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Book Review

Bonnie Parker Writes a Poem: a New Literary Form takes on History and Mythmaking

June 3rd 2012

Bonnie Writes a poem

Bonnie Parker Writes a Poem: How Two Bungling Psychopaths Became Bonnie and Clyde. Steven Biel. Now and Then. 2012. 23 page ebook.

Over the course of the last two decades, Steven Biel has become the foremost scholar of what might be termed the folklore of consumer capitalism. His 1996 book Down with the Old Canoe (recently reissued in an updated edition) traced the collective memory, both in the immediate aftermath and the century following the Titanic disaster of 1912. In American Gothic (2005), he explored the meanings -- some contradictory, others downright zany -- that have been attached to the classic 1930 Grant Wood painting. Though fundamentally a different kind of enterprise, his first book, Independent Intellectuals in the United States 1920-1945 (1992) derived some of its energy from a preexisting fascination with the legendary writers whose careers he proceeded to reinterpret. Biel is unparalleled in his ability to unearth, and then link, disparate sources in American culture and establish organic links between them.

Biel's new e-book, Bonnie Parker Writes a Poem: How a Couple of Bungling Sociopaths Became Bonnie and Clyde, represents another satisfying chapter in his body of work. Anyone who's managed to get farther than the 1967 Arthur Penn movie Bonnie and Clyde, starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty -- which, in truth, is probably not all that many people -- consider the "bungling sociopaths" part of the title common knowledge. It's the "how" here that's intriguing.

Biel's point of departure is the self-mythologizing poem the improvisational female outlaw fashioned for mass consumption at the end of her brief career as a gangster. (The poem is included as part of the e-book.) But Biel is less interested in the way Parker effectively wrote herself and companion Clyde Barrow into cultural history -- though he analyzes her work with the deftness of a literary critic -- than the way cultural history imprinted itself on her. Read more ..

The Edge of Architecture

Bauhaus Design goes Underground at Israeli Train Station

June 2nd 2012

Israeli Underground station

Galmidi Yitzhar and the industrial designer Yaksein Eliran won first place in a design competition for a new underground train station in one of Israel’s most vibrant cities – Tel Aviv. Borrowing inspiration from some of the city’s most iconic features, such as its ubiquitous collection of Bauhaus architecture and the Ficus Microcarpa trees planted throughout in order to provide shade and shelter, the pair have designed a subterranean space that swims in natural light.

Combining the color of Bauhaus homes (white!) and the ambience it creates on the street with the fluid, arboreal form of the Ficus Microcarpa, Yitzhar and Eliran’s winning train station design is far more aesthetically pleasing than any existing station. Steel trunks are rooted to the floor while branches bend up under a transparent glass shield that permits natural light. Several of these line the station, which is enclosed by Bauhaus-styled edges. Read more ..

Edge of Computing

New Mathematical Model Appears to Pick Hit Music

May 31st 2012

Online music purchasing

In 2004, a trio of researchers at Columbia University began an online experiment in social-media marketing, creating nine versions of a music-download site that presented the same group of unknown songs in different ways. The goal of the experiment was to gauge the effect of early peer recommendations on the songs’ success; the researchers found that different songs became hits on the different sites and that the variation was unpredictable.

“It’s natural to believe that successful songs, movies, books and artists are somehow ‘better,’” one of the researchers wrote in The New York Times in 2007. “What our results suggest, however, is that because what people like depends on what they think other people like, what the market ‘wants’ at any point in time can depend very sensitively on its own history.”

But for music fans who would like to think that talent is ultimately rewarded, the situation may not be as dire as the Columbia study makes it seem. In a paper published in the online journal PLoS ONE, researchers from the MIT Media Laboratory’s Human Dynamics Lab revisit data from the original experiment and suggest that it contains a clear quantitative indicator of quality that’s consistent across all the sites; moreover, they find that the unpredictability of the experimental results may have as much to do with the way the test sites were organized as with social influence. Read more ..

The Edge of Music

Chicago Gears Up for Annual Blues Festival

May 31st 2012

Koko Taylor
Koko Taylor

Chicago, Illinois is gearing up for one of its most celebrated events of the year: the Chicago Blues Festival which runs from June 8 - 10. Blues fans from around the world will descend upon Grant Park in downtown Chicago for three free days of acoustic and electric blues by mostly-hometown musicians. You can count on the city’s very own Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials to showcase their new album, Jump Start” with tunes like “World Of Love.

The weekend’s offerings will salute some of Chicago’s blues legends. On tap are tributes to vocalist Koko Taylor, singer and guitarist David “Honeyboy” Edwards and guitarist Hubert Sumlin. There will also be a celebration of Muddy Waters’ disciples Pinetop Perkins, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and George “Mojo” Buford. Waters’ son Mud Morganfield will lead the all-star tribute to some of his dad's best-known band members who passed away in 2011.

Also scheduled on one of five festival stages are: a “Blues in the Schools” concert; panel discussions on legendary bluesmen Howlin’ Wolf and Lightnin’ Hopkins; five bands competing in the “Chicago Blues Challenge”; esteemed guitarists Lurrie Bell and Joe Louis Walker; and blues and gospel singer Mavis Staples. Read more ..

American Music

A Legend in His Own Time: Doc Watson R.I.P.

May 30th 2012

Doc Watson

American folk and roots music performer Doc Watson died on May 29 of complications from abdominal surgery.

For more than five decades, Watson entertained audiences around the world with an eclectic repertoire that included elements of folk, blues, Country, bluegrass, rockabilly, and even jazz. A master of the contemporary flat-pick guitar style, the eight-time Grammy Award winner influenced generations of musicians in rock, country and folk.

Born Arthel Lane Watson in Deep Gap, North Carolina, his first love was the traditional music of the Blue Ridge Mountain region. In his early childhood, he contracted an illness which caused permanent blindness, a handicap that directed his interests toward music. Watson was also inspired by his father, a multi-instrumentalist, who bought his first harmonica and taught him to play the banjo. He got his first lessons on the guitar while attending the School For The Blind in Raleigh, North Carolina. Watson loved to tell the story of how that experience earned him his own guitar. Read more ..

South Africa on Edge

Outcry Forces Removal of Provocative Zuma Painting

May 30th 2012

Jacob Zuma ANC

A painting that depicts South African President Jacob Zuma with exposed genitals has been removed from a Johannesburg gallery and two local websites, following an outcry led by the ruling African National Congress party that ended in a protest at the gallery Tuesday. The controversy has sharply illustrated the deep divisions that remain in South African society. ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe made it clear to protesters outside the Goodman Gallery, and to the country, that what his party wants, they can often get.

“Your power has removed that painting from the website of City Press and from the gallery," said Mantashe. "It has forced an apology from both the Goodman Gallery and Brett Murray, it has forced an apology from the City Press. That is your power.” The painting of Zuma was one of an exhibition at the gallery that depicted the South African leader and his party as greedy, self-obsessed, and deaf to the needs of the people who voted them into power. It went largely unnoticed until a reporter asked for ANC comment on an article about the exhibition in the City Press newspaper, which also displayed a photograph of the painting on its website.

The ANC unsuccessfully sought a court order to have the painting removed from the gallery. Now Mantashe says it is the power of the people and not the courts that are the final arbiter. “Basically we went to court, to say to the court, interdict City Press, interdict Goodman Gallery, they have not been interdicted by the court, they have been interdicted by you," said Mantache. "So it is your power that has interdicted these two institutions, therefore it is the power of the people that will shape and direct this country into the future.” The controversy has once again highlighted the deep divisions that remain within South African society. Many black South Africans saw the painting as racist and an assault on unhealed wounds of apartheid. Read more ..

The Edge of Photography

Combat Photographer Recalls Bloodiest Battle

May 29th 2012

Norman Hatch

The horrific battle for the small Pacific island of Tarawa in 1943 was one of the bloodiest of World War II. U.S. Marine Sergeant Norman Hatch was there. But instead of a rifle, Hatch carried a camera and the film he shot helped to change Americans’ view of the war. The combat photographer reminisced about the fierce struggle for the island. "That is the picture of the photographers of the 2nd Marine division that landed on Tarawa. I am right here, at the top. They are all gone, all gone. I have never forgotten the battle at Tarawa. The Japanese lost about 4,000 people in that particular battle. We were about a little over 1,000 killed and about 2,200 somewhat wounded in 76 hours," he recalled.

​​Nearly 70 years later, those memories remain fresh for 91-year-old Norman Hatch. “When you get into the battle, the blood begins to race and you do your job. My job was to take pictures," said Hatch. "I had to shoot the pictures the best way I could possibly shoot them." Hatch carried a hand-cranked 35-millimeter movie camera. He waded in right beside machine gunners going ashore. “Looking through the viewfinder and trying to frame the story that I was shooting, it was like what you were looking at a movie. And in a sense, I felt detached in a degree from what was happening around me,” he said.

The Edge of Music

A Lifetime of Jewish Music on Display at Lincoln Center

May 26th 2012

Lincolin Center

Matthew “Mati” Lazar has been dedicated to the creation of Jewish music for most of his life.  On Sunday, May 20th, the Maestro and his Chorale celebrated their reunification of at a grand “Celebrate Jerusalem” concert in the Frederick P. Rose Hall at JAZZ at Lincoln Center.  The songs of the Zamir Chorale  - and some of its extraordinary friends, Yehoram Gaon and Alberto Mizrach – resonated in the mid-Manhattan auditorium, telling the history of Israel and its capital city in music.

Lazar carries his singers, young and “older,” to unique  musical heights.  As Director of the Zamir Choral Foundation, a position he has held for forty years, he gives teenagers and adults opportunities to sing Jewish music across America, in Israel and in international venues. The Yom Yerushalayim – Jerusalem Day – concert celebrating the reunification of Jerusalem after the Six Day War was no exception.  A robust chorale, directed by an enthusiastic Lazar, entertained a packed house with two hours of extraordinary musical presentations, evoking a range of emotional responses. Read more ..

Book Review

Benjamin Elijah Mays: Schoolmaster and Firebrand

May 26th 2012

benjamin elijah mays

Benjamin Elijah Mays, Schoolmaster of the Movement: A Biography. Randall Maurice Jelks. University of North Carolina Press. 2012.

In the portrait on his biography’s cover, seated at his desk, elegantly attired in brown suit and bowtie, Benjamin Mays gazes steadily at the reader: his eyes are ever-so-slightly narrowed; his eyebrows, raised a bit; there is, perhaps, the trace of a smile on his lips. His expression is difficult to read. But he comes across instantly as smart, tough, solid—in a word, formidable.

As Randal Maurice Jelks, a historian at the University of Kansas, shows, Mays was every bit of that. He had to be, to get as far and do as much as he did. Born in 1894 in tiny Upton, South Carolina, the youngest of eight children born to a tenant farmer and his wife, he seized upon education at a very tender age as the way to bring meaning to his life. Half a century later, he was president of Morehouse College in Atlanta. Alumnus Russell Adams recalled the impact he made: students “saw what a black man could be when they saw Mays, whose high fluting style contrasted with his forthrightness about his family background: he could talk about picking cotton…. he could talk about painting houses…; he would say things such as ‘neither my mother nor my father could read; but I am here.’…One time, he introduced one of his semi-literate brothers to us in Sale Hall Auditorium, saying, ‘My brother gave everything he could spare to help me stay in school.’ I remember going back to my room…and crying without restraint at the sheer nobility of the gesture.”

Mays’s brother may have helped him, and his mother’s prayers may have inspired him, but Mays’s father, his own life circumscribed by the violence and poverty of the segregated, turn-of-the-century South, and even his church’s minister tried to discourage his ambitions. Nevertheless, he moved indefatigably upward (and northward) from school to school, graduating in 1920 from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, and moving on to the University of Chicago’s divinity school. For a time, to support himself and his wife, he worked as a Pullman porter, but he was on his way to becoming a scholar, a pastor, and an activist. He served as pastor for the Shiloh Baptist Church in Atlanta. He worked for the Urban League and the YMCA. He co-authored a study of “The Negro’s Church” and wrote his dissertation, later published, on “The Negro’s God as Reflected in His Literature.” Read more ..

The Edge of Film

“Chernobyl Diaries” Horror Film Angers Victim Support Group

May 26th 2012

Ferris Wheel in Chernobyl
credit: Andry Bashtovy/RFE

Horror fans are in for a treat with the release this week of “Chernobyl Diaries.”

Faithful to the genre, six young American tourists go on an extreme tour to the Chornobyl fallout zone and the emptied-out city of Pripyat, with its sprawling concrete housing projects and abandoned schools and hospitals. The perky adventure-seekers get stranded and trouble ensues at the hands of radiation-mutated predators. Fans of exploitation cinema might be happy, but support groups for victims of the world’s worst civilian nuclear disaster are not.

Robert Schuettpelz, the director of Friends of Chernobyl Centers, U.S., a nonprofit that provides financial support to five community centers in Ukraine situated within or near contaminated areas, says the film is upsetting. “I’ve been working with Chornobyl survivors for the past eight years and after what I’ve seen and after I’ve got to know them, seeing this movie and the trailers, and the information about it, it’s kind of upsetting to see that they decided to make this movie and make light of the real situation in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia,” Schuettpelz says. “People are still living with the after-effects of this every day—even 26 years after.” Read more ..

Book Review

The Passion of Bradley Manning

May 25th 2012

passion of bradley manning

The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story of the Suspect Behind the Largest Security Breach in U.S. History. Chase Madar. New York: OR Books. 2012.

Bradley Manning enlisted in the army in 2007. In the army he began exhibiting a good many personal problems. Jihrleah Showman, one of Manning’s team leaders, cautioned his commanders that his mental state was too fragile to handle classified materials -- he once even hit her. At his pre-trial hearing, there was much testimony about his alleged “psychotic issues” and ignored warnings that he should not permitted access to secret data.

Even so, on the verge of being discharged because of his erratic behavior in the army, he was trained as an intelligence analyst and assigned to Iraq’s Forward Operating Base Hammer. Soon after he was promoted to the rank of specialist and received a top secret security clearance and given access to classified Defense and State Department data. He is now being court-martialed for allegedly having transmitted some of that data to an “enemy,” and accused of giving hundreds of thousands of confidential military and government documents to Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks.

Chase Madar, a lawyer whose writings have been published in the London Review of Books, the American Conservative, TomDispatch, and LeMonde Diplomatique, is out with the first book about Manning’s case. It's a blistering and confrontational work replete with charges that officials who approved of torture and lied about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have never been held responsible. Madar is certainly not neutral. His book begins with “Bradley Manning deserves the Presidential Medal of Freedom.” If he gave WikiLeaks “the Iraq war logs, the Afghan war logs, and the State Department cables -- then he surely deserves some important national honor instead of the military prison cell where he presently awaits court-martial.” The question is whether Bradley Manning, the 24-year-old Catholic son of a broken marriage between an Oklahoma father and Welsh mother, is an intentional traitor or an unintentional hero with many emotional problems. Read more ..

The Edge of Terrorism

King: Collaboration of Obama Officials, Filmmakers Potentially Dangerous

May 25th 2012

Obama Pentagon

On Wednesday, Rep. Peter King (R-NY), chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, sent out two biting letters in response to the internal CIA and Department of Defense email messages obtained by a leading public-interest group regarding the planned Sony Pictures movie on the mission in which a U.S. Navy SEAL team killed Osama bin Laden.

Once the documents were released by Judicial Watch officials, who obtained them via a court order following the group's Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, the more questions about national security taking a backseat to political ambition arose, according to a report by the Law Enforcement Examiner. Advertisement “Filmmakers Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal may have set out to tell a blockbuster, election-year story about one of the most highly classified operations in American history, but through these emails they’ve ended up telling a damning story of extremely close, unprecedented, and potentially dangerous collaboration with top officials at the CIA, DoD, and the White House and a top Democratic lobbying firm,” Congressman King stated. “After reviewing these emails, I am even more concerned about the possible exposure of classified information to these filmmakers, who as far as I know, do not possess security clearances. Read more ..

Afghanistan on Edge

Music School Looks To 'Heal' War-Weary Afghans

May 25th 2012

Afghan institute of music

Music in Afghanistan is perhaps best known, particularly in the West, for falling silent. The Taliban infamously beat musicians, destroyed instruments, and publicly burned recordings in the name of that regime's extreme version of Islam. Nearly as soon as the Taliban fell, in late 2001, disquieted musicians within and outside the country took steps to revive Afghanistan's unique musical tradition. One was Ahmad Sarmast, a musicologist who returned to his native Afghanistan to open an academy at the very site where his own musical education began as a boy.

"Establishing and promoting music education is part of returning the musical right of Afghans back to them," Sarmast says. "Every Afghan should have the ability to listen to music, practice and learn music, and to express themselves through music." Two years after opening its doors, the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Kabul instructs some 150 students from their first note through their graduation as seasoned musicians. Students get a well-rounded education: Half the day is spent on math, science, literature, and other subjects, while the other half is dedicated to music. Read more ..

Book Review

Drift: The Unmooring of U.S. Military Might and the Rise of the National Security State

May 24th 2012


Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power. Rachel Maddow. Random House. 2012. 288 pages.

Though we are at war, most of us do not see its reality. As a nation, we are more and more distant from the suffering of the men and women who do our fighting and less and less able to influence our leaders, who squander billions of dollars on national security to the detriment of the domestic economy and our democratic institutions -- without making us safer.

These are the tenets of Rachel Maddow's new book, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power (Random House), which introduces the modern national security state and explains how it imperils America's democratic values, sacrificing real humans, often for unclear or questionable aims.

Maddow, who appeared April 14 at Town Hall in Seattle, is best known as the host of her witty MSNBC political talk program, The Rachel Maddow Show, but her accolades go far beyond her broadcasting accomplishments. She is a Rhodes Scholar with a doctorate in political science from Oxford, which no doubt contributes to her ability to deftly explain the intricacies of foreign policy and constitutional law for a broad audience -- with acerbic wit. As the daughter of an Air Force captain, she also grew up with a concern for military matters.

Drift explains, in compelling and clear prose, how the military's role changed as presidential power in foreign policy expanded and Congress ceded its constitutional authority to declare war. It is a change Maddow traces back to Lyndon B. Johnson, who ignored Congress as he expanded the U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam. Since Johnson, each successive administration has expanded the president's power on national security and eliminated their responsibility to Congress or public objections. Richard Nixon famously claimed that if the president does it, it’s not illegal. But it is the Reagan administration that Maddow singles out for its hypermilitarism, fear mongering, and radical expansion of executive authority. Reagan, Maddow writes, “claimed the private right to go to war, in secret, against the express will of the Congress.” Read more ..

Authors and Books

Homer's 'Iliad' Provides Enduring Lessons for Special Operations Combatants

May 24th 2012

Odyessus scene on Attic vessel
Odysseus (r) and Diomedes (l), stealing King Rhesus' horses.

Any reference to Homer’s works brings to mind the heroic ideal. Yet Homer is not squeamish in describing his heroes’ feats of stealth and cunning. The tenth rhapsody of the Iliad is almost a blueprint of how special operations were conducted at the time of the Trojan War. Its principles hold true even our high tech era.

Rhapsody nine tells us that the Greeks, hard pressed by the Trojans, retreated to their fortified camp. But they appointed two heroes, Antilochos and Mereones, to be in command of detachments posted outside the camp's perimeter. In other words, an active security and early warning system. The Trojans, elated by their victory, camp in the field among the dead of the battle and post sentries but make no attempt to create a defensive perimeter.

In rhapsody 10, Agamemnon - the Greek commander in chief - decides to obtain intelligence about the enemy’s activity and intentions. He asks for volunteers. His vassal Diomedes, king of Argos, accepts the mission but says it is better if he does not go alone. (Note: even today scouts and snipers are better operating in pairs). Diomedes, who is recognized by his peers an active a fighter tails Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, as his second. He says that a man with active intellect is always a good companion. The two heroes who undertake the mission of an active night patrol are the ideal combination of aggressiveness and ingenuity, which is even today is sought in special operations.

In the Trojan camp, Prince Hector who commands the Trojans and their allies, learns that king Rhesus of Thrace has come as an ally. Euripides, not Homer, gives the details here. Hector is angry that the Thracians did not come earlier but just in time to finish off the Achaeans and demand a portion of the spoils. Rhesus says that he had to secure his borders from the Scythians first. Read more ..

The Edge of Film

Lebanese Fable Follows Female Fight For Peace

May 24th 2012

Where do we go from here

In her first movie, "Caramel," Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki took viewers to a Beirut beauty parlor where women tried to deal with unending war. Her new film takes the theme to a dusty village, where Christian and Muslim women try to stop their men from killing each other. "Where Do We Go From Here?" opens with a group of black-clad women moving slowly from the village toward the cemetery. But, instead of walking, they sway and slide in a mystical dance, establishing the film as a fable which is not specifically set in the writer-director's native Lebanon.

"The film is intended to be a sort of a fairy tale," Labaki says. "It starts with this voice saying, 'I'm going to tell you a story,' as if somebody was telling you 'Once upon a time, there was this village where women were going to bring peace.' But I didn't want to relate it to any specific place or time. I wanted it to be more universal, because this conflict I am talking about could have happened between two families, two brothers, two friends, even two football teams." To distract their men, the women will try anything from cooking special treats laced with hashish to importing a busload of European exotic dancers.

While Labaki tells her story with humor, at its core is a serious issue she knows all too well. "In Lebanon, unfortunately, I don't know one person that hasn't lived a tragedy related to war," she says. "I am also fascinated and inspired by all the women in my family that have lost children during the war and that are still wearing black until now. I look at these women and I wonder, 'How do they do it?'" While the situations in the film are exaggerated, the filmmaker believes the women's hopes are real. "Even if some people say it is too simplistic to say women are wiser than men, it is not the intention," she says. "I am just trying to [show]the scream of a woman and of a mother that says, 'We have had enough. Stop making wars for stupid reasons.'" Labaki also co-stars in the film, and at one point, her character says, "Do you think we are here just to mourn you? To wear black forever?Is that what being a man means?" Read more ..

Film News

Exorcist screenwriter Sues Georgetown University over its Catholic Identity

May 23rd 2012

William Blatty

Academy Award winning author and screenwriter William Peter Blatty, whose best-selling book and blockbuster film The Exorcist were situated at his alma mater, Georgetown University, announced on May 18 that he will lead a petition to the Catholic Church for "remedies up to and including the possible removal or suspension of top-ranked Georgetown’s right to call itself Catholic or Jesuit in its fundraising and representations to applicants." This would mean submitting the petition to the Vatican's apostolic nuncio, or ambassador, to the United States and later to Vatican authorities for review for possible violations of canon law. Canon law refers to the internal system of regulations and tribunals within the Catholic Church.

The move comes on the heels of a rebuke of Georgetown and its first lay president, John J. DeGioia, by Cardinal Donald Cardinal Wuerl, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington, over Georgetown’s invitation to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to be a diploma ceremony speaker. Sebelius is a Catholic.

The editors of the newspaper published by the Washington archdiocese wrote in a May 13 editorial regarding Georgetown, “When the vision guiding university choices does not clearly reflect the light of the Gospel and authentic Catholic teaching, there are, of course, disappointing results.” Linking GU’s non-compliance with Church law to GU’s regular scandals, the website tracks the editorial the newspaper of the Washington diocese. “Twenty two years of GU scandals, since Ex corde Ecclesiae (ECE) was promulgated, are not just proof of a failed Catholic identity, they are evidence and a direct result of Georgetown’s failure to comply with ECE.”

Ex Corde Ecclesiae refers to a document promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1992 that sought to define Catholic institutions of higher learning. In order to refer to themselves as 'Catholic,' such institutions must seek affirmation from the Vatican or local bishops. It has been viewed as a rejection of a position paper affirmed in 1967 by Catholic universites (including Notre Dame and Georgetown, among others), called the 'Land O'Lakes' Statement, which sought to establish a certain level of independence for these institutions. Read more ..

The Edge of Terrorism

FOIA Request Reveals Disturbing White House Collaboration in Upcoming Bin Laden Film

May 23rd 2012

Kathryn Bigelow
Kathryn Bigelow

A Washington, DC-based group that investigates, exposes, and combats government corruption at the highest levels, surprised members of the news industry by obtaining documents that one source said "were almost as hard to get from the Obama administration as buying a winning lottery ticket at the local grocery store." What is revealed in these records is disturbing, even shocking, say a number of counterterrorism and political experts.

The noted -- and feared by a number of politicos -- public-interest organization, Judicial Watch, reported on May 21 that its officials obtained records from the U.S. Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency regarding meetings and communications between Obama-run federal agencies and veteran filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow. Bigelow, the ex-wife of director James Cameron (Titanic), garnered an Oscar for her direction of The Hurt Locker, an acclaimed motion picture about a U.S. Army bomb disposal unit in Iraq at the height of the insurgency.

According to the newly obtained records, the Obama Defense Department granted Bigelow and her screenwriter Mark Boal access to a “planner, Operator and Commander of SEAL Team Six,” the special forces unit that killed the world's most famous and most wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden, in a daring covert operation inside Pakistan on May 1, 2011. Read more ..

Film Review

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: Geriatrics Getting Away from it all in India

May 23rd 2012

Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Director: John Madden. Starring: Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, Dev Patel. Length: 124 minutes.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a Richard Curtis movie without Richard Curtis. Director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) and screenwriter Ol Parker have produced something a little more down-to-earth than the truly awful Love Actually (2003) by Mr. Curtis, but not by much. Both films treat the initiation of extramarital sexual congress in the same way Victorian novelists treated marriage, that is as a synecdoche for happiness and the reward of virtue.

Both, too, appear to regard this image of human felicity, treated as an unquestioned end in itself, the way Keats regarded his identification of truth and beauty: that is, as "all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." In practice, of course, everyone knows that this is absurd, just as the Victorians were not such fools as to suppose that marriages are always happy. But in neither case does that affect the literary usefulness of the symbolism, or what it tells us about our respective cultures.

What is mildly more interesting about Mr. Madden's movie as compared to Mr. Curtis's is the extent to which its theme of culture clash between contemporary Britain and India is at odds with and renders even more incoherent than it would otherwise be the theme of self-realization and self-fulfilment through sex. Both men would presumably call this self-fulfilment "love," but it signally lacks love's unselfishness and desire for permanence, its resolution and its well-known downside, which is what makes resolution necessary to the hope of permanence.

Mr. Madden's tale of seven elderly English folk seeking a cheap retirement community and, as some of them are more aware than others, sexual hook-ups in Jaipur, India, thus reduces love among these old people to what it mostly is for young ones: namely, sexual attraction and response. The only married couple in the bunch can find their fulfilment only by splitting up. Read more ..

Book Review

The Weight of Vengeance: The 1812 War over National Self-Image

May 21st 2012

weight of vengeance

The Weight of Vengeance: The United States, the British Empire and the War of 1812. Troy Bickham. Oxford. 2012. 344 pages.

The War of 1812, now in its bicentennial year, is widely regarded as an asterisk in American history. Sparked by a series of British decrees limiting U.S. trading rights during the Napoleonic era that were suspended even as the U.S. declared war, the conflict was a military draw that ended with the status quo ante. Andrew Jackson's celebrated victory at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 took place after peace terms had already been negotiated (though not yet ratified). As such, the War of 1812 seems not only unnecessary, but just plain stupid.

In The Weight of Vengeance, Troy Bickham, who teaches at Texas A&M, does not assert that the war was fought over high-minded principle. But he does think it had a logic that transcended its stated grievances over trade, the legal status of sailors who may or may not have been British deserters, or the fate of Canadians and Indians in North America. These issues were real enough. But Bickham sees the war as effectively about the two nations' respective self-image. An insecure United States felt a need to assert itself as part of the family of civilized nations.

And Britain felt a need to put its former colony in its (subordinate) place. But neither belligerent was in a particularly good position to realize its objectives, and both were subject to considerable internal opposition to their official government positions. Bickham's parallel arguments seem mirrored by its structure. The book deftly alternates chapters that trace the pro-war and anti-war constituencies in both. For a while, it seems this approach to the subject, however admirably balanced, will only underline the way the various players effectively neutralized each other. But as his analysis proceeds, a decisive view of the war becomes increasingly clear -- and increasingly persuasive. Read more ..

The Edge of Film

UN Bans Sasha Cohen of 'The Dictator' to Protect Real Dictators

May 20th 2012

Sasha Cohen The Dictator

"Borat" and "The Dictator" star Sacha Baron Cohen has told BBC that the United Nations refused to let him film scenes from his most recent movie on its premises for fear the move could upset dictators. He told BBC Radio 4's "Today" program, "The interesting thing is, when we asked to shoot inside the United Nations, they actually refused. "We said, 'This is a pro-democracy movie.' They said, 'That's the problem -- we represent a lot of dictators, and they are going to be very angry by this portrayal of them, so you can't shoot in there."

In "The Dictator," Baron Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, which he says is a parody of tyrants such as former Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's spokesman, Martin Nesirky, was questioned by a reporter on the matter on May 18. He responded simply, "Sacha Baron Cohen has a wonderful sense of humor". Read more ..

The Edge of Film

The Meeting That Led Harvey Weinstein to Purchase “The Oath of Tobruk”

May 19th 2012

Harvey Weinstein, Ron Agam, Bernard Henri Levy
Harvey Weinstein, Ron Agam, Bernard Henri Levy
(credit: Nicolas Rachline)

French artist Ron Agam’s friendships with Bernard-Henri Levy and Harvey Weinstein led to one of the most high profile film deals heading into this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Weinstein, who has just purchased the rights to “The Oath of Tobruk”—Bernard-Henri Levy’s documentary that tells the tale of Muammar Gaddafi’s fall from power and eventual death—was told about the project when Agam set up a meeting between the two titans of their respective fields.

“Harvey Weinstein is the most serious movie distributor in the world and I felt that Levy, being one of the world’s most important philosophers and political activists, to bring the two of them together would be an incredible moment,” Agam recounted. Levy traveled to Libya after the civil unrest began there in early 2011 and met with Libyan rebels, before returning to meet with then French President Nicolas Sarkozy to brief him on what was happening on the ground. Read more ..

The Edge of Film

Burmese Film Focuses on Plight of Migrant Workers

May 19th 2012

Film Set Thailand

 A new film, Father's House, sponsored by the Burmese comedian and political activist, Zarganar, hopes to raise the plight of Burmese migrant workers to a wider audience - especially to people back in Burma. The film’s location highlights the often harsh realities many workers face employed in the fishing, construction and rubber plantation industries.

Deep in a rubber plantation in southern Thailand’s Phangnga province a Burmese migrant community gathers, drawn to the making of a film that depicts the story of the lives and hardships faced by the migrant workers. An organization assisting migrants in southern Thailand, the Foundation for Education and Development, says there are up to 100,000 migrant workers in the region of Phuket and Phangnga, many of whom are undocumented.

The migrant workers are often perceived as almost invisible; but play a key role in the regional economy on rubber plantation, in construction and fishing industries, in areas of work that Thais often shun. But the stories of migrant workers are little known inside Burma says foundation secretary Mallika Ketthaisong. Read more ..

Film Review

Margaret: A Coming of Age, Long in the Making

May 18th 2012


Margaret. Directed by Kenneth Lonergan and Martin Scorcese. Starring Matthew Broderick, Matt Damon, Anna Paquin, Mark Ruffalo. Length: 150 minutes.

"Spring and Fall" by Gerard Manley Hopkins — which begins (accent marks signifying Hopkins’s artificial or "sprung" rhythm)

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?

is probably his most famous poem and the one that, if you know anything about Hopkins, you must have heard and admired. But for all its admirable qualities, it sounds rather cynical and solipsistic. Musically it definitely has something to be said for it, but the conclusion in particular seems a bit too neat.

Death, change, transition, the passage of time, all these are the "It" which, the poem tells us, are "the blight man was born for," but if Margaret is cast into melancholy reflection or even grief by these things, then to go on to say as the poem’s last line does that "It is Margaret you mourn for" suggests the girl is, as we all are, trapped in the prison of self. Surely, it’s not just Margaret she mourns for? For most people, in fact, it is not even primarily themselves they mourn for. When we lose something or someone we love and mourn the loss, it is the thing or person lost which is the object of our mourning, if you want to call it that. We mourn for ourselves only in the banal sense that we are the ones who have suffered the loss. That’s not at all the same thing as saying we’re mourning for ourselves. Read more ..

The Edge of Film

The Essence of Israel on the Silver Screen

May 17th 2012

Yoni and Tuti Netanyahu
Yoni and Tutti Netanyahu

Now that Israel’s early elections have been called off, there may be a sigh of relief among supporters of the Jewish state who feel that a new order will form in the country.  The fact that a new so called unity government has now been formed, with the needs of the religious and the secular communities allegedly being addressed equally, could offer the stability the country needs to handle its external enemies without having to worry as much about the internal strife tearing it apart.  That remains to be seen, but the hope is being restored. 

When events such as the reformation of the government occur, it behooves the country to do as good a job as it can to spread the word far and wide proclaiming the positive.  Too often some media and forces opposed to Israel harnesses morsels of negativity and portray those as the driving forces of the people and government of Israel.  Israel is often its own worst enemy when it comes to public relations; its Hasbara, as it is referred to, is often too defensive and focused in shades of black and white, and therefore can seem harsh and selfish. Read more ..

Book Review

Castro's Secrets: More Obfuscation of the Kennedy Assassination Story

May 17th 2012

Castros Secrets

Castro's Secrets: The CIA and Cuba's Intelligence Machine. Brian Latell. Palgrave Macmillan. 2012. 288 pages.

History is quite frequently distorted by ideological bias, and nothing shows this better than the corpus of JFK assassination books. Written by people on the political left, they almost uniformly want to blame some group on the right for John Kennedy’s death. Of course, it’s far from the case that all voices to the left of center have claimed a right-wing conspiracy. The liberal mainstream media have had little truck with conspiracy theories, and hard left voices like Noam Chomsky, Alexander Cockburn and The Nation have often insisted that Lee Harvey Oswald did it all by himself.

But pick up your average conspiracy book and most likely the culprits will be some of those bêtes noires of the left: the CIA, the FBI, anti-Castro Cubans, rich Texas oil millionaires, and so on. The conspiracists’ fruitless half-century fixation with these groups makes Captain Ahab’s obsession with the Great White Whale look like a passing summer afternoon fancy.

In this context, this volume from longtime CIA Cuba analyst Brian Latell has some value as a corrective. Conspiracy theorists, typically in thrall of Camelot and, if not outright fans of Castro, then at least rather mellow toward the Caribbean dictator, have downplayed the enmity between Castro and Kennedy.

But Latell gives a full account of the incendiary mutual denunciations that the American president and the Cuban leader directed at each other. Likewise, he makes it clear (in the tradition of writers like Gus Russo and Max Holland) that the impetus behind assassination attempts on Castro came from the highest levels of the Kennedy administration, with Bobby being John’s chief honcho in dealing with the CIA and anti-Castro Cubans.

Where assassination writers have wanted to believe that Kennedy, at the time he was killed, was preparing to make nice-nice with Castro, Latell makes it clear that Kennedy would only accept a “Tito solution.” Castro would have to end his alliance with the Soviet Union and quit trying to export revolution. But of course, Castro was never going to do that. Read more ..

The Edge of Film

Tim Burton Revives the 1960s Vampire Soap Opera ”Dark Shadows”

May 14th 2012

Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins, Dark Shadows
Johnny Depp plays Barnabas Collins in ”Dark Shadows”
(photo courtesy Warner Bros.)

Dark Shadows. Director: Tim Burton. Starring: Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter. Length: 133 min.

A soap opera from the 1960s gets a makeover in director Tim Burton’s new horror-comedy: ”Dark Shadows,” which features his favorite lead actor, Johnny Depp.

In the 1770s, a curse turned Barnabas into a vampire. In 1972, a construction crew digs up his coffin and the denizen of the dark finds his way back to what remains of the Collins estate. His cousin Elizabeth, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, thinks he can restore the Collins line to its former greatness. But Barnabas soon discovers that Angelique, the witch who cursed him, is still around.

Johnny Depp plays Barnabas, angst-ridden by his fate and confused by the world in which he awakes. “The idea of this very elegant gentleman who is brought back to probably the most surreal era of our times, the 1970s. How he would react to things like ‘pet rocks’ and troll dolls and lava lamps,” explains Depp. “What was most interesting in terms of Barnabas was to make that guy, clearly a vampire, fit into this odd society and this dysfunctional family,” the star adds. Read more ..

Book Review

The Changing Face of the Israel-Islam Conflict

May 14th 2012

The Transforming Fire - Jonathan Spyer

The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel–Islamist Conflict. Jonathan Spyer. Continuum, 2010. 227 pages.

“People walked from tank to tank, shaking hands with friends, wishing each other luck. I remember standing with my friend Ariel Ronen and exchanging a few brief words before we boarded. Blond Ariel, in civilian life the owner of a marketing business in Petah Tikva, was a tank driver from platoon 2. Unlike me, he had a practical, military bent to him, and was standing, watching affairs with a worried furrow to his brow. ‘We aren’t ready for this,’ he said, as we shook hands. I looked at him quizzically, but he declined to elaborate, adding simply, ‘Not all of us will be coming back.’ ‘We will,’ I reassured him, assuming the fatherconfessor role that I had awarded myself in the previous days. He didn’t reply.” (p. 13).

With this passage, and others like it, Jonathan Spyer recounts his experiences serving in the Lebanon War of 2006. A soldier in an Israeli armored reserve unit, a columnist with The Jerusalem Post, and a research fellow in civilian life, Spyer deftly interweaves his battlefield recollections with a sustained assessment of the strategic challenges facing Israel. The result is an insightful, important, and at times pensive volume, one that is part memoir and part sophisticated political analysis. The main threats facing Israel today, Spyer asserts, are Islamist states and organizations—enemies that not only loom on the horizon, such as Iran, but ones such as Hamas and Hizbullah that lurk closer to home, raining down rockets into the nation’s heartland.

The Jewish State operates within a daunting strategic environment. In confronting those challenges, Spyer rightly draws strength from his comrades-in-arms in the Israeli Defense Forces, whose powerful and poignant stories he sympathetically retells. Israel, too, can draw strength from their stoic determination as it formulates and executes a national strategy for defeating the Islamist threats arrayed against it. Read more ..

Book Review

Who's Publishing What These Days—and How?

May 13th 2012

Merchants of Culure - John B. Thompson

John B. Thompson. Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century (2nd ed.). Polity Press, 2012. 440 pages.

John B. Thompson begins this book with a publishing anecdote that will be familiar even to those on the margins of the business: the story of how Randy Pausch, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon, gave a talk in 2007 as part of a series at the university with the title “The Last Lecture.” As it turned out, Pausch was dying of pancreatic cancer, giving his well-received presentation an element of poignance that generated a wave of national publicity. What proved truly stunning, however, was how eager New York publishers were to acquire the book that became The Last Lecture: Pausch, a first-time big-time author was paid a $6.75 million advance by Hyperion, a Disney company. How could that possibly make sense?

In 400 chiseled pages, Thompson explains why such an offer came about, and why it made sense—indeed, The Last Lecture proved to be a lucrative acquisition for Hyperion. He does so with the methodological acumen of the sociologist he is (at the University of Cambridge). Thompson conducted hundreds of interviews for Merchants of Culture, supplemented by new interviews with many of his sources for this newly released second edition of the book (the first was published in 2010). Much of Thompson's analysis builds on that of his 2005 book Books in the Digital Age, which focused on scholarly publishing. Here he focuses on trade publishing, the hyper-commercial industry focused in New York and London.

It's in the nature of any project of this sort that it stands to date quickly. But Thompson has done a notably good job of keeping his findings timely—the figures here run into mid-2011, capturing the arrival of the e-book transformation of the industry at that moment it shifted from an abstract possibility to an increasingly evident reality. In some sense, however, the book feels fresh and up-to-date because of an intuitive grasp of temporal proportion; his perspective dates back to the corporate consolidation of the publishing industry in the 1970s, and he traces trends that in many cases have been decades in the making. Read more ..

The Way We Are

Home on the Rails: Ringling Brothers’ Rolling Community

May 12th 2012

Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey circus train, 1992
The circus train in 1992 (credit: James G. Howe)

Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey is America’s longest-running circus company. It began performances in the early 1890s, and more than a century later, the company maintains many of the traditions of the circus, including travel by train, which is home to hundreds of performers. Its newest show is called “Dragons.” Ringmaster Jonathan Iverson, a former opera singer, joined the circus about 10 years ago. He was drawn by the history and mystique of the company which calls itself “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

“The part of that mystique is the world’s largest privately owned train. I love the train,” Iverson says. “Three hundred fifty performers and cast and crew and animals are actually traveling on rails across America. That is the world’s greatest carpool.” That car pool—with 60 cars—is more than a kilometer-and-a-half long and crisscrosses the country for 11 months a year.

Iverson shares his train car with his wife, a dancer in the show, and their two children. Like the other families on the train, they cook and eat, take showers and do laundry—live their lives—in the privacy of their own car. “It is so much fun. It gives us sort of like a mini-vacation every week,” Iverson says. “We really see the country. America is really, really beautiful.” Read more ..

The Ancient Edge

Ancient Mayan Artwork, Calculations Discovered

May 11th 2012

Mayan Art

Archeologists working among the ruins of a 9th century Mayan town in Guatemala have discovered a room filled with extraordinarily well-preserved artwork. The colorful wall paintings provide new insights into how Mayan astronomers charted the cosmos. 

Xultun was the largest city in the ancient Mayan empire in Central America, where, at its height, an estimated 90,000 people lived and worked among pyramids, inscribed monuments, water reservoirs and sport fields. But by the 14th century, the Mayan civilization had collapsed and this great city fell with it. In 1920, Xultun was rediscovered, overgrown with vegetation. Work to map the 31 square-kilometer site and decode the myriad inscriptions on its monuments continues to this day. In 2008, Boston University archeologist William Saturno was exploring tunnels in the Xultun ruins that had been opened by looters in the 1970s.  One day his student assistant, Max Chamberlain, discovered the entranceway - close to the surface but hidden by vegetation - to a room-like structure. “Max thought he saw the remnants of paint on the walls of this fairly small Maya structure,” Saturno says.

The Edge on Art

New Exhibit Shows Africa’s Influence on Diaspora Art in US

May 11th 2012

Self-portrait, Malvin Gray Johnson
Self-portrait, Malvin Gray Johnson
(photo Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum)

The West African man is dressed in the khaki uniform and red fez worn by French colonial soldiers of the era. But he wasn’t a French soldier—he was a famous Senegalese dancer based in Paris at the time, François Benga.

Now immortalized in James A. Porter’s 1935 painting, “Soldado Senegales,” his portrait today hangs among the many art works on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s “African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era and Beyond” exhibit. Though not all of the exhibit’s works claim African influence, the portrait by Porter is one of the many examples of the close relationship between the U.S.-based Harlem Renaissance and the Negritude movement in France.

The Harlem Renaissance, which began in the U.S. around 1919, emerged as a movement to challenge racism and stereotypes through the arts. Just a decade later, Africans living in France, who were influenced by the Harlem Renaissance, developed their own style— Negritude—as a way to use art to throw off French colonial racism.

“There’s a very close relationship, because these artists, particularly those who are in France in the 1930s and into the 1940s, were very much connected with what was going on in French art, literature, thought,” said Virginia Mecklenburg, a senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “The poet Langston Hughes is also talking about things like tradition and heritage and how something that was originally African, how it transforms in a sort of river as it flows into and is the source really for culture in other countries in the diaspora, including in the United States.” Read more ..

Human Trafficking

Film-Makers use Girls Gone Wild to Stop Human Trafficking

May 11th 2012

girls gone wild

A creative pair of Dutch film makers are taking on one of the world's worst crimes: human trafficking. Konraad Lefever and Duval Guillaume directed a video (see here) for YouTube to promote StopTheTraffik - a human rights advocacy group based in the UK that seeks to criminalize the sale of human beings, who largely end up in the international sex trade.

Set in Amsterdam's infamous Red Light District, the pair filmed scantily clad young women who posed behind glass at street level as passersby to evaluate them as prostitutes. For decades young women, and some men, have posed at the street-level brothels in displays reminiscent of department store windows. The film-making pair used this to another purpose as they filmed six women who at first appear to beckon the men who pass by on the street with come-hither glances and beckoning gestures. Read more ..

The Way We Are

The Internet’s Archive

May 8th 2012

grateful dead at barton hall poster

May 8, 1977. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University’s barn-like Barton field house, specifically. On that particular Sunday evening, for the princely sum of $7.50—$6.50 for students—you could buy one general admission ticket (assuming you could find any for sale) to hear a performance by the Grateful Dead.

For the Dead it was just another gig on an unending tour; the Ithaca stop was sandwiched between New Haven’s Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum and Buffalo’s War Memorial Coliseum. Fairly to form, the band played 20 songs that night, starting with “New Minglewood Blues” and wrapping with the classic “One More Saturday Night.” Along the way they hit a number of fan favorites like “Fire on the Mountain,” “Not Fade Away” and “Morning Dew.”

At the time, May 8th was just another performance by the Dead, an enduring American band that had long attracted its own rolling culture of scruffy fans, hippies, dope-smokers, and assorted others who followed the band from show to show. But for true “Deadheads,” it’s much, much more than that. For Deadhead Nation, May 8 is forever known simply as “Barton Hall.”

35 years later, the Dead’s spring 1977 tour is now the stuff of legend, with the Barton Hall show the most celebrated performance of the band’s career. “I started hearing from other Deadheads that the Barton show was famous,” Brad Krakow tells the Cornell Chronicle. One of the lucky attendees that night, Krakow characterized the Dead’s performance as “tight, no mistakes and inspired. It is funny now when friends ask if that is ‘The’ Barton Hall when visiting. It is an icon.”

But don’t take Krakow’s word for it. Download the entire concert and decide for yourself. In fact, why not download every concert the Grateful Dead ever played to compare and contrast? Go ahead—you can do it all for free, and without any copyright worries, thanks to a website called The Internet Archive. Read more ..

Book Review

Iron Coffin: A New Look at the USS Monitor and How it Changed History

May 6th 2012

Iron Coffin

Iron Coffin: War, Technology, and Experience abord the U.S.S. Monitor. David Mindell. Johns Hopkins Press. 2012. 208 pages.

Almost exactly 150 years ago, two warships fought the battle of the future.

The duel was the Battle of Hampton Roads, just off the coast of Virginia, during the U.S. Civil War. The ships were the U.S.S. Monitor and the C.S.S. Virginia, representing the Union and the Confederacy, respectively; it was the first time that two iron-clad ships engaged in combat.

As such, the iron ship constituted a “high-tech super-weapon,” changing the nature of battle, as MIT historian David Mindell asserts in the preface of a new edition of his book on the subject, Iron Coffin: War, Technology, and Experience aboard the U.S.S. Monitor (Johns Hopkins Press).

The Monitor was supposed to settle battles through its technological superiority, with vaunted innovations such as its armor and a rotating gun turret. Yet the ship also placed punishing new physical demands on its crew. In this way, the Monitor was “a prototype of modern military technology, with all of its apparent benefits and limitations, fighting new kinds of wars on new kinds of battlefields and forging new kinds of heroes,” Mindell writes.

Mindell, the Frances and David Dibner Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing and professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, began researching the book soon after the Gulf War in 1991, a conflict featuring advances in missile technology. He concludes that even newer military technologies, such as pilotless drones, have only increased the significance of studying how military leaders expect technology to settle battles — and how new weaponry changes the role and ethos of the solider. Read more ..

Book Review

Molotov: Stalin's Warrior in Cold Blood

May 6th 2012

Molotov: stalins cold warrior

Molotov: Stalin's Cold Warrior. Geoffrey Roberts. Potomac Books. 2011. 254 pages.

Geoffrey Roberts introduces us to Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov in 1976, long after he has left power. Molotov tell us, “Not often, but sometimes I dream of Stalin. In extraordinary situations. In a destroyed city. I can’t find a way out. Then I meet him, in a word, strange dreams, very confused.” Such disturbing dreams are not surprising. The twentieth century was, in many ways, the most awful time in human history: two world wars, famines, genocide and, for the latter half of the century, the specter of utter nuclear annihilation. Molotov, as premier of the Soviet Union from 1930 to 1941, Soviet foreign minister from 1939 to 1949 and again from 1953 to 1956, was more times than not at the center of it all.

Roberts presents a more nuanced picture of Molotov than other biographers, someone whose mind and meticulousness suited him to the exacting demands of representing the Soviets in the realm of foreign policy. Robert’s Molotov is not absolutely slavish to Stalin -- though when push comes to shove he falls into line -- and he is even less cowering in front of Khrushchev. Regardless, to review Molotov's life is to walk a tightrope, and Geoffrey Roberts does a fine job of doing so.

There is Molotov, the committed Communist selflessly sacrificing for what he saw as a more just world, only to end up in a position of authority during the Great Purge of the late 1930s with its effort to solve real, perceived, and imagined problems through the most horrific and unconscionable means. Then there is Molotov the face of Soviet foreign policy -- a policy that, when stripped of its socialist and internationalist pretenses, is too often driven by fierce nationalism.

Molotov’s pivotal role was during World War II, and it's here that things become most complicated -- and dire. When the Soviets could not broker a deal with England and France to stave off ascendant Germany in 1939, they made a deal ... with Germany. Negotiated by Molotov with the German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, it meant Germany and the Soviets would not attack each other -- for the time being. The ink had hardly dried when the Germans took their then-cleared path to invade Poland, ushering in World War II. The Red Army followed seventeen days later, dividing Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union and paving the way for the Soviet annexations of the Baltic states, as well as the disastrous Winter War with Finland. Read more ..

Film Review

Monsieur Lazhar: A Film with Insight into Children and Education

May 5th 2012

monsieur lazhar

Monsieur Lazhar. Director: Philippe Falardeau. Starring: Fellag, Marie-ve Beauregard, Nicole-Sylvie Lagarde. Length: 90 mins.

One of the best moments of Monsieur Lazhar by the Québécois writer-director Philippe Falardeau comes when 12-year-old Marie-Frédérique (Marie- ve Beauregard) rises in the midst of an impromptu (and forbidden) class discussion about the suicide of a teacher and says this: "Everyone thinks we’re traumatized by Martine’s suicide, but it’s the adults who are really."

The discussion has been forbidden on the advice of the school psychologist (Nicole-Sylvie Lagarde), acting as specialist grief counselor. She, by teaching them that grief is the province of some "expert" prepared to treat it as a pathological condition, would have robbed these children of the vital experience of learning how to deal with a normal but painful part of life. That the discussion breaks out anyway is thanks to their new Algerian teacher, the eponymous Monsieur Lazhar (Fellag) who, uncorrupted by specialist educational training, is generally prepared to disregard unnecessary and harmful rules laid down by those more expert than he.

To get the full impact of Marie-Frédérique’s moment of blinding insight, you have to take it in the context of an earlier discussion between her insufferable yuppie parents (Stéphane Demers and Nathalie Costa) and Monsieur Lazhar at a parents’ evening. Clearly, they have not come to learn anything from him about their daughter but rather to instruct him, in an offensively patronizing way, about how he should do his job. Equally clearly, Marie-Frédérique understands her parents and the adult world generally far better than they understand her or the educational process that must increasingly take place out of their sight, if it is to take place at all. One gathers that parents like these are not untypical these days, though they or anything like them would have been almost unheard of when I was a teacher. Read more ..

The Edge of Environment

Ungreen Facts about e-Reading Devices

May 4th 2012


It’s estimated that the environmental impact of a single “eReader” (Kindle, iPad…) equals that of 100 books.

Whether the motivation is to truly improve environmental performance, or simply garner positive press, seems every business is jumping on the low carbon bandwagon. Nowhere is exempt from the pressure to green up, not even the beleaguered (and beloved) book industry.

Three years ago, a group called the Book Industry Environmental Council (BIEC) set environmental targets for the American book business, aiming to reduce its baseline carbon footprint by 20 percent in 2020 and by 80% in 2050. The plan was hatched during the infancy of eBooks: Kindle had been around just over a year.

BIEC goals seem attainable. Technological advances slashed the volume of in-house printing. Editors move towards a paperless workflow. Publishers began to reassess traditional processes of creating, transporting, and storing books. The resultant enviro-friendly efficiencies could be replicated worldwide. Read more ..

The Edge of Music

'Game-powered Machine Learning' opens Door to Google for Music

May 4th 2012


Can a computer be taught to automatically label every song on the Internet using sets of examples provided by unpaid music fans? University of California, San Diego engineers have found that the answer is yes, and the results are as accurate as using paid music experts to provide the examples, saving considerable time and money.  In results published in the April 24 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers report that their solution, called “game-powered machine learning,” would enable music lovers to search every song on the web well beyond popular hits, with a simple text search using key words like “funky” or “spooky electronica.”
Searching for specific multimedia content, including music, is a challenge because of the need to use text to search images, video and audio. The researchers, led by Gert Lanckriet, a professor of electrical engineering at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering, hope to create a text-based multimedia search engine that will make it far easier to access the explosion of multimedia content online. That’s because humans working round the clock labeling songs with descriptive text could never keep up with the volume of content being uploaded to the Internet. For example, YouTube users upload 60 hours of video content per minute, according to the company. Read more ..

Edge on Archaeology

Ancient Hebrew seal Bearing the name 'Matanyahu' found in Jerusalem

May 3rd 2012

hebrew seal

In archaeological work in the 2,000 year-old drainage channel between the City of David and the Jerusalem Archaeological Garden, remains were discovered of the building closest to the First Temple exposed so far in archaeological excavations.

The remains of a building dating to the end of the First Temple period were discovered below the base of the ancient drainage channel that is currently being exposed in Israel Antiquities Authority excavations beneath Robinson’s Arch in the Jerusalem Archaeological Garden, adjacent to the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. This building is the closest structure to the First Temple found to date in archaeological excavations.

In the excavations, underwritten by the Ir David Foundation, a personal Hebrew seal from the end of the First Temple period was discovered on the floor of the ancient building. The seal is made of a semi-precious stone and is engraved with the name of its owner: "Lematanyahu Ben Ho…" ("למתניהו בן הו..." meaning: "Belonging to Matanyahu Ben Ho…"). The rest of the inscription is erased. Read more ..

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