Monday, March 19, 2012

The Essence Seeker Project

Through a friend I came across Andrea Wilson and her Essence Seeker project.  Her project, an on-line collection of tributes, is an ongoing exercise to identify icon people, things, companies, places, and creations, and to explore what it is that makes them unique and essential, what gives them their iconic identity. 

As she herself says:

Essence Seeker pays tribute to people, icons, brands and experiences that are truly original and exceptional, with each distilled into a single image and set of words.  I spend my life searching for the essence – in defining brands for clients, discovering what makes people different or simply experiencing life.  If we know the essence of who we are, we can navigate a complex world and make the most of our existence.  Each tribute is cultivated over time in the hope that it provides something rich to savour.

Below is her tribute to William Blake, an essential English poet who speaks all too directly to this year.

See more Essence Seeker tributes, and subscribe, HERE.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Martyrs' Square, Beirut, 14 February 2009

As the brutal events in Syria stretch on, and the hope for civil society in Egypt remains in question, the Arab Spring is looking more like a winter of discontent.  Whatever emerges from this painful gestation, it’s important to remember that things began in Beirut, in March 2005, with the Cedar Revolution.

In 2009, while in Beirut as part of a press delegation I attended a memorial on February 14th in Place des Martyrs for Rafik Hariri, the Lebanese Prime Minister slain four years before. That day, the memorial became a political rally for the parties who launched the Cedar Revolution. While in Martyr’s Square I interviewed journalists Christopher Hitchens, Lee Smith, as well as a number of Lebanese journalists.  As Hitchens reminded me, it was also the twentieth anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie.   

Later that afternoon, Hitchens along with companions Michael Totten and Jonathan Foreman were confronted on a street in the Hamra neighborhood by toughs from the SSNP, who made a point of stomping on the fingers of his right hand.  Later, somewhat recovered, Hitchens commented, “I make it a rule never to pass a swastika without graffitiing upon it.  It can lead to trouble, but it must be done.”

Accounts of that afternoon by Hitchens, Totten, and Foreman, may be found here, here, and here.

I recorded that morning’s events, and these interviews, on a Flip Video Recorder ($85 via Amazon, but now no more), and edited this short video on a MacBook using iMovie software.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Goodbye Winter?

Who says it never snows in London?  We had a bit of it this winter, especially where I am perched at elevation.  But today... though I hate to tempt fate... it feels like spring.  No more of this please.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

On Handling Copies of the Koran

I wrote earlier below about the handling and burning of Korans:

What with the recent unrest following the burning of Korans in Afghanistan, I decided to ask the opinion (as one does) of a friend who is a member of one of London's leading chambers of barristers, is one of Europe's leading experts on Sharia law, and is a descendent of a Sufi saint.

My friend wrote me via email that the prescribed method for disposing of a Koran that can no longer be used is to burn it.

I would add that one should make a distinction here between burning as an act of disrespect and burning to end the existence of a copy that, for whatever reason, can no longer be used.  Americans should easily be able to understand the distinction between the burning of a flag in protest or anger and the burning of a flag that is already damaged and can no longer be displayed.  In the later case, that is, indeed, the prescribed way for handling an official flag, or a flag of a certain size if it has been damaged, soiled or even touched the ground.

It seems very odd, then, that these soldiers should be under threat of prosecution.

Social Scientists Say: "People Aren't Smart Enough for Democracy to Flourish"

One should be wary whenever one reads a headline with the phrase "Experts Say" or "Social Scientists Say."  Generally, they say whatever the writer would like them to say, because honestly any given social scientist will say just about anything, and it's really a matter of which social scientist the writer chooses to quote.

In any case, this is what David Dunning, a psychologist at Cornell University asserts: "That incompetent people are inherently unable to judge the competence of other people, or the quality of those people's ideas."

Journalist Natalie Wolchover of extrapolates this to conclude that "a growing body of research has revealed an unfortunate aspect of the human psyche that would seem to disprove this notion, and imply instead that democratic elections produce mediocre leadership and policies."

Wolchover further opines... sorry, writes:
As a result, no amount of information or facts about political candidates can override the inherent inability of many voters to accurately evaluate them. On top of that, [Dunning said] "very smart ideas are going to be hard for people to adopt, because most people don’t have the sophistication to recognize how good an idea is."  He and colleague Justin Kruger, formerly of Cornell and now of New York University, have demonstrated again and again that people are self-delusional when it comes to their own intellectual skills. "To the extent that you are incompetent, you are a worse judge of incompetence in other people," Dunning said. In one study, the researchers asked students to grade quizzes that tested for grammar skill. "We found that students who had done worse on the test itself gave more inaccurate grades to other students." Essentially, they didn't recognize the correct answer even when they saw it.  The reason for this disconnect is simple: "If you have gaps in your knowledge in a given area, then you’re not in a position to assess your own gaps or the gaps of others," Dunning said. Strangely though, in these experiments, people tend to readily and accurately agree on who the worst performers are, while failing to recognize the best performers.

Very bad news, this, from the professor.

Meanwhile, this made me very curious about Professor Dunnings own choices for the best political candidates.  Here via are Professor David Dunnings contributions to political candidates:
ITHACA, NY 14850
08/03/2004    500.00    24991236389
08/31/2008    500.00    28933253652
09/14/2008    500.00    28933938393
09/28/2008    500.00    28933938394

Apologies to President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan

What with the recent unrest following the burning of Korans in Afghanistan, I decided to ask the opinion (as one does) of a friend who is a member of one of London's leading chambers of barristers, is one of Europe's leading experts on Sharia law, and is a descendent of a Sufi saint.

My friend wrote me via email that the prescribed method for disposing of a Koran that can no longer be used is to burn it.

One wonders, then, why President Obama has apologized so abjectly to President Karzai.  What's more, one asks: why are the US soldiers who disposed of those books now under threat of prosecution?

Meanwhile, I'd like to present this alternative apology to President Karzai, offered by Kira Davis.

More from Kira Davis HERE.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Utopia on the Thames... or almost... getting there maybe...

What a strange portrait of London the New York Times Magazine presents.

In the current issue's lead piece, entitled "Apocalyptic London," the Norwich-born novelist China Mieville makes much of the fact that a former sewer has been turned into a path into the Olympic Park. Their London expert Mieville is also, you see, a Cambridge-trained semiotician and a professor at Warwick University... in, um, Coventry, one hundred miles away in the West Midlands. For him, the sewer is a metaphor, knowwhatImsayin?, for the whole city and its society.

According to Mieville, Londoners are "wrathful," youths are "uprisen," police are "brutal," the courts are "cruel," the society is seething with racism and inequality. "Islamophobia," according to the NYT writer, has gone mainstream. Hold that thought.

My general rule of thumb is that when Britons speak about race they are ten years behind Americans, and when mainstream American pundits opine about societal cohesion and relations with their  Muslim fellow citizens they are ten years behind in their understanding compared to Britons. To expand upon this, some years ago at a conference in Cambridge I commented, in an aside, that American perception of race was changing and predicted that the US would within ten years elect a black president. I was thinking then of Colin Powell, who at that time if he'd chosen to run might have received endorsement from either US political party. Oddly, in response to this somewhat hopeful statement, the British academics in the audience reacted as if I'd just burnt a cross.

Likewise, American editors seem not to have such a nuanced understanding of Britain's centuries-long and complex engagement with Islam. As it happens, the upper reaches of British society have long been fascinated by Islam, and tend to be Islamophiles, just as many of their counterparts are Anglophiles. Their families have visited and done business with each other for centuries. A few peoples whom they like less: Americans, Israelis, "The French," Germans (or "the Hun," as they might say). They also, by the way, don't watch, and don't like, the TV show "Downton Abbey." Separately from this, on the mean streets of Birmingham, the individual who almost single-handedly held the society together during last summer’s riots was Tariq Jahan, the father of a boy run over by a racist “nutter” in a car. In essence this man prevented the random aspirational looting from turning into a race riot by reminding the country that “We’re all in this together.” I shouldn’t need to point out that it was Tariq Jahan, who happens to be a Muslim, who was the hero of the working class tabloids, and all of British society. (A bow here in his direction.)

That said, Britons, including I would guess Mr. Jahan, do have a very real fear of zealots who mean to advance their causes through acts of mass murder against civilians. On July 7, 2005, bombers killed fifty-two Londoners on mass transport during rush hour, and there are similar plots uncovered here on a weekly basis. There is nothing phobic, or irrational, in fearing those zealots. Note to NYT magazine editors: if your seat-mate rushes an airplane cabin door screaming a war cry, be afraid. If you’re not also angry, there’s something wrong with you. If he pauses while lighting his underwear and you can distract him you might find that such a person has, aside from an irrational fear of the WEST, a phobia against other sects of Islam (ie, that he may be a Shia-phobe, or a Sufi-phobe, or whatever). There’s the chance that he might find it permissible to burn down a building holding ten copies of the Koran if in that building were homosexuals or young women learning arithmetic. If you asked him whether he could quote the Koran he’d say “only the angry bits,” and he would know nothing about it saying that God is merciful, or that he who takes an innocent life it is as if he has killed all humanity. Your seatmate would in other words be just another version of a racist nutter, and yes Londoners are afraid of them.

As for the NYT Magazine’s story, and its depiction of a brutal, cruel, wrathful and Islamophobic society... well, what do you expect? They did hire a member of the Socialist Workers Party to write the piece. Is Mieville’s vision of London representative? Probably not, since before he was a professor Mieville stood as a politician, running on the Socialist Alliance ticket for a seat in the House of Commons, where in 2001 he attracted 459 votes, just 1.2% of his constituency.

London's problems are well-documented in other publications (I recommend to you the work of Theodore Dalrymple), and those problems, especially long-term unemployment, are real. That said, there's another side to this city, which anyone would see who spent a few days here.

People are actually polite on tubes.

The police go unarmed... and they are ABLE to go unarmed. One night in Soho, when I first moved here some years ago, I saw a young woman pick-pocketed by two rough-types, one older and grizzled, the other a young man. I told them, without raising my voice, to give back her wallet. They did. And they looked slightly ashamed.

Citizens here like to stay informed about the wide world, and they buy and read newspapers. Last week when they lost a brave and beloved journalist, my friend (and another transplant from the states) Marie Colvin, who had been covering the Assad regime's brutalization of the Syrian people in Homs, her targeted murder by the Assad regime was the lead story on all news channels. The whole city mourned... mourned a witness and writer.

Londoners buy and read books. Their many newspapers all review those books.

All museums are free to the public.

In pubs, Londoners talk to strangers. Outside of pubs, they try to mind their own business.

You will find all this to be true if you come visit this summer for the Olympics, or anytime.

From the NYT mag you'd never know it, but London is actually the most civilized city in the world, and year after year it is getting better.

Update: I've made a correction, that Warwick university is not, as I thought, in "Warwick," which may not exist, but in Coventry, the West Midlands, 100 miles from London. From what I've read about it Coventry is a dystopian nightmare, but one should be careful about believing such. I understand the town is full of semioticians. Oh wait, maybe...

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Harold Brodkey on Spring

... from "The World is the Home of Love and Death"

Some prose written after the third kiss from her (and after the doctor took three stitches in my thumb).

I sit at her desk in her office looking out her large window: Give me the huge actual clouds of the Republic and not the meagre udders of water vapor painted on the old backdrops the Republic Studio used in John Wayne's day. We like the actual big baggy clouds of a New York spring. One doesn't want to flog a transiting cloud to death, but if we are to have sentimental light, let us have it at least in its obvious local form--dry, white, sere, and, I guess, provincial. The spiritual splendor of our drizzly and slaphappy spring weather, our streets jammed with sneezing pedestrians, our skies loony with bluster are our local equivalents of lilac hedges and meadows.

Blustery, raw and rare--and more wind-of-the-sea-scoured than half-melted St. Petersburg. Yuck to cities that have an immersed-in-swamp-and-lagoon moist-air light. They are for watercolorists. Where water laps at the edges of the stones and bricks of somewhat wavery real estate is not home. Home is New York, stony and tall: its real estate is real.

So is its spring.

More from Harold Brodkey HERE.