A Crisis for the Faithful

The Parsi bodies are piling up in India. Parsis are modern adherents of the ancient Zoroastrian faith that emerged in the 6th century B.C. in Persia, predating Christianity and Islam. According to many scholars, Zoroastrianism influenced these religions and Judaism with its fundamental concept of a dualistic world of light versus darkness, with a good God pitted against the forces of evil.

In the earthly realm of humans, Parsis also believe in the ritual purity of fire, soil and water, elements that shouldn’t be sullied by pollution from a defiling corpse. So while virtually all other cultures dispose of their dead by burial or cremation, Parsis have followed a more unusual method. Yet after millennia, that method now has been called into question, forcing a crisis of faith whose only answer is adaptation.

In a ritual so old it was described by Herodotus, Zoroastrians have laid out their dead atop Towers of Silence to be exposed to sun, sky and—most importantly—vultures. These massive harbingers of death with eight-foot wingspans once numbered in the millions across South Asia and could strip a corpse to the bone in hours. Yet their service has come to an abrupt end in the past decade as the vulture population plummeted due to a fatal reaction to a common painkiller given to the livestock and humans that the birds eventually feed upon. Ongoing habitat shrinkage has exacerbated the decline. With vultures virtually extinct, the Parsis are left struggling with the question of how to preserve traditions when modern forces conspire against them.

This threatened custom is just one more blow to a religion already perched on the edge of annihilation. Though tens of millions of Parsis once lived across Asia, now there are only an estimated 140,000 world-wide, with the majority in India and the next-largest group in the U.S. Most are based in Mumbai, where they own 155 pristine, park-like acres that shelter the squat stone Towers of Silence amid a dappled sunlit forest.

Vultures haven’t been seen in Mumbai for years. The Parsis have attempted to replace the service that the birds provided so seamlessly, for so long, with a series of failed technologies, including ozone machines and chemicals to accelerate decomposition. They’ve settled on solar reflectors directed at the bodies to speed up the process of decay without violating the fundamental tenet of their religion to avoid fire. The most orthodox of priests disapprove even of this, claiming that it’s tantamount to cremation.

Priests aren’t the only ones holding the line against modernization. “People say the Towers of Silence are antiquated, that we should move on to cremation and forget our tradition,” says Khojeste Mistree, an Oxford-educated Parsi scholar. “I’m totally opposed.” Prof. Mistree and others in the Parsi governing body insist that the solar collectors are working.

Not so, according to Ms. Dhan Baria, a 70-year-old Parsi. After her mother’s death in 2006, and following the leads of rumors about accumulating bodies, she hired a photographer to sneak into the towers. Gruesome photos confirmed the gossip. Now an active reformer, Ms. Baria believes that Parsis should have access to burial or cremation, with full rites permitted on the sacred grounds, in order to avoid the fate of her mother’s body, which remained on the towers long after her death, exposed through the treetops to some high-rise apartments of upscale Malabar Hill. In December, I walked through the grounds surrounding the towers with Ms. Baria. She pointed into the forest, where peacocks strutted about, and lamented repeatedly, “Why can’t this space be used as a cemetery?”

Ms. Baria is typical of a growing group of Parsis who believe their faith must adapt in order to survive. Her photographs of decaying bodies heightened the divide within a dwindling community already fractured over other matters of tradition, including conversion and intermarriage, that vex various religious communities, including American Jews, in the face of modernity.

With the conventional Parsi priests offering what are, in effect, one-stop funeral services at the Towers of Silence, reformers feel unable to effect change within their religious community. Instead, some are turning to the Indian legal system. In a discrimination case now before the Gujarat state high court, a Parsi woman who married a non-Parsi is suing for the right to enter fire temples and to participate in last rites for her parents—practices that have traditionally been forbidden to non-Parsis or to those whose faith is questioned because of intermarriage.

“This powerful, vociferous minority of reformists doesn’t know the religion,” responds the Oxford scholar Mr. Mistree.

But what is “the religion”? To persist for millennia, Parsis have adapted many times over, emigrating from their native Persia in the 10th century and adjusting to India. They then spread out in a global diaspora to places where they have adopted burial and cremation because there simply are no Towers of Silence or circling vultures. Tradition is the bedrock of faith, observances and ritual the fundamental and physical manifestation of belief. Yet there are circumstances where, in order to uphold convention, it is necessary to reshape the foundation, carve here and add there, so that “the religion” might endure for millennia to come.

Ms. Subramanian is a free-lance writer and senior editor of KillingTheBuddha.com, an online literary magazine about religion.

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304017404575165732562175068.html

Hurry Up and Wait

Seeing life as a pattern of furious blasts surrounded by oceans of inactivity.

Like most white-collar workers, I often feel as if I write email nonstop. Every minute at my desk brings another message to deal with: an editor wondering about a deadline, a friend asking about lunch, weird quasi-spam from Facebook or Twitter.

But the truth is that email doesn’t actually dominate my life. When I look closely at my outbox, I can see that I write in sudden spurts—big blasts of messages followed by silence for hours and sometimes days. Yesterday, for example, I had a busy morning, cranking out 15 messages at around 10 and another 20 an hour later. But then all was quiet until late afternoon, when I suddenly cranked out an additional 16.

It turns out that this pattern—explosions of activity, followed by quiet—are not just a personal quirk of mine. Odds are, you deal with your email in much the same way. According to Albert-László Barabási’s “Bursts,” this “bursty” pattern governs almost everything we do and even much of what happens in the natural world.

By now the promise of unveiling a “hidden side” behind everyday life—economics, career development, child-rearing, cooking, you name it—is a numbingly familiar trope. (What mystic subcurrent in contemporary American intellectual culture is so routinely thrilled with the concept that everything we do— everything!—conceals a secret, hidden side?) Nonetheless, Mr. Barabási, a pioneering scientist in the field of network theory, comes by the trope honestly. His research has genuinely exposed invisible trendlines that shape our world.

In his first book, “Linked,” Mr. Barabási offered a lucid theory of how the shape of networks can produce unexpected results, such as the “rich get richer” cascades of popularity we see on the Web. If a Web site becomes moderately popular, visitors will post a lot of links pointing toward it, which brings in new visitors who post their own links to the site, and so on . . . until eventually the shape of the network guarantees a big, entrenched daily audience. By contrast, a site that never attracts much attention in the first place is likely to stay that way. These self-reinforcing dynamics help explain why popularity on the Web often follows a “power law”: There are a tiny number of sites with massive traffic and a vast majority that have few visitors at all. The power law governs the shape of the Web and many other networked structures.

Now it turns out that power laws might govern the timing of our real-world activities, too. In “Bursts,” Mr. Barabási argues that bursty patterns are wired into human behavior, because we’re task-rich but time-poor. When we’re faced with having too much to do and not enough time—a category under which you could safely file “all modern white-collar work”—we prioritize. We pick the most urgent things, focus on them and forget the rest. Once forgotten, a task often stays forgotten, ignored for hours, days, months or even years. The act of prioritizing inherently produces power laws that dictate what we do on a minute-by-minute basis.

As Mr. Barabási’s research finds, the prioritizing reflex is why we send email in furious blasts surrounded by oceans of inactivity. We make phone calls and check out books from libraries in a similar pattern, and burstiness shapes our patterns of travel: We take many short hops, interspersed with the occasional superlong hop (which helps explain how diseases spread). We even attend to our health in bursty patterns, ignoring symptoms when other things are more important until—bam—a health problem suddenly becomes unignorable, producing a flurry of medical visits in a short time.

“Time is our most valuable nonrenewable resource, and if we want to treat it with respect, we need to set priorities,” Mr. Barabási writes. “Once we do that, power laws and burstiness become unavoidable.” Normally, I’d have thought that our penchant for bursts of activity would make life more erratic, as one person’s burst collides with another’s stasis. (If you’ve ever drummed your fingers for minutes that feel like hours while waiting for a reply to your “urgent” email, you’ll know what I mean.) But Mr. Barabási argues that the effect is precisely the opposite: If we know that burstiness is common, predicting human behavior becomes easier.

For example, Japanese doctors discovered that they could predict the impending onset of depression in at-risk patients by monitoring their physical movements with motion-sensitive watches. Even our daily physical movements, it turns out, are bursty—we spend a lot of time at rest, punctuated by spasms of activity. When the Japanese doctors detected a change in their patients’ normally bursty physical activity, it signaled the onset of a depressive incident. (Depressed people often report feeling physically sluggish.) Yet this predictive power can also be used for ill. Mr. Barabási worries that burstiness makes us trackable online by corporations and government, particularly as digital tools like mobile phones produce records of our goings and doings.

This is genuinely fascinating stuff, and when he focuses on the science, Mr. Barabási is a superbly clear writer. But science constitutes a surprisingly small fraction of “Bursts.” Mr. Barabási spends much of the book delivering real-life stories that are supposed to illustrate his principles. Some, like an account of Albert Einstein’s correspondence in 1919 with a little-known scientist, neatly illustrate how bursts govern our lives. But other stories aren’t so successful— particularly Mr. Barabási’s elaborate account of how a Crusade in 16th-century Hungary turned into a gore-splattered civil war. On its own, the Hungarian conflict makes a riveting story, but Mr. Barabási devotes more than a quarter of the book to its telling—yet never convincingly connects the tale to his theme. It became, for me, a maddening distraction. In the end, Mr. Barabási has written a thought-provoking book. But the most rewarding passages appear only, as it were, in bursts.

Mr. Thompson is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and Wired.

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704302304575214081160026018.html

Have Gun, Must Flaunt It?

Like a fly on a birthday cake, the subject of open carry—legally wearing a gun in public—keeps landing in the news and nobody can swat it down. Those who would like to be rid of it range from some of the most ardent gun-controllers to some of the fiercest believers in the Second Amendment right to bear arms. Many of the latter live in the 43 states where it already is legal to openly wear a handgun (although rules vary about whether it can be loaded, etc.). That the majority of people who could walk around outfitted for the OK Corral choose not to do so ought to be a hint that the minority who are most eager to force open carry on the rest of us might belong in a special category of bozos.

Consider the case of James Goldberg, who walked up to the counter of a Glastonbury, Conn. Chili’s restaurant in 2007 costumed in camouflage and wearing a pistol. Police were called and Mr. Goldberg was arrested, only to be cleared after it was determined that since he had a permit for the weapon he was not breaking a law.

While news reports in 2007 described Mr. Goldberg as the night manager at a liquor store, he told the Hartford Courant this month that he is a “trained firearms instructor, sells guns at a Newington gun retailer and runs a business that provides security for business executives and entertainment industry celebrities.” Whatever else Mr. Goldberg is, he’s a thoroughly modern Millie. Back in the day, authentic cowboys didn’t sue when the going got tough, especially not for “emotional distress.”

Equally unimpressive were the armed types who gathered in a Virginia Park this month to demonstrate support for open carry and their opposition to government in general and the Obama administration in particular. Like the characters who now make a practice of wearing handguns into Starbucks and other places of business, such demonstrators may yet turn out to be a godsend for the antigun crowd.

The latter can be so annoying that at some demented level it is possible to imagine the appeal of strolling the aisles at, say, a Whole Foods store, squeezing free-range chicken and bagging edamame with a Hammerli 208S target pistol on display. Yet a firearms dealer suggested to me this week that if open carrying were to become more common, even those of us who are uneasy now in the presence of public firearms would get used to seeing them around. After all, he said, a man “in the 1870s who left Philadelphia and went to Wyoming . . . was probably nervous as hell because everyone was toting a six-gun.”

Which is why they called it the Wild West and we are lucky not to have been born then. Knowing Americans, however, if the open carry fad gathers steam in this century, at some point the urge to trump the Joneses might well extend to guns. They could even become fashion must-haves. A recent article in Women & Guns magazine noted that a number of firearms and shooting accessories now come in colors meant to appeal to female tastes. As the article’s headline asked, “Is Pink the New Black?”

Surveys suggest that serious shooters are not particularly drawn to girlie colors. But what about the rest of the female population? The same forces that compel women to change pocketbooks and fingernail colors may add a vexing new list of daily dressing decisions, like “What color pistol grip goes with this outfit?” Next thing you know, women could be trading tips on the Web about the best way to attract men in a world where every girl can have a gun. Should she try to stand out from the crowd with a piece of rustic exotica that reminds him of the safari dolls in 1953’s “Mogambo,” like a .416 Rigby? Or go with something more crudely flashy, like one of the pretend AK-47s?

Speaking of serious shooters, I don’t know a soul among gun owners who is itching to prance around showing everybody what is in their holster. Most of the time, citizens who carry weapons in public places are doing it for protection, and that means concealment. They don’t want their handgun easily grabbed by some idiot in a checkout line, and they don’t want a potential aggressor to know what they have on them or where it is. If flashing an armory were anything but a stunt, our air marshals would be strapped like Pancho Villa.

Ms. Smith is a member of the Journal’s editorial board and a TV critic.

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704471204575210742190085972.html

The North Korea Endgame

However difficult, unification must be the ultimate objective.

As the U.S. and its allies frame plans for dealing with North Korea in the aftermath of the recent sinking of a South Korean warship, political leaders must recognize that security will depend not just upon deterring Kim Jong Il today. Northeast Asia’s future security—and America’s—will be profoundly affected by the government presiding over the northern half of Korea in the long run.

For this reason, Korean unification—under a democratic, market-oriented Republic of Korea that remains allied with the U.S.—must be the ultimate objective. Today that looks like a daunting and risky prospect. But to paraphrase Churchill: Unification would be the worst possible outcome for Korea—except for all the other alternatives.

Consider first an indefinite continuation of the Kim Jong Il regime. This means on the one hand terror and grinding immiseration for its people. But on the other, it means a regime that poses a continual threat to its neighbors and to the world.

North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is integral to the international military extortion racket by which Pyongyang has been financing its state accounts since the end of the Cold War. More atomic bombs, better missiles by which to deliver them abroad, and a permanently warlike posture are indispensable to the regime’s own formula for long-term security. This is why a voluntary denuclearization by Kim Jong Il’s North Korea is fantasy—no matter what bribes outsiders including the U.S. offer—and true détente with the Dear Leader’s regime can never be in the cards.

North Korea’s present leadership will surely wish to ratchet up its threat to America and the Western alliance in the years ahead. It is entirely reasonable to anticipate Pyongyang’s eventual sale of nukes to hostile powers or international terror networks. The regime has already marketed abroad practically everything in its nuclear warehouse short of user-ready bombs. Even worse, there are troubling signs—repeated nuclear tests, continuing missile tests, and attempts at cyberwarfare probing American and South Korean defenses—that the regime is methodically preparing to fight, bizarre as it sounds, a limited nuclear engagement against the U.S.

What about an independent, post-Kim Jong Il North Korea? A number of scenarios can be envisioned—none of them pleasant. If succession proceeds on the lines apparently envisioned, the state’s existing “military-first politics” game-plan will continue on its current trajectory, with nuclear proliferation and nuclear war front and center in state strategy.

Another future for an independent North Korea could be internal instability, with vicious infighting between rival, heavily armed factions. Under such conditions, a civil war—with nuclear weapons—is by no means out of the question. A national elite that had no qualms about the hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths from famine in the 1990s is unlikely to be troubled by the prospect of mass domestic death from atomic radiation. Such a civil war could all too easily spill into adjoining territories—necessitating intervention by outside powers, and possibly prompting military confrontation.

Then there is the potential for Chinese suzerainty. This notion has been floated by Chinese authors in recent years, in the form of “academic” but officially sanctioned studies that depict an ancient kingdom—conveniently stretching from Manchuria to the current-day Korean DMZ—which was once historically part of greater China. In February, Beijing reportedly offered Pyongyang a massive investment program, valued at $10 billion by sources for Seoul’s Yonhap news agency. But China is apparently interested in North Korea’s natural resources—mines, mineral extraction, and the transport systems to ship these commodities home—not its human resources. Uplifting the beleaguered North Korean population does not appear to figure in these plans.

Chinese suzerainty might put an end to the North Korean nuclear threat. But it would change the security environment in East Asia—perhaps radically.

Immense pressures would build in South Korea for accommodating Beijing’s interests. Depending on China’s preferences (and how these were parlayed), accommodation could mean an end to the U.S.-South Korea alliance. Japan would find its space for international maneuver correspondingly constricted; continuation of the U.S.-Japan alliance could even look risky. Much would depend upon Beijing’s own conduct—but a Chinese hold over northern Korea would have devastating implications for the current U.S. security architecture in East Asia.

It is in the context of the alternatives—not in the abstract—that the pros and cons of an eventual Korean unification must be weighed. Even under the best of circumstances, a full reintegration of the long-divided peninsula should be regarded as a painful, wrenching and (at least initially) tremendously expensive proposition. That much is plainly clear—and helps to explain why a growing fraction of the South Korean public is unwilling to think about reunification at all. But a successful Korean reunification, in conjunction with a robust alliance with the U.S. security alliance, affords a whole array of potential benefits that no alternative future for North Korea can possibly provide.

Apart from the nontrivial question of human rights and living standards for the North Korean people, these include the promotion of regional and international security through a voluntary partnership with shared core principles and values. Furthermore, unification over the long haul can enhance security throughout Northeast Asia, generating dividends for this dynamic region and the world.

Western political leaders—in America, South Korea, Japan and elsewhere—can have no idea when or how opportunities for Korean reunification will present themselves. Much the same was true a generation ago in Europe, on the eve of German unification. It is therefore of the essence that policy makers and statesmen in these allied countries devote themselves to the rigorous thinking and preparations that will help to improve the odds of a successful Korean reunification. This will require “contingency planning,” to be sure—but much more than this as well.

Not least will be the need for leaders of vision in the countries concerned to make the public case as to how and why a Korean unification serves their national interests. Compelling arguments to this effect already exist. What they lack are their national champions.

Two decades after the collapse of Soviet Communism, political leaders throughout the West all too generally seem in thrall to the hope that we can temporize our way through the North Korean problem. In one possible version of future events, historians might look back on such thinking as an interwar illusion—a reverie maintained at mounting cost until a final hour of reckoning.

Mr. Eberstadt is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His latest book is “Policy and Economic Performance in Divided Korea during the Cold War Era” (AEI Press, 2010).

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704627704575204200080708816.html

The Big Alienation

Uncontrolled borders and Washington’s lack of self-control

We are at a remarkable moment. We have an open, 2,000-mile border to our south, and the entity with the power to enforce the law and impose safety and order will not do it. Wall Street collapsed, taking Main Street’s money with it, and the government can’t really figure out what to do about it because the government itself was deeply implicated in the crash, and both political parties are full of people whose political careers have been made possible by Wall Street contributions. Meanwhile we pass huge laws, bills so comprehensive, omnibus and transformative that no one knows what’s in them and no one—literally, no one—knows how exactly they will be executed or interpreted. Citizens search for new laws online, pore over them at night, and come away knowing no more than they did before they typed “dot-gov.”

It is not that no one’s in control. Washington is full of people who insist they’re in control and who go to great lengths to display their power. It’s that no one takes responsibility and authority. Washington daily delivers to the people two stark and utterly conflicting messages: “We control everything” and “You’re on your own.”

People protesting Arizona’s immigration bill.

All this contributes to a deep and growing alienation between the people of America and the government of America in Washington.

This is not the old, conservative and long-lampooned “I don’t trust gummint” attitude of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. It’s something new, or rather something so much more broadly and fully evolved that it constitutes something new. The right never trusted the government, but now the middle doesn’t. I asked a campaigner for Hillary Clinton recently where her sturdy, pantsuited supporters had gone. They didn’t seem part of the Obama brigades. “Some of them are at the tea party,” she said.

None of this happened overnight. It is, most recently, the result of two wars that were supposed to be cakewalks, Katrina, the crash, and the phenomenon of a federal government that seemed less and less competent attempting to do more and more by passing bigger and bigger laws.

Add to this states on the verge of bankruptcy, the looming debt crisis of the federal government, the likelihood of ever-rising taxes. Shake it all together, and you have the makings of the big alienation. Alienation is often followed by full-blown antagonism, and antagonism by breakage.

Which brings us to Arizona and its much-criticized attempt to institute a law aimed at controlling its own border with Mexico. It is doing this because the federal government won’t, and because Arizonans have a crisis on their hands, areas on the border where criminal behavior flourishes, where there have been kidnappings, murders and gang violence. If the law is abusive, it will be determined quickly enough, in the courts. In keeping with recent tradition, they were reading parts of the law aloud on cable the other night, with bright and sincere people completely disagreeing on the meaning of the words they were reading. No one knows how the law will be executed or interpreted.

Every state and region has its own facts and experience. In New York, legal and illegal immigrants keep the city running: They work hard jobs with brutal hours, rip off no one on Wall Street, and do not crash the economy. They are generally considered among the good guys. I’m not sure New Yorkers can fairly judge the situation in Arizona, nor Arizonans the situation in New York.

But the larger point is that Arizona is moving forward because the government in Washington has completely abdicated its responsibility. For 10 years—at least—through two administrations, Washington deliberately did nothing to ease the crisis on the borders because politicians calculated that an air of mounting crisis would spur mounting support for what Washington thought was appropriate reform—i.e., reform that would help the Democratic and Republican parties.

Both parties resemble Gordon Brown, who is about to lose the prime ministership of Britain. On the campaign trail this week, he was famously questioned by a party voter about his stand on immigration. He gave her the verbal runaround, all boilerplate and shrugs, and later complained to an aide, on an open mic, that he’d been forced into conversation with that “bigoted woman.”

He really thought she was a bigot. Because she asked about immigration. Which is, to him, a sign of at least latent racism.

The establishments of the American political parties, and the media, are full of people who think concern about illegal immigration is a mark of racism. If you were Freud you might say, “How odd that’s where their minds so quickly go, how strange they’re so eager to point an accusing finger. Could they be projecting onto others their own, heavily defended-against inner emotions?” But let’s not do Freud, he’s too interesting. Maybe they’re just smug and sanctimonious.

The American president has the power to control America’s borders if he wants to, but George W. Bush and Barack Obama did not and do not want to, and for the same reason, and we all know what it is. The fastest-growing demographic in America is the Hispanic vote, and if either party cracks down on illegal immigration, it risks losing that vote for generations.

But while the Democrats worry about the prospects of the Democrats and the Republicans about the well-being of the Republicans, who worries about America?

No one. Which the American people have noticed, and which adds to the dangerous alienation—actually it’s at the heart of the alienation—of the age.

In the past four years, I have argued in this space that nothing can or should be done, no new federal law passed, until the border itself is secure. That is the predicate, the commonsense first step. Once existing laws are enforced and the border made peaceful, everyone in the country will be able to breathe easier and consider, without an air of clamor and crisis, what should be done next. What might that be? How about relax, see where we are, and absorb. Pass a small, clear law—say, one granting citizenship to all who serve two years in the armed forces—and then go have a Coke. Not everything has to be settled right away. Only controlling the border has to be settled right away.

Instead, our national establishments deliberately allow the crisis to grow and fester, ignoring public unrest and amusing themselves by damning anyone’s attempt to deal with the problem they fear to address.

Why does the federal government do this? Because so many within it are stupid and unimaginative and don’t trust the American people. Which of course the American people have noticed.

If the federal government and our political parties were imaginative, they would understand that it is actually in their interests to restore peace and order to the border. It would be a way of demonstrating that our government is still capable of functioning, that it is still to some degree connected to the people’s will, that it has the broader interests of the country in mind.

The American people fear they are losing their place and authority in the daily, unwinding drama of American history. They feel increasingly alienated from their government. And alienation, again, is often followed by deep animosity, and animosity by the breaking up of things. If our leaders were farsighted not only for themselves but for the country, they would fix the border.

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704302304575214613784530750.html

Listening to (and Saving) the World’s Languages

Valnea Smilovic, 59, left, with her mother, 92, in Queens. They still speak Vlashki, a language spoken by the Istrians.

The chances of overhearing a conversation in Vlashki, a variant of Istro-Romanian, are greater in Queens than in the remote mountain villages in Croatia that immigrants now living in New York left years ago.

At a Roman Catholic church in the Morrisania section of the Bronx, Mass is said once a month in Garifuna, an Arawakan language that originated with descendants of African slaves shipwrecked near St. Vincent in the Caribbean and later exiled to Central America. Today, Garifuna is virtually as common in the Bronx and in Brooklyn as in Honduras and Belize.

And Rego Park, Queens, is home to Husni Husain, who, as far as he knows, is the only person in New York who speaks Mamuju, the Austronesian language he learned growing up in the Indonesian province of West Sulawesi. Mr. Husain, 67, has nobody to talk to, not even his wife or children.

“My wife is from Java, and my children were born in Jakarta — they don’t associate with the Mamuju,” he said. “I don’t read books in Mamuju. They don’t publish any. I only speak Mamuju when I go back or when I talk to my brother on the telephone.”

These are not just some of the languages that make New York the most linguistically diverse city in the world. They are part of a remarkable trove of endangered tongues that have taken root in New York — languages born in every corner of the globe and now more commonly heard in various corners of New York than anywhere else.

While there is no precise count, some experts believe New York is home to as many as 800 languages — far more than the 176 spoken by students in the city’s public schools or the 138 that residents of Queens, New York’s most diverse borough, listed on their 2000 census forms.

“It is the capital of language density in the world,” said Daniel Kaufman, an adjunct professor of linguistics at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. “We’re sitting in an endangerment hot spot where we are surrounded by languages that are not going to be around even in 20 or 30 years.”

In an effort to keep those voices alive, Professor Kaufman has helped start a project, the Endangered Language Alliance, to identify and record dying languages, many of which have no written alphabet, and encourage native speakers to teach them to compatriots.

“It’s hard to use a word like preserve with a language,” said Robert Holman, who teaches at Columbia and New York Universities and is working with Professor Kaufman on the alliance. “It’s not like putting jelly in a jar. A language is used. Language is consciousness. Everybody wants to speak English, but those lullabies that allow you to go to sleep at night and dream — that’s what we’re talking about.”

With national languages and English encroaching on the linguistic isolation of remote islands and villages, New York has become a Babel in reverse — a magnet for immigrants and their languages.

New York is such a rich laboratory for languages on the decline that the City University Graduate Center is organizing an endangered-languages program. “The quickening pace of language endangerment and extinction is viewed by many linguists as a direct consequence of globalization,” said Juliette Blevins, a linguist hired by City University to start the program.

In addition to dozens of Native American languages, vulnerable foreign languages that researchers say are spoken in New York include Aramaic, Chaldic and Mandaic from the Semitic family; Bukhari (a Bukharian Jewish language, which has more speakers in Queens than in Uzbekistan or Tajikistan); Chamorro (from the Mariana Islands); Irish Gaelic; Kashubian (from Poland); indigenous Mexican languages; Pennsylvania Dutch; Rhaeto-Romanic (spoken in Switzerland); Romany (from the Balkans); and Yiddish.

Researchers plan to canvass a tiny Afghan neighborhood in Flushing, Queens, for Ormuri, which is believed to be spoken by a small number of people in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The Endangered Language Alliance will apply field techniques usually employed in exotic and remote foreign locales as it starts its research in the city’s vibrant ethnic enclaves.

“Nobody had gone from area to area looking for endangered languages in New York City spoken by immigrant populations,” Professor Kaufman said.

The United Nations keeps an atlas of languages facing extinction, and experts there as well as linguists generally agree that a language will probably disappear in a generation or two when the population of native speakers is both too small and in decline. Language attrition has also been hastened by war, ethnic cleansing and compulsory schooling in a national tongue.

Over the decades in the secluded northeastern Istrian Peninsula along the Adriatic Sea, Croatian began to replace Vlashki, spoken by the Istrians, what is described as Europe’s smallest surviving ethnic group. But after Istrians began immigrating to Queens, many to escape grinding poverty, they largely abandoned Croatian and returned to speaking Vlashki.

“Whole villages were emptied,” said Valnea Smilovic, 59, who came to the United States in the 1960s with her parents and her brother and sister. “Most of us are here now in this country.”

Mrs. Smilovic still speaks in Vlashki with her mother, 92, who knows little English, as well as her siblings. “Not too much, though,” Mrs. Smilovic said, because her husband speaks only Croatian and her son, who was born in the United States, speaks English and a smattering of Croatian.

“Do I worry that our culture is getting lost?” Mrs. Smilovic asked. “As I get older, I’m thinking more about stuff like that. Most of the older people die away and the language dies with them.”

Several years ago, one of her cousins, Zvjezdana Vrzic, an Istrian-born adjunct professor of linguistics at New York University, organized a meeting in Queens about preserving Vlashki. She was stunned by the turnout of about 100 people.

“A language reflects a singular nature of a people speaking it,” said Professor Vrzic, who recently published an audio Vlashki phrasebook and is working on an online Vlashki-Croatian-English dictionary.

Istro-Romanian is classified by Unesco as severely endangered, and Professor Vrzic said she believed that the several hundred native speakers who live in Queens outnumbered those in Istria. “Nobody tried to teach it to me,” she said. “It was not thought of as something valuable, something you wanted to carry on to another generation.”

A few fading foreign languages have also found niches in New York and the country. In northern New Jersey, Neo-Aramaic, rooted in the language of Jesus and the Talmud, is still spoken by Syrian immigrants and is taught at Syriac Orthodox churches in Paramus and Teaneck.

The Rev. Eli Shabo speaks Neo-Aramaic at home, and his children do, too, but only “because I’m their teacher,” he said.

Will their children carry on the language? “If they marry another person of Syriac background, they may,” Father Shabo said. “If they marry an American, I’d say no.”

And on Long Island, researchers have found several people fluent in Mandaic, a Persian variation of Aramaic spoken by a few hundred people around the world. One of them, Dakhil Shooshtary, 76, a retired jeweler who settled on Long Island from Iran 45 years ago, is compiling a Mandaic dictionary.

For Professor Kaufman, the quest for speakers of disappearing languages has sometimes involved serendipity. After making a fruitless trip in 2006 to Indonesia to find speakers of Mamuju, he attended a family wedding two years ago in Queens. Mr. Husain happened to be sitting next to him. Wasting no time, he has videotaped Mr. Husain speaking in his native tongue.

“This is maybe the first time that anyone has recorded a video of the language being spoken,” said Professor Kaufman, who founded a Manhattan research center, the Urban Field Station for Linguistic Research, two years ago.

He has also recruited Daowd I. Salih, 45, a refugee from Darfur who lives in New Jersey and is a personal care assistant at a home for the elderly, to teach Massalit, a tribal language, to a linguistic class at New York University. They are meticulously creating a Massalit lexicography to codify grammar, definitions and pronunciations.

“Language is identity,” said Mr. Salih, who has been in the United States for a decade. “So many African tribes in Darfur lost their languages. This is the land of opportunity, so these students can help us write this language instead of losing it.”

Speakers of Garifuna, which is being displaced in Central America by Spanish and English, are striving to keep it alive in their New York neighborhoods. Regular classes have sprouted at the Yurumein House Cultural Center in the Bronx, and also in Brooklyn, where James Lovell, a public school music teacher, leads a small Garifuna class at the Biko Transformation Center in East Bushwick.

Mr. Lovell, who came to New York from Belize in 1990, said his oldest children, 21-year-old twin boys, do not speak Garifuna. “They can get along speaking Spanish or English, so there’s no need to as far as they’re concerned,” he said, adding that many compatriots feel “they will get nowhere with their Garifuna culture, so they decide to assimilate.”

But as he witnessed his language fading among his friends and his family, Mr. Lovell decided to expose his younger children to their native culture. Mostly through simple bilingual songs that he accompanies with gusto on his guitar, he is teaching his two younger daughters, Jamie, 11, and Jazelle, 7, and their friends.

“Whenever they leave the house or go to school, they’re speaking English,” Mr. Lovell said. “Here, I teach them their history, Garifuna history. I teach them the songs, and through the songs, I explain to them what it’s saying. It’s going to give them a sense of self, to know themselves. The fact that they’re speaking the language is empowerment in itself.”

Sam Roberts, New York Times

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/29/nyregion/29lost.html

Art Dealer Admits Lying to FBI Over Faked $2 Million Picasso

A West Hollywood art dealer pleaded guilty today to selling a fake Pablo Picasso drawing of a woman in a blue hat for $2 million, according to the U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles.

[fakepicasso]

This fake Pablo Picasso drawing of a woman in a blue hat was for sale for $2 million.

The dealer, Tatiana Khan, said she paid an art restorer $1,000 to recreate Picasso’s 1902 pastel, “La Femme au Chapeau Bleu,” which she passed off as being part of the family collection of the late publisher Malcolm Forbes, according to her plea agreement filed earlier today in U.S. District Court.

An anonymous buyer of the fake drawing grew suspicious about the work’s authenticity two years ago and reached out to a Picasso expert, who later contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Ms. Khan told the FBI she had acquired the drawing of a prim woman wearing an indigo-plumed hat from an acquaintance, according to her plea agreement. She later confessed to the FBI that she had asked the restorer to lie about copying the work. (The original work belongs to a private collector, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Ranee Katzenstein.)

Ms. Khan, 70 years old, will appear in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles early next month to enter a guilty plea on two felony counts: making false statements to the FBI and witness tampering. As part of her plea deal, she has agreed to pay back the $2 million and give up a Willem de Kooning abstract work she bought with a portion of the sale proceeds. She faces a federal prison sentence of anywhere from 21 months to 25 years.

Ms. Kahn’s attorney, James W. Spertus, said that his client has had a 45-year career as an art dealer and hopes to continue her profession after “accepting responsibility for making a false statement to the FBI.”

Kelly Crow, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704471204575210674060942894.html

How Parents Became Cool

TV Finds Teens Like Their Moms And Attempts to Flatter Both

After she is caught stealing designer sunglasses, Hanna, a popular blond teen on the new TV series “Pretty Little Liars,” shares a heartfelt moment with her understanding and fashionable single mother. The two agree to put the shoplifting incident behind them.

Informing the scene is a new insight that is reshaping the way Hollywood portrays the modern family: Teens like their parents.

Teens and parents on the upcoming ABC Family series ‘Pretty Little Liars’ (2010) seem more like siblings than parent and child. Hanna Marin (played by Ashley Benson) and her mom share a moment.

For decades, TV has depicted teens as angst-ridden and rebellious, and parents as out-of-touch and unhip. Then network executives realized that popular shows that tapped into the defiant-youth subculture were losing viewers. Now, teen shows tend to be more like ABC Family’s “Pretty Little Liars,” an emotional drama premiering in June about teens caught up in the disappearance of a popular classmate.

This less-defiant generation is influencing plots, changing what types of shows get made and prompting networks like MTV that have long specialized in youthful rebellion to rethink their approach. The new, more-sanguine shows still broach racy topics like sex, drug use and teen pregnancy, but they appease parents by always presenting consequences. Parents typically have prominent roles and just as many tawdry story lines as the teens—and look almost like older siblings.

Market research documenting the shift has influenced new programming at the ABC Family network, owned by Walt Disney Co. In a study of more than 2,000 children conducted by Experian Simmons, a unit of Experian PLC, 75% of 12- to 17-year-olds said they get along with their parents, and 72% said they like spending time with their families. In a June 2007 study, 93% of teens said they had a good relationship with their mothers—an estimated 15 to 20 percentage points higher than two decades ago, according to Frank N. Magid Associates.

These days, parents and teens are also watching the same shows, and in many cases they are watching together. “American Idol” is the most popular show on broadcast TV among viewers 12 to 17 years old, attracting about 1.4 million per episode. Fox’s musical comedy “Glee,” about outcast kids in a high-school glee club, mixes music by Rihanna with Neil Diamond, AC/DC and the Rolling Stones to bring in both children and their parents.

The new ABC Family show “Pretty Little Liars” features students at fictional Rosewood High School. On a recent afternoon at the Warner Bros. studio in Burbank, Calif., Aria Montgomery, a 16-year-old character played by actress Lucy Hale, sat in a fluorescent-lit classroom packed with rows of desks, green chalkboards and cluttered bookshelves. Pulling out a copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Aria exchanged a furtive glance with Mr. Fitz, the dashing young English teacher she recently made out with. Earlier, Aria was in her room with her mother, Ella, whom the script describes as “attractive, well-read and liberal.” They “relate to each other more as friends than mother and daughter,” the script says.

Effects of Mobile TV

At a time when laptops and mobile devices make it easy to watch TV outside the confines of the family room, catching subversive TV behind closed doors no longer feels like adolescent rebellion, says Stephen Friedman, general manager of Viacom Inc.’s MTV. It used to be “all about nihilism and doing anything your parents were against,” he says.

The all-around happy children on ‘The Brady Bunch’ (1969-1974) dutifully obeyed their parents even if they couldn’t avoid innocent mischief in their suburban Los Angeles home.

With a cadre of original series developed for teens and their parents, once-flailing ABC Family has become one of the 10 most-watched cable channels, ahead of MTV, with an average of 1.5 million total prime-time viewers, according to Nielsen Co. In addition to teens, the channel attracts an average of 407,000 18- to 49-year-old women during prime time—a sign mothers and daughters are watching together, Disney says.

ABC Family’s top-rated series, “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” about a girl who gets pregnant the first time she has sex and must raise a child, attracts about 3 million viewers per episode. That compares with 1.3 million for MTV’s highest-rated series “The Hills,” which follows a glamorous group as they gallivant around Los Angeles, and 2.2 million for the CW network’s “Gossip Girl,” about privileged young Manhattanites, according to Nielsen.

In addition to “Pretty Little Liars,” based on a popular book series for young adults, ABC Family also is about to launch “Huge,” a scripted drama about obese teens at weight-loss camp.

Born in the 1990s, teens today are part of the generation marketers call “millennials,” raised with the modern parenting style that emphasizes coddling over curfews, says Susan Newman, a social psychologist and author. “We’re a culture of ‘yes’ parents, and we’ve done a lot of hovering and smothering that’s brought us closer to our children.”

These are the original “helicopter parents,” adults in their 30s and 40s who are excessively involved in their children’s lives. These parents tend to avoid exerting parental control, try to stay connected through technology, and share interests like fashion, music and television with their kids, researchers say. They may wear the same J. Crew styles as their teens, buy the same drinks at Starbucks, and go to yoga or a sushi bar together. They are tolerant of racy content on TV, preferring to watch it with their teens and discuss it later, rather than let the kids find it on their own.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind By the 1990s, teens were ignoring their parents. ‘Party of Five’ (1994-2000) wrote them off entirely, following the five Salinger siblings in San Francisco after their parents are killed in a car accident.

Whether not spanking kids or rewarding them when they lose a soccer game, “society has essentially realigned itself to cherish the child,” says Jack MacKenzie, president of the Millennial Strategy Program at Frank N. Magid Associates. “Is it any wonder kids love parents who treat them that way?”

Kelly Peña, senior vice president of research at Disney Channels Worldwide, travels the country observing how families watch TV. She says she sees more families enjoying the same shows—even if the kids are watching online and the parents are watching a TV set.

Based on this information, the Disney Channel crafted a family sitcom targeted at young teens and parents, “Good Luck Charlie.” The April 4 premiere was watched by nearly 5.7 million viewers, including 1.4 million adults—more than double the cable network’s traditional prime-time lineup.

TV has long been an outlet for rebellious youth, starting with Elvis Presley’s and the Beatles’ performances on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” to MTV and the moneyed, over-developed high-schoolers of “Beverly Hills, 90210.” Through most of those years, parents have been clueless, uncool and usually on the sidelines. In the 1990s, Fox’s “Party of Five,” about a group of orphans living in San Francisco, dispensed with the parents altogether.

Crew members of ABC Family’s new television show, ‘Pretty Little Liars,’ set up a shot at a taping on Wednesday.

But over the past couple of years, executives at ABC Family say they have noticed a change. Fewer teens were watching glitzy, aspirational series like “The Hills” on MTV and “Gossip Girl” on the CW and audiences for the network’s quieter shows have grown. The network now has almost 100 million subscribers, up from 81 million in 2001.

The CW has a median age of 32 so teens’ viewing habits “are not quite as relevant to us,” says Dawn Ostroff, CW president of entertainment.

MTV noticed something was off when “The Hills” started attracting fewer teen viewers and more 18- to 24-year-olds in recent years. At the same time, a bloc of more-family-friendly afternoon programming dubbed “PAW” (for “Parents Are Watching”) brought in solid ratings. “It was a wake-up call,” Mr. Friedman says. “Five or 10 years ago, MTV would never have done shows like that.”

‘Parental Control’ Adjusts

MTV recently reworked “Parental Control,” a reality dating show in which parents set their teenagers up on blind dates, to show more amicable relations between the generations. Parents are less confrontational now, and more scenes take place in family dens rather than in studios. The network currently is conducting a study that asks teens for their views on “rebellion.” The findings will influence programming decisions.

In 2001 Disney paid $5.2 billion to purchase ABC Family and other assets from Saban Entertainment Inc. and News Corp. (which also owns Fox and Dow Jones, publisher of The Wall Street Journal). Once known as the Family Channel, part of TV evangelist Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, the channel came with a stodgy, conservative image. Disney bought it to reach “the young adult viewers between the Disney Channel audience of kids and families, and the broader adult audience served by ABC,” says Anne Sweeney, president of Disney-ABC Television Group.

In the early days, ratings and advertising revenue were dismal. The contract stipulated that the word “family” remain in the network’s title—a built-in turnoff to the cool clique—and analysts predicted ABC Family would be one of the costliest blunders in the tenure of former Disney chief Michael Eisner.

Under Paul Lee, president of ABC Family and a former chief executive at BBC America, ABC Family commissioned extensive research on “millennials,” asking what the word “family” meant to them. The results were unexpected. Respondents said they liked spending time with their families. “Initially, everyone expressed concern [about the name] except the audience,” Ms. Sweeney says.

The network began airing reruns of the popular WB network series “Gilmore Girls,” about a single mom and her teenage daughter, and “Smallville,” which follows the adventures of Clark Kent before he became Superman. It adopted the tagline “A New Kind of Family” and began to develop original, scripted series aimed at teens and mothers.

Recently, ABC Family recruited Winnie Holzman, creator of the ABC network’s 1990s teen favorite “My So-Called Life,” to return and co-write the upcoming series “Huge” with her 24-year-old daughter, Savannah Dooley. “I’ve had a couple other writing partners, but writing with my mom is the best experience. We draw on the same stories, like the same things and are just so much alike,” Ms. Dooley says.

“Optimistic and bright works for us,” Mr. Lee says, of the types of shows the ABC Family network is developing.

Amy Chozik, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704471204575209980207547608.html

The Rake’s Progress

A virtuoso ladies’ man and stealer of secrets. The skills were related.

In 1935 Adolf Hitler renounced the limits on German militarization that had been imposed by the Treaty of Versailles following World War I. Hitler publicly introduced conscription to vastly increase the size of the German army; more secretly he launched a massive rearmament program. An alarmed Soviet Union, desperate to learn the plans of this potential enemy, dispatched an intelligence officer, Dmitri Bystrolyotov, to Berlin. Bystrolyotov had already proved himself a deft operative, one particularly skilled at seducing women who had access to valuable information. But as Emil Draitser shows in “Stalin’s Romeo Spy,” Bystrolyotov’s latest assignment tested even his vaunted skills.

The agent’s target was a female SS officer whose face had been disfigured by fire in a childhood car accident. Dorothea Müller was “embittered and unpleasant to deal with,” Mr. Draitser says, and she was a fanatical Nazi Party member who had been entrusted with the safekeeping of military-industrial secrets. Flattering her appearance was out of the question, so Bystrolyotov embarked on a campaign to flatter Müller’s devotion to the Führer. Posing as a dashing, dissolute Hungarian count, he engineered a series of encounters with Müller, astonished her with his ignorance of the Nazis’ glorious policies and became her eager student.

A romance began, and when at last Müller “was completely under his power as a lover,” Mr. Draitser says, the count proposed marriage. But a complication stood in the way: An aunt who had (supposedly) subsidized his life in Berlin was cutting him off. Marriage was out of the question, he said, until his finances were secure. Then a solution surfaced: A friend of the count’s said that there was a lot of money to be made on the stock market if Müller would provide them with inside information about military industrial orders. She agreed; the hook was set.

Bystrolyotov’s seduction of the disfigured SS officer is just one in a bounty of improbable tales recounted in “Stalin’s Romeo Spy.” Mr. Draitser has consulted Russian, British, French, Czech and American archives in his research, and he has seen Bystrolyotov’s partially declassified KGB file. But the author has also relied on the spy’s own unpublished memoirs, which seem to have been responsible for some of the more credibility-straining elements of the story. There is no doubt, though, that Bystrolyotov was a remarkable spy even by the standards of an era when much of the world was crawling with intelligence agents.

Handsome, fluent in several languages, fortified with false passports, Bystrolyotov moved effortlessly through tense capitals, stealing secrets and sending them back to Moscow. Somehow romance seemed to play a role in his missions even when his target wasn’t a woman with information he needed. When he once “handled” a British Foreign Office clerk—who knew secret codes but who was also constantly drunk and in a crumbling marriage—Bystrolyotov kept “Charlie” on track by bedding the man’s unhappy wife, cheering her up. Another time, Bystrolyotov arranged for his estranged wife, who had worked alongside him, to begin an affair with a French intelligence officer in Locarno, Switzerland, and then even to marry him, ensuring that Bystrolyotov would have regular access to the house—and to the safe where the Frenchman kept sensitive cables.

Of course, being a productive contributor to the Soviet cause offered no protection from Stalin’s purges—as Bystrolyotov learned first-hand in 1938, when he was arrested in Moscow. After severe beatings he confessed, falsely, to committing treason against the Soviet state and was sentenced to 20 years in the gulag. He was later offered the possibility of early release, but he insisted on having his case reopened so that he could prove his innocence. For that audacity he was repaid with the most brutal treatment of his time in prison. He was finally freed in 1954, the year after Stalin’s death. “Now he was an old man,” Mr. Draitser writes, “totally unemployable and incurably ill.”

Mr. Draitser, who worked as a journalist in the Soviet Union before being blacklisted and moving to the U.S. in the 1970s, met Bystrolyotov in 1973—the year before his death. The old spy regaled him with anecdotes from his life and recalled his fruitless efforts to publish his memoirs. The editor of a literary quarterly scolded him for lines such as “I drew my pistol,” telling Bystrolyotov: “You can’t write that. A Soviet intelligence officer acts only in a humane way.” In the U.S., Mr. Draitser taught Russian and continued to write, but he never forgot, as he puts it, “the most remarkable man I had ever met.”

In the glasnost era and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bystrolyotov—who had been expunged from Soviet history—became known again, at least in Russia. Mr. Draitser resolved in 2002 to write his biography. As the work progressed, Mr. Draitser says, he became convinced that telling the spy’s story was “an urgent order of the day. While I was doing my research, an ex-KGB officer”—Vladimir Putin—”became the country’s president,” and Russia began “sliding back to its Stalinist past.” One feature of the regression: “the revision of history and attempts to whitewash the KGB’s bloody role in it.” Dmitri Bystrolyotov, to Mr. Draitser’s amazement, has in recent years been resurrected as a Stalinist wartime hero—with no reference to his imprisonment or to his disillusion with the Soviet dream.

It is impossible to read “Stalin’s Romeo Spy” without reflecting on the cruel and capricious nature of totalitarian regimes and without noting that, however good a spy may be, espionage is only as effective as the ability of political leaders to sort through the information they are handed. Bystrolyotov did his part to keep his country abreast of behind-the-scenes maneuvering by the European powers. But in June 1941, when equally adept Soviet spies alerted the Kremlin to the likelihood of a German invasion, Stalin ignored their warnings. The rest was a miserable history.

Mr. Rubenstein is the Northeast Regional Director of Amnesty International USA and the author of “Tangled Loyalties: The Life and Times of Ilya Ehrenburg.”

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703465204575208073026775534.html

Bing Crosby, Beyond His Greatest Hits

Bing Crosby wasn’t the single most important figure in 20th century popular music—and, in particular, the most influential singer of the great American songbook—it’s difficult to know who would be. He cast a giant shadow over the entire landscape of American music, touching upon the pop icons who followed him (Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and the Beatles all paid their respects) and into the worlds of jazz, rhythm and blues, and country music. There’s even a famous calypso record dedicated in his honor.

The impact of Crosby (1903-1977) upon American culture was enormous—a sea change that was both musical and technological. He was the first major pop vocalist to incorporate the swinging rhythms and improvisatory essence of the new American music called jazz into his singing, which, in turn, allowed him to bring a hitherto unheard casualness and intimacy to American pop. He also was the first vocalist to fully fathom the equation of the new electronic media: electrical recording, radio and sound film. His mastery of these forms empowered him to become the biggest musical star of the Depression and World War II eras—and an inspiration for generations of performers and singers, including Sinatra.

Tune In

Listen to clips of songs by Bing Crosby from “The Bing Crosby CBS Radio Recordings (1954-56)”

Heard today, Crosby’s warm, mellifluous baritone is still as engaging and moving as ever. If Crosby is less a part of the discussion than he should be, it’s partly the fault of the organizations that control the rights to his performances. While the estates of Sinatra and Presley have taken steps to make sure the catalogs of these iconic artists remain accessible, the only Crosby music that has been readily available in the three decades since the singer’s death were Christmas albums and basic greatest-hits collections.

That situation, at last, is starting to change. In the past few months, more of Crosby’s music—particularly from the harder-to-hear later portion of his career—has been made available than ever before in the compact-disc era. Bing Crosby Enterprises has supervised the release of six individual packages (one a two-CD set) from Collectorschoicemusic.com as well as an epic seven-CD box from Mosaic Records, “The Bing Crosby CBS Radio Recordings (1954-56).”

[bing]

Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra

Not all the new releases are equally valuable: There’s a sappy singalong album (“On the Sentimental Side”) and a lackluster pair of ethnocentric concept sets (“Return to Paradise Islands” and “El Señor Bing”). These are strictly for completists, although all three are graced with extraordinary bonus tracks that are more exciting than the main event. By contrast, “Bing on Broadway” gives us Crosby doing excellent songs in excellent voice, on tracks compiled mostly from the same radio recordings that make up the Mosaic box. The 1977 “Seasons” is especially welcome; this was Crosby’s last album, recorded in London shortly before his death. (Copies of the LP frequently change hands on eBay, some advertised by their sellers as being autographed by Crosby—which would be a neat trick, since it was released posthumously.)

The “CBS Radio” box is an extraordinary mother lode of previously unreleased Crosby: 160 songs that no one has heard unless they were listening to the singer’s daily 15-minute radio series of the mid-1950s. (Although some of the tracks were, shortly after the singer’s death, released with an overdubbed orchestra.) It’s an amazing amalgam of everything from ancient tunes Crosby remembered from his childhood (“They Didn’t Believe Me”) to a variety of contemporary hits that were then on the jukebox, even such unlikely items as mambos (“Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White”) and country songs (“I’m a Fool to Care”). Pianist Buddy Cole and his trio provide all the accompaniment; Cole borders on the annoying when he switches to electric organ, but on the bulk of the tracks he helps Crosby keep everything light and highly swinging.

The biggest revelation in the package is a session recorded with an eight-piece traditional jazz band probably arranged by clarinetist Matty Matlock. Crosby is totally in his element here, doing 12 songs from the jazz age—his impetuous youth. The singer enters “Yes Sir! That’s My Baby” almost completely a capella, backed only by drummer Nick Fatool’s rimshots—an amazingly difficult opening. You can tell Crosby’s senses of rhythm and pitch are both highly developed, and the dozen songs are a rare example of Crosby actually calling attention to his technique. He’s never sounded more loose, buoyant and, particularly on “Sometimes I’m Happy,” full of contagiously good spirits. Much about the session suggests that Crosby might have been thinking of releasing these tracks commercially, but if so he abandoned that idea in favor of his masterpiece Dixieland album, “Bing With a Beat,” the next year.

The other essential new release is “So Rare: Treasures From the Crosby Archive.” This double-disc package was compiled with hardcore Crosby collectors in mind, but the music is of such a high quality that even newcomers to Der Bingle will find much to enjoy. The set starts in 1931 with two songs from Crosby’s breakthrough broadcast, and continues up through the war years (a beautiful reading of “Over the Rainbow”), into the Eisenhower era and a fascinating group of movie and show tunes from the 1960s. “So Rare” ends intriguingly with the live “That’s What Life Is All About,” from one of his final concerts. In a spoken introduction he compares the song, partly written by the singer himself, to Sinatra’s “My Way” and Sammy Davis Jr.’s “I Gotta Be Me.” Normally, it’s hard to stomach these high-blown anthems of self-celebration, but “That’s What Life Is All About,” more than “My Way,” is reflective and inwardly probing, even self-deprecating and, for once, not merely a victory lap set to music. Besides, if anybody had earned the right to take a bow, it was Bing Crosby at the end of one of the great careers in American music.

Mr. Friedwald writes about jazz for the Journal.

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304017404575165761704698650.html

Child of Impressionism

“In my view,” the great French director Jean Renoir (1894–1979) wrote in his autobiography, “originality and success are strangers to one another; but I also hold that originality, despite appearances, will end by making itself felt, and that easy success is soon forgotten.” The now-towering reputation of his glittering social critique “La Règle du jeu” (“The Rules of the Game,” 1939) suggests that he was right. An acute observer of human nature, Renoir knew that audiences are both lazy and intensely curious. His own curiosity yielded dazzlingly inventive films—melding irony and ebullience, nature and modernity, realism and artifice.

The Renoir retrospective currently at BAMcinématek has been offering a chance to view celebrated masterpieces, but also to reassess the filmmaker’s sophisticated late work and several underappreciated movies he made stateside during the 1940s. His Hollywood projects weren’t all realized to his satisfaction, but they are probingly original. The critic André Bazin wondered: “Why not suppose that for Renoir it was less a question of adapting himself to Hollywood than of developing himself, of at once mastering a new way of thinking and feeling and creating an adequate means of expressing it. In our belief that ‘The Rules of the Game’ incarnates the avant-garde of the cinema of 1939 . . . we have made Renoir a prisoner of our admiration.”

Adrienne Corri, right, in Jean Renoir’s ‘The River’ (1951).

A child of Impressionism, Renoir absorbed the generous worldview—the reliance on observation, love of nature and vision of the world as a unified whole—of his father, Pierre-Auguste Renoir. But he brought to cinema his own superb eye, love of drama and ceaseless desire to experiment with moving images. His early silent films flirted with obvious theatricality while already showing a striking visual style, but as he seamlessly made the transition to sound, his work was marked by groundbreaking realism and subtle artifice.

Renoir’s World War I experiences in the cavalry, infantry and air force helped shape his two most profound achievements, both antiwar films. “La Grande illusion” (“Grand Illusion,” 1937) powerfully captures the shared humanity of men including a working-class prisoner of war determined to break free (Jean Gabin), his aristocratic comrade (Pierre Fresnay) and their chivalrous captor (Erich von Stroheim). A darker current runs beneath the sparkling dialogue, flowing deep-focus shots and naturalistic yet magical beauty of “The Rules of the Game,” in which a hunting party’s casual brutality anticipates an equally thoughtless murder. Its truthfulness was bitterly received by a society unable to face its own disintegration.

In 1941 Renoir took refuge in the U.S. with his future second wife, Dido, escaping growing pressure from Nazi cultural institutions. Though frustrated by the industry’s passion for homogeneity, he often maintained his typical working methods, such as location shooting and unorthodox casting. His favorite film made for a Hollywood studio was “The Southerner” (1945), a radiant tribute to the American landscape. Gracefully paced and starring two appealing young actors (casting against type, Renoir selected Zachary Scott, who usually played gangsters, for the male lead), it follows a family of struggling tenant farmers. In Renoir’s sensuous vision, soil, crops, sun and rain are stirringly tangible.

During the 1950s Renoir entered another period of rich invention, working in India and once again in Europe. With “The River” (1951) he launched an exploration—often collaborating with his cinematographer nephew, Claude—into the possibilities of color film. He avoided laboratory effects such as color filters, but emphasized a limited range of pure tones, carefully selecting what he placed in front of the camera. This approach yielded glorious results in “Le Carrosse d’or” (“The Golden Coach,” 1952), a harlequin-hued tribute to rollicking show business and baroque music’s ornate contrasts that is both a comic delight and a bittersweet meditation on the relationship between art and life. As a charismatic commedia dell’arte star, Anna Magnani wonders: “Where is truth? Where does the theater end and life begin?”

Similar questions haunt the laundress-turned-dancer in “French Cancan” (1954), another Technicolor tour de force. Its compositions and palette effortlessly evoke the paintings of Renoir’s father, as well as those of Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas and Manet. “Renoir is Impressionism multiplied by the cinema,” Bazin wrote.

Two late works confirm Renoir’s unflagging experimentation: “Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier” (“The Doctor’s Horrible Experiment,” 1959), a perversely humorous made-for-TV adaptation of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” in which the evil alter ego echoes Charlie Chaplin, and the not-to-be-missed “Le Caporal épinglé” (“The Elusive Corporal,” 1962), a starkly eloquent return to the theme of the POW bent on escape. The series concludes with the estimable new-wave director Jacques Rivette’s film of Renoir chatting with one of his most marvelous actors, “Portrait of Michel Simon by Jean Renoir or Portrait of Jean Renoir by Michel Simon or The Direction of Actors: Dialogue” (1967). Renoir viewed audiences, like actors, as his collaborators—and his multifaceted artistry invites an enduring collaboration.

Ms. Jones is a writer living in New York.

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703876404575200072250838304.html

Sleep: Loss

I used to think that the only thing worse than having insomnia is having insomnia next to someone who falls fast asleep and stays soundlessly so till morning.

That was my life for 16 years. I lived with a man who slept, yes, like a baby. There were nights, many nights, when I literally wanted to steal his sleep — slip beneath his eyelids and yank it out of him; a kind of middle-of-the-night “Chien Andalou” moment, minus the surrealism. Instead, I spent the equivalent of at least a tenth of our relationship lying awake or reading in bed. In the end, that I happened to be deep asleep when he first went into cardiac arrest next to me now seems beyond irony. If I had not taken half a sleeping pill that night four years ago, might I have been awake and saved him?

I can no longer remember the sound of his laughter but I clearly recall what he looked like while sleeping, his head propped on a scrunched up pillow, his muscular arms, his breath blown in warm puffs from the corner of his mouth, the place where Popeye’s pipe would go. I suppose this is the upside to insomnia. I clocked a lot of time studying Steve in repose. 

I went to see a minister a few days after his death, which was as swift as it was inexplicable — he had been only 43 and remarkably fit, with no history of heart problems. Neither Steve nor I were religious but I wanted to talk to someone. She was wonderful; she did not bring up God or heaven or anything. She was more like a doctor, explaining a diagnosis. “Suffering a devastating loss is like suffering a brain injury,” she said. She spoke really slowly, which I appreciated. “You walk around like a zombie. You can’t think straight. You feel drugged—”

Sometimes you are drugged, I thought to myself.

To be safe, I started keeping a notepad inside the medicine cabinet. “Yes, you took an Ambien at 11,” I would jot, answering a question I knew I would ask myself when I woke four hours later. Or: “2 X @ 3,” meaning two Xanaxes at 3 a.m. — no wait, maybe it was 3 in the afternoon? I don’t remember now.

In those early days of grief, short on sleep, forgetting to eat, I felt as though I were in a liminal state, not quite alive myself, which made me feel remarkably close to Steve. During that same period, I was continually having amazing encounters with strangers — people who would pop up and offer help, whether at the post office or grocery store, or just say something kind. At the time, I never doubted that they were embodiments of him.

One day I met a man with the name of an angel. He was French. His accent was so thick, it sounded fake. We got to talking and I told him what had happened. “You’re going to be fine,” Emmanuel said right away. “Something bad always leads to something good.” He spoke from personal experience. His partner had died six years earlier. But he did not use that word died as he told me his story. Nor did he say passed away, a euphemism I had come to hate. Instead, Emmanuel said, “When my partner disappeared….” I knew this was not a case of poor English, a bungled translation. Still, I had to say something. “You said ‘disappeared’ —“

He nodded.

“That’s exactly how it feels for me, too.”

One might think that for someone who has lost a partner or spouse, nights would be hardest, loneliest. For me, this was not the case. I was used to being alone at night, the only one awake. I didn’t even have more than the usual trouble sleeping after the first few weeks. I suppose this was partly because Steve and I had never been bedtime cuddlers or spooners, so I was not missing something I’d once had. That said, it was a long time before I was able to take his pillow from his side of the bed. I did not dare. The night after he died, I found that a sliver of light from a streetlamp shone through the blinds just so and cast a single yellowy tendril across his pillow. It was the opposite of a shadow. Which is as clear a definition as I can come up with for the soul.

With morning, the light was gone, and I found the days empty and agonizing. It would take about three years for this feeling to pass — a thousand days, give or take — people who had been through this told me. As it turns out, they were right. What no one said is something I discovered on my own: A thousand days is a thousand nights is a thousand chances to dream about him.

Usually it went like this: Someone digs up his corpse and initiates C.P.R.; he revives in an instant, no problem. I see him walking, talking, a latter day Lazarus with a flat-top and a beautiful body and a crooked grin. Back from death but unchanged by death, with one crucial difference: He does not recognize me. It is I, not he, who has been transformed.

For awhile I tried going on dates — dinner, a movie, that kind of thing — I met a few nice guys. But I could not disguise my lack of interest. There was one man I saw for about a month. His name was, you guessed it, Steve. Even though we had been intimate from the start, we didn’t end up spending the night together until the fourth week. I can still picture the moment when he turned over to go to sleep. His back, illuminated by moonlight, reminded me of the disappeared Steve’s.

That was the last time I tried that. Now I send them home or, as the case may be, leave myself. Insomnia is my excuse: I would rather not-sleep in my own bed, I explain. This is not altogether true. I would like to stay but can no more imagine falling asleep with someone else than I can falling in love again.

Curiously, though, the reverse sometimes occurs: I will be with a lover, before I make my exit. I will have him wrapped in my arms and we’ll be talking in the aimless, dreamy way that lovers do, like two analysands to an unseen Jung. A pause stretches into a long lull and I hear that unmistakable change in breathing. He has fallen asleep, and improbably, I feel responsible, as though I, of all people, possess the arms of Hypnos. It seems like a small miracle. But here’s the rub: As I draw him closer and nuzzle his neck, I cannot help remembering what the Greeks so wisely knew: The god of sleep has an identical twin, Thanatos, the god of death.

Bill Hayes is a writer and photographer. He is the author of “The Anatomist: A True Story of Gray’s Anatomy,” “Sleep Demons: An Insomniac’s Memoir” and other works.

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Full article: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/27/sleep-loss/

Traveling a Primeval Medical Landscape

The world was young, leafy green and overrun with dinosaurs so many eons ago that stories from prehistoric times are mostly fantasy and supposition. But the medical world was exactly that young, primitive and full of unusual creatures barely a century ago, giving historians ample fodder for true stories stranger than any fantasy.

Few of them surpass the biography of the man often credited with founding modern American surgery: William Halsted, professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins, and lifelong drug addict. Gerald Imber’s new biography is the first retelling of Halsted’s story in many decades and a particularly expert and thought-provoking narrative.

Halsted was born in New York in 1852, the not especially promising son of a wealthy family. A mediocre student, he wandered through Yale leaving behind no record of ever borrowing a book from its library.

He chose medicine not from any affinity for the sick and the suffering (and suffer they did back then, with filthy hospitals, no antibiotics and primitive anesthesia). Rather, the cabalistic secrets of the anatomy lab drew him in, and he fell in love with the complex structures of the body’s interior and their arcane nomenclature.

As Halsted completed surgical training in New York, giant scientific revolutions were remodeling his field. These included rapid improvements in anesthesia and clear demonstrations of the paramount importance of hygiene. Halsted was wildly enthusiastic about both developments.

His obsession with cleanliness was to serve him well through his career. But his enthusiasm for the new anesthetics was his undoing. One of the most effective local anesthetics in those days was cocaine, and within a few months of testing it on himself he had a bad drug habit.

He also soon acquired the addict’s other bad habits: he lied, missed work, made endless excuses. Finally, a medical paper he published on cocaine anesthesia was such gibberish that his career in New York was effectively over.

But Halsted, still only 34, was undaunted. After a long European vacation and a stint in the 19th-century equivalent of drug rehab, he took a train down to Baltimore, where friends secured him a job at the new Johns Hopkins hospital.

Unfortunately, his cocaine addiction had been “treated” with morphine and, unknown to all, he arrived in his new life in the grips of a double-barreled addiction.

Dr. Imber, a plastic surgeon and clinical assistant professor of surgery at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, makes the intense strangeness of Halsted’s subsequent career a gripping story.

As a surgeon, Halsted was extraordinary; he soon advanced to chief at Hopkins and pioneered treatments for breast cancer, hernias and gallstones. His knowledge of anatomy and his meticulous technique meant lengthy operations but negligible complication rates, even though antibiotics were still decades away.

Halsted the addict, however, was a mess. He would disappear for long stretches (his summer vacations routinely lasted five months); no one knew quite where he went. His behavior was erratic; friendly to colleagues and patients one moment and hostile the next, he would bow out of operations at the last minute, and his residents pretty much ran his service without him. “The Professor” was often missing in action.

Some advocates for drug legalization cite Halsted as a prime example of the functioning addict. Dr. Imber does not disagree: “The story belies the conventional wisdom concerning long-term drug use.”

Certainly, in the unregulated Wild West of 19th-century medicine Dr. Halsted functioned, much as Nero functioned as a Roman statesman. Whether either could function in our world of sober professional accountability is still grist for debate.

Another travelogue through the primeval medical landscape is provided by Molly Caldwell Crosby in “Asleep,” the story of epidemic encephalitis lethargica, one of history’s great unsolved medical mysteries.

The epidemic began during World War I and spread around the world, in lockstep with the influenza pandemic. Patients would simply fall asleep. Some died in their sleep. Some awoke months later, healthy. Still others awoke but were left with lasting neurologic problems.

This disease has made a previous literary appearance: The patients in Oliver Sacks’s “Awakenings” suffered from encephalitis lethargica before they developed end-stage Parkinson’s disease. Children were often left with bizarre behavioral disorders. (Ms. Crosby includes the grisly story of a little girl who survived encephalitis only to develop a self-mutilation syndrome and pluck out both eyes and most of her teeth.)

Many of the great neurologists of the early 20th century cut their diagnostic teeth on this epidemic. All suspected it was somehow related to the flu, but without brain imaging or sophisticated blood tests they could offer only learned guesswork. Ultimately, the epidemic fizzled out, and sporadic cases now occur only very rarely.

Ms. Crosby, a journalist, tells her story through case histories of the afflicted (among them J. P. Morgan Jr.’s wife, Jessie, and Ms. Crosby’s own grandmother). She has given herself an immensely difficult assignment: describing a puzzle without a solution requires preternatural narrative control. Unfortunately, in this instance the confusion among the experts is only compounded by Ms. Crosby’s own painful lack of medical expertise.

She tries to compensate with style and color, including a great deal of breathlessly atmospheric scene-setting and ominous verbal drumbeats. (“Dying of encephalitis lethargica would not prove to be the tragedy; surviving it would.”) But we crave an answer to the mystery, and instead all we get is a wordy circular slog in the primitive muck.

Abigail Zuger, M.D., New York Times

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/27/health/27zuger.html

Fish versus Flax

Q. How does flaxseed oil compare with fish oil in nutritional benefits?

A. Flaxseed oil and fish oil are believed to have similar nutritional benefits, but it takes much more flaxseed oil to obtain these possible benefits, said Dr. Sheldon S. Hendler, co-editor of the “PDR for Nutritional Supplements,” the standard reference in the field.

The strongest evidence, from studies of omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil, is for a reduction of triglycerides, a form of fat found in the blood. Other possible benefits include anti-inflammatory activity; action against blood clots and arterial plaque; and protection of the neurons and retina.

Both oils contain omega-3 fatty acids. In fish oil, the major ones are EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), while in flaxseed oil, the major one is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a precursor of EPA and DHA, which is converted to those fatty acids in the body.

The possible health benefits are mainly attributable to EPA and DHA, Dr. Hendler said. “The most studied effect is their ability to lower abnormally elevated serum triglycerides, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, particularly in those with diabetes,” he said.

The recommended amount of EPA plus DHA for this condition is four grams daily, about one teaspoonful, Dr. Hendler said, but it takes 40 grams, or about three tablespoonsful or more, of ALA to produce four grams of EPA and DHA in the body.

C. Claiborne Ray, New York Times

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/27/science/27qna.html

Three-Spined Stickleback Proves a Purposeful Cannibal

The three spined stickleback makes fine-tuned decisions

It’s a fact of life in the animal world that some fish (and birds, mammals, reptiles, insects, crustaceans — you name it) eat their young.

The three-spined stickleback, a species found around much of the globe, is one such finned filial cannibal. The males, who care for the eggs, are known to devour whole or parts of clutches. Sometimes, however, they might have reason to — since sticklebacks are known to “sneak” fertilizations, another fish might be the father of some of the eggs.

A study by Marion Mehlis of the University of Bonn in Germany and colleagues looked at the question of whether a male stickleback somehow assessed the paternity of the eggs in its care in deciding whether or not to eat them.

As they report in The Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, the answer was yes. What’s more, the researchers found that the fish made fairly fine-tuned decisions.

The researchers manipulated the clutches that individual males cared for, replacing up to 100 percent of the eggs fertilized by the male with eggs fertilized by another male. They found that the higher the percentage of “alien” eggs, the more likely the male was to completely cannibalize the clutch. The researchers suggest that the fish probably take their cues from the odor of the developing eggs as the paternal genes start to kick in.

Cannibalism of a clutch with a high proportion of alien eggs makes sense for the fish, because it avoids putting a lot of energy into producing offspring that carry another fish’s genes, and because by eating the eggs it gets energy to rear future clutches of its own eggs.

Henry Fountain, New York Times

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/27/science/27obcannibal.html

Insect May Make Moves to Survive the Harvest

One thing about evolution — you never know what’s going to influence it. Take the European corn borer, for instance. Researchers have just made a strong case that a certain aspect of its behavior has evolved because of human harvesting of corn.

The corn borer, Ostrinia nubilalis, is a pest caterpillar that spends spring and summer feeding on its host corn stalk before spinning a cocoon for the winter. It is almost identical to a related species, O. scapulalis — in fact, until recently the two were thought to be one. But O. scapulalis’s host plant is not corn, but a weed known as mugwort.

In a paper in The Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, Vincent Calcagno, a biologist now at McGill University, and colleagues show that, behaviorally, that makes all the difference in the world. For mugwort is neither harvested nor grazed, while corn has been harvested for centuries.

In harvesting, either mechanically or by hand, the stalks are cut off some height — often 6 to 15 inches — above the ground. Any corn borers above that height will surely not survive when the stalks are shredded, burned or fed to animals.

Through field and laboratory tests, the researchers discovered that before it stops eating and spins its cocoon, the corn borer travels down the stalk, usually reaching a height at which it is safe. O. scapulalis does not exhibit this descending behavior, called geotaxis.

Dr. Calcagno said the likeliest explanation for the behavior is the selection pressure of harvesting — over generations, those caterpillars that did not descend, or did not go far enough, did not survive. “There could be other reasons that explain the tendency to move down, but we have no evidence of what those reasons could be,” he said. This harvesting-induced selection, he added, could be widespread in other pests.

Henry Fountain, New York Times

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/27/science/27obborer.html

Like Origami, Pollen Grains Fold Just So

After it is released from a flower’s anther, a pollen grain walks a humidity tightrope. It dries up a bit as it travels through the air, the cellular material inside becoming dormant so it survives until it reaches the humid environment of another flower’s stigma. But it can’t become so dry that the material dies.

A scanning electron micrograph of a dehydrated Lily pollen grain.

Pollen grains achieve the proper state of desiccation by folding in on themselves as they dry, which reduces the rate of water loss (and also accommodates the reduced volume of water, making the grain smaller). It’s an elegant trick, and the structure of the pollen grain wall determines how it occurs, according to research published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Eleni Katifori, previously at Harvard and at Rockefeller University, and colleagues studied the folding of pollen from lilies and other flowers (a video of folding grains is at nytimes.com/science). The walls of pollen grains have weaker, more flexible sections called apertures, and Dr. Katifori said those sections guide the folding process. Like origami, in which paper stretches only at the creases, pollen grains deform at the apertures “so the rest can fold without stretching,” she said.

“It’s like pulling the air out of a beach ball,” she said. “Parts of the wall have to comply to accommodate the change of volume.”

Dr. Katifori said the goal of the research was to discover the basic principles by which the folding occurs as a way of understanding some of the functional demands that drive the great diversity of pollen grain structures in nature. But she said that the work might also prove useful to those who design structures. “I could imagine that engineers could get inspiration from just looking at pollen grains,” she said.

Henry Fountain, New York Times

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/27/science/27obpollen.html

Video Shows Chimpanzees Reacting to Death Like Humans

Rare video footage taken at a wildlife park has showed that chimpanzees react to the death of a group member just like humans do when a close relative dies, researchers said Monday.

Videos of a group of four chimpanzees at Scotland’s Blair Drummond Safari and Adventure Park showed three of the animals caressing and grooming the fourth, a dying female, more than usual, said James Anderson, a lecturer in psychology at Scotland’s University of Stirling.

The videos also showed that the three chimpanzees tested the elderly female, Pansy, for signs of life at the moment of death, Anderson said. Pansy’s daughter lay near her mother’s body throughout the night, and all the chimpanzees were subdued in the next few days.

”It’s the first time to our knowledge that people have been able to capture on video the precise moment at which an adult chimpanzee dies in the midst of his or her group,” said Anderson, who co-authored a study to be published Tuesday in the journal Current Biology.

Researchers have not been able to observe how chimpanzees react to death because in the wild a dying animal usually isolates itself and crawls into cover for protection, Anderson said. In zoos, sick animals are usually separated from the group and euthanized.

Staff at the Scottish wildlife park anticipated Pansy’s death and recorded the group’s behavior with overhead video cameras, which had been placed above the animals’ sleeping platforms for a previous study.

The three surviving chimpanzees — all of whom had been living with Pansy as a group for more than 20 years — gathered around her and caressed her in the ten minutes preceding her death. When she died they inspected her mouth and lifted her head and shoulder to try to shake her into life, Anderson said.

The animals stopped grooming Pansy and left her after her death, although her daughter later came back to build a nest and lie by her all night long.

Alasdair Gillies, the head keeper at the park and co-author of the study, said the animals were quieter than normal and lost their appetites after the death.

”I think this video footage showed the chimpanzees were aware something strange and different was happening but other research will have to be conducted to see how much they understood what was going on. We are just opening the debate,” he said.

The researchers said the study suggested that chimpanzees — known to have a developed sense of self and empathy toward others — were more like humans than previously thought.

”We were careful to avoid anthropomorphism, but it became very difficult not to realize some of these things are strikingly similar to human responses to dying individuals,” Anderson said.

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2010/04/26/science/AP-EU-Britain-Mourning-Chimpanzees.html

Exploring the Complexities of Nerdiness, for Laughs

Some scientists say that although the series “The Big Bang Theory” is funny and scientifically accurate, they are put off by it. Others are lining up for guest spots on the show.

Shudders and groans went around the blogs and coffee rooms of the physics world back in the summer of 2007, when CBS announced plans for a new comedy series about a pair of nerdy physicists and their buxom blonde waitress neighbor.

After all, the characters, Sheldon Cooper, a gangly supremely confident theoretical physicist at a place a lot like the California Institute of Technology, who has an IQ of 187 and entered college at 11, and his roommate, Leonard Hofstadter, whose IQ is only slightly less lofty at 173, and who is instantly smitten by the waitress next door, would seem to embody all the stereotypes that scientists have come to hate: physicists are geeky losers, overwhelmingly male and ill at ease outside of the world of Star Trek.

Not to mention their pals Rajesh Koothrappali, who literally cannot speak in the presence of a pretty woman, and Howard Wolowitz, who can’t shut up, and Penny, who works at the Cheesecake Factory and doesn’t seem to know Newton the Isaac from Newton the fig.

Three years later some scientists still say that although the series, “The Big Bang Theory” (Monday nights on CBS), is funny and scientifically accurate, they are put off by it.

“Makes me cringe,” said Bruce Margon, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, explaining, “The terrible stereotyping of the nerd plus the dumb blond are steps backwards for science literacy.”

But other scientists are lining up for guest slots on the show, which has become one of highest rated comedies on television and won many awards. The Nobel laureate George Smoot of the University of California, Berkeley, and the NPR Science Friday host Ira Flatow, have appeared on the show.

Lisa Randall, a Harvard particle theorist who has visited the show’s set twice and appeared as an uncredited extra in one scene said, “I do think the writers are genuinely clever.”

Lawrence Krauss, a cosmologist at Arizona State, and author of “The Physics of Star Trek,” said he had changed his initial dire opinion about the program. “First, because it is funny, and continues to be,” he said. “Second, because the characters have developed softer edges, and one of them has the girl!”

Sheldon and Leonard are not cool, but they have turned out to be lovable.

They were born out of brainstorming sessions Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady, the show’s producers, were having for a new program about a young woman out on her own. Mr. Prady started reminiscing about people he had known during his own days as a computer programmer in New York, like the guy who could do complicated mathematical conversions in his head, but could not figure out the tip in a restaurant, because he did not know how to quantify “service.” Their female character, they decided, should be a bridge into the world of such people, who can speak Klingon but do not know how to ask a woman out on a date. The show would be about the feeling, as Mr. Lorre described it, of “not quite fitting and understanding the rules of the road.”

In the show’s hierarchy of nerddom, Sheldon, played by Jim Parsons, is the king, socially clueless and irritatingly, rigidly rational (his former roommate left the words “Die Sheldon, Die” painted on the walls of his room), while Leonard, played by Johnny Galecki, is more of an everyman, trying to break out of his shell. “Leonard is in the most discomfort, he wants to move through the world,” said Mr. Lorre; Sheldon doesn’t care. Leonard’s efforts to establish and then maintain a romantic relationship with Penny have constituted a major part of the narrative arc of the first three seasons.

How does it feel to be such a freak? During a break from rehearsals recently, Mr. Parsons and Mr. Galecki both said they did not understand any of the scientific dialogue in the show. Mr. Parsons said his last interaction with academic science had been when he flunked a course in meteorology at the University of Houston.

But then again, he added, they did not understand all the pop culture references to comic books and “Star Trek” any better. “What am I trying to say by saying this is the most important thing,” he said.

Mr. Galecki said: “A lot of people thought it would be a show that poked fun at smart people, but it has become a show that defends smart people much more often than that. These guys, as socially inept as they might be, are the type of people that are molding our future as a society.”

Mr. Parsons memorizes his lines by writing them out longhand and says he is astonished when people ask if the actors on the show ever improvise. “To veer away from the scripted dialog is a one-way trip to sudden death,” he said.

Still, problems and questions arise, which is where David Saltzberg, a particle physicist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the show’s scientific consultant, comes in. Besides supplying the equations that appear on whiteboards in Sheldon and Leonard’s living room, he sometimes advises on the plotting and characters’ scientific predilections.

Dr. Saltzberg, who blogs about his activities on the show, said that many of the people who grouse to him about the show have not seen very much of it. His comments were echoed by Mr. Prady, one of the producers, who rejected the notion that the show stereotypes women. “Far from being a dumb blonde, Penny has demonstrated time and again that she possesses above average intelligence and practical knowledge that often far exceeds that of the guys,” he wrote in an e-mail message.

Indeed a perusal of the first two seasons turns up a wider variety of women in science than you might have thought, including Leslie Winkle, another Caltech physicist who seduces Leonard into a one-night stand and corrects an error on Sheldon’s whiteboard in the process.

The point of the show, Mr. Prady said, is to tell small stories. “We are not doing ‘Lost,’ we’re not doing a complex novel for TV,” he said. “We follow the characters, and let them tell us what they’re going to do next. We’re telling stories about outsiders. We all feel like outsiders. Can you find love? Penny pulls Leonard to the outside world; Sheldon pulls him back.”

Mr. Lorre said that the whole “challenge and joy” of a series like this is character development. “Maybe at the end of the day this will inspire some kids to go into physics,” he added, “just like ‘Cheers’ inspired countless young people to go into bars.”

Dennis Overbye, New York Times

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/27/science/27bang.html

The Search for Genes Leads to Unexpected Places

HUNTER Edward M. Marcotte and colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin have found hundreds of genes involved in human disorders.

Edward M. Marcotte is looking for drugs that can kill tumors by stopping blood vessel growth, and he and his colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin recently found some good targets — five human genes that are essential for that growth. Now they’re hunting for drugs that can stop those genes from working. Strangely, though, Dr. Marcotte did not discover the new genes in the human genome, nor in lab mice or even fruit flies. He and his colleagues found the genes in yeast.

“On the face of it, it’s just crazy,” Dr. Marcotte said. After all, these single-cell fungi don’t make blood vessels. They don’t even make blood. In yeast, it turns out, these five genes work together on a completely unrelated task: fixing cell walls.

Crazier still, Dr. Marcotte and his colleagues have discovered hundreds of other genes involved in human disorders by looking at distantly related species. They have found genes associated with deafness in plants, for example, and genes associated with breast cancer in nematode worms. The researchers reported their results recently in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The scientists took advantage of a peculiar feature of our evolutionary history. In our distant, amoeba-like ancestors, clusters of genes were already forming to work together on building cell walls and on other very basic tasks essential to life. Many of those genes still work together in those same clusters, over a billion years later, but on different tasks in different organisms.

Studies like this offer a new twist on Charles Darwin’s original ideas about evolution. Anatomists in the mid-1800s were fascinated by the underlying similarities of traits in different species — the fact that a bat’s wing, for example, has all the same parts as a human hand. Darwin argued that this kind of similarity — known as homology — was just a matter of genealogy. Bats and humans share a common ancestor, and thus they inherited limbs with five digits.

Some 150 years of research have amply confirmed Darwin’s insight. Paleontologists, for example, have brought ambiguous homologies into sharp focus with the discovery of transitional fossils. A case in point is the connection between the blowholes of whales and dolphins and the nostrils of humans. Fossils show how the nostrils of ancestral whales moved from the tip of the snout to the top of the head.

In the 1950s, the study of homology entered a new phase. Scientists began to discover similarities in the structure of proteins. Different species have different forms of hemoglobin, for example. Each form is adapted to a particular way of life, but all descended from one ancestral molecule.

When scientists started sequencing DNA, they were able to find homologies between genes as well. From generation to generation, genes sometimes get accidentally copied. Each copy goes on to pick up unique mutations. But their sequence remains similar enough to reveal their shared ancestry.

A trait like an arm is encoded in many genes, which cooperate with one another to build it. Some genes produce proteins that physically join together to do a job. In other cases, a protein encoded by one gene is required to switch on other genes.

It turns out that clusters of these genes — sometimes called modules — tend to keep working together over the course of millions of years. But they get rewired along the way. They respond to new signals, and act to help build new traits.

In an influential 1997 paper, Sean B. Carroll of the University of Wisconsin, Neil Shubin of the University of Chicago and Cliff Tabin of Harvard Medical School coined a term for these borrowed modules: “deep homology.”

Since then, scientists have gotten a far more detailed look at many examples of deep homology. Dr. Carroll and his colleagues, for example, recently figured out how the spots on a fly’s wing evolved through rewiring modules. A tiny fly called Drosophila guttifera sports a distinctive pattern of 16 polka dots on its wings. Dr. Carroll and his colleagues discovered that the module of genes that sets the location of the spots is the same module that lays out the veins and sensory organs in the wings of many fly species. The module was later borrowed in Drosophila guttifera to lay down dots, too.

Our own eyes are also the product of deep homology. The light-sensing organs of jellyfish seem very different from our eyes, for example, but both use the same module of genes to build light-catching molecules.

Scientists are also discovering that our nervous system shares an even deeper homology with single-celled organisms. Neurons communicate with each other by forming connections called synapses. The neurons use a network of genes to build a complete scaffolding to support the synapse. In February, Alexandre Alié and Michael Manuel of the National Center for Scientific Research in France reported finding 13 of these scaffold-building genes in single-celled relatives of animals known as choanoflagellates.

No one is sure what choanoflagellates use these neuron-building genes for. The one thing that is certain is that they don’t build neurons with them.

Until now, scientists have simply stumbled across examples of deep homology. Dr. Marcotte wondered if it was possible to speed up the pace of discovery.

The evidence for deep homologies, he reasoned, might already be waiting to be found in the scientific literature — specifically, in the hundreds of thousands of studies scientists have conducted on how various genes worked in various species.

Scientists have identified thousands of genes that can give rise to diseases in humans when they mutate. Other researchers have systematically mutated each of the 6,600 genes in yeast and observed how the mutant yeast fare under different conditions. If Dr. Marcotte could analyze data like these, he reasoned, he might find gene modules doing different things in distantly related species.

Dr. Marcotte and his colleagues amassed a database of 1,923 associations between genes and diseases in humans. They added more than 100,000 additional associations between genes and traits in species including mice, yeast and nematode worms.

The scientists then searched for related genes that produced different traits in different species. They discovered, for example, that five genes known to help build blood vessels were closely related to five genes that yeast cells use to fix their cell walls.

Discovering these shared genes then allowed Dr. Marcotte and his colleagues to make new discoveries. Their database had a total of 67 genes that fix cell walls in yeast. If yeast and humans inherited an ancient gene module, we might use related versions of other yeast genes to build blood vessels.

The scientists studied the 62 other wall-fixing yeast genes. To do so, they found related versions in frogs and watched how each one behaved in the developing frog embryo. The scientists discovered that five of the additional yeast genes also made proteins found in developing blood vessels. To see how important these proteins were for building blood vessels, the scientists shut down, one by one, the genes that carried the instructions for each protein, and observed how frog embryos developed.

“We ended up with a dramatic loss of blood vessels,” said John Wallingford, a University of Texas developmental biologist and co-author of the study. Dr. Marcotte wondered if humans might also share modules with much more distantly related organisms: plants. He and his colleagues expanded their database with 22,921 associations between genes and traits scientists have found in the mustard plant Arabidopsis thaliana.

To their surprise, the scientists discovered 48 modules shared by plants and people. “There was a lot of screaming in the halls for that one,” Dr. Marcotte said.

The scientists picked out one particularly strange module shared by plants and people for closer study. In humans, the genes have been linked to a rare genetic disorder called Waardenburg syndrome. It is caused by a disturbance in a group of cells in embryos called neural crest cells. Normally, the neural crest cells crawl through the embryo and form a strip running along the back. They then give rise to nerve cells, pigment-producing cells and some bones of the skull. People with Waardenburg syndrome have symptoms scattered across the parts of the body produced by neural crest cells. They may include deafness; widely spaced eyes; a white forelock of hair; and white patches on their face.

The scientists discovered that two Waardenburg-linked genes matched mustard plant genes for sensing gravity. If these genes are disabled by a mutation, a plant can’t grow upright.

Dr. Marcotte and his colleagues found three more gravity-sensing plant genes in their database. They decided to see if any of the three also played a role in Waardenburg syndrome.

The scientists found that one of the gravity-sensing plant genes became active in the neural crest cells of frog embryos. When they silenced the gene in those neural crest cells, the embryos became deformed.

Dr. Carroll (who also writes a science column for The New York Times) saw the new research as a logical progression from early studies. “It warms our hearts that deep homology is gaining traction like this,” he said.

“This is a very effective way to find human disease genes,” said David Platchetzski of the University of California, Davis, who was not involved in the study. “You can move forward much more quickly.”

Carl Zimmer, New York Times

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/27/science/27gene.html

Researchers Find Rare Giant Worm Doesn’t Live Up to Its Billing

Once feared extinct, the giant Palouse earthworm, reputed to grow up to three feet long and smell like lilies, has been found alive.

It turns out though, experts say, the worm is not a giant, nor does it have a lilylike scent.

Researchers thought the translucent worm with the pink head, last seen in the 1980s, might be extinct because its habitat, the Palouse prairie region of Idaho and Washington, is almost gone. On March 27, however, Karl Umiker, a University of Idaho research support scientist, working with Shan Xu, a graduate student from Chengdu, China, discovered two giant Palouse earthworms, a juvenile and an adult, on a small patch of native prairie near Moscow, Idaho.

As it turns out, the worms are bigger than night crawlers but not giant. The two specimens, the adult of which had to be killed and dissected to determine it was indeed a giant Palouse earthworm, were about seven inches long when they came from the ground.

“But when we stretched it out and relaxed it, the adult earthworm got bigger,” said Jodi Johnson-Maynard an associate professor of soil and water management and Mr. Umiker’s supervisor. “It’s between nine and 10 inches.”

She admits that’s a far cry from earlier claims of three-foot worms. “We tried to track that story down,” Dr. Johnson-Maynard said, and discovered that many years ago there was one giant specimen. “Apparently some boy was swinging it in the air like a rope and it stretched.”

Giant earthworms do exist in Africa and Australia, she said, and so it was thought that a North American version was possible.

And the fragrance of lilies? “That I have never noted,” Dr. Johnson-Maynard said. She did not know the origin of that claim.

Still, Dr. Johnson-Maynard said finding the worms was a scientific coup. “Most people thought it was extinct, or that it never even existed,” she said, “like the Loch Ness monster.”

The idea of a giant, white, perfumed earthworm churning its way through the prairies of Idaho has captured imaginations, and the project has received a lot more news media attention than comparable worm studies.

The worms are unusual — they are transparent, and their organs and food can be discerned through their skin.

Samuel James, an earthworm taxonomist at the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute, performed the dissection. “Yes, in all particulars, it matches the original description of the giant Palouse earthworm,” Dr. James said. The species was first described in 1897.

“I hate to disappoint the world,” he continued, “but the term giant doesn’t really fit.”

The last live worms were found in the 1980s. Worms were found by researchers in 2005 and 2007, but they were killed during recovery. There were numerous sightings in the 19th century before most of the native prairie was plowed up for wheat.

Dr. Johnson-Maynard was disappointed the adult had to be killed to be identified, but inspecting digestive organs is the only way to tell for sure. Now, however, she said, DNA from the sacrificial worm should enable less drastic measures.

Dr. Johnson-Maynard suspects that there are more giant Palouse earthworms, and that they are considered rare in part because they are so hard to find. While most worms live in the top foot of soil, she said, “the giant Palouse can burrow much deeper, about 15 feet.” They can also sense disturbance and flee to deeper ground when researchers are digging.

The researchers used an electroshock device to find the worms. Called the octet method, it involves sticking eight electrodes into the ground in a one-foot circle pattern, and sending electricity through them. It is believed to be what brought the worms to the surface.

The scientific name for the worm is Driloleirus americanus, a separate genus and species than other worms. The creature is different than other worms in a couple of ways. It has more nephidia, a kidney-like organ that allows it to live in dryer conditions than other worms. And their clitellum, a smooth band that all worms have, is in a different location.

Meanwhile another worm, in the same genus as the giant Palouse, has been discovered by Dr. James in Washington State, at Beacon Rock State Park. “It’s translucent, and if it’s been eating black dirt you can see the dark stuff moving around inside,” he said.

Environmentalists have petitioned the federal government to list the giant Palouse earthworm as endangered, and considering the near complete loss of the creature’s habitat, Dr. James thinks listing is prudent.

The remaining juvenile giant Palouse earthworm, meanwhile, is resting comfortably, Dr. Johnson-Maynard said. “We have it in a cooler in soil with ice packs.”

Jim Robbins, New York Times

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/27/science/27earthworm.html

Porn Didn’t Give Bernie Madoff His Start

Surfing the Web is not the cause of the SEC’s problems.

Ever since the dawn of the culture wars, when widespread obscenity seemed to symbolize all that was going wrong with America, no subject has furnished more demagogue gold than pornography. Of course, it backfires against the family values set on a fairly regular basis—the latest example being that Republican National Committee outing to a bondage-themed nightclub in Los Angeles—but for grandstanding purposes nothing can beat it.

Take, for example, the current outrage at the Securities and Exchange Commission, where, according to an inspector general report that was made public late last week, employees spent a great deal of time and used up prodigious amounts of computer resources gazing at Internet pornography. What’s more, their porn habits date back to 2007 and 2008, when the need for an attentive SEC was at its greatest.

The chorus of outrage is being led by California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, who fulminated as follows to the Washington Post last Friday: “This stunning report should make everyone question the wisdom of moving forward with plans to give regulators like the SEC even more widespread authority.”

Now, if you’re looking for reasons why the SEC failed in the past they aren’t hard to come by. Start with political leaders who clearly didn’t believe in the mission; proceed to the agency’s grotesquely underfunded workplace where lawyers had to do their own filing, mail-sorting and photocopying; and arrive, finally, at the revolving door, which sometimes transformed SEC jobs into stations on the Wall Street career path and worked fairly predictable effects on enforcement.

This was an agency whose mandate, essentially, was to crawl out on an ice floe and die. Were we to look closely at its employees’ computing habits during the Bush years, I bet we’d also find that they bought stuff on eBay, wrote copious email, and read a lot of blogs.

But it’s more fun to blame everything on pornography. And so, it is suggested, porn is the reason Bernard Madoff got away with it; porn may be why Lehman Brothers failed; with enough effort we can probably figure out ways to blame porn for every federal foulup from Toyota to FEMA. Blaming porn shifts the focus away from tricky things like the 30-year-old deregulatory consensus and turns the hate on a familiar villain: depraved government functionaries, whose twisted appetites are never fully repressed by their rumpled sack suits.

Not all conservatives find the demagoguery of smut so enticing, however. If your fear and loathing of the state are pure enough, you probably believe the government has no more business policing morality than it does, say, protecting the environment. That’s why, in certain libertarian quarters, defending the rights of pornographers has become a kind of holy cause.

The Internet-spawned “pornocopia” that surrounds us today “might be called John Stuart Mill’s wet dream,” declared a 2001 editorial in Reason magazine, where the defense of porn seems to be as much of a staple as is denunciation of the Food and Drug Administration.

Indeed, the revelations about porn consumption at the SEC must be a libertarian’s own wet dream. Here you have a libertarian cause célèbre—the endless, uncontrollable oceans of Internet pornography—somehow drowning that libertarian bête noir, regulatory enforcement. Polymorphous perversity itself managed to muzzle Big Brother.

How awesome is that? Why, it’s as awesome as if Ayn Rand herself returned to earth and—shrieking, “bow to Goldman Sachs, parasites!”—led the bank industry’s lobbyists to victory over the financial reform bill.

Libertarians aren’t celebrating, though: they’ve apparently joined forces with the scolds. “Regulators inevitably download porn, either figuratively or literally,” writes Reason editor Matt Welch on the CNN Web site. “Expecting regulators to do their job well” is “fantastical.”

What we have here, in other words, is a lesson in the eternal futility of government. Federal employees will download images from skankwire-dot-com; as stunted moral creatures, it’s just what bureaucrats do. Regulation will always fail; the answer is to quit trying.

What all of this overlooks is the highly advanced concept known as “change.” The purpose of federal agencies can be redefined and their personnel changed. Once upon a time, the SEC performed well; then it performed poorly.

And now that it threatens to perform well again, we are told it can only fail, that no federal operation can ever overcome the unalterable depravity of its employees.

One thing that may come out of all this is a wiser and stronger conservative movement. Libertarians must have learned that moral finger-wagging is justified when it helps to discredit regulators. And surely the family-values crowd has come to understand the glory of porn. It is, they can now see, just another weapon in the deregulator’s arsenal, as powerful a tool in securing bureaucratic somnolence as the services of any lobby shop on K Street.

Thomas Frank, Wall Street Journal

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704471204575210550829251026.html

Is Financial Innovation the Enemy?

Hedging against risk is hardly evidence of misbehavior.

Whether Goldman is bad, very bad or very, very good depends on what business you think it should be in. But its troubles have also brought out the dime-store Jeremiahs declaiming on the perniciousness of “derivatives.”

First off, no security is more derivative than a share of stock, which is not really ownership of a company (though it’s usually claimed so) but merely a right to whatever cash management deigns to share, plus a right to whatever is left over in a bankruptcy, plus a right to participate in corporate governance in whatever limited ways a company’s bylaws permit.

A welcome for Goldman Sachs executives at yesterday’s Senate hearing.

Only an infinitesimal fraction of share sales actually finance something “real.” Most are exchanges between one punter and another. Too, any serious person knows that the best guarantee of performance is not a company’s bylaws or the SEC, but making sure the CEO owns a large chunk of stock.

By comparison, the Goldman “Abacus” CDO is simplicity itself, despite much malpractice in the press.

The CDO was not “designed to fail.” The securities that failed were the simple, wholesome straightforward mortgages that the CDO “referenced,” which were designed to extract a fair return from people who supposedly cherished their homes and would strive to pay their bills.

The CDO itself performed exactly as advertised: It paid off the winner of two opposing bets about whether large numbers of mortgage borrowers would default.

Nor was the trade the equivalent of “taking out fire insurance on your neighbor’s house,” at least in the sense that your intentions were different from what the insurer expected. Instead, it’s like you and an insurance company having the following conversation:

You: “I think house X is going to burn down.”

Insurance company: “We don’t think it will burn down and we know more about houses than you do.”

You: “It will burn down.”

Insurance company: “Will not.”

You and insurance company simultaneously: “Let’s bet!”

This is a distortion only in that it underestimates the amount of iteration. The first warning of a housing bubble in The Journal came in August 2001, just weeks after the tech crash. The debate was in full swing by late 2006, when Goldman began putting together the Abacus CDO.

Most gobsmacking, however, is the assertion that such “side bets” serve no legitimate social function.

Come again? With so many financial institutions sitting on massive portfolios of mortgages, how on earth could a mechanism to share some of the risk with willing counterparties fail to be useful? Would that more banks had done so, or that one of those counterparties (AIG) had held up its end more competently.

And how can anyone doubt the utility of John Paulson, after witnessing how vulnerable our individual savings and wealth are to large-scale blunders in the financial system? By engineering the deal, he may have walked away with a disproportionate accretion to his own net worth. For his clients, his timely shorts were probably the difference between losing a lot and losing less in the general crash. If we’re going to have a financial system so prone to catastrophic mistakes, we’re all going to need a John Paulson.

The disingenuousness is thick with the selective release of Goldman emails by Congressional investigators in advance of yesterday’s grilling of Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein, the subtext of which was that when Americans see the value of their homes plummet, it’s unpatriotic if not criminal not to have lost money along with them. Better than what Mr. Blankfein says now in his defense, though, is the fuller version of what he emailed to colleagues at the time: “Of course we didn’t dodge the mortgage mess. We lost money, then made more than we lost because of shorts. It’s not over, so who knows how it will turn out ultimately.”

To anyone not in an unseemly haste to join the Goldman whipping detail, this sounds like what every banker should have been thinking at the time: “The future is unknown and scary. Let’s hope we’re properly hedged.”

For the truth is, the “mortgage mess” would likely not have metastasized into a global financial crisis if similar emails were now to be found in the records of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Bear Stearns, Citigroup, Washington Mutual, AIG, Lehman, etc.

Not beyond the wit of man (though apparently beyond the wit of the current Congress) is changing the incentives so housing and other lenders will be less driven or tempted to create “systemic risk.” In the meantime, however, all the hooey over Goldman could have genuinely dangerous consequences if it causes Washington to lose the political stomach to backstop the system with its own credit next time a panic threatens a blind run as it did in late 2008.

Holman W. Jenkings, Jr.

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704471204575209953018044516.html

International Law and Order

President Obama flirts with the ‘world court.’

Step by tentative step, the Obama Administration is getting closer to embracing the International Criminal Court. The White House won’t join the Hague-based body soon, but that’s its logical endpoint.

Answerable to virtually no one, the ICC was created by the 1998 United Nations’s Rome Statute to prosecute war and other “serious” crimes. It has yet to convict anyone. President Clinton signed the Rome treaty but didn’t submit it for Senate ratification and urged his successor not to, citing the absence of protections against prosecutions of America’s servicemen. In 2002, the Bush Administration informed the U.N. that the U.S. felt in no way legally bound by Mr. Clinton’s signature.

The Obama Administration is taking steps to re-engage with the ICC. For the first time, the U.S. showed up last November at a meeting of ICC signatory countries. The American delegation included the State Department’s top lawyer, Harold Koh, a vocal ICC proponent. Next month, U.S. observers will go to a special “review conference” in Uganda that will consider changes to the Rome Statute.

Some U.S. officials, such as Mr. Koh, support what they call “pragmatic cooperation” with the ICC—for example, helping it with investigations and sitting in on court bodies.

Proponents argue that this would give the U.S. a voice on decisions that affect its interests, such as helping the ICC define the “crime of aggression.” U.S. officials were stunned that a recent draft defining aggression was so wide-reaching that NATO would have been criminally liable in the 1999 Kosovo war. The court’s powers aren’t retroactive, but proponents ask why shouldn’t the U.S. be in the room to stop this nonsense in the future?

Color us skeptical. The ICC’s indictments have so far targeted nasty characters in Africa, but the court has always resisted outside oversight, especially from the U.S. What’s more, no amount of reform of the founding treaty will change the ICC’s inherent flaw. The ICC is a child of the doctrine of “universal jurisdiction,” which holds that courts can adjudicate crimes committed anywhere in the world. Politically ambitious prosecutors in Belgium, Britain and Spain have invoked “universality” to go after Ariel Sharon and Donald Rumsfeld, among others, for alleged war crimes.

Eight years ago, Mr. Koh hailed the court’s creation as “an international Marbury versus Madison moment,” referring to the 1803 Supreme Court decision that gave a fledgling court authority over other branches of government. By this logic, the world court should have similar power over America’s democratic decisions and global leadership. No thanks.

From the Balkans to East Timor to the Mideast, these pages have welcomed international action to stop atrocities. In select cases, such as the U.N. war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, we’ve backed ad hoc courts with a narrow mandate, limited life and proven commitment to fairness. The ICC meets none of those standards.

Moral grand-standing via indictments also isn’t the same as doing something about crimes against humanity. The indictment of Sudan’s butcher of Darfur, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, made him harder to dislodge, and absent serious intervention, it has probably prolonged the suffering there.

The ICC is spending $125 million on a six-building campus near the Hague. The U.S. may not be able to stop the latest U.N.-style bureaucracy from rising, but that’s no reason to invest American credibility and resources in this project.

Editorial, Wall Street Journal

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703312504575141612124394380.html

It’s Only Called the Bully Pulpit

Attacking the motives of critics is not presidential.

President Barack Obama’s speech last week at New York Cooper’s Union showcased two unattractive verbal leitmotifs. The first was the president’s reliance on straw-man arguments. America, he said, need not “choose between two extremes . . . markets that are unfettered by even modest protections against crisis, or markets that are stymied by onerous rules.”

Mr. Obama was right in calling this “a false choice.” Who is suggesting that Wall Street should not be regulated?

The other, more troubling rhetorical device was Mr. Obama’s labeling his opponents as “special interests,” and demanding that they stop disagreeing with him and get on board his legislative express. Speaking to bank executives, he decried the “furious effort of industry lobbyists to shape” financial regulation legislation—a barb aimed at the investment bankers in the audience who have hired lobbyists. The president urged “the titans of industry” to whom he was speaking “to join us, instead of fighting us.”

While criticizing political opponents is standard operating White House procedure, the practice of summoning critics to bully them in public is unpresidential and worrisome.

Before his health-care bill passed, Mr. Obama sent a tough letter to health-insurance CEOs and then castigated them 22 times in a follow-up prime-time televised speech. This is behavior worthy of a Third World dictator—not the head of a vibrant democracy.

Mr. Obama has also excoriated drug and health-insurance companies, while remaining content to have them spend tens of millions of dollars on ads supporting his health-care bill. This smacked of Chicago-style shake-down politics.

Too often, Mr. Obama disparages those who disagree with him as having venal, illegitimate motivations. In his Cooper Union speech he berated the “battalions of financial industry lobbyists” for their “misleading arguments and attacks.” He blamed their “withering forces” for buckling “a bipartisan process” that had “produced . . . a common-sense, reasonable, non-ideological approach.”

Maybe the renowned lecturer of constitutional law at the University of Chicago should reacquaint himself with Federalist No. 10. James Madison, a father of the Constitution, suggested that there are “two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction.”

One was to destroy “the liberty which is essential to its existence”—something that is anathema to our democratic system. The other was to give “to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests,” which is impossible.

“The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man,” Madison wrote. Recognizing this led the Founders to create a system in which competition between interests restrains government, cools passions, and forces political compromise. This has kept our politics floating around the center.

Mr. Obama’s attacks on his critics are not only unbecoming; they undermine a political process that would otherwise trend toward occasional bipartisan compromise. They are also hypocritical. Mr. Obama said in New York last week that “a lack of consumer protections and . . . accountability” created the credit crisis. As a senator in 2005, he joined Sen. Chris Dodd (D., Conn.) to threaten to filibuster a GOP effort to rein in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac when it was still possible to diminish the role those companies would play in the financial crisis. He later voted for the Fannie and Freddie reforms after the two went belly up in 2008.

But it is the president’s intimidation that is most troubling. Mr. Obama has the disturbing tendency to question the motives of those who disagree with him, often making them the objects of ad hominem attacks. His motives, on the other hand, are pure.

Mr. Obama often makes it seem illegitimate to challenge his views, and he isn’t content to argue issues on the merits. Instead, he wants to make opponents into pariahs. And it’s not just business executives who are on the receiving end. We’ve also seen this pattern with the administration’s attacks on the tea party movement and those who attended town-hall meetings last summer on health care.

This is a bad habit—and a dangerous one. The presidency is a very powerful office, and presidents need to be careful not to use it to silence dissenting voices.

Mr. Obama will learn these efforts don’t work. In a big, free nation like ours, people want to debate the issues. They don’t take kindly to arrogant leaders who believe it is their right to silence the opposition—by either driving them out of the legislative process or pushing them out of the public debate with fiery rhetoric. Through the anonymity of a ballot box and beyond the power of presidential intimidation, voters can express their discontent and they will.

Mr. Rove, the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush, is the author of “Courage and Consequence” (Threshold Editions, 2010).

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704423504575212311929122830.html

Obama’s Jerusalem Stonewall

Demanding a construction freeze in the capital reverses decades of U.S. policy.

Thanks to a deadlock engineered by the U.S. government, the Middle East peace process is stalled. President Obama began this stalemate last year when he called for a settlement freeze, and he escalates it now with a major change of American policy regarding Jerusalem.

The president seeks to prohibit Israel from any construction in its capital, in particular in a Jewish suburb of East Jerusalem called Ramat Shlomo. This, despite the fact that all former administrations have unequivocally understood that the area in question would remain part of Israel under any final peace agreement. Objecting to any building in this East Jerusalem neighborhood is tantamount to getting the Israelis to agree to the division of Jerusalem before final status talks with the Palestinians even begin.

From the start of his presidency, Mr. Obama has undermined Israel’s confidence in U.S. support. He uses the same term—”settlements”—to describe massive neighborhoods that are home to tens of thousands of Jews and illegal outposts of a few families. His ambiguous use of this loaded word raises the question for Israelis about whether this administration really understands the issue.

It certainly sends signals to the Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority followed the president’s lead and refused to proceed with planned talks until Israel stops all so-called settlement activities, including in East Jerusalem.

President Obama’s attitude toward Jerusalem betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the history of the city. After Israel was recognized as a new state in 1948, it was immediately attacked by the combined armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The attacks were repelled, but the Jordanians, who were asked not to join the Egyptian war effort, conquered East Jerusalem and separated it from its western half. In 1967, the Arab armies again sought to destroy Israel, but it prevailed in the famous Six Day War and reconquered East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip.

Under Jordanian rule, from 1948 to 1967, dozens of synagogues were destroyed or vandalized. The ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives was desecrated, its tombstones used for the construction of roads and Jordanian army latrines. The rights of Christians as well as Jews were abused, with some churches converted into mosques.

When Israel captured the eastern part of Jerusalem in 1967 it built, and has since continued to build, neighborhoods for its Jewish residents. Palestinian Arabs have also built in Jerusalem throughout this period. Incidentally, today there is more new Arab housing (legal and illegal) being built than Jewish housing according to a report by Middle East expert Tom Gross—without any criticism from the Obama administration.

But this is all recent history: Israel’s claim over Jerusalem does not spring from 1948 or 1967. Rather, it signifies the revival of historic rights stemming from biblical times.

Jerusalem is not just another piece of territory on a political chessboard: It is integral to the identity and faith of the Jewish people. Since the city was founded by King David some 3,500 years ago, Jews have lived there, worked there, and prayed there. During the First and Second Temple periods, Jews from across the kingdom would travel to Jerusalem three times a year for the Jewish holy days, until the Roman Empire destroyed the Second Temple in 70 A.D. That ended Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem for the next 2,000 years, but the Jews never relinquished their bond.

Jerusalem is much less embedded in Muslim culture. When Muslims pray, they face Mecca, not Jerusalem. The Old Testament mentions Jerusalem, or its alternative name Zion, a total of 457 times. The Koran does not mention Jerusalem once. Muhammad, who founded Islam in 622 A.D., was born and raised in what is now Saudi Arabia; he never set foot in Jerusalem. And in the 1,300 years that various Islamic dynasties ruled Jerusalem, not one Islamic dynasty ever made the city its capital. Indeed, even the National Covenant of the PLO, written in 1964, never mentions Jerusalem. It was only added after Israel regained control of the city in 1967.

The reality today is that in the area referred to as East Jerusalem— that is, an area north, south and east of the city’s 1967 borders—there are roughly a half a million Jews and Arabs living in intertwined neighborhoods. The idea of a purely Jewish West Jerusalem or a purely Palestinian East Jerusalem is a myth: Building in particular neighborhoods in no way precludes the possibility of a two-state solution.

Ramat Shlomo, the center of the most recent row, is a thriving community of over 100,000 Jews located between two larger Jewish communities called Ramat and French Hill. Its growth would in no way interfere with the contiguity of new Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. And in every peace agreement that has ever been discussed, these areas would remain a part of Israel.

No wonder the Israelis reacted so strongly when Mr. Obama called this neighborhood “a settlement.” For over 43 years, there has been a tacit agreement that construction here did not constitute an obstacle to negotiations. Thus, the new policy was seen as an Obama administration effort to force Israel to accept the division of Jerusalem, taking yet another negotiating card off the table for the Israelis.

But what the world never remembers is what the Israelis can never forget. When Jordan controlled the eastern part of the city, including the Old City and the Western Wall (a retaining wall of the ancient Temple), it permitted reasonably free access to Christian holy places. But the Jews were denied any access to the Jewish holy places. This was a fundamental departure from the tradition of freedom of religious worship in the holy land, which had evolved over centuries, not to speak of a violation of the undertaking given by Jordan in the Armistice Agreement concluded with Israel in 1949. Nobody should expect the Jews to risk that again.

Since Israel reunited Jerusalem in 1967, it has faithfully protected the rights and security of Christians, Muslims and Jews. Christians now control the Ten Stations of the Cross; Muslims control the Dome of the Rock. Yet the Palestinians often stone Jewish civilians praying at the Western Wall below. Their leaders and imams repeatedly deny the Jewish connection to Jewish holy sites. Freedom of religion in Jerusalem should not be compromised by American policy.

That’s not all. Dividing Jerusalem would put Palestinian forces and rockets a few miles from Israel’s Parliament. And Jewish neighborhoods would be within range of light weapon and machine-gun fire. This is exactly what happened after the Oslo Accords, when the Palestinians fired from Beit Jalla toward Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood, wounding scores of residents.

The vast majority of Israelis believe Jerusalem must be shared—not divided. Even the great Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin, who signed the Oslo Accords, said in 1995: “There are not two Jerusalems; there is only one Jerusalem.”

The final status of Jerusalem will be on the table if and when Palestinians and Israelis talk. But Mr. Obama’s policy reversal has, yet again, given the Palestinians every reason not to negotiate.

Mr. Zuckerman is chairman and editor in chief of U.S. News & World Report.

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703465204575208711846560650.html

Smart Aleck-in-Chief?

There may be good reasons for Obama to go negative, but doing so could wreck his presidency.

Here’s a quiz: For which of the following reasons is the 44th president of the United States bad-mouthing Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, bankers, mine operators, insurers, Glenn Beck, the tea party, the Supreme Court and whoever he hammers as we go to press:

a) He’s rallying his base.

b) He’s rallying the Democrats’ base (one overlaps but does not equal the other).

c) He’s changing the subject from 9% unemployment.

d) To reverse his sinking approval ratings.

e) It’s what Saul Alinsky would do.

f) It’s what Barack Obama likes to do.

Astute readers instantly saw that the answer is, all of the above. (Incidentally, the left’s notion that Mr. Obama had to prove he could “stand up” to the Republicans must be laughable to the man who stood down the Clinton machine to win.)

Republicans such as Mitch McConnell, a target of Obamian invective, are calling it conduct unbecoming a president. They are right. Carter, Reagan, both Bushes and Ford didn’t do it. People assume the hyperpolitical Bill Clinton did it, but if memory serves, his public persona was presidential to a fault, even as he brimmed with Vesuvian anger.

But as Bill Clinton once explained to Bob Dole, in politics today you do what you’ve gotta do. On current course, Barack Obama’s approval rating is heading toward 40% and an almost certain Democratic wipeout in November. The result would be a moribund first term. The Obama White House has seen this movie before. It was called the second Bush term.

Bush 43 famously, and convincingly, said he didn’t care about polls. What got a little weird was that he kept saying this even when in 2007 his approvals plowed toward 30% and the Iraq War raged on. If you walk the halls of Congress now and ask the minority Republicans “Do you miss him yet?”—the answer is: no. Presidential deference killed them in 2008. When Vice President Dick Cheney was finally able to launch a counterattack, it was 2009.

Perhaps uncertain where his own vice president would go with such a killer assignment, Mr. Obama has decided to take down the opposition himself. This may be the Obama version of “you do what you gotta do,” but politics has a brutal truism even bigger than that: Will it work?

Let’s look at the reasons to justify going negative.

The Obama base. Modern Politics 101: Fail to max out with the base and you lose. The 2008 Obama victory was a miracle of base-raising. Minorities, neophyte voters, labor, wannabe lefties and suburban women voted for Mr. Obama at record levels. The bad news: That victory was rock-star politics, and if you’re the man, then the audience wants more of whatever fire drove them into the arena. In this hot new political world, a mere president may be boring. Crank them up, or lose. Go negative.

The Democratic base. This is the party’s bedrock: public-sector unions, plaintiffs lawyers, community organizers, the left-wing blogosphere, NGOs, Big Pharma. The fact that their economic interests are yoked forever to Democratic power ensures maximum effort. Do or die. For most of them, go-negative is chromosomal.

Unemployment. Top 10 reasons why the White House lies awake at night: The economy is reviving but employment is not. Solution: Attack Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. The White House knows that every day the media is writing or talking about their man’s cat fights with conservative celebrities, it isn’t doing stories about “Depression-like” unemployment. Go negative.

• Presidential approval ratings. At the time of his Inauguration, Mr. Obama’s Gallup approval stood at 69%, the highest since JFK. Today his RealClear Politics Approve/Disapprove aggregate is 48.3/46.0. He’s four points from 50% disapproval, which would be a benchmark of disaster for Democrats in November. Go negative? Maybe not.

There may be any number of good, political reasons for Mr. Obama to let it rip. But let’s cut to the real reason this is happening. The answer is (f): It’s what Barack Obama likes to do.

And it’s a mistake.

Even Achilles had a heel, and Mr. Obama’s may be his decision to be his own Saul Alinsky. Defining, demonizing and making a mockery of one’s opponents was one of Alinsky’s main rules for community organizers. But community organizers, though often charismatic, can also be annoying jerks.

The only Barack Obama the American people have ever known is the one presented to them from January 2007 onward—the amazing, improbable fellow in “Dreams from My Father.” Candidate Obama was about as perfect as it ever gets. The best since JFK.

JFK, an imperfect man, worked hard to stay perfect in public. So did FDR and Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. For Barack Obama to believe that any persona he offers the public will be OK with them is hubris. Showing voters a side of him that he enjoys, but many of them may not, is flirting with disaster. If all the positive vibe that held up his presidency on its first day ever breaks, the fall could be fast.

Daniel Henninger, Wall Street Journal

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704423504575212232624277058.html

Corriere della Sera Joins European Network

Italy’s Corriere della Sera on Tuesday joined the network of high quality European newspapers and magazines publishing in English created by Germany’s SPIEGEL ONLINE, Holland’s NRC Handelsblad and Denmark’s Politiken.

Milan’s Piazza Del Duomo: The city is also home to the website of Italy’s newspaper of record, Corriere della Sera.

Italy’s respected daily Corriere della Sera announced on Tuesday it would become the fourth partner in the European journalism network launched by NRC Handelsblad in the Netherlands, SPIEGEL ONLINE in Germany and Politiken in Denmark.

Under the agreement, Corriere della Sera, SPIEGEL ONLINE, NRC Handelsblad and Politiken will work together to establish a continent-wide network to provide English-speaking Web users everywhere with access to journalism from some of Europe’s most-respected sources.

“Corriere della Sera is proud to enter into an editorial partnership with the English-language sites of some of Europe’s best known media brands,” said Daniele Manca, vice editor at Corriere della Sera and editor in chief at Corriere della Sera’s website. “We look forward to contributing to this growing network of quality European publishers with outstanding journalism with an Italian perspective.”

The Milan-based daily, with an average of 1.6 million online readers every day, has been publishing news in English on Italian current affairs and culture online since 2004. Through its new partnership with publications with strong reputations for quality journalism elsewhere in Europe, Corriere della Sera will contribute news and perspectives on Italy and Europe from its English-language ” Italian Life” section.

‘European Media of Record’

“SPIEGEL ONLINE is pleased to have Corriere della Sera, with its rich history and journalistic traditions, as part of our network,” said Rüdiger Ditz, editor in chief of SPIEGEL ONLINE. “Together with Italy’s most venerated daily and our other partners in Rotterdam and Copenhagen, we plan to offer independent and opinion-shaping journalism on issues facing Europe and the international community from diverse perspectives. We plan to do this in a network modelled after airline alliances — one that promotes the members’ national identities while at the same time building the platform for a truly pan-European dialogue.”

“Adding a major southern European publication like Corriere della Sera to our network is very important,” said Birgit Donker, editor in chief of the Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad. “Corriere della Sera is the paper of record to inform the rest of the world about political and economical issues at play in Italy. Corriere’s stories should broaden the scope and perspective of coverage of European issues from our network.”

Diverse Perspectives from across the Continent

“It is with great pleasure that we welcome one of Europe’s great publications to our expanding network of European media of record,” said Politiken Editor-in-Chief Stig Ørskov. “Corriere della Sera will add substance and authority to our coverage of one of Europe’s most important regions. We look forward to developing new pan-European projects together and providing our readers with the incisive local reporting they seek,” he said, adding that negotiations are under way with other leading publications in order to expand the network further in 2010.

SPIEGEL ONLINE and NRC Handelsblad first joined forces in 2008 to establish the blueprint for an English-language network of private publishers across Europe. Since then, the two companies have frequently exchanged articles and cooperated on a number of joint journalistic projects, including collaborative reporting and online chats. After the network expanded in 2009 to include Denmark’s Politiken, the partners jointly covered the run-up to the European Parliament elections with interviews with opinion-makers across the Continent as part of our ” 27 Views of Europe” project.

With the expansion of the network, SPIEGEL ONLINE, NRC Handelsblad, Politiken and Corriere della Sera hope to lay the foundations for a pan-European platform for dialogue that represents diverse perspectives from across the continent.

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Full article and photo: http://www.spiegel.de/international/0,1518,691478,00.html

How Russia really won

It was not just the cold or the dogged spirit of the Russian people that forced Napoleon and his army to retreat

Russia Against Napoleon: The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace. By Dominic Lieven. Viking; 618 pages; $35.95. Allen Lane; £30.

FEW wars in modern history produced national myths more durable than the Napoleonic wars in Europe. The battles of Waterloo and Borodino, at the dawn of European nationalism, are part of British and Russian culture. In Russia’s case, the impact is amplified by Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”, which portrays the campaign as a true people’s war that owed its success to the elemental patriotism of the Russian nation and the wisdom and intuition of Mikhail Kutuzov, its great general. Tolstoy, writes Dominic Lieven, was not only a wonderful novelist. He was also the mythmaker who shaped the perception of Russia’s role for years to come.

Like any other country Russia prides itself on its military victories. In Mr Lieven’s view, the strange thing about Tolstoy’s version of history is not that it exaggerates Russia’s role in that era but that it plays it down. Tolstoy ends his novel’s war narrative in December 1812 with the remnants of the French army forced to retreat across the Russian border. Russia’s subsequent two-year-long campaign in the heart of Europe, which included the battle of Leipzig and ended in Paris, was of little interest to Tolstoy whose concern was national consciousness not imperial glory.

But it is of great interest to Mr Lieven, one of the ablest historians of imperial Russia. He dedicates half of “Russia Against Napoleon” (which was published this week in America though it came out in Britain a few months ago) to those events. Conducted outside Russia’s borders by commanders with distinctly foreign names, the 1813-14 campaign does not fit with national mythology. But it demonstrates the strength of Russia’s multi-ethnic empire and the depth of its integration in European affairs and security.

As he pursued his empire’s geopolitical interests, Alexander I managed to rally support from Prussia and Austria, presenting Russia’s invasion of Europe as liberation. In creating this favourable impression of the campaign, the tsar was helped not only by propaganda but by the remarkably disciplined behaviour of his troops who neither stole nor marauded as they advanced through Europe.

The central point made by Mr Lieven’s witty and impeccably scholarly book is that Russia owed its victory not to the courage of its national spirit or to the coldness of the 1812 winter, as some French sources have argued, but to its military excellence, superior cavalry, the high standards of Russia’s diplomatic and intelligence services and the quality of its European elite. Thanks to the intelligence he obtained, Alexander was able to outwit Napoleon, anticipating his invasion.

Napoleon’s intention was not to occupy Russia or overthrow Alexander by stirring a domestic revolt against him. He was counting on his superior force and his own military genius to destroy the Russian army swiftly and force the tsar to accept his peace terms. Alexander’s intention, on the other hand, was to destroy Napoleon and break his Grand Armée. Mikhail Barclay de Tolly, his war minister, devised and implemented the strategy of drawing Napoleon deep inside Russia, away from his supply base, exhausting his army by defensive war and then attacking.

Mr Lieven is no less gripping when he writes about the crucial issue of logistics. Vast financial and diplomatic resources were mobilised to feed the Russian soldiers and their horses thousands of kilometres from Russia’s borders. He zooms in and out of battlefields, examines the quality of uniforms and the conditions of weapons, creating an historic canvas that is both overwhelming and meticulous.

The irony is that although Mr Lieven contests Tolstoy’s artistic version of history, his book also revels in it, as its subtitle suggests. After all, at least in the first part of the book, he is writing about people and events brought to life by Tolstoy’s genius. He even has a personal connection to the story. An ancestor of his was Christoph von Lieven, a bright young general in Alexander’s entourage. Christoph’s mother was confidante and friend to Empress Marie, Alexander’s mother, and a prototype for Tolstoy’s Anna Scherer whose St Petersburg soirée opens the novel.

Although Mr Lieven does not popularise history, he inevitably touches the nerve points of modern power politics. His book is a timely reminder of Russia’s deep-rooted interest in European security and its past ability to pursue these interests with grace, honour, discipline and professionalism—virtues that are harder to reconstruct than any battle.

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Full article and photo: http://www.economist.com/culture/displaystory.cfm?story_id=15905807&source=most_commented

A God-given way to communicate

Fears about the demise of Arabic are misplaced

THE Arabic language is dying. Its disloyal children are ditching their mother tongue for English and French. It is stagnating in classrooms, mosques and the dusty corridors of government. Even such leaders as the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, and Jordan’s foreign-educated King Abdullah struggle with its complicated grammar. Worse still, no one cares. Arabic no longer has any cachet. Among supposedly sophisticated Arabs, being bad at Arabic has become fashionable.

That, at least, is an opinion prominently aired in the National, an English-language newspaper in Abu Dhabi. It reflects a perennial worry in the Arab world about the state of the language. Classical Arabic, the language of the Koran, and its modern version, Modern Standard Arabic, known in academia as MSA, are a world apart from the dialects that people use every day. Spoken and written in the media and on stuffy occasions, this kind of Arabic is no one’s mother tongue. It is painfully acquired through hours of poring over grammar textbooks and memorising the Koran. Could it one day become obsolete?

Arabic certainly faces competition. Clive Holes, a professor of Arabic at Oxford University, concedes that learning formal Arabic tends to be undervalued by students in the Middle East, many of whom increasingly see it as divorced from success in the real world, especially in the international sphere, where English prevails. A lack of investment in education by Arab governments means it is often badly taught. In the Gulf countries Westerners and Asians, neither with much Arabic, far outnumber native speakers.

But that hardly means the language is dying. Arabic is the essence of Arab identity. Arabs are inordinately proud of their linguistic heritage. Handed down by Allah, many believe the Koran must be read only in the classical mode in which it was written. Even non-Arabic speaking Muslims force themselves to learn enough of it to read it. Stumble though they may, Arabs from different countries are enabled by MSA to communicate.

The popularity of a recent television programme beamed from Abu Dhabi in which people competed to see who could best recite traditional Bedouin poetry suggests there is plenty of appetite for Arabic in all its forms. In the absence of an authentic Arabic word, people may instead use an English word like “zip”, as the writer in the National laments. But such changes and borrowings are inevitable and may be quite healthy. Arabic will evolve from the prescriptions of the grammar book, taking in new words and discarding obsolete ones. But as Mr Holes points out, this is a sign of dynamism rather than demise.

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Full article and photo: http://www.economist.com/world/middle-east/displaystory.cfm?story_id=15955462&source=hptextfeature