Insight and Foresight

“So far as the United States seems to be concerned, it is only a slight overstatement to say that Moslems and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Moslem life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world. What we have instead is a series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression.”

If you think that is a fairly accurate description of the US attitude toward the Arab world at the moment, consider that the late Edward W. Said wrote that passage more than twenty-four years ago, here, in The Nation. Said is, of course, inimitable and irreplaceable. Nevertheless, one could not have hoped for a better heir to his courageous erudition, his sharp insight, and his intellectual accessability than Rashid Khalidi. Professor Khalidi is the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies and Director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University, and his new book Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East is reviewed here in Foreign Affairs, and also here in the New York Times.



Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Darfur: we need to pay attention NOW

“The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution last Friday giving the government of Sudan 30 days to comply with its July 3 agreement to put a stop to violence against civilians in Darfur and to allow aid through to the 1.2 million people in refugee camps, or else. Or else what remains to be seen–the watered-down resolution doesn’t specify–but the ghosts of Auschwitz and Rwanda are clearly haunting the concerned nations of the world, military intervention may be on the horizon. (Britain, for one, has already said it would back such an intervention if Sudan doesn’t put an end to the violence in Darfur.) Sudan’s military is openly bracing for that possibility, calling the U.N. resolution a ‘declaration of war on Sudan,’ and the Sudanese government’s actions to date suggest they are more interested in creating the illusion of compliance so they can continue their campaign of genocide. As pressure builds for action, it’s important to step back and consider what an international military intervention in Sudan might require: the results of this exercise might surprise you.” More here from The New Republic.

The Streets and Dizzee Rascal

“Despite having invented the English language and those clever TV shows, Britain hasn’t withstood our cultural colonization any better than the rest of the world. In the eighties and nineties, British m.c.s generally sounded like variants of their American counterparts. Having an adorable accent didn’t disguise the fact that you’d borrowed your style from Rakim, or Run-DMC, or Nas. The debt is finally being erased. The music coming out of Birmingham and London today sounds nothing like American hip-hop. You can’t even call it hip-hop—though it wouldn’t exist without hip-hop.” More here from The New Yorker.

High tech apparel may determine who takes home the gold

“Drug use may be the most prominent controversy surrounding this summer’s Olympic Games in Athens. But the second burning question concerns an entirely legal approach to getting the winning edge: namely, whether or not form-fitting fast-suits made from high-tech fabrics will decide which athletes bring home a medal. These new garments will be most visible in high profile events such as swimming, but rowers and cyclists are sporting them as well. Although to the casual observer the suits might bring to mind costumes for the next Spiderman movie, they are less about good looks and more about their ability to reduce drag and thereby increase speed.” More here from Scientific American.

Fairytales for Adults

inside_perl080604_untitled1“Lee Bontecou has imagination aplenty. At the retrospective of her work that has just arrived at the Museum of Modern Art after a national tour, museumgoers respond gratefully to the ingenuity and wit and complexity of the wall reliefs, drawings, sculptures, and mobiles that she has been doing since the late 1950s. There’s a magnetism to Bontecou’s achievement. Her eerie imagery casts a spell. And yet this mood spinner of an artist lacks the feeling for formal completeness that could turn her imaginary forays into self-contained worlds.” More here from Jed Perl in The New Republic.

Why Cartier-Bresson, The Peintre Manqué, Became Photographer

Hilton Kramer in the New York Observer:

I was glad to see that The New York Times featured its obituary of Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) on the front page. After all, no other photographer of his time lived and worked so long or commanded the admiration of so many artists, critics, editors, museum curators and connoisseurs of photography—not to mention the public at large—and none bore worldwide fame with a more appealing combination of intelligence, authority, insouciance and self-deprecating irony. In high spirits, Henri (as I shall speak of him here) was as amusing as his most amusing pictures, and he was certainly a master of comedy in many of his photographs. Yet what was deepest about both the man and his work was the gravity of his moral candor.

More here.

El Bulli and the Mass Market Food Aesthetic

Some of us have this odd fascination with El Bulli, the over-the-top experimental restuarant in Roses, Spain. Sara Dickerman, one of the smartest food (as cultural anthropology) writers I know, had an insightful take on El Bulli and the new haute cuisine some time ago. It’s still worth a read.

“The form of [El Bulli Chef Ferran] Adrià’s food, for example, echoes that of mass-market snacks. His liquid-filled ravioli are reminiscent of the liquid center of the ’80s phenomenon, Freshen Up gum; the mushroom-gelee “slurps” resemble the suckable packets of yogurt sold in grocery stores today, and his phyllo “pizza” snack, coated in tomato powder and parmesan, seems a step away from a Dorito.”

Randomized Trials of Economic Development Projects

The Poverty Action Lab has deployed a new method of evaluating policies designed to reduce poverty and improve education, among others–learning the lesson from the natural sciences, the PAL uses randomized trials. The results are often fascinating, well if you’re the policy type anyway.

Some of their findings:

Deworming (e.g., of hookworms, round worms and similar parasites which infect more than 25% of the world) is a cheap way of improving education attendance in the Third World.

Village councils in India (panchayats) invest more in infrastructure that is directly relevant the needs of the gender of the council leader.

There remains discrimination against African-American names in job applications. “White names receive 50 percent more callbacks for interviews,” even when qualification and experience are accounted for.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

The pro-war uses of stochastic, context-free grammar–take that Noam Chomsky!

Sometime ago, I came across this, a self-writing, right-wing, pro-war blog.

R. Robot (‘Debasing the Political Discourse @ Superhuman Speed’) is a rhetoric simulator. He shuffles grammatical chunks into into thousands of loathesome new templates. He’s a Perl CGI script, hooked up to a Movable Type engine for good measure — making him the first blogger who is also a computer program (to the best of our knowledge. . . He writes his columns instantly. . . His adjectives and nouns are taken from a Newt Gingrich memo called ‘Language: A Key Mechanism of Control.’ It recommends using words like ‘candid,’ ‘pristine,’ and ‘reform’ for your team’s ideas, and imagery like ‘machine,’ ‘abuse of power,’ and ‘decay’ for the other guy’s. Most of R.’s grammar engrams are lifted from some of the most lovable editorials of the pre-Quagmire era. Those were heady times, when the like of Ann Coulter, Christopher Hitchens, Andrew Sullivan and the late Michael Kelly took fearlessly to their PowerBooks. For those too young to remember, these mighty scribes of ’02 saw themselves as the lone voices warning of a shocking Fifth Column: that is, people who disagreed with landing the U.S.A. in its current predicament. If not for these scribes, an uninformed world never would have seen the Warbot — and we all would have been helpless to stop Al Gore, Harry Belafonte, and Saddam Hussein from teaming up to betray the world.”

Test it out. Enter your name or someone else’s in the field below the control panel, and watch the satisfying slander, er, libel.

Borges: A Life

“Edwin Williamson’s new life of the great writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) is thoroughly engrossing, and fans of the Argentine’s ficciones will want to read it without delay. But like socialist literature of the 1930s, this biography wants to fit unruly human life into a theoretical mold. Throughout these pages, Borges is made to appear a divided man, one who desperately, and until his final years unsuccessfully, yearns for spiritual unity. Williamson discovers polarities everywhere. As a child Borges is torn between admiration for his martial ancestors (symbolized by the sword) and an equal admiration for the romantic violence of raffish knife-fighters and petty criminals (the dagger). As a young man, he is caught between the example of his father, the bookish, philandering would-be artist, and the demands of his controlling mother, whom he never disobeys, no matter how stultifying her attentions, how suffocating her devotion. Worst of all, as an adult, Borges repeatedly desires the love of a good woman or even a bad one, but though his spirit may sometimes be willing, his flesh is apparently always weak: Whether traumatized by memories of an unsuccessful adolescent visit to a prostitute or fearful of offending imperious Mama, he can never, his biographer strongly suggests, actually bring himself to go to bed with anybody.”

More from Michael Dirda’s review in the Washington Post.

Al Yankovic does Bob Dylan

By way of Norman Geras (author of two excellent books, Marx and Human Nature and The Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg), Al Yankovic (of “Eat It” and “O Ricky” fame) has written a song in, er, a tribute-parody to Bob Dylan. It appears on his ablum Poodle Hat. Every line in the song is a palindrome.

Bob by Al Yankovic

Lyrics:

I, man, am regal – a German am I
Never odd or even
If I had a hi-fi
Madam, I’m Adam
Too hot to hoot
No lemons, no melon
Too bad I hid a boot
Lisa Bonet ate no basil
Warsaw was raw
Was it a car or a cat I saw?

Rise to vote, sir
Do geese see God?
“Do nine men interpret?” “Nine men,” I nod
Rats live on no evil star
Won’t lovers revolt now?
Race fast, safe car
Pa’s a sap
Ma is as selfless as I am
May a moody baby doom a yam?

Ah, Satan sees Natasha
No devil lived on
Lonely Tylenol
Not a banana baton
No “x” in “Nixon”
O, stone, be not so
O Geronimo, no minor ego
“Naomi,” I moan
“A Toyota’s a Toyota”
A dog, a panic in a pagoda

Oh no! Don Ho!
Nurse, I spy gypsies – run!
Senile felines
Now I see bees I won
UFO tofu
We panic in a pew
Oozy rat in a sanitary zoo
God! A red nugget! A fat egg under a dog!
Go hang a salami, I’m a lasagna hog

Clash of the Titans

The big story leading into the Olympics is the battle between the Australian swimming god Ian ‘Thorpedo’ Thorpe and the young but highly-rated American Michael Phelps, whose goal as detailed in this profile is to equal Mark Spitz’s take of seven gold medals in 1972. Thorpe is the most famous and adored athlete in Australia, where swimming is widely popular. Famously outspoken, he backed off a bit from his claim that Phelps’ ambition was impossible in the first interviews from Athens today. Incidentally, Ryan McGinley, a downtown New York photographer best known for transposing the Nan Goldin aesthetic to the Vice magazine generation, shot the U.S. swim team for the Times magazine. They are beautiful photographs; the best things I’ve seen by McGinley.

A Collegelands Catechism

I was first taken by Paul Muldoon when I came upon Madoc in college. Not too long ago, the Newshour did an interview with Muldoon after he’d won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. In it there was a brief clip of a multimedia ‘reading’ of Muldoon’s “A Collegelands Catechism”. I looked for it only to find that you had to be a Princeton student to download it . . . but no longer. Enjoy, seriously, look at this virtual “perfomance”..

Is a New Aesthetic Being Born? Fredric Jameson on William Gibson

Fredric Jameson’s piece on William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition in the New Left Review has much to recommend it, though not necessarily its prose. It’s still worth a read.

“[C]yberpunk constitutes a kind of laboratory experiment in which the geographic-cultural light spectrum and bandwidths of the new system are registered. Indeed, an inspection of this literature already provides a first crude inventory of the new world system: the immense role—and manifest in [William] Gibson’s evocations, all the way down to Pattern Recognition itself—of Japan as the monitory semiotic combination of First-World science-and-technology with a properly Third-World population explosion. Russia now also looms large, but above all in the form of its various Mafias (from all the former Republics), which remind us of the anarchy and violent crime, as well as of the conspiratorial networks and jobless futures, that lurk just beneath the surface of capitalism. . . Europe’s image ambiguity—a kind of elegant museum or tourist playground which is also an evolutionary and economic dead end—is instructive . . . But it is by way of its style that we can best measure the new literature on some kind of time-continuum; and here we may finally return to the distinctiveness of Pattern Recognition, where this style has reached a kind of classical perfection.”

Fredric Jameson’s Reflections on William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition: a contemporary dialectic of style, as the Verne of cyberspace turns to the branded present and its nauseas

Monday, August 9, 2004

Tony Blair, Creationist?

Recently, the evolution/creationism debate has taken a turn. Proponents of intelligent design have launched the best offensive (at least on the political and public relations front, if not necessarily in the scientific arena) seen to date. Periodic debates have become almost daily ones. Nancy Pearcey, one proponent of intelligent design at the Center for Science and Culture, which despite its name, aims to “challeng[e] various aspects of neo-Darwinian theory”, has concisely phrased the hopes of the ID project.

“By uncovering evidence that natural phenomena are best accounted for by Intelligence, Mind, and Purpose, the theory of Intelligent Design reconnects religion to the realm of public knowledge. . . Only when we are willing to restore Christianity to the status of genuine knowledge will we be able to effectively engage the ‘cognitive war’ that is at the root of today’s culture war.”

(See the discussion on The Panda’s Thumb, a virtual pub of the University of Ediacara, where patrons gather to discuss evolutionary theory and critique the claims of the antievolution movement.)

We at 3QD first noticed the turn in the debate a few years ago on the pages of the Boston Review, where H. Allen Orr first reviewed Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, and shortly there afterwards, William Dembski’s, No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased without Intelligence. (See the exchanges that followed here, here, and here.)

Taking an intermittent look at the debate is often startling. Richard Dawkins (alongside Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries) has recently accused Tony Blair (Labour PM Tony Blair) of effectively supporting the teaching of intelligent design.

Of interest to some on these issues may also be Dawkins comments here and here on science’s and religion’s roles in both explanation and ethics.