On the man known as 'H.M.', whose brain was caught in "permanent present tense" and whose story is documented in a new book by neuroscientist Suzanne Corkin:
"Memory creates our identity, but it also exposes the illusion of a coherent self: a memory is not a thing but an act that alters and rearranges even as it retrieves. Although some of its operations can be trained to an astonishing pitch, most take place autonomously, beyond the reach of the conscious mind. As we age, it distorts and foreshortens: present experience becomes harder to impress on the mind, and the long-forgotten past seems to draw closer; University Challenge gets easier, remembering what you came downstairs for gets harder. Yet if we were somehow to freeze our memory at the youthful peak of its powers, around our late twenties, we would not create a polished version of ourselves analogous to a youthful body, but an early, scrappy draft composed of childhood memories and school-learning, barely recognisable to our older selves."
PUBLISHED: May 20, 2013
LENGTH: 10 minutes (2577 words)
Today’s guest pick comes from Christian Lorentzen, editor for the London Review of Books.
PUBLISHED: April 17, 2013
"If there is one thing we appreciate it is a faction that splinters into smaller factions." A report from inside Syria:
"We in the Middle East have always had a strong appetite for factionalism. Some attribute it to individualism, others blame the nature of our political development or our tribalism. Some even blame the weather. We call it tasharthum and we loathe it: we hold it as the main reason for all our losses and defeats, from al-Andalus to Palestine. Yet we love it and bask in it and excel at it, and if there is one thing we appreciate it is a faction that splinters into smaller factions. Yet even by the measure of previous civil wars in the Middle East, the Syrians seem to have reached new heights. After all, the Palestinians in their heyday had only a dozen or so factions, and the Lebanese, God bless them, pretending it was ideology that divided them, never exceeded thirty different factions.
"In Istanbul I asked a Syrian journalist and activist why there were so many battalions. He laughed and said, ‘Because we are Syrians,’ and went on to tell me a story I have heard many times before. ‘When the Syrian president, head of the military junta at the time, signed the unification agreement with Nasser, basically handing the country to the Egyptians and stripping himself of his presidential title, he passed the document to Nasser and said I give up my role as president but I hand you a country of four million presidents.’"
PUBLISHED: Feb. 14, 2013
LENGTH: 17 minutes (4296 words)
Making sense of San Francisco through Google and Apple's commuter buses to Silicon Valley:
"The buses roll up to San Francisco’s bus stops in the morning and evening, but they are unmarked, or nearly so, and not for the public. They have no signs or have discreet acronyms on the front windshield, and because they also have no rear doors they ingest and disgorge their passengers slowly, while the brightly lit funky orange public buses wait behind them. The luxury coach passengers ride for free and many take out their laptops and begin their work day on board; there is of course wifi. Most of them are gleaming white, with dark-tinted windows, like limousines, and some days I think of them as the spaceships on which our alien overlords have landed to rule over us.
"Other days I think of them as the company buses by which the coal miners get deposited at the minehead, and the work schedule involved would make a pit owner feel at home. Silicon Valley has long been famous for its endless work hours, for sucking in the young for decades of sixty or seventy-hour weeks, and the much celebrated perks on many jobsites – nap rooms, chefs, gyms, laundry – are meant to make spending most of your life at work less hideous."
PUBLISHED: Jan. 30, 2013
LENGTH: 12 minutes (3215 words)
Who in the 99 percent really need help? A review of the Occupy Handbook
"Amid all the grandstanding and parading of manifestos in the Occupy Handbook, one essay that stands out is an old-fashioned piece of historical reportage by Michael Hiltzik. It’s called ‘The 5 per cent’, and it tells the story of the campaign during the 1930s to secure a decent social security programme for the elderly. In 1934, the number of Americans over the age of 65 was seven million, or just 5 per cent of the total population. This group was in danger of being forgotten in the welter of New Deal initiatives: they lacked the clout or the visibility of more numerous groups of the disadvantaged, especially militant younger men without jobs. Yet the old were suffering the most. Many had lost their savings and had no pension. The unemployment rate among the over-65s looking for work was 54 per cent. A doctor called Francis Townsend organised a campaign to enact a national pension scheme and rallied a grassroots movement to support him. Though he didn’t get the scheme he wanted, he drew the nation’s attention to a group of people who were the clear losers in a crisis that had left the rich relatively unscathed.
"By focusing on the 5 per cent, the Townsend campaign made effective political use of the idea of victimhood. ‘Reduced to its essentials,’ Hiltzik writes, ‘the Townsend movement was a quest for justice for an oppressed and abused segment of the population. From this simplicity it drew its political potency.’ The 99 per cent might sound like a simpler idea, but it’s not, because it is so hard to see how that many could count as an oppressed and abused segment of the population. In the 1930s there were plenty of populist movements that went for a broader appeal, claiming to speak on behalf of everyone who had lost out to the sinister ‘money powers’. The trouble with these movements was that they tended to need charismatic figureheads like Charles Coughlin and Huey Long to sustain their political potency, which did a lot to diminish their democratic credibility over time. General rallying cries eventually descended into a mixture of conspiracy-mongering and rabble-rousing. Targeted movements, built on a narrower set of interests, were able to sustain much more durable coalitions."
PUBLISHED: Oct. 19, 2012
LENGTH: 13 minutes (3427 words)
A woman reflects on the virtues and limits of online dating:
"I went on a date with a classical composer who invited me to a John Cage concert at Juilliard. After the concert we looked for the bust of Béla Bartók on 57th Street. We couldn’t find it, but he told me how Bartók had died there of leukaemia. I wanted to like this man, who was excellent on paper, but I didn’t. I gave it another go. We went out for a second time to eat ramen in the East Village. I ended the night early. He next invited me to a concert at Columbia and then to dinner at his house. I said yes but I cancelled at the last minute, claiming illness and adding that I thought our dating had run its course. I was in fact sick, but he was angry with me. My cancellation, he wrote, had cost him a ‘ton of time shopping, cleaning and cooking that I didn’t really have to spare in the first place a few days before a deadline …’ He punctuated almost exclusively with Pynchonian ellipses.
"I apologised, then stopped responding. In the months that followed he continued to write, long emails with updates of his life, and I continued not responding until it came to seem as if he was lobbing his sadness into a black hole, where I absorbed it into my own sadness."
PUBLISHED: Oct. 15, 2012
LENGTH: 15 minutes (3812 words)
A review of new book Demon Fish and the truth about sharks—from their mating rituals to the real odds of being attacked:
"There were 75 verified shark attacks last year, and 12 fatalities. Even in the US, a global hotspot, you are forty times more likely to be hospitalised by a Christmas tree ornament than by a shark. Meanwhile, to supply the shark fin soup trade alone, an estimated 73 million sharks are killed each year. Many shark populations have declined by 70 per cent or more in the last thirty years. One reason little is done about this is that although their fins fetch high prices, shark fisheries are of negligible economic value compared to, say, tuna or cod or herring, so little is done to protect stocks. And then of course humans tend to make more of a fuss over animals we can relate to – because they stand on two legs or live in charming family units, or are unthreateningly charismatic. One of the recent PR successes of the shark conservationists is the ‘walking shark’, which crawls along the sea bottom on its fins and has an appealing little face. The best-protected species are the big, peaceful filter feeders, the basking shark and particularly the whale shark, with its photogenic polka dots and mysterious long-range migration patterns. But we’re gradually becoming more enlightened. The third best-protected species is the great white, described approvingly here by E.O. Wilson as ‘one of the four or five last great predators of humanity’."
PUBLISHED: July 26, 2012
LENGTH: 13 minutes (3493 words)
How does the U.S. define what groups are terrorist organizations, and what groups are potential allies? Questions around the Mujahedin e Khalq (MEK) in Iran:
"The story of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, also known as the Mujahedin e Khalq (MEK), is all about the way image management can enable a diehard enemy to become a cherished ally. The MEK is currently campaigning to be officially delisted in the US as a terrorist organisation. Once off the list it will be free to make use of its support on Capitol Hill in order to become America’s most favoured, and no doubt best funded, Iranian opposition group.
"The last outfit to achieve something similar was the Iraqi National Congress, the lobby group led by Ahmed Chalabi that talked of democracy and paved the way for the US invasion of Iraq by presenting Washington with highly questionable ‘evidence’ of weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein’s links with al-Qaida."
PUBLISHED: June 2, 2012
LENGTH: 14 minutes (3644 words)
What he got right—and wrong—about capitalism:
"The most obvious mistake in his version of the world is to do with class. There is something like a classic Marxian proletariat dispersed through the world. But Marx foresaw that this proletariat would be an increasingly centralised and organised force: indeed, this was one of the reasons it would prove so dangerous to capitalism. By creating the conditions in which labour would be sure to organise and assemble collectively capitalism was arranging its own downfall. But there is no organised global conflict between the classes; there is no organised global proletariat. There’s nothing even close. The proletariat is queuing to get into Foxconn, not to organise strikes there, and the great danger facing China, which is in a sense where the world’s proletariat now is, is the inequality caused by fractures within the new urban proletariat and the rural poverty they’re leaving behind."
PUBLISHED: March 29, 2012
LENGTH: 23 minutes (5870 words)