My son, Ronan, looks at me and raises one eyebrow. His eyes are bright and focused. Ronan means “little seal” in Irish and it suits him.
I want to stop here, before the dreadful hitch: my son is 18 months old and will likely die before his third birthday. Ronan was born with Tay-Sachs, a rare genetic disorder. He is slowly regressing into a vegetative state. He’ll become paralyzed, experience seizures, lose all of his senses before he dies. There is no treatment and no cure.
How do you parent without a net, without a future, knowing that you will lose your child, bit by torturous bit?
Depressing? Sure. But not without wisdom, not without a profound understanding of the human experience or without hard-won lessons, forged through grief and helplessness and deeply committed love about how to be not just a mother or a father but how to be human.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is headed to Islamabad this week for what U.S. officials are billing as a last-ditch effort to patch up ties with Pakistan and urge the country's ruling generals to crack down on the Haqqani network, an Afghan insurgent group based in Pakistan's tribal areas that Washington is increasingly putting on par with al Qaeda and the Taliban as a threat to the United States.
The recent drumbeat of stories about the Haqqanis began when Adm. Mike Mullen, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the Haqqanis “a veritable arm of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency.” Although less frequently mentioned, the Pakistanis are also providing sanctuary to the other main Afghan Taliban group, Taliban leader Mullah Omar's Quetta Shura, based in Baluchistan province to the south. But very little has been written about why the Pakistanis support these groups. What possible motive, after all, could they have for supporting forces that are engaged in a nasty guerrilla war against their ostensible American allies in Afghanistan? The reason is simple: The Pakistanis fear that if these Taliban forces are defeated, the United States will abandon the country, leaving behind what they believe will be a hostile Afghan government allied to their mortal enemy, India. And if Clinton fails to understand this dynamic, the latest bid to salvage what's left of U.S.-Pakistani ties will end in failure.
His victory came after one of the most bitter and vituperative run-ups to the prize in living memory – not among the shortlisted writers, but from dismayed and bemused commentators who accused judges of putting populism above genuine quality. But few of those critics could claim Barnes' novel is not of the highest quality. The chair of this year's judges, former MI5 director general Stella Rimington, said it had “the markings of a classic of English Literature. It is exquisitely written, subtly plotted and reveals new depths with each reading.” Much of the row over the shortlist has stemmed from Rimington's own prioritisation of “readability” in the judging criteria. But tonight, she said quality had always been just as important. “It is a very readable book, if I may use that word, but readable not only once but twice and even three times,” she said. “It is incredibly concentrated. Crammed into this short space is a great deal of information which you don't get out of a first read.”
During thousands of elaborate restaurant meals over dozens of piggy years, I’ve received many exacting, even loopy, instructions. I’ve been prodded to dab a special scent on my wrist before savoring my salad. To proceed through the five microscopic canapés before me from left to right, as if they were words in a sentence that would lose all meaning if scrambled. To exhale a particular way as I chewed an avant-garde popcorn cluster so that the smoke inside it billowed from my nostrils. Romera New York is the first restaurant where I was told to “make a memory” of my water. Romera is Manhattan’s newest culinary oddity, an elegant hideaway whose conceits include the pairing of each dish in an 11-course meal with a lukewarm flavored water in a lidded grappa glass. One water might be infused with leek and radish, another with jasmine and dried seaweed. Most taste like indecisive teas, commitment-phobic broths or pond runoff. “Feel free to smell them,” said a server, as if I might otherwise feel jailed. “And to taste them.” He paused. “Make a memory of them.”
While blazers are optional at Romera, straitjackets would be a fine idea.
It’s the craziest example I’ve encountered of the way our culture’s food madness tips into food psychosis, at least among those with keen appetites and the means to indulge them. But it’s hardly the only illustration. Surf the cable channels and clock the time before you spy a spatula, a strainer, someone chewing, someone oohing or Gordon Ramsay. I bet it’s less than 11 seconds. Diners at the latest hot bistro or trattoria snap loving pictures of everything they eat, seeming to forget that it’s dinner, not “America’s Next Top Chicken Breast.” In New York, even the meatballs have paparazzi. Steaks come with discourses on breed, feed and dry versus wet aging; coffee with soliloquies about growing regions, grinding methods and the optimal pour-over technique; beer with overwrought tasting notes. We’ve tumbled far, far down the organic rabbit hole. And with Romera, which opened a month ago in Chelsea, we may have finally hit bottom.
Peter Singer is perhaps the world’s most influential philosopher and the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. In late August, I sat down with him to discuss his most recent book, The Life You Can Save.
At the outset of your recent book, The Life You Can Save, you lay out two goals: to challenge readers to think about their obligations to those trapped in extreme poverty, and to convince readers to choose to give more of their income to help the poor.
What do you mean by extreme poverty?
Well, when I talk about extreme poverty, I use the definition that the World Bank has, which is really based on people having enough income to meet their basic needs for food, shelter, and maybe to educate their children, or some very minimal, basic healthcare.
The World Bank has calculated that in order to do that, you need to have the purchasing power equivalent in your local currency of US $1.25. So, we’re really talking about people who have less than what you can buy for $1.25 in the United States. It’s not what you would get for US $1.25 if you went to a bank in Mozambique or Mauritania. It’s what would have the same purchasing power in those local currencies as $1.25 has in the United States, and that’s what you have to live on for a day. If you have less than that, the World Bank classifies you as being extremely poor.
RB: I have found that the very mention of the words “religion” and “evolution” sets off a kind of reflex reaction among some, but fortunately not all, contemporary Americans. Among both religious fundamentalists and what might be called atheistic fundamentalists these terms set off a war to the death, with abusive language directed toward the supposed opposition. In that kind of atmosphere any rational discussion becomes impossible. What unites these two groups is the idea that religion and science are essentially the same thing: sets of propositional truths that can be judged in terms of argument and evidence. What surprised me when I began to read the work of leading scientists in the fields of cosmology and evolution is how many of them rejected this idea and argued instead that science and religion are really two different spheres that may at points overlap but that operate in accordance with different logics. Science operates with scientific method in terms of which different theories can be tested and proved or disproved, though if Karl Popper is right, proof is always problematic and we are safer to stick to disproof. Religion on the other hand is a way of life more than a theory. It is based on beliefs that science can neither prove nor disprove. Its “proof” is the kind of person the religious way of life produces.
more from the Robert Bellah interview at Big Questions here.
In 1970, shortly before the release of Led Zeppelin III, guitarist Jimmy Page invited his folk-singing chum Roy Harper up to his Oxford Street offices to have a look at the new album. ‘What do you think?’ asked Page. ‘It’s nice,’ replied Harper, toying with the amusing picture wheel built into the sleeve. ‘Look at it!’ said Page. ‘Yes, it’s nice,’ said Harper. ‘No. Look at it!’ said Page, growing exasperated. And then Harper noticed the title of track five, side two. ‘Oh. Oh! Thanks! I don’t know what to say.’ And this is the reason I’m sitting here with Harper 41 years on, in a café near Paddington station. As a long-standing Led Zep fan, I’d often wondered about the identity of the man namechecked in that song title ‘Hats Off to (Roy) Harper’. Just how good is his music? Can he really have been that important and influential? Now here’s my chance to find out.
In the fall of 1965, a season that brought movies as distinct as “Alphaville” and “Thunderball” to the screen, Pauline Kael came to dinner at Sidney Lumet’s apartment, in New York. Lumet was then a prolific young director, having just finished shooting his tenth feature, “The Group,” for United Artists. Kael was a small-time movie critic who had recently arrived from Northern California. Her hardcover début, “I Lost It at the Movies,” had appeared that spring, to critical and popular acclaim, but she had never been on staff at any publication, and had only recently begun to write for major magazines. Lumet liked Kael’s work. Over the previous few weeks, he had allowed her on his set as a reporter, hoping she would learn something about shooting technique. Also present that night was the caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, and after a few drinks—actually, after quite a lot of drinks—Hirschfeld and Kael started quibbling about the uses of movie criticism. Finally, Hirschfeld asked her point-blank what she thought critics were good for. Kael gestured toward Lumet. “My job,” she said, “is to show him which way to go.” The evening ended soon afterward. Lumet later explained, “I thought, This is a very dangerous person.”
If ever Americans were up for a bit of class warfare, now would seem to be the time. The current financial downturn has led to a $700 billion tax-payer-financed bank bailout and an unemployment rate stuck stubbornly above nine percent. Onto this scene has stepped the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, which seeks to bring together a disparate group of protesters united in their belief that the current income distribution is unfair. “The one thing we all have in common is that We are the 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%,” says their website. In an era of bank bailouts and rising poverty – and where recent data show that the top 1 percent control as much as 35 percent of the total wealth in America – it would appear that the timing of this movement to reconsider the allocation of wealth could not be more perfect.
Or, maybe not.
Support for redistribution, surprisingly enough, has plummeted during the recession. For years, the General Social Survey has asked individuals whether “government should reduce income differences between the rich and the poor.” Agreement with this statement dropped dramatically between 2008 and 2010, the two most recent years of data available. Other surveys have shown similar results.
FORMAL ECONOMIC theory has become increasingly mathematical, elegant, and precise. It also increasingly has failed to confront the economic problems of societies. Economics, in consequence, is slowly and painfully moving away from the formal mathematical models built around a frictionless, static conceptual structure. Frank Hahn, one of the pioneers of general equilibrium theory expressed it succinctly:
“…there will be an increasing realization by theorists that radical changes in questions and methods are required if we are to deliver, not practical, but theoretically useful results.” (Hahn, 1991, 47)
It is not as clear where economics is going. But the direction is suggested by two glaring shortcomings of neoclassical theory: it is a frictionless theory inn world in which the frictions are where the action is, and it is static in a world in which dynamic change is going on at an unprecedented rate. Remedying these defects requires that economics builds on its strengths, modifies the unrealistic assumptions that made it frictionless, and incorporates time into the analysis to confront the issues of economic change.
Dismissing Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party as overhyped minority pursuits, Brooks stares into the tortured soul of Middle America and sees a born-again Calvinist tearing up her credit cards and bemoaning the culture of bailouts. “While the cameras surround the flamboyant fringes, the rest of the country is on a different mission,” Brooks writes. “Quietly and untelegenically, Americans are trying to repair their economic values … the moral norms that undergird our economic system.”
I am tempted to ask D.B. whether he has turned on prime-time television lately, or visited Las Vegas, the site of tonight’s Republican debate, but tacky reality shows, cavernous gambling halls, and upscale jiggle joints are, perhaps, part of the “flamboyant fringes” of American society. So let’s look at the evidence that Brooks cites, beginning with an opinion poll suggesting that three quarters of Americans think they would be better off with no debt and the fact that eight million people have stopped using bank-issued credit cards.
The figure for credit-card usage is accurate enough, but it has nothing reason to with values. The reason many people are carrying fewer pieces of plastic in their wallets is that banks, considering them to be bad lending risks in a deep recession, have cut off their access to credit.
I arrived in the States twenty years ago, to the month. When I look at the wealth and income distribution in the United States today, I’m looking at Mexico in the 1970s and Brazil in the 1960s. This is not America. This is not a land of opportunity. You can’t talk about opportunity when 60 percent of the population can’t afford to go to college, where the costs of basically a middle-class education far outstrip the resources of the average family; when you have 54-million people living, in a family of four, on less than $22,314 a year; and meanwhile, the top one percent have trebled their share of income…
Joachim Güntner: It used to be that when people heard about hackers, especially ones in a Chaos Club, they had an image of scatterbrains, social nuisances.
Constanze Kurz: The image of the club has changed for the better, but there are still people who talk about hackers without differentiating between those who do it with criminal intent and those with ethical standards.
The Chaos-Computer-Club recently discovered a trojan on hard drives that seemed suspicious to their users, a trojan apparently launched by government authorities. In what way did this online spy-service violate the rights of the citizens affected?
Kurz: In fact it gave a kind of general authorisation to technically sniff out the infiltrated computers. It was not only able to divert data, but additional malware could be uploaded and executed by remote control. The entire hard drive of the targeted person was open to search by investigators. It was also possible to activate the camera, the microphone, or perform a keypad protocol. It went as far as acoustic and visual surveillance of the person's home.
Edmundo Paz Soldán (Bolivian novelist and professor) I’d like to talk about your last novel, The Pregnant Widow. What do you have to say about the relationship between beauty and ageing?
Martin Amis That you get ugly when you get old. It’s all perfectly simple. In fact I can tell you how it’s going to go. Everything seems fine until you’re about 40. Then something is definitely beginning to go wrong. And you look in the mirror with your old habit of thinking, “While I accept that everyone grows old and dies, it’s a funny thing, but I’m an exception to that rule.” Then it becomes a full-time job trying to convince yourself that it’s true. And you can actually feel your youth depart. In your mid-forties when you look in the mirror this idea that you’re an exception evaporates. Then, you think life is going to get thinner and thinner until it dwindles into nothing. But a very strange thing happens to you, a very good thing happens to you, in your early fifties, and I’m assuming – this is what novelists do, they assume their case is typical: a poet can’t be typical about anything, but a novelist is an everyman, and an innocent and literary being – but you assume that how you feel is how everyone feels, and it’s like discovering another continent on the globe.
The October night before he learned he had won the 2009 Nobel Prize in medicine, the biochemical researcher Jack W. Szostak says he slept like a log. “I wasn’t going to lose a night’s sleep because of work I’d done in the 1980s,” Dr. Szostak, 58, said with a laugh during a recent two-hour interview at his laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital. “It was old work.” That “old work,” for which he had already won the Lasker Prize, was to help identify the nature and biochemistry of telomeres, the tips at the ends of chromosomes. Understanding them may be the key to unlocking the mysteries of cancer and cell aging. An edited version of our conversation follows.
Was telomere research your life’s work?
It was somewhat of a side project. Before I began working on telomeres, I’d been studying DNA recombination. What do cells do when they see a broken piece of DNA? Cells don’t like such breaks. They’ll do pretty much anything they can to fix things up. If a chromosome is broken, the cells will repair the break using an intact chromosome. That process is called recombination. And that’s what I was looking at. Now, telomeres: They are the ends of chromosomes, the caps, and they don’t recombine. One day in 1980, I heard Liz [his colleague Elizabeth H. Blackburn] at a conference talking about how telomeres behaved. It was the contrast between the DNA she was working with and the material I was studying that caught my attention. I wanted to understand what was going on. So I wrote Liz right afterward.
In a way, new technologies have made us all like Baudelaire. We are intoxicated by the multitude but cannot ignore its troubling aspects. Like Baudelaire, we are trying to find our private life in the crowd while protecting our “real” selves in a public persona. Blogs and social networking sites are like diaries with broken locks. They are confessions written for an audience. They let us feel as if we can fabricate a personal world for ourselves, a world we can control. We listen to music no one else can hear and read emails while standing on a crowded bus because we are looking for privacy. Baudelaire used poetry and fashion; we use PDAs and e-readers and the Internet. With boundless access to information, we can easily observe the crowd. But we cannot escape being observed. And we wonder if we can find the private life we’re looking for, either in the public space of the real world or in the virtual one. Baudelaire wrote about the romance of throwing oneself alone, directionless, into the crush of public life. And it is exhilarating — spending your days wandering from shop to shop, fact to fact, video to video, stranger to stranger. But his poetry was a reminder. The passion for roaming means a love of masquerades and a hatred of home. Baudelaire, too, wanted to protect his privacy. But he feared he had lost the very thing he wanted to protect.
more from Stefany Anne Golberg at The Smart Set here.
When future generations look back, they will remember 2011 as the year of end of dictators in the Middle East and the Maghreb. Libya’s Muammar Khaddafi has now joined the Middle East parade of fallen despots. Practically nine months after Tunisia’s President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted after 23 years of authoritarian rule and the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was thrown out of power by a few weeks of protests in Tahrir Square, Khaddafi is at the end of his reign after 42 years of dictatorship. The year 2011 could indeed be considered the starting point of a paradigm shift in the Middle East that will bring the downfall of the remaining despots in the region while restructuring the way energy resources are priced and supplied around the globe. However positive regime change may be in the longer term, the short-term social and political consequences are likely to be quite challenging. It goes without saying that the overthrow of dictatorial regimes in the Maghreb and the Middle East will have proved easy compared to the difficult and uncertain establishment of secular and democratic governments.
Having dissected the pain of others for decades, Didion has spent the last few years turning the scalpel on herself. This introverted late phase is as coherent and revealing as Philip Roth’s. The essayist who once reprinted her own psychological evaluation has always used her personal story, but in her early years she only feinted at confession on the way to observations of the larger world. Beginning with Where I Was From, which presents California’s history as her own, she’s reversed the bait-and-switch, writing about those close to her as a way of bringing herself, finally, into public view. “Writers are always selling somebody out,” Didion wrote at the beginning of her first essay collection, 1968’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. That warning, later echoed infamously by Didion’s contemporary Janet Malcolm, is a statement of mercenary purpose in the guise of a confession: not a preemptive apologia but an expression of grandiose, even nihilistic ambition. We think of memoirs, especially memoirs of grief, as a soft art, one that necessarily humanizes the writer. And Didion the memoirist is painfully human—heartsick, vulnerable, and honest about her fears. But she’s also as ruthless as she’s ever been, tearing down the constructs she’s built to protect herself and her family. If she’s selling anyone out with Blue Nights, it’s Joan Didion.