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2010-08-20 16:04:00|  分类: 考研英语 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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Of course, aid sometimes supports companies. Aid agencies gave Mohammad Yunus, the father of microfinance, some of the money he used to experiment with unsecured business loans to groups of poor Bangladeshi women. Microfinance has since become one of the highest-profile examples of an anti-poverty programme that works. But this sort of use of aid money is the exception rather than the rule. Although poor countries lack a dynamic private sector, there is often little will from either governments or aid agencies to help one grow and thrive. More importantly, the aid system is still not used to evaluating its projects in terms of the impact they have on the local private sector.


援助体系有时会援助公司,这点毋庸置疑。微型金融的创始人Mohammad Yunus起初在尝试给孟加拉的贫困妇女提供无保障商业贷款时,他的部分资金就来自于援助机构。随后微型金融成为了受关注最高的成功扶贫项目之一。但援助资金的用途却很少如此。虽然贫困国家私有经济死气沉沉,但政府和援助大多数情况下都无意加以培植。而更重要的是,现在的援助体系仍然不习惯于将检验措施的有效性与其对当地私有经济的影响相挂钩。


Messrs Hubbard and Duggan have in mind a blueprint for change. Appropriately enough for a field where everything seems to have been tried at least once before, they turn to history. They point out that the Marshall Plan, used to fund post-war reconstruction in Europe, operated in part by providing resources that were lent to local businesses. These companies then repaid their governments in local currency, which could be used to fund infrastructure, for instance. The authors’ solution, therefore, is a sort of modified new Marshall Plan for poor countries, with aid going directly to developing-country businesses; poor countries would compete by carrying out microeconomic reforms that make it easy to start and build companies.




This is all sensible stuff. But as the authors well recognise, the political economy of a well-entrenched aid business will not welcome the sort of shake-up they have in mind. Nor is it obvious that what worked in post-war Europe, where the institutions that underpin a successful market economy were in place and human capital was not lacking, will work in Africa. The book’s account of how countries made seemingly counterproductive policy choices is simplistic at best. It is true that many poor countries embraced state planning after they became independent. But to claim that they did this partly because economists preferred focusing on what makes economies grow rather than paying attention to whether economic activity should be organised through markets or by the state is misleading.




Still, the book articulates a constructive set of ideas about how to reform foreign aid. It should interest those who are convinced by the conclusions of the critics of aid, but remain disappointed by the poverty of their prescriptions.




The state of America



An anthropologist on the run



Jan 28th 2010

From The Economist print edition


The Cracked Bell: America and the Afflictions of Liberty. By Tristram Riley-Smith. Skyhorse; 326 pages; $26.95. Constable; £8.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk




THE final clear note of the Liberty Bell sounded in Philadelphia for the last time on the occasion of George Washington’s birthday in February 1846. That same day, after almost a century of service, it cracked irreparably. For Tristram Riley-Smith, a British civil servant posted for several years to Her Majesty’s embassy in Washington, DC, and now back working in Whitehall, the silenced bell, which was cast in London’s Whitechapel, has provided not only the title of this engaging and ambitious book but also a metaphor for its central idea.




Early in its prehistory, the author argues, America imported from England an ideal of freedom that was tempered by the moral sensibility of the Scottish Enlightenment. In the pressured atmosphere of America itself, however, this ideal was to become distorted by a radical form of individualism, which is now undermining social cohesion. “There is something almost pathological,” he concludes, “about a national narrative that is intoxicated by the spirit of freedom while failing to pay sufficient attention to its meaning.”




What are the supposed “afflictions” of liberty in America? After little more than 50 pages the reader has already learned that Americans have made a religion out of commerce, are intellectually impatient and consume more than they conserve. Hurricane Katrina of 2005 was “engendered by the radiation of a consumer society”, and the subsequent looting of New Orleans exposed “the anger and appetite of an underclass that knew no other values than those preached in the Temple of Trade”. America’s “consumerist creed” creates a “candyfloss culture” dominated by instant gratification, the fallout from which includes “obesity, debt, poverty and pollution”. Thus Thomas Jefferson’s mandate to pursue happiness “falls like kerosene on the torch of liberty”, warming many but “scorching and blinding” countless others.




Irritated American readers tempted to give up at this point would do well to persevere. Thankfully, the author’s America becomes both less clichéd and less negative as he goes along. In the end a sharp eye, lively pen and a training in anthropology help Mr Riley-Smith to paint a vivid, impressionistic picture of a society constantly pushed and pulled between contradictory impulses: to forge a single identity while prizing diversity; to set some sort of social ballast alongside quicksilver individualism; to square a culture of innovation with politics that are throttled by special interests; to reconcile the American dream of achievement for all with the reality of personal failure for many. Among other things, such contradictions help to explain the American attachment to religion that puzzles many in Europe. “Submission to Jesus”, notes Mr Riley-Smith, “is an appealing alternative to the challenge of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps.”




In his darkest moments Mr Riley-Smith perceives America as “Hobbesville USA”, a lawless place where liberty has degenerated into licence, setting man against man in a Hobbesian dystopia. At other times he imagines America as Hobbiton in J.R. Tolkien’s fictional shire, whose denizens maintain a voluntary, ordered society where the sense of fellowship is strong and where government is small. “There is”, he admits, “a piece of Hobbiton meshed into all but the most dysfunctional communities of the USA, not least in the suburbs that harbour the bulk of the nation’s population.” But he believes that the first decade of the 21st century has seen the balance tip too far in the direction of hyper-individualism. Now the balance needs to be corrected. But how?





The answer, in so far as this book has one, is Barack Obama, whose mixed background and eloquent writing appear to have persuaded Mr Riley-Smith that this particular president has the “opportunity, the capacity and the vision” to recast the Liberty Bell and make room for the civic values such as equality, fairness and justice that America has neglected as a result of its disproportionate emphasis on personal freedom. How ironic that the book should be published just when a quirky election in Massachusetts has shown how little power even the most inspiring of presidents has to recast America. Some may say that this, too, is one of the “afflictions of liberty”. But maybe it is just liberty.




New fiction 1

新小说 1

The young and the restless



Jan 28th 2010

From The Economist print edition


British and American fiction gets off to a promising start in 2010





The Unnamed. By Joshua Ferris. Reagan Arthur; 310 pages; $24.99. Viking; £12.99. Buy from Amazon.com

《莫名者》.约书亚·费里斯. 里根亚瑟出版社;310页;24.99美元.海盗图书网;12.99英镑. 从亚马逊网购买


VLADIMIR NABOKOV, who liked to observe other people, once declared that “professional book reviewers are veritable bookmakers”. They gleefully declare who’s in, who’s out, and ask: “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” Hot young novelists, many believe, are meant to follow a predictable script. First, burst onto the scene with some bold, voice-of-the-generation debut—preferably with a comely author photo. Then, years later, deliver to the expectant public a sophomore effort that is, alas, disappointing. Critics favour lamenting squandered promise to praising yet another fine book from someone with unlined skin.



Not all writers oblige. Occasionally, a well-known name, such as Peter Carey, an Australian, will go through a fallow period only to enjoy a return to form; a rare few, having written a debut of note, then go on to pen an even better second book.




Joshua Ferris became an international success in 2007 with “Then We Came to the End”, a smart and breezy satire of office life in an advertising firm. Told in the collective first person, it was a stylish rendering of workplace ambivalence in the wake of the dotcom bust. (“We were delighted to have jobs. We bitched about them constantly.”) It wasn’t perfect, but it was fresh, with pages that turned freely and unpretentiously. At 32, Mr Ferris—gracious, photogenic, based in Brooklyn—was anointed a writer to watch.




Readers have not had long to wait for “The Unnamed”, his second novel. Anyone keen on another comedy of manners will be disappointed. So too will those who hoped to write off Mr Ferris as a victim of literary hype.




From the opening page, he makes it plain that this is a very different book. “It was the cruellest winter. The winds were rabid off the rivers. Ice came down like poisoned darts…They were waiting for him. They didn’t know they were waiting for him.” The novel seizes readers by the lapels with a story that feels serious and mysterious. Tim Farnsworth, a successful Manhattan lawyer in his 40s, returns home one night and declares to his wife, Jane, “It’s back.” What’s back? A strange, unknown disease—one that compels the hero to walk helplessly, incessantly, until he drops from exhaustion. After a reprieve, Tim is once again a victim of his wayward body, “the frightened soul inside the runaway train of mindless matter, peering out from the conductor’s car in horror.”




Tim is otherwise “horse-healthy” and content, a self-assured workaholic, devoted husband and father to a teenage daughter. But in a flash he is uncontrollably off, leaving his wife to find him passed out in a municipal parking place, a hospital or behind some chemist’s shop in the middle of the night. “Was she up for this?” Jane asks herself. These spells last for months at a time, and caring for him is a full-time job. But Jane has no choice: he could die out there. So she reads survivalist manuals, prepares his pack (a first-aid kit, snacks, GPS, a poncho—to carry at all times), and then waits for the call to pick him up. The only alternative is to tie him to the bed and ignore his screams.




Doctors around the world have no idea what the problem is. Tim, alone in his mutinous body, is left wondering whether the trouble is in his head. Readers wonder about this too. Here Mr Ferris achieves a clever balance: Tim behaves strangely, but isn’t that natural for anyone who loses the life he understood? Isn’t madness inevitable when suffering from something no one can explain? A subplot about a murder trial, which yields a haunting exchange between Tim and a possible suspect on a bridge at night, raises more questions about his mental stability. Yet Jane stops speculating that her husband might be crazy after she goes through the menopause. She could only imagine how infuriating it would be if a doctor insisted her hot flushes were “all in her head”.




Mr Ferris keeps his prose direct and uncluttered, with only occasional flourishes (Tim’s feet “were like two engorged and squishy hearts”; a diner’s “fluorescent brutality” is “the national colour of insomnia and transience”). His fondness for his characters sometimes veers towards the sentimental. Still, he exercises a mature writer’s restraint, content to leave questions unanswered. He also has a fine ear for speech, and a good sense of what feels real, even when chronicling the surreal.




Mr Ferris insists that “The Unnamed” is not a work of magical realism, but of “realist magic”. By inventing an incurable disease, he can meditate on its impact—on a marriage, on a career, on a character’s self-esteem—without dragging in the baggage of a familiar illness. This also amplifies the horror, leaving readers just as perplexed about what is afflicting Tim. Is this a physical or mental problem? Can a line be drawn between the two? In the last third of the book, Tim gives himself over to his need to walk. Raving and deteriorating, he lets his legs take him across the country, living a hobo’s life without possessions or attachments (“To own something was to keep it on his back or risk losing it forever”). Yet Tim’s dilemmas still feel real and his needs sympathetic. How does he go on? How does anyone?




This is a story about a man with a walking problem, but it is also a larger tale about struggling with uncertainty. Scattered throughout the novel are some odd events: blizzards, floods, fires, dying bees. Mr Ferris is reminding us of how little we know about the world we live in, and how little we know about ourselves within it, and yet we persist. This is not to say that Tim’s walking is some clunky metaphor. Mr Ferris is wise enough not to teach a lesson. Rather, he has teased ordinary circumstances into something extraordinary, which is exactly what we want our fiction writers to do.




Detroit's blues






Jan 14th 2010

From The Economist print edition




Crash Course: The American Automobile Industry’s Road From Glory to Disaster. By Paul Ingrassia. Random House; 306 pages; $26. Buy from Amazon.com



ON JUNE 1st last year, General Motors, the world’s largest car company until 2008 (when Toyota overtook it), filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection with liabilities that were twice its assets. A month earlier Chrysler, the smallest of Detroit’s so-called Big Three carmakers, had also gone belly-up. Ford, which had mortgaged itself to the hilt three years earlier, only narrowly escaped the same fate.




The double-whammy of petrol at $4 a gallon in the summer of 2008 rapidly followed by the freezing of the credit markets after the Lehman Brothers bust had finally brought America’s native car industry to its knees. Yet only a decade earlier, GM, Ford and Chrysler were minting money, churning out the highly profitable pickups and SUVs that Americans loved and only Detroit knew how to make.




A great deal has been written about the decline of America’s carmakers (not least in this newspaper), but so far there have been few books on the subject, perhaps because until the middle of last year there seemed to be no obvious denouement. The same could be said again now. Thanks to $50 billion in federal loans for GM and $16 billion for Chrysler and the government-supervised “quick rinse” bankruptcies that magically made unsupportable liabilities disappear, both companies emerged from Chapter 11 after little more than 40 days, leaner, fitter and supposedly ready to fight another day.




Nonetheless, for Paul Ingrassia, a retired Wall Street Journal reporter and editor, the dramas of 2009 are more than enough to warrant an account of Detroit’s history, from the birth of carmaking in America more than a century ago through its glory years during the long post-war boom to its mounting problems in the 1980s, its brief recovery in the 1990s and its eventual collapse. For Mr Ingrassia, there are no real villains, but lots of people who could and should have done better.


尽管如此,对华尔街日报的退休记者及编辑保罗?英格拉西亚(Paul Ingrassia)来说,2009年发生的种种就如同戏剧一般,已经足够写一部底特律的历史了:从一个世纪前汽车制造业在美国诞生,到战后的长期繁荣,到1980年代问题不断积累,1990年代的短暂恢复,再到最终的崩溃。对英格拉西亚先生来说,这里面没有真正的罪大恶极之人,但是许多人本来可以而且应该做得更好。


Among them are successive leaders of the United Auto Workers union, who extracted extraordinarily generous wages and benefits for their mainly unskilled members during the fat years when the car companies were throwing off more cash than they knew what to do with. But they then resolutely opposed any changes to pay and conditions long after it was obvious that the old model had been consigned to obsolescence, as surely as tail fins, by the new non-union Asian-brand “transplant” factories springing up in the southern states. One example of Detroit’s exceptionalism was the notorious “jobs bank” that paid laid-off workers more than 90% of their salary indefinitely just to sit around and play cards or watch television.




The bosses also get their share of the blame for failing to confront reality and resorting to quick fix “game-changing” strategies, such as GM’s launch of its Saturn brand, which were either ditched after a few years or undermined by union intransigence and management cowardice. Rick Wagoner, the chief executive of GM for nearly a decade, on whose watch the company lost at least $85 billion, became the personification of Detroit’s tragedy. Intelligent, decent and charming, Mr Wagoner was revered at GM right up to the day in March last year when the head of President Obama’s car task-force told him that his time was up. Mr Wagoner placed two disastrous bets during his catastrophic stewardship of GM. The first was that petrol prices would stay low, thus allowing GM to concentrate on building gas-guzzling trucks rather than spend money on developing a competitive range of cars to take on the Japanese. The second was that he could win sufficient concessions from the UAW to restore GM to viability through reasoned negotiation rather than the knock-down, drag-out fight that the urgency of the situation demanded.


公司老总们也有责任,他们没能面对现实,而是依赖于作为权宜之计的“行业改变”策略,例如通用开始上马“土星”(Saturn)牌汽车,这些办法或者数年之后被迫终止,或者被工会的毫不妥协以及管理上的谨小慎微所破坏。瑞克?瓦格纳(Rick Wagoner),做了通用几乎十年的首席执行官,在其任上公司损失了至少850亿美元,成了底特律悲剧的代表人物。聪明,得体,风度迷人,瓦格纳先生在通用备受尊敬,直到去年三月份的一天奥巴马总统的汽车问题特别小组负责人告诉他他大限已到。瓦格纳先生在掌管通用期间错下了两个灾难性的赌注。一是认为油价将会保持低水平,因此让通用集中精力制造耗油量大的卡车,而不是花钱开发一些具有竞争力的车来与日本人较量。二是他认为自己能够通过理性的沟通而非紧迫的实际情况所要求的拼死战斗从汽车工人联合工会那里赢得足够让步以让通用恢复活力,


Mr Ingrassia tells Detroit’s story with economy, vigour and restrained fury. But the book takes on the feel of a long, not especially revelatory, magazine article as the author gets nearer to the most recent events. He is also reluctant to predict what may lie ahead for GM (shorn of brands and debt, but owned by the government), Chrysler (under the management of Italy’s Fiat) and Ford (well-managed, valiantly avoiding the stigma of bankruptcy and bail-out, but still groaning under the weight of an only partially restructured balance sheet). That may be wise. Mr Ingrassia’s last book, which came out in 1994, was entitled “Comeback: the Fall and Rise of the American Automobile Industry”.




The science of music



Sounds wonderful



Feb 4th 2010 | From The Economist print edition


The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can’t Do Without It. By Philip Ball. Bodley Head; 452 pages; £20. Buy from Amazon.co.uk


音乐本能:音乐的作用机理及人们欲罢不能的缘由。Philip Ball著,牛津大学出版社;452页; Amazon.co.uk购买价:20英镑。


MUSIC is a mystery. It is unique to the human race: no other species produces elaborate sound for no particular reason. It has been, and remains, part of every known civilisation on Earth. Lengths of bone fashioned into flutes were in use 40,000 years ago. And it engages people’s attention more comprehensively than almost anything else: scans show that when people listen to music, virtually every area of their brain becomes more active.




Yet it serves no obvious adaptive purpose. Charles Darwin, in “The Descent of Man”, noted that “neither the enjoyment nor the capacity of producing musical notes are faculties of the least direct use to man in reference to his ordinary habits of life.” Unwilling to believe that music was altogether useless, Darwin concluded that it may have made man’s ancestors more successful at mating. Yet if that were so, you might expect one gender to be musically more gifted than the other, and there is no evidence of that. So what is the point of music?




Steven Pinker, a cognitive psychologist best known for his book “The Language Instinct”, has called music “auditory cheesecake, an exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of at least six of our mental faculties.” If it vanished from our species, he said, “the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged.” Others have argued that, on the contrary, music, along with art and literature, is part of what makes people human; its absence would have a brutalising effect. Philip Ball, a British science writer and an avid music enthusiast, comes down somewhere in the middle. He says that music is ingrained in our auditory, cognitive and motor functions. We have a music instinct as much as a language instinct, and could not rid ourselves of it if we tried.


认知心理学家Steven Pinker因作品“语言的本能”而出名,他将音乐称为“听觉上的奶酪蛋糕,一份精心制作的高级甜点,至少能对六种心理官能的敏感点有所刺激。”他说,如果人类突然失去音乐,“我们的生活方式将几乎一成不变。”有人争论认为,与此相反,音乐及艺术和文学是人之所以为人的一部分;没有音乐恐怕会使人更具兽性。英国科学作家及音乐的狂热爱好者Philip Ball在其中有所领悟。他认为音乐根植于人们的听觉、知觉和运动技能之中。人类的音乐禀赋同语言不相上下,摆脱音乐可谓欲罢而不能。


Music can mean different things in different cultures. But although it is culturally specific, some of its building blocks are universal: melody, harmony, rhythm, the timbre produced by a variety of instruments and the distinctive style added by particular composers. Almost all musical systems are based on scales spanning an octave—the note that sounds the same as the one you started off with, but at a higher or lower pitch. Pythagoras, a Greek philosopher who lived around 500BC, is said to have discovered that notes that sound harmonious together have simple ratios between their frequencies: for example, one that is an octave higher than another has double the frequency. The Pythagorean “diatonic” scale, still the basis of most Western music, is made up from seven notes. But it is far from the only one. Javanese gamelan uses two scales with different numbers of notes; North Indian music has 32 different scales. Arnold Schoenberg devised a 12-tone scheme of atonal music about a century ago.


音乐的意义因不同文化而异。但是,即使音乐带有文化特殊性,其某些构建模块却具有普适性:节奏、和谐、韵律、不同乐器产生的音色和特别作曲家增添的迥异乐风。几乎所有的音乐体系都是基于所跨越的八度音阶范围——这一音符的发音同开始时的完全一样,只是音高或高或低。据说,公元前500年左右,希腊哲学家毕达哥拉斯已经发现了发音和谐的音符在频率之间成简单比例:例如,高一个八度的音符具有两倍的频率。毕氏“全音阶”范围仍然是多数西方音乐的基石,它由七个音符组成。但是,这远不是仅有的一个。爪哇的加麦兰乐器使用两个音阶范围,每个音阶具有不同的音符数;北美印第安音乐具有32个不同音阶范围。一个世纪以前,Arnold Schoenberg已经设计出一种无调音乐,由12音色组合而成。


Mr Ball goes through each component of music in turn to explain how and why it works, using plentiful examples drawn from a refreshingly wide range of different kinds of music, from Bach to the Beatles, and from nursery rhymes to jazz. If you can read music, you will find yourself humming aloud to see what he means. If you can’t, you might occasionally get lost among the technicalities. But before things get too rarefied, Mr Ball’s facility for conveying complex facts in simple language comes to the rescue.




His basic message is encouraging and uplifting: people know much more about music than they think. They start picking up the rules from the day they are born, perhaps even before, by hearing it all around them. Very young children can tell if a tune or harmony is not quite right. One of the joys of listening to music is a general familiarity with the way it is put together: to know roughly what to expect, then to see in what particular ways your expectations will be met or exceeded. Most adults can differentiate between kinds of music even if they have had no training.




Music is completely sui generis. It should not tell a non-musical story; the listener will decode it for himself. Many, perhaps most, people have experienced a sudden rush of emotion on hearing a particular piece of music; a thrill or chill, a sense of excitement or exhilaration, a feeling of being swept away by it. They may even be moved to tears, without being able to tell why. Musical analysts have tried hard to find out how this happens, but with little success. Perhaps some mysteries are best preserved.




Carlo Gesualdo



Lurid rhythms

天籁之音 诡异之乐


Jan 21st 2010

From The Economist print edition


The Gesualdo Hex: Music, Myth, and Memory. By Glenn Watkins. W. W. Norton; 416 pages; $39.95 and £28. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk




THE lives of 16th-century composers of unaccompanied madrigals do not by and large make promising subjects for lurid films and operas. Carlo Gesualdo, prince of Venosa (near Naples), is the exception. Descended from Norman rulers of Sicily and a Medici mother, he took a twice-widowed 24-year-old bride when he was 20, then bloodily murdered her and her lover (as local custom required) when his uncle, having himself failed to seduce her, informed Carlo of his wife’s infidelity. Things went downhill from there. The prince abused his next wife, and was subject to fits of melancholy that could be lifted only by thrice-daily beatings from a team of young men retained for the purpose. He ended his life tormented by the spells and potions of a rejected former concubine who turned to witchcraft.




Werner Herzog made a mountain out of this in his “Death for Five Voices”, purportedly a documentary, in 1995. In the same year, Alfred Schnittke’s opera about Gesualdo added the (false) detail that he killed his own child, as if the facts were not colourful enough already. Aldous Huxley, who listened to Gesualdo’s music while taking mescaline, was so carried away by it that he once made up stories about him in a lecture. Bernardo Bertolucci has a film project about Gesualdo that is in development now. But it is the eerie passion of Gesualdo’s music, not the drama of his life, which led Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg to him. Both composers regarded Gesualdo as to some extent a model for their own musical innovations.




An 18th-century history of music described Gesualdo’s harmonies, which veer in and out of familiar scales, as “harsh, crude and licentious”. In 1956 Time magazine headlined a review of a Gesualdo recording as “Ahead of his time”, a questionable idea since it presupposes that the history of music is travelling in a single preordained direction. There was a boom of interest in Gesualdo among musicologists in the 1950s, and although performance of his music continues to thrive, Glenn Watkins, an American scholar of renaissance music and the leading authority on Gesualdo’s works, reports that academic interest in him is waning, for now. Mr Watkins published a study of Gesualdo’s life and music, with a preface by Stravinsky, in 1973; his new book traces the ebb and flow of Gesualdo’s reputation over the centuries, and tries to explain it.


     十八世纪的音乐史著形容杰氏的和声(将通常的音阶作突然性的高低转换) “刺激、粗俗、放肆”。 1956年,《时代》杂志发表头条文章《超越其所处时代的人》,这是一篇关于杰氏的评论文章,是一篇其表达的观点存疑的文章,因为它假定——音乐史是在单一的预定轨道上行驶。上世纪50年代,在音乐家圈子里,杰氏音乐突然成为热点,尽管其持续繁荣,但美国文艺复兴音乐学者、杰氏作品权威专家格伦?沃特金斯指出:而今,对于杰氏的学术兴趣正在消退。1973年,沃特金斯先生出版了一部杰苏氏生平及音乐成就的研究新著(由史达拉汶斯基作的序);他的这部新著追溯了几个世纪来杰氏声名的起起落落,并力图释明缘何起起落落。


But it does not try very hard. Mr Watkins gets lost rambling among minor details, and prefers musing over questions to answering them. He makes no attempt to explain musical terms: readers who do not know what a “diatonic, homophonic pronouncement of a frottola rhythm” is will be none the wiser after reading about it here. Mr Watkins writes that this book is part historiography, part cultural history, part autobiography, and “might well be called a notebook”. This is one notebook which probably should have remained in a drawer.




Human identity



An elusive illusion



Dec 17th 2009 From The Economist print edition


A scientific exhibition examines what makes human beings individuals



WITH the construction of the railways in the 19th century, a new sociological phenomenon was born: the travelling criminal. Until then, police had relied on local communities to recognise a bad apple in their midst, but now the felons were on the move, wreaking havoc in communities which had no knowledge of their past and hence no reason to be wary. For law enforcers trying to contain the problem by sharing descriptions of known recidivists, it became imperative to answer one question: what is it that identifies someone as a particular person?


十九世纪随着铁路的兴建,一种新型的社会现象诞生了:流动犯罪。以前,警方依靠地方社区的帮助来识别人群中的不法分子。 但流动作恶出现后,社区对犯罪人员的过去一无所知,预先防范也就无从谈起。为降低危害,执法人员公布了对已知惯犯的特征描述。因此我们有必要提出一个问题:怎样识别某个特定人员的身份呢?


This question has long troubled humanity, of course, and it is explored in all its facets in a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London. One practical application lies in the forensic arena. The first solution offered, branding, was simple and effective. But even in a society that preferred to believe that criminals were born and not made, this was soon deemed unacceptable. So there was a need to find something innate to human beings that remains constant from the cradle to the grave, and that is sufficiently differentiated in the population to make it useful in identifying individuals.




Alphonse Bertillon, who appears in one of the identity cards he invented, came up with a system that combined photography (the profile and face-on photos that police still use today) with a range of bodily measurements. His system was widely taken up until Sir Francis Galton, a colleague, rival and inveterate classifier, realised the individualising potential of fingerprints. These held sway for a century until, in 1984, Sir Alec Jeffreys of Leicester University stumbled on an even more powerful personal barcode: DNA.




Embedded in this short history is all the elusiveness of human identity; each new advance reveals the flaws in earlier systems. Go to the website of the New York-based Innocence Project to see the latest tally of exonerations that have taken place in America, after DNA evidence showed those convictions to be unsafe. At the time of writing, the figure comes to 246. Mistaken eyewitness identification is a major culprit, but fingerprint misidentification is cited too.




Ironically, our facility for recognising faces may be to blame. The brain has evolved to look for patterns, and when one is incomplete it will fill in the gaps, sometimes leaping to the wrong conclusion, as Brandon Mayfield, an Oregon lawyer, discovered when he was wrongly implicated in the 2004 Madrid bombings on the basis of a single, poor-quality fingerprint.




So what of DNA? Within hours of reaching a crime scene, police may now have information that helps identify suspects. In the courtroom, DNA trumps all other identifiers. But it has its limitations. With ever more minute quantities becoming detectable, contamination is a serious issue. The Phantom of Heilbronn murdered her way across Europe until, last March, she was discovered not to exist. The DNA found at each crime scene actually came from a female worker in the factory that manufactured the cotton swabs used to collect evidence.




There is another problem with DNA. When the technology allows for a person’s entire genome to be read from a single drop of blood, it may well constitute a gold standard for identification. But for now analysts work with a snapshot of that genome, represented by an arbitrary number of markers spaced along it. If there are gaps to be filled, the brain will fill them, which could make it vulnerable to the same kind of errors as its predecessors.




From the very real travelling criminal, via the Phantom of Heilbronn, the Wellcome exhibition returns to the central question. Perhaps identity, like beauty, lies in the eye of the beholder, and if people want to see one and not the other, they need to invent a new way of looking.




Cutting down on errors



Ticking off



Jan 14th 2010

From The Economist print edition



The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. By Atul Gawande. Metropolitan; 209 pages; $24.50. Profile; £12.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk




ON OCTOBER 30th 1935, the US Army Air Corps held a competition to see which company would build the country’s next-generation of long-range bombers. The result looked preordained. Boeing’s “flying fortress” could fly farther and faster than any previous bomber, and carry more bombs. Martin and Douglas’s offering was a pup by comparison. But the fortress crashed shortly after take-off. Martin and Douglas won by default and Boeing almost went bankrupt.




“The Checklist Manifesto” is both a meditation on the growing complexity of the world and a how-to book on coping with that complexity. Atul Gawande argues that humanity is in danger of sinking under the weight of knowledge, as scientists accumulate ever more information and the professions splinter into minute varying specialities. The reason why the flying fortress crashed was that, in the words of a contemporary newspaper, it was “too much airplane for one man to fly”. Confronted with four engines rather than two, the pilot forgot to release a vital locking mechanism.



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