Monday, October 31, 2016
Azra Raza honored at the annual DIL Gala
From the event invitation:
We would like to extend to you a warm invitation to Developments in Literacy’s 2016 Gala. The event will be held on Friday, October 28th, 2016 at Cipriani on 42nd in New York, honoring our Chief Guest, Dr. Azra Raza. We are honored that Dr. Raza has chosen to support DIL’s mission in educating and empowering underprivileged
Developments in Literacy (DIL) is a section 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that was launched in 1998. DIL has educated more than 23,000 students at 124 schools situated in some of the most underserved regions of Pakistan. DIL provides high quality teacher training; innovative, low cost teaching resources and maintains strong relationships with school communities. DIL has been awarded a prestigious 4-star rating for 6 years in a row by Charity Navigator. DIL’s work was recently highlighted in USAID’s Frontline Magazine, calling the Mobile Learning Project a “game changer” in educating teachers in inaccessible, remote areas of the country through videos delivered on their mobile phones.
Previous honorees include Christiane Amanpour, Ted Turner, Nicholas Kristof, Mira Nair, Nandita Das, Maleeha Lodhi and Shahzia Sikander. Below is Azra's acceptance speech.
by Azra Raza
Thank you Shaila, thank you DIL. I am deeply, deeply honored.
When my daughter Sheherzad was 5, she came home after the first week of kindergarten and announced to us, "I am just wasting my time. I can't read. I can't write. And they won't let me talk." Well, we told her, this pretty much summarizes the state of most girls all over the world. They can't read, they can't write and they are not allowed to speak.
I am a scientist, but we called my mother a Rocket Scientist. Her life epitomized the prevailing ethos and traditions of a sharifzadi being raised in the Aligarh of 1930s where high culture was defined by an attitude of extreme gentleness…particularly, in the men, overt hyper-masculinity was tantamount to hyper-vulgarity. Sadly, it was also a time when older women in the family had to smuggle a female tutor to enter the zanan-khana secretly to teach the young girls how to read and write. Basically, my very gentle and civilized grandfather's attitude was why should the girls be taught to read and write? So they can shake hands with the English men?
After the death of the family patriarch, as the British tightened their hold over the natives, my mother's family suddenly found themselves bereft of their possessions and with no practical skills to survive. For my mother, this traumatic experience underscored the importance of education as the only means of individual empowerment and thus ignited an intense desire in her to educate not only her own children, especially the girls, but to fight hard for the education of all the children in her community.
I remember one evening last year when I was telling some friends about my mother and how she taught everyone around her to read and write. So much so that our driver who was from the North West Frontier Provinces not only became literate, started reading the Urdu newspapers religiously but then became so obsessed with the written word that he ended up writing his autobiography. When I told this story, one of my unnamed and very famous writer friends responded, "Azra, what else would a driver write but an AUTO-biography? And now I have the name of his next book: BUS!!" [Editor's note: "bus" means "enough" in Urdu, and "dil" means "heart".]
This is why we called my mother a Rocket Scientist…you see, teaching others how to read IS rocket science. She and the pioneering women of her generation are the ones who deserve today's honor and I am proud to accept it on their behalf. I am here because of those women. Education became my mother's lifelong passion:
Nazzare Ko tu Junbish-e-Mixzgan Bhi Baar Hai
Nargis Ki Aankh Se Tujhe Dekha Kare Koi
Even the blinking of the eyelash is unwelcome when the sight is fixated upon the object of desire
With the eye of the Narcissus should one see the beloved
Today, we are living in anxiety-ridden, Islamophobic, immigrant-wary, uncertain, unpredictable, dangerous, and very very unstable times. The world seems to be hurtling itself towards entropy. Questions at the heart of the human condition which we thought were settled centuries ago; issues as fundamental as: facts matter, truth is important, respect for each other is at the core of human values are being challenged. Worst still, we seem to have lost an essential optimism about the future. Everyone has their own pet apocalyptic forecast for a gloomy future. I am here to say otherwise: Let us use this volatile situation as a transformative moment, a wake-up call, an opportunity to re-examine our situation. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.
The challenge facing us today is this: How do we reconcile our stone age, Paleolithic emotions and our outdated medieval institutions with the God-like technology we have developed for cutting and pasting the human genome and the nuclear weapons. In this question lies the existential threat facing us. We are afraid. We are apprehensive. We don't know what to expect.
My answer starts with a great book of fiction. There is a very beautiful anecdote in Don Quixote where a young boy is punished by being told to go to prison to sleep off his cheekiness. The lad replies that he can be sent to prison and put in chains but no one has the power to make him sleep: staying awake or not is his decision. Indeed. Of all the greatness we aspire to, by far freedom is the greatest. Freedom gives us a choice. At every step we take in our lives, we have a choice. Today, we can choose to succumb to despair and cynicism but losing heart is the most dangerous thing. Or we can decide that we must overcome. And my friends, the first step out of this imbroglio is to stop empowering our leaders and start empowering ourselves. Education is the essential first step towards this empowerment. Empowerment of individuals is possible as proved by the diverse set of people in this room, Muslims, Christians, Jews. Above all, I am deeply moved by the support of our Indian friends. Even as our two countries are at daggers drawn, benefactors like Asha Motwani, Ila and Dinesh Paliwal, Ruchira Gupta and so many others have defied the call of the leaders to boycott all things Pakistani. Instead of empowering the leaders, they are here to empower little girls in Pakistan through education. Bravo!
But is guaranteeing primary or , for that matter, even higher education enough? From the 1930s of my mother's days in Aligarh to the present generation of Sheherzad growing up in New York, we have come a long way. Sadly, acquiring education has not proved to be enough and now, I want to take you one step further and define how these very gains have paved the way for disturbing fresh enslavements.
Being a scientist, I want to illustrate the situation with an example from evolutionary biology. With few exceptions, humans are the only animal species where the female pretties herself; it is the women who are trying to look beautiful. Take the classic example of the peacock. It has a staggeringly ornamental tail which can be a handicap when it comes to physical combat, but it is essential because with that flamboyant, glitzy, showy, decorative tail, the male peacock is asking for the hand of the peahen by transmitting a message of strong genes. You see, in all other animals, the choice of a mate rests with the female and esthetic beauty, by declaring freedom from disease, serves as a potential indicator for healthy progeny. The peahen chooses the peacock with the most ornate tail. What about men? Well, there are only three categories of men; the handsome, the rich, and the great majority. The handsome don't need much else, the rich possess the ultimate aphrodisiac for women; resources that guarantee the survival of her children. But in order to appear attractive, the great majority have had to substitute the natural attributes with acquired skills; displays of intellect like being a professional, a lawyer, scientist, doctor or engineer, abstract talents like music, art, philosophy. And selfishly, men have monopolized these areas by disenfranchising half the human race from even having the opportunity to acquire the skills until recently forcing women to be judged solely on the basis of their natural beauty and even that beauty as defined by the males.
Another form of enslavement is envy, the driving spirit of our capitalist society, where the pursuit of acquisitions is motivated not by any real need but by a desire to appear better than others. So here's the rub. If men and women acquire the same skills, women start getting equal pay and don't necessarily seek resources in a mate, while men are forced to look beyond a woman's body, then what should we find attractive about each other: that your partner has a bigger house or a bigger heart? That they give more lavish parties or show their deep love for you through friendship? That they relish bank accounts or their books?
When I arrived in America as a 23 year old immigrant, I found a warm and welcoming home here. For the first time, I understood the meaning of what Immanuel Kant said, "Hospitality means the right of a stranger not to be treated as a stranger". It is because of this spirit of hospitality in America that I can say to Sheherzad and the younger generation gathered in this room today, do NOT give in to the darkness being forecast in your future, instead, live up to the uniquely generous spirit of this country. Be aware that "In this theater of our life, it is reserved only for God and for angels to be lookers-on." It is essential for you to become active. Your education will be entirely wasted unless you make sure that others are also educated, and that all of us, men AND women, forcefully reject this second enslavement of competition and envy which has crept upon us.
One of my favorite writers is Annie Dillard who won the Pulitzer Prize for her incredibly beautiful book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I was listening to her being interviewed on NPR recently. Melissa Block asked her how she chose the name of her latest collection of essays titled The Abundance. Ms. Dillard replied that over the last few decades, she has been collecting interesting sayings in her journal, and there is a line in the Quran which she found particularly beautiful and which forms the basis of the title. "They will question thee concerning what they should expend. Say the abundance". Give it all away. If you spend, you will fill up from behind. Empty it. The reference here is not just to money and material goods but the real appeal is for you to give of yourself. You have already given money to DIL, now what about investing your time in helping Shaila and Fizza, Ammara and Fazle. Develop a capacious-self, and visit one of DIL's schools on your next trip back home. Spend a few hours with those young school girls in remote villages, give them hope, bring a smile to their faces as they sit shackled in horrifying social chains. Labor to be more compassionate, offer the exiled a home. The abundance! Give with abundance. Refuse the yoke of material success and choose higher ethical values of empathy, compassion, generosity, altruism and LOVE. We cannot risk having another lunatic come this close to blowing up our world and our core values, our dignity and our self-respect. I say to you that the time has come for you to reject all ugliness and strive for beauty. Use your intelligence, your talents, your singular status, your influence, your positions of privilege to once and for all, shatter the artificial borders and finally enable each person to be able to say, I can read, I can write, I have a voice. I can talk!
Listen to Shaila's DIL. Listen to your DIL. And if your DIL tells you to do one thing but your reason says otherwise, then remember:
Aql o Dil apni apni kahain jab Khumar
Aql ki sunyay, dil ka kaha keejyay!
When the mind and heart give opposing messages
Listen to the mind, but do what your DIL tells you
What should you expend? Spend it all. And if others try to scare you, then listen to Fahmida Riaz's message:
Kuch log tumhay samjhaingay
Wu tum ko khauf dilayangay
Jo hay wu bhi kho sakta hay
Iss raah mein rahzan hain itnay
Kuch aur yahaan ho sakta hay
Kuch aur tu aksar hota hay
Tum jiss lamhay mein zinda ho
Yay lamha tum say zinda hay
Yay waqt naheen phir aayay ga
Tum apni karni kar guzro
Jo hoga dekha jayay ga!!
Some will try to counsel you
They will try to scare you
Even what you have now can be lost forever
There are so many robbers on this path
Something else can happen
‘Something else' frequently happens
But this moment in which you are alive
Is alive because of you
This time will never come again
Do what you have to do
We will deal with whatever comes later)
Translations from Urdu by Azra Raza.
* * *
Bio of Azra Raza from the DIL Award invitation:
Installing the Idol: On the real power of imaginary notions
by Yohan J. John
I want to make one thing absolutely clear. I am not a Zen Buddhist, I am not advocating Zen Buddhism, I am not trying to convert anyone to it. I have nothing to sell. I'm an entertainer. That is to say, in the same sense, that when you go to a concert and you listen to someone play Mozart, he has nothing to sell except the sound of the music. He doesn’t want to convert you to anything. He doesn’t want you to join an organization in favor of Mozart's music as opposed to, say, Beethoven's. And I approach you in the same spirit as a musician with his piano or a violinist with his violin. I just want you to enjoy a point of view that I enjoy.
Some years ago I had my third eye opened. I was spending the summer in Bangalore, doing an undergraduate physics project at the National Aerospace Laboratories. I was staying with my sister's friend, and his landlady insisted that I participate in something called the "Kyudo ceremony". My friends warned me that she was a bit of a kook — her house was filled with nude self-portraits in garish colors and flattering proportions — but out of sheer curiosity I acquiesced. The landlady whisked me away on her scooter to a nondescript house in a residential neighborhood that doubled at a Japanese Buddhist temple of some sort. In the waiting room, one of the assistants (devotees? students? acolytes?) asked me my name, which she carefully wrote on a very thin piece of paper. No explanations were offered. I was then taken to the main prayer hall, i.e., the living room. There was an altar, atop which say a statue of the Buddha, a few packets of biscuits, and a bunch of bananas. The priest who led me through the ceremony was a little old Japanese lady who communicated via a plump and slightly nervous-looking Indian translator. I stood and knelt and mumbled as instructed, occasionally wishing I had a translator for the translator. At one point the piece of paper with my name on it was set aflame —a rather stylish touch, I thought.
Once another inductee was put through the motions, we were given the opportunity to learn what it is we had actually accomplished with that fifteen-minute-long ritual. A middle-aged Indian man emerged from nowhere with an instructional chart. It looked like one of those poorly drawn anatomical diagrams that are endemic to Indian schools. But instead of anatomy, we were confronted with a diagram of… eschatology. The Kyudo ceremony (I have been unable to find any mention of it on the internet) is based upon the belief that when you die, your soul will leave through one of several orifices in your body. Your rebirth (or liberation thence) depends on which hole in the body your soul evacuates from. If I remember correctly, leaving through the mouth means you come back to earth as a fish. If you leave through the nose, you are reborn as a regular land animal. If you leave through the ears, you become a bird. If you leave through the eyes, you become a sky god. This sounds like a sweet deal, but it is apparently only a consolation prize. The real goal is to leave through the third eye, and escape from the whole repetitive cycle of birth and death. But the third eye is blocked: something is needed to clear the way for the soul's egress. Normally it is your conduct — your karma — that determines this sort of thing. And Buddhism usually suggests that certain steps, like the eight-fold path, will help you break the habit of being reborn. But these Kyudo folks believe that their ceremony is a shortcut to transcendence.
I. The Mental Temple
It was not my goal when I began writing this essay to reminisce about the opening of my third eye. I started out with the aim of speculating about how it is that rituals and behaviors come to produce particular feelings and thoughts in some people but not in others. I keep an open mind about spirituality and ritual — I'm always trying to think of some grounded materialistic way to think about the ostensibly immaterial. I don't know if I really am a materialist or not, but I think it's worthwhile to see if there is a naturalistic baby in religious practice that we can keep while throwing out the supernatural bathwater. I think my unconscious decided to reincarnate the memory of the Kyudo ceremony so that it could serve as an instructive negative example. As far as I know, I didn't have any new thoughts or feelings as a result of the ceremony. And given what I am about to say about spiritual practice, perhaps the reason for this is the fact that the ceremony was precisely backwards: they should have explained the process first, and then subjected me to it. You cannot reap before you sow.
A couple of years before this eye-opening experience, I had another, more extended one: entering college. In my first year I became famous among older students for a kind of mind trick. I would perform a simple ritual involving a person's arms that would allow me to raise up the arms without touching them. After a series of steps involving shaking the person's arms and snapping my fingers, I would beckon the person's hands, and soon enough the arms would rise to the default zombie position. The person's eyes had to be closed — they couldn't tell exactly when I had begun the beckoning gesture. Almost everyone I performed this trick on could feel a force that seemed to pull on their hands. I had people try it on me, so I know this subjective feeling — it's like invisible puppet-strings are tied to the back of each hand. Bizarrely, it seems as if the specific action of the 'hand-summoner' actually matters to some extent. In some people, one arm would rise slower than the other, so I had to speed up my beckoning to get the slower arm to catch up. I freely admit that this was some kind of hypnosis (though I still have no explanation for the hand-speed phenomenon — maybe it was a delusion on my part). And through experimentation, my friends and I discovered a crucial fact about the trick: you have to tell people what is going to happen before you performed the ritual.
I think this is important to the 'magic' of ritual: the idea of its power must be implanted first. The idol must be installed. During Hindu festivals such as Ganesh Chaturthi, a temporary shrine for the presiding deity is constructed over the course of several days. On the auspicious day and at the auspicious time, the idol is installed, and the next stage of worship can begin. After the festival, the idol is then immersed into a large body of water, where it eventually disintegrates. The power of the whole festival — whether you see it in supernatural terms or simply as a cultural and artistic experience — depends very much on the process. Jumping to the end would be as meaningful as skipping to the last page of a murder mystery.
Typically, phenomena ranging from my arm-raising trick to the agonies and ecstacies of religious experience are explained by invoking psychic or spiritual forces: wholly imaginary concepts that have no real-world existence as measurable entities. The explanations for why such phenomena occur are typically questionable, but they remain interesting as social and psychological phenomena if nothing else. How do we trigger them? Why are some people unaffected? It seems as if imaginary concepts can sometimes become idols in our mental temples, and the gradual process of installing them is central to their power.
II. Practical metaphors
The idol metaphor may help us think about chakras: the Hindu-Buddhist concept beloved of mystics, yogis, and sundry New Age crackpots. Chakras are positions in the body (or in the 'subtle body') that are closely linked with emotions and bodily functions. The typical chakra system involves seven chakras. Each chakra is usually associated with a Hindu god or goddess. Trained practitioners claim that by focusing on a particular chakra, they can directed the deity's powers towards healing, strength, or mystical realization.
Chakras are often touted as having some connection with the endocrine system. This link in turn is deployed to bolster the claim that ancient sages knew as much as — if not more than — modern scientists. But the dirty secret of chakras is that the connection with the endocrine system has nothing to do with ancient Indian sages, and much to do with Sir John George Woodroffe, a 20th century British Orientalist. In 1919, under the pseudonym Arthur Avalon, Woodroffe published a book called The Serpent Power: an idiosyncratic 'translation of Purnananda's Satchakra-Nurupana, a 16th century work on Kundalini yoga. Purnananda's seven-chakra system was one of many chakra systems on offer in the centuries-old Hindu-Buddhist marketplace of ideas. None of these systems mentioned the endocrine system: that was the unique contribution of Avalon/Woodroffe.
Learning of the dodgy history of chakras is enough to scare away all but the most dogged astral warriors. But if you are willing to dig a little deeper, you can discern a more sophisticated conception of chakras, and of similar concepts like the meridians of Chinese Qigong. They do not need to be understood as half-baked attempts at physiology or psychology. They can instead be understood as tools of the imagination: practical metaphors.
Whatever else they may be, chakras are focal points around which 'psycho-physical' practice can be structured. A practitioner, aided by a teacher, uses techniques like meditation and yoga to create a link between each chakra and the powers of the corresponding divinity. All of this allows the practitioner to transform external divine power into internal spiritual power. In somewhat more roundabout naturalistic terms, practice facilitates a transfer of the cultural power of the (notion of) divinity into psychological power. Through an arduous process of physical and mental discipline, the chakra idol comes to be installed in the mind of the practitioner. 
But what constitutes the psychological power of the mental idol? What gives chakras any efficacy in dealing with emotions or health problems? Here's one possibility: chakra techniques are structured to enhance conscious influence over the pathways linking the brain to the internal organs and glands.
Is this even possible? There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical, but we do know that the brain has powerful effects on the body. Almost every part of the body is in regular communication with the brain. And we know that thinking can modulate the emotions: cognition can trigger anger, joy, sadness, confusion, embarrassment. These emotions come with changes in heart rate, perspiration, blood flow, and even body temperature and blood sugar levels. They can even influence the immune system.
If physical practice can give athletes and musicians better control over their muscles, perhaps mental practice can give practitioners better control over their viscera. Perhaps associating imaginary constructs like chakras with physiological processes can influence how the brain and body communicate — cleansing the doors of perception, as it were. The chakras — and other related constructs — might provide seed locations around which new neural patterns might emerge and evolve: brain states that can better interface with the emotional system, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, the immune system and (dare I suggest it?) the endocrine system.
III. More than Real?
Chakras can therefore be simultaneously imaginary and useful. This is not necessarily a new insight of modern apologists for esoterica. Ancient and medieval Indian thinkers seem to have placed great store in the power of the imagination. As the title of a recent book on this subject suggests, they may even have considered the imagination to be More Than Real .
A story from medieval India helps establish the pride of place that imagination once held in Indian culture. There was once a poor Brahmin named Puchalar. He wanted to build a temple to the god Shiva. He tried to gather the necessary resources, but came up with nothing. Undaunted, he decided to build the temple in his mind. He gathered the necessary materials, cleared a space in his imagination, and proceeded to build his temple, brick by brick. Meanwhile, the king was also building a temple to Shiva — none other than the famous Kanchi Kailasanathar Temple. When it was completed, the god appeared to the king in a dream. He was told that his temple was well and good, but that the god's favorite temple was that of Puchalar.
Clearly Shiva — and by extension the devotees telling stories about him — were capable of seeing an imaginary creation as even more valuable than a real (and quite beautiful!) one. And perhaps we can discern a similar propensity in our contemporary secular culture. The medieval Indian theorists of the imagination might have resonated with the fantasies of JRR Tolkien and his legions of followers. These works of visionary world-building evoke the idea that the universe itself is the dream of Vishnu. Every conjurer of an imaginary world is like the Brahma that emerges from Vishnu's navel: a demiurge conjuring up a new world within a wider cosmos.
Not all imaginary cultural artifacts are capable of unleashing psycho-physical forces, however strong their cultural currency may be. I imagine very few people can turn Gandalf into an internalized symbol for enlightenment or relief from joint pain. And the reason may be this: it is hard for us to install modern imaginary creations in our mental temples. The label of 'fiction', with its connotations of falsehood and idle fantasy, may obstruct Gandalf's passage into the halls of neuropsychological power.
IV. Synaptic Samadhi
It makes sense now to really flesh out the metaphor of 'installing the idol'. The first and most important idea is that our notions of meaning and power cannot be completely self-generated. We cannot lift ourselves up by our bootstraps, and we cannot consciously trigger the placebo effect. The imagination can do a great many things on its own, but it seems as if culture can provide the additional building materials required to give an imaginary concept the solidity of an idol. The body is the temple of the holy spirit, but one cannot always invoke the spirit on one's own. The power imputed into a chakra — an interiorized idol — is transferred from the power already imputed by society into the associated god. We might say that the person's faith renders the internal idol potent, and that the faith in turn was socially constructed. So social forces solidify the cultural ideas circulating in a person's mind.
If all this is starting to sound like the ravings of a wide-eyed loon, let me give everything I have just said a more explicit scientific 'gloss'. Every human being is conditioned by four kinds of causal forces. First there is genetics: it gives rise to the biological toolbox that our cells have at their disposal. Second there is the environment: all living things are locked in a feedback loop with it. Third, there is culture: a kind of secondary environment constructed through family, ethnicity, religion, and government. Finally there is the idiosyncratic life trajectory that each of us is on. It gives us our developmental and experiential inheritance: the memories, habits, tastes and tendencies that accumulate as we age. Each of these four causal forces constrains the other. Genetics gives us a cellular recipe book: possibilities rather than certainties. Our natural and cultural environments 'read out' the book, condensing the possible into the actual. And personal history — the set of incidents and accidents that befall us — influences our developmental, epigenetic and behavioral reactions to nature and culture.
These causal forces are inscribed in our neuronal networks: they shape both the structure and the dynamics of brain processes. We already know that these forces influence our aesthetic reactions: genetics, geography, ethnicity, upbringing and prior experience can all modulate our broad aesthetic and culinary tendencies. But maybe taste is only the tip of the iceberg: perhaps our physical reactions to art or music or food are part of a larger class of bodily manifestations of brain states. Of these, the placebo effect may be the most important, at least conceptually. We seem endlessly surprised by it, and that may be because we can't seem to fathom how 'mere' thoughts — so nebulous and ephemeral — can have causal efficacy in our material bodies. 
We have to get over this lingering dualism. Thoughts, beliefs, moods, emotions — these are all physical. We may not understand the biological details right now, but we have no reason to doubt the basic assertion. So it should not be difficult to agree that a concept, even if it is purely imaginary, has some kind of existence as a neural entity that gives it the potential to affect the body.
Actualizing this potential is the challenge. Even if we are on board with the idea that beliefs can have powerful effects on physical health, we can't usually trigger these effects at will. Our mental powers are only partially under voluntary control. We can no more trigger the placebo effect than we can summon feelings of bliss or love out of the ether. This may be because we don't always have control over the 'strength' of a neural pattern. We can't just choose to create or modify a synapse. Neural plasticity is present throughout life, but some kinds of neural connections seem to be most modifiable in childhood. Others may require years of effort to alter.
We may need to adapt existing neural connections in the service of new goals. So if, for example, you are a Hindu who believes in the gods associated with the chakras, your training with the chakra system may be more fruitful. A person who has no entrenched neural patterns associated with these gods may struggle to create them in adulthood. The process may take longer, or require a fortuitous combination of effort and circumstance. Even someone who has abandoned the faith she had as a child may have more 'resources' than an adult convert from a very different culture: she may be able to access old neural patterns associated with Hindu concepts and practice. Her new atheistic neural patterns may not be particularly well-connected to the power centers of the brain, so they may not easily facilitate psycho-physical manipulation. When it comes to installing the idols, it seems that the gradual but persistent forces of culture are by far the most effective means.
The very fact that many of us become more open to an idea when it has been translated into scientific language suggests that science (as a value system rather than as a methodology) has been successfully installed by our social networks into our neural networks. Even the cranks and kooks and snake-oil salesmen try to give their ideas and products the aura of science: they know that even people with minimal education set some value in the new gods of science and rationalism. This may also be one of the reasons some chakra enthusiasts — both in the west and in India — want to claim that their system is linked to the endocrine system. If they truly believed in the methods and interpretive traditions from which the chakra system emerged, they would not need to borrow credibility from modern medicine.
This brings us to the strange state of affairs we face in the contemporary world. Many of us have abandoned any literal belief in the transformative powers of saints, spirits, chakras or qi. But actual, hard-nosed science has not replaced these powers with new and trustworthy ones. The ambiguity of the life sciences shows no signs of resolving itself in our lifetimes. If anything, we have come to realize that life is far more complicated than anyone could have predicted. A biology-based science of the self seems to recede like the horizon whenever we make progress . While we are waiting for new idols to be fashioned, we can dust off the old ones and try to put them to use before they disintegrate. And given its impenetrability, the spiritual succour science provides to its practitioners (which I confess is not a lot) may be beyond the reach of much of the general public. Perhaps there is a half-way point between the wide-eyed credulity of the hippie and the sneering cynicism of the skeptic. Perhaps the millions of people deriving solace from meditation and other 'alternative' psycho-physical procedures know something that the rest do not: 'mental technology' is possible even if we do not fully understand its neuroscientific underpinnings.
The other possibility, of course, is that chakras and other psycho-physical procedures are all nonsense peddled by charlatans, and that only Very Serious People in lab coats (and Madison Avenue suits?) can manipulate our minds. I suspect that we will find much to retain in practices from off the beaten path, given my own limited experiences, as well as those I have encountered second-hand. I know several fellow neuroscientists, for example, who engage in various sorts of meditation and alternative mental practice. They are well aware that most of what they experience doesn't have a neuroscientific explanation. But given what we know of neuroscience — that experimental mysteries pile up a lot faster than theoretical explanations — we may want to dedicate some resources to studying psycho-physical processes in and of themselves. Why abandon such a fascinating world to the freaks and the frauds?
We should see ourselves as perpetually engaged in a wide-ranging anthropological project. Each of us is the unique product of evolutionary, cultural and personal histories. No two people, however similar, react in exactly the same way to the same situation. But perhaps there are patterns. The secular Hindu may have a neural network that is still 'fired' by the sights, sounds and smells of the pujas of her youth. The lapsed Catholic may have a neural network that resonates with the language of saints, sinners, and redeemers. There may be imaginary mental constructs that we can cultivate and experiment with. Some of them may require preexisting genetic, cultural or experiential raw material: the right kind of soil. Others may require the opposite: a clearing in mindspace born of ignorance and unbiasedness. And perhaps some of these mental constructs will prove useful in dealing with our health problems, both personal and societal. Subjectivity will always lie in the grey fringe zones of science, but that doesn't mean we can't experiment with it. Science is not the only lens through which to look at the universe. Exploring the possibility space of human imagination is a project that is as old as humanity itself. Anyone can join in — you don't need expensive equipment or a fancy degree. All you need is a willingness to open that dormant third eye.
In fact, I know of a ritual...
Notes and references
 I am slowly making my way through Indologist David Shulman's invaluable book More Than Real: A History of the Imagination in South India. It tells a story that the vast majority of Indians (let alone people from other parts of the world) are quite unaware of: how a rich tradition of theory and debate about the imagination emerged and flourished in ancient and medieval India. I find even the early chapters to be brimming with ideas that are genuinely novel to me, and strikingly orthogonal to the typical axes of thought I've encountered in western philosophy.
 I explored some of the implications of the placebo effect and the importance of mental state in an earlier 3QD essay: The Mind Matters.
 Several of my 3QD essays explore how biology approaches the notion of 'self':
- From Cell Membranes to Computational Aesthetics: On the Importance of Boundaries in Life and Art
- The Chemical Self and the Social Self
- Persons All the Way Down: on Viewing the Scientific Conception of the Self From the Inside Out
- Me and My Brain: What the "Double-subject Fallacy" Reveals About Contemporary Conceptions of the Self
The third eye is not wholly imaginary: we actually have one, sort of. It's the pineal gland, which is also known as the parietal eye in other organisms. It was an evolutionarily older light sensor — the paired eyes we now use for vision have taken over the job of vision. In humans and other primates the pineal gland seems to play an important and poorly understood role in sleep and dreaming.
This essay is partly a byproduct of ongoing but sporadic conversations between myself and two old college friends: Kaustubh Das and Madhu Mohan Chandran. Kaustubh studies tantra and yoga, and has been challenging me to open up my notions of science in order to admit the possibility of a science of mind or consciousness, of which yoga and tantra are examples. I generally express skepticism towards the claims of gurus and god-men, but Kaustubh's clarity and persistence make me wonder if I'm being too dismissive. Madhu is a yoga practitioner and spiritual adventurer, and over the years he has tried to get me to take the concept of chakras seriously. I used to be incapable of it, but I'm slowly trying to widen my horizons. This essay represents my progress so far.
(Madhu on the left and me on the right. Another lifetime of the universe.)
"(Swifts) feed in the air, they mate in the air, they get nest material in the air.
They can land on nest boxes, branches, or houses, but they can't really land on
the ground."— Researcher Susanne Åkesson
I’ve been airborne since
Augustus layed the footings of the Roman Peace
……—in that alone I flew two hundred years
without alighting once. My forebear’s bodies
so studied the inclinations of drafts
they bequeathed me wings and means
to defy grounded predators (their craft
is stealth and might while mine is
lift and flight)
Angels I’ve known I met
in clouds real as the dust
of parched whirlwinds,
but sweet and wet
free in vapor we rolled and bet
that a universe of soil and stone
may last but that of blood and bone,
ligaments, limbs and breath
will be snapped as short
as the short straw
in the short-sighted lottery
Democracy or theocracy? The bid to reform Scotland's educational committee system
by Paul Braterman
A 1929 law* imposes three unelected clergy on each of Scotland's local Education Committees. This was based on practice dating back to the 1870s, with the formation of the Scottish educational system from a merger of church and non-church elements, and to the 1918 incorporation of Catholic schools into the system. The Catholic state schools are clearly denominational, the others officially non-denominational, but all alike fall under the control of the relevant Committees. There are currently moves to free Scotland's Local Authorities from this undemocratic imposition, using Scotland's admirable Public Petition process, and you can help with this (see end of post for more).
Few topics are less exciting than the mechanics of local government. Nor would I expect the world to pay much attention to the details of these mechanics in a small, only partly independent, country of no particular economic or strategic importance. Nonetheless, the case exhibits some interesting general features regarding the legacy of religion in an incompletely secularised Europe, and the realities of effecting change in a diverse and pluralist society.
The petition has attracted international attention, most notably from Michael Zimmerman, as director of the Clergy Letter Project, who in a Huffington Post article has eloquently described the current structure as "bad for science education as well as for religion". The Clergy Letter Project itself is an impressive assemblage of over 15,000 ordained clergy, from various denominations and creeds, who argue that the correct response of religion to scientific discovery is acceptance and celebration. The image above symbolises this view, by combining the memes of DNA and Divine Creation. Accommodationism, in the best and truest sense of this much misused word.
Michael Zimmerman expresses his reasons for concern as follows:
There are many reasons why a law of this sort is inappropriate and undemocratic, and you can read most of them in the petition, but rather than focusing on those aspects of the situation, I want to address the potential for serious problems associated with science education. As we have seen in far too many instances, some with deeply held fundamentalist beliefs, beliefs that are well out of both the religious and secular mainstream of society, feel compelled to promote their narrow perspective rather than the consensus of the scientific community. These extreme views are almost always at odds with the religious beliefs that are held just as deeply by the vast majority of the religious community.
And events have shown this concern to be well justified.
The law, in practice, has led to disproportionate representation of extreme Calvinists sects, who believe that God has told us that the Earth is only some 6000 years old, and that the entire body of science that says otherwise is diabolically mistaken. Thus we have, on the very Committees who control education at the local level in Scotland, nominees of groups who regard key parts of science education as damnable falsehood. And they are there, not because the voters or their representatives have invited them (as in a democracy there must be free to do), but because laws first framed over a century ago require their presence, shielded from democratic accountability, whether anybody wants them or not.
How we got here
Timeline of divisions within the Scottish Churches (click on link for clearer image); by Wikidwitch via Wikipedia
In the 1870s, the Church of Scotland was fragmented by the Great Disruption into two (soon to be three) major components. The faction retaining the title of Church of Scotland was regarded as tainted by its subservience to the landed aristocracy and the civil powers, while its main rival assumed the name of Free Church of Scotland. The latter, in turn, was soon to split between a theologically reformist group retaining the Free Church name, and traditionalists calling themselves the Free Presbyterian Church.** Meanwhile, over the previous two decades, Scotland's Catholic population had rapidly grown as the result of a major influx of economic refugees from famine-devastated Ireland. These refugees were the victims of serious discrimination and hostility, the echoes of which live on in Glasgow's notorious football sectarianism. No wonder that the Catholic educational organisation chose to stay aloof from the general merger, only joining the publicly funded mainstream in 1918, with special provisions under which the Catholic hierarchy retain major powers over the schools' ethos, and the teaching of topics related to religion, including human sexual morality.
The legislation from 1872 through to the most recent, in 1994, have in various ways recognised this history, with particular regard to the denominations in whose interest [these actual words recur repeatedly in the relevant Acts of Parliament] the individual schools had initially been run. While the earliest legislation was more flexible, current legislation specifies one representative nominated by the Catholic Church, one by the Church of Scotland, and one by some other denomination to be selected, with regard to local demographics, by the Council. This choice of Church to make the third nomination is the only point at which the elected Councillors have any influence on the process. The choice is, however, limited; the nominating body must be a church, or, at least, represent what the Acts refer to as a "religious charge". Thus Humanists, for example, need not apply, even though there are now more Humanist weddings in Scotland than Church of Scotland, with other denominations lagging far behind.
Assumption, presumption, and privilege
The requirement for three religious reflects the fractious history of Scottish Protestantism, and the presence of these representatives is a relic of the Churches' historical input. The representatives exert power on local authorities' most important committees, their Education Committees, over and above the power they would exert as citizens, and the Churches to which they are answerable thereby exert power over and above the power that they certainly exert, and in a democratic society must be free to exert, as associations of individuals. This is not about religion; it is about power. It is not about universally shared rights; it is about privilege.
Consider the Church of Scotland's own code of practice for its religious representatives, which states:
Since the state assumed responsibility for the provision of school education in 1872 the Church of Scotland has been granted a statutory role as part of the education authority of the day. This privileged position reflects the historical link between schooling and the church. For that reason, if for no other, it is important for church representation on local authority committees with a responsibility for education, to ensure a respected presence across Scotland. This may be achieved by establishing good relationships; by exercising your statutory right and endeavouring to influence council education policies in areas of interest to the national church, including the development of the curriculum, Christian values, religious and moral education and religious observance in schools
This merits close examination. First, there is a claim to be a national church, although in today's Scotland only a fifth of the population say that they belong to it, while twice as many say they have no religion. Then there is the reference to the historic link between schooling and the church, as if the right to influence the education of Scotland's children were so much inheritable property. Thirdly, there is the assertion of a statutory right to seek to influence council education policies in areas of interest to the national church. What, one wonders, could this interest possibly be, over and above the interests of the pupils themselves, and the broader community to which they belong? As for the reference to Christian values, these are of two kinds. There are generally shared values, such as compassion and the encouragement of human flourishing, and regarding these we do not need the Church's guidance. Then there are values specific to the Church, such as the acceptance of Christ as one's personal saviour, which are explicitly (indeed vehemently) rejected by members of other faiths, and by nonbelievers. Finally, there is the stated objective of influencing the curriculum to which all pupils will be subjected, and doing so explicitly in the areas of religious and moral education and religious observance. This is diametrically opposed to the public position of Scotland's Education Department, which states that religious and moral education (this is actually a curriculum subject!) should educate but not indoctrinate, and that religious observance should represent those shared values, transcending denominational boundaries.
Morality, education, and the Churches
Most religious believers take it for granted that the morality derived from their own religion is superior to others, and indeed a very common argument in favour of religious belief is that, without it, there is no basis for moral conduct. (Note, by the way, that this is not an argument in favour of the truth of religion, but only of its usefulness.) This is not the place to dwell on the deep confusion involved here; the problem of constructing a coherent morality with or without appeal to the supernatural has been the stuff of philosophical discourse for more than 2000 years.
Consider instead an area where the moral consensus in the West has shifted dramatically within my own lifetime, and how the Churches have responded to this change. I am referring to sexual morality, and the closely related subject of the treatment of women.
Not too long ago, in Scotland, lower pay for women, and restricted employment and promotion, were regarded as part of the natural order of things. Sex between men was illegal, and, the "promotion" (i.e. discussion) of homosexuality in school health education classes specifically forbidden. Sex outside marriage was, however hypocritically, considered wrong, and the availability of contraception to young adults was restricted, for fear of condoning such activity. Abortion was illegal, unless it could be shown to endanger the mother's health, and the barrier for this was set so high that illegal abortions were commonplace. Now, by contrast, job discrimination against women is illegal, except for certain jobs (such as the priesthood!) where gender is regarded as important to performance. We have same-sex marriage, and a highly successful grassroots campaign (TIE; Time for Inclusive Education) is leading to the incorporation of nonjudgemental discussion of homosexuality in school education programmes. Sexual morality is seen as based on human values of respect and concern, and teenage pregnancy is at an all-time low. There is still a legal requirement for doctors' agreement to the necessity of an abortion, but it would be extraordinary for such an agreement to be withheld.
All of these changes will to most of us seem to be changes for the better. And all of them have taken place in the face of opposition, in some areas still effective and active, from the clergy. Thus in the areas of morality of the greatest concern to schoolchildren, the Churches have not been leaders, but laggards. The very last people, one might argue, to be granted a position of privilege on the committees that decide education policy.
Does it matter?
Yes. The unelected clergy hold the balance of power on 19 of Scotland's 32 Education Committees, and owing to the fractious nature of Scottish politics, we can expect some such situation to continue. The Education Committees control a larger slice of Council budgets than any other, and decide on the opening and closing of schools, whether those schools should be denominational or non-denominational, local educational policy in such flexible and sensitive areas as religious observance and religious and moral education, and the hiring of senior teachers. These clergy are independent of the electorate (sometimes this is paraded as a virtue!) but are not independent of their nominating Churches. Catholic nominees presumably follow doctrinally uniformity, when discussing policy for nondenominational as well as for denominational schools, although the Catholic denominational schools have their own organisational links to Scotland's Catholic Education Service, bypassing curricular direction by the Councils. The Church of Scotland nominees may well be far more doctrinally diverse, but this is not necessarily a good thing, especially in the theologically conservative north of the country. There Church of Scotland trainees for the Ministry can receive instruction from Highland Theological College, a self-regulating body with strong links to the Young Earth creationists of the US Southern Baptist Convention. The third representatives are appointed in a number of different ways, some ranging from the ethically dubious (a newspaper advertisement that only one Church happens to notice) to the ludicrous (a Councillor who had just lost his seat in an election successfully nominated himself as representative of the Boys' Brigade). In numerous cases, one or more of the appointees are known to be creationists, committed by their beliefs to the denial of the evolution science that lies at the heart of Scotland's biology curricula.
How could this theocratic relic have survived?
Ignorance, inertia, power ploys, and timidity.
Ignorance. I had spent more than 20 years of my adult life in Scotland before I discovered the existence of these unelected clergy, and only then it was by the sheerest of accidents, when Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis boasted of the fact that one of the speakers at his Creation Museum sat on a Scottish Education Committee. I wondered how such a person ever came to be elected, and soon discovered (thanks, Google) that he hadn't been elected at all, but put in place by his Church. I have repeatedly discovered that even well-informed Scots are unaware of the existence of these appointees. Indeed, when discussing the matter with MSPs (Members of the Scottish Parliament), the Scottish Secular Society discovered that some had never heard of these appointees, or, reasonably but wrongly, assumed that they must be there by the free choice of the elected Councillors. The system survives in part because of its very outlandishness; in conversation I have found it difficult to convince people of the realities, because they are so far in violation of common sense.
Inertia. The nuts and bolts of local government are not the stuff of banner headlines. The evil done by the system is slow and corrosive. When yet another evangelising bus offers schools an afternoon of fun and fundamentalism, this does not make the news. When areas of the curriculum at a school near Glasgow fell under the control of a US-based fundamentalist sect, it was years before anyone noticed. It must have taken courage on behalf of the District's Education Officer to respond appropriately (as he did) when the situation came to light, since he would have known that there was (and still is) a Young Earth creationist church appointee on the Education Committee to which he answers.
Power ploys. No one gives up power without a struggle. I confidently predict that the Churches will portray the attempt to rein in their power over Scottish education as an attack on religion, and will rally their supporters in its defence. That is their right in a pluralistic democracy, and the correct reply is to broaden the discussion and seek support for change from a wider audience.
Timidity. MSPs will know that by supporting the removal of the Church appointees, they risk alienating some constituents, and this must give them pause for thought. So it should; MSPs are representatives of all their constituents, not just those they agree with abut theology. But the times are ripe for change. Almost half of all Scots, and a clear majority of those with children of school age, have no religion, and once religious privilege has been exposed as questionable, the genie will not go back into the bottle.
The petition process
The Scottish Parliament's petitions process is admirable, and embodies the ideal that Scottish politics should be conversational rather than confrontational. The Parliamentary website carries full instructions on how to submit a petition, and the draft petition, including background, arguments, and action previously taken on the matter, is scrutinised by zealous (perhaps over-zealous) Parliamentary Clerks, to ensure that it meets the standards for the Parliamentary website. It is then opened for 6 weeks, for online signature and comment from all interested individuals, not only in Scotland. The petition, signatures, and comments, are forwarded to the Scottish Parliament's Public Petitions Committee, a cross-party group. Interested parties can write to this Committee, and the Committee itself may well decide to approach relevant bodies for comment, and to ask the Scottish Government for its views and intentions. It may also ask (in the present case, almost certainly will ask) for oral testimony from the petitioner, and after further consideration will decide either to close (i.e. deny further hearing to) the petition, or, more probably if the case is strong and the petition well-supported, to forward it to a committee with more specific remit. In the present case, this would be the Education and Skills Committee. Further discussion, further scrutiny of evidence, possible further action… and all of this with Press coverage and public comment.
I gave evidence on behalf of an earlier petition, asking the Scottish Government to issue guidelines preventing the teaching of creationism as fact in Scotland's public schooling system. It was fascinating. Opinion was divided, but the split did not follow party lines. A minority would have liked to close the petition, either for fear of offending creationist constituents, or (I strongly suspect, in one case) out of personal creationist conviction; the ostensive reasons were denial that there was a problem requiring action, and concern that such guidance would amount to governmental micromanagement of the curriculum. Nonetheless, the Committee resolved to obtain further written evidence from educational bodies, and, eventually, to forward the matter to the then Education and Culture Committee. This Committee duly wrote to the Scottish Government, while, very importantly, individual supporters of the petition had been writing to their own MSPs. The combined effect of these efforts was to extract a new statement from the Government, presented as clarification rather than change, but containing for the first time a clear statement that creationism should not be taught as valid in the science classroom. Less than we would have liked (if it is not valid in the science classroom, how can it be valid in the Religious Education classroom, where it is one of the viewpoints that must be discussed?) But more than there was before, and as much as we could hope for, given that the then Schools Minister represented a theologically conservative constituency.
And what of the present petition? Inevitably, much will depend on the personal views of the members of the relevant Committees, but even more will depend on public support and discussion. This time, there is no easy resolution. The petition presents a simple binary choice. We can leave things as they are, or we can change them. And since what needs to be changed is written into the actual law, rather than into secondary regulation and policies, the only way to change is by Act of the Scottish Parliament.
What you can do
You can read, comment on, and if you agree sign the petition directly on the Parliamentary website, here. You can publicise it to your friends, or through social media, especially if you are Scottish or have Scottish connections. Again, particularly if you live in Scotland, you can write to your MSPs, or to the Scottish newspapers. You can also comment on relevant articles when they appear.
If you represent any organisation with an interest in education, religion, and the links between them, or if you feel moved and qualified to do so as an individual, you can send a submission to the Public Petitions Committee, through email@example.com, specifying Petition PE0623, Unelected Church Appointees on Local Authority Education Committees. Such submissions will not, however, be made public on the Parliamentary website until after the petition is closed for signatures on November 16.
We know that there is much sympathy for change among MSPs. We know that the present system is indefensible, and do not imagine that it will be seriously defended in the face of a determined challenge. We also know that many key players are waiting on public reaction before taking a position. What you do, counts.
*The 1929 Local Government (Scotland) Act, as amended by the similarly named Acts of 1973 and 1994.
**The Disruption was largely healed by the end of 1929 through a series of agreements between the Churches, creating the present Church of Scotland as the main voice of Scottish Presbyterianism, and leaving what are now called the Free Church of Scotland and the Free Presbyterian Church as fundamentalist splinter groups.
Terror on Trial 1: (In)visibilities
by Katrin Trüstedt
With very little international attention, a major terrorism trial is entering its final stage in Munich, Germany. Beate Zschäpe, the only survivor of a right-wing terrorism trio, is facing charges of complicity in ten homicides, two bomb attacks, and 15 armed robberies, as well as membership in a terrorist organization, attempted murder, and arson. The victims are mostly people with a Muslim migration background. If the situation had been reversed with a "Muslim" group assassinating "Germans" for over a decade, then international interest would most likely have trumped the reporting on the recent Paris or Brussels attacks. This attentional asymmetry is in many ways also what the trial is about.
Over the course of more than a decade, the self-declared "National-Socialist Underground" (NSU) managed to go on a killing spree across the country, and, in some troubling sense, they did so on the government's watch. Germany's domestic intelligence agency (Verfassungsschutz) was aware of the right wing terror cell before they went underground in 1998 and began their series of assassinations. And yet, for more than a decade, the police who were investigating the individual murder cases never considered the possibility of a right wing background as a motivation for the killings. Instead, in all of the various instances, the police only investigated the assumed criminal backgrounds of the victims as possible leads, presuming hidden ties to some Turkish mafia or criminal masterminds abroad. When people from the Turkish community suspected xenophobic motives, they were labeled as conspiracy theorists, as police documents show. The media went along with these assumptions and reported accordingly, and we all ate it up. The extent not only of right wing terror in Germany, but also of stupefying institutionalized racism in the Verfassungsschutz and the police, major fuck ups in the investigations, and collective blindness slowly came to light since 2011. All of this happened before the recent rise of the new right in Germany and elsewhere that seemed to have come out of nowhere.
The precise role of various institutional involvements and the question of how this could have been going on for over a decade is one of the biggest issues in this case. The domestic intelligence agency, called Verfassungsschutz, literally "protection of the constitution," is supposed to do just that: protect the constitution. The first paragraph of the German constitution reads: "The dignity of man is inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all public authority." The Verfassungsschutz has not only failed to do its job by preventing the "enemies of the constitution" from doing what they did, but they in fact enabled them. As has become known in parliamentary hearings, the Verfassungsschutz retained a number of informants in the Neo-Nazi scene, who actually used the money they received from the Verfassungsschutz to sponsor and support the very scene they were supposed to observe. And one informant was present at one of the NSU crime scenes at the time of the murder, although, allegedly, only accidentally. In the case of the NSU, the Verfassungsschutz in fact perpetuated what it was created to prevent. But whether or not this institutional failure can actually be addressed as part of this trial is controversial and contested within the current trial procedure.
Legal trials focus on individual responsibility. Since the two male members took their own lives before the police got to them, this trial concentrates on the only remaining member of the NSU, Beate Zschäpe. What did she know, support, initiate? What was her relationship with the two guys, both called Uwe? Does she have a drinking problem? How does she interact with her lawyers? (After having selected them for the Nazi sound of their names—Sturm, Heer and Stahl—she then repeatedly tried to have her lawyers fired). The exclusive focus on the individual's accountability, on her as well as of a handful supporters, diverts attention from the more fundamental aspects of this case that nevertheless seem to uncannily re-appear in the proceedings in court.
Sitting on the visitor's bench in this small court room, I see the defendants closest to me. I also see the judges, the state attorneys, and other state personnel. But I can only see the very tip of the relatives of the victims with their lawyers, who comprise the accessory prosecution. They are ascribed only a supplementary role in this trial, supporting the state attorneys in leading the prosecution of the defendants. By far the biggest party in this trial, they are barely visible to the public. Delegated to seats under the elevated box for the press and the public, the survivors are, like us, both part of and not part of the trial. But from the space where I am sitting overlooking them, it feels like they have literally been swept under the rug. From that supplementary position, however, they prove to be a driving force. With questions and motions about the role of the respective institutions and their informants in the Neo-Nazi scene, various lawyers from this sideline repeatedly attempt to broaden the limited scope of the prosecution that insists on focusing solely on the individual responsibility of Zschäpe and some of her individual helpers. One of the most pressing controversies of this trial is thus occurring not between the prosecution and the defense, but instead between the prosecution and the survivors' lawyers. Representing the victims' families, these lawyers sometimes find themselves in the position of having to form strategic alliances with the defense lawyers, who are eager to reduce their clients' individual responsibility by shifting some blame to the enabling institutions. So the survivors can find themselves in a situation where they act in a way that might paradoxically serve the people who not only killed or injured their family members, but then also celebrated it in a video featuring the pink panther. One of the defendants has "Die Jew Die" tattooed on his chest.
In her play on the trial, Das schweigende Mädchen ("The Silent Girl"), Elfriede Jelinek has one of the judges open the court session with the words "I now name the representatives of the survivors with their clients. You won't remember them anyways." The setting of this trial is determined by the constellation that enabled the decade-long killing spree that brought us here in the first place. Looking at Zschäpe and her supporters, we are sitting above the victims' families; we see enough of them to not be able not to know that they are there, but we don't actually see them.
Anicka Yi. 6,070,430K of Digital Spit. 2015
"... The artist’s sculptural installation examines how “flavors”—visual, olfactory, gustatory, auditory—can form sense memories and spur longing, though their cultural and economic value is subject to global consumerism and a politics of taste. For the exhibition, the artist will create a large, illuminated pond containing synthetic and biological matter such as hair gel and the cellulose “leather” that grows from the bacterial cultures in kombucha tea. The gallery is scented with menthol—which for Yi recalls the dish Mint Pond, a plate of molecular gastronomy she once consumed at el Bulli, the famous but now defunct restaurant. The installation also features an intermittent soundtrack playing over speakers, as the exhibition plays on ideas of good and bad taste throughout."
So That's What You Call It!
by Elise Hempel
Recently, needing a change from my standard breakfast of yogurt, I decided to make myself a nice omelet with cheddar cheese and tomatoes. Not having made an omelet for many months now, I'm out of practice a bit, but everything was going fine, my omelet cooking nicely in our cast-iron pan – not sticking, not burning, looking restaurant-pretty. I was almost done, almost ready to perform the fold, and then.... And then somehow, suddenly, I had a combination of omelet and scrambled eggs, or what, from here on out, I shall call a "scromelet."
My partner, Ray, informed me a few months ago that this "linguistic blend of words" (Wikipedia) – not to be confused with a compound, in which both/all of the spliced-together words remain fully intact – is called a "portmanteau" (port-man-toe), a term I'd never heard before. My 2002 American Heritage college dictionary defines "portmanteau" first as "a leather suitcase with two hinged compartments" and goes on to define a "portmanteau word." And a British website tells me that the word "portmanteau" is itself a portmanteau originating from the French word "portemanteau" which blends "porter" (to carry) and "manteau" (cloak). A further look at Wikipedia also reveals another interesting fact – that the term "was first used in this context by Lewis Carroll in the book Through the Looking-Glass (1871)."
Little did I know that I'd been creating portmanteaus for many years already. And since the term has come up, Ray and I can't seem to stop ourselves from creating them almost continuously. For instance, our dog, Groucho (neither "cockapoo" nor "puggle" but, as genetic testing revealed, a combination of Akita, greyhound and boxer, or a "groxita"), who likes to lie (with his front paws crossed) across the threshold between the porch and the living-room, or between the dining-room and the kitchen, is now a "threshound."
And the enchiladas we plan to make with shredded leftover turkey from our Thanksgiving dinner (or perhaps it will be "brunch") we have started calling "turkiladas." (Other portmanteaus relating to our upcoming U.S. Holiday are the now-famous "turducken," the vegetarian favorite "tofurkey," and that lovely utensil combo, "spork.")
Now that I know the term, I'm also beginning to realize that portmanteaus abound. And I'm thinking about why. It's for brevity, of course: No need to explain, for example, what method of body disposal was used to produce "cremains"; no need to ask, when you're without a plastic utensil and about to eat a styrofoam cupful of Wendy's chili, "Can you grab me one of those fork-and-spoon-combination-things?" It's for brevity, and practicality, but it's also just plain fun. And I'm guessing it brings out the love of language in many people who would claim they don't have such a love or never knew it. Maybe I wasn't paying enough attention during past presidential elections, but I'm noticing a lot of portmanteus coming out of this one, and something about the mixing of words this time around seems "fitting," some sort of reflection of all the mixed messages, mixed feelings. Television has given us the noun "condemnorsement" to sum up Paul Ryan's simultaneous and contradictory condemnation and endorsement of Trump, as well as the verb "camplaining" (what Trump is doing when he complains of election-rigging as he campaigns).
I've been coming up with my own portmanteaus this election season, thinking of both Hillary and Trump. Perhaps Hillary could save her stamina by turning her Stronger Together slogan into the shorter "Strogether." And maybe Trump could simplify by blending the word "disaster" with every category of American government there is (military, economy, etc.; "NAFTAster"?) or making "Crooked Hillary" even catchier ("Crookillary"? "Crillary"?). Personally, as for why anyone believed Trump was the winner of any of the debates, I was "strumped." And I'm "Trumbfounded" about why anyone would vote for him. If Hillary can get through these final days without any more email troubles and becomes our first female president, I'll be absolutely "exHillarated." I wonder what will be the first order of business on her "vagenda" (I just saw that one on Facebook....).
How To Deal With Our Emotions
by Max Sirak
You are not a Vulcan.
You are a human. You have a mind capable of logic and rational thought. You also possess a body that feels. Emotions are as principle to you and your being as your eyes, your hands, your feet, or your skin.
And, try as we might or think as we do - that life would be better, easier if we didn't have all these gooey feelings gumming up our insides - we do. So, since emotions seem to be a fundamental aspect of us, I thought now might be a good time to learn a bit more about them.
Our Emotional Education
Our emotional development starts three weeks after mommy and daddy make us.
This is when our brains start to form. Then, at about three months in utero, we start processing information. This is the genesis of our emotional lives. Long before we have our own lungs to breathe, our own mouths to eat, or our own eyes to see - we have our emotions.
Emotions are the names we give to the ways we feel. Inputs from the outside world are collected, filtered through our senses, and processed through our brains. The physiological changes we experience during this bio-computing - we name happy, sad, angry, etc.
Our propensity to identify with, or frequently experience, any particular emotion is partly atavistic, based on our genetic make-up. Some of us are more predisposed to feeling certain ways than others. It's a feature of our design. The foundations of which were laid long before we ever said hello to this sweet, sweet world.
We also establish our basic ways of handling the information we receive from our senses in the womb. These are our adaptations. And, I'm guessing this is also why parents are especially fond of saying their baby has so much "personality." Because, by the time a child is born, he or she's already got an emotional operating system (EOS).
Living, especially in those early years of brain development, is essentially an exercise in updating your EOS. It's taking in new experiences (inputs through the senses) and learning how to deal with them (adapting). For most of us, this peaks from ages three to eight when we grow out of, or through, our initial, and often inadequate, reactions to sensory information.
Remember too, all this is happening inside our brains. We're talking about physical processes here. So, when we pick up inputs from our senses, they get coded into neurons. These neurons activate (fire), launch down a specific pathway, and trigger others of their kind encoded for how we feel (wiring).
The thing is - when it comes to neural relationships - repetition equals strength. Every time a neuron travels to go hang out with its friends, it takes the same path. It's like erosion. The pathways in your mind are rivers. Each time a neuron rafts down a particular river, that river's smoother and more carved out. Eventually, after years and years, these neural rivers beget canyons. These canyons become our "automatic" reactions.
It's why old habits die hard. It's why we are prone to repeating mistakes. It's the physical explanation for why it's so easy to get stuck repeating patterns in life. We perceive "A" with our senses. Neuron "B" fires and activates our reaction "C." It's almost as if "A" causes "C."
But it doesn't. It just seems to. And that's important. It means we are capable of changing how we process and deal with our emotions. It means, with a little bit of consciousness, we can temper our maladaptive reactions and forge better, healthier responses.
Meet Mary Morgan. She's a registered play therapist, the owner of Red Tent Counseling, and an all around lovely woman, who helped me put together a six-step plan to help us in our emotional lives…
- Press Pause - We're changing a reaction to a response. We're forcing a neuron, who is perfectly happy on the whitewater of your brain-canyons it knows so well (reaction), to pick a new route and destination (response). It's not easy. But it's also not impossible. The first step is noticing.
- EX-it - Exhale and Externalize. Once you're aware of what you're feeling, let out a long exhale. Emotions change our body chemistry. The ones we don't like or aren't good at dealing with make us tense and rigid. A drawn out, emphatic exhale helps loosen us up physically. As does naming whatever it is you're feeling. After your exhale, say, out loud, what emotion you're experiencing. Keeping things in leads to denial, repression, and explosions. None of which are good.
- Unpack and Rearrange - Usually we don't deal with an emotion. We deal with emotions, plural. It's important to sort through and sift out what you are actually experiencing. Chances are, what we feel is much more of a mixed drink than a single-malt.
- Put Five On It - Remember your mid-90s hip-hop. The next step is to take five deep breaths. Inhale for five seconds. Exhale for five seconds. Do that five times. Then, drink five ounces of water. Remember, our emotions are physiological responses to our sensory inputs. Drinking water and breathing deeply are two simple, healthy, and quick ways to change our body chemistry.
- Bask In The Goodness - Now it's time to change our inputs. Put on music you like to dance to. Go for a walk. Exercise. Talk to an encouraging friend. Play outside. Read something inspirational. Coach yourself up. The important thing is taking proactive steps and changing your stimuli.
- Self-talk Swear Jar - Have you caught Luke Cage yet? Well, you should. Especially if you're into superheroes. Anyway, in the show there's a barbershop. And in the barbershop there's a swear jar. If anyone says a bad word in Pop's shop then they need to pony up some cash. We're going to borrow this principle. For every negative thing you say to yourself, it'll cost you five positive ones.
Now For Some Practice
Let's say, for whatever reason, you woke up late. On your drive into work someone cuts you off. What's worse - the culprit then speeds through the yellow light at the next intersection, leaving you screwed. Now you're stuck at a red light, with no chance of making it to work on time, and fuming. What should you do?
(Hint: Run the red light, give chase, force them off the road, and get into a fight is not the answer.)
- Press Pause - You need to move from an unhealthy reaction to a healthy response. So, as soon as you can, you need to notice and become aware of your reaction to the situation.
- EX-it - Take a long, slow exhale and externalize. Say, out loud, what it is you're feeling and why. "I'm angry because that car cut me off and I'm late for work."
- Unpack and Rearrange - Anger is the name you gave to your feelings when you externalized them in the step above, right? But, according to Mary, "Anger is a blanket. It comes with buddies." Chances are, what you're calling anger is more of a catch-all for a cocktail of emotions. Are you worried about the consequences of being late to work? Are you jealous of the cars who made it through before the light changed? Are you frustrated by how inconsiderate the offending driver was? Are you disappointed with yourself for running late in the first place? So on and so forth.
- Put Five On It - Take five deep breathes. Inhale for five seconds. Exhale for five seconds. Now, drink five ounces of water.
- Bask In The Goodness - Time for proactive steps. You're in the car, so getting up and moving around probably won't work, but calling a friend might. You could also put on music you like. You could listen to a podcast that makes you laugh or feel inspired. You can also directly address, and do something, about one of the blanketed secondary emotions in your unpacked anger - your worry about being late for work. You can call work and let them know what's happened.
- Self-Talk Swear Jar - Lastly, over the course of your remaining drive, if you catch yourself perseverating, stuck in a negative loop, it's going to cost you. Every negative thought locked on repeat in your brain means you owe your swear jar five positive ones. So, if it's "I'm so gonna get fired. I can't believe that asshole cut me off…" then you're on the hook for 10 positive thoughts. "Well, at least I didn't get into an accident. And, I'm not starving. I've got enough to eat. I've got a phone I can use to call work. I'm lucky enough to have a car. I've got enough money to be able to put gas in the tank. I've got a stereo that works and music I like. Now I've got more time to listen to said jams. Wow, it sure is a pretty morning. The breeze and sunshine feel great on my skin. Happy hour with my friends tonight is gonna be a blast."
We're human. Emotions are real. They're a part of our anatomy. We have no power to decide if we feel them, but we do have the power to decide what we do when we feel them. You are no more a slave to your emotions than you are to your teeth. Continue your emotional education. Use Mary's Method. Live long and prosper.
Photo of the Grand Canyon appears courtesy of - By John Kees - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31297004
by Brooks Riley
Walking Past the White House: You Look So Good and You Talk So Fine
by Maniza Naqvi
For the past eight years, when I walk past it in the early mornings on my way to work, I've imagined the elegant, refined, educated, decent family that currently lives in the White House. They look so good and they talk so fine. A made for TV family. Making most of us feel good and feel great. Making America look good. I always pause at dusk to gaze at their residence, on my way home and think how lovely it seems because of them inside it. Change is coming. They are leaving soon.
But beyond the poetry and photogenic poise they don't matter. And whoever comes in after they are gone from here, won't matter either. The change won't matter. The incoming scandals won't matter. No one who lives here ever does. Matter. Much. You live here as a servant. No, not of the people.
Change here, is just the change of the custodian. The change of the chief marketing officer. There are panhandlers in this town who'll tell you that much. They are at the Squares and Circles around the White House and elsewhere in this town of squaring circles. They'll tell you, in their rants, how you can't stop the machinery, no matter what the scandal might be.
This country's architecture and its boundaries are the rule of law. Laws are its borders. It's laws promise us our limitless expression and our potential. Yet where are we now? How have laws and accountability been subverted and circumvented for the relentless machinery of war? These society's losers in the Capital's outside spaces just stand there ranting on and rattle a few coins in coffee cups asking us to: ‘change, change, change.' They're probably the only ones who get it. Change. Small to meaningless change.
There's the guy I pass by every morning on K Street who stands in the same spot every day and in a calm steady tone delivers a monologue about the crimes that the United States Government committed domestically. He speaks in this calm monotone as though he were at a congressional hearing on the Hill, holding forth his testimony. He just stands there in the same spot every day—a Vietnam vet—talking up a litany of accusations against the government. I'm sure everyone thinks he's a whack job. Of course, most people ignore him as they go past him. But his demeanor, his cool, elegant rational voice, his precise elocution disturbs me and makes me look away, walk on a bit faster. I keep wondering how long he has been in this town and in which one of those chrome-and-concrete blocks of buildings he worked before he went nuts. I keep thinking he must've hurried to work once upon a time, every morning, just like we do now. I keep wondering if he used to be at some point, you know, one of us. You know? Are we doing now what he had probably done a long time ago? What exactly did he do and what did he find out or know? When did he decide, he'd tell other people about it? And when did he become a nut job? All at the same time?
And have you ever seen that other lost soul? She's this well-dressed woman, in her sixties, her hair tied up in a chignon, pearls at her throat. She can be seen rolling up or laying out her bedding depending on the time of the day, on the steps of the cathedral every day. The Catholic cathedral, you know, on M street, where Kennedy's body was laid for viewing after he was assassinated. Well, she's this homeless denizen of Washington, who is always dressed as though she had somewhere to go in Georgetown. She's the one I've heard people call the best-dressed woman in Washington with the dirtiest feet. Then there's another one I've wondered about, blond and younger—wearing jeans and a sailor sweater—the kind they wear on lobster boats up in Maine? She looks like an East Coast preppie, wears loafers and wanders around the streets around the George Washington University and K Street area. Who is she? Perhaps she's the estranged and deranged daughter of some director of some secret agency? Probably on meds, probably lost her mind when she stumbled upon Daddy's many truths? Probably still watched over by the kindly vigilante fathers of this town, who may have had a hand in destroying her mind. They look out for her and take care of her, but only from a distance. After all, she's one of their own. All of these homeless, insane-sane people. Who are these people? Insiders gone outside? Insiders thrown outside? Left in the cold, frozen out?
The homeless include war veterans disowned by the very people who had told them they were heroes when they had stepped up to the plate to go fight in foreign lands. Many are the mentally ill people out on the streets because Reagan's policies had decimated the social services. Insiders thrown out? And newer batches, who, in protest of benefits not provided, on cold winter days, lie in their sleeping bags outside the Department of War Veterans Affairs.
Who are these upset homeless people giving speeches to the legions of people walking to work in the morning? Are they people who had at one time been loyal staffers, but who had learned some truth and had been broken by it? People who had chosen to betray the system and were made examples of for all dutiful, industrious workers going into work in the Washington DC bureaucracy to look at every day in fear, as a warning and to disdain? Did they get the hatchet for breaking the Hatch Act? An Act that probably violates the First Amendment and enforces silence.
We hurry by these "whack jobs" during the weekday. And perhaps, while we seemingly ignore these street people as we walk by them, we can't get them off our minds either. We are learning an important lesson in this town from them: this could be me if I betray the system.
A quick look around at the bucolic suburbs of this here Capital town must fill most with aspirational longings. The palatial homes, in quiet, peaceful settings, might by association secure them anything one day—vineyards, the farm in the South of France or Wales, the pied-à-terre in Paris, a stud farm in Patagonia,an inner courtyard in Fez, Casablanca, or a townhouse in Georgetown, even a Foundation, to call their own, for doing good works, uplifting the downtrodden. And so on.
Most arrive here young. Fresh off the plane or off a train from around the country and abroad, plenty of college debt and a slim Bank account and just a suit case or two. But when they leave, if they ever do, then, if they've been very, very good here, polite, and articulate and quiet here, doing what's expected, and not anything more or less they zoom off into the sunset to reinvent themselves as philanthropic millionaires. But if they don't want any part of it, if they speak up, they might just end up on the benches penniless in the many parks trying to square circles.
Tough Tenor: Balmer Beginnings
by Christopher Bacas
After Allen fired Mike, I replaced him the next Friday night. Mike showed up for the gig anyway. That's how we first met. He was not tall, solid, short grey hair, onyx eyes, and all Baltimore: the accent, the indestructible Hunky genetics, the edge that let you know it might get real, right now. Before he spoke, he cleared his throat; that reflexive grunt, grammatically sound and ever present. His voice wasn't just gritty, it came out in cinderblocks; the kind with corners shorn, that scuffed skin off your palms when you picked them up. He often used the word bark. It described a responsive saxophone ("that horn barked"), the ability to play something ("you barked off those fourths"), or an aggressive person ("they barked at me, but fuck 'em!"). Mike's voice barked, too.
I was uncomfortable walking in on his gig. Allen was solid on his invitation. Earlier in the week, on the phone, he precisely quoted, in Bela Lugosi accent, Lenny Bruce's bit where a junkie jazz musician gets a gig with Lawrence Welk:
"you're perfect boy for my band.....YOU'RE DEAF....we play a lotta college dates,mostly industrial colleges."
Selling me on a fifty-dollar-a-night weekend gig in menagerie of drunks. With travel, it amounted to seven hours.
Immediately, I said yes.
Before the drive to Baltimore, Allen invited me into his apartment. He lived alone and was raising two sons with a combative ex. It smelled of sandalwood inside. A Ben Webster record was playing. Allen always taught me, even things I thought I already knew. Ben shaped notes with exquisite varieties of breath: some had glowing El Greco halos, others popped like champagne corks or made panting dives into nothingness. I knew his sound, but hearing his loving care was the night's first lesson.
We drove up in Allen's car, a station wagon, spotless inside as if it rolled off the dealer's lot.
The music lay on the back seat; spiral-bound books of hand-copied pages covered by wide strips of clear tape, packed in a leather-sided case, our instruments alongside. Allen relayed Mike's story. They disagreed about the price and division of some comestibles. There were spots nearby to buy stuff and our quitting time was their Christmas season, unless, of course, you bought a package before the gig. Allen was easing out of getting high and didn't want hassles about small change and mindless recreation.
When we got to the joint, I unloaded the music and went to park while Allen set up. There were always spots on unlit side streets; lavishly potholed and dusted with gravel. Walking back, cars roared past, swerving around ditches while bottles smashed.
I got my horn out and chatted with the band. They were all old buddies. Mike talked to them, as well, but ignored me. I heard Allen's name mixed with lots of cursing and grunts. I didn't know what to say, and wasn't about to approach him. Before we climbed on the bandstand, Mike leaned against the wall. Behind him, at shoulder height, an ovoid double-pane window with a neon sign sandwiched inside. He slugged from a beer can and listened.
The doorman, whose intellect did not exceed his job description, sat outside on a bar stool, checking every patron. Our crowd was a Friday mix: diners waiting for a table, bar regulars settling in, tourists playing hopscotch across the neighborhood's joints. Flush with the door frame, a three foot high stage fit drums, bass and horns. The guitar or piano player set up on the floor in front, squeezing between the stage lip and the audience.
Playing the set, I was aware of Mike, but awash in great music. The band was strong and the repertoire, Blakey, Morgan and Silver, had swing built-in. Allen led us, as always, with confidence and care. He knew how keep musicians happy, but didn't countenance disrespect. That alone explained Mike's demotion. The bandstand code reigned: handle your shit, don't fuck with another guys' gig or bread.
When we finished the set, Mike walked over, a can of Budweiser next to his white t-shirt, stuck out his hand, cleared his throat and introduced himself. He complimented me and seemed shy. Insecure in my new role, I was disarmed. We talked: him downplaying the disagreement with Allen, me trying to distance myself from hard feelings. Mike started to look at me. His eyes, dark and wet, darted sideways with animal pull, then fixed on mine. I'd been around serious, spiritual people who lasered into your warm maw with ceaseless insistence. Mike's eyes, collapsed stars, took you to their event horizon, and marooned you.
After the second set; time for our band meal, a key part of the compensation package, Mike talked himself out of the gig. He had a day job, didn't go to music school, played for strippers on Baltimore's famous "Block" and raised a family. I went to music school, made a living playing (hardly) and had no dependents. While my crab cakes sweated between plates in the warmer, he told me about his mentor, Mickey Fields, a master musician who continued to work constantly in town. I hadn't heard Mickey play yet and took it in eagerly. Allen came out to remind me to wrap up my food soon or the staff would toss it. Mike told me to go eat. I headed back to the dining room. After plenty of non-sequitur barroom jazz gigs, this one had the full faith of the owner. He appreciated the skill of the players, liked the folks who came to listen and never interfered with repertoire. A student at Peabody Conservatory, musicianship brought him to the neighborhood, looking for a venue to play early music on lute and guitar. He found a seedy and neglected property. It came to life in stages: recital hall, dance studio, tea room, bar, restaurant, and finally a successful business employing an eccentric and accomplished house staff, befitting its' bohemian origins.
The closing crew worked around us in an otherwise empty dining room. After gorging on seafood, I returned to the bar. Mike was gone. We climbed aboard and played until 1:30. I walked to the car, dodging staggering college kids, and returned to pickup the music and boss. On the drive home, I ignored the novelty of starting the first steady gig of my life. Allen asked what Mike said to me. I told him how unguarded our talk was. Allen's stance, complicated and frank, opened windows on my new friend.
"He's a charming motherfucker....but unreliable. He plays his ass off. But, then he fuckin' disappears. Fuck that. You're a grown man, right? I mean, do you want the gig or not? I'm not looking for you all over Fell's Point. I don't need that."
Just showing up for three sets completed a requirement of my employment. I dropped Allen off. Huge apartment blocks and their parking, row after row, all looked the same. Where was the exit? Smelling of cigarettes and fried food, I didn't sleep until 4. The next day, my head, tightly packed, never fully drained; something I would get used to.
The second night we met in a store parking lot nearby. I left my car there and wouldn't drop Allen off in dim enormity again.That night, the music and band were thrilling. No sign of Mike. He'd gotten what he needed on Friday. When we returned at 3 am. The car was gone, towed by a private company. Allen dropped me home, apologizing for the hassle. After a few hours of restless sleep, I called the tow company. A tough lady told me an auction started at ten. Hundreds of cars filled their field now and soon I'd be parked in until Monday. I tore over there. In the paneled office trailer, hunched over a big desk, a southern Maryland white guy: thick-necked, flannel shirt, fat hands. He wolfed a sandwich of raw onions and liverwurst mashed into white bread; greasy hunting knife and half-tube of meat product next to his sleeve. The smell made me gag. The same woman from the phone handed sandwich-man a sheaf of hand-written forms and carbons. I signed for the car and paid seventy-five dollars, three-quarters of my first weekend's wages.
Sunday, October 30, 2016
The New Book of Snobs by DJ Taylor
Bee Wilson in The Guardian:
“I’m afraid we’ve become terrible salt snobs,” joked the late food writer Alan Davidson when he and his wife Jane had me round for lunch one day in the early 2000s. On the table were a panoply of special salts, from pink Himalayan to damp, grey fleur de sel from France. Announcing himself as a salt snob was a form of gentle self-mockery, something Alan was good at. He knew how absurd it was to have all these salts, when he could have made do with a cheap tub of Saxa. But it was also a modest kind of boastfulness. Alan wanted me to notice how superior his salt collection was, which I duly did.
The concept of snobbery is deeply complex, as the literary critic and biographer DJ Taylor cleverly explores in his “definitive guide” to snobs. Snobbery is a form of social superiority, but it can also be a moral failing. Snobs may laud it over others, but we, in turn, despise and punish them for it. Taylor starts his book withthe “Plebgate” affair of 2012, in which the government chief whip Andrew Mitchell was forced to resign his official post, and later pay substantial damages, after it emerged that he had rebuked a police officer who asked him not to cycle through the gates of 10 Downing Street with the words: “Best you learn your fucking place … You’re fucking plebs.” As Taylor notes, Mitchell’s sin was not to swear, but his use of the word “plebs”, which, in ancient Rome, simply meant the common people.
How to Solve the Hardest Logic Puzzle Ever
Brian Gallagher in Nautilus:
While a doctoral student at Princeton University in 1957, studying under a founder of theoretical computer science, Raymond Smullyan would occasionally visit New York City. On one of these visits, he met a “very charming lady musician” and, on their first date, Smullyan, an incorrigible flirt, proceeded very logically—and sneakily.
“Would you please do me a favor?” he asked her. “I am to make a statement. If the statement is true, would you give me your autograph?”
Content to play along, she replied, “I don’t see why not.”
“If the statement is false,” he went on, “you don’t give me your autograph.”
His statement was: “You’ll give me neither your autograph nor a kiss.”
It takes a moment, but the cleverness of Smullyan’s ploy eventually becomes clear.
A truthful statement gets him her autograph, as they agreed. But Smullyan’s statement, supposing it’s true, leads to contradiction: It rules out giving an autograph. That makes Smullyan’s statement false. And if Smullyan’s statement is false, then the charming lady musician will give him either an autograph or a kiss. Now you see the trap: She has already agreed not to reward a false statement with an autograph.
With logic, Smullyan turned a false statement into a kiss. (And into a beautiful romance: The two would eventually marry.)
Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar: A study in fortitude and rigor
Ashutosh Jogalekar in The Curious Wavefunction:
"Chandra", as he was fondly known to friends and colleagues, was one of the twentieth century's most important astrophysicists. In addition he was probably its most rigorous and mathematical, applying hard and baroque mathematics to problems ranging from hydrodynamics to collapsing stars. His Nobel Prize came in 1983, and it should have come earlier. Chandra's life provides a good example of quiet rebellion against a traditional scientific establishment, and it's for this reason that it deserves wide study.
By all accounts Chandra was marked to be a great scientist from his birth. Born in the city of Lahore (now in Pakistan) to a respected civil servant, he quickly outpaced his fellow students in his study of advanced mathematics and physics. In the 1920s when he was attending college in the progressive city of Madras (now Chennai) he met the renowned physicist Arnold Sommerfeld when Sommerfeld was visiting Madras, and was both shocked and fascinated to hear Sommerfeld tell him that quantum theory had rendered outdated much of the physics he had learnt. That however was a deficiency that Chandra could remedy. As the famous story goes, at the mere age of nineteen, on a long voyage from India to England to attend graduate school at the University of Cambridge, he did the calculation that was to enshrine his name in history. That analysis which used tools from relativity and quantum theory that were far beyond the grasp of any other nineteen year old physics student, finally led to the establishment of the so-called 'Chandrasekhar limit', a limit for the mass a white dwarf can sustain before it collapses under the weight of its own gravity.
A few years later Chandra had a famous showdown with Arthur Eddington, the doyen of English astronomers and one of the most famous scientists in the world.
Donald Trump Is the First Demagogue of the Anthropocene
Robinson Meyer in The Atlantic:
Lately I’ve been thinking back to something that John Kerry told The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, earlier this year. Asked about the importance of the Middle East to the United States, Kerry answered entirely about the Islamic State.
“Imagine what would happen if we don’t stand and fight [ISIS],” he said:
If we didn’t do that, you could have allies and friends of ours fall. You could have a massive migration into Europe that destroys Europe, leads to the pure destruction of Europe, ends the European project, and everyone runs for cover and you’ve got the 1930s all over again, with nationalism and fascism and other things breaking out. Of course we have an interest in this, a huge interest in this.
The 1930s all over again—Kerry was laying out a prediction in April, but it sounds a little more like description now. Even if America’s current dunderheaded demagogue loses the presidential election, the European project already falters in the United Kingdom, and Russia rumbles with revanchism. Fueled now (as then) by an ailing global economy, far-right nationalism seems ascendant worldwide. It’s hard not to think of the 1930s as the catastrophe which presaged our contemporary tragicomedy.
I write and report on climate change, not a pursuit that usually encourages optimism, but watching all this unfold with the atmosphere in mind has been particularly bleak. For the past few months in particular, I’ve been thinking: Wow, this is all happening way earlier than I thought it would.
Distant Brains: ways for people to communicate using only their minds. But at what cost?
Alena Graedon in Guernica:
Scientists have been experimenting with brain-to-brain communication for some time; recent results, which have been remarkable, represent the culmination of a decade or so of research. In the past few years, brain-machine interfaces have been used on monkeys, rodents, and people, and in at least one case, on a human-rat dyad. By training his eyes on a flashing light, a volunteer could get a rat’s tail to move. Some of the most noteworthy innovations have come from a team led by Miguel Nicolelis at Duke. Members of the Nicolelis lab began by connecting pairs of rat brains. After the animals had been implanted with microelectrodes, the neural activity of a rat in a Brazilian lab could be transmitted via Internet to one in Durham, North Carolina. The second rat, upon receiving a brain signal from the first, would perform a task—pressing a lever that rewarded them both with water. These results, when presented three years ago, were seen by many as revolutionary.
But now the Nicolelis team has moved on, connecting several animals at once to establish larger “Brainets.” And their findings—published in a pair of Scientific Reports studies last summer—are even headier. They managed, for example, to get three monkeys to collaborate mentally to move a virtual arm through 3D space. Maybe still more impressive and unsettling, the researchers created a network of four interconnected rat brains, which was able to solve “a number of useful computational problems, such as discrete classification, image processing, storage and retrieval of tactile information, and even weather forecasting.”
tom hayden (1939 - 2016)
pete burns (1959 - 2016)
lucia perillo (1958 - 2016)
masculinity isn’t in crisis, human beings are
Steven Poole in New Statesman:
What a terrible time it is to be a man. Emasculated by desk jobs and postmodern gender politics, they can’t even exercise eternally manly virtues – correcting other people’s grasp of trivial facts, say, or punching them in the face. And as everyone knows, men are incapable of maintaining proper friendships, so they have no one to talk to about their problems, even if they were able to acknowledge their emotions, which of course they can’t. No wonder they commit nearly all the world’s crime. And no wonder that the single biggest killer of men under 45 in this country is suicide. Men these days are angry and sad and voting for Trump and Brexit. And it’s everyone’s problem. It’s Mangeddon. It’s the Androcalypse. Why does our culture hate men so much? Who will stand up for the downtrodden male of the species?
One answer, of course, is the “men’s rights” movement, from which corner one hears mainly the distant yowl of entitled misogyny. But in a slew of new books, readers will find a variety of more competent thinkers addressing the current supposed crisis of masculinity, and what should be done about it. The first question to ask is: what is masculinity anyway? The artist (and transvestite) Grayson Perry attempts a definition in The Descent of Man, a book that draws on his “Great White Male” guest edit of the NS in 2014. Perry describes masculinity as “a deeply woven component of the male psyche”, but also simply as “how men behave at present”. Jack Urwin, in the bloggy, teenager-friendly tones of Man Up, writes ecumenically: “As far as I’m concerned anyone who identifies as a man, is a man; and because masculinity is a social construct and thus rooted mostly in identity rather than biology, masculine behaviour is exhibited by all men.” Masculinity “is simply a reflection of how the majority of men act”.
Here and There
I sit and meditate—my dog licks her paws
on the red-brown sofa
so many things somehow
it all is reduced to numbers letters figures
without faces or names only jagged lines
across the miles half-shadows
going into shadow-shadow then destruction the infinite light
here and there cannot be overcome
it is the first drop of ink
by Juan Felipe Herrera
from Academy of American Poets, 2015
Saturday, October 29, 2016
Edward Albee’s Beautiful Venom
Shahryar Fazli in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
When I was frist exposed to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as a college student, I knew that something at some point had gone seriously wrong in the United States. George and Martha’s “fun and games” — indeed, their very existence — meant that, sometime in the early 1960s, the social consensus must have broken down more violently than I had initially thought. This is the only play to have been selected by the Pulitzer jury as the year’s best, only to have the prize stripped away by the advisory board (the trustees of Columbia University), on the basis of the text’s profanity. This was the annus mirabilis of 1963, “Between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles’ first LP,” as Philip Larkin argued, which was the year sexual intercourse began. Our threshold for impiety has risen dramatically since then, but Woolf retains its power to disturb. If anything, the modern viewer, no longer shocked by the play’s sexual candor, may be all the more sensitive to the other bugs circulating within.
I came to the play through Mike Nichols’s 1966 movie version, and then — forgive the pun — wolfed down most of the Albee inventory. His work transformed my view of what theater’s ambition should be: it should disturb us, change us, drain us. In Woolf’s climactic scene, as George prepares to “kill” his and Martha’s fictional son, he responds to Honey’s admission that she peels labels (she’s been drunkenly peeling the label off a brandy bottle for a while), by saying, “We all peel labels, sweetie; and when you get through the skin, all three layers, through the muscle, slosh aside the organs […] and get down to bone … you know what you do then?” Honey doesn’t. “When you get down to the bone, you haven’t got all the way, yet. There’s something inside the bone … the marrow … and that’s what you gotta get at.” The stage directions call for a “strange smile at Martha.” As a novelist, I find it difficult to write dialogue without George’s soliloquy in my ears. It summarizes what Albee brought to theater. Every one of George and Martha’s lines, or those of Agnes, Julia, and Claire in the equally brilliant A Delicate Balance (1966), goes straight for the marrow, each exchange flaying the antagonist, layer by layer. This, I realized, was the essence of dramatic dialogue.
World on track to lose two-thirds of wild animals by 2020, major report warns
Damian Carrington in The Guardian:
The number of wild animals living on Earth is set to fall by two-thirds by 2020, according to a new report, part of a mass extinction that is destroying the natural world upon which humanity depends.
The analysis, the most comprehensive to date, indicates that animal populations plummeted by 58% between 1970 and 2012, with losses on track to reach 67% by 2020. Researchers from WWF and the Zoological Society of London compiled the report from scientific data and found that the destruction of wild habitats, hunting and pollution were to blame.
The creatures being lost range from mountains to forests to rivers and the seas and include well-known endangered species such as elephants and gorillas and lesser known creatures such as vultures and salamanders.
The collapse of wildlife is, with climate change, the most striking sign of the Anthropocene, a proposed new geological era in which humans dominate the planet. “We are no longer a small world on a big planet. We are now a big world on a small planet, where we have reached a saturation point,” said Prof Johan Rockström, executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, in a foreword for the report.
More here. [Thanks to Sughra Raza.]
This Bird Can Remain Airborne For 10 Months Straight
Merrit Kennedy at NPR:
Now, a team of scientists in Sweden has proved that these birds fly for tremendously long periods of time. They affixed data loggers onto a total of 19 of the master fliers in 2013 and 2014, and recaptured the birds months or years later. Researchers found that the birds can spend almost their entire 10-month nonbreeding period on the wing.
The data loggers gathered information on acceleration and flight activity, and those installed in 2014 also included light trackers for geolocation.
The results were astonishing. For example, according to research published in Current Biology, one of the birds stopped for just four nights in February in 2014 — and the next year it stopped for only two hours. Other birds stopped for longer periods of time. But "even when swifts settle to roost," the researchers say, "the amount of time not flying is very small."
The birds are known to travel from Europe to sub-Saharan Africa — but they apparently don't touch down there, as National Geographic reports. Researchers say they have never found roosting sites in sub-Saharan Africa.
The quest to keep behavioral economics in policy after Obama's presidency
David V. Johnson in The New Republic:
The first line of Cass Sunstein’s latest book, The Ethics of Influence, announces: “We live in an age of psychology and behavioral economics—the behavioral sciences.” For Sunstein, a Harvard law professor and former Obama administration official, this is as momentous a statement as saying we live in an age of antibiotics, steam engines, or the Internet. But just saying that nudges are here to stay does not make it so. In fact, if their future were not in doubt, why the need for yet another book on the topic—and so soon after his Father’s Day-gift-ready book on Star Wars—arguing that theyshould be here to stay? Like the president he served, Sunstein is now focused on cementing his legacy.
Sunstein’s work on behavioral economics found its ideal patron in President Obama, and not simply because the two men knew each other from their days teaching at the University of Chicago. For a presidency born in economic catastrophe and plagued by an anemic recovery, gross inequality, and a hostile Congress, there was always the question of how to use executive action to salvage something positive in the face of a hopeless political situation. Enter nudges, a means of influencing people’s decisions without the need for coercion or mandates; crucially, a nudge can secure policy success without requiring Congressional approval. This is not exactly what the candidate of hope and change had in mind by “hope and change,” but it would have to do.
In 2015, President Obama issued an executive order committing the U.S. to “using behavioral science insights to better serve the American People”— a directive that Sunstein proudly republishes as Appendix C of his latest book.