Alexis Rockman talks to Neil deGrasse Tyson

Alexis Rockman examines how nature is portrayed. His art is in the collections of the Whitney Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, and London’s Saatchi Collection. He recently completed the mural “Manifest Destiny” for the Brooklyn Museum of Art, which depicts the futurAlexis_1e effects of global warming on Brooklyn. Additionally, he has co-authored several books, including Future Evolution with Peter Ward, and a monograph with essays by Stephen Jay Gould, Jonathon Crary, and David Quammen.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. His latest book, ORIGINS: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution, co-authored with Donald Goldsmith, will be published by W.W. Norton and serve as the companion book to a 4-part miniseries premiering on PBS on September 28, 2004.

Here is their conversation as part of The Seed Salon.


Interrogating Arabs

Israeli “Michael Koubi worked for Shin Bet, Israel’s security service, for 21 years and was its chief interrogator from 1987 to 1993. He interrogated hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including renowned militants such as Sheikh Yassin, the former leader of the Palestinian group Hamas, who was killed in an Israeli attack this year. He claims that intelligence gained in interrogation has been crucial to protecting Israel from terrorism. He tells Michael Bond that, given enough time, he could make almost anyone talk.”

More here from New Scientist.

Amartya Sen on the history of Sino-Indian links

Amartya “The intellectual links between China and India, stretching over two thousand years, have had far-reaching effects on the history of both countries, yet they are hardly remembered today. What little notice they get tends to come from writers interested in religious history, particularly the history of Buddhism, which began its spread from India to China in the first century. In China Buddhism became a powerful force until it was largely displaced by Confucianism and Taoism approximately a thousand years later. But religion is only one part of the much bigger story of Sino-Indian connections during the first millennium. A broader understanding of these relations is greatly needed, not only for us to appreciate more fully the history of a third of the world’s population, but also because the connections between the two countries are important for political and social issues today.”

More here in the New York Review of Books.

Philanthropy Ratings

BuffettWarren Buffett is famous for two things. First, for amassing the second-biggest fortune in the U.S. as one of the most talented investors the world has ever known. Second, for an aversion to spending a dime of that $41 billion on anything but the strictly necessary. That includes declining to provide his kids with fortunes of their own, collecting yachts or racehorses, or giving large chunks of his wealth to worthy causes. Thus it may strike some as the supreme paradox that the man who is one of America’s greatest misers in life will probably become one of its greatest philanthropists in death…

The year’s other billion-dollar-club members include No. 1 givers Bill and Melinda Gates, the world’s largest international donors, who made history this year by giving their estimated $3 billion Microsoft Corp. dividend to their foundation. It’s one of the largest donations in history by a living donor. To put it into perspective, that one gift is three times bigger than the amount that America’s richest family, the descendants of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. founder Sam Walton, has given during their entire lifetimes, according to our ranking.”

Special Report on philanthropy here in BusinessWeek.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Romare Bearden exhibitions in New York

Bearden_pic_1This weekend I managed to make it to the Whitney to see a few exhibits, including the Romare Bearden  show.  There’s a concurrent one at the Met, which is next on my aesthetic agenda.  I recommend the one at the Whitney highly.  Its only flaw may be that it’s so sweeping that it streches the limits of focus and concentration on the individual pieces.  But it does present a remarkable image of artistic evolution against the backdrop of the Civil Rights’ struggles and how one member of the Harlem Renaissance engaged it through his work. 

Arthur Danto has this to say in a review of the Whitney show:

“Bearden abruptly became Bearden around 1964–a miraculous year for him as an artist, when he broke through into a mode of representation distinctively his own and entered the calm waters of a marvelously personal style that was never again challenged, from without or within. It enabled him, over the remaining twenty-four years of his life, to evoke, in his words, ‘a world through art in which the validity of my Negro experience could live and make its own logic.’ By ‘validity,’ Bearden meant, I think, that his experience as an African-American was not ruled out as a ‘subject of the artist,’ to use an expression that was current in Abstract Expressionist discourse. And by ‘its own logic,’ he meant that the experience would determine the form through which it was expressed. The breakthrough, however, has to be understood through the collusion of two moments, one art-historical and the other political.”

You can see it in the exhibition. (Also check out Adam Shatz’s interview with Branford Marsalis on the influence of Bearden on jazz.)

On the simplest, visceral level, wow, what one can do with collages!

An Important Question

I would like to direct your attention to a post on my friend, and fellow 3quarker Josh Tyree’s, column at Old Town Review, American Notes for General Circulation. I think it is an important piece of writing. It attempts to stake out a position that I would, personally, be honored to associate myself with. Probably I am not intellectually careful or honest enough to do the position justice but Mr. Tyree is.

Tyree is trying to find a way to be anti-war without repeating the failures of the New Left during Vietnam.

It has become clear to me and becomes clearer with every passing moment that serious thinking about Vietnam is the most important thing in the world right now. The trick is that such thinking is more complicated than one might assume. The Hard Left had the moral clarity to be against the Vietnam War. But they got almost everything else about Vietnam wrong. I’m currently reading Mary McCarthy’s book Hanoi and Susan Sontag’s A Trip to Hanoi, which she has since renounced [correction: this is too strong, she stands behind the book but has since decided that third world communism failed in most of its promise. 12/2/04]. Parts of a very interesting exchange between Diana Trilling and McCarthy from the New York Review of Books in 1968 are published in McCarthy’s Hanoi. It is clear from these works that we’ve been through all this before. And it is clear that it is very difficult to tread the path that Tyree is talking about.

But I think he is absolutely right that we have to try.

Centenary of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

This year marks the centenary of Max Weber’s landmark The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, one of the most influential books ever written in the social sciences.  The book was written as a substantive and methodological response to Karl Marx, as well as an attempt to follow in Marx’s line.  The shift from the acquisition of what is needed to maintain a historically determined standard of living to the ever more accumulation of wealth in the form of the medium of exchange, money, was, as Marx observed, world-historical.  This shift perhaps more than any other has made the modern world, and how this core element of capitalism came into being and why in England is among the most explored in economic history.  Weber’s answer was that Protestant ethic had a mutually reinforcing “elective affinity” with capitalism.

“The religious valuation of restless, continuous, systematic work in a worldly calling, as the highest means of asceticism, and at the same time the surest and most evident proof of rebirth and genuine faith, must have been the most powerful conceivable lever for the expansion of . . . the spirit of capitalism.”

Needless to say, the claim has been disputed for a century as well.

Weber’s life was no less interesting than his thought, and in the latter are echoes of the former, or so suggests Elizabeth Kolbert in this weeks New Yorker.

“Everyone who is part of the modern capitalist economy—whether he’s employed flipping burgers, writing code, or putting out a weekly magazine—has at one point or another considered that his efforts had an ascetic cast. We all accept the notion that our jobs ought to be more than just a way to sustain ourselves and acknowledge working to be our duty. But we don’t quite understand why this is the case. Post-nervous breakdown, Weber appears to have felt with peculiar intensity both the compulsion to labor and its fundamental motivelessness. And, if he didn’t actually come up with a resolution to the problem (either a good reason to work or a way to stop doing so), he did invent in ‘The Protestant Ethic’ a myth to explain his, and our, befuddlement.”

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Back from Karachi

After a six week belated-honeymoon of sorts, during which my wife Margit and I used Karachi as a base from which to launch several short excursions including a 5-day trip to Sri Lanka, I have just returned to New York City. This trip to the city where I was born and grew up felt different to me than others. It was the first time that my wife, who is Italian, had ever been out of the first world, and my experience of Karachi was colored by her presence. For the first time, I experienced the various restrictions that women contend with in that increasingly conservative society. In Pakistan’s sexually repressive culture, a Western woman (the few that are there) is simultaneously the object of hostility and desperate lust, something which made it uncomfortable to walk around in a marketplace or on the beach, and which meant that I had to make sure I was never more than a few feet from my wife, lest she be molested in some way. (As it was, nothing more serious than some catcalls and the everpresent unrelenting stares took place.)

Karachi is a more and more culturally arid place, starved for entertainment, increasingly religious, intolerant, lawless, and intellectually bankrupt. There is a small self-congratulatory elite which prides itself on its worldly sophistication at cocktail parties where smuggled Scotch greases the endless mutual admiration of the rich, and there is ecstasy and cocaine available for the raves that the children of this elite throw behind heavily guarded walls (something declaimed with great pride to me several times as proof of Karachi’s modernity and refinement), but there is little sustained intellectual activity of any sort, nor a single institution of higher learning of a quality which could anchor such activity. On a given day, it is highly unlikely that there is live music to be heard anywhere, or a poetry reading, or a theater performance, or anything else for that matter (in a city of over 14 million souls!). Once in a while these things do happen, but rarely enough that the only entertainment available most of the time is dining out, or watching the proliferating channels on cable TV (the local ones being dominated by third rate sitcoms or religious programs and other unadulterated junk).

For the first time, I had the depressing feeling that I no longer belong in Karachi. It used to be my home, but we have gone separate ways. Until a few years ago, I still entertained the dream of returning to live there for a while, but unless I grow a beard and undergo a conversion to being a mullah, that is now no longer possible for me. Of all the places I have ever been in my life, the one I would least like to live in is Saudi Arabia, a place characterized entirely by violent repression of almost every playful human instinct, and by shocking hypocrisy, and Pakistan is becoming more and more like that than the culturally diverse, tolerant, and progressive society of my youth.

If I manage to collect my thoughts a bit, I may attempt to compose a longer essay about Karachi and what has happened to it in the near future. Meanwhile, Ethan Casey, an American journalist, has written a book about travelling and teaching in Pakistan, Alive and Well in Pakistan. Here’s an excerpt from a review by Alex Spillius in The Telegraph:

The book starts slowly, recording his visits in the mid-1990s to Kashmir and Pakistan, when he was a fresh freelance foreign correspondent motivated to visit the area by an obsession with VS Naipaul, who travelled there extensively. His work finds itself when Casey, through the kindness of a contact, gains a temporary membership at the Gymkhana Club in Lahore, where he plays tennis with the elite, makes friends and loses 20lb.

Over post-match lemonade and tea, he explores this beguiling, confused country through its amateur tennis hands. They discuss the comparative benefits of working and living in the United States, of their culture versus his.

They discuss the dangers but merits of Islamic politics and the art of the backhand. Most importantly, they become his friends, as do his college students, who end their course with Casey with their eyes opened and their minds broadened. The author’s real journey is a search for common humanity.

Read more here.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Google scholar (beta), from the guys that brought you Google

Via Brad DeLong: for many of us for whom Google happens to be one of those things we can’t live without, all of its innovations (betas) are anticipated and watched closely.  Now there’s Google Scholar (beta), which is what it sounds like.

“Google Scholar enables you to search specifically for scholarly literature, including peer-reviewed papers, theses, books, preprints, abstracts and technical reports from all broad areas of research. Use Google Scholar to find articles from a wide variety of academic publishers, professional societies, preprint repositories and universities, as well as scholarly articles available across the web.”

Of course, you need to have access to Ingenta, JSTOR, etc., in order to actually get many of the articles, but still a useful tool.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

The Clerkenwell Tales

“The story opens in 1399 at the House of Mary, a convent in Clerkenwell, London. After a brief illness, a young nun named Clarice has begun describing strange and violent visions. The prioress suspects it’s all a stunt — just what she might expect from this scandalous girl who was conceived in the tunnels beneath the convent.”

From Ron Charles’ review of Peter Ackroyd’s The Clerkenwell Tales at The Christian Science Monitor (via Powell’s Review-a-Day.)

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Tamil Refugee climbing the British charts

Mia_pic_1This week’s New Yorker has a piece on Maya Arulpragasam (aka M.I.A.), the Sri Lankan Tamil Londoner, whose singles have been rising on the British charts. 

“[M]ost of what you find in the world-music section tends toward the gentle, melodious, and uplifting, as if the world were that way.  The music of Maya Arulpragasam, a twenty-seven-year-old Sri Lankan Tamil who moved to England when she was nine and performs under the name M.I.A., is not like that. Anyone who has trolled through bins on Canal Street for videos of kung-fu movies or reggae mix tapes will recognize M.I.A.’s first single, ‘Galang’ (2003), as an example of actual, on-the-ground world culture: synthetic, cheap, colorful, staticky with power. The beat is shuffling and abrasive, made from what sounds like the by-products of some other, more polite song. It most resembles Jamaican dancehall patterns, but with a twist. Alongside the beat runs a distressed motif that may have been a melody before it was Xeroxed fifteen times. The lyrics combine the exhortations of dancehall (‘London calling and speak the slang now, boys say wa, go on girls say wa wa’), the embattled war mentality of American hip-hop . . .”

The article mentioned her song “Sunshowers” which took a melody from one of my recent favorites, “Sunshower” by Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band.  So I went in search and found it on her website.  Pretty damn good; check it and the rest out.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Reactions to The God Gene

It seems that Dean Hamer has one-upped Richard Dawkins on the god-meme with an argument for a god-gene in his book The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired Into Our Genes.

“‘We think that all human beings have an innate capacity for spirituality and that that desire to reach out beyond oneself, which is at the heart of spirituality, is part of the human makeup,’ Hamer, 53, said in an interview at his Northwest Washington townhouse. ‘The research suggests some people have a bit more of that capacity than others, but it’s present to some degree in everybody.’

. . .

What he found was that the brain chemicals associated with anxiety and other emotions, including joy and sadness, appeared to be in play in the deep meditative states of Zen practitioners and the prayerful repose of Roman Catholic nuns — not to mention the mystical trances brought on by users of peyote and other mind-altering drugs.

At least one gene, which goes by the name VMAT2, controls the flow to the brain of chemicals that play a key role in emotions and consciousness. This is the ‘God gene’ of the book’s title, and Hamer acknowledges that it’s a misnomer. There probably are dozens or hundreds more genes, yet to be identified, involved in the universal propensity for transcendence. . .”

Here is an interview with Hamer, and some responses from chruches here and here.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Clash

Two Things:

1) It is very difficult to write well about art. It is almost impossible to write anything interesting about music, popular music included. Sasha Frere-Jones at the New Yorker has been building an impressive resume, though, of doing exactly that. It is to be commended.

2) Frere-Jones writing about the eponymous track from London Calling. “If you can listen to it without getting a chilly burst of immortality, there is a layer between you and the world.” Yep, yep indeed.

read the whole review here.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Yasir Arafat, 1929-2004

Yasir Arafat’s death has predictably fueled a plethora of discussions all over the Internet.  Evaluations of his life, mine included below, have commenced. 

Mathew Yglesias’s take, for example:

“It’s rare that an individual achieves truly world-historical significance, but Yasser Arafat, dead today at the ripe old age of 75 was such a man. He didn’t single-handedly transform the cause of Palestinian nationalism from a minor element of a regional struggle between Israel and its neighbors into a movement of massive global significance, but he came a lot closer to doing it single-handedly than one would think possible.”

I’m not sure about that.  It seems to me anyway that Palestinian hopes of a defeat of Israel by Arab states united by a pan-Arab nationalism had begun to decline by the time of the Six-Day War.  Moreover, I think that the zeitgeist of the moment (post-Algeria, Vietnam, Guevara) inspired the model (or properly, fetish) of guerrilla war for the Palestinians.

What Arafat did was shape the course of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination, and not always in the best of directions.  Even in guerrilla war, Arafat’s failures were evident from the get-go.  Who can remember the head of the South Vietnamese NLF, arguably the most successful guerrilla movement in history?  Secrecy and the sense that the war is waged against a people was probably integral to the success of the NLF.  By contrast, Arafat was on the face of every news magazine from the inception of the PLO.  I could be wrong, but I think that there is as much a chance that the cult-of-personality of Arafat has done as much ill for the Palestinians as it got them on the map.  Don’t get me wrong; I think that the desire of a people who rightly felt themselves ignored to have a face attached to their cause was intense and understandable, though a Gandhi-King strategy would’ve served them better. 

Certainly, what Arafat began opened a Pandora’s Box (though, if truth be told, I’m sure that many felt that the tactics had served Irgun and the Stern Gang well).  By the late 1970s and early 1980s, PFLP and DFLP attacks could only force Israel’s hand, and not in the direction that they hoped. 

But he did give the Palestinians a face, and now is their chance for something different.

Hippopotomus, the Whales’ first cousin

Oxford_rdawkins“Godless fellow that he is, and loudly proclaims himself to be, Richard Dawkins is not obvious pilgrim material; but The Ancestor’s Tale is a pilgrimage. Dawkins’s subject here is the history of life, how it evolved from the first chemical twitches – deep beneath the surface of a young planet, in the fissures of scalding rocks – all the way up to beings capable of understanding the process. But in telling the story from beginning to end, it is easy to fall into a kind of Whig Darwinism, and to speak as if evolution has a direction.  …

The cuteness of the Chaucerian conceit grates slightly. The great advantage is that you never lose sight of the fact that it is our family tree we are discussing. It’s easy enough to assent to the proposition that we are descended from primeval bacteria, but harder to feel any kinship with snakes or fish, let alone fungi. No other book I have read has given me such a dizzyingly immediate sense of the vastness and strangeness of the changes brought about by evolution over the eons, or how intimately all life is bound together – far more intimately than we could have conceived a few years ago.

Though The Ancestor’s Tale looks at things from the perspective of the species, Dawkins hasn’t slackened in his conviction, put forward in The Selfish Gene, that evolution is best understood at the level of the gene. From a gene’s point of view, the seemingly obvious divisions between species evaporate: the same genes may be found in humans, in chimpanzees, in pangolin and skinks. It is possible that the same gene has come down from a concestor to you and a chimp somewhere in west Africa – but that your sibling hasn’t inherited it. This sharing of genes has momentous consequences for our understanding of the history of life: we now find that some creatures are far more closely related than we suspected – the whale, for example, turns out to be first cousin to the hippopotamus. And by measuring the divergence between versions of the same gene in different species, we can estimate how long ago they diverged. “This by Robert Hanks of the Telegraph on Richard Dawkins’ fascinating new opus.

Professor Dawkins is currently touring in “mostly the blue states” (and I quote him) with a fabulously entertaining reading performed in conjuction with his wife, the actress Lalla Ward. You may check the Houghton Mifflin website for tour calender.

For more reviews:

Here Matt Ridley welcomes Richard Dawkins’s genetic pilgrimage.

Here Carl Zimmer of the NY Times reviews The Ancestor’s Tale

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Yusuf Islam awarded peace prize

Yusuf Islam, formerly Cat Stevens, was “awarded the ‘Man for Peace’ prize in Rome at the opening of a meeting of Nobel Peace Prize laureates” for the work of his charity Small Kindness

“Islam is the founder of Small Kindness, a charity to raise money for children and families suffering from poverty and war in the Balkans and Middle East. It also donated money to victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and to the fight against AIDS in South Africa.”

Personally, I have a “. . . but he called for Rushdie’s death! . . .” sort of response. (I still have this reaction to Le Carre and even John Berger on this.  Here’s an old exchange between Le Carre, Rushdie and Hitchens on the affair.)  Yusuf Islam does explain the who Rushdie incident on his website; I’m not persuaded.  You can read his account and reasoning here and here.

Theo Van Gogh’s assassination and aftermath

There are those events that make you think that the crosshairs targeting decency come from all directions.  The shooting of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in Holland for his film on the treatment of Muslim women was depressing enough.  Bombing a Muslim school in response was insane.  (All of this in Holland, of all places.)

(Here’s van Gogh’s film on ifilm.com, for those interested.)

Tuesday, November 9, 2004

A reason to support the electoral college?

While I have my doubts about this, here’s a background and summary of a forthcoming piece in Public Choice on the value of the electoral college (via politicaltheory.info).

“Alan Natapoff recalls, ‘I realized that I was the only person willing to see this problem through to the end.’ The morning in question was back in the late 1970s. Then as now, Natapoff, a physicist, was spending his days doing research at MIT’s Man-Vehicle Laboratory, investigating how the human brain responds to acceleration, weightless floating, and other vexations of contemporary transport. But the problem he was working on so late involved larger and grander issues. He was contemplating the survival of our nation as we know it.

Not long before Natapoff’s epiphany, Congress had teetered on the verge of wrecking the electoral college, an institution that has no equal anywhere in the world. This group of ordinary citizens, elected by all who vote, elects, in turn, the nation’s president and vice president. Though the college still stood, Natapoff worried that sometime soon, well-meaning reformers might try again to destroy it. The only way to prevent such a tragedy, he thought, would be to get people to understand the real but hidden value of our peculiar, roundabout voting procedure. He’d have to dig down to basic principles. He’d have to give them a mathematical explanation of why we need the electoral college.”

There are also in-between possible solutions, allotting electors according to only the number of Representatives a state has in the House and not, as is done, Representatives plus Senators.  In either case, reform is next to impossible, politically anyway.

Local Third World tailors now available on eBay

After a couple of years of thinking that it would be good idea to have the sorts of custom tailoring one can get done in Asia be available over the internet, I’ve come across this. (I only mentioned this to Sughra a few weeks ago.) Yes, it’s happened, through the chaos and miracle that is eBay.

Via Brad DeLong, making light has this post:

You can commission traditional garments from tailor shops in India and Pakistan, via eBay.

Doing this makes use of a polite fiction. You start by going to eBay and typing in a search string like women clothing salwar sari. This puts you in the land of Indian-subcontinent clothing makers. Now, the conceit of eBay is that it sells existing concrete objects; but if these guys sell you a salwar kameez (that is, the traditional Indo-Pakistani pantsuit plus matching dupatta or stole), and you send them the list of measurements they request, out of the kindness of their hearts they’ll throw in all the cutting, sewing, embroidery, etc., required for a complete outfit made to your measure.

I’m all for this. It means you can buy semi-directly from Third World suppliers, instead of having several rounds of importers and wholesalers taking their percentage along the way.

It’s only a matter of time before other garments are available this way.