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The Daily Briefing 8/12/05
1 The education of young Osama
Steve Coll visits Al Thagher Model School in Jedda to discover more about the formative experiences of the Al-Qaeda leader. The result is a great essay that is also rich in historical and cultural details. "Eventually, after an awkward period of pulling away from his study-group friends, he joined a different circle of boys. During the next several years, he said, he watched as bin Laden and the others in his former group, who continued to study with the Syrian, openly adopted the styles and convictions of teen-age Islamic activists. They let their young beards grow, shortened their trouser legs, and declined to iron their shirts (ostensibly to imitate the style of the Prophet’s dress), and, increasingly, they lectured or debated other students at Al Thagher about the urgent need to restore pure Islamic law across the Arab world."
STEVE COLL/NEW YORKER
2 Tortured diplomacy
Squeamish Europeans! Cheese-eating surrender monkeys the lot of them, even the Germans it seems. Disaster is the fairest word to describe Condoleezza Rice's visit to Europe and her efforts to defuse the issue of secret CIA prisons and torture. As Der Spiegel reports, her meeting with the new German Chancellor Angela Merkel was meant to improve relations that had been strained by Gerhard Schröder's opposition to the invastion of Iraq. "Monday's meeting between the two most powerful women in the world resulted in a diplomatic spat and highlighted a growing rift between Europe and America over whether the end always justifies the means in the war on terror." The magazine also reports on the reaction from German newspapers, under the heading "Does Anyone Believe Condoleezza Rice?"
The Times reports that Rice "appeared to announce a shift in America's policy on the interrogation of terrorist suspects today when she said that US interrogators were barred from using cruel or degrading practices wherever in the world they were", although as this NYTimes editorial implies, statements like that only appear to damage the US's reputation further. "It was a sad enough measure of how badly the Bush administration has damaged its moral standing that the secretary of state had to deny that the president condones torture before she could visit some of the most reliable American allies in Europe. It was even worse that she had a hard time sounding credible when she did it."
DAVID CROSSLAND/DER SPIEGEL
3 Water world comes to Vanuatu
"Rising seas have forced 100 people on a Pacific island to move to higher ground in what may be the first example of a village formally displaced because of modern global warming, a U.N. report said on Monday."
And, according to The Guardian weekly, no matter what action is taken now, seas will continue to rise. "Global warming is doubling the rate of sea level rise around the world, but attempts to stop it by cutting back on greenhouse gas emissions are likely to be futile, leading researchers warned last week."
Meanwhile, The Independent reports that severe weather around the world has made 2005 the most costly year on record with unprecedented levels of insurance claims on damaged property.
4 The two cultures of C.P. Snow
This year being the centenary of the birth of C.P. Snow, British physicist and novelist (the man who coined the phrase "the corridors of power"), much has been written about him. David Barash (professor of psychology) joins in with a look at his work and ideas - specifically his notion that the divide between science and the humanities constituted "two cultures" - and what impact they have had. "We might also ask whether scientists are doing a better job of communicating with the public, crossing the Snow bridge and thereby constituting a Third Culture, as John Brockman has claimed. The late Carl Sagan was a master at this art, as are Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond, Brian Greene, and many others. But there is nothing new in scientists reaching out to hoi polloi; Arthur Eddington and Bertrand Russell weren't slouches, nor was T.H. Huxley, and yet they couldn't prevent Snow's "gap." And it is not obvious that Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time bridged the cultures so much as confirmed their mutual incomprehensibility. Within academe, there is eager lip service to bridge building between humanities and science, but has there been any progress?"
Nicholas Kristof makes a passing reference to Snow as he expresses the concern, now heard regularly in the US, that its production of wonks and geeks has fallen below that of rising economic competitors China and India (subscribers only). "Without some fluency in science and math, we'll simply be left behind in the same way that Ming Dynasty Chinese scholars were. Increasingly, we face public policy issues - avian flu, stem cells - that require some knowledge of scientific methods, yet the present Congress contains 218 lawyers, and just 12 doctors and 3 biologists. In terms of the skills we need for the 21st century, we're Shakespeare-quoting Philistines."
Did Einstein bridge the two cultures? Don Howard in Physics Today looks at how philosophy influenced Einstein's scientific thinking. "Einstein was typical of his generation of physicists in the seriousness and extent of his early and lasting engagement with philosophy. By the age of 16, he had already read all three of Immanuel Kant's major works, the Critique of Pure Reason, the Critique of Practical Reason, and the Critique of Judgment.6 Einstein was to read Kant again while studying at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic Institute in Zürich, where he attended August Stadler's lectures on Kant in the summer semester of 1897."
DAVID BARASH/THE CHRONICLE REVIEW
5 Ads and subliminal seduction
Whatever happened to .... subliminal advertising. And was this method of turning passive viewers into consumer zombies really an option in the first place? Carrie McLaren explores the history of "subliminal seduction" from its first appearance in Vince Packard's 1957 book "Hidden Persuaders", and looks at how the industry adapted to the furore about it. "Advertising has long proved itself adept at co-opting critiques of consumer culture (think Nike, Sprite, Diesel, and other brands built on the mocking of advertising). In other cases the industry hasn't even needed to co-opt its critics, because the criticism was ambiguous or misguided at the outset. And that, I suspect, was the case with the attack on subliminals: the effort to expose advertiser manip-ulation ironically benefited the ad industry, at least in the short term. How and why that happened is what I hope to show below."
CARRIE MCLAREN/STAY FREE
6 Harper's, freebies and new journalism
In an essay that's better than the tag "will Harper’s magazine become less of a lefty echo chamber" suggests, Kurt Anderson (link below)profiles out-going editor Lewis Lapham and the impact he has had on the 155-year-old publication. "In fact, most of Harper’s is not fusty and Euro-lefty, Lapham’s “Notebook” column notwithstanding. But because his 2,500-word essays lead each issue, they tend to color one’s sense of the whole magazine. And they all amount to pretty much the same contemptuous, Olympian jeremiad: The powers-that-be are craven and monstrous, American culture is vulgar and depraved, the U.S. is like imperial Rome, our democracy is dying or dead. All of which is arguably true. But, jeez, sometime tell me something I didn’t know, show a shred of uncertainty and maybe some struggle to suss out fresh truth."
In The Guardian, Stephen Brook looks at the newspaper craze for offering free DVDs in a bid to increase circulation, and wonders if it has any lasting effect. Rupert Murdoch doesn't think so. "Murdoch went on to explain that the effect of the DVD is temporary. "Sales go up for a day. And are right back to where they were the following day. People just grab the paper, tear the DVD off and throw away the paper ... That's got to stop." But it will not stop, despite the displeasure from on high, because free DVDs in newspapers are a massive success. The Mail on Sunday sold about 2,489,000 copies the day it included the blokey war film Wild Geese, a staggering hike of more than 300,000 copies on its base figure and a significant number of additional men to sample its new male-orientated Live magazine."
Also in The Guardian, readers' editor Ian Mayes responds to complaints that it is no longer a secular newspaper; and Hugo Drayton, a former managing editor of The Daily Telegraph is unhappy at the direction the paper has taken under its new owners, the Barlcay brothers.
And from the NYTimes, Janet Maslin reviews "The gang that wouldn't write straight" by Marc Weingarten. The book looks at "Wolfe, Thompson, Didion and the New Journalism Revolution", and Maslin says it demonstrates two things clearly: "The first: there is no substitute for reading the classics of this genre firsthand. The second: the writers who are commonly lumped together in this category didn't have that much in common after all."
KURT ANDERSEN/NEW YORK
7 Publishers do it tough
Falling movie ticket sales, the rise of the internet, the dramatic slump in newspaper circulation, the move by advertisers to the net - the rapidly changing world of media and communications has figured prominently in TDB this year. But not so book publishing. Edward Wyatt reports that it too is struggling, particularly fiction. "Still, the Association of American Publishers reported last month that sales of adult hardcover books, sluggish for several years, have fallen by 2 percent so far this year. Similarly, the American Booksellers Association, a trade group representing bookstores, said that overall bookstore sales in the first nine months of 2005 declined 2 percent from a year ago. Some much-anticipated novels have fallen short this fall. Salman Rushdie's "Shalimar the Clown" sold just 26,000 copies, according to BookScan, and "Wickett's Remedy," Myla Goldberg's follow-up to her heralded 2000 novel, "Bee Season," sold only 9,000."
8 What if things were different?
Whimsical musings, with an occasional serious edge, on whether things would be different ... if things were different. "Okay, what if the universe were controlled by a just God who openly rewarded virtue and punished evil, in this life? The existence of God would be manifest, and everyone would Believe. People would begin being virtuous in the hope of achieving material success and avoiding misfortune. The cynicism behind this behavior would therefore transform every selfless act into a selfish one, meaning God would begin punishing the virtuous, resulting in a backlash of illicit, greedy, rapacious activities."
GENE WEINGARTEN/THE WASHINGTON POST
9 Child-rearing, how thing have changed
The Times flicks through back issues of the magazine Nursery World which has just turned 80, and notices that ideas about child-rearing have changed over the years. "Is your toddler a fussy eater? Then starve him for 24 hours and he will soon eat anything. Your baby won’t sleep through the night? Simple: smack her until she stops crying."
10 The spy who came back from the dead
Some articles to update issues touched on previously, or just because they seemed interesting at the time. The report from The Times linked to below says "Spain's most infamous spy came back from the dead yesterday, six years after his family published a death notice and paid monks to pray for his soul" and traces his larger-than-life story.
One spy back from the dead, another heads out into the cold. The LATimes reports that Valerie Plame will leave the CIA - "her secret resume was exposed in a newspaper column that eventually led to the indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff".
The BBC reports that Judith Miller, just one of those caught up in the Plame affair, has apologised to her readers because her stories about WMD and Iraq turned out to be wrong.
The NYTimes reports that a wildlife extinction crisis is looming Mongolia ("overhunting and excessive trade in skins and other animal products"); and it reports on the woman, raised as a Belgian Catholic, who died undertaking a suicide attack in Iraq. "European women who marry Muslim men are now the largest source of religious conversions in Europe, the experts say. While a vast majority of those conversions are pro forma gestures for moderately religious in-laws, a small but growing number are women who willingly adopt the conservative comportment of their fundamentalist husbands."
Most of the coverage of Darfur linked to by TDB has come from Nicolas Kristof at the NYTimes, who may have ended his long crusade for action to end the genoicde to judge by comments in his last column. For a different take on the situation, Jonathan Karl in The Weekly Standard follows US representative Robert Zoellick's frustrating mission to stop the bloodshed and viloence.
The New Scientist reports on research that shows the stress of domestic arguments causes wounds to heal more slowly.
US politicians John Edwards and Jack Kemp speak out against "Moscow's empty Red Square", the move by Russia to ban "foreign nonprofit organizations from having offices in Russia and deny foreign funds to Russian organizations that are suspected of engaging in undefined "political" activities."