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


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.

“ARISTOTLE ” (The Knowledge Web)

“With the knowledge web, humanity’s accumulated store of information will become more accessible, more manageable, and more useful. Anyone who wants to learn will be able to find the best and the most meaningful explanations of what they want to know. Anyone with something to teach will have a way to reach those who what to learn. Teachers will move beyond their present role as dispensers of information and become guides, mentors, facilitators, and authors. The knowledge web will make us all smarter. The knowledge web is an idea whose time has come.” Article here at by Danny Hillis (of Thinking Machine Corporation–massively parallel computing–fame). Also, responses by Douglas Rushkoff, Marc D. Hauser, Stewart Brand, Jim O’Donnell, Jaron Lanier, Bruce Sterling, Roger Schank, George Dyson, Howard Gardner, Seymour Papert, Freeman Dyson, Esther Dyson, Kai Krause, and Pamela McCorduck.

Celluloid Skyline: An exploration of two cities, both called “New York”

This is a gorgeous site. “Based on the award-winning book by the architect James Sanders, the Celluloid Skyline website is a multimedia exploration of cities, film, and architecture. It is based on the premise that the mythic city of “movie New York,” which has entertained and excited audiences around the world for generations, is also something more: an extraordinary urban resource, with profound lessons about the design and use of cities.” Thanks to Marko Ahtisaari for pointing it out.

A funny thing happened on the way to disbelief

“Time magazine spurred public debate 40 years ago with a startling question on its cover: ‘Is God Dead?’ Some estimate that half the world’s population was then nominally atheist. And many in the West were predicting that scientific progress would eliminate religious belief altogether by the next century. The tide has dramatically turned, however, and Alistar McGrath – a theologian at Oxford University who was once in that camp – charts the shift in currents of thought in The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World.” More here from the Christian Science Monitor.

And if we have to die/Does it really matter?*

“Why are so many national anthems so bad? Why is it that the music only rarely reflects the culture of the country? How much better it would be if there was a salsa number for Cuba, a tango for Argentina, a Verdi aria for Italy, a Bob Marley song for Jamaica and a James Brown funk tune for America… even the recent anthems of the post-colonial nations are mostly pompous dirges. Ironically, a 19th-century European flavour was seen as having the correct seriousness for a new country.” Full story here in The Telegraph.

* Lines from the National Anthem of the Republic of Congo.

Million Dollar Questions

In 2000, the Clay Mathematics Institute offered a prize of $1,000,000 for each of seven unsolved problems in math. Among these are the P vs. NP problem, the Poincare Conjecture, Yang-Mills Theory, and the Riemann Hypothesis.

Now, in a strange twist (pointed out to me by J.M. Tyree), a reputable mathematician named Louis de Branges, who has previously proved the Bieberbach conjecture, claims to have proved the Riemann Hypothesis, and has posted his proof on the web. But no mathematician will look at the proof to check if it is correct because, de Branges claims, they don’t like him. Here’s the odd story from the London Review of Books.

Sunday, August 8, 2004

Hitchens Alert (yellow)

I just finished watching Texas: America Supersized on TV, which, “is a one-hour documentary written and narrated by the British-born journalist Christopher Hitchens that asks: ‘With a Texan in the White House, are Texan values taking over America?’ Hitchens is always a surprising figure, contrarian and insanely prolific, a left-wing hawk with a wide-ranging mind the size of, well, Texas. He’s also a dapper chap who appears to enjoy the limelight as he drives around the state, buying elephant-leather cowboy boots or riding in a border patrol vessel along the Mexican border, his lank locks flowing behind him in the wind.”

Yes, its true. Hitch’s vanity is on full display here: there are shots of him as the Marlboro Man cowboy, as a Miami Vice detective speeding along the Rio Grande in a border patrol motorboat, as a serious intellectual peering through reading glasses at Larry McMurtry’s collection of books, as a party-boy in a bar. It’s as if he’s modelling various outfits for us. Reminded me of Martin Amis and his teeth.

The show itself keeps posing profound sounding questions like the one in the quote above, and then never answers or even seriously addresses them. In short, it’s terrible and boring, but if you want to see it, it’s on again tomorrow night at midnight on TRIO. Here’s the review at Slate that the quote above is taken from.

Disaster in Darfur

“Darfur is a 150,000-square-mile expanse of desert and savannah, with five or six million inhabitants, spreading out from the fertile slopes of Jebel Marra, the mountainous zone in Sudan’s far west. Remote from the country’s political heartland on the Nile, it is linked to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, by seven hundred miles of dirt road and a single-track railway. Over the last sixteen months a disaster has been unfolding in Darfur, one that is agonizingly familiar to observers of Sudan during the past two decades.” Rest of John Ryle’s essay here in the NY Review of Books.

What Olympic Ideal?

“Everything about the ancient Olympics was darker, rougher, more brutal than its modern counterpart — no matter how much more competitive the modern Games have become since their inception, in 1896, as a tribute to the spirit of gentlemanly amateurism. Ancient Games had their origins as somber celebrations of death.” Daniel Mendelsohn writes here in the NY Times Magazine.

And here Bernard Knox reviews The Ancient Olympics by Nigel Spivey, and Ancient Greek Athletics by Stephen G. Miller, in the NY Times Book Review.

Richard Francis rightly panned

“This book is a testimonial to the fact that sociobiology continues to go against the grain of many behavioral scientists, long after the ideological debates of the previous century have subsided, and at a time when a more measured approach to the contribution of this strain of biological and social theory is plainly available.” Herbert Gintis reviews Why Men Won’t Ask for Directions: The Seductions of Sociobiology by Richard C. Francis here.