Friday, September 30, 2005

U.S. Insists on Keeping Control of Web

Such an undemocratic mean for a democratic medium. Why would any one nation retain control of Internet, which has become universal technology of our time, from rich to poor nation? Mr. Gross' inflexitlbe gesture that "certain things we can agree to and certain things we can't agree to" and his repeated assertion that "It's not a negotiating issue. This is a matter of national policy" sound like words from medieval kingpin.

Though the U.S. defense department did play its historical role in the invention of modern Internet, so did the Chinese play similar role inventing paper press, and many other nations and races with their own invaluable contributions to the progress of our civilization, from mathematics to science to art. No nation and political ideologies should have absolute monopoly on any universally used medium such as Internet. This is NOT "a matter of national policy", this IS a matter of respecting our humanity.


U.S. Insists on Keeping Control of Web

The Associated Press
Thursday, September 29, 2005; 8:59 PM

GENEVA -- A senior U.S. official rejected calls on Thursday for a U.N. body to take over control of the main computers that direct traffic on the Internet, reiterating U.S. intentions to keep its historical role as the medium's principal overseer.

"We will not agree to the U.N. taking over the management of the Internet," said Ambassador David Gross, the U.S. coordinator for international communications and information policy at the State Department. "Some countries want that. We think that's unacceptable."

Many countries, particularly developing ones, have become increasingly concerned about the U.S. control, which stems from the country's role in creating the Internet as a Pentagon project and funding much of its early development.

Gross was in Geneva for the last preparatory meeting ahead of November's U.N. World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia.

Some negotiators from other countries said there was a growing sense that a compromise had to be reached and that no single country ought to be the ultimate authority over such a vital part of the global economy.

But Gross said that while progress was being made on a number of issues necessary for producing a finalized text for Tunis, the question of Internet governance remained contentious.

A stalemate over who should serve as the principal traffic cops for Internet routing and addressing could derail the summit, which aims to ensure a fair sharing of the Internet for the benefit of the whole world.

Some countries have been frustrated that the United States and European countries that got on the Internet first gobbled up most of the available addresses required for computers to connect, leaving developing nations with a limited supply to share.

They also want greater assurance that as they come to rely on the Internet more for governmental and other services, their plans won't get derailed by some future U.S. policy.

One proposal that countries have been discussing would wrest control of domain names from the U.S.-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, and place it with an intergovernmental group, possibly under the United Nations.

Gross dismissed it as unacceptable.

"We've been very, very clear throughout the process that there are certain things we can agree to and certain things we can't agree to," Gross told reporters at U.N. offices in Geneva. "It's not a negotiating issue. This is a matter of national policy."

He said the United States was "deeply disappointed" with the European Union's proposal Wednesday advocating a "new cooperation model," which would involve governments in questions of naming, numbering and addressing on the Internet.

In 1998, the U.S. Commerce Department selected ICANN to oversees the Internet's master directories, which tell Web browsers and e-mail programs how to direct traffic. Internet users around the world interact with them everyday, likely without knowing it.

Although ICANN is a private organization with international board members, Commerce ultimately retains veto power. Policy decisions could at a stroke make all Web sites ending in a specific suffix essentially unreachable. Other decisions could affect the availability of domain names in non-English characters or ones dedicated to special interests such as pornography.

Two Teams Identify Chinese Bat as SARS Virus Hiding Place

This may not be a conclusive study, but it provides a good direction for further investigation on this supposedly catastrophic disease.


Two Teams Identify Chinese Bat as SARS Virus Hiding Place

The SARS virus, which has killed 774 people worldwide, has long been known to come from an animal. Now two scientific teams have independently identified the Chinese horseshoe bat as that animal and as a hiding place for the virus in nature.

The bats apparently are healthy carriers of SARS, which caused severe economic losses, particularly in Asia, as it spread to Canada and other countries. In Asia, many people eat bats or use bat feces in traditional medicine for asthma, kidney ailments and general malaise.

The Chinese horseshoe bat does not exist in the United States.

The finding is important in preventing outbreaks of SARS and similar viruses carried by bats because it provides an opportunity for scientists to break the transmission chain.

One team from China, Australia and the United States reported its findings yesterday in the online version of Science. The other team, from the University of Hong Kong, reported its findings on Tuesday in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"It's pretty pleasant to see two teams that did not know each other reach similar findings," Dr. Lin-Fa Wang, a virologist at the Australian Animal Health Laboratory, said in a telephone interview. After collecting hundreds of bats from the wild and from Chinese markets, each team reported identifying different viruses from the coronavirus family that are very closely related to the SARS virus.

SARS, or sudden acute respiratory syndrome, first appeared in China in 2002. It spread widely in early 2003 to infect at least 8,098 people in 26 countries, according to the World Health Organization. The disease died out later in 2003, and no cases have been reported since.

SARS now appears to join a number of other infectious agents that bats can transmit. Over the last decade, bats have been found as the source of two newly discovered human infections caused by the Nipah and Hendra viruses that can produce encephalitis and respiratory disease. In the SARS outbreak, attention focused on the role of Himalayan palm civets in transmitting it after scientists identified the virus in this species and in a raccoon dog sold in markets in Guangdong. But W.H.O. officials and scientists elsewhere cautioned that these species were most likely only intermediaries in the transmission, largely because no widespread infection could be found in wild or farmed civets. So, the teams assembled a variety of specialists, including veterinarians, zoologists, virologists and ecologists.

Dr. Wang said his group focused on bats largely because of the team members' earlier pioneering work on the Hendra and Nipah viruses. One member, Dr. Jonathan H. Epstein, a veterinary epidemiologist at the Consortium for Conservation Medicine in Manhattan, led the scientists in gathering bats from the wild and market places.

After obtaining fecal and blood samples, the scientists released the bats into the wild or returned them to the markets. The specimens were tested for a variety of viruses that infect animals.

Laboratory analysis of the coronaviruses' makeup provided strong genetic evidence of the close relationship between those found in the bats and the SARS virus.

Although it is logical to assume that the bat viruses infected the animals in the live markets to cause the outbreak, the studies were not planned to prove that point.

"The genetic relationships do not tell you anything mechanistically about if or how the virus moved from the bats to civets and from the civets to the humans," said Dr. Donald S. Burke, a virologist and professor at Johns Hopkins. "It's not a perfect story yet. But until I see otherwise, the working assumption will be that this is the reservoir species."

Dr. Wang said that "there is no rule" to establish proof that a certain species is the reservoir, or hiding place, of a virus, but that scientists make the judgment based on criteria like how widely the infectious agent is distributed in a species, the absence of symptoms among the animals and finding high levels of antibody but low amounts of virus in the animal.

The Chinese horseshoe bat fits those criteria and the civets do not, Dr. Wang said. The bat feeds on moths and other insects and generally does not bite animals. It was highly unlikely that insects transmitted the SARS viruses to bats, because the viruses do not grow in insect cells in the laboratory, Dr. Wang said.

Most civets that are sold in China as a delicacy are farmed, Dr. Wang said, and the government should ensure civet farms are distant from bat colonies, monitor farmed civets for SARS-like viruses and allow just noninfected animals to go to market.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Science vs. Design: No Debate

Science and religion reside in different domain.


Science vs. design: no debate

PRESIDENT BUSH has suggested that we ''teach the debate" concerning intelligent design and evolutionary biology. Impossible. To a have a debate, you and I must speak to the same question and use evidence we both accept.

Let's illustrate: We can all agree that the Bengal tiger is a wonder of nature. A biologist points to the tiger's stripes and says: ''What are these, and how did they come to be this way?" An intelligent designer, who argues that nature is too complex to be explained away by science, might ask: ''Why do these stripes form such an astonishing pattern? Who or what could have done this -- to what end?" The poet William Blake wondered much the same:

Tyger! Tyger! Burning brightIn the forests of the night:What immortal hand or eye,Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?For that matter, what immortal hand or eye framed our symmetry? At bottom, that's what intelligent designers think they know, that's what they want to teach, and that's exactly where science will not venture. Science can describe the tiger's stripes. But who or what made the tiger, other than the forces of natural selection? No testable hypotheses there.

Biologists and intelligent designers may point to the same tiger, but because one asks how and the other why, they talk past each other. It's a nondebate. And that's what we can teach. Throughout history, into our own day, how and why -- both, neither alone -- have defined the human project. Nations that would be guided by one question, not both, usually make a mess of things.

How has given us Einstein and Euclid; why, Virginia Woolf, Homer, Moses, and Mother Teresa. Have we not learned, even yet, to untangle these questions? They should be, and have ever been, debated endlessly, but never with much success in the same breath. We need both but must pursue each alone.

At the end of life, no one wants another description of the tiger's symmetry. We want what William Blake did: to know that those stripes, and our lives, are not accidents of matter colliding in the void. Until scientists, the masters of how, can give us that, we will ask why.

There is no debate over intelligent design, only different ways of knowing and the mystery of tigers burning bright.

Leonard Rosen teaches at Bentley College.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Taking Back Islam

Mr. David Ignatius hit this point at the right place. Struggle within Islam is beginning to surface. How long peaceful believers of a peaceful religion silently see the rise of murderous zealots who are trying to recruit the vulnerable Muslim youths for their murderous and self-defeating intentions? It may not be the similar reformation that Martin Luther King instigated in the sixteenth century for the then "gone-awry" church, but the needs are intense that the traditional Islam that my and your father, mother, their parents, grand-parents followed, must be reestablished at the forefront, sweeping away the dangerous salafist movement.

American pathetic way of winning Muslim hearts and minds by bombarding innocent civilians is hideous, at best, it is the practicing Muslims who needs to take the charge in clearing their sacred home from these disguised thugs who hide their criminality behind the multi-dimensional illusory cloak.


Taking Back Islam

The U.S. Has Little to Contribute to the Theological Struggle

By David Ignatius

Rarely has a big idea gotten more lip service and less real substance than the argument that there is a war of ideas underway for the soul of the Muslim world. Do a Google search on war of ideas and Muslim, and you get more than 11 million hits. Yet, four years after Sept. 11, 2001, the real battle is only now beginning.

The Bush administration's response has been to throw former White House spinmeister Karen Hughes into the fray. The implication is that Muslims will stop hating America if we can just improve our "public diplomacy" through Hughes's new office at the State Department. Forgive me, but that idea strikes me as dangerously naive. This is not a propaganda problem, nor is it one that the United States can solve.

The war within Islam takes place every day in mosques, study groups and televised sermons. And although it's about ideas, it has deadly consequences, with hundreds dying from suicide car bombings this week in Iraq alone. It's hard for a non-Muslim such as me to fully understand this struggle, but after years of reporting on the Middle East, reading and talking to Muslim friends, I'm beginning to see some connections.

Traditional Islam is under assault from a puritanical fringe group known as the Salafists. The name is drawn from an Arabic word that refers to the seventh-century ancestors who walked with the Prophet Muhammad. For a Christian analogy to the Salafist extremists, think of the fanatical monk Savonarola, who in the 15th century burned the books of Florence in his rage at the corruption of the Medicis. The difference is that the Salafists have access to the Internet and car bombs -- and perhaps far more dangerous weapons.

An important new book by Quintan Wiktorowicz, titled "Radical Islam Rising," makes clear that the Salafists operate like a cult. They draw in vulnerable young people, fill them with ideas that give their lives a fiery new meaning, and send them into battle against the unbelievers. Combating this seductive Salafist preaching requires the same kind of intense "deprogramming" used to wean away converts from other modern cults.

Wiktorowicz researched his book by embedding himself with al-Muhajiroun, an extremist Salafist group based in London. He found that the group preyed on disoriented young Muslims -- not poor or oppressed themselves but confused and looking for meaning. Recruitment often involved a personal crisis that provided the Muslim cultists with a "cognitive opening."

"To many young Muslims, their parents' version of Islam seems archaic, backward and ill-informed," Wiktorowicz explains. Into this spiritual void march the Salafists. They provide a structured life, through a mandatory study session every week in the halaqah , or prayer circle, and a new set of life rules. Among the prohibited activities Wiktorowicz discovered in his research were "playing games," "watching TV," "sleeping a lot and chilling out," and "hanging out with friends."

Frankly, Hughes and her public diplomats aren't going to be much help in deprogramming a young Salafist. Governments can contain the violent cults by making it riskier to join -- so that the confused young Muslim must weigh the danger of deportation or even arrest before joining an extremist group. But the real battle of ideas requires theological ammunition, and that's where there are some interesting new developments.

Traditional Islam is finally starting to fight back against the Salafists and their self-taught, literalist interpretations of the Koran. One of the leaders in this effort is Jordan's King Abdullah, heir to a Hashemite throne that traces its lineage back to Muhammad. He convened an Islamic conference in Amman in July that concluded with a communique on "True Islam and Its Role in Modern Society." It reemphasized the traditional faith -- the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence, the orthodox school of Shiite jurisprudence, the canon set forth over centuries of fatwas and other orthodox interpretations of what Islam means.

Rather than running scared, as mainstream clerics sometimes do when facing the Salafist onslaught, the Amman declaration was proud and emphatic. It drew together fatwas from the leading clerics in Islam, including the sheik of Al-Azhar in Cairo and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Najaf. Another backer was Sheik Yusuf Qaradawi, who has a weekly show on al-Jazeera and is probably the best-known television preacher in the Arab world.

These Islamic leaders sense that their religion is being kidnapped by Salafist radicals with a grab-bag theology, and they are finally beginning to push back. It's a war of ideas they should win, if they can make traditional Islam a vibrant, living faith. Young Muslims don't want to go back to the seventh century; they want to live with dignity in the 21st.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Fiction is not Dead

"Fiction is dead". With all the due respect reserved for the Nobel Laureate VS Naipaul and all the accolades for his tremendous success of being a high caliber writer, I just can't disagree more of his seemingly credulous opinion. From time to time, writers in the time of traumatic ages, when wars, violences and natural disasters overwhelm our senses and sensibilities, "for a while", writers at the forefront of limelight packed world literary stages, who are considered our contemporary moral consciousness, bring about this trepid notion that fiction is dead. Ian McEwan and Tom Wolfe were not apart from this hypothizing crowd, though, in a few years or so from their uttered obituary pronouncement of fiction, they turned around and produced successful novels to capture the very essence of ages that they so eloquently talked about being dead for the fictional world.

Inventing in the time of great confusions, trauma, and painful episodes surrounding a writer, is indeed difficult. The reality is too acute to ignore, where fictional world seems so far away from the moment of truth. But in time, as it had been shown in numerous cases in the past, literary fiction did come through these horrific darkness, presenting the world a deeper understanding in the form of literary artistry, that is quite improbable for the voluminous mundane non-fiction to represent.

Don't count me wrong. Non-fiction has its honorable place in confronting the truth and reality in its way of straight-talk and hard-labored research based books, but so does fiction, in its unique way, where the richness of detail of the moment from realistic characters going through any particular traumatic episodes, through its intricately woven plots and underneath inaudible heartbeat, literary fiction can be as satisfying, if not more, than any non-mundane non-fiction.

Sorry, Mr. Naipaul, fiction is loudly alive and incredibly healthy, as it was in the time of "A House for Mr. Biswas".


The uses of invention

The novelist and Nobel laureate VS Naipaul has said that fiction is dead, vanquished by our need for facts. But, argues Jay McInerney, imaginative storytelling has the power to reveal underlying truths in a turbulent world

Saturday September 17, 2005
The Guardian

First, a disclaimer: the following is a work of non-fiction. As such, it is unlikely to be as vivid, or textured, or as faithful to the author's deepest convictions and emotions as his own fiction, as linguistically adventurous or as revealing about the way it feels to live now as the latest novels by Salman Rushdie or Zadie Smith. I write novels. In fact, I just finished one, which is one reason I was alarmed to hear VS Naipaul declaring recently, in an interview with the New York Times, that the novel was dead. Which would make me, I guess, a necrophiliac. Naipaul essentially argues - stop me if you've heard this one before - that non-fiction is better suited than fiction to dealing with the big issues and capturing the way we live now. An accompanying essay, "Truth is Stronger than Fiction", expanded on the theme, and concluded with a lament: "It's safe to say that no novels have yet engaged with the post-September 11 era in any meaningful way." To which we might ask, just for starters, where is the movie, or the big non-fiction tome that has done so.

We've been hearing about the death of the novel ever since the day after Don Quixote was published. Twenty years ago, it was common knowledge in American publishing circles that the novel was over. Even as he complimented me on my first novel, which he had just purchased for publication, Jason Epstein, then vice-president of Random House, told me over a lavish lunch that the novel had probably outlived its audience and that people my own age didn't seem to be interested in literary fiction. He was trying to prepare me for the obscurity that was my probable fate.

When I was in college in the 1970s, it was Tom Wolfe who was banging on about the death of the novel, flogging something called the New Journalism and insisting that fiction couldn't reflect the accelerating grimace of contemporary reality. And in fact, for a while, the televised horrors of Vietnam, coupled with those of the riots in Memphis and Watts, the primal screaming of rock bands and anti-war protesters ... the visceral flux of the late 60s and early 70s made the argument feel almost plausible. Truman Capote abandoned fiction to explore motiveless murder in the heartland, inventing something called the non-fiction novel in the process; and Norman Mailer seemed to throw in the towel fiction-wise during this period. Armies of the Night, his bid for the nonfiction novel title, documented his own march on the Pentagon. New Journalists such as Wolfe and Gay Talese and Hunter S Thompson, by purloining certain novelistic techniques and artiste attitude, seemed for a while to be doing a better job of corralling the zeitgeist than Updike and Bellow. (Although I'd argue that the artistic landmark of that era, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, is a novel by any other name.) The British novel was feeling more than a little moribund at the time, as Bill Buford complained in an essay in the first issue of Granta in 1979. Four years later, the "20 Best Young British Novelists Under Forty" issue gathered Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Graham Swift - Team Lazarus - inside one cover.

The shameless Mr Wolfe belatedly concluded that the novel was a far more capacious and versatile and resilient form than he imagined it to be because long after he declared it dead he trashed his own case by writing Bonfire of the Vanities, a novel that managed to say far more about that era in America than any contemporary slab of non-fiction. Sherman McCoy became a representative figure and phrases like "Masters of the Universe" and "Social X rays" entered the collective vocabulary. Wolfe created a myth for the era - a narrative that shaped the way we viewed the period and seemed far more vivid and sexy than the thousands of essays and articles about "the 80s".

"If you write a novel alone you sit and you weave a little narrative," Naipaul told editor Rachel Donadio in the New York Times Book Review. "And it's okay, but it's of no account. If you're a romantic writer, you write novels about men and women falling in love, etc, give a little narrative here and there. But again, it's of no account." Hereby we dispose of Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Great Expectations and the majority of novels in the canon. What is of account, he claims, are non-fictional explorations of "the Islamic question", the clash of belief and unbelief, of east and west. Readers of Naipaul's last couple of novels - a fairly exclusive club, I should imagine - probably won't be surprised to learn that he's grown tired of the genre; even Tolstoy came to distrust fiction at the end, but personally I trust Tolstoy the novelist rather than Tolstoy the cranky, sclerotic polemicist. The only reason we listen to Naipaul is because he wrote A House for Mr Biswas and A Bend in the River. If the novel doesn't matter any more then his opinion wouldn't seem to count for more than my doorman's opinion.

In her essay, Donadio cites a recent American interview with McEwan in which he discusses the impact of September 11 as evidence of the waning influence of fiction. "'For a while I did find it wearisome to confront invented characters,' McEwan said. 'I wanted to be told about the world. I wanted to be informed. I felt that we had gone through great changes and now was the time to just go back to school, as it were, and start to learn.'" The phrase "for a while" seems crucial here.

Almost everyone I know had the reaction that McEwan describes to the events of 9/11 (and those of July 7, I would imagine, have provoked similar emotions and responses). Most novelists I know went through a period of intense self-examination and self-loathing after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. I certainly did. For a while the idea of "invented characters" and alternate realities seemed trivial and frivolous and suddenly, horribly outdated. For a while. I abandoned the novel I was working on and didn't even think about writing fiction for the next six months. In fact, I was so traumatised and my attention span was shot to such an extent that for months I was incapable of reading a novel, or anything much longer than a standard article in the New York Times, even though I was fortunate enough not to have lost any close friends in the attack.

I worked as a volunteer for a couple of months, feeding the national guardsmen and the rescue workers near Ground Zero, listening to the rumours and the strange paranoid lore of the place: tales of Arabs lurking with cameras, of implausible and horrific objects in the rubble. I worked the night shift, darkness seeming more appropriate to the sombre spirit of the enterprise, to the necropolis beyond the police barricades. When I was at home I obsessively watched the news coverage of the fallout of those events. A doctor friend wrote me a prescription for Cipro in case of an anthrax attack. I drank - even more than usual. Lying awake at night with the acrid electric-fire smell from Ground Zero in my nostrils, I contemplated a change in careers. Since I was working in a soup kitchen I thought about going to culinary school - feeding people would always be important. Watching the ironworkers and crane operators working in the rubble, watching my carpenter friend unscrew the base plate from a lamppost and hotwire a coffee maker, I realised that beyond being able to tie a good Windsor knot or fix a Martini I had no practical skills. Almost anything seemed more vital than being a novelist.

The novel I had sold to my publisher, Knopf, on the basis of a first chapter in the spring of 2000, started off with a terrorist bombing at the New York premiere party for a Hollywood movie. As I recall my plan, the bombing was a kind of set-piece which set the plot in motion; I had determined that the culprit would be revealed to be a Muslim fanatic who was deeply offended by western cultural imperialism and the decadence of American capitalism in general and Hollywood entertainment products in particular. The bomber was going to be, at best, a secondary character, an immigrant driven mad in part by the apathy and drossy splendour of a society which occupied the foreground - my usual suspects, as it were. Or something like that. If it all sounds a little creepy now, you will understand why I abandoned that particular novel although it seems to me I might have dropped the idea even before September 11 - like so many things about that time the details are blurry. Weirdly, I'd forgotten about this or suppressed it right up until the moment I embarked on this essay.

For a while, quite a while, fiction did seem inadequate to the moment. McEwan was speaking for all of us. But even in the immediate aftermath, it seems to me, it was novelists like McEwan and Updike and Amis who wrote most memorably about that day. And eventually, of course McEwan returned to fiction, as a writer and presumably as a reader. The New York Times essay cites his Saturday as "a possible exception" to the proposition that novelists have failed to engage the "post 9/11 era". "But, although it demonstrates a fine-tuned awareness of the range of human responses to terrorism and violence, the backdrop of the geopolitical situation remains just that, a backdrop." Or is it? For American readers, in particular, the home invasion at the end of the book might be seen as emblematic of the violation we felt in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

Anyone who read the American reviews of Saturday without actually bothering to read the novel might have formed the impression that the book was very much about 9/11, that the flaming airplane illuminating the pre-dawn sky at the beginning of the novel was a major plot element. The reason this aspect was highlighted and even exaggerated seems painfully obvious. The fact is that we are waiting for our major novelists to weigh in and make sense of the world for us after the events of September 11 2001 and July 7 2005. It is to the novel, ultimately, that we turn to confirm our own senses and emotions, to create narratives that reveal to us how we feel now and how we live now, to reveal emotional truths that approach the condition of music. We desperately want to have a novelist such as McEwan or DeLillo or Roth process the experience for us. It's starting to happen. And it will continue to happen, I feel certain, for years to come.

When I told Mailer that my new novel took place in the autumn of 2001 he shook his head sceptically. "Wait 10 years," he said. "It will take that long for you to make sense of it." But I couldn't wait that long. As a novelist who considers New York his proper subject, I didn't see how I could avoid confronting the most important and traumatic event in the history of the city, unless I wanted to write historical novels. I almost abandoned the book several times, and often wondered whether it wasn't foolish to create a fictional universe that encompassed the actual event - whether my invention wouldn't be overwhelmed and overshadowed by the actual catastrophe. At the very least, certain forms of irony and social satire in which I'd trafficked no longer seemed useful. I felt as if I was starting over and I wasn't sure I could. Even though I couldn't imagine how I was going to write about that day, I didn't see how I could possibly write about anything else. It shouldn't be surprising that the novelists are taking their time, and have just begun to weigh in on the events of September 11.

Perhaps the most eagerly awaited American novel of the year was Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, narrated by a precocious nine-year-old whose father was killed in the World Trade Center attacks. Foer's deeply impressive and rapturously received debut, Everything is Illuminated, was that relatively rare phenomenon that pops up just regularly enough to disprove the notion that fiction doesn't matter anymore - a literary novel that sold hundreds of thousands of copies and made the author into a major culture star. The culture still seems to require precocious first novelists - Benjamin Kunkel is this year's version on this side of the ocean. In America we tend to over-celebrate them, and then we tend to kill them, figuratively speaking, in part because we expect so much from them after their brilliant beginnings. (I've been there.) We want them to tell us what we need to know to live.

The critical response to Foer's second novel would almost certainly have been coloured by schadenfreude regardless of its merits; I couldn't help being glad that it was him rather than me getting smacked around by the reviewers even as I scrupulously avoided reading the book until my own was locked up in galleys. I think I can be fairly objective and say that if Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is not the novel that will define New York at that moment, it is more memorable and psychologically acute than most of the journalism generated by September 11. The young narrator, Oskar Schell, often sounds more like a mouthpiece than an actual child and inevitably becomes too cute not to hate. Maybe that's going too far, though Foer recently spoke of himself in an interview as "the most hated writer in America" (the rumour of his purchase of a $7 million townhouse in Brooklyn - who even knew you could spend that much in Brooklyn? - didn't win him any new friends among his putative peers) and you can understand his bewilderment: both of his books betray a sensibility that could only be called sweet; he tries so damn hard through the instrument of his young narrator to be adorable and lovable.

As with his previous book there is a parallel old world narrative - Oskar's grandparents are survivors of the firebombing of Dresden. But that tragedy and the attack on the World Trade Center don't really illuminate each other, and young Oskar's quest to discover the meaning of a key he finds concealed among his father's possessions feels random and pointless. But there are moments of linguistic brilliance and of powerful emotion for which we can only be grateful, as when Oskar describes how he printed out the frames of a video of bodies falling from the World Trade Center from a Portuguese website (because those images were pretty thoroughly suppressed and censored in the US) and examines them endlessly, hoping to definitively identify his father, who was on the roof of the building. "There's one body that could be him. It's dressed like he was and when I magnify it until the pixels are so big that it stops looking like a person, sometimes I can see glasses. Or I think I can. But I know I probably can't. It's just me wanting it to be him."

Nick McDonnell is yet another literary wunderkind who has dared to engage the subject of September 11 in his second novel, The Third Brother. McDonnell made his debut in 2002 with Twelve, a terse, minimal coming-of-age novel about privileged and jaded Manhattan youth. The Third Brother is at once more ambitious and less even, but the long middle section in which the protagonist makes his way from the upper reaches of Manhattan down to the tip of the island in search of his brother on September 11 is one of the best and most vivid evocations of that day in Manhattan that I've read. Two early reviews, both in the New York Times, have come close to calling McDonnell's use of 9/11 gratuitous, showing, if nothing else, just how charged this subject will continue to be in the States and especially in New York. Some of Foer's reviewers also raised the issue of exploitation, as if the question were not so much "can novelists do justice to this subject?" as "should they attempt it?". Novelist Frederic Beigbeder heard this when he published Windows on the World in France. "A lot of the French reviewers questioned whether this was appropriate and one said it was obscene," Beigbeder told me recently. The book alternates between a highly detailed and suspenseful minute-by-minute account of a father trapped with his two sons in the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center, and discursive autobiographical chapters, in which the author meditates on many subjects, including the meaning of the attacks and his motives for writing about them - as if the author felt the need to justify himself and hedge his bets.

Charges of tastelessness have featured in some of the responses to the American publication of Chris Cleave's thriller Incendiary, which takes the form of an open letter to Osama bin Laden written by an East End London mother who loses her husband and son in a fictional terrorist attack on the Arsenal stadium. I found the book seriously addictive in the manner of a good disaster yarn, although ultimately the descriptions of London becoming a police state seemed kind of ludicrous, entertaining but counter-intuitive, the more so in light of the actual response to the events of 9/11 as well as the bombings of July 7.

Just in case I had any doubts about whether fiction was uniquely suited to conveying certain kinds of emotional truth and metaphoric equivalents for our recent trauma, Patrick McGrath has reassured me with "Ground Zero", a novella in a collection called Ghost Town, which is one of the most compelling and successful fictional treatments of 9/11 I have encountered. McGrath's story is narrated by a New York psychiatrist who was out of town when the planes struck and who is almost ghoulishly eager to stake a claim on the collective trauma of her fellow citizens upon her return. The story centres on her treatment of a patient who falls in love with a prostitute who lost a lover in the towers and is haunted by his ghost. The psychiatrist is gradually and retroactively driven mad by the events she failed to witness as she becomes increasingly obsessed with her patient's relationship to the prostitute. She is, at the beginning of the story, the kind of liberal humanist and moral relativist who believes that bad behaviour is the result of bad upbringing and unresolved childhood traumas but who gradually comes to believe in the existence of evil as a result of the attacks - even as her patient decides to seize life in the form of a troubled prostitute. McGrath told me he's working on another novel that deals with the events of September 11. "What we can do, what the novelist can do, is to talk about how people have internalised trauma."

A concluding anecdote: on Friday, September 15, 2001, I was walking in Central Park with a friend. Having just come from Ground Zero, I was amazed to find a baseball game in progress on the Great Lawn, Frisbees being thrown, and couples cuddling on blankets. Suddenly, I almost literally bumped into the novelist Jonathan Franzen, who was also walking with a friend. We greeted each other and talked briefly, each of us saying where we had been, how we had heard, what we had seen in the early hours of Tuesday. I can't remember whether I congratulated him on the publication of his novel, The Corrections, or whether I decided that it would be more tasteful not to mention it. I'd been invited to the book party, which was to have taken place that week. Later, after we'd said goodbye, I said to my friend: "Poor bastard. No one's going to be reading novels this year."

I'm pleased to be able to eat my words here. In the days and months after 9/11, even as CNN replayed the images of the towers falling and the newer images of bombs falling in Afghanistan, and the New York Times published the obituaries of the dead, Franzen's big serious panoramic novel entry in the great American novel sweepstakes somehow generated tremendous critical interest and found hundreds of thousands of readers. If he hasn't read it yet, I hereby commend it to the attention of Naipaul.

· The Good Life by Jay McInerney will be published by Bloomsbury next year.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Ignorance and abdication that amounts to madness

Is it only the Bush administration responsible for all the disaster episodes unolding in America? John Berger's article is thought provoking, but blaming everything on the easy scapegoat perhaps is not too intelligent. What the heck the Democrats are doing? Why aren't they raising the hell? Are they equally complicit with most of their muted nod, and silent gestures? Yes, the disconnections are systematic, but it is not only with the Bush and his incorporations, it also goes beyond the party line into the fold of so called democracy lovers, into the realms of greed, even in the time of dispair.

It bothers me a great bit seeing such theatrical similarities between the uniform and bandanna wearing warriors, killing innocent civilians by government sponsored tanks and planes, or insurgent supported slaughters. Their goals are so same, and their mutual friendship amid bmbed apart tranquility gets more elaborated as days are passing. Katrina's violent force not only killed, maimed and displaced hundreds and thousands many, it also placed the unfolding reality both in America and Iraq in its proper context.


Ignorance and abdication that amounts to madness

All political leaders sometimes parry with the truth, but with Bush the disconnections are systematic

John Berger
Thursday September 15, 2005
The Guardian

As a consequence of the catastrophe that occurred in New Orleans, people in the US and throughout the world have started to re-examine the record of the present leaders of the first world superpower. A shift in opinion has taken place almost overnight. History, throwing us all back into our seats, suddenly opened its throttle.

Katrina - everyone refers to the hurricane by her name as if she were some kind of avatar - revealed that there is dire and increasing poverty in the US, that black people are typically treated as unwanted second-class citizens, that the systematic cutting of government investment in public institutions has produced widespread social disequilibrium and destitution (40 million Americans live without any aid if they fall ill), that the so-called war against terrorism is creating administrative chaos, and that within and against all this, voices of protest are being raised loud and clear.

All this though was evident before Katrina to those living it, and to those who wanted to know. What she changed was that the media were there for once, showing what was actually happening, and the fury of those to whom it was happening. With her terrible gesture she wiped the opaque screens clean for a little while.

In some gnomic way the as-yet-innumerable dead on the Gulf coast spoke not for but with the 100,000 Iraqis who have died as a consequence of the ongoing disastrous and criminal war. Time and again in the US press, Katrina and Iraq are being mentioned together. Yet Katrina was regular. She belonged to the familiar weather conditions which affect the Gulf of Mexico. She was not hiding in Afghanistan. And merciless as she was, she did not belong to any axis of evil. She was simply a natural threat to American lives and property, and she was heading for Louisiana.

It was in the self-interest (as well as the national interest) of the president and his chosen colleagues to meet the challenge she threw down, to foresee the needs of her victims and to reduce the ensuing pain and panic to the minimum possible. If they, the government, happened to fail to do this, they would be able to blame nobody else, and they themselves would be blamed. A child could foresee this. And they failed utterly. Their failure was technical, political and emotional. "Stuff happens," murmurs Donald Rumsfeld.

Is it possible that this administration is mad? Let us try to define the variant of madness, for it may be that it has never occurred before. It has very little to do, for example, with Nero when he fiddled while Rome burned. Any madness, however, implies a severe disconnection with reality, or, to put it more precisely, with the existent.

The variant we are considering touches upon the relationship between fear and confidence, between being threatened and being supreme. There is no negotiation between the two. Their "madness" operates like a switch which turns one off and the other on. And what is grave about this is that it is in the long periods of negotiating between fear and confidence that the existent is normally surveyed and observed in its multitudinous complexity. It is there that one learns about what one is facing.

Five days after Katrina had struck, when President Bush finally visited the devastated city, he astounded journalists by saying: "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees." On the same day, in the wrecked small town of Biloxi, the president's flying visit was preceded by a team who quickly cleared the rubble and corpses from the route his cortege would take. Two hours later the team vanished, leaving everything else in the town exactly as it was.

The calculations of the present US government are closely related to the global interests of the corporations, and what has been termed the survival of the richest, who today also vacillate abruptly between fear and confidence.

The lobbyist Grover Norquist, who is a talking head for corporate interests and to whom Bush and co listened when planning their tax reforms for the benefit of the rich, is on record as saying: "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."

All political leaders sometimes parry with the truth, but here the disconnections are systematic and crop up not only in their announcements but in their every strategic calculation. Hence their ineptness. Their operation in Afghanistan failed, their war in Iraq has been won (as the saying goes) by Iran, Katrina was allowed to produce the worst natural disaster in US history, and terrorist activities are increasing.

An ignorance about most of what exists, and an abdication from the very minimum of what can be expected of government - are we not approaching disconnections which amount to what can be called madness when found in the minds of those who believe they can rule the planet?

· John Berger is a novelist and critic

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Mountain Stones -- a Poem

Mountain Stones

By Mahbubul Karim (Sohel)

September 7, 2005

These mountain stones shall stay

After I am long gone, away

And gone are you

Our beloved friends, ocean crew

And cantankerous children

Walk away with favorite playpen

These silvery water falls shall flow

After gone are charismatic entertainers

The magicians will disappear too

But the cold water will fall

As it has been for millions of years

Unless an ice age befalls

And wraps the world with shivery embrace

Look at these trees, green, tall and proud

In the valley, limestone extraction plant

Fuming white smokes to slanted sun

While gray white cloud

Hovers only a few feet above

On top of this mountain

We built spiraling roads

Steep sides glimpsing oblivion

Down the way, way down

Couldn’t see even a bear or cougar

From this height, from this fright

I can see glowing sky

But not the moon, not the moonlight!

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The Educated Terrorist

Is education not enough in reducing extremism? What is extremism, anyway? What is not extremism? Is believing the code of any religion extremism? How about believing in Capitalism, or any other myriads of "ism"? Who defines what is good for any particular society?

Inciting terror or hatred, is perhaps not too difficult for many. Getting rid of terror or hatred from a feeble heart, on the other hand, is quite a formidable task.


The educated terrorist

THE ASSASSINATION of Sri Lanka's foreign minister last month has once again raised the question of how the conflict on this ill-fated isle will end.

What bedevils conflict analysts most about Sri Lanka is that it defies the most common causal factor raised by terrorism experts -- a lack of education. Among all South Asian countries, Sri Lanka has the highest literacy rate of an astounding 92 percent. Yet this is the country where the cult of suicide bombings finds its origin with more than 200 suicide attacks since 1970 that have claimed thousands of lives. The victims include several politicians including the former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was killed by a female suicide bomber in 1991. Clearly the educational development in this country has not had a direct correlation with conflict reduction.

Sri Lanka is not the only example of this phenomenon. Another country that is frequently associated with radicalism, Iran, has one of the highest literacy rates in the Middle East -- over 70 percent. In this case, the gender argument on literacy is not applicable either, since there are now more female college graduates in Iran than men. Yet, this has not translated into a culture of tolerance among the masses, who continue to overwhelmingly support radical ideologies.

The quality or extent of education, rather than literacy itself, may be considered another metric for preventing radicalism, but this too does not hold ground on closer analysis of some of the most charismatic terrorists. America's elusive Unabomber was a Harvard graduate; Abimael Guzman, the leader of Peru's Sendero Luminoso, was a university professor; and the intellectual leader of the Maoist rebels in Nepal, Baburam Bhattarai, has a doctorate in urban planning. Among the Al Qaeda hierarchy, Aimen Al-Zawahry is a medical doctor, and Mohamed Atta was an engineering student fluent in three languages.

Such examples clearly show that education is not a sufficient condition for tolerance or conflict reduction, but perhaps it is a sufficient condition for development and can thereby lead to conflict reduction? Here too the data is not supportive. Analysis by NYU economist Bill Easterly shows that from 1960 to 1985, sub-Saharan Africa had a remarkably high educational capacity growth of over 4.5 percent while East Asia's was growing at only 2.5 percent despite having similar starting points. However, GDP per capita growth in East Asia was over 4 percent during this period while sub-Saharan Africa languished at 0.5 percent.

So what are we to make of this dismal linkage? Education is important, and it still may be a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for lasting development since all developed countries do indeed have high literacy rates. Education thus helps to sustain economic development. However, the linkage between education and a reduction in extremism and conflict is much more tenuous. Here it might not even be a necessary condition for conflict reduction since we have several examples of relatively peaceful indigenous communities where educational indicators are relatively low.

What is clear with conflict linkage is that incendiary information -- whether through educational channels at modern schools, madrassas, or at home -- can play a significant role in conflict development. Education in the Internet age is particularly challenging since we are overloaded with specious information that is often absorbed by educational institutions. Indeed, while researching madrassas in Pakistan, it is remarkable to find how proficient many of the students are in accessing Internet chat rooms and radical websites. These sites can of course be accessed by anyone. However, the cultural milieu in certain institutions may lead to an uncritical absorption of this material more so than others. Any conflict reduction strategy must thus try to focus on knowledge-based sources of conflict as well as the institutions -- many of which will be educational in nature.

Hence our attempts at reducing radicalization should take place independent of where the targets are. This may lead us to propagandist literature inciting violence, conspiracy theories presented by pretentious intellectuals who distort facts, or a culture of intolerance in some religious and secular institutions. Each avenue should be explored with recognition that human behavior has complex motivations. We should not let linear solutions beguile us into problem-solving, even when it is that most noble goal of knowledge acquisition.

Saleem H. Ali teaches conflict resolution and environmental planning at the University of Vermont.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Twisted Logic of a Terrorist

Mohammed Siddique Khan, in red and white bandanna, holding a microphone or a pen, looking serene while giving a lecture to the world audience. His chilling message has captured the attention of world media. Along with Katrina's vicious aftermath, Mr. Khan's attempt to justify killing innocent civilians in the name of attaining fairness or liberation is ludicrous. Was he in some type of dope? His eyes were not droopy, perhaps it was something else altogether.

What does this young man mean? Indeed, there is irrefutable injustices happened throughout the world, millions and millions of people including Muslims along with all the other religionists and unbelievers were and are subjected to inhumanity of magnum proportions from the time no one remembers now. But how dare he tries to justify killing and maiming innocent people in the name of rectifying past atrocities committed on "his people"? Doesn't it raise question in his convoluted belief system? What type of "God" or "Prophet" would want "His" or "his" followers to act like bunch of murderers so that their "words are dead until we give them life with our blood"?

"It's not only your blood, Mr. Khan," one may say, "but you are spilling blood of other people, completely innocent, including women and children." And by doing that, Mr. Khan is providing more ammunitions to the neo-conservative infested governments in the Western world to spill more innocent blood in the Muslim world without caring much of world opinions.

Blood for blood. Death for death. Eye for an eye. When will this depraved cycle of retribution be ending? In the "judgment day"?

Mr. Khan, you are possibly dead now (unless there is a mind numbing conspiracy), and you are dead wrong in your twisted logic. Simple words of condemnation is not enough damning your and also other terrorists' and neo-conservatives' vile outlook.


Friday, September 02, 2005

Big Oil's Bigtime Looting

Oh my God! Thieves and goons are looting stores in New Orleans. Television footages showing gun carrying thugs marching with impunity in broad daylight, carrying all they can, prized TV, DVDs, computers, foods, etc. Pundits cannot say enough of these dismal moral collapse in the Big Easy.

But why can't pundit say anything about the biggest looters who are comfortably away from all kinds of media spotlight? The unstoppable cameras' relentless pictures and videos of moms and pops taking away children clothes, water bottles, diaper bags, baby formulas, etc., in shopping carts, defiant of any authorities, make the uneasy stories of our days after Katrina's maddening dancing throughout Gulf Coast only a few days back.

People from all walks of life are donating whatever they can to a noble cause, to save lives in this hurricane and flood devastated region. Reports of free food from fast food restaurants, or grocery stores are all heart warming. Even big oil companies are coming forward with their own generous contribution of millions of dollar for the same good cause. "Chevron has pledged $5 million to relief efforts. ExxonMobil and Shell have pledged $2 million apiece. British Petroleum and Citgo have pledged $1 million each."

Wow! That's quite good, many may say, for oil companies donating such a generous amount. But think again. "This is nothing next to their wealth. Of the world's seven most profitable corporations, four are ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, BP, and Chevron. ExxonMobil is the world's most profitable company, making $25.3 billion last year. It and the other three corporations had combined profits last year of $72.8 billion. ExxonMobil is also the world's most valuable company, with a market value, according to Forbes magazine, of $405 billion. The combined market value of ExxonMobil, BP, Royal Dutch Shell, and Chevron is nearly $1 trillion."

President Bush wants the looters in New Orleans to stop looting, because, "''there ought to be zero tolerance of people breaking the law during an emergency such as this, whether it be looting or price-gouging at the gasoline pump or taking advantage of charitable giving or insurance fraud."

Mr. Bush is so right about this that I must clap my hands aloud. People breaking the law should be held accountable. But why the poor pay the price most while the big companies' executives, except a few showy cases, just walk away with millions of dollars of bonuses, severance packages, and other unknowable gifts for their steadfast stealing wealth from rest of the society?

"For ExxonMobil, which is headed to $30 billion in profits, to jack up prices at the pump and then only throw $2 million at relief efforts is unconscionable."


Big oil's bigtime looting

PRESIDENT BUSH yesterday told ABC-TV, ''there ought to be zero tolerance of people breaking the law during an emergency such as this, whether it be looting or price-gouging at the gasoline pump or taking advantage of charitable giving or insurance fraud."

Zero tolerance is meaningless when the White House lets the biggest looters of Hurricane Katrina walk off with billions of dollars.

We are not referring to the people you currently see in endless footage, crashing through storefronts and wading through chest-high water with clothes, food, and pharmaceuticals. Some folks are disgusting in their thuggishness, but a great many others are simply desperate, having now gone three days without food or water. The latter are living out one of the most famous hypothetical problems in moral reasoning -- should a husband steal a cancer drug he cannot afford for his dying wife?

No such sympathy is to be extended to big oil. The nation has on its hands a disaster so profound that we have not even begun to seriously count the bodies in the floodwaters. It brings us as close as we may get in our lifetime to places like Bangladesh.

New Orleans is under martial law and will not return to normal for years. Members of the Red Cross, the Coast Guard, the National Guard, police agencies, and firefighters are sacrificing time and risking lives to save lives. Texas is opening up its school systems for homeless Louisiana children. Generous food wholesalers are giving away their stocks to passersby. The Astrodome is taking in the refugees of the Superdome.

In the midst of this charity, big oil looted the nation. The pumps instantly shot past $3 a gallon, with $4 a gallon well in sight.

In a thinly disguised attempt to act as if it cared about the people wading in the water, Chevron has pledged $5 million to relief efforts. ExxonMobil and Shell have pledged $2 million apiece. British Petroleum and Citgo have pledged $1 million each.

This is nothing next to their wealth. Of the world's seven most profitable corporations, four are ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, BP, and Chevron. ExxonMobil is the world's most profitable company, making $25.3 billion last year. It and the other three corporations had combined profits last year of $72.8 billion. ExxonMobil is also the world's most valuable company, with a market value, according to Forbes magazine, of $405 billion. The combined market value of ExxonMobil, BP, Royal Dutch Shell, and Chevron is nearly $1 trillion.

And that was last year. A month ago, ExxonMobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips announced record second-quarter profits of $7.6 billion, $3.7 billion, and $3.1 billion, respectively. Royal Dutch Shell's quarterly profits of $5.2 billion were up by 34 percent over the same period last year. Other well-known companies like Sunoco also had record second-quarter earnings.

If ExxonMobil were to maintain its current pace of profits, it would cross the $30 billion barrier for 2005. The company's chief financial officer, Henry Hubble, bragged in classic corporatese, ''Our disciplined project management and operating practices deliver the benefits of strong industry conditions to our shareholders."

Those disciplined operating practices are hardly confined to the oil fields. Everyone knows that Bush does not really mean what he says about price-gouging at the pump, since he just gave energy companies the bulk of $14.5 billion in tax breaks in the new energy bill. Surprise, surprise. In Bush's two elections, oil and gas companies gave Republicans 79 percent of their $61.5 million in campaign contributions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

If Bush really meant what he said, he would call for a freeze or cap on gasoline prices, especially in the regions affected most dramatically by Katrina. He would challenge big oil to come up with a much more meaningful contribution to relief efforts.

Insurance companies are expecting up to $25 billion in claims from Katrina. For ExxonMobil, which is headed to $30 billion in profits, to jack up prices at the pump and then only throw $2 million at relief efforts is unconscionable.

Stay fixated, if you wish, on the thieves and desperate families who are so much easier to catch on camera than comptrollers electronically stealing your cash. It is not pleasant to see anyone loot a store. But ExxonMobil and big oil are looting the nation, and no one declaring martial law on them.