Three Dialogues by Plato

John Holbo at Crooked Timber:

Want to see a neat trick? I can embed the book, like so.

Then you just click to turn the page (illegible at this size) or click to open and read in full-screen mode. It’s a very nice viewer they’ve got. Or I could make the embed open on a particular page, so when I’m blogging about a passage while teaching, I can just point the kids to the page in question. Or open the book itself onscreen in class and zoom so it’s readable. Neat, I call it.

The full book title (some would say: over-full): Reason and Persuasion, Three Dialogues by Plato: Euthyphro, Meno and Republic book I, with commentary and illustrations by John Holbo and translations by Belle Waring. It will be out in print by mid-August. The version that is up right now is actually the final draft – so far as I can tell. But I still have a week-and-a-bit to catch any last typos or mistakes.

More here.

Whither Pakistan? A five-year forecast

Pervez Hoodbhoy in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

Pervez-Hoodbhoy First, the bottom line: Pakistan will not break up; there will not be another military coup; the Taliban will not seize the presidency; Pakistan's nuclear weapons will not go astray; and the Islamic sharia will not become the law of the land.

That's the good news. It conflicts with opinions in the mainstream U.S. press, as well as with some in the Obama administration. For example, in March, David Kilcullen, a top adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, declared that state collapse could occur within six months. This is highly improbable.

Now, the bad news: The clouds hanging over the future of Pakistan's state and society are getting darker. Collapse isn't impending, but there is a slow-burning fuse. While timescales cannot be mathematically forecast, the speed of societal decline has surprised many who have long warned that religious extremism is devouring Pakistan.

Here is how it all went down the hill: The 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan devastated the Taliban. Many fighters were products of madrassas in Pakistan, and their trauma partly was shared by their erstwhile benefactors in the Pakistan military and intelligence. Recognizing that this force would remain important for maintaining Pakistani influence in Afghanistan–and keep the low-intensity war in Kashmir going–the army secretly welcomed them on Pakistani soil. Rebuilding and rearming was quick, especially as the United States tripped up in Afghanistan after a successful initial victory. Former President Pervez Musharraf's strategy of running with the hares and hunting with hounds worked initially. But then U.S. demands to dump the Taliban became more insistent, and the Taliban also grew angry at this double game. As the army's goals and tactics lost coherence, the Taliban advanced.

More here.

Science fiction’s vital contribution to the life of English

From The Guardian:

Robot-hand-001 I have a new test for checking English literary health. I make no claims for its originality, efficacy, scientific rigour or infallibility. But here it is: the more neologisms or new uses for existing words a literary movement donates to the English language, the stronger it is.

Coleridge and friends had their new uses for “sublime”, new constructions like “unfathomable seas” and “organic form”, new uses for “romantic” (of course), and totally new words like “reliability” (surprisingly). The Lost Generation, even though they tried so hard to do nothing fancy, still had “rotten shames”, “lovely pieces” and thousands of new inflections to the words “hell” and “damn”. The Beat Generation had, well, “beat”, as well as a whole new vocabulary centred around dharma, jazz and smoking “tea”. Writers in the Enlightenment went one better by inventing the modern dictionary, as well as a whole lexicon relating to “reason” and “capital” to add to it. Meanwhile, the king of them all – the one-man literary movement and word machine that was William Shakespeare – is credited with more than 2,000 neologisms – among them hundreds of words we now take entirely for granted: “articulate”, “pedant”, “accommodation”, “addiction”, “dislocate”.

More here.

The ghosts of Tiananmen


Ten years after the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 I wrote a book, Bad Elements, about the fate of the protesters, dissidents and free-spirited Chinese who had wanted to change their country. Much had changed in those ten years, and even more has changed since. New buildings, ever taller, ever bigger, have made cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing virtually unrecognisable to anyone who has been away for longer than six months. Old neighbourhoods disappear overnight, to be replaced by high rises, shopping malls and theme parks, sometimes replicating in miniature, or in painted concrete, razed ancient landmarks. This isn’t just a matter of economic growth; it is a transformation. So was I wrong to detect a whiff of decay in the authoritarian one-party state when I travelled in the People’s Republic of China ten years ago? Was I misguided in my belief that the dissident “bad elements” still mattered? It is not hard to find educated, prosperous citizens in the wealthier coastal regions who will say so. The foreign traveller in China today will often be told, sometimes in excellent English, that the country is not yet ready for the freedoms my dissidents demanded. China is too big, one hears, too large, too old, the Chinese masses are too uneducated, in fact, China is just too damned complicated for democracy to take root. The whip-hand of authoritarian rule is still essential to keep chaos at bay and enable prosperity. Democracy is a luxury to be enjoyed after wealth and education; first food and shelter, then, possibly, freedom.

more from Ian Buruma at Prospect Magazine here.

creating creativity


Creative-writing programs are designed on the theory that students who have never published a poem can teach other students who have never published a poem how to write a publishable poem. The fruit of the theory is the writing workshop, a combination of ritual scarring and twelve-on-one group therapy where aspiring writers offer their views of the efforts of other aspiring writers. People who take creative-writing workshops get course credit and can, ultimately, receive an academic degree in the subject; but a workshop is not a course in the normal sense—a scene of instruction in which some body of knowledge is transmitted by means of a curricular script. The workshop is a process, an unscripted performance space, a regime for forcing people to do two things that are fundamentally contrary to human nature: actually write stuff (as opposed to planning to write stuff very, very soon), and then sit there while strangers tear it apart. There is one person in the room, the instructor, who has (usually) published a poem. But workshop protocol requires the instructor to shepherd the discussion, not to lead it, and in any case the instructor is either a product of the same process—a person with an academic degree in creative writing—or a successful writer who has had no training as a teacher of anything, and who is probably grimly or jovially skeptical of the premise on which the whole enterprise is based: that creative writing is something that can be taught.

more from Louis Menand at The New Yorker here.

modernist minotaurs


That the heroes of Homer’s epics might indeed have inhabited a world no less real than the Dublin of Joyce’s youth had been potently suggested by the exploits of Heinrich Schliemann, the excavator of Troy and Mycenae. Yet it was not only Agamemnon and his fellow warlords who appeared to have been redeemed from the oblivion of the fantastical. So, too, from 1900 onwards, had an even more primordial generation of heroes. Joyce, ever sensitive to the zeitgeist, had made play with it by surnaming his fictional alter ego Dedalus, after “the hawklike man” who had built, among many other wonders, the labyrinth in which the Minotaur was imprisoned. The excavation of an entire civilization on Crete, known as Minoan after the fabled king who was said to have ruled the island at the height of its prosperity, had served to reveal a wellspring for European civilization even more ancient than the grim warrior city of Mycenae. “In my beginning is my end”: to fathom the culture of Minoan Crete, so artists, historians and assorted prophets came to believe, might be to catch a glimpse of the West’s future as well as its past.

more from Tom Holland at the TLS here.


From Nature:

Dendrite Microscopes are biologists' window to life — and advances in microscopy over recent years are revealing some breathtaking new views. Here Nature profiles five microscopes that are changing the ways that researchers see the world, and examines the challenges involved in collecting and interpreting the microscopic image.

All in the details

Image on the right: A 3D reconstruction of a Purkinje cell dendrite acquired on the ultrahigh-voltage electron microscope at Osaka. The specimen was 4 microns thick, allowing for examination of the dendrite and spines in their entirety. By imaging thick samples, researchers can study large biological structures at high resolution while avoiding cutting them into sections.

More here.

Thursday Poem

Question and Answer
Anthony Deaton

Knoxville, 1977. The question is an accusation,
split from the tight smile of a boy
just a grade or two ahead of me. He asks:
Are you a nigger lover?

He does not wonder because my parents
are activists (how could he know?),
or because my older sister domestically
thumps cantaloupe at Kroger's in public

company of a black man. I have no older
sister to push ahead. The case is much simpler.
This boy, who seems just shy of man-
hood (awkward cigarette between his lips,

the milky shadow of a mustache),
knows my white face is the only white face,
the only face framed by straight hair and bangs,
in a regular after-school carpool. And when

he dares me with who I love, I am standing
on a sidewalk in front of Chilhowie Elementary,
unsure what to say, and terrified my ride
will arrive before I've escaped the answer.

It isn't the word nigger that raked in my chest,
but lover. Lover, I realized must be touching
another's naked body; “lover” was reserved for grownups,
a taboo in the curious world of my childhood.

But on spring afternoons whetted with the greeny
scent of cut grass, and after the day's class,
I sometimes visited my neighbor Mary.
shutting ourselves in the gentle dim of her room,

we undressed and lay together close. Quietly
played at love, each coaxing the other's smooth
flesh into wakefulness with mouth and tongue,
like babies who learn first the world by taste.

Her flat nipples shone like ebony nickels,
a bodied currency, freshly minted desire, salt.
We traded childhood for something we did not
know how to speak or value, and thrilled and shamed

in our half-found, half-concealed provinces,
fearing only parents discovering– the punishment
we knew would attend such adventures.
So when that boy's voice broke over me,

Are you a nigger lover? I heard not a slur,
but an affronted adult, the glaring eyes
widening at a privacy suddenly gone public,
and the word lover hovering there, naming what I was

Barack Obama’s speech at Cairo University

I am honored to be in the timeless city of Cairo, and to be hosted by two remarkable institutions. For over a thousand years, Al-Azhar has stood as a beacon of Islamic learning, and for over a century, Cairo University has been a source of Egypt's advancement. Together, you represent the harmony between tradition and progress. I am grateful for your hospitality, and the hospitality of the people of Egypt. I am also proud to carry with me the goodwill of the American people, and a greeting of peace from Muslim communities in my country: assalaamu alaykum.

Art.obamapic.giWe meet at a time of tension between the United States and Muslims around the world – tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate. The relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of co-existence and cooperation, but also conflict and religious wars. More recently, tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations. Moreover, the sweeping change brought by modernity and globalization led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam.

Violent extremists have exploited these tensions in a small but potent minority of Muslims. The attacks of September 11th, 2001 and the continued efforts of these extremists to engage in violence against civilians has led some in my country to view Islam as inevitably hostile not only to America and Western countries, but also to human rights. This has bred more fear and mistrust.

So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, and who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. This cycle of suspicion and discord must end.

I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.

Read more »

The Iowa Supreme Court opinion on gay marriage

Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:

ScreenHunter_05 Jun. 04 10.45 As a kid growing up in Los Angeles in the ’80s, I was rather free with the word “faggot.” It was used in a pejorative manner, though if you had asked me, I would have mouthed the basic tolerant platitudes. Once, in a “moral intervention” rather unusual for my Lefty but less-than-preachy parents, I was sat down and it was brought to my attention that the fag talk had gotten egregious. I remember suddenly feeling extremely uncomfortable, a flush spreading about my neck and face. It's just a word, I protested, no big deal. Then why use it, the parental figures retorted. The conversation went back and forth. But my father had reserved his secret weapon until the end. As he walked away from me, he said casually over his shoulder, “You know, your uncle Vince is gay.”

It blew my mind for a minute. I didn't know that Uncle Vince was gay. Sure, yeah, I said, but the revelation cut down to the core of me. It is a simple, human emotion. It is called shame. Taken too far it can lead to resentment, anger, self-hatred. But as the ancient Greeks liked to observe with some frequency, it is a hell of a gut check. How you respond to shame is, in a real sense, how you stack up as a human being. For Euripides and Sophocles, whoever cannot negotiate the territory of shame is usually guaranteed an ugly end, generally murder or suicide, sometimes worse. In this sense, we could all stand to be a little more Greek (no pun intended), more willing to listen to our internal conscience, that internal self-checking mechanism that makes us nervous and self-aware. That's when we have a chance of getting it right.

I'm a petty and self-absorbed little man, but I knew then, as I know now, that my Uncle Vince deserves every damn right afforded to every other human being. The fact that the “gay uncle” meme is something of a cliché only furthers the argument. There are too many gay uncles out there to pretend this is not a big deal. Point being, it has gotten to where gay rights, and its current manifestation as the “gay marriage” issue, has become a test of one's essential humanity. And that's not the kind of test you want to fail.

More here.

Cyborgs on the Horizon: Battlestar Galactica at the World Science Festival

For those of you in New York City, the second World Science Festival is taking place between June 10th to June 14th. Of the various panels, I'm perhaps most excited about this one:

Battlestar Galactica

Friday, June 12, 2009, 8:00 PM9:30 PM,

Cast members from Battlestar Galactica join leading roboticists to explore scientifically, philosophically, and ethically the approaching frontier where intelligent machines are commonplace and cybernetic technology enhances human capabilities. Featuring sneak previews from the forthcoming Battlestar special The Plan as well as live appearances by some of the show's star cylons.

With Nick Bostrom, Michael Hogan, Hod Lipson, Mary McDonnell, Faith Salie, and Kevin Warwick.

Really, I much prefer rubble


With Wall Street neutron-bombed by its own hubris and the American economy crawling along the curb, jitters have broken out that New York City might revert to the crumbling mayhem of the 70s, when it was every freaky hair ball and wounded bystander for himself—Mogadishu on the Hudson. When one ponders the 70s (as I, working on a memoir of the period, do), the word “pretty” doesn’t jeté to mind. Nor do the words “dulcet” and “fastidious.” From surviving artifacts, it’s easy to draw the impression that everybody was living in rubble and yelling like Vincent Gardenia. Post-Watergate cynicism caked the consciousness of the political and popular culture, providing a thick, gritty texture. Photo albums such as Allan Tannenbaum’s New York in the 70s, neo-realist policiers such as Serpico, The French Connection, and The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (a fancy remake by director Tony Scott is on the way), comedies of urban frustration such as Neil Simon’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue, one-night-stands-as-suicide-missions such as Looking for Mr. Goodbar and Cruising (released in 1980, but pure 70s in its cruddy, subterranean burrowings), re-creations such as the ESPN mini-series The Bronx Is Burning (based on Jonathan Mahler’s book), Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam, and the short-lived ABC series Life on Mars (dig those muttonchops)—they portray and preserve the collective memory of a metropolis on the verge of a nervous breakdown with a side order of panic in needle park. But it’s easy to over-accent the ugh factor and depict the 70s as a mammoth eyesore pothole out of which mankind somehow managed to climb, preparing itself for Madonna.

more from James Wolcott at Vanity Fair here.

National Fist Bump Day


Where were you for the fist bump heard ‘round the world? The dap that changed America? The knuckles that knocked these United States into a new post-racial era? More formally, where were you when Barack Obama was crowned as the Democratic nominee for the president of the United States? Remember, this was pre-Palin and before the financiapocalypse; before bailouts became buzz-worthy and before Tim Geithner and Sonia Sotomayor became household banter. It might be a strain, but go back a year ago—to June 3, 2008—when hysteria over “The Obama Pound” first ensued. Moments before taking the stage to deliver a speech that needed to claim victory and unite a fractured, primary-fatigued Democratic Party, a weary but elated Obama got one last gesture of moral support: His wife, Michelle, looked her man in the eye, mischievously stuck out her right fist and gave him a solid pound. This June 3, a group of media and design impresarios are promoting “National Fist Bump Day” in honor of the anniversary. They want to celebrate a new iconic American expression of authenticity, political transparency and of course, change we can believe in.

more from Patrice Evans at The Root here.



Looking at “historical moments” renders everything else invisible. The brilliant light radiating from such moments blinds or at least desensitises us to other things that may have happened. One need only look in the newspapers from 1988 and 1989, or leaf through notebooks from the time, to realise just how reductive the heroic image we retroactively constructed for 1989 is. In notebooks, there is no mention of an historic moment but rather scribbled information regarding doctors’ appointments, obligatory talks to attend, parent evenings. That year, as I recall by consulting diary entries, we were looking for a new apartment and a school for our daughter. Pending royalty payments from publishers and broadcasters are also noted. Birthdays of friends and the flight times of a firm that doesn’t exist anymore – Transworld Airways. Simplifications, generalisations are unavoidable; we cannot think, let alone live, without them. But it would be wrong to forget that these are simplifications. What does this imply for the historiography of the year 1989?

more from Karl Schlögel at Sign and Sight here.

Wednesday Poem

The Slaughterhouse
Vona Groarke

Some gap in the sidings, a man too few
at the turn into the pens, and they were out,
scattering like buckshot through the cars.
Until a clutch of lads in bloodied aprons
bore down on them with shouts and whirring arms.
Within minutes, they were gathered,
it was done. The lads strayed back to work,
the steel doors closed on the skirl and din,
the driver tidied his gates, and pulled away.
It was chill to the bone. I had been called to come.
I was late, though I didn’t know then, not on the journey,
with the plain-chant of the train seeing me home
through towns that came too slowly,
like final words, like beads in her hands;
not when I passed within miles of the house;
not at the station; not as I watched
the flurry of pigs; not when they were bested;
not while they were killed; not when I was driven away.

From: Other People's Houses
Publisher: The Gallery Press, Oldcastle, 1999

How storytelling and cooking helped humans evolve


Book A few years ago Tufts philosopher Daniel Dennett opined that the idea of natural selection – proposed 150 years ago in Charles Darwin's “On the Origin of Species” – was “the best idea anybody ever had.” The flood of books published this year to celebrate the sesquicentennial would seem to prove Dennett right.

The “idea of natural selection” is that changes in any organism's makeup or behavior will persist or not according to whether they make it more or less likely for that organism and its descendants to survive. What kind of changes, and where do they come from? Any kind, from anywhere. Chemical accidents or cosmic radiation may alter an organism's genes, and therefore its physiology, for better or worse. Environmental change or social interaction may make one physical or behavioral trait more advantageous than another – meaning that those who inherit or learn that trait will survive and reproduce more abundantly. This is “Darwin's dangerous idea,” from which all of evolutionary biology, anthropology, and psychology follow. It is, in the most general sense, why things happened the way they did during the 3 billion years of life on earth.

And not only in the most general sense. Natural selection is increasingly being invoked to explain practices whose origins once seemed forever inaccessible, enshrouded in the mists of prehistory. Three fascinating new books offer bold hypotheses about the origins and evolutionary significance of storytelling, language, and cooking.

More here.

WHAT’S NEXT? Dispatches on the Future of Science

From Edge:

“A preview of the ideas you're going to be reading about in ten years.”Steven Pinker

Alexander150 Stephon H. S. Alexander:

“JUST WHAT IS DARK ENERGY?” Dark energy, itself directly unobservable, is the most bewildering substance known, the only “stuff” that acts both on subatomic scales and across the largest distances in the cosmos.

Stephon H. S. Alexander

is an associate professor of physics at Haverford College. His research focuses on unresolved problems—such as the cosmological-constant or dark-energy problem—that connect cosmology to quantum gravity and the standard model of elementary particles. Stephon H. S. Alexander's Edge Bio Page


The early universe is hot and dense; the late universe is cold and dilute. Well…why is it like that? The truth is, we have no idea.

Sean Carroll, theoretical physicist, is a senior research associate at Caltech. His research ranges over a number of topics in theoretical physics, including cosmology, field theory, particle physics, and gravitation. He is the author if a graduate textbook, Spacetime and Geometry: An Introduction to General Relativity and cofounder and contributor to the Cosmic Variance blog. Sean Carroll's Edge Bio Page

More here.

Art or Bust: The oldest sculpture ever discovered is a 36,000 year old woman with really big breasts. Is anyone surprised?

Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:

ID_NC_MEIS_STATU_AP_001 Dubbed the “Venus of Hohle Fels” she is only about 6 centimeters tall. Her most prominent feature is the aforementioned rack, though her shapely gams come in a close second. This has led to a certain amount of snickering. The oldest sculpture in the world is basically a pair of breasts that hung on a string from some cave person's neck. As The Economist opined, “this discovery adds to the evidence that human thinking—or male thinking, at least—has hardly changed since the species evolved.”

The more uptight among us—i.e. the scientists—are trying to keep it clean. Professor Nicholas Conard from Tübingen University danced gingerly around the topic, noting to the BBC that, “We project our ideas of today on to this image from 40,000 years ago. I think there are good reasons to emphasize sexual interpretations, but we really don't know whether it is coming from a more male or a more female perspective. We don't know very much about how the artifact was used.” Others have retreated to the relatively safe territory of cognitive and cultural development. Paul Mellars, an archeologist at Cambridge, in his commentary on the sculpture for Nature, wrote “How far this ‘symbolic explosion’ [the emergence of representational art like the Venus] associated with the origins and dispersal of our species reflects a major, mutation-driven reorganization in the cognitive capacities of the human brain — perhaps associated with a similar leap forward in the complexity of language — remains a fascinating and contentious issue.”

I'm not sure the two points (the sex and the cognitive development) are really all that different.

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Watch the Parking Meters

Nikil Saval reviews Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen by Mark Rudd, in N + 1's latest book review supplement:

Nsruddmaybe_img_assist_custom The title is slightly misleading. Of the book's 322 pages, which cover 1966 to the present, Mark Rudd spends almost half of them over-ground—at Columbia, helping lead the famous occupation of 1968. The years underground are a disappointment: unlike his comrade-in-arms and fellow memoirist, Bill Ayers (Fugitive Days), who was a main architect of the “Days of Rage” in 1969 and the infamous bombing campaign, Rudd went sour on the Weathermen early, doing little as a fugitive except trying not to get caught. Scenes of Rudd running from FBI agents dressed as hippies make for fun reading, but they are only interludes in a chronicle marked mostly by episodes of deep regret and self-laceration.

More here.

Do we need a technological breakthrough to avert the climate crisis?

Bradford Plumer in The New Republic:

Pic%20for%20brad%20in%20mag In the winter of 1984, a young scientist named Steven Chu was working as the new head of the quantum electronics division at AT&T's Bell Labs in Holmdel, New Jersey. For months, he'd been struggling to find ways to trap atoms with light so that he could hold them in place and study them better. It was an idea he'd picked up from an older colleague, Arthur Ashkin, who had wrangled with the problem all through the 1970s before finally being told to shut the project down–which he did, until Chu came along. (“I was this new, young person who he could corrupt,” Chu later joked.) Now Chu, too, had hit an impasse until, one night, a fierce snowstorm swirled through New Jersey. Everyone at Bell had left early except for Chu, who lived nearby and decided to stay a bit longer. As he watched the snow drift outside, he realized they'd been approaching the problem incorrectly: He first needed to cool the atoms, so that they were moving only as fast as ants, rather than fighter jets; only then could he predict their movements and trap them with lasers. It was a key insight, and Chu's subsequent work on cooling atoms eventually earned him a share of the Nobel Prize in physics.

While it may sound inevitable in retrospect, big breakthroughs like that don't come along too often. Nowadays, though, Chu is betting that they will– and must. As the U.S. energy secretary, Chu has been tasked with reshaping the country's trillion-dollar energy economy, to reduce America's reliance on fossil fuels and cut greenhouse-gas emissions 80 percent or more by mid-century- -essential to avoiding catastrophic climate change. It's an enormous goal, and Chu believes the only way to achieve it is with multiple Nobel-caliber leaps in energy technology. “I mean technology that is game-changing, as opposed to merely incremental,” he told Congress in March–technology that, as a recent Department of Energy (DOE) task force described it, will require an understanding of basic physics and chemistry “beyond our present reach.”

Not everyone agrees that the fate of the planet hinges on such far-reaching advances.

More here.