Wednesday Poem

…………………………….Van Gogh
…………………………….John Balaban
Painting_vangogh_yellow_yellow_su_2 ……………………………………….
Well, he lived among us and hated winters.
He moved to Arles where summer and blue jays
obliged him to cut off his ear.
Oh, they all said it was a whore
but Rachel was innocent. When cypresses
went for a walk in the prison yard
he went along and sketched them.
His suns surpassed God’s.
He spelled out the Gospel for miners
and their potatoes stuck in his throat.
Yes, he was a priest in sackcloth, who hoped
that one day humans would learn to walk.
He willed mankind his shoes.
From Path, Crooked Path (Copper Canyon Press,
2006); translated by Lyubomir Nikolov and
the author


Making Waves and Riding the Currents

From Orion Magazine:

Halpern1 As a smart and well-connected young lawyer in Washington DC in the late 1960s, Charles Halpern took a leave from his corporate law firm and cofounded the first-ever public-interest law firm, the Center ofr Law and Social Policy. This new idea, he writes, was to “set up a nonprofit organization to handle cases representing unrepresented interests in Washington, dealing with big policy issues—the environment, consumer rights, corporate responsibility, the rights of mental patients.” Over the years, Halpern was involved in some landmark cases that ended up making the world a better place, including the Alyeska decision, which required the Mobil, Exxon, and Shell oil companies to consider, for the first time, the environmental impact of the eight-hundred-mile pipeline they built across the Alaskan tundra.

All along, Halpern was practicing more than law. He was seeking wise teachers, going into the wilderness, and learning to meditate. He raised eyebrows when he brought yoga to law students. But Halpern knew that effective advocates need to be centered and soul-fed. “As wisdom practice develops,” he writes, “clarity of vision emerges. We hold our ideas more lightly and see reality more clearly, less circumscribed by our inherited screens and filters, biases and preferences. We become more comfortable living with paradox, holding dissonant views.”

Making Waves and Riding the Currents is a compelling memoir with a simple message: Find the wise people in your life, and listen to them. In fact, listen to everyone more fully, even your opponents. Most importantly, listen to yourself—you’ll be less reactive and more productive for it.

More here.

Why Men Cheat

From Science:

Cheat Like meadow voles, some men just don’t seem to be built for monogamy, whereas others, like swans, mate for life. New research hints that some of the difference might be due to a single genetic variation. The gene in question, AVPR1a, governs a receptor that regulates the brain’s production of vasopressin, a hormone that contributes to attachment behavior with mates and offspring. A few years ago, scientists found that when they added extra copies of the AVPR1a gene to the brains of promiscuous meadow voles, the animals began acting more like monogamous prairie voles, spending more time with partners and grooming offspring. A similar role for the AVPR1a gene has been observed in chimps and bonobos.

Might such a simple switch be found in humans? A team led by Hasse Walum of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, sequenced the AVPR1a gene in about 500 pairs of adult same-sex Swedish twins, all of them married or cohabiting for at least 5 years, and their partners. One variation of the gene was particularly common; about 40% of males had either one or two copies of a version–or allele–of the gene known as “334.” Although not simply an analog to the polymorphism found in prairie voles, allele 334 seems to have a similar effect on the stability of human relationships, as measured in interviews and questionnaires. The tests included a Partner Bonding Scale containing items that reflect affection and cooperation, such as “How often do you kiss your mate?” and “How often are you and your partner involved in common interests outside the family?” Scores on the test were significantly lower for the men carrying either one or two copies of allele 334 than for those without it.

More here.

George Carlin’s Finale

Jay Dixit in Psychology Today:

“If the jester’s jokes are based on sound ideas, he becomes the thinker, the philosopher,” George Carlin said, “and if he uses dazzling language, he becomes a poet, too.” More than any comic in memory, Carlin achieved this transmutation—as much cultural essayist as comedian, beloved not just for his jokes but also for the rhythm and poetry of his words. Nine days before his death, he spoke to PT. Sadly, the two-hour interview would be his last. For an extended version, visit [here].

On experience. I’ve been doing this 50 years. By this time it’s all second nature. It’s all a machine—the observation, the immediate evaluation of the observation, the mental filing of it, writing it down. A 20-year-old has a limited amount of data. At 70, the matrix is more textured and has more contours to it. Observations are compared against a much richer data set.

On his gift for language. My grandfather was a New York City policeman. During his adult life, he wrote out Shakespeare’s tragedies longhand just for the joy it gave him. My mother had a great gift for language. My father was an after-dinner speaker, a great raconteur. They both were very funny and gifted verbally. The Irish have a genetic tradition, it seems, an affinity for language and expression. I got that. As the Irish say: “You don’t lick it off the rocks, kid.” It comes in the blood.

What Happens to Religion When It Is Biologized?

Bioreligion_3Nathan Schneider in Search Magazine:

[W]hat happens to religion when it is biologized? Many would intuitively believe philosopher and “New Atheist” Daniel Dennett, whose best-selling Breaking the Spell framed biologizing religiosity and overcoming it as two sides of the same coin; one leads naturally to the other. Confident in the possibility of this research, Dennett contends that “we” should “gently, firmly educate the people of the world, so that they can make truly informed choices about their lives,” choices that he believes will involve dispelling religion.

Less optimistically, but along similar lines, cognitive anthropologist Scott Atran suspects that “religious belief in the supernatural will be here to stay” despite those who come to understand it scientifically. He and other biologizers prefer to maintain a more agnostic stance than Dennett, purporting to pursue a scientific study of religion apart from biases and agendas. Scientific methods, they suggest, liberate the study of religion from ideological and theological debates.

Yet the lines between religion and the scientific study of it are not so clear. Biologizers depend on traditional ways of conceptualizing religiosity that have particular ideological connotations. In turn, believers of various stripes are eager to respond creatively to scientific research, and in some cases they head to the laboratory themselves to shed new light on their own beliefs and practices.

hitchens on mailer and conventions


“I am a ‘left conservative.’” That was Norman Mailer’s jaunty but slightly defensive self-description when first I met him, at the beginning of the 1980s. At the time, I was inclined to attribute this glibness (as I thought of it) to the triumph of middle age and to the compromises perhaps necessary to negotiate the then-new ascendancy of Ronald Reagan. But, looking back over his extraordinary journal of a plague year, written 40 years ago, I suddenly appreciate that Mailer in 1968 had already been rehearsing for some kind of ideological synthesis, and discovering it in the most improbable of places.

Party conventions have been such dull spectacles of stage management for so long that this year it was considered nothing less than shocking that delegates might arrive in Denver with anything more than ceremonial or coronational duties ahead of them. The coverage of such events, now almost wholly annexed by the cameras and those who serve them, has undergone a similar declension into insipidity.

more from The Atlantic here.

a small-town printer who happens to think that ideas count


When Emanuel Haldeman-Julius drowned in his backyard swimming pool, on July 31, 1951, he was popularly regarded as a has-been, even in his adopted hometown of Girard, Kansas.

It was an odd ending for a man who, in just over thirty years, had become one of the most prolific publishers in U.S. history, putting an estimated 300 million copies of inexpensive “Little Blue Books” into the hands of working-class and middle-class Americans. Selling for as little as five cents and small enough to fit in a trouser pocket, these books were meant to bring culture and self-education to working people, and covered topics ranging from classic literature to home-finance to sexually pleasuring one’s spouse. Distributed discreetly by mail order, Little Blue Books disseminated birth-control information not available in small-town libraries, advocated racial justice at a time when the Ku Klux Klan influenced politics, and introduced Euripides, Shakespeare, and Emerson to people without the means for higher education.

more from The Believer here.

a wandering mind


In a culture obsessed with efficiency, daydreaming is derided as a lazy habit or a lack of discipline, the kind of thinking we rely on when we don’t really want to think. It’s a sign of procrastination, not productivity, something to be put away with your flip-flops and hammock as summer draws to a close.

In recent years, however, scientists have begun to see the act of daydreaming very differently. They’ve demonstrated that daydreaming is a fundamental feature of the human mind – so fundamental, in fact, that it’s often referred to as our “default” mode of thought. Many scientists argue that daydreaming is a crucial tool for creativity, a thought process that allows the brain to make new associations and connections. Instead of focusing on our immediate surroundings – such as the message of a church sermon – the daydreaming mind is free to engage in abstract thought and imaginative ramblings.

more from Boston Globe Ideas here.

Tuesday Poem

Image_iraqichild_long01To An Iraqi Infant
Sinan Antoon

do you know
that your mother’s nipples
are dry bones?
that her breasts
are bursting
with depleted uranium?

do you know
that the womb’s window
a confiscated land?

do you know
that your tomorrow
has no tomorrow?
that your blood
is the ink
of new maps?

do you know
that your mother is weaving
the slowness of her moments
into an elegy?
And she is already
mourning you?

don’t be shy!
your funeral is over
the tears are dry
everyone’s gone

come forward!
it’s only a short way
don’t be late
your grave is looking
at its watch!

don’t be afraid!
We’ll arrange your bones
which ever way you want
and leave your skull
like a flower
on top

come forward!
your many friends await
there are more every day
. . .
your ghosts
will play together

come on!

New York, December 2002
Translated by the poet


Memento mori

From The Washington Post:

Barnes If you’re clever enough, or hire the right accountants and financial wizards, you can actually dodge paying taxes. The big boys do it all the time. But death — that’s quite another matter. Pace cryonics, there’s no way of putting off forever what the philosopher Fontenelle — who lived to be 99 — called that “last unpleasant quarter hour.” Sooner or later, all of us are going to close up shop. As Philip Larkin said in his mortality-haunted poem “Aubade,” “Most things may never happen: this one will.”

Now in his early 60s, the novelist Julian Barnes tells us that he thinks about death every day, and periodically finds himself bolting upright from sleep screaming, “No, no, no.” (Ah, yes: Been there, done that.) As its brilliant title punningly hints, Nothing to Be Frightened Of offers an extended meditation on human mortality, but one that is neither clinical nor falsely consoling. Instead, the witty and melancholy author of Flaubert’s Parrot and Arthur & George simply converses with us about our most universal fear:

“For me, death is the one appalling fact which defines life; unless you are constantly aware of it, you cannot begin to understand what life is about; unless you know and feel that the days of wine and roses are limited, that the wine will madeirize and the roses turn brown in their stinking water before all are thrown out for ever — including the jug — there is no context to such pleasures and interests as come your way on the road to the grave. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I?”

More here.

Gaming Evolves

Carl Zimmer in The New York Times:

Gaming Dr. Near and Dr. Prum have spent a few evenings testing out Spore, one of the most eagerly anticipated video games in the history of the industry. After years of rumors, the game goes on sale Friday. Spore’s designer, Will Wright, is best known for creating a game called the Sims in 2000. That game, which let players run the lives of a virtual family, has sold 100 million copies. It is the best-selling video game franchise of all time — an impressive achievement in an $18-billion-a-year industry that is now bigger than Hollywood. Spore, produced by Electronic Arts, promises much more than the day-to-day adventures of simulated people. It starts with single-cell microbes and follows them through their evolution into intelligent multicellular creatures that can build civilizations, colonize the galaxy and populate new planets.

Unlike the typical shoot-them-till-they’re-all-dead video game, Spore was strongly influenced by science, and in particular by evolutionary biology. Mr. Wright will appear in a documentary next Tuesday on the National Geographic Channel, sharing his new game with leading evolutionary biologists and talking with them about the evolution of complex life. Evolutionary biologists like Dr. Near and Dr. Prum, who have had a chance to try the game, like it a great deal. But they also have some serious reservations. The step-by-step process by which Spore’s creatures change does not have much to do with real evolution. “The mechanism is severely messed up,” Dr. Prum said.

Nevertheless, Dr. Prum admires the way Spore touches on some of the big questions that evolutionary biologists ask. What is the origin of complexity? How contingent is evolution on flukes and quirks? “If it compels people to ask these questions, that would be great,” he said.

More here.

Stanley Fish on Hoaxes

From his blog Think Again at the New York Times:

Stanley_fishLast week the New York Post’s Page Six picked up on a story that had been widely circulated on the blogosphere. The magazine Wine Spectator was the victim of a hoax when it came out that its “award of excellence” had been given to a restaurant that did not exist. Robin Goldstein, a wine critic who said that he wanted to expose the lack of any foundation for many food and wine awards, had submitted an application that included the menu and wine list of a fictitious restaurant he named Osteria L’Intrepido. Goldstein revealed the hoax within a week or so of the announced award and declared that what he had done proved that “the level of scrutiny” that accompanies such awards is “insufficient.”

Stung by the adverse publicity his magazine was receiving, Executive Editor Thomas Matthews fought back with an account of what he termed “the actual facts of the matter” on the Wine Spectator web site. He said that “we do not claim to visit every restaurant in our Awards program” or “review the restaurant as a whole.” Rather, “[we evaluate] the content, accuracy and presentation of wine lists.”

Thomas then detailed the efforts of the magazine to verify the facts. The restaurant was called (it was never reached); a Google search revealed an “actual address” on a street in Milan, a site featuring the restaurant’s menu, and reviews by what are now known to be fictitious customers. Goldstein claimed that the wine list he had confected contained vintages that Wine Spectator itself had criticized in previous issues. Thomas retorted that of the 256 wines listed only 15 scored below the mark the magazine considered a standard.

More here.

Atom collider rap is a YouTube smash

From CNN:

Who says science doesn’t turn people on? Kate McAlpine is a rising star on YouTube for her rap performance — about high-energy particle physics.

Her performance has drawn a half-million views on YouTube.

The 23-year-old Michigan State University graduate and science writer raps about the Large Hadron Collider, the groundbreaking particle accelerator that has been built in a 17-mile circular tunnel at the CERN laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland.

McAlpine raps that when the collider goes into operation September 10, “the things that it discovers will rock you in the head.”

The $3.8 billion machine will collide two beams of protons moving at close to the speed of light so scientists can see what particles appear in the resulting debris.

More here. Oh, and here’s the video:

Monday Poem

Don Q. in Mahattan
–Biting the dust of ’01Image_don_qixote_2 
Jim Culleny

Dining in Soho alone, a man
served by a girl with lip studs, nose ring,
and serpent tattoo uncoiling
from deep cleavage,
sees the new man of La Mancha,
in dim light across the room,
seated with his back to the street:

He topples a pepper mill with his fork
gesturing to his wife, Sancha,
vowing he’ll redeem New York.

Sancha smiles and re-sets the mill in place
among constellations of pepper stars
strewn across formica space.

Between them supper’s done:
spent dinnerware, filaments of flaked filo
circling half a buttered bun,
remnants of dense moussaka,
and that pepper mill now standing like a dustbowl silo
near languid cubes in tepid water.

Don (el Hombre), enemy of disorder,
sweeps a hand through this small universe
like a superanal patriot
and plows a thousand miniscule black galaxies
into his cupped palm
and dumps ’em on a plate.

He takes his tined baton
between forefinger and thumb
and sets a cadence in the atmosphere
thumping his undiffident drum.

Then Don, el futile hombre,
maestro of mishap,
conducts the ice and water glass
into long-suffering Sancha’s lap.


A Brief Remembrance of Ahmad Faraz

by Atiya Batool Khan

Farazsahibandmommyfor3qdI had the honor of meeting Ahmad Faraz 26 years ago in Washington. A local Urdu literary society, the Aligarh Alumni Association, had invited him to recite at a gathering they had organized in his honor—a Mushaira, or poetry reading. This was after he had left Pakistan under pressure from military strongman Zia-ul-Haq's government. My husband and I were asked by the Aligarh Alumni Association to host him for a week, but in that short time we became fast friends, so his stay turned first into a month and then it ended up being almost a year. This was the beginning of a lifelong relationship and he gradually became like a member of our family. We would visit with him at least once a year in Pakistan, and he visited us just as often. Though he became one of our closest friends, we always addressed him by the honorific name “Faraz Sahib” (Mr. Faraz) out of respect, and that is how I shall refer to him here.

As far as Urdu poetry goes, none of his contemporaries could touch Faraz Sahib, or even come close. The superiority of his poetry owes much to his personal qualities: the boldness of his thought, his willingness to fight oppression and his very costly (to himself) political activism, his rebellious nature, and of course his romantic worldview.

It was actually love poetry that first made him very popular at the tender age of 19 years. Here is one famous romantic poem of that early time which already announces the bold and beautiful lyrical rhythm in Urdu that would become characteristic of him later:

Ranjish hi sahi dil hi dukhaanay kay liyay aa
Aa phir say mujhay chhorr kay jaanay kay liyay aa

Pehlay say maraasim na sahi phir bhi kabhi to
Rasm-o-rahay duniya hi nibhaanay kay liyay aa

Kis kis ko bataayengay judaai kaa sabab ham
Tu mujh se khafaa hai to zamaanay kay liyay aa

Kuchh to meri pindaar-e-mohabbat ka bharam rakh
Tu bhi to kabhi mujh ko manaanay kay liyay aa

Ek umr say hun lazzat-e-giryaa se bhi mehruum
Aye raahat-e-jaan mujh ko rulaanay kay liyay aa

Ab tak dil-e-khush_feham ko tujh say hain ummeedain
Ye aakhari shammain bhi bujhaanay kay liyay aa


Come, even if only to break my heart
Come, even if only to leave me again

Yes, it is no longer like before, but still
Come, if only for the sake of convention

I cannot tell people the reasons for our separation
Come, even if unhappy, for public show

Respect just a little my love for you
Come, for once, just to appease me

For long I haven’t had even the pleasure of lament
Come, joy of my life, if only to make me weep again

My heart, the optimist, still retains some hope
Come, to extinguish even these last little embers


FarazpicAs a poet, he was as sensitive as an artist should be: he frequently observed and then took the time to reflect upon things that others did not notice. During one of his visits with us, my husband took him to see the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. The next day he wrote his famous poem “Kaali Deewaar” (The Black Wall), a meditation not only on the utter futility of that war and the destruction wreaked upon the Vietnamese, but also an outpouring of sympathy for the loved ones of the American veterans he saw placing flowers near their names on the wall.

On another occasion I took him to work, to the Johns Hopkins Hospital, with me, and he soon wrote a poem about the Eye Bank there. In this especially notable poem, he movingly describes the deprivation of blind people, offering his own eyes to them. But then he wonders if others would ever want eyes that have witnessed so much pain; whether such eyes, that have seen so many of their dreams shattered, would even be bearable to others.

His frustration and anger against inhuman practices and political oppression is obvious in a poem that he wrote in praise of the prophet Mohammad in which he also writes:

Mere zameer ne qabeel ko nahin bakhsha
Main kaise sulha karoon qatal karne walon se.


My conscience has yet to forgive Cain
How can I make peace with these killers?


And when he teaches us to be an activist he says:

Shikwae zulmate shab se to kahin behtar tha
Apne hisse ki koi shama jalate jaate


Rather than lamenting the darkness of that night,
We should have done our share and lit a candle or two


In a philosophical mood he would recite:

Ek diwana ye kehta hua hansta jata
Kaash manzil se bhi age koi rasta jata.


A lunatic, laughing, would go along, saying
I wish this path went further than my destination


For friendship he wrote:

Zindigi is se ziada to nahin umr teri
Bas kisi dost ke milne se juda honay tak


Life, your duration is easily measured:
From the moment of meeting a friend, to the moment of parting


Faraz_1aHe not only wrote well but also recited his poetry with a uniquely charming cadence. The audience was invariably mesmerized. He would always get standing ovations and uproarious applause. In person he was a very cheerful, friendly person, greeting all he met with a warm smile. We shared a love of puns and plays on words, and he loved to recite jokes and make people laugh. Using his love of language and his creative gift, he made any gathering he attended extremely enjoyable. He was a very progressive thinker, always eager to hear about new ideas or try out new inventions. He never hesitated to voice his opinions or inner feelings, even if they were different than the norms of his native culture or the time.

Faraz Sahib was a person of stature with charisma, glamour, wit, humor, kindness, caring and sensitivity who was also bold, vivacious, a true friend, poet, philosopher, human rights activist, agnostic, non conformist, an avid reader, humble, extremely patriotic and notably passionate. He had a palpable urge to create and write. He was a world-renowned Urdu poet and national icon in Pakistan. He died on August 25th of complications from a severe stroke and Renal Failure. He was 77 years old. He is survived by his wife, Rehana, and his sons, Saadi, Shibley and Sarmad.

He was a great person and an exemplary friend. He lived a full and happy life, and whoever met him once would not be able to forget his charming personality and will miss him. He called me his friend and that is my pride.

In short I would say that he cared for people more than others thought was wise, he took risks more than others thought was safe, and he dreamt more than others thought was practical.

Atiya B. Khan is a pediatrician practicing in Maryland and a social activist who has raised millions for the education of the poor. The Urdu poetry here has been loosely translated by her brother, S. Abbas Raza.