The use and misuse of Srinivasa Ramanujan

by Hartosh Singh Bal

Ramanujan_2 Over the past month there have been two separate reasons to return to the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan. The first was the result of an astounding piece of mathematics by Ken Ono and his colleagues on the theory of partitions, bringing to a conclusion some of Ramanujan’s most interesting work in number theory. The second was thanks to Patrick French’s recent book – India, a portrait – which ends with a short two page biography of Ramanujan. The first Ramanujan is of course the Ramanujan who should matter, the mathematician, the second is unfortunately the Ramanujan who has come to occupy public memory, the metaphor.

It is not clear what French’s Ramanujan stands for in a chapter that seeks to explain the specifics of individual, social and organizational behavior on the basis of particular Indian traits such as religion or caste, but given the title of the chapter – Only in India – it does seem that French believes there was something particularly Indian about Ramanujan’s story.

This belief is not unique to French and has only been compounded by Ramanujan’s own description of the Goddess of Namagiri as the source of his inspiration. The result is that Ramanujan has come to embody certain romantic notion of eastern or more specifically Indian thought. Even those who want to allude to Ramanujan the mathematician do so in such terms. Paul Hoffman, in an otherwise entertaining book on the Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos – The Man who Loved Only Numbers – writes, “While Hardy and Ramanujan’s partnership lasted, the two men stood the world of pure mathematics on its head. It was East meets West, mysticism meets formality, and the combination was unstoppable.”

Ramanujan’s otherwise excellent biographer Robert Kanigel devotes the entire first chapter of the book – The Man who Knew Infinity – to Ramanujan’s religious and social upbringing. However important this may have been to Ramanujan the man, the claim that it is central to Ramanujan the mathematician does not stand up to scrutiny. Ramanujan did not learn his mathematics in a temple. By the time he went to school only a few of the traditional Vedic schools still functioned. They had been largely replaced by schools teaching a curriculum based on European science.

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Quaeries #6: Doctor Smith His Demise

Justin E. H. Smith

Zyloprim-1 O Isaac? Isaac! Come forthwith! The clamp 'round my gouty ankle must needs be tighten'd. That's right, Isaac. The left ankle. Yes, my loyal Clampsman. Just like that.

Do you know what I've been doing, Isaac? I've been reading about comic sections. Do you know what those are? They are the Curves produced by the Intersection of a Conus by a Plane. Now look here, Isaac. There are not only Circles and Ellipses so form'd, but e'en edifying Parabolae and whimsical Hyperbolae. Some are most comical indeed!

What's that, Isaac? You say it's 'conic' sections about which the immortal Euclid held forth, and not 'comic' sections?

Now, Isaac, did you see a Signe hanging o'er the Door of my den, warning “Let no one enter here who is ignorant of Mathematics?” You didn't? Well that's why you're allowed in, you Orang-Outang! You are here to tighten my ankle-Clamp, not to out-do the great Roberval.

Now, to our Quaeries.

Firstly, for some period, o'er a decade of Years ago now, we repeatedly heard that jubilant Declaration: Whoomp, there it is! What was discover'd at that time, precisely? A great Treasure of Portuguese Bullion? El Dorado? Verulam's Fountain of Youth? In what barbaric Tongue, furthermore, does whoomp translate the wise Archimede's elegant exclamation, εὕρηκα? Wherefore, finally, did the Jubilation cease so suddenly? Was this Discovery at length only a Fata Morgana?

Whence, moreover, all this talk of 'Wikileaks'? Wiki, we suppose, is of the same Lingua Hottentotica as whoomp, but what is leaking 'round here besides my woe-ridden joints? Information, you say? First of all, Isaac, you know not to interrupt me once I've begun. But more importantly how could 'Information' be a-leaking and a-flowing when we are unable to receive so much as a single sensible Reply to our Quaeries?

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Tunisia, Egypt, Uganda?

Campaign Posters in Kampala. Photo by Robert P. Baird
Historians are generally quick and correct to insist that we jump to easy political analogies at our peril. One of the first lessons of historiography is that grand generalizations are more apt to flatter an author’s own sympathies than to capture a disinterested abstraction of events. Did Tunisia, Wikileaks, Facebook, or Twitter contribute to the Egyptian uprising? Possibly, but who would have the hubris to argue that any of these mattered more than local conditions: the rigged elections in December that gave the ruling National Democratic Party 93 percent of parliamentary seats, the bombings in Alexandria that left twenty-one Coptic Christians dead, the thirty years of daily personalized humiliation at the hands of a brutal police state.

And yet it seems possible to respect the importance of historical specificity while also acknowledging that popular energies can, and do, spread. Not for nothing is the rhetoric of revolution and counter-revolution shot through with the metaphors of fever, contagion, and conflagration. When yesterday’s unthinkable prospect becomes today’s historical fact, we are reminded that possibility can be more than a speculative concept. The events in Tunisia or Egypt make us feel political possibility, they make us experience it as an emotion, a passion no less infectious than anger or joy.

That feeling of possibility has already raised new questions for Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni, who celebrated 25 years of continuous rule last Wednesday and is widely expected to claim victory in the presidential elections scheduled for February 18. When the question of Tunisia’s relevance for Uganda was put to him directly, Museveni shocked no one by arguing that Uganda’s situation is entirely different than the one that led to the ouster of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali: “I would not want you to confuse longevity with performance…social conditions in Tunisia are different to those in Uganda which are improving.”

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“Latenightcabdriving”. Protests in Cairo. Jan 29, 2011.

Those who frequent cyberspace have likely seen this photo a dozen times by now but for us who don't 🙂, this is the most powerful image I have found over the last 6 days of revolution in Egypt.

Abbas, I also like the version you have on Facebook, with the title “Walk Like an Egyptian”.

More here for details.

Going to the Shire

3255924682_95f44b751e On Sundays, Sylvia and I go to the Shire. As anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Tolkien’s world will tell you, the Shire is a happy place. It is a place of beginnings, homecomings, nostalgia and merrymaking. I loved the Shire, and I loved going there with Sylvia. There was a train station very close to our boarding school in South Wales, conveniently located for our Shire excursions. Every Sunday at noon we met at the train station to go to the Shire.

Now that I think about it, I met Sylvia because she introduced me to the Shire. At first, I thought it was a stupid euphemism but we grew into it. Gradually, it became a habit. I was new to the boarding school and she was a senior, two years older than me. Sixteen and Eighteen, we were struck with an underdeveloped pessimism unique to growing up. Sylvia was a girl of decadent tastes: cheap white wine, unfiltered cigarettes and fishing. The only times she tried to avoid these topics was when she was in the mood to impress boys with her feminine side but these little efforts were always doomed to fail. She could not stop talking about wine, cigarettes and fishing. How a Catalan girl had developed the habits of a truant Scot, I never found out. She never talked about herself. How I ended up being friends with her was something I knew even less about: something to do with Dostoevsky, the atman, salvia and short hair. It happened in a serenely fast rush like a tide coming in to cover my feet.

One Sunday, I was early. I recognized her coming from a distance. As she approached, she planted a noisy kiss on my cheek and flashed a wide smile. The two of us, foreigners in this vast countryside of Wales, trudged along the empty tracks and made our way to a forgotten bench, around fifteen minutes away from the station, hidden in unkempt bushes and facing the tracks. There she took out the ticket to the Shire from the front pocket of her fur coat. After warming it with her red lighter she sparked the tip and, hypnotized, watched it catch fire. We each took two puffs and kept passing. It wasn’t long before we were smiling stupidly as the cannabis set in. We were in the Shire and it was a very happy place.

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Pakistan predictions 2009 and now…

Pakistan Army 1 In 2009, I took a road trip across the Northeastern United States and asked friends at every stop for their opinion on what was likely to happen next in Pakistan. The predictions I heard were gathered into the following article, which was published on in April 2009. I am reproducing that article below, followed by a few words about how things look to me now, two years later.

I recently went on a road trip across the North-Eastern United States and at every stop, the Pakistanis I met were talking about the situation in Pakistan. As is usually the case, everyone seemed to have their own pet theory, but for a change ALL theories shared at least two characteristics: they were all pessimistic in the short term and none of them believed the “official version” of events. Since there seems to be no consensus about the matter, a friend suggested that I should summarize the main theories I heard and circulate that document, asking for comments. I hope your comments will clarify things even if this document does not. So here, in no particular order, are the theories.

1. Things fall apart: This theory holds that all the various chickens have finally come home to roost. The elite has robbed the country blind and provided neither governance nor sustenance and now the revolution is upon us: the jihadis have a plan and the will to enforce it and the government has neither. The jihadis have already captured FATA and most of Malakand (a good 20% of NWFP) and are inevitably going to march onwards to Punjab and Sindh. The army is incapable of fighting these people (and parts of it are actively in cahoots with the jihadis) and no other armed force can match these people. The public has been mentally prepared for Islamic rule by 62 years of Pakistani education and those who do resist will be labeled heretics and apostates and ruthlessly killed. The majority will go along in the interest of peace and security. America will throw more good money after bad, but in the end the Viceroy and her staff will be climbing rope ladders onto helicopters and those members of the elite who are not smart enough to get out in time will be hanging from the end of the ladder as the last chopper pulls away from the embassy. Those left behind will brush up their kalimas and shorten their shalwars and life will go on. The Taliban will run the country and all institutions will be cleansed and remodeled in their image.

Pakistan-swat-taliban-sword-11052007 2. Jihadi Army: The army is the army of Pakistan. Pakistan is an Islamic state. They know what to do. They will collect what they can from the Americans because we need some infidel technologies that we don’t have in our own hands yet, but one glorious day, we will purge the apostate officers and switch to full jihadi colors. The country will be ruled with an iron hand by some jihadi general, not by some mullah from FATA. All corrupt people will be shot. Many non-corrupt people will also be shot. Allah’s law will prevail in Allah’s land. And then we will deal with Afghanistan (large scale massacre of all apostates to be held in the stadium), India, Iran and the rest of the world in that order.

3. Controlled burn: This theory holds that there is no chance of any collapse or jihadi takeover. What we are seeing are the advanced stages of a Jedi negotiation (or maybe a Sith negotiation would be a better term). The army wants more money and this is a controlled burn. They let the Taliban shoot up some schools and courts (all bloody useless civilian institutions anyway). Panic spreads across the land. People like John Kerry come to Islamabad and almost shit in their pants at the thought of Taliban “60 miles away from the capital”. Just as Zia played the drunken Charlie Wilson and the whole Reagan team for fools, the current high command is playing on.

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Could Student Loan Debt Spark Insurrection?

240px-Mohamed_Bouazizi_candle The spark that lit the tinder was a series of what began as peaceful protests followed by disproportionate – and uneven – countermeasures by the Tunisian government. Protests began after the public self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor left destitute after harassment by local authorities. Early media coverage was stifled and word of the protests leaked out through social networks and satellite television. Tunisian authorities reacted violently, then backpedaled and granted elaborate concessions (for example Pres. Ben Ali visited Bouazizi in his hospital bed shortly before the latter died and former fled.) The government seemed weak, arbitrary and cruel. People quickly lost confidence.

The United States might seem immune to the miseries roiling Egypt and Tunisia, yet the lack of opportunities and bleak outlook among Arabian youth is hardly unique, particularly to a young American. Unemployment as measured by the number of Americans out of work for over 15 weeks and still looking is at a historically high 9.1 percent according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, yet that number belies deeper pools of unemployment and underemployment among segments of the population. Last month’s tally of job seekers and those “marginally attached and working part-time for economic reasons” was 16.7 percent. Among recent college graduates and minorities the numbers are higher still.

Repression in the United States is not just economic but systematic, according to N+1’s “Intellectual Situation.” By challenging the peculiar American phenomenon of the pejorative use of the word “elite” being directed against “cultural” as opposed to “power” elites (i.e. readers of N+1 as opposed to readers of The Wall Street Journal), N+1’s editors reveal a menacing strain of anti-intellectualism that the “resentful right, under the banner—hoisted by the likes of Beck, Huckabee, and Palin—of common sense, flatters deprivation as wisdom by implying to the uneducated that an education isn’t worth having;” doing “incalculable, unforgivable” violence to the talents and capacities of millions of people.”

The root of this astringent claim is that the Right “not only brands higher education as an instrument of class domination, but… ensures the educational system increasingly functioned in such a way as to make the accusation stick.” The Right achieved this by appropriating (perhaps unwittingly) sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s argument that educated taste is a marker of “cultural capital,” and that taste functions as an index of social status, thereby enforcing class distinctions. N+1 argues that a “truly Democratic America” would instead hew closer to Ortega y Gasset’s argument that there are two classes of creature, “those who demand much of themselves and assume a burden of tasks and difficulties, and those who require nothing special of themselves, but rather for whom to live is to be every instant only what they already are.” Thus empowered the unwashed masses would admire rather than sneer at the achievements of cultural elites, and aspire for greater achievement.

A laudable goal, certainly, and one shared by both sides of the political equation, at least their more sensible members. Crudely put the Left would prefer to marshal the resources of the state to nudge people along in their self-improvement, while the Right would rather let them do it on their own, pulling themselves up by the bootstraps and presumably succeeding in a more business-like fashion. Perhaps the “cultural elite” gives themselves too much credit. Suspicion toward cultural elitism might not stem from culture itself, but rather its self-appointed stewards, the bastions of power and wealth sitting on the boards of elite universities and august cultural institutions.

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Monday Poem

I have trouble with old pics
their sweet bitterness
their cutting edge
their tricks

—a daughter’s mittens
hung from cuffs
laid out in kodachrome
a taunt of time. Enough.

I’d rather mine old nuggets
upturn what’s scattered
in my skull —the gold

stick with what
my head will hold

I do not take nostalgic risks
The photobox stays
beneath the bed
with jewel cases of bygones
in code on disks

When my memory goes
it will not matter
I may not even know the aliens
who peer from three by fours
or are splashed on screens
in pixel splatters

Love is best as it occurs
life too;

Now is breath’s agency
Love and life are only inside time

not frozen
not shot with poignancy
not both a blur

Jim Culleny
Jan 29, 2011

Epiphany at the Waterhole, Part Two

(Wherein we dump the obsolete Adam and Eve tale of the Advent of Consciousness for a more radical and contemporary one based on evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience)

by Fred Zackel

“Something fell out of the mirror.”
“Did you hold it upside down?”
“Did you shake it?”
“After I told you not to?”
“I got curious.”

We must congratulate ourselves. Name another animal capable of creating its own meaning for its existence and then imposing it on the universe. We might even be the ones who most delay their own extinction.

We may not be alone on this evolutionary journey. The journey itself may not be exclusive to any one species but open to any species that ruminates over its reflection in the waterhole. Other species may be in the process of following in our footsteps. (Don’t look back. They might be closing in.) Other species have seen themselves in the mirror. Well, individuals within those species have. Have they told the others yet? Have they brought them to the mirror? As they tell the others of their Herd … could they too have their epiphany? Even more ominously to some of us, once they see themselves in the mirror, can reading (and writing) be far behind?

We human beings saw our reflections, had that epiphany, and got aimed in a different evolutionary trajectory. We survive the Crucible of the Veldt. The Crucible of the Savannah. We went looking for greener grasses elsewhere and we went everywhere on this planet. Being desperate to survive, we adapted ourselves to almost every geography and climate. Over the multitudinous millennia, we have been tempered like swords or plowshares. We survived and thrived.

Mirrors and reading – now we are capable of symbolic thought and we can pass that information on to anyone in Our Herd. We can pass the Good News onto the Next Generation. And the one after. And the one …

Galileo-church-pope-cartoon (That’s why libraries are so very dangerous to the religious, by the way. As the pulpit bullies always say, Quick, let’s burn the books. All we need is my Holy Scriptures. No, not yours but my Holy Scriptures. Yours are alternatives to mine, options to my agenda, and therefore these “choices” must be heresies. You and your ideas, your visions and priorities, must be destroyed and eradicated.)

I do not know how many epiphanies we as a species have had and learned from. But a dangerous few knocked us for a loop. They have threatened us as few others have done since the inaugural Epiphany at the waterhole.

Let’s start with Galileo’s telescope. Let’s go back 400 years almost to the month. In 1610, Galileo published his “Sidereus Nuncius” (aka “The Starry Messenger”), describing the surprising observations that he had made with the new telescope. That epiphany changed how we looked at our place in the Cosmos, our position in the Great Scheme of Things.

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Ships in the night

The proper basis for a marriage is mutual misunderstanding. —Oscar Wilde

Untitled People necessarily make use of assumptions in speaking to one another, choosing their words to convey necessary information succinctly and effectively. The assumption process creates a theory of mind regarding the audience, including their culture, motivations, previous experiences, etc. While communicating with a stranger or an unfamiliar audience, the speaker will seek to include extra detail or background to be certain that the message is understood. But old acquaintances share more history and might require less information to understand the speaker’s intent (and may regard excessive detail as condescension). This habit promotes quick and effortless communication. Reciprocal theories of mind between long-time friends will grow into a shared ecosystem, with experiences, inside jokes and deep comprehension.

Or not. In the case of long-married couples, spouses sometimes communicate ambiguous information no better than strangers would. Two psychologists, Boaz Keysar and Kenneth Savitzky, have been studying how people interpret and misinterpret ambiguous communications. They devised an experiment in which participants sat in a circle with their backs to one other and tried to discern the meaning of spoken ambiguous phrases chosen from everyday conversations. The “speaker” was given a list of ambiguous phrases, and instructed to read each one aloud to communicate which of four meanings was intended. For example, “it’s getting hot in here” might be a flirtatious overture, a comment about tempers rising, a warning that the cops are closing in, or a hint to open the window. The listeners in the experiment chose from among the four possible meanings based on the speaker’s verbal delivery, and the speaker would rate the likelihood that each listener got the correct message.

Even with a lot of contextual information stripped away, all listeners were able to guess the speaker’s intent at well above chance levels, which is a testament to the utility of the social assumptions the researchers are investigating. However, the speakers in this experiment consistently overestimated their own ability to communicate the appropriate meaning, and they overestimated their ability more so toward their partners than toward the strangers. They thought their spouses “got it” for 6 out of 10 phrases, when in fact the spouses averaged the same as strangers, at around 4 out of 10.

The scientists who designed this study chose the conditions to illustrate the flip side of a developed intimacy. The habits of ellipsis and allusion can become counterproductive when the topic falls outside of the shared sphere, or, as in this experiment, context is removed to the point of real ambiguity (in real life, think of emails or text messages; or, speaking near a running faucet). Speakers presume that they’re being clear; and a listener, may use their own take on the shared relationship to mistakenly believe they don’t need clarification. Preventing this sort of miscue is the basis for an entire cottage industry of counselors and marriage therapists.

Reference:The closeness-communication bias: Increased egocentrism among friends versus strangers. Kenneth Savitsky, Boaz Keysar, Nicholas Epley, Travis Carter, and Ashley Swanson. J. Exp. Soc. Psychology 47:269-273, 2011.

Cartoon © Randy Glasbergen from <>, used with permission.

The Secret Life of Cancer

by Jenny White

BreastCancerCells.img_assist_custom I’m a faithful reader of the New York Times Science Section, cover to cover, because I want to know about things, not be caught flatfooted. Somehow it seems necessary for survival to know about quarks and bosons, the social structure of ants, scientific explanations of the smile, and the sexual life of grapes. I had a fling with books explaining how to endure being stranded in snow (make an igloo) and identify edible weeds in the park. What does this say about me? I never kept any extra food in the house beyond what was fresh in the fridge until after 9/11 when I laid in some canned beets and tomato sauce and a gallon jug of water. The tomato sauce exploded and the water leaked, so clearly I am batting zero as a survivalist. Perhaps knowing things about the world lets me feel that nothing can surprise me, jump out of the dark corners beyond my peripheral vision. Illness is like that. Two months ago I saw spots and flashes in my right eye and was told I had a partially detached retina. Why? No reason. Out of the blue. Once I was allowed to read again after the repair, I read a lot about retinas. But what do we really learn about how illnesses and the body work from reading popular science? Recently, I had a long conversation with a prominent scientist at Harvard, the molecular biologist Michael R. Freeman, who explained to me what cancer was. It wasn’t anything I expected, even after years of reading science stories. It was as if he had opened a door into an alternate universe. Below is a transcript of part of our conversation.

Jenny White: Tell me what we should know about cancer?

Michael Freeman: Cancer is an uncontrolled proliferation of cells, so a tumor is actually is a swelling or a cyst, something that isn’t necessarily life-threatening, but a malignancy is something that has the potential to grow and spread in the body and its the spreading in the body as well as the growth that is lethal. We’re still trying to understand fundamental processes that are part of cancer. A recently recognized process involved in cancer, for instance, is autophagy, which means “self-eating.” This is a normal way that cells use to conserve energy and nutrients, and it’s a process that can be used by cancer cells to progress to malignant states. Tumor cells generally are in a very stressful environment, so there’s a Darwinian pressure to select for variants that can overcome various stresses. So if you’re a tumor cell and your descendants have the ability to take in nutrients from this process of autophagy, then you have a selective advantage over other cells that might be killed in the stressful environment.

JW: So basically the Pac-Man cells survive because they eat the cells surrounding them.

MF: They actually eat themselves.

JW: Are there any other cool concepts that are out there? Autophagy, self-eating Pac-Man cells. What else is going on?

MF: There’s another concept that was very new when I was a postdoctoral fellow, but is now very much understood to be a fundamental process in tumor biology, which is apoptosis or programmed cell death. This is a program that cells initiate that causes them to die. It’s basically cell-suicide. There are signaling molecules that can initiate the suicide program that’s built into the cell. This is a normal process that takes place during development. The fingers on your hand were created in part through an apoptopic mechanism, where the webbing between the digits was formed by cells killing themselves. In development, in the formation of the body plan, there’s growth as well as loss of structure. It even happens during normal life as an adult. It’s like what a sculptor does, right? A sculptor creates form by removing things.

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Tigers Tigers Everywhere

CaspiantigerWC On December 26, 2004 there was a magnitude 9.3 earthquake in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Sumatra. It caused a powerful tsunami that devastated the coastal regions of several countries and killed 240,000 people. News of the tsunami's destructive powers quickly made the rounds in the news media. We watched in horror and dismay the extent of the devastation. The earthquake registered 9.3, stronger than the one in Maule, Chili in February 2010, which was registered at 8.8. The 8.8 Chili quake was so strong that it shifted the Earth's crust, redistributing mass on such a scale that, according to NASA, it caused a shift in the Earth’s axis! The shift has been estimated at 8 centimeters, which affected the rate of the Earth's rotation and shortened the length of our day by some 1.26 microseconds.

As tremendous as the Chili quake was, the 2004 quake was stronger. But far stranger and much less reported—forty-four hours after the quake, NASA's newly launched Swift satellite, the Very Large Array, and other observatories picked up the arrival of a powerful gamma ray burst. A hundred times stronger than any gamma burst previously recorded, this one was as bright as a full moon, but radiated most of its energy in gamma wavelengths. This gamma burst temporarily altered the shape of our ionosphere and distorted radio transmissions. We tracked this gamma burst to activity in the neutron star SGR 1806-20, a soft gamma ray repeater, in the constellation Sagittarius, approximately 10 degrees northeast of the Galactic Center or about 45,000 light years from us.

Less than forty-eight hours after the biggest earthquake in twenty five years, a very intense gamma ray burst hit our planet! This gamma burst was 100 times brighter than anything we had seen in the twenty-five year history of gamma ray observation. Were these two highly unusual events related? We don't know how or why they would be, though it has been postulated that gravitational waves might have been a factor that set the earthquake into motion. Perhaps the gamma rays, that we monitored, were slowed down by scattering off dust particles, cosmic rays and such, making them proportionately slower than unimpeded gravitational waves that they might have been traveling with. Or perhaps the gravitational waves were going at superluminal speed—also a possibility—hitting the earth and setting off the quake and tsunami before the gamma rays could catch up. At this point who knows?

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A New Vision of the Public University

Michael Burawoy over at the SSRC blog:

The university is in crisis everywhere. In the broadest terms, the university’s position as simultaneously inside and outside society, simultaneously participant in and observer of society, – always precarious – is being eroded. With the exception of a few antiquated hold outs the idea of the ivory tower has gone. We no longer can hold on to a position of splendid isolation. We may think of the era gone by as the Golden Age of the University, but in reality it was a Fool’s Paradise that simply couldn’t last. Today, the academy has no option but to engage with the wider society, the question is how.

We face enormous pressures of instrumentalization, turning the university into a means for someone’s else’s end. These pressures come in two forms – commodification and regulation. I teach at the University of California, which, with its seven plus campuses, is (or was) surely one of the shining examples of public education in the world. This last year it was hit with a 25% cut in public funding. This is a sizeable chunk of money. The university has never faced such a financial crisis and it has taken correspondingly drastic steps – laying off unknown numbers of non-academic staff, putting pressure on already outsourced low paid service workers, furloughing academics that include world renown figures. Most significantly it involved a 30% increase in student fees, so that they now rise to over $10,000 a year, but still this is only a quarter of the price of the best private universities. These are drastic measures indeed, and a violation of California’s Master Plan for higher education, a vision of free higher education for all who desired it, orchestrated through a system that integrated two year community colleges, the state system of higher education and then, at the pinnacle, the University of California. All this is now turning to ruins.

A Niche for a Prophet

51SGvpZifGL._SL500_AA300_ Eric Hobsbawm in the LRB:

San Nicandro Garganico is a modest agrarian township of some 16,000 inhabitants on the edge of the spur of the boot-shaped Italian peninsula. It has been somewhat bypassed by Italy’s postwar development and has never been on the tourist circuit, or indeed had anything about it that might attract outsiders. The railway didn’t even reach it until 1931. To judge by the photo in the current Italian Wikipedia entry, it looks pretty much the same as it did in 1957, when I visited it, curious about the subject on which John Davis has now given us a first-rate, concise and attractively written book. San Nicandro has made only two entrances onto the historical stage. It was an early centre of Italian socialism and agrarian struggle in the grain-fields of northern Apulia, whose local political head, Domenico Fioritto, became its deputy and subsequently leader of the Italian Socialist Party. The former Communist Party (now the Democratic Party) continues to supply its mayor. The second appearance of the town in the wider world was less relevant to Italian politics, but globally more prominent, though the postwar headlines would soon be forgotten. It linked the town to a group of local peasants who decided in the 1930s to convert to Judaism and eventually emigrated to Israel. John Davis has not only rescued the ‘Jews of San Nicandro’ from more than a half-century of oblivion, but used them to illuminate 20th-century Europe’s extraordinary history.

In purely quantitative terms the phenomenon was negligible: the Fascist police, ever on the watch, reported them as nine families, or 40 people. Some 30 migrated to Israel in 1949. If this group of friends and kinsmen had not chosen to be Jews, but had joined one of those evangelical sects – Seventh-Day Adventists, Pentecostalists – brought into southern Italy by emigrants returned from the US, nobody would have paid any attention to them. They would have been regarded as just another kind of Protestant, as indeed they were by the authorities on their first contact with the sect in 1936, when their prophet, Donato Manduzio, was fined 250 lire as ‘a Protestant pastor’ for conducting an unauthorised religious service. It was in that world of postwar grassroots religiosity that they belonged, though dissident village conventicles were much smaller than Catholic miracle cults such as the one that developed around Padre Pio of San Giovanni Rotonda in the same region at the same time. Though the Vatican was then, understandably, sceptical about the holy man’s claim to bear the mark of Christ’s stigmata, he was to be promoted to sainthood by Pope Wojtyla.

Where else, except from a neighbouring Pentecostalist, would Manduzio have acquired a copy of the Bible in Italian, his study of which converted him to Judaism?

Collateral unpleasantness that Washington would rather not discuss

Tony Karon in The National:

AP_Mubarak_Obama_Washington_Mideast_18aug09 On Saturday, CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked a guest on his show how al Qa'eda fitted into events in Egypt. The question itself was reminiscent of Larry King a few years back asking Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to explain yoga.

Mr Blitzer's vigilance against Qa'eda bogeymen lurking in Egypt's democracy protests epitomises the US habit of seeing Egypt only through the prism of Washington's regional agenda.

US officials forced to explain their support for Hosni Mubarak's repressive autocracy over the past week have stressed Mr Mubarak's cooperation with Israel and support for a US regional strategy highly unpopular with the citizenry of the Arab world. As the State Department spokesman, PJ Crowley, told Al Jazeera: “Egypt is an anchor of stability in the Middle East … It's made its own peace with Israel and is pursuing normal relations with Israel. We think that's … a model that the region should adopt.”

The fact that Mr Mubarak has been kept in power for three decades by a police state that tortures opponents and runs sham elections is collateral unpleasantness that Washington would rather not discuss. In fact, it has been happy to outsource the torture of terror suspects to Mr Mubarak's security services under the CIA's “extraordinary rendition” programme. Fearing that democracy in Egypt would empower the Muslim Brotherhood, the US has lobbied for Mubarak-initiated reforms.

But paranoia over Islamist participation restrains US support for Arab democracy, which in most countries would include Islamist parties.

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