Zahir Janmohamed in McSweeney's:

President Trump announced another Muslim ban this past weekend and your editor wants a piece on the subject by 2 pm. She already rejected your pitch about why Riz Ahmed was your favorite character in Rogue One and now she wants you to talk to “everyday Muslims.”

It sucks, I know. And it’s confusing. Sunnis? Shias? And what’s that? There are Ahmadis, too? Of course, it doesn’t help matters that Kumail Nanjiani is being so damn unhelpful by not responding to the questions you tweeted at him about Islam.

That’s why I, a Muslim American, am here to help. I have written tons of profiles of Muslims and I have even been profiled (Hi, TSA!). With my template, you can write a compelling piece about Muslim Americans in just six easy paragraphs.

Paragraph One

Start with a character and an image. Since you like to give feminist literature to the women in your life (as your Instagram followers well know, #FeminismIsForMeToo), double down on that by making her a woman. Be sure to humanize your character by describing her many quirks. For example: “Fatima loves line dancing. In fact, she knows she should spend her money on GRE classes but prefers to buy cowboy boots instead.”

Paragraph Two

Hit readers with a curveball. “But Fatima is a hijab wearing 21-year-old Somali woman whose family fled to the US when she was five. She doesn’t drink, eat pork, or date, but she feels much more at ease at a Blake Shelton concert than in a mosque.”

Paragraph Three

Now that you have hooked your audience, go in on the Islamophobia stats and the latest news on Trump’s Muslim ban. Don’t go too deep because you need to zoom out quickly and talk about Fatima’s collection of bedazzled hijabs.

More here.

Tribute to Jose Delgado, Legendary and Slightly Scary Pioneer of Mind Control

John Horgan in Scientific American:

8DB54395-72F4-48AF-8E850896766C5751Once among the world’s most acclaimed scientists, Jose Manuel Rodriguez Delgado has become an urban legend, whose career is shrouded in misinformation. Delgado pioneered that most unnerving of technologies, the brain chip, which manipulates the mind by electrically stimulating neural tissue with implanted electrodes. Long a McGuffin of science fictions, from The Terminal Man to The Matrix, brain chips are now being tested as treatments for epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, paralysis, depression, and other disorders.

In part because it was relatively unencumbered by ethical regulations, Delgado’s research rivaled and even surpassed much of what is being done today. In 1965, The New York Times reported on its front page that he had stopped a charging bull in its tracks by sending a radio signal to a device implanted in its brain. He also implanted radio-equipped electrode arrays, which he called “stimoceivers,” in dogs, cats, monkeys, chimpanzees, gibbons, and humans. With the push of a button, he could evoke smiles, snarls, bliss, terror, hunger, garrulousness, lust, and other responses.

Delgado described his results in hundreds of peer-reviewed papers and in a widely reviewed 1969 book, but these are rarely if ever cited by modern researchers. One reason may be that in 1974 he left Yale, his base for more than two decades, to return to Spain, his birthplace. He was at the peak of his career. A cover story in The New York Times Magazine had just hailed him as the “impassioned prophet of a new ‘psychocivilized society’ whose members would influence and alter their own mental functions.”

More here.

The real crisis of European multiculturalism

Joan W. Scott in The Nation:

ScreenHunter_2835 Sep. 27 21.07On the fast train from Brussels to Paris a few years ago, I met a young woman from the Philippines who was taking a weekend holiday from her job in Belgium to visit France for the first time. As the train entered the outskirts of Paris, she turned to me and said in surprise, “I didn’t realize the French were a black people.” It was my turn to be surprised, until I looked out the window and saw that we were in the banlieues, the segregated neighborhoods consisting largely of West and North African “immigrants” that ring the city. I put “immigrants” in scare quotes because many of these people are long-term residents of France; indeed, many of them are citizens. The word is nonetheless regularly used in France to distinguish them from the Français de souche—the legitimate (white) members of the nation.

“Immigrant” has become a kind of epithet these days, and not only in France. Everywhere in Europe, and also in the United States, immigrants are blamed for all manner of problems: crime, unemployment, disease, the deterioration of public services, the exhaustion of public funds, threats to liberal culture and mores. Right-wing populist politicians in nearly every country of the Western Hemisphere appeal to voters with plans to cleanse the national body of these impure invaders, to expel them, to build walls to keep them out. References to a “crisis” of immigration have become a convenient way to talk about many other things as well: race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and, especially, the human costs wrought by global capitalism and the growing inequalities it has engendered within and across the nations of the world.

These references to an “immigrant crisis” antedate the arrival of waves of refugees fleeing war and violence in Africa and the Middle East; the recent refugees have only heightened the discourse. Three new books attempt to see beyond the contours of the current crisis and to tap into a deeper set of economic, political, and cultural anxieties.

More here.

Alberto Giacometti and Alice Neel

220px-Paolo_Monti_-_Servizio_fotografico_(Venezia _1962)_-_BEIC_6328562Barry Schwabsky at The Nation:

And yet, as different as they are, Giacometti and Neel (like Giacometti and Serra) have more in common than might seem apparent at first sight. We tend not to think of them as belonging to the same generation: Giacometti was part of the great prewar flourishing of art in Paris and one of its hardy survivors into a midcentury in which he and his peers (including somewhat elder figures like Picasso and Miró) were richly honored but no longer quite of the present. Neel, by contrast, is thought of as an artist of the postwar era, and one who came into her own in the ’60s and ’70s. Yet that’s all something of an illusion: Giacometti, born in 1901, was a year younger than Neel. But Giacometti got started young, and though he died at a relatively early age, it must have seemed to art lovers of the time as if he’d been on the scene forever. Neel found her way as an artist much more slowly: By the time Giacometti died in 1966, she was just starting to gain the fame that she would enjoy until her own death in 1984.

The Giacometti retrospective, on view at the Tate Modern in London this summer, begins in a most striking way: with serried ranks of sculpted heads confronting the viewer in a dense crowd. They range in date across nearly 50 years, from the student’s earnest exercises of 1917 through the works of the mature artist in the 1960s. Facing them, one does feel—as Krauss said—alone, or at least outnumbered. Giacometti’s aesthetic developed over time—from its roots in the Beaux-Arts tradition through a canny embrace of aspects of cubism and surrealism and even, for a moment, abstraction, until he finally arrived at the unclassifiable way of working that was unmistakably his own and no one else’s.

more here.

Art of War: The Legacy of Michael Herr

0679735259.01.LZZZZZZZNathan Webster at The Millions:

By the time I went to Iraq, Herr had long retreated into silence–not even mystery, since there was no Salinger-esque clamor for his reemergence. He lived long enough to see Vietnam demystified and reconstructed. He became a devout Buddhist, meditating at his home in upstate New York. Was that how he coped? Is that the right word?

Of course, our wars haven’t ended. This generation of soldiers and journalists and plenty who did both has just started reckoning with what Herr spent 40 years to get to.

As a coping method, “silence” is certainly the last choice many of us have made. Dignity, modesty, humility—surrendered like the Bayji compound was lost to ISIS. Who can blame us? This merry-go-round has too many brass rings hanging just within reach: book deals, screenplays, talking slots on news programs and bytes of space in Internet columns, essays in collections that might be read or might not. So much to say, and too many years to go before we can hope for Herr’s perspective.

Herr showed that war reporting—embedded reporting, specifically—could capture the soldier’s voice and life while keeping the real focus on the writer.

more here.

luc sante on john ashbery

Sante_1-101217Luc Sante at the NYRB:

Ashbery’s was marked above all by a calm, discursive voice, going along at a walking pace, often seeming to have been caught in midstream, maybe half-heard from outside through the curtains. That voice could occasionally sound explicitly poetic or expressionistically fractured, but more often—and more consistently as time went by—it sounded conversational, demotic, mild, even-toned, deep-dish American. Its apparent placidity allowed for all sorts of things to appear bobbing happily in its current: recondite allusions, philosophical asides, foreign idioms, schoolyard jokes, forgotten cultural detritus of all sorts, even the occasional narrative or analysis or argument.

Much of his work gives the impression of having been piped straight to the surface from his unconscious, although it certainly passed through a powerful poetic engine that determined line breaks and measured flow and regulated music. His reading voice maintained that imperturbable meandering pace, never succumbing to declamation or melodrama or the pregnant pauses of needier poets but issuing a steady stream of words in unexpected patterns, so that young poets would attend his readings not just to hear him but to furtively scribble the images and lines his had touched off in their own fugue states.

more here.

What happened to Muhammad Ali will happen to Colin Kaepernick and others like him

Jonathan Eig in Slate:

MaThe writer Stanley Crouch has a great line about Muhammad Ali. When Ali came to fame in the 1960s, he was a grizzly bear, fierce and uncontrollable, Crouch told Ishmael Reed in an interview. In the second act of his career, Ali was a circus bear, still dangerous but also entertaining. In his last act, when he no longer seemed threatening, Ali was a teddy bear, soft and comforting and silent. It’s Ali the grizzly bear who is frequently invoked as the country debates whether athletes like Colin Kaepernick should protest police violence on a national stage. But in hailing Ali for carving the path for those like Kaepernick, we often forget the high price the boxer paid for his political views. We forget that Ali had to be declawed to be beloved. When Cassius Clay joined the Nation of Islam and dropped what he considered his slave name to become Muhammad Ali, he was attacked by politicians and the media. “I pity Clay and abhor what he represents,” wrote Jimmy Cannon. Even Martin Luther King Jr. said Ali “should spend more time proving his boxing skill and do less talking.” When he refused to fight in the U.S. military in Vietnam, he was convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison. He remained free while appealing the conviction, but boxing officials stripped him of the heavyweight championship and his license to box. He was called a coward, a traitor, a dupe, and an uppity N-word.

During all this, Ali stood almost completely alone.

In 1967, a group of America's top black athletes including Jim Brown and Bill Russell met with Ali in Cleveland. Legend has it they gathered to show support for Ali. But I found evidence to the contrary in researching my Ali biography. Those other black athletes were really gathered in an attempt to convince Ali to make a deal with the government and get back to boxing, having been offered a financial incentive by one of Ali’s white boxing promoters to do so. Only when Ali refused, saying he’d die before compromising, did the athletes issue a statement of support for their peer. Ali lost three-and-a-half prime years and millions of dollars. When the Supreme Court overturned his conviction, he said he wouldn’t sue for damages. He’d done what he thought was right, Ali said, and the government lawyers did what they thought was right. Everyone was entitled to his own view.

More here.

A quantum pioneer unlocks matter’s hidden secrets

Elizabeth Gibney in Nature:

QuantumIn 1989, surgery for detached retinas left Gilbert Lonzarich blind for a month. Rather than feel shaken or depressed, the condensed-matter physicist at the University of Cambridge, UK, seized the opportunity, inviting his graduate students to his house to share with them how exciting it was to adapt to life without sight. Lonzarich's embrace of the experience perfectly captures his approach to life, says Andrew Mackenzie, then one of those students and now a director at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Physics of Solids in Dresden, Germany. “Gil is one of the most positive people I've ever met. He finds interest in everything,” he says.

For more than 40 years, that optimism and curiosity has led Lonzarich to probe materials in ways never thought possible. In pioneering experiments in the 1990s, his team showed that pushing magnetic compounds to extreme pressures and close to absolute zero can make some of them conduct electricity without resistance1. This flew in the face of convention, which declared that magnetism and superconductivity could never mix. “It was as if nowadays you were talking about finding aliens or something,” says Malte Grosche, a colleague at Cambridge. That work showed physicists a new way to hunt for superconductors, which lie at the heart of technologies such as magnetic resonance imagers and particle accelerators. In recent years, it has offered a potential explanation for why some materials remain superconductors at temperatures much higher than absolute zero, which could pave the way to developing efficient, cheap devices that superconduct at room temperature. But the experiments have had an impact well beyond superconductivity. Lonzarich's method of subjecting materials to extreme conditions has become a general recipe for discovering new states of matter. Around the world, physicists now use this approach to probe a range of materials in which the collective interactions of electrons can give rise to unusual behaviour. Some of these phenomena could potentially revolutionize computing.

More here.

Wednesday Poem

What happens in the poem is from long time, not event time,
though it was an event too. —Nils Peterson
September Ritual, Mayrhofen
Mid September early snow, – so,
from the high pastures six cows,
horns streaming with flowers,
flow with a heavy grace down
a street lined with racks of discounted
summer clothes. Suddenly all shops
are ski shops.
Green Year walks
slowly down the mountain amidst her
attendants. She will leave them here
to follow the valley south. Praise her,
Bossy. Praise her Floribell, Praise her
you sweet ladies. May your winter barns
be full and the hands of your farmer warm.

by Nils Peterson

The Lamps are Going Out in Asia

Joseph Dethomas in 38 North:

The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, August 3, 1914

ScreenHunter_2834 Sep. 26 19.26US President Donald Trump’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly on September 19 may well come to be viewed as “historic,” but not in a good way. This article will leave for others the impact of Donald Trump’s and Kim Jong Un’s reality TV show rhetoric. But the substance of Trump’s speech—including threats to both North Korea and the Iran deal—may have closed any remaining doors to a diplomatic resolution to this crisis surrounding North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. Moreover, Trump’s speech and the North Korean reaction seem to have set us on a path that could very well end in a major war in Asia. The escalating threats and the closing off of diplomatic options by both sides makes it now more likely than ever that President Trump will have to make good on his threat to “utterly destroy” a nation of 25 million people. The strategic consequences of carrying out this threat, even if successful, will be felt for the remainder of this century, largely to the detriment of the United States and the Western World.

Major wars are not created with a single action. They flow from a series of decisions that drive participants towards a sense that no other action but war can extricate them from their predicament. For example, many historians now credit Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany’s July 2, 1914 telegram to the Austrian government, which gave his ally a so-called blank check to do whatever it wished in the crisis with Serbia, as the fatal step that set the machinery inexorably in motion for the catastrophe of World War I. Trump shares one common and dangerous trait with the Kaiser: both were amateur militarists given to public bluster and adopting an ultra-nationalist bully-boy style of diplomacy, in part to cover up vast weaknesses in their own characters and their lack of understanding of their countries’ true strengths. But neither of these individuals intended to unleash catastrophe. Certainly, the Kaiser would never have sent his blank check if he had known it would result in the fall of his own dynasty, the disappearance of centuries-old empires, the death of millions, and the emergence of Nazism in his country. No doubt, Trump sees himself as a heroic figure standing up to a mad tyrant using rhetoric, economic pressure and, if necessary, military force to break him. He does not see because he does not understand the vast risks he is running for his own citizens, or millions of residents of East Asia.

More here. [Thanks to Dan Dennett.]

Robots have already taken over our work, but they’re made of flesh and bone

Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger in The Guardian:

1772Most of the headlines about technology in the workplace relate to robots rendering people unemployed. But what if this threat is distracting us from another of the distorting effects of automation? To what extent are we being turned into workers that resemble robots?

Take taxi drivers. The prevailing wisdom is they will be replaced by Uber drivers, who in turn will ultimately be replaced by self-driving cars. Those lauding Transport for London’s refusal to renew Uber’s licence might like to consider how, long before that company “disrupted” the industry, turn-by-turn GPS route management and dispatch control systems were de-skilling taxi drivers: instead of building up navigational knowledge, they increasingly rely on satnavs.

Fears about humans becoming like machines go back longer than you might think. The sort of algorithmic management we see in the modern gig economy – in which drivers and riders for digital platforms such as Uber and Deliveroo are dispatched and managed not by human beings, but by sophisticated computer systems – has its roots in a management theory developed by Frederick Taylor in the early 20th century. As a young man, Taylor worked as a shop foreman for a steel-making corporation in Philadelphia, where he diagnosed inefficiencies he saw as being products of poorly structured incentives, unmotivated and sometimes shirking workers, and a huge knowledge gap that rendered management ineffective. Managers, he proclaimed, knew too little about the workforce, their tasks, capabilities and motivations.

More here.

Take a Knee: The revenge of Colin Kaepernick

Stephen Squibb in n + 1:

37444579735_cf98661c05_zBefore the cops bought Dylann Roof a burger after he killed nine people in a South Carolina bible study and before Michael Slager shot Walter Scott in the back after a traffic stop and then planted evidence on his body; before Daniel Pantaleo choked Eric Garner to death on camera and Jeronimo Yanez killed Philando Castile for legally owning a gun; before Sandra Bland was found hanging in police custody and Heather Heyer was run over by the fascist James Harris Fields, Jr., and the police told the media he was “just scared”; before Jeremy Joseph Christian told two young women of color on a train in Portland, Oregon to go back to Saudi Arabia and then stabbed to death two of the three men who rose to defend them—“I’m a patriot! This is what liberalism gets you!” he shouted in court—before James Harris Jackson came to New York from Baltimore for the purpose of killing black men and stabbed 66-year-old Timothy Caughman to death while he was collecting cans; before John Russell Houser killed two women in a movie theater for watching a feminist film and before Robert Lewis Dear, Jr. was captured alive after killing three people—one of them a cop—in a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood; before the police killed Freddie Gray in the back of a van and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in a park in Cleveland; after so many thousands of others but before all of these, officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown when he was standing in the middle of the street with his hands up in Ferguson, Missouri.

Wilson thought he was just killing an animal, an angry beast with the temerity to do something other than what he said exactly when and how he said it. The courts and his fellow officers agreed with him, and he was rewarded with early retirement. But Wilson wasn’t killing a creature like a dog or a pig whose complex emotional lives we routinely torture and destroy without consequence. He was killing a citizen of the United States of America, and these creatures are stubborn. They do not listen when you tell them that for 400 years reactionary violence has been part of the culture of this nation. They do not believe it when you point out that the Constitution has always been a hypocritical, contradictory, selectively-enforced document, only taken seriously by the weak-minded. They cannot be convinced that a garish rectangle set about with stars and stripes is just another piece of cloth. And so the protests began. In the streets, in the classrooms, and on the football field, when Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem to draw attention to the blatant, doggedly consistent violation of American citizens’ rights to life, liberty, and due process.

What did they expect would happen? That’s the part that has turned me against more beloved members of my family than I would have thought possible. It’s not that they approve of the killing, here or elsewhere, it’s that they apparently share the widespread expectation that after the killing there would be no consequences whatsoever of any kind.

More here.

the brilliant and conflicted mind of Edward Lear

Download (5)Lyndall Gordon at The New Statesman:

How Pleasant to Know Mr Lear!” is a comical self-portrait by Edward Lear, the Victorian poet of nonsense. This Mr Lear “has written such volumes of stuff!” His nose is “remarkably big”, his body “perfectly spherical” and his face, ineffectively hidden by an immense, bushy beard, “more or less hideous”.

Born in 1812, Lear lived much of his life abroad and eventually built himself a house above the sea in San Remo, north-western Italy. By 1879, when he wrote this poem, he had become a “crazy old Englishman”, who once could sing but now was “one of the dumms”. Lear relays this comedown with mild tolerance. A self-portrait by his imitator T S Eliot is harsher. In “How Unpleasant to Meet Mr Eliot!”, the author’s mouth is prim and his grimness and precision are forbidding. Both poets appear to toss off jingles, yet invite us to pick up a signal: beckoning through thickets of words towards what they secrete.

Jenny Uglow’s Mr Lear explores an “oblique” mode of confession behind the nonsensical mask. To read it is like walking behind a detective’s searchlight trained on the lines. The strength of this biography lies in this illumination of the life through the work, including Lear’s drawings and paintings. The approach expands on the explorations of Vivien Noakes in Edward Lear: The Life of a Wanderer, first published in 1968 and lasting through three editions. Both draw us into the purview of a guarded Victorian. Lear slips two unfunny lines into his pleasant self-portrait: “He weeps by the side of the ocean,/He weeps on the top of the hill.”

more here.

Mark Lilla wants to make liberalism great again

51LeLE1yzEL._SX340_BO1 204 203 200_Siddhartha Deb at The Baffler:

Yet the book serves an unintentional purpose as a barometer for the times. Why is American liberalism unable to provide a better defense of its values than this? Always eager to pursue violations of human rights abroad, although only in those countries not directly in thrall to American power and capital, conditions at home could surely provoke liberals into a fresh appraisal of the significance of individual rights and a free press. But this is where liberalism’s long, benighted history comes to the fore, the flip side to its professed commitment to free speech, free elections, and free market. Lilla’s complaints about minorities and the disenfranchised, the supreme disdain revealed in his reference to the Democratic Party’s website, which includes links to seventeen groups, as reminiscent of “the website of the Lebanese government” brings to the surface American liberalism’s long history of red baiting and race baiting, its anti-communism and its anti anti-imperialism, its hostility toward Palestine and now to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.

It is fear that is the driving force of such liberalism and that pulses throughout this book. In good times, such as the flat terrain end of history promised not that long ago, this characteristic doesn’t surface. Instead, one gets arrogance and hubris, think tanks and op-eds, the certainty of everything in its right place. But now that the clamor of the world, its uneasy disturbances, are beginning to be felt even in the hallowed confines of Brooklyn and the ivory tower classroom, one sees the teeth behind the smile, the fist under the glove, and the common cause between the prissy men with advanced degrees and the demented ranters on Fox News.

more here.

18 hours in vietnam

Thom02_3918_01David Thomson at the LRB:

The Vietnam War, a film made by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, comes in ten parts, with beginnings, middles and end credits; and lasts 18 hours altogether, which some may feel is a lot to ask of busy, anxious wrecks who have their own troubles to patrol. Not that 18 hours on your couch, attending to war, is really so much if you need courage and history in your life. The film took ten years to make, at a cost of $30 million. That’s a lot of money by documentary standards, but it was done in the Burns tradition: there was a seeding deal with PBS, but the greater part of the money was raised by Burns himself, a visionary documenter of America’s past and a model businessman too. Even as he was launching the Vietnam series, he was working on another show, about country music.

The Vietnam War starts at the end of the Second World War, with the Japanese finished in Indochina, the uneasy resumption of French control, and their attempts to ignore the pressures of nationalism and the push for independence. And you follow it through to the end of the era called ‘Vietnam’, knowing that that time did not end in 1975, but will last as long as the walking wounded trudge on, and for as long as there is anyone left who understands the remark, made in the film, that ‘Vietnam drove a stake in the heart of this country’ – and knows that the country spoken of here is not Vietnam, despite its three million lost lives.

more here.

Tuesday Poem


Although he’s apparently the youngest (his little Rasta-beard is barely
down and feathers),
most casually connected (he hardly glances at the girl he’s with, though
she might be his wife),
half-sloshed (or more than half) on picnic-whiskey teen-aged father,
when his little son,
two or so, tumbles from the slide, hard enough to scare himself, hard
enough to make him cry,
really cry, not partly cry, not pretend the fright for what must be some
scarce attention,
but really let it out, let loudly be revealed the fear of having been so
close to real fear,
he, the father, knows just how quickly he should pick the child up, then
how firmly hold it,
fit its head into the muscled socket of his shoulder, rub its back, croon
and whisper to it,
and finally pull away a little, about a head’s length, looking, still concerned,
into its eyes,
then smiling, broadly, brightly, as though something has been shared,
something of importance,
not dreadful, or not very, not at least now that it’s past, but rather
something . . . funny,
funny, yes, it was funny, wasn’t it, to fall and cry like that, though one
certainly can understand,
we’ve all had glimpses of a premonition of the anguish out there, you’re
better now, though,
aren’t you, why don’t you go back and try again, I’ll watch you, maybe
have another drink,
yes, my son, my love, I’ll go back and be myself now: you go be the
person you are, too.

by C.K. Williams
from Selected Poems
Noonday Press, 1994

the power of stories to shape reality

Ian McGuire in The Guardian:

BookWe live in a world made up of competing and contradictory stories: stories about origins and identity, the good and the bad, the future and the past. Although we can never be sure that any one of these stories represents the absolute or permanent truth, some are more believable and appealing than others. While some encourage hope and tolerance, others foster only anxiety, anger or despair. But what makes one kind of story, one version of reality, more successful than another? Why do some live and flourish, while others are ignored or disappear? In the era of Twitter storms and fake news these questions are more important and pressing than ever, and they lie at the core of Marcel Theroux’s ambitious, if idiosyncratic, new novel. As he tells us himself, in one of the novel’s several moments of disarming directness: “The thesis of this book is that we are trapped in stories but that we may be able to imagine our way to better ones. There are other stories than the ones we have collectively chosen. There are second chances and redemption.” Theroux explores these big philosophical and historical questions through the life story of his protagonist Nicolas Notovitch. Notovitch, who is based on an actual historical figure, is born into a Jewish family in Crimea in the late 19th century, but at 17 abandons them and his Jewish heritage and begins a process of life-long reinvention, becoming first a journalist, then a propagandist, a spy, a revisionist biblical scholar, and finally the owner of a Parisian department store. He represents a modern cosmopolitanism that is open-minded and free-wheeling but also, on more than one occasion, morally vague. For Notovich the price of his escape from tradition is a kind of perpetual uncertainty; he is a man who is never entirely sure of himself, and whose story is, as a result, never exactly fixed.

…In the end, The Secret Books, having surveyed the miserable history of 20th-century prejudice and violence, puts its battered faith in the enchanting powers of art. If history forgets or represses certain stories, Theroux implies, then it may be the task of the artist to redeem and revive them. The novel itself becomes a solution to the problems it explores, a means, limited but real, of righting wrongs, and of making stories better known. After all, who would have remembered Nicolas Notovitch and his strange and complex history if The Secret Books had never been written?

Birds Beware: The Praying Mantis Wants Your Brain

Natalie Angier in The New York Times:

MantisTom Vaughan, a photographer then living in Colorado’s Mancos Valley, kept a hummingbird feeder outside his house. One morning, he stepped through the portico door and noticed a black-chinned hummingbird dangling from the side of the red plastic feeder like a stray Christmas ornament. At first, Mr. Vaughan thought he knew what was going on. “I’d previously seen a hummingbird in a state of torpor,” he said, “when it was hanging straight down by its feet, regenerating its batteries, before dropping down and flying off.” On closer inspection, Mr. Vaughan saw that the hummingbird was hanging not by its feet but by its head. And forget about jumping its batteries: the bird was in the grip of a three-inch-long green praying mantis. The mantis was clinging with its back legs to the rim of the feeder, holding its feathered catch in its powerful, seemingly reverent front legs, and methodically chewing through the hummingbird’s skull to get at the nutritious brain tissue within. “It was staring at me as it fed,” Mr. Vaughan said. “Of course, I took a picture of it.” Startled by the clicking shutter, the mantis dropped its partially decapitated meal, crawled under the feeder — and began menacing two hummingbirds on the other side. “Talk about cognitive dissonance,” Mr. Vaughan said. “I always thought of mantises as wonderful things to have in your garden to get rid of bugs, but it turns out they sometimes go for larger prey, too.” "It gave me new respect for mantises,” he added.

Mr. Vaughan’s sentiment is echoed by a cadre of researchers who place mantises in a class of their own among the swarming Class Insecta, and who are discovering a range of skills and predilections that make mantises act like aspiring vertebrates. Praying mantises are the only insects able to swivel their heads and stare at you. Those piercing eyes are much like yours, equipped with 3-D vision and a fovea — a centralized concentration of light receptors — the better to focus and track. A mantis can jump as unerringly as a cat, controlling its trajectory through an intricate series of twists and turns distributed across its legs and body, all to ensure a flawless landing on a ridiculously iffy target nearly every time. The mantis appetite likewise turns out to leap and bound, and with scant regard for food-chain decorum. By the standard alimentary sequence, insects feed on plants or one another, and then birds hunt down insects. But just as there are carnivorous plants like the Venus flytrap, mantises prey on hummingbirds and other small-to-middling birds more often than most people realize.

More here.