Weekly Review — November 26, 2013, 8:00 am

Weekly Review

The countries and companies responsible for climate change, nuclear options in Congress and Iran, and the extinction of Darwin’s frog

A kinkajou, 1886.

A kinkajou, 1886.

The World Coal Association hosted a clean-coal summit on the western bank of Warsaw’s Vistula River, and representatives of 132 of the world’s poorest countries staged a walkout at a U.N. climate-change conference held on the river’s eastern bank, claiming that wealthier nations had derailed talks. “It helped clear the air,” a negotiator said of the walkout. “They wore T-shirts and gorged on snacks,” an activist said of the Australian delegation.[1][2][3][4] In Canberra, a Labor minister ate his own hair.[5] A British oceanographer named Grant Bigg was co-awarded a £50,000 grant to track a Chicago-size iceberg that recently detached from Antarctica’s Pine Island Glacier, and technicians at the Tongonan geothermal field on Leyte Island, in the Philippines, tested components at the field’s sole remaining cooling tower after Super Typhoon Haiyan.[6][7] Flooding and landslides caused by Cyclone Cleopatra killed 18 people and displaced an estimated 2,700 in Sardinia, where nearly a foot and a half of rain fell in 90 minutes on Monday night. Municipal officials on the island blamed the inadequacy of their response in part on Italy’s Civil Protection Department, which initially warned them of the cyclone by fax. “A water bomb exploded with incredible intensity,” said the mayor of Olbia, the town most directly affected by the storm. “Our vineyards of the sea have been destroyed,” said a group of Olbian mussel growers. “Even the elderly people say they can’t remember something like this happening,” said forest guardsman Antioco Bus.[8][9][10][11][12][13] Climatologists determined that 90 companies are responsible for two thirds of the greenhouse-gas emissions generated since 1854. “The decision makers — the CEOs or the ministers of coal and oil,” said one researcher, “could all fit on a Greyhound bus or two.”[14]

The U.S. Senate voted 52–48 in favor of the so-called nuclear option, a change in procedural rules that enables confirmation of certain executive- and judicial-branch nominees with a simple majority rather than a supermajority. “You’ll regret this,” said Senator Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.). “And you may regret it a lot sooner than you think.”[15] In negotiations with Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States, Iran agreed to halt high-grade-uranium enrichment for six months in exchange for the relaxation of international sanctions. “We will begin the program,” said Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, “by the end of the Christian year.”[16] Vatican officials denied that a newly restored fresco in the Cubiculum of the Veiled Woman proves the existence of female priests in early Christianity, and the General Synod of the Church of England voted 378–8 to move forward with the ordination of women. “This is a fairy tale,” Vatican heritage superintendent Fabrizio Bisconti said of the fresco. “That is reality,” the Right Reverend James Langstaff said of the vote.[17][18] Mary Cheney, the daughter of former vice president Dick Cheney, denounced her sister, Liz, a U.S. Senate candidate in Wyoming, for Liz’s opposition to same-sex marriage. “This isn’t like a disagreement over grazing fees,” said Mary Cheney. “Compassion is called for,” said Dick Cheney.[19][20] Two members of the presidential turkey flock were scheduled to meet the governor of Minnesota. “They will not be pardoned,” said the turkeys’ breeder. “They will be processed.”[21] Sirhan Sirhan, the man who shot and killed Senator Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, was transferred from a prison in central California to one in the southern part of the state on Friday, the fiftieth anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. “The date of the move,” said a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, “is simply an unfortunate coincidence.”[22] Sponsored products featured in Google search results were found to be 34 percent more expensive on average than nonsponsored products.[23]

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Darwin’s frog was declared extinct.[24] Evolutionary biologists found that the sap-sucking sea slug Elysia timida does not need sunlight to survive. “It’s very difficult to digest,” a researcher said of the news.[25] Two Canadians saved a Greenland shark from choking on a moose.[26] British archaeologists sampled a pharaonic beef-rib mummy, and NOSH, a program to encourage breast-feeding among low-income mothers, launched in Derbyshire. [27][28] Europe formed a drones club, German teenagers exhibited a new subtype of boredom, and Russian police reported that 18 medical-school students had been expelled for dancing the lezginka.[29][30][31] In the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, a 101-year-old pensioner trained for his segment of the Sochi Winter Olympics torch relay by jogging while holding aloft a frozen humpback salmon. “This guy Ruslan gave me four small dumbbells,” said the man, “but they’re hard to hold.”[32] Ikea omitted an interview with a lesbian couple from the Russian version of its customer-loyalty magazine, citing recently passed legislation banning “gay propaganda.” “We have two guiding principles,” said an Ikea official. “The first is home interior design. The second is following the law.”[33] The Swedish Transit Authority was found to have rejected more than 100 applications for vanity license plates since 2009, including KÖRFORT, ÖKÄND, and SCROTUM, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded $100,000 to the developers of a condom made from reconstituted animal collagen. “I could yank all day,” said an engineer, “and not break this thing.”[34][35][36]


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The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
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Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
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Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
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Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

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In Burma, a newly discovered noseless monkey was assumed to be critically endangered because—despite its efforts to keep its head tucked between its legs on rainy days—it sneezes whenever rain falls into its nasal cavity and thereby alerts hunters to its presence.

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“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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