New Year’s Day History, Tradition and Custom

This is a reprise and an amplification of a New Year’s Day post from FmH in years past:

Years ago, the Boston Globe ran a January 1st article compiling folkloric beliefs about what to do, what to eat, etc. on New Year’s Day to bring good fortune for the year to come. I’ve regretted since — I usually think of it around once a year (grin) — not clipping out and saving the article. Especially since we’ve had children, I’m interested in enduring traditions that go beyond getting drunk [although some comment that this is a profound enactment of the interdigitation of chaos and order appropriate to the New Year’s celebration — FmH], watching the bowl games and making resolutions.

A web search brought me this, less elaborate than what I recall from the Globe but to the same point. It is weighted toward eating traditions, which is odd because, unlike most other major holidays, the celebration of New Year’s in 21st century America does not seem to be centered at all around thinking about what we eat (except in the sense of the traditional weight-loss resolutions!) and certainly not around a festive meal. But…

//' cannot be displayed]“Traditionally, it was thought that one could affect the luck they would have throughout the coming year by what they did or ate on the first day of the year. For that reason, it has become common for folks to celebrate the first few minutes of a brand new year in the company of family and friends. Parties often last into the middle of the night after the ringing in of a new year. It was once believed that the first visitor on New Year’s Day would bring either good luck or bad luck the rest of the year. It was particularly lucky if that visitor happened to be a tall dark-haired man.

“Traditional New Year foods are also thought to bring luck. Many cultures believe that anything in the shape of a ring is good luck, because it symbolizes “coming full circle,” completing a year’s cycle. For that reason, the Dutch believe that eating donuts on New Year’s Day will bring good fortune.

“Many parts of the U.S. celebrate the new year by consuming black-eyed peas. These legumes are typically accompanied by either hog jowls or ham. Black-eyed peas and other legumes have been considered good luck in many cultures. The hog, and thus its meat, is considered lucky because it symbolizes prosperity. Cabbage is another ‘good luck’ vegetable that is consumed on New Year’s Day by many. Cabbage leaves are also considered a sign of prosperity, being representative of paper currency. In some regions, rice is a lucky food that is eaten on New Year’s Day.”

The further north one travels in the British Isles, the more the year-end festivities focus on New Year’s. The Scottish observance of Hogmanay has many elements of warming heart and hearth, welcoming strangers and making a good beginning:

“Three cornered biscuits called hogmanays are eaten. Other special foods are: wine, ginger cordial, cheese, bread, shortbread, oatcake, carol or carl cake, currant loaf, and a pastry called scones. After sunset people collect juniper and water to purify the home. Divining rituals are done according to the directions of the winds, which are assigned their own colors. First Footing:The first person who comes to the door on midnight New Year’s Eve should be a dark-haired or dark-complected man with gifts for luck. Seeing a cat, dog, woman, red-head or beggar is unlucky. The person brings a gift (handsel) of coal or whiskey to ensure prosperity in the New Year. Mummer’s Plays are also performed. The actors called the White Boys of Yule are all dressed in white, except for one dressed as the devil in black. It is bad luck to engage in marriage proposals, break glass, spin flax, sweep or carry out rubbish on New Year’s Eve.”

Here’s why we clink our glasses when we drink our New Year’s toasts, no matter where we are. Of course, sometimes the midnight cacophony is louder than just clinking glassware, to create a ‘devil-chasing din’.

In Georgia, eat black eyed peas and turnip greens on New Year’s Day for luck and prosperity in the year to come, supposedly because they symbolize coppers and currency. Hoppin’ John, a concoction of peas, onion, bacon and rice, is also a southern New Year’s tradition, as is wearing yellow to find true love (in Peru, yellow underwear, apparently!) or carrying silver for prosperity. In some instances, a dollar bill is thrown in with the other ingredients of the New Year’s meal to bring prosperity. In Greece, there is a traditional New Year’s Day sweetbread with a silver coin baked into it. All guests get a slice of the bread and whoever receives the slice with the coin is destined for good fortune for the year. At Italian tables, lentils, oranges and olives are served. The lentils, looking like coins, will bring prosperity; the oranges are for love; and the olives, symbolic of the wealth of the land, represent good fortune for the year to come.

A New Year’s meal in Norway also includes dried cod, “lutefisk.” The Pennsylvania Dutch make sure to include sauerkraut in their holiday meal, also for prosperity.

In Spain, you would cram twelve grapes in your mouth at midnight, one each time the clock chimed, for good luck for the twelve months to come. The U. S. version of this custom, for some reason, involves standing on a chair as you pop the grapes. In Denmark, jumping off a chair at the stroke of midnight signifies leaping into the New Year. In Rio, you would be plunging into the sea en masse at midnight, wearing white and bearing offerings.

In China, papercuttings of red paper are hung in the windows to scare away evil spirits who might enter the house and bring misfortune. In Thailand, one pours fragrant water over the hands of elders on New Year’s Day to show them respect.

Elsewhere: pancakes for the New Year’s breakfast in France; banging on friends’ doors in Denmark to “smash in” the New Year; going in the front door and out the back door at midnight in Ireland; making sure the first person through your door in the New Year in Scotland is a tall dark haired visitor. Water out the window at midnight in Puerto Rico rids the home of evil spirits. Cleanse your soul in Japan at the New Year by listening to a gong tolling 108 times, one for every sin. It is Swiss good luck to let a drop of cream fall on the floor on New Year’s Day.

Some history; documentation of observance of the new year dates back at least 4000 years to the Babylonians, who also made the first new year’s resolutions (reportedly voews to return borrowed farm equipment were very popular), although their holiday was observed at the vernal equinox. The Babylonian festivities lasted eleven days, each day with its own particular mode of celebration. The traditional Persian Norouz festival of spring continues to be considered the advent of the new year among Persians, Kurds and other peoples throughout Central Asia, and dates back at least 3000 years, deeply rooted in Zooastrian traditions.Modern Bahá’í’s celebrate Norouz (“Naw Ruz”) as the end of a Nineteen Day Fast. Rosh Hashanah (“head of the year”), the Jewish New Year, the first day of the lunar month of Tishri, falls between September and early October. Muslim New Year is the first day of Muharram, and Chinese New Year falls between Jan. 10th and Feb. 19th of the Gregorian calendar.

The classical Roman New Year’s celebration was also in the spring although the calendar went out of synchrony with the sun. January 1st became the first day of the year by proclamation of the Roman Senate in 153 BC, reinforced even more strongly when Julius Caesar established what came to be known as the Julian calendar in 46 BC. The early Christian Church condemned new year’s festivities as pagan but created parallel festivities concurrently. New Year’s Day is still observed as the Feast of Christ’s Circumcision in some denominations. Church opposition to a new year’s observance reasserted itself during the Middle Ages, and Western nations have only celebrated January 1 as a holidy for about the last 400 years. The custom of New Year’s gift exchange among Druidic pagans in 7th century Flanders was deplored by Saint Eligius, who warned them, “[Do not] make vetulas, [little figures of the Old Woman], little deer or iotticos or set tables [for the house-elf] at night or exchange New Year gifts or supply superfluous drinks [another Yule custom].” (Wikipedia)

The tradition of the New Year’s Baby signifying the new year began with the Greek tradition of parading a baby in a basket during the Dionysian rites celebrating the annual rebirth of that god as a symbol of fertility. The baby was also a symbol of rebirth among early Egyptians. Again, the Church was forced to modify its denunciation of the practice as pagan because of the popularity of the rebirth symbolism, finally allowing its members to cellebrate the new year with a baby although assimilating it to a celebration of the birth of the baby Jesus. The addition of Father Time (the “Old Year”) wearing a sash across his chest withthe previous year on it, and the banner carried or worn by the New Year’s Baby, immigrated from Germany. Interestingly, January 1st is not a legal holiday in Israel, officially because of its historic origins as a Christian feast day.

Auld Lang Syne (literally ‘old long ago’ in the Scottish dialect) is sung or played at the stroke of midnight throughout the English-speaking world (although I prefer George Harrison’s “Ring Out the Old”). Versions of the song have been part of the New Year’s festivities since the 17th century but Robert Burns was inspired to compose a modern rendition, which was published after his death in 1796.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
and days of auld lang syne?
For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
and days of auld lang syne?
And here’s a hand, my trusty friend
And gie’s a hand o’ thine
We’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet
For auld lang syne

However you’re going to celebrate, my warmest wishes for the year to come… and eat hearty! [thanks to Bruce Umbaugh for research assistance]

What We Believe But Cannot Prove

I have already long since blinked to this collection of essays from modern thinkers convened by John Brockman at The Edge website. It serves as an antidote to blind dogma in that the essays thoughtfully dissect the ways in which belief is different than certainty and the implications of sustaining it under conditions of uncertainty. Thank you, John Brockman, for that. Now it is a book.

Distorted Tunes Test

Ever wondered if you are tone-deaf? The Distorted Tunes Test can help you ascertain, by seeing if you can distinguish tunes that are played off-key from those rendered correctly. (National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders)


Unravelling the Myths of the Suicide Bomber, according to inveterate skeptic Michael Shermer:

“Police have an expression for people who put themselves into circumstances that force officers to shoot them: “suicide by cop.” Following this lingo, suicide bombers commit “suicide by murder,” so I propose we call such acts “murdercide”: the killing of a human or humans with malice aforethought by means of self-murder.

The reason we need semantic precision is that suicide has drawn the attention of scientists, who understand it to be the product of two conditions quite unrelated to murdercide: ineffectiveness and disconnectedness. According to Florida State University psychologist Thomas Joiner, in his remarkably revealing scientific treatise Why People Die by Suicide (Harvard University Press, 2006): “People desire death when two fundamental needs are frustrated to the point of extinction; namely, the need to belong with or connect to others, and the need to feel effective with or to influence others.”” (Scientific American )

Language affects ‘half of vision’

“University of California researchers tested the hypothesis that language plays a role in perception by carrying out a series of colour tests.

They found that people were able to identify colours faster in their right visual field than in their left.

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study said it was because the right field is processed in the brain area responsible for language.” (BBC)

This is construed as an empirical test of the controversial and, in its strongest form, discredited Whorf hypothesis, which suggests that the structure and lexicon of a peroson’s native language shapes the perception and understanding of the world. It is more reasonable that linguistic underpinnings make certain concepts or percepts more or less easily grasped. And divergent worldviews and models occur far more readily from influences other than linguistic differences, between people reared with nominally the same native tongue.

It strikes me that this research has some bearing on the ‘fringy’ psychological technic called neurolinguistic programming (Wikipedia ) proposed in the ’70’s by Richard Bandler and John Grinder, which attempts to match communication to the perceptual style, cerebral dominance characteristics, etc. of listeners for maximum receptivity. Although it was heavily colored by New Age pap about ‘unlimited potential’ and the like and billed as a set of strategies for ‘therapeutic magic’. Eventually deprecated as a serious psychotherapeutic tool, it has continued to intrigue (and draw customers) in fields like business management, sales, coaching and seduction (!). NLP claims have been roundly criticized for being unsupported by empirical evidence, yet apart from the pop-science trappings and the reductionist popularization, I have always suspected that Bandler and Grinder had touched on more than a grain of truth.

Funny, what the Wikipedia article does not touch upon is the debt that NLP owed to ‘Ericksonian hypnosis,’ a far more psychologically credible but obscure set of therapeutic techniques developed by psychologist Milton Erickson (1901-80). He operationalized the belief, which I share, that the psychotherapy session is a sort of entry into a joint trance state. Usually, the therapist is not aware of that aspect of the psychotherapy encounter, but Erickson said it could be recognized and explicitly, although subliminally, used in therapeutically powerful ways.

Happy Birthday, Paul Bowles (1910-1999)

“… we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”

Celebratory gun firing

Good idea or not? “I must live in a relatively shielded environment because I thought firing guns up the air to celebrate something wasn’t really a common practice outside of, say, Baghdad or Beirut. Turns out I was wrong. There is apparently a long standing tradition among some regarding what the police call “celebratory firing.”

How dangerous is the practice of celebratory firing?” (Notes from the Technology Underground via boing boing)

the 2005 ‘Dubious Data’ Awards

“America’s so-called methamphetamine epidemic was the worst example of media stressing shock over substance in 2005 science journalism, according to the annual “Dubious Data Awards,” issued by the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS) at George Mason University.

STATS is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization dedicated to improving public understanding of science and statistics . Each December STATS issues a list of scientific studies that were mishandled by the media during the preceding year. This year’s “Dubious Data Awards” detailing the worst examples of shoddy science reporting go to… [more]”

New Scientist’s top 10 news stories of 2005

“These stories were the ones you clicked on the most – a stimulating mix of mystery, brain work, climate change, weaponry and sex.

1. 13 things that do not make sense
2. Pentagon reveals rejected chemical weapons
3. 11 steps to a better brain
4. US military sets laser PHASRs to stun
5. Details of US microwave-weapon tests revealed
6. Failing ocean current raises fears of mini ice age
7. Antarctic ice sheet is an ‘awakened giant’
8. Bionic suit offers wearers super-strength
9. Out-of-this-world sex could jeopardise missions
10. Centrifugal weapon could deliver stealth firepower

Top Ten Myths about Iraq in 2005

Juan Cole: “Iraq has unfortunately become a football in the rough and ready, two-party American political arena, generating large numbers of sound bites and so much spin you could clothe all of China in the resulting threads.

Here are what I think are the top ten myths about Iraq, that one sees in print or on television in the United States.” (Informed Comment )

What is science? First, magnetise your wine…

The ‘Bad Science’ column at The Guardian does the obvious. “We take a claim, and we pull it apart to extract a clear scientific hypothesis, like “homeopathy makes people better faster than placebo” or “the Chemsol lab correctly identifies MRSA”; then we examine the experimental evidence for that hypothesis…” Not shockingly, it finds there is no evidence for claims that magnetizing your wine “‘ages’ it in only 45 minutes!”

Wealth From Worship?

Is going to church more than its own reward? “Jonathan Gruber, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, claims that regular religious participation leads to better education, higher income and a lower chance of divorce. His results (based on data covering non-Hispanic white Americans of several Christian denominations, other faiths and none) imply that doubling church attendance raises someone’s income by almost 10%.”(The Economist )

The researcher, one of the first to investigate quantitatively the relationship between religion and income, claims he has addressed the obvious fallacy of disentangling causation from correlation; I am not convinced. His argument relies on sociological data on the ethnic mix of neighborhoods and congregations and hinges on excluding “ethnic density” (ghettoization, in other words), since the ghetto has a negative impact on your income, to measure the supposedly independent effect of the density of “co-religionists”. defined as “the proportion of the population that shares your religion but not your race.” He finds that living near different ethnic groups of the same religion correlates with higher income and — here’s where his argument doesn’t hold water — that the result cannot be mediated through any other civic activity than the influence it has on churchgoing. But the finagling he has done means precisely that churchgoing is not the independent variable he makes it out to be. Living closer to ethnically diverse co-religionists correlates with socioeconomic differences for a host of reasons apart from frequency of attending church.

How the read/write web was lost

“Tim Berners-Lee (TBL), in his first blog post, reminds us of a very important bit of web history. He writes: ‘The first browser was actually a browser/editor, which allowed one to edit any page, and save it back to the web…’ TBL might also have noted that the Enquire program that he wrote in 1980 (10 years before the WWW) supported an edit mode.

The idea of a read/write web had been motivating the work of many hypertext developers like TBL long before the web was born. But, the last 10 years experience with the largely ‘read-only’ web has caused many people to forget that the original idea was to create a writeable, creative space — not just a network of things to be read. Fortunately, the growth of blogging is finally causing the renaissance of the read/write web. What we don’t understand, I think, is how the original idea of the read/write web could have been ‘lost'” — Bob Wyman (As I May Think…)

The Hidden State Steps Forward

Jonathan Schell writes in The Nation: “Bush’s choice marks a watershed in the evolution of his Administration. Previously when it was caught engaging in disgraceful, illegal or merely mistaken or incompetent behavior, he would simply deny it. ‘We have found the weapons of mass destruction!’ ‘We do not torture!’ However, further developments in the torture matter revealed a shift. Even as he denied the existence of torture, he and his officials began to defend his right to order it. His Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, refused at his confirmation hearings to state that the torture called waterboarding, in which someone is brought to the edge of drowning, was prohibited. Then when Senator John McCain sponsored a bill prohibiting cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners, Bush threatened to veto the legislation to which it was attached. It was only in the face of majority votes in both houses against such treatment that he retreated from his claim.

But in the wiretapping matter, he has so far exhibited no such vacillation. Secret law-breaking has been supplanted by brazen law-breaking. The difference is critical. If abuses of power are kept secret, there is still the possibility that, when exposed, they will be stopped. But if they are exposed and still permitted to continue, then every remedy has failed, and the abuse is permanently ratified. In this case, what will be ratified is a presidency that has risen above the law.

(Emphasis added — FmH)


Checks and No Balances

Sydney Schanberg writes in the Village Voice: “Some Bush supporters have attacked the Times for running the piece. On the other hand, some journalists have attacked theTimes for holding it for a year. From where I stand (I’m a Times alumnus), the paper should get credit for digging it out and publishing it. But whatever one’s journalistic point of view, the Times’ decision-making is not the central story here. The president’s secret directive is.”

Agatha Christie’s grey cells mystery

“The mystery behind Agatha Christie’s enduring popularity may have been solved by three leading universities collaborating on a study of more than 80 of her crime novels.

Despite her worldwide sales of two billion, critics such as the crime writer P D James pan her writing style and “cardboard cut-out” characters. But the study by neuro-linguists at the universities of London, Birmingham and Warwick shows that she peppered her prose with phrases that act as a trigger to raise levels of serotonin and endorphins, the chemical messengers in the brain that induce pleasure and satisfaction.” – (Sunday Times of London)

Impeachment isn’t just a good idea; it’s the law

“Many people are asking why the administration chose to break the law in an arena where following it has been made very easy. The secret court administering government activities undertaken in compliance with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) is extraordinarily obliging: according to the annual FISA reports filed by the Justice Department, the court received 18,749 requests for authorization of physical searches, electronic surveillance or some combination of the two between January of 1979, when the law took effect, and December 31 of 2004, the end of the most recent reporting period (the 2005 report will be available in March or April of next year). Of those, the court has rejected a total of four requests, or roughly .o2%; in at least one instance, the court actually authorized activities the government hadn’t requested.

…One has to wonder what was in those four applications that were denied, and in several others that were withdrawn from consideration before the court could rule on them. Regardless, the four slaps in the Bush administration’s collective face amounted to about .07% of the more than 5,600 applications submitted between 2001-2004; not a bad success rate although not, apparently, good enough to satisfy this collection of steroidal scofflaws. But why?

Three possible explanations come to mind, singly or in combination. One is that the surveillance is on a scale that makes applying for court approval impractical… The second is that the administration are allergic to oversight of even the mildest sort… The third is that the administration is a collection of thugs who are using the NSA’s eavesdropping capacity for political purposes, spying on people no court in the universe would sanction as targets… ” (BTC News)

Guerrilla Marketing Campaign

“What I’m proposing is this: Go into your word processors right now, and type out the word “IMPEACH.” Go ahead, use caps. Center it. Bold it. Make it 72 point. Turn the page to landscape if you like, and make it bigger.

You’ve got a sign. Print it out. Xerox it. Put it up on a lamp post. On a supermarket bulletin board. Inside a newspaper vending machine. Anywhere.

You’ve joined the movement.

How does it feel? Want more? Would you be willing to spend a little money on it?

Pick up a pack of Avery labels down at the office supply store. Print out a page worth of stickers that say the same thing. IMPEACH.

Not impeach Bush. Not impeach Cheney. Not Chimpeach. Just IMPEACH.(Liberal Street Fighter via Medley)

Upcoming is “a collaborative event calendar, completely driven by people like you. Enter in the events you’re attending, comment on events entered by others, and syndicate event listings to your own weblog.

As learns more about the events you enjoy, it will suggest new events you never would have heard about.”

Created by Waxy, Upcoming is now a part of Yahoo!

Munich mastermind spurns Spielberg’s peace appeal

“The Palestinian mastermind of the Munich Olympics attack in which 11 Israeli athletes died said on Tuesday he had no regrets and that

Steven Spielberg’s new film about the incident would not deliver reconciliation

The Hollywood director has called Munich, which dramatises the 1972 raid and Israel’s reprisals against members of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), his ‘prayer for peace.’

Mohammed Daoud planned the Munich attack on behalf of PLO splinter group Black September, but did not take part and does not feature in the film. He voiced outrage at not being consulted for the thriller and accused Spielberg of pandering to the Jewish state.” (Yahoo! News)

Antidepressants May Spur Brain Cell Growth: Study

“‘It appears that SSRI antidepressants rewire areas of the brain that are important for thinking and feeling, as well as operating the autonomic nervous system…” — study leader and neuropathologist Dr. Vassilis E. Koliatsos (Yahoo News!). This finding supports new thinking over the last few years, backed by imaging studies, that major depressive disorder is not just a “chemical imbalance” disease (i.e. the classical theory of neurotransmitter imbalance in brain serotonin and/or norepinephrine, the original notion of what it is that antidepressant medications correct). We now think that persistent depression may actually involve neurodegenerative brain changes — and that prompt treatment and sustained remission is neuroprotective.

Testing Einstein’s Strangest Theory

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“This fall scientists announced that they had put a half dozen beryllium atoms into a ‘cat state.’

No, they were not sprawled along a sunny windowsill. To a physicist, a ‘cat state’ is the condition of being two diametrically opposed conditions at once, like black and white, up and down, or dead and alive.

These atoms were each spinning clockwise and counterclockwise at the same time. Moreover, like miniature Rockettes they were all doing whatever it was they were doing together, in perfect synchrony. Should one of them realize, like the cartoon character who runs off a cliff and doesn’t fall until he looks down, that it is in a metaphysically untenable situation and decide to spin only one way, the rest would instantly fall in line, whether they were across a test tube or across the galaxy.

The idea that measuring the properties of one particle could instantaneously change the properties of another one (or a whole bunch) far away is strange to say the least – almost as strange as the notion of particles spinning in two directions at once. The team that pulled off the beryllium feat, led by Dietrich Leibfried at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, in Boulder, Colo., hailed it as another step toward computers that would use quantum magic to perform calculations.

But it also served as another demonstration of how weird the world really is according to the rules, known as quantum mechanics.

The joke is on Albert Einstein, who, back in 1935, dreamed up this trick of synchronized atoms – “spooky action at a distance,” as he called it – as an example of the absurdity of quantum mechanics.

“No reasonable definition of reality could be expected to permit this,” he, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen wrote in a paper in 1935.” (New York Times )

Old Harvard Sq. Faces Brand-Name Onslaught

Next entry in the FmH Dept. of Solastalgia [thanks to Seth].

“Maybe it was the last greasy burger served at the Tasty Diner, or the final copy of Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ sold at Wordsworth books, or the last Hohner harmonica discovered amid the dusty bins of sheet music at Briggs and Briggs.

Ask longtime denizens of Harvard Square and they will be able to lament the exact moment the old square seemed to lose its bohemian charm, when a favored haunt or hole-in-the-wall vanished, often giving way to a national chain.” (Yahoo! News)

The occasion for the article is the imminent demise of the Brattle Theatre, one of the last independent movie houses in the area (another, semingly doing better financially, is the Coolidge Corner Theatre in my neighborhood in adjacent Brookline). As the quotation above notes, the article also mentions the passing of the Briggs and Briggs music store, the Wursthaus German deli, the Tasty lunch counter and Wordsworth Books, which closed earlier this year and whose site now houses a beauty supply shop. As beloved as it was to me for decades, I am actually surprised to hear Wordsworth referred to as one of the departed bastions of the ‘old’ Square, since I was there at its opening as well as its closing. (Anyone else remember George’s Folly, which occupied the site prior to Wordsworth?). A more complete catalogue of lamentation would also include the Patisserie Francaise, where I was to be found many a morning during my undergraduate years and long afterward with a newspaper, a croissant and a French coffee in front of me, long long before there was such a thing as Starbuck’s; Elsie’s Lunch, of course; the Orson Welles Cinema; the old Coop; Club Passim, which exists only in a dim incarnation of its illustrious past today; and any number of departed local eateries. (As an aside, why in the world has Harvard Square of all places not been able to sustain having a natural food restaurant for any length of time??)

Among longtime local institutions which remain and must be cherished are Wordsworth’s competitor across the Square, the Harvard Bookstore; Bob Slate Stationers; the Grolier, as mentioned; Herrell’s Ice Cream; Out-of-Town News; and the Pamplona café. While some people would grimace at the thought, I still love the Hong Kong and the Yenching, where I have indulged my passion for Chinese food for decades. My barbershop is still there, the apothecary, and, if I smoked, the tobacconist’s. But the article is correct, the old Square withers away. For many years after I moved across the river in 1985, I marvelled at the fact that Harvard Square remained my automatic destination of choice for funky shopping, basic services, and places to meet friends for a meal or a drink. But I hardly ever go there anymore, even though I have an office in Cambridge. And although people complain about the parking situation, that is not what dissuades me, because I have retained a habitual route through the Square that takes me past many longstanding secret parking spots (which I shall not share with you here!). I used to think that I could not live anywhere that did not have the bohemian, intellectual, independent character of a Cambridge. In fact, I still feel that way, but increasingly such places are not to be found in physical space, and one looks for the equivalents in cyberspace.

Here is a link to a webcam view of the Square, courtesy of Cardullo’s gourmet food shop.

What are your reminiscences of the departed Harvard Square or your psychogeographic equivalents?

Cognitive ornithology: the evolution of avian intelligence

Nathan Emery (abstract): “Comparative psychologists interested in the evolution of intelligence have focused their attention on social primates, whereas birds tend to be used as models of associative learning. However, corvids and parrots, which have forebrains relatively the same size as apes, live in complex social groups and have a long developmental period before becoming independent, have demonstrated ape-like intelligence. Although, ornithologists have documented thousands of hours observing birds in their natural habitat, they have focused their attention on avian behaviour and ecology, rather than intelligence. This review discusses recent studies of avian cognition contrasting two different approaches; the anthropocentric approach and the adaptive specialization approach. It is argued that the most productive method is to combine the two approaches. This is discussed with respects to recent investigations of two supposedly unique aspects of human cognition; episodic memory and theory of mind. In reviewing the evidence for avian intelligence, corvids and parrots appear to be cognitively superior to other birds and in many cases even apes. This suggests that complex cognition has evolved in species with very different brains through a process of convergent evolution rather than shared ancestry, although the notion that birds and mammals may share common neural connectivity patterns is discussed.” (The Royal Society)

Fear destroys what bin Laden could not

Robert Steinback: “One wonders if Osama bin Laden didn’t win after all. He ruined the America that existed on 9/11. But he had help.

If, back in 2001, anyone had told me that four years after bin Laden’s attack our president would admit that he broke U.S. law against domestic spying and ignored the Constitution — and then expect the American people to congratulate him for it — I would have presumed the girders of our very Republic had crumbled.

Had anyone said our president would invade a country and kill 30,000 of its people claiming a threat that never, in fact, existed, then admit he would have invaded even if he had known there was no threat — and expect America to be pleased by this — I would have thought our nation’s sensibilities and honor had been eviscerated.

If I had been informed that our nation’s leaders would embrace torture as a legitimate tool of warfare, hold prisoners for years without charges and operate secret prisons overseas — and call such procedures necessary for the nation’s security — I would have laughed at the folly of protecting human rights by destroying them.

If someone had predicted the president’s staff would out a CIA agent as revenge against a critic, defy a law against domestic propaganda by bankrolling supposedly independent journalists and commentators, and ridicule a 37-year Marie Corps veteran for questioning U.S. military policy — and that the populace would be more interested in whether Angelina is about to make Brad a daddy — I would have called the prediction an absurd fantasy.” (Miami Herald op-ed)

Wait a sec — for leap into 2006

“Get ready for a minute with 61 seconds. Scientists are delaying the start of 2006 by the first ‘leap second’ in seven years, a timing tweak meant to make up for changes in the Earth’s rotation.

The adjustment will be carried out by sticking an extra second into atomic clocks worldwide at the stroke of midnight Coordinated Universal Time, the widely adopted international standard, the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology said this week.

‘Enjoy New Year’s Eve a second longer,’ the institute said in an explanatory notice. ‘You can toot your horn an extra second this year.’

Coordinated Universal Time coincides with winter time in London. On the U.S. East Coast, the extra second occurs just before 7 p.m. on New Year’s Eve. Atomic clocks at that moment will read 23:59:60 before rolling over to all zeros.

…Although it is possible to have a negative leap second — that is, a second deducted from Coordinated Universal Time — so far all have been add-ons, reflecting the Earth’s general slowing trend due to tidal breaking.

Deciding when to introduce a leap second is the responsibility of the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service, a standards-setting body. Under an international pact, the preference for leap seconds is December 31 or June 30.” (CNN)

Is homeopathy a clinically valuable approach?

Edzard Ernst (abstract): “Homeopathy is a popular but implausible form of medicine. Contrary to many claims by homeopaths, there is no conclusive evidence that highly dilute homeopathic remedies are different from placebos. The benefits that many patients experience after homeopathic treatment are therefore most probably due to nonspecific treatment effects. Contrary to widespread belief, homeopathy is not entirely devoid of risk. Thus, the proven benefits of highly dilute homeopathic remedies, beyond the beneficial effects of placebos, do not outweigh the potential for harm that this approach can cause.” Ernst is with the Dept. of Complementary Medicine at the Peninsula Medical School in Exeter, UK. (ScienceDirect)

Cognitive ornithology: the evolution of avian intelligence

Nathan Emery (abstract): “Comparative psychologists interested in the evolution of intelligence have focused their attention on social primates, whereas birds tend to be used as models of associative learning. However, corvids and parrots, which have forebrains relatively the same size as apes, live in complex social groups and have a long developmental period before becoming independent, have demonstrated ape-like intelligence. Although, ornithologists have documented thousands of hours observing birds in their natural habitat, they have focused their attention on avian behaviour and ecology, rather than intelligence. This review discusses recent studies of avian cognition contrasting two different approaches; the anthropocentric approach and the adaptive specialization approach. It is argued that the most productive method is to combine the two approaches. This is discussed with respects to recent investigations of two supposedly unique aspects of human cognition; episodic memory and theory of mind. In reviewing the evidence for avian intelligence, corvids and parrots appear to be cognitively superior to other birds and in many cases even apes. This suggests that complex cognition has evolved in species with very different brains through a process of convergent evolution rather than shared ancestry, although the notion that birds and mammals may share common neural connectivity patterns is discussed.” (The Royal Society)

Brain does "Mental Time Travel", and…

…it allows Scientists to Predict What You’ll Think of Next: “To recall memories, your brain travels back in time via the ultimate Google search, according to a new study in which scientists found they can monitor the activity and actually predict what you’ll think of next.

The work bolsters the validity of a longstanding hypothesis that the human brain takes itself back to the state it was in when a memory was first formed.” (LiveScience)

Security Agents Visit College Student Who Requested Book for Historical Research Paper

“A senior at UMass Dartmouth was visited by federal agents two months ago, after he requested a copy of Mao Tse-Tung’s tome on Communism called The Little Red Book.

Two history professors at UMass Dartmouth, Brian Glyn Williams and Robert Pontbriand, said the student told them he requested the book through the UMass Dartmouth library’s interlibrary loan program. The student, who was completing a research paper on Communism for Professor Pontbriand’s class on fascism and totalitarianism, filled out a form for the request, leaving his name, address, phone number and Social Security number. He was later visited at his parents’ home in New Bedford by two agents of the Department of Homeland Security, the professors said.

The professors said the student was told by the agents that the book is on a ‘watch list,’ and that his background, which included significant time abroad, triggered them to investigate the student further. ” (South Coast Today)

However, a followup on reports that the UMass Dartmouth library denied passing on any interlibrary loan data to the Feds. And on David Farber’s Interesting People listserv, one of the student’s professors quoted in the article denied that the story is true. An email to the reporter of the story has so far gone unanswered…

The Dynamic of a Bush Scandal

Peter Daou: How the Spying Story Will Unfold (and Fade): “The third button on the Daou Report’s navigation bar links to the U.S. Constitution, a Constitution many Americans believe is on life support – if not already dead. The cause of its demise is the corrosive interplay between the Bush administration, a bevy of blind apologists, a politically apathetic public, a well-oiled rightwing message machine, lapdog reporters, and a disorganized opposition. The domestic spying case perfectly illuminates the workings of that system. And the unfolding of this story augurs poorly for those who expect it to yield different results from other administration scandals.

Here’s why: the dynamic of a typical Bush scandal follows familiar contours…

1. POTUS circumvents the law – an impeachable offense.

2. The story breaks (in this case after having been concealed by a news organization until well after Election 2004).

3. The Bush crew floats a number of pushback strategies, settling on one that becomes the mantra of virtually every Republican surrogate. These Republicans face down poorly prepped Dem surrogates and shred them on cable news shows.

4. Rightwing attack dogs on talk radio, blogs, cable nets, and conservative editorial pages maul Bush’s critics as traitors for questioning the CIC.

5. The Republican leadership plays defense for Bush, no matter how flagrant the Bush over-reach, no matter how damaging the administration’s actions to America’s reputation and to the Constitution. A few ‘mavericks’ like Hagel or Specter risk the inevitable rightwing backlash and meekly suggest that the president should obey the law. John McCain, always the Bush apologist when it really comes down to it, minimizes the scandal.

6. Left-leaning bloggers and online activists go ballistic, expressing their all-too-familiar combination of outrage at Bush and frustration that nothing ever seems to happen with these scandals. Several newspaper editorials echo these sentiments but quickly move on to other issues.

7. A few reliable Dems, Conyers, Boxer, et al, take a stand on principle, giving momentary hope to the progressive grassroots/netroots community. The rest of the Dem leadership is temporarily outraged (adding to that hope), but is chronically incapable of maintaining the sense of high indignation and focus required to reach critical mass and create a wholesale shift in public opinion. For example, just as this mother of all scandals hits Washington, Democrats are still putting out press releases on Iraq, ANWR and a range of other topics, diluting the story and signaling that they have little intention of following through. This allows Bush to use his three favorite weapons: time, America’s political apathy, and make-believe ‘journalists’ who yuck it up with him and ask fluff questions at his frat-boy pressers.

8. Reporters and media outlets obfuscate and equivocate, pretending to ask tough questions but essentially pushing the same narratives they’ve developed and perfected over the past five years, namely, some variation of ‘Bush firm, Dems soft.’ A range of Bush-protecting tactics are put into play, one being to ask ridiculously misleading questions such as ‘Should Bush have the right to protect Americans or should he cave in to Democratic political pressure?’ All the while, the right assaults the ‘liberal’ media for daring to tell anything resembling the truth.

9. Polls will emerge with ‘proof’ that half the public agrees that Bush should have the right to ‘protect Americans against terrorists.’ Again, the issue will be framed to mask the true nature of the malfeasance. The media will use these polls to create a self-fulfilling loop and convince the public that it isn’t that bad after all. The president breaks the law. Life goes on.

10. The story starts blending into a long string of administration scandals, and through skillful use of scandal fatigue, Bush weathers the storm and moves on, further demoralizing his opponents and cementing the press narrative about his ‘resolve’ and toughness. Congressional hearings might revive the issue momentarily, and bloggers will hammer away at it, but the initial hype is all the Democratic leadership and the media can muster, and anyway, it’s never as juicy the second time around…

Rinse and repeat.

It’s a battle of attrition that Bush and his team have mastered. Short of a major Dem initiative to alter the cycle, to throw a wrench into the system, to go after the media institutionally, this cycle will continue for the foreseeable future.” (Salon Premium)

Oh Yes, Remember Him?

Alito Memo in ’84 Favored Immunity for Top Officials: “The attorney general should be immune from lawsuits for ordering wiretaps of Americans without permission from a court, Samuel A. Alito Jr., President Bush’s Supreme Court nominee, wrote in a memorandum in 1984 as a government lawyer in the Reagan administration.

The memorandum, released yesterday by the National Archives, made recommendations concerning a lawsuit against former Attorney General John N. Mitchell over a wiretap he had authorized without a court’s permission in 1970. The government was investigating a plot to destroy underground utility tunnels in Washington and to kidnap Henry A. Kissinger, the national security adviser.

The White House said yesterday that the issues discussed in that memorandum were not the same as those posed by President Bush’s orders to the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on international communications without warrants.” (New York Times )

…the lady doth protest too much.

NSA Spying Broader Than Bush Admitted

“The National Security Agency has conducted much broader surveillance of e-mails and phone calls — without court orders — than the Bush administration has acknowledged, The New York Times reported on its Web site.

The NSA, with help from American telecommunications companies, obtained access to streams of domestic and international communications, said the Times in the report late Friday, citing unidentified current and former government officials.” (New York Times ) via Yahoo!)

Doctors’ Delicate Balance in Keeping Hope Alive

“The language of hope – whether, when and how to invoke it – has become an excruciatingly difficult issue in the modern relationship between doctor and patient.

For centuries, doctors followed Hippocrates’ injunction to hold out hope to patients, even when it meant withholding the truth. But that canon has been blasted apart by modern patients’ demands for honesty and more involvement in their care. Now, patients may be told more than they need or want to know. Yet they still also need and want hope.

In response, some doctors are beginning to think about hope in new ways. In certain cases, that means tempering a too-bleak prognosis. In others, it means resisting the allure of cutting-edge treatments with questionable benefits.” (New York Times )

Wiretap Furor Widens Republican Divide

“President Bush’s claim that he has a legal right to eavesdrop on some U.S. citizens without court approval has widened an ideological gap within his party.

On one side is the national-security camp, made even more numerous by loyalty to a wartime president. On the other are the small-government civil libertarians who have long held a privileged place within the Republican Party but whose ranks have ebbed since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

The surveillance furor, at least among some conservatives, also has heightened worries that the party is straying from many of its core principles the longer it remains in control of both the White House and Congress.

Conservatives have knocked heads in recent months over the administration’s detainment and treatment of terrorist suspects, and as recently as yesterday over provisions of the Patriot Act. Strains also have grown among conservatives over government spending and whether to loosen U.S. immigration rules.

But the current debate over using the National Security Agency for domestic surveillance — which the administration has defended as legal and necessary — hit a rawer nerve because it pits national-security concerns against a core constitutional right, in this case, the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures.” (Wall Street Journal)

Disciplined physicians more likely to have shown unprofessional behavior in med school

“Study supports move to make professionalism a requirement for graduating from medical school” (EurekAlert) The study examined 235 graduates since 1970 of three medical schools who later underwent disciplinary action by their state medical boards in forty states; they were compared with matched gradautes from the same medical school classes who had not been sanctioned. Unprofessionalism in medical school was much more highly correlated with later disciplinary action than measures of academic performance. The strongest correlate of later disciplinary action was irresponsibility in attendance or patient care as a medical student. I don’t actually find this to be a surprising result. The cultural context of the study is more interesting.

I have noted through my years in the profession that accusing a physicial of “unprofessional” conduct is virtually the most stinging rebuke you can proffer (and, in the interest of full disclosure, I can say that I have been on the receiving end of it from time to time…). Healthcare professionals are conditioned to use that term for its button-pushing power as an insult with a power I would venture to say is unparallelled in any other profession. I think this has something to do with the longstanding notion that being a physician was a cultural signifier of a certain kind of character. Unfortunately, I think this is an outmoded meme and that there is nothing particularly more upstanding about the character of physicians these days than representatives of other professions anymore. Unscrupulousness, money-grubbing, laxity, predatory behavior and profiteering are as incident in the medical field as anywhere else, albeit much more disturbing when you are literally putting your life in someone’s hands. I think this is in large part the basis for the public contemptuousness toward doctors as a profession these days.

In this sense, the researchers’ interest is an anachronism. Cynical me, while I agree that reforming medical school curriculum to stress professionalism would be a worthy goal, I am skeptical about the suggestion carrying any weight or attracting much of a constituency among medical educators and medical school policy-makers in 21st century medical education. It is even less likely that some standard of professionalism — or character — might become a medical school graduation criterion. And, even if the assessment of professionalism were a goal to which there was an interest in aspiring, it would be especially worrisome if, as the article suggests, some attempt was made to operationalize it — ‘that standardized methods should be implemented for both assessing the personal qualities of medical school applicants and predicting their performance.’

I am not sure if the researchers realize how profoundly their results represent an impeachment of one of the current core methods of assessing character and professionalism (at both the levels of getting into medical school and of looking for one’s first job in medicine (“residency”) after graduating from medical school) — the letter of recommendation. As someone who has served on medical school and residency admission committees and been involved in the hiring of physicians, I have found the consideration of reference letters to be a vacuous exercise, both because the substance of what is written is so stereotyped, platitudinous and vague, and because the candidate exercises so much control over the sources of their letters. Even ambivalent letters which attempt to signal concerns about candidates do so obscured behind euphemism and buzzword that is difficult to decode unambiguously. (Here is a tongue-in-cheek but sadly all-too-true, guide to decoding letters of reference, although not specific to medical aspirants.)

Medical reference writers employ a sort of gentlemen’s code akin to the deference which European aristocrats were constrained to show to one another in public merely because of their membership in the noble class. Sniping, backbiting and criticism occurred only behind the scenes and only in a manner that could be protected by plausible deniability. For all the pride that physicians supposedly take in their professionalism, their nobility,, it has not extended to the responsible exercise of the art of recommendation. Perhaps there ought to be a module on writing references in the medical school curriculum?

Forget intelligent design…

“…we suffer from damn stupid design, as many readers noted in response to our seasonal competition, which asked how you would modify the human body if you were not restricted in any way. As Stephan Peters puts it: ‘The human body is crammed full of messy plumbing, circuitry, scaffolding, dodgy components and building materials, and is riddled with workarounds to compensate for poor initial design as a result.'” (New Scientist Back Page)

A spoonful of science..

//' cannot be displayed]“Australian scientists have proved what is common knowledge to most people — that teaspoons appear to have minds of their own.

In a study at their own facility, a group of scientists from the Macfarlane Burnet Institute for Medical Research and Public Health in Melbourne secretly numbered 70 teaspoons and tracked their movements over five months. Supporting their expectations, 80 percent of the spoons vanished during the period — although those in private areas of the institute lasted nearly twice as long as those in communal sections.

‘At this rate, an estimated 250 teaspoons would need to be purchased annually to maintain a workable population of 70 teaspoons,’ they wrote in Friday’s festive edition of the British Medical Journal.

They said their research proved that teaspoons were an essential part of office life and the rapid rate of disappearance proved that this was under relentless assault.

Regretting that scientific literature was ‘strangely bereft’ of teaspoon-related research, the scientists offered a few theories to explain the phenomenon.

Taking a tip from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy books, they suggested that the teaspoons were quietly migrating to a planet uniquely populated by ‘spoonoid’ life forms living in a spoonish state of Nirvana.

They also offered the phenomenon of ‘resistentialism’ in which inanimate objects like teaspoons have a natural aversion to humans.” (Yahoo! News)

So you thought nothing ever happens on the moon?

“NASA scientists have observed an explosion on the moon. The blast, equal in energy to about 70 kg of TNT, occurred near the edge of Mare Imbrium (the Sea of Rains) on Nov. 7, 2005, when a 12-centimeter-wide meteoroid slammed into the ground traveling 27 km/s.

‘What a surprise,’ says Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) researcher Rob Suggs, who recorded the impact’s flash. He and colleague Wes Swift were testing a new telescope and video camera they assembled to monitor the moon for meteor strikes. On their first night out, ‘we caught one,’ says Suggs.” (NASA)

Happy Birthday to Robert Bly

People Like Us

There are more like us. All over the world
There are confused people, who can’t remember
The name of their dog when they wake up, and
Who love God but can’t remember where

He was when they went to sleep. It’s
All right. The world cleanses itself this way.
A wrong number occurs to you in the middle
Of the night, you dial it, it rings just in time

To save the house. And the second-story man
Gets the wrong address, where the insomniac lives,
And he’s lonely , and they talk, and the thief
Goes back to college. Even in graduate school,

You can wander into the wrong classroom,
And hear great poems lovingly spoken
By the wrong professor. And you find your soul
And greatness has a defender, and even in death
you’re safe

…and yesterday it was Kenneth Rexroth

Lute Music

The Earth will be going on a long time
Before it finally freezes;
Men will be on it; they will take names,
Give their deeds reasons.
We will be here only
As chemical constituents—
A small franchise indeed.
Right now we have lives,
Corpuscles, Ambitions, Caresses,
Like everybody had once—

Here at the year’s end, at the feast
Of birth, let us bring to each other
The gifts brought once west through deserts—
The precious metal of our mingled hair,
The frankincense of enraptured arms and legs,
The myrrh of desperate, invincible kisses—
Let us celebrate the daily
Recurrent nativity of love,
The endless epiphany of our fluent selves,
While the earth rolls away under us
Into unknown snows and summers,
Into untraveled spaces of the stars.
(both courtesy of The Writer’s Almanac)

New Drug Points Up Problems in Developing Cancer Cures

“Despite promising discoveries and multibillion-dollar investments, cancer research is quietly undergoing a crisis. Federal drug regulators will soon announce several initiatives that they hope will help salvage the field.

Few drugs are being marketed, and most of those that have been introduced are enormously expensive and provide few of the benefits that patients expect. Officials of the Food and Drug Administration suggest that the failures may result from an obsolete testing system.

There is growing evidence that X-rays, long the standard, may not accurately assess a patient’s disease. The drug agency is creating collaborations to develop imaging, blood and other tests that better signal the progression of cancer.” (New York Times )

Getting Fit, Even if It Kills You

“In the last year this controversial exercise program has attracted a growing following of thousands nationwide, who log on to for a daily workout, said its founder, Greg Glassman. Participants skip StairMasters and weight machines. Instead they do high-intensity workouts that mix gymnastics, track and field skills and bodybuilding, resting very little between movements.

The emphasis is on speed and weight hoisted, not technique. And the importance placed on quantifiable results has attracted hard-charging people like hedge fund managers, former Olympians and scientists. But some exercise experts are troubled by the lack of guidance for beginners, who may dive into stressful workouts as Mr. Anderson did. (He had not worked out regularly for two years.) ‘There’s no way inexperienced people doing this are not going to hurt themselves…'” (New York Times )

America’s evolving confrontation

“The writ of Judge John E Jones III runs only within the state of Pennsylvania. Yet his judgment this week in the case of Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District is the proverbial shot heard round the world. The implications his ruling that religious dogma has no place in the teaching of science go far beyond the picturesque town of Dover. For this was a legal battle that posed uncomfortable questions about the kind of country that George Bush’s United States is now becoming.” (Guardian.UK editorial)

Judge to Dover: ‘Intelligent Design’ is Religion in Science’s Clothing

Judge Bars Intelligent Design: “‘Intelligent design’ cannot be mentioned in biology classes in a Pennsylvania public school district, a federal judge said Tuesday, ruling in one of the biggest courtroom clashes on evolution since the 1925 Scopes trial.

Dover Area School Board members violated the Constitution when they ordered that its biology curriculum must include the notion that life on Earth was produced by an unidentified, intelligent cause, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III said. Several members repeatedly lied to cover their motives even while professing religious beliefs, he said.” (Wired News)

T’was The Fight Before Christmas

“Jewish groups worry the latest claims of ‘war’ against Christmas will fuel anti-Semitism.” (The Jewish Week via walker) Of course, at present, Jews are in particular danger of being accused of usurping Christmas spirit, since the first night of Hanukkah happens to coincide with Christmas Eve night this year.

Testing Drugs on India’s Poor

“The days of the Raj are long gone, but multinational corporations are riding high on the trend toward globalization by taking advantage of India’s educated work force and deep poverty to turn South Asia into the world’s largest clinical-testing petri dish.

The sudden influx of drug companies to India resembles the gold rush frontier, according to Sean Philpott, managing editor of The American Journal of Bioethics.” (Wired News)

In case you wondered, John Le Carré’s Constant Gardener is more prescient than fanciful. Only the location has been changed (to protect the innocent??).

Fiddling-While-Rome-Burns Dept. (cont’d.)

2005 May Be Warmest Year Ever: “In the high Arctic, deep in the Atlantic, on Africa’s sunbaked plains, climate scientists are seeing change unfold before their eyes. In the global councils of power, however, change in climate policy is coming only slowly.

In Geneva last week, the World Meteorological Organization reported that 2005 thus far is the second warmest year on record, extending a trend climatologists attribute at least partly to heat-trapping ‘greenhouse gases’ accumulating in the atmosphere. In New York, NASA’s Goddard Institute projected that 2005 will surpass 1998 to end as the hottest year globally in the 125 years since reliable records have been kept. It said warming has accelerated and is now boosting the mercury every decade by more than 0.3 degrees Fahrenheit.” (Wired News)


Polar bears drown as ice shelf melts: “Scientists have for the first time found evidence that polar bears are drowning because climate change is melting the Arctic ice shelf.

The researchers were startled to find bears having to swim up to 60 miles across open sea to find food. They are being forced into the long voyages because the ice floes from which they feed are melting, becoming smaller and drifting farther (apart.” Sunday Timesof London)

Annals of Emerging Diseases (cont’d.)

Tests dash hopes of rapid production of bird flu vaccine: “The results of first large-scale trials of a low-dose vaccine against H5N1 bird flu have been announced – and they are unexpectedly disappointing.” (New Scientist) Even with the addition of an adjuvant chemical to stimulate the immune system, low-dose inoculation with H5N1 virus raises measly immune responses. The lower the dose of virus that can be used, the more doses of vaccine could be produced rapidly to cope with a spreading worldwide epidemic.

Swiss hospital the first to allow assisted suicides

“A university hospital in Switzerland yesterday became the first in Europe to allow assisted suicide on its premises. The university of Lausanne said it would allow patients from new year’s day to kill themselves on its wards, provided they were incurably ill and of sound mind.

The decision is likely to reopen the already heated but inconclusive debate across Europe about how far doctors and hospitals can go in helping those who are determined to end their lives.” (Guardian.UK)

Welcome to the Surveillance State

Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts: This should surprise no one. Who at this point thinks Bush and his cronies have any concern with the rule of law? They feel justified in that the US is faced with a national emergency, a national threat of unprecedented proportion. …and they are right; the threat and the emergency is their reign of terror. I am incensed, however, that the New York Times sat on the story for a year at the dysadministration’s request and then redacted ‘sensitive’ information. On the other hand, did the timing of this story play a part in the Senate’s very welcome refusal to give a pass to the renewal of the USA PATRIOT Act? Kennedy and others certainly cited it in their outrage.

It’s Star Wars on Satellite Radio

“Bob Dylan shocked his fans 40 years ago by embracing the electric guitar. Now he’s stunning a few more by embracing another technological innovation: satellite radio.

The singer has signed on to serve as host of a weekly one-hour program on XM Satellite Radio, spinning records and offering commentary on new music and other topics, starting in March. The famously reclusive 64-year-old performer said in a statement yesterday that ‘a lot of my own songs have been played on the radio, but this is the first time I’ve ever been on the other side of the mike.'” (New York Times )

The Hypomanic American

“For centuries, scholars have tried to explain the American character: is it the product of the frontier experience, or of the heritage of dissenting Protestantism, or of the absence of feudalism? This year, two professors of psychiatry each published books attributing American exceptionalism to a new and hitherto unsuspected source: American DNA. They argue that the United States is full of energetic risk-takers because it’s full of immigrants, who as a group may carry a genetic marker that expresses itself as restless curiosity, exuberance and competitive self-promotion – a combination known as hypomania.

Peter C. Whybrow of U.C.L.A. and John D. Gartner of Johns Hopkins University Medical School make their cases for an immigrant-specific genotype in their respective books, American Mania and The Hypomanic Edge. Even when times are hard, Whybrow points out, most people don’t leave their homelands. The 2 percent or so who do are a self-selecting group. What distinguishes them, he suggests, might be the genetic makeup of their dopamine-receptor system – the pathway in the brain that figures centrally in boldness and novelty seeking.” (New York Times Magazine)

This is one of the Times’ ideas of the year in review, to which I blinked earlier this week. Even as a psychiatrist with a high tolerance for materialist explanations of behavior, however, I am leery of this, since the circumstances of American life since people’s arrival here may have done as much to select against risk-taking as those which originally selected for immigration. And I am not sure the pioneer spirit that has been so glorified as the impetus to colonize the New World played as much a part in determining who came here as the Creation Myth would have it. (But maybe my contrarianism in raising these questions comes from the genetic stock of my immigrant forebears?)

R.I.P. John Langstaff

//' cannot be displayed]The Lord of the Dance passes; sad news indeed, coming at the crux of the Christmas season, that Langstaff, the founder of ‘The Christmas Revels’, has died at 84. (New York Times ) Attending the Revels is a longstanding part of my family’s holiday tradition. Langstaff brought unparallelled mirth and pageantry befitting the traditional Solstice season to my entire community.

Addressing a letter to Santa Claus or God

US Postal Service FAQ: “To write Santa for goodies or with wish lists you should address your letter to Santa Claus as follows… The USPS will see that the letter is received at the proper place. Please ensure to include the return address on the letter itself! Letters to God can be addressed in the same way replacing ‘Santa Claus’ with ‘God’.” [via boing boing]

"This is America"

US has secret law requiring airport ID but will not reveal the statute to the public or even the court: “Can Americans be required to show ID on a commercial airline flight? John Gilmore, an early employee of Sun Microsystems and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says the answer should be ‘no.’ The libertarian millionaire sued the Bush administration, which claims that the ID requirement is necessary for security but has refused to identify any actual regulation requiring it.

A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals seemed skeptical of the Bush administration’s defense of secret laws and regulations but stopped short of suggesting that such a rule would be necessarily unconstitutional.

‘How do we know there’s an order?’ Judge Thomas Nelson asked. ‘Because you said there was?’

Replied Joshua Waldman, a staff attorney for the Department of Justice: ‘We couldn’t confirm or deny the existence of an order.’ Even though government regulations required his silence, Waldman said, the situation did seem a ‘bit peculiar.'” (CNET)

U.S. Envoy Says Detainee Abuse Was Worse Than Described

“The American ambassador in Iraq said today that more than 100 detainees had been abused in two Iraqi detention facilities, more than had been previously disclosed.

…The ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, …was asked about two Iraqi detention facilities from which some detainees had been transferred to the hospital, and to comment on remarks from some Iraqi interior ministry officials characterizing the handling of the detainees as slapping. Mr. Khalilzad said he has received reports that pointed to more extreme treatment.” (New York Times )

Musipedia: The Open Music Encyclopedia

“Welcome to Musipedia! Inspired by, but not affiliated with Wikipedia, we are building a searchable, editable, and expandable collection of tunes, melodies, and musical themes.

Every entry can be edited by anybody. An entry can contain a bit of sheet music, a MIDI file, textual information about the work and the composer, and last but not least the Parsons Code, a rough description of the melodic contour, to make the encyclopedia searchable by melody.

Musipedia uses the “Melodyhound” melody search engine. You can find and identify a tune even if the melody is all you know. You can play it on a piano keyboard, whistle or sing it to the computer, or directly use the Parsons code. To “name that tune”, you don’t need to know the key signature, exact rhythm, or intervals.”

Did you catch that? You can search for a tune by whistling it in!

A Political Horror

“‘Homecoming,’ an episode in Showtime’s ‘Masters of Horror’ series, likely will be remembered more for its blatant political message than for its level of suspense and fright. In this production, Jon Tenney stars as David Murch, one of the president’s key speechwriters, and Thea Gill plays Jane Cleaver, a nutty, name-calling political analyst with more than a passing resemblance to Ann Coulter.

When the two are guests on a ‘Larry King’-type cable show, Murch tells the mother of a dead soldier that he, too, wishes her son could return home. If he did, Murch said, the young GI would tell her that the fight was not in vain. Oops, bad move. Murch’s words are enough to stir the dead, and what they have to say doesn’t exactly jibe with the president’s talking points.” (Reuters)


A University of Newcastle ecologist coined this term when he realized there was no word in English to connote the yearning for comfort in the face of desolation of one’s home space or territory. Environmental trauma entails not only material losses but a loss of sense of place and sense of control, on both the individual and community level. It is obviously in play in massive local or regional environmental catastrophes such as hurricanes, earthquakes, mudslides, floods and brush fires, but more gradual and pervasive environmental change leaves us all rootless and uncomforted as well. Solastalgia is a convenient term to explore the psychosocial and mental health impact of ecological change. I realize that I post pieces on irrevocable environmental change here quite often as a way to investigate and cope with my distress at what is happening to my bioregion and the ecosphere. These will comprise FmH’s new Dept. of Solastalgia from here on.