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Book Review

College (Un) Bound: What the Future Holds for Academia and Critical Thinking

June 1st 2013

College unbound

College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students. Jeffrey Selingo. New Harvest. 2013. 256 pages.

My teeth were on edge a few pages into the introduction of College (Un)Bound when Jeffrey Selingo first deploys the term he uses repeatedly to describe higher education in the United States: he calls it an "industry." The first sub-heading is called "A risk-averse, self-satisfied industry." A few pages later, he writes, "Colleges [by which I think he means administrators, or perhaps more specifically admissions officers] now view students as customers and market their degree programs as products." The proposition that students might be the product, and that this product might be civic, as opposed to simply economic, never appears to have crossed his mind -- or, at any rate, taken seriously.

But of course I'm speaking from the point of view of a vanishing species on the cusp of virtual irrelevance, if not extinction in this ecosystem (even though I don't happen to be a member of it myself): the liberal arts professoriate. Whether or not such people actually deserve their marginality is in any case beside the point: change is coming. Actually, it's already here: barely a third of all college students today are 18-24 year-olds attending traditional college institutions. And that, Selingo seems to believe (and seems to believe most other people with skin in the game also believe) is a good thing. They're right -- to a point.

The title of this book is indeed apt: Selingo describes an educational landscape in which the traditional bundling of educational services into a single collegiate experience is replaced by one in which an à la carte menu of goods and services gets procured in a way comparable to one buys an airline ticket or telecommunications services. Actually, the book itself seems redolent of the same logic: Selingo is an editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education, where parts of this book first appeared. It's published by New Harvest, an imprint of Amazon.com, and distributed through Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Read more ..

Film Review

The Great Gatsby: Borne Back Ceaselessly to an Unescapable Present

May 30th 2013

Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby. Director: Baz Luhrmann. Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire, Joel Edgerton. Length: 142 mins.

Everybody remembers the last line of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most celebrated novel, The Great Gatsby: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." I’ll come back to those words in a moment. But how many of us remember the novel’s first lines? "In my younger and more vulnerable years," Fitzgerald wrote in the voice of his narrator, Nick Carraway, "my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’"

Nick then goes on to compliment himself for generally following this advice and "reserving judgments" about people but also to point out that, like his father, he does so condescendingly (he says "snobbishly"). He then adds that his tolerance has a limit and implies that Gatsby, in the story he is about to tell, is it.

For the most part, Baz Luhrmann’s new movie version of the novel sticks very closely to Fitzgerald’s words. Sometimes too closely. In several scenes, set in a completely un-Fitzgeraldian asylum at some unspecified later date where Nick, played by Tobey Maguire, has been instructed by a psychiatrist to write his story down, we see the words actually on the screen (and, like the rest of the movie, in 3-D).

But in the case of the opening lines, there is a subtle change. Instead of advising his son to reserve judgment of the less fortunate, the movie’s account of the senior Mr Carraway has him telling his son not to make any judgments of people at all. It’s a crucial difference which can stand for what, above all, distinguishes Fitzgerald’s world — a world in which morality and principle were things people of all classes were expected to take an interest in, as well as to behave in accordance with — and our own non-"judgmental" present where the only good is inclusiveness and the only evil is discrimination. Read more ..

Book Review

The Summer of Beer and Whiskey Brings Baseball

May 28th 2013

Summer of Beer and Whiskey

Edward Achorn, who wrote the justly-praised Fifty-Nine in ’84, an illuminating exploration of early baseball and a pitcher named “Hoss” Radborn, child of English immigrants, who won 308 games and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1939, offers yet a new exploration of the nineteenth century game, The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Race Made Baseball America’s Game -- a mouthful but a suggestive subtitle. Achorn is editorial page editor of the Providence Journal and a frequent book reviewer for The Weekly Standard.

Much of the book is focused on Chris Von der Ahe, an owner virtually unknown today but who played an absolutely crucial role in preserving and spreading the gospel of baseball. He was a German-born immigrant with little knowledge of baseball when he arrived in the 1870s in St. Louis, where so many Germans immigrants had come to live following the failed German liberal revolution of 1848. Once settled, he bought a grocery and saloon, not far from the local ballpark. He spoke English with a heavy German accent, wore lavishly colored clothing to draw attention, married and divorced with some regularity, and paid piles of money to ex-wives and lovers.

Von der Ahe loved the publicity and newspaper stories about him but he was also a shrewd businessman interested in making money, which he did by selling beer and spreading the gospel of baseball, about which he knew little. Smart, pushy, selfish, competitive and tough, he was very different from the usual run of today’s undistinguished and dull billionaire baseball owners. Achorn compares him to George Steinbrenner, whose constant interference and multiple firings of manager Billy Martin became part of baseball lore, and Charles Finley, who once fired his second baseman for daring to make an error in a World Series game. Read more ..

Film Review

Love is All You Need: So Little from So Much

May 28th 2013

Love is All You Need: Den skaldede frisør

Love is All You Need (Den skaldede frisør). Director: Susanne Bier. Starring: Kim Bodnia, Pierce Brosnan, Trine Dyrholm, Kim Bodnia, Molly Blixt Egelind. Length: 90 mins.

Susanne Bier’s Love is All You Need is a disappointment. This is not because the title (the Danish title translates as The Bald Hairdresser, but that was thought a turn-off for the American market) promises the Beatles and delivers Dean Martin. On the whole, I’d rather have Dean Martin — even in That’s Amore which runs like a leitmotif throughout the movie — than the Beatles at their left-wing soppiest anyway. No, what I found disappointing was that the brilliant director of the searing dramas Open Hearts and In a Better World contented herself with this bit of fluff when she came to direct a romantic comedy. Half in English and half in sub-titled Danish, the movie is not bad or contemptible and it’s even quite enjoyable at times — as how could it not be from such a source? But one knows from her past form that Ms Bier could have done so much better.

The main problem is that she makes the work too easy for herself. In bringing together her two damaged characters — rich widower Philip (Pierce Brosnan) and cancer-suffering hairdresser Ida (Trine Dyrholm) — under a pizza-pie moon above the Bay of Naples, she surrounds them with such dreadful people that the basis of their attraction seems less likely to be love than desperation to find the only other decent person around. Having met cute with a fender-bender at the Copenhagen airport, they proceed to Philip’s long-neglected lemon plantation in Sorrento for the wedding of his son, Patrick (Sebastian Jessen), and her daughter, Astrid (Molly Blixt Egelind). A sub-plot about Patrick’s "doubts" about the relationship — doubts of a highly recognizable and rather tiresome kind in today’s movie culture — is an annoying distraction.   Read more ..

The Way We Are

Star Trek Influence Lives Long and Prospers

May 27th 2013

Star Trek

Academics, professionals and Star Trek fans are once again discussing the iconic franchise's influence on society, science, and technology, as the dazzling new sci-fi adventure Star Trek Into Darkness plays in theaters.

The starship Enterprise is well-known to viewers of the iconic Star Trek TV series and visitors to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, where the original model is on display in the gift shop.  The fictional craft - whose long-running mission has been to explore the farthest reaches of "space, the final frontier" - even inspired the name of NASA's prototype space shuttle, said museum curator Margaret Weitekamp. 

"Well, the very first space shuttle was actually named Enterprise as a result of a write-in campaign orchestrated by Star Trek fans of the 1970s," she explained. Weitekamp, who recently took part in a panel discussion at the museum about Star Trek's relevance, noted the television series began airing in the 1960s as women and minorities pressed for equal rights.   Read more ..

The Edge of Film

Fake Tanks, Ghost Army Helped Defeat Germans During WW ll

May 25th 2013


Life is often stranger than fiction as filmmaker Rick Beyer found out when he learned that an American Ghost Army helped defeat the Germans during World War II.

The story was classified for decades, and after it was declassified it took Beyer eight years to piece the story together with hard-to-find footage, interviews with selected veterans, and artwork created by soldiers at the front.

Beyer created the first documentary account of this specialized unit that was charged with helping defeat the enemy by waging a war of deception. In March 1945, after months of bitter fighting, the Germans had retreated behind the Rhine River, their natural frontier, to mount their final defense. Read more ..

Art News

Mega-Rich Use Tax Havens to Buy and Sell Masterpieces

May 24th 2013

Watermill-Van Gogh

Famed Spanish art patron uses island haven in South Pacific to manage her collection. Tourists who come to Spain’s capital often make a pilgrimage to the museums in Madrid’s so-called Art Triangle. After the Prado and the Reina Sofia, the next stop usually is the Thyssen-Bornemisza. The Spanish state owns the majority of the paintings inside this museum, but it also holds much of the private collection of Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza, one of the world’s biggest art collectors.

What visitors don’t know as they look at these Monets, Matisses and other masterpieces is that many of them are legally owned by secrecy-guarded companies in tax havens: Liechtenstein, the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands and the Cook Islands.

Van Gogh’s 1884 painting, Water Mill at Gennep, is one of the works Thyssen-Bornemisza purchased with the help of an offshore operative based in the Cook Islands, a South Pacific haven more than 10,000 miles from Madrid. Read more ..

After the Holocaust

A Filmmaker's Effort to Reveal the Power of Money over Ethics

May 20th 2013
Jonathan Gruber, a filmmaker who recently toured his touching film Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story, which chronicled the short, tender and heroic life of one of Israel’s great military leaders, is trying to complete a film that has been close to his heart for a long time.  The story of one of the world’s largest companies, I.G. Farben, and how it not only profited from Hitler, but was a major reason that Germany was able to execute its war in the first place, is one that we all need to know.

I.G. Farben was perhaps the first true “multinational corporation”; it was the very model of a modern major conglomerate: brilliant, inventive, diversified—and ruthless in its pursuit of the bottom line. As the largest company in Europe during World War II, its rise and fall provides a shocking example of a profit-driven culture run amok.

We already know about corporate greed and its impact on the Holocaust from bestselling author and historian, Edwin Black. Black’s poignant works exposed how multinational corporations had profited from the Nazi’s genocidal campaign to eradicate Judaism from Europe first, and then if they had been successful, the world over time. Read more ..

Book Review

Their Untold Constitutional Legacy

May 18th 2013

The Forgotten Presidents

The Forgotten Presidents. Michael J. Gerhardt. OxfordUniversity Press. 2013. 336 pp.

In The Forgotten Presidents, University of North Carolina law school professor Michael J. Gerhardt looks at a dozen presidents, beginning with Martin Van Buren and ending with Jimmy Carter, and argues that each had more of an impact than many people -- not simply a public at large that may only be vaguely familiar with their names, but also professional historians more likely to interested in more prominent figures -- and suggests their impact has been greater than is commonly recognized. As his subtitle makes clear, Gerhardt is not arguing that these presidents had compelling personalities, or that their political gifts or tactics were especially notable. Instead, he argues that each made essentially administrative decisions that either marked a precedent in the history of the presidency itself or quickened a tendency in the nature of office. Much of Gerhardt's analysis focuses on topics like presidential appointments, vetoes, and relationships with other branches of government, especially the courts and the U.S. Senate.

Insofar as there's a narrative trajectory in this series of profiles, it's that presidents of all times and parties have tended to guard and strengthen the prerogatives of the office. To be sure, there have been any number that have been avowedly in favor of limited government. But, as Gerhardt shows, these figures (Van Buren, Franklin Pierce, Grover Cleveland the first time around) are among the least successful in U.S. history. He also shows that the two Whig presidents elected to office, William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor, began their terms avowing deference to the legislative branch, in large measure as a reaction to the perceived high-handedness of Andrew Jackson. But both men, as well as the vice presidents (John Tyler and Millard Fillmore) who succeeded them, found this theory of government wanting. Indeed, even those executives who did profess a federalist approach to governing, from Cleveland to Coolidge, nevertheless fought hard to maintain and extend their power in their own domain when it came to things like removing cabinet officers or naming Supreme Court justices. And others, notably Cleveland the second time around -- he gets two separate chapters for each of his administrations -- became increasingly convinced of the need for presidential initiative in lawmaking. Read more ..

The Edge of Music

Flamenco Band Has Arabic, Islamic Influences

May 15th 2013

La Ruya-band

In a nation of immigrants, with a 'melting pot' culture, it should not be surprising that American music is also an international blend.

That's especially true of Flamenco, brought to southern Spain by 18th-century Romanis-Gypsies from North India, and performed today by a California band that incorporates Arabic and other Islamic influences from Turkey, the Black Sea, Persia and North Africa. 

The unmistakable sound of flamenco - Spanish guitar and heels - is transformed by the members of the San Francisco band, La Ruya.

One of the band’s founding members is Sam Foster. He’s a rock and jazz drummer who became fascinated with Arabic and Turkish percussion, and from there to Flamenco. He brought in flamenco dancer and choreographer Melissa Cruz, and other musicians to create La Ruya’s unique sound. Read more ..

Book Review

How 1965 Changed America

May 13th 2013

Eve of Destruction bk cvr clear

The Eve of Destruction. James Patterson. Basic Books. 2012. 344 pp.

When did “the Sixties” begin? The answer, James Patterson says, is 1965, after which “life in the United States would never be the same again.” When President Lyndon Baines Johnson lit the national Christmas tree in December of 1964, he declared that “these are the most hopeful times in all the years since Christ was born in Bethlehem.” One year later, Watts was still smoldering while thousands of demonstrators gathered in front of the White House to chant “Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids have you killed today?” The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Changed America tells the absorbing story of how we got from the promise of Bethlehem to the nightmares of Vietnam and race riots.

The Sixties usually unfold in a frenetic montage of iconic moments, from JFK’s assassination to Jimi Hendrix’s burning guitar. Patterson should be applauded for rescuing the Sixties from the conventional sex, drugs and rock n’ roll treatment. Rather than focusing on the counterculture, Patterson brings us into the nation’s central corridors of power, re-centering the era on the “commanding figure” of LBJ and the machinery of the federal government.

Patterson portrays LBJ as a hugely ambitious man, with “epic strengths” and “epic weaknesses.” Charming and generous one moment, he could be crude and domineering the next. A man without hobbies, “politics was his religion.” Obsessed with outdoing the legislative accomplishments of his hero, FDR, Johnson pursued his domestic agenda with a relentless and imperious energy. He was a difficult man to refuse. He would buttonhole colleagues whose votes he needed, his six-foot, four-inch frame looming over them, his piercing eyes boring in, while he harangued and cajoled his targets with such force and at such length that they were rendered “stunned and helpless” (this overwhelming technique became known simply as “the Treatment”). Read more ..

The Edge of Music

Youth Orchestra Bridges Worlds of Music

May 11th 2013

Nashville Symphony

For nearly 60 years, young musicians have gotten help in starting their careers from the Young Musicians Foundation.  The California-based foundation's orchestra is a bridge between the worlds of amateur and professional music.

There are high school students in the group as young as 15, and young professionals up to age 25, and conductor Roger Kalia says they all bring passion to their music. “There is a certain amount of energy and excitement, which is just contagious, and I love seeing that," said Kalia.

The musicians prepared for a recent performance at a local middle school that included selections from Georges Bizet's opera Carmen. 70 young musicians get to work with the best in the field. Flutist Mira Magrill recently performed a solo as the orchestra played a selection from John Williams' score for the film War Horse. “And it starts and ends with a huge flute cadenza, which I got to perform, with John Williams conducting.  It was probably the best performance I have ever been a part of," said Magrill. Read more ..

The Edge of Film

'Reluctant Fundamentalist' Explores Cultural Myths

May 10th 2013

Muslim American girl with flag

Indian-born filmmaker Mira Nair has made acclaimed films on multiculturalism: mixed marriages amid racial intolerance and U.S. immigrants grappling with ethnic identity.

Her most recent film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, deals with the mistrust and alienation of a young Pakistani immigrant in the post 9/11 world. Her film, based on Mohsim Hamid’s 2007 novel by the same name, was released days after the Boston Marathon bombings.

Changez, a son of an intellectual Pakistani family and a brilliant financial advisor, has everything going for him: a great job on Wall Street, a beautiful American girlfriend, connections. After 9/11, everything changes. He is heckled at the airport and profiled as a potential terrorist. Nair says people like Changez were forced to take sides.

“They were encouraged to because Bush said, ‘Either you are with us or you’re against us.’ He set up this so-called Axis of Evil," she said. "He taught people to look at ‘us' and 'them.’ And I don’t think that that reaction has led to greater understanding or peace."  Read more ..

The Edge of Music

Songwriter Looks Back at Rock and Roll Repertoire

May 8th 2013


The songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller was at the birth of rock and roll. Among other hits, the duo wrote the Elvis Presley hit "Hound Dog" and the rhythm and blues classic "Kansas City," recorded by dozens of artists.  Jerry Leiber died in 2011, but Mike Stoller is still composing in Los Angeles, and he spoke with Mike O'Sullivan about their legacy.

"Jailhouse Rock" was one of more than 20 Leiber and Stoller songs that Elvis Presley recorded.  Another Presley record, written by Leiber and Stoller, was an even bigger hit. Along with Elvis and other artists, Leiber and Stoller were at the heart of the rock and roll revolution.  Mike Stoller says he started writing music with friend Jerry Leiber when they were 17.

"I'd be jamming at the piano and he'd be walking around shouting phrases out, anything that came into his head," said Stoller. The pair wrote and produced a series of popular songs by The Coasters, including "Yakety Yak," "Poison Ivy," and "Charlie Brown." Read more ..

The Movies' Edge

India’s Popular Bollywood Film Industry Turns 100

May 7th 2013


India’s hugely popular Hindi film industry known as Bollywood celebrates its 100th birthday Friday. With a loyal following not only in India, but several Asian countries, Bollywood is evolving from making extravagant, romantic films to more experimental cinema. But its primary mission remains entertainment for movie-mad Indians.              

It is a special day for 33-year-old Ekta Kapoor as she gets ready to watch Bollywood’s newest release - Bombay Talkies - a collection of four short films commemorating 100 years of Bollywood.  Kapoor is like millions of Indians - passionate about Hindi movies. "Excitement. I love anything to do with Bollywood right from childhood. Can’t think of life without Bollywood," said  Kapoor. Read more ..

Book Review

New Menachem Begin Bio Provides a Clear Picture

May 6th 2013

Menachem Begin book

Menachem Begin: A New Life. Avi Shilon. Yale. 2012. 584 pp.

In Menachem Begin: A Life, a new biography of one of Israel's more multifaceted leaders, Avi Shilon succeeds in portraying a fervent and uncompromising Zionist whose political brilliance usually compensated for his lack of military experience. Shilon shows that for Begin, anti-Semitism was at the root of everything. It was Begin's realization of the threat that posed by anti-Semitism that motivated his actions and led to his political career.

When the Holocaust destroyed the Polish-Jewish world from which he had emerged, the need for Jewish independence became clearer to him than ever before. Ensuring that another Holocaust would never take place was his paramount concern, even when he was Prime Minister of Israel, pursuing Yasir Arafat in the PLO leader's Beirut bunker. While many of Begin's critics have deplored the ways in which this frame of mind led him to take what they consider politically inappropriate actions, Shilon's biography focuses not on criticizing the man in this respect but in showing the reader where Begin "came from."

Shilon also shows just how important symbolism was to Begin. In the 1940s, when he was the leader of the underground Etzel, an acronym for Irgun Zvai Leumi, or National Military Organization, his operations against the British rulers of Palestine always included symbolic elements that stressed the importance of Jewish sovereignty and self-determination. For example, Etzel's "Operation Wall" was a response to a British prohibition against blowing a shofar at the Western Wall on Yom Kippur. This action, Shilon observes, "was not the most important in the history of Etzel, but it emphasized Begin's main approach in the organization's initial operations: symbolic declarative acts, not necessarily with any real military content." Read more ..

Book Review

Choosing Life in Israel

May 5th 2013

Choosing Life in Israel

Choosing Life in Israel. P. David Hornik. Freedom Press International. 2013. 260 pp.

The first two words of the title Choosing Life in Israel, by P. David Hornik,  are fraught with double meaning for any literate Jew.  In  Deuteronomy 30: 19, Moses calls heaven and earth “to witness against you this day,  that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life.” In 1 Kings 18:21 the prophet Elijah tells all the children of Israel that they cannot vacillate, but must choose sides: “’How long halt ye between two opinions? If the LORD be God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him.” For  Hornik the choice was between the American corner of Diaspora, where he grew up (near Albany, New York) and Israel, to which he made aliyah (i.e., “went up”) at the age of 30 in 1984. He had  come to the conclusion  that, whatever the attractions of life in America might be, however tangible the possibility of  still living a Jewish life here–the Jewish future  lay elsewhere, in the Land of Israel.  Although Hornik’s columns deal with a dizzying variety of topics, they are unified by this theme of choice, and in several different ways.

The book comprises sixty short newspaper columns previously published in  American Spectator,  Frontpage Magazine, and PJ Media. (He has also written for the Jerusalem Post,  Moment, and Israel National News.) The first,  shorter section of the book, called Living in Israel,  is intensely personal, and centers on the author’s decision to depart for Israel. Despite its omnipresent difficulties and dangers (unlikely to diminish greatly in the foreseeable future), Israel has afforded Hornik  what Hillel Halkin recommended in Letters to an American-Jewish Friend: A Zionist’s Polemic (1977), the most powerful plea for aliyah from America ever written: “a land and a language! They are the ground beneath a people’s feet and the air it breathes in and out. …you cannot even buy cigarettes in Hebrew without stirring up the Bible; you cannot walk the streets of Tel Aviv without treading on promised land.”  The immediate causes, or  antecedents, of Hornik’s choice of  aliyah were outrage at the way in which the great powers treat Israel, and—who knows  why any of us do what we do?—Theodore Bikel’s Folk Songs of Israel. Read more ..

Movie Review

Pain & Gain

May 4th 2013

Pain and Gain

Pain & Gain. Director: Michael Bay. Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Mark Wahlberg, Ed Harris, Tony Shalhoub, Anthony Mackie. Length: 90 mins.

Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain, based very loosely on a true story as told in a series of article in Miami New Times by Pete Collins, comes to its too-long delayed ending as the closing credits are played out to the tune of Coolio’s "Gangster’s Paradise" of 1995 — the same year in which the events dramatized in the film took place. The lyrics, insofar as they can be understood, are rather introspective for a rap song:

Too much television watchin’ got me chasin’ dreams
I’m an educated fool with money on my mind. . .

Nothing unusual about that, of course, though the educated fool — an ironic designation? — is at least slightly unusual for saying such things (ostensibly) about himself. The characters in Pain & Gain are not blessed with even this degree of self-awareness. When the muscle-bound lame-brain Danny Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), the leader of the film’s ad hoc criminal gang, explains to Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson): "I’ve watched a lot of movies Paul; I know what I’m doing," he doesn’t know that we’re laughing at him. Yet he and the other gang members — the third of the trio is Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) — are not incapable of learning either, and the movie, which shares some of its characters’ shallowness, is at least capable of laughing at itself.

But it doesn’t always succeed in walking the delicate line between a becoming self-irony and mere fakery. In fact, it almost never succeeds. Another bit of Coolio’s rap goes: Read more ..

Book Review

Looking at the First 75 Years of Cambridge Computing

May 4th 2013

Cambridge Computing

Cambridge Computing. Haroon Ahmed. Thrid Millenium Pub. 2013. 176 pp.

“Cambridge Computing: The first 75 years”, written by Prof Haroon Ahmed, Professor of Microelectronics at the University, charts the development of computing in Cambridge from 1938 when the staff and students of the Anatomy School at the University of Cambridge moved to a new site with a two man “Mathematical Laboratory”. From there EDSAC was developed in 1949, the first programmable computer ever brought into general service, and microprogramming was pioneered by Maurice Wilkes, the Lab’s second Director, using EDSAC 2.

Cambridge’s Computer Lab was the home of the world’s first webcam. It was the place where Michael Burrows, the leading computer scientist in search engine development, learned his trade, and where Bjarne Stroustrup, inventor of the C++, did his PhD. Without the Lab, early home computers like the BBC Micro, or the low-power chip technology used in iPads and mobile phones, or the Raspberry Pi, might well never have emerged.

“Today, the establishment mentality seems to be that you can industrialise innovation, or innovate on demand,” said Andy Hopper, Professor of Computer Technology and the current Head of the Lab. “You can’t do that any more than you can ask an artist to paint the next brilliant masterpiece. The success of the Cambridge Computer Lab has come about because we created a culture of innovation and nurtured innovative people within it.” Read more ..

Kenya on Edge

Artist Uses Racy Subjects to Show 'Real' Kenya

April 29th 2013

Kenya Kids

As the art scene in Kenya has grown, Michael Soi's works have become searing depictions of society, including the underworld of strip clubs, prostitution, and police corruption, as well as everyday contradictions in politics and personal lives. The Nairobi artist said he aims to show life as it really is.

“It’s just because I choose to work on issues that a lot of Kenyan artists choose not to work with.  I use, I basically create, work that would be seen as work that disturbs people,” he explained. For example, Soi did a series of paintings on Nairobi strip clubs, in which he focused more on the men’s reactions than on the women themselves.

Soi admitted that he likes exposing hypocrisy in society. “It’s a community that basically loves to dig a hole and bury your head in the sand and pretend that these things don’t happen.  But unfortunately, they do,” the artist noted.

According to Danda Jaroljmek, the founder of the Circle Art Agency, Soi has never been afraid to push conventional limits. “I think up until recently, artists were very uncomfortable about being overtly political.  People were frightened to do that, and I’ve noticed over the last five, seven years that it has become open," she said. Read more ..

The Music Edge

Remembering Richie Havens

April 27th 2013

Richie Havens

Folk-rocker Richie Havens, who died Monday of a heart attack, will be remembered for many things, among them a smooth singing voice, standing six-and-a-half-feet tall, and singing at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration. But the most famous of his many lauded concert appearances happened by accident.

Richie Havens’ performance at Woodstock in 1969 catapulted him into music history, but the lanky, soulful folk singer wasn’t supposed to open the festival - he was scheduled to play fifth that day. Plans changed when the opening band, Sweetwater, got caught in traffic. Havens and his band had traveled to the upstate New York festival site by helicopter, so they were ready to hit the stage when organizers asked Havens to go on instead. Read more ..

Film Review

42: The Fiction in Telling a True Story

April 26th 2013


42. Director: Brian Helgeland. Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Alan Tudyk, Jesse Luken

Spoiler alert! I’m always surprised and a little chagrined at the fetish so many people make out of being surprised by a movie’s ending, as if every picture were by Hitchcock and could only justify the demands it makes on our time by repaying our attention for an hour and a half or so with five minutes of a surprise ending wrapped up for us like a Christmas present with a bow. But there it is.

People insist on being surprised and scorn those who spoil the surprise for them. Except when they don’t. From the start of Brian Helgeland’s Jackie Robinson biopic, 42, we already know how it comes out. Of course this is also true of Titanic, as it is of lots of movies based on well-known real-life events. But some kids had never heard of Titanic before they went to the movie, whereas no one doesn’t know that black guys have been playing in the Major Leagues for a long time now. Jackie, we know, has got to triumph in the end.

Perhaps I am just sour because, as a native of the state, I resent the movie’s blatant anti-Pennsylvanian prejudice. In this ostensibly anti-discrimination picture, Philadelphia is portrayed as a hotbed of racism, worse than Birmingham. When the Dodgers arrive in the City of Brotherly Love with the rookie Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) for a road game against the Phillies, the Ben Franklin hotel proprietor bars their way, for all the world like a Yankee version of George Wallace in the school house door. The Phillies’ owner tells Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), "We’re not ready for that sort of thing here in Philadelphia," and the Phillies’ manager, Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) spews so much vile racist abuse at Jackie during a game that he almost, for the only time in the picture, provokes a violent reaction. Read more ..

Film Review

Reality: A Film on the God-Shaped Hole in Our Lives

April 22nd 2013


Reality. Director: Matteo Garrone. Starring: Raffaele Ferrante, Loredana Simioli, Nando Paone. Length: 90 mins.

Matteo Garrone (Gomorrah) has had the bad luck to have his new movie, Reality, labeled a satire of reality TV. People, some of them critics, therefore think they know what to expect and express disappointment when they don’t get it. But Reality is not a satire of reality TV. Reality TV, as represented by "Grande Fratello," the Italian version of "Big Brother," and the celebrity culture it panders to are both assumed to be as vapid and mindless as we pretty much already know they are. That’s not a proposition which is in much need of demonstration. Instead, these things provide Mr Garrone with a vehicle for a much more profound examination of human life and what people need to give meaning to it than any mere satire could accomplish. It would be better to see the movie as a gloss on that quotation, once erroneously attributed to G.K. Chesterton, about how when people stop believing in God they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything.

The movie begins with an aerial shot of a Cinderella coach driven by two white horses taking a bride and groom through the streets of Naples to their wedding reception at a magnificent hotel. What we are about to see has nothing to do with them, or the hotel, though the fairy tale part should be borne in mind as being of particular relevance. It is, rather, the story of a fishmonger and small-time scam artist named Luciano, played by Aniello Arena who is a real life criminal working on day-release from prison. Mr Garrone had seen him in prison theatricals and thought he was the only actor in Italy with the right, "working-class" sort of face. Luciano is at the wedding, we gather, because another of his sidelines involves dressing in drag and performing at weddings and other events like this one. Read more ..

Book Review

Appreciation of the Earth

April 20th 2013

House of Earth

House of Earth. Woody Guthrie. Harper. 2013. 288 pp.

House of Earth is a novel written in 1947 by folksinger and political activist Woody Guthrie.  Although Guthrie wrote what many scholars describe as two autobiographical novels, Bound for Glory (1943) and Seeds of Man (published in 1972 five years after Guthrie’s death), House of Earth remained unpublished until the seemingly ubiquitous Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley discovered the manuscript and arranged for its publication under actor Johnny Depp's new Infinitum label with HarperCollins.

Thus, House of Earth is edited by the unlikely duo of Brinkley and Depp, who also provide an insightful introductory essay for the novel. The editors insist that they made few changes with the original manuscript, and for those who have enjoyed the pleasure of listening to and reading Woody’s songs, letters, and voluminous journals and notebooks, the published novel remains true to the voice of Guthrie, who consistently championed the cause of the common people against the entrenched interests of privilege and wealth. House of Earth tells the story of Tike and Ella May Hamlin, a young farming couple in the Texas Panhandle, who decide to battle the Dust Bowl and predatory interests by staying on the land and not undertaking the exodus to the promised land of California. While John Steinbeck chronicled the ordeal of Dust Bowl refugees in California, Depp and Brinkley write, “Guthrie’s own heart was with those stubborn dirt farmers who remained behind in the Great Plains to stand up to the bankers, lumber barons, and agribusiness that had desecrated beautiful wild Texas with overgrazing, clear-cutting, strip-mining, and reckless farming practices.”

Of course, Guthrie was not one of those farmers who stubbornly stayed on the land.  He was born July 14, 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma. After the family suffered financial setbacks, the tragic death of his older sister in a fire, and the hospitalization of his mother diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, Woody joined relatives in the Texas Panhandle community of Pampa. Woody married and began a family, but it was difficult to make ends meet as Pampa was engulfed by dust. Accordingly, Guthrie, unlike his fictional protagonist Tike Hamlin, abandoned the Panhandle to see what was happening to his people in California. Read more ..

Book Review

Author Edwin Black Scores Another Victory in The Farhud

April 13th 2013

Farhud book

The Farhud: Roots of the Arab Nazi Alliance in the Holocaust. Edwin Black. Dialog Press. 2010. 464 pages.

Edwin Black, a prolific investigative author and historian, has scored another victory in his book The Farhud, Roots of the Arab-Nazi Alliance to the Holocaust.  Although his chief focus is on the Arab-Nazi collaboration during the Holocaust, he also covers a multiplicity of topics that will be captivating for both the scholar and general reader. These include crucial background information on The Zionist Moment, the Jihad, and the turbulent history that has led to the current Arab-Israeli relationship.

Buy The Farhud by Edwin Black

Quickly, The Farhud convinces that the incomprehensible horror of preceding Arab mass killings of Jews in Hebron and elsewhere was meticulously researched. We therefore understand the bloodshed better when the story culminates in the 1941 massacre of Jews in Baghdad. As Black writes, “the Arab-Nazi alliance was a complicated mixture of political ingredients that had been stewing for decades.” The lust for oil was a major catalyst in this plot, and the book’s leading characters include Winston Churchill, the imperialist Anglo-Persian Oil Company, and other prominent icons of petroleum history.  In this vein, one particularly insightful chapter is the one titled “Peace and Petroleum.”

Black documents how pro-Nazi policies of the Arabs, with the supervision and leadership of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, led to mass murders of thousands of Jews throughout the Middle East and beyond. The exile of an estimated one million Jews from Arab and Iraqi lands after the State of Israel was born in 1948 is center stage in the book’s explosive finale. This revealed history is particularly compelling especially in the light of today’s political events and protests that either gloss over or mask the fact that 800,000 Jews were expelled penniless to Israel. Therefore, his early chapter on the 2,600 Years of Iraqi Jewry, and a section towards the end of the book on its demise, bring the history and the present full circle. Black writes, “Household by household, Jewish families finally—almost unanimously—realized that their precious 2,600-year existence in Iraq was over. In wave after wave, groups of refugees left the country via the overland route.” Those stateless, dispossessed Arab Jews ended up in Israel. Read more ..

Book Review

Interracial Organizing and Labor Radicalism

April 10th 2013

A Renegade Union

A Renegade Union. Lisa Phillips. Univ Illinois Press. 2012. 256 pp.

I was introduced to District 65, the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union, in the 1950s, when I was in college and employed part-time as a sales clerk by the Gimbel’s department store in Manhattan. Union membership was required, for which I received benefits, including inexpensive prescription eyeglasses. From my vantage point, the store’s full-time unionized employees received low wages, but also protection against arbitrary dismissal, something the store’s executives evidently did not enjoy. With the union behind them, the store’s “65ers” possessed a sense of dignity.

Lisa Phillips, an assistant professor of history at Indiana State University and the author of Radical Unionism in the Midwest, 1900-1950, has written A Renegade Union: Interracial Organizing and Labor Radicalism, the story of this organization.  Begun early by immigrant Jews on New York’s Lower East Side early in the twentieth century, and called Local 65 in 1933, it sought to provide “better pay and working conditions for low-paid workers” in “non-factory-based settings throughout the United States.” Rather than organize according to such divisions as craft or ethnicity, it targeted those who were the most poorly paid, who were shunned by other unions. Local 65’s approach was on an “area,” or “catch-all,” basis, which was different from what was used by such other unions as the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers’ Union, for example.

Despite an increase in the unionization of American workers and a boost for many of them into the middle class by the 1950s, the kind of jobs Local 65 organized have remained “low wage, unstable, and dominated by people of color, some US citizens, some recent immigrants, and some here illegally.” In brief, Local 65 failed. The author in part blames this lack of success on union presidents Arthur Osman and David Livingstone, alleging that they concentrated too much leadership in their own hands without permitting leaders of the groups they were attempting to assist to have “greater influence.” Read more ..

Book Review

Inside the Hunt for Al Qaeda

April 9th 2013

TakeDown USE THIS 1

Takedown. Philip Mudd. Univ Penn Press. 2013. 224 pp.

The current administration has loosed a cataract of disclosures about how this nation tried to protect itself after 9/11, even as it resolutely refuses to recognize that it is the ideology of Islamism that we are trying to protect ourselves against. The disclosures have ranged from the release of classified legal memos describing interrogation techniques used by the CIA (and the legal justification for them) to the details of the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound and the intelligence gathered there (which, revealed, became useless). Paradoxically, these stories and leaks have been long on provocation and short on any appreciation of the most critical component of our defense against terrorism: intelligence gathering.

Philip Mudd played a large role in that world, spending 24 years as an intelligence analyst at the CIA and FBI. He was part of the small team sent to aid anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan in the days after 9/11 and then, in January 2002, was appointed second-in-command of the CIA's new Office of Terrorism Analysis, the division of the Counterterrorism Center (CTC) where hundreds of analysts were assembled to gather information about al Qaeda. Although the CIA generally is divided between those who evaluate and report on information and the operators who run clandestine activities and cultivate sources of information abroad, the CTC combines the two functions. In 2003, Mr. Mudd became deputy director of the CTC, and then in 2005, FBI Director Robert Mueller asked him to join the newly created National Security Branch, which aimed to combine intelligence gathering with the bureau's traditional counterterrorism efforts.

Mr. Mudd's memoir, "Takedown," is a detailed account of the actual activities of intelligence gathering. (Ironically he is a descendant of that Mudd, the physician who set John Wilkes Booth's broken leg the night of the Lincoln assassination and was later convicted of conspiring to kill Abraham Lincoln.) CIA officers generate daily briefs for the executive branch, each tailored to the particular concerns of an agency head, but integrating the latest terrorism-related information. Mr. Mudd and his boss at the Office of Terrorism Analysis, Pattie Kindsvater, traded off weeks managing the information about terrorism in the "holy grail" of U.S. intelligence: the President's Daily Brief. Read more ..

Entertainment on Edge

Long-running Broadway Shows Keep It Fresh

April 8th 2013

Wizard of Oz

The Phantom of the Opera recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, making it the longest-running Broadway musical ever. 

Hugh Panaro, who plays the phantom, has a unique perspective. His first stint with the show was 22 years ago, when he played the young lover Raoul. Over the years, Panaro left the show to do other roles, but has returned several times, portraying the phantom in more than 1,700 performances. 

Part of what keeps things fresh for him is playing opposite different actresses in the lead role of Christine. "You know, 15, easily," Panaro said. "And that’s not counting understudies. That’s counting girls that have held this contract from the time I was Raoul until now. I get two Christines a week and no two Christines are alike, which is the beauty of it." Read more ..

Book Review

America's Open-Door Policy for Nazi War Criminals

April 7th 2013

Useful Enemies

Useful Enemies. Richard Rashke. Delphinium. 2013. 621 pp.

When new employee John Loftus first arrived at the Office of Special Investigations, a component of the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice formed to track down some of the thousands of war criminals who had entered the country after World War II, his supervisor greeted him -- so he reports in his 2010 book America's Nazi Secret -- by saying “welcome to the Department of Justice. You now represent the most corrupt client in the world -- the United States government”

An exaggeration, of course, but it’s a judgment  replicated in many ways in Richard Rashke’s Useful Enemies: John Demjanjuk and America's Open-Door Policy for Nazi War Criminals, a meticulously researched and nuanced study explaining how, in the name of furthering the holy war against communism, the U.S. deliberately allowed Nazi war criminals to enter the country while deliberately ignoring their complicity in mass murder and torture. Rashke is the author of The Killing of Karen Silkwood, about the labor organizer and reputed whistleblower who died in a puzzling auto accident, and Escape From Sobibor, which dealt with the break out of hundreds of Jewish prisoners in 1943. In Useful Enemies, he relies heavily on trial transcripts, interviews, whistleblowers, documents wrested from FOI requests, and assiduous study of available texts:

Several thousand SS and SD officers; Gestapo officers, agents, and chiefs; Abwehr intelligence officersl Nazi propagandists and scientists; Einsatzcommandos [specialists in mass killings of civilians, especially East European Jews]; Waffen-SS volunteers, Vlasov’s legions [captured ex-Red Army soldiers, who fought for the Germans]; Nazi quislings and ethnic cleansers, all were welcomed and protected. Read more ..

Film Review

Identity Thief: Progressive Criminality

April 6th 2013

Identity thief

Identity Thief: Director: Seth Gordon. Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Jason Bateman, Genesis Rodriguez, Clifford Joseph Harris Jr. Length: 90 mins.

There is a gratuitous scene in the middle of Identity Thief that adds nothing to the plot but that is meant — I’m just guessing here — to add to the humor of the thing. Our heroes, the eponymous Identity Thief who sometimes goes under the name of Diana (Melissa McCarthy) and the man whose identity she has stolen, Sandy Patterson (Jason Bateman), are now teamed up together, as is the natural way of comic criminals and their victims, and on the run from three different pursuers.

Two of these, Julian (played by an actor, Clifford Joseph Harris Jr., who sometimes goes under the name of T.I.) and Marisol (Genesis Rodriguez), who are acting as agents of an unseen criminal to whom Sandy owes money, are also teamed up. Diana has recently had a comic sexual encounter with a man known as Big Chuck (Eric Stonestreet) whom she met in a bar in rural Georgia. Big Chuck turns out to be a real estate agent and Julian and Marisol visit his office pretending to be prospective house purchasers in order to pick up a clue as to which way Diana and Sandy have gone.

Got that so far? Big Chuck, taking Julian and Marisol at face value explains to them that his little Georgia town is a "traditional community" and then, perhaps because he thinks — not without some reason — that they are rather dim, he explains to them that "traditional" means they don’t like black people and foreigners. Julian is black and Marisol, being unspecified Hispanic, is foreign — and black, as Big Chuck also explains, since his fellow Neanderthal devotees of tradition thereabouts regard any complexion lighter than that of the Narcissus papyraceus as functionally black. Read more ..

Ancient Days

New Clues in the Search for the Mysterious 'Maya Blue' Formula

April 3rd 2013

Mayan mural at Bonampak

The recipe and process for preparing Maya Blue, a highly-resistant pigment used for centuries in Mesoamerica, were lost. We know that the ingredients are a plant dye, indigo, and a type of clay known as palygorskite, but scientists do not know how they were 'cooked' and combined together. Now, a team of chemists from the University of Valencia and the Polythecnic University of Valencia  (Spain) have come up with a new hypothesis about how it was prepared.

Palace walls, sculptures, codices and pieces of pottery produced by the ancient Maya incorporate the enigmatic Maya Blue. This pigment, which was also used by other Mesoamerican cultures, is characterised by its intense blue colour but, above all, by the fact that it is highly resistant to chemical and biological deterioration. Indeed, it was used centuries ago and when it is analysed now it appears virtually unchangeable. Read more ..

Authors on Tour

Moynihan's Moment Spotlighted by Author Gil Troy

April 2nd 2013

Gil Troy

Gil Troy will be in Washington, DC on Thursday April 4, promoting his new book Moynihan's Moment: America's Fight Against Zionism as Racism, identified by Jewish Ideas Daily as one of "the best Jewish books of the year." The book, which offers the first full-length treatment of Daniel Patrick Moynihan's heroic stance against the UN's 1975 Zionism is racism resolution, also looks at the broader fight for Zionism and against Israel's delegitmization.

“The Zionism is racism resolution was the Rosetta Stone of the anti-Israel movement, shifting the attack from borders and actions to Israel’s very right to exist. It continues to do great damage, but we as Americans and as Jews were fortunate to have a courageous fighter like Daniel Patrick Moynihan as UN Ambassador in 1975 to oppose it. The arguments he made then, very much resound today,” says Troy, a Professor of History at McGill University, who has written seven other books about American history.

The book has generated great enthusiasm. Elie Wiesel called the book “superb” and said it demonstrates Troy’s “power of critical analysis as well as his commitment to what is eternal and noble in Jewishness.” In the most recent review,  a former Moynihan chief of staff, Robert A. Peck, called the book "...meticulous, well-woven and readable,” saying it “calls much-needed attention to an issue that reverberates still."  In last month’s Commentary Magazine former UN Ambassador John Bolton wrote: "Troy has written both a quasi-biography of Moynihan and a history of the evil resolution. Both are comprehensive, well integrated, and fluently narrated."  Writing in the New York Observer, Marty Peretz added: "...the new book by the deep and graceful historian Gil Troy...[is] a highly sophisticated intellectual history of liberal America in the last decades of the 20th century.” Read more ..

Destination Austin

In Austin, Film Offers Global Perspective

April 2nd 2013

Scene from Chaplin

International films often challenge American viewers to look at life from different perspectives. That was obvious at the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Conference and Festival in Austin, Texas, where many films from other countries were being featured. Movies such as the Turkish film "Zayiat," or Casualties, is the story of a son searching for his father.

Staying with relatives in Istanbul and using friends as actors, New York-based director Deniz Tortum made what he calls a no-budget film. “The budget of the film was two thousand dollars, so it was pretty much no budget," he says, explaining that he shot in neighborhoods where people live and work, not near Istanbul's tourist sites.

“I just wanted to shoot in the places where I actually lived and spent most of my time in Istanbul," he says. "I have lots and lots of memories in those places.” For Andrea Thiele, a German filmmaker who lives in the United States, the act of driving a car represented a unique lens through which to view cross-cultural dynamics in a globalized world. Read more ..

Authors on Tour

Edwin Black in Five-City “Yom HaShoah” Commemoration

April 1st 2013

Edwin Black

Author Edwin Black will keynote “Yom HaShoah” commemorations of the Holocaust nightmare in 5 cities from April 4 to April 8, 2013. The noted bestselling author, with more than a million books in print on Holocaust topics, including his award-winning IBM and the Holocaust, will be appearing in Whippany NJ, then New York City, then Parsippany NJ, then West Hempstead LI, and concludes his junket with a return visit to the Embrey Human Rights program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

“Yom HaShoah is the official Holocaust remembrance, and a time when the world needs a special reminder that what happened to the Jews can happen to others,” said Black. “Those of us who have dug deep are obligated to share our sad knowledge with the next generation. For me, it is not just remembering. It is about warning.” Black continued, “The injunction ‘never again’ seems to be less and less a compelling mantra.”

Black is known for his revelatory history chronicling the hidden American corporate complicity and the unlikely alliances that made it possible for the Nazis to efficiently mass murder six million Jews, and annihilate millions of other Europeans in World War II.
His week-long series begins at 7 PM April 4 at the Whippany JCC before the MetroWest Holocaust Council premiering a new lecture, "Detroit's Connection to the Holocaust--Ford and GM and the Nazis." In a recent interview, Black told the New Jersey Jewish News, “There is no other American city that has a special connection to the Third Reich like Detroit. This city had a special place in Hitler’s heart because of two leading Holocaust collaborators: Henry Ford and Albert Sloan, the president of General Motors.” Black will be premiering the “Detroit Connection” lecture, drawn from material in his bestseller, Nazi Nexus--America's Corporate Connections to the Holocaust.
http://www.edwinblack.com/uploads/cmimg_75425.pdf

The Edge of Physics

Scientist Circus Performers Make Physics Fun

April 1st 2013


By day, Joe Ramas is an aerospace engineer. "I do mostly magnetic design and integration of test characterization of satellites." 

At night, though, he’s a strong man at the circus gym. "I hold people on top of me, either in a handstand, or sometimes they stand on my shoulders," Ramas said. "Sometimes there are multiple people standing on me."

When several people are standing on him, Ramas feels his knowledge of physics helps him balance. Acrobat and physicist, Ian Caldwell, said that’s just one example of how science adds wonder to circus acts.

"Circus is gorgeous, circus is beautiful, in its own right," Caldwell said. "But then to look at it through the eyes of a scientist, it adds more depth." Right after he graduated from high school, Caldwell traveled the world as a circus juggler and acrobat. Over time, though, he found that wasn’t enough for him. "I missed all the mental activity," he said. "Mental gymnastics, if you will." Read more ..

Film Review

Stoker: A Film Where More is Less

March 31st 2013


Stoker. Director: Chan-wook Park. Starring: Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode. Length: 90 mins.

In real life, as we’re often reminded, anything can happen. It’s one of the things that makes it so real. In the movies, however, that is not the case. In the movies, what happens determines, and is determined by, what kind of movie it is. What happens in Chan-wook Park’s Stoker for its first 90 minutes makes it into one kind of movie; what happens in its last ten minutes makes it into quite another. To be specific, it is, first, a Hitchcock-style thriller — and there are allusions to the great man’s Shadow of a Doubt of 1943, particularly in the central presence of a mysteriously sinister Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten there, Matthew Goode here) with an unhealthy interest in a young girl (Teresa Wright there, Mia Wasikowska there) — but without Hitchcock’s skill in plotting and suspense. Still, the movie manages to hold our interest for so long as the director is able to keep a tight grip on his materials, which he finally allows to get away from him in the end.

These materials include the erotic awakening of Miss Wasikowska’s character, the 18-year-old India, and her rivalry with her mother (Nicole Kidman) — both over her recently-dead father (Dermot Mulroney in flashbacks) and the recently-arrived Uncle Charlie — as well as a terrible but only gradually-revealed family secret. But in the last ten minutes it all falls apart and becomes just another boring fantasy, like (nearly) every other movie out of Hollywood these days. Psychopathology, once it has been revealed in all its horror, appears to become contagious and, therefore, not such a big scary deal as we might otherwise have supposed — and as Hitchcock would have portrayed it. Like zombies or vampires, these human beings are transformed by the bite of their predator into predators themselves, and the murders with which the movie is replete will presumably go on indefinitely, since this is a movie and movies love murder. Read more ..

Book Review

Why So Many Predictions Fail - But Some Don't

March 30th 2013

The Signal and the Noise

The Signal and the Noise. Nate Silver. Penguin Press. 2012. 544 pp.

This one almost got away. Though I was a faithful reader of Nate Silver's 538 blog in The New York Times in the months running up to the presidential election -- like a lot of Democrats it gave me a serenity I otherwise would not have had -- the release of his first book fell through the cracks. I kept meaning to get around to it, partially put off by its length and my numbers phobia, though I bought a copy for my University of Chicago economics-majoring son (Silver is an alumnus of UC). When my son left it behind for me after a recent trip home, I finally got around to it. The Signal and the Noise was published and marketed as a book for the political season, which I'm sure made sense from a publicity standpoint. But it has a vitality and durability far beyond that. The paperback edition appears to be months away; when that moment arrives, I believe it will become a perennial.

As much as anything else the book is a study of epistemology, and a brief for the necessity and reality of uncertainty in everyday life. That's not because humans are flawed (though of course they are), or because Big Data has limits (it certainly does, as the book is at some pains to explain), but because our world is one of probabilities rather than fixed laws awaiting discovery and decoding. And yet for all the mistakes of recent years -- the failures to predict the financial crisis and 9/11 principal among them -- Silver argues it is possible to think about, and calculate, predictions that have utility in everyday life (poker, weather, athletic events) as well as in broader realms (financial markets, earthquakes, climate change). One can get better at predicting the way that one can get better at playing baseball: great hitters only make it to base a minority of the time, and yet compile a productive of record of consistency that's difficult for others to duplicate. The comparison is not incidental: Silver started his professional career by developing a system of forecasting player performance. Read more ..

Film Review

Beyond the Hills: This too Shall Pass

March 29th 2013

Beyond the hills

Beyond the Hills. Director: Cristian Mungiu. Starring Valeriu Andriuta, Cristina Flutur, Cosmina Stratan. Length: 90 mins.

One of the things I liked best among the many things I liked about Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 2007, was that, while looking to liberals like the sort of liberal propaganda they have grown accustomed to from Hollywood, it was actually deeply subversive of the whole liberal project, at least so far as one of its central premisses, that of legalized abortion, is concerned. With his new film, Beyond the Hills (Dupa dealuri), he has repeated the trick, this time with religion.

And not with just any old religion, or the kind of anodyne God-bothering that now passes for religion in most Western countries but that succeeds chiefly in bothering the romantic New Atheist crusaders of the media. No, this is a much more obvious target: a genuinely medieval form of Christianity that can survive in few places in the world, or even within the generally pretty backward Romanian Orthodox Church - the nominal authority under which a nameless priest/monk (Valeriu Andriuta) and "Papa" to a covey of nuns runs his unconsecrated monastery a long way from anywhere.

Both the monastery's remoteness in the Romanian countryside and its failure to attract any higher ecclesiastical official to consecrate it - ostensibly because it remains unpainted, owing to lack of funds - are significant. One of the youngest sisters, the gentle, bovine novice Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), is visited by her best friend from the orphanage where they both grew up. Alina (Cristina Flutur) is a much more mercurial character who has emigrated to Germany to work as a waitress and now returned in the hope of persuading Voichita to join her in the West. Read more ..

Author's on Tour

"The Nazis Wanted Oil, and The Arabs Had It"

March 28th 2013

Edwin Black

The hidden history of the Shoah and its connections to American and Middle East affairs have preoccupied writer Edwin Black since the 1970s, when he wrote the first of 10 books of investigative journalism, including IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation. Born and raised in Chicago as the son of Polish Holocaust survivors, Black will be speaking at two venues in the Greater Metro­West area next week.

On Thursday, April 4, at 7 p.m. he will discuss “Detroit’s Connection to the Holocaust: Ford, GM, and Hitler” at the Aidekman campus in Whippany, in a program sponsored by the Holocaust Council of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. A day later he will deliver the annual Joseph Gotthelf Holocaust Memorial Lecture at Temple Beth Am in Parsippany, as part of the synagogue’s Yom Hashoa commemoration. His topic will be the persecution of Iraqi Jews as detailed in his most recent book, The Farhud — Roots of the Arab-Nazi Alliance in the Holocaust, (Dialog Press).

Black spoke with NJ Jewish News by phone March 20 from his office in Washington, DC.

NJJN: What is Detroit’s connection to the Holocaust?

Edwin Black: There is no other American city that has a special connection to the Third Reich other than Detroit. It had a special place in Hitler’s heart because of two leading Holocaust collaborators: Henry Ford and Albert Sloan, the president of General Motors. Read more ..

Theatre Review

Breakfast at Tiffany's: Indigestible

March 27th 2013

Emilia Clarke in Breakfast at Tiffany's
Emilia Clarke as Holly Golightly

Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Director: Sean Mathias. Starring: Emilia Clarke. Cort Theater, New York, N.Y.

Anyone sitting in the Cort Theater in New York waiting for Breakfast at Tiffany’s to begin enjoys a wonderful montage of paintings and photographs of the city during World War II to remind you that the play is set in 1943. After ten or fifteen minutes of this luscious buildup, you are ready for a memorable play.

You don’t get one, though. You should send Breakfast at Tiffany’s back to the kitchen and try another restaurant.

The stage version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, adapted for the theater by Richard Greenberg and based on the incredibly successful 1961 movie starring Audrey Hepburn, has lost its luster. The executives at Tiffany’s should ask that they rename the play Lunch at Cartier’s Read more ..

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