You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Author

Software that blurs a writer’s meaning is not progress.

We all know that you can’t tell a book by its cover, but technology is about to deliver its newest mixed blessing: Soon we won’t be able to tell a book by its author.

Last week one of the large textbook publishers, Macmillan, announced new software to let college instructors rewrite textbooks by substituting new material for what the author wrote. This will allow options such as deleting paragraphs or editing down to the level of individual sentences. The software can bring to print and e-textbooks what’s called a “mashup” in other forms like music and videos, where people alter the original with their own preferred version of the real thing.

This seems like another step in the progress of technology. Mistakes can be corrected and new views expressed with the wisdom of crowds—or at least the wisdom of professors—improving the work of a single author. Just as Wikipedia often delivers excellent group work, textbooks can get better with many people altering them.

But we have to wonder about the unintended consequences of a textbook absent an author. For example, since 1948 generations of students learned from Paul Samuelson’s “Economics,” which has sold four million copies. It had quirks and went through many editions. But it also was elegantly written and became canonical. What happens when students learn from what appears to be the same text but isn’t?

“Appalling and preposterous” is how Jaron Lanier described this idea to me last week. Mr. Lanier, the Silicon Valley computer scientist who popularized the term “virtual reality,” is now among a band of Internet pioneers who worry about its effects. Contrary to original assumptions about technology as a force for personal expression, he worries about minimizing individual creativity.

“Without Richard Feynman, where would physics be?” he asks. “Education is the ultimate form of expression. To think of it as a dry process devoid of personal creativity is to take a very antihuman approach.”

Without Feynman’s individual creativity, where would physics be?

Mr. Lanier’s new book, “You Are Not a Gadget,” rails against the Internet for promoting a “digital Maoism,” in which “a mashup is more important than the sources who were mashed.” He says anonymous groups creating content lack the accountability of an individual. “If you’re worried about history or science being politicized, a mashup will be even worse. Individual textbook authors are not perfect, but at least they have a voice with consistency and creativity.”

It is understandable that textbook publishers would embrace new technology. Their business model is under pressure from secondhand sales. Print and e-books customized by instructors for their own classes won’t be valuable in the used-book market, so innovative publishers reckon this will boost their economics.

Mr. Lanier warns this is another step in the open source, information-wants-to-be-free ideology. “Authors, journalists, musicians and artists are encouraged to treat the fruits of their intellects and imaginations as fragments to be given without pay to the hive mind,” he writes.

Blogs and social networks have boosted individual expression, but the Web paradoxically makes it harder to support professional creativity. Mr. Lanier, who is also a musician, researched the question of how new technologies have affected the ability of musicians to make a living. His conclusion is glum.

“By now, a decade and a half into the web era, when iTunes has become the biggest music store, in a period when companies like Google are the beacons of Wall Street, shouldn’t there be at least a few thousand initial pioneers of a new kind of musical career who can survive in our utopia?” Instead, “maybe after a generation or two without professional musicians, some new habitat will emerge that will bring them back.”

Mr. Lanier calls creative people the “new peasants” and likens them to “animals converging on shrinking oases of old media in a depleted desert.” In contrast, Silicon Valley views its own creativity differently and doesn’t give it away. Google and Apple don’t make the work product of their legions of engineers available for free. Venture capitalists would not agree to a mashup of their early-stage companies, with their investments reduced to divvied-up profits, if any.

In the case of textbooks there should at least be transparency when the relationship between authors and students is amended. Readers should be able to know they’ve read the book the author intended or what changes were made and why.

Technology creates opportunities, and the genie shouldn’t go back in the bottle. Still, the integrity and authenticity that a single author provides should not be lost. As Mr. Lanier reminds us, technological progress is great, but we need to be sure it doesn’t devalue our greatest growth driver, individual creativity.

Gordon Crovitz, Wall Street Journal


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Iran’s New World Order

Its nuclear program is part of a larger plan to radically reduce U.S. power.

Ahmad Khatami, an influential cleric and mentor to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, recently said publicly that the United States has to “regard Iran as a great power in the political sphere. The people of Iran have realized there is nothing you can do to us.”

The statement is part bravado, but it also offers an important clue about the Iranian regime’s mind set and ultimate goal. Its nuclear program, support for terrorism and stirring of anti-American sentiments are aimed at vaulting Iran to a position of global prominence.

Iran regards acquiring a nuclear-weapon capability as a crucial step to achieving international stature. And from its leaders’ perspective, why not? All five of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council have nuclear weapons and Israel, India and Pakistan all saw their influence grow after becoming nuclear states.

So Iranian officials dismiss the impact economic sanctions have on their country, use Western talk of regime change to repress internal opposition, and play down the extent of damage that military strikes could have on their nuclear programs. Mr. Ahmadinejad demonstrated Iran’s nonchalant response to foreign fury by announcing at the Islamic Revolution’s 31st anniversary celebration on Feb. 11 that Iran had successfully enriched uranium to 20% and is now “a nuclear state.”

Yet Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared a week later that use of nuclear weapons is undesired by Iran and prohibited by Islam: “We don’t have any belief in the atomic bomb and don’t pursue it.”

In an interview in Tehran last September, Mr. Ahmadinejad said, “We believe nuclear arms belong to the past and to the old generation.” And during his visit to Japan last week, Ali Larijani, speaker of Iran’s parliament, said that Iran could follow Japan’s example—gain the technology to build nuclear warheads, but not actually assemble them until they are necessary.

These statements suggest that the Iranian regime is rational and making a series of calculated geopolitical maneuvers. In Ahmadinejad’s own words, Tehran is attempting to craft a new world order: “We need to establish new systems and take measures based on those systems,” he said in October 2009, adding that “Many countries will join the new systems.”

To craft this new order, Iranian officials are testing the limits of U.S. power and influence, seeking to show that both are limited to hollow words and ineffective deeds. One way is by splitting Russia and China from the other nations in the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany) when it comes to imposing sanctions on Iran. By forcing such a split, Iranian officials hope to demonstrate that America and its partners are no longer pre-eminent.

Another way is by the support Tehran is extending to Hamas and Hezbollah; this is to thwart the U.S. and Israel and thereby become a player in the Middle Eastern peace process. The regime is also building strong diplomatic, economic and military ties with countries in Latin America to extend its influence to a region considered U.S. dominion since the Monroe Doctrine of 1823.

When asked by American news media in September 2009, Mr. Ahmadinejad stressed that “The world is on the threshold of major developments . . . . [F]or one or two countries to think . . . they are the ones who make the major global decisions which others should follow, well that period has come to an end.”

The Islamic Republic, in short, regards the U.S. as a washed-up world power that can no longer run the global show.

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have both said recently that the U.S. must lead the world. They are right. As the leader of the Free World, the U.S. can do much more than any other nation to extend prosperity and human freedom across the globe.

But words are insufficient. After constant demands, sporadic threats and inconsistent economic sanctions, the U.S. faces a profound leadership test on Iran. To keep its position of unparalleled influence, the U.S. must demonstrate that it can thwart both the Iranian regime’s nuclear and world-wide ambitions.

Mr. Choksy is a professor of Iranian, Islamic and international studies and a former director of the Middle Eastern studies program at Indiana University, Bloomington.


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Congress Tries to Break Hawaii in Two

A racial spoils precedent that could lead to new ‘tribal’ demands across the U.S.

Last week, the House of Representatives, in a largely party-line vote, passed the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act. Popularly known as “the Akaka bill,” this piece of legislation might turn out to be this Congress’s single most calamitous decision.

The bill creates a complex federal framework under which most of the nation’s approximately 400,000 ethnic Hawaiians can organize themselves into one vast Indian tribe. It endows the tribe with the “inherent powers and privileges of self-government,” including the privilege of sovereign immunity from lawsuit. It also by clear implication confers the power to tax, to promulgate and enforce a criminal code, and to exercise eminent domain. Hawaii will in effect be two states, not one.

The method used to create this tribe should make everyone squeamish. The bill delegates the delicate task of deciding who may join the tribe to a federal commission appointed by the secretary of the Interior. Ultimately, the tribe itself will have the power to expel members or invite new ones.

Earlier versions of the bill demanded that the secretary appoint only ethnic Hawaiians as commissioners. In the current version, only those with “10 years of experience in the study and determination of Native Hawaiian genealogy” and “an ability to read and translate . . . documents written in the Hawaiian language” may serve on the commission. These commissioners will examine an applicants’ backgrounds to ensure that only “qualified Native Hawaiians” with the right amount of Hawaiian blood join the tribe.

To understand all of this, you have to know something about the Aloha State’s racial entitlement system. The State’s Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), established in 1978, administers billions of dollars generated from lands the federal government ceded to the state decades ago. These monies should be used to benefit all Hawaiians. Instead they are spent on benefits for ethnic Hawaiians, including home loans and business loans as well as housing and education programs.

The protection of these benefits is what motivates supporters of the Akaka bill. Ten years ago, the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a Hawaiian law that limited the right to vote for those who oversee OHA to ethnic Hawaiians. The court ruled in that case, Rice v. Cayetano, that it violated the 15th Amendment’s prohibition on racial discrimination in voting rights.

Rice set off a firestorm that has not yet subsided. If OHA’s election methods were unconstitutional, then its racially-exclusive benefits were almost certainly also in violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. Something had to be done.

And it was. Shortly after Rice, Hawaii’s Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka introduced a bill in Congress to protect race-based benefits in his state. He did so by seeking to exploit a 1974 Supreme Court decision, Morton v. Mancari. In that case, the court found that racial discrimination on the basis of membership in “quasi-sovereign tribal entities” was constitutional. Following the logic of the ruling, Mr. Akaka and others hoped that by transforming ethnic Hawaiians from a race into a tribe they would effectively protect special benefits for ethnic Hawaiians.

Indeed, the benefits pot might even be sweetened by such a transformation. The Akaka bill provides that after the tribe is established, its leaders may negotiate with Hawaii for the transfer of land. Everyone involved understands this to refer to 1.4 million acres known as the Ceded Lands—lands that were ceded to the state by the federal government when statehood was granted in 1959. Some activists take the position that since these lands were once owned by the Hawaiian monarchy, they rightfully belong to ethnic Hawaiians. Some even argue the tribe’s ultimate goal should be secession from the United States.

Nevertheless, two problems remain. First, the Akaka bill privileges what is in fact a race, not a tribe. The very act of transforming a racial group into a tribal group confers a privilege on one race and not others and is thus unconstitutional. Second, while the Constitution implicitly gives the federal government the power to recognize tribes with a long and continuous history of separate self-governance, it does not give the power to confer sovereignty on new tribes, or to reconstitute a tribe whose members have long since become part of the mainstream culture.

If it did, all manner of mischief could be accomplished, as ethnic Hawaiians will not be the last group to demand special status. Some activists argue that Southern California should be set aside as a homeland for Mexican Americans of Indian descent. Right now, that idea looks like pure fantasy. If the Akaka bill becomes law, it will suddenly become more plausible.

What’s more, the Amish in Pennsylvania and the Orthodox Jews in New York could also start to see a benefit from constituting themselves as a tribe, since tribes, unlike federal and state governments, are free to establish theocratic governments. On what ground will Congress say no to these and other would-be tribes?

Mr. Akaka’s supporters argue that the American government was complicit in the 1893 overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani, which they believe illegally denied not just the queen’s individual right of sovereignty, but her subjects’ collective right, too. They see this bill as an appropriate remedy.

This historical claim has been hotly debated. Even assuming American complicity, however, it is beside the point. The Kingdom of Hawaii was a multiracial society from its inception in 1810, when King Kamehameha united what had previously been a group of warring islands.

In the true spirit of Aloha, its rulers were welcoming of immigrants, who came from all over the world, including Portugal, China, Japan, the United States, Great Britain and Germany. The 1840 Hawaiian constitution declared that “all races” were of “one blood” and established a bicameral parliament whose members were multiracial. By 1893, ethnic Hawaiians were a population minority.

This cosmopolitan, constitutional monarchy was no kinship-based tribe. Anyone born on Hawaiian soil or swearing allegiance to the queen was considered the queen’s subject and hence “Hawaiian.” No single race was deprived of “its” sovereignty rights by the overthrow.

In 1959, 94.3% of Hawaiian voters cast ballots in favor of statehood. Within months, Hawaii became the 50th state. No one argued then that ethnic Hawaiians were part of a separate political system that needed special status. To the contrary, everyone acknowledged that ethnic Hawaiians were part of the political mainstream. It is now too late in the game to argue otherwise.

The U.S. Senate is expected to take up the Akaka bill in the coming weeks or months, where its opponents are insisting on a thorough debate. One reason for hope is that Hawaii’s Republican Gov. Linda Lingle has finally withdrawn her support for the legislation. For years she advocated passing the bill, establishing a tribe, and then using vigilance to ensure that the tribe does not acquire undue power or resources during its negotiations with the state. She has now reconsidered.

Good for her. This is a train that needs to be stopped before it leaves the station.

Ms. Heriot and Mr. Kirsanow are members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.


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Why Financial Reform Is Stalled

Partisan gridlock is not the reason. The administration’s plans are flawed, and they’re encountering resistance from both sides of the aisle in Congress.

According to the media’s narrative about Washington, the Obama administration’s financial regulation proposals have not gotten through Congress because the town is gridlocked by partisan warfare. It’s a simplistic story that does not require much thought to generate or accept.

Here’s a better explanation: The proposals are not grounded in a valid explanation of what caused the financial crisis, reflect the same impulse to control a sector of the economy that underlies its health-care and cap-and-trade proposals, and more than anything else reflect Rahm Emanuel’s iconic motto for all statists that a good crisis should never go to waste.

The administration appears to have begun its regulatory reform effort with the idea propagated by candidate Barack Obama that the financial crisis was caused by deregulation. There was never any evidence for this. The banks, which were in the most trouble, are the most heavily regulated sector of the economy and their regulation has only gotten tighter since the 1930s.

Since its proposals first met with congressional opposition, the administration has been impervious to contrary evidence, and to this day it continues to lunge for ideas that will further government control of the financial system without giving them serious thought. So we have the spectacle of Paul Volcker, having recently persuaded Mr. Obama to back the idea of restricting proprietary trading by banks or bank holding companies, telling a puzzled Senate Banking Committee he can’t really define proprietary trading but knows it when he sees it. Didn’t anyone in the White House ask him what it was before the president moved to restrict it?

So it goes with the rest of the administration’s plan. More power to Washington, but neither a persuasive analysis of why that additional control was necessary nor a recognition of the fairly obvious consequences.

For example, the central element of the administration’s reforms was to give more power to the Federal Reserve. That agency was to become the regulator of all large nonbank financial companies deemed likely to cause a systemic breakdown if they fail. These companies—securities firms, hedge funds, finance companies, insurers, bank holding companies and even the financing arms of operating companies—were to be regulated like banks.

It didn’t take long for both Democrats and Republicans in Congress to see the flaws in this scheme. The Fed had been regulating the largest banks and bank holding companies for over 50 years—among the very companies that would be considered systemically important—yet it failed to see the risks they were taking or the impending danger.

How, then, did it make sense to give the Fed the vast additional power to regulate all the largest nonbank financial companies? Wouldn’t designating particular companies as “systemically important,” and subjecting them to special Fed regulation, signal to the markets that these companies were too big to fail? How was that a solution to the too-big-to-fail problem? And wouldn’t these big companies—designated as too big to fail—then have the same preferred access to credit that enabled government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to drive all competition from their market?

Then there is the proposal to give a government agency the authority to take over and “resolve” failing financial firms. Here, the administration has pointed to the chaos that followed the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in September 2008. To prevent that kind of breakdown, the administration says all large and “interconnected” financial firms in crisis should be dealt with by a government agency, rather than by a judge in bankruptcy proceedings.

The term “interconnected” is important here. It implies that when one large firm fails it will carry others down with it, causing a systemic crisis. But that is clearly not the lesson of Lehman. Although the company went suddenly and shockingly into bankruptcy, none of its large financial counterparties failed. The systemic significance of “interconnectedness” proved to be a myth.

To be sure, there was a freeze-up in lending after Lehman. But that episode demonstrated the power of moral hazard—the tendency of government action to distort private decision-making. After Bear Stearns was rescued by the Fed in March 2008, market participants assumed that all companies larger than Bear would be rescued in the future. As a result, they did not take the steps to protect themselves against counterparty failure that would have been prudent in a panicky market. When Lehman was not rescued, all market participants immediately had to review the credit standing of their counterparties. No wonder lending temporarily froze.

The same failure to understand the power of moral hazard is what makes the administration’s call for a resolution authority most inapt and troubling. Although the administration has argued, and some in Congress believe, that moral hazard and too-big-to-fail would be curbed by a resolution authority, the opposite is true. Both would be enhanced.

This is because the principal danger of moral hazard—the key to its adverse effects on private decision-making—is its impact on creditors and counterparties. The fact that shareholders and managements will lose everything in a government resolution is largely irrelevant. What really matters are the lessons creditors draw about how they will be treated. And it is clear creditors will be treated far more favorably in a government resolution process than in a bankruptcy.

To understand why this is true, consider the administration’s reasons for preferring a government resolution process. The claim is that large, interconnected firms will drag down others when they fail. The remedy for this is to make sure their creditors and counterparties are fully paid when the takeover occurs. That’s why the Fed made Goldman Sachs and others whole when it rescued the insurance giant AIG. It’s also what distinguishes a government resolution process from a bankruptcy, where a stay is imposed on most payments to creditors when the bankruptcy petition is filed.

Creditors will realize that by lending to large companies that might be taken over and resolved by the government, their chances of being fully paid are better than if they lend to others that might not. Thus a resolution authority will enhance moral hazard not reduce it—and as creditors increasingly assume that large firms will be rescued, the too-big-to-fail phenomenon will grow, not decline. In the end, a resolution authority becomes, in effect, a permanent Troubled Asset Relief Program.

The image of partisan gridlock standing in the way of sensible financial regulation is wildly misleading. Twenty-seven Democrats in the House voted against the Barney Frank bill that mostly mirrored the administration plan. Democrats and Republicans in the Senate Banking Committee revolted against the first bill offered by Chairman Chris Dodd. That bill adopted most of the administration’s flawed ideas.

Now Mr. Dodd is trying to negotiate a Plan B. But the longer he channels the White House, the longer it will take to get a bill that both Democrats and Republicans can support.

Mr. Wallison is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.


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Viva Zapata

A Cuban dissident is murdered while Latin leaders schmooze with Castro.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón wore a broad smile as he warmly greeted Cuba’s Raúl Castro at the Rio Group summit on the posh Mexican Riviera last week. The two men, dressed in neatly pressed guayabera shirts, shook hands as Mr. Calderón, with no small measure of delight, gestured to his audience to welcome Mexico’s very special guest.

A mere 300 miles away, in a military prison hospital in Havana, political prisoner Orlando Zapata lay in a coma. For 84 days the 42-year-old stone mason of humble origins had been on a hunger strike to protest the Castro regime’s brutality toward prisoners of conscience. His death was imminent.

Zapata’s grim condition was no secret. During his strike, for 18 days, he had been denied water and placed in front of an air conditioner. His kidneys had failed and he had pneumonia. For months human-rights groups had been pleading for international attention to his case.

But over at the Playa del Carmen resort on the Yucatán, Mr. Calderón wasn’t about to let Zapata spoil his fiesta, or his chance to improve his image among the region’s undemocratic governments. The summit went on as planned with no mention of Havana’s human-rights hell. On Tuesday Zapata passed away.

Zapata’s death while Latin American leaders broke bread with Castro is a coincidence that captures the cowardice and expediency toward Cuban oppression that has defined the region for a half century. Now the Latin gang, with Cuba as a prominent member, has decided to form a new regional body to “replace” the Organization of American States. To make their intentions clear, they banned Honduras’s democratically elected President Porfirio Lobo from last week’s meeting.

The Mexican foreign ministry did not respond to several requests last week for a statement from Mr. Calderón on Zapata’s death. Its silence suggests that the only thing the Mexican president regrets is the unfortunate timing of the dissident’s demise.

Yet Zapata hasn’t gone quietly. His passing has once more elevated the truth about the lives of 11 million Cubans enslaved for the last 50 years under a totalitarian regime. And it has embarrassed the likes of Mr. Calderón. Newspapers across the globe, from Buenos Aires to Madrid, are denouncing the mind-boggling hypocrisy of those who feign concern for human rights while embracing Castro.

Like most Cuban dissidents, Zapata did not so much choose his role as martyr as it chose him. Born in the province of Holguin in the eastern part of the country, he moved through the Cuban education system as any ordinary citizen.

But the requisite Marxist indoctrination didn’t take. Like so many Cuban patriots before him, once his conscience had been awakened no measure of cruelty could stop him from speaking out.

Zapata became part of a wave of peaceful resistance that began to organize and grow bolder in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He was detained three times in 2002. According to Miami’s Cuban Democratic Directorate, which tracks dissident activity, he was arrested for a fourth time on Dec. 6, 2002, “along with [the prominent pacifist and medical doctor] Oscar Elías Biscet.”

Dr. Biscet, a devout Catholic and disciple of Martin Luther King Jr.’s adherence to nonviolence, began opposing the regime when he learned of its policy of suffocating babies who survived abortions. Today he is considered one of the island’s most important human-rights defenders. His continuing imprisonment and torture are well documented. It is not known whether Mr. Calderón, who also describes himself as a Catholic, discussed Mr. Biscet’s plight with his guest Raúl.

Zapata was arrested again in March 2003 along with 74 others in what the resistance calls the “black spring.” This time he was held and in May 2004 he was sentenced to 25 years. But his commitment to his brethren never wavered. Indeed, it deepened.

In July 2005, at the Taco Taco prison, he took part in a nonviolent protest marking the 1994 massacre of 41 Cubans who had tried to flee the island on a tugboat and were drowned by state security. That got him another 15 years in the clink.

Zapata was judged guilty of “disobedience to authority” and was repeatedly tortured. But he died a free man, unbroken and unwilling to give up his soul to the regime, which is more than can be said for Mr. Calderón. Word is that Mr. Calderón noticed the offshore drilling contracts Castro has given to Brazil’s Petrobras and is cuddling up to the dictator in hopes that Mexico’s Pemex will be next.

As to Cuban freedom, the yearning lives on, and Zapata’s death is already serving as a source of renewed inspiration to the movement. The regime knows this, which is why state security put his hometown on lockdown the day of his funeral. Even as Cubans mourn their loss, it is certain that, treasuring his personal triumph over evil and his gift of bravery to the nation, they will not let his death be in vain.

Mary Anastasia O’Grady, Wall Street Journal


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Warning: Your reality is out of date

Introducing the mesofact

This artist rendering provided by the European South Observatory shows some of the 32 new planets astronomers found outside our solar system

When people think of knowledge, they generally think of two sorts of facts: facts that don’t change, like the height of Mount Everest or the capital of the United States, and facts that fluctuate constantly, like the temperature or the stock market close.

But in between there is a third kind: facts that change slowly. These are facts which we tend to view as fixed, but which shift over the course of a lifetime. For example: What is Earth’s population? I remember learning 6 billion, and some of you might even have learned 5 billion. Well, it turns out it’s about 6.8 billion.

Or, imagine you are considering relocating to another city. Not recognizing the slow change in the economic fortunes of various metropolitan areas, you immediately dismiss certain cities. For example, Pittsburgh, a city in the core of the historic Rust Belt of the United States, was for a long time considered to be something of a city to avoid. But recently, its economic fortunes have changed, swapping steel mills for technology, with its job growth ranked sixth in the entire United States.

These slow-changing facts are what I term “mesofacts.” Mesofacts are the facts that change neither too quickly nor too slowly, that lie in this difficult-to-comprehend middle, or meso-, scale. Often, we learn these in school when young and hold onto them, even after they change. For example, if, as a baby boomer, you learned high school chemistry in 1970, and then, as we all are apt to do, did not take care to brush up on your chemistry periodically, you would not realize that there are 12 new elements in the Periodic Table. Over a tenth of the elements have been discovered since you graduated high school! While this might not affect your daily life, it is astonishing and a bit humbling.

For these kinds of facts, the analogy of how to boil a frog is apt: Change the temperature quickly, and the frog jumps out of the pot. But slowly increase the temperature, and the frog doesn’t realize that things are getting warmer, until it’s been boiled. So, too, is it with humans and how we process information. We recognize rapid change, whether it’s as simple as a fast-moving object or living with the knowledge that humans have walked on the moon. But anything short of large-scale rapid change is often ignored. This is the reason we continue to write the wrong year during the first days of January.

Our schools are biased against mesofacts. The arc of our educational system is to be treated as little generalists when children, absorbing bits of knowledge about everything from biology to social studies to geology. But then, as we grow older, we are encouraged to specialize. This might have been useful in decades past, but in our increasingly fast-paced and interdisciplinary world, lacking an even approximate knowledge of our surroundings is unwise.

Updating your mesofacts can change how you think about the world. Do you know the percentage of people in the world who use mobile phones? In 1997, the answer was 4 percent. By 2007, it was nearly 50 percent. The fraction of people who are mobile phone users is the kind of fact you might read in a magazine and quote at a cocktail party. But years later the number you would be quoting would not just be inaccurate, it would be seriously wrong. The difference between a tiny fraction of the world and half the globe is startling, and completely changes our view on global interconnectivity.

Mesofacts can also be fun. Let’s focus for a moment on some mesofacts that can be of vital importance if you’re a child, or parent of a child: those about dinosaurs. Just a few decades ago, dinosaurs were thought to be cold-blooded, slow-witted lizards that walked with their legs splayed out beside them. Now, scientists think that many dinosaurs were warm-blooded and fast-moving creatures. And they even had feathers! Just a few weeks ago we learned about the color patterns of dinosaurs (stripes! with orange tufts!). These facts might not affect how you live your life, but then again, you’re probably not 6 years old. There is another mesofact that is unlikely to affect your daily routine, but might win you a bar bet: the number of planets known outside the solar system. After the first extrasolar planet around an ordinary star made headlines back in 1995, most people stopped paying attention. Well, the number of extrasolar planets is currently over 400. Know this, and the next round won’t be on you.

The fact that the world changes rapidly is exciting, but everyone knows about that. There is much change that is neither fast nor momentous, but no less breathtaking.

Samuel Arbesman is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School. He is a regular contributor to Ideas. He has started a new website devoted to mesofacts, which can be found at


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Uncommon Knowledge

What raises murder rates

A recent analysis of global homicide rates came up with some interesting conclusions. It turns out that the proportion of young males, population density, degree of urbanization, and income inequality are not significant predictors of the homicide rate. Instead, ethnic and linguistic diversity, education, and the quality of governing institutions were the most significant factors. Although it’s not surprising that ethnic strife and law enforcement matter for the homicide rate, there was a surprising effect found for education: An extra year of school for the average female increased the homicide rate almost as much as one less year of school for the average male.

Cole, J. & Marroquín Gramajo, A., “Homicide Rates in a Cross-Section of Countries: Evidence and Interpretations,” Population and Development Review (December 2009).

What executives’ voices give away

A good interrogator can often detect dishonesty by paying close attention to the way someone talks. A new analysis of corporate earnings conference calls suggests that Wall Street might benefit from these same skills. Using sophisticated voice analysis software, researchers found that the emotions of the executives who were grilled by stock analysts on these calls were predictive of future company performance. When executives were positive, positive future news releases and earnings surprises were more likely, and likewise for negative emotions and negative performance. Nevertheless, although these emotions did induce a market reaction, the analysts themselves generally incorporated positive but not negative emotions into forecasts, so stock prices didn’t completely anticipate the bad news.

Mayew, W. & Venkatachalam, M., “The Power of Voice: Managerial Affective States and Future Firm Performance,” Duke University (November 2009).

It’s cheaper to say you’re sorry

Don’t offer me money, just say you’re sorry. That’s the conclusion of a customer-service experiment with a company selling goods on eBay. Customers who gave the company neutral or negative evaluations – a rare and public signal of disapproval – were randomly offered either an apology, a small amount of money, or a larger amount of money to rescind their evaluation. Even though the apology was nothing more than a self-serving corporate message, customers were twice as likely to rescind their evaluation if offered the apology than if offered money.

Abeler, J. et al., “The Power of Apology,” Economics Letters (forthcoming).

”A” is for achievement

In case you haven’t noticed, subliminal influences are everywhere. In some of the latest experiments, researchers found that incidental exposure to letters associated with grades (like “A” or “F”) can enhance or undercut subsequent performance on tests. When “Test Bank ID: A” or “Subject ID: A” was written in the corner of their test pages, students performed significantly better on analogy and anagram tests compared to tests with “F” instead of “A” written in the corner. Although none of the students expected this effect, it seems to have worked by increasing motivation – students with “A” tests generated more achievement-oriented words on a word-completion test.

Ciani, K. & Sheldon, K., “A versus F: The Effects of Implicit Letter Priming on Cognitive Performance,” British Journal of Educational Psychology (March 2010).

Handsome is as handsome drives

Sure, we all know the stereotype about guys driving fancy cars to impress the ladies. But is there a real effect, and does it also apply to men who see women driving fancy cars? Psychologists in Britain showed people photographs of an average-looking man or woman, each seated in either a Bentley Continental or a Ford Fiesta. Consistent with the stereotype, women thought the man looked more attractive in the fancier car. However, a fancy car didn’t make the woman more attractive to the men.

Dunn, M. & Searle, R., “Effect of Manipulated Prestige-Car Ownership on Both Sex Attractiveness Ratings,” British Journal of Psychology (February 2010).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.


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Tie what on?

Unraveling a euphemism for ‘getting drunk’

Etymological sleuthing isn’t one of my usual pursuits, but last month, as I browsed an old slang dictionary, I stumbled onto a clue that seemed too promising to ignore. A nightcap, said John Russell Bartlett’s 1848 “Dictionary of Americanisms,” is “A glass of hot toddy or gin-sling taken before going to bed at night.”

That we knew, even if gin-sling is no longer our nightcap of choice. But the definition goes on: “When a second glass is taken, it is called ‘a string to tie it [the nightcap] with.’ ” And there’s an example, too, from an 1843 work of fiction: “Come, now, Squire, before we turn in, let us tie the nightcap.”

“Tie the nightcap” was the phrase that hooked me. Could it be related to “tie one on,” that mysterious slang expression meaning “get drunk”?

Nightcap itself, used since the early 19th century, is no mystery at all: Since tying on a nightcap (in the pre-central heating era) was the last thing you do before sleep, the word “nightcap” was applied to the pre-bedtime drink as well. And the author of the “tie the nightcap” quote, a Canadian named Thomas Chandler Haliburton, extended the metaphor in loving detail in the pages of “The Attache; or, Sam Slick in England.” On the eve of a departure, Sam wants to “tie a night-cap,” but his nightcap, he explains, requires embellishments:

“ ‘What a dreadful awful looking thing a night-cap is without a tassel, ain’t it? Oh! you must put a tassel on it, and that is another glass. Well then, what is the use of a night-cap, if it has a tassel on it, but has no string, it will slip off your head the very first turn you take; and that is another glass you know. But one string won’t tie a cap;…you must have two strings to it, and that brings one glass more. Well then, what is the use of two strings if they ain’t fastened? If you want to keep the cap on, it must be tied…

“Mr. Slick ordered materials for brewing, namely: whisky, hot water, sugar and lemon; and having duly prepared in regular succession the cap, the tassel, and the two strings, filled his tumbler again, and said, ‘Come now, Squire, before we turn in, let us tie the night-cap.’ ”

In a tidy linguistic universe, we would find that “tie one on” was the legitimate offspring of “tie the nightcap” – what could be more obvious? But in fact, “tie one on,” recorded only since the 1940s, is something of a puzzle. It may be an offshoot of the “bun” family, a group of expressions for being drunk – “have a bun on,” “get a bun on,” eventually “tie a bun on” – dating to the turn of the 20th century. Unfortunately, this trail is another dead end, since nobody seems to have any idea what the “bun” might have been.

Then there’s the “bag” branch of the drinker’s vocabulary. Farmer and Henley’s 1890 slang dictionary lists “To PUT or GET ONE’S HEAD IN A Bag” as printers’ and sailors’ slang for “drink,” with a quote from an 1887 issue of the Saturday Review: “It is slang, and yet purely trade slang, when one printer says of another that he has GOT HIS HEAD IN THE BAG.”

The “bag” in question may well be the “bag o’ beer” cited in James Redding Ware’s 1909 dictionary of Victorian slang, shorthand for a quart of a blended brew – “half of fourpenny porter and half of fourpenny ale.” By the 1940s, we have “in the bag” (and “half in the bag”), “bagged,” and, yes, “tie a bag on.” The last phrase could have been influenced by similar slang for “eat” – “to put on/tie on the nosebag” – but that gets us no closer to Haliburton’s nightcap strings.

A connection could still turn up, of course – some short-lived slang phrase that links the tied-on nightcap and the baffling “tie on a bun,” say. But from the evidence at hand, it looks as if Haliburton’s elaborate metaphor was just an amusing exercise, not the inspiration for a family of drinking idioms.

So “tie one on” is back to “origin unknown,” a familiar neighborhood for slang historians. Michael Quinion, who writes the weekly World Wide Words newsletter, is a frequent visitor: He’s had to put “malarkey,” “zilch,” “kibosh,” and even “the full Monty” (despite several appealing explanations) into the “unknown” file. We still don’t know why an early edition of a morning paper, published the night before, is called a “bulldog edition”; the truth about “the whole nine yards” eludes us. And Haliburton’s “tie the nightcap,” tempting though it is, can’t yet be considered the foundation for the much later and still elusive “tie one on.”

Jan Freeman, Boston Globe


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The week ahead

An election in deeply divided Iraq

• IRAQIS finally go to the polls on Sunday March 7th to vote in their long-delayed national elections. But with many candidates barred from standing because of former ties to Saddam Hussein’s Baath party, sectarian rivalries have once more come to the fore. It is far from certain that any single group will win enough votes to form a government, prompting fears that relations between Sunnis and Shias will deteriorate even further and threaten the country’s fragile recovery.

• A VOTE by the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday March 4th threatens to sour relations between America and Turkey. The congressional committee will consider whether to label the mass slaughter of Ottoman Armenians by Turkish forces in 1915 as a genocide. Previous similar resolutions never made it to a vote in the House of Representatives for fear of damaging relations with an important ally in the Middle East. But a House vote is more likely this time after Barack Obama’s election pledge to recognise the episode as genocide.

• SHAREHOLDERS of Yukos, a Russian oil company that was dismembered by the Russian state and the country’s tax authorities, will take their grievances to the European Court of Human Rights on Thursday March 4th. Yukos’s boss still languishes in jail after the politically motivated attack on his company but investors are hoping that the court will award them some $100 billion in compensation from Russia’s government. The case may drag on for several years. But if shareholders are successful and Russia refuses to pay they could be entitled to seize state assets abroad.

• ICELANDERS are set to hold a referendum on Saturday March 6th to decide whether the country should repay $5.1 billion to the British and Dutch governments. The money was paid out to savers in those countries who had lost money when an Icelandic bank collapsed in 2008. A no vote, the likeliest outcome for a deeply unpopular measure, would be damaging for Iceland’s government and may set back talks on EU membership. Negotiations between the three governments aimed at a compromise over repayment terms broke down on February 25th.


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And the Orchestra Played On

The other day, I found myself rummaging through a closet, searching for my old viola. This wasn’t how I’d planned to spend the afternoon. I hadn’t given a thought to the instrument in years. I barely remembered where it was, much less how to play it. But I had just gotten word that my childhood music teacher, Jerry Kupchynsky — “Mr. K.” to his students — had died.

In East Brunswick, N.J., where I grew up, nobody was feared more than Mr. K. He ran the town’s music department with a ferocity never before seen in our quiet corner of suburbia. In his impenetrably thick Ukrainian accent, he would berate us for being out of tune, our elbows in the wrong position, our counting out of sync.

“Cellos sound like hippopotamus rising from bottom of river,” he would yell during orchestra rehearsals. Wayward violinists played “like mahnyiak,” while hapless gum chewers “look like cow chewing cud.” He would rehearse us until our fingers were callused, then interrupt us with “Stop that cheekin plocking!”

Mr. K. pushed us harder than our parents, harder than our other teachers, and through sheer force of will made us better than we had any right to be. He scared the daylight out of us.

I doubt any of us realized how much we loved him for it.

Which is why, decades later, I was frantically searching for an instrument whose case still bore the address of my college dorm. After almost a half-century of teaching, at the age of 81, Mr. K. had died of Parkinson’s disease. And across the generations, through Facebook and e-mail messages and Web sites, came the call: it was time for one last concert for Mr. K. — performed by us, his old students and friends.

Now, I used to be a serious student. I played for years in a string quartet with Mr. K.’s violin-prodigy daughters, Melanie and Stephanie. One of my first stories as a Wall Street Journal reporter was a first-person account of being a street musician.

But I had given it up 20 years ago. Work and motherhood intervened; with two children and long hours as an editor, there wasn’t time for music any more. It seemed kind of frivolous. Besides, I wasn’t even sure I would know how.

The hinges creaked when I opened the decrepit case. I was greeted by a cascade of loose horsehair — my bow a victim of mites, the repairman later explained. It was pure agony to twist my fingers into position. But to my astonishment and that of my teenage children — who had never heard me play — I could still manage a sound.

It turned out, a few days later, that there were 100 people just like me. When I showed up at a local school for rehearsal, there they were: five decades worth of former students. There were doctors and accountants, engineers and college professors. There were people who hadn’t played in decades, sitting alongside professionals like Mr. K.’s daughter Melanie, now a violinist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. There were generations of music teachers.

They flew in from California and Oregon, from Virginia and Boston. They came with siblings and children; our old quartet’s cellist, Miriam, took her seat with 13 other family members.

They came because Mr. K. understood better than anyone the bond music creates among people who play it together. Behind his bluster — and behind his wicked sense of humor and taste for Black Russians — that was his lesson all along.

He certainly learned it the hard way. As a teenager during World War II, he endured two years in a German internment camp. His wife died after a long battle with multiple sclerosis. All those years while we whined that he was riding us too hard, he was raising his daughters and caring for his sick wife on his own. Then his younger daughter Stephanie, a violin teacher, was murdered. After she vanished in 1991, he spent seven years searching for her, never giving up hope until the day her remains were found.

Yet the legacy he had left behind was pure joy. You could see it in the faces of the audience when the curtain rose for the performance that afternoon. You could hear it as his older daughter Melanie, her husband and their violinist children performed as a family. You could feel it when the full orchestra, led by one of Mr. K.’s protégés, poured itself into Tchaikovsky and Bach. It powered us through the lost years, the lack of rehearsal time — less than two hours — and the stray notes from us rustier alums.

Afterward, Melanie took the stage to describe the proud father who waved like a maniac from a balcony in Carnegie Hall the first time she played there. At the end of his life, when he was too ill to talk, she would bring her violin to his bedside and play for hours, letting the melodies speak for them both. The bonds of music were as strong as ever.

In a way, this was Mr. K.’s most enduring lesson — and one he had been teaching us since we were children. Back when we were in high school, Mr. K. had arranged for Melanie and our quartet to play at the funeral of a classmate killed in a horrific car crash. The boy had doted on his little sister, a violinist. We were a reminder of how much he loved to listen to her play.

As the far-flung orchestra members arrived for Mr. K.’s final concert, suddenly we saw her, that little girl, now grown, a professional musician herself. She had never stopped thinking about her brother’s funeral, she told me, and when she heard about this concert, she flew from Denver in the hope that she might find the musicians who played in his honor. For 30 years, she had just wanted the chance to say, “Thank you.”

As did we all.

Joanne Lipman, a former deputy managing editor at The Wall Street Journal, was the founding editor in chief of Condé Nast Portfolio magazine.


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Muslims Won’t Play Together

WE may scoff at the idea that the Olympic Games have anything to do with the “endeavor to place sport at the service of humanity and thereby to promote peace,” as the Olympic charter enshrines as its ideal. But at least nations across the world were able to put aside differences for two weeks of friendly competition in Vancouver.

A mundane achievement, perhaps, but it’s one that’s beyond the grasp of the Islamic world. The Islamic Solidarity Games, the Olympics of the Muslim world, which were to be held in Iran in April, have been called off by the Arab states because Tehran inscribed “Persian Gulf” on the tournament’s official logo and medals.

It’s a small but telling controversy. It puts the lie to the idea of the Islamic world as a bloc united by religious values that are hostile to the West. It also gives clues as to how the United States and its allies should handle two of their most urgent foreign policy matters: the Iranian nuclear program and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This is not the first time that Arabs have challenged the internationally accepted name of the waterway that separates Persia (or Iran, as it has been called since 1935) from the Arabian Peninsula. Pan-Arabist thought — which dominated Arab political life for most of the 20th century — insisted on the creation of a unified vast empire “from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arab Gulf,” provoking sharp confrontations with Iran since the late 1960s.

The Islamic regime in Tehran, which came to power in 1979 dismissing nationalism as an imperialist plot aimed at weakening the worldwide Muslim community (or umma), initially displayed less interest in the gulf’s Persian identity than in the spread of its Islamist message. “The Iranian revolution is not exclusively that of Iran, because Islam does not belong to any particular people,” insisted Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. “The struggle will continue until the calls ‘there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah’ are echoed all over the world.”

Yet like Stalin, who responded to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 by urging his people to fight for the motherland rather than for the Communist ideals with which they had been indoctrinated, Khomeini reverted to nationalist rhetoric to rally his subjects after the Iraqi invasion of 1980. He also used the war to justify a string of military and diplomatic actions against the smaller Arab states like Qatar and Kuwait aimed at asserting Iran’s supremacy in the gulf.

In this history of a single body of water, one sees a perfect example of the so-called Islamic Paradox that dates from the seventh century. For although the Prophet Muhammad took great pains to underscore the equality of all believers regardless of ethnicity, categorically forbidding any fighting among the believers, his precepts have been constantly and blatantly violated.

It took a mere 24 years after the Prophet’s death for the head of the universal Islamic community, the caliph Uthman, to be murdered by political rivals. This opened the floodgates to incessant infighting within the House of Islam, which has never ceased. Likewise, there has been no overarching Islamic solidarity transcending the multitude of parochial loyalties — to one’s clan, tribe, village, family or nation. Thus, for example, not only do Arabs consider themselves superior to all other Muslims, but inhabitants of Hijaz, the northwestern part of the Arabian Peninsula and Islam’s birthplace, regard themselves the only true Arabs, and tend to be highly disparaging of all other Arabic-speaking communities.

Nor, for that matter, has the House of Islam ever formed a unified front vis-à-vis the House of War (as Muslims call the rest of the world). Even during the Crusades, the supposed height of the “clash of civilizations,” Christian and Muslim rulers freely collaborated across the religious divide, often finding themselves aligned with members of the rival religion against their co-religionists. While the legendary Saladin himself was busy eradicating the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, for example, he was closely aligned with the Byzantine Empire, the foremost representative of Christendom’s claim to universalism.

This pattern of pragmatic cooperation reached its peak during the 19th century, when the Ottoman Empire relied on Western economic and military support to survive. (The Charge of the Light Brigade of 1854 was, at its heart, part of a French-British effort to keep the Ottomans from falling under Russian hegemony.) It has also become a central feature of 20th- and 21st-century Middle Eastern politics.

Muslim and Arab rulers have always, in their intrigues, sought the support and protection of the “infidel” powers they so vilify. President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, the champion of pan-Arabism who had built his reputation on standing up to “Western imperialism,” imported more than 10,000 Soviet troops into Egypt when his “War of Attrition” against Israel in the late 1960s went sour.

Similarly, Ayatollah Khomeini bought weapons from even the “Great Satan,” the United States. Saddam Hussein used Western support to survive his war against Iran in the 1980s. And Osama bin Laden and the rest of the Afghan mujahedeen accepted weapons and money from the United States, with the Islamic state of Pakistan as the middleman, in their struggle against the Soviet occupation.

Yet, since it is far easier to unite people through a common hatred than through a shared loyalty, Islamic solidarity has been repeatedly invoked as an instrument for achieving the self-interested ends of those who proclaimed it. Little wonder the covenant of Hamas insists, “When our enemies usurp some Islamic lands, jihad becomes a duty binding on all Muslims.”

So, if the Muslim bloc is just as fractious as any other group of seemingly aligned nations, what does it mean for United States policy in the Islamic world?

For one, it should give us more impetus to take a harder line with Iran. Just as the Muslim governments couldn’t muster the minimum sense of commonality for holding an all-Islamic sports tournament, so they would be unlikely to rush to Iran’s aid in the event of sanctions, or even a military strike.

Beyond the customary lip service about Western imperialism and “Crusaderism,” most other Muslim countries would be quietly relieved to see the extremist regime checked. It’s worth noting that the two dominant Arab states, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have been at the forefront of recent international efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

As for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the idea that bringing peace between the two parties will bring about a flowering of cooperation in the region and take away one of Al Qaeda’s primary gripes against the West totally misreads history and present-day politics. Muslim states threaten Israel’s existence not so much out of concern for the Palestinians, but rather as part of a holy war to prevent the loss of a part of the House of Islam.

In these circumstances, one can only welcome the latest changes in the Obama administration’s Middle Eastern policy, which combine a tougher stance on Iran’s nuclear subterfuge with a less imperious approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s two-track plan — discussion with Tehran while at the same time lining up meaningful sanctions — is fine as far as it goes. But a military strike must remain a serious option: there is no peaceful way to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, stemming as they do from its imperialist brand of national-Islamism.

Likewise, there is no way for the Obama administration to resolve the 100-year war between Arabs and Jews unless all sides are convinced that peace is in each of their best interests. Any agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is far less important than a regional agreement in which every Islamic nation can make peace with the idea of Jewish statehood in the House of Islam.

And that, depressingly, is going to be a lot harder to pull off than even the Islamic Solidarity Games.

Efraim Karsh, the head of Middle East and Mediterranean studies at King’s College London, is the author of “Islamic Imperialism: A History” and the forthcoming “Palestine Betrayed.”


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Learning From the Sin of Sodom

For most of the last century, save-the-worlders were primarily Democrats and liberals. In contrast, many Republicans and religious conservatives denounced government aid programs, with Senator Jesse Helms calling them “money down a rat hole.”

Over the last decade, however, that divide has dissolved, in ways that many Americans haven’t noticed or appreciated. Evangelicals have become the new internationalists, pushing successfully for new American programs against AIDS and malaria, and doing superb work on issues from human trafficking in India to mass rape in Congo.

A pop quiz: What’s the largest U.S.-based international relief and development organization?

It’s not Save the Children, and it’s not CARE — both terrific secular organizations. Rather, it’s World Vision, a Seattle-based Christian organization (with strong evangelical roots) whose budget has roughly tripled over the last decade.

World Vision now has 40,000 staff members in nearly 100 countries. That’s more staff members than CARE, Save the Children and the worldwide operations of the United States Agency for International Development — combined.

A growing number of conservative Christians are explicitly and self-critically acknowledging that to be “pro-life” must mean more than opposing abortion. The head of World Vision in the United States, Richard Stearns, begins his fascinating book, “The Hole in Our Gospel,” with an account of a visit a decade ago to Uganda, where he met a 13-year-old AIDS orphan who was raising his younger brothers by himself.

“What sickened me most was this question: where was the Church?” he writes. “Where were the followers of Jesus Christ in the midst of perhaps the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time? Surely the Church should have been caring for these ‘orphans and widows in their distress.’ (James 1:27). Shouldn’t the pulpits across America have flamed with exhortations to rush to the front lines of compassion?

“How have we missed it so tragically, when even rock stars and Hollywood actors seem to understand?”

Mr. Stearns argues that evangelicals were often so focused on sexual morality and a personal relationship with God that they ignored the needy. He writes laceratingly about “a Church that had the wealth to build great sanctuaries but lacked the will to build schools, hospitals, and clinics.”

In one striking passage, Mr. Stearns quotes the prophet Ezekiel as saying that the great sin of the people of Sodom wasn’t so much that they were promiscuous or gay as that they were “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49.)

Hmm. Imagine if sodomy laws could be used to punish the stingy, unconcerned rich!

The American view of evangelicals is still shaped by preening television blowhards and hypocrites who seem obsessed with gays and fetuses. One study cited in the book found that even among churchgoers ages 16 to 29, the descriptions most associated with Christianity were “antihomosexual,” “judgmental,” “too involved in politics,” and “hypocritical.”

Some conservative Christians reinforced the worst view of themselves by inspiring Ugandan homophobes who backed a bill that would punish gays with life imprisonment or execution. Ditto for the Vatican, whose hostility to condoms contributes to the AIDS epidemic. But there’s more to the picture: I’ve also seen many Catholic nuns and priests heroically caring for AIDS patients — even quietly handing out condoms.

One of the most inspiring figures I’ve met while covering Congo’s brutal civil war is a determined Polish nun in the terrifying hinterland, feeding orphans, standing up to drunken soldiers and comforting survivors — all in a war zone. I came back and decided: I want to grow up and become a Polish nun.

Some Americans assume that religious groups offer aid to entice converts. That’s incorrect. Today, groups like World Vision ban the use of aid to lure anyone into a religious conversation.

Some liberals are pushing to end the longtime practice (it’s a myth that this started with President George W. Bush) of channeling American aid through faith-based organizations. That change would be a catastrophe. In Haiti, more than half of food distributions go through religious groups like World Vision that have indispensible networks on the ground. We mustn’t make Haitians the casualties in our cultural wars.

A root problem is a liberal snobbishness toward faith-based organizations. Those doing the sneering typically give away far less money than evangelicals. They’re also less likely to spend vacations volunteering at, say, a school or a clinic in Rwanda.

If secular liberals can give up some of their snootiness, and if evangelicals can retire some of their sanctimony, then we all might succeed together in making greater progress against common enemies of humanity, like illiteracy, human trafficking and maternal mortality.

Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times


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Handbook suggests that deviations from ‘normality’ are disorders

Peter De Vries, America’s wittiest novelist, died 17 years ago, but his discernment of this country’s cultural foibles still amazes. In a 1983 novel, he spotted the tendency of America’s therapeutic culture to medicalize character flaws:

“Once terms like identity doubts and midlife crisis become current,” De Vries wrote, “the reported cases of them increase by leaps and bounds.” And: “Rapid-fire means of communication have brought psychic dilapidation within the reach of the most provincial backwaters, so that large metropolitan centers and educated circles need no longer consider it their exclusive property, nor preen themselves on their special malaises.”

Life is about to imitate De Vries’s literature, again. The fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), psychiatry’s encyclopedia of supposed mental “disorders,” is being revised. The 16 years since the last revision evidently were prolific in producing new afflictions. The revision may aggravate the confusion of moral categories.

Today’s DSM defines “oppositional defiant disorder” as a pattern of “negativistic, defiant, disobedient and hostile behavior toward authority figures.” Symptoms include “often loses temper,” “often deliberately annoys people” or “is often touchy.” DSM omits this symptom: “is a teenager.”

This DSM defines as “personality disorders” attributes that once were considered character flaws. “Antisocial personality disorder” is “a pervasive pattern of disregard for . . . the rights of others . . . callous, cynical . . . an inflated and arrogant self-appraisal.” “Histrionic personality disorder” is “excessive emotionality and attention-seeking.” “Narcissistic personality disorder” involves “grandiosity, need for admiration . . . boastful and pretentious.” And so on.

If every character blemish or emotional turbulence is a “disorder” akin to a physical disability, legal accommodations are mandatory. Under federal law, “disabilities” include any “mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities”; “mental impairments” include “emotional or mental illness.” So there might be a legal entitlement to be a jerk. (See above, “antisocial personality disorder.”)

The revised DSM reportedly may include “binge eating disorder” and “hypersexual disorder” (“a great deal of time” devoted to “sexual fantasies and urges” and “planning for and engaging in sexual behavior”). Concerning children, there might be “temper dysregulation disorder with dysphoria.”

This last categorization illustrates the serious stakes in the categorization of behaviors. Extremely irritable or aggressive children are frequently diagnosed as bipolar and treated with powerful antipsychotic drugs. This can be a damaging mistake if behavioral modification treatment can mitigate the problem.

Another danger is that childhood eccentricities, sometimes inextricable from creativity, might be labeled “disorders” to be “cured.” If 7-year-old Mozart tried composing his concertos today, he might be diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and medicated into barren normality.

Furthermore, intellectual chaos can result from medicalizing the assessment of character. Today’s therapeutic ethos, which celebrates curing and disparages judging, expresses the liberal disposition to assume that crime and other problematic behaviors reflect social or biological causation. While this absolves the individual of responsibility, it also strips the individual of personhood and moral dignity.

James Q. Wilson, America’s preeminent social scientist, has noted how “abuse excuse” threatens the legal system and society’s moral equilibrium. Writing in National Affairs quarterly (“The Future of Blame”), Wilson notes that genetics and neuroscience seem to suggest that self-control is more attenuated — perhaps to the vanishing point — than our legal and ethical traditions assume.

The part of the brain that stimulates anger and aggression is larger in men than in women, and the part that restrains anger is smaller in men than in women. “Men,” Wilson writes, “by no choice of their own, are far more prone to violence and far less capable of self-restraint than women.” That does not, however, absolve violent men of blame. As Wilson says, biology and environment interact. And the social environment includes moral assumptions, sometimes codified in law, concerning expectations about our duty to desire what we ought to desire.

It is scientifically sensible to say that all behavior is in some sense caused. But a society that thinks scientific determinism renders personal responsibility a chimera must consider it absurd not only to condemn depravity but also to praise nobility. Such moral derangement can flow from exaggerated notions of what science teaches, or can teach, about the biological and environmental roots of behavior.

Or — revisers of the DSM, please note — confusion can flow from the notion that normality is always obvious and normative, meaning preferable. And the notion that deviations from it should be considered “disorders” to be “cured” rather than stigmatized as offenses against valid moral norms.

George F. Will, Washington Post


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What’s Wrong With ‘Eating Animals’

Somewhere along the way, Jonathan Safran Foer or his publishers must have realized that the case he makes against American animal farming doesn’t apply tidily to Britain (or to most of Europe). So he’s added a “Preface to the U.K. Edition,” in which he claims that “a remarkably similar story could be told about animal farming in the United Kingdom.” In the next sentence, however, he admits that “there are some important differences: sow stalls (gestation crates) and veal creates [sic, and this is not the only sign of haste in the writing of this preface] are banned in the U.K., whereas they are the norm in America; poultry slaughter is almost certainly less cruel.”

Of course Mr. Foer says the similarities between U.K. and U.S. food-animal welfare standards are “far more, and more important” than the differences. But he has already ceded the ethical high ground to British livestock farmers; and you have to wonder why he’s bothered to publish here a book whose “statistics refer to American agriculture.” Let us deconstruct.

“Approximately 800 million chickens, turkeys and pigs are factory farmed in the United Kingdom every year,” he asserts. There are even more intensively farmed animals if he “were to include cows and fish.” The diet Mr. Foer advocates shuns fish as well as meat. The most recent guess (by vegetarian organizations) is that 10% of U.K. residents are “meat-avoiders,” but my own experience suggests to me that most British “vegetarians” (as opposed to vegans) are fish-eaters. Mr. Foer excludes cows, I suspect, because he’s realized, a little late in the enterprise, that British cattle are largely raised on grass, not cereals as in America. Like most Europeans, Britons prefer the taste of grass-fed beef. I’d have a little more confidence in the universal relevance of “Eating Animals” if the writer showed that he’d taken the trouble to find out what affluent people living outside America actually eat. Figures for vegetarianism in continental Europe are hard to obtain, because the concept of principled abstention from meat is alien to most of its cultures.

We English-speakers are more squeamish, but contemporary Britons eat much more like Europeans than like Americans. For example, a good deal of “Eating Animals” talks about turkey. But, despite the 800 million figure above, in 2006 there were 173 million table birds produced in the UK; 64% were table chickens, 27% laying hens; and only 17 million were turkeys, according to the Farm Business Survey. Why so few turkeys? Because the British, like the French, really only eat turkey once a year, at Christmas. (That should leave a very large balance of pigs, but the latest estimate I could find of the pig population was 4.55 million at the end of 2008. A little “first-person research” on my own part has led me to wonder whether the 800 million figure does not include imports of factory-farmed meat, and depend on confusion in labeling requirements.)

If he had found out a little more abut the eating habits of the natives, Mr. Foer would have discovered that the growth areas are in the sort of farming that places a premium on animal welfare as well as on improving the texture and taste of animals bound for the table. A few hours spent in a supermarket would have convinced him, I feel certain, to scrap the many pages of American statistical analysis and slaughterhouse narrative in this book.

However, the facts alone wouldn’t make him change his mind. Mr. Foer is an imaginative writer, and a very good one; and “this book is the record of a very personal inquiry. Facing the prospect of fatherhood, I wanted to make informed decisions about what to feed my son.” Why is it so difficult for people who give up eating meat to admit that, in the end, it’s a question of sentiment? Why do they feel the need to prop up their feelings with facts? Why can’t they just say: “I don’t like the idea of what happens in the abattoir, so I shall abstain from eating its products”? What’s wrong with saying “I won’t eat anything that had a face or a mother”? Above all, why do “vegetarians” (or pescetarians, as most British vegetarians should call themselves) feel the need to proselytize?

We’ve seen that the application of the animal-welfare arguments is not universal; we can discount the environmental arguments, as it is possible to farm livestock in a non-intensive, eco-friendly fashion, and ethical consumers (such as the readers of this review) source their food carefully. If we take the absolutist position that it is wrong to kill for food, it is not sufficient to be a vegetarian who eats dairy produce and eggs. Milk production entails the destruction of male calves shortly after birth (especially since the sentimentalists have killed off the U.K. veal industry), and egg production requires disposing of male chicks. Vegans eschew all animal products, including shoe leather and honey, so at least have the virtue of consistency. Oddly, though Mr. Foer is aware that there is a difference between the more radical vegan diet and those who (illogically, but who cares?) allow themselves the high-grade proteins to be had from eating milk, cheese and eggs, he nowhere makes the distinction.

“Late in the book,” says Mr. Foer, “I note that in a different time or place, I might have made different decisions about eating animals. The United Kingdom is not the different place I was imagining.” It is possible to be a meat-eater in the U.K. without being party to the horrors Mr. Foer lovingly chronicles in the U.S. If only he would take the trouble to find out what British people are really eating, he might change his mind.

Mr. Levy, who writes about the arts for the Journal, is co-chair of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery.


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Depression’s Upside

The Victorians had many names for depression, and Charles Darwin used them all. There were his “fits” brought on by “excitements,” “flurries” leading to an “uncomfortable palpitation of the heart” and “air fatigues” that triggered his “head symptoms.” In one particularly pitiful letter, written to a specialist in “psychological medicine,” he confessed to “extreme spasmodic daily and nightly flatulence” and “hysterical crying” whenever Emma, his devoted wife, left him alone.

While there has been endless speculation about Darwin’s mysterious ailment — his symptoms have been attributed to everything from lactose intolerance to Chagas disease — Darwin himself was most troubled by his recurring mental problems. His depression left him “not able to do anything one day out of three,” choking on his “bitter mortification.” He despaired of the weakness of mind that ran in his family. “The ‘race is for the strong,’ ” Darwin wrote. “I shall probably do little more but be content to admire the strides others made in Science.”

Darwin, of course, was wrong; his recurring fits didn’t prevent him from succeeding in science. Instead, the pain may actually have accelerated the pace of his research, allowing him to withdraw from the world and concentrate entirely on his work. His letters are filled with references to the salvation of study, which allowed him to temporarily escape his gloomy moods. “Work is the only thing which makes life endurable to me,” Darwin wrote and later remarked that it was his “sole enjoyment in life.”

For Darwin, depression was a clarifying force, focusing the mind on its most essential problems. In his autobiography, he speculated on the purpose of such misery; his evolutionary theory was shadowed by his own life story. “Pain or suffering of any kind,” he wrote, “if long continued, causes depression and lessens the power of action, yet it is well adapted to make a creature guard itself against any great or sudden evil.” And so sorrow was explained away, because pleasure was not enough. Sometimes, Darwin wrote, it is the sadness that informs as it “leads an animal to pursue that course of action which is most beneficial.” The darkness was a kind of light.

The mystery of depression is not that it exists — the mind, like the flesh, is prone to malfunction. Instead, the paradox of depression has long been its prevalence. While most mental illnesses are extremely rare — schizophrenia, for example, is seen in less than 1 percent of the population — depression is everywhere, as inescapable as the common cold. Every year, approximately 7 percent of us will be afflicted to some degree by the awful mental state that William Styron described as a “gray drizzle of horror . . . a storm of murk.” Obsessed with our pain, we will retreat from everything. We will stop eating, unless we start eating too much. Sex will lose its appeal; sleep will become a frustrating pursuit. We will always be tired, even though we will do less and less. We will think a lot about death.

The persistence of this affliction — and the fact that it seemed to be heritable — posed a serious challenge to Darwin’s new evolutionary theory. If depression was a disorder, then evolution had made a tragic mistake, allowing an illness that impedes reproduction — it leads people to stop having sex and consider suicide — to spread throughout the population. For some unknown reason, the modern human mind is tilted toward sadness and, as we’ve now come to think, needs drugs to rescue itself.

The alternative, of course, is that depression has a secret purpose and our medical interventions are making a bad situation even worse. Like a fever that helps the immune system fight off infection — increased body temperature sends white blood cells into overdrive — depression might be an unpleasant yet adaptive response to affliction. Maybe Darwin was right. We suffer — we suffer terribly — but we don’t suffer in vain.

ANDY THOMSON IS a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia. He has a scruffy gray beard and steep cheekbones. When Thomson talks, he tends to close his eyes, as if he needs to concentrate on what he’s saying. But mostly what he does is listen: For the last 32 years, Thomson has been tending to his private practice in Charlottesville. “I tend to get the real hard cases,” Thomson told me recently. “A lot of the people I see have already tried multiple treatments. They arrive without much hope.” On one of the days I spent with Thomson earlier this winter, he checked his phone constantly for e-mail updates. A patient of his on “welfare watch” who was required to check in with him regularly had not done so, and Thomson was worried. “I’ve never gotten used to treating patients in mental pain,” he said. “Maybe it’s because every story is unique. You see one case of iron-deficiency anemia, you’ve seen them all. But the people who walk into my office are all hurting for a different reason.”

In the late 1990s, Thomson became interested in evolutionary psychology, which tries to explain the features of the human mind in terms of natural selection. The starting premise of the field is that the brain has a vast evolutionary history, and that this history shapes human nature. We are not a blank slate but a byproduct of imperfect adaptations, stuck with a mind that was designed to meet the needs of Pleistocene hunter-gatherers on the African savanna. While the specifics of evolutionary psychology remain controversial — it’s never easy proving theories about the distant past — its underlying assumption is largely accepted by mainstream scientists. There is no longer much debate over whether evolution sculptured the fleshy machine inside our head. Instead, researchers have moved on to new questions like when and how this sculpturing happened and which of our mental traits are adaptations and which are accidents.

In 2004, Thomson met Paul Andrews, an evolutionary psychologist at Virginia Commonwealth University, who had long been interested in the depression paradox — why a disorder that’s so costly is also so common. Andrews has long dark brown hair and an aquiline nose. Before he begins to talk, he often writes down an outline of his answer on scratch paper. “This is a very delicate subject,” he says. “I don’t want to say something reckless.”

Andrews and Thomson struck up an extended conversation on the evolutionary roots of depression. They began by focusing on the thought process that defines the disorder, which is known as rumination. (The verb is derived from the Latin word for “chewed over,” which describes the act of digestion in cattle, in which they swallow, regurgitate and then rechew their food.) In recent decades, psychiatry has come to see rumination as a dangerous mental habit, because it leads people to fixate on their flaws and problems, thus extending their negative moods. Consider “The Depressed Person,” a short story by David Foster Wallace, which chronicles a consciousness in the grip of the ruminative cycle. (Wallace struggled with severe depression for years before committing suicide in 2008.) The story is a long lament, a portrait of a mind hating itself, filled with sentences like this: “What terms might be used to describe such a solipsistic, self-consumed, bottomless emotional vacuum and sponge as she now appeared to herself to be?” The dark thoughts of “The Depressed Person” soon grow tedious and trying, but that’s precisely Wallace’s point. There is nothing profound about depressive rumination. There is just a recursive loop of woe.

The bleakness of this thought process helps explain why, according to the Yale psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, people with “ruminative tendencies” are more likely to become depressed. They’re also more likely to become unnerved by stressful events: for instance, Nolen-Hoeksema found that residents of San Francisco who self-identified as ruminators showed significantly more depressive symptoms after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. And then there are the cognitive deficits. Because rumination hijacks the stream of consciousness — we become exquisitely attentive to our pain — numerous studies have found that depressed subjects struggle to think about anything else, just like Wallace’s character. The end result is poor performance on tests for memory and executive function, especially when the task involves lots of information. (These deficits disappear when test subjects are first distracted from their depression and thus better able to focus on the exercise.) Such research has reinforced the view that rumination is a useless kind of pessimism, a perfect waste of mental energy.

That, at least, was the scientific consensus when Andrews and Thomson began exploring the depression paradox. Their evolutionary perspective, however — they see the mind as a fine-tuned machine that is not prone to pointless programming bugs — led them to wonder if rumination had a purpose. They started with the observation that rumination was often a response to a specific psychological blow, like the death of a loved one or the loss of a job. (Darwin was plunged into a debilitating grief after his 10-year-old daughter, Annie, died following a bout of scarlet fever.) Although the D.S.M. manual, the diagnostic bible for psychiatrists, does not take such stressors into account when diagnosing depressive disorder — the exception is grief caused by bereavement, as long as the grief doesn’t last longer than two months — it’s clear that the problems of everyday life play a huge role in causing mental illness. “Of course, rumination is unpleasant,” Andrews says. “But it’s usually a response to something real, a real setback. It didn’t seem right that the brain would go haywire just when we need it most.”

Imagine, for instance, a depression triggered by a bitter divorce. The ruminations might take the form of regret (“I should have been a better spouse”), recurring counterfactuals (“What if I hadn’t had my affair?”) and anxiety about the future (“How will the kids deal with it? Can I afford my alimony payments?”). While such thoughts reinforce the depression — that’s why therapists try to stop the ruminative cycle — Andrews and Thomson wondered if they might also help people prepare for bachelorhood or allow people to learn from their mistakes. “I started thinking about how, even if you are depressed for a few months, the depression might be worth it if it helps you better understand social relationships,” Andrews says. “Maybe you realize you need to be less rigid or more loving. Those are insights that can come out of depression, and they can be very valuable.”

This radical idea — the scientists were suggesting that depressive disorder came with a net mental benefit — has a long intellectual history. Aristotle was there first, stating in the fourth century B.C. “that all men who have attained excellence in philosophy, in poetry, in art and in politics, even Socrates and Plato, had a melancholic habitus; indeed some suffered even from melancholic disease.” This belief was revived during the Renaissance, leading Milton to exclaim, in his poem “Il Penseroso”: “Hail divinest Melancholy/Whose saintly visage is too bright/To hit the sense of human sight.” The Romantic poets took the veneration of sadness to its logical extreme and described suffering as a prerequisite for the literary life. As Keats wrote, “Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?”

But Andrews and Thomson weren’t interested in ancient aphorisms or poetic apologias. Their daunting challenge was to show how rumination might lead to improved outcomes, especially when it comes to solving life’s most difficult dilemmas. Their first speculations focused on the core features of depression, like the inability of depressed subjects to experience pleasure or their lack of interest in food, sex and social interactions. According to Andrews and Thomson, these awful symptoms came with a productive side effect, because they reduced the possibility of becoming distracted from the pressing problem.

The capacity for intense focus, they note, relies in large part on a brain area called the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC), which is located a few inches behind the forehead. While this area has been associated with a wide variety of mental talents, like conceptual knowledge and verb conjugation, it seems to be especially important for maintaining attention. Experiments show that neurons in the VLPFC must fire continuously to keep us on task so that we don’t become sidetracked by irrelevant information. Furthermore, deficits in the VLPFC have been associated with attention-deficit disorder.

Several studies found an increase in brain activity (as measured indirectly by blood flow) in the VLPFC of depressed patients. Most recently, a paper to be published next month by neuroscientists in China found a spike in “functional connectivity” between the lateral prefrontal cortex and other parts of the brain in depressed patients, with more severe depressions leading to more prefrontal activity. One explanation for this finding is that the hyperactive VLPFC underlies rumination, allowing people to stay focused on their problem. (Andrews and Thomson argue that this relentless fixation also explains the cognitive deficits of depressed subjects, as they are too busy thinking about their real-life problems to bother with an artificial lab exercise; their VLPFC can’t be bothered to care.) Human attention is a scarce resource — the neural effects of depression make sure the resource is efficiently allocated.

But the reliance on the VLPFC doesn’t just lead us to fixate on our depressing situation; it also leads to an extremely analytical style of thinking. That’s because rumination is largely rooted in working memory, a kind of mental scratchpad that allows us to “work” with all the information stuck in consciousness. When people rely on working memory — and it doesn’t matter if they’re doing long division or contemplating a relationship gone wrong — they tend to think in a more deliberate fashion, breaking down their complex problems into their simpler parts.

The bad news is that this deliberate thought process is slow, tiresome and prone to distraction; the prefrontal cortex soon grows exhausted and gives out. Andrews and Thomson see depression as a way of bolstering our feeble analytical skills, making it easier to pay continuous attention to a difficult dilemma. The downcast mood and activation of the VLPFC are part of a “coordinated system” that, Andrews and Thomson say, exists “for the specific purpose of effectively analyzing the complex life problem that triggered the depression.” If depression didn’t exist — if we didn’t react to stress and trauma with endless ruminations — then we would be less likely to solve our predicaments. Wisdom isn’t cheap, and we pay for it with pain.

Consider a young professor on tenure track who was treated by Thomson. The patient was having difficulties with his academic department. “This guy was used to success coming easy, but now it wasn’t,” Thomson says. “I made it clear that I thought he’d need some time to figure out his next step. His problem was like a splinter, and the pain wouldn’t go away until the splinter was removed.” Should the patient leave the department? Should he leave academia? Or should he try to resolve the disagreement? Over the next several weeks, Thomson helped the patient analyze his situation and carefully think through the alternatives. “We took it one variable at a time,” Thomson says. “And it eventually became clear to him that the departmental issues couldn’t be fixed. He needed to leave. Once he came to that conclusion, he started feeling better.”

The publication of Andrews and Thomson’s 36,000-word paper in the July 2009 issue of Psychological Review had a polarizing effect on the field. While some researchers, like Jerome Wakefield, a professor at New York University who specializes in the conceptual foundations of clinical theory, greeted the paper as “an extremely important first step toward the re-evaluation of depression,” other psychiatrists regarded it as little more than irresponsible speculation, a justification for human suffering. Peter Kramer, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University, describes the paper as “a ladder with a series of weak rungs.” Kramer has long defended the use of antidepressants — his landmark work, “Listening to Prozac,” chronicled the profound improvements of patients taking the drugs — and criticized those who romanticized depression, which he compares to the glamorization of tuberculosis in the late 19th century. In a series of e-mail messages to me, Kramer suggested that Andrews and Thomson neglect the variants of depression that don’t fit their evolutionary theory. “This study says nothing about chronic depression and the sort of self-hating, paralyzing, hopeless, circular rumination it inspires,” Kramer wrote. And what about post-stroke depression? Late-life depression? Extreme depressive condition? Kramer argues that there’s a clear category difference between a healthy response to social stressors and the response of people with depressive disorder. “Depression is not really like sadness,” Kramer has written. “It’s more an oppressive flattening of feeling.”

Even scientists who are sympathetic to what Andrews and Thomson call the “analytic-rumination hypothesis” remain critical of its details. Ed Hagen, an anthropologist at Washington State University who is working on a book with Andrews, says that while the analytic-rumination hypothesis has persuaded him that some depressive symptoms might improve problem-solving skills, he remains unconvinced that it is a sufficient explanation for depression. “Individuals with major depression often don’t groom, bathe and sometimes don’t even use the toilet,” Hagen says. They also significantly “reduce investment in child care,” which could have detrimental effects on the survival of offspring. The steep fitness costs of these behaviors, Hagen says, would not be offset by “more uninterrupted time to think.”

Other scientists, including Randolph Nesse at the University of Michigan, say that complex psychiatric disorders like depression rarely have simple evolutionary explanations. In fact, the analytic-rumination hypothesis is merely the latest attempt to explain the prevalence of depression. There is, for example, the “plea for help” theory, which suggests that depression is a way of eliciting assistance from loved ones. There’s also the “signal of defeat” hypothesis, which argues that feelings of despair after a loss in social status help prevent unnecessary attacks; we’re too busy sulking to fight back. And then there’s “depressive realism”: several studies have found that people with depression have a more accurate view of reality and are better at predicting future outcomes. While each of these speculations has scientific support, none are sufficient to explain an illness that afflicts so many people. The moral, Nesse says, is that sadness, like happiness, has many functions.

Although Nesse says he admires the analytic-rumination hypothesis, he adds that it fails to capture the heterogeneity of depressive disorder. Andrews and Thomson compare depression to a fever helping to fight off infection, but Nesse says a more accurate metaphor is chronic pain, which can arise for innumerable reasons. “Sometimes, the pain is going to have an organic source,” he says. “Maybe you’ve slipped a disc or pinched a nerve, in which case you’ve got to solve that underlying problem. But much of the time there is no origin for the pain. The pain itself is the dysfunction.”

Andrews and Thomson respond to such criticisms by acknowledging that depression is a vast continuum, a catch-all term for a spectrum of symptoms. While the analytic-rumination hypothesis might explain those patients reacting to an “acute stressor,” it can’t account for those whose suffering has no discernible cause or whose sadness refuses to lift for years at a time. “To say that depression can be useful doesn’t mean it’s always going to be useful,” Thomson says. “Sometimes, the symptoms can spiral out of control. The problem, though, is that as a society, we’ve come to see depression as something that must always be avoided or medicated away. We’ve been so eager to remove the stigma from depression that we’ve ended up stigmatizing sadness.”

For Thomson, this new theory of depression has directly affected his medical practice. “That’s the litmus test for me,” he says. “Do these ideas help me treat my patients better?” In recent years, Thomson has cut back on antidepressant prescriptions, because, he says, he now believes that the drugs can sometimes interfere with genuine recovery, making it harder for people to resolve their social dilemmas. “I remember one patient who came in and said she needed to reduce her dosage,” he says. “I asked her if the antidepressants were working, and she said something I’ll never forget. ‘Yes, they’re working great,’ she told me. ‘I feel so much better. But I’m still married to the same alcoholic son of a bitch. It’s just now he’s tolerable.’ ”

The point is the woman was depressed for a reason; her pain was about something. While the drugs made her feel better, no real progress was ever made. Thomson’s skepticism about antidepressants is bolstered by recent studies questioning their benefits, at least for patients with moderate depression. Consider a 2005 paper led by Steven Hollon, a psychologist at Vanderbilt University: he found that people on antidepressants had a 76 percent chance of relapse within a year when the drugs were discontinued. In contrast, patients given a form of cognitive talk therapy had a relapse rate of 31 percent. And Hollon’s data aren’t unusual: several studies found that patients treated with medication were approximately twice as likely to relapse as patients treated with cognitive behavior therapy. “The high relapse rate suggests that the drugs aren’t really solving anything,” Thomson says. “In fact, they seem to be interfering with the solution, so that patients are discouraged from dealing with their problems. We end up having to keep people on the drugs forever. It was as if these people have a bodily infection, and modern psychiatry is just treating their fever.”

Thomson describes a college student who was referred to his practice. “It was clear that this patient was in a lot of pain,” Thomson says. “He couldn’t sleep, couldn’t study. He had some family issues” — his parents were recently divorced — “and his father was exerting a tremendous amount of pressure on him to go to graduate school. Because he’s got a family history of depression, the standard of care would be to put him on drugs right away. And a few years ago, that’s what I would have done.”

Instead, Thomson was determined to help the student solve his problem. “What you’re trying to do is speed along the rumination process,” Thomson says. “Once you show people the dilemma they need to solve, they almost always start feeling better.” He cites as evidence a recent study that found “expressive writing” — asking depressed subjects to write essays about their feelings — led to significantly shorter depressive episodes. The reason, Thomson suggests, is that writing is a form of thinking, which enhances our natural problem-solving abilities. “This doesn’t mean there’s some miracle cure,” he says. “In most cases, the recovery period is going to be long and difficult. And that’s what I told this young student. I said: ‘I know you’re hurting. I know these problems seem impossible. But they’re not. And I can help you solve them.’ ”

IT’S TOO SOON to judge the analytic-rumination hypothesis. Nobody knows if depression is an adaptation or if Andrews and Thomson have merely spun another “Just So” story, a clever evolutionary tale that lacks direct evidence. Nevertheless, their speculation is part of a larger scientific re-evaluation of negative moods, which have long been seen as emotional states to avoid. The dismissal of sadness and its synonyms is perhaps best exemplified by the rise of positive psychology, a scientific field devoted to the pursuit of happiness. In recent years, a number of positive psychologists have written popular self-help books, like “The How of Happiness” and “Authentic Happiness,” that try to outline the scientific principles behind “lasting fulfillment” and “getting the life we want.”

The new research on negative moods, however, suggests that sadness comes with its own set of benefits and that even our most unpleasant feelings serve an important purpose. Joe Forgas, a social psychologist at the University of South Wales in Australia, has repeatedly demonstrated in experiments that negative moods lead to better decisions in complex situations. The reason, Forgas suggests, is rooted in the intertwined nature of mood and cognition: sadness promotes “information-processing strategies best suited to dealing with more-demanding situations.” This helps explain why test subjects who are melancholy — Forgas induces the mood with a short film about death and cancer — are better at judging the accuracy of rumors and recalling past events; they’re also much less likely to stereotype strangers.

Last year Forgas ventured beyond the lab and began conducting studies in a small stationery store in suburban Sydney, Australia. The experiment itself was simple: Forgas placed a variety of trinkets, like toy soldiers, plastic animals and miniature cars, near the checkout counter. As shoppers exited, Forgas tested their memory, asking them to list as many of the items as possible. To control for the effect of mood, Forgas conducted the survey on gray, rainy days — he accentuated the weather by playing Verdi’s “Requiem” — and on sunny days, using a soundtrack of Gilbert and Sullivan. The results were clear: shoppers in the “low mood” condition remembered nearly four times as many of the trinkets. The wet weather made them sad, and their sadness made them more aware and attentive.

The enhancement of these mental skills might also explain the striking correlation between creative production and depressive disorders. In a survey led by the neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen, 30 writers from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop were interviewed about their mental history. Eighty percent of the writers met the formal diagnostic criteria for some form of depression. A similar theme emerged from biographical studies of British writers and artists by Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, who found that successful individuals were eight times as likely as people in the general population to suffer from major depressive illness.

Why is mental illness so closely associated with creativity? Andreasen argues that depression is intertwined with a “cognitive style” that makes people more likely to produce successful works of art. In the creative process, Andreasen says, “one of the most important qualities is persistence.” Based on the Iowa sample, Andreasen found that “successful writers are like prizefighters who keep on getting hit but won’t go down. They’ll stick with it until it’s right.” While Andreasen acknowledges the burden of mental illness — she quotes Robert Lowell on depression not being a “gift of the Muse” and describes his reliance on lithium to escape the pain — she argues that many forms of creativity benefit from the relentless focus it makes possible. “Unfortunately, this type of thinking is often inseparable from the suffering,” she says. “If you’re at the cutting edge, then you’re going to bleed.”

And then there’s the virtue of self-loathing, which is one of the symptoms of depression. When people are stuck in the ruminative spiral, their achievements become invisible; the mind is only interested in what has gone wrong. While this condition is typically linked to withdrawal and silence — people become unwilling to communicate — there’s some suggestive evidence that states of unhappiness can actually improve our expressive abilities. Forgas said he has found that sadness correlates with clearer and more compelling sentences, and that negative moods “promote a more concrete, accommodative and ultimately more successful communication style.” Because we’re more critical of what we’re writing, we produce more refined prose, the sentences polished by our angst. As Roland Barthes observed, “A creative writer is one for whom writing is a problem.”

This line of research led Andrews to conduct his own experiment, as he sought to better understand the link between negative mood and improved analytical abilities. He gave 115 undergraduates an abstract-reasoning test known as Raven’s Progressive Matrices, which requires subjects to identify a missing segment in a larger pattern. (Performance on the task strongly predicts general intelligence.) The first thing Andrews found was that nondepressed students showed an increase in “depressed affect” after taking the test. In other words, the mere presence of a challenging problem — even an abstract puzzle — induced a kind of attentive trance, which led to feelings of sadness. It doesn’t matter if we’re working on a mathematical equation or working through a broken heart: the anatomy of focus is inseparable from the anatomy of melancholy. This suggests that depressive disorder is an extreme form of an ordinary thought process, part of the dismal machinery that draws us toward our problems, like a magnet to metal.

But is that closeness effective? Does the despondency help us solve anything? Andrews found a significant correlation between depressed affect and individual performance on the intelligence test, at least once the subjects were distracted from their pain: lower moods were associated with higher scores. “The results were clear,” Andrews says. “Depressed affect made people think better.” The challenge, of course, is persuading people to accept their misery, to embrace the tonic of despair. To say that depression has a purpose or that sadness makes us smarter says nothing about its awfulness. A fever, after all, might have benefits, but we still take pills to make it go away. This is the paradox of evolution: even if our pain is useful, the urge to escape from the pain remains the most powerful instinct of all.

Jonah Lehrer is the author of “How We Decide” and of the blog The Frontal Cortex. This is his first article for the magazine.


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Webinar (Web + seminar) seems like a fine neologism for a seminar offered online. A blend of two common terms, it’s immediately understood by most people. I’ve been taking Webinars lately; I like them and appreciate having a handy word for them — even though I’m often inclined to object to linguistic “innovations.”

Lewis Carroll famously called blends like Webinar “portmanteau” words because they’re two words packed into one. (A portmanteau was essentially a suitcase with two compartments folded together.) Carroll made up several such words for his poem “Jabberwocky” (1871), including chortle (chuckle + snort) and galumph (gallop + triumph). Chortle has stayed with us, while galumph appears to have gone the way of gyre and gimble. Why? Because chortle is so handy and so onomatopoeically evocative (think of the laugh of a portly chum).

We enjoy making up portmanteau words. Some stick. Many don’t. Smog (smoke + fog) shows no signs of dissipating, and simulcast (simultaneous + broadcast) is still on the air. No one seems to object to them. And although nobody enjoys infomercials, few begrudge the term — it’s nice to have a name for what you denounce (think televangelist). Advertorial, on the other hand, hasn’t caught on as widely, perhaps because few of us recognize it when editorial content verges on advertising.

Some blends are born of the Internet: blog (Web + log), perhaps the ugliest neologism of the last century; netiquette (network + etiquette), denoting an all-too-scarce commodity; emoticon (emotion + icon), which gives us all smiley faces.

Lawyers gave us palimony (alimony paid to a former live-in lover, or “pal”), though legal claims for galimony (palimony between lesbians) didn’t generate enough fees to keep that word around — perhaps because the term was regarded as sexist. And the Internet gave us cybersquatting for the speculative dealing in domain names containing other people’s trademarks.

Lots of people aerobicize (engage in aerobic exercise), though they’re most likely to say they’re going to an “aerobics class” than to “aerobicize.” Still, if jazz dance is what raises their pulses, they’re likely to call it Jazzercise (jazz + exercise).

Crossbreeding has given us the liger (lion + tiger), the cockapoo (cocker spaniel + poodle) and the Labradoodle (Labrador retriever + poodle). A friend who loves her Labradoodles urged me to get one, but I refrained simply to avoid having to say the word so often.

So why is Webinar O.K. but not Labradoodle? Why brunch (breakfast + lunch) but not botax (Botox + tax)? Why docudrama (documentary + drama) but not defamacast (defamatory + broadcast)?

How, in short, do you judge the relative utility and quality of neologisms?

The answer is that the entire language community becomes the judge. Once a word acquires general currency, only a hopelessly out-of-touch pedant would take up quixotic arms against it. Through the force of linguistic natural selection, some words win their way. Others don’t.

Predicting what will happen is dodgy business. Whether it’s a blend or any other type of neologism, it helps if the word denotes something new. No one seems to have objected to astronaut, breathalyzer or Chunnel when they were first needed. Contrast that with a word that Simon Winchester recently proposed on Twitter (yes, he tweeted about it — see, there’s another handy word). He thinks that drimmens is the perfect word for droplets left by snowy boots on a warm kitchen floor. Although Winchester is one of my favorite writers, that’s balderdash. Who needs such a word? O.K., prove me wrong, if you like, and just try to help that one catch on.

Things are changing fast, in language as elsewhere. Less than two decades ago, the great lexicographer Robert W. Burchfield said that “it usually takes slightly more than a century for a word to reach such a state of maturity that it is not recognizably or instinctively felt to be a newcomer.” Today, change can come much faster. Think of the fall from grace that refugee experienced after Hurricane Katrina: many newspapers and broadcast media stopped using the term after Jesse Jackson declared that “refugee” connoted second-class citizenship, implied noncitizenship and had racist overtones.

We’re hardly into our fourth decade for workaholic (1968) and talk radio (1972), and they seem pretty well ensconced in modern English — at least on the colloquial side.

Of course, the slangier the speech, the more volatile the vocabulary; the more formal the language, as in writing, the more fixed the vocabulary and idiom. Compare a 1960 edition of any reputable journal with a current issue, and you’ll probably find little difference in the language. But if you could listen to talk on the street in 1960 versus 2010, you’d notice striking differences.

Some lexicographers focus on slang — arguably the most interesting linguistic realm because it is most changeable. Others study standard written English — arguably the hardest to master and the most useful. For a funny look at the collision of these two worlds, see the 1941 film “Ball of Fire,” starring Gary Cooper as an encyclopedist/lexicographer and Barbara Stanwyck as a nightclub performer (perhaps a stripper) who offers folksy wisdom couched in the patois of the underworld. If you’re a serious word lover, you’ll marvel at Stanwyck’s racy but outdated mob slang.

Am I jocoserious about that recommendation? Perhaps a little more serious than jocose. Absotively. Posilutely.

Bryan A. Garner, president of the legal-writing consulting firm LawProse, is the author of “Garner’s Modern American Usage” and editor in chief of Black’s Law Dictionary.


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Acquired Taste

One rainy afternoon this past December, while visiting my cousin Martin in Ecuador, I found myself surrounded by eight grinning, scantily clad members of the Shuar, an Amazonian tribe with the distinction of having shrunk its last human head during the Reagan administration. I wasn’t in any kind of danger — just the opposite, in fact — but I’d have given almost anything to escape.

My cousin and I were being welcomed as honored guests, which among the Shuar involves the consumption of chicha, a mildly alcoholic drink that they make from boiled yucca root and human saliva. The situation came as no surprise to me, because I visited the year before, was received with due pomp and politely took a sip from the ceremonial gourd. What was surprising, however, was that I let it happen a second time.

Martin has lived and worked with the Shuar for six years as part of an international aid initiative, and I’ve always admired the grace with which he has adapted to their way of life. Unfortunately for my desire to do him proud, however, I have a history of violent squeamishness, especially if bodily fluids are involved. (As an eighth grader I was as sex-crazed as any of my peers, but the first time a girl stuck her tongue in my mouth, I practically fainted with disgust. Jenny Graham, I hope you’ve forgiven me by now.) I’ve come a long way since then, but not so far that I’m able to think of the spit of a stranger, however lovingly prepared, as a beverage.

No sooner had we arrived in the village of Pampansa — reachable by only canoe or prop plane — than we found ourselves at the home of the local bigwig, a courtly gentleman named Oscar, passing a ceramic bowl of chicha around a big wooden table. Among the Shuar, chicha is traditionally prepared by women and drunk — at least in its more alcoholic variety — by men. When I say “prepared,” what I really mean is chewed: loudly and smackingly, right out in the open, and expectorated into an orange plastic barrel, the kind football players dump over the coach’s head at the end of the game. Oscar’s three young wives stood just behind him, munching on yucca root as unobtrusively as possible, which was plenty obtrusively, in my opinion.

Martin had offered to spare me from the welcoming committee this time around, but I declined. I sampled chicha the year before, after all — the tiniest possible siplet, but still — and I came out of the experience intact. How much worse could the second time be?

Incomparably worse, as it turned out. Oscar proudly filled the bowl to the rim before passing it to my cousin, declaring his chicha to be the best in the region. As decorum requires, Martin nodded politely at our host and downed the bowl’s contents in a single burbling gulp. Oscar and the others grinned appreciatively, refilled the bowl and thumped it down before me. The chicha we had the year before, in a neighboring village, was practically scentless; this stuff smelled like an old man’s false teeth. I stared at it and whimpered.

Why did I put myself into such a position, not once but twice in as many years? The only answer I’ve come up with has less to do with ways of the jungle than with the ways of the suburbs. Even as a child, I prided myself on my politeness, my ability to put any hospitality-giver at ease, perhaps because life at home was often tense. The result would be admirable if it weren’t so absurd: a compulsive urge to be the perfect guest. Some part of me actually seems to seek out nightmarish host-guest scenarios, if only to demonstrate my MacGyverish skill at emerging unscathed. I’m sure Mom never guessed where it might lead, but a lifetime of social conditioning can’t be unlearned on a whim, and neither can a morbid fear of conflict. I was going to drink that chicha if it killed me.

My mother and cousin had gotten me into this jam, but it was Jenny Graham, from eighth grade, who finally got me out. At the height of my panic, as I sat with the reeking bowl in front of me, feeling the tension around the table start to curdle, a bolt of inspiration came to me: hadn’t I tasted spit countless times before? What was chicha drinking, after all, but French kissing once removed?

It was a debatable theory, anthropologically speaking, but it made the impossible possible. I looked up from the table, past my host, at the three women waiting shyly for me to drink what they’d prepared. If Oscar could have read my thoughts, the Shuar tradition of head-hunting might have enjoyed a sudden revival; instead, I downed my entire portion of chicha with only a muted gasp of suffering. If you’re reading this, Mom — and I’m sure that you are — I hope that you’re proud of your boy.

John Wray is the author of the novel “Lowboy.”


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Iron-Horse Stampede

The rise and fall and possible resurgence of the railroad

When Warren Buffett announced last fall that Berkshire Hathaway would buy the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, some kibitzers wondered what he saw in a business based on 19th-century technologies. The answer, for those who care to look, can be found in Christian Wolmar’s “Blood, Iron and Gold.”

Mr. Buffett is communing with the ghost of James J. Hill, the one-eyed visionary who established the Great Northern Railway in 1889. Many years and many mergers later, it remains the ancestral corporate heart of the Burlington Northern. Hill’s story is part of the epic romance of the railroads, skillfully recounted by Mr. Wolmar.

The railroad was born in Britain in the early 1800s as a means of transporting coal from mines to market. But proprietors of the early railways, such as the Liverpool & Manchester in Britain and the Baltimore & Ohio in the U.S., quickly discovered that people could also be profitably transported over great distances. The result was a revolution.

“It is almost impossible to exaggerate the profound impact of the railways,” Mr. Wolmar writes. “They transformed the agricultural economies, which had prevailed since mankind emerged from the caves, into the industrial age.”

The emergence of this new form of transport “enabled the migration of wide swaths of the population from land-based employment or subsistence farming to paid work for capitalist businesses,” Mr. Wolmar says. This newly mobile labor force ranged far afield, supplying manpower for a host of new industries.

The transforming effect of railroads ranged into the world of finance as well. Vast amounts of capital were required to build locomotives and freight and passenger cars, to lay down track, to acquire land, to build stations, to buy fuel, to pay wages. Railroad barons like Cornelius Vanderbilt became major players on Wall Street, while financiers like Jay Gould, J.P. Morgan and E.H. Harriman found themselves drawn into the railroad business.

Of course, the government played a role too, especially in continental Europe. Britain and the U.S. took a more laissez-faire approach to railroad development. But even in the land of free enterprise, politicians inevitably became involved in the process, not always with beneficial results.

Mr. Wolmar, who bills himself as Britain’s leading railway expert, is something of a cheerleader for railroads, and he does not shy away from hyperbole. At least three times in this book he compares one railway project or another to the construction of the pyramids in ancient Egypt. But he has a point: The railroads were indeed a vast undertaking, vastly impressive in their technologies, accomplishments and social effects.

Most Americans are at least somewhat familiar with the epic story of the building of the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific railways, which famously converged at Promontory Point, Utah, on May 10, 1869. But this was not the first line to span the North American continent. That distinction technically belongs to William Aspinwall’s Panama Railroad, completed in 1855. It was only 47 miles long, yet at least 6,000 workers succumbed to tropical diseases during its construction. Mr. Wolmar dubs it “the railway from hell.”

He covers a great deal of territory in “Blood, Iron and Gold,” but he keeps the reader engaged by highlighting extraordinary projects like the building of the Trans-Siberian Railway from 1891 to 1904. It connected St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, a distance of almost 6,200 miles. Equally stirring is the saga of Cecil Rhodes and his never-completed Cape-to-Cairo line; and that of Peru’s vertiginous Central Railway, which ascends the Andes and passes through the Galera Tunnel, 15,694 feet above sea level. The book also features cameo appearances by such colorful figures as Benito Mussolini, who may or may not have made Italy’s trains run on time but who definitely made them run faster and more frequently. Nor does Mr. Wolmar neglect the pop-culture angle: Agatha Christie fans will be sorry to learn that history records no instance of a real-life murder on the Orient Express.

By the end of the 19th century, railroads were ubiquitous. Railway managers scoffed at the notion that the newfangled horseless carriage might cut into their business. Mr. Wolmar quotes one particularly clueless executive on the subject: “The fad of automobile riding will gradually wear off and time will soon be here when a very large part of the people cease to think of automobile rides.” That comment was made in 1916. Four years later, railroad traffic in the U.S. peaked at 1.2 billion passengers. By the 1930s the Iron Horse was in serious decline, thanks to the internal combustion engine.

The railroads shifted from steam power to electricity and diesel engines, but it was too late: Competition from cars, trucks, buses and airplanes cut deeply into their business. More recently, passenger service has mounted a comeback in much of the world, thanks in part to the popularity of high-speed rail. But not in the U.S., where intercity passenger service is now mostly confined to a few Amtrak routes in the Northeast Corridor.

The prospects are much brighter for freight, which is where Warren Buffett comes in. His new toy, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, incorporates three of America’s five original transcontinental lines. All but one—James Hill’s Great Northern—were built with government support. Hill built his with private capital and his own implacable will. Mr. Wolmar describes him as “probably the greatest American railroader, who for 30 years pursued his vision of a line that would open up the vast prairies of Montana to settlers and allow the export of grain to the Far East.”

As it happens, two of my great-grandparents were among the settlers that Hill lured to Montana a century ago. Neither of them ever got rich off the Far East trade, and neither did Hill, who made most of his enormous fortune from domestic traffic. But his Pacific strategy may well pay off for Mr. Buffett, thanks to China’s rise. Rail traffic to and from the West Coast should be increasing for years to come. Hill was known as “the Empire Builder.” Mr. Buffett may effect a restoration.

Passenger service too may finally be ready for a revival in the U.S. President Barack Obama recently earmarked $8 billion in stimulus funds for high-speed rail projects. Carl Icahn is backing a new venture that will manufacture passenger cars in Arkansas.

“Trains may be of the past, but they are still the future,” Mr. Wolmar writes. “They will improve, not just on high-speed lines, but elsewhere too as technology makes them more efficient, more comfortable, and faster. And there is the rather delicious prospect that they might conceivably outlive the car.” More hyperbole. And yet: Would you bet against Warren Buffett?

Mr. Lewis is writing a book about America’s colonial experience in the Philippines.


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The Italian Slow Cooker

Culinary progress—like progress in general—is sometimes a matter of rediscovering the obvious by tripping over it. On one of her visits to Rome, cookbook author Michele Scicolone looked into the window of a neighborhood restaurant and noticed a “large, round greenish glass bottle” sitting over a wood-fueled stove. Each morning a cook would fill the container with dried beans, water, salt, garlic and herbs, simmering the contents all day until they reached creamy, aromatic perfection. “I salivated at the sight, and I thought, ‘This is the original slow cooker!’ Until that moment, it had never occurred to me to use an electric slow cooker for Italian cooking.” While the modern slow cooker is a recent development, it is a direct link to one of the oldest forms of cooking: the leisurely simmering of ingredients in a metal pot over a low fire or in a covered earthenware vessel nestled in glowing embers. Those ingredients might include dried beans or starches or tough but flavorful cuts of meat—they all benefit from extended cooking to merge flavors and attain the right consistency. Using today’s slow cooker is a convenient, comfortable approximation of spending sweaty hours laboring over a medieval brick hearth. After offering some helpful tips on equipment and ingredients, Ms. Scicolone trots the reader through chapters on soups, sauces, seafood, meat, poultry, vegetables and even dessert. There are 125 recipes in total, most of them involving readily available ingredients and all concisely explained. Some are better suited to slow-cooker preparation than others. While perfect for stir- and worry-free polenta, for example, the slow cooker is a bit more problematic when it comes to attention-demanding risottos, and there are some fresh tomato-based sauces that lose texture and flavor when kept over the heat too long. But for regional Italian cuisines that lean toward odds and ends and innards, the slow cooker is ideal. Especially recommended are Ms. Scicolone’s recipes for Roman oxtail stew, a relatively easy take on ossa buco, a brilliantly simple recipe for whole chicken with rosemary and garlic, and a less-familiar but tempting Sicilian swordfish ragu. Having worked your way through one or more of these dinner recipes, you could do a lot worse than to finish off with slow-cooked panettone bread pudding or poached pears, both enlivened with a dash of Sicily’s alternative to sherry and port, magnificent Marsala.

Aram Bakshian Jr., Wall Street Journal


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An Expert Rates the Skills of Fictional Spies

Frederick P. Hitz, former inspector general of the CIA, rates the spycraft of his four favorite agents

Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Kim’

Kim has excellent cover for action; even though he is Anglo-Irish, he assumes native dress and darkens his face so he can pass as an Indian. Creighton Sahib—his British employer in the Ethnological Survey, which provides institutional cover for British spies in India—uses him first as a messenger helping deliver news of troop movements along the Grand Trunk Road. After Kim is recruited to the service and sent to secondary school to become a surveyor, he acquires the skills to help perform surveys in the outback, where he can keep an eye on Russian and French intruders seeking to undermine British rule. In addition, Kim signs on as “chela” or manservant to a wandering Tibetan Buddhist holy man giving him freedom to travel anywhere in India to accompany his master’s quest for spiritual salvation. Kim has excellent spy instincts. He is a watcher.

[CovJump4]James Bond

In ‘Dr. No’ and ‘From Russia with Love’ by Ian Fleming

James Bond is a hoot even if he isn’t a very careful spy. What is noteworthy in these two books and movies is that in terms of good ops security, it does not pay to get too close to James Bond. In “Dr. No,” Bond’s Cayman Islands guide Quarrel is swallowed up by the swamp-eating protective machine that polices Dr. No’s Caribbean hideaway, while Bond escapes. In “From Russia with Love,” Bond’s Anglo-Turkish sidekick, Darko Karim Bey, is similarly eliminated by a KGB assassin trying to gun down 007. Bond, of course, survives.

George Smiley

In ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ by John le Carré

Described as “small, podgy and at best middle-aged, he was by appearance one of London’s meek who do not inherit the earth.” In other words, unless one knew of George Smiley’s brilliance and connections, he could enter a room unnoticed, the best kind of position for a master spy to assume. He was a stickler for spy tradecraft: “And his fancy that he was being followed? What of that? What of the shadow he never saw, only felt, till his back seemed to tingle with the intensity of his watcher’s gaze; he saw nothing, heard nothing, only felt. He was too old not to heed the warning. The creak of a stair that had not creaked before; the rustle of a shutter when no wind was blowing; the car with a different number plate but the same scratch on the offside wing; the face on the Metro that you know you have seen somewhere before: for years at a time these were signs he had lived by; any one of them was reason enough to move, change towns, identities. For in that profession there is no such thing as coincidence.” While Smiley’s operational awareness may seem quaint and romantic in modern days, it makes the point that spy games are for keeps. Alec Guinness plays a great Smiley in the BBC spectacular.

[CovJump3]The Jackal

In ‘The Day of the Jackal’ by Frederick Forsyth

The Jackal’s tradecraft and preparations before he sets out to assassinate Charles de Gaulle in this book and movie are remarkable. As the Jackal points out, a maximum of preparation is required when you intend to assassinate a heavily guarded chief of state and want to survive the attack. In this case, the Jackal steals the identity of a child who has died in infancy out of the parish records of an English country church in order to obtain a passport. Several other identities are stolen from unsuspecting passengers at Heathrow, who are surreptitiously stripped of their passports. In addition, he adopts the guise of a wounded World War I French veteran so that he can hide his murder weapon on his person and gain access to a building close to the monument where General de Gaulle is scheduled to decorate a war hero on the anniversary of the liberation of Paris. The Jackal’s preparations are exhaustive—and then (spoiler alert) they fail due to the simple error of not counting on General De Gaulle to kiss the honoree on both cheeks.

Frederick P. Hitz, a lecturer on law and public policy at the University of Virginia, is author of “The Great Game” and “Why Spy?”


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A Perfectly Framed Assassination

Stepped-up surveillance technology may be tipping the scales in the cat-and-mouse game between spies and their targets. Robert Baer on the current state of spycraft.

Some of the identity photographs of suspects in the killing of Mahmoud al Mabhouh released by the Dubai police on Wednesday.

It was a little after 9 p.m. when a Palestine Liberation Organization official stepped out of the elevator into the lobby of Paris’s Le Meridien Montparnasse, a modern luxury hotel that caters to businessmen and well-heeled tourists. The PLO official was going to dinner with a friend, who was waiting by the front desk. As they pushed out the Meridien’s front door, they both noticed a man on a divan looking intently at them. It was odd enough that at dinner they called a contact in the French police. The policeman advised the PLO official to go directly back to the hotel after dinner and stay put. The police would look into it in the morning.

When the PLO official and his friend came back from dinner, the man on the divan was gone, and the Meridien’s lobby was full of Japanese tourists having coffee after a night on the town. From here the accounts differ; in one version, a taxi blocked off traffic at the end of the street that runs in front of the Meridien, apparently to hold up any police car on routine patrol. In another, the traffic on the street was light.

What is certain is that as soon as the PLO official stepped out of the passenger side of the car, two athletic men in track suits came walking down the street, fast. One of them had what looked like a gym bag. When the friend of the PLO official got out of the car to say goodbye, he noticed the two but didn’t think much of it. They looked French, but other than that it was too dark to see more.

One of the men abruptly lunged at the PLO official, pinning him down on the hood of the car. According to the PLO official’s friend, one of the men put his gym bag against the head of the PLO official and fired two quick rounds into the base of his neck, killing him instantly. There was a silencer on the weapon. The two fled down the street and disappeared into an underground garage, never to be seen again.

A rally against the assassination of Mr. Mabhouh.

That was 1992. And the world of assassins has changed a lot in the intervening years.

 knew the PLO official, and his assassins have yet to be found. Israel’s Mossad security agency was quickly assumed to be behind the killing. Israel had accused the PLO official of having been a member of Black September, and his assassination seemed to be the last in an Israeli campaign to hunt down the perpetrators of the 1972 Munich Olympic attack. So far so good, but unable to identify even the nationality of the assassins, the French could do nothing but grumble. With no casings from the pistol found, no closed-circuit TV coverage in front of the Meridien, and no good description of the assassins, the French could not even send a strong diplomatic protest to the Israelis. If Israel indeed assassinated the PLO official, it got away with it cleanly.

Fast forward 18 years to the assassination of Hamas military leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh on Jan. 20, and it is a graphic reminder of just how much the world has changed. Nearly the entire hit was recorded on closed-circuit TV cameras, from the time the team arrived at Dubai’s airport to the time the assassins entered Mr. Mabhouh’s room. The cameras even caught team members before and after they donned their disguises. The only thing the Dubai authorities have been unable to discover is the true names of the team. But having identified the assassins, or at least the borrowed identities they traveled on, Dubai felt confident enough to point a finger at Israel. (Oddly enough several of the identities were stolen from people living in Israel.)

Dubai had on its side motivation—Mr. Mabhouh had plotted the kidnapping and murder of two Israeli soldiers and reportedly played a role in the smuggling of Iranian arms into Gaza. And none of this is to mention that the Mabhouh assassination had all the hallmarks of an Israeli hit: a large team, composed of men and women, and an almost flawless execution. If it had been a Russian hit, for instance, they would have used a pistol or a car bomb, indifferent to the chaos left behind.

After Dubai released the tapes, the narrative quickly became that the assassination was an embarrassing blunder for Tel Aviv. Mossad failed spectacularly to assassinate a Hamas official in Amman in 1997— the poison that was used acted too slowly and the man survived—and it looks like the agency is not much better today. Why were so many people involved? (The latest report is that there were 26 members of the team.) Why were identities stolen from people living in Israel? Why didn’t they just kill Mr. Mabhouh in a dark alley, one assassin with a pistol with a silencer? Or why at least didn’t they all cover their faces with baseball caps so that the closed-circuit TV cameras did not have a clean view?

The truth is that Mr. Mabhouh’s assassination was conducted according to the book—a military operation in which the environment is completely controlled by the assassins. At least 25 people are needed to carry off something like this. You need “eyes on” the target 24 hours a day to ensure that when the time comes he is alone. You need coverage of the police—assassinations go very wrong when the police stumble into the middle of one. You need coverage of the hotel security staff, the maids, the outside of the hotel. You even need people in back-up accommodations in the event the team needs a place to hide.

I can only speculate about where exactly the hit went wrong. But I would guess the assassins failed to account for the marked advance in technology. Not only were there closed-circuit TV cameras in the hotel where Mr. Mabhouh was assassinated and at the airport, but Dubai has at its fingertips the best security consultants in the world. The consultants merely had to run advanced software through all of Dubai’s digital data before, during and after the assassination to connect the assassins in time and place. For instance, a search of all cellular phone calls made in and around the hotel where Mr. Mabhouh was assassinated would show who had called the same number—reportedly a command post in Vienna. It would only be a matter then of tracking when and where calls were made from these phones, tying them to hotels where the team was operating or staying.

Not completely understanding advances in technology may be one explanation for the assassins nonchalantly exposing their faces to the closed-circuit TV cameras, one female assassin even smiling at one. They mistook Dubai 2010 for Paris 1992, and never thought it would all be tied together in a neat bow. But there is no good explanation why Israel, if indeed it was behind the assassination, underestimated the technology. The other explanation—the assassins didn’t care whether their faces were identified—doesn’t seem plausible at all.

When I first came into the CIA as a young field operative, there was an endless debate about whether assassinations were worthwhile. The CIA was humiliated by its failed attempts to kill Fidel Castro in the early 1960s, and embarrassed by the accusation that it was complicit in the murder of Chile’s President Salavador Allende in 1973.

In the mid-1970s the Church-Pike committees investigating the CIA put an end to CIA assassinations. Since then every CIA officer has been obligated to sign Executive Order 12,333, a law outlawing CIA assassinations. It had—at least until 9/11—a chilling effect on everything CIA operatives did, from the informants they ran to the governments they dealt with. I myself ran afoul of E.O. 12,333.

In March 1995 I was brought back from northern Iraq, accused of having tried to assassinate Saddam Hussein. It was true there had been a running fight between the Kurds and Saddam’s army in the north, but if there had been a real attempt on Saddam’s life I wasn’t aware of it. And neither was the FBI, which was ordered by the White House to investigate the CIA for an illegal assassination attempt. The lesson I walked away with was that the word assassination terrified the White House, more than even Saddam. And as far as I can tell, it still does to a degree.

Post-9/11 the CIA got back into the assassination business, but in a form that looks more like classic war than the Hollywood version of assassination. The CIA has fired an untold number of Hellfire missiles at al Qaeda and Taliban operatives in the mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan. One of its most spectacular assassinations was that of Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of Pakistan’s Taliban, last year. In addition to the intended targets, thousands of other people have been killed. What strikes me, and what makes it so different from the assassination of the PLO official in Paris and Mr. Mabhouh in Dubai, is that the assassinations are obscured by the fog of war. Western TV cameras are not allowed in to film the collateral damage, and that’s not to mention we’re all but at war with Pakistan’s Pashtun who live in these mountains.

Israel’s conflict in the West Bank and Gaza is less than clear cut in the sense that Israel is not at war with the Palestinians, or even really with Hamas. It is at war with Hamas militants, people who have shed Israeli blood. The Israelis know who they are, and as a matter of course send hit squads into Gaza and the West Bank to kill them. The Israelis call it “targeted killings”—assassination by any other name.

A couple of years ago I visited the house where the Israeli military assassinated a Palestinian militant in the West Bank. It was in a makeshift refugee camp, where you could touch houses on both sides of the path only by raising your arms. The place was teeming with people. How the Israeli team got in, assassinated the militant and got out without any casualties, I will never know. The point is that the Israelis have become very good at it.

If in fact Mossad assassinated Mr. Mabhouh in Dubai, it no doubt modeled its planning on targeted killings in Palestinian areas—with the use of overwhelming force, speed and control of the environment. The problem with Dubai, which should be painfully obvious to Tel Aviv, is that it is not the West Bank. Nor is Paris now with its web of closed-circuit TV cameras and the ability of the French to track prepaid telephones. The art of assassination, the kind we have seen over and over again in Hollywood movies, may be as passé as killing people by arsenic or with a garrote. You just can’t get away with it anymore.

In America’s war on terror, there has been a conspicuous absence of classical assassination. The closest thing to it was when the CIA kidnapped an Egyptian cleric in Milan and rendered him to Egypt in 2003. Most of the CIA agents behind the rendition were identified because, like the assassins in Dubai, the agents apparently did not understand that you can’t put a large team on the ground in a modern country and not leave a digital footprint. It took a matter of days for the Italian prosecutors to trace their supposedly sterile phone to their hotels, and from there to their true-name email accounts and telephone calls to family. We might as well have let Delta Force do it with helicopters with American insignia on the side.

Israel has yet to feel the real cost of the hit in Dubai. But the longer it is covered in the press, the higher the cost.

And was Mr. Mabhouh worth it? Other than taking revenge for killing the two Israeli soldiers, he will be quickly replaced. Arms dealing is not a professional skill, and as long as Hamas’s militants are at war with Israel they will find people to buy arms and smuggle them into Gaza. In short, it’s looking more and more like Mr. Mabhouh’s assassination was a serious policy failure.

In cold prose, it sounds inhuman, but there should be a cost-benefit calculation in deciding whether to assassinate an enemy. With all of the new technology available to any government who can afford it, that cost has gone up astronomically. Plausible deniability is out the window. Obviously, if we had known with any specificity 9/11 was coming, we would have ignored the high cost and tried to assassinate Osama bin Laden. And there’s certainly an argument to be made that we should have assassinated Saddam Hussein rather than invade Iraq. The bottom line, it seems to me, is that assassination is justified if it keeps us out of a war. But short of that, it’s not. The Mabhouhs of the world are best pursued by relentless diplomatic pressure and the rule of law.

Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer assigned to the Middle East, is the author of “See No Evil” and “The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower.”


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Five Best Historical Mystery Novels

These historical mystery novels are superb mixtures of the scholarly and the suspenseful, says David B. Rivkin Jr.

1. Alexandria

By Lindsey Davis
St. Martin’s/Minotaur, 2009

Set during the first-century reign of the Roman emperor Vespasian, Lindsey Davis’s “Alexandria” is an especially captivating entry in the historical-mystery series featuring Vespasian’s “informer,” sleuth extraordinaire Marcus Didius Falco. This time around, trouble finds Falco even when he is on a family vacation in Alexandria. Shortly after he dines with the head of Alexandria’s renowned library, the librarian is found dead. Other mysterious deaths among the city’s intelligentsia follow. As he begins digging into the case, the practical-minded Falco casts a sardonic eye on decadent Egyptian life in a city where people “picked pockets, exchanged goods, held assignations, complained about Roman taxes, insulted other sects, insulted their in-laws, cheated and fornicated.” The novel offers many memorable elements, including a fine corpse-dissection scene and a monstrous man-eating Nile crocodile that terrorizes the city. One of Davis’s virtues is the way she roots her tales in ancient times even as she adds sly modern touches; in “Alexandria” she lampoons today’s universities with a hilarious portrayal of academia circa A.D. 75, replete with rancorous board meetings, pretentious intellectual wrangling and petty professional jealousies.

2. A Morbid Taste for Bones

By Ellis Peters
William Morrow, 1977

Brother Cadfael is a most unusual 12th-century monk: He has spent decades in the secular world, fighting in the Crusades, romping with the fairer sex and learning many of the skills that he uses to solve the mysteries in Ellis Peters’s series. “A Morbid Taste for Bones” finds Brother Cadfael in a Welsh village called Gwytherine, where the remains of a local saint are coveted by an ambitious Benedictine prior, who wants to buy them for his abbey in far-away Shrewsbury. His plan meets fierce resistance in Gwytherine, where one of the most vocal opponents is murdered. Brother Cadfael, comfortable in both the secular and spiritual realms, investigates the killing and soon turns up evidence—by paying Holmesian attention to the big meaning of small details—and concludes that suspicion has been focused on the wrong party. The author keeps the suspense high, but Peters raises the story well above the average whodunit with his descriptions of the Welsh countryside’s stark beauty, his vivid characters and his command of medieval church matters. Mystery, after all, is best framed by history.

3. The Emperor’s Pearl

By Robert H. van Gulik
Scribner, 1963

Judge Dee is a busy magistrate in late-seventh-century China: In addition to performing his legal duties in the fictional Poo-yang district, he juggles three wives, collects antiques and studies Confucius. Part of his job, as fans of the Judge Dee series will know, is criminal investigation. In “The Emperor’s Pearl,” the judge begins looking into a murder that leads from one killing to the next but all tied to a famous pearl that had been stolen from the imperial household generations ago. Aided by his faithful retainer, Sgt. Hoong, Judge Dee sets a clever trap to solve the case—a purloined domino plays an important role. But he is not entirely reliant on his mental powers: The judge is a ferocious interrogator, and there is no doubt about how he would treat today’s captured terrorists. One of the pleasures of the Judge Dee mysteries—in addition to the fine storytelling and attention to period detail, like the Chinese love for dragon-boat racing—is the sprinkling of illustrations by the author, the Dutch diplomat and student of Chinese history, Robert H. van Gulik, who died in 1967.

4. Slayer of Gods

By Lynda S. Robinson
Warner, 2001

Linda S. Robinson has a doctorate in anthropology, specializing in archaeology. Such expertise clearly informs her richly atmospheric depictions of ancient Egypt in her Lord Meren mysteries. In “Slayer of Gods,” we find Meren serving as chief security officer for Pharoah Tutankhamun in the 14th century B.C. The young Tutankhamun is intent on restoring tradition after the turbulent reign of the heretical Pharoah Akhenaten. But unfinished business remains from Akhenaten’s rule: the poisoning murder of his wife, Queen Nefertiti. It’s considered a cold case, but Meren won’t let it go and is soon entangled in a story fraught with immense political and religious significance, colored by that characteristic obsession of ancient Egypt, the afterlife.

5. The Fire Kimono

By Laura Joh Rowland
St. Martin’s/Minotaur, 2008

In this entry from Laura Joh Rowland’s beguiling series featuring the samurai detective Sano Ichirō at the turn of the 18th century in Japan, the shogun gives Sano three days to solve a 40-year-old mystery. Why? Because the mystery concerns a fire that nearly destroyed the shogun’s city, Ido, and Sano’s own mother has emerged as a suspect. But Sano has other pressing concerns as well: A rival is threatening his position at court, and the murder of a close relative of the shogun has outraged the tightly controlled social system. Rowland’s tale is graced with evocative period detail, as when Sano is horrified to see his mother’s maid cooking a duck—a culinary taboo at the time—only to be mollified when the woman explains that the dish is permissible because it is meant to restore his mother’s fading strength. But “The Fire Kimono” lingers in the memory as a haunting story of an honest man trying to navigate in an honor-obsessed culture where elaborate ritual can conceal sinister intrigue.

Mr. Rivkin, a Washington-based lawyer, served in the Justice Department during the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush administration.


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Is the Dismal Science Really a Science?

Some macroeconomists say if we just study the numbers long enough we’ll be able to design better policy. That’s like the sign in the bar: Free Beer Tomorrow.

For an economist, these are the best of times and the worst of times. We live in the best of times because everyone wants to understand what happened to the economy and what’s going to happen next.

Is the mess we’re in a market failure or a government failure? Is the stimulus plan working? Would tax cuts for small business spur employment? When will the job market improve? Is inflation coming? Do deficits matter?

So many questions and so little in the way of answers. And so it is the worst of times for economists. There is no consensus on the cause of the crisis or the best way forward.

There were Nobel Laureates who thought the original stimulus package should have been twice as big. And there are those who blame it for keeping unemployment high. Some economists warn of hyperinflation while others tell us not to worry.

It makes you wonder why people call it the Nobel Prize in Economic Science. After all, most sciences make progress. Nobody in medicine wants to bring back lead goblets. Sir Isaac Newton understood a lot about gravity. But Albert Einstein taught us more.

But in economics, theories that were once discredited surge back into favor. John Maynard Keynes and the view that government spending can create prosperity seem immortal. I thought stagflation had put a stake in the heart of this idea back in the 1970s. Suddenly, he’s a genius once again. F.A. Hayek, Keynes’s more laissez-faire sparring partner, is drawing interest. There are various monetarists to choose from, too. Which paradigm is the “right” way to think about the boom and the bust? Or are they all wrong?

I once thought econometrics—the application of statistics to economic questions—would settle these disputes and the truth would out. Econometrics is often used to measure the independent impact of one variable holding the rest of the relevant factors constant. But I’ve come to believe there are too many factors we don’t have data on, too many connections between the variables we don’t understand and can’t model or identify.

I’ve started asking economists if they can name a study that applied sophisticated econometrics to a controversial policy issue where the study was so well done that one side’s proponents had to admit they were wrong. I don’t know of any. One economist told me that in general my point was well taken, but that his own work (of course!) had been decisive in settling a particular dispute.

Perhaps what we’re really doing is confirming our biases. Ed Leamer, a professor of economics at UCLA, calls it “faith-based” econometrics. When the debate is over $2 trillion in additional government spending vs. zero, we’ve stopped being scientists and become philosophers. Do we want to be more like France with a bigger role for government, or less like France?

Facts and evidence still matter. And economists have learned some things that have stood the test of time and that we almost all agree on—the general connection between the money supply and inflation, for example. But the arsenal of the modern econometrician is vastly overrated as a diviner of truth. Nearly all economists accept the fundamental principles of microeconomics—that incentives matter, that trade creates prosperity—even if we disagree on the implications for public policy. But the business cycle and the ability to steer the economy out of recession may be beyond us.

The defenders of modern macroeconomics argue that if we just study the economy long enough, we’ll soon be able to model it accurately and design better policy. Soon. That reminds me of the permanent sign in the bar: Free Beer Tomorrow.

We should face the evidence that we are no better today at predicting tomorrow than we were yesterday. Eighty years after the Great Depression we still argue about what caused it and why it ended.

If economics is a science, it is more like biology than physics. Biologists try to understand the relationships in a complex system. That’s hard enough. But they can’t tell you what will happen with any precision to the population of a particular species of frog if rainfall goes up this year in a particular rain forest. They might not even be able to count the number of frogs right now with any exactness.

We have the same problems in economics. The economy is a complex system, our data are imperfect and our models inevitably fail to account for all the interactions.

The bottom line is that we should expect less of economists. Economics is a powerful tool, a lens for organizing one’s thinking about the complexity of the world around us. That should be enough. We should be honest about what we know, what we don’t know and what we may never know. Admitting that publicly is the first step toward respectability.

Mr. Roberts is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, professor of economics at George Mason University and a distinguished scholar in the Mercatus Center.


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The Great Condescender

No one holds a candle to Barack Obama when it comes to making smart liberals feel superior.

An exchange between The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait and Commentary’s John Podhoretz vindicates our decision not to watch yesterday’s so-called health-care summit. In her column today, Peggy Noonan–who certainly earned her pay for the week by sitting through what sounds like a grim spectacle indeed–observes: “Positions started out hardened, and likely ended so.” The Chait-Podhoretz dust-up illustrates just how true that is.

Podhoretz, who also suffered through the harangathon, summed it up this way:

My sense of this summit is that President Obama is exactly as he always is — extremely intelligent, knowledgeable about policy details, so certain of the rightness of his views that he has no compunction about declaring the views of his antagonists to be merely politically convenient rather than substantive, startlingly condescending at moments, and even more startlingly long-winded when he gets going. As a result, he both looks good and bad in these settings — good because he’s serious and doesn’t appear to be a fanatic, and bad because of the condescension.

Which prompted this defense of condescension from Chait:

Podhoretz calls Obama “startlingly condescending at moments.” How can that be avoided when you’re trying to have a high-level discussion with people who reply either on debunked claims at best and talk radio-level slogans at worst?

Actually, describing that as a defense of condescension is too charitable, isn’t it? It’s an example of condescension. If we didn’t know better we’d think Chait was exaggerating in order to illustrate Podhoretz’s point. And it’s not the first time–not even the first time in a day–that Chait did this. Podhoretz’s post quoted an earlier one of Chait’s:

President Obama is so much smarter and a better communicator than members of Congress in either party. The contrast, side by side, is almost ridiculous. . . .

Most the time [sic], this is like watching Lebron James play basketball with a bunch of kids who got cut from the 7th grade basketball team. He’s treating them really nice, letting his teammates take shots and allowing the other team to try to score. Nice try on that layup, Timmy, you almost got it on. But after a couple minutes I want him to just grab the ball and dunk on these clowns already.

Podhoretz’s answer:

Here we have a sterling example of how ideological predilections, his and mine, might color our opinions here. Except for one thing: You can only think Obama is Lebron James playing 7th graders if you are already certain his opinions are right, because the best you can say about this summit so far for him is that it’s a draw, and it’s probably worse than that. And given that only 25 percent of the public wants ObamaCare, he needs to be Lebron James. And Pete Maravich. And Oscar Robertson. And Kareem. All at the same time.

Chait actually makes two distinct claims about Obama: that he has a superior intellect and that he is a superior “communicator.” The first claim could be true, although it is far from indisputable. But the second claim is so absurd as to be delusional.

Obama has spent the past year trying to sell Americans on ObamaCare. He has failed utterly, as Podhoretz notes. Now, maybe Chait is right that opposition to ObamaCare is a product of stupidity. Maybe ObamaCare would be popular if a majority of Americans were as brilliant as Jonathan Chait. But in a democratic republic, elections are not limited to the elect. Shockingly, half of all Americans have below-average IQs. They vote too.

By no imaginable standard can a politician be considered a great “communicator,” or even an adequate one, if he is unable to persuade voters of average-or-below intelligence to back his policies.

Further, is there any evidence that Obama is especially good at communicating with those on the far right of the bell curve? Chait is persuaded, and we’re willing to stipulate that Chait is brilliant. But Chait was persuaded before, and we know lots of brilliant people who oppose ObamaCare.

Obama is very good at making smart liberals feel superior. That is a communication ability, but not a terribly useful one for a politician in a democratic country.

James Taranto, Wall Street Journal


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The Last Four Minutes of Air France Flight 447

Death in the Atlantic

Graphic: The last four minutes of Air France flight 447.

The crash of Air France flight 447 from Rio to Paris last year is one of the most mysterious accidents in the history of aviation. After months of investigation, a clear picture has emerged of what went wrong. The reconstruction of the horrific final four minutes reveal continuing safety problems in civil aviation. 

One tiny technical failure heralded the impending disaster. But the measurement error was so inconspicuous that the pilots in the cockpit of the Airbus A330 probably hardly noticed it. 

Air France flight 447 had been in the air for three hours and 40 minutes since taking off from Rio de Janeiro on the evening of May 31, 2009. Strong turbulence had been shaking the plane for half an hour, and all but the hardiest frequent flyers were awake. 

Suddenly the gauge indicating the external temperature rose by several degrees, even though the plane was flying at an altitude of 11 kilometers (36,000 feet) and it hadn’t got any warmer outside. The false reading was caused by thick ice crystals forming on the sensor on the outside of the plane. These crystals had the effect of insulating the detector. It now appears that this is when things started going disastrously wrong. 

Relatives and friends carry the coffin of Lucas Gagliano, who died when Air France flight 447 crashed into the Atlantic, during his funeral in Rio de Janeiro. Given all the turbulence during the flight, it is possible that the passengers remained oblivious to what was happening. The oxygen didn’t drop from the ceiling, the stewardesses weren’t sitting on their emergency seats and the lifejackets remained untouched.

Flying through thunderclouds over the Atlantic, more and more ice was hurled at the aircraft. In the process, it knocked out other, far more important, sensors: the pencil-shaped airspeed gauges known as pitot tubes. 

One alarm after another lit up the cockpit monitors. One after another, the autopilot, the automatic engine control system, and the flight computers shut themselves off. “It was like the plane was having a stroke,” says Gérard Arnoux, the head of the French pilots union SPAF. 

The final minutes of flight AF 447 had begun. Four minutes after the airspeed indicator failed, the plane plunged into the ocean, killing all 228 people on board. 

Few airline crashes in recent years have subsequently unnerved passengers to quite the same extent. “How was it possible that an Airbus from such an apparently safe airline could simply disappear?” they wondered. 

Passengers on the Rio-Paris route are still uneasy as they board their plane. After the accident, the flight number was changed to AF 445. Many frequent flyers have since opted for daytime flights across the Atlantic because pilots can recognize storm fronts more easily during the day. 

Another large-scale search for the stricken plane’s “black box” flight recorders is due to begin in the coming weeks. Once again some 2,000 square kilometers (800 square miles) of mountainous ocean floor will be swept, some of it by a submarine from from the northern German city of Kiel. “We shouldn’t speculate about the causes of the accident until the search has been completed,” says Jean-Paul Troadec, the director of the French air crash investigation agency BEA. 

Other experts are less guarded in their comments. “We know pretty well why the accident happened,” says union boss Arnoux. 

‘An Accident Like This Could Happen Again’ 

Over the course of several months of investigation, experts have gathered evidence that allows them to reconstruct with relative accuracy what happened on board during those last four minutes. It has also brought to light a safety flaw that affects all jet airplanes currently in service. “An accident like this could happen again at any time,” Arnoux predicts. 

Experts reconstructed dozens of incidents involving Airbus planes to try to piece together the puzzle of this particular disaster. Plane wreckage and body parts give crucial clues as to what brought the plane down. Crash investigators also conducted detailed analyses of the 24 automatic fault messages that the aircraft sent to Air France headquarters by satellite in the run-up to the accident. One particular message — the very last one transmitted before impact — could solve the mystery surrounding flight AF 447. 

A half moon lit up the Atlantic Ocean on the night of May 31, offering reasonably favorable conditions for a flight through the dangerous intertropical convergence zone. That’s where violent thunderstorms rage and columns of thick clouds bar the way like an aerial obstacle course. In addition to the on-board radar, the moon helps pilots identify dangerous cloud formations and take appropriate measures. 

On the night of the tragedy, other planes diverted their flight paths and took a detour around the danger zone. 

Why then did flight AF 447 head straight into the deadly storm system? Is it possible that the tragedy began even before the plane took off? 

Galeão Airport, Rio de Janeiro, 6pm local time: Preparation for takeoff  

Captain Marc Dubois, 58, goes through the flight plan of AF 447: He enters a starting weight of 232.757 tons into the on-board computer, 243 kilograms less than the maximum permissible weight for the A330. As well as the passengers’ luggage, the ground crews load 10 tons of freight into the cargo bay. Dubois has more than 70 tons of kerosene pumped into the fuel tanks. That sounds a lot more than it actually is, because the plane consumes up to 100 kilograms of kerosene every minute. The fuel reserves don’t give much leeway. 

It’s only by means of a trick that the captain can even reach Paris without going under the legally required minimum reserves of kerosene that must still be in the plane’s tanks upon arrival in the French capital. A loophole allows him to enter Bordeaux — which lies several hundred kilometers closer than Paris — as the fictitious destination for his fuel calculations. 

“Major deviation would therefore no longer have been possible anymore,” says Gerhard Hüttig, an Airbus pilot and professor at the Berlin Technical University’s Aerospace Institute. If worse came to worst, the pilot would have to stop and refuel in Bordeaux, or maybe even in Lisbon. “But pilots are very reluctant to do something like that,” Hüttig adds. After all, it makes the flight more expensive, causes delays and is frowned upon by airline bosses. 

After takeoff, Dubois quickly takes the plane up to a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet (10.6 kilometers), an altitude known as “flight level 350.” According to his kerosene calculations, he has to climb far further, to above 11 kilometers, where the thin air reduces his fuel consumption. 

It’s not known whether he actually reached this altitude. Three hours after leaving Rio, Captain Dubois contacted Brazilian air traffic control for the last time. “Flight level 350,” he reported. It was to be his last communication with the outside world. 

Minute One: The Sensors Fail 

It’s hard to imagine a more precarious situation, even for pilots with nerves of steel: Flying through a violent thunderstorm that shakes the entire plane as the master warning lamp starts blinking on the instrument panel in front of you. An earsplitting alarm rings out, and a whole series of error messages suddenly flash up on the flight motor. 

The crew immediately recognized that the three airspeed indicators all gave different readings. “A situation like that goes well a hundred times and badly once,” says Arnoux, who flies an Airbus A320 himself. 

The responsible pilot now had very little time to choose the correct flight angle and the correct engine thrust. This is the only way he could be certain to keep flying on a stable course and maintain steady airflow across the wings if he didn’t know the plane’s actual speed. The co-pilot must therefore look up the two safe values in a table in the relevant handbook — at least that’s the theory. 

“In practice, the plane is shaken about so badly that you have difficulty finding the right page in the handbook, let alone being able to decipher what it says,” says Arnoux. “In situations like that, mistakes are impossible to rule out.” 

Danger of Icing Up 

Aerospace experts have long known how dangerous it can be if the airspeed indicators fail because the pitot tubes ice up. In 1998, for example, a Lufthansa Airbus circling over Frankfurt Airport lost its airspeed indicator, and a potential tragedy was only averted when the ice melted as the plane descended. At the time, German air accident investigators at the German Federal Bureau of Aircraft Accident Investigation (BFU) in Braunschweig demanded that the specifications of the pitot tubes be changed to enable “unrestricted flight in severely icy conditions.” 

As early as 2005, the French aerospace company Thales, which manufactures the pitot tubes used on flight AF 447, set up a project group called Adeline to search for new technical solutions to the problem. According to a Thales document, loss of the airspeed indicators “could cause aircraft crashes, especially in cases in which the sensors ice up.” 

Aircraft manufacturer Airbus was well aware of the shortcomings of the Thales pitot tubes. An internal list kept by the airline manufacturer shows there were nine incidents involving them between May and October 2008 alone. 

More than two months before the Air France crash, the issue had been raised at a meeting between Airbus and the European Aviation Safety Agency. However, the EASA decided against banning the particularly error-prone pitot tubes made by Thales. 

In fact, the problem with the airspeed indicators lies far deeper. To this day, the relevant licensing bodies still only test pitot tubes down to temperatures of minus 40 degrees Celsius (minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit) and an altitude of about 9,000 meters (30,000 feet). These completely antiquated specifications date back to 1947 — before the introduction of jet planes. 

What’s more, most of the incidents of recent years, including that involving the ill-fated flight AF 447, occurred at altitudes above 10,000 meters (33,000 feet). 

Minute Two: Loss of Control 

Did the pilots on flight AF 447 know about the airspeed indicator failures experienced by colleagues on nine other aircraft belonging to their own airline? Air France had indeed distributed a note about this to all its pilots, albeit as part of several hundred pages of information that pilots find in their inbox every week. One thing is certain: The pilots on flight AF 447 had never trained in a flight simulator for a high-altitude breakdown of the airspeed indicator. 

The situation in the cockpit was made even more difficult by the fact that the flight computer of the A330 put itself into a kind of emergency program. The plane’s digital brain usually supervises all activity by its pilots — at least, as long as its sensors provide reliable data. Without a speed reading, the computer more or -less throws in the towel, which doesn’t make things easier for the pilots. 

“The controls suddenly feel completely different to the pilot,” says flight expert Hüttig. The sheer complexity of the Airbus’ systems makes it difficult to control in critical phases of the flight. It would be easier for pilots if they could simply switch the computer off in critical situations, as is possible on Boeing planes. 

Pitot tubes sometimes also fail on Boeing aircraft. When SPIEGEL contacted the American Federal Aviation Administration, the body which oversees civilian flight in the US, the FAA confirmed that there had been eight such incidents on a Boeing 777, three on a 767, and one each on a 757 and a Jumbo. Boeing is currently conducting a study on the safety effects of “high-altitude pitot icing on all models in its product line,” says FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette. The FAA did not, however, identify “any safety issues arising” during these incidents. 

Could it therefore be that the flight computer, which is hard to manage in emergencies, actually contributed to the loss of control by the Airbus pilots? Air-safety experts Hüttig and Arnoux are demanding an immediate investigation into how the Airbus system reacts to a failure of its airspeed sensors. 

Unexpected Reaction 

In early March, the BFU in Germany is due to publish the findings of its investigation into the near-crash of a Lufthansa A320 two years ago at Fuhlsbüttel Airport in Hamburg, a report that will undoubtedly prove uncomfortable reading for Airbus. In that incident, an unexpected reaction by the flight computer caused the jet’s left wing to scrape along the runway while landing. The BFU is due to issue 12 safety recommendations, some of which concern Airbus’ computer programs. 

So far, it’s unclear who was controlling the Air France plane in its final minutes. Was it the experienced flight captain, Dubois, or one of his two first officers? Typically, a captain retreats to his cabin to rest a while after takeoff. Indeed, there’s corroborative evidence to suggest that the captain was not sitting in the cockpit at the time of the crash: His body was recovered from the Atlantic, whereas those of his two copilots sank to the bottom of the ocean still attached to their seats. This would suggest that Dubois was not wearing a seatbelt. 

In contrast to many other airlines, it is standard practice at Air France for the less experienced of the two copilots to take the captain’s seat when the latter is not there. The experienced copilot remains in his seat on the right-hand side of the cockpit. Under normal circumstances, that is not a problem, but in emergencies it can increase the likelihood of a crash. 

As a consequence, it was probably the plane’s third pilot, Pierre-Cédric Bonin, a dashing amateur yachtsman, who steered the aircraft to its doom. Bonin’s wife was also on board, while their two children were at home with their grandfather. 

Minute Three: Freefall 

Not long after the airspeed indicator failed, the plane went out of control and stalled. Presumably the airflow over the wings failed to provide lift. Arnoux, from the pilots’ union, estimates that the plane fell toward the sea at about 42 meters per second (95 mph) — almost the same speed as a freefalling parachutist. 

Arnoux’s version of events is based in part on the timing of a transmitted error message about the equalization of pressure between the cabin and the outside of the plane, which usually happens at 2,000 meters (7,000 feet) above sea level. Had the airplane nosedived, this alarm would have been triggered earlier. “It takes almost exactly four minutes to freefall from cruising altitude to sea level,” Arnoux says. 

According to this scenario, the pilots would have been forced to watch helplessly as their plane lost its lift. That theory is supported by the fact that the airplane remained intact to the very end. Given all the turbulence, it is therefore possible that the passengers remained oblivious to what was happening. After all, the oxygen masks that have been recovered had not dropped down from the ceiling because of a loss of pressure. What’s more, the stewardesses weren’t sitting on their emergency seats, and the lifejackets remained untouched. “There is no evidence whatsoever that the passengers in the cabin had been prepared for an emergency landing,” says BEA boss Jean-Paul Troadec. 

Two seemingly insignificant lines from the warning reports transmitted by the aircraft show how desperately the pilots fought to keep control. They read “F/CTL PRIM 1 FAULT” and “F/CTL SEC 1 FAULT”. 

This somewhat cryptic shorthand suggest the pilots tried desperately to restart the flight computer. “It’s like trying to turn your car engine off and then on again while driving along the motorway at night at 180 kilometers an hour (110mph),” says Arnoux. 

The attempt to resuscitate the on-board computer proved unsuccessful. For the last 600 meters (2,000 feet) before impact, the pilots’ efforts would have been accompanied by the chilling calls of an automated male voice: “Terrain! Terrain! Pull up! Pull up!” 

Minute Four: Impact 

More than 200 tons of metal, plastic, kerosene and human bodies smashed into the sea. The sheer force of the impact is described in the forensic report, which lists in graphic detail how lungs were torn apart and bones were shredded end to end. Some of the passengers were sliced in half by their seatbelt. 

Much of the debris that has been recovered is no larger than a square meter (10 square feet). The shear-lines run at a conspicuous angle. This shows that the plane did not plunge vertically into the sea, but rather hit the water like a flat hand, with the nose of the aircraft pointing upwards at a five-degree angle. Of particular interest is the large tailfin that was recovered from the ocean by the Brazilian navy. This was ripped from its anchoring and catapulted forwards. From this, it can be deduced that the A330 was brought to a halt with a force more than 36 times that of normal gravity: 36g. 

Although Airbus continues to play down the significance of the pitot tubes in the crash of its A330, the company’s engineers have since developed new technologies that will detect the breakdown of airspeed sensors even before takeoff. Airbus registered a patent for this technology in the US on Dec. 3, 2009. In the words of the patent application, errors in speed measurements “can have catastrophic consequences.” 

For several years now, Airbus has offered its customers a special safety program – called “Buss” — at a cost of €300,000 per aircraft. If the airspeed indicator fails, this software shows pilots the angle at which they must point the plane. 

Up to now, Air France has chosen not to invest in this optional extra for its fleet. 


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German Woman Writes Ground-Breaking Account of WW2 Rape

Harrowing Memoir

Gabriele Köpp was repeatedly raped by Russian soldiers in 1945, when she was just 15. Now, at the age of 80, she has become the first German woman to write a book under her own name about the sexual violence she experienced during World War II. 

By the time a person turns 80, her life has consisted of 29,200 days. In the case of Gabriele Köpp, that life has included a high-school education and a training program as a physical and technical assistant. It has also included an affinity for “pure mathematics,” as Köpp calls it, and for physics. 

She is fascinated with the power of the tiniest particles, or, quoting Goethe, with “what holds the world together in its innermost self.” Because of her fascination for elementary particles, she went on to earn a doctorate in physics and eventually became a university professor. 

Her life has also included many friendships, primarily with men, from doctoral students to colleagues to Nobel laureates. And there are also eight godchildren in her life. 

Nevertheless, for Gabriele Köpp, what happened in the space of only 14 days was enough to cast a dark shadow over the rest of her life, the remainder of those 29,200 days. 

No Home to Return To 

Köpp is sitting in an armchair in her Berlin apartment, talking about those 14 days. She serves freshly brewed coffee with condensed milk out of a can. She smokes the long, thin Kim brand of cigarettes, which have become rare in Germany. 

There are black-and-white photographs of her mother, her father and her sisters hanging on the walls. They are all dead. There are also photos of her parents’ house, including exterior and interior views. The house was in Schneidemühl, a town in the former German region of Pomerania; today the town is called Pila and is located in northwestern Poland. Where the house stood is nothing but a meadow today. 

Köpp describes the photos with German words from a distant era: the Salon with its chandelier, her father’s Herrenzimmer (“study”). Her pronunciation also betrays her roots. She says “Tack” instead of “Tag” (the informal version of “Guten Tag,” or “hello”), just like many others who originally come from regions that were once German and are now Polish. 

Köpp’s apartment is not one of those long-occupied flats that contain layer upon layer of the possessions its occupant has accumulated over the years. She only took the apartment about 10 years ago, when she retired from her position at the Technical University of Aachen in western Germany and moved to Berlin. When asked whether she thinks it’s unusual for someone to move at that age, she waves her hand dismissively. It doesn’t really matter, she says, because she never had a home to which she could return. 


Gabriele Köpp was repeatedly raped by Russian soldiers in 1945, when she was just 15.

Now, at the age of 80, Köpp has become the first German woman to write a book under her own name about the sexual violence she experienced during World War II.

A Russian soldier raises the Soviet flag over Berlin’s Reichstag on May 2, 1945: For 14 days in January and February 1945, Soviet soldiers came to the building where Köpp was sheltering and took the girl away to rape her.


But Köpp isn’t interested in issues like the loss of one’s home and the controversy over Germans displaced from Eastern Europe after World War II. “People get together in clubs for that sort of thing,” she says. “It’s not for me.” Nevertheless, the things she experienced during a 14-day period while she was fleeing from her homeland were so traumatic that she still has trouble sleeping today. There are times when she cannot eat, and she is much thinner than she wants to be. She wears slim-cut jeans with a shirt and vest. Her thighs look thin enough to encircle with two hands. 

Köpp has lived a full life in which she had everything — everything but romantic love. It was her bad luck, she says. Women outnumbered men after the war, and none of the few men that remained happened to be right for her. “Besides,” she adds, “I wouldn’t have been able to feel anything, anyway.” 

During those 14 days, Köpp was raped, again and again. She was 15 years old, and she knew nothing about sex. 

‘Door to Hell’ 

Köpp has now written a book about those 14 days and about the rapes, titled “Warum war ich bloss ein Mädchen?” (“Why Did I Have to Be a Girl?”). The book is an unprecedented document, because it is the first work of its kind written voluntarily by a woman who was raped in the final months of World War II, and who, years later, described the experiences and made them into the central theme of a book. 

There is “A Woman in Berlin,” the famous confessions of a woman who was raped in World War II, which was first published in the 1950s and republished in 2003. But the woman was unwilling to disclose her identity, and it wasn’t until after her death that it was revealed that the anonymous author was a journalist. To this day, there are doubts as to whether she truly wrote the book alone or whether there was a co-author who helped her to distance herself from the horrific events and, with distance, to achieve a voice — a surprisingly free, confident and even flippant voice. 

Köpp lacks this voice. She describes the first few days of her escape with precision, sequence by sequence, almost cinematically, but it is clear that she is not a practiced author. Nevertheless, her account is so gripping precisely because it was not polished for the sake of putting beautiful language on paper. Her story exerts a pull on the reader that stems from the authenticity of her words and experiences. And when the author herself is unable to comprehend what she experienced, even her voice reaches its limits. 

Köpp couldn’t find the words to describe the rapes themselves. She writes of a “place of horror” and a “door to hell,” and she describes the rapists as “brutes” and “scoundrels.” When asked why she was unable to describe exactly what happened to her, in all its horror, she shrugs her shoulders and says: “I can’t even say the word” — rape. 

Double Trauma 

Köpp is familiar with “A Woman in Berlin,” but she says that her book is different. That book’s anonymous author, she says, was a woman in her early 30s “at the time when it happened,” in other words, an experienced woman. Köpp, who was only half her age, says: “I was hardly more than a child.” Writing her account under her own name hasn’t made it easier, she adds, “but I had no choice; who else would do it?” 

Indeed, women have rarely reported voluntarily on their encounters with violence during and after the war. Experts describe this experience as a double trauma: the act of violence itself, and having to keep it hidden. Philipp Kuwert, a trauma expert and head of the department of psychiatry and psychotherapy at the University Hospital of Greifswald in northeastern Germany, began a research project last year on the repercussions of sexual violence in World War II, interviewing 27 women affected by such violence. He already has the results of his study but hasn’t published anything yet. “It is one of the first and probably the last study of this nature, because 95 percent of the women who were affected are no longer alive.” 

No one knows exactly how many women became victims of sexual violence during the war. A figure of 2 million has been mentioned in various studies, but is considered unreliable because of the lack of concrete evidence. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that it was a crime committed against large numbers of women. 

The average age of the women in Kuwert’s study at the time of their rapes was 16.7, and each of the women was raped an average of 12 times. About half of the women continue to suffer from post-traumatic symptoms, including nightmares, suicidal thoughts and what is known as avoidance behavior, with 81 percent stating that the experiences had a massive impact on their sexuality. An “emotional anesthesia,” or the avoidance of strong emotions, was typical for these traumatized women, says Kuwert. 

Problems Forming Attachments 

The horrific experiences also affected the subsequent generations. “A mother with post-traumatic stress symptoms can have trouble forming an attachment to her children in their early years,” says Kuwert. Mothers who are burdened by their own, repressed feelings have problems reacting to and regulating the emotions of their children. According to the theory, these children grow up in an atmosphere of fragility and nameless threat. According to Kuwert, nothing is as stressful as the experience of rape and torture. 

When soldiers commit rape during war, it is not just “to humiliate a particular individual,” says historian Birgit Beck-Heppner, who specializes in the subject of sexual violence and war. It also represents a “signal to the enemy population that its political leadership and its own army can no longer guarantee its safety.” This is why these rapes are often committed in public. 

Beck-Heppner, who wrote the epilogue to Köpp’s book, is 38 and part of the same generation as trauma expert Kuwert. People in their age group, in their late 30s and early 40s, are more or less the grandchildren of the Nazi generation. 

“The motivation to study rape in World War II stems from my age group,” says Kuwert. “We are running out of time,” he adds, and points out that there are still many questions to be asked. There is documentation, of course, but many of the contemporary witnesses will soon be dead. For Kuwert, the only way to obtain a true picture of what happened is to examine the stories of individual victims. “There is no such thing as objective trauma.” 

Köpp is living proof of Kuwert’s statement, that objective trauma doesn’t exist. Given her experiences, one would expect that she would have had difficulties interacting with men. On the contrary, Köpp has a problem with women. In her book, she explains why. 

‘Headlong onto a Knife’ 

On the evening of Jan. 25, 1945, Köpp was packing her things, preparing to flee. Her mother told her to hurry, because the Russians were approaching the town, and she said that she would join her later. Köpp wanted to talk to her mother on that evening, but she was silent and barely spoke with her daughter, not even to warn her about the many things that could happen while she was fleeing. “In a sense, she allowed me to run headlong onto a knife,” Köpp writes today, as an old woman. 

On Jan. 26, 1945, Köpp and her older sister left the house. She would later learn that Soviet soldiers liberated the Auschwitz concentration camp the following day, Jan. 27. The ordeal that was about to begin for Gabriele Köpp had its roots in the crimes committed by her fellow Germans. 

She hardly remembers saying goodbye to her mother. In fact, she writes, she has only recently allowed herself to think that there may have been no goodbyes at all. 

She boarded a freight train with heavy sliding doors. The city had already come under artillery fire. At the time, she says, she never dreamed that it would be decades before she could return home. Peering through the small windows in the freight car, she realized that the train was traveling south, and not leaving the city in a northerly direction, as she had believed. 

She knew that Russian tanks had encircled the south. After a short time, she heard the sound of artillery fire, and the train came to a stop. The locomotive had apparently been hit. The sliding doors were locked, and the only way to get out of the car was to crawl through one of the high windows. She was an athletic girl and managed to pull herself up to the window, and a soldier pushed her through the small opening. Her sister remained behind in the train. She would never see her again. 

‘I Despise These Women’ 

She fell into the snow, lying flat on the ground at first to protect herself from the gunfire. Other refugees had also managed to escape from the train, and they began running toward a farm and then a nearby village. Köpp followed them. A baker let her into his bakery. 

In the village, Soviet soldiers carrying large flashlights searched for girls in the dim light. One of them grabbed Köpp. The next day, she was chased to another house, where she was raped by a soldier, and then by another soldier soon afterwards. The next morning, she was pushed into a barn and raped by two men. 

That afternoon, she hid under a table in a room filled with refugees. When the soldiers came to the building, asking for girls, the older women called out: “Where’s little Gabi?” and pulled her out from underneath the table. “I feel hatred rising up inside of me,” she writes. She was dragged off to a ransacked house. “I have no tears,” she writes. The next morning, it was the women, once again, who “pushed” her into the arms of a “greedy officer.” “I despise these women,” she writes. 

It went on this way, “relentlessly,” for two weeks. After that, she was taken in at a farm, where she managed to hide from the soldiers. 

‘I’m So Afraid’ 

She wrote a letter to her mother in her light-blue pocket calendar, even though she had no idea where her mother was: “There is no one here to come to my aid. If only you were here. I’m so afraid, because I no longer have my ‘illness’ (ed’s note: menstruation) any more. It’s been almost 10 weeks now. I’m sure you could help me. If only dear God wasn’t doing this to me. Oh, dear mother, if only I hadn’t left without you.” 

Her menstrual cycle was interrupted for seven years, a widespread phenomenon some gynecologists called the “Russians’ disease.” 

When Köpp finally found her mother in Hamburg, after being a refugee for 15 months, she wanted to show her the letter. But the mother, who had not expected to see her daughter again, greeted her coldly, holding out her cheek to be kissed. 

The mother also told her to keep quiet about everything she had experienced while fleeing, although she could write it down if she wished. Köpp followed her mother’s advice. She was 16 when she wrote the notes that she quotes in her book today, notes that she has since donated to the House of History in Bonn. 

The Turning Point 

In conversation, Köpp repeatedly mentions the betrayal by the women and her disappointment in her mother for not wanting to listen to her, and perhaps not even wanting to have her as a daughter anymore. “I could have talked to my father, but he was dead,” she says. She searches for reasons to explain her mother’s behavior, speculating that perhaps the mother felt guilty for having sent her and her sister on their journey alone. 

Trauma expert Philipp Kuwert says that research on abuse victims contains other accounts of betrayal by fellow women. In cases in which people the victims would normally have trusted covered for or even supported the offenders, some have found it more difficult to come to terms with the betrayal than the violent act itself. 

Köpp went into psychoanalysis when she was 47. “The analysis was the turning point,” she says. Of course, she adds, she was aware that it was not customary for members of her generation to go to an analyst, and she would never have considered doing it on her own. But, she says, she had a breakdown at 47, while she was writing her post-doctoral thesis, and she was admitted to a psychosomatic clinic. 

She began analysis at the clinic. “I fell in love with my first analyst,” she says, chuckling quietly. And? Well, of course nothing happened, she says, adding: “he is very respectable.” 

The Stations of Her Life 

She remains in contact with her former analyst, who urged her to write the book. “The fact that it was even possible for me to feel anything for another person — that was the turning point,” she recalls. Since then, there have at least been moments, she says, in which she feels liberated. 

Has she had any other experiences of love and sexuality? No, she says, nothing at all. “For me, it was just violence.” 

Gabriele Köpp jumps up from her armchair, as easily as a young girl. She is 1.55 meters (5 feet) tall. She walks into the hallway, where her own paintings are hung on the wall. She has been painting a lot lately. 

One of the paintings depicts the stations of her life. There are crosses and skulls at the center of the image. A date is written across the top: Jan. 26, 1945. Other paintings show hearts and strong colors. 

They are the kinds of pictures that girls paint — 15-year-old girls. 


Full article and photos:,1518,680354,00.html

Danish Paper Settles Muhammad Cartoon Issue

Politiken Corrects

The Muslim world was outraged when the Muhammad cartoons first appeared in the Danish daily Jyllands Posten.

The Danish daily Politiken, which partners with SPIEGEL ONLINE, has reached a settlement with the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, apologizing for the offence caused by the Muhammad caricatures republished by the paper. Not all politicians in Denmark support the move.

As the first newspaper to do so, Politiken has reached a settlement with descendants of the Prophet Muhammad in connection with the affront its reprint of drawings of the Prophet Muohammad in 2008 may have caused Muslims.

The settlement was reached between Politiken and eight organisations representing 94,923 descendants of the Prophet Muhammad in a move Politiken‘s Editor-in-Chief Tøger Seidenfaden says shows that dialogue is the way forward.

“The settlement looks ahead and expresses very sensible views. It may possibly reduce the tensions that have shown themselves to be so resilient. It gives us hope that relations between Denmark, and not least its media, and the Muslim world can be improved,” Seidenfaden says, adding he does not believe Politiken’s move is a freedom of speech sellout.

Under the settlement, Politiken has not given up its right to publish the cartoons and does not apologize for having printed them, but rather expresses regret for the affront felt by some Muslims.

Lawyer Faisal Yamani, who entered into the settlement on behalf of the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad says the settlement is a good one.

‘It’s Crazy’

“This is a good settlement. It would be wrong to speak of a victory. Both parties have reached the point where they understand the background to what has happened. Politiken is courageous in apologizing, even though its was not their intention to offend anyone,” Yamani says.

Several Danish politicians have condemned the move.

“It’s crazy. The media carries offensive material every day. That is what freedom of speech is about,” says Social Democratic leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt. Socialist People’s Party leader Villy Søvndal says that “freedom of speech is not up for negotiation.”

The Danish People’s Party leader Pia Kjærsgaard says she is “speechless” in finding words to express how absurd the situation is.

“It is deeply, deeply embarrassing that Tøger Seidenfaden has sold out of Denmark’s and the West’s freedom of speech. I cannot distance myself enough from this total sell-out to this doctrine,” Kjærsgaard says.

Neither the prime minister nor the foreign minister have had the opportunity to comment on the issue, but the Liberal Political Spokesman Peter Christensen says “it is strange that Politiken felt the need to apologize. I don’t see what there is to apologize for.”

A World Full of Conflict

The former Liberal Chairman and Foreign Minister Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, however is positive. “The paper loses nothing by apologizing. In a world full of conflict, where too many paint themselves into a corner, it would be good to see more of these types of attempts to reach a common understanding,” Ellemann-Jensen says.

In August last year, a total of 11 Danish newspapers were approached by Yamani with demands that the cartoons be removed from Internet pages, that media apologize and that they promise not to re-print the cartoons in question, or others, again.

Politiken is the only newspaper that has chosen to reach a settlement, at the same time avoiding attempts by the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad to sue the newspaper.

Jyllands-Posten, the paper which first printed the Muhammad caricatures, has also received a letter from the lawyer Yamani. But the paper told Politiken that it has no interest in a settlement which involves an apology.

Jyllands-Posten’s Editor-in-Chief Jørn Mikkelsen says it is regrettable that Politiken has folded, instead of maintaining solidarity with the other newspapers. “Politiken has betrayed the battle for freedom of speech. They’ve given up and bowed to threats. That is, of course, disgraceful,” Mikkelsen says.


Full article and photo:,1518,680591,00.html

Libya’s Gadhafi Declares Holy War Against Switzerland

Alpine Jihad

Gadhafi spoke behind bullet-proof glass in Benghazi, Libya.

The feud between Libya and Switzerland has been simmering for months. On Thursday, Moammar Gadhafi went on the offensive, calling for a jihad against the Alpine country.

In a rambling address on Thursday, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi called for holy war against Switzerland. The bizarre pronouncement belongs to a running feud between the two nations, but the Swiss Foreign Ministry declined to comment.

“Let us wage jihad against Switzerland, Zionism and foreign aggression,” Gadhafi suggested at a meeting in Libya to mark the birth of the prophet Muhammad. “Any Muslim in any part of the world who works with Switzerland is an apostate, is against Muhammad, God and the Koran.”

The Swiss and Libyan governments have been at odds since 2008, when Swiss police arrested Ghadafi’s son Hannibal and Hannibal’s wife, the model Aline Skaf. The couple was charged with abusing servants in a luxury hotel. They were quickly released on bail, and officials soon dropped charges, but Libya responded by withdrawing billions of dollars from Swiss banks, cutting off oil supplies, denying visas and recalling diplomats.

‘Obscene State’

Last November, Swiss voters inflamed opinion around the Muslim world by approving a ban on minarets on mosques built in Switzerland. Gadhafi seemed to refer to this referendum on Thursday when he called Switzerland an “infidel, obscene state which is destroying mosques.”

He was speaking at an outdoor square to representatives of several dozen Muslim countries in the Libyan city of Benghazi. “The masses of Muslims must go to all airports in the Islamic world and prevent any Swiss plane landing,” he added, “to all harbors and prevent any Swiss ships docking, inspect all shops and markets to stop any Swiss goods being sold.”

He also claimed he wasn’t calling for terrorism. Al-Qaida-style terrorism was a “kind of crime and a psychological disease,” he said, but insisted, “there is a big difference between terrorism and jihad, which is a right to armed struggle.”

Visa Irregularities

The diplomatic spat with Switzerland has warmed up in recent weeks. On Feb. 15, Libya announced it would deny visas to citizens of Europe’s visa-free travel area known as the Schengen bloc, to which Switzerland belongs. Tripoli said the move was in retaliation against a Swiss travel ban imposed last year on 200 Libyan citizens, including Gadhafi himself.

That ban blacklisted the Libyans from the whole Schengen area. It drew criticism this month from Italian officials, who said the Swiss had overreached.

On Feb. 23, Libyan police surrounded the Swiss embassy in Tripoli, where two Swiss businessmen had been sheltering since a few days after Hannibal’s 2008 arrest. Libya refused to let them go home, charging them with visa irregularities and violating business rules, but denied it came in retaliation for the Hannibal affair.

In early February verdicts on the two men were decided in absentia by a Libyan court, and one of them, Rachid Hamdani, was allowed to leave. Police brought the other, Max Goeldi, to a low-security prison, where he he’s expected to serve a four-month sentence.


Full article and photo:,1518,680525,00.html

Christianity’s Modern-Day Martyrs

Victims of Radical Islam

The rise of Islamic extremism is putting increasing pressure on Christians in Muslim countries, who are the victims of murder, violence and discrimination. Christians are now considered the most persecuted religious group around the world. Paradoxically, their greatest hope could come from moderate political Islam. By SPIEGEL staff. 

Kevin Ang is cautious these days. He glances around, taking a look to the left down the long row of stores, then to the right toward the square, to check that no one is nearby. Only then does the church caretaker dig out his key, unlock the gate, and enter the Metro Tabernacle Church in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur. 

The draft of air stirs charred Bible pages. The walls are sooty and the building smells of scorched plastic. Metro Tabernacle Church was the first of 11 churches set on fire by angry Muslims — all because of one word. “Allah,” Kevin Ang whispers. 

It began with a question — should Christians here, like Muslims, be allowed to call their god “Allah,” since they don’t have any other word or language at their disposal? The Muslims claim Allah for themselves, both the word and the god, and fear that if Christians are allowed to use the same word for their own god, it could lead pious Muslims astray. 

For three years there was a ban in place and the government confiscated Bibles that mentioned “Allah.” Then on Dec. 31 last year, Malaysia’s highest court reached a decision: The Christian God could also be called Allah. 

Imams protested and disgruntled citizens threw Molotov cocktails at churches. Then, on top of everything, Prime Minister Najib Razak stated that he couldn’t stop people who might protest against specific developments in the country — and some took that as an invitation to violent action. First churches burned, then the other side retaliated with pigs’ heads placed in front of two mosques. Sixty percent of Malaysians are Muslims and 9 percent Christians, with the rest made up by Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs. They managed to live together well, until now. 

It’s a battle over a single word, but it’s also about much more than that. The conflict has to do with the question of what rights the Christian minority in Malaysia is entitled to. Even more than that, it’s a question of politics. The ruling United Malays National Organization is losing supporters to Islamist hardliners — and wants to win them back with religious policies.


The rise of Islamic extremism is putting increasing pressure on Christians in Muslim countries, who are the victims of murder, violence and discrimination. Here, Indonesian worshippers pray during a Christmas Eve mass in Jakarta.

Members of the Indonesian Muslim extremist group Laskar Jihad wave their swords during a demonstration in Jakarta in this April 2000 photo. Christians are now considered the most persecuted religious group around the world.

A church in the Pakistani city of Sukkur was attacked in February 2006 after accusations that a local Christian man had burned pages from the Koran. In 2009, 125 Christians were charged with blasphemy in Pakistan. Dozens of those already sentenced are on death row.

This Feb. 20, 2006 photos shows the church in Sukkur the day after it was attacked.

Christians celebrate Easter in a church in Istanbul: Government-tolerated persecution occurs even in Turkey, the most secular and modern country in the Islamic world, where around 110,000 Christians make up less than a quarter of 1 percent of the population.

The last Iraqi census in 1987 showed 1.4 million Christians living in the country. At the start of the American invasion in 2003, it was 550,000, and at present it is just under 400,000. Experts speak of a “creeping genocide.” Here, a US soldier patrols in front of a Christian church in Tal Kaeef, Iraq, in November 2008.

This Greek Orthodox church in the West Bank was set on fire in September 2006 amidst a wave of anger at Pope Benedict XVI’s comments on Islam.

South Korean Roman Catholics pray during a mass in Seoul. North Korea is the country which most persecutes Christians, according to the Christian NGO Open Doors.

Six Coptic Christians were killed in Egypt on Jan. 6, 2010 as they left a Christmas Eve mass.


Those policies are receiving a receptive welcome. Some of Malaysia’s states interpret Sharia, the Islamic system of law and order, particularly strictly. The once liberal country is on the way to giving up freedom of religion — and what constitutes order is being defined ever more rigidly. If a Muslim woman drinks beer, she can be punished with six cane strokes. Some regions similarly forbid such things as brightly colored lipstick, thick make-up, or shoes with clattering high heels. 

Expelled, Abducted and Murdered 

Not only in Malaysia, but in many countries through the Muslim world, religion has gained influence over governmental policy in the last two decades. The militant Islamist group Hamas controls the Gaza Strip, while Islamist militias are fighting the governments of Nigeria and the Philippines. Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen have fallen to a large extent into the hands of Islamists. And where Islamists are not yet in power, secular governing parties are trying to outstrip the more religious groups in a rush to the right. 

This can be seen in Egypt, Algeria, Sudan, Indonesia to some extent, and also Malaysia. Even though this Islamization often has more to do with politics than with religion, and even though it doesn’t necessarily lead to the persecution of Christians, it can still be said that where Islam gains importance, freedoms for members of other faiths shrink. 

There are 2.2 billion Christians around the world. The Christian non-governmental organization Open Doors calculates that 100 million of them are being threatened or persecuted. They aren’t allowed to build churches, buy Bibles or obtain jobs. That’s the more harmless form of discrimination and it affects the majority of these 100 million Christians. The more brutal version sees them blackmailed, robbed, expelled, abducted or even murdered. 

Bishop Margot Kässmann, who was head of the Protestant Church in Germany before stepping down on Feb. 24, believes Christians are “the most frequently persecuted religious group globally.” Germany’s 22 regional churches have proclaimed this coming Sunday to be the first commemoration day for persecuted Christians. Kässmann said she wanted to show solidarity with fellow Christians who “have great difficulty living out their beliefs freely in countries such as Indonesia, India, Iraq or Turkey.” 

There are counterexamples as well, of course. In Lebanon and Syria, Christians are not discriminated against, and in fact play an important role in politics and society. And the persecution of Christian is by no means the domain of fanatical Muslims alone — Christians are also imprisoned, abused and murdered in countries such as Laos, Vietnam, China and Eritrea. 

‘Creeping Genocide’ against Christians 

Open Doors compiles a global “persecution index.” North Korea, where tens of thousands of Christians are serving time in work camps, has topped the list for many years. North Korea is followed, though, by Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, the Maldives and Afghanistan. Of the first 10 countries on the list, eight are Islamic, and almost all have Islam as their state religion. 

The systematic persecution of Christians in the 20th century — by Communists in the Soviet Union and China, but also by Nazis — claimed far more lives than anything that has happened so far in the 21st century. Now, however, it is not only totalitarian regimes persecuting Christians, but also residents of Islamic states, fanatical fundamentalists, and religious sects — and often simply supposedly pious citizens. 

Gone is the era of tolerance, when Christians enjoyed a large degree of religious freedom under the protection of Muslim sultans as so-called “People of the Book” while at the same time medieval Europe was banishing its Jews and Muslims from the continent or even burning them at the stake. Also gone is the heyday of Arab secularism following World War II, when Christian Arabs advanced through the ranks of politics. 

As political Islam grew stronger, devout believers’ aggression focused not only on corrupt local regimes, but also more and more on the ostensibly corrupting influence of Western Christians, for which local Christian minorities were held accountable. A new trend began, this time with Christians as the victims. 

In Iraq, for example, Sunni terrorist groups prey specifically on people of other religions. The last Iraqi census in 1987 showed 1.4 million Christians living in the country. At the start of the American invasion in 2003, it was 550,000, and at present it is just under 400,000. Experts speak of a “creeping genocide.” 

‘People Are Scared Out of Their Minds’ 

The situation in the region around the city of Mosul in northern Iraq is especially dramatic. The town of Alqosh lies high in the mountains above Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. Bassam Bashir, 41, can see his old hometown when he looks out his window there. Mosul is only 40 kilometers (25 miles) away, but inaccessible. The city is more dangerous than Baghdad, especially for men like Bassam Bashir, a Chaldean Catholic, teacher and fugitive within his own country. 

Since the day in August 2008 when a militia abducted his father from his shop, Bashir has had to fear for his and his family’s lives. Police found his father’s corpse two days later in the Sinaa neighborhood on the Tigris River, the body perforated with bullet holes. There was no demand for ransom. Bashir’s father died for the simple reason that he was Christian. 

And no one claims to have seen anything. “Of course they saw something,” Bashir says. “But people in Mosul are scared out of their minds.” 

One week later, militiamen slit the throat of Bashir’s brother Tarik like a sacrificial lamb. “I buried my brother myself,” Bashir explains. Together with his wife Nafa and their two daughters, he fled to Alqosh the same day. The city is surrounded by vineyards and an armed Christian militia guards the entrance. 

Tacit State Approval 

Bashir’s family members aren’t the only ones who came to Alqosh as the series of murders in Mosul continued. Sixteen Christians were killed the next week, and bombs exploded in front of churches. Men in passing cars shouted at Christians that they had a choice — leave Mosul or convert to Islam. Out of over 1,500 Christian families in the city, only 50 stayed. Bassam Bashir says he won’t return until he can mourn for his father and brother in peace. Others who gave up hope entirely fled to neighboring countries like Jordan and even more to Syria. 

In many Islamic countries, Christians are persecuted less brutally than in Iraq, but often no less effectively. In many cases, the persecution has the tacit approval of the government. In Algeria, for example, it takes the form of newspapers reporting that a priest tried to convert Muslims or insulted the Prophet Mohammed — and publishing the cleric’s address, in a clear call to vigilante justice. Or a public television station might broadcast programs with titles like “In the Clutches of Ignorance,” which describe Christians as Satanists who convert Muslims with the help of drugs. This happened in Uzbekistan, which ranks tenth on Open Doors’ “persecution index.” 

Blasphemy is another frequently used allegation. Insulting the core values of Islam is a punishable offense in many Islamic countries. The allegation is often used against the opposition, whether that means journalists, dissidents or Christians. Imran Masih, for example, a Christian shopkeeper in Faisalabad, Pakistan, was given a life sentence on Jan. 11, according to sections 295 A and B of Pakistan’s legal code, which covers the crime of outraging religious feelings by desecrating the Koran. A neighboring shopkeeper had accused him of burning pages from the Koran. Masih says that he only burned old business records. 

It’s a typical case for Pakistan, where the law against blasphemy seems to invite abuse — it’s an easy way for anyone to get rid of an enemy. Last year, 125 Christians were charged with blasphemy in Pakistan. Dozens of those already sentenced are on death row. 

‘We Don’t Feel Safe Here’ 

Government-tolerated persecution occurs even in Turkey, the most secular and modern country in the Muslim world, where around 110,000 Christians make up less than a quarter of 1 percent of the population — but are discriminated against nonetheless. The persecution is not as open or as brutal as what happens in neighboring Iraq, but the consequences are similar. Christians in Turkey, who numbered well over 2 million people in the 19th century, are fighting for their continued existence. 

It’s happening in the southeast of the country, for example, in Tur Abdin, whose name means “mountain of God’s servants.” It’s a hilly region full of fields, chalk cliffs, and centuries-old monasteries many. It’s home to the Syrian Orthodox Assyrians, or Aramaeans as they call themselves, members of one of the oldest Christian groups in the world. According to legend, the Three Wise Men brought the Christian belief system here from Bethlehem. The inhabitants of Tur Abdin still speak Aramaic, the language used by Jesus of Nazareth. 

The world is much more familiar with the genocide committed against the Armenians by Ottoman troops in 1915 and 1916, but tens of thousands of Assyrians were also murdered during World War I. Half a million Assyrians are said to have lived in Tur Abdin at the beginning of the 20th century. Today there are barely 3,000. A Turkish district court threatened last year to appropriate the Assyrians’ spiritual center, the 1,600-year-old Mor Gabriel monastery, because the monks were believed to have acquired land unlawfully. Three neighboring Muslim villages had complained they felt discriminated against by the monastery, which houses four monks, 14 nuns, and 40 students behind its walls. 

“Even if it doesn’t want to admit it, Turkey has a problem with people of other faiths,” says Ishok Demir, a young Swiss man with Aramaean roots, who lives with his parents near Mor Gabriel. “We don’t feel safe here.” 

More than anything, that has to do with the permanent place Armenians, Assyrians, Greeks, Catholics and Protestants have in the country’s nationalistic conspiracy theories. Those groups have always been seen as traitors, nonbelievers, spies and people who insult the Turkish nation. According to a survey carried out by the US-based Pew Research Center, 46 percent of Turks see Christianity as a violent religion. In a more recent Turkish study, 42 percent of those surveyed wouldn’t accept Christians as neighbors. 

The repeated murders of Christians come, then, as no surprise. In 2006, for example, a Catholic priest was shot in Trabzon on the Black Sea coast. In 2007, three Christian missionaries were murdered in Malatya, a city in eastern Turkey. The perpetrators were radical nationalists, whose ideology was a mixture of exaggerated patriotism, racism and Islam. 

Converts in Grave Danger 

In even graver danger than traditional Christians, however, are Muslims who have converted to Christianity. Apostasy, or the renunciation of Islam, is punishable by death according to Islamic law — and the death penalty still applies in Iran, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, Mauritania, Pakistan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. 

Even in Egypt, a secular country, converts draw the government’s wrath. The religion minister defended the legality of the death penalty for converts — although Egypt doesn’t even have such a law — with the argument that renunciation of Islam amounts to high treason. Such sentiments drove Mohammed Hegazy, 27, a convert to the Coptic Orthodox Church, into hiding two years ago. He was the first convert in Egypt to try to have his new religion entered officially onto his state-issued identity card. When he was refused, he went public. Numerous clerics called for his death in response. 

Copts make up the largest Christian community in the Arab world and around 8 million Egyptians belong to the Coptic Church. They’re barred from high government positions, diplomatic service and the military, as well as from many state benefits. Universities have quotas for Coptic students considerably lower than their actual percentage within the population. 

Building new churches isn’t allowed, and the old ones are falling into disrepair thanks to a lack both of money and authorization to renovate. When girls are kidnapped and forcibly converted, the police don’t intervene. Thousands of pigs were also slaughtered under the pretense of confining swine flu. Naturally all were owned by Christians. 

The Christian Virus 

Six Copts were massacred on Jan. 6 — when Coptic celebrate Christmas Eve — in Nag Hammadi, a small city 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of the Valley of the Kings. Predictably, the speaker of the People’s Assembly, the lower house of the Egyptian parliament, called it an “individual criminal act.” When he added that the perpetrators wanted to revenge the rape of a Muslim girl by a Copt, it almost sounded like an excuse. The government seems ready to admit to crime in Egypt, but not to religious tension. Whenever clashes between religious groups occur, the government finds very secular causes behind them, such as arguments over land, revenge for crimes or personal disputes. 

Nag Hammadi, with 30,000 residents, is a dusty trading town on the Nile. Even before the murders, it was a place where Christians and Muslims mistrusted one another. The two groups work together and have houses near each other, but they live, marry and die separately. Superstition is widespread and the Muslims, for example, fear they could catch the “Christian virus” by eating together with a Copt. It comes as no surprise that these murders occurred in Nag Hammadi, nor that they were followed by the country’s worst religious riots in years. Christian shops and Muslim houses were set on fire, and 28 Christians and 14 Muslims were arrested. 

Nag Hammadi is now sealed off, with armed security forces in black uniforms guarding roads in and out of the city. They make sure no residents leave the city and no journalists enter it. 

Three presumed perpetrators have since been arrested. All of them have prior criminal records. One admitted to the crime, but then recanted, saying he had been coerced by the intelligence service. The government seems to want the affair to disappear as quickly as possible. The alleged murderers will likely be set free again as soon as the furor has blown over. 

More Rights for Christians? 

But there are also a few small indications that the situation of embattled Christians in Islamic countries could improve — depending on the extent that nationalism and the radicalization of political Islam subsides again. 

One of the contradictions of the Islamic world is that the best chances for Christians seem to crop up precisely where a major player actually comes from the political Islam camp. In Turkey it is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former Islamist and now the country’s prime minister, who has promised Turkey’s few remaining Christians more rights. He points to the history of the Ottoman Empire, in which Christians and Jews long had to pay a special tax, but in exchange, were granted freedom of religion and lived as respected fellow citizens. 

A more relaxed attitude to its minorities would certainly signify progress for Turkey. 


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Signs of life

As the search for alien life turns 50, its practitioners find new methods

Speak to me!

HALF a century ago a radio astronomer called Frank Drake thought of a way to calculate the likelihood of establishing contact with aliens. He suggested the following figures should be multiplied: how many stars are formed in the galaxy in a year; what fraction of these have planets and thus form solar systems; the average number of planets per solar system that have the potential to support life; on what percentage of those where it is possible do such biospheres actually form; what percentage of such biospheres give rise to intelligent species; what percentage of intelligent life is able to transmit signals into space; and for how long could such intelligence keeps sending signals.

This calculation became celebrated as the Drake equation—perhaps the best attempt so far to tame a wild guess. Most of the terms remain hard to tie down, although there is a consensus that about ten stars are formed per year in the galaxy. Also, recent searches for extrasolar planets have concluded that planets are not rare.

At the AAAS, Dr Drake reflected on his search for alien signals. One reason this is hard is that radio telescopes must chop the spectrum into fine portions to study it, like tuning into a signal on a car radio. Another is the trade off between a telescope’s field of view and its magnification. Small telescopes see a lot of sky but can detect only strong signals. Large ones, which can detect weak signals, have a narrow focus. Astronomers therefore have difficulty looking both carefully and comprehensively.

Dr Drake said there may be another difficulty. Researchers tend to look for signals similar to those now made by humanity. The Earth, though, is getting quieter because the rise of spread-spectrum communication makes stray emissions less likely than in the past.

Spread-spectrum works by smearing a message across a wide range of frequencies. That has the advantages of combating noise and allowing many signals to be sent at once. But it also makes those signals hard for eavesdroppers to hear (which is why spread-spectrum is beloved by military men). If technologically sophisticated aliens came to the same conclusions, and thus used spread-spectrum technology, humans would have a hard time hearing them. Dr Drake suggests, therefore, that there might be only a narrow window of time in the development of civilisations, analogous to the past 50 years on Earth, during which noisy electromagnetic signals are generated in large amounts.

It is, however, also possible that someone is actively trying to send signals to the Earth. If that were the case, the best way to do this, reckons Paul Horowitz, a physicist at Harvard, is with a laser.

Although radio power has changed little over the decades, the power of lasers has grown exponentially. Today’s most powerful versions can shine ten thousand times brighter than the sun, though only for a billionth of a second. If aliens have made similar progress, and point a laser towards the Earth’s solar system, such brief flashes would be detectable at a distance of many light-years. Dr Horowitz has already set up one suitable detector and this, because no huge magnification is involved, is capable of looking at broad swathes of sky.

There is also potential for improvement on the radio side. For many years, the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico, which is 300 metres across, has led the search for alien life. (Sadly, its founder, William Gordon, died on February 16th.) Now the Chinese are building a 500-metre telescope, known as FAST, in Guizhou province, and an international collaboration called the Square Kilometre Array is trying, as its name suggests, to build a grid of radio-telescopes over a square kilometre of land in either South Africa or Australia. Both may be helpful. As indeed may a large new telescope in northern California built by Paul Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft.

Many of the terms in the Drake equation are likely to remain elusive, so it is still impossible to predict how likely such efforts are to succeed. But even after 50 fruitless years—if the eagerness in the eyes of Dr Drake and his colleagues is any guide—it still is fun looking.


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