Our Man in Palestine

Thrall_1-101410_jpg_230x478_q85 Nathan Thrall in the NYRB:

On August 31, the night before President Obama’s dinner inaugurating direct talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Hamas gunmen shot and killed four Jewish settlers in Hebron, the West Bank’s largest and most populous governorate. The attack—the deadliest against Israeli citizens in more than two years—was condemned by Palestinian and Israeli officials, who said that it was meant to thwart the upcoming negotiations. According to a Hamas spokesman, however, the shooting had a more specific purpose: to demonstrate the futility of the recent cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces. This cooperation has reached unprecedented levels under the quiet direction of a three-star US Army general, Keith Dayton, who has been commanding a little-publicized American mission to build up Palestinian security forces in the West Bank.

Referred to by Hamas as “the Dayton forces,” the Palestinian security services are formally under the authority of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president and chairman of Hamas’s rival, Fatah; but they are, in practice, controlled by Salam Fayyad, the unelected prime minister, a diminutive, mild-mannered technocrat. Abbas appointed Fayyad following Hamas’s grim takeover of Gaza in June 2007—which occurred seventeen months after the Islamist party won the January 2006 parliamentary elections—and entrusted him with preventing Hamas from also seizing the West Bank.

Fayyad received a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Texas at Austin and held positions at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, the World Bank, and the IMF before becoming finance minister under President Yasser Arafat. His reputation as a fiscally responsible and trustworthy manager ensures the steady supply of international aid on which the Palestinian economy depends. Though he has neither a popular following nor backing from a large political party (his Third Way list received a mere 2.4 percent of the votes in the 2006 legislative elections), today he is responsible for nearly every aspect of Palestinian governance. Yet he is not participating in the negotiations over a settlement with Israel, which are the province of the PLO (of whose leadership Fayyad is not a member) and are handled by its chairman, the seventy-five-year-old Abbas.

Disco Revivalists Escort on “Cocaine Blues” and the Rules of Ripping Off

EscortGroup1 Nick Sylvester interviews Eugene Cho and Dan Balis of Escort discuss their new single, over at Riff City at channel 13. (You can get the single free over at the Escort website.):

Last week my friend Sasha Frere-Jones wrote about “the delicate art of revivals”: how deliberately vintage-sounding acts like Brooklyn funk&b group Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings or Swedish psych-pop band Dungen hold up against popular expectations that “new music” sound like “new music.” “How much of the past does one need to draw on before shifting categories from new to retro?” he wrote.

Right on cue, a Brooklyn-based disco-boogie revival outfit I like called Escort announced the imminent release of “Cocaine Blues,” their first twelve-inch in three years. (You can download the radio edit for free at their website.) Everything this band’s put out so far has the feel of an undiscovered classic, a song the disco compilations somehow forgot about. I remember hearing “Starlight,” their first single from 2006, and probably overdoing my show of disbelief when Jason Drummond, a/k/a DJ Spun, told me it wasn’t some one-off Montreal disco act from 1978. With the moody “Cocaine Blues” it’s no different; it might as well be a deep cut from some Chic LP I’ve never heard.

Dan Balis and Eugene Cho, the architects of Escort’s meticulous throwback sound and the band’s principal songwriters, were kind enough to talk about Frere-Jones’s piece and walk me through the kinds of decisions they make when putting together their records.

Riff City: A lot of your records, “Cocaine Blues” included, borrow very specific rhythms and melodies from very specific early disco tracks. How do you decide when a move or sound is ripe for borrowing, versus a move/sound that is overexposed and would potentially distract people that you’re taking it? What is your personal rulebook for “ripping something off”?

Eugene Cho: Sometimes the disco influence is very organic. We start playing our instruments and there’s a wealth of musical vocabulary that becomes second nature to you from listening to and playing dance music over the years. On the other side is that some grooves and musical ideas are so good that they’re screaming out to be explored and refined further. For “Cocaine Blues,” we found that some of the lyrics in previous incarnations of the song were taken from nineteenth century folk rhymes and we found other verses from those old rhymes and added them as well.

Dan Balis: “Cocaine Blues” is a loose interpretation of a Jamaican version of a turn-of-the-century blues song; a version, which in turn, relies on the groove from an American disco hit that was popular among Jamaican soundsystem DJs. We weren’t really preoccupied with distance, but rather with coming up with a unique and distinctive version of something we already thought was great.

Learning by Playing

From The New York Times:

Video WHAT IF TEACHERS GAVE UP the vestiges of their educational past, threw away the worksheets, burned the canon and reconfigured the foundation upon which a century of learning has been built? What if we blurred the lines between academic subjects and reimagined the typical American classroom so that, at least in theory, it came to resemble a typical American living room or a child’s bedroom or even a child’s pocket, circa 2010 — if, in other words, the slipstream of broadband and always-on technology

It is a radical proposition, sure. But during an era in which just about everything is downloadable and remixable, when children are frequently more digitally savvy than the adults around them, it’s perhaps not so crazy to think that schools — or at least one school, anyway — might try to remix our assumptions about how to reach and educate those children. What makes Quest to Learn unique is not so much that it has been loaded with laptops or even that it bills itself expressly as a home for “digital kids,” but rather that it is the brainchild of a professional game designer named Katie Salen. Salen, like many people interested in education, has spent a lot of time thinking about whether there is a way to make learning feel simultaneously more relevant to students and more connected to the world beyond school. And the answer, as she sees it, lies in games. Quest to Learn is organized specifically around the idea that digital games are central to the lives of today’s children and also increasingly, as their speed and capability grow, powerful tools for intellectual exploration.

More here.

Enid Blyton’s Famous Five

From The Telegraph:

Blyton_1717521c Enid Blyton once described herself as “a sightseer, a reporter, an interpreter”, the viewer of “a private cinema screen inside my head”. And this peculiarly guileless way of working, coupled with her remarkable speed – she wrote more than 600 children’s books, and claimed to be able to produce up to 10,000 words a day with her typewriter balanced precariously on her knee – gets to the heart of how we feel about her. Though adults tend to find her books unoriginal and sloppily written, not to mention all the other complaints that have been heaped on Blyton over the past 20 years, from racism and sexism to snobbery, children keep coming back to her.

I can speak from personal experience on this last point, as I am reading the new editions of the Famous Five books, published last month, to my five-year-old daughter – and she is hooked. She loves these adventures with burglars and smugglers, in which the adults are absent often for days on end. As a correct kind of girl with an eye for the rules, she likes the satisfying way in which good behaviour always triumphs. Most surprisingly, since they certainly don’t raise much of a smile from me, she finds the books very funny. If Blyton’s stories seem formulaic to adults, this is precisely why children find them so appealing. Her books may not be well written, they may not have properly fleshed out characters, and they may reflect the accepted views of the world in which Blyton herself grew up, but their pacy, dialogue-driven plots – with a juicy cliffhanger placed tantalisingly at the end of each chapter – continue to have a remarkable appeal. Blyton was the 13th most borrowed author from British libraries in 2008-9, and her worldwide sales total more than £500 million.

More here.

Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception

Eleanor Clift in Politics Daily:

Proof Stephen Colbert coined the word “truthiness” for things we intuitively know are true, based on our gut, as opposed to facts. The term had its heyday during the Bush era when we fought a war “knowing” Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons. Now Charles Seife, who teaches journalism at New York University, is coming out with a book, “Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception.” It demonstrates in compelling and often amusing detail how numbers, which are supposed to be the arbiters of truth, are routinely used to advance lies and undermine democracy.

Seife reminds us how a single senator with an agenda, Joseph McCarthy, set off alarm bells when he claimed to have in his hand a list of 205 communists who had infiltrated the State Department. The number moved around in subsequent days from a high of 207 to a low of 57, and in the end McCarthy, testifying in hearings on Capitol Hill in March 1950, couldn't name a single communist working for the State Department.

It didn't matter; the numbers gave the allegation credibility, making McCarthy's line about 205 communists one of the most effective political lies in American history. Seife uses the episode to introduce the reader to a variety of examples where numbers are used to confuse rather than enlighten, often with the goal of gaining political advantage.

More here.

the nightmare that comes first


Eos, the goddess of dawn, persuaded Zeus to bestow immortality on her human lover Tithonus. But she forgot to ask for enduring youth as well. Big mistake. Eventually, Tithonus became a withered old wreck, and Eos shut him away for eternity. We all know the feeling, or soon will. Death may be our common fate but our common fear is the nightmare that comes first: growing old. Aristotle saw ageing as a nasty process that turns us into cynical, emotionally shrivelled Scrooges. In As You Like It, Shakespeare panned life’s last act as “second childishness and mere oblivion. Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” Martin Amis, in his recent novel The Pregnant Widow, likens ageing to “auditioning for the role of a lifetime; then, after interminable rehearsals, you’re finally starring in a horror film – a talentless, irresponsible, and above all low-budget horror film, in which (as is the way with horror films) they’re saving the worst for last”.

more from Donald Morrison at the FT here.

the real simenon


In 1941, a doctor told Georges Simenon that he had two years to live. The famously prolific author eventually learned the diagnosis was wrong (he died in 1989), but the experience prompted him to start filling notebooks with anecdotes about his childhood in Liège, Belgium to his then 2-year-old son. He showed the material to André Gide, who told him to start over in the third person. Five years later, “Pedigree” was published. Simenon went on to dismiss the label “autobiographical novel,” but Luc Sante, who has written the excellent introduction to this reissue, isn’t buying it — and I don’t either. For the Mamelin household, read Simenon. For the character of Roger, read Georges. At the center is a mother, Élise (read Henriette), tormented and tormenting, “a girl from the other side of the bridges, a girl who, when she was with her sisters, spoke a language nobody could understand” married to Désiré (Simenon didn’t bother changing his father’s name). A stolid insurance salesman, Désiré adores routine so much that he sometimes seems more mechanism than man.

more from Liz Brown at the LAT here.

new bolaño


With Bolaño you rarely feel beset by monotony. Certainly not in “Antwerp,” a tiny, unclassifiable book that will be of interest mainly to his most devoted fans. Bolaño completed it in 1980, but didn’t publish it until a year before he died. “I wrote this book for myself, and even that I can’t be sure of,” he tells us in the preface. The short sections are like prose poems — a bridge of sorts between Bolaño’s fiction and poetry — with such cryptic titles as “A Monkey,” “There Was Nothing,” “Big Silver Waves.” Though not easily comprehensible, each section presents the reader with at least one startling line. A boy and a girl in “Cleaning Utensils,” for example, weep “like characters from different movies projected on the same screen.” In an essay titled “Literature + Illness = Illness,” in “The Insufferable Gaucho,” Bolaño confronts his own impending death, at the age of 50, from liver disease. He compares a patient’s voyage on a gurney — “from his room to the operating theater, where masked men and women await him, like bandits from the sect of the Hashishin” — to a hazardous 19th-century voyage where the traveler gives up everything. The best of these stories confirm Bolaño’s ideal of literature as a voyage to the zero degree of human existence, to the abyss, as Baudelaire, another of his heroes, would call it, where we lose the self in order to find it again.

more from Michael Greenberg at the NYT here.

The Party

From Hyperbole and a Half:

At some point during my childhood, my mother made the mistake of taking me to see an orthodontist. It was discovered that I had a rogue tooth that was growing sideways.


My mom and I were told that the tooth, if left unchecked, would completely ruin everything in my life and turn me into a horrible, horrible mutant.


Unless I wanted to spend the rest of my natural life chained in a windowless shed to avoid traumatizing the other citizens, I was going to need surgery to remove the tooth.

I was accepting of the idea until I found out that my surgery was scheduled on the same day as my friend's birthday party. My surgery was in the morning and the birthday party wasn't until the late afternoon, but my mom told me that I still probably wouldn't be able to go because I'd need time to recover from my surgery. I asked her if I could go to the party if I was feeling okay. She said yes, but told me that I probably wouldn't be feeling well and to try not to get my hopes up.

But it was too late. I knew that if I could trick my mom into believing that I was feeling okay after my surgery, she'd let me go to my friend's birthday party. All I had to do was find a way to prove that I was completely recovered and ready to party. I began to gather very specific information about the kinds of things that would convince my mom that the surgery had absolutely no effect on me.


I'm pretty sure my mom was just placating me so that I'd leave her alone, but somehow it was determined that the act of running across a park would indeed prove that I was recovered enough to attend the party. And I became completely fixated on that little ray of hope.
I remember sitting in the operating room right before going under, coaching myself for the ten-thousandth time on my post-surgery plan: immediately after regaining even the slightest bit of consciousness, I was going to make my mom drive me to a park and I was going to run across it like a gazelle on steroids.

More here. [Thanks to Jennifer Oullette.]

Tony Judt: Captive Minds

Tony Judt in the New York Review of Books:

Milosz Miłosz was born in 1911 in what was then Russian Lithuania. Indeed, like many great Polish literary figures, he was not strictly “Polish” by geographical measure. Adam Zagajewski, one of the country’s most important living poets, was born in Ukraine; Jerzy Giedroyc—a major figure in the twentieth-century literary exile—was born in Belarus, like Adam Mickiewicz, the nineteenth-century icon of the Polish literary revival. Lithuanian Vilna in particular was a cosmopolitan blend of Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, Russians, and Jews, among others (Isaiah Berlin, like the Harvard political philosopher Judith Shklar, was born in nearby Riga).

Raised in the interwar Polish republic, Miłosz survived the occupation and was already a poet of some standing when he was sent to Paris as the cultural attaché of the new People’s Republic. But in 1951 he defected to the West and two years later he published his most influential work, The Captive Mind.3 Never out of print, it is by far the most insightful and enduring account of the attraction of intellectuals to Stalinism and, more generally, of the appeal of authority and authoritarianism to the intelligentsia.

Miłosz studies four of his contemporaries and the self-delusions to which they fell prey on their journey from autonomy to obedience, emphasizing what he calls the intellectuals’ need for “a feeling of belonging.”

More here.

The damage done to Pakistan will take years to undo

From The Economist:

ScreenHunter_01 Sep. 18 09.13 Of all Pakistan’s main actors, only the armed forces have emerged from the disaster strongly in credit. Bringing boats and helicopters that the civil powers lacked, they have rescued tens of thousands of stranded people and dispensed much of the government’s aid. Over 70,000 troops have been dedicated to this work. “It was the army’s duty to come in aid of the civil power,” says the army’s spokesman, Major-General Athar Abbas. “It just set to work.” Thanks goodness for that. Then again, considering that by one estimate the armed forces lay claim to a third of Pakistan’s budget, quite right too.

In any event, the army has done itself no harm: burnishing an image sullied during the turbulent end to the regime of Pakistan’s last military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, who stepped aside in 2008. Army relief trucks, emblazoned with the slogan the “Pakistani army and the people are together” draw respectful glances as they surge through thronging Karachi and Lahore, capitals of Sindh and Punjab. Rumour has it they surge around in circles, twice or thrice, for maximum effect.

In a country ruled by generals for much of its history, any upset invites rumours of a coup, and these are now abroad. Indeed, one of the PPP’s coalition partners, Altaf Hussain, leader of the Karachi-based Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), seemed to call for one. From London, where he lives in exile accused of many crimes in Pakistan, Mr Hussain challenged “any patriotic general” to take “martial-law-like action” against corruption.

According to Punjab’s chief minister, many army officers are itching to intervene to intervene; their chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, demurs. Mr Sharif also expressed two other flood-related fears: that disaffected victims could turn to Islamist militancy, which is entrenched in southern Punjab, or that they might otherwise rise up.

More here.

Friday Poem

Pottery Lessons

hokte hokte honvnwv*

begin here
with the clay she says
under her breath….. a handful of earth
from silt-bottomed streams
loosens between fingers ……….. water
echoes in an empty bowl
………………. hokte
………………………… hokte hacet os

I was birthed of mud …… blood
and bone ……. hokte
……………………….. hokte hecet os

glass globes
inside my tin belly….. echo of
water in an empty bowl
I remember the sound of her soft
body….. hokte
………………… hokte ….. honvnwv

Have just begun
to bleed today
thought I might be dying
walked barefoot beyond the backyard
over the cattleguard hokte
hokte honvnwv

each blade of grass
a rusted glint
in the circular basin
of bison grazing…… clay
rims the water-colored sky

in an empty bowl …… water
echoes …… when we walk
horizons shift
how to call them
closer ……. feel their white tufts
between fingertips
………. hokte
…………………… hokte honvnwv

by Jennifer Elise Foerster
The Kweli Journal;
August 2010

*Muscogee Language
hokte: woman
honvnwn: man
hecet os: to see

Being Jane Goodall

David Quammen in National Geographic:

ScreenHunter_03 Sep. 17 13.12 Most of us don't enter upon our life's destiny at any neatly discernible time. Jane Goodall did.

On the morning of July 14, 1960, she stepped onto a pebble beach along a remote stretch of the east shore of Lake Tanganyika. It was her first arrival at what was then called the Gombe Stream Game Reserve, a small protected area that had been established by the British colonial government back in 1943. She had brought a tent, a few tin plates, a cup without a handle, a shoddy pair of binoculars, an African cook named Dominic, and—as a companion, at the insistence of people who feared for her safety in the wilds of pre-independence Tanganyika—her mother. She had come to study chimpanzees. Or anyway, to try. Casual observers expected her to fail. One person, the paleontologist Louis Leakey, who had recruited her to the task up in Nairobi, believed she might succeed.

More here.

The paranoid style in American punditry

From Salon:

Md_horiz I spent most of August more or less disconnected from TV, the Internet and print news outlets, so when I caught up with a friend on the phone, I asked him to brief me on which stories had captured the nation's attention. He tried to explain the controversy over the Park51 Islamic culture center, but it wasn't easy. “So, why is this anti-Muslim panic coming up now?” I asked. “What triggered it?” “I keep going back to Richard Hofstadter's 'The Paranoid Style in American Politics,'” he replied. “It's not necessarily about Islam. These people need an enemy.”

I took that as my cue to return to the Pulitzer-winning historian's seminal essay on American political crackpottery. Originating as a 1963 speech delivered in Oxford and first printed in Harper's magazine in 1964, it can currently be found in a collection, also called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” reprinted by Vintage Books. Hofstadter, who died in 1970, made a minor specialty of analyzing right-wing fringe movements — what he called “pseudo-conservatives” — particularly the groups clustered around Barry Goldwater's 1964 political campaign. In-the-moment political analysis doesn't always hold up over time unless you really strain to find contemporary parallels, and not all of the book still rings true. Hofstadter himself felt moved to write a qualifying update to an earlier, influential 1954 essay, “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt” (also included in this book), to encompass the Goldwater movement and its satellites.

That said, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (along with most of the essays in the collection) never seems to get old.

More here.

Introspection linked to more gray matter in brain

From PhysOrg:

Brain A specific region of the brain appears to be larger in individuals who are good at turning their thoughts inward and reflecting upon their decisions, according to new research published in the journal Science. This act of introspection — or “thinking about your thinking” — is a key aspect of human consciousness, though scientists have noted plenty of variation in peoples' abilities to introspect. In light of their findings, this team of researchers, led by Prof. Geraint Rees from University College London, suggests that the volume of gray matter in the anterior prefrontal cortex of the brain, which lies right behind our eyes, is a strong indicator of a person's introspective ability. Furthermore, they say the structure of white matter connected to this area is also linked to this process of introspection.

It remains unclear, however, how this relationship between introspection and the two different types of brain matter really works. These findings do not necessarily mean that individuals with greater volume of gray matter in that region of the brain have experienced—or will experience—more introspective thoughts than other people. But, they do establish a correlation between the structure of gray and white matter in the prefrontal cortex and the various levels of introspection that individuals may experience.

More here.

trial and eros


The court usher’s voice rang out in the courtroom at the Old Bailey: “Call Kingsley Amis!” Amis, the well-known British comic novelist, was nowhere to be seen. The defense, in the case of Regina v. Penguin Books Limited, moved on to its next witness. Later, Amis would apologize to Penguin’s solicitor, Michael Rubinstein, writing that he had left his house in Swansea “just in time to miss” Rubinstein’s letter specifying the time he was expected to testify, “and got back six hours or so after I should have been available in court.” A week later, one of Amis’s buddies, Robert Conquest, explained to another, Philip Larkin, just why the witness was absent: “He was at the time participating in an adulterous rendezvous. Pity he didn’t just make it, breathing heavily, smeared with lipstick and fly-buttons mostly undone, to testify that Lady C was a sacred monogamous work.” Amis’s escapade might have served as a motivation for Lar­kin to kick his own personal life up several notches.

more from Ben Yagoda at The American Scholar here.