Intellectual Entrepreneurs : A highbrow journal rises in an era of sound bites

From Harvard Magazine:

N1 Don’t be misled: n+1 is not a math quarterly. It’s a twice-yearly literary magazine whose first issue declared, in 2004, “We are living in an era of demented self-censorship…a time when a magazine like Lingua Franca can’t publish, but Zagat prospers.” Seven issues later, at more than 200 pages apiece, the Brooklyn-based n+1 continues to air trenchant views. “Pointed, closely argued, and often brilliantly original critiques of contemporary life and letters,” wrote A.O. Scott in the New York Times Magazine, describing n+1’s enterprise as “a generational struggle against laziness and cynicism.” Even intellectuals in Europe have championed it: theater director Alessandro Cassin, in Milan’s Diario, for example, cited n+1’s “brand of intellectual bravery that has its roots in magazines like T.S. Eliot’s Criterion and the Partisan Review.”

More here.

Newsmaker of the year: Steven Chu

From Nature:

Nature is pleased to name physicist Steven Chu, Nobel laureate and the US Secretary of Energy, as its Newsmaker of the Year.

Newsmaker-2 Steven Chu made his name — and earned his Nobel prize — by developing an ingenious laser technique for capturing and studying atoms. He is an extraordinary experimentalist who loves the challenges of the lab. But five years ago, he embraced a much bigger challenge when he took the helm at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California and dedicated it to clean-energy research. Chu was sworn in as secretary of the US Department of Energy this January, and is now charged with transforming the way the world's largest economy powers itself. That is why Nature has selected Chu as its Newsmaker of the Year.

Chu has already had a significant impact. From his position near the top of President Barack Obama's administration, he has helped make the case that the United States must commit to reducing its greenhouse-gas emissions, not only to save the planet but also to ensure that the country will be able to compete with China, India and Europe in the emerging green economy.

More here.

The mystery element in all this is freshness


I didn’t know until a friend told me that if you squeeze a dried bunch of lavender the tickly sharp scent is released all over again. Pips that fall away can be gathered and bundled into sachets, squeezed again months later, and your head aches with memories you’ve not even recalled till now, the scent as piercingly fine as at the beginning. Certain pictures release the same kind of charge. The soft, glowing languor of Watteau’s group of watchmen in The Portal of Valenciennes in the Frick; the gusting dread in the Met’s picture by Millet (untypical for him) of wild turkeys in an autumn windstorm; the Manet in the Barnes of sailors tarring a boat: the paint doesn’t look like torch-fire, it is torch-fire, and the boat under repair is the picture we’re looking at right now being painted and repainted. But one I’ve lived with longest, the one that has watched me over the arc of many years, is a small self-portrait Tintoretto made at the age of twenty-three that hangs in Philadelphia. I saw it when I was twenty years old, and I only recently realized how I’ve clung to its presence as I’ve gone about the work of making my life. It’s always the same but keeps changing up on me. I never could resist the picture’s brash daring—his over-the-shoulder stare says: Just watch what I can do.

more from W. S. Di Piero at Threepenny Review here.

yankee doodles


America is at once that rare thing, a complex cliché, and something all too familiar, a set of contradictions: “one nation under God, indivisible”, but with a dozen varieties of Christianity, the product of Puritanism and the Enlightenment, a colony-turned-superpower equally defined by acts of violence and belief in freedom, isolationism and interventionism, conformity and self-reliance. And yet most of us have no trouble understanding the idea of an essential, even stable America, and possess what the critic Greil Marcus has called “a sense of what it is to be an American; what it means, what it’s worth, what the stake of life in America might be”. The interplay between America’s heterogeneity and its aspiration to coherence is captured in the wording of the Declaration of Independence (“one people”), in the system of government (a federal republic), even in its adopted name (United States). But if we prefer not to think of these as contradictions, if America is a paradox rather than a hypocrite, if it possesses unity despite its divisions, then this is due to a distinctive process, something not quite covered by the terms “polity” or “democracy” or “melting pot”.

more from Leo Robson at The New Statesman here.

In praise of suburbia


The late J. G. Ballard was famous for living in suburbia, Shepperton to be precise. He thought it odd that anyone should think this odd. The suburbs were, in his view, the logical subject for any writer seeking to track shifts in culture, for the important post-war cultural trends had started there. The ’burbs were where it was at; they were socially as well geographically edgy, to use the sort of language he wouldn’t have used. It is hard to think of a more unfashionable claim. To the intelligentsia, the suburbs were and always have been the place where nothing happens, or nothing good. While the fates of the city and the countryside vex every bien-pensant breast, nobody pays much attention to the people who live in between, except to finger them as the Enemy. Lewis Mumford, in his heyday as the urban guru, declared that the flight to the suburbs “carries no hope or promise of life at a higher level”. D. H. Lawrence wrote in Kangaroo of the “utterly uninteresting” suburbs of Sydney (where he had been for all of a fortnight): those myriads of bungalows offered “no inner life, no high command, no interest in anything, finally”. From Byron to Graham Greene and Cyril Connolly, the “leafy middleclass suburbs” have been denounced as smug, small-minded and spiritually derelict.

more from Ferdinand Mount at the TLS here.

Thursday Poem

For You to Understand

To be a jacket
To be a slave
To be a stepladder
To be forsaken
For you to understand
You must have a disability

To be a breast of money
For those who are abled
And be the belt
For civil servants
And be a grass mat for feet
The feet of the rich
The feet of the wealthy
For you to understand
You must have a disability

And ask for help day and night
No one will listen
The government and community
They all emphasize
They emphasize your worthlessness
And you also feel worthless
But for you to understand
You must have a disability

Discrimination has become obvious
To be undermined
People see a disability
And do not see a person
But for you to understand
You must have a disability

by Bongekile Joyce Mbanjwa

translation by Siphiwe ka Ngwenya
from Izinhlungu Zomphefumula
publisher Botsotso, Johannesburg, 2008

Simple Math Expressions Yield Intricate Visual Patterns

John Matson in Scientific American:

ScreenHunter_03 Dec. 31 12.13 On December 5 John Baez, a mathematical physicist at the University of California, Riverside, posted a collection of images of polynomial roots by Dan Christensen, a mathematician at the University of Western Ontario, and Sam Derbyshire, an undergraduate student at the University of Warwick in England.

Polynomials are mathematical expressions that in their prototypical form can be described by the sum or product of one or more variables raised to various powers. As a single-variable example, take x2 – x – 2. This expression is a second-degree polynomial, or a quadratic, meaning that the variable (x) is raised to the second power in the term with the largest exponent (x2).

A root of such a polynomial is a value for x such that the expression is equal to zero. In the quadratic above, the roots are 2 and –1. That is to say, plug either of those numbers in for x and the polynomial will be equal to zero. (These roots can be found by using the famous quadratic formula.) But some roots are more complex. Take the quadratic polynomial x2 + 1. Such an expression is only equal to zero when x2 is equal to –1, but on its face this seems impossible. After all, a positive number times a positive number is positive, and a negative number times a negative number is positive as well. So what number, multiplied by itself, could be negative?

More here, including slide show.

Tony Judt writes movingly about having Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS)

From the New York Review of Books:

Tony-judt By my present stage of decline, I am thus effectively quadriplegic. With extraordinary effort I can move my right hand a little and can adduct my left arm some six inches across my chest. My legs, although they will lock when upright long enough to allow a nurse to transfer me from one chair to another, cannot bear my weight and only one of them has any autonomous movement left in it. Thus when legs or arms are set in a given position, there they remain until someone moves them for me. The same is true of my torso, with the result that backache from inertia and pressure is a chronic irritation. Having no use of my arms, I cannot scratch an itch, adjust my spectacles, remove food particles from my teeth, or anything else that—as a moment's reflection will confirm—we all do dozens of times a day. To say the least, I am utterly and completely dependent upon the kindness of strangers (and anyone else).

During the day I can at least request a scratch, an adjustment, a drink, or simply a gratuitous re-placement of my limbs—since enforced stillness for hours on end is not only physically uncomfortable but psychologically close to intolerable. It is not as though you lose the desire to stretch, to bend, to stand or lie or run or even exercise. But when the urge comes over you there is nothing—nothing—that you can do except seek some tiny substitute or else find a way to suppress the thought and the accompanying muscle memory.

But then comes the night.

More here.

The amazing story of how Esperanto came to be

Esther Schor in The New Republic:

Esperanto4 To Esperantists, the man who created the language-movement is a household god, a patron saint. As for non-Esperantists who are aware of Zamenhof, he’s too unthreatening nowadays to be derided as a quixotic dreamer. Most regard him with mild condescension as a MittelEuropean, Jewish Geppetto, hammering together his little toy language in the hope that it might someday become real.

But inside this Geppetto was not only the dream of a new language, but also of something far stranger and unimagined: a new people altogether, and neither the Jews nor the Esperantists were the people he envisioned. Project by project, credo by credo, member by member, he tried to build a new people, a Geppetto with the audacity of Frankenstein.

More here.

U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan

Rosen_35.1_hummer The Boston Review has a New Democracy forum on counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. From Nir Rosen's lead essay:

President Obama asks how our strategy in Afghanistan will serve U.S. security interests, but McChrystal’s report answered an entirely different question: how can Afghanistan control its own territory? He prescribed for the United States the impossible task of creating a new Afghanistan while engaging in counterinsurgency against the Taliban. COIN inevitably requires military action against a major segment of the Afghan population and, in doing so, undermines the project of state-building.

In Obama’s “all of the above” plan, the Americans in Afghanistan will not be engaged in counterinsurgency—or in reconstruction—at all, but in creating something out of nothing.

Helena Cobban, Syed Saleem Shahzad, J. Alexander Thier, Andrew Exum, Aziz Hakimi, and Andrew J. Bacevich respond. Syed Saleem Shahzad:

The Obama administration’s troop surge fails to address the real threat in Afghanistan: the insurgents’ efforts to develop a regional strategy in South Asia. Washington’s focus—members of al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan and the traditional Afghan Taliban—misses the mark. Nir Rosen does, too, when he asks whether “a few hundred angry, unsophisticated Muslim extremists really pose such grave dangers to a vigilant superpower, now alert to potential threats.”

The November 2008 Mumbai attacks and the recent FBI arrests in Chicago for conspiracy to launch attacks in New Delhi suggest that containing the threat from Afghanistan is extremely complicated, and solutions must go beyond troop surges in Afghanistan, training Afghan police and soldiers, or even political dialogue with Taliban commanders inside the country. Intelligence agencies are now realizing that both the Mumbai events and the Delhi plans—plotted directly by al Qaeda affiliated groups, which I call the Neo-Taliban—were directly linked to Afghanistan, but also incorporated wider aims. The goal was to expand the theater of war to India so that Washington would lose track of its objectives and get caught in a quagmire.

An escalation of hostilities between Pakistan and India—open war—would cut off the NATO supply route to land-locked Afghanistan through the southern Pakistani port city of Karachi. NATO’s only alternate route—through Central Asian republics into northern Afghanistan—is economically unsustainable in a long war.

The chief planner of both conspiracies was Ilyas Kashmiri, a former Kashmiri separatist who survived an air strike from an unmanned CIA Predator in Pakistan’s North Waziristan in September 2009. According to U.S. intelligence, Kashmiri heads al Qaeda’s global military operation. We spoke in an exclusive interview on October 9, 2009: “Saleem!” he said,

I will draw your attention to the basics of the present war theater and use that to explain the whole strategy of the upcoming battles. Those who planned this battle actually aimed to bring the world’s biggest Satan [the United States] and its allies into this trap and swamp [Afghanistan]. Afghanistan is a unique place in the world where the hunter has all sorts of traps to choose from.

He added: “al Qaeda’s regional war strategy, in which they have hit Indian targets, is actually to chop off American strength.”

God has Left Politics: Indian Exceptionalism?

Hartosh Singh Bal in the magazine Open:

ScreenHunter_02 Dec. 31 11.29 Religiosity is on the ascendant in this country as never before. In the last five years, daily attendance at Hindu shrines has risen dramatically. At Tirupati, it has gone up from 20,000 to 35,000. At Vaishno Devi, annual attendance has gone up from 5 million in 2004 to 7.7 million in the first 11 months of this year. But the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), stuck in New Delhi debating the Liberhan report in the backdrop of what could have been, has found its vote share in consistent decline over the past decade. In the Indian general election held earlier this year, it dipped to its lowest level since the party shot to prominence in 1991. If today the party is in shambles, offering little hope even to its most committed supporters, it is because it has failed to ‘harvest the souls’ that according to conventional wisdom should have been the saffron party’s for the taking.

This paradox, India’s increasing religiosity and a right wing in terminal decline, is uniquely ours. Across the world, the growth of middle-class religiosity fuelled by consumerism has strengthened right wing movements. Countries such as Turkey, which have seen a boom in the economy, have responded by voting in right wing governments to power, and in the US, the growth of evangelism has benefitted the Republicans.

For well over a decade, this was also the trend in India. In 1987-88, the telecast of Ramayana on national television—Doordarshan had a broadcast monopoly then—gave an impetus to the Vishva Hindu Parishad’s (VHP’s) Ram Janmabhoomi movement. It was this temptation of numbers that lured Lal Krishna Advani into launching his 1990-91 Rath Yatra to usher in Ram Rajya.

For observers such as Chandan Mitra, journalist and Rajya Sabha MP representing the BJP, the rise of the saffron party coincided with a ‘surge in pop religiosity’. As he says, “Advani himself has written about how the telecast of the Ramayana helped the movement. I would certainly say that this was true from 1989 to 1999.” And then, something seems to have changed.

no local vision


When I first read Edgar, and realised he was making up these elaborate stanzas and then replicating them throughout the poem as if to prove that his idea of formal freedom was all discipline and vice versa, I thought immediately of Richard Wilbur in that sumptuous post-WWII phase when he was producing the intricately articulated clarities of “Piazza di Spagna, Early Morning” and “A Baroque Wall Fountain in the Villa Sciarra”. But at our first epic lunch the second bottle of Cloudy Bay had barely been broached before Edgar revealed that, much as he admired Wilbur, for him Anthony Hecht had been the Man. Either way, a foreign technical influence had been the right kind to suspect. If Edgar had read neither Wilbur nor Hecht, he might still have got the idea from Larkin, who was making up stanza forms quite early in his career; and of course Larkin got it from Hardy and the later Yeats. Edgar might quite possibly have concocted the whole approach if he had read nothing but Keats’s Odes. What is certain, however, is that there had been very little Australian poetry like it. If Edgar was getting his technical inspiration out of the air, it was out of the world’s air, and not just the air of his own country.

more from Clive James at here.

The Art of the Ditch

From The New York Review of Books:

Fly Not long after takeoff from LaGuardia last January 15, as the Charlotte-bound US Airways flight was climbing out smoothly over the Bronx on a northerly heading, something hit the airplane. Something that seemed big. There was a loud noise and a collective gasp from the passengers. Some of them had seen something like a flash of brown going into the engines. The airplane began to wiggle a little and decelerate. The flight attendants were still strapped in their seats not near any windows, but they guessed what had happened. There was a smell of something burning. It had become completely quiet. There was no word from the cockpit. A woman would text her husband, “My flight is crashing.”

The airplane was not crashing, but it was definitely headed down. At about 2,500 feet it had collided with a flock of Canada geese flying southwest; geese are not uncommon in the New York area, their ancient migratory routes passing over it. At least five birds had hit the plane, three or more going into and virtually destroying both engines. The copilot, Jeffrey Skiles, had been at the controls, and he and the pilot, Chesley Sullenberger, had suddenly seen, at the same time, the flock of geese slightly above and ahead.

“Birds!” Sullenberger cried just before they hit.

“Whoa!” Skiles said.

They were fortunate that a bird—Canada geese are large—hadn't crashed directly into the windshield, but the engines were already banging and winding down. Fire was coming from both of them, flames from one and fireballs from the other. Briefly, for some fifteen seconds, Sullenberger tried to restart the engines and also, more or less instinctively since it was not part of the procedure, he started an auxiliary power unit in the tail to maintain electrical power. His pulse rate must have been high, but he said calmly, “My aircraft,” and took over the controls.

More here.



One spring day in 1952, Miss Grace Kelly, of Philadelphia, now resident in New York, went across to “a barn-like studio on the far West Side of Manhattan.” That is how she later described it, as if recalling a foreign trip. In the barn, she did a screen test, for a movie called “Taxi,” opposite Robert Alda: the fair young maid and the darker, troubled fellow, each pleading with the other. Kelly wears a soft sweater and, beneath it, a white blouse, whose demure collar is just discernible. We can also make out a mild Irish accent—not much of a stretch, for one of the Kelly clan. “It ain’t that I’m not fond of you,” she says, in words that have weighed like lead, throughout history, on the hearts of disappointed guys. Her eyes keep moving across the man, as if he were a passage of verse. There is both hesitancy and force in this woman; you can picture her, faced with a decision, flitting back and forth, and yet, once decided, becoming quite fiery and sure. It was a combination that appealed to the director of “Taxi,” Gregory Ratoff. He liked the look of Kelly, all the more so because, in his view, the look was that of a plain Jane. According to Kelly, “I was in the ‘too’ category for a very long time. I was too tall, too leggy, too chinny. I remember that Mr. Ratoff kept yelling, ‘She’s perfect! What I love about this girl is that she’s not pretty!’ ”

more from Anthony Lane at The New Yorker here.

Using Light and Genes to Probe the Brain

From Scientific American:

A-light-in-the-brain_1 In 1979 Francis Crick, famed co-discoverer of DNA’s structure, published an article in Scientific American that set out a wish list of techniques needed to fundamentally improve understanding of the way the brain processes information. High on his wish list was a method of gaining control over specific classes of neurons while, he wrote, “leaving the others more or less unaltered.” Over the past few years Crick’s vision for targeting neurons has begun to materialize thanks to a sophisticated combination of fiber optics and genetic engineering. The advent of what is known as optogenetics has even captured popular attention because of its ability to alter animal behavior—one research group demonstrated how light piped into a mouse’s brain can drive it to turn endlessly in circles. Such feats have inspired much public comment, including a joke made by comedian Jay Leno in 2006 about the prospect for an optogenetically controlled fly pestering George W. Bush.

Controlling a subordinate or a spouse with a souped-up laser pointer may be essential for science-fiction dystopia and late-night humor, but in reality optogenetics has emerged as the most important new technology for providing insight into the numbingly complex circuitry of the mammalian brain. It has already furnished clues as to how neural miswiring underlies neurological and mental disorders, including Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia.

More here.

The Ping-Pong Prodigy

Ben Shpigel in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_01 Dec. 30 12.34 Three times a week, Michael Landers takes the Long Island Rail Road to Penn Station. He rides the subway downtown for two stops, then walks two blocks to SPiN New York, at 23rd Street and Park Avenue South, where for three hours he practices table tennis in his quest to become the best player in the United States. On the train home, he does his math homework.

At 15, Landers is the youngest player to win the men’s national singles championship. He overcame a three-games-to-one deficit in the best-of-seven final on Dec. 19 in Las Vegas, where controversy almost derailed his bid. Six of the eight quarterfinalists defaulted after protesting what they considered to be insufficient prize money. Landers was ushered straight to the final, where he defeated his higher-rated opponent, 26-year-old Samson Dubina.

More here.  Here’s some video of that final match against Dubina:

What a Teacher and a Student Learned about Life While Corresponding about Math

David T. Kung in American Scientist:

ScreenHunter_06 Dec. 30 11.14 Take a minute to think back a few years—okay, maybe a few more than that—to your high school days. Think past the awkward dances, the tortured relationships, the overhyped football games, to your high school math teachers. Who were they? What were their lives like? What did they do when they weren’t teaching you how to factor, what a logarithm is or how to take derivatives? What are they up to now?

Unlike many of us, Steven Strogatz can actually answer these questions, at least with regard to his high school calculus teacher, Don “Joff” Joffray. Strogatz shares those answers and much more in The Calculus of Friendship. Part biography, part autobiography and part off-the-beaten-path guide to calculus, this quick read details 30 years of correspondence between Strogatz (who is now Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of Applied Mathematics at Cornell University) and Joffray.

Calculus, Isaac Newton’s ingenious invention for modeling change mathematically, serves as both text and subtext for the letters that pass between Strogatz and Joff. Focusing almost exclusively on questions of mathematics, these brief notes frame the unlikely friendship of a teacher and his star student. With the precision of an award-winning mathematician and the clarity of a best-selling science author, Strogatz leads us on an excursion through some of the lesser-known mathematical sights—the ones usually reserved for the “members only” tour. All the while, we see the relationship between the two men gradually change as they slowly (and I do mean slowly) break down the walls that appropriately separate teacher from student.

More here.