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August 2004

Enzo Baldoni

Enzo G. Baldoni journaliste assassine en Irak et blogueur

Comme d'autres confrères en Irak, Enzo G. Baldoni faisait son travail de journaliste ... Enzo a été assassiné en Irak après avoir été pris en otage; une victime innocente malheureusement parmi tant d'autres.

Enzo G. Baldoni avait créé un blog répondant au nom de Bloghdad; il y contait ce qu'il se passait dans la capitale Irakienne, simplement et avec des mots souvent touchants, des rencontres avec la population locale ...

Click on image to enlarge

Signe du destin, la dernière photo publiée sur son dernier billet de son blog est d'une beauté somptueuse, d'une humilité vraie, mais d'une grande cruauté et avec deux sourires incroyables.

mediaTIC blog, via Boing Boing

See, too, this Reporters without borders report: 'Baldoni's family appealed for his release in a message broadcast on 25 August by the Italian public television service Rai Uno. The message, also carried by Al-Jazeera, talked of a "man of peace" and insisted that Baldoni was in Iraq for humanitarian reasons. He had participated in the transport of medicine to Najaf in two convoys operated by the Red Crescent and the Italian Red Cross.'

John Maynard Smith, 1920—2004

The excellent 3quarksdaily salutes John Maynard Smith, who died earlier this year. Writing there, Abbas Raza gives links to three obituaries, including this one, by Richard Dawkins, and a fine and heartfelt piece in The Guardian by David Harper, but it is the interview with the evolutionist that caught my attention most of all — it's wide-ranging, if brief. This clip shows what pains Maynard Smith took to communicate complex ideas clearly and conveys something of his philosophical disposition:

    the evolutionist: Well let’s start at the beginning. What is life?

    JMS: I think that life has two characteristics. Imagine you get out of a spaceship on the surface of Mars and something walks up towards you on legs. On the front of it there are two disc-like objects, two antennae and a large hole with sharp serrations around the edge of it and so on. I think you’d guess that either this thing is alive or that it was made by something intelligent and alive. Let’s forget about the artefact possibility. Living things have parts which are clearly functional; they are there for something. In fact they are there for the survival and reproduction of the object they’re part of. So one aspect of life is that it’s not only complicated, but it’s complicated in an adaptive way. Hands and kidneys and livers and noses and eyes and ears and so on -- everything’s adapted for something. That’s the first feature of life.

    The other way you can define it is to say that life is any population of entities which have the properties necessary to evolve this complexity. And those qualities are: they must reproduce; they must vary; and they must have heredity, that is to say like must beget like. If they have those properties then the rest follows. They will evolve complex adaptations.

    Very early life was just the replication of molecules that could copy their structure, but didn’t code for anything. The idea is that the first life -- what is called RNA world -- was just RNA molecules. The same molecule was the replicator, the thing that got copied, and the thing that did something, i.e. was an enzyme. So there was no division of labour between genes on the one hand and proteins on the other, as there is today. A modern gene codes for something. But think I recognize it as life before genes coded for anything. I think I would recognize life when you have complex replicators, whether they’re coding for anything or not. Coding comes later.

    the evolutionist: Are you happy that biology has got rid of any notion of an "essence", the idea that life is some magic spark?

    JMS: I think it was Laplace who remarked, "I have no need of that hypothesis". He said it to Napoleon I think.

Towards a social study of mobile phones

Interesting review of Rich Ling's new book, The Mobile Connection: The Cell Phone's Impact on Society, by Howard Rheingold in The Feature. Here's a clip that should interest anyone who works with adolescents:

Neither do I have the space to do justice to Ling's study of teenage communication practices, and at the risk of reducing it too far, I'll summarize by saying that the mobile telephone's instrumental value as a constant, always available, private link to peers that cannot be overheard and does not have to be mediated by parents comes at a time when people shift allegiance from parents to peers. The mobile telephone is also a sacred object of symbolic potency to those undergoing the passage to adulthood — a talisman of emancipation with magical powers. Ling adds that the telephone's important ritual and symbolic dimensions enable teenagers to invent gift rituals, courtship rituals, fashions and fads while continuously hanging out with eight or a dozen friends in an intimate social network.

Ling doesn't think texting has much of a future. The communication practices that so perfectly matched particular needs of adolescence, he suspects, won't extend far into adult life. Texting will continue to be used population-wide to coordinate meetings and communicate in situations where voice telephony is inappropriate, but he predicts today's teenage texters will be on to other things, and so will mobile media, when today's fifteen year olds are twenty-five: 'There will always be a need for asynchronous mobile communication', Ling noted in a recent e-mail to me, 'but SMS will go the way of paisley ties and bell bottom pants, i.e., will become a nostalgic phenomenon that today's teens will remember fondly as part of their youth'.

Wi-Fi matters

Just back from a trip to Kraków (Poland), I am struck by how limited is access to WiFi in Europe. In Kraków, I could sit in the main square (the largest open mediaeval space in Europe, they say), and connect with ease to the city's wireless broadband system. But not in the towns we stayed in en route in Germany, the Czech republic, Belgium ... The only other place where I had easy access was Antwerp. Now comes news of a major initiative ... in England:

Bristol is deploying the largest public access WiFi hotzone in the UK as part of its Bristol Legible City initiative. The network will also give council and city workers access to private networks (VPNs) in the area of coverage and provide wireless connectivity for CCTV (allowing the city to move cameras around easily for street events and general security surveillance).

The network, which consists of wireless access points located on a range of street furniture including both Cityspace i+ kiosks and city lampposts, will initially cover three square miles. WiFi coverage already exists from outside Council House on Park Street, down to College Green, St Augustine's Parade and parts of the Watershed.

This report comes via Esme Vos' firm's (Lemon Cloud, Amsterdam) excellent Esme Vos, an intellectual property lawyer, didn't have such a great WiFi time in Antwerp recently, using SwissCom. Cory Doctorow has sharp words to say about them, too.

Czeslaw Milosz, 1911–2004

    Hope, from The World (A Naïve Poem)

    Hope means that someone believes the earth
    Is not a dream, that it is living flesh;
    That sight, touch, hearing tell the truth;
    And that all the things we have known here
    Are like a garden, looked at from the gate.

    You can't go in, but you can see it's there.
    And if we could see clearly and more wisely
    We know we'd find in the world's garden
    Some new flower or undiscovered star.

    Some people think our eyes deceive us; they say
    That there is nothing but a pretty seeming:
    And just these are the ones who don't have hope.
    They think that when a person turns away
    The whole world vanishes behind his back
    As if a clever thief had snatched it up.

I posted about the death of Czeslaw Milosz two days ago, here. Also two days ago, The New Republic online republished Leon Wieseltier's August 1, 1983 review of Milosz's Charles Eliot Norton Lectures (Harvard University), The Witness of Poetry:

The Witness of Poetry ... is the credo of a great poet. It reveals that Milosz is really a religious thinker. His religiousness is not "tacit", as a critic recently claimed; it is explicit, as it has been in his poems for many years. What is tacit, in this book, is his politics. The politics, to be sure, are anti-Communist; and the authority of Milosz's anticommunism is pretty much absolute. He is angry at universalism and utopianism. 'The young cannibals who, in the name of inflexible principles, butchered the population of Cambodia, had graduated from the Sorbonne,' he observes, 'and were simply trying to implement the philosophic ideas they had learned.' ... Milosz reveres, instead, human custom. And he reveres the Roman patrimony of his country — 'Latin as the language of the church and of literature, the theological quarrels of the Middle Ages, Latin poetry as a model for Renaissance poets, white churches in the baroque style'.

All of this might make him suspect, as he puts it, 'of entering into an alliance with reactionaries, for in our century it is they who are the rear guard defending a discrimination among values'. The rhetoric may sound a little stiff, so let us agree at once that there are allies of reactionaries and there are allies of reactionaries. Milosz is not the kind who praises Edmund Burke from the Waldorf Towers. His reverence for human custom is based upon the personal participation in it. The same is true of his religiousness. He does not shill for the spiritual life, or for its civil utility; he lives spiritually. For this reason his credo is not precisely criticism, but something more primary. For this reason, too, Milosz does not carry his faith like a flag. His quarrels with Western literature and Western politics are many, but he is nobody's scourge. He seeks to illuminate, but not quite to influence. This is the humility of the genuinely conservative, and the privacy of the genuinely religious. It is also the restraint of a man who bears many of ideology's scars, who is familiar with the consequences of forcing the soul's certainties upon society.

Perhaps the most paradoxical feature of this century is that it is the century for which the spiritual should be most obvious. How could the slaughters of Hitler and Stalin, and the Communist captivity of half of Europe and most of Asia, not shake the soul? The striking thing about Milosz's insistence upon a dimension of the holy is its appositeness to the age. Milosz's raised point of regard, his feud with the aesthetic and scientific circumscriptions of reality, is a perfectly plausible response to the events he has experienced. It is not a leap of faith. History leapt; he did not. Like the Siennese and Florentine painters of the late fourteenth century, who responded to the mortalitá of the Black Death with a rudely transcendental art — nothing so fearfully foreshadows the corpse-consciousness of the mid-twentieth century as Boccaccio's opening pages — Milosz demands a more decisive knowledge. 'Veni Creator', he called a poem written in 1961.

    Come, Holy Spirit
    bending or not bending the grasses,
    appearing or not above our heads in a tongue of flame,
    at hay harvest or when they plough in the orchards or when snow
    covers crippled firs in the Sierra Nevada.
    I am only a man: I need visible signs.
    I tire easily, building the stairway of abstraction.
    Many a time I asked, you know it well, that the statue in church
    lift its hand, only once, just once, for me.

Nor is he the only one whose power of religious perception has been quickened by the horrors of his history. Leszek Kolakowski, the other intellectual who was Poland's loss and our gain, long ago exchanged the scholastics of the Party for the scholastics of the Church. (In 1976 I sat in Kolakowski's seminar at All Souls and heard him explain all that Lucien Goldmann did not understand about Pascal; it remains in my memory as an exemplary exercise of the uncaptive mind.) There are sufferings that put the purely secular to shame, that create a need for meanings that neither reason nor society can satisfy. The secularization of modern life was anyway an exaggeration; a lot of religion remained. But there is no way that some of the traditional themes of religion can be dodged after the scale and the style of contemporary carnage.

Much has been written about the collapse of the eighteenth century in the calamities of the twentieth century — too much, because the rejection of the Enlightenment was as much responsible for what occurred as the acceptance of the Enlightenment. Still, for the walking wounded, the untragic point of view is insufficient. It cannot have answers to questions it cannot ask. And there is no point of view that is less tragic than Marxism. It continues to reproduce the instrumental illusion of the last centuries, the confidence in man's demiurgic power over society, as if nothing ever happened. This has the consequence of cynicism, which seems to be the most popular feeling east of the Elbe. It also has the consequence of an intellectual crackup, of a necessary exchange of new lies for old truths. Milosz has exchanged the lethal shallowness of this tradition for its ancient antithesis. His solution is the resacralization of the world.

This is a notable, important review and needs to be read in full. (Link via 3quarksdaily.)

The First World War

One of the things that twentieth-century philosophy learned, in the wake of the war, is that big words are empty uniforms without men to live out their meanings, and that high moral purposes have no value outside a context of consequences. As the new century begins, the First World War seems as present, and just as great a pity, as it ever did.

Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker (link via 3quarksdaily — a highly recommended read in itself)