Fooling around

Ever since the 1840s, when the Boston Post persuaded hundreds of readers to go searching for a hoard of pirate treasure in the pouring rain, we have been suckers for an April Fool. And from Panorama’s spaghetti trees to Google’s spoof moon base, the media has been happy to oblige them. As the big day looms, Martin Wainwright recalls some of the silliest tricks…

From The Guardian:

Screenhunter_01_mar_31_1706Leap of imagination, 1976

Patrick Moore was an ideal presenter to carry off an astronomical hoax. As weighty as Richard Dimbleby, with an added air of batty enthusiasm that only added to his credibility, he announced on TV on April Fool’s Day 1976 that a “unique astronomical event” was going to occur at 9.47am. As the little planet Pluto passed behind Jupiter, he said, a “gravitational alignment” would reduce the Earth’s gravity for a few moments. Anyone who jumped into the air at 9.47 would experience a strange floating sensation.

They did too – or at least hundreds of them thought they did. The BBC was flooded with appreciative calls from people claiming to have floated, including a woman who said that she and 11 friends had been wafted from their chairs and orbited gently around the room.

More here.

Reverse Foreign Aid

Tina Rosenberg in the New York Times Magazine:

25idea190_1Economic theory holds that money should flow downhill. The North, as rich countries are informally known, should want to sink its capital into the South — the developing world, which some statisticians define as all countries but the 29 wealthiest. According to this model, money both does well and does good: investors get a higher return than they could get in their own mature economies, and poor countries get the capital they need to get richer. Increasing the transfer of capital from rich nations to poorer ones is often listed as one justification for economic globalization.

Historically, the global balance sheet has favored poor countries. But with the advent of globalized markets, capital began to move in the other direction, and the South now exports capital to the North, at a skyrocketing rate. According to the United Nations, in 2006 the net transfer of capital from poorer countries to rich ones was $784 billion, up from $229 billion in 2002. (In 1997, the balance was even.) Even the poorest countries, like those in sub-Saharan Africa, are now money exporters.

How did this great reversal take place? Why did globalization begin to redistribute wealth upward?

More here.


Paul Broks in Prospect:

Essay_broksOne day I’ll be dead. The thought swirled by on a summer’s evening in Crete. There was cold beer at my elbow and my sandalled feet were up against the trunk of a pine. A book lay open in my hands but I wasn’t reading. I was noticing colours: the bark running blue-grey to rust, the red geranium. I was noticing insects and animals: the tiny green bug on my forearm, the microscopic orange thing that dropped on to the book, no bigger than a full stop, the ginger cat stretching in the shade. The air was filled with the din of cicadas and Mediterranean scents. I sipped my beer and savoured the moment.

The open book was Nicholas Humphrey’s Seeing Red: A Study in Consciousness. I’d stopped reading by the second page, derailed by Joe King’s email. Joe is 20 years old and severely disabled. He is writing to tell Humphrey of his concern that, when he dies, “this crippled body might be all I have.” Yes, Joe, I’m afraid so. “Do u believe consciousness can survive the death of the brain?” he writes. No, Joe, it can’t. Why kid ourselves? These were my answers, not Humphrey’s. I turned them over as the sun sank. I could imagine Joe’s disappointment. Humphrey would give us his reply in due course, but, for now, he was focusing on the young man’s question because it revealed something important about the nature of consciousness, which is that consciousness matters to us. It matters more than anything. Of course it does. Yet the fact of its mattering so much goes mostly unremarked by scientists and philosophers of mind.

One day I’ll be dead. It’s an oddly exhilarating thought. Something unimaginable—nothingness—awaits us all.

More here.

most prized film music

Chris Campion in The Observer:

From Psycho to Singing in the Rain, Slade in Flame to Shaft, our star-studded panel of big screen connoisseurs select the greatest soundtracks in cinema’s history …

Why everyone’s a friend of Dorothy

Oz2 1. The Wizard of Oz
Composer: Herbert Stothart. Songs by Harold Arlen / EY Harburg

Film soundtracks are a broad church, encompassing classic orchestral scores and pop jukebox compilations, spoken word and sonic effects. So we’ll be having none of this ‘incidental scores only’ snobbery in our list. Fitting, then, that our number one contender is a cross-generic masterpiece (is it a jolly kids’ singalong? A dark adult fairy tale? A subversive camp classic? Even a snuff movie?) which won Oscars for both original score (for Herbert Stothart) and best original song (Arlen and Harburg).

More here.

Rian Malan on the rainbow nation

Tim Adams interviews the writer in Johannesburg for The Observer:

For years, Rian Malan has unflinchingly dared to say the unsayable about his native country, believing murder, corruption and disharmony will tear the rainbow nation into its separate colours. It’s a conviction that has cost him his marriage and almost his sanity.

Voter128 ‘Foreigners think we’re nuts coming back to a doomed city on a damned continent,’ Rian Malan once wrote about Johannesburg, ‘but there is something you don’t understand: it’s boring where you are.’ When I go to meet Malan, South Africa’s most controversial and charismatic writer, in his home city, I see the force of both halves of that statement.

Three stories are dominating the Jo’burg headlines. The first is the brutal murder of the ‘white Zulu’ David Rattray, friend of Prince Charles, who told the story of Rorke’s Drift from the African perspective. Rattray was shot in his bedroom by a local Zulu, a man he knew, in a botched robbery. The second story exercising the phone-in shows concerns an attempt by the First National Bank to draw attention to violent crime – murders are running at 50 per day – in an advert which talked of ‘mobilising the population’. The ANC government, jumpy about such language, had pressured the bank to withdraw the campaign. And the third story was about the extraordinary popularity of an Afrikaans song, ‘De la Rey’, a homage to a general who had fought the British with the Transvaal Bittereinders and helped forge the Afrikaans nation. The song called for the return of General De la Rey – ‘We are ready’ – and suggested that the Boer ‘nation will rise up again’.

More here.

Deutsche Borse Photography Prize 2007

From Lensculture:

Walid Raad /The Atlas Group (b. 1967, Lebanon), is the winner of the £30,000 prize for his significant contribution to the medium of photography in Europe.

…The project was undertaken by Walid Raad between 1989 and 2004 to research and document the contemporary history of Lebanon. However, the authenticity of the photographic and video documents in this archive are continuously queried, leaving the viewer uncertain how history — in particular one marked by the trauma of civil war — can be told and visually represented. The ‘documents’ in the exhibition appear based on a person’s actual memories but also draw on cultural fantasies constructed from the material of collective memories.


From the series We decided to let them say, “we are convinced,” twice, 2002
© The Atlas Group/ Courtesy Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London.

More here.

Humans Wear Diverse “Wardrobe” of Skin Microbes

From The National Geographic:

Skinmicrobes_big High magnification reveals a host of bacteria underneath a human toenail. A new analysis has shown that the billions of bacteria that inhabit human skin are not only highly diverse but also change their composition over time. Understanding how and why the microbes change could lead to better treatments from chronic skin disorders such as psoriasis and eczema. When we change our soap [or] shampoo [or] laundry detergent, when we change whether we’re wearing a cotton shirt or a wool shirt, all of these are going to have an effect on our skin flora.

More here.

Tête-à-Tête in Brazil


It all began, as so many things do these days, with an e-mail. The sunshine was sneaking through my mustard-colored paper blinds, the jackhammers had just begun pounding at the nearby construction site, which meant it was 7 am in Manhattan, and when I swung out of bed, turned on my computer, and clicked into my e-mail, there, among the night’s fresh haul in my in-box, was a message titled “Tête-à-Tête in Brazil.” A man called Carlos Carvalho, from the publishing house Objetiva, in Rio de Janeiro, had written to say my book was going to be released in Brazil: Would I be willing to talk to the Brazilian press?

He meant phone interviews, of course, with me straying no further than my apartment. The “tête-à-tête” bit referred to my book Tête-à-Tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre (2005). But looking back, I believe that beguiling title line in my in-box seeded something in my head. Sure, I was willing to be interviewed, I wrote back. And I had another idea: Wouldn’t it be good if we could find someone who had spent time with Sartre and Beauvoir on their trip to Brazil in 1960?

more from Bookforum here.

a deeply admirable book by a deeply admirable man


How does one regard a good man in a dark time? With joy, obviously, but also with sorrow. Seneca said in one of his letters that you must either hate the world or imitate it, but there are few things in this world so stirring as a man who neither hates it nor imitates it, but in the name of what is best in it resists what is worst in it. Such a man secures hope against illusion, and by example refutes any argument against the plausibility of historical action. It would be too hard to act if decency itself had still to be invented. And yet the uncommonness of such a man casts a long shadow over the faith in eventual justice or eventual peace, because the figure is so lonely against the ground. The good man in a dark time is the unrepresentative man. He has the honor of an anomaly. He marks the distance that still has to be traveled. And how much, after all, can a single individual accomplish, all the uplift notwithstanding? Heroes are not policies.

Sari Nusseibeh’s book provokes such an ambivalence — more precisely, such a double-mindedness — about the malleability of history, but not an ambivalence about itself.

more from the NY Times Book Review here.

The Good Mother

From The New York Times:Garr190

We are living in — take your pick — a glorious renaissance era of writing about parenthood or a bathetic swamp of diaper blogs. Deborah Garrison’s latest collection of poems is the highbrow analogue to this cultural boom. Now Garrison is back with this new subject, motherhood. Her once-freewheeling narrator has three children and lives on the other side of the Hudson. And she is astonished to find that she is no longer that high-heeled girl strutting down the street, full of “self-ish pleasure”; instead, she has entered “the shuttered room / where life is milk” and when she walks in Midtown, she is merely headed home. But despite moments of nostalgia, this narrator loves her new life, where a child’s clutching fingers remind her of a lever “ringing in the first / jackpot of many, with coins / and cries, heavenly noise, / a crashing pile / of minor riches.”

In “Sestina for the Working Mother,” she salutes her own busy day, layered with a brief, sentimental fantasy of what it would be like if she stayed home — more NPR, more volunteerism. In “A Midnight Bris,” she recalls a beloved obstretician who had held “my cervix, and me in thrall,” and who gets teary during their final meeting. “But you … so many patients,” she murmurs. “ ‘They’re not all the same,’ he said. / We let that stand.” Such moments feel too self-congratulatory by half.

More here.

How the U.S. Army broke in Iraq

Phillip Carter in Slate:

MilitaryusarmyThe U.S. Army broke in the 1970s in the wake of the Vietnam War and the end of the draft. But if you ask officers who served during that period, few will recall the sounds of creaking planks, snapping beams, or rupturing buildings as the institution disintegrated. Instead, the crumbling occurred over time, becoming apparent only decades later.

Today’s Army is stretched past its breaking point by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The sounds of its collapse may be faint enough for policymakers in Washington to ignore, but they are there. An exodus of junior and midlevel personnel illustrates the crisis. Their exit has forced the Army to apply tourniquets like “stop loss” to halt the hemorrhaging, and it has also dropped its standards for recruiting and retention.

Four years into the war, the Army still has too few troops to persevere in Iraq and Afghanistan and too few deployed in each place to win. To surge its forces in Iraq, the Army has dipped deep into its well, returning units back to combat after less than a year at home, leaving many with little time to train incoming soldiers and come together as a team.

More here.

The Political Economy of Carbon Trading

Donald MacKenzie in the London Review of Books:

AerosolemissionsMany people, especially on the political left, instinctively dislike the idea of emissions trading. Among the roots of this dislike is a variant of what the economic sociologist Viviana Zelizer calls the ‘hostile worlds’ doctrine. Her particular concern is with the worlds of economic relations and personal intimacy. In that context, the ‘hostile worlds’ doctrine is that the intrusion of economic considerations corrupts intimacy, and conversely that kinship and other intimate relations need to be stopped from corrupting what should be impersonal economic transactions. Zelizer questions whether the hostile worlds doctrine is right: for example, is paid care of children or of the elderly necessarily inferior to that provided by kin? Is your relationship to your children really damaged by paying them to hoover the house or clean the windows?

More here.

The Origins of 20th-Century Progress

David E. Nye reviews Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867-1914 and Their Lasting Impact and Transforming the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations and Their Consequences, both by Vaclav Smil, in Amercian Scientist:

Fullimage_20072595745_846In Creating the Twentieth Century, Smil argues that the two generations before 1914 laid the foundations for an expansive civilization based on the synergy of fossil fuels, science and technical innovation. He rejects claims that the computer and the Internet have caused unprecedented economic acceleration and argues that the remarkable growth and social change of the 20th century were based primarily on refinement and development of machines and processes created before World War I. After a first chapter on the technical level of Western societies in about 1865, Smil argues for the transformative nature of electrification (chapter 2), the internal combustion engine (chapter 3), new materials and chemical syntheses, particularly nitrogen fixation (chapter 4), and new information technologies (chapter 5). He suggests that a well-informed scientist from the end of the 18th century, such as Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, if brought forward to witness the society of 1910, would have confronted a “world of inexplicable wonders.” In contrast, “were one of the accomplished innovators of the early 20th century—Edison or Fessenden, Haber or Parsons—to be transported from its first decade to 2005, he would have deep understanding of most” of the machines and processes set before him.

Accordingly, Smil’s second volume, Transforming the Twentieth Century, concerns not technical breakthroughs but the refinement and intensifying use of previous inventions and processes. Recent decades, rather than being a period of acceleration, become largely a time of consolidation. The future, rather than appearing to be a time of almost unimaginable growth, becomes more problematic, because, as Smil takes pains to document, the environmental costs of growth often have not been included when calculating progress. And calculation is the operative word, as Smil bolsters the argument with many graphs and statistics.

More here.

America’s Love Affair with Drugs

From Powell Books:Book

The Cult of Pharmacology: How America Became the World’s Most Troubled Drug Culture by Richard J. Degrandpre: Anyone who has ever quit smoking soon discovers that gaining weight is often an unavoidable part of the deal. In 2001, the United States seemed to experience this realization on a collective level, as the Surgeon General, who many Americans had last encountered in a warning on their last pack of Marlboros, foretold a different sort of public health crisis: a national obesity epidemic.

It hardly seemed fair. Cigarettes, after all, had recently been exposed as delivery devices for a highly addictive and unnatural blackguard of a drug: nicotine. And while certain parties began to point fingers at trans fats or carbs, there was simply no nefarious substance to blame for obesity. It really was just too much of a good thing, food.

But perhaps we had set ourselves up for this frustration. Perhaps our obsessive pursuit of criminal chemicals — not just nicotine, but its nastier cousins meth and crack — had blinded us to more fundamental problems weighing down our society. This is the thesis advanced by Richard DeGrandpre in his book The Cult of Pharmacology: How America Became the World’s Most Troubled Drug Culture. In particular, DeGrandpre argues that Americans have an almost religious faith in the chemical essence of “demon drugs” (as well as “angels” like Ritalin and Prozac) while completely ignoring the social circumstances in which these avatars intersect with flesh.

More here.

hoffman in darfur


After much deliberation that morning in July 2000, Ben Hoffman decided on dress pants and a pressed shirt with no tie. He would carry no recording devices, fearing that the Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony might mistake him for a spy. Hoffman, one of the world’s top international conflict mediators, needed to be careful. Nothing suggesting he was a cowboy, nothing suggesting ulterior motives. Although not widely known in the West, Kony, the leader of the terrorist Lord’s Resistance Army (lra), was then, and remains now, one of the world’s most dangerous men, and quite possibly its cruellest. Hoffman had just heard that Kony had executed the last two men who tried to negotiate with him.

more from The Walrus here.

Nobody trusts a coast traitor


It’s O’Keeffe who points to the final frontier. As someone who chose West over East, she exemplifies the truly unorthodox view that the Modernism of New Mexico, California and the Pacific Northwest may well have constituted a more authentic and original vision of Modern Art than what was cooked up in New York. Specifically, the strain of theosophical abstraction surveyed in Maurice Tuchman’s LACMA 1986 show “The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985,” where artists like Agnes Pelton (where the hell is she in “The Modern West”?!) and Lee Mullican (ditto) trumped the formalism of Eastern secular materialists with works that both looked good and laid claim to a deeper transpersonal function. It’s about time for some West Coast museum to put together a traveling exhibit making that revolutionary argument. But it probably wouldn’t make it past Kansas City.

more from the LA Weekly here.

up and down


A dual career as an illustrator and star puppeteer isn’t exactly a route to fame and fortune today, but back in the twenties and thirties, Tony Sarg pulled it off. And even if he’s no longer a household name, everyone knows Sarg’s biggest project: In 1928, he floated the idea of creating giant inflatable figures that could be paraded down Broadway and got Macy’s to try them out on Thanksgiving. (A few years later, he did the first set of the store’s animated Christmas windows, too.) Raised in Germany, Sarg popularized old-world marionette technique in the U.S., performing at the Chicago and New York world’s fairs and designing the latter fair’s official map. A master of branding before the word existed, he also opened a small chain of kiddie stores, and produced toys and books and puzzles by the carload until his death in 1942.

more from New York Magazine here.

String Theory, With No Holds Barred

From Science:

Greene If Michael Turner had known what he was in for, he might have stayed home. As the moderator of a debate held here last night at the National Museum of Natural History, the University of Chicago cosmologist had the unenviable task of trying to crown a winner in a match-up between Brian Greene and Lawrence Krauss, two physics heavyweights duking it out over the merits–or lack thereof–of the so-called Theory of Everything.

String theory assumes that elementary particles are tiny vibrating strings that exist in multiple dimensions. In trying to unite Einstein’s theory of gravity with quantum mechanics, it hopes to answer mysteries about the beginning of the universe and the very nature of matter, energy, and time. The claims are deep, and opponents of the theory say the findings so far have been shallow, even nonexistent. Last night’s debate did little to settle the argument, but a packed house of academics, physics geeks, and just-curious laypeople seemed to enjoy themselves nonetheless.

More here.

The American Prison Nightmare

Jason DeParle in the New York Review of Books:

Jackson_jail_1For much of the twentieth century, about one American in a thousand was confined to a cell. The proportion of Americans behind bars started rising in the mid-Seventies, and by 2003 had done so for twenty-eight consecutive years. Counting jails, there are now seven Americans in every thousand behind bars. That is nearly five times the historic norm and seven times higher than most of Western Europe.

The penal population grew because crime increased; because the number of police and prosecutors grew (which raised the odds of punishment); and because policymakers, disillusioned with the ethos of rehabilitation, imposed tougher penalties. The increase in severity occurred on the front end with longer sentences and reduced judicial discretion to shorten them, and on the back end by making fewer prisoners eligible for early release.

Meanwhile, the “war on drugs” led to the arrest of growing numbers of small-time users and dealers. By the late 1990s, 60 percent of federal inmates were in for drug offenses. The result is an ever-growing prison system, populated to a significant degree by people who need not be there. It was no liberal advocate but Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy who offered a damning view of criminal justice in the United States: “Our resources are misspent, our punishments too severe, our sentences too long.”

More here.

Islamic Banking: Is It Really Kosher?

Muslim scholars say the Qur’an prohibits collecting interest on loans. But many banks, both global and local, have found clever ways to meet religious strictures. It’s a system that may be hypocritical, but also profitable.

Aaron MacLean in American Magazine:

Halal20banking20300The financial instruments that 20th-century Islamic theorists championed were updated versions of medieval commercial instruments, still known in the Islamic financial sector by their Arabic names: in addition to bonds, known as sukuk, there are profit-and-loss sharing instruments known as musharaka or mudaraba, Islamic leases known as ijara, and a commercial trade instrument called murabaha, the flexibility of which has made it extremely popular among Islamic financial firms.

Banking, as an institution, evolved at the same time as the unprecedented economic growth in Europe over the past 500 years. That growth was made possible in part by the codification, in the 12th century, of a distinction between usury and interest in the Christian tradition.

The Islamic world witnessed the development of corporate contract law and the European banking system from afar. A mixture of traditional arrangements and, later, imported Western practices prevailed in Muslim countries. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that anyone tried to combine the two, governing a modern bank according to Islamic law.

More here.