30 julho 2004

Why we shouldn't worry about Mexican immigration.

It is not politically correct today to say that America is fundamentally a Protestant country, or that a specific form of religion is critical to its success as a democracy. Yet as historical facts, these statements are undoubtedly true, and they are the premise of Who Are We?, Samuel Huntington's new book. The United States, he argues, is a liberal democracy based on certain universal political principles regarding liberty and equality, summed up traditionally as the American Creed. But the country's success as a free and prosperous democratic society was not due simply to the goodness of these principles or the strength of America's formal institutions. There was a crucial supplement: cultural values that Huntington describes as "Anglo-Protestant." Had America been settled by French, Spanish, or Portuguese Catholics rather than British Protestants, it would not have been the United States we know, but more like Quebec or Mexico.

Huntington is following in the path of innumerable observers of the United States, from Tocqueville and Bryce to Louis Hartz, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Huntington himself in earlier books like his 1981 work American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony. All of these authors have noted that the dissident, sectarian nature of the Protestantism transplanted to North America was critical to shaping American values like individualism, antistatism, tolerance, moralism, the work ethic, the propensity for voluntary association, and a host of other informal habits and customs that augment our Constitution and legal system. Who Are We? is also perfectly consistent with Huntington's previous best seller, The Clash of Civilizations, in arguing that liberal democracy is less a universalistic system for organizing political life than an outgrowth of a certain northern European Christian culture, the appeal and feasibility of which will be limited in other cultural settings.

Huntington goes on to argue that globalization and immigration are threats to that traditional American identity. In his view, the American elite, from corporate executives to professors to journalists, sees itself as cosmopolitan, secular, and attached to the principle of diversity as an end in itself. That elite no longer feels emotionally attached to America and is increasingly out of touch with the vast majority of non-elite Americans who remain patriotic, morally conservative, and Christian—indeed, increasingly so as the Fourth Great Awakening unfolds at the beginning of the 21st century.

On no issue are elites and ordinary Americans further apart than on immigration, and Huntington takes the latter's concerns about the threat posed by Mexican immigration very seriously. This is because of the numbers involved (almost 8 million people in 2000, or 27 percent of the total immigrant population), the concentration of Mexican immigrants in a few Southwestern states and cities, and the proximity of their country of origin. The wave has occurred, moreover, at a time when American elites have lost confidence in their own cultural values and are no longer willing to use the public school system to assimilate these new immigrants to Anglo-Protestant culture. Huntington worries that unchecked immigration will sow the seeds of a later backlash, and may even lead one day to something new in the American experience, an ethnolinguistic minority with strong ties to a neighboring country that could potentially make territorial claims on much of the Southwest.

I am glad that a scholar like Huntington has raised these issues, since they deserve serious discussion and should not be left to the likes of Pat Buchanan and worse to promote. Huntington poses some real questions about whether the large Mexican immigrant population will assimilate as other immigrant groups have done before them. The most troubling statistics are those showing them moving up the socioeconomic ladder more slowly in the third generation than other groups have. He is right that "culture matters" (the title of one of his previous books), and he is right that the thoughtless promotion of multiculturalism and identity politics threatens important American values. But his book, ironically, offers grist for a rather different perspective on the problem: Who Are We? suggests that the more serious threat to American culture comes perhaps from its own internal contradictions than from foreigners.

Let's begin with the question of who the true bearers of "Anglo-Protestant" values are. For all his emphasis on religion, Huntington does not approach the question from the standpoint of a believer who thinks Protestant values are important because they are inherently true, but rather because they lead to good effects like democracy or development. It thus becomes clear that "Anglo-Protestant" values can and have become deracinated from their religious and ethnic roots. His chapter describing "core" Anglo-Protestant values ends up focusing almost entirely on the work ethic: "from the beginning," he writes, "America's religion has been the religion of work." But who in today's world works hard? Certainly not contemporary Europeans with their six-week vacations. The real Protestants are those Korean grocery-store owners, or Indian entrepreneurs, or Taiwanese engineers, or Russian cab drivers working two or three jobs in America's free and relatively unregulated labor market. I lived in Los Angeles for nearly a decade, and remember passing groups of Chicanos gathered at certain intersections at 7 a.m. waiting for work as day laborers. No lack of a work ethic here: That's why Hispanics have pushed native-born African-Americans out of low-skill jobs in virtually every city where they compete head-to-head.

The actual Anglo-Protestants, on the other hand, are a complex group. The old mainline Protestant denominations—Congregationalist, Anglican, and Presbyterian—were at the forefront of all of the liberal causes like multiculturalism and affirmative action that Huntington dislikes. There are still country club WASPs around, but their cultural hegemony in elite institutions from Wall Street to the Ivy League came to an end about 50 years ago. And then there are the descendants of the Scotch-Irish, heirs to what Walter Mead calls the Jacksonian tradition in American politics, who have settled in a band stretching from the Carolinas through the Bible Belt to Southern California. This group ranks relatively low among identifiable American ethnic groups, immigrant and native, in terms of income, education, and other measures of socioeconomic status.

There are a number of grounds for thinking that the United States will assimilate Hispanic immigrants just as it has earlier ethnic groups. Most important is the fact that they are Christian—either Catholic or, to an increasing degree, Evangelical Protestant. When controlling for socioeconomic status, they have stronger traditional family values than their native-born counterparts. This means that culturally, today's Mexican immigrants are much less distant from mainstream "Anglos" than were, say, the southern Italian immigrants or Eastern European Jews from mainstream WASPs at the beginning of the 20th century. Their rates of second- and third-generation intermarriage are much closer to those of other European groups than for African-Americans. And, from Gen. Ricardo Sanchez on down, they are serving honorably today in the U.S. armed forces in numbers disproportionate to their place in the overall population.

The problem, as Alejandro Portes, a professor of sociology and immigration studies at Princeton, has pointed out, is not that Mexican and other Latino immigrants come with the wrong values, but rather that they are corrupted by American practices. Many young Hispanics are absorbed into the underclass culture of American inner cities, which has then re-exported gang violence back to Mexico and Central America; or else their middle-class leaders have absorbed the American post-civil rights era sense of victimization and entitlement. There is a sharp divide between elites—organizations like the National Council of La Raza, or the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund—and the general population of Hispanic immigrants. The latter, overall, tend to be socially conservative, want to learn English and assimilate into the American mainstream, and were even supportive initially of California's Proposition 187 (denying benefits to illegal immigrants) and 227 (ending bilingualism in public education).

Who Are We? puzzlingly makes no concrete policy recommendations concerning levels of immigration, qualifications for legal admission, means of enforcing rules against illegal immigrants, and the like. It is thus very hard to know whether Huntington would support something as drastic as the 1924 cutoff of non-Western European immigration. It is hard to believe that such a policy would be politically feasible today, given the changes in technology, communications, economics, and demography that have been driving migration not just in the United States but all over the world. If it is the case that high levels of immigration are inevitable for developed societies, then what we need to do is to shift the focus from immigration per se to the issue of assimilation—something that most conservative supporters of immigration like John Miller, Tamar Jacoby, Ron Unz, and Michael Barone have long argued.

This will be a huge challenge for the United States, but I am more confident than Huntington that we can meet it. Indeed, Hispanic immigrants will help to reinforce certain cultural values like the emphasis on family and work, and the Christian character of American society. If you want to see a real problem with cultural assimilation, look no further than European countries like France and Spain, who have discovered after Sept. 11 that they are host to angry second- and third-generation Muslims prone to terrorism and violence. Recognizing that it is unrealistic to wall themselves off from immigrants, they are seeking to change their source—to Latin America.

The Nazi Seduction or
Why do Hitler and the Nazis continue to fascinate?

The deluge of books about Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler apparently knows no end. In addition to those here under review, dozens of others have appeared in the past two or three years alone, and many more are sure to come. By contrast, scholarly study of Stalinism and the gulag is relatively neglected. As Anne Applebaum observes in Gulag, although "some eighteen million people passed through this massive system," we pay far less attention to Stalin's victims than we do to Hitler's. Many of the millions killed during the Stalin era were simply "driven to a forest at night, lined up, shot in the skull, and buried in mass graves before they ever got near a concentration camp—a form of murder no less 'industrialized' and anonymous than that used by the Nazis." But no archival film-footage records these scenes that played out behind the Iron Curtain, no harrowing photos comparable to those that followed the liberation of the Nazi camps. Stalin's victims "haven't caught Hollywood's imagination in the same way. Highbrow culture hasn't been much more open to the subject."

Why is it, Applebaum wonders, that the German philosopher Martin Heidegger "has been deeply damaged by his brief, overt support of Nazism which developed before Hitler had committed his major atrocities," yet "the reputation of the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre has not suffered in the least from his aggressive support of Stalinism throughout the postwar years, when plentiful evidence of Stalin's atrocities was available to anyone interested." Her answer is that the literary Left, many of whom were enchanted by the Soviet experiment, did not want to broach the subject. Indeed, this has been so much the case that decades after Stalin's death, it was still possible "for an American academic to publish a book suggesting that the purges of the 1930s were useful because they promoted upward mobility. … It is possible—still—for a British literary editor to reject an article because it is 'too anti-Soviet.'" It is impossible to imagine a literary editor rejecting a piece for being "too anti-Nazi." The terror famine of the 1930s killed more Ukrainians than Hitler murdered Jews. Why so little attention? Literary and academic bias is one answer, the tendency of a "small part of the Western Left ... to explain and sometimes to excuse the camps" is another, but neither fully suffices.

[read on]

29 julho 2004

Bloody Hell of Summer 2004
(an example, not a mere example, but an example, still)
Isto era o Convento do Beato. Fancy photomontage, yes, but true. 2500 m2 de área útil, now burned to the ground in 70% - though reports say the venue area for events is unscathed. Veremos...

Simpsons ties knot with gay marriage

The feverish public debate in the US over gay marriages is to be played out in a forthcoming episode of The Simpsons, it emerged today.
The show's producers have revealed that the cartoon classic will feature an episode in which gay marriage is legalised in Springfield.
Hints about the plot line were dropped by show producer Matt Groening at a San Diego comic convention, where he revealed that Homer Simpson becomes a minister by registering online.
One early favourite is billionaire Monty Burns' ever-devoted sidekick Waylon Smithers, who has been revealed in previous episodes to have a Mr Burns screensaver and dreams of a naked Mr Burns jumping out of a birthday cake.
Other candidates include Homer's cohorts at the nuclear plant, Carl and Lenny, as well as Moe the bartender, the Reverend Lovejoy, Principal Skinner and Comic Book Guy.
The gay marriage-themed episode is scheduled to air in January.

On July 26, 2004, numerous fires were burning across the Iberian Peninsula, testing firefighters in Spain and Portugal, who are trying to keep the blazes from destroying parks, historic towns, and people’s homes. In this image from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on the Aqua satellite, a large concentration of fires dots northern Portugal (top left), another cluster appears around Lisbon, about three-quarters of the way down the coast, and a few are visible near the southern coast as well. Over the course of the next day, one of the fires in the Algarve region in the south of Portugal had grown considerably.

Bloody Hell of the week:

Newsmap is an application that visually reflects the constantly changing landscape of the Google News news aggregator. A treemap visualization algorithm helps display the enormous amount of information gathered by the aggregator. Treemaps are traditionally space-constrained visualizations of information. Newsmap's objective takes that goal a step further and provides a tool to divide information into quickly recognizable bands which, when presented together, reveal underlying patterns in news reporting across cultures and within news segments in constant change around the globe. Newsmap does not pretend to replace the googlenews aggregator. It's objective is to simply demonstrate visually the relationships between data and the unseen patterns in news media. It is not thought to display an unbiased view of the news, on the contrary it is thought to ironically accentuate the bias of it.
Already praised by MacroMedia newsletter, Edge and Slashdotted, includes newsmapping on several countries, España if not Portugal (the f*ckers).
(thanx to Marc :-)
Diversity and development

IT IS, of course, fitting that the United Nations celebrate diversity. The hundreds of flags in front of its headquarters, and the 365 languages into which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is translated on an official UN website, are just two symbols of the institution’s commitment to the world’s ethnic mosaic. But this week’s Human Development Report, from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), takes the commitment to diversity further. Released each year since 1990, the Human Development Reports provide an update on the fight against poverty around the world, each time with a new theme. This year’s report ties two themes together, arguing that respect for diversity is integral to development. State-builders in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan will no doubt be thumbing through the report with interest, in the hope of learning something about how to make fractious ethnic groups work together for prosperity. It also offers them an opportunity to share their views: this year, the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, contributed an essay on his country's language policy.

Diversity and development might seem to sit oddly together. But they are intimately linked, and the report seeks to show that they are not related in the way many people assume. The UNDP’s press release says unambiguously that “there is no evidence that cultural diversity slows development”, and dismisses the idea that there has to be a trade-off between respecting diversity and sustaining peace. Some of the world’s richest and most peaceful countries are historically multi-ethnic, such as Switzerland, Canada and Belgium. And most of the world’s richest countries are now the destination of immigrants from around the world, making America, Britain and other wealthy nations hugely diverse.

But there is some evidence that diversity has costs. In a recent book, “The Size of Nations” (see article), two economists show that managing ethnic diversity is expensive, as governments must deal with the demands of groups competing for scarce resources. In the United States, a study has shown that people are willing to pay more for services like education if they can live with people more like them in ethnicity and class. In other words, people place a value on being with others like them. Multi-ethnic nations have been breaking apart recently (the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia); few countries have merged during the same period, and those that have were ethnic mates (East and West Germany, North and South Yemen).

A quick look at the Human Development Index (HDI), released each year in the report, seems to support the idea that diversity has its costs. In the bottom 35 countries ranked as having “low human development”, all but three are in vastly diverse Africa, where borders drawn by colonialists showed no respect for tribal, linguistic or religious identities. Meanwhile, while single-ethnicity states are rare (just 30 countries in the world do not have a religious or ethnic minority that constitutes at least 10% of the population), they are strongly represented at the top of the HDI: places like Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Japan, Ireland and Austria.

One of the authors of the report, Stefano Pettinato, acknowledges that diversity can be a source of problems. But the report’s intention, he says, is to reject the simple causal link that diversity hampers development. He points to rich countries that are also diverse, whether by history (Belgium, Switzerland, Canada) or massive immigration (America, most prominently). Yes, he says, ethnicity plays a role in the conflict and corruption that plague African development. But it is unscrupulous politicians who take advantage that are to blame—not diversity itself.

The report recommends several political strategies for coupling diversity and development. One is “asymmetrical federalism”—the type of constitutional arrangement seen in Spain and Canada, where regions dominated by a cohesive minority (like Québec or the Basque country) get special local-government powers that others do not. This both recognises the region’s distinct identity and binds it to the central state. After all, the authors point out, most people in Spain’s minority regions see themselves as both Spanish and Basque (or Catalan or Galician)—not just one or the other. Giving those overlapping identities constitutional form can be one way to stabilise a diverse country. However, it can also give rise to resentment among the majority—be they anglophone Canadians or Castilian Spaniards—over the privileges of minorities.

The authors of the report argue for several other policies to protect and promote what they call “cultural liberty”, with certain caveats. For example, they support affirmative action, which, they say, has led to an increase in the number of black professionals in America, and has helped ethnic Malays in Malaysia and various minorities in India as well. But they lightly question the wisdom of letting such policies become entrenched, asking for example whether the children of affirmative action’s beneficiaries should themselves be eligible for a helping hand.

The authors also propose treating “cultural goods” differently from other kinds when discussing trade. They give some of the oft-cited statistics about the cultural dominance of a few countries—for example, that America accounts for 85% of films screened worldwide. Their assumption is that, left to raw market forces, products from smaller cultures would be drowned out of the market. But rather than proposing restrictions on, say, importing American films, the authors propose allowing governments to take positive action to boost the production of their local fare. (Some trade agreements treat such support as an illegal subsidy.)

While the report is full of feel-good language and social-science jargon, like “participation exclusion” and “living mode exclusion”, it is an interesting first stab at marrying diversity and development, two subjects not often found side-by-side. The report is, by its own admission, short on data about just how bad the problem of cultural exclusion is around the world. But it estimates, probably not too wildly, that one in seven people in the world is a member of some kind of disadvantaged minority. When engineering a new constitution, founding fathers in Iraq, Afghanistan and other nations under construction, as well as those who would advise them, would do well to take the suggestions of this report to heart.

28 julho 2004

The Top 10 Misconceptions about Translation

10. Paying promptly for the services of a plumber/lawyer/doctor is a must. However, the translator doesn't mind waiting indefinitely for payment...

9. Anybody with two years of high school language (or a foreign-tongued grandmother) can translate.

8. A good translator doesn't need a dictionary.

7. There's no difference between translation and interpretation.

6. Translators don't mind working nights and weekends at no extra charge.

5. Translators don't need to understand what they're translating.

4. A good translator doesn't need proofing or editing.

3. Translation is just typing in a foreign language.

2. A translator costs $49.95 at Radio Shack and runs on two 'C' batteries.

And the #1 misconception about translation and translators is:

1. The document that took a team of 20 people two months to put together can be translated overnight by one person and still retain the same impact as the original.

Goodie of the day:
Stanley Kubrick's 2001 explained and speaking in tongues - includes Brazilian Portuguese (heck!)

(Obrigadinha ao Marcus :-)
[Aaaah You'll like this :-) ]

The «Bilbao effect» or the «Look at ME!» architecture:

The true architectural icon is a building that is unmistakable, often provocative, and carries cultural signals far beyond its purpose. Obvious iconic landmarks include the Sydney opera house, the Pompidou centre, even the new Scottish parliament building (...)

But there are also less significant buildings that aspire to iconic status but do not always deserve the profile their sponsors demand. In this context, the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao has had a significant effect. (...) Its significance as a building is less in its extraordinary shape and surface (which many now consider formulaic) than in the popularity of its formal abstraction.

Read more  from this speech to the Architects' Journal/Bovis Awards for Architecture dinner.
English Spelling, aaaaaah, what a lark!
More miserable news about language, then. More reason to pop off to the nearest wall and bang our heads against it. According to the publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary, half the people using it these days are stumped by the difference between "reign" and "rein", and "pouring" and "poring".

However, before we start to share out our cyanide capsules, perhaps we should pause. I, for one, am heartened to hear that people are looking things up in dictionaries at all. Over the past few months, I have been told repeatedly that "everyone" now relies on spell-checker programs, just as they rely on grammar checkers for their punctuation.

Whenever I have pointed out that spell-checkers are inferior to dictionaries because, when you look up a word in a dictionary, you get a definition as well, I have met with pitying looks. Yet evidently - Hooray! - there are still a few people willing to drag that heavy tome off the shelf and discover that "pour" may sound very much like "pore", but is actually a completely different word.

Does it matter that people spell correctly? Well, the pour/pore example is a pretty good place to start, actually. Write, "I have been pouring over my books" and you will find it leads to tricky extra questions, such as, "Pouring what?"

Yet there is an idea steadily gathering force in this country that communication should be judged only by functional effectiveness and that, if you "get the gist" of what someone is saying, this is enough. Notions of "correct" English are for fuddy-duddies who take nasty pleasure in other people's mistakes.

Not surprisingly, I am not persuaded by this argument. In fact, it makes me weep and thunder by turns. "Please don't use the expression 'Get the gist'!" I pray, whenever I have to engage in chat-show debate with the latest person advocating the liberating joy of a grammatical free-for-all.

But they always do. "Ah, but does it matter, so long as we get the gist?" they ask, as if saying something original and profound. "Is conveying a gist the highest aim of language?" I ask (sometimes a bit emotionally). "Correct me if I'm wrong, but cavemen pointing and grunting got the bloody gist!"

The other idea gathering force is that the written word is a mere adjunct to speech - which is a rather serious development for those of us who were brought up to worship books, and instinctively regard the hierarchy as the other way round. Yet it's an unignorable fact: when e-mailing and texting, people use a hybrid form of language that is half-talking, half-writing. Hence the decline of punctuation; hence all this annoying "gist" talk; and hence the universal cavalier disregard for spelling.

There is a huge irony here, sadly. Thanks to a miraculous new technology, more people are writing more stuff than ever before. Yet, through a combination of bad education and misguided egalitarianism, the lower the standard of written communication, the better it is perceived to be.
A lot of nonsense is talked about "proper" English being a means of endorsing the existing social status quo. My feeling is that the opposite is true. If you encourage people to write the way they talk, class divisions are ultimately reinforced, even exacerbated. I'm a working-class girl who read a lot of books and grew up to - well, to write this piece in The Telegraph anyway, so maybe I have an old-fashioned view of education as the instrument of social mobility. But it's pretty clear to anyone that, if children are taught that "getting the gist" is sufficient, everyone stays where they are.

Last weekend, the comedian Bill Cosby sent a very blunt message to the patois-speakers of the black community, to the same effect: "Civil rights campaigners marched and were hit in the face with rocks to get an education and now we've got these knuckleheads who can't speak English… Everybody knows it's important to speak English… You can't be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth."

Doesn't it drive you nuts, all this? The argument goes that the spelling of English words is, by and large, "irrational". Why is there a silent "p" in "receipt" and not in "deceit"? Well, the quick answer is: life's a pain sometimes; stop whining; if you don't like it, go and speak German. In any case, if you try to reform the spelling of English along "rational" lines, you discover quite quickly that there is no way of doing it.

It seems to me that people just resent having to learn things. "How do you explain to an eight-year-old that the word 'yacht' has all these strange letters in it?" a chap once asked me, on the Jeremy Vine Show. This seemed an unanswerable question at the time. It was only afterwards that I worked out my objection to it. Why should the comprehension level of an eight-year-old be our standard for anything?

Personally, I have spelling blind spots, just as I have grammar blind spots - and when they are pointed out to me, I am mortified. That's the way it ought to be, I reckon. On the other hand, however, I am not ashamed at all of thinking that the conventions of the written word (spelling, grammar, punctuation) need to be protected against the barbarians.

Yesterday, as I was travelling by car between Manchester and Leeds, the driver offered to stop at a newsagent's, but as he slowed, I said: "No, look, it says 'stationary' with an A; we'll go somewhere else." He laughed politely, but I wasn't joking.

Perhaps the answer is to carry a stack of Concise OEDs, and deliver them personally, to show shopkeepers that "stationery" has an E. Or, if feelings are running particularly high, tie a Concise OED to a brick and heave it through the window. Either way, one mournfully suspects, they still might not get the gist.

Don't judge a book by its cover, but this one sure is enticing and inebriating *-D

This book is like a good bottle of wine, behind which there is always a good story, one often embellished as the bottle is emptied. What happy symposiast, wandering home through the darkened jasmine-scented streets of ancient Babylon or Athens, would fault the storyteller or the wine for having made a better tale than mere evidence would warrant? Here too can be found inspiration—and new avenues for scholarly pursuit.

(Short review by American Scientist)  and First Chapter courtesy of Princeton University Press)

Now they tell us: CDs aren't forever after all
CD deterioration may start with a smattering of pinpricks or what appears to be rust creeping inwards from the edge of the disc. Certain tracks jump or emit clicking noises. Eventually, the CD loses all data and is better used as a shiny coaster. [Hah!] 

Music lovers may need to haul their dusty record players out of retirement. It seems records really do keep spinning right round, baby.
In fact, vinyl records can be played even without a record player or electricity.
All it would take is a horn of paper with a needle on the end, and a pencil in the record's hole to keep it spinning (...)
[Meu Deus...]

I know, I know, my thoughts exactly:
Do we need another book about Hitler and Stalin?
This review seems thoroughly convinced of that:

The huge books about war and the dictators keep coming, as if the historians were queuing up to dump their slabs of learning on a grave. We should be grateful. The sheer weight of these volumes, to say nothing of their weighty research, keeps the ghosts of Hitler and Stalin trapped in the tomb.

None the less, a reader facing yet another tome is bound to ask whether there is much left to be said about those two monsters. But a few pages of Richard Overy's new book are enough to remove doubt. This is a superb work, comprehensive and written with rare fire and intelligence.
Like many good historians, Overy was compelled to write by a sense of having been misled. He was taught, not so long ago, that the reason why so many millions obeyed and worshipped Hitler and Stalin was a simple one - fear of state terror. Overy sets out to show that this explanation is hopelessly crude.
Fear of the penalties for protest was important, of course, but both regimes drew wide consent from the majority who were neither active dissenters (a tiny fraction) nor party enthusiasts. More broadly, the chaos of the Twenties left both populations feeling that it was better to be 'pro' whatever the leadership did than 'anti', and that social unity mattered more than the right to criticise.
Hitler and Stalin took over societies already riddled with fear of the future, with paranoia about conspiracies and with hatred of 'others' expressed in murderous language. Both dictatorships were able to replace the notion of moral and legal absolutes with 'historical absolutes': the idea that law must be subordinated to the 'iron laws' of development, whether Marxist-Leninist or racism. Dictatorship flourished in a climate of perpetual emergency. 'The moral universe... made the state's crimes explicable not as crimes but as necessary precautions to prevent a greater injustice.' At the end of this road stood Rudolf Höss, commandant of Auschwitz, who was outraged to be accused of theft at his postwar trial but showed no remorse for murdering hundreds of thousands of human beings.
Overy asks what made the two regimes similar and what made them different. He wastes no time on the old 'equivalence' argument that Hitler and Stalin were both totalitarian psychopaths who killed millions and were therefore as bad as each other. Their differences were very real. Constantly, Overy contrasts the universalism of Stalin's utopia, aimed at 'an equal and happy future', with Hitler's vision reserved for the Germanic race alone. But he uses this contrast as an analytic tool, not as mitigation for Stalin's crimes.
In the same way, he is not saying that it was better to be arrested by the NKVD than by the Gestapo when he notes: 'It is the utterly lawless character of state repression in Germany by the end of the dictatorship that makes the chief difference between the Soviet and German security systems'.
His point is that the Stalinist bureaucracy, which kept up at least the pretence of courts with judges, was in many ways a more controllable and versatile apparatus than the Nazi machine.
This difference was decisive for the outcome of the gigantic war which began in 1941 (and cost the lives of more than 11 million soldiers in less than four years). Here, Overy challenges received ideas. The notion of the Soviet Union's 'infinite resources' is misleading. After the conquest of the western USSR in 1941, Germany controlled far greater supplies of manpower, production and raw materials.
Stalin won for three main reasons. First, because the Red Army simply outfought the Wehrmacht with better strategy and tactics. Second, because Soviet central control of the economy was more effective; the Soviet Union overtook Germany in artillery and tank production in the critical year of 1942-3. Third, Stalin became more aware of his own limitations as the war went on and relied increasingly on the judgment of trusted generals. Hitler, in contrast, grew more convinced of his own genius and by 1945 was interfering in almost every military decision.
This version makes the ultimate Soviet victory even more impressive. It also undermines the 'weak dictatorship' school of thought, which has tried to deconstruct the notion of two all-powerful dictators. Stalin and Hitler delegated authority, but both, Overy insists, retained almost absolute power to intervene at any level. The difference was that Soviet central control was more flexible. The German system was too rigid to mobilise resources quickly (but the belief that the Nazis refused to conscript women for war work is a myth).
But the resemblances are inescapable. Both tyrannies relied on a desperate ideology of do-or-die confrontation. Both were obsessed by battle imagery: 'The dictatorships were military metaphors, founded to fight political war.' And despite the rhetoric about a fate-struggle between socialism and capitalism, the two economic systems converged strongly. Stalin's Russia permitted a substantial private sector, while Nazi Germany became rapidly dominated by state direction and state-owned industries.
In a brilliant passage, Overy compares the experience of two economic defectors. Steel magnate Fritz Thyssen fled to Switzerland because he believed that Nazi planning was 'Bolshevising' Germany. Factory manager Victor Kravchenko defected in 1943 because he found that class privilege and the exploitation of labour in Stalinist society were no better than the worst excesses of capitalism.
As Overy says, much that the two men did was pointless. Why camps? Prisons would have held all their dangerous opponents Who really needed slave labour, until the war? What did that colossal surplus of cruelty and terror achieve for the regimes? 'Violence was... regarded as redemptive, saving society from imaginary enemies.' Both dictators relied on a cult of science, social or biological. Both, above all, created a stupefying gap between what anyone could see was happening and what was proclaimed to be happening. But most people preferred to believe rather than to see.
It is the memory of that deception which still, generations later, darkens our hopes of constructing a future through politics.
(The Guardian/Observer)

El Che y The Motorcycle Diaries, in a reassessment of the Sixties' most enduring icon, from The Guardian /Observer:
'Ironically, Che's life has been emptied of the meaning he would have wanted it to have,' asserts Jorge Castañeda, author of Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara . 'Whatever the left might think, he has long since ceased to be an ideological and political figure.' Castañeda insists, though, that Che still possesses 'an extraordinary relevance. He's a symbol of a time when people died heroically for what they believed in. People don't do that any more.'

(There's another Che-based movie in the works, a Benicio Del Toro vehicle helmed by Steven Soderbergh, plus Javier Bardem that I adore :-)

After 500 years, Leonardo’s fragile portrait is starting to warp

[priceless caption]
Leonardo’s most celebrated work, the Mona Lisa, has deteriorated so significantly over the last year that conservation experts at the Louvre have ordered urgent analysis of its condition, to be carried out early next year when the work is removed from its current display case and installed in a new climate-controlled vitrine.
It will then be moved to a new, specially-designed gallery as part of a E2.3 million project paid for by the Japanese company, Nippon TV. Although this project was announced a few years ago, it is finally coming to fruition.
A routine study of the work in May revealed that the thin poplar wood on which it is painted has begun to warp. Although the warping has occurred at the rate of “less than a millimetre” over the past year, according to Vincent Pomarede, chief curator of the Louvre’s paintings, one side is buckling at a faster rate than the other, causing “some concern”.
The painting’s surface has been badly discoloured for many years, its brownish cast caused by the accumulation of dirt and chemical changes to the varnish, but the Louvre has consistently resisted calls for the work’s original colours to be restored, for fear of damaging the delicate sfumato effects built up through thin layers of oil paint.
The state-run Centre for Research and Restoration for Museums of France is to conduct an in situ study of the painting at the beginning of next year to determine how best to halt further decline. The work, believed to have been painted between 1503 to 1506, currently hangs in an air conditioned box of bullet-proof glass in a gallery devoted to the Italian Renaissance. This case, which protects the work from fluctuations in the humidity levels of the gallery caused by the 6 million people who visit each year, is made of glass so thick that it obscures visibility.
A new vitrine, into which the painting will be installed next spring, is now being designed by Goppion, the Italian firm which also made the cabinets that hold the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London. The new vitrine is being designed to protect against every conceivable type of threat: humidity, heat, light, theft, vandalism—even terrorism.
Goppion’s experts are also devising a new type of glass that will combine the highest levels of security with optimum transparency. Alessandro Goppion, head of the firm, assures The Art Newspaper that the visual reading of the painting will be considerably improved by the new cabinet.
[Courtesy of The Art Newspaper]
From Discovery.com, late-breaking news: Medieval Monks Were Obese.
Naaaah, really?

The dark side of the poetry world
A muckraking website aims to blow the lid off the cozy practices of contemporary poetry.

The site has poets talking. Since its launch on April 1, Foetry has racked up almost 600 comments and questions, from the laudatory to the outraged, at one point receiving 1,000 page views in a single day -- quite a crowd for gossip about new verse.

Perhaps the clearest point Foetry proves is one neither defenders nor detractors notice. Randall Jarrell wrote 50 years ago that the loudest controversies in the arts were matters "from which the art could be almost wholly excluded, leaving nothing but politics and public morality." The chat and the charges on Foetry's message boards are all about poets, but rarely about their poems: Aesthetic matters are almost completely absent, as they would be in a court of law.
Read on from The Boston Globe and the Foetry website, already featuring repartee with said newspaper :-)

The Tease of Memory
Psychologists are dusting off 19th-century explanations of déjà vu. Have we been here before?

"In the summer of 1856, Nathaniel Hawthorne visited a decaying English manor house known as Stanton Harcourt, not far from Oxford. He was struck by the vast kitchen, which occupied the bottom of a 70-foot tower. "Here, no doubt, they were accustomed to roast oxen whole, with as little fuss and ado as a modern cook would roast a fowl," he wrote in an 1863 travelogue, Our Old Home.

Hawthorne wrote that as he stood in that kitchen, he was seized by an uncanny feeling: "I was haunted and perplexed by an idea that somewhere or other I had seen just this strange spectacle before. The height, the blackness, the dismal void, before my eyes, seemed as familiar as the decorous neatness of my grandmother's kitchen." He was certain that he had never actually seen this room or anything like it. And yet for a moment he was caught in what he described as "that odd state of mind wherein we fitfully and teasingly remember some previous scene or incident, of which the one now passing appears to be but the echo and reduplication."

When Hawthorne wrote that passage there was no common term for such an experience. But by the end of the 19th century, after discarding "false recognition," "paramnesia," and "promnesia," scholars had settled on a French candidate: "déjà vu," or "already seen."

The fleeting melancholy and euphoria associated with déjà vu have attracted the interest of poets, novelists, and occultists of many stripes. St. Augustine, Sir Walter Scott, Dickens, and Tolstoy all wrote detailed accounts of such experiences. (We will politely leave aside a certain woozy song by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.)

Most academic psychologists, however, have ignored the topic since around 1890, when there was a brief flurry of interest. The phenomenon seems at once too rare and too ephemeral to capture in a laboratory. And even if it were as common as sneezing, déjà vu would still be difficult to study because it produces no measurable external behaviors. Researchers must trust their subjects' personal descriptions of what is going on inside their minds, and few people are as eloquent as Hawthorne. Psychology has generally filed déjà vu away in a drawer marked "Interesting but Insoluble."

During the past two decades, however, a few hardy souls have reopened the scientific study of déjà vu. They hope to nail down a persuasive explanation of the phenomenon, as well as shed light on some fundamental elements of memory and cognition. In the new book The Déjà Vu Experience: Essays in Cognitive Psychology (Psychology Press), Alan S. Brown, a professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University, surveys the fledgling subfield. "What we can try to do is zero in on it from a variety of different angles," he says. "It won't be something like, 'Boom! The explanation is there.' But we can get gradual clarity through some hard work."

Fatigue and Freud

In their brief late-19th-century flirtation with déjà vu, academic psychologists developed remarkably sophisticated hypotheses, some of which survive today. An article in a German psychology journal in 1878 suggested that déjà vu happens when the processes of "sensation" and "perception," which normally occur simultaneously, somehow move out of sync. Fatigue, it said, may be a cause.

Eleven years later, William H. Burnham, a psychologist at Clark University, in Worcester, Mass., offered the opposite suggestion: that déjà vu occurs when the nervous system is unusually well rested. "When we see a strange object," he wrote, "its unfamiliar aspect is largely due to the difficulty we find in apperceiving its characteristics. ... [But] when the brain centers are over-rested, the apperception of a strange scene may be so easy that the aspect of the scene will be familiar."

That idea may sound peculiar: Could our minds really be thrown out of kilter by unusually speedy and well-greased visual signals? But a large body of modern research strongly suggests that brains do use speed as a tool to assess whether an image or situation is familiar or not. If we can process an image fluently and quickly, our brains unconsciously interpret that as a cue that we have seen it before. Both the "fatigue" and the "well rested" theories of déjà vu remain on the table today.

In 1896 Arthur Allin, a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, wrote a long essay that covered many potential explanations. Among other possibilities, he suggested that déjà vu situations feel familiar because they remind us of elements of forgotten dreams; that our emotional reactions to a new image can conjure a false feeling of familiarity; and that déjà vu is generated when our attention is very briefly interrupted during our introduction to a new image.

Such inquiries nearly ground to a halt in the early-20th century, in part because of the shadow of Freud. A new generation of scholars arose for whom déjà vu was unmistakable evidence of the ego's struggle to defend itself against id and superego. In 1945 the British psychologist Oliver L. Zangwill wrote a 15-page essay explaining that Hawthorne's episode at Stanton Harcourt stemmed from an unresolved erotic yearning for his mother. (This despite Hawthorne's own plausible conclusion that his déjà vu was sparked by a dimly remembered Alexander Pope poem about the building.) As late as 1975 the prominent psychologist Bernard L. Pacella proposed that déjà vu occurs when the ego goes into a regressive panic, "scanning the phases of life in a descent historically to the composite primal-preobject-early libidinal object-representations of mother."

4 Modern Approaches

Most of today's déjà vu scholars have chucked primal-preobject-libidinal representations in favor of brain scans and neuroimaging. Taking advantage of a recent explosion of experimental research on memory errors, Mr. Brown and a few like-minded colleagues have dusted off the theories of déjà vu proposed during the late Victorian era. At last, he hopes, such hypotheses can be subject to rigorous experimental tests. He warns, however, not to expect quick results: "A lot of science is geared at, How can I get tenure? How can I crank out a study in a year? The luxury of being able to attack difficult problems is often more risky. There's a little more investment of your personal resources, a little bit of gambling."

In Mr. Brown's account, scientific theories of déjà vu fall into four broad families. The first are theories of "dual processing." The late neuropsychiatrist Pierre Gloor conducted experiments in the 1990s strongly suggesting that memory involves distinct systems of "retrieval" and "familiarity." In a 1997 paper, he speculated that déjà vu occurs at rare moments when our familiarity system is activated but our retrieval system is not. Other scholars argue that the retrieval system is not shut off entirely but simply fires out of sync, evoking the fatigue theory of a century earlier.

In the second category are more purely neurological explanations. One such theory holds that déjà vu experiences are caused by small, brief seizures, akin to those caused by epilepsy. That idea is buttressed by the fact that people with epilepsy often report having déjà vu just before going into full-blown seizures. Researchers have also found that déjà vu can be elicited by electrically stimulating certain regions of the brain. In a 2002 paper, the Austrian physician Josef Spatt, who works with epilepsy patients, argued that déjà vu is caused by brief, inappropriate firing in the parahippocampal cortex, which is known to be associated with the ability to detect familiarity.

Mr. Brown's third category consists of memory theories. These propose that déjà vu is triggered by something we have actually seen or imagined before, either in waking life, in literature or film, or in a dream. Some of these theories hold that a single element, perhaps familiar from some other context, is enough to spark a déjà vu experience. (Suppose, for example, that the chairs in Stanton Harcourt's kitchen were identical in color and shape to Hawthorne's decorously neat grandmother's, but that he didn't recognize them in this new context.) At the other end of the scale are gestalt theories, which suggest that we sometimes falsely recognize a general visual or audio pattern. (Suppose that the Stanton Harcourt kitchen looked similar, in broad visual outline, to a long-forgotten church that Hawthorne had once attended.)

In the final box are "double perception" theories of déjà vu, which descend from Allin's 1896 suggestion that a brief interruption in our normal process of perception might make something appear falsely familiar. In 1989, in one of the first laboratory studies that tried to induce something like déjà vu, the cognitive psychologists Larry L. Jacoby and Kevin Whitehouse, of Washington University in St. Louis, showed their subjects a long list of words on a screen. The subjects then returned a day or a week later and were shown another long list of words, half of which had also been on the first list. They were asked to identify which words they had seen during the first round.

The experimenters found that if they flashed a word at extremely quick, subliminal speeds (20 milliseconds) shortly before its "official" appearance on the screen during the second round, their subjects were very likely to incorrectly say that it had appeared on the first list. Those results lent at least indirect support to the notion that if we attend to something half-consciously and then give it our full attention, it can appear falsely familiar.

The study is one of many that demonstrate the potential pitfalls of everyday memory and cognition, says Mr. Jacoby. "At our core, I think all of us are naïve realists. We believe the world is as it presents itself," he says. "All of these experiments are a little unsettling if you're a naïve realist." He hopes that this line of research will point toward new ways to repair the mental abilities of elderly people with impaired memories. "If we highlight the distinction between memory as expressed in performance and memory as we subjectively experience it," he says, we might be able to train elderly people to avoid common errors.

Speak, Memory

Having published his survey of the déjà vu world, Southern Methodist's Mr. Brown is embarking on a research program of his own. Together with Elizabeth J. Marsh, an assist-ant professor of psychology at Duke University, he is developing an experiment that may extend the findings of Mr. Jacoby and Mr. Whitehouse. In the new studies, subjects are asked to quickly locate a small red cross that is superimposed on photographs of various campus landscapes. The researchers' expectation is that the subjects will concentrate on the crosses and not pay much attention to the backgrounds. A week later, when the subjects return, they are shown the campus photographs again -- along with many photographs not used in the first round -- and are asked, "Have you seen this place before?" and "Have you been to this place before?" (After all the slides have been shown, the participants are asked about which campuses they have actually visited.) Mr. Brown and Ms. Marsh wonder if the experiment will produce incorrect "yes" answers -- or even déjà vu experiences -- when the subjects look at the images they have half-consciously seen the week before.

Ms. Marsh, who specializes in more-orthodox studies of memory, had no particular interest in déjà vu before last year, when she was asked to review Mr. Brown's book manuscript. "I came at this as a student of basic memory and memory errors," she says. "But I became fascinated by what Alan had to say about the déjà vu literature. He described all of these funky little findings -- that people who travel frequently, for example, are more likely to experience déjà vu."

Further down the road, Mr. Brown would like to see studies that shed light on some of those odd findings. Why does déjà vu become less common as people grow older? Why do political liberals report more frequent déjà vu experiences than conservatives do? And why do the majority of déjà vu experiences seem to occur when people are in mundane settings? (Arthur T. Funkhouser, a Jungian analyst in Switzerland who is considering writing a book about the phenomenon, believes that it offers a window into the self -- but concedes that the raw material of déjà vu experiences are often oddly dull. "Why does the unconscious pick such banal elements for us to think about?" he asks.)

Mr. Brown would also like to work with people with epilepsy, and with people who have the rare condition of suffering déjà vu pretty much every day. "I'm in contact with someone by e-mail who has almost constant déjà vu," he says. "Someone like that would be very fruitful to work with in the lab."

But he does not expect to see any clear conceptual or experimental breakthroughs anytime soon. It is possible, he says, that what we call déjà vu is actually five or six phenomena, with separate causes. "This will be very slow progress toward a very abstract phenomenon," he says. "It's kind of like space exploration. You're not sure exactly what you'll find.
Was missing Jayne Anne Phillips since "Machine Dreams"
Here's a comeback (maybe just for me ;) from Granta:

'Termite's Birthday, 1959'

"Lark is only seventeen but has a lot of responsibilites. Looking after Termite is one of them: 'Nonie is our guardian and our aunt but I'm Termite's sister. In a way he's more mine than anyone else's. He'll be mine for longer, is what Nonie says.'

Nonie hates the idea of blue cake, she says it looks like something old and spoiled, too old to eat, though it's light and delicate and flavoured with anise. But Termite likes it, and he likes pink cake that tastes of almond, and mostly he likes me putting the batter in different bowls, holding them in the crook of his arm while I bend over him, stirring. I tell him how fast a few drops of colour land dense as tinted black and turn the mix pastel. I make three thin layers, pale blue and pink and yellow, and I put three pans in to bake, shut the door of the oven fast to pretend I'm not making everything still hotter.

'Hot as Hades today,' I tell Termite, and I move his chair so he gets the hint of breath from the window. The radio cord still reaches and he turns the knob with his wrist, slow or fast, like a safe-cracker, like there's some sense to the sounds, the static and the interrupted news."

[read on]

27 julho 2004

There's a extensive article on The New Yorker about the Madrid bombings.
Find the printer-friendly version here:

Here's an excerpt:

"At 7:37 A.M., as a train was about to enter Madrid’s Atocha station, three bombs blasted open the steel cars, sending body parts through the windows of nearby apartments. The station is in Madrid’s center, a few blocks from the Prado Museum. Within seconds, four bombs exploded on another train, five hundred and fifty yards from the station. The bombs killed nearly a hundred people. Had the explosions occurred when the trains were inside the station, the fatalities might have tallied in the thousands; a quarter of a million people pass through Atocha every workday. The trains at that hour were filled with students and young office workers who live in public housing and in modest apartment complexes east of the city. Many were immigrants, who had been drawn by the Spanish economic boom."

On related news:

"El equipo de 'Al filo de lo imposible' (a Spanish TV program specialized in shooting almost impossible feats) ha logrado, junto a un equipo italiano que quería rememorar el 50 aniversario de la primera ascensión, romper la maldición del K2, que en los tres últimos años no había permitido a nadie que pisara su cumbre. Oiarzabal y Edurne han colocado en la cima un banderín con los nombres de las 192 víctimas mortales de los atentados del 11-M, porque en palabras de Sebastián Álvaro, director del programa, "era el mejor homenaje que nosotros les podíamos rendir."

26 julho 2004


Nombrada así por el Zar Alejandro II.
Tiene un color verde profundo al ser expuesta al sol, puede cambiar al rojo o al marrón si se le expone a luz artificial.
And the useful link of the day:

Bug Me Not

Do you know all those websites that don't let you have the information you want until you register 'for free'. There are heaps of reasons why they're a bad idea:

1) They're annoying
2) They waste time
3) They take your information and who knows what they do with it
4) You might never visit the site ever again

These sites include places like newspaper sites that need you to register before you can view their articles.

1 - Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.

2 - The probability that a certain person be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.

3 - A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.

4 - Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake.

5 - A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.

The Guardian on Saramago's loooooooong paragraphs (is this really news now or is it just the "silly season"?:

"Despite what designers like to think, the look of a book on the page doesn't often make a crucial difference to the experience of reading. José Saramago's new novel is an exception: the sentences may not always be long, but the paragraphs certainly are.
A large minority of pages contain no paragraph breaks.

Any visual relief that might be provided by dialogue is denied by the device of embedding it in the prose, with only a capital letter to denote shift of speaker. The reader hungers for the piquancy of a single inverted comma. Even when the conversations are simple, they take some disentangling: 'Forgive is just a word, Words are all we have, Where are you going now, Somewhere or other, to pick up the pieces and try and hide the scars...' The accelerated pace of speech within the prose format make the eye stumble. Overall, the physical experience of reading The Double is of living in a house without windows.

You don't get to be a Nobel laureate simply by strewing obstacles in the path of your readers. Saramago has a distinctive imagination, characterised not by leaps or flights but by a sublime grinding, as anyone who has read his implacable fable, Blindness, can confirm. From a single premise, he can generate prodigies of grounded fantasy.

The premise of The Double is simple, and announced in the title: a history teacher, idly watching the video of a romantic comedy, glimpses a supporting actor who proves to be identical to him in every way. The two men's voices coincide; even such things as moles and scars are identically distributed. Saramago has no interest in providing an explanation for this freakish occurrence, only in exploring its repercussions.

There's nothing particularly new in positing a logical world and then introducing an absurd element which leads to an unravelling of identity. After all, Saramago, born in 1922, is of an age to have seen existentialism and absurdism come and go. It's true that he takes the story in some unexpected directions, so that his history teacher becomes more decisive, more committed to his life in the shadow of the doppelganger. Whether this means that he becomes more 'himself' is debatable - it's just that he forfeits the luxury of wavering. Even so, The Double seems more of an idea for a novella than a novel.

The difference between the spareness of the idea and the bulk of the finished book is made up by the contributions of an intrusive narrator. There are elusive truths which must be approached round three corners, but there is also such a thing as going all round the houses for no good reason.

This is a fair sample of the narrator's stock-in-trade: 'The hero does not properly understand the workings of a beehive nor why the branch of a tree should spring out where and in the way it does, that is, neither higher up nor lower down, neither thicker nor thinner, but he attributes his difficulty in understanding this to the fact that he does not know the genetic and gestural communication codes used amongst the bees, still less the flow of circulation which more or less blindly circulates among the tangled network of vegetal motorways that link the roots deep down in the earth to the leaves that clothe the tree and which rest in the noonday stillness and stir when the wind moves them.

'What he absolutely does not understand, however much he cudgels his brain, is why it is that while communication technologies continue to develop in a genuinely geometric progression, from improvement to improvement, the other form of communication, proper, real communication from me to you, from us to them, should still be this confusion crisscrossed with cul-de-sacs, so deceiving with its illusory esplanades, and as devious in expression as in concealment.

'He might not perhaps mind becoming a tree, but he will never be one, his life, like that of all humans who have lived and will live, will never know the supreme experience of the vegetal. Supreme, or so we imagine, since, up till now, no one has read the biography or the memoirs of an oak tree, written by the same.'

It may be true, as the narrative voice puts it, that 'a narrative abhors a vacuum', but filling-in of this sort breaks laws of its own. One of the consequences of the soporific manner of the book is that it sometimes sneaks something past the reader which isn't as self-evident as it is made out to be ('Generally speaking, one does not notice what a bearded man is carrying...'), but if that is a literary effect, it's a perverse one.

How long before mock-pompous becomes plain pompous? About 500 words. Joyce was wise, in Ulysses, to restrict his boring narrator to a single section. Every now and then, a novel achieves greatness despite being narrated by someone obtuse and self-regarding (Doctor Faustus, Pale Fire). Many thousands more have been dragged straight to the bottom by the dead weight of a pompous narrator.
Yet another interesting book review from the NYT (jeez):
(One wonders why is it sooo diff to get these people to spell Spanish right:
it's not Bartoleme but Bartolomé)

Around 500 years ago, our hitherto slowly altering world began to change, and in amazingly swift ways -- ways that have affected us all, and make it impossible ever to go back. From a small and rather miserable peninsula -- an area commonly known as Christendom or Europe -- at the southwest corner of the gigantic Eurasian landmass, men began to venture forth in frail yet efficient wooden sailing vessels across thousands of miles of ocean. Carried westward and southward by winds and currents, they discovered what they came to term the ''new world,'' although it turned out to be many new worlds.

While this development is commonplace in all our history books, and was recalled in many ways at the quincentennial celebrations a decade ago, it is important to note how extraordinary it was. This was not an adventure undertaken by a fleet of Indonesian ships arriving off the Scottish coast in 1500. Nor by a Zulu flotilla bringing an army of conquest to Maine. It consisted of a small collection of rash, visionary and often fearful West Europeans going forth to catalyze the globe. Today, billions of people, descendants of the venturing nations and descendants of those who were invaded, still stand in the historical shadow of this epic transformation.

Many generations of historians have attempted to explain the reasons for Europe's amazing rise to world power. Was it due to its move toward rationality and science during the Renaissance, or its capacity for organization, or the competitiveness of its nation-states (as opposed to the dull uniformity of Oriental empires), or its favorable geographical position, or its gunpowder revolution?

Probably it was due to all of them, a sort of fusion of historical forces. But it also needed something else: human ambition. It required people willing to risk all in pursuit of power, wealth, glory and divine approval. And it is this human ambitiousness that is at the core of Hugh Thomas's magisterial and sprawling new book, ''Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, From Columbus to Magellan.'' Here is a work that seeks not so much to explain the backdrop to early European imperialism as to describe for modern readers the visions and sufferings of the driving personalities who accomplished the conquest of so much of the globe in so short a time.

The focus is upon Spain, and rightly so. The Portuguese may have been the first Europeans around Africa; the Dutch and French may later have implanted themselves around the Indian Ocean; and the British may have brushed them all away, in the 18th-century wars of the Elder and Younger Pitt. But it was the Spanish explorers and conquistadors who set the pace and tone, not only in the Western Hemisphere but also in the Pacific.

A book the size of ''Rivers of Gold'' would be an astonishing work by any author, yet its publication simply affirms Hugh Thomas's record as one of the most productive and wide-ranging historians of modern times. Born in 1931, for many years a professor of history at the University of Reading and made Lord Thomas by no less than Margaret Thatcher in 1981, he first caught public attention with an enormous tome, ''The Spanish Civil War,'' in 1961. Ten years later he released his vast study ''Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom.'' Then came his great ''Unfinished History of the World'' (1979). In 1997 he published ''The Slave Trade.'' But Thomas has also written about European unity and about the British radical John Strachey. Ten years ago he published another large work, ''Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes, and the Fall of Old Mexico,'' which is the closest in theme to the present volume.

''Rivers of Gold'' takes just about 700 pages to describe only the first 30 years of the Spanish conquests, from Columbus's first voyage and return in 1492-93 to Magellan's circumnavigation of the globe in 1519-22. It is an old-fashioned, almost self-indulgent narrative, and thus rich in its descriptions of characters, events and landscapes (it is also admirably illustrated). As a contrast, one might look at Henry Kamen's recent book, ''Empire: How Spain Became a World Power, 1492-1763,'' also a splendid work, but one more discursive intellectually, if much tighter in its analysis. Thomas prefers atmospherics and, in his case, it works.

His book begins by siting this tale of conquests in the context of the very recent ''reconquest'' of Spain from the Muslims, along with the unification of the monarchies of Ferdinand and Isabella -- and for very good reason. For to the poor but intensely Catholic noblemen and gentry of Castile and Aragon -- who had fought so fiercely to drive the Moors out of Granada and then pursued them into North Africa; who were locked in lengthy conflict against the Ottomans in the Mediterranean; and who had overwhelmed the Canary Islands -- it was only one step more to venture farther afield in pursuit of glory, gold and entry into heaven.

The people who carried out this mission were larger-than-life figures, many of them scoundrels, many of them ruthless, most of them obsessed. The greatest strength of Thomas's book is to bring so many of them to life -- so much so that one fears several swashbuckling Hollywood movies will emerge from this volume. The 10 chapters on the incredible story of Christopher Columbus cover not only his years of petitioning the monarchs and grandees of Europe to finance a venture to the West, and not only his extraordinary first exploration, but also his later voyages, including his epic fourth voyage in 1502-4, which was so full of setback and adventure. Thomas admirably recovers from history the character of Queen Isabella, surely one of the most inventive and decisive female monarchs of that era, along with Elizabeth I of England. There is the tale of Cortes's bold conquest of Mexico, told with a grand admixture of details on the religiosity of Cortes's men, their advantage in horses and fine swords, and the crucial support of the local tribespeople who hated Montezuma's blood-bath regime. Most empires rely heavily upon collaborators, and Spain's was no different.

Readers will learn as well the remarkable story of the missionary Bartoleme de las Casas, perhaps the most experienced of the doughty souls described in this book. He sailed on at least two of Columbus's voyages and survived numerous dangers, but then returned to Spain in 1519 to argue before the new King Charles I (who was also Emperor Charles V) against the dreadful cruelties being inflicted upon the Indian tribes in the West. In its way Las Casas' work marked the beginning of the Franciscans' and Dominicans' campaign for native human rights, undertaken because, as children of God, indigenous peoples were also expected to learn about Christ.

Thomas has researched in all the available Spanish and Latin American archives. He seems to have read all the sources. The index is a masterpiece. The 85 pages of endnotes are studded with interesting comments. The bibliography is vast (though I was a little disappointed to see no reference to William Prescott's 1843 classic, ''The History of the Conquest of Mexico''). This book is more than mere summer reading, yet I imagine that many people will eagerly lug it off to their cottages and resorts.

''Rivers of Gold'' provokes one further thought. For the past few years, the United States has been attempting its own imperial or demi-imperial experiments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Five hundred years after Cortes, neo-conservative adventurers are leading us eastward and seeking to transform the Middle East. But perhaps they should pause, at least long enough to read Thomas's book. It brings much evidence of imperial arrogance and torture, yet it also contains compelling details of how to treat a conquered nation with compassion. This is worth some reflection.

Many years ago Barbara Tuchman wrote a book, ''A Distant Mirror,'' about how the turbulences, extremism and brutalities of the Middle Ages were being echoed in our own time. Her book or, rather, her message was generally dismissed by reviewers, especially those who were academic historians. We might wish to treat ''Rivers of Gold'' more carefully. It stands on its own firm historical ground as a grand and sweeping account of the world's transformation half a millennium ago. But to those who enjoy analogies, it can equally serve as a memorial about empire and about imperial ambition.
AUGUST 2004 will mark the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw uprising, when 40,000 members of the Polish underground Home Army spilled into the streets to liberate the city from its Nazi occupiers. The revolt was inspired in part by the belief that the Red Army would come to the aid of the rebels. Russian units had advanced to the eastern bank of the Vistula River and were within supporting distance of the Warsaw fighters, but once Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky, commander of the First Belarussian Front, declined to intervene, the Germans were freed not only to suppress the uprising but also to carry out appalling reprisals. Stalin would later dismiss the rebellion as the act of ''a gang of criminals.''

Norman Davies, a fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford, is the foremost historian of modern Poland. Of his previous books, ''God's Playground: A History of Poland'' is widely regarded as a landmark account. This new work, ''Rising '44,'' draws on a wealth of original material. Yet Davies says he is frustrated at how disappointingly little is available from either Russian or British archives. While Russian unwillingness to release documents (except selectively) is well known, there is no accounting for why 95 percent of the records of the British intelligence services during World War II have remained closed, with little prospect of their being opened in the future. The British penchant for secrecy 60 years after these events hardly seems justified, particularly since a vast majority of the participants are no longer alive.

In any case, ''Rising '44'' is much more than the story of the Warsaw uprising. It is one of the most savage indictments of Allied malfeasance yet leveled by a historian. Unsparing in his depictions of the slaughter of the Polish fighters and the destruction of their capital, Davies challenges the popular assumption that World War II was entirely the triumph of good over evil.

Of the nations caught in the hell of World War II, history's most devastating conflict, Poland became the biggest pawn. The German invasion in September 1939 was merely the opening act of the tragedy. Although they fought valiantly, the Poles were overwhelmed by the sheer weight of 53 German divisions.

Far worse was to follow. The inaptly named Soviet-German nonaggression pact signed in August 1939 contained a secret provision to partition Poland, and by early October 1939 it had become the territorial meal of Hitler and Stalin. Until June 1941, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and rendered the treaty a cynical sham, the Poles were subjected to the cruelties of both the N.K.V.D. and the Gestapo. In addition, the most notorious of the Nazi extermination camps were established on Polish soil at Treblinka and Auschwitz.

In April 1943 the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto revolted. Despite their valiant and desperate fight, the rebellion was brutally suppressed. The ghetto was smashed; 36,000 people were either killed or sent to death camps.

As Davies explains, the Warsaw uprising of 1944 -- which should not be confused with the ghetto uprising -- ended just as tragically. After Hitler commanded the SS chief Heinrich Himmler to take charge of operations in the city, orders were issued to put down the rebellion and reduce the Polish capital to ruins: ''We shall finish them off,'' Himmler declared. ''Warsaw will be liquidated.'' Every inhabitant was to be killed, every house burned. By October the rebellion had been crushed. Fifteen thousand of the partisans had been killed, and between 200,000 and 250,000 civilians lay dead.

Why didn't the Allies intervene? The reasons are complex, almost byzantine, but ultimately they boil down to the failure of the United States and Britain to deal resolutely with Stalin. Roosevelt and Churchill both perpetuated the fallacy of ''a benevolent Uncle Joe,'' described here as ''the mass murderer who was leading the fight against the fascist mass murderer.'' Poland's final betrayal occurred at Yalta in 1945, when the Allies abandoned it to Stalin's mercy with barely a whimper. The result was that ''in the eastern half of Europe, one foul tyranny was driven out by another; and liberation was postponed for nearly 50 years. By the yardstick of freedom and democracy as proclaimed by the Western powers, this outcome must be judged an abject failure.''

Davies accuses the Allies of failing in virtually every respect in August 1944, because their priorities lay elsewhere: they were obsessed with unconditional surrender, with the invasion of southern France and, in the wake of the stunningly successful victory in Normandy, with the belief that the war would end in 1944.

Of the three allies, only the British made a genuine attempt to aid the Poles. Acting on Churchill's orders, Royal Air Force aircraft operating from Brindisi, Italy, undertook extremely hazardous flights to resupply the Home Army with urgently needed arms and ammunition. R.A.F. losses were horrendous: for every ton of supplies delivered one aircraft was lost. Davies calls the Warsaw airlift of 1944 ''one of the great unsung sagas of the Second World War.''

Davies challenges the historical community to ''stop grubbing around in the minutiae of Polish affairs, and . . . examine the broader picture.'' He argues that ''the workings of the Allied coalition were decisive to the catastrophe,'' and that its roots ''will never be uncovered until the conduct of the major players is examined with the same rigor that has heretofore been reserved for the minor actors.''

''The disaster . . . was a joint one,'' he concludes. ''Any objective reviewer of these grave failings must judge every single member of the Allied coalition to hold a share of the responsibility. In essence, the tragedy of the Warsaw Rising resulted from a systemic breakdown of the Grand Alliance.''

Sixty years on, the uprising remains one of the most unforgettable episodes of the war. But unlike the world of fantasy, where the good guys always triumph, the brave resistance fighters of Warsaw met a very different fate. In the post-9/11 world, ''Rising '44'' is both a morality tale and an unforgiving illustration of what can happen when oppression and terror replace freedom.

25 julho 2004

Regarded as one of the greatest photographers of his time, Henri Cartier-Bresson was a shy Frenchman who elevated "snap shooting" to the level of a refined and disciplined art. His sharp-shooter’s ability to catch "the decisive moment," his precise eye for design, his self-effacing methods of work, and his literate comments about the theory and practice of photography made him a legendary figure among contemporary photojournalists.

His work and his approach have exercised a profound and far-reaching influence. His pictures and picture essays have been published in most of the world’s major magazines during three decades, and Cartier-Bresson prints have hung in the leading art museums of the United States and Europe (his monumental ‘The Decisive Moment’ show being the first photographic exhibit ever to be displayed in the halls of the Louvre). In the practical world of picture marketing, Cartier-Bresson left his imprint as well: he was one of the founders and a former president of Magnum, a cooperative picture agency of New York and Paris.

16 julho 2004

High-flying names a far cry from good old days

Like people elsewhere in the world, the Japanese have a fondness for the good old days. My great-grandfather's "good old days" were the 1920s, a time when there were public rose gardens in Hongo, with bushes imported directly from Kew Gardens in London. That was a time when rickshaws pulled up alongside the long black walls of geisha houses, where the drivers would get on their knees to help the geisha enter the carts. In those days, the local fish sellers considered it disrespectful to ask customers to come to their shops and would instead go to the customers' kitchens, prepare the fish, clean up and leave quietly.

The war changed all that. Great-granddad's favorite maxim was: "Minshushigi ga yononaka wo dame ni shita (Democracy was the ruin of this world.)"

But even he agreed that democracy improved some things, like the names Japanese parents gave their children. "In my day, we didn't have any fancy names, especially for women. Today's children go by names so zeitaku (extravagant) and kirabiyaka (luxurious), they could all be royalty!"

Indeed, in his day, the majority of Japanese had pretty sad-sounding names. My great-grandfather was called Tsutomu, the kanji for which means dedication to hard work. It also connotes loyalty to the emperor and is one of the main characters in Jukyo (Confucianism.) His wife's name was Take (bamboo) -- a fashionable name for women of all classes, since bamboo stood for the straight and narrow, hardiness and durability.

The maid in their house was called "U" -- which wasn't even represented by a kanji character, but just by the hiragana "u." Later, U got married to a neighborhood uekishokunin (gardener) called Tomekichi, whose name roughly means: "Stopping is good news." Tomekichi, or just plain Tome (the kanji for stopping or remaining), was quite a popular name among the working class. After giving birth to four or five children, parents usually wanted to call it quits and named their last-born accordingly.

Upon hearing such stories, we kids were aghast. Take and Tsutomu were understandable. Tome was a stretch, but acceptable. But we had no idea what to make of U. We were compelled to giggle hysterically or reach for antidepressants. U!

Other popular girl names pre-1945 included Yone (rice), Kura (storage room or warehouse), Tomi (wealth or fortune), Maru (circle) and Mame (bean). All of these reflect the societal and parental values of the time -- parents wanted girls to be hardy and equipped with survival skills, their daughters to have steady lives supported by thrift and household peace.

We've come a long way. In a matter of 60 years, the child-naming landscape has changed dramatically. In the 1980s, my female classmates had names like Misaki (beautifully blossoming), Mirei (beautiful bell), Reika (exotically beautiful fragrance) and Yui (one and only).

The boys were called things like Tsubasa (wings), Hisato (flying country), Kazuki (glitter of peace), Noriyuki (constitutional happiness).

As time went by, the zeitaku factor went up. There was even a period in the '90s when it became fashionable to combine kanji in a way that gave your children foreign-sounding names. The ones I heard were: Emma (graceful linen), Emiri ("Emily," river of beauty and intelligence), and Reo ("Leo," center of graciousness). Just think, from U to "Emily" in seven short decades.

Then there were the parents who got creative. A friend of mine, whose entire youth was proffered up to the altar of reggae, called his first born -- a girl -- Mare (pronounced Malay), though he in fact intended to name her "Marley" (as in Bob, of course). The character for this was ki, which means "hope" or "rarity." His parents protested that it was way too confusing, but persistence won out. No one could read the little girl's name correctly, and when they did, everyone pointed out that it was an odd name for a girl.

There's also the story of the father who wanted to call his son Akuma (devil). His reasoning was that a child should stand out in this world and get people to take notice. It didn't work -- the kuyakusho (ward office) stepped in and made him change it to something less prominent.

Interestingly, few Japanese parents opt for naming their offspring after themselves (which is why there are almost no "juniors" in this nation). This is merely our penchant for self-deprecation: The general assumption is that no kid would want to grow up being like his or her parents.

15 julho 2004

Le Temps Des Cerises

Quand nous chanterons le temps des cerises
Et gai rossignol, et merle moqueur
Seront tous en fête.
Les belles auront la folie en tête
Et les amoureux du soleil au coeur
Quand nous chanterons le temps de cerises
Sifflera bien mieux le merle moqueur

Mais il est bien court, le temps des cerises
Où l'on s'en va deux, cueillir en rêvant
Des pendant d'oreilles...
Cerises d'amour aux robes pareilles
Tombant sous la feuille en gouttes de sang
Mais il est bien court, le temps des cerises
Pendants de corail qu'on cueille en rêvant

Quand vous en serez au temps des cerises
Si vous avez peur des chagrins d'amour
Evitez les belles!
Moi, qui ne crains pas les peines cruelles
Je ne vivrai point sans souffrir un jour
Quand vous en serez au temps des cerises
Vous aurez aussi des peines d'amour!

J'aimerai toujours le temps des cerises
C'est de ce temps-là que je garde au coeur
Une plaie ouverte
Et Dame Fortune m'étant offerte
Ne saurait jamais calmer ma douleur
J'aimerai toujours le temps des cerises
Et le souvenir que je garde au coeur

14 julho 2004

Regarding Portugal:

"Percepção vs Realidade
Portugal ainda é visto como um país simpático, “easy-going”, com um clima ameno, de serviços e hospitaleiro. Ou seja, a percepção dos turistas não anda longe da realidade. A costa e as praias portuguesas continuam a ser um driver da nossa oferta e posicionamento turístico. No entanto, para muitos a costa Mediterrânica dos nossos vizinhos, a Cote d'Azur francesa, as praias gregas e a ainda por explorar e com um tremendo potencial costa Adriática, constituem alguns dos destinos turísticos de preferência e difíceis de competir com.

Um possível caminho?
A imagem global de Portugal tal como Henrique Agostinho (Sociedade Ponto Verde) a sumarizou é a de um "país do conforto". Somos um país confortável que "vende roupa, do tipo desportivo casual, roupa para ir para a esplanada e para ir passear à beira mar, nada de roupa de moda que isso é para os italianos". Como tal e em perfeita sintonia com o Henrique subscrevo a sua estratégia de apostarmos no "comércio do conforto" e no turismo de 3º idade.

Portugal, se quisermos posiciona-se realisticamente como a Flórida dos "Estados Unidos da Europa". Diz-nos o Henrique com uma acertada ironia: "se recebermos 100.000 reformados (o que não é nada, só a Alemanha deve ter entre 10 a 20 milhões de reformados) aumentamos 5% do PIB. Na Europa do norte uma reforma média vale 300 contos por mês: 100.000*12meses*300 = 360 milhões de contos de receita ano = 5% do PIB". E conclui: "A esse dinheiro (que está disponível porque não existe ninguém a apostar a sério neste cluster) juntava-se todo o efeito de contágio dos produtos nacionais ... Os filhos, sabendo que Portugal é o país do Conforto, comprariam português sempre que o conforto fosse o atributo mais importante)".

"Discover the undiscovered" – este é um insight e uma natural apetência que o povo anglo-saxónico (e outros povos do norte da Europa) têm e gostam de colocar em prática quando chegam a uma certa idade. É um nicho de mercado óptimo para explorar e onde Portugal pode muito bem competir e dar cartas. Desde a Costa Vicentina à Costa Minhota, até ao interior Transmontano ou Alentejano, temos muito para oferecer. Muito mais interessante do que tentar canalizar os recursos num target jovem que de ano para ano muda o seu destino de férias, porque não fixar um target a tempo inteiro com uma reforma para investir em paz e sossego?

Not so simple ...
Obviamente que descobrir uma categoria onde possamos ser os primeiros ou diferentes e vende-la ao mercado não é tão simples quanto a teoria sebenteira – porque é o mercado, são os consumidores que definem sempre que categoria é essa, aonde é que uma marca se encaixa (seja um país ou um sabonete de linha). O que é preciso é um trabalho prévio de "category-need", comunicar essa necessidade aos consumidores. Mas essa "category-need" já existe e com um tremendo potencial – só temos que a transferir para Portugal."