Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Tenderpreneur

Robert Cohen explains the South African word "tenderpreneur" in yesterday's NYT:

"A tenderpreneur is an insider pocketing millions from rigged
government tenders for everything from air-conditioners to
locomotives. The word denotes failure, that of black economic
empowerment, which has come to mean much for the few and little for
the many."

I hope that the word will gain currency in American English.
Halliburton, KBR, Blackwater (aka XE Services), and dozens of other
private contractors in Iraq, Afghanistan and, yes, the Gulf of Mexico,
are tenderpreneurial multinationals.

--

Sunday, June 27, 2010

On gentrification

"Why ambivalent? Because, as Zukin points out in Naked City, 'I am one
of those New Yorkers'. Though pronouncing herself 'dismayed by the way
the city has morphed from a lumbering modern giant to a smooth, sleek,
more expensive replica of its former self', Zukin recognizes the
pleasure of 'savoring a latte instead of a scorched black caffeine
brew'. There is not the slightest sneer in her quoting the British
novelist Hari Kunzru, who cherishes Hackney's 'grubby glamour' but
also admits: 'The thing is, I am partial to a nice piece of
raclette'."

D.D. Guttenplan, reviewing Sharon Zukin's Naked City: The Death and
Life of Authentic Urban Spaces in the Times Literary Supplement, June
25, 2010 (Kindle edition).

Aramaic

During much of its 3000-year history, Aramaic was the most widely
spoken language on earth. Here's an excerpt from Ariel Sabar's My
Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for his Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq
(Kindle Edition, 2008):

"Such Jews!" the Jewish-American professor Walter Fischel wrote after
visiting Kurdistan in the 1940s. "Men virile and wild-looking; women
wearing embroidered turbans, earrings, bracelets, even nose-rings, and
with symbols tattooed into their faces — our brethren and sisters!"

Their language was just as intoxicating, mostly because people had
written it off as long dead. Aramaic had been the English of its day,
a lingua franca across what was then the world's center of
civilization. Its first inscriptions—mostly on stone monuments to gods
and kings found near Aleppo, Syria — stretch back to around 1000 b.c.,
when an ob- scure tribe of Semitic nomads, the Arameans, began
drifting from Syria across the Fertile Crescent. The Arameans' trump
wasn't their wealth or power — they never had much. It was their
tendency to wander.

As nomads, they had dispersed so widely across ancient Mesopotamia
that their language became a de facto common tongue, the world's first
esperanto. It was the language on the ground. And no one, it seemed,
wanted to mess with it. By the eighth century b.c., a practical
decision had been made throughout the Assyrian Empire to adopt the
Aramean tongue as the official language of administration. When the
Assyrians fell, the Babylonians embraced Aramaic as the official
language of their Mesopotamian empire; when the Babylonians fell, the
Persians took it up.

That no fewer than three empires came and went without imposing their
own language upends a linguistic verity: that language follows power.
Aramaic survived precisely because its native speakers lacked
political ambition. The Arameans were no-account drifters—"uncouth
Bedouins," one historian called them. They were everywhere. But they
were so badly organized, so poor, and so powerless that the new
emperors saw no threat in their language. Here is what made Aramaic
irresistible: It was high-tech. Before it, the closest thing to a Near
Eastern lingua franca was Akkadian, which was etched in cuneiform,
wedge-shaped characters pressed into clay. Aramaic could be written on
papyrus. For an Assyrian or Babylonian bureaucrat with a sprawling
empire to administer, it was simply easier to push paper than rock.

The miracle of Aramaic was not lost on Assyrian king Sargon II, who
claimed credit for its rapid spread in a stone inscription found near
Mo- sul: "Peoples of the four regions of the world, of foreign tongue
and di- vergent speech, dwellers of mountain and lowland . . . I
carried off [and] made them of one mouth."

People were soon speaking and writing Aramaic over wide bands of Asia
and northern Africa, from the Caucuses to southern Egypt, from my
father's paradise western Turkey to southern India and western China.
It crossed borders and bridged faiths as no prior language had. Not
only did Jews and Chris- tians speak it as an everyday tongue, but so,
at various times, did zoroas- trians, Buddhists, Muslims, Mandeans,
Manicheans, and pagans.

For a while, Aramaic appeared destined for immortality. As the com-
mon language of the formative years of Christianity and diaspora Juda-
ism, it embedded itself in seminal liturgical texts. An Aramaic
translation of the Hebrew Bible was expanded into a landmark work of
interpretation known as the Targum, or Translation. The Books of Ezra
and Daniel were partly composed in Aramaic. Babylonian Jews wrote the
Talmud, the book of commentary and law, in Aramaic. A medieval Spanish
poet drafted the zohar, the chief text of Jewish Kabbalah, in it. The
original "writing on the wall" that prophesied the fall of Babylon was
in Aramaic. And Jesus Christ himself cried out in the same lilting
tongue as he died on the cross: "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" My
God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Ariel Sabar, My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for his Jewish Past
in Kurdish Iraq, Kindle Edition, 2008, 3-4% into the book.

--

Saturday, June 26, 2010

For missing an iPhone

From a Caixin Weekly report on a spate of suicides at Foxconn, which
manufactures iPhones for Apple:

"Robots and other machines usually perform these tasks in developed
countries, where manual piecework is generally an anachronism. But in
China, people are used.

The science behind this labor management method was imported from
America, where it was developed by Fredrick W. Taylor in the 19th
century. Like Foxconn, most Chinese manufacturers in Shenzhen and
other parts of China's factory-rich Pearl River Delta depend on the
Taylor method to churn out standardized products.

'This management approach means that a worker is only part of a
machine, not an independent human being or a member of a social
community,' said Guo Jun, director of democratic management at the All
China Federation of Trade Unions.

[...]

Harsh rule enforcement may have contributed to a suicide last year.
Sun Danyong, who counted Iphones at the plant, killed himself in
August after security staffers claimed he was responsible for a
missing phone.

Online conversations between Sun and friends point to possible torture
by security staffers before he died. Coincidentally, a video posted
online around the same time showed two workers at Foxconn's Beijing
campus allegedly being beaten by 20 security guards."

Source:

http://english.caing.com/2010-06-04/100150191.html

--

If you knew you could not fail

"A year ago, [BP boss Tony] Hayward told a group of graduate students
at Stanford University that he has a plaque on his desk that reads:
'If you knew you could not fail, what would you try?' Far from being a
benign inspirational slogan, this was actually an accurate description
of how BP and its competitors behaved in the real world."

Naomi Klein, in this week's The Nation.

Poetic license

I've just started reading Ariel Sabar's My Father's Paradise: A Son's
Search for his Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq (Kindle Edition, 2008). In
the introduction, Sabar writes:

"But while this book is by and large a work of nonfiction, it is not a
formal history or biography. Nor is it journalism. In parts of this
story where key sources had died or where memories had faded, I built
on the framework of known facts and let myself imagine how the
particulars of a scene or dialogue would be likely to have unfolded.

A book on one's family is by its nature a subjective exercise. But I
have tried in every instance to keep faith with the larger emotional
truth of my family's saga.

I changed the names of people who were involved in a family
controversy in Israel, because they are dead and did not have a chance
to defend themselves. I created a few minor composite characters in an
effort to streamline the narrative. Also, in the scenes in modern-day
Kurdish Iraq, I changed the names of the people who helped me, out of
concern for their security."

Protecting sources is perfectly legitimate. And it's Sabar prerogative
as an author to decide whether he's writing a book of history,
biography, or literature, or something in between. But I confess that
I'm a little uncomfortable with this approach. What I like most about
history and biography is the aim and commitment to find out what
happened and to report it accurately. As Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886)
famously put it, the historian's job, and the biographer's too, is to
report what actually happened, to tell the reader what it was really
like ("wie es eigentlich gewesen").

My mother Marta was a good storyteller. I remember, always, the
stories and anecdotes of my grandmother and great-grandmother (devout
churchgoers and casino gamblers in the northern Chilean city of La
Serena), of my grandfather (an architect and devout anti-clericalist),
of my great-uncle Pepe Gustavo (a con artist and wit of some note), of
the ghosts of La Serena (real and imagined), of our family's
decades-long efforts to find the treasure of the Pirate Drake (they
never did find it) and, above all, of my mother's own childhood (such
as the the day my grandmother talked her into going to the prom with a
dress made out of a curtain). Once, when I pointed out a minor
inconsistency in an anecdote, my mother said to me, "Do you want to
hear the truth of this story, or mere facts?"

--

Art. 88

Art. 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice:

"CONTEMPT TOWARD OFFICIALS

Any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the
President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the
Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Transportation,
or the Governor or legislature of any State, Territory, Commonwealth,
or possession in which he is on duty or present shall be punished as a
court-martial may direct."

http://www.constitution.org/mil/ucmj19970615.htm

Obama has fired Stanley Allen McChrystal for the contemptuous words
toward government officials he uttered in a series of on and off the
record interviews with a Rolling Stone reporter. I don't suppose he
will be court-martialed for this act of insubordination. He should
have been court-martialed for helping to cover up the death of Pat
Tillman by "friendly fire." And that's not the only crime he should
have been court-martialed for. McChrystal was also Dick Cheney's
assassin-in-chief as commander of the Joint Special Operations
Command. And he also covered up the torture of prisoners:

"An interrogator at Camp Nama known as Jeff described locking
prisoners in shipping containers for 24 hours at a time in extreme
heat; exposing them to extreme cold with periodic soaking in cold
water; bombardment with bright lights and loud music; sleep
deprivation; and severe beatings.

When he and other interrogators went to the colonel in charge and
expressed concern that this kind of treatment was not legal, and that
they might be investigated by the military's Criminal Investigation
Division or the International Committee of the Red Cross, the colonel
told them he had 'this directly from General McChrystal and the
Pentagon that there's no way that the Red Cross could get in.'"

<http://www.presstv.ir/detail.aspx?id=94884&sectionid=3510203>

--

Friday, June 25, 2010

Combat

If I understand Sebastian Junger's argument in War (which I've just
finished reading and which should have been entitled Combat), American
soldiers in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan have fought for the
same reason that Taliban soldiers ("insurgents") fight -- the same
reason German soldiers and Japanese fought in World War II. That
reason is neither ideology nor patriotism. It is love for their
brothers ("comrades" was the old word for this). Junger draws a
distinction between "war" and "combat." War is what politicians and
generals plan and execute. Wars can be wars of conquest or liberation
or something in between. For civilian populations caught up in them,
wars are an unmitigated calamity. Combat, on the other hand, is what
soldiers on the ground do to help their brothers, and to survive.
(Never mind that much of the killing in Afghanistan and Pakistan is
now being done by unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, by operators
sitting in Creech Air Force Base, near Las Vegas, and other locations
in the U.S. -- a fact Junger barely mentions). Here's an excerpt from
Junger's book:

One night a few weeks later I'm sitting on the ammo hooch listening to
the monkeys in the peaks. A temperature inversion has filled the
valley with mist and the mist is silver in the moonlight and almost
liquid. There's been a big fight over by the Pakistan border and F-15s
and -16s have been powering overhead all evening looking for people to
kill. O'Byrne wanders out and we start talking. His head is shaved but
dirt sticks to the stubble so you can see where his hair ought to be.
He says he signed a contract with the army that's almost up, and he
has to figure out whether to re-enlist. 'Combat is such an adrenaline
rush,' he says. 'I'm worried I'll be looking for that when I get home
and if I can't find it, I'll just start drinking and getting in
trouble. People back home think we drink because of the bad stuff, but
that's not true… we drink because we miss the good stuff.'

O'Byrne is also worried about being alone. He hasn't been out of
earshot of his platoonmates for two years and has no idea how he'll
react to solitude. He's never had to get a job, find an apartment or
arrange a doctor's appointment because the army has always done those
things for him. All he's had to do is fight. And he's good at it, so
leading a patrol causes him less anxiety than, say, moving to Boston
and finding an apartment and a job. He has little capacity for what
civilians refer to as 'life skills'; for him, life skills literally
keep you alive. Those are far simpler and more compelling than the
skills required at home. 'In the Korengal, almost every problem could
get settled by getting violent faster than the other guy,' O'Byrne
told me. 'Do that at home and it's not going to go so well.'

It's a stressful way to live but once it's blown out your fear levels
almost everything else looks boring. O'Byrne knows himself: when he
gets bored he starts drinking and getting into fights, and then it's
only a matter of time until he's back in the system. If that's the
case, he might as well stay in the system – a better one – and
actually move upwards. I suggest a few civilian jobs that offer a
little adrenaline – wilderness trip guide, firefighter – but we both
know it's just not the same. We are at one of the most exposed
outposts in the entire US military, and he's crawling out of his skin
because there hasn't been a good firefight in a week. How do you bring
a guy like that back into the world?

Civilians balk at recognising that one of the most traumatic things
about combat is having to give it up. War is so obviously evil and
wrong that the idea there could be anything good to it almost feels
like a profanity. And yet throughout history, men like O'Byrne have
come home to find themselves desperately missing what should have been
the worst experience of their lives. To a combat vet, the civilian
world can seem frivolous and dull, with very little at stake and all
the wrong people in power. These men come home and quickly find
themselves getting berated by a rear-base major who's never seen
combat, or arguing with their girlfriend about some domestic issue
they don't even understand. When men say they miss combat, it's not
that they actually miss getting shot at – you'd have to be deranged –
it's that they miss being in a world where everything is important and
nothing is taken for granted. They miss being in a world where human
relations are entirely governed by whether you can trust the other
person with your life.

It's such a pure, clean standard that men can completely remake
themselves in war. You could be anything back home – shy, ugly, rich,
poor, unpopular – and it won't matter because it's of no consequence
in a firefight. The only thing that matters is your level of
dedication to the rest of the group, and that is almost impossible to
fake.

War is a big and sprawling word that brings a lot of human suffering
into the conversation, but combat is a different matter. Combat is the
smaller game that young men fall in love with, and any solution to the
human problem of war will have to take into account the psyches of
these young men. For some reason there is a profound and mysterious
gratification to the reciprocal agreement to protect another person
with your life, and combat is virtually the only situation in which
that happens regularly. These hillsides are where the men feel not
most alive – that you can get skydiving – but the most utilised. The
most necessary. The most clear and certain and purposeful. If young
men could get that feeling at home, no one would ever want to go to
war again, but they can't. So here sits Sgt Brendan O'Byrne, one month
before the end of deployment, seriously contemplating signing back up.
'I prayed only once in Afghanistan,' O'Byrne wrote to me after it was
all over. 'It was when Restrepo got shot, and I prayed to God to let
him live. But God, Allah, Jehovah, Zeus or whatever a person may call
God wasn't in that valley. Combat is the devil's game. God wanted no
part.'

Some men make better soldiers than others, and some units perform
better than others. The traits that distinguish those men, and those
units, could be called the Holy Grail of combat psychology. They could
be called the basis for what people loosely refer to as 'courage'. An
Israeli study during the 1973 Yom Kippur War found that
high-performing soldiers were more intelligent, more 'masculine', more
socially mature, and more emotionally stable than average men. At the
other end of the spectrum, eight out of 10 men who suffered
psychological collapse in combat had a problem at home: a pregnant
wife, a financial crisis, a recent death in the family. Those
collapses were most likely to be caused not by a near-death
experience, as one might expect, but by the combat death of a close
friend. That was certainly true at Restrepo. Nearly every man had
missed death by a margin of inches, but those traumas were almost
never discussed. Rather, it was the losses in the unit that lingered
in men's minds. The only time I saw a man cry up there was when I
asked Pemble whether he was glad the outpost had been named after Doc
Restrepo. Pemble nodded, tried to answer, and then his face just went
into his hands.

Cortez was another man who struggled with the loss of Restrepo. 'His
death was a bit hard on us,' he told me, months later, with typical
understatement. 'We loved him like a brother. After he went down,
there was a time I didn't care about anything. I didn't care about
getting shot or if I died. I'd run into the open and not care and I'd
be getting chewed out by a team leader and not care.

I wasn't scared, honestly, but I just didn't care if I died or not.'
Someone finally pointed out to Cortez that if he got hit, someone else
was going to have to run through gunfire to save him, and the idea
that he might get one of his brothers killed was enough to get him to
knock it off. His reaction points to an irony of combat psychology –
the logical downside of heroism. If you're willing to lay down your
life for another person, then their death is going to be more
upsetting than the prospect of your own, and intense combat might
incapacitate an entire unit through grief alone. Combat is such an
urgent business, however, that most men simply defer the psychological
issue until later.

Statistically, it's six times as dangerous to spend a year as a young
man in America than as a cop or a fireman, and vastly more dangerous
than a one-year deployment at a big military base in Afghan istan.
You'd have to go to a remote firebase like the KOP to find a level of
risk that surpasses that of simply being an adolescent male in the US.
Combat isn't simply a matter of risk, though; it's also a matter of
mastery. The basic neurological mechanism that induces mammals to do
things is called the dopamine reward system. Dopamine is a
neurotransmitter that mimics the effect of cocaine in the brain, and
it gets released when a person wins a game or solves a problem or
succeeds at a difficult task. The dopamine reward system exists in
both sexes but is stronger in men, and as a result men are more likely
to become obsessively involved in such things as hunting, gambling,
computer games and war. When the men of Second Platoon were moping
around the outpost hoping for a firefight it was because, among other
things, they weren't getting their accustomed dose of endorphins and
dopamine. They played video games instead.

Women can master those skills without having pleasure centres in their
brains light up as if they'd just done a line of coke. One of the
beguiling things about combat is that it's so complex, there's no way
to predict the outcome. That means that any ragtag militia, no matter
how small and poorly equipped, might conceivably defeat a superior
force if it fights well enough. 'Every action produces a counter
action on the enemy's part,' an American correspondent named Jack
Belden wrote about combat during the Second World War. 'The thousands
of interlocking actions throw up millions of little frictions,
accidents and chances, from which there emanates an all-embracing fog
of uncertainty.'

Combat fog obscures your fate – obscures when and where you might die
– and from that unknown is born a desperate bond between the men. That
bond is the core experience of combat and the only thing you can
absolutely count on. The willingness to die for another person is a
form of love that even religions fail to inspire, and the experience
of it changes a person profoundly. What the army sociologists, with
their clipboards and their questions, slowly came to understand was
that courage was love. In war, neither could exist without the other,
and that in a sense they were just different ways of saying the same
thing. According to their questionnaires, the primary motivation in
combat (other than 'ending the task' – which meant they all could go
home) was 'solidarity with the group'. That far outweighed
self-preservation or idealism as a motivator. The Army Research Branch
cites cases of wounded men going AWOL after their hospitalisation in
order to get back to their unit faster than the military could get
them there. A civilian might consider this an act of courage, but
soldiers knew better. To them it was just an act of brotherhood, and
there probably wasn't much to say about it except, 'Welcome back.'

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The U.S. Census

From yesterday's New York Times:

"As of Tuesday, 98 percent of the 47 million households that had
failed to return their census questionnaires had been contacted by a
census worker.... Despite fears of hostility toward the federal
government, incidents involving census workers have been relatively
few. Since April, in the course of knocking on 47 million doors an
average of two times, the bureau has logged 430 on-the-job incidents
against enumerators, including 13 cases where shots were fired (one
man was killed in Baltimore) and 139 cases where a weapon was pulled.
Ten workers were robbed, one was bitten by a duck and another by a
rooster...."

More here:

<http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/23/us/23census.html>

--

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

I guaran-god-damn-tee it

I need to get out more. Here's an example of tmesis I hadn't come across before:

"You're gonna run across some guys out there who don't like me, I
guaran-dog-damn-tee it, but at the same time I bet there's not one of
'em that would say, 'I wouldn't take him in a firefight.' And that's
what I'm looking for."

Sebastian Junger, War, Kindle Edition, 2010, 60% into the book.

--

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

No Proust and Joyce

Sam Tanenhaus, writing in yesterday's New York Times about an archive
John Updike assembled as a personal record of his life and times:

"We do not need men like Proust and Joyce; men like this are a luxury,
an added fillip that an abundant culture can produce only after the
more basic literary need has been filled," Updike wrote to his parents
in 1951, when he was 19. "This age needs rather men like Shakespeare,
or Milton, or Pope; men who are filled with the strength of their
cultures and do not transcend the limits of their age, but, working
within the times, bring what is peculiar to the moment to glory. We
need great artists who are willing to accept restrictions, and who
love their environments with such vitality that they can produce an
epic out of the Protestant ethic" — a prescient formulation of what he
would later achieve in the Rabbit novels and his Pennsylvania short
stories. "Whatever the many failings of my work," he concluded, "let
it stand as a manifesto of my love for the time in which I was born."

Tanenhaus' article lives here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/21/books/21updike.html

--

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Last Call

The Globe and Mail, June 11, 2010

Review: Last Call: The Rise And Fall Of Prohibition, By Daniel Okrent
Reviewed by Jessica Warner

To John Allan Krout, long a fixture at Columbia University, goes the
distinction of having written the first real history of Prohibition.
Titled, simply enough, The Origins of Prohibition, it was published in
1925, five years after the start of the Noble Experiment and eight
years before its unlamented demise. Since Krout's time, it seems as
though scarcely a year has passed in which the public has not been
offered yet another book about Prohibition: In 1962, it was Andrew
Sinclair's Prohibition: The Era of Excess; in 1976, it was Norman
Clark's Deliver us from Evil: An Interpretation of American
Prohibition; in 1997, it was Edward Behr's Prohibition: Thirteen Years
that Changed America.

This year, it is Daniel Okrent's Last Call. Okrent is one of those
people who goes from strength to strength; his previous book, Great
Fortune, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history, and in
between writing books he has worked as editor for The New York Times,
and before that, for Life and Time. Last Call is his most ambitious
project to date, employing a small stable of research assistants and
involving Okrent himself in extensive archival research.

What they have produced is easily the most readable history of
Prohibition. It is also a history in which a Canadian, our own Sam
Bronfman, makes several appearances, consistent with a style whose
effect is achieved by a laying of vignettes, each revolving around a
colourful personality. Socialites and do-gooders, hellfire preachers
and feminists, politicians, brewers, vintners, farmers and tycoons –
the cameos are endless, deft and always entertaining.

Last Call, in short, is history as Dickens would have written it:
strong on characters but weak on plot. The problem is that it also
happens to be history as Carlyle would have written it, which is to
say that what the reader is really being offered is a populist variant
of the Great Man theory of history. There are so many dominant
personalities in the book, each talking over the other, that its
stated objective, to explain how and why America came to have
Prohibition, is too often lost sight of.

This shortcoming makes the book's first chapter its weakest. Here,
Okrent paints with a broad brush in an attempt to fast-forward the
story from the hard-drinking days of the early 19th century all the
way up to the dawn of the Progressive Era. The need to peg events to
colourful personalities is presumably the reason why the story starts
in the 1840s with the Washingtonians, a temperance group whose members
included one of the great showmen of the age: John Bartholomew Gough.
Gough's theatrics make him just the sort of historical character we
all love to read about, but reality, alas, was considerably drabber,
for the Washingtonians were one of history's dead ends, and in any
event they were neither the first nor the largest of the original
temperance societies.

The 11 chapters on Prohibition proper are the heart of the book, and
they more than make up for its rocky start. There is, as one might
expect, a great deal about flappers, gangsters and rum-runners, but
the more thoughtful chapters focus on the ways in which businesses
managed to adapt and even thrive. A good example is the loophole in
the Volstead Act that allowed individual households to ferment up to
200 gallons of fruit juice a year. The exemption was a fob to all the
farmers who had no intention of giving up their hard cider, but it was
very quickly seized upon by California's vintners: Blocked from making
wine, they managed to make even more money by selling raw grapes to a
thirsty nation. Soon, they were tearing up their vineyards and
replanting them with vines producing the tough-skinned Alicante
Bouschet grape; a few years later, they were marketing dehydrated
blocks of grape juice that could be reconstituted as barely drinkable
wine.

Prohibition is one of those topics that always seems to elicit facile
comparisons, the usual candidate being the so-called War on Drugs.
Okrent, to his credit, does not give into this temptation. Or rather,
he intersperses his text with dots and allows the reader to connect
them. The comparison he suggests, ever so subtly, is in many ways even
more unsettling. It is this: A determined minority pushed through
Prohibition, and had the Great Depression not come along, it almost
certainly would have succeeded in blocking repeal. The inference?
Watch out for the Tea Partiers. They represent but a small fraction of
the American electorate, and that makes them all the more dangerous.

<http://www.theglobeandmail.com/books/review-last-call-the-rise-and-fall-of-prohibition-by-daniel-okrent/article1600692/>

Jessica Warner is a member of the graduate faculty at the Institute
for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology. Her most
recent book is All or Nothing: A Short History of Abstinence in
America.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

多了個兒子

選擇原諒殺兒兇手 阿德媽多了個兒子
NOWnews 今日新聞網, 2010/06/16

10多年前一群少年鬥毆中,「阿德」被楊姓少年持刀殺死,阿德的母親林美雲為了替兒子報仇,曾在出庭時帶了刀,想趁機手刃兇手。不過,後來楊姓少年的母親跪求林美雲原諒,讓林美雲不但願意原諒楊姓少年,還去監獄探望他,而現在楊姓少年也把她當成親生媽媽一樣看待。

民國87年的聖誕夜,當時年僅15歲的楊姓少年和友人聚餐,因細故和鄰座的少年爆發口角,並在混亂中持刀刺死阿德。哀傷的林美雲本想聽楊姓少年一句道歉,沒想到楊姓少年在法庭上不斷替自己找藉口,讓她恨到想親手殺死他。

後來,楊母登門道歉,跪求她的原諒。林美雲心想,倘若今天是自己兒子犯錯,應該也會希望別人原諒,因此選擇將心比心放下仇恨,便在兩年後到監獄探望楊姓少年。林美雲說,「唯一能做的就是放下,對自己比較有幫助,日子會比較好過。」

而楊姓少年一看到林美雲到監獄來看他,不知是慚愧還是悔恨,眼淚立刻流下來,並且開始將她當成自己的母親對待。林美雲說,「他都會打電話,叫我自己的身體要注意,比較冷時自己要注意,都是一些互相問候的。」自製的生日卡片、一疊厚厚的信件,全都是楊姓少年寄給林美雲的。

這些年來,她和楊姓少年保持聯絡、噓寒問暖,4年前楊姓少年出獄完成高中學業,林美雲還去參加畢業典禮,楊姓少年也聽她勸告,繼續升學,目前已是大三生。林美雲回想起這一切感慨無限,她說,即使想到死去的兒子還是會心痛,但她不後悔選擇原諒。(新聞來源:東森新聞記者賴志慶、張嘉慧)

http://www.nownews.com/2010/06/16/91-2615784.htm

--

Scénario d’un film

Assassinats Déguisés En Accidents Du Travail

Le Temps, Vendredi18 juin 2010
Philippe Grangereau

Les meurtres maquillés pour toucher des indemnités se multiplient dans
les mines. Dans le Sichuan, des gangs se spécialisent dans le rapt de
handicapés mentaux dans ce but

Les mines chinoises, tristement réputées pour les milliers d'ouvriers
qui y périssent chaque année dans des accidents, sont aussi le théâtre
de ténébreuses affaires de meurtres en série. Un tribunal de Pékin
s'apprête à juger une femme de 37 ans qui, avec deux voisins, a tué
son mari à coups de barre de fer dans la mine de charbon privée où il
travaillait près de Chengde (province du Hebei).

Scénario d'un film

Les trois complices ont maquillé le meurtre pour faire croire à un
éboulement de galerie; avant de réclamer au propriétaire les 40 000
euros d'indemnisation octroyés par la loi chinoise aux familles de
victimes d'accidents du travail. Les trois comparses n'en étaient pas
à leur coup d'essai. En 2007, selon le Journal de Pékin qui rapporte
ce fait divers, ils avaient déjà occis deux membres de leurs familles
dans des mines de la région en déguisant les meurtres en accidents.

Le scénario ressemble à celui d'un film chinois, Blind Shaft, du
metteur en scène Li Yang, d'ailleurs interdit dans le pays. On y voit
le meurtre d'un mineur par ses camarades pour s'approprier le montant
des dommages accordés pour l'«accident». Tourné en 2003, il est
révélateur d'une forme de criminalité qui semble s'être répandue
depuis lors, à en juger par les informations, souvent décousues, mais
parfois précises, publiées par la presse chinoise.

Le 27 mai, dans le Yunnan, trois hommes et une femme ont écopé de
peines allant de 15 ans de prison à la condamnation à mort. Ils
avaient promis à un malade mental de lui trouver un emploi dans
l'industrie minière. L'attirant devant un puits, ils l'y poussèrent.
Après s'être fait passer pour des membres de sa famille auprès du
patron, ils tentèrent de récolter un confortable dédommagement pour
son décès. Mais si, cette fois, la police a coffré les quatre
crapules, ce genre d'affaire se termine rarement par des arrestations.
«Plusieurs gangs spécialisés dans le meurtre de malades mentaux dans
les mines écument le pays», explique un détective.

Cette activité est relativement courante au point qu'elle a engendré
une forme de division du travail. Dans la province méridionale du
Sichuan, la police a annoncé en décembre l'arrestation de neuf membres
d'un gang spécialisé dans le recrutement ou le kidnapping de
handicapés mentaux dans le but précis de les vendre aux mafias des
mines. Ces dernières se chargeant, elles, d'assassiner les victimes
dans les galeries en vue de soutirer des dédommagements en se faisant
passer pour des proches. Le gang en question, a expliqué la police,
avait «vendu» au moins 17 malades mentaux dans neuf provinces
différentes.

<http://www.letemps.ch/Page/Uuid/049afb6e-7a50-11df-8058-0a471c6fd11f>

--

Friday, June 18, 2010

luan/ran

On the term luan/ran (亂/乱), Matthew H. Sommer writes:

"Similarly, the term luan (often translated as 'disorder' or 'chaos,'
and rendered as 'revolution' by Arthur Waley in the passage from
Analects quoted above) implies the perversion of sexual, familial, and
political order; it appears in compounds meaning 'incest' (e.g. luan
lun) and 'rebellion' (pan luan). One of the 'Ten Abominations' (shi e)
enumerated at the beginning of every legal code from the Tang dynasty
forward is nei luan, literally, 'internal disorder.' In a legal
context, nei luan refers to incest, but it can dean rebellion or civil
war as well. The director Kurosawa Akira captured this range of
nuances in his 1985 film Ran (the Japanese pronunciation of luan),
which is loosely based on King Lear. In Kurosawa's vision of luan,
when sons are set over their father, feudal order falls apart --
devolving into a nightmare of fratricide, patricide, incest, betrayal
or husband and wife, and finally civil war.

The connection between sexual and political disorder was not just a
question of semantics or of Confucian abstraction…"

Matthew H. Sommer, Sex, Law, and Society in Late Imperial China
(Kindle edition, 2000), 8% into the book.

--

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Julia Lovell on Lu Xun

China's conscience

Lu Xun is China's Dickens and Joyce rolled into one. He was sanctified
by Mao; museums and theme parks were built. But his books are now
being withdrawn from schools as too negative...

<http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/jun/12/rereading-julia-lovell-lu-xun>

--

Monday, June 14, 2010

Illustres athlètes

Vitruve (Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, 90 - 20 av. J.-C.), De
Architectura, Lib. IX, Praefatio:

Pour les illustres athlètes qui avaient remporté la victoire aux
jeux olympiques, isthmiques et néméens, les anciens Grecs
instituèrent des honneurs si grands que, non seulement ils sont
acclamés lorsqu'ils se tiennent debout au milieu du stade avec la
palme et la couronne, mais encore, lorsqu'ils reviennent vainqueurs
dans leur cité, ils sont conduits sur un quadrige, en triomphateurs,
dans leur patrie, dans leurs murs, et jouissent leur vie durant d'une
rente déterminée, payée par l'Etat.

Quand je constate cela, je me demande avec étonnement pourquoi
l'on n'a pas attribué les mêmes honneurs et de plus grands encore aux
écrivains, qui rendent d'immenses services à tous les peuples et pour
toujours. Voilà ce qui aurait bien davantage mérité d'être institué,
car si les athlètes, par leurs exercices, fortifient leur propre
corps, les écrivains fortifient non seulement leur intelligence, mais
encore celle de tous, quand ils procurent dans leurs livres des leçons
destinées à fournir un enseignement et à affiner les esprits.

(Nobilibus athletis, qui Olympia, Isthmia, Nemea uicissent, Graecorum
maiores ita magnos honores constituerunt, uti non modo in conuentu
stantes cum palma et corona ferant laudes, sed etiam, cum reuertantur
in suas ciuitates cum uictoria, triumphantes quadrigis in moenia et in
patrias inuehantur e reque publica perpetua uita constitutis
uectigalibus fruantur.

Cum ergo id animaduertam, admiror quid ita non scriptoribus eidem
honores etiamque maiores sint tributi, qui infinitas utilitates aeuo
perpetuo omnibus gentibus praestant. Id enim magis erat institui
dignum, quod athletae sua corpora exercitationibus efficiunt fortiora,
scriptores non solum suos sensus, sed etiam omnium, <cum> libris ad
discendum et animos exacuendos praeparant praecepta.)

<http://www.gelahn.asso.fr/docs115.html>

Saturday, June 12, 2010

un Paese adorabile

La Stampa, 11/6/2010:

C'è qualcosa di speciale tra il Cavaliere e la Spagna, che peraltro
considera un Paese «adorabile», cattolico di facciata ma in realtà
«libertino». Quando c'è di mezzo la Spagna, il governo socialista, i
giornalisti spagnoli, le ministre spagnole, o Zapatero in persona,
Silvio Berlusconi dà sempre molto.

Sarebbe affrettato considerarle banalmente gaffes, o presunte tali.
Ieri il premier italiano, dopo aver parlato di euro ed economia, ha
mollato lì il collega spagnolo (nella Sala delle Galere) e dribblato
la stampa (c'era un indigesto precedente, che leggerete). «Lascio
l'amico Josè Luis alle domande dei giornalisti, e lo saluto come si
saluta un santo, perchè avendo avuto la benedizione del Papa, in
questo momento è in una situazione di grazia assoluta...». Palazzo
Chigi precisa che era tutto concordato per lasciare spazio all'ospite.
Fatto sta che Zapatero è rimato un po' sorpreso - «sconcertato»,
secondo El País -, certo anche abituato all'imprevisto col Silvio
della Brianza.

Lui vorrebbe, in fondo, un sorriso per tutti, e da tutti. E per questo
ama il palcoscenico internazionale, gli allarga la scena. Solo con la
Spagna è stato capace di dire che gli sembravano «troppe nove donne
nel governo spagnolo» (Zapatero s'era appena insediato); di fare le
corna in un vertice internazionale a Caceres; di ascoltare un'altra
volta un po' teso (sempre con Zapatero accanto) la domanda sulle
escort e l'immagine dell'Italia rivolta dal giornalista di El País
Miguel Mora. Il video è per appassionati: Silvio serrò un po' la
mascella, prima tentò la battuta, «è invidioso, eh?, ci sono molti
turisti stranieri che hanno prenotato le vacanze per il prossimo
anno»...

<http://www.lastampa.it/_web/cmstp/tmplRubriche/giornalisti/grubrica.asp?ID_blog=14&ID_articolo=552&ID_sezione=6&sezione=>

--

La muerte de un "sujeto"

El País, 10/06/2010

Sergio Adrián Hernández no tenía barro en los zapatos, pero sí un
balazo a quemarropa que le quitó la vida. Lo primero demuestra que el
muchacho mexicano de 14 años no intentó cruzar el lecho del río Bravo
para pasar ilegalmente desde Ciudad Juárez a El Paso. Lo segundo deja
claro que el agente de la patrulla fronteriza estadounidense que
disparó su arma tuvo que invadir territorio mexicano para atinarle en
la cabeza. Porque, como explica la desconsolada madre de Sergio
Adrián, su hijo cayó desplomado en tierra mexicana, bajo el Puente
Negro, "y no en tierra extraña". El suceso ha tensado aún más las
difíciles relaciones entre México y EE UU en materia migratoria. El
presidente mexicano, Felipe Calderón, pidió de forma enérgica que se
esclarezcan los hechos. Sergio Adrián es el segundo mexicano muerto
por agentes fronterizos en ocho días. Anastasio Hernández Rojas
falleció en San Diego después de recibir una paliza.
Todo ocurrió a las 18.45 del lunes. Según la versión mexicana, Sergio
Adrián y sus amigos estaban jugando al fútbol en la orilla casi seca
del río Bravo, observando a ratos los escarceos que sostienen los
migrantes con los agentes de la patrulla fronteriza en Ciudad Juárez,
uno de los puntos más calientes de los 3.000 kilómetros de frontera.
Por si fuera poco, la aprobación de la ley de Arizona que convierte en
sospechosos a todos los latinos por sus rasgos ha calentado el clima
político y las relaciones entre los habitantes de uno y otro lado.
Para terminar de complicar las cosas, el río Bravo es a su paso por
Juárez un riachuelo, una invitación a cruzar más que un impedimento.
La versión ofrecida por EE UU es bien distinta. Philip Crowley,
portavoz del Departamento de Estado, explicó que los agentes
estadounidenses atraparon a dos "sujetos" que intentaban entrar en el
país, pero que "otros sujetos corrieron hacia México y empezaron a
tirar piedras a un agente que llegó en bicicleta. Este agente, que
había detenido al segundo sujeto en el suelo, dio órdenes a los
sujetos de parar y replegarse. Sin embargo, rodearon al agente y
continuaron tirando rocas hacia él. El agente entonces disparó su arma
de servicio hiriendo a un sujeto que más tarde murió".
El "sujeto" en cuestión se llamaba Sergio Adrián Hernández y cayó
muerto del lado mexicano, bajo el Puente Negro, con un disparo en la
cabeza y los zapatos limpios. Tenía 14 años.

--

Friday, June 11, 2010

"Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it."

Our gadgets, ourselves
By Ruth Marcus
Washington Post, Wednesday, June 9, 2010; A21

I've come down with a bad case of the shallows.

That's technology writer Nicholas Carr's term -- and the title of his
new book -- for the invisible, invidious impact of computers on the
modern brain. Carr compares himself to HAL, the malfunctioning
computer in "2001: A Space Odyssey," lamenting as its circuitry is
unplugged, "Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it."

As Carr writes, "I can feel it too. Over the last few years I've had
an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering
with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the
memory. My mind isn't going -- so far as I can tell -- but it's
changing. I'm not thinking the way I used to think." Trying to read a
book, he says, "my concentration starts to drift after a page or two.
. . . I feel like I'm always dragging my wayward brain back to the
test."

Me, too. I thought it was middle age, and maybe it is, or perhaps
belatedly self-diagnosed adult attention-deficit disorder. But Carr's
assessment -- "what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away at my
capacity for concentration and contemplation" -- jibed uncomfortably
with my own experience.

Once upon a time, which is to say before the advent of the Internet,
my work as a journalist involved reading documents, making phone
calls, attending events. Turning to the keyboard, or the screen, was
the end of the assembly line.

Now, it seems, it is the totality: I spend hours skittering across the
virtual surface of the Web, flitting from place to place, never
resting for very long. I read a few sentences -- or write a few -- and
my hand twitches, like an alcoholic reaching for the bottle, toward
the BlackBerry.

I must know -- now -- what has arrived in my inbox, even though almost
all of it is junk. I live an alt-tab existence, constantly shuttling
among the open windows on my browser. I have switched, in Carr's
formulation, from "reading to power-browsing." I am a lab rat
"constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or
intellectual nourishment."

I love technology. It lets me work better and faster. It untethers me
from a physical office and allows me to, well, alt-tab efficiently
between work and family. E-mail and social networking, with the
combination of ease of access yet remoteness of interaction, help make
and renew personal connections.

But technology also takes its toll -- including physically. "The
technology is rewiring our brains," Nora Volkow, director of the
National Institute of Drug Abuse, told the New York Times. The brain
is malleable, and, like any regular exercise, the instant
gratification world of the Web helps build certain neural connections
while others molder.

The implications of this are most worrisome for children. Like Carr, I
had an "analog youth" before a "digital adulthood." A modern child's
existence is all digital, all the time. They have constant access to
stimulation -- on their laptops, on their iPods, on their cellphones.
It is no surprise that their capacity to submerge themselves for hours
in the world of a book has been diminished. Their brains are wired to
expect more stimulation.

My current household technological battle involves making the kids
turn off Facebook and cellphones when studying. They believe this to
be not only unnecessary but rude: In an age when no one is ever really
out of contact, how could they possibly be inaccessible to their
friends?

And then there is the disturbing question of how the era of virtual
communications affects friendships and personality. Kids prefer text
over talk; it is, to them, more efficient. But the inability to
discern tone and inflection enhances the possibilities of
misunderstanding, and the distancing effect of disembodied language
lowers the barrier for hurtful speech.

In a new study, researchers at the University of Michigan found that
college students today are about 40 percent lower in empathy, measured
by standard personality tests, than their counterparts 20 and 30 years
ago. The biggest drop occurred after 2000, coinciding with the rise of
online communications and social networking, and the author, Sara
Konrath, sees a possible correlation. "Empathy is best activated when
you can see another person's signal for help," she told USA Today.

The subtitle of Carr's book is "What the Internet Is Doing to Our
Brains." Perhaps he should worry about our hearts as well.

<http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/08/AR2010060803734.html>

--

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

"Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in
the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very
much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the
medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to
imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of
language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving
specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the
matter is that the 'real world' is to a large extent unconsciously
built upon the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever
sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social
reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct
worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached... We
see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because
the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of
interpretation."

Edward Sapir, "The Status of Linguistics as a Science" (1929) in E.
Sapir, Culture, Language and Personality, ed. D. G. Mandelbaum,
University of California Press, 1958, p. 69.

"We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The
categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do
not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the
contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of
impressions which has to be organized by our minds - and this means
largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up,
organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely
because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way - an
agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified
in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an
implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we
cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and
classification of data which the agreement decrees."

Benjamin Lee Whorf, Whorf, B. L. (1940): "Science and Linguistics," in
B. L. Whorf, Language, Thought and Reality, ed. J. B. Carroll, MIT
Press, 1956, pp. 213-14.

--

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Oppie's languages

Ever wondered where Robert Oppenheimer got the nickname "Oppie" from?

"Only six weeks after his arrival [in Holland, for a series of
lectures], Oppenheimer astonished his peers by giving a lecture in
Dutch, yet another language he had taught himself. His Dutch friends
were so impressed by his spirited delivery that they began calling him
'Opje' -- and affectionate contraction of his last name -- and he
would bear the new nickname for life. His facility with this new
language may have been assisted by a woman. According to the physicist
Abraham Pais, Oppenheimer had an affair with a young Dutch woman named
Suus (Susan)."

The fact that Oppie spoke German may have helped. He has written and
defended his Ph.D. dissertation in German, aged 23, at the University
of Göttingen. After the oral exam for his degree, the examiner said he
was glad the ordeal was over, because Oppenheimer had started asking
the questions.

Here is a passage on Oppie's love of Sanskrit:

"Robert felt himself drawn to both Ryder and the ancient language that
was his friend's vocation. Soon Ryder was giving Oppenheimer private
tutorials in Sanskrit each Thursday evening. 'I am learning Sanskrit,'
Robert wrote Frank [his younger brother], 'enjoying it very much, and
enjoying again the sweet luxury of being taught.' While most of his
friends saw this new obsession as slightly odd, Harold Cherniss -- who
had introduced Oppie to Ryder -- thought it made perfect sense. 'He
liked things that were difficult,' Cherniss said. 'And since almost
every was easy for him, the things that really would attract his
attention were essentially the difficult.' Besides, Oppie had a 'taste
for the mystical, the cryptic.' With his facility for languages, it
wasn't long before Robert was reading the Bhagavad-Gita. 'It is very
easy and quite marvelous,' he wrote Frank. He told friends that this
ancient Hindu text -- 'The Lord's Song' -- was 'the most beautiful
philosophical song existing in any known tongue.' Ryder gave him a
pink-covered copy of the book which found its way onto the bookshelf
closest to his desk. Oppie took to passing out copies of the Gita as
gifts to his friends."

Oppenheimer's greatest linguistic love, however, was the English
language and its literature, a fact that comes through again and again
in Bird and Sherwin's biography. Friends and foes alike were time and
again astounded by Oppenheimer's ability to quote reams and reams of
poetry and to speak, extemporaneously and at great length, with
eloquence, poise, and great powers of persuasion. Not that it did him
any good before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

The quotes are from American Prometheus, Kai Bird and Martin J.
Sherwin's biography of Oppenheimer. Because I read this book on a
Kindle, I don't know the page numbers.

--

"The Interpreter"

"Has a remote Amazonian tribe upended our understanding of language?"

<http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/04/16/070416fa_fact_colapinto>

--

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Cruel and unusual

From today's El Universal, a Mexican newspaper:

Alicia Cardenas, a spokeswoman for the (Mexican government's) Civil
Service Secretariat, has declared that the federal government will not
consider days or partial days taken off work to watch the World Cup,
even if the Mexican team wins a game, as having been taken off for
legitimate cause. Public servants who skip work to watch soccer games
will be sanctioned.

<http://m.elmanana.com.mx/notas.asp?id=184618>

I don't know if the Mexican constitution contains a provision akin to
the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, but Mexico did adopt the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is bound to abide by Art. 5
thereof. But, gawrsh, that's what them there internets are for. Let's
see...

Yes, indeed, Art. 22 of the Mexican Constitution prohibits cruel and
unusual punishment. If I were Alicia Cardenas, I'd watch my back.

--

Goodbye internet

The Massachusetts sage and political street fighter Tip O'Neall
famously said that all politics is local. Rumi, the Persian poet,
wrote that when you are everywhere, you are nowhere and that when you
are somewhere, you are everywhere. I suppose that means I'm nowhere.
But I wonder if that's such a terrible thing.

The Kindle has had a surprising effect on me. I no longer read blogs,
or surf the internet for fun, or watch TV. And I've quit reading paper
books. Instead, I am reading a biography and a novel every week and I
am subscribed to, and read every day, the Washington Post, the New
York Times, La Stampa, Frankfurter Allgemeine, El Universal (a Mexican paper), El
Pais, O Globo (my favorite Brazilian papers aren't available, but I'm
finding plenty to keep me interested in O Globo), and Le Monde. I may
be nowhere, but I am learning quite a bit about several places I find
captivating. From O Globo, I've learned this past week that leprosy is
still a widespread disease in Brazil. And I've been reminded that
there's lot more to Brazil than Lula's foreign policy. (It never
occurred to me, for instance, that a ten-year-old with Hansen's
disease would tell her classmates that she has an allergy.) In El
Universal I read this week about the death of Anastasio Hernandez,
which was largely ignored by the U.S. press, though he was killed on
American soil, and about the arrest and sordid story of Gregorio
Sanchez Martinez, the mayor of Cancun. From the Frankfurter Allgemeine
I learned something of the biography, and inner demons, of Horst
Köhler, who surprised friends and foes alike by resigning from the
German presidency. In the Washington Post, I've been reading the story
of Sanquan "Bootsy" Carter, his bracelet, and the March 30 Southeast
D.C. shootings, which could be straight out of The Wire. This morning,
I read the story of the Pointe-au-Chien ("Dog Point"), or
Pointe-aux-Chenes ("Point of Oaks"), a French-speaking Indian tribe
who live on the mouth of Mississippi River and are fearing for their
livelihood, which is meager in the best of times, because of the oil
spill. To my surprise, I'm spending more time reading El Universal
than El Pais, not because the former is a better newspaper (it isn't),
but because I'm more interested in Mexico than in Spain. That Brazil
is a civilization unto itself I knew from the years I spent studying
its literature as an undergraduate. I have to force myself to stop
reading stories from Brazil.

So I'm bidding farewell to the internet which, alas, I still need for
work. Reluctantly, because there are only so many hours in a day, I'm
also saying goodbye to a number of blogs I've come to appreciate over
the years: The Language Log, the Language Hat, Frog in a Well, Onze
Taal, Letters of Note, Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish, The Useless Tree,
and a few others. I am aware that some of the best writing these days
is found on blogs, but I'm finding more than enough well-written
articles, news analysis, investigative reporting, and book reviews in
traditional newspapers to keep me riveted without spending time in
front of a computer. I hope to continue, occasionally, to jot down
things of interest I come across in my personal scrapbook:

http://chroniconmundi.blogspot.com/

But the truth is that I no longer enjoy spending time in front of a
computer screen.

I decided to try out a Kindle because e-books are slightly cheaper
than paper books. What I didn't expect was that I would find it easier
and more convenient to read very long books and newspapers, in bed, on
the kitchen table, and on the train on the Kindle.

Why the Kindle is not like a computer screen, and why I am not even
aware I am actually reading e-books, or looking at an electronic
device, I explained in this review:

http://chroniconmundi.blogspot.com/2010/05/kindle-redux.html

Yesterday, I read Daniel Everett's Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life
and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, which I would recommend to
anyone interested in linguistics, anthropology, child rearing, and
evangelical Christianity (Everett lost his Christian faith among the
Pirahã's; his wife didn't).

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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Communidad tuitera

Today's Spanish term is "communidad tuitera," from "tuits," from the
English word "tweets."

"La muerte de Hernández Rojas se convirtió en un tema ampliamente
comentado por la comunidad tuitera. Los tuits enviados desde
diferentes partes del mundo se multiplicaron tras el fallecimiento, a
tres días de que se le había diagnosticado muerte cerebral al
mexicano."

From today's El Universal, Mexico.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Discipline

Robert Oppenheimer in a letter he wrote his brother Frank in 1932:

"You put a hard question on the virtue of discipline. What you say is
true: I do value it -- and I think that you do too -- more than for
its earthly fruit, proficiency. I think that one can give only a
metaphysical ground for this evaluation; but the variety of
metaphysics which gave an answer to your question has been very great,
the metaphysics themselves very disparate: the Bhagavadgita,
Ecclesiastes, the Stoa, the beginning of the Laws, Hugo of St. Victor,
St. Thomas, John of the Cross, Spinoza. This very great disparity
suggests that the fact that discipline is good for the soul is more
fundamental than any of the grounds given for its goodness. I believe
that through discipline, though not through discipline alone, we can
achieve serenity, and a certain small but precious measure of the
freedom from the accidents of incarnation, and charity, and that
detachment which preserves the world which it renounces. I believe
that through discipline we can learn to preserve what is essential to
our happiness in more and more adverse circumstances, and to abandon
with simplicity what would else have seemed to us indispensable; that
we come a little to see the world without the gross distortion of
personal desire, and in seeing it so, accept more easily our earthly
privation and its earthly horror. But because I believe that the
reward of discipline is greater than its immediate objective, I would
not have you think that discipline without objective is possible: in
its nature discipline involves the subjection of the soul to some
perhaps minor end; and that end must be real, if the discipline is not
to be factitious. Therefore I think that all things which evoke
discipline: study, and our duties to men and to the commonwealth, war,
and personal hardship, and even the need for subsistence, ought to be
greeted by us with profound gratitude, for only through them can we
attain to the least detachment; and only so can we know peace."

Quoted in Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin's biography of Oppenheimer,
American Prometheus. Because I read this on a Kindle, I don't know the
page number.

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