20 September 2010

Weekend Readings, 18-19 September 2010

Weekend Readings 


Jordan Mejas at FAZ.NET reports on the role of money in fueling the ultraconservative movement in America ("Gut gedüngte Graswurzeln"). The article is based largely on a reading of Jane Mayer's New Yorker article on the Koch brothers (if you haven't read this yet, go read it right now....I'll wait), with additional commentary on the Citizens United decision, the political campaigns of Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman, and a book (which I did not know) by Will Bunch, The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters, and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama.


One of the most pleasant aspects of not watching television and not subscribing to a daily newspaper is that I am almost completely insulated from the hideous din of the American media echo chamber.  Thus I am (thankfully) only dimly aware of the (apparently) utterly deranged raving over the "mosque at Ground Zero"—which is, in fact, an Islamic cultural center, the Park51 project, explicitly devoted to the cause of moderate Islam, two blocks north of the Ground Zero site.

Lawrence Wright, in the most recent issue of The New Yorker, contributes an excellent short comment on the uproar.  He compares the public trajectory of the Park51 story to the furor over the "Mohammed" cartoons published in the Danish Jyllands-Posten in 2005.  In both cases, the controversy did not erupt for several months, and then only because of the provocations and outright lies of parties cynically manipulating public opinion for their own ends.


Ludger Held at Zeit Online reviews the German edition of Deborah Hertz, How Jews Became Germans: The History of Conversion and Assimilation in Berlin (2009; published in German this year as Wie Juden Deutsche wurden: Die Welt jüdischer Konvertiten vom 17. bis zum 19. Jahrhundert). Hertz's book is based on her discovery of a huge collection of cards in the Evangelisches Zentralarchiv in Berlin attempting to list all Jews who had converted to Protestantism between 1645 and 1833. The cards had been part of a research project done at the behest of the Nazis.


"Feiern wie die Bayern": Madeleine Hofmann writes in Der Spiegel on the current German fad for traditional costume: "Dirndl, Janker, Sepplhosen: Eintracht Deutschland." Fashions based on Trachten have been taken up by the young, the hip, and the celebrated.  There has even been an academic study on the topic, by ethnologist Simone Egger.  Peter M. Kaiser of the clothing label Kaisergwand in Munich enthuses "Die Tracht ist einfach am boomen.  Mit Dirndl oder Lederhosen ist man halt immer gut angezozen—sie sind mittlerweile ein Mode-Must-Have."

(Apologies to the feminists in my audience; it was either this photo of Salma Hayek, or the one of Paris Hilton...I thought this one was more tasteful....)

Evolution of Religion

Sean Roberts at A Replicated Typo has been attending the conference Language as Social Coordination: An Evolutionary Perspective, in Warsaw. He reports on a talk given there by Konrad Talmont-Kaminski on the evolution of religion (Talmont-Kaminski has an English-language blog on the topic at Just Another Deisidaimon). 

Based on Roberts's description, the gist of Talmont-Kaminski's talk seems to be that supernatural "higher powers" serve as a threat to "punish defectors or reward co-operators" in a cooperatively-based social group.

This is a popular theory, but its proponents (so far as I have been able to tell) seem rarely to base their arguments on a comprehensive analysis of the actual and historical practices and beliefs of world religions.  A punishing and rewarding God (or gods) is by no means a universal component of human religion.

An adequate theory of the evolution of religion must explain religions and supernatural beliefs as they have actually existed in human cultures, not just religions as an evolutionary biologist might imagine them, based on his or her own childhood experience of a monotheistic religion with a potentially punishing God.

It's really necessary to read the anthropological literature and talk to anthropologists (and archaeologists).

Talmont-Kaminski is preparing a book on the topic; a preview chapter (which I haven't read) is available here.


Vaughan Bell summarizes a study describing a new visual illusion in which "your own reflection in the mirror seems to become distorted and shifts identity." The study is:
Giovanni B. Caputo (2010), "Strange-face-in-the-mirror illusion," Perception 39, 1007-1008.  The article is freely available here.
I wonder if the mechanism of this illusion is related to the kinds of hallucinatory distortions of one's own face that one can experience in BDD (about which more later today, based on a talk I gave on Sunday).


Mark Liberman at Language Log investigates the usage of the possessive case with a gerund ("...in hopes of his being able to join me").  Among other things, he links to a wonderful article on the topic in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage. (I really must learn how to embed content from Google Books as Liberman has done in his post.  Very cool.)

The topic has stirred up a lot of interest, and Liberman has ended up writing two more posts about it (so far) as of Monday morning, here and here.


On 1 and 2 October, MUMOK (the Museum Moderner Kunst in Vienna) is presenting the premiere of The History of Sexuality Volume One by Michel Foucault: An Opera, a work-in-progress by Gregg Bordowitzh and Paul Chan.  Here's the description from the MUMOK website:
The History of Sexuality Volume One by Michel Foucault: An Opera  is a work-in-progress adopting the dramatic musical form to stage the major themes and philosophical insights of one of the most influential philosophers of the late twentieth century. In this adaption of Foucault´s great work, the philosopher will encounter one student, two rivals, and a sworn enemy - perhaps all of them are ghosts. Nothing less than a grand opera is required to stage the epochal theory of self-emancipation that is Michel Foucault´s unique legacy. The performance will be set against a backdrop drawn from Foucault´s biographical details; including his activism on behalf of prisoners´ rights, and his death from AIDS.

CONCEPT: Gregg Bordowitz, Paul Chan, DIRECTION & LIBRETTO: Gregg Bordowitz, PERFORMERS: Siegmar Aigner, Alexander Braunsöhr, Didi Bruckmayr, Mara Mattuschka, Moravia Naranjo, ORIGINAL COSTUME DESIGNS: Paul Chan, COSTUME DESIGNER: Kristine Woods, PRODUCTION: Tanzquartier Wien in cooperation with MUMOK.
It's interesting that no composer is mentioned in the credits.


Die Zeit
interviews internationally-known baritone Thomas Quasthoff (who was a thalidomide baby), in the series "Das war meine Rettung."

Two quotes, the first on hearing technically flawless singers who convey nothing in their singing (I've known quite a few of those):
Ich habe schon Liederabende erlebt, wo eineinhalb Stunden eine Stimmschönheit präsentiert wurde, aber ich saß da und dachte mir: Mädel, was willst du mir jetzt damit sagen, außer dass du sechs Jahre lang deine Stimme schön ausgebildet und keinerlei technische Probleme hast?
And on how Quasthoff feels about having a successful career on stage:
Hören Sie mal, wenn Sie mit einer 100-prozentigen Körperbehinderung in einen Beruf gehen, der sehr viel mit äußerer Ästhetik zu tun hat, und plötzlich werden Sie international gefeiert – natürlich macht das Spaß. Ich würde Ihnen die Hucke volllügen, wenn ich etwas anderes sagte.

Dan Hope at The Christian Science Monitor has a comprehensive rundown of every tablet computer currently in production, imminently in the pipeline, announced and "likely" to appear, or announced but canceled.  Who knew there were so many?

I saw a couple of these tablets at the Borders at the Atrium Mall on Saturday after our little Schubert concert, and they were distinctly underwhelming.  One of them (I didn't note the brand) was so slow that you could have had grandchildren (from scratch) while waiting for a page to load.


Games with Words points to the site Wordle, which will create a customizable word cloud out of the texts of the last few posts of any blog.  Here's mine from the couple of posts previous to this one:

You can select to suppress "common words," but apparently only in one language at a time.  Thus if I choose to suppress common words in German, to avoid the very large "der," I'll get a very large "the" instead.

I wonder if I'm the only blog to have discussed poodles and Nietzsche in such close proximity.


die Denkfabrik
sich durchdringen
sich verorten
der Fummel
(jm) eins hinter die Löffel geben
(Literally, "to give one to someone behind the spoons"; meaning "to clip someone's ears," or, roughly, "to whack someone upside the head")
etwas auf die eigene Kappe nehmen
jm die Hucke volllügen
gut betucht
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  1. Phrases like "jm die Hucke volllügen" or "etwas auf die eigene Kappe nehmen" are used only in Germany.

  2. I figured that they were colloquial expressions, and might be regional. But that makes them all the more interesting.

    Both of those are from the interview with Quasthoff, by the way.