September 10, 2009
The Correspondent-Fixer Dialectic
George Packer on the death of Sultan Munadi: "It's Always the Fixer Who Dies."
September 2, 2009
The Sense Of America
The NYT reconfigured their Baghdad Bureau blog to make At War, adding reports from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere as well as Iraq. This post by Atheer Kakan, an NYT translator and journalist in Iraq who (along with his family) was recently allowed to emigrate to the US as a political refugee, is downright astonishing: emotional and observant, sentimental and clear-eyed all at once:
My family was starving, so the first thing we did after we sat down was to bring them some food. I went to a fast-food shop and I ordered lots of American food. There was something with melting cheese. I think it was Mexican. And lots of French fries. The cashier girl was asking me if I wanted things, and I was approving everything she said.
Eventually I had lots of food to carry to my family, who were desperately waiting for me. I put down the food and we started eating, and I looked to my children, who seemed to be enjoying their time, and I released another breath as I felt that I was doing the right thing for all of us. It wasn’t the food that I really enjoyed; it was the sense of America that food was carrying.
The airport was so busy; it looked like there was some school trip happening because there were some mothers saying goodbye to their kids and giving them some instructions about what to do and what not to do.
The teenage girls looked impatient and were mocking everything the mothers were saying. I imagined my son Abdullah and my daughter Malak doing the same thing in the future, and my heart was shaking as I laughed at the idea of how I would look like at that time.
A fat boy was sitting behind us. He seemed curiously eager to understand our language, but when he failed he was looking at us cautiously. His looks didn’t insult me, not because he is a kid but because it is time for me to taste the meaning of peace. I lay back my head and relaxed my eyes.
I hope Atheer is writing a book.
[For more on the poorly-rewarded heroism of Iraqi translators, see George Packer's "Betrayed" (which, also astonishingly, was written two and a half years ago).]
After the press conference we were locked inside the room for a while. It was very tense.
While we were inside the Prime Minister’s bodyguards tried to delete or confiscate film of the incident from the cameramen, but the journalists were all switching tapes quickly, like magicians, because no one wanted to lose such shots.
Later they let us all go, we do not know why. They just told us: “You can go, no one will try to delete your tapes.”
One of Mr. Maliki’s bodyguards called us ugly names because they thought that we were participating in a conspiracy, that we had all known about what was going to happen.
“We cooperated with you, and you betrayed us. You should have stopped him,” he said. Another guard told me me: “You are all Baathists.” He then raised his finger and said, “You are not allowed to say anything” in a very scary way.
Another tried to beat me after I objected because he was pushing an Iraqi journalist. I told him, “Why are you doing that? He is just a journalist.” He started calling us “sons of bitches” and other dirty names.
He also wrote a lovely essay about the historical imagination in Iraq. Kakan has a Sunni background, but briefly worked for the newspaper of a Shiite political party after the fall of Saddam:
We had many differences, discussions and arguments at that time. One of the most noticeable things about them, that I have never forgotten, was the influence of history on those who came back home after decades of marginalization, pursuit and execution.
Now that they were victorious and it was time for them to exercise the influence that they had been prevented from doing before, the one historical fact they kept in front of their eyes was that they would not let history repeat itself and let what happened after the revolution of 1920 against the British Empire happen again.
Then, their analysis was, that because the Shiites refused to deal, the British who negotiated with the Sunni minority and installed it in power, commencing nearly a century of Sunni dominance.
That historical ‘mistake’ of 1920 wasn’t just the obsession of Dawa. Many Shiites say that after this time they were marginalized and never treated fairly as a majority. Even now this historical fear still affects many of their decisions. They argue “we cannot neglect the political process, so that no one will ever turn around and take control again, after all the blood that we sacrificed.”
After a year I left and I carried with me all the memories about how the Shiites have suffered for centuries, and how history has influenced their positions and attitudes in the present time.
Iraqis adore history. You can hardly find an Iraqi who does not talk about the past in every conversation. Sometimes it prevents them from dealing with the present and planning for the future.
This what historians and sociologists say about Iraqis - they love history so much, to the level that they live in it.
August 6, 2009
Shadows of Shenzen's Future
I like this proposal for a new stock exchange district in Shenzen—it's got some really cool lines. (However, it lost the competition, so those lines can only be enjoyed on computer screens.)
Long Walk Across China
Sometimes, every so often, somebody does something crazy to move a format forward. Robinson Crusoe. Citizen Kane. Maus.
And now: The Longest Way takes the photo-a-day video genre up a notch. Two notches. Four-thousand notches.
A few things that make this so ingenious: the characters that flit in and out of the scene, and therefore, the creator's life; his use of photos taken in super-quick succession to create an animated flip-book effect; oh, and China.
File under: Gleeful Miscellany, Worldsnark
July 15, 2009
Write Like It's 1856
Writing up the new Oxford Historical Thesaurus, Jason Kottke laments the lack of an advertised online version: "what a boon it would be for period novelists to able to press the 'write like they did in 1856' button."
So, being a total dork, and already in love with the not-even-shipping OHT, I tweet:
I want a "write like they did in 1856" button!
Actually, not a "write like ANYBODY in 1856" button. I want a "write like Flaubert" button. (Quiz: what writer in 1856 would you choose?)
This is harder than it sounds. 1856 might have seen just about the greatest confluence of writers ever. Do you want to write like Flaubert, Baudelaire, or Hugo? Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? Melville or Whitman or Dickinson? The Rosettis, the Brownings, or George Eliot? In nonfiction, you could write like Darwin, Marx, Carlyle, Mill, Schopenhauer, Lincoln, or Emerson.
All that said, I'm sticking with Flaubert. That's the year he finished and serialized Madame Bovary. (The next year, he went on trial for obscenity, and won, on the grounds that he wasn't a pornographer, but a genius. This changed everything for modern literature.)
Gustave's my guy. Who's yours?
P.S.: On the Oxford University Press page for the historical thesaurus, it includes a link for an online version - it's almost certainly going to be subscriber-only, and the link ends up with placeholder info for now. But it will happen.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Collaborations, Worldsnark
July 8, 2009
Swimming Out Of The Death Spiral
And now for a note on the dark side of printed books: Michael Jensen, Director of Strategic Web Communications for National Academies and National Academies Press, collects and analyzes data about global warming and ecological collapse. At the AAUP meeting in Philadelphia, he presented "Scholarly Publishing in the New Era of Scarcity," an argument that the combination of financial and environmental necessity compels university presses to move away from printing, shipping, and storing books and towards a digital-driven, open-access model, with print-on-demand and institutional support rounding out the new revenue model.
(I'm posting Part 2 of Jensen's speech - the part that's mostly about publishing - here. Watch Part 1 - which is mostly about the environment - if you want to be justly terrified about what's going to happen to human beings and everything else pretty soon.)
This is one reason I'm kind of happy that we didn't print a thousand or more copies of New Liberal Arts. We can make print rare, we can get copies straight to readers, we can make print more responsible, but mostly we have to make print count. And - of course - share the information with as many people as possible.
July 6, 2009
Three Thoughts On Early Cities
Cities may be engines of innovation, but not everyone thinks they are beautiful, particularly the megalopolises of today, with their sprawling rapacious appetites. They seem like machines eating the wilderness, and many wonder if they are eating us as well. Is the recent large-scale relocation to cities a choice or a necessity? Are people pulled by the lure of opportunities, or are they pushed against their will by desperation? Why would anyone willingly choose to leave the balm of a village and squat in a smelly, leaky hut in a city slum unless they were forced to?
Image via Wikipedia
Well, every city begins as a slum. First it's a seasonal camp, with the usual free-wheeling make-shift expediency. Creature comforts are scarce, squalor the norm. Hunters, scouts, traders, pioneers find a good place to stay for the night, or two, and then if their camp is a desirable spot it grows into an untidy village, or uncomfortable fort, or dismal official outpost, with permanent buildings surrounded by temporary huts. If the location of the village favors growth, concentric rings of squatters aggregate around the core until the village swells to a town. When a town prospers it acquires a center — civic or religious — and the edges of the city continue to expand in unplanned, ungovernable messiness. It doesn't matter in what century or in which country, the teaming guts of a city will shock and disturb the established residents. The eternal disdain for newcomers is as old as the first city. Romans complained of the tenements, shacks and huts at the edges of their town that "were putrid, sodden and sagging." Every so often Roman soldiers would raze a settlement of squatters, only to find it rebuilt or moved within weeks.
The origins of modern human behavior are marked by increased symbolic and technological complexity in the archaeological record. In western Eurasia this transition, the Upper Paleolithic, occurred about 45,000 years ago, but many of its features appear transiently in southern Africa about 45,000 years earlier. We show that demography is a major determinant in the maintenance of cultural complexity and that variation in regional subpopulation density and/or migratory activity results in spatial structuring of cultural skill accumulation. Genetic estimates of regional population size over time show that densities in early Upper Paleolithic Europe were similar to those in sub-Saharan Africa when modern behavior first appeared. Demographic factors can thus explain geographic variation in the timing of the first appearance of modern behavior without invoking increased cognitive capacity.
While it's very nice to have some statistical evidence for this idea (even if I can't pretend to understand the "Bayesian coalescent inference" method used by the scientists to calculate the population densities in the late Pleistocene), it's worth pointing out that the density explanation isn't particularly new. In The Economy of Cities, Jane Jacobs forcefully argued against the "dogma of agricultural primacy," which assumed that farmers and agricultural innovations made civilization possible. Jacobs argued that the dogma was exactly backwards, and that it was the density of urbanesque clusters which generated the innovations that made farming possible. As Jacobs writes: "It was not agriculture then, for all its importance, that was the salient invention...Rather it was the fact of sustained, interdependent, creative city economies that made possible many new kinds of work." After all, you can't learn how to grow food until you've got a system for transmitting knowledge, which is why population density is so essential.
July 1, 2009
What Canadian Expats Miss About Canada
The NYT asked:
In history class, in seventh grade (or as we like to say in Canada, grade seven) we learned the story of the American Revolution — from the British perspective. Turns out you were all a bunch of ungrateful tax cheats. And you weren’t very nice to the Loyalists. What I miss most about Canada is getting the truth about the United States.
— MALCOLM GLADWELL, a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author, most recently, of “Outliers: The Story of Success”
I also liked this quip from Simpsons writer Tim Long:
I miss the snow. Yes, I know the United States gets snow, but to my Canadian eye, American snow is like American health care: sporadic, unreliable and distributed unevenly among the population.
June 27, 2009
The Codex Climaci Rescriptus
Sotheby's is auctioning a palimpsest manuscript of the New Testament (and parts of the old). It's written in 8th-c. Greek, 6th-c. Aramaic, and overwritten in a 9th-c. Syriac script.
Apparently the sixth-century scribes who wrote it were living in what was then Judea, somewhere in present-day Israel. The document was taken to the Sinai desert in Egypt and stowed away for 300 years at a monastery called St. Catherine's, at the foot of the mountain where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments.... Then in the ninth century, a new set of scribes dug through St. Catherine's looking for parchment, which was very expensive in those days. They pulled pages from eight different books--six in Aramaic and two in Greek--and did their best to erase the original writing. They then turned the pages upside down and wrote over the ancient text in jet-black ink. The newer text, in Syriac, is a copy of instructions on how to run a monastery, originally written by a sixth-century monk named John Climacus.
This happened all the time, and was one of the best advantages of writing on parchment. It was expensive - anything made from animals rather than vegetables always is -- but you could scrape the top layer off and use it again and again.
There's a whole aspect of monastic discipline and spirituality that's tied up with manuscript and parchment culture. Preparing vellum for writing was hard, physical work - and the scraping of the parchment became a kind of allegory for spiritual renewal and an ascetic's soul. You're literally mortifying flesh, scraping it clean, in order to fill it with wisdom and the words of God.
But at the same time, it was prosaic and practical:
"It was like using yesterday's newspaper to wrap up your fish and chips," says Bolton.
I love the description of the appearance of multiple scripts in the document:
The resulting palimpsest looks like a pirate's cipher for buried treasure, written in several mysterious scripts. The Aramaic writing, in a pale, faded brown, appears loose and fluid, with the odd curlicue swirling outside the margin. The black Syriac is careful, tight and slanting. It's not exactly a key to a puzzle written in code, but it sure looks like one.
H/t to Gerry.
File under: Beauty, Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', Object Culture, Worldsnark
June 25, 2009
Tolkein in Tehran
In Tehran, state television's Channel Two is putting on a "Lord of the Rings" marathon, part of a bigger push to keep us busy. Movie mad and immunized from international copyright laws, Iranians are normally treated to one or two Hollywood or European movie nights a week. Now it's two or three films a day. The message is "Don't Worry, Be Happy." Let's watch, forget about what's happened, never mind. Stop dwelling in the past. Look ahead.
Frodo: "I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish that none of this had happened."
Gandalf: "So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us."...
Who picked this film? I start to suspect that there is a subversive soul manning the controls at Seda va Sima, AKA the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. It is way too easy to play with the film, to draw comparisons to what is happening in real life...
On the television screen, Boromir, human of Aragon, falls. He dies an honorable death defending the lives of his compatriots.
"In edame dare." This is to be continued. The phrase has become our hesitant slogan, our phrase of reassurance. "In edame dare." People are not going to let up so easily.
God. Wait until they get to the Battle of Gondor.
June 17, 2009
I am completely floored by these scenes of silent protest in Iran. From an eyewitness report:
...the cry goes up: Shoar nagoo! Don't shout slogans! Hands are up held up instead. It is quiet. Here and there a voice, unable to restrain itself, begins to scream "Allah Akbar! Allah Akbar!" He is met instantly with hisses and whistles---saket! saket! quiet! quiet!---and the voice falls silent again.
Such calm confers dignity -- and also utility, of course. Matthew Yglesias explains:
If you were to try to fight the security forces -- shoot some policemen, say -- you'd encourage a more serious crackdown. It's through nonviolent resistance that you heighten the psychological contradictions, and encourage the regime and its enforcers to blink. From the Velvet Revolution to Tiananmen Square to the Orange Revolution to what's happening today in Iran, the brave dissidents are essentially daring the security forces to beat or kill them.
If you haven't read Unconquerable World by Jonathan Schell, now's the time. It's about, among other things, the world-shaking changes that have been wrought by nonviolence in the 20th century.
I don't read too many books more than once; I've read this one three times. Schell is not -- I need to emphasize this -- not a pacifist, and he's not naive. But even so, he looks at the evidence and concludes: There exists in the world an unstoppable force. And it looks something like this:
File under: Snarkpolitik, Society/Culture, Worldsnark
Media = Freedom?
Pete Wehner has a post at the Commentary blog comparing Iran in 2009 to the Soviet Union of the 1980's which, of course, is completely ridiculous. I visited Russia back in the day and I've now visited Iran twice. There is no comparison. The Soviet Union was the most repressive place I've ever been; its residents lived in constant terror. I'll never forget my first translator in Moscow telling me that his parents had trained him never to smile in public--it could easily be misinterpreted and then he'd be off to the Gulag. There was no internet in those days, no cellphones, no facebook or twitter.
Iran, by contrast, is breezy with freedom. It is certainly freer now, despite Ahmadinejad, than it was when I first visited in 2001. There are satellites dishes all over the place, which bring accurate news via BBC Persia and the Voice of America. The place is awash in western music, movies and books. The Supreme Leader has a website; ayatollahs are blogging. You can get the New York Times and CNN online. (I was interested to find, however, that most blogs except those, like this one, that are associated with a mainstream media outlet, are filtered by the government.) There is, in fact, marginally more freedom of expression in Iran than in some notable U.S. allies, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia--although the danger of imprisonment always exists if a journalist or politician takes it a step too far for the Supreme Leader's watchdogs.
I wonder, though -- to what extent can media consumption, or even production, be a proxy for (or index of) material freedom? I mean, the reformists in Iran are actually fighting FOR a loosening of some of the more oppressive restrictions. In particular, women almost certainly had more day-to-day freedoms (apart from media consumption) under the USSR then they do in present-day Iran.
I appreciate Klein's point here, and trust me -- I don't in any way underestimate the power of the free circulation of information as constitutive of some degree of liberty. I just worry when people who deal in information - especially journalists - confuse the freedom of information with freedom as such. (Klein's B-story about the two states, which explains the likelihood of getting imprisoned for arbitrary reasons or dissent - is way more relevant.)
File under: Journalism, Snarkpolitik, Society/Culture, Worldsnark
June 16, 2009
To Shame Them For the Rest Of Their Lives
And curse the men's cowardice with the light of their courage.
File under: Journalism, Snarkpolitik, Worldsnark
What Is The Revolution?
This is beyond words. A demonstrator is protecting a man sent to attack him. There are photos of the wounded and dead, but there are more pictures like this as well.
When you no longer need to kill your enemy, then the revolution becomes possible.
File under: Journalism, Snarkpolitik, Worldsnark
June 8, 2009
La Gaya Scienza
According to Jonathan Jarrett,the whole humanities vs. science contention is (at least in part) an artifact of the English language:
This here is the ceiling of the old lecture hall of the Austrian Academy of the Sciences, at least as it translates into English. But, what's the French or German for science? `Science', `Wissenschaft', respectively, both of which also mean just `knowledge'. All the Romance languages have some version of Latin `scientia', which likewise means just `knowledge'. And that's what the artwork here was painted to express, wisdom being handed down by teachers and on tablets to a romantic and fascinated world. All kinds of knowledge.
The idea that science means the Popperian world of reproducibility, experiment and testing, by contrast, is modern and English. It's slowly being enforced on other languages' academies, but it's not something that people in the Middle Ages, where geometry was one of the Liberal Arts, or even the nineteenth century, would have recognised. Even now, the German-speaking states almost all have their Akademie der Wissenschaften, France has the Centre National des Recherches Scientifiques and Spain the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, and these are the premier research institutions of the humanities in their respective lands. But in Britain, which I know best, the current split between the Arts & Humanities Research Board, now Council, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Council, previously the Science and Engineering Research Council and previously the Science Research Council, goes essentially back to the difference between the Royal Society, founded 1660 in some form, and the British Academy, founded 1902. I don't know what the equivalent bodies in the USA would be but it would be an interesting comparison. [Note: My guess would be the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. --TC]
Elsewhere we don't have to have this separation, and one of the most interesting things about Snow's piece is therefore its potential to explain why in fact we do. And, indeed, it's pleasant to see that some people have used Science! and graphs and maps to argue that in fact, we don't, we just think we do. As a computing-in-the-humanities sort of guy, I can get behind that.
I don't absolutely buy this, but I think there is something to it. When I translate "Wissenschaft," I sometimes use "science," but more often I find myself writing "scholarship" - which is as close to a word covering both the humanities and sciences in a traditional liberal-artsy sense.
More to the point, I think the science/humanities divide is less a difference in the way Anglo-Americans and contiental Europeans think about the humanities, than a difference in the way we think about science.
In the US, at least, nearly ALL science is seen as applied science -- that is, closer to the PRACTICE of engineering, or medicine, then it is to history or sociology or (god forbid) comparative literature. None of those things can build a bridge or whup those Communists. But if you start to talk about "research," or especially "scholarship," then you start to see commonalities. Someone doing medical research, even for a for-profit purpose, is in a different business from someone working in a clinical practice, just as a lawyer is different from a law professor.
The beef with the humanities seems to be that there are no corresponding practitioners, no practical applications -- with the possible exceptions of K-12 teachers and professional writers (journalists, novelists, historians who write for trade presses). Couple that with a rump humanism that actively valorizes the uselessness, timelessness, and universality of the arts, and you get some misunderstandings at best and real problems at worst.
The shift that's happening seems to be with the younger generation of culture workers. (Here I'm relying in part on Alan Liu's thesis in The Laws of Cool.) One reason why I think the idea of Liberal Arts 2.0 / digital humanism seems to have some traction is that the work that younger people includes more of what we would traditionally call the humanities, and is governed by an ethos that is closer to what we would call humanism. If we begin to think of our technological galaxy as a media galaxy, then we start to see some clearer points of overlap between science culture and humanities culture.
Somewhere Friedrich Kittler points out that there's only been one time before now that the entire West was governed by the same information technologies. That was during the European Middle Ages, when the university's technologies of the book, the library, the postal service, the lecture, etc. were pretty much the only games in town. If you get bifurcated discourse networks, you'll get a bifurcated culture. You can't just try to understand a cultural rift; it will only close once its precondition changes.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', New Liberal Arts, Science, Worldsnark
May 31, 2009
Dating the Past
Historiscientific nerd alert: There's a hot new method of dating historical artifacts, specifically ceramic artifacts, based on their moisture uptake. But there's at least one big problem -- it assumes that mean temperatures are constant. HNN's Jonathan Jarrett has the goods, in a paragraph so well-linked that I've cut-and-pasted them all. (I also changed some of the punctuation and split Jarrett's long paragraph into a few short ones.)
Now, you may have heard mention of a thing called "the medieval warm period." This is a historical amelioration of temperature in Europe between, roughly, the tenth and twelfth centuries. This probably decreased rainfall and other sorts of weather bad for crops, therefore boosted agricultural yield, pumped more surplus into the economy, fuelled demographic growth and arguably deliquesced most European societies to the point where they changed in considerable degree.
However, because of the current debate on climate change, it has become a ball to kick around for climate "scientists," those who wish to argue that we're not changing the climate pointing to it and ice coverage in Norse-period Greenland (which was less than there is currently despite less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere then), while those who wish to argue that we are changing the climate (and, almost always, that this relates to CO2 output, which does seem like a weak link in the argument) dismiss it as legend or scorn the very few and unscientific datapoints, not really caring that the historical development of European society in the ninth to eleventh centuries just doesn't make sense without this system change from the ground. None of these people are medievalists and they're not trying to prove anything about the Middle Ages, so it gets messy, but there is a case about this temperature change that has to be dealt with.
This obviously has an impact on this research. If the sample were old enough, the errors and change probably ought to balance out. But if it were, from, say, the eighth century, then the moisture uptake in the four or five subsequent centuries would be higher than expected from the constant that this research used and the figure would be out, by, well, how much? The team didn't know: "The choice of mean lifetime temperature provides the main other source of uncertainty, but we are unable to quantify the uncertainty in this temperature at present."
We, however, need to know how far that could knock out the figures. Twenty years? More? It begins to push the potential error from a single sample to something closer to a century than a year. That is, the margin of historical error (as opposed to mathematical error) on this method could be worse than that of carbon-dating, and we don't actually know what it is.
Lots of good stuff in the whole, long post, including an annotated run-down of ALL of the ways we know how to date old things.
File under: Learnin', Object Culture, Science, Worldsnark
May 26, 2009
Faking It In Translation
Suzanne Menghraj loved Pierre Bayard's How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read so much that she read it twice. She wanted to read Bayard's 2000 book Comment améliorer les oeuvres ratées (How to Improve Failed Works). But it hadn't been translated, and she couldn't speak or read French. So she decided to bang it out herself anyways:
I came very close to failing French several times over the eight years I studied the language. This does not make me proud. But it does make me want to explore my persistent lack of facility with a language whose structure and habits I understand only well enough to catch a word here, a sense or mood there (let’s say I “skim” French). And so, a good French-English dictionary in hand, I read “Hélas!” (literally, “Alas!”), the introduction to Comment améliorer les oeuvres ratées and was as taken with the iconoclastic ambitions expressed in it as I am with those expressed in How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read—so taken that I decided to give translation of “Hélas!” a shot.
My own speaking French is terrible, and my reading French is so slow that I've read more than a few books with the original in one hand and a translation in the other, jotting notes with a pen between my teeth when I can't be bothered to put either book down. (I'm telling you - this is the only way to read Proust.)
And my German's probably about the same as Menghrai's French. I was astonished when I switched from philosophy to comparative literature, because suddenly everyone around me was fluent as hell - they were born in Austria, they spent every summer in Paris, they didn't just like to dick around with Kant or Baudelaire.
But I still think that my ambient awareness of, my ability to skim four or five different languages, has really helped me do a lot of things I otherwise wouldn't be able to do. I say, let's have more people half-assing it in languages not their own.
Language is like cooking, or sex: if you get all hung up on being really, really good, not only won't it be fun, you're probably never going to get around to doing it at all.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Language, Worldsnark
Sonority in Translation
Marvelous profile of Svetlana Gaier, translator of Dostoyevsky into German:
Svetlana Ivanov was 18 years old when the Germans marched into Kiev (she acquired the name Geier later from her husband, a violinist). Although these events were the prelude to great suffering for countless subjects of the Soviet Union, it was a time of great promise for the young woman. Like others willing to work for the Germans for a one-year period, she was eligible to receive a scholarship to go to Germany. Having received private lessons in French and German from childhood, she was able to work as an interpreter for a Dortmund construction firm that was erecting a bridge across the Dnieper River.
Svetlana and her mother – who came from a family of tsarist officers - were victims of Stalinism. Svetlana Geier still recalls watching as a small child while her grandmother cut up family photos into tiny pieces with manicuring scissors: under the Communist regime, their possession could have been dangerous. Her father, a plant breeding expert, was interned during the purges of 1938. He remained in prison for 18 months, was interrogated and abused, but nonetheless eventually released. The following year, he died from the after-effects of imprisonment. Still ostracized even after his release, he spent his final months in a dacha outside of town, cared for by his daughter.
In the eyes of the young interpreter’s countrymen, her work for the Germans had discredited her: "As far as they were concerned, I was a collaborator." After Stalingrad, she could easily imagine what awaited her under Soviet rule. She took advantage of an offer to enter the German Reich with her mother, somewhat starry-eyed, and still hoping to receive a scholarship. That she, a "worker from the east" (her automatic classification in Nazi Germany) actually received it - one of two Humboldt scholarships reserved for "talented foreigners" - borders on the miraculous. Playing benevolent roles in her lengthy and stirring account of these events are a generous entrepreneur, an alert secretary, and a pair of good-natured assistants at the Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories...
Now, a year before the end of World War II, Svetlana Ivanov began her literary studies. She recalls the very first lecture she heard, Walter Rehm's "The Essence of the Tragic," which she attended in the company of her fellow students, all of them men with war injuries. She still has her notes.
I'm reminded, more than a little ironically, of the line the rabbi speaks at the beginning of Tony Kushner's Angels in America: "You can never make that crossing that she made, for such Great Voyages in this world do not any more exist. But every day of your lives the miles that voyage between that place and this one you cross. Every day. You understand me? In you that journey is."
I really like this description of her translation method:
Svetlana Geier’s method, if one can call it that, is an acoustic one. She immerses herself in the text until she has absorbed it completely, is able to hear its unique tenor, or as she says, "its melody." Then she induces it to resound in German, and this again takes place acoustically, for Geier dictates her translations. They ring out aloud before ever becoming fixed on paper. Her Dostoevsky translations have received extraordinarily praise for this "sonorous" character in particular. Finally, it is said, the divergent voices of Dostoevsky’s protagonists have become distinguishable.
Geier's last translation, of a book by Dostoevsky that I haven't read, Podrostok - Geier's title, Ein grüner Junge, brings the German closer to Constance Garnett's A Raw Youth -- also sounds fascinating. But, I've already excerpted this short article to death, so you should click on it if you, you know, actually want to know something about her/FD's book.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Language, Recommended, Worldsnark
May 24, 2009
Two Visions Of Our Asian Future
Looking to the east for clues to the future (or the past) of the west isn't the least bit new, but these two recent takes (both in the NYT, as it happens) offer some interesting contrasts.
First, Paul Krugman looks at Hong Kong:
Hong Kong, with its incredible cluster of tall buildings stacked up the slope of a mountain, is the way the future was supposed to look. The future — the way I learned it from science-fiction movies — was supposed to be Manhattan squared: vertical, modernistic, art decoish.
What the future mainly ended up looking like instead was Atlanta — sprawl, sprawl, and even more sprawl, a landscape of boxy malls and McMansions. Bo-ring.
So for a little while I get to visit the 1950s version of the 21st century. Yay!
But where are the flying cars?
In the subway, Ms. Kim breezes through the turnstile after tapping the phone on a box that deducts the fare from a chip that contains a cash balance. While riding to school, she uses her mobile to check if a book has arrived at the library, slays aliens in a role-playing game, updates her Internet blog or watches TV.
On campus, she and other students touch their mobiles to the electronic box by the door to mark their attendance. No need for roll call — the school’s server computer logs whether they are in or how late they are for the class.
“If I leave my wallet at home, I may not notice it for the whole day,” said Ms. Kim, 21. “But if I lose my cellphone, my life will start stumbling right there in the subway.”
It has been a while since the mobile phone became more than just a phone, serving as a texting device, a camera and a digital music player, among other things. But experts say South Korea, because of its high-speed wireless networks and top technology companies like Samsung and LG, is the test case for the mobile future.
“We want to bring complex bits of daily life — cash, credit card, membership card and student ID card, everything — into the mobile phone,” said Shim Gi-tae, a mobile financing official at SK Telecom, the country’s largest wireless carrier. “We want to make the cellphone the center of life.”
It was easier in the 1950s for Americans to imagine flying cars than it was to imagine cashless subways. Hell, it may still be easier.
Height or distance? The billboard ad or the cellphone ad? Physical mobility or mobility of information? The skyscraper or the network?
File under: Cities, Object Culture, Society/Culture, Technosnark, Worldsnark
May 19, 2009
I Always Wanted To Live In A Knights Templar's Castle
If only I had 6 million EUR lying around:
Château de La Jarthe was once a refuge for the Order of the Knights Templar, the secretive Christian military order that once wreaked havoc in the region.
Located on 120 hectares (297 acres) in the Dordogne near Périgueux, the restored castle offers many of the amenities buyers might expect in a 12th-century castle ruled by the order, including a chapel, massive fireplaces, stained glass windows and a 102-square-meter (1,098-square-foot) gathering hall known as the Knights Room. Many of the original medieval features remain, such as flagstone beamed ceilings, hand-carved wood details and an old granary.
Exactly what havoc did the KTs supposedly wreak in France? In and around Jerusalem, sure -- but in France, they mostly got slapped around by King Philip. Unless I'm mistaken.
May 18, 2009
A Messe Of Pottage
So there's this huge political money scandal in the UK. The Telegraph's Simon Heffer says, let's get Puritanical -- as in the real Puritans:
Image via Wikipedia
What is now needed is the Cromwellian touch, for I do not believe Parliament's standing has been lower since Oliver dismissed the Rump in April 1653. Mr Cameron should sack from his front bench all those exposed in unacceptable use of taxpayers' money. Central Office should ask chairmen of constituency parties whose MPs have behaved disgracefully to consider whether the chances of the seat being held at the next election would be helped by the selection of a new, financially untainted candidate. To take this swift action now would secure Mr Cameron's moral advantage; it would greatly damage the Prime Minister and the Labour Party; it would put pressure on Mr Brown to do precisely the same.
Heffer even busts out one of my favorite Cromwell stories:
However, we all know what Mr Brown should do, and again Cromwell provides us with our lead. Remember the words he uttered to the Rump, in his anger at its failure to consolidate the new England after the second civil war: "It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place, which you have dishonoured by your contempt for all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice; ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government; ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage... Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess? Ye have no more religion than my horse; gold is your god; which of you have not bartered your conscience for bribes?... Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation; ye were deputed here by the people to get grievances redress'd, and are yourselves gone... In the name of God, go!"
The trouble is, this is EVERYBODY's favorite Cromwell speech, and he probably never said most of it. Mercurius Politicus has got the goods:
The earliest record I can find of it is in Thomas Mortimer’s The British Plutarch (1816), which gives this source for it:
The following piece said to have been found lately among some papers which formerly belonged to Oliver Cromwell is supposed to be a copy of the very words addressed by him to the members of the Long Parliament when he turned them out of the House. It was communicated to the Annual Register for 1767 by a person who signed his name T Ireton and said the paper was marked with the following words Spoken by Oliver Cromwell when he put an end to the Long Parliament.
I've had a look through the Annual Register on ECCO but can’t trace the original source. It's true that various letters and other Cromwelliana were turning up during the eighteenth century and onwards into the nineteenth, but a few things make the speech seem too good to be true. The fact that it purports to be a direct transcript, when it's unlikely anyone would have been recording it verbatim, is one. The reference to T Ireton is another -- perhaps an attempt to suggest authenticity by implying a descendant of Henry Ireton had got hold of the speech, but of course Ireton had died in 1651. So without wanting to be a spoilsport, the version of the speech being quoted in the press may not be what it purports to be.
I would look myself to confirm or refute MP's findings, but an injection my dissertation advisor gave me when I kept on doing research on "blood and treasure" instead of writing about Ezra Pound means that when I look at EEBO or ECCO for more than fifteen minutes at a stretch, my eyes begin to bleed.
For the record though, my all-time favorite Cromwell story involves another speech he purportedly gave, this time about torturing (probably) the Levellers (which Leveller John Lilburne somehow managed to overhear AND get to the printer while he was still in prison):
Lt. General Cromwell (I am sure of it) very loud, thumping his fist upon the Council table, til it rang again, and heard him speak in these very words or to this effect; I tell you, Sir, you have no other way to deal with these men, but to break them in pieces; and thumping upon the Council table again, he said, Sir, let me tell you that which is true, if you do not break them, they will break you; yea and bring all the guilt of the blood and treasure shed and spent in this kingdom upon your head and shoulders; and frustrate and make void all that work, that with so many years' industry, toil and pains you have done, and so render you to all rational men in the world as the most contemptiblest generation of silly, low-spirited men in the earth, to be broken and routed by such a despicable, contemptible generation of men as they are; and therefore, Sir, I tell you again, you are necessitated to break them.
Cromwell certainly did have a way of speaking his mind.
(Via Mercurius Politicus.)
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Language, Learnin', Snarkpolitik, Worldsnark
May 16, 2009
Frühling Für Hitler Und Vaterland
A German adaptation of Mel Brooks's The Producers opens in Berlin.
May 5, 2009
Luxurious Artisanal Bibliophile Dada
Sweet Gods of Heaven and Earth! It's the best bookporn post ever!
That's Xu Bing's Tian Shu (Book From Heaven). Rachel Leow writes:
To make [the four hundred books and fifty-foot scrolls], Xu painstakingly carved Chinese characters into square woodblocks, in just the way his ancient printing predecessors would have done, had them typeset and printed, and the printed pages mounted and bound into books and scrolls.
The result is a truly spectacular display of bookmanship — volumes fit for an emperor’s library. Yet, there’s the astonishing, Borgesian catch: Out of the three or four thousand Chinese characters used in these volumes and scrolls, not a single one of them is a real Chinese character.
They are made up of recognizable radicals and typical atomic components of Chinese characters, but Xu laboured to ensure that while they all retain the unmistakable look of Chinese script, they are all, so to speak, nonsense. They do not exist in any dictionary, and do not mean anything. Chinese speakers and non-Chinese speakers alike approach the books with the same sense of wonder at their beauty, and the same sense of incomprehension at their content — though, for Chinese readers, the frustrated impulse to read might detract somewhat from their aesthetic enjoyment of the art piece. I’ve heard that some Chinese readers have spent days attempting to locate a character they can read — to no avail. It’s a piece of art whose meaning is to be found in its meaninglessness.
I want to GO to there.
Instead, you should go to a historian's craft to check out more images of Xu Bing's two books (there is also a Book of Earth) and read every gorgeous word Rachel's written about them. These are the internet equivalent of being touched by "beautiful calligraphy, by brushstroked words on fine paper, by sensuous lines of scripts that dance provocatively on the page, inviting comprehension." You wish you wrote this well this early in the morning. (It's still early in Malaysia, right?)
It's a completely different tradition, but I'm reminded of Augustine's theory of signs. For Augustine, a sign (whether a word or a symbol) is a tool, an instrument. Signification shows that things aren't used for their own sake, but in reference to something else. This chain of signification and interpretation goes all the way up to God, who is the only thing completely sufficient in Himself, that CAN'T be made to signify anything else. Since everything else is deficient, anything that isn't God, whether a word, a gesture, a picture, a dream, stars, a person, an animal, a tree, usw., can be turned into a sign. In fact, it HAS to be taken as a sign, at least in this broad sense of an instrument pointing to another purpose; otherwise, you're performing a kind of idolatry, taking a deficient thing to be self-sufficient and giving to it what you should reserve for God alone. At this point, Augustine's semiotics dovetails with his ethics; we shouldn't delight too much in food for its own sake, sex for its own sake -- in short, in pleasure, except insofar as it helps us to serve a godly and natural purpose.
So there is a universal potential for signfication. Any worldly thing can be a sign. But to refuse signification, to delight in the pleasure of the letter itself, is an act of rebellion.
Rachel's language may be more instrumental than Xu Bing's, but it's no less of a pleasure to read.
File under: Beauty, Books, Writing & Such, Language, Object Culture, Worldsnark
April 30, 2009
Nom De Whatever
Intriguing aside in this Slate article by Huan Hsu on office workers in China adopting English names:
In the United States, people tend to view names and identities as absolute things—which explains why I agonized over deciding on an English name—but in China, identities are more amorphous. My friend Sophie flits amongst her Chinese name, English name, MSN screen name, nicknames she uses with her friends, and diminutives that her parents call her. "They're all me," she says. "A name is just a dai hao." Dai hao, or code name, can also refer to a stock's ticker symbol.
April 27, 2009
Google: The World's Medical Journal
A good anecdotal lead. Carolina Solis is a medical student who did research on parasitic infections caused by contaminated well water in rural Nicaragua.
Like many researchers, she plans to submit her findings for publication in a medical journal. What she discovered could benefit not just Nicaraguan communities but those anywhere that face similar problems. When she submits her paper, though, she says the doctors she worked with back in San Juan del Sur will probably never get a chance to read it.
"They were telling me their problems accessing these [journals]. It can be difficult for them to keep up with all the changes in medicine."
Washington recently got involved. Squirreled away in the massive $410 billion spending package the president signed into law last month is an open access provision. It makes permanent a previous requirement that says the public should have access to taxpayer-funded research free of charge in an online archive called PubMed Central. Such funding comes largely from the National Institutes of Health, which doles out more than $29 billion in research grants per year. That money eventually turns into about 60,000 articles owned and published by various journals.
But Democrats are divided on the issue. In February, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., submitted a bill that would reverse open access. HR 801, the Fair Copyright in Research Works Act, would prohibit government agencies from automatically making that research free. Conyers argues such a policy would buck long-standing federal copyright law. Additionally, Conyers argues, journals use their subscription fees to fund peer review in which experts are solicited to weigh in on articles before they're published. Though peer reviewers aren't usually identified or paid, it still takes money to manage the process, which Conyers calls "critical."
And cultural/generational change:
The pay-to-play model doesn't jive with a generation of soon-to-be docs who "grew up Google," with information no farther than a search button away. It's a generation that never got lost in library stacks looking for an encyclopedia, or had to pay a penny for newspaper content. So it doesn't see why something as important as medical research should be locked behind the paywalls of private journals.
Copyright issues are nothing new to a generation that watched the recording industry deal its beloved original music sharing service, Napster, a painful death in 2001. Last October, it watched Google settle a class-action lawsuit brought on by book publishers upset over its Book Search engine, which makes entire texts searchable. And just last week, a Swedish court sentenced four founders of the the Pirate Bay Web site to a year in prison over making copyrighted files available for illegal file sharing. And now the long-familiar copyright war is spilling over into medicine.
There's even WikiDoc
And, the article doesn't mention this, but I'll contend there's a role for journalism to play. Here's a modest proposal: allow medical researchers to republish key findings of the research in newspapers, magazines, something with a different revenue structure, and then make it accessible to everyone. Not perfect, but a programmatic effort would do some good.
Speaking of which -- what are the new big ideas on the health/medicine beat? This is such a huge issue -- it feels like it should have its own section in the paper every day.
File under: Journalism, Science, Snarkpolicy, Worldsnark
April 22, 2009
In a series of high-level meetings in 2002, without a single dissent from cabinet members or lawmakers, the United States for the first time officially embraced the brutal methods of interrogation it had always condemned.
This extraordinary consensus was possible, an examination by The New York Times shows, largely because no one involved -- not the top two C.I.A. officials who were pushing the program, not the senior aides to President George W. Bush, not the leaders of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees -- investigated the gruesome origins of the techniques they were approving with little debate.
According to several former top officials involved in the discussions seven years ago, they did not know that the military training program, called SERE, for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, had been created decades earlier to give American pilots and soldiers a sample of the torture methods used by Communists in the Korean War, methods that had wrung false confessions from Americans...
They did not know that some veteran trainers from the SERE program itself had warned in internal memorandums that, morality aside, the methods were ineffective. Nor were most of the officials aware that the former military psychologist who played a central role in persuading C.I.A. officials to use the harsh methods had never conducted a real interrogation, or that the Justice Department lawyer most responsible for declaring the methods legal had idiosyncratic ideas that even the Bush Justice Department would later renounce.
The process was "a perfect storm of ignorance and enthusiasm," a former C.I.A. official said.
In general, I wouldn't think it was a problem not to know the origins of a technique, except for political reasons. But not knowing that the SERE program was designed to help soldiers withstand interrogations that had produced false confessions is inexcusable, especially since this was our program. Not knowing that the psychologist who persuaded the CIA to go for this had never conducted an actual interrogation is similarly mind-boggling. The fact that no one knew what the actual interrogators thought of all this is standard for the Bush administration, but it should not have been.
There are all sorts of experts in our government, including experts on interrogation. There's also more than enough institutional memory to inform the administration about the origins of the SERE program. But the Bush administration, typically, did not bother with them. They preferred to make things up as they went along, because, after all, they always knew better.
This is what happens when we stop demanding minimal competence in our Presidents; when we start caring more about who we would rather have a beer with than, oh, who would be most likely to seek out the best advice and listen to all sides of an argument before making an important decision, or whose judgment we can trust. We end up with people who toss aside our most fundamental values because someone who has never conducted an interrogation before thinks it might be a good idea, and no one bothers to do the basic background research on what he proposes.
April 19, 2009
Do you know what was great? The Hanseatic League. Do you think we could bring that back, twenty-first century style?:
This diffuse, fractured world will be run more by cities and city-states than countries. Once, Venice and Bruges formed an axis that spurred commercial expansion across Eurasia. Today, just 40 city-regions account for two thirds of the world economy and 90 percent of its innovation. The mighty Hanseatic League, a constellation of well-armed North and Baltic Sea trading hubs in the late Middle Ages, will be reborn as cities such as Hamburg and Dubai form commercial alliances and operate "free zones" across Africa like the ones Dubai Ports World is building. Add in sovereign wealth funds and private military contractors, and you have the agile geopolitical units of a neomedieval world. Even during this global financial crisis, multinational corporations heavily populate the list of the world's largest economic entities; the commercial diplomacy of emerging-market firms such as China's Haier and Mexico's Cemex has already turned North-South relations inside out faster than the nonaligned movement ever did.
Wait -- ninety percent of what, exactly? Innovation units?
March 29, 2009
Civ, Counterfactual Progress, and the Rolling Katamari Ball of Science
This post is hard to sum up because it's sort of about everything.
Why did science and history unfold the way they did?
Why didn't somebody in China invent the electric light bulb? In an alternate reality with no Edison and, let's say, no America, does anybody invent an electric light bulb?
Is the video game Civilization's "technology tree" a good model for technology and history -- or just a dorky game mechanic? Rob MacDougall had his students think about alternative models. One of his favorites invoked the imagery of Katamari Damacy:
The student's idea was a rolling tech wheel. The spokes of the wheel represented paths of technological development you could pursue -- navigation, metalworking, what have you -- but you also had to adapt to technological contingencies in the form of the various things you rolled over. I'm not sure how this would actually work as a game, but as a crazy Katamari bricolage view of human history, it's fun to wrap your head around.
It all springs forth from a class called Science, Technology, and Global History. There is nothing not to like here. (Thanks for the link, Dan!)
File under: Snarkonomics, Society/Culture, Technosnark, Video Games, Worldsnark