Selected Minor Works: Imaginary Tribes #3

The Lomi-Ek

Justin E. H. Smith

To the great benefit of scholarship, an electronic version has finally been made available of Sir Thomas Fudge’s 1594 translation of the 15th-century Venetian explorer Girolamo Policarpo’s travel report on his detour north of the Silk Road.  Having gone looking for the lost Christian kingdom of Prester John, he wound up instead in the court of the great khan.  Here is a sample of Policarpo’s communication to his sponsors back in Venice, as transcribed for me by my assistant, Tanya Vainshtain (who, like so many Eastern European scholars, had resourcefully obtained a username and password for the “STaNS” digital archive at the University of Arizona long before I myself could get around to it, hell, long before I’d even heard of it):

Chariot4_2You may take it as fact that there never was a Khan as mighty as the Khan of whom I am about to speak.

Yea, here is how this is so. He wears a necklace of an hundred pearls, pulled from oysters by divers in narrow straits, and he prays on them to his hundred gods.  For he is an idolater.

And his gods have blessed his land, which is called Fu, with mulberry trees that host the eag’rest mealy worms, spinning out the stuff for manufacture of the finest silks in fabricks big as mountains.

And you should know that there are other plants and stones, too, which give spices and salves you assuredly know not, as spodium, yea, and tutty.    

And you may be sure that there is pasturage aplenty for the grazing and chewing of hooved beasts, which in that land produce a musk so strong that, you should know, a Christian could scarce endure it.

You should also know that when the great Khan dies, an hundred of his slaves will be killed, and an hundred of their horses. And they will all be propped up on spikes piercing from arse to mouth ’round a great dining table on which will be served sundry game, as boar, stag, lynx, and coney.

And they will feast for seven days, or until a maggot drops from the great Khan’s nostril, whereupon it will be said, you should know, that he be no longer Khan, and was not so mighty withal.

There are several references in the treatise to an inferior people living within the khanate of Fu.  Though their identity remains unclear, many scholars believe them to be the ancestors of today’s Lomi-Ek, a group of about 80,000 people speaking a language isolate, with their own autonomous oblast‘ just to the Northeast of Vuta.  (Wikipedia wrongly identifies them as belonging to the Aral-Ultaic language family.  God knows I’m not going to be the one to make the correction. If I chimed in for every error I found, I would have to quit my job for lack of time.)

Policarpo writes of the Lomi-Ek (in Fudge’s rendering): “There never was a people as brutish as the people the Khan takes to him as slaves.  You should know that these people, which are called the Loomey-Ecke [‘i Luomecchi‘, in Policarpo’s original], love their horses far more than men should love their horses.” Some scholars believe that, whatever the factual basis of Policarpo’s report of a mass feast of the dead following the khan’s demise, it is highly likely that the Lomi-Ek were regularly sacrificed along with their horses.  Human and equine skeletal remains have been found together in mass graves, some with men buried in full riding regalia and in a mounted position upon their loyal steeds.

“Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran,” Tanya was now telling me in her cramped apartment back on Prospekt Vernadskogo after our largely unsuccessful jaunt out East, and after a few shotglasses of Moskovskaya chased by pickled cucumbers and pickled herring, scooped out of recycled jars and shoved down our throats to dull, by way of contrast, the alcohol’s jolt, “was once asked why rock stars marry supermodels.  For the same reason, he is reported to have replied, that dogs lick their own balls: because they can.”

I didn’t know why Tanya was talking about this rock star I’d never heard of, but she seemed intent on going somewhere with it.  I’d been planning to stay in Moscow for just one night as a guest in Tanya’s home before continuing back to Indiana. Tanya seemed to have been looking forward to bringing me home with her, and seized upon this opportunity to share her Russian pain.  Vodka, pickled herring, Vladimir Vysotsky barking from the cassette player about Taganka, Magadan, the 1980 Olympics, God knows what.  I knew the routine.  There’s no telling how this night will end up, I thought to myself.  We’re about the same age. My wife’s dead and buried in Davenport, Iowa. We’re both compulsive documenters, Tanya and I.  We’re both, though in very different ways and for very different reasons, obsessed with her father, and we’re both perpetually driven to the verge of emotional collapse by the sense that everything that matters is receding, irretrievably, into the past.

“Just how self-contained can a creature be?” Tanya went on, apparently prolonging the autofellating-dogs routine.  But then she switched tracks as abruptly as she’d started.  “In the Vedic tradition of India,” she announced, refilling our shot glasses, “the horse was the victim of a ritual sacrifice that was believed to keep the universe ticking along smoothly.  The horse was itself an embodiment of the cosmos.  It’s in the Upanishads.  The Brhadaranyaka, I think.  I’ll show you.”

Tanya slid a book out from under the couch.  It looked like Hare Krishna material, of which there was by now plenty in the streets of Moscow.  She began to read, translating haltingly, whether from the Sanskrit or from the Russian I don’t know: “Dawn is the head of the sacrificial horse. The sun is the eye of the sacrificial horse,” and so on, down through the horse’s breath, its mouth, its back and belly, its flanks, its ribs, its nostrils.  I lost focus at some point, but tuned back in for the conclusion after nearly every part of the poor creature had been listed and correlated with some feature of the cosmic or terrestrial landscape. “The food in his stomach is the sands,” she went on, “the rivers are his bowels, liver and lungs; the mountains, plants and trees are his hairs; when he yawns, it lightens, when he shakes himself, it thunders; when he urinates, it rains; speech is his voice.”

“Now the horse is an Asian creature, you know,” Tanya was lecturing me, for some unapparent reason, “though those of you who grew up on cowboy-and-Indian movies, and probably even the cowboys and Indians themselves, no doubt think it emerged from a distinctly Western-Hemispheric evolutionary line.  You once had rhinoceroses, and camels, and elephants, and glyptodonts of your own, after all, why couldn’t just one creature of equal stature and import have managed to hang on?

“The word for ‘horse’ in the various Turkic languages extending from Istanbul to western China,” Tanya continued, “is ‘at‘, very nearly the most basic and primitive sound a human voice can make.  Vowel, consonant, finish.  And the horse is itself something too basic and primitive from Anatolia to Outer Mongolia to command denotation by any sounds that take as long, or require as complicated an acrobatics of the tongue and teeth and lips, as cheval, or loshad’, or Pferd, or even horse.   At: a mere preposition in the language we are speaking now, so basic as to barely even count as a word.

“Now the Lomi-Ek, who as you know speak a language isolate, but who borrowed their word for ‘horse’ from their Turkic neighbors, have contracted it even further.  For them it is simply ‘a‘.  In some dialects it is shorter still: just a glottal stop, if you can believe that, without anything before or after it.  For the brief period of contact in the 16th century with the Saffavid dynasty to the southwest, during which Lomi-Ek was written in the Arabic script, ‘horse’ was spelled with a solitary ayn.  Now this curious spelling would of course never be permitted in Arabic itself, and even the distant Uighurs wouldn’t put the script of Mohammed to such odd uses.  But that’s the thing about alphabets: no one owns them, least of all God.  Anyway, if we were to transliterate poetry from this period and from the dialect I just mentioned, ‘horse’ would thus be represented by a mere apostrophe: ‘.  It barely leaves a trace on paper, yet for the Lomi-Ek it is everywhere.”

Tanya was right.  The horse was an important part of Asian life.  The 19th-century Lomi-Ek poet Baraqat Maqöb –briefly canonized in volumes of the literature of the Soviet peoples, only to be removed in the mid-1930s and forgotten until the 2003 publication by Duquesne University Press of an anthology of Great Nationalist Poets of North Asia, where he is hailed in Rosalind Needleman’s introduction as a genre-transcending, playful modernist, remarkably anticipating the European avant garde from his distant colonial outpost– captured in a short poem of 1893 the central place the horse occupied in his own traditional culture:

Laureate813Lo but I’ve yet to praise the proud, tall horse [‘], Lord of the steppe, who doth desirously snuffle up the Zephyr through volcanic nostrils.   

Desire for what? Why, for a mare! And as he leaps over crag and crevice toward her who’s provoked him, he leaves behind a scattered trail of residue that our people call horse-madness.

And the peasant girls will come along, and collect the droplets, and mix them in bowls together with life-giving leaves only they know, and the leaves and the seed will feed the corn.

For our elders say the corn comes from the dead, but those older still say it comes from seed. 

And here we all know horse [‘], and we all know corn.  And here all the other words derive from ‘horse’ [‘] and ‘corn’.  Here the talk is always ‘horse [‘] this’, and ‘corn that’.

Here, indeed, they will tell you that the world itself is a giant horse [‘].

I asked Tanya what she thought of Maqöb, but by now she was busy shuffling through a pile of papers and notebooks on the coffee table.  I stretched out on the couch. After some minutes she produced a  yellowed Soviet report, of which I could just make out the year ‘1963’ on the cover.  Something about collective farms in the Lomi-Ek oblast‘.  Something about milk yields.  Why does she have this stuff just lying around?  Where are the Alice Munro novels and David Sedaris trifles Helen would have had instead?  Where is the New Yorker? Jesus I miss my wife. 

“What do you think I think?” was her unexpectedly angry response.  “By the 1930s,” Tanya set in, “the horse was valued among the Lomi-Ek, of course, though not as a microcosm of the whole of nature.  It was valued for its output.  Thus we learn, and I’m quoting here, that ‘the high milk yield of the Lomi-Ek horse is worthy of note. At the Karl Marx experimental farm of the Lomi-Ek Institute of Agriculture the mares produce 1200-1700 kg of marketable milk in a 6-month lactation.’ But hold on,” Tanya held forth, “this is my favorite part: ‘The  Lomi-Ek horse is also worthy of note as a good meat producer; the carcass weight of 6-month-olds is 105 kg, reaching 165 kg by 2.5 years of age and 228 kg in adults…” Tanya stopped reading, I suppose, when she saw my eyes were closed.  My bare feet were in her lap at the other end of the couch.  We stayed like this for some time.

“Can you imagine what violence these horsemeat factories must have done to the Lomi-Ek way of life?” she finally asked.  I opened my eyes.  I didn’t know how to answer. I was drunk.  “Everything dies,” Tanya replied for me.  “Isn’t it better to be sacrificed in the name of cosmic renewal than to have your carcass measured up for meat yield?”  Ty takaya krasivaya, I replied, my Russian finally deciding to come back at just the moment this dithering, eccentric old dame was magically transfigured by the vodka and the hour, and even, somehow, by her odd and interminable cri de coeur for the Lomi-Ek, into someone, if not desirable exactly, at least well-matched with me.  With my limited vocabulary, anyway, telling her she was ‘beautiful’ would have to do. 

Tanya’s face flushed red. I stood up, kissed her forehead, and stumbled to the bathroom.  My head was pounding.  I could feel the herring rising back up towards my esophagus, ready to reappear.  I kicked the toilet seat up and stared into the mirror behind the toilet.  I was rotund, grey and bearded, with fat jowls with ruptured blood vessels.  The very caricature of the tenured fool. When I urinate, it rains, I mumbled to myself.  Speech is my voice.


Previous installments in the Imaginary Tribes series may be found here:

Imaginary Tribes #1: The Yuktun

Imaginary Tribes #2: The Yamkut

For an extensive archive of Justin Smith’s writing, go to

Sandlines: Katrina recovery update

Welcome to New Orleans–it is nearly two years after Hurricane Katrina, and your federal tax dollars are asleep on the job. You won’t disturb the slumber of dumb money should you come to Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest, two essential sources of local revenue, where you will register few traces of Katrina’s destructive power. Only by venturing beyond the warm embrace of the restored French Quarter, with its familiar old-world charms, can one experience the vast stretches of physical devastation and ruined lives that federal and state monies have yet to address.Katrinanoaagoes12

Today the City Council and local government paint a prosperous, resilient image of New Orleans. It is, after all, cheaper to spin a hopeful message than to rebuild residential areas, schools, commercial centers and the levees to protect the city against future replays of the tragic storm. In the face of FEMA’s failure, and the less-documented, glacial slowness of the ‘Road Home’ program, the New Orleans power elite are cheerleading the city’s boot-strapped recovery efforts, while playing down remaining needs. This serves both to allure tourists frightened by the lawlessness of the Katrina aftermath and to minimize their own failures in leadership and management of the crisis response.


Hurricane Katrina struck the New Orleans area early morning August 29, 2005. The storm surge breached the city’s levees at multiple points, leaving 80 percent of the city submerged, tens of thousands of victims clinging to rooftops, and hundreds of thousands scattered to shelters around the country. Three weeks later, Hurricane Rita re-flooded much of the area.

The storm is estimated to have been responsible for $81.2 billion in damage, making it the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. At least 1,836 people lost their lives in Hurricane Katrina and in the subsequent floods, making it the deadliest U.S. hurricane since the 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane. Katrina redistributed New Orleans’ population across the southern United States: Houston, Texas had an increase of 35,000 people; Mobile, Alabama gained over 24,000; Baton Rouge, Louisiana over 15,000; and Hammond, Louisiana received over 10,000, nearly doubling its size.

Recovery efforts across the Gulf region are almost wholly driven by volunteer relief and reconstruction agencies, some of them bootstrap operations that did not exist prior to the storm. Many are funded by private donations from churches and community non-profits across the country; others receive a mix of corporate one-time grants and government-stipended volunteer staffers for a few months at a time, who can serve the recovery effort to reduce their college tuition (Americorps and its affiliates: National Civilian Community Corps, Volunteers in Service to America). The most well-known volunteer agency working in the region is Habitat for Humanity, whose slow progress was the subject of a recent NY Times article.

As someone who works on disaster relief programs worldwide, I was invited to come for a month and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of various projects in New Orleans and Biloxi, two centers of urban devastation. The experience thus far has been surprisingly positive and inspiring, an unexpected antidote to my entrenched cynicism regarding relief efforts in places like Darfur or Congo, where I typically work.

The aftermath of crisis in New Orleans and Congo, for instance, is surprisingly similar, and I’ve pondered over some perhaps facile but nonetheless empirical truths about the dynamic of human response to extreme disasters. First there is the universal ineptitude of governments–big or small, inept or adept, rich or poor–to provide adequate protection and succor to victims of major disasters, natural or man-made. The repeated and insistent rejections by US authorities of foreign offers of Katrina assistance, despite appalling need and clear ineptitude on the ground, is a case in point. Some of these offers the USG later humbly accepted, but by then it was far too late. Government officials are the least pragmatic when lives are at stake: expect delays and denial, not action.

Also identical across disasters is the chorus of resignation heard from victims: no one hears our plight, no one will help us, nothing can be done, etc. I suspect this is conditioned by the individualized trauma of loss, a kind of PTSD, for the follow-on symptom or behavior to a crisis onset is often sheer inaction or a very elemental ‘just enough’ survival impulse. While the flight to safety is one common ‘just enough’ survival impulse, it is rarely organized and executed collectively, with the interests of all in primary view. The mass looting and predatory behavior in New Orleans mirrors what I’ve seen in many foreign conflicts where law and order are absent.

Group survival happens all the time in Hollywood, though. Take a movie like Troy: under seige, the community instinctively came together to defend itself. I’ve never seen such a mindful reaction to unfolding doom in nearly 20 years of disaster and conflict-related work. Crisis atomizes and disarms its victims: it scatters groups, disentegrates families. Communication fails; actions are never collective, but primarily individual. In the aftermath, groups of victims may coalesce to support and protect. We may know there is safety in numbers, but in the midst of crisis we dont behave that way. April_07_022_2

For the recovery efforts in New Orleans and Biloxi, volunteer mobilization has been massive, attracting Americans and internationals from all walks of life. This outpouring of support in the form of citizen sweat equity, mostly provided by outsiders, has been the primary service model among relief and recovery agencies operating in the region. As one homeowner in the Gentilly area of East New Orleans joked, “We Rebels doin’ nothin’–only Yankees comin’ to fix this mess… .”

But the fact that Katrina recovery, such as it is, has been largely achieved through short-term, unskilled volunteer labor provided by outsiders invites a critique often directed at aid agencies working in developing countries: a vertical charity model (from haves to have-nots) is more efficient at providing a feel-good experience for volunteers than it is at meeting beneficiary needs. In other words, by refusing to engage the politics of suffering by denouncing perpetrators, exposing official corruption, failure or hypcrisy, and pursuing justice for victims, aid agencies become complicit with the causes of suffering they are there to address. The alternative–to provide succor to victims while exposing and denouncing the causes of their plight–may be confrontational, even politically dangerous, but it is this approach that won Doctors Without Borders the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999.

Having worked for Doctors Without Borders for many years, my conviction that the traditional charity model of most relief work perpetuates the power inequities responsible for suffering (thus making it a sweet-smelling means of maintaining the status quo), was unquestioned as I arrived in New Orleans for this review. I’ll share with you some of the ways that conviction has since been questioned by the quality of the recovery work seen here, and its novel use of Fortune 500 companies to finance the effort.

I’m evaluating a national volunteer-based, community development network based in Atlanta GA, called Hands On Network. The Hands On operational model is curiously apolitical: it is built on volunteer community service aimed at a variety of social problems, but it refrains from shaping or interpreting the experience it provides for the volunteers who come through its doors. Illiteracy among inner city youth, for instance, is a need that is met with volunteer tutoring programs–the phenomenon itself is not branded as a failure of public education, or a manifestation of institutionalized discrimination, or any other political interpretation.

Precisely by avoiding the activism informed by a politicization of socio-economic disparity in many American cities, Hands On is able to attract volunteers from across the political spectrum, from all walks of life. Their exclusive focus on service (‘Be the Change’ is their motto) has, in recent years, allowed Hands On to forge relationships with a number of corporations seeking to expand the limits of Corporate Social Responsibility beyond simple wealth redistribution in support of  a given social or environmental cause. Hands On takes willing CEOs and their army of drones and marshals them all into direct community service.April_07_025

When Katrina hit, Hands On had no affiliates in the Gulf area, no existing relief program or prior experience in disaster response, but wanted to see what could be done. Several volunteers piled into cars and drove towards the storm’s epicenter, Pass Christian and Pascagoula, Mississippi. In the months that followed, the agency was able to establish operational bases in both cities, mobilize its national network of affiliates, and secure corporate donations of several million dollars.

Volunteers began pouring in (they house, feed and equip squads of 50 to 120 volunteers a day), and basic recovery projects began to take shape, resulting in two distinct operations: Hands On New Orleans and Hands On Gulf Coast in Biloxi. Unlike Habitat, they do not build new homes but focus on evacuees seeking to return who lack the means and knowledge to begin the reconstruction process. There is currently a six-month waiting list for their services in the areas of central and eastern New Orleans where they focus their efforts.

Rehabilitation of schools, public spaces (debris removal and murals–see photo above) such as parks, playgrounds and roads, and the gutting and de-molding of private homes form the bulk of their activities today, almost 20 months after the storm. Corporations such as Home Depot, Timberland, Target, and Cisco have contributed funds and spent weeks at a time working in projects organized by Hands On. Entertainment figures like Usher or the cast of The Guiding Light (yes, the soap opera) have come to participate and contribute, even to shoot footage and film episodes using Katrina recovery as a backdrop.


Not prone to celebrate the flowering of a social conscience among CEOs, rap stars or soap opera stars, I continue to wonder at how quickly I’ve come to qualify the impact of Hands On programming as positive and uniquely vital to Katrina recovery. But I’ve been looking at their work for almost a month now–meeting beneficiaries, talking to volunteers, corporate and non-profit partners, and debating with Hands On staff–and have gathered a lot of first hand evidence of their impact. Although a number of technical issues remain, it is genuinely uplifting to see how a bootstrap operation built on a dubious alliance between ordinary volunteers and corporate largesse can result in tangible improvements for the people whose lives were ruined by Katrina and the federal failure that followed.

recently discovered Flaubert letter


I was setting to work on the 6th volume of St Augustine—I had just awoken. It was after three. My mother brought me Mme. de Maupassant’s letter—we left—heat terrible in Rouen—I had the carriage ready very quickly, I got the shaft on while Eugène went for the horses. At the port, across from the Guillaume-Lion gate, a man on horseback in summer pants and black tails passed by and I took him for Alphonse Karr. At the top of the rise we went into a tavern, my mother and I, Au jeune Ermite, where I had a grog with kirsch; Eugène a glass of cider—(We’d been there to see the church, in a hackney-coach with Max, the winter before my Father, Caroline and had a few little glasses.) We said almost nothing the whole trip—the left horse was galloping, I watched its head—

more from Paris Review here.

decisive vote


Henri IV, France’s most popular king (1553-1610), was a model centrist in his day, which means that he often seemed a model of indecision. During the course of his life, he converted between Protestantism and Catholicism no fewer than five times. But, over the years, he learned how to deploy this apparent indecision for maximum political effect, tacking deftly between camps and finally uniting the country behind him.

It is fitting, then, that Henri IV is the great hero of today’s model French centrist–and surprisingly effective political gadfly–François Bayrou (who comes from the king’s native province of Béarn and has written a popular biography of him). Although Bayrou came in third in the initial round of France’s presidential election last Sunday, he seems paradoxically to have gained more stature and prominence in defeat than Nicolas Sarkozy or Ségolène Royal have done in victory. Bayrou has cannily exploited his own apparent indecision–his refusal to endorse either candidate in the second round election on May 6–to become not king himself, but the closest France has had to a kingmaker in a long time.

more from TNR here.

Where Have All the Leaders Gone?

First Chapter from Lee Iacocca’s latest book:Iacocca_2

Am I the only guy in this country who’s fed up with what’s happening? Where the hell is our outrage? We should be screaming bloody murder. We’ve got a gang of clueless bozos steering our ship of state right over a cliff, we’ve got corporate gangsters stealing us blind, and we can’t even clean up after a hurricane much less build a hybrid car. But instead of getting mad, everyone sits around and nods their heads when the politicians say, “Stay the course.”

Stay the course? You’ve got to be kidding. This is America, not the damned Titanic. I’ll give you a sound bite: Throw the bums out!

You might think I’m getting senile, that I’ve gone off my rocker, and maybe I have. But someone has to speak up. I hardly recognize this country anymore. The President of the United States is given a free pass to ignore the Constitution, tap our phones, and lead us to war on a pack of lies. Congress responds to record deficits by passing a huge tax cut for the wealthy (thanks, but I don’t need it). The most famous business leaders are not the innovators but the guys in handcuffs. While we’re fiddling in Iraq, the Middle East is burning and nobody seems to know what to do. And the press is waving pom-poms instead of asking hard questions. That’s not the promise of America my parents and yours traveled across the ocean for. I’ve had enough. How about you?

More here.  (Thanks to my friend Ilyas Haider in Tehran)

Yeah it’s a parasite — but in a good way

From MSNBC:Bee

Parasites are by definition bad for you. Some, such as malaria, can kill. Others, like microbes known as Wolbachia that are found in more than one-fifth of all insects, often make female hosts less fertile. Now scientists discover parasites can evolve surprisingly rapidly to become helpful instead of harmful. The typically nasty Wolbachia can make females more fertile instead of less, a study reveals. They’re not doing it out of the goodness of their non-existent hearts — they boost host fertility to better spread themselves in nature. For instance, Wolbachia parasitizes a worm that in turn parasitizes humans, and this worm already depends on Wolbachia in order to produce young.

Wolbachia are bacteria that insects get only from their mothers. They can display a bewildering diversity of additional effects, such as turning males to females, causing infected females to reproduce without males and triggering vicious cycles of increasing female promiscuity and male sexual exhaustion. The presence of these parasites also often carries a toll on their victims — for instance, cutting down the number of eggs that females produce.

More here.

FLAT EARTH: The History of an Infamous Idea

Christopher Hart on Christine Garwood’s book, in the Sunday Times:

U_flatearthUp until 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, everyone believed the earth was flat. Since then, everyone has known better. In fact, as Christine Garwood demonstrates in this quirky and highly entertaining slice of intellectual history, both these statements are false. The Ancient Greeks knew very well that they lived on a globe, while the Flat Earth News ceased publication only in 1988.

Not the least attractive thing about Garwood’s study is her criticism of modern scientists whose arrogant assumption that the present always trumps the past only flatters their self-esteem. She dismisses “supposed Christian closed-mindedness” as a post-Enlightenment myth. The Church was at the forefront of intellectual and scientific discovery for centuries. Indeed, it’s really quite stupid and credulous of us now to believe that most medieval people thought Columbus would fall off the edge of the world. They could see as well as you or I that a ship disappears over the horizon after a few miles, or that during a lunar eclipse, the shadow of the earth on the moon is round. Duh. There was “no mutiny of flat-earth sailors on the Santa Maria”.

Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Archimedes, Ptolemy, St Augustine and Bede were all firm “globularists”, in Garwood’s pleasing neologism, while Newton refined things still further by showing that we really lived on an “oblate spheroid” (the earth bulges in the middle, to you and me). As with scientology, belief in alien abduction, or wildly overpriced face creams containing such bogus substances as “micro-oils”, for real stupidity you need a dash of dodgy modern science.

More here.

How Chicago became the blues capital of the world

Katy June-Friesen in Smithsonian Magazine:

Bluesdunson_2In June, Chicago will host its 24th annual blues festival—six stages, free admission—in Grant Park. Today Chicago is known as the “blues capital,” but the story behind this distinction began some 90 years ago. In the early 1900s, Southern blacks began moving to Northern cities in what would become a decades-long massive migration. Chicago was a place of promise, intimately linked to recurrent themes in blues songs—hope for a better life, for opportunity, for a fair shake.

This year’s festival honors piano player Sunnyland Slim, who died in 1995 and would have celebrated his 100th birthday. Giant in stature and voice, Sunnyland was a formidable personality on Chicago’s blues scene, and his journey to the city somewhat parallels the history of the blues. Beginning around 1916, millions of African Americans migrated from the Mississippi Delta and other parts of the rural South to cities like Detroit and Chicago, where burgeoning industry and loss of workers to World War I promised jobs. For many, including musicians, Memphis was an important stop on this journey, and Sunnyland spent more than a decade there before moving to Chicago in the early 1940s.

More here.

Islamic Democrats?

James Traub in the New York Times Magazine:

29brotherhood650_2In his 2005 Inaugural Address, President Bush traced out the logic of a new, post-9/11 American foreign policy. “For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny,” he declared, violence “will gather . . . and cross the most defended borders” — i.e., our own. Therefore, he announced, “it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” Thus was born the Freedom Agenda; and Egypt occupied the bull’s-eye on this new target. Egypt was an authoritarian state that had supplied much of the leadership of Al Qaeda. It is also the largest nation in the Arab world and, historically, the center of the region’s political and cultural life. Progress in Egypt’s sclerotic political system would resonate all over the Islamic world. The nearly $2 billion a year in military and economic aid that the U.S. had been providing since the Camp David accords in 1979 offered real leverage. And Egypt’s early experience of democratic government (from 1922 to 1952), mostly under British occupation, and its lively community of democratic and human rights activists gave political reform a firmer foundation than it had elsewhere in the Arab world.

More here.

The Missing News of the Missing Methane

Carl Zimmer in his always excellent blog, The Loom:

GrassHere’s a story that should be getting lots of press but apparently isn’t: a new study indicates that plants don’t release lots of methane gas.

You may perhaps recall a lot of attention paid to methane from plants back in January 2006. A team of scientists from the Max Planck Institute reported in Nature that they had found evidence that plants release huge amounts of the gas–perhaps accounting for ten to thirty percent of all the methane found in the atmosphere.

The result was big news for several reasons. It was a surprise just in terms of basic biology–scientists have been studying the gases released by plants for a long time, and so it was surprising that they could have missed such a giant belch. Making the matter of pressing interest was methane’s ability to trap heat in the atmosphere. Suddenly plants became a much bigger player in the global warming game…

More here.

A Conversation with David Sedaris

Lania Knight in The Missouri Review:

Sedaris_david_2007Interviewer: I’ve heard you say that you’re not the funny person in your family. Amy’s funny. Your brother’s funny. When did you figure out that you were funny?

Sedaris: Oh, I’m not really. I can do things with paper sometimes, if you give me some time. But no, I’m observant. I know how to tell a story. You meet some people who don’t know how, and they’ll say, “It was me and Philip and Elizabeth, and we were at dinner. No, wait, wait, ’cause Mark was there. Was Mark there? Or did Mark come later? I think Mark came later, with Tony . . .” And the audience is already gone. Hugh and I argue about storytelling. He’ll say, “Now, that’s not true. You left out half the room. . .” He’s talking about people who didn’t contribute to the story. I would get rid of a lot, so we can move there quicker.

Interviewer: Is writing plays with your sister Amy similar to writing your own essays and stories?

Sedaris: No. When you’re writing a story, it’s completely private. You’re struggling with it on your own. The way my sister and I work on a play is like this: three weeks before opening, we get together with a cast; we have a script, we read the script out loud and then throw the script away. And then say, “Fuck. We’re opening in three weeks.”

More here.

Freedom of rights management

Musicians have been badgering Apple to sell their music without copy protection for years, so why, wonders Wendy M Grossman, is it changing its tune now?

From The Guardian:

ApplelogoIt’s a mystery that Apple won’t talk about. Independent artists have been complaining for years that Apple was deaf to their requests to include their music at the iTunes Music Store without applying digital rights management (DRM) software. Apple CEO Steve Jobs said in his February 6 essay Thoughts on Music that the company had no choice but to use DRM to protect songs sold via iTunes because the record companies insisted on it. Complain, he said, to Universal, Sony BMG, Warner and EMI, who control 70% of the world’s music. No answer, still, to the artists who wanted their music released DRM-free.

A few weeks ago, EMI blinked and agreed to release its catalogue in near-CD quality (256kbps AAC format), DRM-free, via iTunes for a premium price (99p per track). The DRM-free offerings will be available next month. Just like that.

Was that difficult to implement? Apple declined to discuss the decision, the technical complexity involved, or anything beyond Jobs’s essay.

Scott Cohen, founder of the digital distribution service The Orchard, says the change is “not technically complicated”. What is complicated, he says, is the many different versions required to service digital stores, from iTunes to mobile phone downloads. There are only three basic file formats in use – AAC, MP3 and WMA – but, he says, details like bit rates and the metadata identifiers are different for each store. There are 63 variants for mobile devices alone, and overall there are hundreds. Cohen notes, though, that the really hard work is marketing the music.

The reversal makes it even less understandable why independent artists who want to release their music via iTunes but without DRM have been unable to do so.

More here.

Paternalistic Democratization’s Logical Next Step?

The neocon Ernest Lefever offers an answer, in The Weekly Standard.

BECAUSE OF AND in spite of Hollywood films like The African Queen and television shows like Tarzan, tropical Africa south of the Sahara and north of the Zambezi is terra incognito for most Americans. Some cling to fragments of the “noble savage” myth advanced by Jean Jacques Rousseau, who argued that in an idyllic “state of nature” uncorrupted by civilization, people are innocent, happy, and brave.

Others accept the opposing myth promulgated by Thomas Hobbs that in a “State of Nature,” there are “no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worse of all, persistent fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Neither myth reflects the real tropical Africa that I saw in the 1960s while there researching three books on U.S. policy. Almost everywhere I saw poverty, corruption, and a retreat from the rudimentary rule of law established by the British and French colonial powers.

As Kempton Makamure, a political opponent of President Mugabe, wrote recently in Zimbabwe’s Financial Gazette, “It is entirely possible that conflicts within independent states in Africa have caused more privation, deaths and stalled development than the colonial rule they have replaced.”

Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007)


For Russians, music is more than an art; it is their soul and hence their politics. Just picture the ragged remnants of the Leningrad Symphony Orchestra under siege from the Nazis painfully tuning up to play Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony for radio broadcast in the darkest days of the war, or the years in which the visit of Russian players (including Rostropovich) to the West became the one bright point of contact in the bitter Cold War. Music wasn’t a substitute for life in the old Soviet Union; it was life.

Which is why Stalin took such a close and oppressive interest in it, and why figures such as Mstislav Rostropovich, who died yesterday, are so important not just to music but to history. Like his great friend and mentor, the composer Dimitri Shostakovich, Rostropovich lived through the decades of post-war oppression by Stalin and his immediate successors.

more from The Independent here.



Herbert’s solution to the restraints forced on him by one totalitarian regime or another was always to evolve personae—favoring historical figures, as in the famous “Elegy of Fortinbras,” dedicated to Milosz; and, later, Mr. Cogito. Had history not backed him into a corner, I doubt he would have employed this imaginary friend’s services, which are, after all, conceptual; as a result, the poems that feature him as a speaker are both more patently absurd and more erratic than the rest. “Mr. Cogito and Pure Thought” ends on this buoyant, negative note:

when he is cold
he will attain the state of satori

and he will be as the masters recommend
vacant and

Herbert rescues this antic poem with the unexpected pairing of apparent and impalpable opposites. He never forgets the advice given at the Café des Poètes to the desperate Orpheus by a bourgeois gentleman in Cocteau’s Orphée: You must astonish us.

more from Bookforum here.

Towering anachronisms?

Peter Buchanan in Harvard Design Magazine:

St_m Is the tall building an anachronism? Does it, like sprawling suburbia and out-of-town shopping malls, seem doomed to belong only to what is increasingly referred to as “the oil interval,” that now fading and historically brief moment when easily extracted oil was abundant and cheap? The answer is probably “Yes,” particularly for the conventional freestanding, air-conditioned, artificially lit tower that guzzles vast amounts of energy and is built for short-term profit out of high-embodied-energy materials, many of them petroleum derivatives. Such buildings are utterly contrary to the requirements of times of increasingly insecure and dwindling oil supplies, in which even the United States must one day embrace the quest for more sustainable lifestyles and forms of development. Energy-wasteful buildings also offend values held by more and more people.

Nevertheless, such buildings continue to be built, and more are proposed, particularly for boom cities like Dubai and many in China. Yet the contrived sculptural forms and vulgar flashiness of so many of the towers there and elsewhere suggest rather desperate attempts to enliven a tired and dying type. Even towers by superior architects, like Norman Foster and Richard Rogers, proposed for the Ground Zero site in New York, seem vapid. And the gigantism of towers proposed by Renzo Piano for London and Foster for Moscow register as brutally intrusive and inappropriate. All these seem last-fling sunset effects from a waning era when, beside the defects listed, towers helped create dismal cities and aptly symbolized their extreme economic and social inequalities.

But ironically, the green agenda and quest for sustainability, the death knell of these kinds of towers, might reinvent and reinvigorate the tall building. Reaching up into fresh air and abundant daylight, tall buildings cry out to be naturally lit and ventilated, bringing energy savings, healthier conditions, and more personal environmental control. Touching tall buildings is abundant ambient energy in the form of sunlight and wind, only a little of which needs to be harvested to serve all their energy needs. Various European architects are now investigating towers that accelerate wind past or through them to drive turbines and towers big enough for water- and waste-recycling systems, with “gray” water from hand-washing use to flush toilet, and even “living machines” processing sewage on site.1

Picture shows 30 St.Mary Axe, London.

More here.

cold turkey

Justin Droms in Good Magazine:

Coldturkey1 This might be the worst thing I’ve ever put in my mouth, I think an hour later as I try a fingerful of vegan mayonnaise. Some “analogues,” as Vegan Action describes these food substitutes, taste a little off to the recovering meataholic. The mayonnaise, for one, tastes like vinegar-flavored Jell-O, and if you’ve ever thought to yourself, “Hey, I’d really like to eat some cat vomit,” then vegan ham is for you. Others, however, are borderline outstanding. Vegan steak is flat-out convincing, and minimizes the time I’ll spend staring at ground beef in the grocery store (although, like vegetarian Indian cuisine, it maximizes the time I’ll spend in the bathroom). Vegan chicken nuggets are the best; though they’re filled with a grainy meal, the crispy outside is just like the real deal, especially if drenched in a half-gallon of ketchup.

“I am not a violent person, but when my fiancée orders the surf and turf, I’m one bean sprout away from Frisbeeing her plate through a window.”

More here.

Evian criminals

Daniel Gross at Slate:

Water Last month, the San Francisco Chronicle spotted a hot new food trend in the Bay Area. Instead of offering diners a choice of still or sparkling bottled water with their (inevitably) locally grown delectables, trendoid restaurants such as Incanto, Poggio, and Nopa now offer glorified tap water. Sustainable-dining pioneer Chez Panisse has also joined the crowd, tossing Santa Lucia overboard for filtered municipal water, carbonated on-site. The reason: It takes a lot of energy to create a bottle of water and ship it from Europe to California. And so of-the-moment bistros can boost their enviro cred by giving away tap water instead of selling promiscuously marked-up bottled water. “Our whole goal of sustainability means using as little energy as we have to,” Mike Kossa-Rienzi, general manager of Chez Panisse, told the Chronicle. “Shipping bottles of water from Italy doesn’t make sense.”

Chez Panisse’s decision to swap Perrier for public water highlights how quickly the culture surrounding food, drink, and the environment has shifted. Not long ago, bottled water represented the height of urban sophistication. Today, bottled water is just another cog in the carbon-spewing, globe-warming industrial machine. There is a growing conflict between those who want to drink clean, pure water and those who want to breathe clean, pure air.

More here.