Patrick Caulfield’s main subject as a painter was the blissful, occasionally transcending melancholy of human absence and solitude. The bars and restaurants and other social spaces he painted were famously devoid of people. The “exit” sign that is the focus of one of his later paintings called Happy Hour is the direction in which his fellow-drinkers have all already headed. The figure reflected in the single filled glass at the centre of the canvas is the painter pursuing his solitary practice. . . .

Caulfield, who died last year and would have been 70 this month, was an urbanite, with no taste for the pastoral in art or in life, or for the trappings of country living. When he was invited to choose from works in the National Gallery for the Artist’s Eye series in 1986, he ruled out religious pictures (“I didn’t want paintings of angels”) and concentrated on paintings that reflected his interest in urban imagery. Half his selection was drawn from the gallery’s basement, the repository of paintings that are, on the whole, considered less remarkable than the ones in the grand rooms. The still lifes of drink and food, and scenes set in music halls and taverns, tended to be equally modest. Lunch-time, the painting of his own that Caulfield chose to include, was typical of his sense of humour in that there’s no food to be found in it. It shows the nicotined corner of a city pub decorated with a pot of geraniums and generic bric-a-brac, and crowded with deep, all-too-solid shadows.

More from The Guardian Unlimited here.

Putting a Face on the First President

From Scientific American:Washington

My foray into American history started when James C. Rees, executive director of Mount Vernon, Washington’s estate, asked me whether I could re-create the way Washington, who was born in 1732 and died in 1799, had looked at three important points in his life. Rees wanted these life-size figures for Mount Vernon’s new education center, which will open in the fall of 2006. The 19-year-old Washington would be depicted in 1751, during his early career as an adventurer and surveyor. The 45-year-old would be shown in 1777, when he and his troops were bivouacked during the dreadful winter at Valley Forge, waiting for a chance to attack the British, who had occupied the city of Philadelphia. These two figures would complement a third portrayal, the 57-year-old Washington being sworn in on April 30, 1789, as the first president, a role he chose instead of the alternative he had been offered: becoming king.

My work as a forensic anthropologist for the Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, coroner’s office has augmented this experience. But nothing prepared me for the curious challenges involved in figuring out what Washington actually looked like.

More here.

Laughter paves the way for romance

From Nature:Jokes

If love is blind, then maybe humour is the attention-grabber. That’s the conclusion of two recent studies that confirm a long-standing stereotype of flirting: that women like joky men, while men like women who laugh at their jokes. Eric Bressler of Westfield State College, Massachusetts, and colleague Sigal Balshine of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, asked more than 200 male and female college students to examine photos of members of the opposite sex. Some had funny quotes pinned beneath them, such as: “My high school was so rough we had our own coroner.” Others had bland ones: “I’d rather walk to school than take the bus.”

Women ranked the humorous men as better potential partners, the researchers found – and as more friendly, fun and popular. Men’s view of a woman, on the other hand, appeared to be uninfluenced by her wit. Bressler suspected that men and women do, in fact, both value a sense of humour in a mate, but that they might be looking for slightly different things: women valuing an ability to be funny and men valuing an ability to see the joke.

More here.

Lunar Refractions 1: Cacciari: Politician, Professor, Philosopher, or Don Juan?

Cacciari_2Massimo Cacciari’s writing fell on me a few days ago. He first came to my attention a few years ago when a colleague waved a book called Architecture and Nihilism in my face. I didn’t read this book, but its almost violent passage before my eyes opened an entirely new world. This unknown sphere remained dormant until recently, when I began a rather sunny yet despondent morning reading an essay of his. Cacciari and his writings are less prominent (among North American English speakers, at least) than they deserve. The few excerpts and musings here are meant merely to act as introduction and point of departure for those of you who know little or nil about his work.

My relationship—if one can call it that, as I probably shouldn’t, given the reputation speculative gossip attributes to him—with Cacciari has always been one of chance. I wasn’t looking for that architecture book, which is one of only four by him that is easily accessible to an English-speaking audience, or anything else on nihilism. Nor was I looking for an interview of him, a “sentimental interview” charmingly entitled “Massimo the Incomplete,” when I stumbled across it in L’espresso magazine a couple of years after the first incident. Finally, he came back to haunt me on a recent morning when a book about the classics literally fell off my shelf as I walked past; it’s clearly a physical connection.

Confronting the Classics: in Conversation with the Greeks and Latins was the book I’d inherited from a friend and not since had time to open. I was in what one could term a very brooding, contemporary mood that morning, reflecting on how many things that fascinate me serve no practical purpose in today’s world, and how planned obsolescence and incessant (and often conspicuous) consumption have come to replace many older, more substantial modes of existence. A walk around New York, or Venice, or any other city of the over-privileged world easily inspires the question of just what, exactly, people did before they spent their lives shopping…but I digress. Just as the superficiality of this particular moment in history overwhelmed me, I saw Cacciari’s essay, “Inactual Abstracts on the Study of the Classics.” Having only read a smattering of classics myself, and never really having studied them officially (whatever that might mean), I wanted to see what he had to say. The Nietzscheian reference particularly piqued my interest. I decided to dedicate the morning to this rich eight-page piece.

I mentioned Venice earlier because Cacciari was reelected Mayor there on April 3 of last year after having held the same position from 1993 to 2000. He also served in the Italian Parliament from 1976 to 1983. From the sixties forward he has been publishing his musings, creating a bibliography too vast to address here. His political activity, to many, may seem incongruous with the vocation of philosopher. The reason he is remarkable is precisely because so many things about him initially seem incongruous. It remains to be seen whether or not a completed whole can be made of this picture.

In North America it is fairly rare to encounter a politician who is also professor, author, philosopher, and generally curious thinker (I invite all those reading this to refute any of my statements). Italy gave the world such vastly different figures as Benedetto Croce, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Antonio Gramsci, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Leonardo Sciascia, Manfredo Tafuri, and many others, all of whom blurred the borders between politics, philosophy, and aesthetics. While it’s perhaps a little early to add to such a group, the ability of all these thinkers to assemble a unique opus collecting otherwise fractured and distant fields is certainly echoed in Cacciari’s work.

Returning to his essay, he very concisely makes twenty-seven key points about contemporary study of the classics. He begins with the general feelings of resignation regarding contemporary education—how much it supposedly must adapt to the needs of the day, acting more as something in the service of a technical-economical context rather than a school based on the ideas of culture and real education. Early on he asserts that all words indicating the “school-education complex” (i.e., Schole, paideia, Bildung) refer “not to any specific contents, but to a field of energy; a state that generates potentialities and openness to multiple possibilities rather than orientation toward a precise scope. The goal of the educational process is not the transmission of acquired values…. The real sites of education remain, despite any assertions to the contrary, centers of criticism, discussion, comparison of different trends, and questioning.” I can think of many brilliant people who’ve proven this point after fleeing stifling academic programs that somehow managed to neglect education in this sense of the term.

While that is interesting in itself, and a useful bit for anyone considering study in graduate programs or other accredited, official schooling, it doesn’t yet address the real importance of the classics. Cacciari here clarifies that, in an environment like that of most schools, “which act much like businesses specialized in producing workers, the teaching of the classics can only have a merely ornamental role. The idea of the school-business is metaphysically opposed to all that is classic. Classic, in fact, expresses no return to the past, much less to the dead past, but assuredly a high-spirited contrast to custom, to the present time. Classic is that which is not currently fashion, not the refrain of the day; it carries within it a timbre of battle, an exigency of contra-diction.”

Rather than acting as a throwback to the past, the classics “should arm us to face the present time…. The classic doesn’t flee, it rather challenges. It belongs to the present time, but refuses to serve it…. It speaks of the present time, of this world, even of our daily life, but from a sound distance. Those who weaken the spirit of the classics, transforming it into a sedentary philology; those who make of the classics a cupboard of memories neatly arranged in historical order; those who don’t know how to make them live in divergent agreement with the present time, destroy their essence ten thousand times more than its vulgar detractors.”

Cacciari_3I don’t wish to elaborate each of his points here; suffice it to say that various dangerous words—logos, philology, concordia discors, variety, forma mentis, net-workers—and dangerous thinkers—Nietzsche, Celan, Leopardi, Alberti, Kafka, and Arendt—all make appearances in this tightly-constructed brief. This is the ultimate précis of the truly liberal arts. This is what made it impossible for me to mope around wallowing in the tragic thought that I’d lost days and years of my life to a pleasurable yet utterly fruitless interest in the classics. This is the artillery with which I will respond to the next person inquiring why many of my colleagues and I are “so obsessed with remote, ancient things” in our work. This helped me shoulder what is indeed the heavy weight of taking up active conversation with the classics, yet that load is lightened when I look around and come to a very visceral awareness that I’ve no other choice.

I imagine that many who have heard about Cacciari will have done so through the abundant gossip circulating about him, which merits no further comment here. I will leave you on your own in getting to know his opus, and can only hope that the very limited number of his writings currently available to English speakers will soon grow.

Lastly, a salute to those who have similar dedication to crossing and dismantling the artificial borders between disciplines and cultural epochs—if only we had leaders here in the United States capable of addressing with such depth, or at least being aware of, education and the classics’ roles.

Selected Minor Works: The Heresy of Intelligent Design

Justin E. H. Smith

I would like to explain why, in the matter of the origins of species, there can be no compromise position, no accommodation by one side of the principle tenets of the other.  There can be no way of conceding the basic mechanisms through which evolution works while holding onto an anthropocentric view of the cosmos or a conception of human beings as unique among creatures in their likeness to the creator.  It is time, in short, for evolutionists to be clear: you are either with us, or you are against us.

Last year, Christoph Schönborn, an Austrian cardinal with close ties to “Benedict,” brought the Catholic church a step backwards by calling into question the earlier moderate view on evolution put forth by John Paul II.  In an op-ed piece in The New York Times, Schönborn downplayed a 1996 letter in which the former Pope described evolution as “more than a hypothesis.”  The cardinal held forth with the view that “[e]volution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense –an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection– is not.”

The cardinal is not, evidently, denying that random variation and natural selection are the basic mechanisms of evolution.  He is only denying that these proceed without guidance and planning.  For the cardinal, every transformation in animal species prior to the emergence of homo sapiens must have been rigged in such a way as to guarantee this eventual outcome, since human beings, in traditional Christian theology, are the very reason God bothered creating all that cosmic dust and hydrogen and mud, all those supernovae and humble worms, in the first place.  It is all for us.  Things could not have unfolded in any other way.

This account of evolution has become quite common over the past years among conservatives trying to take a moderate stance in the debate.  They argue that there is nothing impious about the view that God may have worked through evolution in order to arrive at his crowning achievement, homo sapiens.  Thus George Will, in a recent article on the woes of the House Republicans, begins with a telling comparison: “Before evolution produced creatures of our perfection,” he writes, “there was a 3-ton dinosaur, the stegosaurus, so neurologically sluggish that when its tail was injured, significant time elapsed before news of the trauma meandered up its long spine to its walnut-size brain” (“How to Evict the ‘Rent-Seekers’,” January 11, 2006).  The implication is that God worked through such earlier rough drafts until he arrived at his final goal, namely, us (overlooking the obvious fact that there still are plenty of neurologically sluggish species lumbering around, and that in the Jurassic there were plenty of species that did not suffer from this shortcoming).  The Christians can hold onto their anthropocentric cosmology, while nonetheless taking good scientific evidence about shared ancestry into account.  It’s the best of both worlds!

But is such a compromise tenable?  Let us review some of the basics of the Darwinian account of how exactly “higher forms” (this is Darwin’s own misleading language) are thought to arise from lower ones.

The supreme virtue of an organism, in an evolutionary sense, is fitness to its environment, and fitness does not admit of non-relative degrees.  Thus, when it comes to getting one’s oxygen supply underwater, a fish is fitter than I, and thus, I suppose, better.  To the extent that we can talk about “better” and “worse”, we must make clear what sort of environmental circumstances we have in mind before we can say whether an organism is better or worse able to live in them.  Beyond this, it makes no sense to speak of an organism’s place in some non-relative, hierarchical chain of being.  The image of the chain is a vestige of a world-view that is hopelessly at odds with the theory of evolution.  (One thing its latter-day supporters frequently leave out is that, traditionally, human beings were not the highest placed on the catena rerum.  This spot was reserved for the angels–purely spiritual beings with nothing of the animal in them.)

But even with this circumscribed conception of betterness as fitness, could we not still go along with Schönborn and say that human beings are still God’s best work, moving from the comparative to the superlative on the grounds that, say, human beings are well-adapted not just to some tiny ecosystem, but to the entire globe, and eventually, perhaps, to outer space as well; or on the grounds that they cannot just live in any ecosystem, but can also dominate all of them, and all their inhabitants, by use of reason?  And is it not in virtue of the possession of reason that we are justified in speaking of human beings as the image of God?

The problem here is that, as Schönborn worries, the mechanism of adaptation that ensures the greater fitness of some organisms in some particular environment –whether this fitness involves the evolution of gills, bipedalism, or language– is one that can be better understood in terms of randomness than in terms of intelligent guidance.  In any population, there are variable traits.  Some organisms have them, some don’t, and the reasons for this variation are random mutations at the genetic level.  If Schönborn wants to deny this, he will also have to deny a whole host of elementary facts about genetics that he probably never even noticed were offensive– facts that have nothing to do directly with evolution, and facts the knowledge of which he probably benefits from on a regular basis in his reliance on modern medicine.

Some of the traits will prove more useful in response to certain environmental features, and the subset of individuals in a population that have these traits will be more likely to survive to  reproductive age and pass them on.  If God is working through evolution, then, as Schönborn and Will believe, he will have to be actively rigging not just all genetic mutations, but also all of the environmental changes to which the organisms, in which these genetic mutations occur, prove to be well or poorly equipped to respond.

Let us consider an example, one that is very close to home for us human beings.  Paleoanthropologists suggest that a significant moment in our becoming human arrived when our ancestors transitioned from arboreal swinging as their primary form of locomotion to bipedalism  This new and handsome way of getting about is thought to have brought in its wake a number of other adaptive consequences, including, some speculate, the evolution of a vastly larger cranium than those of our ancestors.  This, in turn, is what ultimately facilitated the performance of complicated mental feats, including those we today think of as “rational”.

But why did our ancestors go peripatetic in the first place?  Unfortunately, this change cannot be accounted for in terms of any innate desire for self-improvement among hominids, nor can it plausibly be explained in terms of God’s plan for their kind.  The full story of the evolution of bipedalism will also have to take into account the way in which meteorological and geological events changed parts of the landscape of Africa from rain forest into savannah, and forced the hominids in those parts, at pain of extinction, to start moving about in new ways.  If you wish to assert that evolution is a guided process, you must not think only of God pushing his creatures to go down one path rather than another, you must also take into account God’s micromanagement of every single event in the physical world so as to ensure particular outcomes in the biological world.  The passing of meteors, landslides, volcanic eruptions in the Mid-Atlantic range, the dissolution of a cumulonimbus here and the emergence of a cumulus there, the decay of this atom as opposed to that one, all of this must be meticulously set up for the sake of desired results among one tiny subset of natural phenomena.

Indeed, what we end up with is a sort of neo-occasionalism, the view that the only true cause of any event in the universe is God, that there can be no talk of causality except in reference to the ultimate cause of everything.  In the 17th century, Gottfried Leibniz derided this view, held by his contemporary Nicolas Malebranche, as recourse to “perpetual miracle.”  Leibniz, like many fellow Christian thinkers of his era, understood that implicating God in the nuts-and-bolts of the universe’s daily maintenance is to assign to God a task that is beneath his dignity, and thus to lapse into impiety.  If miracles like the incarnation or the resurrection are going to count for anything, Leibniz saw, then they are going to have to be set apart from the ordinary flow of nature.  This is what occasionalism would preclude.  How much more Christian it would be to account for natural phenomena not by perpetual miracle or by divine micromanagement, but by appeal to a few simple and regular laws.

One can easily see why intelligent design cannot work as a compromise position.  Prima facie, it is much more plausible to suppose that, had God made the universe with human beings in mind as his ultimate goal, he would not have bothered coming up with such a meandering mechanism, and one that would require so much upkeep.  He would have seen rather to the simultaneous, instantaneous, once-and-for-all creation of all species in their present form, and would have shaved several billion years of build-up off the history of the universe, setting things into motion around, say, 5,000 BC, rather than circa 15,000,000,000 BC.  In other words, God would probably have done things more or less as Genesis would have us believe.  The creationist’s attempt to compromise with science, whether for honest or disingenuous reasons, by taking the middle road of “guided” or “managed” descent from lower forms, cannot fail to lapse into nonsense.  I would certainly prefer to debate a scriptural literalist who sticks to his guns, who only recognizes one source of truth, and is clear about what this is.

What Schönborn is worried about is not so much the proposition that human beings are the kin of “lesser” animals (elsewhere I have argued that it is precisely this worry that guides many creationists).  In line with traditional Christian theology –as opposed to the aberrant theology of many fundamentalist protestant sects– the cardinal recognizes that the proper understanding of a human being is as a creature that shares part of its nature, though not all, with the animal kingdom.  Rather, Schönborn is concerned that the best scientific theory of how we got here disconnects us from any divine purpose, leaves us to fend for ourselves metaphysically.  This is a worry that is not limited to the debate about human origins.  Indeed it is one that many were expressing long before the descent of man from lower forms became an issue.

While many early modern thinkers agreed with Leibniz that excusing God from the task of micromanaging the affairs of nature is the best way to exalt him, there were just as many who feared that, with diminished responsibilities, God runs the risk of becoming irrelevant.  Some early modern vitalists, such as Ralph Cudworth, the author of a 1686 treatise not-so-humbly entitled The True Intellectual System of the Universe, thought he had the perfect compromise solution: God dispatches a certain “plastick nature” that intelligently guides the unfolding of natural processes in the material world while allowing him to retreat and, I suppose, contemplate his own divine excellence, while this subordinate force “doth drudgingly execute” those tasks that are beneath God’s station.  What terrified Cudworth was the thought that the things of this world might be accounted for, to use Cicero’s compelling phrase, simply as “a fortunate clash of atoms,” yet he understood that the answer is not to make God himself take care of all the “operose, sollicitous, and distractious” affairs of this lowly world.  But this position prompted others to accuse Cudworth of reintroducing the pagan doctrine of the world soul. 

One might easily get the sense that, when it comes to characterizing God’s involvement with the world, you just can’t win.  There will always be reasons for denouncing any position as impious.  If I can hope to contribute anything to the unfortunate debate about intelligent design that has developed over the past few years, it is that ID theory is just as suitable a candidate for denunciation on the grounds of heresy as any other account of what God is up to.  The standard criticism of ID is that it is bad science.  I would like to propose that it is bad theology as well. 

But fortunately none of this has anything to do with the prospects of evolutionary biology.  Today we have at our disposal biochemistry, genetics, and numerous other promising fields of inquiry that are in a position to explain how atoms, in accord with a few simple laws, really can produce human beings.  And at just this promising moment, creationists want to throw in the towel in view of the “irreducible complexity” of it all.  This phrase had some resonance 300 years ago– vitalists had good reason to think that billiard-ball-style mechanical physics was inadequate to account for all the phenomena of nature.  Now, however, it is nothing more than the proclamation of a preference for ignorance.

Unlike Richard Dawkins and his bright friends, I find people who put too much faith in science obtuse, and I do not think my own life would be easily bearable if I were to abandon all hope for a perfect, eternal order beyond this shoddy, decaying one.  But let us keep our activities straight.  Let us not do interpretive dance in our trigonometry classes, and for God’s sake let us not complicate the teaching of a perfectly autonomous and rigorous science with the problem of finding meaning and purpose in the universe.

Negotiations 6: A Christmas Tale

I go home for Christmas, and it is a vast cacophony of family, with grandparents and siblings, aunts, uncles, boyfriends, in-laws and all manner of cousins present: first cousins once removed, double cousins, first double cousins, second and triple cousins. There are fires in three hearths, each trying to outburn the others; the house is shimmering with heat. There are logs to be hewn, trees to be raised, beds made, furniture moved, carpets taken up, banners unfurled, icons hung, candles lit; and there is food, food, food! to be eaten at all times and in every location: grilled venison sausages, baked salmon stuffed with spinach and feta, steamed mussels, smoked trout, wild rice, pearled onions, boiled peas, roast duck, mince pies with brandy butter, Spanish clementines, Belgian chocolates, Danish marzipan, fudge as dense as flesh, suckers, lollipops, chewies, stickies, gummies and squirmies.

These last are for the children: children crawling from under beds, hanging from rafters, sliding down banisters, and building forts. Children banging drums, bouncing balls and riding bicycles; snot-smeared children, wide-eyed children, children with earaches and bellyaches and toothaches; children hacking, spitting, whispering and howling. Their little fingers are ceaselessly working, pushing into pockets, manipulating trucks and plucking violins; grubby fingers pinching, gouging and tickling; wet fingers squishing into ears and noses; grabby fingers at your sleeve; greasy fingers in the shrimp; fragile fingers curling and uncurling with each breath when like the sea, finally, the children sleep.

I am unaccustomed to such activity. No longer a child, I carry myself within myself. I want to slow this traffic; I want to pluck moments and preserve or heal or burn them. My frenzy is a private thing, a damnable, maddening, lonely thing. Thus it is that I find myself, late this Christmas day, under the pretext of gathering mistletoe, climbing the thick crotch of a dying maple just to gain some solitude, and to breathe and to think.

We are a family of spies, however, and one of us has followed me out. It is the girl we call Bug, full of questions and sugar. She is an elf-child, all blonde and blue, with eyes that glow and blink and swell, and I can feel them glowing and blinking in the winter grayness. She contemplates my activity from below then calls up to me in the gathering sky. “What are you doing?”

I am thirty feet above her now, standing in the limbs of a tree that was a mere sapling at the end of the French Enlightenment. I feel like an affluent worm when I consider this fact. Time weaves fate. This means nothing to her. “I’m looking for mistletoe.” “Can I come up too?” She carries the scar of an immense and terrible wound upon her belly, something went wrong in the pre-life of her mother’s womb, but she is quick and agile and I would like nothing so much as to haul here into the transcendent heights of this massive, wooden thing.

“No. The ladder is not secure.”

“I’m an auto-didactic climber,” she insists.

The last time I sent her into a tree, she ended up in the topmost branches of a magnolia in full bloom; we lost her in the perfume and the blossoms, and she refused to come down until I directed her out onto a limb from which she could leap into the swimming pool below. Her mother was not impressed.

“No,” I repeat.

“Uncle, are you a teacher or an artist?” she calls up to me.

“The ladder is not secure,” I repeat. “I’m coming down now. Let’s go inside.”

We step into the house and I am immediately set upon by a troll. It is the boy we call Moo-shu, on account of his fondness for pork wrapped in pancakes. He has been standing on the stairway, wearing a cape of curly sheepskin, waiting for me to enter, and he flings himself at me from above as though he is plunging into a gorge. His arms go around my neck and he is trying with all his tiny strength to throttle me. It is a game we play; he is a boy without a father in a family of women and he longs for his dad, but I am not that person, and the best I can do is wrestle with him, entangle arms and legs and hair with him, teach him to fight and to run and mingle my male smells with his. I drop to my knees and roll, dislodging his grip and his cape. Like a crab he scuttles away, but I catch his knee and drag him back into the fray. “Now it’s your turn, boy,” I am saying. “Prepare to meet the Sheep of Parnassus!” I am wrapping him up in his cape, as though it would swallow him whole, and at first he is giggling, then a note of panic creeps into his laughter. “No, Uncle, no!” he shrieks. “It is too late for you boy,” I continue. “No flight for you; fight, boy fight!” With that I give him license, we both know this game, and his fear turns to fury. He becomes a small Heracles, seizing my wrists like the fabled serpents and twisting them back with a howl. Our eyes meet for a moment; his loneliness and fear of abandonment fall away like dust and he is just a boy at play in the world, struggling for triumph, and he delivers a good shot with his knee to my stomach. I roll away, doubled up and moaning, and he stands over me, glowering with a grin on his face and his hands on his hips. “You have wounded me, Moo-shu,” I groan, “but the sheep will return!” I make a grab at his ankle, but he scampers up the stairs and is gone.

A family is like a loaded gun: point it in the wrong direction and someone is bound to be killed. We take our shots over dinner, stuffing ourselves with creamy, sauce-laden dishes, then we belch up our vitriol and fire away. “Let’s play a game,” says my grandmother. She is 90 years old and as mean as a switch, with violet eyes that glimmer like thistles in rain. “Let’s say the most insulting things we can possibly think of to each other!”

“Okay, Joanna,” my father responds. “I’ll go first.”

At the children’s table, meanwhile, one of the boys has tipped his plate into his sister’s lap, and he is moaning over his loss. “Clean it up, fatso,” she says to him. Her mother looks over sharply. “Well he is obese, you know,” says the girl. “You said so yourself. You said you would take us all to Hawaii if he lost thirty pounds. You called him obese.”

A cousin is slugging his wine and barking across the table at someone’s boyfriend. “Our president has said that if you are not with us, you are against us. Well, are you with us or against us?” This is a man who considered joining the priesthood but ended up flying jets for the navy instead.

“As I mentioned,” says the boyfriend, “I am from Switzerland. We are a neutral country and I am here to study science, not politics.”

My mother is having a quiet talk with one of my sisters. “Your son has been doing something odd in the bathroom,” she says.

“Mm-hmmm,” says my sister. “Tell me about it.”

“He seems to have taken to smearing his feces on the wall when he defecates.”

Bug is at my elbow at once, tugging away. “Theses? What’s theses?”

“Yes, I’ve noticed that myself,” says my sister. “What do you think it means?”

“I don’t much care what it means,” says my mother, “but it’s staining the finish in the bathroom and I’d rather not have to repaint it.”

“What’s theses, Uncle?” I want to avoid this conversation if I can. “He thinks his name is Martin Luther,” I say to Bug. “Why don’t you ask him if he’s thrown his inkpot at Satan recently?”

My grandmother is clutching at the boy we call, on account of the size of his head, The Squash. He is 13.

“Don’t ever trust a woman,” she is hissing at him. “Once she gets her claws in you, you’ll never get them out.”

My father is chatting with his vegan/neurotic daughter. “You were, without a doubt, the most obstreperous six year old I have ever met.”

The boy we call Sharp-Tooth is picking a scab, and my sister-in-law is thinking her Republican thoughts.

“Priests are such funny things,” my aunt is saying. “They’re always shaking things. I wonder one day they don’t shake something out of their noses.”

Someone begins to pray. “Hail and blessed be the hour and moment in which the Son of God was born.” The children are under the mistletoe, performing some weird ceremony. They seem to be making out with one another. The moments we forget likely mean more than the ones we remember. The prayer continues, “…in that hour be pleased, oh Lord, to hear my prayer and grant my desire.”

Bug is at my elbow again. “Uncle.”


“There’s someone in the tree.”

“No, Bug.”

“There’s someone in the tree.”

“It’s just a memory, Bug.”

“…through the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

“Uncle!” Bug’s eyes are so wide and blue they hurt to look into. “Be an artist!” she says.

“…and his most afflicted mother.”

“Come look!” she says, and we flee.

Dispatches: On Michael Haneke

There are filmmakers who help us learn to watch movies better. Many of them are canonical: Eisenstein, Hitchcock, Ford, Kubrick, Kiarostami, Sokurov, etc. What links the group of directors I am referring to is the way that watching their movies forces the viewer to pay attention to form. Rather than simply immersing one in plot, these artists ask viewers to glean information from the directorial choices being made, from compositions and cuts and such. In Hitchcock, to give the classical example, pretty generic plots combine with a camera eye that makes associations and psychological inferences with startling sharpness. These are moviemaker’s moviemakers. The critic-artists of the nouvelle vague did much to emphasize the aesthetic value of highlighting formal elements, and so the auteur, rather than the studio, became the most important unit to consider when watching movies (they also extended this view backwards to incorporate Hawks and many others). Film formalism is really part of the mid-century revaluation of modernism that extended to criticism and architecture. These days, auteurship mostly serves as the justification for self-absorbed directors whose most urgent message is the advertisement of their own genius.

There are, though, directors working today who respect their audiences enough to command and repay that respect with thought-provoking work that also relies on the audience’s attention to formal features. One of these is the Austrian director Michael Haneke. The sobriety and equipoise of his camera, and the subtlety of his aesthetic choices, make most of his films a pleasure to watch. His recent work has seen him rein in his early tendency towards flashy violence and degradation, as in Funny Games. His adaptation of Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher was amazing in its visual translation of that novel’s obsessive tone, and I though his fondness for menacing quiet moments made “Time of the Wolf” one of the best post-apocalyptic movies made recently.

The first shot of his latest, Cache (“Hidden”) is a perfect example of his talent. He holds the wide shot of the main characters’ home for an extremely long time, maybe five minutes. Luckily (or rather, deliberately) the composition is complex enough, and photographically interesting enough, to maintain one’s interest despite the confusing lack of activity. Soon it is revealed that the nature of the first shot is very different to what one at first assumes, and one is forced to revise one’s faith in the basic nature of shots in movies. It’s that clever. As the image becomes a motif, repeatedly returned to, over the course of the film, its details become more and more familiar, and our encounters with the same space from different perspectives are made as familiar as if we ouselves had inhabited this street. This is filmmaking: to grasp a space and its complexity and impart that complexity to a viewer, in something like three-dimensionality. The movie is about surveillance, literally and figuratively, and it commands the viewer to confront the ambiguity of looking at the world, and how assumptive most of the judgments we make about it are. Like most great formal films, we learn about observation by observing it.

The narrartive theme of Cache might be said to be the return of the repressed, globalized. The movie concerns an haute-bourgeois couple – their modernist dwelling, decor, even food, perfectly observed – who are possibly threatened by figures from the husband’s past. The relations between the modern liberal individual, secure in his sanctimonius domain, and the world-at-large (in this case, the French colonial world) are called in question with devestating results. Compared to a movie like Syriana, whose idea of exploring the links between countries is to represent everything through the tired themes of espionage and politics, with human beings a kind of generic afterthought, a plot device, Cache starts from the most locally situated, domestic setting (the ur-Parisian couple of Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil) and gradually expands the circle outward, relentlessly and at times grimly, until you feel the distance between places and places, times and times, unraveling.

At times, in all his films and this one, Haneke can risk dourness. I never actually feel he is a miserablist; more likely, I think, his tone is so even and reserved that easily bored viewers sometimes feel punished. I think his directorial reserve, his lack of flashy camera movements and cuts, is his great strength: it buys him the time to examine people more closely than most filmmakers. If he has a trademark shot, it is the stationary wideshot. These shots, so beautifully composed, are reminiscent of another very systematic artist, Andreas Gursky. But they are much more daring in the cinema than in photography, and they build up great pathos over the long durations for which he holds them. What seems to get exposed by these patient intervals of looking is something like the Pinterian hypocrisy of everday life, the little lies that must be constantly told and that we must ferret out. The artificial, quick style of the commercial film industry can’t show us this; it substitutes the pleasure of cutting to the beat of music and fetishizing the close-up. Haneke can’t or won’t provide these confectionary pleasures, but he substitutes something richer: visual detail, blocks of color, compositions that combine foreground and background elements. In a way, his work is a defense of cinema against music, and against television (the home of the close-up).

Haneke’s comfort with unsympathetic characters, actions, and styles comes along with something a little less savoury: his attraction to sadism. Violence, and especially the visceral display of blood, in his movies is a bit of an addiction for him, and at times it can feel a little too much. But he shows signs of maturation: where he reveled in brutality in his earlier films, especially Funny Games, The Piano Teacher mostly observes blood so clinically as to reconfirm the aversion to violence. In this sense, Haneke’s violence is the opposite of the kind of celebratory intensity that you find in so many American directors (Scorcese, Tarantino). In Cache, despite a pervasive air of menace, there is only one violent moment, and it irrupts so shockingly into the texture of the film that it at first feels manipulative. Later one begins to decide it was earned after all.

The film’s final shot, another elegant stationary composition held for minutes, only furthers the ambiguity of what has come before. The film, full of jokes and setups that defy generic expectation, ends by neglecting to conclude, instead pointing to the unknowability of urban culture. It poses some really difficult questions about contemporary French identity and the price of its maintenance. For his recommitment to radically simplistic cinematic tools; his mastery of tone and pacing; his photographic complexity; his fearless attitude towards unsympathetic characters; and most of all his respect for the viewer’s intelligence, I think Haneke is one of the most interesting directors at work in the world today.


Divisions of Labor III (NYU Strike)
Divisions of Labor II ( NYU Strike)
Divisions of Labor (NYU Strike)
The Thing Itself (Coffee)
Local Catch (Fishes)
Where I’m Coming From (JFK)
Optimism of the Will (Edward Said)
Vince Vaughan…Eve Sedgwick (Homosocial Comedies)
The Other Sweet Science (Tennis)
Rain in November (Downtown for Democracy)
Disaster! (Movies)
On Ethnic Food and People of Color (Worcestershire Sauce)
Aesthetics of Impermanence (Street Art)

Monday Musing: A Moral Degeneracy

One of the few vices I have always had an extreme aversion and almost allergic reaction to is gambling in all its multifarious incarnations. So much so, that I have never even learned to play a single card game, because they are all somehow indissolubly (and probably unfairly) associated with gambling in my mind since an early age. Besides the irrationality of trying to “beat the odds” at a casino, and the elaborately idiotic “systems” that people come up with for doing so, the idea that one is getting some entertainment in exchange for throwing one’s money away is, at the least, irritating to me. Since when is sitting in a near-hypnotized state in front of a gaudily festooned refrigerator-with-a-gearshift-lever-attached for hours, feeding small (and not so small) change into it, and occasionally getting some ducats spat out at one, considered entertainment? And why? I’m sorry, it seems much more like a compulsive sickness to me.

Still, if people want to congregate in some monstrously ugly building and drunkenly give their money to casino owners for nothing in exchange, and to find this entertaining, who am I to object? I don’t even begrudge the Native-American tribes that have managed to get something back from the people who have taken everything else from them, by taking advantage of their addictions for a change. I do, however, draw the line at state-sponsored gambling. Human minds have a well-known and well-studied weakness in dealing with probabilistic phenomena. (See this earlier 3QD article, for example.) It is one thing for individuals, or even private corporations, to take advantage of this systematic weakness; it is quite another for government itself to be doing so by actively and enthusiastically promoting gambling, rather than protecting people from it by making sure that they are aware of its obsessive dangers and basic irrationality. Yes, I am talking here of all the lotteries.

Lotto_ticketFrom the point of view of rational choice theory, to play a state lottery is undeniably, unarguably, irrefutably irrational. They give out much less than half the money as prizes, than what they receive from the tickets they sell; the rest goes to the cost of administering the lottery, and whatever is left over is used for the benefit of citizens in supporting educational and other governmental programs. It is like someone telling you, “I will flip a coin and you call it. If you lose, you pay me $10. If you win, I will pay you $4.” Would you repeatedly keep playing this game? Well, if you play the lottery, this is exactly the game you are playing. The bigger the potential payoff, the more even otherwise-rational people become willing to suspend all reason, even if the odds of losing have grown to astronomical proportions. The government of my home state of New York constantly takes advantage of this very human mental laziness by running ads on TV whenever the total amounts available in the lottery exceed some amount, like 10 million dollars. Whenever the amount is over a 100 million dollars, the glamor-promising promotion is constant, and it seems to work very well in replacing any misgivings people may have about the basic stupidity of buying lottery tickets, with ineluctably seductive visions of nearly unimaginable wealth. People drive miles from Connecticut and New Jersey to come to NYC to buy Lotto tickets when this happens, no doubt planning what they will do with their winnings along the way. Someone once pointed out that for a round trip of more than 14 miles, there is a greater chance of dying in a traffic accident than there is of winning 100 million dollars in the NY State Lotto. Still, there are plenty willing to take their chances.

So what about the supposed benefits to society? A slogan on the website of the NY State Lotto proudly proclaims: “Raising billions to educate millions!” Well, let’s take a look at where these billions-for-millions are coming from. As you are no doubt aware, many demographic studies in many different states show that the numbers of lottery players are dramatically skewed toward African Americans and low-income groups, and those with low levels of education, with a significant number of senior citizens added to the mix. It is hardly surprising that those who feel most desperate about their situations in society, and have the least hope or avenue of uplift, would be most likely to risk their precious few dollars on the futile dream of escaping their condition. Look, let’s just call this what it is: another tax on the poor, and a racist one at that. What is remarkable in this case is that it is liberals who support such efforts, mistakenly thinking that the monies raised will be spent on the needy, while conservatives, such as George F. Will, vociferously oppose lotteries on the moral grounds that the government should not be in the business of promoting gambling.

I am not sure why otherwise reasonable people are so taken with the idea of lotteries as a great way of raising money for good causes. I was once told by a very distinguished diplomat (whom I respect and admire immensely) that he had suggested the idea of a worldwide lottery administered by the UN to Kofi Annan, as a way of raising money for worthy UN causes. Maybe he was joking. But proposals for new lotteries are everywhere. Look at a sample I just found from today, for instance:

Elmer L. Forbath proposes this in

A Space Lottery: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

The National Space Society should promote creation of a National Space Lottery. Ideally, this might become an International Space Lottery, and would offer the possibility of space flight, as a prize, to every man, woman and child on earth…

The problem with funding space efforts with tax dollars is that many say, “What’s in it for me?” To date, space has been reserved for scientists and rich tourists, like Dennis Tito and few imagine themselves as having a chance. A National Space Lottery will offer the possibility of space travel to everyone, rich or poor!

Lotteries generate huge amounts: One multi-state jackpot reached $363 million! The lottery for New York has the motto “A Dollar and a Dream.” The dream offered by a ticket in the “space” lottery could be a ride on an F-16 or the “Zero G” airplane, suborbital flight on SpaceShipOne, a trip to the International Space Station, or eventually to our lunar colony.

Yes, why not have the desperate and the destitute of the world pay for our increasingly controversial plans for space missions? Maybe we can’t con our taxpayers, or even their usually easily-bought representatives in Washington in this case, but, hey, we can always exploit the silly dreams of wealth that the extremely poor and illiterate of the world can always be counted on to indulge! I can just imagine the long lines at the pale blue cash-in-dollars-only UN Lottery terminals in Malawi. While we’re at it, I have a modest proposal of my own: why doesn’t the government also get into the business of hawking Hock? It’s legal, after all, and maybe we could raise enough money to start treatment programs for alcoholics. Maybe there would even be enough left over to house the homeless!

Have a good week!

My other Monday Musings:
In the Peace Corps’ Shadow
Richard Dawkins, Relativism and Truth
Reexamining Religion
Posthumously Arrested for Assaulting Myself
Be the New Kinsey
General Relativity, Very Plainly
Regarding Regret
Three Dreams, Three Athletes
Rocket Man
Francis Crick’s Beautiful Mistake
The Man With Qualities
Special Relativity Turns 100
Vladimir Nabokov, Lepidopterist
Stevinus, Galileo, and Thought Experiments
Cake Theory and Sri Lanka’s President

A kind of American Socrates

Timothy Lehmann reviews Benjamin Franklin Unmasked: On the Unity of His Moral, Religious, and Political Thought by Jerry Weinberger, in the Weekly Standard:

2fwyplh2ayu6To some, Benjamin Franklin is known as a skillful diplomat and intrepid scientist, one of America’s most important and influential Founders. Yet Franklin is also known as something of a didactic boor, droning on about self-denial, discipline, and “virtue.” D.H. Lawrence saw in him the personification of Nietzsche’s last man, while Max Weber saw in Franklin the archetype of the Protestant ethic at work in America–bland, bourgeois, and eminently prosaic.

There is something–a little something–to these claims, according to Jerry Weinberger, who teaches political science at Michigan State. Yet Weinberger’s Benjamin Franklin Unmasked offers a revolutionary reevaluation of Franklin’s thought, one that unveils Franklin as a far more subtle, complex, and subversive thinker than most have cared to notice.

There has been a spate of biographies reviving interest in the Founders recently, but this is not a biography. Rather, it is an attempt, through a close reading primarily of Franklin’s Autobiography, to plumb the depths of Franklin’s mind and figure out just what he thought about the big questions. And contrary to Franklin’s reputation as a humorless stiff, Weinberger reveals him to be a surprising and impressive thinker–a kind of American Socrates who mercilessly refuted his philosophical interlocutors, and whose profound philosophical probity was laced with ironic skepticism.

More here.

Critical space junk threshold approaching

Kelly Young in New Scientist:

JunkIn January 2005, the US Space Surveillance Network saw a 31-year-old US Thor rocket body collide in space with part of the third stage of the Chinese CZ-4 rocket that exploded in March 2000. At least three pieces broke off the Thor rocket stage, adding to the growing collection of space junk orbiting Earth.

Now, NASA researchers have calculated that such occurrences will only increase. Even without launching any additional spacecraft, the number of new fragments created by collisions will exceed the number falling back to Earth and burning up by 2055.

And reaching that tipping point by 2055 is a best case scenario…

This is of concern to space-faring countries because even a centimetre-sized speck of debris, speeding along at thousands of kilometres per hour, could damage an operational satellite.

More here.

Mr. Zakaria Builds His Own Utopia

Sheelah Kolhatkar in the NY Observer:

Zakaria2000_large_2While Mr. Zakaria is very focused on broadening his media platform—expanding his “reach,” as he likes to call it—he is also busy navigating the social one, the dinners, speeches and charity events through which he cultivates powerful mentors and allies. His patrons include former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who invites him over for eclectic dinner parties, and Pete Peterson, the chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, whose journal Foreign Affairs provided Mr. Zakaria with his first publishing job.

“I look up to people who really make you think seriously about the big issues that are going on, that confront the world, either historically or today,” said Mr. Zakaria. “What I like are ‘idea’ books and ‘idea’ people.”

His affinity for such people revealed itself early on. As an undergraduate at Yale, where he took hold of the college’s political union, he brought in outside speakers such as William Buckley, George McGovern, Bob Shrum and Caspar Weinberger for debates and discussions with students. They would often leave as future Friends of Fareed.

More here.

33rd Anniversary of Roe v. Wade Today

From the Wikipedia:

Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), was a landmark United States Supreme Court case establishing that most laws against abortion violate a constitutional right to privacy, overturning all state laws outlawing or restricting abortion. It is one of the most controversial decisions in Supreme Court history.

The decision in Roe v. Wade prompted a decades-long national debate over whether terminating pregnancies should be legal; the role of the Supreme Court in constitutional adjudication; and the role of religious views in the political sphere. Roe v. Wade became one of the most politically significant Supreme Court decisions in history, reshaping national politics, dividing the nation into “pro-choice” and “pro-life” camps, and inspiring grassroots activism.

Opposition to Roe comes primarily from those who viewed the Court’s decision as illegitimate for straying too far from the text and history of the Constitution, and those possessing beliefs about the inviolability of fetal human life.

Support for Roe comes from those who view the decision as necessary to preserve women’s equality and personal freedom, and those who believe in the primacy of individual over collective rights.


  • 1 Background of the case
  • 2 The Supreme Court’s decision
    • 2.1 Abortion
    • 2.2 Justiciability
  • 3 Dissenting Opinions
  • 4 Controversy over Roe
    • 4.1 ‘Arbitrary’ and ‘Legislative’
  • 5 Roe’s role in subsequent decisions and politics
  • 6 “Jane Roe” switches sides
  • 7 References
    • 7.1 Scholarly Secondary Sources
    • 7.2 Primary Sources
  • 8 TV movie
  • 9 External links

More here.  More in today’s news here, here, and here.

Little Murders

“Maps for Lost Lovers” by Nadeem Aslam reviewed in The New York Times by Akash Kapur:

Maps_1 FROM Adam on, exile has been man’s (and God’s) cruelest punishment. ”An exile’s life is no life,” lamented Leonidas, the ancient Greek poet. Dante, banished from Florence, described the pain in more concrete terms. ”You will leave everything you love most,” he warns in ”The Divine Comedy.” ”You will know how salty / another’s bread tastes.” Indeed, although it’s in the English Midlands, the town in Aslam’s novel can resemble a transplanted Pakistani village, its language and customs and religion more or less intact. It is a place where ancestral feuds and gossip are carried over from the homeland, where the diktats of clerics supersede English common law and arranged marriages are the norm.

For Kaukab, as for the multitude of other characters in this intricately populated novel, the alienation of exile is felt as a longing not so much for the homeland as for a simpler, more general sense of human connection. Even within their cultural cocoon, the inhabitants of Dasht-e-Tanhaii are hopelessly estranged — husbands from wives, parents from children. Neighbors, quick to seize on the smallest transgressions of tradition, malign one another with cruel innuendo. While Aslam will inevitably be compared to Monica Ali and Hanif Kureishi, two other authors who have chronicled the lives of South Asian Muslims in England, the psychological and emotional core of his novel is closer to that of Golding’s ”Lord of the Flies.” In both novels, a tight-knit community is marooned in a distant corner of the world, caught in a spiral of violence and vindictiveness.

In an interview with a British newspaper, Aslam said that ”Maps for Lost Lovers” is, in part, a response to the events of Sept. 11, and that he was inspired to ”condemn the small-scale Sept. 11’s that go on every day.” Aslam’s real talent is on display when he ventures into his characters’ minds, showing the nuances of their struggles to hold onto God and describing their battles to escape what Joseph Conrad called ”the exile of utter unbelief.”

More here.



Towards the end of his short, unruly life, Martin Kippenberger made a print called Matisse’s Studio Sublet to Spider-Man. In it, the great French painter is pointing with a long stick at a detail of one of his big drawings, while the action hero encircles him in a variety of dramatic poses as if fighting the very idea of art itself.

For Spider-Man, read Kippenberger, a kind of self-styled art anti-hero, whose life represented a similar battle of wills with the art establishment, whom he constantly provoked and often offended. With hindsight, though, the Joker might have been a more apt alter ego for a man who attempted to turn his life itself into an ongoing work of art.

more from The Observer here.

The Animal Self

From The New York Times:

Cover_2 Scientists are not typically disposed to wielding a word like “personality” when talking about animals. Doing so borders on the scientific heresy of anthropomorphism. And yet for a growing number of researchers from a broad range of disciplines – psychology, evolutionary biology and ecology, animal behavior and welfare – it is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid that term when trying to describe the variety of behaviors that they are now observing in an equally broad and expanding array of creatures, everything from nonhuman primates to hyenas and numerous species of birds to water striders and stickleback fish and, of course, giant Pacific octopuses.

Through close and repeated observations of different species in a variety of group settings and circumstances, scientists are finding that our own behavioral traits exist in varying degrees and dimensions among creatures across all the branches of life’s tree. Observing our fellow humans, we all recognize the daredevil versus the more cautious, risk-averse type; the aggressive bully as opposed to the meek victim; the sensitive, reactive individual versus the more straight-ahead, proactive sort, fairly oblivious to the various subtle signals of his surroundings. We wouldn’t have expected to meet all of them, however, in everything from farm animals and birds to fish and insects and spiders. But more and more now, we are recognizing ourselves and our ways to be recapitulations of the rest of biology. And as scientists track these phenomena, they are also beginning to unravel such core mysteries as the bioevolutionary underpinnings of personality, both animal and human; the dynamic interplay between genes and environment in the expression of various personality traits; and why it is that nature invented such a thing as personality in the first place.

More here.



Pierogi’s wall-bound, department store–esque presentation of Brian and Leon Dewan’s “hand-crafted semiautomatic musical instruments” is without doubt the early favorite for the Best Interactive Show of 2006. Merging the homemade synth tones of NYC’s late-’60s techno-hippies The Silver Apples with a double shot of Sun Ra’s reverent otherworldliness, the cousins have created seventeen effusive sculpture-instruments, most of which look like the offspring of a grandfather clock and a robot. Given titles like The Administrator, 2005, or Speaker of the House, 2005, these devices (many made from handsome birch wood) and their forest of switches and knobs project both hypnotizing astral soundscapes and an authority reminiscent of the dictatorial computer from Godard’s Alphaville.

from Artforum.

Jimmy Carter & the Culture of Death

Garry Wills reviews Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis by Jimmy Carter, in the New York Review of Books:

Carter_jimmy20060209Carter rightly says in Our Endangered Values that the norms of religion and politics are different. His religion, at any rate, places its greatest priority on love, of God and one’s neighbor, even to the point of self-sacrifice. But a president cannot make his nation sacrifice itself—that would be dereliction of duty. The priority of politics is justice, and love goes beyond that. But love can help one find out what is just, without equating the two. That is why none of us, even those who believe in the separation of church and state, professes a separation of morality and politics. Insofar as believers—the great majority of Americans—derive many if not most of their moral insights from their beliefs, they must mingle religion and politics, again without equating the two.

In his new book, Carter addresses religion and politics together in a way that he has not done before, because he thinks that some Americans, and especially his fellow Baptists, have equated the two in a way that contradicts traditional Baptist beliefs in the autonomy of local churches, in the opposition to domination by religious leaders, and in the fellowship of love without reliance on compulsion, political or otherwise.

More here.

Ethiopia’s Pop Idol hits the right note

Anthony Mitchell in The Guardian:

E010632aEthiopia’s version of Pop Idol is a far cry from the glamour and glitz of its British and US inspirations.

Faded satin sheets and signs taped to the walls provide the backdrop. Frequent power cuts, feedback from poor sound equipment and the ringing of mobile phones compete with the singers. But despite the makeshift set, hastily constructed each week in a shabby hotel, Ethiopian Idols has fast won the highest ratings on otherwise dull state-run TV, and broken new ground.

The show even has it own Simon Cowell, the bad-guy judge on the British and US versions. The catchphrase of musician Feleke Hailu -“alta fakedem” or “you didn’t make it” in Amharic – may seem positively meek compared to Cowell’s acerbic reviews. But saxophonist Feleke, 46, has caused a sensation in this tradition-bound culture.

“Most of the time I tell [contestants] to go back to their old jobs, forget about a career in singing,” he said. “Or I tell them they sing like donkeys. Sometimes they get angry. The girls burst into tears, and a few weeks ago one singer threw a stick at me after I told him he had failed to get through to the next round.

More here.

How to Be a Curmudgeon on the Internet

David Pogue in the New York Times (via One Good Move):


1. Use the strongest language possible. Calling names is always effective, and four-letter words show that you mean business.

2. Having a violent opinion of something doesn’t require you to actually try it yourself. After all, plenty of people heatedly object to books they haven’t read or movies they haven’t seen. Heck, you can imagine perfectly well if something is any good.

3. If it’s a positive review that you didn’t like, call the reviewer a “fanboy.” Do not entertain the notion that the product, service, show, movie, book or restaurant might, in fact, be good. Instead, assume that the reviewer has received payment from the reviewee. Work in the word “shill” if possible.

More here.