Reading Nabokov to Nabokov

Img-article---zanganeh-nabokov_202213920 Lila Azam Zanganeh in The Daily Beast:

For three days and three nights, on a damp February weekend in Palm Beach, Florida, I read Nabokov to Nabokov. I had traveled from New York to Palm Beach with a manuscript in my suitcase to visit Dmitri Nabokov, the only son and literary executor of Vladimir Nabokov.

The manuscript, my first book, contained a number of Nabokov quotes for which I needed to obtain rights before I could approach an American publisher. I knew that, in 1999, Dmitri had threatened to sue an Italian author named Pia Pera over a book titled Lo’s Diary, a rewriting of Lolita from Lolita’s point of view. To avoid an infringement lawsuit, Pera’s American publisher had printed a scathing preface by Dmitri (“Pia Pera [henceforth PP], an Italian journalist and author of some stories that I have not read …”). Aside from this, Dmitri had built a forbidding reputation in the literary world for attacking the works of many a would-be Nabokovian. Fearing the worst, I had emailed Dmitri the manuscript, hoping he would read it before I made it to Florida, and that we might spend the evening discussing potential issues.

My book was a curious combination of fiction and essay, of invention and interpretation. It posited that Nabokov was the great writer of happiness. A notion that, over the years, almost invariably turned small talk into opinionated tirades. Happiness, evidently, did not keep good company with nymphets and nympholepts.

Palm Beach felt like a sort of grotesque inversion of Nabokov’s short story “Spring in Fialta”: gigantic pine trees; juniper shrubs; sorry-go-rounds of concrete high-rises. With a map and a bicycle, I’d made my way to Ocean Drive. I rehearsed with myself how I might parry various lines of attack: breathe, acquiesce, qualify. “Your father hated didactic writings, hence this book had to be extremely playful … I had to imagine him.” With an accelerated heart rate, I rang the bell of Dmitri’s apartment. A beaming nurse opened the door, and I stepped into a living room adorned with posters outlining, in 19th-century font, the casts of productions Dmitri had sung in during his operatic career. La Bohème stood out—a memorable performance, as Dmitri later recounted, at the Teatro di Reggio Emilia, where he had sung his debut role on the same night as Pavarotti, nearly half a century ago. On the door to his bedroom, to the left, a glossy poster of Kubrick’s Lolita displayed the famous pair of heart-shaped red glasses. Among mirrors and modern cream-white furniture, one could glimpse various miniature models of racing cars, another of his life’s passions.

Human Dignity

George Kateb -Human Dignity Remy Debes reviews George Kateb's Human Dignity, Harvard University Press over at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews:

You really should read this book. I think . . .

George Kateb's Human Dignity has the ring of popular philosophy. It isn't rigorously researched, especially with regard to the literature on human dignity. It overreaches, making substantive claims not just about the nature and basis of human dignity, but also human rights, liberty, morality, mind, consciousness, self-consciousness, identity, imagination, language, autonomy, and agency. And it defends more than a few contentious positions, including the central claim that human dignity is underwritten by human uniqueness in the strong sense that humans are partly divorced from the natural order — a claim, it must be added, which is on the one hand intended secularly and on the other hand defended unabashedly from the armchair. Still — you should probably read this book.

It is a rewarding book. Rewarding because of its scope — or more exactly, because of its enviable ability to be (generally) deep despite the incredible scope. Rewarding because of its style — its intentionally personal tone and scholastically unencumbered pace. And it is rewarding because it is so bold. Given the timid and hedge-prone state of recent work on human dignity, Kateb's confident viewpoint is refreshing and engaging even when it is frustrating, wildly speculative, and wrong. In short, Human Dignity is one of the more interesting contributions on the subject of human worth in the last few decades. It absorbed me when it succeeded. And it absorbed me when it failed.

Ironically, one of this book's more important successes may be one Kateb himself appreciates least: unlike most work on human dignity, Kateb uses the right method. Abstracting from his substantive and normative claims about the nature of dignity, claims which are the focus of the book, Kateb implicitly appears to appreciate the need to get clear on, and be led by, what I have recently called the form of dignity.

Curse of the Bomb

Rafia_zakariaRafia Zakaria in Guernica:

[L]ike so many other things—infrastructure and institutions, roads and rituals—the bomb too has failed Pakistan. In the past month, Pakistan’s borders have been casually ignored, security walls scaled and planes destroyed—all this despite the possession of the omnipotent trump card residing at the sacred altar of our national consciousness.

The bomb that was supposed to deter and defeat has been unable to frighten anyone into leaving us alone. It has revealed, instead, the flimsy remains of our national pride and a confused, conspiracy-infested mental landscape. Never united otherwise, Pakistanis can now share the heartbreak of knowing that they were never invincible after all, that a few men could easily outwit and outsmart, and that situating their self-worth in a bomb is exacting an infinitely bloody price.

No longer cosseted by the myth of a cure-all weapon, the bomb like an unveiled bride must be assessed in the fluorescence of a depressing and unwelcome day. It was widely known to have been procured through deception and disguise, lies and falsehoods. The man, who developed it, was chastised publicly and heroised privately, despite what some saw as his mendacity.

These sins we forgave, unwilling to recognise their potent if silent attack on national morality now poised to elevate someone accused of selling nuclear technology and promoting proliferation. It is poised to accept that it is entirely forgivable to sacrifice what is right for what is needed and most damningly that the power to destroy is more venerable than the power to befriend and create.

The losses brought by the bomb would likely be forgiven by Pakistanis if they were moral concerns alone. In the cold estimations of post-Soviet calculations, nuclear power was a deterrent, its possession meant that others would stay away, that possession alone equaled power, especially for small countries with few friends.

However, in the era of terrorism, where every living thing is a target and the propagation of fear is a means to control, a markedly different equation of nuclear power is in operation. Under its deductions, weak states with nuclear weapons attract rather than deter non-state enemies.

Ascent into Antwerp


Antwerp is an unappreciated beauty with a dubious reputation. But the city, which has fallen into disrepute as a bastion of Flemish nationalism, surprises its visitors with its cultural cosmopolitanism. A top source of pride is the fashion scene, which showcases its creations in the hip neighbourhood surrounding Dries van Noten’s fashion temple and the Fashion Museum opened in 2002, which the Ghent architect Marie-José Van Hee furnished with a theatrically stepped foyer serving both as an ideal place to pose and a catwalk. As the city on the Schelde became a fashion mecca towards the end of the 1980s, thanks to the meteoric rise of the “Antwerp Six”, a small architectural miracle emerged. On the rundown waterfront along the Schelde, Bob van Reeth, the father of new Flemish architecture, built the eye-catching, striped Huis Van Roosmalen and also – as part of the restoration of the burned down riverbank terraces – the Zuiderterras Café that resembles the form of a ship, while Willem-Jan Neutelings erected an apartment building whose wooden facade was intended to recall Antwerp’s maritime tradition. Gradually, politicians began to realise that Antwerp, all too entrenched in its glorious past, needed an urban renewal initiative. Inspired by the revitalisation of decrepit ports in Barcelona, San Francisco, and Sydney, a competition was organised for rejuvenating the “stad aan de stroom” situated between the highway intersection to the south and Eilandje Docks to the north, now made redundant by the new container harbour – with awards going to big names, such as Toyo Ito, Rem Koolhaas, Bob van Reeth, and Manuel de Sola-Morales. But the ambitious projects ended up being shelved, and revitalisation – based on a new master plan – proceeded on an informal basis and haltingly.

more from Roman Hollenstein at Sign and Sight here.



In a 1970 Arts Magazine article, art critic Gregory Battcock said: “The new curator is more concerned with communication than with art.” In a 1958 essay on Jackson Pollock, Happenings artist Allan Kaprow said: “They will discover out of ordinary things the meaning of ordinariness.” In a 1981 interview, poet John Giorno said: “I certainly won’t curl up in a chair with a book of poetry.” Dial-a-Poem, Giorno’s New York City–wide poetry installation instigated in 1968, used the technology of the telephone, a plastic handheld thing, to relay poetry as if it were simple information. The messages were poems recorded by poets and artists, from John Ashbery to Bobby Seale. For a period of about four years, anyone could dial 212.628.0400 on a rotary telephone and hear a poem. Art and writing at the end of the 1960s had expanded into new kinds of experience. Almost anything could suddenly be labeled “art”—a pile of tires, a conversation, the sound of rain outside a window. Turning away from the heroics associated with the Abstract Expressionist movement—the grand gesture—artists and writers suddenly understood the actions of an ordinary life as a type of poetry. In addition to art’s expansion, the poem on the page expanded, the definitions of “media” expanded, the frame of the picture expanded. Art and life, for a short time, became concomitant.

more from Katie Geha at Poetry here.

Chernobyl in Belarus


WHEN THE reactor at Unit 4 of the V. I. Lenin Atomic Power Station, Chernobyl, exploded twenty-five years ago, the people of Belarus were sacrificed by a secretive political system. Pilots such as Major Aleksei Grushin were sent into the air above Belarus to seed clouds with silver iodine so they would rain down what had spewed from the inner core of the reactor onto the fields below. That political decision kept Muscovites safe—but as a result, 60 percent of the disaster’s radiation fell on the hapless people of Belarus. It was a national catastrophe. As author Svetlana Alexievich points out in her masterful Voices from Chernobyl, the Nazis took three years to destroy 619 Belarusian villages during the Second World War; Chernobyl made 485 villages uninhabitable in hours. Today, 2,000,000 Belarussians, including 800,000 children, live in contaminated areas. To give an idea as to how contaminated this land is, 100,000 people live on land with a radiation level 1,480 times greater than the level typically found on a nuclear bomb test site. Between 1990 and 2000, the incidence of thyroid cancer in adolescents in the region increased by 1,600 percent.

more from Michael Harris at Dissent here.

Tuesday Poem


It’s wine I need. Is it a sin to have another?
No harm in merlot, no harm in another.

In Ramadan, we’ll break our fast with dates and wine—
Must we pray in one room and dance in another?

Crushed blossoms at the end of the summer: teach me
how to coax nectar from the bloom of another.

Burned rice on the stove again: what’s to love
but my imperfections—you’ll forgive me another.

Butter by a kettle always melts, warns the proverb.
Heated, greased, we slip one into the other.

When, inexplicably, you enter my prayers,
I hear messages from one god or another.

Me encanta cantar, cuando estoy sola, en el carro.
My mother tongue dissolves. I speak in another.

Heart thief, enter the fields like a woman in love,
vase in one hand, shears in the other.

by Dilruba Ahmed
from Blackbird, Spring 2010

Feud for thought

From The Guardian:

VS-Naipaul-and-Paul-Thero-007 Well, it was fun while it lasted. After 15 years, novelists Paul Theroux and VS Naipaul have finally ended their bookish bust-up, with a little help from Ian McEwan. Friends for three decades, the pair fell out in the mid-90s after the Trinidadian sold off one of Theroux's books – personally dedicated to Naipaul – for $1,500. Theroux responded with a memoir of their friendship, Sir Vidia's Shadow, which labelled Naipaul a racist, an egoist and a mercenary. All this hand-wringing came to an end last weekend with a simple handshake. Spotting Naipaul in the green room at the Hay festival, Theroux turned to McEwan and asked what he should do. “Life is short,” McEwan replied. “You should say hello.” And with that, handbags were holstered. But all is not lost. Ever since Tolstoy challenged Turgenev to a duel, the vendetta has been part and parcel of literary life – and it will survive even Theroux and Naipaul. These feuds appear to be alive and well:

Salman Rushdie v John le Carré

The novelists fell out in the late 80s, when Le Carré criticised Rushdie's Satanic Verses. After Le Carré was accused of anti-semitism in 1997, Rushdie waded in, writing to the Guardian about his lack of sympathy. “Rushdie's way with the truth is as self-serving as ever,” replied Le Carré in the next day's edition. A further missive from Rushdie called the crime writer “a pompous ass”.

Possible peacemaker: At the time Christopher Hitchens muddied the waters, calling Le Carré “a man who, having relieved himself in his own hat, makes haste to clamp the brimming chapeau on his head”. It's his job to clean things up.

More here.

The Bilingual Advantage

From The New York Times:

CONV-popup A cognitive neuroscientist, Ellen Bialystok has spent almost 40 years learning about how bilingualism sharpens the mind. Her good news: Among other benefits, the regular use of two languages appears to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease symptoms. Dr. Bialystok, 62, a distinguished research professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, was awarded a $100,000 Killam Prize last year for her contributions to social science.

Q. So what exactly did you find on this unexpected road?

A. As we did our research, you could see there was a big difference in the way monolingual and bilingual children processed language. We found that if you gave 5- and 6-year-olds language problems to solve, monolingual and bilingual children knew, pretty much, the same amount of language. But on one question, there was a difference. We asked all the children if a certain illogical sentence was grammatically correct: “Apples grow on noses.” The monolingual children couldn’t answer. They’d say, “That’s silly” and they’d stall. But the bilingual children would say, in their own words, “It’s silly, but it’s grammatically correct.” The bilinguals, we found, manifested a cognitive system with the ability to attend to important information and ignore the less important.

Q. How does this work — do you understand it?

A. Yes. There’s a system in your brain, the executive control system. It’s a general manager. Its job is to keep you focused on what is relevant, while ignoring distractions. It’s what makes it possible for you to hold two different things in your mind at one time and switch between them. If you have two languages and you use them regularly, the way the brain’s networks work is that every time you speak, both languages pop up and the executive control system has to sort through everything and attend to what’s relevant in the moment. Therefore the bilinguals use that system more, and it’s that regular use that makes that system more efficient.

More here.

Hieroglyphics and Written Kisses: Deciphering Desire

by Tom Jacobs

How on earth did anyone get the idea that people can communicate with one another by letter! Of a distant person one can think, and of a person who is near one can catch hold – all else goes beyond human strength. Writing letters, however, means to denude oneself before the ghosts, something for which they greedily wait. Written kisses don’t reach their destination, rather they are drunk on the way by ghosts. It is on this ample nourishment that they multiply so enormously. Humanity senses this and fights against it in order to eliminate as far as possible the ghostly element between people and to create natural communication, the peace of souls; it has invented the railway, the motorcar, the aeroplane. But it’s no longer any good, these are evidently inventions made at the moment of crashing. The opposing side is so much calmer and stronger; after the postal service it has invented the telegraph, the telephone, the radiograph. The ghosts won’t starve, but we will perish (226).

~ Franz Kafka, “Letters to Felice”

Kafka Ghostbusters-logo Eye_of_Horus

I happened once, one fine summer afternoon several years ago, to be standing on a street corner in downtown Chicago, waiting for the light to change. I had taken a late lunch from my crappy temp job, and I usually bought a sandwich and then sought refuge from work in the Cultural Center, where daily lectures on a range of topics were given by graduate students from the University of Chicago. I had just listened to one of these as I gnawed on a turkey sandwich and was walking back to work through clouds of muddled thoughts about (in this case) ancient Greece and the use of masks in theater. This all had the effect of abstracting me from the modern realities of the skyscrapers that towered vaguely menacingly above me.

It was just then that I happened to look up and see a school bus slowly roll through the intersection before me. Perhaps it was on its way to a field trip to the Art Institute of Chicago. I saw a little boy, perhaps eight years old, sitting in the very last seat of the bus and looking directly at me. We held each other’s gaze for perhaps two seconds, and then, just as the bus lurched forward, and just as I was about to smile and return to mundane day, he put his hand up and gave me the finger.

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Creationism in the Classroom: A Tragic State of Affairs

by Quinn O'Neill

CD The latest battle in the long standing war between evolution and creationism was lost in Louisiana last week. 17-year-old Zack Kopplin spearheaded a valiant effort to repeal Louisiana’s Science Education Act, an Act that opens the door to the teaching of Creationism in science classrooms. Tragically, the bill was shelved and the anti-evolution Act retained.

Some might wonder what could be so terrible about teaching students that we were created in our current form by a kind and loving God. It’s an idea that can help people to cope with mortality and uncertainty and offer a sense of purpose to our existence. It may seem pretty harmless.

The teaching of Creationism as science constitutes a tragic failure of science education for a number of reasons, some of which don’t get mentioned often enough. When debate bubbles up on the internet, it tends to revolve around what is and isn’t true, with talk of facts and evidence. Certainly evolution is true and there are reams and museums of supporting evidence; but the rejection of facts and evidence itself isn’t really tragic in my opinion, it’s just disappointing and frustrating.

The real tragedy has more to do with the power and utility of evolution than with its truth. Evolution is a potent concept that can transform the way we see the world and everything in it. In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, Daniel Dennett compares the concept to a sort of “universal acid” that’s so powerful it will inevitably eat through anything used to contain it. In Dennett's words, evolution “eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view, with most of the old landmarks still recognizable, but transformed in fundamental ways.”

But evolution doesn’t just change the way we look at things, it’s necessary for making sense of much of science. Major science organizations have acknowledged this vital role. The American Association for the Advancement of Science states:

“The modern concept of evolution provides a unifying principle for understanding the history of life on earth, relationships among all living things, and the dependence of life on the physical environment. While it is still far from clear how evolution works in every detail, the concept is so well established that it provides a framework for organizing most of the biological knowledge into a coherent picture.”1

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The Elusive City

by Misha Lepetic

I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways, and the degree of the arcades’ curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know this would be the same as telling you nothing.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, 1974, p4

Heidi_Whitman-Brain_Terrain_282 In the headlong rush to lead us to the promised land of the “Smart City” one finds a surprising amount of agreement between the radically different constituencies of public urban planners, global corporations and scruffy hackers. This should be enough to make anyone immediately suspicious. Often quite at odds, these entities – and it seems, most anyone else – contend that there is no end to the benefits associated with opening the sluices that hold back a vast ocean’s worth of data. Nevertheless, the city’s traditional imperviousness to measurement sets a high bar for anyone committed to its quantification, and its ambiguity and amorphousness will present a constant challenge to the validity and ownership of the data and the power thereby generated.

We can trace these intentions back to the notoriously misinterpreted statement allegedly made by Stewart Brand, that “information wants to be free.”* Setting aside humanity’s talent to anthropomorphize just about anything, we can nevertheless say that urban planners indeed want information to be free, since they believe that transparency is an easy substitute for accountability; corporations champion such freedom since information is increasingly equated with new and promising revenue streams and business models; and hackers believe information to be perhaps the only raw material required to forward their own agendas, regardless of which hat they happen to be wearing.

All three groups enjoy the simple joys of strictly linear thinking: that is to say, the more information there is, the better off we all are. But before we allow ourselves to be seduced by the resulting reams of eye candy, let us consider the anatomy of a successful exercise in urban visualization.

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Bizarro World, Summer 2011

250px-Seinfeld_logo.svgMichael Blim

You know things have once again reached a pretty pass when you start recalling Seinfeld episodes in the midst of the morning newspaper read. By the end of this past week, it seemed to me that a goodly part of America had become Seinfeld’s Bizarro World, a place where down was up, left was right, and the violation of common sense a comic premise.

What’s funny on Seinfeld is very unfunny as a description of a country’s politics. Many nations slip in and out of Bizarro World. Cults of personality can create laugh riots, if you are not murdered or left to die tortured in a cell because you laughed out loud. Italy’s Berlusconi lives in a world so bizarre that he took to button-holing his G-8 colleagues last week in Deauville, France to complain about how “Communist” judges were persecuting him, as if being prosecuted for sleeping with 17-year olds were somehow nothing more a political setup.

If only America’s descent into Bizarro World were simply a Seinfeld episode, a story about nothing that like cotton candy melts in your mouth and disappears leaving nothing more than the disagreeable sensation of acute indigestion. But of course, it’s not. We need suffer those who don’t get the joke, and their insistent upside-down vision of the world sends the national gyroscope into a tizzy.

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Love is What You Want: Tracey Emin Hayward Gallery

Sue Hubbard

Full of iconoclastic verve they filled the Royal Academy for Charles Saatchi’s infamous 1977 exhibition Sensation with unmade beds , pickled sharks and an image of the serial killer Myra Hindley painted using children’s handprints. Now their waist lines are thickening and they face the slow decline from the excitement and glamour of being YBAS (Young British Artists) to MABAS (Middle Aged British Artists). In the case of the Queen of the Britart pack, Tracey Emin, she has also renounced her role as official enfant terrible by recently coming out in support of the Tories as “natural patrons” of the arts. There can be few artists in recent years in Britain, except Damien Hirst, who can be so readily identified in the public consciousness by a single work. Everyone has an opinion of her 1999 Turner Prize exhibit My Bed with its sex-tossed sheets, stained knickers, spent condoms and cigarette stubs. As with her igloo-like tent appliquéd with the names of all the people she has ever slept with, (lost in the MOMART fire), the subject is herself. It is her only subject. Her work chronicles the child abuse, the teenage rape, the broken relationships and her botched abortion. In this, her first London retrospective, the solipsism is evident in titles such as Conversation with my Mum, 2001, Details of Depression When you’re sad you only see sad things, 2003, The first time I was pregnant I started to crochet the baby a shawl 1998-2004 and Those who suffer love, 2009.

Tracey Emin - Love is What You Want

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The Eclipse of Pragmatism

By Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. TalisseDewey Time Mag Cover

Pragmatism is widely regarded as the Unites States’ only indigenous philosophical movement. Founded by a quirky and largely isolated genius, Charles Peirce, pragmatism was introduced as a method for clear thinking which insisted that all words and statements be understood in terms of concrete experience. It was popularized by William James in a series of lectures delivered in Boston and New York 1906 and 1907. Indeed, many of the connotations of the term as it is used in popular parlance derive from James’s writing; it was James who identified pragmatism with the doctrines the truth is what “works” and that statements should be accepted or rejected in part according to their success. Yet pragmatism received its most sustained articulation in the philosophy of John Dewey, who in the course of his long academic career incorporated central insights of Peirce and James into an all-embracing philosophical system of experimental naturalism. In Dewey’s hands, pragmatism became the philosophical basis for accounts of art, experience, mind, knowledge, language, communication, education, happiness, science, religion, and politics. And Dewey embodied the pragmatic commitment to unifying theory and practice. He was a tireless public intellectual whose activities ran the gamut from marching in support of women’s suffrage to helping to found the NAACP to presiding over the Trotsky trial in Mexico. It is with good reason, then, that contemporary philosophers who are most keen to ally themselves with this “classical” pragmatist movement tend to idolize Dewey.

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The Heart and the Beard: a surgical story told mainly in aphorisms (of 140 characters or less)

By Liam Heneghan

To Vassia, best friend and partner in matters of the heart!

Context: The young doctors who had been prodding me a day or so after an appendectomy ran alarmed from my hospital bedside to call in a senior consultant. As a consequence of the high temperature I was running, a heart murmur, presumably there since birth, sounded especially pronounced. Each beat was followed by the acoustic swish of blood plashing back into the chambers of my heart. A follow up with a cardiologist in Dublin confirmed that the aortic valve was defective (stenotic and regurgitative) and that, at some point in my life, it would need to be replaced. I doubted this. The year was 1978; I was fifteen years of age. This, coincidentally, was also the year I grew my first beard. A fine display of very fine chin-hair; I have sported aggressive facial hair since that time.

Though I doubted that my heart would ever need attention (I felt immortal in those days), nevertheless, I had my various doctors through the years examine it. In the mid 1990s a doctor in Georgia, one whose name reminded me of non heart-healthy products, told me that without immediate surgery I would die. The news was a jolt and so consternated my beloved that she got her one and only parking ticket as we ruminated upon this news in Jittery Joe’s in Athens. Follow up examination revealed that the EKG leads used in that heart test had been switched round and the doctor had been seeing my heart inverted – the ventricles seemed atrophied and my atria appeared to be perched on that malformed muscle like outsized berets . Surgery0001

At the end of last year while traveling in India with students I experienced some difficulties that retrospectively appeared to have been signs of congestive heart failure. Subsequent visits with my physician, my cardiologist and my cardio-thoracic surgeon resulted in my going in for an aortic valve replacement on May 10th 2011. Typically, I wait for years before writing about personal events; however, I had been tweeting on the topic in the weeks running up to this surgery, and had provided some commentary on the subsequent and ongoing recovery. During the week of the surgery, a relatively miserable one, I had been digitally silent; however, I jotted down some observations which I now reproduce as part of this twitobiography (“The Missing Tweets”). In reviewing this output I noticed that my beard and my heart, twinned since my teen years, had co-starring roles in this little drama.

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Under the Volcano

Elsalvadorimg-575 Dara Kerr in Guernica:

On a muggy November afternoon in 1974, Dolores Alfaro and her husband descended El Salvador’s Chichontepec volcano. They’d been picking coffee beans in one of the plantations dotting the steep slopes, and were returning home with full wicker baskets. Walking through the forest, Alfaro saw a half-dozen olive green trucks, packed with soldiers, cresting a hill and slowly rolling into town. There had been tensions between laborers and the military but seeing troops standing on the flatbed trucks, rifles aimed, fingers on triggers, made her realize something had changed.

On that day, a faction of the national military raided a village of unarmed civilians. The soldiers moved from house to house. By dusk, they murdered six people, imprisoned twenty-eight, and wounded dozens. This practically unknown event, named La Cayetana after this village at the foot of the volcano, marked a change in the nature of persecution in El Salvador—going from sporadic repression of select individuals to deliberate attacks on entire communities. It set the pattern for scores of government massacres to come.

Six years later, in 1980, the country’s archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated—shot in the heart while celebrating Mass—his death catalyzing El Salvador’s twelve-year civil war, which was marked by roving paramilitary death squads and the murder of tens of thousands. For more than a decade, the U.S. government supplied the Salvadoran military with an average of $1 million per day and trained its troops in counterinsurgency tactics. Much of what happened was shrouded after the war ended in 1992, and the nation’s congress passed amnesty laws—absolving war criminals—and official amnesia set in.

The Naturalness of (Many) Social Institutions: Evolved Cognition as Their Foundation

PBoyerPascal Boyer and Michael Petersen in Journal of Institutional Economics (forthcoming):

General accounts of social institutions should provide plausible and testable answers to questions of institutional design, such as, why do social institutions have the specific features that we observe in human societies? Why do we observe common institutional features in otherwise very different cultural environments? Or, why do some institutions seem natural and compelling to participants, while others are considered alien or coercive? Here we develop the view that present institutional theories do not properly address such design questions, and that this can be remedied only by taking into account what we call the ‘naturalness’ of institutions, their connection to human expectations and preferences that result from evolution by natural selection. This perspective may help us understand commonalities across cultures, but alsowhy some institutions are more successful and compelling than others and why they change in particular directions.

To some extent, this suggestion echoes a defining feature of the neoinstitutional approach. From the beginning, neo-institutionalism has been oriented towards developing realistic models of the actors, countering the Homo oeconomicus model inherent in older institutional accounts and emphasizing the cognitive limits of human decision makers (Brousseau and Glachant, 2008). From this perspective, important lines of inquiry have been developed with regards to, first, how institutions carry a range of unintended consequences given the cognitive limits of their designers, and, second, how a function of institutions is to counter such limits (North, 1990). At the same time, however, this perspective of bounded rationality provides only a partial description of human cognition. While one line of research within the cognitive sciences has been preoccupied with the biased and fallible nature of human cognition, a complementary line of research has developed the view that human cognition is in fact ‘better than rational’ (Cosmides and Tooby, 1994). Evolutionary psychologists have argued that human cognition includes a multitude of domain-specific cognitive programs, each optimally geared (within evolutionary constraints) to solve particular problems in the course of human evolutionary history (Barkow et al., 1992). The inferential power of these specialized programs comes from their content-rich nature. That is, they are loaded with inbuilt assumptions about their domain. Environments that fit these inbuilt assumptions appear intuitive and readily understandable.

Our aim is to outline the argument that institutions are effective not despite human cognition but, in part, because of human cognition. Essentially, we argue that the content-rich nature of evolved intuitions provides a foundation which can be and is often used in the design of many social institutions. Institutions that fit these intuitions, we propose, develop more easily, require less effort to conform to and are more culturally stable.

How a Sex Rebel was Born

Md_horizTracy Clark-Flory interviews Susie Bright in Salon:

There are lots of things about your early sex life that could be quite controversial — you're underage and sleeping with much older adults. But you write about the experience like it was very positive overall.

Oh, I feel that way. When I talk nonchalantly publicly about becoming sexually active at 16, people are like, “Oh my god you were underage!” And I'm like, “Are you kidding me?!” You think I was wearing diapers? You want to see a picture of me at 16? I'm working, I'm going to school, I'm having sex, I have a huge social life, I'm politically involved in meetings from morning to night, I take care of a household with my dad. I'm a beginning grown-up. I had the foolishness and naiveté and clumsiness of a teenager, but when you're ready you're ready. When you think about this on more of a global or species level, it's kind of ridiculous how we infantalize teenagers.

From there you were introduced to this world of casual sex where the idea was that, as you say, “sex would be friendly and kind and fun. You'd get to see what everyone was like in bed.” How did that idea pan out in practice?

Well, first of all, I detest the term “casual sex” — since when is it actually casual, this so-called casual sex? Every time I was with someone it was intimate. It was intense. I got to know them and they got to know me on levels we certainly wouldn't have known if we hadn't gotten together — and I don't just mean what their bottom looked like, I mean their personality, their feelings. You're vulnerable with someone. I mean, some people say, “No, I'm made of steel. I just go in there and fuck.” Have I ever experienced that, at all? I just don't find sex to be this jaded, cynical, stoic exercise. How do you manage to do that and have an orgasm? I don't.