Turkey at the Turning Point?

11 10 2007
tukey flag in breeze

Christopher de Bellaigue in The New York Review of Books

It is now clear that Turkey, a country to which Western visitors have often applied adjectives such as “timeless” and “slothful,” is changing profoundly, and with un-Oriental speed. To the many Turks who welcome this transformation, it holds out the promise of a free public culture, equally open to devout Muslims, secularists, and critics of Turkey’s past politics—something the country has never known. A smaller but nonetheless considerable number see the changes as a Trojan horse for Islamism as severe as one finds in Iran or Saudi Arabia. These two views come into sharp conflict on the subject of Abdullah Gül, whom the Turkish parliament recently elected president.

Abdullah Gül is a conscientious Muslim. He says his prayers and observes the Ramadan fast. His wife appears in public with a silk scarf wound tightly around her head. Although he was once associated with Islamism of a rather virulent kind and was a member of the Welfare Party, whose stated goal was to challenge Turkey’s secular traditions, Gül gives the impression of having mellowed. As foreign minister in the mildly Islamist government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan from 2003 until his election to the presidency, Gül directed his energies mainly at promoting Turkey’s claims to EU membership. As president, he has promised to safeguard Turkey’s secular regime.

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Euler’s Constancy

5 10 2007

John Derbyshire in The Wilson Quarterly

Marion and Dunham were paying tribute to the mathematician Leonhard Euler (1707–83), one of the great yet little-known figures from Europe’s Age of Enlightenment. Euler’s discoveries continue to influence such disparate fields as computer networking, harmonics, and statistical analysis, and they did nothing less than transform pure mathematics. Children still learn Euler’s lessons in school. It was Euler, for instance, who gave the name i to the square root of –1. To mark his tercentenary, admirers are holding symposiums, concerts, and a two-week Euler tour, which will stop in St. Petersburg and Berlin, the two cities where he spent his working life, as well as Basel, Switzerland, the city of his birth. There is even an Euler comic book, A Man to Be Reckoned With, in German and English editions.

Compared to Gauss and Newton, both of whom published sparingly, Euler was prolific. This makes the assignment of precedence somewhat subjective. But Archimedes and Newton can hardly be excluded from the top ranks. For sheer breadth and quality of mathematical thought, I believe most scholars would place Gauss ahead of Euler. It is a close call, though, and nobody would disagree that Euler ranks with the crème de la crème in mathematical excellence. So who was he?

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Letting World War II Unfold as a Story From the Heart, Not the Maps

3 10 2007

During the closing months of World War II, Eric Sevareid, the CBS radio correspondent, felt dismayed at how inadequate his broadcasts had been in conveying the experience of war. He had parachuted into Burma, witnessed the fall and then the liberation of France and seen much of battle. But he was a journalist, he said, and that was a limitation: “Only the soldier really lives the war.”

“War happens,” he explained, “inside a man.”

And that is mostly where Ken Burns decides to look for it in his 15-hour documentary about the Second World War, “The War,” directed with Lynn Novick, now being broadcast on PBS (and to be released on DVD tomorrow). Invoking Mr. Sevareid, Mr. Burns says that his documentary — an “epic poem,” he has called it — is “created in that spirit.” Nearly 50 men and women talk about their wartime experiences, their testimonies punctuated by historical footage and somber narration.

he intention, apparently, was to see the war anew, to see it not from the vistas of generals’ maps and geopolitics, not from the perspective given by the doctrines of nations and the lures of ideologies, not even from the war’s context in history. The intention was to view it from the experiences of those who fought in it and those who knew them. If war happens “inside a man,” Mr. Burns wants to bring it home

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Rewriting history with the stroke of a pen

3 10 2007

Deniz Ozdemir in Foreign Policy

Who knew that a history textbook could elicit anything more than a couple yawns from disinterested schoolchildren? On the Japanese island of Okiwana, the site of a bloody battle between U.S. and Japanese troops in 1945, a short passage in a new high school textbook brought more than 100,000 angry protesters out into the streets this past Saturday, the largest the small island has ever seen. For critics, the textbook dishonestly distorts the facts in its discussion of the several hundred Okinawa citizens who committed suicide during the U.S. invasion. The textbooks originally disclosed that the imperial army had handed out grenades to residents and ordered them to kill themselves rather than surrender, but Japan’s Education Ministry instructed publishers to delete these references from the book’s pages in March. The Ministry, reflecting the revisionism of recently ousted PM Shinzo Abe, cited divergent views of the event and said there was no real proof for either viewpoint.

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The death of China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huangdi

12 09 2007
qin shi soldiers

John Wilson in the New Statesman

Somewhere deep beneath my feet, in a vast subterranean palace, lies the First Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi. According to legend, he is interred in a gold casket sitting in a lake of liquid mercury. Snaking out across the 80-metre-long floor are streams of mercury that map the routes of those great waterways, the Yangtze and the Yellow River. The 15-metre-high ceiling is encrusted with pearls depicting the starry constellations. Antechambers reportedly contain the bodies of wives, concubines and advisers (not that their deaths coincided naturally; when it was Qin Shi Huangdi’s time to go, friends and family were forced to follow him into the earth).

Standing next to me on the hilltop is Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, who is here in the name of cultural diplomacy. His mission is to secure the biggest ever loan of treasures from the tomb of the First Emperor, including members of the fabled, 7,000-strong Terracotta Army, guardians of the imperial afterlife.

“The First Emperor was able to dream on a scale that no one else has ever dreamt,” he says with a boyish breathlessness. “No one else in history has tried to create a life-sized parallel universe in which he will rule for ever. So much of what modern China is can be seen as a direct consequence of what that man did. There are very few historical figures who changed the world in such a way that we are still living with the consequences.”

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Russia vs Georgia: a war of perceptions

29 08 2007

Donald Rayfield in Open Democracy

This was followed on the night of 21 August by the entry of a Russian military jet which seems to have discharged a missile which fell on a cornfield (and also did not ignite) in the vicinity of Georgia’s border with the disputed territory of South Ossetia.

Both incidents have been given the full diplomatic treatment – official statements, condemnations, appeals to scientific evidence, calls for solidarity from allies and the international community (including the United Nations). The west’s anxiety about becoming embroiled in further confrontation with Russia mean that Georgia’s attempts to bring its grievance over Russian behaviour to the attention of the Security Council will probably be as ineffective as the missile itself. There is a recent precedent: the Russia-originated cyber-attack on Estonia in April-May 2007 which targeted the government’s computer system – in apparent revenge for Estonia’s moving of a city-centre statue commemorating the country’s “liberation” by the Red Army in 1944 – has not met with any effective protest or sanctions.

But if Georgia will find it difficult to persuade the world to take the incidents seriously enough, the violation of its territory is part of a pattern that reveals much about the mindset currently animating Russian policy. A key aspect of this is the deep xenophobia that pervades Russian politics and public opinion directed at Americans, western Europeans, and Chinese but, above all, at the people of nations which have secured their independence since the fall of the Soviet Union. In this sense the Georgians are only one target of a wider “blame culture” in Moscow (as the Estonia example confirms). But it is also the case that the bitterness directed against them (and reciprocated in full) reflects the illusions of a Russia that thinks it “knows” and understands Georgia – and has not yet understood that, in fact, it no longer does.

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American Scientist – Why Do We Die?

27 08 2007

mexican image death

Robert Dorit in American Scientist

I do not often picture my own death. When I do, however, the details vary. I can picture my death as being unexpected: a stroke, a heart attack, an auto accident. Some kind of testament to life’s unpredictable character. But I prefer to picture the other sort of exit, one far in the future, where I have worn out my body without overstaying my welcome. Either way, I know that my story will end—I just don’t know how.

We may be the only species that is aware of its own mortality. Yet despite death’s central role in shaping human self-consciousness, mortality remains an elusive biological phenomenon. Fate and accident shape some ends, but these things aside, we cannot answer what seems like a straightforward question: Why do we die? The question, of course, is not really simple, nor does it yield a single answer. We will each die in our own way. But an answer collected from individual stories is not what we are after. We are, instead, seeking a more general explanation, rooted in material cause, which accounts for the patterns of human mortality. For now, we will leave out deaths that come from external causes—accidents or acts of violence—for they tell us little about the biological underpinnings of mortality.

The pattern of death has changed through history. We can infer something about this pattern from fossils of early Homo sapiens. Judging by the condition of their skeletons and the extent of tooth wear, their life expectancy has been estimated at around 25 years. Tens of thousands of years later, as written records and gravestones become available, our ability to estimate life expectancy takes a major leap forward. The story told by these later records is dramatic: In the past 1,000 years, life expectancies and, presumably, their underlying causes have fundamentally changed. In the United States, for instance, the Social Security Administration has predicted life expectancies for the year 2050 will reach 77 years for men and 83 years for women.

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