Monday Poem

Key and Gate

Heading out the door
I forgot my key
and time is short

it’s late
but I’m going nowhere
in this keyless state

Last night the moon
phasing out again
with its back to utter reaches
seemed for a second
like a key or switch
needing a turn or flick
to open or start
some thought
I don’t know what but
imminent nonetheless
behind the moon’s back
through its silver hatch
that will, not too late,
open itself with itself
being at once its own
key and gate

by Jim Culleny

The Ecosystem is a Unicorn: Does a Balance of Nature exist?

By Liam Heneghan

A unicorn is described as having the legs of a deer, the tail of a lion, the head and body of a horse. It possesses a single horn which is white at the base, black in the middle and red at the tip. Its body is white, its head red, and its eyes are blue. Clearly, the only thing unreal about a unicorn is in the combination of its parts. That is, a unicorn is less than the sum of its parts, assuming, that is (with a prayerful nod to Anselm of Canterbury), that existing in reality trumps existing in the mind, or in this case existing in the mind as in a series of disarticulated parts that are themselves very real. 732px-DomenichinounicornPalFarnese

When an ecosystem is described as greater than the sum of its parts, as it was in Eugene Odum’s holistic conception of it, what is meant is that when the biotic components of ecological communities interact with the abiotic realm (that is, the formerly living and the never-alive), certain properties of the whole emerge that cannot be readily predicted from an analysis of the component parts. This claim, made on behalf of the larger units of nature, was persuasive to generations of ecologists influenced by Odum’s textbook, first published in 1953 and now in its posthumously published 5th edition (2005).[1] However, in as much as Odum’s notion of the ecosystem manifests a Balance of Nature perspective it has almost universally fallen out of favor in ecology and, like the unicorn, is emphatically relegated to myth and fancy.

In one of a number of strenuous critiques of Odum’s holistic conception of the ecosystem, ecologist Dan Simberloff claimed that it resurrected one of ecology’s earliest and now discredited paradigms, the notion of the biotic community as a superorganism.[2] The superorganismic quality of the ecological community was a tenet of one of the first comprehensive theories in ecology where vegetation scientist Frederic Clements likened changes in the plant community over time to the developmental processes of organisms. The appeal of holistic ecosystem ecology with its Clementsian flavor was not, Simberloff argued, because it improved the science, but because it drew upon a myth of enduring appeal, one that derived from the metaphysical conceptions of the ancient Greeks. Less technically, one can say that holistic conceptions of ecology tap into a notion of the Balance of Nature – something, as we’ve seen contemporary ecologists choose not to defend.

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A Tale of Two…oh, never mind

by Misha Lepetic

Look – you're my best friend, so don't take this the wrong way.
In twenty years, if you're still livin' here, comin' over to my house
to watch the Patriots games, still workin' construction, I'll fuckin' kill you.
That's not a threat; now, that's a fact.”
~Good Will Hunting


Culture warriors from the 1990s may remember Charles Murray, who rather stirred the pot with The Bell Curve, a highly contentious book co-written with Richard Herrnstein. The authors hypothesized, among other things, that not only intelligence but also its alleged heritability could be measured and used to explain differences in the success of social (or, perhaps, economic and ethnic) groups.* At any rate, Murray, who seems to be a refreshingly damn-the-torpedoes type of fellow, is back with another doozy, this time concerning inequality in America. But where is this America of which he speaks?

The inequality narrative is nothing new, of course. The Economist has been harping on the threat that income inequality poses for years now (I believe that this is due, in no small part, to that publication’s consistent undercurrent of Burkean anxiety). In 2009, Emmanuel Saez won the John Bates Clarke medal for illuminating how income inequality is not just increasing but is increasing at faster velocities for the more rarefied strata. And the Russell Sage Foundation recently released a pretty authoritative report on the matter, although I’m sure they won’t be the last to do so. And regardless of your opinion of it, the Occupy movement has brought the inequality narrative into the forefront of the “national conversation”, if such a thing actually exists.

But Murray is here to tell us that income inequality is just the tip of the iceberg: what we are really faced with is, as he puts it, “cultural inequality.” As he writes in a Wall Street Journal essay in support of his book, Coming Apart:

And the isolation is only going to get worse. Increasingly, the people who run the country were born into that world. Unlike the typical member of the elite in 1960, they have never known anything but the new upper-class culture. We are now seeing more and more third-generation members of the elite. Not even their grandparents have been able to give them a window into life in the rest of America.**

This isn’t really all that earth-shattering, but Murray introduces a few new angles. The first is his exclusive focus on the white demographic. I will return to the consequences of this choice in a moment, but let’s accept that, as seconded by his soft-ball fellow-WSJ reviewer, this was done “to avoid conflating race with class”.

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Hell-sarah raymond

Pieter Hugo. Sarah Raymond, Capetown. From the series There's a Place in Hell for Me and My Friends, 2011.

” In this series … the subjects are simply the photographer and his friends, who represent an array of ethnicities but are not particularly atypical, abnormal or 'unusual' in a genetic sense. Instead they are rendered unusually, portrayed in a heightened monotone with their skin transformed into a range of exaggerated black spots and dark tones. As Hugo explains it, 'The process used in making these pictures involves turning digital colour images black and white, while keeping the colour channels active. In this manner one can manipulate the colour channels and emphasise certain colours within the grey scale. Melanin, the pigment responsible for skin colour, appears in two forms: pheomelanin (which appears as red), and eumelanin (which appears as a very dark, yellowish brown). In the case of these images, the red and yellow colour channels were darkened to a point where nearly all of their information was rendered as blacks and dark greys, and they were therefore brought to prominence.' Hence, within these photographs even the slightest pigmentation in light skin is converted into charcoal tones.”

(Extract from 'Beholder', Aaron Schuman's essay in Pieter Hugo's monograph (Munich: Prestel, 2012) accompanying his retrospective opening at the Fotomuseum den Haag in March 2012.) from here.

More here, and here.

Summer drinking: some suggestions

by Rishidev Chaudhuri

Gin-and-tonic-fb-1The first lecture I got on summer drinking was accompanied by my first real job offer and my first real marriage proposal. All three were delivered by an elderly Sikh man, sitting next to me on a London-Delhi flight. His fondness for me emerged early, when I agreed to ask the air hostess for extra whiskies and pass them onto him; he'd already swallowed three and was cautious about attracting attention. He began by telling me that while he lived in London, he still spent part of the year in Riga, where he used to arrange prostitutes for East Asian businessmen, and he was looking for someone to take his place. Later, after a few more drinks, he asked how old I was (I was 18) and then told me that his daughter needed to get married to a reliable man, and asked me to consider her. Having taken care of these social pleasantries, he spent the next hour or two explaining to me the trouble with drinking in hot weather (makes you feel hotter1), and his theory about the appropriate balances necessary for drinking in the summer. His approach was simple: he drank only whisky and beer in the summer, and he drank only rum and brandy in the winter. He never quite explained to me where this particular seasonal partitioning came from, or whether it was primarily physiological (to balance the humors?) or aesthetic (in case inventing drinking conventions is the only thing that separates us from the beasts)2. But I was left deeply moved, at the very least by his consistency, and I think of him towards the beginning of every summer, especially if I'm transgressing his rules and drinking rum or brandy.

Every curated summer drink list should include some manner of gin and bitters combination, to clarify the senses and lighten the flesh. At the simplest, you could roll bitters around a glass (pop it into the microwave for a few seconds to open up the flavors, if you like), drop in a measure of gin (always make it a generous measure) and top it with ice (crushed, if you're feeling fancy). That suffices, but you could add tonic water and lime or, if you're lucky enough to live in a place where coconut water is readily available, gin and bitters and coconut water is a classical tropical summer drink and the coconut water will keep you suitably hydrated.

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Invisible: Art about the Unseen 1957-2012. Hayward Gallery, London

by Sue Hubbard

Bruno Jakob, Breath, floating in color as well as black and white (Venice), 2011. Photo Linda Nylind“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see”, Edgar Degas wrote. In many ways predicating the role of art within modernism where the sensibility of the viewer’s reading of an art object is every bit as important as the object itself.

Invisible: Art about the Unseen 1957-2012, currently at the Hayward Gallery in London, is the sort of exhibition that gets up the nose of tabloid journalists. You can virtually hear them snorting that this isn’t art, just as they once expressed their philistine opposition to the purchase of Carl Andre’s ‘pile of bricks’, Equivalent VIII, 1966. After all why spend good money paying to go to a gallery to look at nothing when you could stay at home and watch paint dry? It was in 1957 at the Galerie Colette Allendy in Paris, that Yves Klein opened an exhibition in which he presented an apparently empty room. You can see how it might have annoyed, for he claimed that the entirely white walls were infused with a “pictorial sensibility in the raw state”, maintaining that the space was actually saturated with a force field so tangible that many were unable to enter the gallery ‘as if an invisible wall prevented them.’ Was this a sleight of hand, a clever publicity ploy or a visual treatise on the existential ideas of being and nothingness? Jean Paul Sartre eat your heart out; an empty room, it seems, can speak a thousand words.

Klein was further to explore invisibility in a number of ways by collaborating with artists and architects and applying for a patent for his ‘air roof’. A mixture of subversive showmanship and utopianism he believed that a ‘constant awareness of space’would allow humanity the chance to live in a state of grace outside the framework of repressive social conventions. It was no accident that he’d been a devout Catholic and was later to receive a black belt in judo at the Kodokan Institute in Tokyo. Genuinely fascinated by mystical ideas, by notions of the infinite, the indefinable and the absolute, he even became a Rosicrucian. For what he understood was that what is of most value often cannot be seen – faith and hope, for example – to be rather Christian about it. For Klein belief was as necessary to the practice of art as it was to religion; for art, like religion and love, requires a leap of faith.

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Gordon Bowker’s ‘James Joyce’: Portrait of the author as a man

Michael Dirda in the Washington Post:

P14-110807-b1More than 100 years ago, on June 16, 1904, Mr. Leopold Bloom and young Stephen Dedalus separately wandered the streets of Dublin, crossing paths with teachers, priests, medical students, journalists, a woman in labor, publicans, bar maids, drunks, rabid Irish jingoists, sentimental babysitters and at least one adulterer, “Blazes” Boylan, not to overlook Stephen’s shiftless father, Simon, the mourners at Paddy Dignam’s funeral and the whores of the phantasmagoric Nighttown. Eventually, Mr. Bloom rescues Stephen from a Nighttown brawl, and the pair return to 7 Eccles St., where Mrs. Bloom — nee Marion Tweedy and known as Molly — will eventually fall asleep after, yes, the most famous stream-of-consciousness reverie in all of modern literature.

That, in a nutshell, is the action of “Ulysses” (1922), generally regarded as the greatest 20th-century novel in English. Of course, there’s a little more to the book than that, as generations of readers, critics, scholars and exegetes well know. Chapters loosely update episodes of Homer’s “Odyssey”; the language sings throughout; narrative conventions are ignored or revolutionized; literary and social taboos are violated (one scene takes place in an outhouse); and the whole book shifts constantly between interior monologue and outward events, between the starkest realism and the subtlest symbolism. “Ulysses” is arguably the most carefully wrought novel ever written — every word, down to its spelling, is there for an artistic reason.

More here.

Huge Ancient Civilization’s Collapse Explained

Charles Choi in Discovery News:

ScreenHunter_08 Jun. 25 00.24Nearly a century ago, researchers began discovering numerous remains of Harappan settlements along the Indus River and its tributaries, as well as in a vast desert region at the border of India and Pakistan. Evidence was uncovered for sophisticated cities, sea links with Mesopotamia, internal trade routes, arts and crafts, and as-yet undeciphered writing.

“They had cities ordered into grids, with exquisite plumbing, which was not encountered again until the Romans,” Giosan told LiveScience. “They seem to have been a more democratic society than Mesopotamia and Egypt — no large structures were built for important personalitiess like kings or pharaohs.”

Like their contemporaries in Egypt and Mesopotamia, the Harappans, who were named after one of their largest cities, lived next to rivers.

“Until now, speculations abounded about the links between this mysterious ancient culture and its life-giving mighty rivers,” Giosan said.

Now Giosan and his colleagues have reconstructed the landscape of the plain and rivers where this long-forgotten civilization developed. Their findings now shed light on the enigmatic fate of this culture.

“Our research provides one of the clearest examples of climate change leading to the collapse of an entire civilization,” Giosan said.

More here.

Just How Fat Are We?

ScreenHunter_07 Jun. 25 00.15

Ellen Fanning in The Global Mail:

Here's a pop quiz for you. What is the adult population of North America?

A few years ago, the official number was around 260 million. But the more accurate figure may be some 30 per cent higher — closer to 340 million. To be brutal, it's because so many of them are so fat.

London researchers have put the world's population on the scales and worked out that so many people are overweight or obese, they are effectively making the planet much more crowded.

If every nation's population was as fat as America's, they reckon, it would be the same as having about an extra billion bodies on earth.

That's equivalent to the population ofIndia. Bigger than Brazil. Three quarters of China.

More here.

When Chomsky wept

Fred Branfman in Salon:

ScreenHunter_06 Jun. 25 00.08Forty-two years ago I had an unusual experience. I became friendly with a guy named Noam Chomsky. I came to know him as a human being before becoming fully aware of his fame and the impact of his work. I have often thought of this experience since — both because of the insights it gave me into him and, more important, the deep trouble in which our nation and world find themselves today. His foremost contribution for me has been his constant focus on how U.S. leaders treat so many of the world’s population as “unpeople,” either exploiting them economically or engaging in war-making, which has murdered, maimed or made homeless over 20 million people since the end of World War II (over 5 million in Iraq and 16 million in Indochina according to official U.S. government statistics).

Our friendship was forged over concern for some of these “unpeople” when he visited Laos in February 1970. I had been living in a Lao village outside the capital city of Vientiane for three years at that point and spoke Laotian. But five months earlier I had been shocked to my core when I interviewed the first Lao refugees brought down to Vientiane from the Plain of Jars in northern Laos, which had been controlled by the communist Pathet Lao since 1964. I had discovered to my horror that U.S. executive branch leaders had been clandestinely bombing these peaceful villagers for five-and-a-half years, driving tens of thousands underground and into caves, where they had been forced to live like animals.

More here.

Why Nigerian e-mail scams are so crude and obvious

Brad Plumer in Wonkblog:

PrincescamSo why don’t Internet scammers try to change up their tactics? Everyone knows about the Nigerian prince. It’s tired and cliched. Why don’t more scammers try to dupe us with the fake inheritances of a Kazakh prince instead, or with Greek bonds or fancy credit default swaps or something clever like that? Something we haven’t seen before?

A fascinating new paper (pdf) from Microsoft researcher Cormac Herley actually tries to answer this question. He notes that 51 percent of all e-mail scams still originate from Nigeria, even though this is the most obvious scam known to mankind. And Corley argues (with math and graphs) that it’s not because scammers are stupid. Most of them are actually quite clever. Rather, they’re explicitly trying to weed out everyone but the most gullible respondents:

Our analysis suggests that is an advantage to the attacker, not a disadvantage. Since his attack has a low density of victims the Nigerian scammer has an over-riding need to reduce false positives. By sending an email that repels all but the most gullible the scammer gets the most promising marks to self-select, and tilts the true to false positive ratio in his favor.

Scamming people, after all, costs time and money. Herley notes that everyone who responds to a scamming ploy “requires a large amount of interaction.” The worst thing that can happen, from the scammer’s point of view, is that a savvy person starts responding and toying with the scammer.

More here.

A Canopy of Man-Made Solar-Powered Supertrees Flourishes in Singapore

Via Good:

SingaporeThe man-made canopy, much like its natural counterparts, will serve as air venting ducts for nearby conservatories, collect rainwater, and provide shade to park tourists. Eleven of the Supertrees are adorned with photovoltaic cells that will harvest solar energy to light up the trees in the evening, providing energy and lighting, to conservatories throughout the park, and serving as air and temperature regulators.

More here.

“Effortless Perfection”

From Harvard Magazine:

PerfectThis past winter, a class of ’73 graduate asked me whether students still spend hours lingering over meals. He recalled his Harvard as heady and carefree, a place for reading great books and whiling away days in conversation. He had been saddened by an article in this magazine that chronicled the over-programmed lives of Harvard undergraduates today; among other alarums, it had mourned the death of the two-hour lunch. I looked up the piece (“Nonstop” ) and likewise found it upsetting. It painted Harvard undergraduates as so over-scheduled, they barely shower or sleep, let alone linger over lunch. But I knew it was not entirely accurate. At the very least, the article did not accurately reflect my Harvard experience. One of the greatest delights of my two years here has been dawdling in dining halls, listening, talking, and laughing with friends. I now realize the article bothered me in the same way I’m bothered by people who talk too much. I see in their annoying behavior a shade of something I fear I also do. Likewise, reading about Harvard’s “superstars” who “do it all” reminded me of a role I’d once tried to fill, now consciously refused, feared falling back into, and also was terrified of abandoning. I arrived at Harvard as a successful student who never slacked off. I liked to think my life well-balanced—I played sports, kept close friends, spent time with my family, and even slept. But as I outwardly checked off markers of a good, happy life, inside, I was all turmoil. That “carefree” lifestyle was a daily struggle, a purposeful act. I was terrified of “not doing everything right.” Schedule, schoolwork, social life, family, fitness, eating, clothes, even demeanor: everything had to be just so. Everyone believed I was happy-go-lucky (except maybe my parents, lone witnesses of biweekly meltdowns), and I was largely happy. But the harder I tried to be perfect, the more my perfectionism became torture.

Of course, in a sense it worked out. Affectation of effortless perfection got me into Harvard.

More here.


Steven Pinker in Edge:

PinkerHuman beings live in groups, are affected by the fortunes of their groups, and sometimes make sacrifices that benefit their groups. Does this mean that the human brain has been shaped by natural selection to promote the welfare of the group in competition with other groups, even when it damages the welfare of the person and his or her kin? If so, does the theory of natural selection have to be revamped to designate “groups” as units of selection, analogous to the role played in the theory by genes? Several scientists whom I greatly respect have said so in prominent places. And they have gone on to use the theory of group selection to make eye-opening claims about the human condition.[i] They have claimed that human morailty, particularly our willingness to engage in acts of altruism, can be explained as an adaptation to group-against-group competition. As E. O. Wilson explains, “In a group, selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals. But, groups of altruistic individuals beat groups of selfish individuals.” They have proposed that group selection can explain the mystery of religion, because a shared belief in supernatural beings can foster group cohesion. They suggest that evolution has equipped humans to solve tragedies of the commons (also known as collective action dilemmas and public goods games), in which actions that benefit the individual may harm the community; familiar examples include overfishing, highway congestion, tax evasion, and carbon emissions. And they have drawn normative moral and political conclusions from these scientific beliefs, such as that we should recognize the wisdom behind conservative values, like religiosity, patriotism, and puritanism, and that we should valorize a communitarian loyalty and sacrifice for the good of the group over an every-man-for-himself individualism.

More here.

Sunday Poem

Branch Library

I wish I could find that skinny, long-beaked boy
who perched in the branches of the old branch library.

He spent the Sabbath flying between the wobbly stacks
and the flimsy wooden tables on the second floor,

pecking at nuts, nesting in broken spines, scratching
notes under his own corner patch of sky.

I’d give anything to find that birdy boy again
bursting out into the dusky blue afternoon

with his satchel of scrawls and scribbles,
radiating heat, singing with joy.

by Edward Hirsch
from The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems
publisher: Knopf, 2010

President Obama Reflects on the Impact of Title IX

Via Newsweek:

Any parent knows there are few things Obamamore fulfilling than watching your child discover a passion for something. And as a parent, you’ll do anything to make sure he or she grows up believing she can take that ambition as far as she wants; that your child will embrace that quintessentially American idea that she can go as far as her talents will take her.

But it wasn’t so long ago that something like pursuing varsity sports was an unlikely dream for young women in America. Their teams often made do with second-rate facilities, hand-me-down uniforms, and next to no funding.

What changed? Well, 40 years ago, committed women from around the country, driven by everyone who said they couldn’t do something, worked with Congress to ban gender discrimination in our public schools. Title IX was the result of their efforts, and this week, we celebrated its 40th anniversary—40 years of ensuring equal education, in and out of the classroom, regardless of gender.

Physics Community Afire With Rumors of Higgs Boson Discovery

Adam Mann in Wired:

ScreenHunter_05 Jun. 23 18.34One of the biggest debuts in the science world could happen in a matter of weeks: The Higgs boson may finally, really have been discovered.

tantalizing hints of the Higgs turned up in December at the wrote mathematician Peter Woit on his blog, Not Even Wrong. According to Woit, there are rumors of new data that would be the most compelling evidence yet for the long-sought Higgs.

The possible news has a number of physics bloggers speculating that LHC scientists will announce the discovery of the Higgs during the International Conference on High Energy Physics, which takes place in Melbourne, Australia, July 4 to 11.

The new buzz is just the latest in the Higgs search drama. In December, rumors circulated regarding hints of the Higgs around 125 gigaelectronvolts (GeV), roughly 125 times the mass of a proton. While those rumors eventually turned out to be true, the hard data only amounted to what scientists call a 3-sigma signal, meaning that there is a 0.13 percent probability that the events happened by chance. This is the level at which particle physicists will only say they have “evidence” for a particle.

In the rigorous world of high-energy physics, researchers wait to see a 5-sigma signal, which has only a 0.000028 percent probability of happening by chance, before claiming a “discovery.”

The latest Higgs rumors suggest nearly-there 4-sigma signals are turning up at both of the two separate LHC experiments that are hunting for the particle.

More here.

I Never Owned Any Music To Begin With

When an NPR Music intern admitted to paying for almost none of the 11,000 songs in her iTunes library, David Lowery, of Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven fame and lecturer for the University of Georgia's music business program, took it as an opportunity to explain the ethics of a sustainable music industry, and the debate went viral. Here's the initial blog post, with links to the professor's response and NPR's coverage of the debate below.

NPRmusicdebateA few days before my internship at All Songs Considered started, Bob Boilen posted an article titled “I Just Deleted All My Music” on this blog. The post is about entrusting his huge personal music library to the cloud. Though this seemed like a bold step to many people who responded to the article, to me, it didn't seem so bold at all.

I never went through the transition from physical to digital. I'm almost 21, and since I first began to love music I've been spoiled by the Internet.

I am an avid music listener, concertgoer, and college radio DJ. My world is music-centric. I've only bought 15 CDs in my lifetime. Yet, my entire iTunes library exceeds 11,000 songs.

David Lowery's response and NPR's coverage.

Pervez Musharraf: “If you are weak, anyone can come and kick you”

Jemima Khan in New Statesman:

Mush-for-webGeneral Pervez Musharraf, former president of Pakistan, former chief executive of Pakistan, former army chief and former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff committee, is watching the England v West Indies Test series in his neat, unostentatious flat off the Edgware Road in west London. He has spent the past three years living between here and Dubai, in self-imposed exile, watching cricket, keeping fit, playing golf, giving lectures for large fees and plotting his return to Pakistani politics. There are no armed guards, no entourage and no fanfare. His private secretary, Anjum Choudhry, a friend I’ve known as “Jim” for many years, sits quietly and reads a paper at the dining room table as the general, in a brown suit and pink shirt, welcomes me into his home and invites me to ask him anything I want. Which, given the rumpus that resulted from my last interview with him (when, on the eve of the 2007 presidential election, he told me a number of things that he later regretted), is very trusting indeed. In this way, Musharraf differs from most politicians I have met. He is unguarded, forthcoming and at times appears disarmingly naive. He tells me of his imminent return to Pakistan to contest elections, as his housekeeper offers samosas, meethi (Pakistani sweets) and chai. “I think one can look after one’s security. There will be danger but not as much as all my family and all my friends think.” Already there have been many attempts on his life.

Musharraf thinks that politically he is in with a good chance. In October 2010, he launched a new party, the All Pakistan Muslim League, of which he is the president, and he plans to return to contest elections in Pakistan next year. He tells me that according to a recent, informal poll, conducted by a friend from Lahore, 91 per cent of respondents want him to be president and Imran Khan, the leader of Tehreek-e-Insaf (“Movement for Justice”), to be prime minister. “I strongly believe this is the feeling. Even my own supporters tell me Imran is the person who should be with us. I think we can turn the tables if we are together. If he is alone and if I am alone I don’t think we can turn the tables.”

I pass this on to Imran later. He laughs, and says: “And then did he wake up . . . ?”

More here.