Roving thoughts and provocations

Librarians of the Twitterverse

James Gleick

The Library of Congress is now stockpiling the entire Twitterverse, or Tweetosphere, or whatever we’ll end up calling it—anyway, the corpus of all public tweets. There are a lot. The library embarked on this project in April 2010, when Jack Dorsey’s microblogging service was four years old, and four years of tweeting had produced 21 billion messages. Since then Twitter has grown, as these things do, and 21 billion tweets represents not much more than a month’s worth. As of December, the library had received 170 billion—each one a 140-character capsule garbed in metadata with the who-when-where. Effectively searching this mass of unstructured data, this barnyard of straw, will be more difficult than people may think.

A New Conflict in Kashmir?

Ahmed Rashid

Xinhua Press/Corbis

For nearly a decade, despite constant tensions—and even large-scale terrorist violence—between Pakistan and India, there is one thing the two nuclear-armed states have kept largely intact: their 2003 cease-fire agreement in Kashmir. Over the past week, however, that agreement has suddenly seemed in danger of unraveling, with alarming killings along the defacto border between Indian and Pakistani Kashmir and threats of further escalation by senior officials on both sides. Though it has until now received little attention in the international press, this new confrontation poses a grave threat to the entire region. We ignore it at our peril.

Twelve Questions for John Brennan

David Cole

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

President Obama’s nomination of his top counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, to head the Central Intelligence Agency poses a genuine conundrum. On the one hand, he is associated with some of the most troubling aspects of US counterterrorism policies. He is the architect of President Obama’s expanded “targeted killing” policy. He was deputy executive director of the CIA when the agency was engaged in “rendering” terror suspects to secret prisons, where they were “disappeared,” often for years, and subjected to torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, including waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and physical abuse. On the other hand, he has reportedly fought for greater transparency on the drone program, and has argued forcefully for trying terrorists in civilian courts and for closing Guantanamo. Who is the real John Brennan?

Jordan’s Syria Problem

Nicolas Pelham

Moises Saman/Magnum Photos

As the uprising in Syria takes on an increasingly sectarian cast, Jordan has become a crucial center for the Islamist opposition—fighters, regime defectors, and their supporters, who speak of replacing the secular-Alawite regime with a new government that brings a Sunni majority to power. More extremist groups, like Jabhat al-Nasra, an Al-Qaeda affiliate based in and around Aleppo that wants to establish a caliphate, have strengthened their numbers with Jordanian recruits in the south, and are fighting to take the capital first. And while Jordan’s own secular monarchy contends with hundreds of thousands of newly arrived Syrian refugees, it is fearful that the conflict is also creating a powerful cause for its own restless Islamists.

The Old Fears of China’s New Leaders

Jonathan Mirsky

Rene Burri/Magnum Photos

I felt a shudder of déjà vu watching the mounting protests inside China this week of the Communist Party for censoring an editorial in Southern Weekend, a well-known liberal newspaper in the southern city of Guangzhou. It is all too similar to the disciplining in April 1989 of another Chinese paper, The World Economic Herald in Shanghai, and its editor, Qin Benli—events that played an important part in the gathering unrest in Tiananmen Square.

A Masterpiece You Might Not Want to See

Francine Prose

Sony Pictures Classics

Michael Haneke’s Amour is the ultimate horror film. With its portrayal of the shocks, the cruelties and indignities to which old age and disease subject a happily married Parisian couple, it’s far scarier and more disturbing than Hitchcock’s Psycho, Kubrick’s The Shining, or Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, and like those films, it stays with you long after you might have chosen to forget it. Can a film be a masterpiece and still make you want to warn people not to see it? Can a movie make you think that an artist has done something extraordinary, original, extremely difficult—and yet you cannot imagine yourself uttering the words, “You’ve got to go see Amour”?

Wagner with Guns

Christopher Benfey

The Weinstein Company

Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is in love with European allusions. What might have started as a way of explaining Christoph Waltz’s German accent (he’s an immigrant, etc.) seems to have spread into the plot. Schultz is surprised to learn that Django’s wife is called Brünnhilde (actually, Broomhilda) von Shaft (via Wagner, presumably, and maybe Isaac Hayes), and has learned to speak excellent German from her German owners. On a leisurely evening among the fake boulders, Dr. Schultz tells Django the story of Siegfried’s rescue of Brünnhilde, foreshadowing the ring of fire that will eventually encircle Broomhilda’s place of imprisonment, and Django’s avenging raid, rifle in hand, to free her. A trained “Mandingo” fighter named Dartagnan inspires some back-and-forth about The Three Musketeers before the predictable payoff from Dr. Schultz: “Alexandre Dumas is black.”

Single Women and the Sitcom

Elaine Blair

Because of the conditions of their production, sitcoms tend to have something in common with life itself: no one knows in advance when they’re going to end. The full arc of a TV series is not usually mapped out in advance, the show is subject to abrupt cancellation, and there is no artistic consensus on how to handle its conclusion even when writers know that the end is coming; a television series might have an elaborate finale or simply finish out a given season without fanfare. All this gives most sitcoms a certain sense of indeterminacy—we’re bound for no obvious destination—that also applies to the characters’ relationships. As long as each episode has its own tidy, reassuring little ending, audiences tolerate a great deal of open-endedness when it comes to the hero or heroine’s romantic life.

Egypt: Whose Constitution?

Yasmine El Rashidi

Patrick Baz/Getty Images

One measure of how complicated Egyptian politics has become is that hardly anyone was surprised by the outcome of the constitutional referendum in late December. Amid the largest anti-government protests since the 2011 revolution, and following defections from his own cabinet and supporters, President Mohamed Morsi orchestrated a 64 percent approval vote for a new constitution. It had been hastily drawn up by his political allies and subjected to withering criticism; and there was low voter turnout and widespread indications of tampering. Nonetheless, the result seemed to show that, for all the millions of Egyptians who have lost patience with the new leadership, there are many others who continue to crave stability, even if the price is another authoritarian government.

A Year in Fragments

Charles Simic

Thomas Hoepker/Magnum Photos

On my walk this afternoon, I saw a store window full of manicurists at work, a green grocer on a sidewalk watering his tomatoes and peppers with a hose, and a pharmacist sell with a wink something to an old man.