Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Zbigniew Brzezinski is Right

The massive Israeli attacks on Gaza are cruel, inhumane and disproportionate to the threat from Hamas. They are causing terrible and unjustified suffering for ordinary civilians and they must be condemned.

However, each separate escalation and the attendant bout of violence only serves to obscure the real problem: the lack of an energetic, sustained and fair peace process led by the U.S with visible results and a clear timeline and milestones for a two state solution. The Bush administration abandoned all pretense of even-handedness in the region after Clinton had at least engaged the two sides constructively toward a workable solution at Taba in his waning days. However, Ariel Sharon then came to power in Israel along with Bush in the U.S. putting an end to the peace process with the resulting despondency triggering the second intifada.

Even though the abject failure of the Bush administration in the Middle East is one major reason for the lasting damage done to American interests, moral standing and credibility in the world, Israel remains the third rail of Amercian politics. No administration (or mainstream media outlet) can be seen as anything less than 200% supportive of even self-destructive Israeli policies. This remains true even as there are more Amercian Jewish groups working to advance the cause of peace who (rightly) believe that Israel's long term security will be best served by making a just peace with its neighbors and isolating the extremist fringe with political action not bombings and blockades. The Obama administration will not be much different in its timidity to responsibly engage with the Palestinian-Israeli question for fear of political landmines but he should listen to Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski's advice.

Dr. Brzezinski (National Security Advisor in the Carter Administration) outlined the case for American involvement and as a bonus took Joe Scarborough (a media talking head) to task. Joe was mouthing the standard mainstream media cliches but Brzezinski was having none of it. Watch the exchange below:

"You know, you have such a stunningly superficial knowledge of what went on that it's almost embarrassing to listen to you." (Brzezinski to Scarborough)

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

On the First Day of Newton, My True Love Gave to Me

There is a delightful column yesterday by Olivia Judson in the New York Times called "The Ten Days of Newton". (Browsers of this blog are familiar with her column "The Wild Side" and some of her writings on evolution in that forum.)

In this column, other than her light-hearted advocacy for the celebration of 10 days of Newton around Christmas and a very cogent summary of Newton's mind-boggling contributions to science, she has a wonderfully informative discussion on the development of our calendar which has continually had to account for the fact that the earth's orbit around the sun is not an exact number of days. I found her discussion of the earth's gradual slowing down and the impact on adjustment of calendars absolutely fascinating.

And for all those who come across this blog I wish you all a happy holiday season and a happy new year. I, for one, would certainly second Olivia Judson's call for a celebration of the achievements of Newton. Her song (sung to the tune of 12 days of Christmas) is not likely to catch on in the same way but it is good fun anyway.

On the tenth day of Newton,
My true love gave to me,
Ten drops of genius,
Nine silver co-oins,
Eight circling planets,
Seven shades of li-ight,
Six counterfeiters,
Cal-Cu-Lus!
Four telescopes,
Three Laws of Motion,
Two awful feuds,
And the discovery of gravity!

Excerpt:

The reason the interval became necessary is that the Earth, inconveniently, does not orbit the sun in an exact number of days. Instead, the Earth’s orbit is 365 days and a bit. The “bit” is just under a quarter of a day.

It wasn’t always thus. Some 530 million years ago, when animals like the trilobites were skittering around, days had less time. Back then, a day was only 21 hours, and a year was about 420 days. In another 500 million years, perhaps a day will be 27 hours, and a year fewer than 300 days. Because of the friction exerted by the moon, the Earth is slowing down. Indeed, already the days are a tiny bit longer than they were 100 years ago.

Because the orbit isn’t an exact number of days, our calendars get out of sync with the seasons unless we correct for the fractional day. The Julian calendar, which was put in place by Julius Caesar in 45 B.C., was the Romans’ best effort at making a systematic correction. Before that, the Roman calendar gave 355 days to the basic year, and every other year was supposed to include an extra month of 22 or 23 days.

But over a period of 24 years, that gave too many days; so in some years, the extra month was supposed to be skipped. This didn’t always happen. By the time the Julian calendar was introduced, the Roman calendar was so far out of sync with the seasons that the year before the first Julian year had to include a massive correction; that year, referred to as “the last year of confusion,” was 445 days. Talk about a long year.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

"Me and Bobby McGee" - Kris Kristofferson

Kris Kristofferson, now 72 years old, is a great American singer songwriter who was inducted into the "Songwriters Hall of Fame" in 1985 and the "Country Music Hall of Fame" in 2004. However, that headline description doesn't begin to capture Kristofferson's remarkably eclectic life. A military brat, Kristofferson graduated from Pomona college in 1958 and then attended Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar before joining the U.S. army in the 60's as a helicopter pilot and achieving the rank of captain before resigning his army commission in 1965.

Thereafter started an incredible performing career as a singer, songwriter and actor after he moved to Nashville initially as a janitor at the Columbia Records office in Nashville and caught the attention of Johnny Cash by landing a helicopter in his backyard. He had many hits as a songwriter and his songs were performed by many leading musicians. He won a Golden Globe as an actor in the film "A Star is Born" opposite Barbara Streisand.

For me, his great song "Me and Bobby McGee" will always remain his signature track. It has been made famous by several great performers like Johnny Cash and Janis Joplin (who dated Kristofferson until her death in 1970) but his own version below is my personal favorite. Listening to the line "Well I'd trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday" still sends tingles down my spine. This line with its expression of an aching desire to relive the past even for a single day and the desperate longing to recover or perhaps redo what has already happened is a powefully tragic motif in art. The past, to me, is infinitely more fascinating than the future and nobody has better articulated my feelings on this than the great German writer W.G. Sebald. (If you have not read any Sebald I would highly recommend reading "The Emigrants"). Sebald said:
"It's that sensation, if you turn the opera glass around----Curiously, although its further removed, the image seems much more precise. It's like looking down a well shaft. Looking in the past has always given me that vertiginous sense. It's the desire, almost, or the temptation that you might throw yourself into it, as it were, over the parapets and down. There is something terribly alluring to me about the past. I'm hardly interested in the future. I don't think it will hold many good things. But at least about the past you can have certain illusions."
Here's "Me and Bobby McGee":

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Mumbai Tragedy - A Perspective

The terrible terrorist tragedy is still unfolding in Mumbai with over a 140 dead and more than 300 injured. The attacks are despicable and should be unequivocally condemned by any sane person. However, the world (India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, UK, Spain, Middle East, Russia) has now been witness to an endless stream of these gruesome attacks. All pleas to attack this global problem not through the lens of a simplistic "war on terror" but instead at its political roots evokes a hostile response from national security establishments.

Engaging complex global political problems and draining some of the world's worst infected political wounds is not "action-oriented" enough and does not satisfy the immediate justified rage of the affected populations. However, it is the only imperfect long term solution to isolate the dead-ender ideological terrorists who must be defeated by force from the far more numerous sympathizing recruits they find amongst people who feel that they are victims of prolonged injustice at the hands of powerful governments (others and their own as in many Muslim countries). In India, for example, since the Babri mosque incident in 1992 there have been a plethora of tragedies creating a communal tinderbox; the Mumbai serial blasts, Mumbai train bombings, Godhra, Gujarat riots, Hyderabad blasts, Akshardham attack, Samjhota Express attack, Delhi bombings, Malegaon not to mention the festering Kashmir problem with the recent flaring of the situation due to the Amarnath yatra land dispute. Whoever invokes tackling the political dimensions of the causes of terrorism is instantly accused of the specious "moral equivalency" argument. It has now been clear for years that a security strategy alone is simply not sufficient to deter any suicidal armed group from inflicting harrowing damage on soft targets. A global rethinking is required to fight terrorism smartly and to dramatically reduce the number of people susceptible to this siren call of nihilism and anarchy. These sentiments often sound to people as if they are soft-headed "can't we all just live together" pleas but a hard-headed and realistic strategy of political engagement must be pursued in addition to robust police, intelligence and military action to reduce the threat of terrorism and asymmetric violence.

Deepak Chopra (whose mystical mumbo jumbo I have little appetite for) was on CNN commenting on the Mumbai attacks and even though his thoughts are meandering and not fully coherent (in my view) he makes some valid points that are not represented much in the mainstream media.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Why Don't We Celebrate New Species?

I have previously linked to Olivia Judson's New York Times column called "The Wild Side". Her column is always illuminating and written with an infectious enthusiasm for the incredible variety of life on our planet. It is unfailingly lucid in explaining concepts in evolutionary biology in clear and concise prose. The column today is called "All Hail the Apple Maggot" and discusses a wonderful example of how a new species gets created from an existing one (including a great little primer on the definition of species). She also reflects on why we tend to more easily focus on lamenting extinction of species as opposed to celebrating the creation of new ones.

There is an unending stream of misinformation and outright lies being churned out on the topic of evolution and natural selection (see Zakintosh's blog post on November 17th called "The CREaTIoNist" for another unfortunate example; a supposedly scientific book by the Turkish author Harun Yahya). Given the constant hostility toward this scientifically sound but revolutionary principle I always like to link to good writing on evolution for laypeople so that at least anyone reading this blog can gain access to credible writing on the subject.

The appearance of a new species is not so dramatic. The first members of a new species will typically be indistinguishable — to us — from the species they have evolved from. And while extinction has a clear final moment — the last member of a species dies — the formation of a new species does not usually happen in a single recognizable instant. Which is why we haven’t yet raised our glasses to celebrate, say, Rhagoletis pomonella, the apple maggot fly.

---

The most common way to define a species is a group of individuals that breed with each other successfully. For example, dogs, despite their vastly different looks, can breed with each other, so they are are considered one species. Horses and donkeys are counted as different species because their offspring (mules and hinnies) are sterile. For individuals to be considered as belonging to separate species thus means that they are “reproductively isolated”: they can’t, won’t, or don’t breed with each other.

---

I can sense your excitement. And perhaps that’s the real reason we don’t celebrate apple maggots, or any of the other new species (and there are many we know about) that are in the process of evolving. For when a new species does appear, it’s just not that different from the old species. To evolve the flamboyant differences that distinguish a swan from a duck, or a human from a chimpanzee — that takes thousands, even millions, of years.
That is what we lose with extinction.


Photograph: Rhagoletis pomonella, the apple maggot fly. (Wikimedia
Commons)

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Tufail Niazi – Pakistan’s Greatest Folk Singer

It was in my teens, almost 25 years ago, when I first heard Tufail Niazi singing "MeiN naiN jaaNa Kherian de naal" from Heer Waris Shah in that uniquely rustic and melodious but exceptionally virtuosic voice that has brought tears to my eyes many times over the years. Of all the wonderful music I grew up with (mostly because it was what my parents played in the house) this song by Tufail Niazi alongwith K.L Saigal’s “Ik raje ka beta le kar urne wala ghora” and Begum Akhtar’s “Chaa rahi kali ghata, jiya mora lehrae hai” have a special place in my imagination. (The youtube link above does not include it but Saigal's cackling laugh at the end of this recorded song on the LP is an enduring childhood memory). Every time I hear these pieces again they conjure up the same mesmerising effect they had on me when I first heard them huddled around my father's turntable or in later years, his various cassette players.

Piecing together Tufail Niazi's biography, his marvellously syncretic Punjabi life struck me as unusual even in pre-1947 Punjab but his life story is no longer even possible. He was born in 1916 in the only Muslim family in the Sikh village of MadairaN in Jallandhar district. MadairaN was only a short distance from Sham Chaurasi, famous birthplace of the musical gharana of that name (Ustad Salamat Ali Khan, arguably Pakistan's finest classical vocalist, hailed from this gharana). Tufail's family and ancestors were "Pakhawajis". (Pakhawaj is a tabla-like percussion instrument traditionally used as accompaniment in Dhrupad singing, the much older and temple-rooted form of Hindustani classical vocal music than the newer, more popular Mughal-era creation Khayal.) Historically, some of his family members were "Rubabis" who sang Gurbanis (songs in praise of the gurus) in Gurdwaras. Tufail followed this family tradition and started singing Guru Nanak's bani at the Gurdwara in the village of Pumba near Amritsar where his maternal grandfather was employed as a rubabi. After three years in Pumba he lost interest and his father, Haji Raheem Buksh took him to a Gaushala (house of cow protection) in Gondwal near the town of Taran Taaran. Here he joined the Gaushala singing party that went from village to village to spread the message of cow protection. Imagining a traveling Muslim rubabi preaching, in song, the protection of the sacred cow in his mellifluous voice brings a smile to my face.

Tufail lived in Gondwal for four years and would have likely moved sooner if it was not for the attraction of listening to great performers at the "chhota mela of Harballabh" held in that town every year (the main Harballabh Mela used to be in Jallandhar which attracted India's greatest musicians). After leaving the Gaushala, Tufail first became a "Raasdhari", street performers who just congregated impromptu audiences anywhere and performed an amalgam of theater, narrative and song often based on episodes of Lord Rama's life (Ramlila). He then joined a traveling theater ("Nautanki") and honed his theatrical and storytelling skills playing a hero in productions of famous Punjabi folktales like Heer Ranjha, Sohni MahiNwal, Sassi PunnooN and Pooran Bhagat. Most of this pre-partition part of Tufail's life today reads like a page not from 20th century history but a much older epoch that we can no longer even imagine.

At the time of partition, like all East Punjabi Muslims, Tufail too had to move from his ancestral lands and he ended up in Multan. To survive in this new unknown place where he hardly knew anybody, he opened up a milk shop. It was fortuitous that in 1949 a police inspector who had known him in East Punjab and had been a fan saw him and, on learning that Tufail had abandoned his music because he had no instruments and no other way to make a living, intervened. He got him instruments from the state coffers and organized a mehfil for Tufail introducing him to the people in Multan. It is unbearable to imagine that Tufail Niazi's voice could have been lost forever were it not for the effort of an ordinary fan who saved him from potential obscurity. We owe that unknown police officer a deep debt of gratitude.

Tufail soon became well known in the cultural circles of Multan after which there was no looking back. He started singing for Radio Pakistan and had the honor to be the first singer who performed on Pakistan Television, the day of its inauguration on November 26th, 1964. He sang his famous song "Laai beqadaraN naal yaari te tut gai tarak kar ke" that day. It was at that time that PTV's senior producer Aslam Azhar gave him the name Tufail Niazi because Tufail had told him that his pir was Hazrat Pir Niaz Ali Shah. Before this he had been just Tufail, Master Tufail, Mian Tufail and lastly Tufail Multani. Later, under Uxi Mufti he worked with great dedication to help set up and sustain the National Institute of Folk Heritage (Lok Virsa) in Islamabad. He received the Presidential Pride of Performance Award in 1983 and died on September 21st, 1990. A stroke had left him debilitated and unable to perform and he died in poverty with a wounded sense of official and unofficial neglect which has been the lot of so many Pakistani artists. He is buried in the graveyard in Islamabad.

Here is a performance of "Laai beqadaraN naal yaari te tut gai tarak kar ke" from PTV:



Tufail Niazi was a folk musician deeply influenced by classical forms and it is the mastery of his classically trained vocals combined with a soulfully melodic voice that mesmerized his audiences. The wonderful Punjabi sufi storytelling of his repertoire as he stood singing energetically in his lacha and a silk kurta created the total effect of a performer who was involved in something that was inseparable from the rest of his existence. His singing is often intensely moving as he sings about episodes in the lives of Punjabi epic lovers most notably Heer Ranjha (this is a link to an excellent post on this Punjabi folk masterpiece on Pakistaniat) richly evoking their anguish set in a beautifully sketched Punjabi rural social milieu.

Many of my favorite songs by Tufail Niazi are rooted deeply in classical music. I can listen to them over and over again and they possess the power to stir the most potent emotions. Here at APNA's site are some great Tufail Niazi songs for which I cannot find youtube videos. Two of my favorites (in addition to "MeiN naiN jaaNa Kherian de naal") that never fail to move me are "MeiN vi jaaNa jhok Ranjhan di" and "We tooN neRe neRe was we dholan yaar" (in Raga Tilak Kamod). In addition, I love a tappa-like song in Raga Khamaj called "Jhuk RaiyyaN meiN to" which I have been unable to find on the internet.

Remarkably and sadly, I was not able to find any decent photograph of Tufail Niazi on the internet to include in this post. To end this piece, here is a youtube audio of the above mentioned "MeiN naiN jaaNa Kherian de naal" which is inspired by Raga Bilawal.



Credits: This post owes several biographical and other details to the book “Tufail Niazi”, compiled and edited by S.M Shahid as a tribute to this great performer. In addition to informative pieces in Urdu (Mumtaz Mufti, Chanan Gobindpuri, Bakhtiar Ahmad, Akhtar Imam Rizvi, Shahbaz Ali) and English (S.M Shahid, Sarwat Ali, Mushahid Hussain, Saeed Malik), the book comes with 2 excellent CDs of Tufail Niazi’s unforgettable folk songs.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Obama is the 44th President of the United States

My reflections on this momentous event will come at some later date but for now I just want to acknowledge this remarkable historic day.


Update: Bob Herbert in the New York Times comes closest to my feelings post-election so here they are even though I must say that I am already in the mode of anticipation of evaluating Obama's Presidency based on its actions. There has never been this much hope and promise but his approach in the first six months, more than anything else, will help me understand better if the tenor and the ultimate outcome of this Presidency will be noticably different from those in history.

Arthur Miller liked to say that the essence of America was its promise. In the darkest of the dark times, in wartime and drastic economic downturns, in the crucible of witch hunts or racial strife, in the traumatic aftermath of a terror attack, that promise lights the way forward.

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We still have two wars to deal with and an economic crisis as severe as any in decades. But we should take a moment to recognize the stunning significance of this moment in history. It’s worth a smile, a toast, a sigh, a tear.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Waiting for History!

“And I swore I’d be in Chicago tomorrow, and made sure of that, taking a bus to Chicago, spending most of my money, and didn’t give a damn, just as long as I’d be in Chicago tomorrow.”– Jack Kerouac, “On the Road”

(Hat Tip for the quote: Sean Quinn at fivethirtyeight.com)

Christopher Hitchens Debates Religion with Rabbi Wolpe

In one of the world's largest synagogues, Temple Emanu-El in New York City, Christopher Hitchens today debated Rabbi Wolpe on whether "religion is good for the world".

I have followed Hitchens' writings for many years (starting with his edited collection "Blaming the Victims" about the Palestinian issue), well before he became nationally known for his outspoken and deliberately provocative views on everything from Mother Teresa, "Islamo-Fascism", Iraq war and God. He is relentessly polemical and has a penchant for contrariness to the point where one can't always be sure whether he is taking a particular position because he really believes in it or just indulging his pugilistic instincts. He can be outrageously demeaning and dismissive of his opponents and as is typical of debaters rarely acknowledges any validity in counter arguments.

But there is no question that he posseses an extremely sharp intellect, a rare articulate eloquence and an impressive command of language. He is a voracious and remarkably intelligent reader of catholic (no pun intended) taste and is an enviably prolific writer. For some of his best, most thoughtful long pieces I would suggest reading his contributions in the "Atlantic Monthly" archived here. Much to my disappointment over the years he has displayed an unsympathetic view of Pakistan and seems to have a visceral dislike for the country (probably in no small part due to its religion-based founding ideology). Even so, his March 2003 piece in these archives called "The Perils of Partition" is well worth reading. Just glancing at these pieces gives you a sense of his incredible critical range.

Now let's come back to his debate with Rabbi Wolpe today. Here is a summary of the debate in the New York Times. My sense from the reported exchange is that Hitchens comes out on top and that Rabbi Wolpe could not quite match the intellectual firepower and verbal nimbleness of Hitchens. Let me know via your comments if you think otherwise.

Christopher Hitchens:

It attacks us in our deepest integrity, in the core of our self-respect. Religion says that we would not know right from wrong, we would not know an evil, wicked act from a decent human act without divine permission, without divine authority or without, even worse, either the fear of a divine punishment or the hope of a divine reward. It strips us of the right to make our own determination, as all humans always have, about what is and what is not a right human action.

Rabbi Wolpe:

If you read the beginning of the Bible, which I strongly advise, you will find that Cain is condemned for killing Abel. Now why is he condemned, if the Bible doesn’t assume that you don’t learn that murder is bad until you get to Sinai? After all, Cain is long before Sinai. Of course, the Bible knows that human beings recognize that murder is bad. But the Bible also knows that they do it anyway, and that without a divine sanction against murder, people will think that it is a humanly invented sanction. And if they will violate it even when it’s God’s dictate how much more will it prove to be … a fragile rule when it’s the rule of human beings?

And so at Sinai, what you get is not a series of moral rules that you couldn’t have imagined for yourself — ‘Oh, I thought it was fine to kill before I got there’ — but the knowledge that it is built into the moral structure of the universe. It’s not a personal preference. It’s not a societal rule. It’s a mandate from God to all human beings. And if you think that mandate doesn’t matter, all I can say is you haven’t paid much attention to the 20th century.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Obama's Unprecedented Crowds

The election is still eight days away and despite a substantial Obama lead in most polls it is still true that elections are only won after the polls close. However, the crowds that Obama has drawn throughout the primary and general election campaigns are absolutely astounding. It compares with nothing I have ever seen in my own twenty years of following American presidential politics. Today over a 100,000 people showed up to his rally in Denver, Colorado and this is a state that George W. Bush won twice.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Krugman Wins the Economics Nobel

It was announced today that Paul Krugman, Princeton professor and a New York Times op ed columnist won the 2008 Economics Nobel Prize for his work on international trade. Harvard economist Edward Glaeser explains in this piece why Krugman was honored. As an undergraduate Economics major who was headed to a PhD program before getting diverted to investment banking years ago, I have followed Krugman's career admiringly for at least 15 years. In my "International Economics" class with Professor Noel Farley at Bryn Mawr we used Krugman/Obstfeld which is the standard textbook on the subject.

Krugman is that rare combination of an economist who not only writes well for a popular audience but is highly respected by his peers as a first rate intellect who has made tremendous contributions to the understanding of international trade. As a columnist he is a prolific, reliably liberal and relentless critic of the follies of the Bush administration and its ideological acolytes. As an economist, Krugman is a true empiricist Keynesian, fastidious about facts and evidence and fiercely independent in his judgment. Krugman got his PhD from MIT under Rudi Dornbusch's guidance and that department has produced some of the best non-ideological economists of the last half century (From that group, Larry Summers now rises further up in the list to be honored next). To some degree the awarding of the prize to Krugman this year reflects a tacit recognition by the Nobel committee that market fundamentalism has run its course. This may signal the end of the era of the Chicago school's intellectual ascendancy. The recent spectacular financial market failures indicate the extent to which governments are needed to regulate and stabilize markets. During the current financial crisis Krugman's commentary on his blog "Conscience of a Liberal" has consistently been the "go to" opinion to understand the causes of the crisis and to look for sensible policy prescriptions to stem the rot.

Here are a few interesting Krugman-related links: BBC news announcement of his Nobel here; a comprehensive archive of writings by Krugman here; two of my own prior blog entries that reference Krugman here and here and his Wikipedia entry here.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Sequoia Capital Meeting - Economic Downturn & Startups

Last week Sequoia Capital, Silicon Valley's premier venture capital firm and backers of the likes of Apple, Cisco, Oracle and Google to name a few, held an extraordinary all-hands meeting of all the CEOs of their portfolio companies. Sequoia's partners and invited guests presented to the audience. These facts are known to many but it is an excellent presentation that lays out the facts of how we got here with great clarity and emphasizes the key to startup survival and longer term success in these environments.

You can find the slideshow presentation here .

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Running with Jerry - Jerry Rice that is!

I live a few miles from Stanford University's campus. Often I use Stanford's track for my leisurely evening 5K runs. Sometimes I take my kids with me who like to play on the infield or on the bleachers around the track. Yesterday as I started my run I ran past a lanky, athletic figure stretching on the running strip. I noticed that it was none other than the legendary Jerry Rice. A few minutes later Rice ran past me but he seemed to be merely limbering and warming up and not involved in any rigorous workout. He stayed on the track for another 20 or so minutes and it gave me a great thrill to be running in the same lanes with the "niner" whose enshrinement in football's hall of fame in another three years (when he becomes eligible for induction) is a mere formality.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Anton Chekhov in "Gooseberries"

"There ought to be behind the door of every happy, contented man some one standing with a hammer continually reminding him with a tap that there are unhappy people; that however happy he may be, life will show him her laws sooner or later, trouble will come for him - disease, poverty, losses, and no one will see or hear, just as now he neither sees nor hears others."

Recently reading the excerpt from Anton Chekhov (1860 -1904) above, I was moved by the great Russian writer’s grimly tragic but deeply wise view of life’s essence. Charles Simic quotes this passage from Chekhov’s story “Gooseberries” at the beginning of his New York Review of Books piece on Philip Roth's new novel, Indignation.
You can read the whole, generally laudatory, Simic review of Roth’s novel here.

"The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" - Bob Dylan

On February 9th 1963, a 51 year old black barmaid named Hattie Carroll was murdered at the Emerson Hotel in Baltimore, Maryland by Billy Zantzinger, a young wealthy white tobacco farmer from Charles County. Billy had used a cane to assault Hattie who died 8 hours after the assault possibly from a brain hemorrhage. Billy was eventually found guilty of manslaughter (not murder) and sentenced to 6 months in jail.

It was in the backdrop of this deep injustice that Bob Dylan wrote "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll", considered one of his best songs in a repertory consisting of countless brilliant ones. It was released as part of the 1964 album, "The Times They Are A-Changin". This song is widely admired by critics and Christopher Ricks, the Boston University Professor of Humanities, devotes an entire chapter in his book "Dylan's Vision of Sin" to this song in his chapter on Justice. In an interview on NPR, Ricks described the song as "perfect".

Here's the best version that I found on YouTube:



Below are the complete lyrics of this song. Listen to the song while reading the lyrics and a chill runs down your spine. Also, notice the brilliant repetition of "now ain't the time for your tears" until the very end. Throughout the song, the heartrending images of Hattie's difficult life and the murder itself arouse deep moral indignation but also a simultaneous will to fight for justice. It is only at the end when the struggle for justice for Hattie Carroll is lost that it is "time for your tears".

"The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll"

William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll
With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger
At a Baltimore hotel society gath'rin'
And the cops were called in and his weapon took from him
As they rode him in custody down to the station
And booked William Zanzinger for first-degree murder
And you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears
Take the rag away from your face
Now ain't the time for your tears.

William Zanzinger who at twenty-four years
Owns a tobacco farm of six hundred acres
With rich wealthy parents who provide and protect him
And high office relations in the government of Maryland
Reacted to his deed with a shrug of his shoulders
And swear words and sneering and his tongue it was snarling
In a matter of minutes on bail was out walking
And you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears
Take the rag away from your face
Now ain't the time for your tears.

Hattie Carroll was a maid in the kitchen
She was fifty-one years old and gave birth to ten children
Who carried the dishes and hauled out the garbage
And never sat once at the head of the table
And didn't even speak to the people at the table
Who just cleaned up all the food from the table
And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level
Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane
That sailed through the air and came down through the room
Doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle
And she never done nothing to William Zanzinger
And you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears
Take the rag away from your face
Now ain't the time for your tears.

In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel
To show that all's equal and that the courts are on the level
And that the strings in the books ain't pulled and persuaded
And that even the nobles get properly handled
Once that the cops have chased after and caught 'em
And that ladder of law has no top and no bottom
Stared at the person who killed for no reason
Who just happened to be feelin' that way without warnin'
And he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished
And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance
William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence
And you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears
Bury the rag most deep in your face
For now's the time for your tears.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

"Come In" by Robert Frost

Robert Frost (1874-1963) is perhaps America's best loved poet. In popular perception he is the poet of the countryside and his poetry is indeed full of serene, bucolic imagery of strolls in woods, singing birds and majestic night skies. I too, long enjoyed Frost as a quintessential "nature" poet who evoked in me all the charm and beauty of the timeless New England landscape.

But that was until Joseph Brodsky opened my eyes to a completely different Frost, one who Brodsky quotes Lionel Trilling describe as a "terrifying poet". Joseph Brodsky was a Russian poet and essayist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987. I have mentioned his collection of critical essays titled "On Grief and Reason" in a post before. The title essay is a discussion of two of Frost's well-known poems,"Come In" and "Home Burial". In this essay Brodsky persuasively shows Frost's remarkably dark vision and his contention that "nature for this poet is neither friend nor foe, nor is it the backdrop for human drama; it is this poet's terrifying self-portrait." I wish I could link to the entire essay as it is the best piece on Frost I have ever read but unfortunately it does not seem to be available on the web. I would encourage all those interested in Frost or poetry to find a printed copy of Brodsky's essay. It is well worth a read.

Here is the poem, "Come In", which appeared in the 1942 collection "A Witness Tree":

"Come In"

As I came to the edge of the woods,
Thrush music -- hark!
Now if it was dusk outside,
Inside it was dark.

Too dark in the woods for a bird
By sleight of wing
To better its perch for the night,
Though it still could sing.

The last of the light of the sun
That had died in the west
Still lived for one song more
In a thrush's breast.

Far in the pillared dark
Thrush music went --
Almost like a call to come in
To the dark and lament.

But no, I was out for stars;
I would not come in.
I meant not even if asked;
And I hadn't been.

And here are some fragments of commentary by Brodsky about this poem:

When a twentieth century poet starts a poem with finding himself at the edge of the woods there is a reasonable element of danger -or, at least a faint suggestion of it. The edge, in its very self, is sufficiently sharp.
---
In "Too dark in the woods for a bird," a bird, alias bard, scrutinizes "the woods" and finds them too dark. "Too" here echoes-no! harks back to - Dante's opening lines in The Divine Comedy: our bird/bard's assessment of that selva differs from the great Italian's. To put it plainly, the afterlife is darker for Frost than it is for Dante. The question is why, and the answer is either because he disbelieves in the whole thing or because his notion of himself makes him, in his mind, slated for damnation.
---
Still, should you choose to read "Come In" as a nature poem, you are perfectly welcome to it. I suggest, though, that you take a longer look at the title. The twenty lines of the poem constitute, as it were, the title's translation. And in this translation, I am afraid, the expression "come in" means "die".

Friday, September 05, 2008

Relentless Republican Hypocrisy Gets the Jon Stewart Treatment

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert can't change ugly politics in this country but at least they make it fun to watch.



Monday, September 01, 2008

Ahmed Faraz Dies in Islamabad

On August 25th, the celebrated Urdu poet Ahmed Faraz died in Islamabad at age 77 after a protracted illness. In Faraz Sahib not only have we lost an excellent ghazal poet but a courageous and honorable man whose consistent stance against Pakistani dictatorships will never be forgotten. He opposed military rule whether it came in the guise of a ruthless Islamist like Zia-ul-Haq or a self proclaimed "moderate" like Musharraf. To his credit he saw through veneers and opposed authoritarianism which has been the scourge of the Pakistani state since independence. As a poet he has long been acknowledged as one of the masters of modern Urdu ghazal but his return of the Hilal-e-Imtiaz in 2006 (Pakistan's highest civilian honor) as a protest against Musharraf's authoritarian rule once again demonstrated his lifelong commitment to the primacy of human rights and dignity.

Rest in peace Faraz Sahib.

Ranjish hi sahi dil hi dukhaane ke liye aa
Aa phir se mujhe chor ke jaane ke liye aa

Ik umr se hooN lazzat-e-girya se bhi mehroom
Aye rahat-e-jaaN mujh ko rulaane ke liye aa

Dawn had an obituary on Faraz Sahib the day after his death written by Mushir Anwar which sadly lifted several passages directly from Wikipedia (hat tip: Abbas Raza). However, today's New York Times also has an obituary by Haresh Pandya which despite some elemantary errors does a good job of suveying Faraz Sahib's life (e.g. Urdu poets whose work is both read and sung are not rare). I can always count on 3quarksdaily and the Raza family for wonderfully original content on Urdu literati. Today, there is a simple but lovely remembrance by Atiya Batool Khan on Faraz Sahib. (Azra Raza's appreciation of Qurratulain Hyder that appeared on 3QD in August last year is one of the best personal pieces written about Aini Apa in English that I can find.)

To remember Faraz Sahib what better way than to listen to the above mentioned "Ranjish hi sahi" beautifully sung by the inimitable Mehdi Hasan Sahib, the virtual creator of modern semi-classical ghazal singing.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Police Reunion Tour - Shoreline Amphitheater Concert

Starting on the 28th of May 2007, "The Police" embarked on a year and a half reunion tour (this wikipedia link has a listing of all the shows and the set lists) to mark the 30th anniversary of their beginning. The tour ended with a concert in New York's Madison Square Garden on August 7th, 2008.

This is the nostalgia-inducing music of our younger days so for our 12th wedding anniversary, my wife bought tickets for us to go see the show on July 14th of this year. The concert we attended was at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, California about 15 minutes from where we live. It is a nice outdoor venue surrounded by the San Francisco Bay on one side and the sprawling Google campus on the other. The theater has seats in the front close to the stage but most ticket holders find space on the grassy hill behind the seats where they find room for their own chairs and blankets and picnic in the nice California evening for a few hours before the performance.

Elvis Costello and the Imposters opened for the band and were heartily cheered by the 12,000 strong crowd but the venue erupted when Sting (in a beard), Stewart Copeland (drummer) and Andy Summers (guitarist) strolled on to the stage. I suspect that in Sting's older bearded visage many in that audience saw a reflection of their own aging. The performance was excellent and Sting's voice was strong and energetic. The reviews I saw later in the regional press compared this show very favorably to the earlier concert on this tour they had played in East Bay.

I also found a nice YouTube clip that has spliced together the sights and sounds from that July 14th concert in Mountain View:

Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Tragedy on K-2

At least nine climbers seem to have perished in a tragedy still unfolding on the majestic but treacherous K-2 mountain in Northern Pakistan near the border with China. New York Times has the unfolding story here and here. In the group trying to reach the summit were Norwegian, Dutch, French, Italian, Serbian, Korean, Pakistani and Nepalese climbers. The accident seems to have occured after an avalanche struck on a steep gully at 27,000 feet near the most dangerous part of the mountain known as the "bottleneck".

Update I: 11 climbers are feared dead now but 3 men were rescued including 2 frostbitten Dutchmen who were plucked by Pakistani military helicopters. One of the Dutch survivors, Wilco Van Rooijen who is now in a military hospital in Skardu describes here the conditions and mistakes in preparation that contributed to the disaster.
Before his death, 61-year-old Frenchman Hugues d'Aubarede gave an account of the climb -with freezing temperatures, bad weather and beautiful vistas - via a blog. On the eve of his death, his last message from the foot of The Bottleneck was: "I would love it if everyone could contemplate this ocean of mountains and glaciers. They put me through the wringer, but it's so beautiful. The night will be long but beautiful."
Update II: Today on August 6th, New York Times has a story titled "Tragic Toll After Chaos on Mountain" summing up what is now known about how the tragedy unfolded.

K2 is known as the world’s hardest and most dangerous mountain for climbers, more challenging even than Everest. Farther north and 1,500 miles from Everest, it collects heavy snow and storms, and climbers have only a few days each year when they can try for the peak, usually in early August. “For a professional, seasoned mountaineer it’s more of the holy grail than Everest,” said the veteran American climber Ed Viesturs. “There is no easy way to climb K2.”

In a message sent back to friends, three South Koreans from the Flying Jump K2 Expedition expressed their awe about “the mountain of the mountains” and “the mountain that invites death.”

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Yeh Hum NaheeN

The Wait for the Beijing Olympics

I cannot remember any recent Summer Olympic games for which I have been waiting with as much anticipation as this year's edition in Beijing which will kickoff with the opening ceremony on 8/8/08 at 8:08pm Beijing time. The combination of Beijing as the venue with its political overtones of a rising, still partly closed and environmentally vulnerable China mixed with the compelling narrative around some exceptional athletes in the traditional Olympic powerhouse events of swimming and track and field is adding to the excitement.

In Track & Field, there are three matchups that I am particularly looking forward to watching. The 100m competition between the American Tyson Gay and the two phenomenal Jamaicans Asafa Powell and Usain Bolt, will be a race to watch; perhaps one of the strongest 100m line ups ever to race at the Olympics. The 200m women's race should also be a great rematch between the American Allyson Felix who won the silver in Athens and Veronica Campbell Brown, the Jamaican who won the gold.

And then there is the 110m hurdles! 110m hurdles this year will likely be the most anticipated event pitting the Chinese phenomenon and Athens gold medal winner Liu Xiang against the awesome Cuban, Dayron Robles, who recently broke Liu's 110m hurdle world record. Robles has the potential to single-handedly to dash the hopes of 1.3 billion people who will be cheering for Liu with all their hearts. The Liu Xiang phenomenon in China is indeed amazing and he stands at the center of China's hopes for this Olympics. The New York Times has a special "Play Magazine" out this Sunday which has some very interesting stories on Olympic athletes. There is a piece on Liu titled "The State Requests That Citizen Liu Win Gold" that provides a window into the special place of Liu Xiang in China's government built sports machine.

In swimming, the eyes of the world will be focused on Michael Phelps. Will he manage to get the eight Olympic golds this year and pass Mark Spitz who since 1972 has held that record when he won seven golds in Munich? The same issue of Play Magazine mentioned above has a story called "Out There" which deconstructs Phelps swimming technique in trying to explain his magic. Our family is certainly rooting for Phelps, particularly my four year old who only a few weeks ago matter of factly informed his swim camp director that he is going to be Michael Phelps.

Happy Watching!!!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Joseph O'Neill's "Brooklyn Dream Game"

"Netherland": A Novel by Joseph O'Neill

Glancing through the May 26th issue of the New Yorker I came across James Wood's book review titled "Beyond a Boundary". What caught my attention was the accompanying photograph of men in white playing cricket under a bright blue sky with this tantalizing caption: "In Joseph O'Neill's "Netherland" cricket is at once an immigrant's imagined community, an emblem of foreignness, and, most poignantly, a dream of America." Intrigued, I quickly read Wood's review and felt an instant urge to head to a bookstore. Within days I had finished the novel and found that Wood's effusive characterization of the novel as "a large fictional achievement, and one of the most remarkable post-colonial books I have ever read" was indeed deserved.

James Wood is an English critic and has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since August 2007. It is hard to improve on Wood's excellent review of the novel which I would urge you to read (link above). It is easy to understand why he has been called "the best literary critic of his generation" and earned plaudits from even the most curmudgeonly of literary critics like Harold Bloom. Recently Wood has published a new work of criticism called "How Fiction Works" and two recent reviews by Delia Falconer in The Australian and Gideon Lewis-Kraus in the LA Times intelligently discuss Wood's influence and approach to criticism.

Right around the time Wood's review of "Netherland"was published there was a veritable flood of laudatory reviews and O'Neill profiles. New York Times had three different pieces within 3 days including a review by Michiko Kakutani, a Dwight Garner review in the Sunday Times Book Review and a profile of the author and the Staten Island Cricket Club where Joseph O'Neill plays his cricket. The Sunday Observer had back to back pieces by Will Buckley and Peter Beaumont and not to be left behind, Cricinfo Magazine published Andrew Miller's interview with the author. To top it all off, "Netherland" was just included on the longlist for this year's Man Booker prize and is favored to win by William Hill (a British bookmaker) with 7/2 odds. It is remarkable that fiction by a relatively little known author has received this kind of lavish attention but "Netherland" richly deserves it.

Instead of feebly reviewing a book that Wood has discussed with such flair let me talk instead of my quest to try to meet the author. I was so moved by the book and felt such a kinship with the narrator, Hans, that I wished I could meet the author and discuss the book with him. On searching the web to see if O'Neill was doing a book tour that would bring him to the San Francisco Bay Area I discovered that he was scheduled to be in Northern California just for one day on Tuesday, June 24th for two readings at bookstores almost an hour and half drive from where I live. One of the readings was scheduled at 5pm at the Orinda Bookstore in Orinda, CA not far from Berkeley. This was the closer of the two bookstores and never having heard of Orinda I carefully mapped out the directions and left work early on the 24th to meet O'Neill and to listen to him talk about his novel.

I also took three books with me that I wanted autographed. First, of course, I had my copy of "Netherland" with its copious marginalia. Second was O'Neill's book on his family history called "Blood-Dark Track" which traces the lives of his maternal and paternal grandfathers who were Turkish and Irish respectively. The last book in my pile was the 1993 Duke University Press edition of "Beyond a Boundary", CLR James' masterpiece about cricket, society, color and class in colonial Trinidad. With cricket as the backdrop and the incongruous relationship between the white, upper class Dutch narrator Hans and the dodgy, disarming, new world cricket entrepreneur Chuck Ramkissoon at the narrative center of the novel, "Netherland" is, in part, an homage to James' wonderful book. It is no accident that "Beyond a Boundary" is also the title of Wood's New Yorker review. What I also found interesting was that in 2007, Joseph O'Neill himself wrote a piece on "Beyond a Boundary" for powells.com which was surprisingly published on 9/11 which seemed to me quite a coincidence given that day's importance in the novel's setting. (When I told Joseph O'Neill about this he told me he had missed this fact and expressed genuine surprise at this weird coincidence).

I was the first to arrive for the reading at this small bookstore in Orinda and was welcomed by a woman from England who was the store manager (her interest in cricket prompted her to say yes to the publisher for a reading by the obscure O'Neill at her bookstore). Soon Joseph O'Neill arrived and I introduced myself. We chatted a bit about playing cricket in the US (he had played at Haverford's Cope field where I played for four years as an undergrad) and I effusively praised his book. We had a brief discussion about Wood's review and some aspects of the book and he was very friendly and indulgent.

The reading was brief but in the follow up Q&A the author said a few things that I found interesting. He mentioned that all through the long process of writing the novel he was certain from the very beginning that he had a perfect name for his book. It was going to be called "The Brooklyn Dream Game". However, when he had almost completed the novel his friend, the Irish poet Paul Muldoon, asked him if he had a name for the book. On hearing the intended title he asked if Joseph had also thought of an alternative. This gentle rebuke by a friend eventually led him to the present title which cleverly links many strands of the novel (the Dutch narrator, New York's old name "New Netherland" and 'nether' land meaning low land possibly implying ground zero).

After the reading I lined up to get my books signed and asked O'Neill to also autograph my copy of "Beyond a Boundary". He said he would be happy to do it and generously invited me to contact him if I was ever on the East Coast and wanted to play a game of cricket at the Walker Park with the Staten Island Cricket Club. I loved the wonderfully kind inscriptions that he wrote in my books. In "Netherland" he wrote : "To Fawad - Bat on boy, bat on" and in "Beyond a Boundary" it reads "With best wishes from a fellow man in whole".

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Annals of Medicine - Atul Gawande

Atul Gawande is a Boston-based surgeon at the Brigham and Women's hospital and a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. His excellent essays on the practice of medicine have appeared in the magazine for several years and they have been the basis of his two published collections titled "Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science" and "Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance".

Gawande's penchant for meticulous scientific examination of his own professon yields many useful insights (even for non-practitioners) and provides laypeople an unusually clear view of the "imperfect science" of diagnosis and cure and the human element that often makes it so. Gawande's writing is precise and uncluttered and he manages to explain complex topics with an admirable clarity of thought in very readable prose.

Gawande is one of the more recent in a line of accomplished physicians who have written insightfully about their vocation and provided a much needed empathetic transparency into the seemingly impersonal workings of the American system of sickness and health. Dr. Jerome Groopman, Oliver Sacks and Sherwin Nuland particularly come to mind as I think of doctors who have contributed tremendously to American medicine and letters. (Even outside of his writings on medicine, Nuland's memoir, "Lost in America" is one of my all-time favorites with an exceptionally touching portrait of a father-son relationship).

This week Gawande has an essay in the New Yorker titled "The Itch". In this piece he investigates this poorly understood sensation, its scientific source and its function. In explaining the biological provenance of uncontrollable itching, Gawande surveys the current scientific understanding of "Perception" and this is a fascinating part of the essay.

Here are some excerpts:

Our assumption had been that the sensory data we receive from our eyes, ears, nose, fingers, and so on contain all the information that we need for perception, and that perception must work something like a radio. It’s hard to conceive that a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert is in a radio wave. But it is. So you might think that it’sthe same with the signals we receive—that if you hooked up someone’s nerves to a monitor you could watch what the person is experiencing as if it were a television show.

Yet, as scientists set about analyzing the signals, they found them to be radically impoverished. Suppose someone is viewing a tree in a clearing. Given simply the transmissions along the optic nerve from the light entering the eye, one would not be able to reconstruct the three-dimensionality, or the distance, or the detail of thebark—attributes that we perceive instantly.
----
The images in our mind are extraordinarily rich. We can tell if something is liquid or solid, heavy or light, dead or alive. But the information we work from is poor—a distorted, two-dimensional transmission with entire spots missing. So the mind fills in most of the picture. You can get a sense of this from brain-anatomy studies. If visual sensations were primarily received rather than constructed by the brain, you’d expect that most of the fibres going to the brain’s primary visual cortex would come from the retina. Instead, scientists have found that only twenty per cent do; eighty per cent come downward from regions of the brain governing functions like memory. Richard Gregory, a prominent British neuropsychologist, estimates that visual perception is more than ninety per cent memory and less than ten per cent sensory nerve signals.
----
The account of perception that’s starting to emerge is what we might call the “brain’s best guess” theory of perception: perception is the brain’s best guess about what is happening in the outside world. The mind integrates scattered, weak, rudimentary signals from a variety of sensory channels, information from past experiences, and hard-wired processes, and produces a sensory experience full of brain-provided color, sound, texture, and meaning. We see a friendly yellow Labrador bounding behind a picket fence not because that is the transmission we receive but because this is the perception our weaver-brain assembles as its best hypothesis of what is
out there from the slivers of information we get. Perception is inference.
Update: In today's New York Times (July 4th, 2008) Dr. Atul Gawande answers questions about "The Itch"that some readers had after reading the original article.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

George Carlin is Dead (not lost, not passed away, dead)

George Carlin, one of the greatest American stand up comedians, died on June 22nd, 2008 in Santa Monica, CA. The outpouring of appreciations and the gushing praise of his fellow comics testify to his deep influence on a generation of stand up comedians. Jerry Seinfeld has a tribute in today's New York Times.

Carlin was a unique talent who used wonderfully precise language for his acerbic social commentary. His merciless skewering of national shibboleths, political correctness and the modern American proclivity for euphemism-laced conversations was refreshing in a landscape of false pieties and a world of "manufactured consent".

Here's a piece by Carlin on "War' from the early 90's: (Hat Tip: 3QD)
Warning: Carlin is not for the squeamish and the faint of heart. This is very strong language.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

"California" - Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell is simply a wonderful singer and songwriter with a career that spans several productive decades. Just the other day I was listening to my iPod in the car when Joni's song "California" came on. I was mesmerized both by her inimitable folksy voice and the vivid lyrics of the song. California has been home to me for just under 4 years so it is hardly a land where I have any substantial roots but as I thought of all my years on the East Coast I could relate deeply to Joni crooning about a different "old and cold" place and contrasting it unfavorably with the sunny youthful spirit of the Golden State:

Still a lot of lands to see
But I wouldn't want to stay here
Its too old and cold and settled in its ways here
Oh, but California
California I'm coming home

Here's Joni performing "California":


Darwinmania!

Olivia Judson is an evolutionary biologist at Imperial College London and writes an entertaining and informative online column called "The Wild Side" in the New York Times. Being a fan of all things Darwin I particularly enjoyed her column today titled "Darwinmania" that kicks off a 18 month celebration of Darwin and his ideas on July 1st, 2008 (150th anniversary of the announcement of his discovery of natural selection) leading into February 2009 (200th anniversary of Darwin's birth) and culminating in November 2009 (150th anniversary of the publication of the "Origin of Species").

Today's column also summarizes some of the well known history of the "origins" of explaining evolution and natural selection, arguably the most revolutionary scientific idea in human history. No matter how many times one reads the fascinating story of Wallace and Darwin competing to be "first to market" with this groundbreaking discovery, one can't help but reflect on the true nature of most scientific thought as a systematic and painstaking effort built on accumulated knowledge rather than "eureka" moments of isolated genius.

Some excerpts from Judson's column:
And the “Origin” changed everything. Before the “Origin,” the diversity of life could only be catalogued and described; afterwards, it could be explained and understood. Before the “Origin,” species were generally seen as fixed entities, the special creations of a deity; afterwards, they became connected together on a great family tree that stretches back, across billions of years, to the dawn of life. Perhaps most importantly, the “Origin” changed our view of ourselves. It made us as much a part of nature as hummingbirds and bumblebees (or humble-bees, as Darwin called them); we, too, acquired a family tree with a host of remarkable and distinguished ancestors.

The reason the “Origin” was so powerful, compelling and persuasive, the reason Darwin succeeded while his predecessors failed, is that in it he does not just describe how evolution by natural selection works. He presents an enormous body of evidence culled from every field of biology then known. He discusses subjects as diverse as pigeon breeding in Ancient Egypt, the rudimentary eyes of cave fish, the nest-building instincts of honeybees, the evolving size of gooseberries (they’ve been getting bigger), wingless beetles on the island of Madeira and algae in New Zealand. One moment, he’s considering fossil animals like brachiopods (which had hinged shells like clams, but with a different axis of symmetry); the next, he’s discussing the accessibility of nectar in clover flowers to different species of bee.
Update: Today (July 9th, 2008) Judson has Part II of the series celebrating Charles Darwin. An excerpt:

So, the difficulties notwithstanding, there are many reasons to tackle the “Origin.” Reasons above and beyond the fact that it is one of the most important books ever written, and central to our culture. But to me, perhaps the most important is that reading the “Origin” is a window into a mind. A rich and fertile mind, with a holistic view of nature. One that sees the interconnectedness of living beings — that cats can alter the number of flowers — long before ecology existed as a formal subject. A mind that sees the brutality of the natural world — the wasps that lay their eggs in the living bodies of caterpillars (the caterpillars are then eaten alive by the growing larvae), the stupendous death rates of most creatures — and sees that from the terrible slaughter, great beauty can arise:

"Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object of which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Obama's Father's Day Speech

Today was Father's Day in the United States. Senator Barack Obama used the occasion to give an excellent speech about the destructive effect of absentee fathers on black families. The speech was delivered at the Apostolic Church of God, one of Chicago's largest black churches on the south side of the city. It has been at least 20 years since I have been following American Presidential politics and there has never been a candidate with Obama's preternatural ability to inspire.

Here's the speech:

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Meeting Fareed Zakaria

On Tuesday May 27th, The Commonwealth Club of California's guest speaker was Fareed Zakaria, speaking to the audience about his new book "The Post-American World". The event was held at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco and those who live in Northern California know that the Club's events are later broadcast on National Public Radio's KQED station. I had been invited to the talk by a family friend who had an extra ticket and I was curious enough about Zakaria and his new work to be eager to attend in person.

I have found Zakaria's comments on George Stephanopoulos's Sunday morning show to be frequently insightful even if a bit timid in straying from the mainstream foreign policy establishment. He seems to have a genuinely global understanding of US foreign policy challenges but sometimes seems to strain to keep his views in check to avoid being tagged as an "international" intellectual instead of an Amercian one. (I sympathize with this natural propensity of an immigrant to seek whole hearted acceptance of a host country's elite). Also, I was impressed by his 2003 book "The Future of Freedom" in which he argues that constitutional liberalism must precede electoral democracy and that nations lacking a rule of law will inevitably end up as illiberal democracies. This squares with my own long held belief that durable democratic regimes can only be built on a constitutional rule of law and convinces me even more that the lawyer's movement in Pakistan demonstrated powerfully the country's potential to be a functioning democracy.

The main theme of "The Post-American World" (contrary to the title) is not a simplistic view of imperial America's decline. It is not another in a line of now forgotten tomes from the 80's about the Asian takeover of America (with China & India now substituted for 80's Japan). Instead Zakaria argues that the story of the 21st century is the "rise of the rest" even as America maintains significant advantages in competing with these new powers for wealth and influence. His advice to Amercan governments and people seems to be to embrace and learn to adapt and thrive in this new world rather than resist it and vainly hope for the preservation of a vanishing status quo. Zakaria's talk on his new book was an overview of this thesis peppered with anecdotes illustrating his views. He is an engaging speaker and entertained the audience with his suave wit.

After the talk there was a book signing and a long line formed in front of the podium so people could get their books personalized. After approaching him I told him how often I get asked if I am related to him (which I am not) because of our shared last name. He was very gracious and remarkably down to earth and made small talk (some of it in Urdu) for a couple of minutes showing curiosity about my vocation and the Pakistani background. He said "Khuda Hafiz" and as I walked away looking at the personalized signature in the book I was pleasantly surprised to see that below his signature he had added the inscription, "P.S. We're practically related".

Saturday, May 24, 2008

From "Sohrab and Rustum" by Matthew Arnold

The story of Rustum and Sohrab is a beloved legend from Zoroastrian mythology popularized by the 11th century Persian poet Abolqasem Ferdowsi in his great epic Shahnameh. Growing up I read many of Shahnameh's stories written for children in Urdu. The names and adventures of the noble Persian kings, their Turani enemies and sundry heroic warriors made an indelible impression and even to this day the names of Afrasiab, Kai Qobad, Rustum, Sohrab and Jamshed resonate in my memory.

"Sohrab and Rustum" is a poem by the 19th century English poet and famous literary critic Matthew Arnold (1822-1888). It was written in 1853. I am currently reading "The Portable Matthew Arnold" edited by Lionel Trilling and below is Trilling's own outline of the epic story of Rustum and Sohrab followed by an excerpt from the poem. The poem is too long to reproduce in its entirety but the famous passages excerpted below are from the end of the poem. Most of the place names are locations in the valley of the River Oxus (now called Amu Darya), a Central Asian river which passes through Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan before emptying into the Aral Sea.

"Rustum is the Persian epic hero; Sohrab is his son by a princess whom he had loved in early youth. Sohrab knows the identity of his father and longs to find him, but Rustum does not even know that he has a son. When they meet in single combat between the Persian and the Tartar armies, Rustum as the champion of the former, Sohrab as the champion of the latter, Rustum fights under an assumed name. Yet Sohrab suspects that his antagonist is the great Rustum and begs him to say so; Rustum for his part is drawn to the the youth and urges him to retire from an unequal contest. But Sohrab will not withdraw and Rustum will not disclose his identity. They fight, and at the climax of the combat Rustum cries aloud his name to terrify his enemy; Sohrab, not terrified but astonished, lowers his shield and is exposed to Rustum's spear, which pierces his side. Dying, he threatens the revenge his father Rustum will take. When Rustum denies that he ever had a son, Sohrab shows the family insignia of Rustum pricked on his arm. The proof is indisputable and the father and son at last know each other. In his grief and despair Rustum wishes for his own death." - Lionel Trilling

From "Rustum and Sohrab"

So, on the bloody sand, Sohrab lay dead;
And the great Rustum drew his horseman's cloak
Down o'er his face, and sate by his dead son.
As those black granite pillars, once high-reared
By Jemshid in Persepolis,to bear
His house, now 'mid their broken flights of steps
Lie prone, enormous, down the mountain side —
So in the sand lay Rustum by his son.

And night came down over the solemn waste,
And the two gazing hosts, and that sole pair,
And darkened all; and a cold fog, with night,
Crept from the Oxus. Soon a hum arose,
As of a great assembly loosed, and fires
Began to twinkle through the fog; for now
Both armies moved to camp, and took their meal:
The Persians took it on the open sands
Southward; the Tartars by the river marge:
And Rustum and his son were left alone.

But the majestic River floated on,
Out of the mist and hum of that low land,
Into the frosty starlight, and there moved,
Rejoicing, through the hushed Chorasmian waste,
Under the solitary moon: — he flowed
Right for the polar star, past Orgunjè,
Brimming, and bright, and large: then sands begin
To hem his watery march, and dam his streams,
And split his currents; that for many a league
The shorn and parcelled Oxus strains along
Through beds of sand and matted rushy isles —
Oxus, forgetting the bright speed he had
In his high mountain-cradle in Pamere,
A foiled circuitous wanderer: — till at last
The longed-for dash of waves is heard, and wide
His luminous home of waters opens, bright
And tranquil, from whose floor the new-bathed stars
Emerge, and shine upon the Aral Sea.

You can read the full text of the poem here. The image is a sculpture of Ferdowsi by the Iranian sculptor Ustad Abolhassan Khan Sadighi known as Master Sadighi (1894-1995)

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Real John McCain

Due to the lingering "straight talk" romance of John McCain's maverick 2000 campaign, the mainstream American press seems incapable of holding McCain to account for his numerous flip flops since he lined up behind George Bush's presidency. The internet has transformed information delivery and inevitably political campaigns have been altered. Information filtering is no longer possible for the MSM (mainstream media) and the implications of this information free-for-all are still not fully understood by modern day campaigns.

The following video titled The Real McCain 2 launched this past Sunday has been viewed by over 1 million people. It has been the #1 most viewed video on YouTube, #1 on the viral video chart, and the #2 story on the Digg Election 2008 page. This is an audience size that is significantly larger than most of the cable news shows.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Dalrymple on "The Arts of Kashmir"

William Dalrymple has a good essay in this issue of the NYRB on Asia Society's exhibition catalog by Pratapaditya Pal on "The Arts of Kashmir".

The first part of the essay describes the sad devastation of the Kashmir Valley and the destruction of Kashmir's traditionally peace loving and syncretic culture. No matter where one places the blame for this long and deadly conflict, the clash of nationalisms that has played out in Kashmir has ravaged the Kashmiris with no end in sight for this strife torn people.

The exhibition catalog and Dalrymple's essay serves to remind the audience of the historic cultural vitality of Kashmir with its rich Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim past. I particularly enjoyed reading about the early Kashmiri Muslim ruler Zain-ul-Abidin "Budshah" (1420-1470) who was renowned for his artistic patronage and whose 50 year reign is still remembered fondly by Kashmiris despite the passage of 500 years:
Fluent in Kashmiri, his native tongue, and Persian, Sanskrit, and Tibetan, he was a great patron of the arts and architecture, of literature and music, and in the conservation and preservation of Kashmir's heritage, irrespective of his religious affiliation.... Indeed, the only other Muslim ruler on the subcontinent who can be compared to Zain-ul-Abidin for his liberality, his intellectual curiosity, his love of learning as well as music, and for introducing and nourishing a wide range of crafts and arts and architecture is the Mughal emperor Akbar (1556–1605).
One can only hope that Kashmiris and their land are spared further destruction and they gradually find a way back to a culture "of tolerance and syncretism so clearly exemplified in Kashmir's artistic traditions".

Photograph: Shiva and his consort Parvati (ca. 900 AD)

Lessons of the Twentieth Century - Tony Judt

Tony Judt is a British Jewish historian specializing in European history. He is currently a professor at New York University and his most recent book was the critically acclaimed history of Europe since 1945 titled "Postwar". Not surprisingly for a historian interested in twentieth century Europe, Judt has reflected deeply and insightfully on war, genocide, occupation, empire and displacement of populations. He regularly writes for the New York Review of Books where many of his past essays are archived here.

His most recent essay titled "What have we Learned, if Anything" in the May 1st issue of the NY Review of Books is an eloquently argued plea to learn the right lessons from perhaps the bloodiest century in human history. Judt argues that, in America in particular, the more distant effects of 20th century suffering and the post cold war triumphalist view of the century's events have led to amnesia about the meaning of war. He calls war the "crucial antecedent condition for mass criminality in the modern era" and goes on to discuss the dangerous consequences for the republic of not learning this crucial lesson from the 20th century. He looks at America's war against terrorism and examines how it displays massive ignorance of the key lessons from the previous century; "the ease with which war and fear and dogma can bring us to demonize others, deny them a common humanity or the protection of our laws, and do unspeakable things to them".

It is always difficult to provide excerpts that would do justice to a well-argued, tight knit essay but here are some passages:

War, in short, prompted behavior that would have been unthinkable as well as dysfunctional in peacetime. It is war, not racism or ethnic antagonism or religious fervor, that leads to atrocity. War—total war—has been the crucial antecedent condition for mass criminality in the modern era. The first primitive concentration camps were set up by the British during the Boer War of 1899–1902. Without World War I there would have been no Armenian genocide and it is highly unlikely that either communism or fascism would have seized hold of modern states. Without World War II there would have been no Holocaust. Absent the forcible involvement of Cambodia in the Vietnam War, we would never have heard of Pol Pot. As for the brutalizing effect of war on ordinary soldiers themselves, this of course has been copiously documented.

The United States avoided almost all of that. Americans, perhaps alone in the world, experienced the twentieth century in a far more positive light. The US was not invaded. It did not lose vast numbers of citizens, or huge swathes of territory, as a result of occupation or dismemberment. Although humiliated in distant neocolonial wars (in Vietnam and now in Iraq), the US has never suffered the full consequences of defeat. Despite their ambivalence toward its recent undertakings, most Americans still feel that the wars their country has fought were mostly "good wars." The US was greatly enriched by its role in the two world wars and by their outcome, in which respect it has nothing in common with Britain, the only other major country to emerge unambiguously victorious from those struggles but at the cost of near bankruptcy and the loss of empire. And compared with other major twentieth-century combatants, the US lost relatively few soldiers in battle and suffered hardly any civilian casualties.
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Ignorance of twentieth-century history does not just contribute to a regrettable enthusiasm for armed conflict. It also leads to a misidentification of the enemy. We have good reason to be taken up just now with terrorism and its challenge. But before setting out on a hundred-year war to eradicate terrorists from the face of the earth, let us consider the following. Terrorists are nothing new. Even if we exclude assassinations or attempted assassinations of presidents and monarchs and confine ourselves to men and women who kill random unarmed civilians in pursuit of a political objective, terrorists have been with us for well over a century.
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This abstracting of foes and threats from their context—this ease with which we have talked ourselves into believing that we are at war with "Islamofascists," "extremists" from a strange culture, who dwell in some distant "Islamistan," who hate us for who we are and seek to destroy "our way of life"—is a sure sign that we have forgotten the lesson of the twentieth century: the ease with which war and fear and dogma can bring us to demonize others, deny them a common humanity or the protection of our laws, and do unspeakable things to them.
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Far from escaping the twentieth century, we need, I think, to go back and look a bit more carefully. We need to learn again—or perhaps for the first time—how war brutalizes and degrades winners and losers alike and what happens to us when, having heedlessly waged war for no good reason, we are encouraged to inflate and demonize our enemies in order to justify that war's indefinite continuance. And perhaps, in this protracted electoral season, we could put a question to our aspirant leaders: Daddy (or, as it might be, Mommy), what did you do to prevent the war?


Update: Just after publishing this post I saw in the April 20th New York Times Book Review, Geoffrey Wheatcroft's review of "Reappraisals", Judt's new collection of essays.