Saturday, October 17, 2015
Spencer Jordan in The Wire:
In Middle Passage (1962), V S Naipaul’s account of revisiting the Caribbean, the author is swept up by the voices of its inhabitants. As one taxi driver tells him: “Is only when you live here as long as me that you know the sort of animal it is.” Understanding exactly what sort of “animal” Jamaica is also lies at the heart of Marlon James’s Booker-winning novel A Brief History of Seven Killings.
Like Middle Passage, James’s book is a whirlwind of different voices, intertwining and separating as the novel proceeds. Yet unlike Middle Passage there is no artful attempt to spare the darkness of what was once the heart of the slave trade. As one of James’s characters says when talking about Naipaul’s travelogue, “the beauty of how him write that sentence still lie to you as to how ugly [West Kingston] is”.
Ostensibly A Brief History of Seven Killings is about the failed assassination of Bob Marley, immediately before a peace concert organised by the socialist People’s National Party (PNP) in 1976. Marley was wounded but went on to play the concert. He left straight afterwards and did not return to Jamaica for two years. The gunmen were never brought to justice and their identities remain a mystery.
The fog of uncertainty surrounding these events has elevated them to mythical status. James takes the few facts that are known and runs with them...
Michael M. Phillips in the Wall Street Journal:
He had long ago lost touch with an ex-wife and two daughters. His older girl recalled his fondness of firearms and a hatred of authorities; how he smelled of spearmint, coffee and cigarettes; how he beat her mother.
Mr. Dykes, a Vietnam veteran, worked as a land surveyor and a truck driver. He was fired from his last hauling job after a dispute with his boss and at age 65 ended up living on the edge of a peanut field in a town of 2,400 in southeastern Alabama, growing vegetables and collecting grievances.
Metal cattle gates opened to his acre-and-a-half property, located at the crest of a rutted, red-dirt road. He landscaped with cinder block and laid out a pond and garden. Mostly, though, his land resembled a scrub-covered parking lot for his maroon-and-silver Econoline van, a 40-foot shipping container and, up on blocks, his home, a scruffy trailer left over from a federal disaster-relief program.
In jeans and a T-shirt, with lightning-strike white hair, Mr. Dykes roamed his property shooting grasshoppers with a pellet gun. He talked about putting out bowls of antifreeze to poison neighborhood dogs that soiled his property.
In early 2012, Mr. Dykes drove his next-door neighbor, Michael Creel, to the Wal-Mart and spent the ride fuming over a new gun law. On the return trip, Mr. Dykes mused about taking people hostage in a church some Sunday until a reporter broadcast his views against the law.
Neil Swidey in the Boston Globe:
Before we get into it, let me make one thing clear. This intervention is not aimed at those with life-threatening food allergies or similarly grave medical conditions. I would never question people whose faces will balloon if they ingest trace amounts of shellfish. Or people who risk going into anaphylactic shock with a whiff of peanut dust. Or people whose ingestion of a smidge of gluten will send their bodies on an autoimmune witch hunt that over time will eat away at the lining of their small intestines and potentially lead to everything from infertility to cancer. Those problems are very real, and everyone who is afflicted with one or more of them has my sympathy.
I’m talking about the rest of you. Those of you who don’t eat garlic because you detest its smell or avoid cauliflower because it makes you fart or have gone gluten-free because you heard it worked wonders for Jennifer Aniston or Lady Gaga or Dave, your toned instructor from spin class.
When you settle into your seat at a restaurant, don’t be shy about telling your server your food preferences. By all means, ask if your dish can be prepared garlic-free or cauliflower-free or gluten-free. You’re paying good money, so you should get the meal that you want, not one that leaves you riding home in a foul mood and a plume of fetid air. The days of the imperious no-substitutions chef, telling you to take it or leave it, now seem as dated as a rerun of that Seinfeld “Soup Nazi” episode from 20 years ago.
But for the love of Julia Child and the sake of every other soul in the restaurant, particularly the underpaid line cooks sweating their way through another Saturday night shift, please, please stop describing your food preferences as an allergy.
[Thanks to John Ballard.]
Nigel Wilson in Al Jazeera:
As the student cafeteria at Birzeit University empties after the lunchtime rush, Ehab Iwidat leans back on his chair and sips from a bottle of mineral water. The wiry, 20-year-old business and French student is suffering from a cold, but that has not stopped him from attending some of the recent demonstrations in the West Bank. "It's the first time in a long time that we've seen this," he says. "I've seen young people, old people, females, males, protesting in the streets together. You can see rich people alongside poor people too." Like many in the so-called Oslo generation of Palestinians, who have little or no memory of previous Intifadas in Palestine, Iwidat only knows life under occupation as a second-class citizen. He believes that Israeli restrictions on Palestinian freedom and rights in the West Bank, harassment from Israeli settlers, and the bleak prospects for a peace deal between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders have pushed Palestinians into the streets in recent weeks. "It's coming from the actions of settlers, who represent Israeli government policy. From burning people alive, humiliating people on a daily basis and restricting Palestinians' freedom movement, to the disrespectful actions at al-Aqsa Mosque." The protests that have swept Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank this month have seen tens of thousands of Palestinians take to the streets. Men and women of all ages have joined the movement. In some cases, these massive demonstrations have passed peacefully, as protesters massed to chant slogans in unity, demanding solidarity to fight the Israeli military occupation. Other gatherings have turned violent, as the Israeli military used tear gas, rubber-coated steel bullets and live fire against Palestinian demonstrators throwing rocks and firebombs at Israeli soldiers.
The movement has even given traction to the idea that Palestinians could be on the verge of a new Intifada, or that one may have already begun.
This Neruda Earth
Sitting against a treetrunk in Dolores Park
amid the Chilean solidarity gathering.
my eyes beheld three tiny daisies
in the grass, their little pollen hearts
attacked by flies. Nearby, yellowjackets
were flying over a jungle of blades
of grass and brilliantly green-backed
horseflies were making merry on
a flute of dogshit. I had lowered
my eyes from the speeches, and even
the Peoples Tribune was stacked at
my side. So much movement
in nature. A butterfly alighted on
the front page and walked along
the headline as if reading it. The
flies went on eating the hearts out.
The horseflies were absolutely drunken
on the excrement. The yellowjackets
were strafing and landing and
taking off again. It was the guerrilla
war, it was mir, it was peace. So much
movement, so much space in an inch. This
by Jack Hirschman
from Poetry Like Bread
In the Czech Republic, Hrabal is a mythic figure. The website for his favorite pub, U Zlatého tygra, has six tabs: Home, Beer/Cheese, Menu, Bohumil Hrabal, History, and Contacts. His 1994 meeting with ambassador Madeleine Albright and then presidents Havel and Clinton has been archived as both legend and link. The man and his work are preservations of Czech history, connecting old Prague, the “glory and downfall of the cultural boom of the ’60s” (to quote the Tygra’s website), and the city’s globalization under capitalism. Hrabal has come to represent a kind of nostalgia for a lost Czech time, somewhere back in the post-Soviet ’80s, or the pre-crackdown ’60s, or maybe even the democratic ’20s—anytime but now. In his intro to The Little Town Where Time Stood Still, Joshua Cohen identifies this nostalgia as Bohemian in general and Hrabalian in particular: “To feel born too late for a true life (whatever that is), and to feel that as a failure and that failure as ennobling, are very Czech emotions.” This complex blend of feeling—a yearning for the past that invigorates the presence of the present—courses through Hrabal’s best work, and is on full display in The Little Town Where Time Stood Still and Mr. Kafka and Other Tales from the Time of the Cult.
Originally translated in 1993 by the late James Naughton and newly reprinted by NYRB Classics, The Little Town Where Time Stood Still brings together two of Hrabal’s most iconic works. The first part, Cutting It Short (1976), takes the perspective of the author’s mother, Maryška, a restless, energetic woman constantly pushing the boundaries of acceptable behavior. Hers is the story of how these boundaries change with the passage of time, marked by the introduction of the wireless telephone to the little town of Nymburk.
Partway though Elvis Costello's baggy, often brilliant and wholly idiosyncratic memoir, "Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink," there's a moment that echoes like a master metaphor. It's 1995 and our hero is about to accept "an Ivor Novello Award in the company of Van Morrison, Lonnie Donegan, and Don Black," when a BBC exec sidles up to him and says, "Of course, you'd have had a lot more hits if you'd just taken out all the seventh and the minor chords."
That this isn't the best line here is testament, I suppose, to how many good lines "Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink" contains. The implication is that Costello should have gone a more predictable route, given the programmers what they wanted — which is antithetical to the ethos of his career.
New wave rocker, country crooner, balladeer, collaborator and showman: Costello has been all of this and more in the course of what is now a 40-year run. Of all the first-generation punkers, he remains (with Patti Smith and possibly David Byrne) among the few who can claim the longevity and diversity of, say, Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell, both of whom appear in this book. Like minds, perhaps, or water seeking its level. Either way, this is the company to which Costello belongs.
Laila Lalami in The New York Times:
Fifty years ago, the Arab world was seized by a new hope. Whether in Cairo or Casablanca, Damascus or Tripoli, the hope was the same — that through higher education, young people would lift their developing nations into an era of peace and modernity. One of these young people was a Syrian scholarship student named Abdel-Razak Sattouf, a firm believer in Pan-Arabism and its promise of a unified, prosperous region. His journey from cheerful liberal to quiet authoritarian is the subject of “The Arab of the Future,” a graphic memoir by his son, the comic artist and filmmaker Riad Sattouf.Shortly after arriving in Paris to complete a doctorate in history at the Sorbonne, Abdel-Razak falls in love with a Frenchwoman, Clémentine, and with the country itself. (“France is wonderful! People can do whatever they want here! They even pay you to be a student!”) When he’s not studying, he spends his time listening to Radio Monte Carlo, from which he receives news of the Arab defeat in the 1973 war against Israel. In one of many such contradictions, Abdel-Razak seethes with frustration at the failures of the Arab forces, even though he himself has avoided conscription into the Syrian Army by choosing to study abroad.
Abdel-Razak successfully defends his doctoral dissertation, and Clémentine, now his wife, gives birth to Riad. This should be a happy time for the young scholar, but instead he complains that he has received only a cum laude and that offers of employment arrive in the form of letters misspelling his name. Therein lies Abdel-Razak’s fatal flaw: He is unable to cope with the fact that his self-perception doesn’t match the way others perceive him. This, at least in part, explains why he leaps at the offer of a teaching post in Libya.
Friday, October 16, 2015
Jessica L. Nielson, Sean Carroll, Fredrick Barrett, George Musser, Karl Friston, Rich Oglesby, and Brad Burge offer answers in Hopes and Fears. George Musser:
The holographic principle doesn’t mean the universe isn't real. It just means that the universe around us, existing within spacetime, is CONSTRUCTED out of more fundamental building blocks. "Real" is sometimes taken to mean "fundamental", but that's a very limited sense of the term. Life isn't fundamental, since living things are made from particles, but that doesn’t make it any less real. It’s a higher-level phenomenon. So is spacetime, if the holographic principle is right. I talk about the holographic principle at length in my book, and I discuss the distinction between fundamental and higher-level phenomena in a recent blog post.
The closest we come in science to "real" or "objective" is intersubjective agreement. If a large number of people agree that something is real, we can assume that it is. In physics, we say that something is an objective feature of nature if all observers will agree on it - in other words, if that thing doesn’t depend on our arbitrary labels or the vagaries of a given vantage point ("frame-independent" or "gauge-invariant", in the jargon). For instance, I'm not entitled to say that my kitchen has a left side and a right side, since the labels "left" and "right" depend on my vantage point; they are words that describe me more than the kitchen. This kind of reasoning is the heart of Einstein's theory of relativity and the theories it inspired.
Could we all be fooled? Yes, of course. But there's a practical argument for taking intersubjective agreement as the basis of reality. Even if everyone is being fooled, we still need to explain our impressions.
Mike Konczal in The Nation:
In a 1937 radio address, the economist John Maynard Keynes said that “the boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity at the Treasury.” The time to pay down debt isn’t when the economy is weak, since the necessary spending cuts and tax increases would exacerbate a recession, but instead when times are good.
But what if good times aren’t right for austerity either? What if we should just service our debt—i.e., pay the minimum—and chill? This piece of advice is coming from an institution that, for many on the left, is synonymous with austerity: the International Monetary Fund. The IMF’s retiring research chief, Olivier Blanchard, is an MIT-trained New Keynesian, and the research team he oversaw during the Great Recession pushed the discussion into brand-new territory. A recent paper by IMF economists Jonathan Ostry, Atish Ghosh, and Raphael Espinoza is titled “When Should Public Debt Be Reduced?”, and their surprising answer is, for a country like the United States, not in the near future.
As background, the national debt did increase as a result of the Great Recession. As the economy weakened, the government took in less in taxes and paid out more in support. These “automatic stabilizers” put a floor under demand and helped keep the Great Recession from turning into the next Great Depression.
The government deficit increased throughout the worst of the recession, before falling and leveling off at a low rate. Now the deficit is just 2.4 percent of the GDP—lower than the average over the past 50 years. But the total amount of government debt has plateaued at a higher level. In 2007, the ratio of debt held by the public to GDP was about 35 percent; now it’s 74 percent.
To understand the IMF’s analysis, we must remember that the debt is what economists call a “sunk cost,” since the money has already been spent. We are left to consider the benefits and costs of this spending decision: Would our economy benefit most from throwing money at the debt, or investing it in something else?
Elizabeth Bruenig in TNR:
The economic boom of the late '90s masked the disasterwelfare reform would eventually reveal itself to be for a time, and perhaps this is why Bill Clinton enjoys a reputation as a fantastic president with an almost lovable scoundrel side. But since the collapse of the dot-com bubble, his reckless gutting of welfare has plunged millions of families into deep poverty.
The point of welfare reform was, in Hillary’s words, to “transition from dependency to dignity”—that is, to transition desperately poor families from welfare to work within a definite period of time. Although Clinton has refused to comment on whether or not she still considers welfare reform a success, she has since stuck to the theme of keeping benefits means-tested, with the goal of limiting benefits to the most destitute. Thus her interest, one presumes, in preventing Donald Trump’s kids from attending college without paying tuition, as Norway’s Princess Märtha Louise didn’t when she attended one of Norway’s many state colleges. Quelle horreur.
Clinton’s approach is one way to think about benefits: as tightly limited programs of last resort for people in extreme circumstances. This is mostly the way we talk about benefits now, in the parlance of a “safety net” for the precariously balanced and fallen. In this vein of thought, it makes sense to limit benefits to the extremely needy and to impose terms even upon those benefits, so as to prevent dependency—since the point is, after all, eventually ending one’s use of benefits.
Then there is the other way of looking at benefits: the social-democratic way. In his 1990 book Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism, Danish sociologist Gøsta Esping-Andersen described firstly the “‘liberal’ welfare state, in which means-tested assistance, modest universal transfers, or modest social-insurance plans predominate,” and “benefits cater mainly to a clientele of low-income, usually working-class, state dependents.” Then there is the social-democratic world, which consists of “a welfare state that would promote an equality of the highest standards, not an equality of minimal needs,” thus promising “that equality be furnished by guaranteeing workers full participation in the quality of rights enjoyed by the better-off.”
Julian Baggini in The Philosophers' Magazine:
The free will debate is one of the oldest in philosophy and considered by many to still be one of the most intractable. Hume thought he knew why. He believed that whenever a dispute persists for very long without resolution, “we may presume that there is some ambiguity in the expression, and that the disputants affix different ideas to the terms employed in the controversy.” And so he thought by resolving the ambiguity all people of good sense would see they had nothing to disagree about.
Two hundred years later, when P F Strawson had his stab at the problem, the disagreements were as wide as ever, and unlike Hume, Strawson was under no illusion that he would resolve them. “This lecture is intended as a move towards reconciliation,” he said at the beginning of his classic 1962 essay “Freedom and Resentment,” “so it is likely to seem wrongheaded to everyone.”
There's a lot still be said for Hume's diagnosis of the problem, and his solution. Hume argued that there was no contradiction between accepting that human beings are fully part of nature, their actions subject to the same laws of cause and effect as anything else, and believing that we have free will. Free will is not some magical power to escape the necessity of nature but a capacity to make choices free from coercion.
Peter Andrey Smith in Nature:
Nearly a year has passed since Rebecca Knickmeyer first met the participants in her latest study on brain development. Knickmeyer, a neuroscientist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill, expects to see how 30 newborns have grown into crawling, inquisitive one-year-olds, using a battery of behavioural and temperament tests. In one test, a child's mother might disappear from the testing suite and then reappear with a stranger. Another ratchets up the weirdness with some Halloween masks. Then, if all goes well, the kids should nap peacefully as a noisy magnetic resonance imaging machine scans their brains.
“We try to be prepared for everything,” Knickmeyer says. “We know exactly what to do if kids make a break for the door.”
Knickmeyer is excited to see something else from the children — their faecal microbiota, the array of bacteria, viruses and other microbes that inhabit their guts. Her project (affectionately known as 'the poop study') is part of a small but growing effort by neuroscientists to see whether the microbes that colonize the gut in infancy can alter brain development.
The project comes at a crucial juncture. A growing body of data, mostly from animals raised in sterile, germ-free conditions, shows that microbes in the gut influence behaviour and can alter brain physiology and neurochemistry.
Kathryn Schulz in The New Yorker:
On the evening of October 6, 1849, the hundred and twenty people aboard the brig St. John threw a party. The St. John was a so-called famine ship: Boston-bound from Galway, it was filled with passengers fleeing the mass starvation then devastating Ireland. They had been at sea for a month; now, with less than a day’s sail remaining, they celebrated the imminent end of their journey and, they hoped, the beginning of a better life in America. Early the next morning, the ship was caught in a northeaster, driven toward shore, and dashed upon the rocks just outside Cohasset Harbor. Those on deck were swept overboard. Those below deck drowned when the hull smashed open. Within an hour, the ship had broken up entirely. All but nine crew members and roughly a dozen passengers perished.
Two days later, a thirty-two-year-old Massachusetts native, en route from Concord to Cape Cod, got word of the disaster and detoured to Cohasset to see it for himself. When he arrived, fragments of the wreck were scattered across the strand. Those victims who had already washed ashore lay in rough wooden boxes on a nearby hillside. The living were trying to identify the dead—a difficult task, since some of the bodies were bloated from drowning, while others had struck repeatedly against the rocks. Out of sentiment or to save labor, the bodies of children were placed alongside their mothers in the same coffin.
The visitor from Concord, surveying all this, found himself unmoved. “On the whole,” he wrote, “it was not so impressive a scene as I might have expected. If I had found one body cast upon the beach in some lonely place, it would have affected me more. I sympathized rather with the winds and waves, as if to toss and mangle these poor human bodies was the order of the day. If this was the law of Nature, why waste any time in awe or pity?” This impassive witness also had stern words for those who, undone by the tragedy, could no longer enjoy strolling along the beach. Surely, he admonished, “its beauty was enhanced by wrecks like this, and it acquired thus a rarer and sublimer beauty still.”
Who was this cold-eyed man who saw in loss of life only aesthetic gain, who identified not with the drowned or the bereaved but with the storm? This was Henry David Thoreau, that great partisan of the pond, describing his visit to Cohasset in “Cape Cod.”
Roslyn Sulcas in The New York Times:
These days, people either do live, performative work or create a mise en scène that is empty. When Nicola asked me to something for Frieze, I thought I’d like to create something that includes both elements, but where one thing isn’t dependent on the other. I was interested in the preclassical Greek period, the deep past as a form of science fiction. We don’t know that much about it and have to try to think ourselves into it. I thought about figures that have survived in the imagination until today, and became interested in the Greek god Pan. He has been worshipped for 5,000 years and still echoes in our culture — think of the film “Pan’s Labyrinth,” and ideas about satyrs and nature. Although he was worshiped as a god, he is not powerful, not bigger than humans. He is half-goat, animalistic, and inhabits the same world. We have had a long period of worshipping a deity, in various religions, who is higher, more perfect, unknowable. There was something intriguing to me about the worship of someone who was not that. I decided to make a space that would be like a place where Pan might have been worshipped. There will be a philosopher, a choreographer, a singer and children, who I thought it was important to have there. At times they will all overlap.
Amira Hass in Haaretz:
Yes, this is a war, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with his mandate from the people, has ordered its intensification. He does not listen to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ messages of conciliation and acceptance in calmer times, why should he listen to them now? Netanyahu is intensifying the war mainly in East Jerusalem, with orgies of collective punishment. He thus further reveals Israel’s success in physically disconnecting Jerusalem from most of the Palestinian population, accenting the absence of Palestinian leadership in East Jerusalem and the weakness of the government in Ramallah — which is trying to stop the drift in the rest of the West Bank. The war did not start last Thursday, it does not start with the Jewish victims and does not end when no Jews are murdered. The Palestinians are fighting for their life, in the full sense of the word. We Israeli Jews are fighting for our privilege as a nation of masters, in the full ugliness of the term.
That we notice there’s a war on only when Jews are murdered does not cancel out the fact that Palestinians are being killed all the time, and that all the time we are doing everything in our power to make their lives unbearable. Most of the time it is a unilateral war, waged by us, to get them to say “yes” to the master, thank you very much for keeping us alive in our reservations. When something in the war’s one-sidedness is disturbed, and Jews are murdered, then we pay attention.
Across the floor flits the mechanical toy,
fit for a king of several centuries back.
A little circus horse with real white hair.
His eyes are glossy black.
He bears a little dancer on his back.
She stands upon her toes and turns and turns.
A slanting spray of artificial roses
is stitched across her skirt and tinsel bodice.
Above her head she poses
another spray of artificial roses.
His mane and tail are straight from Chirico.
He has a formal, melancholy soul.
He feels her pink toes dangle toward his back
along the little pole
that pierces both her body and her soul
and goes through his, and reappears below,
under his belly, as a big tin key.
He canters three steps, then he makes a bow,
canters again, bows on one knee,
canters, then clicks and stops, and looks at me.
The dancer, by this time, has turned her back.
He is the more intelligent by far.
Facing each other rather desperately—
his eye is like a star—
we stare and say, “Well, we have come this far.”
by Elizabeth Bishop
from The Complete Poems
publisher: Chatto & Windus, London, 1970
Thursday, October 15, 2015
Gary Gutting interviews Nancy Fraser in The NYT's The Stone:
Gary Gutting: You’ve recently written: “As a feminist, I’ve always assumed that by fighting to emancipate women I was building a better world — more egalitarian — just and free. But lately I’ve begun to worry that . . . our critique of sexism is now supplying the justification for new forms of inequality and exploitation.” Could you explain what you have in mind?
Nancy Fraser: My feminism emerged from the New Left and is still colored by the thought of that time. For me, feminism is not simply a matter of getting a smattering of individual women into positions of power and privilege within existing social hierarchies. It is rather about overcoming those hierarchies. This requires challenging the structural sources of gender domination in capitalist society — above all, the institutionalized separation of two supposedly distinct kinds of activity: on the one hand, so-called “productive” labor, historically associated with men and remunerated by wages; on the other hand, “caring” activities, often historically unpaid and still performed mainly by women. In my view, this gendered, hierarchical division between “production” and “reproduction” is a defining structure of capitalist society and a deep source of the gender asymmetries hard-wired in it. There can be no “emancipation of women” so long as this structure remains intact.
G.G.: Why can’t responding to feminist concerns be seen as just one major step in correcting the social and economic flaws of our capitalist society, not a fundamental transformation of the system?
N.F.: It certainly can be seen that way. But I am questioning whether today’s feminism is really advancing that process. As I see it, the mainstream feminism of our time has adopted an approach that cannot achieve justice even for women, let alone for anyone else. The trouble is, this feminism is focused on encouraging educated middle-class women to “lean in” and “crack the glass ceiling” – in other words, to climb the corporate ladder. By definition, then, its beneficiaries can only be women of the professional-managerial class. And absent structural changes in capitalist society, those women can only benefit by leaning on others — by offloading their own care work and housework onto low-waged, precarious workers, typically racialized and/or immigrant women.
Elizabeth Drew in The New York Review of Books:
The president’s congressional victory on the nuclear agreement with Iran had many sources, not least of which were the nature and tactics of the opposition. It might have been more difficult to achieve if the Republicans as well as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allied American group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), had given any sense that they had thoughtfully considered the deal that six nations reached with Iran, or if they had offered any alternative. But the agreement with Iran collided with the current state of American politics.
Once the nuclear deal was presented to Congress in July, there was little question that it would fall into the deep crevasse that had developed between the two political parties. Ever since Barack Obama took office in 2009, the Republicans have opposed everything he wanted to do. In keeping with this strategy, within days of the deal’s being announced, numerous Republicans, without bothering to read the agreement or consider it seriously, jumped to oppose it.
The debate on the deal throughout was only ostensibly on its merits. The Republicans’ contempt for Obama—as a Democrat, as a black person, as, in the view of many of them, an illegitimate president—was clear to any close observer. For the first time in US history, the opposition party thumbed its nose at the president by inviting the head of another nation—Netanyahu—to address Congress to urge rejection of an international measure the president supported. When Secretary of State John Kerry, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, appeared before it to testify on the agreement, he was greeted with overt contempt by its Republican members. The current chairman, Bob Corker of Tennessee, told him, “You’ve been fleeced.”
Phil Plait in Slate:
The star is called KIC 8462852, and it’s one of more than a hundred thousand stars that was observed by NASA’s Kepler mission. Kepler stared at these stars, looking for dips in their brightness. These very slight dimmings can be due to many factors, but one is if the star has planets, and one (or more) of them orbits the star in such a way that it passes directly in front of the star as seen from Earth. If it does—what we call a transit—we see a tiny diminution of starlight, usually by less than a percent.
Thousands of exoplanets have been found this way. Usually the planet is on a short orbit, so the dip we see is periodic, repeating every few days, weeks, or months, depending on the size of the planet’s orbit.
KIC 8462852 is a star somewhat more massive, hotter, and brighter than the Sun. It’s about 1,500 light-years away, a decent distance, so it’s too faint to see with the naked eye. The Kepler data for the star are pretty bizarre: There are dips in the light, but they aren’t periodic. They can be very deep; one dropped the amount of starlight by 15 percent, and another by a whopping 22 percent!
Straight away, we know we’re not dealing with a planet here. Even a Jupiter-sized planet only blocks roughly 1 percent of this kind of star’s light, and that’s about as big as a planet gets. It can’t be due to a star, either; we’d see it if it were. And the lack of a regular, repeating signal belies both of these as well. Whatever is blocking the star is big, though, up to half the width of the star itself!
Also, it turns out there are lots of these dips in the star’s light. Hundreds. And they don’t seem to be periodic at all. They have odd shapes to them, too. A planet blocking a star’s light will have a generally symmetric dip; the light fades a little, remains steady at that level, then goes back up later.
Asad Rahim Khan in Herald:
As far as debuts went, there was nothing quite like it. A 250-page novel, with a three-sentence premise: “Darashikoh Shezad is an ex-banker, pot-smoker, and downwardly mobile heroin addict who also happens to have fallen for his best friend’s wife. He is on trial. You are to be his judge.”
In a land of 140 million people, with less than 14 novelists of note between them – both in English and Urdu – Pakistan was unprepared for Moth Smoke in 2000; a decline-and-fall story with everything else in between: heat and hash, nuclear bombs and car chases, kite fights and wars of succession among Mughal princes.
In a way, the 29-year-old Mohsin Hamid could be compared to the 21-year-old Bret Easton Ellis, the boy wonder who blew the lid off the Reagan years with Less Than Zero. Like Hamid’s, Ellis’s maiden novel is a tale of beautiful young drug dealers that ends in tears. Unlike Hamid, Ellis could not write to save his life.
Sameer Rahim in Prospect:
The Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk has never been afraid of speaking out. In 2005, he broke a national taboo by speaking to a Swiss newspaper about the killing of one million Armenians during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Subsequently, he was prosecuted for “insulting Turkishness” in a case that brought him international attention. In 2006 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, the committee praising a writer, “who in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures.” During those years, Pamuk told me when I met him in London, he felt he became “too political,” asked to comment about events in his native land in a way western novelists usually are not. But the genial Pamuk also admitted that he finds it difficult to “keep my mouth shut” about the state of his country.
I asked him whether the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), has damaged Turkey’s secular identity. “Before Erdoğan came to power 13 years ago, everyone rightly thought secularism was under threat,” he told me. “Now, according to a newspaper poll, only 5 per cent of the population are worried about Turkey’s secularism, but 67 per cent think he is too authoritarian.” Erdoğan won a landslide parliamentary victory in 2002 with support from mainly poor and religious Turks. Since then he has intensified his grip on power. Last year he became the country’s President and began turning the ceremonial position into a political power base. Pamuk is disturbed by Erdoğan’s manoeuvres. “He has violated Montesquieu’s rules over the division between the judicial, legislative and executive powers. He does this without even hiding his manipulations.”
Pamuk is most worried about Erdoğan’s attitude to freedom of speech. “He is pressuring journalists and newspapers too much,” he said. “This is not acceptable.” As a Nobel prize-winner and internationally renowned writer, Pamuk is freer to criticise the government than ordinary Turkish journalists. I sensed he was speaking on their behalf.
Astronomers have spotted a strange mess of objects whirling around a distant star and scientists who search for extraterrestrial civilizations are scrambling to get a closer look
Ross Anderson in The Atlantic:
In the Northern hemisphere’s sky, hovering above the Milky Way, there are two constellations—Cygnus the swan, her wings outstretched in full flight, and Lyra, the harp that accompanied poetry in ancient Greece, from which we take our word “lyric.”
Between these constellations sits an unusual star, invisible to the naked eye, but visible to the Kepler Space Telescope, which stared at it for more than four years, beginning in 2009.
“We’d never seen anything like this star,” says Tabetha Boyajian, a postdoc at Yale. “It was really weird. We thought it might be bad data or movement on the spacecraft, but everything checked out.”
Kepler was looking for tiny dips in the light emitted by this star. Indeed, it was looking for these dips in more than 150,000 stars, simultaneously, because these dips are often shadows cast by transiting planets. Especially when they repeat, periodically, as you’d expect if they were caused by orbiting objects.
The Kepler Space Telescope collected a great deal of light from all of those stars it watched. So much light that Kepler’s science team couldn’t process it all with algorithms. They needed the human eye, and human cognition, which remains unsurpassed in certain sorts of pattern recognition. Kepler’s astronomers decided to found Planet Hunters, a program that asked “citizen scientists” to examine light patterns emitted by the stars, from the comfort of their own homes.
In 2011, several citizen scientists flagged one particular star as “interesting” and “bizarre.” The star was emitting a light pattern that looked stranger than any of the others Kepler was watching.