Under Pressure, Shah Renounces Hindu Group

Finally. Why doesn't Obama just drop this sleazy woman and move on? She claims that at the time she was the National Coordinator of the VHP America, the Gujrat massacres had not yet occured, and she was only raising funds for earthquake victims for them (as if she couldn't have worked for a less heinous organization, like the Red Cross). Well, did she bother to say a word condemning them and the VHP's undisputed role in them after the Gujrat killings, or distance herself from her association with the VHP? Never. What she did is continue to address youth conferences associated with the VHP (which Martha Nussbaum has described as, “possibly the most successful fascist movement in any contemporary democracy”) and the RSS. Imagine the uproar if someone said, “Oh, I was just helping with humanitarian relief efforts in Gaza as National Coordinator of Hamas's US wing. I am so against violence!” She keeps whining that questioning her ties to fascist parties is just “guilt by association” just the way Obama was smeared by allegations of ties to Bill Ayers. This is ludicrous. Barack Obama was not the National Coordinator of a fascist hate group implicated in large scale massacres (of thousands of people). The analogy could not be more false. It will be a terrible mistake if Obama appoints her to his administration. Her judgment as well as her character are extremely suspect.

This is Gautham Nagesh in the National Journal:

Shah The controversy has been gathering steam in the Indian press and South Asian blogosphere for weeks now, but it went mainstream on Thursday when former GOP Senator Rick Santorum published an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer questioning the appointment of Shah to the transition team — prompting a Lost In Transition post Friday.

Shah, a Google executive who previously worked for Goldman Sachs and served as a Treasury official in the Clinton years, was appointed to the Obama transition team in November and has since been tapped to be part of the three-person team to develop technology policy. She is also reportedly being considered for Secretary of Energy.

However, her appointment to the administration has drawn strong reactions from the South Asian community. While many prominent Indian-Americans have stood behind Shah, others have raised doubts about her past. Dr. Shaikh Ubaid is part of a group including several Muslim and Sikh associations and dozens of college professors that sent letters to both Shah and President-elect Obama, requesting further information on Shah's past associations.

“When she was appointed, it was initially a proud moment for us, her being an Indian-American,” said Ubaid in an interview given before Shah's latest statement. However, the reports regarding Shah's past ties to the VHP gave Ubaid and others a cause for concern.

More here. [Thanks to Manas Shaikh.]

Milton the poet was a bore and a prig. But on liberty he was majestic

From The Guardian:

Milton84 Milton was brought up by his father “while yet a little child for the study of humane letters”. Not for him the rough and tumble of Shakespeare's Stratford or the London stage. A fun-averse bookworm at Cambridge, at 23 he was already telling the world that his writing was the will of heaven: “All is, if I have grace to use it so/ As ever in my great Task-Master's eye.”

We prefer to like our poets, and Milton was a bore and a prig. Even the youthfulness of the two early poems, L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, has a ponderous religiosity. The play, Comus, is a pastoral-mythical tract about a son of Bacchus and Circe that is near unplayable today. Lycidas, supposedly an “honest shepherd”, is an elegy on a dead friend, a mix of pagan myths and Puritan Christianity. The least we owe it is, “Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new”, even if most people say fields for woods. Milton was instantly famous. He was lionised in Italy, where he wrote verses in Latin and Italian and was eulogised in return. He met Grotius and Galileo, scholars and philosophers, and returned with an even more exalted sense of his destiny. He wrote a tract on education that would have blown the curriculum authority's collective mind.

More here.

Do Zoos Shorten Elephant Life Spans?

From Science:

Elephant Elephants are one of the top draws for zoos, which are the only places most of us get a chance to see the behemoths. But a new and controversial study in tomorrow's issue of Science suggests that captivity is so bad for female elephants' health and overall well-being that their life spans are less than half of those of protected populations in Africa and Asia. The data also indicate that captive-born Asian elephant calves are particularly likely to die young. The team has called for an end to zoos' acquisition of wild elephants and for limits on transfers of animals among zoos.

Already concerned about their elephants, many zoos in the United States and Europe are expanding or building new enclosures, or even deciding against exhibiting the great beasts altogether. Studies in the wild have documented the importance of roaming and family ties for these animals, which zoos with limited space often cannot provide. A sign that the animals aren't thriving is that “zoos are not able to maintain their elephant populations without importing new, wild-caught animals,” says Ros Clubb, a wildlife biologist at England's Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in London. Clubb and co-author, Georgia Mason, a behavioral biologist at the University of Guelph in Canada, published a pilot, non-peer-reviewed study on this issue 6 years ago. It was fiercely and “rightly” criticized, they say, for its small data set and poor statistics–problems they say they have corrected with the new report.

More here.

more locke than ever


My purpose here is to consider the place of John Locke in American political life. I will follow the wisdom of George Carey in explaining why Locke forms the foundation of part of us, but not all of us. Our founders had a complex view of human nature, in which Locke played his part. But we—especially our intellectuals—have become more Lockean over time, coming to believe in effect that our founders lacked our theoretical greatness because their view of liberty was not as expansive or individualistic as ours. We have come to accept too uncritically the view that our nation has progressed historically by embracing principled individualism more consistently over time. Carey writes as a conservative American, and he distinguishes his conservatism from the progressivism he finds in neoconservatism. This does not mean that he is simply a traditionalist. He is one of the most astute and meticulous defenders of The Federalist Papers, a set of essays that, among other things, defends the innovation that was the American Constitution. He sees that the American solution is strong on institutional remedies for destructive factional strife and is in some ways, in the interest of success, a bit weak on virtue. But that weakness is mitigated by our federalism; the cultivation of virtue, according to our founding thought, was to be left to our states and churches, and the scope—including the moral reach—of our national government was originally quite limited.

more from First Principles here.

negri’s world onto itself

Negri for web

Four new works by Negri appeared in English in 2008—the year we all found ourselves well downstream from that era when debate over globalization and its discontents took the form of extrapolating long-term trends. The problem now is to find a way through the ruins. I have been studying the books in a state of heightened (indeed, strained) attention—with powers of concentration periodically stimulated and shattered by arteriosclerotic convulsions in the world’s financial markets—but also through tears in my eyes. They are tears of perplexity and frustration. It is not that Negri’s most recent books pose difficulties, both conceptual and programmatic, that his earlier ones did not. The ambiguities have been there all along, as have the opacities. Still, they seemed poetic—not just in that terms like Empire and Multitude possessed a certain evocative, science-fictional luminosity, but also in something like the root sense of poesis. They did not simply name possibilities; they seemed to create a new thing in the world, if only by inciting the political imagination to new efforts. But the latest books do not have that quality. Negri’s analysis of the emerging system is itself a system—if not a world unto itself—and the movement of his thought is now largely centripetal.

more from Bookforum here.

India’s Dangerous Divide

From The Wall Street Journal:

PT-AK370_Cover__F_20081205115420 In October 1947, a bare six weeks after India and Pakistan achieved their independence from British rule, the Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, wrote a remarkable letter to the Chief Ministers of the different provinces. Here Nehru pointed out that despite the creation of Pakistan as a Muslim homeland, there remained, within India, “a Muslim minority who are so large in numbers that they cannot, even if they want, go anywhere else. That is a basic fact about which there can be no argument. Whatever the provocation from Pakistan and whatever the indignities and horrors inflicted on non-Muslims there, we have got to deal with this minority in a civilized manner. We must give them security and the rights of citizens in a democratic State.”

In the wake of the recent incidents in Mumbai, these words make salutary reading. It seems quite certain that the terrorists who attacked the financial capital were trained in Pakistan. The outrages have sparked a wave of indignation among the middle class. Demonstrations have been held in the major cities, calling for revenge, in particular for strikes against training camps in Pakistan. The models held up here are Israel and the United States; if they can “take out” individual terrorists and invade whole countries, ask some Indians, why not we?

More here. (Thanks to my dear friend Giri).

Stellar show for Peace Nobel winner Martti Ahtisaari

From CNN:

ScreenHunter_01 Dec. 11 14.19 A week of events to mark the presentation of the Nobel Peace Prize to former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari continues Thursday with a stellar concert in Oslo to be shown live on CNN International.

Actors Michael Caine and Scarlett Johansson are due to host the gala event which features performances from Diana Ross, operatic quartet Il Divo and Swedish singer-songwriter Robyn.

In an interview Wednesday, Ahtisaari called for a fresh Middle East peace initiative and warned that western powers risked losing credibility unless they acted to solve the conflict.

Ahtisaari told CNN's Jonathan Mann that peace was a “question of will.”

“All conflicts can be settled and there are no excuses for letting them become eternal,” said Ahtisaari, who was cited for his work promoting Namibian independence in southern Africa and for his “central role” promoting peace in the conflict-stricken Indonesian province of Aceh.

“It is simply intolerable that violent conflicts defy resolution for decades, causing immeasurably human suffering and preventing economic and social development.”

Ahtisaari said that finding a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians was crucial to the future development of the entire Middle East and Muslim world.

“As Western nations we are losing our credibility… because we can't keep on talking, year after year, that we are doing something. And no one sees any results,” he said.

More here.

Thursday Poem

William Stafford

They tell how it was, how time
came along, and how it happened
again and again. They tell
the slant life takes when it turns
and slashes your face as a friend.

Any wound is real. In church
a woman lets the sun find
her cheek, and we see the lesson:
there are years in that book; there are sorrows
a choir can't reach when they sing.

Rows of children lift their faces of promise,
places where the scars will be.

My Turkish Library

Orhan Pamuk in the New York Review of Books:

0910-orhan-pamuk At the heart of my library is my father's library. When I was seventeen or eighteen and began to devote most of my time to reading, I devoured the volumes my father kept in our sitting room as well as the ones I found in Istanbul's bookshops. These were the days when, if I read a book from my father's library and liked it, I would take it into my room and place it among my own books. My father, who was pleased to see his son reading, was also glad to see some of his books migrating to my library, and whenever he saw one of his old books on my bookshelf, he would tease me by saying, “Aha, I see this volume has been promoted to the upper echelons!”

In 1970, when I was eighteen, I—like all Turkish children with an interest in books—took to writing poetry. I was painting and studying architecture but the pleasure I took from both was fading away; by night I would smoke cigarettes and write poetry, which I hid from everyone. It was at this point that I read the poetry collections that my father (who had wanted to be a poet when he was young) kept on his shelves.

More here.

“The Sandman” by E.T.A. Hoffmann

Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:

Hoffman E.T.A. Hoffmann's stories don't make sense. That's how they first work into your brain. “The Sandman” may be his best for that very reason. It's the typical tale of a young dreamer tortured by childhood nightmares/memories of a bogeyman (The Sandman) who turns out to be a friend of the family who tries to steal the boy's eyes and then kills the boy's father. Later the Sandman returns (or does he…?), and sells the young man a telescope that he uses to watch a beautiful girl across the way, the daughter of an elusive professor. The young man falls in love with the daughter and spurns his wonderful fiancé in the name of his obsession. But it turns out that the beautiful daughter is actually a robot and the young man goes mad. Later, his senses revive and he goes back to his fiancé. All are content and set to leave town when they decide to go up to the tower and look down upon their beloved home one last time. They notice a bush moving in the distance. The young man takes out his spyglass and, presumably, sees the robot girl sneaking around in the bush. He goes mad again, tries to push his fiancé out of the tower, and then later thinks better of it and jumps to his own death. At the very end of the story, we learn that the young man's fiancé went on to live in the countryside with her two children and enjoy “that quiet domestic happiness which was so agreeable to her cheerful disposition.”

Thus, the plot. Freud was always a fan of Hoffmann and particularly of “The Sandman.” He made the story a centerpiece of his now famous essay “The Uncanny.” Ultimately, Freud boils the central meaning of Hoffmann's story down to castration complexes and other Freudian whatnot. This is of little interest to us. The idea of the uncanny, however, is. The German word Freud uses is unheimlich — the negation of the word heimlich, which means, basically, “comfortable,” “known,” or more literally, “homely.” Something unheimlich is therefore something uncomfortable.

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India’s Muslims

Barbara Crossette in The Nation:

_1554231_muslims300 India's Muslims have deep grievances. Reports by Indian experts substantiate these grievances with statistics; Muslim victims of Hindu attacks fill in the anecdotal evidence; outsiders concur. A Council on Foreign Relations study concluded in 2007 that Indian Muslims are “marginalized” and that the government was dealing only “to some degree” with the problem. A United Nations report further suggested that such conditions could spark serious unrest.

The most recent, most unvarnished survey of Indian Muslim life was carried out by a panel led by Rajindar Sachar, a former chief justice of the Delhi High Court. The findings of that survey were published in late 2006 and sent to Parliament. It has been a touchstone for debate ever since.

The Sachar report acknowledges that Muslims enjoy religious freedom in India, but it paints a grim portrait of their daily lives and chances for advancement, even as India's economy flourishes. The report concludes that “not all religious communities and social groups…have shared equally the benefits of the growth process. Among these, the Muslims, the largest minority community in the country, constituting 13.4 per cent of the population, are seriously lagging behind in terms of most of the human development indicators.”

More here.

20 BioScapes Contest Photos–Life Viewed through the Microscope

From Scientific American:

Life-viewed-through-the-microscope_1 Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but it is also in the eye of a honeybee, the eggs of a lobster and the surface of petrified wood—as is evident from a selection of images entered in the 2008 Olympus BioScapes Digital Imaging Competition. In its fifth year, the competition honors superior images of living organisms or their components attained with the help of light microscopy. The judges chose 10 winners and awarded honorable mention to many others, evaluating entries based on the scientific value of the images, aesthetics and the difficulty of capturing the information displayed. This year, as in the past, competitors were free to bring out specific features through pseudo-coloring and other computer enhancements.

LOBSTER EGGS, two to three millimeters in diameter, sit in goo that keeps them together in water. Tora Bardal of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim enhanced the natural colors with dark-field illumination. The round, bluish regions are eyes. Jan Ove Evjemo of NTNU examined the eggs as part of an effort to optimize breeding techniques for a shrinking lobster population.

Slide Show: Images from 2008 Olympus Bioscapes Contest

More here.

Wednesday Poem

Why They Do It

Cheryl Savageau

Uncle Jack drinks because he's Indian.
Aunt Rita drinks
because she married a German.
Uncle Raymond drinks
because spats have gone out of style.
Uncle Bébé drinks
because Jeannie encourages him.
Aunt Jeannie drinks because Bébé does.
Russell drinks because he's in college.
Uncle Jack drinks
because he's a perfectionist.
Dave drinks because he's out of work.
Aunt Rita drinks
because she's a musician.
Bert drinks because he's married to Rita.
Renny drinks
because he likes a good time.
Gil drinks because he always has.
Raymond drinks
because Marie's too smart.
Jack drinks because Florence won't.
Lucille and Bob don't drink
because everyone else does.
Raymond drinks because of all the women
he'll never have.
Dick just drinks to empty the keg.

the voice of a Mesopotamian Pepys?


Held in the hand, a typical cuneiform tablet is about the same weight and shape as an early mobile phone. Hold it as though you were going to text someone and you hold it the way the scribe did; a proverb had it that ‘a good scribe follows the mouth.’ Motions of the stylus made the tiny triangular indentations of cuneiform characters in the clay. The actions would have been much quicker and more precise, but otherwise rather like the pecks you make at a phone keypad. Some tablets are of course larger. Gilgamesh, thousands of words long, is an epic in 12 tablets more than a foot high, and inscriptions carved in rock are more expansive still. But it is the small tablets with tiny writing that are the most tantalising objects in Babylon, Myth and Reality (at the British Museum until 15 March). Can one, through them, get beyond archaeological evidence and inference, bypass the fevered imagination of William Blake’s and John Martin’s Bible illustrations and hear the voice of a Mesopotamian Pepys?

more from the LRB here.

Martti Ahtisaari Urges Obama to Act on Mideast While Accepting Nobel

From the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_05 Dec. 10 16.06 President-elect Barack Obama should move quickly to try to resolve conflicts in f the Middle East, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner said Wednesday after accepting a gold medal and $1.2 million in prize money.

“The credibility of the whole international community is at stake,” said Martti Ahtisaari, the former president of Finland and a veteran United Nations mediator. “We cannot go on, year after year, simply pretending to do something to help the situation in the Middle East. We must also get results.”

He urged Mr. Obama to give the region high priority during his first year in office.

“The European Union, Russia and the U.N. must also be seriously committed so that a solution can be found to the crises stretching from Israel and Palestine to Iraq and Iran,” he said. “If we want to achieve lasting results, we must look at the whole region.”

The Middle East is one of few parts of the world where Mr. Ahtisaari has not been a major player in conflict resolution although earlier this year he brought dozens of Iraqi Sunni and Shiite leaders to Helsinki for dialogue with “facilitators” from Northern Ireland and South Africa, where reconciliation has been partly successful.

More here.

sontag creates herself


Sontag’s image of remote and disciplined rationality was altered by Swimming in a Sea of Death (2008), her son David Rieff’s painful and dismaying memoir of her frantic, self-deluded fight against the leukaemia that killed her. It will be further changed by the publication of three volumes of her private journals, meticulously, if reluctantly, edited by Rieff, who has explained in interviews that while he himself would have preferred not to publish the journals, Sontag sold them to UCLA without restriction, and he decided to do the editing job himself rather than leave it to a stranger. The first volume, Reborn, takes Sontag from adolescence to the beginnings of her ascendancy among the New York intellectuals of the 1960s. Relentlessly self-analytical, unsparingly honest and explicit, she describes her identity as a lesbian and an outsider, her unhappy marriage, her flight to Oxford and Paris, her experience of motherhood, her determination to survive alone, and, always, her ambitious self-formation as an artist and thinker. Sontag began to keep an intimate record of her thoughts and experiences in 1947, when she was a terrifyingly precocious girl of fourteen. As she later observed, she used her writing to try out new selves, and to construct her formidable persona. ‘In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person. I create myself.’

more from Literary Review here.

Meryl Streep: mother superior

From The Telegraph:

Meryl_streep So where does she draw consolation in the face of ageing and death?

'Consolation? I'm not sure I have it. I have a belief, I guess, in the power of the aggregate human attempt – the best of ourselves. In love and hope and optimism – you know, the magic things that seem inexplicable. Why we are the way we are. I do have a sense of trying to make things better. Where does that come from?' She laughs. 'And why do some people just seem to want to make other people miserable?'

Streep's father was a pharmaceutical executive, her mother a commercial artist. She is the eldest of three children, and the only daughter. After studying drama at Vassar and Yale, and acting on stage and in television, she made an acclaimed film debut in 1977, at the relatively late age of 28, in a supporting role in Julia, Fred Zinnemann's film about the novelist Lillian Hellman. In 1979 she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards for her role in The Deerhunter, and a year later she won the first of her two Best Actress Oscars for Kramer vs Kramer. (She won the second in 1983, for Sophie's Choice.)

Streep has a way of dividing opinion. It has become a favourite critical saw to describe her as a technically immaculate actress who lacks feeling; but audiences – and her fellow actors – tend to disagree. Diane Keaton once described her as 'my generation's genius', while among younger actresses she inspires an admiration bordering on the awe-struck. Vera Farmiga, who worked with her on The Manchurian Candidate, describes Streep as 'untouchable. I try to take all my cues from her as a role model for women, as an actress, as a human being.' (Dustin Hoffman, famously, was less complimentary. After starring with Streep in Kramer vs Kramer he described her as 'selfish' and 'obsessed', stating, 'I hate her guts – although I respect her as an actress.' Streep, for her part, has equably described Hoffman as an 'old buddy'.)

More here.


Mike Brown, Stuart Kauffman, Zoe-Vonna Palmrose and Lee Smolin in Edge:

Stu The economic crisis has to be stabilized immediately. This has to be carried out pragmatically, without undue ideology, and without reliance on the failed ideas and assumptions which led to the crisis. Complexity science can help here. For example, it is wrong to speak of “restoring the markets to equilibrium”, because the markets have never been in equilibrium. We are already way ahead if we speak of “restoring the markets to a stable, self-organized critical state.”

In the near-term, Eric Weinstein has spoken about an “economic Manhattan project”. This means getting a group of good scientists together, some who know a lot about economics and finance, and others, who have proved themselves in other areas of science but bring fresh minds and perspectives to the challenge, to focus on developing a scientific conceptualization of economic theory and modeling that is reliable enough to be called a science.

More here. (Picture shows my dear friend Stuart Kauffman)

Race, genes, and sports

William Saletan in Slate:

ScreenHunter_04 Dec. 10 10.06 A few days ago, I wrote about a test, now being marketed in the United States, that predicts whether your toddler has more potential as a power athlete or as an endurance athlete. The test examines ACTN3, a gene that affects fast generation of muscular force. Fray poster Andrea Freiboden isn't impressed. “What a lot of crap. Just look at the race of the athlete,” she writes:

Generally, people of West African origin have more fast twitch muscles which allow intense bursts of power. This is why running backs, defensive linemen, and receivers are almost all black. We don't need any expensive test. All you have to do is look at the physique. Blacks in basketball are lean and musularly [sic] hard. Whites have softer muscles, which is why white basketball players have to rely more on skill than blacks who have the advantage of skill + great speed/strength.

Oy. I've been through this wringer before. It's true that some racial averages differ in part for biological reasons. It's also true that that this is one of them. But Freiboden is exactly wrong. Race is a less, not more, reliable gauge of physical characteristics than genes are. In fact, that's one of the chief consolations of nontherapeutic genetic testing: No matter how inaccurate genes are as a predictor of this or that ability, they're more accurate than predictions based on race. And the sooner we get past judging by race, the better.

More here.