Forgive me, my sons, for I have sinned

From The Guardian:

Philiproth1_2 For a decade now, we have lived with the glory of late Philip Roth. To punctuate his last four indelible novels of America and its discontents at the turn of the century, Roth has developed a periodic habit of making a sharp inward turn, an unblinking memento mori, as if to stir in himself the urgency for another major assault on his times.

The inward gesture was set in motion by the priapic Sabbath’s Theater, the book in which he asked himself, in part, whether he had still the potency for creation in the face of creeping mortality. He further interrogated that question in The Dying Animal and he gets even closer to the bones of it in this short, somewhat terrifying book. Everyman takes its title and its theme from the medieval play in which an unprepared sinner is informed by Death of his imminent judgment day. Everyman, in that 15th-century incarnation, is deserted as he faces his maker by first his friends and his family and then his wealth; these impostors are followed by his strength, beauty and knowledge. All that is finally stacked in his favour in the divine audit are his good deeds. It is not a cheerful tale.

Roth’s Everyman, who is godless and nameless, is already dead and nearly buried when we meet him.

More here.


Miniaturized satellites, in Nature:06042412

A miniature satellite has arrived at the International Space Station (ISS), where it will take its first space flight in indoor comfort rather than in the harsh conditions outside the station.

Its inventors hope that the volleyball-sized probe will be the forerunner to a new generation of small satellites that can fly in formation, and possibly act as servicing robots for the ISS.

The probe arriving at the ISS this week is one of just three built by the SPHERES project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge. The Synchronized Position Hold Engage Re-orient Experimental Satellite is designed to float in space while holding a precise position.

A flotilla of such satellites could eventually act as parts of a giant telescope, maintaining their position by communicating with each other using radio links, suggests David Miller, who leads the MIT team.

Makiya’s Shia Culpa

After peddling the idea that democracy in Iraq was easy as pie, Kanan Makiya decides to blame the facts, in NPQ.

The Shiite leadership have acted irresponsibly by not rising above their own sense of victimhood. This failure of imagination means they will lose more than anyone else in Iraq because they will be unable to reap the rewards of their own democratic majority status. Instead of consolidating their position, they risk provoking civil war. Iraq is on the precipice.

Though there are problems with the constitution over which one can quibble, the real issue is not the wording of the document itself or its decentralized, federal vision. It is a set of guidelines that in any case will be further interpreted down the road.

The destabilizing element is that there is no resolution over how powers are delegated or who, clearly, is accountable to whom. The Shiite leaders have not thought about the country as a whole. In the exile opposition, we have been thinking about federalism for 15 years, and even then we did not get very far in defining it. However, it is a new idea to the overwhelming majority of Iraqis who were not part of that exiled opposition; those inside the country barely grasp the concept. The relations of the regions to the center have not been thought through. The obvious implication that people filled with foreboding about the future will draw from such a document is that whoever has the most power—the Shiite majority—will implement the rules as they see fit.

Discussion on Islam, Democracy and War

Also in NPQ, Salman Rushdie, Tariq Ramadan, Imran Khan, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Reza Aslan, all on Islam, reform and democracy, war and terrorism. Reza Aslan on the democratic promise held out by Iraqi’s constitution.

The truth is that despite grumblings from those who were expecting a secular, liberal democracy to arise fully formed in the midst of a bloody and chaotic occupation, the constitution of Iraq is nothing short of a miracle. This is an enlightened charter of laws written in a lawless country embroiled in a civil war, whose framers were literally dragged onto the streets and beaten to death between meetings. And yet, in spite of the odds, Iraq’s leaders have drafted a constitution that reflects the values, interests and concerns of an overwhelming majority of a fractious population in a fabricated country that has never known anything resembling genuine democracy.

But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Iraq’s constitution is the way it has managed to balance the religious identity of the people (96 percent of whom are Muslim) with the requirements of democratic pluralism. Article Two of the constitution establishes Islam as “the official religion of the state” and “a basic source of legislation,” meaning that no law can be passed that contradicts “the fixed principles of Islam.” However, not only does the constitution deliberately leave those fixed principles to be defined by the natural democratic process in accordance with the changing values and sentiments of the Iraqi people, it unequivocally states that no law can be passed that contradicts the basic rights and freedoms outlined by the constitution. Among the first of these is that all individuals have a right to complete freedom of creed, worship, practice, thought and conscience. True, a constitution does not a democracy make. Still, as the template for a stable, viable, pluralistic and distinctly Islamic democracy, Iraq could not have hoped for a better founding charter.

Schelling on Iran and Proliferation

In New Perspectives Quarterly, Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling on nuking Iran and what to do about proliferation.

The US government ought to recognize the taboo is in its favor and not try to develop a new generation of weapons with the aim of making them somehow useful on the battlefield. I’m afraid a lot of people in the Pentagon think, “We are so rich in nuclear weapons, it is a shame not to use them.” They should learn we are so rich in people and infrastructure that we will risk losing that if we encourage others, by our own example, to look positively on the use of nuclear weapons.

That is why, among other things, it is important to get the US Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty—not because testing is important, but because that treaty is a pillar of the taboo, another nail in the coffin of the idea of weapons use. The US, above all, should never say nuclear weapons should be used preemptively…

I don’t know if there is any way to stop the Iranians from acquiring nuclear weapons. If they do, we should try to persuade them to declare—as the Indians and Pakistanis have done—that they are for deterrence and defense, not for offensive use.

Further, we should assist the Iranians in making sure custody of their weapons is secure in any time of disruption. In the case of a riot in the streets, will the weapons be safe? Who might grab them in case of civil war?

How should your babies grow?

From Nature:Babies

The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued new guidelines showing how babies should ideally grow. Controversially, the new charts mean that more children in Western countries could be labelled as overweight. Doctors and parents already use charts to gauge if kids are gaining height and weight healthily. But they have flaws; they were drawn up in the 1970s and based on surveys of American children, when most babies were fed formula rather than the breast milk recommended today.

The WHO’s new Child Growth Standards are designed to show how children from birth to age 5 should grow when given a model healthy start in life. Researchers selected 8,440 children from Brazil, Ghana, India, Norway, Oman and the United States who were breast-fed, received good medical care and had mothers who did not smoke. They collected information on their height, weight and other growth milestones over 5 years.

More here.

raymond tallis


If there were a statue of the Unknown Polymath it should look like Raymond Tallis: rangy, bearded, wide-eyed with disciplined wonder. For 30 years he has been rising at five in the morning to write for two hours before going off to work as a doctor. He has been a GP, a research scientist, and a professor of gerontology, one of Britain’s leading experts, who has published more than 70 scientific papers and co-edited a 1,500-page standard textbook of gerontological medicine. But in the solitary hours of the early morning he has also been a distinguished literary critic, poet and philosopher who has written a radio play about the death of Wittgenstein. On June 2 he is talking at the Hay festival about human exceptionalism.

more from The Guardian Books here.

John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006)


John Kenneth Galbraith, the iconoclastic economist, teacher and diplomat and an unapologetically liberal member of the political and academic establishment that he needled in prolific writings for more than half a century, died yesterday at a hospital in Cambridge, Mass. He was 97.

Mr. Galbraith lived in Cambridge and at an “unfarmed farm” near Newfane, Vt. His death was confirmed by his son J. Alan Galbraith.

Mr. Galbraith was one of the most widely read authors in the history of economics; among his 33 books was “The Affluent Society” (1958), one of those rare works that forces a nation to re-examine its values. He wrote fluidly, even on complex topics, and many of his compelling phrases — among them “the affluent society,” “conventional wisdom” and “countervailing power” — became part of the language.

more from the NY Times here.

Rochelle Gurstein: Mourning in America

The always brilliant Rochelle Gurstein is back at TNR with a superb, lovely essay:

It has long been a sociological truism that we live in a world with few meaningful public forms, social customs, or religious ceremonies. Yet it is only when we face such devastating events as the death of a loved one that we learn what such truisms mean in lived experience: at the time of our most desperate need, we find ourselves abandoned to our own devices. It is not only that the bereaved must find their way as if no one before them had ever lost a husband or a wife; those who would comfort them are equally at a loss as to what to say or do. Priests still perform last rites, religious services continue to be conducted at funerals, and even non-observant Jews are loath to give up the custom of “sitting shivah”; but what remains of the old rituals and words of consolation has come to feel increasingly hollow. 

Yet it would be wrong to imagine that those who lived in societies with well-established rituals of mourning somehow had an easier time reconciling themselves to their shattered lives. Personal letters from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries occasionally include the shocking news that a grieving husband or wife could not properly recover and has died. Nor does it appear that religious faith necessarily makes that reconciliation any less torturous. Consider the case of C.S. Lewis, one of Christianity’s greatest modern defenders, who kept a journal of his spiritual collapse after his wife, Helen Joy Gresham, died following a long and excruciating ordeal with bone cancer.

More here.

Is being right-handed all for the greater good?

Sandra Upson in Scientific American:

Ask why most people are right-handed, and the answer might fall along the same lines as why fish school. Two neuroscientists suggest that social pressures drive individuals to coordinate their behaviors so that everyone in the group gets an evolutionary edge.

Approximately 85 percent of people prefer their right hand, which is controlled by the left hemisphere of the brain. One theorized benefit of locating a particular function in one hemisphere is that it frees the other to deal with different tasks. But that idea does not explain why population-wide trends for handedness exist in the first place. Moreover, evidence gleaned in recent years has overturned the long-held belief that human handedness is a unique by-product of brain specialization attributable to language. A suite of studies has revealed brain lateralization in species from fish to primates. Last August, for instance, scientists discovered that in the wild, chimpanzees show hand preferences.

The presence of lateralization throughout the animal kingdom suggests some benefit from it, contend neuroscientists Giorgio Vallortigara of the University of Trieste and Lesley Rogers of the University of New England in Australia. Also, last August, in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, the two presented evidence to support their idea that social constraints force individuals toward asymmetry in the same direction. They noted, for example, that baby chickens attack more readily when a threat appears on their left. And Rogers has found that chicks with more asymmetrical brains form more stable social groups: perhaps by approaching each other on the right, she hypothesizes, the chicks fight one another less and are more likely to notice predators.

More here.

Secret rivers found in Antarctic

Helen Briggs at the BBC:

_41579458_rutfort_ice_203_2Antarctica’s buried lakes are connected by a network of rivers moving water far beneath the surface, say UK scientists.

It was thought the sub-glacial lakes had been completely sealed for millions of years, enabling unique species to evolve in them.

Writing in the journal Nature, experts say international plans to drill into the lakes may now have to be reviewed.

Any attempts to drill into one body of water risks contaminating others.

More here.

Assessing Admissions: Why gaining access to elite universities is such sharply contested ground

Christopher Avery in Harvard Magazine:

In his new book, The Chosen, Jerome Karabel ’72, Ph.D. ’77, offers a provocative account of undergraduate admissions at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale from the late 1800s to the present—a period when the “Big Three” were transformed by the addition of representative numbers of women, minorities, and others who could never have enrolled before. Such a dramatic shift warrants explanation, and two decades of original research uniquely qualify Karabel, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, to provide it.

At heart, The Chosen is a great story. Karabel brings life to a century’s worth of faculty meetings and administrative maneuvering, providing an account that is both entertaining and authoritative. He also reveals many dirty secrets of the admissions process: primarily that the definition of “merit” was slanted in the past to ensure a sufficient number of “paying guests” for the universities to thrive financially. This will disquiet readers—particularly graduates of the Big Three—because of its clear implication that the admissions process is suspect, rather than sacrosanct.

More here.

Deadly Maps

The complete collection of maps from Carnegie’s, Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Threats

Click on each map to view a larger image. Windows users should hold the cursor over the image and click on the icon appearing in the lower right-hand corner to expand the map to its full size.

The first five maps reflect the worldwide proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and their missile delivery systems. The country maps show the major nuclear installations, both civilian and military, in each country.

More here.  [Thanks to Laura Claridge.]

beckett’s greatest work


PARIS—Just weeks after the centennial of the birth of pioneering minimalist playwright Samuel Beckett, archivists analyzing papers from his Paris estate uncovered a small stack of blank paper that scholars are calling “the latest example of the late Irish-born writer’s genius.”

The 23 blank pages, which literary experts presume is a two-act play composed sometime between 1973 and 1975, are already being heralded as one of the most ambitious works by the Nobel Prize-winning author of Waiting For Godot, and a natural progression from his earlier works, including 1969’s Breath, a 30-second play with no characters, and 1972’s Not I, in which the only illuminated part of the stage is a floating mouth.

“In what was surely a conscious decision by Mr. Beckett, the white, uniform, non-ruled pages, which symbolize the starkness and emptiness of life, were left unbound, unmarked, and untouched,” said Trinity College professor of Irish literature Fintan O’Donoghue. “And, as if to further exemplify the anonymity and facelessness of 20th-century man, they were found, of all places, between other sheets of paper.”

more from The Onion here.

sunn o)))


Sunn 0)))’s music recalls a tradition more typically associated with the cerebellum: Minimalism. In fact, Steve Reich’s 1968 essay “Music as a Gradual Process,” a seminal articulation of this objective principle applied to sound, could be cited with surprising aptness here. In it, Reich argues that the systematic reduction of the musical work will tend to render our experience of sound more material. Just as Robert Rauschenberg’s 1951 “White Paintings,” which are animated only by the play of exterior light and shadow, must be experienced as inhabiting space with the viewer, so too is sound displaced into the real world—that is, the world of the listener—in Minimalist composition. For Reich, narrowing the differential between compositional parts is key to accomplishing this transposition of the work from world unto itself to thing in the world: “Listening to extremely gradual musical process opens my ears to it.” Paradoxically, the closer the music comes to being all of a piece—be it one-note or non-note, very loud like La Monte Young’s early drone pieces or silent like John Cage’s 4’33″—the more differentiated it becomes experientially.

more from Artforum here.

marx in china

Twenty years ago, Deng Xiaoping erected huge billboards throughout China that proclaimed, “Development is the Irrefutable Argument.” The way Deng’s slogan is translated today, China’s spectacular growth rates not only win the argument, they end the argument. The government speaks in a triumphalist discourse that is actually a remarkable echo of the language of nineteenth-century England, in the heyday of what historians later learned to call ‘the Industrial Revolution.’ England was enjoying tremendous industrial growth and taking over more and more of the world each year. Its mass media were united in an orgy of self-celebration. And yet its level of human suffering was alarmingly high. So much of its prosperity depended on the energy of its industrial working class, yet so much of this class lived in poverty and squalor. Victorian England was the world leader in productive power, but also in human misery. Plenty of people were aware of this mass misery. But most of them, when they thought critically, denounced the whole of modern life: they wished “to get rid of modern arts, in order to get rid of modern conflicts.” Marx was more complex: he wanted to affirm and to celebrate human progress, but also to confront its outrageous human costs. His thinking could be called a discourse of contradiction.

In our day everything seems pregnant with its contrary. Machinery, gifted with the power of shortening and fructifying human labor, we behold starving and overworking it. The new-fangled sources of wealth, by some weird spell, are turned into sources of want. The victories of art seem bought by loss of character.

There are good reasons to say that ‘everything is pregnant with its contrary’ in China today and to look for a language that can grasp and penetrate its inner contradictions. It is ironic that, for decades, a travesty of Marxism was imposed on a backward, peasant China that couldn’t possibly digest it. It is only now, as China goes through dramatic and explosive development, that Marx’s discourse of contradiction can be a powerful critical vision of its real life.

more from Marshall Berman at Dissent here.



It’s hard to overstate Gay Talese’s gold-standard reputation. A few years ago, David Halberstam called him “the most important nonfiction writer of his generation, the person whose work most influenced at least two generations of other reporters.”

The bedrock of that reputation consists of several exceptional magazine profiles from the 1960’s, in particular “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” published in Esquire in 1966. Helped along by one of the great modern magazine headlines, the piece became a canonical archetype of the so-called New Journalism — nonfiction conceived and written in the manner of fiction, with fully rendered scenes, extended conversations and plainly subjective depictions of mood. In 1969, Talese published “The Kingdom and the Power,” an institutional portrait of The New York Times, where he had been a reporter for nine years. That book became a best seller, certifying him as a literary pop star as well as a reporter’s reporter. Just two years after the Times book, he published another first-rate best seller, his story of a Mafia family called “Honor Thy Father.”

more from the NY Times Book Review here.

mary midgley


Mary Midgley’s emphasis on her early life in The Owl of Minerva is consistent with one of her most fundamental beliefs: that philosophical positions are not arrived at quite as impersonally as many philosophers would like to believe. The tendency, particularly marked among some analytical philosophers, to narrow philosophy to a technical exercise, dealing piecemeal with ever smaller issues, and its modelling itself on science and avoiding metaphysics, or even any sense of the wider context of the questions being addressed, is one she has vigorously opposed. For Midgley, reason is a tool that should serve reasonableness which itself has more disparate sources and deeper roots than many philosophers acknowledge. Even the most aseptic philosophical inquiry has a frame of reference defined at least in part by unargued intuitions and passions. It is entirely appropriate, then, that her early years figure so large in this memoir: the child is the mother of the philosopher. And what an interesting childhood she had; or at least how interesting she makes it. By the time I had reached the end of her early years, I really did want to know about her ancestors. That they occupy the second, not the first, chapter in her book is not mere eccentricity.

more from the TLS here.

The First Few Microseconds

From Scientific American:

Bang For the past five years, hundreds of scientists have been using a powerful new atom smasher at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island to mimic conditions that existed at the birth of the universe. Called the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC, pronounced “rick”), it clashes two opposing beams of gold nuclei traveling at nearly the speed of light. The resulting collisions between pairs of these atomic nuclei generate exceedingly hot, dense bursts of matter and energy to simulate what happened during the first few microseconds of the big bang. These brief “mini bangs” give physicists a ringside seat on some of the earliest moments of creation.

During those early moments, matter was an ultrahot, superdense brew of particles called quarks and gluons rushing hither and thither and crashing willy-nilly into one another. A sprinkling of electrons, photons and other light elementary particles seasoned the soup. This mixture had a temperature in the trillions of degrees, more than 100,000 times hotter than the sun’s core.

More here.


From The New York Times:

Shteyn190promo ‘Absurdistan,’ by Gary Shteyngart. Why praise it first? Just quote from it — at random. Just unbutton its shirt and let it bare its chest. Like a victorious wrestler, this novel is so immodestly vigorous, so burstingly sure of its barbaric excellence, that simply by breathing, sweating and standing upright it exalts itself. “I stood there listening to my father’s killers. Oleg and Zhora were of Papa’s generation. All three had been made fatherless by the Great Patriotic War. All three had been raised by the men who had managed to avoid battle, the violent, dour, second-tier men their mothers had brought home with them out of brutal loneliness. Standing before the menfolk of my father’s generation, I could do nothing. Before their rough hands and stale cigarette-vodka smells, I could only shudder and feel, along with fright and disgust, appeasement and complicity. These miscreants were our country’s rulers. To survive in their world, one has to wear many hats — perpetrator, victim, silent bystander. I could do a little of each.”

The young writer supplying the lines is Gary Shteyngart, who moved to the United States from Russia when he was 7, while the young bereaved oligarch he’s speaking through is Misha Vainberg, who attended college here but ended up marooned back in St. Petersburg. Misha is extraordinarily fat, ambivalently Jewish, unapologetically rich and — as his homeland’s best comic heroes often are — infinitely thwarted. During his collegiate heyday, he gorged at the American buffet, slurping up rap music, psychotherapy and the sky’s-the-limit complacent optimism that we take for granted as a birthright but that Misha sees for what it is: a glorious geo-historical accident.

More here.