Sunday, October 23, 2005
Waiting for an Islamic Enlightenment
Tariq Ali on "No God But God" in the Guardian:
Reza Aslan is an Iranian-American writer, a Shia by persuasion, and informs us in the prologue to his book that he will be denounced as an apostate by some and an apologist by others, but that the latter does not bother him since "there is no higher calling than to defend one's faith", especially in times of ignorance and hate.
The Shia sects and some of their more esoteric beliefs have little to do with Islamic theology. An Iranian equivalent of Monty Python's Life of Brian will deconstruct all this one day. Shia mythology (some of it uncritically recycled here) transformed a crude bid for power by Ali's son, Hussain, and his defeat and death at the hands of the Caliph Yazid, into a sacred martyrdom commemorated to this day with an annual display of self-flagellation and blood-spilling. The reform solution is to ban the self-flagellation and instead encourage participants to donate their blood to hospitals. It's an amusing idea that misses the whole point about the processions, designed by the Shia clergy to encourage obedience, inculcate the idea of an eternal martyrdom and maintain their grip.
Raving Egomania and Utter Batshit Insanity
Cosma Shalizi, indubitably one of the smartest persons in the blogoshere, has posted a brilliant and very substantive review (in other words, he has said in an erudite manner what I thought but couldn't express anywhere nearly as well when I read the book) that he wrote of Stephen Wolfram's A New Kind of Science, when it had come out a couple of years ago:
Normally, scientific work is full of references to previous works, if only to say things like "the outmoded theory of Jones , unable to accommodate stubborn experimental facts [2--25], has generally fallen out of favor". This is how you indicate what's new, what you're relying on, how you let readers immerse themselves in the web of ideas that is an particular field of research. Wolfram has deliberately omitted references. Now, this is sometimes done: Darwin did it in The Origin of Species, for instance, to try to get it to press quickly. But Wolfram has written 1100 pages over about a decade; what would it have hurt to have included citations? In his end-notes, where he purports to talk about what people have done, he is misleading, or wrong, or both. (An indefinite number of examples can be provided upon request.) To acknowledge that he had predecessors who were not universally blinkered fools would, however, conflict with the persona he is try to project to others, and perhaps to himself.
Let me try to sum up. On the one hand, we have a large number of true but commonplace ideas, especially about how simple rules can lead to complex outcomes, and about the virtues of toy models. On the other hand, we have a large mass of dubious speculations (many of them also unoriginal). We have, finally, a single new result of mathematical importance, which is not actually the author's. Everything is presented as the inspired fruit of a lonely genius, delivering startling insights in isolation from a blinkered and philistine scientific community. We have been this way before.
Taiwan to ignore flu drug patent
From BBC News:
Taiwan has responded to bird flu fears by starting work on its own version of the anti-viral drug, Tamiflu, without waiting for the manufacturer's consent.
Taiwan officials said they had applied for the right to copy the drug - but the priority was to protect the public.
Tamiflu, made by Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche, cannot cure bird-flu but is widely seen as the best anti-viral drug to fight it, correspondents say.
The Fall of the Warrior King
Dexter Filkins in the New York Times Magazine:
Even in an Army in which ferocious competition produced nearly perfect specimens of brains and lethality, Sassaman stood apart. Commanding some 800 soldiers in the heart of the insurgency-ravaged Sunni Triangle, Sassaman, then 40, had distinguished himself as one of the nimblest, most aggressive officers in Iraq. From his base in Balad, a largely Shiite city in a sea of Sunni villages, Sassaman bucked the civilian authorities and held local elections months earlier than in most of the country's other towns and cities. His relations with the locals in Balad were so warm that on each Friday afternoon, inside a circle of tanks on an empty field, his men would face off against the Iraqis for a game of soccer. He was a West Point grad and the son of a Methodist minister. As quarterback for Army's football team in the 1980's, he ran for 1,002 yards in a single season and carried West Point's team to its first bowl victory. Everyone in the Army knew of Nate Sassaman.
Yet as his junior officers briefed him in January about what had happened to two Iraqis his men detained that night by the Tigris, the straight lines and rigid hierarchy of the Army that had created him seemed, like so many other American ideas brought to this murky land, no longer particularly relevant...
The events that would end the career of one of the Army's most celebrated midlevel officers sent a shock through the American force in Iraq. It is only now, with the Army's investigation complete and Sassaman's career over, that the story can be pieced together from interviews with him, his comrades and the Iraqis. Twenty-two months after that night on the Tigris, it is a tale that seems like a parable of the dark passage that lay ahead for the Americans in Iraq.
MacMansions on MacQuasars
From Now or Never:
The other day one of my students asked me what I thought about our spending billions to explore space when we have so many problems here on earth that need our attention. It's a good question. The USA's scoping out another moon shot as we speak. China's orbiting the globe now and should soon be as dizzy as other super-duper powers. Mars is on the horizon. Before you know it there'll be MacMansions on MacQuasars, yet bad news falls from terra firma's firmament without let-up. Sadly the human record seems to tell us our's is a conflict without resolution, a condition without a cure.
It's deja vu cloned and cubed.
What we're caught up in is the eternal call of the moment wrestling with our obsession with the unknown. Instant gratification chronically usurping future returns. In modern 1st world parlance, it's like being strapped to a table in a fast food joint wolfing juicy supersizes with fries until we're bigger than Jupiter, instead of getting out there and exploring Jupiter. It's an endless state of affairs. We might as well be Sysiphus, and this dilemma our rolling stone. God knows we need the exercise.
Saturday, October 22, 2005
Better than a Timex
SOMETIMES, WHEN THINGS GET SUFFICIENTLY WEIRD, SUBTLETY NO longer works, so i'll be blunt: The gleaming device I am staring at in the corner of a machine shop in San Rafael, California, is the most audacious machine ever built. It is a clock, but it is designed to do something no clock has ever been conceived to do—run with perfect accuracy for 10,000 years.
Everything about this clock is deeply unusual. For example, while nearly every mechanical clock made in the last millennium consists of a series of propelled gears, this one uses a stack of mechanical binary computers capable of singling out one moment in 3.65 million days. Like other clocks, this one can track seconds, hours, days, and years. Unlike any other clock, this one is being constructed to keep track of leap centuries, the orbits of the six innermost planets in our solar system, even the ultraslow wobbles of Earth's axis.
Made of stone and steel, it is more sculpture than machine. And, like all fine timepieces, it is outrageously expensive. No one will reveal even an approximate price tag, but a multibillionaire financed its construction, and it seems likely that shallower pockets would not have sufficed.
Fleeing to Europe
Der Standard (via Sign and Sight) looks at the politically charged issue of asylum seekers (refugees) in Europe in this interview with the Portuguese journalist, Paulo Moura on African refugees in Morocco.
Der Standard: In recent years, the EU has let it be known it has plans to create outposts for African refugees in North Africa. Haven't these outposts existed for a long time now?
Paulo Moura: Yes, as informal camps. In general, the refugees see it as their right to solve the problem as they see fit. What is certain is that they want to come to Europe, and there is nothing that can change their minds. They live to reach Europe. So it wouldn't be a good idea to set up such camps. The last time I was in one of these "underground camps" in a forest near Ceuta, a refugee leader said that the official outposts wouldn't change the refugees' condition one bit. The money would be used for the local people of the country in question. "Official" camps only serve to give Europeans a clear conscience.
Morocco receives financial aid from the EU. What impact does this have? Are institutions in place that supervise this money flow?
The country receives money to solve problems where they occur. But the way this is done is unacceptable. Prison conditions are miserable, and the jails are filled to overflowing. Thousands of people continue to live and die in the forests and deserts, and nothing is done to stop it. And the system of corruption in Morocco pervades every level – from the government to the police to the military. So it's impossible to exercise control.
Agee's film criticism sounds like that too, a calculated yet self-exceeding improvisation. Its culmination is the twenty-five-page essay he wrote for Life in September 1949 titled "Comedy's Greatest Era." Agee's premise was simple: "As soon as the screen began to talk, silent comedy was pretty well finished." In a Bob Hope film, "the fun slackens between laughs like a weak clothesline." What Agee loved in silent movies was the same thing that he loved in nineteenth-century daguerreotypes and New Orleans jazz, an unselfconscious authenticity of the kind Schiller called "naïve" rather than sentimental. Agee began his essay in a mock-analytic mode: "In the language of screen comedians four of the main grades of laugh are the titter, the yowl, the bellylaugh and the boffo. The titter is just a titter. The yowl is a runaway titter. Anyone who has ever had the pleasure knows all about a bellylaugh. The boffo is the laugh that kills." Agee examined the smiles of the great comedians: Harold Lloyd's "thesaurus of smiles" which "could at a moment's notice blend prissiness, breeziness and asininity," or Buster Keaton--the "most deeply 'silent' of the silent comedians"--whose smile "was as deafeningly out of key as a yell." The twitchings of Harry Langdon's clueless face "were signals of tiny discomforts too slowly registered by a tinier brain; quick, squirty little smiles showed his almost prehuman pleasures, his incurably premature trustfulness." And then there was Chaplin, some kind of ultimate for Agee: "Of all comedians he worked most deeply and most shrewdly within a realization of what a human being is, and is up against."
more from TNR here.
Schama on rubens
The thing about entitling your show "Master in the Making" is that it assumes a public already sold on just what it was that got made. But that couldn't be less true in the case of Rubens. In any given museum on any given Sunday, the empty gallery is invariably "Flemish, 17th Century", where gatherings of massively upholstered nudes shift their dimpled weight opposite a collision of horses and carnivores, while by the door an obscure and pallid saint embraces his martyrdom with rolled-up eyes. Punters enter, take a quick gander, assume the proper expression of the glazed, the cowed, the awed and the baffled, and then accelerate towards the door marked "Rembrandt".
more from the Guardian Unlimited here.
OK, Us, you've had your fun. Now you best pay attention. Those pictures you took crossed a lot of lines, and I, Giant Squid, want to set some ground rules if you ever want me to cooperate again. Giant Squid doesn't have a lot of patience.
Not all of the pictures made Giant Squid mad. The first ones of me underwater, for example—those were all right. Nonintrusive, plenty of Japanese scientists on hand to make it legit. All in all, pretty understandable, pretty exciting even, considering that Giant Squid hadn't ever been photographed in his natural environment before. Hell, I've been a giant squid my whole life, and even now sometimes just the fact that a creature like me exists is enough to make Giant Squid ink himself. For the sake of science, Giant Squid is glad you're happy with those shots. Giant Squid saw some of them on Yahoo!'s newswire, and he's gotta say they turned out pretty well.
But now it's gotten out of hand. . .
more from McSweeney's here.
Magnetic stimulation helps stroke victims
From The Harvard Gazette:
To recover from a stroke, it helps to get the two sides of the brain talking to each other again. One way to do this is by waving a magnetic wand over the heads of stroke victims, a Harvard researcher has found. The technique, called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), is painless. Felipe Fregni, a neurologist at Harvard Medical School, has used it to improve the movement skills of people whose brains have been damaged by strokes, skills that include everything from writing to putting on your pants.
Frengi is having some success adjusting the go and no-go signals with magnetic pulses generated in the wand. He and his colleagues at the Harvard Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation have "pulsed" 26 patients so far, with encouraging results.
'Shakespeare'; 'A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare': Straight Out of Stratford
By now research and criticism have shed so much light on Shakespeare that anyone interested enough to read these books knows the broad outlines of his life: childhood and schooling in Stratford in a household probably hiding condemned Roman Catholicism under a Protestant facade; marriage at 18 to the 26-year-old Anne Hathaway and the births of three children; the so-called lost years, during which Will may have worked for a butcher (unlikely) or tutored in the homes of Lancashire nobility (more likely). The coming to London as actor, playwright and poet, involved in the rivalries among various acting companies and competition with fellow playwrights. Perhaps also something about the mainly good relations with two monarchs, Elizabeth and James, and with certain prominent noblemen. Finally, the retirement to Stratford and life as a wealthy landowner, only sporadically punctuated by collaboration with other dramatists.
Personally, I hail the anonymous student who stated, "Shakespeare's plays were written by William Shakespeare or another man of that name."
Friday, October 21, 2005
Ben Marcus vs. Jonathan Franzen
Jess Row in Slate:
Living, as we do, in the aftermath of this age of grand theories, it's hard to read Ben Marcus' essay in the current issue of Harper's—with the wonderful tongue-in-cheek title "Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It"—without asking: Does he really mean it? Title notwithstanding, it seems he really does. He means it when he says, "In the literary world, it's not politic to suggest that the brain is even involved in reading"; when he proclaims that "literature is dying"; when he describes himself as "responding to an attack from the highest point of status culture." These sentences have the unmistakable flavor of the avant-garde, in the original military sense of the word. They carry what Barth (referring to his own work) called "the whiff of tear gas at their margins." "This is not a manifesto," Marcus concludes. But if not, it's as close to one as we're likely to see from a writer of fiction today. Profoundly nostalgic—as so many manifestoes turn out to be under close examination—it returns us to the pure spirit of modernism and the rhetoric of cultural crisis, of vanguards and reactionaries, of the Chosen and the Left Behind. As such, it's an unnecessary, and disingenuous, attempt to repolarize American literary culture.
More here. [Thanks to Asad and Husain Naqvi.]
'I Will Eat Your Dollars'
On Nigerian scammers in the Los Angeles Times:
To them, the scams, called 419 after the Nigerian statute against fraud, are a game.
Their anthem, "I Go Chop Your Dollars," hugely popular in Lagos, hit the airwaves a few months ago as a CD penned by an artist called Osofia:
"419 is just a game, you are the losers, we are the winners.
White people are greedy, I can say they are greedy
White men, I will eat your dollars, will take your money and disappear.
419 is just a game, we are the masters, you are the losers."
"Nobody feels sorry for the victims," Samuel said.
Scammers, he said, "have the belief that white men are stupid and greedy. They say the American guy has a good life. There's this belief that for every dollar they lose, the American government will pay them back in some way."
What's A Gene For?
Carl Zimmer in his weblog, The Loom:
There was a time not that long ago when sequencing a single gene would be hailed as a scientific milestone. But then came a series of breakthroughs that sped up the process: clever ideas for how to cut up genes and rapidly identify the fragments, the design of robots that could do this work twenty-four hours a day, and powerful computers programmed to make sense of the results. Instead of single genes, entire genomes began to be sequenced. This year marks the tenth anniversary of the publication of the first complete draft of the entire genome of a free-living species (a nasty little microbe called Haemophilus influenzae). Since then, hundreds of genomes have emerged, from flies, mice, humans, and many more, each made up of thousands of genes. More individual genes have been sequenced from the DNA of thousands of other species. In August, an international consortium of databases announced that they now had 100 billion "letters" from the genes of 165,000 different species.
But this data glut has created a new problem. Scientists don't know what many of the genes are for.
Brain researchers explain why old habits die hard
A new study in the Oct. 20 issue of Nature, led by Ann Graybiel of MIT's McGovern Institute, now shows why. Important neural activity patterns in a specific region of the brain change when habits are formed, change again when habits are broken, but quickly re-emerge when something rekindles an extinguished habit -- routines that originally took great effort to learn.
"We knew that neurons can change their firing patterns when habits are learned, but it is startling to find that these patterns reverse when the habit is lost, only to recur again as soon as something kicks off the habit again," said Graybiel, who is also the Walter A. Rosenblith Professor of Neuroscience in MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS).
The patterns in question occur in the basal ganglia, a brain region that is critical to habits, addiction and procedural learning. Malfunctions in the basal ganglia occur in Parkinson's disease, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and many neuropsychiatric disorders.
The Wider, Not Wilder, Egon Schiele
Ken Johnson in the New York Times:
The Viennese Expressionist Egon Schiele (1890-1918) had only two urgent interests: himself and his sexual fantasies. Out of such limited preoccupations and by means of a preternatural gift for drawing and graphic design, he created artworks that still burn with narcissistic yearning, erotic desire, bohemian dissent and existential anxiety.
Since the revival in the early 1970's of his dormant reputation, he has been esteemed by fine-art lovers as one of the 20th century's great draftsmen and he has been a romantic hero to generations of young people raised on sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll who would not know a Monet from a Manet.
Schiele did other things besides self-portraits and sexy pictures of young women. He made wonderful portraits of friends, relatives and lovers, painted gloomy landscapes in an amalgam of Modernist and medieval styles, and concocted lugubrious, overwrought allegories of life, love and death. But were it not for the self-portraits and erotic pictures on paper, his name would be forgotten today.
Astrology is scientific theory, courtroom told
Celeste Biever in New Scientist:
Astrology would be considered a scientific theory if judged by the same criteria used by a well-known advocate of Intelligent Design to justify his claim that ID is science, a landmark US trial heard on Tuesday.
Under cross examination, ID proponent Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, admitted his definition of “theory” was so broad it would also include astrology.
The trial is pitting 11 parents from the small town of Dover, Pennsylvania, against their local school board. The board voted to read a statement during a biology class that casts doubt on Darwinian evolution and suggests ID as an alternative.
The parents claim this was an attempt to introduce creationism into the curriculum and that the school board members were motivated by their evangelical Christian beliefs. It is illegal to teach anything with a primarily religious purpose or effect on pupils in government-funded US schools.
Supporters of ID believe that some things in nature are simply too complex to have evolved by natural selection, and therefore must be the work of an intelligent designer.
Happy 120th? Science Pushes Human Longevity
From National Geographic:
How long can humans conceivably live? In most developed countries, life expectancy has grown steadily to an average of 75 years. But scientists are exploring ways to extend lifespan to lengths that seem inconceivable now—perhaps 120 years and beyond. Ideally, future centenarians who avail themselves to life-prolonging advances won't suffer the familiar frailties of old age. The goal is for them to retain their youthful vitality, rather than add extra years of decline. Several studies show lifespans can be stretched far beyond normal limits. In one example, Cynthia Kenyon, a professor at the University of California in San Francisco, has doubled the lifespans of simple roundworms from two weeks to a month by altering the function of a single gene, known as daf-2. Even near death, these mutated worms look better than normal worms half their age. Their bodies are smooth and plump, and they wriggle along like much younger worms.
Thursday, October 20, 2005
On The Political Consequences of US bases abroad
Alex Cooley has a thoughtful piece in the latest Foreign Affairs on the political consequences of basing US troops in foreign countries. (Subscription required for full article.)
This past July, the government of Uzbekistan evicted U.S. personnel from the Karshi-Khanabad air base, which Washington had used as a staging ground for combat, reconnaissance, and humanitarian missions in Afghanistan since late 2001. The government in Tashkent gave no official reason for the expulsion, but the order was issued soon after the UN airlifted 439 Uzbek refugees from Kyrgyzstan to Romania -- a move that Washington supported and Tashkent opposed. . . The showdown was the latest in a series of confrontations since a much-criticized crackdown on antigovernment demonstrators in the eastern city of Andijon last May.
These events illustrate the enduring problem that U.S. defense officials face as they try to promote democratic values abroad while maintaining U.S. military bases in nondemocratic countries. Although some in Washington acknowledge this tension, they generally argue that the strategic benefits of having U.S. bases close to important theaters such as Afghanistan outweigh the political costs of supporting unsavory host regimes. With the Pentagon now redefining the role of the U.S. military in the twenty-first century, moreover, its officials insist even more on the importance of developing a vast network of U.S. bases to confront cross-border terrorism and other regional threats. Some of them also turn the objections of pro-democracy critics around. They claim that a U.S. military presence in repressive countries gives Washington additional leverage to press them to liberalize. . .
Such arguments have merit, but they do not tell the whole story. For one thing, the political complications sometimes associated with dealing with democracies are ephemeral. For another, setting up bases in nondemocratic states brings mostly short-term benefits, rarely helps promote liberalization, and sometimes even endangers U.S. security.
Reconsidering the more troops in Iraq counterfactual
So was the Iraq War a good idea, ruined by poor implementation? Perhaps the founding myth of the incompetence argument is that the postwar mess could have been avoided had the United States deployed more troops to Iraq. “Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki was ridiculed for suggesting that it would take several hundred thousand troops to secure Iraq,” wrote Senator Joe Biden in a June 2004 New Republic article. “He looks prescient today.”
Shinseki’s ballpark numbers were based on past Army experience with postconflict reconstruction. A RAND Corporation effort to quantify more precisely that experience, frequently cited by dodgers, concluded that a ratio of 20 foreigners for every 1,000 natives would have been necessary to stabilize Iraq.
The flaw in the popular “more troops” argument is strikingly easy to locate. The 20-to-1,000 ratio implies the presence of about 500,000 soldiers in Iraq. That’s far more than it would have been possible for the United States to deploy. Sustaining a given number of troops in a combat situation requires twice that number to be dedicated to the mission, so that soldiers can rotate in and out of theater. As there are only 1 million soldiers in the entire Army, a 500,000-troop deployment would imply that literally everyone -- from the National Guard units currently assisting with disaster relief on the Gulf Coast to those serving in Afghanistan, Korea, and Europe to the bureaucrats doing staff work in the Pentagon and elsewhere -- would be dedicated to the mission. This is plainly impossible. . .
ANOTHER LETTER FROM ZAWAHIRI TO ZARQAWI
T. A. Frank in The New Republic:
God only knows how much I would enjoy visiting you in Iraq. The only thing keeping me from packing my bags, donning a burqa, and slipping into a carrier sack on a westbound mule right now is that I'm tied up with promoting my latest book, Man Behind the Mosque: Faith, Community and Discourse in Post-Bunker-Buster Waziristan (334 pp., Madrassa Press, $28.95 Canadian). Did you happen to see me on "Charlie Rose"? I had you in mind when I sent in my threatening audiotape.
I hope the move is going well, and I would love to see a picture of your new house in Falluja. I am glad the old one had insurance, God be praised. I do hope that it has a comfortable recreation room, God permitting, and a spacious, windowless basement with good lighting for the Panasonic AG-DVC7 you were discussing.
However, I do, gracious brother, want to discuss one or two points about strategy and tactics, even as I recognize your pioneering role in decapitation research. In terms of ambition, your plan to explode every Shia in Iraq cannot be faulted for scope, but is it practicable? I worry that the Iranians and others visiting Najaf or Basra might pick up on clues, such as the absence of human life. Mind you, I sympathize entirely with your sentiments, but it might make more sense to focus primarily on the American infidels and to save the detonation of Shia for special occasions, such as birthdays.
Cracking the Code of Pre-Earthquake Signals
Friedemann Freund at Space.com:
Our Earth is a restless planet. Occasionally – quite often, in some regions of the world – the restlessness turns deadly. Of all natural hazards, earthquakes are the most feared. They are feared because they seem to strike so unpredictably. Yet, for centuries, and even millennia, people living in seismically active regions have noted premonitory signals. The historical records talk of changes of the water level in wells, of strange weather, of ground-hugging fog, of unusual behavior of animals (both domestic and wild) that seem to feel the approach of a major earthquake. With the advent of modern science and technology the list of premonitory signals has become even longer. Among them are
- Sporadic emissions of low to ultralow-frequency electromagnetic radiation from the ground
- Occasional local magnetic field anomalies reaching a strength of half a percent of the Earth’s main dipole field
- Changes in the lower atmosphere that are accompanied by the formation of haze and a reduction of moisture in the air
- Large patches, often tens to hundreds of thousands of square kilometers in size, seen in night-time infrared satellite images where the land surface temperature seems to fluctuate rapidly
- Passing perturbations in the ionosphere at 90 - 120 km altitude that affect the transmission of radio waves
Torment and Justice in Cambodia
Christine Stansell in Dissent Magazine:
"Something terrible happened here. And I don’t know what it is,” Bill Herod remembers thinking in his first days in Phnom Penh in 1980. He was with Church World Service, one of a group of aid workers allowed into the country after the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge in January 1979 and put an end to the three-and-a-half-year-long nightmare of the Cambodian people. In 1980, Herod had just come from Vietnam. He had seen plenty of devastation, but this was something different, a higher order of magnitude.
In those first months, Westerners were only beginning to grasp the enormity of what the KR—as they’re always called in Cambodia—had done. In the city and the refugee camps on the Thai border, relief workers were piecing together accounts of starvation, brutal forced labor, and mass executions into some comprehension of the whole. Cambodians were stunned, largely affectless, many in a state of shock. Hospitals housed crazed, emaciated children who had been found wandering in the forests, abandoned and lost by parents fleeing KR camps as the Vietnamese approached.
Thirty years later, the extent and nature of the horror are no mysteries. Between April 1975, when the KR overthrew the despised Lon Nol regime, and January 1979, when the Vietnamese invaded, the rulers of Democratic Kampuchea killed—by murder, starvation, and forced labor—1.7 to two million people, close to a quarter of the entire population. In the torment they wreaked on a small country in such a short time, the KR ranks as possibly the most savage Communist Party to curse the twentieth century.
An American Boy in Stalin's Russia
Editor’s note: Leon Bell, a Soviet-trained nuclear physicist who later became a world-class plant physiologist with an expertise in photosynthesis, was born in Texas in 1918, and moved with his family to Moscow in 1931. His life reflects the tragedy of the Soviet Union and the situation of an American-born Jew in Stalin’s Russia. In his unpublished autobiography the author gives an inside view of what it was like to live in constant fear and poverty in a totalitarian state. . .
Today is December 23, 1987. I am now sixty-nine years old. You can twist that figure around anyway you wish to, but you will always get sixty-nine—there is no escape. In a year’s time (if I am still alive) I will be seventy, and that is real old age. Time is running out, and if I expect to write about my life, as daughter Natasha has asked me to, it’s time to begin.
Of course, I have my doubts whether it is worthwhile writing. I can’t write a memoir as usually understood—a narrative of the life of a person of fame or one who had experienced a particularly interesting life. I am not famous and, strictly speaking, there were no extraordinary events in my life Then why write? First of all, as I have mentioned, Natasha has asked me to, and wife Ira has supported the idea. Secondly, in my opinion just about anyone’s life can be interesting as a mirror, albeit a small one, of the times in which the person lived.
I am a person of the twentieth century, a stormy and at times, maddening, century. Possibly, in the future some people would like to know how ordinary, not widely known people lived in those times.