The Greatest Japanese Writer You’ve Never Heard of


The luminous, gentle tone of these passages is central to Inoue’s art. Leon Picon, in his 1965 introduction to The Counter­feiter and Other Stories, says that “human pathos and suffering, loneliness and isolation, oriental fatalism and Buddhistic concepts of predestination form dominant strands in the fabric of virtually all of the writing of Yasushi Inoue,” and while I can’t exactly disagree, I am certainly dissatisfied with the dated cliches, and suspicious of the capitalized Orientalisms on display here. The note in The Sh̄wa Anthology is surely closer to the center of the truth, characterizing Inoue’s work as “the examination of the faintest ripples of cultural interchange between Japan and the outside world, ripples often created by lonely individuals who remain essentially nameless and faceless in the annals of official history.” I would say—aware that my own reflections will no doubt seem time bound and off-key in a few decades, not to mention the centuries that are Inoue’s usual time scale—that Inoue’s great theme, spanning his historical, contemporary, and autobiographical works, is how the life you lead is not your real life. What we think of as our personal struggles—our decisions, desires, deliberations, the choices we make and the things we do—are less real, less to be trusted, and perhaps ultimately less important than the wider forces of historical destiny or the cultural past or the way we started to feel as a child, or simply the fact that other people are not who we think they are, and nor are we.

more from Damion Searls at The Quarterly Conversation here.

Why do they pick on us Pakistanis?

Pervez Hoodbhoy in The Express Tribune:

ScreenHunter_01 Jan. 05 15.00 My green passport requires standing in a separate immigration line once my plane lands at Boston’s Logan airport. The ‘special attention’ from Homeland Security, although polite, adds an extra two to three hours. I belong to the fortunate few who can get a visa, but I am still annoyed. Having travelled to the US frequently for forty years, I now find a country that once warmly welcomed Pakistanis to be strangely cold. The reason is clear.

Foreigners carrying strong negative feelings — or perhaps harmful intentions — are unlikely to find enthusiastic hosts. I know that the man who tried to bomb Times Square, Faisal Shahzad, a graduate of the University of Bridgeport, is my compatriot. So is Aafia Siddiqui, our new-found dukhtur-e-millat (daughter of the nation). Another Pakistani, Farooque Ahmed, with a degree from the College of Staten Island, made headline news in November 2010 after his abortive attempt to blow up DC Metro trains.

If such violent individuals were rarities, their nationality would matter little. But their actions receive little or no criticism in a country consumed by bitter anti-Americanism, which now exceeds its anti-Indianism.

Example: after the Faisal Shahzad news broke in early May 2010, TV channels in Pakistan switched to denial mode. Popular anchors freely alleged conspiracies against Islam and Pakistan. None revisited their claims after Shahzad proudly pleaded guilty in June. Calling himself a “Muslim soldier”, he read a prepared statement: “It’s a war … I’m going to plead guilty a hundred times over”.

More here.

Wednesday Poem

—an excerpt from
A Herbal

What was better then

Than to crush a leaf or a herb
between your palms,

Then wave it slowly, soothingly
Past your mouth and nose

And breathe?


If you know a bit
About the universe

It's because you've taken it in
Like that,

Looked as hard
As you look into yourself,

Into the rat hole,
Through the vetch and dock
That mantled it.

Because you've laid your cheek
Against the rush clump

And known soft stone to break
On the quarry floor.


Between heather and marigold,
Between sphagnum and buttercup,
Between dandelion and broom,
Between forget-me-not and honeysuckle,

As between clear blue and cloud,
Between haystack and sunset sky,
Between oak tree and slated roof

I had my existence. I was there.
Me in place and the place in me.


Where can it be found again,
An elsewhere world, beyond

Maps and atlases,
Where all is woven into

And of itself, like a nest
Of crosshatched grass blades?

by Seamus Heaney
from Human Chain
publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010

The surprising usefulness of sloppy arithmetic

From PhysOrg:

Math Ask a computer to add 100 and 100, and its answer will be 200. But what if it sometimes answered 202, and sometimes 199, or any other number within about 1 percent of the correct answer? Arithmetic circuits that returned such imprecise answers would be much smaller than those in today’s computers. They would consume less power, and many more of them could fit on a single chip, greatly increasing the number of calculations it could perform at once. The question is how useful those imprecise calculations would be.

If early results of a research project at MIT are any indication, the answer is, surprisingly useful. About a year ago, Joseph Bates, an adjunct professor of science at Carnegie Mellon University, was giving a presentation at MIT and found himself talking to Deb Roy, a researcher at MIT’s Media Lab. Three years earlier, before the birth of his son, Roy had outfitted his home with 11 video cameras and 14 microphones, intending to flesh out what he calls the “surprisingly incomplete and biased observational data” about human speech acquisition. Data about a child’s interactions with both its caregivers and its environment could help confirm or refute a number of competing theories in developmental psychology. But combing through more than 100,000 hours of video for, say, every instance in which either a child or its caregivers says “ball,” together with all the child’s interactions with actual balls, is a daunting task for human researchers and artificial-intelligence systems alike. Bates had designed a chip that could perform tens of thousands of simultaneous calculations using sloppy arithmetic and was looking for applications that leant themselves to it.

More here.

Interview with Gary Gorton

Gorton1 Over at the Minneapolis Fed's The Region (via brainiac):

After listening to Yale finance economist Gary Gorton deliver a talk on “shadow banking” and the recent financial crisis, Randy Wright, a brilliant monetary theorist, was both perplexed and intrigued. Region readers may well have the same reaction after dipping into the following interview with Gorton.

Shadow banking—the intricate web of financial arrangements and techniques that developed symbiotically with the traditional, regulated banking system over the past 30 or so years—is territory Gorton has studied for decades, but it (and he) have been largely on the periphery of mainstream economics and policy.

That all changed in mid-2007, when panic broke out in the subprime mortgage market and financial institutions that support it. Expressions like “collateralized debt obligation” and “repo haircut” escaped the confines of Wall Street and business schools, and began to fill the airwaves. We’re still struggling to come to terms—and few are in a better position to help than Gorton…

Region: Why don’t we begin with some background on so-called shadow banking—the factors behind its enormous growth, and then its collapse during the financial crisis? Do you prefer a different term? You use “securitized banking” in some of your papers.

Gary Gorton: The term shadow banking has acquired a pejorative connotation, and I’m not sure that’s really deserved. So let me provide some context for banking in general.

Banking evolves, and it evolves because the economy changes. There’s innovation and growth, and shadow banking is only the latest natural development of banking. It happened over a 30-year period. It’s part of a number of other changes in the economy. And let me give even a little more context, historical context. I want to convince you that shadow banking is not a new phenomenon, in a sense—that we have had previous “shadow banking” systems in the past—and that there is an important structure to bank debt that makes it vulnerable to panic. So, the crisis is not a special, one-time event, but something that has been repeated throughout U.S. history.

Before the Civil War, banking involved issuing private money—that is, banks issued their own currency or bank notes. And this system worked in the way economists would expect it to work. The private bank money did not trade at par when it circulated any significant distance from the issuing bank. Instead, it was subject to a discount, so that a bank note issued by a New Haven bank as a $10 note might only be worth $9.50 at a store in New York City, for example.

Such discounts from par reflected the risk that the issuing bank might not have the $10—redeemable in gold or silver coins—by the time the holder took the note back to New Haven from New York. The discounts from par were established in local markets. But you can see the problem of trying to buy your lunch when the cook has to figure out the discount. It was simply hard to buy and sell things in such a world.

Why Dire Climate Warnings Boost Scepticism

News701-i1.0 Matt Kaplan in Nature News:

A few psychologists have explored the psychology of climate-change belief, with some work revealing that climate scepticism relates to peoples' tendency to defend the status quo, but little else has been done. “We saw a giant hole in the literature when it came to looking at psychological responses to global-warming messages,” says Feinberg.

So Feinberg and his colleague Robb Willer, also at Berkeley, asked 45 online participants spread across 15 cities in the United States to engage in what was ostensibly a sentence-unscrambling activity.

Half of the volunteers were asked to unscramble sentences such as “Somehow justice will always prevail”, whereas the others were given sentences such as “Often, justice will not prevail”. This activity primed them to have either a strong or weak belief in a just world. The participants then completed a survey that measured their scepticism over climate change, asking questions such as “How solid is the evidence that the earth is warming?” and requiring participants to rate their answers on a six-point scale, in which six was not at all solid and one very solid.

Next, participants watched two short global-warming warning videos created by the Environmental Defense Fund, a charity based in New York that campaigns on green issues. The first showed a train speeding towards a small girl as a metaphor for the impending catastrophe that awaits the world's children (see video). The second showed anxious children verbally simulating a clock ticking while describing the climate devastation that is coming (see video). After watching, participants again had their degree of scepticism over climate change measured. They were also asked to rate how willing they were to take action to reduce their carbon footprints.


Feinberg and Willer found that participants primed to have a stronger belief in a just world reported levels of scepticism that were 29% higher, and a willingness to reduce their carbon footprint that was 21% lower, than those primed to see the world as an unjust place.

For Tolstoy and Russia, Still No Happy Ending

Tolstoy-1-articleInline Ellen Barry and Sophia Kishkovsky in the NYT:

A couple of months ago one of Russia’s elder statesmen set out on a paradoxical mission: to rehabilitate one of the most beloved figures in Russian history, Tolstoy.

This would have seemed unnecessary in 2010, a century after the author’s death. But last year Russians wrestled over Tolstoy much as they did when he was alive. Intellectuals accused the Russian Orthodox Church of blacklisting a national hero. The church accused Tolstoy of helping speed the rise of the Bolsheviks. The melodrama of his last days, when he fled his family estate to take up the life of an ascetic, was revived in all its pulpy detail, like some kind of early-stage reality television.

And in a country that rarely passes up a public celebration, the anniversary of his death, on Nov. 20, 1910, was not commemorated by noisy galas or government-financed cinematic blockbusters. Officially speaking, it was barely noted at all.

With this in mind Sergei V. Stepashin, a former prime minister here, sat down to write to the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, which has become an arbiter of politics and culture. In painstakingly diplomatic language, acknowledging “the particular sensitivity” of “this delicate theme,” Mr. Stepashin asked forgiveness on behalf of Tolstoy, who was excommunicated 110 years ago.

The impulse had swelled up during a lonely visit to an unmarked mound of earth where Tolstoy is buried. Mr. Stepashin described the visit — made while he was director of the Federal Security Service, successor to the K.G.B. — as an emotional experience that he has never been able to shake off.

“You look at the house where he lived and worked, where he created his works, and then you come to a place where there is nothing but this small hill,” said Mr. Stepashin, who has close ties to the church. “It was puzzling, on a human and a moral plane. And then I decided to write this letter.”

Ambivalence toward Tolstoy is new in Russia.

six types of clarity


It is an irony of William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity that it finds the definition of ambiguity itself somewhat elusive. That title makes it sound like the author already knows what he’s looking for, but Empson figures out what he means by the term as he goes along. In the revised edition, he starts with this: “any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language.” (The first edition defines ambiguity in the negative, relative to prose.) Already in that phrase “alternative reactions” there is enough room to drive a truck through. Interestingly, though, in laying store by the way real readers respond or could respond, and not by self-contained features of the text, Empson skews toward the empirical, communal, and provisional, and away from the purely analytical. For one of the core books of the New Criticism, this is an out-of-character approach. I wondered briefly why Empson did not do the opposite and identify instances of passages giving no room for alternative reactions, as on the face of it this would seem to allow for more definiteness. When I tried to identify a few such instances, the answer became evident quickly: in order to show the presence of ambiguity under his definition, it is enough to give two or more readings for a passage. In order to show the presence of clarity, you have to supply the reading and show that no other readings exist. Since this task is practically impossible, clarity seems doomed to be a comparatively wishy-washy concept. Literature has played a trick on us: clarity is murky, and ambiguity is clear. But clarity’s virtues are so taken for granted that the question of how those virtues might be demonstrable seems like it ought to be within reach.

more from D. H. Tracy at Poetry here.

cute for the revolution


In El Salvador there hadn’t been anyone like me and George. We’d been alone, going around on the streets. In Nicaragua there were hundreds of us, thousands, so many we had a special name: we were called Internacionalistas, and we came from all over the world—Europe, Africa, all the Americas. We had professors and scientists among our ranks, and farmers and newspapermen and a brigade of artists, all trooping around. We converged on the capital and trucked out to the towns, to Granada, León, Estelí, carrying every kind of equipment—hoes and seeds and cisterns and books. We were ready to scrape up whatever was there and pat down a nice new revolutionary version instead. Since I was the youngest and spoke Spanish, the Internacionalistas could tell me to do anything and I would. Every day there was something for me and George to do. On Thursdays we went to the U.S. embassy to protest U.S. support of the Contras, the reactionary group trying to take down the Sandinistas. (Their very name annoyed us: Contrarrevolución—who would want to be against the revolution?) A hundred Internacionalistas or more showed up each week at the embassy gates and waved signs and shouted.

more from Deb Olin Unferth at The Believer here.

small bites are good for you


But new research suggests that the specter of the shrinking sound bite is anything but new. In fact, quotations from politicians have been getting shorter for more than a century. According to a new article in the academic journal Journalism Studies by David M. Ryfe and Markus Kemmelmeier, both professors at the University of Nevada, newspaper quotations evolved in much the same way as TV sound bites. By 1916, they found, the average political quotation in a newspaper story had fallen to about half the length of the average quotation in 1892. One way to interpret this, of course, is that we’ve been getting dumber since 1892 instead of since 1968. But Ryfe and Kemmelmeier also suggest that the truth is more complicated. The sound bite, they argue, stems less from a collapse in standards or seriousness than from the rise of a more sophisticated and independent style of journalism — which means the sound bite might not be such a bad thing. Letting politicians ramble doesn’t necessarily produce a better or more informative political discourse. Daniel Hallin, the professor behind the original study on TV sound bites, actually made the same point back in 1992, but Dukakis and his fellow critics passed right by it in their excitement over those ugly statistics. And that’s one of the ironies here: The best research on sound bites was itself turned into a sound bite.

more from Craig Fehrman at the Boston Globe here.

Tuesday Poem


Birds that love
high trees
and winds
and riding
flailing branches
hate ledges
as gripless
and narrow,
so that a tail
is not just
no advantage
but ridiculous,
mashed vertical
against the wall.
You will have
seen the way
a bird who falls
on skimpy places
lifts into the air
again in seconds—
a gift denied
the rest of us
when our portion
isn't generous.

by Kay Ryan
from The Best of It
Grove Press, 2010

The Mind’s Eye

From The Telegraph:

Mindstory_1793532f Late in 2005, the writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks, then aged 72, began to notice something odd during his habitual daily swim. While he did the backstroke, a pattern of close-set wavy lines and starry coruscations played on the ceiling above him. Sacks dismissed them as artefacts of his visual cortex, lingering symptoms from his frequent migraines. But a week before Christmas, as he entered a cinema, a more pronounced fluttering started up in his right eye.

By the time the film began, a quivering scotoma, or blind spot, had flared up before him “like a white-hot coal, with spectral colours”. Two days later he was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma behind the retina, and he wrote in his journal: “I am in the best possible hands, but I feel a terrified child, a child screaming for help, inside me.” Sacks’s own adventure at the edges of seeing – the cancer itself proved curable, but his vision was permanently impaired – forms the core of The Mind’s Eye. It is a reflection, in seven essays, on the optical effects of certain neurological disasters and on the response of the brain to partial or complete blindness.

More here.

Searching for the Source of a Fountain of Courage

Natalie Angier in The New York Times:

Courage Courage is something that we want for ourselves in gluttonous portions and adore in others without qualification. Yet for all the longstanding centrality of courage to any standard narrative of human greatness, only lately have researchers begun to study it systematically, to try to define what it is and is not, where it comes from, how it manifests itself in the body and brain, who we might share it with among nonhuman animals, and why we love it so much. A new report in the journal Current Biology describes the case of a woman whose rare congenital syndrome has left her completely, outrageously fearless, raising the question of whether it’s better to conquer one’s fears, or to never feel them in the first place. In another recent study, neuroscientists scanned the brains of subjects as they struggled successfully to overcome their terror of snakes, identifying regions of the brain that may be key to our everyday heroics.

Researchers in the Netherlands are exploring courage among children, to see when the urge for courage first arises, and what children mean when they call themselves brave. The theme of courage claims a long and gilded ancestry. Plato included courage among the four cardinal or principal virtues, along with wisdom, justice and moderation. “As a major virtue, courage helps to define the excellent person and is no mere optional trait,” writes George Kateb, a political theorist and emeritus professor at Princeton University. “One of the worst reproaches in the world is to be called a coward.”

More here.

Fela Anikulapo-Kuti: Musician-turned-Musical

By Tolu Ogunlesi

There were only two Nigerians in TIME Magazine’s ’60 Years of Heroes’ special issue in 2006: Writer Chinua Achebe and musician Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Apart from being artists both men were politicians too – drawn, when democracy beckoned in the late 1970s, onto that treacherous terrain by the prospects of providing an alternative to that god-awful brand of leadership Nigeria throws up with the constancy of clockwork.

Last November, I encountered both men in the United Kingdom – Fela as a reincarnated being in a National Theatre Musical (the Musical first opened on Broadway, earlier in 2010), and Achebe in flesh at Cambridge University, at a lecture he delivered in honour of Audrey Richards, the founder of the University’s Centre of African Studies.
I have written about my Achebe encounter elsewhere. Here is where I will pay my tributes to Fela, arguably the greatest musician to ever come out of Nigeria.

On the National Theatre stage in London, Fela came alive. But only just – in my opinion as a Nigerian speaker of pidgin, the corrupted version of English that served as the universal solvent for Fela’s lyrics and philosophy.

The “Fela” onstage clearly didn’t speak pidgin, he merely learnt it for the performance. And so his awkward handling of it kept getting in the – er, my – way. Fela’s pidgin (in which he delivered his trademark yabis – stinging verbal attacks on the political class, business elite and religious leaders) was as crucial to his persona as his saxophone was. Using a non-native pidgin speaker to play Fela was for me the equivalent of putting a violin in the maestro's hands.

But it was an ambitious performance, the kind one hardly ever sees in Nigeria – detailed costuming and stage set-up, and the accompanying band combined to (re)create a convincing setting. The scene in which Fela’s ‘Kalakuta Republic’ base is invaded is so well done you feel like you were a fleeing bystander on that horrible February day. Hundreds of soldiers stormed the premises on February 18, 1977, brutalising Fela’s band members, dancers and hangers-on.

By the time the soldiers were done, Kalakuta lay in ruins, and Fela's much-beloved mother, Funmilayo – the first Nigerian woman to drive a car, a woman who had left a revolt that deposed and popular monarch in the 1940s and, in defiance of the colonial authorities, visited the Soviet Union and China in the 1950s – lay dying. The soldiers had thrown her out of an upstairs window. She would die soon after.

Read more »

Trying is All We Have

By Namit Arora

(An excerpt from a longer work of fiction.)

Beauties It has been a month since they first slept together. He wondered why their verbal sparring had increased in recent days. Just this morning at her place, Liz set off on the youth-obsessed American culture and the skinny ideals of female beauty manufactured by the consumer industry—a conspiracy, she said, to keep women down. ‘That’s true but what’s also true,’ he argued, ‘is that there will always be some power that will try to contain us, define us, or gain from us. Did earlier ages not have oppressive ideals of beauty? In this culture, power is exercised mainly through marketing. Fortunately, women here also have the power to free themselves from the narrow ideals of beauty impressed on them.’

‘Easier said than done,’ she retorted. ‘You don’t know the pressure this culture puts on women, how it ruins their self-esteem, causes them anxiety and self-loathing, not to mention eating disorders and health problems. These days many college sororities even have puking contests after dinner. You don’t know because you are not constantly evaluated by the shape of your tits and butt, are you?’

‘That may be because I don’t have tits,’ he tried to inject some humor.

‘What pains me more,’ she ignored his remark, ‘is the knowledge that so many women don’t see the big picture, and become co-conspirators with men in their own oppression.’

‘Co-conspirators? Wait a minute. Are you saying that men conspire to oppress women?’

Read more »

Epiphany at the Waterhole, Part One

400px-Millais_Boyhood_of_Raleigh(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)


Fred Zackel, Ph.D.

“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.

Yet inside the mirror is the abyss inside us.

Let me tell you about Gregory of Nazianzus (330 – c.390) who later became Gregory, the Archbishop of Constantinople. He was known as “the Trinitarian Theologian” for his preliminary work with the emperor Theodosius on imagining the Trinity at the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 381 AD.

What? You think this Trinity popped out of the Church’s head full-blown like Athena out of Zeus? You think the Word became Flesh (snap!) just like that?

Gregory of Nazianzus argued just as we cannot look directly at the sun, we can know about it by seeing it reflected in water. So too we can know the Divine.

Our species may have gained self-awareness this way. We saw our reflection in the water hole. The word “epiphany” means seeing our place in the Great Scheme of Things.

One day many millennia in the past, we human beings, each of us, one after another, saw our reflections at the water hole and for the first time. Oh, not all at once, of course. Each of us saw it independently. Some of us much sooner than others. And some of us needed it pointed out to us. But each of us saw ourselves and at that moment each of us became aware of our Self. Each of us, one after another, discovered self-awareness. Each of us had an epiphany and we learned we had individual identities, and thus, one after another, we saw our place in the Great Cosmic Scheme of Things.

What we saw was either a mirage or a miracle.

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Growing up with Osama

Bin_Laden_Poster I grew up with a mysterious man. He talks about depleting natural resources, the concept of class, Sweden’s welfare state, religion, Kyoto, corporate influence in politics, monarchy in Saudi Arabia and AIDS. And he kills people. Many, many people. I don’t understand him. I’ve never met him. I don’t even know if he’s alive anymore. I heard about him precisely on the morning of September 11, 2001. I was eleven, just starting to see the world.

I went to Peshawar in the aftermath of 9/11, an eleven-year old child, roaming the commercial streets and realizing, astounded, that the only posters as popular as the semi-naked Bollywood actresses were the close-ups of a bearded man with a raised finger, proclaimed as the “soldier of Islam”- Osama bin Laden.

I listened to my mother’s friend, sitting in our common room, speaking in hushed tones, around the end of 2001, guiltily admiring Osama, infatuated and defending, asking, after all, what had he done so wrong?

To my brain, it didn’t make sense when someone declared that if Osama bin Laden came knocking on his door in the middle of the night he would rather give him the security of his house than give him up to American troops.

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