Monthly Archives: July 2010

East vs. West — the myths that mystify

Devdutt Pattanaik: East vs. West — the myths that mystify | Video on TED.com

This is wonderful. Thanks to GTB for sending it my way.

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Study like a scholar, scholar

This is psychological genius (first seen during World Cup 2010):

… and an impressive viral mutation:

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Yoga, with a side of inequity, in the Afghan ‘Kabubble’

Via: Yoga, blast walls and life in the Afghan ‘Kabubble’ | McClatchy

KABUL, Afghanistan — If you’re thinking about taking a yoga class at Kabul’s Fig Health Centre, you’ll be relieved to know that the yoga studio windows are packed with tilting stacks of green sandbags.

That way, if a car bomb goes off during yoga class, the sandbags and anti-blast glass will offer a little extra protection from flying shrapnel.

“It’s unusual, but that’s the state of business,” said A., the 31-year-old Afghan co-owner of Fig who asked that his full name not be used out of fear of drawing attention to the latest attempt to create a serene sanctuary in one of the world’s least-yoga-friendly war zones.

A one-hour hot stone massage at Fig costs $48. The 105-minute Moroccan recharge treatment — including body scrub, infrared sauna and acupuncture — goes for $70. One hour in the Jacuzzi is $8. Armpit waxing is $7. Eyebrow shaping is $6. And yoga classes are $4.

With its Scandinavian skin products and Arctic berry facials, Fig is part of a wider social scene catering primarily to the aid workers, profiteers, diplomats, military contractors, foreign journalists and expatriate adventurers living in the Afghan capital.

Because expat life in the Afghan capital sometimes seems far removed from the volatile war that has consumed vast swaths of the country, some people call it “the Kabubble.”

Tuesday nights are set aside for ballroom dancing lessons. Until recently, the United Nations guest house held salsa classes on Wednesday nights. The Norwegian embassy offers its own yoga classes. A former demining training ground on the outskirts of Kabul has been transformed into a scruffy 9-hole golf course. And, for $200-a-month, members of the Kabul Health Club can sip freshly made smoothies from a juice bar while working out in a 24 hour fitness workout room.

“Here it truly is a bubble,” said Abdul Farani, owner of the Kabul Health Club. “It’s truly an oasis.”

For most Afghans living in one of the world’s poorest countries, life in the “Kabubble” is a guarded mystery. The thought of spending $200-a-month for a club membership is out of the question for most Afghans, who earn an average of $800 a year.

One spa treatment at Fig would be a month’s salary for most Afghans in a country with a 35 percent unemployment rate, a pervasive culture of state-sanctioned corruption and constant dangers posed by the war with the Taliban.

At one time, the Kabul Health Club compound was home to a notorious restaurant run by a former British special forces commando turned security company executive who was gunned down in 2007 by robbers as he drove through Kabul.

Farani and his partners spared little expense in transforming the shuttered restaurant into a trendy health club that opened four months ago.

The club masseuse came from the Seychelles. The skin creams are imported from a popular Parisian cosmetics shop. The soccer field grass in the garden was imported from Holland. And the head of the hair salon spent years working in Dubai’s signature seven star sail-shaped hotel.

“I believe in the value of a peaceful environment,” Farani said while sitting in the club garden wearing Prada glasses and Diesel jeans. “We can rise to the levels of angels or sink to the level of devils and what’s different is the environment.”

Entrepreneurs like Farani who cater to “Kabubble” residents face a series of challenges.

Security threats often prevent people from leaving their barricaded compounds to get to yoga class or the gym. Some Afghans suspect that the spas are covert brothels, a perception that can make them a target for Taliban attacks.

Fig and the Kabul Health Club, like many businesses catering to Westerners and the Afghan elite, are hidden behind indistinguishable blast walls with no indication of what’s inside.

“Afghans are really narrow-minded,” said Farani, who fled Afghanistan with his family in 1979 and grew up in England.

Amid a climate of severe sexual repression, said Farani, “they feel threatened and wary of new concepts and new ways of doing things.”

Only a handful of Kabul restaurants serve alcohol, and their right to do so is always in question. Afghan law prevents the sale of alcohol to Muslims.

The small number of places that serve alcohol usually rely on a vague letter from the country’s cultural ministry that calls on restaurants to follow the law, uphold moral standards and not allow Afghans to drink.

It doesn’t give them explicit permission to run a bar, but it does give owners enough wiggle room to serve alcohol to expats.

To enforce the rules, upscale capital restaurants ban most Afghans from coming inside.

“There are other places they can go that don’t sell alcohol,” said Fayez Hamdard, manager of the Gandamack Lodge, one of the more popular expat hang-outs in Kabul that bars most Afghans from coming inside at night. “There are only eight or nine places that serve alcohol.”

The “no Afghan” rules create an awkward social segregation where most Afghans — save for the nation’s elite — are prevented from going to the more posh restaurants in their own capital.

The segregation feeds divisions between expats and Afghans and fuels resentment among average Afghans toward the nation’s power brokers who are granted privileged access to eat and drink at the off-limits establishments.

Afghans have developed a derogatory term for refugees who have returned to positions of power in Afghanistan: Sag shouey — “dog washer.”

The Afghan slur is based on a story — which may be urban legend — about a one-time pet store owner in the U.S. who became a senior advisor in the interim Afghan government after 2001.

Aman Mojadidi, an Afghan-American artist originally from Florida, criticized Afghan expats who view the multi-billion dollar reconstruction effort as a chance to get rich.

“Many internationals, Afghans and Afghan expats alike, have come to perceive of the reconstruction effort no longer as a means to an end, but rather as the end in and of itself, resembling a free-for-all, a country where everyone is out to get what they can before the foreign armies and international organizations begin to pull back and the country begins its rapid descent from atop the mountain of aid money that has sustained it for so many years,” he wrote in a recently published essay, “The Era of the Well-Intentioned Dog Washers.”

A., the Afghan-born Fig club owner, thinks the expats are here to stay.

“I don’t believe they would leave Afghanistan because nobody can afford to leave Afghanistan as it was in the 1990s,” when civil war engulfed the nation, said A. “I am quite optimistic that they will remain here for a long time.”

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YouTube – Invictus With Vuvuzela Horns

YouTube – Invictus With Vuvuzela Horns

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… this speaks for itself.

YouTube – Hebron / Soldier’s ballett on Ke$ha’s Tik Tok song

…. But, for some context (via Juan Cole’s Informed Comment):

Posted on July 7, 2010 by Juan

Israeli troops dance to Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok.”:

… The piece begins with the Muslim call to prayer in al-Khalil, a Palestinian city in the Palestinian West Bank, which Israelis call Hebron. Some 30,000 Palestinians are being kept in an urban prison for the sake of 600 far-right armed Jewish colonists who have squatted on Palestinian property in the city. Al-Khalil (“Hebron”), like the 2.5 million Palestinian residents of the West Bank, has been militarily occupied by Israel since 1967. Israeli squatters have stolen private Palestinian land and control 42% of the West Bank, according to B’Tselem. It is illegal in international law for Occupying powers to transfer their own populations into occupied territories or for them to usurp property from the occupied.

The video depicts Hebron as mired in tradition and virtually empty, which mirrors the Israeli Orientalist view of Palestinians more generally. The soldiers are depicted as playful, fun-loving and hyper-modern, gyrating to the music of the most recent blonde valley-girl top 40 phenomenon.

In fact, militarily occupying other people is a sign of backward, 19th-century-style imperialist ideology. The 600 Israeli colonists these troops are supporting include people far more fundamentalist and mired in tradition than most Palestinians.


Israeli settlers, Al-Khalil/Hebron

And struggling for local independence versus globalizing oppression, whether it is BP destroying the Gulf of Mexico, coal companies causing global warming and destroying human habitat, or neo-imperial schemes to steal local resources on the part of global bullies, is actually the avant-garde of the 21st century.


Palestinian youth dancing to Shakira at the Cosmos dance club in the West Bank Courtesy McClatchy

Here is a video of the more usual activities of the Israeli army in al-Khalil:

“On Feb. 25, 2010, Palestinian and international activists held a march in Hebron/Al Khalil to demand the opening of Shuhada Street, open to Israelis but closed to Palestinians for the last ten years. Marchers attempted to walk onto Shuhada Street, once a primary street for Palestinian business and markets, but Israeli military prevented them from entering. The man detained in this clip was released late that evening.”

And here is a B’tselem video of what life is like for al-Khalil residents trapped among aggressive Israeli squatters determined to drive them out:

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How Muhammad created Europe?

A fun post from the personal blog of Andreas Kluth, a real-live 10-year veteran of The Economist (yes, these people actually exist):


Historians are still arguing about why and how (and even when) the Roman Empire fell — and by extension why, how and when the “Middle Ages” and “Europe” (ie, northwestern Europe as we understand it) began.

Here, for example, is Man of Roma‘s take on the subject – as ever charming, amusing and fun.

One theory is that the answer is to be found, somewhat surprisingly, not in northwestern Europe but on the opposite side of the former Roman Empire. This story-line involves Muhammad, Islam and the Arab conquests in the century after Muhammad’s death in 632. The stages of those conquests you see in the map above.

In this post, I want to introduce that thesis to you and the one it tried to replace.

I do this not in order to endorse either thesis, but in order to celebrate the elegant and imaginative beauty of the thought processes of the two historians who produced them.

These two thinkers are

  • Edward Gibbon and
  • Henri Pirenne,

and I am hereby including them into my pantheon of the world’s greatest thinkers.

(Which reminds me: Scientists and philosophers are currently over-represented on my list, so I am also retroactively including the historians Herodotus, Polybius, Livy and Plutarch. Thucydides is already on the list.)

And at the end of the post, I’ll ponder what this eternal debate about Rome tells us about intellectual theorizing in general.

My source, besides the books of Gibbon and Pirenne, is Philip Daileader’s excellent lecture series on the Early Middle Ages.

I) Edward Gibbon

Edward Gibbon

Gibbon was a typical specimen of the Enlightenment. He hung out with Voltaire, considered religion (and especially Christianity) a load of superstitious poppycock, trusted in human reason and was enamored by the classics.

Being a man of independent means, he was able to devote all his time and energies to investigating what he considered the great mystery of antiquity. Why did the Roman Empire fall?

The result was an epic work of beautifully written English prose called The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The first of its six volumes came out in the year of America’s Declaration of Independence.

The book was so powerful that its thesis turned into what we would call a meme. Ask any semi-literate person today why the Roman Empire fell and he is likely to answer something like this:

Barbarians invaded → Rome fell

Gibbon’s thesis in more detail

Charlemagne

In brief, Gibbon believed that the Roman Empire was

  1. in part a victim of its own success, having prospered so much that its citizens had become soft, and
  2. in part a victim of Christianization, which replaced the pagan warrior ethic with an unbecoming concern for the hereafter.

As Gibbon famously said, Rome’s

last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister.

This corrosion of morals or values, according to Gibbon, left the Western Roman Empire (Diocletian had divided it into two halves, east and west, for administrative purposes) vulnerable to the blonde hordes from the north.

And thus, federations of Germanic tribes crossed the Rhine and Danube and ransacked the Roman Empire, eventually sacking Rome itself and deposing the last (Western) Roman emperor in 476.

The Ostrogoths and Lombards took Italy, the Visigoths took Spain and the Franks took Gaul (→ Francia, France).

Within a few generations, one Frankish family, the Carolingians, seized power. Under Charlemagne (= Carolus Magnus, Karl der Grosse, Charles the Great), the Carolingians then united much of western Europe, an area that happens to overlap almost perfectly with the founding members of the European Union.

In the nice round year of 800, Charlemagne, the king of Francia, became a new Emperor. He sparked a small cultural and economic recovery (the “Carolingian Renaissance”), but his descendants bickered about inheritance, and the Carolingian empire split into what would become France, the Low Countries and Germany.

And there we have it: “Europe”.

II) Henri Pirenne

Henri Pirenne

Like Gibbon, Henri Pirenne was a man of his time. But that time was the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Historians now felt that “moral” explanations of history were a bit woolly and preferred to think in terms of impersonal, and primarily economic, forces rather than great individuals or events.

And this led Pirenne, a Belgian (and thus a Carolingian heir), to a very different, and extremely original, thesis. The title of his monumental book, Mohammed and Charlemagne, essentially says it all.

The Pirenne thesis begins with a view that, first of all, nothing noteworthy “fell” in 476. Who cares if an emperor named, ironically and aptly, “little Augustus” (Romulus Augustulus) was deposed in that year? Roman civilization went on exactly as before. To most Europeans, nothing whatsoever changed.

That civilization was

  1. urban
  2. Mediterranean and
  3. Latin in the West

The Germanic tribes in fact came not to destroy but to join this civilization. They had entered the Roman Empire long before 476 to live there in peace, but were forced repeatedly to move and fight. When they eventually deposed the Romans, the Barbarians settled in the Roman cities and gradually adopted Latin (which was by this time, and partially as a result, branching into dialects that would become Catalan, Spanish, French etc).

Most importantly, the Mediterranean (medius = middle, terra = land) remained the center of this world, and trade across its waters enriched and fed all shores, north and south, east and west.

So what changed?

What changed was that Muhammad founded Islam, united the Arabs and then died. Suddenly, the Arabs poured out of the desert and conquered everything they encountered.

Look again at the map at the very top. In effect, the Arabs conquered the entire southern arc of the former Roman Empire until Charles Martel (Charlemagne’s grandfather) stopped them near Poitiers in France.

The Arabs thus split the Mediterranean in two. Suddenly, the “Mediterranean” was no longer the center of the world, but a dividing line between two worlds.

Ingeniously, Pirenne then inferred the rest of his thesis from archaeological finds: In the years after the Arab conquests, papyrus (from Egypt) disappeared from northwestern Europe, forcing the northerners to write on animal hides. Locally minted coins disappeared, too. Gone, in fact, was everything that was traded as opposed to produced locally.

The Arabs, Pirenne concluded, had blockaded and cut off northern Europe from the rest of the world. Europe thus became a poor, benighted and involuntarily autarkic  backwater.

This, finally, amounts to the “fall” of Roman civilization in northwestern Europe. Roman cities, administration and customs disintegrated. Europe becomes a small and isolated corner of the world.

It is within this then-forgettable corner that the Carolingians rise and create “Europe”. As Pirenne famously said:

Without Islam, the Frankish Empire would have probably never existed, and Charlemagne, without Muhammad, would be inconceivable.

III) So who was right?

I promised to ponder what this debate might say about intellectual theorizing in general. Well, here goes:

1) Nobody needs to be wrong

As it happens, neither Gibbon nor Pirenne have ever fallen out of favor. Both are still considered to have got much of their interpretation right. The caveat is merely that their theses are considered … incomplete.

We encountered such a situation when talking about Newton and Einstein. Einstein in effect proved Newton “wrong”, and yet we have never discarded Newton, just as we won’t discard Einstein when somebody shows his thinking to have been incomplete.

2) Progress = making something less incomplete

Although both Gibbon’s and Pirenne’s theses were incomplete, they add up to an understanding that is less incomplete, so that others can make it even less incomplete.

This, in fact, is what has been happening. Subsequent historians have wondered why, if their theories were true in the West, the Eastern Roman (ie, Byzantine) Empire did not fall for another millennium.

Regarding Gibbon: The East, too, faced Barbarian invasions (from the same tribes). And the East was even more Christian than the West. So something must be missing in Gibbon’s explanation.

Regarding Pirenne: The East, too, was cut off from the south by the Arab conquests (though perhaps not as much).

IV) One possible omission: depopulation

So, even though both Gibbon and Pirenne, may well have been right, that there had to be at least one more factor: disease.

Perhaps it was smallpox arriving from China, and later plague. Perhaps it was something else. (The theory of massive lead poisoning is now discredited. Again: They had lead pipes in the East and the West.)

Whatever the disease(s), the population of the Roman Empire collapsed. And the West, which had fewer people than the East to begin with, became largely empty.

Its cities were deserted. Rome’s population was 1 million during the reign of Augustus but 20,000 by the time of Charlemagne. People used the Roman baths of northern cities as caves. New city walls were built with smaller circumferences than older city walls.

Fields and land lay fallow, too. We know this because taxes were levied on land (not labor), and tax revenues fell due to agri deserti, “abandoned fields”.

Viewed this way, both the Germanic invasions that Gibbon focussed on and the Arab invasions that Pirenne focussed on were perhaps not a cause but a symptom of the fall of Rome. It seems likely that the Germans and Arabs showed up because there were few people blocking their way, and conquered for that same reason.

If we ever find out the complete answer, it will be because Gibbon and Pirenne pointed us in the right direction.

<Sigh> … If only i could write as well as Kluth, not only would i be finished my comprehensive exams, i might even have an honest-to-goodness career path ahead. The stuff dreams are made of.

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Homo analogicus interconnectivus

As i’m toiling away on my first comprehensive exam paper, i thought i’d document my current, perhaps rather muddled, thinking. Lately, when not procrastinating, i’m working on synthesizing the literature on mental models, conceptual metaphor and cognitive anthropology to develop a new (“folk”) model of human cognition–homo (analogicus) interconnectivus –that can be applied to analyzing social-ecological (amongst other) systems.

Without giving too much away (i.e. boring you, the imaginary reader), the core idea here is that humans tend to reason analogically, meaning they make sense of new information largely in terms of past experience. Whenever we’re confronted with some sort of ill-defined conceptual domain (e.g. love), we tend to draw on more familiar, concrete domains (e.g. journey, partnership, attachment) to discuss, think and make inferences about that new domain. And underlying that tendency toward analogical (or ‘case-based’) reasoning lies a pretty simple principle of relative association or, put another way, qualified interconnectivity. (Haven’t really settled on one or the other yet. None is perfect.) Anyway, this is the idea that each object of cognition or memory, be it a word, a taste, an emotion, an image, etc., shares ‘tags’ (in a metaphorical sense) with other objects. What matters for the purposes of cognition and inference is the strength and quality, or nature, of the connection between a given object and  other objects, which we could imagine as a function of tag-similarity, or tag-closeness, etc. This means that objects of cognition exist in a sort of ‘cloud’ of relative interconnectivity with other objects in our minds, which pre-disposes us to making certain inferences, and not others, when confronted with something new.

It likely sounds complex, but that’s just because i’m not explaining it well at all. It’s actually very, very simple, and provides a pretty good shared base for generating (and validating) other constructs related to how humans reason and act in response to their environment (e.g. schemas, scripts, prototypes…). I’m sure someone else has said this before, using much better language. In any case, the task i’ve set for myself in this case is showing how mental models, conceptual metaphor and model-based reasoning all overlap on this core principle, and what sorts of pragmatic utility such a lens affords us when analyzing complex systems.

Below are some of the tag clouds i’m thinking of using as part of a figure in one of my sections. They’re created using Wordle, a fun little online app.

Wordle: analogyWordle: cognition

Wordle: interconnectivityWordle:  culture

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