Setting the Scene in Philip Roth’s “Nemesis”

by Derek Neal

I recently read Philip Roth’s Nemesis, a novel that’s received renewed attention as it centers on a polio epidemic. This isn’t why I read it, although I’ll admit that reading about the slow build and then cascading avalanche of a virus, and the public’s nonchalance giving way to caution and then increased panic and hysteria, closely paralleled the events of early 2020. I suppose epidemics and our response to them always play out in a similar fashion. I picked the book off my shelf because I needed something to read—much like the setting of the novel, it’s summer vacation for me. My dad had given me the book some time before, and it had sat there, collecting dust on the shelf built into the low walls of my slope-ceilinged attic apartment. As a rule, I hate receiving books as gifts because I then feel an obligation to read them; instead, I prefer to choose and read a book in a more serendipitous fashion. It’s not something that can be forced. But if the giver of the book knows that their gift will go unread, possibly for years, but will then present itself to be read at the right moment, a book can be a great gift.

I took Nemesis to my family’s cottage, which sits at the end of an unpaved road and is situated steps from a small lake. A storm blew through and we promptly lost power. Not having TV, Wi-Fi, or many of the other distractions of modern life, I read Nemesis in a day or two and rediscovered the feeling of simultaneously racing through a book and trying to drag it out; when a novel is good—and Nemesis is a masterpiece in my estimation—the reading experience becomes so engrossing that it has to be artificially prolonged without losing the momentum of the story. Inevitably, this fails, you finish the book, and thankfully there are many more waiting for you. Read more »

A Sputnik Education : Part 4

by Dick Edelstein

By the time I got to high school, the humanities were seen as a kind of side dish in the educational meal. This was largely due to the exigencies of the space race and an inclination on the part of American society to acquiesce to the suppression of critical thought in the post-war years. The main course from a geopolitical perspective was science and engineering.

Students here in Spain learn philosophy as a subject in secondary school. But, when I was growing up in Seattle, it was not in the curriculum in any guise at all. Probably the school administration felt that the safest thing to do was to leave it out. But my world history teacher in the 11th grade had a different idea. He wanted to give students some awareness of all of the cultural currents that impacted history. His talk on philosophy was so pithy I can still remember it – even though it took only about twenty minutes.

Here it is in essence. Idealism means that chair you are looking at now is just a reflection of an ideal chair that exists somewhere. Realism means that chair is really a chair. Dialectical materialism involves a thesis, antithesis and synthesis and goes something like the following. Thesis – the sky is blue. Antithesis – trees are green.  Synthesis – Red China should join the United Nations.

While dubious in content, this lesson was significant because I managed to remember it all these years. At least the teacher addressed the topic of philosophy in some way. Read more »

The Body Count(s)

by Tamuira Reid

Guns guns guns
on the news
nothing new
here comes the Blue.
Guns guns guns
where we sleep
where we eat
beneath our feet.
Guns guns guns
where we pray
where we play
get outta the way.

—Oliver, Brooklyn, New York (11 years-old)

1. There are more guns than people in the United States.
2. You can legally buy an assault weapon before you can buy a beer.
3. Salvador Ramos bought himself a pair of AR-15’s – and over 375 rounds of ammunition – in celebration of his eighteenth birthday. They felt light in his hands, almost weightless.
4. An 8 year-old Uvalde survivor initially mistook the gunfire in his school for fireworks. He had never heard an AR-17 spray bullets before. “Like this pop, pop, pop sound.”
5. During the Uvalde shooting, a father tried to enter the building to save his daughter, a student at Robb Elementary. “My baby is in there,” he pleaded. But police officers kept him on the outside looking in.
6. (The longest hour of his life would turn out to be the end of hers.)
7. After killing their teacher and barricading the door, Ramos told students, “You are going to die”. He then cherry-picked his victims, one by one.
8. Guns are now the number one cause of death for children in the United States.
9. A fourth grade survivor said she smeared her best friend’s blood all over her body to “play dead”. Her hair is beginning to fall out from where bullet fragments grazed her scalp.
10. Fox News anchors said Ramos “might’ve been trans”, that he “wore eyeliner and came from a broken home”. That he shot-up his grandmother before he shot-up the school.
11. During 2020, the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, more than 45,000 Americans died from gunshot wounds.
12. Uvalde was the 27th school shooting of 2022.
13. The FBI has unofficially defined a mass shooter as an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area.
14. 11 year-old Oliver, Brooklyn, New York, has been practicing active shooter drills since kindergarten, before he knew how to read. “The teachers call it something else, because they don’t want to scare us. But we know what it is. We know what we’re doing.” He saw bulletproof backpacks were trending recently, and calls product both smart and sad.
15. The National Rifle Association has touted the AR-15 as America’s rifle. Its popularity has skyrocketed in the past two decades.
16. Columbine High School, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook Elementary, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
17. Robb Elementary.
18. Nineteen schoolchildren, two teachers, one gunman.
19. Psychopathy – also referred to as Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD) – consists of an interpersonal component, an emotional component, and a behavioral component. According to, children may be at a higher risk of developing psychopathy due to genetic factors. “[These] children may actually need more verbal and physical warmth than other children.”
20. Texas governor Greg Abbott called the Uvalde shooting a “senseless crime,” and that it “could have been worse.” There have been six mass shootings in his state since he took office.
21. The 2022 NRA Convention continued as planned, roughly 300 miles from Uvalde, where some victims have yet to be buried.
(22) Ramos’ father told a Texan news outlet that he doesn’t want the public labeling his son as a monster. “They don’t know nothing, man,” he said. “They don’t know anything he was going through. My son was a good person.”

Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 46

by Pranab Bardhan

All of the articles in this series can be found here.

Since 1990 I have also visited Vietnam a few times. Vietnamese economic reform (called doi moi) started in the mid-1980’s. On my first visit I found Hanoi to be more like a small quiet town in India, with a lot of poverty (and some begging in the streets, but not many visibly malnourished children), while Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City was somewhat better-off, and more raucous and colorful. One lecture I gave in Vietnam was titled “ The Rocky Road to Reform” where I spelled out the challenges of economic transition from a state-dominated economy; after my lecture a Vietnamese academic came to me and said, “Our roads are all full of potholes, so we are used to the ‘rocky road’ of challenges”!

One of the most knowledgeable people in Vietnam on issues of economic reform I met in Hanoi was Le Dang Doanh, who was an adviser to the General Secretary of the Communist Party, and later President of the Central Institute of Economic Management, a premier government think-tank on economic policy (I actually sought him out at the suggestion of my journalist friend, Nayan Chanda, who used to be with the Far Eastern Economic Review).

On my subsequent visits I found out how fast Vietnam was changing. In Hanoi, where I saw mostly bicycles before, it is now practically impossible to cross the road with the unending streams of motor cycles and cars (they’ll not stop for you, you have to take your chance). The Vietnamese economy is now a veritable dynamo of activity in Asia. It started with agricultural exports (like rice and maritime products) but soon followed China, a historical adversary, in the well-worn path of export-oriented labor-intensive industrialization with foreign investment and learning of foreign technology, combined, of course, with a deplorable level of political repression. Read more »

We need a new kind of approach to learning that shifts imagination from the periphery to the foundation of all knowledge

Stephen T Asma in Aeon:

A chasm divides our view of human knowledge and human nature. According to the logic of the chasm, facts are the province of experimental science, while values are the domain of religion and art; the body (and brain) is the machinery studied by scientists, while the mind is a quasi-mystical reality to be understood by direct subjective experience; reason is the faculty that produces knowledge, while emotion generates art; STEM is one kind of education, and the liberal arts are wholly other.

These are no longer productive ways to organise knowledge in the 21st century.

Within the logic of the chasm, one way of thinking tends to be viewed as more capable of producing meaning: the scientific mind. But the literal, logical, scientific mind is the outlier – the weird, exceptional mode of cognition. It is not, I would argue, the dominant paradigm of human sense-making activity and yet it remains the exemplar of cognition itself and finds pride of place in our educational systems.

More here.

An Interview With Zarqa Nawaz, Author And Creator Of “Little Mosque On The Prairie”

Molly Odintz in Crime Reads:

Molly Odintz: The premise for this novel is wildly inventive. What was your inspiration?

Zarqa Nawaz: When my memoir, Laughing All the Way to the Mosque, didn’t make it to the New York Times Best Seller list, I became a little cynical towards life. It was 2014 and ISIS had just emerged and was dominating the headlines. Muslims are forever fighting the PR war when it comes to their image. Political pundits were opining that radical Islamic jihadists were the norm in Muslim culture. I knew there was a deeper story behind ISIS, especially from the one the media was portraying. I started doing research and the novel began to emerge—a bitter writer, reeling from professional failure, gets embroiled in an ISIS like group and a series of unfortunate events ensue.

More here.

Metal-lifespan analysis shows scale of waste

Freda Kreier in Nature:

A study looking at the economic lifetimes of 61 commercially used metals finds that more than half have a lifespan of less than 10 years. The research, published on 19 May in Nature Sustainability1, also shows that most of these metals end up being disposed of or lost in large quantities, rather than being recycled or reused.

Billions of tonnes of metal are mined each year, and metal production accounts for around 8% of all global greenhouse-gas emissions. So, recycling more metal could help to lower its environmental impacts, says co-author Christoph Helbig, an industrial ecologist at the University of Bayreuth in Germany.

More here.

Inside the Afghan Resistance

Salar Abdoh, Abolfazl Shakiba, and Mostafa Saeidi in Guernica:

Depending on one’s pace, the season, and the ongoing state of war, it is a day’s hike from Andarab to the border of legendary Panjshir, the adjacent province in the highlands of Afghanistan. The two mountain districts, part of a five-hundred-mile-long stretch of the Hindu Kush extending from the Himalayas, are citadels that have rained doom on every bully ever to pass through Central Asia in endless dogged pursuit of cruelty and loot.

After the fall of Kabul and the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan on August 15, 2021, it was only a matter of time before another resistance to the draconian, tribal, and racialist policies of the Pashtun-dominated Taliban took hold. In the 1990s, the resistance had come from Ahmad Shah Massoud, the fabled leader of the Northern Alliance, who stood alone against Taliban control of 90 percent of the country; in 2021, it was his mild-mannered son, Ahmad Massoud, a connoisseur of Persian literature, like his father, and an alumnus of three esteemed British institutions, including the Sandhurst military academy.

More here.

The Atrocity of American Gun Culture

Jelani Cobb in Time Magazine:

May, a month we traditionally associate with spring, Mother’s Day, and graduations, was defined this year by a far different rite: funerals. In a single ten-day stretch, forty-four people were murdered in mass shootings throughout the country—a carnival of violence that confirmed, among other things, the political cowardice of a large portion of our elected leadership, the thin pretense of our moral credibility, and the sham of public displays of sympathy that translate into no actual changes in our laws, our culture, or our murderous propensities. In the two deadliest of these incidents, the oldest victim was an eighty-six-year-old grandmother, who was shot in a Tops supermarket in Buffalo, New York; the youngest were nine-year-old fourth-grade students, who died in connected classrooms at Robb Elementary School, in Uvalde, Texas.

In the interim, there were other mass shootings, in Indiana, Washington State, Florida, California, Louisiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and elsewhere. Less than one per cent of gun deaths in the United States are the result of mass shootings. But the data are less salient than another element of the month’s tragedies: the images posted of the children who died, many of them smiling, blithely unaware of the flawed world they were born into. The knowledge that they are no longer alive—that any future iterations of those smiles have been permanently forestalled—is an indictment that we all have to live with.

More here.

the writer who ate himself

Rob Doyle in The Guardian:

In a sense, writing a book is easy. You just keep putting one interesting sentence after another, then thread them all together along a more or less fine narrative line. Only, it isn’t easy – in fact, it’s famously difficult, a daunting and arduous labour that can frequently leave you in a state of utter nervous exhaustion, reaching for the bottle or the pills. Since his creative breakthrough with The Adversary, published in 2000, the French writer Emmanuel Carrère has done something doubly amazing: he’s pioneered a unique and captivating new way of telling a true story, and he’s made it look easy. Or at least, he makes it go down easy for the reader. His fiendishly personal “nonfiction novels”, which encompass subjects such as dissident Russian literature or the story of early Christianity, unfold in a condition of perpetual climax, locked to a point of fascination from first page to last.

As his new book Yoga begins, Carrère is “in a good way”, enjoying what has been a 10-year run of glory, marital happiness and all-round good fortune, which he finds remarkable considering how miserable his inner life had previously been. Carrère, as anyone who’s read his books will know, is a great pornographer of his own torments, a champion sufferer who writes from a pitch of exhibitionistic anguish even though his life – rich, Parisian, glamorous – looks conspicuously appealing. “As far as neurotic misery goes, I’m second to none”, he tells us, characteristically. Basking in the sunny uplands of his late fifties, he decides to write “an upbeat, subtle little book on yoga” but lets us know on the very first page that neither life nor the book would play out like that.

More here.

Sunday Poem

The Stranger

A man came up to me as I was walking home from the pharmacy: “Are you Jose Hernandez Diaz?” “Yes,” I said, “who’s asking?” “Do you enjoy sipping tea before bedtime?” “Well, I do, but what is it to you?” I asked. “In the ninth grade, did you get cut from the basketball team?” “I did, in fact, get cut from the team.” “Do you sometimes wonder what life would’ve been like had you married Margot Cisneros?” “Maybe, sometimes, yes,” I said. “Are you afraid of small talk and long walks in the city?” “I’m just a little introverted,” I said. “Does the night sky resemble a dragon of your dreams?” “Yes, thank you for asking,” I said. “Did you cry when Muncy hit that home run in the World Series?” “I did cry at that moment. Proud of it!” “Were you born and raised back and forth between L.A. and Orange County?” “Story of my life; yes,” I said. “Does the night sky resemble a dragon of your dreams?” “Yes, thank you for asking. Yes!”

by Jose Hernandez Diaz
The Yale Review, 3/9/22

After Free Trade

Nic Johnson and Robert Manduca in Boston Review:

On or around 1939 debates about international political economy changed. Over the course of the Cold War, economic nationalism—the attempt to use the state to advance a country’s economic interests—was crowded out of official discourse by two competing universalisms, communism on one side and liberalism on the other. Over the last few decades, however, this opposition has been scrambled. First Marxist universalism failed; the Sino-Soviet split fractured the communist project before the USSR collapsed altogether. Then, after a brief period in the sun on the international stage, liberal universalism too began to falter in a declining arc from Iraq and the Global Financial Crisis to Donald Trump’s victory on an “America First” platform.

In the wake of these declensions, two political economic developments have muddied the earlier Cold War waters. In October last year the Biden administration announced that it would leave tariffs on two-thirds of Chinese exports intact. This came as a surprise for those who were hoping that Trump administration policies were pathological aberrations. Trade wars, it seems, have come to enjoy bipartisan support, in the unlikeliest of places—the ostensible headquarters of neoliberal globalization.

More here.

The Price of Oil

Gregory Brew in Phenomenal World:

In October 2021, the price of gasoline in the United States rose to its highest level in seven years. There were many reasons for this: surging demand following a year-and-a-half of lockdown, a slower than expected recovery of oil production, and imbalances in products inventories due to energy shortages in Europe and East Asia. Experts believed prices would fall in the new year. Instead, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 sent them to new and historic heights, rattling markets and increasing the US price of gasoline to more than $4 a gallon.

It is easy to see that the price of oil is one of Joe Biden’s biggest problems, but harder to figure out whether Biden can do much about it. If he can’t, who can? An entire industry exists to predict future changes in the price of oil. Oil companies themselves try to imagine where the price will be, so that they can schedule capital expenditures to meet future demand, often without much success.

Today, the volatility of oil prices is taken for granted. But this was not always the case.

More here.

Columbine. Sandy Hook. Parkland. Uvalde. What do we do now?

Grier and Gass in The Christian Science Monitor:

Columbine. Parkland. Pulse. Virginia Tech. Sandy Hook. Las Vegas.

Now Buffalo and Uvalde. Two more tragic mass shootings, added to the heartbreaking list of the worst such incidents in American history. Does nothing change? That is what it can seem like. Politicians make familiar utterances about thoughts and prayers, and there’s a spurt of citizen energy and media attention, but that fades, and big things intended to lower the nation’s shocking level of deaths caused by firearms don’t happen.

It may be true that Washington has taken little concerted action on gun violence in recent years. It’s a difficult, complex issue – and national politics is polarized and too often gridlocked. But some states and cities have taken significant steps to respond to gun tragedies, says Daniel W. Webster, co-director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Gun Violence Solutions. Grassroots organizing against gun violence is growing. And it is important to push back against the fatalist attitude that terrible shootings will continue, says Professor Webster. Accepting them as inevitable becomes a self-fulling prophecy. There are things that work to curb such violence. They can be implemented, realistically.

Two tragedies in a month could be a tipping point.

More here.

Ancient DNA reveals secrets of Pompeii victims

Victoria Gill in BBC:

Researchers studying human remains from Pompeii have extracted genetic secrets from the bones of a man and a woman who were buried when the Roman city was engulfed in volcanic ash.

This first “Pompeian human genome” is an almost complete set of “genetic instructions” from the victims, encoded in DNA extracted from their bones. Ancient DNA was preserved in bodies that were encased in time-hardened ash. The findings are published in the journal Scientific Reports.

The two people were first discovered in 1933, in what Pompeii archaeologists have called Casa del Fabbro, or The Craftsman’s House. They were slumped in the corner of the dining room, almost as though they were having lunch when the eruption occurred – on 24 August 79AD. One recent study suggested that the huge cloud of ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius could have become lethal for the city’s residents in less than 20 minutes. The two victims the researchers studied, according to anthropologist Dr Serena Viva from the University of Salento, were not attempting to escape.

More here.