Change Comes to Tiffinwalas

A short while ago, I came across this Anthony Bourdain piece on the tiffinwalas of Mumbai.

In the BBC, the tiffinwalas may be seeing changes in how they work:

[I]n an attempt to boost awareness about their service they are going a little bit more high tech.

They tiffinwalas have set up a website and an SMS service to increase customer numbers.

This has come as a surprise to many, as many of the lunchbox carriers are illiterate.

Savvy about their business and finance as they are, very few of them have even heard of the internet.

The new technology has been built for them by a software engineer Manish Tripathi who has been adopted as an honorary tiffinwala.

Kuspit on Conceptualism and tragic beauty

To put this a different way, if Pop art can be understood as high art’s homage and submission to popular culture, in acknowledgement that it was better to join an enemy with which one could not compete than be slaughtered, then Conceptual art can be understood as high art’s suicide in acknowledgement not only of its psychosocial irrelevance but also its meaninglessness. Its need to be taken over and supplanted by philosophy — Hegel thought this was inevitable, that is, consciousness, knowing itself, would become a matter of pure ideas in no need of materialization to become self-evident — follows from its loss of purpose in the modern world. Art was beside the point of modern life — it could never feel secure in an age of science and technology — but philosophy was never beside the point, because it always had the last word, like some deus ex machina. If the owl of philosophy flies at dusk, as has been said, then the philosophicalization of art that occurs in Conceptual art symbolizes the night that is falling on art.

more from Artnet Magazine here.

ethnic studies

It may be hypocritical to assert that courses dealing with ethnicity are designed to foster what is imagined by university professors to be “culture.” As the product of two generations of neo-Marxist teachers, the idea of teaching ethnicity is not very different from the “folk” cultures fostered under Stalinist bureaucracy. Ethnic Studies might be educationally useful for some white Americans of what is disingenuously termed our “mainstream culture,” since perforce they know little or nothing about the ethnic groups proliferating in their midst. Conceivably such courses could be helpful in accommodating social tensions because they afford a democratic means of political manipulation, for supporting “culture.” Notwithstanding, Ethnic Studies is quintessentially a university notion: it mistakes documents for reality. And providing an Ethnic Studies center or department is your typical administrative device for defusing the unhappiness of minorities in a pluralistic society headed always towards the Western achievement (eclectic only in dress, music, arts, and cuisine). It is also a vicious product of the ignorance and anxiety of our school bureaucrats — scientists and sociologists — for, by politicizing scholarship, it avoids critical thought about values. In essence, our Ethnic Studies centers exist to placate political demands; unfortunately, academics rush to develop and elaborate courses of study that are products of their long hours of lucubration in a library … or surfing the worldwide web’s inchoate cloaca of unfiltered documents.

more from California Literary Review here.

Smooth operator

From Guardian:Shakespeare_6

In Ben Jonson’s celebrated phrase, he was not of an age, but for all time. Universal and timeless, Shakespeare remains a mirror to every generation. Ours is no exception. Recently, to an unprecedented degree, we have seen ourselves as much through his life as in his work. The past decade has seen a festival of celebrity Shakespeare, the pop-culture bard. So, in Tom Stoppard’s witty and suggestive film, he was ‘in love’. In Stephen Greenblatt’s 2004 bestseller he became the ‘Will’ of Will in the World. In Dominic Dromgoole’s recent memoir, Will and Me: How Shakespeare Took Over My Life, he is ‘Will’ again, a fellow thespian, and by implication the perfect side-kick and mentor to the new director of London’s Globe. Last week his First Folio was auctioned at a price (£2.8m) that would not disgrace a top impressionist.

More here.

Cigarettes could slash blood-alcohol levels, making smokers drink more

From Nature:Smoker_1

A new study helps to explain why smokers tend to have boozier nights out than non-smokers. The work, done in rats, shows that a heavy dose of nicotine can cut blood-alcohol levels in half. If cigarettes similarly lower intoxication in people, it could mean that smokers need to drink more than non-smokers to get the same buzz.

Many studies have shown that smokers tend to drink more alcohol than non-smokers, and a number of reasons are proposed for this. People who indulge in one habit may be simply more inclined to indulge in another, and socially both habits tend to go hand-in-hand at pubs and parties. Researchers also know that both nicotine and alcohol trigger a release of the feel-good brain chemical dopamine, but that indulging too much in either habit can breed tolerance to the drugs and reduce this pleasurable reward. So heavy users of one may boost use of the other to help bring their dopamine response back up.

More here.

What is Nasrallah’s Game?

In The Nation, Adam Shatz looks at what Sheik Sayed Hassan Nasrallah hopes to achieve.

Nasrallah’s objectives most likely lie elsewhere. Since the 2000 Israeli withdrawal (“the first Arab victory in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict,” as Nasrallah often notes), Hezbollah has faced mounting pressure, from the West but also at home, to lay down its arms and become a purely political organization–a fate the party dreads, since it prides itself on being a vanguard of Islamic resistance to American and Israeli ambitions in the Middle East. This pressure dramatically intensified with UN Security Council resolution 1559 (2004), which called for the disbanding of all Lebanese militias, and with the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon last year. By conducting a raid that was likely to provoke a brutal Israeli reprisal, Nasrallah may have gambled that the fury of the Lebanese would soon turn from Hezbollah to the Jewish state, thereby providing a justification for “the national resistance” as Lebanon’s only deterrent against Israel. So far, Israel (with the full support of the Bush Administration) has played right into his hands, inflicting more than 300 casualties, nearly all of them civilians, and pounding the civilian infrastructure, eliciting sympathy for Hezbollah even among some Lebanese Christians. By striking at Israel’s Army during its most destructive campaign in Palestine since 2002’s “Operation Defensive Shield,” Nasrallah must have known that he would earn praise throughout the Muslim world for coming to the aid of Palestinians abandoned by the region’s authoritarian governments, a number of which have pointedly chastised Nasrallah’s “adventurism.” And by bloodying Israel’s nose, Hezbollah could once again bolster its aura in the wider Arab world as a redoubtable “resistance” force, a model it seeks to promote regionally, especially in Palestine, where Nasrallah is a folk hero, and in Iraq, where Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the radical Shiite Mahdi Army, has proclaimed himself a follower of Hezbollah and has threatened to renew attacks against US forces in solidarity with the Lebanese.

Shalizi on Criticality

Cosma Shalizi is guest blogging at Crooked Timber and begins with a discussion of the mechanics of disordered systems and optimized criticality, based on the work of Osame Kinouchi and Mauro Copelli. (For those of you who missed it, see also Azra’s piece on self-organized criticality and cancer.)

Neurons, like muscle cells, are “excitable”, in that the right stimulus will get them to suddenly expend a lot of energy in a characteristic way — muscle cells twitch, and neurons produce an electrical current called an action potential or spike. Kinouchi and Copelli use a standard sort of model of an excitable medium of such cells, which distinguish between the excited state, a sequence of “refractory” states where the neuron can’t spike again after it’s been excited, and a resting or quiescent state when the right input could get it to fire. (These models have a long history in neurodynamics, the study of heart failure, cellular slime molds, etc.) Normally, in these models the cells are arrayed in some regular grid, and the probability that a resting cell becomes excited goes up as it has more excited neighbors. This is still true in Kinouchi and Copelli’s model, only the arrangement of cells is now a simple random graph. Resting cells also get excited at a steady random rate, representing the physical stimulus.

Kinouchi and Copelli argue that the key quantity in their model is how many cells are stimulated into firing, on average, by a single excited cell. If this “branching ratio” is less than one, an external stimulus will tend to produce a small, short-lived burst of excitation, and there will be no spontaneous activity; the system is sub-critical. If the branching ratio is greater than one, outside stimuli produce very large, saturating waves of excitation, and there’s a lot of self-sustained activity, making it hard to use a super-critical network as a detector. At the critical point, however, where each excited cell produces, on average, exactly one more excited cell, waves of excitation eventually die out, but they tend to be very long-lived, and in fact their distribution follows a power law.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Selected Minor Works: Where Turks Still Menace

Justin E. H. Smith

[An extensive archive of Justin Smith’s writing may be found at www.jehsmith.com]

An eighth-grade English textbook published in Bucharest in 1978 begins with an inspiring hortation from President Nicolae Ceasescu: “Let you learn, learn and learn,” he beseeches the pupils. “Let you explore, explore and work. Let you relate tightly education to research and work. Only by so doing can you become good patriots, good revolutionaries, reliable citizens of socialist Romania, devoted champions of her independence and sovereignty.” As we advance through the lessons, we find many such helpful phrases as: “I hope I shan’t get too excited in front of the Union of Communist Youth members!” and: “The umbrella opens and closes by itself. It is an automaton.”

For the past month I have been hidden away in a small village in the Carpathian mountains, attempting, when not writing the book I came here to write, to learn, learn, and learn a bit of Romanian history. We are in the village of Parau, halfway between Sibiu and Brasov, about 50 kilometers to the west of the old boundary between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and that part of the world under at least nominal control of the Ottoman sultan. The inhabitants travel in horse carts, wear traditional clothing, and every evening drive their cows home from the fields down the village’s dirt roads.

Picturesque, indeed. But some days, when I long to go to the little shop in the village to buy some near-stale bread or a can of corn without being stared at like some alien, I can’t help but think to myself: this is the last and greatest stronghold in Europe of what Marx dared to call “the idiocy of village life.” Old ladies scurry past the town’s church making the sign of the cross in fear and ignorance. Kinder, Kirche, Küche, as the Germans say, seem to constitute the ultimate horizon of these women’s dreams and ambitions.

The villagers stare at us with absolutely no concern for discretion as we take our nightly post-prandial strolls. It is summer and the weather is fine and we are in need of a stroll after dinner, that is all, but the intensity of the gazes from every nook and, presumably, behind every window-shade always make us feel as though we are doing something terribly wrong, as though we ourselves were the devil incarnate. You’re just lucky I’m not black, I tell my wife.

Half of the population of Romania is engaged in subsistence agriculture. For the most part, the peasants conduct their lives without using money, getting what they need by producing it themselves or bartering what they’ve produced. Most of the people who live off the land, I was told by a member of the Romanian learned class, have no idea what Europe is, let alone anything like a considered opinion on the pros and cons of EU accession.

Yet everywhere one goes one sees signs of Romania’s longing to join. The little schoolhouse in Parau has waving outside of it, from left to right, a Romanian flag, an EU flag, and a NATO flag. This is particularly odd when we consider that Romania is not yet even a member of the European Union, and we certainly wouldn’t find this sort of EU-pride in countries that are members. The EU flag, it seems, reveals no official affiliation, but is rather a symbol of psychogeographical orientation: do not confuse us, it says, with our neighbors to the East.

Americans who, in the PC-frenzy of the 1990s, trained themselves to stop saying ‘Oriental’, would be amazed to observe how that term is employed around here: ‘Oriental’ is whatever the Romanians hate about themselves, whatever is left over from Ottoman domination, whatever cultural contagion the nomadic Gypsies –whose language is closer to Punjabi than to Romanian— have spread to their hosts, whatever it is that is making EU accession so difficult. Corruption is ‘Oriental,’ as are potholes, inflation, and street dogs. The desire to purge the ‘Oriental’ also manifests itself in the form of a general aversion towards Arab, Turkish, and Indian cuisine, and a common belief that this food is prepared unhygienically. One woman I spoke to reported that her lips sprouted blisters within hours after she dared to try a Lebanese restaurant in Bucharest. Another woman told me that, while she has never actually been to Turkey, she believes that Turks are very dishonest, and that the widespread habit of dishonesty among Romanians must be a consequence of Ottoman influence. I lived for a year in Istanbul, I replied, and I experienced no significant instances of dishonesty. In Romania, in contrast, I have experienced a total of one significant instance (I foolishly gave a vendor a large bill and he gave me too little change in return).

Anyone who spends more than, say, five minutes in Bucharest will inevitably hear, blaring from cars and restaurants and homes, some very, very bad music. This music is “manele“, it is the perpetual soundtrack of lower class men in muscle shirts and gold chains and in Mercedes Benzes they ought not be in a position to afford. As in rap, the texts consist principally in boasts and threats. As far as I can tell, it is produced with no real instruments, it is cheap and forgettable, and it sounds to my ear as though it could just as easily come from Egypt or Turkey. And needless to say, the learned classes hate it. An anti-manele campaign that has been picking up steam recently instructs Bucharesters to blast Mozart from your homes and cars in the hopes of drowning out the ubiquitious trashy Oriental synth-pop.

This is meant to be a defense of high culture against the vulgar, but does it not also perfectly reflect the fundamental divide in the Romanian identity: The Ottoman Empire versus the Austro-Hungarian, Istanbul versus Vienna? Tipper Gore may hate the violent and misogynistic content of rap music, but it has been a long time since any respectable American has been permitted to bemoan the popularity of “jungle” music, to speak as though we are under musical siege by the savages. But the anti-manele rhetoric is not just about music. It’s also about geopolitics and history.

More than one Romanian has explained to me that it is simply Romania’s destiny to be ruled by some empire or other. In bad times, the empire is based in the East (Istanbul, Moscow); in good times, it is based in the West (Rome, Washington). A Romanian ambassador I spoke with in Western Europe described the routine visits he paid to other ambassadors shortly after arriving in his new assignment. The American ambassador was warm if busy, as were the Europeans. The Russian ambassador, in contrast, had a succinct speech he was evidently instructed by Putin to give: don’t think you’ve seen the last of us. The threat is not (and probably never was) communism, but Oriental despotism. I have heard more than one Romanian claim that the Russians are the direct descendants of Genghis Khan, and that there is a discernible continuity from the days of the Mongol invasions to Russian politics today.

Romania is not the only country with the bad habit of projecting everything it doesn’t like about itself towards some geographical or imaginary East. I’ve heard many Russians describe Chinese food as ‘dirty’, and Turks themselves disdainfully describe their version of manele as ‘arabesk’. Much of the rhetoric of Southeastern Europe as the last line of defense against Muslim invaders turned much nastier during the Yugoslav wars than at its present, irritating din in Romania. But what is interesting about the Romanian version is that, in their case, unlike that of the Slavs, Greeks, and Albanians, there is some solid historical, or at least linguistic, reason why they imagine themselves as more Western than their neighbors.

On the European side of the Bosporus Strait, in a northern suburb of Istanbul, there stands a tower erected in the 15th century. It is called the ‘Rumeli’ tower, this being the Turkish form of the ethnonym ‘Roman’. Romans, in this sense, are not citizens of Rome, nor even directly the one-time citizens or subjects of the Roman Empire. They are, rather, Europeans as opposed to Turks. Until 1453, the Bosporus was understood to be the absolute and final barrier between the two realms, but with the fall of Constantinople and the following centuries of Turkish advances –most famously all the way to the gates of Vienna in 1529–, the southeastern part of Europe was transformed into a grey area between two worlds.

All of this is particularly pertinent for our understanding of avian flu, an odd media phenomenon that may or may not have some distant correlate in epidemiological reality. Avian flu, the story goes, is a plague that encroaches upon the West from the East, and that has as its cause unhygienic Oriental food-handling practices. When we first heard of it, it was wreaking havoc in China. Before long, it had made its way to Turkey, and immediately after that cases were reported from Romania: it had snuck past the Rumeli Hisari as Rome’s watchmen dozed. Soon enough, entire neighborhoods of Bucharest were under quarantine, even though not a single case of human-to-human transmission had been reported, anywhere.

The impression this westward progression no doubt left on readers of low-brow newspapers like Das Bild in Germany or The Sun in England was nothing new, but only the latest reinforcement of a basic feature of European geography since at least the 15th century, according to which civilization as we know it is threatened from the east, and the greater Balkan region is conceived as the buffer zone. Once any menace, whether bird flu or the infidel hordes, moves across the Bosporus from Asia Minor into Europe proper –that is, from Turkey to Romania– the uncontested Europeans in Bremen and London know it’s time to worry.

Every Western scholar who has studied Balkan nationalism inevitably comes back to Freud’s famous description of ethnic hatred between neighbors as ‘the narcissism of minor differences.’ Increasingly, it strikes me that Southeastern Europe is that part of the world where the differences between Christianity and Islam begin to disappear, where the one smoothly transitions into the other. One might propose that the head scarves women wear in the Christian East are an indicator of the proximity of Islam. What are mislabeled ‘babushkas’ in the United States, in an unconscious jump from the garment to its wearer, are said to be merely ‘cultural’, while Turkish head scarves are a feature of ‘religion’. In spite of having read the French government’s report on ‘laïcité’, I dare say I still don’t really understand the difference, since I’m not sure what religion could be if not a set of arbitrary rules that appears, from the inside, to be grounded in the eternal order of things. A Bulgarian babushka will feel just as naked with her hair exposed as any Turk, and she will probably feel that this nakedness is bad for reasons having to do with the moral order represented by her big-bearded priest and his thick-walled house of worship. That sounds like religion to me.

The great Romanian historian Nicolae Iorga, who figures on the new Romanian one leu bank note, defended the idea throughout his long and distinguished career that Romania is, in its essence, what is left over of Byzantium after the fall of Constantinople to Mehmed II. According to him, “after the transformation of 1453, in many ways only on the surface, Byzantine culture annexed itself to the Gothic world of Transylvania… to the Romanian principality of Moldavia, and, through different means, transmitted itself to the West during the Renaissance.”

Iorga was a nationalist and a chauvinist, who wrote dismissively of “this Stambul of the Turkish rulers, who were not even able to find a real new name for it.” I am an amateur observer of all of this, one who has spent time on both sides of the Bosporus, but always with other, pressing professional obligations that have prevented me from studying the history that interested Iorga in more detail. I have learned enough, however, to have become convinced that the questions of national and religious identity that interested Iorga are of tremendous importance, and that they must be studied by scholars who share none of his allegiances.

Old Bev: Show Me The Baby

The babies are here! Boy (Gwyneth’s Moses), Girl (Brooke’s Grier), Girl (Angelina’s Shiloh), Boy (Gwen’s Kingston).  But where is Suri Cruise?

Katieholmes_2For me the story starts in March 2005.  I was walking up Third Avenue in the early evening and passed by Katie Holmes. She stood in front of Pop Bar and wore a white trench coat and passed a cigarette in and out of her lipsticked mouth and said loudly to her male companion, “I think it’ll be really good for my career.” She then blew a puff of smoke out the side of her lips toward a floodlight and glanced at the passersby, shifting her weight from right stiletto to left.  I didn’t think much of this.  The last news item I could remember about the WB-star was a terrible picture of her feet in a celebrity rag captioned “Katie has hammer toes.”  But by the end of April, Katie was everywhere, lurching along next to Tom Cruise at this premiere and on that talk show, eyes glistening and mouth either grinning or kissing.  She didn’t say much.  In June she was engaged and planning to convert to Scientology, and in October her pregnancy was announced.  Things moved fast.

That speed was the hallmark of the story, even more so than the sheer strangeness of the coupling.  Tom and Katie were in front of the camera so often, vehemently declaring their love so constantly, that in order to maintain the attention the romance had to progress.  Perhaps it was coincidence that the lovers each had a film to promote during their courtship – perhaps they just happened to be in the public eye during those momentous few months.  I’ve wanted to shout some private things to the entire world on several occasions, and perhaps Tom and Katie just had the chance.  But when the two ran out of vague news (love, religion, marriage, baby) to announce, well, the story slowed, and only the hovering cameras remembered the initial pace.  TomKat won’t announce a wedding date, won’t state whether Katie has converted, won’t show their daughter, Suri, to the world, and won’t answer why to any of it.  That story is stalled, pregnant and overdue, stuck in a long engagement, and the new story is no story at all.

UswheressuriKatie’s well documented pregnancy and undocumented parenting are a remarkable counterpoint to Britney Spears’ painfully public mothering.  Where Katie has seen her celebrity swell along with her stomach, Britney’s post-pregnant physique and baby-related gaffes have invited ridicule and scorn.  Katie exists in a fantasy land – marrying Tom Cruise, joining a top-secret religious organization, giving interviews she could never book before, having a mystery baby – and Britney’s just too awfully real with her wastrel husband and improperly installed car seat and surprise second pregnancy.  Neither woman is working (no movies, no albums). The tabloids go back and forth between them, upstairs and downstairs, and leave American women on the ground floor wondering if a baby’s a good thing at all. 

In fact, the celebrity baby sagas seem to me rather like horror stories.  Owing to her utter absence from the photographic record, Suri Cruise is now akin to something like a unicorn, sea monster, or Rosemary’s Baby.  She’s so mysterious that King of Queens star (and Scientologist) Leah Remini made the front page of CNN.com just by declaring that she’d held the little Cruise, and that Suri was a normal size.  Is Suri older than she should be?  Are there two babies?  Does she exist at all? For those of you who haven’t been following the conspiracy theory, some suspicious evidence:

1.    Katie’s belly: Pictures show it seemingly decrease in size a few weeks before Suri’s birth.
2.    Katie’s walk: Video shows a heavily pregnant Katie walking like someone who isn’t heavily pregnant.
3.    Suri’s birth certificate: It was filed late and is signed by a nurse who never saw the baby and an unidentified friend (on behalf of the parents).
4.    Suri’s name: My sister and I find it strange that Suri is composed of letters found in Cruise.

I think the secrecy is probably the result of a health problem, or a Scientology custom, or just a desire to keep a newborn out of the spotlight.  Or maybe Suri’s a little funny looking. Maybe it’s a PR ploy.  Pictures of Shiloh Jolie-Pitt sold to People for a reported $4.1 million and Suri couldn’t command more at birth.  Could be that TomKat is maintaining the attention by lying low, and is waiting to sell later.  In any case, the whole business gives me a creepy feeling in my neck.  I’ve never seen a celebrity trying so hard to be noticed as Katie Holmes was on Third Avenue last March (it sounds fantastic, but the story’s true), and now she can’t get to a Starbucks in Colorado without paparazzi on her tail.  But what really gets me is this focus on a phantom baby in tandem with all the other baby frenzy.  Now ambivalence about celebrity pregnancy has a name, and it’s Suri Cruise.

Teaser Appetizer: The Past and the Future of Happiness

The second line of the declaration of independence “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is ambiguous for a good reason: ambiguity in politics is as rewarding as precision in science. The authors of these lines were aware that only the pursuit was an “inalienable right” but not happiness itself. But this right may be wrong and the pursuit futile. Here is an example from Abd Er-Rahman III of Spain: (960 C.E): “I have now reigned about 50 years in victory or peace, beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies. Riches and honors, power and pleasure, have waited on my neither call, nor does any earthly blessing appear to have been wanting to my felicity. In this situation, I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot. They amount to fourteen.”

Happy20sad20face_1Dearth of happiness seems to be the nature of existence and considerable human activity is geared to enhance it. What haven’t we done to chase this mirage! Our irrational tools are: war to attain peace; marriage-divorce–remarriage; crime and cocaine and of course Viagra for failing happiness. But the most bizarre is for religion to assert that my-god-is-better-than-your-god and if you agree, you will be happy but if you disagree I will kill you – that will make me happy.

Prophets, philosophers, psychologists, economists, biochemists and cynics have attempted to dish out prescriptions for utopia and their emphasis reflects the bias of their system.

The chase for the happiness mantra started many centuries ago. Buddha’s (540BC-480BC) doctrine of “four noble truths” acknowledges there is suffering, the cause of suffering is desire and the control of desire alleviates suffering. Dhammapada, a Buddhist text gave a prescription for happiness (verses 197–208) more than 2000 years ago “Live without hatred, anger and passion; stay healthy; avoid pursuit of worldly pleasure and possessions, stay tranquil in victory and defeat; seek company of noble and trustworthy kinsmen and avoid ignorant people”.

Socrates who lived a few years after Buddha echoed that a virtuous life was the essential prerequisite. The ingredients of the happiness cocktail have not changed: love, trust, kinship, achievement, money, health, self esteem and engaging activity. While Buddha would extol the virtues of suppression of desire, other disciplines would urge us to pursue them passionately.

Economists would like to inspire us to chase wealth. Fortunately for the uninspired, they have found no constant correlation between income and happiness. We know that the hungry poor are miserable and they are less so when they get some money, but happiness does not increase after a certain level of income. Richard Layard, a British economist calculated that fifteen thousand dollars was the threshold and any richer is not happier The Japanese have six times more money compared to 1950 and the Americans are twice as rich compared to 1970 but the populations are not any happier. (Layard, “Happiness: lessons from a New Science”) Wealth increases consumption but not happiness.

Can a Buddhist economic system increase happiness? Can the notion rooted in Buddhism — the ultimate purpose of life is inner happiness– be delivered by state intervention? Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the king of Bhutan (a Buddhist nation) suggested in 1972 that countries should be more concerned with “Gross National Happiness” than with Gross Domestic Product. His four pillars of GNH are: economic self-reliance, environment preservation, promotion of indigenous culture and good democratic governance. Richard Easterlin, professor of economics at the University of Southern California a supporter of this concept says “We have been misguided in dismissing what people say about how happy they are and simply assuming that if they are consuming more apples and buying more cars they are better off.” But history bears the evidence that economists’ failure to distribute happiness equitably is as successful as their distribution of wealth.

So much for the economists; what do the psychologists say? Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, conducted an elegant experiment with people from various cultures. He distributed pagers to a few thousand people and paged them randomly. He asked them to write down what they were doing and how they felt when the pager beeped. The investigation tried to capture the activity at the moment when people said they were happy. The study showed that people were happy when they were immersed in what they were doing and were oblivious even of the passage of time. They were experiencing what Csikzentmihalyi called “flow”.

Psychologists have even tried to quantify happiness. Interviews with more than 1,000 people has yielded the following: Happiness = P + (5xE) + (3xH). Here, P is personal traits like outlook and adaptability, E is existing health , finances and relationships; H stands for higher attributes like aspirations, expectations, self esteem and humor. Sounds like it is Dhammapda wine in a mathematical decanter.

Other psychologists have shown that happiness is not a formula but an inherited endowment. The level of happiness stays at a predetermined ‘set point’ and alters only temporarily after a life changing event. You would presume that a lottery winner will be eternally happy and a person crippled by an accident sad for ever. Not so. Both return to their original frame of happiness after about a year. Consider this formula: H=S+C+V. Here, H is happiness, S is your set point for happiness, C is the life situation and V is voluntary activity.

A formula can give you understanding of the happiness but cannot enhance it. Enter the biochemists who don’t want to be left behind in the pursuit of joy chemicals. They have matched our glandular secretions to our emotions. Some molecules seem to mirror our emotions:

  • Oxytocin – a hormone that augments uterine contractions during labor- is our bonding agent. The hypothalamus exudes it abundantly during bonding, mating, pregnancy and even a sensual massage.
  • Endorphins are internal opiates that relieve pain and induce a ‘high’ during strenuous jogging and are also released during laughter and orgasm.
  • Dopamine is the achievement and reward hormone; the levels rise not only after an accomplishment and also with the anticipation.
  • A passionate romance stimulates neural growth factor but the high levels recede after about two years. Nothing lasts for ever, especially romance.
  • And then there shines the star of mind modulators: 5-hydroxy tryptamine (5HT) also known as serotonin. When Marcus Aurelius meditated “Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself” he may as well have been referring to 5HT.The vagaries of this single molecule suffuse mirth or misery; this alone decides who to bless and who to punish.

The human body has only 5 to10 milligrams of 5HT, ninety percent of which resides in intestines. Only half to one milligram lies ensconced in small packets, in the nerve cells of medulla, pons and midbrain. With an incoming signal the packets burst into the space between nerve cells and attach to receptor proteins. Scientists have characterized fifteen such receptors and each one modulates a different function like sleep, hunger, body temperature, muscle contraction and depression The quantity of 5HT and its attachment to a specific receptor determines individual’s psychological destiny.

Numerous studies in animals and humans have shown that low levels of 5HT are associated with depression, suicide, aggression, self destructive behavior and poor impulse control. Drugs like Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft increase the levels of 5HT and can alleviate these symptoms. Recreational drug ‘ecstasy’ surges the serotonin level in the neuronal synapse and inordinate excess results in ‘serotogenic syndrome’ a potentially lethal condition. Futile pursuit of happiness sometimes starts as a pursuit of hedonistic sensory pleasure but often leads to a contrary state – unhappiness.

So here we are: from Buddha to biochemists, happiness can not boast of a glorified past but can it envision a promising future? Ray Kurzweil says, “The essence of being human lies not in our limitations but in our ability to transcend them.” And can we break beyond our natural boundaries? Some experts think the answer lies in biotechnology:

The pursuit of happiness and self-esteem—the satisfaction of one’s personal desires and recognition of one’s personal worth—are much more common human aspirations than the self-conscious quest for perfection. Indeed, the desire for happiness and the love of excellence are, at first glance, independent aspirations. Although happiness is arguably fuller and deeper when rooted in excellent activity, the pursuit of happiness is often undertaken without any regard for excellence or virtue. Many people crave only some extra boost on the path to success; many people seek only to feel better about themselves. Although less radical than the quest for “perfection,” the quests for happiness, success, and self-esteem, especially in our society, may prove to be more powerful motives for an interest in using biotechnical power for purposes that lie “beyond therapy.” Thus, though some visionaries—beginning with Descartes—may dream of using biotechnologies to perfect human nature, and though many of us might welcome biotechnical assistance in improving our native powers of mind and body, many more people will probably turn to it in search of advancement, contentment, and self-satisfaction—for themselves and for their children. [The President’s Council on Bioethics, Washington, D.C., October, 2003]

That was the past and future of happiness but what about the present. Well, cynics are the only people who seem to have got it right. As George Burns quipped “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.”

Lives of the Cannibals: Crippin

Julia is a bright-eyed girl of 14, with shoulder-length chestnut-brown hair and a winsome smile. One recent July morning, she, along with her 16 year-old sister Jane, drive into downtown Brattleboro, Vermont, in their father’s battered F-150 pick-up truck, on their way to fulfilling a dream. She pulls a damp wad of ten- and twenty-dollar bills from the pocket of her jeans, carefully saved from a weekly allowance and regular babysitting jobs. “I’ve been working for this almost a whole year,” she says excitedly, as Jane rolls her eyes in the driver’s seat. “But I’ve wanted it a lot longer–like, since two years ago, when Jane got hers done.” When they reach the corner of Benmont Avenue and Fifth, they pull into a metered parking space and walk the remaining two blocks to Rickys Tattoos, a grimy storefront parlor on the main drag of this sleepy town. Julia is so thrilled she can barely keep herself to a measured pace, which she must do if she doesn’t want to leave her sister struggling alone on the sidewalk. Jane walks with a pronounced limp. “Come on, Jane,” she cries, bouncing on the pavement, half a block ahead. “We’re almost there.” Jane rolls her eyes again, then turns to me and confides, with charming sympathy she conceals from her younger sister, “I was totally just as excited as she is. It’s, like, a really big day for her.”

Jane and Julia are but two of the many thousands caught up in what is fast becoming a fashion craze among American teen-age girls. It’s called “crippin,” and among the few sociologists and psychologists fully versed in the practice, it is one of the more worrisome new developments in a culture of low self-esteem, best characterized by drug and alcohol abuse and rampant sexual promiscuity. Liz Harmon, a developmental psychologist at the University of Rhode Island, who is among the foremost authorities on crippin, is unsurprised at the speed with which American girls are submitting themselves to the quasi-medical procedure. “It’s really the next logical step, isn’t it?” she says. “With the ubiquity of tattoos, and after piercings have become practically de rigueur, why not crippin too? It was right around the corner, but still nobody saw it coming.” She sighs with a depth of fatigue one might expect from someone who makes her living studying the ways of American teendom. “I think nobody really wanted to see it coming: That’s how disturbing it is.” But opinion is not monolithic on the subject. Jack Stiles, a sociologist at UCLA, says the widespread concern is overblown. “Look, it’s difficult to understand, without a doubt, but is there anything about growing up in America that isn’t? These girls aren’t doing long-term harm to their bodies, at least nothing that isn’t superficial. The fact is, much like tattooing, it’s a reversible procedure. Expensive? Sure. Painful? Absolutely. But it’s a correctable thing, and if it answers a psychological need, then maybe we should be focusing on that. Maybe we shouldn’t be marginalizing these gals for just trying to fit in.”

Ronnie Jendick’s left arm is covered with tattoos: a naked woman, Chinese characters, complex circular designs of what looks like barbed wire. He lifts his shirt and points proudly to his ample belly, to a fierce-looking eagle whose wings span a rippling American flag. “Took two weeks for this one,” he says enthusiastically, “and painful as hell. Belly flesh? That’s tender shit, got to be honest. But it was worth it.” Ronnie is the proprietor of Rickys Tattoos. “I bought it a few years ago. Dirt cheap, too.” When asked about the name on the hand-painted sign out front, he says, “Ricky? Croaked on his bike.” He makes a dispiriting sound through the baffle of his thick lips. “Totaled, man. It was ugly. Semi behind him sort of finished him off for good. But it was quick, though. Definitely not the worst way to go out, you know?” He crosses himself in the Catholic style. Ronnie leads me to a back room, the “fracking room,” as he calls it, behind the main floor of his establishment, where body art is commissioned and performed. “This is it, man. I got the chair from some dentist across the street a couple years ago. He was retiring, wanted five hundred for it, but I talked him down. It was pretty easy to modify. I got the leg irons off this freaky sadist dude I know–traded for some body work.” The chair is of the normal variety–red pleather cushioning, a head rest, a welter of hinged metal limbs coming out from both sides, most of them unused in its new function. What distinguishes this chair from one you might find in any dentist’s office are the leg clamps, two on each side, rust eating away at their metal bindings.

The procedure is a simple one, but that simplicity hasn’t stopped sixteen states from outlawing it. Commonly called “fracking,” which is short for fracturing, Ronnie is willing to describe it only because Vermont’s legislature is famously reluctant to curtail the freedoms of its citizenry. “Those laws are about the anesthetic, not the procedure, ’cause they couldn’t even outlaw the procedure, you know. But I bet they tried.” The anesthetic is local, but nonetheless potentially dangerous, and its administration is usually subject to state licensing. Ronnie himself is not licensed, as is the case with most frackers, and so fracking is often performed at night, after normal business hours, in back rooms similar to the one at Rickys Tattoos. He brandishes a large hammer, larger than one you’re likely to find in the local hardware store, and equipped with a narrow, clawless head. “Ready?” He swings it with startling force. “See, you got to come down real hard to get it done right. That little head? It concentrates the force. You better know what you’re doing though, or there’s some serious damage. Shut your ass down quick if you’re not careful.” He mimes the striking procedure again. “I make a little target with a laundry pen, a little x, right there on the leg. It’s the fibula you want, but it’s easy to miss. You crack the tibia instead, you’re screwed.” At the sound of this reporter’s uneasy laugh, Ronnie asks, “You want to hop in, have a try? Give you a special discount.”

There is a distinct look of anxiety on Julia’s face as Ronnie calls her into the back of the store. Jane, who is examining tattoo samples, encourages her. “Let’s go, Jules. We gotta get back by four, and you’re gonna have to sit around for an hour afterwards. Let’s go.” Julia has consented to the presence of an observer, and we walk back to the fracking room together. Trembling, she gets into the chair, and Ronnie locks the clamps around the ankle and knee of both her legs, even though only the right will be fracked today. “Keeps ’em still,” he says by way of explanation. He pulls out a large hypodermic needle, the sight of which elicits a cry of fear from the 14 year-old girl. “Don’t you worry, little honey,” says Ronnie. “I know just what I’m doing.” After injecting the anesthetic and giving it some time to take effect, Ronnie tests Julia’s responsiveness with a few mild taps of the hammer. “You feeling that?” Julia grins up at him from the chair and says, “I’m ready.” With a single fearsome blow, Ronnie fracks Julia’s right leg. The resultant cracking noise is surprisingly sharp and clean, not at all what one expects from such a violent act. Apparently, Julia hasn’t felt a thing. Ronnie sniffs with satisfaction. “Good frack, I can hear it, and I’ve done enough to know when it’s wrong. There’s sort of this chunky sound when you miss. Kinda hard to describe.”

Ronnie insists that all his clients remain in the chair for an hour, to allow the anesthetic to wear off. “There’s no law or anything, but it seems like a safety thing to me. Plus it gives me a chance to put the brace on, teach ’em how to do it, ’cause you don’t want ’em coming back again, you know, demanding another frack. Big waste of time if the bone goes and heals right.” He wraps the effected portion of Julia’s leg in a small plastic brace designed to prevent its setting properly. “You got to keep this on for two weeks, understand? Go ahead and walk around without it, the normal stuff. The more you move the better. But when you sleep you put the brace on. Same in school and everything, when you’re just sitting around. Not my responsibility if it sets right, got it?”

Back on Benmont Avenue, Julia and Jane move at a halting pace, side by side. It’s almost 3 o’clock, and Jane is annoyed. “We’re gonna be late and Dad’s gonna be pissed,” she says, but Julia is unconcerned. She’s crippin now, and happy. “My boyfriend Nick? He’s totally excited. I’m calling him up right when we get home.” Jane rolls her eyes at me. As I watch the girls make their way back to the pick-up truck, I’m struck by the controlled violence of the procedure, the primitive equipment, and I’m reminded of Liz Harmon’s weary words. “These girls,” she said to me, “they’re damaging themselves for the rest of their lives, and it’s a sad commentary. It shouldn’t even be allowed. You have to ask yourself: What does it mean for us, as a society?” Having witnessed the procedure, having seen the result, I’m not sure I have an answer to her troubling question. And yet I confess I can’t help but appreciate the girls’ simple beauty as they struggle down the street. The gentle scrape of their shoes on the pavement, the slight bobbing of their heads as they limp away–there is an appealing vulnerability there, and I am not unmoved. It’s easy to condemn crippin out of hand, without taking time to understand the process and appreciate its aesthetically pleasing outcome. Perhaps we need to look a little deeper before we judge so harshly. As we part, Julia turns to me and says, “Crippin? It’s not about being rebellious, all pointless and everything, you know? I mean, that’s what everyone says, but it’s totally not like that at all. It’s my choice, and it’s got nothing to do with anyone else, right? Crippin–it’s just a way to express myself. It’s a way for me to be me.”

Dispatches: Crosby Street

Why do I love Crosby Street?  It inspires in me the kind of preference I remember having as a kid for lucky talismans, strange everyday objects I became attached to and took with me: I have a sentimental feeling of loyalty when contemplating it.  Streets go to work with their parallel neighbors and perpendicular interceptors, sharing affinities and sometimes friendships.  Crosby is friends, in my mind, with Howard Street, and Grand.  It’s cordial with the slightly tony Prince, affable with Mott.  With Houston, it forms a strangely superfluous intersection.  To its grander parallel neighbors, Broadway and Lafayette, it functions as the humble employee, the service road, or the mews, maintaining their emporia’s delivery entrances and fire escapes. 

Those fire escapes: Crosby retains, more than any other street besides perhaps Greene, the trademark look of Soho, all cobbles and rickety rusty iron-rung ladders.  Because so much of it is back entrances, there’s very little flash, and the traffic is mostly of the type given to handcarts and freight elevators.  Its sidewalks meld quickly into metal plates and loading docks.  Food is delivered to Dean and Deluca, which leaves its refuse on Crosby so as not to put off the paying customers with the smell – even when Broadway is at its most oppressively populated, on summer Saturdays, Crosby’s quiet.  Crosby’s an honest street like that. 

Yet there is grandeur, too.  At the very top of the street, at Bleeker, lies the Bayard-Conduit building, New York City’s only work by Louis “Frank Lloyd Wright’s mentor” Sullivan, complete with gorgeously ornate plaster facade.  Growing up in Buffalo my favorite building was always Sullivan’s red Guaranty, and I always like glancing up Crosby at its fairer sibling.  To be a little mythopoetic about it, it makes my life trajectory seem more continuous.  But that’s not the main reason for my liking Crosby; if anything, it’s the exception that proves the rule.

No, Crosby’s appeal lies in its steadfast resistance to being pedestrianized, mallified, the way every other street in Soho has – except maybe Wooster below Grand, where street art sanctifies wrecked facades.  Crosby is a living, working street.  The Housing Works used bookstore is nice, but next door the Housing Works itself conserves some of New York’s social diversity.  Where once Houston Street was peppered with gas stations, the only one left is at Crosby.  Accordingly, the Lahore Deli across from it is a permanent cabbie break, and one with excellent samosas, chicken patties and tea with cardamom (which I guess some might redundantly call “chai” tea). 

An alley-ish street, Crosby also crosses one of the most beautiful New York alleys north of Canal: Jersey Street, connecting to Mulberry.  Balancing my chicken patty on my teacup lid, I often look through to the back of the Puck Building, with its beautiful pink iron window shutters.  Back when Keith Haring’s Pop Shop felt like an arty outpost in the dystopia below Houston, the alley had more life: people practically squatted there.  Now it’s free of the homeless and the Pop Shop was too lowbrow to survive next to Triple Five Soul’s seventy-dollar hoodies.  But Crosby has not gone that way completely, yet.  Either that or it has, in a more complicated way.

Crosby Street is both what it is and a stage set at once.  It is a working street of deliveries and tea breaks, recalling an earlier downtown, but that very appearance makes it more desirable as real estate for the wealthy.  Because of its untimeliness, it’s a magnet for loft-dwellers, their places’ value concealed by the tasteful disorder of the street itself.  Some of the most expensive and celebrity-filled co-ops in the city are here.  For these residents, Crosby’s anonymity provides both relief from the paparazzi and a satisfying, faux-hemian sense of keeping it real. 

This may be the time to bring up the great postmodern institution at Crosby and Spring: Balthazar.  Opened in 1997, most first-time visitors would be more likely to guess 1897, so successfully has Keith McNally’s ready-aged restaurant settled in.  At first, it seemed ridiculously contrived, a Parisian brasserie-fantastique composed of cracked mirrors and stained teak, the walls painted the perfect shade of nictotine.  The bathroom attendants were a particularly audacious touch.  Yet over time, Balthazar started to seem less inauthentic, especially by comparison to *actual* classic Parisian brasseries, La Coupole and Brasserie Nord, now owned by the conglomerate that runs the sterile European steakhouse chain Chez Gerrard.  The food’s good, if too buttery (the one false note, like they’re trying too hard), the bakery is just excellent, and the restaurant repopularized of the plateau de fruit de mer.  It’s a set, but one so well art-directed that it makes you question whether no art direction is just one more form of art direction.

Given Balthazar’s confused relation to reality, it makes sense, then, that it’s located on Crosby, which returns me to the question: why do I love Crosby Street?        After all, the things I mention–working life, humility, unreconstructed looks–are things that make it out of place in its neighborhood.  Am I nostalgically romanticizing the street?  Making New York’s industrial past the pastoral idyll and its current incarnation the debased present?  What kind of ethnographer’s lens am I looking through, approving the signs of labor and deprecating idle wealth? 

I don’t want to be the Wordsworth of Crosby Street, endlessly bemoaning lost authenticity.  I just know it will be a more boring city if Crosby turns into Mercer.  And, economically, it makes good sense for me to hope places like the Lahore Deli stick around – I can’t afford their replacements.  And what’s important about Crosby Street is that it renders a diversity that in other places is largely hidden.  Fulton Street Fish Market, like La Pigalle and Covent Garden before it, has been outsourced.  Now it’s free to become another museum.  But we’re poorer for it, culturally.  Likewise, Keith McNally, who hastened the demise of the old Meatpacking District with Pastis, once laughably remarked that he wanted it to be the kind of place where meatpackers might pop in for a croque monsieur and a café au lait.  Sure, Keith, sure.  But I understand his impulse. 

Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Tragedy of Lebanon

In Counterpunch, Najla Said on the tragedy of Lebanon.

How do I even start this? How do I write about my Beirut? My heartbreak, my home, my safety, my loss. again.

I suppose I just start.

I have experienced true terror a handful of times. The first was in 1983. The first time I evacuated Beirut. We had gone to visit my jiddo Emile, my teta Hilda, as we did every summer. Just after we arrived,the airport was shut down, Israeli soldiers were everywhere, the mountains were filling with smoke. We spent the next week in the staircase of our building as shells fell around us. My brother Wadie was almost hit by shrapnel.

My father, Edward, was in Switzerland. He knew we were in danger. I had no idea he wasn’t with us because he was Palestinian. I didn’t understand. Although I was born in 1974, I never knew about the war until the summer of ’82 — the first summer we didn’t go. The summer we spent in Illinois. I did cartwheels in the living room trying to get Mommy and Daddy’s attention. But all they did was watch the news and eat nuts and look worried. I wish I’d known how my Mommy’s heart was breaking. I know now.

Bill Buford: Cookbooks are for wimps

“The idea of pugnacious literary supremo Bill Buford taking orders from anyone is laughable. So why did he leave ‘The New Yorker’ to become a lowly ‘kitchen slave’ for one of New York’s best restaurants? Danuta Kean asks him what he learnt among the pans.”

From The Independent:

BufordIt all started at a dinner party in Buford’s Manhattan apartment. Among the guests was Mario Batali, TV chef and proprietor of acclaimed New York eatery Babbo. He turned out to be the dinner guest from hell. Within moments of his arrival chez Buford, the writer knew inviting him was a mistake. Batali, one of the new breed of alpha-male cooks whose main rule is excess, took over, treating his host to his first lesson in muscular cookery and other guests to a night of macho drinking.

Buford has alpha-male tendencies of his own (at Granta the testosterone levels of many contributors were as high as his: Redmond O’Hanlon and Raymond Carver were regulars). But he was hooked and accepted the chef’s challenge to work in his kitchen as a slave for whom no task was too debased. In exchange he would learn real cooking.

More here.

“Another Beirut Has Emerged”

After reading Letter from Beirut here at 3QD, a producer from Radio Open Source got in touch with us and wanted to know more about the writer of that letter, Rasha. We put them in touch with Rasha, and she has agreed to write and report from Beirut for them. This is from Radio Open Source:

Rasha’s letter from Beirut on 3 Quarks Daily last week floored us. She’s a Lebanese/Palestinian/Syrian/Turkish/Bosnian writer, now living in a suburb of Beirut. “I’m a product of the Ottoman empire,” she says, “and I say it with pride.” She’s generously agreed to string for us now. Here’s her first installment:

Today was a particularly strange day for me because I was granted an opportunity to leave tomorrow morning. I hold a Canadian passport, I was born in Toronto when my parents were students there. I left at age two. I have never gone back, for lack of opportunity and occasion, no other reason. …For days I have been battling ambivalence towards this war, estranged from the passions it has roused around me and from engagement in a cause. And yet when the phone call came informing me that I had to be ready at 7:00 am the next morning, I asked for a pause to think. I was torn. The landscape of the human and physical ravages of Israel’s genial strategy at implementing UN Resolution 1559, the depth of destruction, the toll of nearly 250 deaths, more than 800 injured and 400,000 displaced, had bound me to a sense of duty. It was not even patriotism, it was actually the will to defy Israel. They cannot do this and drive me away. They will not drive me away.

The roads to Damascus are not safe. Its many different ways are shelled everyday. Drivers know what “calculated” risks to take, I am assured, but one never knows. Everyday the way out becomes more difficult. I decided to stay, I don’t know when I will have another opportunity to leave.

–Rasha, in an email to Open Source, July 20, 2006

More here.

Hezbollah

“In 2002, Jeffrey Goldberg wrote a two-part article examining the radical Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah, which he called ‘the most successful terrorist organization in modern history’.”

From The New Yorker:

Shiism arose as a protest movement, whose followers believed that Islam should be ruled by descendants of the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin Ali, and not by the caliphs who seized control after the Prophet’s death. The roots of Shiite anger lie in the martyrdom of Ali’s son Husayn, who died in battle against the Caliph Yezid in what is today southern Iraq. (I have heard both Shiites from southern Iraq and Iranian Shiites refer to their enemy Saddam Hussein as a modern-day Yezid.) At times, Shiism has been a quietist movement; Shiites built houses of mourn-ing and study, called Husaynias, where they recalled the glory of Husayn’s martyrdom.

In Lebanon in the nineteen-sixties, the Shiites began to be drawn to the outside world. Some joined revolutionary Palestinian movements; others fell into the orbit of a populist cleric, Musa Sadr, who founded a group called the Movement of the Deprived and, later, the Shiite Amal militia. Hezbollah was formed, in 1982, by a group of young, dispossessed Shiites who coalesced around a cleric and poet named Muhammad Hussayn Fadlallah.

Read the rest of part 1 here, and part 2 of the article is here.

50 albums that changed music

Fifty years old this month, the album chart has tracked the history of pop. But only a select few records have actually altered the course of music. To mark the anniversary, Kitty Empire pays tribute to a sublime art form, and our panel of critics argues for 50 albums that caused a revolution. To see the 50, click here.”

From The Observer:

Vsndimg1Alongside film, the pop album was the defining art form of the 20th century, the soundtrack to vast technological and social change. Once, sets of one-sided 78rpm phonograph discs were kept together in big books, like photographs in an album. The term ‘album’ was first used specifically in 1909, when Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite was released on four double-sided discs in one package. The first official top 10 round-up of these newfangled musical delivery-modes was issued in Britain on 28 July 1956, making the pop album chart 50 years old this month.

Singles were immediate, ephemeral things. Albums made pondering pop and rock into a valid intellectual pursuit. Friendships were founded, love could blossom, bands could be formed, all from flicking through someone’s album collection. Owning certain albums became like shorthand; a manifesto for everything you stood for, and against: the Smiths’ Meat is Murder , Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.

More here.

In the Beginning Was Linux?

Carl Zimmer in The Loom:

Eric Raymond, one of the founders of the official open source movement, puts its origins four decades ago, in the hacker culture of the 1960s. Back then it was expected that each hacker would share his secrets with the rest of the hacker tribe.

I’d suggest that Raymond is not be thinking big enough. The open source movement is a wee bit older. Instead of four decades, try four billion years.

Biologists have long recognized some striking parallels between genes and software. Genes stored information in a language of DNA, with the four nucleotides serving as its alphabet. A genetic code allowed cells to translate the information in genes into the separate language of proteins, which used an alphabet of twenty amino acids. From one generation to the next, mutations introduced slight tweaks to the software. Sex combined different versions of subroutines. If the software performed better–in the sense that an organism had more reproductive success–the changes might become incorporated into the genome across an entire species. This was only a metaphor, but it was a powerful one. One example of its power is the rise of genetic algorithms. Rather than trying to find a perfect solution to a problem–the ideal shape for a plane, for example–genetic algorithms create simulations and tweak them through a process that mimics evolution. The algorithm can seek out good solutions very effectively.

This sort of evolution resembles old-fashioned, closed-source software. All of the innovations happen in-house–that is, within a single species. None of the solutions from one species can be incorporated into the operating system of another. While this process has indeed been an important one in the history of life, a number of scientists have argued for an open-source side to evolution.

More here.

Microsoft developing “iPod Killer”

From the BBC:

_41917606_ipod_ap203jpgMicrosoft has confirmed it is developing a “Zune” portable music player which analysts believe will compete directly with Apple’s iPod.

The software firm said it was working on a number of music and entertainment hardware devices, the first of which could launch later this year.

Rumours of a rival to Apple’s hugely successful music player – dubbed “iPod killer” by some – have long circulated.

But experts said Microsoft would find it hard to compete with Apple.

More here.