Russia’s ‘Absurd’ Justice System

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Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in n+1:

I would like to speak again about “reform.” Once again, I am reaffirmed in my conviction that if true education is at all possible in Russia, it can only take the form of self-education. If you don’t teach yourself—then no one else will teach you. Or if they do teach you, they’ll teach you who knows what. I have a great many stylistic disagreements with the powers-that-be. Their quantity is approaching a critical point.

What can the institutions of the state teach us? How could I possibly be educated by a prison colony, or could you be educated by, let’s say, the Russia-1 TV channel? Joseph Brodsky said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “The more substantial an individual’s aesthetic experience is, the sounder his taste, the sharper his moral focus, the freer—though not necessarily the happier—he is.”

In Russia, we have again found ourselves in circumstances in which resistance, including quite importantly aesthetic resistance, has become our one remaining moral option and civic duty.

he style of the Putin regime is a conservative, secret-police aesthetic. By no accident—and actually quite logically—this aesthetic persistently samples and recreates the principles of two previous regimes, both of them historical precedents to the present one: the tsarist-imperial aesthetic and the wrongly understood aesthetic of Socialist Realism, complete with workers from some kind of standard-issue Train-Car Assembly Plant of the Urals. Given the clumsiness and thoughtlessness with which all of this is being recreated, the present political regime’s ideological apparatus deserves no praise. Empty space, in its minimalism, is more attractive and tempting than the results of the aesthetic efforts of the current regime.

From the Favelas


Neima Jahromi and Zoe Roller in New Inquiry:

One autumn night in São Paulo, Brazil a police officer dressed like Robocop sprayed tear gas into a small crowd of chanting protesters and they all dispersed. A bystander took a video and uploaded it to the website LiveLeak. For years, middle class students have been organizing to protest city bus fares, but their movement suddenly became a national force when legislatures around the country, under the guidance of the federal government, elected to impose a nine-cent increase in cities that would host the 2014 World Cup. On June 11, the demonstrations turned especially violent. A group of protesters in São Paulo burned busses and damaged a subway station. Riot police appeared and made dozens of arrests.

Several days later, someone posted a link to the LiveLeak video on Facebook and tagged Zoe Roller, a 26 year old American who has been living and working for two years in one of Rio de Janeiro’s thousands of favelas, poorer neighborhoods with improvised infrastructure that sit outside the city’s normal zoning. Below the link a friend, referring to the protests in Gezi Park 6000 miles away, commented, “I am with you, and with Turkey!” Facebook pages started to appear, created by members of existing activist groups like Movimento Passe Livre (Free Fare Movement), calling for more protests.

Zoe heard there would be major protests the following Monday, June 17, so she waited around in downtown Rio after work. When the bus fare raise was announced at the beginning of the month she, like many in Brazil, expected some resistance but assumed it would taper off into resignation as it had after the last fare increase. However, protests at Maracanã stadium the day before had been met with brutal police response. And as the protests that raged throughout June showed, something bigger is afoot.

The Persisting Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema


Martin Scorsese in the NYRB's blog:

In the film The Magic Box, which was made in England in 1950, the great English actor Robert Donat plays William Friese-Greene—one of the people who invented movies. The Magic Box was packed with guest stars. It was made for an event called the Festival of Britain. You had about fifty or sixty of the biggest actors in England at the time, all doing for the most part little cameos, including the man who played the policeman—that was Sir Laurence Olivier.

I saw this picture for the first time with my father. I was eight years old. I’ve never really gotten over the impact that it had. I believe this is what ignited in me the wonder of cinema, and the obsession—with watching movies, making them, inventing them.

Friese-Greene gives everything of himself to the movies, and he dies a pauper. If you know the full story of his life and its end, the line in the film about the invention of the movies—“You must be a very happy man, Mr. Friese-Greene”—of course is ironic, but in some ways it’s also true because he’s followed his obsession all the way. So it’s both disturbing and inspiring. I was very young. I didn’t put this into words at the time, but I sensed these things and I saw them up there on the screen.

My parents had a good reason for taking me to the movies all the time, because I had been sick with asthma since I was three years old and I apparently couldn’t do any sports, or that’s what they told me. But my mother and father did love the movies. They weren’t in the habit of reading—that didn’t really exist where I came from—and so we connected through the movies.

Maxim D. Shrayer on Vladimir Nabokov

A revisionist biography of Nabokov is due, says the bilingual author and translator. He picks the best books by – and about – Nabokov.

Interview in Five Books:

ScreenHunter_258 Jul. 31 15.28You’ve started with Nabokov’s collected short stories.

This is my favourite collection, and a lot of my own work on Nabokov deals with the stories. About 60 of them were written in Russian, ten in English. They cover four decades of Nabokov’s literary life and are representative of his dynamic as a writer both in Russian and in English, and as both a European and an American émigré. If you want to see his various predilections, the aesthetics and politics of Nabokov’s work, then the stories are a great place to go. Nabokov leaves a mark on the genre – some have argued that they are among the very best Russian, European, American short stories ever written. They are a great example of late, blazing modernism.

After Lolita made Nabokov famous, he oversaw the enterprise of Englishing his Russian works, and the stories are done very well. Back in the 1930s – he was already a famous émigré author but unknown in the English-speaking world – several stories had been translated, by Gleb Struve and others. In the 1940s Nabokov had collaborated with a man by the name of Petr Pertzoff, producing exemplary translations of his finest Russian stories. Subsequently, he worked closely with his son Dmitri Nabokov, who is a dedicated son and a gifted translator. Vladimir Nabokov would say that, unless a translator was working directly from the Russian, they should work from an existing English translation – not necessarily a kosher procedure, strictly speaking, but a valid one in Nabokov’s case. If you were to compare some of the Russian originals with the English versions line by line, they would not be identical. But Nabokov got to have a second go at the stories, in a way, and he made changes. I don’t want to say he improved them, but they tell a more complete story – in English – of his literary career.

More here.

where is my mind?


For much of human history, the source of human intelligence and individual character was thought to have been the heart, the liver, or the spleen—not the brain. Before and after the mind was linked to the brain, the supposed significance of the organ has shaped how it is represented—both as a body part and as the locus of the self. Images of the brain have for the most part been, and still are, speculative, thanks to the opaque relationship between the organ and its functions. The subjective experience of consciousness—dynamic, diachronic and synchronic—cannot readily be transposed onto the brain’s physiology. The kidney, by contrast, filters and secretes a fluid with properties that can be correlated and classified according to smell, color, and sedimentation, leaving traces of a time-based process with a clear beginning and end. Diagnosis from urine, practiced for many centuries, is a deductive process based on the commonsensical intelligibility of this process: intake, excretion, repeat. We tend to think of contemporary, digital images of the brain—the beguiling, arresting concoctions derived from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machines—as evidence of “activity,” regardless of the complicated mathematical operations involved in their production. We encounter them in reports about “your brain on poker” or “your brain on sex.” The use of brain scans to trumpet what are often insignificant and sensational studies has demystified the discipline and helped provoke a backlash against so-called neurophrenology, and against the use of neuroscience as an explanatory panacea.

more from Isabelle Moffat at Triple Canopy here.

shteyngart and the glass


When I was a geeky child, the highlight of each month was the arrival of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine, with its lurid interstellar and darkly apocalyptic covers. In 1984, William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” came out, a cyberpunk novel that proved to be incredibly predictive of what life would be like when we committed ourselves to the virtual world. But the narrative that really caught my imagination was a short story called “Bloodchild,” by Octavia Butler. The story takes place on a faraway planet dominated by a large insect-like species called the Tlic. The humans who have fled oppression on their own planet live on a so-called Preserve, where their bodies are used as hosts for the Tlic’s eggs, culminating in a horrifyingly graphic hatching procedure often resulting in the death of the human host. Many reviewers thought of the story as an allegory of slavery (perhaps influenced by the fact that Butler was African-American), but the author denied the claim. Butler wrote that she thought of “Bloodchild” as “a love story between two very different beings.” Although their relationship is unequal and often gruesome, Tlic and humans need each other to survive. Today, when I think of our relationship with technology, I cannot help but think of human and Tlic, the latter’s insect limbs wrapped around the former’s warm-blooded trunk, about to hatch something new.

more from Gary Shteyngart at The New Yorker here.

Feynman on Biology

Christina Agapakis in Scientific American:

FeynmanRichard Feynman was a brilliant, bongo-playing, lock-picking, eminently quotablephysicist. His quips, on anything from the pleasure of findings things out to the key to science to how fire works are standard fare for science fans.

For synthetic biologists, it’s a quotation he left on his last blackboard at Caltech before his death in 1988 that is most frequently quoted: “What I cannot create, I do not understand.” This statement gives quotable form to the “drive to make” that happens when engineers start doing biology.

Feynman of course wasn’t an engineer, he was a theoretical physicist–a field less often associated with creating stuff than with creating equations. But Feynman also liked to dabble in other fields, including a sabbatical year in Max Delbrück’s biology lab at Caltech studying genetic mutations in viruses that infect bacteria. The chapter on this disciplinary dabbling in Feynman’s autobiography, Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman, is a fascinating look at what happens when a physicist starts doing biology.

More here.

6 Lessons Disney Could Learn From Pakistan’s ‘Burka Avenger’

Lindsey Davis in the Huffington Post:

ScreenHunter_256 Jul. 31 13.28Part karate kid and part superhero, Pakistan's first animated television series is a better role model for girls than any princess Disney's ever drawn.

She's called the Burka Avenger, and she's the defender of girls' education and women's rights.

The brainchild of Pakistani pop star Aaron Haroon Rashid, the cartoon was created as a way to combat the Taliban's intense opposition to educating girls, AP reports.

We think Disney could learn a thing or two about what a female protagonist should look like from the fearless Burka Avenger.

1. She fights villains with Takht Kabaddi — a form of karate that uses books and pens as weapons, because she's all about emphasizing the importance of education.

More here.

And from the BBC: 'Burka Avenger' fights for Pakistani schools

And also this: The Burqa Joins The League Of Cape And Cowl

Wednesday Poem

Van Gogh

Well, he lived among us and hated winters.
He moved to Arles where summer and blue jays
obliged him to cut off his ear.
Oh, they all said it was a whore
but Rachel was innocent. When cypresses
went for a walk in the prison yard
he went along and sketched them.
His suns surpassed God’s.
He spelled out the Gospel for miners
and their potatoes stuck in his throat.
Yes, he was a priest in sackcloth, who hoped
that one day humans would learn to walk.
He willed mankind his shoes.

by John Balaban
from Path, Crooked Path
Copper Canyon Press, 2006)
translated from the Bulgarian
by Lyubomir Nikolov with the author

A Once-Split Identity Becomes Whole

From NPR:

NajlaActress Najla Said is a Palestinian-Lebanese-American Christian, but growing up in New York City, her identity was anything but clearly defined. The daughter of prominent literary critic Edward Said, she spent her childhood in one of the most influential intellectual households in America. Edward Said, who died in 2003, was a renowned professor at Columbia University and was critical to defining Palestinian independence. As much as her father felt grounded, Najla Said felt disoriented. Balancing the worlds of her mother's Lebanese family, her father's Palestinian heritage and her American lifestyle led to large, unsettling questions of identity and self-worth. She describes this personal struggle in her new memoir, Looking for Palestine: Growing Up Confused in an Arab-American Family. She discusses the rival narratives she encountered about the Middle East and how solidarity saved her with Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered.

On how a daughter of Edward Said could feel confused

“There was just so many mixed messages around me about the Middle East that I think I was so afraid to confront it. I just wanted it to go away and thought it might. “So, even though I knew I was Palestinian, and I knew I was Lebanese, and I knew I went to Beirut, and I knew that the TV was saying that Beirut was this crazy place were people were killing each other, and Palestinians were terrorists, I thought that if I just avoided it, it would go away.”

On the Sept. 11 attacks as a personal turning point

“I was petrified in the way that everyone was petrified — I was scared of being killed. But I was also scared of Americans wanting to kill me. And then, you know, I remember saying to my mom, 'But now everyone is going to hate me.' And she was like, 'They're not going to hate you.' And people would say, 'You don't even look Arab; you're not even Muslim.' “So then you kinda wanna identify with your race in a different way because you're like, 'Why am I special? Why do I look different or seem different? And why do I get to pass?' And so all of those things compounded at once, and I think that there was also no choice, 'cause from then on, I was constantly referred to as an 'Arab-American,' which I hadn't been before.”

More here.

Conflicting studies rekindle monogamy debate

From Nature:

GorillaThere are two broad theories about what drives monogamy. Some researchers hold that in certain species, females were dispersed so widely that it would have been difficult for males to monopolize an area large enough for them to have multiple partners. Others think that monogamy evolved as males stuck around their mates to protect their offspring, in particular from being killed by rivals. Christopher Opie, an anthropologist at University College London, and his colleagues have now traced potential drivers of monogamy in 230 primate species, back to a 75-million-year-old common ancestor. The researchers compiled information about how each species behaves, such as the range of females’ territories and whether the males care for their young and guard their mates, then they ran computer simulations of the evolutionary process. “We’re effectively re-running history millions of times to see how all these behaviours would have had to have evolved in order for us to get to where we are now,” says Opie. The researchers found that mating relationships co-evolved with several behaviours. “When the mating system changed, the behaviour changed,” says Opie. But of all the behaviours, infanticide by rival males was the only one to consistently precede a shift to monogamous mating, they report today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences1. The fear of infanticide alone can be postulated as a cause of monogamy in primates, Opie says; the other behaviours are consequences.

Yet the waters will be muddied by a report published today in Science2. This study considered the wider origins of monogamy in mammals. Whereas almost one-third of primate species are monogamous, fewer than one-tenth of mammals are. Tim Clutton-Brock and Dieter Lukas, both zoologists at the University of Cambridge, UK, used a previously published detailed evolutionary tree of 2,288 species of mammal3. They found that all but one of the evolutionary transitions to monogamous partnerships arose from scenarios in which females were solitary. Unable to mate with more than one female, males were probably guarding their mates as a way of maximizing their number of offspring, and any increase in paternal care was a “consequence, not a cause”, says Lukas.

More here.

A Lecture on Johnson and Boswell by Jorge Luis Borges

Excerpted from “Class 10: Samuel Johnson as Seen by Boswell. The Art of Biography. Johnson and His Critics. Monday, November 7, 1966,” in Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature, a compilation of twenty-five lectures Borges gave in 1966 that has been translated into English for the first time by Katherine Silver. It will be published by New Directions on July 31.

Jorge Luis Borges in the New York Review of Books:

ScreenHunter_255 Jul. 30 17.24Dr. Johnson was already fifty years old. He had published his dictionary, for which he was paid 1,500 pounds sterling—which became 1,600 when his publishers decided to give him one hundred more—when he finished. He was slowing down. He then published his edition of Shakespeare, which he finished only because his publishers had received payments from subscribers, so it had to be done. Otherwise, Dr. Johnson spent his time engaged in conversation.

….The truth is, in spite of his numerous accomplishments, he had a natural tendency toward idleness. He preferred to talk rather than write. So, he worked only on that edition of Shakespeare, which was one of his last works, for he received complaints, and satirical responses, and this made him decide to finish the work, because the subscribers had already paid.

Johnson had a peculiar temperament. For a time he was extremely interested in the subject of ghosts. He was so interested in them that he spent several nights in an abandoned house to see if he could meet one. Apparently, he didn’t. There’s a famous passage by the Scottish writer, Thomas Carlyle, I think it is in his Sartor Resartus—which means “The Tailor Retailored,” or “The Mended Tailor,” and we’ll soon see why—in which he talks about Johnson, saying that Johnson wanted to see a ghost. And Carlyle wonders: “What is a ghost? A ghost is a spirit that has taken corporal form and appears for a while among men.” Then Carlyle adds, “How could Johnson not have thought of this when faced with the spectacle of the human multitudes he loved so much in the streets of London, for if a ghost were a spirit that has taken a corporal form for a brief interval, why did it not occur to him that the London multitudes were ghosts, that he himself was a ghost? What is each man but a spirit that has taken corporal form briefly and then disappears? What are men if not ghosts?”

More here.

A Response to PZ Myers

Jesse Marczyk in Psychology Today:

Jesse-marcSince my summer vacation is winding itself to a close, it’s time to relax with a fun, argumentative post that doesn’t deal directly with research. PZ Myers, an outspoken critic of evolutionary psychology – or at least an imaginary version of the field, which may bear little or no resemblance to the real thing – has criticized it again. After a recent defense of the field against PZ’s comments by Jerry Coyne and Steven Pinker, PZ has now responded to Pinker’s comments. He incorrectly asserts what evolutionary psychology holds to as a discipline, fails to mention any examples of this going on in print (although he does reference blogs), and then expresses wholehearted agreement with many of the actual theoretical commitments put forth by the field. I wanted to take this time to briefly respond to PZ’s recent response and defend my field.

Kicking off his reply, PZ has this to say about why he dislikes the methods of evolutionary psychology:

PZ: That’s my primary objection, the habit of evolutionary psychologists of taking every property of human behavior, assuming that it is the result of selection, building scenarios for their evolution, and then testing them poorly.”

Familiar as I am with the theoretical commitments of the field, I find it strange that I overlooked the part that demands evolutionary psychologists assume that every property of human behavior is the result of selection. It might have been buried amidst all those comments about things like “byproducts”, “genetic drift”, “maladaptiveness” and “randomness” by the very people who, more or less, founded the field.

More here.

The Charitable-Industrial Complex

Peter Buffett in the New York Times:

0727OPEDopen-articleInlineBecause of who my father is, I’ve been able to occupy some seats I never expected to sit in. Inside any important philanthropy meeting, you witness heads of state meeting with investment managers and corporate leaders. All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left. There are plenty of statistics that tell us that inequality is continually rising. At the same time, according to the Urban Institute, the nonprofit sector has been steadily growing. Between 2001 and 2011, the number of nonprofits increased 25 percent. Their growth rate now exceeds that of both the business and government sectors. It’s a massive business, with approximately $316 billion given away in 2012 in the United States alone and more than 9.4 million employed.

Philanthropy has become the “it” vehicle to level the playing field and has generated a growing number of gatherings, workshops and affinity groups.

As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” It’s what I would call “conscience laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.

But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place.

More here.

A Personal History of Afghanistan in Seven Acts


Sunday nights are for tango at the Canadians’. Embassy staffers come wearing wing-tip shoes—improbably clean, despite the mud-sodden streets of Kabul. Humanitarian aid workers, the toughest of tribes, are here too. An air of fatigue clings to them. One evening, an American woman who used to tango in New York shows up, and we note that her embrace is far tighter than anything we are accustomed to. An Afghan who runs a logistics company is a regular. So is a German doctor who runs a children’s hospital. Female officers with the EU police mission come bearing delicate-sounding names like Elise and Marianna. When the dance class adjourns, these women put on their flak jackets to walk the twelve paces from the compound gate to their armored SUVs. Someone tells me it’s an insurance policy mandate. Members of the Australian close protection team (bodyguards for diplomats), whom I’ve heard referred to as “eye candy,” are also present. They are never short of willing women.

more from May Jeong at n+1 here.

Fate’s only gift is death


Death and fashion are sisters, though not everyone knows this. They have known periods of estrangement, but these have been without cause, for they share not only a mother but a calling. It is with these family matters that Giacomo Leopardi begins his “Dialogue Between Fashion and Death,” written in 1824, when Leopardi was twenty-six years old, and published in a book he titled Operette morali (which is normally rendered in English as Essays and Dialogues, but whose title means “diminutive moral works”). The book does not offer a bright view of existence. Its last lines (spoiler alert) are: “If I were offered, on the one hand, the fortune and fame of Caesar or of Alexander, pure of all stains, and, on the other, to die today, and if I were to make a choice, I would say, to die today, and I would not need time to think it over.” But on to brighter matters—like fashion. As the reader of the dialogue will have noted, Fashion has sought out her sister to remind her of a few things (Death has a poor memory). Fashion begins with the bright side of death, that it “continually renews the world,” and argues that this renewal is a part of their shared calling.

more from Leland de la Durantaye at Cabinet here.

the Randolphs


In Virginia, legends offered themselves up for our affiliation. We were allowed to imagine ourselves against their tableaux. My aunt arranged private tours of Tuckahoe Plantation, Jefferson’s childhood home. We learned about the scandal at a plantation called Bizarre, in which one sad Randolph woman, in a tragic turn, was accused of murdering a child who had been conceived out of wedlock. Only later would I learn that the rumor of the time had been that the child had been conceived with one of the enslaved members of the household. Her family valiantly tried to protect her (and themselves) from shame. Patrick Henry successfully defended her in a proceeding that had been the days’ equivalent of the O. J. Simpson trial, and about which books are still occasionally published by small Virginia presses. As for Jefferson: How could I help but like him? A portrait of Monticello hung on the guest-​bedroom wall. Jefferson’s signature pin glinted above the fireplace. How beautiful his books were, full of gardens, science, democracy. My first visit to Monticello was a private tour. We strolled past Jefferson’s bed nook, his cluttered desk. I remember his micrometer, clock, telescopes.

more from Tess Taylor at VQR here.