March 2014 Reading List: Big Thinking Edition

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

It's been a good month for thinking outside the box. (Photo source: Forbes)
Who wasn't writing about Crimea this month? No surprise that it was the talk of the town, of course, but I can only read so much about Russia before depression sets in. I'll save you the trouble. Ninety percent of the ink spilled in March boils down to this: Putin is a thug, and when nobody was able or willing to defend it, he snatched a vulnerable region with nice beaches off his southern borders. At least I can sleep well knowing my country would never do the same.

Luckily, I also read some great pieces on big thinkers in March. Here's my pick of the month's best:

A Star in a Bottle (Raffi Khatchadourian, New Yorker)
March's most awe-inspiring article. Meet ITER, a mad scientist's dream so audacious in its ambitions that it's hard to imagine how it even saw the light of day: a 23,000-ton, $20 billion nuclear fission reactor in southern France that—if its science proves sound (still an unresolved question), and its construction is ever completed (not easy, when weighing the interests of 35 competing "partner" nations mired in a global recession)—will swirl hydrogen faster than the speed of sound to temperatures ten times hotter than the sun's core, potentially solving Earth's energy shortage for the next 30 million years, yet generating almost no waste in the process. Whoa. But the most enduring takeaway of many "eureka" moments for me when reading this account? Current renewable energy sources are so many orders of magnitude behind humanity's needs that if this "star in a bottle" doesn't succeed, we might not survive much longer.

What's Gone Wrong with Democracy (The Economist)
Do not skip this article on the most important question of our age: how do we want our societies to be governed? To explain the stumble in democracy's forward march in the last decade, the authors propose and explore several strong hypotheses—from the 2008 recession, to the rise of China, to the explosive growth of technology. Their prescriptions to revive democratic progress didn't impress, but I remain an optimist on this front and expect the picture to start looking much better as economies rebound.

Why Wu-Tang Will Release Just One Copy Of Its Secret Album (Zack O. Greenberg, Forbes)
"Somewhere on the outskirts of Marrakech, Morocco, inside a vault housed beneath the shadow of the Atlas Mountains, there sits an engraved silver-and-nickel box with the potential to spawn a shift in the way music is consumed and monetized." Curious yet?

Bill Gates: The Rolling Stone Interview (Jeff Goodell, Rolling Stone)
The world's richest man spends his time and vast resources pondering modern society's biggest challenges: climate change, disease, poverty, and ignorance. (Yes, I certainly am jealous.) This interview offers a welcome look inside the mind of a big thinker with the means and the will to improve our world on a grand scale.

Three Years of Strife and Cruelty Puts Syria in Free Fall (Anne Barnard, New York Times)
March marks the third anniversary of Syria's descent into a staggering state of human misery. Where do things stand today, how did we get here, and why can't we seem to end this disaster? Barnard quantifies the tragedy with some stark figures, but solutions are still elusive.

A Map of God's Countries (Emma Green, The Atlantic)
Results from Pew's survey of 40,000 respondents in 40 countries asking the question "Is it necessary to believe in God to be moral and have good values?" No surprise, us atheists are in the (goddamn) minority.
(Source: The Atlantic)
This is What American-Themed Parties Look Like Around the World (Matt Stopera, BuzzFeed)
Apparently people in all the countries I've visited have been holding these parties without my knowledge, perhaps ashamed to have a real American present to call them out on their gross inaccuracy and political incorrectness. Note to all of you: I don't care, this looks great. Invite me.

What is the Funniest Joke in the World? (Alva Noë, NPR)
Different cultures, different senses of humor: for anyone who has traveled widely, this is no surprise. Most interesting is researcher Scott Weems' analysis of 1.5 million votes from people around the world on their favorite jokes. I'm encouraged to learn that the winning joke (cited in the article) is satisfyingly morbid. Maybe there's hope for humanity after all. :)

And for those who haven't yet, check out my posts from March:

Around Algiers: Navigating the Invisible City

Tuesday, April 1, 2014 | Algiers, Algeria (map)

Exploring beneath the surface of the Algerian capital is a slow task of relationship building.
Outside of its famed casbah, Algiers is hardly the warren of tunnels that some other North African cities are (I'm thinking of Fes here), but it does have its secret passageways.

The capital's narrow roads zigzag circuitously along steep hillsides, flanked by apartments or walled-off villas that make many streets feel like narrow concrete chutes. Occasionally, as you crest a hill or pass a gap in a wall, you get a fleeting glimpse, between the bougainvilleas, of the sea stretched out below like a smooth blue carpet.

* * *

In the US, we have worked for centuries to flatten social barriers, to allow citizens to navigate their cities without special keys, access controls, or passwords. To move from one geographic location to any other in an American city, usually you can walk or drive unhindered. Maps are truly a representation of the geographic possibilities one can experience.

In Algiers, by contrast, geography is not as it appears on a map. Rather, it is an interlaced reality of physical and social barriers. In this city where interpersonal relationships decide all, what one needs

Traduction : Fêter le Haïk, et Débattre une Icône Algérienne

Saturday, March 22, 2014 | Alger, Algérie (map)

La défilé sur le chemin au centre-ville en haïk et 'ajjar. (Une photo numérique que j'ai pris ; les photos Rolleicord viendront.)
La traduction française de mon dernier post, "Celebrating the Haik, and Debating an Algerian Icon":

Hier j'ai eu la chance d'être parmi une petite armée de photographes officiels pour un événement culturel unique ici à Alger : la deuxième fête annuelle du haïk, la tenue traditionnelle des femmes algériennes qui aujourd'hui ne paraît que rarement dans les rues de la capitale.

Des participantes de l’adolescence jusqu’au troisième âge—celles qui se souviennent de l’ère quand le haïk était quasi-universel à Alger—se sont enveloppé de linceuls blancs brochés ainsi que de ‘ajjar, triangle de dentelle qui cache en partie le visage. (Cet ensemble est spécifique à l’Algérie et est particulièrement emblématique de la capitale et de sa célèbre casbah.)

Il y a quelques semaines, lors de la visite de ma sœur, j’ai rencontré plusieurs photographes talentueux qui exposaient au musée d'art moderne d'Alger. Ce sont eux qui m'ont invité à les accompagner hier pour photographier l'ouverture : une scène de 12 femmes en haïk qui recréaient "La Cène" de Da Vinci dans la cour de l’Ecole des Beaux-Arts.

Celebrating the Haik, and Debating an Algerian Icon

Friday, March 21, 2014 | Algiers, Algeria (map)

The procession winds downtown in traditional haik and 'ajjar. (A digital photo I snapped; Rolleicord pics forthcoming.)
Cet article est maintenant disponible en français : "Fêter le Haïk, et Débattre une Icône Algérienne"

Yesterday I had the good fortune to be among a small army of official photographers for a unique cultural event here in Algiers: the second annual celebration of the haik, the traditional garment of Algerian women that today is only seen rarely on the capital's streets.

Women as young as teenagers and some old enough to remember when the haik (pronounced "hay-yek") was practically a uniform in Algiers participated, donning the brocaded white shrouds as well as the 'ajjar, a triangle of lace used to partly conceal the face. (This ensemble is unique to Algeria, and is particularly iconic of the capital and its famed casbah.)

A few weeks ago, during my sister’s visit, I had met several talented photographers who were exhibiting at the Algiers modern art museum. It was they who invited me to yesterday's event and arranged for me to join them in photographing the opening: a scene of 12 Algerian women in haiks recreating DaVinci's "Last Supper" in the courtyard of the city's fine arts college.


Thursday, March 20, 2014 | Rome, Italy (map)

This bella donna looks to have been cruising Rome's streets for quite a few years.
Recently I joined Rebecca in Rome for a long weekend, which we spent walking from restaurant to gelateria to restaurant to gelateria. I ate in sufficient quantity to bring eternal shame (or pride, depending on your point of view) upon all my ancestors before me and descendants hereafter. But this was, at long last, my first trip to Italy, so I don't feel particularly regretful about my gastronomic excesses.

In the rare moments between mouthfuls of succulent gnocchi, chianti, or gelato, Rebecca and I had plenty of time to catch up and to explore central Rome.

My favorite experience, however, was a solo walk I took one sleepless early morning. Rolleicord in hand, I meandered along the undisturbed streets, empty but for the occasional delivery man or jogger. I passed a deserted Trevi Fountain and Pantheon before arriving at the ruins that stretch out beside the Coliseum. That was where I heard a faint buzzing noise overhead, and looked across

Guest Post: Stepping Out Into Algiers

Sunday, March 16, 2014 | Algiers, Algeria (map)

The guest author Maggie exploring Algiers with her favorite big brother
A guest post by my sister, Maggie Farrand

It wasn't exactly how I had planned to arrive in Algiers. I had envisioned a much more elegant, carefree entrance, where I would gather my luggage and manage the airport crowds feeling relaxed and ready for three days of vacation.

Revisiting my breakfast on my two-hour flight from Rabat, being told by the flight attendants that I was the first person ever to cry on their flight, and then suffering through a 45-minute line at immigration with my head spinning and a slight fear that they wouldn't let me in... well, that was how it really happened.

But I made it, arriving safely in Algiers after a two-week work trip next door in Rabat, Morocco. I enjoyed my time in Morocco, staying in Rabat for the first time (even if I spent most of it in the office), but I admit I had my eye on the next stop of my itinerary: three full days with my older brother, Andrew, in Algeria.

February 2014 Reading List: 'From Russia, No Love' Edition

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Photo source: "Beyond Sochi: Photos of Russia by Russians" (described in list below)
While choosing not to watch this month's Olympics in Sochi, Russia, I had plenty of time to stay current on my reading. As uncertainty mounted in Ukraine, here are a few of the most thought-provoking pieces I came across in the last month:

Inside the Iron Closet: What It's Like to be Gay in Putin's Russia (Jeff Sharlet, GQ)
A troubling, detailed account of the Russian LGBT community's many struggles toward acceptance.

Ottomania (Elif Batuman, New Yorker)
Didn't realize that Turkish soap operas are critical cultural reference points for a huge part of the world's population? Guess again. The New Yorker's shrewd Turkey correspondent strips back the layers of often competing identities underlying the popular Ottoman-era drama "Magnificent Century". Insights abound on Turkey's history, current politics, and complex relations with its neighbors and former vassals. Gated, but very highly recommended.

A Syrian Woman's Kitchen in Shatila (Nawara Mahfoud, New Yorker)
A very human snapshot of daily life for Syrian refugees in Shatila, a Palestinian camp in Lebanon where many have settled, stressing already limited access to resources.
(For those seeking worthy political commentary on Syria, see this Economist piece for an essential point: "As long as Bashar Assad thinks he is winning, diplomacy will fail.")

Chronicles of the Veil (Laila Lalami, Los Angeles Review of Books)
Another excellent piece by Laila Lalami, this one on the unintended consequences of Western efforts to "save" Muslim women without first understanding their local contexts, with an exploration of the awkward narratives that feed such efforts.

A Dictator's Guide to Urban Design (Matt Ford, The Atlantic)
Inspired by the recent uprising in Kiev, this piece reviews autocrats' urban planning schemes to discourage dissent and organized protest, from Paris to Pyongyang to Tahrir Square.

Why Do Japanese People Wear Surgical Masks? It's Not Always for Health Reasons (Casey Baseel, Rocket News 24)
More oddities from the most peculiar country on earth—and a topic of interest to frequent travelers accustomed to seeing masked Asians shuffling through airports worldwide. Surgical masks apparently double as warming devices, fashion accessories, modesty aides, and even alleged weight loss devices.

How Would the Media Cover the Superbowl If It Were In Another Country? (Joshua Keating, Slate)
Sweet satire, sweet perspective. It's true, America.

Why We Still Need French (Rob Wile, Business Insider)
A necessary (though admittedly lousy) rebuttal to an even more asinine argument that the French language is useless in our modern world. D'accord avec moi? Then don't miss the Beginner's Guide to Franglais, which includes such gems as le footing, un hard-discounter, and une recordwoman.

Beyond Sochi: Photos of Russia by Russians (Grant Slater, NPR)
These photos were perhaps less successful than the artist intended at rewriting my existing stereotypes of Russia, but they were nonetheless an interesting look at a country I know little about.

In This Video, It's the Men Who Are Constantly Harassed by Dominant Women (Shirin Jaafari, PRI's The World)
A French filmmaker flips the script, with thought-provoking results.

#SochiProblems = #HumanProblems

Wednesday, February 12, 2014 | Algiers, Algeria (map)

Source: Twitter user @JoannaRieke
As I did in 2008, when the Olympic Games took place in Beijing, this year I have decided not to watch the winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. However small my political voice or economic purchasing power may be, I do not want to be registered as one of the millions consuming commercials from sponsors of an Olympic Games in Russia, whose government is solely responsible for the misery that exists within its own borders—including the rightly decried new law persecuting homosexuals—and is also largely to blame for the ongoing bloodshed and destruction in Syria. Putin is a thug, and I refuse to support him or his ilk, however indirectly.

Nonetheless—or perhaps for those very same reasons—I, like many, have been pleased to hear how the Sochi Olympics have stumbled out of the gate.

And stumble they have. While quite a bit of it is exaggerated, for the last week the internet has nonetheless been awash with images and stories of Russia's failure to ready itself to host this event, all wryly documented under the banner #SochiProblems.

Most prominent was the failed light display in the opening ceremony (a debacle that, though