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Archive for the 'Author Postings' Category

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016

Living Bone on Bone

The Lioness in Winter

“Without the virtual equivalent of bubble wrap or cotton batting, we are on our own. Facing the elements of old age with only our memories, our personalities, our will to carry on. But–and here’s the strange thing–the loss of padding has good effects as well.” — Ann Burack-Weiss

The following is a guest-post by Ann Burack-Weiss, author of The Lioness in Winter: Writing an Old Woman’s Life.

Living Bone on Bone
By Ann Burack-Weiss

An old lady falls and can’t get up. An x-ray shows that the cartilage in her right hip has worn away. An orthopedic surgeon explains the situation in layman terms. “You are walking bone on bone.”

I am the old lady who–even in extremis–knows a good metaphor when she hears one. Living “bone on bone” is what entering the kingdom of the oldest old is all about.

The happy novelty of the senior citizen discount is long past; and, for many of us, the need for total care is still ahead. Are we well? Not really. There may be that bad hip or trick knee, the dimming sight, the sounds we can’t quite catch, the need to rest more often, a list of chronic conditions that accumulate over the years.

But we aren’t seriously ill either. Our doctors find nothing that is cause for immediate alarm. We may live on for years, perhaps a decade, more. Diminished selves–going, going, but not soon gone. (more…)

Tuesday, January 19th, 2016

A Reflection, by Martin Meisel

Chaos Imagined

This week, our featured book is Chaos Imagined: Literature, Art, Science, by Martin Meisel. Today, we are happy to present a guest post from Meisel in which he discusses the origins of the massive undertaking of researching and writing Chaos Imagined.

A Reflection
By Martin Meisel

Sometimes I am asked how I came to write this book, one that strays so far from the umbrella of my credentialed competence. It happened after publication of an earlier book called Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial, and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth-Century England. My editors, the formidable Miriam Brokaw and Jerry Sherwood, then with the Princeton University Press, asked me, “Well, what’s next?” I really didn’t know. But like most scholars I had a file of bright ideas that I might want to follow up one year or another, and I offered some of those: a book on Dickens, about whose imaginative superabundance and uses of plot as symbolic instrument I had a lot to say (“Yes, go on.”). One on Ben Jonson’s plays, whose comedic brilliance delighted me. Something on prediction in literary studies (“Interesting.”). A book on the theater of professions—journalism, medicine, law, politics, the clergy, theater, the military. A book on Sean O’Casey’s plays, which I had been teaching (and acting, from the podium) with great relish (“Uh huh. And?”). A book on the idea of “chaos” and its attempted representations—the obverse, so to speak, of the usual premise in the history of ideas, not to say the study of cultures and societies, where an investigator typically sought to elicit “cosmos,” that is, ideas of order, as in the Elizabethan (or Tobriand Islander) “World Picture.” It had struck me, moreover, that imagining and representing the extreme of disorder—chaos—had a history. The “shape” of chaos varied, not only from place to place, but, even in our own evolving culture, over time. “Do that!” said my editors in chorus. “All right,” I replied, being of indecisive character and grateful for firm guidance, though tenacious, indeed stubborn, once I had come to decision. A decision is too valuable an achievement to forego.

The trouble—which turned out to be the reward—was that this project demanded at least some competence in areas where I might have general knowledge, but neither depth nor expertise. So it embroiled me, not just in research, but in education—educating myself in myriad matters, like mathematical notation in ancient Greece, rival schools in ancient philosophy, subjects and approaches in art history, thermodynamic theory and its development, history of warfare, philosophy of science, literature in languages I couldn’t read. As a scholar, I have always had a fear—a sort of death’s-head presence in my preconscious—of turning into a version of the Reverend Mr. Casaubon, the dry-as-dust scholar in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, engaged in a work called “The Key to All Mythologies,” designed to prove that all mythologies were corruptions of the true nature and history of things to be found in the Holy Bible. The trouble in his case, apart from the hubristic ambition of his project, was that he was ignorant of the language and scholarship of contemporary philology and biblical criticism, not to say archaeology, much of it in German. And here was I, with a project of similar scope and ambition, and with any number of manifest deficiencies. And then in the end—even if I were to rise to the challenge—there was the threat of what one might call the imitative fallacy: writing a book about chaos that was itself chaotic. For with so uncontainable a subject, where so much that seemed relevant turned up around every corner, the end result could be hash, a potpourri with neither structure nor standpoint, rhyme nor reason. In that case, thought I—as time passed, and I detoured sporadically into other projects, but always came back to this one—I will have had the pleasure of nosing about in so many fascinating, exotic, and sometimes forbidding locales, the pleasure I hoped to bring to my students every day: of learning.

And so here is the result—Chaos Imagined—only made possible, I suspect, by what I have managed to leave out. I hope its readers will also find some pleasure in it, and some enrichment of the kind it gave so abundantly to me.

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

In Touch and Feeling with Dogs

With Dogs at the Edge of Life

“Can we engage our feelings without appropriation? Can we think through human and non-human mutuality without abstracting animals into what can be packaged and consumed—either as objects of moral concern or as literary device? Can we really think with dogs?” — Colin Dayan

Happy New Year! This week, our featured book is With Dogs at the Edge of Life, by Colin Dayan. In today’s post, Dayan discusses the difficulty and the value of thinking and feeling with dogs.

In Touch and Feeling with Dogs
By Colin Dayan

     It is myself,
            Not the poor beast lying there

                    yelping with pain

     that brings me to myself with a start—

–William Carlos Williams, “To a Dog Injured in the Street”

Our greatest poets struggle with their response to and feeling with dogs. Elizabeth Bishop calls a stray, crippled, “depilated dog” to carnival as she laments a world that disallows and disposes of “anyone who begs, drugged, drunk, or sober, with or without legs,” in “Pink Dog.” John Berryman in the great ennui of “Dream Song 14” finds his tedium interrupted by a dog:

And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into the mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.

Out of the wear and tear of life comes the surprise. Something as ordinary as the wagging tail of a dog generates a miracle of transubstantiation. The dog and its tail take flight into “mountains or sea or sky,” while the poet remains. He inhabits and takes on what is left behind. The self turns into what a tail does. A nonhuman subjectivity is born in the conflation of the poetic I with the lilting, uplifting swish, sway, and shake of the canine hindquarters.

The vicissitudes, gaps, and blurring that these poets find in the sentience of dogs promise a renewal of self, as well as of language. To be “sensible” is to make meaning in its materiality: to think with the body. Yet it is a fine line between feeling for or with dogs and turning the non-human into source of inspiration or grist for academic argumentation—nothing less than yet another prompt to our poetic or moral thought or inquiry.

Can we engage our feelings without appropriation? Can we think through human and non-human mutuality without abstracting animals into what can be packaged and consumed—either as objects of moral concern or as literary device? Can we really think with dogs? This terrain of mutual adaptability puts us in the thick of what we are not. It asks that we step back and ask how we can know feeling that is not tied to our assumptions. Such a transforming regard also changes how we treat our fellow humans.

As our world becomes obscene in its greed and violence, I wonder if through the route of the dog we might find a practical and embodied way of being with others that doesn’t entail dominance and subordination. I do not advise that we lose sight of how brutality in the non-human world is part and parcel of the disregard and harm so pronounced in the human. But rather through a minded and felt—as well as “attentive” — empathy in all relations, I want to consider how we might dismantle individual preferment.

The route is not easy. Again, animality is what I want us to think about, not claims for humanity. The knowledge that matters has everything to do with perception, an attentiveness that might unleash another kind of intelligibility. Facing what is not our own or what we cannot know, in this bafflement we might relate most fully to what lies within, beside, and beyond ourselves.

Can we live in a world of contestation and entanglement? Such intimacy promises to lead us out of thought and into a feeling that renews another sense of the political. When William Carlos Williams died in 1963, Kenneth Burke wrote a moving reminiscence in The New York Review of Books.

Burke recalled that a few years after Williams, crippled with ailments, had stopped treating patients, they both walked “slowly on a beach in Florida.” Burke’s recollection affirms the meaning of empathy: a sentience that draws together two beings in a manner of experience that heals. It is tactile. It is a demanding reciprocity, a being together in a pain that can be healed if shared. In becoming acquainted with what lies outside the self, we enter into another kind of knowing.

For Burke, who felt sympathy for the dog—a feeling that did not help—this exchange captures what Williams called “contact.” The impetus for both his medical and poetic technique, this practice of discernment is not the precondition for uniqueness but rather an imperative to seek a more voracious if always provisional communion.

A neighbor’s dog decided to accompany us, but was limping. I leaned down, aimlessly hoping to help the dog (which became suddenly frightened, and nearly bit me). Then Williams took the paw in his left hand (the right was now less agile) and started probing for the source of the trouble. It was a gesture at once expert and imaginative, something in which to have perfect confidence, as both the cur and I saw in a flash. Feeling between the toes lightly, quickly, and above all surely, he spotted a burr, removed it without the slightest cringe on the dog’s part—and the three of us were again on our way along the beach.

Such contact demands a radical change in perspective. Not only does it complicate our understanding of the political, but it also escapes humanistic or morality-based assumptions.

Questioning the prescriptive force of morality—and its familiar companions, civility and reason, is crucial, it seems to me, in these times of exclusion and disposal. The radical inclusivity of such an appeal matters now more than ever. At the edge of a cherished humanism, what if we summoned instead a remote and uncertain reservoir on which all creatures might draw but from which most humans have learned to cut themselves off completely?

Early one morning last week I walked my dog Stella down the main street of the neighborhood. A white pick-up truck was waiting in a drive to enter the street. The dog ran up, as she sometimes does when white men in trucks, those I grew up knowing as “crackers” or “red necks,” look out at her. This is an inclination that I’m still trying to understand. She jumped, one paw on the seat of the man’s car, and another on his leg, and began to greet him powerfully with licks and nudges. He welcomed her and said in answer to my wonder: “She knows I’m sick, and that’s why she’s trying to help me. I’m dying.” Then he gently beat his chest, adding, “She can smell it. She wants to give me some relief.”

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2015

Why Culture? — Brian Edwards, Author of “After the American Century”

After the American Century, Brian T. Edwards

“Analysts of foreign affairs tend to relegate understanding culture as irrelevant to the hard work of political science and international relations…. I am increasingly convinced that this is an error—and a costly one. Cultural products and debates over them help to explain the world we live in.”—Brian T. Edwards

The following is a post by Brian T. Edwards, author of After the American Century: The Ends of U.S. Culture in the Middle East:

The devastating acts of murder and violence in France last month targeted a rock concert, a soccer match, and cafés in Paris’s dynamic 10th arrondissement. This past January, a satirical magazine most famous for its cartoons was attacked. The sites where these terrible crimes took place were not simply gathering places. They were locations where people go to consume or produce “culture.”

In the general hysteria of our times, we tend to reduce cultural products and their consumption to simple rather than complex things. Rushing to keep up with an ever more dire geopolitical landscape, an easy binarism prevails: us versus them, civilization versus barbarism. Paris becomes simply the romantic city of lights under attack, the debate over Charlie Hebdo a simple question of freedom of speech.

But this replaces a more nuanced sense of how culture is both contested and how cultural products can offer a window onto the complexities of life in various parts of the planet during a time of global transformation.

Many analysts of foreign affairs tend to relegate understanding culture as irrelevant to the hard work of political science and international relations. The humanities and humanistic social sciences (such as cultural anthropology) are all well and good, from this perspective, but secondary when it comes to understanding or negotiating international relations.

I am increasingly convinced that this is an error—and a costly one. Cultural products and debates over them help to explain the world we live in with a nuance that is missing from social science formulas or the distant perspective that media talking heads take.

When I read or listen to accounts of the great and ancient tensions between Sunni and Shia, or analysts who chart the national rivalries between states like a giant game of Risk, I feel that the discussion is too abstract and fails to reflect the realities as I have come to understand them based on more than two decades of discussions with people in the Middle East and North Africa.

(more…)

Tuesday, December 1st, 2015

RMB Inclusion into SDR: Hyperbole and Reality

The China Boom

The following is a guest post by Ho-fung Hung, author of The China Boom: Why China Will Not Rule the World:

RMB Inclusion into SDR: Hyperbole and Reality
By Ho-fung Hung

As widely expected, IMF decided on Monday to accept RMB, the Chinese currency, into the currency basket that made up its Special Drawing Rights (SDR), rendering the RMB the fifth currency in the basket after USD, euro, British pound, and Japanese yen. Predictably, many will hail the inclusion as a triumph of China’s global financial power, even though they might never hear of SDR until last month and still don’t know what SDR exactly is. If we put RMB’s inclusion in the SDR in its proper historical and global context, we would find that such inclusion does not actually mean much to the Chinese and world economy in the long run. It may even bring some immediate troubles to China’s slowing economy.

The Rise, Fall, and Brief Revival of SDR

IMF created the SDR in 1969 to solve the problem of the inadequacy of hard currencies, such as US dollar and gold, necessary to maintain the Bretton Woods monetary order. Such order was constructed in the Bretton Woods Conference of 1944 and was anchored on the gold convertibility of USD under 1 ounce of gold to 35 USD rate, as well as fixed exchange rates of major currencies with the USD. To warrant the stability of this order, central banks of major capitalist countries needed to accumulate sizeable foreign exchange reserves so that they could intervene to protect their currencies’ peg with the USD at times of currency crisis. The rapid expansion of the world economy in the 1960s fomented a shortfall of USD and gold that jeopardized the stability of the Bretton Woods order. The invention of the SDR is an IMF attempt to tackle such shortfall. (more…)

Tuesday, November 24th, 2015

Choosing the Right Wine for Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving wine

The following advice on choosing the right wine to go with your turkey and stuffing is from Natalie Berkowitz, author of The Winemaker’s Hand: Conversations on Talent, Technique, and Terroir:

The Pilgrims couldn’t have imagined how their fabled first Thanksgiving would morph into the glorious holiday all Americans treasure. New information redefines the myths surrounding that celebration, but whether fact or fiction, Thanksgiving is embedded, even sanctified, as America’s premier national holiday. Wherever we came from, we all have reason to celebrate the unifying holiday.

Variations of the iconic dinner are prepared in most kitchens across our country. While preparation of the meal may differ from culture to culture, from palate to palate, and from one culinary preference to another, a question often posed is which wine pairs the best with these elaborate meals.

Some good advice begins with the choice of wines with a lower alcohol level ranging from 10 to 12%. A light red wine is considered the best partner for the multicourse dinner, although my friend Michaela Rodeno, former CEO of St. Supéry Wines in Napa suggests champagne or sparkling wine as a perfect pairing. I agree wholeheartedly. There’s no question several other wines are a fine choice when our palates are challenged by an overabundance of holiday foods and we tend to recoil from wines with intense flavors.

Within the range of light wines, there are many to choose from. One of the best is Beaujolais Nouveau, a wine often referred to as “refreshment in a bottle.” Banners in wine shops announce the yearly arrival of Beaujolais Nouveau with fanfare in November, just in the nick of time for the holiday season. The wine is young and fresh, a step away from grape juice, hot off the wine press, bottled two months after fermentation and ready for immediate consumption. It’s meant to be drunk without intense examination. Think of them as adolescents in a glass, a middle ground between white and red wines. Best of all, these wines are accessible since their alcohol levels normally range between 10 and 10.5%, it is suitable for a range of guests from kiddies (diluted with water, of course!) right up to grandparents. It solves the problem of whether to pour red or white.

The Beaujolais region lies just to the south of its more famous neighbor, Burgundy, whose wines are ranked among the best in France. The region has been producing wine since the time of the Romans, and many of the vineyards were planted centuries ago, proof of its longevity and popularity. Unfortunately, these wines can sometimes be thin and lackluster, but finding a lovely version is a worthwhile venture. Reliable bottlers are Bouchard Aîné & Fils, George Du Boeuf, and Louis Jadot.

Wine lovers of a serious sort may turn their noses up at this wine, questioning whether a light wine is as enjoyable as its big, bolder siblings. Since these inexpensive wines are one step away from grape juice, their attractiveness lies in their reasonable prices, and qualities that make them as an easy quaff, light on the palate, yet flavorful enough to pair with this rich dinner. Beaujolais Villages, a step up in quality is produced in several areas in the eponymous region, are more sophisticated and relatively inexpensive. They range from $8.99 to about $15.

(more…)

Monday, November 9th, 2015

Becoming Way Too Cool: How Neoliberalism Alters How We Feel

Way Too Cool

The following is a guest post by Shannon Winnubst, author of Way Too Cool: Selling Out Race and Ethics.

Becoming Way Too Cool
(How Neoliberalism Alters How We Feel)
Shannon Winnubst

I remember when my grandmother learned to use the word “cool.” It must have been about 1982 and, at 83 years old, she spryly pronounced my new shirt was “cool.” Stopped short, I caught the twinkle in her eye and proudly agreed. Little did we both know that we were in the grips of the rapidly ascendant neoliberal marketing machine.

“Cool” has been big business for a long time now. Pilfered from black culture by the men’s clothing advertising industry in the late 1970s, “cool” has packaged just about every commodity on the market at one time or another—and still continues to do so. Youth culture, especially, seems never to lose its connection with this heartbeat of energy. “Cool” has become a kind of naturalized constant in 21st century marketing cultures: we are so drawn to it that we cannot imagine otherwise. The quest to be “so cool” seems never to die.

But “cool” didn’t always refer to the latest, hippest thing. In the U.S., “cool” was born in post-World War II aesthetics of black culture, especially jazz. It captured and galvanized the kind of ironic detachment that enabled black folks to persevere in the face of systematic, persistent racism and its everyday violence. It energized black folks not only to survive, but to create and believe in something better. When Miles Davis stood up to racist cops and bigoted television show hosts, he was enacting the essence of cool: the kind of strong, determined detachment from racist mainstream culture that enabled intense creativity and the strength to flourish. This kind of “cool” is what bell hooks identifies in black leaders such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. as the strength to “alchemically change pain into gold.” The birth of “cool” was the birth of an ethical detachment from the hostility and violence of a racist world that carved the space for a better, more just world. (more…)

Friday, November 6th, 2015

Themes from The Con Men

The Con Men

“This book came about because both Terry and I are New Yorkers who came here from other places. There are the known mechanics of this city, and then its underground economy. We came to The Con Men as a way of making sense of this untaxed and unauthorized world.” — Trevor B. Milton

This week, our featured book is The Con Men: Hustling in New York City, by Terry Williams and Trevor B. Milton. In today’s post, Trevor B. Milton looks back at the genesis of the book, and explains some of the key threads that tie the book’s many stories together.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of The Con Men!

Themes from The Con Men
By Trevor B. Milton

This book came about because both Terry and I are New Yorkers who came here from other places. There are the known mechanics of this city, and then its underground economy. We came to The Con Men as a way of making sense of this untaxed and unauthorized world. There is something in this book for everyone who has ever resided in this city, something familiar to all who walk its streets. New York City is the unit of analysis; con artists and hustlers are the bi-product.

New York City is rugged, aggressive, and competitive, yet it is also one of the most desirable cities in the world, with broad boulevards, tree-lined avenues, yellow and lime-green cabs darting hither and yon, and frantic crowds moving along busy streets. And though New Yorkers constantly complain about trash, traffic, trains, and any number of other hassles, most of them readily acknowledge that they live in one of the greatest cities in the world. Among its many finer points, New York offers access to the best museums and cultural institutions and an intelligentsia unmatched anywhere. New York, New York: a city so nice they named it twice… (more…)

Wednesday, November 4th, 2015

The Con Game

The Con Men

“To be honest, I wanted to get some of the cash the man flashed. I had greed in my heart, and that’s what got me into trouble.” — Terry Williams

This week, our featured book is The Con Men: Hustling in New York City, by Terry Williams and Trevor B. Milton. In today’s post, Terry Williams describes his first encounter with a con game in New York, how he was duped, and how this experience led him to study con games in his scholarly work.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of The Con Men!

The Con Game
By Terry Williams

I first got involved in a con game by chance: I happened to be strolling down the wrong street at the wrong time. However, stumbling into a con made it possible for me to better understand how the con game might be studied in an urban setting.

I was a young student at the time, with only five dollars in my pocket, trying to find my way around the city. On this particular day I became a modern version of Voltaire’s Candide, only instead of finding my fortune I found myself standing on an isolated city street explaining to two strangers why I could be trusted.

Let me go back to the beginning

I saw a man standing near 125th Street. He stopped me to say that he was not from New York (he had an accent), was lost, and needed my help. He showed me a piece of paper, which upon a brief inspection listed an address close to where we were standing, but as I tried to look more closely at the paper, he took it from me and handed it to another passerby with the same question. This time, however, he took out a wad of money and made a generous offer for help finding the address on the paper. He said he had been given $10,000 of insurance money after his brother lost his leg in an accident. He just wanted to “get some pussy before I leave the city.” I didn’t see exactly how much money he had, but it was a big bundle of bills and he said he would give some to both of us if we helped him. (more…)

Thursday, October 15th, 2015

Nietzsche’s Birthday Gift to Us — What Is So Terribly Wrong about Love

Friedrich Nietzsche | Love and War

“This kind of love in which men are dominant and women are subordinate, Nietzsche says, results in antagonism between men and women. Unabated and unthwarted, that dynamic leads to an all-too-familiar pattern of tragedy in heterosexual love.”—Tom Digby

The following post, in honor of Friedrich Nietzsche’s birthday, is by Tom Digby, author of Love and War: How Militarism Shapes Sexuality and Romance:

When philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s name is mentioned, often the word “controversial” is attached. But today is his birthday, and we tend to say nice things about a person on their birthday, so I want to discuss one of Nietzsche’s most wonderfully useful insights. It is about love, and it plays a fundamentally important role in my new book, Love and War: How Militarism Shapes Sexuality and Romance.

Nietzsche wrote about love toward the end of the nineteenth century, at a time when the notion of women’s equality was getting a lot of attention—and a lot of men were getting scared! In other words, it was a time like today. But Nietzsche was braver than many men, and he dove headfirst into the topic of the relationship between gender equality and heterosexual love.

One of the biggest obstacles to gender equality, according to Nietzsche, is precisely the different but complementary ways that our culture programs women and men to understand love. Through literature, music, and religion (and today, movies) the idea gets promulgated that for women love means devotion, even complete surrender. Hence, says Nietzsche, for women love is supposed to be a kind of faIth.

It is different for men, says Nietzsche. In fact, men want that kind of love from women, but they are expected not to manifest it themselves. For a man to surrender to a woman, or to be completely devoted to her, is downright unmanly, according to our culture. “A man who loves like a woman becomes thereby a slave; a woman, however, who loves like a woman becomes thereby a more perfect woman.” Nietzsche leaves for us the task of articulating the tacit conclusion: The most perfect woman is a slave.

Is Nietzsche’s description of the cultural programming of heterosexual love quaint and out of touch in the twenty-first century? To assess that, we can start with cueing the Britney Spears song, “I’m a Slave 4 U.” Then we can consider how guys who seem devoted to, or even just minimally considerate of, a girlfriend are often described as “whipped.” That pejorative connotes enslavement, and in the full version, “pussy whipped,” it is clear that the enslavement is specifically to a woman. As Nietzsche points out, such a subordinate status is culturally understood to be entirely inconsistent with being a “real man.”

(more…)

Friday, October 2nd, 2015

American Individualism Challenged

Beyond Individualism

“The individualism that Americans embrace is all-too-often seen as an attack on the core values of more traditional societies. In such contexts, individualism is all too easily characterized as uncontrolled materialism and hedonism aimed at undermining the long-established commitments and practices of communities opposed to outside intervention.” — George Rupp

This week, our second featured book is Beyond Individualism: The Challenge of Inclusive Communities, by George Rupp. Today, on the final day of the week’s features, we are happy to present an essay by Rupp, in which he argues that the individualism embraced by both liberals and conservatives in American politics has a deleterious effect on both American domestic and foreign policy.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy!

American Individualism Challenged
By George Rupp

Especially in this campaign season, the cause of individualism is claimed across the conservative-liberal spectrum of contemporary U.S. politics. Conservatives affirm individual initiatives and embrace the liberty of individuals, often grounded in religious convictions. Liberals insist on the freedom of individual expression and action and view social order as the result of agreements among consenting individuals.

Yet this apparent agreement as to the merits of individualism has led, not to shared positive outcomes, but rather to a catastrophic under-investment in public goods.

Government funding for education at all levels has declined. The same is true for investments in the research that has undergirded global competitiveness. Similarly, the infrastructure for transportation requires massive attention. Less immediately evident but even more compelling for the long term is the imperative of care for environmental sustainability. In all such areas, the United States faces a tragedy of the commons even as private interests dominate in all sectors.

The under-investment in social goods is accentuated by the increasing spread between the income and wealth of the very top stratum of society and all other strata—not only the poor but also the middle class and even significant segments of what used to be the well-to-do. This increasingly unequal distribution of income and wealth is in any case troubling. But it is especially challenging when it includes reduced upward mobility not only in comparison with past American patterns but also compared to other Western societies that have significantly better recent records of movement from lower to higher income levels.

The challenges in domestic patterns have international ramifications as well. The most basic ones result from what will be an increasingly evident lack of international competitiveness over the long term. Reduced upward mobility, declining educational attainments, and smaller investments in infrastructure and research will all over time have powerfully negative consequences.

There are also current effects on international relations. The fact that the United States devotes proportionately less of its resources to global development than virtually all other wealthy countries is one measure of under-investment. But an even more direct impact of American individualism is evident in conflict areas around the world.

The individualism that Americans embrace is all-too-often seen as an attack on the core values of more traditional societies. In such contexts, individualism is all too easily characterized as uncontrolled materialism and hedonism aimed at undermining the long-established commitments and practices of communities opposed to outside intervention. Instances of these antagonistic positions are inescapable in Sudan, Afghanistan, and Iraq among many other conflicts.

In confronting the appeal of such characterizations, responses can and should highlight the myriad ways in which individualism is not antagonistic to the traditional values of community. There will unavoidably be areas of tension and disagreement—for example, in regard to the role of women or the prerogatives of elders. But what is crucial is to affirm the value of traditional communities and acknowledge that there are limits to the entitlement of individuals.

One point of conflict that is potentially an area of collaboration is religion. Religious allegiances can easily become a source of mutual antagonism. Indeed, inter-religious contention and distrust have at quite a few times—regrettably including the present—been drivers of hostility. Yet there is remarkable agreement across the entire range of religious traditions that individual attainment need not be opposed to affirming the value of community. Put positively, the faith, the insight, and the conviction of the individual presupposes a nourishing and supportive community.

While this mutual support is affirmed in Hindu, Buddhist, Confucian, and other initially Asian communities and also in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions, it is not immediately evident in some of the more strident forms of modern secular individualism. This fact renders alleged American imperialism the more plausible as a target for attack. It is therefore incumbent on the U.S. for both principled and pragmatic reasons to embrace and commend the values of communities as fundamentally compatible with the core principles of individualism.

Both liberal and conservative traditions have contributions to offer. The individualism of conservatives includes explicit recognition of the role of the community in shaping the identities of its members. Religious communities figure prominently in this process, but voluntary associations of all kinds are also included. Similarly, the individualism of liberals includes the aspiration for community as well. In this case, the community is much more likely to be secular and at its most ambitious is universal in scope, seeking in principle to include all individuals everywhere, albeit often with little focus on particular local communities.

The challenge for both conservative and liberal advocates of individualism is to allow their shared albeit not identical commitment to community to gain enough traction to overcome the under-investment in public goods that is impoverishing our common life.

Friday, September 18th, 2015

A Dozen Things I’ve Learned from Charlie Munger About Risk, Part 2

Charlie Munger

“When any person offers you a chance to earn lots of money without risk, don’t listen to the rest of their sentence. Follow this and you’ll save yourself a lot of misery.” — Charlie Munger

This week our featured book is Charlie Munger: The Complete Investor, by Tren Griffin. For our final two posts (read the first here), we are happy to present a post from Tren Griffin explaining Charlie Munger’s take on the importance of understanding and being aware of risk in investing. The post was originally featured on Griffin’s blog, 25iq.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Charlie Munger: The Complete Investor!

A Dozen Things I’ve Learned from Charlie Munger About Risk, Part 2
By Tren Griffin

7.
“[With] a lot of judgment, a lot of discipline and an absence of hyperactivity… I think most intelligent people can take a lot of risk out of life.”
The three best ways to reduce risk are diversification, hedging and buying with a margin of safety argues Seth Klarman. Making life less risky is also assisted greatly if you make fewer decisions in domains where you do not know what you are doing after doing a significant amount of thinking about the domain involved and the decision. Doing this requires discipline since we all make psychological and emotional mistakes. One technique for avoiding risk is to place decisions that fall in the domain of “I don’t know” into a “too hard” pile if you can. Sometimes a decision is unavoidable and judgment will be required. Munger puts the investor’s objective simply: “What you have to learn is to fold early when the odds are against you, or if you have a big edge, back it heavily because you don’t get a big edge often.”

8.
“Each person has to play the game given his own marginal utility considerations and in a way that takes into account his own psychology. If losses are going to make you miserable – and some losses are inevitable – you might be wise to utilize a very conservative patterns of investment and saving all your life. So you have to adapt your strategy to your own nature and your own talents. I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all investment strategy that I can give you.” “If we’d used the leverage that some others did, Berkshire would have been much bigger… But we would have been sweating at night. It’s crazy to sweat at night.”
There is no recipe or formula for investing or dealing with risk. Everyone has a unique tolerance for risk since we are all more or less comfortable with various factors that create it. Some people find it useful to have heuristics (rules of thumb) to guide them in assessing whether a comfortable level of risk tolerance exists. Whether you can sleep soundly at night is a one heuristic. If your investments are preventing you from getting a good night’s sleep it may be wise to adjust your portfolio so that it is consistent with a comfortable sleep. Seth Klarman agrees with Charlie Munger on this point: “Investors should always keep in mind that the most important metric is not the returns achieved but the returns weighed against the risks incurred. Ultimately, nothing should be more important to investors than the ability to sleep soundly at night.”

9.
“This is an amazingly sound place. We are more disaster-resistant than most other places. We haven’t pushed it as hard as other people would have pushed it. I don’t want to go back to Go. I’ve been to Go. A lot of our shareholders have a majority of their net worth in Berkshire, and they don’t want to go back to Go either.” “I wanted to get rich so I could be independent, and so I could do other things like give talks on the intersection of psychology and economics.”
The factors which determine the level of risk that is appropriate for any given person include life goals, age and wealth. For example, Charlie Munger left the practice of law to become an investor since he had a fierce desire to acquire wealth so he could be independent. He did not want to have other people dictate what he did in life. The value of that freedom once acquired can be so high that a person can become unwilling to put at risk the amount of money require to ensure that this independence continues. Playing the game of life with house money (money that you don’t really need to be happy) is underrated. At the point where you are playing with house money the game substantially changes since your basic financially driven level of happiness is not at stake. Of course, you can still be rich and miserable, but that comes from other problems, attitudes and mistakes.

10.
“There is a lot to be said that when the world is going crazy, to put yourself in a position where you take risk off the table.” “Here’s one truth that perhaps your typical investment counselor would disagree with: if you’re comfortably rich and someone else is getting richer faster than you by, for example, investing in risky stocks, so what? Someone will always be getting richer faster than you. This is not a tragedy.”
There are times in life when the world will not make much sense, at least to you. As an example, the Intent bubble of 1999-2001 was a time like that. In my book on Charlie Munger I describe a decision I made to sell half of my telecom and Internet portfolio near the height of the bubble. The sale ensured that I would not be a burden to anyone in my retirement and that my children would be able to go to college with my financial assistance. Taking a little risk off the table if you plan to double down on some new risky investments is wise.

11.
“A lot of our major capitalistic institutions that parade as really respectable, they’re just casinos in drag. What do you think a derivative trading desk is? It’s a casino in drag. People feeling they’re contributing to the economy, and they’re managing risk. They make the witch doctors look good.” “I knew a guy who had $5 million and owned his house free and clear. But he wanted to make a bit more money to support his spending, so at the peak of the internet bubble he was selling puts on internet stocks. He lost all of his money and his house and now works in a restaurant. It’s not a smart thing for the country to legalize gambling [in the stock market] and make it very accessible.” “Gambling does not become wonderful just because it pertains to commerce. It’s a casino.”
One definition of gambling is: an activity involving chance that has a negative net present value after fees. Some people find gambling entertaining, since it produces brain chemicals that can be pleasurable. I don’t personally see the point of doing something that could potentially turn into a destructive addiction and potentially wipe you out financially. In my view there are many other non-addictive things that one can do to get a dopamine buzz that are not addictive and are potentially profitable. Munger says: “intelligent people make decisions based on opportunity costs — in other words, it’s your alternatives that matter. That’s how we make all of our decisions…. Opportunity cost is a huge filter in life. If you’ve got two suitors who are really eager to have you and one is way the hell better than the other, you do not have to spend much time with the other.” Gambling fails the opportunity cost test for me. The other point Munger is making is that gambling is not a productive activity. You are not building anything valuable when you gamble. The societal contribution of the activity is negative.

12.
“When any person offers you a chance to earn lots of money without risk, don’t listen to the rest of their sentence. Follow this and you’ll save yourself a lot of misery.”
When it comes to investing it is wise to follow the advice of Howard Marks and think of the future as a probability distribution rather than some fixed outcome that is knowable or predictable in advance. Almost nothing about the future is certain except death and taxes. No one says it better than Howard Marks when it comes to risk: “not being able to know the future doesn’t mean we can’t deal with it. It’s one thing to know what’s going to happen and something very different to have a feeling for the range of possible outcomes and the likelihood of each one happening. Saying we can’t do the former doesn’t mean we can’t do the latter.”

Thursday, September 17th, 2015

A Dozen Things I’ve Learned from Charlie Munger About Risk, Part 1

Charlie Munger

“This great emphasis on volatility in corporate finance we regard as nonsense. Let me put it this way; as long as the odds are in our favor and we’re not risking the whole company on one throw of the dice or anything close to it, we don’t mind volatility in results. What we want are favorable odds.” — Charlie Munger

This week our featured book is Charlie Munger: The Complete Investor, by Tren Griffin. For our final two posts, we are happy to present a post from Tren Griffin explaining Charlie Munger’s take on the importance of understanding and being aware of risk in investing. The post was originally featured on Griffin’s blog, 25iq.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Charlie Munger: The Complete Investor!

A Dozen Things I’ve Learned from Charlie Munger About Risk, Part 1
By Tren Griffin

1.
“Risk to us is 1) the risk of permanent loss of capital, or 2) the risk of inadequate return.”
Risk has many different dimensions that must be considered including sources, magnitude, outcomes and decision making inputs. In terms of a definition, Seth Klarman writes that risk is: “described by both the probability and the potential amount of loss.” Charlie Munger emphasizes an important point in his quotation since it is the permanent loss which should be the focus of investors since temporary drops can actually represent an opportunity for an investor if they can purchase more of an asset at the lower price and ride out the drop in price. The focus of this definition of risk is on potential “outcomes.” In terms of “sources” of risk, Warren Buffett believes that “risk comes from not knowing what you’re doing” and that “the best way to minimize risk is to think.” This is why Charlie Munger spends so much time thinking about thinking. The magnitude of risk assumed by a given investor on any investment depends on the nature of the asset, but also the price paid for the asset. In addition to not knowing what you are doing, one way to increase risk to pay such a high price for an asset that there is no margin for error. Seth Klarman makes the important point that “risk and return must be assessed independently or every investment…. risk does not create incremental return only price can do that.” Howard Marks makes the insightful point that risk itself cannot be counted on to generate higher financial returns, since if this was the case the assets would not actually be riskier. Richard Zeckhauser has his own definition of risk focused on the “inputs” a person has in the decision-making process rather that the “outcome” based definition of Buffett and Klarman. Zeckhauser believes that “risk” is limited to situations where all potential future states and their probabilities are known. Roulette in his view involves risk since you know all future states and probabilities in playing the game. When the probabilities of potential future states are not known, Zeckhauser calls that situation “uncertainty” and when you don’t know all potential future states he refers to that as “ignorance.” Most of life is uncertain rather than risky. True risk, as Zeckhauser defines it, is actually not that common in real life. For the rest of this blog post when I refer to “risk” I will be referring to the Klarman/Buffett/Marks definition of risk as an outcome (‘the possibility of loss or injury”) because that is what I believe Charlie Munger is referring to in each quotation. (more…)

Wednesday, September 16th, 2015

A Dozen Things I’ve Learned from Charlie Munger About Making Rational Decisions, Part 2

Charlie Munger

“Rationality … requires developing systems of thought that improve your batting average over time.” “Luckily, I have selected very easy problems all my life, and I have a reasonable batting average.” “You don’t have to have perfect wisdom to get very rich – just a bit better than average over a long period of time.” — Charlie Munger

This week our featured book is Charlie Munger: The Complete Investor, by Tren Griffin. In today’s post, we are happy to present the second half of a post from Tren Griffin explaining Charlie Munger’s take on rationality, and why being rational is crucial for both investing and for life (view the first part here). The post was originally featured on Griffin’s blog, 25iq.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Charlie Munger: The Complete Investor!

A Dozen Things I’ve Learned from Charlie Munger about Making Rational Decisions, Part 2
By Tren Griffin

6.
“Second, what are the subconscious influences where the brain at a subconscious level is automatically doing these things-which by and large are useful, but which often malfunctions.” “Ordinary people [are] subconsciously affected by their inborn tendencies.”
After an expected value process is completed and you believe your decisions is rational, Charlie Munger suggests that the decision be cross-checked for possible errors. The reality is that no one has a fully rational mindset. It would not be possible to get out of bed in the morning if every human decision had to be made based on careful expected value calculations. Heuristics have been developed by humans to get through a day which sometimes cause decisions to become irrational, especially in a modern world which is very unlike most of history. In other words, no human is perfectly rational because everyone is impacted by emotional and psychological tendencies when making decisions. As a result, thinking rationally is a trained response. To be as rational in your daily life as Richard Zeckhauser is in playing bridge a person must overcome errors based on emotional or psychological mistakes. Rationality is in practical terms relative. Charlie Munger believes staying rational is hard work and requires constant practice and lifelong effort. Making mistakes is inevitable and will never stop, but you can learn to make less than your statistical share of mistakes. (more…)

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

A Dozen Things I’ve Learned from Charlie Munger About Making Rational Decisions, Part 1

Charlie Munger

“Rationality … requires developing systems of thought that improve your batting average over time.” “Luckily, I have selected very easy problems all my life, and I have a reasonable batting average.” “You don’t have to have perfect wisdom to get very rich – just a bit better than average over a long period of time.” — Charlie Munger

This week our featured book is Charlie Munger: The Complete Investor, by Tren Griffin. In today’s second post (check out the first for Charlie Munger’s take on the importance of reading for the investor!), we are happy to present the first half of a post from Tren Griffin explaining Charlie Munger’s take on rationality, and why being rational is crucial for both investing and for life. The post was originally featured on Griffin’s blog, 25iq.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Charlie Munger: The Complete Investor!

A Dozen Things I’ve Learned from Charlie Munger about Making Rational Decisions, Part 1
By Tren Griffin

The subtitle of my recently published book is “The Complete Investor.” While the book is written in the context of investing, understanding what Charlie Muunger teaches will help readers make rational decisions about anything in their life. Everyone must make decisions in life and by understanding how Charlie Munger thinks, you can improve your decision making skills. Learning to make better decisions requires that you spend some time thinking about thinking. The good news is that this learning process is fun. Charlie Munger puts it this way: “Learning has never been work for me. It’s play.” Life gets better if you adopt this approach to learning.

1.
“‘Charlie,’ she said, ‘What one word accounts for your remarkable success in life?’ I told her I was rational.”
If the actor in the television commercials for the famous beer is “the most interesting man in the world,” then perhaps Charlie Munger is “the most rational investor in the world.” His rationality and honesty in no small part explain why he is so popular. What Charlie Munger says is often so funny because he is perfectly willing to speak the truth in a completely unrestrained and direct manner. In other words, he appeals to so many people because of his honest insight about life, in much the same way as great comics like Louis C.K., Amy Schumer, or Chris Rock are so appealing. Individuals who speak the truth openly are often interesting, insightful and funny. To understand Charlie Munger’s appeal it is useful to think about the nature of rationality. Michael Mauboussin explains that there are different forms of rationality: “Cognitive scientists and philosophers talk about ‘instrumental’ and ‘epistemic’ rationality. Instrumental rationality is behaving in such a way that you get what you want the most, subject to constraints. Expected utility theory, which is based on a series of axioms, provides a normative framework for how to do this. You’ll be instrumentally rational if you follow the axioms. Epistemic rationality describes how well a person’s beliefs map onto the world. If you believe in the tooth fairy, for instance, you are showing a lack of epistemic rationality. Here’s a catchier way to remember the two terms: instrumental rationality is ‘what to do’ and epistemic rationality is ‘what is true.’” Charlie Munger understands and is focused on being both epistemically and instrumentally rational. (more…)

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

Robert Boyers on the idea of the “Advanced Idea”

Robert Boyers, The Fate of Ideas

The following post is by Robert Boyers, author of The Fate of Ideas: Seductions, Betrayals, Appraisals:

The Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega Y Gasset wrote extensively about what he called “the height of the times.” Unhappy about the backwardness of his country, its parochial tendencies and resistance to liberal ideas, he urged his fellow Spaniards to acquaint themselves with what seemed most demanding and ambitious in the modern art and thought of the early twentieth-century, and to assess their own Spanish culture by measuring it against the achievements of other European societies. There was, of course, no perfectly reliable or objective way of knowing what was genuinely “high” or “advanced,” and Ortega himself sometimes challenged the assumptions and practices associated with high modernism, most notably in his famous book on “The Dehumanization of Art.” But Ortega always believed that there really was a “height of the times,” and that it was important for artists and intellectuals to try to stay abreast of new developments and unfamiliar ideas. He understood that what was new was not therefore, or inevitably, worthy or impressive, and he feared that publicists and journalists might promote tenth-rate artworks and dubious ideas that lacked seriousness and complexity. But he regarded “the height of the times” as at least a useful fiction that might inspire people to take intellectual risks and to try at least to tolerate bold experimentation in the arts.

We have come a long way from the period when someone like Ortega felt he needed to make such a case. In most western countries, certainly in the United States, the new and experimental enjoy a status beyond anything that people of Ortega’s generation might have imagined. When the New Yorker art critic Harold Rosenberg titled a book The Tradition of the New, more than fifty years ago, he was confirming what had become clear to students of modernity. The new had become, in several respects, the one central, indispensable value within the framework of modernist and post-modernist culture. To speak of “the height of the times” was to signal an openness to the unfamiliar and an appetite for anything that seemed to go against the grain of ordinary popular taste and routine consumption.

By now, of course, vast numbers of people, hungry for novelty and spectacle, flock to museum exhibitions and gallery shows featuring varieties of shock and awe. Even writers operating within the framework of conventional narrative fiction are inclined to experimentation—think of J.M. Coetzee’s masterpiece Elizabeth Costello—while demanding thinkers like Slavoj Zizek command large audiences hungry for difficult and sometimes outlandish ideas.

In light of these developments, it may be useful to ask what may now be signified by a term like “the height of the times.” Is there such a thing as “advanced” art and thought, such that it might be differentiated from the “backward” or “traditional” or “reactionary”? Are there ideas we might legitimately classify as “advanced” and others that are clearly not advanced? Certainly we are inclined—most of us, at any rate—to believe that we know the difference between one kind of idea and another. Thus we say that a respect for “difference” is an advanced idea, and that verisimilitude can no longer be regarded as an important criterion of value in the arts. We assume that such judgments, or assumptions, are more or less secure, which is to say broadly if not universally shared.

(more…)

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

WITMonth 2015: Author/Translator/Author

WITMonth Posts'

In honor of August as Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth), we are featuring two very different posts by translators Howard Goldblatt and Esther Allen on women in translation. According to Meytal Radzinski at Bibliobio, only 30% of works translated into English are written by women. WIT Month is simply one effort part of a larger, concerted movement to address sexism in publishing.

Today’s article comes from Howard Goldblatt, the co-translator (with his wife, Sylvia Li Chun Lin) of Li Ang’s The Lost Garden: A Novel, forthcoming in November 2015. Goldblatt’s piece explains the meticulous translation and writing process he undertook to complete Chinese novelist Xiao Hong’s novel Ma Bo-le. He presents a glimpse into the stitching and unstitching of her drafts posthumously for the final installment of her novel.

We hope you enjoy reading!

Author/Translator/Author
By Howard Goldblatt

In 1940, Xiao Hong, a novelist from Northeast China who was born in 1911, wrote a novel entitled Ma Bo-le. It was published in Hong Kong the next year, when she wrote and published serially a sequel she called “Book Two.” The final installment appeared in a magazine in November, with the note, “End of Chapter Nine. More to come.” That did not happen. Two months later, shortly after the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong, she was dead of a throat infection, a botched operation, and a fragile constitution at the age of 31. She was buried in Repulse Bay. Now, more than half a century later, she is celebrated as one of China’s foremost writers of the Republican era; her childhood home, a stop on the Northeast China tour circuit, is flanked by a museum devoted to her and her work.

In the early 1980s, after a decade of writing and talking about Xiao Hong and translating much of her work, including two novels, I began a translation of Ma Bo-le, taking it slow, since I did not think a Western publishing house would be interested in an unfinished novel by an obscure Chinese writer. I cannot recall when it happened, but at some point I decided that I would write, in English, the third volume of what everyone agreed was planned as a trilogy, to complete the work. It has taken me more than twenty years to get up the nerve to fulfill that promise.

After editing a rough translation of the first two “books,” I picked up the thread of the original story, which ended as the protagonist contemplates traveling to Chongqing, the provisional capital of the Chiang Kai-shek government. As I wrote, I located the narrative in places where Xiao Hong had visited or lived—the Beipei district in Chongqing, Lock Road in Kowloon, Hong Kong—wherever possible, and included actual events and situations, such as her friendship with the three Japanese, the only true-to-life characters in the novel. For a speech Xiao Hong gave in Hong Kong to commemorate her mentor and friend, Lu Xun, who had died four years earlier, I quoted from the actual text. I even had them—author and protagonist—nearly meet on two occasions. I then translated and included snippets from essays and stories Xiao Hong wrote during that time. Beyond that, I had to follow my instincts, since Xiao Hong left no indication of how she planned to end the trilogy.

The novel is absolutely unique, not just to Xiao Hong’s oeuvre, but in the modern history of Chinese fiction, through the twentieth century and up to the present day. It has been reissued several times in Chinese and has been written about extensively. In it the eponymous character travels from Qingdao south to strike out on his own in the days prior to full-blown war with Japan. Once Shanghai is attacked, Ma Bo, whose wife and children have joined him, he follows the route his author took from one besieged city to the next, ending, as she did, in Hong Kong.

Ma Bo-le (pronounced Ma Buo-luh), a picaresque character much in the mold of self-preservationist Yossarian in Catch-22 or the slothful Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces, has few peers in the modern Chinese-language tradition. Nobelist Mo Yan’s bumbling “investigator” in The Republic of Wine and Taiwanese pedant Dong Siwen in Wang Chen-ho’s Rose, Rose, I Love You come close. Ma Bo-le anticipates them all by decades.

When first published, the novel, marked by humor, cynicism, and a number of solipsistic fictional characters, was not well received by many, who thought that only patriotic, incendiary anti-Japanese literature ought to be made available to a public experiencing the violence of war. That she defied such sentiments is remarkable in itself; that she did so on the run, as it were, when her relationships with the men in her life were rapidly deteriorating, and when she was in failing health, is extraordinary. And, we mustn’t forget, the second half was written against a biweekly publishing deadline. No wonder, then, that there are problems with the text. While inconsistencies and minor mistakes exist (now corrected), the greater issues are repetition and instances of redundant descriptions that create unwelcome longueurs. She needed an editor. With perhaps an excessive amount of sangfroid, I have taken on that responsibility. In addition to completing the narrative, I have shortened the work by twenty-five or thirty pages, added needed transitions and clarifications, and moved bits of text around to improve the narrative flow. “Book One” was published without chapter divisions; “Book Two” was divided into nine chapters. I have chosen not to call my seventy-five-page addition “Book Three,” opting instead to unify all three parts into twenty-nine chapters, sandwiched between a “prologue” and “epilogue,” two parts of a fictional dialogue between a member of a Hong Kong cultural society and the grown son of the novel’s protagonist following the discovery of a long-lost, anonymous manuscript—the “work.”

To set the scenes as accurately as possible, I have called upon a number of biographies of Xiao Hong in Chinese, my own among them, and have drawn upon a variety of contemporary reports on China and Hong Kong, including Theodore H. White’s Thunder Out of China (1946); China: After Seven Years of War (1945, Hollington K. Tong, ed.); and Anna Louise Strong’s One-Fifth of Mankind: China Fights for Freedom.

I have spent four decades in the wonderful company—figuratively, intellectually, literarily, and emotionally—of Xiao Hong. I can only hope that, now that she would have found our collaboration acceptable.

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

WITMonth 2015: Lost In Translation

WITMonth Posts'

In honor of August as Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth), we are featuring two very different posts by translators Howard Goldblatt and Esther Allen on women in translation. According to Meytal Radzinski at Bibliobio, only 30% of works translated into English are written by women. WIT Month is simply one effort part of a larger, concerted movement to address sexism in publishing.

Today’s article comes from Esther Allen, who is co-editor with Susan Bernofsky of In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What it Means, as well as the translator of a number of works from both Spanish and French. In her post, Allen profiles Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl Marx and first translator of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary into English. She argues that Eleanor Marx’s early death is a sobering and urgent example of the importance of recognizing the creative intellectual work of females.

We hope you enjoy reading!

Lost In Translation
By Esther Allen

Few examples of the peril of losing yourself in translation are as powerfully sobering as that of Eleanor Marx. Daughter of Karl, ardent champion of women’s and workers’ rights, Marx was the first translator of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary into English and played the role of Nora in the first English staged reading of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.

She read both texts as protests against the plight of the 19th-century housewife, which she thought she could escape by entering into an open romantic partnership with a fellow free-thinker, Richard Aveling—alas, an “unprincipled windbag… with a reptilian air” as he’s described in Rachel Holmes’s fascinating recent biography of Marx. On stage and in life, Aveling played the narcissistic Thorvald to Marx’s Nora—except he was, by any measure, far worse than Ibsen’s character. After fourteen extremely difficult years together, Aveling announced to Marx that he’d married someone else. Shortly thereafter, she committed suicide.

Emma Bovary, of course, is a suicide, and Nora thinks a lot about taking her own life. Holmes argues that these more famous literary performances affected Marx less than her rendering into German of Reuben Sachs, an 1888 novel by her friend Amy Levy. No character in it commits suicide, but a year after it was published its 27-year-old author did. These literary antecedents mattered not at all to Eleanor Marx’s friends, who blamed Aveling for her death. But Aveling himself was terminally ill, as Marx knew well, and survived her by only four months. (more…)

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

Is “Brontosaurus” Back? Not So Fast! — Donald Prothero

The Story of Life in 25 Fossils

“So before everyone begins the big party for ‘Brontosaurus’ and celebrates this huge diversity of sauropod names, let’s hold our horses.”—Donald R. Prothero

The following post is by Donald Prothero, author of The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution:

Earlier this year, there has been a big buzz with the media reaction to a study by Emanuel Tschopp, Octavio Mateus, and Roger B.J. Benson analyzing the diplodocine sauropod dinosaurs and figuring out their classification and relationships. As I discuss in The Story of Life in 25 Fossils, since 1903 most paleontologists have regarded “Brontosaurus” as just another junior name for the dinosaur properly known as Apatosaurus.

The Tschopp et al. study itself is a landmark in careful anatomical work, analyzing the problem specimen by specimen (a total of 81 specimens used) rather than generalizing based on previous clusterings of specimens, and looking at far more anatomical evidence than any previous study. Naturally, the press missed the significance of the study completely, and focused on just one minor point: the idea that “Brontosaurus” is again a valid name. ALL the publicity, and all the reactions of the non-paleontological reporters and readers was focused on this rather trivial issue, which is not important to real paleontologists in any way (except that we always get asked about it by the general public). Most of the reaction by sauropod paleontologists who were interviewed were generally favorable, but others were more cautious. Almost all agreed that is the most thorough work on the subject written to date, and it will be the foundation on which all future analyses will be built. Similar reactions could be found on the SVPOW (“Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week”) website, which is the main forum for discussion by specialists and amateurs about sauropods.

(more…)

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

Reactions to Laudato Si’: Is Pope Francis Right on the Science?

Reactions to Laudato Si'

“First, the consensus on anthropogenic global warming among publishing scientists exceeds 99.9%. Second, climate scientists do not claim that global warming “caused” a given heat wave, drought, or storm. Rather, they say that global warming has increased the odds of such events and is therefore partly responsible for the broad pattern of extreme weather. The Pope recognizes that global warming is not just something that will happen in the future: it is happening now and we need to respond now.” — James Lawrence Powell

This week, rather than focusing on one featured book, we will be posting reactions to Pope Francis’s recent Encyclical Letter Laudato Si of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home, commonly referred to as Laudato Si’, from scholars in a variety of fields: scientists H. H. Shugart and James Lawrence Powell, economist Jeffrey D. Sachs, and religion scholar Whitney Bauman. In today’s post, James Lawrence Powell takes a close look at the actual science cited by Pope Francis in the encyclical and asks, simply, did the Pope get it right?

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a signed copy of H. H. Shugart’s book!

Is Pope Francis Right on the Science?
By James Lawrence Powell

When most people read “Catholic Church” and “Science” in the same sentence, they are apt to think of the inquisition of Galileo, who narrowly escaped burning at the stake for espousing the Copernican view of a Sun-centered solar system. But that is old news. In 1992, Pope John Paul II stated his regret for Galileo’s treatment and in 2008, the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first telescopic observations, Pope Benedict XVI praised his pioneering astronomy. The Vatican astronomer Brother Guy Consolmagno won the 2014 American Astronomical Society’s Carl Sagan Medal for Excellence in Public Communication in Planetary Science for his many books.

The Catholic Church has also been forthright in its defense of evolution, Pope John Paul II telling the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996 that “…new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than a hypothesis.” Catholic schools in the U.S. and elsewhere teach evolution both as a fact and as the result of the modern evolutionary synthesis, the updated version of Darwin’s theory.

Though Young-Earth creationists maintain that our planet is only a few thousand years old, the Church has long accepted the antiquity of the Earth and the authenticity of the fossil record as validating the history of life. In 2004, before Cardinal Ratzinger had become Pope Benedict XVI, he endorsed a statement by the International Theological Commission that,

The universe erupted 15 billion years ago in an explosion called the ‘Big Bang’ and has been expanding and cooling ever since. Later there gradually emerged the conditions necessary for the formation of atoms, still later the condensation of galaxies and stars, and about 10 billion years later the formation of planets. In our own solar system and on earth (formed about 4.5 billion years ago), the conditions have been favorable to the emergence of life.

Thus Pope Francis’s recent encyclical — Laudato Si, or “Praised Be”— is but the latest in a series of statements from the Catholic Church that offer increasingly strong support for science. Pope Francis’s eloquent encyclical not only does that, but it also casts the protection of the environment and the prevention of global warming as predominantly moral issues. He introduces the encyclical as an “Urgent appeal for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet.” Francis asks for “a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”

The question I am addressing is whether the Pope gets the science of global warming right. We should not be surprised if he does, for he was trained as a scientist: before becoming a priest, young Jorge Mario Bergoglio trained and worked as a chemical technician. Just as no one can discredit Francis’s moral standing, neither can anyone discredit his understanding of science.

As would any climate scientist today, Francis regards human responsibility for global warming as an indisputable fact. He does not present a list of arguments designed to persuade his readers that anthropogenic global warming is true, but simply says that it is true:

A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon.

Exactly right. First, the consensus on anthropogenic global warming among publishing scientists exceeds 99.9%. Second, climate scientists do not claim that global warming “caused” a given heat wave, drought, or storm. Rather, they say that global warming has increased the odds of such events and is therefore partly responsible for the broad pattern of extreme weather. The Pope recognizes that global warming is not just something that will happen in the future: it is happening now and we need to respond now.

Further evincing his understanding, the Pope writes:

It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity. Concentrated in the atmosphere, these gases do not allow the warmth of the sun’s rays reflected by the earth to be dispersed in space.

Again, exactly right. Several factors affect global temperature but only one can explain the rise in temperature since the 1970s: the increase in greenhouse gases from fossil fuel combustion. A climate scientist might argue that the last sentence of the quotation is an oversimplification in that it does not explain the mechanism by which greenhouse gases increase temperature. But the sentence as it stands is correct and sufficient for a general audience.

The Pope also demonstrates his understanding of the consequences of unchecked global warming:

The melting in the polar ice caps and in high altitude plains can lead to the dangerous release of methane gas, while the decomposition of frozen organic material can further increase the emission of carbon dioxide. Things are made worse by the loss of tropical forests which would otherwise help to mitigate climate change. Carbon dioxide pollution increases the acidification of the oceans and compromises the marine food chain.

As result [of human activities] some species face extinction.

The effects of climate change will be felt for a long time to come, even if stringent measures are taken now.

As remarkable as Francis’s understanding of science is his powerful and eloquent language:

We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us.

The environment is… on loan to each generation, which must then hand it on to the next.

Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn.

The Pope ends the encyclical with the moral argument in the form or a prayer, entreating God to,

Enlighten those who possess power and money that they may avoid the sin of indifference, that they may love the common good, advance the weak,
and care for this world in which we live.

The sentence that I will remember most is this one: “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain.” Like climate scientists, the Pope regards global warming as threatening the future of humanity.