Christopher Hitchens diagnosed with cancer

Sad news via Owen Bowcott in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_02 Jul. 01 08.10 The author and polemicist Christopher Hitchens yesterday announced he was cutting short a promotional book tour in order to undergo chemotherapy treatment.

There were reports that the the British-born writer, who was a heavy smoker until giving up several years ago, had been diagnosed with cancer.

In a statement issued by his US publisher, Twelve, the 61-year-old said: “I have been advised by my physician that I must undergo a course of chemotherapy on my oesophagus. This advice seems persuasive to me. I regret having had to cancel so many engagements at such short notice.”

The firm gave no further details other than asking for his privacy to be respected. Hitchens launched a high profile book tour last month to promote his memoir Hitch-22, which tackles subjects ranging from the Middle East and Zimbabwe to his friendships with prominent writers including Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis. The volume has already entered the bestseller lists.

More here.

Wednesday Poem



I sent you a few words
ones that are now rare –
if they reach you one day,
hide them, there’s no way to understand me


the space that exists within a word
is like our home:
there are pictures, sounds, and gestures in it –
and yet we are forbidden to decipher it


for those who still believe in words:
silent is their surging core, pitch-dark is their heart of fire –
but when will we ever understand the sea?
and the eternal fire?


what do we find beyond words:
a flower garden? deep space?
in the garden, so many things are left unsaid
in space, so stark is the void


what else is left to cling on to? some words
insist on bursting through reality’s edge –
upon reaching the other shore, will it still be meaningful,
to you, everything I want to say?


in every word you read there are always
missing letters –
you will find them again someday
amidst thickets of memories.

by Sapardi Djoko Damono
translation: Hasif Amini and Sapardi Djoko Damono
Hujan Bulan Juni
publisher: Grasindo, Jakarta, 1994

Israel’s Stalemate


On a balmy and humid Saturday night, June 5th, we left our apartment on Kikar Masarik Square in Tel-Aviv and walked down to Yitzhak Rabin Square, only 5 minutes away. Recalling our youthful days at similar anti-war and peace marches, we eyed the crowd anxiously. We soon realized that we were joining the crowd, whose size would eventually grow to 6,000 and sponsored by the Israeli Peace Movement (Shalom Ahshav), at the gathering spot of the Israeli Communist Party (Hadash): I noticed many young Arabs carrying the hammer and sickle, along with girls, Israeli or Palestinian, with their khaffiyas, chanting in Hebrew and Arabic as a distinguished looking elderly Arab gentleman addressed that part of the crowd. As the sea of red flags surges around us, I suppressed a tear: Such a sight is hardly visible in any European capital. I recalled all those Jewish communist militants of Europe who gave their lives for an ideal that was hollowed out by history. “Wie eine Trane im Ozean,” I mused –like a tear in the Ocean– recalling that beautiful novel of Mannes Sperber, documenting the decimation of a generation of militants by Stalin and party purges even before the gas chambers reached them. But here now before me were their children and grandchildren, not in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Budapest and Moscow, but in Tel-Aviv.

more from Seyla Benhabib at Reset here.

cold war fiction


The political novel – the urgent, morally committed depiction of conflicts and tragedies – flourished during the 1930s and 1940s, amid depression, fascism and total war, when Soviet communism was the socialist star on an otherwise darkening horizon. This era spawned some of the finest political fiction and drama we have known: Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, André Malraux, Arthur Koestler, George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus were all writing at full throttle. In my opinion, the cold war – and the fiction it created – begins in the 1930s with the Spanish civil war. Young writers made the pilgrimage to Republican Spain and some of them died. Orwell escaped death by a whisker, as a bullet passed through his neck. Malraux led an air squadron and produced a novel of electric expressionism, Man’s Hope (1937). Hemingway settled down to the measured, crafted story-telling of For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). But if anti-fascism was the point of departure for all these writers, they would soon divide over the nature of the Stalinist intervention in Spain. Dos Passos, the most formally innovative of all interwar novelists, chose to turn Adventures of a Young Man (1939) into a howl of protest against communist chicanery. Orwell himself went for a mix of autobiography and reportage in Homage to Catalonia (1938), an indictment of Stalinist tactics in which he talked himself out of Left Book Club patronage and into embittered isolation.

more from David Caute at The New Statesman here.

even nightingales, as a Russian proverb has it, can’t live off fairy tales


When people talk about “natural storytellers,” they are probably paying an unintended compliment to the unnatural. They mean that such writers are unnaturally gifted in artifice; that, better than the rest of us, they can draw us in, sound a voice, shape a plot, siphon the fizz of suspense. Yet the compliment is not merely inverted, since even freakish mastery of such tricks does not account for those impalpable gifts—the tremor of presence on the page, the overflow of vitality—which rival the abundance, even gratuitousness, of nature itself. The English writer David Mitchell belongs to this returning army of nature. Lavishly talented as both a storyteller and a prose stylist, he is notable for his skill and his fertility. Without annoying zaniness or exaggeration, he is nevertheless an artist of surplus: he seems to have more stories than he quite knows what to do with, and he ranges across a remarkable variety of genres—conventional historical fiction, dystopian sci-fi, literary farce. “Cloud Atlas” (2004), his best-known novel, features six interlocked and rotating novellas, each completely different from its neighbor: the journal of an American notary, travelling by boat from Australia to America in the eighteen-fifties; the letters of a young bisexual English composer, sent in the nineteen-thirties to a college friend; a slice of nineteen-seventies paranoid political thriller, in which a young California journalist takes on a sinister energy corporation.

more from James Wood at The New Yorker here.

Nabokov in Berlin

From Standpoint:

Nabakov-i-Berlin-1936 Vladimir Nabokov was starting his career as a writer when he found himself in Berlin. “It is clear, for one thing, that while a man is writing, he is situated in some definite place; he is not simply a kind of spirit, hovering over the page…Something or other is going on around him.” The short 1934 novel Despair from which this quote comes is already heavily self-ironising compared with the stories of the previous decade. But like them it is studded with incidental Berlin experiences, from the shape of the city's S-Bahn train line on the map to the comedy of a German misspeaking English. “I suppose only the pest. The chief thing by me is optimismus.” If Nabokov's Berlin was in his head, it was nevertheless not invented.

He lived from 1932-37 with his wife and son at Nestorstrasse 22, in the smart, quiet residential area of Wilmersdorf, comparable with London's Chelsea. The unfussy mansion block was his first real home after the curtailed teenage years in Russia. The previous decade in Berlin had been a series of removals from one rented address to the next after his father was shot dead by Bolshevik agents in 1922. “That flat of ours in one of those newfangled houses built in the modern, boxlike, space-cheating, let-us-have-no-nonsense style…” So the imagined author of Despair commented as his creator moved in. The building was dull with an awkward tower in brick and glass towering up at its helm. The protagonist of Nabokov's next big project, The Gift, dwelling in Agamemnonstrasse, thought that the boring architect of his block had suddenly gone mad. After the war, these leafy streets had to be raised from the rubble. (Tiny bronze plaques mark their 1954 resurrection). The Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov lived here, 1932-37, it says, but you could easily pass by that dim bronze plaque from 1999, fading into a brownish façade.

More here.

Myths and scientific realities about vampires


Vamp “Eclipse,” opening June 30, is the third big-screen adaptation of Stephenie Meyer's “Twilight” series of vampire romance novels. The stories revolve around the tangled relationship between the human Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and the vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). Heartthrob vampires are, of course, fictional creatures drawn from a rich history of myth and reality. Click ahead to learn more.

Bloodsucking humans in medieval times

This 16th-century woman, whose remains were excavated during an archaeological dig near Venice, apparently had a brick shoved into her trap because she was thought to have a thirst for human blood. Scholars trace the myth that humans rise from the dead and suck the blood of others to medieval ignorance about how diseases spread and bodies decompose. When mass graves were re-opened during epidemics to deposit fresh corpses, the diggers often encountered older, bloated bodies with blood seeping out of their mouths — conditions that scientists now know result from the buildup of gases in decomposing organs. In earlier times, however, this was regarded as a sign that the corpses were drinking the blood of others. Medieval Italians thought that the only known way to kill the undead was to stick a brick in their mouths so that they would starve, according to Matteo Borrini, a forensic archaeologist and anthropologist at Florence University. This skull with a mouthful of brick, he said, is “evidence of exorcism against a vampire.”

More here.

A cortical atlas of ghostly sensations

Vaughan Bell in Mind Hacks:

Brain Frontiers in Neuroscience has an amazing scientific article that has collected all the studies that have recorded what happens when the brain is electrically stimulated in living patients. It's like a travel guide to the unnaturally active brain.

As you might expect, science generally takes a dim view of researchers cracking open people's skulls just to see what happens when bits of their brain are stimulated, hence, almost all of these studies have been done on patients who are undergoing brain surgery but have agreed to spend a few minutes during the operation to report their experiences for the benefit of neuroscience.

This procedure is also essential in some forms of brain surgery to make sure the surgeons avoid essential areas. For example, in some cases of otherwise untreatable epilepsy the surgeons track down the 'foci' or trigger area, and can often stop seizures completely just by removing it.

However, if an area is heavily involved in speech production, you wouldn't necessarily want to give up being able to talk for the sake of being seizure free, so surgeons will open the skull, wake you up, and then ask you to speak while stimulating the areas they are considering removing. They can map your speech areas by seeing when you can't speak as the areas are stimulated, and hence, know what areas to avoid.

More here.

Pakistan’s Heartland Under Threat

ScreenHunter_01 Jun. 30 12.41
John Lancaster in National Geographic:

The Taliban would not be amused. On a sunny winter afternoon in Lahore, the local culturati have turned out in force for the annual show at the National College of Arts. In the main courtyard young men and women mingle easily, smoking and sipping from cans of Red Bull. Some of the men sport ponytails, and one has a pierced eyebrow.

Nearby is a life-size sculpture of a couple hold­ing hands on a swing. Inside, the image of a male torso, viewed from one angle, morphs into a female breast. Yet there is no mistaking the stamp of the subcontinent. Women wear tra­ditional thigh-length tunics over their jeans, and some cover their hair. There are also miniature paintings, which traditionally might capture a hunting scene; here they portray other scenes, as in one bold depiction of a bearded cleric reclining on a couch in front of a bombed-out school.

The jumble of styles and influences—the stew of peoples and faiths Rudyard Kipling captured so vividly in his novel Kim—is a hallmark of Lahore, Pakistan's second largest city and capital of Punjab Province. The wealthiest and most populous of the country's four provinces, Punjab is where East meets West and everything in between. Even the brutal and bloody partition of British India in the mid-20th century could not destroy Punjab's cosmopolitan brio.

But the Taliban and its allies are doing their best.

More here, including a lovely photo gallery.

Tyrant with a Movie Camera

ANC_03_jpg_470x354_q85 J. Hoberman in the NYRB blog:

The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu, which had its world premiere at Cannes last month and will be turning up at other film festivals this fall, is an example of what the radical Soviet documentarian Dziga Vertov called a “film object.”

Culled from a thousand hours of archival footage and four years in the making, this unconventional documentary assembled by the émigré Romanian film-essayist Andrei Ujică is a three-hour immersion in a totalitarian leader’s official reality. Ceauşescu’s Romania, the Eastern bloc’s most brutally destructive regime, is remembered for its systematic repression, its failed industrialization, and its pervasive police state—including a disastrous ban on contraception that produced a culture of clandestine abortions and horrific orphanages. None of this appears explicitly in the film. Instead, Ujică shows Ceauşescu’s public image as fabricated by (and for) the dictator himself during the course of his catastrophic 25-year reign.

Much of the material was shot without sound—only the speeches included an audio component—and Ujică shows the footage largely as found, often in the form of unedited rushes, in Romania’s National Film and National Television archives. There’s neither annotation nor voiceover commentary, although the filmmaker does intermittently add naturalistic sound effects—and, at one point, a slyly-chosen pop song, so that a gaggle of fashionable young Romanians can be seen dancing the Twist to the 1965 rockabilly hit “I Fought the Law and the Law Won.”

Ten Walks/Two Talks: Interview with Jon and Andy

Tenwalk Last month, Abbas posted a review of Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch's Ten Walks/Two Talks, which “combines a series of sixty-minute, sixty-sentence walks around Manhattan with a pair of roving dialogues—one of which takes place during a late-night 'philosophical' ramble through Central Park. Mapping 21st-century New York, Cotner and Fitch update the meandering and meditative form of Basho's travel diaries to construct a descriptive/dialogic fugue.” HTMLGIANT has an interview with the authors on their project. It's also offering a free copy of the book to the commenter that's taken the longest walk, for those who may need an incentive to share their story.

Which came first for you, this form or the idea to collaborate? I mean, did you guys decide you wanted to collab on something and come up with this, or what?

Andy Fitch: By our late twenties, both Jon and I felt we had done enough single, solitary work for years to come. We loved each other, and enjoyed talking to each other. A two-for-the-price-of-one aesthetic had long appealed to us, though the idea for this particular book came later.

Jon: Ten Walks/Two Talks combines excerpts from two manuscripts: Andy’s Sixty Morning Walks, and our collaborative Conversations over Stolen Food. After reading Sixty Morning Walks, I told Andy I’d wanted to transcribe dialogues between me and people I met at Union Square Whole Foods while eating stolen food. Something about that space evokes the ancient Greek agora (or marketplace), so it seemed the perfect venue for a project at least loosely connected with Socratic dialogue—plus, Socrates was known to sample delicacies at congregations to which he hadn’t been invited. I thought the project would be called Conversations over Stolen Food, but before long I’d gotten busy with other things and more or less forgot about it. Roughly a year later Andy asked me to record conversations with him. It was exhilarating. We did thirty dialogues in just over a month, all across New York City, though “Union Square W.F.” is our most common meeting-place since it’s hard to pass up a discounted organic meal. These talks became Conversations over Stolen Food. Other people occasionally appear; for the most part the dialogues unfold between us.

Why are Ahmadis persecuted so ferociously in Pakistan?

Mohsin Hamid in Dawn:

ScreenHunter_01 Jun. 29 17.00 The reason can’t be that their large numbers pose some sort of ‘threat from within’. After all, Ahmadis are a relatively small minority in Pakistan. They make up somewhere between 0.25 per cent (according to the last census) and 2.5 per cent (according to the Economist) of our population.

Nor can the reason be that Ahmadis are non-Muslims. Pakistani Christians and Pakistani Hindus are non-Muslims, and similar in numbers to Pakistani Ahmadis. Yet Christians and Hindus, while undeniably discriminated against, face nothing like the vitriol directed towards Ahmadis in our country.

To understand what the persecution of Ahmadis achieves, we have to see how it works. Its first step is to say that Ahmadis are non-Muslims. And its second is to say that Ahmadis are not just non-Muslims, but apostates: non-Muslims who claim to be Muslims. These two steps are easy to take: any individual Pakistani citizen has the right to believe whatever they want about Ahmadis and their faith.

But the process goes further. Step three is to say that because Ahmadis are apostates, they should be victimised, or even killed. We are now beyond the realm of personal opinion. We are in the realm of group punishment and incitement to murder. Nor does it stop here. There is a fourth step. And step four is this: any Muslim who says Ahmadis should not be victimised or killed, should themselves be victimised or killed.

More here.

Who You Callin’ “Bird Brain”?

The amazing smarts of crows, jays, and other corvids are forcing scientists to rethink when and why intelligence evolved.

Charles Wohlforth in Discover:

Crow-3 Nicky Clayton is no better at sitting still than are the birds she studies. Back in the 1990s, her colleagues at the University of California at Davis would stay at their computers at lunchtime, but she would wander outside and watch as western scrub-jays stole bits of students’ meals and secretively cached the food. During these informal field studies, Clayton, an experimental psychologist, noticed that the birds returned frequently to their stashes and changed their hiding places.

“I thought, ‘This is odd,’” she says. “I assumed birds would cache for a long time—days or months. But this was for minutes.” She theorized that the birds were moving their caches to avoid pilfering. When food was plentiful, they grabbed as much as possible and hid it, then hid it again when they could do so without being observed by potential thieves. That behavior implied that the scrub-jays might be thinking about other birds’ potential actions, a type of flexible thinking that was supposedly beyond the capabilities of a scrub-jay’s little brain.

Clayton realized that if she could capture this caching behavior in the laboratory, she might be able to decode the social cognition of birds—the way they think about one another. She might learn whether they are capable of deception, if they respond differently to individual competitors, how well they evaluate their degree of privacy, and other aspects of their mental processes.

More here. [Photo shows a hooded crow which has made a nest outside my window in Karachi.]

Tuesday Poem

Kettle Island

the round orange
sun is about to dissolve
on the tongue of misery

island like the thin body
of god's son smoke black
stacks from salem power

plant ruin the brown
horizon i can smell the
salt hear the foghorn

my father walks on tired
legs we talk about red
sox politics mostly

i listen he is an old bigot
& i love him but the hard drinking
of our lives has left narrow

streets for forgiveness we
can only stare back at time
like two men suddenly alone

in the kitchen over
beers after ma's funeral
we got closer i was nine years
sober he wasn't truth

is i was angry & when i wrote
it down it hurt him
there's an eroded place

a beat down causeway
where cows used to walk
to kettle island now water

rushes over it i touch my father's
arm & we walk in small
silences to the coast

by Jim Bell
from Crossing the Bar
Slate Roof: a Publishing Collaborative, 2005

The human genome at ten

From Nature:

Genome The first post-genome decade saw spectacular advances in science. The success of the original genome project inspired many other 'big biology' efforts — notably the International HapMap Project, which charted the points at which human genomes commonly differ, and the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE), which aims to identify every functional element in the human genome. Dramatic leaps in sequencing technology and a precipitous drop in costs have helped generate torrents of genetic data, including more than two dozen published human genomes and close to 200 unpublished ones (see page 670). Along the way, geneticists have discovered that such basic concepts as 'gene' and 'gene regulation' are far more complex than they ever imagined (see page 664).

But for all the intellectual ferment of the past decade, has human health truly benefited from the sequencing of the human genome? A startlingly honest response can be found on pages 674 and 676, where the leaders of the public and private efforts, Francis Collins and Craig Venter, both say 'not much'. Granted, there has been some progress, in the form of drugs targeted against specific genetic defects identified in a few types of cancer, for example, and in some rare inherited disorders. But the complexity of post-genome biology has dashed early hopes that this trickle of therapies would rapidly become a flood. Witness the multitude of association studies that aimed to find connections between common genetic variants and common diseases, with only limited success, or the discovery that most cancers have their own unique genetic characteristics, making widely applicable therapies hard to find.

More here.

Discovering the Virtues of a Wandering Mind

John Tierney in The New York Times:

TIER1-articleInline In the past, daydreaming was often considered a failure of mental discipline, or worse. Freud labeled it infantile and neurotic. Psychology textbooks warned it could lead to psychosis. Neuroscientists complained that the rogue bursts of activity on brain scans kept interfering with their studies of more important mental functions.

But now that researchers have been analyzing those stray thoughts, they’ve found daydreaming to be remarkably common — and often quite useful. A wandering mind can protect you from immediate perils and keep you on course toward long-term goals. Sometimes daydreaming is counterproductive, but sometimes it fosters creativity and helps you solve problems. Consider, for instance, these three words: eye, gown, basket. Can you think of another word that relates to all three? If not, don’t worry for now. By the time we get back to discussing the scientific significance of this puzzle, the answer might occur to you through the “incubation effect” as your mind wanders from the text of this article — and, yes, your mind is probably going to wander, no matter how brilliant the rest of this column is.

Mind wandering, as psychologists define it, is a subcategory of daydreaming, which is the broad term for all stray thoughts and fantasies, including those moments you deliberately set aside to imagine yourself winning the lottery or accepting the Nobel. But when you’re trying to accomplish one thing and lapse into “task-unrelated thoughts,” that’s mind wandering.

More here.

who touches this touches a man


The concrete, material presence of books on our bookshelves transports us back to the time and place where we first read them, we sometimes are pleased and other times shudder when we think of what a book meant to us then, what it has come to mean to us now, we are sometimes comforted to see the continuity of ourselves when we read our earlier marginalia, sometimes disconcerted by its now-alien quality, and occasionally we have dreams about books, like the one I had after my mentor died. When I was in graduate school, he used to lend me his books, their margins overflowing with neat, handwritten questions, objections, notes to himself (I can still picture the fine purple line quality of his felt-tip pen), teaching me how to read in conversation with the author, that is, when I paid attention to the author and not, as I was inclined to do, to the always more interesting thoughts of my mentor. When he died, I dreamt that he had left me a book that he had annotated especially for me and how grateful I was to have it (“who touches this touches a man”) and how sorry I was to wake up.

more from Rochelle Gurstein at TNR here.

the end


RUSTENBURG, South Africa—If you drive outside the main cities in South Africa, you will always find a fire burning. Beside a highway. In a field. On a dirt patch, men huddled around its warmth. I saw many such blazes on the road from Pretoria to Rustenburg as I made my way to the round of 16 match between the United States and Ghana. On Saturday night, the smoke from all of these fires seemed to pool in this hardscrabble mining town. It burdened the air, reducing visibility to a few feet, even with a full moon low in the sky. My traveling companions and I felt the hoodoo: Whatever happy energy once fueled the American adventure here had been replaced by apprehension. Perhaps my mood was colored by the fact that pickpockets had stolen my tickets the day before. With FIFA’s help, I found new ones outside of the U.S. supporters’ section. It didn’t matter. Most American fans had already gone home. Exactly two weeks ago, I’d had to push my way past Donovan and Dempsey jerseys into a nearby bar. Now the place was all but empty. In the smoke outside, I kept bumping into haunted-looking Englishmen who’d banked on their team winning Group C and playing its knockout game here. “Extra England ticket?” they whispered. “Trade? Trade?” We even saw a handwritten sign pleading for tickets, left on the ground, pinned down by rocks. But where were the Yanks? Maybe American fans felt their team wouldn’t make it this far. Maybe fewer of them gave a damn than I thought.

more from Luke O’Brien at Slate here.