Best books about what it’s like to be old

In addition to the end-of-civilization meme, I seem to be very much attracted about books that talk about what it’s like to be old. I am not seriously preparing for Apocalypse, but the thought of preparing for old age does occur to me. Not that I read for that purpose explicitly; but perhaps there is a hint of foresight in preferring to learn about what’s ahead, rather than to reminisce in what’s been left behind.

Here, in no particular order, a few books on the topic.

  • The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood. Delightful.
  • A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, Marina Lewycka. Somewhat whimsical, but with more than a ring of truth behind the farcical surface.
  • Exit Ghost, Philip Roth. For the lowdown on what it’s like to be impotent and incontinent and unwilling to accept it.
  • Saturday, Ian McEwan. An Alzheimer’s patient, from her son’s point of view.
  • Elegy for Iris, John Bayley. A real – not a fictional – Alzheimer’s patient, author and philosopher Iris Murdoch. In her husband’s words.
  • Slow Man, J. M. Coetzee.
  • Man in the Dark, Paul Auster.

What would you add? Yourcenar’s Mémoires d’Hadrien, perhaps?

Italian law turns increasingly illiberal. For bloggers too

The Italian Senate has passed a law-and-order bill that, pandering to fears about immigration-related crime, would severely restrict human and civil rights for immigrants, for the homeless, and possibly for Internet users. (The bill, sponsored by the Northern League,  now goes to the House).

If the bill becomes law in its current form:

  • Doctors will be allowed to breach professional secrecy and may report to the authorities any foreigners who seek treatment and do not appear to be legally in the country. Both doctor’s groups and the Catholic church have spoken out against the measure.
  • Vigilante groups will be allowed to start street patrols to monitor and report “events that can cause harm to public security, or situations of environmental distress”.
  • Foreigners who marry an Italian citizen will have to wait two years before obtaining Italian citizenship.
  • Homeless people will have to be registered as such in a database to be maintained by the Interior Ministry.

Finally, in a move that caused much outcry in the Internet community, the Christian Democrats’ UDC centrist party introduced an amendment that shows how little our politicians understand the Internet – not merely how online social dynamics work, but even what is technically feasible and what isn’t. If the bill becomes law, any time someone is suspected of instigating criminal behavior via the Internet, the Interior Ministry may request ISPs to put in place “filtering tools” so that the offending content is blocked from public view; ISPs who do not comply within 24 hours would be fined by €50-250,000. The amendment has apparently been introduced in response to the senseless noise created by some Facebook groups celebrating rapists and the Mafia. Yet, internet experts point out that there is no way to block a single offending piece of content: Italy’s government would then require ISPs to block entire domains. Star blogger Beppe Grillo has called for civil disobedience.

Brandeis and the Rose Art Museum: should a university not sell its collection?

The art world is loudly complaining about the decision of the trustees of Brandeis University to face the financial crisis by, among other measures, selling the modern and contemporary art collection housed in the university’s Rose Art Museum. Reactions so far call the decision “astonishing”, “a shame”, “unprincipled”, “a complete wrong message to donors“, and “bad economics” (because art, like other asset classes, is likely to fetch less now than it would have in the good times). The Association of Art Museum Directors said it is “shocked and dismayed” by plans to close the Rose.

It doesn’t end here. The Massachussetts Attorney General is to conduct a detailed review of the decision. A spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s office said: “They are saying that civilization doesn’t matter in the name of some kind of bottom line.”

Readers, you know how much I love modern and contemporary art. You know how passionate I am about it. Yet, I have to wonder: have all these people been living with their heads under the sand for the last year or so? I told you months ago that there was going to be less money for art. The writing was on the wall. It is not that civilization doesn’t matter – it matters enourmously, indeed. But in a crisis, you do what you gotta do.

So, let me come out and say it. I think the Brandeis trustees made the right decision. It is indeed a pity that the Rose has become a luxury that the university can no longer afford to keep, but if the alternatives are worse (freezing faculty hiring, cutting back on financial aid for students), then it is the right decision. If Stanford President John Hennessy wrote me another letter, saying this time that the trustees have decided to sell off the university’s art holdings, I would be saddened, but I would not complain. Let alone call the decision “unprincipled”.

The Attorney General’s spokeswoman also said: “It’s essential that students have access to real works of art […] By subtracting the works of art from a college environment, you are betraying an enormous trust.” With all due respect, this is ridiculous. College fees are high, but do not include the permanent guarantee that you will have an art museum in your backyard, for your convenience. (Annual visitor numbers at the Rose were 13,000-15,000: a tiny number. The archeological digs at Venosa, near Potenza in Southern Italy, pull in more than that, according to 2007 data from the Italian Culture Ministry). For centuries, art students have been used to traveling, to go and study art where the art is. That’s how one becomes an artist (or a curator, or a critic, or whatever). Do we really want a generation of couch potato art students?

Collections are built and dispersed; at the end of February, the collection built up by Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé will be auctioned off by Christie’s, in what is likely to be the largest sale of a private collection ever. Sure, those pieces were bought and not donated. But how many donor’s grants to the Rose stipulated that the works could never be sold under any circumstances, including a global financial crisis that shrinks the university endowment at unprecedented speeds? and what does “never” mean? until the donor’s last descendant has died? until the artist’s work has gone out of fashion – and lost value? until the end of the universe? And if you were a donor, would you make such a draconian stipulation? If you were a museum, would you accept it?

Sure, the university could have sought students’ opinions before the trustees had to decide. Yet the students’ protest sounds disingenuous, as they know perfectly well that they would have protested a lot more if the university had decided to save the Rose but cut back on, say, student dorms and have students sleep in tents out there in the snow. The decision-making process could, and probably should, have been more participative. But at the end of the day, students are there to study, and administrators are there to administer: somebody has to make decisions. And Brandeis President Jehuda Reinharz and the trustees, in this case, made the right one.

For-profit activism: is Virgance showing the way?

Serial entrepreneur Steve Newcomb didn’t quite sit back and enjoy Martinis after selling Powerset to Microsoft. Barely six months after compelting that deal, he is back in the limelight as a co-founder at Virgance, a company that means to find and develop small, positive activism campaigns and scale them into global movements.

“I started looking at activism as a potential start-up industry,” he says […] Mr Newcomb says being a for-profit company enables it to grow faster and achieve more social impact than a non-profit, because it can afford to pay its employees competitive salaries and can raise capital from investors, rather than relying on donations.

Full Economist article here.