Charlotte Brontë: filthy, frustrated, sex-obsessed genius

Tanya Gold in The Guardian:

Charlottebronte200x319Elizabeth Gaskell is a literary criminal, who, in 1857, perpetrated a heinous act of grave-robbing. Gaskell took Charlotte Brontë, the author of Jane Eyre, the dirtiest, darkest, most depraved fantasy of all time, and, like an angel murdering a succubus, trod on her. In a “biography” called The Life of Charlotte Brontë, published just two years after the author’s death, Gaskell stripped Charlotte of her genius and transformed her into a sexless, death-stalked saint.

As the 150th anniversary of her death on March 31 1855 approaches, it is time to rescue Charlotte Brontë. She has been chained, weeping, to a radiator in the Haworth Parsonage, Yorkshire, for too long. Enough of Gaskell’s fake miserabilia. Enough of the Brontë industry’s veneration of coffins, bonnets and tuberculosis. It is time to exhume the real Charlotte – filthy bitch, grandmother of chick-lit, and friend.

More here.

David Byrne lectures at Berkeley about… Power Point!

From the UC Berkeley News:

Byrned_3304“Hello. My name is David Byrne, and I’m going to do an introduction to PowerPoint.”

The roar of applause and cheers that greeted this deadpan statement was undoubtedly the most enthusiasm ever exhibited before a lecture held in UC Berkeley’s Dwinelle Hall. Byrne, best known as the front man for the Talking Heads, proceeded to do exactly what he said he would. But while he poked fun at the popular Microsoft presentation software’s bullet-point tyranny and Autocontent Wizard inanity, Byrne also defended its appeal as more than just a business tool — as a medium for art and theater. His talk was titled “I ♥ PowerPoint,” and he confessed that he loves the program not in spite of, but in some ways because of, its shortcomings.

“I love not having an unlimited palette. In that sense it’s like a pencil. You don’t expect to have other typefaces or fonts; you have fun with what’s there,” Byrne said. “Freedom — who needs it?”

“PowerPoint is the Rodney Dangerfield of software: it gets no respect,” summarized Ken Goldberg, the Berkeley engineering professor and artist who invited Byrne to speak as part of the Art, Technology, and Culture Colloquium series he started in 1997. “It’s easy to ridicule it for its corporate nature, but the real story is about how participatory and democratic it is. High school kids use it, rabbis use it, people even use it for wedding toasts.”

Byrne_arrowsByrne discovered the software a few years ago and, excited by how easy it was to integrate visuals and music, began to create art pieces with it. He collected them into a book, “Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information,” which came with a DVD of about 20 minutes of his “PowerPointillism,” as Goldberg calls it. Those slides — among them images of Dolly the cloned sheep, simple drawings, and arrows jostling each other like a confused school of fish (below right) — cycled across the screen before the lecture began.

More here.  Byrne also writes an award-winning journal on the web (don’t call it a blog!) which you can look at on his website here.

Einstein’s general theory of writing

Alice Calaprice in The Guardian:

Main_einsteinAlthough Albert Einstein was a prolific writer, he did not think of himself as one. “In the past, it never occurred to me that every casual remark of mine would be snatched up and recorded. Otherwise I would have crept further into my shell,” he wrote in a fit of frustration to his biographer, Carl Seelig, in 1953. By this time, two years before his death, his archive contained more than 20,000 items, thousands of which were written by him personally. Today, the archive has more than doubled in size.

A physicist, philosopher, humanitarian, pacifist, political agitator and cultural Zionist, Einstein was also a formidable writer, and very quotable. Because he wrote almost exclusively in German, his words have been translated into dozens of languages – though, as everyone knows, much can be lost in translation.

Translators have difficulty reproducing his sentences faithfully because they inevitably need to move the words around, causing them to lose their rhythm. Moreover, some of Einstein’s words have been so miserably mistranslated that one can’t recognise the original. Different versions can also lead to confusion about what he actually said. Einstein, as is the case with most writers, is best read in his mother tongue.

More here.

Which emerging technologies are the most important?

From the Technology Review at MIT:

“Global village” was always an idealistic oxymoron. Politically, culturally, and economically, the differences among nations loom far larger than any differences that might exist among neighborhoods made up of small clutches of homes and shops.

In the following collection of stories, Technology Review brings you the view from seven countries. They are a sampling of the world: Northern Hemisphere and Southern, nations developed and developing, with traditions democratic, autocratic, and Communist. In four cases (China, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States), the writers are editors of Technology Review or of one of its foreign-language editions. For reports on technology in the other three countries (South Africa, Chile, and Brazil), we turned to journalists who cover those countries. We asked these writers to report on which emerging technologies are the most important for their nations’ societies and economies, and to explain what makes these technolo­gies uniquely characteristic of their countries.

Each country reveals its own preoccupations, usually born out of its peculiar history and current circumstances. Leave it to the Dutch, for example, to pour computer modeling resources into the management of water and soil—endeavors without which the Netherlands’ very existence would be imperiled. The United States has measured the value of R&D projects largely by their potential for adding to the nervous nation’s power to fight wars and defend against terrorist attack. In Germany, home of the world’s first superhighways and some of its most storied carmakers, it’s no surprise to see projects aimed at making driving safer and smarter.

In all, our reporters identified more than two dozen emerging technologies or ideas about innovation as vital to the futures of these seven countries. But even those innovations that most directly address urgent regional needs prove to have application for the entire planet.

More here.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Daughter of the Enlightenment

Christopher Caldwell in the New York Times:

03ali1Last spring, Ayaan Hirsi Ali took her ”Dutch mother” — the woman who taught her the language and cared for her after she arrived in the Netherlands as a refugee in 1992 — to lunch at the Dudok brasserie, near the Parliament in The Hague. As always, Hirsi Ali’s armed security detail was there. They have been her companions since she started receiving death threats in September 2002. Hirsi Ali, who was born in Somalia and has been a member of the Dutch Parliament since January 2003, had endorsed the view that Islam is a backward religion, condemned the way women live under it and said that by today’s standards, the prophet Muhammad would be considered a perverse tyrant. She had also announced that she was no longer a believing Muslim. The punishment for such apostasy is, according to strict interpretations of Islam, death. That day at the Dudok, several dozen vocational students were taking up the main restaurant, so she and her guards parked at two tables near the bar. Hirsi Ali had her back to the restaurant when one of the students, apparently a Dutch convert to Islam, tapped her on the shoulder. ”I turned around,” she recalls in her elegant English, ”and saw this sweet, young Dutch guy, about 24 years old. With freckles! And he was like, ‘Madam, I hope the mujahedeen get you and kill you.’ ” Hirsi Ali handed him her knife and told him, ”Why don’t you do it yourself?”

The story is, like much in Hirsi Ali’s life, an inseparable mix of the terrifying and the tender.

Read on here.

The Hitch: What no one else will say about John Paul II

Christopher Hitchens in Slate:

A few years ago, it seemed quite probable that Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston would have to face trial for his appalling collusion in the child-rape racket that his diocese had been running. The man had knowingly reassigned dangerous and sadistic criminals to positions where they would be able to exploit the defenseless. He had withheld evidence and made himself an accomplice, before and after the fact, in the one offense that people of all faiths and of none have most united in condemning. (Since I have more than once criticized Maureen Dowd in this space, I should say now that I think she put it best of all. A church that has allowed no latitude in its teachings on masturbation, premarital sex, birth control, and divorce suddenly asks for understanding and “wiggle room” for the most revolting crime on the books.)

Anyway, Cardinal Law isn’t going to face a court, now. He has fled the jurisdiction and lives in Rome, where a sinecure at the Vatican has been found for him. (Actually not that much of a sinecure: As archpriest of the Rome Basilica of St. Mary Major, he also sits on two boards supervising priestly discipline—yes!—and the appointment of diocesan bishops.) Even before this, he visited Rome on at least one occasion to discuss whether or not the church should obey American law. And it has been conclusively established that the Vatican itself—including his holiness—was a part of the coverup and obstruction of justice that allowed the child-rape scandal to continue for so long.

More here.

All you can’t eat: Even a slight decrease in calories may lead to longer lifespans

Reported in the Economist:

MOST people would not object to living a few years longer than normal, as long as it meant they could live those years in good health. Sadly, the only proven way to extend the lifespan of an animal in this way is to reduce its calorie intake. Studies going back to the 1930s have shown that a considerable reduction in consumption (about 50%) can extend the lifespan of everything from dogs to nematode worms by between 30% and 70%. Although humans are neither dogs nor worms, a few people are willing to give the calorie-restricted diet a try in the hope that it might work for them, too. But not many—as the old joke has it, give up the things you enjoy and you may not live longer, but it will sure seem as if you did.

Now, though, work done by Marc Hellerstein and his colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that it may be possible to have, as it were, your cake and eat it too. Or, at least, to eat 95% of it. Their study, to be published in the American Journal of Physiology—Endocrinology and Metabolism, suggests that significant gains in longevity might be made by a mere 5% reduction in calorie intake. The study was done on mice rather than people. But the ubiquity of previous calorie-restriction results suggests the same outcome might well occur in other species, possibly including humans. However, you would have to fast on alternate days.

Why caloric restriction extends the lifespan of any animal is unclear, but much of the smart money backs the idea that it slows down cell division by denying cells the resources they need to grow and proliferate. One consequence of that slow-down would be to stymie the development of cancerous tumours.

Read more here.

Indian Policewomen Practice Policing and Politicking

Deepa Kandaswamy / K. Deepa report in Ms. Magazine:

Police250 Tamil Nadu has always been progressive regarding women, electing the first female chief minister (a state chief minister holds the power of a U.S. state governor). It boasts the first women’s university, first women’s engineering college, first female-staffed police station, first all-female police commando company, and now the first women’s special-forces police battalion. This didn’t happen overnight. The idea began with All Women Police Stations (AWPS), a brainchild of India’s first elected female chief minister, J. Jayalalitha, who started the first AWPS in 1992. Today, there are 188 AWPS, one in each Tamil Nadu district, along with two toll-free help lines — Woman in Distress and Child in Distress — through which anonymous complaints are pursued at the same priority level as regular complaints. The result: a 23 percent increase in reporting of crimes against women and children — and a higher conviction rate. Several other states have started pilot AWPS.
Their academic training includes such topics as psychology, terrorism and guerrilla tactics; gender-sensitizing programs are emphasized, plus counseling and investigative techniques. The training concludes with a 440-mile, three-day footrace — and no sleep for 72 hours. While police commandos are similar to SWAT teams used in special operations, they can also be deployed swiftly as part of the reserve police force, along with defense forces, in counterterrorist operations.
Undoubtedly, it helps to have a woman at the political helm promoting female empowerment. Considering anxious security situations in other countries, with slightly more than half the world’s population being female, Tamil women believe women everywhere can learn to maintain security — and have a say in politics.

Read more here.

Free trade may have finished off Neanderthals

Celeste Biever in The New Scientist International:

The idea that specialisation leads to greater success was first used in the 18th century to explain why some nations were wealthier than others. But this is the first time it has been applied to the Neanderthal extinction puzzle, says Jason Shogren, an economist at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, US,.

He cites archaeological evidence that suggests that humans, who joined Neanderthals in Europe about 40,000 years ago, specialised and traded both within and between regions. The evidence includes complex living quarters with different sections partitioned for different functions. Neanderthals, in contrast, lived in “largely unorganised” living spaces.

There is also evidence that the early humans, mainly one population called the Gravettians, imported materials. Ivory, stones, fossils, seashells and crafted tools were found dispersed through many regions. This greater pool of resources led to increased innovation, says Shogren.

Simulated circumstances

Shogren tested his theory with simulations of population growth. He even gave the Neanderthals, who were larger than Homo sapiens, a head start by assuming they were better hunters and individually brought home more meat – which may or may be true.

But because humans were allowed to trade, in two of three similar simulations, they overcame this initial handicap and ousted the Neanderthals within 7000 years. In the third simulation, the two ended up co-existing.

Read more here.

The man in white who changed the world

From The Guardian: Cristina Odone analyses the conflicting forces behind John Paul’s papacy and compares his ability to shock with his power to inspire awe:

Popepicture64ready_1  The frail octogenarian, riddled with ailments – by the end, these included Parkinson’s, kidney failure, septic shock and heart failure – fought ferociously to lend moral dignity to his last moments. For the two months following his admission to hospital with a respiratory infection, John Paul II turned his suffering into an act of faith – and a humbling reminder to the rest of us of the invincibility of spiritual strength. The Vatican supported John Paul in his dying mission.

During his last hours, as millions around the world held spontaneous vigils, Vatican spokesmen issued regular bulletins about the 84-year-old pontiff’s condition. Gone were the secrecy and obfuscation long associated with the curia: here instead were detailed reports about tracheotomies, urinary tracts, septicaemia.

The effect was to ensure the world’s participation in this personal Calvary. From Goa to Guadeloupe, from Manila to Manchester, people – many of them non-Catholic – waited anxiously for the latest news from St Peter’s. News networks around the world turned their lenses on the Vatican apartments, and to the square where 70,000 well-wishers thronged. Continuous live coverage took over radio stations – leading one Five Live broadcaster to joke to me that he felt as if he were working on Vatican Radio.

The Pope had taught his followers that life – whether it be of the unborn, the infirm, the poor or the outcast – was always precious. Now, his own seemed the most precious of all.

Shock and awe: the hallmark doctrine of the war he so vehemently opposed perfectly described the emotions John Paul II generated during the 27 years of his papacy. To be a Catholic with Karol Wojtyla at the helm was to bounce from the shock of hearing the reiteration of some of the Church’s most anachronistic doctrines, to the awe of watching a frail octogenarian attack the world’s superpower for its human rights record.

Read more here.

Goodness gracious me

Meera Syal writes in The London Times:

When I was a teenager, there was only one beauty publication available and affordable, and that was Jackie. Jackie, with its pull-out posters, romantic photo-love strips and Cathy and Claire problem page, where any dilemma could be answered by one of three generic responses: 1) “Remember, yellow highlighter on the browbone, green shadow on the socket”; 2) “Just be yourself. Remember, a winning smile wins the day”; and 3) “You should discuss this further with a trusted adult or a qualified nurse.” The prototype Jackie heroine was always a doe-eyed, slim beauty, almost invariably blonde. This was not good news for a plump 13-year-old Indian girl with fuzzy hair, one eyebrow and — the curse of every Indian woman — luxuriant facial hair. Girls who looked like me were not even cast as the ugly best friend. We were invisible. Trawling the counters at Boots confirmed this: eye shadows in “pearly hues” that looked like snot trails on dark skin; foundations that left not so much tide marks as tidal waves of pinky wash on my face; blusher that changed from fresh rose to lurid orange when applied; and as for anything in flesh tone, er, whose flesh? The only universal product that worked was Immac, and boy, I went through truckloads of that. If I can’t be blonde and fair-skinned, I reckoned, I can at least be beard-free.

But this was pre-Bobbi Brown, Ruby & Millie, and black and Asian models and role models, such as Iman. We Indian girls had our mothers and their home beauty remedies, a near culinary experience as they incorporated various foodstuffs from around the house. Logical, really, as for many women of my mother’s generation, beauty products were hard to get and expensive. So they made do with what they found in the larder.

Read more here.

Love, Domination and the Toxic Pursuit of Perfection

Manohla Dargis in The New York Times:

Amor Think of it as the intelligent woman’s guide to how not to have sex. You go on a blind date. The guy has a shaved head and beady eyes, and within seconds tells you that you are not as thin as he imagined. Most women – check that, most sensible, sane women – would tell baldy to take a very short hike off a very long pier. You know better. Even Bridget Jones, with her trembling jowls and insecurities, knows better and would cuddle up with a pound of toffee rather than subject herself to such outrage. The woman in the film “Primo Amore” is not made of such sternly self-reliant stuff.

Set in northern Italy and in the darkest recesses of a woman’s heart, “Primo Amore” is a horror movie about desire and the toxic pursuit of perfection. Sonia (Michela Cescon) hooks up with Vittorio (Vitaliano Trevisan) at a bus stop during an arranged meeting. At first she is overly eager, he is altogether aloof; given how Venusians and Martians usually align, that should mean they were made for each other. While stung by his comment – whippet-thin, her jowls don’t shake and her thighs don’t swish – she still goes out with him for a friendly drink. From her anxious gaze it seems clear she very much wants, even needs to forgive the man, either for her sake or his. Within a strangely short time the two are dating, house-hunting and living together, a postcard-perfect couple.

Sonia, as it turns out, is a woman who loves men too much and herself too little; Vittorio, in turn, is a man who would love Sonia more if there were much less of her to love. One day while out swimming with Vittorio, Sonia catches sight of a rangy blonde in a bikini. As the blonde settles next to the couple and stretches her long, model-thin limbs, Sonia shifts uncomfortably, her eyes nervously shuttling toward the other woman. The director, Matteo Garrone, captures the scene with cool detachment, letting us register Sonia’s discomfort from an easy distance. This not only keeps us outside Sonia’s head, for better and eventually for worse, but also lets us see that Vittorio appears oblivious to what is happening right next to him.

First comes love, then come the scales. Soon after the leggy blonde makes her unwelcome appearance, Sonia goes on a diet with Vittorio’s enthusiastic support. But what first seems like a foolish whim, a matter of vanity and the usual female neurosis, grows progressively perverse. As Sonia sheds weight, Vittorio starts to swell in size, not literally but in terms of power, taking increased control over her every bite and gesture. As in many domestic monster movies (“The Stepfather,” among others), the boogeyman appears to have crawled from beneath the bed and slipped under the covers.

Read more here.

An A-Z of English (without the X)

What made Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary so good? Henry Hitchings writes in The Guardian:

One of its most important features was the use of illustrative quotations to buttress the definitions. Johnson saw that it was not enough to say what words meant; he had to show them in use. To make this possible, he scoured the literature of the previous 200 years for suitable passages. In fact, this was where he began. Rather than dreaming up a colossal wordlist and then looking for examples of each word, he began with the illustrations and worked backwards from there. So, for instance, he came across a sentence of John Locke’s in which Locke wrote of the “bugbear thoughts” which “once got into the tender minds of children, sink deep, so as not easily, if ever, to be got out again”. Drawing on this – and on five other quotations, from four other authors – Johnson could distil the essence of the word and conclude that a “bugbear” was “a frightful object; a walking spectre, imagined to be seen; generally now used for a false terror to frighten babes”.

Johnson’s definitions

Astrology The practice of foretelling things by the knowledge of the stars; an art now generally exploded, as without reason

Brain That collection of vessels and organs in the head, from which sense and motion arise

Cough A convulsion of the lungs, vellicated by some sharp serosity. It is pronounced coff

Dunce A dullard; a dolt; a thickskull; a stupid indocile animal

Excise A hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid

Fart Wind from behind

Grimace A distortion of the countenance from habit, affectation, or insolence

Hope Expectation of some good; expectation indulged with pleasure

Illiterate Unlettered; untaught; unlearned; unenlightened by science

Junket A stolen entertainment

Kiss Salute given by joining lips

Lexicographer A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words

Mouse The smallest of all beasts; a little animal haunting houses and corn fields, destroyed by cats

Nightmare A morbid oppression in the night, resembling the pressure of weight upon the breast

Oats A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people

Read more here.

Readers weigh in on big-screen science


The tide is turning for science documentaries that challenge the biblical version of life’s origins. Last month, it came to light that some science museums and theaters were turning down Imax films such as “Volcanoes of the Deep Sea,” reportedly out of concern that they would offend religious sensibilities. This week, the American Association for the Advancement of Science weighed in with “strong concerns” about those reports. And theaters in Fort Worth, Texas, as well as Charlotte, C.C, said they would show “Volcanoes” after all.

In fact, theater managers and film reviewers said that the references to the Big Bang and the origins of life on Earth weren’t that big of a deal — and that the reasons they passed up “Volcanoes of the Deep Sea” had more to do with the criticism that it was “disorienting and pedantic,” or that it was “scary for children.”

Be that as it may, Cosmic Log readers had a lot to say, from both sides of the Darwinian fence. Here’s a representative selection of the feedback:

J. Newman, Columbus, Ohio: “Does it seem we have stepped back 400 years regarding the sciences? Science museums and theaters must now scrutinize or censor exhibits and films out of fear that certain subject matter will offend certain religious sensibilities. Offend, not because the material is bad science, but because it offends a theological viewpoint. It’s a wonder that NASA can still send space probes to Mars, as this might contravene someone’s scriptural worldview. Galileo was forced to recant his views and Bruno was burnt alive for challenging the church’s cosmological doctrine. From the fury of conservative Christians save us, O Lord!”

Read more here.

Is Arranged Marriage Really Any Worse Than Craigslist?

Anita Jain writes:

Arrangemarriage050328_1_400 At a recent dinner party, when I was trying to explain how single-minded Indian parents can be, my friend Jaidev jumped to the rescue. “Imagine you are on a safari in Africa with your parents, “he said.” A lion strolls by, and then perhaps a tiger. Your mother turns to you and says, “Son, when are you getting married? You have a girl in mind? What are your intentions?”

The pressure on me to find a husband started very early. A few days after my 1st birthday, within months of my family’s arrival in the U.S., I fell out the window of a three-story building in Baltimore. My father recalls my mother’s greatest concern, after learning that I hadn’t been gravely injured: “What boy will marry her when he finds out?” she cried, begging my father to never mention my broken arm “from which I’ve enjoyed a full recovery” to prospective suitors out of fear my dowry would be prohibitively higher. (A middle-class family can easily spend $100,000 these days on a dowry in India.) Much savvier in the ways of his new country, my father laughed it off. “But there is no dowry in America!”

Fulfilling his parental duty, my father placed matrimonial ads for me every couple of years during my twenties in such immigrant newspapers as India Abroad. They read something like, “Match for Jain girl, Harvard-educated journalist, 25, fair, slim.” I took it as a personal victory that they didn’t include the famous Indian misnomer “homely” to mean domestically inclined. Depending on whether my father was in a magnanimous mood, he would add “caste no bar,” which meant suitors didn’t have to belong to Jainism, an offshoot of Hinduism with the world’s most severe dietary restrictions. Root vegetables like carrots are verboten.

Still rather prejudiced against meat-eaters, my father immediately discards responses from those with a “non-veg” diet. There is, however, a special loophole for meat-eaters who earn more than $200,000. (This is only a little shocking, since my last boyfriend was a Spanish chef who got me addicted to chorizo. Once, I was horrified to discover, he’d put a skinned rabbit in my freezer.)

Read more here.

‘Campo Santo’: Hanging Out With Kafka

Jennifer Shuessler write in the New York Times:      

Sebald184 AFTER the German writer W. G. Sebald’s book ”The Emigrants” appeared in English in 1996, its previously obscure author was hailed as a writer whose work belonged on the high shelf alongside that of Kafka, Borges and Proust. A collection of portraits of four Central Europeans living in England and the United States, ”The Emigrants” was a mesmerizing but hard-to-classify combination of biography, fiction, memoir, travel sketch and antiquarian essay, accompanied by grainy black-and-white photographs of uncertain origin and often mysterious relationship to the text. Sebald’s themes, which deepened in the equally idiosyncratic and haunting books that were translated in the years to come, were nothing less than the persistence and fragility of memory and the terrifyingly random nature of history, as exemplified by its darkest 20th-century chapters. When Sebald — who spent most of his adult life teaching in British universities — was killed in a car accident in December 2001 at the age of 57, just after his novel ”Austerlitz” appeared in English, the ghastly event cut short a late-blooming career that seemed to be building toward an unusual greatness.

Still, the books have kept coming. ”Campo Santo,” Anthea Bell’s translation of 16 literary and critical essays published in newspapers and journals between 1975 and 2003, is just the latest Sebald work to appear since his death. But unlike such offerings as ”After Nature” and ”On the Natural History of Destruction,” it is very much a miscellany, and an often frustrating one. The early essays, on Peter Handke, Günter Grass and others, are written in a dense academic style and will be rough going for those who haven’t kept up with the authors in question. By the mid-1990’s, however, the familiar Sebald approach emerges. In these later essays, he doesn’t so much analyze his subjects — Kafka, Nabokov, Bruce Chatwin — as accompany them, turning them into Sebald characters: melancholy men living in a real or metaphorical exile, haunted by the past and the inevitability of their own dissolution.

Read more here.

Recalibrate Your Breathing: Three Excursions

Timothy Don writes in The Old Town Review:

Sometimes it is nice to go and look at a thing in the freedom of an afternoon. This is one of the supreme pleasures of being alive in New York City—wandering around on subways and in neighborhoods, rambling through parks, along beaches, sidewalks and so forth. This wandering has an inadvertent aim, inadvertent in that it always comes as a surprise, aimful in that one seeks that surprise. Sometimes, through a willful inattentiveness, we encounter art. This is what it means to be civilized. How remarkable to live in a time and in a city in which it is possible, if we so choose, to spend an afternoon contemplating a 12th Century etching (of an ascetic, a maiden and a goose), a color field painting by Mark Rothko, or a single page from one of da Vinci’s notebooks. We are the fortunate ones.

There are few activities in the engagement of which human beings appear so foolish and bloated as when they are looking at a piece of art. Taking it seriously. Encountering it. It’s even worse when they open their mouths and begin to remark on it. There is a lot of bad breath in museums, galleries and at happenings. But the reason for this halitosis swirling around art is that the appreciation of it occurs in public. Aesthetic experiences, as Peter de Bolla has noted, operate at a low frequency. They are private; each one wants to produce a sacred solitude in its attendant, and the objects that provoke them would like nothing so much as to be looked at, closely, for up to an hour, through each eye.

Needless to say, it is difficult to look at objects suchwise in public, but even an oblique consideration of a sublime work on a crowded Sunday in the stuffiest of museums can, like Sylvia Plath’s black rook in rainy weather, still “seize my senses, haul my eyelids up, and grant a brief respite from fear of total neutrality.” Whatever it is in an art object that has this effect, we find it valuable because it makes us deliberately alive, and since we have to be alive anyway (being alive one condition of being human), we might as well enjoy it.

Art is selfish, it is not kind, it puts on airs. It is proud. Art hogs up space, demands attention and oozes self-importance. It needs to be displayed. There is indeed something very silly in art, and worse. As I write this there are corpses drying in the desert, families extinguished with the flick of a finger. A major power is at war; the geopolitical sphere shudders; the smallness of the globe and the pettiness of our desires are revealed. History is a bloody thing and time is traversed with gory feet. This time at least, we are dragging the rag of democracy along behind us—but in the face of our current situation art seems not much more than an indulgent and irrelevant luxury.

Read more here.

‘Saturday’: One Day in the Life

Zoe Heller writes in the New York  Times:             

Mcewan164b When British journalists complain — as they often do — about the ”elitism” of contemporary British literature, the honorable exception they often cite is the fiction of Ian McEwan. The distinctive achievement of McEwan’s work has been to marry literary seriousness and ambition with a pace and momentum more commonly associated with genre fiction. He is the master clockmaker of novelists, piecing together the cogs and wheels of his plots with unerring meticulousness. Even as the menacing, predatory mood of his novels tends to engender anxiety, the reliability of their craftsmanship — the relentlessness of their forward motion — instills confidence. The result, for the reader, is a sort of serene tension. That ticktock resonating through the paragraphs is the countdown to some horrible disaster, certainly, but also the sound of a perfectly calibrated machine working just as it should.

In ”Saturday,” McEwan’s new novel, these characteristic virtues of structural elegance and coherence are on prominent display — not least in the Aristotelian discipline with which he has confined the temporal span of his story to a single day. The day in question, bookended by two symmetrical episodes of lovemaking, belongs to a British neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne. Perowne is a fortunate man. In addition to his worthy, fulfilling job and the panoply of upper-middle-class privileges it pays for, he is blessed with a joyous domestic life. He has two successful, attractive children — 23-year-old Daisy, who is about to publish her first collection of poetry, and 18-year-old Theo, a prodigiously talented blues musician. He also has a lovely, capable wife, Rosalind, with whom, after nearly a quarter-century of marriage, he remains deeply in love.

This multitude of blessings, coupled with his confidence in the certainty of scientific progress, gives rise to a contentment that verges perilously on complacency. In another time and place, Perowne would almost certainly be a smug man. But it is his fate to live in the early 21st century — in the ”baffled and fearful” days following 9/11 and leading up to the current war in Iraq — and neither his embarrassment of riches, nor his general inclination to optimism, can protect him from the darkness of his times.

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Aceh–Andaman earthquake: What happened and what’s next?

Kerry Sieh writes in Nature:

As the human drama of the Aceh–Andaman earthquake and tsunami unfolded in the last days of 2004, laymen and scientists began scrambling to understand what had caused these gigantic disturbances of Earth’s crust and seas. One of the earliest clues was the delineation, within just hours of the mainshock, of a band of large aftershocks arcing 1,300 km from northern Sumatra almost as far as Myanmar (Burma). This seemed to signal that about 25% of the Sunda megathrust, the great tectonic boundary along which the Australian and Indian plates begin their descent beneath Southeast Asia, had ruptured. In less than a day, however, analyses of seismic ‘body’ waves were indicating that the length of the rupture was only about 400 km.

This early controversy about the length of the megathrust rupture created a gnawing ambiguity about future dangers to populations around the Bay of Bengal. If only 400 km of the great fault had ruptured, large unfailed sections might be poised to deliver another tsunami. If, on the other hand, most of the submarine fault had broken, then the chances of such a disaster were much smaller.

It is sobering to realize that big earthquakes sometimes occur in clusters (for example, seven of the ten giant earthquakes of the twentieth century occurred between 1950 and 1965, and five of these occurred around the northern Pacific margin). Because many of the giant faults in the Aceh–Andaman neighbourhood have been dormant for a very long time, it is quite plausible that the recent giant earthquake and tsunami may not be the only disastrous twenty-first-century manifestation of the Indian plate’s unsteady tectonic journey northward.

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Dambudzo Marechera

Brian Chikwava in The Guardian:

Marachera128As Zimbabweans go to the polls, one writer and poet they may do well to remember is the late Dambudzo Marechera. Marechera, who died in 1987 at only 35, was one of African literature’s most fascinating and unorthodox figures. He is, on a sunny afternoon, one of Africa’s first products of the post-modern condition; and on a damp morning, Africa’s first intellectual aberration. Such is the ambivalent nature of his work. After being expelled from Oxford University for his anarchist tendencies in 1976 and spending years on the streets with his rucksack and typewriter, Marechera returned to independent Zimbabwe in 1982 where he continued with his street life. His encounter with independent Zimbabwe was not a wholly comfortable experience for him. “I have been an outsider in my own biography, in my country’s history, in the world’s terrifying possibilities,” he once said.

More here.