May 25, 2013
Commander Hadfield Shows Us What Science Communication Could Be. Visually.
From Scientific American:
Science communication has seldom had a better champion than Canadian astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield who just returned to Earth last night. Astronauts tweeting and talking from space is not a new phenomena, and though interesting scientific experiments abound way up on the ISS, they weren’t what caught the public’s imagination this go round. It was imagery.
NASA has understood the power of imagery – still photos, animations, illustrations and video – for a long time. Engagement, real wonder and curiosity often comes from appealing to our dominant senses. And now, with the extremely visual nature of social media, with the ability to carry the internet in our pocket, we have the most powerful visual communication medium the world has ever known. Sure, not all scientific stories have the advantage of hurtling around the Earth in space: but the next time you’re writing your science blog, preparing to do some outreach, ask yourself if your finely crafted words don’t deserve some stunning and provocative visuals. There’s plenty of places to find them, or ways to make your own.
On a personal note, to NASA and Commander Hadfield, thank you for the look in my 2 year old son’s eyes when he tried to sing along to Space Oddity last night (and made up some lyrics about helmets and big giant Jupiter). That look in his eyes, that’s what science communication should do.
Tradition of the tile
Farida M. Said in The Herald:
Sumptuous, vibrantly coloured ornamentation is a distinguishing characteristic of Islamic architecture. As the human form and figurative representation are strictly forbidden, there is a total absence of sculpture in Islamic edifices. Instead, geometric patterns and rich surface decoration reach unparalleled artistic heights with stucco, brick, marble and ceramics. Some of the earliest – and finest – displays of ceramic tiling and ornamental inscriptions are to be found in the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, built in the seventh century, hence, the oldest Islamic monument preserved in its architectural integrity; and in that masterpiece of elegance from the western extremity of the Islamic world, the al-Hambra in Granada, Spain. The use of ceramics in architecture began in earnest in Anatolia in the 13th century, at about the same time as in Seljuk Iran where specialisation in the glazed tile mosaic technique in Kashan gave ceramic tiles their Persian name, kashi, a contraction of kashani, meaning of Kashan. Then the indefatigable conqueror Emir Timur, known to the West as Tamerlane or Timur the Lame, forcibly transported master ceramists from their homeland to Samarqand. Thanks to Timur’s patronage, in a matter of three decades the drab ochre buildings of his capital were “bedecked in a dazzling livery of predominantly turquoise ceramic tile.”
The cladding of brick walls with glazed ceramic tiles in shades of azure blue, turquoise, cobalt and white soon became widespread in the Muslim world. In Ottoman Turkey, the Iznik factories evolved tiles that were never to be equalled in range and depth of tone, richness and variety of pattern, making it possible to sheet the interior of whole buildings with this gleaming decoration. In the Maghreb – Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria – floors and walls were lined with beautiful enamelled and painted earthenware tiles known as Zellij. In Iran under Safavid rule, what the Timurids had begun in Samarqand was carried on in Isfahan. Outstandingly beautiful glazed tile work produced in the haft rung or seven colour techniques sheathed the splendid palaces and majestic mosques of the country as Persian architecture reached a rare level of perfection. Surprisingly, ceramic tile work was not the favourite form of decorative art in Mughal India. Unlike the brick-built architecture of Iran, most imperial Mughal mosques and minarets, palaces and mausoleums were made of red-mauve sandstone and decorated with white marble. Thus the fabulous Taj Mahal, the epitome of Mughal art, is clad in luminous marble inlaid in the pietra dura style with precious and semi-precious stones.
Daniel Dennett: 'You can make Aristotle look like a flaming idiot'
Julian Baginni in The Guardian:
Big thinkers make for big targets and they don't come much bigger, physically and intellectually, than Daniel Dennett. The tall, 71-year-old philosopher looks every inch the enthusiastic sailor he is, with his white beard and broad torso. With his mild-mannered, avuncular confidence, he comes across a man who could calmly fend off an assault or two. That's just as well, since as a leading cheerleader for Darwin and atheism, he is as much a bete noire for their opponents as a hero for their advocates.
Dennett is in London from his native Massachusetts talking to me about his latest book, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. It's a kind of greatest hits collection, pieced together from mainly previously published work to present both a summation of his central ideas about meaning, consciousness, evolution and free will, and to share some of the philosophical tools he has used to craft them. "After half a century in the field I've got some tricks of the trade which I'd like to talk about," he says.
His critics agree, to the extent that they see him as a clever philosophical trickster. Yet time and again it seems the best way to understand Dennett is to understand why so many criticisms miss their targets.
Dear Guardian: You’ve Been Played
Jennifer Oullette in her blog at Scientific American:
A number of people have been privately asking me about the recent Guardian article (and accompanying Op-Ed by Oxford mathematician Marcus du Sautoy) gushing over a supposedly revolutionary new unified theory of physics by a man who officially left academia 20 years ago. Or, as I’ve taken to calling it, Eric Weinstein’s Amazing New Theory That Solves Every Puzzling Conundrum in Theoretical Physics Only He Hasn’t Written An Actual Paper Yet So Physicists Can’t Check All Those Hard Mathematical Details But Trust Us, It’s Gonna Be Awesome!
Ahem. First, a couple of caveats. I’ve met Weinstein. He’s a nice guy. He’s wicked smart. He knows way more math than I ever will (which admittedly is not saying much). I don’t doubt his sincerity, or that of some of his supporters, which apparently includes Berkeley mathematician Edward Frenkel. And while I doubt his grandiose claims will be borne out once all the details emerge, he deserves to have those ideas heard, debated and evaluated (once there’s an actual paper) by his peers. But that’s so far above my pay grade, it’s a task best left to the professional physicists, who I’m sure are sharpening their knives as I type. (“Fresh meat!”)
No, my beef is with the Guardian for running the article in the first place. Seriously: why was it even written? Strip away all the purple prose and you’ve got a guy who’s been out of the field for 20 years, but still doing some dabbling on the side, who has an intriguing new idea that a couple of math professors think is promising, so he got invited to give a colloquium at Oxford by his old grad school buddy. Oh, and there’s no technical paper yet — not even a rough draft on the arxiv — so his ideas can’t even be appropriately evaluated by actual working physicists. How, exactly, does that qualify as newsworthy? Was your bullshit detector not working that day?
I’ll tell you what happened: the Guardianwas seduced by the narrative offered by a man who, in his dual post as Simonyi professor for the public understanding of science, has proved himself to be highly adept at manipulating the media. It pains me to say this, since this is my field we’re talking about, but the Guardian got played, plain and simple.
Why Is Iceland a Portal to the Moon?
Justin E. H. Smith in Berfrois:
There is a trite and obvious thing to say about Iceland, and that is that it looks like the moon. Descending into the Keflavik lava fields the other day, on an Icelandair flight from Paris, I was permitted to feel annoyed and a bit superior when I overheard the virgin French tourists behind me exclaiming as they gawked at the land below: Mais il n’y a rien là! By ‘nothing’ I thought perhaps they had meant ‘no Michelin stars’, but then one of them added, as if on cue: C’est comme la lune! Yet if there is an association between the earth’s only satellite and this basalt outcropping of the mid-Atlantic range that is too obvious to mention, there is another that remains to this day far too occult, and that is as deserving of notice as the other is of suppression.
Die toten Hosen: "Tage Wie Diese"
We drank. We ate. We glowed.
ON the day Paris was liberated from Nazi occupation, two trucks screeched to a halt in front of the Ritz. Out jumped several dozen French Resistance fighters, armed to the teeth and led by a burly American with a large mustache. The French “irregulars” were so in awe of the man they referred to as “le grand capitaine” that they had taken to copying what the photographer Robert Capa called his “sailor bear walk” and machine-gun diction, “spitting short sentences from the corners of their mouths.” The leader swaggered up to the hotel bar and placed his order: “How about 73 dry martinis?” Ernest Hemingway went on to liberate the Ritz of a great deal of alcohol. “We drank. We ate. We glowed,” recalled one of his men. That cameo is just one of many unforgettable scenes in the final installment of Rick Atkinson’s epic trilogy about America’s war in Europe, a book that stitches a multitude of such small but telling moments into a tapestry of fabulous richness and complexity. Atkinson is a master of what might be called “pointillism history,” assembling the small dots of pure color into a vivid, tumbling narrative.more from Ben Macintyre at the NY Times here.
A dragon is no idle fancy
Tolkien was a noted scholar and linguist before he was a published novelist, laboring on the Oxford English Dictionary and then embarking upon a long career at Oxford University, where he was professor of Anglo Saxon studies and later Merton Professor of English, a chair he held until his death. His iconoclastic 1936 lecture, "Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics," challenged assumptions that the eighth century text should be treated purely as a historical document and not a work of art. It's now regarded as a watershed moment in Beowulf studies. In the essay, Tolkien didn't mince words in his disdain of fellow academics: "For it is of their nature that the jabberwocks of historical and antiquarian research burble in the tulgy wood of conjecture, flitting from one tum-tum tree to another." He was particularly dismissive of those who ignored the importance of the poem's monsters — Grendel, Grendel's mother and especially the dragon that Beowulf kills, but not before he himself is mortally wounded.more from Elizabeth Hand at the LA Times here.
unnerving in its ordinariness
Packer, a staff writer at the New Yorker – and among the best non-fiction writers in America – devotes most of The Unwinding to those whom Oprah has robbed of excuses. Billed as “an inner history of the new America”, the book is both a portrait of a country in flux and an elegy to those on the wrong side of it. Starting in 1978 and concluding after Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election, the big events – from Ronald Reagan’s first victory to the attacks of 9/11 – supply only fleeting backdrops to the odysseys of its characters. The Unwinding is about the majority of Americans whose lives have grown more atomised and less financially secure in the past generation. And it is about a society whose cultural landmarks have been crowded out by monuments to the new household gods – “celebrities who only grow more exalted as other things recede”. In one sketch, Packer observes that Raymond Carver “seemed to know, in the unintentional way of a fiction writer, that the country’s future would be most unnerving in its ordinariness”. This is also Packer’s canvas.more from Edward Luce at the FT here.
Unexcited? There May Be a Pill for That
Daniel Bergner in the NYT Magazine:
Amanda Marcotte offers some thoughts in Slate:
When they were dating and out with other couples, Linneah would think, “I just want to get home with him, I just want to get home with him,” she recalled. But that lust had dwindled. Around the arrival of their second child in 2004, something insidious crept in, partly fatigue but partly something else that she couldn’t name. She talked about her to-do lists, the demands of the kids, “but let’s face it,” she said, “sex doesn’t take that much time.” Rather than feeling as if she still wanted to grab her husband’s hand and hurry him up the stairs in their small brick house, on many nights she waited in bed, somewhat like prey, though the predator was tender, though he was cherished.
Around once a week, her husband tried to reach through the invisible barriers she built — the going up to bed early, the intense concentration on a book, the hoping he was too tired to want anything but sleep. “He’ll move closer to me in bed, or put his arm around me, or rub my back.” She willed herself not to refuse him. And mostly, she didn’t. Usually they had sex about four times each month. But it upset her that she had to force herself and that she put up those barriers to deter him from reaching more often.
“I’m scared that if it’s slimmed to this by now, what’s going to happen as we get older?” she said. “I want to stay close, not just psychologically, physically. I want to stay in love. I have a friend, they have sex so intermittently, every three months. She is so unhappy. I don’t want that to happen to me.” She longed for a cure, a tab of magic. As she got into her car in the parking lot at the center, she hoped that her first set of pills had been placebos, that she’d been given fakes for the first eight weeks, that today she was driving away with the real drug and that their sex life would be transformed.
Since its beginnings, when it was called "sociobiology," evolutionary psychology has been wed to the theory that women are monogamous and men are promiscuous—that men have a compunction to spread their seed while women instinctually want to lock some guy down to raise her children. Feminist attempts to create sexual equality between men and women were doomed to fail, because they went against biology. Shrugging was encouraged, and the term "hard-wired" was mandatory.
But now the evidence is beginning to trickle in, and one sticky fact has thrown this entire theory into jeopardy: It's women and not men who get bored with monogamy faster. As Daniel Bergner writes in the New York Times, women are far more likely to lose interest in sex with their partners. This doesn’t necessarily translate into infidelity—a choice many reject because it’s so hurtful—but, Bergner reports, spouse-weary women often just avoid sex altogether.
Add to that the study Bergner cites showing women respond to novelty in pornographic fantasies, and another showing that women are much more turned on by fantasies of sex with strangers than friends. You’d be forgiven for concluding that the gender most interested in mixing it up might be…women.
Saturday PoemMorning Glories
Blue and dark-blue
pppppp rose and deepest rose
ppppppppppp white and pink they
are everywhere in the diligent
ppppp cornfield rising and swaying
ppppppppppp in their reliable
finery in the little
ppppp fling of their bodies their
ppppppppppp gear and tackle
all caught up in the cornstalks.
ppppp The reaper's story is the story
ppppppppppp of endless work of
work careful and heavy but the
ppppp reaper cannot
ppppppppppp separate them out there they
are in the story of his life
pppppp bright random useless
pppppppppppp year after year
taken with the serious tons
pppppp weeds without value
pppppppppppp humorous beautiful weeds.
by Mary Oliver
from White Pine
Harcout Brace, 1994
May 24, 2013
Guy de Maupassant
From The Guardian:
"He is a better writer than you think," Malcolm Lowry once said of Guy de Maupassant. This comment, made to David Markson, indicates the conundrum Maupassant presents to readers. A hugely influential writer of short stories, the sheer mass of his extremely uneven body of work – 300 stories, 200 articles, six novels, two plays, and three travel books churned out between 1880 and 1891 – can obscure his genius like clouds around an alp. Yet while many of those 300 stories fail to rise beyond the anecdotal, nearly a quarter are very good, and within them stands a core of indisputable classics. It shouldn't be doubted that Maupassant is one of the most important short-story writers to have lived. It was to the detriment of Maupassant's work – although not his bank balance – that his career coincided with a demand from French newspapers for stories of around 1-2,000 words. Jostling with news and faits divers, these stories were by necessity laconic and attention-grabbing, and Maupassant, whose severe economy was a model for Hemingway, had a great facility for producing them. The irony, however, is that Maupassant's best works are much longer. The spareness, learned in his youth from the poet Louis Bouilhet, is still there – as in the opening of "Hautot & Son" (1889), where, as Sean O'Faolain writes, "the scene is brilliantly and swiftly painted, with three lines for the countryside and six for the sportsmen" – but the stories' scope helps avoid the glibness that can mar his shorter work. When Bouilhet died another family friend, Gustave Flaubert, took on Maupassant's literary education, counselling his impatient charge to hold off from publishing until he was ready (although from 1875 several stories crept into print under pseudonyms). The fruit of this long labour was "Boule de Suif", which Flaubert lived just long enough to read and proclaim a masterpiece.
...It's certainly difficult to find much meaning in Maupassant's final years, which were as lurid as any plot he ever concocted. By 1885 he was suffering memory lapses and eye problems, and would sometimes see his double sitting at his desk. These were early symptoms of the syphilis he most probably contracted during his hedonistic twenties (a period he recreates in an unusually touching story of 1890, "Mouche"). By late 1891 he was convinced his brain was pouring from his nose and mouth, and thought his urine was made of diamonds. "My mind", he told a friend, "is following dark valleys". He slit his throat in Cannes on New Year's Day, 1892, and spent the last 18 months of his life in a Parisian asylum. "M Maupassant is reverting to the animal", his doctor wrote a few days before his death, aged 42.
Kathleen Norris in The New York Times:
This is a daring and urgent book, written after the author learned he had a rare, incurable and unpredictable cancer. But it is not a conventional memoir of illness and treatment. Beyond informing us that he received his dire news in a “curt voice mail message,” Christian Wiman says very little about his experience of the medical world. He is after bigger game. More than any other contemporary book I know, “My Bright Abyss” reveals what it can mean to experience St. Benedict’s admonition to keep death daily before your eyes.
...In reflecting on the meaning of Christ’s passion for his own life, Wiman finds that it reveals that “the absolutely solitary and singular nature of extreme human pain is an illusion.” It is the resolutely incarnational nature of the religion that draws him in. “I am, such as I am, a Christian,” he writes, “because I can feel God only through physical existence, can feel his love only in the love of other people.” His love for his wife and children, he realizes, is both human and entirely sacred. And here the poet comes to the fore, insisting on the right to embrace contradiction without shame. “I believe in absolute truth and absolute contingency, at the same time. And I believe that Christ is the seam soldering together these wholes that our half vision — and our entire clock-bound, logic-locked way of life — shapes as polarities.” This pithy and passionate book is not easy, but it is rewarding. Wiman’s finely honed language can be vivid and engaging. He describes his childhood home as “a flat little sandblasted town in West Texas: pump jacks and pickup trucks, . . . a dying strip, a lively dump, and above it all a huge blue and boundless void” that he admits, with typical acuity, “I never really noticed until I left, when it began to expand alarmingly inside of me.” He exhibits a poet’s concern for precision, writing, for example, that “the sick person becomes very adept at distinguishing between compassion and pity. Compassion is someone else’s suffering flaring in your own nerves. Pity is a projection of, a lament for, the self.” This is, above all, a book about experience, and about seeking a language that is adequate for both the fiery moments of inspiration and the “fireless life” in which we spend most of our days. It is a testament to the human ability to respond to grace, even at times of great suffering, and to resolve to live and love more fully even as death draws near.
REFLECTIONS ON WOOLWICH
Kenan Malik in Padaemonium:
1. It was a mad, barbarous attack, more akin to a particularly savage form of street violence than to a politically motivated act. What was striking about the incident was not just its depravity but the desire of the murderers for that depravity to be captured on film. This was narcissistic horror, an attempt to create a spectacle, enact a performance, and generate media frenzy. In that it succeeded. We should not provide the act with greater legitimacy by rationalizing it in political or religious terms. Even to call it a terrorist act is to give it too much credibility.
2. Brutal nihilism and narcissistic hatred are central threads of contemporary jihadism. This is as true of 9/11 and 7/7 and the Boston bombing as it is true of the Woolwich murder. But while 9/11 and 7/7 were degenerate acts, the Woolwich attack shows how much more degenerate such attacks have become over the past decade. This was jihadism as depraved street violence.
3. Such degenerate nihilism is not peculiar to jihadists. It drove the twisted, paranoid fantasies of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian mass killer, who wanted ‘to create a European version of al-Qaeda’. It underlay the mass shootings in America in Aurora and Sandy Hook. Such acts remain rare. But the inchoate, disengaged, misanthropic rage upon which they draw, and the hatred of people and the indifference to one’s actions that they express, has become typical of a very contemporary form of violence. The fact that Breivik claimed that he was waging a war in defence of Christendom, or that the Woolwich attackers shouted ‘Allahu Akhbar’ does not make them any less degenerate or nihilistic, or any more ‘political’, than the perpetrators of the Aurora or Sandy Hook killings.
A Commencement Address
On what would have been his 73rd birthday, my old teacher Joseph Alexandrovich Brodsky's commencement address to the 1984 graduating class of Williams College, in the NYRB:
Given its volume and intensity, given, especially, the fatigue of those who oppose it, Evil today may be regarded not as an ethical category but as a physical phenomenon no longer measured in particles but mapped geographically. Therefore the reason I am talking to you about all this has nothing to do with your being young, fresh, and facing a clean slate. No, the slate is dark with dirt and it’s hard to believe in either your ability or your will to clean it. The purpose of my talk is simply to suggest to you a mode of resistance which may come in handy to you one day; a mode that may help you to emerge from the encounter with Evil perhaps less soiled if not necessarily more triumphant than your precursors. What I have in mind, of course, is the famous business of turning the other cheek.
I assume that one way or another you have heard about the interpretations of this verse from the Sermon on the Mount by Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and many others. In other words, I assume that you are familiar with the concept of nonviolent, or passive, resistance, whose main principle is returning good for evil, that is, not responding in kind. The fact that the world today is what it is suggests, to say the least, that this concept is far from being cherished universally. The reasons for its unpopularity are twofold. First, what is required for this concept to be put into effect is a margin of democracy. This is precisely what 86 percent of the globe lacks. Second, the common sense that tells a victim that his only gain in turning the other cheek and not responding in kind yields, at best, a moral victory, i.e., quite immaterial. The natural reluctance to expose yet another part of your body to a blow is justified by a suspicion that this sort of conduct only agitates and enhances Evil; that moral victory can be mistaken by the adversary for his impunity.
There are other, graver reasons to be suspicious. If the first blow hasn’t knocked all the wits out of the victim’s head, he may realize that turning the other cheek amounts to manipulation of the offender’s sense of guilt, not to speak of his karma. The moral victory itself may not be so moral after all, not only because suffering often has a narcissistic aspect to it, but also because it renders the victim superior, that is, better than his enemy. Yet no matter how evil your enemy is, the crucial thing is that he is human; and although incapable of loving another like ourselves, we nonetheless know that evil takes root when one man starts to think that he is better than another. (This is why you’ve been hit on your right cheek in the first place.) At best, therefore, what one can get from turning the other cheek to one’s enemy is the satisfaction of alerting the latter to the futility of his action. “Look,” the other cheek says, “what you are hitting is just flesh. It’s not me. You can’t crush my soul.” The trouble, of course, with this kind of attitude is that the enemy may just accept the challenge.
Twenty years ago the following scene took place in one of the numerous prison yards of northern Russia.
Jeremy Scahill & Noam Chomsky on Secret U.S. Dirty Wars From Yemen to Pakistan to Laos
Hannah Arendt, Guilty PleasureIn Tablet, J. Hoberman reviews Margarethe von Trotta's biopic of Hannah Arendt, starring the wonderful Barbara Sukowa:
It’s not every week that you get to see a movie about an intellectual contretemps, let alone one that rocked the Jewish world. Indeed, in a way, Von Trotta and screenwriter Pamela Katz have attempted something far more difficult and potentially absurd than making a documentary, namely setting out to dramatize an upheaval in the life of the mind. The only filmmaker who has ever really turned the trick is Roberto Rossellini in his early-’70s telefilmsSocrates, Descartes, and Blaise Pascal. (Would that he had also essayed Spinoza!)
Von Trotta and Katz could not possibly do justice to the outrage—and outrageous abuse—that Arendt inspired, or to the breadth of her continents-spanning life and thought. A sprinkling of flashbacks notwithstanding, it’s Arendt in Jerusalem and on Eichmann that Von Trotta considers in her film.
Greatly simplified, Arendt’s three great sins were 1) suggesting that the “desk murderer” Eichmann was a mediocre opportunist rather than the devil incarnate (and thus all the more frightening); 2) publicly discussing and denouncing the role of Nazi-appointed Jewish Councils in the Final Solution; and 3) examining the judicial basis for the trial itself. Arendt, however subtle in her analysis, was not given to understatement; still, to a large degree the tumult she inspired was a case of blaming the messenger. (For a pithy, reasoned historical contextualization of the reaction to Arendt’s report, see Peter Novick’s The Holocaust in American Life.)
As a film, Hannah Arendt is a sort of hybrid and not just because it is half in German. The movie is a didactic docu-drama, part old-school Soviet “publicist” film in its idealized, ideological representation of historical figures, and part Hollywood biopic in its entertainingly kitschy notion of how they might have interacted in real life.
The Faraway Nearby
Many stories are told about the T’ang dynasty artist Wu Daozi, sometimes named as one of the three great sages of China: that he ignored color and only painted in black ink, that he transgressively painted his own face on an image of the Buddha, that he painted a perfect halo in a single stroke without the aid of compasses, that he painted pictures of the dragons who cause rain so well that the paintings themselves exuded water, that the Emperor sent him to sketch a beautiful region and reprimanded him for coming back emptyhanded, after which he painted a 100-foot scroll that replicated all his travels in one continuous flow, that he made all his paintings boldly and without hesitation, painting like a whirlwind, so that people loved to watch the world emerge from under his brush. One story about him I read long ago I always remembered. While he was showing the Emperor the landscape he had painted on a wall of the Imperial Palace, he pointed out a grotto or cave, stepped into it, and vanished. Some say that the painting disappeared too. In the account I thought I remembered, he was a prisoner of the Emperor who escaped through his painting. When I was much younger I saw another version of this feat that impressed me equally.more from Rebecca Solnit at Guernica here.
truth is harder than fiction
In recent years, African literature has broken free of what Wole Soyinka called the “orange ghetto” of the Heinemann African Writers Series, which in 1962 launched the series with the one African book that everyone seems to know: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Writers from around the continent—José Eduardo Agualusa, Doreen Baingana, Mia Couto, Emmanuel Dongala, Nuruddin Farah, Petina Gappah, Yasmina Khadra, Zakes Mda, Maaza Mengiste, Abdellah Taïa—continue to win awards and gain international recognition. From Nigeria alone, authors like Chris Abani, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Teju Cole, Helon Habila, E.C. Osondu, and Helen Oyeyemi have joined the pantheon already occupied by Achebe, Ben Okri, Wole Soyinka, and Amos Tutuola. A steady stream of anthologies has introduced American readers to fresh voices from Africa. But something has been missing. These anthologies have focused almost exclusively on fiction, ignoring a wealth of extraordinary true-life narratives.more from Geoff Wisner at The Quarterly Conversation here.
the sprite-like Reykjaviker
When Icelanders talk to Americans about Iceland, sooner or later talk is going to turn to fairies, or hidden people, or elves. And while it seems many Icelanders do truly believe in those things, often you’ll get a response like the novelist Sjón gave Leonard Lopate the other day: “If you actually lean on an Icelander, most of us will confess to believing that nature has the power to manifest itself in a form understandable to humans. So the hidden people, you know, we would say, ‘Well of course I don’t believe that there are actually cities inside our mountains, but it’s possible that nature has a way of manifesting itself in a human form to, you know, have an interaction with the humans.’” Similarly, when Americans talk about Iceland, sooner or later (probably sooner) we’re going to start talking about one specific fairy, or hidden person, or elf. And despite my not having any photos or videos to back it up, you’ll have to believe me that last week at Scandinavia House, the sprite-like Reykjaviker you’re thinking of did indeed manifest herself in a striking, stiff, white-and-purple dress for a ten-minute interaction with book-reading humans on behalf of her longtime friend and collaborator Sjón.more from David Bukszpan at Paris Review here.
Friday PoemThree Questions
How can it be
that the one sure thing
from a year that slips
between the hands
like kite string,
and is hauled into
the next like a
is what I think is
a Japanese maple
from the far end
firing through half
a suburban block
with its not yet burnt-
of orange? Or that
that one tree on
that one block
seen on that one day
in the course of
this one short life
is enough, though clearly,
despite the lies
its leaves are, or
my need to trust
the impossible stories
hanging from its limbs,
it is enough? Or even
that the world, even
this one, can offer so little and
so much at once
and mean them both?
by Ralph Black
from Turning Over The Earth
May 23, 2013
Race Is Not Biology
From The Atlantic:
During the past two weeks, much outrage has arisen over former Heritage Foundation staffer Jason Richwine's Harvard doctoral dissertation, which speculated that IQ differences between "Hispanic" and "non-Hispanic' populations were genetically rooted. The claims mirrored those of Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's scurrilous The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, which made similar claims about the intelligence of blacks. (Murray receives thanks in Richwine's dissertation acknowledgments and wrote recently in National Review Online in defense of Richwine.) The fury continues. In the past couple days, a group of scholars has circulated a petition excoriating Harvard for approving the dissertation and condoning scientific racism in the process. Their petition situates Richwine within an odious lineage stretching back to the era of eugenics and charges that his work rests on shoddy intellectual foundations. (These scholars are right: the late J. Phillipe Rushton, best known for claiming associations among race, brain size, and penis length, is cited by Richwine.) A group of 1,200 Harvard University students has also put together their own petition.
But the attacks on Richwine are missing something far more insidious than neo-eugenic claims about innately inferior intelligence between races. The backlash against Richwine and Murray, after all, gives some indication that their views are widely considered beyond the respectable pale in the post- Bell Curve era. Richwine and Murray are really extreme branches of a core assumption that is much more pervasive and dangerous because it isn't necessarily racist on the surface: the belief in biological "races." This first assumption is required to get to claims like Richwine's, which argue that between Race A and Race B, differences exist (in "intelligence" or whatever else) that are grounded in the biological characteristics of the races themselves. Public outcry always greets the second Richwine-Murray-esque claim. But the first assumption required to reach it is more common and based on as shaky an intellectual foundation, even as it continues to escape equal scorn. Even so, the critique of biologically innate race is hardly new. In 1972, the Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin famously observed more genetic variation within populations than between them, undercutting the case for fixed and timeless genetic boundaries that demarcated "races."
The Gut-Wrenching Science Behind the World’s Hottest Peppers
17 tribes of Nagaland are united, historically, by an enthusiasm for heads. The Nagas: Hill Peoples of Northeast India—my reading matter on the two-hour drive from Dimapur to Kohima, in the state of Nagaland —contains dozens of references to head-taking but only one mention of the item that has brought me here: the Naga King Chili (a.k.a. Bhut Jolokia), often ranked the world’s hottest. “In the Chang village of Hakchang,” the anthropologist J. H. Hutton is quoted as saying in 1922, “...women whose blood relations on the male side have taken a head may cook the head, with chilies, to get the flesh off.” Hutton’s use of “cook” would seem to be a reference to Chang culinary practice. Only on rereading did I realize the Chang weren’t eating the chilies—or the flesh, for that matter—but using them to clean the skull.
Such is the perplexing contradiction of the genus Capsicum: condiment and industrial solvent, pleasure and pain. I’ve come to Nagaland to confront the conundrum on its home turf at the annual all-tribe get-together, the Hornbill Festival, which includes a Naga King Chili-Eating Competition. The last known head-taking raid occurred sometime in the last century. (The verb “taking” is preferred over hunting. You do not hunt heads. You hunt people and then take their heads.) Most Nagas are Baptists now. Nonetheless, they appear to have pride in their gruesome heritage. A crossbeam on the front of the Chang exhibit building on the festival grounds is decorated with a row of cephalic bas-reliefs; lest anyone mistake them for family portraiture, the neck stalks drip red. Men in loincloths stand outside on a break from rehearsing a warrior dance. I hold out a Bhut Jolokia I’ve been carrying in my jacket like a concealed weapon. I want to see who’s tough enough. Only one man steps closer. He points to the chili and uses an English word all Chang men know. “One of the enemy!”
It’s a sensible assessment. The chili pepper does not want to be your friend. It wants to hurt you so badly you turn it loose.
Daniel Dennett's seven tools for thinking
Daniel Dennett in The Observer:
Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticising the views of an opponent? If there are obvious contradictions in the opponent's case, then you should point them out, forcefully. If there are somewhat hidden contradictions, you should carefully expose them to view – and then dump on them. But the search for hidden contradictions often crosses the line into nitpicking, sea-lawyering and outright parody. The thrill of the chase and the conviction that your opponent has to be harbouring a confusion somewhere encourages uncharitable interpretation, which gives you an easy target to attack.
But such easy targets are typically irrelevant to the real issues at stake and simply waste everybody's time and patience, even if they give amusement to your supporters. The best antidote I know for this tendency to caricature one's opponent is a list of rules promulgated many years ago by social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport.
How to compose a successful critical commentary:
1. Attempt to re-express your target's position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: "Thanks, I wish I'd thought of putting it that way."
2. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
3. Mention anything you have learned from your target.
4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
One immediate effect of following these rules is that your targets will be a receptive audience for your criticism: you have already shown that you understand their positions as well as they do, and have demonstrated good judgment (you agree with them on some important matters and have even been persuaded by something they said). Following Rapoport's rules is always, for me, something of a struggle…
Physicists Create Quantum Link Between Photons That Don't Exist at the Same Time
Adrian Cho in Science:
Now they're just messing with us. Physicists have long known that quantum mechanics allows for a subtle connection between quantum particles called entanglement, in which measuring one particle can instantly set the otherwise uncertain condition, or "state," of another particle—even if it's light years away. Now, experimenters in Israel have shown that they can entangle two photons that don't even exist at the same time.
"It's really cool," says Jeremy O'Brien, an experimenter at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, who was not involved in the work. Such time-separated entanglement is predicted by standard quantum theory, O'Brien says, "but it's certainly not widely appreciated, and I don't know if it's been clearly articulated before."
Entanglement is a kind of order that lurks within the uncertainty of quantum theory. Suppose you have a quantum particle of light, or photon. It can be polarized so that it wriggles either vertically or horizontally. The quantum realm is also hazed over with unavoidable uncertainty, and thanks to such quantum uncertainty, a photon can also be polarized vertically and horizontally at the same time. If you then measure the photon, however, you will find it either horizontally polarized or vertically polarized, as the two-ways-at-once state randomly "collapses" one way or the other.
"Everybody Hurts" by Sachal Studios, Lahore, Pakistan
[Thanks to Mujib M. K.]
Loneliness, isolation and desperate yearning
Even William Faulkner acknowledged his importance, calling him “the father of my generation of American writers and the tradition of American writing which our successors will carry on. He has never received his proper evaluation”. While Anderson’s prose can sometimes take on sonorous, biblical rhythms or echo the grandstanding rhetoric of county-fair oratory, his best short fiction manages to combine the folksiness of Mark Twain, the naturalist daring of Theodore Dreiser (to whom he dedicated his collection Horses and Men), and, more surprisingly, a linguistic freshness and simplicity he discovered in Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons and Three Lives. Above all, though, Anderson exhibits that distinctive tenderness for his characters, despite all their flaws and foibles, that we associate with Russian writers like Chekhov and Turgenev. He once called the latter’s Memoirs of a Sportsman “the sweetest thing in all literature”. If that’s true, Winesburg, Ohio must be one of the most quietly bittersweet. In a cycle of linked vignettes, what we might now describe as a mosaic novel, the book portrays the loneliness, isolation and desperate yearning of the citizens of an 1890s town in the middle of farm country.more from Michael Dirda at the TLS here.
the height of printmaking
Rarely have life’s sweetness and bitterness been embraced with more evenhanded genius than in the work of Jacques Callot. The seventeenth-century French printmaker finds an ethics of vision—a way of grappling with whatever the world has to offer—in the indomitable force and lucidity of his line. Revered from his own day down to ours by those who see possibilities for transcendence in the printmaker’s technical know-how, Callot has nevertheless been a fairly minor figure in the art history books, no matter that some of his impressions of the horrors of war are as indelible as Goya’s and that his reflections on the pleasures of the theater and the fairground rival those of Rubens and Watteau. Within the frequently Lilliputian dimensions of his prints—some of the most famous ones are little more than two inches high—Callot represented beggars, gypsies, soldiers, actors, and the ladies and gentlemen of the court. He etched Biblical stories, royal festivals, hunts, battles, gardens, landscapes, and seascapes. “Princes & Paupers: The Art of Jacques Callot,” mounted at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, is a brave attempt to raise Callot’s profile. It has been many years since this country saw a major show with a catalogue devoted to an artist I would rank among the peerless image makers and storytellers of European art. Allow yourself to succumb to Callot’s work and you will experience a concentrated high.more from Jed Perl at TNR here.
On Pankaj Mishra
From the Ruins of Empire ends on a prolonged note of despair. “No convincingly universalist response exists today to Western ideas of politics and economy,” Mishra writes, “even though these seem increasingly febrile and dangerously unsuitable in large parts of the world.” He sees everywhere an ascendant Asia capable of challenging the West for resources, territory and market share. Where Mishra’s ur-generation of Asian intellectuals seemed to agree on the necessity of Western science, so their descendants seem to have settled on one-track Western-style economic development. “The Graduate Students Who Remade Asia” could be the subtitle for the yet-to-be-written history of those US- and UK-trained economists who undertook the market-centered reforms of the 1980s. For Mishra, “the revenge of the East” only means it will repeat the West’s mistakes on a larger scale. This already appears to be happening: in March, the BRICS announced the creation of a development fund meant to be their answer to the World Bank and the IMF. It is unlikely to be a gentler civilizer of nations.more from Thomas Meaney at The Nation here.
A young Houston couple is planning to give away $4 billion—but only to projects that prove they are worth it. Can they redefine the world of philanthropy?
Brad Reagan in the Wall Street Journal:
Most billionaires tend to write checks to good causes they're part of, hospitals where they were treated or universities they attended. These are the so-called "grateful-recipient" donors. Or there are donors who make sizable gifts to meet an obvious need in a community, such as hunger or education. But at a time when charitable giving in the U.S. is still down from its peak in 2007, the Arnolds want to try something new and somewhat grander. John says the goal is to make "transformational" changes to society.
The Arnolds want to see if they can use their money to solve some of the country's biggest problems through data analysis and science, with an unsentimental focus on results and an aversion to feel-good projects—the success of which can't be quantified. No topic is too ambitious: Along with obesity, the Arnolds plan to dig into criminal justice and pension reform, among others. Anne Milgram, the former New Jersey attorney general hired to tackle the criminal-justice issue, has a name for all this: She calls it the "Moneyball" approach to giving, a reference to the book and movie about how the Oakland A's used smart statistical analysis to upend some of baseball's conventional wisdom. And the Arnolds are in no hurry for answers. Indeed, they believe patience is a key resource behind their giving.
Haunted, they say, believing
the soft, shifty
dunes are made up
of false promises.
is the other half
of a conversation.
to the dead.
“The boys are doing really well.”
nothing is so
until it has been witnessed.
the bits are iffy;
the forces that bind them,
from Poetry, Vol. 192, No. 3, June
publisher: Poetry, Chicago, 2008
May 22, 2013
A Mother, a Son and a Wife
From The Wall Street Journal:
Jim Brown knew he was in trouble before his mother finished asking the question. "Am I a better cook than your wife?" she asked, calmly stirring a pot on the stove in her kitchen. With his wife, Joy, standing next to him, Mr. Brown stammered and stuttered. He prayed—"for a trap door to appear," he says. Finally, he did the only thing he could think to do: Tell the truth. "I said that my wife is a better cook," the 50-year-old owner of a Duncanville, Texas, auto-repair shop says. The fallout? "Biblical," he says. "There was wailing. Gnashing of teeth." Even his wife got mad—telling him that he had been insensitive to his mother. Sadly, the scene wasn't new to the Browns, who had been married seven years. The strain between his wife and his mother—and his position, stuck in the middle—was taking a toll on all three relationships. His mom criticized his wife for her parenting style and for not getting a job. His wife cried and complained to him. He retreated from both women. "I am a guy and not that intuitive, and I didn't really understand either one," he says. "My inclination was to go mow the grass." Over the next couple years, the Browns kept trying to make the triangle work—until the conflict reached a crisis point and then took an unexpected turn.
Few family relationships are more fraught than the ones between a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law, and the man caught between them. It has been fodder for comedy in movies and on TV forever, yet each generation seems to have to learn for itself how to make this triangle work.
The big fat truth
Late in the morning on 20 February, more than 200 people packed an auditorium at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts. The purpose of the event, according to its organizers, was to explain why a new study about weight and death was absolutely wrong. The report, a meta-analysis of 97 studies including 2.88 million people, had been released on 2 January in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)1. A team led by Katherine Flegal, an epidemiologist at the National Center for Health Statistics in Hyattsville, Maryland, reported that people deemed 'overweight' by international standards were 6% less likely to die than were those of 'normal' weight over the same time period. The result seemed to counter decades of advice to avoid even modest weight gain, provoking coverage in most major news outlets — and a hostile backlash from some public-health experts. “This study is really a pile of rubbish, and no one should waste their time reading it,” said Walter Willett, a leading nutrition and epidemiology researcher at the Harvard school, in a radio interview. Willett later organized the Harvard symposium — where speakers lined up to critique Flegal's study — to counteract that coverage and highlight what he and his colleagues saw as problems with the paper. “The Flegal paper was so flawed, so misleading and so confusing to so many people, we thought it really would be important to dig down more deeply,” Willett says.
But many researchers accept Flegal's results and see them as just the latest report illustrating what is known as the obesity paradox. Being overweight increases a person's risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer and many other chronic illnesses. But these studies suggest that for some people — particularly those who are middle-aged or older, or already sick — a bit of extra weight is not particularly harmful, and may even be helpful. (Being so overweight as to be classed obese, however, is almost always associated with poor health outcomes.)
Why Rational People Buy Into Conspiracy Theories
Maggie Koerth-Baker in the New York Times:
In the days following the bombings at the Boston Marathon, speculation online regarding the identity and motive of the unknown perpetrator or perpetrators was rampant. And once the Tsarnaev brothers were identified and the manhunt came to a close, the speculation didn’t cease. It took a new form. A sampling: Maybe the brothers Tsarnaev were just patsies, fall guys set up to take the heat for a mysterious Saudi with high-level connections; or maybe they were innocent, but instead of the Saudis, the actual bomber had acted on behalf of a rogue branch of our own government; or what if the Tsarnaevs were behind the attacks, but were secretly working for a larger organization?
Crazy as these theories are, those propagating them are not — they’re quite normal, in fact. But recent scientific research tells us this much: if you think one of the theories above is plausible, you probably feel the same way about the others, even though they contradict one another. And it’s very likely that this isn’t the only news story that makes you feel as if shadowy forces are behind major world events.
“The best predictor of belief in a conspiracy theory is belief in other conspiracy theories,” says Viren Swami, a psychology professor who studies conspiracy belief at the University of Westminster in England. Psychologists say that’s because a conspiracy theory isn’t so much a response to a single event as it is an expression of an overarching worldview.
The Moral Status of Rocks
Justin E. H. Smith in his blog:
A student in rural Iceland, of sheep-farming stock, had her guard down, or didn't yet have a guard. She didn't know how to talk to foreigners, or perhaps felt there was something she had to get across to foreigners, or to this foreigner, who showed an interest in her country. She said, in the hope of conveying to me the whole ethical-spiritual outlook of her country in a single concrete example: In Iceland we are taught not to smash rocks.
In recent years something called 'environmental ethics' is moving into the mainstream, finding space alongside the Kantian, the utilitarian, and so on, which for their part suppose that an ethical relation can only be had toward an ethical subject, and that such subjects are found only among human or at most animal beings. Even environmental ethics tends to imagine the environment with a thick arboreal canopy, with lush grass, and lillypads covering seething green ponds. But in the Arctic and sub-Arctic the 'environment' is mostly a geological rather than a biological phenomenon, and it is not altogether surprising that in such a setting rocks come forward as phenomenally salient, as creatures, as others, more readily than in the Amazon. And still less do the rocks come forward as our petrous co-beings in the big cities of the world, where they only appear ground down and formed into angular artifacts of human ingenuity, which in turn you are not supposed to smash, since in the process of their transformation they have become 'property'.
The need for critical science journalism
Jalees Rehman in The Guardian:
The bulk of contemporary science journalism falls under the category of "infotainment". This expression describes science writing that informs a non-specialist target audience about new scientific discoveries in an entertaining fashion. The "informing" typically consists of giving the reader some historical background surrounding the scientific study, summarises key findings and then describes the significance and implications of the research. Analogies are used to convey complex scientific concepts so that a reader without a professional scientific background can grasp the ideas driving the research.
Direct quotes from the researchers also help illustrate the motivations, relevance, and emotional impact of the findings. The entertainment component varies widely, ranging from an enticing or witty style of writing to the choice of the subject matter. Freaky copulation techniques in the animal kingdom, discoveries that change our views about the beginnings of the universe or of life, heart-warming stories about ailing children that might be cured through new scientific breakthroughs, sci-fi robots, quirky anecdotes or heroic struggles of the scientists involved in the research – these are examples of topics that will capture the imagination of the intended audience.
However, infotainment science journalism rarely challenges the validity of the scientific research study or criticises its conclusions. Perfunctory comments, either by the journalist or in the form of quotes – such as "It is not clear whether these findings will also apply to humans" or "This is just a first step and more research is needed" are usually found at the end of such pieces – but it is rare to find an independent or detailed critical analysis.
The stories of two Palestinian villages: From Al-Araqib to Susiya
Why race as a biological construct matters
Razib Khan in Gene Expression:
My own inclination has been to not get bogged down in the latest race and IQ controversy because I don’t have that much time, and the core readership here is probably not going to get any new information from me, since this is not an area of hot novel research. But that doesn’t mean the rest of the world isn’t talking, and I think perhaps it might be useful for people if I stepped a bit into this discussion between Andrew Sullivan and Ta-Nehisi Coates specifically. My primary concern is that here we have two literary intellectuals arguing about a complex topic which spans the humanities andthe sciences. Ta-Nehisi, as one who studies history, feels confident that he can dismiss the utility of racial population structure categorization because as he says, “no coherent, fixed definition of race actually exists.” I am actually more of a history guy than a math guy, not because I love history more than math, but because I am not very good at math. And I’ve even read books such as The Rise and Fall of the Caucasian Race and The History of White People (as well as biographies of older racial theorists, such as Madison Grant). So I am not entirely ignorant of Ta-Nehisi’s bailiwick, but, I think it would be prudent for the hoarders of old texts to become a touch more familiar with the crisp formalities of the natural sciences.
In his posts on this topic Ta-Nehisi repeatedly points to the real diversity in physical type and ancestry among African Americans, despite acknowledging implicitly the shared preponderant history. But today with genomic methods we have a rather better idea of the distribution of ancestry among African Americans. The above plot is from Characterizing the admixed African ancestry of African Americans, a 2009 paper with 94 Africans of diverse geographic origins, 136 African Americans, and 38 European Americans. They looked at 450,000 genetic variants (SNPs) per person (there are somewhat more than 10 million SNPs in the human genome). Obviously individuals and populations exhibit genetic relationships to each other contingent upon the patterns of the variation of base pairs (A, C, G, and T) across the genomes of individuals, but there’s no reasonable way to comprehend this “by eye” when you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of markers. The authors used two simple methods to infer clustering within the data set.
a pretty funny book
I would dearly love to be able to start this piece by saying that The Poor Mouth is the funniest book ever written. It’d be a real lapel-grabber, for one thing, an opening gambit the casual Millions reader would find it hard to walk away from. And for all I know, it might well be true to say such a thing. Because here’s how funny it is: It’s funnier than A Confederacy of Dunces. It’s funnier than Money or Lucky Jim. It’s funnier than any of the product that any of your modern literary LOL-traffickers (your Lipsytes, your Shteyngarts) have put on the street. It beats Shalom Auslander to a bloody, chuckling pulp with his own funny-bone. And it is, let me tell you, immeasurably funnier than however funny you insist on finding Fifty Shades of Grey. The reason I can’t confidently say that it’s the funniest book ever written is that I haven’t read every book ever written. What I can confidently say is that The Poor Mouth is the funniest book by Flann O’Brien (or Myles na gCopaleen, or any other joker in the shuffling deck of pseudonyms Brian O’Nolan wrote under). And if this makes it, by default, the funniest book ever written, then all well and good; but it is certainly the funniest book I’ve ever read.more from Mark O'Connell at The Millions here.
As such, a number of temptations continue to arise when discussing Malick. Foremost among these is the tendency to perpetuate the go-to myths: that the famously media-shy filmmaker is also a recluse, or that he once disappeared from Hollywood for two decades for reasons unknown. Starting with the most basic of biographical details — or lack thereof — it’s easy to see why there are so many misconceptions: there isn’t even a consensus on where the man was born. The Guardian, Los Angeles Times, and The Telegraph all list Malick’s birthplace as Ottawa, Illinois; The New York Times and USA Today cite Waco, Texas as the true site. (That none of these outlets place their own opinion in opposition to anyone else’s is either evidence of their confidence or a suggestion that they aren’t even aware there’s room for debate.) Malick has politely declined every single one of the countless interview requests he’s received since 1975 (by which point he had granted only a few), but mum has rarely, if ever, been the word on him. Critics, academics, and fans alike have made a habit of endlessly speculating about Malick’s habits and whereabouts for the entirety of his now four-decade career; he’s amassed something of a cult following for exhibiting what many would consider perfectly normal behavior and attempting to work in private.more from Michael Nordine at the LA Review of Books here.
Kertész and auschwitz
Nobel laureate Imre Kertész is certainly no stranger to controversy. His radical reconceptualization of the term “Holocaust” — in whose “unscrupulous employment” he locates “a cowardly and unimaginative glibness” — to extend beyond the scope of the concentration camps and those who perished therein, rhetorically privileges the survivors over the dead: “the word [Holocaust] actually only relates to those who were incarcerated: the dead, but not the survivors… The survivor is an exception.” And his fictional portrayals of Auschwitz and its repercussions in autobiographical novels like Fatelessness, Kaddish for an Unborn Child and Fiasco have been misread as “betray[ing] the Holocaust” — in spite of Kertész having himself been held at Auschwitz, and later Buchenwald, from the age of fourteen — just as they critique the totalitarian dictatorships that ensued in his native Hungary after the end of the Second World War, regimes that Kertész believes were related to the Holocaust at the level of power: “after Auschwitz the virtuality of Auschwitz inheres in every dictatorship.”more from K. Thomas Kahn at berfrois here.
May 21, 2013
South Asians and the Shaping of Britain
Sarfraz Manzoor in The Telegraph:
Mahinder Singh Pujji, a 22-year-old Indian man, was queuing to see a film at his local cinema. The man in front of him saw his turban and uniform – Pujji was a member of the RAF – and said: “Sir, you don’t have to stand in the queue.” He ushered him to the front of the line. No one grumbled and the woman working in the ticket office, again seeing his turban and wings, refused to accept money for the ticket. This incident would be surprising and heart-warming if it occurred today; in fact, the film that Pujji was queuing to see was Gone with the Wind, and the year was 1940. What makes this story so powerful is that it challenges established narratives about south Asian migration to Britain: it shows us that years before Commonwealth immigration there had been migrants from the subcontinent; it questions the assumption that migrants were always treated poorly, and it reminds us of the contribution many made.
South Asians and the Shaping of Britain excavates the archives for letters, diaries, books and articles relating to this subject. Taking the year 1870 – the zenith of empire – as the starting point and traversing 80 years to 1950 – a period that witnessed two world wars, the decline of empire, the fight for Indian independence and Partition – the book demonstrates that Britain has a more complex multicultural heritage than is usually acknowledged.
I knew about the role Indians played during the two world wars, for example, but I had no idea that in the period covered here, 80 different south Asian authors published 180-plus books in Britain. This one builds on Rozina Visram’s landmark histories Ayahs, Lascars and Princes and Asians in Britain. But what makes reading it a more visceral experience is the first-hand accounts and documents: a book review by Oscar Wilde from 1890 of the Indian poet Manmohan Ghose, an extraordinary photograph of Sophia Duleep Singh – the mixed-race daughter of the deposed Maharajah of the Punjab – standing outside Hampton Court Palace in 1913 in a long dark coat and hat selling a copy of The Suffragette. Two years later Ludder Singh, an Indian soldier fighting in the trenches during the First World War, writes to his brother back home: “Bodies were lying on bodies like stones in heaps”; “When a man dies in the world I and you think it is a great event, but here in this war corpses are piled one upon another so that they cannot be counted.”
An Unheralded Breakthrough: The Rosetta Stone of Mathematics
From Scientific American:
There is no Nobel Prize in mathematics, but in 2001 the Norwegian government established a million-dollar Abel Prize, which is widely considered as an equivalent of the Nobel for mathematicians. This year’s prize was awarded to Pierre Deligne, professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. Today, he is honored at a ceremony held in Oslo. Deligne’s most spectacular results are on the interface of two areas of mathematics: number theory and geometry. At first glance, the two subjects appear to be light-years apart. As the name suggests, number theory is the study of numbers, such as the familiar natural numbers (1, 2, 3, and so on) and fractions, or more exotic ones, such as the square root of two. Geometry, on the other hand, studies shapes, such as the sphere or the surface of a donut. But French mathematician André Weil had a penetrating insight that the two subjects are in fact closely related. In 1940, while Weil was imprisoned for refusing to serve in the army during World War II, he sent a letter to his sister Simone Weil, a noted philosopher, in which he articulated his vision of a mathematical Rosetta stone. Weil suggested that sentences written in the language of number theory could be translated into the language of geometry, and vice versa. “Nothing is more fertile than these illicit liaisons,” he wrote to his sister about the unexpected links he uncovered between the two subjects; “nothing gives more pleasure to the connoisseur.” And the key to his groundbreaking idea was something we encounter everyday when we look at the clock.
If we start working at 10:00 in the morning and work for eight hours, when do we finish? Well, 10 + 8 = 18, so a natural thing to say would be: “We finish at 18 o’clock.” This would be perfectly fine to say in France, where hours are recorded as numbers from zero to 24 (actually, not so fine, because a workday in France is usually limited to seven hours). But in the U.S. we say: “We finish at 6:00 pm.” How do we get six out of 18? We subtract 12: 18 – 12 = 6. Mathematicians call this “addition modulo 12.” Likewise, we can do addition modulo any whole number N. Just imagine a clock in which there are N hours instead of 12. For each N, we then obtain an esoteric-looking numerical system, in which we can do addition and multiplication, just like with ordinary numbers. For many years these systems looked, even to math practitioners, like something that would never have any real-world applications. In fact, English mathematician G.H. Hardy wrote, with defiance and pride, of the “uselessness” of number theory. But the joke was on him: these numerical systems are now ubiquitous in the encryption algorithms used in online banking. Every time we make a purchase online, arithmetic modulo N springs into action!
Why is Europe so Messed Up? An Illuminating History
John Cassidy in The New Yorker:
When the Great Recession struck, U.S. policymakers did what mainstream textbooks recommend: they introduced monetary and fiscal-stimulus programs, which helped offset the retrenchments and job losses in the private sector. In Europe, austerity has been the order of the day, and it still is. Nearly five years after the financial crisis, governments are still trimming spending and cutting benefits in a vain attempt to bring down their budget deficits.
The big mystery isn’t why austerity has failed to work as advertised: anybody familiar with the concept of “aggregate demand” could explain that one. It is why an area with a population of more than three hundred million has stuck with a policy prescription that was discredited in the nineteen-twenties and thirties. The stock answer, which is that austerity is necessary to preserve the euro, doesn’t hold up. At this stage, austerity is the biggest threat to the euro. If the recession lasts for very much longer, political unrest is sure to mount, and the currency zone could well break up.
So why is this woebegone approach proving so sticky? Some of the answers can be found in a timely and suitably irreverent new book by Mark Blyth, a professor of political economy at Brown: “Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea.” Adopting a tone that is by turns bemused and outraged, Blyth traces the intellectual and political roots of austerity back to the Enlightenment, and the works of John Locke, David Hume, and Adam Smith. But he also provides a sharp analysis of Europe’s current predicament, explaining how an unholy alliance of financiers, central bankers, and German politicians foisted a draconian and unworkable policy on an unsuspecting populace.
Unknown Mathematician Proves Elusive Property of Prime Numbers
Erica Klarreich in Wired:
On April 17, a paper arrived in the inbox of Annals of Mathematics, one of the discipline’s preeminent journals. Written by a mathematician virtually unknown to the experts in his field — a 50-something lecturer at the University of New Hampshire named Yitang Zhang — the paper claimed to have taken a huge step forward in understanding one of mathematics’ oldest problems, the twin primes conjecture.
Editors of prominent mathematics journals are used to fielding grandiose claims from obscure authors, but this paper was different. Written with crystalline clarity and a total command of the topic’s current state of the art, it was evidently a serious piece of work, and the Annals editors decided to put it on the fast track.
Just three weeks later — a blink of an eye compared to the usual pace of mathematics journals — Zhang received the referee report on his paper.
“The main results are of the first rank,” one of the referees wrote. The author had proved “a landmark theorem in the distribution of prime numbers.”
Rumors swept through the mathematics community that a great advance had been made by a researcher no one seemed to know — someone whose talents had been so overlooked after he earned his doctorate in 1992 that he had found it difficult to get an academic job, working for several years as an accountant and even in a Subway sandwich shop.
Is the Brain No Different From a Light Switch? The Uncomfortable Ideas of the Philosopher Daniel Dennett
Jonathan Weiner in The Daily Beast:
For Daniel Dennett, philosophers are like blacksmiths: they make their own tools as they go along. Unlike carpenters, who have to buy their drills and saws at Sears, blacksmiths can use their own hammers, tongs, and anvils to pound out more hammers, tongs, and anvils. Dennett, whose famous white beard gives him the look of both a blacksmith and a philosopher, has been particularly industrious at the anvil. He has been working as a philosopher for 50 years, and in his new book, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, he shares a few tricks to make the hard work easier. He is a master at inventing tools for thought—metaphysical jokes, fables, parables, puzzles, and zany Monty-Python-like sketches that can help thinkers feel their way forward. Dennett calls them hand tools and power tools for the mind, and he’s built dozens and dozens of them over the years.
“Thinking is hard,” he writes. “Thinking about some problems is so hard that it can make your head ache just thinking about thinking about them.” Thinking tools help philosophers work on the really deep, hard questions about life, the universe, and everything. They facilitate what another philosopher has called Jootsing, which stands for Jumping Out Of the System—the goal is to pop out of the goldfish bowl of commonplace ideas without drowning in thin air. Think of Plato’s Cave, for instance. That little story has helped philosophers puzzle about the nature of reality for more than 23 centuries and counting.
Dennett’s own inventions include “Swampman Meets a Cow-Shark,” “Zombies and Zimboes,” and many other thought experiments that illuminate great questions in philosophy. He focuses on problems of free will, evolution, and consciousness. His ideas about consciousness are rather shocking; he can make you feel that the human brain itself is just a collection of tongs, hammers, and intuition pumps. (More about that in a moment.) Dennett has written more than a dozen books about those deep topics.
No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka
Mohsin Hamid: 'Islam is not a monolith'
Mohsin Hamid in The Guardian:
In 2007, six years after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, I was travelling through Europe and North America. I had just published a novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and as I travelled I was struck by the large number of interviewers and of audience members at Q&As who spoke of Islam as a monolithic thing, as if Islam referred to a self-contained and clearly defined world, a sort of Microsoft Windows, obviously different from, and considerably incompatible with, the Apple OS X-like operating system of "the west".
I recall one reading in Germany in particular. Again and again, people posed queries relating to how "we Europeans" see things, in contrast to how "you Muslims" do. Eventually I was so exasperated that I pulled my British passport out of my jacket and started waving it around my head. "While it's true the UK hasn't yet joined the eurozone," I said, " I hope we can all agree the country is in fact in Europe."
Six years on, a film inspired by the novel is in the process of appearing on screens around the world, and I am pleased to report that those sorts of questions are a little rarer now than they were in 2007. This represents progress. But it is modest progress, for the sense of Islam as a monolith lingers, in places both expected and unexpected.
Justin Sonnenburg, a microbiologist at Stanford, suggests that we would do well to begin regarding the human body as “an elaborate vessel optimized for the growth and spread of our microbial inhabitants.” This humbling new way of thinking about the self has large implications for human and microbial health, which turn out to be inextricably linked. Disorders in our internal ecosystem — a loss of diversity, say, or a proliferation of the “wrong” kind of microbes — may predispose us to obesity and a whole range of chronic diseases, as well as some infections. “Fecal transplants,” which involve installing a healthy person’s microbiota into a sick person’s gut, have been shown to effectively treat an antibiotic-resistant intestinal pathogen named C. difficile, which kills 14,000 Americans each year. (Researchers use the word “microbiota” to refer to all the microbes in a community and “microbiome” to refer to their collective genes.) We’ve known for a few years that obese mice transplanted with the intestinal community of lean mice lose weight and vice versa. (We don’t know why.) A similar experiment was performed recently on humans by researchers in the Netherlands: when the contents of a lean donor’s microbiota were transferred to the guts of male patients with metabolic syndrome, the researchers found striking improvements in the recipients’ sensitivity to insulin, an important marker for metabolic health. Somehow, the gut microbes were influencing the patients’ metabolisms.more from Michael Pollan at the NY Times Magazine here.
the culture animal
According to genetics, there is not much that makes us human; depending on how you count, we share 98.5 per cent of our genes with chimpanzees. Perhaps this is not such a significant matter, given that we also share about 60 per cent of our genes with tomatoes. As this shows, human beings are fully part of nature, and the elements that make us make not just the rest of the animal and vegetable kingdoms, but the rocks beneath our feet and the stars in the sky above us. So what does make us human? It is not that we live in social groups: ants, antelopes and sparrows do the same. It is not that we have nuanced emotional lives: so do dogs and baboons. It is not even that we have language, for other things – including trees, as it happens – have communication systems, too, and it might be that some of those systems are quite complex, as appears to be the case with dolphins, for example. But in the human case the system of communication – language – is particularly complex and flexible, with great expressive power, and this makes possible the phenomenon of culture. If I were to pick one thing that separates humanity from the rest of the living world, culture is it.more from AC Grayling at The New Statesman here.