The Sorrow of War

I had the simultaneously good and bad fortune to discover Boa Ninh’s novel, The Sorrow of War while in Vietnam recently. Bao Ninh was a soldier in the North Vietnamese army and was present at the fall of Siagon in 1975. I say simultaneously good and bad because the novel is brilliant. moving, amazing. It is also so devastating to read that it might take you a day or two to recover.

Unfortunately, the fate of the interesting glut of writers to emerge from Vietnam roughly 15 years ago and who were starting to tell the story of modern Vietnam is not a great one so far.

Here’s a brief interviewwith another contemporary and important Vietnamese writer, Duong Thu Huong. She has her own website here.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Knife Culture

“So we immersed ourselves in the knife culture, enrolling in skills classes and trolling cutlery stores. We browsed online knife forums and talked to passionate home cooks and professional chefs to find out what qualities in a blade might make chopping onions a sublime experience.”  We here at 3Quarks highly recommend such journeys of discovery (three of us are strongly partial to Global knives from Japan).  Matt and Ted Lee make short work of the world of chef’s knives, with special attention to the current vogue for Japanese single-beveled knives.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Confessions of a Secular Fundamentalist

Continuing today’s theme (started by Robin Varghese) of examining religion/secularism, here is Saeed Naqvi’s review of Confessions of a Secular Fundamentalist by Mani Shankar Aiyar:

Mani_shankar_aiyar_20041220 In the 1950s, Lucknow was swarming with nondescript Urdu poets eager to publish their verse. One such, Chamman Mian, resorted to an ingenious trick to elevate himself from street poet to the more rarefied literary circles of the Lucknow Coffee House. He invented a conversation with the brilliant poet, Majaz, three days after the latter’s dramatic death outside a country liquor shop.

Mani Shankar Aiyar also uses a conversation as the prologue to his book. But unlike Chamman Mian’s, this is not an imaginary conversation. He reproduces it from a 1995 issue of the now-defunct Sunday magazine. The conversation is with Arun Shourie, on Islam. It highlights how Islam is understood and misunderstood in Indian public discourse, sympathetically regarded and wilfully distorted, sometimes over the heads of decent Muslims, and couched in arcane theology.

More here in Outlook India.

James Brown Diagnosed With Cancer

James Gregory of Pitchfork reports:
According to a statement released late last week, legendary rock/soul pioneer James Brown has been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Details of Brown’s condition are being kept private, but the singer will be admitted for surgery at an undisclosed Georgia hospital this Wednesday. In the statement, Brown was optimistic about the upcoming treatment: “I have overcome a lot of things in my life,” he said. “I will overcome this as well.” According to publicist Simone Smalls, fans can send their best wishes to Brown at [email protected]

Brown still holds claim to his long-standing title of “hardest working man in show business.” At age 71, he continues to record and stage global tours– a day before his ailment was made public, the singer had completed a two-week tour of Canada. Meanwhile, Brown’s last album of new material, 1998’s I’m Back, saw the artist expanding his sound with hip-hop and sampling (albeit to mixed effect).

In more positive news, NME reports that Brown is getting set to release his latest autobiography, I Feel Good: A Memoir of a Life of Soul in January of next year. Brown’s previous autobiography, James Brown: The Godfather of Soul was originally published in 1986, and included contributions from notable friends, including Rev. Al Sharpton and celebrated rock journalist Dave Marsh. Brown is expected to promote the book nearer its release date, and also plans a return to the road in early 2005, with a tour of Asia and Australia.

Bad sex writing prize goes to Tom Wolfe

From BBC News:

Wolfe US author Tom Wolfe has been given the Bad Sex in Fiction Award for awkward descriptions of intimate encounters in his novel I am Charlotte Simmons.

Wolfe, 74, whose Bonfire of the Vanities epitomised 1980s power and excess, was nominated for three passages in his latest publication.

One included the line: “…moan moan moan moan moan…”

The prize is awarded each year for “crude, tasteless” sexual depictions in published literature.

More here.

Construction of world’s tallest building begins in Dubai

Will Knight writes in New Scientist:

Burj The construction of what will be the world’s tallest building is set to begin in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The building contract was awarded to a consortium led by the South Korean Samsung Corporation on Thursday.

The Burj Dubai tower will stand 800 metres tall – just 5 metres shy of half a mile – once completed in 2008. That will be a full 350 metres taller that the tallest floored in the world today, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur.

The new tower’s unique, three-sided design will ascend in a series of stages, around a supportive central core and boast a total of 160 floors, accessible via a series of double-decker elevators. Its shape will be integral to its impressive size. The design is intended to reduce the impact of wind and to reduce the need for a stronger core – allowing for more space – as it ascends.

“It’s almost like a series of buildings stuck together,” says Mohsen Zikri, a director at UK engineering consultants Arup. “As you go up you need less and less lifts and less core.”

More here.

Build roads that seem dangerous, and they’ll be safer

Tom McNichol writes in Wired:

Hans Monderman is a traffic engineer who hates traffic signs. Oh, he can put up with the well-placed speed limit placard or a dangerous curve warning on a major highway, but Monderman considers most signs to be not only annoying but downright dangerous. To him, they are an admission of failure, a sign – literally – that a road designer somewhere hasn’t done his job. “The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there’s a problem with a road, they always try to add something,” Monderman says. “To my mind, it’s much better to remove things.”

Monderman is one of the leaders of a new breed of traffic engineer – equal parts urban designer, social scientist, civil engineer, and psychologist. The approach is radically counterintuitive: Build roads that seem dangerous, and they’ll be safer.

More here.

Google Is Adding Major Libraries to Its Database

From the New York Times:

Google, the operator of the world’s most popular Internet search service, announced today that it had entered into agreements with some of the nation’s leading research libraries and Oxford University to begin converting their holdings into digital files that would be freely searchable over the Web.

It may be only a step on a long road toward the long-predicted global virtual library. But the collaboration of Google and research institutions that also include Harvard, the University of Michigan, Stanford and the New York Public Library is a major stride in an ambitious Internet effort by various parties. The goal is to expand the Web beyond its current valuable, if eclectic, body of material and create a digital card catalog and searchable library for the world’s books, scholarly papers and special collections.

More here.

The Remarkable Life of William Beebe

From a review by Cornelia Dean of The Remarkable Life of William Beebe, Explorer and Naturalist, by Carol Grant Gould, in the New York Times:

At a time when it was necessary to do something celebrated to be a celebrity, William Beebe was as famous as Lindbergh.

By the 1920’s, his zoological exploits in Indonesia, China and Latin America had brought him international acclaim. His books, two dozen of them, were big best sellers. Millions gathered at their radios in 1932 to hear his live broadcast from a bathysphere on the ocean bottom off Bermuda. He even made an offstage appearance in the play “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” (He sends its irascible protagonist an octopus.)

Today, though, hardly anyone has heard of him, and that is reason enough to be glad to see this new biography by Ms. Gould. But Beebe is also important because of his place in the history of science. Perhaps more than anyone else, he bridged the gap between the gentlemanly naturalists of the Victorian Age and the reductionist biology we know today.

More here.

A fight over the work and legacy of Bruno Schulz

From the new issue of The Boston Review, the discovery of long lost frescoes by the late author and artist Bruno Schulz and their subsequent relocation to Yad Vashem has ignited much soul searching and debate on Polishness and Poland’s relationship to Jewry.

“Since the partition of Bruno Schulz’s murals, public opinion in both Poland and Ukraine has raged against what is generally perceived as the theft of national treasures. But for Poles in particular, Yad Vashem’s actions carry a weighty significance. They suggest that dying because one is a Jew negates the relevance of having lived largely as a Pole—and, harsher still, that Jewishness and Polishness have been deemed fundamentally irreconcilable. In response to mounting international outrage, Yad Vashem posted a public statement on its Web site—one of very few official comments on the incident—asserting a ‘moral right’ to Schulz’s work. The confrontational final sentence addresses Poland directly: ‘Yad Vashem is of the opinion that if Poland feels that they have an interest in assets that they see as their own, a discussion can be initiated regarding assets—cultural and other—which are part of the Jewish legacy in general and the Holocaust-era in particular, and are spread throughout Poland.’

This closing resonates less with ‘moral right’ than with an unsettling attitude of you-took-ours, we-take-yours, and no one in Poland really knows what to make of it. Among the Polish intelligentsia, there is clear skepticism of Ukraine’s announcement that Schulz’s murals are a gift-after-the-fact, and there is open resentment of the implication—not very well masked by Yad Vashem’s position on Schulz—that Poles were complicit in the deaths of their Jewish neighbors and have forfeited their right to the Jewish aspect of their national heritage.

In Poland, they love Bruno Schulz. They want him back.”

(Here’s the statement from Yad Vashem on the dispute, and here a letter from a number of prominent scholars on the matter.)

The Indian debate on secularism

The role of religion in society and the question of securalism has been fiercely debated for well over a decade in many societies.  The recent election in the US and the rise of Islamism have drawn most of the attention.  It seems to me that one of the most sustained debates on the question is found in India. More than a decade after the saffron tide led by BJP emerged as a national, anti-secular force to be reckoned with in India, the country still grapples with the issue.  Here’s an old but thoughtful piece from The Hindu on the crisis of secularism in India.

“WE NEED to ask some hard questions to understand why the current form of secularism has apparently failed. There have been two forms of Congress secularism — the Gandhian version, which believed Hinduism was tolerant, and the Nehruvian version which added that whatever the characteristics of the various religions may have been, it did not matter because economic development and scientific culture would provide a sufficient basis for secular tolerance. The Gandhian faith in Hinduism’s tolerance is shared by almost all intellectuals today; the Nehruvian faith is still held by the Left. Both are wrong.”

Frankfurt on Love

“[Harry] Frankfurt generates concern for the topic of love by asking, how should we live our lives?  Frankfurt does not mean this to be a moral question.  Morality provides, he writes, ‘at most only a severely limited and insufficient answer to the question of how a person should live’.  Moral ideals are not overriding.  Rather we should live our lives by understanding ‘what it is that we . . .  really care about,’ and ideally by being decisive and confident about what we really care about .  Love, in particular, is an especially important form of caring.  Love, Frankfurt claims, ‘is the creator both of inherent or terminal value and of importance’.”

From a review of Harry Frankfurt’s The Reasons of Love.  (via

The Soul of Secularism and Religion in Public Life

After recently getting into an argument about the pros and cons of Ali Shariati, the Iranian Muslim modernizer who died in 1977 at the hands of the SAVAK, I came across this paper by Austin Dacey at the Center for Inquiry, which “promote[s] and defend[s] reason, science, and freedom of inquiry in all areas of human endeavor,” on how secularists should engage the matter of religion in public life.

“American secularism has reached an impasse. In a post-theocratic but religious society, the project of ‘privatizing’ conscience can lead nowhere but into strategic blunders and intellectual incoherence. With its ambiguity between the personal, the sectarian, the subjective, and the non-governmental, the concept of privacy is too crude a tool to properly frame secularist arguments. By relegating conscience to the world of subjectivity, the philosophy of privacy insulates it from due public scrutiny. If they want to resist the social agenda of theological conservatism, liberals will have to do better than asking the devout to please refrain from speaking their minds. Better to look to the philosophy of our church-state fathers, and the democratic hopefuls of Islam. They remind us that for secularism to hold sway in a religious society, it has no choice but to engage with the substance of conscience.”

Flavorpill: Quentin Tarantino at MoMA

Via Flavorpill (the weekly mailer of cultural events listings for which 3quarks’ Andrew Maerkle writes – better subscribe) comes this potentially memorable event:

“A Conversation w/ the Weinsteins and Quentin Tarantino w/ Reservoir Dogs
when: Thur 12.16 (7:30pm)
where: Roy and Niuta Titus Theaters, MoMA (11 W 53rd St, 212.708.9400)
price: $10
Blowhards though they three may be, it would be foolhardy to dismiss entirely the tremendous impact Miramax founders Harvey and Bob Weinstein and director Quentin Tarantino have had on independent film. To herald the studio’s silver anniversary, the brothers and their golden boy gather to discuss the swath they cut, and to screen clips from Miramax’s finest fare, including the whole of Reservoir Dogs Tarantino’s first, and arguably his best. Ostensibly about a bank robbery gone awry, the film single-handedly wrenched indie movies off the analyst’s couch, launching a postmodernist genre marked by nonsequential editing and blatant references to other films. Expect plenty of bluster but also the goods to back it up.”

Tris McCall Pop Music Abstract 2004

Musician, critic and polymath Tris McCall’s annual review of pop singles is now available. Two samples:

Franz Ferdinand — “This Fire”
Just a big, dumb rock song. Franz Ferdinand wins points from brainy types because they’re fey and vaguely identifiable as college students, but when you take the album and shake it, the only idea that falls out is that the frontman would like to have sex with his male acquaintances. Yeah, yeah, I hear that from everybody these days. The band you are looking for is Interpol.

Nas — “Bridging The Gap”
It is tough to stay hardcore when all you rhyme about is your mommy and daddy. But there are many who have followed this story from its first days at the BBQ in Queensbridge, and for us, the Jones family saga is our Michener novel in street verse. “Dance”, from God’s Son, might have been a little extreme for those harboring excessive Oedipal fear. Instead of killing his pops, though, Nasir Jones has giftwrapped a ridiculously hot track for him to sing and blow on — an act of generosity exceptional even for rap’s biggest-hearted star. There are probably cynics out there who can remain unmoved when Nas breaks rhythm to holler “I love you, pops!” over his father’s life story. But that’s not me.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Evolution is a theory, not a fact…

“Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.” This is the text on stickers that the board of education has ordered placed on high school biology textbooks in Atlanta. Gregg Easterbrook responds in The New Rebublic:

Speaking as someone who is on record as thinking it’s good for students to debate these topics–here is a 2000 Wall Street Journal article by yours truly saying that students should be taught a range of views regarding the origin of life, then encouraged to argue them through–the Cobb County sticker nevertheless makes me wince, and not just because I don’t like the modern fad for disclaimers. What makes me wince is that Darwin’s theory has nothing to do with “the origin of living things.” The wording of the ridiculous disclaimer shows that the Cobb County Board of Education has no idea what it is talking about.

It is not even clear to me what is meant by “fact” on the sticker. Is it a fact that the Earth is round, or a (very successful) theory? The text of the sticker is so confused that (as Wolfgang Pauli would have said) it is not even wrong.

There’s more here.

Plastic eye mimics octopus vision

A lens resembling an octopus eye has been created by US researchers. The sphere consists of hundreds of thousands of layers of plastic and could revolutionize cameras, telescopes and spectacles.

Traditional glass lenses use a curved surface to focus incoming light towards a central point. The stronger the lens, the more curved its surface must be and therefore the thicker and heavier it is. In nature, eyes avoid this problem by using materials whose density varies in a certain way.

More here in Nature.

Plath, Hughes, and Ariel (Again)

“There’s a good case to be made that Hughes’ version of Ariel is actually superior to Plath’s—and that Plath herself might have agreed,” writes Meghan O’Rourke of Slate in “Ariel Redux.” The new Ariel: The Restored Edition, is, in fact, a facsimile of Plath’s manuscript with a printed version of the text reinstating her original selection and arrangement of the poems. (Hughes added 12 new poems written later and subtracted 12 from Plath’s own arrangement.) This reads more like a supplement and/or alternate to, rather than a supplanting of, the old Ariel. Either way, it’s always good to have more information, although the “new” poems, it should be noted, are also available in the Collected Poems.

Hughes did a good job of editing Plath, but that does not explain why he thought he was entitled to do so. This new round in the Plath-Hughes debate seems to leave out some essential questions: whether any good editor would have fought to bring out the best in Plath, and whether it is ever acceptable to make fundamental changes to the posthumous work of a major writer, since they’re not around to OK the final results. Then there is another question on top of that one that has to do with the importance of art over life or vice versa. The main reason why a husband ought not to edit a book of poems by his wife is that a husband’s job is not to make his wife better but happier. Granted that in Plath’s case it was far too late for the latter, Hughes fundamentally confused the two things, and the conceptions of improving and overruling Plath cannot be separated in this case, anymore than Hughes’ fastidious editing can be separated from his often condescending introductions to her work.

Review of The Review Review

My friend and fellow 3Quarkser Morgan Meis keeps an open notebook of his aesthetic ideas at his personal web log, Idle Chatter. Over a series of posts he has been developing an intriguing idea he calls “neosincerity.” If I had to sum it up in one sentence, I would say that neosincerity involves the portrayal of heartfelt emotion in works of art, film, literature, etc., which does not avoid irony but rather works through it and goes beyond it. It is unafraid of feelings but presents them in a complicated way. Off the top of my head, I can think of no better example of neosincerity than the films of Wes Anderson, where you might get choked up and laugh at something ridiculous all at the same time. If one accepts the novelty and beauty of Anderson’s films – which I certainly do – then it’s a worthy goal of criticism to figure out why they work and what is new about them.

Neosincerity is not unselfconscious, but it is also not intimidated by snarkiness and does not ultimately resort to mere irony to cover its tracks. The notion fits in with Morgan’s academic work on Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, which sought out a philosophy to account for popular culture.

His most recent post involves the film Sideways and offers a critique of David Denby:

“I have become more and more enthused with the idea of writing a new kind of review. It is called, the Review of the Review, Review. There is something about reviewing the review that brings you back around to the work of art you wanted to talk about in the first place, but through a lens that has already reflected once. It is like achieving immediacy through the over-application of too many layers of mediation.”

Read the whole post here.

Salman Rushdie in India

From the Calcutta Telegraph:

SalmanThe shadow has lifted over Salman Rushdie. He doesn’t want police protection. He hates the pilot car’s blaring siren. He is at ease in public, chatting with readers and signing autographs. He strides through north Calcutta’s narrowest bylanes, climbs up the most precarious of staircases to visit one of the city’s oldest bookstores.

Rushdie has lived through a fatwa, 10 years in exile with a heavy price hanging over his head. At 57, he seems comfortable in his own skin…

With Shalimar the Clown hitting the shelves later this year, fans disappointed by the deprivation have something to look forward to. And the man who pens at least 600 words everyday (“even on bad days, and believe me, there are so many”) isn’t likely to slow down soon. To him, “man is a storytelling animal”, and the novel is far from dead.

More here.