Eye browse

An occasionally updated list of things seen, heard, read:

1. The nine hottest Madonna videos of all time, compiled by The Beast.

2. Staying with music, Nilanjana Roy makes a compelling case for why the next Nobel Laureate in literature needs to be Robert Zimmerman Bob Dylan.

3. Picked up, in course of a bookshop raid yesterday, Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice. I’ll likely inflict more on it once I get through the books I’m reading now and pick up Sen’s latest. In the interim, just stumbled on this appreciation in The Chronicle. Carlin Romano underlines the perennial fascination of this subject: justice is something everyone wants, yet no one has been able to adequately define.

More accurately, Another Idea of Justice

More accurately, Another Idea of Justice

Plato argued, through his familiar Socratic ventriloquy, that justice is divine, an ideal to which human justice can only haltingly aspire. Aristotle then introduced a formal criterion of justice that still wins the greatest agreement, perhaps because it’s merely formal: Treat equals equally and unequals unequally.

From then on, follow the history of philosophers’ sentences that begin “Justice is … ” on and you hit so many diverse endings you wonder whether anyone, including the lady in the blindfold, knows what justice is.

To Aquinas, it’s “a certain rectitude of mind whereby a man does what he ought to do in the circumstances confronting him.” To Hume, it’s “nothing but an artificial invention.” To Sir Edward Coke, it’s “the daughter of the law, for the law bringeth her forth.” To 20th-century American jurist Learned Hand, it’s “the tolerable accommodation of the conflicting interests of society.” Do a survey, and about the only thinker who invites instant agreement is Belgian philosopher of law Chaim Perelman. According to Perelman, justice is simply “a confused concept.”

Compiled by a great speechwriter

Compiled by a great speechwriter

4. If at the end of his life and career the storied speechwriter and political columnist stayed

A tale of power blind-sided

A tale of power blind-sided

true to form, he must have written this last column in 20 minutes — which is the time William Safire took, or claimed he took, to write his 700-word riffs on politics and language for the New York Times [Archive of his columns here].

I’ve delighted in the fact that he was a college dropout [“If he can do it…” — of course, it didn’t quite turn out that way, just as I haven’t managed to make quite as much money as another famous dropout, Bill Gates]; I’ve picked up language cues from his columns over the years; after stumbling on, and reading, his novel Full Disclosure at Strand late 2005, the other half and I spent a wine-soaked evening tossing around ideas on how it could possibly be adapted into a Bollywood film set in New Delhi; a more recent, equally delightful acquisition was Safire’s compilation of the great speeches of history.

His political opeds for the NY Times were one of my must-reads [his language columns, not so much]; when he wrote his ‘good-bye to opeds’ column in 2005, he said something that has stayed stuck in my mind, and which even today prompts occasional bouts of dissatisfaction with where I am and what I do:

In an interview 50 years before, the aging adman Bruce Barton told me something like Watson’s advice about the need to keep trying something new, which I punched up into “When you’re through changing, you’re through.”

I interpreted that to mean that when you are no longer capable of making a difference, however small, it is time to move on. He had a more wide-ranging interpretation:

We’re all living longer. In the past century, life expectancy for Americans has risen from 47 to 77. With cures for cancer, heart disease and stroke on the way, with genetic engineering, stem cell regeneration and organ transplants a certainty, the boomer generation will be averting illness, patching itself up and pushing well past the biblical limits of “threescore and ten.”

But to what purpose? If the body sticks around while the brain wanders off, a longer lifetime becomes a burden on self and society. Extending the life of the body gains most meaning when we preserve the life of the mind.

A round up of tributes from the New York Times; the Washington Post; the Wall Street Journal; Forbes; in The Beast, his literary agent and friend; and from conservative commentator John Podhoretz.

William Safire, RIP

William Safire, RIP

Safire famously said he wrote his column in 20 minutes, which is in part what gave his pieces their immediacy and force, as though his hand had untrammeled access to his thoughts and conveying them through touch-typing 750 words was all it took. He took far more care with the novels he wrote–among them the wonderful potboiler Full Disclosure, about a conspiracy to evade the requirements of the 25th Amendment, and the enormous bestseller Freedom, about Abraham Lincoln.

He achieved perhaps even greater popularity with his Times Magazine column on language, of which I was not an admirer–Safire was himself a writer of little elegance and served as an advocate for inelegant prose at a time when Americans really could have used a voice of authority that did not grant them unlimited permission to muck around with the rules of grammar and usage. In this way, actually, Safire revealed that the word conservative really didn’t properly apply to him. Rather, he was a patriot, an American nationalist, a Zionist, a civil libertarian, and a classic Washington type of a sort that has now almost entirely passed from the scene.

Jack Shafer in Slate is anything but complementary.

When his scooplets panned out, as they did during the Carter administration, winning him a Pulitzer Prize, Safire the reporter would take a bow. When they didn’t—see his contributions on Whitewater, the Vince Foster suicide, Wen Ho Lee, Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden, the Mohamed Atta connection to Iraqi intelligence, and Iraqgate—Safire the opinionator would either say the jury was still out or just move on without correcting the record.

5. Ever wondered why good writers often make poor speakers?

”]Penelope's Passions [Pic courtesy Vanity Fair]6. From Spiegel Online, the Kafka-esque battle for Franz’s papers.

7. A favorite actress, in a new Vanity Fair profile. Also in the same magazine, a posthumous profile of Dominick Dunne.

8. ‘Social justice’ works — where earlier you had autocrats from one class/caste, you now have autocrats from other castes, says Mrinal Pande in a Mint column on the stone gardens of Lucknow.

9. Everything you ever wanted to know about Roman Polanski’s recent arrest but didn’t know who to ask.

10. Review of a Nicholas Kristof book on sex trafficking:

Kristof and WuDunn are advocates, but they are journalists first, and that means they don’t shy away from pointing out failures as well as successes in the field. In fact, some of the book’s most compelling sections are those that detail mistakes or upend assumptions.

Many readers of Kristof’s columns will recall the time Kristof bought a girl who’d been imprisoned in a Cambodian brothel and set her free, only to see her willingly return to her jailers. That story gets new depth and texture here. There’s also a fascinating and disturbing section about the Sonagachi Project, a sex-workers union in Calcutta, India. Sonagachi was organized with backing from the World Health Organization, and Western feminists have lauded it as a model. It seems, though, that there’s a dark side. I once expressed admiration for Sonagachi to a woman who works at an anti-trafficking nongovernmental organization and was taken aback when she snapped that it had become simply a front for pimps. Kristof and WuDunn’s reporting indicates that she was right. Their research serves not only as an important exposé but as a reminder that ideology is no substitute for experience in figuring out how to help people.

11. And now, classes on how to be kidnapped — and survive. Minimum qualification: you have to be a journalist. On successful completion of the course, you win a posting in Afghanistan?

12. While on new books, author Shelley Seale links to an India Abroad magazine feature I did a while back on The Weight of Silence, her book on the disadvantaged children of India.

Reading matter

If Americans were polled on a single question — “Name the primary grievance behind the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001” — how many would get it right, wonders Girish Sahane on his blog. [Charlie Sheen has his own answer]. Two other 9/11 stories I read this morning: one woman asks if she even wants to know the truth any more, while another [older story that I found through the related links segment] struggles with the guilt that 9/11 changed her life for the better.

Here’s 9/11, as seen at the time from outer space. Elsewhere premiere sand artist Sudharshan Pattnaik pays tribute in the form he knows best. [Unrelated but fun, check out the underwater sculptures of Jaison de Caires Taylor]

Also read, John McWhirter on moving on to a different world.

Elsewhere, Sepia Mutiny on Lisa Ray, the actress currently battling a rare form of cancer. Lisa’s blog here.

Earlier this week on Prospect, there was this story of the coming glut of drugs to mess with improve the mind. Now here’s Wired, with the secrets of eternal smarts.

While we mark the 40th anniversary of the Internet [timeline; a graphic representation of growth], spare a thought for Winston the carrier pigeon.

This week, a South African call-center business, frustrated by persistently slow Internet speeds, decided to use a carrier pigeon named Winston to transfer 4 gigabytes of data between two of its offices, just 50 miles apart. At the same time, a computer geek pushed a button on his computer to send data the old-fashioned way, through the Internet.

Winston the pigeon won. It wasn’t even close.

From LiveScience, the success secret of top tennis players: good eyes. More secrets: the trick to winning big tournaments is to dress smart, and make a noise. Still with tennis: fans, give this a go.

Great read: NYT reporter Stephen Farrell was kidnapped by the Taliban last Saturday — and blogs the experience. In the New Yorker, George Packer on Sultan Munadi, the local journo who died in that same kidnap, and on the relationship between foreign journalists and local fixers.

15 people died in a boating accident in Bulgaria. Madonna caused it. [Hat Tip: Amit Varma on Twitter]

From Cricinfo: the art, craft, and magic of two legendary spin bowlers. Clip:

Thus the myth enters the imagination. So the bowler pays up, and pays up again and again till the batsman coughs it up and hands it over sheepishly. The phrase “buying a wicket” was now de rigueur all of a sudden. It also proceeded to cause endless headaches every time Bedi was bowling. Following the progress of the match became a temporal jigsaw puzzle that had no solution. Every ball was a head-scratcher in itself: furious thinking would ensue as one tried to place it in a pattern initiated overs ago. Or was a new sequence of trickery starting with it? Now, was that a set-up ball, to be cashed in by the Sardar a few overs later, or just a bad one? Or was it just an innocent bridge piece in the composition before the cymbal crash came, causing the batsman to walk back? Wicket balls were the easy ones, and a relief, too, for they reset the puzzle. Yes, those times were magical. The period when the strategy has sunk in but the tactics are shrouded in mystery.

This merits a separate blog post of its own, but in the midst of much, so: Read this and weep — The Allahabad High Court sees fit to not merely set aside the death sentence against Moninder Singh Pandher in the 2006 Nithari killings, but to acquit him altogether. Surinder Koli, the domestic servant who was Pandher’s partner in crime, however gets it in the neck. Figures, no? [Hat tip Sridhar Parthasarathy in email]

Great read: ‘I will not read your fucking script’ — featuring History of Violence writer Josh Olson [Link courtesy Raja Sen]

Back in the day, Manu Joseph had done an impressionistic piece on Anand Jon [linked to in this post] for ToI. He now reprises it, against the frame of Chennai’s college sexuality, for Open magazine.

And the final link for the week: roflmao. Reminds me of the time I told the partner [mine, not Amit’s] that if a person can rattle off at the rate of knots without saying anything in particular, people will take him for an expert on art. Show me, goes the partner. So we wandered into this gallery, and walked around, and I stood in front of a particularly pointless daub and began throwing words together as they came to me: “That red dot in the middle of the large swathe of yellow? It particularly speaks to me — brilliant artistic riff on the human nature. We are all like that — we live our lives in a state of perennial cowardice but somewhere, deep inside, the small spark of anger, of rebellion and revolt, burns deep….” You know — that kind of thing, non-stop. And then I get this nudge and I look around, and I find an audience, half a dozen people nodding on with my every word. Hmph!