Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Over at Philosophy Bites:
Subjective experience leads to the so-called 'hard problem' of consciousness: the difficulty of explaining qualia in terms of the brain. Keith Frankish discusses both the problem and a possible solution in this episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast.
Nick Smith in Aeon (Photo by W Eugene Smith/Magnum):
Apologies interact with the law in strange ways. Let’s start with criminal law. The modern penitentiary originated in the 18th century as a place of penance: it was where society sent its outcasts to study their Bibles, experience quiet self-alienation, hear the word of Christ, and repent. Less has changed than you might think.
Between 90 and 95 per cent of all criminal convictions in the US result from guilty pleas rather than jury trials. In many if not all of the millions of cases in the US criminal justice system, courts determine punishments in part based on their sense of whether the offender is remorseful or not. We might wince at the idea of secular states engaging in the ‘soul crafting’ of the original penitentiaries, but we still expect state agents to divine the essence of the offender’s nature and offer a suitable punishment based on her badness. We are, in other words, still in the grip of old spiritual traditions. And that leaves us with an old problem.
Findings of remorse in criminal contexts typically occur in the star chambers of intuition. State officials consult their gut feelings, evaluate a few emotional cues and then render a (typically unappealable) decision about the offender’s character. On the whole, they do not explain why they find an offender’s remorse compelling. They do not disclose or defend their standards of contrition. The US Federal Sentencing Guidelines attempted to add some consistency to punishments by allowing reductions in sentences for those who ‘accept responsibility’, but, in practice, accepting responsibility has come to mean agreeing to a plea even while denying guilt. The US Supreme Court has ruled that remorse can determine whether an offender lives or dies, yet we entrust such determinations to ‘know it when I see it’ standards, as if judges and juries can look into the eyes of offenders, intuit the depths of their evil, and punish accordingly.
This discretionary latitude has predictable consequences. Regardless of their blameworthiness, rich offenders tend to get more credit for their remorse than poor ones, a generalisation that holds throughout the US criminal process. Police officers are more likely to let a warning suffice when the offender is rich. Parole boards are more likely to find that a rich inmate is sufficiently reformed. By contrast, the apologies of minorities, the poor and the mentally disabled often fail to convince.
Sonja Pyykkö speaks to György Dragomán, author of "The White King", in Eurozine:
Day-to-day reality in a communist state was defined by a long list of forbidden practices, objects and opinions, and the culture of informants that aimed to keep everyone in check. Naturally, no one knew the identity of the informants, so neighbours, distant relatives and co-workers were all suspicious by default. Keeping people in a constant state of mistrust is a form of exercising power according to the ancient principle of divide and conquer. Dragomán links this distrust to the violence of the system:
"Conversations were full of violence and nearly every subject was approached through it. A dictatorship functions just so; violence replaces communication in its entirety. Since nobody could be trusted, you were forced into this violent guessing game of whether they'll hurt you or you them. It all started very early on, I can't even remember any other type of conversation. This is all in retrospect of course, at the time it felt completely normal."
Dragomán is very good at portraying the division between open, physical violence, and hidden violence that is apparent only on the level of speech and thought, and as a constant threat in everyday life.
"In some ways, the entire system's rhetoric was based on violence. Peace was of course a big deal and the state's rhetoric was always about peace, but there was always some battle involved. As a child I always had this terrible feeling that violence could emerge at any moment. Like in school, where during my childhood teachers still used canes. We weren't caned often, but the threat was always present. I remember this teacher, who had a broken arm in a cast. I remember the story was that he'd broken it when hitting a child. This probably wasn't true, but as a child, I believed the story completely."
Monday, October 20, 2014
by Gerald Dworkin
In the light of the recent fire-storm over the hirefire of Steven Salaita, I thought it might be interesting to revisit a case which raised similar issues about whether there are limits to what a University may do with respect to controversial speech. This was a case which did not raise issues about hiring and firing and procedural justice so it may perhaps be a better one to focus on.
In 2002, the Harvard English Department invited the Irish poet Tom Paulin to give a poetry reading as the Morris Gray lecturer. Shortly thereafter it was brought to the attention of the inviters that Paulin had made the following statements in an interview to an Egyptian newspaper.
"Brooklyn-born settlers in the occupied territories should be shot dead. I think they are Nazis, racists, I feel nothing but hatred for them." Brooklyn? Has the man no shame?
The newspaper also quoted him as saying: "I never believed that Israel had the right to exist at all." In a poem published earlier in the Observer he referred to the "Zionist SS" .
Another comment was "There's something profoundly sexual to the Zionist pleasure w/#Israel's aggression. Sublimation through bloodletting, a common perversion." Oh, sorry that was Steven Salaita.
As a result of this, and without as far as we know any influence by Harvard donors, the English Department retracted their invitation.
A hail of protests ensued. Strange bedfellows issued letters. This one came from Alan Dershowitz, Laurence Tribe and Charles Fried.
"By all accounts this Paulin fellow the English Department invited to lecture here is a despicable example of the anti-Semitic and/or anti-Israel posturing unfortunately quite widespread among European intellectuals (News, "Poet Flap Drew Summers' Input," Nov. 14). We think he probably should not have been invited. But Harvard has had its share of cranks, monsters, scoundrels and charlatans lecture here and has survived.
What is truly dangerous is the precedent of withdrawing an invitation because a speaker would cause, in the words of English department chair Lawrence Buell, "consternation and divisiveness." We are justly proud that our legal system insisted that the American Nazi Party be allowed to march through the heavily Jewish town of Skokie, Illinois. If Paulin had spoken, we are sure we would have found ways to tell him and each other what we think of him. Now he will be able to lurk smugly in his Oxford lair and sneer at America's vaunted traditions of free speech. There are some mistakes which are only made worse by trying to undo them."
James Shapiro, of Columbia where Paulin was visiting, condemned Harvard's actions as "disastrous".
by Rishidev Chaudhuri
At first (and at second, and third) glance, the use of spices in the cuisines of the subcontinent is a subtle and mysterious art, full of musty cupboards staffed by aging apothecaries (and grandmothers) and intertwined with theories of humor-balancing and our particular relationship to the gods. Recipes and spice blends are passed on in scribbled old notebooks and on furtive scraps of paper, copied and recopied like the epics, with long lists of spices and proportions, some crossed out and replaced with others for inexplicable reasons. The spices are essential, we are told, the order in which they are added is crucial, the mind of the cook must be perfectly clear, and the incantations must be uttered perfectly resonantly.
But how to make sense of this confusion if one did not grow up hovering over a mortar and pestle? Or even if one did and was momentarily distracted (perhaps by adolescence)? One route is a close reading of existing recipes and practices, noting patterns, highlighting parsimonious explanations and gradually drawing grander and grander conclusions. Equally useful is naïve phenomenological experimentation: an analytic strategy, where we isolate and examine spices to see what they bring to our senses. In this we should be motivated by Blake's dictum that to know what is enough we must cross it: the most clarifying way to figure out what a spice is doing is to increase its proportions in a recipe ad absurdum, until the structure starts to crack and you glimpse what column of the edifice was being held up by that particular spice. Unfortunately, while this is the right way to conduct disciplined phenomenological inquiry, it is not the right way to make something to eat, and so we will scale our ambitions back and instead simply exaggerate the spice that is being studied and strip away some of the surrounding complexity. This is an ongoing project of mine, as I try to understand subcontinental food, and I'm particularly interested in collecting and devising one-note recipes that highlight a particular spice (see this article on pepper, for example).
Coriander fruits, also commonly called coriander seeds, are good for this kind of analysis. Their flavors are crucial to many subcontinental foods, and are part of what makes the cuisine distinctive. Yet, unlike a number of other spices, coriander tends to be gentle and forgiving. It's a friendly spice, with flavors of citrus and flowers mixed in with a warm spiciness. If you have coriander seeds in your pantry, chew on a few seeds as you read this and you'll smell and taste the flavors I mean (you can do this with the powder too, but it's less pleasant and it'll dry out your mouth). There's also a slight soapiness, which I'm told some people pick up on more than others. If you're curious about the chemistry of coriander, Harold McGee's book On Food and Cooking is wonderful (as usual).
by Hari Balasubramanian
You might wonder who is conversing with whom. The best description I have is that these are two voices or perspectives in my head debating each other.
"This thing called the sense of self, the ego or the ‘I'. There are many claims floating around these days that confidently say that the sense of self is an illusion. Not sure what to make of this. If I accept such a claim then who or what is this ‘I' that just accepted the illusory nature of the self? It's like walking around in circles, like a dog chasing its tail and going nowhere."
"You could say the ‘I' is some kind of energy in our conscious experience that comes together in such a way as to create the illusion."
"Maybe so. But how does that help me? I still feel the sense of self exists; that's what is speaking right now! I can't just wish it away because somebody says it is an illusion. I can't wish it away even if my own intellect logically reasons out that it is an illusion. For example, I know very well that the body – the best proxy I have for the ‘I' – had a certain shape in the womb, a different shape as a baby, something entirely different as an adult, and will disintegrate after death. So I can reason pretty clearly that what we call the body is ever changing, from one moment to the next, that there is nothing constant there. Yet each one of us, without fail, invariably points to his or her body to claim that this is me…"
"I agree that there is something that always seems to be hovering around. And it is quite practical in claiming an ever-changing and perishable body, among a host of other perishable things, for itself. But when examined closely, the ‘I' cannot be pointed out as anything concrete – where is it?"
"It is always the main point of reference, always claiming that this is me or this is not me. Or I like this or I do not like this, or I am neutral to this. We cannot even frame a sentence while conversing that does not have ‘I' or ‘you' or ‘this' or ‘that' in it. If consciousness of anything is there, the ‘I' is very much there mixed up with it -- don't you feel so too? This is why – unless I experience it myself firsthand: I don't know what that would be like – the idea that the self is an illusion does not affect me. It's as if one moment the ‘I' feels strongly it exists, and then the very next moment the very same ‘I' cleverly changes hats and declares: ‘Well, I shouldn't take myself seriously, since there is strong evidence that I am an illusion!'"
"Still, I still think there is some practical benefit to the idea of no-self, of not taking the ego seriously. When I observe my thoughts closely, I find there is very little control; I don't know where thoughts are coming from and what their source is. They just come and go; sometimes my mind is very busy, chaotic, and at other times very slow and relaxed. Everything – decisions, events, what captures my attention, how things unfold in time – seems so complex and intertwined. An emotion or idea or feeling or inspiration will surge up within me whether I want it or not. When this understanding sinks deep enough, maybe I may learn to understand that others too are being driven by thoughts that are not under their control. So maybe the ‘I' can observe and train itself. It may or may not work – there are never any guarantees – but you remind yourself, all the time, to not take the ego seriously."
"You have to do it all the time because this thing called the ‘I' is present all the time!"
we unload the freight of day
as night wraps up what day has told
there’s not much more to say—
myself in shade, eagle in her hold
both are restless in day’s throes.
who among us really understand
what night becomes, where daylight goes,
who know the ground, the place we stand?
still the worm in unturned earth makes way,
a cardinal, blood red, in a maple’s crown
is more tuned than I am to the stuff the earth displays:
what lifts it up, what presses down
what’s hidden keeps us on the edge
with those we love our only hedge
by Jim Culleny
“Her hands full of earth, she kneels, in red suede high heels:” Planting a New Language in Diaspo/Renga
by Shadab Zeest Hashmi
This past summer, news of the Gaza massacres came most revealingly in images and videos taken with cell phones— the devices originally intended to connect us through voice, chronicling instead the horrors befalling Palestinians in real time, horrors that defy conventional language, and will not be chronicled with fidelity by the news media: a suffering made more pronounced by being pushed out of language. Through those seven weeks of Israeli bombardment, the days and nights linked with images of mangled children and rubble and hysteria had the effect of a long nightmare in which the sleeper neither has the power to change the outcome of impending calamity, nor is able to wake up and disengage from it.
The ripple effects of genocide and silencing go farther than we can imagine; victims and perpetrators can end up looking like a paper doll chain: inhumane/dehumanized. It never occurred to me that the claustrophobic effect of this chain may be reversed by another kind of chain, one that brings moments of erasure back into language by linking voices in poetry.
At a recent RAWI (Radius of Arab American Writers) conference, I heard a chain of poems, a “Renga,” written by two poets of different backgrounds, who, despite the unique stylistic sensibilities that set them apart, speak from the experience of calling many places home, and whose work is imbued with a concern to translate culture for the cause of a nuanced understanding of “the other.” These two poets, I discovered, know each other in the way it is common for writers to know each other— through writing— they had never met until that particular poetry reading I attended. Marilyn Hacker who resides in Paris, a celebrated author of many volumes of poetry, and Deema Shehabi, her younger counterpart in California, also a poet of multiple cultures, decided to assemble a series of linked poems. After four years and thousands of email exchanges containing drafts of poems, the work is now available in published form. The title of the book Diaspo/Renga is a play on the word “Diaspora,” and “Renga,” a traditional Japanese collaborative form. The Renga is made up of linked Tanka. Explaining the form, Deema Shehabi says: “Traditionally, one poet would write the first Tanka, followed by the other poet’s Tanka. The syllable count for each Tanka is 5-7-5 then 7-7. Marilyn stuck to the original syllable count where I did not.” In their adaptation of the Renga form, each poet writes two Tanka as a single poem, ten lines in all.
by Akim Reinhardt
Part I of this essay appeared last month.
Thus continues my grand voyage, in which a rusty ‘98 Honda Accord shuttles me from one end of North America to the other and back again . . .
After stumbling half-way across the continent, I settled into the northern Great Plains for a spell. Determined to visit a variety of archives, I cris-crossed South Dakota to the tune of a thousand miles. It's a big state.
First I spent some time in the East River college towns of Vermillion and Brookings. A hop, skip, and a jump from the Minnesota border, this here is Prairie Home Companion country. It's a land of hot dishes (casseroles) and Lutheran churches. Of sprawling horizons and "Oh, ya know."
There's lots of tall people. Lots of blond people. Lots of tall, blond people. I like it.
But after a week of researching and visiting old friends, I left behind the Scandinavian heritage and Minnesota-style niceties of eastern South Dakota. I made my way west across the Missouri River and then headed north. Actually, I crossed the line into North Dakota; Sitting Bull College on the Standing Rock Reservation is actually in the NoDak town of Fort Yates.
I'm happy to give the tribe some money, so I spent a night at the tribally owned Prairie Knights hotel and casino. I had a mind to play some poker, but when I went downstairs to investigate, I found the card room was already in the thick of a Texas Hold ‘Em tournament. So I bought a sandwich, returned to my room, and watch Derek Jeter's last game at Yankee Stadium.
After Standing Rock, the plan was to go straight down the gut of central South Dakota to Rosebud Reservation, which sits near the Nebraska border, and then westward to Pine Ridge Reservation in the state's southwestern corner.
If you were to plot my herky-jerky route across South Dakota, I suspect it would create an exciting new shape that mathematicians would get wide-eyed about. And then they'd come up with a cool name for this strange but essential new shape. Maybe something like an "akimus." The akimus will shed new light on our understanding of trapezoids. And of course it will have some mysterious relationship to Pi.
I can imagine this because I haven't passed a math class since the 10th grade.
by Grace Boey
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about Internet trolls. I’d always been vaguely aware of their presence, and had read some articles here and there about the threats they pose to constructive debate—but I never truly realized the full nature of their pestilence until I had to deal with them myself. Since I started publicly writing and commenting online, I’ve encountered abusive, non-constructive comments and emails on an increasingly frequent basis. I also co-manage an atheist social media page; I’m not the direct target of the trolls that lurk here, thankfully, but I do have to trawl through their vile comments, where they often abusively attack (or embarrass) causes I care about deeply.
Naturally, none of this has been good for my blood pressure. Last month, I became irritated enough to start work on a long exposition of online trolling—in the process, targeting specific trolls I’d personally encountered. Yes, hell hath no fury like a woman trolled, and I spent more time than I’d care to admit compiling comprehensive records of at least three of these individuals’ online activities. I even uncovered the physical, non-virtual identity of one of them.
You’d think I’d be happy for striking troll-hunter’s gold. Yet, the more I wrote and uncovered, the less I wanted to publish a piece bashing trolldom in general, let alone one that put specific individuals on the spot. Though I was pleased with the quality of the article, I refrained from running it. And very fortunately so—a couple of weeks after the piece would have been published, the Brenda Leyland troll-exposing controversy erupted.
Here’s what I've come to think: there’s very strong reason to believe that many compulsive Internet trolls need our active help. The impersonality of the internet makes it easy for them to dehumanize others, but for this same reason, it’s also easy for us to completely dehumanize them. But we must resist this temptation. Who are the people behind these monikers and computer screens, really? Why do they thrive on trolling, and why on earth don't they have anything better to do? How did they become this way? When we really stop to think about these questions, a disturbing social and psychological picture emerges. Virtual trolls may be a problem as much to their human selves as they are to their human victims.
Walter Johnston. Flaky Thorn Acacia. Timbavati, South Africa, 2014.
On safari in August we were told that a "gall making wasp" injects a kind of growth hormone into the thorn to make it expand (see below) and thus provide a well protected nourishing home for its eggs.
I have not been able to corroborate this. If someone else can, I'd love to learn.
Here's the best I have found:
"Myrmecophilous acacia are found in Eastern Africa and Mesoamerica ...
...They develop some to most of their stipular spines into inflated, globose, ovoid, fusiform or thick cyclindrical armatures. Their spines look like galls or horns leading to species names like White swollen thorn acacia (=A. bussei), Black-galled acacia (A. malacocephala), Hairy-galled acacia (=A. mbuluensis), Bull`s Horn acacia, or Ant-galled acacia also called Whistling thorn acacia
The swollen thorns are genetically fixed. They are not randomely generated by the sting of an insect, like the galls produced by a wasp that injects her chemicals into a leaf, which then forms galls. Therefore the so-called gall-thorns are not real galls.
The fresh thorn is drilled open by an ant queen. Then it is carved out and she lays her eggs inside, starting a new colony ...
The obligate mutualistic Acacia-ants (Pseudomyrex in Mesoamerica and Crematogaster in Africa) protect the plant in different ways: they fiercly attack browsing mammals, ravaging insects and epiphytic vines. They prevent any twig from neighbouring trees to touch their host – to prevent hostile ants from invading their tree. For the same reason they cut shoots of their tree that develop too far towards the canopy of neighboring trees."
Walter Johnston. Swollen thorn of the Flaky Thorn Acacia. Timbavati, South Africa, 2014.
More on acacias here.
Photographs posted with permissin from Walter Johnston.
by Bill Benzon
“The interests of humanity may change, the present curiosities in science may cease, and entirely different things may occupy the human mind in the future.” One conversation centered on the ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.
In scientific prognostication we have a condition analogous to a fact of archery--the farther back you are able to draw your longbow, the farther ahead you can shoot.
R. Buckminster Fuller, Critical Path
Let’s get started:
- A week ago The Guardian published a long piece in which Pankaj Mishra argued that the Western world no longer provides a model the rest of the world should or even can follow, if it ever had.
- A couple of weeks ago polymath David Byrne asserted that he’d lost interest in contemporary art, feeling it had devolved into “inoffensive tchotchkes for billionaires and the museums they fund,” a sentiment that the late Robert Hughes had been promulgating for some years.
- Back in 1996 science journalist John Horgan published The End of Science, in which he argued that many fields of science had reached a point where they were no longer intellectually productive. The big problems had been solved, more or less, and further investigations seemed to be running in circles without any clear sense of progress.
Not only am I sympathetic which each of these ideas, I think they all reflect the same underlying cause: the wellsprings of old ideas – about social organization, artistic expression, and scientific explanation, certainly, but also about fiction, legal codes, economics, education, music, gender and family, and a host of others – have run dry and new ones have not yet been discovered.
I’m quite familiar with this phenomenon in the case of literary studies, where I received my graduate training. The French landed in Baltimore in the Fall of 1966 and catalyzed three decades of intellectual invention. The invention all but stopped about twenty years ago, leaving literary studies afflicted with a sense of malaise that goes deeper than budget cuts and umbrage taken at silly articles in which humorists of The New York Times take potshots at papers presented at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association.
How could new ideas just stop? Have people gotten stupid or is something else going on? If so, what?
Lauren Davis extemporizes about how astronauts became known as gods:
The stories told of ancient beings so powerful that they could fling themselves into space and explore the points of light in the heavens. When Lady Adelaide moved into one of their unused crafts, many called it blasphemy. She called it research.
by Leanne Ogasawara
That's what I wanted to tell him about. But the evening when I finally had my chance to chat with a former astronaut and now NASA leader, I had lost my voice.
He was standing there holding court about the state of science education in the country. He was also discussing the lack of political vision, and I thought how the level of this decline came with an astounding --and perhaps corresponding-- level of malaise. Looking back, other than World War II and perhaps the country's early days of Revolutionary politics, has anything truly excited and united people here more than scientific innovation and the space program? Apropos of this, not so long ago a friend, who had just turned 50, listed in a Facebook post several of what he considered to be the highlights of his half century on earth-- and of eight great achievements, three were space related (and of the other five, only one, the eradication smallpox, was even serious).
Yes, space is exciting. It also generates wonder in people--especially children.
So, how could we let it decline?
Manned missions to Mars is the next big dream it seems. Not surprisingly, when the Dutch non-profit outfit Mars One held open applications for new astronauts, the largest group by far to apply were Americans--and this was for a one-way mission!
One could argue that discovery is something that is inherently part of the human condition and that space is just in our blood. So, also not surprisingly, the former astronaut mentioned above spoke excitedly about Mars. "A human astronaut can do what it took the robotic rover to do in a long day in under twenty minutes," he said. "And, let's face it, Mars is the only place humans could possibly live," he continued.
by Josh Yarden
I just finished reading the end of the Five Books of Moses, again, and even though I did not read theentire five books this year, or any other year for that matter, I have already started over from the beginning. This past week was the festival of Simchat Torah, dedicated to celebrating our connection to the text we have come to know as the first five books of the Bible. It marks the end of the cycle of weekly readings, and the beginning of the renewed cycle. We wentstrait from the account of Moses' passing (at the end of the Book of Deuteronomy) to the meditation on the creation of the world (at the beginning of the Book of Genesis), as though that is the natural order of the verses in a Torah scroll.
Each year is a new beginning in the cycle of Torah reading, but even if you were to read the 79,847 words of a complete Torah scroll, even if that is all you did all year, you would still have skipped over much of what there is to find there. There is always more than there than previously met the eye, because the nearly eighty thousand words are presented in prose poems. Scratch the surface, and even the apparently mundane legalistic sections are bursting with metaphor, wordplay, and oblique references to other parts of the text.
Revisiting the text is never quite returning to the same text. The words remain the same, but since a year has passed, or perhaps many, the reader is never quite the same as during a previous read. The old text now exists within a new context. As we approach familiar stories with additional sensibilities, we can gain something new each time we read it again. Many passages of Torah can be understood more deeply over time. Here is one illustration of how a story that will be coming around again soon is given to multiple interpretation.
A young person reading the story of the binding of Isaac might imagine being tied down on an alter and prepared for sacrifice by a parent. Reading the same words as the parent of a young child makes it quite a different story. What could possess a person to even consider the possibility of sacrificing a child? Abraham was somehow stopped from committing the act of ritual slaughter, but that moment is nonetheless the last time that Abraham and Isaac speak or meet face to face in the biblical narrative. Indeed, later rabbinic writings retell the story as though Abraham had actually sacrificed his son.
Studying the biblical text anew provides some insight as to how the story could be understood that way. There are things we sacrifice, metaphorically speaking. People are at times among the ‘sacrifices' we make. Even though we do not physically cut them down, we do at times give up on people for various reasons, perhaps regrettably so. The parent of a young adult might come to wonder if in some sense, he had not in effect ‘sacrificed' a relationship with a son or daughter on the ‘alter' of something previously held with a blindly driven commitment… a career, or something even more frivolous. After sufficient damage is done, it may be too late to repair the relationship.
by Brooks Riley
There was a time when American football was played without helmets, and there was a time when Dracula's best trick involved opening doors with his mind. Since those early days, however, both American football and the Dracula films have taken a turn for the extreme, and their body counts have increased as a result. That's not to say the days of yore were without death: football killed nineteen college athletes in 1905 and the Dracula character murdered a literal boatload of people in 1922's Nosferatu. But both the NFL and the Dracula films have clearly dialed up their intensity in the past decade to the detriment of both players' health and horror audiences' entertainment. It is therefore no surprise that these two institutions have become reflections of each other, entangled particles reacting in tandem to the pressure of consumerism that demands more/bigger/louder of everything upon that which it fixates. Indeed, the latest Dracula film, Dracula Untold, is a clear metaphor for the modern day NFL, an undead sports league that stalks the entertainment landscape leaving not two puncture wounds on the necks of its victims but rather chronic traumatic encephalopathy in the rattled brains of its players. Though the league currently has over a hundred million viewers in the United States, one has to wonder if football's dire health risks and the NFL's byzantine rules designed to protect players will eventually lead to the sport's eventual irrelevance in the same way that Dracula Untold's absurd death toll and convoluted mythology makes the film unwatchable.
The first on-screen appearance of Dracula in the 1922 silent German film Nosferatu technically wasn't an appearance by Dracula at all--the vampire was renamed Count Orlok in an attempt to avoid copyright infringement after the producers were unable to secure the rights to Bram Stoker's novel. But whatever. Dracula's/Count Orlok's powers are few and mainly limited to telekinetically opening and shutting things like doors and coffin lids--a cool trick for sure, but nothing compared to titular Transylvanian's abilities in Dracula Untold. Not satisfied with merely controlling doorways or converting the innocent living into the vile undead, the latest iteration of Dracula can summon the entirety of the planet's bats and hurl them at invading armies like an ICBM from an aircraft carrier. He also possesses a set of powers similar to Superman's including incredible strength, speed, endurance, flight, and so forth. That said, there are a few downsides to being a vampire in the Dracula Untold universe, mainly having to do with the fiending for human blood and the inability to go outside on a sunny day. Tradeoffs.
by Evert Cilliers aka Adam Ash
What is it about Ebola and America? We have fewer cases than you can count on one hand of this horrible disease, among a nation of 300 million plus, and we're freaking out as if ISIS has landed and beheaded everyone in Congress (not a bad idea, actually, they'd be doing us all a favor).
And now our President has gone and appointed an Ebola czar. What is this new Czar supposed to do? Go and comfort the families of the one dead from Ebola and the couple of others now in hospital? Big job. Jeez, why is our President acting like a scare-mongered wimp himself? He is supposed to be the grownup in the room. One would expect him to say something like this:
"My dear Americans,
Take a chill pill. Ebola is not a threat to our nation. The Republican Party is a bigger threat, the way they stand against raising the minimum wage for our folks who need to get food stamps even though they're working all day. Why do Americans who actually work have to earn so little that they can't even feed themselves? And why are we subsidizing Walmart and McDonalds who pay their employees so little they need food stamps? Walmart is costing you over $6 billion a year out of your taxes you pay in public assistance to their employees. Ebola is the least of our problems. Ignore it. I do. No need to act like a bunch of hysterical wimps. Let the GOP do that. They're good at being wimps. It's the other side of their coin. They act like wimps because they're bullies. So why don't you go out in November and vote against them? I need Congress back on my side so we can actually make some laws that will benefit the American people."
But no. Obama, unprincipled politician that he is, has his finger to the wee fart of any slight political breeze, and he now appoints an Ebola czar so people will think he's doing something about something that's actually not worth a president's attention, or any American's.
But that's how Obama rolls. He has now decided he needs to degrade ISIS, because they beheaded some folks, and we Americans, hysterical wimps that we are, are all upset about it.
What Obama forgets is that everyone in the Middle East loves ISIS. Turkey loves them because ISIS kills Kurds. Assad loves them because they make even him look good. Israel loves them because they make the Arabs look like barbarians. Shia-dominated Iraq loves them because they give the Shia a good reason to kill more Sunnis. Iran loves them because their success makes Iraq more dependent on Iran. Saudi-Arabia loves them because they kill Shias. ISIS is exactly what the Middle East needs, and for us to degrade them, is exactly what the Middle East doesn't need.
To quote Obama, for us to take on ISIS is getting involved in a "dumb war." We could be using ISIS to buy cheaper oil from them, which is the best way we have of taking advantage of their existence. That would be proper realpolitik.
by Eric Byrd
A few years ago Slate's culture editor David Haglund posted a piece called "Marilynne Robinson, the Terrence Malick of the Literary World." Malick and Robinson, he said, are kindred artists. They share a pattern of striking debuts, mid-career hiatus, and late fertility; also, an unfashionable theological seriousness, and a deep attention to the connectedness of all life, a view of nature as a "shining garment in which God is concealed and revealed." After happening upon Robinson's 1989 polemic Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution at a time when I was obsessed with Malick's latest film (and his first set in the present of filming) To the Wonder, I would add that their similar preoccupation with wholeness means a similar horror at environmental pollution, and a desire to remind their audiences that, all being connected, those who exploit the environment exploit their fellow man; and that the immediate toxic aftermath, and the red-handed schemes of disposal, first harm the poor and powerless.
In Mother Country Robinson situates the blithe disposal of nuclear waste in the Irish sea and the contamination of Cumbria within Britain's tradition of "expropriation and immiseration" of its poor, from the Poor Laws, to the displacements of industrialization, to the contemptuous coercions of the welfare state. To the Wonder was filmed in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, a town in which Malick lived part of his childhood, a town on the edge of a contaminated zone that embraces northeastern Oklahoma, and parts of Kansas and Missouri. A century of unrestricted lead and zinc mining (privileged war industries, supplying lead shot for the Civil War and shell casings for the World Wars) resulted in generations of intellectually delayed or disabled schoolchildren, cancer-ridden adults, and a landscape undermined by excavations and dotted with "chat piles," hillocks of granular lead-laced waste on which miner's families used to picnic. Ben Affleck's character, Neil, an environmental scientist, is shown climbing one. Within the zone, Picher, Oklahoma, was in 2009 entirely abandoned – its 1,600 residents paid to leave – and now stands as a ghost town. Robinson was born and raised in Sandpoint, Idaho, near the Coeur d'Alene Basin, another condemned zone of lead-zinc mines.
To the Wonder is so exciting a development because it is a masterful integration of the autobiographical past and the social present. On first viewing I thought it was about hydraulic fracturing, "fracking" – which it is. Past pollutions inform ours. In the United States, for the sake of "energy independence" state governments, with the tacit approval of the Federal, are knowingly poisoning hundreds of rural communities. One of the most striking sequences of To the Wonder is Neil's survey of an endangered neighborhood. His presence, and the invasive intimacy of his work – locks are snipped from young hair, and bagged as specimens; excavators claw the properties – draws a crowd, fearful, agitated, almost hostile. They are sick and want to know why. A priest played by Javier Bardem despairs before the diseased and immiserated flock.
by Sabeen Mahmud
Twenty-four years ago, I fell in love for the first time—with a Macintosh Plus computer which profoundly altered the course of my life and was significant in shaping my anti-establishment, anti-war, pro-freedom worldview. It became an invaluable portal into myriad subcultures, from beat poetry to the Yippies, fuelled by the dark meanderings of Pink Floyd.
After college, I spent the next several years developing multimedia products, exploring the intersection between technology, art, literature, and music. But, by the mid-2000s, I was getting increasingly restless. Karachi was a cesspool of chaos. People were leaving in droves, our politicians continued to make promises they had no intention of fulfilling, and the country lurched from one military dictatorship to another. It was a depressing time and my first moment of existential crisis. Disillusioned, I agreed to an offer to move to Delhi.
Whilst waiting for my visa to come through, I started fantasizing. What would it take to create a space that espoused liberal, secular values through its programming and projects?
The next day, the conversation moved out of my head and onto a whiteboard. I sketched out a fantasy space: a large open courtyard for theatre, dance, spoken word and improv performances, readings, talks, and film screenings. All around the courtyard would be smaller rooms for workshops and events, a bookshop, a coffeehouse, studios for artists and designers, shops for artisans to showcase their work, and a bed-and-breakfast that would pull in some income to subsidize operations. With Rs. 12,000 (about US $113) in my bank account, I ran a check on the cost of land through my estate agent who gave a ridiculous, astronomical figure which paralyzed me into inaction for months.
Toward the end of 2006, I was walking up the stairs to my office and the penny dropped. I realized that the grownups were right: I should start small, test, and iterate. So, trained by those key people in my life – my mother Mahenaz and my mentor Zak, I took a leap of faith and relinquished my Dehli plan to cater to my lofty ambitions settling on an 1800 square feet office, with an open(ish) on the second floor of a building.
Finding some money
I had decided that this little social enterprise in the making was to be a not-for-profit venture and with that model, raising capital from investors or getting a bank loan approved was not an option. We had Rs. 1,000,000 (about US $9,400) stashed for my grandmother's health fund. With her consent, I used the money to get things going.
In January 2007, we christened The Second Floor (T2F). After some quick consultations and brainstorming, PeaceNiche was born and T2F became its first project.
The target launch date for T2F was set for May 2007.
Sunday, October 19, 2014
Justin E. H. Smith in his own blog:
There was a war here not long ago. Mass graves were filled by the bodies of people whose loved ones, the survivors, are still walking around, selling vegetables and bus tickets, huddling and smoking. This war was the expression of a sort of popular will, and it was part of a process of geopolitical realignment that ought to be of significant interest to self-identified Westerners, yet is not. Neither Samuel Huntington, nor Sam Harris, nor Bill Maher, nor anyone even lower among the pundits whose reptilian lobes do not just kick in in moments of distress, but whose careers in fact depend on the continuous buzzing of these lobes: none of these people, I note, ever care to acknowledge, in their professional performances of Islamophobia, that what is perhaps the most Americanophile country in the world is also a Muslim country.
Books by disillusioned physicians reveals a corrosive doctor-patient relationship at the heart of our health-care crisis
Meghan O'Rouke in The Atlantic:
For someone in her 30s, I’ve spent a lot of time in doctors’ offices and hospitals, shivering on exam tables in my open-to-the-front gown, recording my medical history on multiple forms, having enough blood drawn in little glass tubes to satisfy a thirsty vampire. In my early 20s, I contracted a disease that doctors were unable to identify for years—in fact, for about a decade they thought nothing was wrong with me—but that nonetheless led to multiple complications, requiring a succession of surgeries, emergency-room visits, and ultimately (when tests finally showed something was wrong) trips to specialists for MRIs and lots more testing. During the time I was ill and undiagnosed, I was also in and out of the hospital with my mother, who was being treated for metastatic cancer and was admitted twice in her final weeks.
As a patient and the daughter of a patient, I was amazed by how precise surgery had become and how fast healing could be. I was struck, too, by how kind many of the nurses were; how smart and involved some of the doctors we met were. But I was also startled by the profound discomfort I always felt in hospitals. Physicians at times were brusque and even hostile to us (or was I imagining it?). The lighting was harsh, the food terrible, the rooms loud. Weren’t people trying to heal? That didn’t matter. What mattered was the whole busy apparatus of care—the beeping monitors and the hourly check-ins and the forced wakings, the elaborate (and frequently futile) interventions painstakingly performed on the terminally ill. In the hospital, I always felt like Alice at the Mad Hatter’s tea party: I had woken up in a world that seemed utterly logical to its inhabitants, but quite mad to me.
Shougat Dasgupta in The Caravan:
Who speaks, and who is being spoken for, have always been loaded questions for postcolonial novelists. If a nation is, at least in part, imagined into being through feats of storytelling, the storyteller acquires a kind of authority over the soul, such as it is, of the nation. For a certain kind of postcolonial novelist—say, VS Naipaul—the novel must remain an unfinished business: the protagonist cannot develop beyond a certain point; he is stunted and half-formed, like his nation. For another kind of postcolonial novelist—say Hanif Kureishi—it is the former imperial centre that seems half-formed; no longer cocksure, forced to cede ground to the immigrant, or at least to the immigrant’s children, to reconcile itself to a new order. For Naipaul’s failed nationalists and doomed Third World intellectuals, emigration and self-exile is necessary penance; for Kureishi’s first generation Londoners, the baggage of their parents’ histories, the baggage of the ‘home’ country has to be sloughed off so that a new kind of English person can be created. Other postcolonial novelists writing in English have also taken up the theme of finding, creating and claiming a place in new national communities.
Ideas of home and belonging are hardly particular to postcolonial or migrant literature. Novels, from Don Quixote on, have been preoccupied with the radical act of leaving home on journeys and quests, followed by a return; the protagonist fundamentally changed, matured by having lived a little. Home and away: you need the one to recognise the other. The English novel developed in the eighteenth century, alongside an empire expanding ever further afield. Englishness was confronted by foreignness, and the outlandish travel narrative was among the most popular literary genres of the time. Stories, Edward Said wrote in Culture and Imperialism, “are at the heart of what explorers and novelists say about strange regions of the world; they also become the method colonised people use to assert their own identity and the existence of their own history.”
The novel has been a way of asserting and establishing individual and national identity, of making coherent what seems incoherent, of answering (or failing to answer) essential questions: Who are you? Where do you come from? What is your place in society? For a writer like Salman Rushdie, the loss of home can be assuaged by restoring the past “whole, in CinemaScope and glorious Technicolor,” as he wrote in the essay ‘Imaginary Homelands,’ and by creating “Indias of the mind.” Rushdie, for a while, offered hybridity, the double perspective, as a happy alternative to Naipaul’s baleful gloom.
Sophia Nguyen in The Point:
In the dog days of August, two books about the Ivy League landed comfortably on the New York Times bestseller list. One was William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep. The other was Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s Land. Despite their disparate genres, the nonfiction tract ends up in fantasy, while the escapist entertainment roots itself in reality—and both are invested in the drama of gifted children.
Heavily quoting emails and essays from his former students at Yale, Deresiewicz’s higher-ed polemic takes down elite colleges and the adults they produce—zombies with status anxiety where their curiosity and humanity used to be. Rather than challenge students with a rigorous education, Deresiewicz argues, the Ivy League and other elite colleges now promote a narrow notion of success. It begins with admissions offices, which have become inhumanly ruthless sorting machines further stratifying the upper class. Having selected for a certain breed of strivers, the schools then encourage their students to become a conformist herd, seeking meaning in credentials. Failing to find that meaning, the hunger only intensifies.
By contrast, the Magicians trilogy is a fantasy series about young wizards. Its protagonist, Quentin Clearwater, attends a magical college and later discovers a land he’d thought was only imaginary: Fillory, a magic kingdom from his favorite childhood book. Over three books, Quentin gains and abdicates a throne, meets a dragon, learns how to wield a sword and brings his first love back from a fate worse than death. But he is also the ur-sheep: a standard-issue, passably polymathic high schooler who does nothing more or less extraordinary than gain admission to an exclusive college. Amidst all the defensive noise made by Ivy Leaguers rebutting Deresiewicz with their personal stories, the Magicians trilogy furnishes him with a kind of confirming anecdote. It may be pure coincidence that the two were published within a week of each other, but they are symbiotically linked—and so are their fates.