31 August 2010

Brilliant brevity

Michael and Walter come up with this sort of thing on a regular basis, but I am gobsmackingly impressed by the cleverness of the recent New Yorker poem by David Musgrave quoted today in Aditya Chakrabortty's Guardian column.

Title: "On the inevitable decline into mediocrity of the popular musician who attains a comfortable middle age"

Text (complete): "Oh Sting, where is thy death?"

20 August 2010

Shut up, Newt!

This whole "Ground Zero Mosque" debate is out of control. For a start, as Keith Olbermann points out in the video clip pasted below, it's neither a mosque nor at Ground Zero. Sometimes the left needs a Fox-style attack dog to point out obvious truths that get lost when the Gingriches, Palins, and Becks of the political world start fulminating.

Olbermann begins by quoting Martin Niemöller, a Dachau survivor who had at first supported the Nazis (text here from Wikipedia):

"THEY CAME FIRST for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.

THEN THEY CAME for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.

THEN THEY CAME for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.

and by that time no one was left to speak up."

Sitting across the Atlantic, I am (yet again) disappointed and saddened by the Republican rhetoric of hate on this issue.

But there's always The Daily Show to brighten things up. John Oliver asked the other night why they weren't stopping Catholic churches from building next to playgrounds....



Washington Post today on the view from NYC:


13 August 2010

PZ Myers strikes again

Michael regularly sends me links to posts on Pharyngula, the "random ejaculations of a godless liberal." PZ Myers is indefatigable: how he manages to have a job (associate professor of biology, University of Minnesota) as well as a private life beyond his website is hard to imagine. He's put up 90+ posts already in August.

Be sure to read the last paragraph here before you think Myers is interested only in attacking Islam. His target is far broader.

Which doesn't make the comment one of his readers posted any less funny: "That reminds me of the man on a plane from London to Saudi who asked one of the cabin crew what the time difference was. The reply was 'Three thousand years'!" [Another reader pointed out the often-forgotten fact that Big Ben is actually the bell in the tower, not the clock.]

I didn't know the meaning of "cargo cult science" when I came across it here. A quick check on Wikipedia filled me in: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cargo_cult_science

From the department of not getting it

Category: KooksReligion
Posted on: August 11, 2010 8:57 AM, by PZ Myers

Muslims in Saudi Arabia are building a giant clock that resembles Big Ben, but is over six times larger. They want to replace Greenwich Mean Time with Mecca Time as the world standard.

As Mohammed al-Arkubi, manager of one of the hotels in the complex, put it: "Putting Mecca time in the face of Greenwich Mean Time. This is the goal."

This is a beautiful example of cargo cult science. Big Ben has nothing to do with establishing GMT — it's just a big clock in London. GMT is entirely about establishing a uniform standard reference time. It was set rather arbitrarily to the time at an observatory in England, because England was the leading maritime nation at the time and used solar observations relative to Greenwich to determine the longitude of ships at sea. Greenwich time has also been replaced since then by Coordinated Universal Time, which is based on measurements of a world-wide network of atomic clocks, which turn out to be more reliable than figuring out the position of the sun.

It's an arbitrary standard, get it? Building a giant clock in the desert will not suddenly attract time to line up with it. Although it does sound like a perfectly kitschy and annoying clock, with bright lights that can be seen 18 miles away that will flash and blink in colors to let people know it is time to pray. I suspect they're also trying to standardize the web back to 1995 html, too.

And of course there is more. There is a whole lot of freakish cargo cult science going on down there.

According to Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric known around the Muslim world for his popular television show "Sharia and Life", Mecca has a greater claim to being the prime meridian because it is "in perfect alignment with the magnetic north."

This claim that the holy city is a "zero magnetism zone" has won support from some Arab scientists like Abdel-Baset al-Sayyed of the Egyptian National Research Centre who says that there is no magnetic force in Mecca.

"That's why if someone travels to Mecca or lives there, he lives longer, is healthier and is less affected by the earth's gravity," he said. "You get charged with energy."

What does that even mean? The magnetic north pole is currently located somewhere near Ellesmere Island, in Canada, and it wobbles about a lot, by several miles each year. How can a city in Saudi Arabia be in perfect alignment with an island in Canada? Being at the magnetic north pole, or even aligned with it, doesn't mean there is no magnetism there, it's not going to change how gravity works, and it's not going to zap you with energy.

What the Saudis clearly need to do is build a 2000 foot tall horseshoe-shaped magnet in Mecca, cover it with strobe lights and Allah's name, and then pray for the earth's core to rotate and drift in alignment with their little monument.

By the way, if you're just laughing at those dumb Muslims, keep in mind that Christians look exactly the same to us atheists. Every one who thinks that the heavens proclaim their petty parochial deity's glory…you're just as wacky and blind as the desert misogynists throwing away their oil wealth on knick-knacks for Allah.


10 August 2010

Kate and her feline foulard

A rare event: a photo of one of our kids that I can post. Kate is petsitting for the Valentines.

07 August 2010

Fluvial analogies

In a chapter Michael has written on his hero, Ralph Bagnold, for a multi-author book on macro-engineering, he quotes the goal statement that Bagnold and his collaborator Luna Leopold came up with in the 1950s for their work in the slow-moving field of sediment transport. They declared that together they would ‘‘stir the pool of complacent tradition with the stick of reality.’’

Michael's peerless copy editor at the University of California Press, Dore Brown, used a similar metaphor to describe her absolutely critical work on the text of Sand. She was trying "not to still the occasional meanderings, but simply to free up the larger eddies that threatened to impede forward motion."

Succumbing to temptation

I no sooner read The Economist's review of The Oxford Book of Parodies than said volume was in my Amazon shopping cart.

One tidbit (or titbit, if you're a Brit) from Wendy Cope:

In April one seldom feels cheerful;
Dry stones, sun and dust make me fearful;
Clairvoyantes distress me,
Commuters depress me—
Met Stetson and gave him an earful.

Takes me right back to English 101 my freshman year at college.

For more of these Waste Land limericks see


06 August 2010

P Pullman must either be a masochist or have quite enjoyed the flak he took for His Dark Materials

Michael returned from California with a news snippet torn out of a copy of the New Humanist he'd taken to read on the plane. At the Oxford Literary Festival, Philip Pullman was asked whether the title of his most recent book wasn't offensive to Christians.

Here's his short, sharp retort, well-circulated by internet commentators:

"It was a shocking thing to say and I knew it was a shocking thing to say. But no one has the right to live without being shocked. No one has the right to spend their life without being offended. Nobody has to read this book. Nobody has to pick it up. Nobody has to open it. And if you open it and read it, you don't have to like it. And if you read it and you dislike it, you don't have to remain silent about it. You can write to me, you can complain about it, you can write to the publisher, you can write to the papers, you can write your own book. You can do all those things, but there your rights stop. No one has the right to stop me writing this book. No one has the right to stop it being published, or bought, or sold or read. That's all I have to say on that subject."

Andrew Sullivan was one of many who posted a video of the actual exchange (link below). Here's to freedom of speech and press. The literary merit of The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ may be debatable, but neither the book nor its title could be construed as inciting hate or violence towards others. Ergo—roll the presses!


Review of novel on Bookslut:


05 August 2010

For the record: Hitchens on Rushdie

"At a dinner party that will forever be green in the memory of those who attended it, somebody was complaining not just about the epic badness of the novels of Robert Ludlum but also about the badness of their titles. (You know the sort of pretentiousness: The Bourne Supremacy, The Aquitaine Progression, The Ludlum Impersonation, and so forth.) Then it happily occurred to another guest to wonder aloud what a Shakespeare play might be called if named in the Ludlum manner. At which point Salman Rushdie perked up and started to sniff the air like a retriever. “O.K. then, Salman, what would Hamlet’s title be if submitted to the Ludlum treatment?” “The Elsinore Vacillation,” he replied—and I find I must stress this—in no more time than I have given you. Think it was a fluke? Macbeth? “The Dunsinane Reforestation.” To persist and to come up with The Rialto Sanction and The Kerchief Implication was the work of not too many more moments."



The title above, trotted out for several reviews of Hitch-22, the recent memoir by Christopher Hitchens, has acquired an unintended poignancy with the news of his esophageal cancer. Love him or hate him—and there are many in both camps—the piece below, to appear in the September issue of Vanity Fair, is an impressive bit of wordsmithing. It's not easy to get the tone right in this sort of article, but (in my opinion anyway) this eloquent ironist has done exactly that, managing to avoid both sentimentality and his trademark cockiness.

I've enjoyed his columns for years, as Hitchens morphed from Marxist enfant terrible to grumpy old man. Yes, he can be infuriating and smug, but he's also witty, original, and never afraid to kick a sacred cow. Here's hoping that those "brilliant and selfless physicians" he mentions can see to it that we fans will still be brightening at the sight of his byline for a good while longer.

Topic of Cancer

One fine June day, the author is launching his best-selling memoir, Hitch-22. The next, he’s throwing up backstage at The Daily Show, in a brief bout of denial, before entering the unfamiliar country—with its egalitarian spirit, martial metaphors, and hard bargains of people who have cancer.

September 2010

The author at home in Washington, D.C., July 18, 2010.

I have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death. But nothing prepared me for the early morning last June when I came to consciousness feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse. The whole cave of my chest and thorax seemed to have been hollowed out and then refilled with slow-drying cement. I could faintly hear myself breathe but could not manage to inflate my lungs. My heart was beating either much too much or much too little. Any movement, however slight, required forethought and planning. It took strenuous effort for me to cross the room of my New York hotel and summon the emergency services. They arrived with great dispatch and behaved with immense courtesy and professionalism. I had the time to wonder why they needed so many boots and helmets and so much heavy backup equipment, but now that I view the scene in retrospect I see it as a very gentle and firm deportation, taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady. Within a few hours, having had to do quite a lot of emergency work on my heart and my lungs, the physicians at this sad border post had shown me a few other postcards from the interior and told me that my immediate next stop would have to be with an oncologist. Some kind of shadow was throwing itself across the negatives.

The previous evening, I had been launching my latest book at a successful event in New Haven. The night of the terrible morning, I was supposed to go on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and then appear at a sold-out event at the 92nd Street Y, on the Upper East Side, in conversation with Salman Rushdie. My very short-lived campaign of denial took this form: I would not cancel these appearances or let down my friends or miss the chance of selling a stack of books. I managed to pull off both gigs without anyone noticing anything amiss, though I did vomit two times, with an extraordinary combination of accuracy, neatness, violence, and profusion, just before each show. This is what citizens of the sick country do while they are still hopelessly clinging to their old domicile.

The new land is quite welcoming in its way. Everybody smiles encouragingly and there appears to be absolutely no racism. A generally egalitarian spirit prevails, and those who run the place have obviously got where they are on merit and hard work. As against that, the humor is a touch feeble and repetitive, there seems to be almost no talk of sex, and the cuisine is the worst of any destination I have ever visited. The country has a language of its own—a lingua franca that manages to be both dull and difficult and that contains names like ondansetron, for anti-nausea medication—as well as some unsettling gestures that require a bit of getting used to. For example, an official met for the first time may abruptly sink his fingers into your neck. That’s how I discovered that my cancer had spread to my lymph nodes, and that one of these deformed beauties—located on my right clavicle, or collarbone—was big enough to be seen and felt. It’s not at all good when your cancer is “palpable” from the outside. Especially when, as at this stage, they didn’t even know where the primary source was. Carcinoma works cunningly from the inside out. Detection and treatment often work more slowly and gropingly, from the outside in. Many needles were sunk into my clavicle area—“Tissue is the issue” being a hot slogan in the local Tumorville tongue—and I was told the biopsy results might take a week.

Working back from the cancer-ridden squamous cells that these first results disclosed, it took rather longer than that to discover the disagreeable truth. The word “metastasized” was the one in the report that first caught my eye, and ear. The alien had colonized a bit of my lung as well as quite a bit of my lymph node. And its original base of operations was located—had been located for quite some time—in my esophagus. My father had died, and very swiftly, too, of cancer of the esophagus. He was 79. I am 61. In whatever kind of a “race” life may be, I have very abruptly become a finalist.

In whatever kind of a “race” life may be, I have very abruptly become a finalist.

The notorious stage theory of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, whereby one progresses from denial to rage through bargaining to depression and the eventual bliss of “acceptance,” hasn’t so far had much application in my case. In one way, I suppose, I have been “in denial” for some time, knowingly burning the candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light. But for precisely that reason, I can’t see myself smiting my brow with shock or hear myself whining about how it’s all so unfair: I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me. Rage would be beside the point for the same reason. Instead, I am badly oppressed by a gnawing sense of waste. I had real plans for my next decade and felt I’d worked hard enough to earn it. Will I really not live to see my children married? To watch the World Trade Center rise again? To read—if not indeed write—the obituaries of elderly villains like Henry Kissinger and Joseph Ratzinger? But I understand this sort of non-thinking for what it is: sentimentality and self-pity. Of course my book hit the best-seller list on the day that I received the grimmest of news bulletins, and for that matter the last flight I took as a healthy-feeling person (to a fine, big audience at the Chicago Book Fair) was the one that made me a million-miler on United Airlines, with a lifetime of free upgrades to look forward to. But irony is my business and I just can’t see any ironies here: would it be less poignant to get cancer on the day that my memoirs were remaindered as a box-office turkey, or that I was bounced from a coach-class flight and left on the tarmac? To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?

The bargaining stage, though. Maybe there’s a loophole here. The oncology bargain is that, in return for at least the chance of a few more useful years, you agree to submit to chemotherapy and then, if you are lucky with that, to radiation or even surgery. So here’s the wager: you stick around for a bit, but in return we are going to need some things from you. These things may include your taste buds, your ability to concentrate, your ability to digest, and the hair on your head. This certainly appears to be a reasonable trade. Unfortunately, it also involves confronting one of the most appealing clichés in our language. You’ve heard it all right. People don’t have cancer: they are reported to be battling cancer. No well-wisher omits the combative image: You can beat this. It’s even in obituaries for cancer losers, as if one might reasonably say of someone that they died after a long and brave struggle with mortality. You don’t hear it about long-term sufferers from heart disease or kidney failure.

Myself, I love the imagery of struggle. I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient. Allow me to inform you, though, that when you sit in a room with a set of other finalists, and kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don’t read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you. You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water.

It’s quite something, this chemo-poison. It has caused me to lose about 14 pounds, though without making me feel any lighter. It has cleared up a vicious rash on my shins that no doctor could ever name, let alone cure. (Some venom, to get rid of those furious red dots without a struggle.) Let it please be this mean and ruthless with the alien and its spreading dead-zone colonies. But as against that, the death-dealing stuff and life-preserving stuff have also made me strangely neuter. I was fairly reconciled to the loss of my hair, which began to come out in the shower in the first two weeks of treatment, and which I saved in a plastic bag so that it could help fill a floating dam in the Gulf of Mexico. But I wasn’t quite prepared for the way that my razorblade would suddenly go slipping pointlessly down my face, meeting no stubble. Or for the way that my newly smooth upper lip would begin to look as if it had undergone electrolysis, causing me to look a bit too much like somebody’s maiden auntie. (The chest hair that was once the toast of two continents hasn’t yet wilted, but so much of it was shaved off for various hospital incisions that it’s a rather patchy affair.) I feel upsettingly de-natured. If Penélope Cruz were one of my nurses, I wouldn’t even notice. In the war against Thanatos, if we must term it a war, the immediate loss of Eros is a huge initial sacrifice.

These are my first raw reactions to being stricken. I am quietly resolved to resist bodily as best I can, even if only passively, and to seek the most advanced advice. My heart and blood pressure and many other registers are now strong again: indeed, it occurs to me that if I didn’t have such a stout constitution I might have led a much healthier life thus far. Against me is the blind, emotionless alien, cheered on by some who have long wished me ill. But on the side of my continued life is a group of brilliant and selfless physicians plus an astonishing number of prayer groups. On both of these I hope to write next time if—as my father invariably said—I am spared.


02 August 2010

La Guerre de Cent Ans

I'm not sure where I (or Michael) came across this, but it does amuse me.

01 August 2010

from Jo Shapcott's new poetry collection

I'm not sure about the direct address to the reader in these lines quoted in the Guardian, but I love "white scrawl" and "feather frill":

"Reader, you're an owl/ for this moment, your flower-face a white scrawl/ in the dark, a feather frill."

Baby Tawny Owl
photo by Kate's friend Marie W.