A (satirical) letter to the Amherst class of '74, which just saw one of its alums dislodged from the highest political office in Greece by a classmate
Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou talks with conservative opposition leader Antonis Samaras after meeting on new austerity measures / AP
To: Amherst College Class of 1974
From: Your Class Secretary
In Re: Events in Greece
Friends, I assumed that our most notable contribution to public affairs this year was lawyer Mike Kahn '74 of St. Louis sparring in federal court with lawyer Fred Sperling '75 of Chicago over whether "Hangover Part II" violated a tattoo artist's copyright in using a face tattoo originally made for ex-boxer Mike Tyson.
But now comes the near collapse of the Greek economy and the fall of its government. We have impacted world events.
We thank classmate Antonis Samaras and his roommate, George Papandreou, who entered with us but graduated with the class of '75. It is, after all, a frequent challenge extracting much for the newsletter, given our generally solid but uneventful middle-class lives, replete with the kids, the grandkids, the vacation in India, or the recent Irish golfing trek with fraternity brothers.
Andonis, as we knew him and as he's still listed in college records, just helped topple George as prime minister. Many of you apparently forgot that he was in Greek politics, too, as leader of a New Democracy Party dead set against all those austerity measures being jammed down George's throat.
Theirs is a most curious political rivalry-cum-friendship between children of the Greek elite. It's got a few psycho-emotional tinges of Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich back in the day here. But, of course, Gingrich messed up, never knocked Clinton off his perch, as has Andonis with George, and now is a secondary player in the Herman Cain presidential soap opera.
Our brush with both came at what was still a small, all-male college in the bucolic enfolds of western Massachusetts. Debates over going co-ed competed with rather homogenous opposition to the Vietnam War and protests at an Air Force base which got a few of us arrested.
Indeed, we could place Hanoi on a map easier than Athens, and didn't really care much about a topic of true concern to Andonis and George, namely the U.S.-backed military junta ruling their country. But they did stick out, even if co-joined to us in their self-confident, care-free, and entitled ways.
It wasn't just that George was a pretty fair guitar player who tended toward the blue jeans that were a de facto liberal arts uniform, or that Andonis was always so debonair and seemed to sleep in that crisp blue blazer.
"I remember them as impossibly handsome, mythical characters who lived on another planet, with the most gorgeous girls in the Pioneer Valley in their clique of aristocratic jet-setting friends," says Michael Rogawski, class of '74 and chair of the department of neurology at the University of California at Davis. "They would be sighted with unapproachable beauties, beaming as if posing in a Brooks Brothers catalogue shoot."
They were dutiful students, like most of us, and in freshman year Philosophy 11, Andonis preferred reading Plato's Republic in the original ancient Greek as others plodded through the English translation. He and the professor often discussed the inadequacy of the translation and, recalls classmate Tom Quinn, a cardiologist in Northampton, Massachusetts, made the sessions a real "welcome to Amherst and maybe you don't belong here experience for me."
After freshman year, Cully Wilcoxon, who is a cellist and former academic who lives in Devizes, Wiltshire, visited Andonis in Athens for a month and remembers both his magnanimity and a distinct political discretion.
Wilcoxon was a "naïve Southern boy" struck by the generosity and kindness of the Samaras family, which was led by Andonis' prominent doctor father. In fact, he essentially used the family manse and servants as home base while he traveled the Peloponnesus. But there were reminders of larger realities that impacted Andonis and George in primal ways we couldn't fully appreciate.
"It was the era of the Colonels and I was walking once with Andonis below the Acropolis when soldiers strolled towards us. He told me to speak loudly in English, to deflect attention," recalls Wilcoxon in a note from England.
Gordon Wiltsie, a freshman year hallmate of mine in James Hall and a renowned adventure photographer who lives in Bozeman, Montana, was Andonis' sophomore roommate after each was initially jammed into a room with folks they didn't like. They had complained about their housing situation and the dean of students arbitrarily tossed them together into a suddenly open suite for three, though the two had never previously met.
The room became the de facto meeting place for the college's Greek community, including Andonis' older brother, Alexandros. Papandreou was part of the crew, his father having been deposed as prime minister in the coup. "Periodically he would disappear to what we thought were secret meetings with the government in exile," recalls Wiltsie.
He partied hard, he concedes, with George, "who was very hip to the times. "Andonis, on the other hand, toed the line more carefully about most things but women."
The coup d'état came to an end in 1974, just as we were graduating and scattered to the winds to start our real lives. George and Andonis would begin climbing the political ladder a bit later but always remained accessible to old Amherst chums.
Indeed, your class secretary was traveling with President Bill Clinton once and had press pool duty at a state dinner in Athens. Andonis saw me on a riser outside the room, beckoned me in and soon waved over George. We trafficked in nostalgia until security buttonholed me just as Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton were entering, prompting Mrs. Clinton to raise her eyebrows and wonder, "Jim, what are you doing in here?"
Well, it's those ties that bind, and that are manifested in other ways, apparently even in Boston parking lots.
Rob Skovgard, a divorce lawyer in Stamford, Connecticut, was a chum of Andonis and learned pithy Greek phrases from him. He used several recently during a sharp disagreement in a Boston parking lot with the apparent Greek owner. "They guy was impressed, surprised, and backed off," said Rob.
For sure, there is a certain cognitive dissonance, as so many of us lead our comparatively tranquil lives and view the deadly serious events in Greece with their continent-wide ramifications. The dorm room joshing of yesteryear seems so far away, even quaint.
Like your class secretary, Rogawski is taken with how George looks pretty bald, pretty gray, and distinctly beleaguered. "But, then, I guess most of us had hair that was in better shape in those days," he says.
And most of us don't quite know that sort of pressure or need submit to international scrutiny, including outright ridicule and caricature.
Well, we truly wish George, Andonis, and their families best wishes in trying times. And let's hope that, when it comes to what Sports Illustrated calls the Biggest Little Football Game in America, they'll be on the same page Saturday; rooting for our Lord Jeffs against arch-rival Williams.
Oh, deadline for the next edition of the class notes is November 23. If you can top Andonis and George as far as news, I'd be grateful! Cheers, Jim.
Einstein’s gravitational waves rest on a genuinely radical idea.
After decades of anticipation, we have directly detected gravitational waves—ripples in spacetime traveling at the speed of light through the universe. Scientists at LIGO (the Laser Interferometic Gravitational-wave Observatory) have announced that they have measured waves coming from the inspiral of two massive black holes, providing a spectacular confirmation of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, whose hundredth anniversary was celebrated just last year.
Finding gravitational waves indicates that Einstein was (once again) right, and opens a new window onto energetic events occurring around the universe. But there’s a deeper lesson, as well: a reminder of the central importance of locality, an idea that underlies much of modern physics.
Most people know how to help someone with a cut or a scrape. But what about a panic attack?
Here’s a thought experiment: You’re walking down the street with a friend when your companion falls and gashes her leg on the concrete. It’s bleeding; she’s in pain. It’s clear she’s going to need stitches. What do you do?
This one isn’t exactly a head-scratcher. You'd probably attempt to offer some sort of first-aid assistance until the bleeding stopped, or until she could get to medical help. Maybe you happen to have a Band-Aid on you, or a tissue to help her clean the wound, or a water bottle she can use to rinse it off. Maybe you pick her up and help her hobble towards transportation, or take her where she needs to go.
Here’s a harder one: What if, instead of an injured leg, that same friend has a panic attack?
Today’s empires are born on the web, and exert tremendous power in the material world.
Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t had the best week.
First, Facebook’s Free Basics platform was effectively banned in India. Then, a high-profile member of Facebook’s board of directors, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, sounded off about the decision to his nearly half-a-million Twitter followers with a stunning comment.
“Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades,” Andreessen wrote. “Why stop now?”
After that, the Internet went nuts.
Andreessen deleted his tweet, apologized, and underscored that he is “100 percent opposed to colonialism” and “100 percent in favor of independence and freedom.” Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, followed up with his own Facebook post to say Andreessen’s comment was “deeply upsetting” to him, and not representative of the way he thinks “at all.”
The bureau successfully played the long game in both cases.
The story of law enforcement in the Oregon standoff is one of patience.
On the most obvious level, that was reflected in the 41 days that armed militia members occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns. It took 25 days before the FBI and state police moved to arrest several leaders of the occupation and to barricade the refuge. It took another 15 days before the last of the final occupiers walked out, Thursday morning Oregon time.
Each of those cases involved patience as well: Officers massed on Highway 395 didn’t shoot LaVoy Finicum when he tried to ram past a barricade, nearly striking an FBI agent, though when he reached for a gun in his pocket they finally fired. Meanwhile, despite increasingly hysterical behavior from David Fry, the final occupier, officers waited him out until he emerged peacefully.
Ben Stiller’s follow-up to his own comedy classic is a downright bummer, no matter how many celebrity cameos it tries to cram in.
You don’t need to go to the theater to get the full experience of Zoolander 2. Simply get your hands on a copy of the original, watch it, and then yell a bunch of unfunny topical lines every time somebody tells a joke. That’s how it feels to watch Ben Stiller’s sequel to his 2001 spoof of the fashion industry: Zoolander 2 takes pains to reference every successful gag you remember from the original, and then embellish them in painful—often offensive, almost always outdated—fashion. It’s a film that has no real reason to exist, and it spends its entire running time reaffirming that fact.
The original Zoolander, to be fair, had no business being as funny as it was—it made fun of an industry that already seems to exist in a constant state of self-parody, and much of its humor relied on simple malapropisms and sight gags. But it was hilarious anyway as a candid snapshot of the fizzling-out of ’90s culture. Like almost any zeitgeist comedy, it belonged to a particular moment—and boy, should it have stayed there. With Zoolander 2, Stiller (who directed, co-wrote, and stars) tries to recapture the magic of 2001 by referencing its past glories with increasing desperation, perhaps to avoid the fact that he has nothing new to say about the fashion industry or celebrity culture 15 years laters.
A robotic road safety worker in India, a sacrificial llama in Bolivia, a sea otter receives a valentine, a deadly earthquake in Taiwan, a leopard attack in India, and much more.
A murmuration of starlings over Israel, a robotic road safety worker in India, a sacrificial llama in Bolivia, border barriers between Tunisia and Libya, a sea otter receives a valentine, a deadly earthquake in Taiwan, the annual Shrovetide football match in England, a leopard attack in India, and much more.
By mining electronic medical records, scientists show the lasting legacy of prehistoric sex on modern humans’ health.
Modern humans originated in Africa, and started spreading around the world about 60,000 years ago. As they entered Asia and Europe, they encountered other groups of ancient humans that had already settled in these regions, such as Neanderthals. And sometimes, when these groups met, they had sex.
We know about these prehistoric liaisons because they left permanent marks on our genome. Even though Neanderthals are now extinct, every living person outside of Africa can trace between 1 and 5 percent of our DNA back to them. (I am 2.6 percent Neanderthal, if you were wondering, which pales in comparison to my colleague James Fallows at 5 percent.)
This lasting legacy was revealed in 2010 when the complete Neanderthal genome was published. Since then, researchers have been trying to figure out what, if anything, the Neanderthal sequences are doing in our own genome. Are they just passive hitchhikers, or did they bestow important adaptations on early humans? And are they affecting the health of modern ones?
The revolution that ended the reign of beards occurred on September 30, 331 b.c., as Alexander the Great prepared for a decisive showdown with the Persian emperor for control of Asia. On that day, he ordered his men to shave. Yet from time immemorial in Greek culture, a smooth chin on a grown man had been taken as a sign of effeminacy or degeneracy. What can explain this unprecedented command? When the commander Parmenio asked the reason, according to the ancient historian Plutarch, Alexander replied, “Don’t you know that in battles there is nothing handier to grasp than a beard?” But there is ample cause to doubt Plutarch’s explanation. Stories of beard-pulling in battles were myth rather than history. Plutarch and later historians misunderstood the order because they neglected the most relevant fact, namely that Alexander had dared to do what no self-respecting Greek leader had ever done before: shave his face, likening himself to the demigod Heracles, rendered in painting and sculpture in the immortal splendor of youthful, beardless nudity. Alexander wished above all, as he told his generals before the battle, that each man would see himself as a crucial part of the mission. They would certainly see this more clearly if each of them looked more like their heroic commander.
Jim Gilmore joins Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina, and leaves the race after a poor showing in New Hampshire.
Jim Gilmore’s candidacy this year was improbable—but even more improbable was the minor cult of personality that developed around it.
The former Virginia governor never had a chance. Not, like, in the sense of Lindsey Graham, a candidate with national standing but no path to the presidency. More in the George Pataki sense: a guy who had no real business in race, but was running anyway. Except that Gilmore made Pataki look like a juggernaut. Also, Pataki saw the writing on the wall and had the sense to drop out in late December. Gilmore soldiered on, and ended up as the last of the truly longshots to leave.
The result was that Gilmore turned into a sort of folk hero. Not for voters, mind you—he managed only 12 votes in Iowa and 125 in New Hampshire, and his campaign was funded largely by loans from himself. Because of his low support in the polls, Gilmore only made the cut for the very first kid’s-table debate in August, and then again for the undercard in late January. Other than that, he was shut out completely.
The number of American teens who excel at advanced math has surged. Why?
On a sultry evening last July, a tall, soft-spoken 17-year-old named David Stoner and nearly 600 other math whizzes from all over the world sat huddled in small groups around wicker bistro tables, talking in low voices and obsessively refreshing the browsers on their laptops. The air in the cavernous lobby of the Lotus Hotel Pang Suan Kaew in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was humid, recalls Stoner, whose light South Carolina accent warms his carefully chosen words. The tension in the room made it seem especially heavy, like the atmosphere at a high-stakes poker tournament.
Stoner and five teammates were representing the United States in the 56th International Mathematical Olympiad. They figured they’d done pretty well over the two days of competition. God knows, they’d trained hard. Stoner, like his teammates, had endured a grueling regime for more than a year—practicing tricky problems over breakfast before school and taking on more problems late into the evening after he completed the homework for his college-level math classes. Sometimes, he sketched out proofs on the large dry-erase board his dad had installed in his bedroom. Most nights, he put himself to sleep reading books like New Problems in Euclidean Geometry and An Introduction to Diophantine Equations.