Zombie nation

The undead are stalking Pakistan – and it’s all to feed eastern moviegoers’ huge appetite for horror. Sarfraz Manzoor reports on the genre where the killer wears a burka.

From The Guardian:

Screenhunter_14_aug_04_1422A group of teenagers, en route to attend a rock concert, lose their way when their car runs out of fuel in the dead of night. They find themselves in an unfamiliar rural backwater where they are confronted by flesh-eating zombies and a psychotic cannibalistic killer dressed in a sheet. It could be the plot to a thousand Hollywood horror films but while these teenagers may dress, talk and smoke dope like young Americans they are in fact young Pakistanis, and the film – Zibahkhana or Hell’s Ground – is the first modern horror film to be filmed in Pakistan.

Filmed in and around Islamabad, Zibahkhana manages to include Pakistani rock music, hijras – transvestite eunuchs common in the subcontinent – as well as some pointed social criticism of contemporary Pakistani society. And a serial killer dressed in a burqua. The film’s director, Omar Ali Khan, was born in London and spent his childhood watching Hitchcock and Hammer horror films. It pays homage to 1970s slasher classics such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, and Friday the 13th while remaining a defiantly Pakistani picture.

More here.  [Thanks to Asad Raza.]

Trick Question

A poem by Jim Culleny of NoUtopia.com:

    –A friend emailed a question. She asked in earnest,
“Jim how are you, really?”

Trick Question

Not a trick by the asker
but trick by
my inner magician,
my personal convoluter,
my lithe prevaricator
who first teased Eve
under a tree
with the acid, orange
kumquat of knowledge
which he bounced
upon his forked tongue
and upon which Eve
and her shifty lover
sadly choked.
The question,
How are you, really?
is impossible for a fake
to bear.
To answer would be
to mock God
who sees through spin
no matter how sincere.

Continue reading the poem here.

The Heart of a Heartless World

Roger Scruton in Prospect:

Enlightenment thinkers, having shown the claims of faith to be without rational foundation, did not then dismiss religion, as one might dismiss a refuted theory. Many went on to conclude that religion must have some other origin than the pursuit of scientific knowledge, and some other psychic function than consolation. The ease with which the common doctrines of religion could be refuted alerted men like Jacobi, Schiller and Schelling to the idea that religion is not, in essence, a matter of doctrine, but of something else. And they set out to discover what that might be.

Thus was born the anthropology of religion. For thinkers in the immediate aftermath of the Enlightenment, it was not faith, but faiths in the plural, that composed the primary subject matter of theology. Hence the appearance of books like CF Dupuis’s Origine de tous les cultes, ou Religion universelle (1795), and the busy decipherment of oriental religions by the Bengal Asiatic Society, whose proceedings began to appear in Calcutta in 1788. For post-Enlightenment thinkers, the monotheistic belief systems were not related to ancient myths and rituals as science to superstition, or logic to magic. Rather, they were crystallisations of the emotional need which found expression both in the myths and rituals of antiquity and in the Vedas and Upanishads of the Hindus. This thought led Georg Creuzer, whose Symbolik und Mythologie der alten Völker appeared between 1810 and 1812, to represent myth as a distinctive operation of the human psyche. A myth does not describe what happened in some obscure period before human reckoning, but what happens always and repeatedly. It does not explain the causal origins of our world, but rehearses its permanent spiritual significance.

Giving Science the Finger

Jody Kolodzey in In These Times:

In the August issue of British Journal of Psychology, a team of researchers led by psychologist Mark Brosnan of the University of Bath, England, have published findings that suggest women who are good at science and math have longer ring fingers than index fingers, which indicates a relatively high level of prenatal exposure to the male hormone testosterone. Conversely, longer index fingers indicate higher levels of the female hormone estrogen, according to the study, and a corresponding aptitude for verbal communication. The study used standardized test scores of 75 British seven-year-old boys and girls and compared them to photocopies of the youngsters’ hands.

The media had a field day: “Study Correlates Finger Length to Performance on SAT,” trumpeted FOX News. The widely-linked LiveScience.com asserted: “A quick look at the lengths of children’s index and ring fingers can be used to predict how well students will perform on SATs, new research claims. Kids with longer ring fingers compared to index fingers are likely to have higher math scores than literacy or verbal scores on the college entrance exam, while children with the reverse finger-length ratio are likely to have higher reading and writing, or verbal, scores versus math scores.”

The sub-continent 60 years later

From TLS:

Re-visiting Bharati Mukherjee’s 1997 review of Snakes and Ladders:

Bharati At the time of the Raj, it was fashionable for British and American writers as diverse as Maud Diver, Rudyard Kipling, E. M. Forster, George Orwell, Beverly Nichols, John Masters and Katherine Mayo to present the Eastern and the Western thought-processes as opposed. These writers’ pronouncements, such as “never the twain shall meet” and “not yet”, may have come as a relief to their readers. The enlightenment highway has been designed for a one-way traffic in ideas: from the rational West to the child-like, intuitive East. Even in the 1960s and 70s, when the West’s affluent young discovered Hermann Hesse, Carl Jung, Buddhism, Hinduism and the I Ching, the traffic remained one way, only this time speeding from the East to the West. The Nirvana-poachers’ invasion of industrializing India and the resultant “mythological osmosis” was the subject of Gita Mehta’s first work of non-fiction, Karma Cola. Now after eighteen years, the novel Raj and a collection of short stories, A River Sutra, Mehta has returned, in Snakes and Ladders, to monitor the progress of the traffic in enlightenment.
Although the game of snakes and ladders may have been invented centuries ago “as a meditation on humanity’s progress towards liberation”, Mehta remembers that in her childhood “the actual board was suggestive of danger”. By using the game as a way of summing up India’s fifty-year experiment in sovereignty, Mehta suggests that although the political leaders after Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi are spending too much time in serpents’ bellies, ladders prop themselves against walls for the use of future idealists.

More here.

The Boy Next Door

From The New York Times:

Cover395 What if it had been Mrs. Robinson who was the pursued, and Benjamin the pursuer? What if, when the young man came knocking, the grown woman hid, locked her bedroom door and “stayed motionless on her bed, not answering, hugging her knees tightly”? What if, when he refused to believe she couldn’t love him, she didn’t run to him, but from him? In Tessa Hadley’s third novel, “The Master Bedroom,” that’s the predicament faced by Kate Flynn, a brainy and forbidding beauty with delicate bones, “Nefertiti eyes” and a mean tongue, who has quit her professor’s job in London and returned to her grand but crumbling childhood home in Wales to care for her 83-year-old, increasingly forgetful mother.

Kate doesn’t like it when a local boy, the son of a friend, starts hanging around the house, scything the grass, playing the piano, yearning for her touch. But it’s not as if there’s anyone else in the picture, exactly. And what if, for all her 43 years and Jamie’s 17, it’s Kate who’s the child, living in her detached intellectual fantasy world, and Jamie who’s the grown-up, precociously reconciled to the fact that denying life’s complicating passions doesn’t make them go away? “Personal stuff” is “smoke,” Kate tells Jamie, trying to sound distancingly in control. “It’s the rest that’s smoke,” he replies, and adds, “I know you better than you think I do.” In some ways, he knows her better than she knows herself. But to a woman addicted to self-delusion, that’s no victory.

More here.

Should meat-eaters guide conservation?

From Nature:

Eagle Ecologists are divided over whether the predators inhabiting an ecosystem are a good guide to its total biodiversity. The debate may lead conservationists to reassess how they prioritize their efforts and design nature reserves.

Conservationists have long sought groups of species whose diversity reflects the total biodiversity in an area. Such indicators can help identify the places most in need of protection.
Based on their analyses of birds of prey, Fabrizio Sergio, at the Doñana Biological Research Station in Spain, and his colleagues have argued that top predators could be just such indicators. Working in the Italian Alps, they have found that the number of birds of prey in a place is a good reflection of other species living there.

More here.

Microbial gasoline

Neil Savage at MIT’s Technology Review:

Biofuel The biofuel of the future could well be gasoline. That’s the hope of one biotech startup that on Monday described for the first time how it is coaxing bacteria into producing hydrocarbons that could be processed into fuels like those made from petroleum.

LS9, a company based in San Carlos, CA, and founded by geneticist George Church, of Harvard Medical School, and plant biologist Chris Somerville, of Stanford University, had previously said that it was working on what it calls “renewable petroleum.” But at a Society for Industrial Microbiology conference on Monday, the company began speaking more openly about what it has accomplished: it has genetically engineered various bacteria, including E. coli, to custom-produce hydrocarbon chains.

To do this, the company is employing tools from the field of synthetic biology to modify the genetic pathways that bacteria, plants, and animals use to make fatty acids, one of the main ways that organisms store energy. Fatty acids are chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms strung together in a particular arrangement, with a carboxylic acid group made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen attached at one end. Take away the acid, and you’re left with a hydrocarbon that can be made into fuel.

“I am very impressed with what they’re doing,” says James Collins, codirector of the Center for Advanced Biotechnology at Boston University. He calls the company’s use of synthetic biology and systems biology to engineer hydrocarbon-producing bacteria “cutting edge.”

More here.

wide ranging impact of the patriot act

Ida Wahlstrom at OneWorld:

Terr In the years following the ratification of the extremely controversial USA PATRIOT Act, other countries across the world have introduced equally contentious counter-terrorism statutes that have had serious implications on civil rights, say advocates.

Violent religious extremist groups have killed or injured over 1,700 people since 2000 in the Philippines alone, and the government of this island nation has failed to respond appropriately, a global human rights watchdog said this week.
The state has not taken adequate legal or punitive measures against those responsible, said Human Rights Watch, adding that a new anti-terror law “contains dangerous overbroad provisions that violate human rights standards and broaden the scope of government power to hold terrorism suspects indefinitely.”  Before the passage of the Human Security Act, which went into effect just over a week ago, the Philippines was the only country in the region that did not have any counter-terrorism legislation. An opposition political party — and some Filipino bloggers — have expressed concerns that the new law may be used to silence valid voices of dissent as the current government, in addition to the police and military, have poor human rights records.
Recent developments in El Salvador, where the Special Law Against Acts of Terrorism was instituted in November 2006, hint at what may lay in store for Filipino citizens.

More here.

what Coetzee likes


A little knowledge may be a dangerous thing, but dangerous things are very often exciting, and only the truly saintly would deny that there is a pleasure in forming opinions of writers whom one has never read a word of. Without experience to cloud one’s judgment or information to slow one’s thinking, the passage from ignorance of a writer’s work to a vague acquaintance with its main elements — courtesy, say, of an essay or a review executed by someone better versed — can be a stimulating imaginative exercise. On the basis of brief descriptions and short quotations the reader is free to conjure up a figure who may not much resemble the artist in question but is rich in associations anyway and who will do — will have to do — for now (which sometimes, sadly, is all the time one has).

I’m thinking here of W. G. Sebald, the late German writer whom I’ve never read but am told I should by people who impress me — most recently by J. M. Coetzee, the Nobel Prize-winning South African novelist whose new collection of literary essays, “Inner Workings,” includes compressed studies of several authors who fall, at least for me, in Sebald’s category of highly ranked European worthies (Robert Musil and Bruno Schulz are others) whose pages are easy to postpone turning, but hard, in some circles, to avoid discussing.

more from the NY Times Book Review here.

the surplus women


In 1917 the Headmistress of Bournemouth High School for Girls made a chilling announcement to her sixth form: ‘I have come to tell you a terrible fact. Only one out of ten of you girls can ever marry … Nearly all the men who might have married you have been killed. You will have to make your way in the world as best you can.’ She was right: 700,000 British soldiers died in the First World War, and over a million and a half were wounded. Ghastly and unthinkable though their fate was, it has been endlessly commemorated with Remembrance days, with war memorials and a literature which still continues to grow. The women who were left behind are forgotten. The Census of 1921 revealed a surplus of one and three-quarter million women over men. These Surplus Women form the subject of Virginia Nicholson’s book. She succeeds triumphantly in telling the human story behind the demographic statistic.

more from Literary Review here.

(s + c) x (b + f) / t – v


In April of last year, David Holmes, a professor of psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University in England, developed a formula for the perfect posterior. Using the equation (s + c) x (b + f) / t – v, Holmes claimed, you could account for the appeal of any female bottom, factoring in its shape (s), circularity (c), bounce (b), firmness (f), texture (t), and pertness (v). He also came up with a formula for the male derrière, but the media took little note, sticking to the Kylie Minogue angle on the story.

Holmes’s formula is actually quite intriguing. By applying a scientific equation to something as varied and unscientific as a tush, Holmes was attempting to systematize taste, creating an ideal through a sum of heretofore private parts. Of course, securing the formula for perfection isn’t Holmes’s quest alone. Most industries have their own methods for defining what is paragon, though not all are lucky enough to have them distilled into math.

more from The Walrus here.

Can our brains understand themselves?


Bigbrain_2 What makes the brain such a tough nut to crack?

According to Scott Huettel of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke University, the standard answer to this question goes something like: “The human brain is the most complex object in the known universe … complexity makes simple models impractical and accurate models impossible to comprehend.” While that stock answer is correct, Huettel said, it’s incomplete. The real snag in brain science is one of navel gazing. Huettel and other neuroscientists can’t step outside of their own brains (and experiences) when studying the brain itself. “A more pernicious factor is that we all think we understand the brain — at least our own — through our experiences. But our own subjective experience is a very poor guide to how the brain works,” Huettel told LiveScience. “Whether the human brain can understand itself is one of the oldest philosophical questions,” said Anders Garm of the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, a biologist who studies jellyfish as models for human neural processing of visual information.

More here.

Angry men get ahead; angry women penalized

From Scientific American:

Angry A man who gets angry at work may well be admired for it but a woman who shows anger in the workplace is liable to be seen as “out of control” and incompetent, according to a new study presented on Friday. What’s more, the finding may have implications for Hillary Clinton as she attempts to become the first female U.S. president, according to its author Victoria Brescoll, a post-doctoral scholar at Yale University.

Her research paper “When Can Angry Women Get Ahead?” noted that Clinton was described last year by a leading Republican as “too angry to be elected president.”

More here.

How, and How Not, to Stop AIDS in Africa

William Easterly in the New York Review of Books:

Aids_africaOne of the classic works of journalism of the last couple of decades was Randy Shilts’s And the Band Played On about the sluggish response to AIDS in the 1980s in the United States, which indicted both the Reagan administration and the leaders of the gay community. I still remember the sense of outrage I felt when reading Shilts’s book; it struck just the right note, leaving one both horrified about the tragic incompetence of so many and yet also hopeful that someone, somewhere could do things better next time.

Yet after reading Helen Epstein’s masterful new book, the response to AIDS in America now looks in retrospect like a model of courage, speed, and efficiency by comparison with the response in Africa. In the US, the government publicized the threat and funded research, the gay community reduced its infection rates by encouraging less risky sexual behavior, the dreaded breakout into the heterosexual population never happened, and AIDS receded to become a disease that, while still tragic, could in most cases be kept under control with expensive new antiretroviral drugs (ARVs).

The opposite is true in every respect of AIDS in Africa, which was anticipated as a looming crisis already in the 1980s, yet governments, foreign aid agencies, and even activists reacted with denials and evasion.

More here.

Nuclear terrorism: The new day after

Hugh Gusterson in The Bulletin:

A recent New York Times opinion piece asked what we will do on the day after a nuclear terrorist attack on the United States. The June 12 op-ed, “After the Bomb,” was written by William Perry, Ashton Carter, and Michael May–a former defense secretary, assistant defense secretary, and director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory respectively.

They argue that, for a Hiroshima-sized bomb, “little could be done” for those within two miles of ground zero. Survivors downwind, however, as long as they were getting good information from government broadcasts, would be in a position to decide how many days to shelter in their basements from radiation or to decide whether “to return to pick up a beloved pet” from their home in exchange for increasing their lifelong chance of getting cancer to 21 or 22 percent. As for first responders: “Few would choose to have their risk of death from cancer go up to 30 percent. But in cases of smaller probabilities . . . a first responder might be willing to go into a radiation zone.”

Since there might be a second bomb, the article goes on, “people in other cities might want to evacuate on the day after, or at least move their children to the countryside, as happened in England during World War II.” Meanwhile they advise that the U.S. government should refrain from attacking a country, such as Russia or Pakistan, whose fissile material was in a terrorist bomb because “their cooperation would be needed to find out who got the bombs and how many there were.”

More here.

The Poincaré Conjecture

John Morgan reviews The Poincaré Conjecture by Donald O’Shea, in American Scientist:

Fullimage_2007530163555_846A mathematical conjecture is a precise mathematical statement that the formulator believes to be true and important to establish, but for which he or she has no proof. It is posed as a challenge to other mathematicians, and if it is important and difficult, it stimulates much mathematical development before being resolved. One of the most important conjectures in mathematics was formulated in 1904 by the leading mathematician of his day, Henri Poincaré. It was the central, defining problem in the field that he fathered—topology.

For the next 98 years, wave after wave of leading topologists attempted to solve the problem of finding a proof for the Poincaré conjecture. None of them succeeded, but their enormous efforts in this direction were not for naught, because the ideas they developed produced tremendous advances in topology. But through all of it, the Poincaré conjecture remained unapproachable, like the end of the rainbow.

Then in 2002 and 2003, Grigory Perelman, a reclusive Russian mathematician who had disappeared from view in the mid-1990s, posted on the Internet three preprints that claimed to prove the Poincaré conjecture and a great deal more. All the more exciting for mathematicians was the fact that his approach used deep ideas from outside topology. This was no frontal attack, but rather an approach that brought to bear the power of geometry and partial differential equations.

More here.

The Rendition of Abu Omar

John Foot in the London Review of Books:

On 17 February 2003, a 39-year-old Egyptian man was walking down a quiet street in suburban Milan on his way to daily prayers. His real name was Osama Nasr, but he was known as Abu Omar. He was a cleric and political militant, an opponent of the Mubarak regime, and had refugee status in Italy (which is very hard to get). A man in police uniform came up to him and asked in Italian to see his documents. As he reached for his passport, Omar was bundled into a white van and driven away at high speed. He was threatened, blindfolded, bound hand and foot, punched, forced onto the floor of the van, and taken to the US air base at Aviano near Brescia – about five hours’ drive away. The next day, he was put on a plane to Ramstein in Germany, where he boarded another plane, this time for Egypt. Journalists and Milanese magistrates investigating the case later discovered that Omar had been transferred to Cairo on a Gulfstream jet used for CIA operations.

Omar was taken to the Torah prison compound in Cairo, where he was tortured. He was stripped and placed in a room ‘so cold it felt that my bones would snap’, then moved to a boiling hot cell. Electric shocks were applied to his whole body – afterwards he found it difficult to walk. This went on for more than a year. In April 2004 he was released, with the proviso that he keep quiet about what had happened to him. Omar, however, phoned his wife and friends in Milan. They had had no idea whether or not he was still alive. Omar was worried and cagey, but confirmed that he had been kidnapped. This was too much for the Egyptians, who were probably tapping his phone. They immediately arrested him and sent him back to prison in Cairo.

More here.

European Hypocrisy: A Palestinian View

Saifedean Ammous in Rootless Cosmopolitan:

SaifWhile in Paris a few weeks ago, whenever I would discuss Middle East politics with anyone, I would be overwhelmed with the traditional refrains of classical anti-Americanism: “they have no culture and deal with the world as if it had no culture”, “they have no morality in their foreign policy”, “they go to war for oil and money” and so on with inane over-simplified stereotypes. Soon after would come the cackle of self-righteous pride: “we Europeans are different”, “we want our foreign policy based on a concept of morality”, “we attempt to promote justice in the world and fix up the mess left behind by the Americans”. I would then usually be told something about all the aid that Europeans give to Palestinians as proof of the decency of Europeans as opposed to the rabidly Zionist Americans who give billions to fund Israel’s murderous army.

Would that this were true.

More here.

Religion and the Arts in America

Camille Paglia in Arion:

Paglia_camilleI would argue that the route to a renaissance of the American fine arts lies through religion. Let me make my premises clear: I am a professed atheist and a pro-choice libertarian Democrat. But based on my college experiences in the 1960s, when interest in Hinduism and Buddhism was intense, I have been calling for nearly two decades for massive educational reform that would put the study of comparative religion at the center of the university curriculum. Though I shared the exasperation of my generation with the moralism and prudery of organized religion, I view each world religion, including Judeo-Christianity and Islam, as a complex symbol system, a metaphysical lens through which we can see the vastness and sublimity of the universe. Knowledge of the Bible, one of the West’s foundational texts, is dangerously waning among aspiring young artists and writers. When a society becomes all-consumed in the provincial minutiae of partisan politics (as has happened in the US over the past twenty years), all perspective is lost. Great art can be made out of love for religion as well as rebellion against it. But a totally secularized society with contempt for religion sinks into materialism and self-absorption and gradually goes slack, without leaving an artistic legacy.

More here.