it’s nice to be dead


“Do you like the Stooges?” Michel Houellebecq asked me on the second day of our interview. He put down his electric cigarette (it glowed red when he inhaled, producing steam instead of smoke) and rose slowly from his futon couch. “Iggy Pop wrote some songs based on my novel The Possibility of an Island,” he offered. “He told me it’s the only book he has liked in the last ten years.” France’s most famous living writer flipped open his MacBook and the gravelly voice of the punk legend filled the kitchenette, chanting: “It’s nice to be dead.” Michel Houellebecq was born on the French island of La Réunion, near Madagascar, in 1958. As his official Web site states, his bohemian parents, an anesthesiologist and a mountain guide, “soon lost all interest in his existence.” He has no pictures of himself as a child. After a brief stay with his maternal grandparents in Algeria, he was raised from the age of six by his paternal grandmother in northern France. After a period of unemployment and depression, which led to several stays in psychiatric units, Houellebecq found a job working tech support at the French National Assembly. (The members of parliament were “very sweet,” he says.)

more from Susannah Hunnewell at The Paris Review here.

Why do we eat chilli?


Healthy, sane humans do not stab themselves in the thighs, or bathe their eyes in lemon juice. So why do we so love to assault one of the most sensitive organs in the human body, the tongue, with what amounts to chemical warfare? Chillies are unique among foods that we should otherwise not enjoy. For example, humans also have natural aversions to the bitterness of coffee or the harshness of tobacco, but those substances have some addictive qualities, which might make them desirable. Capsaicin, the compound that provides the mouth-watering punch of chillies, does not seem to have any addictive qualities whatsoever. And yet the preference for capsaicin is almost universal; nearly every culture has incorporated it into their cuisine in some way, for milllennia. Rozin writes: “There are records suggesting use of chilli pepper dating back to 7000BC in Mesoamerica; they were domesticated some thousands of years after this. These fiery foods made their debut in the Old World when they were brought back by Columbus and other early explorers.”

more from Jason Goldman at The Guardian here.

The Right’s Advantage Over its Opponents: Storytelling.

PhpThumb_generated_thumbnailjpg Michael Atkinson in In These Times:

Not so long ago, in a typical conniption fit, Glenn Beck blubbered to his TV audience about the loss of America’s greatness. No one faklempts like Beck, and on this October evening he was very moist. He was mourning the America best represented, he thought, by several 1970s network TV ads, including one for Kodak (children, butterflies) and one for Coke (game-losing Mean Joe Green accepting a conciliatory cola from a grade-school boy). Beck whined and moaned and waxed reactionary, choking back saline, pleading with us to remember “what life used to be like!” and “how it felt!”

It was not an unusual performance. Watching the clip is like watching a clinical video of a beleaguered schizophrenic.

Beck seems aware that his constituency has lost the capacity to discern TV fantasy from what’s real. And we can overlook, for now, the fact that if America “used to be united!” as he cried, it was united over unchallenged racism, women’s subjugation and the presumption of a white president.

The substance of Beck & Co.’s discourse is odious trash, of course. But the question remains why it has gained such audience share. Theories abound, most of them unkind to a big chunk of American voters. But watch Beck spin a fable about the glory days of America by way of something as transparently disingenuous as a TV commercial, and you begin to see the structural trump card—story.

The right has long been adept at spinning yarns, at limning fictions. Storytelling is as old in human culture as parts of our frontal lobe. Scores of psychological studies have suggested that we have an innate capacity to understand life via stories, to use storytelling as an evolutionary advantage (learning decision-making skills, avoiding danger), and to adapt socially using empathy.

Novelist Michael Chabon writes in Manhood for Amateurs about how, although he is a Jew and a pretty irreligious one at that, he’s never felt slighted by the social predominance of the Jesus-birth story at Christmas—not even in the form of the school Nativity plays in which his kids take part. In fact, he loves it. What he loves is the story itself, which tells the truth “about the hope and the promise that ought to attend to the birth of every child, however mean or difficult the conditions of that birth,” and “about the dangerous and woefully unredeemed state of the world and the potential that all children have to redeem it.”

Thursday Poem

False Documents

They ran the numbers twice for you
giving you the benefit of the doubt
but you knew the computer at the other
end of the officer’s PDA would not find
your brown number in its little black index.
You drove exactly one mile per hour below the speed
limit. You buckled your baby into his car seat according
to instructions. You signaled for exactly three seconds
before you turned left. You wanted to hide the Subway wrappers,
the empty box of Orbitz gum. Evidence of Big Macs.
You wanted to drink the Mountain Dew before it turned toxic
in the hot Phoenix sun as you asked, doesn’t this green
sludge make me American enough? But you didn’t
move because you knew the officer would have taken
that for gun-finding or drug-hiding or some other supposed
Mexican sport. You with your hands at ten and two
wondered how long the bus ride the officer would take you
on would last and whether they would provide any water.
You wondered, as the officer put hand to holster,
how dangerous it would be to down that Mountain
Dew then and there, in the wide-open American air.

by Nicole Walker
Boston Review; July/August 2010

Reconsidering Nietzsche–Six Questions for Julian Young

Julian Young is a well-known scholar of nineteenth- and twentieth-century German philosophy. I put six questions to him about his new book, Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography.

Scott Horton in Harper's:

2. Nietzsche wrote that a “deadly insult” had come between himself and Wagner. You suggest that you’ve learned what it was.

ScreenHunter_02 Sep. 16 11.10 Wagner had long disapproved of Nietzsche’s close friendships with men–love he held could only exist between the sexes–and by 1877 he was offended by the developing anti-Wagnerian tenor of Nietzsche’s thought. To Nietzsche’s doctor he wrote that the cause of the patient’s many health problems–which included near blindness–was “unnatural debauchery, with indications of pederasty.” His former disciple was, in other words, (a) incipiently gay and (b) going blind because he masturbated. Somehow Nietzsche learned not only of the existence of the letter but of its the exact wording. That was the “deadly insult.”

More here.

No. 1 Planet for Alien Tourists

From The New York Times:

BOOK1-popup “Earth (The Book)” is a mock textbook by writers for “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” — or “the authors of the popular television program ‘The John Daly Show’ ,” as they put it in a fake Wikipedia blurb on the book’s back cover. It is conceived as a handy guide for extraterrestrials who arrive on this planet after humanity has become extinct, in case those extraterrestrials want to know what they’re missing. It explains everyday details about how we live(d), from our use of the fork (“a way to hurt food one last time before eating it”) to our wearing of pants. “We put these on one leg at a time,” it says. “You may require a different approach.”

“Earth” adopts a faux-scientific tone to explain the planet, its life forms and their quantifiable characteristics. Like the “Daily Show” this parody delivers wittily framed absurdities in a sweetly deadpan way. So there are statistics. (“Length of day (in days) …… 1.”) There are charts. (Time We Were Willing to Wait for a Baked Potato: from 8 hours in 1900 to 1 second in 2010. Lifetime Food Consumption of First Slices of Wedding Cake: 2.1.)

More here.

Why Do Doctors Take Drugmakers’ Gifts?

From npr:

Gifts_wide Ever since drugmakers first started selling prescription medicines, they've been currying favor with doctors who write the orders. So why do so many physicians, who, even now, earn more money and maintain more public trust than most of us so readily accept the drug industry's blandishments? Well, a clever study that surveyed hundreds of young pediatricians and family practice doctors found, basically, the doctors think they're worth it. The likelihood that doctors will look kindly on gifts rises as they're reminded of their long hours and educational debts. Then offer doctors this rationalization:

Some physicians believe that the stagnant salaries and rising debt levels prevalent in the medical profession justifies accepting gifts and other forms of compensation and incentives from the pharmaceutical industry. To what extent do you agree or disagree that this is a good justification?

Even if they say they disagree with the proposition, just showing it to them increases the odds they'll say gifts are OK. Overall, the researchers from Carnegie Mellon found that reminding doctors of the sacrifices they've made improves their view of gifts.

More here. (Note: Thanks to dear friend C.M.Naim)

our most dapper weirdo


Nick Cave is an Australian by blood, an honorary American by dint of his devotion to pulp, and, at fifty-two, the standard-bearer for a global assembly of bookish, noisy, morbid year-round Halloweeners. His most recent band, Grinderman, which shares members with his longest-running group, the Bad Seeds, has just released a second record strong enough to make “side project” seem like an inaccurate description. In the eighties, it looked as though Cave might become a darker, underground version of Elvis, but that time has passed, partly because his interests have changed. Now his profile is pleasantly complicated; in the past thirty years he has channelled a dozen different versions of the male psyche. To the rock audience, he is a highbrow front man who also writes novels and soundtracks, and pals about with artistes who wouldn’t be caught dead at a rock show where the audience is forced to stand. In Australia, he is mainstream enough to have won a recent MySpace poll that asked which musician Australians would like to see installed as Prime Minister. (Three hundred thousand votes were cast.) In the U.S., Cave has a smaller but intense following. With his tailored suits, gold rings, and bad-hombre mustache, he has become our most dapper weirdo, a Don Draper for people who don’t get up before sunset.

more from Sasha Frere-Jones at The New Yorker here.

get a real degree


The world of letters: does such a thing still exist? Even within the seemingly homogeneous sphere of the university English department, a schism has opened up between literary scholarship and creative writing: disciplines which differ in their points of reference (Samuel Richardson v. Jhumpa Lahiri), the graduate degrees they award (Doctor of Philosophy v. Master of Fine Arts) and their perceived objects of study (‘literature’ v. ‘fiction’). Mark McGurl’s The Programme Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, a study of Planet MFA conducted from Planet PhD, might not strike the casual reader as an interdisciplinary bombshell, but the fact is that literary historians don’t write about creative writing, and creative writers don’t write literary histories, so any secondary discourse about creative writing has been confined, as McGurl observes, to ‘the domain of literary journalism’ and ‘the question of whether the rise of the writing programme has been good or bad for American writers’: that is, to the domain of a third and completely different group of professionals, with its own set of interests, largely in whether things are good or bad. McGurl’s proposal to take the rise of the programme ‘not as an occasion for praise or lamentation but as an established fact in need of historical interpretation’ is thus both welcome and overdue.

more from Elif Batuman at the LRB here.

summer of the spitfire


On Saturday June 8, 1940, West Ham beat Blackburn Rovers in the FA Cup Final. Ten days later, Winston Churchill warned the British people that a somewhat more serious contest was in the offing: “The Battle of France is over”, he told the House of Commons. “I expect the battle of Britain is about to begin.” Soon the skies were criss-crossed with vapour trails as the airmen of Fighter Command fought it out with the Luftwaffe over the waters of the Channel and the fields and towns of southern England. Almost before it was over, the duel had won them legendary status. National mythology set the defeat of the Luftwaffe during that long hot summer alongside the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 as one of the defining moments of English history – and of the English character. Myth wrapped itself around the facts, as myth will at such moments. Britain “stood alone”, a David facing Goliath as “the Few” fought for the skies and kept an all-conquering German juggernaut at bay. United as one, and stiffened by the “Dunkirk spirit”, the country stood behind its Prime Minister, ready to fight to the last. Its saviour, during that hot anxious summer, was the thin blue line of the Royal Air Force, embodied in the lethal beauty of the Supermarine Spitfire – a plane every schoolboy could recognize instantly years after the battle was over.

more from John Gooch at the TLS here.

The Chances of Getting the Pope Arrested Are Quite Slim

Marco Evers interviews A. C. Grayling in Der Spiegel:

ScreenHunter_01 Sep. 16 09.57 Militant atheists want to arrest Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to Britain over his alleged complicity in covering up abuse by priests. In a SPIEGEL interview, the British philosopher Anthony Grayling explained why he believes the pope is the head of a conspiracy and argues that the Vatican should not be a state.

SPIEGEL: Professor Grayling, will you really try to arrest the pope when he comes to Britain this week?

Anthony Grayling: If I got anywhere near him — yes, I would like to try it. English law provides for the possibility of a citizen's arrest.

SPIEGEL: But only if there is no doubt about the person's guilt, there is an imminent danger and there are no police around …

Grayling: … and that probably won't happen. There's also only a very slight hope that we will succeed through legal proceedings. All in all I'd say: The chances of getting the Pope arrested this week are quite slim, unfortunately.

SPIEGEL: Wasn't that idea a little over the top anyway?

Grayling: Let me explain this in the most neutral terms. For decades, priests have sexually abused thousands of children, in this country and in many others. These are serious crimes. The hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church has been systematically instrumental in covering up these crimes, hiding people who committed them from public prosecution and in numerous cases allowing the abuse of children to go on. The conspiracy has gone all the way to the top. We know there are questions on Pope Benedict himself. When he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he knew about some of these cases and participated in the cover-ups himself. That is a conspiracy — there is no other word for it. It is organized crime.

More here. [Thanks to Tauriq Moosa.]

New Insights into Preventing Wall Street Meltdowns and Reducing Debt

PhineasPhineas Baxandall in The Huffington Post:

This week's news made the path for great idea a lot clearer. The international agreement in Basel this weekend introducing mild controls on financial firms is proof that a bolder proposal to reduce instability by taxing speculation is an idea whose time has come. Further urgency came this week with yesterday's AP-CNBC poll showing that “Wild gyrations on Wall Street have made U.S investors leery of buying individual stocks and skeptical that the market is a fair place to park their money.”

For decades various economists have proposed a simple way to make the American financial system more stable. As the 2008 Wall Street meltdown reminds us, financial markets become more volatile when huge volumes of money slosh across financial markets seeking tiny margins on high-volume trades. Nobel Laureate economist and presidential adviser James Tobin proposed in 1972 the first version of this simple solution currently before Congress. By placing an infinitesimal fee on short-term financial trades, real productive investments won't be discouraged; but purely speculative trades seeking tiny gains will disappear because they'll no longer be profitable.

The simple elegance of a speculation fee has captured the imagination of a broad swath (PDF) of world leaders and economists (PDF) because it would dry up the financial waves that disrupt markets and can devastate communities (link). Government budget writers have also been drawn to the promise of raising billions in tax revenue while improving capital markets. A tax of a measly quarter ($0.25) per $100 would not discourage investors, but would raise an estimated $150 billion annually that could be dedicated to funds against future financial meltdowns, paying down debt, or other needs. Dozens of far-sighted members of Congress have even lined up behind Rep. DeFazio to introduce legislation to create a “Financial Transaction Tax” that would exempt smaller middle-class investors and pension funds.

Wall Street doesn't like this idea.

Should Britain Ban the Burqa?

Yasmin-Alibhai-Brown1 Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Kenan Malik debate the issue in New Humanist. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown:

Burqa bans are coming in a number of EU countries. A Pew Global Attitudes survey found that 62 per cent of Britons want the same ban imposed here. An unlikely alliance of resistors has assembled to prevent any such move – Muslim Wahabis, right-wing libertarians, left-wing anti-racists. And, of course, fervent torch bearers of the Enlightenment, whose central argument is freedom – the core value of liberalism. That one principle overrides other serious considerations and reveals the inadequacies of textbook British liberalism – idle, unaware of plates shifting enigmatically in the 21st century. Avowed liberals are only able to see conflicts in binary terms – left/right, faith/atheism, freedom of expression/censorship, west/rest, Islam/enlightenment and so on. They are as committed to literalism as are literalist religious believers – in all situations they revert to the rule book, quote Voltaire, Mill and Locke, their prophets. Real liberalism means accepting illiberal choices they say, somewhat self-righteously. The burqa does not affect their own lives or test their powers of endurance. I tried to wear the full veil for a day, but threw it off in a couple of hours. I felt wiped out, lifeless and voiceless.


Kenan Malik:

The burqa should have no place in a 21st-century society, either as a piece of clothing or as a symbol of the status of women. But is the medievalism of the burqa best confronted through the illiberalism of a state ban? I think not.

There are three main kinds of arguments in favour of a ban: practical, political and existential. Practical concerns centre around worries that the burqa might make it easier for terrorists to evade security checks, and harder for people to perform certain jobs, especially those requiring face-to-face contact with the public. Politically, the burqa does little for gender equality or social integration. And for some, it poses a mortal challenge to Western values.

James Scott on Agriculture as Politics, the Dangers of Standardization and Not Being Governed

James-c-scott Via Crooked Timber, in Theory Talks:

What is, according to you, the biggest current challenge or principal debate in politically oriented social sciences? What is your position or answer to this challenge / in this debate?

This is not a question I pose to myself often. About the only time I did was, however, some years ago. I don’t know if you know about the Perestroika Movement in Political Science? Some time ago, an anonymous manifesto signed by Mr. Perestroika appeared. It started out with the observation that Benedict Anderson and I had never read the American Political Science Review, and it proceeded to ask why—arguing that perhaps this journal and the hegemonic organization that backed it were irrelevant and indeed inhibitive of progress. Now the Perestroika Movement connected with the European Post-Autistic Economics Movement, which propagates heterodox economics as a challenge to all-consuming mainstream neoclassical economics. I was on the Executive Council of the Political Science Association because they invited me as a result of the Perestroika insurgency, and that was the only time I got actively involved in trying to think about what political science ought to do. By and large, I do what I do and let the chips fall where they may; I prefer not to spend my time in the methodological trenches of the fights are swirling around me.

As you can see, I haven’t thought deeply about how political science ought to be reformed; but I do believe that in political science, the people who do have pretentions to ‘scientificity’ are actually very busy learning more and more about less and less. There is an experimental turn in political science, consisting of people conducting what they call ‘natural experiments’ and that are carefully organized the way a psychology experiment would be organized, with control groups and so on. But the questions they ask are so extraordinarily narrow! They imagine that you answer as many of these questions as possible and you are slowly constructing a kind of indestructible edifice of social science, while I think all you have then is a pile of bricks that doesn’t add up to anything.

Wednesday Poem

Her Copy of the Epic

That afternoon I held the frayed edges
of my mother’s college Odyssey.
I touched her graphite in the margins, and
I felt the cheap acid paper of Fitzgerald’s
1962 translation. All edges become curves.

I read what Homer said of young Telemakhos,
“The son is rare who measures with his father,”
and the comment she left in a hand that has not changed,
or not much, “descent from a super-race?”
likewise men lag behind their works, their inventions.

Above the suture, the needle’s widening eye –
I had spent my Saturday wandering
through the bookstores in the Square,
reading dust jackets, trying to think
a thought so big you could fit your life through it.

My eyes on the nymph at the violin,
case open for homage. We’re more than a stone’s throw from rocky
soiled Ithaka. All hands on the bowstring
my hands can’t pull. She bows into her applause, the clink
of nickels, above which I can’t raise my voice.

It started to rain very gently. The margins
Seemed inviting.

by Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft
from Sleep on It;
Hot Metal Bridge, Spring 2010

The election that changed everything for women

From Salon:

Book To discuss the book, Salon asked Curtis Sittenfeld, author of the acclaimed novels “American Wife” (a compassionate, fictionalized history of Laura Bush) and “Prep” (a keenly observed coming-of-age tale), to interview Traister over the phone. A transcript of their conversation follows.

For me, reading this book, there were so many revelations. I thought I had followed the election closely, but as I read I kept thinking, “Oh, I never saw that. I never realized that.” I think a lot of people who read the book will have a similar reaction to mine, but I also think that before cracking it open, before buying it, people might think: What is there that's left to say about the 2008 election? Do you feel like you're fighting an uphill battle in terms of that perception?

When Michiko Kakutani wrote her “Game Change” review in the New York Times, she started with some sentiment like, “Ugh, who needs another book about the election?” But my reaction to that — and every other book that is going to come out about the election, including mine — is that, oh my God, everything in America was busted open during that election. Between race and gender and Obama and Hillary and Palin, there was so much that had never happened before in American history. There will be scores more books about this election, and each of them will offer their own set of revelations about this election, which happens to be a completely gripping narrative, by the way. The greatest thing that happened to me writing this book was remembering how great the story of the election is, so even if you lived it, even though I'd written about it as it was taking place, when I went back to write about it in retrospect, I was like, “Did that really happen?”

More here.

Why bird flocks move in unison

From PhysOrg:

Birds New research published today, Wednesday 15 September, in , uses a particle model to explain the collective decision making process of flocks of birds landing on foraging flights. Using a simple self-propelled particle (SPP) system, which sees the birds represented by particles with such parameters as position and velocity, the researchers from Budapest, Hungary, find that the collective switching from the flying to the landing state overrides the individual landing intentions of each bird.

In the absence of a decision making leader, the collective shift to land is heavily influenced by the individual are subject to, such as the birds' flying position within the flock. This can be compared to an avalanche of piled up sand, which would occur even for perfectly symmetric and cautiously placed grains, but in reality happens much sooner because of increasing, non-linear fluctuations.

More here.