Farewell, Michiko Kakutani and Thank You!


August 1, 2017

Farewell, Michiko Kakutani and Thank You!

https://www.newyorker.com

Farewell, Michiko Kakutani! On Thursday, the Times’ chief daily book critic announced that she would be leaving her regular reviewing post after thirty-eight years at the paper, marking the end of a literary era. Her assessments of novels and memoirs, works of history, biography, politics, and poetry have guided generations of American readers, and the prospect of getting a Kakutani review has been the hope and fear of more writers than could possibly be counted—a seriously big deal, or ordeal, as the case might be. A good review brought on elation. “It was like having the good fairy touch you on the shoulder with her wand,” Mary Karr told NPR. A bad one incited rage, sometimes despair. Nicholson Baker compared getting a negative Kakutani review to undergoing surgery without anesthesia; Jonathan Franzen called her “the stupidest person in New York.” (She had deemed his memoir “an odious self-portrait of the artist as a young jackass.”) What made her scary to writers made her reliable to readers: you couldn’t easily predict where her favor would fall.

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Thank You. Michiko, for your Book Reviews in  the New York Times. You will be sorely missed. –Din Merican

More so than any critic working today, Kakutani has become synonymous with her profession. Her name long ago entered the lexicon as a verb (“to be Kakutanied”), a signifier of the ultimate cultural prestige. On “Sex and the City,” Carrie Bradshaw declared herself “terrified” of getting the Michiko treatment. A generation later, Hannah Horvath, on “Girls,” just wanted to “lock eyes” with her across a room—not an easy feat, considering Kakutani’s reputation for guarding her privacy. She turns down interviews, never does panels, and is rarely photographed. A head shot of Joan Didion is still, mysteriously, the first picture to appear on a Google search for Kakutani. Her Twitter avatar is an egg, though not one of the old default cartoon ones, beloved of trolls, but, rather, an attractive, hard-boiled number, luxuriating against a sea-green pillow.

Who is Michiko Kakutani? What is she like? One minuscule clue came in the much-discussed interview that she conducted with Barack Obama in January, days before his second term came to an end. When the President referred to his teen-age years, and his adolescent preference for “imbibing things that weren’t very healthy,” Kakutani responded, “I think all of us did.” Michiko Kakutani imbibed unhealthy substances in high school! I thought, with weird excitement. That she had couched this confession in a universal statement, thus disclosing absolutely nothing about herself, only added to her mystique.

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She is careful to hide herself on the page, too. “I” is a word that you will never read in a Kakutani review. She had no interest in the first person as a critical device, and that avoidance of the personal pronoun is part of what could make her negative reviews feel so lacerating. When she wrote, for instance, that Don DeLillo’s novel “Cosmopolis” was “a major dud, as lugubrious and heavy-handed as a bad Wim Wenders film, as dated as an old issue of Interview magazine,” the burn was all the sicker from being simultaneously so specific and so remote. (Note how this statement is actually three insults squeezed into one; what did Wim Wenders do to get so brutally Kakutanied along with DeLillo?)

Certain observers resented Kakutani for resisting “I,” a preference that became more noticeable as the chatty, confessional informality of Internet writing started to change the tone of criticism in the early aughts. Ben Yagoda, writing in Slate, accused Kakutani of having no humor, no wit, and no voice of her own. (He was, to this critic’s mind, overly aggrieved by the goofy reviews that Kakutani sometimes wrote in character. It’s a gruelling business, trying to find fresh ways to write about other people’s writing, let alone trying to do it multiple times a week. Let a critic have some fun.) Yagoda implored Kakutani to retire the old-fashioned epithet “the reader,” which she preferred to the personal pronoun. Then there’s the argument that the critic should use the first person to lay all her cards on the table, owning up to the particular experiences that shaped the taste that she’s bringing to bear on someone else’s work. But self-exposure wasn’t Kakutani’s style. What a critic needs most is independence, the ability to evaluate a work on her, and its, own terms. Some people find their independence through the first person, stressing the subjective nature of the whole critical enterprise. Kakutani found it by screening herself with the privacy afforded by the third. If she loved your book, or if she hated it, it wasn’t personal. “The reader” might always change her mind—next time.

Kakutani had deeper concerns about the possible pitfalls of relying too much on the first person. Writing in 2006 about the fraudulent memoirist James Frey, whose partially fabricated account of his struggles with addiction came to be seen as a high point of narcissism during the era’s memoir craze, she connected Frey’s slippery personal revisionism to broader cultural trends eroding the value of objectivity and truth. It was surprising, to say the least, to find, in a piece about one guy’s lies, references to Holocaust historiography, Bill Clinton and the Lewinsky scandal, and the Bush White House’s manipulative cynicism regarding the invasion of Iraq. But Kakutani’s argument—that postmodernism and deconstruction had ushered in a view of the world in which “all meaning is relative, all truth elusive,” easily manipulated by people in power—proved perceptive and darkly prescient.

“We live in a relativistic culture where television ‘reality shows’ are staged or stage-managed, where spin sessions and spin doctors are an accepted part of politics,” she wrote. “This relativistic mindset compounds the public cynicism that has hardened in recent years, in the wake of corporate scandals, political corruption scandals and the selling of the war against Iraq on the discredited premise of weapons of mass destruction. And it creates a climate in which concepts like ‘credibility’ and ‘perception’ replace the old ideas of objective truth—a climate in which the efforts of nonfiction writers to be as truthful and accurate as possible give way to shrugs about percentage points of accountability.” Kakutani has said that she’ll take advantage of her retirement as a regular critic to write longer pieces about politics and culture, and that’s a good thing. For all the uproar that any given rave or take down of hers could incite, she kept her eye on the bigger picture.

A Tribute to Mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani– A Beautiful Mind and a Gentle Soul


July 19, 2017

A Tribute to Mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani– A Beautiful Mind and a Gentle Soul

The Power of Writing Regained


June 11, 2017

The Power of Writing Regained

by Dean Johns@www.malaysiakini.com

After confessing in my column last week that depression was threatening to rob me of what I’ve long relied on as my last-ditch defence against the total disempowerment of despair – the power of writing – this week I have to admit that it didn’t help very much.

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It certainly didn’t do anything to dispel my lack of faith in the biblical alleged wisdom that “confession is good for the soul”, if only for the sole reason that I’m incurably skeptical about the existence of any such metaphysical entity.

But my confession was apparently cathartic or otherwise psychologically beneficial enough to my spirits as to restore my powers of written speech.

And kind comments on the ensuing column from two perennially-supportive pseudonymous Malaysiakini readers, JesuisAnwar and HaveAGreatDay, whoever they actually are, have greatly sustained my spirits since. So much so as to inspire me to the thought that it may not be depression per se that has been threatening to leave me lost for words all this while, but disappointment.

Disappointment at how little I feel I’ve achieved, both quantitatively and qualitatively, in my by now quite lengthy lifetime, and also at my apparent inability to redress these deficiencies, or at least make the most of the rapidly-dwindling time I have left to do so before death.

Or, to put this another way, I’m both metaphorically and literally dying to write as many and as meaningful words as possible before I reach my final full stop.

Unhappily, however, to return to the subject of disappointment for a moment, I’ve left so many of life’s fundamental questions so unnoticed, unexamined and unwritten-about, that I’m virtually dumbstruck with confusion as to which of them is most worth spending, my or indeed anybody’s last words on.

So rather than striving to have my final say on them all at once, as I’ve been so unproductively doing in my panic to meet my final, indeed terminal deadline, I’d better get myself focused, and fast.

By being smart enough, for a start, to think of my remaining writing time not simply in terms of how to best to “spend” it, as I see I thoughtlessly did two paragraphs ago, but how to invest it most intelligently on worthwhile topics or at least avoid squandering much if any more of it on trivia and trash.

Like, to cite the most vivid example of the latter types of topic than I can think of, in light of the almost 500,000 words I’ve wasted on them in this Malaysiakini column over the past 11 years, the corrupt, incompetent and ruthlessly truthless members and countless crimes and other misdeeds of Malaysia’s miserable, ever-misruling UMNO-BN regime.

Not that I’m promising to never mention them again, you understand, as long as Malaysiakini keeps generously granting me space on its site. But in future, I intend to mention this gruesome gang and all the world’s many other similarly blundering, plundering and people-repressing regimes only, if possible, in the context of or in relation to issues that are far more fundamentally interesting and important.

Like power, for instance, whose multitudinous and endlessly paradoxical manifestations are as all-pervasive in human lives and affairs as they are everywhere else in what we call the universe, and yet seems to me generally poorly comprehended or even perceived.

And like truth, which mankind seems to have spent its long history striving on the one hand to define, seek and discover, and on the other hand, and often simultaneously, seeking with equal if not greater determination, to ignore, avoid, contradict or deny.

In the process so apparently totally losing sight of the many and various meanings, purposes and perversions of truth as to seriously entertain the ludicrously ahistorical proposition that, because we can all post opinions on the net and the US has elected a lying pest like Donald Trump, we’ve reached the age of “post-truth”.

Another perennially pressing topic for as many last words as possible, of course, is the one that had inspired the ancient ethical philosophers, Western and Eastern alike, to ask “how should life be lived?”

But here the kind of confusion that’s been leaving me lost for last words starts to kick back in again. Because it’s impossible to consider and discuss ethics without consideration of truth and power, as well as what it means to be successfully and fully ‘human’.

A thought that brings me to what seems to me to be the ultimate topic for my or any other human who’s on a mission to make the most of his or her wits and words, last or otherwise: the exhortation carved in stone outside the Temple of Apollo at Delphi to “know thyself”.

This, of course, in light of the unfathomable complexities of and confusions and conflicts between our animal instincts and human intellects and conscious and unconscious minds, is paradoxically impossible.

In fact, as Socrates, my favourite philosopher, demonstrated to his own satisfaction and the outrage of his fellow Athenians, who for his pains condemned him to death for blasphemy and misleading the youth of the city, that nobody really knows anything.

And over a thousand years later, Frenchman René Descartes similarly set out to challenge every belief he had for which he could find insufficient support, and found that the only one he was left with was, as he famously expressed it in Latin, Cogito, Ergo Sum, or “I think, therefore I am”.

However skeptical about my own and others’ beliefs that I am, I certainly don’t kid myself that I’m in Socrates’ or Descartes’ class. But I’d most certainly consider my life far from wasted if I could come up with enough sensible and sincere last words to finally feel satisfied at the end with an epitaph along the lines of “I wrote, therefore I was”.


DEAN JOHNS, after many years in Asia, currently lives with his Malaysian-born wife and daughter in Sydney, where he coaches and mentors writers and authors and practises as a writing therapist. Published books of his columns for Malaysiakini include ‘Mad about Malaysia’, ‘Even Madder about Malaysia’, ‘Missing Malaysia’, ‘1Malaysia.con’ and ‘Malaysia Mania’.

The George Washington University 2017 Commencement


May 23, 2017

The George Washington University 2017 Commencement

https://gwtoday.gwu.edu/us-sen-tammy-duckworth-urges-graduates-‘-get-arena

U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth Urges Graduates ‘to Get in the Arena’

Sen. Duckworth, Lt. Gen. Nadja Y. West and The Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron received honorary degrees as 6,000 students graduated from GW.

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U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), M.A. ’92, delivers the university’s 2017 Commencement speech on Sunday. One of Sen. Duckworth’s themes was embracing failure. (William Atkins/GW Today)
 

U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) described Nov. 12, 2004, as her “alive day” during her George Washington University Commencement address Sunday on the National Mall.

“It was the day I almost died, but didn’t,” she said. “It was a good day for me.”

Flying over Iraq, Sen. Duckworth’s Black Hawk helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. The explosion vaporized one of her legs, she said, and blew off the back of her right arm. The aircraft instrumental panel amputated her other leg.

“I was quite literally in pieces,” Sen. Duckworth said. Yet, her crew refused to leave her behind, she said, and helped to save her life.

“I knew from that moment on I would spend every single day of the rest of my life trying to honor the courage and sacrifice of my buddies who saved me,” Sen. Duckworth told an estimated crowd of 25,000, including roughly 6,000 graduates, as the university celebrated the end of its 196th academic year.

The senator shared her personal story as part of her themes of embracing failure, taking advantage of opportunity and maintaining humility in which she referenced the words of President Theodore Roosevelt and rapper and songwriter Kendrick Lamar.

“Every time I got knocked down, I got back up. I dusted myself off, and I got back in the arena—when my face had literally been marred with dust and sweat and blood. And I am so glad that I did,” she said.

 

Resilience is increasingly important, said Sen. Duckworth, M.A. ’92. Especially with today’s challenges at home and abroad, the stakes are higher for students embarking on their post-university lives. She quoted President Roosevelt, who said, “There is no effort without error and shortcoming.”

“It’s really just an eloquent way of saying, don’t be afraid of failure,” she said. “Successful people didn’t make it because they never failed. They made it because they never gave up.”

She encouraged her soon-to-be fellow alumni to “step up.”

“You can be our nation’s next generation of leaders,” she said. “Luckily, as GW grads, you already have a head start on many of your peers. Over and over the students of GW have proven to be some of the most civically engaged students in the nation, showing leadership in and out of the political arena.”

But doing so, Sen. Duckworth said, requires trying, doing, putting yourself out there and—yes—sometimes failing.

“Don’t be afraid of failure,” she said. “Be afraid of never tasting it.”

And she urged graduates to remember the “good fortune and luck” they had that enabled them to experience the opportunities and take advantage of the resources at GW.

“Some of you have been lucky enough to afford tuition here without help, but even if you worked three jobs … there are people out there who aren’t as lucky,” she said. “I guess what I am saying is—to reference Kendrick Lamar—be humble.”

Sen. Duckworth urged students not to lose sight of what lays ahead, what remains to be accomplished.

“Don’t be a timid soul that knows neither victory nor defeat,” she said. “It is time to get in the arena.”

Congratulatory Remarks

Remarks from university leaders preceded Sen. Duckworth’s Commencement address.

Provost Forrest Maltzman welcomed graduates, highlighting the “one-of-a-kind” opportunity to celebrate Commencement on the National Mall. GW is the only university that holds its graduation ceremony on the Mall.

Dr. Maltzman recognized the achievements of GW’s graduates and those who supported them—family, friends and fellow alumni alike—and said Sunday’s setting at the foot of the Washington Monument, which was dedicated to the nation’s first president and GW’s namesake, was a “fitting tribute to your achievement.”

Introducing George Washington President Steven Knapp, Dr. Maltzman thanked Dr. Knapp, whose tenure as president ends July 31 after 10 years of service to the university. He noted how the university has advanced under his leadership.

“I know that what he is proudest of is the approximately 50,000 students who have graduated from this university during his tenure and who are each making their own contributions to the world,” Dr. Maltzman said.

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George Washington President Steven Knapp charged graduates to keep alive their spirit, energy, imagination, commitment to service and curiosity. (William Atkins/GW Today)


Dr. Knapp continued “an important Commencement tradition” by thanking the parents, families and friends of the graduates.

Board of Trustees Chair Nelson Carbonell, B.S. ’85, said his GW education and friends have stayed with him and “continue to enrich life.”

His charge to graduates: “Take what you have learned and the pride and respect you have gained for your alma mater into the world as citizen leaders. Remember, who you are has been shaped by your experiences here at the George Washington University.”

Mr. Carbonell also took a moment to recognize Dr. Knapp—not only for the institution’s growth under his leadership but also for his direct involvement in students’ success, from move-in day to Commencement.

“President Knapp wants all of you to succeed in your future endeavors,” Mr. Carbonell said.

Special Recognition
Angela Sako, B.A. ’15, M.P.P. ’17, was selected as this year’s student speaker.

Her remarks Sunday were framed around life’s “welcomes”—the “welcomes” that many receive to uncertainty, challenges, new friends or a new university.

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Angela Sako delivers her speech Sunday. Ms. Sako’s theme was “welcoming” the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead. (William Atkins/GW Today)


Ms. Sako was just 14 years old, a recently arrived immigrant from Albania by way of Italy who spoke little English, when her father died unexpectedly. She said she felt “so low” she wondered “if I could ever be lifted.”

But with support from family and friends, she said she transformed grief into resilience. She eventually was welcomed to GW with a letter of acceptance and a Stephen Joel Trachtenberg Scholarship.

She encouraged her fellow graduates to welcome the years ahead.

“Our journey ahead might hand us some bricks, but let us remember that if we welcome these challenges, and we encourage each other to open a window, a wide door will follow,” Ms. Sako said.

Dr. Maltzman also recognized this year’s recipients of the GW Awards, presented to students, faculty and staff who have made extraordinary contributions to the GW community. Richard Livingstone, B.A. ’12, M.P.A. ’17; C. Thomas Long, Ph.D. ’05, assistant professor of history and coordinator of undergraduate history advising; and Bridget Smith, B.A. ’17, were recognized with the awards Sunday.

Three other students—Howard Charles Goodison II, B.A. ’17; Antonia Keutzer, B.S. ’17; and Thomas Elms, B.A. ’17—assisted Dr. Knapp in conferring honorary degrees Sunday to Sen. Duckworth, Lt. Gen. Nadja Y. West, M.D. ’88, and The Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron.

Dr. Knapp highlighted the recipients’ many achievements and officially awarded each with an honorary degree of doctor of public service.

In his remarks, Mr. Baron talked about the importance of a free press as journalists face growing threats both around the world and in the United States. “The president has said that he is at war with the media,” he said. “We are not at war. We are at work.

“We are doing jobs inspired by the First Amendment, which was drafted by our nation’s founders with this fundamental idea: that the press—and all citizens—should hold government to account.”

Dr. West, the highest-ranking African-American woman in the history of the U.S. Army, said she was “truly honored, humbled and grateful” to receive the honorary degree, citing “the strong foundation that the George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences provided in the art of being a compassionate healer.”

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Roughly 6,000 graduated from GW on Sunday. GW is the only university that holds its graduation ceremony on the Mall. (William Atkins/GW Today)


Main Event
Later, finally, GW’s most important degree recipients of the day got their turns.

The graduates joined a “lifelong and worldwide community” of GW alumni, now numbering more than 280,000, Dr. Knapp said.

Dr. Knapp charged them to keep alive their spirit, energy, imagination, commitment to service and curiosity.

“You are our future,” Dr. Knapp said. “We depend on you to repair what earlier generations have broken, to build what we have left un-built, to learn what we have not yet learned, to heal what we have so far left unhealed.

“And as you go forth to do these things, always know that, at the George Washington University, you have a home in the heart of this nation’s capital.”

 

The Coming Technology Policy Debate


May 7, 2017

What is really needed are new and improved institutions, policies, and cooperation between law enforcement and private firms, as well as among governments. Such efforts must not just react to developments, but also anticipate them. Only then can we mitigate future risks, while continuing to tap new technologies’ potential to improve people’s lives.–Michael J. Boskin

The Coming Technology Policy Debate

by Michael J. Boskin@www.project-syndicate.com

*Professor of Economics at Stanford University and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He was Chairman of George H. W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers from 1989 to 1993, and headed the so-called Boskin Commission, a congressional advisory body that highlighted errors in official US inflation estimates.

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What do the leaks of unflattering email from the Democratic National Committee’s hacked servers during the 2016 US presidential election campaign and the deafening hour-long emergency-warning siren in Dallas, Texas, have in common? It’s the same thing that links the North Korean nuclear threat and terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States: all represent the downsides of tremendously beneficial technologies – risks that increasingly demand a robust policy response.

 

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It is the Fourth Revolution–The Only Certainty is Change

The growing contentiousness of technology is exemplified in debates over so-called net neutrality and disputes between Apple and the FBI over unlocking suspected terrorists’ iPhones. This is hardly surprising: as technology has become increasingly consequential – affecting everything from our security (nuclear weapons and cyberwar) to our jobs (labor-market disruptions from advanced software and robotics) – its impact has been good, bad, and potentially ugly.

First, the good. Technology has eliminated diseases like smallpox and has all but eradicated other, like polio; enabled space exploration; sped up transportation; and opened new vistas of opportunity for finance, entertainment, and much else. Cellular telephony alone has freed the vast majority of the world’s population from communication constraints.

Technical advances have also increased economic productivity. The invention of crop rotation and mechanized equipment dramatically increased agricultural productivity and enabled human civilization to shift from farms to cities. As recently as 1900, one-third of Americans lived on farms; today, that figure is just 2%.

Similarly, electrification, automation, software, and, most recently, robotics have all brought major gains in manufacturing productivity. My colleague Larry Lau and I estimate that technical change is responsible for roughly half the economic growth of the G7 economies in recent decades.

Pessimists worry that the productivity-enhancing benefits of technology are waning and unlikely to rebound. They claim that technologies like Internet search and social networking cannot improve productivity to the same extent that electrification and the rise of the automobile did.

Optimists, by contrast, believe that advances like Big Data, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence herald a new era of technology-driven improvements. While it is impossible to predict the next “killer app” arising from these technologies, that is no reason, they argue, to assume there isn’t one. After all, important technologies sometimes derive their main commercial value from uses quite different from those the inventor had in mind.

Optimists, by contrast, believe that advances like Big Data, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence herald a new era of technology-driven improvements. While it is impossible to predict the next “killer app” arising from these technologies, that is no reason, they argue, to assume there isn’t one. After all, important technologies sometimes derive their main commercial value from uses quite different from those the inventor had in mind.

For example, James Watt’s steam engine was created to pump water out of coal mines, not to power railroads or ships. Likewise, Guglielmo Marconi’s work on long-distance radio transmission was intended simply to create competition for the telegraph; Marconi never envisioned broadcast radio stations or modern wireless communication.

But technological change has also spurred considerable dislocation, harming many along the way. In the early nineteenth century, fear of such dislocation drove textile workers in Yorkshire and Lancashire – the “Luddites” – to smash new machines like automated looms and knitting frames.

The dislocation of workers continues today, with robotics displacing some manufacturing jobs in the more advanced economies. Many fear that artificial intelligence will bring further dislocation, though the situation may not be as dire as some expect. In the 1960s and early 1970s, many believed that computers and automation would lead to widespread structural unemployment. That never happened, because new kinds of jobs emerged to offset what dislocation occurred.

In any case, job displacement is not the only negative side effect of new technology. The automobile has greatly advanced mobility, but at the cost of unhealthy air pollution. Cable TV, the Internet, and social media have given people unprecedented power over the information they share and receive; but they have also contributed to the balkanization of information and social interaction, with people choosing sources and networks that reinforce their own biases.

Modern information technology, moreover, tends to be dominated by just a few firms: Google, for example, is literally synonymous with Internet search. Historically, such a concentration of economic power has been met with pushback, rooted in fears of monopoly. And, indeed, such firms are beginning to face scrutiny from antitrust officials, especially in Europe. Whether consumers’ generally tolerant attitudes toward these companies will be sufficient to offset historic concerns over size and abuse of market power remains to be seen.

But the downsides of technology have become far darker, with the enemies of a free society able to communicate, plan, and conduct destructive acts more easily. The Islamic State and al-Qaeda recruit online and provide virtual guidance on wreaking havoc; often, such groups do not even have to communicate directly with individuals to “inspire” them to perpetrate a terrorist attack. And, of course, nuclear technology provides not only emissions-free electricity, but also massively destructive weapons.

All of these threats and consequences demand clear policy responses that look not just to the past and present, but also to the future. Too often, governments become entangled in narrow and immediate disputes, like that between the FBI and Apple, and lose sight of future risks and challenges. That can create space for something really ugly to occur, such as, say, a cyber attack that knocks out an electrical grid. Beyond the immediate consequences, such an incident could spur citizens to demand excessively stringent curbs on technology, risking freedom and prosperity in the quest for security.

What is really needed are new and improved institutions, policies, and cooperation between law enforcement and private firms, as well as among governments. Such efforts must not just react to developments, but also anticipate them. Only then can we mitigate future risks, while continuing to tap new technologies’ potential to improve people’s lives.