The Economics of Nonexistence: Love, Rock and Roll, and the Void

Void Can nonexistence be a saleable commodity? Can the free market establish its price? Two stories for your consideration: A public bid to dismantle a rock and roll band, and a Beverly Hills company that will invest in your divorce.

Breakup checks

An annoyed guy in Seattle tried to raise $10 million, to be given to the rock band Weezer if its members agree to immediately and permanently break up. Why? Angry Internet Dude (his name is James Burns) said he didn't think Weezer's fans liked any of their new albums.

“This is an abusive relationship,” he said, “and it needs to stop now.”

“Every year, Rivers Cuomo swears that he's changed, and that their new album is the best thing that he's done since Pinkerton, and what happens? Another pile of crap like 'Beverly Hills' or 'I'm Your Daddy'.”

But his main grievance wasn't aesthetic: it was attentional. “If we reach at least $10,000,000,” his pitch said, “then we get a chance to possibly stop hearing about a shitty new Weezer album every goddamn year.” It was a joke, of course, as Burns felt obliged to explain: “I figured since the internet wasted so much of my time with all the ridiculous articles about the new Weezer album, I thought I’d return the favor and waste some of the internet’s time.”

Attention Surplus Disorder

He didn't collect much money, but the campaign was a media smash. It went viral because it was pretty funny – not very nice to the guys in Weezer, but still funny – and no doubt because people are sick and tired of certain ideas and topics being forced into their attentional space. The campaign inverted the typical Internet economic model: Instead of paying to grab an audience's attention, the audience was paying to take it back. It's like a hostage negotiation, with attention the kidnap victim and $10 million the ransom.

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Yale-law-school1 ABP is a house; it is one quarter of a house, the bottom left corner of New Haven’s 111 Howe Street to be precise. ABP is short for Alif, Bay and Pay which are the first three alphabets of the Urdu language. It has been given the name ABP by the three Pakistani undergraduates from Yale University who live there. A name only the friends of the inhabitants know. Three Pakistani undergrads live there but, more importantly, every Pakistani at Yale (and many non-Yale ones) have been in this decadent den to sleep, eat, get help with their Math problem sets, play HALO and watch life pass by. You must understand that ABP is a house full of Pakistanis, and specifically, Pakistani men.

ABP is located on the piece of Howe Street that falls between Elm Street and Edgewood Avenue. Howe Street is an enigma. It is one of those roads that fall on the very boundary between Yale and New Haven. And you can see New Haven’s culture diffusing into Yale’s pretentious Gothic around this point. This is a place where people become darker, don’t wear polo shirts, smoke cheap cigarettes and hang out around gas stations rather than libraries. ABP is right around the corner from Main Garden, Elm Street’s worst Chinese restaurant. It is one of those grubby little affairs whose dirty kitchen you can see through a side door that is permanently open to the street and where nobody speaks English nor does anyone make authentic Chinese food. Everybody is trying to find their own homes and their own identities on Howe Street: two Chinese brothers behind the counter, a few black men near the gas station and a bunch of Pakistanis in an American house.

Once you arrive at ABP you realize that like any respectable counterculture house the proper entrance is at the back. The house has three bedrooms on the ground floor and a common room and a kitchen in the basement. The common room is the place that holds the house together. It has three couches and a table in the middle, cluttered with fast food leftovers, math textbooks, Xbox remote controllers and BlackBerrys. On certain days, the table is cleared to play poker. The couches, all of different sizes and providing different comfort levels, are booked early in the day by people sleeping over. There is a large television facing the table and the couches which is exclusively used to watch cricket and to play HALO. The common room is always slightly dark and very loud. The kitchen is always dirty and never used. Unlike the basement, the upstairs is not a communal space. White broken stairs lead you to a narrow corridor and three very different bedrooms. The first room belongs to Muneeb, more commonly known as Bubbles or Bubbz, and is in total disarray. Muneeb, a generously proportioned guy, is the primary sight of the room and there is not much else to see but litter. The second room belongs to Oosman and serves as the second common room. The third room belongs to Owais, who is the eldest and most religious. His room is meticulously ordered and decorated by calligraphy posters with quotations from the Quran hung on the walls. This is the room you go to find useful but rare things like nail cutters, old textbooks, spare sandals and good advice.

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Monday Poem

Cold Sting

Last night under a full moon
with a threat of frost
we threw row covers over the kale

We stumbled from a pile near the tracks
with bins of river rocks
to weigh the covers down

Wind waved their white lightness
over the Red Russian and Lacinato
as if we were flagging Nature,
signaling Ok, ok, you win again

We laughed and mocked ourselves
for hauling stones so late in the day
in a black plastic bin among full-mooncast-shades
stumbling over clods of autumn-tilled rows
covering kale to save ourselves and the stuff of soup
from the cold sting of this newest
turn of the earth

by Jim Culleny,
November 2010

The Why and What of Being Muslim: Parsing Tariq Ramadan


The day Tariq Ramadan came to the university to speak, I had just been teaching my social anthropology class about the contradictions between the ethical and pragmatic aspects of Islam. How can people claim Islam is egalitarian when Muslims around the world use religion to justify intolerance and patriarchy? I hadn’t been thinking about Ramadan, the Swiss philosopher and Islamic scholar who is the grandson of Hassan al Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, but since he was here and would be speaking about tolerance in Islam, I asked my students to go listen to him. Ramadan’s father was exiled to Switzerland, so Ramadan grew up in the European intellectual tradition, studying Islam at both the University of Geneva and Al-Azhar University in Cairo. After years of being denied a visa by the United States government, losing him a position at Notre Dame University, and after a challenge that worked its way through numerous courts, Ramadan was finally able to come to the US this year.

Ramadan is a lean man with receding gray hair, a closely trimmed beard and burning eyes, a charismatic figure. I saw two of my students in the auditorium seats before me, a young woman of Indian heritage, the other African-American. They alternated between gazing spellbound at the stage and scribbling furiously in their notebooks. I filled page after page of my legal pad. So many quotable quotes, both from the Quran that Ramadan recited in Arabic, then translated, and from the man himself. He gave us verses from the Quran that praised diversity (“If it had been God’s will, you would be one community.”) and that demanded a connection to the Other (“He created out of you the other, and between you love and mercy.”) and toleration (“You have no power to impose belief on others. If God had willed it, the world would be all believers. Who are you to impose your belief on others?”). Indeed, according to the Quran, difference and struggle are necessary because they provide a balance of power (“If God hadn’t set people against each other, the world would be corrupt.”).

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Sex, Frogs, and Rock & Roll


If frogs were closer to us on the phylogenetic family tree, they might have captured the imagination of evolutionary psychologists and behavioral ecologists more than they have. But the former discipline is still fascinated mostly by chimps and bonobos, apes that differ from us only by about one percent in gene sequences.

In the mid-1990s, researchers in England identified the first gene to be linked to language, strongly suggesting that our linguistic abilities might be at least partially innate—hardwired.

They named this gene FOXP2. For many vertebrates this gene is necessary, during early embryonic development, for the formation of parts of the brain that are associated with language and speech. Across the vertebrate family tree, FOXP2 is highly conserved—it hasn't changed much, albeit it seems to have mutated somewhat among non-human mammals, bats for example.

FOXP2 expression during development has been described in frogs, crocodilians, songbirds, and mice, among others. It is intriguing to contemplate that the development of the Central Nervous System in different vertebrate species is remarkably similar, with conserved expression in the basal ganglia, telencephalon, cerebellum, the hindbrain, tectum, tegmentum, and the thalamus.

In songbirds FoxP2 appears to be essential for learning how to sing. And the basil ganglia, which is necessary for human language, can be traced as far back as amphibians that were similar to frogs.

The basal ganglia works in concert with different regions of the cortex when we walk, talk, or comprehend a sentence. It also provides a foundation for cognitive flexibility and neuroplasticity, allowing a creature to alter their thought process and change plans accordingly when circumstances change suddenly. The study of the FOXP2 regulatory gene, which controls the embryonic development of subcortical systems, should provide keen insights into human evolution.

However far off frogs are to us, there is a connection. So, can the study of frog behavior give us some clues to the evolution of human behavior? In a way, anurans (frogs and toads) may be the first in a long line of rock stars—animals trying to attract a mate by showing off their musical talents. But does a frog really have anything in common with Steven Tyler? Maybe.

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On the Void of Nagarjuna

By Namit Arora

Nagarjunakonda12 In December 2005, I took a bus out of the coastal city of Vijayawada in South India. Heading west, I passed small towns and villages whose names—opaque to me because written only in Telugu—I kept guessing at from a map. After years of regional drought, the monsoon had been bountiful this year. We passed field after verdant field of cotton and pepper in a region infamous for its depleted water tables and farmers fleeing to other regions, or committing suicide to escape debt. It took most of the morning, on three buses and an auto-rickshaw, to reach my destination: a village with tourist facilities near the ruins of Nagarjunakonda.

A city flourished around 1,800 years ago at Nagarjunakonda (‘Hill of Nagarjuna’). A great religious and educational center of Brahmanism and Buddhism, one of the names it had then was Vijayapuri, after king Vijaya Satakarni of the Satavahana dynasty. Thereafter a capital of the Ikshvaku dynasty (225-325 CE), it fell into terminal decline after the demise of the last Ikshvaku king. It was only in 1926 that a teacher, S Venkataramayya, discovered the ruins of the ancient city. Much of it now lies under one of the largest manmade lakes in the world, Nagarjuna Sagar, formed in 1960 by the Nagarjuna Sagar dam across the Krishna River. Archaeological digs in 1926–60 turned up finds from the early Stone Age to medieval times, spread over 130 sites across 24 sq km. Many structures were moved and reassembled on what is now an island on the lake, as well as on the lake’s eastern bank at Anupu (much like the ‘saving’ of Abu Simbel from the Aswan Dam in Egypt).

The island’s modern name was inspired by one of the ancient city’s most illustrious citizens, Nagarjuna, a Buddhist monk-philosopher and founder of the ‘Middle Path’ school, who most likely lived there sometime in 150-250 CE. Called by some ‘the second Buddha’, Nagarjuna’s work is indispensable to several Buddhist schools, particularly Mahayana. ‘Nagarjuna’s philosophy represents something of a watershed not only in the history of Indian philosophy but in the history of philosophy as a whole,’ writes Douglas Berger, a scholar of Southasian thought, ‘as it calls into question certain philosophical assumptions so easily resorted to in our attempt to understand the world.’ [1]

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Firestorm and Contagion in the Eurozone: How Ireland got Burned

Niamh Hardiman on the Irish financial crisis, over at Crooked Timber:

Ireland’s recent €85bn bail-out package negotiated with the IMF and the EU is discussed in terms that verge on the apocalyptic. The rescue was supposed to serve as a break against the wildfire of market bondholder panic. And yet the upward trend in Portuguese bond rates has scarcely been slowed. Beyond Portugal is the much larger Spanish economy. Portugal, like Greece and Ireland, could probably just about be rescued within the terms of the current emergency scheme. It is becoming increasingly possible that the bond markets may make it too difficult for the Spanish government to refinance its loans and to raise new money on government bonds. If this were to happen, the European Financial Stability Fund would come under extreme pressure. And worse, if it is not possible to restore confidence in the stability of the Euro, there seems little reason why other countries may not also be in trouble. Spain is now where the line in the sand must be drawn. But we have heard this before. If Spain is vulnerable, why not Italy; and if Italy, why not Belgium, perhaps even France. Little wonder that the imagery of contagion, of financial plague, is brought into play.

The suddenness of the Irish deal has taken public opinion by surprise, causing shock that we have been plunged into this regime of austerity, and a smouldering anger about the terms on which the deal has been done. The terms of the bail-out will transfer all the hardships onto the taxpayers and citizens: reactions include the views that we have been held to ransom, we cannot afford this rescue package, it is a bad deal for Ireland.

Ireland’s fiscal crisis is largely caused by the collapse of the house price bubble and over-reliance on revenues from construction-related activities. This is bad enough, but by itself it would be difficult but manageable. The millstone around the neck of the Irish people is the vast scale of the crisis in the banking sector. Ireland’s banking crisis is not primarily about complicated and risky financial products: it is a common-or-garden result of reckless lending for property development and an inadequate regulatory regime.

Memory and Forgetting

220px-Shoah_film David Cesarani on Lanzmann's Shoah 25 years later, in The New Statesman:

There had never been anything like Claude Lanzmann's Shoah when it was released in 1985. There were earlier documentaries about the Holocaust: Alain Resnais's Night and Fog (1955); the “Genocide” episode of the World at War series, which was broadcast on ITV without any commercial breaks in 1974; Kitty: Return to Auschwitz and Auschwitz and the Allies, transmitted in 1979 on ITV and in 1982 on the BBC, respectively. But they hardly prepared you for Lanzmann's nine-hour epic.

Lanzmann eschewed the use of archive foot­age. He refused to include photographs. There is not a single image of a corpse in the entire film. Instead, there are interminable landscape shots of woods, forest clearings and empty fields. And trains: trains crossing the screen, filling the frame, close up, at middle distance or silhouetted again the horizon. The constant motion of camera or of locomotive drives the film along.

Then there was the director himself: a burly figure, often wrapped in a coat against the Polish winter, interviewing his witnesses. Lanzmann was insistent, ironic and sometimes faintly contemptuous. He showed himself lying to Franz Suchomel, a former SS guard at Treblinka, who was being captured by a hidden camera, brazenly flouting the ethics of documentary film-making.

Although Shoah has been hugely influential, it was so unconventional that it remains almost sui generis. Lanzmann declined to incorporate stock footage because it was created either by the Nazis or after the camps were liberated. To him, the monochrome newsreels short-circuited our engagement with the past by offering reassuringly familiar imagery. Shoah offers no such comforts.

Straight Outta Wesleyan

05FOB-Q4-t_CA0-articleInlineDeborah Solomon interviews Das Racists, in the NYT Magazine:

Your indie-rap group, Das Racist, is known for songs that wittily riff on Taco Bell, Googleand the general limitations of American consumerism. Rap is a black art form that originated in the Bronx, so why, as two Wesleyan graduates who met in college, would you think you could rap?

Himanshu Suri (top): Would you prefer your rappers to be uneducated? Victor Vazquez: And would we even be on the page of this publication if we had not gone to Wesleyan?

You jokingly describe yourself as “Puerto Rican cousins” in a song title, when in fact you are neither Puerto Rican nor cousins. What are you actually?

Suri: It’s weird. I’m an Indian-American who is participating in a historically black art form, while acknowledging that the experience of South Asians in America has been a relatively easier one than that of black Americans. Vazquez: My dad is black and my mom is white, and I don’t know if I am neither or both. And we don’t have the time to get into the identity-politics discussion that this would lead to. Suri: Then what are we doing here? Vazquez: We’re bigging up our brand so that we can make more money. Suri: To buy things. I want to start dressing more like a British colonialist in a red coat and maybe lighten my skin with that money.

The Ethics of Wikileaking

237px-Wikileaks_logo.svgMike LaBossiere in The Philosopher's Magazine:

While there are various legal concerns regarding these documents, my main concern is with the ethics of this leaking. I will consider various arguments in the course of the discussion.

One argument in favor of the leak is the classic Gadfly Argument (named in honor of Socrates because of his claim to the role of the gadfly to the city of Athens). The gist of the argument is that the people in government need to be watched and criticized so as to decrease the likelihood that they will conduct and conceal misdeeds in shadows and silence.

Given that governments have an extensive track record of misdeeds, it certainly makes sense to be concerned about what the folks running the show might really be doing under the cloak of secrecy and national security. If it is assumed that being part of the government does not exempt these people from moral accountability, then it would seem to follow that leaking their misdeeds is, in general, a morally acceptable action. After all, it would seem to be rather absurd to argue that people have a moral right to keep their misdeeds a secret.

The obvious reply to the Gadfly Argument is that even if it is granted, it does not cover all of the leaked material. After all, not all of the material deals with moral questionable activities that should be thus exposed to the light of day. As such, more would be needed to justify such a leak.

A second obvious argument is based on the assumption that in a democracy the citizens have a moral right to know what the folks in the government are doing in their name. This right can be based on the idea that the citizens are collectively responsible for the actions of their government and hence have a right (and need) to know what is actually going on. This right could also be based on the notion that the citizens need to be properly informed so as to make decisions. Since power comes from the people, one might argue that the people have a right to know about how that power is exercised and the information to (in theory) exercise it wisely.

the moral teachings of Lombardi, et al.


Of course, the moral teachings of Vince Lombardi refer primarily to the City of Man, the fallen realm in which we strive, day after day, to liken ourselves to the angles. But from the perspective of the City of God, we are simply fallen, wretched sinners. Between us and the angels stretches an infinite chasm, a vast abyss in which lurk the demons of our besmirchéd nature. It is to that wretchedness that we now turn. Why cannot the New York Jets score any points in the first half of a football game? You suspect that there must be some hidden answer to this perplexing question but I submit to you that there is not. The weapons wielded by this offense are no less formidable than many another team. And yet, offenses around the league score away during the initial half of play while the Jets cough and sputter, tilling a field so fallow as to be barren. The 37 year-old Offensive Coordinator Brian Schottenheimer is considered, by those in a position to know, one of the best young minds in the game. He comes from a noble lineage. His father, Marty Schottenheimer, is an old warhorse of American football. Marty played linebacker for the Bills, Colts and Steelers during the 1960s and 70s, when America still made good cars. He was a head coach in the NFL for more than twenty years after that.

more from me at The Owls here.


Like a prism of oil in a puddle under a car after a storm,
Love reminds us of the impossible passing beauty
Of this world, like the nights in autumn when a streetlight dapples
A city sidewalk through a tree. It’s the same reason my heart
Breaks when I notice how tiny my niece’s hands are, breaks
A little each time I hear her laugh. Her hands will grow,
And she will not stay laughing. Leaves fall in November,
Streetlights are dark by sunrise, oil slips down a drainpipe.

Not a single one of us can promise forever, but in these bodies
We bury our love inside each other; we try to keep it safe from death.
We forage within each other, blind and starving, never
Giving or getting as much as we search for, never understanding
That none of us will ever have enough love to hold onto this world.

But what if we could learn to love within our means here,
As garlic and onions simmer on a stove,
As bodies are warmed and fed with rice and beans?
What if we left forever for death to deal with, and knuckled down
To reaping this modest, evanescent harvest?
Could we be candles and firewood and salt pork for one another?
Could we become the prism and the streetlight and the child?
Could we teach each other to let our hearts break open,
To let in the garlic, the laughter, the oil, the music, the light,
Until eternity takes us and all these seasons change?

by Rebecca T. Klein
from The Q Review

Word: Jay-Z’s “Decoded” and the language of hip-hop

From The New Yorker:

Book Jay-Z grew up absorbing many of the rhymes that Bradley and DuBois celebrate. He was born in 1969, and raised in the Marcy Houses, in an area of Brooklyn from which Times Square seemed to be “a plane ride away.” (Nowadays, some real-estate agents doubtless consider it part of greater Williamsburg.) “It was the seventies,” he writes, “and heroin was still heavy in the hood, so we would dare one another to push a leaning nodder off a bench the way kids on farms tip sleeping cows.” He was a skinny, watchful boy with a knack for rhyming but no great interest in the music industry, despite some early brushes with fame—he briefly served as Big Daddy Kane’s hype man. Besides, Jay-Z had a day job that was both more dangerous and more reliable: he says he spent much of the late eighties and early nineties selling crack in Brooklyn and New Jersey and down the Eastern Seaboard. He was no kingpin, but he says he was a fairly accomplished mid-level dealer, and though he hated standing outside all day, he found that he didn’t hate the routine. “It was an adventure,” he says. “I got to hang out on the block with my crew, talking, cracking jokes. You know how people in office jobs talk at the watercooler? This job was almost all watercooler.” Then, almost as an afterthought, “But when you weren’t having fun, it was hell.”

Early recordings of Jay-Z reveal a nimble but mild-mannered virtuoso, delivering rat-a-tat syllables (he liked to rap in double-time triplets, delivering six syllables per beat) that often amounted to études rather than songs. But by 1996, when he released his début album, “Reasonable Doubt,” on a local independent label, he had slowed down and settled into a style—and, more important, settled into character. The album won him underground acclaim and a record deal with the very above-ground hip-hop label Def Jam, which helped him become one of the genre’s most dependable hitmakers. He was a cool-blooded hustler, describing a risky life in conversational verses that hid their poetic devices, disparaging the art of rapping even while perfecting it:

Who wanna bet us that we don’t touch lettuce, stack
cheddars forever, live treacherous, all the et ceteras.
To the death of us, me and my confidants, we
shine. You feel the ambiance—y’all niggas just rhyme.

More here.

Could X particle solve two puzzles?


Anti Can one particle explain both dark matter and the mysterious origins of matter and antimatter? Some physicists think so. They're calling the as-yet-only-theoretical object the “X particle.” Physicists from Canada's TRIUMF particle-physics facility, the University of British Columbia and Brookhaven National Laboratory laid out their ideas on the X particle in a paper published last month by Physical Review Letters — and since then, the ideas have been picked up by PhysicsWorld magazine as well as Discovery News. (You can read a full draft of the paper on the website.) The concept addresses two of the deep mysteries in modern physics:

  • Dark matter: Observations of distant galaxies and galaxy clusters suggest that the matter we can see accounts for about a fifth of their gravitational mass. The other four-fifths is thought to exist in the form of exotic matter than can be detected only by its gravitational effect. So what is that stuff?
  • Matter vs. antimatter: Theory dictates that equal amounts of matter and antimatter must have existed at the beginning of the universe — and yet, we see lots of matter and virtually no antimatter in the universe today. What happened to the antimatter, and why did matter win out?

More here.

Why Are There No Great Women Chefs?

NigellaCharlotte Druckman in Gastronomica:

It started a few years ago when I noticed that Food & Wine’s annual roundup of ten Best New Chefs always listed one token woman.

And it lingered.

In 2007 Michelin awarded French chef Anne-Sophie Pic three stars, making her only the fourth woman in her country’s history to receive that honor (fifty years had passed since the last of her sex had garnered that third sparkler).2 The following year, in the United Kingdom, it was considered breaking news when ten female chefs won any Michelin stars at all. The tabloid Telegraph announced: “It could be the beginning of the end for the foul-mouthed, macho, and defiantly male master chef. The number of women with Michelin stars has nearly doubled in just 12 months.”3

Then came the 2009 James Beard Awards gala, held after the ceremony and annually assigned a theme. “Women in Food” was the chosen motif, but since only sixteen of the evening’s ninety-six nominees were, in fact, women, it seemed like a cruel joke. In the end, only two of those sixteen went home victorious, out of nineteen winners total.4

Next, Phaidon announced the publication of its forthcoming cookbook Coco: 10 World Leading Masters Choose 100 Contemporary Chefs, for which one Alice Waters and nine of her male comrades each picked ten young chefs whose work they admire. Collectively, these culinary authorities managed to put fewer than ten women on the roster—less than 10 percent of the total talent featured.

Finally, in Bravo tv’s Top Chef Masters competition, a paltry three out of twenty-four American “Masters” were women. Really.

The “It” in the pit of my stomach was the sinking realization that female chefs do not attain the same recognition or critical acclaim as their male peers. No one doubts women’s abilities in the kitchen. They certainly have skill and creativity. So what is the problem? This conundrum reminded me of something I’d read in an undergraduate art history class, Linda Nochlin’s “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Her article was a watershed not just because it posed such a loaded question—a rhetorical device, as it turns out—but also because by posing that question Nochlin forced academics and feminists to challenge their own practices.