How to Beat a Dead Octopus

Jana Prikryl

In his poem “Some General Instructions,” which The New York Review published in 1975, Kenneth Koch offered advice on how to live. “Be careful not to set fire/To a friend’s house.” “When taking pills, be sure/You know what they are.” “To ‘cure’ a dead octopus/You hold it by one leg and bang it against a rock.” But quoting bits of the poem seems a falsification, because its true effects are cumulative—it is 233 lines long, a punch-drunk sort of length, as if its principal message were that one should never, in this life, worry about going over quota—and much of its alternating lyricism and irony depend on the coloring that each line receives from its placement above or below another. Koch stuck to ordinary language—the dangerously trite language of self-help manuals—and somehow walked the knife’s edge between wicked parody and an honest urgency that acknowledged the reader’s need to know how to exist in the world. “Think of what you feel/Secretly, and how music has imitated that. Make a moue.” Besides which, he was not afraid of humor—not just as an ornament, but as the engine driving serious self-examination, which is another way of saying that this extravagantly long poem is an enactment of stylistic humility. It never claims to know more than just what is contained in each line—for example, how to cure an octopus.

The Dalai Lama’s ‘Deception’: Why a Seventeenth-Century Decree Matters to Beijing

Robert Barnett

Courtesy of Himalayan Art Resources

The Dalai Lama’s recent announcement of his planned retirement was not well received by China’s Foreign Ministry, whose spokeswoman described it as an attempt “to deceive the international community.” Many assumed this to be a reference to the fact that even after the Tibetan leader gives up his official position within the exile Tibetan administration, he will continue to travel, give speeches, and be a symbolic leader to Tibetans, a source of considerable frustration for Beijing. But Chinese officials also appear to be worried about something rather more obscure: a little-known seventeenth-century precedent in which the retirement of a Dalai Lama concealed a convoluted plot to prevent China from choosing his successor.

For this is not the first time that the Dalai Lama of Tibet has issued a decree announcing that a younger, largely unknown man is to take over as the political leader of the Tibetan people. It happened before—in 1679. To explain why this detail of history matters to the Chinese government requires a little background.

Academic Freedom After the Cronon Controversy

Anthony Grafton

AP Photo/Wisconsin State Journal/Michael P. King

Many observers are worried about the latest skirmish in the battle to destroy American higher education, which involves the distinguished environmental historian William Cronon at the University of Wisconsin. As has now been widely reported, on March 17, Stephan Thompson—an operative for the Republican Party of Wisconsin—used the state’s Open Documents law to demand copies of all emails to and from Cronon since January 1 that mention Wisconsin governor Scott Walker or any of a number of other words related to the state’s recent labor debates. Professor Cronon had written critically on his blog Scholar as Citizen of Wisconsin Republicans’ recent efforts to curb the rights of state workers, and Thompson clearly hoped to catch him using his university email to engage in pro-union or pro-Democratic politics, which would violate state law.

Interests vs. Values? Misunderstanding Obama’s Libya Strategy

Anne-Marie Slaughter

President Obama made an important contribution to the Libya debate in his speech Monday night by rejecting the over-worked dichotomy between America’s strategic interests and its core values. Most of the media coverage of the debate relied on this familiar trope. On March 16, at the beginning of the critical week that resulted in a UN resolution and the start of air strikes two days later, the Times reported that “senior officials, notably the national security adviser, Thomas E. Donilon, have made it clear that the United States does not view Libya as a vital strategic interest.” After the President made the decision to support a no fly zone, the press continued to refer to this dichotomy, but now asserted that values had triumphed over interests. The Times story of the crucial meetings in which the decisions were made—the story which, not coincidentally, provided the original fodder for the “women go to war” saga—began: “Ever since the democracy protests in the region began three months ago, the Obama administration has struggled to balance America’s national security interests against support for democratic principles.”

The Art Destroyers

Garry Wills

Palacio de Bellas Artes

The newly elected governor of Maine, Paul LePage, is outspoken. He said that after his election readers could expect to see in their newspapers, “LePage tells Obama to go to hell.” When he refused to attend a Martin Luther King Day event, he said of the NAACP, “Tell them they can kiss my butt.” Not to be outdone by other Republican governors who are attacking unions, over the weekend he ordered the removal of a 36-foot mural celebrating labor from the lobby of the state Labor Department building in Augusta, and is retitling its conference rooms to remove the names of past labor leaders.

Six Reasons Google Books Failed

Robert Darnton

Judge Denny Chin’s opinion in rejecting the settlement between Google and the authors and publishers who sued it for infringement of their copyrights can be read as both as a map of wrong turns taken in the past and as an invitation to design a better route into the digital future. Extrapolating from the dense, 48-page text that accompanied the judge’s March 23 decision, it is possible to locate six crucial points where things went awry:

First, Google abandoned its original plan to digitize books in order to provide online searching. According to that plan, you would have been able to use Google to search the contents of books for a particular word or brief passage, but would not have been able to view or download a lengthy excerpt or an entire book. Thus, Google could have justified its display of snippets of text in the search results by invoking the doctrine of fair use. In this way, it might have won its case against the plaintiffs, the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers, and at the same time it could have helped revive fair use as a legitimate means of spreading knowledge—for example, in making digitized material available for teaching purposes.

Tame Jane

Robert Gottlieb

Laurie Sparham/Focus Features

The new film version of Jane Eyre isn’t all bad, but it’s all wrong. The story, despite a confusing flashback structure, is coherent. The dialogue is satisfying. The look is convincing. What’s lacking is Jane Eyre itself—Charlotte Brontë’s feverish inner world of anguish and fury.

Japan’s Radiation Scare: The Good News and the Bad

Jeremy Bernstein

US Nuclear Regulatory Commission

In news coverage of the unfolding disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, two themes have been particularly prominent. One is the paramount problem of potentially lethal radiation being released from the stricken reactors to a large area of Japan and beyond. Even now, new reports of radiation continue to surface. The second—with implications for nuclear facilities around the world—is the vulnerable design of the plant’s six reactors and their storage pools for nuclear waste, all of which were at risk of losing their cooling water and could have caught fire in the days after the earthquake. Often missing in this discussion, however, is an analysis of the particular kind of radiation that has been detected and what it may reveal about the accident.

Egypt’s First Vote

Yasmine El Rashidi

Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images

To judge by the streets of Cairo on the morning of March 19, it seemed that a good chunk of my city’s 19 million residents were taking part in the constitutional referendum. The roaring old school buses that rattle my windows when they pass in the morning were not to be heard, there were hardly any cars on the usually clogged streets, and the daily flood of people making their way through the dense web of thoroughfares and alleyways was absent. The only signs of traffic or crowds were around the hundreds of designated polling stations. It had been nearly five weeks since protesters in Tahrir Square had brought down President Hosni Mubarak, and Egyptians all over the country were voting on an all-or-nothing package of nine constitutional amendments. A win for the Yes votes promised to lead to parliamentary elections as early as June, returning power to a civilian government following the military’s temporary takeover. If the No votes prevailed, it might start the process of political reform over again, or it might cause the military to pursue a different strategy.

Who Would Dare?

Roberto Bolaño

Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos

The books that I remember best are the ones I stole in Mexico City, between the ages of sixteen and nineteen, and the ones I bought in Chile when I was twenty, during the first few months of the coup. In Mexico there was an incredible bookstore. It was called the Glass Bookstore and it was on the Alameda. Its walls, even the ceiling, were glass. Glass and iron beams. From the outside, it seemed an impossible place to steal from. And yet prudence was overcome by the temptation to try and after a while I made the attempt.