It’s Troubled, But It’s Home

Mohsin Hamid at his website (first published in the Washington Post):

Mohsin20hamidAs my wife and I board our flight from London to Lahore, evident all around us is a longing for home — for the friends and family who are central to Pakistani culture in a way that many foreigners find so remarkable. (As an admiring American roommate of mine once said, “All you guys do is hang out.”) This duality of Pakistan as a place both troubled and normal, a place capable of producing a large diaspora while also affectionately tugging at those who have left, is often lost on the world’s media. International news outlets tend to cast Pakistan as the one-dimensional villain of a horror film, a kind of Jason or Freddie whose only role is to frighten. Scant attention is paid to the hospitality, the love for music and dance, or the simple ordinariness of 164 million people going about their daily lives.

As we take our seats on a Pakistan International Airlines Boeing 777, my fellow passengers do not look to me like embodiments of the hearts and minds of an important frontline state in the “war on terror.” They look like people excited to be headed home.

More here.

Animal Architects

Elisabeth Herschbach reviews Animal Architects: Building and the Evolution of Intelligence by James L. Gould, in Metapsychology Online Reviews:

Termite_moundTermites — tiny, blind creatures less than 1/10th of an inch in size– build towering 20-foot-high structures equipped with wells and waste dumps, gardens and nurseries, and even complicated systems of air ducts and ventilation shafts for climate control. Hummingbirds fashion hammock nests from bits of bark, lichen, and downy moss woven together with spiderweb silk. Beavers, those master engineers of the rodent world, construct underwater lodges and ingeniously designed dams and canals to control the water flow of the rivers, streams, and lakes where they reside. And countless other species of animals produce webs, hives, cocoons, burrows, lairs, nests, and even tools that, especially given the size and nature of the builders, are marvels of construction and design. (Consider, for example, that on a human scale, the 20-foot tower of a termite would be the equivalent of nearly three miles high, far surpassing our tallest skyscraper.)

More here.

Some myths about the rise of China and India

Pranab Bardhan in the Boston Review:

W020050414474506090204After more than a century of relative stagnation, the economies of India and China have been growing at remarkably high rates over the past 25 years. In 1820 the two countries contributed nearly half of the world’s income; by 1950, with the industrialized West having pulled away, their share had fallen to less than one-tenth. Today it is just less than one-fifth, and projections suggest that by 2025 it will rise to one-third. (In 2008 the World Bank is expected to issue revised numbers about cost of living in China and India, which may somewhat reduce these estimated income shares, both current and future).

The consequences of this expansion are extraordinary. The Chinese economy in particular has made the most headway against poverty in world history, with hundreds of millions of people moved out of the most extreme poverty within just a generation. (The environmental consequences are comparably remarkable, though perhaps proportionately disastrous).

What explains this strikingly rapid growth? The answer that continues to dominate public discussion in the United States runs along the following lines: decades of socialist controls and regulations stifled enterprise in India and China and led them to a dead end. A mix of market reforms and global integration finally unleashed their entrepreneurial energies. As these giants shook off their “socialist slumber,” they entered the “flattened” playing field of global capitalism. The result has been high economic growth in both countries and correspondingly large declines in poverty.

More here.


Police Car, Poet, Snow
Yi Sha

one wintry dayImage_snowstorm
in a swirl of mud and snow
a police car came screaming
down the street
insufferably arrogant
as usual
shoving and pushing
its way through traffic

the funny thing was that
no matter how smug it acted
it could not shake off
the coat of snow that covered it
and made it look identical
to every other car
all crawling like hearses
and that’s why it was upset
as it passed

a poet who was crossing the road
got splattered from head to toe
with mud thrown by its filthy wheels

what he saw
made him suddenly feel like crying
associating what he’d just seen
with the ambiguous link
between this police car
of the state
and the idea that

poetry is like snow

There are no hints in Yi Sha’s poetry, no over-reliance on the imagination of his readers to make something out of next to nothing. He writes what he has to say with minimal linguistic fuss, with economy. “My language is naked”, he claims, and perhaps it is—if we take “dressing” to mean a form of artificial ornamentation.  –Poetry International Web

A Fight for Life Consumes Both Mother and Son

From The New York Times:

Sontag Swimming in a Sea of Death
A Son’s Memoir. By David Rieff.

“A good death” may be one of the emptiest phrases in the English language. Research has confirmed that no two people use it to mean exactly the same thing. Even the premise is unclear; for whom, exactly, is that death supposed to be good? Many would prefer a swift, sudden and painless exit for themselves — but a little warning when it comes to friends and relatives, with time to prepare and to say goodbye.

“A bad death” is another matter. We all know those when we see them, the miserably protracted and painful affairs that overwhelm everyone — the deceased and survivors alike — with panic, guilt and bitter regrets. And now we have a new benchmark of bad. The writer Susan Sontag’s death, as set out in this short and immensely disturbing account by her son, David Rieff, must rank as one of the worst ever described.

Three decades of having cancer, being treated for cancer or waiting for cancer to recur might bring out the inner philosopher in some. In Ms. Sontag, an inner adolescent seems to have emerged instead, with each battle and victory strengthening her determined appetite for life and her conviction that she was immortal.

More here.

Atheism Is the New Black

All the professional atheists get it wrong. So does theologian John F. Haught’s new book.

Jessa Crispin in The Smart Set:

Id_bs_crisp_god_ap_001In the house I grew up in, there was no god but Science, and the PBS Nova programming was his prophet. There was a little-g god, as we attended church every week, but we were just there for the dose of morality and the teachings of Jesus. So what if we did not believe in concepts like heaven or hell, probably not the devil, and now that you mention it, that idea of an omnipotent creator? Going to church wouldn’t do us any harm. There is no fire and brimstone with Methodists — just a few hymns, a quiet sermon, and a potluck lunch in the basement sure to include casseroles made with Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup.

God did not follow us home. My father did not lead us in prayer at dinner, but he did design chemistry experiments for me and my sisters to perform in the basement, to be followed by detailed lab reports. I never saw him awed at church, only when he woke us at 2 a.m., wrapped us in quilts, and took us outside to watch meteor showers. And he was perhaps the only father who regaled his family with a spot-on Carl Sagan impression. (“Dad, how many slices of pizza are left?” “Billions and billions! Oh wait, no, I ate the last one.”)

This was in Kansas, a state that produced Fred Phelps and his “God Hates Fags” protests, a state the decided (mercifully briefly) that the theory of evolution was just pulled out of Darwin’s ass. After I left, I was as cagey as a backpacker in Europe about my state of origin, wanting to sew a Nebraska flag onto my pack. I later became terrified of the world leaders suddenly discussing the End of Days and throwing the word “crusade” around. Relief came when the latest trend in publishing turned out to be atheist manifestoes. Finally. Some rational thinking. I lunged at Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great, Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, and Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. They will show us the way.

Imagine my surprise, then, when it turned out I was becoming as embarrassed to be associated with atheists as I had been with Kansans.

More here.

A film score and an orchestral work by Jonny Greenwood

Alex Ross in The New Yorker:

Screenhunter_17There may be no scarcer commodity in modern Hollywood than a distinctive and original film score. Most soundtracks lean so heavily on a few preprocessed musical devices—those synthetic swells of strings and cymbals, urging us to swoon in tandem with the cheerleader in love—that when a composer adopts a more personal language the effect is revelatory: an entire dimension of the film experience is liberated from cliché. So it is with Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie “There Will Be Blood,” which has an unearthly, beautiful score by the young English composer Jonny Greenwood. The early scenes show, in painstaking detail, a maverick oilman assembling a network of wells at the turn of the last century. Filmgoers who find themselves falling into a claustrophobic trance during these sequences may be inclined to credit the director, who, indeed, has forged some indelible images. But, as Orson Welles once said of Bernard Herrmann’s contribution to “Citizen Kane,” the music does fifty per cent of the work.

More here.  [Thanks to Asad Raza.]

Getting Duped

Statements made in the media can surreptitiously plant distortions in the minds of millions. Learning to recognize two commonly used fallacies can help you separate fact from fiction.

Yvonne Raley and Robert Talisse in Scientific American:

20030410foxnewsliesIn 2003 nearly half of all Americans falsely assumed that the U.S. government had found solid evidence for a link between Iraq and al Qaeda. What is more, almost a quarter of us believed that investigators had all but confirmed the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, according to a 2003 report by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes and Knowledge Networks, a polling and market research firm. How did the true situation in Iraq become so grossly distorted in American minds?

Many people have attributed such misconceptions to a politically motivated disinformation campaign to engender support for the armed struggle in Iraq. We do not think the deceptions were premeditated, however. Instead they are most likely the result of common types of reasoning errors, which appear frequently in discussions in the news media and which can easily fool an unsuspecting public.

News shows often have an implicit bias that may motivate the portrayal of facts and opinions in misleading ways, even if the information presented is largely accurate. Nevertheless, by becoming familiar with how spokespeople can create false impressions, media consumers can learn to ignore certain claims and thereby avoid getting duped. We have detected two general types of fallacies—one of them well known and the other newly identified—that have permeated discussion of the Iraq War and that are generally ubiquitous in political debates and other discourse.

More here.

What if the Muslim armies hadn’t been stopped at the French border?

Joan Acocella in The New Yorker:

Screenhunter_16 …however much Muhammad’s immediate successors may have struggled with their souls, they also, in the eighty-some years following his death, conquered Syria, Egypt, North Africa, Anatolia, Iraq, and Persia. By the beginning of the eighth century, Muslim forces stood at the northwest corner of Africa. There, only the Strait of Gibraltar, nine miles wide, separated them from the Iberian Peninsula. Iberia at that time was ruled by the Visigoths, a Christian people who did their best to wipe out other religions within their territory—Judaism, for example. There is some evidence that the Iberian Jews invited the Muslims to invade. In 711, they did so. The state that they established in Iberia, and maintained for almost four centuries, is the subject of David Levering Lewis’s “God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570 to 1215” (Norton; $29.95).

This book has to be understood in context, or, actually, two contexts. The first is post-colonialism, the effort on the part of scholars from the nineteen-seventies onward to correct the biases that accompanied and justified the colonization of eighty-five per cent of the earth by European powers between the sixteenth and the twentieth centuries. In that period, according to Edward Said’s 1978 “Orientalism”—the founding document of post-colonial thought—history-writing about the Near East and the Middle East was an arm of empire. Its goal was to make non-Western peoples seem uncivilized, so that European control would appear a boon. Since Said, much writing on Europe’s former colonies has been an effort to redress that injustice.

The other context in which Lewis’s book must be read is, of course, the history of terrorism, since the late nineteen-seventies, on the part of people claiming to be instructed by the Koran.

More here.  [Thanks to Asad Raza.]

Below the Fold: Out-niggering and Our First “Black President”

by Michael Blim

George Wallace reflecting on his first and unsuccessful run for governor of Alabama in 1958 defeat, made a remarkable vow. “Well, boys,” he said, “no other son of a bitch will ever out-nigger me again.” Needless to say, no one did, as you might recall.

Perhaps until now. Bill Clinton, self-proclaimed and rather foolishly acclaimed by some who shall go nameless as the first “Black” president has played the race card with a finesse that even Wallace might have admired. He has niggered Barack Obama. After he and Mrs. Clinton began to see that African-Americans were turning to Obama – doubtless armed to with polling data (I am guessing here) that might have indicated an African-American swing toward Obama in other states, this most ruthless and cunning couple, the Macbeths of our time, played the race card.

And Bill Clinton knows it. There is nothing, and I hope that progressive Southerners will forgive me this, like the expertise of a Southern politician in out-niggering, to use Wallace’s infelicitous phrase. Clinton employed it with a devilish finesse. Why, “Jesse Jackson won South Carolina twice in 1984 and 1988. And he ran a good campaign. Senator Obama’s run a good campaign here, he’s run a good campaign everywhere.” (Financial Times, January 28, page 4) The Financial Times, a straight-ahead, moderately conservative but rigorously reported newspaper concluded: “Mr. Clinton’s bleary-eyed implication was clear: Mr. Obama is a black candidate whom blacks disproportionately support.”

The specter of “block voting,” another code word in the South for the historic attempts of African-American to change Southern society comes to mind. Clinton has transformed Wallace’s technique: he uses race to “triangulate,” another unseemly strategy he brought to the White House and now spews forth as the hatchet man for Senator Clinton. He’s not baking cookies. He is artfully playing against African-Americans in order to pick up whites and Latinos for the Clinton campaign down the road. This is triangulation in its meanest form. Before it meant isolating progressive Democrats and working with Republicans to steal the middle ground of American politics out from under both of them. Recall “welfare reform,” the Defense of Marriage Act – oh, I don’t want to get started – both signed just in time for his re-election?

No noose-swinger is he. No, the Wallaces and Sparkmans and Russells – and yes the early Lyndon Johnson — they were pikers in comparison. They merely consolidated the white vote. Clinton seeks to take out not only the black vote (if Senator Clinton can’t get enough of it), but to pick up both whites and Latinos – a kind of multi-culti racism without a ready precedent as I see it, at least now.

Niggering Obama makes a perverse sense that a Southern politician really understands. In the North, white politicians are no dummies. They consolidate white votes too by playing the race card. Their play must be both obvious, but careful in the final analysis. In big cities, few white politicians can countenance completely alienating African-Americans. They must share at least some power with them when they govern. In Chicago, my hometown, the elder Mayor Richard Daley was elected and re-elected with an overwhelming African-American vote, as Mike Royko, the inventor of Slats Grobnik, noted with a bittersweet irony. Yes, Chicago Congressman William Dawson ran a plantation on the South Side, ever since he had turned Democrat during the New Deal.

Chicago since the sixties was often described by social scientists as the most segregated, and by implication most racist, northern city in the nation. But something is lost in this description. African-Americans gained real power in Chicago, and they did it because white resistance began to whither under the relentless pressure of African-American politicians.The first black mayor, Harold Washington, came up working in the Daley machine, as did three generations of African-American politicians before him. After Obama took a whupping in his run for Congress – buried by a well-oiled African-American wing of the famous intergenerational Daley Machine, he still found some room for his rise, as so many other African-American politicians in Chicago have done before him.

Niggering in the North is done not by nailing African-Americans wholesale. – not these days anyway I would argue. But white politicians work up white racists by stigmatizing the Jacksons (not Jackson Jr. by the way who now has the congressional spot that Obama failed to win and is liberal force within the new Daley machine) and the Al Sharptons. These are the blacks to watch out for. They are the pushy ones – the “uppity” ones. In this way, white politician consolidate their white votes and still find a way to work with powerful black politicians after Election Day.

But the resentment of white politicians was visceral. How they hated Adam Clayton Powell. There was one uppity black man. How they hated Harold Washington, another uppity. These politicians knew the moves, and could beat the openly racist white politicians through their extraordinary insight, whether in running campaigns, or in Powell’s case helping pass the most progressive social legislation to come out of the Congress since the New Deal.

The Clintons, one expects the former President in particular, must really hate what is happening. An African-American politician, of all people, could become the real first black president. Another Clinton myth dismantled. The poor man sees himself becoming the Eisenhower of his generation.

But whereas, the General was an old-fashioned racist, Bill Clinton is of the new breed. He won’t be out-niggered, but in a new sense. He and the Senator can’t run an overtly racist campaign. After all, some of their best friends….. Oh, by the way, does my memory deceive me, or were the most spectacular of Clinton’s political executions during his regime the throwing overboard of Lani Guinier, Jocelyn Elders, and Andrew Young – all black “friends of Bill?’ Help me readers on this one. I could never keep up with Bill and Hillary’s betrayals.

But they can try to make Obama black. Watch out, they are saying to whites and Latinos, those old black block voters are going to get their way. And God knows, you both will find yourselves on the outside looking in. Think of what would happen if they escape the plantation? Given what’s been done to them, their revenge could be frightful.

And, of course, we Clintons will lose our grip on the best job, the most perks, the most lucrative book deals and speaking engagements, and the best elbow-rubbing in the world as we know it. Why they even paid off Bill’s legal expenses incurred in the little mess with that woman that the old yard dog didn’t have sex with.

Let a black man grab this? Not on your life. If we have to nigger him, well, the polls say we’ll make out. Another one over the side – that’s just a day’s work for us. We’ve been doing it so long, what’s another one to us?

George Wallace has found his heir, only in a politician smarter and more modern. But Bill be out-niggered? Not on your life. Or Obama’s for that matter.


by Ram Manikkalingam

Screenhunter_14Prime Minister John Howard’s days were numbered the day Dr. Senan Nagararatnam, a radiologist in Sydney, took two weeks leave from work and went to Bennelong – Howard’s electorate – to campaign against him. I have known Senan since we were in first grade at Royal Junior School in Colombo. You couldn’t win an argument with Senan – however good your logic, your rhetoric or even your volume. If rhetoric was not on his side – he used logic. If logic was not on his side he used rhetoric. And if neither was on his side – he used volume. Whichever way you went at it – you always lost. And the argument always ended with Senan proclaiming loudly in front of the whole class – “Machan you do not know what the hell you’re talking about – so shut the …. up”. Someone should have warned John Howard.

Rudd_2I was in Australia recently and Senan drove down from Sydney to spend an evening with me. Like many Tamil families – his left Sri Lanka in the mid 80s when the fighting intensified and it started becoming uncomfortable to live in Sri Lanka particularly as a Tamil. However, unlike many members of the diaspora, Senan developed a real interest in the politics of the country where he chose to settle. He said his interests first began because he would read the papers daily – both to improve his English and to stave off boredom when he first moved to Sydney – and then because he started following politics more closely. Senan, is one of those peculiar people – who loves a good fight – but doesn’t like to hurt anyone. The result is that he enjoys watching people slug it out (verbally) – and occasionally joins in himself. And I suspect that this is why he deepened his interest in Australian politics – the stakes there after all are much lower than the volume. In any case, Senan has developed a good centre-left politics of support for basic freedoms, economic re-distribution and the underdog (whoever that might be). So Howard, to begin with, was definitely not his cup of tea. [Photo on left shows current Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.]

Screenhunter_15All immigrants in Australia do not share this view. Many have traditionally voted for Howard’s liberal party – endorsing policies based on the simple premise that if you work hard and lead a frugal life you will succeed, if the state gets out of the way. Howard, himself, comes from a background where such an experience proved to be true. The son of lower middle class owners of a small business, he saw how working hard and saving money enabled his parents to improve their lives. And he finally became prime minister of Australia. The flip side of Howard’s thinking of course is that those who do not succeed have only themselves to blame. Oddly, many immigrants who move to Australia share this thinking. I say oddly, not because it is surprising that they have social views about, say homosexuality and abortion that are relatively conservative, but that though they have moved to another country in order to do better for themselves, they still cannot see how their doing better is so closely tied to the political system in which they live.

Instead they attribute their success – in getting to a new place and doing well – to precisely the fact that it is individual effort, not social support that matters. Moreover, they look at a country like Australia with relatively generous social welfare provisions (healthcare, housing and unemployment benefits) and treat with a mixture of dismissal and disdain those who are originally from Australia, whether white or Aboriginal, and fail to succeed. They are dismissive of White Australians for not doing much better than they do under such favourable circumstances, and disdainful of Aboriginal Australians for being at the bottom of the heap.

So the immigrant community in Australia has a diversity of views, and do not always share the centre-left perspective that Senan has. Still they do come together on one issue. Since they are immigrants, they are uncomfortable with the politics of nativism in Australia – that also invariably has a racially exclusivist tone to it. Despite the presence of a large non-White native Australian population, it is hard in Australia to separate nativism from opposition to non-Whites. And successful immigrant communities in Australia, like the Chinese and South Asians are also affected by this. They are uncomfortable with direct or indirect appeals to race – which invariably come from the conservative end of the political spectrum. And John Howard was noted for this on many occasions.

In August 1988, Howard created controversy with the following comment about Asian immigration into Australia:

“I do believe that if it is – in the eyes of some in the community – that it’s too great, it would be in our immediate-term interest and supporting of social cohesion if it were slowed down a little, so the capacity of the community to absorb it was greater.”

Advocating what he called a one Australia policy Howard opposed land rights for aboriginal Australians and the shifting focus of Australia away from Europe and towards Asia.

Subsequently, Howard took his time to disassociate himself from Pauline Hanson, who founded the “One Nation” party and campaigned on a platform of anti-immigration and anti-multiculturalism. Her policies, which included a combination of protectionism, nationalism and social conservatism, resonated in the late 90s with a significant fraction of the population. From a high of 8% of the national vote in the federal elections of 1998, however, her party’s popularity dwindled to a measly 0.3% in the election of December 2007. But not before she had a significant impact on national politics, particularly the shift in the platforms of the Liberal party towards the anti-immigrant right.

Finally there was the infamous MV Tampa affair. Here the Australian government, led by Howard, accused seafaring asylum seekers of throwing their children overboard in order to get permission to enter Australia. They refused to permit the MV Tampa, a Norwegian freighter that had gone to the rescue of the refugees at sea, to land on Christmas Island, an Australian territory and sent Australian special forces on board to enforce this order. The incident eventually led to a serious diplomatic dispute, with Norway accusing Australia of violating its maritime and humanitarian obligations under international law. It eventually emerged that the Howard government had knowingly lied about the refugees throwing children overboard in an effort to demonise them, and get public opinion on their side. Australia suffered a serious blow to its reputation of tolerance and openness, but John Howard’s coalition gained popularity and won the elections held shortly thereafter.

Why did John Howard, who appeared unassailable only a few months ago, not only lose the elections in December 2007, nationally, but also lose his own seat in parliament. So I asked Senan, who loves to travel during his vacation, why he instead took two weeks off to work against Howard, in his own electorate.

Senan mentioned two factors – Mohamed Haneef and “Work Choices”. Mohamed Haneef was an Indian physician working in Australia, who was falsely accused of association with terrorism. He is distantly related to one of the perpetrators of the attacks on Glasgow airport and had left his SIM card with a balance in it, with him after leaving the UK. And because Dr. Haneef was found to be leaving the country shortly after the incident on a one-way ticket to India, he was charged with associating with terrorists. All the “suspicious” activities had very innocent explanations. He could not afford a ticket and asked his father-in-law to buy him a one way ticket. And he wasn’t fleeing after the attack in Glasgow, but was finally able to find other doctors to cover for him at the hospital that week. Eventually charges against him were dropped, but his visa was revoked, and he was sent back to India. To the credit of the Australian judicial system and Dr. Haneef’s courageous lawyer, Stephen Keim, he not only won his case, but his visa was re-instated. The minister who revoked his visa was also rebuked by the court, for loosely interpreting the term association to imply family or professional relationships.

What is remarkable about the Mohamed Haneef case was that not just the judiciary, but also a large section of Australians were unhappy. Australians, whatever their background, have a strong sense of fair play. And they sensed very quickly that this was a case of a young man being victimised by powerful politicians to scare others into toeing the line. The hospital where Dr. Haneef worked, and the Prime Minister of the State of Queensland, where the hospital is located, all said that Dr. Haneef was welcome back anytime.

Then, there was “Work Choices” the Howard government’s legislation to radically overhaul the industrial relations framework of Australia. The result was a pro-business legislation that weakened collective bargaining agreements, permitted individual contracts between employers and employees, and facilitated the dismissal of employees under circumstances that had hitherto been considered unfair. The Autralian trade union movement and the labour party opposed this legislation. Still, it passed muster in parliament and became the law. There were widespread protests against “Work Choices” and a great deal of unease among voters across the entire political spectrum, except maybe the super rich. Even the middle class was affected as their employers pressured them into individual contracts that lacked the protection of collective bargaining arrangements backed by a trade union.

And, finally, there was John Howard, himself. Having served out eleven years as Prime Minister, the second longest since Sir Robert Menzies, even his ardent supporters were getting a bit tired of seeing him around all the time, and his long time critics were getting ready to get rid of him.

I teased Senan, that he put on his walking shoes and went to Bennelong to join all the other “Chardonnay Socialists” in ousting John Howard. And they succeeded, helped by a charismatic, courageous and attractive labour candidate Maxine McKew, who was a well known anchorwoman for Australian TV.

And it did not hurt that the then leader of the opposition and current Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd , a fluent Mandarin speaker, campaigned in Bennelong. In the past decade Bennelong had changed from a predominantly White middle class neighbourhood to an ethnically mixed immigrant neighbourhood with a significant East Asian immigrant population.

So in-between sipping a lot of chardonnay, Senan walked many miles around Bennelong, educating voters about whom to vote for and how to do so, in Australia’s relatively complicated single transferable voting system. Senan was both a cause and a symptom of why John Howard lost. Until this past election, he had mainly discussed and argued about politics, but had never become directly involved. This time he actually worked to unseat John Howard. And he won.


Once Upon a Spacetime
— to P. on our 40th anniv.

Gibbous moon and tree







A couple of hours before twilight
a gibbous moon rose in the east
over the serpentine spine of the mountain
a bright hole in a bluegrey scrim,
just there without reason,
as uncomplicated and expected
as a shard of granite on the slope of a talus,
as common as the little moons that rise
above the cuticles of each finger
of your familiar hands, as singular,
as sure as the hidden sun it mirrors,
and I wondered at what the ancients thought
as it appeared and disappeared
regular as breath, opulent as a third eye,
as crisp as the feel of a January breeze
slapping my cheek as I cross the bridge
from here to there. I’m as stupefied
as they must have been,
even though I’ve been told this bright hole
is no more than dust and rock
tethered by a wrinkle in space
which holds it in a groove of time
like a stylus spiraling in black vinyl
sending mute tunes
hushed as the sure breath
that billowed from our mouths
as we threw row cover
over the kale

Jim Culleny

Monday Musing: Replying to Euler

Review of Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up by John Allen Paulos

You may know the (almost certainly apocryphal) story of an 18th century encounter between the brilliant Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler and the French freethinking encyclopaedist and philosopher Denis Diderot:

Diderot had been invited to the court by Catherine the Great, but then annoyed her by trying to convert everyone to atheism. Catherine asked Euler for help, and he informed Diderot, who was ignorant of mathematics, that he would present in court an algebraic proof of the existence of God, if Diderot wanted to hear it. Diderot was interested, and, according to De Morgan, Euler advanced toward Diderot, and said gravely, and in a tone of perfect conviction: “Sir, ( a + bn )/n = x , hence God exists; reply!” Diderot had no reply, and the court broke into laughter. Diderot immediately returned to France.

BigjapNot being ignorant of mathematics, had John Allen Paulos been in the place of Diderot, he would have had no trouble replying. He could just have presented Euler with a copy of his charming and brief book Irreligion. In Irreligion, Paulos provides (in the form of musings about them) refutations of twelve arguments for the existence of God which “range from what might be called the golden oldies of religious thought to those with a more contemporary beat,” and he does so with verve, a robust prose, and a very welcome sense of humor. Along the way, we learn all sorts of interesting mathematical tidbits in short side-discussions of related issues. And there are delicious little anecdotes sprinkled throughout. I can’t resist immediately providing an example of the latter:

[I am reminded] of a story related by Bertrand Russell about when he was entering jail as a conscientious objector during World War I. The admitting clerk asked him his religion, and when Russell responded that he was an agnostic, the clerk shook his head and said he’d never heard of that religion but that all of them worship the same God. [p. 79]

* * *

Let’s get to the meat. To give a sense of Paulos’s modus operandi, I’ll present one of his refutations briefly here. This one, he calls The Argument from Prophecy (and the Bible Codes). For each of the arguments that he discusses, Paulos first distills them into a formal structure. Here’s what that looks like for this argument:

  1. A holy book makes prophesies.
  2. The same book or adherents of it report that these prophesies have come true.
  3. The book is indubitable and asserts that God exists.
  4. Therefore God exists.

First, Paulos notes that in any narrative, the more details that are supplied, the more true it starts to seem. For example, if asked which of the following narratives is more likely to be true,

  1. Congressman Smith took a bribe last year.
  2. Congressman Smith took a bribe last year, took another one this year, used some of the money to rent a secret apartment for his young intern, and spent the rest on luxurious “fact-finding” trips with her.

many people will pick the second one even though mathematically speaking, any statement alone always has a higher probability of being true than its conjunction with any other statement(s):

Embedding God in a holy book’s detailed narrative and building an entire culture around this narrative seem by themselves to confer a kind of existence on Him. Holidays, traditions, ideals, cultural identities, as valuable as they occasionally might be, all seem to add to the unwarranted presuppositions underlying them. Their familiarity also serves to inure us to the vindictive, petty, and repellent aspects of the God character. [p. 62]

Second, Paulos notes that people, even if they are deluded, often reinforce each others beliefs. A kind of “all-of-us-can’t-be-wrong” thinking, and then he points to an interesting mathematical result:

note that testimony that someone is telling the truth is self-undermining if the likelihood of truth-telling is less than 1/2. If people are confused, lying, or otherwise deluded more often than not, than their expressions of support for each other are literally less than worthless.[p.64]

He goes on to give an example with two people who each get the truth right only 1/4 of the time. What is the probability if one of them makes an assertion and the other supports it as true, that it is actually true? Paulos shows with some simple mathematics that the probablity now drops to 1/10:

The Moral: Confirmation of a person’s unreliable statement by another unreliable person makes the statement even less reliable. [p. 65]

The rest of the chapter is devoted to a probabilistic analysis showing that there is nothing unusual about the Bible Codes. Such codes could be extracted from any sufficiently large text, and they have been. For example, War and Peace has been shown to contain codes for “Jordan,” “Chicago,” and “Bulls” very close together, prompting Paulos to sarcastically declare Tolstoy a basketball clairvoyant!

* * *

The book is organized into three sections, each of which deals with four arguments. The first presents traditional ones, such as the ontological argument, and the argument from design. The second deals with subjective arguments such as the one I presented above. And the third section is on psycho-mathematical arguments such as Pascal’s wager. Each section also contains short asides with commonsensical comments on various dubious assertions and practices in religion. For example, discussing Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ, Paulos writes:

Jesus20on20cross_4Assume for the moment that compelling historical documents have just come to light establishing the movie’s and the Bible’s contentions that a group of Jews was instrumental in bringing about the death of Jesus; that Pilate, the Roman governor, was benign and ineffectual; and so on. Even if all this were the case, does it not seem hateful, not to mention un-Christian, to blame contemporary Jews? …even if we give full credit to Plato’s twenty-four-hundred-year-old account of Socrates’ death, what zealous coterie of classicists or philosophers would hold today’s Greeks responsible? [p.92-93]

Nowhere is Paulos preachy or condescending. His tone remains always detached and his humor dry. Paulos is not interested in engaging in polemics or spewing invective. This is a sincere, calm, humane and timely examination of a phenomenon nowadays much in the news, one we can benefit by reading regardless of our beliefs.

All my previous Monday Musings can be seen here.

Have a good week!

Suharto is Dead

This may be a little newsy, but one of the most corrupt and murderous dictators of the late 20th century has died, never having been tried. In the NYT:

Suharto of Indonesia, whose 32-year dictatorship was one of the most brutal and corrupt of the 20th century, died Sunday in Jakarta. He was 86.

Mr. Suharto had been hospitalized on Jan. 4 with heart, lung and kidney problems, according to medical officials of Pertamina Hospital in Jakarta. His condition worsened dramatically over the weekend and he lost consciousness and stopped breathing on his own, they said.

A statement issued by the chief presidential doctor, Marjo Subiandono, said he was declared dead at 1:10 p.m. The cause of death was given as multi-organ failure.

Mr. Suharto was driven from office in 1998 by widespread rioting, economic paralysis and political chaos. His rule was not without accomplishment; he led Indonesia to stability and nurtured economic growth. But these successes were ultimately overshadowed by his pervasive and large-scale corruption; repressive, militarized rule; and a convulsion of mass bloodletting when he seized power in the late 1960s that took at least 500,000 lives. 

katyn: a movie that matters


The ruins of a Russian Orthodox monastery, 1939: paint peels from the walls, light filters in from the cracks in the ceiling, cigarette smoke whirls through the air. Primitive wooden camp beds are stacked up high, one on top of the other, for the monastery has been turned into a prison. The prisoners, soldiers in khaki-brown wool uniforms and black boots, are gathered in a large group. Craning their heads forward, they listen to their commanding officer make a speech. Solemn and tired, he does not ask them to fight. He asks them to survive. “Gentlemen,” says the general, “you must endure. Without you, there will be no free Poland.”

The scene ends. The audience—at least the audience in the Warsaw theater where I watched the film—sighs, rustles, collectively draws its breath. Those watching know, as they were meant to know, that the soldiers, the flower of Poland’s pre-war officer corps, did not survive. And without them, there was indeed no free Poland.

more from the NYRB here.

getting hold of dworkin


Few scholars working today can match Ronald Dworkin’s range of intellectual interests, and none writes about complex legal and philosophical issues with greater elegance or charm. The successor to H. L. A. Hart as Professor of Jurisprudence at Oxford and currently the Jeremy Bentham Professor of Law at University College London and Frank Henry Sommer Professor of Law at New York University, Dworkin is one of this era’s preeminent legal and political theorists. A regular contributor to the NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS, Dworkin is also a familiar public intellectual and a regular participant in public debates about controversial issues in political morality.

Although his works, individually, are models of clarity, Dworkin has written so much, and contributed to so many different debates in practical philosophy, that it can be difficult to appreciate the full scope and range of his intellectual achievements. Arthur Ripstein’s collection of essays, RONALD DWORKIN, aims to help readers meet that challenge. A volume in the Cambridge University Press series, Contemporary Philosophy in Focus, it seeks to introduce readers who are not intimately familiar with Dworkin’s works to his several major philosophical contributions.

more from Law and Politics Book Review here.

rilke’s letters TO A YOUNG PLUMBER


15 July 1898 Munich

Dear Sir,

Your letter arrived just a few days ago. I want to thank you for the great confidence you have placed in me. You must first know that I would never presume to critique your theory that “It is not always essential to flux the interior of a tee before sweating the joint,” although I am concerned that you haven’t yet acquired your own plumbing “style.” I do see (if I am reading these specs correctly) that you have insinuated something personal, something yours, into the annealed tubing of your project with the “cantankerous” (great word!) commode. Let me direct you, if I may, to what, at least in my mind, is an essential text to accompany you on your plumbing journey: The International and Uniform Plumbing Codes Handbook (1897) by Uder Weiss. While Weiss writes with his customary prolixity, his breadth of scope is matched only by his depth of vision, and we must accept his idea that in order to understand our craft we must “plumb” its essence (I love how one can use that word in two ways and it kind of means the same thing) and retreat into its history, indeed, into its primordial anima. Are you prepared for this adventure, good sir? If the answer is yes, then you are already well on your way.

And all success upon your path!

Rainer Maria Rilke

more from McSweeney’s here.

Gandhi’s grandson resigns from Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence

Arun Gandhi’s resignation statement:

Screenhunter_13Today I am announcing my resignation from the Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence.

My statements on the recent Washington Post blog was couched in language that was hurtful and contrary to the principles of nonviolence.

My intention was to generate a healthy discussion on the proliferation of violence. Clearly I did not achieve my goal. Instead, unintentionally, my words have resulted in pain, anger, confusion and embarrassment. I deeply regret these consequences.

I would like to be part of a healing process. The principles of nonviolence are founded on love, respect, understanding and compassion. It is my sincere hope that this situation will give me and others the opportunity to work together to transform anger and negative emotions, create deeper mutual respect and understanding and build more harmonious communities.

And the offending blog post from the Washington Post:

Jewish Identity Can’t Depend on Violence

Jewish identity in the past has been locked into the holocaust experience — a German burden that the Jews have not been able to shed. It is a very good example of a community can overplay a historic experience to the point that it begins to repulse friends. The holocaust was the result of the warped mind of an individual who was able to influence his followers into doing something dreadful. But, it seems to me the Jews today not only want the Germans to feel guilty but the whole world must regret what happened to the Jews. The world did feel sorry for the episode but when an individual or a nation refuses to forgive and move on the regret turns into anger.

The Jewish identity in the future appears bleak. Any nation that remains anchored to the past is unable to move ahead and, especially a nation that believes its survival can only be ensured by weapons and bombs. In Tel Aviv in 2004 I had the opportunity to speak to some Members of Parliament and Peace activists all of whom argued that the wall and the military build-up was necessary to protect the nation and the people. In other words, I asked, you believe that you can create a snake pit — with many deadly snakes in it — and expect to live in the pit secure and alive? What do you mean? they countered. Well, with your superior weapons and armaments and your attitude towards your neighbors would it not be right to say that you are creating a snake pit? How can anyone live peacefully in such an atmosphere? Would it not be better to befriend those who hate you? Can you not reach out and share your technological advancement with your neighbors and build a relationship?

Apparently, in the modern world, so determined to live by the bomb, this is an alien concept. You don’t befriend anyone, you dominate them. We have created a culture of violence (Israel and the Jews are the biggest players) and that Culture of Violence is eventually going to destroy humanity.

[Thanks to Ruchira Paul.]