Barry Duncan, master palindromist


Even before actually meeting Duncan, I’d been told about his palindromes. It was early 2009, and I’d just taken a job with Harvard University Press. When I first heard him described as a “master palindromist,” I imagined, briefly, some sort of governing body with an esoteric ranking structure, doling out titles like “grandmaster” in chess. But no. For Duncan the title is self-proclaimed. “When I say I’m a master palindromist, there are two answers for what that means,” he explained. “One is that it means, when it comes to palindrome-writing, I know what I’m doing. The other, slightly longer, slightly more combative answer is that it means you shouldn’t confuse me with any of those garden-variety, ‘Madam I’m Adam’ hacks who couldn’t paint my shadow.” His speech often has a theatrical quality, slowed and emphasized toward the ends of sentences. You learn fairly quickly that he has a tendency to repeat himself. Not the careless repetition of telling you the same thing twice, but the practiced, verbatim repetition of entire anecdotes. And so, when he explains what it means to be a “master palindromist,” and it’s the only time that I see his hackles raised, I can tell that it’s a practiced response, a performed aggravation at the nerve of those who doubt. “I mean, I don’t know what to say. I gave myself the title ‘master palindromist,’ but I’m the one inventing the terminology, and making the rules, so I might as well be giving out titles as well.”

more from Gregory Kornbluh at The Believer here.

A searing novel and a sensational film has thrust Sapphire into the limelight

Sapphire talks to Arifa Akbar in The Independent:

Saph Shortly after the publication of her first novel, Push, which told the story of an obese, illiterate, black teenager abused by her mother and raped by her father, Sapphire was informed by a prominent African American magazine that it would not be featuring a review. Essence magazine's boycott was a defining moment for Sapphire. The story of Claireece Precious Jones, written phonetically in a vivid stream-of-conscious outpouring, remained below the radar for 13 years. Then, in 2009, it hit the New York Times bestseller list after a film adaptation by Lee Daniels (entitled Precious) which stunned audiences at the Cannes, Sundance, and Toronto festivals, won two Oscars, and made an unlikely heroine out of Precious Jones. She finds freedom, of sorts, despite having two babies by her father and contracting HIV from his abuse. Sapphire has a theory for why the book was disdained by Essence in 1996. “I think people thought maternal abuse made the black community look bad,” she says.

As one of the first books to lay open the character of the violent, sexually abusive mother-figure, it had perhaps too taboo a topic, although “I felt like saying 'I'm not trying to hurt you. Don't shoot the messenger'”. The then editor eventually wrote Sapphire a letter of apology. The magazine has, 15 years on, been among the first to review her second novel, The Kid (Hamish Hamilton, £12.99). An urban Bildungsroman featuring Precious's orphaned son, Abdul Jones, it is just as explicit, and damning, in its depiction of a forgotten underclass. Push's story of illiteracy, undetected abuse and social deprivation was a deliberate reflection on the failures of the American welfare system. It is rare that these fringes of existence are ever exposed, co-existing next to extreme affluence, and there is always disbelief when they are, she suggests.

More here.

To clear digital waste in computers, ‘think green,’

From PhysOrg:

Dump A digital dumping ground lies inside most computers, a wasteland where old, rarely used and unneeded files pile up. Such data can deplete precious storage space, bog down the system's efficiency and sap its energy. Conventional rubbish trucks can't clear this invisible byte blight. But two researchers say real-world trash management tactics point the way to a new era of computer cleansing. In a recent paper published on the scholarly website arXiv, Johns Hopkins University Ragib Hasan and Randal Burns have suggested familiar “green” solutions to the digital waste data problems: reduce, reuse, recycle, recover and dispose. “In everyday life, 'waste' is something we don't need or don't want or can't use anymore, so we look for ways to re-use it, recycle it or get rid of it,” said Hasan, an adjunct assistant professor of computer science. “We decided to apply the same concepts to the waste data that builds up inside of our computers and storage devices.” With this goal in mind, Hasan and Burns, an associate professor of computer science, first needed to figure out what kind of might qualify as “waste.” They settled on theses four categories:

  • Unintentional waste data, created as a side effect or by-product of a process, with no purpose.
  • Used data, which has served its purposes and is no longer useful to the owner.
  • Degraded data, which has deteriorated to a point where it is no longer useful.
  • Unwanted data, which was never useful to the computer user in the first place.

The researchers found no shortage of files and computer code that fit into these categories. “Our everyday data processing activities create massive amounts of data,” their paper states. “Like physical waste and trash, unwanted and unused data also pollutes the digital environment. … We propose using the lessons from real life waste management in handling waste data.” The researchers say a user may not even be aware that much of this waste is piling up and impairing the computer's efficiency. “If you have a lot of debris in the street, traffic slows down,” said Hasan. “And if you have too much waste data in your computer, your applications may slow down because they don't have the space they require.”

More here.

Friday Poem

Why the Young Men Are So Ugly

They have little tractors in their blood
and all day the tractors climb up and down
inside their arms and legs, their
collarbones and heads.

That is why they yell and scream and slam the barbells
down into their clanking slots,
making the metal ring like sledgehammers on iron,
like dungeon prisoners rattling their chains.

That is why they shriek their tires at the stopsign,
why they turn the base up on the stereo
until it shakes the traffic light, until it
dryhumps the eardrum of the crossing guard.

Testosterone is a drug,
and they say No, No, No until
they are overwhelmed and punch
their buddy in the face for joy,

or make a joke about gravy and bottomless holes
to a middle-aged waitress who is gently
setting down the plate in front of them.

If they are grotesque, if
what they say and do is often nothing more
than a kind of psychopathic fart,

it is only because of the tractors,
the tractors in their blood,
revving their engines, chewing up the turf
inside their arteries and veins
It is the testosterone tractor

constantly climbing the mudhill of the world
and dragging the young man behind it
by a chain around his leg.
In the stink and the noise, in the clouds
of filthy exhaust

is where they live. It is the tractors
that make them
what they are. While they make being a man
look like a disease.

by Tony Hoagland

Pakistan, the Army and the Conflict Within

Pervez_HoodbhoyPervez Hoodbhoy and Zia Mian in MERIP:

Pakistan’s generals are besieged on all sides. Like never before, they are at odds with their own rank and file. According to the New York Times, the discontent with the top brass is so great as to evoke concerns of a colonels’ coup. The army also is losing support from its domestic political allies and subject to the increasing hostility of the Pakistani public. The generals are even at risk of being dumped by their oldest and most generous supporter, the United States.

Pakistani army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani and other military leaders know it is wise to stop digging when in a hole. But it is not clear if the generals can stop. On July 5, the New York Times reported that US officials hold senior officers of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the military intelligence agency, responsible for the kidnapping, torture and murder of Pakistani journalist Saleem Shahzhad. Shahzhad was well known for his reporting on the military’s ties with militant Islamist groups.

The immediate cause of this crisis was the successful US operation to discover Osama bin Laden’s hiding place in Pakistan, stealthily enter the country and kill him. But, in reality, the generals have been brought to these dire straits by army policies, particularly those enacted over the past three decades, which have left the army, and Pakistan, deeply divided. Keeping the army and the country together is part of the same challenge.

A Counterproductive Disdain

Alexander Cooley and Lincoln Mitchell in the New York Times:

_45840292_abkazia226 Last Friday, voters in the Georgian breakaway territory of Abkhazia went to the polls in a presidential election that was broadly ignored by the United States and its European allies.

There were no international observers, no stern warnings to Abkhaz leaders about the rule of law, no Western congratulations to the winner — Alexander Ankvab, who had been acting president since Sergei Bagapsh, the twice-elected Abkhaz president, died suddenly in May.

In fact, many Western organizations, urged by Tbilisi, condemned the polling. Catherine Ashton, the European Union foreign policy chief, said the E.U. “does not recognize the constitutional and legal framework within which these elections have taken place,” while NATO declared that the alliance “does not recognize the elections.”

The main reason for these reactions is that while the people of Abkhazia view themselves as an independent state, the world’s governments, with only a very few exceptions, consider the territory as an integral part of Georgia. Only a few weeks ago the U.S. Senate passed a resolution describing Abkhazia as “occupied” by Russia.

Still, condemning political processes in the breakaway territory damages Western credibility and influence in the South Caucasus in a number of ways.

More here.

paul berman reflects


BUT WAIT. The anniversary of September 11 reminds me that, before I come up with a gloomy word to conclude my sentence, it might be useful to recall the Middle Eastern landscape of ten years ago. It was not a spectacle of hope. The whole region seemed to be veering in terrorist directions, with battles almost everywhere going on between Islamists of different stripes and mukhabarat regimes, likewise of different stripes, ranging from the bad to the ghastly. And ten years later? Dismal still, in a kaleidoscopically different pattern. Anyone can think of doomsday possibilities—an Iranian order to Hamas and Hezbollah to launch a regional war, and so on. Still, two new elements, which you could not have found ten years ago, figure nowadays on the landscape. Here and there around the region you can see democratic institutions, shaky as a leaf—threatened by terrorists and Islamist militias in Iraq, trampled underfoot by an Islamist militia in Lebanon, still merely a project for the future in Tunisia, and feebler yet in Egypt, given that, if the Egyptian elections go ahead, they will probably bring the wrong people to power. Democratic institutions nonetheless amount to a new element. And something else: the ineradicable fact that liberals, relatively isolated and weak as they are, have made a mass appearance on the public stage, and the liberals left a good impression on the rest of society, and they even demonstrated the ability, for a moment, to shape events, and their day may not be over yet. Do these new elements add up to nothing? If you are philosophically a hard-core materialist and you tally up the measurable facts of power and wealth, they add up to nothing. But if you consider that ideas sometimes have an autonomous force of their own, and that liberal ideas are more likely to flourish in an atmosphere of freedom, these two new and feeble elements look like—well, a beginning.

more from Paul Berman at TNR here.

canetti and the crowd


As a child, Elias Canetti treasured Robinson Crusoe. The author of Auto da Fé (1935), the nightmarish story of a self-absorbed sinologist who is tricked into marriage by his illiterate housekeeper and who sinks first into the lower depths of society and then into madness, seems to have had the lifelong feeling of being solitary, separate from the rest of humankind. According to his later study in mass psychology Crowds and Power, crowds form in an effort to shake off the burden of individuality. Perhaps surprisingly – as he always claimed to value the individual human being above all else – the impression the reader takes from the book is that, for Canetti, this process of self-obliteration held a powerful attraction. Born into a Sephardic Jewish family in a small port city on the Ottoman Danube and growing up amid the festering anti-Semitism of interwar Europe, Canetti had no illusions about the wisdom of crowds. Yet he seems to have been drawn by suddenly formed masses of humanity, finding a sense of elation in being swept up as a student by a flood of people marching on the Palace of Justice in Vienna in 1927. The crowd was a threat, but also a way out from painful self-consciousness. Crowds fascinated Canetti, so much so that he was inclined to explain the whole of history through them.

more from John Gray at the New Statesman here.

Houellebecq, persona


Michel Houellebecq is best known as a novelist, especially since he was awarded the Prix Goncourt in 2010 for La Carte et le territoire, but the current enfant terrible of French literature actually began his career as a poet. His manifesto, Rester vivant (Staying Alive), appeared as long ago as 1991, the same year as his study of H. P. Lovecraft, whose sombre vision has influenced him. A year later came La Poursuite du bonheur (The Pursuit of Happiness), followed by Le Sens du combat, translated here as The Art of Struggle, the first book of his poetry to appear in English. Already an ambiguity arises, as his translators acknowledge: “In French, ‘sens’ can mean either ‘way’ or ‘sense’, and ‘combat’ can mean ‘struggle’ or ‘fight’”. But Combat was the newspaper for which Albert Camus, whom Houellebecq seems to admire, worked during the Second World War, and there is a hand-to-hand sense about it. So why not “The Way of Combat”, especially since the translators do not even raise the possibility of “art” for “sens” in their foreword? Furthermore, this collection had a companion volume in fiction, with an equally combative title, Extension du domaine de la lutte (1994). Perhaps this should have been called something like “Widening the Battlefield” in English, but instead was given the puzzling title Whatever. This ignores Houellebecq’s theme, the destructive quality of economic coupled with sexual liberalism, which, he maintains, combine to extend our contemporary battleground.

more from John Montague at the TLS here.

The I-word

From The Boston Globe:

Word LIKE CORRUPTION, crime, and asbestos, “inflation” is a word that many Americans imagine in all-red capital letters, flashing across TV screens amid warnings of crisis. For anyone who remembers the gloomy, scary 1970s, when the inflation rate in the United States reached double digits, the word is shorthand for an economy that has spiraled out of control, the dollar losing value and prices climbing feverishly. “Inflation is as violent as a mugger, as frightening as an armed robber, and as deadly as a hit man,” said Ronald Reagan in 1978, as nervous citizens imagined the day when they’d have to push a wheelbarrow full of cash to the grocery store in order to buy a loaf of bread.

That particular nightmare never came to pass, thanks to drastic measures taken by the Federal Reserve. For the better part of the past 30 years, the dollar has stayed stable, reassuring American families and the nation’s trading partners, with the central bank standing guard over the economy and doing everything necessary to keep inflation low. You might say that Kenneth Rogoff has been one of the guards. As a research economist at the Federal Reserve during the first half of the 1980s, he helped ensure that the word “inflation” would never again flash across American TV screens. His reputation as a conservative-minded inflation hawk followed him from the Fed to the International Monetary Fund to his current position in the economics department at Harvard.

More here.

How to Save the Taj Mahal?

From Smithsonian:

Taj-Mahal-Yamuna-River-631 Part of the Taj Mahal’s beauty derives from the story the stones embody. Though a tomb for the dead, it is also a monument to love, built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, fifth in a line of rulers who had originally come as conquerors from the Central Asian steppes. The Mughals were the dominant power on the Indian subcontinent for much of the 16th to 18th centuries, and the empire reached its cultural zenith under Shah Jahan. He constructed the Taj (which means “crown,” and is also a form of the Persian word “chosen”) as a final resting place for his favorite wife, Arjumand Banu, better known as Mumtaz Mahal (Chosen One of the Palace). A court poet recorded the emperor’s despair at her death in 1631, at the age of 38, after giving birth to the couple’s 14th child: “The color of youth flew away from his cheeks; The flower of his countenance ceased blooming.” He wept so often “his tearful eyes sought help from spectacles.” To honor his wife, Shah Jahan decided to build a tomb so magnificent that it would be remembered throughout the ages. For more than 15 years, he directed the construction of a complex of buildings and gardens that was meant to mirror the Islamic vision of Paradise.

More here.

Thursday Poem


A Welshman has taken
his nervous bank with him to the beaches
of Spain, from a glass-louvered bottom
of a small yacht he watches the vaulting ribs
of a sunken ship emptied
of the marigolds of salad
and dominion. His girlfriend’s
breasts are copper; he will
sell, he thinks, his dead father’s
dairy farm in late September.
Septembre. Septembre.
He is honestly reading a short story
by Poe. Thunderheads
moving over the lighter casino clouds
of mid-morning. He wonders
about Samuel Beckett
at late night rehearsals.
Spear points and bullwhips
up in the darkening sky. Who wants to die
in Springtime with a collapsed market
and in Paris. He laughs
having just bought back the farm. The slang
of the Americans gaining on him.

by Norman Dubie
Spring 2011, Val. 10