Unfinished Perfection

Leonardo’s ‘The Virgin and Child With St. Anne’

Can we call something both unfinished and perfect? It’s not hard to say yes if the thing is literary (Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene”) or even musical (Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony). With painting, the question is tougher to answer. Let me suggest at least one candidate for unfinished perfection.

A museum overbrimming with masterpieces and gawking visitors can challenge someone who wants to look at pictures. But patience is a virtue. Take the Louvre. Behind bullet-proof glass and a long rope hangs the Mona Lisa, impossible to see well through the crowds of camera-toting tourists, who rush through, snap their pictures to prove they have been there, and then leave.


‘The Virgin and Child with St. Anne’

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was a famously slow painter, and not many finished works survive. But once you leave the room where the Mona Lisa is enshrined you find yourself in the Grande Galérie, still crowded but less claustrophobic, and in the presence of five other Leonardo pictures. Tourists stop for a moment, but you can get close to any of these and enjoy (relative) solitude. The first is probably from Leonardo’s workshop, not entirely of the master’s own hand: St. John the Baptist, or perhaps Bacchus, whose raised finger is a Christian symbol, but whose thyrsis, vine leaves and panther skin are clearly pagan. The next is the elegant lady “La Belle Ferronière.” Then the famous “Virgin of the Rocks,” with its mysterious setting and its chiaroscuro lighting. Then another androgynous St. John with upward pointing finger.

Then, the masterpiece: “The Virgin and Child with St. Anne,” begun probably in 1500. Leonardo worked on it in both Milan and Florence, and kept it with him (as he did the Mona Lisa) until his death. Unfinished, it still offers a total aesthetic experience in terms of its design, form, color and human drama. (To take its measure, you can look at a preparatory study in London’s National Gallery, “The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist.”)

Clive Bell, Virginia Woolf’s brother-in-law, coined the phrase “significant form” in 1914 and, along with Roger Fry, another Bloomsbury denizen, popularized the idea that form itself can convey and produce feeling. Leonardo’s picture, especially its human geometry, sublimely exemplifies such conveyance. Leonardo learned from Masaccio (1401-1428) how to give sculptural mass to flat figures through the principles of perspective. To the earlier master’s technique, however, he added a humanism that looks to our eyes distinctly, realistically modern.

The Virgin is balanced on the lap of her mother, St. Anne. She gently restrains or supports her son, who is himself grabbing a little lamb. A gently energetic flow of the life force extends from St. Anne, the largest, oldest and highest figure, down through her grandchild, to the animal and plant worlds below her. The two women gaze down in wonder at the child; the child and the lamb are both looking up.

The picture is a study in support, connection, direction, in separateness and unity. St. Anne’s left arm rests upon her invisible hip. Mary’s head is in front of her mother’s shoulder. The fullness of her robe and its unfolding across her lap suggest, almost, that her child is coming out of her body (again). We can trace a line from her knee to her elbow, to her shoulder and head, and thence to her mother’s shoulder. The picture combines straight lines and swirling ones so naturally that it obscures for a moment the difficult artistry that has made everything seem natural, indeed inevitable.

What does it all mean? Freud had a thing or two to say about this picture in his essay on the painter. Leonardo had written about a childhood dream in which a vulture attacked him in his crib. Freud detected within the Virgin’s robe the figure of the vulture (Egyptian hieroglyphs sometimes used the vulture as a maternal image), which he took as a symbol of Leonardo’s repressed homosexuality.

Freud got it wrong for two reasons. Leonardo’s German translator made Leonardo’s “vulture” out of what was actually a kite or hawk. More important, it strains credulity to see any bird shape in the Virgin’s lap. Freud came closer to a truth when he considered the two women. St. Anne hardly looks older than her daughter; they seem to be of one age. And Leonardo, himself illegitimate, had two mothers, his birth mother and then his father’s wife.

Theology tempts us too but, like psychoanalysis, ultimately fails to explain the picture’s power. The lamb symbolizes Christ and his future sacrifice; it’s also just a child’s pet. Is Mary pulling him away from his foredoomed fate? And his grandmother: Do her enigmatic Mona Lisa-like smile and her hand on her hip say “I am older and wiser. I know that boys will be boys. Let the kid play”? Does one woman resist the tragedy, and the other accept it?

Theological and biographical details pale by comparison to the picture’s formal and human aspects. Consider the colors. At the top we see an almost Chinese background of ice-blue mountains with both a horizontal and vertical sweep. The colors darken from the top of the canvas to the bottom. The Virgin’s face occupies a radiant spot in the center. On the right side we have a single tree. At the bottom are rocks, an earthly base. Those on the left are small and detailed; those on the right, vague. (The Virgin’s somewhat splotchy mantle is equally unfinished or else abraded.)

The Virgin knows that her son will die. She must be filled with sorrow. But the picture is all “luxe et calme,” a gentle family portrait of three generations. Without knowing the story, a viewer would assume that it depicts, with delicate humor, domesticity and soft feelings. Such tenderness mutes tragedy for a moment, and then deepens it. And the picture’s “unfinished” status? Its conception exceeds its execution, but this hardly matters. The picture takes us in. Its formal elegance and the humane portrayal of its characters are perfection enough.

Mr. Spiegelman, the Hughes Professor of English at Southern Methodist University, writes about teh arts for the Journal. His latest book is “Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness” (Farrar Strauss Giroux).


Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704596504575272681406945388.html

The Web’s New Gold Mine: Your Secrets

A Journal investigation finds that one of the fastest-growing businesses on the Internet is the business of spying on consumers. First in a series.

Hidden inside Ashley Hayes-Beaty’s computer, a tiny file helps gather personal details about her, all to be put up for sale for a tenth of a penny.

The file consists of a single code— 4c812db292272995e5416a323e79bd37—that secretly identifies her as a 26-year-old female in Nashville, Tenn.

The code knows that her favorite movies include “The Princess Bride,” “50 First Dates” and “10 Things I Hate About You.” It knows she enjoys the “Sex and the City” series. It knows she browses entertainment news and likes to take quizzes.

“Well, I like to think I have some mystery left to me, but apparently not!” Ms. Hayes-Beaty said when told what that snippet of code reveals about her. “The profile is eerily correct.”

Ms. Hayes-Beaty is being monitored by Lotame Solutions Inc., a New York company that uses sophisticated software called a “beacon” to capture what people are typing on a website—their comments on movies, say, or their interest in parenting and pregnancy. Lotame packages that data into profiles about individuals, without determining a person’s name, and sells the profiles to companies seeking customers. Ms. Hayes-Beaty’s tastes can be sold wholesale (a batch of movie lovers is $1 per thousand) or customized (26-year-old Southern fans of “50 First Dates”).

“We can segment it all the way down to one person,” says Eric Porres, Lotame’s chief marketing officer.

One of the fastest-growing businesses on the Internet, a Wall Street Journal investigation has found, is the business of spying on Internet users.

The Journal conducted a comprehensive study that assesses and analyzes the broad array of cookies and other surveillance technology that companies are deploying on Internet users. It reveals that the tracking of consumers has grown both far more pervasive and far more intrusive than is realized by all but a handful of people in the vanguard of the industry.

• The study found that the nation’s 50 top websites on average installed 64 pieces of tracking technology onto the computers of visitors, usually with no warning. A dozen sites each installed more than a hundred. The nonprofit Wikipedia installed none.

• Tracking technology is getting smarter and more intrusive. Monitoring used to be limited mainly to “cookie” files that record websites people visit. But the Journal found new tools that scan in real time what people are doing on a Web page, then instantly assess location, income, shopping interests and even medical conditions. Some tools surreptitiously re-spawn themselves even after users try to delete them.

• These profiles of individuals, constantly refreshed, are bought and sold on stock-market-like exchanges that have sprung up in the past 18 months.

The new technologies are transforming the Internet economy. Advertisers once primarily bought ads on specific Web pages—a car ad on a car site. Now, advertisers are paying a premium to follow people around the Internet, wherever they go, with highly specific marketing messages.

In between the Internet user and the advertiser, the Journal identified more than 100 middlemen—tracking companies, data brokers and advertising networks—competing to meet the growing demand for data on individual behavior and interests.

The data on Ms. Hayes-Beaty’s film-watching habits, for instance, is being offered to advertisers on BlueKai Inc., one of the new data exchanges.

“It is a sea change in the way the industry works,” says Omar Tawakol, CEO of BlueKai. “Advertisers want to buy access to people, not Web pages.”

The Journal examined the 50 most popular U.S. websites, which account for about 40% of the Web pages viewed by Americans. (The Journal also tested its own site, WSJ.com.) It then analyzed the tracking files and programs these sites downloaded onto a test computer.

As a group, the top 50 sites placed 3,180 tracking files in total on the Journal’s test computer. Nearly a third of these were innocuous, deployed to remember the password to a favorite site or tally most-popular articles.

But over two-thirds—2,224—were installed by 131 companies, many of which are in the business of tracking Web users to create rich databases of consumer profiles that can be sold.

The top venue for such technology, the Journal found, was IAC/InterActive Corp.’s Dictionary.com. A visit to the online dictionary site resulted in 234 files or programs being downloaded onto the Journal’s test computer, 223 of which were from companies that track Web users.


Dig Deeper


Key tracking terminology


How to Protect Yourself

Almost every major website you visit is tracking your online activity. Here’s a step-by-step guide to fending off trackers.

The Tracking Ecosystem

Surfing the Internet kickstarts a process that passes information about you and your interests to tracking companies and advertisers. See how it works.


The information that companies gather is anonymous, in the sense that Internet users are identified by a number assigned to their computer, not by a specific person’s name. Lotame, for instance, says it doesn’t know the name of users such as Ms. Hayes-Beaty—only their behavior and attributes, identified by code number. People who don’t want to be tracked can remove themselves from Lotame’s system.

And the industry says the data are used harmlessly. David Moore, chairman of 24/7 RealMedia Inc., an ad network owned by WPP PLC, says tracking gives Internet users better advertising.

“When an ad is targeted properly, it ceases to be an ad, it becomes important information,” he says.

Tracking isn’t new. But the technology is growing so powerful and ubiquitous that even some of America’s biggest sites say they were unaware, until informed by the Journal, that they were installing intrusive files on visitors’ computers.

The Journal found that Microsoft Corp.’s popular Web portal, MSN.com, planted a tracking file packed with data: It had a prediction of a surfer’s age, ZIP Code and gender, plus a code containing estimates of income, marital status, presence of children and home ownership, according to the tracking company that created the file, Targus Information Corp.

Both Targus and Microsoft said they didn’t know how the file got onto MSN.com, and added that the tool didn’t contain “personally identifiable” information.

Tracking is done by tiny files and programs known as “cookies,” “Flash cookies” and “beacons.” They are placed on a computer when a user visits a website. U.S. courts have ruled that it is legal to deploy the simplest type, cookies, just as someone using a telephone might allow a friend to listen in on a conversation. Courts haven’t ruled on the more complex trackers.

The most intrusive monitoring comes from what are known in the business as “third party” tracking files. They work like this: The first time a site is visited, it installs a tracking file, which assigns the computer a unique ID number. Later, when the user visits another site affiliated with the same tracking company, it can take note of where that user was before, and where he is now. This way, over time the company can build a robust profile.

One such ecosystem is Yahoo Inc.’s ad network, which collects fees by placing targeted advertisements on websites. Yahoo’s network knows many things about recent high-school graduate Cate Reid. One is that she is a 13- to 18-year-old female interested in weight loss. Ms. Reid was able to determine this when a reporter showed her a little-known feature on Yahoo’s website, the Ad Interest Manager, that displays some of the information Yahoo had collected about her.

Yahoo’s take on Ms. Reid, who was 17 years old at the time, hit the mark: She was, in fact, worried that she may be 15 pounds too heavy for her 5-foot, 6-inch frame. She says she often does online research about weight loss.

“Every time I go on the Internet,” she says, she sees weight-loss ads. “I’m self-conscious about my weight,” says Ms. Reid, whose father asked that her hometown not be given. “I try not to think about it…. Then [the ads] make me start thinking about it.”

Yahoo spokeswoman Amber Allman says Yahoo doesn’t knowingly target weight-loss ads at people under 18, though it does target adults.

“It’s likely this user received an untargeted ad,” Ms. Allman says. It’s also possible Ms. Reid saw ads targeted at her by other tracking companies.

Information about people’s moment-to-moment thoughts and actions, as revealed by their online activity, can change hands quickly. Within seconds of visiting eBay.com or Expedia.com, information detailing a Web surfer’s activity there is likely to be auctioned on the data exchange run by BlueKai, the Seattle startup.

Each day, BlueKai sells 50 million pieces of information like this about specific individuals’ browsing habits, for as little as a tenth of a cent apiece. The auctions can happen instantly, as a website is visited.

Spokespeople for eBay Inc. and Expedia Inc. both say the profiles BlueKai sells are anonymous and the people aren’t identified as visitors of their sites. BlueKai says its own website gives consumers an easy way to see what it monitors about them.

Tracking files get onto websites, and downloaded to a computer, in several ways. Often, companies simply pay sites to distribute their tracking files.

But tracking companies sometimes hide their files within free software offered to websites, or hide them within other tracking files or ads. When this happens, websites aren’t always aware that they’re installing the files on visitors’ computers.

Often staffed by “quants,” or math gurus with expertise in quantitative analysis, some tracking companies use probability algorithms to try to pair what they know about a person’s online behavior with data from offline sources about household income, geography and education, among other things.

The goal is to make sophisticated assumptions in real time—plans for a summer vacation, the likelihood of repaying a loan—and sell those conclusions.

Some financial companies are starting to use this formula to show entirely different pages to visitors, based on assumptions about their income and education levels.

Life-insurance site AccuquoteLife.com, a unit of Byron Udell & Associates Inc., last month tested a system showing visitors it determined to be suburban, college-educated baby-boomers a default policy of $2 million to $3 million, says Accuquote executive Sean Cheyney. A rural, working-class senior citizen might see a default policy for $250,000, he says.

“We’re driving people down different lanes of the highway,” Mr. Cheyney says.

Consumer tracking is the foundation of an online advertising economy that racked up $23 billion in ad spending last year. Tracking activity is exploding. Researchers at AT&T Labs and Worcester Polytechnic Institute last fall found tracking technology on 80% of 1,000 popular sites, up from 40% of those sites in 2005.

The Journal found tracking files that collect sensitive health and financial data. On Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc.’s dictionary website Merriam-Webster.com, one tracking file from Healthline Networks Inc., an ad network, scans the page a user is viewing and targets ads related to what it sees there. So, for example, a person looking up depression-related words could see Healthline ads for depression treatments on that page—and on subsequent pages viewed on other sites.

Healthline says it doesn’t let advertisers track users around the Internet who have viewed sensitive topics such as HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases, eating disorders and impotence. The company does let advertisers track people with bipolar disorder, overactive bladder and anxiety, according to its marketing materials.

Targeted ads can get personal. Last year, Julia Preston, a 32-year-old education-software designer in Austin, Texas, researched uterine disorders online. Soon after, she started noticing fertility ads on sites she visited. She now knows she doesn’t have a disorder, but still gets the ads.

It’s “unnerving,” she says.

Tracking became possible in 1994 when the tiny text files called cookies were introduced in an early browser, Netscape Navigator. Their purpose was user convenience: remembering contents of Web shopping carts.

Back then, online advertising barely existed. The first banner ad appeared the same year. When online ads got rolling during the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, advertisers were buying ads based on proximity to content—shoe ads on fashion sites.

The dot-com bust triggered a power shift in online advertising, away from websites and toward advertisers. Advertisers began paying for ads only if someone clicked on them. Sites and ad networks began using cookies aggressively in hopes of showing ads to people most likely to click on them, thus getting paid.

Targeted ads command a premium. Last year, the average cost of a targeted ad was $4.12 per thousand viewers, compared with $1.98 per thousand viewers for an untargeted ad, according to an ad-industry-sponsored study in March.

The Journal examined three kinds of tracking technology—basic cookies as well as more powerful “Flash cookies” and bits of software code called “beacons.”

More than half of the sites examined by the Journal installed 23 or more “third party” cookies. Dictionary.com installed the most, placing 159 third-party cookies.

Cookies are typically used by tracking companies to build lists of pages visited from a specific computer. A newer type of technology, beacons, can watch even more activity.

Beacons, also known as “Web bugs” and “pixels,” are small pieces of software that run on a Web page. They can track what a user is doing on the page, including what is being typed or where the mouse is moving.

The majority of sites examined by the Journal placed at least seven beacons from outside companies. Dictionary.com had the most, 41, including several from companies that track health conditions and one that says it can target consumers by dozens of factors, including zip code and race.

Dictionary.com President Shravan Goli attributed the presence of so many tracking tools to the fact that the site was working with a large number of ad networks, each of which places its own cookies and beacons. After the Journal contacted the company, it cut the number of networks it uses and beefed up its privacy policy to more fully disclose its practices.

The widespread use of Adobe Systems Inc.’s Flash software to play videos online offers another opportunity to track people. Flash cookies originally were meant to remember users’ preferences, such as volume settings for online videos.

But Flash cookies can also be used by data collectors to re-install regular cookies that a user has deleted. This can circumvent a user’s attempt to avoid being tracked online. Adobe condemns the practice.

Most sites examined by the Journal installed no Flash cookies. Comcast.net installed 55.

That finding surprised the company, which said it was unaware of them. Comcast Corp. subsequently determined that it had used a piece of free software from a company called Clearspring Technologies Inc. to display a slideshow of celebrity photos on Comcast.net. The Flash cookies were installed on Comcast’s site by that slideshow, according to Comcast.

Clearspring, based in McLean, Va., says the 55 Flash cookies were a mistake. The company says it no longer uses Flash cookies for tracking.

CEO Hooman Radfar says Clearspring provides software and services to websites at no charge. In exchange, Clearspring collects data on consumers. It plans eventually to sell the data it collects to advertisers, he says, so that site users can be shown “ads that don’t suck.” Comcast’s data won’t be used, Clearspring says.

Wittingly or not, people pay a price in reduced privacy for the information and services they receive online. Dictionary.com, the site with the most tracking files, is a case study.

The site’s annual revenue, about $9 million in 2009 according to an SEC filing, means the site is too small to support an extensive ad-sales team. So it needs to rely on the national ad-placing networks, whose business model is built on tracking.

Dictionary.com executives say the trade-off is fair for their users, who get free access to its dictionary and thesaurus service.

“Whether it’s one or 10 cookies, it doesn’t have any impact on the customer experience, and we disclose we do it,” says Dictionary.com spokesman Nicholas Graham. “So what’s the beef?”

The problem, say some industry veterans, is that so much consumer data is now up for sale, and there are no legal limits on how that data can be used.

Until recently, targeting consumers by health or financial status was considered off-limits by many large Internet ad companies. Now, some aim to take targeting to a new level by tapping online social networks.

Media6Degrees Inc., whose technology was found on three sites by the Journal, is pitching banks to use its data to size up consumers based on their social connections. The idea is that the creditworthy tend to hang out with the creditworthy, and deadbeats with deadbeats.

“There are applications of this technology that can be very powerful,” says Tom Phillips, CEO of Media6Degrees. “Who knows how far we’d take it?”

Julia Angwin, Wall Street Journal


Full article and pĥotos: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703977004575393173432219064.html

A Food Chain Crisis in the World’s Oceans

It is the starting point for our oceans’ food chain. But stocks of phytoplankton have decreased by 40 percent since 1950, potentially as a result of global warming. It is an astonishing collapse, say researchers, and may have dramatic consequences for both the oceans and for humans.

A whale shark swims with its huge mouth open near the surface of the plankton-rich waters of Donsol, a town in the Phillippines. Like many sea creatures, the whale shark nourishes itself with plankton.

The forms that marine flora and fauna come in are varied and spectacular. From bizarre deep sea creatures to elegant predators and giant marine mammals, the diversity in our planet’s oceans is astounding.

But it is the microscopic organisms like diatoms, green algae, dinoflagellates and cayanobacteria that make it all possible. Phytoplankton is the first link in the oceanic food chain. It is eaten by zooplankton which is in turn eaten by other animals, which are then consumed by yet further sea creatures. Sometimes that chain can be quite short — the only thing that separates whales from phytoplankton in the food chain, for example, are the krill that come in between.

But it appears that humans may be in the process of destroying this fundamental link in the oceanic food chain. Temperatures on the surface of our oceans are rising because of climate change, resulting in a reduction of the stock of phytoplankton. Just how severe that reduction is, however, has long been a mystery.

Now, a frightening new study reveals the shocking degree of the die-off. Since 1899, the average global mass of phytoplankton has shrunk by 1 percent each year, an international research team reported in the latest issue of the journal Nature. Since 1950, phytoplankton has declined globally by about 40 percent.

“We had suspected this for a long time,” Boris Worm, the author of the study for Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. “But these figures still surprised us.” At this point, he said, one can only speculate as to what the repercussions might be. “In principal, though, we should assume that such a massive decline is already having tangible consequences,” said Worm. He said that the lack of research on the food chain between phytoplankton and larger fish in the open ocean is a hindrance to knowing the extent of the damage.

‘The Entire Food Chain Will Contract’

In other words, it could be that humans have not yet been affected. But Worm fears that will not remain the case for long. If the trend continues and the phytoplankton mass continues to shrink at a rate of 1 percent per year, the “entire food chain will contract,” he predicts.

Worm’s research has found that the problem is not merely limited to certain areas of the world’s oceans. “This is global phenomenon that cannot be combatted regionally,” Worm said.

The data show that the decline is happening in eight of the 10 regions studied. In one of the other two, the phytoplankton is disappearing even more quickly, while one region showed an increase. Both of the two exceptions are in the Indian Ocean. “We suspect other factors are influencing (developments) there,” Worm says.

The situation in some coastal waters is different. In the North and Baltic Seas in Europe, for example, mass quantities of nutrients flow from land into the ocean. An enormous algae bloom in the Baltic has been the result this summer, but other microscopic organisms benefit as well. Still, coastal waters make up only a fraction of the total ocean.

Worm and his colleagues Daniel Boyce and Marion Lewis believe climate change is responsible for the disappearance of phytoplankton. In contrast to coastal areas, waters in the open sea are deeply stratified. Phytoplankton is found near the surface and gets its nourishment when cold and nutrient-rich water rises from the depths. “But when water on the upper surface gets warmer as a result of climate change, then it makes this mixing difficult,” Worm explained. As a result, the phytoplankton can no longer get sufficient nutrients.

‘So Serious It Is almost Unbelievable’

Other experts have also said they were struck by the sheer scale of the development. “A retreat of 40 percent in 60 years, that is so serious that it is almost unbelievable,” says Heinz-Dieter Franke of the Biological Institute Helgoland, part of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research. He warned, however, against attributing the decline in phytoplankton solely to temperature increases. Higher temperatures, after all, could also result in more nutrients being delivered by air, he said. Other influences, like changes in cloud composition — and thus changes in sunlight on the oceans’ surface — complicate the situation.

The negative effect warmer surface temperatures have had on phytoplankton has long been well-documented, says Worm, just not over extended time periods. Continuous satellite measurements have only been available for the last 12 years or so. The researchers had to collect multiple data sets, including those taken by Pietro Angelo Secchi in the 19th century. The Italian researcher and Jesuit priest was ordered by the Papal fleet to measure the translucency of the Mediterranean Sea.

The so-called Secchi disk is still used today to measure water transparency, and the old data he collected remains enormously valuable for marine biologists. “There is a direct corollary between the transparency of water and the density of phytoplankton,” said Worm. The scientists also included measurements of micro-organisms as well as data about the ocean’s chlorophyll content. All phytoplankton organisms create chlorophyll and it is possible to draw conclusions about the biomass using that data. In total, the team of researchers evaluated close to 450,000 data from measurements taken between 1899 and 2008.

Phytoplankton’s Contribution to Global Warming

That humans have done serious damage to the world’s oceans is hardly a new finding. Over-fishing is an acute problem for several species with beloved types like blue fin tuna being threatened with extinction. Already, experts are warning that the world’s fisheries could collapse by 2050. But the decline in phytoplankton could make the situation even worse.

Franke of the Alfred Wegener Institute said he fears the decline in phytoplankton will make itself particularly apparent in fisheries. “If the oceans’ total productivity declines by 40 percent, then the yields of the fisheries must also retreat by the same amount,” Franke told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

The loss of the oceans as a source of nutrients isn’t the only threat to humans. Half of the oxygen produced by plants comes from phytoplankton. For a long time, scientists have been measuring an extremely small, but also constant decline in the oxygen content of the atmosphere. “So far, the use of fossil fuels has been discussed as a reason,” said Worm. But it’s possible that the loss of phytoplankton could also be a factor.

In addition, phytoplankton absorbs a huge amount of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide each year. The disappearance of the microscopic organisms could further accelerate warming.


Full article and photo: http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,709135,00.html

Iran starts feeling heat

They [the United States and Israel] have decided to attack at least two countries in the region in the next three months.

— Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, July 26

President Ahmadinejad has a penchant for the somewhat loony, as when last weekend he denounced Paul the Octopus, omniscient predictor of eight consecutive World Cup matches, as a symbol of decadence and purveyor of “Western propaganda and superstition.”

But for all his clownishness, Ahmadinejad is nonetheless calculating and dangerous. What “two countries” was he talking about? They seem logically to be Lebanon and Syria. Hezbollah in Lebanon has armed itself with 50,000 rockets and made clear that it is in a position to start a war at any time. Fighting on this scale would immediately bring in Syria, which would in turn invite Iranian intervention in defense of its major Arab clients — and of the first Persian beachhead on the Mediterranean in 1,400 years.

The idea that Israel, let alone the United States, has the slightest interest in starting a war on Israel’s north is crazy. But claims about imminent attacks are serious business in that region. In May 1967, the Soviet Union falsely told its client, Egypt, that Israel was preparing to attack Syria. These rumors set off a train of events — the mobilization of Arab armies, the southern blockade of Israel, the hasty signing of an inter-Arab military pact — that led to the Six-Day War.

Ahmadinejad’s claim is not supported by a shred of evidence. So what is he up to?

It is a sign that he is under serious pressure. Passage of weak U.N. sanctions was followed by unilateral sanctions by the United States, Canada, Australia and the European Union. Already, reports Reuters, Iran is experiencing a sharp drop in gasoline imports as Lloyd’s of London and other players refuse to insure the ships delivering them.

Second, the Arab states are no longer just whispering their desire for the United States to militarily take out Iranian nuclear facilities. The United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to Washington said so openly at a conference three weeks ago.

Shortly before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Pat Buchanan famously said that the “only two groups” that wanted the United States to forcibly liberate Kuwait were “the Israeli Defense Ministry and its amen corner in the United States.” That was a stupid charge, contradicted by the fact that George H.W. Bush went to war leading more than 30 nations, including the largest U.S.-led coalition of Arab states ever assembled.

Twenty years later, the libel returns in the form of the scurrilous suggestion that the only ones who want the United States to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities are Israel and its American supporters. The UAE ambassador is, as far as ascertainable, neither Israeli nor American nor Jewish. His publicly expressed desire for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities speaks for the intense Arab fear, approaching panic, of Iran’s nuclear program and the urgent hope that the United States will take it out.

Third, and perhaps even more troubling from Tehran’s point of view, are developments in the United States. Former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden suggested on Sunday that over time, in his view, a military strike is looking increasingly favorable compared to the alternatives. Hayden is no Obama insider, but Time reports (“An Attack on Iran: Back on the Table.” July 15) that high administration officials are once again considering the military option. This may reflect a new sense of urgency or merely be a bluff to make Tehran more pliable. But in either case, it suggests that after 18 months of failed engagement, the administration is hardening its line.

The hardening is already having its effect. The Iranian regime is beginning to realize that even President Obama’s patience is limited — and that Iran may actually face a reckoning for its nuclear defiance.

All this pressure would be enough to rattle a regime already unsteady and shorn of domestic legitimacy. Hence Ahmadinejad’s otherwise inscrutable warning about an Israeli attack on two countries. (Said Defense Minister Ehud Barak to Fox News: “Who is the second one?”) It is a pointed reminder to the world of Iran’s capacity to trigger, through Hezbollah and Syria, a regional conflagration.

This is the kind of brinkmanship you get when leaders of a rogue regime are under growing pressure. The only hope to get them to reverse course is to relentlessly increase their feeling that, if they don’t, the Arab states, Israel, the Europeans and America will, one way or another, ensure that ruin is visited upon them.

Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post


Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/29/AR2010072904901.html

The Missing Word in Our Afghanistan Strategy

Neither the British prime minister nor the U.S. president is talking about ‘victory.’

What President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron didn’t say during last week’s joint news conference may have mattered more than what they did say. The omissions could lead to a grave setback in the war on terror and deadly results for the Afghan people.

The president and prime minister declared their solidarity on the Afghanistan war. Both leaders “reaffirmed our commitment to the overall strategy,” in Mr. Cameron’s words. Mr. Obama said that approach aimed to “build Afghan capacity so Afghans can take responsibility for their future,” a point Mr. Cameron called “a key part” of the coalition’s strategy.

All well and good. But neither leader uttered the word “victory” or “win” or any other similar phrase. They made it sound as if the strategic goal was to stand up the Afghan security forces, leave as soon as that was done, and hope the locals were up to keeping things together.

Neither man called for the defeat of the Taliban or declared its return to power unacceptable. Instead, Mr. Obama offered a lesser goal, namely to “break the Taliban’s momentum.” That is hardly a strategy that will galvanize people—as the King James Bible expressed it, “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?”

Nor did Messrs. Obama or Cameron emphasize, as their predecessors did, the importance of liberty and human rights in Afghanistan. One of the remarkable achievements of the removal of the Taliban was the emergence of a nascent (if still imperfect) Afghan democracy, one that respects the rights of Afghan women. It would be a brutal betrayal to allow these rights to be extinguished.

Wars involve tactical shifts and adjustments. But they also involve “red lines”—and in Afghanistan, the red line must be to defeat al Qaeda and the irreconcilable elements of the Taliban, and to keep them from seizing power again.

The American and British people who are being asked to support this costly effort must know that is our objective. So must the Afghan people, who have seen much the last year to raise doubts about our resolve. And so must the Taliban and al Qaeda. America’s enemies need to understand one thing above all else: They cannot outlast us and, if they try, they will be broken and defeated.

Victory in Afghanistan requires two things: the right strategy and the resolve to see it through. Mr. Obama wisely recruited Gen. David Petraeus to head the Afghan campaign. There is no one better equipped to execute a successful counterinsurgency campaign. He is both the father of the “surge” in Iraq and the person most responsible for implementing it. If Gen. Petraeus has the time and support he needs, he can bring similar success in Afghanistan.

But is Mr. Obama’s heart in this fight? The commander in chief has said stunningly little about the war. He rarely explains to the American people what is happening or asks for their support.

Some congressional Democrats are growing restive, speaking more often and more loudly against the war and now voting against its funding. Ordinary Americans will also come to question the mission if the goal is not victory. Mr. Obama needs to deal with this by making it clear that when it comes to Afghanistan, he’s all in.

Winston Churchill demonstrated that in war, words matter. They signal resolve or weakness, fortitude or doubt. Right now, the uncertain trumpet of Mr. Obama’s words—those he has said and those he has chosen not to say—is emboldening adversaries, alarming allies, undermining confidence in the U.S., and dispiriting those who fight in dark and dangerous places for our security and liberty.

The president can and must correct those impressions—beginning with an unambiguous statement that America will stay and get the job done. Only the president can reassure our partners and allies, and strike the fear of God into our enemies. The world is looking for him to act as a commander in chief.

Mr. Obama has acted impressively so far on Afghanistan. He changed strategy based on facts on the ground, increased our troops by tens of thousands, and picked exactly the right man to lead our military into battle.

The president has the right pieces in place. Now he needs to signal to the world that he believes in the cause with all his heart. Let’s hope he does.

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


Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703940904575395152474791466.html

WikiLeaks ‘Bastards’

The website has endangered the lives of Afghan informants

Julian Assange, the editor of the WikiLeaks website that on Monday released some 92,000 classified military documents, has told the German newsweekly Der Spiegel that he “loved crushing bastards.” We wonder if the “bastards” he has in mind include the dozens of Afghan civilians named in the document dump as U.S. military informants. Their lives, as well as those of their entire families, are now at terrible risk of Taliban reprisal.

The past decade has seen more than its share of debates about the government’s right to secrecy, the public’s right to disclosure, and where the line between them should be drawn: Think warrantless wiretaps, Swift bank codes and terror financing, Valerie Plame, Judy Miller. We’ve had our say on all of these issues.

But the WikiLeaks story is a new and troubling event. Our initial reaction was that the documents expose no big lies about the war and, judging from what we’ve seen so far, no small ones either. They reveal nothing that wasn’t already widely known about Iranian and Pakistani support for the Taliban. In other words, their value in terms of the public’s right to know is de minimis.

But the closer we and others have looked at the documents, it’s clear that the WikiLeaks dump does reveal a great deal about the military’s methods, sources, tactics and protocols of communication. Such details are of little interest to the public at large, and they are unlikely to change many minds about the conduct, or wisdom, of the war. But they are of considerable interest to America’s avowed enemies and strategic competitors such as Russia and China.

“If I had gotten this trove on the Taliban or al Qaeda, I would have called this priceless,” says former CIA director Michael Hayden. “If I’m head of the Russian intelligence, I’m getting my best English speakers and saying: ‘Read every document, and I want you to tell me, how good are these guys? What are their approaches, their strengths, their weaknesses and their blind spots?'”

In his defense, Mr. Assange dismisses concerns about harm to U.S. national security, calling it ridiculous. That may be his right as an Australian national, although Australia deploys some 1,500 troops to Afghanistan and has lost more than two dozen men in combat. But Mr. Assange also says he takes threats to individual safety seriously, and he boasts that he has withheld or edited thousands of documents as a precaution against potential harm.

If so, he hasn’t done a very good job of it. Yesterday, the Times of London noted that “in just two hours of searching the WikiLeaks archive, The Times found the names of dozens of Afghans credited with providing detailed intelligence to U.S. forces. Their villages are given for identification and also, in many cases, their fathers’ names.”

The newspaper goes on to note that “named Afghans offered information accusing others of being Taliban. In one case from 2007, a senior official accuses named figures in the government of corruption. In another from 2007, a report describes using a middleman to talk to an alleged Taliban commander who is identified. ‘[X] said that he would be killed if he got caught interacting with any coalition forces, which is why he hides when we go into [Y].'” The deletions here were done by the London Times, not WikiLeaks.

Perhaps the various countries that host WikiLeaks’ servers can provide these informers and their entire families with refugee status now that their lives are in jeopardy. We’d say something similar about the New York Times, Britain’s Guardian and Germany’s Der Spiegel, which coordinated publication of the documents with Mr. Assange. The Times has made a show of seeking to corroborate the information it published, and to delete information the paper believed was especially sensitive (including the names of Afghan informants). It went so far as to urge Mr. Assange not to publish certain documents.

We don’t believe in prior restraint, but it is worth asking whether the Times, the Guardian or Der Spiegel are really serving the public, much less allied security interests, in validating Mr. Assange’s methods by flying in publishing formation with him. “I don’t know, and I’ll bet they [WikiLeaks] don’t know, if publication of this mass of material is in some ways genuinely harmful to national security,” Floyd Abrams, the well-known First Amendment lawyer, told the Journal yesterday. “That’s one of my problems with their modus operandi.”

Mr. Abrams went on to defend the behavior of the Times, which he credited for urging Mr. Assange not to publish certain documents. However, years after the Times exposed the Swift financing operation—an act we criticized at the time—we have still found no public benefit from that report. The most notable consequence is that Europe stopped cooperating with the U.S. on the program.

The Pentagon now says it is aggressively pursuing the source of the leak, and we hope the leaker is found and punished. As for Mr. Assange, governments should not be in the business of prosecuting publishers, a la Britain’s Official Secrets Act. But publishers should also understand that their rights to publish depend in part on publics that believe their media are doing a public service.

If American voters come to believe that newspapers or websites are cavalier about putting U.S. soldiers or allies at risk against our enemies, politicians will follow the public mood. The press will put its own freedom in jeopardy.

Wall Street Journal, Editorial


Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703940904575395500694117006.html

The Limits of the Coded World

In an influential article in the Annual Review of Neuroscience, Joshua Gold of the University of Pennsylvania and Michael Shadlen of the University of Washington sum up experiments aimed at discovering the neural basis of decision-making. In one set of experiments, researchers attached sensors to the parts of monkeys’ brains responsible for visual pattern recognition. The monkeys were then taught to respond to a cue by choosing to look at one of two patterns. Computers reading the sensors were able to register the decision a fraction of a second before the monkeys’ eyes turned to the pattern. As the monkeys were not deliberating, but rather reacting to visual stimuli, researchers were able to plausibly claim that the computer could successfully predict the monkeys’ reaction. In other words, the computer was reading the monkeys’ minds and knew before they did what their decision would be.

The implications are immediate. If researchers can in theory predict what human beings will decide before they themselves know it, what is left of the notion of human freedom? How can we say that humans are free in any meaningful way if others can know what their decisions will be before they themselves make them?

Research of this sort can seem frightening. An experiment that demonstrated the illusory nature of human freedom would, in many people’s mind, rob the test subjects of something essential to their humanity.

If a machine can tell me what I am about to decide before I decide it, this means that, in some sense, the decision was already made before I became consciously involved. But if that is the case, how am I, as a moral agent, to be held accountable for my actions? If, on the cusp of an important moral decision, I now know that my decision was already taken at the moment I thought myself to be deciding, does this not undermine my responsibility for that choice?

Some might conclude that resistance to such findings reveal a religious bias. After all, the ability to consciously decide is essential in many religions to the idea of humans as spiritual beings. Without freedom of choice, a person becomes a cog in the machine of nature; with action and choice predetermined, morality and ultimately the very meaning of that person’s existence is left in tatters.

Theologians have spent a great deal of time ruminating on the problem of determination. The Catholic response to the theological problem of theodicy — that is, of how to explain the existence of evil in a world ruled by a benevolent and omnipotent God — was to teach that God created humans with free will. It is only because evil does exist that humans are free to choose between good and evil; hence, the choice for good has meaning. As the theologians at the Council of Trent in the 16th century put it, freedom of will is essential for Christian faith, and it is anathema to believe otherwise. Protestant theologians such as Luther and Calvin, to whom the Trent statement was responding, had disputed this notion on the basis of God’s omniscience. If God’s ability to know were truly limitless, they argued, then his knowledge of the future would be as clear and perfect as his knowledge of the present and of the past. If that were the case, though, then God would already know what each and every one of us has done, is doing, and will do at every moment in our lives. And how, then, could we be truly free?

Even though this particular resistance to a deterministic model of human behavior is religious, one can easily come to the same sorts of conclusions from a scientific perspective. In fact, when religion and science square off around human freedom, they often end up on remarkably similar ground because both science and religion base their assumptions on an identical understanding of the world as something intrinsically knowable, either by God or ourselves.

Let me explain what I mean by way of an example. Imagine we suspend a steel ball from a magnet directly above a vertical steel plate, such that when I turn off the magnet, the ball hits the edge of the plate and falls to either one side or the other.

Very few people, having accepted the premises of this experiment, would conclude from its outcome that the ball in question was exhibiting free will. Whether the ball falls on one side or the other of the steel plate, we can all comfortably agree, is completely determined by the physical forces acting on the ball, which are simply too complex and minute for us to monitor. And yet we have no problem assuming the opposite to be true of the application of the monkey experiment to theoretical humans: namely, that because their actions are predictable they can be assumed to lack free will. In other words, we have no reason to assume that either predictability or lack of predictability has anything to say about free will. The fact that we do make this association has more to do with the model of the world that we subtly import into such thought experiments than with the experiments themselves.

The model in question holds that the universe exists in space and time as a kind of ultimate code that can be deciphered. This image of the universe has a philosophical and religious provenance, and has made its way into secular beliefs and practices as well. In the case of human freedom, this presumption of a “code of codes” works by convincing us that a prediction somehow decodes or deciphers a future that already exists in a coded form. So, for example, when the computers read the signals coming from the monkeys’ brains and make a prediction, belief in the code of codes influences how we interpret that event. Instead of interpreting the prediction as what it is — a statement about the neural process leading to the monkeys’ actions — we extrapolate about a supposed future as if it were already written down, and all we were doing was reading it.

To my mind the philosopher who gave the most complete answer to this question was Immanuel Kant. In Kant’s view, the main mistake philosophers before him had made when considering how humans could have accurate knowledge of the world was to forget the necessary difference between our knowledge and the actual subject of that knowledge. At first glance, this may not seem like a very easy thing to forget; for example, what our eyes tell us about a rainbow and what that rainbow actually is are quite different things. Kant argued that our failure to grasp this difference was further reaching and had greater consequences than anyone could have thought.

Taking again the example of the rainbow, Kant would argue that while most people would grant the difference between the range of colors our eyes perceive and the refraction of light that causes this optical phenomenon, they would still maintain that more careful observation could indeed bring one to know the rainbow as it is in itself, apart from its sensible manifestation. This commonplace understanding, he argued, was at the root of our tendency to fall profoundly into error, not only about the nature of the world, but about what we were justified in believing about ourselves, God, and our duty to others.

The problem was that while our senses can only ever bring us verifiable knowledge about how the world appears in time and space, our reason always strives to know more than appearances can show it. This tendency of reason to always know more is and was a good thing. It is why human kind is always curious, always progressing to greater and greater knowledge and accomplishments. But if not tempered by a respect for its limits and an understanding of its innate tendencies to overreach, reason can lead us into error and fanaticism.

Let’s return to the example of the experiment predicting the monkeys’ decisions. What the experiment tells us is nothing other than that the monkeys’ decision making process moves through the brain, and that our technology allows us to get a reading of that activity faster than the monkeys’ brain can put it into action. From that relatively simple outcome, we can now see what an unjustified series of rather major conundrums we had drawn. And the reason we drew them was because we unquestioningly translated something unknowable — the stretch of time including the future of the monkeys’ as of yet undecided and unperformed actions — into a neat scene that just needed to be decoded in order to be experienced. We treated the future as if it had already happened and hence as a series of events that could be read and narrated.

From a Kantian perspective, with this simple act we allowed reason to override its boundaries, and as a result we fell into error. The error we fell into was, specifically, to believe that our empirical exploration of the world and of the human brain could ever eradicate human freedom.

This, then, is why, as “irresistible” as their logic might appear, none of the versions of Galen Strawson’s “Basic Argument” for determinism, which he outlined in The Stone last week, have any relevance for human freedom or responsibility. According to this logic, responsibility must be illusory, because in order to be responsible at any given time an agent must also be responsible for how he or she became how he or she is at that time, which initiates an infinite regress, because at no point can an individual be responsible for all the genetic and cultural forces that have produced him or her as he or she is. But this logic is nothing other than a philosophical version of the code of codes; it assumes that the sum history of forces determining an individual exist as a kind of potentially legible catalog.

The point to stress, however, is that this catalog is not even legible in theory, for to be known it assumes a kind of knower unconstrained by time and space, a knower who could be present from every possible perspective at every possible deciding moment in an agent’s history and prehistory. Such a knower, of course, could only be something along the lines of what the monotheistic traditions call God. But as Kant made clear, it makes no sense to think in terms of ethics, or responsibility, or freedom when talking about God; to make ethical choices, to be responsible for them, to be free to choose poorly, all of these require precisely the kind of being who is constrained by the minimal opacity that defines our kind of knowing.

As much as we owe the nature of our current existence to the evolutionary forces Darwin first discovered, or to the cultures we grow up in, or to the chemical states affecting our brain processes at any given moment, none of this impacts on our freedom. I am free because neither science nor religion can ever tell me, with certainty, what my future will be and what I should do about it. The dictum from Sartre that Strawson quoted thus gets it exactly right: I am condemned to freedom. I am not free because I can make choices, but because I must make them, all the time, even when I think I have no choice to make.

William Egginton is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at the Johns Hopkins University. His next book, “An Uncertain Faith: Atheism, Fundamentalism, and Religious Moderation,” will be published by Columbia University Press in 2011.


Full article: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/25/the-end-of-knowing/

The Web Means the End of Forgetting

Four years ago, Stacy Snyder, then a 25-year-old teacher in training at Conestoga Valley High School in Lancaster, Pa., posted a photo on her MySpace page that showed her at a party wearing a pirate hat and drinking from a plastic cup, with the caption “Drunken Pirate.” After discovering the page, her supervisor at the high school told her the photo was “unprofessional,” and the dean of Millersville University School of Education, where Snyder was enrolled, said she was promoting drinking in virtual view of her under-age students. As a result, days before Snyder’s scheduled graduation, the university denied her a teaching degree. Snyder sued, arguing that the university had violated her First Amendment rights by penalizing her for her (perfectly legal) after-hours behavior. But in 2008, a federal district judge rejected the claim, saying that because Snyder was a public employee whose photo didn’t relate to matters of public concern, her “Drunken Pirate” post was not protected speech.

When historians of the future look back on the perils of the early digital age, Stacy Snyder may well be an icon. The problem she faced is only one example of a challenge that, in big and small ways, is confronting millions of people around the globe: how best to live our lives in a world where the Internet records everything and forgets nothing — where every online photo, status update, Twitter post and blog entry by and about us can be stored forever. With Web sites like LOL Facebook Moments, which collects and shares embarrassing personal revelations from Facebook users, ill-advised photos and online chatter are coming back to haunt people months or years after the fact. Examples are proliferating daily: there was the 16-year-old British girl who was fired from her office job for complaining on Facebook, “I’m so totally bored!!”; there was the 66-year-old Canadian psychotherapist who tried to enter the United States but was turned away at the border — and barred permanently from visiting the country — after a border guard’s Internet search found that the therapist had written an article in a philosophy journal describing his experiments 30 years ago with L.S.D.

According to a recent survey by Microsoft, 75 percent of U.S. recruiters and human-resource professionals report that their companies require them to do online research about candidates, and many use a range of sites when scrutinizing applicants — including search engines, social-networking sites, photo- and video-sharing sites, personal Web sites and blogs, Twitter and online-gaming sites. Seventy percent of U.S. recruiters report that they have rejected candidates because of information found online, like photos and discussion-board conversations and membership in controversial groups.

Technological advances, of course, have often presented new threats to privacy. In 1890, in perhaps the most famous article on privacy ever written, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis complained that because of new technology — like the Kodak camera and the tabloid press — “gossip is no longer the resource of the idle and of the vicious but has become a trade.” But the mild society gossip of the Gilded Age pales before the volume of revelations contained in the photos, video and chatter on social-media sites and elsewhere across the Internet. Facebook, which surpassed MySpace in 2008 as the largest social-networking site, now has nearly 500 million members, or 22 percent of all Internet users, who spend more than 500 billion minutes a month on the site. Facebook users share more than 25 billion pieces of content each month (including news stories, blog posts and photos), and the average user creates 70 pieces of content a month. There are more than 100 million registered Twitter users, and the Library of Congress recently announced that it will be acquiring — and permanently storing — the entire archive of public Twitter posts since 2006.

In Brandeis’s day — and until recently, in ours — you had to be a celebrity to be gossiped about in public: today all of us are learning to expect the scrutiny that used to be reserved for the famous and the infamous. A 26-year-old Manhattan woman told The New York Times that she was afraid of being tagged in online photos because it might reveal that she wears only two outfits when out on the town — a Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt or a basic black dress. “You have movie-star issues,” she said, “and you’re just a person.”

We’ve known for years that the Web allows for unprecedented voyeurism, exhibitionism and inadvertent indiscretion, but we are only beginning to understand the costs of an age in which so much of what we say, and of what others say about us, goes into our permanent — and public — digital files. The fact that the Internet never seems to forget is threatening, at an almost existential level, our ability to control our identities; to preserve the option of reinventing ourselves and starting anew; to overcome our checkered pasts.

In a recent book, “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age,” the cyberscholar Viktor Mayer-Schönberger cites Stacy Snyder’s case as a reminder of the importance of “societal forgetting.” By “erasing external memories,” he says in the book, “our society accepts that human beings evolve over time, that we have the capacity to learn from past experiences and adjust our behavior.” In traditional societies, where missteps are observed but not necessarily recorded, the limits of human memory ensure that people’s sins are eventually forgotten. By contrast, Mayer-Schönberger notes, a society in which everything is recorded “will forever tether us to all our past actions, making it impossible, in practice, to escape them.” He concludes that “without some form of forgetting, forgiving becomes a difficult undertaking.”

It’s often said that we live in a permissive era, one with infinite second chances. But the truth is that for a great many people, the permanent memory bank of the Web increasingly means there are no second chances — no opportunities to escape a scarlet letter in your digital past. Now the worst thing you’ve done is often the first thing everyone knows about you.


All this has created something of a collective identity crisis. For most of human history, the idea of reinventing yourself or freely shaping your identity — of presenting different selves in different contexts (at home, at work, at play) — was hard to fathom, because people’s identities were fixed by their roles in a rigid social hierarchy. With little geographic or social mobility, you were defined not as an individual but by your village, your class, your job or your guild. But that started to change in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, with a growing individualism that came to redefine human identity. As people perceived themselves increasingly as individuals, their status became a function not of inherited categories but of their own efforts and achievements. This new conception of malleable and fluid identity found its fullest and purest expression in the American ideal of the self-made man, a term popularized by Henry Clay in 1832. From the late 18th to the early 20th century, millions of Europeans moved from the Old World to the New World and then continued to move westward across America, a development that led to what the historian Frederick Jackson Turner called “the significance of the frontier,” in which the possibility of constant migration from civilization to the wilderness made Americans distrustful of hierarchy and committed to inventing and reinventing themselves.

In the 20th century, however, the ideal of the self-made man came under siege. The end of the Western frontier led to worries that Americans could no longer seek a fresh start and leave their past behind, a kind of reinvention associated with the phrase “G.T.T.,” or “Gone to Texas.” But the dawning of the Internet age promised to resurrect the ideal of what the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton has called the “protean self.” If you couldn’t flee to Texas, you could always seek out a new chat room and create a new screen name. For some technology enthusiasts, the Web was supposed to be the second flowering of the open frontier, and the ability to segment our identities with an endless supply of pseudonyms, avatars and categories of friendship was supposed to let people present different sides of their personalities in different contexts. What seemed within our grasp was a power that only Proteus possessed: namely, perfect control over our shifting identities.

But the hope that we could carefully control how others view us in different contexts has proved to be another myth. As social-networking sites expanded, it was no longer quite so easy to have segmented identities: now that so many people use a single platform to post constant status updates and photos about their private and public activities, the idea of a home self, a work self, a family self and a high-school-friends self has become increasingly untenable. In fact, the attempt to maintain different selves often arouses suspicion. Moreover, far from giving us a new sense of control over the face we present to the world, the Internet is shackling us to everything that we have ever said, or that anyone has said about us, making the possibility of digital self-reinvention seem like an ideal from a distant era.

Concern about these developments has intensified this year, as Facebook took steps to make the digital profiles of its users generally more public than private. Last December, the company announced that parts of user profiles that had previously been private — including every user’s friends, relationship status and family relations — would become public and accessible to other users. Then in April, Facebook introduced an interactive system called Open Graph that can share your profile information and friends with the Facebook partner sites you visit.

What followed was an avalanche of criticism from users, privacy regulators and advocates around the world. Four Democratic senators — Charles Schumer of New York, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Mark Begich of Alaska and Al Franken of Minnesota — wrote to the chief executive of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, expressing concern about the “instant personalization” feature and the new privacy settings. The reaction to Facebook’s changes was such that when four N.Y.U. students announced plans in April to build a free social-networking site called Diaspora, which wouldn’t compel users to compromise their privacy, they raised more than $20,000 from more than 700 backers in a matter of weeks. In May, Facebook responded to all the criticism by introducing a new set of privacy controls that the company said would make it easier for users to understand what kind of information they were sharing in various contexts.

Facebook’s partial retreat has not quieted the desire to do something about an urgent problem. All around the world, political leaders, scholars and citizens are searching for responses to the challenge of preserving control of our identities in a digital world that never forgets. Are the most promising solutions going to be technological? Legislative? Judicial? Ethical? A result of shifting social norms and cultural expectations? Or some mix of the above? Alex Türk, the French data-protection commissioner, has called for a “constitutional right to oblivion” that would allow citizens to maintain a greater degree of anonymity online and in public places. In Argentina, the writers Alejandro Tortolini and Enrique Quagliano have started a campaign to “reinvent forgetting on the Internet,” exploring a range of political and technological ways of making data disappear. In February, the European Union helped finance a campaign called “Think B4 U post!” that urges young people to consider the “potential consequences” of publishing photos of themselves or their friends without “thinking carefully” and asking permission. And in the United States, a group of technologists, legal scholars and cyberthinkers are exploring ways of recreating the possibility of digital forgetting. These approaches share the common goal of reconstructing a form of control over our identities: the ability to reinvent ourselves, to escape our pasts and to improve the selves that we present to the world.


A few years ago, at the giddy dawn of the Web 2.0 era — so called to mark the rise of user-generated online content — many technological theorists assumed that self-governing communities could ensure, through the self-correcting wisdom of the crowd, that all participants enjoyed the online identities they deserved. Wikipedia is one embodiment of the faith that the wisdom of the crowd can correct most mistakes — that a Wikipedia entry for a small-town mayor, for example, will reflect the reputation he deserves. And if the crowd fails — perhaps by turning into a digital mob — Wikipedia offers other forms of redress. Those who think their Wikipedia entries lack context, because they overemphasize a single personal or professional mistake, can petition a group of select editors that decides whether a particular event in someone’s past has been given “undue weight.” For example, if the small-town mayor had an exemplary career but then was arrested for drunken driving, which came to dominate his Wikipedia entry, he can petition to have the event put in context or made less prominent.

In practice, however, self-governing communities like Wikipedia — or algorithmically self-correcting systems like Google — often leave people feeling misrepresented and burned. Those who think that their online reputations have been unfairly tarnished by an isolated incident or two now have a practical option: consulting a firm like ReputationDefender, which promises to clean up your online image. ReputationDefender was founded by Michael Fertik, a Harvard Law School graduate who was troubled by the idea of young people being forever tainted online by their youthful indiscretions. “I was seeing articles about the ‘Lord of the Flies’ behavior that all of us engage in at that age,” he told me, “and it felt un-American that when the conduct was online, it could have permanent effects on the speaker and the victim. The right to new beginnings and the right to self-definition have always been among the most beautiful American ideals.”

ReputationDefender, which has customers in more than 100 countries, is the most successful of the handful of reputation-related start-ups that have been growing rapidly after the privacy concerns raised by Facebook and Google. (ReputationDefender recently raised $15 million in new venture capital.) For a fee, the company will monitor your online reputation, contacting Web sites individually and asking them to take down offending items. In addition, with the help of the kind of search-optimization technology that businesses use to raise their Google profiles, ReputationDefender can bombard the Web with positive or neutral information about its customers, either creating new Web pages or by multiplying links to existing ones to ensure they show up at the top of any Google search. (Services begin from $10 a month to $1,000 a year; for challenging cases, the price can rise into the tens of thousands.) By automatically raising the Google ranks of the positive links, ReputationDefender pushes the negative links to the back pages of a Google search, where they’re harder to find. “We’re hearing stories of employers increasingly asking candidates to open up Facebook pages in front of them during job interviews,” Fertik told me. “Our customers include parents whose kids have talked about them on the Internet — ‘Mom didn’t get the raise’; ‘Dad got fired’; ‘Mom and Dad are fighting a lot, and I’m worried they’ll get a divorce.’ ”

Companies like ReputationDefender offer a promising short-term solution for those who can afford it; but tweaking your Google profile may not be enough for reputation management in the near future, as Web 2.0 swiftly gives way to Web. 3.0 — a world in which user-generated content is combined with a new layer of data aggregation and analysis and live video. For example, the Facebook application Photo Finder, by Face.com uses facial-recognition and social-connections software to allow you to locate any photo of yourself or a friend on Facebook, regardless of whether the photo was “tagged” — that is, the individual in the photo was identified by name. At the moment, Photo Finder allows you to identify only people on your contact list, but as facial-recognition technology becomes more widespread and sophisticated, it will almost certainly challenge our expectation of anonymity in public. People will be able to snap a cellphone picture (or video) of a stranger, plug the images into Google and pull up all tagged and untagged photos of that person that exist on the Web.

In the nearer future, Internet searches for images are likely to be combined with social-network aggregator search engines, like today’s Spokeo and Pipl, which combine data from online sources — including political contributions, blog posts, YouTube videos, Web comments, real estate listings and photo albums. Increasingly these aggregator sites will rank people’s public and private reputations, like the new Web site Unvarnished, a reputation marketplace where people can write anonymous reviews about anyone. In the Web 3.0 world, Fertik predicts, people will be rated, assessed and scored based not on their creditworthiness but on their trustworthiness as good parents, good dates, good employees, good baby sitters or good insurance risks.

Anticipating these challenges, some legal scholars have begun imagining new laws that could allow people to correct, or escape from, the reputation scores that may govern our personal and professional interactions in the future. Jonathan Zittrain, who teaches cyberlaw at Harvard Law School, supports an idea he calls “reputation bankruptcy,” which would give people a chance to wipe their reputation slates clean and start over. To illustrate the problem, Zittrain showed me an iPhone app called Date Check, by Intelius, that offers a “sleaze detector” to let you investigate people you’re thinking about dating — it reports their criminal histories, address histories and summaries of their social-networking profiles. Services like Date Check, Zittrain said, could soon become even more sophisticated, rating a person’s social desirability based on minute social measurements — like how often he or she was approached or avoided by others at parties (a ranking that would be easy to calibrate under existing technology using cellphones and Bluetooth). Zittrain also speculated that, over time, more and more reputation queries will be processed by a handful of de facto reputation brokers — like the existing consumer-reporting agencies Experian and Equifax, for example — which will provide ratings for people based on their sociability, trustworthiness and employability.

To allow people to escape from negative scores generated by these services, Zittrain says that people should be allowed to declare “reputation bankruptcy” every 10 years or so, wiping out certain categories of ratings or sensitive information. His model is the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which requires consumer-reporting agencies to provide you with one free credit report a year — so you can dispute negative or inaccurate information — and prohibits the agencies from retaining negative information about bankruptcies, late payments or tax liens for more than 10 years. “Like personal financial bankruptcy, or the way in which a state often seals a juvenile criminal record and gives a child a ‘fresh start’ as an adult,” Zittrain writes in his book “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It,” “we ought to consider how to implement the idea of a second or third chance into our digital spaces.”

Another proposal, offered by Paul Ohm, a law professor at the University of Colorado, would make it illegal for employers to fire or refuse to hire anyone on the basis of legal off-duty conduct revealed in Facebook postings or Google profiles. “Is it really fair for employers to know what you’ve put in your Facebook status updates?” Ohm asks. “We could say that Facebook status updates have taken the place of water-cooler chat, which employers were never supposed to overhear, and we could pass a prohibition on the sorts of information employers can and can’t consider when they hire someone.”

Ohm became interested in this problem in the course of researching the ease with which we can learn the identities of people from supposedly anonymous personal data like movie preferences and health information. When Netflix, for example, released 100 million purportedly anonymous records revealing how almost 500,000 users had rated movies from 1999 to 2005, researchers were able to identify people in the database by name with a high degree of accuracy if they knew even only a little bit about their movie-watching preferences, obtained from public data posted on other ratings sites.

Ohm says he worries that employers would be able to use social-network-aggregator services to identify people’s book and movie preferences and even Internet-search terms, and then fire or refuse to hire them on that basis. A handful of states — including New York, California, Colorado and North Dakota — broadly prohibit employers from discriminating against employees for legal off-duty conduct like smoking. Ohm suggests that these laws could be extended to prevent certain categories of employers from refusing to hire people based on Facebook pictures, status updates and other legal but embarrassing personal information. (In practice, these laws might be hard to enforce, since employers might not disclose the real reason for their hiring decisions, so employers, like credit-reporting agents, might also be required by law to disclose to job candidates the negative information in their digital files.)

Another legal option for responding to online setbacks to your reputation is to sue under current law. There’s already a sharp rise in lawsuits known as Twittergation — that is, suits to force Web sites to remove slanderous or false posts. Last year, Courtney Love was sued for libel by the fashion designer Boudoir Queen for supposedly slanderous comments posted on Twitter, on Love’s MySpace page and on the designer’s online marketplace-feedback page. But even if you win a U.S. libel lawsuit, the Web site doesn’t have to take the offending material down any more than a newspaper that has lost a libel suit has to remove the offending content from its archive.

Some scholars, therefore, have proposed creating new legal rights to force Web sites to remove false or slanderous statements. Cass Sunstein, the Obama administration’s regulatory czar, suggests in his new book, “On Rumors,” that there might be “a general right to demand retraction after a clear demonstration that a statement is both false and damaging.” (If a newspaper or blogger refuses to post a retraction, they might be liable for damages.) Sunstein adds that Web sites might be required to take down false postings after receiving notice that they are false — an approach modeled on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which requires Web sites to remove content that supposedly infringes intellectual property rights after receiving a complaint.

As Stacy Snyder’s “Drunken Pirate” photo suggests, however, many people aren’t worried about false information posted by others — they’re worried about true information they’ve posted about themselves when it is taken out of context or given undue weight. And defamation law doesn’t apply to true information or statements of opinion. Some legal scholars want to expand the ability to sue over true but embarrassing violations of privacy — although it appears to be a quixotic goal.

Daniel Solove, a George Washington University law professor and author of the book “The Future of Reputation,” says that laws forbidding people to breach confidences could be expanded to allow you to sue your Facebook friends if they share your embarrassing photos or posts in violation of your privacy settings. Expanding legal rights in this way, however, would run up against the First Amendment rights of others. Invoking the right to free speech, the U.S. Supreme Court has already held that the media can’t be prohibited from publishing the name of a rape victim that they obtained from public records. Generally, American judges hold that if you disclose something to a few people, you can’t stop them from sharing the information with the rest of the world.

That’s one reason that the most promising solutions to the problem of embarrassing but true information online may be not legal but technological ones. Instead of suing after the damage is done (or hiring a firm to clean up our messes), we need to explore ways of pre-emptively making the offending words or pictures disappear.


Jorge Luis Borges, in his short story “Funes, the Memorious,” describes a young man who, as a result of a riding accident, has lost his ability to forget. Funes has a tremendous memory, but he is so lost in the details of everything he knows that he is unable to convert the information into knowledge and unable, as a result, to grow in wisdom. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, in “Delete,” uses the Borges story as an emblem for the personal and social costs of being so shackled by our digital past that we are unable to evolve and learn from our mistakes. After reviewing the various possible legal solutions to this problem, Mayer-Schönberger says he is more convinced by a technological fix: namely, mimicking human forgetting with built-in expiration dates for data. He imagines a world in which digital-storage devices could be programmed to delete photos or blog posts or other data that have reached their expiration dates, and he suggests that users could be prompted to select an expiration date before saving any data.

This is not an entirely fanciful vision. Google not long ago decided to render all search queries anonymous after nine months (by deleting part of each Internet protocol address), and the upstart search engine Cuil has announced that it won’t keep any personally identifiable information at all, a privacy feature that distinguishes it from Google. And there are already small-scale privacy apps that offer disappearing data. An app called TigerText allows text-message senders to set a time limit from one minute to 30 days after which the text disappears from the company’s servers on which it is stored and therefore from the senders’ and recipients’ phones. (The founder of TigerText, Jeffrey Evans, has said he chose the name before the scandal involving Tiger Woods’s supposed texts to a mistress.)

Expiration dates could be implemented more broadly in various ways. Researchers at the University of Washington, for example, are developing a technology called Vanish that makes electronic data “self-destruct” after a specified period of time. Instead of relying on Google, Facebook or Hotmail to delete the data that is stored “in the cloud” — in other words, on their distributed servers — Vanish encrypts the data and then “shatters” the encryption key. To read the data, your computer has to put the pieces of the key back together, but they “erode” or “rust” as time passes, and after a certain point the document can no longer be read. Tadayoshi Kohno, a designer of Vanish, told me that the system could provide expiration dates not only for e-mail but also for any data stored in the cloud, including photos or text or anything posted on Facebook, Google or blogs. The technology doesn’t promise perfect control — you can’t stop someone from copying your photos or Facebook chats during the period in which they are not encrypted. But as Vanish improves, it could bring us much closer to a world where our data didn’t linger forever.

Kohno told me that Facebook, if it wanted to, could implement expiration dates on its own platform, making our data disappear after, say, three days or three months unless a user specified that he wanted it to linger forever. It might be a more welcome option for Facebook to encourage the development of Vanish-style apps that would allow individual users who are concerned about privacy to make their own data disappear without imposing the default on all Facebook users.

So far, however, Zuckerberg, Facebook’s C.E.O., has been moving in the opposite direction — toward transparency rather than privacy. In defending Facebook’s recent decision to make the default for profile information about friends and relationship status public rather than private, Zuckerberg said in January to the founder of the publication TechCrunch that Facebook had an obligation to reflect “current social norms” that favored exposure over privacy. “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds but more openly and with more people, and that social norm is just something that has evolved over time,” he said.


But not all Facebook users agree with Zuckerberg. Plenty of anecdotal evidence suggests that young people, having been burned by Facebook (and frustrated by its privacy policy, which at more than 5,000 words is longer than the U.S. Constitution), are savvier than older users about cleaning up their tagged photos and being careful about what they post. And two recent studies challenge the conventional wisdom that young people have no qualms about having their entire lives shared and preserved online forever. A University of California, Berkeley, study released in April found that large majorities of people between 18 and 22 said there should be laws that require Web sites to delete all stored information about individuals (88 percent) and that give people the right to know all the information Web sites know about them (62 percent) — percentages that mirrored the privacy views of older adults. A recent Pew study found that 18-to-29-year-olds are actually more concerned about their online profiles than older people are, vigilantly deleting unwanted posts, removing their names from tagged photos and censoring themselves as they share personal information, because they are coming to understand the dangers of oversharing.

Still, Zuckerberg is on to something when he recognizes that the future of our online identities and reputations will ultimately be shaped not just by laws and technologies but also by changing social norms. And norms are already developing to recreate off-the-record spaces in public, with no photos, Twitter posts or blogging allowed. Milk and Honey, an exclusive bar on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, requires potential members to sign an agreement promising not to blog about the bar’s goings on or to post photos on social-networking sites, and other bars and nightclubs are adopting similar policies. I’ve been at dinners recently where someone has requested, in all seriousness, “Please don’t tweet this” — a custom that is likely to spread.

But what happens when people transgress those norms, using Twitter or tagging photos in ways that cause us serious embarrassment? Can we imagine a world in which new norms develop that make it easier for people to forgive and forget one another’s digital sins?

That kind of social norm may be harder to develop. Alessandro Acquisti, a scholar at Carnegie Mellon University, studies the behavioral economics of privacy — that is, the conscious and unconscious mental trade-offs we make in deciding whether to reveal or conceal information, balancing the benefits of sharing with the dangers of disclosure. He is conducting experiments about the “decay time” and the relative weight of good and bad information — in other words, whether people discount positive information about you more quickly and heavily than they discount negative information about you. His research group’s preliminary results suggest that if rumors spread about something good you did 10 years ago, like winning a prize, they will be discounted; but if rumors spread about something bad that you did 10 years ago, like driving drunk, that information has staying power. Research in behavioral psychology confirms that people pay more attention to bad rather than good information, and Acquisti says he fears that “20 years from now, if all of us have a skeleton on Facebook, people may not discount it because it was an error in our youth.”

On the assumption that strangers may not make it easy for us to escape our pasts, Acquisti is also studying technologies and strategies of “privacy nudges” that might prompt people to think twice before sharing sensitive photos or information in the first place. Gmail, for example, has introduced a feature that forces you to think twice before sending drunken e-mail messages. When you enable the feature, called Mail Goggles, it prompts you to solve simple math problems before sending e-mail messages at times you’re likely to regret. (By default, Mail Goggles is active only late on weekend nights.) Acquisti is investigating similar strategies of “soft paternalism” that might nudge people to hesitate before posting, say, drunken photos from Cancún. “We could easily think about a system, when you are uploading certain photos, that immediately detects how sensitive the photo will be.”

A silly but surprisingly effective alternative might be to have an anthropomorphic icon — a stern version of Microsoft’s Clippy — that could give you a reproachful look before you hit the send button. According to M. Ryan Calo, who runs the consumer-privacy project at Stanford Law School, experimenters studying strategies of “visceral notice” have found that when people navigate a Web site in the presence of a human-looking online character who seems to be actively following the cursor, they disclose less personal information than people who browse with no character or one who appears not to be paying attention. As people continue to experience the drawbacks of living in a world that never forgets, they may well learn to hesitate before posting information, with or without humanoid Clippys.


In addition to exposing less for the Web to forget, it might be helpful for us to explore new ways of living in a world that is slow to forgive. It’s sobering, now that we live in a world misleadingly called a “global village,” to think about privacy in actual, small villages long ago. In the villages described in the Babylonian Talmud, for example, any kind of gossip or tale-bearing about other people — oral or written, true or false, friendly or mean — was considered a terrible sin because small communities have long memories and every word spoken about other people was thought to ascend to the heavenly cloud. (The digital cloud has made this metaphor literal.) But the Talmudic villages were, in fact, far more humane and forgiving than our brutal global village, where much of the content on the Internet would meet the Talmudic definition of gossip: although the Talmudic sages believed that God reads our thoughts and records them in the book of life, they also believed that God erases the book for those who atone for their sins by asking forgiveness of those they have wronged. In the Talmud, people have an obligation not to remind others of their past misdeeds, on the assumption they may have atoned and grown spiritually from their mistakes. “If a man was a repentant [sinner],” the Talmud says, “one must not say to him, ‘Remember your former deeds.’ ”

Unlike God, however, the digital cloud rarely wipes our slates clean, and the keepers of the cloud today are sometimes less forgiving than their all-powerful divine predecessor. In an interview with Charlie Rose on PBS, Eric Schmidt, the C.E.O. of Google, said that “the next generation is infinitely more social online” — and less private — “as evidenced by their Facebook pictures,” which “will be around when they’re running for president years from now.” Schmidt added: “As long as the answer is that I chose to make a mess of myself with this picture, then it’s fine. The issue is when somebody else does it.” If people chose to expose themselves for 15 minutes of fame, Schmidt says, “that’s their choice, and they have to live with it.”

Schmidt added that the “notion of control is fundamental to the evolution of these privacy-based solutions,” pointing to Google Latitude, which allows people to broadcast their locations in real time.

This idea of privacy as a form of control is echoed by many privacy scholars, but it seems too harsh to say that if people like Stacy Snyder don’t use their privacy settings responsibly, they have to live forever with the consequences. Privacy protects us from being unfairly judged out of context on the basis of snippets of private information that have been exposed against our will; but we can be just as unfairly judged out of context on the basis of snippets of public information that we have unwisely chosen to reveal to the wrong audience.

Moreover, the narrow focus on privacy as a form of control misses what really worries people on the Internet today. What people seem to want is not simply control over their privacy settings; they want control over their online reputations. But the idea that any of us can control our reputations is, of course, an unrealistic fantasy. The truth is we can’t possibly control what others say or know or think about us in a world of Facebook and Google, nor can we realistically demand that others give us the deference and respect to which we think we’re entitled. On the Internet, it turns out, we’re not entitled to demand any particular respect at all, and if others don’t have the empathy necessary to forgive our missteps, or the attention spans necessary to judge us in context, there’s nothing we can do about it.

But if we can’t control what others think or say or view about us, we can control our own reaction to photos, videos, blogs and Twitter posts that we feel unfairly represent us. A recent study suggests that people on Facebook and other social-networking sites express their real personalities, despite the widely held assumption that people try online to express an enhanced or idealized impression of themselves. Samuel Gosling, the University of Texas, Austin, psychology professor who conducted the study, told the Facebook blog, “We found that judgments of people based on nothing but their Facebook profiles correlate pretty strongly with our measure of what that person is really like, and that measure consists of both how the profile owner sees him or herself and how that profile owner’s friends see the profile owner.”

By comparing the online profiles of college-aged people in the United States and Germany with their actual personalities and their idealized personalities, or how they wanted to see themselves, Gosling found that the online profiles conveyed “rather accurate images of the profile owners, either because people aren’t trying to look good or because they are trying and failing to pull it off.” (Personality impressions based on the online profiles were most accurate for extroverted people and least accurate for neurotic people, who cling tenaciously to an idealized self-image.)

Gosling is optimistic about the implications of his study for the possibility of digital forgiveness. He acknowledged that social technologies are forcing us to merge identities that used to be separate — we can no longer have segmented selves like “a home or family self, a friend self, a leisure self, a work self.” But although he told Facebook, “I have to find a way to reconcile my professor self with my having-a-few-drinks self,” he also suggested that as all of us have to merge our public and private identities, photos showing us having a few drinks on Facebook will no longer seem so scandalous. “You see your accountant going out on weekends and attending clown conventions, that no longer makes you think that he’s not a good accountant. We’re coming to terms and reconciling with that merging of identities.”

Perhaps society will become more forgiving of drunken Facebook pictures in the way Gosling says he expects it might. And some may welcome the end of the segmented self, on the grounds that it will discourage bad behavior and hypocrisy: it’s harder to have clandestine affairs when you’re broadcasting your every move on Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare. But a humane society values privacy, because it allows people to cultivate different aspects of their personalities in different contexts; and at the moment, the enforced merging of identities that used to be separate is leaving many casualties in its wake. Stacy Snyder couldn’t reconcile her “aspiring-teacher self” with her “having-a-few-drinks self”: even the impression, correct or not, that she had a drink in a pirate hat at an off-campus party was enough to derail her teaching career.

That doesn’t mean, however, that it had to derail her life. After taking down her MySpace profile, Snyder is understandably trying to maintain her privacy: her lawyer told me in a recent interview that she is now working in human resources; she did not respond to a request for comment. But her success as a human being who can change and evolve, learning from her mistakes and growing in wisdom, has nothing to do with the digital file she can never entirely escape. Our character, ultimately, can’t be judged by strangers on the basis of our Facebook or Google profiles; it can be judged by only those who know us and have time to evaluate our strengths and weaknesses, face to face and in context, with insight and understanding. In the meantime, as all of us stumble over the challenges of living in a world without forgetting, we need to learn new forms of empathy, new ways of defining ourselves without reference to what others say about us and new ways of forgiving one another for the digital trails that will follow us forever.

Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor at George Washington University, is a frequent contributor to the magazine. He is writing a book about Louis Brandeis.


Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/25/magazine/25privacy-t2.html

Uncommon knowledge

How prayer prevents drinking

A recent study supports an interesting approach to curbing alcohol consumption: regular prayer. In surveys, people who reported praying more often also reported less alcohol consumption and fewer alcohol-related problems, and more prayer was associated with less consumption and fewer problems over the next several months. Of course, people who pray a lot may be less prone to drink anyway, so the researchers randomly assigned people to regular prayer or nonprayer tasks and then asked them to report their alcohol consumption after four weeks. Those who were assigned to pray drank significantly less than those who weren’t.

Lambert, N. et al., “Invocations and Intoxication: Does Prayer Decrease Alcohol Consumption?” Psychology of Addictive Behaviors (June 2010).

Fame, enemy of your town

The reality show genre has flourished during the past decade, bringing fame and fortune to many people. But along with the good comes the bad. Two economists at Occidental College in Los Angeles analyzed crime rates in Laguna Beach before and after the debut of MTV’s popular reality show of the same name, which followed the social lives of some of the town’s affluent teenagers. Compared with a similar neighboring beach town (Dana Point), Laguna Beach experienced an increase in nonresidential burglaries, auto thefts, and rapes, ostensibly caused by the town’s newfound fame. Residential crime might have increased too but, as the authors speculate, may have been blunted by the prevalence of gated communities.

Chioue, L. & Lopez, M., “The Reality of Reality Television: Does Reality TV Influence Local Crime Rates?” Economics Letters (forthcoming).

Don’t go after insurgents too hard

The question of how aggressively to target insurgents has been a central issue in the Afghanistan policy debate, especially during the recent transition from General McChrystal to General Petraeus. Current policy is focused on defense, rather than attack, to avoid civilian casualties, but many, including the troops themselves, have complained. Now, a detailed analysis from a team of civilian researchers and a US Army counterinsurgency expert has come down on the side of restraint. The average counterinsurgency incident generates an additional six violent insurgent incidents during the following six weeks. Revenge appears to be the driving factor, especially given that the insurgent response is locally concentrated.

Condra, L. et al., “The Effect of Civilian Casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq,” National Bureau of Economic Research (July 2010).

The unhappy middle school

Unlike 19th-century schools and contemporary private schools, most public school systems have a separate “middle school” for grades 6 through 8 or 7 and 8. Is this good for students? Researchers at Columbia University analyzed achievement data from New York City public schools and found that students who transitioned from an elementary school to a middle school did worse in math and English than students in K-8 schools who didn’t transition. Parents and students also reported being less satisfied with middle schools. The authors estimate that the impact of this situation — if it persists past middle school — could be worth thousands of dollars in lifetime earnings, and it appears to be more severe for already low-performing students. It does not appear to be caused by any difference in resources or class size but may have something to do with the effect on young adolescents of bringing so many students together from different elementary schools.

Rockoff, J. & Lockwood, B., “Stuck in the Middle: Impacts of Grade Configuration in Public Schools,” Journal of Public Economics (forthcoming).

Sealing off bad memories

For many people, dealing with bad memories can be an ongoing nightmare. Some research, though, suggests that simple acts can help. A new study has even demonstrated that psychological closure is aided by literal enclosure. First, people were asked to write about a regrettable decision or an unfulfilled desire. Next, some were asked to seal their disclosure in an envelope before handing it in, and some were just asked to hand it in. Those who had sealed their disclosure in an envelope felt better afterwards. Likewise, people who read a news story about a baby’s tragic death were subsequently able to forget more of the story and get more closure if they placed the story in an envelope.

Li, X. et al., “Sealing the Emotions Genie: The Effects of Physical Enclosure on Psychological Closure,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.


Full article and photo: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/07/25/how_prayer_prevents_drinking/

Culture club

Does the nation’s culture need federal protection?

In 2000, two years before he died, the legendary television comic Milton Berle sued NBC for losing track of 130 film reels of his early shows. A few years later, the Supreme Court upheld the Sonny Bono Copyright Act, extending copyright terms to 70 years past the death of the author, or 95 years from the date of first publication. And in the last decade and a half, the ownership of the nation’s commercial radio stations has become more concentrated, with the number of owners decreasing by 40 percent even as the number of total stations has grown.

These may seem like unrelated developments. But to Bill Ivey, they’re part of the same story: American culture is being taken over by powerful private forces and, as a result, fenced off from public use.

Ivey served as chair of the National Endowment for the Arts under President Clinton, and he has thought as hard as anyone about how to protect and nourish American arts and culture. When he looks across the American cultural landscape, he sees a series of turf battles that pit private interests — often huge wealthy entertainment conglomerates — against a ragtag assembly of advocates representing particular interest groups. Nobody, in all this, represents the interests of the “culture” itself — the vast, evolving collection of artworks, scripts, recordings, and texts that Americans are constantly creating and consuming in some way, or simply take patriotic pride in being aware of.

To remedy this state of affairs, Ivey has an ambitious proposition: create what he calls a “cultural EPA.” His vision is not a European-style culture ministry, but a federal agency that would make sure no one gained too much control over the nation’s cultural assets: Just as the Environmental Protection Agency was created to regulate any activity that exploited the nation’s environmental resources, so would a cultural EPA regulate activities that affect the nation’s cultural riches. Rather than relying on a disparate band of artists, First Amendment campaigners, local-radio enthusiasts, music historians, archivists, and the like, the nation’s cultural life would have a defender with the weight of the executive branch behind it, and the power to discipline and compel corporate behavior: to hold up mergers that threatened to concentrate too many cultural resources in one company’s hands, to weigh in on international trade deals and to reshape the way copyrights are awarded, and to regulate the airwaves with an eye on a broader sense of cultural vitality rather than chasing down foul language and the occasional bared breast.

And a cultural EPA, Ivey argues, would be almost as important for the symbol it provided as for the particular duties it carried out. The creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, he points out, helped solidify in the public mind the idea that a set of diverse concerns about resource extraction and dams and woodlands were actually part of a single larger issue that people began to call, simply, the environment. The creation of a cultural EPA, Ivey believes, would similarly unite seemingly disjointed issues and encourage the public to think in a cohesive way about the health, preservation, and accessibility of the nation’s cultural treasures.

“It’s not just that we should care about the Internet, or about copyright, or about radio. We should care about the entire system in which art and information gets created, distributed, consumed, and preserved and how that entire system does and does not enhance the character of our democracy,” Ivey says. “Right now that’s getting sort of piecemealed to death.”

Critics of Ivey’s proposal see it as impractical, or as a needless politicization of art in a nation that has always managed to nurture the arts and culture through private means. Ivey and other enthusiasts for the idea, however, respond that the government, whether it wants to be or not, is already deeply involved in shaping the nation’s cultural life, whether by the conditions it attaches to the ownership of the airwaves or participation in litigation like the ongoing lawsuit over Google Books or in setting the terms of copyrights and patents. The government is already setting cultural policy, in other words, it’s just doing it incoherently.

Fifty years ago, there were people who cared about the environment, they just didn’t know it yet. Though not as numerous as they are today, there were campaigners against strip mining and big dams, activists for rare animals and old-growth forests, defenders of clean rivers and clean air. But the notion that all of these causes added up to “the environment” — something that was both an ecological model and a political shorthand — had yet to reach mainstream thinking.

Traditional histories of the environmental movement credit the publication of Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring,” the Mideast Oil Crisis, and the burning of the Cuyahoga River with shifting public consciousness. Ivey adds another: the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, a federal agency powerful enough to regulate the biggest energy and manufacturing companies and prominent enough to serve as the national locus of popular concern.

“If you go back to 1962, 1963, all you had was a smattering of passionate individuals who cared about clean air or wetlands preservation,” he says. “And over a period of time these disparate issues were bundled into a single theme around the environment, and were first memorialized legislatively in 1969 in the National Environmental Policy Act,” the legislation that was to lead to the creation of the EPA the next year.

Ivey invokes the creation of the EPA in part to emphasize what he doesn’t want an American department of cultural affairs to look like: Europe’s ministries of culture, organizations dedicated to defining and protecting an often monolithic idea of French or German or Italian culture. Among the responsibilities of France’s culture ministry, for example, is to guard the French language against the encroachment of English words like “e-mail” and “chat” by issuing rules governing proper language usage in official government documents, advertisements, and contracts.

“The last thing you would want in a cultural ministry is to say ‘This is authentic American culture, this is what you have to do,’ ” Ivey says.

Indeed, the problem he wants to fight is that American culture has become too dominated by a few private actors whose ownership of large swaths of the cultural landscape means that they can dictate the terms under which everyone else uses it. High school music teachers who want to teach Gershwin, writers and filmmakers who want to put iconic fictional characters like Mickey Mouse and Holden Caulfield into their work, painters who want to portray famous athletes — all have to ask permission first. If it’s granted, they then pay a fee or accept conditions on how the material is used.

That constraint matters to artists and writers and music teachers, of course, but Ivey and others argue that it also matters to the larger society in which they live, limiting everyone’s freedom to exercise their imaginations, with all the innovation and understanding that comes with that.

“If what you get is a culture that’s entirely packaged based on a business model whose bottom line is to sell you another round of Terminator movies, you’re less likely to have in your community the people who have taken on the task of imagining the world we live in and imagining the world we could live in,” says Lewis Hyde, a poet and essayist and a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society who is a leading thinker on art and ownership.

At a practical level, Ivey’s cultural EPA, like the original EPA, would be built from parts plucked from other federal agencies. The reorganization that created the EPA took pieces from the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of the Interior, the Department of Agriculture, the Atomic Energy Commission, and what was then called the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

Ivey’s proposed department of cultural affairs would, for example, take the Copyright Office — which not only registers copyrights but provides expert assistance to Congress on intellectual property issues — out of the Library of Congress and fold it into the new agency. This would do nothing to change the terms of copyright, which are set in Congress, but it would give the office an independence from congressional pressure in the research it does on the ramifications of copyright law, much as EPA research is today seen as generally apolitical.

He also proposes that the duties of the Federal Communications Commission that pertain to media ownership also migrate to the new agency, where officials overseeing media companies would find themselves working alongside officials from agencies like the Smithsonian Institution, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, agencies whose grant-giving work creates a fine-grained sense of the needs and particularities of communities across the country. That proximity, Ivey suggests, would give media regulators a greater appreciation for the myriad effects that media ownership can have on small communities. Ivey predicts that such a reorganization would translate into a greater level of protection for small local radio stations, for example, because of the role they play in sustaining community life and communicating local news.

Ivey would like to see the department of cultural affairs weigh in on mergers beyond the broadcast media. He points out that Sony owns both RCA and Columbia Records, which between them have a significant portion of the nation’s earliest music recordings in their vaults. That worries him.

“When you have that much cultural heritage controlled by a single company, when there’s been no talk about preservation or access in the run-up to the deal, what has it really done to that chunk of America’s cultural heritage?” he asks.

One role of the new agency could be to demand cultural impact statements of companies before major deals are approved, documents providing with assurances about how certain cultural treasures like Sony’s collection of early recordings would be protected, and who would have access to it.

Suggestions like these seem deeply intrusive by today’s intellectual property standards. And the United States as a country has long been deeply skeptical about governmental involvement in cultural affairs — partly out of a generalized suspicion of government overreach, partly because the sort of monolithic, officially sanctioned culture that European-style culture ministries protect seems out of place in the United States, with its proud pluralistic traditions. Ivey’s proposal is a political long shot, to say the least.

“I don’t think the United States would ever get in the position of regulating culture or opening up cultural industries in the way other countries do,” says Richard Kurin, Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture at the Smithsonian Institution.

Skeptics of Ivey’s vision make a different point, as well: Even were it feasible, his proposal misunderstands the sort of power that government can exert in realms like culture — or, for that matter, the environment. The issues that Ivey would have the cultural EPA deal with are, ultimately, political ones, not administrative ones. Changing the current copyright regime is something Congress has to do, and it won’t do so without enormous public pressure.

“The EPA reflected a very general outcry from the public for an environmental movement, which was really quite strong even before there was an EPA,” says Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University who has written widely on cultural politics and economics. “Is there anything like that for the arts in America today? I don’t see it.”

It may be that the outcry is lacking because people don’t think about the arts, but it may be that when they do think about them, they see a robust cultural landscape rather than a threatened one. Kurin, for one, takes the view that American arts don’t need the sort of cosseting that a department of cultural affairs promises.

“I’m not sure I would look at culture in that way, that we need to protect culture,” he says. “We’re not going to auction off the Declaration of Independence, or put Lincoln’s hat in a second-hand store, but the United States has always had a culture that’s been growing and accreting and changing, you don’t want to protect it by sealing it off in a vault.”

But Lewis Hyde, who likes much in Ivey’s proposal, disagrees with the idea that the United States has simply stood back and let its artists and writers and musicians do what they will. Increasingly, he points out, the government is shaping the culture, and in a heavy-handed way. The repeated extension of copyright terms far beyond what the Founding Fathers envisioned, the deregulation of radio — these are government actions that fundamentally limited who had access to certain cultural properties and the tools to distribute them.

“Skeptical as we may be about government involvement in culture, it already is involved,” he says.

And even if an entire new federal agency remains unlikely, Ivey hopes that discussing it will at least spur a deeper, more focused engagement in a realm that has long been seen in this country as beneath the consideration of serious policy thinkers.

“The way we approach a wide range of issues that affect the character of our expressive life is incoherent and disconnected,” he says. “And market forces have taken full advantage of it — things like media ownership, intellectual property generally, the shrinkage of fair use, the expansion of the footprint of copyright, a whole range of market-driven technology innovations that have really created for Americans a very high-priced permissions system that stands between citizens and personal creativity and artistic heritage.”

Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas.


Full article: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/07/25/culture_club/

The Art of the Deal as Entertainment

Fans outside the site of LeBron James’s announcement this month.

A few days back, when I asked a pal in Hollywood about a movie he had a hand in, he told me that the “project” came together as the result of its female star’s decision to drop her ineffectual old agent in favor of a more influential new one who, in order to demonstrate his power and elevate his ambitious new client’s status, saw fit to build a “package” around her with the help of another client’s script. When I asked my friend what the movie was about — plot-wise, not conference-call-wise or power-lunch-wise — my question appeared to throw him off. Who cares about the story in the film, my friend’s faintly baffled manner seemed to indicate (and aren’t most plots awfully similar nowadays?), compared with the spellbinding story around the film? 

In the contemporary entertainment business (and also, increasingly, in sports and in politics), it’s the business that’s the entertainment and the art of the deal that’s the art that draws most notice. We have become a society that is fixated on process and absorbed by the slippery, complex machinations of the middlemen, brokers and executives who conspire offstage to determine what takes place onstage. Call this outlook “procedural voyeurism” — a redirection of mass attention from the spectacle of the game itself to the circus of the game behind the game, as when Le­Bron James, the N.B.A. superstar, commandeered the TV sets of umpteen thousands of sports bars, not to mention the better part of the Web’s bandwidth, to tell us, months before the season’s first tipoff, that he was moving from Cleveland to Miami to take advantage of the new team’s “cap space,” a slangy term for the ability teams have to add new strings of zeros to coveted players’ salaries. 

You might also think back to last winter’s late-night-talk-show feud, its battlefield swarming with lawyers, go-betweens, snitches, seducers and propagandists, that pitted Conan O’Brien against Jay Leno for the desk that the senior comedian nobly ceded to the younger and then, as if by tugging on a lasso encircling the desk’s legs, rudely jerked away. This orgy of Jacobean backstage backstabbing wasn’t televised directly, but rumors about its intrigues captured our imaginations anyhow, stirring extensive discussions of ratings numbers, severance payments, contractual etiquette and viewer demographics. 

As was true of the pomp-inflated James announcement, the talk-show story was only fully comprehensible to those who grasped the methods and imperatives of the peculiar industry in question — though by this point, when the arts pages read like a softened version of the business pages, that meant practically all of us. As a consequence, what might have been an abstract conflict to Americans of 20 years ago became a rush to choose sides and man the barricades, often in solidarity with O’Brien, the victim by acclaim. Like the frenzied, grief-blinded Cavaliers fans who desecrated athletic jerseys bearing James’s now-loathsome number, O’Brien partisans rioted online over what, in the cool, dry light of reason, was merely a financial judgment. And all in a period during which, the ratings tell us, interest in the late-night shows themselves is dropping steadily. 

What purpose is served by this spreading fascination — this compulsive preoccupation, really — with transactions instead of actions and with negotiating maneuvers instead of outcomes? Not long ago, the average moviegoer (for simplicity’s sake, let’s call him “me”) was capable of attending the latest comedy without knowing, nearly to the dollar, its opening weekend’s global box office. My ignorance of the film’s status in the Top 10 list of most-profitable new releases didn’t affect at all, as I remember, my enjoyment or nonenjoyment of its content or my hormonal lust for its hot stars. Nor, when I sat in the bleachers at a ballgame, did I find myself curious in the slightest degree about the annual earnings of the shortstop. If he scooped up the ball, threw to first and ended the inning, he was a success in my eyes. Performance was everything, bonus structure nothing. “Cap space?” Maybe it had something to do with hat size. 

But then came the era of surplus sophistication, of ceaseless and largely needless background information about the figures surrounding the facts. Suddenly my experiences of sporting events, movies, TV shows and even elections grew distanced and convoluted and occluded. Perhaps as a way of filling the infinite spaces created by the advent of cable TV and the metastasizing Internet, a sharp-tongued procession of experts and commentators clued me in about the N.F.L. draft (broadcast live, with almost as much fanfare as the Super Bowl), the secrets of Nielsen “sweeps” month and the workings of “push polls” in presidential races. Charts and graphs came rushing to the fore, dwarfing whatever primary phenomenon they purported to quantify and investigate. 

The process of delving ever deeper into questions of process is relentless, a kind of narcissistic spiral into a procedural heart of darkness. Not long after James appeared on television in that special one-hour broadcast specifically conceived to showcase his much-awaited announcement, media critics and sports writers weighed in to debate the business ethics of the broadcast itself. One observer wondered whether the show would usher in a crass new age of unpaid advertisements for brand-name athletes whose egos have grown larger than the leagues they play in. He needn’t have wondered this, though. He knew the answer. Of course it was a sign of worse to come and partly because he helped define that worse thing by publicly criticizing it. 

Procedural voyeurism grants us an illusion of control over realities that we secretly fear we have no power over — sometimes correctly, as with the BP oil spill, whose coverage has been rich in process and until recently short on meaningful developments. The Romanian religious philosopher Mircea Eliade wrote about mesmerizing narratives that he called origin myths. He said they helped people feel a sense of authority over an otherwise chaotic world. Today our origin myths are more mundane, but we still see the deal as a primordial act. We might do well to call these decadent versions “LeBron Announcements” or “Conan-Leno Matches”: rituals of symbolic participation in games-within-games that are way above our heads and occur within heavily guarded inner circles that we can peek into but never truly penetrate. 

Walter Kirn, a frequent contributor, is the author, most recently, of “Lost in the Meritocracy.” 

A president tripped up by the spontaneous

If you want a handle on what ails the Obama administration (and who doesn’t, these days), try thinking about it as the “scripted” presidency.

Barack Obama has been very good at following his mental teleprompter — he has passed health care and much of the rest of the legislative agenda he campaigned on, as his supporters rightly keep stressing. But he has been less successful at responding to the roiling free-for-all of events that is part of governing.

For a genuine political animal, such as Lyndon Johnson or Bill Clinton, it’s these unplanned events that make the job exciting, because they plunge the president into the maw of politics. By contrast, Obama and his advisers seem to avoid these moments whenever possible, and when the unexpected happens, as in the BP oil spill or the phony “racist” accusations against Shirley Sherrod, they often handle the media storm badly.

What accounts for this failing? Obama talked during the 2008 campaign about how he wanted to break from the politics of division. But 18 months on, I begin to wonder if it’s politics itself that he doesn’t like — the messy process of wheeling and dealing, of making lowdown compromises for high-minded goals.

A memorable Obama moment came when he was a young senator listening to a consummate politician, Joe Biden, ramble on as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Shoot. Me. Now,” wrote Obama to one of his aides.

A man who knows Obama well speculated a few months ago that this president isn’t in love with the White House. The Post had run an article saying that with his dry intellect, Obama would be happier on the Supreme Court than in the Oval Office. The insider nodded his head. “That’s true,” he said.

This White House famously doesn’t like surprises. The president gives few news conferences, and the ones he does hold are often wooden events, with little of the spontaneity and human theater that allow the country to get to know its leader. Obama calls on a pre-selected list of reporters; his answers are overlong and taxonomic. He is always smart and well prepared but rarely personal. Even as he was taking the country deeper into war in Afghanistan in December, his call to arms was bloodless.

This president doesn’t do many unscripted interviews, either. The White House may grant one when it wants to roll out a prepackaged policy or theme. But Obama avoids open-ended sessions that might be “fishing expeditions,” aimed at catching him in a mistake or on a subject outside the talking points.

Contrast the scripted, dry-bones nature of this White House with President Johnson, as described in an excellent new biography by Charles Peters, the longtime editor of The Washington Monthly. Peters captures the aspects of Johnson’s conniving, manipulative “power personality” that were most unattractive — the way he compulsively seduced women and humiliated men.

Johnson could be a monster. But as Peters reminds us, he was a brilliant politician. He loved getting in the muck and wrestling with people and events. His testosterone-crazed presidency produced some disasters, notably Vietnam, but he provided White House leadership for the civil rights movement in a way that began to remedy our deepest injustice.

I asked another administration insider to describe how Obama deals with sensitive national security issues. This official generally had high praise for Obama’s intellect and analytical precision. The odd thing, he said, was that Obama doesn’t often ask “presidential questions.” By this, he meant that Obama rarely steps out of the scripted briefing points to ask: “Why are we doing this?”

Here’s what I hope, as someone who wants Obama to succeed: His script is going to blow up in November. It’s increasingly likely that Democratic House and Senate losses will be so large that Obama will have to scramble all the time. “Staying on message” and “no drama” won’t be options in the freewheeling political environment that’s coming.

Assuming that Obama wants a second term (which isn’t always clear), the president inevitably will begin campaigning for reelection in 2011. That should get him out of the scripted realm, too, unless his advisers foolishly try to campaign with photo ops, canned events and a White House bubble machine.

Real politics, as opposed to the scripted variety, is fun to watch. Dealing with the unexpected is how politicians grow in office — and how the public gets to know them better and like them more. Throw away the talking points, Mr. President, and just talk.

David Ignatius, Washington Post


Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/23/AR2010072303886.html


What do these words and phrases have in common? Friend, Google, TiVo, log in, contact, barbecue, unlike, concept, text, Photoshop, leverage, party, Xerox, reference, architect, parent, improv, transition, diligence, host, chair, gift, heart, impact?

They’ve all been declared–by someone, somewhere, whether a usage expert or just a self-appointed language cop–”not verbs.” It doesn’t matter whether they’re useful, interesting, or entertaining as verbs; to many people, if a word began its life as a noun, then ”verbing” it (like I did there) is just wrong.

This visceral reaction is the motivating force behind the recently popular loginisnotaverb.com, one man’s impassioned plea against this kind of verbing. The site’s elaborate (and funny) arguments against login’s verb status really boil down to a simple denial. ”I will repeat the important part for clarity: ‘login’ is not a verb. It’s simply not,” he writes.

The history of English, however, suggests that the language is remarkably flexible in terms of what can be verbed. Almost any word can be drafted to serve as a verb, even words we think of as eternal and unchanging, stuck in their more traditional roles. It’s easy to think of scenarios where ”She me’d him too much and they broke up” and ”My boss tomorrowed the meeting again” make sense.

(Linguists discussing this process sometimes avoid the nonstandard word verbing by using the technical terms denominal derivation or conversion instead. Rhetoricians are even less likely to use the word verbing and use the general term antimeria to describe any use of a word in a different part of speech.)

Objections to verbification in English tend to be motivated by personal taste, not clarity. Verbed words are usually easily understood. When a word like friend is declared not a verb, the problem isn’t that it’s confusing; it’s that the protester finds it deeply annoying.

Some of the outrage might be connected to verbing’s popularity as a feature of business jargon: Liase, incentivize, leverage, and status are often cited as horrible bizspeak to be shunned at all costs. (Why are businesses supposed to be superefficient in everything but their use of language? ”He didn’t have a chance to status us before he left” is four words shorter than ”He didn’t have a chance to give us a status update before he left.”)

Some not-a-verb declarations are made for reasons that are more financial than linguistic: Google, TiVo, Adobe, and Xerox want to defend their trademarks, and one way to do that is to announce loudly, and at every opportunity, that Google, TiVo, Photoshop, and Xerox are not, repeat NOT, verbs. Xerox occasionally runs ads in major magazines (most recently in the Hollywood Reporter this past May) reminding people that Xerox is still a trademark, and asking writers not to use Xerox the trademark as a verb.

Given the outrage, why do people verb? Often, it’s a shortcut: There comes a point where text is just a shorter way to say ”send a text message.” And there’s a kind of cultural currency to verbing, which might be a reason that it’s a staple of television writing. (There’s an episode of ”Seinfeld” where Kramer says ”Let’s bagel!”; and ”Buffy the Vampire Slayer” used proper names as verbs on multiple occasions, including Keyser Soze, Clark Kent, and Scully.)

But something deeper is going on, too: When done well, verbing delights our brains. Philip Davis, a professor at the School of English at the University of Liverpool, devised a study in 2006 that tested just what happens when people read sentences with verbed nouns in them–and not just any verbed nouns, nouns verbed by Shakespeare. (Shakespeare was an inveterate noun-verber; he verbed ghost, in ”Julius Caesar, I Who at Phillipi the good Brutus ghosted”; dog, in ”Destruction straight shall dog them at the heels”; and even uncle, in ”Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle.”)

So what did happen? When people were confronted with verbed nouns (in sentences such as ”I was not supposed to go there alone: You said you would companion me.”) EEGs measured their brains recognizing a syntactic anomaly, but not a semantic one. In other words, the subjects understood–in a time measured in milliseconds–that something cool and new was happening. And they immediately got what it meant. Their double-take was measurably different from the one caused by hearing nouns or verbs unrelated to the context of the entire sentence (”you said you would charcoal me” ”you said you would incubate me”).

Granted, it was just one study, and using Shakespearean language to boot. But if there’s even a slight chance that verbing attentions people, wouldn’t it be a shame not to take advantage of it?

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


Full article: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/07/25/verbed/

‘Mad Men’-ese

As the fourth season of the AMC series “Mad Men” kicks off, some of the show’s fans are gearing up to play another round of a peculiar language game: trying to spot flaws in the meticulously constructed dialogue portraying 1960s Madison Avenue.

No show in American television history, it is safe to say, has ever put so much effort into maintaining historically appropriate ways of speaking — and no show has attracted so much scrutiny for its efforts. The three seasons that have been broadcast, set between 1960 and 1963, triggered endless arguments in online discussion forums, with entire threads devoted to potential anachronisms. Among recent small-screen forays into historical fiction, only “Deadwood,” which ran on HBO from 2004 to 2006, generated remotely comparable discussion about the authenticity of its language. (Commenters on that series tended to focus on whether its torrents of colorful, modern-sounding cursing were out of place for a South Dakota mining camp in the 1870s — which they almost certainly were.)

When I spoke recently with Matthew Weiner, the creator, executive producer and head writer of “Mad Men,” he readily admitted that goofs sneak through on his show. He said he still regrets allowing the character Joan to say “The medium is the message” in the first season, four years before Marshall McLuhan introduced the dictum in print. But he defends Joan’s year-end valedictory, “1960, I am so over you,” by pointing to the Cole Porter song “So in Love” from “Kiss Me, Kate.” Scholars of semantics might disagree, seeing a nuance between Porter’s use of the adverb so, which quantifies the extent to which the character is in love, and the later Generation X-style spin on the word as an intensifier meaning “extremely” or “completely” without any comparison of relative degree.

Other lines that have struck a discordant note with quibblers include Don’s “The window for this apology is closing” and Roger’s “I know you have to be on the same page as him.” Window in its metaphorical sense (as in a window of opportunity) and on the same page evidently date to the late ’70s. In a piece in The New Republic, the linguist John McWhorter complained that Peggy’s line “I’m in a very good place right now” is actually in a bad place, historically speaking. Even interjections can come under fire. When the character Sal reacts to the abrupt end of a screening of “Bye Bye Birdie” by exclaiming “awwa!” his falling-and-rising intonation has a 21st-century tinge, according to the linguist Neal Whitman.

Very often, however, fans will discern anachronisms that aren’t there — “un-achronisms,” as they were dubbed in the online forum Television Without Pity. Deborah Lipp, who runs the “Mad Men” fan blog Basket of Kisses with her sister Roberta, has dispelled fans’ concerns about the appearance of words like intense, lifestyle, self-worth, regroup and recon. She credits the hard work of the “Mad Men” brain trust with making sure that the true clunkers are few and far between.

To a large extent, Weiner and his staff members brought this festival of nitpickery on themselves through their own perfectionism. The show is famous for its loving attention to retro details, most notably in the set design (Weiner has been known to halt production over matters as subtle as the size of fruit in a bowl) and wardrobe (the actresses bravely suffer through the exquisite discomfort of vintage undergarments). Language naturally comes under the same microscope. To try to ensure accuracy, Weiner and his fellow writers sometimes take cues from the films and books of the era, but, as Weiner told me, those sources don’t necessarily provide the best window into genuine speech patterns. “You’re much better off if you can find a letter from your grandmother,” he said. He did acknowledge that Joan owes much of her sultry style to the writings of Helen Gurley Brown, the author of ’60s advice books like “Sex and the Single Girl” and “Sex and the Office.”

Even after a script is painstakingly developed, Weiner said, certain words and phrases can be flagged as questionable during the table read, when the cast runs through the dialogue for the first time. Whenever there is a question of usage, the research staff consults the Oxford English Dictionary, slang guides and online databases to determine whether an expression is documented from the era and could have been plausibly uttered. “When in doubt,” Weiner said, “I don’t use it.”

Despite his aversion to revealing anything about the new season, Weiner did let slip two examples of words from coming episodes that had to be researched thoroughly before they were deemed acceptable. One is humorless, a pedestrian adjective that is recorded back to the mid-19th century but nonetheless sounded “really modern” in the portion of dialogue where it appears. The other word is much more vivid — too vivid for print here, in fact, but suffice to say it’s a scatological slur for a person’s head. Though cursing on “Mad Men” isn’t as rampant as it was on “Deadwood” or “The Sopranos” (on which Weiner previously worked), it has its place in the show and promises to become more prominent as the characters move through the ever-liberalizing ’60s.

As the show progresses, new linguistic pitfalls await the writers. Weiner says he welcomes the fault-finding from fans, because he identifies himself as “one of the most nitpicky people in the world.” “I’m glad that we’re held to a high standard, and I’m glad that people get pleasure from picking it apart,” he said. “But I’ll tell you, it’s a battle for me to make sure it’s right.”

Ben Zimmer will answer one reader question every other week.


Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/25/magazine/25FOB-onlanguage-t.html

Chronicling the Holocaust from Inside the Ghetto

Roughly 50 men and women in the Warsaw Ghetto chose a special form of resistance. In a secret archive, they documented their path to doom for future generations, chronicling the Nazis’ crimes as they were being perpetrated.

Jewish men, women and children being marched out of the Warsaw Ghetto in May 1943.

David Graber was 19 when he hurriedly scribbled his farewell letter. “I would be overjoyed to experience the moment when this great treasure is unearthed and the world is confronted with the truth,” he wrote.

While German soldiers combed the streets outside, Graber and his friend Nahum Grzywacz buried 10 metal boxes in the basement of an elementary school on Nowolipki Street in Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto. It was Aug. 2, 1942.

The boxes were dug up more than four years later. By then, Graber and Grzywacz were long dead, murdered like almost all of their roughly 50 collaborators. Only three survived the Nazi terror. They provided the information that led to the recovery of the boxes.

The buried treasure consisted of about 35,000 pieces of paper that a group of chroniclers had collected and used to document how, during World War II, the German occupiers had deprived Warsaw’s Jews of their rights, tormented them and, finally, killed them in the death camps. “These materials tell a collective story of steady decline and unending humiliation, interspersed with many stories of quiet heroism and self-sacrifice,” writes American historian Samuel Kassow. His book “Who Will Write Our History?: Rediscovering a Hidden Archive from the Warsaw Ghetto,” which has now been published in German translation, throws a new light on the exceptional source material.

Nightmarish Body of Text

Jews also collected documents and wrote diaries elsewhere in Europe during the Holocaust, but the Warsaw archive is the most comprehensive and descriptive collection of all. The Polish capital was home to Europe’s largest Jewish community, which became a magnet for many talented scientists and writers. As one female author wrote, she hoped that her account would be “driven under the wheel of history like a wedge.” Contributions like hers would turn the clandestine archive into probably the most nightmarish body of text ever written about the Holocaust.

The group called itself Oyneg Shabes, or “Sabbath Joy,” because it usually convened on Saturday afternoons, beginning in November 1940. The chief thinker of the group, which included a large number of intellectuals, journalists and teachers, was Emanuel Ringelblum, a historian born in Galicia in 1900. He had written a doctoral dissertation at the University of Warsaw on the history of the city’s Jews prior to 1527, and he was part of the Jewish self-help organization “Aleynhilf.”

Two weeks before the outbreak of World War II, Ringelblum attended the World Zionist Congress in Geneva as an envoy of the Marxist party Poalei Zion. The other delegates told him it was too dangerous to go back to Poland and urged him to stay in Switzerland, but Ringelblum wanted to be with his wife Yehudis and their nine-year-old son Uri. He had hardly returned home before German troops invaded Poland and captured Warsaw soon afterwards.

In October 1940, the occupation authorities decreed that all Jews were to be moved to a separate residential district. Workers then built a three-meter wall around the area. The Germans also relentlessly drove Jews from the surrounding countryside into the Warsaw Ghetto. Before long, half a million people were living in an area of only four square kilometers (1.5 square miles).

Ringelblum and his fellow members of Oyneg Shabes quickly recognized the dimensions of the drama and began to document it for posterity. They collected decrees, posters, ration cards, letters, diaries and drawings — documents of horror in Yiddish, German and Polish.

One of the documents specified the average daily calorie allotment for 1941, according to which Germans were to receive 2,613 kilocalories, Poles 699 and Jews only 184. The ghetto residents had to smuggle in food to survive. The archive used wages and prices on the black market to conduct market research and prepare sample calculations for a family of four.

Questionnaires and Essay Contests

Like ethnologists, the chroniclers went about investigating their environment, scientists studying their own surroundings. They issued standardized questionnaires and conducted hundreds of interviews with refugees and people on the verge of starvation.

Between 1940 and 1942, about 100,000 people died of hunger, exposure to cold temperatures and disease. In November 1941, Ringelblum, describing the deaths around him, wrote: “The most terrible thing is to look at the freezing children…Today in the evening I heard the wailing of a little tot of three or four years. Probably tomorrow they will find his little corpse.”

The archive held an essay contest to encourage traumatized children to tell their stories. A 15-year-old girl described how her mother had died next to her: “During the night, I felt her becoming cold and stiff. But what could I have done? I lay there until the morning, still clinging to her body, until a neighbor helped me lift her out of the bed and place her on the ground.”

Outside, residents constantly ran the risk of being stopped by a German policeman and then beaten or shot. The ghetto residents even had a name for a particularly dangerous bottleneck-like street: “The Dardanelles.”

Smuggled Evidence of the Extermination Program

In 1942, the chroniclers began to receive dramatic news from other parts of the country. Refugees told of mass shootings and synagogues burned to the ground. One refugee told the chroniclers how the SS had used gas to kill people in railroad cars in Chelmno west of Warsaw.

The industrial-scale mass killing had begun, leading many to ask themselves when the “Hell of Polish Jewry,” as the title of one of the documents in the archive read, would reach Warsaw. Several German officials had promised Jewish elder Adam Czerniakow that the Warsaw Ghetto would be spared. But on July 22, 1942, SS officer Herman Höfle announced that the “resettlement” had begun. A few days later, the archivists’ helpers buried the first of the metal boxes.

The Gestapo and the Jewish police rounded up the residents and took them to the “transshipment point,” where the transports to the Treblinka death camp began. A particularly cynical proclamation, dated July 29, lured the starving Jews with the promise that anyone who went to the point voluntarily would receive a ration of three kilos of bread and one kilo of marmalade. In an effort to deceive those who had been left behind, deportees were forced to sent reassuring postcards home from the death camps.

The archivists had already started studying the Holocaust while it was in full swing. In several instances, they managed to smuggle evidence of the extermination program abroad, including to the BBC in London. Ringelblum hoped, in vain as it turned out, that his group had “completed a meaningful historical task and perhaps saved hundreds of thousands from extermination.”

The ghetto was quickly cleared. According to a statistic in the archive, 99 percent of all children had already been deported by November 1942. There were still 60,000 people living in the residential area, most of them men who worked in the workshops. Many turned over their personal reflections to the archive, documents of great emotional power.

Abraham Lewin, a teacher, described how his wife fell into the clutches of the henchmen: “There was a solar eclipse, and it was completely dark. My Luba was apprehended at a roadblock. I still see a shimmer of hope shining in front of my eyes. Perhaps she will be spared. And if not, what may God prevent?”

Uprising Suppressed

Another teacher, Natan Smolar, mourned his “only, beloved daughter Ninkele,” whose third birthday the family had just celebrated. “There were so many toys, and there was so much noise and play, so much happiness and shouting of children. And today Ninkele is no more, and her mother is gone, and so is my sister Etl.”

Those who had remained in the ghetto were plagued by feelings of guilt. They complained “that the Jews allowed themselves to be lead like sheep to the slaughter.” One man wrote: “If only we had all climbed over the ghetto wall and stormed the streets of Warsaw, armed with knives, axes or even stones — then perhaps they would have killed 10,000 or 20,000, but never 300,000!”

There are hardly any documents left on the armed resistance that eventually did erupt, in April 1943. The Germans brutally suppressed the uprising. SS brigade leader Jürgen Stroop had the buildings burned down, one after another, and the main synagogue blown up. On May 16, 1943, he reported: “The former Jewish residential area of Warsaw no longer exists.”

By that time, historian Ringelblum and his family had already fled to the non-Jewish section of Warsaw. He spent the last few months of his life together with about 40 men, women and children in a 23-by-16-foot cellar underneath a greenhouse that belonged to a Polish vegetable merchant. Day after day, Ringelblum sat at the end of a long table between the rows of bunk beds, surrounded by his books and lists.

The hiding place was discovered in March 1944, when the girlfriend of the Polish man betrayed him after they had separated. Ringelblum was taken to the notorious Pawiak Prison, where his captors tortured him in the hope that he would reveal details about Jewish resistance fighters. Then the Germans shot the chronicler of their crimes, together with his family and the other prisoners.

Only six days before his hiding place was discovered, Ringelblum wrote to a friend about his archive: “If none of us survives, at least this will remain.”


Full article and photo: http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/0,1518,707506,00.html

Independence day


VUK JEREMIC, Serbia’s foreign minister, looked ashen. He knew what was coming. Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia did not violate general international law, said Hisashi Owada, the president of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, in a non-binding advisory opinion. Ten judges voted in favour of this ruling, with four against. Serbia’s strategy of attempting to outmanoeuvre its former secessionist province through the international court lay in ruins.

In Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, cars began hooting in celebration. Cheers erupted from bars and cafes, where people had gathered to watch the judge deliver the court’s opinion. Shkelzen Maliqi, a well-known intellectual and commentator, summed up what most Kosovars were thinking: “Perfect. Who would have expected such a clear answer?” In Belgrade there seemed no room for doubt either. “It was a classic knockout,” said Braca Grubacic, an analyst. “I don’t know how the government can get out of this.”

To date 69 countries have recognised Kosovo’s independence, including the US and 22 of the 27 EU member states. But Russia, China, Brazil, India and many other important countries have refused to follow suit. Whether a flood of new recognitions will follow today’s ruling remains to be seen, but would not be surprising. It is, however, unlikely that China, with its eyes on Taiwan and Tibet, Russia, with its problems in Chechnya, and other countries in the world with secessionist movements will recognise Kosovo any time soon.

Of Kosovo’s 2m people, 90% are ethnic Albanians who would rather fight than see a return of Serbian rule. In 1998 a guerrilla movement, the Kosovo Liberation Army, took up arms to fight the Serbs. In 1999 NATO launched a 78-day bombing campaign which saw the expulsion of Serbian forces from all of Kosovo and Serbian rule from all but Serb areas. From then until February 2008 Kosovo came under UN administration.

Serbia contends that Kosovo, as a Serbian province rather than a republic of the former Yugoslavia, did not have the right to self-determination. On the eve of the court’s ruling Mr Jeremic, the architect of the strategy of taking the question to the ICJ, said that if the court came out in favour of Kosovo, “no border in the world in the world would ever be secure”.

The court had been widely expected to give an ambiguous answer. The fact that the opinion is heavily in Kosovo’s favour leaves open the question of what Serbia will do now. It had planned to go to the General Assembly of the UN to demand new talks. Now that plan appears in jeopardy, if not doomed. The EU, however, has been planning talks between Kosovo and Serbia on technical matters.

Serbia’s government will be rocked by this result. The Serbian Orthodox Church has called for bells to be rung out this afternoon and a protest rally has been called by Serbs in the divided northern Kosovo city of Mitrovica. In the last few weeks there have been three violent incidents there, resulting in one death. Mitrovica’s Serbs have been preparing an armed response in case jubilant Albanians try to cross the river Ibar, which divides the city. In the wake of the opinion helicopters from the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo have been circling above the city.

In the Serbian Orthodox monastery of Visoki Decani in western Kosovo, Father Sava warns that he fears for the church’s security. In the last few weeks he says Albanian teenagers have thrown stones at the monastery and hurled insults at the monks in a way reminiscent of the run-up to anti-Serbian riots in 2004. “We are in serious danger because we are seen as a symbol of Serbia, even though we are not acting politically,” he says.

The monastery lies in the heartland of support for Ramush Haradinaj, Kosovo’s former prime minister and leader of the main opposition party. Mr Haradinaj was acquitted of war crimes by the UN’s war crimes tribunal in 2008, but yesterday was rearrested because the appeals chamber found his trial to have been marred by witness intimidation. The arrest leaves the way clear for Hashim Thaci, the prime minister, to move at a time of his own convenience towards elections, which he is likely to win now that the opposition has been effectively decapitated.

Serbia’s president, Boris Tadic, is due to address the nation. Mr Jeremic has declared that the struggle will continue. Kosovo’s president, Fatmir Sejdiu, jubilantly declared: “God bless Kosovo!” But after the party Kosovo will remain one of the poorest parts of Europe, a country that does not control all of its territory and one that is riddled with corruption. Until now, Kosovo’s leaders have been able to blame Serbian intransigence for their failure to implement reforms and improve living standards. That excuse will now lose some of its potency, especially if more countries recognise the state.

Serbia too faces problems. Its EU accession process has slowed of late. As Mr Grubacic points out, Mr Tadic had promised Serbs both the EU and Kosovo. Now neither looks likely. Yet while Serbia’s EU bid may be stymied for now, it is certainly not dead. Dreams of Kosovo are another story.


Full article and photo: http://www.economist.com/blogs/easternapproaches/2010/07/icj_ruling_kosovo

Rough justice

America locks up too many people, some for acts that should not even be criminal


IN 2000 four Americans were charged with importing lobster tails in plastic bags rather than cardboard boxes, in violation of a Honduran regulation that Honduras no longer enforces. They had fallen foul of the Lacey Act, which bars Americans from breaking foreign rules when hunting or fishing. The original intent was to prevent Americans from, say, poaching elephants in Kenya. But it has been interpreted to mean that they must abide by every footling wildlife regulation on Earth. The lobstermen had no idea they were breaking the law. Yet three of them got eight years apiece. Two are still in jail.

America is different from the rest of the world in lots of ways, many of them good. One of the bad ones is its willingness to lock up its citizens (see our briefing). One American adult in 100 festers behind bars (with the rate rising to one in nine for young black men). Its imprisoned population, at 2.3m, exceeds that of 15 of its states. No other rich country is nearly as punitive as the Land of the Free. The rate of incarceration is a fifth of America’s level in Britain, a ninth in Germany and a twelfth in Japan.

Tougher than thou

Some parts of America have long taken a tough, frontier attitude to justice. That tendency sharpened around four decades ago as rising crime became an emotive political issue and voters took to backing politicians who promised to stamp on it. This created a ratchet effect: lawmakers who wish to sound tough must propose laws tougher than the ones that the last chap who wanted to sound tough proposed. When the crime rate falls, tough sentences are hailed as the cause, even when demography or other factors may matter more; when the rate rises tough sentences are demanded to solve the problem. As a result, America’s incarceration rate has quadrupled since 1970.

Similar things have happened elsewhere. The incarceration rate in Britain has more than doubled, and that in Japan increased by half, over the period. But the trend has been sharper in America than in most of the rich world, and the disparity has grown. It is explained neither by a difference in criminality (the English are slightly more criminal than Americans, though less murderous), nor by the success of the policy: America’s violent-crime rate is higher than it was 40 years ago.

Conservatives and liberals will always feud about the right level of punishment. Most Americans think that dangerous criminals, which statistically usually means young men, should go to prison for long periods of time, especially for violent offences. Even by that standard, the extreme toughness of American laws, especially the ever broader classes of “criminals” affected by them, seems increasingly counterproductive.

Many states have mandatory minimum sentences, which remove judges’ discretion to show mercy, even when the circumstances of a case cry out for it. “Three strikes” laws, which were at first used to put away persistently violent criminals for life, have in several states been applied to lesser offenders. The war on drugs has led to harsh sentences not just for dealing illegal drugs, but also for selling prescription drugs illegally. Peddling a handful can lead to a 15-year sentence.

Muddle plays a large role. America imprisons people for technical violations of immigration laws, environmental standards and arcane business rules. So many federal rules carry criminal penalties that experts struggle to count them. Many are incomprehensible. Few are ever repealed, though the Supreme Court recently pared back a law against depriving the public of “the intangible right of honest services”, which prosecutors loved because they could use it against almost anyone. Still, they have plenty of other weapons. By counting each e-mail sent by a white-collar wrongdoer as a separate case of wire fraud, prosecutors can threaten him with a gargantuan sentence unless he confesses, or informs on his boss. The potential for injustice is obvious.

As a result American prisons are now packed not only with thugs and rapists but also with petty thieves, small-time drug dealers and criminals who, though scary when they were young and strong, are now too grey and arthritic to pose a threat. Some 200,000 inmates are over 50—roughly as many as there were prisoners of all ages in 1970. Prison is an excellent way to keep dangerous criminals off the streets, but the more people you lock up, the less dangerous each extra prisoner is likely to be. And since prison is expensive—$50,000 per inmate per year in California—the cost of imprisoning criminals often far exceeds the benefits, in terms of crimes averted.

Less punishment, less crime

It does not have to be this way. In the Netherlands, where the use of non-custodial sentences has grown, the prison population and the crime rate have both been falling. Britain’s new government is proposing to replace jail for lesser offenders with community work. Some parts of America are bucking the national trend. New York cut its incarceration rate by 15% between 1997 and 2007, while reducing violent crime by 40%. This is welcome, but deeper reforms are required.

America needs fewer and clearer laws, so that citizens do not need a law degree to stay out of jail. Acts that can be regulated should not be criminalised. Prosecutors’ powers should be clipped: most white-collar suspects are not Al Capone, and should not be treated as if they were. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws should be repealed, or replaced with guidelines. The most dangerous criminals must be locked up, but states could try harder to reintegrate the softer cases into society, by encouraging them to study or work and by ending the pointlessly vindictive gesture of not letting them vote.

It seems odd that a country that rejoices in limiting the power of the state should give so many draconian powers to its government, yet for the past 40 years American lawmakers have generally regarded selling to voters the idea of locking up fewer people as political suicide. An era of budgetary constraint, however, is as good a time as any to try. Sooner or later American voters will realise that their incarceration policies are unjust and inefficient; politicians who point that out to them now may, in the end, get some credit.


Full article and photo: http://www.economist.com/node/16640389

Posted in Law

Too many laws, too many prisoners

Never in the civilised world have so many been locked up for so little

THREE pickup trucks pulled up outside George Norris’s home in Spring, Texas. Six armed police in flak jackets jumped out. Thinking they must have come to the wrong place, Mr Norris opened his front door, and was startled to be shoved against a wall and frisked for weapons. He was forced into a chair for four hours while officers ransacked his house. They pulled out drawers, rifled through papers, dumped things on the floor and eventually loaded 37 boxes of Mr Norris’s possessions onto their pickups. They refused to tell him what he had done wrong. “It wasn’t fun, I can tell you that,” he recalls.

Mr Norris was 65 years old at the time, and a collector of orchids. He eventually discovered that he was suspected of smuggling the flowers into America, an offence under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. This came as a shock. He did indeed import flowers and sell them to other orchid-lovers. And it was true that his suppliers in Latin America were sometimes sloppy about their paperwork. In a shipment of many similar-looking plants, it was rare for each permit to match each orchid precisely.

In March 2004, five months after the raid, Mr Norris was indicted, handcuffed and thrown into a cell with a suspected murderer and two suspected drug-dealers. When told why he was there, “they thought it hilarious.” One asked: “What do you do with these things? Smoke ’em?”

Prosecutors described Mr Norris as the “kingpin” of an international smuggling ring. He was dumbfounded: his annual profits were never more than about $20,000. When prosecutors suggested that he should inform on other smugglers in return for a lighter sentence, he refused, insisting he knew nothing beyond hearsay.

He pleaded innocent. But an undercover federal agent had ordered some orchids from him, a few of which arrived without the correct papers. For this, he was charged with making a false statement to a government official, a federal crime punishable by up to five years in prison. Since he had communicated with his suppliers, he was charged with conspiracy, which also carries a potential five-year term.

As his legal bills exploded, Mr Norris reluctantly changed his plea to guilty, though he still protests his innocence. He was sentenced to 17 months in prison. After some time, he was released while his appeal was heard, but then put back inside. His health suffered: he has Parkinson’s disease, which was not helped by the strain of imprisonment. For bringing some prescription sleeping pills into prison, he was put in solitary confinement for 71 days. The prison was so crowded, however, that even in solitary he had two room-mates.

A long love affair with lock and key

 Justice is harsher in America than in any other rich country. Between 2.3m and 2.4m Americans are behind bars, roughly one in every 100 adults. If those on parole or probation are included, one adult in 31 is under “correctional” supervision. As a proportion of its total population, America incarcerates five times more people than Britain, nine times more than Germany and 12 times more than Japan. Overcrowding is the norm. Federal prisons house 60% more inmates than they were designed for. State lock-ups are only slightly less stuffed.

The system has three big flaws, say criminologists. First, it puts too many people away for too long. Second, it criminalises acts that need not be criminalised. Third, it is unpredictable. Many laws, especially federal ones, are so vaguely written that people cannot easily tell whether they have broken them.

In 1970 the proportion of Americans behind bars was below one in 400, compared with today’s one in 100. Since then, the voters, alarmed at a surge in violent crime, have demanded fiercer sentences. Politicians have obliged. New laws have removed from judges much of their discretion to set a sentence that takes full account of the circumstances of the offence. Since no politician wants to be tarred as soft on crime, such laws, mandating minimum sentences, are seldom softened. On the contrary, they tend to get harder.

Some criminals belong behind bars. When a habitual rapist is locked up, the streets are safer. But the same is not necessarily true of petty drug-dealers, whose incarceration creates a vacancy for someone else to fill, argues Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University. The number of drug offenders in federal and state lock-ups has increased 13-fold since 1980. Some are scary thugs; many are not.

Michelle Collette of Hanover, Massachusetts, sold Percocet, a prescription painkiller. “I was planning to do it just once,” she says, “but the money was so easy. And I thought: it’s not heroin.” Then she became addicted to her own wares. She was unhappy with her boyfriend, she explains, but did not want to split up with him, because she did not want their child to grow up fatherless, as she had. So she popped pills to numb the misery. Before long, she was taking 20-30 a day.

When Ms Collette and her boyfriend, who also sold drugs, were arrested in a dawn raid, the police found 607 pills and $901 in cash. The boyfriend fought the charges and got 15 years in prison. In a plea bargain Ms Collette was sentenced to seven years, of which she served six.

“I don’t think this is fair,” said the judge. “I don’t think this is what our laws are meant to do. It’s going to cost upwards of $50,000 a year to have you in state prison. Had I the authority, I would send you to jail for no more than one year…and a [treatment] programme after that.” But mandatory sentencing laws gave him no choice.

Massachusetts is a liberal state, but its drug laws are anything but. It treats opium-derived painkillers such as Percocet like hard drugs, if illicitly sold. Possession of a tiny amount (14-28 grams, or ½-1 ounce) yields a minimum sentence of three years. For 200 grams, it is 15 years, more than the minimum for armed rape. And the weight of the other substances with which a dealer mixes his drugs is included in the total, so 10 grams of opiates mixed with 190 grams of flour gets you 15 years.

Ms Collette underwent drug treatment before being locked up, and is now clean. But in prison she found she was pregnant. After going through labour shackled to a hospital bed, she was allowed only 48 hours to bond with her newborn son. She was released in March, found a job in a shop, and is hoping that her son will get used to having her around.

Rigid sentencing laws shift power from judges to prosecutors, complains Barbara Dougan of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a pressure-group. Even the smallest dealer often has enough to trigger a colossal sentence. Prosecutors may charge him with selling a smaller amount if he agrees to “reel some other poor slob in”, as Ms Dougan puts it. He is told to persuade another dealer to sell him just enough drugs to trigger a 15-year sentence, and perhaps to do the deal near a school, which adds another two years.

Severe drug laws have unintended consequences. Less than half of American cancer patients receive adequate painkillers, according to the American Pain Foundation, another pressure-group. One reason is that doctors are terrified of being accused of drug-trafficking if they over-prescribe. In 2004 William Hurwitz, a doctor specialising in the control of pain, was sentenced to 25 years in prison for prescribing pills that a few patients then resold on the black market. Virginia’s board of medicine ruled that he had acted in good faith, but he still served nearly four years.

Half the states have laws that lock up habitual offenders for life. In some states this applies only to violent criminals, but in others it applies even to petty ones. Some 3,700 people who committed neither violent nor serious crimes are serving life sentences under California’s “three strikes and you’re out” law. In Alabama a petty thief called Jerald Sanders was given a life term for pinching a bicycle. Alabama’s judges are elected, as are those in 32 other states. This makes them mindful of public opinion: some appear in campaign advertisements waving guns and bragging about how tough they are.

Watching hairs go white, and lifetimes ebb away

Many Americans assume that white-collar criminals get off lightly, but many do not. Granted, they may be hard to catch and can often afford good lawyers. But federal prosecutors can file many charges for what is essentially one offence. For example, they can count each e-mail sent by a white-collar criminal in the course of his criminal activity as a separate case of wire fraud, each of which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years. The decades soon add up. Sentences depend partly on the size of the loss and the number of people affected, so if you work for a big, publicly traded company, you break a rule and the share-price drops, watch out.

Eternal punishment

Jim Felman, a defence lawyer in Tampa, Florida, says America is conducting “an experiment in imprisoning first-time non-violent offenders for periods of time previously reserved only for those who had killed someone”. One of Mr Felman’s clients, a fraudster called Sholam Weiss, was sentenced to 845 years. “I got it reduced to 835,” sighs Mr Felman. Faced with such penalties, he says, the incentive to co-operate, which means to say things that are helpful to the prosecution, is overwhelming. And this, he believes, “warps the truth-seeking function” of justice.

Innocent defendants may plead guilty in return for a shorter sentence to avoid the risk of a much longer one. A prosecutor can credibly threaten a middle-aged man that he will die in a cell unless he gives evidence against his boss. This is unfair, complains Harvey Silverglate, the author of “Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent”. If a defence lawyer offers a witness money to testify that his client is innocent, that is bribery. But a prosecutor can legally offer something of far greater value—his freedom—to a witness who says the opposite. The potential for wrongful convictions is obvious.

Badly drafted laws create traps for the unwary. In 2006 Georgia Thompson, a civil servant in Wisconsin, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for depriving the public of “the intangible right of honest services”. Her crime was to award a contract (for travel services) to the best bidder. A firm called Adelman Travel scored the most points (on an official scale) for price and quality, so Ms Thompson picked it. She ignored a rule that required her to penalise Adelman for a slapdash presentation when bidding. For this act of common sense, she served four months. (An appeals court freed her.)

The “honest services” statute, if taken seriously, “would seemingly cover a salaried employee’s phoning in sick to go to a ball game,” fumes Antonin Scalia, a Supreme Court justice. The Supreme Court ruled recently that the statute was so vague as to be unconstitutional. It did not strike it down completely, but said it should be applied only in cases involving bribery or kickbacks. The challenge was brought by Enron’s former boss, Jeff Skilling, who will not go free despite his victory, and Conrad Black, a media magnate released this week on bail pending an appeal, who may.

There are over 4,000 federal crimes, and many times that number of regulations that carry criminal penalties. When analysts at the Congressional Research Service tried to count the number of separate offences on the books, they were forced to give up, exhausted. Rules concerning corporate governance or the environment are often impossible to understand, yet breaking them can land you in prison. In many criminal cases, the common-law requirement that a defendant must have a mens rea (ie, he must or should know that he is doing wrong) has been weakened or erased.

“The founders viewed the criminal sanction as a last resort, reserved for serious offences, clearly defined, so ordinary citizens would know whether they were violating the law. Yet over the last 40 years, an unholy alliance of big-business-hating liberals and tough-on-crime conservatives has made criminalisation the first line of attack—a way to demonstrate seriousness about the social problem of the month, whether it’s corporate scandals or e-mail spam,” writes Gene Healy, a libertarian scholar. “You can serve federal time for interstate transport of water hyacinths, trafficking in unlicensed dentures, or misappropriating the likeness of Woodsy Owl.”

“You’re (probably) a federal criminal,” declares Alex Kozinski, an appeals-court judge, in a provocative essay of that title. Making a false statement to a federal official is an offence. So is lying to someone who then repeats your lie to a federal official. Failing to prevent your employees from breaking regulations you have never heard of can be a crime. A boss got six months in prison because one of his workers accidentally broke a pipe, causing oil to spill into a river. “It didn’t matter that he had no reason to learn about the [Clean Water Act’s] labyrinth of regulations, since he was merely a railroad-construction supervisor,” laments Judge Kozinski.

Society wants retribution

Such cases account for only a tiny share of the Americans behind bars, but they still matter. When so many people are technically breaking the law, it is up to prosecutors to decide whom to pursue. No doubt most prosecutors choose wisely. But members of unpopular groups may not find that reassuring. Ms Thompson, for example, was prosecuted just before an election, at a time when allegations of public corruption in Wisconsin were in the news. Some prosecutors, such as Eliot Spitzer, the disgraced ex-governor of New York, have built political careers by nailing people whom voters don’t like, such as financiers.

Prison deters? Not much, not the worst

Some people argue that the system works: that crime has fallen in the past two decades because the bad guys are either in prison or scared of being sent there. Caged thugs cannot break into your home. Bernie Madoff’s 150-year sentence for running a Ponzi scam should deter imitators. And indeed the crime rate continues to drop, despite the recession, as Michael Rushford of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, an advocacy group, points out. This, he says, is because habitual criminals face serious consequences. Some research supports him: after raking through decades of historical data, John Donohue of Yale Law School estimates that a 10% increase in imprisonment brings a 2% reduction in crime.

Others disagree. Using more recent data, Bert Useem of Purdue University and Anne Piehl of Rutgers University estimate that a 10% increase in the number of people behind bars would reduce crime by only 0.5%. In the states that currently lock up the most people, imprisoning more would actually increase crime, they believe. Some inmates emerge from prison as more accomplished criminals. And raising the incarceration rate means locking up people who are, on average, less dangerous than the ones already behind bars. A recent study found that, over the past 13 years, the proportion of new prisoners in Florida who had committed violent crimes fell by 28%, whereas those inside for “other” crimes shot up by 189%. These “other” crimes were non-violent ones involving neither drugs nor theft, such as driving with a suspended licence.

And now the reckoning, in dollars

Crime is a young man’s game. Muggers over 30 are rare. Ex-cons who go straight for a few years generally stay that way: a study of 88,000 criminals by Mr Blumstein found that if someone was arrested for aggravated assault at the age of 18 but then managed to stay out of trouble until the age of 22, the risk of his offending was no greater than that for the general population. Yet America’s prisons are crammed with old folk. Nearly 200,000 prisoners are over 50. Most would pose little threat if released. And since people age faster in prison than outside, their medical costs are vast. Human Rights Watch, a lobby-group, talks of “nursing homes with razor wire”.

Jail is expensive. Spending per prisoner ranges from $18,000 a year in Mississippi to about $50,000 in California, where the cost per pupil is but a seventh of that. “[W]e are well past the point of diminishing returns,” says a report by the Pew Center on the States. In Washington state, for example, each dollar invested in new prison places in 1980 averted more than nine dollars of criminal harm (using a somewhat arbitrary scale to assign a value to not being beaten up). By 2001, as the emphasis shifted from violent criminals to drug-dealers and thieves, the cost-benefit ratio reversed. Each new dollar spent on prisons averted only 37 cents’ worth of harm.

Since the recession threw their budgets into turmoil, many states have decided to imprison fewer people, largely to save money. Mississippi has reduced the proportion of their sentences that non-violent offenders are required to serve from 85% to 25%. Texas is making greater use of non-custodial penalties. New York has repealed most mandatory minimum terms for drug offences. In all, the number of prisoners in state lock-ups fell by 0.3% in 2009, the first fall since 1972. But the total number of Americans behind bars still rose slightly, because the number of federal prisoners climbed by 3.4%.

A less punitive system could work better, argues Mark Kleiman of the University of California, Los Angeles. Swift and certain penalties deter more than harsh ones. Money spent on prisons cannot be spent on more cost-effective methods of crime-prevention, such as better policing, drug treatment or probation. The pain that punishment inflicts on criminals themselves, on their families and on their communities should also be taken into account.

“Just by making effective use of things we already know how to do, we could reasonably expect to have half as much crime and half as many people behind bars ten years from now,” says Mr Kleiman. “There are a thousand excuses for failing to make that effort, but not one good reason.”


Full article and photos: http://www.economist.com/node/16636027

Posted in Law

It’s a deal

Trading prisoners in the Low Countries

Dutch ease chock-a-block Belgium

THE border between Belgium and the Netherlands can be easy to miss: a road sign here, a flagpole there, a change in the colour of cars’ licence plates. When it comes to penal policies, though, the neighbours differ sharply. The Dutch prison population has been falling for some years and, with 14,000 cells for 12,000 prisoners, the government last year decided to close eight jails. But in Belgium the numbers locked up keep rising, causing serious overcrowding.

On February 5th this year, the Dutch and Belgian governments drew the logical conclusion, and agreed on a deal. Belgium took possession of the Dutch prison of Tilburg, a modern affair with tennis courts and a football pitch but a chronic shortage of residents.

For a rent of €30m a year, 500 Belgian prisoners now live behind Tilburg’s barbed wire. The governor is Belgian, most of the guards are Dutch. At first there was grumbling about language (some of the Belgian prisoners speak French, not Dutch) and ease of access (many supplies come from the nearest Belgian prison, 40km—25 miles—away). Now the arrangement causes little fuss.

Belgium and the Netherlands lock people up at the same rate: about one per 1,000 inhabitants. The Dutch boast that falling crime rates explain its empty cells. The reality is more complex. The Dutch built new jails as their prison population grew fast over the 20 years to 2005. They also promoted alternatives to custody, notably, in 2001, allowing judges to order community service for crimes that had previously earned six months in jug. By 2008, 40% of criminal trials were ending with community-service orders. And more drug-smugglers are caught nowadays in the Dutch Antilles, a Caribbean possession, before boarding flights for the Netherlands.

Belgian prisons have been crowded since the 1970s, but the country did not build many new cells. Two factors lie behind the continuing rise in prisoner numbers: high rates of pre-trial detention, which accounts for 35% of all those behind bars, and longer sentences. The courts have also become much warier of releases on parole. Officials point, above all, to the case of Marc Dutroux, who abducted six girls in 1995 and 1996, murdering four, after his early release from prison for child rape. His case revealed grave flaws in Belgian policing. Judges feel public pressure on them, to this day.


Full article: http://www.economist.com/node/16636011

Posted in Law

Beware the lame duck

Barack Obama’s considerable political capital, earned on Election Day 2008, is spent. Well spent, mind you, on the enactment of a highly ideological agenda of Obamacare, financial reform and a near-trillion-dollar stimulus that will significantly transform the country. But spent nonetheless. There’s nothing left with which to complete his social-democratic ambitions. This would have to await the renewed mandate that would come with a second inaugural.

That’s why, as I suggested last week, nothing of major legislative consequence is likely to occur for the next 2 1/2 years. Except, as columnist Irwin Stelzer points out, for one constitutional loophole: a lame-duck Congress called back into session between the elections this November and the swearing-in of the 112th Congress next January.

Leading Democrats are already considering this as a way to achieve even more liberal measures that many of their members dare not even talk about, let alone enact, on the eve of an election in which they face a widespread popular backlash to the already enacted elements of the Obama-Pelosi-Reid agenda.

That backlash will express itself on Election Day and result, as most Democrats and Republicans currently expect, in major Democratic losses. It is still possible for the gaffe-happy Republicans to blow it. When the ranking GOP member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee publicly apologizes to the corporation that unleashed the worst oil spill in American history, you know the Republicans are capable of just about anything.

But assuming the elections go as currently projected, Obama’s follow-on reforms are dead. Except for the fact that a lame-duck session, freezing in place the lopsided Democratic majorities of November 2008, would be populated by dozens of Democratic members who had lost reelection (in addition to those retiring). They could then vote for anything — including measures they today shun as the midterms approach and their seats are threatened — because they would have nothing to lose. They would be unemployed. And playing along with Obama might even brighten the prospects for, say, an ambassadorship to a sunny Caribbean isle.

As John Fund reports in the Wall Street Journal, Sens. Jay Rockefeller, Kent Conrad and Tom Harkin are already looking forward to what they might get passed in a lame-duck session. Among the major items being considered are card check, budget-balancing through major tax hikes, and climate-change legislation involving heavy carbon taxes and regulation.

Card check, which effectively abolishes the secret ballot in the workplace, is the fondest wish of a union movement to which Obama is highly beholden. Major tax hikes, possibly including a value-added tax, will undoubtedly be included in the recommendations of the president’s debt commission, which conveniently reports by Dec. 1. And carbon taxes would be the newest version of the cap-and-trade legislation that has repeatedly failed to pass the current Congress — but enough dead men walking in a lame-duck session might switch and vote to put it over the top.

It’s a target-rich environment. The only thing holding the Democrats back would be shame, a Washington commodity in chronically short supply. To pass in a lame-duck session major legislation so unpopular that Democrats had no chance of passing it in regular session — after major Democratic losses signifying a withdrawal of the mandate implicitly granted in 2008 — would be an egregious violation of elementary democratic norms.

Perhaps shame will constrain the Democrats. But that is not to be counted on. It didn’t stop them from pushing through a health-care reform the public didn’t want by means of “reconciliation” maneuvers and without a single Republican vote in either chamber — something unprecedented in American history for a reform of such scope and magnitude.

How then to prevent a runaway lame-duck Congress? Bring the issue up now — applying the check-and-balance of the people’s will before it disappears the morning after Election Day. Every current member should be publicly asked: In the event you lose in November — a remote and deeply deplorable eventuality, but still not inconceivable — do you pledge to adhere to the will of the electorate and, in any lame-duck session of Congress, refuse to approve anything but the most routine legislation required to keep the government functioning?

The Democrats could, of course, make the pledge today and break it tomorrow. Call me naive, but I can’t believe anyone would be that dishonorable.

Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post


Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/22/AR2010072204029.html

Friendly Fire on Capitol Hill

Democrats are saying unkind things about the White House. The president has himself to blame.

Describing the White House last week, Congressional Democrats used words like “ineptness,” “neglected” and “disconcerting,” and phrases like “isn’t aggressive enough.” President Barack Obama has only himself to blame for these protests.

Well, maybe more than just himself. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs may have spoken the truth when he admitted Democrats could lose the House. He forgot that White House staffers are expected to be advocates, not prognosticators, when their party faces electoral defeat. Mr. Gibbs need not lie, but he could have been discreet.

While an angry response to Mr. Gibbs from Hill Democrats was expected, several factors produced an unusually fierce reaction. First, Democrats in Congress feel underappreciated for having cast tough votes. True, they wanted to pass health care, the stimulus, record deficits, and cap and trade. They thought these would be political winners. But now they feel exposed for supporting unpopular policies they consider poorly explained and badly defended by the administration.

Then there is the White House’s practice of outsourcing the drafting of major legislation to Democratic chairmen. This has made congressional Democrats more sensitive when Mr. Obama exerts himself, as he did with a threatened veto of a spending bill that trimmed his education priorities. One Democratic committee chairman (George Miller) affected by the veto threat complained, “there’s no strategy there,” while another (David Obey) fumed, “there’s a lot I don’t know about this administration.”

Third, Hill Democrats were upset when the president brought up immigration reform without consulting them. Vulnerable Democrats know this issue may help Mr. Obama in the long run, but it jeopardizes them in this midterm. Obama aides stoked their ire further by boneheadedly conceding this point to reporters.

Then there is the record of Mr. Obama’s short stint in the Senate. Congressional Democrats saw that he didn’t apply himself to the business of legislating, nor lead any major battle. Instead, he was singularly focused on winning the presidency. They applaud him for winning, but they neither fear nor respect his legislative skills and now ask why he gets the credit while they receive the public blame.

Mr. Obama’s arrogance, coolness and diffidence also make it difficult for him to nurture close friendships, personal trust and mutual respect with the poobahs on the Hill. And so House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the president’s press secretary “politically inept” and condemned the “friendly fire” from the White House. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid snapped, “I do not work for Barack Obama, I work with him.”

This problem is exacerbated by the poor or nonexistent ties between many of Mr. Obama’s top aides and Democrats on the Hill. Some of his aides were Congressional staffers, but senior advisers David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett are virtual unknowns to Congress. And while Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was the congressman who chaired the Democrats’ campaign that reclaimed the House in 2006, he is not known for his warmth, empathy and easy working relationships.

Then there’s a belief around Capitol Hill that the White House is already pointing the finger at them for the coming fall’s losses. That’s in keeping with a pattern: After all, Team Obama publicly trashed its gubernatorial candidate in Virginia last fall and its Massachusetts senatorial hopeful last winter, weeks before their elections.

Congressional Democrats also worry the president is insufficiently concerned about the November election. Maybe the White House believes Democrats have seats to give, that its agenda may be more achievable with fewer moderate Democrats, or that Mr. Obama can win re-election in 2012 more easily with a Republican Congress to blame.

Finally, congressional Democrats are frustrated the president doesn’t do more to help them. The problem here is that he can’t. His approval rating was 54% when his party was walloped in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts last fall. Now it’s 47% in the RealClearPolitics average of recent polls. Mr. Obama’s presence will hurt more than help in many swing races. Even his fund raising isn’t going as well as expected. A recent presidential fund-raising event in Missouri had to discount tickets to fill otherwise empty chairs.

The White House’s appearance of institutional and personal arrogance has left congressional Democrats divided and discontent going into the midterms. It weakens Democratic efforts not only this year, but well into the future. Having once fostered the impression that it’s every Democrat for himself, the president will find it hard to undo the damage when his own name is on the ballot.

Mr. Obama is already learning from his own party the meaning of payback.

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


Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704684604575381081034220838.html

The Liberal Dilemma

The Democratic Party’s capture by public unions and professional politicians is strangling much of liberalism’s agenda.

Numerologists may have to be called in to explain the historic magnitude of the year 2010. After 60 years of doubling down on their spending, 2010 became the year governments from Greece to California hit the wall. (That Athens became the symbol of the democracies’ compulsion to spend themselves into oblivion is an eeriness we’d rather not ponder.)

In the distant future, some U.S. historian in kindergarten today will write about Congressman David Obey’s contribution to the splitting apart of American liberalism’s assumptions about the purpose of government. Mr. Obey of Wisconsin is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, the spenders. People have said for years that government robs Peter to pay Paul. Now brother is ripping off brother. Mr. Obey plans to send $10 billion to school districts to avoid teacher layoffs and will pay for it in part by taking money from several school reform programs, such as Race to the Top.

President Obama has threatened a veto. Keep an eye on it. If this Democratic president stops that Democratic congressman from knee-capping school reform to protect unionized teachers from the world the rest of us live in, you can mark down August 2010 as a first step back from the crack-up. That would be the kind of change Mr. Obama’s admirers thought they were getting.

To explain Mr. Obey’s teacher bailout, it is necessary to descend into the lower depths of cynicism. Put it this way: Race to the Top doesn’t make campaign contributions.

According to tabulations by the Center for Responsive Politics, from 1989 to 2010 the two big teachers unions made some $58 million in campaign contributions. The National Education Association gave 92% of theirs to Democrats, and for the American Federation of Teachers it was 98%.

From the wages sent to the teachers by the House Appropriations Committee, the two unions will take a cut to pay for their political operations. Mr. Obey isn’t appropriating this money out of love for teachers. It’s primarily for his party colleagues, to help party professionals survive the 10% unemployment rate.

If this sump pump wasn’t running from the paychecks of unionized teachers to Democratic campaign coffers, it is at least arguable that appropriations for reforms aimed at children in failed inner-city schools would have a fighting chance.

But this is only a piece of it. The financial meltdown of so many states and cities is forcing American liberalism to come to grips with a tough truth: The demands of public-sector unions and the legal obligations to pay their pensions are collapsing the ability to perform what’s left of the traditional liberal agenda.

Nowhere is this more evident than in California.

On July 8, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, an admirer of New Jersey’s blunt new Gov. Chris Christie, held a roundtable in Sacramento on the public pension crisis. Listen to Jeff Adachi, a San Francisco Democrat and the city’s elected Public Defender:

“San Francisco is the most progressive, pro-union, you know, lefty, and I’m probably the poster boy for that in many ways. But the reality is, if we don’t do something, all of the important programs, not only public defense but we’re talking about children’s programs, after-school programs, education, senior programs, everything that we care about as progressives is going to be lost because it’s being sucked up by the cost of pensions.”

Last month, David Crane, a Democratic adviser to Mr. Schwarzenegger, testified before the California Assembly’s Committee on Public Employees, Retirement and Social Security (which sounds as if it dates to the French Revolution): “Those who should be most concerned about pension costs are families and businesses concerned about California’s colleges and universities, recipients of the state’s health and human services, users of state parks, citizens interested in environmental protection.”

California probably gave David Obey the idea for his funding feint. Mr. Crane says California this year shifted $5.5 billion out of budgets for the state’s public universities, transit, parks and such to pay for obligated pensions and health care.

Nor is this tension merely the result of recession. In a more systematic, 2008 study of spending in Massachusetts for the Institute for a New Commonwealth, Cameron Huff notes that from 1986 to 2006, spending on social services and public safety (the collectively bargained functions) rose more than 130%. Spending on the environment, higher education and housing all fell.

This downward spiral won’t stop when the economy returns. The unions will get theirs; the vulnerable categories will get the shaft. For this to change, the modern Democratic Party would have to change. It’s got to decide if it wants to do more for real people and less for gerrymandered politicians and union protectorates. Lifetime pol Joe Biden says the stimulus “is working.” It is, for the boys in the clubhouse. Honest liberals and progressives distraught over the harsh math of 2010 have more in common with the tea partiers than they imagine.

Daniel Henninger, Wall Street Journal


Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703724104575379094190985972.html

Richard Francis’s top 10 pubs in literature

After setting his latest novel in an English pub, Richard Francis drops in on his favourite literary drinking dens, from the Tabard in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn

The Old Spot in Dursley, Gloucestershire
Plenty of drink, convivial company, proactive landlord, telling of tales … The Old Spot in Dursley, Gloucestershire.
Richard Francis is the author of nine previous novels and three non-fiction books, and is professor of creative writing at Bath Spa University.

His latest novel, The Old Spring, out this month, tells the story of a day in the life of an English pub. He chooses his top 10 literary drinking dens.

1. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (late 14th century)

Chaucer spends the night at the Tabard in Southwark before setting off on his pilgrimage to Canterbury. A company of nine-and-twenty sundry folk join him, and by the time the sun goes down, he has a good idea of what makes each of them tick. The landlord is a large man, bold of speech, who suggests the pilgrims have a story-telling competition on their way; he will go with them and be their judge. The pub scenario is already in place: plenty of wine, convivial company, proactive landlord, telling of tales.

2. Henry lV, Parts One and Two, by William Shakespeare (late 1590s)

The Boar’s Head tavern is a rougher dive altogether, frequented by Falstaff and his gang of reprobates. The landlady, Mistress Quickly, has a clear philosophy: “I will bar no honest man in my house, nor no cheater; but I do not love swaggering.” Falstaff’s bar tab is a sight to behold, “but one half penny-worth of bread to this intolerable deal of sack!” Prince Hal exclaims. He himself frequents the place so he can get to know his subjects – “When I am king of England, I shall command all the good lads in Eastcheap,” adding: “They call drinking deep, dyeing scarlet.”

3. Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens (1864-5)

Another redoubtable landlady, Miss Abbey Potterson of the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters in Limehouse (giving upon the river), reigns “supreme upon her throne, the Bar”, and is more than a match for the villainous Rogue Riderhood. She serves delectable “Purl, Flip, and Dog’s Nose”, but can draw the line when she has to. “I am the law here, my man,” she tells a protesting customer, “and I’ll soon convince you of that, if you doubt it at all.” But later in the novel she takes care of Jenny Wren, combining, as a good landlady should, a firm hand and a warm heart.

4. Far from the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy (1874)

Two watering holes for the price of one here. The first is not a pub exactly but the front room belonging to a maltster – Hardy’s nod towards the proto-pubs of medieval England, where the village brewer (often a woman) sold her wares to the locals in her own cottage. “‘Tis gape and swaller with us,” Warren tells Gabriel Oak frankly, offering him a two-handled tall mug called a “God-forgive-me”. Later in the novel Joseph Poorgrass parks the hearse he is driving outside the Buck’s Head Inn, and succumbs to temptation inside even though he has to admit “I’ve been drinky once this month already”.

5. The History of Mr Polly, by HG Wells (1910)

The aptly named Potwell Inn is situated in pleasant countryside by a river. It has a “sun-blistered green bench and tables … shapely white windows” and a “row of upshooting hollyhock plants”. Mr Polly admires the setting but his principal interest is “Provinder … Cold sirloin for choice. And nutbrown brew and wheaten bread”. Finally, he has arrived at utopia after a series of travails, which include what he describes in his abrupt way as “Bit of Arson”. The landlady takes this confession in her stride: “So long as you haven’t the habit,” she tells him. Her “plumpness was firm and pink and wholesome”, and her “jolly chins clustered like chubby little cherubim about the feet of an Assumptioning Madonna”.

6. The Waste Land by TS Eliot (1922)

EastEnders meets the avant garde in the second section of Eliot’s poem, where a cockney woman tells of the woes of her friend Lil, while in the background an impatient landlord keeps calling out “Hurry up please it’s time”. Lil is only 31 but has lost all her teeth because of taking abortion pills. We are just getting to the point of the story – Sunday lunch, a hot gammon, the narrator invited to join Lil and her husband Albert – when the landlord finally succeeds in clearing them out. The tone is lifted as the farewells modulate into Ophelia’s words from Hamlet: “Good night, ladies, good night sweet ladies, good night, good night.”

7. The Mulliner Stories of PG Wodehouse (from 1927 onwards)

The Angler’s Rest is presided over by Miss Postlethwaite, the “courteous and efficient barmaid” who is addicted to going to the cinema (awkward hobby for a barmaid) where she raptly watches the sort of films that feature mad professors trying to turn girls into lobsters. The conversation in the bar tends to be similarly wide-ranging: “In our little circle I have known an argument on the Final Destination of the Soul to change inside forty seconds into one concerning the best method of preserving the juiciness of bacon fat.” Mr Mulliner, tale-teller extraordinaire, presides, though most of the regulars are known simply by the name of their favourite tipple: a Pint of Bitter, a Lemon Sour, a Small Bass, and so on.

8. Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky by Patrick Hamilton (1929, 1932, 1934)

The three novels that make up Patrick Hamilton’s Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky probably constitute the most exhaustive and profound study of pub culture ever made. In the Midnight Bell, a pub on the Euston Road, we encounter every type of drunkenness: “talking drunk and confidential drunk and laughing drunk and leering drunk and secretive drunk and dignified drunk”. Ella the barmaid, “bright and pert and neat”, copes with the boozers and the bores, and is the recipient of “half the confidences, half the jokes, half the leers”. She’s in love with the self-destructive Bob, who in turn falls for the prostitute Jenny when she fatefully comes into the saloon bar for a gin and pop.

9. Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier (1936)

When the coach driver hears young Mary Yellan is on her way to Jamaica Inn, he is stunned. “That’s no place for a girl. You must have made a mistake, surely.” She perseveres, however, as does her author, becoming one of the few women writers to give sustained treatment to a pub. The driver was right: Jamaica Inn is a hellish establishment, standing bleak and alone in the rain and mist of the rough moorland. Hardly a local then, but it gets its regulars of a Saturday night. “They say the shouting and the singing can be heard as far down as the farms below Roughtor,” the gorilla-like landlord Joss Merlyn tells Mary. Still, he can handle it. “They’re all afraid of me,” he explains, adding “My father was hanged at Exeter”, rather as though it’s an item on his CV.

10. Last Orders by Graham Swift (1996)

We end where we began, with a pilgrimage from London to Canterbury. Actually, the destination is Margate pier, where a group of regulars from the Coach and Horses in Bermondsey is heading with the ashes of their friend Jack Arthur Dodds, who asked to be buried at sea, or at least at the seaside. But the journey takes in Canterbury en route, where the travellers are impressed that the cathedral is 14 centuries old, six more than in Chaucer’s day. The Coach is a daft name for a pub “when it aint ever moved”, one of its regulars joked at the outset; but by the end of the novel these pilgrims have covered plenty of ground, like so many of their literary predecessors.


Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/jul/08/richard-francis-top-10-pubs-literature

Robin Ince’s top 10 truly bad books

From Sign of the Speculum to How to Marry the Man of your Choice, Robin Ince picks the best of the truly bad books he’s salvaged from jumble sales and skips up and down the country

Terry Major-Ball

Renowned gnome fan and author, Terry Major-Ball, who died in 2007.
Robin Ince is one of the UK’s most accomplished, versatile comedians with a string of awards and media appearances to his name. He was the Chortle award winner in 2009 and won the Time Out award for Outstanding Achievement in Comedy for his show The Book Club, which was also nominated for a British Comedy award and hailed by the Observer as “the outstanding literary event of the Edinburgh Festival”. 

“Life on the road has taken me the length and breadth of the country and has allowed me to spend many an afternoon scouring second-hand bookshops, turning the yellowed pages of classics such as What would Jesus Eat?, rummaging through jumble sales, and even the odd skip, constantly on the search for the best of the truly bad. Over the last five years, my love of misguided guides and peripheral poetry pamphlets has bordered on obsession, in fact my tattered collection of “killer crab” novels currently stands taller than my child. This is my top 10 today, tomorrow it might include Mills & Boon’s Rash Intruder or God is for Real, Man.” 

1. Sign of the Speculum by Jessica Russell Gaver

First, this is one of the most enigmatic titles on my bookshelf, at first suggesting a sequel to David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers. Actually, it is a romantic fiction that is also an ethical guide. What should you do if you are a Christian in love with your gynaecologist? The gynaecologist love story is one of the smaller genres in the broad world of romantic fiction. 

2. Temptation in a Private Zoo by Anthony Dekker

This goes in the top 10 predominantly for its fantastic title. It is a spy thriller with a little bit of bear-baiting and a brief critique on how to spoil a dinner party by offering after-dinner mints. It was found in the compendium Man’s Book – books especially compiled for “the rugged reading tastes of men”. 

3. Major Major by Terry Major-Ball

This is the delightful autobiography of John Major’s older brother. It is an image of an England seen predominantly in Ealing films. Terry fears women and Butlins, though comes to like them both. He knows how to make a cooked breakfast in the microwave too and he’ll tell you how. Remember to prick the egg yolk before microwaving though, or it will explode. 

4. The Twentieth Plane: A Psychic Revelation by Albert Durrant Watson

An early 20th-century psychic, with the help of his deceased mother, has some conversations with Edgar Allan Poe, Byron, Shelley and other dead notables. This is non-fiction. 

5. Crabs on the Rampage (and the other five) by Guy N Smith

Guy N Smith has written many horror books, but he is best known for his crabs series, chronicling the pipe-smoking crustacean adventures of Cliff Davenport, on the Welsh coast. A lurid mix of gore, some sex and moral lessons. 

Moral lesson number one, don’t go swimming with your mistress: your adultery will lead to death by claw. 

6. The Book of the Netherland Dwarf by Denise Cumpsty

A petcare guide book which has the reputation of a mystical tome created by HP Lovecraft that may open a portal to hell, populated by very small rabbits. Contains the most idiosyncratic drawings of the human hand holding scared rabbits. 

7. Elvis: His Life and Times in Poetry and Lines by Joan B West

Who couldn’t love a slim collection of poems about Elvis from one of his brethren? What it lacks in traditional poetic skill it more than makes up for in passion for its subject. A strange beauty, enhanced by the delightful painting of Elvis on the cover. 

8. Godless by Ann Coulter

If you want to know just how misguided anti-evolutionists can be and how determined to be stupid they are, Ann is a good start as she mulls on why, if evolution does exist, a worm doesn’t evolve into a beagle and how there aren’t any transitional fossils (apart from the ever-increasing collection of them). A magnificent view of what happens to your mind if you never let facts get in the way of it. 

9. The Secrets of Picking up Sexy Girls by ??

A guide for the frustrated man who just can’t seem to pick up a sexy girl. Find out the advantages and disadvantages of rutting in a railway siding, why lesbians and OAPs are the same thing, how to spot a wig and why bras are bad. 

10. How to Marry the Man of your Choice by Margaret Kent

The other side of The Secrets of Picking up Sexy Girls, Margaret will help women find a man to marry by persuading them to work in shoe sales or boat repair and reminding us that long fingernails “do not appeal to men”. Long fingernails suggest to a man that the woman is “unwilling to do household chores and is unavailable for recreational activities”. 


Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/jul/05/robin-ince-top-10-bad-books

Michael Stanley’s top 10 African crime novels

The African crime writing duo pick the best books in their field, from established greats Agatha Christie and John Le Carré to newer names on the scene such as Kwei Quartey and Deon Meyer

Weekly Hyena

Spotted Hyena: body disposal expert?
Ever since we started writing detective stories set in Africa (A Carrion Death and A Deadly Trade), we’ve paid more attention to the many wonderful mysteries set on the continent. Some of the writers were born in Africa, others not. Some are oldies, but others are contemporary, reflecting the surge of mystery writers interested in Africa. The 10 books we’ve chosen all capture some aspect of African culture or location. All but one relate to sub-Saharan Africa – the lands of colonies and colonial masters; of newly democratic countries and post-independence struggles. Reading these books will introduce you to areas with which you may be unfamiliar and perhaps give you new insights into some of the oldest cultures in the world.”

Michael Stanley is the writing team of native Africans Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. Research for their books has taken the friends tracking lions at night, fighting bush fires on the Savuti plains in northern Botswana, surviving a charging elephant and losing their navigation maps while flying over the Kalahari.

Their new novel, A Deadly Trade, is published in paperback by Headline.

1. Murder at Government House by Elspeth Huxley

Elspeth Huxley is best known for The Flame Trees of Thika, in which she recalls her childhood years growing up in Kenya. She wrote a total of 30 books, including three mysteries, Murder at Government House, The African Poison Murders, and Murder on Safari. The first of these mysteries, Murder at Government House (1935), is set in the colonial town of Chania, where the governor is found strangled at his desk after a dinner party. Canadian-born Superintendent Vachel of the CID is called in to investigate. He finds himself in a web of colonial intrigue and dubious business dealings. From a personal perspective, our book, A Carrion Death, opens with a scene in which a hyena is used to dispose of a body. It was amusing to read that Huxley used a similar same device 70 years earlier. These mysteries give the reader an excellent overview of British colonialism, often very funny to today’s mind, and an alluring taste of African geography and culture, including the pervasive influence of witchdoctors. The descriptions of the bush and animals are delightful.

2. Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie

Death on the Nile (1937) was published around the same time as Elspeth Huxley’s mysteries, but is very different from them. Despite being one of the first mysteries set in Africa – but not sub-Saharan Africa – it has very little local colour. In many ways it could take place anywhere. However, this Hercule Poirot mystery is full of intrigue and plot twists. Every other page causes readers to change their minds as to whom to suspect. The passengers on the Nile cruiser are wonderfully eccentric, with a basketful of motivations for murder. It takes the skill of Poirot to see through the misdirections to solve the case.

3. Song Dog by James McClure

James McClure is the father of South African crime writing and the winner of both Gold and Silver Dagger awards from the Crime Writers Association (CWA). He is best known for his Kramer and Zondi series, set in the midst of the apartheid era, in which a white detective, Lieutenant Tromp Kramer of the Trekkersburg police, partners with black Bantu Detective Sergeant Mickey Zondi. Song Dog (1991), set in 1962, was the last written of the series, but is actually a prequel to the first book, Steam Pig. It is in Song Dog that the two protagonists meet for the first time, bumping into each other in a remote place in Zululand while investigating different cases. Song Dog, as with the other books in the series, is a wonderful depiction of the complexities and unpleasantness of life in apartheid South Africa. The interactions between people of different races and the tensions between the English- and Afrikaans-speaking whites are realistically portrayed. But what I like best is the relationship between Kramer and Zondi – they develop a fondness and respect for each other that has to exist within the confines of apartheid and often has to be concealed from others. Add to this good plots and wry humour, and all the books in the series are delightful reads. A word of caution: in today’s world some of the language in the books would be regarded as very derogatory, but its presence is necessary for the accurate depiction of the era.

4. Instruments of Darkness by Robert Wilson

Robert Wilson is best known for books set outside Africa – in particular A Small Death in Lisbon which won the CWA gold dagger. But he has an excellent series of books set in West Africa around a dubious hero operating in a dubious environment. In the first book in the series – Instruments of Darkness (1996) – set in Benin, we meet English ex-pat Bruce Medway as he buys and sells and fixes, pretty much at the edge of the law. But then no one cares about that there anyway. A deal that goes wrong leads him to a search for a murdered man. Along the way he meets Bagado, a smart and able policeman, whose skills aren’t valued in a country where corruption is the currency of officialdom. As he tries to solve the crime, the detective worries if he’ll be paid his salary at all and whether he can live on it if he is. The plot is gripping, the characters alive, and the backdrop the shabbiness of a collapsing system.

5. The Screaming of the Innocent by Unity Dow

Unity Dow was the first female High Court judge in Botswana and participated in the landmark case concerning Bushmen rights. She is the author of four books. The Screaming of the Innocent (2002) is a powerful and disturbing book. A young girl vanishes; the police guess that she has been eaten by a lion, but the reader knows that she has been ritually murdered for body parts reputed to bestow great power. Years later a female student doing national service in the community comes across a box of clothing which seems to belong to the missing girl. But after she draws attention to it, the box vanishes. She seeks out a friend – now a lawyer – and the two young women pursue the matter together. The book is good not only because of the intriguing characters and plot, but because the reader finds the premise completely believable because the perspective is purely African. To westerners, witchcraft has become almost flippant superstition, like avoiding a black cat. But in many African cultures, it is not only respected and feared, but deeply believed. It is this that Dow manages to capture so well in her novel. The heroine follows the twists and turns and seems to be taking us to a successful resolution. But Africa is often not like that.

6. The Mission Song by John Le Carré

The Mission Song (2006) revolves around its narrator, Salvo, illegitimate son of a white Catholic missionary and a Congolese mother. Salvo is a professional translator specialising in the languages of the Congo region. Salvo’s linguistic abilities lead him into a vipers’ nest of business men, civil servants and mercenaries apparently intent on freeing his home province of Kivu. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that actually what is planned is a coup followed by a puppet government to oversee the exploitation of the country’s mineral wealth. African crime fiction? Little of the book takes place in Africa. But the key characters are African through and through and their needs and desires drive the story. Le Carré mentions that he made only a brief research trip to the eastern Congo, but he is careful and his settings ring true. While the backdrop of the book is the exploitation of Africa by unscrupulous westerners, the development of Salvo as a thinking person and as an African is the real story.

7. Devils Peak by Deon Meyer

Deon Meyer is the best known contemporary South African crime writer. His six books have won a number of awards, and he was the first to honestly reflect the current realities of the new South Africa in his books. Devils Peak (2007) opens with a high-class prostitute confessing to the minister of a small-town church. The story switches to a black man, once a special agent for the old regime but now grasping for a new life, watching his young son being killed by thugs. The system fails him and the perpetrators are released. He decides to settle the score himself, with vicious murderers who prey on the weak. If you think the vigilante theme is clichéd, read this book. Meyer’s detective – Benny Griessel – has to end the killing. But Benny has his own battle with the alcohol he uses as an escape. The book is a page-turning thriller, with one of the scariest parts being where Benny buys a bottle of brandy.

8. Blood Rose by Margie Orford

Margie Orford returned to South Africa in 2001 after 13 years of living overseas and in Namibia. Her work as a crime reporter made her want to complete the fragmented stories on which she worked, leading to her heroine Clare Hart. Like her creator, Hart is an investigative journalist. Her partner is a captain in the South African police. In Blood Rose (2007) it seems that a vicious psychopath is at work in Walvis Bay, a sad desert-locked, fishing port in Namibia, fallen on hard times. Street boys are being killed and mutilated. Clare sometimes works as a profiler for the police and gets involved. But is there another motive for the killings? Clare finds a thread leading back to the days of the South African occupation. And other people are looking for the answers, too. The race develops into a tense thriller with surprising twists.

9. Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey

2009 saw the debut of a talented Ghanian crime writer who lives in the United States. Inspector Darko Dawson is a detective in Accra, a moody and potentially violent man. He is asked to investigate a murder in the rural village of Ketanu where he has relatives. Soon he is embroiled with traditional beliefs and fetish priests juxtaposed with modern doctors and AIDS concerns. Kwei reveals the cultural conflicts of an African country trying to become a modern nation; many of the issues remind us of similar tensions in Botswana. Darko ponders these issues as he lights a joint, and slowly, with clever intuition and careful police work, homes in on the solution to the case. A solution he would rather not have found.

10. Zulu by Caryl Férey

Caryl Férey was born in France, grew up in England, and has travelled the world. His writing includes thrillers, mysteries, travelogues, and children’s books. He won the French Grand Prix for Best Crime Novel of 2008 for Zulu, published in English in 2010. Zulu’s protagonist is a Zulu by the name of Ali Neuman, a survivor of inter-tribal brutality when Xhosas and Zulus were fighting for dominance as South Africa moved towards democracy. As his last name suggests (Neuman = new man), Ali has left his past behind. He is now chief of the homicide division of the South African police in Cape Town. One of his staff is Brian Epkeen, a white man. Together they have to deal with crime that inevitably exists in sprawling areas of un- and under-employed people – crime exacerbated by gangs, both local and from other parts of Africa. Investigating the death of several young women, Neuman encounters a new drug on the scene – one that is so potent that it can cause people to kill without remorse. Then he discovers that the drug likely found its origins in the old apartheid secret service and is being manufactured and sold by ex-apartheid supporters. The world that Neuman and Epkeen work in is incessantly terrifying. Readers of Zulu will find little respite, but those who stick with it will be rewarded with a fine tale.


Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/jun/30/michael-stanley-african-crime

Jennie Rooney’s top 10 women travellers in fiction

From eccentric spinster aunts to Alice in Wonderland, the novelist traces the steps of fiction’s most engaging female adventurers

Helena Bonham Carter Lucy Honeychurch Room with a view
 Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Lucy Honeychurch in A Room With a View.
Jennie Rooney’s new novel The Opposite of Falling, in which Ursula Bridgewater takes Thomas Cook’s famous new tour of America after her engagement is broken off, is out now. Her first novel, Inside the Whale, was shortlisted for the Costa first novel award in 2008.

“The Victorian era saw a surge in the popularity of women travellers, with adventurers such as Mary Kingsley and Gertrude Bell publishing travelogues, and inspiring others to follow in their hobnailed footsteps. Women travellers in fiction appear in many forms. First there are the more traditional travellers: the unconventional spinster, the ingénue flung into a foreign setting, the formidable chaperone – each of these provides some of the most engaging female characters in fiction. Then there are the interior journeys, where the character does not travel physically but is somehow transformed. Finally there is that unforgettable trio of young girls who cornered the market in early fantasy travel: Alice’s tumble into Wonderland, Dorothy’s trip to Oz and, of course, Wendy Darling’s night-flight across London to Neverland. Here are a few to get us started …”

1. Aunt Augusta in Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene

So often the sidekick, the aunt is a crucial figure in the travelling fiction genre. In this wonderful novel, Graham Greene places the aunt centre stage, allowing her to drag Henry Pulling out of suburbia and on to the Orient Express to Paris, Istanbul and South America; and showing him, on the way, just how much fun aunts can have.

2. Alice in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

The ultimate female traveller, Alice wanders away from a picnic, falls down a rabbit hole, and is whisked away to a fantasy land where things just get curiouser and curiouser. There is a white rabbit who is always late, a smile without a cat, the Mad Hatter and his tea party, and an endless array of creatures and tales.

3. Miss Lucy Honeychurch in A Room With a View by EM Forster

Armed with her Baedeker guidebook, Lucy travels to Italy with her cousin and chaperone, the rather snippy Miss Bartlett. Upon arriving at the Pensione Bertolini, they swap rooms with a father and son whose rooms both have views (“Am I to conclude,” asks Miss Bartlett upon receiving the offer, “that he is a socialist?”). Lucy’s experiences in Italy open her up to the possibility of love – even if it is with a socialist.

4. The Wife of Bath in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

Gap-toothed and gossipy, the Wife of Bath travels to Canterbury with Chaucer’s rabble of pilgrims. She is unreserved in her discussion of her five marriages, and is particularly gleeful in the descriptions of her sexual activity and the ways in which she liked to exploit this with her various husbands.

5. Hortense in Small Island by Andrea Levy

Hortense knows everything there is to know about England: she has read Shakespeare, uses words such as “perchance”, and makes perfect fairy cakes. But when she finally travels there in 1948, she finds that England does not know so very much about her. A fabulous, richly comic voice, exploring the realities of postwar immigration.

6. Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

Fearing that marriage will stifle her independence, young American Isabel Archer takes up the offer of a trip to Europe with (of course) her aunt. While in Europe she inherits a fortune, bequeathed to her for the purpose of securing her freedom, but which causes her to become the object of scheming bounty-hunters. Dark and goose-bumpingly sinister.

7. The Lady of Shalott by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Inspired by Arthurian legend, Tennyson’s poem recounts the curse of the Lady of Shalott, forced forever to weave a magic web without looking directly out at the world. However, upon glimpsing Lancelot in her mirror, she turns to the window, bringing the curse upon her, so that she dies on her subsequent boat journey to Camelot (cue Lancelot, with one of literature’s oddest consolations: “she had a lovely face”).

8. Clarissa Dalloway in Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

An interior journey, this one. Told through a stream-of-consciousness narrative, it is the story of Mrs Dalloway’s preparations for a party that evening, and takes place over a single day in June. The action is mainly restricted to flashbacks, but by the end of the book, it is clear that this day has been a journey through Clarissa’s mind.

9. Orleanna Price and her daughters in The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Married to a Baptist missionary, Orleanna Price accompanies her husband from America to the Belgian Congo with their four daughters. The novel is narrated by the girls and their mother, each witnessing and responding to their father’s actions in different ways. A deeply woven study of misogyny, misplaced religion and the blight of colonial occupation.

10. Wendy Darling in Peter and Wendy by JM Barrie

After sewing Peter Pan’s shadow back on in the Kensington nursery, Wendy is recruited by Peter to be his “mother” and he asks her to come back to Neverland with him. She flies out of the window with her brothers, following Peter’s somewhat unhelpful travel directions: “Second to the right and then straight on ’til morning!”


Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/jun/23/jennie-rooney-top-10-women-travellers-fiction

Melvin Burgess’s top 10 books written for teenagers

From supernatural big-hitters Pullman and Meyer to thrillers from Kevin Brooks and unforgettable imagery from David Almond, the author of Junk lists his favourite teen fiction

Robert Pattinson as Edward Cullen in Twilight

Game-changer … Robert Pattinson, who plays a vampire in the films of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight.
The author Melvin Burgess published his first book, The Cry of the Wolf, in 1990, but is best known for Junk, his 1996 novel dealing with the tricky and controversial subject of heroin addiction in teenagers. His latest novel, Nicholas Dane, a punchy modern-day adaptation of Oliver Twist, is out now.

“Fiction for teenagers is a comparatively new affair. When I was in my teens no one wrote any at all. You had to go straight from children’s books to adult books without a pause. Even when I started writing in the 1990s, what was called teen fiction was really only for the first two or three years at high school at the most, with one or two honourable exceptions.

“Today, teenage fiction still covers a multitude of sins. It can range from books really written for children, which publishers call ‘teen’ for sales reasons, through books aimed at high-school students up to the age of 14 or so, to books for people nearing the end of their school careers. So here’s a list of the top 10 writers who write (or wrote) especially for people of at least 14. It contains the most influential, the most popular, and in some cases simply the best.”

1. The Bumblebee Flies Anyway by Robert Cormier

Cormier was writing quality fiction for teenagers way back in the 1970s, which makes him officially the granddaddy of us all. He conquered that most difficult of tricks: writing brilliant thrillers with beautiful prose and startling but believable characters. If he was writing for adults, he’d have won every prize going.

2. Postcards from No Man’s Land by Aidan Chambers

Chambers’s teen tales were the first that aimed to be really serious literature. His books aren’t for everyone – his dialogue, in particular, clanks alarmingly – but these are intellectually and emotionally challenging books that examine the deeper things that affect teenage lives. It’s not about the girl next door, or how well you’re going to do in the exams. It’s about who are you, why you’re here – and what are you going to do about it anyway?

3. Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is famous for its theological mirroring of Paradise Lost, but Pullman’s reputation stands on his storytelling. Setting up the heavenly hordes as an enemy of life got him into trouble, but the imaginative range and wealth of characters, especially in this first book, is wonderful.

4. Junk by Melvin Burgess

My novel Junk was the first truly teenage book to attract a wide readership and deal with serious social issues upfront and honestly. There was a tremendous hue and cry when it first came out. At the time, no one really knew about teenage fiction, and the press were appalled and fascinated that a book talking knowledgeably about drugs and addiction should be awarded a children’s book prize. Is it any good? I can’t say, since I wrote it myself.

5. Skellig by David Almond

Almond’s books contain stories of great beauty and hope – magical realism for young people, written in graceful, accessible prose. There are images in them you will never forget, and Skellig is one of his finest.

6. Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman

Blackman passes the test on all counts: first black woman to sell more than a million books; an OBE; and a huge following. Plus, she manages about the best plotting of anyone writing for young people today. The trilogy of Noughts and Crosses books are thrillers, but with a sharp eye for social, personal and racial politics. No one does it better.

7. Martyn Pig by Kevin Brooks

Brooks is another thriller writer, the natural successor to Cormier. His books don’t touch on society in the way Cormier’s do, but they are beautifully written and stylish. His young male protagonists are at once touchingly innocent and knowing, quirky and very sexy.

8. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

This book, published for teenagers, became a bestseller with all ages. Like many great teen books, it is the voice of the narrator that makes it work so well. Christopher is autistic, and when he feels things aren’t as they seem, he has to find out about them in his own way. Partly because we know more than him, partly because he is so brave and determined, the story makes a fascinating, funny and memorable read.

9. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

Rosoff’s debut spawned a host of copycat efforts, but it remains ahead of the game. Daisy’s voice is the key: you’ll rarely meet a character with so many facets, so lucidly written. Some find Rosoff’s mucking around with punctuation an irritant, but the book will be read for years to come. 

10. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

Meyer is a game-changer. For years, publishers have been looking for mass-market teen fiction, and she’s the first to have broken through. There’s nothing new here: Meyer is no stylist; her characters are predictable; this is really just good old-fashioned romance with a supernatural twist. But if your brain is mashed from too much studying, curl up with a Twilight and she’ll do the rest.


Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/jun/17/melvin-burgess-top-10-teen-fiction

Mihir Bose’s top 10 football books

From Arthur Hopcraft to Nick Hornby, the award-winning journalist chooses the books that have improved our understanding of the beautiful game

Colin Firth Fever Pitch

Gunning for it … Colin Firth in the film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch 

Mihir Bose is an award-winning sports journalist with a career spanning more than 30 years as a sports writer for the Sunday Times, Daily Telegraph and the London Evening Standard. He was the BBC’s sports editor until last year. The 2010 World Cup will be the sixth consecutive tournament he has covered.

“Bill Shankly’s famous comment that football is more important than life and death was, I am sure, never meant to be taken literally. I have always seen it as meaning that football can reach many levels of society, far beyond the mere physical contest of 22 men and a round ball. It is this aspect of the game that has always fascinated me.

“Not long after my marriage, I took my wife to a match. She is not a football fan but had been eager to know why so many followed the game with such devotion. At the match she realised that followers of a team are really part of a family.

“Outside of football there may be enough evidence to prove the politicians right, that society has indeed broken down. But those who follow the game know it can bring people together. The supporters of a team may or may not meet physically on match days, but the bond that ties them together is their team’s fortunes. The communal joy that spreads through followers when their team wins is matched by a sense of desolation when it loses, emotions not that different from communal family occasions.

“I know groups of fans who only meet to go to away matches. They never go to each other’s homes, do not even exchange Christmas cards, but the journey they make every other week is a bond as strong as anything that ties family members together. The books I have chosen, which are listed in the order I first read them, deal with this phenomenon of the game.”

1. The Football Man: People and Passions in Soccer by Arthur Hopcraft

In a sense, the literary fruit of England winning the 1966 World Cup. First published in 1968, it spoke of football being “inherent in the people”, and launched this genre of writing.

2. Soccer Syndrome: From the Primaeval Forties by John Moynihan

John, one of our finest football reporters, always had an eye for things beyond football and his description of trying to watch the 1958 World Cup while consoling a woman friend is a classic.

3. The Glory Game by Hunter Davies

The first book to take us inside the dressing room – that of the 1972 Tottenham team still basking in the glory days of the 60s. Hunter, who was not a sports writer, had fallen in love with Tottenham when he moved down south. He used his acute eye for detail to paint a picture of a dressing room of a big club that made the reader aware of what top footballers were like as human beings: little details such as the papers they read and how politically rightwing they all were.

4. All Played Out: The full story of Italia ’90 by Pete Davies

A marvellous reportage of the 1990 World Cup. Davis followed England’s campaign right from the start. Not being part of the football reporters’ world he could take a detached view of the increasing media interest, although at times he did get under the skin of some of the travelling pack. He could not have chosen his period better. English clubs were coming out from under their European ban imposed after Heysel and the book marks the moment when football changed, both in England and round the world.   

5. Among The Thugs by Bill Buford

It required an American to tell us how vile and racist English football had become in the 70s and 80s. I empathise with this book as, while reporting football, I was often subject to racist abuse and attack and had to work hard to convince my mainly white colleagues how bad it was.

6. Only a Game?: The Diary of a Professional Footballer by Eamon Dunphy

The first footballer to show he could do more than kick a ball. He both understands and explains the game. Before Dunphy the idea that a footballer could write an articulate, readable book would have seemed extraordinary. Dunphy proved some footballers not only have brains, but they harbour thoughts beyond tweaked muscles and the next lay.

7. Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby

A classic which brought into British sports reporting some of the style and verve already part of American sports writing. Scott Fitzgerald had rebuked Ring Lardner for wasting his time writing about baseball. Brian Glanville had always found it difficult to be taken seriously as a novelist because he wrote on football. Hornby used football to display his literary skills. 

8. Broken Dreams: Vanity, Greed and the Souring of British Football by Tom Bower

I have particular affection for this book. Not only is this a book from a very fine investigative reporter who has a knack for uncovering the filth hidden under stones, but I, in a small way, was able to help Tom find his way round football. Just before Tom started on his project he asked for my assistance in understanding a game that he did not know much about.

9. The Last Game: Love, Death and Football by Jason Cowley

Taking as its pivotal point the May 1989 Liverpool v Arsenal match, which also features in Hornby’s book, this is a graphic study of how English football has changed since then. The period is seminal. Many predicted the changes would bring disaster and Cowley explains why they have not.

10. The Ball is Round by David Goldblatt

A classic history of the game that knits together the story with superb skill and should appeal to even those who may not care about football. It is a history that goes far beyond the playing field.


Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/jun/09/mihir-bose-top-10-football-books

Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s top 10 20th-century gothic novels

From Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House to Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, Carlos Ruiz Zafón chooses his favourite works in a fast-evolving genre

Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Steerpike in the BBC adaptation of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast

Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Steerpike in the BBC adaptation of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy.
Carlos Ruiz Zafón was born in Barcelona and is the author of The Shadow of the Wind, the most successful novel in Spanish publishing history after Don Quixote. Translated into more than 35 languages, it has been read by over 12m readers worldwide. The Prince of Mist, a children’s book and the first work Ruiz Zafón published, is now available in English for the first time.

“Mention the gothic and many readers will probably picture gloomy castles and an assortment of sinister Victoriana. However, the truth is that the gothic genre has continued to flourish and evolve since the days of Bram Stoker, producing some of its most interesting and accomplished examples in the 20th century – in literature, film and beyond. Ours is a time with a dark heart, ripe for the noir, the gothic and the baroque. A basic list of great 20th-century gothic novels could include at least 100 but, since space is limited, here are a few places to begin your explorations. As always, try to get out of your comfort zone and ignore conventional wisdom on what is good or bad. ‘Free your mind, and the rest will follow …'”

 1. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

One of the very best ghost stories ever written. Shirley Jackson’s writings are a must for aficionados of the gothic and of good literature. Take this as a first step and discover one of the most unusual and underrated writers of the last century.

2. Mysteries of Winterthurn by Joyce Carol Oates

I’ve long considered Oates to be one of the greatest living authors, and certainly the undisputed queen of gothic literary fiction. This book is part of her grand Victorian cycle which begins with Bellefleur. Mysteries of Winterthurn is one of the least-known works in her vast oeuvre but it’s my personal favourite. Oates is an extremely prolific writer who has been able to sustain an extraordinary level of quality in her output. Life is short, so kill your TV now and start exploring her universe.

3. Sanctuary by William Faulkner

A very interesting gothic novel set in the American south – and one that will be surprisingly easy to read even for those who tremble in fear at the mention of Faulkner. This was supposed to be his attempt at commercial fiction; perhaps because of this it has always been regarded suspiciously and considered a minor work. It is not.

4.  Double Indemnity by James M Cain

Lean, mean and dazzling. This is one of the great LA gothics, with all the best echoes of classic noir and a femme fatale to end all femme fatales. Most people have seen the great Billy Wilder adaptation of this novel and therefore bypass the book. Big mistake. As glorious as Wilder’s film is, this novel has a rare, dark beauty that deserves to be savoured on its own terms.

5. Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg

If you ask me, this novel is the best mystery thriller ever written. It has the classic elements of a Chandler novel combined with the solid tradition of the 1970s supernatural thrillers à la Rosemary’s Baby. The writing, plotting and characterisation are superb. This is a hard title to find, but do yourself a favour and go looking.

6. The Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake

Dark, dense, baroque and hauntingly beautiful. Peake’s lush prose and imagery are a pleasure to any lover of the beauty of the written word. A word of warning, however: this one takes its time. Most readers are used to more watery offerings – this is thick, creamy and extra-rich.

7. Perdido Street Station by China Miéville

China Miéville, poster boy for the so-called “new weird”, is one of the most interesting and promising writers to appear in the last few years in any genre. This is a fantastic yarn that follows the roads set by M John Harrison in his Viriconium world and brings an enormous energy and creativity to the table. A reinvention of modern fantasy with guts, brains and plenty of glory. Plunge in.

8. Burning Your Boats: The Collected Short Stories by Angela Carter

A treasure chest of wonderfully wicked stories from the late grand-dame of the modern English gothic. Take one at a time and enjoy them as you would a good red wine. Eventually, it’ll go to your head. In a good way.

9. Pet Sematary by Stephen King

A modern-day Dickens with a popular voice and a genius for storytelling in any genre, Stephen King has written many wonderful books. Perhaps none of them are as scary or creepy as this one. Some people write King off because of his enormous success or the rather weak movie adaptations of his novels, but he is a fantastic writer with tremendous powers of characterisation and a talent for driving a narrative that other authors dream of. Don’t let the hype or the snobbery blind you. The man is truly a king.

10. Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

A notable hit in Lindqvist’s native Sweden a few years ago, Let the Right One In was adapted into a film that didn’t even begin to do justice to this fresh, powerful and brutally honest reinvention of the vampire novel. This is very effective storytelling with a chilled, Scandinavian, noirish element. White snow never looked so dark.


Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/jun/02/carlos-ruiz-zafon-gothic-novels