Louis Menand on Literary Prizes

From The New Yorker:

When the first Nobel Prize in Literature went to Sully Prudhomme, in 1901, the choice was regarded as a scandal, since Leo Tolstoy happened to be alive. The Swedish Academy was so unnerved by the public criticism it received that its members made a point of passing over Tolstoy for the rest of his life—just to show, apparently, that they knew what they were doing the first time around—honoring instead such immortals as Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, José Echegaray, Henryk Sienkiewicz, Giosuè Carducci, Rudolf Eucken, and Selma Lagerlöf. When you have prizes for art, you will always have people complaining that prizes are just politics, or that they reward in-group popularity or commercial success, or that they are pointless and offensive because art is not a competition. English believes that contempt for prizes is not harmful to the prize system; that, on the contrary, contempt for prizes is what the system is all about.

More here.

Daniel Dennett on Intelligent Design

Interview in Spiegel:

Daniel_dennettIntelligent Design is once again making headlines in the United States. But what is the attraction? Daniel Dennett spoke with SPIEGEL about the attraction of creationism, how religion itself succumbs to Darwinian ideas, and the social irresponsibility of the religious right in America.

SPIEGEL: Professor Dennett, more than 120 million Americans believe that Adam was created by God some 10,000 years ago out of mud and Eva from his rib. Do you personally know any of these 120 million?

Dennett: Yes. But people who are creationists are usually not interested in talking about it. Those who are actually enthusiastic about Intelligent Design, though, would talk endlessly. And what I learned about them is that they are filled with misinformation. But they’ve encountered this misinformation in very plausible sources. It’s not just their pastor that tells them this. They go out and they buy books that are published by main line publishers. Or they go on Web sites and they see very clever propaganda that is put out by the Discovery Institute in Seattle, which is financed by the religious right.

More here.

Monday Musing: ‘Tis the Season for Lists

For many years Abbas and I have spent the occasional evening composing lists of the greatest this, the smartest that, and the most overrated other. As you can imagine, it usually comes at some late moment when we’re tipsy. It’s a silly act of camaraderie which I would do with very, very few others. For me, it’s also a very private affair, which is precisely the opposite role that lists play in society.

I was reminded of it this holiday season, as I am on every other holiday season, because it is the season for collective judgment. Sometime between the beginning of November and the end of January, we are bombarded with lists, usually top 10 lists—and not just the best books, best fiction, best non-fiction, best movies, best albums, best songs, and their complement “worst’s”, but also worst disasters, worst web design mistakes, best and worst toys, and industry or sub-culture specific objects that are, so to speak, too numerous to list.

A list is different in kind and in effect from a simple “person of the year” or other declaration of a superlative. The latter sorts of things usually require some extensive justification of the judgment. If I were to say that Tony Judt’s Postwar was the best book that came out this year, you may reasonably ask why I thought so. And I would give a host of reasons to defend my claim. (In this instance, the claim is hypothetical.) But once I list runners up, I’m forced to answer different questions—why a work of history over fiction? why this prose style over that one?

This comparative quality of lists is the seductive virtue that turns the whole affair into a participatory event. (I was thinking about this when Abbas was soliciting top 10 books of the year from 3Quarks editors.) Relative judgments seem to engage us more than absolute ones. Say Hitler is a monster, you have no quarrel. Say Hitler is a worse monster than Stalin, and then you have a debate. Or if that’s too contentious, try: Franklin Roosevelt was a great wartime leader, against Franklin Roosevelt was a greater wartime leader than Churchill. This is not to say that the judgments of the former kind aren’t debated but that the latter elicits more responses and wider audiences. The Prospect/FP poll of the global public intellectuals did probably far more to create an audience for Oliver Kamm (with his neurotic Chomsky-phobic rant) than it did for Chomsky. Kamm was part of the debate; Chomsky was its object. And for the wider circles, Chomsky’s ordinal rank relative to Daniel Dennett, Richard Posner, or Slavo Zizek, is more contentious affair than whether he is well-known and well-respected public intellectual (at least in many circles).

This fun-silly exercise is not restricted to dilettantes such as yours truly. Sidney Morgenbesser once recounted a dinner with Isaiah Berlin spent classifying philosophers into gods, geniuses, brilliant men, smart guys, and some fourth category, whose title I don't recall. They got into a fight over where to place Leibniz, and wound up creating the category of demigods, which became populated solely by Leibniz. The story made me feel less silly.

Now with the audience that Amazon.com brings, these exercises grow more and more common, so much so that it calls itself listmania. (But some times I wonder whether this need to state our judgments even over matters of taste to wider and wider audiences doesn't make us kin to Judge Judy or the mobs found in Jerry Springer.)

Criticisms or reflective assessments of lists commonly begin with something like: “List say more about those that construct them than they do about . . .” the object, or the real world, or whatever else they’re supposed to tell us about. That of course is trivially true, in the sense that any made object tell us something, often a lot, about the maker. But it is true that lists generally deflect attention away from the criteria for judgment and, quite often, the judge. (“Judge, lest ye be judged,” Karl Kraus once said.) This is so even when the criteria for judgment are made fairly explicit.

Interesting lists offer us not so much new rankings but new dimensions for evaluation. The lists that fill much of the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, lady in waiting to the Empress Sadako (or Teishi) during the Hiean, are wonders. Each list evokes memories and sensations rather than judgments and thereby disagreements. Some of my favorite lists of Shonagon’s:

109. Things That Are Distant Though Near

Festivals celebrated near the Palace

Relations between brothers, sisters, and other members of a family who do not love each other.

The zigzag path leading up to the temple at Kurama

The last day of the Twelfth Month and the first of the First

And especially,

44. Things That Cannot Be Compared

Summer and winter. Night and day. Rain and sunshine. Youth and age. A person's laughter and his anger. Black and white. Love and hatred. The little indigo plant and the great philodendron. Rain and mist.

When one has stopped loving somebody, one feels that he has become someone else, even though he is still the same person.

In a garden full of evergreens the crows are all asleep. Then, towards the middle of the night, the crows in one of the trees suddenly wake up in a great flurry and start flapping about. Their unrest spreads to the other trees, and soon all the birds have been startled from their sleep and are cawing in alarm. How different from the same crows in daytime!

The lady Murasaki Shikibu, author of the Tale of Genji, one of the earliest novels ever written (circa 1000 A.D.) and contemporary of Shonagon, described her as “frivolous”, and concluded that “[h]er chief pleasure consists in shocking people, and, as each eccentricity becomes only too painfully familiar, she gets driven on to more and more outrageous methods of attracting notice.” But this is precisely the virtue of lists such as Shonagon’s; they get people to notice by pointing to new dimensions and new collections, and not simply to our judgment. If we can't be outrageous with the playful, where can we be?

The lists don’t have to consist of exotica. Nick Hornby did a remarkable job of using simple lists to construct a seductive story in High Fidelity. But when they do consist of exotica they really seduce, as in the case of many of Borges' stories. It’s probably a little late now, but for next season, I suggest new kinds of lists, ones that speak of our wit, creativity, and even whim.

Happy Monday and a Happy New Year.

The MySpace Generation

A BusinessWeek article about the ways advertisers are using the growing power of online social networks among teens:

0550_88covsto_a ” You have just entered the world of what you might call Generation @. Being online, being a Buzzer, is a way of life for Adams and 3,000-odd Dallas-area youth, just as it is for millions of young Americans across the country. And increasingly, social networks are their medium. As the first cohort to grow up fully wired and technologically fluent, today’s teens and twentysomethings are flocking to Web sites like Buzz-Oven as a way to establish their social identities. Here you can get a fast pass to the hip music scene, which carries a hefty amount of social currency offline. It’s where you go when you need a friend to nurse you through a breakup, a mentor to tutor you on your calculus homework, an address for the party everyone is going to. For a giant brand like Coke, these networks also offer a direct pipeline to the thirsty but fickle youth market”

More here

27 men and women who died in 2005

From the New York Times Magazine:

This year, like all years, brought the deaths of many notable people. Among them were Rosa Parks, Pope John Paul II, William H. Rehnquist, Saul Bellow, Peter Jennings, Eugene J. McCarthy, August Wilson, Hans Bethe and Richard Pryor. The year 2005 was also marked by the 2,000th death of a member of the American armed forces in Iraq and of an untold number of Iraqi civilians. Violence, both man-made and natural – especially the earthquake in South Asia that killed some 70,000 – claimed thousands upon thousands of lives around the world.

This 12th annual end-of-the-year issue does not purport to be definitive. Instead, it is an idiosyncratic selection, one driven primarily by the whims, interests and passions of the magazine’s editors and writers. Some names, like Sandra Dee, Frank Perdue, Luther Vandross, Rose Mary Woods and Constance Baker Motley, are probably familiar. Others are less well known: Elizabeth McFarland Hoffman, the poetry editor of Ladies’ Home Journal; Thurl Ravenscroft, the voice of Tony the Tiger; Joseph Frelinghuysen, whose unlikely escape as a prisoner of war during World War II was made possible by a generous and courageous Italian family; and Lawrence Celestine, a New Orleans police officer who took his own life shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit. Through stories, ideas and images, we seek to capture the lives they lived.

More here.

Fiction, Islam and the story of Zulaikha

Elif Shafak in Words Without Borders:

In the history of Islam, perhaps no woman has been as widely (mis)interpreted as Zulaikha—the beautiful and perfidious wife of Potiphar in the story of Joseph. It was she who tried to seduce Joseph into the whirl of adultery and unbridled hedonism. It was she who upon being rejected by Joseph accused him of raping her, thus causing him to be incarcerated for years in the terrible dungeons of Potiphar’s regime. And it was she who has over and over been blamed, condemned, and vilified by conservative religious authorities in the Islamic world. Throughout the centuries, in the eyes of the conservative-minded, Zulaikha has stood out as a despicable symbol of lust, hedonism, and, ultimately, feminine evil.

As wicked as Zulaikha might be in the eyes of the conservative Muslims, she was considered in a completely different way by the Sufis. For the Sufi mystic, Zulaikha simply represented someone purely and madly in love. Nothing more and nothing less. This ages-old discrepancy between the exoteric (zahiri) and esoteric (batini) interpretations of Qur’an is little known in the Western world today. Likewise, this hermeneutical tradition is not well known by the contemporary reformist, modernist cultural elite of Muslim countries either. Therein the novel as a genre being the vehicle of Westernization and mostly shaped by the privileged cultural elite, it is not a coincidence that the esoteric shadow of Zulaikha has not been able to reflect in the “Middle Eastern novel,” much less in the Turkish novel—a country where the process of Westernization and modernization has been carried out to the furthest extreme possible by detaching from the past as quickly as possible and erasing the Sufi legacy completely.

Boaz on the virtue of the judgment of the masses

The New England Review makes an old essay by Franz Boas, “The Mental Attitude of the Educated Classes“, available online.

When we attempt to form our opinions in an intelligent manner, we are inclined to accept the judgment of those who by their education and occupation are compelled to deal with the questions at issue. We assume that their views must be rational, and based on intelligent understanding of the problems. The foundation of this belief is the tacit assumption not only that they have special knowledge but also that they are free to form perfectly rational opinions. However, it is easy to see there is no type of society in existence in which such freedom exists.

I believe I can make my point clearest by giving an example taken from the life of a people whose cultural conditions are very simple. I will choose for this purpose the Eskimo. In their social life they are exceedingly individualistic. The social group has so little cohesion that we have hardly the right to speak of tribes. A number of families come together and live in the same village, but there is nothing to prevent any one of them from living and settling at another place with other families. In fact during a period of a lifetime the families constituting an Eskimo village community are constantly shifting about; and while they generally return after many years to the place where their relatives live, the family may have belonged to a great many different communities. There is no authority vested in any individual, no chieftancy, and no method by which orders, if they were given, could be carried out. In short, so far as law is concerned, we have a condition of almost absolute anarchy. We might therefore say that every single person is entirely free, within the limits of his own mental ability, to determine his own mode of life and his own mode of thinking. Nevertheless it is easily seen that there are innumerable restrictions that determine his behavior.

Wish List: No More Books!

Joe Queenan in The New York Times:Books_2

Several years ago, I calculated how many books I could read if I lived to my actuarially expected age. The answer was 2,138. In theory, those 2,138 books would include everything from “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” to “Le Colonel Chabert,” with titles by authors as celebrated as Marcel Proust and as obscure as Marcel Aymé. In principle, there would be enough time to read 500 masterpieces, 500 minor classics, 500 overlooked works of genius, 500 oddities and 138 examples of high-class trash. Nowhere in this utopian future would there be time for “Hi-Ho, Steverino!”

More here.

The Middle Class on the Precipice

From Harvard Magazine:Harvard_5

During the past generation, the American middle-class family that once could count on hard work and fair play to keep itself financially secure has been transformed by economic risk and new realities. Now a pink slip, a bad diagnosis, or a disappearing spouse can reduce a family from solidly middle class to newly poor in a few months.

Middle-class families have been threatened on every front. Rocked by rising prices for essentials as men’s wages remained flat, both Dad and Mom have entered the workforce—a strategy that has left them working harder just to try to break even. Even with two paychecks, family finances are stretched so tightly that a very small misstep can leave them in crisis. As tough as life has become for married couples, single-parent families face even more financial obstacles in trying to carve out middle-class lives on a single paycheck. And at the same time that families are facing higher costs and increased risks, the old financial rules of credit have been rewritten by powerful corporate interests that see middle-class families as the spoils of political influence.

More here.

Happy Newton’s Day!

Isaac20newtonDespite the fact that December 25th happens to be the birthday of a number of important historical figures (for example, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, which is where I am from), last year we at 3 Quarks Daily thought we would celebrate Newton’s birthday on this date. Unbeknownst to us, Richard Dawkins had just published an article suggesting the same thing. We were flattered. So here we are again, on Newton’s Day!

To commemorate this auspicious occasion, I thought I would try to deal with the apple today. You know what I am talking about: the apple that supposedly fell on Sir Isaac’s head while he was resting under a tree, and which jarred him into formulating the theory of gravity. The story is almost certainly apocryphal (no getting away from the Bible, is there?), but what could it mean? There are many ways to try and understand this story, but I just want to point out something simple but very cool: look at my drawing of me lobbing a ball over to a friend of mine below.


The ball follows a parabolic path from my hand to those of my friend. But what if my friend wasn’t there, and nor was the surface of the Earth? What if the ball could just pass through the Earth as if all its (the Earth’s) mass were concentrated at its center? What would happen then? Look at my next drawing below.


The ball would go in an elliptical path, with one of its foci being the center of the Earth! The parabola above the surface of the Earth is just one end of the bigger ellipse! Where had Newton heard of ellipses before? Yep, from Kepler, who had shown that planets travel in elliptical orbits around the Sun. How’s that for a connection between small objects falling on Earth, and the heavenly spheres? Of course, we’ll never know Newton’s real line of reasoning, but here’s a possible one:

  • apple falls on Sir Isaac’s head
  • he starts to think how freely falling objects behave
  • he generalizes to objects following parabolic paths
  • he imagines what happens if the surface of the Earth doesn’t stop the object
  • he realizes the object falls into elliptical path
  • he realizes planets are just “falling” around Sun

Okay, it probably wasn’t that way, but I still think it’s a nice thought. And in case you’re wondering just how big Newton’s intellectual reputation is, check this out from the London Times:

Newton trounces Einstein in vote on their relative merits

His most famous equation, E=mc², is 100 years old, and 2005 has been named Einstein Year in his honour, but Albert Einstein has been trounced in a scientific beauty contest held to celebrate his own greatest achievements.

The most famous head of hair in science was soundly beaten by Sir Isaac Newton yesterday in a poll on the relative merits of their breakthroughs, with both scientists and the public favouring the Englishman by a surprisingly wide margin.

Asked by the Royal Society to decide which of the two made the more important contributions to science, 61.8 per cent of the public favoured the claims of the 17th-century scientist who developed calculus and the theory of gravity.

More here.  And, oh, what the… 


[This post dedicated to LWP.]

The Coming Meltdown

Bill McKibben in the New York Review of Books:

20060112glacierThe year 2005 has been the hottest year on record for the planet, hotter than 1998, 2002, 2004, and 2003. More importantly, perhaps, this has been the autumn when the planet has shown more clearly than before just what that extra heat means. Consider just a few of the findings published in the major scientific journals during the last three months:

—Arctic sea ice is melting fast. There was 20 percent less of it than normal this summer, and as Dr. Mark Serreze, one of the researchers from Colorado’s National Snow and Ice Data Center, told reporters, “the feeling is we are reaching a tipping point or threshold beyond which sea ice will not recover.” That is particularly bad news because it creates a potent feedback effect: instead of blinding white ice that bounces sunlight back into space, there is now open blue water that soaks up the sun’s heat, amplifying the melting process.

—In the tundra of Siberia, other researchers report that permafrost has begun to melt rapidly, and, as it does, formerly frozen methane—which, like the more prevalent carbon dioxide, acts as a heat-trapping “greenhouse gas”—is escaping into the atmosphere. In some places last winter, the methane bubbled up so steadily that puddles of standing water couldn’t freeze even in the depths of the Russian winter.

More here.

Osama Bin Laden’s niece appears in racy photos

From CNN:

VertniecebedOsama bin Laden’s niece, in an interview with GQ magazine in which she appears scantily clad, says she has nothing in common with the al Qaeda leader and simply wants acceptance by Americans.

“Everyone relates me to that man, and I have nothing to do with him,” Wafah Dufour, the daughter of bin Laden’s half brother, Yeslam Binladin, says in the January edition of the magazine, referring to the al Qaeda leader.

“I want to be accepted here, but I feel that everybody’s judging me and rejecting me,” said the California-born Dufour, a law graduate who lives in New York. “Come on, where’s the American spirit? Accept me. I want to be embraced, because my values are like yours. And I’m here. I’m not hiding.”

More here.

‘Still Looking: Essays on American Art,’ by John Updike

From The New York Times:

Updike_1 SO, does this feel like a sideline, like a great novelist moonlighting? Is it possible to shut your eyes to the fact that John Updike is the lauded author of God knows how many works of fiction, to look at this book as if he’d staked his reputation on it? Actually, we don’t have to be too reductive: “Still Looking” is a companion volume – a sequel of sorts – to “Just Looking,” a collection of Updike’s writings on art published in 1989. “Still Looking” is more substantial (most of the essays weigh in at a hefty 3,000 words) and, because Updike’s gaze is geographically restricted, more unified. It amounts, in fact, to a highly selective chronological survey of American art. Updike knows a lot about art – Updike knows a lot about a lot – but what comes through strongly is his undimmed eagerness to keep learning.

The down-home approach is, naturally, quite compatible with insights of the highest order, insights that (as the Rabbit series reminds us) are not a million miles away from insights of the lowest order. But Updike is right to observe, in John Singleton Copley’s portrait of 1796, that John Quincy Adams looks “as though he might have the beginnings of a cold.” To me this had always seemed just another boring old portrait; Updike brings it to life.

More here.


As posted earlier, advances in Evolution topped the list of Breakthroughs this year according to Science. Here are the runners-up:

Flowers_1 3 Blooming Marvelous: Several key molecular cues behind spring’s burst of color came to light in 2005. In August, for example, three groups of plant molecular biologists finally pinned down the identity of florigen, a signal that initiates the seasonal development of flowers. The signal is the messenger RNA of a gene called FT. When days get long enough, this RNA moves from leaves to the growth tip, where the FT protein interacts with a growth tip-specific transcription factor, FD. The molecular double whammy ensures that blossoms appear in the right place on the plant at the right time of year.

Brain_2 5 Miswiring the Brain: Although dozens of genes have been linked to brain disorders in recent years, connecting the dots between genetics and abnormal behavior has been anything but child’s play. This year, however, researchers gained clues about the mechanisms of diverse disorders including schizophrenia, Tourette syndrome, and dyslexia. A common theme seems to be emerging: Many of the genes involved appear to play a role in brain development.

3QD’s Best Books of 2005

Here’s the 2nd annual Christmas eve booklist from some of the editors and writers of 3 Quarks Daily (last year’s list can be seen here):

1.  The End of Poverty, by Jeffrey D. Sachs

In this immensely readable and surprisingly fascinating economic account of the “poverty trap” that many third world countries find it impossible to escape, Sachs (director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University) provides a detailed analysis of the origins and reasons for extreme poverty and gives a prescription for ending it in our time, while also anticipating and answering objections along the way. As Bono says in his foreword: “The plan Jeff lays out is not only his idea of a critical path to ccomplish the 2015 Millenium Development Goal of cutting poverty by half–a goal signed up to by all the world’s governments. It’s a handbook on how we could finish out the job.” –Abbas Raza

2. A Day, A Night, Another Day, Summer, by Christine Schutt

In 2004, Schutt’s novel Florida was nominated for the National Book Award, but The Times never even bothered to review it. When she published this collection of short stories earlier in the year, The Times ran a depressingly ignorant notice whose great opening insight was that “this isn’t a beach book.” No, it’s not. It’s a searingly brilliant collection of absolutely harrowing short stories about people in grim situations. They read as if they were written with a skinning knife. Sentence for sentence, Schutt is one of the best American prose stylists I know about. It’s a sign of the desperately anti-intellectual mediocrity of our national conversation that a writer you can get high on isn’t better known. A taster: “My fantasy was to be crippled enough to be allowed to read in bed all day.” –J. M. Tyree

3.  1776, by David McCullough

With the proficiency of a master historian and the skill of a supreme story teller, McCullough paints the evolution of General Washington during a momentous year when the American Revolution was perilously close to perishing. Should be a must-read for high school students as well as immigrants since the book graphically describes the spirit which drove the common people to pull a remarkable feat against an all powerful monarchy and give us the America we have today. Inspirational! –Azra Raza

4.  Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground, by Robert D. Kaplan

In 1962, President Kennedy, foreseeing a future of low-intensity conflicts, rather than massive conventional wars, created the US Navy SEALs and the US Special Forces, or Green Berets. These Special Operations units are the elite, known for their economy of force and specialized area and language training. Robert D. Kaplan has traveled around the war to discover what exactly these Special Operations units are like on the ground today, from Colombia to Yemen to Mongolia. He paints a clear portrait of how US strategic doctrine is working behind the scenes to ensure stability and create a push for democracy around the world. Kaplan shows in concise prose how a little bit of tough love can go a long way in dealing with narco-terrorists and fundamentalists alike, and that the future security of the world rests in the hands of the few selfless servants known as the US Special Operations Forces. –Josh Smith

5.  Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness, by Daniel C. Dennett

This book collects Dennett’s Jean Nicod Lectures. Dennett renews and extends the views he had put forth in Consciousness Explained, taking into account empirical advances in neuroscience and neurophilosophy since that time, 1991. No one writes more clearly than Dennett about consciousness and the philosophical issues surrounding it, and no one comes up with better examples to “pump” the reader’s intuition about the theories he is discussing. –Abbas Raza

6.  My Holy War: Dispatches from the Home Front, by Jonathan Raban

We’re so busy debating how badly we should torture foreigners in our secret detention centers that don’t exist that we’ve forgotten what we’ve been doing to ourselves these last few years as a culture here at home, by breathing in the giddy and poisonous atmosphere of fear in the era of black sites and white phosphorous. Raban, an Englishman living in Seattle, a National Book Critic’s Circle Award winner, and a frequent contributor of brilliant essays to The New York Review of Books and The Guardian, tells us in no uncertain terms that we’ve pretty much lost it. Because of its title, this is a great book to carry with you on the plane or the subway, and one wonders if the original working title wasn’t My Jihad. A taster: “America, in its public and official face, has become more foreign to me by the day – which wouldn’t be worth reporting, except that the sentiment is largely shared by so many Americans.” –J. M. Tyree

7.  Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

A creepy story about a dystopian society where human clones are bred specifically to be organ donors. What makes it more eerie is that it’s not set in a futuristic sci-fi world, but one very much like our own. The book follows the lives of three cloned children as they attend a boarding school where they do all the things that normal children do–paint, write poems, play games, fall in love–while being subtely brainwashed to accept their fates as medical sacrifices. –Ker Than

8.  Two Lives, by Vikram Seth

While Salman Rushdie inexplicably continues to produce forgettable novels like Fury and this year’s Shalimar the Clown, Vikram Seth has probably become the best subcontinental writer of English prose alive. If you haven’t read his brilliant novel in verse, The Golden Gate, read it, and also read A Suitable Boy. In this memoir of his great-uncle and great-aunt, he is in top form, and tells their story with WWII as a backdrop. His writing is unsentimental but moving. “In a world with so much suffering, isolation and indifference,” Seth writes, “it is cause for gratitude if something is sufficiently good.” This book is. –Abbas Raza

9. Catalogue of the Lucian Freud Exhibition at the Venice Biennial

My book of the year is the catalogue of the Lucian Freud exhibition published by Electa to accompany the Venice Biennale retrospective of Freud’s work. Water running into a dirty sink, the Queen (‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.’), foreheads like the maps of worlds, dogs in repose, the grand flesh operas of Sue Tilley and Leigh Bowery, vertiginous flooring leaping up at the viewer: these are marvels of painting and etching. There is real greatness amongst us, not the usual stuff passed off as such. If one couldn’t be in Venice, then this catalogue, though a poor substitute, is the next-best thing. –Peter Nicholson

10. American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin

This is just a great biography of one of the most intriguing figures of the 20th century. Through this telling of Oppenheimer’s life, Bird and Sherwin also explore and illuminate the relationship between science and politics in America. –Abbas Raza

Other best-books-of-2005 lists here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Hubble finds new moons, rings around Uranus

From CNN:

051222_uranus_02New images from the Hubble Space Telescope show the planet Uranus has two additional moons and two faint rings never observed before.

The new moons, which were named Mab and Cupid, bring the total number of satellites orbiting Uranus to 27.

Astronomer Mark Showalter of the SETI Institute and his colleagues were not looking for new moons or rings when they submitted a proposal to take deep exposures of the planet with Hubble’s most advanced optical camera. Rather, they planned to study the 11 previously known rings and several moons embedded within them.

Once they saw the new moons, they re-examined images that the Voyager 2 spacecraft took when it flew by Uranus in 1986. The two moons are clearly there, but no one recognized them at the time.

More here.

Foreign Policy and the Rise of Non-State Actors

In World Policy Journal, Michael A. Cohen and Maria Figueroa Küpçü look at how the framework for how foreign policy is practiced has changed.

After a pause, [Zoran] Djindjic asked, “What about Kostunica?” referring to Vojislav Kostunica, the leader of a minor opposition party and a former law professor. [Doug] Schoen’s [an American pollster who advises candidates worldwide] responsible polls showed that of all Serbia’s opposition politicians, Kostunica was the best candidate—combining strong nationalist credibility with low “unfavorability” ratings. With Schoen’s urging, the Serbian opposition united behind Kostunica’s candidacy, and within months a key element of U.S. foreign policy in the Balkans had been realized— Slobodan Milosevic was out of power and headed to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

Was a political pollster single-handedly for toppling Slobodan Milosevic? Not exactly, but after eight years of sanctions, smart bombs, and fervent, often fruitless, diplomacy, a new and unexpected weapon for defeating him had been found—namely a non-state actor, working in concert with U.S officials but motivated as well by market-driven impulses and personal altruism.

This wasn’t the first time that non-state actors (or NSAs) had played a leading role in the Balkan conflict. In 1995, private military contractors—with the active support of the Clinton administration—trained the Croatian army for its military offensive against Serbian rebel-held positions in Croatia and Bosnia, which helped push the region’s warring parties toward peace talks.

This is one small example of what may be the most important yet misunderstood political and social developments of the post–Cold War era: the growing prominence and influence of NSAs in global affairs.

Rorty on the Lessons of McEwan’s Saturday

Richard Rorty reviews Ian McEwan’s Saturday in Dissent.

The tragedy of the modern West is that it exhausted its strength before being able to achieve its ideals. The spiritual life of secularist Westerners centered on hope for the realization of those ideals. As that hope diminishes, their life becomes smaller and meaner. Hope is restricted to little, private things—and is increasingly being replaced by fear.

This change is the topic of Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday, One of the characters—Theo, the eighteen-year-old son of Henry Perowne, the middle-aged neurosurgeon who is the novel’s protagonist—says to his father,

When we go on about the big things, the political situation, global warming, world poverty, it all looks really terrible, with nothing getting better, nothing to look forward to. But when I think small, closer in—you know, a girl I’ve just met, or this song we are doing with Chas, or snowboarding next month, then it looks great. So this is going to be my motto—think small.

John Banville, who, in the New York Review of Books, finds the novel a distressing failure, says that this “might also be the motto of McEwan’s book.” But thinking small is not the novel’s motto; it is its subject. McEwan is not urging us to think small. He is reminding us that we are increasingly tempted to do so. Banville is off the mark yet again when he says that “the politics of the book is banal.” The book does not have a politics. It is about our inability to have one—to sketch a credible agenda for large-scale change.

Parallel Cinema

From Ego:Shabana_1

She is on the other side of 70. She stares lovingly at the picture of a young girl. Her daughter, perhaps. Her generously wrinkled face stretches, into a sad smile. She looks on. The creak of a door. The sound of a glass of water being knocked off by the wind. She is shaken from her reverie. She looks at the broken shards of glass on the ground, and sighs. Dusky, young and drowned in misery. Her tears have washed away the Kohl in her eyes. Her face glows from the chulha, on which she roasts her roti. The roti blackens on its sides. And eventually, completely burns up. Charred and destroyed. She watches, indifferently. A tear gently trickles down her eye.

“Parallel”, “Middle-of-the-road”, “Art” are among the names given to this genre of cinema in India. Painted with the minimalist strokes of a rather exclusive ilk of directors, the subtlety and symbolism of such movies seemed to restrict the viewership, at least back in the 1950’s when such movies were often funded by the Indian government. While Satyajit Ray is credited as being the pioneer of Parallel Cinema, Shyam Benegal, Ritwick Ghatak are noteworthy names of directors who followed closely on Ray’s heels.

Shabana Azmi (shown in the picture), Smita Patil, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Kulbhushan Kharbanda became the followers and subsequent stars of the quiet but evolving revolution of Parallel Cinema.

More here.