program.

More here.

Sigma Xi Announces Student Science Film Competition on Water


In conjunction with a year-long focus on the issue of water, Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society is sponsoring a competition for three-minute student films on aspects of this precious and dwindling natural resource. The entry deadline is September 1, 2008.

“Water is among the most crucial issues in science, society, policy, technology and ethics facing the world today,” said Sigma Xi Executive Director Linda K. Meadows. “We hope this film competition will enable students to exercise their creativity in exploring the many facets of this complex issue.”

Prizes of $1,000, $800 and $500 will be awarded for the top three films. The competition is open to undergraduate and graduate students, either individually or in teams. There is no entry fee, but individual entrants or at least one member of each team must be members of Sigma Xi.

Winning films will be screened at the 2008 Sigma Xi Annual Meeting and Student Research Conference next November 20-23 in Washington, D.C., during an international forum on the topic of water. Travel costs to the forum will be provided for individual awardees or up to two members of a winning team.

Water related topics may include, but are not limited to, surface water, ground water, fresh water, oceans, ice caps, desalinization, distribution, health, ecosystems, hydrological cycles, climate change, carbon emissions, science and space.

Entries may be scripted or candid, fictionalizations, live video or animation or any combination of these, but must communicate scientific ideas in a manner that the general public can understand. All submissions must be in a DVD format.

Entries will be evaluated for the quality of their production and for the accuracy and depth of the scientific ideas they present. Click here for the complete guidelines.

Founded in 1886, Sigma Xi is the international honor society for research scientists and engineers, with more than 500 chapters in North America and around the world. Membership is by invitation. More than 200 Sigma Xi members have received the Nobel Prize. In addition to publishing American Scientist magazine, the Society sponsors a number of programs that support science and engineering.

Physics provides answer to airplane seat scramble

Emma Clarke at CNN:

Screenhunter_01_mar_11_0859Queues … the endless airport queues are the bane of any frequent flier’s life. If they were not bad enough at check-in, security and the boarding gate, when you get to the plane there’s more to come as passengers cram bags in lockers, maneuver kids or struggle into window seats.

But it need not be this way, says astrophysicist Jason Steffen, based at the Fermilab Center for Particle Astrophysics in Illinois. He has proved that airlines can make boarding times seven times faster by taking a more orderly — and scientific — approach.

The inspiration to tackle the problem came to Steffen after a long airport delay. Queuing for the umpteenth time that day, he was determined there was a better way to get passengers on board aircraft than the current method of boarding from the back in blocks.

He used what is known as the Markov chain Monte Carlo algorithm — or in other words he picked random boarding options, ran them through a software program, keeping the best bits and losing the less efficient, until he found the optimum combination.

More here.