Salman Rushdie is Not Afraid

1958088946Gidi Weitz in Ha'aretz:

More recently, television series have become perhaps the most significant of all forms of creativity. Do you think there is a qualitative difference between them and novels? Did you see “The Sopranos” or “The Wire”?

“Everybody loves 'The Wire' and I think it's okay, but in the end it's just a police series. I love 'The Sopranos.' 'Deadwood,' which didn't last long, was a series I liked a lot; it had more filthy language than I've ever heard on television anywhere in my life, but it was brilliantly written. I like some of what is on now, like 'Breaking Bad' and 'Dexter.'

“I mean, there is always a lot of junk; most novels published are bad novels, most plays put on are bad plays, most movies that come out are bad movies and that is also true of TV. Nineteen times out of 20 you fall asleep. There was a series called 'Game of Thrones' which was very popular here in the United States, a post-Tolkien kind of thing. It was garbage, yet very addictive garbage – because there's lots of violence, all the women take their clothes off all the time, and it's kind of fun. In the end, it's well-produced trash, but there's room for that, too.

“I watched all that because if I am going to work in this field, I need to know what it is going on. I have been making myself have whole-series marathons to get the point of how it goes. I will soon start writing my little series.”

The Internet Intellectual

Evgeny Morozov in The New Republic:

Jarvis3In 1975, Malcolm Bradbury published The History Man, a piercing satire of the narcissistic pseudo-intellectualism of modern academia. The novel recounts a year in the life of the young radical sociologist Howard Kirk—“a theoretician of sociability”—who is working on a book called The Defeat of Privacy. Building on “a little Marx, a little Freud, and a little social history,” Kirk posits that “there are no more private selves, no more private corners in society, no more private properties, no more private acts.” (And, according to Kirk’s sardonic wife, “no more private parts.” She finds her husband’s books “very empty” but “always on the right side.”)

One cannot fault Kirk for thinking too small. He is trying to prove that “sociological and psychological understanding is now giving us a total view of man, and democratic society is giving us total access to everything. There’s nothing that’s not confrontable. There are no concealments any longer, no mysterious dark places of the soul. We’re all right there in front of the entire audience of the universe, in a state of exposure. We’re all nude and available.”

Occasionally Kirk practices what he preaches—his sociology class is invited to see his wife give birth—but he hates it when his own privacy is violated. When a student (who is also his lover) reads his book manuscript, he protests that it is private. He is furious when another student, in a desperate attempt to document the professor’s promiscuity, starts chasing him with a camera.

Public Parts—the second book by Jeff Jarvis, the Internet’s loudest guru—reads like a glib, half-baked sequel to The Defeat of Privacy, produced by an older and more conservative Howard Kirk, who has swapped his tweed jacket for a tuxedo and his smoking pipe for an iPhone. Jarvis’s intellectual heroes are different from Kirk’s, and the latter’s hippie lingo is replaced by business-friendly clichés, but the message is the same.

More here. [Thanks to Kris Kotarski.]

Energy: Friend or Enemy?

William D. Nordhaus in the New York Review of Books:

Nordhaus_1-102711_jpg_470x439_q85Is energy our friend or our enemy? In their personal lives, most people regard energy as an essential friend. It powers our computers, warms our homes in the winter, fuels our cars and planes, and provides a necessary input to produce virtually everything we use. Modern life would be inconceivable without the friendly side of energy.

But in recent decades, energy has also become an enemy. Presidents have lamented our “addiction to oil,” we have gone to war to protect oil fields from hostile powers, and air pollution from fossil fuels kills tens of thousands of people every year. Perhaps most worrisome, the accumulation of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide threatens to change the earth’s climate in ways that are unpredictable and potentially dangerous.

The two faces of energy are the primary reason why energy policy is so controversial and tangled. We need national policies that address the enemies of pollution and global warming. But because energy is such a large part of consumer budgets and so central to our advanced economies, people are reluctant to allow energy prices to reflect the true social costs of energy consumption. We see this tradeoff play out in energy and environmental policy year in and year out.

More here.

Empirical Software Engineering

Greg Wilson and Jorge Aranda in American Scientist:

ScreenHunter_01 Oct. 15 20.23Software engineering has long considered itself one of the hard sciences. After all, what could be “harder” than ones and zeroes? In reality, though, the rigorous examination of cause and effect that characterizes science has been much less common in this field than in supposedly soft disciplines like marketing, which long ago traded in the gut-based gambles of “Mad Men” for quantitative, analytic approaches.

A growing number of researchers believe software engineering is now at a turning point comparable to the dawn of evidence-based medicine, when the health-care community began examining its practices and sorting out which interventions actually worked and which were just-so stories. This burgeoning field is known as empirical software engineering and as interest in it has exploded over the past decade, it has begun to borrow and adapt research techniques from fields as diverse as anthropology, psychology, industrial engineering and data mining.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. The software industry employs tens of millions of people worldwide; even small increases in their productivity could be worth billions of dollars a year. And with software landing our planes, diagnosing our illnesses and keeping track of the wealth of nations, discovering how to make programs more reliable is hardly an academic question.

More here.

Builders of Corn Mazes Hope to Lose Visitors, and One Actually Did

Douglas Quenqua in the New York Times:

MAZE-articleLargeAs corn mazes go, the one on Bob Connor’s farm in Danvers, Mass., isn’t particularly challenging.

“It’s one of our average-to-smaller mazes,” said Brett Herbst, who counts that maze among the 2,000 he has designed in the past 16 years. A typical visitor should expect to complete it in about 20 minutes, he said.

Still, a local family had to be retrieved by the police on Monday when they were unable to find the exit to Mr. Connor’s maze before the sun set. The parents, toting an infant and a small child, panicked and called 911, setting off a chain of events that soon turned them into a target for late-night jabs from television hosts like Jay Leno and Chelsea Handler. (The punch line, Mr. Connor said, was that the family was about 25 feet from the exit when they called for help.)

Modern corn mazes are complex systems designed with the aid of sophisticated computer programs. But they are meant to be challenging, not life-threatening, according to maze builders, and getting out should never require a police escort.

More here. [Thanks to Ezra Palmer.]

From Occupy Wall Street to Occupy Everywhere

Nathan Schneider in The Nation:

Classic_occupy_wall_street_protest_signs_19It all started with an e-mail. On July 13 Adbusters magazine sent out a call to its 90,000-strong list proclaiming a Twitter hashtag (#OccupyWallStreet) and a date, September 17. It quickly spread among the mostly young, tech-savvy radical set, along with an especially alluring poster the magazine put together of a ballerina atop the Charging Bull statue, the financial district’s totem to testosterone.

The idea became a meme, and the angel of history (or at least of the Internet) was somehow ready. Halfway into a revolutionary year—after the Arab Spring and Europe’s tumultuous summer—cyberactivists in the United States were primed for a piece of the action. The Adbusters editors weren’t the only ones organizing; similar occupations were already in the works, including a very well-laid plan to occupy Freedom Plaza in Washington, starting October 6.

Websites cropped up to gather news and announcements. US Day of Rage, the Twitter- and web-driven project of a determined IT strategist, endorsed the action, promoted it and started preparing with online nonviolence trainings and tactical plans. Then, in late August, the hacktivists of Anonymous signed on, posting menacing videos and flooding social media networks.

But a meme alone does not an occupation make. An occupation needs people on the ground. By early August, a band of activists in New York began meeting in public parks to plan.

More here.

A Note on the Occupations

Justin E. H. Smith in his own blog:

ScreenHunter_11 Oct. 14 21.56There must be a word, and probably one beloved of Bolsheviks, for what is occurring right now: there is a sort of apodicticity, an undeniability to it all, one that makes someone like me a bit ashamed to have not seen it earlier. Just two or three years ago my mind still drifted off to more beautiful distractions every time someone started to get indignant about bailing out bankers, or drawing that tiresome, overwrought contrast between 'Wall Street' and 'Main Street'. I've always, to be honest, had a difficult relationship to political engagement. A vivid memory still lingers of a lie-in, circa 1988, somewhere in the suburbs of Sacramento, around the pumps at a Shell station. “Free South Africa, Boycott Shell!”, we were meant to chant, as the zit-faced teenaged pump attendant looked on confusedly, no doubt thinking to himself: What's South Africa? The historical moment was just wrong, or I didn't have the wherewithal to stick it out through the lean years of activism, through the early post-Cold War period of optimistic triumphalism and end-of-history, end-of-ideology ideology. I just didn't have the right temperament for it. It's my shortcoming, not history's. I admit it.

But the thing about this moment that I am trying to get at is that one doesn't need the right temperament in order to be carried along with the mass upheaval. To say, I'm sorry, this just isn't really my thing, is really nothing other than to say, I am an asshole, a wretch. And furthermore, fuck you. To say that this is just not one's thing would be morally the same as that puerile gesture of the Chicago stock traders who announced with a sign in the window of their skyscraper, We Are the 1%.

More here.

Death by Twitter

Tumblr_lt0in3DOlE1qzll1yAn interesting piece by Matt Pearce in New Inquiry:

Gary Robinson was not an important man. He was an ex-con and a drunk. But veteran Miami Herald crime reporter Edna Buchanon started her story about his demise with four words that would eventually become four of the most famous words ever written about anybody in any American newspaper: “Gary Robinson died hungry.”

And that’s how a nobody died famous.

Most of us are nobodies, and we have a few writers who make nobodies famous. We keep most of them in newsrooms. So it’s not that what Teju Cole is doing — making Lagos’ nobodies famous — is, technically speaking, all that unique. What’s new is that he’s doing it on Twitter.

@tejucole, Aug. 29: Scoop, scoop, scoop, spark. Four of those who were collecting petrol from a damaged tanker in Benue died right there.

@tejucole, Aug. 25: Children are a gift from God. In the returns department: a baby girl, left by the side of Effiom Ekpo Street in Calabar.

@tejucole, Aug. 23: O believers! Know that during the Hajj, a Jeddah hotel housing 34 Nigerian pilgrims went up in flames, and none were harmed.

@tejucole, Aug. 22: Even if one does not believe in ghosts, 2,700 of them continue to draw salaries from the Imo State payroll.

@tejucole, Aug. 19: The Nigerian police motto is “the police is your friend,” but Taiwo, 25, beaten in Alapere for not paying a bribe, has his doubts.

@tejucole, Aug. 14: An Air Force officer in Bayelsa who mistook himself for a cop mistook the baker Paul Wisdom for a thief and shot him in the head.

Cole, a novelist and sometime journalist, lives in Brooklyn but grew up in Lagos, the burgeoning Nigerian metropolis that will soon overtake New York City and Los Angeles in population if it hasn’t already. (Cole’s first novel, the recently published Open City, won love from New Yorker curmudgeon James Wood — no small feat.) While working on a book about Lagos, Cole discovered the oft-bizarre tragedies sketched out daily in its newspapers and set about refining them into a purer concentration of fate’s ironies.



Joshua Cohen reviews Meir Doron and Joseph Gelman’s Confidental: The Life of Secret Agent Turned Hollywood Tycoon Arnon Milchan, in n+1:

The Department of Homeland Security’s Analytic Red Cell Unit employs thriller novelists to envision terrorism scenarios: Brad Meltzer and Brad Thor and writers not named Brad receive assignments like, “Think of a way to blow up the Super Bowl.” When I first heard about this unit a few years ago, I started going to parties, drinking too much, and telling everyone I’d been recruited to Red Cell 2: We were a group of literary novelists, tasked with envisioning the terror scenarios the thriller novelists were envisioning before they envisioned them. This was in the event that any of the thrillerists went rogue. (Soon I was hinting at the existence of a Red Cell 3, assembled to predict our predictions of predictions. It was staffed entirely by poets in Brooklyn.)

It’s depressing that the days of litterateurs working as intelligence officers—the days of Greene and Buchan, Fleming and le Carré—are largely over. Why would Ahmadinejad want to klatsch with Philip Roth? What would Kim Jong-il have to say to Jonathan Franzen? If there’s any arts bureau today with the cachet to access world leaders, it’s Hollywood: America’s greatest asset—in every respect—is Brangelina.

If you’re a reviewer, once in a while you’re sent a book in the mail so chintzily produced by a publishing house too busy to edit that you wonder how it is that its sensationalist claims aren’t better known. This was certainly the case with the full-color illustrated, under-proofed Confidential: The Life of Secret Agent Turned Hollywood Tycoon Arnon Milchan.

Buying Tomorrow

Jen-thumb-490x274-2624Jennifer Szalai in Lapham's Quarterly:

It would be fair to guess that Charles Prince’s echo of John Martin, a banker who was nearly ruined by the South Sea Bubble, reflects a sincerity that was blissfully ignorant rather than an irony that wasn’t. One might even be willing to bet on it—if, that is, certain information about Prince’s knowledge and state of mind were actually forthcoming. A wager entails uncertainty, but without the prospect of a future event coming to pass, uncertainty is worth little besides the mystery it affords.

To cast lots for Christ’s robe, as Pontius Pilate’s soldiers did, was to play a game of chance. Gambling is one of those activities, along with religious worship and prostitution, that was popular already by the time any recording of history began. Our modern financial system owes much to this desire to make a fortune off of Fortune, though a society that organizes itself around financial risk-taking, whose national assets oscillate in an invisible cloud of ones and zeros, requires a very particular understanding of what the future can hold. Finance makes a commodity out of expectation, something to be bought (preferably low) and sold (preferably high). In the case of the worried farmer or the worried breadwinner, the future can also be viewed with suspicion, but finance enables the anxious to trade one possibility for another: both the speculator and the hedger are seeking the best future that money can buy.

Dennis M. Ritchie, father of C, has died

Having spent much of my 20s being a C programmer, I was one of many to whom Dennis Ritchie was a demigod. I still have my prized (and much thumbed through) copy of the classic The C Programming Language by Kernighan and Ritchie somewhere in a box of old books. It was the C programmer's absolutely indispensible bible. Ritchie had an elegant mind and he used it to design the most elegant language and operating system. His death is very sad.

Steve Lohr in the New York Times:

The-C-Programming-LanguageDennis M. Ritchie, who helped shape the modern digital era by creating software tools that power things as diverse as search engines like Google and smartphones, was found dead on Wednesday at his home in Berkeley Heights, N.J. He was 70.

Mr. Ritchie, who lived alone, was in frail health in recent years after treatment for prostate cancer and heart disease, said his brother Bill.

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, working at Bell Labs, Mr. Ritchie made a pair of lasting contributions to computer science. He was the principal designer of the C programming language and co-developer of the Unix operating system, working closely with Ken Thompson, his longtime Bell Labs collaborator.

The C programming language, a shorthand of words, numbers and punctuation, is still widely used today, and successors like C++ and Java build on the ideas, rules and grammar that Mr. Ritchie designed.

More here.

Friday Poem

“And the day shall come when only wealth shall be considered holy
and its power sanctified by even its victims.”
…………………………. –from The Book of Misapprehensions

The Lord is my Shepherd

the lord is my shepherd
I shall not want any other leader besides him
(even from his own party)
I shall have no other political party besides his
I shall not suffer any domination by the British or
the Americans
and my country shall never be a colony again

the lord is my shepherd
even if I walk in the valley of freedom
I am forced to attend his rallies
I shall not say what I want
because the police and the military will descend
on me

even if I walk in the shadow of poverty
I shall continually shout his name and sing his
“long live my leader”

the lord is my shepherd
I shall not associate with members of the opposition
I shall not walk with demonstrators
for should I be found out
I shall be beaten or tortured

I shall have no other TV stations besides his
I shall see what he wants me to see
I shall hear what he wants me to hear
I shall read what he wants me to read

the lord is indeed my shepherd
I shall not starve
for I shall certainly be given food handouts
to vote for him
and other people’s land for free

but now the lord is not my shepherd
I have suffered many setbacks
my business operations have been closed my bank accounts frozen
my house has been demolished
my land has been confiscated
and unto me a new law hath been given:
“thou shalt praise the lordship in all his follies”.

by Cosmas Mairosi
publisher PIW, © 2007

Getting to Denmark: On Francis Fukuyama

Thomas Meaney in The Nation:

Fukuyama-origins_of_political_orderFrancis Fukuyama became a headline in the summer of 1989 when he informed the world that he had discovered the end of history. The essay in which he made his brazen claim, published in The National Interest, excited journalists and transformed him overnight into a favorite soothsayer of the foreign policy establishment. In the past two decades, Fukuyama has consolidated his position with a variety of professional gambits. As a political analyst, he continues to broaden his portfolio, whether he is filing a World Bank report on state-building in the Solomon Islands, duly noting the need for a national university and an intertribal police force, or co-chairing a panel on “competitive Eurasia” with strongmen like Vladimir Putin and Nursultan Nazarbayev. As a public intellectual, Fukuyama oversees his own magazine, The American Interest, which he co-founded in 2005 after leading a revolt against the publication where he had first gained notoriety. And as the author of bestsellers on big subjects—social trust, biotechnology, state-building—Fukuyama so far exceeds his peers in his uncanny sense of timeliness that his critics dismiss him as a happy hostage to the present. Fukuyama does not help his case by trading in one label—neoconservative, Wilsonian realist, liberal statist—just in time for the debut of a new one. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to call him an ideological opportunist.

More here.

Ig Nobel Prizes Honor Wasabi Alarm, Odd Beetle Sex, More

Brian Handwerk in National Geographic:

ScreenHunter_10 Oct. 14 11.40The unique annual awards go to real research “that first makes people laugh, and then makes them think.” The scientific celebration, now in its 21st year, was hosted by the Annals of Improbable Research and several Harvard University student groups.

As usual, more than a half dozen genuine Nobel laureates were onstage at Harvard's Sanders Theater to hand out the coveted prizes.

Wasabi Alarm: The famous sushi condiment has become a lifesaver thanks to the work of Makoto Imai, of Japan's Shiga University of Medical Science, and colleagues. The team won the 2011 Ig Nobel chemistry prize for developing a “wasabi alarm” that discharges an airborne spray made from the spicy horseradish. The spray is potent enough to wake a soundly sleeping person in the event of an emergency.

“People with hearing difficulties may fail to wake up with noise or flashing lights, and another mode of communication may be necessary to save their lives,” Imai said. “The wasabi alarm is not a smell but a stinging sensation to the upper airways.”

Airborne wasabi concentrations of up to 20 parts per million are strong enough to awaken sleepers via stinging noses and watery eyes, Imai reported, but not so strong that the effect hinders peoples' ability to evacuate efficiently.

More here.

The Pakistani Left is re-grouping

Qualandar Bux Memon and Ali Mohsni in New Internationalist:

445-30-leftPolitically, the energies of these [Left] parties and groups are focused on establishing a culture of democracy in Pakistan. For example, when the liberal élite and the Right supported the 1999 coup by General Musharraf, the Left was the single voice in opposition. It recognized the historical drive of the military to expand itself further into the economic and social life of the country and its commitment to secrecy and the expansion of the security state. During the struggle to restore democracy, the Left openly supported the lawyers’ movement (2007-09) that led to Musharraf’s exile.

Moreover, these organizations are intrinsically opposed to the ‘personalization of politics’ of the traditional parties. For example, the Pakistan People’s Party can only be led by a member of the Bhutto family – the party’s recent leadership succession was decided by the will of the late Benazir Bhutto, with members having no say. Similarly, the Pakistan Muslim League, the main opposition party, who are currently in power in the Punjab province, is headed by one industrial family. Its current leader is Nawaz Sharif and the party belongs to his family. Such hierarchical, feudal structures contrast sharply with the political parties of the Left, which hold annual or bi-annual conventions to elect office bearers.

Gender and caste are also seen as important and members of minorities or groups that face discrimination are encouraged to take leadership positions.

More here.

The fictional character that’s not based on David Foster Wallace

Jessica Grose in Slate:

ScreenHunter_09 Oct. 13 22.47It’s been nearly a decade since Jeffrey Eugenides released his Pulitzer Prize-winning, Oprah’s Book Club-approved, mega blockbuster novel Middlesex. The writer’s highly anticipated new novel, The Marriage Plot, is getting the promotion one would expect for such a long-awaited work, including a cowboy-style billboard in Times Square. Eugenides’ varmint-killing pose is a strange juxtaposition considering his new novel’s plot: It’s about a love triangle among three highly intellectual Brown University students in the early ‘80s named Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell. Madeleine is a beautiful, semiotics-obsessed WASP who totes a copy of Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse around with her wherever she goes; Madeleine is in love with Leonard, her charismatic, brilliant, and mentally ill classmate; Mitchell, a sensitive soul from Detroit, is hopelessly devoted to Madeleine. The novel follows the three twentysomethings in their senior year of college and into their freshman year of life.

Slate spoke to Eugenides about whether or not Leonard is based on David Foster Wallace (an issue of some dispute), his own post-collegiate malaise, and his daily writing routine.

Slate: What made you decide to use your alma mater, Brown, as a setting?

Jeffrey Eugenides: I was going to set it at a different college. At a fictionalized college. Then I started writing it, and it seemed too much trouble for what it was worth. I knew Brown better.

More here.

America’s growing anti-intellectualism

Paul Rosenberg in Al Jazeera:

ScreenHunter_08 Oct. 13 22.42America has always had a critical thinking deficit, in that it has a long tradition of anti-intellectualism. This is particularly perverse, maddening and contradictory, since America's Founders were the most intellectual group that ever founded any nation we know of, and the desire to foster free and critical thinking, both in government and in the society at large, was one of their notable goals, as a direct consequence of the Enlightenment heritage on which America's Founders depended.

This philosophy prized individual critical inquiry, as well as institutions-formal and informal-which enabled individual efforts to be joined together into a far more powerful whole. This outlook was crucially important to the creation of a new nation on a new hemisphere, confident enough to establish itself on a new political foundation with some ancient roots, but fashioned with its own original design. Mere imitation of the past was rejected as a guiding principal. So, too, was blind reliance on the fantasy of individual political genius. Instead, the spirit and process of critical inquiry was crucial to how the new nation was conceived.

The basic architecture of “separation of powers”, for example, was intended to prevent the accumulation of all power into the hands of any unaccountable group or faction – and thus to put a premium on the process of advancing ideas that could pass the muster of critical examination by the widest possible range of parties involved. Similarly, steps were taken to insulating of government from dogmatic religious influence. Religious tests for public office were banned in the Constitution itself, and separation of church and state was formalised in the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom, which similarly guaranteed freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of the press – all intimately connected to the individual and collective exercise of critical reason.

And yet, despite all this, there was always an anti-Enlightenment, anti-intellectual side of America as well. And that side has always created needless deficits in critical thinking, hampering America's ability to fully realize its promise.

More here.