Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Unknown Cultural Revolution by Dongping Han

Despite his persecution in the period after Mao Zedong's death, Lan Chengwu, one of the middle school rebels who initiated the Cultural Revolution in Jimo, remains undaunted. In South River Village he is still dreaded by the village officials because of his political skills. In fact, Lan continues to publically denounce the village party secretary for accepting bribes, and warned him that one day he would go to the party secretary's door to intercept the bribes. One day in March 1996, at a village mass meeting called by county and township officials, Lan Chengwu embarrassed the village party secretary by exposing his practice of demanding bribes in allocating building lots. The county and township officials were forced to investigate the matter, and had to dismiss the party secretary when the allegation was confirmed by the investigation.

Village leaders call people like Lan Chengwu a "ding zihu" (defiant household). By ding zihu they refer to people who pose obstacles to "normal official business". It seems there are two kinds of ding zihu in rural China. One kind of ding zihu bully both their neighbors and defy village leaders because they have large and powerful families. This kind of ding zihu resorts to force rather than reason. Law enforcement is very weak in rural China today and they can usually have their way, because they have big families and strong clans behind them. This kind of ding zihu is dreaded by village leaders, but even more by ordinary people. These bullies know that the state is behind the village leaders and if they go too far in their defiance the state can intervene. But it is a different story with ordinary villagers. Ding Zihu can beat up villagers without serious consequences, because it is costly and time consuming for victims to bring them to court, and arbitration frequently only requires that the bully pay the medical bills of the victim. The sad thing is that in some villages, these ding zihu bullies often usurp village power.

People like Lan Chengwu are a second kind of ding zihu. They do not have big and powerful families. But they have a daring spirit of popular resistance and effective political skills. They do not bully their neighbors, but they cause a lot of headaches for village party leaders. To local villagers they are an important political resource. They understand China's political process and operations. When it is necessary, they are not afraid to confront village leaders because they believe they have nothing to lose. They have also found that higher government leaders often cannot openly protect guilty village leaders.

How much does the phenomena of the second kind of ding zihu have to do with the political empowerment of villagers during the Cultural Revolution and with the educational reforms of that period? The second kind of ding zihu share a common background: they went to high school during the Cultural Revolution and were active participants in the movement. Lan Chengwu and Liu Zhiyuan, the two most prominent ding zihu in South River village were both educated during the Cultural Revolution. They acquired their political skills during this era, and they have a good grasp of the declared values, philosophies and codes of official conduct of the Communist Party...people like Liu Zhiyuan and Lan Chengw are a democratic force in rural areas. They represent a legacy of the political empowerment of ordinary villagers brought about by the Cultural Revolution.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The "Mystery" of Judicial Performance

'Alexi de Tocqueville concluded that "the practical intelligence and good political sense of the Americans" could be traced to their regular involvement in the enterprise of jury service.

Modern critics tell a different story. 'No attorney ever thinks a jury will be objective', they argue. Instead, 'all jurors are predisposed to certain choices that have nothing to do with the evidence in the case'; panels typically contain "a cross-section of global-village idiots"; the average juror is "Rip Van Winkle', someone who has been snoozing in the hills for the past twenty years; erratic and irrational jury behavior makes verdicts a crapshoot.

A prosecutor and defense attorney must "temper zeal with integrity" and remember the "upright presence in their mantle of office." Important in themselves, such phrases are also the whistles of the legal profession as it skips past the darkest graveyard in its neighborhood. The prescribed limits on lawyers are more declaratory in tone than supervisory in nature, and they are easily ignored.

Non-legal narratives are invariably embedded in a trial, particularly high-profile trials. They unfold through narratives that strain for heightened effect. Lawyers will try any combination of themes in their need to win. Innocent and guilty, yes; but these categories are rarely sufficient for the emeshed advocate who quickly converts them into right and wrong, good and evil, harmless and dangerous, saved and damned, chaste and polluted, admired and ignored, loved and hated, worthy and unworthy.

These additional binaries in adversarial rhetoric conjure up whole streams of non-legal narratives with advocacy, whether as sermon, sentimental fable, cautionary tale, mystery story, melodrama, gothic legend, romance, or adventure yarn. The winning story in a controversial trial almost always has an extra legal dimension familiar to a community... Indeed, nonlegal narratives can occasionally challenge legal texts successfully.

We have seen how trials magnify the personalities involved; how a good story, whether true or false, can capture a trial; how generic recognitions (stereotypes) convince on their own; how submerged intertexual relations control subliminal understandings; and how advocacy tends towards excess and melodrama beyond the facts.

To measure the unacceptable deviance of others honestly and fairly is one of the most trying tasks in human endeavor.

Furthermore, two thousand years ago the greatest lawyer of antiquity invented a concept that no social system can afford to be without, even though the idea rarely appears in the language of the court or in the public discourse about justice. Cicero defined it in an awkward phrase: "quibus infertur, si possunt, non propulsan iniuram": 'those, who when they can, do not shield from wrong those upon who it is being inflicted.' This concept, "passive injustice", is rarely actionable and easily evaded in collective consciousness. Complicity in a wrong allowed to happen requires little or no agency. When he documented the spread of passive injustice long ago, Cicero wrote "avarice is generally the controlling motive". This is the moral vacuum in which most judgements in American society ultimately take place.

The pursuit of happiness may be an inalienable right, but it leaves many individuals by the wayside, and when their unhappiness becomes unbearable, they often end up in court. Every trial is about an unhappiness that someone has been unable to stand, and every courtroom decision contains a mountain of misery for someone, either the victim or the defendant or the losing side; sometimes all three. The listening judge performs a poignant service in this regard- a service that becomes difficult to meet over time, or rather difficult to meet time after time. In the final moment of sentencing, the judge must encompass the collective misery brought into a courtroom and then, against the odds, find a way to articulate its meaning in a useful way for the participants and the culture at large.

Opponents of judicial discretion assume that mercy in sentencing injects arbitrary or unpredictable ingredients into the legal process. Mercy, in this hypothesis, draws upon Christan understanding of the term: "forbearance and compassion shown by one person to another who is in his power and "who has no claim to recieve kindness.", a definition in keeping with the belief that "God forgives a sinner even though the sinner has no right to such a reward."

There is, however, an older, less arbitrary conception, and it is the one that a knowing judge should employ in the moment of sentencing. The Latin term for mercy, still used in French, is misericordia. The term signifies heartfeltness for actual misery and situation as part of an innate human sympathy for wretchedness where it is found. Here, at the very center of the controversy, is the mystery and the least understood aspect of judicial performance.

The Trial In American Life by Robert A Ferguson; Univ. of Chicago Press,2007

Fayrouz by Neil MacFarquhar

Fayrouz's emergence as a singer paralleled Lebanon's transformation from a backwater of the Ottoman Empire to the vibrant financial and cultural heart of the Arab world, a rare oasis of tolerance that soon went up in flames. Born in 1935, she was the daughter of a poor Greek Orthodox Christian typesetter, she was discovered at age 14 by the founder of Lebanon's music conservatory. He heard her sing at a public school where he was scouting for a chorus for a new national radio station. An early mentor who considered her a rare gem dubbed her "Fayrouz," which means 'turquoise' in Arabic. She met Assi Rahbani, a composer who became her husband, and his brother Mansour, a lyricist at the radio station.

It was a time when Arab cities from Casablanca to Baghdad were filling with former villagers who wanted to shed their rural past and become more modern, more westernized. By combining Arab and European instruments with shorter compositions and Fayrouz's clear soprano, the trio revolutionized the region's music :"She made this wonderful mix of folkloric art and songs with European instruments and styles that was very appealing," Virginian Danielson, a music librarian and expert on the Middle East at Harvard University, told me. "The whole thing managed to be international, rural and cosmopolitan at the same time."

It was also rendered in a voice unlike any other, because Fayrouz eliminated the nasal tones favored by most Arab singers. To me, her moody voice is reminiscent of Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holliday, but using Oriental quarter tones.

As performer, Fayrouz presented a melancholic, rigid figure on stage. About five feet tall, dressed in a series of ball gowns that swept to the floor and covered her arms, she stood stock still at the microphone. During a particular passage she might lift a hand slightly or twitch her shoulders. She rarely smiled. Talking to me, she laughed at the idea that even committed fans found her too serious. She told me that she had always been a shy performer, still wracked by stage fright. "If you look at my face while I'm singing, you will see that I am not there, I am not in the place," she said. "I feel art is like a prayer. I am not in church but I feel like I am, and in that atmosphere you can't laugh. And dance? If they saw me dancing they would kill themselves!"

I interviewed her for a second time in Las Vegas where she performed at the MGM Grand Hotel before a roaring, weeping, clapping crowd of nearly 10,000 mostly Syrian and Lebanese expatriates. She told me both times that for many of her fans, her songs conjured up an idyllic Lebanon of simple villages and fertile vineyards that was gone, if it ever had existed. "When you look at Lebanon now, you see that it bears no resemblance to the Lebanon I sing about, so when we miss it, we look for it through songs. It's as if the songs have become their country."

Monday, May 25, 2009

Strawberry Whipped Cream Meringue Torte


1/2 cup butter (1 stick)
1/2 cup confectioner's sugar
4 egg yolks
1 cup cake flour

1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons milk
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla


4 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon cream of tarter
1 cup sugar

1 teaspoon cider vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla


2 cups heavy cream
1 cup yogurt .
2 pints strawberries, washed and sliced if necessary

Grease two 10-inch springform pans and dust them with flour.

To make the cake batter:

Beat butter in an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Gradually add the confectioner's sugar, then the eggs yolks, one at a time, beating constantly. Combine the cake flour, baking powder and salt. Add to butter and egg mixture alternately with the milk. Stir in the vanilla. The batter will be stiff. Divide evenly between the two pans, speading carefully with the back of a spoon.

For the meringue:

combine the egg whites with the cream of tarter ( baking powder will do here) and beat until stiff. Gradually add the sugar and continue to beat until the whites stand up in stiff peaks. Beat in the cider vinegar and vanilla. Then put equal amounts of meringue into the two cake pans, smoothing evenly over the batter.

Bake the layers in a pre-heated 325-degree oven for 30 minutes. Carefully remove from pans and cool, meringue side up.

Make the filling:

Beat the cream until stiff ( you may want to add a tablespoon of sugar). Set aside about 1/2 cup. Gently fold the yogurt into the remaining whipped cream. Spread half of this mixture on top of one of the cake layers. Scatter half of the strawberries on top. Place the second cake layer on top of the first. Cover with the remaining yogurt-cream mixture and strawberries. Top that with the reserved whipped cream. Chill until ready to serve.

[A strawberry rendition of "Rainbow Sweet's Blueberry Torte" found in the L.L. Bean Book of New England Cookery.]

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Natural History of Groundhogs

The groundhog or woodchuck (Marmota monax) is a husky, waddling rodent in the squirrel family Sciuridae, order Rodentia. The groundhog is a type of marmot (genus Marmota), and is also closely related to the ground squirrels and gophers. The natural habitat of the groundhog is forest edges and grasslands, ranging from the eastern United States and Canada through much of the Midwest, to parts of the western states and provinces. However, the groundhog is also a familiar species in agricultural landscapes within its range, occurring along roadsides, fence-rows, pastures, the margins of fields, and even in some suburban habitats.

The groundhog is a rather large marmot, typically weighing about 6.6-13.2 lb (3-6 kg). The fur is red or brown, with black or dark brown feet. They have a plump body, a broad head, and small, erect ears. The tail and legs are short, while the fingers and toes have strong claws, useful for digging. When frightened, groundhogs can run as fast as a person, but they are normally slow, waddling animals, tending to stay close to the safety of their burrows. They can climb rather well, and are sometimes seen feeding while perched in the lower parts of trees or shrubs.

Groundhogs are enthusiastic diggers, and they spend much of their time preparing and improving their burrows and dens. Woodchucks dig their burrow complexes in well-drained, sandy-loam soils, generally on the highest ground available. Their sleeping dens are lined with hay-like materials, both for comfort, and to provide insulation during the winter. There are separate chambers for sleeping and defecation.

Groundhogs are social animals, sometimes living in open colonies with as many as tens of animals living in a maze of interconnected burrows. They are are not very vocal , but they will make sharp whistles when a potential predator is noticed. This loud sound is a warning to other animals in the colony.

Groundhogs are herbivorous animals, eating the foliage, stems, roots, and tubers of herbaceous plants, and sometimes the buds, leaves, flowers, and young shoots of woody species. They also store food in their dens, especially for consumption during the winter. Groundhogs are very fat in the autumn, just prior to hibernation. If they are living in a colony, groundhogs snuggle in family groups to conserve heat during the winter. They occasionally waken from their deep sleep to feed. However, groundhogs lose weight progressively during their hibernation, and can weigh one-third to one-half less in the springtime than in the autumn.

Groundhogs have a single mating season each year, usually beginning shortly after they emerge from their dens in the spring. After a gestation period of 30-32 days, the female usually gives birth to four or five young, although the size of the litter may vary from one to nine. Born blind and naked, young groundhogs acquire a downy coat after about two weeks. Soon the mother begins to bring soft plant stems and leaves back to the den for them to eat. Young groundhogs follow their mother out of the burrow after about a month and are weaned about two weeks later.

Groundhogs are sometimes perceived to be pests. They can cause considerable damage by raiding vegetable gardens, and can also consume large quantities of ripe grain and other crops. In addition, the excavations of groundhogs can be hazardous to livestock, who can break a leg if they step unawares into a groundhog hole, or if an underground burrow collapses beneath their weight.For these reasons, groundhogs are sometimes hunted and poisoned. However, groundhogs also provide valuable ecological benefits as prey for a wide range of carnivorous animals, and because these interesting creatures are a pleasing component of the outdoors experience for many people.

for 'groundhogs in the city', see comment.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Breaking The Sword

"And perhaps the great day will come when a people, distinguished by wars and victories and by the highest development of a military order and intelligence, and accustomed to make the heaviest sacrifices in these things, will exclaim of its own free will, "We break the sword", and will smash its entire military establishment down to its lowest foundations. Rendering oneself unarmed when one had been the best-armed, out of intense emotion- that is the real means to peace, which must always rest on peace of mind, whereas so-called armed peace, as it now exists in all countries, is the absence of peace of mind. One trusts neither oneself nor one's neighbor and, half from hatred, half from fear, does not lay down arms. Rather perish than hate and fear, and twice rather perish than make oneself hated and feared- this must someday become the highest maxim for every single commonwealth too."

-Friedrick Nietzsche-

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Becoming Subjective by Johannes Climacus

So, there I sat and smoked my cigar until I drifted into thought. Among other thoughts, I recall these. You are getting on in years, I said to myself, and are becoming an old man without being anything and without actually undertaking anything. On the other hand, wherever you look in literature and life, you see the names and figures of celebrities, the prized and highly acclaimed people, prominent and much discussed, the many benefactors of the age who know how to benefit humankind by making life easier and easier, some by railroads, others by omnibuses and steamships, others by telegraph, others by easily understood surveys and brief publications about everything worth knowing, and finally the true benefactors of the age who by virtue of thought systematically make spiritual existence easier and easier and yet more and more meaningful- and what are you doing?

At this point my introspection was interrupted because my cigar was finished and a new one had to be lit. So I smoked again, and suddenly this thought crossed my mind: You must do something, but since with your limited capabilities it will be impossible to make anything easier than it has become, you must, with the same humanitarian enthusiasm as the others have, take it upon yourself to make something more difficult.

This idea pleased me enormously; it also flattered me that for this effort I would be loved and respected, as much as anybody else, by the entire community. In other words, when all join together to make everything easier in every way, there remains only one possible danger, namely, the danger that the easiness would become so great that it would become all too easy. So only one lack remains, even though not yet felt, the lack of difficulty.

Out of love of humankind, out of despair over my awkward predicament of having achieved nothing and of being unable to make anything easier than it had already been made, out of genuine interest in those who make everything easy, I comprehended that it was my task: to make difficulties everywhere.

It was also especially striking to me that I might actually have my indolence to thank that this task became mine. Far from having found it, like an Aladdin, by a stroke of good luck, I must instead assume that my indolence, by preventing me from opportunely proceeding to make things easy, has forced me into doing the only thing that remained.

Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments by Soren Kierkegaard

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Tiananmen Square by Minqi Li

'I was a student at the economic Management Department of Beijing University during the period 1987-90. This department has now become the Guanghua Economics Management School, a leading Chinese neoliberal think tank advocating full-scale market liberalization and privatization. At Beijing University, we were taught standard neoclassical microeconomics and macroeconomics, and what I later learned was termed "Chicago School" economics- that is, the theory that only a free market economy with clarified private property rights and "small government" can solve all economic and social problems rationally and efficiently.

We were convinced that the socialist economy was unjust, oppressive, and inefficient. It rewarded a layer of privileged, lazy workers in the state sector and "punished" (or at least undercompensated) capable and smart people such as entrepreneurs and intellectuals, who considered to be the cream of society...thus, for China to have any chance to catch up to the West, to be "rich and powerful", it had to follow the free market capitalist model.

The 1980s was a decade of political and intellectual excitement in China. Despite some half-hearted official restrictions, large sections of the Chinese intelligensia were politically active and were able to push for successive waves of the so-called "emancipation of ideas" (jiefang sixiang). The intellectual critique of already existing Chinese socialism at first took place largely within a Marxist discourse. Dissident intellectuals called for democracy without questioning the legitimacy of the Chinese Revolution or the economic institutions of socialism.

After 1985, however, economic reformed moved increasingly in the direction of the free market. Corruption increased and many among the bureaucratic elites became the earliest big capitalists. Meanwhile, among the intellectuals, there was a sharp turn to the right. The earlier, Maoist phase of Chinese socialism was increasingly seen as a period of political oppression and economic failure. Chinese socialism was supposed to have "failed", as it lost the economic growth race to places like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Many regarded Mao Zedong himself as an ignorant, backward Chinese peasant who turned into a cruel, power-hungry despot who had been responsible for killing tens of millions. The politically active intellectuals no longer borrowed discourse from Marxism. Instead, western classical liberalism and neoliberal economics, as represented by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, had become the new, fashionable ideology.

Liberal intellectuals disagreed among themselves regarding the political strategy of "reform" (that is, the transition to capitalism). Some continued to favor a call for "democracy". Others had moved further to the Right by advocating neo-authoritarianism, the kind of capitalism that existed in South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, which denied the working class democratic rights but provided protection of the property right ( or "liberty"). Many saw Zhao Ziyang, the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, as the the one who could carry such an "enlightened despotism." Such were the ideological conditions in China before the emergence of the 1989 "democratic movement"....

As the student demonstrations grew, workers in Beijing began to pour into the streets in support of the students, who were, of course, delighted. However, being an economics student, I could not help experiencing a deep sense of irony. On the one hand, these workers were people that we considered to be passive, obedient, ignorant, lazy, and stupid. Yet now they were coming out to support us. On the other hand, just a few weeks before, we were enthusiastically advocating "reform" programs that would shut down all state factories and leave the workers unemployed. I asked myself: do these workers really know who they are supporting?

Unfortunately, the workers did not really know... After the "failure" of the Maoist Revolution, the Chinese working class was politically disarmed. The official television programs, newspapers and magazines now positively portrayed a materially prosperous western capitalism and highly dynamic East Asian capitalist "dragons". Only China and other socialist state appeared to have lagged behind. Given the collaboration of the official media and the liberal intellectuals (as certainly aided by mainstream western academia and media), it should not be surprising that many among the Chinese workers would accept the mainstream perception of capitalism naively and uncritically. The dominant image of capitalism had turned from one of sweat-shop super-exploitation into one synonymous of democracy, high wages and welfare benefits, as well as union protection of workers' rights. It was not until the 1990's that the Chinese working class would again learn from their own experience what capitalism was to mean in real life.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Shakespeare's Sonnet No. 60

Like as the waves make toward the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crowned,
Crooked eclipses against his glory fight,
And time that gave doth now his gift confound.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth
And delves the parallels in beauty's brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature's truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow:
And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Wittgensteins at War by Alexander Waugh

Paul turned the matter over in his mind. He knew that if he returned to Austria, where he was forbidden from performing or teaching and where the guardianship of his children had been taken away from him, he would be arrested and imprisoned. There was no point in trying to reclaim the property and fortune he had left behind. Instead he must concentrate on that part which was held outside the Reich, in Switzerland. But, as he well knew, his share of the Wistag Fund could not be disbursed without the consent of all the trust's beneficiaries and directors. These included his sisters, his brother in England, various nephews and nieces (most importantly Ji Stonborough in the U.S.), his brother-in-law Max Salzer and the family's financial factotum Anton Groller. A further and graver problem was that officials in Berlin knew about the fund and were demanding it be paid into the Reichsbank.

It would take time to secure the agreement of all parties and Paul, meanwhile, needed to find some way of paying his hotel bills and providing for his mistress Hilde and the children in Italy.

With the connivance of Dr. Heinz Fischer, a Swiss concert promoter, a German string quartet was invited to play in Zurich, bringing Paul's precious instruments from Vienna- two violins, one by Stradivari, one by Guadagnini, a viola by Amati and a Rugieri cello. Nobody would notice, as they crossed the border at Haslach, that the instruments in their cases were not theirs. Nor would they spot when the musicians returned to the Reich with cheaper models under their arms than those with which they had left. Dr. Fischer's and the musician's payment for this risky undertaking is not known, nor is the fate of the two violins (perhaps the instruments were themselves the smuggler's reward) but in October 1938 Paul took the viola and cello to the Swiss violin-maker Stubinger, who valued them at 18,000 Swiss francs each. A quick sale brought him temporary financial relief.

With or without the money, he had no intention of staying long in Switzerland and it is unlikely that the Swiss authorities would have continued renewing his visas indefinitely. In Zurich, as elsewhere in the country, the people were edgy and xenophobic. Fear of German invasion and resentment against the growing influx of refugees from the Reich had inspired the authorities to tighten border security and to insist, by October 1938, that all Jews' passports be stamped with a red letter "J". Within a year SS soldiers, acting on orders to rid the Vaterland of all lingering Jews, were physically pushing them over the borders. Swiss officials, on the other side, would irritably push them back again.

For Paul, who believed he looked more Jewish than any of his siblings, the growing anti-Semitism in Switzerland proscribed the country as a safe haven and by early August he had set his sights on America. Getting there, he knew, would not be easy. Like every foreign administration (with the exception of Santa Domingo) the American government refused to increase its quota of immigrants from Germany despite the international crisis. Paul had to pull strings and admitted in a letter to Marga Deneke when his travel plans were finally confirmed: "Although I have obtained the ticket for the ship to New York, I wouldn't have got it without special patronage".


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Somme by Peter Hart

The Darkest Hour on The Western Front
October, 1916

'The infantry were to 'go over' at 3:40 a.m. It was a night of horror. The German's knew something was in the wind and shortly after midnight they opened up their artillery on the British batteries who were harassing them. Their fire, their counter-battery work, was better organized than ours. They would put four or five batteries- two 5.9-in, two 4.2 and a 77-mm all on the same target. High explosive, shrapnel and gas, all at once for ten minutes. Then they would move to a different target. Twice they came on to us that night. A gun was blown up, a small heap of ammunition went up, an NCO killed and several men wounded. We were lucky to get off so lightly.

With our three remaining guns we turned on the intensive stuff at 3:30 a.m. and from then on we lived in one screaming holocaust of light and sound. Sound! Deafening, screaming, shrieking sound, the whole range of the eardrum, like 50,000 express trains tearing through the air- colliding and tearing on again. Orders could only be passed by signals, no one could hear a verbal order however loudly shouted.

It was like daylight. The flickers and flashes as the shells left the guns, not only our guns, but every gun for miles, the yellow flash of bursting shells, the white glare of Very lights and star shells lit up the landscape as in one continuos lightening storm. Indeed man's efforts outdid the worst electric storm I have ever seen both in light and sound- rendering it a puny imitation- yet it is the only thing I know which gives any idea of the sensations of that night.

After only a few days the men's morale was rotting away in the mud, blood and gathering exhaustion. Our senses were become numbed. We only left our guns to go forward to our observation posts. We were never dry or clean, our food was always cold, gritty, out of tins, bread generally wet, nothing ever appetizing, the noise of gunfire continuous so that the nerves were constantly stretched, listening and assaying continuously or subconsciously the depth and nearness of shell bursts.

The Battle of the Somme seemed as if it might go on forever! Shells could not go on missing one forever- the time must come when one would be standing on an unlucky spot at the wrong time- and then? The ever-present unforgettable knowledge that, if not today, then tomorrow, if not tomorrow, then some day later, but in any case eventually, your turn would come. That conviction would grow as the stalemate continued, week after week, month after month, world without end, Amen. This is what caused all your pals to get thin in the face, haggard and jumpy. They knew it too; that some day some beer-swilling Kraut would load a shell into a Krupp gun, and an invisible hand would write in invisible ink your name on that shell before the trigger was pulled. And what would it do to you? A clean 'blot out' or blinding insanity, incurable crippling- searing white-hot pain?"

Lieutenant Kenneth Mealing, A Battery, 308th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, 61st Division.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Blood River

The ground was brown with mud and rotting vegetation. No direct sunlight reached this far down and there was a musty smell of damp and decomposition. Above me towered canyons of green, as layer after layer of plant life filled the voids between the forest floor and treetop. I felt suffocated, but not so much from the heat as from the choking, smothering forest.

I took a few steps and felt my right boot clunk into something unnaturally hard and angular on the floor. I dug my heel into the leaf mulch and felt it again. Scraping down through the detritus, I slowly cleared away enough soil to get a good look. It was a cast-iron railway sleeper, perfectly preserved and still connected to a piece of track... It was a moment of horrible revelation. I felt like a Hollywood caveman approaching a spaceship, slowly working out that it proved life existed elsewhere in time and space...I had discovered evidence of a modern world that had tried- but failed- to establish itself in the Congo.

The Five Percenters

Islam, Hip Hop And The Gods of New York
By Michael Muhammad Knight

Though building on a unique cosmology and legendary characters, Allah positioned himself as anti-religion. Known as a High Scientist during his time in the mosque, he later discouraged high science in favor of "city science". Many Gods take a practical look at their divinity; the word God to both Fard and the Father, in I Majestic's interpretation, "has no religious context here, it's not claiming to be an astral being" The Five Percenters would respond to anarchism's ethos of "no gods, no masters", with I God, I Master. For a black man to call himself God means that he will take responsibility, as the Father of Civilization , to lift himself up in the here and now- as opposed to waiting for a mystery to solve his problems or reward him in the afterlife...

I thought of Allah and the Desert Fathers that came before him: Father Divine, Noble Drew Ali, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. They were all born in the south and came north as young men in search of a better tomorrow, but found the American Dream to be a mystery god: an empty promise that took blind faith and gave only hard times.

There really is a devil, and like the Lost-Found Muslim Lesson No 1 says, he does keep you from his social equality. The bloodsucking Ten percenters, peddlers of the Mystery God, rule the Eighty-five Percent with priests, imams, ministers, mullahs and theologians, trained experts in phantoms, selling what cannot be seen. An old man who has only been an MTA bus driver all his life cannot stand up in a mosque and give khutbah on what he learned while struggling in the city and supporting a family. It's not enough, he has to go to Al-Azar, perfect his Arabiyya, master tajwid, eat up the medieval scholars, fill his head with fiqh and learn all the schools of thought. But in the new Mecca of Harlem, he can come to the front of the Harriet Tubman's auditorium in his MTA work jacket and he's God as is.'

My Faithful Dog Sharik by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

When the afternoon's work was over, and I returned to the prison in the evening, weary and exhausted, a terrible feeling of anguish once again overcame me. ' How many thousands of days like this one still lie ahead of me', I thought, 'all of them like this one, all of them the same'. When it was already getting dark, I was wandering silently and alone behind the barracks, following the line of the prison fence. Suddenly, I saw our dog Sharik running towards me.

Sharik was our prison mascot, just as there are regimental mascots, battery and squadron mascots. The dog lived in the prison longer than anyone could remember, belonged to no one, considered everyone his owner and was fed on scraps from the kitchen. He was quite a large dog, black with white spots, a mongrel, not very old, with intelligent eyes and a fluffy tail. No one ever fondled him or paid him the slightest attention. From my first day, I stroked him and gave him bread out of my hand. When I stroked him he would stand quietly and look at me affectionately, gently wagging his tail as a sign of pleasure.

Now, not having seen me, the first person to fondle him in several years, for a long time, he had been running around looking for me among all the other convicts, and finding me behind the barracks came rushing towards me with a yelp of joy.

I don't know what came over me, but I rushed forwards and kissed him, throwing my arms around his head; in one running leap he placed his forepaws on my shoulders and began to lick my face. 'So this is the friend that has been sent to me by fate', I thought, and every time I returned from work during those early sombre days, the first thing I did, before going anywhere else, was to hurry behind the barracks with Sharik jumping up in front of me, yelping with delight, embrace his head and kiss it again and again, while a sweet yet agonizing bitter sensation gnawed at my heart. And I remember that I would derive great satisfaction from the thought- as though taking pride in my own agony of spirit- that there was in the whole world left to me only one creature that loved me, that was devoted to me, my friend, my only friend- my faithful dog Sharik.

-The House of the Dead- (1860)

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Duel by Tariq Ali

'Politics in a land of perpetual dictatorships and corrupt politicians is undoubtedly depressing, but with some positive aspects. For one, politics has revived an interest in stories from the popular literature of an earlier period of Muslim rule in the region.

First told by a sixteenth-century storyteller, repeated to me in Lahore in 2007, the following tale sums up, with a few modifications, life in Pakistan today:

A man is seriously dissatisfied with a junior magistrate's decision. The latter, irritated, taunts him to appeal to the qadi (a senior judge).

"But he's your brother, he won't listen to me", the man replied.

Then go to the mufti [ expert in Muslim law]! said the judge.

"But he's your uncle"

-"Go the the minister"-

"He's your grandfather.

-"Go to the King!"-

"Your niece is engaged to him"

The magistrate, livid with anger, finally says: "Go to hell then".

To which the man replied:

"That is where your esteemed father reigns. He'll see I get no satisfaction there either!"'

Thursday, May 7, 2009


Abby Mandel's Boule de Neige (Snowball)

(Should be made at least a day before serving, but the whipped cream on the day it is served)

Eight ounces of semisweet chocolate (if possible, use Maillard's Eagle Sweet of Baker's German Sweet)
2 teaspoons dry instant coffee
1/2 cup boiling water
1/2 pound (2 sticks) sweet butter, at room temperature
4 eggs (graded large)
1 Tablespoon Cognac or dark rum.

Adjust rack one-third up from the bottom of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. You will need a round, ovenproof mixing bowl (for baking this dessert) with a 6- to-8 cup capacity, it may be glass, pottery or metal, and it should preferably be deep and narrow rather than wide and shallow.

To line the bowl with aluminum foil, turn the bowl upside down, tear off a 12-inch square of foil and center it over the inverted bowl and press with your hands down on all sides all around to form foil into a bowl shape. Then remove the foil, turn the bowl right side up and place the bowl-shaped foil into the bowl. Press firmly into place.

Break up the chocolate and place in a small saucepan. Dissolve the coffeee in the boiling water and add it along with the sugar. Stir over moderate heat until the chocolate is melted- the mixture does not have to be smooth.

Transfer to the large bowl of an electric mixer and beat on low speed until smooth. Gradually add the butter and continue to beat at low speed until smoothly blended. Add eggs one at a time until smooth after each addition. Add the Cognac or rum and beat at moderate speed for about a minute.

Pour the mixture into the lined bowl and bake for 55 minutes. When done the top will be puffy with a thick, cracked crust.

Let the bowl stand at room temperature until the dessert is cool- it will shrink as it cools and shrink more in the center than around the rim.

To avoid having a hollow in the middle follow these directions:

A few minutes after the dessert comes out of the oven, place a piece of waxed( or parchment) paper on top of the bowl, touching the dessert. With your finger tips, press down on the edges of the paper to flatten the raised rim of the dessert (the crust will crack- that's all right) Repeat several times while the dessert is cooling in order to flatten the top as much as possible.
When the dessert is cool, cover airtight and refrigerate.

A few hours before serving unmold the dessert. Invert a flat dessert plate over it, invert the plate a bowl, remove the bowl and peel off the aluminum foil, refrigerate.

1cup heavy cream
2 Tablespoons granulated sugar
2 teaspoons Cognac or dark rum

Careful not to make it too stiff or it might curdle while you press it out of the pastry bag.

You will need a pastry bag about 13 inches long and a medium-small star tube, or about a #4. Insert the tube into the bag, fold down a deep cuff on the outside of the bag, transfer the cream to the pastry bag, unfold the cuff and twist the top of the bag closed.

Now, completely cover the dessert with small pointed rosettes of whipped cream. Start at the center top and squeeze out one small rosette right in the middle. Then make a circle of rosettes touching one another around the one on top. Then another circle etc. the last circle should touch the plate.

This is from Maida Heatter's book of Great Chocolate Desserts.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Vanished Smile; The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa by R.A. Scotti

Paris; August, 1911

From the ateliers of Montmarte and the cafes of Montparnasse, a radical creative idiom was emerging that would change both art and writing. While Proust was wrestling The Remembrance of Things Past from a pile of notes and scribbles, the very sentiment of remembrance was coming under attack. The past was no longer a lesson to be mastered. It was an inhibition to be overcome...

Appollinaire and Picaso were in the vanguard of the impassioned battles being waged in Paris over the direction of the arts. They were friends and leaders of a group loosely known as la bande de Picasso. Familiar from Montmarte to Manhattan as "the Wild Men of Paris," Picasso's gang of painters and poets were the outlaws of traditional art, riding into town like the cowboys of the Wild West to slay the Renaissance gods.

Young, brilliant, and ruthlessly ambitious, they strutted through the cobblestone streets of Montmarte and filled the cheap cafes, defining themselves as well as the new idiom, breaking the rules to free art from art history. Much of their art and their antics were "shocks of discovery" committed to roil the status quo. More has been written about Bloomsbury, the London-based group of artists and writers, though it was less expansive and more inbred- a hothouse where la bande de Picasso was a wild garden. Passions were rude and rowdy. Ideas had the power to shock, and epiphanies came thick and fast.

Two agonizng weeks after the theft of Mona Lisa from the Louvre, Prefect Lepine ("le petit roi") believed he had cracked the case. In la bande de Picasso he had found the international ring of art thieves he had been hunting: Appollinaire and his nefarious colleagues "making this hullabaloo in the painting department."

To the police the case was persuasive. Seizing the Mona Lisa was an insolent act in what Appollonaire called "the endless quarrel between Order and Adventure." It was a declaration of independence. What more dramatic way to kill your father than to target the most famous painting by the most provacative Renaissance master?

The Picasso gang had been lionized as romantic renegades. When the police identified them as a ring of "foreign thieves and swindlers who had come to France to plunder its treasure," escapades once excused as careless exuberance assumed sinister overtones. Tales circulated of the Picasso gang's coming back from the cafes late a night, frequently drunk, shouting, singing and declaiming in the squares. Picasso always carried a Browning, and he would wake up the neighbors by shooting it into the charged air.

Stunned by the greatest art theft in history, Paris was shocked anew to learn that the prime suspects were the firebrands of the modern-art movement.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Death of Captain Cook by Glyn Williams

The union of the colonies in the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901 was a key moment in the shaping of the new nation, and the celebrations included a reconstruction of Cook's landing at Botany Bay. There a few Aborigines were scattered by mock musket-fire, while the actor playing Dr Solander shouted after them:

As shadows flee before the dawn of day,
So the dark tribes of Earth in terror flee
Before the white man's ever onward tread;
And all the night of ignorance and sin
Both vanish as the light of Truth's fair day
Dawns in the East and spreads o'er all the Earth.

It was the only reference to the original Aboriginal inhabitants of Botany Bay in twelve pages of poetic declamation.

The twentieth century saw the development of a cult in which Cook, the self-made man of humble beginnings, represented the pioneering virtues of the new nation. The cult began in the classroom, where school texts began their history of Australia with Cook's voyages. By the end there were Cook monuments, Cook playing fields, Cook fountains, Cook hotels and restaurants, Cook stamps, a James Cook University and even a small house built by Cook's father after his son left home which was shipped at great expense from Yorkshire to Australia.

There was something odd about this devotion to a British hero at a time when Australia was moving away in terms of material and sentimental ties from Britain. One of Gail Morgan's characters in her novel Patent Lies explains that, as far as Australia was concerned, 'historically Cook did little more than draw a decent map, but history does not always matter.' He was their Columbus; the fact that the Dutch had charted two-thirds of the Australian coastline more than a century earlier seemed not to count. Hence the excitement when every few years a book appears that challenges Cook's assumed priority with an earlier 'discoverer' from among the ever-growing group of Portuguese, Spanish, French and Chinese navigators. The Australian newspaper headlines that greeted the most recent of these books, Peter Trickett's Beyond Capricorn (2007) are self revelatory: 'another nail in Cook's coffin'; 'New doubts that Cook discovered Australia'; 'Captain Cook scuppered by book'.