Afghanistan or Annie Leibovitz

afghannewsweekWhile reading this story on the British Labor Party's impending transition in leadership from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown, I noticed a rather curious sidebar next to the story. Apparently, since I was reading a story from Newsweek's "International Edition," the sidebar was intended to allow me to pick which regional version of the magazine I wanted to read. But in this case, it also revealed an interesting contrast between the domestic U.S. version of the magazine and the version available abroad.

The cover story in every other region is an indepth look at the post-Taliban realities in Afghanistan titled Afghanistan: Is Victory Turning to Defeat? Acknowledging the apparently different tastes of its domestice audience, the American edition features Annie Leibovitz's Amazing 'Life in Pictures', a feature on Leibovitz and her latest book.

There spring to mind multiple explanations for this dichotomy, each likely playing some role, more or less, in why global politics and terrorism make one cover while a celebrity photographer makes the other. I am sure that the international English-speaking Newsweek-buying audience is, on average, quite a different market from the grocery store checkout-lane audience that Newsweek targets (at least in part) here at home. There may be some political pressure in the month before an election not to run bad news about the War on Terror on the cover every single week. It may be that Afghanistan really is essentially forgotten domestically, though this weekend's visit by President Karzai and the facts of the article itself suggests a responsibility to bring this to the forefront of the debate. Whatever the reason, I would say that these four pictures are worth at least four thousand words.

Arsenal 2-0 FC Porto

hlebMy beloved Arsenal further proved their resurgence tonight in a clinical 2-0 victory over FC Porto. While Porto's fortunes have waned since the glory days of Jose Mourinho's reign, they are just the type of opponent that can be dangerously underestimated and thus wreak havoc upon a European campaign. With last season's loss in Paris still haunting the team, a confident start in the Champions League was an absolutely necessity. Fortunately, the Gunners are starting to show their quality:

Arsene Wenger celebrates 10 seasons at the north London club on Thursday - and the Gunners boss firmly believes he has never had more potential within his squad, despite what had been a sluggish start to the new campaign.

There was certainly plenty of evidence of what a free-flowing Arsenal side are capable of, having finally made superior possession count when captain Thierry Henry headed the hosts in front with his 50th European goal eight minutes before half-time.

Alexander Hleb also got on the scoresheet at the start of the second half as the Gunners made it two wins from two in Group G, where another maximum-points haul from the trip to CSKA Moscow in a fortnight's time would all-but mathematically secure a place in the second phase for last season's European Cup finalists.

Henry is a goal machine, of course, but it great to see him scoring with his head, and being a creative playmaker as wel. It is great to see Hleb put one in the net, he deserves more credit than he gets, and it also seems Toure and Van Persie could easily have added another pair.

This game really illustrates just how many diverse tools Arsenal can attack with when they play their best, particularly when you add names like Ljungberg, Rosicky, Fabregas and Baptista to those already mentioned. It is still a young team, with several additions that have surely not yet fully settled into the side. It is frightening to think of their potential if they can further improve on the form they've shown over the past several games.

Personal Libraries

Every litblog on the Internet has already linked to Jay Parini's article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about other people's books, but being a book voyeur I can't resist quoting it myself:

It's not only the physical aspects of books that attract me, of course. In fact, I rarely buy first or elegant editions, however much I like to glance at them; good reading copies, in hardback or a decent paperback, are just fine. But seeing some of the editions in my living room reminds me of that wonderful house in Surrey, which stirred my imagination as a young man and was part of the reason I became a writer myself.

What interests me about other people's books is the nature of their collection. A personal library is an X-ray of the owner's soul. It offers keys to a particular temperament, an intellectual disposition, a way of being in the world. Even how the books are arranged on the shelves deserves notice, even reflection. There is probably no such thing as complete chaos in such arrangements.

I've gone through numerous iterations of organizing my books, splitting into genres, then alphabatized by author, even split into publication by century at one point. Sometimes I think the books look better with the dust jackets on. Sometimes I think they look better without them, as Harvard has them in Widener Library, so I'll spend an hour and remove hundreds of dust jackets and store them separately. Not many people likely spend as much time sitting in front of their own books, but however one treats one's books tells a little story.

Sufjan Stevens

sufjanAtlanta's Fabulous Fox Theatre played host to Sufjan Stevens on Wednesday night and my wife and I had the pleasure of being in attendance. Stevens actually puts on a whole show, not just a concert, with the band wearing butterfly and bird wings and vintage film footage thematically related to each song playing on a screen behind the stage. I have not heard much of Stevens' music, just enough to think it would be a fun show. And it was, though the large band (at least six or seven string instruments and three horns) was not to my liking and most of the songs could have been two minutes shorter. Nonetheless, Stevens himself is a prodigious talent and the simpler songs which highlighted his skills were wonderful, with "Casimir Pulaski Day" a particularly stunning piece (having grown up in northern Illinois, I actually did get out of school for Casimir Pulaski Day).

And the theatre itself is gorgeous, a true testament to the restoration work that has preserved a great landmark. The history of the Fox is fascinating in and of itself, but one really must visit the theatre and see a show to appreciate the beauty of the building, particularly the attention to detail, which is where the Fox really shines. We enjoyed the concert as much for it being at the Fox as for the performance itself.

A warning, however: if My Brightest Diamond is the opening act for a concert you are attending, plan to arrive late. About an hour late, so that there is no chance your ears have to suffer the noise which attacks from the stage when Shara Worden is performing. She was bad. I have listened to the clips on her website, and they are significantly better than her live performance. Almost listenable, in fact.

UPDATE: CNN has a review of the show, noting the originality of both the venue and the performer, but mercifully making no mention of the opening act.

The Elected Member

My stop and start effort to read each book that has won England's Booker Prize got a big boost a couple weeks ago when my wife and I got our Atlanta library cards. Many of the early Booker Prize winners from the 1970s are out-of-print or hard to find, but a few minutes with the library's online catalogs and some hold requests landed the first five books in my hands.

I just finished Bernice Rubens' The Elected Member, which won the 1970 prize, the second year the Booker Prize was given. It is an insightful look at the neurotic workings of a Jewish family, the neurotic workings of a drug addicted hallucinatory mind, and the interaction between the two. If Philip Roth had written One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and set the book in England, this is probably what would have emerged.

In fact, the book need hardly be set in England. The immigrant Jewish experience is sufficiently universal that the setting could easily have come from Roth, or from Bernard Malamud's The Assistant. This is made all the more poignant considering Rubens' family history:

Her father, Eli Rubens, was a Lithuanian Jew who thought he was escaping anti-semitism for America when he boarded his ship at Hamburg around 1900. But the ticket tout had swindled him: he was shoved off at Cardiff. It was a fortnight before he realised he wasn't in New York.

And I was actually twenty or thirty pages into the book before I remembered that I was reading a British author, and that the book was not set in New York or Chicago. For fans of Roth or Bellow, there is a lot here to like. And since Rubens was a rather prolific author, there is plenty more to enjoy if this strikes your fancy. That's one of the reasons I am doing this Booker Prize project. It is not that I suppose the Booker judges have somehow magically selected the best book every year. But it is an easy way to become exposed to a number of non-American authors who might emerge as personal favorites, a la Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang and Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin.

Princeton Follows Harvard

As I had been hoping, it looks like Harvard's elimination of early admissions may be just the spark needed to inspire other schools to follow suit. One of Harvad's main competitors for the same applicant pool already has:

A week after Harvard became the first Ivy League university to announce the dismantlement of its early admissions program, Princeton University followed suit yesterday, moving to a unitary applicant pool for the Class of 2012.

In announcing the move, Princeton officials echoed Harvard’s words—nearly verbatim.

“We agree that early admission ‘advantages the advantaged,’” Princeton President Shirley M. Tilghman said in a statement yesterday. Princeton officials also said that early admissions programs can cause high-school seniors to make “premature” college choices.

Princeton spokeswoman Cass Cliatt said that the school had been considering changes to its early decision program for several years and that Harvard’s announcement facilitated the change.

“It would be difficult to make this decision unilaterally,” Cliatt said. “The fact that Harvard made its announcement was one of the factors we took into account when we were doing our review, and it did affect our decision.”

And that is exactly why Harvard was right to take the lead. In my years at Harvard and since, I've often been disappointed to see the university use its tremedous monetary and reputational resources largely to its own advantage, making strides in financial aid only in the wake of progressive moves by competitors like Yale. It is good to see Harvard taking the lead on this one, and I appreciate the candor of Princeton's spokeswoman in acknowledging that they might not have done this without Harvard's initiative.

Foreclosures Jump

My parents live in California and own their home outright, a tremendous rarity in this day and age. In the last five years, my father watched as his neighbors re-financed their mortgages to add swimming pools and other improvements, riding the wave of low interest rates, interest-only mortgages, and 5/1 ARMs. He shook his head and told me that it was only a matter of time before the bank owned half the neighborhood. It looks like that time may be coming soon:

With real estate markets slowing and mortgage rates well above levels of recent years, times are getting tougher for homeowners - the number of homes entering into some stage of foreclosure is surging, according to a survey released Wednesday.

Some of the bellwether real estate market states are among the leading foreclosure markets. Florida, had more than 16,533 properties in foreclosure in August. That led all states and was 50 percent higher than in July and 62 percent higher than in August 2005.

California foreclosures are increasing at an even faster annual rate, up 160 percent since last year to 12,506. And the formerly red-hot Nevada market recorded a spike of 24 percent compared with July and a whopping 255 percent increase from August 2005.

And those who opted for fancy mortgages with all their bells and whistles, instead of the 30-year fixed rate (like my wife and I)?

For a homeowner with a 5/1 ARM (an adjustable rate loan with an initial fixed rate for five years that then adjusts annually) that's now resetting, the adjustment could add at least two percentage points to the interest rate. That could send the payment on a $200,000 loan up from about $950 a month closer to $1,200.

Or, as is much more likely in California, the payment on a $600,000 loan goes from $2,850 to $3,600. That's quite a chunk of change. I'm sure plenty of folks thought a 5/1 ARM would work great, as they'd never own the house that long. But with the housing market cooling, I am sure people are stuck in houses they can't sell, and now they have mortgages they can't afford. Sure makes the half-point they saved by getting an ARM seem silly, and the financed swimming pool seem downright insane.

What Terrorists Want

What an unusual treat it is to see one of my law school professors reviewing a book written by one of my college professors. In her weekly column for the Los Angeles Times, Rosa Brooks (who taught me Human Rights Law and has since moved from UVA to Georgetown) positively raves about What Terrorists Want, written by Louise Richardson (who was chair of the Government department at Harvard and taught an excellent class on, what else, terrorism):

Drawing on interviews and primary source materials from dozens of such movements, Richardson reminds us that despite the awfulness of their acts, most terrorists are neither "insane" nor even unusually cruel. On the contrary, their acts are rationally calculated, and most terrorists believe themselves to be altruistic and noble, Davids fighting Goliaths.

This is a simple insight with profound implications for counter-terrorism policy. The rhetoric of "evil" prevents us from understanding how terrorists think and alienates those who may be torn between sympathy for the political aims of such movements and disapproval of terrorism as a tactic.

And these are precisely the people Richardson says we can least afford to alienate. Although terrorist movements thrive when they are based in what she calls "complicit communities," they fizzle out when they lose community support. Thus, understanding the grievances of those drawn to terrorism is crucial to designing effective policies to halt its spread.

By refusing to consider that terrorists may have any legitimate grievances, the Bush administration has radicalized moderates throughout the Islamic world and has wasted opportunities to deprive terrorists of the community support so critical to their survival. From the war in Iraq to the abuse of detainees, U.S. anti-terror tactics have backfired, driving more and more recruits into the arms of Al Qaeda.

As is often the case with liberal critiques of the Bush administration, Richardson's book is probably stronger on theory than on policy, but that does not mean she is wrong. It does mean that there is further work to be done to get from her perspective to that of a policymaker.

What I can say for certain is that her class (which I took pre-9/11), with its historical emphasis on such terrorist groups as Shining Path, the Red Brigades, the IRA, and even the African National Congress, gave a much better lens with which to view the current terrorist activities of al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and other extremists. I'm sure her book estalishes the same point, which makes clear that terrorism is not new, al-Qaeda is not particularly special, and there is a lot that history can teach us about what terrorists want, and how we can prevent them from achieving their goals through violent means.

Chafee's Win is Good For America

Democrats are bound to have mixed feelings about yesterday's Rhode Island Senate primary, which saw incumbent moderate Lincoln Chafee defeat his right-wing Club for Growth challenger, Stephen Laffey. It was an 8-point victory (54-46), which is decent enough considering the recent polls putting Laffey in the lead, but does not speak to a great amount of strength for the incumbent.

Here's the rub for Democrats: Chafee's victory shows that there is still room in the Republican party (albeit in Rhode Island) for a moderate, pro-choice, anti-OIF incumbent to beat back a well-funded challenger from the right. Yet Chafee will unquestionably be a tougher opponent in the general election for Democratic challenger Sheldon Whitehouse, who would have won in a walk against Laffey. While Laffey's positions are apparently competitive in a Republican primary, they would not have been in a Rhode Island general election.

So is Chafee's victory a good thing or a bad thing? Steven Clemons says it is good:

Lincoln Chafee has triumphed in his primary vote count tonight. While many will groan about Chafee's victory because it makes the Rhode Island contest a greater hurdle for the Democratic challenger, I am pleased that Chafee has knocked out the far-right Laffey.

This Chafee victory is also a potential sign that Republicans who "look like Bush" are in trouble -- and that Republicans who are pragmatists and not ideologues may be on the comeback. This, in the mid to long run, is very healthy for the country -- just like the return of strength on the Democratic Party ledger is healthy for democracy.

I agree. I think Whitehouse still has an excellent chance of victory in the fall, particularly if the hardcore Laffey supporters stay home rather than vote for Chafee. While Democratic money and resources could have been shifted to other states if Laffey had been the opponent, I think a Laffey primary win would have sent the wrong message to other Republican moderates who have played an important (if insufficient) role in tempering the excesses of their party's leadership. They need to know that towing the party line is not the way to victory, even against a primary challenge from the right.

Harvard Dumps Early Admissions

Kudos to my alma mater for leading the charge against one of the more unfortunate recent developments in higher education by eliminating its early admissions program for next year's applicant pool:

Interim President Derek C. Bok said that he and the six fellows of the Harvard Corporation, who approved the change yesterday morning, had concluded in recent months that “somebody had to take the lead” in eliminating early admission.

“We feel that if anybody is going to step up and take the lead to try to get rid of something which is really doing more harm than good in high schools across the country, it’s us,” Bok said.

The Corporation, which serves as the University’s executive board, decided to drop the program in large part because of concerns that early admission provides an unfair advantage to applicants from privileged backgrounds, Bok and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 said in a joint interview yesterday.

Jettisoning early admission, Fitzsimmons said, is “certainly a win for students in the bottom quarter and bottom half of the income distribution.” Students from more affluent families often apply early to express special interest in a particular school, while students from lower socioeconomic levels frequently hold off for the regular admissions process in order to compare colleges’ financial aid offers.

What remains to be seen is whether other schools follow Harvard's lead and do away with this troubling program, which adds unnecessary pressure to already stressed high school seniors and favors those who can afford to commit to a school without a financial aid offer in hand. Apparently, some are suggesting that only Harvard can really afford to do this:

Stanford’s dean of admissions and financial aid, Richard H. Shaw, said that many colleges could be hesitant to follow in Harvard’s footsteps.

“I applaud them for this—that’s a pretty gutsy move,” said Shaw, who previously served as Yale’s admissions chief. “But it’s possible that only Harvard could do it. A lot of other institutions would really have to be considerate about a change like this, since they don’t quite have the attraction that Harvard does.”

Let's see how this might work. After all, there are a finite number of applicants, and a finite (if flexible) number of seats at each school. While this change might reduce a school's yield (the percentage of students admitted who choose to attend), this should happen across the board. Beyond that, what is the risk?

Let's say in the current early admissions scheme, Johnny X would apply early to Brown University to maximize his chances of getting in there, even though he might otherwise like to take a shot at Harvard and Yale and Princeton (HYP). If there is no early admissions program, Johnny X will apply to all four schools in the normal process. Might he now get into HYP, and not attend Brown? Sure. But if he does get in, and does attend HYP, he's just bumped some other applicant who would otherwise have gotten into HYP. And that student, who was qualified to attend HYP, will also be well qualified to attend any other school they have been admitted to, perhaps Brown.

So there is some risk. Instead of being able to snag a few of the top .001% of that year's class by the guarantee of early certainty, the school might have to settle for the second .001% of that year's class. In exchange for this sacrifice, the lives of the applicants is made significantly easier, and the playing field is bit more even for those who have to see financial aid offers before they can bind themselves to a particular school. If the colleges really consider the benefits to the students, and not to themselves, I don't see how they can justify any choice but to follow Harvard's lead.

That's a Lot of Viewers

In an altogether bizarre statement in which he suggests Zidane and Materazzi should clear the post-headbutt air by meeting on the island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, FIFA President Sepp Blatter also makes this curious claim about the 2006 World Cup:

He insisted, however, that despite its controversial denouement, the four-week tournament had been an overwhelming success, with more than 30 billion viewers worldwide. "I am still a happy Fifa president," he said.

While I'm sure there is some way of counting the television statistics that produces that number, it seems pretty safe to conclude that there were not, in fact, 30 billion viewers. There may have been half a billion viewers who watched each of the 64 matches, or something along those lines, but that's a somewhat different number, isn't it? Let's just say I'm embarrassed to admit that I spent at least 15 seconds trying to add up the number of people in China and India with access to televisions before determining that 30 billion different people did not watch the World Cup.