February 22, 2011

The Elements ♫

Tom Lehrer wrote the song in the title, which demonstrates that the names scan well. It is, though, a tad superficial. Dr. Johnson sternly put his finger on the problem: "The truth is that the knowledge of external nature and the sciences which that knowledge requires or includes, are not the great or frequent business of the human mind... we are perpetually moralists, but we are geometricians only by chance". A devastating put-down.

Most people wouldn’t describe the periodic table of elements as gripping. But Sam Kean makes it just that in his book, The Disappearing Spoon.

The disappearing spoon of Kean's title? It's a party trick: gallium is a malleable metal, easily formed into a spoon. You offer a cup of tea with a gallium spoon and the spoon dissolves, gallium having a melting point of just under 30º C.

The periodic table is, finally, an anthropological marvel, a human artifact that reflects all of the wonderful, artful and ugly aspects of human beings and how we interact with the physical world — the history of our species written in a compact and elegant script. It deserves study on each of these levels, starting with the most elementary, and moving gradually upward in complexity. Beyond just being entertaining the tales of the periodic table, provide a way of understanding it that never appears in textbooks or lab manuals.

We eat and breathe the periodic table; people bet and lose huge sums on it; philosophers use it to probe the meaning of science; it poisons people; it spawns wars. Between hydrogen at the top left and the man made impossibilities lurking along the bottom, you can find bubbles, bombs, money, alchemy, petty politics, history, poison, crime, love, and even some science.

The ghost at this chemical feast is Primo Levi's, The Periodic Table. Kean writes as a curious and benign enthusiast; Levi wrote as a professional chemist whose life was probably saved by his skill. Levi's book is an autobiography in which certain chemical elements were bound up with cruxes in his life. Working in the lab at Auschwitz, he found a store of cerium, which he whittled down to make cigarette lighter flints: life-saving currency in the camp's black market.

With the earth crisis upon us and the stain of carbon's insidious effect on climate ever growing, we can be sure that understanding chemistry is going to be just as vital for our collective future as it was for Levi's personal survival. Read both these books because time has come when a working knowledge of the elements should become "the great and frequent business of the human mind".


February 16, 2011

Bully, I’m disconnected…♪

Don’t check that e-mail. Don’t answer that phone. Just do nothing. You may be surprised what great thoughts will come.

A decade ago, those times were just a fact of life: time ticking away, as you gazed idly into space, stood in line, or sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Downtimes were unavoidable, yet also a primordial soup for some of life’s most quintessentially human moments. Increasingly, these empty moments are being saturated with productivity, communication, and the digital distractions offered by an ever-expanding array of slick mobile devices. Even Motorola began using the word “microboredom” to describe the ever-smaller slices of free time from which mobile technology offers an escape.

“Mobisodes,” two-minute long television episodes of everything from “Lost” to “Prison Break” made for the cellphone screen, are perfectly tailored for the microbored. Cellphone games are often designed to last just minutes — simple, snack-sized diversions like Snake, solitaire, and Tetris. Social networks like Twitter and Facebook turn every mundane moment between activities into a chance to broadcast feelings and thoughts; even if it is just to triple-tap a keypad with the words “I am bored.”

But are we too busy twirling through the songs on our iPods — while checking e-mails, while changing lanes on the highway — to consider whether we are giving up a good thing? We are most human when we are disconnected. To have downtime is to stop reacting to the external world, and to explore the internal one.

It is in these times of reflection that people often discover something new, whether it is an epiphany about a relationship or a new theory about the way the universe works. There is a strong argument that downtime— so often parodied as a glassy-eyed drooling state of nothingness — is an essential human emotion that underlies art, literature, philosophy, science, and even love.  I imagine it as the prelude to creativity, and being alone the prelude to engagement of the imagination. Doorways to something better, as opposed to something to be abhorred and eradicated immediately.

Public health officials often bemoan the obesity epidemic, the unintended consequence of a modern lifestyle that allows easy access to calories. Technology seems to offer a similar proposition: a wide array of distractions that offer the boon of connection, but at a cost. Already, mobile technology has shaped the way people interact and communicate. People no longer make plans in the same way; public spaces have become semi-private bubbles of conversation; and things like getting a busy signal or being unreachable seem foreign, even quaint. Today, distraction from solitary thinking is not just merely available; it is almost unavoidable.

Perhaps nothing illuminates the speed of social change better than the new fear of disconnection. Today, there is a growing fear of the prospect of being untethered in the world without the security blanket of a cellphone. In the timescale of human inventions, the iphone is still new, but it is already a crucial part of the trinity of things people fear to forget when they leave the house — keys, wallet, phone.
In a way, the entrepreneurs looking to capitalize on the small moments of spare time that are sprinkled through modern life parallel the pharmaceutical industry. A growing chorus of mental health specialists has begun to question whether normal sadness and social anxiety are being transformed into disorders that people believe need to be cured — by the companies offering elixirs. The tech industry may be doing the same thing with disconnection.

Many of the original arguments for having a cellphone — safety, security, emergencies — never figure into the advertisements. Like the commercials that show frowning people transformed into smiling, kitten-cuddling normality, technology companies project a happy world of connection where to intentionally disconnect seems freakish, questionable, an ailment.

Society has accepted connection so well that it takes a step back to see exactly how far things have come. Instead of carrying their entire social universe in a pocket, people used to walk out of their houses and into the world. Today, not picking up the phone for an hour is an act of defiance.

Perhaps understandably, downtime has never caught the attention of the psychological world. Emotions like anxiety, fear, or anger have been subjected to a much more thorough examination than merely feeling drab.

In one of the most famous scenes in literature, Marcel Proust describes his protagonist dunking a madeleine cookie into his teacup.

Dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake,” Proust wrote. “And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory . . . I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal.”

Marcel’s senses are recalibrated, his experiences deepened, and the very nature of memory begins to reveal itself. But it is only through the strenuous process of clearing his mind and concentrating that his thoughts begin to unfurl completely, immersing him in memory. Had Marcel been holding a cellphone in his hand instead of the delicately scalloped cookie, perhaps he could have quieted the feeling with a quick game of cellphone Tetris. And had Proust come of age with an iPhone in his hand and the expectation that his entire world fit in his pocket, he may never have written a single word.

I friend said that he refuses to carry a cellphone precisely because, “Every time I venture out into the confession booths that our public spaces have become I hear these stupid conversations. . . ‘I’m almost there, I’m turning the corner right now’. “Help!”

Connectivity, of course, has serious advantages. Parents can check in with their kids. Friends separated by hundreds of miles can have a conversation almost as if they were walking side by side. People feel safer.

Still, there has been surprisingly little public discussion of the broad sociological and psychological impact the technology will have. Like much change, it has crept up on people and radically changed behavior and expectations in ways we could have predicted.

Bu,t as it becomes more difficult to imagine a world without constant connectivity, the very concept of “microdowntime” may begin to lower people’s tolerance for even a second of empty time.

Paradoxically, as cures for downtime have proliferated, people do not seem to feel less bored; they simply flee it with more energy, flitting from one activity to the next. I have noticed a kind of placid look among people over the past few years, it’s a 'laptop culture' that I finds perplexing. People have more channels to be social; there are always things to do. And yet people seem oddly numb. They are not quite bored, but not really interested either.

Perhaps steeping in uninterrupted time may be the first step toward feeling connected. There’s a level of knowing yourself, of coming back to baseline, and knowing who you truly are.

Or, just go ahead. Your phone is vibrating with a message, your e-mails are piling up…

February 06, 2011

Ahhhhhhh, Valentine’s Day…♫ ღ

… salut d'amour xoxo

See Naples and die? I always wondered 'Why', (I’m too polite to ask of 'What'). Doctor Johnsons’s declaration that “when a man is tired of London he is tired of life” has left me equally bewildered. I can see being tired of Los Angeles, not tired of life.

And, like a sensible heroine, I will pick myself up and go to Venice.

The idea is not so much to see Venice, but to be there. Not to gaze at the wonders, but to become a figure in the tableau. To that end, please if at all possible, no hotel.  But, if it can be managed some fine old rooms, wholly independent and the more interesting the better where we shall be to ourselves, with a cook, frescoes, antiquities, the thorough make-believe of the setlement.

Such is the eternal lure of that miracle-from-the-swamp, Venice. Refugees from the mainland conjured it up from mud and reeds as they tried to outrun death in the form of Attila the Hun. And, as if the city’s mere existence is not preposterous enough, their prosperous descendents had it gilded.

Since the Middle Ages, Venice has been attracting dazed foreigners; pilgrims venerating holy relics, crusaders commisioning ships, Jews escaping persecution, artists looking for civic commisions, writers looking for dramatic settings, filmakers looking for eery urban scenery, royalty experiencing unpopularity at home, millionaires pursuing experiences that would have made them unpopular at home, and a millenium’s worth of traveling tradesmen and toutists from whatever has constituted the known world at any given time. Together, we form an endless caravan of Marco Polos in reverse.

If this playing at being Venetian sounds like so much girlish nonsense, consider some of the toughies who have thoroughly indulged their own fantasies: Lord Byron, Richard Wagner, Friedrich Nietsche, Robert Browning, Ernest Hemmingway, Ezra Pound. And if they all seem to be wild romantics, so as not to say discracefully self-dramatizing show-offs, here is the confession off someone not exactly known for the expression of unfeterred personal passions: “I adore it- have fallen deeply and desparately in love with it.”  That, dear reader is Henry James, gushing to his friends when Venice got hold of him, he was to pass this on to the heroines in his novels. True, he had rhapsodized promiscuously over other European cities, even Florence, which he described as being in need of a lover, “and that lover moi.” (Master, please. You are embarrasing us.)

But that was a decade before he declared, Venice’s “magic potion has entered my blood.”   Venice was the one that made him crave a permanent Continental relationship-as a residential mistress, to be kept as the object of his feverish attentions when he strayed from England.  As I know myself, in Venice, one can easily go overboard.

'Addicted to Love' The Economist  For an article on the science behind love.

The potion is commenly acknowledged to be potent enough to do subliminal sensual work even on those who have never visited or given Venice any particular thought. Catalogues, magazines, television and movies, use Venetian footage to evoke the passionate nature of international commerce. Venice is used to selling everything from computers to Valentine’s Day. In the advertisers’ book of wisdom, under the section on associating a product with enticing irrelevancies, Venice must be the example given right after scantily dressed women. Venice, world symbol of romance, show them Venice, and they’ll be unable to resist anything. True.

In the Romantic Era, as in our own age, a weakened and consequently benign Venice presents itself as picturesque. No amount of elective or emergency architectural surgery can conceal the ravages of age and the lack of imperial budget. Its present appeal would probably be blasted away by dazzle if we saw Venice as it was in its heyday. Decayed beauty suited the Romantics, and it suits the starker modern taste for irony and pathos. That Venice seems lovely because of its fragility, this is exasperating to its active caregivers, but they well know that pity and alarm are the basic fund-raising tools.

The tendency to blather about Venice’s beauty, using any excuse to pronounce the beloved name, is a hazard of being a Venetophile. A greater hazard is holding conversation with a Ventophile. But, what lover ever failed to argue that beauty alone would not have been sufficient to ignite the fever?

Although, Venice has its domestic virtues. It is quiet, no cars.

Venice is a healthy place to live. We have heard this claim before, memorably in Death in Venice, where the tourists are told that everything is fine and not to worry about the sudden disappearances of people who were looking peaked. Earlier, there was that matter of ships carelessly bringing the plagues home, and to all of Europe. A city where one of the churches is commonly known by the word “health”(the Salute) can be said to have known medical problems.

What is meant, I suspect, is that it is healthy in the life-style sense. I can see why. Treadmills and stair machines are provided by the municipality. With the necessity of walking everywhere, every few yards being up and down the steps of bridges, Venice’s old people are remarkably free of strokes and varicose veins.

For a proud commercial power during its entire independent existence, Venice is, of all cities, the least disfigured by advertising. Graffiti, yes, but that is political, not commercial.

Venice is startlingly crime-free. Real life elsewhere has accustomed Americans to thinking of ourselves as constant targets at home, and even more vulnerable when we travel. Art heists have been known to happen. My charming hostess told me an elaborate tale of how she had heroically held a burglar in check until the police arrived. “Venetians?” I ask incredulously. “Oh, no,” she reassured me. “Certainly not! No, no, no! Italians!”

This is not to claim that Venice eschews the machinations of global corruption. On the contrary, historic Venetian mercenary cunning still contributes a special twist to the perils of encountering its legal system.

However, rudeness is a crime in Venice. To be “mal educata”, the Italian expression for rude, is enough to shut most doors.

If Venetophilia cannot be explained by aesthetics alone, adding the comforts of peace and quiet are not likely to push a contented visitor over the edge to obsession. Will adding an erotic element do it?

Venice may have to import its tap water, but a natural resource that she is believed to provide is love, or at least its holiday approximation. Alas, as only the occasional befuddled American movie star fails to realize it is no longer fashionable to keep a pet gondolier, people are more likely to bring their own partners. Venice is the watery honeymoon destination for the just-married, the unmarried, and the married-but-not-to-each-other, a sort of horizontal Niagara Falls. Such couples are supposed to concentrate on each other. Pleasure, for a romantically inclined Venetophile, would require a threesome, in which the third party is Venice. A love who seemed exciting enough elsewhere to be brought along, but who fails to grasp the excitement of Venice is a nuisance. Romance will wither, and has.

Venice has a more powerful allure than any enticement to a mere human fling, although, like all seduction ploys, this, too, is a lie. She seems to offer perpetual life by placing you in the center of the busy flow of never-ending human history. In Venice, you are not peering into the past; you are standing in it. You are not only conjuring the private lives of people you would have longed to know; you are living in their houses. And you don’t have to feel insignificant in comparison with your heroes and their peers, because right now, they are offstage, and you are on the very stage they used. This gives you the heady feeling that you, too, will remain vivid far into the future that romance will never leave you, and you only hurt when it is you who has to leave Venice.

Once more, with feeling,

"Buon San Valentino", Venezia,

(before you float away)

February 01, 2011

"Man is like a breath...

...his days are like a passing shadow." Psalm 144, v. 4.

I have a conflicting time with London’s East End.  I wander hidden paths and visit places in search of the interesting.  However, more than anywhere else, wandering here makes me feel separate - an outcast, albeit quite often in a sea of other temporary citizens.  Here, especially, authenticity is brought into sharp focus.  With so much written and spoken about the legends of the territory, from ancient plague-grounds to modern murder myths, its hard not to feel like a tourist. 
The area is far from out-of-bounds to the outsider, these boundary lands have been contested spaces and seen multitudes of populations that shared the streets and alleyways over centuries of change and redefinition.  My walk was an attempt to reclaim my student days of Spitalfields and Shoreditch and to walk shoulder to shoulder with everyone else that did not really belong but had gravitated here for sometimes-unfathomable reasons.

There is a boarded-up, closed-for-business feel here, almost an attempt to turn back the casual tourist - this is not what you thought it was.  Peering through the cracked hoardings into a deep excavation, the old foundations are revealed.  Ms. Edna you would call this "doubly enticing". 
On into ‘Banglatown’.  Scents assault the senses - diesel, curry, hot coffee, bad drains.  

Onward, passing the entrance to Flower and Dean Walk, sanitised, and erased except for the archway that gave entrance to the model dwellings, which replaced the seething rookery a century ago.  I try to get a haircut, but I'm refused in a case of embarrassed but good-humoured preference by the proprietor - and I respond with equal good humour and a handshake.  A little solidarity and a moment of awareness of how alien we both are here.

I press on to 59 Brick Lane the building has a tiny Star of David emblem hidden on a down pipe that betrays the last great wave to sweep the area - Church became Synagogue, and in turn a great Mosque, one of London's largest, a symbol of change and continuity.  Each successive community claimed it as its own, revealing the history of an area in one building.
Standing at the corner of Brick Lane and Fournier Street, a plain but gracious rectangular brick property with tall arched windows that lets the light flood in.  Set high up on the wall is a vertical sundial with the above-mentioned Latin inscription, Umbra Sumus.
Originally intended as a reference not only to the workings of the sundial, but as a reminder that our life on earth is fleeting, the inscription has and added significance for this area, as waves of immigrants have arrived, thrived and then moved on.
The building has had many names as each community established its own place of worship here-

1743 - La Neuve Eglise

The French Huguenot community built this as a Protestant Church in 1743, along with a small school. The Huguenots were refugees (the term entered English at this time from the French word réfugié), fleeing religious persecution by the Catholics at home. They had been arriving in ever-greater numbers since the 1680s and they brought with them their silk weaving skills, bestowing great prosperity to the area.

William Hogarth, (The Four Times of the Day), ‘Noon’  (1738)

Their legacy is to be found not only in the French street names that abound in “Weaver Town”, as it was called, but also in the elegant rows of Georgian town houses they built. It only took two or three generations for the French-speaking community to be assimilated, mainly through inter-marriage, and the congregation dwindled. The Church was sold to a newly founded society looking for headquarters.

Spitalfields silk weavers winding and reeling thread, 1893 ©TopFoto.co.uk

1809 - The Jews’ Chapel

The London Society for Promoting Christianity Among the Jews had four aims: to declare the Messiah ship of Jesus to Jews primarily but also to non-Jews; to endeavour to teach the Church its Jewish roots; to encourage the physical restoration of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel; and to encourage the Hebrew Christian/Messianic Jewish movement.
The Society failed to have a dramatic impact on the inhabitants of Brick Lane so they moved elsewhere and the building was taken over by Methodists in 1819.

1819 - Methodist Chapel

The Methodists already had a strong connection with this area of London. John Wesley himself had lived not far away on City Road and preached his first covenant sermon at the Black Eagle Street Chapel, just off Brick Lane. The simplicity and plainness of the building would no doubt have suited them well.

1897 – Machzikei Adass or Spitalfields Great Synagogue

This was an Independent Orthodox, later Federation Synagogue which had schoolrooms on the roof. There had been an influx of Yiddish-speaking Jews to the East End after the assassination of the Tsar of Russia in 1881 that resulted in pogroms across northern Europe.

Brick Lane was the heart of the shtetl and this was the principal synagogue of the area, open from dawn ‘till dusk. From the 1960s, the Jewish community dwindled, many moving to areas of north London such as Golders Green and Hendon (known as the bagel belt). The building closed for a short while before its next incarnation.

1976 - London Jamme Masjid

This is one of the largest mosques in the capital and can accommodate 4,000 worshippers in the prayer hall. On Friday’s the shoes of the worshippers spill out down the stairs into the street. The mosque serves the needs of the large Bengali community - which grew up after the Second World War and once again, there is a school for religious instruction here, on the first floor.