the language of hip-hop

101206_r20292_p233Last year, an English professor named Adam Bradley issued a manifesto to his fellow-scholars. He urged them to expand the poetic canon, and possibly enlarge poetry’s audience, by embracing, or coöpting, the greatest hits of hip-hop. “Thanks to the engines of global commerce, rap is now the most widely disseminated poetry in the history of the world,” he wrote. “The best MCs—like Rakim, Jay-Z, Tupac, and many others—deserve consideration alongside the giants of American poetry. We ignore them at our own expense.”

The manifesto was called “Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop” (Civitas; $16.95), and it used the terms of poetry criticism to illuminate not the content of hip-hop lyrics but their form. For Bradley, a couplet by Tupac Shakur—

Out on bail, fresh outta jail, California dreamin’
Soon as I stepped on the scene, I’m hearin’ hoochies screamin’

more from Kelefa Sanneh at The New Yorker here.

The Euro at Mid-Crisis

Pa3682c_thumb3 Kenneth Rogoff in Project Syndicate:

Already facing sluggish growth before fiscal austerity set in, the so-called “PIGS” (Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain) face the prospect of a “lost decade” much as Latin America experienced in the 1980’s. Latin America’s rebirth and modern growth dynamic really only began to unfold after the 1987 “Brady plan” orchestrated massive debt write-downs across the region. Surely, a similar restructuring is the most plausible scenario in Europe as well.

It sometimes seems that the only eurozone leader who is willing to face the likely prospect of future debt restructuring is German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The Germans have been widely castigated for pointing out that Europe has no clear mechanism for sorting out sovereign (government) defaults, and that surely it needs one. Many pundits would have one believe that Ireland would have pulled through unscathed absent Germany’s blundering statements.

That is nonsense. With huge private debts, falling house prices, and external claims on Ireland amounting to more than 10 times national income (according to the Reinhart-Rogoff database), there was never going to be an easy way out. Allowing European debt problems to fester and grow by sweeping them under the carpet through dubious theatrics can only make those problems worse.

Richard Rorty

Hilary Putnam in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society:

[T]he young Rorty had left-wing parents. In his famous autobiographical essay “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids” (1992), Rorty wrote that “having broken with the American Communist Party in 1932, he [Rorty's father] had been classified by the Daily Worker as a 'Trotskyite,' and he more or less accepted the description,” and goes on to tell us that “using a pseudonym, he [Trotsky] was our guest in Flatbrookville for some months. I was warned not to disclose his real identity, though it is doubtful that my schoolmates at Walpack Elementary would have been interested in my indiscretions.” In the same essay, we learn that the child Rorty “carried drafts of press releases from the Workers' Defense League office off Gramercy Park [where his parents worked] to Norman Thomas' [the Socialist Party's candidate for president] house around the corner, and also to A. Phillip Randolph's office at the Brotherhood of Pullman Car Porters on 125th Street.” From these press releases, he learned “a lot about what factory owners did to union organizers, plantation owners to sharecroppers, and the white engineers' union to the colored firemen.” Although Rorty was no Marxist-Leninist (in the same essay, he writes that “Lenin and Trotsky did more harm than good” and that “Kerensky has gotten a bum rap for the past 70 years”), he remained passionately concerned with combating race and class oppression in all their forms.

Philosophically, however, he underwent a remarkable transformation. As mentioned above, he began as an aspiring “scientific philosopher,” and he continued to be known as one for many years. In his introduction to an anthology he edited, The Linguistic Turn (1967), he wrote in a triumphalist voice that the turn from theorizing about the nature of reality to analyzing language (the raison d'etre of “analytic philosophy”) “succeeded in putting the entire philosophical tradition on the defensive.”

Yet five years later, in an address to the American Philosophical Association titled “The World Well Lost,” he argued that the realist's notion of “the world” is vacuous. Of course, this did not by itself cause Rorty to cease counting as an “analytic” philosopher. His mentor, Rudolf Carnap, consistently rejected all philosophical problems that contain the notions “real” and “reality” as “pseudo-problems,” and, in fact, until its last page, “The World Well Lost” is (largely) a piece of analytic philosophy, both in style and in terms of the authorities it quotes. But on the last page Rorty writes, “the arts, the sciences [n.b.!], the sense of right and wrong, and the institutions of society are not attempts to embody truth or goodness or beauty. They are attempts to solve problems – to modify our beliefs and desires and activities in ways that will bring us greater happiness than we have now [emphasis added].”

Tough Guys Don’t Dance

From The Paris Review:

Norm Why can’t we keep our literary heroes where they belong, at the top of the bookshelf next to all the others? And why must we ache for their approval, their admiration, their love? I can’t help but think of an anecdote about Norman Mailer, who was provoked one day to reach out to his hero, big Papa himself. Mailer had just completed The Deer Park and sent off a copy inscribed

To Ernest Hemingway:

—because finally after all these years I am deeply curious to know what you think …

—but if you do not answer, or if you answer with the kind of crap you use to answer unprofessional writers, sycophants, brown-nosers, etc. then fuck you …

Norman Mailer

The book came back to Mailer unopened, stamped “Address Unknown—Return to Sender,” in Spanish. (See Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself for a complete telling in hard-earned italics.) I have my own relationship with one of my heroes, and the mere fact that I call it a “relationship” is in itself deeply sick. I’m veiling a juvenile obsession, hiding behind the very word: hero. In truth, this relationship consists of a few encounters, some good, some bad, the first of which happened one night at Hunter College when I was an M.F.A. student.

More here.

More species means less disease

From Nature:

Mouse Biodiversity protects ecosystems against infectious diseases, researchers have concluded. The finding suggests that loss of species from an environment could have dangerous consequences for the spread and incidence of infections, including those that affect humans. Felicia Keesing, a biologist at Bard College in Annandale, New York, and her colleagues reviewed several dozen studies published in the past five years and found that the link holds true across various ecosystems, pathogens and hosts. “A pattern is emerging which shows that biodiversity loss increases disease transmission,” says Keesing, whose study is published today in Nature1.

The researchers don't know why the effect occurs. But they speculate that species that are better at buffering disease transmission — for example because they have low rates of reproduction or invest heavily in immunity — tend to die out first when diversity declines, whereas species that have high rates of reproduction or invest less in immunity — and thus are more likely to be disease hosts — survive for longer.

More here.

worth it for the women


As I made my way through “On Line,” the austere, stridently dogmatic, sometimes revelatory exhibition “about line” at MoMA, I found myself thinking, Someone please wake me when the seventies are over! In the empire of curators, the sun never sets on the seventies. It is the undead decade. MoMA’s chief curator of drawings, Connie Butler, and guest curator Catherine de Zegher claim their show goes “beyond institutional definitions” of drawing and that it maps an alternative history. I wouldn’t go that far: “On Line” is well-traveled post-Minimalist territory, albeit with some wonderful loans and work from MoMA’s collection (naturally, it opens with Picasso; at MoMA, all modern art springs from the fountainhead of Pablo). The themes are familiar—ideas about grids, systems, performative procedures, and the like—which means that even the most recent pieces look as if they could have been made during the Nixon administration. The one nice thing about this purified retelling? We’re spared Surrealism.

more from Jerry Saltz at New York Magazine here.

Make Something Happen!

Bell03_3223_01 Julian Bell in the LRB:

Paint serious, paint big! An 11-foot-tall Democritus in Meditation (presently in Copenhagen) was unveiled, littered with skulls, moonstruck clouds and carefully researched antique curios. Ricciardi, the writer friend who had supplied the erudition, was plugged for further themes: ‘Now that Rome has discovered that I am highly original in my ideas, I must live up to expectations.’ [Salvator] Rosa also sent Ricciardi a philosophic self-portrait – the poseur in cavalier ringlets contemplating a skull, as if Russell Brand were to land the role of Hamlet. But composure was not Rosa’s métier. He took fright when the Chigi, butts of his satire, took over the papacy in 1655, sent his mistress and their son out of town, then cursed his own cowardice: ‘Am I the person who let himself believe that he was the foremost man of the century? Of the finest talent, of unique wisdom, of the most proved discretion? For shame! I am a simpleton, an ass, a blockhead.’ Worse followed: the boy died of the plague; and his siblings had all been packed off at birth to the foundling hospital, Rosa insisting he couldn’t afford them.

But as Blake wrote, ‘If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise.’ The Death of Empedocles was just one in a succession of foreboding, thunderous histories that occupied Rosa over the following dozen years. By 1668 they had bludgeoned a kind of pre-eminence for him, so that he was deemed the sole living master whose works might hang alongside those of Veronese, painting a century earlier. The pictures’ themes were for the most part deliberately unfamiliar and recondite. Why, you might wonder, did Rosa paint a philosopher diving into a volcano? Arguably, he could have seen something Faustian there, a seeker after knowledge issuing a dare to mortality – something to resonate while the memories of Giordano Bruno and Galileo still lingered. But Rosa’s own letters are not particularly free-thinking in their drift. (No more are they particularly devout.) As I see it, the image is chiefly one of fellow-feeling. The plunge is what the showman takes. There’s a brink and the audience – the great unknown – lies beyond it: get up there, throw in all you’ve got, court disaster if you must, but whatever you do, make something happen!

Web of Nonsense

Doug Henwood in the Left Business Observer:

Financial crises always spark interest in marginal critics of the system. One that’s attracted interest on the left is Ellen Brown, who’s got a book and a website called Web of Debt. She and her kind should be given wide berth.

Brown is a fine example of a mode of thinking that sees the problems of capitalism—like the polarization of rich and poor and the system’s vulnerability to periodic crises—as primarily financial in origin. She writes on her website:

Our money system is not what we have been led to believe. The creation of money has been “privatized,” or taken over by a private money cartel. Except for coins, all of our money is now created as loans advanced by private banking institutions—including the private Federal Reserve. Banks create the principal but not the interest to service their loans. To find the interest, new loans must continually be taken out, expanding the money supply, inflating prices—and robbing you of the value of your money.

How people can spend the time it takes to write a book and still get so much wrong? For much of the 19th century, our money system was largely private. Individual banks issued notes of varying reliability, with limited geographic acceptance. And the national and international monetary system was based on gold, an entirely private and stateless standard.

The Federal Reserve is a public–private hybrid, but it’s a lot more public than the system that preceded it. And it’s also brought a measure of stability to the system that was badly lacking in the 19th century. Almost half of the last decades of the 19th century were times of recession or depression. Commodity prices declined steadily, putting great strain on farmers in particular. There is absolutely nothing about the monetary system of the late 19th century that offers a model, unless you’re a wacko libertarian.

Brown’s critique of the Fed as an inflationary force is deeply odd. The standard populist critique of the Fed is that it’s too adamant about keeping down inflation—and to drive the economy into recession to do so. That’s not really been true of the Fed for more than twenty years, but it was true of how Paul Volcker ran the institution in the 1980s. The last thing we need to worry about right now is inflation—and the Fed is busily pumping money into the system to keep things from going down completely down the drain. There’s a lot wrong with they way they’re doing it, but it’s better than letting it all go, 19th-century style.

To argue that the only way that interest can be paid is by issuing more new loans is also deeply odd. Presumably businesses borrow from banks to invest and expand. Higher profits from those expanded activities should more than cover the interest. If not, then you’ve got a problem, but that’s how things work when an economy is functioning more or less normally.

Astronomers Get First Peek at Atmosphere of a “Super-Earth” Exoplanet

Gj-1214-transit_1 John Matson in Scientific American:

Even though it is a small planet, GJ 1214 b blots out a relatively large fraction of its star's light when it transits, thanks to the host star's diminutive size, just one-fifth the diameter of the sun. And, as an added bonus, the planet appears relatively broad for its mass, indicating the presence of a substantial atmosphere. “1214 b is like the perfect super-Earth for study,” [Jacob] Bean says.

GJ 1214 b transits every 38 hours or so, passing in front of its host star and revealing itself by shading the star's light for about an hour. Bean tracked GJ 1214 b through two of those planetary transits using one of the 8.2-meter telescopes at the Very Large Telescope atop Cerro Paranal in Chile, parsing the observed light into its individual wavelengths. The resulting spectrum was essentially smooth, without any sharp peaks indicative of absorption by specific molecules. “It just looks like a flat line, but that's a very powerful constraint on the planet's atmosphere,” Bean says.

The new research indicates two plausible explanations for the atmosphere of GJ 1214 b, each of which has implications for the planet's interior makeup. The lack of absorption features means that GJ 1214 b cannot have a diffuse hydrogen atmosphere unless it also has a high cloud layer that blocks the starlight from streaming through. That could indicate that the planet is a sort of mini-Neptune—a rocky core sheathed in ice and gas—or a terrestrial world that spewed out a hydrogen atmosphere from molten rock. “That would be kind of fantastic,” Bean says of the latter option. The alternative explanation is a dense steam atmosphere that hugs tightly to GJ 1214 b, probably stemming from a planet that began as a ball of ice before drifting closer to its star, where the heat vaporized that ice to steam.

The Great Recession & the Great Depression

Peter Temin in Daedalus:

The Great Depression and the Great Recession were both caused by policies derived from nostalgia for the world of the Enlightenment. Drawing on theories from the eighteenth century, hard-headed policy-makers either assumed or tried to re-create the idealized conditions described by Hume and Smith. These policy-makers ignored both the growth of economies of scale in modern economies and the work of behavioral economists that has shown that people do not behave as homo economicas. Their efforts produced the new economy of the 19205 and the Goldilocks economy of recent decades that turned into booms and busts. Was it inevitable that these economic expansions would end badly? According to the late economist Hyman Minsky, people become more complacent with prosperity and more willing to take on risks they often know are highly suspect.6 More recently, economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff analyzed historical evidence and reached a similar conclusion : booms typically precede financial crises, just as pride goes before a fall.

More formally, people in both expansions miscalculated the risks they faced. Their models were based on shocks to individual countries or homeowners and did not allow for collective actions. The gold standard model explained how to deal with a shock to an individual country, implicitly assuming that other countries would be immune to whatever disturbance affected the distressed country. The interaction between the country in crisis and other countries would lead back to stability; a collective shock to many economies was not considered. Similarly, the model behind the Washington Consensus considered individual risks. Structured financial obligations were valued as if the underlying risk of mortgage foreclosure was the result of random and independent shocks to individual homeowners. As with the gold standard, no consideration was given to collective shocks; housing prices were expected to rise continually. It was assumed that homeowners experienced financial difficulty and defaulted on their mortgages randomly. The randomness of defaults enabled financial designers to reduce the risk to any security by diversification, that is, combining many mortgages the same way a bank combines many bank deposits. When the housing boom ended and housing prices fell, however, many homeowners began to default, and the risk that was supposed to be protected for through diversification was now present in securities previously thought to be risk free. Investors could not discern safer assets from those more at risk, and the prices of all structured finance fell. Prices of some securities fell rapidly because there were no buyers for them. Financial markets froze in September 2008.

God-Loving Linguists

Missionary Laura Spinney in More Intelligent Life:

In 1963 Barbara and Joseph Grimes sat down with their Huichol neighbours to discuss what to do about the bandits terrorising their remote community. It was clear to everyone that the Grimes themselves were the problem. Seeing Americans living there, at the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains, the bandits assumed the community was rich. The Grimes recognised that it would be best for everyone if they left.

So ended a productive decade for the couple. As young newlyweds in 1952, they had gone to live among the Huichol in the Mexican state of Nayarit, far from shops, roads, electricity and comforts of modern civilisation. Joseph had produced a dictionary of the Huichol language and started work on a translation of the New Testament, and Barbara had brought three children into the world.

But the Grimes soon found a new outlet for their energy. Back in America, Richard Pittman of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), the Protestant missionary organisation that had sent the couple to Mexico, recruited them to his pet project. The mission of SIL, now SIL International, is to research and document languages in order to translate the Bible into as many of them as possible. In 1951 Pittman had started interviewing missionaries and linguists about the languages that were spoken in the parts of the world where they worked. The result was a language catalogue called Ethnologue, the first mimeographed edition of which ran to ten pages. The Grimes threw themselves into the project, and Ethnologue grew and grew. By the time Barbara took over as editor in 1974, the next step seemed logical, if daunting. “I made the decision to try to include all the countries and languages of the world,” she told me over the phone from Hawaii, where she and Joseph live now that they are retired.

As is often the case, the true value of Pittman’s idea, and Barbara Grimes’s contribution to it, only became clear much later. In 1951 nobody anticipated the death of languages, explains Paul Lewis, Ethnologue’s current editor. Like old sailors, languages were just thought to live on and on. Now we know that’s not true.

Books After Amazon

Roychoudhuri_35.6_cart Onnesha Roychoudhuri in The Boston Review:

Amazon’s ascendance no doubt is a function of its nontraditional ways. Though neither a publisher nor strictly-speaking a bookseller, it has become the world’s largest retailer of books in any form. And it has done so as a software company that offers great deals on Vienna sausages as well as hardbacks. Bezos’s customers come for the low prices, not to fondle, sniff, or otherwise interact with the product. The most one can do is “browse” some pages electronically. Bezos thinks pleasing the customer is all that matters, and his strategy—nearly endless inventory at rock-bottom prices—is working.

Today an estimated 75 percent of online book purchases in the United States are made through Amazon, and its overall market share in book sales is astonishingly high. Some publishers make more than half of their sales through Amazon. So when Bezos rang the death knell for the physical book, people paid attention. Even before the Kindle, Amazon wielded enormous influence in the industry. Now it is positioned to control the e-book market and thereby the future of the publishing industry.

What happens when an industry concerned with the production of culture is beholden to a company with the sole goal of underselling competitors? Amazon is indisputably the king of books, but the issue remains, as Charlie Winton, CEO of the independent publisher Counterpoint Press puts it, “what kind of king they’re going to be.” A vital publishing industry must be able take chances with new authors and with books that don’t have obvious mass-market appeal. When mega-retailers have all the power in the industry, consumers benefit from low prices, but the effect on the future of literature—on what books can be published successfully—is far more in doubt.

Wednesday Poem

The human mind
is essentially qualitative.
As you know,
we are easily excited by
pinks and purples,
triangles and circles
and we endlessly argue
over true and false,
right and wrong.

But quantitative analyses
rarely touch our souls.

Numbers were invented mainly
by men to trick each other.
I am almost certain women had
nothing to do with them. They
had more vital tasks, survival, for example,
at hand.

But playing with big numbers
could be interesting.
In fact it could be really fun. Say
if I were to sit on a gravel pit and
count one billion pebbles non-stop
it will take me some 14 years;
or if I were to count what Africa
owes to rich
foreigners – some 200 billion
it is impossible. I will have to
be born 40 times and do nothing
but keep counting 24 hours.

Although things could be simpler on a
smaller scale. Suppose as a result
of the debt, five million children die
every year , as in fact they do,
and each dying child cries
a minimum of 100 times a day
there would be a trillion cries
floating around
in the atmosphere just over a
period of five years.
Remember a sound wave once
generated never ceases to exist
in one form or the other,
and never escapes the atmosphere.

Now one fine morning, even if
one of these cries suddenly hits
you, it will shatter your soul into
a billion pieces. It will take
14 years to gather
the pieces and put them back
into one piece.

On the other hand, maybe all the
trillion cries could hit your soul
and nothing would happen.

by Ajmer Rode
translation by Ajmer Rode
from Poems At My Doorstep
Caitlin Press, Vancouver, 1990

The girl who really kicked the hornet’s nest

From The Telegraph:

The real-life Swedish murder that inspired Stieg Larsson

De-costa-col_1771675b Malmskillnadsgatan, Stockholm, used to be where street prostitutes in the capital gathered. The 600m-long road in the city centre was always teeming with drug-addicted women at night, weaving in and out of the traffic, some barely able to stand. This was the street where Catrine da Costa, a 28-year-old prostitute and heroin addict, sold herself. A police mugshot, taken after she was arrested for soliciting, shows a pretty young woman with pale freckled skin and sad eyes. Her light coloured hair is feathery against a thin neck. Da Costa was last seen in Malmskillnadsgatan on June 10 1984. She had previously been married to and had a son with a Portuguese man. Her mother, to whom she was close, raised the alarm after not hearing from her daughter for a few days.

Five weeks later some of her remains were discovered in a bin bag near Solna, north of Stockholm, and close to the Department of Forensic Medicine at the Karolinska Institute. Almost three weeks later, another bin bag full of da Costa’s body parts was discovered less than a mile away. The head and some internal organs were missing, and have never been found. It is not unusual for street prostitutes to be murdered, but the mutilation made this case different. The case, known in Sweden as styckmordet (the ‘cutting up murder’), gave rise to an almost unprecedented public outrage. It has spawned four books, several television documentaries and countless newspaper and academic articles in Sweden over the years.

More here.

Why Diets Fail

From Science:


Chilling out might be the key to losing the weight you gained over Thanksgiving. New research shows that dieting makes the brain more sensitive to stress and the rewards of high-fat, high-calorie treats. These brain changes last long after the diet is over and prod otherwise healthy individuals to binge eat under pressure.

Bale and her co-authors hypothesized that dieting leaves people more susceptible to the chronic stresses of everyday life, making even the strongest dieter yearn for a pint of ice cream or a hot, cheesy pizza. Although one hot fudge sundae won't cause significant weight gain, persistent stress could lead to a pattern of binge or comfort eating that undoes previous weight loss. To test their hypothesis, the researchers cut daily food intake in mice by 25% for 3 weeks, until the rodents had lost about 10% to 15% of their original body weight. This regimen simulates a moderate diet and modest weight loss in humans. After exposure to mild forms of stress, such as loud noises, the hungry mice had higher levels of cortisol in their blood. And their cortisol levels stayed higher longer than in control mice. This indicates that the dieting mice were more stressed and took more time to calm down.

More here.