Beatings and abuse made Barack Obama’s grandfather loathe the British

Ben MacIntyre and Paul Orengoh in the Times of London:

Barack-obama-bw Barack Obama’s grandfather was imprisoned and brutally tortured by the British during the violent struggle for Kenyan independence, according to the Kenyan family of the US President-elect.

Hussein Onyango Obama, Mr Obama’s paternal grandfather, became involved in the Kenyan independence movement while working as a cook for a British army officer after the war. He was arrested in 1949 and jailed for two years in a high-security prison where, according to his family, he was subjected to horrific violence to extract information about the growing insurgency.

“The African warders were instructed by the white soldiers to whip him every morning and evening till he confessed,” said Sarah Onyango, Hussein Onyango’s third wife, the woman Mr Obama refers to as “Granny Sarah”.

Mrs Onyango, 87, described how “white soldiers” visited the prison every two or three days to carry out “disciplinary action” on the inmates suspected of subversive activities.

More here.

The 10 big energy myths

There has never been a more important time to invest in green technologies, yet many of us believe these efforts are doomed to failure. What nonsense, writes Chris Goodall.

From The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_04 Dec. 04 11.17 Myth 1: solar power is too expensive to be of much use

In reality, today's bulky and expensive solar panels capture only 10% or so of the sun's energy, but rapid innovation in the US means that the next generation of panels will be much thinner, capture far more of the energy in the sun's light and cost a fraction of what they do today. They may not even be made of silicon. First Solar, the largest manufacturer of thin panels, claims that its products will generate electricity in sunny countries as cheaply as large power stations by 2012.

Other companies are investigating even more efficient ways of capturing the sun's energy, for example the use of long parabolic mirrors to focus light on to a thin tube carrying a liquid, which gets hot enough to drive a steam turbine and generate electricity. Spanish and German companies are installing large-scale solar power plants of this type in North Africa, Spain and the south-west of America; on hot summer afternoons in California, solar power stations are probably already financially competitive with coal. Europe, meanwhile, could get most of its electricity from plants in the Sahara desert. We would need new long-distance power transmission but the technology for providing this is advancing fast, and the countries of North Africa would get a valuable new source of income.

More here.

On Secularism and Freedom of the Press: The Jyllands-Posten Cartoons Revisited

Webb Keane in the Immanent Frame:

By focusing on freedom of the press rather than social relations, the defenders of the newspaper could count on a family of common sense views of what pictures and words are, and how they function in the world. They tapped into a widespread and habitual way of thinking that treats representational acts as referential and communicative in function. In this view, pictures and words are vehicles (and in the case of words, arbitrary social conventions) for information, itself a distinct entity that stands apart from persons and their actions.

This view is not the only one found in the Euro-American world, nor should we imagine that the sense of offence some Muslims expressed is fundamentally alien to “the West,” as American reactions to the “Piss Christ” artwork make clear. We should also not assume it arises from some sensitivity peculiar to religious faith, as American responses to flag-burning and Spanish laws against lèse majesté show. But it does have a privileged relationship to the moral narrative of modernity, in particular to those strands associated with liberal thought and the concepts of freedom associated with them. It is implicit in John Stuart Mill’s classic defense of press freedom, according to which the reader should evaluate the message and ask how well it fares in competition with the alternatives, which determines whether we should accept it as true.

Matthew Noah Smith and Bruce Robbins respond in the comments section. Smith:

No one reasonably can deny that speaking and publishing are actions. Uttering sentences and printing text (or images) are actions par excellence. They are subject to all the normal practical considerations to which other actions are subject. For, as a formal matter (i.e., abstracting from the particulars), whether I ought to say something (or print something) or do something else is no different a question than whether I ought to run to catch the bus or just walk and wait for the next bus. In all cases, what is at issue is intentional behavior.

So, Keane surely cannot mean that defenders of the printing and publication of the Danish cartoons (or utterers of offensive speech) believe that printing and speaking are not actions in this sense. If he does mean this, then the target of his objections above is a particularly dimwitted crew.

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge


Those who read it young remember a flickering phantasmagoria, a sequence of real and surreal scenes reflected on the inner waters of the poet’s imagination. Even the title of Rainer Maria Rilke’s only novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, published in 1910, suggests an actual notebook, a reservoir of images meant for use in poems. Malte Brigge’s great themes are the same as Rilke’s, and Malte’s attempts to think them through can seem tentative, like so many rope ladders flung up into empty air. But the great poetry cycles that Rilke completed a decade later, the Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus, circle around their themes in like manner, not tapering straight toward a point but blocking out the massive slopes that, each in turn, seem to foreshorten the peak of a very real, solid mountain. Despite appearances, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge is highly structured, and upon careful reading becomes, definitively, a novel. The Notebooks comes from the epicenter of Modernism, discordant and fragmentary. And its reactions to the contradictions of its moment, like those of many other works of romantic spleen, could uncharitably be called overreactions. Its famous set pieces of urban alienation come early.

more from The Nation here.

In Defense of Lost Causes?


The curious thing about the Zizek phenomenon is that the louder he applauds violence and terror–especially the terror of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, whose “lost causes” Zizek takes up in another new book, In Defense of Lost Causes–the more indulgently he is received by the academic left, which has elevated him into a celebrity and the center of a cult. A glance at the blurbs on his books provides a vivid illustration of the power of repressive tolerance. In Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, Zizek claims, “Better the worst Stalinist terror than the most liberal capitalist democracy”; but on the back cover of the book we are told that Zizek is “a stimulating writer” who “will entertain and offend, but never bore.” In The Fragile Absolute, he writes that “the way to fight ethnic hatred effectively is not through its immediate counterpart, ethnic tolerance; on the contrary, what we need is even more hatred, but proper political hatred”; but this is an example of his “typical brio and boldness.” And In Defense of Lost Causes, where Zizek remarks that “Heidegger is ‘great’ not in spite of, but because of his Nazi engagement,” and that “crazy, tasteless even, as it may sound, the problem with Hitler was that he was not violent enough, that his violence was not ‘essential’ enough”; but this book, its publisher informs us, is “a witty, adrenalinfueled manifesto for universal values.”

more from TNR here.

India’s 9/11? Not Exactly

Amitav Ghosh in the New York Times:

03opart_enlarge There can be no doubt that there are certain clear analogies between the two attacks: in both cases the terrorists were clearly at great pains to single out urban landmarks, especially those that serve as symbolic points of reference in this increasingly interconnected world. There are similarities, too, in the unexpectedness of the attacks, the meticulousness of their planning, their shock value and the utter unpreparedness of the security services. But this is where the similarities end. Not only were the casualties far greater on Sept. 11, 2001, but the shock of the attack was also greatly magnified by having no real precedent in America’s history.

India’s experience of terrorist attacks, on the other hand, far predates 2001. Although this year has been one of the worst in recent history, 1984 was arguably worse still. That year an insurgency in the Punjab culminated in the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. This in turn led to riots that took the lives of some 2,000 Sikhs.

More here.

The Long Road to Modernity

From Science:

Road Most experts agree that Homo sapiens arose in Africa about 200,000 years ago and had more brainpower than earlier hominid species. But it's a matter of debate whether modern humans got smarter in one big cognitive leap or gradually developed their greater intelligence. New dating of an important hominid site in Ethiopia suggests that the road to advanced cognition was long and winding. Anthropologists and archaeologists rely on stone tools and other artifacts to gauge the sophistication of ancient humans. About 1.7 million years ago in Africa, Homo erectus, an ancestor of modern humans, started using large hand axes and cleavers. This know-how spread to Asia and Europe and remained cutting-edge technology for well over a million years. Eventually, however, it gave way to the Middle Stone Age, which featured smaller and more sophisticated blades and spearheads.

Many researchers have assumed that these weapons and tools were made by modern humans, because nearly all of them have been found at sites dated later than 195,000 years ago, the age of the oldest known H. sapiens fossils. That would imply a big cognitive leap on the part of modern humans, as they would have essentially developed a complex technology as soon as they arrived on the scene. But not all evidence jibes with this theory. In the 1990s, for example, archaeologists dated a Middle Stone Age site in Ethiopia called Gademotta to 235,000 years ago–implying that the technology had been maturing for a while before the arrival of modern humans–although the accuracy of that dating has been questioned. A second site, Kapthurin in Kenya, was more reliably dated in 2002 to 285,000 years ago, but researchers have been very reluctant to accept just one site as evidence that the Middle Stone Age started so early. Both sites are in Africa's volcanic Rift Valley, the birthplace of many hominid species.

Now two geochronologists from the University of California, Berkeley, Leah Morgan and Paul Renne, have redated Gademotta using the argon-argon method, an improved technique for dating volcanic rock that is considered more accurate than the potassium-argon method previously employed at the site. The new results, reported in this month's issue of Geology, push the artifacts at Gademotta back to at least 280,000 years ago, essentially the same age as those at Kapthurin.

More here.

Terrorists took cocaine and LSD to stay awake during assault

Damian McElroy in The Telegraph:

Officials said drug paraphernalia, including syringes, was recovered from the scene of the attacks, which killed almost 200 people.

The heavily built men, who had undergone training at a special marine camp established by the Lashkar-e-Taibat (LeT) terrorist group in Pakistan, had also used steroids to build a tougher physique.

“We found injections containing traces of cocaine and LSD left behind by the terrorists and later found drugs in their blood,” said one official.

“There was also evidence of steroids, which isn't uncommon in terrorists.

“These men were all toned, suggesting they had been doing some heavy training for the attacks. This explains why they managed to battle the commandos for over 50 hours with no food or sleep.”

One terrorist used the drugs to keep on fighting despite suffering a life-threatening injury.

More here.

Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis

From The Guardian:

Kingsley460 My primary observation is that drinking makes the daily grind of dealing with people so much easier. You drink a pint of whisky and become the life and soul of the party. You then start insulting people, before sweating heavily and wetting yourself involuntarily. You will usually find that everyone quickly avoids you, thereby relieving you of the need to make conversation. This is why I prefer to do much of my drinking at home. It saves so much time.

There are a great many drinks on the market – spirits, wines and beers – and I've probably drunk them all. Usually in some kind of combination with one another. Mixing cocktails is one of my favourite hobbies. Here's one I invented last week for my great sycophant, Christopher Hitchens.

The Hitch

One bottle of Babycham

One bottle of absinthe

Five shots of Angostura very bitters

Two tablespoons of bile

Two or three glasses of this tincture can give you a lifetime of self-satisfaction.

At some time you will probably be forced to invite people to your home and they may expect a drink. My advice is to offer them the cheapest tipple you can find; my local off-licence does a ghastly Mosel at 70p a bottle. I've never cared for even the best wines, and this should guarantee those poncing off you neither ask for top-ups nor stay long, thereby leaving you more money and time for the pub.

More here.

Strange False Head Photo

Dean Terry in Our Strange World:

At first this photo seems to be a couple with a large head floating between them. But look again – things aren’t always what they seem.

Most people who look at this old photograph will probably see a large bearded head between the two figures. It looks like an image of Jesus.


You’ll probably think it’s just a crude hoax from bygone days. But look again, carefully. This is not a hoax at all. What the photo actually shows is a child sitting on the man’s knee.

Block out the head’s “hair.” That’s just a collection of foliage in the background. The “eye” is the face the child, shadowed by a large white bonnet. The “nose” is the sleeve of the child’s shirt. And the “mustache” is the child’s arm, bent at the elbow.

Be patient. It may take you awhile to see this.

The Language Playing Field

Fenella Saunders in American Scientist:

20081021225236966-2008-11SOSaundersFA Sian Beilock, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, and her colleagues gathered a group of hockey players from college and minor-league teams, as well as avid fans and “novices” with no hockey experience whatsoever. The participants underwent a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan while they passively listened to a set of sentences that related either to everyday activities (“The individual pushed the cart”) or hockey actions (“The hockey player saved the shot”). The researchers recorded which areas of the brain the sentences activated in the three groups of participants.

After the scan, the participants heard the same sentences again, but this time they were asked to perform a matching task: After each sentence, they were shown a picture and selected, as quickly as possible, whether or not the illustration showed the action being described in the sentence.

Previous research has established that responses should be faster when the picture matches the sentence. “The idea is that if you understand the sentence better, then you should be better at discriminating between people performing actions that match versus people performing actions that don't,” Beilock explains. This result was true of all the participants for the everyday actions. But for the hockey-related sentences, only players and fans showed the effect.

Looking at the MRI scans, Beilock and her colleagues were able to account for the increased comprehension of hockey-related sentences in players and fans. Those two groups showed activation in the part of the brain called the left dorsal premotor cortex, an area that lights up as a person plans to perform a well-learned action—and not usually a brain region implicated in language comprehension.

More here.

Requiem for a Maverick

Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone:

ScreenHunter_03 Dec. 03 10.38 It sounds strange to say, but this election season may have done to the word “Republican” what 1972 did for the word “liberal”: turned it into a poisonous sobriquet that no politician with bipartisan aspirations will ever again welcome. The Republicans didn't just break the party — they left it smashed into space dust. They weren't just beaten; the very idea of Republican conservatism was massively rejected in virtually every state where large chunks of the population do not believe in the literal existence of a horned devil, and even in some that do.

They lost in every way imaginable, on every political front. The symbol of their anti-gay crusade, Colorado congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave, was beheaded. The party that had made so much hay running against Mexicans saw noted anti-immigration crusader Bill Sali of Idaho ousted along with several other members of the Immigration Reform Caucus. The GOP's grasp on the so-called “moral values” issue likewise went up in roaring flames, with Rep. Vito Fossella of Staten Island the poster child — his morals were once so perfect that he refused to be seen with his gay sister, and now he's a national joke, bounced after being caught drunk driving and having unprotected, babymaking sex with a married Air Force officer.

More here.

Crime, Punishment, and Politics in the United States

Marie Gottschalk in Dissent:

ScreenHunter_02 Dec. 03 10.02 Throughout American history, politicians and public officials have exploited public anxieties about crime and disorder for political gain. The difference today is that these political strategies and public anxieties have come together in the perfect storm. They have radically transformed U.S. penal policies, spurring an unprecedented prison boom. Since the 1970s, the U.S. prisoner population has increased by more than fivefold. Today, the United States is the world’s warden, incarcerating a higher proportion of its people than any other country—or about one out of every hundred adults. A staggering seven million people—or one in every thirty-two adults—are either incarcerated, on parole or probation, or under some other form of state supervision.

These figures understate the enormous and disproportionate impact that this unprecedented social experiment has had on certain groups in U.S. society. If current trends continue, one in three black men and one in six Hispanic men will spend some time in jail or prison during their lives.

Public dismay over the crushing economic burden of incarcerating and monitoring so many people is growing. But does this dismay herald the beginning of the end of the prison boom? The answer is not simple.

More here.

The Orienting Stone


The black granite Ka’ba, the cubical structure that stands as the holiest center of Islam, features at its eastern vertex a small black stone about the size of a grapefruit, the al-hajar al-aswad, which may or may not have fallen to earth in the time of Adam and Eve. Supported in a silver frame, this obsidian-like cipher structures space for some billion Muslims, standing as it does at the culminating point known as the qibla—the direction to which devout followers of Mohammed address their five daily obeisances. Tradition has it that the rock was once snowy white, and has darkened over time through exposure to human sin. A snowy white stone that gives shape to the universe: as it happens, we all carry within our skulls the vestige of such a thing, a kind of existentially reversed qibla (this one perspectival, the other metaphysical) that gives us our sense of being at the center of things, the sense that we are upright at the origin point of a three-dimensional space. The “otolithic organs,” as they are known, are a pair of sensors—the utricle and the saccule—nestled in the labyrinthine architecture of the inner ear. Grossly speaking, each consists of a bunch of tiny pebbles (of the white rock known as calcium carbonate) embedded in a gooey wad that sits atop a carpet of delicate hairs. The saccule is roughly vertical in our heads, and the utricle more or less horizontal. Together they orient us in the world, since they work as tiny inertial references: raise your head suddenly (or get in a jerky elevator), and the pebbles of the saccule get momentarily left behind as your skull starts upward; this bends down the hairs against which those pebbles lay, and the sensitive hairs function like switches, sending signals to your brain that you register as a feeling of ascent.

more from Cabinet here.

the 2008 bad sex in fiction awards


Shire Hell, by Rachel Johnson (Penguin Books). JM comes over and pushes me gently back down on the fake fur. I try to rise up to kiss him – it’s so lovely, the kissing – but he pushes me down, again. He likes to kiss me all over before he does anything else. He starts with my eyes, and plants a tender kiss on each lid. … He moves on to my ears, a kiss that makes my nipples stand erect, and me emit little moans that drown out to my own ears the loud, distracting sound of Cumberbatch swiping dock leaves and tearing nettles and long grasses very close to the rickety stoop. JM’s hands are caressing my breasts, now, and I am allowed to kiss him back, but not for very long, for he breaks off, to give each breast in turn the attention it deserves. As he nibbles and pulls with his mouth, his hands find my bush, and with light fingers he flutters about there, as if he is a moth caught inside a lampshade.

more from Literary Review here.

the ghost of cotton


BARACK OBAMA’S WINNING map asserted the political dominance of a new, dynamic America, as he flipped blue some of the country’s youngest, most diverse, and fastest-growing areas. Yet in the Deep South, the one region where Obama failed to win a state, there is little evidence of that demographic churn. Its political behavior seems tied more closely to antebellum industry than to any of the social changes the country has undergone since. The accompanying map shows that even this year, cotton remains kingmaker: The map of Obama’s Southern voters is strikingly similar to the historical map of cotton production circa 1860, on the eve of the Civil War (a phenomenon pointed out by blogger Allen Gathman).

more from Boston Globe Ideas here.

Tuesday Poem

How to Listen
Major Jackson

I am going to cock my head tonight like a dog
in front of McGlinchy's Tavern on Locust;
I am going to stand beside the man who works all day combing
his thatch of gray hair corkscrewed in every direction.
I am going to pay attention to our lives
unraveling between the forks of his fine-tooth comb.
For once, we won't talk about the end of the world
or Vietnam or his exquisite paper shoes.
For once, I am going to ignore the profanity and
the dancing and the jukebox so I can hear his head crackle
beneath the sky's stretch of faint stars.

Moving forward together

From Nature:

Main_news_pic2008.12 This week sees the publication of a series of papers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on one of the traditional indications of life: movement. In their article, Ran Nathan of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and his colleagues set out a framework for how to unify research on the movement of organisms. Nature News spoke to Nathan about his plans for a field that looks at everything from the dispersal of seeds to the cheetah's run.

Why is there a need for a 'movement ecology paradigm'?

In one of the papers in this special feature, we found that at least 26,000 papers were published in the past ten years on movement-related studies. That's about 10% of all studies published in disciplines of ecology, evolutionary biology, zoology, ornithology and so on. There's a long tradition of these studies. Aristotle wrote [around] 2,300 years ago that “now we must consider in general the common reason for moving with any movement whatever”. There has been really wonderful progress and some insightful studies in movement research but we are still not even close to the integration that Aristotle was calling for.

More here.