Having Older Brothers Increases a Man’s Odds of Being Gay

From Scientific American:Gay_2

The number of biological older brothers a boy’s mother has carried–whether they live with him in the same household or not–affects his chances of being gay. The findings, reported this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, by Anthony Bogaert of Brock University, lend credence to the theory that it’s not the social or rearing factors that influence a man’s sexual orientation, but rather prenatal mechanisms that begin in the womb.

The idea that prenatal mechanisms may influence sexual orientation has been around for a couple of decades. In 1996, Bogaert along with colleague Ray Blanchard correlated sexual orientation in men with the number of older brothers, but it wasn’t clear if that influence was occurring because the boys shared the same household or because they had shared the same womb.

More here.

Memento Mori: Remembering Susan Sontag

From The Village Voice:

Sontag On Photography: A Tribute to Susan Sontag
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Much of her work negotiated the distance between extremes of feeling and intellect. Many were offended by an article she published just after 9-11, noting the “courage” of the hijackers who crashed into the World Trade Center; but as we seesawed in those weeks between grief and numbness, who could forget her (radical) exhortation: to think. Sontag touched upon 9-11 again in her last book, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), a brilliant extended meditation on the uses and abuses of photographs of war and disaster.

Shows about critics are a tricky business. There’s a tendency for the writer’s words, reproduced in wall texts or captions, to eclipse the pictures, narrowing their meaning to a single interpretation. Sontag’s aphoristic style, heir to Walter Benjamin’s epigrammatic insights, works particularly well in this context. (She was heir to Benjamin as well in her preoccupations with surrealism, the politics of the image, and the 19th-century as the cradle of modernity, while Roland Barthes was like her sentimental Parisian cousin in their shared obsession with photography’s whiff of mortality.)

More here.  Also, see Brian Sholis’s excellent short comment on the exhibit here at Artforum.

Gauss’s Day of Reckoning

“A famous story about the boy wonder of mathematics has taken on a life of its own.”

Brian Hayes in American Scientist:

Fullimage_2006330101517_846_2Let me tell you a story, although it’s such a well-worn nugget of mathematical lore that you’ve probably heard it already:

In the 1780s a provincial German schoolmaster gave his class the tedious assignment of summing the first 100 integers. The teacher’s aim was to keep the kids quiet for half an hour, but one young pupil almost immediately produced an answer: 1 + 2 + 3 + … + 98 + 99 + 100 = 5,050. The smart aleck was Carl Friedrich Gauss, who would go on to join the short list of candidates for greatest mathematician ever. Gauss was not a calculating prodigy who added up all those numbers in his head. He had a deeper insight: If you “fold” the series of numbers in the middle and add them in pairs—1 + 100, 2 + 99, 3 + 98, and so on—all the pairs sum to 101. There are 50 such pairs, and so the grand total is simply 50×101. The more general formula, for a list of consecutive numbers from 1 through n, is n(n + 1)/2.

The paragraph above is my own rendition of this anecdote, written a few months ago for another project. I say it’s my own, and yet I make no claim of originality. The same tale has been told in much the same way by hundreds of others before me. I’ve been hearing about Gauss’s schoolboy triumph since I was a schoolboy myself.

The story was familiar, but until I wrote it out in my own words, I had never thought carefully about the events in that long-ago classroom. Now doubts and questions began to nag at me.

More here.

The India Model

Gurcharan Das in Foreign Affairs:

Summary:  After being shackled by the government for decades, India’s economy has become one of the world’s strongest. The country’s unique development model — relying on domestic consumption and high-tech services — has brought a quarter century of record growth despite an incompetent and heavy-handed state. But for that growth to continue, the state must start modernizing along with Indian society.

GURCHARAN DAS is former CEO of Procter & Gamble India and the author of India Unbound: The Social and Economic Revolution From Independence to the Global Information Age.

More here.

Should the United States sacrifice its republican institutions in order to fulfil an imperial vocation?

Robert Sidelsky in the New York Review of Books:

The question of how the world should be run, and America’s part in its running, is the subject of much academic and political discussion in Washington these days. The factual questions are: Is the United States on the road to becoming an empire like the Roman and British Empires before it? What are the prospects for such an enterprise in today’s world? More speculatively, does globalization require an imperial underpinning? There are also questions of value: Is imperialism a good or bad thing? Should the United States sacrifice its republican institutions in order to fulfil an imperial vocation? Gregor Dallas’s 1945: The War That Never Ended can be read as setting the scene for this discussion. The Second World War cleared away the European empires, actual and aspiring, leaving the United States and the Soviet Union as the two contending superpowers. The collapse of the Soviet Union concluded the “unfinished business” of the war, by leaving the United States the sole superpower and simultaneously creating a single world economy. The dynamics of postwar US supremacy and the question of whether they are pushing the United States toward formal empire are the subject matter of Charles Maier’s Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors.

More here.

New York City most courteous place on planet

Jennifer Harper in the Washington Times:

EmpirestatebuildingThe Big Apple just got a lot shinier. New York City is the most courteous place on the planet, according to a survey released yesterday by Reader’s Digest. And at the bottom of the heap lurks Bombay. India’s financial capital has bombed — deemed the very rudest.

The publication staged a global civility derby among 35 cities around the world, using undercover reporters to conduct more than 2,000 simple courtesy tests among unwitting passers-by, clerks and the proverbial men — and women — on the street.

Would they hold open doors, say “thank you” or help retrieve a sheaf of wayward papers on the sidewalk? Well, yes — and no, depending on the locale. Still, it is reassuring to note that even in times of tumult and uncertainty, earthlings proved fairly genteel: The survey revealed that overall, the test cities were courteous an average of 55 percent of the time.

And what about poor Bombay?

More here.  And here is the full ranking of 35 cities from Readers’ Digest.

Dispatches: Chicken Country

I’m currently living temporarily in Parkersburg, West Virginia, a state of affairs that has led me to think quite a bit about locality.  My dreams, of course, before coming here were to finally make contact with authentic American folkways, and hopefully foodways, to find local diners and farm markets and maybe even meet a grizzled trapper, a la Withnail and I, who would supply me with rabbits or venison or brook trout.  Ah, Asad, you idiotic city slicker.  The most popular grocery in town is at Wal-Mart, and the diner is Denny’s.  (Though the Georgian fast-food chain, Chick-Fil-A, and their superbly simple chicken sandwich (toasted buttered bun, fried chicken cutlet, pickles), leaves me overjoyed.  When I get back, I think I’m going to open a Chick-Fil-A on, like, Metropolitan and Lorimer and rake it in.)  If anything, the national food distribution system is more entrenched and dominant here in sleepy P-burg, with its forty thousand people, than in New York, where I can choose which season’s milk I want my Parmigiano-Reggiano from DiPalo’s to have been made from, thank you very much.  (I like winter, and I am insufferable.)  But the experience of extreme difficulty finding any locally, sustainably produced food here in WV has gotten me thinking.

A couple of years back, my aunt was kind enough to invite me to a house she rented in Cape Cod during the summer.  Naturally, given my fish obsession, I visited the well-stocked local fish store, excited about the prospect of partaking of the local catch.  Yet upon questioning the honest staff about the provenance of their selection, I learned that while some fish was locally caught, much of the fish was shipped in by truck – swordfish from the Carolinas, bluefin tuna via Boston or even New York’s now-defunct Fulton Fish Market, etc.  I’d had a similar experience in the charming little English seaside town of Aldeburgh, where there was a great selection of fish trucked in from Billingsgate, London’s wholesale market, resting prettily on ice, or being fried and wrapped in newspaper at the delicious fish-and-chip shop on the high street.  (Random aside: I groggily concussed myself one morning there because of the medievally low doorframes.)  Somehow, this seemed wrong, even though in London I would happily buy little vongole shipped from the Adriatic, cause that seems like a metropolitan prerogative.  I was buying into the pastoral myth of the countryside as the authentic source of food.

So, the fish shops of Wellfleet and Aldeburgh are far better than the fish shops in, say equally picturesque mountain villages, yet the fish they stocked was, for the most part, equally accessible to retailers anywhere.  Why the paradox?  Expectation creates demand, and people expect fish near the sea, and like to assume it came right out of that sea, and usually don’t ask if it did.  So fishmongers do business by the sea, often selling farmed fish like cod and salmon that it’s really hard to catch in the sea nowadays, while local fishermen cannot get distribution locally.  Of course, there is wild seafood to be had in Wellfleet and Aldeburgh, it’s just harder to come by in this confusingly globalized day and age.  In the case of Cape Cod, strolling down to the beach revealed thousands of native Wellfleet oysters lying around; I’m happy to report that we gathered and ate at least two hundred, and that my little nephew Sam really liked the tiny crab hitchhiking in our bucket.  The point, however, is that locality is very difficult to ascertain in our current food system, dominated as it is by supermarkets with global supply systems.  Even regional food preferences, where they exist, are largely now maintained for show rather than for the traditional reason that a particular food is in prolific supply in a region, with a few exceptions, such as Maine lobster, Maryland crab and Pacific salmon.

There’s a reason those three items are all, well, seafood.  Fish and seafood are the last wild creatures we eat much of.  But even farmed food’s origins are increasingly unclear these days, as I was finding here in Parkersburg, where my fantasies of connection with the land were being completely thwarted.  By coincidence, the new Michael Pollan book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, had just come out.  Really three books in one, it recounts three meals in Pollan’s trademark analytical goody two-shoes style, one following a confined steer to McDonald’s, one from an organic farm, and one foraged and hunted by Pollan.  The McDonald’s meal comes at the end of a long, and utterly fascinating, description of the dominance of subsidized corn production in the U.S. economy, and how the overabundance of cheap corn threatens to ruin our environment and our very selves.  Pollan makes the astute point that industrial monocultures such as the corn, chicken, and beef industries transform the nation’s landscape into a dystopia.  Rather than the aesthetically pleasing little system of a Georgic ode, we have instead literally disgusting operations the sight and smell of which must be kept in quarantine out of sight.  The synthetic fertilizers and pesticides that industrial agriculture requires pollute water tables and turn frogs hermaphroditic.  The addiction to feeding cheap corn to cows, a ruminant that evolved to eat grass, means that harmful bacteria such as E.Coli multiply in their stomachs.  And finally, the transformation of the rest of that pile of surplus corn into byproducts such as oils, starches, syrups and stabilizers means that most of our cheapest food is just corn byproducts (it occurs to me, with horror: et tu, Chick-Fil-A?).  If I was to propose the simplest possible anti-industrial agriculture diet, I’d say: just don’t eat or drink anything with high-fructose corn syrup or vegetable (i.e. corn and soybean) oil.

To my pleasant surprise, however, Pollan’s second meal is a sunny account of Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in the nearby Shenadoah Valley.  Salatin is a hero of the “managed pasture” movement, which entails rotating animals on pasture and allowing the grass to recover, rather than separately inputting synthetic fertilizers, corn, and antibiotics.  He pioneered moving chickens in mobile coops after his cows, allowing them to pick grubs and worms out of the cow’s manure, in the process fertilizing the fields, keeping the steer disease-free, and filling their own stomachs.  He has created similarly symbiotic relationships between the pigs, rabbits, and sheep on his farms, all of which rotate around the property while never being allowed to exhaust the pasture.  Salatin’s beef eat only grass, which according to Pollan makes for a much healthier and beefier beef, which is confirmed by my experience of Argentinian grass-fed beef (which, sadly and absurdly, is as illegal here as Pakistani mangoes and unpasteurized French cheese).  And I know for a fact that free-ranging chickens eating a varied diet as Salatin’s do make for much better eating than do your average Purdue broiler.  Salatin is a bit of a nutcase (when Pollan asks how people in New York can get access to food like this, Salatin replies, “Why do we need a New York City?”) but his methods are impeccable, and from 100 acres of farm and 450 acres of forest he produces 30,000 dozen eggs, 11,000 chickens, 25,000 pounds of beef, 25,000 pounds of pork, 1000 turkeys, and 500 rabbits annually.  Of course, this is a drop in the ocean: we’d need thousands of farms like Polyface to feed people this stuff, and food would be much more expensive.

Although, I wonder if it wouldn’t be a good thing for meat, at least, to be a great deal more expensive.  Why should we subsidize the cost of disease-ridden meats itself produced from subsidized corn when people spend barely any money on food as it is?  Would less meat and less sugar in the American diet be a bad thing?  Maybe the worst and most objectionable thing of all, though, about contemporary U.S. foodways is the flavor.  Let’s be honest.  The U.S.A. has the worst quality produce in the world.  An apple or a peach or a strawberry from an average supermarket taste like mildly flavored cellulose.  An apple from an orchard, ripe, in October, tastes complex and perfumed; a summer strawberry from an allotment is like an uncloying little sugar bomb; a real ripe peach from, say, Turkey, in summertime is simply absurdly good to eat.  Yet here we are in the richest country in the world, etc, etc, etc, and we eat food that’s fit for the table of some Protestant Low Country in which toil and suffering in this world bring redemption only in the next.  Unpasteurized cheese, which millions of Europeans eat safely every year, is illegal here out of fear.  Yet the FDA would rather irradiate beef, killing its taste entirely, than impose any punishment upon producers whose product is routinely contaminated with lethal fecal matter.  How are we screwing up this bad?

I don’t have an answer, other than to say that I’m going to be heading over to Salatin’s to fill a cooler with grass-fed beef and chickens and eggs soon.  Pretending to be Argentine, by eating that beef with some chimichurri and some Malbec will be nice.  So, I have realized, will eating food that accords with my general philosophy of taste: it’s better to perform labor procuring something that tastes good than trying to redeem something that doesn’t.  A subway ride to a good butcher is better cooking than following thirty-six steps from Eric Ripert’s cookbook with watery scallops and woody rosemary.  The increasing spiciness of American fast food, I think, is tied to an increasing need to camouflage the blandness and insipidity of the main ingredients.  Not that I’m saying spicy food is bad; I’m Pakistani, after all.  But excessive concealment is a sign of bad ingredients – I have my mother’s father’s favorite cookbook, from 1920’s India, and the recipes are amazingly simple: korma has chicken, onions, ginger, red pepper, and saffron. 

New York is as guilty of overcomplexity as anywhere, with its chattering vogues for senseless combinations and magical thinking about this season’s ingredient, be it lotus bulbs or pork belly.  How often do you see pastas or sandwiches that have four or five too many things on them?  And how rarely do you see people with the rigor of gastronomes past, with a steady assurance as to what goes with what, in what season?  Now we ridicule such inflexibility, residing bravely as we do in the great masala of today, where we have  oversweet versions of Thai food served to us by French chefs.  Take that, orthodoxies of yesterday!, comes our adolescent cry.  Meanwhile, we’ve never eaten the simple, decent reduction from which the lemongrass reduction departs, and have no sense of which rules are being broken.  And lest you think that cooking rules are some kind of dead-European-male thing, some sign of domination, remember this: all cuisines are bounded languages in which utterances have a grammar, and Mexicans, Provençals and Indians are equally protective of their regional foodways.  There’s much pleasure to be had from intermingling them, but much to be lost by forgetting that people ate certain ways because long experience and settled tradition embody much more knowledge of their food than we have.

I recently tried to convince my sister that no spices whatsoever are needed to enhance a good chicken, and thusly cooked her the dish whose recipe I’m about to give you, along with some by-recipes that come along with buying a whole animal and using it unwastefully.  But don’t try it with a factory bird from Giant Eagle, as I did recently, the flesh is mushy and dry simultaneously, and the muscle tone is weird, and the bird just doesn’t taste like anything.  So get something good and then don’t do much to it.  Try this if I haven’t convinced you.  All you need is one good chicken; of course, finding one is harder than it should be.

ROAST CHICKEN

This dish is a touchstone of simplicity, and won the argument with my sister.  I like it with mashed potatoes.  I read accounts of roast chickens in food books all the time, and often order it to test a kitchen, the same way you might do with tandoori chicken and naan at a tandoori place.  By the way, Simon Hopkinson’s Roast Chicken and Other Stories is one of my favorite cookbooks, simple and methodologically sound and really indicative of a chef’s whole style, and he recounts some great tales of L’Ami Louis in Paris and their roast poulet de Bresse with fries.  Oh man.

Serves 4

One chicken, smallish (free-range essential, organic preferable)
Half a lemon
Butter
Salt
Pepper (don’t even ask; yes, freshly)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Farenheit.  Take the neck and organs out of the chicken’s cavity, reserving for stock, and put the chicken in a roasting pan.  Put the lemon half in, cut side “up.”  Smear butter all over the chicken, leaving a prodigious amount on the breast.  Sprinkle with a lot of salt and pepper.

Put the chicken in the oven and leave it for an hour.  Open up and check if it’s getting too browned, if so, turn down to 350.  If not, leave and check again in fifteen minutes.  Pull the chicken out, and poke a paring knife into the thigh – the juices will come rushing out clear as a bell.  You should have a really beautiful bird with burnished dark-golden, crackling skin. 

Carve the chicken into pieces (drumsticks, thighs, wings and breast) and remove to platter.  If you don’t know how, just do it; you’ll be fine, it’s dead easy.  Now pour off the accumulated juices into a small saucepan, spooning off excess oil, and squeezing the lemon half into the mix, and boil for a bit (you can mix in some flour here if you want a thick gravy – I prefer thinner juices as a sauce).  Spoon over the chicken, or pass around.  Putting these pieces of chicken over mashed potato provides more starch to absorb the reduced chicken jus, which is a great idea.  Make it with a good chicken, and I guarantee this recipe.

CHICKEN STOCK

Roast chicken bones (including what’s on people’s plates – don’t be shy)
Peppercorns
Bay leaf
Onion, halved
Celery stalk, broken in half
Slice of ginger
Clove of garlic

Put it all in a pot, just cover with water, and bring to boil.  Skim, turn down, and simmer for two hours.  At this point, you’ll have a nice chicken-y stock that beats the pants off any can or cube and you can salt it properly and strain it.  But don’t throw away the bones; take the leftover chicken pieces from the stockpot and pick the meat off the bones – there will be a great deal on the back, especially the two little pearly nuggets on the underside.  French people have some sexy name for them, and they are good.

THREE CHINESE CHICKEN SOUPS

A good way to use chicken stock and meat; funny and old-fashioned but comforting and nice.  Another is to use all the meat for a nice chicken salad.  Another is to cook any vegetable in season (asparagus, celeriac, peas, nettles, you name it) in the stock and then puree it, topping with more pepper and a little Parmigiano, if you want.  Another is to braise lamb shanks in it with onion and fennel and top them gremolata (minced parsley and garlic, mixed).  Another is… well, you get it: it’s good to have some stock around.

Chicken stock with extra chicken meat (see above)
Vinegar
Soy sauce

Flake the reserved meat into the pot of stock, which is simmering on the stove.  Add a little vinegar and a little soy sauce.  Simmer away for a while and then pick one of these three options:

1. Egg Drop: Mix about two tablespoons cornstarch and equal water, then mix into stock, stirring vigorously.  Let thickening magic occur for a while.  Beat an egg in a bowl, and pour into soup, stirring.  You’re done.  Serve with thinly sliced superhot little Indian chilies soaked in vinegar in a little bowl.

2. Chicken Corn: Add a couple of ears worth of corn kernels or a can of corn to the stock.  Then follow the instructions for Egg Drop.

3. Hot and Sour: Add sliced fresh mushrooms, cubed tofu, julienned bamboo shoots, some sliced pork if you have it, extra soy and vinegar, and a mess of white (or black) pepper.  Then follow the instructions for Egg Drop.

The rest of Dispatches.

Teaser Appetizer: Sleep and Insomnia, A Letter to Shakespeare

Dear Shakespeare,

The other day I counted the word “sleep” in 167 passages of your work and I am sure I did not count them all. You have penned sleep in its own image and as a metaphor. You knew sleep:

“The innocent sleep, sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care, The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath, Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, Chief nourisher in life’s feast.” (Macbeth, Act II)

And you knew sleep’s associated afflictions, especially its deprivation: insomnia.

Enjoy the honey-heavy dew of slumber: Thou hast neither figures nor no fantasies Which busy care draws in the brains of men; Therefore thou sleep’st so sound. (Julius Cæsar, Act II)

The purpose of my letter is to share with you new information we have learned about sleep and insomnia since your demise in 1616.In the intervening four hundred years; we have invented complex contraptions to study a sleeping person. We can record the brain activity, eye movement, muscle tone, breathing patterns and measure the levels of various substances (chemicals, molecules, hormones) floating in the blood. All these studies have yielded considerable information.

We now describe the architecture of sleep according to the movement of the sleeping eyes, which when moving rapidly is the “rapid eye movement” (REM) phase; the rest is the non rapid eye movement phase (NREM). We start our sleep with NREM and get into REM before waking up. NREM starts with easy arousal light sleep (stage1 and 2) and marches into deep sleep (stage 3 and 4) from which a slumbering person is difficult to arouse. The unpleasant experiences of night terrors, sleepwalking and bed-wetting – the afflictions you are familiar with — occur during deep sleep.

Macbeth had a troubled stage 4 sleep:

“Ere we will eat our meal in fear and sleep In the affliction of these terrible dreams That shake us nightly: better be with the dead, Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace, Than on the torture of the mind to lie In restless ecstasy” (Macbeth, act III)

And Lady Macbeth too sleep walked in her deep stage 4 sleep:

“Since his majesty went into the field, I have seen her rise from her bed, throw her night-gown upon her, unlock her closet, take forth paper, fold it,. write upon’t, read it, afterwards seal it, and again return to bed; yet all this while in a most fast sleep.” (Macbeth, Act V)

Mr. Shakespeare, Did Parolles wet his bed in REM sleep or deep sleep?

“In his sleep he does little harm, save to his bed-clothes about him” (Alls Well That Ends Well, Act IV)

The sleep cycle starts with stage1 during which we drift in and out of sleep, our brain activity slows down. Then we enter stage 2: our brain activity slows down further; our muscles may suddenly jerk but our eyes do not move. Stage 3 shows periods of slow moving delta waves on recording of the brain activity and in stage four our muscles are immobile and brain activity reflects only delta waves. REM sleep follows stage 4: the eyes throw jerky movements, blood pressure rises, breathing becomes shallow and rapid, temporary muscle paralysis ensues, heart pounds faster, men get penile erections and the brain waves gather speed. We indulge in dreams during this active stage of sleep — the brain is hardly idle. (Most mammals and birds show REM sleep, but cold blooded animals and reptiles do not. Do other mammals dream?)

Mercutio got it wrong:

“True, I talk of dreams, which are the children of an idle brain” (Romeo and Juliet, Act I)

We sleep in cycles of NREM and REM and about 90 to 100 minutes elapse from the beginning of stage 1 to the end of REM. This cycle repeats 3 to 6 times at night. In a cycle of 100 minutes, the duration of stage 1 is 10 minutes, stage 2 is 50 minutes; stage 3 and 4 is 15 minutes and finally REM lasts 25 minutes. If we miss our REM sleep, we fall into REM the next night without other stages, till we catch up with this REM deficit.

We flash signals from the base of the brain which either awaken us or put us to sleep. These chemical signals or neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine exude from the nerve cells (neurons) of the brain stem and keep the brain awake. Other neurons at the base of the brain turn off the awakening process and we fall asleep. The levels of adenosine build up while we are awake and subside during sleep. Caffeine containing potions like coffee and tea inhibit adenosine.

REM sleep is regulated by the part of brain — we call Pons, which sends signals to other parts of the brain and also inhibits neurons in the spinal cord causing temporary paralysis.

We have learnt our bodies function in a cyclic rhythm spread over 25 hours: we call it circadian rhythm. Mere 200,000 neurons in the suprachiasmic nucleus (SCN) of hypothalamus play the role of the body clock. Sunlight or other bright light and even external noise triggers SCN which signals the pineal gland to shuts off the production of melatonin. The pineal gland secrets melatonin (a drowsiness inducing hormone) at night and in darkness. Some people with blindness suffer from sleeping disorders because they are unable to respond to light. Traveling long distance in a short period (jet lag) or change of shift at the work place can disrupt the circadian rhythm.

The neuro-chemical control of sleep is autonomous and we can not voluntarily deprive ourselves of sleep. Cleopatra in her raging defiance may have succeeded in starving herself but to defy sleep was an empty threat.

“Sir, I will eat no meat, I’ll not drink, sir; If idle talk will once be necessary, I’ll not sleep neither: this mortal house I’ll ruin, Do Caesar what he can. Know, sir, that I will not wait pinion’d at your master’s court.” (Antony and Cleopatra, Act V)

Voluntary sleep deprivation may not be possible, yet we have enough reasons to loose sleep: anxiety, depression and body pain. Iago could not sleep because of pain…

“And, being troubled with a raging tooth, I could not sleep.” (Othello, Act III)

And King Richard was anxious.

“For never yet one hour in his bed Have I enjoy’d the golden dew of sleep, But have been waked by his timorous dreams.” (King Richard III, Act IV)

In our “progress” we have added a few more causes of insomnia: jet lag, shift change and stimulant drugs. People who work at night and travel through time zones disturb the sunlight stimulus to circadian regulation.

We have found that sleep is essential for survival – at least for rats. Scientists made rats live on a platform floating in tub of water. When rats drifted into REM sleep their muscles got paralyzed and they slipped off the platform and fell into the water. Poor rats! Wet and drenched they struggled and climbed back onto the platform went into paralyzing REM sleep and fell into water again. Deprived repeatedly of REM sleep, they died in 3 weeks instead of usual 2 to 3 years.

Mr. Shakespeare, do you accuse us of being sadistic? We defend the progress of science at all costs! This very scoundrel race of rats spread the germs that devastated London with bubonic plague which must have caused you a few sleep less nights! Well, we people are adept at taking revenge for historical blood feuds; in his case it is against the rats. Well, they are all rats!

You ask what have we achieved in the past 400 years? We have accumulated wealth and information; yet it is true that our restless days still end up in sleepless nights. King Henry also knew it; money can buy you a bed but not sleep.

“Not all these, laid in bed majestical, Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave, And, but for ceremony, such a wretch, Winding up days with toil and nights with sleep,” (King Henry V, act IV)

You probably think the information gained in the last 400 years has cured our insomnia… not so Mr. Shakespeare: 30 to 50 percent of our people now suffer from insomnia; we are a sleep deprived world. Here is some news for you from the Boston Globe:

The Institute of Medicine report said loss of sleep has increased in recent decades due to longer workdays and computer use and television watching taking up more time. Lack of sleep increases the risk of a variety of health problems, the report said, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and heart attacks. It also raises the chances of injury or death due to accidents at work, home, or in automobiles. Studies in the 1990s estimated the cost of medical care for sleep disorders at $15.9 billion, the report said. In addition, fatigue is estimated to cost businesses about $150 billion a year in lost productivity and mishaps, and damage from motor vehicle accidents involving tired drivers amounts to at least $48 billion a year. The National Sleep Foundation issued a report indicating only 20 percent of US adolescents get the recommended nine hours of sleep a night.

So, here we are, four centuries after you! Amazing: so much knowledge, yet how little we have learned! We have coaxed but a few ounces of wisdom from the tons of information we have collected and culled. Our data could fill the cavernous base of a medieval church and all the wisdom will rise but slim as a spire. From you we need to learn to build with in the scaffold of wisdom and not on the foundation of data. We need at least as many seers as we have scientists.

“Not poppy, nor mandragora, nor all the drowsy syrups of the world, Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep, Which thou owedst yesterday.” (Othello, Act III)

Sojourns: Bored by the World Cup

Absolutvisionimg_1_1Let me confess at the outset that my lack of interest in the World Cup is matched only by my ignorance of the sport itself. Call me what you will. A philistine. A provincial. A vulgarian. An ugly American. But I have not been getting up in the morning to watch the matches. There is a reason for this I think. Sports are an acquired taste and deeply autobiographical. I grew up on the Jewish faculty-brat diet of baseball and basketball. By the time I was in college and self-consciously developing an interest in the arts and literature, televised sports seemed like something from a distant planet. When I returned to watching sports in my thirties, it was with the intense relish of rediscovering forgotten pleasures. I wanted the sweet succor of bygone days and older knowledge. Learning new things was for different regions of my brain and other times of day. Thus soccer fell between the cracks in my life. Too bad for me, I hear you say.

By not developing an interest in the World Cup, or at any rate by not professing one, I am something of a traitor to my own professional class. Even the most sports-averse and tweed-adorned professor these days can be seen taking a break to watch the surprising run of Ghana or the stalwart march of the Germans. (I find no great surprise, for example, that this very website, ordinarily so earnest and sober, so interested in international affairs, science, and medicine, has two separate bloggers reporting from the games.) The World Cup has in other words developed an odd kind of reach. It is both sports and not sports. Clearly billions of people who grew up in countries other than my own feel an intensity of fandom I cannot really understand, but which equally clearly provides the kind of visceral pleasure in viewing I can. I am however not interested here in what motivates soccer fans in the countries where the sport thrives. What I’m interested in, rather, is the acquired situational appreciation of soccer and its elevation into a sport that is more than a sport.

Gauloises1_1Perhaps I should just phrase this is as a simple question. Why do intellectuals or the chattering classes or the intelligentsia care so much about the World Cup? The least generous answer is simple Europhilia. Like smoking Gauloises or eating haggis, watching the tournament expresses a kind of vicarious belonging to a different continent, a sign that you spent your junior year abroad in Florence or Paris or Edinburgh and, when pressed, even know a word or two in a different language. Seen this way, one’s viewing habits provide a form of cultural capital and means of distinction. The sport is not simply a competition like the World Series; it is rather something of an aesthetic artifact, the appreciation of which becomes a badge of sophistication. It is, in the words of the New York Times, a “beautiful game.”

To be a little less cynical, the World Cup is for some clearly less about sports than about international relations and politics. On this account, the games are interesting for their allegorical significance. Teams really do represent nations after all. If say Ghana defeats France then centuries of colonialism and domination are momentarily upended in a great reversal of fortune. Even the uglier dimensions of the tournament—violence, “hooliganism,” racism, and the like—are interesting because they express some underlying sociological or political cause. One is interested in the sport not because it is a “beautiful game” but because of what it reveals about class tensions, race war, the new Europe, etc.

In either case, viewers of the World Cup watch the game from a sort of distance: the distance of aesthetics or of politics. The first translates the game into a mark of distinction and cultural capital; the second translates the game into an allegory or a symptom. The thing about such distance, at least for me, is that it gets in the way of the deeply intuitive and primal enjoyment that accompanies watching a sport with which one is intimately familiar. So I return to autobiography. Suburban kids now seem to be introduced to soccer as a matter of course. (Hence the specter of the American “soccer mom” looming large over pollsters and politicos everywhere.) When I was in elementary school back in the 70s, however, soccer was only beginning to be touted as the next thing to come. Some day soon, we were told, everyone would be kicking checkered balls, right about the same time as we would be measuring things in metric. The great metric conversion never came. And by the time soccer camps and leagues sprung up I was very much into other things. I simply never developed the self-transcending pleasure watching soccer that I did with other sports.

I tend not to think my own history is that unique, so I doubt that many Americans of my generation did either. While I am interested in the interest in the World Cup, therefore, the tournament itself leaves me bored.

Monday Musing: Susan Sontag, Part 2

The first part of this essay can be found here.

Inevitably, the exaltation and dreams of unity that she harbored during the Sixties were to disappoint Sontag, as they did everyone else. She was going to have to come down from those heights and find her own version of Zagajewski’s soft landing. And that is another thing that makes Susan Sontag so remarkable. At her most exalted, writing in 1968, just after returning from Hanoi, she says:

“I recognized a limited analogy to my present state in Paris in early July when, talking to acquaintances who had been on the barricades in May, I discovered they don’t really accept the failure of their revolution. The reason for their lack of ‘realism’, I think, is that they’re still possessed by the new feelings revealed to them during those weeks—those precious weeks in which vast numbers of ordinarily suspicious, cynical urban people, workers and students, behaved with an unprecedented generosity and warmth and spontaneity toward each other. In a way, then, the young veterans of the barricades are right in not altogether acknowledging their defeat, in being unable fully to believe that things have returned to pre-May normality, if not worse. Actually it is they who are being realistic. Someone who has enjoyed new feelings of that kind—a reprieve, however brief, from the inhibitions on love and trust this society enforces—is never the same again. In him, the ‘revolution’ has just started, and it continues. So I discover that what happened to me in North Vietnam did not end with my return to America, but is still going on.”

The world did return to normalcy, if not worse. But Sontag didn’t indulge in the outright lunacy of the New Left as it spiraled off into fantasyland. (Though she did endorse something of the mood of the New Left in one of her less successful and rather more hysterical essays “What’s Happening in America? (1966).” Still, when the chips were down she didn’t take that path. She kept her head.)

And the hint as to how she kept her cool is already there in the above passage. Her commitment to the integrity of the individual mind was a buttress for her. The solid structure of her mental edifice, built with that sternness of pleasure she never abandoned, allowed her to come in for a soft landing while people like the Situationists or the Yippies or The Weathermen floundered or came apart at the seams.

More than that, she was able to recognize her own missteps and rethink her exaltation. Even as she continued to lament the way in which her new experiences were sullied and her new consciousness never came to pass, she realized that much of its promise, especially in its political variants, had been an illusion. Increasingly in her essays in the Eighties and Nineties she celebrated the writers and artists of Central and Eastern Europe who fought the disaster of the ‘revolution’. In 1997, she was to write, “Intellectuals responsibly taking sides, and putting themselves on the line for what they believe in . . . are a good deal less common than intellectuals taking public positions either in conscious bad faith or in shameless ignorance of what they are pronouncing on: for every Andre Gide or George Orwell or Norberto Bobbio or Andrei Sakharov or Adam Michnik, ten of Romain Rolland or Ilya Ehrenburg or Jean Buadrillard or Peter Handke, et cetera, et cetera.”

She came to see that communism in Vietnam had been a lie and a farce, even as the Vietnamese resistance to the American war machine had been noble and just. She went to Bosnia again and again and never, for even a moment, indulged in the repellant apologies for Serbian nationalism that many of her colleagues on the Left dishonored themselves with. In fact, she always saw Europe and North America’s failure in Bosnia as another manifestation of the shallow interest in material happiness and comfort.

Such a vapid happiness was not what Sontag was referring to in her quest for difficult pleasure.

***

This is not to say that she was happy about politics and culture after the Sixties. Sometimes she was outright despondent. Sometimes she felt she had been tricked. She marveled how her own arguments had come back to haunt her. Things that she had advocated for in the Sixties were realized in ways completely contrary to her original intentions.

For instance in her seminal essay “Against Interpretation” (1962), she argued that criticism had become too Baroque. It was preventing immediate appreciation of things as things. So she made a call for transparence. “Transparence,” she said, “means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are.” And then notoriously, at the end of the essay, she proclaimed, “In place of a hermeneutics, we need an erotics of art.”

Later, she came to realize that history had pulled something of a fast one on her. People did begin to appreciate, even worship, surface and appearance. Camp moved further into the mainstream. But it wasn’t happening in the way that Sontag intended. In a preface to Against Interpretation written in 1995 and entitled “Thirty Years Later . . .” she addressed the issue.

“It is not simply that the Sixties have been repudiated, and the dissident spirit quashed, and made the object of intense nostalgia. The ever more triumphant values of consumer capitalism promote–indeed, impose–the cultural mixes and insolence and defense of pleasure that I was advocating for quite different reasons.”

She won a battle at the expense of the greater victory she was hoping for. There was a revolution in a sense, and a democratizing of culture. But Sontag realized that it wasn’t leading to pleasure, real pleasure. Instead, it led to a devaluation of the seriousness of intellect that Sontag took to be a prerequisite for genuine pleasure. In what she calls her own naiveté, Sontag, in the Sixties, made an appeal for changes that consumer culture was only too ready to provide during the next few decades. But those changes came as an empty package. Talking thirty years later about the essays of Against Interpretation, she says, “The judgments of taste expressed in these essays may have prevailed. The values underlying those judgments did not.”

In response to this cruel trick of history, Sontag did verge dangerously close to nostalgia on occasion. Perhaps that is understandable. Her problem was even more acute than the problem of the Central Europeans for whom she had such sensitivity. Central Europeans might look back with some wistfulness on the intense seriousness of the ‘bad old days’ but they were, still, the bad old days. For all of Sontag’s hesitation in identifying with the Sixties as a movement, it was during those years that she experienced her greatest pleasures in art and understanding. They weren’t bad old days at all for her.

And she felt that as she was getting older she was simultaneously witnessing the disappearance of much of what had given her the greatest pleasure. In 1988, she expressed this as a European elegy. Europe, to Sontag, always represented resistance to the tide of philistinism—she even calls it barbarity—that emanates from America and its consumer culture. She says, “The diversity, seriousness, fastidiousness, density of European culture constitute an Archimedean point from which I can, mentally, move the world.”

By the late Eighties, she believed that that Archimedean point was drifting away as Europe became more homogeneous and “Americanized”. Without naming it directly, her contempt for the idea of European integration (this, again, in 1988) is palpable. What she calls the ‘diversity’ of Europe is predicated, for Sontag, on preserving the differences that come with national and thereby cultural boundaries. But with all the language of preservation and loss, Sontag manages to rescue the essay from outright nostalgia. She recognized the malleability and relativity of the “idea of Europe”. The idea of Europe is at its most potent, she argued, when wielded by the Central and European intellectuals who used it, implicitly, as a critique of the Soviet domination they were resisting. But Sontag was also aware that the rallying cry of “Europe” was distinctly unpalatable when raised in Western Europe as a warning against the new immigration. This latter point has only become more incisive in recent years. As always, Sontag was ahead of the times.

Indeed, by the end of her lament for Europe, Sontag turns a corner. Having aired her grievances, she begins to move forward. She comes in for another soft landing. She begins to shift onto another battlefield, moving just as quickly as modern experience does. That quickness, that readiness to move at the pace in which new experiences present themselves allows her, in seeming paradox, to find what is solid and lasting in things. “The modern has its own logic,” she writes, “liberating and immensely destructive, by which the United States, no less than Japan and the rich European countries, is being transformed. Meanwhile, the center has shifted.”

Having started “The Idea of Europe (One More Elegy)” by veering into a cultural conservatism that she spoke so eloquently against in her earliest essays, she manages to steer herself back into more Sontag-like territory. She is prepared to become an exile again, as she always was in the first place. Exiled in the sense that every intellect of integrity stands alone in the last instance, as a self. In asking what will happen next, as the greatness of Europe fades and transforms, Sontag refers to Gertrude Stein’s answer to those who wondered how she would deal with a loss of her roots. “Said Gertrude Stein, her answer perhaps even more Jewish than American: ‘But what good are roots if you can’t take them with you’.”

***

Susan Sontag always understood the melancholic personality lingering in the back alleys of modern consciousness. She understood the will to suicide in men like Walter Benjamin. She knew why Benjamin lived under the sign of Saturn and could write:

“The resistance which modernity offers to the natural productive élan of a person is out of proportion to his strength. It is understandable if a person grows tired and takes refuge in death. Modernity must be under the sign of suicide, an act which seals a heroic will . . . . It is the achievement of modernity in the realm of passions.”

Sontag understood the will to death and failure in Artaud. She understood the will to silence in Beckett and John Cage. Not only did she understand these things, she could write about them clearly, put her finger on them. She knew that Nietzsche’s prognostication about the coming nihilism had come to pass in much of the modern, and modernist, aesthetic she cherished so dearly.

She felt the exhaustion of the modern spirit. But she wasn’t exhausted by it. In her essay on Elias Canetti, “Mind as Passion,” she wrote the following;

“‘I want to feel everything in me before I think it’, Canetti wrote in 1943, and for this, he says, he needs a long life. To die prematurely means having not fully engorged himself and, therefore, having not used his mind as he could. It is almost as if Canetti had to keep his consciousness in a permanent state of avidity, to remain unreconciled to death. ‘It is wonderful that nothing is lost in a mind’, he also wrote in his notebook, in what must have been a not infrequent moment of euphoria, ‘and would not this alone be reason enough to live very long or even forever?’ Recurrent images of needing to feel everything inside himself, of unifying everything in one head, illustrate Canetti’s attempts through magical thinking and moral clamorousness to ‘refute’ death.”

Sontag is writing about Canetti but she is writing about Sontag too. As much as she measured and reported the pulse of an era in thought, art, morals, . . . as much as she eulogized its passing, she also stood for the brute continuation of life, of pleasure, and of joy. She’s dead now, but there is nothing that stimulates a desire to live more than reading one of her essays. If it so happens that we’re stumbling into an age of new seriousness and new sincerity we’re doing so partly because Susan Sontag showed us how important the world can be.

The Other Intelligent Design Theories

David Brin in Skeptic Magazine:

While scientists and their supporters try to fight back with judicious reasoning and mountains of evidence, a certain fraction of the population perceives only smug professors, fighting to protect their turf — authority figures trying to squelch brave underdogs before they can compete. Image matters. And this self-portrayal — as champions of open debate, standing up to stodgy authorities — has worked well for the proponents of Intelligent Design (ID). For now.

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Yet, I believe they have made a mistake. By basing their offensive on core notions of fair play and completeness, ID promoters have employed a clever short-term tactic, but have incurred a long-term strategic liability. Because, their grand conceptual error is in believing that their incantation of Intelligent Design is the only alternative to Darwinian evolution.

If students deserve to weigh ID against natural selection, then why not also expose them to…

More here.

Regilous Chauvinism Shuts Down M. F. Hussain Exhibition

Awaaz South Asia Watch, which does a lot to fight Islamist fanaticism and the Hindu fascism of groups such as the RSS in the subcontinent, is fighting to reopen an exhibition of work by an Indian Muslim artist.

South Asia Watch urges Asia House, London to re-open the exhibition of the work of renowned Indian artist, MF Husain. Awaaz condemns the forced closure of the exhibition following violence, harassment and intimidation by fundamentalists claiming to represent the views of British Hindus. The fundamentalists who vandalised the paintings reflect the authoritarian ideologies and tactics of militant Hindu Right groups in India.

In India, organisations such as the extremely violent Bajrang Dal, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other organizations linked to the fascist-inspired Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) [1], have repeatedly attacked MF Husain and other artists, filmmakers, intellectuals and cultural practitioners. In 1998, Hindu Right groups attacked and ransacked Husain’s Bombay home, one of several such attacks on the artist and his work. Hindu Right groups have regularly attempted to undermine the freedom of thought and expression enshrined in the Indian constitution and reflected in the vibrancy of Indian culture.

In Hindu traditions there is an extensive history of wide and diverse representations of the sacred deities, including nude, erotic and other depictions. Hinduism has never possessed a concept of censorship or blasphemy of the kind that authoritarian groups wish to promote. A key reason the exhibition is being attacked is because MF Husain is a Muslim. Groups involved have used religious claims to mask a political agenda that owes to the Hindu Right, an agenda which has caused considerable violence and misery in India since the 1980s.

The Growing Indian Online Game Market

The East Asian craze for online gaming spreads to the subcontinent, which oddly sees it as something to compete with East Asia over, in Wired.

Add another category to India’s intensifying regional competition with China: online gaming.

Five years after China pulled away from its giant southern neighbor in all things internet, young Indians are logging on for Quake 4 and Counter-Strike marathons in rapidly growing numbers. Deepening PC and broadband penetration, together with invigorated promotion and heightened game awareness, have India on the cusp of an online gaming explosion.

And those leading the charge aren’t shy to admit that the elephant has a dragon in its sites.

“We are going to catch China by 2010,” says Sukamal Pegu, the 24-year-old founding member of the gaming division at Indiatimes Online, South Asia’s largest internet service provider. “It will be a challenge, but we’re making strides on China every day.”

The Universal Library and The End of the Author

In The New York Times Book Review, John Updike sees an end to authorship with the digitization of the written word.

Last month, The New York Times Magazine published a lengthy article that gleefully envisioned the end of the bookseller, and indeed of the writer. Written by Kevin Kelly, identified as the “senior maverick” at Wired magazine, the article describes a glorious digitalizing of all written knowledge. Google’s plan, announced in December 2004, to scan the contents of five major research libraries and make them searchable, according to Kelly, has resurrected the dream of the universal library…

Unlike the libraries of old, Kelly continues, “this library would be truly democratic, offering every book to every person.” The anarchic nature of the true democracy emerges bit by bit. “Once digitized, books can be unraveled into single pages or be reduced further, into snippets of a page,” Kelly writes. “These snippets will be remixed into reordered books and virtual bookshelves. Just as the music audience now juggles and reorders songs into new albums (or ‘playlists,’ as they are called in iTunes), the universal library will encourage the creation of virtual ‘bookshelves’ — a collection of texts, some as short as a paragraph, others as long as entire books, that form a library shelf’s worth of specialized information. And as with music playlists, once created, these ‘bookshelves’ will be published and swapped in the public commons. Indeed, some authors will begin to write books to be read as snippets or to be remixed as pages.”…

This is, as I read it, a pretty grisly scenario. “Performances, access to the creator, personalization,” whatever that is — does this not throw us back to the pre-literate societies, where only the present, live person can make an impression and offer, as it were, value?

Like a Conspiracy Virgin

From Mother Jones:

Madonna_265x306_1 Commentary: Musings on the Material Girl Matrix: By Bill Santiago

Call me paranoid. But hey, I attended the Madonna concert right after spending the weekend at Conspiracy Con 2006, a gathering of folks who swear Humpty Dumpty was the victim of an inside job.

Did I mention I was sitting right up front? I’ve never even been that close to the turkey at Thanksgiving dinner. Her appeal was paranormal. Beyond superstardom, and approaching the pop-spiritual. I felt I was in the presence of a shape-shifting daughter of the Illuminati, a Manchurian material girl, a queen of mind-control with a multi-millionaire mind by whom I desperately wanted to be abducted.

It was totally awesome. Resistance was futile.

More here.

The Simple Life

From The New York Times:

Ali190_1 ‘Alentejo Blue,’ by Monica Ali

CALL it the prodigy’s paradox: If the world greets an author’s first novel with bear hugs and cries of “Huzza,” the second effort nearly always gets the cold shoulder, the suspicious look. Often, there are rumblings that the second novel might never have been published if not for the success of the first. But is that fair? Is it possible to judge a sophomore effort solely on its own merits?

The prodigiously gifted Monica Ali has found a way to sidestep this booby trap. Her second book, “Alentejo Blue,” a loosely interwoven collection of stories set in and around a Portuguese village, has so different a voice, tempo, mood and theme from her first book, “Brick Lane,” that the two seem to share no family resemblance, no authorial DNA. It’s almost as if they were produced by different writers.

“Brick Lane,” published three years ago when Ali was 35, is a sprawling yet tightly cohering novel, set in London and Bangladesh, that uses one woman’s unwieldy life to put a human face on the struggle between the first world and the third, Islam and secularism, tradition and modernity, fate and free will, men and women, youth and age. It’s the kind of achievement that entitles its creator to sit with her hands folded for the rest of her days, knowing she has produced a lasting work and need only write again if she really feels like it. Clearly, Ali feels like it. Her new book demonstrates her versatility and hints at the breadth and variety of her interests.

More here.