Poem of the week: Autumn at Taos by DH Lawrence

Evening Light on Sangre de Cristo Mountains

 
Evening Light on Sangre de Cristo Mountains, New Mexico.

DH Lawrence wrote that, in New Mexico, a “new part” of his soul “woke up suddenly” and “the old world gave way to a new”. In Native American religion he discovered there were no gods, because “all is god”. In a related way, America, in the shape of Walt Whitman, liberated his poetic landscape.

This week’s poem, “Autumn at Taos”, seems to occur in real time. The speaker is encountered while out riding, and the poem’s rhythms let us experience the small, muscular, intimate “trot-trot” movement of the pony through the contrastingly immense sweep of landscape. Repetitions slow the pace, acting as reins. For instance, when “the aspens of autumn” of line one immediately reappear in the second line, the narrative seems to pause and look around. Lawrence is not an unselfconscious poet, whose brilliancies happen by chance. His judgment is nowhere more apparent than in these repetitions. Look at “mottled” in stanza three. At first we see distantly a mottled effect; then the speaker makes it clear that the mottling is produced by cedar and pinion. No sooner have the trees come into focus than, out of the blue, out of the idea of “mottled”, comes that amazing otter. The word acts as a little visual bridge.

Earlier, aspen and pines formed the stripes of a tigress, and the grey sage of the mesa, a wolf-pelt. The otter, at first, seems only its sleek self, but it’s clear from later in the poem, when the speaker is relieved to get back to “the pine fish-dotted foothills” (curious but effective elision) and “Past the otter’s whiskers”, that this liquescent, “silver-sided” creature embodies another variation of the landscape.

The otter is as fierce as the previous creatures, if less hairy. “Fish-fanged” suggests the slender length of the teeth, and, inevitably, the impaled fish. We get, in effect, a fish’s view of its looming predator.

With the introduction of the mythical hawk of Horus the man on the pony himself becomes mythic. “Behold me” he says, biblically, “trotting at ease betwixt the slopes of the golden/ Great and glistening-feathered legs…” For a moment, we might think of Christ, mounted on an ass, entering Jerusalem. Horus was an Egyptian god represented by the sun as a winged disc but Lawrence may be conflating him with the feather-clad Mexican sun-god, Huitzilopochtli. Whatever his provenance, this bird gets royal poetic treatment. A duller writer might have gone for the “natural” word-order of his trio of adjectives: “great, golden, glistening-feathered…” Lawrence’s arrangement, split by the line-break, redeems the full force of words (“golden”, “great”) that are almost poetic clichés. The tarnished adjectives are suddenly made to tower and flare.

There’s a sexuality in these movements and positions, the rider bestrid by Horus or moving slowly under pines that are like the “hairy belly of a great black bear”. They might even imply different states of being. In Lawrence’s anti-democratic view of society, there were sun-men, an elite, and lesser mortals to be “thrust down into service”. Perhaps here he enacts a passage between both states: at any rate, the speaker is “glad to emerge” from the bearish pine-wood, and celebrates his release with a fresh, sunlit vision of the aspens, which, “laid one on another”, remind him of the hawk-god’s layered feathers.

Looking back on the “rounded sides of the squatting Rockies” unleashes more big-cat imagery, landscaped into metaphor. Possibly the speaker is a little unnerved by the “leopard-livid slopes of America”, comforting himself as he reassures the pony that all these predatory “fangs and claws and talons and beaks and hawk-eyes/ Are nerveless just now”. That “just now” implies only a temporary reprieve. The land, and the sensuous life-force it embodies, will triumph over its colonisers, artists included.

“The essential quality of poetry is that it makes a new effort of attention, and “discovers” a new world within the known world,” DH Lawrence wrote. The effort of attention here is also an effort of painterly imagination and out of the two he has made a strikingly original landscape poem. The creatures in it are not meant to emerge with that vivid, individualised presence of the different beasts of Birds, Beasts and Flowers: even the otter is a quick sketch. But the vision of natural integration between the land and these subliminally-present creatures could not be more alive. And, as so often in the animal poems, part of the charm lies in watching the amused, earnest, marvelling, deeply affectionate man who is watching the animal. Among the creatures in this poem is that small human figure on the pony, not a sun-god, but an English poetic genius, printing in his own way the new paths of technique which the American genius, Walt Whitman, has cleared before him.

Autumn at Taos

Over the rounded sides of the Rockies, the aspens of autumn,
The aspens of autumn,
Like yellow hair of a tigress brindled with pines.

Down on my hearth-rug of desert, sage of the mesa,
An ash-grey pelt
Of wolf all hairy and level, a wolf’s wild pelt.

Trot-trot to the mottled foot-hills, cedar-mottled and pinion;
Did you ever see an otter?
Silvery-sided, fish-fanged, fierce-faced, whiskered, mottled.

When I trot my little pony through the aspen-trees of the canyon,
Behold me trotting at ease betwixt the slopes of the golden
Great and glistening-feathered legs of the hawk of Horus;
The golden hawk of Horus
Astride above me.

But under the pines
I go slowly
As under the hairy belly of a great black bear.

Glad to emerge and look back
On the yellow, pointed aspen-trees laid one on another like feathers,
Feather over feather on the breast of the great and golden
Hawk as I say of Horus.

Pleased to be out in the sage and the pine fish-dotted foothills,
Past the otter’s whiskers,
On to the fur of the wolf-pelt that strews the plain.

And then to look back to the rounded sides of the squatting Rockies.
Tigress brindled with aspen,
Jaguar-splashed, puma-yellow, leopard-livid slopes of America.

Make big eyes, little pony,
At all these skins of wild beasts;
They won’t hurt you.

Fangs and claws and talons and beaks and hawk-eyes
Are nerveless just now.
So be easy.

__________

Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/nov/14/poem-of-the-week-d-h-lawrence

Teaching Good Sex

“First base, second base, third base, home run,” Al Vernacchio ticked off the classic baseball terms for sex acts. His goal was to prompt the students in Sexuality and Society — an elective for seniors at the private Friends’ Central School on Philadelphia’s affluent Main Line — to examine the assumptions buried in the venerable metaphor. “Give me some more,” urged the fast-talking 47-year-old, who teaches 9th- and 12th-grade English as well as human sexuality. Arrayed before Vernacchio was a circle of small desks occupied by 22 teenagers, six male and the rest female — a blur of sweatshirts and Ugg boots and form-fitting leggings.

“Grand slam,” called out a boy (who’d later tell me with disarming matter-of-factness that “the one thing Mr. V. talked about that made me feel really good was that penis size doesn’t matter”).

“Now, ‘grand slam’ has a bunch of different meanings,” replied Vernacchio, who has a master’s degree in human sexuality. “Some people say it’s an orgy, some people say grand slam is a one-night stand. Other stuff?”

“Grass,” a girl, a cheerleader, offered.

“If there’s grass on the field, play ball, right, right,” Vernacchio agreed, “which is interesting in this rather hair-phobic society where a lot of people are shaving their pubic hair — ”

“You know there’s grass, and then it got mowed, a landing strip,” one boy deadpanned, instigating a round of laughter. While these kids will sit poker-faced as Vernacchio expounds on quite graphic matters, class discussions are a spirited call and response, punctuated with guffaws, jokey patter and whispered asides, which Vernacchio tolerates, to a point.

Vernacchio explained that sex as baseball implies that it’s a game; that one party is the aggressor (almost always the boy), while the other is defending herself; that there is a strict order of play, and you can’t stop until you finish. “If you’re playing baseball,” he elaborated, “you can’t just say, ‘I’m really happy at second base.’ ”

A boy who was the leader of the Young Conservatives Club asked, “But what if it’s just more pleasure getting to home base?” Although this student is a fan of Vernacchio’s, he likes to challenge him about his tendency to empathize with the female perspective.

“Well, we’ve talked about how a huge percentage of women aren’t orgasming through vaginal intercourse,” Vernacchio responded, “so if that’s what you call a home run, there’s a lot of women saying” — his voice dropped to a dull monotone — ‘O.K., but this is not doing it for me.’ ”

In its breadth, depth and frank embrace of sexuality as, what Vernacchio calls, a “force for good” — even for teenagers — this sex-ed class may well be the only one of its kind in the United States. “There is abstinence-only sex education, and there’s abstinence-based sex ed,” said Leslie Kantor, vice president of education for Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “There’s almost nothing else left in public schools.”

Across the country, the approach ranges from abstinence until marriage is the only acceptable choice, contraceptives don’t work and premarital sex is physically and emotionally harmful, to abstinence is usually best, but if you must have sex, here are some ways to protect yourself from pregnancy and disease. The latter has been called “disaster prevention” education by sex educators who wish they could teach more; a dramatic example of the former comes in a video called “No Second Chances,” which has been used in abstinence-only courses. In it, a student asks a school nurse, “What if I want to have sex before I get married?” To which the nurse replies, “Well, I guess you’ll just have to be prepared to die.”

In settings outside schools, the constraints typically aren’t as tight. Bill Taverner, director of the Center for Family Life Education for Planned Parenthood of Greater Northern New Jersey, said that his 11 educators are usually given the most freedom with so-called high-risk youth, those in juvenile detention, or who live in poor neighborhoods with high teen-pregnancy rates. “I wish I could say it was for positive reasons,” he said, “but it’s almost as if society has just kind of thrown up their hands and said, ‘Well, these kids are going to have sex anyway, so you might as well not hide anything from them.’ ”

Sex education in America was invented by Progressive Era reformers like Sears, Roebuck’s president, Julius Rosenwald, and Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard University. Eliot, according to Kristin Luker, author of the book “When Sex Goes to School,” concluded that sex education was so important that he turned down Woodrow Wilson’s offer of the ambassadorship to Britain to join the first national group devoted to promoting the subject. Eliot was one of the so-called social hygienists who thought that teaching people about the “proper uses of sexuality” would help stamp out venereal disease and the sexual double-standard that kept women from achieving full equality. Proper sex meant sex between husband and wife (prostitution was then seen as regrettable but necessary because of men and their “needs”), so educators preached about both the rewards of carnal contact within marriage and the hazards outside of it.

It wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that the pill, feminism and generational rebellion smashed the cultural consensus that sex should be confined to marriage. And for a “brief, fragile period” in the 1970s and early 1980s, writes Luker, a professor of sociology and of law at U.C. Berkeley, “opinion leaders of almost every stripe believed sex education was the best response to the twin problems of teenage pregnancy and H.I.V. AIDS.” It was around this time that the Unitarian Universalist Association started its famously sex-positive curriculum, About Your Sexuality, with details about masturbation and orgasms and slide shows of couples touching one another’s genitals. (The classes are still going strong, though in the late 1990s, the program was replaced with another one without explicit images called Our Whole Lives, a joint project of the U.U.A. and the United Church of Christ.)

Back then, even public schools taught what came to be called “comprehensive sex education,” nonjudgmental instruction on bodies, birth control, disease prevention and “healthy relationships” — all geared to helping teenagers make responsible choices, one of which might be choosing to become sexually intimate with someone. But by the end of the 1980s, sex ed had taken its place in the basket of wedge issues dividing the right and left. This created the opening for abstinence instruction (the word “abstinence” wasn’t part of the sex-ed vernacular until the 1980s) to bulldoze any curriculum that didn’t treat sex as forbidden for teenagers. But Kantor and many others in the field remain “comprehensive sex ed” believers. To them, the license Vernacchio has to roam the sexual landscape is almost unimaginable.

Sitting in the conference room at Friends’, a tall, striking girl told me after class one day last winter that she was on the verge of getting involved with someone she really liked but was hesitating because she knew he had a reputation for juggling multiple girlfriends. The girl, who’d had sex twice in 11th grade with a boy she later discovered was sleeping around, wanted to be monogamous with the new guy but didn’t know how to broach it with him. (She was one of 17 students in Sexuality and Society who spoke to me privately; while Vernacchio is happy to discuss any personal information the kids bring up, he doesn’t seek it.)

Another young woman, who tended to treat her tiny desk in Vernacchio’s class as a lounger, flinging her legs out toward the center of the room, told me that she enjoyed sex for its own sake — the way guys do, as she put it. While she could express this with some bravado now, she came into Sexuality and Society in the beginning of the year uneasy about this aspect of herself, she said. A third girl, who called herself a “really anxious person,” still got choked up discussing a false rumor someone wrote on Facebook last fall: that she’d drunkenly offered oral sex to a boy at a party, who, as it happened, also was enrolled in Sexuality and Society. That young man, who didn’t post the lie and was predictably unfazed by it, had fallen for another classmate. That girl was equally besotted, but because they were in “sex class,” the couple always positioned themselves across the room from each other, never side by side; otherwise, they told me, they’d feel like animals in a zoo. Not that the pair weren’t still on display. With the exception of Vernacchio, everyone knew their status and found it impossible not to notice them locking eyes periodically, smiling briefly, before she’d duck her head, push her long, shiny hair behind her ears and turn her gaze back to her teacher.

“Mr. V. takes every question seriously,” another girl, the student-council vice president, told me. “You never feel like it’s the wise sexuality master preaching to the young.” Yet Vernacchio also doesn’t give off the vibe that he wants to be young, or imagines that he still is. His attire every day for the two weeks I attended the class in February was a sweater vest over a button-down shirt and tie, except for Valentine’s Day, when he shed the vest for a ruby red shirt and a tie decorated with hearts. That day Vernacchio gave all of his students brightly colored origami hearts he made himself; the members of Sexuality and Society reciprocated by sending him a singing Valentine (a “Glee”-worthy rendition of “Everytime We Touch,” by the boys’ barbershop choir).

Vernacchio is nothing so much as a mensch. Gay, with a partner of 17 years, he has ruddy cheeks, a quick smile and a plane of brown hair overhanging his brow, from which he must regularly wipe away sweat during intense discussions. He lectures with plainspoken authority while also conveying a deep curiosity about his subject — the consummate sex scholar.

During a lesson about recognizing your “crumble lines” — comments that play to your vulnerability and may make you “act against your values” — Vernacchio, a self-described “short, round, hairy guy” who struggles with body-image issues, revealed his own tendency to fall for anybody who compliments his appearance: “You say you think I’m pretty. I’ll do anything for you.” He was exaggerating a bit for effect, but the poignancy of the self-disclosure wasn’t lost on the class.

Friends’ Central, a Quaker prep school that prides itself on both its academic rigor and its ethic of social responsibility, is tucked away in the bucolic hills of suburban Philadelphia. Vernacchio joined the school’s English department in 1998, and when, three years later, he asked to start Sexuality and Society, administrators were delighted. “He teaches at the very highest level,” said David Felsen, who in June retired as headmaster of the school after 23 years. Because Vernacchio was such a gifted instructor, Felsen said, he didn’t worry about parents’ reactions. And in fact, Vernacchio says that no one has ever complained or even voiced reservations about something he discussed in class.

The parents I spoke to — ranging from a father who said he loves his son “to pieces” but wishes he knew him better to a mom who gets frequent updates from her daughter now in college — seemed grateful for the class. “My daughter is sometimes private,” another mother said, “and I appreciate that there was another place she could go to get good, healthy information.” Early in the year, Vernacchio gives an assignment asking students to interview a parent about how he or she learned about sex, and the father said his son handled it with aplomb: “He was very natural, and I’m the one thinking, This is embarrassing. He was a lot more mature about the conversation than I was.”

Sexuality and Society begins in the fall with a discussion of how to recognize and form your own values, then moves through topics like sexual orientation (occasionally students identify as gay or transgender, Vernacchio said, but in this particular class none did); safer sex; relationships; sexual health; and the emotional and physical terrain of sexual activity. (The standard public-school curriculum sticks to S.T.I.’s and contraceptive methods, and it can go by in a blink; in a Kaiser Family Foundation survey, two-thirds of principals said that the subject was covered in just several class periods.) Vernacchio also teaches a mandatory six-session sexuality course for ninth graders that covers some of the same material presented to the older kids, though less fully.

The lessons that tend to raise eyebrows outside the school, according to Vernacchio, are a medical research video he shows of a woman ejaculating — students are allowed to excuse themselves if they prefer not to watch — and a couple of dozen up-close photographs of vulvas and penises. The photos, Vernacchio said, are intended to show his charges the broad range of what’s out there. “It’s really a process of desensitizing them to what real genitals look like so they’ll be less freaked out by their own and, one day, their partner’s,” he said. What’s interesting, he added, is that both the boys and girls receive the photographs of the penises rather placidly but often insist that the vulvas don’t look “normal.” “They have no point of reference for what a normal, healthy vulva looks like, even their own,” Vernacchio said. The female student-council vice president agreed: “When we did the biology unit, I probably would’ve been able to label just as many of the boys’ body parts as the girls’, which is sad. I mean, you should know about the names of your own body.”

Vernacchio is aware that his utter lack of self-consciousness in conversing about sexual matters is unusual. “When God was passing out talents,” he likes to say, “I got ease in talking about sex.” But any plan of God’s, whom Vernacchio, a practicing Catholic, often references, was nudged along by two earthly happenings. “As a little kid,” Vernacchio said, “I got pegged as a good public speaker, so I started narrating all the school plays and reading at church; I got over the fear of speaking really early.” Then, around age 12, he started to research sex, having known from kindergarten that he was different in a “way that had to do with boys and girls.” He looked up homosexuality in the family dictionary, then took to going to libraries and planting himself in the sexuality section of the stacks. “I used to have the Dewey-decimal number for homosexuality memorized.” He was entirely on his own. There was no discussion of being gay at Vernacchio’s all-boys school; none from his parish priest, who at the end of sermons offered a prayer for “veterans of foreign wars, people who live near nuclear power plants and homosexuals”; and not from his parents, either, even after he came out to them at 19. Indeed, one night several years later, his mom was doing dinner dishes at the sink and his dad was plopped on the couch a few feet away in their tiny South Philly house, and Vernacchio mustered the courage to tell them that he was happily dating someone. “My mom never turned around, never reacted in any way, and my dad turned to me, didn’t miss a beat and said, ‘Whatever happened to the metric system?’ ”

It was drummed into him as a human-sexuality master’s student, Vernacchio said, to never be explicit merely for the sake of being explicit: have a rationale for every last thing you say. Which occurred to me one day listening to him answer an anonymous question — there’s a box on the bookshelf where students can drop them — about whether a girl’s urge to urinate during intercourse might be a precursor to female ejaculation. He laid out a plethora of explanations for the feeling, everything from anxiety about having sex to a bladder infection to the possibility that the young woman was getting “some really good G-spot stimulation” and in fact verging on ejaculation.

“If kids are starting to use their bodies sexually, they should know about their potentialities,” Vernacchio told me later. “It’s O.K. that boys ejaculate, that’s totally normalized” — wet dreams have been standard fare for middle-school health class for decades — “but girls, gross! Girls will think they’re peeing themselves, and it’s really shameful.”

“I just love this class — you can ask anything,” a member of the girls’ basketball team told me one day in February. She wears her long blond hair in two braids and shyly divulged that she was in love with her boyfriend of eight months. “You may not be able to get the best information on the Internet, but you can ask Mr. V., and he’ll either know it or ask his sex-ed friends,” she said, referring to a sex-educators’ e-mail list that Vernacchio consults.

Two boys who told me they’d been masturbating to Internet porn since middle school said they found themselves disoriented at the real-life encounters they had with girls, but Vernacchio helped them grasp the disjuncture. Pornography “gives boys the impression that the girl is there to do any position you want, or to please you, or to, you know, role-play to your liking,” one of them said. “But yesterday, when Mr. V. said there is no romanticism or intimacy in porn, porn is strictly sexual — I’d never thought about that.”

One young man in the class told me he had intercourse with 10 girls, but he was a relative outlier. While most of the students had had intercourse — 70 percent of teenagers do so by their 19th birthday, according to the Gutt­macher Institute — only 4 of the 17 I spoke with reported having three or more partners; 10 had had one or two; the other three were virgins.

But the numbers fail to capture the variation within the sexual histories. Of the two girls with more than two partners, one was the girl who appreciated purely sexual encounters. The other told me that during the summer before ninth grade, she was raped one night on a beach by a stranger. She told no one, she said, and she subsequently got together with a number of boys in what she now saw as a misguided effort to “take control” of her sexuality.

As to whether his class encourages teenagers to have sex — a protest perennially lodged against even basic sex ed (though pretty firmly disproved by research) — Vernacchio said that he portrays sex in all its glory and complications. “As much as I say, ‘This is how orgasms work, and they’re really cool,’ I say there’s a lot of work to being in a relationship and having sex. I don’t think I have the power to make sex sound so enticing that kids are going to break through their self-esteem issues or body stuff or parental pressures or whatever to just go do it.” And anyway, Vernacchio went on, “I don’t necessarily see the decision to become sexually active when you’re 17 as an unhealthy one.” His goal is for young people to know their own minds, be clear about what they do and don’t want and use their self-knowledge to make choices.

To that end, he spends one class leading the students through a kind of cost-benefit analysis of various types of relationships, from friendship to old-school dating to hookups. When he asked his students about the benefits of hookups, the kids volunteered: “No expected commitment,” “Sexual pleasure” and “Guarding emotions,” meaning you can enjoy yourself without the messiness of attachment.

“Yep,” Vernacchio said, “sometimes a hookup is all you want.” Then he pressed them for drawbacks.

“You may not be able to control your emotions,” someone called out.

“O.K.,” Vernacchio said approvingly. “What else?”

“It’s confusing,” said the student-council vice president.

“Yeah,” Vernacchio said, explaining that two people may have different ideas about what it means to hook up, which is why communication is so important. (“If you can’t talk about it, you probably shouldn’t be doing it,” he says.)

“People saying, ‘Oh, she’s a slut,’ ‘Oh, he’s a man-whore,’ ” floated a boy who described himself to me as a “lonesome outcast” until 11th grade, when he finally started to make friends. “I guess for women it’s usually seen as more of a bad thing.”

“Right,” Vernacchio agreed, “but there’s pressure on guys too. Guys get the, ‘Oh, yeah, he’s a player,’ but what if you’re really not? And then you feel pressure to maintain that.”

Vernacchio rarely misses a chance to ask his students to examine gender bias in their sexual attitudes or behavior. The girl who “admitted” to liking sex as much as boys did said that Vernacchio’s consistent affirmation of the variety of sexual preferences (“Guys aren’t necessarily naturally hornier than girls — there’s a huge social piece of this,” he told the class) helped her shake her sense of deviance and shame. In fact, she felt confident enough to debate her point of view in class with the girl who was nervous about embarking on a relationship with the guy known to be promiscuous. That young woman told me she’d been moved by the exchange: “I’m like, ‘That is nasty to hook up with someone for one night.’ She was like, ‘Well, I don’t care, sometimes I don’t want a relationship.’ We were going back and forth, but then I had to respect her. Before I took this class, I probably would’ve thought she was a whore, but she knows what she wants. That’s not something I want, but it doesn’t make her wrong, it doesn’t make me wrong.”

Above all else, what Vernacchio can do that his colleagues envy is to simply assume the pleasure of sex and directly address it with unharried ease. During one class, he handed out a worksheet with the five senses printed along the top and asked the students to try and list sexual activities that optimized each. (There were examples to prod their thinking: under hearing, for instance, was “listening to your partner read an erotic story.”) While Vernacchio knew the exercise would be a challenge for the kids — and he didn’t expect them to share their answers — its purpose was to open their minds to a broader sexuality.

Regarding the statistic that Vernacchio alluded to earlier — that 70 percent of women do not orgasm through vaginal penetration alone — one boy exclaimed when we talked, “That shocked me, a lot.” The other boys also told me they’d been in the dark about the mysteries of female sexual satisfaction. “I think I sort of knew where the clitoris was, but I didn’t know it was, like, under something,” one said. Another declared, “It’s almost like a wake-up call.” He paused. “To not just please yourself.”

The female students were nearly equally surprised. “I always thought, Is it weird that I don’t get an orgasm from, you know, just like vaginal penetration?” said a girl who’d had intercourse with one boy, though she’d had orgasms before that from being touched genitally. “It was comforting to hear that for most people it doesn’t happen. I mean, I’d heard it, but it was nice hearing it from Mr. V., who knows so much about it, and other people saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s right.’ ”

Not that information was always power for these young women. One girl said that while she could advise her boyfriend on how to increase her pleasure, she wouldn’t, because he’s “very insecure” about his lack of experience. Another estimated she’d had only two orgasms with her boyfriend of longstanding, each during intercourse, though she climaxes on her own through masturbation. Somehow, when she and her boyfriend “do anything, we just end up having sex,” she said, seeming both a little perplexed by the situation, and a little afraid to make waves.

Who gives oral sex to whom is common fodder for Vernacchio’s gender-parity conversations. All but one of the students told me they’d had it, but sometimes only once or twice, and the vast majority within monogamous relationships.

Although Vernacchio encourages students to think about fairness, he certainly doesn’t encourage a direct quid pro quo for oral sex — and the girls, the main givers, were not terribly enthused about being the recipients. “[My boyfriend] completely offered, and I did not want that,” one said. Another agreed: “It just creeps me out.” None were thrilled about performing it, either, and they seemed to be wrestling — in thought and deed — with why they continued to do so. “I do think girls like to take care of people,” the student-council V.P. mused, “and I know that just sounds horrible, like you should send me right back to the ’50s, but my mom is like the most liberal woman I know and still is so happy to make food for people. To some extent, women are just more people-pleasers than men.” One girl said she’d come up with “tricks” to make giving oral sex more enjoyable for her, and that she’d set “strict rules” for herself: “I only do it if they do something on me first, and it has to be below the belt.” And another said she doesn’t enjoy cunnilingus, but taking the personal is political to heart, she asked her boyfriend to do it anyway: if she was expected to service him orally, he should have to return the favor.

All the boys said that Vernacchio had increased their sensitivity to the girls. One recounted how in an effort to consider his girlfriend’s feelings he’d asked her if she was willing to give him oral sex — none of that pushing her head down in the heat of the moment — and she’d considered it for an excruciating hour. Or maybe it just felt like that. “Do you have to think about it this long?” he finally pleaded. Eventually, she agreed.

Pleasure in sex ed was a major topic last November at one of the largest sex-education conferences in the country, sponsored by the education arm of Planned Parenthood of Greater Northern New Jersey. “Porn is the model for today’s middle-school and high-school students,” Paul Joannides said in the keynote speech. “And none of us is offering an alternative that’s even remotely appealing.”

Joannides, who is 58, made sex education his life’s work following the success of his sex manual for older teenagers and adults called, “The Guide to Getting It On.” Lauded for its voluminous accuracy and wit, the 900-plus-page paperback took him 15 years to research and write. Joannides argues that pornography can be used as a teaching tool, not a bogeyman, as is apparent in a short Web video he made called “5 Things to Learn About Lovemaking From Porn.” “In porn,” he affably lectures, “sex happens instantly: camera, action, crotch. . . . In real life, the willingness to ask and learn from your partner is often what separates the good lovers from those who are totally forgettable.” (Another of Joannides’s assertions is that the best way to reach heterosexual boys — who he believes are the most neglected in the current environment — is to play to their desire for “mastery,” because by middle school, they’ve thoroughly absorbed that to be a man is to be a stud.)

One of sex educators’ big problems, Joannides told the New Jersey audience, is that they define their role as the “messengers of all the things that can go wrong with sex.” The attention paid to S.T.I.’s, pregnancy, rape and discrimination based on sexual orientation, while understandable, comes at a cost, he says. “We’re worrying about which bathrooms transgender students should use while teens are worrying whether they should shave all the way or leave a landing strip,” he said. “They’re worrying if someone special will find them sexually attractive, whether they will be able to do it as well as porn, whether others have the same kind of sexual feelings they do.”

In other words, as much as Joannides criticizes his opponents on the right, he also tweaks the orthodoxies of his friends on the left, hoping to spur them to contemplate how they themselves dismiss pleasure. His main premise is that young people will tune out educators if their real concerns are left in the shadows. And practically speaking, pleasure is so braided through sex that if you can’t mention it, you miss chances to teach about safe sex in a way that young people can really use.

For instance, in addition to pulling condoms over bananas — which has become a de rigueur contraception lesson among “liberal” educators — young people need to hear specifics about making the method work for them. “We don’t tell them: ‘Look, there are different shapes of condoms. Get sampler packs, experiment.’ That would be entering pleasure into the conversation, and we don’t want that.”

While the conference attendees couldn’t have agreed more with Joannides about what should be taught in schools, much of the crowd thought he was deluded to imagine they could ever get away with it. Back in 1988, Michelle Fine, a professor of social psychology at the City University of New York, wrote an article in The Harvard Educational Review called “Sexuality, Schooling and Adolescent Females: The Missing Discourse of Desire.” In it, she included the comments of a teacher who discouraged community advocates from lobbying for change in the formal curriculum. If outsiders actually discovered the liberties some teachers take, Fine was told, they’d be shut down.

More than two decades later, at the conference, an educator from Pennsylvania told me that one school asked her to teach a sex-ed class but forbade her to use the words “sex, ” “sexy” or “tampon.” (She declined.) A chipper young Unitarian sex educator from Brooklyn, Kirsten deFur, who led a workshop titled “Don’t Forget the Good Stuff,” gave tips on how her colleagues could avoid uttering the words “pleasure” and “orgasm.” “Ask open-ended questions about what feels good,” deFur recommended. And, she added, the P-word might even be acceptable in the proper context: “If you have healthy sex, it’ll be more pleasurable,” an instructor might dare to say.

That more expansive sex education has to be done in code was something I came across repeatedly. A veteran advocate in the field gave me a short list of teachers to contact who might be willing to talk to me but then warned, “I don’t know if any of them are going to want to have what they’re doing out there.”

“What if our kids really believed we wanted them to have great sex?” Vernacchio asked near the end of an evening talk he gave in January primarily for parents of ninth graders who would attend his sex-ed minicourse. “What if they really believed that we want them to be so passionately in love with someone that they can’t keep their hands off them? What if they really believed we want them to know their own bodies?”

Vernacchio didn’t imagine that his audience, who gave him an enthusiastic ovation when his presentation ended, wanted their 14- and 15-year-olds to go out tomorrow and jump into bed or the backseat. Sex education, he and others point out, is one of the few classes where it’s not understood that young people are being prepared for the future.

Sex, of course, can come with emotional confusion and pain, and be enmeshed with violence, which Michelle Fine knows well. She said that what all adolescents crave is a “safe space” to pull apart and ponder the stew of relationships and sexual activity — including intimacy and desire and betrayal and coercion.

Vernacchio’s classroom is such a setting. Owing partly to his devotion to his job, partly to the individual relationships he starts developing with students in ninth grade as their English or sex-ed instructor or adviser, he looks out at a roomful of people whom he really knows, and who depend on him for discerning and generous counsel. This was especially true for the young woman who was raped — she told Vernacchio about the assault before anyone else at Friends’ — as well as the girl who was undone by her scorching on Facebook. She relied on Vernacchio all year for support, she said.

For every single question that Vernacchio pulls out of his anonymous question box about female ejaculation, there are 10 like these: How do you handle your insecurities in a relationship? How do you stop worrying about being cheated on? How do you know when it’s time to break up? How do I talk to my partner about wanting to spend more time together without being annoying? Watching how closely the students attended to Vernacchio’s often lengthy answers was a moving reminder of how young 17- and 18-year-olds are.

“As a society, we always tell kids, ‘Work hard, just focus on school, don’t think about girls or guys — you can worry about that stuff later, that stuff will work itself out,’ but the thing is, it doesn’t,” said a boy who had told me he had a disconcerting one-nighter with a girl he’d talked to only electronically. The class taught him to be more cautious about choosing the right time with the right person, he said, with a forcefulness that didn’t quite cover the hurt in his eyes. “You learn about the psychological after-effects that could happen to you.”

The girl who was contemplating getting serious with a boy, but only if they could be exclusive, told me she finally figured out how to approach the guy after Vernacchio talked in class about the difference between “nagging” and asking for what you want. “I never thought of saying to him, ‘You know, just tell me if you’re having sex with someone else.’ I don’t want to pressure him, but I feel like it would make me comfortable.” This seems like pretty simple stuff, especially for someone who repeatedly called herself “strong,” but somehow it wasn’t until Vernacchio said that it was O.K. to make such forthright requests that she could conceive of it.

“The campaign for abstinence in the schools and communities may seem trivial, an ideological nuisance,” Michelle Fine and Sara McClelland wrote in a 2006 study in The Harvard Educational Review, “but at its core it is . . . a betrayal of our next generation, which is desperately in need of knowledge, conversation and resources to negotiate the delicious and treacherous terrain of sexuality in the 21st century.”

It’s axiomatic, however, that parents who support richer sex education don’t make the same ruckus with school officials as those who oppose it. “We need to be there at the school boards and say: ‘Guess where kids are getting their messages about sex from? They’re getting it from porn,’ ” Joannides exhorted. “All we’re talking about is just being able to acknowledge that sex is a good thing in the right circumstances, that it’s a normal thing.”

Of course, sex isn’t all pleasure or all peril, it’s both (and sometimes both at once, though that lesson may have to wait for grad school). Vernacchio has a way of getting at its positive potential without ignoring the fact that, however good sex may feel, it’s sometimes best left off the menu. “So let’s think about pizza,” Vernacchio said to his students after they’d deconstructed baseball. The class for that day was just about over. “Why do you have pizza?”

“You’re hungry,” a cross-country runner said.

“Because you want to,” Vernacchio affirmed. “It starts with desire, an internal sense — not an external ‘I got a game today, I have to do it.’ And wouldn’t it be great if our sexual activity started with a real sense of wanting, whether your desire is for intimacy, pleasure or orgasms. . . . And you can be hungry for pizza and still decide, No thanks, I’m dieting. It’s not the healthiest thing for me now.

“If you’re gonna have pizza with someone else, what do you have to do?” he continued. “You gotta talk about what you want. Even if you’re going to have the same pizza you always have, you say, ‘We getting the usual?’ Just a check in. And square, round, thick, thin, stuffed crust, pepperoni, stromboli, pineapple — none of those are wrong; variety in the pizza model doesn’t come with judgment,” Vernacchio hurried on. “So ideally when the pizza arrives, it smells good, looks good, it’s mouthwatering. Wouldn’t it be great if we had that kind of anticipation before sexual activity, if it stimulated all our senses, not just our genitals but this whole-body experience.” By this time, he was really moving fast; he’d had to cram his pizza metaphor into the last five minutes. “And what’s the goal of eating pizza? To be full, to be satisfied. That might be different for different people; it might be different for you on different occasions. Nobody’s like ‘You failed, you didn’t eat the whole pizza.’

“So again, what if our goal, quote, unquote, wasn’t necessarily to finish the bases?” The students were gathering their papers, preparing to go. “What if it just was, ‘Wow, I feel like I had enough. That was really good.’ ”

Laurie Abraham wrote “The Husbands and Wives Club: A Year in the Life of a Couples Therapy Group,” which began as an article in the magazine.

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/20/magazine/teaching-good-sex.html

Neutrino experiment repeat at Cern finds same result

The team which found that neutrinos may travel faster than light has carried out an improved version of their experiment – and confirmed the result.

Neutrinos travel through 700km of rock before reaching Gran Sasso’s underground laboratories

If confirmed by other experiments, the find could undermine one of the basic principles of modern physics.

Critics of the first report in September had said that the long bunches of neutrinos (tiny particles) used could introduce an error into the test.

The new work used much shorter bunches.

It has been posted to the Arxiv repository and submitted to the Journal of High Energy Physics, but has not yet been reviewed by the scientific community.

The experiments have been carried out by the Opera collaboration – short for Oscillation Project with Emulsion (T)racking Apparatus.

It hinges on sending bunches of neutrinos created at the Cern facility (actually produced as decays within a long bunch of protons produced at Cern) through 730km (454 miles) of rock to a giant detector at the INFN-Gran Sasso laboratory in Italy.

The initial series of experiments, comprising 15,000 separate measurements spread out over three years, found that the neutrinos arrived 60 billionths of a second faster than light would have, travelling unimpeded over the same distance.

The idea that nothing can exceed the speed of light in a vacuum forms a cornerstone in physics – first laid out by James Clerk Maxwell and later incorporated into Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity.

Timing is everything

Initial analysis of the work by the wider scientific community argued that the relatively long-lasting bunches of neutrinos could introduce a significant error into the measurement.

Those bunches lasted 10 millionths of a second – 160 times longer than the discrepancy the team initially reported in the neutrinos’ travel time.

To address that, scientists at Cern adjusted the way in which the proton beams were produced, resulting in bunches just three billionths of a second long.

When the Opera team ran the improved experiment 20 times, they found almost exactly the same result.

“This is reinforcing the previous finding and ruling out some possible systematic errors which could have in principle been affecting it,” said Antonio Ereditato of the Opera collaboration.

“We didn’t think they were, and now we have the proof,” he told BBC News. “This is reassuring that it’s not the end of the story.”

The first announcement of evidently faster-than-light neutrinos caused a stir worldwide; the Opera collaboration is very aware of its implications if eventually proved correct.

The error in the length of the bunches, however, is just the largest among several potential sources of uncertainty in the measurement, which must all now be addressed in turn; these mostly centre on the precise departure and arrival times of the bunches.

“So far no arguments have been put forward that rule out our effect,” Dr Ereditato said.

“This additional test we made is confirming our original finding, but still we have to be very prudent, still we have to look forward to independent confirmation. But this is a positive result.”

That confirmation may be much longer in coming, as only a few facilities worldwide have the detectors needed to catch the notoriously flighty neutrinos – which interact with matter so rarely as to have earned the nickname “ghost particles”.

Next year, teams working on two other experiments at Gran Sasso experiments – Borexino and Icarus – will begin independent cross-checks of Opera’s results.

The US Minos experiment and Japan’s T2K experiment will also test the observations. It is likely to be several months before they report back.

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Full article and photo: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-15791236

This Is a … Oh, Never Mind

Apparently the robber’s conscience got the better of him.

Kids Thwart Robbery With Piggy Banks

An attempted robbery in the German state of Lower Saxony took an unexpected turn earlier this week when an armed burglar called off his own holdup, having been shamed by a pair of children.

At around 6:25 p.m. on Monday evening, an armed robber wearing a ski mask and a long black coat forced his way into a private home in the town of Schwanewede after a babysitter answered the door, police reported Wednesday.

Hearing the commotion, two small children in the house came downstairs — holding their piggy banks.

They approached the gunman, who had been holding his weapon under the babysitter’s nose, and offered him their life savings.

The man lowered his weapon and left without a word.

“We’re assuming that in the face of these small children holding out their piggy banks, he regretted his course of action and chose to retreat,” police spokesman Jürgen Menzel told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

Though nothing was stolen, the would-be robber isn’t entirely off the hook. Authorities are now seeking a perpetrator assumed to be in his early twenties, about 185 centimeters (6 feet 2 inches) tall, for attempted robbery.

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Full article and photo: http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/0,1518,798372,00.html

When Heaven Freezes Over

Hotels and bars made out of ice have been common for a while — now a church is the latest project to get the cold treatment. In the Bavarian Forest, one congregation wants to build a place of worship out of 1,400 cubic meters of snow, just as their ancestors did 100 years ago.

Everything is in place in Mitterfirmiansreut for the mountain village’s biggest construction project in a century — everything, that is, but the snow. Because residents in the Bavarian village near the Czech border are planning to erect a full-size church made entirely out of snow, in homage to their ancestors who did the same thing 100 years ago.

Once completed, the church will be able to accommodate up to 190 people. The plans call for a sweeping design, with a main room 26 meters long and 6.5 meters high and a tower soaring 17 meters high. Inside there will be sculptures, an altar and pews — all made out of ice. In total, 1,400 cubic meters of snow will be needed.

Although the snow church doesn’t even exist yet, requests for weddings and baptisms have already been flooding in to Bernd Stiefvater. The 45-year-old restaurateur has worked with friends on plans for the church for two years. Some 200 people have since become involved in a booster club.

An Unusual Protest

Stiefvater wants the snow church to serve as a reminder of an extraordinary event in local history. At the beginning of the 20th century, a trip to Sunday mass for people living in the remote mountain village of Mitterfirmiansreut meant an arduous 90-minute walk to the neighboring town of Mauth. After their pleas for a church of their own fell on deaf ears, the villagers decided to mount an unusual protest during the Christmas season of 1911: They built their own church out of snow.

“For me this is a really touching story of how people of faith can achieve anything,” says Stiefvater. He wants the new version of the snow church to honor this commitment 100 years later. The planning and construction of the church will cost about €100,000 ($135,000), according to the booster club. The money for the church is coming from sponsors, and the organizers are hoping to win financial support from an EU program.

The plans for the snow church have been drawn up by architect Alfons Doeringer. “Nothing in this project is routine. There were no standards and no norms,” he says. Designs for the church’s vaulting shape were created in collaboration with structural engineers. Doeringer is very aware of the potential risks: “That is an extremely heavy mass of snow, and people will be underneath it.”

The architect says 20 centimeters of snow is needed before construction can begin, with the grand opening planned for Dec. 17. There will be concerts and prayers held in the church, as well as an ice sculpture exhibition from Jan. 22 to 28 and a market with traditional handicrafts on Feb. 12.

Interest in the project has been brisk, and Stiefvater says numerous tour groups have registered to visit the church. And if there is not enough snow in Mitterfirmiansreut this year?

“That is very unlikely,” says Stiefvater. “But then we would just build the church next winter.”

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Full article and photos: http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/0,1518,797988,00.html

Poem of the week: Trenches: St Eloi by TE Hulme

British troops marching to the trenches

 
British troops in silhouette march towards trenches near Ypres at the western front during the first world war. 

The author of this week’s poem is remembered today chiefly for the anthology-favourite, “Autumn”. TE Hulme published only six short poems in his lifetime. Without Ezra Pound’s faintly ambiguous championship, he might not be known as a poet at all. Though omitting his work from the official Imagist anthologies, Pound added Hulme’s five earlier poems to his own 1912 collection, Ripostes, “for good fellowship: for good custom, a custom out of Tuscany and Provence… and for good memory…”, as he put it in the preface.

No original manuscript of “Trenches: St Eloi” remains. According to some accounts, Hulme recited it from memory to his fellow Imagists at the Poets’ Club while home on leave from the front (he served with the Royal Marine Artillery). Pound’s epigraph suggests the even more informal origins of a conversation. The poem was transcribed either by Pound himself, or by Hulme’s lover, Kate Lechmere. Pound admired the poem sufficiently to include it later on in his Catholic Anthology, in the august company of Eliot, William Carlos Williams and Yeats, among others. If Pound had made revisions or “abbreviations”, Hulme must have approved them.

It’s arguably the most radical of any of the English first world war poems. (Isaac Rosenberg and Herbert Read are the writers who come closest.) The style and structure are casual, but a stringent craft underlies the appearance of improvisation.

The opening scene-setting needs some effort of imagination. “Flat slopes” could imply naturally low slopes, slopes flattened in battle, or even the trenches of the title. The image of the sandbags is contrastingly precise and arresting. To this disturbed pastoral is added one further detail – “night”, set on its own line, so that it seems to expand into the surrounding space. Hulme had a romantic predilection for nightfall in his earlier poems, but this night, unembellished, is absolutely unlike the others.

The poem illustrates the unceremonious way the routines and horrors of warfare coexist. The depiction of the men walking about casually, “as on Piccadilly” is a brilliant novelistic stroke. We can just about see them, “making paths in the dark”, instinctively feeling their way. And then the scattered horses and the dead Belgian’s belly are introduced not simply in the midst of these casual comings and goings, but virtually underfoot. Juxtaposition is everything. Hulme adds no grisly detail. He trusts the shocked listeners, including those non-combatant poets, to imagine it for themselves.

Despite the superb imagist technique, the poem is interested in something besides the visual. The later stanzas head for the psychological interior. The flat reportage of “The Germans have rockets. The English have no rockets” seems childishly naive, and verging on self-pity, perhaps, but is perhaps intended to mime the obsessive, simple litany of despair. The image of the cannon, “lying back miles”, resembles the earlier wall of sandbags, only on a vaster, breathtakingly intimidating scale. Then the single abstract noun, “chaos”, declares what lies ahead: the defeat of the image by the indescribable.

Hulme’s speaker repeats twice the grammatical structure of the line about the rockets. The first line of this modernist couplet is completely unexpected: “My mind is a corridor. The minds about me are corridors.” The word “corridor” evokes emptiness, in utter contrast with the busy pottering and walking to and fro of the earlier scene. It originally meant a place for running. What runs through the hollowed-out mind might be the vague, impossible thought of running endlessly away. The stoic, Beckettian last line rebuffs it. “Nothing suggests itself. There is nothing to do but keep on.” Hulme might be thinking about the poem, his sense that there is nothing more to say. But the whole horrible war must often have aroused a similar hopeless thought among those on the ground.

An aesthetic philosopher, influenced by Henri Bergson, Hulme seems to have arrived at an imagist theory independently of Pound, and perhaps earlier. He was a pugnacious character, sent down from Cambridge, allegedly, for brawling, and he became fascinated by military strategy. Possibly he thought war would be his métier.

“Trenches: St Eloi” reflects innocence transformed. In the previous poems, the images are a little whimsical. The moon is “like a red-faced farmer” in “Autumn”. Then there is the “old star-eaten blanket of the sky” that the fallen gentlman wishes could provide a warm cover in “The Embankment”, and the moon as a lost balloon in “Above the Dock”. The free-verse structure, and the brevity, make such poems seem fresh, but there is romanticism, or at least aestheticism, in the nocturnal air, and, sometimes, an anachronistic flourish: “Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstasy…” None of that fiddling obstructs the chilly line of “Trenches: St Eloi.” The poem is as stark as the period’s cubist art.

Pound wrote that Hulme “set an enviable example to many of his contemporaries who have had less to say”. Had Hulme not been killed in action in 1917, and had he continued to write poetry, the category “War Poets” might have had far wider connotations.

Trenches: St Eloi
(Abbreviated from the Conversation of Mr TEH)

Over the flat slopes of St Eloi
A wide wall of sand bags.
Night,
In the silence desultory men
Pottering over small fires, cleaning their mess- tins:
To and fro, from the lines,
Men walk as on Piccadilly,
Making paths in the dark,
Through scattered dead horses,
Over a dead Belgian’s belly.

The Germans have rockets. The English have no rockets.
Behind the line, cannon, hidden, lying back miles.
Beyond the line, chaos:

My mind is a corridor. The minds about me are corridors.
Nothing suggests itself. There is nothing to do but keep on.

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Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/oct/10/poem-of-the-week-t-e-hulme

Ten of the best sentences as titles

‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, by John Ford

The title of Ford’s tragedy of sexual jealousy and incestuous passion is also its closing statement. After a final bloodbath, the Cardinal pronounces judgment on Annabella, who has had carnal relations with her brother and then been killed by him: “Of one so young, so rich in nature’s store, / Who could not say, ’tis pity she’s a whore?”

He Knew He Was Right, by Anthony Trollope

Trollope found a brilliant title for his tale of male jealousy, stuffed with references to Othello. Louis Trevelyan becomes convinced that his young wife Emily is carrying on with a male admirer (she isn’t). He is driven madder and madder by his suspicions, separating from his wife and stealing their son from her.

 The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway

Having stuck a thoroughly gloomy Gertrude Stein aperçu about a “lost generation” at the head of this story of émigrés in France and Spain in the 1920s, Hemingway balanced it with a passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes which broadly means “life goes on”. Its modernised version became the book’s title.

The Lady’s Not for Burning, by Christopher Fry

Fry’s verse drama is the origin of the least understood literary allusion in the history of political rhetoric, Mrs Thatcher’s famous declaration “The lady’s not for turning” in 1980. Fry’s unlikely comedy is set in the late middle ages, its title referring to the beautiful Jennet, who is sentenced to burning for being a witch, but who is fancied by most of the male characters.

 I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith

Via the teenage Cassandra’s journal we get the misadventures of the castle-dwelling but impecunious Mortmain family (Dad is an author with writer’s block). The title refers to Cassandra’s ambition, as an aspiring writer, to “capture” everything she sees in her journal – and also to her trick of locking her father in a tower to get him to write.

 We Never Make Mistakes, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

In this unconsoling pair of stories, the nightmare of Stalinism (asserted in the title) is treated obliquely. In the first, a “good Communist” army officer has to decide whether to turn a “lost” soldier over to the authorities. In the second, a former political prisoner takes up residence with an impoverished old woman who has been betrayed by the system.

 We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, by Arthur Ransome

Ransome’s title parodies the excuse you might make for badly behaved youngsters. The Swallows’ mother allows them to go sailing provided they promise not to go out to sea, but, after a series of accidents, their boat drifts out of the mouth of the river …

 Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, by Tom Stoppard

Two minor characters from Hamlet become the baffled protagonists of Stoppard’s play, which takes its title from an announcement made by the English Ambassador at the end of Shakespeare’s tragedy. They have been killed as a result of Hamlet’s “commandment”, bamboozled victims of a court plot.

 We Need to Talk about Kevin, by Lionel Shriver

Why is this title so good? Perhaps because of the grim humour of it. Kevin’s mother, Eva, writes letters to her apparently estranged husband about her growing awareness that there is something very wrong with their son.

 Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

You cannot guess the meaning of Ishiguro’s title until you read the book. Kathy H recalls her days at a very special school, whose pupils have been selected by criteria that slowly become clear. The title is the refrain of an old pop song with which the narrator becomes obsessed.

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Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2011/nov/11/ten-best-sentences-as-titles

Poem of the week: Square One by Roddy Lumsden

City workers walk across London Bridge

 
City workers walk across London Bridge.

Several commentators on recent books blogs have said they’d like to see a discussion of Roddy Lumsden’s poetry, and PotW’s own MeltonMowbray posted a request earlier this year. So for this week’s poem, I’ve chosen one of my favourites from Lumsden’s latest collection, Terrific Melancholy (recommended if you haven’t already got a copy). I hope aficiandos and new readers alike will enjoy the elegiac virtuosity of “Square One.”

Panning shots of the razzmatazz of contemporary London begin with an unnaturally motionless River Thames, which contrasts with the surrounding fluidity of endless construction and self-invention. The location is mirrored in spirited, slangy diction, and a repetitive device that stitches all together in bright gold lamé thread. On the page, you almost see the green light. Read the poem aloud, and you hear the gunning of engines in the repetition of the hard “g” – described in phonetics as a voiced, velar stop.

This technique recalls the generative devices of the poets and novelists of the Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle) who choose specific verbal constraints as a means of triggering ideas. The most famous, and diabolically complicated, is probably the “story-making machine”, set in motion by Georges Perec in the construction of his novel, Life: A User’s Manual. Poets have experimented with lipograms, palindromes, etc. Whereas these techniques need not, and mostly do not, emerge from the material, the “go” device in “Square One” connects directly to the poem’s theme and rhythmic energy-supply. It also echoes the dominant phonemes in the names of the two mythological giants who’ll emerge in the poem’s last line – Gog and Magog.

This is the London of Boris, bendy buses and bad bankers, but it’s also a tumult of lives harder to record, more slippery and edgy. As well as “the emos, indie kids/ Goths and ravers melting down the day” in stanza one, the prefix nets a jolly haul of “gowks”, “gonzos”, “gorillas” and “gomerils” to flesh out the “city’s multiplicity of fools”. Food is a vivid class-indicator: the “retired politicians” feast on dumplings and meggyleves (Hungarian sour-cherry soup) as well as scandal, while others “stare at bangers and bubble, tea/ gone cold … “. But the poem seems to imply freedom of choice. I like the fact that the power-brokers are simply given their space in the gorgeous, rotted tapestry, without comment. Brand- and place-names, from Gossamer to Gospel Oak, add further texture.

Are any other Oulipan devices used in the poem? I had a subliminal sense that further patterns were sometimes employed, but without being able to put a finger on them. I even wondered about the game of Go, which can be played with a 13 x 13 board (the stanzas are all 13-liners here), but drew a blank.

The title might suggest the Square Mile, or any of London’s many squares: it also recalls Larkin’s famous reference in “The Whitsun Weddings” to “postal districts, packed like squares of wheat”, a curious simile, since, contrary to northern myth, London has many postal districts nearer the breadline than the cornbelt. “Square One” might be anywhere, but it implies return, a reluctant new start. While elegising a lost Albion, the poem knows that new mythical creatures are constantly being born.

Perhaps the day of the poem represents a vaster historical period, one stretching from an almost-absurd respectability (“gongs struck in gentlemen’s clubs” to start the day and “dawn trains given the/ go-ahead at suburban junctions”) to the present social chaos. The poem’s author is a Scot, but an end-of-empire regret seems hinted. The accumulation of details evokes the thrill of change and movement, together with a despairing sense of being swept away into anonymity. Yet there’s no question that the speaker loves the city. The sun rises and sets almost romantically in images of the “gold tide,” the “slant shadows” of the high-rises, and the “misted moon.” Noted for its stillness in the first stanza, the river remains obstinately static, but, at the end of the poem, it seems to have found a voice, and utters a punning command to “own torn myths”. And this is exactly what the poem so exuberantly does.

Square One

Going steadily, rowed out from east to west, concrete
gondolas brink the Thames, which is still – it’s the land which is
googled by gravity, thrown around – an optical illusion
good enough to fool the city’s multiplicity of fools:
goons and gomerils who labour under Mammon’s lash,
gowks and golems who queue to flash their lips and lids in
god-forsaken church halls, reeking basements and seeping
Golgothas, clamped blithe to ardour: the emos, indie kids,
Goths and ravers melting down the day we launched with
gongs struck in gentlemen’s clubs, skirted girls at Nonsuch and
Godolphin thronging in corridors, dawn trains given the
go-ahead at suburban junctions, the first trace of the sun’s
gold tide as it washes back to our side of the sphere, but now,

 going for lunch, you swing between delight and throwaway,
gourmet and grease, dither between syrah in a silver
goblet or Tizer from a sprung can; you might stare over roasted
goose at the Gay Hussar, at your companion’s bowl of
goulash, as retired politicians two tables over whisper scandals,
gossip through dumplings and meggyleves, hissing the latest
Gordon or Boris anecdote, Obama’s honeymoon months,
government soap; you might stare at bangers and bubble, tea
gone cold; evening settles in at Kilburn, down Battersea Park;
Golders Green wanes; high-rises throw slant shadows over
Gospel Oak; students breathe the soot of a bendy revving on
Gower Street; in the doorways of basement strip joints,
gorillas strike stances; toms swap fat packs of Fetherlite and

 Gossamer, hitch into their tangas and fishnets waiting for the
gonk to finger a phone box card, the way a kid fingers what he
got from the kitchen drawer; evening touches Camden where
gonzos sup Stella; dancers shift in the wings of the opera;
goluptious girls slip into slingbacks, swim into creamy
gowns, or swash out of them, as that misted moon plays
go-between in a city of secrets, crimson or bilious – what
good will come of us, falling in the dark, our names
gouged into plane-trees? – we are becoming history,
godmothers to our own torn myths: twisted and crazed,
gorgeous giants, we hang spinning over the still river:
Go on! it murmurs – own torn myths – and midnight mentions
Gog and Magog – sweet, towering boys, long gone.

__________

Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/oct/17/poem-of-the-week-roddy-lumsdent

Readmill Networks Lonely Bookworms

Traditionally, reading has been a solitary activity. But two Berlin-based Swedes hope to change this. They’re close to launching new software called Readmill, which promises to create a social network for bookworms to share their reading habits, margin notes and recommendations.

The pool table in the living room is covered by a wooden slab, a second room is full of boxes, and David Kjelkerud still has no idea how the coffee machine in the kitchen works. There’s simply no time for such trivialities. He is, after all, feverishly building a start-up. Two months ago he moved from Stockholm to Berlin with his co-partner Henrik Berggren to catapult book reading into the Internet age.

The duo is finalizing the last pieces of Readmill, an intelligent bookmarker for digital books. In their shared office space in Berlin’s central Mitte district, also occupied by start-up Amen, a flurry of development is going on, interrupted by tech conferences, presentations for investors and the search for cooperation from E-book industry players.

The goal is to transform book reading into a social activity, bringing together readers via their e-readers, and to grab a share of the booming E-book market. Other companies have their eye on social reading as well, such as the platform LovelyBooks. But Readmill, set to go live soon, wants to take the idea even further.

Both avid readers, Berggren and Kjelkerud have an ambivalent relationship with books. Kjelkerud calls them “somehow cold and unsocial.” Reading is solitary, and anyone who wants to discuss a passage must first shut their book, he explains. Berggren says that even digital books and the internet-connected reading devices haven’t changed things much. “There are many E-book services, but none of them are really social,” he explains. What was missing were good ideas to network books and readers with each other.

Last.fm for Books

Readmill, an intelligent bookmark for e-books, is their answer. The program looks over the reader’s shoulder, keeping a protocol of their progress and showing sections that have been highlighted and commented upon by other readers. This way Readmill members create a semi-public reference list for their books, giving them the possibility of alerting friends to interesting passages for discussion.

Music fans will recognize this principle from Last.fm, a music website that analyzes listening patterns to develop new artist and concert suggestions, in addition to bringing users with similar tastes together. Like Last.fm, Readmill’s software operates on three levels: as a background process for reading applications, as a web service that processes reading habits, and as a reading app for the iPad, where members can upload e-books that aren’t copyright protected.

Also similar to Last.fm, Readmill gets interesting when as many other e-book reading programs and devices as possible feed the Readmill central server with data. By year’s end, Berggren told SPIEGEL ONLINE, the company hopes to be supporting enough reading programs so that it could, theoretically at least, be combined with 80 percent of all e-books.

Publisher Partnerships in Progress

It isn’t an impossible goal. Currently there aren’t that many different reading devices and programs. Publishers and reading device manufacturers will also benefit from Readmill, its creators say. “Ultimately, Readmill is about discovering books,” Kjelkerud says. With partnership negotiations with publishers underway, the possibility of Readmill adding a book purchasing function isn’t far off.

But the company isn’t just focused on e-books. To help connect old-fashioned book lovers through Readmill, they’ve also created an android app called ReadTracker, with which users can also follow their reading progress on paper.

Berggren and Kjelkerud say that it was only their move to Berlin from Stockholm in March 2011 which made the realization of their social book dream possible. It was both a challenge and an opportunity to free themselves from social obligations to enable a sole focus on their project.

“It was so hard to always have to reject my friends’ bar invitations,” Kjelkerud says. Berggren adds: “With such a move you’re also making it clear to yourself that now things are serious, that now we have to push through.”

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Full article and photo: http://www.spiegel.de/international/business/0,1518,795764,00.html

Salt of the Earth

Elaborate salt formations are seen in the Dead Sea near Ein Bogek, Israel, on Nov. 9. The lowest point on Earth, the Dead Sea is one of 28 finalists in the online campaign to determine the new seven wonders of the natural world. The list includes other geographical splendors such as Switzerland’s Matterhorn mountain, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and Venezuela’s Angel Falls.

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Full article and photo: http://www.spiegel.de/international/0,1518,797079,00.html

‘Berlusconi Is a Joke, Behind Him Is a Void’

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi may soon be history.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s promise to resign has failed to calm financial markets, with Italy’s borrowing costs hitting a record 7 percent on Wednesday. Still, German commentators are glad to see the back of Il Cavaliere.

Silvio Berlusconi’s demise had been forecast many times, but each time the wily Italian prime minister, nicknamed Il Cavaliere, managed to wiggle his way out of trouble. But now the end of the 17-year Berlusconi era appears to finally be in sight, after his pledge on Tuesda that he would step down once the Italian parliament pushes through a package of measures demanded by European Union leaders aimed at reducing Italy’s vast debt and restoring investor confidence in the country. The move came just hours after a humiliating budget vote in parliament during which it became clear that the prime minister no longer had a majority.

On Wednesday, Berlusconi, 75, announced that he would not run if early elections are held and said that he expected elections to be held in February. He told La Stampa newspaper that former Justice Minister Angelino Alfano, 41, would be the candidate of his party, People of Freedom. The opposition, however, prefers a national unity government to early elections.

Hopes that Berlusconi’s resignation promise would ease the pressure on the country proved unfounded on Wednesday, however, with the yield on 10-year Italian bonds hitting a record high of 7.36 percent despite the prime minister’s statement. Most analysts consider 7 percent to be the level at which borrowing becomes unsustainable. Greece, Ireland and Portugal have all been forced to seek emergency EU funding when their borrowing costs hit the 7 percent mark. Interest rates on Italian sovereign bonds had climbed to well over 6 percent earlier this week, reaching 6.74 percent on Tuesday, the previous record level.

Relief on European stock markets also proved short lived. On Wednesday morning the FTSEurofirst 300 index of top European shares fell by 1.4 percent, reversing a 0.9 percent gain on Tuesday. Italy’s benchmark FTSE MIB index was also down by 3 percent, while Italian banks Mediobanca and Unicredit saw their shares fall by 4.6 percent and 5.4 percent respectively. “There is no guarantee (Berlusconi’s) successor will be able to do a better job,” fund manager Christian Jimenez told the news agency Reuters.

Increasing Pressure

Berlusconi had come under increasing pressure in recent weeks and months as a result of the euro zone’s worsening debt crisis. There are concerns that Italy could become the next candidate for a European Union bailout, but there are worries that the country is too big to rescue on the model of Ireland or Portugal. Italian debt stands at 120 percent of the country’s annual economic output.

Berlusconi has been a dominant fixture in Italian politics for 17 years and provided a degree of stability that the country had not enjoyed in the several decades between the end of World War II and Berlusconi’s first election to the premiership in 1994. Recent years have been overshadowed by numerous scandals, including accusations that he had paid for sex with an underage prostitute. Many have accused the media mogul of seeking to change laws to avoid prosecution.

Berlusconi fought hard to remain in power, saying that he wanted to look at the “traitors” in parliament “in the face.” His position became untenable on Tuesday when his closest parliamentary ally, Northern League head Umberto Bossi, urged the prime minister to step aside.

On Wednesday, German newspapers take a look at the implications of Berlusconi’s announcement.

In a Wednesday morning editorial published on its website, the Financial Times Deutschland writes:

“The skepticism of the markets is appropriate: Following Berlusconi’s announcement, it isn’t at all clear what the future looks like for Rome. All options are on the table … even Berlusconi’s return isn’t out of the question.”

“It has become apparent what everyone actually always knew: There is a lack of alternatives to Berlusconi in Italy. The left has spent years criticizing the prime minister, making fun of his dyed hair and of his philandering — but they forgot to present a political program of their own. The Berlusconi phenomenon, which has caused mystification outside of Italy, is the result of this weakness. Berlusconi is a joke. But behind him is a void.”

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

“Berlusconi promised Italian President Giorgio Napolitano on Tuesday that he will step down when the promised austerity package is pushed through parliament. But because we are in Italy, some observers believe that even this is not Berlusconi’s last act. He might, they believe, try to use some trick to hang onto power in the end.”

“As such, it isn’t quite time yet to analyze what the long-term effects of the 17 Berlusconi years might be for this grandiose, crazy country — such as the shocking lack of gravitas, the egoism and the superficiality he introduced into Italian politics. At the moment, the fact that he allowed the country’s economy to erode stands in the foreground. Interest rates for Italian sovereign bonds climbed to a record high of 6.74 percent on Tuesday. If the European Central Bank doesn’t buy massive quantities of Italian bonds, then Rome will approach the territory which triggered bailout packages for Portugal and Ireland.”

“That, though, won’t be successful for long, given that in the next year, Italy must pay back a €300 billion tranche of its €1.9 trillion in debt. At the same time, Rome is losing €400 billion annually through tax evasion, corruption and the underground economy. A turn toward the utmost seriousness would be appropriate. It is clear what must be done and where reforms need to be made. Among the priorities should be injecting flexibility into the moribund labor market.”

“It is by no means certain that investors will cease betting against the country without Berlusconi at the helm. What is sure, however, is that they would have continued had Berlusconi remained. Il Cavaliere is not to be blamed for everything, but he was a heavy liability for Italy. He had to go. For once at least, at the very end, it seems that he thought about what is best for his country.”

The business daily Handelsblatt writes:

“European partners are shaking their heads, and in Italy, too, no one can understand the pigheadedness of the prime minister, who remains glued to his chair. … Berlusconi’s predecessors, like Giulio Andreotti, immediately stepped down after such defeats in parliament. But Berlusconi remains stubborn, because he does not have to step down as long as he does not lose a confidence vote.”

“In addition to the political motivations, there are other reasons why Berlusconi has done nothing more than merely announce that he will step down in the future. Italian newspapers are widely reporting that Berlusconi wants to remain in office at all costs, even without a majority, so that he does not lose his immunity. His trials may have been eclipsed because of the current political turbulence, but four cases are still pending. Among them is the Milan court case in which he has been charged with abuse of power and prostitution involving a minor.”

“A date has not yet been set for presenting the stability proposal to parliament, but the timeframe of mid-November is being discussed. That is good for Berlusconi, but bad for Italy and the markets.”

The left-leaning Berliner Zeitungwrites:

“Silvio Berlusconi had presented himself as a savior for an Italy that was sinking into chaos. He said he had succeeded in making his company into one of the largest in Italy, and that he would likewise turn beautiful Italy into a thriving company.”

“None of it was true, and none of his promises have come true. Italy is now worse off than it was before Berlusconi. For years, he attacked that country’s democratic institutions using his parliamentary majority. For years, he was supported by the Vatican, which only distanced itself from him when the Holy See became aware of Berlusconi’s sex parties — or rather, when the sex parties became public knowledge. In the meantime, Berlusconi’s business model for Italy has fallen into such disrepute on the stock markets that his departure is greeted with shrieks of delight. … His business model for Italy has failed miserably, as could easily be predicted. The state is not a company.”

— SPIEGEL Staff

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Full article and photo: http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/0,1518,796757,00.html

See also:  Photo Gallery – The scandals of Silvio

http://www.spiegel.de/fotostrecke/fotostrecke-74913.html

Dutch Scientists Drive Single-Molecule Car

Scientists in the Netherlands have introduced a molecule-sized car. Legroom might be an issue.

Its wheels are comprised of a few atoms each; its motor, a mere jolt of electricity. Scientists in the Netherlands have introduced the world’s smallest car — and it’s only a single molecule long.

It’s certainly no Porsche, but scientists at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands are still excited about their latest achievement: creating a “car” that’s only a billionth of a meter long.

The nanometer-sized vehicle, introduced in the British journal Nature on Wednesday, is comprised of a miniscule frame with four rotary units, each no wider than a few atoms. In fact, the whole construction is 60,000 times thinner than a human hair, according to the AFP news agency.

The research team was able to propel the nanocar six billionths of a meter by firing electrons at it with a tunnelling electron microscope. The “electronic and vibrational excitation” of the jolts changes the way the atoms of the “wheels” interact with those on a copper surface, the reports says, propelling the car forward in a single direction. The only problem, it would seem, is getting all the wheels to turn in the same direction every time.

A Small Future

It might be tough to imagine the use of such a diminutive roadster. But nanotechnology is widely considered one of the most exciting fields of the 21st century, and the researchers view their design as “a starting point for the exploration of more sophisticated molecular mechanical systems with directionally controlled motion.”

Utilizing materials at an atomic or molecular level — “nano” comes from the Greek word for “dwarf” — finds applications in everything from medicine and engineering to consumer products, such as sunscreen, ketchups and even powdered sugar.

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Full article and photo: http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/0,1518,796970,00.html

Poem of the week: Stone by Janet Simon

A stone

 
‘A stone is a stone is a stone is a stone’.

“– Pebbles cannot be tamed / to the end they will look at us / with a calm and very clear eye,” Zbigniew Herbert concluded in “Pebble”. This week’s poem by Janet Simon, “Stone,” recalls the political-parable style of much central and eastern European 20th-century poetry, and seems to share Herbert’s sense of the stone as a point of moral reference.

There are four characters in Simon’s fable: the speaker, the addressee, a passerby and the stone itself. The addressee, as epithets such as “creamy” imply, is well-fed, well-washed, and, evidently, authoritative. This person is not initially unpleasant. He emphasises the stone’s smoothness, because he (or she) is an expert on smooth. Handing the stone to the speaker seems well-intentioned.

But the speaker’s ironical tone (“You sanction me …”) alerts our suspicions. The stone is identified with authority. Perhaps the speaker threw the stone in the first place? At any rate, it’s a difficult gift to receive. A “defence” is needed, one that proves an impossible compromise. Now an “outsized pebble” in the speaker’s mouth, the stone seems to implicate language – language as fixed and made “frigid” by those in control.

The spitting out of the stone is rejection, but certainly not malicious; nobody is meant to get hurt. The passerby misinterprets it, however, and sees, and uses, the stone as a weapon. The suave, creamy-skinned authority figure takes fright, becomes violently discoloured, bolts the door, rings the police – self-betraying reflexes that prove the power was hollow all along.

The crux of the poem comes when the speaker picks up the hurled-back stone. In six short, sparely-written lines the truth of the parable is laid out: the stone is neutral, uncoloured by its misinterpretations. Yet the stone seems to have a frailty of its own: it “pleads” for understanding.

The last stanza is more generalised, building from the situation narrated earlier. The “you” may be the same addressee, or a plural “you” that embraces everyone caught up in cycles of attack and revenge. The destruction is incomprehensible to the speaker, but there’s a clear insistence on the innocence of the stone. “And a stone is a stone is a stone is a stone,” Simon concludes, echoing her earlier notion of “stoneness” and, of course, alluding to Gertrude Stein’s “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”.

Stein herself said that her sentence was an attempt to escape the particularity of the Romantic “rose” and recover the universal. Incidentally, the line was parodied rather unkindly by Ernest Hemingway, reminding us that “Stein” can literally mean “stone” in German: “A stone is a stein is a rock is a boulder is a pebble.”

Simon’s stone may be all these things, too. And the hinted pun returns us to the idea of the stone as language, even voice – a difficult voice, a tongue you might have to hold. The act of holding the stone, in fact, seems mirrored in the poem’s shape.

This shape is one of enclosure around a central “core”. The exterior stanzas spread themselves. The first seems to mirror the spacious home, the easy hospitality of privilege. The last, conversely, suggests open air, lawlessness, danger, with the speaker needing to assert her eloquence.

These stanzas are like cupped hands. In the middle, the shorter-lined, indented core-stanzas focus on the stone, its adventures, and the cost of engaging with it.

It has been a consolation and a weapon, represented homeliness and the destruction of home. Personified, the stone seems not only a touchstone or neutral mineral, but an unreliable mortal. If it pleads guiltlessness and sings, even metaphorically, it must have about it some human quality. It’s not innocent, then, but perhaps it represents what Václav Havel called “Living in Truth”.

Janet Simon has published one full collection, Victoria Park (Loxwood Stoneleigh, 1995). “Stone” is from her pamphlet, Asylum, where its distinctive presence is underlined by realistic and moving poems reflecting the poet’s experiences working with asylum seekers and the homeless. Asylum was published by Hearing Eye in the Torriano Meeting House Poetry Pamphlet Series, of which number 62, “Protest” by David Floyd, will appear in November.

Stone

You would reduce this stone to something homely.
Set in the palm of your soft hand,
it rests as if it wouldn’t harm a fly.
In your pink fingers, it is a generous stone.
You offer its smooth surface as the best
of possibilities in the best possible of worlds.

      You pass this stone to me
      with pleasing manners.
      You sanction me to hold it
      for a few minutes
      and to speak uninterrupted
      in my own defence.
      Your gracious patronage
      reduces me to gibberish.
      To avoid stuttering
      I place this outsized pebble
      in my quivering mouth.
      Its frigid texture
      is cold, impenetrable.
      I cannot chew on it.
      I spit it out.

      An angry passerby
      picks up this stone
      and hurls it
      through your window.
      Your creamy skin
      turns puce-vermillion,
      and as he runs away
      you bolt your doors
      and ring for the police.

      I bend down and pick up
      this stone.
      It hasn’t changed
      its shape or colour.
      Its unrelenting stoneness
      pleads with me.

I do not understand what force of hatred
makes a man destroy your house,
what speed of terror grabs you to defend it,
but I accept this stone, I hear its silent plea
of guiltless being. It sings to me
in my own ignorance, I am a stone.
And a stone is a stone is a stone is a stone.

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Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/oct/24/poem-of-the-week-janet-simon

Poem of the week: Tiny Pieces by Billy Mills

Broken glass

 
Broken glass.

This week’s poem is by Billy Mills, and comes from Lares/Manes: Collected Poems, published by Shearsman in 2009. While the title of the collection suggests concerns with hearth and home this is only part of the story: the vast and flowing home of the poems belongs to geological time. These poems are not confined to questioning language. They combine the musicality and intensity of poetry with the precision of scientific method, and the collection has the intellectual capaciousness of the bigger literary forms: it contains data of all kinds, found poetry, philosophical enquiry, and a variety of landscapes and cityscapes, including Ireland. While Mills is associated with a group of experimental Irish poets claiming independence from the traditional emphasis on identity politics, his poetry is fully alive to location. The fact that it doesn’t sing rhetorically about Ireland doesn’t mean that Ireland is excluded from the “important places” it considers.

 A poem in sections, “Tiny Pieces” forms part of a larger work, “What is a Mountain?” There is a trio of epigraphs: a brief report on the three car-bombs detonated in the centre of Dublin with the likely connivance of British Army intelligence, a quotation from Oscar Wilde (“All art is entirely useless”) and a verse by Godfraidh Fionn O Daláigh: “If they ask questions/ skilful poets will know; / bright this art you hear of: / questions the door to knowing.”

 The imagery of mountain-formation is introduced in a further, untitled prelude. “What is a mountain?” asks the fifth line. “Stone flows; folds. A name. It rises.” In the miniature-scale delicacy of the “Tiny Pieces” which follow, we find the inverse of the mountain and its associated cataclysm. What gradually emerges (each tiny piece has its own page in the collection) is tenderly consoling – a love poem more intimate and more spacious than such poems usually are.

 The first section considers both fragmentation (“scattered/ this glass”) and reintegration. “Folds” is a key word which will later give rise to three poems described as folds (“The First Fold,” etc). Fold mountains are formed by the collision of two tectonic plates, and the compressed material both rises and descends. “Folds” in the earth’s crust “determine” the shape of a mountain. “Folds” as sheltering-places also form our allegiances, and thus our blind-spots and our wars. Paper and poems are folded into shapes: lovers enfold one another. As the second poem suggests, tact and precision might inform and transform relations. With “Follow the lines” we move from particulate and scattered to particular and enclosing.

 The imagistic third section seems to excavate memory. Vividly present, the shining leaves (more tiny pieces) somehow lead back as well as up to the “boxroom/ window”. “Window” resurrects the scattered glass. The images suggest to me a child’s room, looking down on a small garden fronted with privet: safe containment, but with a view outwards. The symmetrical syllable-count 1/3/3/1/2/2 gives this poem the balance of a miniature sonnet.

The next segment stays with the natural world: it’s the most haiku-like of the pieces, and the depth of the stanza break seems to stand for the “cutting word” – often not a word, but a punctuation mark heightening the significance of a juxtaposition. Here, the thrushes emerge from the “various greens” and the printless space with the magical suddenness of actual birds seen suddenly close up, and with all the potential offered by “a pair”.

 Perhaps the thrushes help attune the reader to the sense of new young life, which is implicit in the next piece. The rift between the world and the word, the “imperfect charting,” after all begins with our earliest speech. Aligning word and world as accurately as possible is our first and life-long human concern.

 Exactness of language can at least find out the question and glimpse “the door to knowing”. In the sixth poem it finds song. This four-word invitation is a perfect musical phrase: “close/ now// slowly/ come.” Its unexpected, Latinate syntax, culminating in the verb, takes us from word to word, pause to pause. Having once read the sentence in this initially curious structure, it becomes impossible to imagine it otherwise.

 The lines in “Tiny Pieces” are themselves tiny. I counted 30 single-word lines out of 38, half of which are monosyllables: the longest line is “a pair of thrushes”. But their very shortness, emphasised by their separate pagination, insists on attentive reading. The tempo, in music, would be adagio. Words assert their primary meanings, but the silence around them allows us to hear other tones and resonance. So in the next poem, the simple verbs (perhaps imperatives) give the reader memory-room. We’re guided, told that the verbs represent “simple pleasures”, but the exact associations of “touch”, “call” and “remember” are gifts for private unwrapping.

 By the end of the poem, the shimmer of scattered glass is distant. The last segment might complete the sentence of the previous one: “here/where// all/is// tiny/ pieces” could denote the intimate space of a body or a room, the words of the poem itself, or the location of particles created by destruction. It could denote all these things simultaneously. And still the poem has a lightness and brightness with its images of leaves and building birds, its careful looking and touching. This sense of abundance and flourishing will continue throughout “What is a Mountain?”

 Singling one poem out of a collection inevitably distorts the poem to some degree. This is particularly true of “Tiny Pieces”. “What is a Mountain?” is conceived almost as one poem, its voices interrelated and recurring, as in a fugue. In fact, the whole of Lares/Manes is a voluminous web of connected images and themes.

 Tiny Pieces

scattered
this glass
reconstitutes

folds
determine

  

*

 

follow
the lines

come
again

*

sun
after rain

luminous
leaves

boxroom
window

*

various greens

a pair of thrushes

*

first
the world

next
the word

imperfect
charting

*

close
now

slowly
come

*

touch
call
remember

simple
pleasures

*

here
where

all
is

tiny
pieces

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Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/nov/07/poem-of-the-week-billy-mills

Poem of the week: All Souls’ Day by Frances Bellerby

Day of the dead

 
Mexicans mark the day of the dead in San Gregorio. Bellerby’s poem likewise seems to melt the borders between life and death.

Frances Bellerby, who died in 1975, was born 112 years ago in Bristol. She wrote fiction, essays and poetry. Much of Bellerby’s verse is set in Devon and Cornwall; her first, 1946, collection is named after Plash Mill, her cottage near Upon Cross, on Bodmin Moor. Charles Causley praised, among the many other qualities he admired in her work, her ability to evoke “the ambience and essence of place”.

 Bellerby’s poetic locations are coloured by the changing seasons, and may respond to the church calendar, as here. All Souls’ Day, from her Selected Poems, weaves together imaginary and remembered conversation in a hushed, precisely-realised late-autumn setting. The sky is colourless, the “day draws no breath”. Such an atmosphere has an intense, mystical quality for Bellerby. And yet, although a Christian poet, she treats religious experience unconventionally, and seems to have an intuitive grasp of space-time, and the possibility of other dimensions, in those wishful lines: “what the small day cannot hold / must spill into eternity.”

 All Souls’ Day itself, usually celebrated on 2 November, is the day set aside for remembering and honouring the “ordinary” dead. In Mexico, on El Dia de los Muertos, the dead, and death itself, are made welcome among the living. Bellerby’s poem, too, though deeply English, seems to melt the borders between life and death, past and future: “Let’s go our old way …”

The brother she lost in the first world war may be the figure in All Souls’ Day. This otherwise taciturn person knows about butterflies; he has a poet’s eye as he compares their colours with those of the leaves. He is clearly a soulmate.

Psalm 42, in a metrical translation, begins: “Like the deer that thirsts / for running streams / my soul is thirsting / for you, oh God”; in a later verse, God’s might is imagined in terms of the sea. Similar images occur in Bellerby’s poem: the rustling of kicked leaves has “the rhythm of breaking waves”, and there’s a stream, though it’s almost stationary. Could the poem be alluding to this psalm, often included in the Office of the Dead?

Bellerby appears just as much a traditionalist in technique as she does in her subjects. Yet even in this poem of familiar-looking quatrains, there are unexpected touches. Half-rhymes (“moth”/”lost”, “together”/”November”) mingle with more conventional couplings (“breath” / “death”, “walk” / “talk”). The rhythm ebbs and flows informally: syllables sometimes crowd around the stresses (“witnessing the variousness of light”), or they may be suddenly thinned out (“enter the year’s night”). Nothing is fixed or rigid.

 The speaker is confidently intimate with her addressee, but, at the same time, the companion is present, however vividly, only in her imagination. There is a tremor of premonition in stanza seven. The walk is a memory, and the companion dead, but it’s as if – with sufficient care – the past could be relived and the future made safe.

 The poem increasingly vacillates: the companion is close, but, as always, “leaf-light” – and then not present at all. The last stanza sends a shiver up the spine: “and the leaves where you walk do not stir”. Death is feared in the poem, but the dead themselves are “scatheless” (harmless). The ghost is no Halloween horror: it is frail and sad and no sooner conjured than lost.

 Bellerby’s work reminds me of other quiet-voiced, independent-minded female writers of a similar era: Anne Ridler, EJ Scovell, Ruth Pitter. Gender, I think, is relevant to the way we read this generation as writers. Because of their particular, English experience of the early 20th century, it was inevitable such poets stayed with the pastoral and/or religious subjects and traditional forms they had always known. Although they increasingly had educational opportunities and paid jobs, they remained keepers of the emotional home fires. From our later perspective, we can see how Bellerby’s work claims continuity with the past (Charlotte Mew seems an important immediate forebear) and also begins to change shape and become coloured by the new century. It makes a bridge to the present, because the sensibility and diction, although not quite ours, are still close to ours.

 I’m grateful to the poet Maurice Rutherford, a regular reader of the printable version of poem of the week, for suggesting we take a look at the work of the underappreciated Bellerby.

All Souls’ Day

Let’s go our old way
by the stream, and kick the leaves
as we always did, to make
the rhythm of breaking waves.

 This day draws no breath –
shows no colour anywhere
except for the leaves – in their death
brilliant as never before.

 Yellow of Brimstone Butterfly,
brown of Oak Eggar Moth –
you’d say. And I’d be wondering why
a summer never seems lost

if two have been together
witnessing the variousness of light,
and the same two in lustreless November
enter the year’s night…

 The slow-worm stream – how still!
Above that spider’s unguarded door,
look – dull pearls…Time’s full,
brimming, can hold no more.

 Next moment (we well know,
my darling, you and I)
what the small day cannot hold
must spill into eternity.

So perhaps we should move cat-soft
meanwhile, and leave everything unsaid,
until no shadow of risk can be left
of disturbing the scatheless dead.

 Ah, but you were always leaf-light.
And you so seldom talk
as we go. But there at my side
through the bright leaves you walk.

 And yet – touch my hand
that I may be quite without fear,
for it seems as if a mist descends,
and the leaves where you walk do not stir.

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Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/nov/01/poem-of-week-frances-bellerby

10 of the best women dressed as men

Surface male … Katy Stephens as Rosalind/Ganymede in a 2009 RSC version of As You Like It.

 
Surface male … Katy Stephens as Rosalind (as Ganymede) in a 2009 RSC version of As You Like It.

Orlando Furioso by Ariosto

Bradamante covers herself with armour and fights as a manly knight. “He” is befriended by the Saracen warrior Ruggiero, who realises his luck is in when his new comrade takes off her helmet and shakes out her long tresses. Ruggiero is instantly love-struck.

 As You Like It by William Shakespeare

The bard loved to give us a bit of cross-dressing (Portia, Imogen, Viola, Julia …), but with Rosalind he outdid himself. In As You Like It he has a boy actor playing a woman who dresses up as a man who pretends to be a girl (in order to help Orlando with his wooing). Talk about fluid ideas of gender …

 Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Out in the wilderness, Don Quixote’s friends are looking for the deluded knight. They meet Dorothea, a young woman wearing male clothing. She tells her tragic story – she has been seduced then discarded by a rich man’s son and has adopted this disguise in order to flee.

 The Roaring Girl by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker

The thief Moll Cutpurse dresses in a man’s clothes but arouses the interest of many male admirers. When her would-be lover Laxton arranges a rendezvous, she arrives in disguise and fights him with a rapier. “Venus … passes through the play in doublet and breeches, a brave disguise and a safe one if the statute untie not her codpiece point.”

 The Country Wife by William Wycherley

Margery Pinchwife’s cruel husband is terrified of being cuckolded, so when he takes her out to the shops in London he dresses her as a young man. However, the rakish Horner is in on the trick and takes the opportunity to kiss and manhandle the “pretty” gentleman in front of the tormented Pinchwife.

 The Rover by Aphra Behn

Our heroine, Hellena, disguises herself as a young gent so she can prevent the man she loves, Willmore, succumbing to Angelica, a famous courtesan. In her male guise she tells Angelica a story of Willmore’s affair with another woman, rousing her to fury and alienating her from the “roving” Willmore.

 The Monk by Matthew Lewis

The dark, brooding monk Ambrosio – a pillar of rectitude – is attended by an admiring young novice, Rosario. “He seemed fearful of being recognised, and no one had ever seen his face. His head was continually muffled up in his Cowl.” No wonder – for one day in Ambrosio’s cell he reveals himself to be the beautiful Matilda, and effortlessly seduces the devout Ambrosio.

 Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

Éowyn desperately wants to avenge her father, killed by orcs. She disguises herself as the male warrior Dernhelm and fights alongside the Riders of Rohan in battle, even managing to kill the Lord of the Nazgûl – who has boasted that no man can ever defeat him and is nonplussed to discover that his opponent is, in fact, a woman.

 Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

Nan Astley, a simple girl from Whitstable, falls for male impersonator (or “masher”) Kitty Butler, whom she sees strutting her stuff on stage. Eventually she joins her in the act, and later walks the streets of London dressed as a man. When she is picked up by the wealthy widow Diana she cohabits with her in the guise of “Neville”.

 Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett

Searching for her brother, who is missing in action, Polly Perks cross-dresses in order to join the Borogravian army. She befriends another squaddie, Lofty Tewt, who confides that “he” too is a girl. Slowly the truth becomes apparent: everyone in the regiment is in fact a woman dressed as a man. Naturally, they triumph in battle. JM

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Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/oct/28/ten-best-women-dressed-men

Ten of the best men dressed as women

Alan Cumming in The Bacchae

 
Alan Cumming in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of The Bacchae.

The Bacchae by Euripides
Pentheus wants to witness the revels of the Maenads, women under the ecstatic influence of Dionysus who range freely in the woods and mountains. He is persuaded by the god that in order to do this he must dress as a woman. He is spotted spying by the possessed women and is torn to pieces.

Metamorphoses by Ovid
Thetis, Achilles’ mother, knowing that her son will die if he fights in the Trojan war, disguises him as a woman among the daughters of King Lycomedes. Odysseus turns up with some girly presents plus a spear and shield, which are immediately seized by the warrior, who thus reveals himself.

Epicene by Ben Jonson
Rich, grumpy, misogynistic Morose proposes to disinherit his nephew Dauphine by marrying, provided he can find a “silent woman”. A spouse called Epicene is found, and turns after marriage into a perfect shrew. Morose pays Dauphine to rid him of the termagant, whereupon his resourceful nephew pulls off the wife’s wig and reveals her to be a male in disguise.

Don Juan by Lord Byron
In Istanbul, our hero is sold as a slave to one of the sultan’s eunuchs, who commands him to dress as a woman. He has been spotted by the sultana, Gulbeyaz, who has designs on him. When the sultan arrives he rather fancies “the new-bought virgin”. “I see you’ve bought another girl; ’tis pity / That a mere Christian should be half so pretty”.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
In a sequence usually omitted in film adaptations, Mr Rochester dresses as an old Gypsy woman and turns up at his own dinner party to read the fortunes of the guests. Even Jane does not recognise him, until he suddenly throws off his disguise.

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
On the run, Huck and escaped slave Jim find some women’s clothes on an abandoned houseboat, and Jim persuades Huck to go ashore disguised as a girl, to find out if people are still searching for them. As “Sarah Williams” he is admitted to a lady’s house, but she sees through his disguise when he begins to forget his own supposed name.

The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner
Farmer Gregory Rose shows his devotion to the rebellious Lyndall by dressing himself in her mother’s clothes in order to serve as her nurse when she is terminally ill. She accepts his disguise and is consoled by his presence.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
In prison for stealing a car, Toad wins the sympathy of the jailer’s daughter, who dresses him as a washerwoman to help him escape. He wanders the countryside, hitching a lift first on a barge and then in the very car that he earlier stole. Foolishly, its owners let this friendly lady take a turn at driving.

William the Showman” by Richmal Crompton
William Brown is staging a historical waxworks show with the Outlaws and decides that the poor audience response is down to the lack of “famous ladies”. After a quick raid of sister Ethel’s wardrobe, he struts his stuff as Mary Queen of Scots.

On the Razzle by Tom Stoppard
Rustic apprentice Christopher and his garrulous companion Weinberl travel to Vienna with a hare-brained idea of going “on the razzle”. Hiding from their boss, they end up in Madame Knorr’s women’s clothes shop, where they must don capacious tartan women’s garb and pose as mannequins. More cross-dressing follows. “I’m not the woman you think I am … I’m not even the woman you think is the woman you think I am”.

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Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2011/nov/04/ten-best-men-dressed-women

Ten of the best cathedrals in literature

Salisbury cathedral

 
Salisbury cathedral, the focus of William Golding’s novel.

The Spire by William Golding

Salisbury resident Golding imagined the building of the cathedral whose spire towers over the city. Ignoring the warnings of others, the obsessive Dean Jocelin drives the work on, convinced that an angel is prompting him. As he becomes madder, the miraculous building takes shape out of the dust and chaos.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens

Dickens’s last novel is set in the precincts of the cathedral of Cloisterham. “… a city of another and a bygone time is Cloisterham, with its hoarse Cathedral bell, its hoarse rooks hovering about the Cathedral tower, its hoarser and less distinct rooks in the stalls far beneath.” Murderous passions are nursed in the shadow of the great cathedral.

Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

The cathedral is the central character in Hugo’s huge historical novel. All his characters gravitate to it. Quasimodo is the bell-ringer and swings down on a rope from the towers of the Cathedral to rescue the Gypsy girl Esmerelda from the gallows. They seek sanctuary in the great church, but violence and death pursue them there.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Housewife Emma Bovary has an assignation with student Léon Dupuis in Rouen cathedral. “In the choir a silver lamp was burning, and from the side chapels and dark places of the church sometimes rose sounds like sighs, with the clang of a closing grating …” For Léon, the religious solemnity is fitting: he is a devotee of love. Emma arrives, tries to pray, but is overwhelmed by “the tumult of her heart”.

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

The clergymen of Barchester find the pursuit of God’s purposes is an often ignoble business. The unworldly Septimus Harding, precentor at the great cathedral, is drawn into a furious dispute about church corruption, his only solace being the sublime sound of the cathedral choir as its songs ascend to heaven.

Old St Paul’s by Harrison Ainsworth

Ainsworth’s best-selling Victorian romance is set in the 1660s. During the great plague, the old cathedral becomes a hospital. At the climax, the great, dilapidated old building burns down, trapping two of the novel’s villains in its vaults where they are drowned in molten lead.

The Choir by Joanna Trollope

Trollope’s tale of submerged provincial passions is set in the cathedral city of Aldminster, where the cathedral itself is falling down and the costs of repairs seem likely to be met by abolishing the costly boys’ choir. From the worldly dean to the idealistic choirmaster, everybody wants the best for the cathedral, the good of which becomes the justification for whatever they want to do.

“The Cathedral” by Rainer Maria Rilke

Rilke wrote a sequence of six poems inspired by a visit to Chartres cathedral with the sculptor Rodin. In the second, the poet muses on what the influence is of this huge tracery of stone, overwhelming rather than elevating. “And in the towers’ quelled ascent, / and sudden spurn of skies, sat Death”.

“A Cathedral Facade at Midnight” by Thomas Hardy

The poem recalls a night walk in the cathedral close at Salisbury, where Hardy took the movement of light across the building as a metaphor of ancient belief in the light of modern unbelief. The facade is thick with “the pious figures” of saints and clerics, holy men and women seen “Under the sure, unhasting, steady stress / Of Reason’s movement, making meaningless”.

The Cathedral by Joris-Karl Huysmans

Huysmans has his alter ego, Durtal, who has converted to Catholicism, explore the elaborate symbolism he discovers in stone in the great gothic edifice of Chartres cathedral. An apparent rejection of modernity, it was a bestseller.

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Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/nov/07/ten-best-cathedrals-in-literature

The Speech Obama Hasn’t Given

What are we doing in Libya? Americans deserve an explanation.

It all seems rather mad, doesn’t it? The decision to become involved militarily in the Libyan civil war couldn’t take place within a less hospitable context. The U.S. is reeling from spending and deficits, we’re already in two wars, our military has been stretched to the limit, we’re restive at home, and no one, really, sees President Obama as the kind of leader you’d follow over the top. “This way, men!” “No, I think I’ll stay in my trench.” People didn’t hire him to start battles but to end them. They didn’t expect him to open new fronts. Did he not know this?

He has no happy experience as a rallier of public opinion and a leader of great endeavors; the central initiative of his presidency, the one that gave shape to his leadership, health care, is still unpopular and the cause of continued agitation. When he devoted his entire first year to it, he seemed off point and out of touch. This was followed by the BP oil spill, which made him look snakebit. Now he seems incompetent and out of his depth in foreign and military affairs. He is more observed than followed, or perhaps I should say you follow him with your eyes and not your heart. So it’s funny he’d feel free to launch and lead a war, which is what this confused and uncertain military action may become.

What was he thinking? What is he thinking?

Which gets me to Mr. Obama’s speech, the one he hasn’t given. I cannot for the life of me see how an American president can launch a serious military action without a full and formal national address in which he explains to the American people why he is doing what he is doing, why it is right, and why it is very much in the national interest. He referred to his aims in parts of speeches and appearances when he was in South America, but now he’s home. More is needed, more is warranted, and more is deserved. He has to sit at that big desk and explain his thinking, put forward the facts as he sees them, and try to garner public support. He has to make a case for his own actions. It’s what presidents do! And this is particularly important now, because there are reasons to fear the current involvement will either escalate and produce a lengthy conflict or collapse and produce humiliation.

Without a formal and extended statement, the air of weirdness, uncertainty and confusion that surrounds this endeavor will only deepen.

The questions that must be answered actually start with the essentials. What, exactly, are we doing? Why are we doing it? At what point, or after what arguments, did the president decide U.S. military involvement was warranted? Is our objective practical and doable? What is America’s overriding strategic interest? In what way are the actions taken, and to be taken, seeing to those interests?

From those questions flow many others. We know who we’re against—Moammar Gadhafi, a bad man who’s done very wicked things. But do we know who we’re for? That is, what does the U.S. government know or think it knows about the composition and motives of the rebel forces we’re attempting to assist? For 42 years, Gadhafi controlled his nation’s tribes, sects and groups through brute force, bribes and blandishments. What will happen when they are no longer kept down? What will happen when they are no longer oppressed? What will they become, and what role will they play in the coming drama? Will their rebellion against Gadhafi degenerate into a dozen separate battles over oil, power and local dominance?

What happens if Gadhafi hangs on? The president has said he wants U.S. involvement to be brief. But what if Gadhafi is fighting on three months from now?

On the other hand, what happens if Gadhafi falls, if he’s deposed in a palace coup or military coup, or is killed, or flees? What exactly do we imagine will take his place?

Supporters of U.S. intervention have argued that if we mean to protect Libya’s civilians, as we have declared, then we must force regime change. But in order to remove Gadhafi, they add, we will need to do many other things. We will need to provide close-in air power. We will probably have to put in special forces teams to work with the rebels, who are largely untrained and ragtag. The Libyan army has tanks and brigades and heavy weapons. The U.S. and the allies will have to provide the rebels training and give them support. They will need antitank missiles and help in coordinating air strikes.

Once Gadhafi is gone, will there be a need for an international peacekeeping force to stabilize the country, to provide a peaceful transition, and to help the post-Gadhafi government restore its infrastructure? Will there be a partition? Will Libyan territory be altered?

None of this sounds like limited and discrete action.

In fact, this may turn out to be true: If Gadhafi survives, the crisis will go on and on. If Gadhafi falls, the crisis will go on and on.

Everyone who supports the Libyan endeavor says they don’t want an occupation. One said the other day, “We’re not looking for a protracted occupation.”

Protracted?

Mr. Obama has apparently set great store in the fact that he was not acting alone, that Britain, France and Italy were eager to move. That’s good—better to work with friends and act in concert. But it doesn’t guarantee anything. A multilateral mistake is still a mistake. So far the allied effort has not been marked by good coordination and communication. If the conflict in Libya drags on, won’t there tend to be more fissures, more tension, less commitment and more confusion as to objectives and command structures? Could the unanticipated results of the Libya action include new strains, even a new estrangement, among the allies?

How might Gadhafi hit out, in revenge, in his presumed last days, against America and the West?

And what, finally, about Congress? Putting aside the past half-century’s argument about declarations of war, doesn’t Congress, as representative of the people, have the obvious authority and responsibility to support the Libyan endeavor, or not, and to authorize funds, or not?

These are all big questions, and there are many other obvious ones. If the Libya endeavor is motivated solely by humanitarian concerns, then why haven’t we acted on those concerns recently in other suffering nations? It’s a rough old world out there, and there’s a lot of suffering. What is our thinking going forward? What are the new rules of the road, if there are new rules? Were we, in Libya, making a preemptive strike against extraordinary suffering—suffering beyond what is inevitable in a civil war?

America has been though a difficult 10 years, and the burden of proof on the need for U.S. action would be with those who supported intervention. Chief among them, of course, is the president, who made the decision as commander in chief. He needs to sit down and tell the American people how this thing can possibly turn out well. He needs to tell them why it isn’t mad.

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704604704576221142167651286.html

Plural trouble

Uh-oh. Now there’s more than one kind of Prius

You might not think linguistic issues would be high on the agenda at a car show, but don’t tell that to Toyota. At the Chicago Auto Show two weeks ago, the company announced the results of an online poll he held to determine the “proper” plural of its popular hybrid car, the Prius.

The poll was part of the company’s announcement of three new Prius models: a crossover hybrid, a small concept car, and a plug-in hybrid. Although none is on the market yet, the prospect of more than one kind of Prius meant the question of the proper plural had become urgent, at least to Toyota.

The Prius, of course, is tricky to pluralize, because it ends with an “s” and sounds Latin, both of which tend to throw English speakers into fits. As part of its marketing campaign, Toyota also created a series of jokey videos with James Lipton, host of “Inside the Actors Studio.” In one, Lipton interviews an octopus, who of course picks Prii (pronounced pree-eye) as its preferred plural; in another, William Shakespeare plumps for the faux-Latin Prium. More than 1.8 million votes were cast over six weeks, and the final winner was Prii, with 25 percent, followed closely by Prius, 24 percent; Priuses, 20 percent; Prien, 18 percent; and Prium, 13 percent (sorry, Bill). The winner has now been added to Dictionary.com’s entry for Prius. (Toyota has long been an advertiser on Dictionary.com’s site, including a 2009 campaign that linked Prius ads to words such as sustainable, green, and moonroof.)

Toyota is not the first to try to leverage people’s strong opinions about language to draw attention to a brand. Other companies have done similar campaigns — Nestle ran television ads featuring Shaquille O’Neal arguing about how to pronounce caramel (CARE-uh-muhl v. CAR-muhl), old cartoon ads for Heinz Worcestershire sauce played on the difficulty of pronouncing Worcestershire, and just recently The New York Times reported that Italian children’s brand Chicco is running a contest for parents to record their children saying “Chicco” (pronounced KEE-ko) with the winners appearing on a billboard in Times Square.

Toyota’s enthusiastic embrace of the plural is unusual in the business world. Trademark holders typically like to avoid their marks being entered in dictionaries at all. When I was an editor at a traditional dictionary, I had a thick file of letters from trademark holders demanding special treatment for their trademarks — or their immediate removal. The more knee-jerk the use of a trademark for the branded object becomes (think Band-Aid, Kleenex) the more the company starts worrying about “genericization,” the risk that its valuable brand will become so widely used that it loses trademark status. Xerox runs regular ads to remind people that the company prefers you to use Xerox only as an adjective (as in “Xerox brand photocopiers”) instead of as a verb or even as a plural noun (which they give, if you must, as Xeroxes). No fanciful ad campaign asking us to choose between Xeroxes and Xeroxim!

Toyota must feel that the risk to its trademark is outweighed by the positive publicity. Steve Rivkin, a branding expert and coauthor of six books on marketing strategy and innovation, agrees. He found the Toyota campaign “very much in keeping with the brand’s irreverent, cheeky personality.”

But have the people really spoken? Before the vote, both expert language opinion and general usage seemed to be firmly on the side of Priuses. Kory Stamper, an associate editor for the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, was quoted in January by The Detroit Free Press as being “tempted as an English lexicographer to pluralize it as a regular English noun, Priuses.” Ben Zimmer, of the (recently canceled) On Language column for The New York Times Magazine, also threw in his support for Priuses: “We might as well form the word the way English plurals are formed.” In normal usage, people seem to treat Prius just like any other regular English plural, slapping an “es” on it. Newspapers and magazines, by and large, have unselfconsciously used Priuses since the brand entered the public eye in the late 1990s. (The Prius was first released in Japan in 1997.)

Despite the votes and the Dictionary.com imprimatur, I’d bet against Prii, and put my money on the more pedestrian Priuses. Most people will use the first form that comes to mind, the clearer and more English-y Priuses. People who care deeply about etymologically motivated plurals will use the correct Latin (Priora, meaning “earlier, better, or more important [things],” as Jan Freeman reported in this space back in 2007, citing Harry Mount, author of “Carpe Diem: Put a Little Latin in Your Life”). That leaves only the people who enjoy voting in online polls to throw their weight behind Prii.

And me? I admit a sneaking fondness for the completely unjustifiable and rarely suggested Prixen, which makes the cars sound like one of Santa’s reindeer.

Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of Wordnik.com.

The power of lonely

What we do better without other people around

You hear it all the time: We humans are social animals. We need to spend time together to be happy and functional, and we extract a vast array of benefits from maintaining intimate relationships and associating with groups. Collaborating on projects at work makes us smarter and more creative. Hanging out with friends makes us more emotionally mature and better able to deal with grief and stress.

Spending time alone, by contrast, can look a little suspect. In a world gone wild for wikis and interdisciplinary collaboration, those who prefer solitude and private noodling are seen as eccentric at best and defective at worst, and are often presumed to be suffering from social anxiety, boredom, and alienation.

But an emerging body of research is suggesting that spending time alone, if done right, can be good for us — that certain tasks and thought processes are best carried out without anyone else around, and that even the most socially motivated among us should regularly be taking time to ourselves if we want to have fully developed personalities, and be capable of focus and creative thinking. There is even research to suggest that blocking off enough alone time is an important component of a well-functioning social life — that if we want to get the most out of the time we spend with people, we should make sure we’re spending enough of it away from them. Just as regular exercise and healthy eating make our minds and bodies work better, solitude experts say, so can being alone.

One ongoing Harvard study indicates that people form more lasting and accurate memories if they believe they’re experiencing something alone. Another indicates that a certain amount of solitude can make a person more capable of empathy towards others. And while no one would dispute that too much isolation early in life can be unhealthy, a certain amount of solitude has been shown to help teenagers improve their moods and earn good grades in school.

“There’s so much cultural anxiety about isolation in our country that we often fail to appreciate the benefits of solitude,” said Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University whose book “Alone in America,” in which he argues for a reevaluation of solitude, will be published next year. “There is something very liberating for people about being on their own. They’re able to establish some control over the way they spend their time. They’re able to decompress at the end of a busy day in a city…and experience a feeling of freedom.”

Figuring out what solitude is and how it affects our thoughts and feelings has never been more crucial. The latest Census figures indicate there are some 31 million Americans living alone, which accounts for more than a quarter of all US households. And at the same time, the experience of being alone is being transformed dramatically, as more and more people spend their days and nights permanently connected to the outside world through cellphones and computers. In an age when no one is ever more than a text message or an e-mail away from other people, the distinction between “alone” and “together” has become hopelessly blurry, even as the potential benefits of true solitude are starting to become clearer.

Solitude has long been linked with creativity, spirituality, and intellectual might. The leaders of the world’s great religions — Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Moses — all had crucial revelations during periods of solitude. The poet James Russell Lowell identified solitude as “needful to the imagination;” in the 1988 book “Solitude: A Return to the Self,” the British psychiatrist Anthony Storr invoked Beethoven, Kafka, and Newton as examples of solitary genius.

But what actually happens to people’s minds when they are alone? As much as it’s been exalted, our understanding of how solitude actually works has remained rather abstract, and modern psychology — where you might expect the answers to lie — has tended to treat aloneness more as a problem than a solution. That was what Christopher Long found back in 1999, when as a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst he started working on a project to precisely define solitude and isolate ways in which it could be experienced constructively. The project’s funding came from, of all places, the US Forest Service, an agency with a deep interest in figuring out once and for all what is meant by “solitude” and how the concept could be used to promote America’s wilderness preserves.

With his graduate adviser and a researcher from the Forest Service at his side, Long identified a number of different ways a person might experience solitude and undertook a series of studies to measure how common they were and how much people valued them. A 2003 survey of 320 UMass undergraduates led Long and his coauthors to conclude that people felt good about being alone more often than they felt bad about it, and that psychology’s conventional approach to solitude — an “almost exclusive emphasis on loneliness” — represented an artificially narrow view of what being alone was all about.

“Aloneness doesn’t have to be bad,” Long said by phone recently from Ouachita Baptist University, where he is an assistant professor. “There’s all this research on solitary confinement and sensory deprivation and astronauts and people in Antarctica — and we wanted to say, look, it’s not just about loneliness!”

Today other researchers are eagerly diving into that gap. Robert Coplan of Carleton University, who studies children who play alone, is so bullish on the emergence of solitude studies that he’s hoping to collect the best contemporary research into a book. Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert, a leader in the world of positive psychology, has recently overseen an intriguing study that suggests memories are formed more effectively when people think they’re experiencing something individually.

That study, led by graduate student Bethany Burum, started with a simple experiment: Burum placed two individuals in a room and had them spend a few minutes getting to know each other. They then sat back to back, each facing a computer screen the other could not see. In some cases they were told they’d both be doing the same task, in other cases they were told they’d be doing different things. The computer screen scrolled through a set of drawings of common objects, such as a guitar, a clock, and a log. A few days later the participants returned and were asked to recall which drawings they’d been shown. Burum found that the participants who had been told the person behind them was doing a different task — namely, identifying sounds rather than looking at pictures — did a better job of remembering the pictures. In other words, they formed more solid memories when they believed they were the only ones doing the task.

The results, which Burum cautions are preliminary, are now part of a paper on “the coexperiencing mind” that was recently presented at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference. In the paper, Burum offers two possible theories to explain what she and Gilbert found in the study. The first invokes a well-known concept from social psychology called “social loafing,” which says that people tend not to try as hard if they think they can rely on others to pick up their slack. (If two people are pulling a rope, for example, neither will pull quite as hard as they would if they were pulling it alone.) But Burum leans toward a different explanation, which is that sharing an experience with someone is inherently distracting, because it compels us to expend energy on imagining what the other person is going through and how they’re reacting to it.

“People tend to engage quite automatically with thinking about the minds of other people,” Burum said in an interview. “We’re multitasking when we’re with other people in a way that we’re not when we just have an experience by ourselves.”

Perhaps this explains why seeing a movie alone feels so radically different than seeing it with friends: Sitting there in the theater with nobody next to you, you’re not wondering what anyone else thinks of it; you’re not anticipating the discussion that you’ll be having about it on the way home. All your mental energy can be directed at what’s happening on the screen. According to Greg Feist, an associate professor of psychology at the San Jose State University who has written about the connection between creativity and solitude, some version of that principle may also be at work when we simply let our minds wander: When we let our focus shift away from the people and things around us, we are better able to engage in what’s called meta-cognition, or the process of thinking critically and reflectively about our own thoughts.

Other psychologists have looked at what happens when other people’s minds don’t just take up our bandwidth, but actually influence our judgment. It’s well known that we’re prone to absorb or mimic the opinions and body language of others in all sorts of situations, including those that might seem the most intensely individual, such as who we’re attracted to. While psychologists don’t necessarily think of that sort of influence as “clouding” one’s judgment — most would say it’s a mechanism for learning, allowing us to benefit from information other people have access to that we don’t — it’s easy to see how being surrounded by other people could hamper a person’s efforts to figure out what he or she really thinks of something.

Teenagers, especially, whose personalities have not yet fully formed, have been shown to benefit from time spent apart from others, in part because it allows for a kind of introspection — and freedom from self-consciousness — that strengthens their sense of identity. Reed Larson, a professor of human development at the University of Illinois, conducted a study in the 1990s in which adolescents outfitted with beepers were prompted at irregular intervals to write down answers to questions about who they were with, what they were doing, and how they were feeling. Perhaps not surprisingly, he found that when the teens in his sample were alone, they reported feeling a lot less self-conscious. “They want to be in their bedrooms because they want to get away from the gaze of other people,” he said.

The teenagers weren’t necessarily happier when they were alone; adolescence, after all, can be a particularly tough time to be separated from the group. But Larson found something interesting: On average, the kids in his sample felt better after they spent some time alone than they did before. Furthermore, he found that kids who spent between 25 and 45 percent of their nonclass time alone tended to have more positive emotions over the course of the weeklong study than their more socially active peers, were more successful in school and were less likely to self-report depression.

“The paradox was that being alone was not a particularly happy state,” Larson said. “But there seemed to be kind of a rebound effect. It’s kind of like a bitter medicine.”

The nice thing about medicine is it comes with instructions. Not so with solitude, which may be tremendously good for one’s health when taken in the right doses, but is about as user-friendly as an unmarked white pill. Too much solitude is unequivocally harmful and broadly debilitating, decades of research show. But one person’s “too much” might be someone else’s “just enough,” and eyeballing the difference with any precision is next to impossible.

Research is still far from offering any concrete guidelines. Insofar as there is a consensus among solitude researchers, it’s that in order to get anything positive out of spending time alone, solitude should be a choice: People must feel like they’ve actively decided to take time apart from people, rather than being forced into it against their will.

Overextended parents might not need any encouragement to see time alone as a desirable luxury; the question for them is only how to build it into their frenzied lives. But for the millions of people living by themselves, making time spent alone time productive may require a different kind of effort. Sherry Turkle, director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, argues in her new book, “Alone, Together,” that people should be mindfully setting aside chunks of every day when they are not engaged in so-called social snacking activities like texting, g-chatting, and talking on the phone. For teenagers, it may help to understand that feeling a little lonely at times may simply be the price of forging a clearer identity.

John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, whose 2008 book “Loneliness” with William Patrick summarized a career’s worth of research on all the negative things that happen to people who can’t establish connections with others, said recently that as long as it’s not motivated by fear or social anxiety, then spending time alone can be a crucially nourishing component of life. And it can have some counterintuitive effects: Adam Waytz in the Harvard psychology department, one of Cacioppo’s former students, recently completed a study indicating that people who are socially connected with others can have a hard time identifying with people who are more distant from them. Spending a certain amount of time alone, the study suggests, can make us less closed off from others and more capable of empathy — in other words, better social animals.

“People make this error, thinking that being alone means being lonely, and not being alone means being with other people,” Cacioppo said. “You need to be able to recharge on your own sometimes. Part of being able to connect is being available to other people, and no one can do that without a break.”

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas.

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Full article and photo: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2011/03/06/the_power_of_lonely/

Exercise best anti-aging treatment, study suggests

Canadian scientists appear to have proven that you can, in fact, run away from old age.

In what could stand up as the most powerful evidence yet that exercise prolongs life, a study by McMaster University researchers in Hamilton found that signs of premature aging were halted — and even reversed — in virtually every tissue and organ in the bodies of exercised mice.

The finding, which could be a turning point in anti-aging medicine, suggests the proverbial fountain of youth won’t come from a pill or from an exotic berry from the Amazon, but rather plain old exercise.

Mice genetically altered to age faster were forced to run on treadmills for 45 minutes, three times a week.

Five months later, the mice looked as young, healthy and active as wild-type mice — mice that didn’t have the genetic mutation — while their sedentary and same-aged siblings were balding, greying and shrinking.

While the exercised mice scampered and scurried about their cages, the aging non-runners huddled in a corner, barely moving.

Not only did the treadmill-running mice look as sleek-coated, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as wild mice, but the researchers also saw “huge recovery” in age-related damage to practically every tissue they could analyze.

The study’s beauty lies in its simplicity, says principal investigator Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky.

“What’s neat about our study is that this is something that is conceivably so simple. We purposely exercised them three times a week for 45 minutes at a moderate-intensity exercise, which is something that any human — provided they don’t have . . . (an illness) — can do.”

What’s more, the exercise did more than just protect the muscles and heart, as might have been expected.

The team found “unprecedented” anti-aging effects of endurance exercise on the brain, skin, hair, gonads (ovaries and testicles), kidneys, spleen and liver.

“Every part of the body was protected by exercise,” said Tarnopolsky, a professor of pediatrics and medicine at McMaster’s Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine. “I think that exercise is the most potent anti-aging therapy available today and likely forever.”

Death is inevitable, “but exercise is the only way to stay healthy and free of disease for a longer period of time,” he added.

“We know that exercise has benefits even when humans start over the age of 65. But this study clearly shows that we can get closer to the fountain of youth if we start when we’re young and do moderate exercise our whole life.”

The findings, published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, represents “one of the most striking rescues yet reported in aging models without gene therapy or a pharmaceutical intervention,” said lead author Adeel Safdar, a senior PhD student working with Tarnopolsky.

At the crux of the experiments lies the mitochondrial hypothesis.

The mice were genetically manipulated to age twice as fast as normal because of a defect in the repair system of their mitochondria, the powerhouses or furnaces inside each cell that give our body energy.

Evidence has been mounting for decades that the older we get, the more mutations we accumulate in mitochondrial DNA. The furnaces start to break down, resulting in a steady decline in tissue and organ function, Safdar said.

That not only leads to aging, he said, but also to all the diseases associated with getting older, including cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and Parkinson’s.

“And that’s really the premise upon which these mice were created,” Tarnopolsky said. “The people who created the mice essentially said, ‘Why don’t we create a mouse that has mitochondrial dysfunction and see if they age prematurely?’ ”

Lo and behold, the mice die about twice as fast as normal mice and show many features of human aging, he said, including hair loss, hearing loss, cataracts, brain atrophy or shrinkage, enlarged hearts and smaller muscles.

Epidemiological studies in humans have shown that people who are physically active or exercise regularly have fewer chronic diseases and tend to live longer — runners especially.

“So we thought this was a nice model that would allow us to really test how effective exercise really is in human aging,” Tarnopolsky said.

The experiments began when the mice were three months old — about 20 in human years — and ended five months later when the mice were eight months old — in their late 60s by the human equivalent.

The mice were randomly assigned to running three times per week or to just being sedentary in their cages.

Five months later, the sedentary mice showed major signs of aging: Their ovaries and testes were small and their hearts were enlarged, compared to the running mice, whose hearts were essentially normal. “The brain was atrophic, or small in the non-runners, but it was back to normal size in the runners,” Tarnopolsky added.

It’s not clear exactly what’s happening. But exercise is a physiological stressor — a good one — that causes the body to produce more energy.

“In our study, we saw huge recovery in mitochondrial function (in the exercised mice),” Safdar said.

Bigger studies involving more mice are needed to determine just how strong the life-extending effect of exercise might be.

But, said Tarnopolsky, the message is “it’s never too late” to star exercising.

“I really think we have to start when people are young. We have to encourage our children and people throughout their life to maintain healthy levels of physical activity.”

Ottawa Citizen

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Full article: http://www.ottawacitizen.com/health/Exercise+best+anti+aging+treatment+study+suggests/4324434/story.htmlhttp://www.ottawacitizen.com/health/Exercise+best+anti+aging+treatment+study+suggests/4324434/story.html

Crude reality

Will a Middle Eastern oil disruption crush the economy? New research suggests the answer is no — and that a major tenet of American foreign policy may be fundamentally wrong.

For more than a month, the world has been riveted by scenes of protest in the Middle East, with demonstrators flooding streets from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond. As the unrest has spread, people in the West have also been keeping a wary eye on something closer to home: the gyrating stock market and the rising price of gas. Fear that the upheaval will start to affect major oil producers like Saudi Arabia has led speculators to bid up oil prices — and led some economic analysts to predict that higher energy costs could derail America’s nascent economic recovery.

The idea that a sudden spike in oil prices spells economic doom has influenced America’s foreign policy since at least 1973, when Arab states, upset with Western support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War, drastically cut production and halted exports to the United States. The result was a sudden quadrupling in crude prices and a deep global recession. Many Americans still have vivid memories of gas lines stretching for blocks, and of the unemployment, inflation, and general sense of insecurity and panic that followed. Even harder hit were our allies in Europe and Japan, as well as many developing nations.

Economists have a term for this disruption: an oil shock. The idea that such oil shocks will inevitably wreak havoc on the US economy has become deeply rooted in the American psyche, and in turn the United States has made ensuring the smooth flow of crude from the Middle East a central tenet of its foreign policy. Oil security is one of the primary reasons America has a long-term military presence in the region. Even aside from the Iraq and Afghan wars, we have equipment and forces positioned in Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar; the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet is permanently stationed in Bahrain.

But a growing body of economic research suggests that this conventional view of oil shocks is wrong. The US economy is far less susceptible to interruptions in the oil supply than previously assumed, according to these studies. Scholars examining the recent history of oil disruptions have found the worldwide oil market to be remarkably adaptable and surprisingly quick at compensating for shortfalls. Economists have found that much of the damage once attributed to oil shocks can more persuasively be laid at the feet of bad government policies. The US economy, meanwhile, has become less dependent on Persian Gulf oil and less sensitive to changes in crude prices overall than it was in 1973.

These findings have led a few bold political scientists and foreign policy experts to start asking an uncomfortable question: If the United States could withstand a disruption in Persian Gulf oil supplies, why does it need a permanent military presence in the region at all? There’s a lot riding on that question: America’s presence in the Middle East exacts a heavy toll in political capital, financial resources, and lives. Washington’s support for Middle East autocrats makes America appear hypocritical on issues of human rights and democracy. The United States spends billions of dollars every year to maintain troops in the Middle East, and the troops risk their lives simply by being there, since they make tempting targets for the region’s Islamic extremists. And arguably, because the presence of these forces inflames radicals and delegitimizes local rulers, they may actually be undermining the very stability they are ostensibly there to ensure.

Among those asking this tough question are two young professors, Eugene Gholz, at the University of Texas, and Daryl Press, at Dartmouth College. To find out what actually happens when the world’s petroleum supply is interrupted, the duo analyzed every major oil disruption since 1973. The results, published in a recent issue of the journal Strategic Studies, showed that in almost all cases, the ensuing rise in prices, while sometimes steep, was short-lived and had little lasting economic impact. When there have been prolonged price rises, they found the cause to be panic on the part of oil purchasers rather than a supply shortage. When oil runs short, in other words, the market is usually adept at filling the gap.

One striking example was the height of the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. If anything was likely to produce an oil shock, it was this: two major Persian Gulf producers directly targeting each other’s oil facilities. And indeed, prices surged 25 percent in the first months of the conflict. But within 18 months of the war’s start they had fallen back to their prewar levels, and they stayed there even though the fighting continued to rage for six more years. Surprisingly, during the 1984 “Tanker War” phase of that conflict — when Iraq tried to sink oil tankers carrying Iranian crude and Iran retaliated by targeting ships carrying oil from Iraq and its Persian Gulf allies — the price of oil continued to drop steadily. Gholz and Press found just one case after 1973 in which the market mechanisms failed: the 1979-1980 Iranian oil strike which followed the overthrow of the Shah, during which Saudi Arabia, perhaps hoping to appease Islamists within the country, also led OPEC to cut production, exacerbating the supply shortage.

In their paper, Gholz and Press ultimately conclude that the market’s adaptive mechanisms function independently of the US military presence in the Persian Gulf, and that they largely protect the American economy from being damaged by oil shocks. “To the extent that the United States faces a national security challenge related to Persian Gulf oil, it is not ‘how to protect the oil we need’ but ‘how to assure consumers that there is nothing to fear,’ ” the two write. “That is a thorny policy problem, but it does not require large military deployments and costly military operations.”

There’s no denying the importance of Middle Eastern oil to the US economy. Although only 15 percent of imported US oil comes directly from the Persian Gulf, the region is responsible for nearly a third of the world’s production and the majority of its known reserves. But the oil market is also elastic: Many key producing countries have spare capacity, so if oil is cut off from one country, others tend to increase their output rapidly to compensate. Today, regions outside the Middle East, such as the west coast of Africa, make up an increasingly important share of worldwide production. Private companies also hold large stockpiles of oil to smooth over shortages — amounting to a few billion barrels in the United States alone — as does the US government, with 700 million barrels in its strategic petroleum reserve. And the market can largely work around shipping disruptions by using alternative routes; though they are more expensive, transportation costs account for only tiny fraction of the price of oil.

Compared to the 1970s, too, the structure of the US economy offers better insulation from oil price shocks. Today, the country uses half as much energy per dollar of gross domestic product as it did in 1973, according to data from the US Energy Information Administration. Remarkably, the economy consumed less total energy in 2009 than in 1997, even though its GDP rose and the population grew. When it comes time to fill up at the pump, the average US consumer today spends less than 4 percent of his or her disposable income on gasoline, compared with more than 6 percent in 1980. Oil, though crucial, is simply a smaller part of the economy than it once was.

There is no denying that the 1973 oil shock was bad — the stock market crashed in response to the sudden spike in oil prices, inflation jumped, and unemployment hit levels not seen since the Great Depression. The 1979 oil shock also had deep and lasting economic effects. Economists now argue, however, that the economic damage was more directly attributable to bad government policy than to the actual supply shortage. Among those who have studied past oil shocks is Ben Bernanke, the current chairman of the Federal Reserve. In 1997, Bernanke analyzed the effects of a sharp rise in fuel prices during three different oil shocks — 1973-75, 1980-82, and 1990-91. He concluded that the major economic damage was caused not by the oil price increases but by the Federal Reserve overreacting and sharply increasing interest rates to head off what it wrongly feared would be a wave of inflation. Today, his view is accepted by most mainstream economists.

Gholz and Press are hardly the only researchers who have concluded that we are far too worried about oil shocks. The economy also faced a large increase in prices in the mid-2000s, largely as the result of surging demand from emerging markets, with no ill effects. “If you take any economics textbook written before 2000, it would talk about what a calamitous effect a doubling in oil prices would have,” said Philip Auerswald, an associate professor at George Mason University’s School of Public Policy who has written about oil shocks and their implications for US foreign policy. “Well, we had a price quadrupling from 2003 and 2007 and nothing bad happened.” (The recession of 2008-9 was triggered by factors unrelated to oil prices.)

Auerswald also points out that when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in 2005, it did tremendous damage to offshore oil rigs, refineries, and pipelines, as well as the rail lines and roads that transport petroleum to the rest of the country. The United States gets about 12 percent of its oil from the Gulf of Mexico region, and, more significantly, 40 percent of its refining capacity is located there. “Al Qaeda times 1,000 could not deliver this sort of blow to the oil industry’s physical infrastructure,” Auerswald said. And yet the only impact was about five days of gas lines in Georgia, and unusually high prices at the pump for a few weeks.

While there is an increasing consensus that oil shocks caused by disruptions in supply are not particularly harmful — and, somewhat surprisingly, have little impact on oil prices — a debate still rages among economists about whether the same can be said of oil shocks caused by increases in demand or those caused by speculators bidding prices up in anticipation of a supply disruption (such as before the first Persian Gulf War). The relation of these sorts of shocks to economic recessions is not well understood. But what’s clear is that the relationship has more to do with human perceptions than any actual change in the oil supply.

So how much should we be sacrificing to protect our oil supply? The question goes to the heart of American policy in the Middle East.

In 1997, Graham Fuller and Ian Lesser, two political analysts at the Rand Corporation with long records of US government service, estimated that the United States spent “$60 billion a year to protect the import of $30 billion worth of oil that would flow anyway.” A 2006 study by James Murphy, an economist at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and Mark Delucchi, at the University of California Davis, similarly found that when the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were taken into account, the expenditures ranged anywhere between $47 billion and $98 billion per year. But the amount of oil coming to the United States from the region was worth less than $35 billion per year.

“Why is it that American consumers are bearing a disproportionate cost of having oil flowing to the international marketplace?” said Christopher Preble, head of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C.

In their Security Studies paper, Gholz and Press argue that there are indeed a few threats in the Persian Gulf that might overwhelm the oil market and threaten US energy security. One of these would be an attempt by a single power to conquer the majority of the region. Another is Iran blocking the Strait of Hormuz, the only irreplaceable sea channel. The third is revolution in Saudi Arabia. The first two scenarios are highly unlikely, Press and Gholz argue, and could be countered by moving in US forces stationed elsewhere in the world, such as the neighboring Mediterranean and Indian Ocean. (There is debate among security analysts about whether Iran has the military capability to close the strait, or could itself economically survive such a move.) A revolt in Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is looking increasingly possible given the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt — but it could not be prevented by the US military deployed in the Gulf. Our presence could even make such unrest more likely, if soldiers became flashpoints for revolutionary anger.

Gholz’s and Press’s argument has gained some currency in academic circles. “I have believed for a long time that the US presence in the Gulf has been ‘under argued’ strategically,” Barry Posen, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where both Gholz and Press received their PhDs, wrote in an e-mail response to questions about this topic. “Press and Gholz undermine the usual ‘simple’ arguments for being there. That leaves us looking for other arguments that may be the ‘true’ ones, or suspecting that there is no strong argument.”

But it has gained little traction so far either on Capitol Hill or in the corridors of the Pentagon. “Did it immediately change people’s minds? Not really,” Gholz said of his paper.

Auerswald, who has grown frustrated by the lack of response to his own research on this topic, said that the problem is that the fear of Middle Eastern oil shocks is now politically useful to a whole spectrum of powerful interest groups. “This argument is like the familiar old jeans of American politics,” he said. “They are nice and cozy and comfortable and everyone can wear them. Because of ethanol, the farm lobby loves it; for coal, well it’s their core argument; for the offshore drilling folks, they love it.” Even the environmental movement relies on it, he said, because they use it as bogeyman to scare Americans into taking renewable energy and energy conservation more seriously. As for the US military, “The US Navy is not interested in hearing that one of their two main theaters of operation has no justification for being,” Auerswald said.

The costs to US foreign policy, of course, cannot be calculated in dollars and cents alone, although certainly the cost here has been very high. But it looks even higher when one considers the lost opportunities and squandered chances — what we could be achieving if we weren’t so concerned about a threat that looks increasingly like an illusion.

“If we are going to commit our troops to prevent something from happening, it should be something that would be an existential threat to the United States,” said Auerswald. “Having people wait in line for five days for gas in one part of the US is not an existential threat.”

Jeremy Kahn is a journalist based in New Dehli.

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Full article and photo: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2011/02/13/crude_reality/

Uncommon knowledge

How class affects your brain

Most of the kids who attend top colleges come from affluent families. As if that isn’t discouraging enough for kids from lower-class families, a new study at Northwestern University suggests that, even for kids who’ve already made it to a top university, coming from a lower-class background can wear them down. After talking about their own academic achievement, lower-class students ate more candy and had more trouble with self-control than more affluent students. This didn’t happen when they talked about a nonacademic topic, suggesting that lower-class students are more self-conscious about their academic status; the psychological pressure of discussing it wears them out. However, the researchers did find a way to psychologically undermine students from all backgrounds more equally: comparing them to students at an even more elite university!

Johnson, S. et al., ”Middle Class and Marginal? Socioeconomic Status, Stigma, and Self-Regulation at an Elite University,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Mom, get away!

One of the stereotypes of a detached personality is that such a person will not only avoid close relationships but must not have been loved by his or her mother. In a novel experiment, researchers found that the word “mom” does indeed have an automatic negative association for these people. The researchers asked people to stand in front of a screen that randomly displayed various words and push a lever as fast as possible upon seeing the words. People with more detached personalities pushed the lever away faster than other people in response to the word “mom” but not in response to other words.

Fraley, C. & Marks, M., “Pushing Mom Away: Embodied Cognition and Avoidant Attachment,” Journal of Research in Personality (forthcoming).

I am yours

A longstanding feminist critique of dating culture is that men are expected to be promiscuous, while women are expected to be loyal, doting partners. This may be unfair, but evolutionary psychology would suggest that women are compelled to signal their faithfulness to prospective partners because men can’t be certain about paternity, and are therefore wary of unfaithful women. In a recent study, women who were made to think about long-term romance reported that they wouldn’t want to go to a concert with — and would otherwise distance themselves from — another woman who is unfaithful to the men she dates. Women were not as put off by the company of a cheater if they were made to think about short-term romance or just hanging out with friends. Although men had a generally negative reaction towards a cheating friend, this reaction wasn’t particularly sensitive to the romantic context, suggesting that the signaling of faithfulness is more important for women.

Dosmukhambetova, D. & Manstead, A., “Strategic Reactions to Unfaithfulness: Female Self-Presentation in the Context of Mate Attraction Is Linked to Uncertainty of Paternity,” Evolution and Human Behavior (March 2011).

Sorting the dead

TV crime dramas like “CSI” usually present the autopsy as a clear-cut analytical exercise. However, criminal investigators and medical examiners are prone to biases just like everyone else. Comparing a nationally representative sample of death certificates to survey responses from next of kin, researchers found that the racial identity of decedents was often misclassified — at a rate of about 1 percent for whites, and up to almost 9 percent for Native Americans. Worse, misclassification to a particular race was more likely if the cause of death fit the stereotype for that race: Death by cirrhosis was associated with misclassification as Native American, while being murdered was associated with misclassification as black.

Noymer, A. et al., “Cause of Death Affects Racial Classification on Death Certificates,” PLoS ONE (January 2011).

Speed thinking

In the race to boost brain performance, some British psychologists have found one trick: the click. When various mental tasks were preceded by several seconds of clicking — compared to silence or white noise — people’s minds seemed to perform a little bit better. Not only was this the case for reaction times to basic stimuli, but math problems were solved slightly faster, data was recalled a little bit more fluently, and previously seen pictures were more likely to be recognized. The authors of the study aren’t exactly sure how clicks produce this effect but figure that the clicks might speed up the perception of time, speeding up the underlying thought process.

Jones, L. et al., “Click Trains and the Rate of Information Processing: Does ‘Speeding Up’ Subjective Time Make Other Psychological Processes Run Faster?” Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology (February 2011).

Don’t say it

The art of dodging bad words

What could be more fun than mocking yesterday’s euphemisms? Open a copy of Mencken’s “The American Language” and you find our American forebears exclaiming “nerts!” (to avoid the naughty “nuts!”) and calling their legs “limbs” or “benders.” Then there are the benighted Brits, for whom Poe’s “The Gold Bug” was retitled “The Golden Beetle,” since “bug” to them meant only the (unmentionable) bedbug.

We may not be quite so delicate today, but euphemism — from the Greek for “auspicious speech” — is with us still. Our rooster and weather vane date from the 19th century, when cock became too vivid for polite American discourse. (So strong was the taboo that Bronson Alcocke, father of Louisa May, changed the family name to Alcott.) For public tough talk about courage, we translate our favorite English slang into Spanish, like George W. Bush and Sarah Palin, and compliment folks on their cojones. (Or tone it down further, George Will-style, and ask if a leader has the “kidneys” for the job.)

Euphemisms can be private or public, trivial or deadly, serious or joky — but they can’t be dispensed with, says Ralph Keyes in his new book “Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms.” So long as humans have had things to be discreet about, they’ve had names that furnish some rhetorical distance from the things themselves. “Penis, Latin for ‘tail,’ in Cicero’s time was put to work as a euphemism for the male sex organ,” notes Keyes. (And just as some writers groused, in recent decades, that a former meaning of gay had been filched from them, Cicero complained that he could no longer call a tail a tail, now that the word meant something else.)

For modern Americans, of course, penis is just the scientifically correct name. Over the centuries, the job of euphemizing the organ has been handed off to hundreds of other words, some short-lived and others more durable. This is the typical life of a euphemism: a ride on what Keyes calls the “euphemism carousel” and Steven Pinker called the “euphemism treadmill.” By either metaphor, a euphemism wears out as it becomes too familiarly linked to the thing it designates; its distancing powers fade, and it’s abandoned, temporarily or permanently, for a newer term.

Any word, however inoffensive it looks, can wear out its welcome this way. It’s hard to imagine a more abstract word than undertaker, for instance: “One who undertakes a task.” But as a euphemism for “one who handles funerals,” it acquired a morbid aura in less than 200 years. By the end of the 19th century, writes Keyes, “undertakers had promoted themselves first to funeral directors, then to morticians…presumably because it sounded like ‘physician.’ ”

This process takes time, naturally; at the moment, some American parents think butt is a fine word for kids to use, while others still hear it as vulgar. Specific terms aside, though, we all know how to tailor our language to the audience of the moment. Even the most plain-spoken among us seem content with a world where some words are off limits to 3-year-olds and radio bloviators. And this euphemizing of intimate matters — death, bodily functions, sex — seems like a perfectly reasonable social contract: I’ll pretend I would never picture you on the toilet, or in your coffin, if you’ll pretend the same in return.

But euphemisms, as Keyes notes, aren’t limited to these universal human realms. They also have their dark, Orwellian public side. And the use of euphemism by the powerful — insiders and authorities of all stripes — involves a different relationship between the euphemizer and euphemizee. We all know what “passed away” really means, whether it’s our idiom or not. But when a finance guy euphemizes risky investments as “subprime loans” or a military officer calls dead civilians “collateral damage,” the obfuscating language can begin to sound like professional terminology — the equivalent of the doctor’s “MI” for “heart attack” — rather than what it is, an intentional attempt at misdirection. When euphemisms cover up things we aren’t familiar with (and often don’t want to know better), they’re much more insidious than the polite evasions of everyday life.

In fact, the whole subject would be easier to talk about if we assigned euphemisms to two separate categories — benign and malign, maybe. To call the room where you urinate a “bathroom” or refer to a sexual act as “sleeping with” is hardly sinister; it’s merely following a set of cultural expectations, just like using napkins or saying “please pass the salt.” Describing a patient’s MRI as “worrisome” rather than “dire” may be a (temporary) hedge, but it’s also a human gesture.

But telling citizens that torture is “abuse” and mercenaries are “contractors” — or in Orwell’s words, that burning and bombing villages is “pacification” — is a different sort of enterprise. These euphemisms — the top-down terminology invented and deployed to serve the interests of the coiners — are the ones that give “euphemism” a bad name.

Jan Freeman, Boston Globe

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Full article: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2011/02/13/dont_say_it/

Well worth not reading

Some of my favorite books are the ones I’ve never opened

Like most readers, I love browsing in bookshops and libraries. I enjoy running my fingers along the spines of books and reading titles and authors’ names, pulling the books out and flipping through them, thinking about the stories inside them.

I buy or borrow the books and read them. This is where an unexpected and troubling thing happens. As much as I enjoy the books, I often find that the book I have read is somehow not as exciting as the book I had imagined reading.

There are hundreds of films I’ve never seen, thousands of songs I’ve never heard. But I don’t anticipate them the way that I do books. I don’t imagine the things I would learn from them, how my life would be subtly but surely different after I had experienced them. With books, the anticipation is different. In fact, with books, it is sometimes the best part.

Last week I bought a book. I looked at the blurb and read the first paragraph, and I could feel the texture of the book in my mind. It was going to be a steadily paced yet exciting coming-of-age story about three young girls who go camping in the woods, stumble across a couple vacationing in a cabin, and see things through the windows that upend their world. It would move from the girls in their clumsy tent, to their fable-like journey through the forest, to the glowing windows of the cabin. The story was going to be overflowing with the smell of mulching leaves, the stale sweetness of fizzy drinks on the tongue, the crackle of empty sweet wrappers. It was going to be honest and real and uncomfortably sensual.

Except that it wasn’t about that at all: It was a thriller about a woman having an affair. With every sentence I read, the book I had imagined shrank smaller and smaller. By the end of the third page, it had disappeared. The actual book was by no means bad, it just wasn’t the book I thought it would be. That dense, bittersweet story I had anticipated reading did not exist, and I felt a sense of loss, a yearning for something unreal. And yet somehow I had read that nonexistent book, because I had created it myself. I was not changed by the experience of reading that book, but perhaps I was changed by my own anticipation of what it could have been.

So I save books. I buy a book with every intention of reading it, but then the more I look at it and think about how great it is going to be, the less I want to read it. I know that it can’t possibly live up to my expectations, and slowly, the joy of my own imaginings becomes more precious to me than whatever actually lies between the covers.

Most books I read just get chewed up and spat out. I enjoy them, but ask me in a year and all I’ll remember is a vague shape of plot, the sense of a character, perhaps the color of a sky in summer, or the taste of borscht. My favorite books, of course, do stay with me. They shift and color my world, and I am different for having read them. But before reading a book, there’s no way to know which it will be: a slick of lipstick that I wear for a day and then wipe off, or a tattoo that stays on my body forever. An unread book has the potential to be the greatest book I have ever read. Any unread book could change my life.

I currently have about 800 unread books on my shelves. Some would find this excessive, and they would probably be right. But to me, my imagined library is as personal and meaningful — or perhaps even more so — than the collection of books I have read. Each book is intense and vivid in my mind; each book says complex things about my life, history, and personality. Each book has taught me something about the world, or at least about my own expectations of the world, my idea of its possibilities. Here are some examples:

I think that Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast Trilogy” is at once claustrophobic and expansive. It has the texture of solid green leaves crunched between your molars. It tastes of sweetened tea and stale bread and dust. When I read it, I will feel close to my father because it is his favorite book. Reading the Gormenghast books will allow me to understand my father in ways I currently do not, and at certain points in the book I will put it down and stare into the middle distance and say aloud, “Oh. Now my childhood makes sense.”

Radclyffe Hall’s “The Well of Loneliness” will make me sad and proud and indignant. I will no longer get tangled up in discussions about gender issues, because I will finally have clear-cut and undeniable examples of how gender stereotyping is bad for everyone. Reading it will make me feel like an integral part of queer history and culture, and afterwards I will feel mysteriously connected to all my fellow LGBT people. Perhaps I will even have gaydar.

Roberto Bolaño’s “2666” is an obsessive and world-shifting epic. When I read it, I will be completely absorbed by it. It will be all I think about. It will affect my daily life in ways I can’t fully understand, and when I finish it, I will have come to profound revelations about the nature of existence. I will finally understand all the literary theory I wrote essays on when I was at college.

Manuel Puig’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman” has been on my shelves for 10 years, dragged from house to house without its spine ever being cracked. It was given to me by a friend when I was a teenager, and I cannot read it because when I do, I will finally understand my friend, and that scares me. Her life is a set of nesting dolls with something solid and simple at the center, and I do not know whether that thing is pure gold or sticky-dark tar-poison. Holding the book is holding my friend’s hand, and that is as close as I dare to get.

Jeff VanderMeer’s “City of Saints and Madmen” is an entire universe between two covers. It contains sculptures and mix tapes and skyscrapers and midwives and sacrifices, and everything else that exists in my own world, but with every edge crusted in gilt and mold. It will open my eyes to a new way of seeing, and when I finish it, I will somehow have been transformed from being just a person who writes into A Real Writer.

Anais Nin’s “Journals” will shatter my illusions and create new ones. Anais Nin is everything that I fear and hope that I am; when I read her “Journals,” she might be everything I think she is. This is thrilling and terrifying at the same time, because then I will be forced to emulate her life of complex heartaches, pearls and lace, all-day sleep, and absinthe-soaked dinner parties — and those things are just not practical. And, even more frightening, she may not be who I think she is. If she is not special, then no one can be special.

I am not ready for Françoise Sagan’s “Aimez-Vous Brahms.” At 18 I read her novella “Bonjour Tristesse” and I was transformed: This book held a truth I didn’t even know I knew. The protagonist of “Aimez-Vous Brahms” is 39, and so when I read it at 39 it will tell me the truth the same way that “Bonjour Tristesse” did when I was 18. Like 18, 39 is a the perfect meeting of anticipation and experience, and this book will guide me through into the next phase of my life.

I have not read these books because I worry that they’re not the books I think they are. I’m sure they are wonderful books, but no book could possibly contain all the knowledge and understanding I am expecting from these. Perhaps I will never read them. This is the same logic that means I will probably never visit Russia: I imagine that a trip to Russia will be the crux of my life. Every moment will be candy-colored buildings and strong coffee on silver platters, steam trains slipping past quaint farmhouses and huge black bears glimpsed through the snow, furred hats against my ears, and history seeping into my veins. I know that if I actually go to Russia, there will be moments where I don’t like the food, or my feet ache, or I can’t sleep, or I get annoyed at not being able to read the Cyrillic signs. If I keep it in my imagination, it stays pure and perfect.

There is another reason to leave books unread: because I know I really will love them. This might seem nonsensical, and I suppose it is. I am a writer, and I know that certain books will resonate deeply and perfectly because they are similar in some way to my own writing, though vastly better. This is why I have not read Alice Greenway’s “White Ghost Girls,” a short and lyrical novel about sisters in 1960s Hong Kong; or Francesca Lia Block’s fantastical erotica novellas, “Ecstasia” and “Primavera”; or Stewart O’Nan’s small-town ghost story, “The Night Country”; or anything ever written by Martin Millar.

I know that I will love them and want to learn from them, and so I don’t read them: firstly because it is tiring to read that way, with your eyes and ears and brain constantly absorbing; and secondly because once I read them they will be over, the mystery will be revealed. These books have affected my writing, and I haven’t even read them. Maybe we can learn as much from our expectations of a story as we can from the actual words on the page.

Try an experiment with me. It might seem odd at first, but go to your bookshelves and pick a book you have not read. Hold it in your hands. Look at the cover and read the description on the back. Think about what the story might be about, what themes might be in it, what it might say about the world you inhabit, whether it can make you imagine an entirely different world.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with that book. It might prove to be a great book, the best book you have ever read. But I suggest that the literary universe you have just created might be more exciting and enlightening than the one contained within those covers. Your imagination contains every possible story, every possible understanding, and any book can only be one tiny portion of that potential world.

Kirsty Logan is a fiction writer in Glasgow.

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Full article: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2011/02/13/well_worth_not_reading/

The Way Forward in Egypt

The U.S. risks ostracizing a regime that may yet hold on to power, while making common cause with an opposition that includes U.S. enemies.

Is there a coherent explanation for the bizarre muddle that is the Obama administration’s policy toward Egypt?

The charitable view is that the administration is deliberately speaking out of both sides of its mouth—sometimes hostile, sometimes conciliatory to Hosni Mubarak—because it’s hedging its bets about the outcome of the unrest. Frank Wisner, the administration’s handpicked envoy to Cairo, told a security conference here that “President Mubarak’s continued leadership is critical—it’s his opportunity to write his own legacy.” Yet Hillary Clinton declared at the same conference that democratic reform was a “strategic necessity” and that it was time for Mr. Mubarak to let his vice president take matters in hand.

The alternative explanation is that the administration has no idea what it’s doing. Considering that Mrs. Clinton has now endorsed the Muslim Brotherhood’s participation in negotiations with the regime, I find myself leaning toward the uncharitable view.

So what should the administration do now? Here’s a simple exercise:

1) Identify worst-case scenarios and set priorities. The worst outcome for the U.S. would be an Egypt led by the Muslim Brotherhood. The next-worst outcome is that the current regime survives by returning to its Nasserist roots as a secular but reactionary regime—populist in its economic policies, hostile to the U.S. and Israel, potentially a client of China, and in the market for a nuclear arsenal. Also conceivable is that the regime and the Brotherhood strike a devil’s bargain and rule in condominium.

The U.S. should work toward a more democratic future for Egypt. But that should not be the primary goal of U.S. policy. What’s paramount is to ensure that worst-case outcomes don’t come to pass.

2) Define a position. So far, the administration’s principles, as Mrs. Clinton describes them, are to encourage “an orderly, expeditious transition,” free of violence and culminating in “free and fair elections.”

This won’t do. It’s fine for the U.S. to support a process or pledge its support for the “choice of the Egyptian people.” But we simply cannot be indifferent to the result of that choice. When Mrs. Clinton speaks of a transition, somebody needs to ask: transition to what? One plausible answer is an Egypt that respects individual rights, private property, the rule of law, and its international obligations.

3) Cultivate the right friends. For two years, the administration cultivated Mr. Mubarak at the expense of Egypt’s genuine liberals, who were treated as nuisances. When parliamentary elections were rigged late last year, Mr. Obama raised no objection.

Now the administration is making the opposite mistake, abruptly ostracizing a regime that may yet hold on to power, while making common cause with an opposition that contains no shortage of U.S. enemies.

The U.S. doesn’t have many sincere friends in Egypt, which is all the more reason that it needs to maintain the ones it does.

Specifically, the administration ought to understand and respect the interests of an army without which there can be no reform or democracy. It could speak up for the Egyptian technocrats, particularly the recently fired Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, who was probably Egypt’s most competent civilian leader and is now being scapegoated by Mr. Mubarak. It needs to be outspoken on behalf of genuine dissidents like Kareem Amer, a blogger who spent four years in jail for “insulting Islam” and “insulting Mubarak” and has recently gone missing.

4) Understand the possibilities of the present. Nobody wants Egypt to return to the status quo ante. But the last thing the U.S. should want on the streets of Cairo is a revolution. And on current trends, there isn’t going to be one: The protests are getting smaller, life is returning to normal, and the regime, as I predicted last week, has “engaged” the opposition in what will prove to be an endless negotiation. The real question is whether what comes next in Egypt is reaction or reform.

5) “Assist and insist.” The Obama administration has an opportunity to tilt Egypt toward reform, and even commit a bit of bipartisanship in the process.

“We need to be more assisting but also more insisting,” suggested John McCain at the security conference, by linking benefits like foreign aid, technical assistance and market access to a genuine process of reform and transition. The senator called it “a new compact with our undemocratic partners,” and it certainly beats the old formula of paying off Mr. Mubarak year after year for ever-diminishing returns.

6) Practice the art of the possible. Mrs. Clinton is right that democracy is a strategic necessity, at least in the long run. Democracy Now is another story.

The world has long experience with democratic transitions. Few of them are swift. Many of them fail. Some end tragically.

Egyptians are now casting about for decent role models for such a transition. One is Turkey, where for decades the army maintained its prerogatives but allowed civilian governments considerable leeway. Another is Mexico, which gave its presidents near-dictatorial powers but limited them to six-year terms.

Would Egyptians be ill-served if they were to pursue some version of those models? Probably not. Would the U.S. be well-served if they did? Given the realistic alternatives, it surely would.

Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704422204576129921076718648.html

Cloud control

Electrified sand. Exploding balloons. The long and colorful history of weather manipulation.

This brutal winter has made sure that no one forgets who’s in charge. The snow doesn’t fall so much as fly. Cars stay buried, and feet stay wet. Ice is invisible, and every puddle is deeper than it looks. On the eve of each new storm, the citizenry engages in diligent preparations, rearranging travel plans, lining up baby sitters in case the schools are closed, and packing comfortable shoes for work so they’re not forced to spend all day wearing their awful snow boots.

One can’t help but feel a little embarrassed on behalf of the species, to have been involved in all this fuss over something as trivial as the weather. Is the human race not mighty? How are we still allowing ourselves, in the year 2011, to be reduced to such indignities by a bunch of soggy clouds?

It is not for lack of trying. It’s just that over the last 200 years, the clouds have proven an improbably resilient adversary, and the weather in general has resisted numerous well-funded — and often quite imaginative — attempts at manipulation by meteorologists, physicists, and assorted hobbyists. Some have tried to make it rain, while others have tried to make it stop. Balloons full of explosives have been sent into the sky, and large quantities of electrically charged sand have been dropped from airplanes. One enduring scheme is to disrupt and weaken hurricanes by spreading oil on the surface of the ocean. Another is to drive away rain by shooting clouds with silver iodide or dry ice, a practice that was famously implemented at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and is frequently employed by farmers throughout the United States.

There’s something deeply and perennially appealing about the idea of controlling the weather, about deciding where rain should fall and when the sun should shine. But failing at it has been just as persistent a thread in the human experience. In a new book called “Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control,” Colby College historian of science James Rodger Fleming catalogs all the dreamers, fools, and pseudo-scientists who have devoted their lives to weather modification, tracing the delusions they shared and their remarkable range of motivations. Some wanted to create technology that would be of use to farmers, so that they would no longer have to operate at the mercy of unpredictable droughts. Others imagined scenarios in which the weather could be weaponized and used against foreign enemies. Still others had visions of utopia in which the world’s deserts were made fertile and every child was fed.

“Even some of the charlatans had meteorology books on their desks,” Fleming said last week. “Most had simple ideas: for instance, that hot air rises. These guys’ll have some sense of things, but they won’t have a complete theory of the weather system. They have a principle they fix on and then they try to build their scheme from there.”

What they underestimated, in Fleming’s view — what continues to stymie us all, whether we’re seeding clouds or just trying to plan for the next commute — is weather’s unfathomable complexity. And yet, the dream has stayed alive. Lately, the drive to fix the climate has taken the form of large-scale geoengineering projects designed to reverse the effects of global warming. Such projects — launching mirrors into space to reflect solar radiation away from the earth, for instance — are vastly more ambitious than anything a 19th-century rainmaker could have cooked up, and would employ much more sophisticated technology. What’s unclear, as one looks back at the history of weather modification research, is whether all that technology makes it any more likely that our ambitions will be realized, or if it just stands to make our failure that much more devastating.

The story of modern weather control in America, as Fleming tells it in “Fixing the Sky,” begins on a Wednesday morning in November of 1946, some 14,000 feet in the air above western Massachusetts. Sitting up there in a single-engine airplane was Vincent Schaefer, a 41-year-old scientist in the employ of the General Electric Research Laboratory, whose principal claim to fame up to that point was that he’d found a way to make plastic replicas of snowflakes. Prior to the flight, Schaefer had conducted an experiment that seemed to point toward a method for manipulating clouds using small bits of dry ice. If the technology could be exported from the lab and made to work in the real world, the potential applications would be limitless. With that in mind, flying over the Berkshires, Schaefer waited until his plane entered a suitable-looking cloud, then opened a window and let a total of six pounds of crushed dry ice out into the atmosphere. Before he knew it, “glinting crystals” of snow were falling obediently to the ground below.

GE announced the results of the demonstration the next day. “SNOWSTORM MANUFACTURED,” read the massive banner headline on the front page of The Boston Globe. The GE lab was deluged with letters and telegrams from people excited about the new technology for all sorts of reasons. One asked if it might be possible to get some artificial snow for use in an upcoming Christmas pageant. Another implored the company to aid a search-and-rescue effort at Mount Rainier by getting rid of some inconveniently located clouds. Hollywood producers inquired about doing up some blizzards for their movie sets. Separately, a state official from Kansas wrote to President Truman in hopes that GE’s snow-making technology could be used to help end a drought there. It seemed to be an all-purpose miracle, as though there was not a problem on earth it couldn’t fix.

Insofar as technological advancement in general is all about man’s triumph over his conditions, a victory over the weather is basically like beating the boss in a video game. And GE’s breakthrough came at a moment when the country was collectively keyed up on the transformative power of technology: World War II had just ended, and we suddenly had the bomb, radar, penicillin, and computers. But the results of Schaefer’s experiment would have inspired the same frenzied reaction in any era. “Think of it!” as one journalist wrote in a 1923 issue of Popular Science Monthly, about an earlier weather modification scheme, “Rain when you want it. Sunshine when you want it. Los Angeles weather in Pittsburgh and April showers for the arid deserts of the West. Man in control of the heavens — to turn on or shut them off as he wishes.”

It’s a longstanding, international fantasy — one that goes all the way back to ancient Greece, where watchmen stood guard over the skies and alerted their countrymen at the first sign of hail so that they might try to hold off the storm by quickly sacrificing some animals. The American tradition begins in the early 19th century, when the nation’s first official meteorologist, James “the Storm King” Espy, developed a theory of rainmaking that involved cutting down large swaths of forest and lighting them on fire. Espy had observed that volcanic eruptions were often followed by rainfall. He thought these fires would work the same way, causing hot air to rise into the atmosphere, cool, and thus produce precipitation.

For years he unsuccessfully sought funding from the government so that he might test his theory, describing in an 1845 open letter “To the Friends of Science” a proposal wherein 40-acre fires would be set every seven days at regular intervals along a 600-mile stretch of the Rocky Mountains. The result, he promised, would be regular rainfall that would not only ease the lives of farmers and make the country more productive but also eradicate the spread of disease and make extreme temperatures a thing of the past. He did not convince the friends of science, however, and lived out his distinguished career without ever realizing his vision.

Others had better luck winning hearts and minds. In 1871, a civil engineer from Chicago named Edward Powers published a book called “War and the Weather, or, The Artificial Production of Rain,” in which he argued that rainstorms were caused by loud noises and could be induced using explosives. He found a sympathetic collaborator in a Texas rancher and former Confederate general by the name of Daniel Ruggles, who believed strongly that all one had to do to stimulate rain was send balloons full of dynamite and gunpowder up into the sky and detonate them. Another adherent of this point of view was Robert Dyrenforth, a patent lawyer who actually succeeded in securing a federal grant to conduct a series of spectacular, but finally inconclusive, pyrotechnic experiments during the summer and fall of 1891.

A few decades after Dyrenforth’s methods were roundly discredited, an inventor named L. Francis Warren emerged with a new kind of theory. Warren, an autodidact who claimed to be a Harvard professor, believed that the trick to rainmaking wasn’t heat or noise, but electrically charged sand, which if sprinkled from the sky could not only produce rain but also break up clouds. His endgame was a squad of airplanes equipped to stop droughts, clear fog, and put out fires. It was Warren’s scheme that inspired that breathless Popular Science article, but after multiple inconclusive tests — including some funded by the US military — it lost momentum and faded away.

For the next 50 years, charlatans and snake-oil salesmen inspired by Warren, Dyrenforth, and the rest of them went around the country hawking weather control technologies that had no basis whatsoever in science. It wasn’t until after World War II, with the emergence of GE’s apparent success dropping dry ice into clouds, that the American public once again had a credible weather control scheme to get excited about. Once that happened, though, it was off to the races, and by the 1950s, commercial cloud seeding — first with dry ice, then with silver iodide — was taking place over an estimated 10 percent of US land. By the end of the decade, it was conventional wisdom that achieving mastery over the weather would be a decisive factor in the outcome of the Cold War. In 1971, it was reported that the United States had secretly used cloud-seeding to induce rain over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in hopes of disrupting enemy troop movements. In 1986, the Soviet Union is said to have used it to protect Moscow from radioactivity emanating from the Chernobyl site by steering toxic clouds to Belarus and artificially bursting them. There’s no way to know whether the seeding operation actually accomplished anything, but people in Belarus to this day hold the Kremlin in contempt for its clandestine attempt to stick them with the fallout.

You’d think, given mankind’s record of unflappable ingenuity, we would have had weather figured out by now. But after decades of dedicated experimentation and untold millions of dollars invested, the world is still dealing with droughts, floods, and 18-foot urban snowbanks. What is making this so difficult? Why is it that the best we can do when we learn of an approaching snowstorm is brace ourselves and hope our street gets properly plowed?

The problem is that weather conditions in any given place at any given time are a function of far too many independent, interacting variables. Whether it’s raining or snowing is never determined by any one overpowering force in the atmosphere: It’s always a complicated and unpredictable combination of many. Until we have the capability to micromanage the whole system, we will not be calling any shots.

Fleming, for his part, doesn’t believe that a single one of the weather modification schemes he describes in his book ever truly worked. Even cloud-seeding, he says, as widespread as it is even today, has never been scientifically proven to be effective. Kristine Harper, an assistant professor at Florida State University who is writing a book about the US government’s forays into weather modification, says that doesn’t necessarily mean cloud-seeding is a total waste of time, just that there’s no way to scientifically measure its impact.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find evidence even at this point that there’s a statistically significant difference between what you would get from a seeded cloud and an unseeded cloud,” she said.

The good news for practitioners of weather control is that amid all this complexity, they can convince themselves and others that they deserve credit for weather patterns they have probably had no role whatsoever in conjuring. The bad news for anyone who’d like to prevent the next 2-foot snow dump — or the next 2 degrees of global warming — is that there’s just no way to know. As Fleming’s account of the last 200 years suggests, it may be possible to achieve a certain amount by intervention. But it’s a long way from anything you could call control. Those who insist on continuing to shake their fists at the sky should make sure they have some warm gloves.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas.

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Full article and photo: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2011/02/06/cloud_control/