Motorcycle Meditations / Bali

By Aditya Dev Sood with photographs by Nita Soans Sood

Orange bag on road copy My knees are spread wide, my arms loose and ready, back supple and straight. Walls of green moss on black stone, flurries of fern and plant, the waving arms of trees fly by on the right. Sheets of terraced paddy step carefully down and into the ravine on the left, giving way to distant valleys, lake, and mountain. My mind is alert but high, this is not a normal kind of wakefulness, not a dream, and not slumber. It is a different, fourth kind of consciousness, a flow state, a murmuring of interior thoughts that I seem to be pulling in and out of, pitched to the drone of the bike, the winding of the road.

Nita and I had imagined this road trip through Bali a couple of years ago, the last time we were here. Then we were weighed down with luggage and hotel bookings and yearned to be able to be able to just ride out and find ourselves in a new part of the island whenever we wanted. This time, we’ve got one rucksack, now between my knees, and a smaller backpack, slung from the handlebars, and Nita has her camera bag under one arm, and we’re off and about, on the road in Bali.

Stepped terraces copy

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On the Internet


Justin E. H. Smith

The Internet, it seems, is destroying everything. In the aftermath of its Shiva-like arrival, the rest of the world now appears shabby, neglected, left over.

It has destroyed or is in the process of destroying long-familiar objects: TVs, stereos, telephones, newspapers, musical instruments, clocks, books. It is also destroying institutions: stores, universities, banks, happy hours, travel agencies. Teleconferencing is increasingly obviating the need for travel; Wikipedia is now vastly superior to anything Diderot could have imagined (and unlike the Encyclopédie, Jimmy Wales's creation is perpetually improvable). As a friend recently put it to me: to denounce Wikipedia is like denouncing the Enlightenment. Nay more: Wikipedia is the Enlightenment realized, for better or worse.

The Internet has concentrated once widely dispersed aspects of a human life into one and the same little machine: work, friendship, commerce, creativity, eros. As someone sharply put it a few years ago in an article in Slate or something like that: our work machines and our porn machines are now the same machines. This is, in short, an exceptional moment in history, next to which 19th-century anxieties about the railroad or the automated loom seem frivolous. Looms and cotton gins and similar apparatuses each only did one thing; the Internet does everything.

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Monday Poem

Capela dos Ossos
—on a Chruch of Bones, Evora, Portugal

We pray in a church of bonesChruch of bones-border
in which skulls outline graceful arches
of low vaults and whose columns are ladders
of stacked femurs. We admire its capitals
of craniums

It’s walls, unlike the idealizations
of Michelangelo, are not fantasies
romanced in fresco but the real thing:
stony remnants of once-respiring

We pray in a church of bones
whose windows look out
beneath an osseous calcium dome

Our chapel of once-articulating skeletons
—a reliquary of calcium phosphate—
rises over a promontory like a lighthouse
warning the world of muscle and breath,
spit and sweat, bile and blood
to steer clear of the promises of ghosts
and constantly sound to avoid being
beached in mud

We pray in a church of bone
We hope in a field of dreams
We hate or love between
unknown and unknown

by Jim Culleny
Jan 1, 2010

The Church of Bones

Know Your Own Bone

By Jenny White

December 31, 2010 — Today on the cusp of renewal, I read a singularly deflating article in The New York Times by Susan Jacoby who, on this sunny final day of the new year, took the opportunity to remind unsuspecting readers that we are going to get old and probably do so badly, and then die. Well, I, for one, had been planning to refashion myself in the new year — more yoga, fewer pounds, a new boyfriend, a mortgage-busting advance on my next novel. Won't work; Jacoby has that covered. It seems healthy living will not protect us from Alzheimer's, one of many left hooks the indifferent cosmos jabs in our direction. And forget that “late-in-life love affair” or “financial bonanza”. What awaits us is “unremitting struggle”, Jacoby warns, and we'd better get busy identifying a health care proxy.

But why tell us now? Why not in February, when we're sunk in darkness and cold, our backs thrown out by shoveling, primed to believe the bad news? Or November, when crumpled husks of leaves cling like forlorn bats to the naked branches. I'd be willing to contemplate mortality then. Not now when the gates are flung wide open. Of course it's important to plan for the worst. But it's just as important, I would argue, to hope and not to expect the worst. Hope lights the fire under our butts that keeps us moving, even as our energy fades to black. Yeats said it better (naturally):

Everything that man esteems
Endures a moment or a day.
Love's pleasure drives his love away,
The painter's brush consumes his dreams;
The herald's cry, the soldier's tread
Exhaust his glory and his might:
Whatever flames upon the night
Man's own resinous heart has fed.

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Why I can’t even get my mother to agree with me on homeopathy

100px-Arnica_montana_homéopathie_zoomLast month, late at night, searching for a painkiller for my wife I came upon an old stock of tablets I had been prescribed for a muscle injury. It was a combination peculiar to India, and among other drugs it included Paracetamol and Diclofenac. Since she was still breastfeeding I took care to check the tablet only to find the combination I had taken for over a week was banned in several countries due to the possibility of a life-threatening reaction.

I had been prescribed the medicine at one of many new private medical hospitals that have recently sprung up in India. The old government hospitals gave off an intense smell of phenyl (a once ubiquitous disinfectant), patients would usually spill out of the wards on to long dingy hospital corridors, wastebaskets would be overflowing with discarded injections and bloodied dressings and even a dog or two roaming the wards wouldn’t be taken amiss. They were among the few places where the existence of the Indian elite couldn’t be completely cut-off from the reality of this country.

This is no longer the case. The private hospitals are run according to the same insurance driven model that funds medical practice in the US. They cater exclusively to the post-liberalization elite and medical tourists from other countries. In look and feel they resemble the four and five star hotels that have mushroomed in the country at much the same time and pace. Over the past three years I have had reason to observe them up close as my father has gone from a healthy middle age to radiotherapy for a malignant prostate, a gallbladder removal, three major surgeries for a persistent subdural hematoma, a mild stroke, all the while requiring monitoring for his diabetes and his weakened heart. All things considered he has come out of this rather well, but now on my mobile phone instead of a single number for a general practitioner I carry the contact details of a host of specialists who individually deal with the brain, heart, prostate and other assorted body parts.

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One Thousand Year Writers Block

William Burroughs famously remarked that Islam had hit a one thousand year writer’s block. Is this assessment justified? First things first: obviously we are not talking about all writing or all creative work. Thousands of talented writers have churned out countless works of literature, from the poems ofHafiz and Ghalib to the novels of Naguib Mahfooz and the fairy tales of innumerable anonymous (and amazing) talents . There is also no shortage of talent in other creative fields, e.g. I can just say “Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan” and be done with this discussion. But what about the sciences of religion and political thought, or the views of biology, history and human society to which these are connected? Is there a writer’s block in these dimensions?

0012 william burroughs

The correct answer would be “it depends” or “compared to what”? After all, it’s not so much that everyone else in Eurasia stopped thinking 500 years ago, but rather than an explosion of knowledge occurred in Europe that rapidly outstripped other centers of civilization in Eurasia. And after a period of relative decline, the rest of the world is catching up. Culture matters, but cultures also evolve. For better and for worse, cultures in Japan and Taiwan are now full participants in the global knowledge exchange, both as consumers and as producers. Iran has been trying to move beyond previous (and obviously flawed) models of personal autocracy and hereditary rule interspersed with violent and devastating civil wars, for over a hundred years, and the Islamic republic, for all its problems, is not a brain-dead culture.

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Bog Blog

5 Bear Sawmp Bog Earth is a rocky planet—a peculiarly watery one—spinning around a relatively huge, hot, radiating ball of thermonuclear plasma. How water got here and why it hasn't boiled off and blown away to a colder region in our solar system is somewhat of a mystery to scientists; though they're coming up with some plausible theories. Man is a terrestrial chordate, whose niche is dry land. But this niche, nevertheless, is dependent on the water cycle for its wellbeing; weather, rain, rivers, streams give vitality to a place that would otherwise be dryer than desert. Popular media reports, give us the impression that the carbon cycle and man's activities are the major factors controlling weather and whether the arctic regions stay as they are, advance, or retreat. In reality, carbon dioxide is only a factor. There are other factors and other cycles; for example, Milankovitch cycles, a theory that describes the collective effects of changes in our planet's movements upon the climate. This theory is not yet completed, but it is an exceedingly interesting idea, one that would help explain some of the glacial and interglacial activity here on our cozy little rock in space.

Caught up in a triune relationship between sun, water, and land, the best representatives of this confluence are wetlands; in my opinion anyway they are. This is where it all happens: water, land, sky congregate at these mires; life and death coexist and complement one another; time, schedules, governments, wars, and WikiLeaks seem rather unimportant here. By definition wetlands are areas that are inundated by water at a frequency and duration sufficient to support a prevalence of water loving plants typically adapted to waterlogged soils. Wetlands generally include swamps, marshes, bogs, and the like.

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Our visual system to seamlessly informs us about and guide us through the outside world so that we typically hardly notice its actions. However, our brain has limited processing capacity, and must filter visual input to extract the more biologically meaningful features from the totality of the visual scene. Optical illusions, in which a perception about an external scene does not match the physical reality, emerge from this filtering process. Illusions thus reveal a dissociation between the physical world and our perception of it, allowing a glimpse into the workings of the mind.

Ebbinghaus Illusion The Ebbinghaus illusion is a widely studied optical effect in which the perceived size of a circle is affected by circles of a different size surrounding it. In this illustration, most people perceive the orange circle in the right hand group as larger than the orange circle on the left. This perception is variable among individuals, with the strength of the Ebbinghaus illusion reflecting both developmental and environmental influences. The effect is absent in young subjects and in some individuals with autism, and it also varies in strength among subjects from different cultures. It can also be abolished entirely if the central circle is an object of known scale, such as a coin.

A report from last month’s Nature Neuroscience (Schwarzkopf et al.) reported an intriguing correlation between the strength of the Ebbinghaus illusion and individual functional variation in the brain. Visual information enters the body through the retina, where it is partially processed and relayed toward the primary visual cortex (V1) at the rear of the brain. The surface area devoted to V1 is known to vary by up to threefold in the general population.

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Why Criticism Matters: Translating the Code Into Everyday Language

02anderson-articleInline Sam Anderson on the issue, in the NYT:

I tend to shy away from big, sweeping, era-defining statements. It’s the fastest possible way to be wrong about the world, and usually just an excuse for various forms of sloppy thinking: cherry-picking, scapegoating, doomsaying, fear-mongering, sandbagging, arm-twisting, wool-gathering, leg-pulling. And yet it would be hard to dispute that over the last 5 or 10 years, the culture’s relationship to time has changed pretty drastically. The shift is so obvious that it’s boring, by now, even to name the culprits: Google, blogs, texting, tweets, iPhones, Facebook — a little army of tools that have given rise to (and grown out of) radically new habits of attention. Many of us are now addicted, on the dopamine-receptor level, to a moment-by-moment experience of life that’s defined by a behavior sometimes referred to as “time slicing”: jumping every few seconds between devices or windows or tabs, constantly swiveling the periscope of our attention around and around the horizon to see where the latest relevant data-burst might come from.

Whether this shift is good or bad or neutral is a cripplingly complex question, and very hard to discuss without falling into clichés about the Death of Literature and the Extinction of Humanity and How Google Is Stealing Everybody’s Grandmother’s Favorite Jewelry. (It helps to remember, when you start having these thoughts, that every era in the history of humanity has lamented the rise of whatever technology it happened to see the rise of.)

What we can say, for sure, is that sustained exposure to the Internet is changing the way many readers process the written word. Texts are shorter and more flagrantly interconnected, with all kinds of secret passageways running into and out of one another. This has already changed the way we produce, read, share and digest our writing. Inevitably, it will also redefine what it means to practice book criticism, at least for those of us who aspire to write for something like a general audience.

Mr. Borges’s Garden

Windowsimg-custom1 MÁRIA KODAMA and MATTEO PERICOLI in The New York Times:

A certain house in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Recoleta has a window that is doubly privileged. It overlooks a courtyard garden of the kind known here as a pulmón de manzana — literally, the lung of a block — which affords it a view of the sky and an expanse of plants, trees and vines that meander along the walls of neighboring houses, marking the passage of the seasons with their colors. In addition, the window shelters the library of my late husband, Jorge Luis Borges. It is a real Library of Babel, full of old books, their endpapers scribbled with notes in his tiny hand. The window has one more surprise. From it, I can see the garden of the house where Borges once lived, and where he wrote one of his best-known short stories, “The Circular Ruins.’’

As afternoon progresses and I look up from my work to gaze out this window, I may be invaded by springtime, or if it’s summer, by the perfume of jasmine or the scent of orange blossom, mingled with the aroma of leather and book paper, which brought Borges such pleasure.

More here.

Sunday Poem

Sonnet 87
William Shakespeare

Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou know'st thy estimate:
The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;
My bonds in thee are all determinate.

For how do I hold thee but by thy granting?
And for that riches where is my deserving?
The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting,
And so my patent back again is swerving.

Thyself thou gav'st, thy own worth then not knowing,
Or me, to whom thou gav'st it, else mistaking;
So thy great gift, upon misprision growing,
Comes home again, on better judgment making.

Thus have I had thee as a dream doth flatter—
In sleep, a king; but waking, no such matter.

The Happy Marriage Is the ‘Me’ Marriage

From The New York Times:

POPE-popup Caryl Rusbult, a researcher at Vrije University in Amsterdam who died last January, called it the “Michelangelo effect,” referring to the manner in which close partners “sculpt” each other in ways that help each of them attain valued goals. Dr. Aron and Gary W. Lewandowski Jr., a professor at Monmouth University in New Jersey, have studied how individuals use a relationship to accumulate knowledge and experiences, a process called “self-expansion.” Research shows that the more self-expansion people experience from their partner, the more committed and satisfied they are in the relationship.

To measure this, Dr. Lewandowski developed a series of questions for couples: How much has being with your partner resulted in your learning new things? How much has knowing your partner made you a better person? (Take the full quiz measuring self-expansion.) While the notion of self-expansion may sound inherently self-serving, it can lead to stronger, more sustainable relationships, Dr. Lewandowski says. “If you’re seeking self-growth and obtain it from your partner, then that puts your partner in a pretty important position,” he explains. “And being able to help your partner’s self-expansion would be pretty pleasing to yourself.”

More here.

The Birth and Death of Human Rights Doctrine

From Slate:

Book Human rights—the notion that the protection of the immutable rights and freedoms of every individual on the planet supersedes all other concerns—did not always enjoy this prominent place in our political debate. Most historians have located the ideology's origins in previous eras, from the ancient Greeks and Hebrews to the Enlightenment to post-World War II. In his erudite new book, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, Samuel Moyn proposes a more recent source. He argues that it was only in the 1970s, when other utopian ideologies—socialism, anti-colonialism, and anti-communism—fell by the wayside that human rights assumed its stature as the ultimate moral arbiter of international conduct.

As Moyn tells it, human rights might trace its philosophical lineage to earlier times—few ideas emerge from the intellectual womb as orphans—but its dominant role was not assured until a particular point in time. He takes issue most forcefully with the belief that human rights' ascension was an answer to the extermination of European Jewry. “Contrary to conventional assumptions, there was no widespread Holocaust consciousness in the postwar era, so human rights could not have been a response to it,” he writes.

More here.

pure american crazy


If, as William Carlos Williams wrote, “The pure products of America / go crazy,” where does that leave Tim Burton, a pure product not just of America but also of Southern California, land’s end of our national phantasmagoria? Hollywood, maybe, where Burton — born in Burbank, raised on TV and the films of Ray Harryhausen, educated at the California Institute of the Arts — landed in the late 1970s. Or London, where he now lives with the actress Helena Bonham Carter and their two kids. Really, though, the landscape Burton occupies is one of the imagination, a territory marked by whimsy and darkness, in which the visuals are the main event. “My background is animation,” he says by phone from his home in England. “Early on, I was essentially a nonverbal person.” Even now, the director of “Beetle Juice,” “Batman,” “Corpse Bride” and “Edward Scissorhands” seems not completely comfortable in conversation; he pauses, backtracks, like someone speaking in a second language, as he discusses “The Art of Tim Burton,” a lavish art book featuring more than 1,000 images, some of which go back to childhood.

more from David L. Ulin at the LA Times here.

why criticism matters


Three years ago, Cynthia Ozick published an essay in Harper’s Magazine lamenting the decline of criticism, which she argued was impoverishing literature itself. Without the “consciousness that only a critical infrastructure can supply,” Ozick wrote, readers and writers are doomed to talk at cross-purposes, or at random; it takes a corps of influential critics to unite individual reactions into a common discussion. Indeed, this excellent novelist and excellent critic concluded, “Superior criticism not only unifies and interprets a literary culture but has the power to imagine it into being.” To see what we are missing, all we have to do is contrast our own moment with the postwar decades “when Lionel Trilling prevailed at Columbia,” and “Edmund Wilson, Irving Howe and Alfred Kazin enlivened the magazines.” There is a grim comedy, then, in turning to Kazin’s essay about criticism — written in 1960, when Ozick’s giants walked upon the earth — and reading about “the absence of echo to our work, the uncertainty of response, the confusion of basic terms in which we deal.” It seems to be a case of “the worst is not / So long as we can say, ‘This is the worst.’ ” What looked to Kazin like a dwindling, fissiparous literary culture looks to us like a golden age. (As yet another great critic, Randall Jarrell, once said, in a golden age people go around complaining about how yellow everything looks.)

more from Adam Kirsch at the NYT here.