An American Tragedy

Thomas Powers in the New York Review of Books:

One of the many complexities of the character of J. Robert Oppenheimer is apparent in his response to the discovery of nuclear fission in January 1939. “The U business is unbelievable,” he wrote to a colleague once he had satisfied himself that uranium atoms really did split when bombarded with neutrons. “It is I think exciting, not in the rare way of positrons and mesotrons, but in a good honest practical way.” He meant that fission didn’t turn physics upside down and inside out like so many other discoveries of the first decades of the twentieth century. Fission was as practical as a hammer. The clincher for Oppenheimer was watching the dramatic green spikes on the oscilloscope of the Berkeley physicist Luis Alvarez when an atom split. “In less than fifteen minutes,” Alvarez wrote later,

he not only agreed that the reaction was authentic but also speculated that in the process extra neutrons would boil off that could be used to split more uranium atoms and thereby generate power or make bombs. It was amazing to see how rapidly his mind worked….

The speed of Oppenheimer’s mind would not have surprised those who knew him. At thirty-four Oppenheimer was famously brilliant.

More here.

A look at every idea we ever had

A British writer bravely attempts to catalog every big concept human civilization has produced.

Merle Rubin in the Christian Science Monitor:

Unlike their American counterparts, who generally aim for objectivity (or at least its appearance) by adopting a more impersonal tone in works of this kind, quite a few British savants (not only Wells and Johnson, but more recently, writers like journalist Paul Johnson in “Modern Times” or literary critic Martin Seymour-Smith in “The New Guide to Modern World Literature”) have not been shy about offering their own views along with the material.

Peter Watson, London-based author of 13 previous books, is no exception.

Having given us “The Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century,” he’s now undertaken an even more ambitious project – Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, From Fire to Freud, a bold attempt to summarize the history of ideas from prehistoric times to the early years of the 20th century.

Perhaps it was the lure of alliteration, that led Watson (or his publisher) to single out “fire” and “Freud” in the subtitle. Watson himself is most interested in the ideas that contributed to the development of the natural sciences: This certainly includes fire, although the first primeval “ideas” discussed in his book, even before fire, are scavenging, bipedalism, and stone tools.

As for Freud, however, Watson is clearly no fan, concluding that the influential doctor, his writings, and the whole enterprise of psychoanalysis were – and are – useless fakes.

More here.

Reviving a City: The Design Perspective

Robin Pogrebin in the New York Times:

Even as the federal government and local developers push to resurrect New Orleans as quickly as possible in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, some architects and urban planners are contemplating the larger question of what form the city should take – whether restored, reimagined or something in between…

Among the questions facing architects are whether the city’s footprint should be irrelevant, given that so many residents may not return; whether surviving industries should be pivotal to what is built; whether preservation should trump other priorities; and whether bold new architecture can or should rise from the muck and devastation.

Many experts also warned against moving too quickly, arguing that being away from the city could help residents clarify what was most valued and should be reclaimed.

More here.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Letter from New Orleans

Thomai Hatsios brings this to my attention, a letter from Jordan Flaherty:

I just left New Orleans a couple hours ago. I traveled from the apartment I
was staying in by boat to a helicopter to a refugee camp. If anyone wants
to examine the attitude of federal and state officials towards the victims
of hurricane Katrina, I advise you to visit one of the refugee camps.

In the refugee camp I just left, on the I-10 freeway near Causeway,
thousands of people (at least 90% black and poor) stood and squatted in mud
and trash behind metal barricades, under an unforgiving sun, with heavily
armed soldiers standing guard over them. When a bus would come through, it
would stop at a random spot, state police would open a gap in one of the
barricades, and people would rush for the bus, with no information given
about where the bus was going. Once inside (we were told) evacuees would be
told where the bus was taking them – Baton Rouge, Houston, Arkansas, Dallas,
or other locations. I was told that if you boarded a bus bound for Arkansas
(for example), even people with family and a place to stay in Baton Rouge
would not be allowed to get out of the bus as it passed through Baton Rouge.
You had no choice but to go to the shelter in Arkansas. If you had people
willing to come to New Orleans to pick you up, they could not come within 17
miles of the camp.

I traveled throughout the camp and spoke to Red Cross workers, Salvation
Army workers, National Guard, and state police, and although they were
friendly, no one could give me any details on when buses would arrive, how
many, where they would go to, or any other information. I spoke to the
several teams of journalists nearby, and asked if any of them had been able
to get any information from any federal or state officials on any of these
questions, and all of them, from Australian tv to local Fox affiliates
complained of an unorganized, non-communicative, mess. One cameraman told
me “as someone who’s been here in this camp for two days, the only
information I can give you is this: get out by nightfall. You don’t want to
be here at night.”

More here.  [Thanks, Thomai.]

Clash in Cambridge: Science and religion seem as antagonistic as ever

From Scientific American:

Dawkins_5 In the very first lecture of the Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowship in June, a University of Cambridge biologist assured the 10 journalists in his audience that science and religion have gotten along much better, historically, than is commonly believed. After all, scientific pioneers such as Kepler, Newton, Boyle and even Galileo were all devout Christians; Galileo’s run-in with the Church was really a spat between two different versions of Catholicism. The notion that science and religion have always butted heads is “fallacious,” declared Denis Alexander, who is, not coincidentally, a Christian. Other lecturers, who included four agnostics, a Jew, a deist and 11 Christians, also saw no unbridgeable chasm between science and their faith.

As the two-week meeting unfolded, however, conflict kept disrupting this peaceable kingdom. Lecturers and journalists argued over a host of questions: Without religion, would humanity descend into moral chaos? Are scientific claims in some sense as unprovable as religious ones? Can prayers heal, and if so, is that evidence of the placebo effect or of God’s helping hand? Why does God seem to help some people and ignore others? By the end of the conference, the gulf between science and religion–or at least Christianity–seemed as wide as ever.

(In the picture: Biologist Richard Dawkins (left), an agnostic leaning toward atheism, explains his reasoning to philosopher Nancey Murphy, a materialist who also adheres to nonscientific ideas, such as the resurrection of Christ).

More here.

March of the Conservatives: Penguin Film as Political Fodder

From The New York Times:Penguins

The movie is “March of the Penguins,” and of all the reactions it has evoked, perhaps the most surprising is its appeal to conservatives. They are hardly its only audience; the film is the second highest grossing documentary of all time, behind “Fahrenheit 9/11.” But conservative groups have turned its stirring depiction of the mating ordeals of emperor penguins into an unexpected battle anthem in the culture wars.

“March of the Penguins,” the conservative film critic and radio host Michael Medved said in an interview, is “the motion picture this summer that most passionately affirms traditional norms like monogamy, sacrifice and child rearing.” Speaking of audiences who feel that movies ignore or belittle such themes, he added: “This is the first movie they’ve enjoyed since ‘The Passion of the Christ.’ This is ‘The ‘Passion of the Penguins.’ “

More here.

New Bosnia icon: Bruce Lee

From CNN:

BruceThe ethnically divided Bosnian city of Mostar has agreed to erect a new symbol of unity — a statue of kung fu legend Bruce Lee, worshipped by Muslims, Serbs and Croats.

A group of enthusiasts came up with the idea of honoring the childhood hero of the city’s ethnic groups in 2003, on the 30th anniversary of his death. They launched the project, found donors and waited a year for the city’s approval.

“We plan to erect the statue in November in the center of the city,” Veselin Gatalo, a member of the Urban Movement organization, told Reuters by telephone on Monday.

“This will be a monument to universal justice that Mostar needs more than any other city I know.”

He said Mostar, scene of fighting between Muslims and Croats in 1993-1994, needed a symbol of justice, mastery and honesty — virtues upheld by the late Chinese-American actor.

More here.

Embryo with two mothers approved

From the BBC:

_40779822_human_egg_inf203UK scientists have won permission to create a human embryo that will have genetic material from two mothers.

The Newcastle University team will transfer genetic material created when an egg and sperm fuse into another woman’s egg.

The groundbreaking work aims to prevent mothers from passing certain genetic diseases on to their unborn babies.

Such diseases arise from DNA found outside the nucleus, and thus inherited separately from DNA in the nucleus.

More here.

Crying fowl: A talk with ‘City of Quartz’ author Mike Davis

Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow in The Village Voice:

TuhusdubrowAs Hurricane Katrina revealed, these days natural disasters have plenty of human accomplices. Before Katrina flooded the Gulf Coast and the headlines, another “natural” menace—avian flu—had begun to surface in the media. Since 1997, the influenza strain H5N1 has killed dozens in Asia and forced the mass slaughter of chickens. The virus is, as urban-theory star Mike Davis tells the Voice, “the chief bioterrorist in our midst,” poised to explode into a sequel to the 1918–1919 flu epidemic that wiped out up to 5 percent of humanity. In The Monster at Our Door, Davis provides an ominous account of the threat and advises against chalking it up to the whims of Mother Nature. Through dense urban poverty, the Tysonization of poultry farms, and the dithering of government, he argues, we have created this monster.

More here.

FOUR YEARS AFTER SEPTEMBER 11, WE’RE STILL BOWLING ALONE

Lawrence F. Kaplan in The New Republic:

Without the Cold War,” Rabbit Angstrom asks in John Updike’s Rabbit at Rest, “what’s the point of being an American?” Rabbit’s question, which he posed in 1990, anticipated something in the national mood during the decade that followed. In 1995, social critic Christopher Lasch wrote that the United States had descended into a “democratic malaise,” the most telling symptom of which, Harvard public policy scholar Robert Putnam wrote, was a decline in civic engagement. In his famous essay and then book, Putnam amassed a mountain of evidence–measuring everything from rates of church attendance to participation in bowling leagues–and pronounced that Americans were “bowling alone.” A survey conducted by pollster Daniel Yankelovich in 1995 reported that Americans felt “a sickness in the very soul of society to which they cannot give a name.” For conservatives especially, the ’90s were wasted years, the decade’s signature traits being narcissism, cultural rot, and sheer purposelessness. The coarseness of the public square “has shattered America’s traditional confidence about itself, its mission, its place in the world,” morality czar William Bennett wrote in Commentary.

More here.

‘Five Families’: Made Men in America

Bryan Burrough reviews Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires by Selwyn Raab, in the New York Times:

Burr1Earlier this year The Times published a front-page article describing an F.B.I. drive to rid the New York waterfronts of Mafia influence. At first glance the story appeared so anachronistic it was jarring. The Mafia? You mean those guys still exist? Given the fact that New York hasn’t hosted a decent godfather since Sammy the Bull ratted out John Gotti 14 years ago, one might be forgiven for believing that the world of Italian-American organized crime had gone the way of other crumbling pillars of midcentury American culture, like heavyweight boxing, thoroughbred horse racing and the Democratic Party.

But no. Despite a 25-year onslaught by prosecutors armed with high-tech listening devices and racketeering statutes, despite the fact that so many mobsters have been sent away that not one of New York’s infamous ”five families” even has an identifiable godfather at the moment, rumors of the Mafia’s death appear premature. Still, the mob’s influence in the opening years of the 21st century remains a far cry from its glory days, as Selwyn Raab reminds us in his excellent history of the New York Mafia, ”Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires.”

More here.

Among the Believers

3QD’s own J.M. Tyree recently published an article about Ignatious Donnelly in The Believer. A.O. Scott of the New York Times mentions it in the Sunday Magazine:

And so The Believer’s content is often as pointedly untimely as its approach is digressive. Some of its best articles dust off the reputations of half-forgotten writers and historical characters – Charles Portis, John Hawkes, Ignatius Donnelly – and the interviews, with the very, the semi-and the narrowly famous, range far beyond the usual plugging of the latest projects. “In October we have David Sedaris talking mostly about monkeys,” Vida said. “What makes it timely is its untimeliness.”

The Believer grew out of the blending of two different ideas – an interview magazine Vida and Eggers were discussing and a book review Julavits was interested in starting. The magazine, which made its debut in March 2003 and has just published its 27th issue, is older than n+1, which is on its third. It is also larger, both in trim size (an eccentric, pleasing-to-hold 8ð by 10 inches, compared with n+1’s more orthodox and bookish 7 by 10) and in circulation. The Believer prints around 15,000 copies of its regular issues, and more of its special issues devoted to music and visual art, while n+1, having sold out its 2,000-copy first issue, has increased its run with every subsequent issue.

More here.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Planks from the Lumberyard: Bathroom Pastoralism, or, The Anecdote of the Can

First, a note to the reader about wood. “Lumber,” a word that we now associate with the Home Depot and deforestation, once denoted the contents or printed products of the mind, which, in turn, was sometimes known as the “lumber-room” (see, for instance, page 54 of Tristram Shandy ). The title of my column, then, is meant to serve as a modest attempt to resuscitate the lost sense of this sadly degraded word, and to suggest something of the ungainly mental labor required of me to salvage and sculpt the unhewed thought-timbers piled up in my mind’s lumberyard.

Not so very long ago I had occasion to spend an afternoon sipping from the green mouths of a series of Rolling Rocks at a party in Williamsburg, amongst a congerie of artists, writers, poets, and other plucky, earnest, (and unemployed?) persons. Knowing no one but the cousin who brought and promptly abandoned me, I stayed close to the walls, sipping beer and hovering at the periphery of several groups engaged in various and strange conversations about lives, friends, and relationships about which I knew nothing. In spite of the pleasures of drinking free beer in the early afternoon, I felt little connection to or interest in the people or the talk until one of the conversations turned to the old typewriter one of the hipsters had famously placed on a milk crate before the commode in the bathroom of her apartment. Recorded on the scroll of that writing machine tucked away in that most private of spheres was a long, peculiarly thoughtful, and digressive conversation, perpetuated and sustained by the excretory ruminations of the apartment’s occupants and anyone else who might have spent time asquat before the typewriter in their ceramic and tile salon.

The unexpected beauty and pertinence of this image, so Jack Kerouac-y in its way, has stayed with me, and I’ve often thought about what it is that makes it so compelling to me, this woman’s transformation of her bathroom into a kind of ad hoc public sphere, a place where ideas are expressed, exchanged, and contested. In part, I think, it has to do with the successful integration of two sets of seemingly opposed desires and spaces that are rarely brought together harmoniously: the desire to express oneself publicly from within the safety and quietude of the private sphere, to fuse solitude with sociability, to link the personal and the public.

The pastoral ideal has long been an important way of ordering meaning and value in American culture; the desire to move from the sophistication of our urban centers to the simplicity of country life (to “light out for the territories”) has provided a cardinal metaphor and powerful symbol for organizing the contradictions of American life. In the 1960s, Literary critic Leo Marx offered his notion of the “middle landscape” to explain how the peculiarly American desire to retreat from civilization is often reconciled with the opposing desire to benefit from industrial, technological, and urban developments. The middle landscape, symbolized by his image of the “machine in the garden” (and visually encapsulated by George Innes in his 1855 painting of the Hudson River Valley), contains the possibility of balancing the opposing forces of technology and nature, sophistication and simplicity, city and country. Many have considered the emergence of suburbia as the modern manifestation of the middle landscape, which makes sense, but I’d like to propose an alternative candidate for middle landscape: the bathroom.

Although generally neglected as a fundamental space of everyday life, the bathroom, like the middle landscape, is a space where social and psychological contradictions are made most manifest. It is the scene of what Julia Kristeva called “abjection,” a site where the intricacies of contemporary plumbing technology saves us from having to confront or acknowledge the material symbol of our own carnality (“This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine,” as Prospero once said in a different context); where our social and natural selves commingle, where the dream of pastoral peace, simplicity, and contentment coexists with the technological infrastructures of industrial design.

(A strong case could be made, by the way, for the bathrooms at the DIA Beacon as the nearest physically existent approximations of the Platonic ideal. Situated in hard-to-find and rarely visited nooks in the sprawling exhibition space of this lovely museum, which is itself encircled by the still-fresh green breast of the Hudson River valley, their pristine loos offer a perfect zen-like enclave for the pensive, art-addled museum-goer. Unlike, say, the cans at the Met, these are quiet, secluded, clean, and peaceful….)

The Japanese seem to understand and accept the centrality of the bathroom to psychic, social, and biological life, as evidenced by their awesomely superior toilet design. (There are, for instance, toilets equipped with delicate temperature control jet sprays, with glow in the dark seats with sensors that automatically open in the presence of an approaching human subject.) Canadian poet of the Yukon, Robert Service, author of the magnificent “Cremation of Sam McGee,” and a man well-acquainted with the exigencies of the body, is one of the few poets to have taken up the subject of the bathroom. His poem, Toilet Seats” is not particularly good but mildly amusing and well-worth a read as a singular instance of bathroom poetry. Aside from that, there is, to my knowledge, scant acknowledgment or representation of this most basic of mental spaces in literature. This seems to me both strange unaccountable.

Within the complex contemporary social landscape, irradiated by the importunate forces of our vibrant consumer culture, exerts a thousand pressures on the individual who might wish to maintain an independent existence. The bathroom exists as a privileged site of quiet contemplation and thought, a space where much of our best thinking takes place, a space even of occasional revelation. It is with a modicum of embarrassment that I awkwardly express my own fondness for this most neglected of spaces, this bastion of mental life. So I continue to scan the literary horizon for a writer bold enough to take up this most marginalized of middle landscapes. In fact, I think I’ll grab a book from the shelf and resume my search presently….Nature calls.

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Vince Vaughan–But Were Afraid to Ask Eve Sedgwick

Comedy’s fundamental strategy is that of misdirection. It sets you up for one thing, and — pop! –gives you another. In very direct humor, the moment of revelation, the punch line, can be an authentic surprise: crossing the street with a winning lottery ticket, a man is hit by a car. Or, in more reflexive humor, it can be based on the auditor’s knowledge of other jokes with the same set-up: the chicken crosses the road to get to the other side. Or the punch line can be so simplistically ironic that one wonders how it can possibly suffice: the aristocrats! (This last is the subject of a documentary that penetrates joke culture, revealing another thing: that the teller’s unique charisma has everything to do with the impression a joke makes.) The most critically successful humor of late conducts multiple grades of social observation into wry, overloaded tableaux, always with an overmatched bumbler at the center: David Brent, Larry Sanders, Larry David, and their daddy, Homer J. Simpson.

When we come to mainstream American film comedy, however, we find a different model. Movie comedy has to be pitched at a broad audience that is demographically identified to average out to a post-adolescent male. To find a common denominator amongst that audience, screenwriters tread the line between surprise and disgust. Perhaps the inaugural moment of the current epoch in comedy was Cameron Diaz’s mistakenly applying semen instead of gel to her hair in the Farrelly brothers’ There’s Something About Mary. This episode has all the ingredients of adolescent anxiety dreams: bodies and bodily fluids, combined all wrong; the danger of the intimate other; the safety of retreating to laughter and to one’s “buddies.” It is not hard to see in these fantasias the opposite number to the romantic comedy, which performs many of the same functions from a differently gendered perspective. In any case, this strand of comedy provides a kind of socialization, offering reassuring camaraderie and drawing (by crossing) the boundaries of etiquette for easily embarrassed young males. The humor, then, is a disarming disguise under which threatening topics can be unveiled – perhaps primary among them, male love. It is homosocial comedy.

Twenty years ago, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick published Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. Fully readable today, the book’s analytic clarity made it a touchstone for emergent scholarly inquiries into the social histories of the concepts of gender and sexuality. In her study of Anglo-American masculinity, Sedgwick argues that acceptable heterosexuality is defined, in our culture, against the abject state of homosexuality, with the corollary that whole sets of attitudes, behaviors, and mannerisms exist to reroute forbidden male affection through distancing mechanisms: the shared joy and pain of spectator sports, for instance. Most importantly, for Sedgwick, male homosocial desire is divided from erotic desire, which is homosexual and thus beyond a boundary. (It should be stressed here that Sedgwick does not schematically read all male affection as repressed sexual desire; rather, she holds that cultures define differently what counts as sexuality–as a glance at, say, two Indian men walking down the street holding hands reveals.) Paradoxically, then, much male bonding takes place in nominal relation to women. Talking about women, how to pick them up, what to do when women do this or that thing, boasting of prowess with women: these forms of male bonding reroute what is risky and precarious, male friendship and affection, into a comfortably heterosexual discourse. The consequence of this, unfortunately, is to render women in much male conversation mere objects to be regarded, discussed, frightened of, and obsessed with, from the safe distance of the proverbial frat house.

Such a line of thinking explains much about the fixations of contemporary comedy. Beer commercials, for instance, almost invariably proceed from the axiom: beer and friends reliable, women unreliable. (I would guess that promoting repressed male friendship, which takes an awful lot of beer to lubricate, makes a much better marketing tactic for Anheuser-Busch than promoting heterosexual dating and its two glasses of wine.) Similarly, the film Old School, along with many other homosocial comedies, has as its premise the escape from domesticity, conformity, and women who either suffocate or humiliate, back to a frat house and the alibi of alcohol. When Will Ferrell promises his wife he won’t drink, takes four or five hits from a beer bong, streaks naked down the streets, and finally suffers the humiliation of being driven home by his wife and three female friends (no doubt on their way back from a “rom-com” where they learned to recognize their true Mr. Darcy), the whole thing plays as a cautionary tale on the limits on male erotics and the danger of subverting domestic conformity. Like so many of the films featuring the unofficial company of Ferrell, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, and Vince Vaughan, Old School generates humor out of the misdirected shock of hearing forbidden male affection speak its name.

But our culture has changed quite a bit since 1985, the year of Sedgwick’s book. Love does speak its name much more freely now, and the issue for these comedies is not exactly to guard the citadel of patriarchy from queer and possibly pleasant invaders. Instead, I think the constant use of gay themes to generate comedy bespeaks a certain kind of progress, when compared to the eighties’ repressive “buddy pictures,” for which the surfacing of such desires would represent a huge crisis, or the pathological view of alternative genderings on view in films like The Silence of the Lambs or Deliverance. A current beer commercial shows a regular guy amongst superheroes, who are asking him if he has any powers that would allow him to join the crew. He shrugs, then turns his shoe into a Heineken, delighting all, and getting a meaningful glance from a spandex-clad Superwoman. The commercial’s final shot, though, is of a Batman and Robin-like duo, the dom calling out to the beer-shoe guy, “You can room with me!,” while the Robin figure’s face registers shock and hurt. Gay allusions in a beer ad, usually the locus classicus of enforced homosociality? A sort of progress, I suppose, though note it still takes place in proximity to an objectified woman.

The best current example of this outing of subtexts has been made by the on-the-surface classically homosocial film Wedding Crashers. Ostensibly about two aging rakes’ learning to give up the thrill of the chase and substitute real love, the film’s psychic energies are much more concentrated on the de facto marriage of the leads, Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughan. In the first scene, the two divorce lawyers (interesting career choice, huh?) witness a spat between a married couple adjudicating their divorce. In the heat of battle, the wife snarls “White trash! Hillbilly!” before the two learn to compromise and part as friends. Late in the film, their friendship in tatters, Vaughan’s character tells his romantically disconsolate friend that he is getting married. Wilson looks at him, anger building, before letting slip the Freudian: “White trash! Hillbilly!” They make up and Wilson later apologizes to Vaughan for the insults, saying “I don’t even know where that came from!” But we do, if we’ve been paying attention. Their friendship is not dissimilar to a marriage, the film is letting us know, remarkably unthreatened by the homoerotic overtones of such a metaphor.

Max Weber once wrote that cultural reorientations are often sparked by charismatic individuals. If so, Vince Vaughan is that individual. Fearlessly displaying the neuroses underlying his Machiavellian player-tactics, Vaughan spends the movie being humiliated and finding it’s not so bad, while effortlessly keeping his status as the most engaging line-deliverer in American comedy intact. At one point, he is tied to a bed and endures (if not responds to–after all, this is still the mainstream) advances by his fiancee’s gay brother. Instead of being violently repudiated, that brother is later a groomsman at Vaughan’s wedding. If these somewhat generic comedies function as a barometer of our culture’s slowly reorienting mainstream attitudes, then the lightness with which Wedding Crashers is able to play with, instead of police, male affection is a sign of encroaching relaxation. Although women in the film are predictably given not much to do, if indeed it’s becoming more possible for men to express themselves to themselves, maybe we owe Vince Vaughan a beer.

Note: My apologies to S.Z. for the title.

P.S. Regarding the U.S. Open final: A tip of the cap to the majestic Swiss, but my favorite pugilist deserved to win. Lance Armstrong works harder than any other cyclist, and is rewarded by total supremacy. More courageously, Andre Agassi works harder than any other despite the heartbreak of losing the biggest matches. The victory he covets, and the reason he still plays, is to beat the best player in the world, be it Sampras or Federer, in a match of ultimate consequence. That is why he runs hills, lifts weights, endures unanesthetized nine-minute injections to his sciatic nerve. Sadly, he was denied for the fourth time in Flushing Meadows. If there were gods, they would have sped him to victory at one set all, 4-2, 30-love. But there are no gods, only Agassi, doing what he can.

Dispatches:

The Other Sweet Science
Rain in November
Disaster!
On Ethnic Food and People of Color
Aesthetics of Impermance

Critical Digressions: Dispatch from Cambridge (or Notes on Deconstructing Chicken)

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,

Cambridge After sojourning in Tuscany and Karachi for the summer, we have returned to the East Coast, to Cambridge, for the fall. Upon arrival, we spent the afternoon under the pigeon infested trees outside Au Bon Pain, leafing through the Boston Phoenix and the Weekly Dig. We overheard a woman in a white summer hat remark, “If the weather were always like this, Boston would the most popular city in the world.” Although her premise is tenuous, on days like these, there’s a sense of occasion here, an almost pagan celebration of nature. Lucid, incandescent skies had brought the denizens of Cambridge out in their Sunday best. We observed pale, lanky limbed academics in revealing skirts; teenage punks in torn leather and grimy boots; and fresh-of-the-boat families sporting tight pants and fanny packs, gawking at the spectacle: old men playing chess for money, bold panhandlers soliciting funds, the jazz band strumming “Take Five” in the Pit.

Although we participated in the festivity, come evening our vigor waned and we felt hungry. We realized, however, that our options were limited: Harvard Square may be a melting pot but it offers lackluster ethnic dining, whether Chinese, Indonesian, Italian, Indian or Arab. (To be fair, there are two exceptions: Smile Café’s chicken larb is excellent and the menu of the Tibetan place in Central Square features this delicious minced meat and turnip dish.) And suddenly, we felt pangs of nostalgia – nostalgia for nihari, for Karachi.

In Ha Jin’s next novel, the protagonist is a poet, a Chinese immigrant to America. In one of his poems, he writes about the handful of the dirt from his backyard that he carries around with him in his portmanteau. In a way, the poem and sentiment is a response to Cavafy’s “The City”:

You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore;
Find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
And my heart lies buried like something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I look, I see the black ruins of my life, here,
Where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
The city will always pursue you.
You’ll walk the same streets, grow old In the same neighborhoods, turn gray in these same houses.
You’ll end up in the city.
Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
There’s no ship for you, there’s no road.
Now that you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
You’ve destroyed it everywhere in the world.

Home might mean a few hundred circumscribed square yards to many; dirt. It might mean a bed to others – a threadbare chair, a red wheelbarrow; it might have to do with family and nation and tradition, with shared history, collective memory; it might be an idea; or it just might be a filet. Indeed, there is substance to the adage, “You are what you eat.” We may not carry dirt around but when traveling from Pakistan, we do carry carefully wrapped cellophane packets of various powdered spices in our suitcase. Wherever we are in the world, then, we can feed and nourish our self; wherever we are in the world, we can feel at home.

In It Must be Something I Ate, Vogue’s food critic, Jeffrey Steingarten maintains that “In all of Nature’s Kingdom, only mammals, female mammals, nourish their young by giving up part of their bodies. For us, food is not just dinner. Our attitude toward food mirrors our feelings about mothers and nurturing, about giving and sharing, about tradition and community…” We agree. Being Pakistani, we associate savian with Eid, korma with weddings, mangoes with summer. Furthermore, those who fancy themselves cosmopolitan, boulvadiers, men of the world, associate dining with culture, even civilization. They have sushi at Nobu, truffles at Da Silvano, lamb chops at the Grammercy Tavern.

CarlitoSimply put, food defines us as we define food. The Guardian’s Lisa Hamilton avers, “Frankly, I’ve never had good sex with a vegetarian. I like men who eat properly, who like their steak bloody, their eggs Benedict runny. Fastidiousness is as unappealing in the kitchen as it is in the bedroom; there’s something emasculated about a man who let’s himself be faced down by escargot. Logically, someone as obsessed b the food/sex correlation as I am would select lovers accordingly; but as with crème brulee, I never quite had the discipline to resist what I knew would turn out badly (hence the vegetarian. He had little round glasses and did yoga. Really.) However, experience did prove that whether or not a man knows his artichoke from his elbow, when it comes to cooking, if not to sex, the clichés of national stereotypes hold true.” We’re not sure if Ms. Hamilton ever got it on with a Pakistani. Rest assured, we are carnivores. We make meat.

The following is a proprietary recipe for a dish we call (and have presently coined) Killer Karahi Masala:

Ingredients (and other materials)
1 chicken (or a packet of drumsticks and filets)
2 large onions, chopped
1/3 cup of vegetable oil
10 dried red chili peppers
1 teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon of red chili powder
1 teaspoon of garam masala (available at any Pakistani grocery store)
1 teaspoon of coriander powder
2 large tomatoes, diced
1/2 teaspoons of garlic paste
1/2 teaspoons of ginger paste
1 clove of garlic, chopped
1 thing of ginger, chopped
One of those plastic lemon things with lemon juice inside it
1 Corona
1 Dunhill
Carlito’s Way” Soundtrack (not the original score)

Instructions:
Close your eyes. Summon primal hunger. (You cook better when hungry.) Play first track on CD, Rozalla’s “I Love Music.” Pour oil into a casserole with diced onions and dried red chili peppers and turn up the heat. Strip and wash chicken. When onions become translucent, add chicken. (Wash your hands.) This should be around the time of KC and the Sunshine Band’s “That’s the Way I like It.” Add salt, red chili powder, coriander powder, garam masala, garlic and ginger paste. Throw in a diced tomato. Stir together and cook for half an hour on medium heat. Keep stirring. Then add chopped garlic and ginger. Have Dunhill, drink Corona; celebrate, you’re almost done. Fifteen minutes later, add the second diced tomato and squeeze the lemon thing over the dish as a sort of garnish. Serve hot (with tortillas as chapati proxies). “You Are So Beautiful” should be winding down in the background.

In our depleted state, however, we couldn’t venture to Broadway Market for groceries. We didn’t have it in us to make Killer Karahi Masala, or even a runny eggs Benedict. We somnambulated to Pinocchio’s for a steak-and-cheese and then, in this small corner, slept, full but incomplete.

Other Critical Digressions:
Gangbanging and Notions of the Self
The Media Generation and Nazia Hassan

The Naipaulian Imperative and the Phenomenon of the Post-National
Dispatch from Karachi
Live 8 at Sandspit
Chianti and History

Lives of the Cannibals: The Spell of the Sexual

They say that spring is the season of love, and they may be right. April’s days may be soaked in the hormones and pheromones of a renewed reproductive cycle, and in this we are undoubtedly biology’s sensual puppets. But let us firmly agree that we will have no truck with biology here. On the streets of New York, biology is perhaps useful as metaphor, but quite beside the point and ridiculously unsophisticated for our purposes. So we will dispense with eggheaded myopia, and in that spirit we will also reject the modern world’s most egregious conceit–love. This cloying trope may be appropriate for the foil covers of paperback novels and the illustrated pages of children’s books, but for a teeming metropolis it is a quaint notion, a rumor to sustain the lonely and unattractive.

They say that spring is the season of love, and they may be right, but on the streets of New York, spring is summer’s ragged doormat and love is a faintly Midwestern excuse for the gluttonous satisfaction of lust. 

Cruelty
Suggested by such details as the curl of a lip and the severe line of a jaw, cruelty is at the heart of sex, though you’d never know it to hear people talk. That cruelty is inextricably woven into the sexual experience disturbs many, largely because it doesn’t jibe with the civilized construct of love. But of course the mechanics of sex demand a certain precise violence, and often the quality of our sexual experience is indicated by kabuki-like displays of pain and heartlessness. Despotic New York is, in its concrete miles and Darwinian efficiency, cruel’s storied hometown. Just watch the summertime girls on Wall Street and in Times Square as they distribute their weight on nail-thin four-inch heels, and applaud the steel in the eyes (and the pants) of the conquering businessman, whose rigorous assessment of the physical merits of these very same girls is a feat of conscienceless objectification unmatched since stalwart American traders arrived on Africa’s Gold Coast. Even the City’s visual parameters signal cruelty’s central role: Who will be kind in a city without a sky? It speaks to New York’s defiant self-sufficiency–to see nothing but what we made with our own hands, to observe the struggle that plays out daily in the rippling heat of our walled streets. It prepares us to fuck.

Flesh & Heat
For a city where sunbathing is essentially limited to fire escapes and rooftops and the odd patch of park, skin is surprisingly ubiquitous. In spite of or in concert with the pronouncements of New York’s own fashion vanguard, flesh is the order of the summer season, and, for better or worse, there is a democratic quality to this ritual of exposure. Imperfections of the body are courageously displayed, plumped and framed in elastic and cotton, and to hell with sensible shame for the homely. Our women fear nothing, and no matter your wishes you will witness the shiny rhythms of their flesh. Many visitors make the mistake of assuming that New York’s men will not bare their chests, that urban settings don’t lend themselves to traditional demonstrations of virility. These naifs are shocked in high summer, when the articulated pecs and corrugating abs hit Seventh Avenue in force. (That a substantial number of these men are gay is of little moment here, and only serves as further testament to the city’s simmering carnality.)

Density
There are no secrets in this city, no privacy in the stacked lives of our high-rises and tenements, where we gain sonic (if not visual) access to the perversions and loneliness of our neighbors. New York can reasonably claim the concentrated libidinal force of six million–a deeply conservative estimate, given the total commuting population of the metropolitan area, the relatively low birth rate, and our seniors’ migratory tendencies. This vast sensual endowment transforms the city’s public space into a hothouse for various strains of latent sex. On subway platforms, where skin candies in seconds, we pace and seethe, preparing to press our glistening flesh against the glistening flesh of strangers. We are accustomed to the tight quarters of this vaginal system, which provides us a durable metaphor for the sublimation of violent desire. Although the train’s arrival is a small ecstasy, discreet relief from the pressure of restraint, it’s not nearly enough. Anyway, etiquette is a precious gloss here, an exotic curiosity for the foyers of Park Avenue apartments. By the humid height of July we have all but forgotten our modesty, and no longer do we draw the traditional distinctions between bodies. Instead, the perceived intrusions of eyes and limbs subside, and we become a single damp mass. Millions writhing as one.

Ambition
Gassy fumes of ambition stifle the breath of this city. Without some method of burn-off, some practice to spend its propulsive energy, New York would unmoor itself from the continent and take flight like a lost balloon. Thankfully, the city’s sexual black hole siphons ambition from our lungs daily, granting us peace enough to sleep some nights. The same vigor with which we pursue innovation and growth is just as easily blown on the swollen implication of sex, and so in the summertime, on radiant streets and when business is slow, ambition finds its satisfaction in exhibitionistic displays of power and availability. Mincing and posing, we pout for one another, we straighten our backs and expand our chests, and the sport becomes an end in itself. Ambition’s casualties–those who are stepped on and surpassed in their attempts to live up to this vertical city–find relief on the same streets, obliterating their professional disappointment with the easy dominance of sexual reduction.

Finally, it must be said that the spell of the sexual finds fuel in death. Confronted with incomprehensible violence, we revert to our simpler selves, manufacturing comfort from the appeasement of our bodies’ appetites. There is nothing wrong with this. But we would be wise to monitor our devolution closely. One day we may find ourselves so taken with the reductive ecstasy of the sensual that we have forgotten the creative dynamism it displaced. Considering New York’s global stature, this would be a tragic loss, even for those insensible to the city’s genius. This tiny patch of islands and shorelines on the East Coast of the United States is a vital asset, worth far more than the product of its sensual economy. It would be a terrible shame to suffocate under the oppressive cover of our lavish fantasy life.

Lives of the Cannibals: Rage

Monday Musing: Farm Subsidies, Ways of Life, and Poverty

Iraq, Katrina, and the war on terror (or is it now “war on Islamist extremism”?), displaced the G8 summit’s and Live 8’s stated focus on poverty in the Third World, especially in Africa. Perennial problems never bring a sense of urgency, only occasional bursts of concern which then quickly subside like one’s conscience when others stop looking.  Of course, many do work on the issues regularly and in sustained ways. And by and large, global poverty has been on the decline—largely due to rapid growth in India and China.

The bombings in London among other things managed to abort what could have been a fruitful discussion of global poverty, even if both the G8’s agenda and Live 8 had cast it in terms that avoided perhaps one of the deeper causes of global poverty—agricultural subsidies for farmers in the developed world—in favor of solutions that could be categorized under bourgeois charitablism, even if some of these have merit. 

The link between farm subsidies in the West and poverty in the Third World is fairly straightforward, even if many don’t quite see the linkage. It’s no secret that farms subsidies in the West are enormous. Excluding subsidies in the form of research and development, food inspection and welfare support for poor citizens (mostly, the food stamp program in the US), subsidies in the OECD averaged 30% of farm receipts, meaning 30 cents of each dollar of revenue from farming in the West comes from state transfers, on average. Nearly, US$290 billion was spent by OECD member in direct support to farmers.

The funny-disturbing figure in these discussions is $2.50 a day in subsidies per cow in Europe; compare that with this one–nearly three in four people on the African continent live on less than $2 a day. And the connection is more than coincidental.

Subsidies, especially on these scales, encourage considerable over-production, allowing farmers, or agro-business, to effectively dump food in poor economies. (Yes, people are made poor because there’s too much food in the world.) Local farmers are unable to compete with the (subsidy distorted) prices of imported foodstuffs. In the last decade, major crops, such as sugar and cotton, have seen a fall in prices by as much as 40%-50%. Sugar subsidies, for example, make it difficult for Mozambican producers to compete with European or American ones. (Moreover, quotas and tariffs in the West add additional costs to poorer producers when they try to export to the West.) Commodities prices fall below the costs of production in many locales. In most of these places, local farmers are among the poorest; pushed out of the market by subsidies, they are often unable to gain a livelihood. And more than 2 billion people on this planet depend on agriculture for their livelihood.

Delegations from poorer countries to talks on trade regularly point this out, and politicians and trade representatives in the West are hardly ignorant of the dynamic. Nor are they so callous as to be indifferent to poverty on this scale, or at least I’d like to think that they are not.

Occasionally, someone makes the case that a nation doesn’t really want its food supply to be at the whim of global markets, and subsidies insure that it preserves the capacity to produce at home. Others treat it as a way of having their nation’s farmers command a larger share of the world’s food market. Of course, it’s unlikely that agriculture in the West would disappear without subsidies and further impoverishing millions in the world’s bottom tiers is a rather sickening price to pay for market share.

For most governments in the Western world, electoral politics makes it difficult to end farm subsidies. Rural, agriculture-dependent populations may be small, but they are a strategic voting block who feels the issue intensely. Moreover, the rest of us benefit from cheap food. Even if it is the case that very large producers, and not small farmers, benefit most, the symbolic power of the Japanese rice producer or the French farmer (or the American one, for that matter) is considerable.

Not too long ago, I was having a discussion with a friend who has worked for a long time in developmental economics. Her work mostly concerns Africa, and she’s extremely critical of the subsidy system in the West, but entirely for the havoc it wreaks on the poorest in the world. But she asked a question: what’s wrong if a society tries to maintain a way of life for cultural reasons? (The Japanese and French often give this answer when criticized for providing lavish assistance to their farmers.)

And make no mistake, we are taking of ways of life here and not merely support for a job. Farming brings with it more than simply income. Various aspects of life are tied to it: extended family structures, communities, schools, and broad elements of what we would call culture. My grandmother, a small farmer in the rural backwaters of India, continued to work the land into her 80s, long after her children did reasonably well.

When entire ways of life are under threat, people do make strong demands on their societies and governments that these ways of life be maintained. When the company-towns along what became the rust belt (and is now post-rust belt) fell into economic distress, others felt the pull of their demands to have their communities preserved, and preserved through the maintenance of the companies that were the integrating and constituting force of the communities and culture.  The reaction is understandable.

There are two objections. First, even if we choose to help maintain these modes of life, there is no good reason why we should permit the consequence of the impoverishment of millions. But second and perhaps more important is the fact that we don’t owe others the maintenance of their way of life. This is as true of the farmers in the Third World as in the first. (I do think that we should provide assistance to those dislocated in our economy so that they can adjust themselves to new circumstances.)

But it’s clear that despite the reduction in some farm subsidies over the last decade or so, farmers in the Third World will not be enjoying a leveled economic playing field anytime soon. And as much as many people in the West want the end of subsidies, the strategic voting position of farmers makes it unlikely that subsidies will disappear, though some Western societies have managed to get rid of them. Perhaps then it’s time to focus energies on how to keep much of the food produced in the First World off of local markets in the Third World, or to allow tariffs that raise the price of Western foodstuff to market levels. But it is most certainly time to discuss how something this seemingly innocuous is immiserating some of the world’s more vulnerable in ways that are not about making us feel good and which also take into account that (at least some) farmers in the West have more at stake than their income.

Morgan’s Monday Musing Makeup: Caro’s Triumph

I just started in on the third volume, Master of the Senate, of Robert A. Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson. I read the other two over the last six months or so, between a number of other obligations. The problem is that once you really get going on them it’s hard to do anything else. I find myself missing subway stops and glancing at the clock expecting to see midnight and realizing that it is 4:00am (at least I know Abbas is still up).

That in itself is, I guess, something of a tribute to how amazingly good the volumes are. I’m not the first one to say this. They’ve been lauded to the skies; compared, rightly, with the works of such world historical notables as Gibbon and Tacitus. They’ve been recognized as an amazing fusion between high level scholarship, top notch writing and some less tangible quality. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s just a feel for what is important, for the way that the story of Johnson is both a story of one particular, strange, compelling, monstrous, brilliant, singular individual and also the story of a nation and a time period and all that kind of stuff too.

That is really why he is being compared to the Gibbonses and Taciti. Who knows what the exact formula is, but some history writers get kissed by their particular muse, I believe it’s Clio, and manage some kind of fantastic fusion of the particular and the universal. The more they tell us about this one thing, the more the thing they are talking about touches on everything else.

There are things that Caro keeps going back to and as he weaves them through each volume the impact of one man, one family, one little place in the Hill Country of Texas takes on global proportions as Johnson gains more and more power. That’s an old story, probably. There’s a version of it for Napolean, or Alexander the Great, or Suleiman, or etc., etc. But it’s another thing entirely to be able to suss out all the most relevant particulars and show them, to reveal them in such a way that they become obvious and clear in light of their greater implications. The very first page of the very first volume starts like this:

On the day he was born, he would say, his white-haired grandfather leaped onto his big black stallion and thundered across the Texas Hill Country, reining in at every farm to shout: “A United States Senator was born today!” Nobody in the Hill Country remembers that ride or that shout, but they do remember the baby’s relatives saying something else about him, something which to them was more significant. And old aunt, Kate Bunton Keale, said it first, bending over the cradle, and as soon as she said it, everyone saw it was true, and repeated it: “He has the Bunton strain.” And to understand Lyndon Johnson it is necessary to understand the Bunton strain, and to understand what happened to it when it was mixed with the Johnson strain—and, most important, to understand what the Hill Country did to those who possessed it.

In a way, the entirety of Caro’s book is spun out from those few lines. The fact that “Nobody in the Hill Country remembers that ride or that shout” isn’t a side note. It’s central. Because it’s a bold faced lie. Johnson was one of the most lying sons of bitches, seemingly, ever to live. He lied and he cheated and he stole his way out of the Hill Country. He made up the story about his grandfather because he was already creating the aura that he would use to make it true retrospectively. At the same time, in order to truly escape the Hill Country he had to make the Hill Country disappear. He had to make the Hill Country into something new so that it could be a platform for his own ambitions.

And in doing that he accomplished something remarkable, and whether it was as an ancillary to his quest for power or not becomes irrelevant. He worked with a mad, driven abandon as a nobody Congressman and he tried to gain every advantage for his county that he could from the New Deal. For the Hill Country, it meant electrification. Caro writes about it thusly:

As late as 1935, farmers had been denied electricity not only in the Hill Country but throughout the United States. In that year, more than 6 million of America’s 6.8 million farms did not have electricity. Decades after electric power had become part of urban life, the wood range, the washtub, the sad iron and the dim kerosene lamp were still the way of life for almost 90 percent of the 30 million Americans who lived in the countryside. All across the United States, wrote a public-power advocate “every city ‘white way’ ends abruptly at the city limits. Beyond lies darkness.” The lack of electric power, writes the historian William E. Leuchtenberg, had divided the United States into two nations: “the city dwellers and the country folk”; farmers, he wrote, “toiled in a nineteenth-century world; farm wives, who enviously eyed pictures in the Saturday Evening Post of city women with washing machines, refrigerators, and vacuum cleaners, performed their back breaking chores like peasant women in a pre-industrial age.” . . .
But then one evening in November, 1939, the Smiths were returning from Johnson City, where they had been attending a declamation contest, and as they neared their farmhouse, something was different.
“Oh my God,” her mother said, “The house is on fire!”
But as they got closer, they saw the light wasn’t fire. “No, Mama,” Evelyn said. “The lights are on.”
They were on all over the Hill Country. “And all over the Hill Country,” Stella Gliddon says, “people began to name their kids for Lyndon Johnson.”

Real power grows from little episodes like that. And episodes like that were part and parcel of the real transformation of American life. And the transformation of American life happened in the specific way it did because, in part, particular mad, power hungry, odd and gangly political geniuses like Lyndon Johnson clawed their ways out of places like the Hill Country with insane dreams in their heads. He cheated his way to the Senate partly by being the first man to ride around in a helicopter from town to town and partly by buying every vote he could. What a strange sight it must have been to see LBJ descending, arms agoggle, stupid smile on his face, from a whirring mechanical bird onto your front lawn. He couldn’t pass anybody up. He was an asshole. But he understood people.

The beginning of the third volume, Master of the Senate, is an amazing short history of the powers of the Senate up until the mid-twentieth century when Johnson arrives. In a relatively brief dash, it gives one a greater sense of the institution than probably ninety percent of the specific studies of the Senate one could pick up. Which brings me to my last point on the subject. America is a pretty interesting place, really; grand and dumb, inspiring and depressing all at once. Given its immense power in this, our era, there is probably something like a vague global civic duty to understand it as best we can. And so it’s pretty frickin great that we have Caro.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Seven Challenges to our Shared Mobile Future

3QD editor Marko Ahtisaari in an excellent essay posted on his personal blog:

Marko2I sit here connected, flying somewhere over Las Vegas. Wireless networks and satellite links combine to draw me online. Right now, finally always on, seems a fitting time to reflect on how we got here and where we should go next.

Introduction: Scale

Next year there will be more than 2 billion mobile phone users in the world. Over the last fifteen years the mobile industry has seen amazing growth. Much of this growth has been in the developed economies but increasingly the value is created in emerging markets.Just as it is difficult to perceive the speed of an airplane from within – blogging over Las Vegas – it is hard to fathom the scale of adoption of mobile technologies. We are numb to it.

How will we explain to our children that before, when you wanted to call someone, you needed to stand against a wall? Mobile phones today have become ubiquitous, embedded into the fabric of everyday life. They have become a mobile essential. If someone owns a mobile phone today it is likely to be one of the three things that she always carries with her, the other two being keys and some form of payment.

What made this growth possible? Where did this massive scale come from? What was the structure of the mobile industry that made reaching this two billion mark possible? Three features stand out:

1. An object with a social function tied to a service. The primary human benefit driving the growth of the mobile industry was that of social interaction, people connecting with each other. Initially this meant calling people – a familiar activity at the time – but with a new twist: the cord had been cut. Over time this began to also mean sending short text messages.

2. Service providers – mobile operators – subsidizing price. To compete for customers those providing voice and messaging services subsidized – in markets where this was legally possibly – the price of the mobile devices in exchange for a longer term customer relationship. As a result end customers rarely saw the full price of the device and the infrastructure combining both devices and networks was rolled out at unprecedented speed.

3. The shift from a familiar collective object to a personal object.The last, and often overlooked, feature of the mobile industry is that it was based on a shift from a familiar collective object – the family phone – to a personal object, the mobile phone. The idea of a personal phone simply did not exist in the popular consciousness 20 years ago.

With this growth, this bigness, came a new communications mass market, some of the most valued brands in the world, and massive economies of scale. And with it came perhaps the strongest example of a hybrid consumer product. The mobile platform – because of it’s scale and it’s focus on the big human fundamental of social interaction – is a center of gravity for other familiar benefits and functionalities. Think of the clock. Imagine how many people wake up to a phone each morning, how many have stopped using a wristwatch. Or, to take a more recent example, the camera is now moving onto the mobile platform.

Against this background of scale I’ll outline seven challenges to our shared mobile future.

1. Reach

The first challenge has to do with increasing access to mobile technologies. How will mobile technologies reach the next 2 billion people? One can raise legitimate concerns about this goal as an end in itself. At the very least enabling people to connect in affordable ways leads predictably to economic growth. Recent research has established that…

More here.

Cognitive Psychology and Moral Reasoning

Also in the Boston Review, Rebecca Saxe looks at cognitive psychology and moral reasoning.

“A decade after [James Q.] Wilson’s book [The Moral Sense] was published, the psychological and neural basis of moral reasoning is a rapidly expanding topic of investigation within cognitive science. In the intervening years, new technologies have been invented, and new techniques developed, to probe ever deeper into the structure of human thought. We can now acquire vast numbers of subjects over the Internet, study previously inaccessible populations such as preverbal infants, and, using brain imaging, observe and measure brain activity non-invasively in large numbers of perfectly healthy adults. Inevitably, enthusiasts make sweeping claims about these new technologies and the old mysteries they will leave in their wake. (“The brain does not lie” is a common but odd marketing claim, since in an obvious sense, brains are the only things that ever do.)

The appeal of the new methods is clear: if an aspect of reasoning is genuinely universal, part of the human genetic endowment, then such reasoning might be manifest in massive cross-cultural samples, in subjects not yet exposed to any culture, such as very young infants, and perhaps even in the biological structure of our reasoning organ, the brain.

How far have these technologies come in teaching us new truths about our moral selves? How far could they go? And what will be the implications of a new biopsychological science of natural morality?