A Third Way: Normalizing relations will help both sides

Michael McFaul and Abbas Milani in the Boston Review:

Screenhunter_08_may_31_1631Recent developments in Iran have convinced advocates of both “softer” arms-control approaches and more hard-line regime-change strategies that their analyses are correct and their policy prescriptions are working. The arms-controllers see a Tehran more willing to negotiate; the regime-changers see increasing repression. Though evidence for both claims can be marshaled, neither offers balanced insight into Iranian behavior or a sensible strategy for breaking the decades-long impasse in U.S.-Iranian relations. We need a novel approach, a third way—simultaneously pursuing arms control and democratization by means of engagement, not coercion.

Today Iran seems to be more willing to find a negotiated settlement to its problems with the international community. The April 2007 crisis over the British sailors held captive in Iran was solved with unexpected alacrity and relative ease. Moreover, Supreme Leader Khamenei has reportedly given Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, new special powers to negotiate on the nuclear issue (a meeting between Larijani and the EU’s Javier Solana suggests that there is something to the reports). At a May 2007 conference in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, Iranian diplomats met with their American counterparts. Meanwhile, Iranian advocates of confrontation with the West, lead by President Ahmadinejad, have recently suffered a sharp decline in power.

More here.

First Chapters Writing Competition Winner Announcement

From Gather.com:

Grand_prizeWe are thrilled to announce that Terry Shaw, author of The Way Life Should Be is the Grand Prize Winner of Gather.com’s First Chapters Writing Competition. In addition, in a surprise move, Simon & Schuster has decided to award a second publishing contract to runner-up Geoffrey Edwards, author of Fire Bell in the Night. Congratulations to Terry and Geoffrey for such a tremendous achievement.

“It was a pleasant surprise to discover that the Gather.com community had done their job so well that in the end we decided to go with a grand prize winner  and a runner up,” commented Mark Gompertz, Executive Vice President, Publisher, Touchstone. “We look forward to publishing both of these terrific novels in the fall.”

More here.


Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg at Edge.org:

Bloom200It is no secret that many American adults reject some scientific ideas. In a 2005 Pew Trust poll, for instance, 42% of respondents said that they believed that humans and other animals have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. A substantial minority of Americans, then, deny that evolution has even taken place, making them more radical than “Intelligent Design” theorists, who deny only that natural selection can explain complex design. But evolution is not the only domain in which people reject science: Many believe in the efficacy of unproven medical interventions, the mystical nature of out-of-body experiences, the existence of supernatural entities such as ghosts and fairies, and the legitimacy of astrology, ESP, and divination. 
Weisberg200There are two common assumptions about the nature of this resistance. First, it is often assumed to be a particularly American problem, explained in terms of the strong religious beliefs of many American citizens and the anti-science leanings of the dominant political party. Second, the problem is often characterized as the result of insufficient exposure to the relevant scientific facts, and hence is best addressed with improved science education.

We believe that these assumptions, while not completely false, reflect a misunderstanding of the nature of this phenomenon. While cultural factors are plainly relevant, American adults’ resistance to scientific ideas reflects universal facts about what children know and how children learn. If this is right, then resistance to science cannot be simply addressed through more education; something different is needed.

More here.

beer v wine


Part of beer’s populist appeal—and its edge in the beer vs. wine war—has always been its absence of cant about its main point: to provide a little (or a lot of) happy intoxication. You can appreciate wine, but you drink beer, the saying goes. Wine’s cult of connoisseurship has always had a specious edge. Like the Victorian obsession with the “grace” of the nude female form, the high-flown language and ceremony of wine-drinking can seem like a fig leaf of sorts, a cover for fancy-pantses who like to get buzzed.

Wine connoisseurship became more palatable to Americans, though, when wine talk changed. As Sean Shesgreen pointed out in the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required), the old vocabulary of wine, passed down to us from the English squirearchy, graded wines in class terms, privileging pedigree and refinement. The ultimate parody of this kind of wine talk is James Thurber’s cartoon line: “It’s merely a naive domestic Burgundy, but I think you’ll be amused by its presumption.”

more from Slate here.

dennett: Understanding magnifies delight and awe


How would you answer to the objection that the scientific study of religion misses the target because it addresses answers to questions on the sense (of life, of the world) with an instrument (science) that doesn’t exactly deal with that sense (of life, of the world)?

Science better than any other activity, does deal with facts regarding experience, belief, knowledge, evidence. Science doesn’t attempt to create beauty (the way the arts do, for instance) but science can study how the arts create beauty—to put it with deliberate oversimplification. Similarly, science doesn’t attempt to do what religion attempts to do, but science can study, scientifically, what religion attempts to do, and how it does it.

Don’t you believe that the naturalisation of phenomena like religion (but also philosophy) stiffens and simplifies the multiplicity of human experience too much?

No, on the contrary, I think naturalisation improves our understanding, makes the phenomena both more intense and clearer, more wonderful. The scientific account of the solar system and the ‘heavens’ is far more awe-inspiring than the old myths about gods and flaming chariots being pulled across the sky. I think nature lovers who don’t know anything about biological theory are like music lovers who don’t know how to read music, who don’t know about harmony, theory, etc. Understanding magnifies delight and awe.

more from RESET here.

ukranian tractors


Lewycka, who was 58 when her life-transforming novel appeared two years ago, used to teach journalism and PR at Sheffield Hallam University, to which she is still attached in some vague, part-time, institution-boosting capacity. It quickly becomes apparent that she is a far better interviewer than I am, and is soon asking me questions. She is the sort of person who, on first meeting, you feel you have known all your life. Funny, open, energised; a bit like her fiction. Readers must feel it, too – hence the 800,000 sales of Tractors in the UK and the remarkably ugly book awards (“What on earth can you do with a Nibbie?”) that litter her resolutely unmodernised kitchen.

So has this vast success after almost 40 years in pursuit of publication changed her life – if not her kitchen? She laughs. “It has in some ways. It had always been my dream to be a writer, and obviously having your dream come true is fantastic. But there is something a bit terrible about it as well, because once your dream has come true, what else is there? It was your dream and it becomes your job, and then it’s not a dream any more.”

more from The Guardian here.

My brother, the bomber

From Prospect Magazine:Essay_malik

What turned Mohammad Sidique Khan, a softly spoken youth worker, into the mastermind of 7/7? I spent months in a Leeds suburb getting to know Khan’s brother. A complex and disturbing story of the bomber’s radicalisation emerged.

Suicide bombing is not just a religious phenomenon. It is employed by many secular organisations, including the Kurdish PKK and the Marxist Tamil Tigers. In fact, until 2000, the Tamil Tigers had carried out more suicide attacks than all other groups put together. Over the years, the profiles of individual bombers have also varied, from young boys to, more recently, women. Ariel Merari, a Tel Aviv University psychologist, has profiled 50 suicide bombers and found that there were hardly any common factors. None were deranged or schizophrenic. Few had problems like depression. Merari concluded that the only factor linking all forms of suicide terrorism was the way bombers were recruited and trained. It is the psychology of the group, not the individual, that is key.

This was something that the French sociologist Émile Durkheim identified nearly 100 years ago in Suicide: A Study in Sociology. Durkheim contrasted “egotistical” suicide—caused by a person feeling disconnected from society—with “altruistic” suicide, which occurs when “integration is too strong.”

For my BBC research team, our first month in Leeds was a write-off because no one would talk. This silence was the first sign that Beeston’s Pakistani community might harbour the kind of cohesive group in which an “altruistic” mentality could flourish.

More here.

Michael Ondaatje, In Peak Form

From The Washington Post:

O_2 The more one talks to Michael Ondaatje about the way he writes his novels, the more one is drawn toward a simple, cautionary conclusion:Kids, don’t try this at home. Ask the author of “The English Patient,” “Anil’s Ghost” and the just-published “Divisadero” if he has ever worked from an outline and he bursts out laughing. “I did try once,” he says. “I wrote a kind of treatment.” But this brief stab at planning destroyed his enthusiasm for the material: “So then I said, ‘Now, why would I want to write that?’ “

Many writers start novels without knowing precisely where they’re going. But when it comes to improvisation, Ondaatje is an extreme case. He begins with fragmentary images or situations — a plane crashing in the desert, say, or a bedridden man talking to a nurse — and starts constructing scenes from the fragments. It will be several years before “a kind of approximate draft” materializes. Then comes a prolonged self-editing phase, crucial to Ondaatje’s creative process, which can take two more years. “I move things around,” he has explained, “till they become sharp and clear, till they are in the right location. And it is at this stage that I discover the work’s true voice and structure.”

So he does have an outline. It just doesn’t show up till he’s nearly done.

More here.

A project to record everything we do in life

Alec Wilkinson in The New Yorker:

Screenhunter_07_may_31_0142October arrived in 1998, and Gordon Bell went paperless, after hearing from a professor at Carnegie Mellon who was engaged in a project to scan a million books and post them online. The professor, a friend of Bell’s named Raj Reddy, had called to ask if he could scan and post Bell’s books, including one on how to start a high-tech business. Bell said, “Of course.” This, by the way, is the Gordon Bell, aged seventy-two, of Microsoft, who has been described as “the Frank Lloyd Wright of computers”; who, at the Digital Equipment Corporation, was among the first engineers to fashion computers into a network; who led the National Science Foundation effort to link the world’s supercomputers—the Internet. The Gordon Bell, incidentally, who believes that one day houses will have no windows, so it won’t matter where they are—screens on the walls will display whatever we want to look at. (Bell would like the screens in his dining room to display the view from a window of the Orient Express; he would also like to hear the train’s sound effects.) The Gordon Bell who, owing to Reddy’s call, and by means of custom programs and gadgets, now collects the daily minutiae of his life so emphatically that he owns the most extensive and unwieldy personal archive of its kind in the world.

More here.

Bush’s Amazing Achievement

Jonathan Freedland in the New York Review of Books:

Bush_flightsuitOne of the few foreign policy achievements of the Bush administration has been the creation of a near consensus among those who study international affairs, a shared view that stretches, however improbably, from Noam Chomsky to Brent Scowcroft, from the antiwar protesters on the streets of San Francisco to the well-upholstered office of former secretary of state James Baker. This new consensus holds that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a calamity, that the presidency of George W. Bush has reduced America’s standing in the world and made the United States less, not more, secure, leaving its enemies emboldened and its friends alienated. Paid-up members of the nation’s foreign policy establishment, those who have held some of the most senior offices in the land, speak in a language once confined to the T-shirts of placard-wielding demonstrators. They rail against deception and dishonesty, imperialism and corruption. The only dispute between them is over the size and depth of the hole into which Bush has led the country he pledged to serve.

More here.

The 100 Sexiest Cars in the World

From Top Gear:

Screenhunter_06_may_30_2114Ford Mustang Fastback: bigger than Steve McQueen

Forget all the film-star nonsense, the Mustang Fastback is a star in its own right -though if you’re going to get pedantic, then you need a post-’67 car with the wide front track.

Better still, you should get a ‘GT’ with disc brakes, firmed-up suspension and extra-loud exhaust. Don’t worry that the rear-quarter panel scoops are fake, just enjoy the fact that if you were serious enough, then the ‘Cobra Jet’ versions culminated in the 428Ci GT500KR (or ‘King of the Road’) that produced a not-inconsiderable 500bhp. There are also, apparently, some films that feature this car…

More here.

calcutta kolkata


Calcutta, by all accounts, is changing. The city now calls itself “Kolkata”, reverting to the demotic variant of “Kalikata”, the name of one of the three villages the Muslim Governor of Bengal sold to the East India Company in 1698. The new name has the sanction of the state, but it has to reckon with the stubborn habits of an amphibious culture. The University of Calcutta, set up in 1857, is in Bengali “Kalikata Visvavidyalay”, and the authorities have failed to make room for the new official name in its formal title in both languages. Calcutta is not an ancient city, not at least by Indian standards, and yet one is none too sure of the etymology of its name. The devout like to believe that it derives from the goddess Kali. Pilgrims, they say, had always flocked to Kalighat, the famous temple on the bank of the old river that, after changing course, is now no wider than a moat. It is one of the fifty-two spots over which the body of Sati (a form of Shakti like Kali herself) was scattered, when Vishnu had to dismember the corpse to stop her enraged husband Siva from destroying the world. In some ways, Calcutta strikes outsiders as having been true to its myth of origin. It is in some ways like the orphaned fragment of a lost corpus, forever caught on the hop between imminent ruin and desperate remedy.

more from Eurozine here.



“Why does it always have to be fire?/Why does it always have to be brimstone?” sings Rufus Wainwright on “Do I Disappoint You”, the opening track of the Canadian-American songwriter’s first comprehensive assault on the mainstream. If it is always high drama round Rufus’s way, that is because he encourages it, packing both his life and his music with unabashed pomp and theatrical flourishes.

Currently composing an opera for the New York Met, the 33-year-old also recently performed an acclaimed tribute show to the gay icon Judy Garland. He has appeared on his album sleeves dressed as a pre-Raphaelite maiden, and now here he is in hilariously camp monogrammed lederhosen. The over-egging of puddings rarely ceases.

more from The New Statesman here.

ted hughes as poet-translator


Translation is an imperfect art – even an impossible one. That is the truism. But it would be a very eccentric devotee of literature who for lack of Greek or Russian refused to read Homer or Tolstoy. Lyric poetry is more challenging to the translator than narrative literature is, since little can be separated out from the choice of specific words, their sounds, rhythms and associations, to say nothing of poetic form and the elaborations of syntax. That is why there are lyric poets of the first rank – Goethe and Pushkin are prime examples – whose poems are not as well known in Britain as their fame might lead us to expect. Nevertheless, most good poets attempt translation in the course of a life’s work and serious readers of poetry will want to have some familiarity with, let us say, Catullus or Baudelaire. There are those who claim, moreover, that poetry is essentially metamorphic – a process that includes negotiations with other texts and the transformation of experience into language, rhythm and form. To such a conception of poetry, the act of verse translation is fundamental.

more from the TLS here.

The Intelligibility of Nature

In American Scientist, Margaret Jacob’s reviews Peter Dear’s The Intelligibility of Nature: How Science Makes Sense of the World:

Why are science’s instrumental techniques effective? The usual answer is: by virtue of science’s (true) natural philosophy. How is science’s natural philosophy shown to be true, or at least likely? The answer: by virtue of science’s (effective) instrumental capabilities. Such is the belief, amounting to an ideology, by which science is understood in modern culture. It is circular, but invisibly so.

Readers are apparently expected to conclude that, although other disciplines that accumulate knowledge display many factors that explain their relative effectiveness or success, science alone is solely about theories and methods of inquiry. Truth or lesser falsity cannot explain science’s success, nor can the replication of experimental methods and results. And the historical circumstances, or context, that may have shaped the science are also irrelevant.

Let’s see how this approach works for the history of 17th-century science. Once, when Aristotle held sway, natural philosophy was seen as distantly related to instrumentality and superior to it. Gradually, thanks to Bacon, Descartes and especially Newton, “doing things and understanding things . . . became increasingly folded into one another.” The resulting ideas we have today about nature “are all shaped by our acceptance of the images of reality that we owe to science in its guise as natural philosophy.” If we assign intelligibility to the world, it is because science has “powerful social authority . . ., which serves to render most people unable to refuse a knowledge-claim presented as a ‘scientific fact.'”

Doha Debates: Norman Finkelstein and Andrew Cockburn vs. Martin Indyk and David Aaronovitch on the Pro-Israel Lobby

In the BBC’s Doha Debates, Norman Finkelstein and Andrew Cockburn vs. Martin Indyk and David Aaronovitch on the “Israel lobby” and criticism of Israel.

At the latest Doha Debate held at the prestigious Oxford Union in the United Kingdom on May 1st, two-thirds of the student audience approved a motion claiming that Israel’s supporters are stifling Western debate about Israel’s actions.

The event at the world famous debating society of Oxford University marked the first time the Doha Debates have been held outside Qatar.

The Debate took place amid mounting controversy over the role of the pro-Israel lobby in the United States and accusations that it has suppressed criticism of Israel – a charge that the lobby vigorously denies.

An Interview With Sari Nusseibeh

In Dissent:

[Jon Wiener of Dissent]: The biggest obstacle in any peace settlement, according to the Israelis, is the Palestinian claim of a right of return. In 1948 your mother’s family was expelled from land that had been theirs for generations. What do you tell your Palestinian comrades about the right of return?

[Sari Nusseibeh]: This is the most painful part of a compromise that has to be made between Israelis and Palestinians. We have to think not only of the past but also of the future. I’ve been accused of arguing that we don’t have a right of return. That is false. I think we have a right of return. But we have other rights as well. We have a right to freedom. We have a right to independence. We have a right to create a new future. And very often in life the implementation of one right conflicts with the ability to implement another. You have to make a choice. In this case, I’ve been arguing with my peers, my colleagues, my people, that we must choose, and that, morally speaking, the best choice is to opt for the right to freedom, the right to independence, and the right to a new future.

Scientists develop tiny implantable biocomputers

From The Harvard Gazette:Biocomputer

Researchers at Harvard and Princeton universities have taken a crucial step toward building biological computers, tiny implantable devices that can monitor the activities and characteristics of human cells. The information provided by these “molecular doctors,” constructed entirely of DNA, RNA, and proteins, could eventually revolutionize medicine by directing therapies only to diseased cells or tissues.

Evaluating Boolean logic equations inside cells, these molecular automata will detect anything from the presence of a mutated gene to the activity of genes within the cell. The biocomputers’ “input” is RNA, proteins and chemicals found in the cytoplasm; “output” molecules indicating the presence of the telltale signals are easily discernable with basic laboratory equipment. Benenson and his colleagues demonstrate in their Nature Biotechnology paper that biocomputers can work in human kidney cells in a culture.

More here.

Alexander Waugh looks back at his family — England’s wittiest writers

Michael Dirda in The Washington Post:

Waugh_2 FATHERS AND SONS: The Autobiography of a Family By Alexander Waugh

For more than three generations the Waughs have been extremely prominent literary figures in Great Britain. Arthur Waugh oversaw Chapman and Hall (publishers of Dickens, among others); both his sons, Alec and Evelyn, became well-known writers, the latter arguably the leading English novelist of the century; and one of Evelyn’s many offspring, Auberon, was long reviled and revered for his no-holds-barred, fiercely scathing and very funny political and social journalism. The author of this memoir, Alexander Waugh, is Auberon’s son, and he has already thrown in with the family business by bringing out works bearing such ambitious (and perhaps slightly ludicrous) titles as Time and God. He tells us, in passing, that nine of Arthur Waugh’s descendants have already produced 180 books.

More here.